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Science Night

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Maria wouldn’t have said the director was like a second father to her, not anymore. They understood one another better these days.

He was still a jerk. She’d begged him, as much as she ever begged anyone for anything, to give the Avengers to someone else. Sitwell had wanted it. Would have been a step up for him, not just something else he had to fit into his day. 

But Nick had said that keeping Banner on the grid was a priority and his cooperation depended entirely on Stark’s influence. That the only person at SHIELD Stark trusted anymore was Agent Romanov, and Natasha wasn’t going to do anything that made her partner so much as twitch. In the days following the Battle of New York, Clint had been a pretty twitchy guy, but he’d agreed to work with Maria, so that had been that.

Things might have gone down differently if Captain America hadn’t needed three months to find himself.

She thought Nick was lying. Not lying, exactly. Withholding the twenty other reasons she’d been given this assignment. 

She could probably think of fifty if she tried, and probably had, but it wouldn’t do her any good at the moment. Not when she’d been up since four-thirty, worked a full day, and been travelling for the last two hours to get to the Tower to see the latest iteration of the protective fabric Stark was so excited about. 

Ten more blocks.

On the rare occasion Maria allowed herself to fantasize about anything these days, she wanted a helipad directly on top of Stark Tower.  It would cut the travel time by more than half. But no one, not even with the combined might of Stark Industries and SHIELD, could flout those restrictions.

“Ma’am?  Ma’am?” It was the first time Maria had ever fallen asleep in the cab. Also the first cabbie she’d ever had who sounded like he was from Georgia. The state. She paid him and headed inside.

“Welcome back, Deputy Director.” She wasn’t sure Jarvis meant it. She never knew where she would stand with Jarvis on any given day.

“Thank you, Jarvis.

She was about to ask where Pepper was when Jarvis broke in, “Mr. Stark is expecting you in the lab on R&D 7. Will you be staying for dinner afterward, Deputy Director?” Right, Wednesday. And no, she wouldn’t be staying for team dinner because she wasn’t on this team. Jarvis really never seemed to get that half the fun of these things was bitching about the boss. But now her elevator would be slow.

“No. Please tell Mr. Stark I’m on my way.”

“Certainly.”

She wasn’t imagining it. The elevator was slow.

******

Did he play that music that loud all the time, or only when he knew she was coming? He couldn’t possibly think like that. How did he get any work done? Did he even know the words to the songs? She couldn’t understand any of it.

“Agent Hill! Maria! Look!” He turned the music down and bounded over to the counter in the back of the room, to the big pile of knives. Picked one up and threw it at the large bull’s eye in the corner.

Where it fell to the floor. 

Maria looked back at Stark, and he was the picture of cool, smug, so-very-above-your-approval. Except for bouncing slightly on his toes. He was thrilled with himself.

She walked over and threw her own knife. And then another and another and the whole stack before going over to pull apart the bull’s eye. He’d been working on this, off and on, for almost the past six months, and while all of his creations had stood up to the knives, none of them had been something flexible enough to wrap around a target. They’d all been nailed to the wall. She was curious.

Turned out, it was worth the fuss. She knew her hits had been good, but the fabric was scuffed, not punctured. Not even when she unfastened it from the back and held it up to the light. 

And when she poked and prodded at the ballistics mold, it wasn’t nearly as beat up as it should have been. If it were a person, it would be injured, not dead.

Best of all, it was fabric. A bit like heavy canvas. Not exactly something you could make a suit out of, but she might be able to convince someone to wear this. As an overcoat, maybe? The goal was everyday clothing. They were getting closer.

She noticed Tony hovering nearby. “This is a big improvement. How did you do it?”

He shrugged. “Magic.”

When Stark signed on as a consultant, SHIELD and Stark Industries had hammered out a lengthy treaty covering, among other things, how they would share information and technology.i.e. no stealing. When Hill had come on as liaison, she’d signed her own non-disclosures.  As a courtesy, really, because she was an agent of SHIELD.  And SHIELD had kept up their end of the deal even if Stark hadn’t. So this irked.

“No, really.” And told herself not to make the dragon face yet.

He drew back a little, so maybe she had. “Science?”

Ah. He thought she wouldn’t understand if he explained it. Well.

“Stark, I have shortened, rescheduled, or outright cancelled six meetings today. Whatever. Here’s the real problem. I doubt I will get more than three hours sleep tonight, which coincidentally is how much sleep I got last night. That may not sound like a big deal to you, but I’m not you. Just so I could make the five hour round trip out here to see your cool new invention that absolutely could not wait until this weekend.

