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No Fear of Heights

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No Fear of Heights

aka the SHIELD Hypothesis

 

 

 

This is a story about how SHIELD is like the sea; it giveth and it taketh away, and about how sometimes Tony Stark sees far too much for comfort.

Tony Stark says that they should all form a club, because there’s not a one of them who doesn’t have a Sad Tragic Past ™. Maria Hill has always thought he’s a bit of an idiot, genius notwithstanding, but she likes and respects Pepper Potts, and there has to be something there that keeps her with him. By the time Pepper and Stark break up, she’s had enough exposure to the man to change her mind about him, to an extent. She still thinks he’s a tit, but she can see where he’s coming from. If you look past all of the bullshit he spews, there is a layer of painful honesty, and sense. She thinks that’s his way of sugar-coating, because it only makes Rogers look irritated. If Rogers could see what Stark was trying to say, he’d look much more sad, and as Barton put it, like a puppy in the rain.

But in the beginning, she thinks she’s the exception to his Sad Tragic Past Thesis.

Anthony Stark’s “Sad Tragic Past” Thesis: Every man and woman (and person in between) who is sadistic enough to get involved in the messy business of government intelligence and national security, in whatever way, shape or form, has a Sad Tragic Past that they are trying to escape.

It seems to be fair enough. God knows, the Avengers are a Sad, Tragic lot, once you get past the shiny outer layer. Even Rogers. The man was effectively sent 70 years into the future. He lost everything and everyone he ever loved. The world had no place for him, so he’s had to carve himself a niche as Captain America. If he ever leaves the niche, well. She’s seen him leave the room when Sitwell starts humming Eleanor Rigby. He’s pretty much the epitome of a Sad Tragic bastard.

Romanov was an internationally wanted assassin by the time she’d hit 20. That woman could do things with her thighs that Maria could not even fathom. And where she kept knives on her skin-tight suit, god only knew. She preferred guns, herself, because they could be holstered. And didn’t threaten to cut her every time she sat down. She has a feeling that Romanov wouldn’t even notice if she’d been cut by a knife inside her suit a couple of times.

Barton was a carnie and a run-away from an abusive home. Banner was a run-away too, even if he’d fallen into an orphanage instead of a travelling circus - as far as Maria could tell, the former was as bad as the latter. Stark had more issues than all of them combined, because Hill knew what was in his original files, even if Rogers didn’t. It had taken her three days to get through them, and when she’d walked out of that room, she wouldn’t have been able to give him a hard time if she’d tried. She’d seen his arc reactor when he was in hospital. She’d seen his torso. He didn’t have much unscarred skin, for a civilian. Even for a civilian ex-weapons manufacturer and defense contractor. He’d definitely got the short end of the stick. At least Barton and Romanov and Rogers had the military routine to keep them straight, and Banner had his girl. Stark was still adrift, hanging on to the empty shells of his old WMDs.

And Thor was the dick older brother of a kid who’d found out he’d been “adopted” as security against his birth parents attacking the kidnappers, and had then lost his mind, killed his father and tried to blow up another realm before trying to take over the Earth on some sort of kamikaze rampage. His experiences spoke for themselves, and she wouldn't belabor the point.

Not a one of the Avengers were what could be called truly sane. But no, the Sad Tragic Past thesis extended to all members of SHIELD, and NSA, and FBI and god help her, even the CIA, the rat bastards. Even the Army, hell. Rhodes was a good man, a good soldier. Even he was messed up, because of the war, and because of what he’d seen and done while trying to rescue his best friend from a terrorist cell in Afghanistan. She’s still not sure if Stark knows about what his bff had done when he’d been taken. She’d be surprised if he was still in the dark, but nothing seems to have changed between the two. Maybe that’s how they dealt, because they were men. But then, that was how she dealt, so she couldn’t throw stones.

Phil Coulson had a robotic arm that was so high tech that no one could tell it was a robotic arm, unless they’d looked at his very, very classified files. Except Stark, because he was the one who’d designed it, but that didn’t count. He had lost it when he was in the Rangers, not two months before Fury had been planning to recruit him. It had looked like they’d lose him, but Stark had come out of nowhere, and said that he’d had some designs in mind, and would they mind letting him save their agent's life, try it out, thanks. She didn’t know if Coulson knew that Stark was behind his hand, but Coulson was a nosy bastard, and it was impossible to keep him out of files which had no relevance to him, let alone his own files.

Maybe she could safely say that the look in his eye when Stark went off on a rant, was fondness. Maybe it was why he’d gone out of his way to look out for Stark, during and after Afghanistan. It had been lucky, anyway. If Phil had been completely flesh and blood, Loki’s spear would have killed him. As it was, it caused a lot of mangled flesh and a little dented metal. Nothing Stark couldn’t fix.

Nick Fury was like the bastard god of secrets. He lied about lying about his lies, and even then she wasn’t sure if he was done. He could be relied on to do nothing but fuck with your expectations, because he got off on it. It was what made him such a good director. Even he had a Sad Tragic Past. He had, after all, lost an eye in a revenge attack, or something. The details were redacted everywhere she’d looked, and she didn’t particularly want to spend all her time digging up dirt on her boss. The only thing she knew was that he’d been born with both, and he’d been a General in the army when he’d lost it.

It felt like the army and other similar organisations were highly interlinked with Sad Tragic Pasts. It was why she’d been convinced that she was the exception to Stark’s rule.

Because she’d never been in the army. She’d been a normal girl, with a normal, loving family. She had a little sister and an older brother, and she’d grown up in an upper-middle class suburb in California. Her parents were still married to each other. She had two nieces and a nephew on her brother’s side, and her sister’s girlfriend was due anytime soon. She’d been good at school, and she’d played soccer, and had been into gymnastics for a while. She’d been voted Class President, and then the one Most Likely to Succeed. She’d never had a bad relationship, even though none of them lasted too long. She’d wanted to be an astronaut, and then a doctor, and she’d ended up going to law school, of all places. She’d done pre-law, and then law, and she’d been half way through her masters while working at a big firm in New York when she’d first met Nick Fury.

He’d been ushered in by three of the most senior partners available, and she’d been poached from her project, to sit in on the meeting. Fury had eyeballed her, once, and she’d looked him straight in the good eye and not flinched. He’d given them a “hypothetical” case about some guy who’d been kidnapped by the NSA, and how they needed him back because he was a specialist. The senior partners took notes furiously (ha!) and looked at him like he wasn’t a crazy person. She’d done nothing of the sort.

She’d been sceptical of the whole thing, and when he’d asked her if she had something to say, she had said it. Possibly she'd been running on little more than three hours of sleep in three days, and obscene amounts of caffeine, which would explain her uncontrolled outburst. But she considered it a happy accident, in hindsight. She’d said, ‘I’m too new around here to have heard of you, if you are a client, but say this is all true,” and all the senior partners had been making frantic hand-gestures and the look on Maria’s face had probably given it away to Fury, “and that there is a specialist under your jurisdiction who’s been kidnapped by the NSA for national security purposes, your best case would be to get him out some other way. The NSA’s not going to even engage with us, legally. They’re going to pull National Security and whichever judge sits on the case is going to dismiss it without a second thought. If you have one specialist, you’ll have another. I’m sure you know this about the legal system – I’m not sure why you’re even here. If this is even true.” The three senior partners had been watching her, slack-jawed and silent with shock. Fury had looked at her carefully, and then grinned. She’d smiled back, a little, because the guy was charismatic, what could she say? He’d then given her a card, and told her to call. She’d put the card in her purse, programmed the name into her cell out of sheer habit, and had proceeded to completely forget about it.

She’d been fired in less than 24 hours, and she’d not even regretted it. The firm had been killing her inside anyway. They’d forced her into finance and banking law, just because she’d had a better head for numbers than her colleagues. That was not why she had gone to law school. Seriously. She wanted to work with human rights and national security. She just hadn’t decided which side she’d be on; the security side or the rights side.

Also she was sick to death of being mistaken for the secretary all the time. There was nothing wrong with being a secretary, but she hadn’t gone through hell on earth aka law school, just to be asked to make coffee every time a client came in. She’d been done with that bullshit before she’d even started there. She wasn’t even sure why she’d stayed, apart from the fact that she needed to eat, and pay rent and bills.

And as she’d been on her way to a bar to celebrate by having a drink at some-time before 3 in the morning, like she hadn’t been able to since she was in college, a black town car had pulled up beside her on the street. She’d done aikido at some point. She knew enough to run when she had to run, and she was enough of a gymnast to be able to run pretty damn fast. As it was, she froze. For all she knew, the car had nothing to do with her. But then the door opened, and out stepped Nick Fury, dressed in his now-customary, then absurd leather trench-coat, looking like Morpheus from the Matrix.

A small, possibly hysterical part of her, which she’d been ignoring for the fear that she’d completely fly off the handle if she gave in to it, wanted to laugh. Because, seriously? It was a perfectly warm summer evening in New York, following an almost uncomfortably warm day. And he was wearing all black, topped with a leather trench-coat like he was some kind of super spy. She remembered the story he’d told in the lawyer’s office, and wanted to laugh even more.

The rest of her was gibbering with nerves, because what the fuck did he want with her? He’d already gotten her fired, for telling the truth none-the-less!

He was followed by a smaller, compact looking man in an expensive looking tailored suit. He stood perfectly still, hands subserviently held in front of his crotch, eyes meeting hers, despite the fact that Maria teetered about 3 inches higher than him in her heels. The smaller part of her mind was recalling scenes from Men In Black, even though the sane part of her made her take a step back. She clutched her purse in front of her and got ready to run in the direction of a crowd. Safety in numbers, and all that.

“Don’t run, Ms. Hill.”

Despite herself, she snorted. “Why are you following me?” she asked, because it was a good guess. As a junior at the firm, it was unlikely that anyone had even told him her name, let alone her address or her whereabouts, or that she’d been fired.  It was downright fucking creepy that they'd been able to find her in a place she couldn't normally be found. But she stayed wary, and didn’t say anything.

“Because I have a skill.”

She waited. She wasn’t going to ask, just because he wanted her to. The man was clearly delusional and dangerous until she discovered otherwise. She wasn’t going to play his insane games. Her heart was pounding, and she stayed deliberately still, poised to run.

His lips twitched, like he wanted to laugh. The smaller guy said, “I see why you like her, Boss.”

