It was almost too easy.
He fingered the cool, crisp edge of the blade in his hand. The sharp line was almost soothing, a sensation that reminded him the quick handiwork of a knife had yet to fail him.
He stared down at the small figure on the ground. A fresh purple bruise could be seen near her hairline; it almost made him wince had he not stopped experiencing most feelings and emotions long ago. He almost laughed aloud—awake, she was lethal, giving off the impression that she could take him down with nothing more than a sharp glare and her pinky. Well, to be fair, she could,and she’d proven it many times over in the past. But now? As he towered over her prone form, he just smirked.
Render anyone, even the most formidable of agents unconscious, and suddenly the legends no longer held their weight. The brain that had long been trained to think not five, not ten, but fifteen steps ahead? The graceful limbs that could find their way out of any situation? They would be no help here.
To his right sat a pail of ice water; he figured he could make use of the shocking temperature. This was a tactic that had been used on him countless times over and he knew very well its effectiveness at disorienting its victim, the act of soaking them from head to toe serving to begin their dehumanization. The anticipation caused his stomach to flutter, and he almost couldn’t take it any longer. The hand that wasn’t holding the blade picked up the pail.
Or, he could hold off for now. Plan some more, as if he hadn’t already been doing that for months. It wasn’t as though she had anywhere to go. He closed his eyes and imagined his first move. The choices were all up to him. Whether he preferred to cut, stab, or burn, they had nothing but time, something that would simultaneously be her curse and the cause of his triumph.
Water or wait? Instant gratification or patience?
No, he’d take his time. After all, he had nothing but. He’d enjoy this, savor his victory, taste it on his tongue, let it run through him and light his senses on fire and warm him like a delicious dessert.
He set the pail down, decision made. He’d let her sleep some more. After all, she’d need it. When she awoke, the real fun would begin.
And this time, he’d win.
Melinda May hated running.
That wasn’t to say she wasn’t good at it. No, like most things she attempted (with the exception of cooking), she was at the very least decent. And she did find that running helped to clear her head, although sparring or punching something helped more. But take right now; sprinting towards a large, burly mercenary type while dodging pedestrians and keeping her ICER tightly clasped in hand was not her idea of fun.
Like most missions, this was intended to be a simple op. Ever since the terrigen outbreak, new Inhumans had been popping up left and right, causing all sorts of chaos. They usually had no warning before encountering one, but earlier that morning they’d received an anonymous tip from the hotline Daisy had set up for civilians to report any Inhuman sightings. Of course, many of those so called tips were pranks and full of crap, but this one in particular, a tip about a homeless teenage girl exhibiting the ability to control water seemed to be true, especially after a quick scan of her social media, which had suddenly gone dark after years of multiple posts a day showing her beaming alongside her attractive friends and beautiful house.
So May, Daisy, and Hunter had gone to act as the “Welcome Wagon” of sorts, with May and Hunter acting as backup in case things went south, while Daisy was sent to appeal to the girl. Except, of course, that had been a trap. Whether it was Hydra or another private group, it had undoubtedly been a trap. The girl, existed, yes, but the second Daisy had showed up in the alley she was currently squatting in, three Sasquatch-esque soldier/mercenary types had descended upon her, while the fourth grabbed the terrified looking girl and ran.
Hunter and May, who had been positioned on the roof above, jumped into action immediately. Daisy ran after the girl before she could be stuffed into the waiting van, while Hunter and May distracted the rest of the merecenaries.
With a grunt, she aimed a well placed kick to the first soldier’s side, and he dropped like a stone, May icing him just to be on the safe side. She looked over at Hunter, who was currently engaged with one, a large bald man with an ugly sneer.
The third soldier had disappeared; May looked frantically around, and saw that he was currently advancing on Daisy who’d ended up a block away; she was entangled with the mercenary who had grabbed the girl, completely unaware the soldier with the gun aimed at her back. The Inhuman girl stood, her hands bound, a few feet away, as tears streamed down her cheeks.
Hunter caught May’s eye. “Go!”
Without another thought, May took off, feeling the pavement beneath her boots as she weaved through crowds of shocked looking civilians. She rolled her eyes; why were they always in the way? As she reached him, she grabbed his shoulders, her momentum catching him off guard so that he fumbled with the gun in his hands, and it fell a few feet away. He shook her off, jabbing his elbows back. They hit her ribs, but she barely noticed as she curled her fist and punched, which he easily dodged.
They fought for a few minutes, grunts of exertion coming from both, sweat beading on their foreheads. Suddenly, before she knew what was happening, he’d slammed her head into the pavement, and she fought to catch her breath as the wind was knocked out of her. She could feel a trickle of blood make its way down towards her hairline; perhaps it would join the stream from her nose that a well placed punch had given her.
The man pinned her down with his large forearms, his muscles bulging as she fought against him. She’d always appreciated her smaller physique, as it gave her more flexibility in a fight, but that also meant her strength was no match for a Yeti like him.
He sneered down at her, revealing a few missing teeth, while the rest were yellowing. He had a large tattoo of a snake on his ham-like forearm. Ugh.
“This one’s for the boss.”
Before May could question who exactly his boss was, he pulled something out of his pocket and jammed it against her side. Her entire body exploded with pain, her muscles tensing involuntary as she fought to regain control, gritting her teeth in an attempt to avoid crying out. This of course wasn’t her first encounter with a taser, but it didn’t make it any less unpleasant, and she wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction. The second it subsided, he tased her again, and then again.
The fourth time the taser neared her, she somehow maneuvered her wrist and grabbed his hand, and wrenched the damn thing painfully to the side, breathing hard as she did so.
“Bitch!” He shouted.
Melinda May was not one to go down without a fight. She wriggled her legs beneath her, fighting for some leverage, hoping Hunter or Daisy would come to serve as backup any damn second now, and attempted to knee the man off. In response, the taser made contact with her again, and she lost all control.
As she glared at him, she watched as he pulled yet another item from his pocket, a dirty looking cloth. He just leered at her as he pulled it closer and over her face.
The familiar, sickly smell met her nostrils, and as her body went slack she knew she was in deep trouble.
One of the first things SHIELD cadets learned at the Academy was the art of observing one’s surroundings. This encompassed simply noticing things while performing normal actions, such as taking a walk on a busy sidewalk or sitting at a bar, but also learning to gather as much information as possible without the use of one’s most valued senses: their sight.
First, May kept her breathing patterns as constant as possible. Whoever had kidnapped her (and she would make them pay dearly) was not to know she’d regained consciousness.
Next, she assessed her body. Someone had stripped her leather jacket, leaving her in a tank top. She’d been blindfolded, and her hands shackled to either side of her so that her arms were spread far apart. That would make dislocating her wrist to escape her bindings a bit more difficult, but maybe not entirely impossible. Her body had been tightly bound with rope, maybe, to something large and solid, not that she could exactly discern what at this point. As for injuries, beyond her head and some general cuts and bruises, she was fine.
Her surroundings were a bit harder to gauge. The room she was in was eerily silent. No sounds of other humans, trickles of water, ticks of a clock, etc. The air smelled a bit like old paint, and the floor beneath her was hard. Almost like concrete or stone. Interesting. Maybe she was underground?
That didn’t answer her larger question though, which was namely, why in the world had she been taken? In her experience, soldiers for hire usually did not try this hard to subdue their enemies. Was it Hydra? Maybe these people had been after Daisy, and she and Hunter were somewhere nearby. Except that it was kind of hard to believe she wouldn’t be able to hear loud mouthed Hunter, or that Daisy wouldn’t simply use her powers to aid her escape efforts.
Suddenly, loud, clomping footsteps, perhaps due to heavy boots, echoed on the floor, and gradually became louder. Melinda could sense someone nearing, and whoever it was walked right up to her. The footsteps stopped maybe a foot away. She could feel her captor staring at her, and she fought to control her breathing and keep her face neutral.
“I know you’re awake.” A low voice said. “I know you have been for a few minutes now. After all, I received the same training.”
Icy dread filled her veins. It couldn’t be.
“After all,” the voice said. Her blindfold was abruptly ripped off, and light flooded her senses, the sharp contrast rendering her momentarily blind. “I used to be one of you.”
As her vision came back into focus, she looked up to see the smug, grinning face of Grant Ward over her. She was in some sort of warehouse, and God knew where it was, but in the moment all she could focus on was Ward.
“Not particularly.” Melinda spat without missing a beat. “What the hell do you want?”
Ward chuckled as he stood back up and tossed the blindfold aside. “The question is what don’t I want?”
“Of course. Everyone owes you something.”
Something venomous flashed in his eyes as he crouched down over her again. His hand came up to brush through her hair, a thumb pressing down on the growing bruise near her hairline. The contact made her eyes water, although she simply bit her lip and kept her expression blank.
“You of all people don’t get to speak! Not when you took everything from me!”
“News flash. Like I said before, we all had our traumas. Didn’t make any of us into psychopaths.”
“If anyone here is a psychopath it’syou.” He responded. “Melinda May. The legendary SHIELD agent so revered for nothing more than killing a child. And before you ask, I have my sources.”
He straightened up and began pacing. May watched him, slowly twisting her wrists around. The shackles had been fastened rather tight, and she had little room to move. Adding the ropes he’d tied around her ankles and thighs, and, well, escape would be tougher. Damn bastard.
“Psychopath fits you rather well, I think. Killing I can understand. I do it, we all do it, and we all enjoy it. But it takes a special kind of psycho to manipulate someone into killing their own loved one.”
“You want revenge.” Melinda stated dryly. “I should’ve known.”
“Oh, believe me. I want, no I need more than that. And trust me. I’m going to get it.”
She just laughed. “You went to all this trouble to find me. Don’t forget who beat you in the past.”
“That’s right.” He responded. “I owe you a broken larynx too. Adding that to the list.” He loomed over her, his hand brandishing something. Before Melinda could see what it was, she felt a slight pinch in her arm.
“There.” Ward leaned back on his heels. She wanted to wipe, or better yet punch, that stupid self satisfied smirk off his face.
“What the hell?”
He dropped the syringe, and it echoed on the concrete floor. “That was a tranquilizer.”
As if triggered by his words, she almost immediately felt her body droop, her muscles growing lax.
“Not strong enough to actually knock you out, of course. But enough so you’ll know exactly what I’m doing, so you’ll feel everything. And the best part?”
Melinda could feel her stomach drop as he spoke. Her thoughts were growing foggy, and she was finding it harder to concentrate.
Ward reached over and grabbed a leather bag off to the side she hadn’t noticed before. “You’ll be completely powerless to stop me.”
“Somebody start explaining or so help me…”
Coulson trailed off. In the ten or so minutes since Daisy and Hunter had returned with the still trembling Inhuman girl, he’d gone from their perpetually semi-stressed but still affable, goofy leader to what most could describe as a glorified hot mess.
Daisy and Hunter looked at each other and hesitated, neither wanting to tell him what had happened.
“I’m waiting.” He crossed his arms and tapped his foot, his stern expression looking eerily like May’s ‘Mom face’. The thought made Daisy’s stomach curl.
“You do it.” Hunter murmured.
“What?!” Daisy blurted, trying to ignore Coulson’s flared nostrils out of the corner of her eye. “You’re the one who was with her!”
“Yeah, but he likes you better.” The Brit argued. “Who’s he more likely to strap to the engine of the Zephyr? Me or you?”
Daisy had to admit he had a point, although another look at Coulson and she found herself gulping. She wasn’t entirely sure he wouldn’t use her as a human punching bag after this. “Fine.” She grumbled. “We got to the alley where I tracked the Inhuman girl down. She’s fine, by the way. She’s with Simmons in the lab, and—“
“Just get to the point.” Coulson interrupted.
