Phil retreated to his room taking slow, deliberate steps. Keeping his eyes in front of him, he didn’t spare a glance back towards his team. He needed space to think, to breathe. His lungs were collapsing and the strain of keeping his breaths even was threatening to consume all that remained of his strength. Their pitying looks were bad enough--he did not want them to see him struggling with something so basic. Especially Melinda, who was still processing his impending death from within the walls that she erected around her feelings. He knew she needed time and space, but that emotional distance hurt. Not that he didn’t deserve it.
By the time he entered his room, he had lost his breath entirely, collapsing gracelessly onto the floor. His chest contracted painfully, his mind clouded, his vision fogged and the burning pain on his left hand felt just as real as if his appendage was still attached to him. The ghost pain had returned with a vengeance after Elena lost her arms and he didn’t have the heart to tell her that it never really went away. That the feeling of being incomplete would follow her to the grave. At least he didn’t have much more left of that pain.
He closed his eyes and tried to focus on breathing in and out, pushing his lungs to expand and contract despite the sharp pain.
Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Repeat.
I can’t die here. He still needed to tell Melinda exactly how he felt, without innuendos or cop-outs. There wasn’t enough time to do everything he wanted to do--he’d never be able to share a bottle of Haig with her or take her out on the first date he had planned--but he could not die without telling her. She had to know. She needed to know.
Phil gathered what little strength remained in his muscles and rose to his feet. The plan had been to wait a little longer before confronting Melinda--giving both of them time they needed to process this situation. But now he wasn’t sure he had enough time to waste. Waiting even another minute was playing with fire.
With trembling legs, he went out into the hallway and toward the common area where the team was still assembled.
* * *
Melinda could see the pain and effort etched into Phil’s face. He was trying to suppress it, and was quite good at it, but she knew him better than that. That noble idiot had been in pain since the Ghost Rider deal and he had tried to keep that from her. She saw it, but she had attributed it to their circumstances, the pain they kept encountering at every turn in their future lives. And she had been consumed by her own leg pain and her grief for the world they had lost; all of that now seeming so insignificant compared to the burden he had been carrying over his shoulders.
A wave of anger hit her again and she suppressed a shudder. She was mining that anger, trying to focus it on something productive, but this was more than she could handle. Phil had deliberately kept her in the dark, walled himself off, and did everything he could to make his death easier to bear. But there was nothing that could make a world without Phil Coulson bearable. She knew that from experience.
Melinda May understood his actions better than anyone else. She invented those moves. But that didn’t mean that she was less angry at his omission. Angry at their situation. Angry at his unwillingness to be saved.
Still, she had stayed close to him--closer even than she had already been--since learning about his impending death. She found herself constantly fighting the twin impulses to wrap her arms around him and wrap her hands around his throat, but she did neither. In fact, she avoided touching him as much as possible. Even knowing that he had feelings for her, she couldn’t bear to touch him right now. Not when there was still work to be done, not when he was still dying. No, she would embrace him, kiss him, and show him just how much she wanted him when he was safe, when she could have all of him without reservations. When she didn’t have to fear that this embrace, this kiss, this night, would be their last.
Out of the corner of her eye she watched him shuffle slowly away from the common room, heading toward his cluttered room. They had been in this base for less than a week and he had already started to collect trinkets. It was endearing, really. He was finding pieces of history, old logos, and antiquated equipment that fascinated him and keeping those in his room.
The room that would one day be Virgil’s in another timeline. Maybe that’s where the young man derived his love for old things.
She thought about following him to make sure he was okay, but decided against it. Phil would lie and say he was fine and she couldn’t take one more lie from his lips right now. Not when there was so little keeping her from falling apart.
Daisy was sharing her theories, what she thought she would find with the Cybertek scientists, the ways in which they could save him. All while Phil’s words played over and over in her mind; he did not want to be saved. But neither had Daisy and yet she was standing there, in a time period she had forsaken and that Phil had forced her into. If he thought he could refuse to be saved, he was sorely mistaken.
It was not long after his departure that Melinda saw him return, his steps unsteady and his face ashen. Something was wrong.
Her heartbeat accelerated and she felt a chill run down her spine. It took her nine steps to be by his side, holding him by the shoulders. “Are you okay, Phil?”
He was looking directly at her, his eyes clouded, his pupils dilated and unfocused. A cold sweat covered his face and she felt him trembling under her grip. His mouth opened and closed a few times before he choked out “Mel-Melinda.”
It was clear that his legs could not support him for much longer, so she helped him unto the nearest chair and kneeled in front of him, looking around her to find someone who could help. Daisy had run out of the room to find Simmons and Fitz was horror stricken behind the console. Deke was pressed against a wall on the far side of the room, looking lost and out of place. No one knew what to do or even if there was anything they could do. Phil’s hands on her cheeks redirected her gaze toward him and she felt her heart stop.
His eyes were focused on her, a soft expression on his otherwise pained features. “Melinda… I am so…” a fit of coughing interrupted his words and made him hide his face on his right shoulder for what felt like an eternity. Eventually, his ragged voice continued, “sorry. I… I wanted you know before… before…” more coughing as his hands on her cheeks trembled. His eyes watered and his face was red when he was finally able to look at her again. “I… I…”
“No, Phil, don’t talk. Don’t say it. You are not dying, not right now. You can tell me later, when you are feeling better.” She didn’t mean to interrupt him, but the words were tumbling out unbidden.