“My skill,” he began again, can stay in your pants, she thought, because that was probably where he was going with this and no. Just, no - “is recognizing talent.” She waited. She was good at waiting. She was a lawyer. She was a professional waiter with a law degree. Hah. He rolled his eyes, obviously annoyed that she was ruining his pre-prepared spiel. “And you have talent,” he continued. “You also have balls. I like that.”

“I’m sorry man, I don’t know what you’re into, but I’m not into that.” She heard herself saying the words, as if from a distance, disconnected from her own body. There was a moment of silence, and then the smaller guy laughed. It was a normal laugh. Not a creepy, TV-Villain laugh. Just a normal, slightly surprised sounding, giggle of a laugh. Even Fury sighed and shook his head.

“I should have known that speech wouldn’t work on everybody. Listen. I’m Nick Fury. This is Agent Coulson. I’m the Director of a covert agency known as SHIELD, short for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. I know this sounds like a joke, but we deal with the things that no one else can deal with. Things that other agencies can’t even imagine. We’re a largely military division but we also specialise in intelligence and information gathering. We are outside the government and above the law[1], and we do what has to be done in the name of national security. However, you might be interested to know that we have the most advanced research and development division outside Stark Laboratories, and we use the most accurate and reliable technologies to determine whether a threat truly exists, before annihilating it.”

He stopped, and looked at her. She processed. “Prove it.”

He glared. She glared back. She’d done a minor in glaring at dickheads, in college. “Boss,” the smaller man said. Surprisingly, Fury gave him his instant attention, which was interesting. The small guy looked like a pen-pusher, and big bosses generally didn’t give a shit about the pen-pushers who made their lives easier. But no, Fury gave the guy his complete and instant attention. Two options; either this guy wasn’t so bad, or the little guy wasn’t actually a pen-pusher. Maybe he was a deadly assassin ninja.

Maybe she shouldn’t have done those shots before she left home. She was admittedly feeling a little down about having lost her job and having rent and bills to pay, and her next door neighbour’s cat got laid more than she did. Surely shots were to an unemployed person what coffee was to an employed one. Surely shots were to the unwillingly celibate what breath-mints were to the sexually active? That made sense, right? Except, she was maybe allergic to shots? Which would be horrible because coffee ran through her veins, or something.

“Yes, Coulson?” Fury asked.

“I like her.”

Some part of her wanted to be indignant, but the shots were making a dramatic re-appearance in her system. She was pretty sure she hadn’t felt drunk when she’d left the house. Like, at least, 90 per-cent sure. Okay, maybe 85. Or 69. Heh. Sixty-Nine. Funny number.

“Yeah, Coulson. So do I. Think it’s kicking in?”

“Possibly. She does look a little cross-eyed.”

Alarm bells were ringing in her head, at full volume. She wanted to turn them off and go to bed. But there was something going on. Something important, that she had to pay attention to. A door was being kicked in. She’d always wanted to see that. She’d always thought it would hurt like a bitch. It did hurt like a bitch. She could have done without that discovery.

Maybe the door was in her head, because it really hurt. Her skin hurt. Her knees hurt.

And then it hit her, like a mugger with a 6-by-2.

“Holy f—” she began to swear, pulling the pin on the rape alarm she’d been fingering since she’d been stopped on the street, turning to run when—

Her knees gave way, and she collapsed onto the floor. She would have been swearing if she had been able to feel her tongue. It felt like she was at the dentist’s, and he’d just given her a general anaesthetic. There was a man swearing in the background, but it was just really funny because he was speaking in tongues. She passed out completely, to the nonsensical thought that maybe dentists wore white so they would reflect all the glaring light in their offices, and so they’d look like they had halos. 

 

“She’s going to be pissed when she wakes up, Boss."  

“I know, Coulson.” 

“You sure about this?” 

“I want her on our side, Phil. She’s a good one.”  

“Right. Let’s get her in the car then. She was a bit more trouble than you’d said, Boss.” 

“Yeah, well. I wasn’t expecting her to have resisted it so much. She should have passed out about the time I’d made that speech. Think she noticed the Torchwood thing?” 

“Don’t know, Boss. She seemed pretty out of it, I think.”  

“Damn right, Coulson. I gave her one-and-a-half times the regular dose, because I’m pretty sure she could have caused some damage.”  

“Huh. Took her a while, though… Boss?” 

“Yes, Coulson?” 

“You used an EMP to kill the rape alarm, right?” 

“Motherfucker, the fucking car.” 

“I’ll call backup, Boss. I don’t blame you. It was making me crazy too.”  

“Shut the fuck up, Phil.”

 

Maria woke up to a dim soothing room, and had at once gone into red-alert mode. She’d been a gymnast but for the most part, gym was a non-violent activity. She was practically surgically attached to her cell-phone, and she’d known it was gone the moment she’d opened her eyes. “Fuck,” she swore, succinctly. She didn’t recognize her whereabouts, and she didn’t remember the last thing that had happened to her.

Had she been roofied? She didn’t remember having actually reached the bar, so who the fuck her roofied her? And how? And she was still fully dressed – had she been raped? She didn’t feel like anyone had so much as touched her. She certainly didn’t feel like she’d had sex. She gingerly sniffed herself. She still smelled relatively clean, and free of smoke. She definitely hadn’t reached the bar. She had probably been, stopped? Maybe? She wasn’t sure, she thought she’d be stopped, by a car? Maybe she'd hit a rat on the road and then put it in her mouth because it definitely tasted like a dead rodent in there.

The door creaked open, and she didn’t stop to think. She grabbed the lamp, the only source of dim light in the room, and swung it at the door with all her might. The bulb shattered and the flimsy fabric tore, but the door closed, if only for a second. She heard swearing outside.

Her heart was pounding, and she moved towards a wall. Motherfuck. She didn’t have any shoes on. She’d have to run through the glass to get past the door, if she wanted to face what was outside. Possibly it was worse than what was inside (Insanity. Strange men coming into her room. Death, possibly), but maybe it was better.

She had vague visions of ninja-jumping herself out of there, but she wasn’t a ninja. She wasn’t even that good a gymnast, and unless she could bore someone to death by reciting statutes at them, she was defenceless.

She should have listened to her brother when he told her to get self-defence classes.

But she’d always been safe. New York was dangerous, but so was everywhere else in the world. And she’d always been a sharp girl. She’d relied on her wits to get herself out of situations. But wits didn’t help her when she was facing a stranger who had drugged and kidnapped her. And still, they were all they had in the face of the door re-opening.

Outside was well lit, and warm yellow light spilled into the dark room. She waited, and breathed as quietly as she could manage. She waited, because what else could she do?

“Miss Hill,” it was the smaller guy, she recognized his voice holy fuck he was a serial killer, “I’m not going to hurt you. I swear. I won’t even come near you. I’m going to turn on the lights, so just watch your eyes, alright?”

She didn’t respond. The lights came on and her eyes burned even as she rushed for the door. Before she actually realised what was going on, she’d been tackled to the ground, and pinned to the floor with a hand on her mouth.

She didn’t even wait for him to explain. She bit his hand. “Jesus fuck,” he swore. “God damn it, Hill! I know this is crazy but calm. Down.

She rolled her eyes and opened her mouth to tell him where he could shove his opinion, but all that came out from her mouth was a groan. The tackling bit had hurt. A lot. Ow.

He looked concerned. She squirmed a bit. He didn’t move away. He didn’t even respond, which was weird. If he was a rapist, surely she’d have experienced more of his man bits by now. He sighed. He smelled like coffee. “I swear, Hill. Not going to hurt you. I just need you to hear me out on this thing. I promise. If you say no, we’ll let you go. No consequences. But we want you. We want your expertise. We’ll pay for it, too.”

“What the actual fuck are you talking about, ‘Coulson’,” she demanded, exaggerating his name. “You sound like a crazy person. Why did you drug me?!”

He didn’t respond to her taunts. “We drugged you because we knew we sounded like crazy people, and we needed to get you off the streets somewhere we could talk to you.”

“I’d be much happier listening to your cracked cover story if we were somewhere public, you know?”

“Yes, we thought so. But a lot of what we’re going to say is classified information, and contrary to popular belief we don’t yet have memory wipe devices.”

“I can’t help but note how you just said ‘yet’, about memory-wiping devices. You’re not helping with the crazy thing.”

“Okay, right. Right. First off. I think we got off to a bad start, Ms. Hill. My name is Phillip Coulson, but you can call me Phil, or Coulson. The guy you met earlier is Nick Fury, I’m sure you remember him. Black coat, eye-patch. Unforgettable.” She was nodding, despite herself. Apparently, crazy was somewhat contagious. “He’s the director of our covert organisation. SHIELD, for short. We’re a national security agency, but much more niche and elite than the regular alphabet agencies. We were specially founded to deal with super-human threats. So yes, the mutants count, but only the bad guys. We also take into account extra-ordinary individuals, with the potential to stir things up. We take them in, get them off the streets, and take care of them.”

“What do you take in return?” Hill demanded, speaking even though she had decided that it was a personal life policy to not talk to crazy people. He was very convincing, though, but nothing in the world was ever free.

“Nothing. It’s our job. Most of them choose to stay with us, and work with us to stop future threats. We work under the direct supervision of the World Security Council. The WSC is a panel made up of top politicians and under-politicians. The people who are really in power, around the world. SHIELD is based on American soil, but we’re not limited to America. That’s a very small-minded scale of operation, in this day and age. In the past, maybe. But today, we have a global reach, and branches all around the world. We deal with threats before they become threats. It’s our job to think ahead and predict risks, and then manage them. We’re just like the CIA, or the FBI. We just don’t have TV shows about us.”

“Think you could get off me?” Maria asked, as nonchalantly as she could manage. She’d been listening raptly, but she wasn’t going to give him anything more until he levelled the scales some more. She was intrigued. But she wasn’t going to tell him that. Because he was sprawled on top of her, on the floor, and he hadn’t even bought her a drink first.

“Yeah, Coulson. Why don’t you get off her?” Fury piped in, speaking from the door. He took in the carnage in the room, the destroyed lamp and the twisted sheets lying on the floor, amidst shards of glass.

He stepped in, crunching some of it under his heavy, black boots.

“I can’t, yet, because I think she’s going to jump me again if I try. So I’m just going to lie here a minute, until she decides she’s actually interested and not going to try to kill me.”

