Melinda had always loved the sunset; the specific point where the sun disappeared from view but the orange and red still was visible and illuminated the sky. Even though the sun couldn’t be seen, it still affected everything and cast both a light and a shadow over everything. It had always been there for her. The sunset was the one constant in her life that she could rely on to keep herself grounded. Melinda had at first loved the sunset for its light, where she shined; then later in life loved it for its shadow, where she hid.
Her very first week at the Academy, when she was eighteen, her room was high off the ground and facing the west, causing colors to fill her room and make her smile as she got ready to sleep. It was the same sunset she always saw back home; the same sunset her mother was likely watching at the same time.
When Peggy Carter walked into the training room one day where she was sparring with John Garrett and wiping the floor with his ass, the Director took Melinda out for a moment and took the curious teen through the building without a word, then into her office. There, as the sky filled with blues and purples, Melinda became who would be the very last student of Director Margaret Carter before her retirement.
Meeting Phil Coulson had been something different, something new. The fumbling dork from Communications dared to partner up with her and was quickly sprawled out on the floor, though he wasn’t thrown down as hard as Garrett had been. Melinda offered her hand to him and he accepted it with a dopey smile and a ‘good game’, giving Melinda a pain in her heart that she quickly brushed away, and offered to start giving him private lessons even though he was a year older. Most of the cock-headed boys from communications would’ve refused to accept help from a tiny asian girl, but Phil simply grinned, brushed the hair from his eyes, and told her he was free Friday night.
Their first session that week had been outside in the courtyard, and had resulted in her pinning him to the mat, their noses inches apart as she got distracted by his blue eyes reflecting the gold behind her. Within a split second she was off of him, brushing off her uniform and looking out as the beauty of the fiery sky she had always admired now had a contender.
Nick Fury had walked in cocky and sauntering, having been Phil’s SO for three years and Melinda’s friend for none. He watched the two of them working a simulator and when they finished, he grinned at their highest score and asked to join them, promising he’d beat them both. Melinda had excused herself and gone outside to see the sun, still visible, reminding her that she was Melinda May, and she shouldn’t feel intimidated by this man who acted as if shouting ‘pipe down motherfuckers’ when the recruits were being rowdy meant he was in charge. The sun and the fire exploding out from its surface told Melinda that Phil trusted him, so she could too, even if she resolved not to let him think she was a subordinate of any kind.
She breathed in deep, channeled the firm yet welcoming steel that the sunset inside her provided, and walked back into the simulation room and kicked his ass. Later she found out that Fury’s cockiness was just a mask and a ploy to hide his pain and indecisiveness.
Maria Hill had joined the academy on Melinda’s last year. She and Phil had been friends for four years already, and were being groomed to be the next Director’s top strike team. They already knew each other better than anybody, and tended to move down the hall in sync, always knowing what the other was thinking. The brunette in the class they TA’d was headstrong, feisty, and rebellious. It was quickly clear that she worked harder than anybody in the room, and she and Melinda’s similar personalities quickly became friends.
Their last day in the academy, their new boss, Fury, asked them who they recommended to take Melinda’s place as the Director’s personal apprentice. Melinda looked out over the courtyard that night. She didn’t need to think about it at all and neither did Phil. This time, to look for reassurance that her decision was the right one, she looked into his crystalline and intelligent eyes instead of the colorful rapidly lowering light. They said all she needed to know.
She’d almost kissed him that night, underneath the soft painting above their heads, but she’d pulled away to tell Nick that the sun had set and so had their decision.
Then she met Andrew. Andrew; this man whose eyes were utterly unremarkable, but didn’t work at SHIELD. He wasn’t bad; kind, and funny. He was safe. Secure. She dated him for the security of never wondering if he was going to return home. She stopped seeing Phil nearly as much, and sought replacement from him in the sunsets once again. Andrew always asked why she never missed watching the sunset. She didn’t have the heart to tell him it reminded her of Phil’s eyes. Was that even normal? She tried every day to get rid of her feelings for her partner, sometimes literally through Andrew. It wasn’t fair to him at all, but she just tried to forget, and continued to watch the sun and her dread and heartache slowly sink into the trees every night, even when they moved in together. Even when he proposed.
One day Clint Barton, Phil’s rookie, came back from a mission dragging a snarling young woman with fiery hair. Natalia Romanova, a notorious assassin he’d been sent to detain. Normally she’d deal with his defiance of orders and utter stupidity with Phil, but her partner was off on a mission that required a white man (infiltrating a racist organization). She sighed and pulled the two of them sharply into the nearest interrogation room and chained Romanova to the table. She then pulled Clint aside into the adjoining room with a one way mirror watching Romanova and asked him lowly what the actual fuck he was thinking, bringing her onto their secret base. He insisted that she’d worn a blindfold the way there. She looked abused, and maybe brainwashed, he’d insisted.
