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dark side of the morning

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"Steve?" Kate stopped him on his way to his apartment, her laundry basket balanced on one hip. "I think you left the radio on this morning. I’ve been hearing music the last little while --- it’s not bad, you have good taste. But some of the neighbours like to make complaints here, so you should check it before you leave tomorrow. Don’t want to get in trouble with the landlord, right?"

Steve nodded absentmindedly, already turning over the possibilities of what was going on as he frowned. He definitely hadn't left the radio on, which meant that there was either someone inside right now or there had been earlier. "I'll keep an eye on that, Kate. Thanks for letting me know," he said absently, heading for the apartment. He waited until she was out of the hallway before opening the door, sliding inside quickly and closing the door behind him, already reaching for his shield.

"Leave the lights off." Maria's voice drifted softly from the living room, barely loud enough to be heard over the music. He could hardly make out the words, and Steve hesitated with his fingers on the light switch. He couldn't think of any reason for her to sneak into his apartment, and certainly no reason she'd want to keep the lights off. "I used the spare key,” she continued, her voice stilted. Like she'd been hurt. Steve frowned harder, his fingers curling around the edge of the shield, bringing it with him when he walked into the living room. “Mold at my apartment. You think it's just a spot, and then you start pulling back the walls and bam, mold everywhere. I was hoping I could crash for a day or two."

“I didn’t realize you knew where the spare key was,” Steve said slowly, the hair on the back of his neck standing up. Of all the possible reasons Maria had for showing up unannounced, mold wasn’t on the list. She turned her phone around, BUGGED printed neatly on the glowing screen. Shit. This was supposed to have been a safe place. That had been a point of contention between them when he’d moved out to Washington and wanted to live outside a SHIELD compound. Maria had personally made sure that the apartment building was safe and that none of his neighbours would be in danger if anything happened. “Of course you can stay. Take as long as you need.”

"I appreciate that." Maria sighed, rubbing her fingers along the bridge of her nose. "Between that and my car breaking down, it's been a day, Steve."

He knew that her car hadn't broken down, but with the bug it was the closest she could get. Which meant something had happened. He peered closer at her, noting the smudges on her cheeks and the scrapes on her hands. A crash, probably. Orchestrated, if she thought they'd follow her here. Steve paused mid step when he realised she'd called him by his first name -- she only did that when she was exhausted. Or relaxed. Neither of which she was right now, so it was either a signal or she was more shaken than he thought. Signal, he settled on. If she was asking to stay, then of course she would call him by his first name, because --- right. Anyone listening would think they were involved.They should believe that. Why else would she have come to his apartment? "How about we watch a movie instead?" Steve suggested, reaching for the needle on the turntable. "The music was bothering my neighbor," he said quietly, once he was close enough to Maria.

She smiled wryly at him, shaking her head. "Nice of your neighbour to look out for you." She took a deep, strained breath, beckoning Steve closer. “I have something for you."

Steve stepped closer, taking the miniature USB drive she slipped into his hand. “Some present,” he said ruefully, watching her.

“What can I say, I’m old fa---” Maria stopped talking abruptly, looking out between the drawn curtains. Steve was craning his neck to try and see what she’d spotted when gunfire exploded around them, and he reached out, dragging Maria to the floor and covering her body with his own.

“Son of a bitch!” Maria wheezed, pressing a hand against her side.

His front door splintered inwards, and Steve stared in shock as Kate came sprinting in, a gun drawn and pointed out the window. “This is Agent 13, the Director is down,” she said into a mic, catching Steve’s eye. “Go after them, go. I’ve got her,” she promised, kneeling beside Maria and pressing her hand ruthlessly into Maria’s side. “Hang in there, boss,” she murmured. Steve could hear Maria cursing hoarsely at Kate and his neighbour --- Agent 13 --- laughing at her as he grabbed his shield, taking a running leap out of the window and landing on the roof across the street, taking off after the dark smudge of a figure who’d shot Maria.

---

Hospitals were still terrible, Steve decided. They might be a lot cleaner and a lot more advanced than they had been before the war, but no one ever came to the hospital for a good reason. He stared blankly at the window in front of him, his eyes unfocused. He kept replaying those last few minutes, Maria sitting in his armchair, the flash of a gun, Maria bleeding out on his floor. The man on the roof who had managed to catch his shield and throw it back to him like it was second nature. Even Steve hadn’t picked it up that quickly. There were so many things about that night that didn’t make sense. He needed time to process it, to figure out what it all meant, but he wasn’t getting that here. Instead there was just a body under a sheet on a table, and Natasha glaring at him from across the hallway.

“Hey,” Clint approached quietly, coming to a stop beside Steve. Steve had no idea where he’d come from, only that he’d been there at the hospital when he and Natasha had arrived. Clint had simply appeared, telling them he’d been on his way to meet Maria when he heard about the shooting. He’d made it to the hospital in time to see her go into surgery.

