sparsenicjade
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AN: Also unbeta'ed, written for knight_tracer.

***


In her condo, tucked away in Chelsea, Melinda has aquariums. There's a 158-gallon cylindrical one that is the centerpiece for her living room, its round design accented by her equally-round couch. And there's the 180-gallon one in her bathroom, over the bath, across from the glass shower. If she thinks about it too much, she feels stupid for having them. They're not much use as pets and her neighbor's kid spends more time feeding and taking care of them than she does.

They are colorful, though, and quiet. They remind her of someone she used to be; someone she prefers. And on days where she could use some focus, some peace that she can't generate herself, she really wishes the bus had a fucking bowl of water and some coral reef wildlife on it. It isn't like she asks for much.

*


Her shoulder hurts. It's not serious, normally she wouldn't even allow herself the luxury of noticing it, but right now, with Skye in a sick parody of a human aquarium, Phil caught up in his worry, and Ward using anger as a preferable emotion to vulnerability, she needs an anchor. Someone on this boat needs to have her shit together, and while FitzSimmons are sturdier than they look, Melinda's a lot more solid.

She wasn't lying to Phil, he's still the guy she knew, but occasionally she misses the times when he never let anyone know he was that guy. She does the only thing she knows to do for Ward—well, one of only two, and neither of them is in the mood for the other just now—and takes him down to the sparring mats. She tears the dermaplast keeping her shoulder together and deepens a few other bruises, but that's the easy part, taking that. The hard part is getting him to stay down.

It's a couple of hours before she manages and she's not entirely sure she hasn't given him a concussion. She is sure he'd know if he had one, though, so when she says, "Get some rest," and he nods in acquiescence, she assumes he's all right, at least on that count.

She showers and patches herself up again. She considers whether she should have let Ward do that before he fell asleep. Probably, she knows, but she's not even sure she would know what it meant, and, let's face it, one of them has to.

*


Melinda stops in to check on Phil. Sure, Skye is hanging on by a thread in the damn chamber, but she can't do anything for Skye. That sums up more about her life than she'd like to admit.

Phil still has blood on his suit. When she looks closely, there are traces of it still on his wrists. If he wasn't her superior—no, fuck it, if he wasn't one of her oldest friends and her superior, she'd kick his ass into showering and changing. Instead, she makes some coffee and sits with him until he drinks it.

He says, "I'm tired."

Melinda's not much for encouragement, so she chooses the only truth she knows. "She chose this, Phil. I'm not saying that the op couldn't have been planned better, or that she shouldn't have had more training or whatever it is you keep playing in your head. But she made the choice to help you track down Quinn and she made the choice to risk herself so that he wouldn't be able to get away. Don't take that from her. I get wanting to protect others," oh, does she ever, "but you can't—if you give her the space and freedom to be an agent, you can't have it both ways. She gets to make her own choices and her own mistakes and have them be hers."

Phil swallows. "It's not that you're not right, or even that I don't know you're right. It's that it doesn't seem to matter."

Melinda gets that, too. She brings him another cup of coffee and says, "I'll be in the cockpit."

*


In the cockpit, Melinda sits still for a few moments before muttering, "fuck it," and making the call. She hasn't talked to Natasha in months, mostly because she knows that if Natasha so much as sniffs something being up, she'll take Melinda apart and have answers before Melinda even knows she's being asked anything. On the mats, Natasha and Melinda are a fair match. As a pilot, Melinda's the only one to trust. As a spy, Natasha is forever going to be the victor.

Natasha answers on the first ring. "Is this an emergency?"

Melinda considers, then realizes that if she can consider, the answer is, "No."

There's a beat. "Really? Because you've been ignoring messages from me and Clint ever since you went back into the field, so I kind of presumed the only reason you'd call was if you needed help."

Melinda bites back her wince. "Not completely wrong, I suppose."

"Where's the fire?" Natasha asks.

"Nothing you can clean up. One of my…juniors is critical."

Another pause. Then, as incredulous as Natasha ever gets, "Did you call because you needed a friend?"

"Weirder things, Romanova."

"I guess," Natasha says, not sounding convinced. Melinda closes her eyes for a moment. She deserves that. Since Bahrain, she hasn't been the best at basic human interaction.

"I'm sorry," Melinda says, although she can't even begin to imagine what the apology is for. There's too much to say it over, so she leaves it as is and lets Natasha decide what she wants to take from it.

Melinda can almost hear Natasha's careful shrug. "Glass houses."

It's all the forgiveness she's willing to ask for. Melinda tilts her head. "How is Clint?"

"Better. It's a process. For both of us. Stark thinks he can buy us out of our recovery but so far he's only managed lengthy distractions."

"I notice you haven't killed him yet."

"He gave me a car. A really nice car."

"Since when are you easy?" Melinda asks, laughing.

"Since Stark, evidently."

There's a moment of easy quiet between the two of them. Melinda says, "I, uh, we're taking the junior agent into HQ for medical. Wanna get a beer?"

"Beer's for the weak," Natasha tells her.

"Mm," Melinda says. They can always work their way up.

"But yeah, I'd like that."

"I really am sorry," Melinda tells her.

"I know. I've been…well, somewhere not entirely different. But don't do it again. There's too much— Just don't."

"No, I promise."

"Stark has a collection of micro-brews. You'll like it."

"I'm not easy," Melinda tells her.

"Everyone thinks that," Natasha says calmly. "Then they meet Tony."

Melinda is rolling her eyes, keeping her opinion politely to herself when Natasha pulls out the big guns. "Also, there's a 2,000 gallon aquarium on Bruce's floor. Evidently fish are very zen."

Melinda isn't used to anything that's on her mind actually coming out of her mouth, so it's as much of a shock to her as anyone when she says, "You're shitting me."

"No, very zen," Natasha tells her solemnly.

Melinda bites back a sigh. "How is it that all my coworkers are assholes?"

"Luck of the Irish?" Natasha suggests.

Melinda almost laughs. Almost. "Must be it."


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile