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She was six when they moved to Virginia. Her mother told her that she got a new job. It wouldn’t be until later in her life, when she really had time to think about the times and what was going on in the world that Melinda realized the ramifications. As it was, she was too busy adjusting to life in a completely different country with a completely different culture. But she was young enough that the switch wasn’t as difficult as it could have been. Besides, some things didn’t really change. When her mother was home, they still ate as a family and she still had tea with her grandmother every day. She still trained as she had at home. And Langley was nice. In its own way.

She was ten when she figured out what her mother did at work, or at least she developed a vague idea of what spies and government agencies were about. A children’s tale version, really but she pieced it together and by the time she was fourteen, she’d decided that she wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Work for the CIA. Save the world. Protect people.

Maybe it was as naïve as she was told. But she kept training, kept pushing. When her mother told her what was necessary—after many, many, many nights of asking over and over again what the qualifications were—she stepped up any aspect in her life that she felt wasn’t perfectly suited to a life of protecting people. When her grandmother suggested law school instead or analysis at a security firm maybe, Melinda smiled, said she’d think about it and went back to the YWCA to beat on the nearest heavy bag.

When she was 19, SHIELD found her. When she was 22, finished her degree and had her pilot’s license, they found her again and she took the offer.

“They’ll be worse for you in the long run than the CIA would have been!”

“I take it I don’t have your approval then?”

“I’m not going to throw you out the door, if that’s what you think but I want you to really look at what you want to do with your life. What you want. Because something like SHIELD will encompass everything, Melinda!”

“You made it work.”

“With you, yes. And even then, just barely.” She never really forgot the small pang of regret in her mother’s voice in that moment. But she still took the job. They didn’t really talk about it and on the odd holidays when they weren’t both working and could manage a meal together, work was never a topic of conversation in any way more than ‘How are things’ ‘things are fine’.

When she was 26 she met Phirun Soun. He was brilliant, an applied physicist working for SHIELD on a project that no one wanted to get their hopes up about. Her mother’s first two questions threw her off a little. “What is his clearance level and are you going to get married?”

“Four and I don’t know yet.”

Her mother’s eyebrow crept up. “You are level five, aren’t you?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Nothing, hopefully.” The implication was clear. Her mother thought that dating someone of a lower clearance level could cause problems. Melinda knew that. She’d seen it happen with her mother time and again but this was different. That was what she told herself. It was love!

The marriage only lasted six months and while there wasn’t a clearly stated ‘I told you so’ from her mother, the implications were, as usual, more than enough to cover for it. She seriously considered ducking out of family affairs for a while even if it meant being alone for holidays. The prospect of commissary food at Christmas however was far more appealing than another round of loaded questions and judgmental looks from her mother.

She was 27 at her first of SHIELD’s traditional orphan’s Christmas dinners. Apparently they’d started it after realizing how many of their agents didn’t have families or didn’t have families that were willing to have them home for the holidays without having to walk the gauntlet of questions that couldn’t be answered. The upper brass had started taking over the commissary on Christmas Eve to do something about that.

Assigned to a new strike team earlier that week, she hadn’t even met them yet and sure as hell didn’t expect the two men that sat down across from her to be her new teammates. Just when she’d convinced herself that neither of them were planning on speaking to her—and that no amount of gravy in the universe was going to make that turkey palatable—the shorter one started talking.

“So, I heard you got some of the highest scores they’ve ever seen on the combat tests at the academy.” He smiled and shoveled a mouthful of potato into his mouth. It only took a few bites for him to figure out that maybe that hadn’t been the best idea.

“The gravy doesn’t really help.” She shrugged and went back to her meal.

“I just wanted to tell you that’s really impressive. I’m really looking forward to working with you.” He smiled again and took a long drink from the can of Coke in front of him.

“Thank you.”

“Heard you were the one that turned Agent Bolous’ desk into a green space.” The other man chuckled and the smile on his face was enough to push him into the handsome category. “I’d love to know how you pulled that off.”

She shrugged again, but smiled. “It was nothing.”

“It looked like it needed to be mowed.” The first man laughed softly and Melinda took a second to really look at him. Okay, she would admit it. They were both pretty cute. But she’d learned her lesson. Work and play didn’t mix. “Nobody ever took credit for what happened with his hand sanitizer stuff either…”

Melinda couldn’t stop the soft laugh that left her. “Someone had to do something. He was obsessed with the stuff.”

“Couldn’t get all that lube off his hands for days.” The other man chuckled again “Guess you wouldn’t know anything about that, huh?”

“I have no idea what you mean, sir.” She slipped her agent face on for a moment.

He nodded and smirked. “Nick Fury.”

“Melinda May. But I think you already know that. And that makes you…” She smiled at the other agent with the noticeably pretty eyes. But she wasn’t thinking about that because that would be a mistake. Just an aesthetic note. That was all. “Phil Coulson?”

“That’s right. Pleasure to meet you.” He grinned and tried to chew through something that looked like a green bean. “Ugh. That’s it. Who’s up for pizza?”

The words left her mouth before she’d ever really decided to speak. “That place down in the theater district is open late.”

Both of them looked at her for a long moment before Nick got to his feet. “That’s where we’re going then.” He grinned at her before turning to Phil. “And you’re buying.”

“Working like a team already. That’s got to be a good sign.” Phil shook his head and stood, dumping the leftover turkey into the nearest garbage can. Melinda followed and found that she was agreeing with that particular idea. Depending of course on how this pizza outing went, this was definitely a good sign.

~*~*~*~

Melinda was 29 when the team got dosed with something they didn’t even have a proper classification for.

“They’re not supposed to exist!” Phil dropped himself into the small seat at the back of the jet and rubbed his hands over his face.

Nick seemed to be taking the other obvious approach to his frustration. “They don’t. Officially. Or they’re not supposed to but apparently these assholes thought it was a good idea.”

“But we got out so they’re not going to get any intel out of us.” Melinda pointed out quietly from where she was leaning against the bay door.

“Yeah. There’s that. But we’re under quarantine for the next 48 hours.”

“We’re stocked up. We’ll make it.” Phil’s words were muffled slightly by his hands. “Can I just tape my mouth shut for the next two days?”

“It’ll make eating harder.” Melinda tried to smile at him as he lifted his head and looked at her. In the time they’d all been working together they’d been through a lot. Nick losing his eye. Getting caught and tortured by some group calling themselves the Ten Rings—she still wanted to put money on them being a problem down the line but HQ hadn’t agreed—Phil having his knee broken with a baseball bat in what the henchmen in question had deemed a lovely bit of irony for the American and still managing to keep up as they ran for the nearest friendly border. All of them getting hit with a virus that Sci-Ops still hadn’t identified but they’d been assured that the three of them, very luckily, had some kind of natural immunity to. They were a team. They had each other’s backs. But this… this could cause problems. Everyone had secrets at SHIELD and they were no different. She just hoped none of the more personal ones came out in the next two days. “You have really nice eyes.”

Clearly that had been asking for too much.

“You’re the most beautiful woman I think I’ve ever met.” He smiled tentatively. “And thanks.”

“You’re welcome. And that’s very kind.”

“Truth serum, remember?”

“Right. It’s still a nice thing to hear though.” She could feel her cheeks heating up already. It was going to be a long two days. “I don’t date teammates. Or other agents at all. Too much baggage.”

“Oh.” It wasn’t a disappointed sound exactly. She didn’t think he’d actually wanted the whole dinner and dancing and moonlight and roses thing, given what they were currently dealing with. “I’m sleeping with Nick, actually.”

That had not been the response she was expecting.

“Oh.” She lifted her head toward the third person in the room. “That… I would like to see that.” And that was not what she’d wanted to say. There was no denying it obviously but still. Probably not the right thing to say to her teammates after saying she didn’t want anything to do with anyone in SHIELD romantically.