“I’m sorry. I know you and Hill were --- well, I know that you admired her.” He clasped a hand on Steve’s shoulder, standing silently with him. Steve couldn’t really think of anything to say back to him; he and Maria hadn’t always gotten along, but they’d worked well together and he’d respected her reasons for making certain decisions, even when he didn’t think the decision was the right one. He thought this must be harder for Clint and Natasha, who’d worked with and for Maria for almost a decade. He’d barely known her for two years. The USB she’d given him felt heavier in his pocket by the second. Steve still wasn’t sure what was on it, but it was obvious that whatever it was was dangerous enough to be worth killing over. He needed to get it somewhere safe until he could talk to Natasha and Clint about it.

Maria had said not to trust anyone, but surely she hadn’t meant the Avengers. Yes, she’d been wary about the team in the beginning, but she hadn’t said a word about Steve and Natasha working together, and she wouldn’t have let them if she didn’t trust them. And she’d trusted Steve enough to come to his apartment – that had to mean she trusted his judgement. Steve thought Clint and Natasha were trustworthy. If Maria had a problem with him telling them about it, she was free to come back from the dead and kick his ass.

Steve looked towards Clint, about to ask him if they could talk, before realizing the other man had vanished. Well, Barton’s thing was showing up right when he was needed; Steve had a feeling when he needed to talk, Clint would be there.

“Rogers.”

Steve turned around quickly, meeting Natasha’s eyes. She looked devastated. And angry. He hoped that most of that anger was directed at someone other than him. Like whoever had decided to shoot Maria.

“What was she even doing at your apartment?” Natasha demanded, crowding into his personal space and glaring up at him. “If she'd been at home--”

“Saving my life.” Steve said honestly. The way Maria had dived off the chair, the location of the shot, the gun had to have been aimed at him. “She said there was mold at her apartment.”

“That's terrible. You're a terrible liar, Steve.” Natasha spit something at him in Russian, and he knew it was something rude just from the inflection.

“It's the truth.”

“Her apartment was so clean you could have eaten off the drywall. There's no way she had mold.”

“I don't know what to tell you, Natasha,” Steve said, a little helplessly. “That's why she said she was there. I wasn't about to accuse her of lying to me.”

“Does that mean you think she was lying to you?” Natasha pressed, her eyes bright. Steve winced, wishing he hadn't given that away. You weren't supposed to speak ill of the dead.

“Maybe. I don't know.” Steve shook his head. “She said her car had broken down, but I think she was in an accident. Or - not an accident, I think somebody tried to hit her on purpose.”

Now Natasha looked like she was about to go hunting and had a target in her sights. “Let's go check out that car accident,” she told him, turning on her heel.

---

“Are they gone?” Maria asked quietly, her lips barely moving. She was stock still, breathing so carefully her chest was hardly rising. Clint thought it was creepy. She glanced towards the doorway, meeting Clint’s gaze when he looked back at her.

“They're gone,” he confirmed, pushing a wheelchair into the room for her. “Now come on, we need to get ourselves out of here before anyone comes looking. Your assistant director is still busy covering for us, and the new place is all set up.”

“I'm glad I picked Sharon,” Maria mused, blinking slowly. All the anesthetic in her system was making her woozy. “I liked the old place,” Maria said firmly, frowning. “Seems a waste to move, even if it is time.”

“Tell you what, we’ll kill all the bastards that tried to kill you, and then you can come back to the old place,” Clint offered, helping her into the chair and wheeling her out.

“How did Rogers and Natasha take it?” Maria asked, tipping her head back to look at Clint.

“Not well. They’re… shocked,” Clint said, his brow furrowed. “Pretty sure Rogers is already blaming himself. Nat’s planning revenge,” he added. “And I did not enjoy lying to them, by the way.”

“Only one they'd believe it from.” Maria shook her head, her frown deepening. “If someone has the connections to try and take me out, they could have eyes on them. They need to believe it. And they need backup.”

“You know, I want to be flattered that you think I’m the only one Natasha would believe that from. Instead I just feel… dirty about lying like that.” Clint mused, walking out of the hospital with her. “As for the backup, you know I’m going to be their shadow as soon as we get you tucked away - and safely, this time.”

“Saying you're tucking me away seems to imply I'm not going to be in a position to help later,” Maria said sharply. “I'll be fine. And I’ll be helping all of you take them out.”

“You sound like Natasha.”

“I aspire to be half as terrifying as she is,” Maria said blandly, leaning back in the wheelchair and making eye contact with Clint, the corner of her mouth twitching up.

“Congratulations. You're twice as terrifying as she is.” Clint replied, wheeling her into the waiting van. “Hi, Director Fury.”

“Wait, are you just saying that to make me feel better because I've been shot?” Maria demanded.

“No, I'm saying it because you taught me how to lie to the Black Widow in five minutes while you were bleeding out. That's terrifying, Maria.”

“Oh.” Maria gave him a satisfied smile. “Good. I'm glad you feel that way.”

“Are we done congratulating ourselves on doing our job?” Fury demanded, starting the van. “Because Hill, you still haven't told us the whole plan for what comes next.”

“Sucks, doesn't it?” She said, almost gleefully. Maria smirked at both of them, pulling a folder out from under the wheelchair seat.

“Wait, how did you--” Clint stared at her. “I just grabbed a random one out of the line.”