“You do know I can hear you, right?” she had no idea why she was so comfortable bantering with these people. She didn’t know them, and yet, she kinda felt like they were good people. Reliable, and honest. To an extent. Honest as much as people were ever honest, really. She thought. She was still woozy from when they had drugged her, and her back hurt like a bitch. But she was intrigued.

Coulson smiled down at her. He was really quite attractive, even though he was losing his hair at the top of his head. He didn’t actually look that much older than her, which made her wonder how he’d ended up with Fury, who was anywhere between 40 and older-than-god.

“Why do you want me?” She asked, deciding to cut to the chase before she was forced to diagnose herself with Stockholm Syndrome.

“That’s the million dollar question, Hill. You’re a lawyer. A young lawyer. But we’ve had our eye on you for a while,” Fury said, and she was almost 90 per-cent sure he’d just made an eye-patch joke but she didn’t want to laugh because what.

“As a covert agency, we sometimes need public representation. To the people who need to know us, we are known. But we don’t have a public representative. No, I don’t mean like a PR-Rep. I meant, when we’re called to court, we don’t have anyone else to represent us, because all our agents and operatives are classified. It’s a pain-in-the-ass but it’s necessary, if we want to keep our profile as low as possible. But that doesn’t mean we deliberately subvert the law. We want to work around it, but we don’t want to bulldoze through it, because that causes problems too. Problems of accountability. We’ve always had issues with that.”

“What’s your point?” She asked, because she maybe knew but that wasn’t possible.

“We want a legal department, and we want you to head it. We’ve been watching you for a long time, Hill. You and a few others. It won’t be time-intensive, in the sense you’ll maybe have to go to court once a year. You won’t get your face on the papers like a defence attorney, or even like the ADA. That’s part and parcel of being in a covert agency. But when you do have cases, you’ll be fighting with politicians about ‘national security’ breaches and the such. You’ll be fighting for people’s lives when they get tangled up with the law that was laid to make our lives particularly difficult. You won’t spend days just drafting legal documents. You’ll be in-house counsel, and there are advancement prospects, but not many from the head of a department. You’ll have funding, staff, space, whatever you want.”

"Why the hell do you want me? I'm not special; There must be hundreds of fresh lawyers out there like me."

"Because you're quiet, Hill. You shut up when you need to, and talk when you need to, and don't let people walk over you. Because you wrote an article that intrigued me, almost four years ago in the Harvard law review. Because we need to be cautious with our legal policy, but also not too cautious. You have good principles, but aren't too driven by them. We want people who can stick to their guns, but we don't want crazies. You're ambitious, and talented, but loyal. You're not job hopping to increase your salary, but you're trying your best even though you're a small fry in the firm's hierarchy. And you didn't bull shit me about that agent's chances with the NSA. I appreciate that. There might be a bunch of other good lawyers out there, Hill, but you've not been fixed in your ways, and you can learn. That's why I want you."

There was a minute of still silence, and Maria felt a little shaky because whoa. But everything he had said was everything she had ever wanted to hear. “This is both crazy and too good to be true, but what do you want, right now. I’d be stupid to think there isn’t some sort of trial period.”

Fury and Coulson exchanged glances. She vaguely appreciated the fact that he hadn’t groped her a single time since he tackled her. He could possibly be gay, if the non-verbal communications was what it looked like.

 

Oh, Nick. Take me to bed, please. 

Phil, darling, I’m going to make sweet love to you…

 

Oh Jesus, what? She really needed to have some non-drugged sleep. “Are you done with the eye-sex?” she asked, because she was bored.

Coulson snorted, and it was a soft huff of breath. Fury guffawed. “You are going to be tried by fire, Ms. Hill.”

“Sounds good, Fury. Can I get up, now?”

“Depends. Are you going to claw my eyes out?” Coulson asked, vaguely teasing.

“Nope,” she responded. He let her up. She punched him in the gut. Probably not very hard, but even to take him off balance when he wasn’t expecting it. He looked outraged at her, as she stood up. She shrugged. “Didn’t claw your eyes out, Coulson.

 

“Jesus, Nick." 

“Eat your heart out Coulson, I knew she was a good choice.”

 

Her trial by fire had mainly involved getting some agents out of trouble, when they’d been apprehended by the Feds for charges which couldn’t be revealed for “national security” purposes. For the first time, she’d experienced the frustration of not having anything to go on, instead of just an academic appreciation of it. She literally had nothing.

Coulson and Fury had guided her to a room filled with files and papers, and it had taken her a while to go through them because apparently these people didn’t know the meaning of organisation. She didn’t even want to know who’d been handling the papers prior to her, because they were such a mess. Her first step had been to send a summons to the Head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. No, that was a lie. Her first step had been to ask Fury how many liberties she could take.

He’d response had sounded eerily like an internet meme: Take all the liberties, Hill. Take them like they’re going out of style.

So she had. She’d summoned him, and because she’d known that the courts would pay special attention to national security cases, she’d taken it to the 9th circuit. She’d known she would eventually lose, but at least she’d have more information this way.

She’d turned up to court alone, and they’d smirked, thinking that she was some poor rookie who’d been stuck on the unwinnable case. She’d just smirked about it, because persistence and waiting paid for a lot now-a-days. These buggers who hadn’t been to court since the days of Kennedy had no idea what they were in for.

They’d swamped her in it. She’d received almost one-and-a-half Fed-ex trucks worth of dead trees. She’d expected it. She’d always been good at speed-reading. It had got her through law school.

She’d always been interested in public policy. She’d been into it since she’d been relatively young. So she knew the game. There was no way she’d win, in a closed trial. Not a chance in hell that they’d let this unnamed operative go without a pound of his flesh plus interest.

For a solid week, she’d sat there and struggled with her choices. Choices, of which she really had only one. There was no way she would be able to win, against whomever the fuck they sent in. No way. Not even a chance. She’d done very academic studies of how courts worked - she’d only been in the profession for a couple of years anyway. Fury had looked at her like she was the answer to all their problems, and she had no idea why, but the thought of disappointing him made her stomach curdle.

She was going to lose. She knew that. There was no winning, in this. And it hurt to accept, for someone as competitive as herself, but it had to be done. The victory, she remembered reading in some long forgotten judgment, was not in the courtroom. The victory was in the practical outcome. So, what was the best possible outcome? Her aim was to get this unnamed operative out of which-ever hellhole they’d stuffed him in. If she didn’t have a legal argument to get him out, she’d have to have a practical one. She had to make it really difficult for them to keep him, and that was literally the only thing she could think of.

So her aim was to make the costs of keeping him, and winning the trial, more than the benefits of doing so. She was going to run rings around them, and make it so impossible to have a moment’s peace, that they’d beg her to settle outside court, just so they could forget about her and pretend she’d never happened.

Her mum had always said she was more tenacious than a bull-dog, on a good day. Several professors and employers and colleagues and clients had concurred.

And she did. It had been no easy task. She had no legal precedent on her side, and just one paralegal. She was a very good paralegal, but she couldn’t help Maria with the reading. Maria had to know every inch of every case file they had handed over under the court order, just to make sure she hadn’t missed anything.

The case itself was pretty bleak. The guy had been in “custody” without trial for almost three months when she was assigned to the case, and it was pretty impressive that Fury had found out about it so quickly. She supposed being the director of a secret intelligence agency helped when it came to finding out classified information.

What had ensued was several years of torturous paperwork. If there was a hell, the road to it was paved with legal documents, because seriously. At some points, she felt that if she’d had to refer to another unrelated clause in another document on the other side of the room, she was going to give in to her somewhat arsonist tendencies and set the room on fire.

She’d not even known if the thing was going to work. She had no way of knowing which judge would be assigned to her, and how sympathetic he’d be to her cause. She had no way of knowing whether the other lawyers would sabotage her case shamelessly, or whether there was information Fury and Coulson were withholding from her. She had no way of even communicating with any other lawyers in the field, because everything was bloody classified.

Towards the end of her run, several years later, Coulson had been assigned to her and the paralegal, named Sitwell. He’d been a godsend, with the reading and the planning of arguments. She’d confessed very quickly on that there was no way they were going to “win” the case, outright. But she would hold her own against the FBI’s legal department, and just have to wait for them to get bored.

Eventually though, the judge who’d been assigned their case had reached the end of his tether. He’d told them in no uncertain terms to fuck off with the national security bullshit, on national television. Some politician from the DoD had tried to have him assassinated but Coulson had sent in a protective detail, and the “fuck off” order had been upheld in court. Hill had been declared a menace within the judiciary, but the FBI had been given a very public slap on the wrist for wasting the courts’ time.

It had been what she had essentially intended. As long as the alphabet agencies knew that they weren’t going to submit to threats, they’d think twice about charging them, or even getting involved with agents under SHIELD protection.

Fury had been delighted. So had Coulson, but less visibly so. Maria herself had been very pleased. Despite her having chosen a path, and then having stuck to it, she hadn’t been sure it would work. She hadn’t been sure at all. She hadn’t even had that much experience in the field, but that was what was good about working with unprecedented cases – there were no expectations or set methods. She could do what she wanted, as long as it worked.

They’d have named a legal procedure after her, she thought. But senior agents in secret agencies could hardly have their name publicised in legal textbooks around the world. So the case had been buried and the relevant legal officers appropriately threatened. The world would never know of her success, or the misdeeds of their beloved FBI.

Meeting the guy whom she’d managed to get out of Guantanamo was worth it, though. Very worth it. He was a big guy, with insane hair. Canadian lumberjack, or something. He had some super-secret ability that Fury didn’t want anyone finding out about. Fury, she’d discovered, believed in the adage that the only way three people could keep a secret was if two of them were dead. So she kept quiet and didn’t ask too many questions. Big Canadian guy had gone off the radar, and she’d trusted that Fury would have his back. Because along the way, she’d also discovered that Fury was a good guy. Good-ish. He did the right thing, most of the time. He was fairly utilitarian, and while some of his decisions did sound cold-hearted, he did what he had to, because he wanted to protect the people under his purview. She could respect that.

SHIELD had been growing, even as she slaved away on her supposed ‘trial’ assignment. Coulson had confessed to her, years later, that there had been nothing tentative or temporary about it. If he and Fury had thought for one second that Hill would back off, they’d have used their clicky-mind-wipe-thingy and released her. She’d more or less known that anyway, so she didn’t react too badly.