Nick chuckled though. “I’d like to tell you that’s out of line but I wouldn’t say no to that.” He sighed—partially, it seemed, to cover the small groan that left Phil at that moment--and opened the door to the small galley kitchen the jet had on board. “Let’s get something to eat so we don’t confess anything else for a couple minutes, okay?”

Phil nodded, getting to his feet. “Yeah, that was definitely enough for one day.”

“You know you just jinxed it, right?”

“Probably, yeah.” He smiled and shook his head as he waved Melinda through the door. “I wouldn’t say no either, by the way.”

“I…” She sighed and grabbed an apple, shoving it in her mouth to avoid saying anything more for a few minutes. She wasn’t quite ready to let the words ‘I wouldn’t mind joining in either.’ out of her mouth.

They managed to keep the conversation to a minimum and only on safe topics for the length of dinner and most of the evening. She had her head buried in a book when Nick sat next to her in the small common room the oversized jet gave them. “Is this going to be weird?”

“Probably. I’m not sure which kind of weird it’ll be yet though.” She sighed and put her book down. “I don’t do this. I did it once and everything went to hell faster than I thought possible. I won’t risk the team for a couple of orgasms. No matter how good they are.”

“I get that. I thought the same thing for a while.” He glanced over his shoulder toward the bunk where Phil was asleep. “He’s got a way of getting in under the radar.”

“I’ve noticed that.” Melinda watched the smile creep over Nick’s face. “I like it when you smile.”

“I don’t do it much.”

“Why?”

“That’s not fair.” He lifted his eyebrow at her and she waved a hand, urging him on. “Image. Reputation. Somebody told me once that the face you put forward is as important as anything else in this business. I took it to heart.”

“Big and scary.”

“Safer that way, most of the time. Keeps people at a safe distance.”

“Except Phil.”

“And you.”

Melinda nodded. It was hard not to notice that between the three of them, despite their best efforts, things had gotten personal. She was finding it hard to mind and she was having a hard time not picturing things that she’d swore she’d never do again with a fellow agent. “Are we really going to do this?”

“I’m willing.”

“Me too.” She found herself licking her lips. “If HQ found out we’d have to break up the team.”

“We’re a good team. We might be able to swing some leniency on that particular regulation. It’s been done before.”

“For the future director of SHIELD?”

“Where’d you hear that?”

“Weaver in Sci-Ops. But I’ve overheard things all over the place.”

“Not for a while yet. Gotta do the whole Deputy Director song and dance first.”

“Which means leaving the team anyway.”

“Running back end, not leaving.”

“You hate running back end.”

“Yes I do. But I probably should have started doing it after this happened.” He tapped the patch over his eye. “I pulled enough strings to get leniency on that.”

“Did you? Because from here it looked like you worked your ass off to recertify in everything. Even things that had nothing to do with your sight.” She smiled. “It was impressive.”

“Thank you.” He turned again, watching Phil sleep. “I think I’m in love with him.”

“Then why would you want me to get involved?”

“Because I’m pretty sure we could both fall in love with you too.”

“I don’t….” She closed the book and set it down. “I don’t know what to say to that.”

“I know about the ex-husband. The man’s a fucking idiot.”

“Yes, he is.” She watched Nick carefully for a few moments. “Do you mean that? The… other part?”

“Truth serum. I wouldn’t be saying it either way if I didn’t mean it and think you could handle hearing it.”

“That’s fair.” She sank back against the too hard couch. “I almost said no to this assignment after meeting you two.”

“Why?”

“Now who’s being unfair?”

“Tit for tat, right?”

“Because I was attracted to you. Both of you. And I was just out of my marriage. And even at that god awful Christmas dinner, I could see where it could all go. It seemed like a really bad idea to even consider making that mistake again.”

“So we make new ones.”

Melinda laughed softly, nudging her shoulder against his. “That sounds fatalistic.”

“It is.”

“I would normally be worried about having an SO that was a fatalist.”

He smiled again, waving a hand for her to continue. “But?”

“Somehow I don’t think fate would win that fight.” She found herself smiling back at him as he laughed. “You don’t really strike me as a go quietly into the night type of guy.”

“Not unless I’m armed and whoever else is around doesn’t know I’m there.” He smirked in Phil’s general direction. “I’m really tempted to write those fuckers a thank you note.”

“Are you going to tell him what you told me?”

“When he wakes up. Yeah.” He nodded. “And I’m going to tell him I want more than you just watching. We’ll see how that goes.”

“Really?” It was a reactionary thing to say and she waved off the incoming reminder of the truth serum. “I’m going to have to think about that.”

“That’s a wise move.”

“Someone’s got to do the thinking around here. Instead of running headlong into a warehouse full of whatever they hit us with.”

“And you were both right behind me.”

“Lucky you.”

“Very lucky me. I know that.” He sighed and rested his head on the back of the couch, his one eye closing slowly. “If you don’t want to do the whole relationship thing—and I get it if you don’t—consider it dropped. It’ll never come up again.”

“I appreciate that. I think that goes without saying, given the circumstances. For all of us.”

He nodded once and let out a long, slow breath. “This truth serum thing could have been worse.”

“I’m glad it was with you two.”

“Same goes. I’d hate to tell Garrett what I really thought about him.”

“Oh, you can’t not tell me now.”

“Not planning on sleeping?”

She grinned, tucking her legs up under her and resting her head on her hand. “Not if I can hear this kind of dirt.”

~*~*~*~

Melinda was 31 when she admitted to herself that things with Nick and Phil were serious. Very serious. So serious in fact that when her mother asked about this new deputy director, she nearly blushed. “He’s very good at his job, mom.”

“Mm.”

Changing the topic of conversation seemed like a wise move. The occasional dinner had slowly, over the last few years become coffee if she happened to be in Langley at the same time as her mother. “Are they still trying to get you to retire?”

“Yes.” She watched Melinda take a sip of her coffee and smiled. “It’s starting to tempt me. I’d have more time to spend with you.”

Melinda bit back a more than unfavorable comment. “I’m not really home much anyway.”

“SHIELD has a base near Washington, do they not?”

“Mom…”

“I’m just asking.”

“No, you’re suggesting I get a transfer and take a desk job.”

“Now that you brought it up…”

“No, mom.” It wasn’t a new conversation by any stretch of the imagination. “I’m comfortable where I am. I like my job. I’ve got a good team…”

“For now.”

“A good partner then.”

She knew she’d misspoke when her mother’s eyebrow crept up. “A partner.”

“Yes, mother. A partner. A person I work with.”

“Mm.” She lifted her cup to her lips, eyes never leaving Melinda’s face. She could face down terrorists on every continent but her mother still made her squirm. “And how is Phillip?”

Melinda sighed and cursed the day that Phil had offered to pick her up from one of these coffee things with her mother. She wondered, not for the first time if things would have been better or worse if Nick had come along too. “He’s fine.”

“I’m sure you’re both adjusting well to being without your third appendage.”

Melinda sipped her coffee to hide the frown and stop herself from saying something very inappropriate about appendages and how she, Phil and Nick were never really without an excess of them between the three of them. But the last thing she needed was her mother digging for information on that particular part of her life more than she already was. “Nick is running backend at this point.” She took another sip to make sure the smirk that threatened to cross her face didn’t show. That was not a conversation she ever wanted to have with her mother. “He’s still a part of the team.”

“But he’s not right there anymore, is he?”

Melinda caught the tone in her mother’s voice instantly. She knew. Her mother knew about Nick and Phil and her and that was no doubt being stored up for a later ‘conversation’. On top of that though… “It’s not like with you and my father, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“People drift apart, Melinda. You should know this by now.”

“It’s not like it was with Phirun either.”

“If you say so.”

Melinda counted to ten in her head. Then twenty. Then fifty. Changing the subject—subtly or not—was really the only way out of this particular fight. “Have you cut back your hours at all? Maybe that would get them off your case about retirement.”