“Ooookayyy.” Daisy said nervously. She cleared her throat. “Long story short, there were these large muscular guys who suddenly showed up and grabbed the girl. Looked like they wanted to kidnap her. I chased after her, while May and Hunter stayed behind to fight them.”
“What did they want with her?”
“Yeah, we really didn’t get a chance to ask.”
Coulson frowned. “Were they Hydra?”
Daisy shrugged. “If they were, I couldn’t tell. Private army, mercenaries, maybe.” She looked back at Hunter to confirm, and he nodded. “Anyways, I stopped them from taking her, and a couple minutes Hunter met up with me. We looked around for May, but there was no sign of her.”
“Did you check the security cameras? Anything around the alley?”
“Fitz is on it.” Daisy responded.
Coulson, who up until this point had been standing in front of his desk, slowly lowered himself down into his chair. His face, if possible, looked even paler than it had before. “Was there any sign of a struggle? Anything left behind?”
Daisy shook her head. “Not really. It seems like they vanished without a trace. But we did, however, find this.” She placed something in a plastic baggie on his desk; it was May’s comms, the flesh covered device looking rather out of place amongst the papers and on the desk.
Coulson picked it up. “So whoever took her must’ve…”
“Took it off, yeah.” Daisy finished. “Fitz designed these to be virtually unnoticeable. That means whoever it is really knows what they’re doing.”
Coulson sighed and ran a hand down his face.
“We’ll find her.” Daisy tried to sound confident despite the way her hands trembled. As long as she’d known May, the older woman had taken care of her, had looked out for her even after Daisy had gained her powers.
“It’s May.” Hunter added in an obvious attempt to be helpful. “She can take care of herself. I bet she’s giving them hell right about now.”
Coulson sighed again, this time so deep Daisy swore she could feel it in her bones. “I certainly hope so.”
Nothing was working.
He’d tried the simple route. A knife to the thigh (not deep or far up enough to cause her to bleed out and die immediately) that he didn’t leave in because he wasn’t stupid, the taser, enough bone breaking punches with the brass knuckles to leave deep, oozing cuts on her skin, electric shocks from a shock collar he’d bought at a pet store, and then refashioned to power it up even further.
He’d tried to be creative. Needles under her nails like he did with Bobbi Morse. But it turned out Melinda wasn’t afraid of needles. The systematic breaking of each of her fingers. But she’d just gazed off to the side, almost bored. He’d tried waterboarding for nearly an hour. God, he remembered going through that. Not his idea of fun. Yet Melinda’s eyes had stayed open defiantly, glaring at him with an intensity that almost made him pause.
She panted, her chest heaving with blood and sweat after the last round of shocks. The largest reaction he’d gotten from her had been a gasp and the biting of her lip. Ward clenched his teeth with frustration and jammed his finger into the remote again, watching as her body reacted to the shocks, thrashing uncontrollably much as her tight bindings allowed. Still, she remained silent. It was almost remarkable how she managed to stay conscious.
He cranked up the power even further and pressed the button, the strength of the electricity likely strong enough to kill a small animal. This time, as her eyes rolled to the back of her head, she finally released an involuntary and raspy scream.
“There we go!” Ward said triumphantly. “I knew you had it in you. Even the great Calvary isn’t indestructible.”
She gasped for breath, trembling from head to toe as sweat streamed down from her hairline. Her head flopped back against the pipe and her eyes slid shut, but as Ward neared, she slowly looked up and glared defiantly at him.
“Is…that…all…you…g-got?” She panted.
Ward grinned almost cheerily. “Not at all!”
The power was cranked up even further, and the bloodcurdling screams that filled the room were like music to his ears.
He hadn’t been happy in so long, but right now he felt something that vaguely reminded him of joy.
“You’re telling me what?”
Distress practically radiated off Coulson, the furrow in his brow much more pronounced than it had ever been. His tie had come undone hours ago, his suit jacket tossed carelessly aside.
“That somebody wiped the security cameras.” Fitz explained for what felt like the hundredth time. He gestured to the screen in Coulson’s office, where he’d been playing the video footage he’d pulled from all possible cameras near the alley. “Look.” He jammed his finger against the display. “That’s May, Hunter, and Daisy.” Onscreen, three fingers approached the alley. “The Inhuman girl, Tina.” Another figure appeared onscreen, followed seconds later by the large mercenaries Daisy and Hunter had described. Fighting began, and Daisy ran off in pursuit of Tina and one of the men.
On another quadrant of the screen, Fitz had pulled up another feed from a different camera that showed a slightly different angle. They could see Daisy fighting the man and then pulling Tina close to her after the man went down. On a different quadrant, Hunter and May fought, until May spotted something offscreen and ran. That was they saw of her.
“So she just vanished.” Coulson said, disbelief written all over his voice.
“Well, in a manner of speaking.” Fitz said. “We estimate she went here.” On a piece of paper he drew a crude map of the streets. “We know she ran after that man to stop him from tackling Daisy. But after that, nothing. Whoever took her must’ve known we’d come looking, and they looped the camera to show nothing but that.” He indicated to the screen, where one of the screens displayed the street in front of a closed storefront. “The image must’ve been from earlier this morning, and it’s been looped to cover what was actually there.”
“Can you try and get something from the other cameras? A shadow, anything?”
“I’ve been trying.” Fitz said. He looked almost as worn out as Coulson did. But at the sight of the older agent’s furious expression, he hastily added, “But I’ll keep looking.”
“I’ll help too.” Daisy offered.
“While you do that,” Mack piped up. “What do know about these people so far?”
“Well, we do know this was a trap.” Bobbi said. “That much is clear. Those men were waiting for them when they got there. The girl was just bait.”
“But more importantly, what would they want with Agent May?” Simmons supplied. “I mean, the only people I could think of to go to this length would be Hydra, perhaps to send a message to Coulson or SHIELD or something. But then why wouldn’t they go after Daisy?”
“Or me!” Hunter spoke up.
Daisy rolled her eyes. “Please. If it was Hydra, believe me, they’d leave you alone.” Her comment caused Bobbi to snicker.
“Hey!” The Brit complained.
“Can we stay on track?” Coulson snapped. “I like where you were going, Simmons. Continue.”
“Right.” The scientist said. “I mean, if I was a Hydra agent, I think I’d certainly try to capture Daisy, given her powers and all.”
“Maybe they figured I’d be too hard to subdue.” Daisy offered.
“True.” Mack said. “But come on. May? I can’t imagine she didn’t put up an impressive fight.”
“And those eyes.” Hunter added. “So intimidating. They’d surely make me stop in my tracks.”
“Right.” Simmons nodded. “So I’ve given this some thought, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that this is somehow personal.”
“Personal?” Coulson frowned.
“That could make sense.” Bobbi said slowly. “I mean, think about it. If they had truly been after SHIELD, they would’ve gone after Daisy as well. Or perhaps even Hunter. Right? That’s always been Hydra’s thing, and taking out 3, not to mention 2 of SHIELD’s most powerful agents, at once would’ve been very effective.”
Mack nodded. “But they only wanted May.”
“Who would that be, though? A disgruntled enemy who had the displeasure of crossing May’s path? An ex-lover?”
“This isn’t Andrew.” Coulson shot down almost immediately. “And as for enemies, that’s going to be a pretty long list. We’ve all had our fair shares of arrests and beat downs. It could be anybody.”
The room fell silent as they mulled over this theory.
“Alright, Daisy, I want you to start compiling a list of—“ Coulson started, before he was interrupted by Simmons.
“No.” Simmons said. Everyone turned to look at her. “Sorry sir, I don’t mean to interrupt but I don’t believe this is just anybody. Whoever this was went to an awful amount of trouble to ensure they’d capture May, and from what I know about her, that wouldn’t have been an easy feat. But they did it anyway. If it adjust been a random enemy, they probably would’ve given up, having been beat by her in the past. Whoever this was, it’s more than that.”
A phone suddenly started to vibrate, dancing on the desk. Coulson looked down at his ringing phone and picked it up.
Later, Daisy would look back on this moment. While someone like Fitz would argue that there was no such thing as fate or coincidences, that events that happened on their own schedule, Daisy would very much disagree.
Whoever was on the other line must’ve pressed a nerve, because Coulson’s face immediately darkened. “Ward.”
“Wait.” Hunter said. “Ward as in—“
Mack, Bobbi, and Daisy simultaneously nudged him to get him to shut his mouth.
Without missing a beat, Coulson pulled the phone from his ear and pressed Speaker, filling the room.
“I take it you’ve discovered something’s missing by now?”
“So it was you.” Coulson stated.
“Guilty.” The shit eating grin was evident through Ward’s voice as he spoke. “How does it feel, Coulson? For me to finally win?”
“You haven’t won anything yet.”
“Haven’t I?” Ward sounded so smug, Coulson wanted nothing more than to reach out through the phone and punch him hard enough to propel him straight up towards the sun. There was a sound of some pressing buttons. “Take a look at the gift I just sent you.”
Coulson looked down at the phone still in his hand. Something flashed in his eyes. But his voice remained steady and calms he continued speaking. “What do you want with May?”
“She took the woman I loved from me.” Ward responded evenly. “And now she’s going to pay.”
“You won’t get away with this. You’ll be sorry you ever laid a hand on her.” Coulson said. “We’re going to find you.”
Ward snickered; the sound was eerie and made the hair on the back of Daisy’s neck stand up. “Oh, I’m counting on it. Goodbye for now, Coulson. I’ll make sure to keep in tou—“
Before the call ended, Coulson hurled the phone across the room with such force, the device broke in half upon contact. His prosthetic hand gripped the edge of his desk.
“Fitz, Daisy. See if you can trace that call. Take the SIM card out, whatever. Find out where it’s coming from. I want answers within the hour. Simmons. See what you can find out from the girl, if anyone approached her, anything she remembers. And the rest of you…you’re going to help me figure out everything there is about Ward. I want every stone uncovered, every corner investigated. Is that clear?” Without another word, he left the room.
Simmons, who stood closest to the spot where Coulson’s phone had landed, bent down to retrieve it for Fitz. She frowned; despite the way it had split in half, half of the screen oddly remained lit up. She held it closer to try to catch a glimpse of the blurry image.
It only took a second for the shapes and colors to start making sense in her mind, but the moment it did she immediately grew pale. “Oh! I-I think I’m going to be sick!” She tossed it back onto the ground, stepping back as though it revolted her.
“What is it?” Daisy picked up the phone next. “Oh my God!” She exclaimed, although unlike Simmons she held onto the phone.
“What’s the matter with you two?” Mack said as he looked over Daisy’s shoulder. “Oh.” Ugly disgust filled his face as he took in the image. “Oh, hell no.”
On the screen was a blurry yet still distinguishable picture of May. They could only see the top half of the image, but it was enough. From the looks of it, May was restrained to a large pipe. Her head lolled back, unable to hold its own weight. Her eyes were closed, and her face was swollen almost beyond recognition, blood trickling down from multiple open wounds. If they squinted, it seemed as though one of her arms was broken, a shard of bone breaking through skin.
“I-I’ll get started on tracing that call.” Fitz said quickly.
“Better hurry.” Hunter said. “This could get ugly.”
“As it hasn’t already?” Mack countered.
Nobody had a response to that.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
This time, the screams didn’t let up for a full minute after the shocks stopped. May’s head flopped forward, and her eyes remained closed. Still, she responded with a bitter, “Never.”
Ward shrugged. He popped a french fry in his mouth and sat back in his folding chair; he’d sent one of his lackeys out for food, as after five straight hours of this he’d realized he’d forgotten to eat lunch. “Your choice.”
When she finally quieted, Ward crumpled up his burger’s wrapper and tossed it aside. “You know, you’re just making it harder for yourself. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t want to kill you.”
Melinda’s chest heaved violently as she struggled to draw proper breaths. “C-c-c-ould’ve fooled me.”