When she’d joined, she’d only had a chance to get to know a few people, before she’d started work on her first case. She’d known Fury and Coulson and the two Sitwells (the agent was her paralegal’s brother). Coulson had been mentoring some punk hired straight out of a circus, who flirted with her as easily as breathing, after she’d once complimented his very nice arms. They both knew nothing would ever come out of it, but it had been fun. Then she’d gotten to know some people from the R&D department when they realised she was really good at paperwork, and Professor Charles Xavier when he finally came out of hiding and opened up his school to the general public. The Fantastic Four agreed to work with them on a case-by-case basis, and they’d pulled off some very effective missions with the X-Men.

The Afghanistan had happened, and Iron Man had been born. That had admittedly looked like a massive cock up, but it had worked out very well for all parties involved, except Stark, because he had to be contrary. They’d even helped him figure that out, eventually.

Barton, Coulson’s pet agent, had blossomed from a punk teenager into a very calm man, and an excellent agent. He’d managed to recruit the Black Widow, who’d been terrorising intelligence agencies since 1965. They were pretty sure the name was a title, passed from generation to generation. But then again, they did work with a man who flew around in a giant tin can with lasers, so they couldn’t be that sure.

And Maria, herself. Well, Maria had been invaluable as a lawyer, and the head of their very small, very competent legal department. But as time progressed, there were fewer and fewer opportunities for her to get involved in a head-on legal battle with anyone. Gone were the days she could bamboozle intelligence agency bigwigs in the Courts. Gone were the days of simple research and arguing cases like lives depended on it.

Maria had been some-what worried that they’d finally decide to use their clicky-mind-wipe thingy on her, now that she was no longer of use to them. But she’d underestimated Fury and Coulson, to whom she had become as dear as they had become to her.

They’d pushed her through field training, and she’d come out relatively well on the other side. Then they’d given her a gun, and promoted her to Deputy Director, which was both incredible and bizarre, because surely Coulson deserved the job more than she did.

When she’d voiced her concerns, Coulson and Fury had done their eye-sex thing, and Maria had made the same comment she’d made all those years ago. Barton had spit out his coffee, which would always be hilarious.

Coulson had sat her down, and Fury had told her that they were promoting her. Barton had said one thing: “’bout damn time, Sir,” and it had endeared him to her for forever. Well, it had endeared him to her at least until he’d dropped a water-balloon on her desk and destroyed some very important documents. After that, she’d tried to murder him in broad daylight, because no jury of her peers would ever convict her for the pain he’d caused her.

The one proviso was that she would have to be officially added to the military register, and that she'd have to have it put out that she'd joined the army, even if she wanted to wave the rest of it away as classified. That meant she'd have to tell her parents that she'd joined the army, and god knows how they'd take that. But it had to be done, and the less said about it the better. She supposed it would be easier to explain her death in the military than in a New York law firm.

She even started receiving her fair share of death threats and hate mail, because she was more visible as deputy director than as the head of the legal office. It was irritating, but at the same time, vaguely satisfying. People got very pissy because she'd come out of nowhere and had been promoted over a lot of people's heads. People got downright furious that they'd made a woman the Deputy Director of a quasi-military organisation, because apparently they weren't satisfied with limiting their bigotry to purely military organisations and the entirety of the commercial sector.

Life carried on for the Deputy Director of SHIELD. They’d avert crises and save the world on a semi-regular basis. Deputy Director Hill would co-ordinate defences on the ground, and Fury would be in the Helicarrier. She was good at her job, and she made sure that the people under her command stayed safe. She filled up paperwork with ruthless efficiency and occasionally had competitions with Coulson to see who could file their reports first, because she was a crazy sadistic lawyer at heart. Maria had cocktail Wednesdays with Pepper Potts and Natasha Romanov, and then eventually with Jane Foster and Darcy-the-sidekick. Betty Ross would sometimes join them, along with Susan Richards and assorted ladies from the X-Men. Natasha would be the first one to drag her out of her office when she started feeling particularly blood-thirsty. Before everyone else turned up, they'd sit in the bar, compare their death threats and have a good laugh. That was probably her first mistake. No, who was she kidding? That was just one in a very long line of mistakes. It just happened to be a particularly significant one, as far as mistakes went.

It was easy to not think about it when she and Natasha stumbled back into SHIELD barracks, giggling like school girls, unable to stand on their own and leaning on each other for support.

Life went on. She had her work, and her friends, and friends-who-were-family. She didn’t worry about money, even though she sometimes wondered if she’d live to see the light of the following day. She wasn’t worried about her own health, but she would never admit to having spent several hours at Coulson’s bedside, after the bad missions.

The biggest difference she saw in herself was the way where her previous response to a threat had been a legal one, when something ugly reared its head now, she’d shoot first, and defend her actions later.

She got settled down, as much as a SHIELD agent could settle. She was a fixture of the agency, and confident of her position. She was a good leader when Fury was busy, and a good Deputy when he was in his office. She had good ideas, and a tactician’s mind. Barton had been teaching her to shoot, and the Widow had been giving her hand-to-hand lessons. She’d almost beat the Widow in a spar, once. Natasha’s eyes had glowed with delight at having found a competent partner. She’d taught Natasha where to go for privacy in the Helicarrier, places that hadn’t even been drawn on the plans. The look on Natasha’s face had felt like friendship. She’d had no doubts about it when Natasha offered to share some of her very expensive shoes with Maria, even there had been no guarantee that they’d survive that particular goo-filled Thursday (the shoes, not the women - Maria wasn’t going to let either of them die, and she doubted that Natasha would lie down and take it either).

She eventually found out that the Canadian Lumberjack whom she’d helped in the very beginning of her career at SHIELD was actually a mutant with super-healing powers named Logan, who’d been experimented on horrifically, while she’d been fighting in his corner, on the outside. He’d taken on the code-name Wolverine, and was fighting for Xavier. He was as safe as he could get, under Xavier’s paternal watch.

Regardless, she’d spent several horrific days trying to not think about the fact that it had taken her years to get him out.

And that was probably when everything had begun going to shit.

Everything in SHIELD was going fine, but the WSC was breathing down their collective necks more and more. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark appeared to be engaging in some illicit affair, which, what.

What.  

And if that wasn’t enough, Coulson was allegedly getting married to someone who wasn’t Clint Barton. It was two-thousand-and-thirteen, and marriage of all types was legal in New York. Even if they weren’t getting married, Maria would have sworn under oath that they were together, and had been fucking like rabbits for years. Barton had surely been sweet on Coulson, even all those years ago. Clint was walking around looking like he had a lemon shoved down his throat and a boot shoved up his ass. She was pretty sure the Coulson wedding wasn't an op, and she was just about to get herself involved.

And then she got a phone call from her parents.

Getting the phone call wasn’t actually all that momentous an event, if she was honest with herself. Her mama called her once a week, even though she was thirty three years old. She appreciated it. It gave her a chance to get in touch with her brother and his family, and to find out how her parents were doing. She wouldn’t deny that it was sometimes tedious, listening to stories about Mary-Ann from next-door having a baby with some uppity boy from Chicago. But it felt normal. Boringly so, but normal all the same. Soothing, even, to hear that life went on, even when people had been injured, or had died, at SHEILD. Not that she disrespected their memory, or the sacrifice they had made.

But sometimes, she felt like the grief would overwhelm her, because these were her people. And a very good man had taught her many years ago, that there is no higher duty than taking care of those who trusted you with their well-being. And that they were hurt, and she hadn’t been able to do anything stung. Badly. And she generally looked forward to her mama’s weekly phone call.

This particular phone-call was, however, a harbinger of doom. This phone call brought her regular invitation to the family Christmas dinner.

She would either have to attend, or fake her death. Nothing on earth, not even an alien invasion (which happened more often than you’d think) would save her from her parent’s wrath if she didn’t turn up for dinner.

And while it was all well and good that she still had a family to go home to, but there was very little she could actually talk to them about. She had to read up on her own made-up background story, before she went to meet them in California. It was like going on a mission, but more stressful. Especially when her sister-in-law’s parents were there, because for some reason, they hated her. Possibly because she was in the military. They were probably the most hippie-esque people she'd ever met on this side of the century.

She had what were known as the middle-child-blues. Her older brother was a cosmetic surgeon, which was really exciting, and her little sister was a singer, which was also really exciting. It wasn’t like she’d disappointed them or anything, but being a lawyer in the army who couldn’t talk about any of her work without (a) breaching attorney-client privilege and/or national security and (b) boring everyone to sleep and/or death, was a disappointment.

She couldn’t even use the “I’m really busy so I can’t come home for Christmas” thing, because her siblings were both high-fliers too, and since she hadn't been "officially deployed" she could still come home on Christmas Eve and the day itself.

She didn’t even get along that well with her siblings. There was no real acrimony there, but they’d always gotten along better with each other than she had with either of them. She’d pretty much been left to her own devices, through her childhood, while the two of them stuck together.

Her brother thought she was a mindless little drone who didn’t do any interesting work, because nothing in an army legal office could ever even dream of being interesting, or unique, or revolutionary. Her sister thought she was a mindless little drone who enforced the law on everyone without taking into account individual circumstances and the such.

She’d had this fight many times. Her parents never took sides, but they never told her siblings to lay off, either. She’d been a “filial daughter” for long enough to know exactly what that meant, in normal-people-speak; they agreed.

Sometimes, she wished she could just come out and tell them. Just tell them that years ago, she’d been abducted by a secret intelligence agency, and was now the Assistant Director of the same agency and she basically kicked alien ass to save the world every other Tuesday, because fuck Tuesday.

But most of the time, she just tried to think up ways to get out of Christmas dinner, because god, she didn’t want to go.

And that wasn’t even taking into account the dating questions. Christ. She’d have to deal with the “so, is there anyone in your life?” and “Maria, baby, love won’t just fall in your lap, darling, you have to get out there and find it!” and “we want grandchildren!” from her parents.

And her sister-in-law, bless her for marrying Maria’s brother, was a crack-pot. If she had to hear one more thing about how vaccinations were murdering babies, or about how the moon landing was faked, she would kill someone, and Phil would have to come bail her out because her family thought Janet Stone-Hill was adorable, and would never forgive Maria for her murder.