“I had it on me, Barton. Don't be ridiculous.”

“But you were in surgery. You were naked.”

Maria’s smirk widened and she flipped it open. “Well, we know who’s behind the car accident now,” she told them, looking at her notes. “And you were right, Nick, there are more HYDRA agents than we thought.” She sighed. “I know how to fix it, but it really isn't going to be pretty. And it's going to involve destroying something we all spent most of our adult lives protecting.”

---

"She'll want to see her first," Fury barked, standing his ground in front of the medics trying to get through to Natasha. "Give us a minute." He looked over Steve's shoulder, nodding to Clint. "Good work."

"I love being a jack booted thug." Clint slung his bow across his back, nodding to the others. "I'll catch up when you're done in medical." He saluted Fury and disappeared down one of the other hallways.

Steve's brow furrowed and he peered around them, trying to see through the dim tunnels that spread out all around them. "Where are we?"

"Old SSR safehouse. Carter and Stark kept a few off the books, only passed the details to the next director." Fury explained, striding ahead of them to keep pace with Natasha. "Next right, Romanoff. First door on the left."

The first thing that Steve processed was a steady string of Russian curses from Natasha - the second was Maria Hill sitting up in a hospital bed.

"Good, you didn't die." Maria smiled crookedly at Natasha and Steve, her gaze drifting behind them to Sam. "Sergeant Wilson, we haven't been formally introduced. Thanks for keeping Captain Rogers out of trouble."

"Yeah.. sure. If you want to call this keeping out of trouble." Sam replied dryly, looking between Steve and Natasha. “I woke up this morning and thought the highlight of my day would be making two superheroes breakfast. Instead I got kidnapped with them.”

"You've never met Stark. This is actually a pretty good day by our records." Maria coughed, reaching for the water Fury was already holding out for her. "You need to get that shoulder looked at, Natasha."

"Clint said you were dead!" Natasha’s voice was outraged and she stalked closer to the bed, leaning over Maria. “I believed him.”

"Any attempt on a director’s life has to look successful, Romanoff, you know that." Fury said dryly, leaning back against the far wall. “Just like her taking over had to look like a power grab.” Something about the way he said that made Steve very curious to know just how Maria had become Director, but there were more pressing matters to deal with.

Natasha hissed at Fury, turning back to Maria. "You made him lie to me."

"He was the only person you would have believed it from." Maria took a deep breath, ignoring Fury’s aside and addressing Natasha. "And if you believed it, so would everyone else. If I could have told you I would have. Good thing I didn't, considering how fast Rumlow showed up. He must have had you under surveillance."

Natasha said something harshly in Russian and turned on her heel, leaving the room.

"Russian curses lose something in the translation," Maria sighed ruefully, watching her leave. "So, the Winter Soldier.”

“Bucky,” Steve corrected, frowning at her.

“Knowing you, I’m pretty sure Bucky wouldn’t have voluntarily signed up with HYDRA.” Maria met his gaze steadily. “I’m betting right now Bucky is buried under mountains of brainwashing. He might not exist anymore.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Do you believe your best friend would shoot an unarmed woman in your apartment if he wasn’t being brainwashed?”

“I—“

Maria didn’t take any pleasure in his gobsmacked expression, but she did appreciate the implicit agreement with her statement. “Exactly. We stop HYDRA first, then we deal with Bucky.”

"We're not dealing with Bucky," Steve argued, his eyes flashing. "He's not dangerous."

"He's dangerous precisely because you want to think he's not," Maria snapped back, pushing herself up so she was sitting straighter. "He's brainwashed. They know you don't want to hurt him. They'll use him to hurt you instead. And the worst part is, you'll let him."

"She has a point, Cap." Sam said quietly, looking at Steve. "They'd do it. You know they would.”

“Of course I have a point. I like him.” Maria nodded at Sam, thankful for the extra support in her corner. Steve could be a stubborn son of a bitch when he wanted to be, so anyone willing to stand up to him was an ally in her books. Maria grit her teeth, pushing herself up higher against the bed and reaching for the folder she'd been reading earlier. “We’ll come back to what to about a problem named Bucky later,” she said, flipping the folder open. “For now, we have planning to do on how to take the rest of them down.”

---

“Come out, Natasha. Lurking isn’t going to cut it today. I need to talk to you. I need you on my side,” Maria said to the empty room, crossing her arms in her lap and waiting patiently. They couldn’t do anything for the rest of today, and she was happy to wait the other spy out. Natasha might have been the best spy they’d ever employed, but the one area of their job where Maria could beat her was patience and sheer determination.

“That’s what you say, but I happen to think lurking has a lot of positive qualities.” Natasha entered the hospital room ten minute later, and Maria held still, letting her catalogue all of the injuries she had accumulated since the last time they’d seen each other. There were a few. She knew Natasha liked to know exactly what was up with the people around her, and that sometimes her intense study freaked them out. Maria, on the other hand, found it reassuring. “How much of this happened before you went to Steve’s apartment?”

