A Thing Endurable
by Sammie

DISCLAIMER: Doesn't belong to me.


SUMMARY: May has too much time to think as she sits by Coulson's bedside. "The Bridge" spoilers, "The Magical Place" episode speculation. May POV. May/Coulson. Mentions of May/Ward, Ward/Simmons

- Thank you to all who have been reviewing. To the anonymous reviewers, since I can't respond to you personally, thank you for taking the time to read and to review.

- More emotional constipation, but from our other resident robot agent... Title from Wordsworth; a quote near the end (on happiness) and a story from two other books; May's helo rescue and the character of Keating are nods to other shows (Yay "BSG"). Apologies to Marvel comics for the horrendous use of comics characters, and apologies to the British medical system for botching up the descriptions.

- May and Coulson were my first ship on this show. I loved the maturity of it - no romantic angst, fight/flirt circumstances (Ward always ends up in these), petty jealousy, self-serving smugness, and eye-rolling illogicality about sex without emotions. Just two adults, with a *real* partnership. Thus, warning to May/Ward shippers not to read this. I don't bash it, but to me it's obvious it's a train wreck waiting to happen, and I don't want that happening to May, who's my second favorite character.

- Clearly not Marvel's target audience, because I found "The Bridge" boring: not enough action (liked "0-8-4"'s plane thing better), and wanted to throttle some of my favorite characters - Coulson, Ward, and May in that chronological order (especially Ward!).

There is a comfort in the strength of love;
'Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would overset the brain, or break the heart.

- William Wordsworth, "Michael"

She hasn't cried since Bahrain. Even when he died.

When May had first heard of what happened just prior to the Battle of New York, she'd had half an impulse to rush to the SHIELD hospital, then to the morgue, to look for him. She was well aware nobody would have been able to stop her physically. Still, she didn't go; she didn't believe she would have been able to walk out of either of those places under her own power. Even after she heard that the 'reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated' and he was indeed alive, she didn't pick up the phone.

Even after he'd returned from Tahiti or whatever weird place Fury had sent him, she didn't see him. Deliberately evaded him. Multiple times, they'd even been in town simultaneously, and once at the Hub, in meetings across the hall from each other. She'd left early to avoid seeing him. Nobody questioned her, one actual benefit to being the Cavalry. (She realizes, in a moment of clarity, this may be why she finds Skye and her questions unsettling.) She didn't see Philip Coulson at all from six months before he died until the day he showed up, in person, in her dark office.

She kept tabs on him, as she always had. She was aware of the official SHIELD story involving his death. She was well aware of all his movements, including when Fury made him the mobile strike team leader. She also heard rumblings that he was looking for field agents, and she saw the furtive glances from older coworkers, sliding towards her whenever she walked the halls of the administrative building. (The young agents only know her as Melinda May, the silent paper pusher; many don't even know she is the Cavalry, and even less so her connection to Coulson.)

She had to give Phil credit. He never once called her or mentioned her to any SHIELD leader except Maria Hill. May knew him too well not to know that he was considering her for the team; it was confirmed when Hill came to debrief her, as a personal favor to both the specialist and to the new team leader. She knew that he was planning some sort of ambush. She didn't quite know how, but she was hardly surprised when he simply appeared near her cubicle after two years, looking well - looking so healthy that it was possible to tell herself he never really died. He looked alive, vigorous, as he always had as long as she had known him.

Now he didn't, lying there in that sterile hospital bed, in the darkening room.

She reached over and touches his arm; the skin was pale, but it was hard to tell if that was from the moonlight coming in the window or if it was from him. His arm was warm, but there was no reaction to her touch. She sat down in the chair next to the bed, the one Skye had been sitting in, and curled her fingers around his hand.

They had met in the Academy. His natural charm and easy smile had made him popular; his friendliness towards everybody, regardless of their clearance level or social status, had made him well-liked by all. What she personally had liked most about him was his delight with life, a general happiness with everything around him that gave him an easy, amiable confidence. He wasn't intimidated by her or by anybody else; others got higher marks academically than Phil Coulson, others got higher marks in the field than Phil Coulson, but Phil Coulson didn't care. The fact that everybody whispered about her in awe when she walked by never bothered him. Nor did he gloat or smirk or look self-satisfied by the fact that she chose to spend her time with him; she was not some prize to be won, a badge of honor for him to flash in front of others. He had a firm knowledge of what was right and wrong and of his own role in the world, and he was happy with it and who he was. He was happy with his life and didn't need affirmation from others. She liked that.

(When she'd heard he'd been called up to run the Avengers Initiative, it had made complete sense. It took somebody with that quiet confidence, somebody secure enough in himself and his own manhood, to soothe and to manage egos like he did. He isn't bothered by others' superpowers. [May could still hear Skye: "Really, Ward? Superpowers is cheating? You work for SHIELD, not the Olympic doping committee."] It spoke to his abilities that a 5'9" field agent with aviators, a gray suit, and a whole lot of "average" could get both the rebellious Tony Stark and the Asgardian crown prince to work together.)

She and Coulson had become good friends while students, sharing both classes and a similar sense of humor. She liked training with him. He was incredibly good tactically; she learned a great deal watching him plan. He was also good with the politics, something she never learned nor cared to. On the field, she was certainly better than he, but he wasn't bothered when she laid him out on the mat. Others she sparred with didn't like it - didn't like being beaten by a woman, didn't like being beaten by somebody as small as she was. He didn't care; he told her it sharpened his skills. He sharpened hers, too; he noticed weaknesses, he offered creative solutions, he kept her on her toes. He was the one who noticed which side she favored, then helped her to create her signature move (epithet-happy trainees keep calling it the 'May-neuver'), using her short stature and lower center of gravity to shield her weak side while getting a slice in. He was the first passenger she took up when she did her first solo flight, a run out to the Sandbox; he hadn't been able to be there when she took the test, having been sent as an observer on a mission, so she'd done her test alone and then put off her first flight until he'd returned. It wasn't until two months later that she found out throught the grapevine that he'd turned down Daisy Johnson, who wanted him to escort her to some huge New York gala, in order to accompany her on the flight.

They became coworkers after graduation, despite the fact that he was a field agent and she a specialist. He was a natural born leader, with a creativity and a certain charisma she didn't have. That was fine with her; she just wasn't built that way. As long as he wasn't intimidated by her (circumstances that ended some of her other working relationships), she was cool with supplying brains and brawn. At SHIELD, she was respected and feared; he, however, won respect and devotion. People would follow him anywhere, if he just opened his mouth and made a request; he never needed to apply much pressure. She had to admit that even she fell into that category - how else could he have used a two-minute conversation to change her mind about joining his team? (Though, if she's honest, it's more than that.)