So she got the call, and groaned, in front of Barton and Natasha and Stark, which was a fatal mistake, but she didn’t care. “Phil, it’s them again. I’ll meet up with you later.” Phil just nodded serenely, continuing the briefing, as if the Ass-vengers, minus Natasha, were actually listening and not watching Maria leave like hungry tigers. Natasha, bless her, just looked a little concerned. She knew about Maria’s family drama, but she’d always felt like a bitch complaining about it. Natasha had bigger problems than a nagging mama and a distant pa. Natasha didn’t even remember her parents. It gave her some perspective, when she spoke to the other woman, about fending for herself because it was the only way of life she knew. Maybe, just not enough to appreciate her mama’s yearly phone-call of doom.

“She calls you Phil? I thought everyone called you Agent?” she heard Stark ask, as she closed the door behind her, and picked up the phone. She rolled her eyes.

“Hello, Maria,” her mama started, and Maria semi-smiled. She couldn’t blame them for calling her at 10 in the evening. She’d genuinely been at work at that time, most of the times they’d called. So her mama took the effort to stay up past her own bedtime, to call. It reminded Maria that there were people outside SHIELD who did care for her, and it was a nice feeling. Just, maybe, not nice enough to distract her from the fact that she’d have to go home for Christmas.

Was it wrong to hope something horrible happened on Christmas day?

“Hello, Ma. Is it that time already?”

“You know it, baby. Will you be home for Christmas?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world, Ma.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you then, Maria. Please take a few days off and spend some time with us? I know you’re really busy, but we’re growing old you know. We won’t always be around, and we want to spend some time with you.”

Maria could sense the tension underlying the query. Nothing had happened, surely, but this was the root of almost all the problems between them. Two days was almost always too much for Maria to take off, from SHIELD. But her parents always felt that two days was too little. Her siblings always stayed a week, and spent New Years’ with them. It had gotten especially worse since she’d “joined the army,” and for whatever reason they’d wanted to fuss over her, even though technically she was just “stationed in New York”. It was downright unnatural, and Maria couldn’t stand the cloying feeling of their constant attention. She was pretty convinced that no one really missed her for more than a few hours after she left anyway. But she asked: “I hate it when you talk like that, Ma. You’re all fine?”

“Yes, yes, of course. Just missing you Maria. We love you, you know.”

Maria snorted. “I love you too, Ma, but Pa hasn’t missed me since I left for New York. I’m pretty sure he’s just written me off the list.” And her sister-in-law’s parents would be so relieved that she wasn’t there, it would be hilarious. 

Maria’s mama sighed. “I’ve been working on your father, darling, but you know how he can be. We both wish you’d stay somewhere nearer to us. We know you signed up to the army, but darling, you went to law school. Why did you leave all that behind? It would have been a good job, a good life! Mary-Ann’s mother used to be a lawyer, she had time to go home, and she worked in a nice office building and wore nice clothes and made friends with good, intelligent people. Why don’t you go back to law, baby? I know you did well in college – your professors loved you and you graduated at the top of your class. Why can you come to work in a law firm in California? If something were to happen to us, here, you’d not be able to make it. And if something happened to you, in New York, what would we do? Would anyone know to call us? How would we get there? Your father can hardly walk anymore, he’d not be able to make it through an airport because of his knees. You know this.”

Maria closed her eyes and bottled up her response. It had been her defence mechanism all throughout her childhood. She’d only partially told the truth when she’d said that her law degree had taught her patience. Growing up in her house had taught her the value of silence, and patience. Her father had never been abusive, but his anger had flared like solar hot spots. He’d boil one minute, then freeze the next. Her siblings had always provoked him into and out of his moods. Maria had just taken them, because she’d had no one to tag-team with. Effectively, she’d grown up a single child.

“Ma, we’ve done this before. My answer’s still the same. I joined the army because I wanted to. Because it’s a good job, and a good life. It’s respectable. I get to do things I love to do. It gives me companionship and family away from home. Everyone here is family. I wasn’t having a good time working in a law firm. It’s not the kind of place I want to be. If that’s what you think good, decent people look like, Ma, I want nothing to do with them. They’d just as soon shoot you in the back or step on you when you’re down. I’m in a good place. I’m happy. Isn’t that enough?”

Her mama sighed. “Yes, Maria, I suppose it is. Either way, we’ll catch up properly when you’re here. Are you going to be bringing anyone?”

“No, Mama. I’m not bringing anyone home.”

Her mama sighed, dramatically. “A mother can hope, can’t she? I’ll see you then, baby.”

“Bye, Ma.”

The phone clicked and the dial tone came on. Maria closed her eyes and just rested, for a minute. She pressed her forehead to the cool steel of the walls, and just breathed in.

“They really do a number on you, don’t they?” came a voice as familiar as her own. She’d heard Phil’s footsteps behind hers, but she hardly registered him as a threat anymore. That jumpy phase of their relationship had been very short, and they’d quickly come to appreciate the fact that sneaking up on each other was good fun.

She nodded, still pressed against the wall. She felt a headache coming on, just thinking about the few days she’d have to spend in California. She’d miss the Stark yearly bash, and she’d actually been looking forward to it this year. Thor looked lovely in a suit, and Tony Stark did fantastic martinis, with all the accompanying bartender-commentary she could have ever wanted. The tit.

That reminded her. She opened her eyes and turned to glare at Phil. He looked somewhat taken aback. “What’s this I hear about you marrying someone who’s not Barton?”

He blinked and looked honestly shocked. “What? Clint? Why would I be marrying Clint? Who said I’m getting married?”

She scowled. Perfect. Something to ruin her mood even more. She should have known better than to listen to scuttlebut, but Barton had been wandering around looking like a kicked puppy, and she’d figured that he’d know better than anyone else whom Phil was getting married to. But she’d started this, and she was going to have to go through with it. “If you have to ask that, you’re actually as big a tit as Stark. Worse, even.” He actually looked offended, but she’d had enough of stupid people. She turned to head for her office, to drown herself in coffee and paperwork.

Phil grabbed her hand and it was only well repressed instinct that stopped her from fighting his hold. This was Phil. Not a random stranger whom she could shamelessly attack with a lamp. “What?” she demanded.

“What?” he asked, either simultaneously or in return to her first query. That didn’t make sense though. His voice was slightly higher pitched than normal, and his eyes were somewhat glazed over. A thought occurred to Maria. But no, surely Phil was not that oblivious to Barton’s giant raging boner for him, right? Surely not. Phil was an international spy and occasional assassin. He once took down a man with a baguette and a half-kilo sack of flour. He was aware of subtle nuances around him, so surely he knew what she was talking about. Definitely.

The look on his face told her that her hopes in his intelligence had been sorely misplaced. Right, she wasn’t going to turn down a distraction when it offered itself to her in a nicely tailored suit and tie.

“Coulson, my office. Stat.”

He followed her obediently. She began to scheme.

When she emerged from her office a few hours later, she was glowing slightly with the pride of a job well done. Phil Coulson followed her, looking somewhat stunned, following her blindly.

She deposited Coulson in his own office, and called Clint. “Barton, it’s Hill.”

“Ma’am?” he asked, managing to make a question of out one word.

“It’s Coulson. Get to his office, asap. It’s urgent.” She did not snigger. She did not.

She could hear the whoosh as Barton jumped for the air ducts. The line disconnected, and she waited, hip propped against Coulson’s desk. He still looked dazed, and unable to form full sentences. Man, Fury was going to love this. She snapped a picture of Coulson’s face, just as Clint crashed down from one of the vents.

“Barton, Agent Coulson has an important debrief. Good luck.” She manfully suppressed a wink as she left the room and locked the door behind herself. The last thing she heard was, “Sir?” before there was a crashing noise, as if a desk had been pushed aside. That was the sweet sound of success, and she’d leave before she started hearing sounds which would scar her forever. She forwarded the picture to Fury, and to Natasha, because she was as invested in Barton as Maria was in Phil. Both of them responded with evil smiley faces.

Sometimes her life was unbelievably bizarre.

And she loved it. It was more than enough to keep her going, even when she had unpleasant events ahead. Natasha’s secret stash of booze beckoned, but she had loads of work to do. Well, there was no rule preventing her from having both paperwork and booze at the same time. She’d regret this in the morning, but for now she needed to be distracted. Maybe, booze would help her think of a decoy boyfriend to take home. Oh, maybe Stark would build her an LMD of the perfect man. Someone she could just turn off when she got home, because she didn’t particularly want, or have time for a relationship. That, she thought, would be incredible. For all she knew, it had been done before. Knowing Stark.

She'd called Natasha in, who could always be relied on to be discreet, and they'd sat in an empty office and proceeded to get increasingly inebriated. Stark had wandered in, picked up a stapler, and wandered out. Natasha had told her so many stories of the time she’d spent working as Stark’s PA. They both recognized this as one of his famous black-out engineering states. They didn’t worry too much about it. Maria had stared at him through the open door, where he was examining the stapler like it was the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen, with his tongue stuck out between his lips. Then she'd turned back to Natasha, speechless. Natasha had giggled, and she was so incredibly pretty when she smiled that Maria hadn’t been able to resist laughing too. They’d just sat there laughing until Stark walked in again. He'd taken one look at them, and executed a perfect 180 turn, confirming her every expectation that he was a tit, even if he was an adorable one.

Natasha promised to pass the compliments on, and Maria found that she didn't mind in the least. Stark, of all the men she knew, would take the comment as it was meant.

After she got over the headache the following morning, days passed quickly. That was both a blessing and a curse, because the spectre of her visit to California was looming over her. She’d been paying less attention than normal to the drama around her, and had done her level best to not get involved with Stark and Rogers kissing around every corner, and Coulson casually climbing out of the air vents in a five-thousand dollar suit and brushing dust-bunnies out of his (thinning, hah!) hair, like she didn't know what he'd been doing up there. She tossed the now-daily death threats aside without opening them, and sent them in a black bin bag to the incinerator every Friday. They were becoming increasingly frequent, and she could recognize them by the distinctive smell and the handwriting, but she honestly couldn't be bothered about them, anymore. They were just loud, ranty, incompetent assholes who were jealous that she knew enough to keep things running in good order, and they didn't. She dismissed them off hand, and that was her second mistake.

She should have expected it, really. Stepping out of anonymity brought with it a whole bucket-load of shit with it, and she'd done it in a big way. She'd been expecting a baptism by fire, but had been surprised by how easy it had been to make that one, crucial transition. She should have trusted her original instinct, and letting down her guard had been her third and final, really big, monumental fuck-up.