“Everything except the gunshots. Someone tried to run me off the road --- they got pretty close to it, too. I was lucky that I managed to get away.” Maria grimaced at Natasha, shaking her head. “There was crawling through the sewer. That was not fun at all.”

“Why was Clint at the hospital?”

“I called him after the car accident, told him I needed him back here to back me up. He made it in time to watch my back at Rogers’ apartment.”

“And yet you still got shot.”

“He was up against the Winter Soldier. Even you don’t have the best track record against that guy. And --- I told him not to interfere if Steve did something. I didn’t want you to know he was in town.”

“I don’t like that you keep secrets from us. We’re supposed to have each other’s back,” Natasha said sharply. “You could have - and should have - told me what was going on.”

“And then you would have treated everyone around you suspiciously.” Maria sighed. “They might have caught on sooner. You might have gotten hurt. I wanted to minimise the risk.”

“You still lied to me. You had Clint lie to me.”

“Are you mad or impressed about that?”

“Both. Impressed. How many times have you lied to me before?”

"Do you really want the answer to that?" Maria's voice was soft. "Or would you rather know that I only lied when I had to, and only about work? The things I told you in confidence were all true." She knew that was probably what had Natasha worried, that all the little things Maria had told her about herself over the years were false, and that she'd just been doing that to get the other woman to trust her.

"I suppose that would work." Natasha sat down in the chair beside Maria's bed, watching her seriously. "So, I guess you have a plan to take care of this?"

"I do," Maria nodded, reaching for the file folder she’d left beside her bed after Steve and Sam had left. “I’d like your input, see if there's anything that I missed.”

---

“I like her. She's funny,” Sam told Steve, walking through the underground tunnels.

“---Maria?” Steve asked after a moment, blinking over at his friend. “You think she's funny?”

“Sure, the whole thing about a problem called Bucky, you know, like the Sound of Music song?” Sam raised an eyebrow, his confused expression clearing when Steve just kept staring. Steve, on the other hand, was still confused. “Oh, okay, you haven't seen that movie yet. The original song is called how to solve a problem like Maria.”

That sounded more like the Maria Hill Steve knew. “I guess that is a little funny. I haven't gotten to that on my list yet.”

“You may want to bump it a little further down. The bad guys are Nazis.” Sam said wryly, turning down the next hallway. “A bit too on the nose right now, if you ask me.”

Steve squinted at him. “I think I’ve been dealing with Nazis my whole life, actually.”

“Man, that is depressing.” Sam shook his head. “No one told me hanging out with Captain America was going to be depressing. I feel lied to.”

“Does breaking into a government facility to get your wings back make up for it?” Steve asked dryly.

“Sure didn’t hurt,” Sam conceded. “I’ve never met anyone as good at that as Natasha.”

“Neither have I.”

“We probably shouldn’t tell her that. Don’t want her to get a big head about it.”

“I already know. Thank you for the compliments.” Natasha appeared from the doorway they were standing beside, her smirk widening when Sam startled. “You’ll get used to it, Wilson,” she assured him, handing Steve a folder. “Our assignments for tomorrow. Hill’s got us set up. If you need anything, now is the time to speak up.”

“I need a uniform,” Steve told Natasha. “My old one is…”

“At SHIELD, I know.” She finished. “You already have another one in town, though.”

“Are we about to rob a museum?” Sam asked. “That sounds awesome.”

“We robbed a fort today, if you remember.” Natasha raised an eyebrow at him, the judgement clear on her face. “A museum is not more awesome than a fort.”

“I guess it's different when you spent most of your life at the fort. Kind of like sneaking in after curfew instead of breaking in,” Sam said thoughtfully. “Though I did already do that once or twice.”

“You snuck off base?”

“Cap, everybody sneaks off base during training. It's basically a rite of passage. As long as you don't get caught and don’t put your squad in danger the next day, most people are willing to overlook it.”

“Steve never snuck off base.” Natasha reminded Sam.

“Steve was busy fighting Nazis,” Steve reminded them both, shaking his head.

“Only after you escaped the show routine.” Natasha cackled. “Fine, let's go rob a museum. I already know the best way in.”

“Wait, why do you know the best way in? Have you robbed the Smithsonian before?” Sam asked, his eyes wide. “Natasha!”

---

Steve knocked on the door to Maria's room, peering inside when she told him it was open. “You're looking better than the last time we saw each other.”

“Was that when I got shot in your apartment or when I was fake dying on an operating table?” Maria asked ruefully, coughing. She nodded her thanks at the glass of water Steve offered, taking a sip. “I heard you spoke to Natasha,” Maria continued, eyeing him carefully. “Does that mean you understand more of what's going on?”

“Some,” Steve said cautiously, sitting down beside her. “I'm still confused on a few things.”

“Name them. We've got a few hours to kill,” Maria offered, sitting up a little straighter.

“Kate. Agent 13. Who exactly is she, really?” Steve asked curiously. “The way she was with you in the apartment…”

“She's my Assistant Director. Her real name is Sharon. When you said you wanted to live off base, I thought the building where she lived would be safest.” She grimaced. “That probably counts as a mistake.”

“I'm just confused as to why you wouldn't have moved me into your apartment building, if you were worried about security that much.”