She got a look that said that her mother wasn’t buying it but she shrugged one shoulder and sipped her tea casually. “As much as I ever do.”

“So no more 20 hour days?”

“I’m not so young anymore, Melinda.”

“I know, mom.”

“I’m sure the little twit down the hall is after my office. I don’t like him. Or his name. Tisch… that’s awful.”

Melinda smiled. This was how to survive coffee with her mother. Pull back, change the subject and hide any emotional reaction behind the coffee cup. She reminded herself again that she just had to stay for another hour, tops and then Nick or Phil would show up with a mission and she’d hurry away and put off the uncomfortable ‘romantic entanglements’ conversation until the next time she was near Washington. The downside was that occasionally she let her mind wander and missed a topic change.

“You know I worry because I care.”

At least that thread was easy to pick up. “I know, mom. You know I worry about you too.”

“You always did.” She left off the rest of the statement that could have been included and Melinda didn’t press. If things were going smoothly, there was no need to rock the boat. Some of the tension seemed to dissipate, at least enough that her mother slipped into Cantonese as she continued. “I don’t want to see you get hurt again.

I won’t. It’s not what you think it is.

Then what is it?”

Melinda sighed and tried to find the right way to explain things without everything she didn’t want to tell her mother spilling out on the table. “We’re…” She shook her head, searching for the right words in either language. “It’s like a safety net.”

“If one leaves, the other’s still there.”

“No. No…” Melinda frowned. “If only one person is holding a safety net, you’ll both fall over when you hit it.”

Is that what happened the first time?

She ignored the dig and continued. “But with two people holding it up…” She shrugged. “It’s easier to bounce back.”

It took a few minutes—for which Melinda was glad because it meant her mother was actually taking the information in rather than dismissing it out of hand—for her to shake her head and let out a long suffering sigh. She muttered more to herself than to Melinda directly. “… pulling a cow up a tree…

Melinda couldn’t stop the smile that crossed her face. “I know it looks impossible but it works.”

“If it doesn’t—“

“You can tell me ‘I told you so’ as many times as you like.”

~*~*~*~

She was 36 when Nick became Director of SHIELD and the team finally split up after what seemed like forever. Not that they wouldn’t see each other and she and Phil were still working together—though he was more back end by that point than he had been with Nick around—and they’d already figured out that it was going to take more work to keep the thing between them going.

She was, however, stubborn enough to know that if anyone could pull it off, it was the three of them.

She was also good enough to get three champagne flutes and a bottle of Dom Perignon into the diner without anyone being the wiser about it. It helped that Phil charmed the waitress while Melinda slid the cork out of the bottle and filled the glasses. “We can have all the burgers and fries you want, Boss.” Phil slid into the booth across from the two of them and picked up the glass in front of him. “But we figured this was still a special occasion.”

Nick chuckled, lifting his own glass. “You’re planning on making a toast, aren’t you?”

“Not a long one.” Phil had the grace to blush a little. “How about something simple. To you.”

“Perfect.” Melinda smiled and took a sip from her glass. “Just promise me I don’t have to go to any fundraisers or gala things with you.”

He laughed again and patted her thigh. “I won’t do that to you.” He smirked a moment later. “Besides, Phil’s the schmoozing one.”

“Oh, I’m sure people would just love that.” Phil rolled his eyes.

“I’d drag you both along if I could get away with it.”

Melinda hummed and took another sip. “More harm than good in the long run.”

“Probably.” He squeezed her thigh again. “But I like knowing I’ve got back up.”

“You’re the boss now. You’ve always got back up.” Phil smirked and leaned back, taking up more room on his side of the booth as the waitress dropped off their dinners and studiously ignored the champagne. “Besides, you should know by now you can’t get rid of us that easily.” He reached over the table, fingers brushing the back of Nick’s hand before stealing one of his fries off his plate.

“Glad to hear that.” Nick smirked and returned the favor, stealing one of Phil’s onion rings. “Should I expect any more surprises tonight?” He shook his glass back and forth and eyed them both.

Melinda smiled and patted his hand. “Finish dinner, then we’ll see.” Of course, there was more. And Nick likely knew that. Phil had wanted to do everything top of the line, but they both knew Nick well enough to know that sneaking champagne into his favorite diner was going to get a far more positive reaction than steak and lobster at some high end place.

So she’d agreed to let Phil go all out on the hotel room for the evening instead.

As they stepped into the suite after dinner, she had to admit, he’d outdone himself.

The room was larger than she’d been expecting. A bed twice the size of the one they all crammed into when they were all at home at the same time dominated the far half of the room that could be separated off with some sliding doors. A small table, complete with a silver bucket and another bottle of champagne sat closer to them with four chairs and a small cluster of plush furniture near a window nearby. The room was, she figured done in whites and neutral colors but the lights from the city made it harder to tell exactly what those colors would be.

There was a door next to the entrance to the bedroom that she figured led to a washroom. She promised herself that over the next few days, she’d have to check out the tub. And take Nick and Phil in with her.

They had, however, obviously decided to skip the tour for now. Phil had pulled Nick down into a kiss. Melinda was close enough to hear him as he spoke between kisses. “Better get used to it, boss.”

Melinda shook her head even has her hands moved up their arms and tugged them both toward the very inviting dim bedroom. “No more cheap motels in the middle of nowhere.”

Nick smiled, pulling Melinda between them and pressing a slow, deep kiss to her lips even as Phil sucked softly on a spot behind her ear. “Had some good times in those motels…” he muttered against her lips and she felt Phil smile against her neck.

“So, we’ll have some good times here too.” Phil’s voice was just loud enough for it to get to Nick before he slipped around both of them, his hands never lifting from their bodies and took up a spot behind Nick.

Melinda took the advantage, turning them around and pushing Nick down onto the bed. That got a grin out of him for a moment before he kissed her again, his hands moving up the backs of her thighs and taking the skirt of her dress with them. Those touches only distracted her for a moment before her fingers began undoing the buttons on his shirt. A moment later, Phil’s hands pulled the fabric down off of Nick’s shoulders and pressed his lips to Nick’s skin, slowly moving up toward his neck.

They’d been together long enough to work in unison very easily and Nick rewarded them with a low, growly groan as Phil gently bit on his earlobe and Melinda’s teeth grazed over his bottom lip. He let out a breathy chuckle and Melinda felt Phil’s hands pulling at his belt. “So, I’m the center of attention tonight?”

Melinda smiled and kissed him again. “Would that be acceptable, Director?”

He hummed softly, making a show of considering his options as he leaned back into Phil, who had once again started to kiss a path down his neck. “Absolutely.”

~*~*~*~

She was 41 when her world shifted under her and tried to send her flying in the opposite direction. She’d always been good at compartmentalizing. At not making things personal and getting the job done. Better than most, actually. But this… all she could think about was that little girl in a room full of monsters and nobody was willing or able to get to her. That was unacceptable. That wasn’t why they were there!

She’d been so calm in the knowledge that she could do it. No distractions. No back up. No putting anyone in the way. Either someone was a threat or a hostage. No middle ground and while she’d been in there, it had all been so clear. So simple. No questions on who these people were or why they were doing this. No wondering about if they had exalted this gifted person to godhood for some reason other than belief—she didn’t care why they were doing any of it really, other than the fact that they’d put her teammates and an innocent kid in the way of it all—or if the man in question had simply played it all up to his own ends.

By the time she was through the first two floors, she was leaning toward the second options and she was no closer to finding the agents or the girl.

In hindsight, she wished so many times that she never had, for her own sake.

Melinda entered the third floor slowly, the knife she’d taken off one of the first guards--or acolytes or whatever they were--at the ready in her hand. It was far too quiet which usually meant a trap. But she had to get to the girl before something awful happened to her and no amount of quiet was going to stop the voice in her head telling her to get in there and get to the girl.

