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December 15, 2010, 1930
The tradition of celebration your nation by blowing up a decent portion of it seemed to be universal. The waterfront adjoining the small public park was set up for what -- given the apparent lack of experience of the pyrotechnicians -- appeared to be an unwise quantity of explosives. Melinda sat with Basma at the top of the observation tower that overlooked the ongoing festivities.


“I love watching the children from up here,” Basma said with a soft smile. The people below were as small as mice, and the children crawled over the play set with vigor aided by the cooling temperature. As dusk deepened, families appeared, toting pots and dutch ovens filled with biryanis and spiced chickpeas, stewed lentils and koshary.


“I love the lack of health inspectors,” Melinda countered. Money changed hands and food was shoveled onto paper plates with gloved hands or disposable bowls.


“Hmm?” Basma made a questioning noise and sipped on her flute of lemonade with a delicate pursing of her lips. Her husband, Naser, and her sister had taken the children out to their family encampment in the desert, leaving her alone for an afternoon before she joined them for National Day.


“Something like this could never happen in the States.”


“When was the last time you were in the States?” Basma needled.


“Last December.”

Basma raised her eyebrows knowingly. “Trip home is coming up, then.”

“Just after Christmas,” Melinda confirmed.

“Going to eat your pork and get drunk every night?” she teased.

“All the heretickery I can fit in,” Melinda agreed with a snort of laughter. It was an old joke between them from nearly ten years ago. They had met on Melinda’s first stay in Bahrain. Basma and her family lived two floors below Melinda in a flat modestly sized for a family of six.

Three weeks into her assignment, 9/11 had happened, and Melinda hadn’t slept for forty eight hours as she compiled report after report about who could have done it and how SHIELD might choose to bring them to Justice. As dusk fell on that second day, the red-gold slashes of fall light burning her up as though from the inside, a knock had come at her door. Basma had stood outside, waiting, a covered pot in her hands and a cloth bag slung over her shoulder. Her khimar was a somber black.

“You’re American?” Basma had asked in rusty, accented English.

“Can I-” Melinda had begun.

“Do you eat Bahraini food?” Basma had asked, interrupting her. Melinda had stood and stared at her, hollow and numb. “Some American’s don’t-”

“I eat pretty much everything,” Melinda had interrupted.

“I saw on the news what happened and...” She trailed off and frowned, the graceful arch of her eyebrows crumpling together in distress. “I am sorry for what happened in New York.”

“That’s not-”

Basma held up her hand around the pot and shook her head in the manner of a Bahrani denial -- more of a rotation than a back and forth motion. “I do not mean I did it and am sorry, but I am sorry that the hurt happened. When my friends are hurt, I bring them food.” She held up the pot demonstratively.

She elbowed her way into Melinda’s apartment and set up the food. She had a thermos of tea and a wheel of bread to go with the spiced rice dish she brought. Melinda allowed it out of a mix of the sleep-deprivation stupor and the grief-addled, anxiety-riddled hollow in her middle. Her SHIELD files and the tools of her work were in the extra room, fashioned into a very secure office slash armory.

Melinda set two places at her dining table, but though Basma set out the food she fluttered around the table, reluctant to sit down. “Will you eat with me?” Melinda asked. Basma tried to defer a few times, but Melinda finally discerned the issue. “I haven’t been eating any heathen meat on my plates, I swear. I don’t think I’ve even used a fork that wasn’t plastic since I moved here.”

“I don’t want to be rude,” Basma said at last, and sat.

Basma stayed long after they both expected, Melinda grateful for the break and the company, Basma grateful for the break from her youngest’s needs.

Through the sharing of a meal, of tea, of grief, and of forgiveness, they had started a friendship which had ended with Melinda bound up with the entire family. She had no siblings, so no nieces or nephews, but she had Basma’s four children, Naser’s armies of nephews, and a host of elderly men and women who were suddenly quite ready to give her advice or criticize her Arabic, as the situation required.

Melinda stirred her own drink and watched the ruckus of people. The beat of drums from a traditional music group was barely audible through the windows of the observation tower. “It feels strange, going back in winter.”

“I don’t know how you survive: I would freeze and die.”

--

January 6, 2011, 0129

In Bahrain, being identified as Christian was a hazard that even the strictest agnostics were hard-pressed to escape if you were non-Muslim, and Western. The tradition in the region was to celebrate on Three Kings Day. Thus, on January 6th, Melinda had been swept along with a group of largely British expats for a celebration at midnight mass, and would be expected at Sati’s (but mostly her mother Arunta’s) dinner feast that evening. Melinda had never appreciated the enthusiasm with which Indian Christians celebrated the holiday until moving to the Gulf. Though none of the other women who Sati lived with were Christian, it never dulled their enthusiasm for the trappings of the holiday. None of the Christmas celebrations ever lined up with what Melinda remembered from childhood, but under the eighty-degree swelter of a Bahraini winter, that didn’t seem too surprising.

After mass, Melinda allowed herself to be herded with the modest tide of merrymakers. The Irish pub was open all night to accommodate holiday celebrants, and pints went around the room in flight after flight. Navy boys from the base, non-observant locals, expats from every corner of the British empire, and Saudi Aramco employees taking their holiday in the more liberal Bahrain mingled in a mish-mash of drunken merrymaking. She was involved with a conversation with a local prostitute when the Al-Jazeerah news ticker caught her eye.

“Arab Spring upon the region, says Foreign Policy.”

She was not unaware of the goings on in Algeria or Tunisia, but the news ticker’s statement sent a chill up her spine.

--

January 10, 2011, 1821

Melinda and Eman strolled in the early evening twilight, arm in arm. Melinda was incognito in a niqab, and Eman, though somewhat disapproving, had done her share of work for SHIELD and was largely inured to casual... it wasn’t quite blasphemy, but it was something close. Melinda had a midnight flight through Doha the next morning, and this was her last chance to get on-the-ground intel before her trip back to the States.

She used to think of those trips as trips home, but now she simply thought of them as trips back to HQ: business trips, and a necessity of her lifestyle.

Adept at avoiding heat, and not yet familiar with labor laws that limited the length of work days, Bahraini businesses came alive at sundown. The long break through the most brutal period of mid-day heat meant that bakers and fishmongers, butchers and barbers, cold stores, clothes stores, and restaurants would stay open and bustling past midnight even on weekdays in some areas. The area they walked was Shi’a, marked with an onion-topped mosque at the main entry and splatterings of graffiti in Arabic in varying degrees of inflammatory.

Eman stopped at the fishmonger, a man with several coolers full of seafood and a long stick for swatting off overly-bold Delmun cats, and began picking through his catch of the day. Melinda made herself small by the back edge of the majlis. Traditionally, the small structures opposite the mosque were simply made of a few felled palm trunks squared up and floored with soft sand. This one was a bit more lived in and had a palm-frond roof over a rough rattan frame and a few pieces of furniture. Men sat on the benches, drinking tea and discussing the things old men of every nation discuss together; the ills of the world, the failings of youth, their children and grandchildren, politics, religion. They were discussing MPs and immigration, and Melinda took mental notes while Eman dickered.

With a sack of small flat fish in hand, they both moved on. Melinda stopped and got falafel with salad and garlic sauce wrapped in a pita, and ate it in practiced nibbles, not getting a speck of the oily sauce on the overhang of her niqab. A group of men, women, and teenagers waited at the bakery door. There was one little door where customers ordered and slid their payment over, and a second door where the baker would wave the huge rounds of bread until the appropriate customer took their goods. Most people stood by with some sheets of newsprint to wrap the bread.

As they waited for the bread to be baked in the massive coal-fire oven, Melinda listened to the people talk. She listened to the teenagers complain and the wives and mothers and sisters worry and the men debate, and she catalogued it all for later reports.

--

January 10, 2011, the second time

D.C. was fucking cold, and jet lag fucking sucked.

--

February 17th, 2011, 1300 hours

Melinda drew a deep breath of the hot, thick air and let it fill her lungs like moist cotton, the scents of jet fuel and minerals thrown up from land reclamation mingling to welcome her home. She pulled out her cell and dialed. During the stopover in Doha she had switched on the Gulf Nations SIM in anticipation of her arrival.

“Miss May? You back in town?” Wahid greeted her, identifying her from her caller ID no doubt.

“Just got in,” she confirmed with a nod. “Can you send a car?”

“Not a problem.” There was the sound of muffled voices as Wahid made a call on his second cell phone, and then some shuffling papers. “One of the boys will be by soon. You know our cars.” Wahid hung up without waiting for a response from her, probably driving with his knees while making all his calls.

Melinda smirked and settled on a bench to await her ride. She’d been stationed in the Gulf for close to nine years and in Bahrain specifically for two. She had made her name in SHIELD working as an analyst and specialist primarily out of Asia but when given the chance had opted to transfer into the Gulf, as it provided more opportunities for advancement than her prior positions. She was one of the early recruits into the second generation of SHIELD operatives into that region after the Gulf War. She was able to tag out the veteran operatives, hardened by a decade of trying to keep the powder keg that was the Gulf from blowing and taking out half of North Africa, Eastern Europe, and oh, by the way, Pakistan, in the process. Then, three weeks into the new assignment, 9/11 happened, and she got a crash-course on the region like she wouldn’t have believed possible.

A lifetime later, but only nine years, Melinda had learned Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, and a smattering of regional dialects, added into her polyglot of south Asian languages, and she had accrued a knowledge of Islam usually only obtained by converts. She had dined with princes and briefed sheiks, and she’d been welcomed into the most cloistered women’s wings of high households. Asia may have been where Melinda May started -- where she had been expected to remain and excel due to her cultural heritage and physical attributes -- but the Gulf was where she had bloomed. She had persevered beneath the punishing sun, and she had grown supple and strong in the buffeting winds of sandstorms.

Since the times when the island was known as Dilmun, since when Sumerians called it a holy land, and Gilgamesh crossed mountains to reach the fabled port, Bahrain had been a melting pot. The expats, unregistered foreign workers, and immigrants outnumbered the natives in many areas, and though ethnic Chinese women were rare, with a bit of makeup and the right clothes she blended in well enough. She liked her posting and she liked her friends and coworkers. She did not like the annual trips back to the Hub for comprehensive debriefing and performance evaluation, but she couldn’t have everything the way she liked it. Fury had made up for the inconvenience by sending her home with a few choice bottles of scotch -- more difficult to obtain in the predominantly Muslim nation than she would like -- and a slight increase to her discretionary budget.

She was interrupted from her musings by a nondescript white sedan that pulled to a stop in front of her. The driver was older than Wahid, and familiar, but not so familiar she knew his name. She nodded, rolled her suitcase to his trunk and waited while he loaded in her things.

She sat in the back and let him maneuver through the first few roundabouts before speaking. “How has life been in Bahrain the last few weeks?” she asked in English. Most of the drivers preferred to use her to practice their English, and would revert to Arabic if they couldn’t remember a word of phrase.

“Eeh,” the driver hedged, wobbling his head back and forth as though trying to decide between ‘okay’ and ‘not so great’. “Al Budaiya is red-zone again and there was police—” he broke off and held his palm flat, tilting it side to side.

“Checkpoints?” Melinda suggested.

“Actions,” he suggested in counter. “Protests, but they don’t talk about it on the television. The Pearl Roundabout isn’t safe -- the Shi’a are all out protesting.” Protests, both major and minor, were not uncommon in the country. They were often discussed like one would discuss traffic predicaments or weather systems, and avoided with the same laissez-faire attitude. The way the driver had mentioned them held more of an edge than usual -- almost like one would describe an approaching hurricane. Melinda’s ears pricked forward.

“Is that why Al Budaiya is closed?” she asked. Al Budaiya was a main highway bisecting the entire nation and crowned by the Pearl Roundabout, and it being declared a red zone didn’t so much close it as warn off anybody from using the route. There were several highways of similar size, but Al Budaiya was notable as it also represented a corridor of Shi’a neighborhoods and thus, civic unrest. The Pearl Roundabout was thusly named because of the massive sculpture of a pearl in a pronged setting that stood at its center in the middle of a grassy lawn: that monument was as visually synonymous with Bahrain as the Statue of Liberty was with New York, or the Golden Gate Bridge with San Francisco.

“Protesters are staying all night at Pearl Roundabout,” her driver confirmed. “Everything is blocked up around that area and you know how they get if foreigners get mixed in.”

“Huh.” She mulled that over for a bit before she came to a decision. “Change of destination. Do you know the apartment complex behind the Pakistani Embassy? Near the Al Jazeera?” Her driver nodded. “Take me there please.”

--

February 18th, 2011, 2200 hours

Melinda felt as though she had been thrown into a tumble drier with a few large granite rocks while being grilled on foreign policy for thirteen hours straight. Four were dead and countless more injured from the government’s attempt to clear Pearl Roundabout of protesters.