“Come on.” He said casually. “We used to get along. Remember the old days on the BUS? You know, I really used to respect you back then. Here you were, Melinda May. The Cavalry. One of the most formidable and powerful agents I’d ever known. You were a legend, a real threat. I thought, here’s someone I wouldn’t mind joining me in Hydra. That is, of course, until you proved be yet another blind follower of Phil Coulson.” He spat the last two words as if they tasted sour. “Such a waste.” Ward stood up. “Look where that loyalty got you. Suffering. Bleeding. Dying. How does that feel?”
Melinda snarled, the ferocity in her eyes rather impressive. “Wonderful.” Her expression didn’t match the tremor of her words. “B-bring it on.”
“Alright. Suit yourself.” Instead of pressing the button that controlled the shock collar, he picked up another item. A blowtorch, normally used in a kitchen. It was small, but undoubtedly powerful.
“Don’t worry.” He said as he bent down over Melinda. “This will hurt. A lot.”
Nothing. It had been roughly three hours since Ward’s call, and they’d found nothing. The number had come up untraceable. The picture of May that Ward had sent had been passed back and forth amongst the agents, blown up to large proportions and analyzed over and over again, each pixel examined. The gory image no longer fazed anyone.
“Ward truly knew what he was doing.” Simmons commented, pure disgust written all over her face. “Based on the angle and the colors, we are unable to discern where exactly their location. My best guest from the light coming in is perhaps a large storage center, a warehouse maybe. Somewhere deserted. But there are dozens in the area. We can’t possibly search them all.”
Again, as if on cue, Coulson’s phone vibrated. This time, they were ready. Daisy pushed Record on her tablet and nodded at Coulson, who picked up the call and put it on Speaker.
Almost immediately, long, deep, painful screams filled the room, causing Fitz to jump horribly, nearly dropping his tablet. “Bloody hell!”
Simmons clapped her hands over her ears as the sound continued, and continued, and continued. Mack began to look visibly nauseous, as did Daisy. Coulson was expressionless, only his wringing hands and tense shoulders betraying any emotion. Although it was incredibly tempting to hang up the damn call, Coulson didn’t dare, for fear that Ward would never call back and they’d lose any chance to track down May.
A full minute and a half later, the screams finally stopped.
“I thought you’d enjoy that as much as I did.” Ward’s smug voice said over the speaker.
“What do you want?” Coulson said tersely.
“Like I told you. For May to pay.”
“Wouldn’t you say she’s paid enough? It’s time to be done with this nonsense. This is beneath you.”
“Shut the hell up. Stop acting like you know me. You don’t know a damn thing. I managed to fool you, all of you, for the better part of a year. Thinking I was the perfect SHIELD agent. So shut up, Coulson. You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know you’re out for revenge.” Coulson continued calmly. If it hadn’t been for the sheen of sweat shining on his face, Daisy would’ve sworn he'd somehow remained completely composed and collected. “I know you’re angry. But it isn’t May you want. It’s me. So why don’t we settle this? Let May go, and I’ll let you do whatever you want to me.”
Silence. He was greeted by silence. Coulson was beginning to think Ward had hung up, before he spoke again.
“Nice try. You think I’d actually fall for that? You and I know both know the second I tell you where we are, you’ll descend guns blazing with your ragtag team of agents. So let me leave you with this. As much as this is hurting her, and believe me it's a lot, I know this is hurting you more. I know the very sound of her screaming causes invisible bugs to crawl under your skin. I know the sight of blood on her skin makes your chest clench, makes you want to scream and hit and kick and punch something. I know you feel utterly powerless right now. I know because that’s what I’ve felt my entire life. The empty, cold pit you feel right now? I’ve felt it too. So no thank you, I will not be telling you we are. Besides, I think you’ll probably figure it out eventually, and when you do, you’ll be sorry. But one tip for you? I'd hurry if I were you. I'm not sure how long she can hold out."
The line went dead.
Coulson stared at his silent phone, unmoving. Daisy and Simmons exchanged a glance.
"Um..." Daisy started. "We could try tracing the call again?"
"No." The steely strength in his voice was surprising. "We're not wasting our time on that anymore."
Simmons jumped in. "I've pulled up a list of possible warehouses in the area, and..."
"Enough!" Coulson buried his head in his hands. "You're dismissed. Go."
"I don't know!" He shouted. "I don't know what to do. Just go!"
Without another word, the agents left the room.
"I don't know what to do." Coulson muttered, this time to himself. "I don't know what to do."
This was usually the time when he turned to May. She'd been his right hand for so long, an integral part of his brain, so that he no longer knew how to think or function without her. He'd rarely seen a situation where Melinda May didn't know what to do, didn't have a scrappy solution up her sleeve.
But she was completely vulnerable, helpless and unable to save even herself. And that scared him more than anything.
Her head was killing her. Even a couple Advils later, Daisy could still feel her head slightly throbbing as she laid down on the couch in the common area. Although she figured she couldn’t complain; in the back of her mind she could still hear the screams. May’s screams. She doubted she’d ever be able to erase them.
With each passing hour, even Simmons’s usual cheeriness despite any situation had started to dissipate. Hunter’s quips had grown fewer and further between, and Mack grew more and more stoic while Fitz looked more flustered. They’d replayed the videos, listened to the recording dozens of times. Tried to examine every pixel, ran through theories, and monitored footage for any storage area or warehouse in the area for any abnormalities. Nothing thus far. They’d tried to think like him, to get in his psychotic head.
Daisy had gone back and watched that surveillance footage dozens of times and each one showed the same thing, May and Hunter spotting one of the men heading towards her and May running to stop him.
This was all her fault.
She shouldn’t have been there! Daisy should’ve been able to take care of herself, because May had trained her to and because she had those damn powers but like always she’d failed, and now her SO, one of the only people to make her feel safe and make SHIELD feel like home was in danger, in the hands of a psychopath, and it was all her fault. All. Her. Fault.
For a second after finding her birth parents, she’d let herself imagine a future with Jiaying and Cal. Maybe they’d learn to make one of her favorite foods, dumplings. Maybe they’d go on a road trip, sunlight streaming around them on the empty freeway, her favorite band blasting through the car’s stereo. Maybe they’d be a family. 27 years too late, but family nonetheless.
The image was blasted straight out of her mind the second Jiaying tried to kill her.
Instead, it was May who’d taught her to make dumplings from scratch one rainy day in between missions. Daisy had simply mentioned her craving for them during training, and the next thing she knew, she was walking by the kitchen, hair still wet from her shower, to find May setting up ingredients in the kitchen. They’d invited Fitzsimmons to join them, but the scientists had been busy running some experiment or something nerdy, no doubt. So it had just been her and May, and that day Daisy had learned more about her SO than she’d ever known. She’d learned May’s favorite color wasn’t black, but purple, and that she used to be a pretty good ice skater. And in turn she’d told May all about her crazy hot plate creations from her van days, and the way she’d always wanted someone to teach her to knit.
Sure, the older woman could barely boil the finished dumplings without burning the crap out of them, but then Coulson had poked his head in, and once he recognized the scent of what Daisy was surprised to learn was May’s mother’s recipe, he’d insisted on frying them. And the three of them had sat at the table and breathed in the mouthwatering scents, later devouring the dumplings. Coulson and May had let Daisy take the last one after a little bit of puppy dog eyes on her part. And it had been so cozy and so comforting and so right that she’d started to harbor a secret fantasy that Coulson and May were truly her parents.
Daisy hadn’t realized she’d started to cry until she could feel hot tears soak the collar of her shirt. She wiped them with the back of her hand; she didn’t deserve to cry. Not when she was the reason for those screams, for Coulson to be more broken than she’d ever seen him, and that was what scared her to her very core. Not Hydra, not guns, but the thought that one of the strongest people she’d ever known had no next step, no solution.
She rewound Ward’s words through her mind. After the third listen, she’d committed them to memory, partly so that she’d no longer need to hear those screams. She’d managed to filter out and emphasize his voice over the…other sound, but they were still undoubtedly indistinguishable.
As much as this is hurting her, I know this is hurting you more. I know the very sound of her screaming causes invisible bugs to crawl under your skin. I know the sight of blood on her skin makes your chest clench, makes you want to scream and hit and kick and punch something.
“Damn straight,” Daisy muttered to herself. Her fists clenched at her sides, and she started to feel the couch shaking around her. The second they found Ward, although at this point it was starting to feel like a big fat IF. And with each passing moment, May was growing worse. Their running theory was that Ward wouldn’t kill her, at least not yet, but even Melinda May was only human.
I know you feel utterly powerless right now. I know because that’s what I’ve felt my entire life.
Powerless. Funny, Daisy hadn’t felt powerless for a long time, not since she’d gained control of her powers. But that described her perfectly; Ward knew them too well. This was one situation where her powers would serve her no purpose. Who needed earthquake powers when they did no good to help locate the bastard?
I know you feel utterly powerless right now. I know because that’s what I’ve felt my entire life.
For some reason the last phrase kept repeating in her mind. I know because that’s what I’ve felt my entire life. I know because that’s what I’ve felt my entire life.
Suddenly, Daisy shot up. She knew exactly how to find Ward.
Melinda could barely breathe.
Ward had, thankfully, given her a break. “We’ll pick this up in the morning.” He’d said. “If you live that long.”
She hadn’t bothered to respond to that.
He’d untied her legs and one of her hands, keeping one handcuffed to the pipe, although it was hardly a kind gesture. If she moved, even blinked or wrinkled her nose, the pain shot up to a 25. Out of 10. And if she stayed perfectly still, the pain hovered at around 20, or 21 if she breathed too deeply. Long story short, there was no way she’d be escaping, and he knew that.
Out of sheer cruelty, probably, he’d left a water bottle just by her foot. Melinda knew she should probably try and drink some, at least use it to clean her wounds a little. At this point, a tiny drop probably meant the difference between continuing to endure, or dying sooner. But how was she supposed to hold it in her mangled hands, when merely lifting a finger felt like scaling a mountain or three?
So she lay uselessly, her head flopped against the pipe. She barely felt the tough steel beneath her head anymore, eclipsed by the pain radiating from everywhere else. Instead, she concentrated on her breathing.
How long had it been since she was taken? In between the shocks, she’d lost all sense of everything. Was it dark out? Or daybreak? Ward had covered up all the windows. In the back of her mind, she knew the team was probably searching for her. They were smart, she knew, but in that case why was it taking so long?
Because Ward outsmarted you. He outsmarted everyone, a little voice inside reminded her. And they’d played right into his damn hands like a bunch of fools.
Maybe it would be better if she died here instead. What use would she be anymore? Even if the team found her, she knew the extent of her injuries. It would be a miracle if she were to throw a decent punch again, let alone be able to fight like before.
And wasn’t that all she was good for? In the end, what value did she really bring? Her brain was no match for Fitzsimmons, physically she was nothing compared to Mack or Bobbi, she didn’t have Inhuman powers or hacking abilities, and she would never be able to lead a team with such heart and soul like Phil did. As an agent, she was a dime a dozen. A perfectly trained killing machine and a decent pilot to boot, but dozens of cadets came out of the Academy with those qualities. Much like Ward, actually.
Stop it, she knew Phil would immediately protest. I need you. We all need you.
But did they really?
Yet giving up at the hands of Ward didn’t sit well with her. It made her feel sicker, if that was even possible. He’d hurt them, hurt all of them, and for a smug bastard like him, this would just the cherry on top of his ridiculous ego. She may not be any use to them anymore, but damnit if she wouldn’t try her best to protect them. Who would be there to protect her team if she was gone?
God. She pictured each of their faces. Never doing tai chi again with Daisy, or having tea with Simmons, or listening to Fitz babble endlessly about his latest experiment? Never sharing a drink with Phil, keeping him company in his office while he completed his mountain of paperwork, or experiencing the thrill of flawlessly executing a mission?