Some selfish, id driven part of her wondered if they’d done it on purpose somehow. If they’d pulled the darkest moments of her life so far and displayed the most grotesque and extreme versions of those moments for their own amusement or to enhance the nightmare she’d already been through. She knew her grip on the knife was questionable. Too much blood literally on her hands to know for sure the blade wouldn’t slip.

It took a second to realize that the knife wasn’t what she needed though. She could see the outline of two agents tied to what seemed to be regular folding chairs but given the way she’d had to fight to get that far, she wasn’t going to take anything for granted. As she got closer, the compartmentalization that had gotten her that far started to crack. She could see from where she stood one had been blinded, his face covered in blood—like Nick’s in Guam when their so called allied force turned on them—the other’s legs had been broken, probably using a pipe or a bat, over and over again—like Phil’s knee in Yeysk when a couple pissed off ex-Soviets wanted to vent on an American about the fall of the USSR—but she shoved those details deep. She couldn’t get the job done if she got lost in any of that and that realization stung.

Emotions were a liability. She’d been told it before but it really sunk in as she looked at the two agents bearing wounds she’d already tended on other teammates that meant more to her than was likely safe.

Both agents were alive though unconscious. She broke radio silence. Told the team she knew Phil had put together as soon as she left the safe house to bring medics in. That the way was clear and she was going after the girl.

“Agent May, stand down.”

“Sir, I think I have eyes on target.”

She ignored whatever Phil said after that. It was a lie, of course. He probably knew that too but she wasn’t going to give up after coming that far. And there was another room twenty feet back from her location.

Phil found her in the doorway some time later. She was never really sure how long it took him to get there. It had to be awhile but she hadn’t moved since seeing what was in that room. Her voice sounded hoarse, unused when she finally broke her silence. “We have to get her down.”

“We will.”

“No. Now. We have to get her down.”

“Melinda.” The tone in his voice, soft though it was, wouldn’t let her turn away from him again. “Forensics is on their way, okay? They’ll figure out what happened to her. We need to step back.”

“We can’t just—“

“We won’t. But we’ll do it in the right way to make sure we catch the people who did this.”

It took a second for the world to rush back at her; for her senses to catch back up with her and register the dim light that was starting to filter through the dirty windows. For the tacky, sticky sensation of too much blood to register on her skin. That her shoulder hurt—she had a vague, blurry memory of a guard or follower running her hard into a concrete wall—and that some of the blood was likely her own. But she still couldn’t bring herself to step away and leave that little girl alone again.

She failed. The words kept swinging around in her head. She’d hesitated and failed this little girl who was now hanging from the rafters of an abandoned warehouse complex. Melinda felt something tighten and snap inside her chest and she remembered the cold, calm feeling as she moved through the building, cutting down the people who directly or indirectly caused this. That felt safer than letting the anger and hate and gut wrenching fear eat at her. “Melinda…” She turned toward Phil and slowly let the cold feeling get stronger. They could do this to him too. To Nick. To Maria before she clawed her way up the ranks. To Hand. Sitwell. Blake. Garrett. The cold feeling would let her stop it. Even in the exhausted, wrung out state she was in, that made sense. “Melinda, come on. Let medical take a look at you. Get cleaned up. I’ll be there when you’re done.”

She nodded once and moved a step back. “There’s a void… under—“ She shook her head again. “Someone stood there while she—“ Melinda couldn’t get the words out. She couldn’t force them out. “Tell forensics to check there. Maybe there’s a clue.” It was superfluous information. Phil knew or would know when he got a better look at the room but she felt she had to add something to all this. She felt she had to try to help, even just with that. She couldn’t protect that poor child, so she’d do a little to speed the revenge her murderer had coming.

He nodded, clearly deciding that talking about it could wait. He was likely right. She knew that on some level but there was too much noise in her head to really register it all. She let him steer her toward the medics that weren’t busy with the hostages. She told him a few times that he could go. He had enough to do without babysitting her. He didn’t listen, except once to step away and take a call. She was sure he was talking to Nick. Who else would know and care what was going on, after all? But she couldn’t focus on that and giving the medic the information she wanted at the same time.

The ride back to the safe house—because no she did not need any more medical attention, they had better things to do—was never really clear in her memory. She knew she got there. She knew Phil was with her. She knew she had a shower to get the blood off of her skin. She knew Phil made her sit down, eat and drink, though what she’d put in her system was forever a mystery to her but even in that state, she trusted Phil and would eventually be thankful there was someone there that knew her well enough to make sure she was okay. Physically anyway. There wasn’t much he could do about the things spinning around her head.

“One step at a time.” He told her as she laid down on the too thin mattress. “Just get some rest and we’ll deal with the rest later.”

The part of her that was slowly shriveling up wanted to reach out and ask him to stay. She didn’t have to, of course. He wasn’t going anywhere but the part of her that would have given a voice to that want seemed to be fighting for its own survival in that moment. Even as he slipped in beside her and wrapped his arms around her, she couldn’t let go. She couldn’t stop going over every minute of it all. Looking for what she could have done faster, differently, which route she should have taken to get there sooner. She couldn’t stop thinking about how she’d failed that little girl. How she’d failed those agents whose lives were changed forever because she wasn’t fast enough. How could she expect to protect the people she cared about if she couldn’t keep these people safe?

It was the answer to that question that solidified everything in her mind. She couldn’t. She’d lose every single one of them. She’d watch it all happen from the front row and there would be nothing she could do. And all the talk about strength of character and staying with it wasn’t going to make watching any easier.

Phil’s arm tightened around her, pulling her out of her head for a moment. “Melinda…”

“Can’t sleep.”

“I know.” He pressed a soft kiss to her temple. “Anything I can do?”

“I’m fine.”

“Melinda,” He kissed her temple again. “I know you’re not. I know it’s not okay. I won’t patronize you with that shit.” She appreciated it but only nodded. There really wasn’t a way to vocalize that feeling in that moment. When he spoke again, his voice was low and she was sure if there had been anyone around, there was no way they’d have heard it. “You’re not alone in this.”

“She was.” And he would be. And Nick. And Victoria and Maria and everyone else. Because she wasn’t fast enough to get there in time. She couldn’t be what she knew people would think she was after all this. Because this was the kind of thing that spread like wildfire within SHIELD. It’d be everywhere, regardless of clearance in no time flat. But it would be wrong. Because they might paint it all as heroic and amazing, but she knew it wasn’t true. She knew she’d failed.

The next few days were a blur of medics and a SHIELD psych team that was sent in to help both her and the agents that had been hostages. It was a stop gap until they got home but she did appreciate the efficiency SHIELD had in caring for their own and she stomped down any uncharitable thoughts about helping others. That had been the point of joining SHIELD in the first place. But even talking to Agent Arroyo wasn’t taking away the sinking feeling that she couldn’t do enough where she was. But she wasn’t in any position to do anything anywhere else. She wasn’t cut out for Sci-tech, clearly. Comms was an option but not one she thought would take her out of having to simply watch as the people she cared about died. If she thought about it as any other career move, she wouldn’t have to think about that little girl hanging from the rafters. Or the agents the army of followers—or the gifted individual himself, she was never clear on that—tortured. Or how it would all happen again and maybe next time, it would be Phil or Nick or Hand or Blake or Sitwell or…

“I’ll be there tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“I will be there tomorrow.”

She sighed into the phone. “You have more important things to do than this. Phil’s here. I’m fine.”

“That’s turning into a mantra pretty damn quick, isn’t it?” She heard Nick sigh on the other end; a sure sign he was more worried about her than was strictly necessary, in her mind at least. “I’ll be there tomorrow.”

“Sir, we’ll be back at HQ in a few days. There is really no need to come out here.”

He was silent for a long time and she wondered vaguely if the connection dropped before she heard another sigh. “I’ll be there when you land.”