“That would have… been inappropriate.” Maria pressed her lips together tightly. “It wouldn't have looked good to the WSC or some of the other agents.”

“I don't see how keeping one of the Avengers safe is inappropriate,” he argued, his brow furrowed. “It would seem smart, to me.”

“Well, you are more highly advanced than them. It doesn't surprise me that you're smarter.”

“That doesn't really answer my question.” He reminded her gently.

“They were afraid I was too attached. Considering you were Fury’s idea - the Avengers, I mean - and I was taking over for him. They thought we could do it without you guys.”

“There's another reason, isn't there?” Steve asked, noticing the irritation in the corners of her eyes.

“Let's just say some of them are very old fashioned and think women can only get places on their backs.” Maria snapped, her voice crabby. She'd toyed with the idea of having Steve in her building; it did make sense, considering the risk he posed and the risks he faced, living in the ‘normal’ world. And the added security in her building was better than anything outside of Stark Industries. But someone - Pierce, she suspected now - had sent Jasper to publicly question her about her intentions right after she'd brought it up. The blowback from that conversation had been enough to kill that idea before it got off the ground. “So I put you in the second safest spot I could find.”

“Thank you for trying,” Steve said carefully, not wanting to upset her. He'd hoped that kind of thinking didn't exist in SHIELD, considering Peggy’s influence on it. That it did - and that it hurt Maria - made him supremely disappointed in the future. “Kate - er, Sharon - seems very nice. And she's incredibly good at her job.”

“I'm thinking of promoting her,” Maria said, looking down at the blankets on her bed. “I might have to stay dead for awhile. If anything survives today, she’d be a good choice to rebuild it. And make sure all of HYDRA is burned out with it.”

“I think you know the best person, and if you think it's her, than it is.” Steve said distractedly, leaning forward. “Listen, at the hospital, Clint said something to me about you -- well, both of us, I suppose -- and that I respect you, but that's not the whole-”

“Boss.” Clint stuck his head into the room, gesturing for Maria. “We have to go in half an hour, you should get ready.”

“Right.” Maria looked between them, frowning. “Steve, I want to finish this, but can we do it later? This thing with Barton is kind of time sensitive.”

“Later. After we deal with all our problems,” Steve agreed, standing up. “I'll let you have the room. See you out there, Hill. Barton.”

---

“Your car is this way, ma’am,” Clint guided Councilwoman Hawley towards the exit and into the waiting limousine. He hurried around to the driver’s side, starting the car as the other door opened and Maria climbed in.

“Excuse me, this car is --!” Hawley exclaimed, outraged. Her eyes widened as she recognised Maria. “Oh my. I heard that you died.”

“Reports of my demise are… greatly exaggerated.” Maria agreed, smiling tightly. “You know, I thought it would be more fun to say that,” she mused, sitting back in her seat while Clint pulled out into traffic. “I know you're on your way to meet with Alexander Pierce, but we need you to miss that meeting. I need someone on the inside, and the best way to do that is to pretend to be you.”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Hawley snapped, shaking her head. “From your demeanour, and the fact that Pierce was the one that told us you were dead, I assume you think he did this. And if Pierce is behind everything that's been happening lately, I want to take him down just as much as you do. Tell me what you need done, and I'll be happy to help.”

“Ma’am, I can't ask you to do that,” Maria argued, the corners of her mouth pulling down into a frown. Put one of the world security council members in danger? If she still had a job at the end of the day, that wasn’t going to fly with the rest of them -- and no matter what Hawley said, Maria still wasn’t sure that she could even trust the other woman to go along with the plan. She should have just used the night night gun as soon as she'd gotten in the car, but no, she'd wanted to explain first.

“I remember volunteering before the thought of asking even crossed your mind,” Hawley said bluntly. “I know more about you than you think, Director Hill. For example,I know that every living Director approves of you having the highest position at SHIELD.”

“Your information is wrong.”

“If Nick Fury really did get blindsided by you taking over, I’ll eat my hat.” Hawley stared her down. “There is no way that crafty old bastard would mentor someone who would stab him in the back. He would mentor someone who would pretend to, though.”

Maria smiled ruefully. “We should probably keep that a secret between the two of us,” she said quietly, looking towards the driver’s seat. Clint already knew, of course, but sometimes it was easier to gain a person’s confidence when they thought they were the only one who knew a secret.

“I was planning to wait until I needed something from you to mention it,” Hawley conceded. “But you didn't seem to believe me when I said I wanted to help.”

“You’ll forgive me if I still have trouble believing you. It’s a very quick turnaround from trusting Pierce to offer to help take him down.”

“Only because you haven’t known me that long, Director. I’ve watched Pierce for a great many years and I have been concerned at the amount of power he’s been trying to amass. Of course, everyone else on the council is doing the same thing. But the way he goes about… No, I’ve known that he’s been up to something for a while. I just haven’t been able to prove it.”

Maria dipped her head a little.”You might just have the proof you need after today. After all, two assets inside would be better than one. You’ll need to bring an assistant to this meeting of yours.”

“Any assistant in particular?”