Melinda had looked back at Romanova, then decided to uncuff the girl, prompting an aghast Clint to thump his forehead on the wall. Romanova rubbed her wrists and looked at Melinda with narrowed eyes. Quickly, Melinda slammed the girl into the table but didn’t succeed because the assassin flipped Melinda round and pressed her to the wall, her forearm threatening to snap her neck. But Natalia didn’t. She released Melinda, and didn’t kill her, breaking what must’ve been years of forced training. When Phil returned, she’d been berated heavily for the dangerous move, but it was worth it.
Three months later, Melinda’s rookie was already thriving and being introduced to a normal way of life. Clint had the best time introducing now-named-Natasha to various things like ice cream and Tetris and Pillows, the latter of which Natasha fell in love with. But sunsets? That was Melinda’s to introduce. Of course the woman had seen sunsets before, on missions and various outings she’d had. But she’d never truly appreciated it like Melinda had been able to all of her life.
One night, soon after Natasha was permitted to leave the base, Melinda took her to a nearby park with hills and took her to the tallest one.
They watched in awe as an invisible paint brush repeatedly made smooth brush strokes that overtook the sky that was ablaze with the fire of the setting sun. Natasha didn’t move a muscle until the sky was fully opaque and an impossibly deep and chilling black blue illuminated by the city lights. Then she hugged her SO, and whispered a hushed thank you that made Melinda smile brighter than the sun that’d just sank behind the buildings.
Melinda and Andrew’s wedding was in the middle of the day; the sun high above. At that point, she thought she was over Phil, or she wouldn’t have said yes to Andrew’s proposal. A plain blue hue blanketed the sky, not a cloud to be seen. It was boring and plain. Nothing like the vibrancy of both the setting fire she held so close to her heart. Phil was her best man, of course, and Maria and Natasha were her bridesmaids. As Phil congratulated her, she once again found herself lost in his eyes. She’d simply hugged him to avoid eye contact. She’d experienced what she’d come to call her ‘sunset moment’ once again where her heart soared and her eyes twinkled, but in the middle of the day, proving she loved two men, both in very different ways.
The next week she’d found out he was dating a cellist. She stopped watching the sunset for a while after that.
After Bahrain, her inner fire channeled from the sun disappeared the second she shot the little girl. Helping her out of the building and into the ambulance, Phil looked at her with worried and earnest eyes. She looked into them, but instead of the ‘sunset moment’ she’d always had looking into his icy blue eyes, she felt pain, like thousands of shards digging into every aspect of her soul, dragging anything she would have felt away to the little girl’s cold body, and she broke down crying into his arms, unable to take back what she’d lost.
Melinda requested a desk job the next day, after spending the previous night getting drunk while staring at the sunset, screaming at the window for her to feel something. Andrew had tried to console her but she pulled away. She needed Phil. But how would he help? She’d lost everything she was in that dilapidated building. She’d lost herself.
Fury had taken one look at her standing silent in his doorway as he read her request for transfer, and accepted. Maria, Nat, Clint, and Phil all yelled at him as she left his office, her face blank and ignoring everybody that tried to talk to her. She didn’t say a single word in the weeks following Bahrain. She communicated through tears or incoherent screaming at Phil, even though he never shied away no matter how much she hurt him or pushed him or collapsed into his arms.
Nothing made her feel. Not drinks, not drugs, not pain, not moving out and staying in a motel far, far away from her perfect house with her perfect therapist husband and her perfect white-picket fence that she would just drag down with her imperfect and split soul. She was spiraling. The only thing she could desperately think of that would ease the battle raging in her mind was death. Death was an escape.
She planned it so that she could see the beauty of the setting sun one more time. She would’ve preferred Phil’s eyes, but he would stop her, of course.
It was seven at night. The sun was beginning to disappear.
She smashed her fist into her mirror, not caring about the charges. Dead people don’t need to pay for anything.
She took a deep breath. She felt numb except for the war and the screaming and the gunshot echoing in her ears. She climbed to the roof of the motel and slowly slit her left wrist, watching, unfeeling, as her skin split and crimson liquid pooled out in a trail after knife, bubbling up from under her skin. The other wrist followed quickly. Melinda dropped the knife and laid down on the knife, watching the sun setting, and seeing the sky she’d watched almost every night of her life go through the same pattern of colors. It was the same, but she wasn’t. She’d lost everything, she thought vaguely as her body drained of energy and her heartbeat slowed and she couldn’t believe. She eagerly awaited release as her eyes started to blur. She saw Phil’s eyes in front of her, worried and panicked, but the same beautiful blue. Melinda welcomed what she assumed was a hallucination, and everything started to cloud and turn black as she let out a strangled breath.