“I don’t—“

“Melinda.” It was the first time in a long time he’d used her first name with that tone. The ‘director’ tone didn’t bleed into their personal life. Nick made sure of that but in that moment, he let it happen. “I’ll be there when you land.”

“Okay.” She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment before she continued. “But we do need to talk. Sir.” She made sure he knew the topic would be work related. That was the only reason for the emphasis on protocol and not telling him she was scared for him and Phil and everybody else. She wasn’t going to put that on his shoulders. He had enough. So did Phil. This one was going to be hers to bear whether they liked it or not. “See you then.”

“Okay. Tell Coulson to get some sleep too.”

“Will do.”

“Melinda—“

“You don’t have to say it. I know.”

“Okay.” They never said the words over the phone. God only knew who was listening and stating plainly that they all loved each other opened up a whole different can of worms and painted targets on all of them. She was thankful he didn’t make an exception of that particular rule this time. “Sleep well.”

“We will. You too.”

To an outside observer, it was a ridiculous exchange. Of course she wouldn’t sleep well after what she had been through. Of course, Phil and Nick wouldn’t either because work and worry about her would keep them both tossing and turning. But ‘sleep well’ was the safest way to make sure the person on the other end of the line knew they were loved. It was safer and most of the time it seemed perfectly normal to any nosy people that might be listening in. Even if it rang false to those nosy people, the real meaning came through.

She hung up as Phil entered the room. “Nick says to get some sleep.”

“Is he coming here?”

“I talked him out of it.”

“Oh. I thought…” He shook his head and sat down, pulling at his tie until the knot gave way. Part of her—the part that managed to convince the psych team that she was not shoving things down and stomping on them until they went away—thought she should smile and tell him that she appreciated the thought from both of them but she couldn’t muster it. “Any requests for dinner?”

“Anything where you aren’t doing the cooking.” It was supposed to be a joke but it came out cold and maybe a little harsh. She gave him credit for brushing it off.

“That place up the street was good. Do you want to go down there or just get it delivered?”

“Phil…”

“Okay, delivery then.”

“Stop pretending everything’s fine!” The words came out before she had even really formed the thought.

The room was silent for a long time. She expected to look up to see him walking out; either to go get dinner or not to come back, she wasn’t sure which. She didn’t expect the dip in the mattress as he sat down beside her. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m—“ Again she found herself unable to give the usual pat answers that would have seemed natural less than a week before. In that moment though, she was so angry with herself. With the man they’d come to investigate. With Phil for trying to be helpful. With Nick for wanting to be there with them. With SHIELD for putting her there in the first place.

“Melinda, it’s okay. Whatever you need, okay?”

“And if I don’t know?”

She heard him sigh and it drew her gaze up to his face. “You can’t undo this. It’s done and…” He hesitated for a moment before meeting her eyes fully. “It’ll be with you forever. But hanging on to how things were before, how you would have reacted or what you thought things were going to be like… that’s hell. Melinda…” He tentatively wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “You have to let the girl go.”

She swallowed hard and nodded. It made sense. Of course it did. Incorporate what happened and change the plan. That was what Phil did all the time but she wasn’t quite as used to it. At least not enough so that it became second nature. At least not in her own head and her own life plans. She took a deep breath and considered what had been kicking around her head since the first night after everything had happened. Something needed to change clearly. She had a very good idea what that something was too. She took a deep breath, trying to find her center again. “There was that place with the muhammar… let’s get dinner from there.”

He smiled and kissed her cheek as he got up to place an order. She stayed quiet as he came back in, kissing her again—it was a very nice kiss; it almost did what he no doubt intended it to do and distracted her from the million different thoughts in her head—before picking up the key to the room. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

“Pick up was cheaper.” She forced a smile and nodded.

He blushed a little and smirked. “You know me too well sometimes.” One more kiss saw him out the door and left her alone for a little while.

She reached over and picked up the phone, dialing from memory. “Mom?”

“Melinda? It’s late.”

“Sorry, I’m away.”

Her mother no doubt picked up whatever had shifted in her voice. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” She answered automatically. “Mom, do you remember how you wanted me to see about working at the base in Washington?”

“Yes.”

“I’m thinking about it.”

~*~*~*~*~

Melinda was 43 when Tony Stark created a world of paperwork and PR problems for SHIELD. She was half shocked that Phil didn’t just draw his sidearm and shoot Stark down from the podium. ‘I am Iron Man’. What an idiot.

But it was a test. Of course it was. Nick was already in LA and no doubt scaring the crap out of Stark at that very minute. The cover story, the press ‘leaks’, all of it was really for nothing. And Phil must have known that when he handed the story to Stark. But, if they weren’t prepared and he had taken the bait… that would have been messier.

Even if it meant she’d have reports up to her ass by the next morning and she could already hear the people in the desks around hers complaining about all the wasted work.

But if that meant that they’d have Tony Stark—or Iron Man—on their side in the end, well… they worked for SHIELD for a reason and she expected most of them were smart enough to understand how the game worked. At least in theory.

She picked up her phone on the second ring. “See the news?”

“I don’t know why I bother helping you sometimes.” She smirked at the phone and heard the soft chuckle from Phil.

“Nick’s flying back tomorrow. I’ll be back home in time for your birthday.”

“You don’t have—“

“Nick told me to tell you not to argue about it. We’ll be there. Besides,” she could hear Nick in the background, “he’s made reservations and he won’t tell me where.”

“Oh, well then I guess you’ll have to come back.”

“Exactly.” She heard the smirk shift to a smile and couldn’t help but smile back. They didn’t get a lot of time alone, the three of them. With Nick and Phil working on the Avengers Initiative and all the moving parts that went into that on top of the usual travel that came with being a high level agent, they all had to make an effort to be there for the important stuff. She didn’t think turning 44 was that important but she had learned not to argue too much when they said they’d both be home. “You should be out here, you know.”

“Did you need someone to take notes?”

“Okay, dropping it.”

She breathed a sigh of relief at avoiding that conversation again as she listened to Nick taking the phone away from Phil. His voice filled her ear a moment later. “Don’t listen to him. He’s a selfish idiot.”

“I never do. And you are too.”

“Yes, I am. See you in a couple days.”

“Good night, Nick.”

“I’ll smack his ass for you later.”

She laughed and shook her head. They’d both taken to trying to make her laugh more and more over the last few years and she found it easier and easier as time went on. Even if most of the time, they only got a smile in payment for the bad jokes. “I appreciate that. Tell him that if he can’t finish up with Stark in under a month, you’ll demote him.”

She heard some kind of movement in the background and Nick chuckled. “I think he heard you.”

~*~*~*~

She was 47 when the world fell out from under her. Literally. She saw the reports on the base in the Mojave Desert. She saw sat visuals of the crater and she knew they’d both been there when it happened. She knew what level 7 meant and was doing everything in her power to shuffle resources as needed. She was doing her job despite the panic that was lingering just behind the mask. Despite not knowing if they’d gotten out or not. She ignored the small voice in the back of her head saying that she should have been there with them. She should have protected them. She should have stood up and died with them…

Hell, if things were as bad as they looked, she might not have to wait too long before that happened anyway.

She nearly jumped out of her seat when her phone buzzed at her side. “Hey.”

She let out the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. The sound of Phil’s voice drained some of the tension out of her. “Hey.”

“We’re both okay. Maria’s a little beat up. Nick’s on with the Council right now.”

“Okay.”

“I just wanted to let you know.”

“Thanks.”

“Melinda…” he sighed. “Look, things are really… I’d really like it if you…” He nearly growled into the phone, obviously frustrated with his lack of eloquence at the moment. “I love you. You know that right?”

“I know.” She let herself smile a little. “Same goes.”

“Okay.” He sighed. “I just wanted to make sure. Things are… bad.”