“It was peaceful,” Jawaher moaned over the phone. Cell networks were severely restricted, but Jawaher had a secure SHIELD satellite phone that Melinda could still get through to. She had obviously been crying, her voice rough and her tone anguished. “It was peaceful and they came in with birdshot like we were animals.”

“I know,” Melinda assured. “I’m trying to get in contact with the UN to see if we can’t institute sanctions or get a referendum on the books.”

“That’s not enough!” she shouted over the connection, blowing the tiny cell speakers. “They’re butchering our people; we need freedom.” Melinda took a breath and tried to remind herself that Jawaher wasn’t mad at her -- that she was just terrified for her family and her country and herself. The breath seemed to calm Jawaher as well. “I’m sorry, Mel,” she said quietly.

“It’s hard, I know. Just remember to stay calm and stay safe -- you can’t help anybody if you’re dead or in prison.”

Melinda could practically hear Jawaher nodding over the phone. “I’m going to Salmaniyya to help out the nurses. My brother has been there fifteen hours already.”

“Ok. Remember what I said.”

She put the phone down and allowed herself a moment to rest her forehead on the desk. She’d been woken a little after midnight when cell networks and Internet service had shut down in certain areas by government orders, and she hadn’t had a moment to rest since.

She fixed herself a cup of coffee and reheated the plate of biryani she’d managed to grab for lunch and then sat back down at her computer. Before she had the chance to dig her fork in, a SHIELD voice link appeared on her screen asking for her confirmation codes. She shoved two bites in her mouth and chewed while going through the call and response. When she did, a video link popped up to match the voice link. It showed her an African-American woman, late thirties or early forties with neat dreadlocks and pinched worried eyes.

“Hello? Is this someone from SHIELD?” the woman asked.

“To whom am I speaking?” Melinda asked.

“Bonnie Green. I was trying to reach someone from the US embassy, but they told me I needed to reach someone from SHIELD. I just moved to Bahrain over Christmas.” She gave Melinda an address for an apartment tower which she quickly mapped.

“Shit,” Melinda muttered.

“Oh my god, what?” Bonne asked, the panic ratcheting up in her voice.

“No, it’s fine. I just realized why you got routed to me.” Her apartment tower rose directly overlooking Pearl Roundabout. “Which way does your apartment face?”

“South.”

“We can work with that.” South-facing windows would give her prime views of both the roundabout and the roads leading into and out of the area.

“No, I mean, what should I do? What should I be doing?”

“Listen to me carefully.” Melinda forced her voice into a soothing cadence. “My name is Melinda. I coordinate with SHIELD in Bahrain, and we are going to make sure you’re okay. You’ll be safe in the tower; there’s private security there, and there are enough foreign investors with residences in that complex that the government has a vested interest in keeping their violence away from your building’s doorstep. You’re safe for the moment.” Bonnie drew in a long breath and raked her fingers through her hair. She sat close to the camera and at an odd angle, suggesting she was on a laptop. “Can you take me over to the window so I can get a look at what’s going on down there?” Melinda had gotten huge numbers of reports from around the city -- Manama, Hidd, Riffa -- but the area directly surrounding Bonnie had been radio silent after 5am or so. The military vehicles which cordoned off the area made it clear why.

“How am I going to get out? How am I going to get food?” Bonnie asked off-screen. “I can’t cook,” she muttered obviously to herself.

“Listen to me: you’re going to be fine. I’ll make sure you don’t run out of supplies. It might be a bit scary, but you’re in a spot where we need you. This whole thing might be a flash in the pan,” Melinda privately knew that was not going to be the case, but there was no reason to scare Bonnie overly much, “or it might be something big. You know what the government can be like; you may be one of the only interested parties positioned to document what is happening on the ground. I need you to sit tight and keep your eyes peeled, okay?”

Bonnie was back on the screen, and nodded.

After the conversation, even with her coffee, Melinda felt completely drained. She was just going to write a few briefs and then get some rest. She was no use if she was incoherent.

Early the next morning before she got to bed, she listened on CNN to the impassioned plea of a doctor from Salmaniyya Hospital for international intervention. In the background she could hear the cries of distress from patients and staff, and it brought the sting of tears to the back of her eyes. Regime change always came at a price; too often the price was human lives.

--

February 24, 2011, 2236 hours

Melinda jammed her smallest screwdriver in the key slot of the unfortunate motorbike at her disposal and jimmied it to life. This particular one was for the “Snow White Cleaners” service, and wouldn’t be in service until after morning prayer, by which time she would have returned it. She growled, flipped up the kickstand, and vroomed off into the night with a tinny puttering sound. Her cell routed through the bluetooth in her motorcycle helmet, so she was technically available and on call, but she just needed some time out of everything. She gassed up the little scooter and raced out into the desert south of the main villages that made up the city/nation conglomeration of Bahrain.
South stretched barren desert like only the Gulf seemed to cultivate, criss-crossed by oil pipelines and the barest hints of infrastructure. Powdery, dry earth was marked by the occasional dead-looking desert plant, and only the glow of distant lights at the horizon told her that there was somewhere where she had come from, and somewhere to which she was going. The coasts were owned largely by the military and the ruling family -- prime real estate snapped up for navy training grounds and royal palaces. The center, though, what hadn’t been drained of oil, was owned by the people. She found herself making the turns in each roundabout without having consciously decided her route. Even late at night there were SUVs out and about, and ATVs with several children piloting, or teenagers racing one another. Encampments grew out of the gloom like a Bedouin fever dream with rings of tents surrounding courtyards of dead dust and pounded earth. The flickers of campfires lit caricature figures like paper lanterns against the sides of tents of private enclosures.

She took the motorbike down a beaten track off the paved road. A plume of spicy desert dust rose behind her back tire. The encampment where she stopped had a few SUVs parked out front of it and a fleet of smaller dirtbikes and all-terrain vehicles. She dismounted and shook out her hair in the dim glow of camp lanterns through canvas walls.

A-salaam-alaikum,” she greeted before she got to the entryway.

Wa-alaikum-salaam,” was returned to her from a familiar voice. “Melinda; a happy surprise.”

“I was in the neighborhood,” she said with a sly quirk to her mouth. “Is Basma still up?”

“Come in, come in. It’s all uncles and nephews I’m afraid. The girls are asleep.” Melinda heard a telltale giggle from one of the sleeping tents that spoke the lie of that clearly enough.

The men were gathered around a fire set in a repurposed washing machine drum suspended over a bare patch of ground. Naser, who had greeted her, sat on the end of one of a few long benches while younger men were arrayed on a runner rug that had seen better days. The greyest uncle sat in a recliner, incongruous with the rest of the landscape. Melinda was unique amongst many Muslim households in that she interacted with both men and women, and was sometimes -- outside the view of public eyes -- allowed to consort with largely male social groups.

Initially it had been frustrating and mystifying, learning the customs and social mores that set boundaries within the culture. Families, and even individuals within families, could have radically different ideas of what was appropriate given their precise religious and social beliefs. Some men would rather be caught dead than alone with her while others were happy to consort with prostitutes at bars. Melinda had learned that it all came down to the individual, and what each of them were comfortable with.
This family fell somewhere in the middle on her unofficial conservative values scale. They didn’t drink alcohol and adhered strictly to their prayers, but they also listened to Western music on occasion, and were supportive of their daughters’ education. Melinda had been adopted into their family some time ago, and had spent some memorable downtime out in this very encampment, racing dirt-bikes with the teenage children and having spray-snow fights. Naser waved for her to come in, and she complied. Melinda sat on the carpet next to one of Basma and Naser’s nephews who she had watched grow from a round-faced boy to a lanky teen.

“Coffee? You look like you need it.”

Melinda snorted and rolled her eyes. “You’re going to be a bad influence on me.”

“Me be the bad influence?” Naser mocked offense. “No, no, no, you are the bad influence. Getting up to all your spy hijinks.”

“Hijinks?” Melinda asked wryly. “Really?”

“That is the right way to use it?” he asked, suddenly concerned.

“No, that’s right.” She shook her head and rubbed her palms down her knees. “Just didn’t know where you got it from.”

He held up his finger and chided her gently. “You are not the only English speaker I know. But come, tell me of your troubles.” He pulled a little cup from the tub of bleach water, shook it well, poured, and offered a cup of yellow coffee. The unroasted beans made for a high-octane brew with more a flavor of tea than coffee, but all of the caffeine punch of a shot of espresso.

She drank it down like a shot and handed it back for a refill. Melinda shook her head and stared into the yellow liquid when the cup was returned. “The UN isn’t going to step in. The US isn’t interested. SHIELD doesn’t have jurisdiction and the World Security Council is more interested in the security of Saudi oil fields and Emirati banking.” She drank down her second cup and tilted it back and forth as she handed it back, signalling she was done. “I write reports and I send videos and every goddamned day I do this—” She chose a small sharp stone from the ground next to her and hurled it towards the entrance of the encampment. “And there’s always some other priority -- some reason Bahrain should be left alone. Some reason nobody wants to help. And I can’t even blame them. It’s a fucking mess out there right now, and here, the villages rise peacefully and beg for change and that must mean they don’t want it bad enough.” She threw another stone in disgust.

Naser dipped the cup in the bleach bucket to wash it clean. “United, the will of the people cannot be denied.”

“United, all that guarantees is that the people the regime wants to disappear are easier to locate,” Melinda spit out. She could probably do it -- she could probably assassinate the Khalifah’s brother who really ran almost everything. She could nudge things in the right direction, maybe. Or maybe she would be the tipping point in a brutal civil war that would destabilize the entire Gulf region. She hated the inaction but she understood how SHIELD’s hands were tied. Melinda could not have risen to the position she was in without understanding that. “I’m just tired of watching without action,” she admitted quietly.

Naser nodded. “You are not a person to sit by while others fight, but this is not your fight.” She started to protest but he held up a hand. “This is not your fight; this is a battle waged in the hearts of every citizen of this country. This is a war for the soul of the nation, and we have decided we will fight it with words and hopes and art and poems, and if we are cut down in the name of this war, for the love of our country...” he shrugged. “It is the will of God, and we go to Him willingly.”

Melinda pursed her lips. “If I go to any god, you can be sure it won’t be willingly,” she replied.

--

February 27th, 2011, 1550 hours

“This isn’t going to last; let SHIELD -- let me work up an extraction plan for you. For your family.”

Matar put down his cup of coffee and his wife refilled it from the thermos on the sideboard. “Do you know what the people are saying? They are saying that the Sunni and Shi’a are brothers. ‘The people are free and God has made it so.’” He dropped his head in obvious emotion. “They have come together for love of our country and they have asked me to be their voice in the dialogues. I must focus on my country and my countrymen’s needs.”

“Do you know what else I hear in the streets?” Melinda asked. “‘Death to Hamad.’ This is not the first time I have seen a revolution from the ground and there are only three ways people come out of revolutions: survivors, martyrs, and dead.” She was silent to let that sink in.

“The people are peaceful for now, and I am their MP. I must try to reason with them -- with both sides -- to broker a peace.” The weeks had taken a toll on him, and the responsibility weighed heavily.

The funerals for those killed at Pearl Roundabout had turned into marches, and from marches into protests. The mourners had marched all the way back to the roundabout, flowers in hands and with tear-stained faces shouting, asking, begging the soldiers to let them through so they could gather as they wished. Melinda recalled Bonnie’s terrified call, routed directly to her cell, as the protesters and police met.

It had ended without a clash, though. The police withdrew and the protesters had occupied the roundabout 24/7 ever since. A culture experienced in picking up and camping out in the desert for the cooler winter and spring months meant the area was almost magically converted into rows of tents, both living quarters and organizational headquarters, as well as proper sanitation and communications infrastructure. Each night was a parade of speakers, poets, artists, and champions who called for the downfall of the house of Khalifah. Each day was a confusion of political agendas, frustrations, and anger.

Matar had been at the forefront attempting to negotiate for regime change, but the talks were breaking down day by day. Word was the Emir Khalifah bin Salman Al Khalifah was going to Saudi, though whether it was to placate the big-brother country or ask for its help in placating Bahrain’s population was a source of debate.
“Peace may be your calling, but if you leave your wife without a husband and your children without a father—”

“Do not say such things,” Matar’s wife hissed.

Matar put a calming hand over hers. “What my wife means is, if SHIELD wishes to help, then please, put pressure on for a regime change. Give the international community the proof of the atrocities and theft committed against the Bahraini people. Send more than a trite word through back channels to the people of Bahrain.”

“You know I’m doing what I can. But—”

“There is not the will to interfere with the oil fields and the might of the Saudis so close,” Matar finished.