When their superiors figured out how well they worked together, they got thrown together more often. On their seventh mission together, they spent a month in the Yukon in the fall. There had been sightings of a ghostly figure in green, right in the area in which a prominent Canadian SHIELD scientist had disappeared ten years prior. They dispatched of the problem: she hates to sound psychopathic, but the death of that woman in ghostly green was well worth it, considering what she'd done to her victims and attempted to do to Phil. They rescued the scientist, who had been in a state of mental delusion when they found him; they had discovered the fates of the twenty SHIELD agents who had disappeared searching for the scientist, thus providing their families closure. When they'd returned back to the Hub, they had found in the office lounge a present addressed to "May and Coulson": a big case of Molson Canadian lager. In different handwriting was black Sharpie, scribbled across the case and every bottle of beer, labeling each "Moulson" by putting in a caret symbol and a "U" after the second letter.

On their tenth mission, a suicide crapshoot designed by the biggest moron SHIELD had ever hired (their respective SOs were furious), Coulson had put forth that, when they got up in the ranks and got the right clearance, they were going to do things differently. "We'll run ourselves. Picking the ops, making the calls. No red tape." She'd laughed, then suggested that, rather then argue over the paper-pushing side of it, they just make their probies do their paperwork. Coulson's eyes had brightened with glee. On the back of that truck headed along the Silk Road into Afghanistan, they'd made that pact. It had been half joking, of course; they hadn't expected to get out of that mission alive, and they nearly hadn't.

On their twelfth mission, a stray bullet had hit their helicopter, winging him in the leg. They'd had been forced down on an island in what looked like a mix between a natural disaster and a war zone. It was an alien invasion. People had swarmed them, desperately trying to get off the rock, and he'd been tasked with keeping them off the helicopter while she repaired it. They had been unable to call in for support, and so they were going to have to fly back to a SHIELD base before they could provide support, and that meant they could only take a few people back with them. Phil had done a lottery, the only fair way to do it; as the people who won had climbed into the helicopter, she realized with horror that he had given his own seat away. He won that argument, and she had to leave without him. As she had lifted off, one person tried to grab onto the helicopter, the weight causing her to tip. As she grappled with the controls, her passengers screaming as the helicopter tipped, she heard a single gunshot, and then suddenly the weight fell away. She looked down to see a man howling as he fell to the ground, clutching his hand; Phil stood there, his weight set back on his good leg, his gun hand still up, the other hand steading his aim. As the helicopter rose, she watched him standing there, a silent island of calm in the morass of panic.

SHIELD wouldn't let her go back for him. She just gave them a look and hijacked another helicopter that night after incapacitating the ground crew. It took her three days to find him on that island, a mere three hours to get him home to a hospital.

Even after the famed Barton and Romanoff came to SHIELD, it didn't make a difference. In the five years before Bahrain, the agents had a saying: Barton and Romanoff behind, backing you up; Coulson and May in front, leading you.

It wasn't that Phil Coulson had been perfect then or was so now. His strength of character, his deep sense of right and wrong prevented him from making egregious mistakes (no wonder his hero was Captain America), but he had his quirks - including that odd obsession with the superhero. He also had his moments of being a punk - case in point, when he basically redirected Skye's inquiries to her because he didn't want to have to do the dirty work of telling the girl that he was sitting on information he couldn't share. But those instances were few and far in between, and she found those personal weaknesses easy to forgive because, first, he was so generally so genuinely sorry later, and second, he himself was so willing to forgive those in others. There was also the fact that she had very few people with whom she can be completely honest. Two of the four were now dead, the third was out of SHIELD and no longer had the clearance to hear all she had to say, and the fourth was Phil.

She used to tease him endlessly about his addiction to comic books, and especially about Captain America. (She still suspects that part of the reason he asked Simmons on board is because she was an intern on the team defrosting Steve Rogers.) She got him some of the collectibles on his mantle, including the radio watch that had to be blown up to free him and Skye from his office when Ford locked them in. (That had been a hard find.) She remembered his gag gift - the entire set of "Die Hard" movies at Christmas. Then a first edition of Huck Finn, her favorite book as a child. There were other gifts, more intimate ones that she no longer thought about, including two pieces of jewelry tucked away in a safe deposit box in a non-descript bank near the Hub, under a false identity. After Bahrain, she'd worn the rings on a chain around her neck until the day she almost lost them on a mission. She put them into the safe deposit box and hadn't looked at or touched them in two decades, but she hadn't been able to give them back to him.

She had actually picked the color for Lola. Phil had found the car, decomissioned and derelict in the basement of a museum, yellow paint coming off. SHIELD didn't find it financially worthwhile to restore, but the techies willingly helped out after hours, simply because Phil asked. (See what she means about devotion?) When it came time to paint, she pointed out that nobody wanted a yellow Corvette, but cherry red - so he went with that. As a prank she got the technician doing the paint job to use Reed Richards' hologram projector to make it look like Lola had been tricked out: bright green for the car's main body, then bright orange and yellow flames of paint licking up the hood and over the air scoop flow vent decorative hood cover, diamond-studded spinners on the wheels. The technician had even added his own touch: a gold-plated Corvette logo hood ornament hanging from the rearview mirror on a chain, and then an even more hilarious addition: the assignment of a newbie to show Coulson the finished product. She could still see the face of the bright-eyed, eager, and proud intern, so excited to show him the work done; she could still hear the unflappable field agent's squeak of horror as he stared at his beloved car, unable to peel his eyes from the neon orange flames clashing with the (perceived) paint color of the car. She had laughed herself stupid, she and the technician propping each other up because they were giggling so hard they couldn't stand. Just to save the intern's life from the murder the agent was clearly plotting, the technician turned the hologram off to reveal the shiny red Corvette. To this day, Phil has allowed nobody to touch Lola (especially her).

It was a mark of Phil's personality that he asked her out for dinner, their first date, after a sexual harassment seminar. It wasn't after a successful mission, when the adrenaline was high; it wasn't after a failed mission, when comfort was the order of the day; it wasn't after a successful but emotionally draining mission, when everybody needed some kind of release. After a sexual harassment seminar, in which they'd been instructed very carefully not to get involved with teammates, what types of things not to say to each other, and how not to get involved after difficult or wildly successful missions, he asked her to go for drinks. It told her two things: first, that Phil Coulson had a good rein on his emotions - he clearly thought about this invitation for awhile, rather than doing it when adrenaline was high; and second, with that twinkle in his eye, and the timing of his asking - well, she'd always loved Phil's sense of humor.