That meant things were going to hell in a hand basket at Mach 3. Bad was not a word any of them threw around lightly. For a minute she considered telling him she’d be on the next jet to the Helicarrier. Hell, she’d fly the next jet to the Helicarrier if she had to. “Should I—“

“No, we’ll be okay. If things don’t work out, they’ll need you more there than we will here.”

“That’s not very reassuring.”

“It’ll work out, Melinda.” His voice was deceptively cheerful. “The Avengers can handle it.”

Forty eight hours later she was trying to keep her hands from shaking as she sent out casualty reports to COs from the Helicarrier, ignoring the buzz at her hip. She knew who it was. There was only one person left that it could be; one person left who had that number. As the rest of the office watched in horror as Midtown fell apart, she had held on by a thread. There was nothing left to lose after all. All they’d have to do is sink the Helicarrier when they were done with Manhattan and it would all be over. You should have been there. You should have had his back. He died alone and Nick will too.

She finally gave in and reached for the phone. “What?”

“I’m sorry. I’m going to fix this.”

“Nick, you…” She bit her tongue to keep from saying something pat and useless. She had to know though, and he was the only one she’d trust not to lie to her to make her feel better. “Was he—“

“I was with him.”

“I should have been.”

“Mel—“

She hung up before he could say anything else. She didn’t have the energy left in her to think about what he was feeling about it. She should have been there. She should have been there to watch Phil’s back and she wasn’t. Now he was dead. It was the same song and dance all over again. Not in the right place. Not fast enough. Not good enough to protect the people that were important to her. She looked up at the TV screen and called him back. “I can’t lose you too.”

“You won’t. I’m going to fix this.”

For a minute, she let herself believe that he could.

~*~*~*~

She nearly threw up reading the specs and side effects listed in the file Nick had sent her. The sensible, reasonable part of her brain said that this was a reaction to grief. That it hadn’t been that long since Phil had died. Not even a week, actually. That the idea would fade as they settled into how things were when it was just the two of them. That Nick wasn’t used to not being able to fix things and he would let it go in his own time.

That eventually, they’d stop squishing together on one side of the bed as if Phil would magically reappear and tell them to move over.

But the only words she could find as she looked the information over were simple ones. They weren’t spoken in anger because deep down, she wanted the same thing he did. “What did you do?”

“What had to be done.” That was Director Fury speaking, not Nick. “I told you I’d fix this.”

“And I told you that was insane! Nick… how long do you think this can hold? How long before—“ she couldn’t quite bring herself to ask him how long it would be before they lost him all over again.

“I don’t know. They tell me that with the memory alterations he should be fine.” If his voice shook as he spoke, nobody else would have noticed. It hit her that he’d likely been there through all of it. Every procedure. Every test. The urge to throw up again threatened to take over as she gingerly closed the file and set it on the desk. “What he needs now is a sense of purpose.”

“You want to give him a project.”

“A couple projects.”

She sighed. “And someone will have to keep an eye on him.”

“Exactly.”

“Nick…” She sighed and shook her head, her hand resting on the file again. “What’d you have in mind?”

“Give me your specs for what you’d need in a team. We’ll go from there.”

~*~*~*~

She was nearly 48—less than a week from the big day, in fact—when Asgard once again screwed everything up in absolutely spectacular fashion. Phil made a vague set of noises about alien gods being worse than preschoolers but maybe staying in London for a couple weeks would be a nice break. She’d appreciated the idea until they ended up chasing legends and guesses and magicked up anarchists around Europe.

She didn’t really believe this staff thing would do anything that drastic. Not until she saw what it did to Ward. And she tried to help. She knew Skye did too but she wasn’t convinced that talking it out was going to do anything but spike his adrenaline again and that… well, they already knew that that was not something they should be trying to do. She was ready to tell him that he didn’t have to do it alone—she was aware of the irony of her saying that to anyone, given her own tendency to lock anything like that away—but if he wasn’t willing to accept the help, she couldn’t force it on him.

She thought that Agent Arroyo would be proud of her for that one.

She wanted to tell him to center, to use whatever it was giving him. To turn it to his advantage. As she held Skye back and he took the literal angry mob apart in the small sanctuary in Ireland, she thought maybe he’d gotten to that conclusion on his own.

It should have ended there with him exhausted and comforted by the presence of his friend. But there had to be one more and Melinda knew—she absolutely at the core of everything knew—he wouldn’t come back if he got to those pieces again.

She barely flinched as the images and memories flooded over her. It felt like an eternity. The empty room in Bahrain. The girl in the rafters. The bloody void on the floor. Nick telling her that this one, this procedure, this treatment would work. Walking away when she finally admitted she couldn’t watch what they were going to do to Phil. It all rushed over her in waves of deep, soul crushing hate and rage. Every wrong. Every failure. Everything that should have turned her into a monster crashed down around her as the staff reforged in her hands.

And every last bit of it was going straight at the woman in front of her.

Every strike, every punch brought the words back into her head over and over and over again.

Let me die.

From the agents she rescued. From a man she loved. In her own mind, she’d extrapolated what it would sound like from the girl she hadn’t been able to save.

But the fight was over and her hands shook as she dropped the staff. The effects didn’t clear. Not really. The constant stream of memories slowed and it was easier to see the monastery again but none of it went away. Which, she guessed wasn’t that different than it had been before. Things were just sharper, clearer, harder to ignore.

Ward going at the heavy bag on the Bus made a lot more sense.

The quarter of a bottle of scotch she went through made even more sense. She thought about going back to the plane. Going up to Phil’s office and crawling into bed with him. Back before New York, she would have. And he would have welcomed her, let her work off whatever she needed to get out of her system—extra energy, too much feeling, whatever—and loved her all the more for it. But after everything that happened and without Nick there to take the edge off whatever guilt and rage she was feeling about what they did to Phil… it didn’t feel like a viable option. It didn’t feel fair to him either.

With the exception of the night she’d finally gotten him to show her the scar on his chest, they hadn’t really rekindled anything between them. The love was there, but things for whatever reason had taken a decidedly platonic turn. So climbing into his bed and having sex with him just to burn off whatever rage was left in her would have been pushing her luck at best. That left her with only one option.

She nodded to Ward in the hall as she closed her hotel door and took another long drink from the bottle in her hand. She had to put it down again to hunt for her phone and dial but that didn’t really slow her down.

The long sigh on the other end told her everything she needed to know. “I got Phil’s report.”

“I hate you.” The words came out quietly and were quickly followed by another drink. “I hate you for putting me here.”

“I know.” He didn’t bother dancing around it. “And I wish there was another way—“

“You should be here. You should be helping!”

“Mel—“

“This is your unholy goddamn mess and I have to clean it up for you! You don’t have to do anything! I’m the one that has to lie to him every time he thinks something’s wrong! I’m the one that has to—“

“I know.”

“God damn it, Nick!” She slammed the bottle down on the table and she was fairly sure she only just avoided it breaking. “I can’t do it.” She didn’t yell. The futility of everything around her didn’t bear yelling. “If it comes down to—“ she sighed and sat down on the end of the bed. “I don’t think I can be the trigger on this.”

The silence on the other end was nearly deafening. “Is… do you think it’s going to come to that?” Anyone else would have missed the hesitation in his voice. Anyone else would have missed the soft, unspoken fear in his words. Any other time, she would have cared but she was scared and angry too.

“No… I don’t know. I don’t think so. I hope not.” The exhaustion was starting to fill her, not taking the place of the rage but dulling it down in a way that meant she’d be able to sleep without any more trouble than normal which wasn’t saying much, she was willing to admit. “If it does…”

“I know you’ll do what you think is right.”

“I know you do. That’s why you’re not here.” It was a bitter statement. One she wouldn’t have let out under normal circumstances. She was left holding the bag on Nick’s desperation and Phil’s resurrection and it was either walk away completely or hang on for dear life. “I’ll do what needs to be done.”

“I’m—“

“Don’t say it, Nick. We both know it’s a lie.”