Melinda bowed her head in acceptance. “I’m doing what I can. Please, just... Be careful.”

--

February 28th, 2011 through March 8, 2011

Natasha’s route into Bahrain took her first to Chennai and then Goa, on a flight into Rajasthan and then overland through Hyderabad into Karachi. On the way she checked contacts -- SHIELD and otherwise -- regarding her assignment. Human trafficking out of certain less scrutable ports in India and Pakistan had been a long-standing problem on SHIELD’s radar, but recent chatter intercepted from AIM sources in the region suggested some high value ‘goods’ were entering the pipeline. AIM didn’t tend to go for slave purchase or commerce beyond those used for test subjects, and the language used suggested either high-quality child prostitutes or otherwise exceptional human meat on the market.

From Pakistan she posed as a flight attendant for Oman Air to get to Muscat, and from there into Bahrain International. She liked the way the vibrant blue uniforms both set her apart and anonymized her for the transit. In her final destination she ducked into the women’s bathroom directly before customs and changed into a non-descript black abaya and a headscarf which helped alter the shape of her face just a bit. She changed her makeup, making her skin blotchy and darkening her eyes to give her the opposite of a healthy glow, and retrieved the documents that May had left for her. They were surprisingly good faked credentials.

The security check before she was released into the baggage claim area was a joke. The guards didn’t even look at the screen as her carryon trundled through the x-ray, and the metal detector wasn’t on, though they made her walk through it. She flicked her phone on and checked the messages. There were two from Melinda, one with a coded address, the second with a warning about the uprising, increasing in temperature daily with widespread protests on foot, and the Pearl Roundabout occupied 24/7.
She had a short coded exchange with May which ended with her in the back of a private taxicab on her way to the mall.

--

March 8, 2011, 1659

Perhaps it was due to the frankly unlivable weather that made up every season but winter, or perhaps it was a commentary on the consumptive nature of the the nation, but malls were a social institution in Bahrain that had far outlived their relevance in 90s America. Women in Western garb and women covered but for a mesh slit over their eyes walked in front of the same window displays. Resident workers in Sikh turbans and waxed beards, men in long thawbs and checked keffiyeh, and Western men in shorts and jerseys all queued at the French bakery for croissants.

Melinda found Natasha seated on the edge of an interior fountain in a security camera blind spot. She had a cone of pistachios in one hand and a pile of shells on her other side. Her free hand would dip into the cone, delicate, like a hummingbird sampling nectar, and pluck out a pistachio. She would then do something complicated with her nails and slip the nut meat between her lips, discarding the shells. It was done fastidiously and with no small amount of concentration. Melinda sat on a corner of the fountain wall with her shoulder at a right angle to her asset.

“Any trouble coming in?” Melinda asked.

Natasha hummed in a way, Melinda knew from experience, was negative. “Things got a bit more interesting out of Rajasthan than I like that early on, but...” She trailed off and shrugged. “I got a partial list of potential buyers, so it was worth it. Pistachio?” Natasha offered the cone, and a memory card was in the middle of them.

Melinda snorted and picked it, and a nut out. “Need anything from my end?” Melinda asked.

“Permission to eliminate or detain the first name on the list. I can pose as his intermediary and get access to the goods.”

“I’ll investigate and let you know within twenty-four hours.” Natasha made an affirmative noise. “In the meantime I have a warm-up assignment, if you’re up for it.”

“I got warmed up in Goa,” Natasha replied.

Their gazes met briefly in amused understanding. “There’s a source in the north tower of the Desert Pearl apartments that I need to get supplies to. It’ll give you a good view of villages and the traffic patterns as well. Bonnie Green, 15th floor.” Natasha tipped her head to the side in agreement. Melinda tapped the handle of the granny basket she’d wheeled up with. Natasha threw her another look, but it turned into a mutual, conspiratorial thing.

--

March 9, 2011, 0732

Natasha rolled upright with a sigh of displeasure. The guest bed she’d been offered by Bonnie was uniquely uncomfortable; somehow it made Natasha feel as though she was going to be pitched off of it at any moment, and she had not slept well as a result. That wasn’t aided by the unrest going on outside the window all night. There was a hesitant knock at the door.

“I’m making breakfast if you want some. I mean, I’m trying -- I’m not very good yet.”

“Thank you. I’ll be out shortly,” Natasha replied.

Bonnie had talked to her nearly nonstop through the late afternoon and the evening, and then offered her a place to sleep. Natasha might have turned her down and sought a safe house, but at that point the area around the entrance of the Desert Pearl had been abandoned, and her egress might have been noticed. Better to wait for the early morning efflux of protesters to mask her exit, and hopefully Melinda would have gotten her orders by then. She went through her morning limbering exercises and showered quickly.
The eggs were only a bit burnt, and the bacon was crisp and delicious. “I can’t believe Melinda got me bacon,” Bonnie gushed and bit into a slice with relish.

“She got everything from the base, I think.” Natasha had realized early last night that if she didn’t respond appropriately, Bonnie got very anxious. Already being an anxious person, and being in what, for a civilian, was an anxiety-inducing situation, Natasha did her best to minimize her contribution to that.

“Thank you again for coming. I mean, I didn’t think Melinda was going to let me wither away or something, but it just gets lonely sometimes.”

Natasha nodded, a little stilted but sympathetic enough. She had watched in fascination all through the early evening out the large-paned windows as the camped-out protesters moved like ants, or weather fronts. The lights of their meetings stayed bright lit all evening and the faint sounds of megaphones could be heard as dissidents made speeches and led rallies.

“She’s taken responsibility for you. She will take care of you.” Bonnie nodded and moved her eggs about her plate. “Speaking of, I need to get in contact with her.”

“Oh. Of course. Let me set it up.” Bonnie fiddled with her laptop and set up the security protocols. The call connected through to Melinda, audio only.

“Bonnie?” Melinda asked without preamble.

“What’s the word?” Natasha asked.

Melinda hummed in acknowledgement of the question. “Let me check.” There was a long pause and the sound of a call and response protocol too muffled to hear the details. “You have a go for detention. Holding location is NSA brig with possible transport to Guantanamo or SHIELD detention.”

“Understood,” Natasha replied.

“What’s your timeline for delivery?” Melinda asked.

“Fifteen to forty-eight hours. I’ll contact again when I have him in hand.”

“Acknowledged. Your contacts are Deepti Chaudhari in the Gurkha security force and Major Alejandro Rosales in Intelligence.”

“Understood. Do you want to talk to Bonnie?”

“That would probably be good,” Melinda said on a sigh.

While Bonnie was talking, Natasha gathered her things and slipped out the door. She had an underworld scumlord to kidnap.

--

March 12, 2011, 0940

Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton got sent a lot of places to watch and see and report. He was sent with Phil when the person he reported to needed to have the authority to order action under even questionable political circumstances, or when he might need backup, or when one of the higher ups was worried he might get bored and start something just because. Phil was a steadying influence. Phil kept his people working at tip-top efficiency. The part of Clint that he’d once thought was scourged from his soul that liked to follow orders and liked to be told what to do by a steady hand and a strong mind liked Phil Coulson and every mission that involved him as handler.

Over the last few years, Clint had branched out from strict elimination to more complex surveillance and even some light undercover ops. This was a combination of the three: surveillance and light undercover until he figured out who to eliminate, or whether that would help the situation at all. SHIELD kept its ear to the ground about everything, but biotech and advanced weaponry with biological components was monitored especially closely. Especially since Ross got the drop on them with the Hulk-Abomination thing -- that was just a mess.

Bahrain had risen as a port city and a trading hub, and it was as a port city and a trading hub that it was holding on by its fingernails to a sliver of Gulf economics. As the Arab Spring swept through Tunisia and Algeria, Yemen and Jordan, Bahrain remained one of the nations still, if not open and supportive, at least a bit tolerant of American and multinational forces such as those SHIELD fielded. It was, if not a stronghold, at least an entry point for SHIELD into swaths of territory that had erupted in instability and unrest like a teenage boy’s acne at puberty.

Which was how Coulson and Hawkeye ended up on military transport into the Naval base at the center of Juffair. Military transports were not comfortable, but the smell of them, the close touch of the air, and a particular quality of the lighting was a comfort. Clint dozed and slept for the majority of the twenty hours of travel. He had been briefed before leaving the States, and he knew Coulson was used to the long stretches where Clint would almost literally turn off to conserve energy and prepare for the coming trials, dozing with his thoughts blank and mute.

Clint arrived at NSA Bahrain -- Naval Support Activity, not the security agency one -- glassy-eyed with jetlag but otherwise well-rested. Coulson was rumpled and had a spot on his jacket where Clint had drooled on him during the stopover in Kuwait but was alert. Coulson checked in with the information officer on base while Clint corralled their gear. Clint was dressed much like the Naval staff and families who walked around the cloistered military Disneyland that was the active military base -- long shorts, a loose t-shirt, and wraparound sunglasses. Most of his gear fit into a specialized backpack in desert camo print which he strapped on. Coulson’s luggage was considerably larger and contained a variety of items for Natasha’s work as well as his own monitoring equipment. There were also some items Melinda had requested before her departure but which had only been approved after she had gotten back to the Gulf.

He got a pair of coffees from the canteen and wheeled out to wait for Coulson in the sun. They had left DC in the harshest grip of winter and landed in comparative tropical paradise. It was early February and a frigid eighty degrees. Clint began to sweat, but only a bit, as he drank his coffee.

Coulson joined him twenty minutes later, the light of a raw morning sun reflecting off his Aviators. “We good?” Clint asked. Coulson nodded once and took possession of the rolling suitcase with a casual gesture. He slipped a dossier of mission updates into Clint’s bag.

“You know your route?” Coulson checked. “Travel safe, then.” He gave the rolling bag a nudge with his toe and headed towards the civilian cars that SHIELD took as loaners.

Clint smirked. “See you on the radio.”

The manicured order of the naval base gave way almost immediately to the chaos of the country it was nestled within. A Battalion, or whatever quantity Gurkhas normally came in, guarded the front gates of the base, and gave Clint an especially suspicious look as he trotted out. The Indian special forces were hired by US military for security details at the base. It struck Clint as weird that the US preferred what amounted to mercenaries patrolling their front gates instead of their own people. It was close to a shift change so service people and civilian contractors were a jostling stream flowing both ways through the checkpoints. The mood was tense, shoulders hunched and eyes moving quickly amongst the crowds coming and going. Signs warned service people to be respectful and dress conservatively while outside the confines of the base with pictures of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ examples and stern warnings of possible consequences for missteps.

To one side, a huge open dirt plot served as parking lot for those not important enough to get a parking spot within the base, and a taxi queue faced the lot across the cul-de-sac. The drivers looked as though they had settled in quite thoroughly, with a small open-air kitchen to brew coffee or tea, a potted, haphazard herb garden, and rows of benches where they could lounge and play backgammon.

The SHIELD safe house was in one of the high-rise apartment buildings that had sprung up like pernicious weeds around the army base and housed largely transient populations of contractors and smaller families there for the short term. One more American didn’t get noted or commented upon, and the building management was grateful enough to have a regular tenant, even if that tenant seemed to be several different people who came and went at odd hours. Clint settled down with the dossier Coulson had slipped him and read through his updates.

--

March 12, 2011, 1010

Phil navigated the highway and labyrinth of side streets with the aid of the SHIELD GPS system and parked eventually in a covered spot out front of the British Club. A haven for expats, a social club where English and Western modes of dress were common, and perhaps most importantly for the British, a licensed purveyor of alcohol, the British Club lent cover to a variety of SHIELD activities and meetings. Phil unloaded his luggage and secured the vehicle, taking a moment to breathe and attempt to acclimate himself to the heat.

An Indian man sat at the guard post in the vestibule of the club, and eyed his identification critically. It was genuine, so there was really nothing for the other man to find, but Phil waited for him to determine that for himself. Inside, a few mothers and small children splashed in the pool and a few dedicated alcoholics clustered by the bar. Melinda lounged in the shade with a glass of brown liquor on the rocks, part of neither group but less conspicuous for that. She smiled when she saw Phil and raised her glass in greeting. He quirked an eyebrow at her, silently asking if they could take this somewhere more private. She tilted her head to the side and half-closed her eyes in a way that subtly indicated amusement, but stood.

She led the way to a small soundproofed room. If the piano was any indicator, the room was usually used for musical practice. Phil ran the usual precautions against electronic surveillance while Melinda sat at the piano and played a few chords. Her knees were spread in a relaxed sprawl, one booted foot tapping the soft pedal with an absentminded beat. “Did you ever play?” she asked. She transitioned to something familiar and classical.