She’d woken up in the SHIELD hospital with bandages around her wrists and a devastated Phil by her bedside. Everything was blurry, and she just listened impassively as Phil tried to explain why she needed to live. That she had him. That she had Nat, and Maria, and Clint.
But she didn’t. She didn’t deserve them. She curled up into a ball and stared, unseeing, at the white wall before her, Phil’s words turning into nothing, like every feeling and every happy memory she’d ever had, overcome by thoughts of her hand on the trigger, the sound of the gunshot, how the little girl had looked in her arms; cold, lifeless, her face frozen in pain with tears down her cheeks.
The next day she attempted again, being prevented at the last second by Maria and Phil holding her as she curled up on the floor and sobbed, Phil gently but firmly taking the piece of cracked glass from her grasp with shaky hands.
She was handcuffed to the bed after that. She just stared at the wall again, imagining it as the sun setting on any happiness she could imagine.
She was released 3 weeks later after she was given medication for her depression. She no longer wanted to die, but she felt nothing for anybody. Not even herself. She bought a small apartment next to the base with no windows so that she couldn’t see the sun and the beauty that reminded her of everything she’d lost. She followed her monotonous routine of waking up, Tai Chi, going to work, coming home, eating, and sleeping. And letting go of the memory of the sun inside her and Phil’s eyes.
The day started normal, like any other for the last three years. She was at her job, then walked home. She watched on the news as they announced the new ‘Avengers’ saved the day. She ate undercooked microwave broccoli and pasta as she buried herself in extra paperwork that her boss kept insisting was unnecessary. But what else would she do?
She got a call from Nick Fury, which she ignored as he called her three times, knowing he wasn’t a very impatient man. He left her a voicemail which she sighed and listened to.
She dropped the phone as she fell to the floor.
He was gone.
Her sunset was gone.
He’d done nothing wrong.
‘TAKE ME,’ Melinda screamed, ‘I MESSED UP. MAKE ME PAY, NOT HIM,’ she sobbed. He didn’t deserve this.
She loved him. He was her world, her sunset moment. She loved him.
The next day was a slow blur, like an artist dragging a wet paintbrush on a yet-to-dry painting as slow as possible, gradually ruining everything. Melinda drank the entire day and just lay on the floor, trying to forget. Somebody knocked on the door through her haze. They yelled something about kicking the door in. Maria. Melinda cursed sluggishly. She hadn’t seen the woman in three years, what the fuck did she want now.
As promised, Maria broke the lock and swung the door open. She yelled something like ‘thank fucking god I thought you did something stupid again Mels’, which made Melinda laugh humorlessly. What was the point?
Maria hoisted her up from the floor, took away her bottle which elicited a sluggish whine. Mria handed her a water bottle and when she refused to take it, Maria helped her drink it. She fought the bottle against her lips at first but gave in when the water quenched thirst she didn’t know she had.
Maria forced a sweatshirt over her old, wet shirt and gave her more water to drink before dragging her out of the apartment and outside, where she noticed the sun cast its golden rays down upon the clouds of billowing smoke, turning them bright red; fire red. It was absurd how the sunset, her sunset, could be so gorgeous when the only man she’d ever truly loved was gone. How dare the world continue moving as if nothing had happened, as if she hadn’t had her heart ripped out for the second time.
Maria wrestled the complaining Melinda into a car and slammed the door closed before getting in the driver’s seat and taking off. Melinda debated asking why she was being kidnapped but was simply too tired.
They drove for either hours or minutes, she didn’t know, but she blinked and they were in the hangar on the SHIELD base. ‘What the fuck, Ria’ she mumbled as the younger woman pulled her back out of the car and handed her another water bottle. She was starting to feel more sober but she had a killer headache as she guzzled the entire water bottle without stopping.
She followed the Deputy Director down winding hallways to an area she’d never been before, and then entered a dark room. Melinda took a second to adjust to the darkness but blinked and realized they were in an observation room that looked far down into some kind of medical room with machines and a hospital bed that held… ‘Phil’. Melinda put her hand on the window then turned questioningly, demandingly towards Maria, who’d been joined by Fury.
‘Phil’s alive. We have an assignment for you’.