The Cavalry once killed twenty men with a single pistol, they say.
Or maybe it was fifty.
The Cavalry once killed a hundred men, they say, on other days, around other campfires, these future agents of SHIELD, these gossipy children. On horseback, they tell the freshmen, and snicker. A hundred men.
The number trips off the tongue. The methods vary, the numbers, and they all trip off the tongue easily—what is twenty dead villains? A hundred? A good day's work. We're the heroes, after all.
Fifty, twenty, a hundred—they're all just syllables. All just sizes of victories, not a careful count of gasping faces.
The Cavalry killed twenty—fifty—a hundred men, and Melinda May saw the light go out of each of them.
As a child, Melinda would steal the plastic lid off the kitchen trash can, mount it on one arm, and charge out into the backyard to save the world with her plastic shield.
Her father stayed at home while her mother did things she couldn't tell them the details of. He washed the towels Melinda used as superhero capes. He threw her high into the air. Her father taught her that you could fly.
It was her mother who actually taught her how. Mrs. May sat her down behind the wheel of a little four-seater that belonged to some commercial titan or diplomat who owed the older Agent May a favor. She taught Melinda how to lift off of the ground in a rattle-tap of engines and how to land safely at the end of the day, too.
They spoke rapid fire Mandarin at home and casual English with visitors. Her father sent her to school on New Years with little red envelopes for the whole class, who thought she had forgotten when Valentine's Day was. She didn't explain. Even then, Melinda kept her own counsel.
Her mother taught her about missing birthdays, recitals, and graduations. Her mother taught her about driving 500 miles on the request of a single phone call and no explanation. When Melinda applied for SHIELD after her bachelor's no one was surprised.
She got a BA in a little local college, History with an emphasis on 1900s espionage and warfare. She read and wrote about SHIELD's formation, about the Howling Commandos and the long days of the war. She stopped wanting to grow up to be Steve Rogers. She started wanting to grow up to be Peggy Carter.
At the Academy, Melinda took it upon herself (a mission, not a whim) to break stupid rules. Can't climb on the gymnasium roof? Curfew? No op students in the admin school's inner sanctum? She snuck in one night and left smudged fingerprints all over the underside of tables and the inner covers of books.
She was proudest when they invented new rules just for her.
Back then, Coulson was the boy whose uniform was regulation perfect except for his Captain America shoelaces. Useless, thought some of the Op students, and rather tacky. Childish, thought others, or idealist.
This, thought Melinda May, was a young man who understood the precise worth of obedience.
A few bullies thought nerd. When they cornered Coulson in the library late one night, they discovered how very resourceful the young man could be. Books aren't flour bags, but they'll do.
When the bullies were done limping and squirming away, Melinda stepped out from behind a bookshelf. She and Phil Coulson had had three classes together and had exchanged no words.
Coulson startled. "How long were you there? It's May, isn't it?"
"Didn't think you should help?" Coulson asked, starting to pick up his scattered books and pencils.
Melinda smirked, eyes trailing over the ruckus. One bully had left a shoe. Another a red smear from a bloody nose.
Coulson caught the smirk and gave a grin that was shyly proud. "Yeah, I suppose I didn't need much help, did I?"
Melinda helped him pick up his books and then sat down and read a book on the complexities of SHIELD's maintenance system until she started yawning.
"You going to try for the research labs' roof tonight? I think that should be next on your list," said Coulson when he plopped down next to her in class the next day.
Melinda almost dropped the pencil she was holding. She was good, but she wasn't the Cavalry, not yet.
Phil Coulson beamed at her, crossing red-white-and-blue-laced sneakers as he leaned back in his seat. He had ironed his pants. They looked hilarious above his brightly patriotic shoes. "I hear a lot in this school. I see a lot."
She raised an eyebrow exactly two centimeters. In three months she would learn that he'd gotten a Howling Commandos (TM) replica surveillance kit for Christmas and spent the early months of the year scattering his bugs throughout campus.