He was, as ever, the consummate gentleman. He didn't ask her for dates in any place that would potentially get them overheard by superiors - the first time, he asked her privately as they crossed the street from the Hub to their cars. There was no sexual innuendo, no pressure, no self-satisfied smile on his part when they got together. He respected her privacy, he never smirked or gloated over the fact that he was the one with Melinda May. She always knew that he wanted desperately not to have to hide their relationship, but he respected her as a human being, respected her wish on this matter. Without a word or pressure from him, she had inexplicably found herself growing comfortable with the idea of others knowing about their relationship, even with the idea of telling others herself. His willingness to put her before himself was so quiet, so subtle, never mentioned, never pushed to the forefront; it seemed to flow out of his nature, rather than something he consciously had to put in effort to do. He made her happy and content - not just satisfied or physically relaxed or anything else, but happy. He was so full of life, and she couldn't help but find that attractive.

They shared everything. She was comfortable sharing her past with him; it had been difficult because of her poverty, but it had not without its happy moments. He told her about his, his red-rimmed eyes telling her exactly how he felt as he talked about coming home from the bus stop at the age of six to find his father's body, dead from a heart attack. She told him why and how she had joined SHIELD, tracking down agents who could get her in. He told her how he'd almost stumbled across it by accident while an Army Ranger. He told her what his dream job at SHIELD would be - i.e., running ops and scouting new recruits; she told him she wanted to fly and to be in the field, and perhaps get a chance to develop and train a more mobile, well-rounded team to deal with incidents, rather than the haphazard way they were doing things.

He told her how, eventually, he hoped to settle into a domestic life: kids, dog, the white picket fence; holiday dinners, PTA meetings, sports games, recitals. She wasn't dumb enough not to realize that he had partly mentioned these things in order to gauge her reaction. She was surprised to find, though, in the days after his revelation, she might actually want those same things. She had always considered herself to be career-focused and had never felt a biological clock ticking; she had never wanted that life for itself, nor had she ever felt 'husband' and 'kids' to be items to check off her bucket list. After he had mentioned all this, though, she found herself wanting that life, not because she wanted that life itself, per se, but because she wanted that life with him - not with any other. She had tucked that epiphany away in the back of her mind. They had time, she thought. They were still young, she thought.

In those years, she had convinced herself naively that they could survive against the world. Despite being in SHIELD and seeing what they did, she still thought it. They argued. They made up. They laughed. They cried. They kept going forward. Even after their devastating personal loss - and he'd been away on an almost year-long undercover mission when it happened, and had only come home to find the pieces - they'd managed to weather it. People said she made him better; people said he made her better. That was the nature of a real relationship, wasn't it?

Then came Bahrain.

Fourteen years, five months, and 24 days ago. Yes, she knew the date exactly, even if she made a conscious effort never to think about what happened that day. She could barely look at herself in the mirror some days. She knew he blamed himself for what he said - knew that he blamed himself to this day. Still, what he said was true, and she appreciated the honesty - it was done, and she had to more forward. In the years after, he tried - and she appreciated his perseverance. Even as she pushed him away, he was always there, hovering somewhere in the background, and it was comforting to her, even if she never told him so. Did he know how long it took for her to recover? Absolutely. He knew better than anybody else, because he was the only one not scared off by her. She knew quite well that all he wanted was for her to be happy again, or at least not to hurt so much any more.

She saw him change. The goofiness disappeared, replaced by a slightly more cynical wit. His eyes still twinkled when he was amused, but it happened less. What was the worst of it for her was to see his light dim a little, to see that delight in life covered by a shadow. It wasn't that he still didn't have enthusiasm, but he was never quite as bright as he had been before she went into that building in Bahrain. It didn't take a genius to figure out that he was hurting because she was, and so she singularly decided that what was best for them both was to split up. She was killing him, too. If she couldn't fix herself, she could prevent herself from damaging him any more than she had.

She filed the papers, taking herself even farther away from him personally and professionally. He evidently didn't agree with her assessment of the circumstances and refused to back off.

She got herself reassigned to other teams. She purposely chose a dalliance with a loud-mouthed acquaintance of his, knowing it would get back to him and seeking to push him away farther. She saw the hurt in his face when he found out - he was never one to hide his feelings, because quite frankly he didn't care much what others thought. He still said nothing. She moved on, if her relationships afterwards could be called "moving on." Eventually, after much time, so did he. Still, he worried about her from afar - she knew.

Some years later, she heard a young Level 4 saying that Phil Coulson had said that, in his experience, getting involved with a fellow agent most likely wasn't the best idea, that it set you up for different types of heartbreak. The older agents in the room had grimaced silently while the Level 4s unknowingly continued their argument about the pros and cons of intra-agency dating. One especially oblivious one had even stopped to ask her what she thought. "You should listen to Phil Coulson," was all she said at the end. "That's why he's Level 7."

Two years later, she overheard a trainee field agent say to another that Phil Coulson had said that they - male or female - needed to be ready to face the fact that might not be able to have it all, that they might not be able to do both the SHIELD job and to have long, happy domestic lives. While the divorce rate might not be as high as people normally thought, there was the problem of missing important events, of the work causing immense stress on the person and on the relationship, and of course the possibility of dying early. Some agents did it, the trainee had reported Coulson saying, and some just didn't make it.

All this wasn't not true, she had thought, but it had still been a stab in the heart. She thought her own injury had scabbed over - she was the Cavalry now - but just hearing what he'd said had torn that open. Phil had always had an edge of cynicism - came with the job - but she had always thought he could recover, that he would weather the storm that she was to him. She had known that she had done some damage to him, but it was clear she had been deluding herself as to the extent of that damage. The idea that she had that power over him was unsettling; also unsettling was her discovery that wounding him still hurt her. She had thought her emotions dead after Bahrain.

She had genuinely hoped that he had been able to move on, to find happiness elsewhere. She had been sorry that the cellist didn't work out - if he'd left SHIELD, perhaps gone and married her and moved out to Oregon, he wouldn't have been in New York. Wouldn't have died. And he genuinely seemed to like the musician, to love her. Phil safe and married to somebody else - she could live easily with that, even be happy with it, as long as he was content. She hoped he could find the peace and happiness with this non-SHIELD agent that had eluded them. She wanted what was best for him, and that seemed the best, at least in her opinion. Just as he always had for her, she wanted good things for him - even the things she could no longer provide.

This was why she hated the name 'the Cavalry'. It wasn't what Ward thought. Yes, she didn't like fame, but that had nothing to do with her hatred of the epithet. For her, "The Cavalry" embodied the death of all that was important to her: herself, her dreams, the most important relationship in her life - and him. Fewer and fewer people in SHIELD knew the real story any more; even Level 7s like Ward didn't know the real details. The few who did called her the lone casualty of Bahrain; only she and Phil knew he was the second.