It was nothing like a kidnapping that would have been executed on the Avengers. Nothing flashy, no careless mistakes, nothing she could work with. No hints of a vulnerable megalomaniac. She went to bed one night, after waving good-bye to Natasha, in the SHIELD barracks, and woke up in a room with rough stone walls, hanging by her wrists from chains attached to the ceiling. The tips of her fingers felt cold, and her arms were numb, and her shoulders were aching, so she'd probably been there for a while. Her first thought was that SHIELD had a mole, because no way someone would have been able to get into the compound without help from the inside. Her second thought was, oh shit.

She felt woozy, so she'd probably been drugged. It also explained why she hadn't woken up from the rough handling it would take to get a full grown, unconscious woman out of a secure facility without attracting notice, and then hang her from the ceiling. She was shivering slightly, but moment after she noticed it, the shivering escalated to violent shaking. She didn't have a shirt on, though her underwear had been mercifully spared from the same fate.

The door opened smoothly, and Maria was glad for the lack of dramatic noises. She'd been trying to wriggle her fingers, to get some feeling back into them. She'd already tried to escape by slipping her hands through the cuffs the way Natasha had taught her, but who-ever had taken her had known what they were doing. They were on the uncomfortable side of snug, and she could feel the welts forming under the metal. She had no way of slipping through them, so she'd decided to conserve energy for what was no doubt coming soon. When the door opened, she clenched her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering, because there was nothing more pathetic than showing signs of weakness. This, she had learned from her father, even though she hadn't wanted to.

The man who came in was undeniably attractive, in a very lawyer-ly way. She knew this, because this was specifically the sort of man she'd been attracted to when she'd been in the legal profession. Smooth, and slick, and just a little over-confident. The right kind of asshole. She'd never been one to turn down a challenge, and had, as a consequence, fallen into bed with many ill-advised individuals, who then tended to cave like wet paper when she showed her steel. He had dark hair with a few strands of errant grey, and dark eyes with accompanying eye-bags. Again, something she found incredibly attractive. The only thing that told her she wouldn't have hit on this guy if she'd bumped into him in a bar, was his eyes. He had cruel eyes. While she could appreciate confidence, this guy looked insane. He looked like he wanted to cut her open, and drink her blood, for kicks. She tamped down on the shiver, and the voice in her head that was telling her to be afraid. She listened to Natasha’s voice instead, telling her about the cost of fear being more than they could ever afford.

She waited for the monologue.

It didn't come, and she didn't like it. She was off-balance enough, having been taken from her bed without warning. She didn't like how disorienting it was to expect one thing from the villain of the day, and to get something completely different. It was more dangerous than she had reckoned.

"Let's not waste time, shall we?" he spoke with a crisp accent, words perfectly enunciated. Control freak, her mind-voice piped. Look at his cuff-links. Look at his collar. His tie. Straight lines and crisp perfection. Definitely a control freak. Play on that.

"No, let's not," she matched him, because she'd never known when to mind her mouth. Or, well, she had, but she'd never cared. "What do you want from me?"

He quirked one eyebrow, and she could have sworn that if she'd measured it, she'd have found it at precisely 45 degrees. Too neat. Too perfect. He seemed unreal. "Are you suggesting that you might comply with my demands, Deputy Director Hill?"

"No," she replied, "not at all. I'm just bored, so I thought we'd get this show on the road."

"You're as daring as they say, Maria. May I call you Maria?" he asked, suddenly uncomfortably close to her bare skin, his breath warm against her clammy skin. She did not shiver.

"You may not," she replied, carefully keeping her voice light, and very carefully not spitting at him. She was under no illusions about who was in control here, and contrary to what Barton said, she did not have a pet death wish. It was probably why Fury hadn't made her an Avenger, thank fuck for that. Natasha filled out a cat-suit better than she did, anyway. "You may refer to me as Deputy Director Hill, or Ma'am." Didn't mean she didn't have a smart mouth, though.

He smirked, and god, she'd seen that smirk so many times on the faces of the men she'd fucked - it was disconcerting. He leaned in very close to her, and he smelled like expensive aftershave. He'd dressed up for her, and that was another bad sign. A very bad sign. He lowered his lips to her collar bone, which he could do even though she was suspended a solid three inches off the ground, and pressed his lips against her skin, keeping her in place with firm hands on her hip. She couldn't even scrabble for purchase, to jerk away from his touch. She very carefully did not react to him, even though her skin was crawling and she wanted nothing more than to spit, scream, scratch or bite. The way this was going, and god, she didn't like where this was going, getting violent and giving him the reactions he so obviously craved was the worst possible thing she could do.

He kissed her softly, behind her ear, taking liberties like a lover would. She wanted to scream for him to get away, because he did not have the right to take this from her. He did not have the right. She didn't react.

"You, Maria, are a gorgeous woman." What. "Has anyone ever told you that?" he continued. Maybe this was his insane, very creepy version of an evil monologue. "Has anyone ever told you that you have beautiful eyes, or that you smell nice, or that you make them hungry for your flesh?" And wow, she hadn't thought it was possible for this to get more creepy, but she'd obviously been wrong. Underneath the inane babbling that was going on in the top layers of her mind, there was a growing feeling of terror. Like someone had stabbed a meat hook into her gut, and was playing with her insides. She couldn't afford to succumb to panic, though. Not this time.

This was her baptism by fire, and she was going to come out on top if it was the last thing she did.

She did not react. He dipped his fingers below the waistband of her sleeping pants. She did not react. "Has anyone ever touched you, like this, Maria? Have you ever had spectacular sex, darling? Has anyone ever reduced you to a hot mess? Have anyone ever made it so good for you, that you screamed." She did not. React. He leaned in close again, speaking into her ear. "Maybe that's why you don't want to be a woman." What. "Because you don't know how good you can feel. Maybe, you haven't been treated right, so you've lashed out by trying to take a man's place. Is that it, Maria? If I make you feel like a woman, will you stop stepping out of line? Will you go back to where you belong, and behave?"

This was so far from what she'd expected, that she literally did not have the words to respond to him. This wasn't political ideology, at least not in the sense she was used to. This had nothing to do with the war on terror, or the so-frequent alien attacks. This had everything to do with her, and that, possibly out of everything she had been through, was the scariest thing. She didn't let it show. She could have dealt with a rant, and demands for information. She had dealt with that before. This, she didn't know. She'd never been targeted for who she was, before. She sympathised with Stark.

"Did you get my love notes, Maria?" and her mental alarm bells were ringing, loud and clear. "Did you understand what I was saying to you? That you didn't have to pretend anymore, and that you could just be yourself, and relax, and let someone more capable take over the job. After all, SHIELD is no place for a woman of your exquisite appearance, my darling."

And okay, whoa, that was genuinely below the belt. But then she started processing what was actually being said. This guy was angry because she was a woman, in SHIELD. Because she was a woman in the upper echelons of SHIELD. This guy - she really hated this guy. She made sure it showed, but she didn't say anything. Nothing to give him more ammunition. She was secure in herself, and her abilities, but this was... insane. She had no idea what she was supposed to do, now. She wasn’t listening to the hysterical voice in her head, worrying about Natasha and her other female friends. Natasha would be fine. No one could even think about touching Natasha. She’d be absolutely fine. They all would.

He sighed, and sounded like she'd somehow offended him. He drew back and studied her, shaking his head. "You've been conditioned into this, darling. Don't worry. We'll recalibrate you soon enough." He kissed her and she couldn't even flinch away. That characterised the following -hours? -days? -weeks? -lifetimes. She couldn't flinch away. She had to take it, quietly, or he'd gag her. She had to take it, and bear it, and learn to cope with the feeling of wanting to peel her skin off, to be clean again.

He was gentle, at first. She hated that more than she could express. He'd touch her and kiss her and mark her skin with his teeth. When he slid off her underwear and tried to shave her privates, because 'women shouldn't have unkempt lady-bits', she kneed him in the jaw. He'd looked up at her with such rage in his eyes, that she'd known things were about to get much, much worse. But the torture was better, somehow. The whips were vaguely sexual, but there was something clean about the pain. More neutral, and less invasive than what he'd been doing before.

She could handle pain. She tried to stay aware, alert through it, in case he monologued and gave anything away. But he was singularly focused, and when she realised that he was disciplined, and not going to say anything to her, she gave it up as a lost cause. She let herself drift, and distance herself from her body. Every few hours or so, he'd stop whatever he was doing and ask her if she was willing to submit.

The first few times, she'd spat in his face, because it wasn't like she could make that any more clear, right? Then she'd stopped bothering, to conserve energy. He wasn't looking to hurt her, though. He was looking to break her, completely. She didn't have water unless she begged, or food, at all. The lights would come on and go off randomly, as far as she could tell. Sometimes, he'd wake her if she was drowsing, and sometimes he'd let her sleep for hours. There was no routine, no system. Her body wasn't adapting, because there was no way of knowing what was to come. Sometimes he'd have a whip, sometimes a knife, and sometimes he'd set up a funnel to drip water on her forehead for hours.

She hadn't seen anyone else, though. No one. Just him, coming in and out of the room which she had studied as thoroughly as she could. There were no windows, no alarms, and her watch was gone. He was constantly cold, and clammy, and her upper body was numb. She had bruises all around her shoulders, and an insistent pain that was in no way a good sign. The only thing keeping her going was the thought of her vengeance, when it came, and her scheming. She was smart, and capable. Fury, Phil and Natasha were no doubt looking for her frantically, but she wasn't going to wait for them to rescue her. No siree. She was going to get herself out, if it was the last thing she did.

And then her chance came, when she was pretending to sleep but actually scheming, and the door opened but He didn't come in. A delicate wisp of a girl came in, slipping through the smallest crack in the door as if she was afraid to open it further. She started picking up some of the instruments lying scattered around the room, and putting them into a cardboard box in the far corner of the room. She was wearing simple clothes, and cheap flip flops. She was shivering, and pale. She continued doing her work until she noticed Maria studying her, then she froze, like a deer in the headlights.