“I love you… Melinda.” His eyes were bright, shining with unshed tears and she felt like she could drown in them. She had wanted to hear those words for longer than she cared to admit, but hearing them now, as his body wasted away, was more than she could bear. “Please forgive me.”
Instead of responding, Melinda had risen to her feet and climbed onto his lap, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck. His arms slowly came to rest on her hips and she felt him convulsing under her, struggling to contain more coughs. “I love you too, Phil. But this is not it, this is not a goodbye. You are not dying.” Her words were barely louder than a whisper but she knew Phil heard them because he tightened his grip on her hips and buried his face in her shoulder.
She brought one hand down to his chest and she could feel the irregular heartbeat under his shirt. No, no, no, no. His breaths became more ragged and she could tell he was struggling to inhale. Under her palm, his heart was slowing, losing steam. His hands slipped from her hips and he slumped back into the chair and away from her arms.
“Phil? Phil? PHIL?!”
His eyes were closed and his body was still. Around her she could hear Simmons running toward them, Fitz punching the table in front of him, and Daisy screaming.
With all the commotion, it took her a few seconds to notice that his heart had stopped beating under her palm.
She stepped back when Simmons reached them and the two of them lay him flat on the ground as the young doctor began chest compressions. When it was time to give him air, Melinda didn’t hesitate to bend down and touch her lips to his, begging his lungs to accept her breaths. Nothing. Simmons kept compressing, the force of each push making Phil’s ribs creak. Melinda kept sharing her breath. Phil continued to lay there motionless.
As the horror of what she was seeing began to congeal and solidify, she felt numb. But she didn’t stop trying to reanimate him. They must have hovered over his body for close to ten minutes by then, and his heart had refused to beat again, his lungs did not accept her pained breaths. His lips were still warm, but not for much longer.
Eventually Fitz came to pull Simmons away, but Daisy immediately took her place. Seeing the tears running down the young woman’s face, Melinda knew that she had to put a stop to this. Sinking as if to blow into his mouth, Melinda dropped a soft and lingering kiss to his lips. She then turned to Daisy and pushed her back and away from Phil’s body. Daisy began to struggle, refusing to stop, refusing to give up. Melinda’s heart was torn to shreds and she had no strength to fight Daisy so she tried to pull her into a hug instead. Daisy clung to her, sobbing and screaming. Melinda’s own cheeks were wet, her grief pouring out and blinding her.
That’s when the shot rang out, bringing her back to the lighthouse, to the present.
She pulled away from Daisy and watched as Phil’s body dissolved into a fine mist, his pale and weary face being the last to disappear. Her head snapped to the left and her eyes landed on the figure of a weary Phil Coulson, his arms holding up a 50 caliber desert eagle pistol.
Before she could process what was happening, she had risen from the ground and was running toward him. He dropped the gun clumsily before opening his arms and catching her as she launched herself at him. She buried her face in his neck and he took a step back, leaning against the nearest wall.
Her mind struggled to comprehend how this Phil could feel just as real to her as the fear dimension Phil had, but she didn’t dwell on that too much. She took deep breaths and revelled in his scent, the feel of his blood pumping in his neck, the warmth of his skin. He was alive. Alive.
Behind her, Simmons was muttering, “That was just one of our fears? But if felt so real… his chest, his heartbeat… Fitz, he was dead! ”
“It must have been stronger, a fear we all share,” came his soft response.
Phil’s arms loosened around her and he began to rub slow circles over her back as one hand came to cup her head. She kissed his neck and he planted kisses on the top of her head. Pulling back slightly, Melinda took stock of the man in front of her: his eyes were shining with unshed tears, his face was pale and his features looked tired, but he was looking at her with the softest, most loving expression she had seen.
“Can we save you?” Her voice was barely a whisper.
He nodded slowly, his eyes shifting between her eyes and her lips. Rising on her tiptoes, she placed a lingering kiss on his cheek, her lips touching the edges of his. She wanted to kiss him properly, to stay in his arms forever, but not there. Not like that.
His muscles were beginning to tremble from the effort of staying upright, so she shifted in his arms and placed her shoulder under his right arm to hold him up. “You need some rest, let’s go.”
He didn’t protest and they made it back towards his room in silence. Melinda wrapped both arms around him, hugging him close and pressing her head to his shoulder as they walked through the empty hallways.
Her anger had evaporated along with his lifeless form and now she found herself fighting only the impulse to be with him. She was losing the fight. Her right hand was moving slowly up and down his chest, caressing him and feeling his strong heartbeat. His real heartbeat. Phil leaned his head on hers, his cheek over her hair, and his hand dropped to her waist, pulling her closer still.
Once they made it to his room, he sat down on the bunk and slowly pulled off his boots. Melinda helped him lay back on the bed, her eyes as soft as he had ever seen them.
“Will you stay?” He croaked out.
“I’m never leaving you, Phil. Never.” Her conviction was punctuated by her broken voice, her emotions filtering through.
He scooted closer to the wall and she climbed in, placing her head on his chest and draping her arm over his taut stomach. His heartbeat was loud under her ear, and she thought she had never heard something so beautiful.