“I have one in mind, yes.”

---

“In position,” Maria said over the comms, watching the security cameras. “The package is entering the building. Countdown five minutes. They need to clear the elevators before we can do anything, or the building will get locked down.”

“Roger.” Steve called in an acknowledgment.

Maria gave into her puckish side then -- they might all be dead in twenty minutes, after all, and she'd never had a chance to make this joke. “Roger, Rogers.” She chimed in, suppressing a laugh. “Roll call, kids.”

“Roger.” Sam chimed in, laughing.

“Roger.”

“Roger.”

Natasha tapped her jaw twice, not wanting to draw attention to herself by talking.

“And mark.” Maria said, tracking the rise of the elevators, her hands hovering over the controls. “We're on a tight schedule folks, keep it together,” she reminded them, frowning. Natasha and Hawley exited the elevator, and she turned on the PA system for the whole building. “All yours, Cap.”

Listening to Steve speak, there was no doubt in Maria's mind why he'd been picked by Erskine, why he'd excelled at working with Peggy and the SSR, why the Commandos had followed him until the end. His words were sincere, and earnest, and so full of belief in the goodness of everyone in the building that she nearly stood up and cheered when he was done.

“Barton, cover Rogers and Wilson,” Maria called on a closed channel, watching the door close behind them. “The Soldier will be around - do what you have to to make sure the Helicarriers don't launch,” she said firmly. “Even if you have to take him out.”

“Boss---”

“Avoid lethal force if you can. But if it comes down to one of them or him, he loses.”

“Rogers really isn't going to like that,” Clint warned her, his voice serious. “But you're the one that signs my paycheque.”

“So glad you see it my way,” Maria said wryly, going back to the public channel in time to listen to Natasha and Hawley with Pierce. “Fury, head on in. I'm linking in from here so I can still access the helicarriers.”

“Oh, I'm going to put the fear of God inside him. Bringing HYDRA into my house,” Nick muttered into the ear piece, landing the helicopter on the roof and stalking in to meet them.

“Today is just not your day, Pierce,” Maria said, her voice piped in through the PA. “You thought you got rid of two Directors, and yet here we are, ready to ruin your day. How does that make you feel?” She asked, calling up her own retinal scan. “And we don't even need you to override the Alpha controls,” she added, watching as her scan was compared, and Nick’s. Natasha started typing rapidly once the permissions went through, and Maria shook her head, her gut twisting. Everyone in the world was about to find out everything SHIELD had ever done. It was the only way to expose HYDRA, but god, so many of her agents were going to have to answer for what they'd done. “Fury. Romanoff. Detain Mr. Pierce until the police arrive.” She asked politely. “And disarm him with extreme prejudice, I'm sure he's got a few weapons stashed away.”

Maria looked back at the monitors, rolling her chair back when she spotted a few men trying to sneak up on her. She'd been expecting this, considering here was one of the few places you could access the building wide PA. At least they weren't totally incompetent. She fired her gun three times, the men collapsing immediately. “Rogers, Wilson, give me an update.”

“First ‘carrier has been fixed,” Sam chimed in, his voice rough. “People are shooting at us, and I'm on my way to rescue Cap. He's jumping off number two without a parachute.”

“Don't you dare jump off!” She snapped, her eyes snapping to the correct monitor. “Do you understand me, Rogers?”

“Only way to get to the next ship,” Steve replied, a little glee in his voice. “Don't worry, Sammy parachute.”

“Sam's wondering what you ate for breakfast. Geez, man.”

“Barton, cover them,” Maria snapped, her heart in her throat as the two of them jumped on her screen. If either one of them fell - they only had three cards. It'd be a disaster.

“Got ‘em.” Clint’s voice was calm. “Rumlow’s in the building.”

“Take him out,” Maria ordered. “We don't need another person trying to take over in the middle of all this.”

“My pleasure.”

She was able to track Clint on the monitors, and Maria held her breath as she found Rumlow on the forty first floor. An arrow came winging in through the window and Rumlow went down, the fletching sprouting from his neck. She wasn’t about to miss him. He’d always been an asshole. She continued scanning the monitors, updating the rest of them as she spotted hostiles. Maria's eyes widened as she scanned the rest of the deck, spotting an altercation near the jets. Looked like the Winter Soldier had finally joined the party. She wondered if he’d been waiting for a sign, or if he’d been somewhere away from the building and just arrived. “He's here,” she warned them all, swallowing hard. “Just tossed an agent out of his plane and heading for you now, Steve. Hurry up and get the cards swapped. The launch is in two minutes, and if it’s still operational --”

“I know, Hill. I’ve got it.” Steve promised, a thud echoing through her ears.

“Package delivered.” Sam said, which explained the noise. Steve must have tucked and rolled when Sam dropped him. “Circling around to distract Barnes.”

The rest of the building was in chaos, but Maria could see Sharon taking control and hurrying the loyal agents out, small groups of them subduing and restraining anyone who was fighting back. HYDRA was a goddamn disease, she decided, watching as agent after agent tried to fire on their coworkers. How many of them had she signed off on? Had she missed the signs, or had they been recruited to HYDRA only after they joined SHIELD? She spared a thought for Phil, hoping that he and his team were somewhere safe. She’d sent him a coded message just before they’d come in, but if he wasn’t able to get somewhere safe --- well, she’d just have to rescue him after she was done here.