"I could keep an ear out for the patrols tonight—and the sleepwalkers and the pranksters and the midnight liaisons. It's amazing how crowded this place can be at three in the morning." At her continued raised eyebrow he said, "But you know that, don't you?"
"Hm," said Melinda May and he beamed wider. They were young, then, his hair thick and spry, her grin still small and always sharp, but easier. They would spend the next three years sparring and studying, putting water buckets above doors, supplementing hair gel with ultraviolet paint and then changing out the bulbs in the cafeteria, gluing down staplers and turning people's ringtones to embarrassing things.
Melinda stuck a frog in Phil's bed every few weeks, against more and more frantic defenses, just to let him know he didn't know as much as he thought he did.
They would spend the next few decades learning each others' breaking points, putting whole paragraphs of meaning into each of Melinda's silences, honing Coulson's enthusiasm and the ease with which he was underestimated down to an art. They would almost die in each other's arms and they would live within gun's range of each other until the day this warm, bright Melinda died in a compound in Bahrain. It would take Coulson's death to bring them back together.
In the second-largest auditorium in the SHIELD Academy, the day after their friendship stumblingly began, Coulson leaned closer to her and said, "C'mon you guarded me all night. Least I can do is play security for your game tonight."
"I did not."
"What were you sitting there for, then? You wanted to keep any bullies off me—they think I'm a dweeb, but everyone knows not to mess with you. They keep trying to come up with nicknames, you know? Nothing's stuck yet."
"You are," she said.
"What?" said Phil, looking delighted that he was pulling words out of her.
"Why'd you stay then?"
"I like your shoelaces."
Coulson never learned that he didn't see everything. He saw her better than anyone, and what did that say? He didn't sniff out her lies on the Bus and, once they'd been thrown in his face, he couldn't see why she'd done it.
They had been on assignment in Siberia when Coulson's mother died. (What's in Siberia, you say? You'd be surprised).
They had been off-grid, no extraction team, no way to get news. They had limped over the border to Mongolia on a tattered motorbike three weeks after the drop. Fury had called Phil personally to tell him the news. Every inch of Coulson had gone cold and quiet in a way Melinda knew he had learned from her.
They had missed the funeral. They got on a chopper to the nearest airport with desert sand still on their skin.
Melinda made Phil wash his face with the dredges of a water bottle and the cleanest part of her sleeve. He made her catnap while he took first watch. They were just off a mission; they wouldn't be able to sleep without at least one pair of their eyes open for at least a few days.
Mrs. Coulson had told Melinda once that she reminded her of her late husband. She had made daughter-in-law jokes after a glass of wine or two, every time. She got Phil some sort of Howling Commandos (TM) memorabilia or replica every Christmas, and got Melinda historical non-fiction or sappy romances.
Coulson wore all black except for a sweater his mother had knitted him and they climbed the hill to the little cemetery. There were willow trees and blooming irises. It was spring. Melinda had forgotten. The snow had barely begun to thaw in Siberia.
Coulson hadn't talked much about how his father had died, but Melinda knew Phil had been young when it happened. He was still young. They were still young, these two battle-ready children holding hands on top of this little green hill. Jack and Jill went up the hill—if Phil fell down, Melinda promised to go tumbling after.
On top of that hill, Phil cried into the V between her neck and her shoulder. He so very rarely wore his self on his sleeve—he put his enthusiasm there, certainly, his quirks, his absurdities and his bureaucracy, but Phil was no more simple than Melinda was simply stoic. Still waters run deep, yeah, but so can swift waters, bright ones, chattering ones, roaring rivers, frozen lakes.
Phil put on a face for each mission, each superior. He looked gullible, looked harmless, looked earnest—and he was, up until he wasn't. At his core he was dedication, bravery, and sacrifice, and the rest of him would become whatever it needed to be to live up to those promises.
Victoria Hand once wondered why full tactical teams across the world had been called in to rescue one kidnapped Level 8 agent. Melinda May knew two secrets then that summed up to this: Phil Coulson was important. His body was a classified secret: his rebuilt brain and his resurrected body.