Or never being able to reveal her deepest, darkest secret? Having it die with her in, well, wherever she was? No. Melinda May never gave up, and she was not about to start now.
She just needed to have faith that her team would find her.
Suddenly, almost as if she'd willed it to happen, she heard a noise. It was just a scuffling, and her addled brain could not place it. There was another, and something that sounded like footsteps? Was it Ward coming back to continue? Maybe he'd keep using that damn shock collar, or he'd try his hand with the blowtorch again.
(Her last experience with the blowtorch and the sensation of being burned alive was not one she'd wish on anybody, ironically not even on him.)
But then the door burst open with a defeating sound.
"There she is!" A familiar voice shouted.
It couldn't be.
Before May knew what was happening, before the room stopped spinning before her, she felt a hand on her arm, its touch delicate as a butterfly.
"May? Can you hear me?"
She couldn't respond. Couldn't move. All she could do was stare blankly up, her mind still not quite comprehending. A face floated above hers, and she was suddenly struck by the urge to cry.
"If you can hear me, blink." The first voice, which belonged to another person, said. Simmons.
It was excruciating, but she managed to blink once, twice, three times, her eyelids struggling to bear their own weight.
"You're going to be okay." It was Daisy this time, her face a mixture of worry and relief, her eyes filled with unshed tears. She pressed a hand to her ear. "That was Mack. They found Ward, and he and Bobbi and Hunter are bringing him to the Zephyr."
"We need a gurney or something. Some way to transport her." Simmons said into her comms. "I don't think she can walk."
"Coulson's on it. He said he just wanted to make sure Ward was secure first."
Maybe it was the thought of going home, of finally being safe that caused her to suddenly be filled with a deep heaviness, a wave of fatigue so pure and strong it had to have come from deep inside. Her eyes grew heavy, and she no longer had the energy to hold them up.
"Hey!" Daisy said loudly. Too loudly. Had she always been this loud? "May! You need to stay awake."
May wished she could. But annoyingly enough, it seemed as though her body had chosen to give up.
"I can barely feel her pulse." Simmons said worriedly.
"Melinda." A third voice said. It was soft, and reminded her of homemade chicken noodle soup during her Academy days, and warm eyes and a goofy grin that never failed to cheer her up.
His hand cupped her cheek ever so slightly, mindful of the injuries she'd received there. "Come on, you got this. Stay with me."
With great effort, she managed to open them just a sliver.
"That's good." He said encouragingly. "Don't do this, you don't get to die on me. Fitz and Hunter are coming back with a gurney, and we're going to bring you home and get you all patched up, and you'll be kicking the crap out of your strike team in no time. You just need to hold on a little bit longer. Can you do that for me?"
His words filled her with strength she didn't know she still had, and she opened her eyes all the way.
"Good." He smiled, emphasizing the laugh lines around his eyes. God, she loved those. No, she loved him.
Phil and Jenna continued to babble, to distract her, to keep her awake and aware as they swore backup was on its way. But she could feel herself slipping away. She had to tell him. She could feel she didn't have much longer.
Through sheer force of will, she managed to draw a slightly deeper breath. "I-I-I..." Her vocal chords, mangled from hours of nonstop screaming, struggled to form real sounds.
Phil immediately looked down at her. "It's okay. I know."
He leaned down and gently brushed his lips over hers, curling one hand in hair, not caring that it'd probably come back caked in dried blood. The contact stung, but it made her heart soar. "Me too."
Melinda only became aware she'd woken up thanks to the tears streaming down her cheeks. If she concentrated, she could still pretend she felt Phil's lips on hers, pretend that he loved her as much as she had always loved him.
Instead of feeling hopeless, her dream strengthened her, feeling her with a renewed sense of purpose. She would get out of here and tell him how she felt.
She’d meant it earlier. Melinda would die before she gave up. And if she had to die, then she would die fighting with everything she had.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Daisy didn’t bother knocking or hesitating before bursting into Coulson’s office. “I think I’ve figured—“ The sight before her made her pause. Coulson had gradually grown less and less collected as the hours dragged on; according to the clock Simmons had set up in the lab, it had been roughly eight hours since May had been taken.
“Are you okay?” She blurted, and then immediately clapped a hand over her mouth. “I mean, you obviously aren’t, but don’t take this the wrong way. You look terrible.”
Normally Coulson probably would’ve cracked a joke, or rolled his eyes. Instead, he barely even looked up at Daisy, a hand pinching the bridge of his nose, his eyes bloodshot and pale. “What is it?”
“Seriously.” Daisy said in lieu of answering his question. “You should try and get a little sleep. Cut back on the caffeine or something and get some shut-eye.”
“How?!” Coulson snapped. “I have no fucking idea how or where to find her or if she’s even still…” He cut himself off, looking away awkwardly. “Sorry. That was uncalled for.”
“It’s okay.” Daisy tried to sound reassuring. “I-I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. How long as it been?”
“Oh, come on AC.” Daisy’s voice took on a slightly teasing lilt.
“That’s not what this is about.” He protested. Was it just her or had he spoken quickly, a little too quickly? “She’s my oldest friend, and—“
“Uh huh.” Daisy said dryly. “Because we all know secrets work well around here. And it’s like I can blab to anyone. So come on. How long?”
Coulson sighed. “Going on twenty years now.”
Her eyes widened. “Damn. I knew it had to be a long time, but not that long. Why didn’t you ever do anything about it? I’m pretty sure she’s crazy about you too.”
“I don't really know about that.”
Lie, Daisy thought automatically. She’d seen the way they looked at each other when the other wasn't looking, the way they communicated so flawlessly; in fact, she, Fitz, and Simmons had a secret bet running since their Bus days that Coulson and May were secretly married.
But on the outside, she just shrugged. It was kind of sweet (and pathetic), the way Coulson and May had no idea how the other felt.
“She means everything to me.” Coulson admitted.
“Well, when we find her, you’ll get the chance to tell her yourself. And she’ll probably kick your ass seven times over when she sees how, well, not you, you've been.”
“Yeah,” he snorted. “When.”
“No, I meant it. I don’t think she’s dead,” Daisy said. “At least, not yet.”
Coulson sort of half smiled, but it drooped back into a frown almost immediately. “How do you figure?”
“Well, Bobbi and I were talking, and his intention had never been to kill her. Instead, he wanted her to suffer. I think that’s his plan for May. Which brings me back to why I came here in the first place. Something Ward said kept coming back to me. I know because that’s what I’ve felt my entire life.”
He met her eyes, nonplussed. “Is that supposed to mean something?”
“I’m not sure if it’s a clue, or maybe he just slipped up, but yeah! Think about it; we know Ward had a super shitty past or whatever. Remember the memories brought up from the Beserker staff? Well, I know Ward. Obviously not that well because duh, but I know that our crappy childhoods were something we connected over. And if he’s anything like me, then that childhood plays a big part in influencing his actions today. I think, if he has a weakness, anything to help us locate him and May, his past has something to do with it.”
“I know you feel utterly powerless right now.” Coulson said slowly, as he too had committed Ward’s latest phone call to memory.
“And that’s how he’s felt his entire life.” Daisy added. “We just need to know exactly what he meant by that.”
For the first time that awful day, a glimmer of something began to flicker in Coulson’s eyes. It wasn’t hope exactly, but something more akin to a feeling Daisy had recognized in herself as she’d ran-walked all the way to Coulson’s office earlier.
The renewed determination to fight.
“Go get the rest of the team and meet back here.” Coulson instructed, standing up from his desk. “Whatever this is, it’s about damn time we figured it out.”
Daisy immediately took off at a sprint. “Hang on, May.” She muttered. “We’re coming to get you.”
“Meet Sam.” Ward announced as he strode into the room, an unfamiliar woman alongside him. “She’s an Inhuman.”
May had expected lots of things: the shock collar, another round of waterboarding, more quality time with the brass knuckles. But not this.
“I found her on the streets, took her in, on the condition that she join me, of course. She was more than happy to.”
Get to the point. May thought, annoyed.
"I bet you’re curious about her powers.” Ward continued. “So was I, when I first met her. That is, until I made the mistake of touching her hand.”
It was then that May noticed the black leather gloves Sam wore.
“Her powers are really quite remarkable, if you think about it. I’d tell you, but I think it’s better if she show you.” He nodded at Sam, who walked over to sit down besides May. She took off her gloves, and placed her hands on May’s arm.
Melinda was immediately transported to a dusty desert landscape. When she looked down, she wore a blue blazer and heeled boots.
“That’s right.” Ward’s voice floated, disembodied; when Melinda looked around, she could see no one. “Sam has the lovely ability to bring back someone’s worst memories with a single touch.”
The scene changed, and Melinda somehow ended up inside the building, her gun aimed at the little Inhuman girl, who stared creepily at her, her hands extended. Katya.
“And the best part?” Ward continued. “Once she figures out what they are, she’ll make it so that you’ll no longer be able to recognize the difference between reality and, well, your memories.”
Suddenly, May found herself back in the warehouse, Ward’s snickering face inches from hers. Sam had removed her hands, and was busy examining her cuticles. Melinda could only manage to choke out one more. “W-why?”
“Because thanks to you, I can no longer close my eyes at night without seeing Kara bleed out, without watching her choke on her own blood and go limp in my arms. I’m simply returning the favor.” He stood up and dusted off his pants. “Happy reminiscing.”
Sam’s hands clamped down on Melinda’s arm once more.
“Here’s what we know so far.” Coulson paced around the room as he spoke, his notes already on the screen at the front of his office. “May was taken at approximately 3pm this afternoon. And we know this because…” He looked meaningfully at Fitz.
“Because of the camera footage. The other quadrants show May, Daisy, and Hunter in the area at around that time.” Fitz completed.
Coulson nodded. “Judging by the image sent by Ward, we believe she’s currently being held in some sort of warehouse or storage center.”
Fitz piped up again. “And although the number he called us from is a burner phone, I was able to recently track via its signal the general area it came from. Unfortunately, that leaves us with about a 50 mile radius.”
“We’ve been monitoring footage from any such possible facility.” Simmons added. “Nothing yet.”
“Right.” Coulson nodded authoritatively. “And thanks to Daisy’s latest theory, we can now conclude that the image was meant to throw us off.”
“How?” Mack frowned. “He Photoshopped it or something?”
“Maybe.” Daisy said. “It’s unlikely, though. I examined it multiple times; the image hadn’t been modified.” She hopped off her perch on a stool. “But I think we’ve been looking in the wrong places. He wanted us to think they were somewhere random. Yet that’s unlike him. Remember what he said in that last call?”
“Um, well actually…” Hunter started.
“You remember.” Bobbi said quickly, as clearly none of them wanted to listen to the recording again. “Go ahead, Daisy.”
Daisy nodded. “I know you feel utterly powerless right now. I know because that’s what I’ve felt my entire life.” She recited. “And I did some thinking. Maybe the key to all of this is figuring out what Ward meant by ‘powerless’.”
“He’s not man enough to fight like one.” Hunter suggested. An eye roll was exchanged around the room.
“As hilarious as that was, Hunter has a point.” Simmons said. “Ward’s a coward, that much we know. Only a coward would feel the need to kidnap his victim like so, rendering them completely powerless.”
“Wouldn’t you be afraid of May, though?” Mack suggested.
“Well, yes.” Daisy admitted. “But Jemma I like where you’re going. Ward’s always been afraid of something.”
“No, not just afraid.” Fitz said. “I’d say it’s more like he thinks he’s failed. He’s afraid of failure.”
“Maybe he thinks he failed Kara." Bobbi suggested. “Like he had no control over that.”
“You know, I always got the sense that it goes deeper than that.” Daisy said. “I know because that’s what I’ve felt my entire life.” She repeated. “Maybe this has to do with his brother? The one he put in the well? I think he mentioned him before.”