Her eyes watered when she cut onions or when she was in a smoke-filled room. She hadn't cried since Bahrain, though, because the dead didn't cry. Mandated therapy encouraged her to "let it all out," but the dead had nothing to let out.

By the time the Battle of New York had come, she was sure she was sufficiently separated enough not to feel anything about SHIELD Special Agent Philip Coulson. She had assumed that, after these many years, she would be able to hear his name with the same equanimity as she heard the name of a stranger, but apparently not. How wrong she was. Shanked by an Asgardian jerk with Daddy issues. Died, on the table. She could feel the sidelong glances from the older agents even as the young ones gasped in shock. The same night she'd heard, she awoke screaming (though there were no tears): Bahrain, New York, Phil lying in her arms, blood gushing between her fingers as she tried to put pressure on the gaping hole in his chest. The next morning, she applied to transfer into administration. It was one of the more impulsive decisions she'd made in her career, but certainly the best and the right choice.

She was there as Fury yelled, so loud that those in the hallway stopped. It wasn't so much the transfer request, she knew; for Fury, this was the last nail in the coffin, the true end of what had been a legendary SHIELD partnership. Before, he could hope for reconciliation, even when they were separated; not now, with Coulson out of commission (possibly permanently, depending on how recovery went) and May out of the field. Fury was furious, quite frankly, and she stood there and took it but refused to yield on the decision. He would transfer her, please, she said quietly, firmly.

Maria Hill took one look at her and stamped the approval on her papers.

She never intended to say yes to his request for her to come back to the field. She had given Hill a clear, unyielding "no", and the other woman hadn't pushed any more on it. Still, the thought niggled at her mind; Phil entering the field again, just having "recovered" from a near-death experience or whatever it was that happened, was unsettling for her. No doubt Hill counted on that to do all the persuading for her.

She found it quite disturbing that there was still a piece of her that worried about Phil Coulson.

Perhaps if she told him no, he'd rethink the idea of going into the field, but she knew that wasn't going to happen. Phil Coulson did what Phil Coulson thought was best for everybody, even at his own personal risk. In addition, now he was backed up by Fury, who no doubt would be delighted to get him back into fieldwork. By the time Phil came to see her personally - a good week after Hill approached her - May's resolve had been worn down to nil by fear for him. To be honest, flying the bus was only icing on the cake.

When he told Ward she was just the pilot, she was grateful. She didn't want back in the action, and she had been clear on that. She was only there to keep an eye on him, to make sure recovery went fine. And so when he made himself the extraction team for Franklin Hall, she realized it was far worse sitting on the sidelines worrying than simply going in herself and making sure nothing bad happened. And she knew it wasn't not fair: Phil was an excellent field agent, and Ward was an excellent specialist, but she was caught in that horrible downward spiral of believing she needed to be there in case something went wrong but then blaming herself as the cause if something did go wrong. For all the action Coulson has been involved in with the Avengers, he died. That did not sit well with her.

She only reentered the field because, quite frankly, if she didn't, one of those days he'd pull a stunt that got him killed, and if she thought Bahrain was bad, she didn't believe she'd be able to live through this one. She was already killing herself over whether or not she might have been able to save him in New York; the only thing keeping her from worse thinking was the fact that he was alive. That was why she took it on herself to go after Akela Amador, because if she didn't, she knew Coulson would, and he wouldn't shoot to kill, either. (See how well she knows him - he showed up with the night-night gun.)

They slipped back into that working relationship with ease - with more ease than she had thought possible. She guessed that she never really realized how well they worked together; despite not wanting to be involved in anything except the flying of the plane (and he really knows her well - it's a dream to fly that thing), she quickly slipped back into the role she had before - being a sound board, an adviser, an experienced second voice. When they went after Chan, there was that brief moment where she would have thought this was fourteen years earlier, before their separation, before Bahrain. It was a rhythm they never lost. He didn't push on the personal side, so she didn't take it up with him. Perhaps, she had thought naively, she could finally settle in and just see him as she did Fury, Hill, Sitwell - as a fellow agent she respected. Perhaps this was supposed to be the end result of their partnership: mutual respect, a good working relationship. Fury would be happy, at least.

She was startled when the door to the hospital room opened. Simmons was standing there, and May found it almost amusing that the young woman was still clearly nervous around her.

(She still remembered their conversation in the Hub - rather, May's conversation with the part in Simmons' hair. They were the same height, but the younger woman was so ashamed of what she'd done that she'd stared down at her shoes the entire conversation, leaving the older woman with nothing to look at except the top of her head. All the better, because when May heard what Simmons had done - good night, she'd shot Jasper Sitwell with the night-night gun?! - the pilot had nearly burst out laughing, her amusement only tempered by the disturbing information that they'd been lied to about an extraction team for Fitz and Ward. Even as the two of them had headed back to deal with Sitwell's sleeping form, May had to control her amusement as Simmons trailed behind her, murmuring, "I'm going to get court-martialed, I'm going to get court-martialed.")

The younger woman tiptoed in, then set a mug and a coaster on the small table beside the bed. "I...don't really know how you take your tea, but I know that you like the red teas, so I tried to find something as like it as I could. Perhaps I should bring sugar? Would that - " she stopped sheepishly when May held up a hand.

The older woman found her prattle oddly comforting. "Thank you." The biochemist looked a little surprised at the response (was she really that scary, May wondered), but smiled genuinely and quickly retreated.

May's eyes followed her progress out into the hallway. Outside, she saw Jemma scoop up Ace, who was hovering by the door, clutching Jemma's stuffed Paddington Bear. (Jemma stumbled a little; May made a mental note to ask Ward if something was wrong with her.) The little boy has been with them for just a few days, and it was obvious already he loved Skye and FitzSimmons best. During the day, he played endlessly with Skye and Fitz during their free time; he loved watching Fitz's gadgets and asked lots of fairly intelligent questions about them, and he got into all kinds of mischief with the hacker, who knew exactly what the little boy liked to do - most likely being a big kid herself. At night, however, when he was tired or upset, he just wanted to sit in Jemma's lap, wrapped in a big quilt and hugging her bear, snuggled deep in her arms. The biochemist knew very little about children's likes and dislikes and how to relate to them, but her genuine generosity of heart drew people to her.