“So if I ask you a question, it is because I want to know the answer. Not because I want to chit chat. Every minute I chit chat with you, Stark, is a minute I am not sleeping. If I ask you a question, it is because I think the answer is more important than sleep. Thank you for your work. Good night.” And she turned and headed for the stairs before he could do anything but stare.

******

If Pepper Potts were surprised to see her pop out of the stairwell, slightly sweaty and less-than-together, it didn’t show.

Back when Maria had been too small to do anything but wish for a mother to make her father love her, she’d wished for someone exactly like Pepper. Strong, smart, kind…but above all, someone with the desire and ability to coax order from chaos. 

Maria liked her mommy issues now, a bit. She liked that they seemed to influence her choice of friends and men far more than her daddy issues. It meant her difficult relationships were with people worth fighting for.

“Maria,” Pepper greeted her warmly. They weren’t friends, of course. Maria realized that. Pepper was merely warm. “I hope you can stay for dinner. Jarvis said he didn’t think you could, but Bruce and Natasha are cooking tonight. It smells wonderful, don’t you think?”

“Thank you, but I need to be getting back.” It did smell wonderful, though.

Bruce and Natasha. That wasn’t something she’d encountered before. Her head snapped over to the kitchen and there they were, Bruce stirring something thoughtfully while Natasha chopped vegetables with her typical efficiency. 

“Just friends, I think.  It’s new,” Pepper whispered, and Maria could see Natasha smile a bit. Supersoldier.

She wondered if she needed to cancel her day tomorrow.  Her brain was going haywire with potential complications but her biggest worry…

Clint suddenly wandered out from the back of the kitchen to wrap an arm around Natasha and steal a carrot. She smacked him, and he grinned that big, brash grin of his before reaching out to Bruce for a fist bump. And Bruce reciprocated, very gingerly. The whole picture made Maria’s heart melt a little bit.

“It’s sweet, isn’t it? Clint’s normally such a hugger.”

“Cuter than otters holding hands.” Natasha scowled.

Pepper grinned, “Cuter than kitten videos.” Romanov stopped chopping and looked directly at them.

“We’ll stop.”

Maria decided to leave well enough alone for the moment. “So things are good in the tower, then?” And her heart sank at the pause. “What?”

Pepper bit her lip. “I’ve been meaning to mention to you…I’m not sure how Steve likes it here. We’re having trouble connecting with him. Maybe it’s that so much of the house dynamic established itself while he was travelling, I don’t know. From our point of view, he’s not making much of an effort to be a member of this family, and people are trying, really trying to include him.  I finally had to tell Darcy to back off; I was worried she was going to sunshine him to death.”

“Why is he even back here, then? Nobody told him he had to come back. He certainly didn’t have to live in Stark Tower.” Pepper looked at her oddly, and Maria realized that may not have sounded professional.

“He told Tony something about training as a team and being ready for another attack, et cetera, et cetera. But what I’m saying is that he’s not being part of the team. At actual, official events, yes. First one there, last one to leave, inspirational speeches and all.  But he’s the last one to show up to dinner if he comes at all. He doesn’t want to come to movie night or out to a bar or talk. More and more he simply withdraws.”

“You think he’s depressed?” Maria wondered what she’d do with a depressed Captain America. She had two moves for sulky agents. She either 1) told them to man the fuck up and do their damn jobs because SHIELD agents typically responded beautifully to that or 2) she referred them to psych.

“I…think he needs a little encouragement. Maybe you could suggest that keeping an eye on developing social dynamics is important for a team leader. Oww, Natalie.”

The carrot throwing star was exquisite.

******

“So you’re here to order me to team dinner?”

Nice and simple.

“Yes. Will that do or do you need to be cajoled first?” She stopped and shook herself. She was talking to Rogers. “I’m sorry. That was unnecessary. It’s been a long day, but that wasn’t necessary.”

“No. It wasn’t,” he said.  It was a calm voice he had, steady.  She’d find it soothing if it didn’t always carry the undercurrent of disapproval. Even when she hadn’t earned it. “Can you come inside for a minute? I think we need to talk.”

He’d handed her a gift. And now they had to have a conversation because she’d handed it back. He showed her inside to a couch by the window. The apartment was neither stress-clean shiny nor hoarder-dirty. It didn’t look like the home of someone with major depression.