But this too: anyone who had ever seen his heart knew it was worth saving. Those, though, were few and far between—Melinda, Fury, their team. That was enough, though, more than enough.
Melinda kicked Skye off the Bus (set her free), placated Victoria Hand, fought her way into the shacks of that doomed town. This was the secret: Phil Coulson was worth saving.
Melinda May kept a list of graves to send flowers to every year. Her grandmother (dahlias). Coulson's parents, laid out side by side (roses and lilies). The girl from Bahrain (white daisies) and both of her fallen agents (morning glory). One day: Coulson. One day: Fury. One day: her own.
They told stories about the day Melinda May died. At the Academy, they told ghost stories about a mighty warrior, the Cavalry, and didn't realize they were just telling a story about a ghost.
The truth was this: There were thirty six men and women in the compound in Bahrain.
Three were hostages: a teenage girl and two SHIELD agents.
This was also true: by the end, Melinda was weaponless.
Well, not quite true. By the end, Melinda's only weapons were her two hands.
There were thirty six people. Two were fellow agents and one was a girl, sixteen, powered and terrified. Melinda told Coulson, "I'll fix it," and went in, not empty-handed, not yet.
She didn't fix it.
The people who told stories at the Academy about the Cavalry's great charge had either never seen death or seen too much of it. The bloodless ones, they thought every fallen enemy was a victory, a new notch on the bedpost. The old ones, the tired ones, they knew what it was to weigh lives and make that call. With the lives of kidnappers on one side and two agents and a civilian on the other, they, too, told the story like it was a victory.
The Cavalry killed a hundred men. Maybe there was no horse. Maybe the weapons were just a basic agent's kit. But a hundred men. Fifty. Twenty. She saved the day. She probably gave a smirk when she was done.
Doesn't she scare you? Doesn't she inspire you? Do well in school, kids.
SciTech told it around Bunsen burners, roasting marshmallows, like it was a ghost story.
There were thirty six individuals in the compound. Three were hers: two agents and one scared civilian. Melinda May killed thirty-two people on that brisk October night.
The thirty third was waiting for her in that last room with two bodies, one girl thrashing against her bonds, and a pile of explosives. His death was on his own hands. Half the room disappeared in fire and the rest in shrapnel.
When Melinda staggered into consciousness what had once been a cell was then the edge of an inferno.
Her two men were already gone, cold. The girl was still gasping. Melinda dragged her out and down and out as the fire ate at the building around them. She coughed and scrambled, keeping an eye out for new enemies. That smoke would never leave her lungs. She would wake from nightmares for the rest of her life, hacking up black that somehow always vanished in the morning light.
When they finally tumbled from the compound, they were streaked with ash and Coulson was waiting.
"The agents?" he asked and Melinda shook her head. She was on her knees, a shuddering form in her arms, and she wasn't sure how she'd gotten there.
"You've got to let the girl go, Mel, come on," Phil said, down on his knees beside her, her black ash coming off all over his white shirt cuffs. "Let the girl go."
Melinda had had the blood of thirty-two people on her hands when she walked into that last room. She stood outside that burning compound and felt the scales of her life tip and tip and shatter to the floor. She had no saved lives to trade for all those stains.
The girl died on the way to the hospital. They don't tell that part of the story at the Academy.
There was a military funeral for the agents and a civilian's for the girl. Melinda had known the agents' favorite sandwich flavors. She brought the news and the agency's deepest condolences to the girl's mother. Coulson did most of the talking but he always had.
At the funerals, Melinda May thought about flying. It was just someone throwing a child into the air. In the end, it was only was only falling.
Melinda felt herself plummeting, whipping wind past her face in freefall. She kept both hands still in her lap, her lips pressed firmly together and her gaze steady on the spot of wall just behind the preacher's head.
They gave her a week of rest and then they sent her and Coulson out again. Phil kept a close eye on her—he knew all her different dialects of quiet and he'd never seen this one before. Her hands started shaking partway through the mission and didn't stop. They finished it successfully anyway, threat gone, asset recovered.
