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there'll be happiness after me

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There were some days Mack still wondered if he was dreaming, and he would wake up soon.

Walking along the grounds of the newly-built Academy, that feeling niggled at him more strongly than ever. The worst part about going into a simulated reality and then being pulled out was that never once in the Framework had he questioned the realness of his life, even when it was dissolving around him. He could be living a dream without even knowing it, because he had done it once before.

Mack didn’t think that was the case, though. His life in the Framework hadn’t been perfect, but there’d been a rhythm to it the way there wasn’t a rhythm in the real world. Things came out of nowhere out here - he travelled through space and time and came out the other side a different man, but hopefully a stronger one.

He shook his head as he continued his walk. He shouldn’t have been dwelling on the Framework, not when there was a beautiful spring day to appreciate. Birds were singing, flowers were blooming, the grass was green and the sky was blue. He wanted to focus on that, not memories of a world turned upside down.

“Dad! Er, Director!”

Mack turned at the sound of a familiar voice, and walked to meet Flint halfway when his son began jogging across the quad towards him.

“What are you doing here?” Flint asked breathlessly when he reached Mack.

“Can’t a man take a walk without having a reason?” Mack asked, chuckling.

“Yeah, of course! Mom just told me you’d be away for the next couple weeks so I didn’t expect it!” Flint said earnestly.

“Walk with me?” Mack asked, gesturing with his head towards the path he had been on. Flint nodded, waving to a cluster of other students before following Mack back to the paved pathway.

“Who were those guys?”

“Just some of my friends,” Flint said with a shrug. “I was talking with May and she said it’s important to make friends in the Academy. They’re going to be the ones to always have your back for the rest of your life and everything. Did you know she and Coulson met here?”

“I did,” Mack said, nodding. “They raised a lot of hell, from what I heard.”

“May promised to tell me all her best stories after I graduate and can’t repeat them,” Flint said with a grin. “But I think I might be able to get her to spill sooner.”

“Nah,” Mack snorted. “Sorry, Rocky, but in you versus May I have my money on her every time.”

“But Dad,” Flint whined, “you didn’t even listen to how I was gonna get it out of her!”

“Is it better than the interrogation tactics of half the world’s intelligence agencies?”

Flint pouted, and Mack smiled back. “Thought so.”

“Did you have any friends you made at the Academy?” Flint asked as they reached the staff parking garage. Flint looked at it curiously but Mack shook his head. He hadn’t parked there, and they weren’t going to be stopping there either.

“One,” he said as answer to Flint’s question.

“And?” Flint prompted. “Wait, no, don’t answer that. I don’t want to know if they’re dead or HYDRA or something.”

“She wasn’t HYDRA, and she’s not dead.” Well, she wasn’t dead as far as Mack knew, which wasn’t exactly a comforting thought. “Her name was Bobbi.”

“How come I haven’t met her if she’s not HYDRA or dead?” Flint asked.

“She was disavowed. Disavowment is -”

“I know, Dad,” Flint interrupted. “We learned about it in history.”

“Right,” Mack sighed. He forgot sometimes how much Flint was learning.

“You don’t really talk about her, either.” Flint’s voice was gentler, almost like he was afraid of prodding.

“It’s hard to lose a friend like that,” Mack answered, forcing his voice to be steady. “You don’t really get the closure of a funeral, and none of the hate of knowing they were a double agent. Just… one day they’re there, and the next…” He snapped his fingers.

“I hope that doesn’t happen to me,” Flint said quietly.

“I hope so, too.” Mack wanted to protect his son from all the worst parts of being an agent. He knew he couldn’t, of course - even as Director there were some things about Flint’s life he couldn’t control. Mack also had to remind himself constantly that the world Flint came from was much crueler than this one; the death, the pain, the sorrow - that had been Flint’s day-to-day for the first eighteen years of his life. At least with S.H.I.E.L.D. the sacrifice would mean something.

Mack dug into his pocket and pulled out his wallet. In the plastic protector pouch there were four photos. The first was of him, Flint, and Elena - an unofficial family portrait they’d taken while out on a hike earlier that year. The second was of his base family, Daisy and Piper and Sousa and Kora all grinning at the camera. The third was an ultrasound, worn and weathered but not forgotten. The fourth, tucked so far back it rarely saw the light of day, was the picture he was looking for.

“That’s Bobbi,” Mack said, withdrawing the picture carefully to hand it to Flint. Hunter had taken the photo of the two of them sitting together on base. It was one of Bobbi’s rare moments of vulnerability, her head against Mack’s shoulder, and that was only one of the reasons the photo was so precious to him.

“Can you tell me about her?” Flint asked, studying the picture as they continued to walk more slowly than before.

“She was the smartest person I’ve ever known. Not just with books, but with people, too. She could look someone in the eye and know if they were lying before they knew they were lying. Quick as a whip, too. She and Hunter - her husband - bickered all the time and she always, always had a smart comeback.” Mack didn’t fight the smile that pulled onto his face when he thought about Bobbi. Some days it hurt, but some days he managed to find the happiness in the memories, too. The only reason they were sad at all was because of the way things had ended.

“She would’ve really liked you,” Mack said quietly.

“You think?” Flint asked, offering the photo back.

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.” Bobbi would’ve admired Flint’s tenacity and his heart; she would’ve loved all of the old man jokes Flint made at Mack’s expense, and insisted on teaching him how to use batons instead of just a gun. She would’ve been a good aunt, a good mentor, and a good friend.

“Do you miss her?”

“All the damn time.” There was a reason the photo was in his wallet instead of at the bottom of a box somewhere. Mack couldn’t stop remembering his best friend, but he could at least choose to remember her in a way that didn’t rip his heart out every time he thought of it. The photo was better than his memories of the dim bar in Russia.

“She… she made me really happy. And when people ask me who my best friend is, I still think of her. Like May said, that’s the kind of bond that gets you through the worst of life.” His friendship with Bobbi had undoubtedly given him some of his best memories, and Mack was never going to be able to regret those times just because he couldn’t see Bobbi anymore. She wouldn’t want him to. “But at the end of the day, I think she’d want me to move on. Be happy. She didn’t really… she wasn’t good about talking about how she felt. But I knew.”

“She sounds pretty cool,” Flint said. Mack got the impression it was because his son was too in-tune with other’ emotions for his own good than because it was what he actually believed; Flint could tell how much Bobbi meant to him, and he wouldn’t dare say anything negative about her.

“Someday, if you want, I could tell you more stories,” Mack offered. “You wouldn’t be able to tell anyone else, because of the disavowment, but…”

“Perks of Director Dad.” Flint smiled again, but it wasn’t his usual toothy grin. It was softer at the edges, almost fragile. “Do you think I could tell you about Tess?”

“Yeah, bud. That sounds great.” Mack wrapped his arms around Flint’s shoulders, pulling him in for a brief side hug.

Their walk resumed in the sort of heavy silence that only came after a difficult conversation was finished. The birds were all too happy to fill in the space, singing sweet songs.

On a tree branch high above Mack’s head, a mockingbird joined the chorus.