Fitz snapped his fingers. “That’s it. Isn’t that what his Beserker staff flashback was about, too”
“Fitz, Simmons.” Coulson spoke up. “Between the two of you and Daisy, you spent the most time with Ward. What else do you remember? Did he say anything else about his past, particularly his brother?”
“It always seemed like he was trying to make up for something.” Simmons said. “After all, he jumped off the Bus to save me.”
“That was just to make us believe he was part of our team.” Fitz muttered darkly. He crossed his arms.
Simmons placed a hand on his arm and smiled. “You’re right, Fitz, but I got the sense it was more than that. It felt like he had something to prove.”
“So he’s afraid of failure, particularly when it comes to his brother,” Coulson said. “That’s the key.” He looked over at Daisy. “Find everything you can about—“
“Already on it.” Daisy completed. She tapped something on her tablet, and it appeared on the large screen. “Here are his social media profiles, bank information, whatever else we need to know.”
“Wow, just looking at him you’d never know he was related to a psychopath.” Hunter muttered.
“Thomas Ward.” Coulson read aloud. “Can you pull up where he lives?”
Daisy did so. “Hey, that’s only…”
“Thirty miles out.” Mack said. “Looks to be a remote property just north of here.”
“Alright,” Coulson said. “Gear up. Wheel’s up in five.”
Melinda’s leg was on fire, blood seeping out from the gunshot wound she’d received, the rest of her body aching with cuts and bruises. The little Inhuman girl, Katya, advanced towards her.
“I like the pain.” She said menacingly, her face twisted into a cruel sneer, an expression no child should ever have. “You killed mother. And now there’s so much pain.
Melinda struggled back, but Katya continued, suddenly morphing her face so that her lip trembled. “I’m scared. Please take my hand.” The girl pleaded, holding it out imploringly.
“Not them.” Melinda found herself saying. She’d long memorized her words, screamed them aloud as nightmare after nightmare found her each night, as she’d shot awake tangled in sweat soaked sheets. “We can fix you.”
“Take my hand. Give me your pain.”
Her hand brushed the gun as she struggled backwards. The realization hit her like lightning. She’d had no other choice. She’d failed.
And like so many other times, the gun went off, Melinda powerless to control her actions as she watched the little girl crumple and fall, as she watched her struggle to breathe, as she watched the light in Katya’s eyes fade. And as Katya lay cradled in her arms, she knew her dreams of holding her own babies were dying along with her.
The vision before her twisted. Katya disappeared from her arms, and suddenly she found herself at the beginning again. She saw herself leaving Phil, and going inside the building. She fought the soldiers, fought and killed Eva, before fighting and killing Katya too, watching the girl’s face crumple into that of complete terror as she’d bled out. Melinda saw it happen again, and again, and again.
Somehow the memory twisted, became warped. It became Daisy who Melinda had shot. And then back to Katya, and then an odd twisted hybrid of the two, creepier and more sinister than she ever could’ve imagined.
Her mouth opened in a silent scream as she relived the memory over and over again, powerless to close her eyes, to hum, to block out the terror that consumed her senses. And when she thought she couldn’t take it any longer, she suddenly found herself standing in front of a gravestone with the name she’d never wanted to see.
Phillip J. Coulson.
The scene changed again, and she was sitting in her cubicle, Maria Hill coming in. Melinda had known what the other agent was going to say before she’d said it. But that did nothing to quell the wave of overwhelming guilt and grief that swarmed over her.
No. Phil’s alive. He’s safely back at the base!
Was he, though? Maria was so convincing and so real. A black hole opened in her chest, consuming her as Maria told her over and over that her best friend was dead, that she hadn’t been there to save him as she’d always silently sworn to do.
It was Daisy’s turn next, or more specifically Skye. She hadn’t even been there when it happened, but now she watched, unable to lift a finger, as the young hacker was shot by Ian Quinn, her body crumpling.
Powerless. Melinda was powerless again, and always would be. She watched as Skye flatlined, as Phil’s coffin was lowered into the ground, as Audrey sobbed at the front, comforted by the masses while she stood at the back alone, stoic and unable to express the crushing sorrow inside, as she shot Katya again and again, as the young girl realized she was dying, as she cried out for her mother, the mother that Melinda had killed.
She saw herself leaving Andrew, pretending to ignore his expression, his pleads that they could make it work, that he loved her as she’d acted as though she had no more emotions when the opposite was true. She walked away, suitcase in hand, closing the door in the face of the man she still loved, while she shut out the other man she loved by hiding in her cubicle. And in every flashback, every memory, she was utterly alone. No one to hold her, no one to seek comfort from, no one to reassure her that it would all be right. Because it wouldn’t, and it never was. All around her, she was surrounded by people, and yet paradoxically she would always be isolated, doomed to live out the rest of her days watching the people she lived most leave her. Because that’s what she deserved.
Enough! Make it stop. Please! I’ll do anything!
“Well, well, well, just what I love to hear. Good old fashioned begging.” A voice said.
Melinda found herself back in front of Ward; it was only then she realized she’d spoken aloud. She felt tears streaming down her face, her entire body aching more painfully than it had ever before.
Ward knelt down in front of her, tissue in hand. “You look like you could use this.” He fake pouted.
Part of her wanted to spit in his face. Part of her wanted to preserve her dignity. Except…what dignity? In the past twelve hours, he’d listened to her scream and plead for her life. He’d reduced what many referred to as the most intimidating agent alive into a weak, trembling mess. What did she have left? Resigned, she reached out and took it, feeling grateful as she held it against her eyes and savored the soft texture.
“Now you know what it feels like, what you did to me. Lovely feeling, isn’t it?”
“S-so n-n-now you’ll kill m-m-me.”
“Actually,” Ward started. “That was never my intention. Make you suffer? Yes. Make you pay? Yes. But no. Believe it or not, even I have my limits. And it’s not like it’d be a fair fight.”
“But if you think I’m letting you go, you’re sorely mistaken. I may be on my way to destroying the infamous Melinda May, but we’re not there yet. For that, I need a little something from you.” Ward pulled something out of the pocket of his jacket. A gun. “As I’m sure you know, this started because you manipulated me into killing the person I loved. And now I’m going to return the favor.”
No. Anything but that.
“That’s right.” Ward said as he took in May’s panicked expression. “You’re going to kill Phil Coulson.”
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
Melinda couldn’t breathe. Not that she really could before, at least not well, but as the meaning of Ward’s statement settled in, their crushing weight was heavy, making proper thoughts or movements impossible.
“And before you refuse, I have an offer you simply won’t be able to walk away from,” Ward said. He began polishing his gun, seeming really determined to make it shine. “Not like you’re in any shape to walk, but it’s a figure of speech. Want to hear what it is?”
“Not like you have a choice, right?” He continued. “Either you kill Coulson, or I will. And believe me, I won’t stop there. Think about how easy it was for me to find you. It won’t be long until I track down the rest of your team. Fitzsimmons, Bobbi, Mack, Hunter, and of course Skye. Or Daisy.” He said with a sneer. “Between you and me, I always liked ‘Skye’ better. I will slit their throats one by one, watching the light drain from their eyes. And you’ll be forced to live the rest of your sad days knowing you were the cause of your team’s destruction.”
Melinda struggled against the sole handcuff leaving her trapped against the pipe, although her movements were slow and lethargic, utterly useless.
“So do we have a deal? Put a bullet through Coulson’s head, or his heart, I’m not too picky, and I leave your team alone.”
“Oh, Melinda," He spat. "Don’t try and deny it. I know how the two of you feel about each other. I’ve known it since my first day on the Bus. It’s kind of pathetic, actually, the way you act like lovesick puppies around the other but never bother to do anything about it. Me? I know when to reach out and take what I want, and I what I deserve.”
Ward leered down at her. “I’ll even sweeten the deal for you. You get to walk free, because like I said I simply wanted you to feel my pain, to suffer. It was never my intention to kill you. You have my word.”
“H-how d-d-do I k-know…”
“How do you know I’ll keep my word?” Ward finished for her. “Well, that’s simple. You don’t. But look at you. You can barely string together two words. You don’t exactly have a choice, do you May?”
Before he could say anything else, a phone began to ring. Ward took it out of his pocket and glanced at the screen. “Ah, perfect timing!” He held it up to his ear. “Well, hey there Coulson! Funny, we were just talking about you. Oh, wait, hold that thought. Where are my manners?” Ward lowered the phone and hit Speaker. “There, now May can hear too!”
“As I was saying, we cracked your code.” Phil said. It sounded calm and collected as he usually managed to do even under the heaviest of pressures, but she knew it was just a front. “We know where you are.”
“I knew you could do it.”
“Really, it wasn’t that difficult.” Phil countered. “All we needed to do was figure out your brother was the key to all this. He led us straight to you, and the old factory where your parents used to work. The one that made them miserable and consequently you. Don’t bother going anywhere. We’re on our way, and it’s time to put you where you belong for a very long time.”
Phil. Although she knew the memories had been just that, simply hearing his voice over the phone was immediately calming; she almost relaxed as she allowed it to wash over her.
But only for a moment. With a cold shiver, she suddenly remembered Ward’s words. She had to warn him. He couldn’t come here. He’d be walking straight into a trap.
“S-stop!” She started, trying her hardest to shout, but her vocal chords were so dry and so hoarse and so painful even she could barely hear herself. “Y-you can't—”
Before she knew what was happening the shock collar around her neck was powered up, causing her body to jolt painfully with electricity, a scream escaping involuntarily. He pressed the button once, twice, three times, ignoring the desperate protests on the other end of the phone. When the shocks finally stopped, she shook violently, and rendered unable to say another word.
“Stop!” All composure was gone, and May could hear the distress in Phil’s voice. “That’s enough, Ward. You wanted revenge, right? Well, I’m on my way. Let’s settle this, just you and me. Make it a fair fight.”
“Fine.” He snapped, pretending to be annoyed, while winking theatrically at May as he spoke. “But you will come alone. Otherwise I put a bullet through her head. No Daisy, no team, nothing. And Coulson? I’ve learned a few tricks. My men are keeping watch, and I’ve set up motion sensing cameras lining the perimeter that could catch the movement of a squirrel. Fail to comply and I’ll blow all of us sky high.”
“You got a deal.”
Ward hung up the phone and tossed it aside, looking at May. “Ready for a little reunion?”
“Sir,” Simmons protested as Coulson hung up his phone, nearly crushing it between his hands. “You can’t possibly be thinking of listening to Ward! This could be a trap!”
“Coulson.” Hunter urged. “We’re coming with you.”
“No.” The Director responded as he geared up, shoving a gun down his waistband. “You heard Ward. It has to be me, and me alone.”
“But-“ Daisy argued.
Coulson simply looked exasperatedly around the quinjet. “Really, now, we’ve been on how many missions together now? You still don’t trust me?” He turned to the pilot’s seat, where Bobbi sat, a determined look on her face as she steered the plane. “Is the asset ready?”
“Yes, sir.” Bobbi responded crisply. “Ready for pickup.”
Daisy crossed her arms and glared at him; it was so Melinda, down to way the young agent's nostrils flared, Coulson had to swallow back the large lump that formed in the back of his throat. "I thought we were going to find Ward.”
“We are.” Coulson said, training his gaze on the horizon below. “We’re just making a little detour first.”
Ward looked at the screen he’d set up in the corner; it displayed live footage the cameras he’d set up around the perimeter. “They're almost here.”
As if on cue, May suddenly heard a familiar rumble in the distance. Her stomach lurched with dread. It was the Zephyr. A minute later, on the screen she could see a figure making its way towards the entrance. He held his hands up, as if showing that he had nothing to hide and the armed men allowed him to pass.