“Would you like something to drink? Water?” So courteous. She shook her head and he continued, “I get that a good working relationship takes time to develop.  And that it can be especially difficult when things…get off to a bad start. And I think both of us have been trying to behave very professionally about it, and let it be water under the bridge, but clearly it matters.” She nodded. Maybe they did need to clear the air about some things. “So I wanted to say, I’m sorry I was…unkind…to your friend. Agent Coulson.”

She’s too flabbergasted to stop him.

“I wasn’t in a good place, I think is how I’m supposed to say it? It was really hard to deal with being a hero to a guy twice my age born long after I disappeared. I certainly didn’t understand what an honor it was that he had personally come to escort me or that he had ever found me inspirational—“

She couldn’t take it. “You think this is personal?”

He gaped a bit, then, “I think we haven’t gotten along since day one and I can’t think why else that would be.”

Oh, she had a long list, but complaints would be dealt with in the order in which they were received.

She walked over to the window and gestured for him to follow.  He was too much of a soldier to do otherwise.

“Look out the window, Captain. Take a good, long look. Tell me why.”

He closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Is this the part where you say if I don’t know you’re not telling me?”

Fuck him. “No, Captain. This is the part where I tell you that you and your high horse kicked down the door to SHIELD’s special weapons arsenal and didn’t secure it afterward. The one with the nuclear warheads. So that when the WSC wanted one, their mole strolled right in and took it.”

He sank against the back of the couch, ashen, and she was pleased that it was sinking in. That there was a bigger world to consider.

“I almost killed Tony.”

And suddenly he was just a guy. Not Fury’s special little snowflake. Not Tony’s walking, talking Daddy issue. Not Phil’s hero. Not even her subordinate. Just a guy. With a complete, utter inability to see the big picture.

“Yes. Yes, you almost killed Tony. Because you almost vaporized Midtown, Steve. Because you almost gave every survivor in the five boroughs leukemia.” 

“I—“ The phrase ‘I broke Captain America’ got thrown around a little more than Maria thought was polite, but she was worried she’d actually done it. He wasn’t even blinking anymore. 

“Look, saying you directly did it was unfair.”

He shook his head. “As good as.”

“Nearly.” The encryption on the room had been very good. Better than on the nukes themselves at the time. Still. “You didn’t give the order or fly the plane; that was unfair of me.” She couldn’t do any better without lying.

For several minutes he sat there on the couch, head in his hands, staring at the floor. Maria looked out the window down at Grand Central. The reconstruction was already half-finished. Amazing.

A whisper came. “So they all know? The team?”

Oh. Clint and Natasha must. She couldn’t imagine Stark knowing but staying quiet all this time. Except he might, to make things easier for Banner. Thor was off planet but whether or not he knew was immaterial; the crown prince of Asgard was clearly incapable of holding anything against anyone.

“I haven’t discussed it with them. Or heard it discussed.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t needlessly undermine other people’s authority. And it seemed pointless.  At least one person pointed out, loudly and in a self-aggrandizing manner, that the nuke helped save the day in the end.”

More head shaking. “Which made it a good outcome, not a good decision.  By the Council and by me. Not that I’m sorry for looking for the Phase Two weapons. That—It’s not that I’m sorry I opened the door. SHIELD shouldn’t have—I’m sorry I didn’t lock it behind me.”

She could work with that. Because he finally saw the material point.  That a(t least one) bad decision had been made. She might be able to make this guy into a partner if she could keep him around. Something in her briefly considered relaxing for the first time in six months.

“You’re going to need people to teach you how to do that, Captain. I know you’re tired of hearing this kind of thing, but even locks are different now. Your teammates are more than willing. You need to go to dinner.”

“I know…  I was never good at small talk before and now even the rules of how you do that have changed. They laugh when I talk about the job even though they’re all science, science, science down on the other end of the table. I don’t know the movies or the music now, even though they’ve all tried to get me up to speed.  I can’t even sit there and listen because none of it makes any sense.  I certainly don’t want to talk about before, and apparently the 1940s were so very fascinating.  ”

“It’s overwhelming.”

“It’s drowning.” He would know.

Maria thought the psychiatrists at SHIELD could help him.  But she worried they’d need—or pretend they needed—the SHIELD scientists to do it.  People who could figure out how to take an antidepressant and adapt it for someone who processed drugs so quickly he couldn’t even get drunk.  They’d have to poke his veins and prod his liver and run his genome and once they’d figured out how to help him, figuring out how to hurt him would be easy. Should they ever want to do that. Push come to shove, Rogers was Maria’s job.