Phil shook his head. “I played the cornet in grade school,” he admitted. “There wasn’t funding at my high school so I joined Debate instead.” Her eyes smiled at him, and she switched to a jaunty Souza march. He snorted a laugh. “I didn’t know you did.”

“The place I leased in Qatar had an out of tune baby grand, god knows why.” She shrugged. “I hadn’t played in a long time -- it was nice.” She wrapped up the march and sat up straighter.

Phil took that as his cue. He unpacked Melinda’s requisitions from his bag and offered them to her. It was mostly surveillance equipment, but it also included a set of something from R&D that looked like brass knuckles but probably weren’t, gauntlets like Romanov had specced out which produced more voltage than your average military-grade taser, and a new pair of boots of unknown provenance. Melinda smirked and an unsettling light glinted in her eyes as she took the items and signed Phil’s receipt form. Melinda’s smirks came in so many wonderful varieties -- wry, amused, delighted, disbelieving, condescending, threatening, and this absolutely wonderful combination of pleased-amused-excited with the variety of humanity-charmed-about to get into trouble. That last was, privately, Phil’s favorite.

She packed her goodies and briefed him on the local situation without prompting. The largest issues would be transit and logistics: national police forces were using their power to shut down roads and highways at seemingly random points. The protests blocked a significant portion of highway interchanges. “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here when things might have run a little bit smoother.” On the perhaps-positive side, the distraction of maintaining order during the nationwide protests split the focus of the government, which was rumored to be either a buyer or seller for the weapons shipment they were tracking.

“I’m sorry these opportunities arose during such a busy time for you,” Phil replied. “I’m sure you had enough on your plate before Romanov’s mission and ours got dumped in your lap.”

Melinda waved away his apologies. “Instability always breeds opportunity. It’s nice to have something concrete to work on. It’s been politicking and stand by and observe here since I got back. Everyone is too twitchy to take their finger off the trigger, but they’re too paralyzed to pull the damned thing.”

“Are you the finger or the trigger in this metaphor?” Phil asked.

Melinda jammed her fingers on the piano in a discordant expression of her frustration. “Either. Both. It doesn’t matter. Look, you and Barton go get those shipping manifests I mentioned. They’re only available in hard copy in the customs offices, but the security there has got holes. I have to check in with a informant and make contact with Romanov. Will you be good?”

“We have what we need,” Phil confirmed.

--

March 12, 2011, 1152

Phil was familiar with creative and aggressive driving styles, and adverse conditions, but Bahrain was a unique experience. With more cars than residents, Bahrain was in a constant state of traffic congestion. The vehicles displayed their owner’s nationalities clearly enough in most cases. Some of the Emirati vehicles were completely painted over with the Emirati flag or pictures of venerated officials. Saudi vehicles in from the deep desert had their noses waxed over to prevent sandblasting during long cross-country treks. Everyone, regardless of nationality, drove like damned maniacs. In only an hour of driving, he’d seen two SUVs take off across sidewalks for hundreds of meters at a time or across empty lots bumping over uneven pitted ground. Fed-up drivers would happily drive over medians or up the wrong side of roads if they felt traffic was holding them up overly much. Motorbikes were fearless and wove through traffic like minnows. It all worked on his nerves like a cheese grater.

He took the longer route by the waterfront district and a series of swanky malls, over the Shaikh Isa Bin Salman Causeway, through Hidd where a number of suspect warehouses were, and then over the Prince Khalifah Bin Salman Causeway to meet up with Clint.

The apartment was large and felt empty even with the rental-provided furniture making it appear as though someone had made an effort at some point. The windows were double-paned bullet proof glass, the Internet was SHIELD satellite, and the linen closet included two full tactical kits, including gear for desert survival at temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

Clint glanced up when Phil entered but went back to reading without a word. He had clearly showered and scrounged food while Phil was making the rounds. He had his handgun on the table near at hand but was otherwise relaxed as he ate dates and fried chickpeas and read the updates to their mission.

Phil dropped Melinda’s updates and went for a shower himself.

“So, the customs office?” Clint asked. Phil had tried to slough off some of the jet lag but had only succeeded in moving it about until it all sat in his stomach.

Clint kicked a chair out for him and stayed quiet, awaiting a response. “Yes. It’s on the Saudi causeway, so I figured we’d scope it out this afternoon and do the deed tomorrow night. I have to coordinate with Natasha to get her a few things she couldn’t travel with, this evening.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Clint sucked on a date pit. “I’m thinking whatever is getting sold came through already,” he said after a while.

“I would tend to agree. The tightening at the Saudi border, and the Qatari and UAE coastal patrols on high alert -- I can’t see it coming in by sea within the last few days, certainly.”

“Especially if it’s not coming from Iran. Ten Rings has been sniffing around but it seems like as buyers, not pipeline.” Clint wore an expression that spoke clearly of his dislike for Ten Rings. Ever since Stark had blown one of their nests wide open to expose the armament hemorrhage going through the group, they had left a bad taste on the back of SHIELD tongues.

“So it came through, got logged, and what? Has been in storage?” Phil shook his head and accepted a proffered date. Clint shook his head. “No,” Phil agreed. “But if buyers are sniffing around, they may be offering demonstrations.”

“On who?” Clint asked aghast. His eyes quickly narrowed as he considered his own question. “They wouldn’t— not on their own population.”

“Intel did say it was a biological agent. It wouldn’t need much space for storage, and if they had a method of crowd control that was less lethal, it would make calming insurrections easier—”

“And it would make UN sanctions that much more difficult to get enforced. Okay so we’re looking for somewhere with refrigerated storage? With room enough to do some skeezy testing or something and impress buyers. Any news on buyers, by the way?”

“Ten Rings movement, some chatter out of Egypt’s secret police, a few of the crazier elements.”

“When Ten Rings is mainstream...” Clint trailed off.

“Hell in a handbasket, Agent Barton,” Phil agreed.

Clint gave him a sidelong look. “Go get a nap before you go out there to meet with Tash. I almost got run down by two trucks, a guy on a motor scooter, and a bicyclist on my way here -- you won’t survive driving without some rest.”

--

March 13, 2011, 0840

The neighborhood Melinda found herself in was equal parts poverty and gated, guarded private compounds. The compounds were some of the oldest in the nation, owned by the richest and most venerated families. She parked the delivery scooter she’d boosted from her neighborhood falafel shop around the back of another falafel shop in the vicinity. It was early and neither shop would be open until after noon. The local cats gave her dubious looks and cleaned their paws. She liked them -- their stupid crosseyed expression, their aloof attitudes, their long, strong legs and elegant spots. They didn’t care what happened to the politics, so long as the trash bins were filled regularly and their prey supplies didn’t dry up. She gave them a salute as they eyed her with suspicion. She gave the same salute to the man on duty in the guard post and slipped into the cooler, quiet refuge of the compound.

The high cement walls were topped with copper baffles to keep out the sounds of the village, and wrapped around the entire perimeter of the compound. A wind tower stood in one corner of the compound like a pillar of history. In the times before central air, the wind towers would capture air pressure gradients and were used to cool wealthy homes. Now it was a symbol that the household was wealthy enough to maintain an obsolete structure and nostalgic or held enough respect to keep to the old ways in some small manner. The rest of the buildings were long and low and peppered amongst patches of desert garden. The gentle sound of trickling water pervaded the environment and seemed to bring a cool, fresh scent with it. Servants passed like silent shadows from the kitchen to the living quarters, and from receiving room to offices.

Melinda made her way to the smallest receiving room which looked out on a reflecting pond decorated in the Moorish style. “A-salaam alaikum,” she called through the open doorway. When she had first come to the Gulf, the greeting on her tongue had struck her as sacrilegious in a deep way. She was the very definition of a non-believer, and she never pretended otherwise with her contacts or acquaintances. As Arabic became reflexive, and a variety of consonants she had never had to fit her lips around before seemed commonplace, the greeting came more easily. It was like saying ‘bless you’ when someone sneezed -- she didn’t have to believe that someone’s soul was trying to escape out their sinus cavities to recognize the social nicety. And she could hardly disagree with the sentiment: ‘peace be upon you’ was something she would wish on most people.

Wa-alaikum salaam,” Tahir returned. He sounded distracted, but stood instantly when he saw her. Tahir was what Melinda thought of when she thought of the Platonic ideal of an Emirati gentleman. He was of moderate height and slim build, with strong, deft fingers. His beard was trimmed to points that would put Tony Stark to shame, and his keffiyeh fell about his head and shoulders in folds that were somehow simultaneously soft and crisp. His face was handsome and cunning, and he always had treated her with kindness and respect. “Have you eaten?” he asked. His own breakfast was on a tray, picked over but not truly consumed.

“I’m afraid not,” she admitted.

He called to the kitchen and ordered food and tea for both of them. They sat at a demure distance until the food was delivered and the servant had retreated once more. “I would put money on the fact that the tea here is better than at home. Malka would have cried to hear me say it, but it is so.” He sipped appreciatively at his cup.

Melinda used a piece of flatbread to scoop up fava bean paste, which she ate. “She’d be happy to know you’ve found someone to make you tea now that she isn’t here to baby you any longer,” Melinda countered. Malka had been his wife of eight years until she died of early-onset cardiomyopathy. Melinda had been there for Tahir through the grief, and they had grown close. Most of the household thought theirs was simply an ongoing, somewhat low-brow affair on Tahir’s part. Nobody suspected that he also fed Melinda, and by extension SHIELD, information from the Gulf Cooperation Council. The affair was really just a side-perk for Melinda: deft, strong hands.

Tahir slipped a memory card from the cuff of his tawb and slid it across the breakfast tray to her. “Audio recordings from the most recent meetings, and some things which were not put on record,” he explained.

“Thank you,” Melinda said with genuine sincerity.

“Now I was hoping you could look into something for me.” Tahir gestured towards his chest with a small fried sandwich. Melinda raised her eyebrows. Their information exchange was largely predicated on moral grounds, and a certain amount of financial leverage SHIELD had with Tahir’s family’s holdings. He rarely asked for favors, and he rarely asked them in such an uncertain manner. He ran his thumb over the place his wedding band had rested in a show of agitation. “It’s not for me, so much as... Well, there has been concern lately.”

He paused. Melinda let the silence hang heavily between them. It went without saying that there was concern everywhere, over a variety of things.

“At the mosque by my office there have been people gone missing.”

Melinda allowed herself a look of alarm. “The regime?” she asked in disbelief.

“No, no, nothing like that. Not... At least it seems unlikely. I am unsure as to the particulars, but the muzim asked me if I knew anybody who could—” he broke off and settled his hands on the arms of his chair to keep them from fidgeting. “It is a dangerous time to be asking questions, and if it is the regime...”

“You’d like to be sure the person asking the questions can handle herself.”

He dipped his head in agreement. “I am a businessman and a politician. You are... you.” He smiled, mischievous, and trusting.

Melinda nodded. “Okay then. If I’m going to do that, looks like breakfast is all I’ll have time for.”

His brow crinkled in disappointment that was equal parts theatrics and genuine regret. “If you must,” he agreed. He reached for her hand, and she settled her palm in his. Deftly he turned her hand and brought the inside of her wrist to his lips. He kissed the pulse point, the trimmed fringe of his whiskers tickling her skin. “I have no idea how they don’t kick you out of the mosque,” Melinda told him. She stood and moved to leave.

“Prayer,” he called after her. “Prayer, prayer, prayer.”

“And prayer,” she replied over her shoulder, the routine of the exchange familiar.

--

March 12, 2011, 1146

The space smelled of Dettol disinfectant and oud wood. They combined to a scent that was almost like moisture in the desert-dry air. Melinda moved quietly out of respect rather than training. The air was still and muffled as though God had inhaled and was waiting for some sign to let the air stir once more. She curled her toes into the thick pile of the carpet and breathed deeply. The mosque was the sort of place she might like to practice her Tai Chi if that sort of thing wouldn’t have been wildly inappropriate. She glanced at the prayer clock and did a turn around the central space to admire the tile work.

A muzim shuffled in on socked feet. He turned on the PA system hooked into the speakers on the minarette and tapped it, causing an amplified boom. He glanced at the wall clock, cross checked with his pocket watch, and stepped into the parabolic archway of the mihrab to begin his warbling call to prayer.

Melinda spoke enough Arabic, well enough, to do everything from converse on neighborhood politics to negotiate arms deals. She was familiar enough with the words to simply appreciate the muzim’s style of azan and contrast it with what she had come to think of as ‘her’ calls to prayers -- the ones predominant in her neighborhood.

The carrying moments of the muzim’s call ended with a thump of the microphone. He began going through his own prayers and Melinda stepped back to the entryway so as not to impede those coming to prayer.

She need not have.