“Here.” Ward slid the gun towards May, and it came to a stop right by her hand. “You know what to do. And if you try to shoot me instead, I’ll give the signal to my men and, well, you’ll be sorry.”
The door burst open a second later. Phil’s eyes fell on her immediately. “May!” He was by her side within seconds, tugging off his jacket and draping it over her. He brought one hand up to cup her cheek, the other pulling his sleeve down to dab at the blood seeping out of a recently reopened wound on her forehead. He cursed as he noticed another one on her thigh.
“I got you, Melinda.” He tried to smile reassuringly, although it fell short, overshadowed by the worry in his eyes. “You’re going to be okay now. I promise.”
Tears of relief started stream down her face. It was just like her dream, and she almost allowed herself to lean into his touch, almost allowed herself to believe that everything would be okay. She buried her face in his neck, and his arm came up to wrap around her shoulders as he murmured soothingly in her ear.
But then the cold metal of the gun brushed against her hand, bringing her back to reality, and she shrugged away from him. His arm fell from her shoulders down to snag her hand, covering hers gently, his thumb rubbing soothing circles on her bruised skin.
Phil looked up at Ward. “You got what you wanted. I’m here. Let her go.”
Ward tsk-ed. “Hmm, not quite. You see, for my dreams to be fulfilled, there’s still one last thing that needs to happen.”
“D-don’t do this.” May said hoarsely.
Phil looked from Ward, to May, to Ward again. “What the hell’s going on?”
“Let me do the honors.” Ward bent down and retrieved the gun by her hand, placing it squarely in her lap. “Go ahead, May. Any day now.”
Phil blinked. “May?”
It was a nightmare. It had to be; there was simply no other explanation for this living hell, except that it was real, and it would continue to play out until the worst possible outcome happened.
“As I mentioned over the phone,” Ward began. “This whole thing started because she made me kill Kara. Shoot her cold-blooded. And I thought to myself, how could I make Melinda pay? By torturing her? Perhaps. But like most specialists, physical pain means nothing to her. Then, I had a stroke of genius. An eye for an eye, tit for tat, whatever you want to call it.”
“You brought me here to kill me.” Phil stated flatly.
“No.” Ward corrected. “I brought you here so she could kill you.”
“I-I won’t.” Melinda stammered. “I won’t shoot him.”
“Remember our deal.” Ward said with barely suppressed glee. “Either you kill him, or I do, along with the rest of your team.” He turned to Phil. “And don’t even try to shoot me.” He held up the remote to the shock collar, waving it in the air before jamming his thumb against the button. Instantly, Melinda’s body arched painfully with electricity, too painfully; it was as if Ward had given the thing an upgrade, and she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, couldn’t control her anguished screams. Her vision blackened, and the idea of succumbing to the darkness was tempting.
“No!” Phil shouted, growing more and more distressed. He made a move, almost as if to tug the remote from Ward's hands, but hesitated, unwilling to leave her on the ground.
Ward shrugged. “You got it.” He released the button and slid the remote back into his pocket. “Just giving you her a taste of what will happen should you attack me instead. I haven’t even turned it up to its full power, and I have a feeling it will be enough to finally put poor May out of her misery.”
Phil used his sleeve to wipe away the sweat that had started to bead along her hairline. “May? Can you hear me?”
It took great effort, but Melinda managed to moan weakly, struggling to regain control of her breathing as her chest heaved violently. Suddenly, she felt something cold in her hand, and she looked down to see Phil sliding the gun into her grip.
“Phil!” Melinda protested, wrenching her hands away as far as the handcuff would allow. "NO!”
“It’s okay.” Phil said calmly, holding her hand still, mindful of her broken arm. “It’s the only way.”
“That’s right!” Ward crowed in the background. “I always knew you were smart, Coulson.”
“Take it.” Phil urged. “Trust me. It’s alright.”
“You can’t do this.” She was begging. She was begging and she hated begging, but what other choice did she have? “P-please. Kill me instead.”
“You think that isn’t what I've begged for?!” Suddenly, Ward began to sound quite unhinged. “All those nights lying awake, wishing I was dead instead? But no. You made that choice for me, and now I’m making it for you.” He reached into his waistband and pulled out a second gun, flicking off the safety, aiming at her head. “You’re going to watch the person you love most bleed out and choke to death in front of you, all the while knowing you could’ve prevented this.”
Melinda could feel the barrel pressed against her forehead and the tender bruise Ward had left there; the contact caused her eyes to water, stinging as they did so.
“Do it. Otherwise I’ll shoot you, him, and then the rest of your precious team.”
Tears were streaming down her face so hard she could barely see two inches in front of her. Phil’s face, a blurry mess, flickered for a moment, and she could’ve sworn it was Katya before her instead.
Phil folded the gun in her hand, carefully arranging her fingers over the trigger. His eyes were steady. “Melinda, hey. Look at me. Everything’s going be okay. I promise.”
“How?” Her voice sounded wet and bubbly.
“Because,” Phil said patiently. “I just do. Look, I’m not going to make it out of here. But that’s okay.”
“It’s okay,” he repeated. “You heard Ward. Either you do it, or we both die here. The team needs you.”
She shook her head roughly. “I-I can’t.”
“Yes, you can.” Phil leaned in and rested his forehead against hers, placing a hand over her trembling shoulder, squeezing soothingly.
“You can do this. You need to. I believe in you.” Phil murmured softly.
She had to tell him. Had to tell him before it was too late and he was dead. The team would rally around her, saying he’d died saving her, which was technically true. And she was completely helpless, unable to stand, let alone defend herself against Ward, and she’d been faced with an impossible choice. But that didn’t mean anything. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t live the rest of her days paralyzed with guilt.
“Phil, I…” The words remained stuck in her throat, almost causing her to choke. “I…”
“I know,” he responded, brushing his lips over hers ever so lightly. But it was enough to fill her heart, if only for a moment. “I love you too.” Phil pulled away. His hands were warm and strong over hers as he raised the gun, aiming it at his forehead. He nodded at her, his hands leaving her; he held them up.
Melinda’s hand shook violently as she struggled to hold the gun, failing to steady her hands. Now she wouldn’t be able to end this cleanly, with a single bullet to the head. Now her aim would be off, and she’d probably hit him in the chest or something, and he’d suffer, coughing and choking on his own blood while struggling to take his last breaths. “I-I’m so sorry.”
Phil smiled at her, his expression almost serene and relaxed. “Don’t be.”
“That’s enough,” Ward snapped, completely disgusted. “Do it.” The gun made an ominous click against her head. “NOW.”
Melinda stared straight into Phil’s eyes. This would be the last time she’d ever look into the face of the man she’d loved for so long.
Before Ward could get to one, Melinda pulled the trigger.
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
Phil had had a plan.
It did not involve begging May to shoot him.
In his many years as a SHIELD agent, he’d seen plenty of guns go off. Hell, he’d been the trigger puller plenty of times. But that didn’t mean he liked it; there was something about the explosion, the fine mist of red, and the tangy smell of blood that made his stomach turn.
So in the split second before he saw Melinda’s finger pull the finger, albeit shakily due to her injuries, he squeezed his eyes shut on impulse, on the off chance that his plans did not work out perfectly and he would in fact, end up dying. His heart pounded in his ears, almost pessimistically waiting for death. He’d heard the gun go off, the sound echoing in his ears, and waited for the bullet to pierce his flesh and slice through his brain.
Would she come through?
One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.
He felt nothing. Still, he waited, remaining motionless, not daring to even wrinkle his nose. Was Ward still behind Melinda? Was she okay? Or had…?
“You can open your eyes now.” A teasing voice said.
Relief flooded him as he took in the Colombian Inhuman standing a few feet away, a wide smile on her face. And at her feet sat a scowling Ward, his hands restrained behind his back.
“See? All is fine now.” YoYo continued.
Ward’s instructions had been clear; come alone or May would die. That part was fairly typical of most homicidal kidnappers, and lucky for Phil, he’d had the perfect ace up his sleeve, someone who was fairly new. So Ward would have no idea about their new Inhuman friend, Elena, or as the team had started to call her, YoYo. While the Zephyr would wait up in the air, cloaking on, YoYo quickly disarmed the waiting guards, her powers leaving her virtually undetectable on the cameras. After that, the team would quickly secure the building, and Ward would be none the wiser.
Of course, there was no way Phil could’ve anticipated the little wrinkle he'd walked into. He’d known this would be a trap, but not to that extent. And as he’d comforted Melinda, coaxed her into pulling the trigger, he’d known this would break her, that perhaps she’d never be able to trust him again once she found out he’d known all along nothing would happen to him. But the sight of Ward’s gun pressed against her head scared him to the core, and he’d had no choice but to play along.
Speaking of Melinda, she remained frozen, her broken arm dangling uselessly, seemingly having no idea that the gun clasped in her hand had shifted about three inches off to the side, the bullet missing its intended target, instead harmlessly bouncing off the side of the wall. Her eyes were shut, silent tears still streaming down her cheeks.
He cautiously reached out and placed a hand on her shoulder, not wanting to startle her. “Melinda?”
Her eyes immediately shot open, dropping the gun, and she recoiled rapidly, wrenching as far away as her handcuffed arm would allow. “Y-you…!” Her chest rapidly rose and fell as she looked wildly around, eyes widening with confusion as she noticed YoYo, her eyes snapping back to Phil, taking in his very much alive self. "I-I...!"
“Hey,” he started. “It’s okay. I’m okay. YoYo, you remember her, she got here in time.”
“I disarmed the men outside!” YoYo chimed in triumphantly. “They did not know what was happening. Then I came in, grabbed Ward’s gun just in time, moved your gun. Put a stop to the bastardo.”
That didn’t seem to help; if anything Melinda’s breathing became more chaotic as she struggled to draw proper breaths, growing paler by the second.
“It’s alright. In and out, slowly,” he said as he demonstrated deep breathing. “You’re safe now.” Although it ran the risk of causing her to freak out even further, he gingerly wrapped his arms around her. Melinda’s face was pressed against his chest as he slowly ran his hands up and down her arms. “I got you.”
The front of his shirt quickly grew wet as she began crying harder, loud sobs filling the room as she clung to him. “I-I thought…” she stuttered, clearly unable to form a coherent sentence.
Never before had Phil seen her so distressed, not even in the aftermath of Bahrain. Back then, she'd just shut down, becoming mute and silent, and her uncontrollable sobs had him feeling quite helpless.
“W-Ward said...I-I had…”
“But you didn’t.” He murmured reassuringly. “You didn’t, and everything’s going to be okay.”
Her sobs began to quiet, and her grip on his shirt slowly loosened as her body grew slack. He looked down to see that her eyes had closed, her head falling over to the side. Whether she was asleep or had fallen unconscious, he did not know. But clearly she needed immediate medical attention. “Come on, let’s get you home.” He murmured, brushing a lock of blood-crusted hair aside.
“Need a hand?” A voice said from above.
Phil tore his eyes away from Melinda long enough to see that the rest of the team had filed in. Hunter and Bobbi further restrained a snarling Ward, as YoYo kept a gun trained on him. And next to Phil were Fitz and Simmons, the latter rapidly kneeling down and rifling in her backpack.
“We need to stop that bleeding immediately, or she won’t make it back to the Zephyr,” Simmons said worriedly as she took in the wound on Melinda’s thigh; blood, both fresh and new, had stained the already dark fabric of her jeans.
Fitz bent down to help her, withdrawing a roll of gauze. "May needs compression," he agreed.
“Here,” Phil shifted, balling up his jacket and laying it out on the concrete before lying her down.
Fitzsimmons immediately set out to work; Fitz unrolled and cut out a length of gauze as Simmons dug around in her bag, pulling out a syringe.
