Melinda May jolted awake, breath freezing in her throat and body freezing up.
She sighed with exasperation and rolled onto her side.
Nightmares were nothing new. Honestly at this point they were so normal that they had lost any impact beyond 'damn, I didn't want to wake up yet'.
Bahrain she could handle. Terrible as it was, as much as it had shaped her, haunted her, she could handle it, because she never let it go.
This was new though.
After Bahrain she was broken. She had shattered herself to create who she was now, and she knew what she was doing, did it willingly to fix the problem. She didn't always like the person she had become though.
So she stopped. She stopped because she didn't know how far she would go in the name of the greater good. Because she didn't know if she would know when to stop.
The condition she had given herself, the rule she had made, was that she would protect her friends. She was a broken tool, but she would fight until there was no breath left in her to protect the people she cared about.
Until not long ago, that list began and ended with Phil Coulson.
Then he had died, and she had had no one left.
That was the dream that haunted her now, because she forgot sometimes. She would look at him and not remember filing the list of casualties after the battle and seeing his name there, just another on the long list. The chasm opening in her stomach, her knees weakening, the blood draining from her face.
The funeral, where she had sat in the back row, stoic and stone-faced, watching agents who never knew him speaking sombrely about what a tragic loss it was.
The evening of the funeral, where she cried silently in the dark of her room, wishing she could have been there to help him, to take the fall for him, because what damn use was she now?
The next day. She went to work, heart still broken, but no one noticed. When she got to her desk Nick Fury was waiting for her.
The rest, as they say, was history. Phil came to her a few days after that and it was all she could do not to hold onto him and never let go. He was just there, alive and smiling and joking like they used to, and of course she was going with him. She would never let him die again.
Melinda drew a shuddering breath. The trembling wouldn't stop. Her emotional control was phenomenal, but this kind of mind-numbing fear was one she couldn't channel. It wasn't useful like anger could be. It was a paralytic.
May lay in the dark for a while. Thinking. Trying to go back to sleep. She checked the time. She had barely been asleep for an hour, she couldn't get up now.
Seeing Phil would help. It often did. She didn't need to talk to him, or wake him. He wasn't even aware that she'd been doing it. Just a glance at the security cameras would do to convince her paranoid streak that he was okay, and then she could sleep.
Melinda rose, donning the robe with the eagle insignia on it which held no meaning any more.
She walked silently down the empty hallway of the Playground, heading to the office, where she knew she could see the cameras. The base was silent, everyone was asleep at this time. Fitz still unconscious in the medical bay, Simmons probably asleep in the chair by his bed. Skye in her room and Triplett in his.
May didn't notice that the light was on until she was standing in the doorway.
Phil was looking at the bookcase on one side of the room. "I thought you were asleep." He said, not looking over from the book in his hands. "Interesting collection here, you know?"
She opened her mouth to reply but no noise came out, just a cracked breath.
Phil turned and his eyes widened at the sight of her. "What's wrong?" He asked immediately, and May could have cried. Phil was the only person who could tell straight away if she was upset.
He put down the book and approached her, not too close though, because he knew that May had problems with physical contact. She looked unusually vulnerable. Small, without her usual towering boots and piercing stare, one arm across her waist. Hair a mess, and something he couldn't quite identify behind her eyes.
"It's nothing." She said softly, but her voice was wrong. Unveiled, emotional. She was stubbornly refusing to look at him.
"Nightmares?" Melinda did not say anything, which was as good as confirmation. "Come on." Phil said, gently guiding her with one hand on her shoulder. "Sit down." He led her to the couch and sat down beside her. He wanted to hug her, but held back. Coulson sighed. "If I knew what would happen to you, back then," He said, "I would have done anything to stop you going in."
He really sounded like he meant it. He probably did. "It wasn't Bahrain." May whispered.
Phil's brow was furrowed with worry and confusion. "What was it then?" What could put her in this state except Bahrain?
May was silent. It wasn't that she didn't want to tell him. He knew how much she cared for him, and she knew her cared about her too. She just couldn't force the words out.
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to." He said, "I just-"
"New York." She bit out quickly, ignoring the tightness in her chest.
Phil frowned, "But you weren't in... oh." His voice went soft immediately. "How long did you..."
"About a week." Her voice was hollow.
Coulson sank backwards. A week. Really, with everything happening at the time, it wasn't that long. A week wasn't, in general, a long time. Unless it was the amount of time you thought your friend was dead. He tentatively put an arm around May's shoulder, which she allowed. "I'm sorry."