“Get some sleep.”

“Yes, sir.” She bit off the words and just barely avoided insubordination on top of everything else. “You need to fix this. He’s going to want answers eventually. I can only deflect so much.”

“I know.”

“You keep saying that like it changes anything. Talk to him.” She didn’t wait for an answer before disconnecting and throwing the phone down on the bed. As if bidden by some force she didn’t understand, another memory—one far less violent—floated to the surface. Coffee with her mother and her mother telling her something important.

“People drift apart, Melinda. You should know this by now.”

She squeezed her eyes shut and made her way toward the room’s bathroom, intent on a shower and washing away some of the day.

And quietly hating her mother for being right.

~*~*~*~

She didn’t know exactly how many times the phrase ‘Talk to Fury’ left her mouth in the months before things went to hell. A lot. She was sure it was a lot. And if they’d just have sat down and said more than ten words that weren’t revolving around SHIELD, maybe things would have worked out. Maybe if they’d had any idea how bad things were in SHIELD at large, it would have been understandable that Nick would vanish—even from the line she had to him on the Bus—for stretches of time. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

Maybe she should have been glad Phil had her icer when he shot her.

It didn’t make the casual violence of it better. In fact, she could feel the vague burn that the staff had brought to life in her as she woke up in the holding cell with Ward. She tried to figure out what he thought she was doing and why he thought she’d just turn them all over to HYDRA. It didn’t make sense. He knew her better than that.

And if he’d just been able to get ahold of Nick, none of this would be happening.

When he pulled her into the cockpit and forced her hand, she wondered vaguely how they got there. It would have been easy to blame it all on Nick. He brought Phil back. He put Melinda in this position.

“Director Fury is dead.”

Her eyes went wide for a moment but before she could really react or get any reaction from Phil, she felt a bullet cut through her arm. Instinct must have taken over as he took her down onto the floor and covered her—protected her like he used to try to do—and the cockpit was ripped apart by gunfire. She couldn’t quite stop the hiss that left her as his hand closed over the wound, putting pressure on it. Making sure she wouldn’t bleed too much before they got somewhere she could patch herself up. All the usual Phil moves in a crisis.

She did what she always did. She took the pain and used it. Crystalized everything. Nick was dead. HYDRA was everywhere. SHIELD wasn’t protecting anyone anymore and Phil would want answers. That was a problem without SHIELD there to make sure he’d have help if he started to slide into the deep, dark pit that he didn’t even know was at his feet. He didn’t know because knowing would be the thing that pushed him over, or so she and Nick had been told. But what if those doctors had been HYDRA? Had Nick been worried about that from the start? She couldn’t be sure and now…

“Phil…”

He didn’t answer. That was enough of a sign. Nick was dead and Phil was lost to her. The low burn came back. If he wanted answers, if he wanted to go down that road, she’d give him what she knew. He’d dug up enough that the damage was done already anyway. She knew those thoughts were based in anger but until the gunfire stopped, there was little else to keep her focused.

The anger would do.

~*~*~*~

There was only so much one person could take. HYDRA and Garrett would have been enough. Nick’s death could have been too. Both those things together were enough reason to want to keep people that understood what that betrayal felt like as close as she could.

Garrett’s words to her at the home had struck home, whether she showed it or not. I know you’d follow him to the grave. It was the truth, of course. Garrett was close enough to both of them and to Nick to figure that out.

She tried. She tried to talk to him. To keep him and the team safe. But she wasn’t going to play Phil’s emotional punching bag. There was a difference between being loyal and being a masochist. The team would be fine without her around. They had Ward and Trip to keep them safe. And without them, she could find some answers. Because there was one thing she and Phil still agreed on.

Nick would never go down that easily and if anyone could drop that completely off the radar, it was him. But first she had to get across the border. Which meant admitting how bad things were to the one person she didn’t ever want to admit that too.

As the van pulled up beside her though, she couldn’t help but feel a wave of relief. Exhaustion followed quickly, despite the conversations they’d had over the last day or so, she could feel the questions brimming over from the driver’s seat. “I heard about Director Fury.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry, Melinda.”

“Thanks, mom.”

~*~*~*~

There were few people who could decipher Nick’s crap on the best of days. Melinda was willing to admit, she was absolutely not in any way in the middle of the best of days but as she slipped back into the shadows in Washington, watching for a few minutes as Maria took the squad to task, she almost smiled. Of course he’d do something that morbid and ironic. He’d probably chuckled darkly over the idea at some point.

But that wasn’t the kind of digging for information she’d planned on doing.

The next morning saw her stopping at a big chain hardware store on her way to the cemetery. She paid cash and blended in as best she could. Nothing on her said SHIELD. Nothing in her manners said anything but a woman getting some supplies to rework her garden, or whatever normal people did with shovels. Once again, she wondered if she’d listened to her mother and taken a desk job years ago, if she’d be knee deep in the grave of her not-so-dead ex-lover.

Probably not. But it paid off.

~*~*~*~

She waited to see if he’d fall apart again, staying in the shadows as Phil watched his own report on the TAHITI project. She didn’t say the things that floated through her head. That they’d been trying to protect him. That they’d done it all for his own good. But it all rang false and wouldn’t be helpful anyway. He’d told her he was glad she was back but that didn’t mean things would go back to how they used to be. They couldn’t, even knowing Nick wasn’t dead didn’t change the fact that things had shifted in ways that made what they’d had nearly impossible.

“Melinda…” He got to his feet, closing the laptop. “I owe you at least ten apologies.”

“More than that.”

“I’m sorry. I have no excuse for any of it.”

She nodded, pushing off the wall. “I should get a room.”

“You could—“ he stopped himself before he asked her to stay. A long sigh left him as he sat on the end of the bed, letting his head fall into his hands. “Yeah. Okay. I don’t… you probably should.”

“Phil, I… don’t think it’s going to be that easy.”

“I know. It shouldn’t be, right? It’ll take work but…”

“Don’t we have enough work to do?”

“This is worth it.” There was an honesty in his voice that she hadn’t heard in a long time.

She sat down next to him, taking one of his hands in hers. He tentatively laced their fingers together and lifted their hands to press a kiss to her knuckles. She smiled a little more. “How long do you think it’ll be before he shows up?”

The sound that left him was equal parts amusement and frustration followed by a long suffering sigh. “Any day now. I’m sure if we manage to blow something up, it’ll speed things up.”

~*~*~*~

After the search. After the fight. After everything that had gone so wrong and the things that had gone so right, she finally sat them both down and Phil got it all off his chest. She stayed close, just in case she’d missed something. Just in case, this was what pushed him past the point of no return.

Frankly, she thought there was going to be more throwing things and maybe a few punches thrown but she’d been wrong before.

“Are you leaving again?” She kept her voice level as Nick stood in the doorway of Phil’s office.

He looked at both of them before letting out a long breath. It felt like he’d been holding it without them noticing. “Am I welcome?”

It was an honest question. Given everything that had happened, everything that had passed between the three of them in the last year, there was a chance that either Melinda or Phil would balk at Nick being a part of their lives. He must have known that. He had probably counted on it, actually. He was always the first to try to martyr himself if it meant they got to go on.

She shrugged her shoulder. They had, in the process of Phil getting his anger out, brought up and hashed out most of what was going on between them. “We haven’t really welcomed you back from the dead yet.”

“Are you actually going to stay?” Phil’s voice was level. It was the Agent Coulson voice. The one that meant work. The one that didn’t usually get brought into conversations like that one. But she saw it for what it was. If Phil said anything, if he let it all show in his voice—and it would—there would be no going back. He quickly looked her way and smiled sadly. “It’s not going to be that easy.”

“I didn’t think it would be anything.”

“That’s not what he asked you though.” Melinda moved toward him. “Is this… the three of us, is it important enough to work on?”