It was for this reason that May actually liked Jemma Simmons a great deal; after Coulson, she actually liked her best of the others on board the bus. (Don't tell Ward.) While they were night and day different, and the biochemist was a little chatty for May's tastes, the older agent saw in the bright-eyed Englishwoman much of what drew her to Coulson: a sense of humor; a confidence in herself as a human being and an agent; a delight with life; a clear understanding of how terrible people were and could be but still maintaining a big, generous heart that forgave and strengthened and comforted, thinking of others always. May knew that Coulson had a soft spot for Skye - mostly because, May suspected, Skye reminded him of what she herself used to be, when they were in happier times. For somebody as damaged as May, however, she looked for something else. She liked seeing those who were healthy physically and emotionally - and who were humble and grateful enough to know what gift they had and to share it unselfishly. So Mom and Dad weren't supposed to play favorites, but it was clear they favored the girls, and among the girls, May really preferred Simmons.

(The feeling clearly was not mutual. The biochemist always looked like a deer caught in the headlights when talking to her about anything not case-related.)

After Skye betrayed them to her boyfriend, only Simmons still talked to her: Fitz had felt hurt, betrayed by a friend; Ward was furious at both her and most likely at himself for believing her; Coulson was disappointed, for the same reasons as Ward; and she - well, she had always been suspicious of the hacker. Everybody avoided Skye like the plague, except Simmons: she ate meals with her, played Battleship (after Ward wouldn't, any more) and Scrabble with her, giggled like little girls playing dress-up when they changed outfits for a day (much to Fitz's horror and Ward's visible discomfort, something about the cut of Skye's clothes on the scientist). It was an odd combination: Simmons seemed unsurprised by Skye's actions but also seemed to have genuinely forgiven the hacker.

When Ward had complained about Skye yet again in a briefing (a briefing to which she had not been invited), Simmons had glared all the way up their ten-inch height difference, her normally kind eyes spitting a fire that had surprised the taller agent and shut him up. She had then directed her comments at Coulson, primly angry: they all knew what Skye was when they let her on the plane; if they weren't willing to take the risk they should have never invited her along, given her as much information as they had, or started training her before they knew exactly what type of person she was; now Skye was proving she still was their friend, that she had apologized and was trying to show her repentance by wearing that bracelet and doing her best; and that at least she hadn't done it for malicious reasons, even though her motives didn't make what she did right; and they all knew she'd done something wrong but they all hadn't exactly been blameless either.

She had promptly panicked after her little speech, realizing whom she'd been chastising, and looked like she was about to throw up. Still, despite Coulson's hard look, May could tell that he was secretly pleased - not so much with the actual defense, but with Simmons herself: her analysis of the circumstances, her willingness to give a second chance, and her ability to stand up to both Ward and him. "Didn't quite expect that," Phil had said to her once they were alone in his office, the door shut. She had just looked amused.

May saw firsthand the influence Simmons had on her oldest friend, keeping the normally pessimistic engineer on an even keel. Her enthusiasm was infectious; May doubted Fitz would have even considered leaving for a field assignment without Jemma. She had also overhead FitzSimmons' conversation after they had picked up Ward and Simmons from the Moroccan Home Office, after she had jumped from the plane. When Fitz had been feeling inadequate and inferior to Ward, she had been the one comforting. She'd just nearly died, but she was extending her warmth to those around her, assuring her old friend that to her, he had been as much a hero as Ward had been. She had a generosity of spirit May always loved in Coulson.

Even though the outside observer would find them the least close, Simmons's effect was most profound on Ward; May was well aware of this, even if Ward wasn't. His eyes softened, his demeanor turned more human around her in a way that didn't happen with Fitz or Skye or even May herself. He turned off the flirting, he turned off the 'dating' charm, and he made a real effort. Instead of the cold, stand-offish behavior he gave to most people, he tried; and instead of the suave flirting he did with a woman he was attracted to, he projected a genuine affection. May doubted that Ward even knew he did this.

He apparently had a complete inability to say no when she asked for personal favors, looking up at him with her bright, excited hazel eyes. He has let Simmons poke and prod him and run little (ethical) experiments on him, even though one ended with him getting black hairy tongue. May doubted that Simmons was even aware of her effect on others, much less on Ward, and her innocence was part of what made this all amusing. If Simmons were manipulating Ward, May would be angry, but the biochemist was even more clueless than her grouchy specialist was. If there was any manipulating, it was on the part of Skye and Fitz. Skye was the first to figure out Simmons' unknown superpower, and ever since, the hacker and the engineer generally got their oblivious friend to ask Ward for something all three wanted. (As of yet, the requests haven't been too outrageous or selfish, and so May let it go and just amused herself with watching Ward turn into a helpless puddle of reluctant acquiescence when Simmons asked.) Coulson had figured this whole thing out, too, May believed; the two older agents just didn't exploit it the way Fitz and Skye did, as Ward always did what they wanted, anyhow.

Simmons was the only one who was able to get through to Ward: her bright and airy welcome to the bus, the first one to crack the cold exterior when they first started working together; in an attempt to repair that supervisor-trainee relationship, inviting him to play Scrabble with her and Skye (boy, was that a mistake, because now the bus rang with arguments about word spellings and the stupidity of Microsoft's "American English" versus "British English," arguments which just got Fitz riled up too and made Skye laugh herself stupid); being a silent encouragement as he apologized to his teammates for his behavior after touching the Asgardian staff. While Simmons feared the Cavalry, she didn't fear Ward or his grouchy moods, and her warmth extended to him. As somebody who had never played well with others, he responded to that. May was aware that her...thing...(could she call it a relationship?) with Ward was partly due to the fact that he had already changed.

The pilot didn't want the others to know about her and Ward. It had nothing to do with what they'd say; to be honest, it wasn't like anybody would dare to chastise her for it if they knew. FitzSimmons would still be terrified of her, and Skye would still be Skye. May just didn't want Phil to know. She wasn't afraid he'd boot her off the plane - she was an integral part as it was, being the pilot. Besides, she never wanted to be on this circus or to be back in the field. Her whole impulse was just to run, to run back to her life before Phil Coulson came back into it, and getting booted for having a relationship with a teammate would be a perfect reason to go. Still, that would involve Phil finding out about her and Ward, and she didn't want to hurt him more than she already had.

With Ward, she appreciated having somebody who understood her job. She knew that they cared about each other's well-being. She understood that he needed just to stop thinking, that night after he touched the staff. She was flattered that somebody almost twenty years her junior found her attractive. She realized he was boy-crushing, like a student in love with his teacher; she realized that he was also a little self-satisfied with himself for bagging the Cavalry. Quite frankly, most of her relationships before and after Phil were not dissimilar to the one she had with Ward. It wasn't that these guys didn't like her; they did. They worried about her in the field, were respectful of her abilities. But the relationships were self-serving, on both their part and on her part, born out of physical need or emotional distress or just boredom. She knew that none of this was the basis of a real relationship.