Maria shushed her, quiet herself, exhausted but seeing a light at the end of this nightmarish tunnel, finally. The girl stared at her, wide-eyed, tearing slightly when her gaze fell on Maria's ruined body. An sympathetic third party. Thank fuck. Thank fucking fuck. "Come here," she whispered, and the girl shook her head frantically and pretty much ran out of the room. Part of Maria wanted to cry and scream because she'd wanted this to end, please. But another part of her, that was holding on to rationality, was rejoicing. This was a step forward! A sympathetic third party was a blessing that not many hostages could have asked for. She could have laughed with the relief. But the next time the door opened, it was Him again.

She'd thought he was holding her face off limits, in deference to his "women must be pretty" thing. She was wrong. When she woke up, her whole face felt swollen and her nose was definitely off centre. He was escalating, and losing control of his anger. Good, because it meant he'd make mistakes. Not good, because it meant she was going to be experiencing more pain in the near future. She couldn't feel anything, so hey, small mercies. It was really difficult to open her eyes, but she managed, and thank god she did. The girl was standing there, hands clasped together nervously. When she noticed Maria's eyes squint open, she stiffened and awkwardly tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear. She couldn't quite meet Maria's eyes. She didn't think it was guilt. It felt like fear, and shame. Fear was understandable, but shame? Odd, but Maria was sure of it.

"Hey there," she ventured, after a couple of seconds of staring and one or two aborted attempts on her part to speak. Her voice was rusty, and probably terrifying. She probably looked like the devil himself, but she had a feeling this girl had seen hell, and that the fire in her gut had kept her alive. She could respect that. She could also respect the fear, because that's what kept people alive. The girl finally looked at her, then looked away quickly. Her eyes were big, and brown. She didn't look more than fifteen.

"Please look at me?" she asked, trying her best to keep the desperation out of her voice, and not sure she was succeeding. "Please?" the girl did, making solid eye contact, and it was such a relief to see someone other than that fucker, that she felt like crying. She was, actually, tearing, and she would have been mortified if the girl hadn't stepped forward to press her face into Maria's filthy belly. She was tiny. She trusted her gut on this. The kid wasn't involved. She was a dogsbody, but there was no fucking way she was malicious, or anything. Some part of her mind was wondering whether Stockholm Syndrome was finally kicking in, but no. This kid was just a bystander to this trainwreck. "Does he hurt you?" she finally dared to ask. The girl gently nodded her head, still pressed into Maria's body. Her heart broke for the girl. She was being careful to not hurt her, and that consideration caused more tears to spill from her eyes. It felt like it had been years since someone had touched her, other than Him.

She wanted so badly to touch the girl herself, but.

"What's your name?" she asked, because maybe that would get the girl to look less like a beaten puppy.

"Melissa," she whispered, barely audible, and fuck if that wasn't the sweetest sound Maria had ever heard.

"Melissa," she repeated, unable to stop the smile, even though her face hurt like. Well. Like someone had beaten her senseless. "Melissa, my name is Maria."

The girl turned her face up to Maria, and offered a shaky smile. It was sweet. It looked like victory, and freedom in the distance.

Then the door slid open again, and the look on Melissa's face was heartbreaking. For a minute, it didn't matter that Maria was going to get beaten senseless. She just wanted the girl out of there. She'd take another year in the hellhole if it meant the girl didn't get hurt. It must have shown on her face. "Hide," she hissed. "Hide," but it was too late. She'd been too slow. He'd seen her, and his face had twisted into a moue of disgust. He was looking at the girl like she was something he'd scraped off the bottom of his shoe. She hated him even more, for that.

The moment broke and he strode over, and slapped her so hard she fell to the floor, pins flying from her hair. He turned from her, and curiously enough, it was like he'd forgotten she was there, or he'd dismissed her as irrelevant. It was clear that Melissa knew it, too. She pushed herself off the floor, and her nose was bleeding and Maria wanted to wipe it clean for her. She was not what anyone would call maternal, but god, she'd have done anything to get the girl to safety. Melissa swayed for a second, standing still, then she left, without a glance back. Maria recognized the tension in her shoulders. She definitely had an ally on her side, even if it was an definitely-abused maybe-fifteen year old. She had steel in her backbone, and that was good enough for Maria.

She endured the following hours in silence, as she always had. But she did it with a new energy, and hope. She didn't know where Nick, Phil and Natasha were, but she sensed freedom. It was so close, she could taste it.

She was right. Melissa came into the room later, and shook her awake. It didn't take much, because Maria's cuts had only just stopped bleeding, and she'd only just managed to close her eyes to rest. She beamed. She was holding a small, silver key in front of her, and Maria couldn't tell which was more beautiful; her smile, or the key. They were equally beautiful. Melissa had to climb on the box to reach her hands, but she did, and Maria fell to the ground, boneless, and the pain ripped a sound of agony from her throat. It felt like her whole world was on fire, and tears were prickling at the corners of her eyes, and she couldn't move her arms. She was still effectively immobile, and it made her so angry she could have screamed. But Melissa was rubbing her shoulders, and even though it felt like she was being stabbed a thousand times, and acid being poured on her cuts, she knew that was the only way she'd be able to even function. It took fifteen agonized, terrified minutes, but she could move her arms. And then, she stopped.

She had no idea what they were going to do. She had no idea where they were, or even what time of day it was. She couldn't even say she owned the clothes on her back. But she had one thing. She had one thing left, that would remain with her even though she was stripped to her underwear, as it was supposed to. She had her panic button. It had gone into her the old fashioned way, with surgical scalpels, deep into her calf. It would have to come out the same way. But first, they'd get out.

"What time is it?" she asked, thinking fast.

"Bit past midnight," Melissa whispered back, and it was clear that she was also thinking. Good. All those years ago, Maria had known what she still knew today. When her guns and machines and body failed her, she would still have her wit. The same applied to Melissa. "We're somewhere outside Oakland."

"Right, fuck. Okay. Melissa, we're going to get out of this. Are we in a suburb?"

"I don't know. I haven't been allowed to go out in a long time." Her voice was rusty, like she hadn't spoken to anyone in a long time. "We only moved her a few months ago. He drugs me when we travel."

"Who's 'we'?" Maria asked, focusing on the simplest part of that sentence, because Jesus. "How did this fucker get his hands on you?"

Melissa looked away, unable to look her in the eye for a solid beat. "He's my father."

"Fuck." It was hardly appropriate, but she was reacting the best way she could. And she could only hope that Melissa understood. The corner of her mouth was twitching slightly, so Maria presumed she was right. The adrenaline was pumping through her body in full force, she knew, which was why she was even standing now. But it wouldn't last long, so she had to get out.

"Right. Let's beat this popsicle stand," she said, and then vowed to hit Tony because fuck him for influencing her. Melissa giggled. Maybe she wouldn't hit him so hard.

The doors were unlocked, and it really seemed too good to be true. The soundlessness of the doors which had so bothered her were a blessing, because it meant there were less chances of getting caught. They took a knife from the kitchen on the way out, and when Melissa made to get another one, Maria stopped her. "No, this isn't for fighting, kid. If it comes to a fight, you run." Melissa looked defiant, but this wasn't something Maria was willing to negotiate. "No, Melissa. You run for your life. You understand me? You run and get help, so you can fight another day."

Melissa finally nodded, and then they were out. It felt incredible. Melissa looked dazed to even see the moon. On one hand, it was great that they had the natural lighting. On the other hand, it would make them easier to find, which was not good at all. She surveyed their surroundings. It looked like a nice, suburban neighbourhood, and she was so tempted to bang on someone's doors until they let her in. But she had lived a long and interesting life and a commune of evil was a thing that existed, so she wasn't going to take any chances.

They jogged as far as they could, even though the term jogging was much more generous than they deserved. They kinda limped as far as they could, was more accurate. And when she couldn't stand anymore, she pried open someone's backyard fence and they sat in the bushes, under the cover of some verdant trees. She wanted to believe that such a peaceful garden could only have been cultivated by a good person, but then again, she had known that evil people were capable of having green thumbs. She was not, however, looking forward to the next part.

They settled down, and then she had to ask Melissa for one more favour. "Kid, I need you to hold my leg down. Sit on it if you have to, but keep me flat, okay?" Melissa nodded, wide-eyed, either because of the darkness or because she was scared. Or both. Both was good. She found the spot, took a deep breath, and pushed the knife into her thigh. She didn't know if the knife was clean, and it would be just her luck if the rest of her wounds were clean and this one got infected, but fuck that. This was their only way out. She detached herself from her body, the way Natasha had taught her, like she was good at now, and pushed deep. When it hit the button, she knew. There was lots of fumbling in the blood and the darkness and it hurt like a motherfucking bitch, which meant the adrenaline was wearing off, but she got it.

And then she broke it, just like she was supposed to. That had been a Stark beacon. It didn't transmit until broken, because he did everything backwards, and because it gave her some resemblance of privacy. After this, she was getting chipped like a puppy, if she had to, fuck the privacy thing. "Now," she said, calmer than she was feeling, hiding the pain, "we wait."

"For what?" Melissa asked.

"For back-up." Melissa studied her for a half-minute, then sat back and pressed her side into Maria's, to keep warm while they waited.

As the minutes ebbed by, the tension ratcheted. The beacon was definitely working. Maria didn’t know how, or why, but it was. It had to be. That was her back up plan. There was nothing else left to rely on. She was exhausted, and the blood loss was getting to her, especially because of all the moving they’d just done.

They were far enough to be hard to find, but not far enough to make it impossible. And Maria was 95% sure she hadn’t left a blood trail, or a trail of any sort, but then she was delirious with exhaustion. It hadn’t mattered in the room, because she’d been immobile. However much she wanted to, she couldn’t rely completely on her facilities to guide her feeble body on the right path.

And then, there was a shooting star. Melissa told her to make a wish. But when she looked up, what she saw wasn’t a shooting star.

It was salvation.

She pushed herself off the ground, and ventured out from under the trees. This was it.

“Storm!” She yelled up into the sky. “JOHNNY,” she screamed, not giving a single fuck about where she was now. She needed to get his attention, so that they could get out. If she made a half-assed attempt, she’d not attract his attention and she’d still wake the neighbours. “Down here!” she bellowed as loud as she could. It was one of the wonderful skills she’d picked up in SHIELD. She’d yelled at Storm so many times that he had to recognize her. He just had to. Melissa came after her, and started yelling and jumping too, following her lead.

Storm flew past them, and Maria felt her heart sinking. “Torch?” she asked Melissa, who shook her head mutely. “STORM!” she screamed, giving it everything, and taking deep, heaving breaths to avoid having a coughing fit.