An old man and a bent woman Melinda would have called a ‘babushka’ if she were in Europe hobbled to the public washrooms for their ablutions. Another single man ducked out, freshly washed, and began his own prayers. It was by no means the steady trickle of worshipers that she was familiar with in these smaller local mosques. The muzim finished his prayers and headed towards Melinda.

He clasped his hands across his middle and nodded at her. “Tahir sent you?” he asked in accented English.

“Yes.” She frowned. “Where are the people?”

The corners of his eyes crinkled and mouth turned down in a humorless smile. “Tahir said you saw clearly. I am glad he was not…” he waved his hand in a gesture Melinda took to mean ‘blowing smoke’ or ‘overly optimistic’. “Where indeed? The men don’t come to mosque even once a day. I see none of them at Friday prayers. They don’t gather at the majlis.”

“So this is a missing persons?” Melinda asked.

He shook his head. “When Menal is finished she will tell you.” He nodded towards the bent woman of the old couple Melinda had seen enter.

Melinda waited and kept herself patient by running through a check of the gear on her person. Menal made her way out of the mosque when she was done with prayer and sat to put her shoes on. Melinda sat next to her, the muzim standing within earshot.

“I don’t think it is that their faith is lost,” Menal began speaking in Arabic, “but that their faith was taken from them.” Melinda frowned in confusion but remained silent. “Some demon has taken root in their soul and replaced the one true God, and the place of worship is anathema to them.”

“Those who went missing have experienced changes in their personality?” Melinda asked, also in Arabic.

Menal nodded almost to herself. “They stop coming to prayer, then the stop going to work, then they...” she waved her hand in a shooing motion.

“Do they just leave?” Melinda asked. “Without being taken?” she clarified. Menal nodded definitively. “Individually or with their families?”

“No, no, alone,” Menal said, as though being alone was one of the worst fates she could wish on someone. If that someone was coerced to abandon their family somehow, Melinda supposed it would be quite bad. “They just leave their parents or their children and we do not see them again. My daughter tried to keep her husband from going when he started acting strangely. Hameed said he had been called and would answer. She tried to follow him but lost his car in Manama.”

“Was his car found?”

Menal gave her a condescending look. “Do you think the police are looking now? They’re too busy filling our children with birdshot like animals.”

“I hate to ask this, but I have to. What were the political affiliations of those who have gone missing? Or their families.”

“Nationalists. A few who spoke of an Islamic republic to replace the royal family. But also some children and others I would not say are political at all,” the muzim said after some thought. Menal nodded in agreement.

“So it’s possible these disappearances could be political?” Melinda checked.

“It is possible, but the way it happens... It’s so strange. What could happen to make them like that? What could the King do to make people behave so strangely?”

“I’m not sure, but strange is my business. I’ll see what I can find out.”

--

March 13, 2011 0751

“Mel, my brother, he’s gone.” Jawaher sounded panicked. “They took him,” she added, as though that part wasn’t clear.

“What happened?” Jawaher’s brother was a doctor at Al Salmaniyya hospital, and had been on television a few times explaining what he saw happening, and what the injured civilians had told him about the ongoing protests. She could just imagine some royalist police bureaucrat deciding that that particular doctor was causing too much trouble, and should be disappeared. The timeline Jawaher described fit her mental image pretty well, but for some reason the story only made a cold, hard thing settle in her center. She felt as though she should be angry, or outraged, and she was, but it was a distant, disassociated thing. The concept that she would be able to do something about her friend’s family, plucked from the street and probably in the process of being tortured to death, seemed beyond her reach.

Another call interrupted their exchange. Bonnie was on the other line.

“Listen, I have to go,” Melinda said, firm and calm.

“But what am I to do?” Jawaher wailed, her distress and exhaustion pulling at an emotional place in Melinda that was nearly physical.

“Stay safe. Stay out of the press.”

“But how will we—”

“I have to go,” Melinda repeated, and disconnected the call.

Bonnie sounded wary. “There’s about twenty heavy military vehicles plus all the normal riot police and some military stuff I’ve never seen before, stacking up on the highway.”

The clearing of the Pearl Roundabout had begun, and along with it, 48 hours of violent clashes between protesters and police. And there was nothing for Melinda to do but keep on mission.

--

March 14, 2011 0246


Clint skulked along the waterline at the customs office at the center of the causeway between Bahrain and Saudi. Everything coming overland, from eggplants to explosives, checked through that office, and though the system was in the midst of an upgrade and technological overhaul, it was still heavily reliant on paper copies. In addition to all the overland import and export, that office was responsible for the pre-approval of certain shipping storage for a Royal port. Though there were no goods that were prohibited for shipment to that particular location, there were obvious security concerns that were addressed through copious quantities of paperwork.

That was what Clint was there for.

There was a complex system of call and response for shipments that ensured that they wouldn’t be held up going over the causeway that connected Bahrain with Saudi. The Saudi side had a larger-than-normal military presence which made Clint’s skin itch, and he’d had to dodge low-level paper pushers which got his blood pressure up.

“I know we like it when folks have something else to focus on to distract them from us, but...” he trailed off, from the bare whisper he had used for the comm.

“I know,” Phil agreed. “It feels like something is waiting to go off.”

“And not in a sexy way.” Clint continued to skulk and search. They knew the shipment they were interested in was either coming in over the causeway and going out through the Royal port, or coming in through the port and out over the causeway. There was some sort of negotiation or demonstration that was supposed to go on during the stopover, and given the military presence, Clint wasn’t keen to see what it entailed. If Bahrain’s ruling family was on the brink of going full on North Korea-style crazypants dictatorship and was planning on kicking it off with whatever this fucking weapon was... Well, SHIELD had a vested interest in keeping that from happening, regardless of the methodology employed.

Clint winced as he made copies of the manifests from two ships and one international transport company that were the only documents that were relevant for their timeframe and size requirements. The bright flash of the scanner blinded him for a moment each time it ran over a page. He bundled up the documents, secured them in a waterproof folio, and moved to exit.

Which was of course when things went to shit. A police patrol bulled its way into the dark building, right into Clint. Phil had broken into the observation tower that overlooked the Saudi side of the causeway minding their escape route, but due to a line of parked semis he had not been able to see the unit’s approach or warn Clint. The first indication he got of danger was Clint’s strangled noise of surprise over the comm. He saw the flashes of a struggle beneath poor lighting and heard shouts in Arabic.

“Fetch,” Clint growled over the comm, and Phil saw an arc of movement which could only be the dossier with the documents shoot out of the scuffle. Apparently unnoticed, it fell down into the deep shadow of the rocks which made up the breakwater.

Phil spoke urgently over the comm line. “Barton, I’m coming for you.”

“Negative,” Clint replied through a grunt of pain. “Code tango, tango.”

Phil froze. “Confirm code tango?” Phil asked, half-hoping he’d heard wrong. That plan would put Clint in a hostile interrogation situation in the slight hope that Clint could a) get useful intel from his interrogators and b) escape or at the very least survive whole and relatively unharmed until rescue.

The comm crackled out before Phil could get a confirmation.

Phil waited until they had hauled Clint off, checked that the sub-q tracker was working properly, and slunk down to the waterline. He left his leather-soled dress shoes on the dirt patch above the large rocks emerging from the water and scaled the boulders in his dress socks. Something many-legged and probably crustacean in nature scuttled over his hand when he grabbed for it, but he found the dossier Clint had left him. It was a mess of Arabic (which he didn’t understand well) and Urdu (which he didn’t read at all) with some English thrown in just to taunt him. He’d need someone to translate this, and Clint’s expertise was not available to him at the moment.

--

March 13, 2011, 2104

Melinda parked her bike in covered parking. The apartment was behind a police outpost down two alleyways in a poorer immigrant area. Laundry criss-crossed above her head and a few windows were open, their curtains billowing out with gusts of warm wind. A few Delmun cats stared at her from the trash bins with unfriendly, somewhat crosseyed expressions. She threw them a grin in spite of their obvious displeasure with her, and climbed the building’s rear staircase.

The door she stopped at had a fake-evergreen Christmas wreath attached to it with a pair of police zip ties. She knocked.

“Melinda,” Deepti greeted in her unique, lilting accent. “Come in.” Melinda stepped inside and took her boots off before greeting Deepti with a kiss on the cheek and a warm hug. The apartment was crowded in the way that a small space populated with many differing personalities tended to be. Hindi, Christian, and Muslim religious paraphernalia formed a multicultural spiritual patina over the walls, and collages of family photos formed borders for all the windows. Another woman bustled in, arms open to Melinda.

“Sati,” Melinda greeted and accepted the hug. “How is your mother?”

Sati rolled her eyes. “Cooking. I tell her she’s not the housekeeper, but you know her.”

“You know mothers,” Neelam added.

“Mine wasn’t much for mothering in the traditional sense,” Melinda shrugged.

The three women lived together in the small apartment with Sati’s mother, Arunta. They had transferred in with the rest of the Gurkhas when they had been hired by the US military, and as the women in the unit had formed a close bond, had been relocated together. Melinda had encountered Deepti in the Navy store buying wine, and had struck up a friendship with the group of women. After they helped her to retrieve a group Roxxon employees captured as hostages, their friendship had been cemented. The whole group had basic SHIELD clearance and Melinda had the authority to call upon them if she required backup from non-governmental forces. They also fed her at least once a week.

Sati combed her fingers through Melinda’s hair and gave her cheek a pat. “She’s happy to be your mama then, too. You’re always so skinny: you need some gulab jamun to pad out that butt.”

Melinda snorted a laugh. “If my butt ever filled out, I’d have to get new pants. I’m lucky Arunta is looking out for me, though.”

“I’m lucky that I have my family here,” Sati agreed. “It’s only right that I should share it with those not as fortunate.”

“Dinner!” Arunta called from the kitchen. The women wore a mish-mash of traditional Indian garb, Bahrani house-clothes, and paramilitary clothes that made Melinda smile. They sat around a card table and passed dishes around.

“How have things been here?” Melinda asked casually.

“These girls won’t let me go out to the market,” Arunta complained.

“It’s dangerous, mama,” Sati protested.

“It’s always dangerous, only now I’m paying five-hundred rill more a kilo for banana peppers,” Arunta scolded.
“It’s different,” Sati replied sternly.

“It is different,” Neelam confirmed more quietly to Melinda. “The Shi’a are angry at the Sunni for farming out their jobs to Pakistanis and they take it out on resident workers from India. Innocent men and women who clean their houses and keep their properties—” Neelam’s voice rose until she cut herself off with a shake of her head.

“Only the stupid or the blind would try their luck with a Gurkha, but Arunta? She just looks like an old mama.”

“This old mama would have—” Arunta began, incited.

“No, mama,” Sati cut her off. “If they didn’t kill you, they would make you disappear. Poof.” Sati flicked her fingers illustratively. Sati confided in an undertone, “I would ask her to go home, but my brother is bad off enough without work at home. If I sent him mama...” She shook her head.

“Better to earn a wage here and risk things.”

Melinda tried to savor the home-cooked food, but it was difficult with such heavy topics weighing on her. It was not only the fate of the natives of the country that hung in the balance, but also that of the resident workers and the undocumented refugees from the surrounding Gulf region.
Neelam gave her a hug on the way out. “If you need us, you call us. Your bosses could make things happen -- more than we could guarding the Americans.”

“Could do,” Melinda agreed. Her expression darkened. “But will is another question.”

--

March 14, 2011, 0317

Melinda picked up Phil’s call on the first ring. “May,” she answered.

“Clint exited with a code Tango, I have the documents, and I’m coming to you.”

Melinda felt the thrill of action go through her like electricity, and her mind kicked into overdrive at Phil’s words. “Acknowledged. Do we require additional support?” Melinda liked that he didn’t ask about the ‘we’. He understood she would be helping if she could.

“Keep some on standby for a rescue if possible.”

Melinda hung up and immediately checked on Barton’s sub-q tracker, though she was sure Phil had done the same already. Barton was moving steadily towards Riffa, which indicated they weren’t going to the usual police rallying point. Natasha was about four hours late for her daily check-in. Natasha had dropped Khalil the scumbag at the NSA in the early morning hours of the 11th, and since then Melinda had gotten only curt updates as to her movements and the fact that her deception was working well. But now she’d missed a check-in, and Melinda was getting a creeping bad feeling about all of this. Melinda had drifted off for a nap expecting the check-in call to wake her, but she was fighting the muzziness of an unexpectedly long nap instead of feeling rejuvenated.

She checked Natasha’s tracker. It was stationary in the Al-Najmah Club, which was suspicious only because Al-Najmah was a sports club with no prior indications of underhanded or nefarious dealings. She debated calling and forcing a check-in with Natasha. On the one hand, she trusted that the other woman might be in the midst of delicate negotiations of some sort. On the other hand, she could have been compromised in some way that made it impossible to call for help. If it was the latter, whoever had compromised her might glean intel from Melinda’s call. If it was the former, Natasha would have been smart enough to turn her phone to silent before going into that situation.