“We’re evacuating the building,” she told the rest of the them, working through the commands on the first two helicarriers. “And they’re locked out of the helicarriers we’ve already taken control of. Sit rep.”

“Pierce tried to electrocute the Chairwoman. I shot the control out of his hand,” Natasha said, her voice bland. “He’ll need stitches. Quite a lot of them.” Maria could hear moaning in the background, and she raised an eyebrow.

“He’s still conscious?”

“I thought he’d enjoy seeing HYDRA fall. I slap him every time he starts to faint.”

“Councilwoman.” Maria said faintly. “You should start evacuating with the others. The helicarriers are going to explode in spectacular fashion any minute.”

“I’ve always enjoyed a good fireworks show. Don’t worry, as soon as Director Fury gives the order, we’ll be headed out.”

“If anyone’s got a free hand, I could use a little help.” Sam cut in. He sounded a little too calm, and Maria zoomed in on the security cameras. “Just lost my wings, about to make friends with the ground.”

“On it.” Clint replied. Maria watched him nock an arrow, firing it from the building and swooping down.

“I hate those grappling hook arrows,” she told him bluntly. Holding her breath as the two of them collided in midair, tumbling through a window.

“But they work and that’s why you let me keep them,” Clint shot back. “Cap, Frosty is on your tail, hurry it up!”

Steve didn’t respond, and Maria couldn’t access security cameras that didn’t exist. “Rogers, respond!” She snapped, a fine tremor running through her.

“Card’s in. Blow them.”

“Where are you? Get clear. You have thirty seconds.”

“I’m busy. Blow the helicarriers, Maria.You’ve only got one chance.”

“Steve--”

“Do it!”

Maria stared at security monitors, watching the helicarriers rise. In thirty seconds, they’d start targeting civilians. People all over the world. Saving Captain America wasn’t worth the millions of lives that would be lost if she didn’t press the button. “If you get to the deck in the next two minutes, Fury and Romanoff can pick you up before the whole thing goes down,” she said firmly. “The explosion will take that long to reach the engine room. If you’re outside before it goes down, you can make it.”

She pressed the button.

“Barton, Wilson, exit the building the way you came in. Fury and Romanoff are circling around to pick you up.”

“There should be a limit to how many times a day I have to jump out of a building,” Sam told all of them.

“Birds are aboard,” Natasha said a moment later. “And squawking up a storm. Need a lift?”

“Go get the Captain.” Maria ordered her. “I have my own exit in place.”

She’d always wanted to base jump off the Triskelion. Maria strapped her parachute on and took a running leap off the edge. The wind rushed around her and Maria could hardly breathe, staring at the helicarriers exploding over the Potomac. She pulled the rip cord, sucking in a breath as she was yanked upwards. Gravity kicked back in before she could feel nauseous, and Maria disconnected the parachute just before she landed, tucking into a roll. “Sit rep.” She said hoarsely, staring up at the helicopter circling the ruin of the building. “Everyone there?”

“Steve’s missing.” Natasha told her. “The Helicarrier went down before we could find him. We can’t see him.”

“Keep looking,” Maria ordered, running for the edge of the river. “The man survived seventy years in the ice, he’s tough.”

“That was cold. This is--- very fiery.” Clint interjected. “Are you sure that---”

“Don’t stop until you find him,” Maria repeated, her voice rising. There was no way that Steve --- he was Captain Goddamn America, he’d walked through explosions bigger than this during World War II, and he’d destroyed an invading alien army. A little water wasn’t going to---

He was going to be fine. He had to be.

She skidded to a halt at the edge of the river, hardly believing what she was seeing. Bucky Barnes was pulling Steve Rogers out of the river. And checking to make sure that he was breathing. She turned her comm off. “Step away from him,” she said, pulling her gun and holding it on Bucky. “You’ve done enough damage for the day.”

“He’s alive,” Bucky said, looking up at her. She didn’t like the way he was watching her, like he’d already decided she wasn't a threat.

“I’d like to keep him that way.” She retorted, her gun never wavering. “Now step back. Slowly. Hands up.”

Bucky did as requested, but it didn’t make Maria feel any better about it. How did he even go from beating the crap out of Steve, and trying to kill him, to saving his life? Brainwashing didn’t work like that. No one she’d ever met had been able to shake anything off as easily as that. Not that this was easy, but it had been an extremely quick flip since he’d met Steve. Again.

God, she was starting to hate super soldiers.

“I should go,” he said hoarsely.

“You should stay and let the authorities deal with you,” Maria argued.

“I’m dangerous.”

“Exactly.”

“To them.”

She stared at Barnes, trying to see what Steve saw in him. She couldn’t see much of the war hero best friend that Steve knew; she saw a bedraggled assassin that had scared Natasha badly, once upon a time. Maybe he was right. He was dangerous to everyone around him. Especially if his broken conditioning didn’t hold. Or if someone who hadn’t been caught today found him. It was probably better, in the long run, to let him go now. But keep an eye on him at the same time.