“Daisy’s out surveilling the area.” Mack replied. “We've disarmed most of the men, but Tremors is making sure no more are out there." He threw Ward a dirty look. "Can't trust this one to not have more dirty tricks up his sleeve."
“You think you won?!” Ward snarled as he struggled against his bonds.
YoYo rolled her eyes. “Should’ve gagged him too.”
“Wherever I go, whatever hole you put me in, at least I’ll have my memories,” Ward mocked. “Listening to her scream, beg, and plead for her life was the most..”
Phil had prided himself on remaining relatively calm since he’d arrived, even in the hectic moments when he’d found himself staring down the barrel of a gun. But now? Now, he saw red. Leaving May in the care of Fitzsimmons, he crossed the room and punched Ward so hard the younger man fell over on his side.
“Want some help with that?” Bobbi offered, wielding her batons. Phil simply raised a hand to stop her; this was his fight.
Ward began to laugh manically; Phil kicked out with his boot, feeling only marginally satisfied as it connected solidly against Ward’s ribs. Ward spat a wad of blood out. “Come on! Bring it! How does it feel to know that you almost lost? I came so close to defeating The Calvary, who’s not to say I won’t do it again?”
“Like hell you’ll ever go near her again,” Phil said evenly, his voice coming out more akin to a growl. He pulled out the gun he’d hidden in his waistband and flicked off the safety, aiming it squarely at Ward’s chest.
“Am I supposed to be scared?” Ward sneered. “You won’t kill me, Because that’s not what SHIELD does. You’re too cowardly to do what needs to be done. And that’s why you’ll fail. That’s why no matter what you do, you won’t be able to stop me from coming after—“
He never got to finish his sentence.
In retrospect, Phil shouldn’t have done it. As irritating as the bastard was, Ward had been right. SHIELD preferred not to kill their enemies if possible, instead preferring to throw them behind bars and of course use them for intel when necessary.
But Ward had been right about another thing. He would never stop trying to go after May, or the rest of their team. The image of her writhing on the ground, electricity coursing through her body as she begged for the pain to end would forever be burned in Phil’s mind.
Melinda May never begged, not ever.
As odd as it sounded, May (and Bobbi too, months earlier) had been lucky this time, if long, hard roads to recoveries, injuries that would probably never fully heal, and months of sleepless nights plagued by nightmares could even be considered that.
And he would be damned if he’d let that happen again.
Slowly, methodically, Phil pulled the trigger. The bullet hit Ward's shoulder, and the younger man widened his eyes with surprise, as clearly he hadn't expected Phil to actually go through with it.
An image of Daisy, back then Skye, the brace, young hacker growing paler by the second, her waxy complexion standing out starkly as she lay unconscious in the medbay of the Bus flashed in his mind.
The second and third bullets pierced Ward's stomach.
In the corner of the room, Fitz and Simmons shouted instructions to each other as they worked furiously to stabilize May so she'd make it back to the Zephyr. Fitz. The scientist who'd risked his life to save Simmons. The brilliant and brave SHIELD agent who'd stammered and stuttered for months, relegated into a shadow of his former self as the brain he was so revered for struggled to regain control of his body. Phil recalled the way Fitz's hands had shook, how for so long he couldn't even perform the most basic of tasks as the ability to communicate eluded and frustrated him, as he grew more and more withdrawn.
The next bullet hit Ward's left hand. Then the next his right. One for Fitz and the other for Simmons, who'd suffered just as much as her partner.
Next, he thought of Bobbi. The tall, blonde agent had struggled through months of rehab, working to train her knee back to what it had been before, working to heal the hole in her lung, silently suffering in the lab with Fitz but continuing to help out despite her disdain, pushing through the pain in rehab so she could get back out into the field despite the team's protests, because she would always value SHIELD above her own life.
Phil shot a bullet at Ward’s knee. And then a bullet at the other knee; although he wasn’t a huge fan of Hunter and probably never would be, he couldn’t deny that the ex-mercenary was a good agent. And he hadn't deserved the pain that Ward had put him through when he kidnapped Bobbi.
And finally, Melinda. He thought of the deep hole of anguish that had opened up within him as he helplessly listened to her suffer over the phone, miles away and unable to help or put a stop to it. He thought of how useless he’d felt, all tucked away safe in his office. He thought of the blood that stained her hair, her clothes, her skin, and the concrete she’d laid upon. He thought of how she’d always toughed out the direst of situations, never complaining, not even in an early mission decades ago, hiking up a mountain in heels with three broken ribs while being chased by an army of foreign arms dealers, but how the pain Ward had inflicted upon her had been too much for even her to withstand. How she would probably never fully recover, and how the inability to fight and defend as skillfully and gracefully as she once could would devastate her.
He fired a bullet at Ward’s throat. Blood immediately began to gush in rivulets from the open wound as Ward swatted uselessly at his neck, attempting to stop the flow, but blood merely seeped between his fingers, turning the concrete underneath him a deep crimson. His eyes widened with panic and he began to wheeze and choke and gasp for air.
Phil remembered how Melinda's pain felt like his pain, like it always had. How she’d worked so hard to claw her way back up into the light after Bahrain, and how Ward had swooped in and erased all of that progress. How her hand had trembled as she’d held the gun to his head, truly believing she was being forced to do the impossible again, to sacrifice the one person he knew she truly trusted, the one who’d always stood by her side.
How he’d imagined she had died and had left him behind, that maybe he'd come in here to find nothing more than her body. He’d always believed she’d outlive him, no matter how much she insisted on the opposite. The six months she’d been gone, he hadn’t known what to do with himself, and he'd struggled to make even the simplest of decisions. The thought of living the rest of his life without her had paralyzed him.
How he’d believed she would meet her end here, alone and terrified, at mercy of a bloodthirsty psychopath, instead of going out in a blaze of glory doing what she’d dedicated her life to: saving others. How the guilt had nearly swallowed him alive as he realized he was the reason for Ward’s need for revenge; had he not dragged Melinda out of the safety of her cubicle, she never would’ve made it onto Ward’s radar. How she’d selflessly done that for him, even though being back in the field had scared her more than she could express, all because he’d asked her to.
How he’d never get the chance to tell her how much she’d meant to him, how much she always had.
And as these thoughts consumed him, Phil fired bullet after bullet, feeling nothing but a grim sense of fulfillment as bullets rained down upon Ward, as the bullets served as his reckoning, hitting his chest, his arms, his stomach, and every available inch of flesh there was.
Next to him, Mack was shouting, protesting that this was not SHIELD was about. A few feet away, Simmons counted compressions aloud as she pumped May’s chest repeatedly, while Fitz wrung his hands, muttering about how her pulse had suddenly vanished. Through the comms in his ear, Daisy was screaming, something to do with a bomb that was about to go off, a bomb that Ward must’ve remotely set off without any of them noticing.
His team sprung into action. Bobbi helped Fitzsimmons load May onto a stretcher, Simmons panicking about needing to restart Melinda’s heart. Hunter ran by, spitting onto Ward’s body, YoYo close behind the Brit. Mack tugged on Coulson’s arm, pleading with him that they needed to leave now, that the entire building was about to explode, that Ward would die anyway and there was no reason for Coulson to die along with him.
But despite the absolute chaos, it was all a blur. All Phil could see was the man lying on the concrete, the man whose blood was slowly pooling out, whose life was slowly coming to an end.
He had one bullet left. In his ear, Daisy was screaming the countdown aloud. Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen…
“Coulson!” Mack shouted again. “Come on!”
Phil took a deep breath, and just like that the sounds around him faded away. He saw nothing but Ward. Heard nothing but the man’s raspy breaths, so startlingly similar to Melinda’s own uneven breaths after countless rounds of electricity had ravaged her body.
Ward opened his mouth, desperately attempting to say something, to get one last word in.
Phil wasn’t going to give him that chance. "You tried to take away my team." His voice had become nothing but a growl, practically animalistic with fury. "Tried to destroy us, make us turn on each other, tried to make us lose all hope. And I gotta say, you very nearly succeeded. Keyword? Nearly. So get this—while we lick the wounds you've inflicted, while we become better and stronger thanks to animals like you, you won't get that chance. For the rest of your sorry life, you'll feel like the pathetic loser you've always been. And I'll be damned if I'll give you an opportunity to try and pretend you have any shred of dignity left."
As Daisy counted five, four, three, Phil let the last bullet fly.
Revenge was not known as an honorable endeavor.
But Phil felt no remorse, and he wasn’t sure he ever would.
Daisy thrust a protein bar into Coulson’s hands. “Here.”
He stared down at the unappetizing peanut butter flavored snack, his stomach roiling at the thought of food. “Thank you Daisy, but—“
“No buts.” Daisy interrupted. She’d showered since arriving at the base, her still wet hair tied up in a little ponytail. “You’ve barely slept, you’re still covered in blood, and you’re starting to look like the walking dead. At the very least, you need to eat something.”
“That’s enough.” He protested. The sound of Daisy’s voice was starting to make his head throb.
Daisy’s expression softened as she joined Coulson on the bench outside the medbay. “It’s not going to do May any good if she comes out and finds you, well…like this.” She raised an eyebrow. “I’m not above drugging you, you know.”
The second the Zephyr had touched down at the base, Simmons had rushed Melinda into surgery, Fitz not far behind. As Bobbi had flown them back as rapidly as she dared, Simmons had managed to restart Melinda’s heart. She’d been stable enough to make it back to the base. But what about after that? All that blood…May wasn’t exactly tall or broad, like Mack or Bobbi. Could someone who already didn't have too much blood to spare survive losing more?
Coulson glared at Daisy, but obediently took a bite of the bar. It stuck to his throat, refusing to go down, and he swallowed hard, feeling the urge to vomit.
“Good. Now go take a nap or something. Everyone else has too, and again you don’t look so good.”
More accurately, YoYo and Mack had gone to take naps, while Bobbi went to the gym, claiming that she’d rather work off her anger with a punching bag. Fitzsimmons were in the medbay, and oddly enough Hunter was sitting on the other end of the hall, sucking down a beer. He hadn’t said a word since they’d arrived back at the base, and simply ignored Daisy’s questioning looks.
“No. I can’t.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you were a surgeon.” Daisy countered. “There’s nothing you can do right now. May’s going to be fine. Simmons, she can fix, like, anything. And we have an actual team of doctors in there, not to mention Fitz assisting, and all that fancy SHIELD tech, so May’s in good hands.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Don’t know what?” Daisy said, exasperated. “That Simmons knows what she’s doing? She’s going to be real hurt when she hears—“
“No.” Coulson snapped. “You don’t know that May…that she…” His voice wavered as he spoke, and he took a shaky breath, burying his head in his hands. He looked back up at Daisy; she could see that tears were shining in his eyes.
It was unnerving. Coulson and May, they were the strongest, most resilient people she’d ever known, the ones who epitomized SHIELD like no other. Every time she needed advice, she went to Coulson. His years of experience made him a pretty valuable source of advice. But every time she was anxious or scared? She went straight to May. The older woman just had this comforting presence and a knack for making whatever Daisy was worried about seem less daunting.
But who exactly was she supposed to turn to when the two people she relied on the most weren’t even capable of helping themselves? With May incapacitated, physically and mentally scarred from the ordeal she’d been through, and Coulson wracked with guilt, Daisy had never felt more afraid.
“I-I mean,” Daisy bit her lip. “May’s home now. And her injuries aren’t that bad. She just needs some rehab. Right?”
“Physically, yes, she may recover.” Coulson said heavily. “But mentally? If YoYo hadn’t…if she’d been one second later.”
“But she wasn’t.”
“She could’ve been! Y-you weren’t there, you didn’t see what Ward made her do. May was going to kill me.”
“She had no other choice,” Coulson said hollowly. “He held a gun to her head. He threatened all of you. It was Bahrain all over again. May was just starting to recover from that.”