On the plane ride home, as her hands slowly stilled, Melinda wrote out her request for a transfer out of ops.
"The next one should be easy, though," Coulson protested. "Just an 0-8-4 in New Mexico. Routine pick-up."
"Send me a postcard," said Melinda.
She didn't take Phil's calls for three weeks. "Don't let this stop you," he'd have said to her if she had answered. "I know you need time but don't you give up on this. We need you out here," he'd say, and maybe even, "I need you," because he was a cunning little bastard.
When weird shushed reports crossed her desk and lurid water cooler gossip sprung up about gods and monsters in New Mexico, she dialed his number.
He picked up on the second ring. "I'm alive," Phil said with that brightly cheerful dryness he favored. She hung up. She thought she could hear him laughing even through the closed phone line.
Melinda got used to her cubicle. Coulson told her to rest up and meant come home soon. She did not feel rested.
These papers had targets in them, had men like Ward with their fingers on triggers, on jugulars. It had benign missions, too: assessments, escorts, Welcome Wagon assignments, and Melinda could taste the possibility of carnage in them, too. A rookie misstep, a poorly scouted locale, an unstable asset...
This had been supposed to keep her at a step's distance, to let her heal. Ink rubbed off on her fingertips, smeared into calluses and papercuts. Melinda washed her hands each night patiently and watched flakes of black circle the drain.
She frequented the water coolers and break rooms on various floors. She had always known how to listen and admin agents, it seemed, liked to talk as much as ops had.
She went on morning runs with Maria Hill, who had also transferred from Ops once upon a time and who liked to race the last mile like a lunatic, and Sharon Carter, Hill's old trainee, who had stayed in ops. When Melinda dropped that she'd written her honors thesis on Peggy Carter, Sharon invited her to the shooting range.
Melinda ended up on some projects under Victoria Hand, who took a liking to Melinda with the same abruptness she would later use to dismiss Phil.
"Gotta keep something for yourself," said Victoria Hand, heading to a briefing with Melinda once. She didn't stop in her brisk walk, but her one dyed red lock bobbed along her sharp cheekbone. "I make it louder than you do, Agent May, I'm sure," she said. "I like to let them know they don't own all of me when I put on this badge." She tucked the bright colors behind one ear and said, "This is mine and they aren't allowed to forget."
For thirty-six hours, Melinda May thought Coulson was dead.
A report passed her desk at 5 a.m. the day after the Battle of New York. A few years ago, she would have been down on the city street, head-butting aliens and herding civilians, but instead she was running logistics, taking reports, and organizing support.
Agent Hand liked to say admin was the head, the eyes, the mind, but Melinda felt like her hands were empty. There were so many potential disasters down at the end of these lines she was administering from afar. Her hands started shaking and she held them so still that they ached.
New York was coming apart at the seams. The Widow got the portal closed at 3:43 and at 5:04 a.m. the next morning Melinda May had had two catnaps and four cups of coffee. The city was at a standstill, shell-shocked with alien dead on their sidewalks and asphalt. Twitter was exploding but luckily that was some other admin agent's problem. Melinda took in reports and ran rescue, medic, and 0-8-4 emergency response squads from her little cubicle.
At 5:04 a.m. a preliminary list of the dead passed Melinda's desk. Partway down the first page was the name Coulson, Phillip, L8.
Melinda folded the report in half neatly and put it in her desk drawer. There were people trapped under the rubble of NYC. The dead would have to wait.
At 6:32 she got her fifth cup of coffee and drank it in the breakroom with another grumpy admin while they both responded to emergency requests on their phones.
She was starting to consider a sixth cup when her supervisor stuck his head over her cubicle wall. "You're still here? Go home, May."
"Most of the big fires are out. Get out of here." He lingered until she started packing up her things. She finished a few last data transfers before she grabbed her purse and stood. She went up to the war room where Victoria Hand scowled over a bright display. A shaking intern brought Agent Hand a tiny ceramic mug of espresso and Melinda almost smirked.