She wished Coulson were here, so much. He would know what to do with this, with Rogers. He could connect with people so effortlessly.

“You could talk to them about art. Pepper especially. And Pepper knows how not to push.”  She hoped that sounded Coulsonish.

His thin-lipped smile and squared shoulders said that sounded like, “Man the fuck up and do your damn job.” 

“I’ll get cleaned up and be there in a bit.”  He looked out the window. “Maria...I know you think it’s stupid.  Being worried about one person when the whole city was about to be destroyed, but—”

The melodrama of superheroes. “No. Not stupid. There’s a difference—“ 

“Look whatever you meant, individuals matter. Especially specific individuals to specific people. Tony matters to me for his own sake—now, especially—but also because he is the only link I have to my home. Every time I go down to the lab and he’s all excited about some new redesign for the shield or suit it’s a little tiny piece of my life back…like Howard’s alive again.”

He grimaced. “For both of us, I think.  If I don’t praise whatever it is to the skies he won’t come out of the lab again for hours. And I don’t want you to think that I don’t value Tony. That I don’t want to be here. But making a new home is slow, and people need to—Maria?”

She was headed for the door.

“Go to dinner, Steve.”

******

She pushed the elevator button but it wouldn’t light up.

“Jarvis.” Push. Pushpushpush.  Nothing.

“Jarvis, please.  Please help me make this right.”  The doors opened and when she stepped inside she was whooshed back to R&D 7 so quickly her ears popped. 

She could see him through the glass doors of the lab when she walked off the elevator. Goggles on, covered in a black rubber apron and elbow-length black rubber gloves, stirring a big pot of something with his back to her. Even from here, just from the way he was standing…it was Angry Stark, not Moderately Pissed Off Stark. When she walked in, everything was quiet.

“Up, Jarvis! I said turn the music up! What is unclear about that?”

“Deputy Director Hill is here to see you, sir.” Stark spun around, flicking the burner off as he went. And he had to be as upset as she’d ever seen him, because he simply crossed his arms and didn’t say anything.

She wanted to tell him that eventually, she’d gotten old enough to do something other than wish for a mom and started spending all her time at the library and she’d read a magazine article about him. And it had given her hope. Because she was smart and strong, and if she wasn’t kind in a way people recognized, she had the ability to force order from chaos. Just like Tony Stark.

She wanted to tell him what it had been like to join the Marines and have a Stark rifle placed in her hands.

She wanted to tell him that after, she’d taken extra shifts and played poker games she couldn’t afford with ranks she hadn’t technically been allowed to play with to make sure she got first crack at the Stark tech. Because it had been (still was) the best and Maria hadn’t wanted to die.

She wanted to tell him about the time she’d crash-landed a Stark helicopter full of holes and everyone on board who wasn’t already dead survived.

She didn’t know if she wanted to tell him about when he went missing. She’d redirected a satellite without permission to look for him, and when Fury had hauled her in for a reprimand, she’d come out of the meeting with the satellite and three agents.

If she told him that… for lots of reasons, she didn’t want to tell him about sobbing into Phil’s shoulder the night Fury called time.  There’s a time to search and a time to give up as lost, Maria.

She wasn’t going to tell anyone, ever that Phil had been soundly, if fondly, mocked in the upper circles for jumping on what was expected to be a simple debriefing any Level Four could have managed.  Everyone had assumed he’d been hoping to hit up Howard Stark’s son for Captain America memorabilia.  He’d done it because he thought she would volunteer and embarrass herself.  She was still mad at him for that.

Maria knew she was going to have to tell him, if they were ever going to have a functional relationship… Maria knew she was eventually going to have to tell him how betrayed she’s felt watching him say that Stark Industries was no longer going to make the weapons that saved her life. That he was going to leave the protection of this world to guys like Hammer, whose stuff cost twice as much and malfunctioned ten times as often. That he was stepping back and letting entropy take its course because he couldn’t be bothered to take responsibility for his inventory. 

As she looked at Stark now—so… hurt, so angry, and maybe not even half at her—she realized she couldn’t say any of it, even the parts she wanted to say. But she had to say something. Or he would because he was Stark.

“Do you have a book?”

“What?” He put the spoon down in the pot.