Melinda made the call. She was no good to Natasha if she had no idea of her position or situation.

The line rang once, twice, thrice, before it was routed to the SHIELD network for phones which were destroyed or otherwise disabled. The network allowed Melinda, with the proper authorizations, to download Natasha’s call history, any messages that she had received or sent, and the most recent tracking information along with timestamps. With a sigh she put her coffeepot on to brew and began sorting through the information.

--

March 14, 2011, 0542

“You are amazing, Melinda.” Phil said it with the fervency of a devotee. He approached her coffeepot with reverence and poured himself a mug before he sat beside her to watch the Barton-blip still traveling in what looked like heavy traffic. “It’s really heating up out there, you know?”

Melinda raised an eyebrow. He was not talking about the temperature. “Saudi troop transports and armored vehicles were heading our way at the Causeway while I was heading back. There were twenty or thirty tire fires it seemed like.”

The unsettled youth were in the habit of starting tire fires in the pre-dawn hours. Used tires soaked in gasoline were lit in the middle of streets, causing traffic snarls. Occasionally very enterprising youth would include secondary incendiaries within the tire fires designed to explode on anyone trying to put them out. The call to first prayers had just been called out over the sounds of emergency vehicles and police. That things had started so early was not a good sign.

“Well shit,” Melinda said. Phil hummed in agreement.

As Melinda went through Natasha’s phone data and the scant notes she had passed on, a picture began to form. The same places Melinda had investigated for her own private quest for missing mosque-goers for Tahir popped up in Natasha’s investigation. Familiar phone numbers were in her call history.

“Shit,” she said once more with heightened feeling. Phil glanced up from his StarkPhone -- he was taking advantage of Melinda’s secure network to send an update to SHIELD and request some additional tracking resources for Clint. “There’s a local kidnapping element to Natasha’s case that I didn’t realize until just now. And Natasha’s late on a check-in.”

“Is she okay? Did she—”

“Her phone is disabled. She could have ditched it over the ocean, or she may be compromised.”

“Both our charges off the grid at once -- what’s the chance?” Phil asked. He said it flippantly, but with a gravitational pull their gazes met and their eyes grew wide.

“Saddle up. I’ll be ready in five. We’re going to a sports club.”

Phil was already in motion. She dialed while she shrugged into a shoulder holster. “Wahid?”

“Miss May!” Wahid sounded happy to hear from her even with the early hour. He’d probably already come and gone to his prayers, which accounted for his alert manner.

“Do you know anybody with a membership to Al-Najmah sports club?” she asked, urgently. “I need an invitation. Immediately.” Wahid’s taxi network was excellent for some certain things, one of which was finding who went where. For obvious reasons, his cabbies had a good idea of which of their regulars were members to what social clubs, and which they could ask for favors. Wahid owed her, and she felt comfortable calling in her markers for this.

“I don’t, but let me check with some boys. Just for you?”

“Two of us -- a white male and myself.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll talk around and see what can be done. I’ll call you back.” It seemed that her urgent tone could get even Wahid, a normally sanguine individual, moving with purpose.

--

March 14, 2011, 0638

Melinda tossed Phil a small screwdriver and went to work on her own scooter.

“You just steal them?” Phil asked. His eyebrows crinkled his forehead in an expression of incredulity that was purely adorable.

“I put them back -- gassed up, even.” Melinda coaxed hers to life. This one was from a Western restaurant by American Alley. Phil’s was for a cold store that wasn’t open yet and came complete with a small cooler on the back. “They’re faster than a sedan and even more ubiquitous.”

“Yeah, none of the SHIELD safety features, though.”

Melinda shrugged and zoomed off into traffic. Wahid, through a series of cabby connections, had gotten them guest entry at the sports club, so they could get in the front door without a fuss. At least, they could get through the front door if the whole thing wasn’t an elaborate front for kidnapping and slave trade. Then the surprises she’d stocked in Phil’s cooler would come in handy.

The helmet she gave Phil had a secure radio to allow them to communicate as they drove. The route she took cut through the local souq and a series of back alleys to get them onto Al-Fateh. She debated heading through the Shi’a neighborhood, filling with riled protesters, thick with the fumes of tire fires, and watched closely by security forces. “I called in some tactical backup in case we need it,” Melinda said over the mic.

“Will they be available for a Tango extraction around 0900 if we need them?”

“Should be,” Melinda said. “It’s one of the SHIELD-optioned spec-ops teams, and a Gurkha unit I’ve had good luck with in the past. They’re all always up for some fun.”

“They sound feisty,” Phil commented, his deadpan returned in full force.

“You don’t know the half of it.”

The streets were a mix of quiet and fevered, like Friday prayers and a holiday were turned up to eleven: the explosive personality of National Day combined with a vicious, dangerous undertone. The Al-Najmah club was a low-slung building painted the same off-white color that all of Bahrain seemed to be painted. It was as though the villages wished to sink back into the desert from which they were carved, and mimicked the gravelly taupe which made up that landscape.

They parked their scooters and approached the guard post with a false casual air. The elderly man in the guard booth eyed them curiously, but when he saw their names on the guest registry he let them in readily enough.

The inside was dark after the blinding light of early morning. A large screen television showed a sports match to a few diehard sports fans while they smoked and drank cups of tea. In spite of the early hours and the violence on the streets, a small crowd had made it in. The server gave them a curious glance and a greeting in English. Phil replied with something vague and partially inaudible which, rather than admit he hadn’t understood, the server simply nodded along with. They searched the grounds together; a silent synchrony of joined purpose.

All they found was indoor squash courts, a small pool, and a miniature cricket pitch. The basement doors weren’t even locked, and the search of those unrestricted rooms revealed nothing but cracked and heat-worn sports equipment and nonperishables for the canteen upstairs. Melinda pulled out her phone and used it to ping Natasha’s tracking device. They found the small plastic-coated pill caught in the p-trap under the sink of the bathroom. Rather, they localized it to the p-trap, and didn’t bother fishing it out. Melinda dropped an enzyme pill down the sink after it to dissolve any evidence.

“It’s lucky they didn’t flush it down a squatting toilet, or we’d be looking for her out in the ocean by now,” Melinda commented. The construction of the squatting toilets didn’t lend itself to anything much getting caught in their plumbing.

“So they found her tracker. We can presume her cover’s been compromised?” Phil asked.

“She wouldn’t remove it herself. The surgical mark would be obvious, for one,” Melinda confirmed

“Hmm.”

They were interrupted in their furious thought by Phil’s phone. He fished it out and answered. “Hello?”

“Unsecured line. I need some help getting out of this one. We need—” It was Clint, sounding as panicked as Phil had ever heard him. The standard duration of a Code Tango hostile interrogation situation was six hours. Clint calling in for help was extraordinary to say the least. His usual cockiness either had him getting extracted by Phil and the rest of the team at the six hour mark, or had him escaping on his own and making contact to keep his cover. “They turned her off,” Clint said, his voice something close to terrified. “They just fucking—”

“Who, Hawkeye?” Coulson asked, urgency and calm warring in his voice.

“Widow,” Clint replied, as though he should have known that, and maybe he should.

“She’s being held with you?”

“They just said something and she flopped down like a puppet.”

“Ok, look, I’ll get a fix on the cell signal now. We just need you to hold tight, and we’ll be there with a full tactical.” Phil pressed the phone to his ear with his shoulder and they made their way out of Al-Najmah in a rush. They encountered one of the sports fans who was coming to relieve himself, but Melinda gave him a flat, cold look and the man was backing up in a hurry. Phil started the trace on his phone with one hand and checked his weapon was secure with the other.

“There’s not much square footage for them to be searching, here,” Clint warned.

“You mean you’re not in the vents?” Phil replied in an attempt to distract Clint from the anxious business of waiting. Melinda wasted no time in contacting her teams, at the ready just around the corner from the club.

“The vent housings were too weak -- wouldn’t have supported my body weight.”

Melinda nodded at Phil. “We’re on our way. Stay sharp and even if you’re discovered, remain in the building.”

“Gotcha. I’m hiding the phone in case I’m recaptured. Don’t go futzing around, now: I’m worried about Widow.”

Phil followed Melinda outside and took the vest that she pulled from his scooter cooler. The tracking program was still narrowing down the exact location, but it was somewhere in Riffa -- they would let the program finish narrowing down the search area while they were in transit.

Two large, unmarked, white SUVs pulled up with a chirrup of brakes. The long, curved knives in their belts identified three Indian women in tac gear as Melinda’s Gurkhas. Four of SHIELD tactical made up the rest of the party. Melinda took the driver seat of the first SUV and one of the Gurkhas took the second.

Melinda drove like a demon. She drove like someone possessed. She drove like she was competing in a demolition derby, and the most surprising thing was that nobody seemed surprised by it. Her expression was grim, with a tiny smirk that said she was enjoying herself in spite of not enjoying why she was having to enjoy herself. The other SUV had no problem following them as they drove over medians and sidewalks, wove in and out of stopped traffic with their horns blaring. Phil felt vaguely ill, but white-knuckled the granny strap and thought about their possible entrances and exits to the heavily Royalist village.

By the time they made it to the roundabout with a clock tower in the center of it which marked the entrance to Riffa, they had narrowed Clint’s signal down to a particular building in a Royal compound.

“I don’t like this,” Melinda said quietly. They were in the middle of a pro-regime march, and even to Phil, used to hostile situations, this was unnerving. It was only the fact that their SUVs had tinted windows that kept sweat from breaking out down Phil’s hairline.

It seemed that every vehicle had at least one or two men sprouting from it -- sitting on the doors, out the side windows or popping out the sun roofs brandishing weapons both homemade and semi-automatic. A SUV backfired loudly, mimicking semi-automatic gunfire, and everyone in the car flinched. Melinda drove as aggressively as she could manage, but still they were held up in the traffic.

“We’re as close as we’re going to get.” She pulled off onto the grassy shoulder with no regard for legality. A high stone wall topped with barbed wire stood between them and entrance to the compound in question, and the building in specific. Melinda, Phil, the Gurkha leader, and the SHIELD team leader crowded around the laptop behind a drooping willow tree. They worked out a plan of attack and broke. One of the SHIELD team ran up the wall, gained the top of it, and carefully clipped the barbed wire.

Melinda slanted a look at Phil. “I never get tired of seeing them do that,” she confided.

“It is impressive, “Phil agreed. He was also fond of Clint and Natasha’s own Fastball special, which involved Clint acting like a springboard for Natasha. He’d seen them attain better than twenty five feet with that particular move.

The teams oozed over the wall to the sound of chants and car backfires, eerily reminiscent of gunfire. An expanse of lawn stretched in front of them. It was ostentatious simply for how water-scarce the region was, though the building itself was not terribly impressive. It was three stories, the same taupe-beige of most of the rest of the city, topped with crenelations. A guard post marked the front entrance. The teams split, Melinda and Phil staying together as the Gurkhas and the SHIELD team approached separately. The guard was choked unconscious and restrained, and Phil took a look at the security monitors. The rest of the building was not monitored so they got no indication of what was going on in the interior. The teams swept the building and shot or incapacitated those they found who resisted.

The Gurkhas found Clint, a curt “Level two, midway between the west and south entrances” notifying everyone. Phil and Melinda burst into the room to see their asset, quite battered but otherwise whole. Three guards were down for the count, one of them dead.

“Widow was moved. Took you long enough,” Clint slurred with a thick tongue.

“Well, if someone could keep a sub-q tracker in for more than a single mission...” Phil trailed off.

“Hey, it’s still in there. It’s not my fault SHIELD tech isn’t subtle enough.”

“Enough, you two. Lets get out of here. Can you walk, Barton?”

“Uhh...” Clint hedged.

Melinda wedged herself under his right arm and wrapped one strong arm around his waist. ”Yeah, I can make it.”

“Good to hear. Anything we need to take with us?”

Clint shook his head. “I have an idea where they’re holding Tash. At least, they were asking a lot about Khalifah bin Salman and the Investment Wharf.” His expression turned abruptly tragic. “They turned her off, Coulson. They just fucking—” his whole body shook with a tremor of distress. “They said something real quiet in her ear and turned her off like a robot: put her in fucking power save mode.” He shook again. On second examination the tremors might be related to the electric burns on Barton’s stomach and hip, directly over the location of his tracker.

“Psych cleared her, but we always knew there was a chance she had programming too deep or too subtle for us to detect,” Phil said. He calmly checked his weapon and handed it over to Clint. He wedged himself under Clint’s other side and nodded to Melinda. Deepti’s team took point while the SHIELD unit covered their rear. They encountered, and dispatched, two more patrols of guards. Against the raucous proceedings so close in the streets, their weapons discharges and the cries of pain from those they took down did not raise wider alarm across the palace grounds.