"Agent May," said Hand after barking three sets of orders to a group of Level Fives and whispering to a fourth. "You look fresh as week-old daisies. How's it on your end?"
Melinda nodded. There was no need for the minutiae of buildings cleared, medics dispatched, 0-8-4s collected.
"Did you need..."
"Work, sir," said Melinda.
Hand tried not to smirk. "Did they try to send you home?" She stepped away from the others and told Melinda quietly. "You look dead on your feet. Go home, May."
May didn't move. "I'm not dead, sir."
Hand straightened slightly. "And people are dying out there," she agreed.
"When was the last time you slept?"
Hand nodded sharply. She passed May two things. "A key card to my office and sleeping pill. Get at least four hours of rest, and then head back down here. I will have work for you."
Melinda nodded and left.
For thirty six hours, Melinda thought Phil was dead. She slept for four, worked for twelve, and then they finally managed to send her home. She showered the ink off her hands. She went for a run and then she showered again, letting the water pound her skull like it might keep her from picking out flowers for Phil's grave.
Petunias? Lilac? Sunflowers?
She would send them anyway, even after Fury showed up at her front door with a thick file folder and an order she would never refuse. Yellow roses and curling ferns delivered every month to a grave she prayed stayed empty.
Fury told her Coulson wasn't staying dead and Melinda went more still than she had ever been. Fury told her he might come back wrong. Fury gave her her assignment and she went even more still, sitting on her faded, checkered couch with its flattened springs. There was a wine stain on the fabric where Phil had once laughed too hard and dropped his glass.
"I am an inappropriate candidate for this assignment," said Melinda.
"I thought we'd keep it in the family."
"Sir, I'm compromised. You don't want me in the field."
"This isn't quite the field." He passed her the documentation and she paged through it, every muscle in her lower back slowly seizing up to screaming.
"It is necessary to keep him ignorant," said Fury. "Self-awareness has proved disastrous in other subjects."
Melinda flipped through the papers. "You want me to build a team around him. Someone to fix his body. His mind. And someone to put him down, if... Sir, I'm not sure I'm right for this mission."
"Find yourself a specialist for that. You're the only person, Melinda. You know him better than anyone. I wouldn't trust anyone else with his life."
"This is an order, Agent May. Coulson is an asset to this agency and I will not lose him."
Melinda sighed and closed the file. "You're a lot more heart than you pretend to be, sir."
"Not really. I'm not telling the Avengers."
She shrugged. "They're not level 7."
Melinda had Fury put her on a research lab circuit.
She watched Fitz and Simmons, the way they talked, the way they didn't really have to. She was jealous and she was aching. But if anyone could put Coulson back together, surely it would be these two.
Fitz wanted to see the world without touching it, but Simmons wanted to bury her arms in up to the elbows. With gloves, yes, with goggles and clipboards, but she was never going to let this go once she got a taste of it. Melinda almost felt guilty for putting her name down.
But she watched the way Fitz and Simmons moved together, heads swiveling, shoulders shaking with inside jokes. She couldn't promise herself that nothing would go wrong, even if this was supposed to mostly only be an observational op. She didn't make promises she couldn't keep. But she watched the way Fitz watched Simmons watched Fitz and thought that if everything went down in flames (and it did) then at least these two would have someone to hold onto (and they did).
Grant Ward was easier. He fit well, fit easy. Melinda saw immediately he was the sort of loner Phil would turn into a charity project. He'd try to teach the boy about teamwork. It wouldn't take. She passed the file on to Maria Hill.
Skye was the only member of the team Melinda hadn't chosen. She had handpicked the rest: Ward, because if Coulson became a threat he wouldn't hesitate. Simmons, because her hands saved lives and Fitz because his put things back together.
Skye snuck on, snuck in, hollowed into their team like a hermit crab into a shell. (Ward did the same, but he was a mold, a rot at the heart of a great, tall tree, rot you didn't see til the day the old giant toppled creaking, roaring, to the wet ground. Skye was just looking for a home that fit her).