Ward didn't even know the truth about Bahrain, much less her role in it, or what she was before or after that. He didn't live through her pain with her, trying to wash the proverbial blood from her hands: he didn't hold her as she sat, catatonic and covered in blood, while SHIELD medics checked her over; he didn't nurse a broken hand when she nearly killed him as he tried to wake her from her nightmares; he wasn't the one who stood there with stoic shock when she told him flatly that she was leaving. This was no fault of Ward's (especially since she really had no desire to share any of this with him, to let him into her life), but it did mean he would never understand her completely or be able to help her. In addition, if he dealt with traumas by suppressing them, as she did, he would never be strong enough for her to lean on.

Conversely, she knew that very soon he'd realize she was not enough for him. He'd realize he didn't understand her, and she was not sharing more. And while he might have thought otherwise right now, she knew she was not capable of helping him deal with the emotional trauma he had. He needed to be able to deal with it, not ignore it, as she had; she couldn't teach him that. In addition, he was reaching the age that he thought about settling down - not right away, certainly, but he was thinking about it, and it has come out unconsciously. Just two weeks ago, hauling groceries up from the cargo bay doors to the kitchen, he kept complaining and announced that in the house he intended to buy, he wanted something with a kitchen not far from the garage, to make it easier for whomever had both kids and grocercies to get into the house. (Fitz had responded that he could just get a monkey to do it, for which the engineer got a glare.) In that area, May had nothing to offer Ward - nor did she even want to.

She only ever wanted that dream once, in her past, with somebody else. When she was still young, still naive, still alive.

She had a real relationship once. She had been unbelievably happy once. Then Bahrain killed her and she inadvertently did the same to him. It was too late for the two of them, she thought; she couldn't offer him a heart that no longer existed. (After all, she hasn't cried since Bahrain.) And then he lost his second chance in Oregon. Now, they just had a silent agreement to try to make that "other life" possible for everybody else; if they could save for somebody else (for Ward?) what they lost, it might have been worth their own heartbreak, wouldn't it?

"We found him. We know where he is." Skye's voice is urgent, rushed, as she and Fitz nearly run straight into her. "Warehouse, fourth floor. We can pinpoint a location."

"How bad is he?" May's voice is short.

"That we can't tell," Fitz replies, his tone a little disappointed. "Our signals got cut off before we could find it out. Scrambled."

"Given what Centipede has been doing, though," Simmons adds, "we believe they're experimenting on Agent Coulson. They now have the serum to make supersoldiers and the eye enhancement to control them, and from Chan Ho Yin they have the serum's stabilizing platelets."

"Now they just need the technology to resurrect their dead soldiers," Fitz finished.

"It's amazing, really," Simmons marvels. "If they can do this, it'll just be like humanoid Cylons, and then they'll have the - " she quickly clears her throat at the three horrified expressions turned on her. "Amazing in a terrible way, of course."

"You need to get a pack together, figure out what you can bring with you," May says shortly as she takes Skye's intel with her.

The three youngest look at each other in confusion, before Simmons blinks and asks, "Me?"

"Coulson's going to need medical help," May replies. "Skye, get her your flak vest and other equipment and get it on Simmons. Then inform Ward. I'm going to radio headquarters."

{ }

"Please. Explain." Ward's voice is low, barely controlled anger. "Skye and Simmons said you told her to suit up. You want to take Simmons along?"

The two in question are wide-eyed and nervous. They try to slink off but, without looking, Ward reaches back, grabbing Simmons' hand and preventing her from leaving. Skye just throws Jemma an apologetic look and hightails it out of there, abandoning her friend to her fate.

"We are not taking her with us!" Ward's voice rose a notch. "Do you want us to have to haul out two wounded people?"

"You don't know if she's going to get wounded or not," May snapped. "We don't know Coulson't state. If we go in without medical help, he may die as we're pulling him out."

"And if we take Simmons with us, we have two people to protect," Ward retorted.

Simmons is trying to make herself as unobstrustive as possible, her wide eyes darting between the two of them. She tries to wiggle out of Ward's grip but fails.

"I am not putting her in the line of fire," Ward bites off in a low voice. "You were the one who pointed out that FitzSimmons didn't even pass their field assessments."

"And you were the one who pointed out that FitzSimmons were at least SHIELD agents." May gives him a hard glare. "I am the ranking senior officer," she says in a short, low voice. "I say she goes."

Ward sets his jaw and says nothing. He steps back at that, clearly not liking the turn this conversation has taken.

"You better make sure she's ready." May steps away, leaving the office. At the doorway, she stops to look at Simmons. "Get whatever tools you can carry on you."

{ }

They enter the room, May barely clearing it before she lets Simmons run forward. Coulson is lying on a table, wires and tubes going everywhere, a foot-long slice down the center of his chest, opening it to the air. May deals with the guards and the doctors around him, then hears the silent sound of somebody sliding to the floor. She whips around to see Simmons standing there, a huge hypodermic needle still in hand, the guard in a pool at her feet. She looks half in shock.

"Simmons," May says to get her attention.

The biochemist snaps out of it, rushing to the operating table even as Ward finally slides into the room, having dispatched those in the hallway. He stands guard at the door, his gun drawn. "Quick."

"Pull the tubes and let's go," May barks.

"I can't," Simmons whispers, her eyes wide with tense worry. "Some of these are keeping him alive."

May stops short at that, exchanging concerned looks with Ward. "Pull what you can, get him to sit up. We got to get him out of here."

"He can't sit up," Simmons replies. "Not with that huge slice down the middle. He'll lose too much blood. And possibly organs." She grimaces, then quickly looks around the room, then wrangles off an old stretcher. "Quickly. On the count of three."

"No wheels," May instructs, pointing at the wheels on the bottom of the stretcher. "The sound will give us away."

May and Simmons each grab an end of the sheet on which he lies and lift him simultaneously onto the stretcher. He moans, and as May leans down to whisper to him, she hears him beg, "Please, let me die."

May freezes for a moment, her hand hovering at his side; her face twists in agony. For a moment, everything seems to still around her.

Simmons is busy unhooking as many of the tubes and wires as she can, and she uses two tourniquent bands to tie an IV drip bag and a blood bag to the uniform she's wearing."Let's go!"

"Fitz, bring the short bus around," Ward radioes as they make a run for it, May and Simmons carrying Coulson on the stretcher - the biochemist is surprisingly strong - as he provides cover from the back. Skye's voice is in their ear, giving directions for the fastest and safest route out of the building, even as she types away, remotely locking electronic doors and closing entrances to prevent Centipede security from catching them.