They retreated quickly to avoid further notice and regrouped in the SUV. “I don’t like the sound of things out here,” Sati said with wary apprehension. She had seen more than her share of protests turned violent riots, and the same taste of disillusionment, righteous indignation, and a sort of violence which humans only got in groups was in the air. It smelled like humidity and car exhaust and spent rounds, and Melinda had scented it too.

Sati drove them back to Melinda’s safe house in a manner no more sedate than their drive to retrieve Clint, but that wasn’t entirely out of place in the royalist chaos verging on lynch mob that was happening in the district. Phil marveled at the police, present but uninterested in bringing any more order than was required to keep the carefully tended flower beds and weeping willow trees from becoming the victims of hit and runs.

“How do they keep the police in line?” Phil had stared down the likes of ex-KGB enforcers and the most degenerate scum in his time in SHIELD, and he just didn’t see the same dead, thirsty look in the dark eyes of the policemen.

“The King hires in Pakistani and gives them citizenship, so he stacks the national defense and the police with Sunni loyalists.”

“What’s the unemployment among native Shi’a again?” Phil asked rhetorically. Melinda rolled her eyes expressively at Phil, over Clint’s chest. They had gotten the man to lie flat while Neelam checked him over for other injuries.

Clint’s eyes flew open and he tried to sit up, but they managed to hold him flat. “We’ve been working the same job!”

Phil bent over his asset, immediately understanding that Clint was talking about himself and Natasha, not Phil. “Are you sure?”

“I’d put it at 75%,” Clint replied. “I didn’t put it together until now; it was just such a shock seeing her and then what they did...” He trailed off with a haunted look. Melinda well understood that look -- Natasha was one of the strongest people she had ever worked with; ruthless, self-sufficient, and so, so independent. Clint had been trained to stand up to torture, first by his upbringing, then by SHIELD, but seeing Natasha laid low with a few words was taking their toll on his usual dodgeball-like ability to bounce back.

“Why do you think that? What did you see?” Melinda asked. She and Phil had a non-verbal conversation with their eyebrows over whether that sort of question was really necessary with his asset in a state and them not even quite at base for medical treatment. Melinda won that argument -- like Clint ever went for medical care anyway.

“It was one group doing it all -- it’s not like someone else captured Natasha and handed her off to my guys, or the other way around. Same guys are doing it. They didn’t know we were SHIELD, but they knew Nat and I had worked together and that they might be able to play one of us against the other." Clint paused. "Guess they decided I was the weak link in that one..."

"Not the time," Phil warned.

"Before they turned her off she said something about them needing to keep their weapons on a leash, but the way she said it I knew she was talking about a person."

"Great, so we're talking about some kind of meta-human bomb?" Melinda asked, sarcasm her only weapon against mounting fear.

"You've seen the reports on someone like LeBeau or Summers -- those are just run-of-the-mill mutants."

"Run-of-the-mill," Deepti repeated in disbelief.

"So to speak," Phil added.

"So our weapons traffickers are also our human traffickers. That explains why we couldn't find the active biological agent."

"Because the active biological agent is people," Phil finished.

Clint broke into barking, hiccoughing laughter. "Soylent anthrax!" he coughed out.

Melinda was surprised into a huff of a laugh. "Let Neelam get him inside and checked out. I'll re-read the customs docs and update the search parameters."

"Copy," Phil agreed.

--

March 14, 2011, 0914

The violence had spread beyond rubber bullets and the haze of tear gas to include shootings, mostly by the civil defense forces. The Royalist supporters were suspiciously well armed, though those who called for reform were not put off: they put building nails through bats to make crude maces and carried heirloom swords and farm implements alike, prepared to defend themselves with their inadequate armaments. The chants turned from ones espousing brotherhood to ones demanding resignations and deaths. Civil uprising or riot, however it was classed, the hounds of war prowled the streets of Bahrain.

There were multiple messages waiting for Melinda by the time they got everyone settled. Deepti’s team, along with the special forces unit, had been recalled to the US Naval base to help with the evacuation of expats. Victoria Hand’s calls were the only ones she felt compelled to return immediately, so while Phil debriefed his asset, she checked in with her section head. “Where the hell have you been?” Hand demanded.

“Helping resolve a code Tango,” Melinda replied curtly.

“Bahrain is going to shit faster than we can keep track. I need you to—”

“With respect, we have an asset still in the wind in a hostile situation, and three active operations which I am needed on. You have access to my networks, and I have routed calls to Solomon in Kuwait. He’s got the proper call and response codes for all of them and is well out of the fray here. Unless you have something with a higher priority than what I have on my plate, I need you to back off and give me some time to get these situations resolved.”

Melinda could practically hear Hand’s raised eyebrow. “It sounds as though you’ve got your hands full, and are delegating as best you can. I’ll be in contact with Solomon.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Melinda replied, curt and clipped.

“I’m having to reassign most of your resources for security on key individuals in the region, and for UN oversight outposts -- will you be adequately staffed for your operations?”

Clint stumbled into the room, shirtless, covered in burn cream and bandages, with a black eye and tape over his knuckles. “I’ve got two thirds of Strike Team Delta.”

“That’s that,” Hand agreed and ended the call.

“We good?” Clint asked. He ducked reflexively as a National Defense helicopter passed low over the neighborhood, and shot her a sheepish glance.

“We’ve got permission to wrap this up. Backup, though, is another story.” She allowed herself one eyeroll. “You up for a rescue?”

Clint rolled his wrists, rotated his right shoulder, and cracked his neck in a manner that was frankly alarming. “Don’t let Tash hear you call it that, but yeah. I should be good.” Phil appeared behind him and silently mimed a blow to the head -- Clint was walking off a concussion and should be kept out of direct combat if possible.

Melinda grinned. “I’ll keep that in mind. Lets see if we can work out where she’s at, and see if we can bring in that 084.”

--

March 14, 2011, 1429

“I feel like we’ve been lacking in inter-operational communication,” Phil said. Phil had passed out for a few hours of sleep with Clint, but had woken before his asset to help her integrate all the information into a comprehensive whole.

“You know how it is. If the right hand knows what the left is doing, it might tattle.”

They shared an expressive moment of silence.

“So, right hand, let’s recap,” Phil offered.

“I have eyes on the group of warehouses that Clint indicated through a pair of traffic cams and a government surveillance network they don’t know I know about. There hasn’t been any movement except for a single SUV, out once and back. The plates aren’t in any database I have access to, but it looks to be from the island, not brought in from Saudi or Kuwait.”

“Do you think the government could be more than indirectly involved?”

“Yes,” Melinda replied with a tone that implied, ‘yes, of course, where do you think we are’. “The cargo originated in a port in Pakistan, close to the Indian border. Natasha suspected the...” Melinda tried to think of a way to continue speaking about the human slaves without commodifying them. “The original set of captives were from north Rajasthan, transported into Pakistan for ‘training’ with an AIM subsidiary. Only the one survived, and she was then shipped through to Bahrain where they could demonstrate their progress in AIM training techniques prior to the auction.”

“But the Arab Spring came home to roost,” Phil concluded.

Melinda frowned. “No. I think the reason the prisoner was shipped here was because of the unrest. Natasha noted one of her contacts referred to the prisoner as a ‘final solution’: a nuclear option for a living population.”

“So what are we talking about? What can this person actually do?”

Melinda shook her head, mute. There were a lot of euphemisms and references to ‘proper precautions’ and ‘avoiding unnecessary exposure to the subject’ but there was no straight-up user manual for the metahuman they had presumably brought to heel. “I haven’t seen any radiation equipment or gear to prevent the spread of infectious agents, so it’s unlikely the captive generates toxic area effects.”

“Some sort of shock-and-awe campaign?” Phil asked.

“Maybe. Maybe a psychic— some sort of telepath?” Melinda suggested.

“Something like the Stryker kid, are you thinking?”

Melinda shuddered. “I hope to hell not. We don’t have any sort of protection that would do anything against...” She trailed off with another shudder.

“You mean you don’t trust SHIELD’s two-day course on resisting psychic phenomenon and identifying reality simulations?” Phil teased.

Clint appeared in the door, possibly more disheveled and unhappy looking than before his nap. “If it’s mind fuckery, we gotta get Tash out, ASAP.”

“Fuck,” Melinda agreed. She pinched the bridge of her nose and frowned. “I’d prefer to wait for twilight or full dark for cover, but...”

“Given the unknown nature of the situation it might be advisable to move earlier, even with the greater risk,” Phil finished.

Melinda nodded, sharp and decisive. “We’ll move out and use the infrared to get an idea of how many are in there. Clint can set up in an unused warehouse for sight lines, and we’ll get Widow out of there once we have an idea what we’re getting into.” Or call the whole thing off and burn her if there’s an army in there, she didn’t say, first because it wasn’t an option in Phil or Clint’s mind, and thus would result in having to burn both of them, but second because whatever was happening was too big to just leave and hope it would implode in on itself. If this captive was the first in a metahuman Nationalist arsenal, it could serve to crush the opposition protests before they had a chance to work towards peace and reform. It was bad enough that Saudi and the Gulf Cooperation Council had gotten involved with their ‘peacekeeping’ forces -- if the ruling family started an arms race in the Gulf region... it would go badly in a spectacular way.

--

March 14, 2011, 1851

The area was dark like a city at night -- not true blackness, but caught in a perpetual orange twilight that hid nothing but was thought of as true dark by those dwelling within it. Figures moved among the swaths of gloom but none appeared hurried. Clint had chosen a perch across from the warehouse they had identified. Phil had been tasked with rescuing Widow, while Melinda made sure the mass of heat signatures in the main area of the warehouse was not an AIM army waiting to swarm out like termites the minute their nest was disturbed.

In fact they were not. They were hostages -- exceedingly calm hostages. Melinda recognized two that she had had her eye on in her investigations into missing persons, but they seemed at ease with their lot in life, locked in a warehouse with many others of diverse backgrounds, and watched over by armed men.

Six mercenaries stood guard: two at each of the two exits, and a pair patrolled the floor together. They had weapons, most likely of aftermarket Russian stock, and wore bulky keffiyeh and something over their eyes that looked like motorcycle goggles but probably weren’t.

“I have eyes into the office. Widow is being held there. Two guards at the door, one interrogating, one towards the window,” Clint confirmed over the comms. Melinda wouldn’t want him getting another knock to the head, but he was perfectly competent to act as eyes-in-the-sky and long-range backup, even banged up as he was. More importantly, there was no way short of drugging him heavily that would have been effective in keeping him out of Natasha’s rescue.

“Copy. Approaching for extraction.” Phil was armed from Melinda’s personal stash, backed up by the greatest marksman in the world, and Phil, but he was still alone. Melinda allowed herself a moment of worry. She tightened her fingers in the grip of her better-than-brass knuckles and let out a slow breath. “Three, two, mark,” Phil counted out in a whisper. Melinda marked every person not-a-guard who startled at the muffled thud from above. Phil had used the smoke grenade, hopefully to good effect. The mood of those in the room, not guards, tensed imperceptibly; not like an animal ready to spring or a unit preparing to deploy, but like a small child who had been struck and now was leery of any swift movements.


The guards on patrol hurried out to see what the hubbub was about. “Two heading to you,” Melinda murmured into her communicator. Within the group Melinda had classified as hostages, five others had startled at the noise. Two were teenage boys at the outskirts of the group, one was an elderly woman in a niqab, and the last two were young men by the raised platform at one end of the room, who appeared to have been recently brutalized. The teenagers marked the edge of the group of hostages, and ranged at a ponderous speed around the others. Hameed, the son-in-law she’d originally been asked to find, sat in the middle of the group, calm but vacant.

The elderly woman on guard duty turned her head. Her eyes unerringly found Melinda, secreted away in a corner, and the gaze was like falling -- like bursting into a million pieces, and collapsing into a single point. Melinda poked the tip of her tongue out from between her lips, scenting the air like a reptile. She ghosted across the floor to the first pair of guards. The first man she choked out, the second she hit with an efficient right-cross and the better-than-brass knuckles did their work. The thinnest of vibranium layers along the backing made for a truly astounding transfer of force without the shock to her own body. A distant part of Melinda took down notes on the gear’s performance for a future report.

“Widow is secured. She’s seeing whether there are any useful records around.” Phil’s voice came through the earpiece, a little winded, but sounding as though it was a great distance from her. “May, please respond.”