“A book.  Or journal articles, or something.  That will help me with the…” she gestured to the corner.  She hoped he saw this as the olive branch she meant it to be and not—

He snorted. “Yeah, a three volume set on polymers, most of which won’t be at all relevant because—come on, sit down. Jarvis, bring up the—thank you.” Virtual everything came whooshing in around her in the unsettling way that it did. Not nearly as unsettling as how Tony acted as if he’d completely forgotten everything that had happened since the first time she’d asked how this all worked, but if that was how he wanted to play it, OK.

Tony was a good teacher. He backed up to things she could understand, things she remembered from her college courses, such as they were, before rocketing forward. And he was clearly pleased that she could keep up, even if he had a rather condescending way of expressing it.

“You know, I don’t get it.  You’re good at this.  How did you end up a history major?”

She could hear a little voice in the back of her head telling her no good would come of screwing with Stark. She told that voice that if he weren’t fucking dead, Stark would be his fucking problem.

“Those who oversaw my education felt that history would be a more appropriate focus for a young woman in my situation than engineering.”

He was apoplectic, which Maria found hilarious. He actually had forgotten their conversation earlier.

“And by that, I mean a likely player in the SHIELD game of thrones, Stark.” Maybe that was a little much.

“Oh, ha ha. Got any more of those you’ve been saving up? Also—Hill.  It was creepy enough they started trying to recruit you as a lowly agent out of boot camp. What the hell were you like as teenager that you were earmarked for leadership? ” 

“All out of my system, thanks. And--” She shrugged and smirked because she didn’t know what it was they saw. An arrogant girl scared and stupid enough to look Fury straight in the eye (singular, even then) and turn down a first class ticket out of enlistment? That was what she remembered. 

“Anyway, given my youth and inexperience, there was concern that ‘queen in her own right’ would end up looking a lot more like Jane Grey than Elizabeth the First.” Maria still worried she’d end up like Jane Grey. “If I have a chief strength, it’s my willingness to learn from others’ experiences.” 

“Fuckups, you mean.” 

She laughed. “History. Not just for people who can’t hack it in engineering, Stark.” 

“Also good for people who are scared to make their own mistakes?” That hurt. The first five times someone accused her of it. But Maria wasn’t afraid of failing. She simply wouldn’t do it needlessly.

“Not all of us have billions of dollars to fall back on and need to do things right the first time.”

He pointed at the pot. “How long have we been at this? You don’t make a billion dollars the first time, Maria.” Then, at the ceiling, “Darcy!”

And, from the ceiling, “Bossman, come on! Dinner’s half over. Even Steve’s here. And he’s talking. About art.”  Laughter drifted down.

“Well Bosslady and I are busy talking about science, Igor, and we need food, so chop-chop down to the lab.”

Maria wasn’t sure how she felt about interrupting dinner, but Darcy answered, “Oh!  OK, I’ll be right down!  Right away, Bossman, Bosslady!”

Maria raised an eyebrow at Tony.

“Darcy thinks you’re the coolest.”

“What?  You’re joking.” He was joking.

“The most amazing, badass woman she’s ever met.”

“Darcy lives with Pepper.”

It had been a long time since Maria had felt like she’d said the right thing at the right time to the right person. In a nice way. But she could tell she had. He was looking at her like she was otters holding hands.

“I think most people would have said she lives with Romanov.” Of course they would have. 

He turned around and flicked the burner on under the pot. “When everyone else gets here, maybe we can brainstorm what to do with the other formulas. I hate letting things go to waste.”  How had he said that with such utter conviction?

“Are more people coming than Darcy?” Who she hoped got here soon. Now that they’d stopped focusing on the work, she was hungry.

“You are here. In the lab. With food. I may as well have announced I have the bones of the Elephant Man. Yes, everyone will be here, sooner or later. They will bring dessert and booze. Do you want me to have Jarvis make up a guest room?” 

(It will take her several days to come up with the feeling ‘unhappiness’ to describe the how that little speech made her feel, but she will feel dissatisfied with it.  In another few months, while overhearing one of her agents explain to a coffee cup why arresting ten sex traffickers was a better use of his time than going to his twins’ birthday party, she’ll realize it was guilt.  And that will make her want to curl up in a ball and die.)

“How would Jarvis even manage that? And no, I do have to go back tonight, but thank you… I’m sorry about before. That was unprofessional. How much I sleep is not your problem.”

