Everyone had gotten out of the framework okay, except for Mace- and Melinda.
When Phil blinked open groggily and got hit with a brick wall of memories, some painful and some happy, he fumbled out of loose straps, pulled the tubes off of him and staggered off of the hard vertical bed. Next to him was May, looking pale and thin and making his heart run cold.
He walked up to her, hoping to any god out there that she was alive; that his Melinda was alive and not brain dead. “C’mon, Mel, you can do this,” he whispered. “Jump! Please, just jump.”
Phil watched with bated breath as she looked deathly still, her chest rising and falling shallowly.
And then her eyes shot open as she gasped for air.
Mixed with his relief, Phil knew that something was wrong immediately. She collapsed into his arms and he eased them both to the floor. His legs were trembling from disuse, and he’d been in the framework for less than half the amount of time as her. She took in shaky breaths while clawing at his shirt, burying her head into his chest.
“You’re okay, you’re okay,” he soothed quietly. Her chest spasmed and she clenched the fabric tighter. “Phil…” she mumbled as their eyes met, and his blood ran cold. Her eyes were wide, and any mask she’d use to cover up her emotions was gone, replaced by raw fear. “You’re okay, you’re safe,” he repeated, not believing a word he was saying. She squeezed her eyes shut and leaned her head on him as he heard Fitz inhale sharply and stumble out of his stretcher muttering a stream of angry and confused curses.
“May, I’m so sorry,” Phil murmured into her hair, watching, alarmed, as her chest rose and fell so shallowly you could hardly tell she was breathing. Now that she was practically still against him, he could really tell how thin she’d become from malnutrition. After Aida had killed Radcliffe, she must’ve found a loophole to protect them and stopped feeding them. Even through the long sleeved black shirt, her ribs were obvious, poking out sharply through the fabric, and her face was gaunt and pale. Her bony elbows dug into his chest, but he could barely feel them.
Fitz stumbled to the wall and slid down it with a despairing groan, but Phil barely paid attention to him. Melinda blinked slowly, then murmured, painfully slow and picking each word out deliberately, “Phil… Aida…” Her speech was labored and her mouth had trouble forming the words, but he could tell what she meant. He looked up to see Aida in her grey secretary-who-slept-with-her-boss dress still hooked up to the framework. He set his mouth in a thin line, knowing what had to be done. It was the damn robot’s fault that Melinda was hurting right now, and that Mace was dead, and Fitz was being ripped apart from the inside. She was going to pay.
Phil gently lifted his partner to the floor, resting her head on the stone, before standing up and looking around the room for something sharp. He rummaged through drawers around the room, finding a row of scalpels that made him more than a little sick. He grabbed the longest one and focused on Aida’s still body. Walking up to her, without a second thought, he dug the blade into her skin as blood pooled onto his knuckles. He pulled it around her neck in a circle, like cutting an avocado. (Avocados were forever ruined for him, he decided.) After very nearly having her head displaced off her neck, he swung his fist at her head, knocking it to the floor with satisfaction. The wires in her neck sparked as more synthetic blood poured from inside her metal skull.
“Bloody hell ,” Fitz retched behind Phil. He turned around, feeling the automatic revulsion that he’d always had in the framework when seeing the Doctor laced with worry for his team member, the little engineer who’d been family from day one. “Something tells me none of this is over,” he sighed.
Melinda was on the floor, unmoving, so before helping Fitz, he quickly checked her pulse. It was there, but faint. He turned to the young agent, who was panting with panic, an arm leaning on a side counter. “It’s okay, we’re back, everybody’s… safe,” he lied. He wasn’t sure what was happening with his partner but her situation was causing something dark to rise up within him.
Fitz backed up from Phil, shaking, eyes wide with horror. “What have I done?” he asked frantically.
“Don’t blame yourself. The framework messes with everybody’s head.”
“No- but I- I killed people,” he stuttered, spinning wildly to face the wall, running his hand through his curly hair. “They weren’t real-” He tried to say, but Fitz interrupted him.
“Agnes was real. And… M-Mace…” The young man looked over and began breathing even harder. Phil followed his line of sight to see an extra empty bed. It didn’t take a detective to deduce who’d been there. Fitz covered his mouth with his hand and leaned heavily onto his knees. “I ordered the air strike that killed Mace,” he said faintly. He made eye contact back with the older man, eyes seeing the ghosts of his victims, red and raw. He staggered over to a chest and put most of his weight on it, barely able to stand.
After a few agonizing seconds where Phil had no idea what to say to him, Fitz looked over at May, who was still laying on the floor, curled into a ball, her eyes open but glassy in a way that chilled Phil’s core. “She- she’s alive?” he asked desperately. Phil nodded. “But she’s having trouble moving and speaking, I think from disuse of her body.”