The punch to her second guard had drawn the attention of the other pair, and they approached with weapons drawn. They were trained, so they didn’t simply spray the area with bullets as she had seen sentries do before. She slid amongst the hostages for a brief moment -- one shadow amidst a herd of shadows -- and popped out to dispatch the men. She held one as a shield while his companion shot him and thought, sloppy sloppy. She shoved the dying man at his compatriot, got in two quick jabs, and downed him with a roundhouse kick. She crushed his larynx with the side of her hand, followed that with a blow from her fist, and left him to struggle through his final minutes.

“Hameed,” she called. “Hameed -- can you hear me? Menal is worried about you. She sent me to check up and make sure you were okay.” Hameed did not respond directly, but those around Melinda turned slowly to look at her. They were all responding slowly, moving as though trapped in a sea of pudding. She turned her attention to the other person she recognized -- the young son of an opposition leader. He took her hand when she reached for him, but in a topsy-turvy instant he was leading her instead of the other way around. The elderly woman on guard duty watched them with emotionless eyes as the boy led her towards the far end of the warehouse, and a slight figure that looked hardly old enough to be a girl.

The Otherness washed over and through her. It cradled the deepest kernels of her personality like soap bubbles, and rushed over her surface thoughts. Like a flock of starlings, it felt out the contours of her mind and her soul with feathered touches. It was her and she was it and they were I. They were the calm and the rage -- a tornado and the eye, wrapped together and inseparable. The boy dropped her hand and gestured her towards the far side of the building.

Melinda felt herself drawn towards the dais at the end of the dark room, like she could feel her hand drawn to her face to brush a strand of hair behind her ear. She was the intention and the action and the completion of the action in the same instant. She approached with measured steps. Those around her were aware of her but did not mark her passage.

“Who are you?” she asked of the girl-woman-084 on the dais. She was draped in chains like a prisoner, like chattel, but she wore them like robes of state. She could be the Dalai Lama, or the second coming, or some new god-creature yet to be known by the world. She had long, black hair, eyes that glittered in the dark, and she was the start and end of Melinda’s world, between one heartbeat and the next. And then she didn’t need to know a name, because she realized she knew everything important there was to know about this little god whose presence blessed her.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” the godlet said, or perhaps thought, or perhaps simply made Melinda know. “They gave me only declawed kittens and time-dulled tools to become me, but you—” The god-creature, the 084, Melinda’s goal and solution and prize, looked upon her like she was the gem, finally pulled from a riverbed. “A killer is the tool I have needed, for so long.” She beckoned to Melinda with long, skeleton fingers and a bony wrist weighted with shackles. Melinda stepped on the dais and knelt. She opened her arms and leaned in and the godlet smiled up at her. “Set me free, little killer,” she said.

The wash of emotions which swamped Melinda was not her own, but was no easier to deal with for that fact. Was it suicide or murder, to end the focus of their gestalt? Was it wrong, though it felt so right and so necessary -- though she knew it was so necessary? Was it happiness, or relief, or release which she was anticipating? Was she anticipating at all, or simply tingling, like the finger before the prick hits home with a sharp, singing pain? She was happy to die, and happy to kill, and happy to be killed, and those were feelings which she had never felt and would hope to never feel. She was wrapped in an agony of dichotomy, and swaddled in an ecstasy of opposition. The sweet and sour notes of her conflict blended into a harmony of action.

She wrapped her arm under the slender woman’s chin, and pressed her into a strangle. She counted, three, four, five seconds, and she knew from experience the lack of blood-flow to the brain had rendered the godlet unconscious without the panic of a choke. She would feel nothing -- neither pain nor fear -- and with an efficient twist, Melinda snapped her neck.

The chains held her down through the spasms of a startling death, and when the final tremor had ceased, Melinda set her gently down.
And the world came crashing in.

--

March 14, 2011, 2306

“They kept me away from her,” Natasha said almost sadly.

“Did we ever get a name?” Melinda asked. Natasha shook her head no. They sat on matching triage beds in the naval facility’s hospital building. Natasha was a little banged up from her interrogation, but was otherwise lucid after her run-in with her own deeply buried programming. She tapped away on a tablet, sorting through the files they had recovered at the warehouse.

Melinda... wasn’t injured, but she wasn’t alright. She felt as though she had been filled to brimming with people and experiences and lives not her own, and it was at a slow trickle that they emptied out of her. She couldn’t think for the noise in her head -- could barely operate to get herself here for help. Phil and Clint had stayed to try to wrangle aid for the hostages-turned-walking-wounded, but Natasha had escorted her back for medical aid. Natasha wore half of a pair of earbuds, attached to the tablet, but Melinda could still hear the tinny sounds of torture through the single loose headphone. “Is that what they did to her?” It was easier to think of the 084 as a person, now that she was dead. Now that Melinda had killed her, and wasn’t that just fucked up?

“Some. It looks like it took several months of experimentation before they got something they could use. They pried her open and broke her and rebuilt her into a weapon. They didn’t do a very good job on it, though; made it so she couldn’t turn off the psychic networking effect she had on people. They dulled her down with drugs so her network would be passive.”

Melinda shuddered. That explained the slow, almost tranquilized movements of everyone held hostage. She had felt it when she’d been under thrall -- the feeling of moving through thick mud or fine sand.

“They tested her on smaller groups but thought the telepathic control would be scalable to thousands. They didn’t count on the cumulative impact of that many psyches on her as the focal point.” Natasha read through the files for several silent minutes. “It looks like they had some kind of issue when they tried to bring in a more violent separatist -- had to kill him when he went berserk and tried to kill her.”
“Or maybe not so berserk,” Melinda said. “If she tried to use him like she used me...”

“After that they limited the gestalt to more... timid subjects. I can only assume that’s why they kept me out of it. I was segregated from the hostages and any exposure to the gestalt. They used her as a blackmail tool. A lot of the hostages were linked to the democracy movement, usually by a single degree of separation.”

“Convenient.” Melinda and Natasha shared a look.

Natasha put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “I’m going to check on Clint -- we ship out in an hour. Get some rest.”

--

March 15, 2011, 0422

Clint and Natasha were sent to Qatar for medical checks and then on to the States once more to write reports and move on to the next mission. Phil had stayed an extra eight hours, until she woke from a nap that felt drugged and he was certain she would be able to soldier through whatever had happened to her head while she was out of communication.

SHIELD, and by extension the WSC, had conclusive proof that the Al Khalifahs were involved in the slave trade/arms sale. They would not be passing that information on to the UN, though, and lacked the political will to make a fuss. The unofficial line was that they prefered the Emir remained in place of a populist republic to ‘maintain continuity and integrity within the region’, especially when they now had such juicy blackmail material for leverage in further negotiations.

Melinda wrote several pointed report addenda that voiced her disapproval, but it was largely field operation after-action reports and mop-up from here on out for her. She was being recalled to the Triskelion for a debrief on the situation, and Solomon would be taking over her post in the interim.

She read over the interviews collected from the diverse group of people unleashed at the death of the metahuman. As a result of the life Melinda ended. They were family, friends, wives, children, lured in and used for blackmail. All of them had described a similar experience, in their own words, of a pinprick of clarity, usually catalyzed by contact with another individual already in the thrall of the metahuman, followed by an infectious creep of a foreign psychic gestalt. The feeling that they were not alone was followed by a subsumation of their desires and actions until, though they thought they were directing their own actions, they were actually part of the greater super-organism formed by the telepathic network at work on them.

“We didn’t feel like prisoners, but we knew we couldn’t leave,” one report read.

--

May 22, 2011, 1448

“You know they’re calling you the ‘Cavalry’.”

“SHIELD should quit trying to make everyone into superheroes,” Melinda replied without inflection.

“You did, though. Save us. Saved them.” Melinda’s face was neutral, but from years of experience Phil could probably see the cold fury and the hurt in her eyes. Phil put a hand on her back. “Melinda, you did the right thing.”

She bowed her head. “I know.” She said it with a surprising conviction. “I didn’t have a single say in it and I still know it was the right thing to do. It was what she wanted.” She paused to sigh and drop her elbows on to her knees. Her back bowed like she carried a heavy load.

“I just can’t get over the fact that we came there to help and it left us with the dead and nothing much else to show for it,” Phil admitted. “I hate 084s,” he added.

“No you don’t,” Melinda told him.

He smirked and bumped shoulders with her. “No, I don’t,” he agreed. “You did good work out there. I haven’t been happier— that is, I couldn’t ask for a better colleague on a mission like that. I’m glad you’re out there.”

“About that.” She felt Phil’s gaze drilling into her. “I’m taking a posting back at the Hub.”

“For how long?” Phil asked, sounding a mix of surprised, worried, and hurt.

She glanced at him and let the silence hang for long, uncomfortable moments. “I’m not going out in the field again.”

“Melinda—”

“No, Phil.”

“I know things didn’t—”

“No, Phil,” she repeated. “I’m not doing it.”

“It wasn’t your— You were amazing.” Phil said it quietly. “Nobody else could have resolved things as well as you did.”

Melinda kept her breath even to avoid giving herself away. “Phil. Go. Do your thing with Strike Team Delta. Close missions. I’ll be here to stamp the paperwork when you get home.”

Something in her expression shut him down. Phil could be such a fanboy sometimes. He would ardently support anybody who had earned his admiration, and he was just so purely... Phil. For someone who worked in a spy agency, he seemed to have a blank spot where normal people’s trust issues went. By putting her foot down she hadn’t hurt Phil, per se, but she had done something much more profound. She had shaken him -- his belief in her -- which reverberated down to his very core.

The thing she couldn’t put into words -- the real reason she wasn’t going back in the field... It wasn’t killing someone, even someone so innocent. It wasn’t the psychological backlash of feeling that death, a sort of nihilistic feedback loop of murder and suicide. It wasn’t the chaos they had spilled out onto on the street with confused civilians and angry protesters. It wasn’t even the few civilians they just couldn’t save.
It was a moment, a day before she was recalled to the Hub, when Jawaher called her -- her last contact with the woman -- moaning in grief over her brother. They had found him, beaten to death and dumped naked in the street out front of their family home. It was the fact that Tahir had been called back to the UAE as Bahrain was determined to be economically unviable at the moment. Bahrain wasn’t able to earn the Emirates money, so they simply asked their citizens home. It was Matar Matar, disappeared to god knew where and held on treason charges. It was two of Naser’s nephews killed, and his uncle maimed, in a movement that was moving nowhere; boys she had seen grow from children to nearly-adults, crushed under the boot of an unyielding regime.

It was the futility, the hopeless struggle, the pain, and the pointlessness. Everything she had fought for through SHIELD and in the belief of peaceful democracy had been torn apart more effectively than a trailer park in a tornado. Every connection she had made was just another avenue through which the almost physical stings of emotional pain could be delivered. She had woken one morning during her extensive debrief at the Hub, and probed the place where her hurt lived and felt... not nothing, but certainly an absence where something important had been. Some part of her had been excised, or burned down to its stump, and she understood that no new growth would come from that salted earth in her soul. No new seed would plant itself and grow into the twining relationships she had nurtured for close to a decade. She couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t do it.
SHIELD would be happy to have their Cavalry back in the Gulf, or even stationed in some new part of the world, but she was done with that. She would find a bunker to hole up in, behind staplers and self-inking stamps and bureaucratic tape, and she would keep herself safe from feeling too much, or at least, feeling too broadly. She could manage her own pain, but the pain of a whole nation... The pain of a people was too much for her to shoulder.

--

July 24, 2014 1430

The air of Arkansas hit May’s lungs and stuck like wet tissue paper, stifling hot and humid. Fitz and Simmons visibly wilted, their arms dragging down with the weight of the heat and their gear. Trip started sweating immediately, but grinned into it as though the heat was something he was prepared to do battle with and to conquer.

“Welcome Wagon mark two,” Skye stated with satisfaction. With Hydra crashing and burning amidst the rubble of SHIELD, there was more than anybody’s fair share of 084s to round up and nullify. Coulson was working at the new Hub, as yet to be codenamed, to get their information networks up and running properly and bring in any agents left out in the cold by the data blitz Fury and Romanoff had set off. May, the bus, and the kids were out running missions, and it almost felt good. It almost felt familiar.

“We’re not actually certain the nullifiers work. They may just—” Fitz began to explain how the psychic nullifiers based off of one of the Magneto helmets might not properly block any mutant or extradimensional mental incursions, but they largely ignored him.

It had taken two years of solitude, a year of stalking behind Phil waiting for him to go crazy and have to be put down, and a few months after that to get her out in the field again -- out commanding and making decisions and getting involved, but she saw the pieces of who she had been coming to rest against the person she now was. She was becoming a new, amalgam whole. This new whole knew, intimately, that loss was part of life. But the new whole also understood that loss could and would be overcome.

“Come on, kids. Let’s roll out the carpet and see if we can’t make a new friend.” May waved her team towards their destination.