He sighed. “Hill, pretend someone else is saying this, not me, OK? We, the Avengers and the various associated support staff… we need you to cut it out with the professionalism. ”

“Tony—“

“See, see—you’re calling me Tony now, that’s a good start.” Oh, well, yeah. “What I mean, is that if you’re going to be our liaison, it’s our business if you’re working yourself to death. It’s our business if you won’t ever have dinner with us because you’re afraid you’ll get Avengers cooties.” That wasn’t fair.

“I’m not afraid I’ll get cooties, I’m trying to respect your space. You have a four hundred page agreement with SHIELD all about how much you like your space. I signed a sixty page non-disclosure all about how much you like your space, Tony.”

“Yeah, well, that was before!” And he went still. So did Maria.

“Care to expound on that?”

“No?”

“You really do, Stark. You want to tell me what you know and who else knows.” Stark looked scared.  Good.

“I’m not sure, OK? I overheard Barton say something to Romanov, so I had Jarvis look around. I told Pepper, that’s it, and she wouldn’t tell anybody.” He looked like he was telling the truth, but you never knew with him.

“So you know all about the time I bought a Backstreet Boys CD, then.”

“Maria, seriously? Does it really need to be a secret? It’s Agent.” And there it was. The word they didn’t say. 

It had been pretty obvious that this project was his way of grieving Coulson. Maybe as something he could do for Pepper, too. It had never occurred to her that it was his way of trying to help her grieve. That it was his way of trying to grieve with her. Fuck.  She was a failure of a liaison; why the fuck had Fury given her this job? Jasper would have seen this immediately. And the last thing she was going to do was fucking cry.

“It’s not a secret. It’s private. I know you may not appreciate the difference, given how you like to live your life on the front cover—“

He finally pushed up the safety goggles and she focused on the red marks they’d left around his eyes. “Hey, that hasn’t been me for several years, and I’d appreciate it if—“ 

“Oh, really? Just because you’re monogamous now doesn’t—“ The doors bang open and they spring to attention.

“Hey guys, I brought food!” Darcy walked in pushing a cart of food. It had been all of four minutes. Jarvis clearly liked her. 

“Thank you, Darcy.” Darcy stood there, still smiling expectantly. Maria realized that for whatever reason, some of the people in this tower wanted her approval and she’d better figure out how to pull herself together and do that. “I am very hungry. This looks great.” Robotic, but Darcy seemed happy enough.

“It is, Bruce and Natasha made it. Sit down, have some, be nice to each other.” And all but pushed Maria into a seat and shoved a fork into her hand before similarly manhandling Tony. Maria found it off-putting, but Tony was giving the girl the otter smile. Must be the way of the lab. She made a note to figure it out later.  And the food was good, so…

“Thanks, Tony.”

“You, too.”

“Aww, you two are cuter than cat videos.”

******

People trickled in with booze and dessert. They talked about possible uses for the non-fabric protective material.  The non-science people, who were all actually quite bright, enjoyed the opportunity to learn from Tony when he was willing to actually teach them. Steve, under the pretense of an official science briefing, was able to engage socially. Maria did the same. Thus began “Science Night.”

******

When Foster decided it was time to pull out the guitar and sing “Rainbow Connection” with Jarvis, Maria sent her pilot a text. Clint walked her outside.

“You need to be careful what you and Natasha say in the tower, Clint. Stark hears things, and then he snoops.”

“Crap. Maria, I’m sorry—“ 

She waved him off. “It’s fine.” He was sorry. No one beat himself up the way Barton did. “I don’t think he knows about the new project.  We’re going to have to tell everyone if they get a functional model, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen.”

“What was 3.0 like?” Soulless.  An awful, unrecognizable thing. Far easier to tolerate than the version that thought it was married to her.

“A bit of an overcorrection. Flying off to see 3.3 in the morning. Keep up, Barton.” The last bit was a joke, mostly.

He got it. “It’s not funny, Maria. You shouldn’t be the one doing this. Not at all, but especially not when Fury has you managing us and running the boat half the time, too.”

“If only that were all.” The cab pulled up and Clint opened the door. “It has to be me. There isn’t anyone else.”  She had made her peace with that more easily than the rest of it.

“I’m so sorry there isn’t, though. Keep us posted,” he said, then patted her arm. Suddenly she remembered that she was exhausted.

“Will do. ‘Night, Clint.” Maybe she could be friends with people in her chain of command. Maybe she should try. Life wasn’t about to get any easier.