“Take my phone,” she decided, holding it out to him. “Lay low for a few weeks. I’ll call you. We’ll figure something out. But if you hurt anyone,” she warned him, frowning. “I will put a bullet between your eyes. I don’t care how much Steve likes you.”

“Thank you.” Bucky took the phone and disappeared into the brush, leaving Maria to check on Steve. She turned her comm back on to hear the rest of them trying to raise her. “I think the explosion damaged my comm,” she covered. “I found Steve, he’s on the riverbank. He’s unconscious,” she added. “I need medics. About five minutes ago.”

“You need to get out of there,” Natasha said bluntly. “You’re supposed to be dead, remember?” Maria could hear the beat of the helicopter rotors in her ear and above her, and she knew that they were coming to get her. “Wilson can wait for the medics.”

“I am a medic,” he reminded them, hopping out of the helicopter as it landed beside Maria, kneeling down beside her and checking Steve’s pulse himself. “Go. I’ve got this covered. He’ll be in good hands until the ambulance comes.”

“Double check their IDs. Don’t leave anyone alone with him.” Maria ordered. “There’s still a lot of HYDRA that needs to be cleaned up.”

“I got it. Go, Director,” Sam said, turning away from her. Maria climbed in the helicopter and watched them as Fury flew away from the river, her mouth drawing together in a frown.

“Talk to me about casualties.”

“More than we’d like, less than we expected.” Fury told her. “A good day, all things considered. Your deputy stepped up admirably.”

“We all knew Carter would,” Maria replied distractedly, still worried. With Steve out of commission and Bucky on the run, she had a feeling everything was going to be complicated for a few days yet. “The Councilwoman?”

“With Carter. She’ll testify to what Pierce did.” Natasha promised. “Now let’s get you back to the bunker before someone sees a ghost.”

 

---

“You’re awake.” Maria looked over and caught Steve’s eye, smiling faintly as he noticed her wig. “People are used to seeing you with a redhead,” she told him, grinning. “It’ll stop a lot of people from looking closer.”

“Where’s Sam?” Steve asked hoarsely. “What happened to Bucky?”

“Sam’s taking a shower, because he’s been here for three days and he was starting to stink.” Maria pointed at the adjoining bathroom. “Bucky wasn’t there when we found you. We have people looking,” she lied. Better to keep the truth from him until he didn’t look like hamburger meat. Better to keep the truth from him until she knew whether Bucky still existed, or if he was just a killing machine.

“Are you still dead?” Steve asked, gesturing to the wig. “I can’t really think of any other reason you’d be in disguise.”

“I’m trying to avoid the press,” Maria said glibly. “And yes, I’m still dead for the moment. Just until I can get to the rest of my agents.”

Steve nodded, reaching for the water glass beside him. “Last time we talked, we got interrupted.”

“Saving the world is such a chore,” she agreed, her gaze sharpening on his. “You sure you want to continue this conversation now? I’m sure it could hold for a few days. Until you’re not doped up on pain medication.” She had a feeling she knew what he was going to say, and she wasn’t sure that she wanted to hear it like this. Or at all. Adrenaline had a funny way of making things seem more important than they were.

“Now is good. Before you have to fly away and save everyone again.” Steve agreed, his eyes bright. “We’ve spent a lot of time together since New York. Barton’s right, I do admire you. But it’s not just that --- I enjoy spending time with you, getting to see what you're like when we're not saving the world. I don’t really make it a habit of visiting my bosses after work hours.”

“I never would have guessed.” Maria said faintly.

“I don’t expect anything from you,” Steve said bluntly. “I know everything is very complicated right now. You have people all over the world that you need to make sure are safe. HYDRA needs to be put down once and for all. But I… Just want you to know that I would like to get some coffee with you. When everything is a little more stable.”

“That might never happen,” Maria warned him, trying not to smile. “World security is very complicated these days. Especially when you’re dead.” It was a nice thought. One that she’d had herself more than once, when he’d stopped by her office to chat before leaving for the night. But she couldn’t promise him anything, and even Steve saying that he was willing to wait had its limits, she was sure.

“I’m good at rain checks. Or bad at them, I’m not sure.” Steve smiled crookedly. “Just -- think about it, okay? I’m going to be laid up at Stark Tower for a while --- Tony says he doesn’t trust the doctors here to actually know what they’re doing. You can stop by if you decide you want a coffee.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Maria promised, reaching out to squeeze his hand. “I’m glad that you’re awake. And I’m sure that Sam is too, and that he’ll tell you that when you see him.” She smiled tightly. “I should go. I have an agent out in Eastern Europe who hasn’t checked in since before the Helicarriers.”

“Good luck.” Steve offered, squeezing her hand back. Maria felt herself blush, which was, frankly, ridiculous. They were just holding hands, it wasn’t like he’d propositioned her.

“I’ll stop by New York in a few weeks,” Maria offered suddenly, changing her mind. “I’ll bring the coffee. You just stay out of any more hospital beds.”