Daisy nodded. The May she trained with now, the one who enjoyed occasionally pranking the team, especially Daisy, the one who sometimes let down her wall, the one who Daisy liked to think of as secretly warm, was a far cry from the stoic, shut down agent she’d first met back on the Bus, the one rarely cracked a smile, the one who Daisy had referred to as a robot. “We won’t let that happen.” She said, trying to sound more confident than she really felt. “Right?”
The only response she got was Hunter raising his beer in her direction.
“You weren’t there,” Coulson repeated. “I had to convince her to pull the trigger while knowing full well nothing would happen. I knew what that would do, what that would mean to her. I had no other choice. She had no other choice. I’ve never…she looked so…broken. So…defeated. Like she'd given up. And I don’t know if she’ll come back from that.”
“That’s bullshit.” Hunter spoke up for the first time, causing Daisy to look over at him with surprise. He came over to stand before Coulson; was it just Daisy or was the Brit swaying just a bit, tipsy from the multiple beers he’d been sucking down since arriving at the base. She couldn’t blame him, though. Part of her wanted a drink too.
“Look, Bobbi went through a similar thing. Not nearly as bad, but you know what a bitch rehab was. I wanted to tear the bastard apart what he did. But Bob pulled through, because she always does. Even when she couldn’t fight, she found a way to help out, with Fitz in the lab.”
“Didn’t she hate—“ Daisy started.
“Not the point,” Hunter interrupted. “What I mean is, yeah recovery will suck. I’m not denying that. But just like Bobbi, May will pull through. She’s a fighter. If she won’t be able to, you know, throw down men three times her size anymore, she could always put that intimidating glare of hers to work. During interrogations or whatever.” He suppressed a shudder. “She could take down a tank with one look. So if that's what you're worried about, don't."
There was a long pause. Finally, Coulson spoke. "I-I don't know if she'll trust me again. Not after this."
“That’s not true.” Daisy protested. “I mean, first of all? I’m sure May knows you did what you had to do to save her life. And she loves you. So much it’s pretty disgusting to be honest.”
Hunter, as always, took the less diplomatic approach. "It's not about you." He said simply, taking a swig of beer.
Daisy gaped at him. “Hunter!”
"What? You know I'm right." Hunter stated bluntly. "However you feel, you need to put it aside. Look at me. I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. I could really use a bloody nap right about now. But I'm sitting here waiting because it's the right thing to do. I want to be there for May even though she and I never really got along. Not sure why by the way, because I'm a delight." He set the now empty bottle down on the ground. "And the same goes for you. "When she comes out of there, when she wakes up, she's going to need you. Just like Bobbi needed me. And I was terrified. I would’ve rather hit something, preferably Ward. But I loved...I love her, and I put my feelings aside. For her."
"Wow." Daisy snorted. "That's the most insightful thing you've said, like ever."
Hunter smirked. "I have my moments." He looked over at Coulson. "Got that, boss?"
Just then, the doors to the medbay opened, and Simmons came out. Her scrubs were splattered with blood; Coulson stood up immediately and crossed the room towards the scientist. He swallowed hard and tried not to look at the dark color staining the blue fabric.
"Well, as you know," Simmons began. "May's injuries were quite extensive. Luckily, she didn't have any gunshot wounds, but she did suffer from multiple stab wounds, three broken ribs, a broken arm and fingers, a pretty deep head wound and not to mention electrical burns and rather severe regular burns. She also lost quite a lot of blood and—"
Coulson started to feel sick, the small bite of protein bar he'd eaten making its way back up, and he had to clench his fists, taking deep breaths to keep from being sick all over the floor. “Simmons. Get to the point?”
"She will need plenty of bedrest and later when she's able, rehab,” The SHIELD scientist finished. “But for now she's stable and resting."
"But May's okay?" Daisy pressed. "Right?"
Simmons nodded. "Oh, yes. I'm afraid she'll be out of the field for quite a while, but with the proper care and time I don't see why she won't eventually return to fighting form."
Phil's entire body grew weak, shaky, as Simmons's words sank in. Melinda pulled through. No matter what happened from here, she would be fine. Or at least, alive.
"I need to see her." He said, looking wildly around as if expecting to see Melinda out in the hall. "Where is she?"
"In the medbay."
He turned in the direction Simmons had indicated.
"But wait." Simmons continued. "I'm afraid you cannot go in. Not like that." She gestured to his clothes, which were still stained with blood. May's blood. "Her body's still very weak. We can't risk giving her an infection."
"Fine. I'll take a shower first."
"Why don't you get some sleep too?" Simmons suggested gently. "I know you want to see her, but honestly she's still unconscious. It won't matter whether you're there. We can come find you once May has awakened."
"No." He snapped firmly. "I'm not leaving her alone. That's what she was, all those hours with Ward. Alone and terrified. I need to be there when she wakes up. I need her to know she's not alone."
Simmons opened and closed her mouth as if to argue, and finally settled on nodding as her expression softened. "Of course. I understand, sir. Come find me in the lab after you've washed up."
After the fastest shower Phil had ever taken in his life (and this was including all those times the dorm at the Academy had run out of hot water and he'd had to hurriedly shower after oversleeping and waking up 10 minutes before his first class), he found himself in a chair at her bedside.
Over the years as SHIELD agents, they’d received their fair shares of injuries and subsequent hospital stays. Or rather, Phil had, at least. From stab wounds to gunshot wounds to broken bones to general cuts and bruises, he’d spent enough time in medbays and uncomfortable hospital beds to last a lifetime.
Melinda, on the other hand, was a different story. Sure, she’d been injured as often as he had. Perhaps more, in fact, as the work of a specialist was far riskier than that of a regular field agent. But as for the hospital stays? She tended to shrug off her injuries, no matter how severe, preferring to silently grit her teeth with pain rather than compromising her senses with painkillers. Phil had lost count of how many times she and Jemma had argued over Melinda’s refusal to rest, even for a few hours. (And unfortunately, Daisy was starting to take after Melinda in that regard).
Now, though, Phil looked down at her. Bandages covered much of her face, the stark white color standing out sharply against her black hair. The harsh fluorescent lights illuminated the bruises on her pale skin, the purple color making his stomach turn. He started to regret the cup of coffee he'd chugged before showering; it only made his heart beat faster and his palms sweat more, amplifying the anxious fluttering inside.
Melinda’s chest rose and fell with even breaths, and in the background he could hear the steady beep of the heart monitor, as it continued to track every beat. Normally the slight sound would’ve annoyed him to no end, but now it was almost reassuring. Although Simmons had successfully restarted Melinda’s heart, she remained worried about the risk of it stopping again, stating that she had no idea what damage all those hours of electrical shocks could’ve inflicted.
Phil tried not to think about that.
He shifted in the uncomfortable chair; a junior agent had moved over an armchair from the common area, replacing the rigid chairs they usually kept in the medbay. Probably due to Simmons’s instruction, as she figured he’d never leave Melinda's side, so he may as well be comfortable. Phil had even found a throw blanket placed on the back of the chair.
But despite how cushy the chair usually felt on a regular day, for evenings spent in front of the TV or between missions, it would not do for his weary body what proper rest could. Every part of him ached, longing for sleep, even just a few minutes, yet he couldn’t move, not when she could awaken at any moment despite the fact that Simmons had said she’d remain sedated and unconscious for hours. He couldn’t bear the thought of waking up to find her gone.
“I bet you hate it in here right now.” He murmured out loud. The normally bustling medbay was empty; the base as a whole was quiet, most agents having gone to bed hours ago. “You were never a huge fan of hospitals. I remember that time at the Academy. You’d been shot in the leg, yet you walked right out of the clinic. Scared the crap out of our instructors. That’s when I knew never to piss you off, because you were tougher than most agents three times your size.”
“I’m glad you’re here, though.” Phil continued. “Not just here, safely back in the base, but here. As an agent.” He reached out to take her hand; her broken fingers had been set, with bandages covering the damage Ward had left. Regardless, it was warm in his. His thumb tracked the back of her hand, the smooth skin having remained miraculously unmarred. “You probably already know this, but when you said ‘yes’ to joining me on the Bus, that’s when I knew I was doing the right thing, leaving the regular grind of SHIELD to lead my own mobile strike team. You’d never say yes to anything you’d never believe in. Although of course I found out later you were behind it all. But never mind that.”
“I just can’t help thinking, if it hadn’t been for me dragging you out of that cubicle, you probably would’ve remained there until SHIELD fell, miserable the entire time. And don’t deny it Melinda, because I know how you felt. Maybe you would’ve joined the CIA like your mother always wanted? No, probably not. You would’ve been unable to resist coming with me. I mean, you would’ve known I’d make all kinds of mistakes without you. The six months you were gone, on vacation with Andrew? It was like I’d forgotten how to think. I know you thought about leaving SHIELD. You wanted to make it work with Andrew. You have no idea how glad I was when you decided to come back.”
“How selfish of me, huh?” He chuckled ironically, glad the rest of the base had fallen asleep. On his way back to the medbay after showering, he’d caught several worried stares thrown his way by not just his team, but junior agents, no less, the same ones who quaked in their shoes every time he directly addressed them or even looked in their direction. The last thing he needed was word to spread around the base that their Director was starting to lose it. “I didn’t feel bad, though, because we always knew SHIELD was your home. But now? Now, I’m starting to wish you’d stayed in that cubicle. I know what you’re going to say. But let’s face it. If I hadn’t dragged you out, you never would’ve crossed paths with Ward.”
He sighed, feeling every bit of the fatigue that weighed his body down. “I’m so sorry, Melinda. This never should’ve happened to you. There was a moment when I thought…”
Phil paused. “I know, I know, you’re probably calling me a dork and a sap right about now. No need to be so morbid, right? Not when we willingly put ourselves into danger everyday. This is just par for the course, if you think about it. But when you didn’t come back with Daisy and Hunter, when I got those calls from Ward, when I found you with a gun pressed to your head? I'd started to believe you were invincible, in a way. You protect us everyday. I never would've thought that we should've done the same for you. For everything we do in the name of SHIELD, in the name of protecting others, I always knew there was a gray area. I knew there would be a price to pay. Just never imagined you’d be the one to pay it.”
He carefully lifted up her hand a few inches, and lowered his head, touching his lips to her skin. “I will never let anything happen to you again, Melinda. I swear. Y-you mean everything to me, you always have.”
But his words didn’t quite sit well with him. “No. Or, well, I mean yes, but that’s not quite it. Look at me. You can’t even hear me, and I still can’t say it. Maybe we need to be in extreme situations for us to admit how we feel. Wouldn't that be tragic, though?"
Her heart continued to beep steadily, her eyes remaining closed. Melinda’s expression was calm, serene, but Phil could easily picture her smirking, or rolling her eyes at him as she often did.
“I love you, Mel.” he said gently. “I know what you’ll probably say, that I should go for someone else, that after Bahrain you don’t deserve that. But you’re not always right. You know how much I wanted to get that drink all those years ago? I wanted so badly for your date with Andrew to not go well. Really thought I had a chance there. Imagine my surprise when you actually liked him. So I took a step back. After all, you were happy, and that's all I really wanted. And then Audrey came along. She was great, really. But she wasn’t you.”
Phil reached up and touched a lock of her hair, smoothing it away from her face; someone had cleaned the dried blood out, and the strands felt as silky as they always had. “I’d like to give us a try, if that’s okay with you. If that isn’t what you want, then I can live with that. I know you have a long road ahead. But whatever you say, however you feel, I’ll be here. I’ll be whatever you need.”
“I’m not going anywhere. Which, if you think about, is what you usually do. You left after Bahrain, you left after SHIELD fell, walking halfway across Canada, and you left for Hawaii with Andrew. But you always came back. So come back to me, Melinda. Please come back, and I promise I will never let anyone hurt you again.”