Coulson thought he was using Skye, subverting her to the good guys, and Skye was sure she was using them, getting two steps closer to her mysteries. Liars, all of them. Liars, all of us.
Ward lost his own heart somewhere in his childhood and he decided to tie himself to Garrett's ugly one instead. Melinda May chose a better heart to follow the day she stopped trusting her own. She buried herself in red tape and paper cuts, and when Coulson needed her she stood back up.
She was just supposed to be Fury's eyes and Coulson's pilot. Liars, both of them, and so was she.
Coulson died with a spear through his heart. When he woke, it was three times bigger. One day, Skye would make a Grinch joke about that.
Melinda kept a close watch on Phil in the months on the Bus, looking for changes.
He was changed. He was more kind. He was warmer.
Melinda folded her own cold hands in her lap and pretended that the weight in her chest was gratitude.
Coulson wanted to get Melinda back into the field. Fury wanted her eyes, yes, but Fury also knew that there were few people Phil Coulson trusted more than Melinda May. He would not suspect her until the very end.
But Melinda was tired of being the eyes. She was tired of being the head, aloof, dolling out extraction plans, measuring an asset's worth against their possibility of survival.
Being in the field meant she got dirty. It meant sometimes she lost people and sometimes she killed them. It meant that sometimes she saved them. It meant that if she couldn't, if it all went wrong, if she lost them all—at least she wouldn't find out via a typed memo in her cubicle eighteen hours after the fact.
Coulson kept waiting for her to come back. Her jokes might come back, her sharp little kindnesses, her good aim, but her hands would always want to shake between the shots. A warm Melinda, a fearless one—Phil would never again meet a Melinda May whose hands didn't want to shake.
She had told him that in his office, the pad of her trigger finger pressed up against the scar that had killed him once. She had been lying about TAHITI but she hadn't been lying about that.
"Whether it was 8 seconds or 40, you died. There's no way you can go through a trauma like that and not come out of it changed." Her hands had been cold on the shiny skin of his scar. "The point of these things is to remind us that there is no going back. There's only moving forward. You feel different because you are different."
The day Simmons tumbled out of a plane offering her death for their lives, the day Skye went down with two bullets buried in her, May thought about that. They were never coming back, not the girl in the van who smilingly cornered would-be superheroes in diners, or the bright, oblivious scientist May had lured out of safety.
White roses, she thought. Chrysanthemums. Someone died today.
They fought, lied, bonded, saved lives and lost assets. As they went, Melinda kept finding little pieces of herself, strewn like breadcrumbs.
There was a man in a barn who wanted to save a girl. He had blood all over his hands and he wanted to save her, wanted to save her, wanted to—
It was his fault the girl was here, and he wanted to save her, to repent, to save—
Blood all over his hands and guilt all over the rest of him, but he had to save—
Melinda knew this tune.
When Skye was grounded, alone, charged with finding Coulson, she stole a leather jacket and pretended to be Agent May.
They got Coulson back and between relief and gratitude Melinda tried to identify the other emotion in her chest. Skye gave a slow sideways smirk to Simmons and Melinda thought I know that smile, I knew the smile, I knew it from the inside once.
Ian Quinn shot Skye twice in the stomach. Skye had gone into the mission alone. Melinda wondered if she, like the last time she'd taken a solo mission, had pretended to herself that she was the Cavalry.
No. No, Skye was too much in her own skin. No past, no legacy, no place until now—but Skye was her own, no matter what grin or jacket or facade she put on.
Ian Quinn shot Skye twice in the stomach and once they had him in custody Melinda May nearly killed him.
"Gotta let him go," said Phil. She noticed he wasn't telling her to let Skye go, not this time, not yet.
SHIELD ate itself up, burning alive, crashing into DC's river waters and going up in smoke across the world. Melinda listened to the names of each of the bases being read out; falling, won, lost. She listened but her eyes were for Phil, the disgust and frustration on his face. Her agency was fallen but her world was still crumbling. She was trying to save what she could with reaching hands and apologies.