“You know it is.” Nick kept his voice low even as he reached out to both of them. Melinda was close enough to step into a tentative embrace. Phil took a moment, seemingly taking stock of everything before taking Nick’s hand. He didn’t move closer but he laced their fingers together slowly, deliberately. It was a first step. Just like it had been between her and Phil in the motel room. Nick smiled warmly. It was a look she hadn’t seen on his face in a very long time. Too long. “I’ve got some free time now.”

Phil shook his head, a short breath of a laugh leaving him. “I need to know where you are… as much as you can. I need to know what’s going on.”

Nick nodded. “Same goes for you two.”

“Fair enough.” Melinda smiled and stretched up to press a soft kiss to Nick’s cheek. She gave them both her best scary agent face for a moment before she spoke again. “No more dying.”

That got a chuckle out of Nick and Phil stepped closer, slipping his arm around her waist and leaning into Nick. “You know what we need right now?” Nick and Melinda both looked at Phil expectantly. “A vacation.” A small smirk crossed his face. “And maybe some truth serum.”

Nick’s smirk matched Phil’s. “Doesn’t officially exist, Phil.”

Melinda shook her head again and rolled her eyes. “Since when does anything have to be official with you two involved?”

“Since right now?” Phil leaned in and pressed a kiss to her lips, pulling them all closer together. “I think calling this a thing for the last twenty years might just be enough to become official.”

“What do you want to do about it?” Nick hesitated before pressing his lips against Phil’s temple. “Not like we can all run off to Vegas.”

“No. But we could start by actually calling it a relationship.”

Melinda sighed. She knew what that meant to Phil to say. To actually put a label on whatever they were together was something he’d been kicking around before New York. She knew that it was important to him but he’d never wanted to push her or Nick for anything they weren’t willing to give. And without actually putting voice to that want, neither her or Nick would have pushed either. But that was before. Before New York. Before Washington. Before HYDRA and ghost hit men and Asgardians. If she was honest with herself it had all been there before Bahrain. Back before she’d even admit to loving them as much as she did. There was finally a maybe she didn’t mind quite so much. Maybe, if they tried and worked at it; maybe if they could keep it all together, they could get some of that back.

She watched, almost holding her breath as Phil turned his head and kissed Nick for the first time in what felt like forever. Time seemed to stop as they tried to recapture something intangible but she could see the moment when at least some of it slid back into place; the moment they both remembered how they’d gotten in so deep in the first place. “So what do you say, boss?” Phil blinked up at Nick as he pulled back, breathless.

Nick turned, kissing Melinda with the same tentative determination she’d watched him kiss Phil with. When he pulled back, she barely had a chance to catch her breath before Phil took his place. Nick’s soft chuckle pulled them apart. “Nowhere else I’d rather be.”

“Except hunting HYDRA and listening to old SHIELD frequencies.” Phil smirked into another kiss with Nick.

He hummed softly as he leaned back. “I don’t want to be there. Somebody has to be there.”

“Back to duty and honor?”

“But with some place to come back to when it’s done.” Melinda smiled up at them.

Nick nodded, pulling her a little closer and kissing the top of her head. Phil watched them, the last of the hesitations—for that night anyway—slipping away as he leaned in, resting his forehead against Nick’s shoulder and letting a long breath out. “Yeah,” he finally broke the comfortable silence around them. “That seems like a nice start.”

~*~*~*~*~

Melinda was creeping steadily toward her 49th birthday and piloting a helicopter over an enemy base. She’d circled a few times, looking for her targets and not seeing anything. Radio silence wasn’t going to do them much good for much longer and she made a call to break it. “Location?”

“Coming out the front door in a minute.”

“That’s not the extraction point.”

She heard a chuckle and nearly rolled her eyes. “It’s like the old days, May. You can appreciate that.”

“You have thirty seconds.”

“Gonna need more than that. Target is not as mobile as we heard.”

She sighed and swung the helicopter around again. “I can give you a little extra time but not much.”

The glib comments she was expecting didn’t come. She got a brisk ‘understood’ and back to silence. Which either meant that things were worse inside than out, which would really be saying something or their target was not really in any shape to be traveling. Considering he’d been hit by a truck, she would not be at all surprised by that development.

The fact that their target was still alive at all was a miracle in and of itself.

She saw them coming out the front doors with twenty guards behind them. Jasper did not look like he was going to make the climb into the chopper and Nick was favoring his left leg while trying to keep Jasper in front of him and firing back at the guards closing in on them. There really was only one option, given the timeframe and the resistance.

Landing a helicopter in a hospital parking lot was not as easy as action movies made it look.

Melinda tossed her headset down on the seat and moved to help Sitwell in. He cursed softly, half in Spanish, as she tugged him up into the helicopter. “Strap in.”

“Thanks.” The word came out quietly but she heard it despite the gunfire and yelling.

“Glad to have you back.” She moved to the open door to the cabin. “Nick! Now or never!”

That was all it took to get him back into the cabin and by the time he’d sat down she already had them a few feet off the ground. His voice filled her ears a second later as he must have put on his headset. “Nothing like a little improvisation.”

“Medical will be ready for you when we land at the Playground.” She sighed and focused in on the flight ahead of her. “Director Coulson will want a word with you after that.”

“Directo—“ She could almost see Sitwell’s eyes going wide. “That’s new.”

She did catch Nick’s laugh through the speakers though. “Things change.”

“No shit.”

“We’ve got reports of a Toya Hunt matching the second target’s description operating out of Little Rock.”

“I can handle that one.” Nick’s voice shifted back to business mode and Melinda found herself smiling. The idea of Nick Fury showing up on Victoria Hand’s doorstep to bring her back into the fold was an entertaining one. The two never saw eye to eye on anything, even though they’d wanted the same results. Melinda almost felt bad for any stray HYDRA agents in the area. No doubt the two of them would cut a swath through any enemy territory they encountered on their way home.

She let Nick brief Sitwell on where they were and what had been happening while he was out of commission. Despite some doubts—after all, Garrett had snuck under all their radar and she’d lost count of how many friends and acquaintances had turned out to be HYDRA—Nick had sworn up and down that Sitwell was the reason they were able to put most of the higher up, indirectly involved HYDRA personnel away.

And if Nick Fury trusted someone with that kind of responsibility, well, there had to be a reason.

That had led to yet another rescue op. The first had been Blake. They were still tracking a handful of loyal agents that were far too good at keeping quiet to make the job easy, but one by one, they came in. Barton, Woo, Morse, Quartermain and a handful of people who had nothing to do with SHIELD the first time were all either allied or signed up. Sitwell was the latest. Hand would be next. It was starting to feel like rebuilding SHIELD wasn’t that crazy an idea after all.

Jasper’s voice cut across the plans and routes and intel that was flying through her head. “Tell Phil he still owes me a bottle of wine.”

Melinda laughed softly. She found it was getting easier to do that, for the first time in ages. “I’ll get right on that.”

“You can tell him yourself when we land.” Nick’s voice had the ring of an exasperated parent before he shifted back to a more casual tone. “We still on for dinner tonight?”

“Reservations at 7.” Her smile became warmer. “There’s a bottle of champagne waiting for us too.”

“Phil outdid himself.”

“Date night’s important.” And it was. It was one of the concessions they’d made in an effort to make their relationship work again. And it was working, better than it had in years in fact. Date night just meant that once a month, regardless of what this new version of SHIELD needed, they spent it together. No interruptions. No planning any ops. No discussion of HYDRA or recruiting or vetting. Just the three of them, quiet and together. It had very quickly become something she looked forward to.

Again, she didn’t have to see the reaction from Jasper to know which expression was likely on his face at that moment. “That new too?”

“Nah. Old hat at this point.”

She waited for some kind of verbal acknowledgement. It wasn’t until several minutes and several miles later that it came. She hadn’t quite expected the quiet, half-to-himself words. “Hill owes me fifty bucks.”