Fitz stared at the woman before letting out something that seemed to be a cross between a whimper and a groan. “Muscular atrophy, or disuse atrophy. She must have muscular atrophy, it’s protein degradation because her muscles weren’t used. They, along with many body systems, stopped synthesising the right materials, so her muscles, speech, and memory are all gone to hell,” he diagnosed bitterly. “It’s what Simmons feared would happen.”
Phil tried not to think too hard about what Fitz just said, lest he start panicking. Instead he focused on the room, his eyes inspecting everything at their disposal to escape. Daisy and Simmons were both missing, and Mack was still in the framework. He and Fitz could barely stand, and their greatest fighter was- Don’t think about it - incapacitated.
“Do you- d’you hear that?” Fitz stuttered, interrupting his thoughts. Phil turned to his terrified face and listened for anything unusual. Something outside was clicking and whirring… “Someone’s outside,” he realized. The whirring stopped, then someone gasped loudly. Fitz’s head shot up. “My machine, the- the machine in the- framework, Coulson … it was to make h-her a new body,” he said quietly. Phil stared at him. “So you think she just made herself a new body?” He asked, regretting every single life decision he’d ever made. Fitz nodded. Phil cursed, looking back at Melinda. “I’m- I’m a bad person,” Fitz moaned, sinking to the floor.
The only door coming into the room opened, and in walked Aida, wearing a grey robe and a bright and pleasant smile, which was… odd. And terrifying. Phil backed up to shield his partner from her view as she stepped closer to Fitz, still looking jovial. “O-Ophelia?” Fitz asked, dumbfounded.
“I am so happy to see you,” she said breathlessly. “This… is what happiness feels like,”
“She’s not a robot anymore,” Phil said quietly. He backed up, and stealthily reached for the gun on the table that he’d noticed when surveying the room. “She bleeds just like us.” Fitz walked slowly towards Aida, getting in the way of Phil’s potential shot. “Now you can touch the real me,” she told Fitz softly, her eyes shining. He reached up to touch her face, seemingly entranced. Phil aimed the gun at the two of them. “Fitz, get out of the way,” he growled, but it was like the man couldn’t hear him.
Aida snatched Fitz’s hand and held it up to her chest. “Feel my heartbeat, Leopold. Touch my skin.”
“Fitz, move!” Phil shouted.
“We can make this world anything we want,” Aida told him lovingly. Before Phil had a chance to shoot, she grabbed Fitz and teleported away with a flash similar to Gordon’s. He threw the gun down in defeat. “She’s inhuman? Can we get one break?” he sighed.
“Guess they weren’t assessing powers at Hydra so much as collecting them,” a deep, familiar voice sounded behind him. Phil turned around to see Mack, to his relief. He must’ve gotten out of the framework during the commotion. His eyes were shining.
“You got out,” Phil said in relief. He honestly had been expecting the man to stay because of Hope. “Yeah,” Mack said, a melancholy air now surrounding him. “Daisy reminded me what I had here. Yoyo, you guys.” He shrugged, almost as if he could shrug off the grief Phil could tell he was drowning in. “Right now, let’s focus on escape.” He looked around and almost immediately zeroed in on Melinda’s limp form. “What-”
“Muscular atrophy, Fitz thinks.” Phil said grimly. “Simmons suspected it would happen. She’s gone with little nutrition and no movement for months. I think… her body forgot how to work,” he said helplessly. Mack put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Coulson, we’ll help her, I promise. We need to get out, first.”
“Well, we did step one. We’re lucky we got out of the framework at all.”
“It wasn’t luck.” In two seconds, Phil had the gun scooped up from the floor and aimed, and Mack assumed a defensive stance. The Russian leaned leisurely on the entrance frame. “You are only alive because I had restrictions put on me. Fortunately,” He curled his fingers into fists and stepped further into the room, “Those restrictions have just been lifted.”
Phil wasted no time in shooting Petrov in the chest. Blood pooled from the four shots, but to Phil’s surprise, he just advanced on the two of them. He grabbed Phil’s arms, grabbed the gun and spun him and pushed him against the wall, pressing the cold barrel up to his neck. “You are nothing without a ‘Shield’ to hide behind,” he snarled.
Phil gritted his teeth, then moved his hand an inch to the right under the Russian’s unyielding hold on his forearms, resulting in the pressure point for his Shield to be pressed hard against his wrist. Instantly, the blue shield deployed, cutting straight through The Russian’s head. The robotic body collapsed to the floor, orange goo pouring out of the place where his face had been.
Mack whistled. Phil couldn’t resist saying, “That’s not all they're good for.” He quickly crossed over to Melinda to check her pulse again; nothing had changed. Tears had begun to pool at her eyes. They flitted back and forth under hooded eyelids, frantic, so he closed them gently, hyper aware that that was something you did once somebody was dead.
A door slammed outside of the room, so Mack and Phil exchanged glances before hurrying to check. “Hell,” Mack sighed, seeing Petrov leaning on a railing a couple of yards away, and another one crossing in front of him, swinging a wrench. Immediately, Phil slammed the button for the door to their room to close.
Mack sighed. “It’s good to be back.”