"I dug through the ashes in Bahrain with you," Phil snapped and Melinda wanted to say I know, I know, I remember. That's why I did this. That's why I'm here.
When Fury asked what SHIELD was founded on, he didn't look to Coulson. "Protection," said Melinda May and meant a plastic trash can lid on a child's arm.
Grant Ward drowned in the same well his brother did. He was standing up in sunlight and clear air, looking down, but he was choking, lips numb, muscles cramping. He would have moldy damp in his lungs all his life.
When he dropped Fitzsimmons and left them to drown, Ward saw his brother's face. He drowned with them, bruised and despairing in that death trap, the pressure pushing in and the warmth leaking out.
Except he didn't.
He wasn't there.
Melinda didn't kill Ward. She took the betrayer, though, and nailed him to the floor to keep him from running away. She took the liar and broke his voice box.
Ward had dropped Fitzsimmons out of the sky, into dark waters, and Simmons had carried Fitz up out of the depths. Fury had offered them a hand.
Melinda thought about her father.
Melinda thought about the little girl who had used a trash can lid as a shield. She thought about a university career spent falling slowly in love with Peggy Carter and people who build strength out of nothing.
She thought about her father throwing her into the air as a small child, a towel-cape flapping around her shoulders. He had taught her that you could fly. Flying is falling, but we just keep tossing each other high, again and again, and we catch each other when we fall.
Skye could never go back to her van and Simmons could never go back to her lab. They needed the sky, all of them, now.
A spear had gone through Coulson's heart. Simmons had left a tomb on the ocean floor. Skye had bled out, gone cold, until they pushed another's life into her exhausted veins. Fitz had gone, too, lost in a hundred little brain deaths in those cold waters, and he was pulling himself back to the light (he was, he was, he had to be). Trip carried the deaths of each of his brothers in arms on his shoulders. They weighed him down. They were all weighed down and together, pulling each other uphill, they would climb into the light.
Melinda's hands had been streaked with ash in Bahrain and sand in Mongolia. She could never go back there, to the way her hands shook outside that burning compound, to the way she stared at her shaking fingers with something like surprise. These were her hands now and she could never have those back. These ones shook and she held them still, so very still, til she ached with it.
They put Fitz in the same cot Skye had recuperated in. Simmons didn't sleep there but only because Skye and Trip bullied her out of it.
Melinda came down one morning to find Simmons going over her notes on GH.325 at Fitz's bedside while her mass spectrometer hummed across the lab. Melinda sat down on the other side of the medical cot.
"I'm the one who pulled you out of that lab and brought you here," said Melinda. "I'm sorry."
Simmons looked up, startled, and then her expressive face softened. "Are you—are you apologizing? For this? Oh, May. This was Ward. This was Hydra." She took a long breath. "You—you gave us the sky. You saw something in us no one else ever had. We're tinkerers, playing with circuits and test tubes, we were, we are. But you let us be heroes, don't you see?" She smoothed back Fitz's hair. "You didn't pull us out of anywhere. You gave us a a chance and we took it. I don't regret it, not for a minute." Her voice caught on that last lie.
Melinda tensed every muscle in her body and then reached across the bed and took Jemma's hand. They shook together. Fitz's chest rose and fell between them, up and down, in and out.
Skye was aching for roots. They didn't know where her parents were from, exactly, but between combat and espionage lessons Melinda offered to teach her Mandarin.
And maybe Skye's parents had spoken Cantonese, or been twelfth-generation American immigrants—let's say that was so. (They'd learn the truth one of these days, anyway, and the answer was none of these). But whether or not this was Skye's heritage, her parents' tongue, it was Melinda's and she was offering it up—her words, her roots, her life, to this girl with the kind of light in her eye Melinda had thought she'd never see again.
On late nights, Melinda's hands wrapped around the controls and the Bus rose above the clouds. Over the intercom, the team played Scrabble and loudly lost to Simmons.
Melinda thought about a girl with a trash can shield on her arm. She thought about the fearlessness that had once lived in her bones, and Melinda let the girl go.
She had other things to hold on to now.