There's a burst of gunfire, debris falling. May quickly sets the stretcher down and runs forward to engage as Ward takes on those appearing behind them. When they return just a few minutes later, Simmons is braced over Coulson, covering his body with her own, careful not to touch his wound but still protecting him from the falling debris that's all over her hair and body. There's a large chunk of ceiling right behind her. As May quickly pulls her up, she winces. Ward reacts immediately: "Did you get hurt?"

"Worry about that later," May instructs, grabbing the front of the stretcher and lifting it in tandem with Simmons.

They burst out the side door, gunfire following them, even as the short bus pulls up. The doors fling open, Skye pushing them open, then bracing herself in the back and immediately helping to pull the stretcher into it as Ward picks off some of the guards shooting at them. The van begins to pull away the minute the stretcher is inside, even as Skye fires off a few shots to give Ward cover as he jumps in and pulls the doors shut.

"A&E!" Simmons shouts to Fitz, who has a surprising lead foot for somebody normally so cautious. He whips the van expertly around the road, though no doubt the experience is surreal, driving an American car with steering on the "wrong side" while driving on the left side of an English road.

"Keep the stretcher from bouncing," Simmons replies shortly, even as she pulls the two bags off her her uniform and hands them to Skye, who finds hooks on the inside of the van for them. "Sir? Sir, can you hear me?"

He thrashes, his voice and throat raw. "Let me die!" The four others exchange looks, and Simmons looks down at the long, medical cut down his chest, and the blood.

"Don't freeze up!" Fitz shouts from the front, as if reading her mind.

That's all the encouragement she needs. She shoves her newly gloved hands straight into his chest, slowly massaging it. "Breaths," she replies short, and Skye administers the breaths. There's a sharp jolt, and Ward and May grab hold of the stretcher, lifting it to prevent it from shaking with the rest of the small van. "Just hang on for a little white longer, sir."

"Please," he begs. "Please, just let me die."

May can feel Ward looking at Simmons, then at Skye. She herself can't look anywhere but down at the pale face, contorted in pain. "Phil. Just hang on," she says, her voice soft, pleading. "We're getting you to a hospital."

"No. No. Let me die."

"Sorry, sir," Simmons maintains, trying to brighten her voice, as much as one can with one's hand in somebody else's chest cavity, one hand pinching a torn blood vessel closed while the other massages the heart and keeps it warm. "I'm afraid that's not your call."

Ward's eyes snap to look at her, but the biochemist's focus is still on their boss.

"I'm afraid we'd hate too much to lose you," Simmons continues, as brightly encouraging as she can.

"We're headed for the Bristol hospital," Fitz calls from the front seat. "Cardiothoracic consultant just got paged, general consultant will be there too."



"That's good." Jemma looks like this was the first good news she had gotten in awhile. "Hang in there, sir. We'll be shortly."

He awoke with a shout, his hands clawing at his chest, at everything else, pulling out as many tubes and needles as he could. The machines went nuts, beeping like crazy, and everybody burst in the door into the private room - the ward sister, two student nurses, the cardiothoracic consultant, his registrar; Ward, Simmons, Skye, Fitz.

"Keep him from pulling those out!"
"Agent Coulson - Agent Coulson, you need to calm down - "
"His blood pressure is up to high!"
"Oof." Simmons was flung to the ground by a reactionary Coulson.
"Get the defib."
"He's ripped the stitches. I'm going to need him back in theater."

They unhooked his bed from the machines attached to the wall, running him down the hallway. Nurses and patients and doctors cleared a path, even as the consultant tried to talk him down. Still Coulson thrashed on the bed, even as his surgeon and Ward attempted to hold him down.

He nearly fell out of bed, trying to get away, just as the elevator door opened. May jumped into the elevator with the team, stepping forward quickly, grabbing his face in her hands and holding it as still as she can, forcing him to look at her. "Phil. Phil! Look at me. Look at me." Her tone was unyielding, firm. "Phil. Look at me."

His eyes were wild, his body stiffened suddenly, but he suddenly stopped flailing as one hand came up to grip her wrist, desperately. "Melinda."

"Stop. Stop." He was panting, still panicking. "You're safe. You're in a Bristol hospital, in good hands." He didn't seem to register what she was saying. "Phil," she whispered. "Trust me."

He was trembling, but she felt his body relax under her hands. He slowly folded himself back into the bed but didn't let go of her hand.

The surgeon looked surprised but grateful, quickly settling him back into the bed. "Agent Coulson," the surgeon began soothingly, "we're going to need to get you back in theater; I just need to patch up the stitches you pulled. It's not a major operation, but you need to stay calm."

The wild, murderous eyes Phil turned on his doctor instantly decided the man's mind for him. "Get her scrubbed up," he said to his registrar, waving toward May. "I want her there."

She'd sat down near him, by his head, in theater; the consultant anaesthetist had kindly made some room for her, even joking that her presence seemed to do more than his drugs. She gently touched his cheek, brushing away a stray piece of string, then hovered as Keating finished his work. She was by his side when they wheeled him back upstairs to the ward, back into his room. When the room was quiet again, she studied the monitors, memorizing the numbers as she absently brushed a hand through his soft hair. The monitors' soft beeps were a comfort - everything was OK now (relatively).

She went out to check on Simmons. The poor kid now had a shiner, complete with a bruise on her cheek as well, where Coulson had accidentally hit her earlier; a chatty student nurse tended to her face. Fitz and Skye were sitting with her, and Ace was sitting in her lap, a frown of concern on his face. Ward was hovering, wearing the pinched look he normally had when he was worried but didn't want to show it. "Is Agent Coulson all right?" the biochemist asked immediately upon seeing her.

"He's stable. Out of the woods." Everybody visibly relaxed. May felt like she should offer more. "Your friend is very good surgeon."

"Oh." Fitz grinned. "He's great. Really smart, and creative. We tried to convince him to come to SHIELD with us, but he doesn't want to."

"He's such a nice, sweet guy," Jemma gushed. Skye grinned at that, her eyes twinkling, and Fitz's enthusiasm turned into half-creeped out horror as Simmons' mouth kept running. "He plays football. He has muscles in places I didn't even think - " she blushed bright red as she registered Fitz's expression and Skye's uncontrollable laughter. Ward's expression became even more pinched, his frown longer.

May pulled the other specialist aside; behind them, Skye continued to tease Jemma, and Fitz commented on his friend's red face. "How's Simmons?"