"It wasn't your fault." She unconsciously curled into his embrace.
"I know." Phil said, squeezing her gently, "But I'm sorry you had to go through that."
May swallowed, tears threatening to escape. "No one told me." She said, "I was just filing a report of the casualties, and..."
"Jesus, Mel-" Coulson didn't even know what to say. How could she keep putting up with him when he put her through this much?
He hadn't called her that in years. "I kept imagining what would have happened if I was there. You could have gotten away."
"Then you'd have died." Phil let one hand come up and lightly stroke her hair. "And I don't know what I would have done." Melinda was silent. "It's not always your job to protect me."
"It is now. You died."
"I can look after myself."
May sighed, "You didn't do a good enough job."
He pulled her closer still. "I'm right here. Not going anywhere." May was not usually so pliable. Normally she would go rigid if he so much as put a hand on her shoulder. Phil was glad that she trusted him enough to let him get close, but it saddened him that she had to be in this much distress to seek him out. They sat together, savouring the closeness, remembering what this felt like.
"I know it's selfish." She murmured, "But it's the only way I can do anything any more."
Phil frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I'm broken Phil." May was half-asleep, he could tell. There was no way she would say these things if she was fully awake. "The only way I can keep going is by promising myself that I'll keep you safe. I love you."
It wasn't the romantic declaration that it would seem to an outsider. They had worked together for years, had been best friends for well over a decade. They were as close as any couple, just not romantic about it. There was almost no need to be. "I love you too." It felt familiar. It wasn't the first time they had said it, not by a long shot. "And you know that there's nothing wrong with being a little broken."
"More than a little."
"Mosaic." Phil rebutted, smiling gently and weaving his fingers through hers.
May returned the smile sleepily, shifting to a more comfortable position, closing her eyes, and telling herself that she would get up in a moment.
"Why'd you come down here?" Coulson asked softly. "I meant to go to bed hours ago."
"Just wanted to make sure you were okay." She mumbled. "I was going to check the security feeds."
Phil thought for a moment. "How many times has this happened?"
He felt May's shoulders jab him as she shrugged. "Enough."
Phil sighed. "You should tell me when you're going through this. You don't have to face it alone."
"Next time, maybe." She mumbled, already half asleep.
He could argue the point and try to get her to tell him about this in the future. Maybe he would. Tomorrow.
BEEP BEEP BEEP- BANG!
Skye glared daggers at her alarm, and, like every morning, was tempted to just roll over and go back to sleep.
Like every morning, she got up anyway.
She liked learning from May. She liked what she was learning, she liked how May taught, and she really enjoyed spending time with the other woman. May got relatively talkative in some sessions, telling Skye stories of old missions, in which Coulson often featured. And when Skye overbalanced and sprawled onto the floor, she sometimes saw a smile on May's face, which she returned. It was nice to see her happy.
When Skye reached the gym, she frowned. She wasn't late, but May was usually waiting for her.
Maybe she had just slept in a little.
Skye started hitting the punching bag, figuring she would work out until May showed up.
Ten minutes passed and she still wasn't there.
Skye was starting to worry. May had never been late before. Had something happened to her? She walked upstairs to her room and knocked on the door. "May?" She called, "Rise and shine, time for training."
Skye pushed the door open. "May?"
The bed was empty and unmade.
The ball of paranoia in the hacker's stomach grew. After a moment of contemplation she decided to go and check the security cameras' recording from overnight. If May had gotten into any trouble, had left, then they would show it.
She hurried down the stairs to Coulson's office, but stopped dead in the doorway, letting out a tiny "Aw-" before she could stop herself.
Coulson was wearing the sweat pants and T-shirt he had started wearing in lieu of his suit when there was nothing official to do. May was wearing her black pyjamas under a SHIELD robe. Both were dead to the world, cuddled up to one another. Coulson had a protective arm around her, May's head was resting against his chest. They both looked so... peaceful.
Skye smiled. They were adorable. She wanted to drape them in a blanket and take a picture. But she was realistic enough to know that anything she did could wake the two agents. She reached for the phone in her pocket to snap a silent picture for blackmail purposes, but thought better of it. For starters, May would immolate her if she did that.
More importantly, Skye knew how much the two cared about each other, depended on each other. She had a bet running with Fitzsimmons and Trip on how long it would be until they got together. She didn't want to make them being together awkward before it had even happened.
Skye snuck back to her room. She would pretend she overslept, she decided, giving May an out.
And maybe she would bring it up with May in their next session. Not for blackmail though. She just wanted to see the Cavalry blush.