"Bruised," he said. "There are a few vessels popped in her eye, hence the bloodshot look, and the whole area is swelling. The nurse checked her back after she fell in the room - found more damage from the warehouse. Apparently she took a big blow to the back protecting Coulson from the falling debris. They want to keep her overnight to check her renal function, especially because she's having trouble sitting and lying on her back and carrying Ace."

May nodded contemplatively. She had anticipated this, although it didn't nullify their decision to take Simmons with them to find Phil.

Ward shrugged. "You were right. We needed her inside to help with Coulson."

She didn't attempt to comfort him or to play smug for having been right. "Have you secured the bus?"

He rubbed the heel of his hand around his right eye. "Yes." He paused. "I'm sending Fitz and Skye and Ace down to the street to that hotel to get some sleep; they don't want to be too far from Coulson, and the bus is a bit far. I thought you'd want to stay here with Coulson."

She nodded. "You should go with them."

"I don't want her to be alone."

May didn't need to ask who 'she' is, and she was a little offended that Ward thought she wouldn't pay attention to the biochemist's needs, especially now that she knew Simmons took a blow to the kidney. "Simmons will be fine. I'll get Keating to move her up here with Coulson and I'll watch them both."

"If it's all the same to you," he replied, "I intend to stay with her." His tone wasn't sharp, bitter, or questioning, as it had been earlier; nor was it passive-aggressive, as Skye sometimes called it; or even slightly flirtatious, as he sometimes got with her. It was the tone he used with Simmons, one that allowed his genuine feelings to show through. May simply nodded and let him to it.

May headed back to the private patient's room. She carefully turned the blinds, letting it a little moonlight and allowing her to look out over the city. The nighttime lights sparkled at her, and she could hear a laugh from somebody in the parking lot, and the sound of traffic in the street. It was eerily peaceful in that sense - just people going about their night, never mind that a living person had been cut open like a slab of meat and dissected just miles away.

She had just sat down in her chair again when she noticed that Phil was awake, looking at her through half-lidded eyes, his lips dry and cracked. "What happened?"

"We found you. Got you out." She paused. He'd always wanted to know the truth, and she refused to hide it from him. "Based on what she saw in the warehouse and from the tests run here, Simmons believes they were experimenting on you and, as your heart rate went down, were injecting you with adrenaline to keep you alive."

He didn't move; the only visible reaction was a slight uptick in his heart rate.

"FitzSimmons apparently have a surgeon friend here in Bristol, a cardiothoracic consultant." She paused but couldn't stop her voice from catching. "Couldn't let you go." She didn't mention how horrified she was to hear him beg to die - Phil Coulson, who had always been so alive, so delighted with life, who'd bounced back from all kinds of life-threatening injuries with even more enthusiasm. To hear those words out of his mouth, and not be able to help him, had ripped at her. May didn't like this feeling. She didn't know if she'd survive it, watching his life slip away in front of her; she didn't know if she could stand being away from him, though, if he were dying - more so, she knew, because it was him. She wished she were as dead inside as everybody thought.

He knew. He knew her, could read her like an open book. They sat in a complete stillness for several minutes, only the beep of the monitors going by. He finally said, in a voice so soft she almost didn't hear it, "I didn't want to put you through this." He was quiet for a moment, as if trying to formulate this thoughts. "I would never want to put you through this." He took a breath, shaky not from his physical condition but from his emotional one. "I just - " he breathed in again, his body trembling a little at the exertion. He fell silent.

She could feel, unbidden, the possibility of tears.

His voice was small, exhausted. This was a side of him he never shoed his team, a side others saw so rarely. "Before, you didn't want to come on the bus, didn't want to go back into the field," he tried again. "I understood why, but I thought...I thought it might be better for you with - " He cut himself off in time, but the 'me' hung between them. "I'm so sorry."

He clearly thought he'd made a grave mistake, asking her to come back. She thought that he was right before - that she was better when she was with him.

"I knew having you here with me was better for me." He gave a small, bitter laugh. "And I deluded myself into believing it was better for you, too. It was selfish. I'm sorry." He took a deep breath. "If you want out, I'll sign whatever paperwork you want."

They sat in long silence. "Do you want me gone?" she asked, finally, and she didn't know what she'd do if he actually said yes.

"No." The response was immediate, firm.

"Then I'll stay," she said, softly, decisively. She'd stay. For his sanity. And for her own.

He nodded once, as if he expected that answer. She soon discovered that he expected it for entirely the wrong reason: "I won't tell Fury about Ward."

He knew. She didn't know why she thought he wouldn't. Of course he knew. He knew, and he thought that was why she wanted to stay on the bus. She swallowed, gathering up her wits about her, and said carefully, "I have always been honest with you. I'm not - " she swallowed. "I'm not here for Ward."

This, oddly, didn't seem to comfort him. He seemed even more agitated, upset, and she watched as his heart rate, blood pressure both went up rather than down. He had to wait until he was calm again before he said quietly, "I want you to be happy. Just - I just want - " He took a deep breath. "I want you happy again. It's all I ever wanted for you. Please. I won't get in the way. If he makes you - "

"Happiness is overrated," she replied, her voice shakier than she wanted it to be. "I was blindingly happy once," she said, and the look on his face told her he knew exactly when that was, "and I ended up more miserable than I ever knew possible. I'm not interested in 'happy' any more. Happiness is for fools."

He thought this over for a long time, and it pained her to see that he seemed to understand this far too well. She wondered what price they'd paid to get where they were, and wondered if their pain and agony were worth any of it. His eyes were exhausted, red-rimmed, a single tear each in the inner corners of his eyes. "How did we even get to this point?" he asked, his voice a very soft, cracked whisper.

She felt tears spring to her eyes, an unwelcome and unfamiliar feeling. She breathed in deeply, but even that was unsteady, shaking with the emotion of trying to keep tears at bay. She said nothing. How did they get to this point, indeed, with both of them so broken and their relationship so devastated she didn't know if it was salvageable, even if both of them still wanted it. She wished for the numbness back, when she felt nothing and could be hurt by nothing. Grief was the price she paid for caring, and she didn't believe she could take any more without breaking. At the same time, she wasn't able to stop caring about him, even after these twenty plus years - nor he about her.

"Melinda." His voice was exhausted, though from physical or emotional exertion she couldn't tell. "Just tell me. I don't want to hurt you any more. Just tell me how not to hurt you any more."

She sat completely still for a full two minutes, just looking straight back at him. The monitors beeped steadily, and she could hear the nurses talking behind her, all in a dim distance.

She suddenly got up and crawled into bed with him, laying her head on his good shoulder; he quickly clutched her to his side, a desperate grip on her, and they wept.


[Love] does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
[It] does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

- St. Paul, Corinthians