And then, miracle of all miracles, he turned around and doubled back. It was definitely him, with the tell-tale flicker of fire, and the notoriously ballsy straight lines. She’d told him time and time again that he couldn’t expect everything in airspace to get out of his way, but he’d persisted in flying in straight, hard lines. She was so grateful for it now, that she could have cried.

He landed hard, and fast, and the flame went off without his customary catchphrase. He spoke clearly into his collar mic, “I found them. Coordinates being broadcast to all units, send in a team, we have injuries.”

He was right in front of her, in her space, and he held her gently by her shoulders and pulled her close. He was supernaturally warm, but so completely different from His touch, that she allowed it. She knew Storm. She knew him, and his sister, and Reed, who was so completely asexual that she didn’t understand how he was married. Johnny was notoriously flirtatious, but there had never been a sign that he was cruel, or malicious. Like Stark, he believed in free love, and didn’t really need to beg for people to sleep with, let alone force them.

So she didn’t mind, she told herself. She carefully didn’t flinch, because she had to get over the sinking pit of fear in her stomach that had appeared when Storm landed, and stepped close to her. It had to stop here, and now. She was going to be on a ship suspended hundreds of miles in the air, surrounded by men. She couldn’t afford to be scared. She tamped down on it, viciously.

He squeezed her gently, and then let her go, surveying her clinically. He’d definitely grown up, since the Battle of New York. “God, Hill. SHIELD’s in a state of panic. We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

She choked out a laugh. “Good to hear, Storm.” She thought she’d hidden the fear in her voice, and the tears, but he stiffened slightly and stepped back. Maybe he understood because he had a sister. Maybe it was an instinct in most people, which is why it was so disconcerting when someone violated it.

“Hope you hadn’t given up on us. Fury was about to mobilise the reserves. The Black Widow is terrifying.”

“Not at all. But I’m not a damsel in distress. And I made a friend,” she said, gesturing at Melissa. He seemed to notice her for the first time, and he smiled gently. It wasn’t a shit-eating grin, or a smirk. It was just a smile, kind, and polite. “Melissa, this is Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. He’s here to help us.”

And then Johnny grinned. “Damn right, Hill. It’s bad news that I found you, though. I can’t pick you up or you two’ll get a little too toasty.”

She rolled her eyes and relaxed her shoulders, because Melissa would follow her cues. Johnny was a dick, but he was good people.

He studied her again, in silence, before taking off his jacket and draping it around her shoulders. It was his legendary leather jacket, the one which Reed and Stark had made to survive Johnny’s ridiculously high temperatures. Without it, he’d burn an even more disconcerting blue, and tended to become somewhat explosive when there was a higher concentration of oxygen. But she appreciated it, because though SHIELD training had long beaten modesty out of her, she was feeling particularly vulnerable. She shivered, feeling the cold all of a sudden. She still couldn’t feel the tips of her fingers, and that was the only part of her which didn’t hurt.

“Guys, I’m serious, I’m calling code red,” Johnny said into his mic, “we need the medics, stat.”

Whoever was on the other side must have been responding straight into Johnny’s earpiece, but Maria hadn’t got to where she was by being disinterested in her surroundings. “Storm, what’s going on?”

He didn’t even pretend to not understand. “Let’s just say that there have been a few targeted attacks on SHIELD employees, while you were gone. Pepper Potts was targeted but Stark got in the way, and the Widow didn’t manage to keep anyone alive.” Maria flushed with the heat of humiliation, because fuck, she’d been the only one who’d been taken. So much for her baptism by fire, this was probably going to go down in history as her worst failure ever. Even then, she was desperately relieved that Natasha and Pepper had been unharmed, and she wanted to ask more questions, but Storm was still talking.

“Apparently the guy who took you didn’t much care about Potts and Romanov. Apparently you were the main target, and he only went after the other two as a distraction. I don’t think anyone expected him to be ballsy enough to target you. I don’t think anyone’s quite understood the motivations behind his attack.”

The heat of embarrassment was probably making her blush, but she listened anyway. At least the dark would prevent him from seeing the blush, if the bleeding didn’t prevent her from blushing in the first place. She was reasonably sure that blushing was a less important function than keeping her body running.

“I know why he took me. Can you ask them where they are? I need a gun.”

Storm hesitated. “They’re en route, Hill. We’d been searching everywhere, until your beacon lit up and then we focused on this area. Why do you need a gun?” he sounded uncharacteristically hesitant, and she rolled her eyes.

“I need a gun so I can blow that fucker’s brains out.”

He shot a slightly nervous glance at Melissa, who’d been waiting quietly, watching them. Maria sighed. “She’s his daughter. She’s been through a lot. If you want, Melissa,” she turned to the girl, “you can stay with Johnny and I’ll go in and take care of him.”

“Hill, you’ve lost a lot of blood, and it’s her father, are you—”

“If you dare ask me whether I’m sure, I will lose all good will I hold for you right now. I’m fucking sure.” She studied the worried look on his face. He didn’t look worried about the guy. He looked worried about her and Melissa, if the glances were anything to go by, and maybe that was okay. “I won’t be able to sleep unless I know he’s dead, Storm.” Melissa was nodding, slowly, only looking a little conflicted. She was a strong girl. She hadn’t let go of the anger, or the hate, and Maria wasn’t sure she herself would have been able to manage that, if she’d been in her place.

“Christ Hill, what did he do to you?”

It seemed to have been a rhetorical question, which was weird, because he couldn’t have known anything. And it came off as a bit of a reflex question. She inhaled sharply, as though she couldn’t help it, and he turned to watch her, like she was a live explosive.

“Don’t ask questions to which you don’t want the answers, Storm.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he saluted slightly, also a reflex. Probably. “For what it’s worth,” he continued, “I’m glad we found you. Coulson and Fury have been sick with worry.” She nodded slightly, because she wasn’t sure she could speak.

Energy was draining from her body like her skin was punctured with a million holes. She felt hollow, and flimsy, like a sieve. Still she was standing upright. The adrenaline was definitely fading. Storm could handle that guy, easily. She wanted to sit down, to let her guard down. But she couldn’t. Not just yet. Her wounds were bleeding sluggishly, and in the darkness she couldn’t see her own skin, but she felt like a fruit that had been dropped on a sidewalk, from the top of Stark Tower. Her knees felt like they were giving in. She had to greet the chopper, standing. She had to walk back into SHIELD, to salvage whatever was left of her dignity and reputation. Even if she walked right back into SHIELD medical. She was not going to be carried in there, like an invalid.

And when the chopper finally arrived, less than ten minutes later, she felt like her heart was going to pound right out of her chest. After that, everything happened quickly. She remembered holding on to Melissa’s shirt, even as she stumbled towards the chopper. Storm was hovering with his hands ready, as if to catch her when she inevitably collapsed.

She remembered grabbing onto his shirt with one hand and demanding that he look after Melissa, and that if she came back and a single hair on her head had been harmed, she’d have his hide for it. He looked suitably warned, if a little amused, and then she’d demanded a gun from an ensign she knew from somewhere. Little blonde kid. Terrible shot. She was a better shot than him, even in this state. She’d dared him to defy orders from his superior, and he’d caved like wet paper. Storm had taken her orders literally, and was holding onto Melissa when she ungracefully exited the chopper.

There were a lot of things wrong with her. If she was a computer, she’d be one of the ones that made Stark laugh till he cried. She’d be a computer that sounded like a rocket taking off into outer space, that had keys falling out and occasionally shocked the user. She was that computer. But she had something to do, and she would do it if it destroyed her.

She was holding on to her gun like it was her lifeline, and it wasn’t even her gun but it was so fucking familiar that she wasn’t going to let it go for a while. “Hill, don’t do this,” Storm called out, still hanging on to the girl, leaning out of the chopper.

She didn’t turn around, and very carefully didn’t shoot him. She needed this to be over, and it wasn’t over until the fucker was dead. She needed to stop capitalising prepositions with respect to Him, in her head. She couldn’t handle that. And while she knew it wasn’t a normal reaction to kill what scared her, she had a gun, and no jury on the planet would convict her. This would never even reach a jury.

“Storm, I need this to end. If I don’t get him now,” she yelled, over the noise of the chopper blades, “it’s not over.”

“Coulson’s on his way, Hill. He’ll want you to wait. He’ll make the guy suffer more than a mere bullet from someone who probably can’t even hold the gun up.”

She’d have turned around a proved him wrong, except he was right. Her hand was shaking and she wouldn’t have been able to hit a standing target in front of her. The sound of a second chopper was almost deafening, in addition to the first one. But that one was Phil. It had to be Phil. Phil would understand. He’d even help her find Him. Natasha would understand, surely.

And it was, thank fuck. It was Phil, Natasha, Dr. Banner, and Thor, who had apparently conceded to flying inside the vehicle as compared to outside it. They’d brought in the heavy guns, because apparently they were expecting more than just one sick fuck, and his abused kid. She loved them a little, for that, even if it was embarrassing that that was all it had taken to get her.

Coulson hugged her first. Well, he was the only one who hugged her. Banner and Thor weren’t exactly huggy people, and while she trusted them with her life, they weren’t exactly her friends. Natasha stood some distance away from her, a completely blank look on her face that Maria couldn’t read. She should have been able to read Natasha, but she couldn’t. She was exhausted, and it was stressing her out. But even through the haze of pain, she could tell that Natasha had oriented herself to ward off any attack, should it come. She wanted to hug her, and thank her, but Coulson smelled like home, and she hugged him back. No one said anything about her state of undress, but Thor’s scowl was visible, even in the darkness, especially illuminated by the frequent bolts of lightning.

“Phil,” she started, then paused. In front of an audience, she couldn’t afford to succumb to emotion. “Natasha, he’s in a house two streets down.” One of the more efficient SHIELD minions, who had been helping to keep the curious and grouchy residents of the street indoors, had made a map of the community. House by house, he’d managed to find out who lived in each one. There were a couple of blanks, but the one she needed was labelled.

“Col. Turner Century,” the minion pointed out on his map, and she finally had a name to the face. It didn’t feel like a victory.

“We’ll get him,” Phil hissed, the look on his face ugly, and furious. She hadn’t seen him this angry or upset in a long time. She hoped that everything in SHIELD was okay. And Barton, because god forbid if something happen to Barton. She couldn’t see Natasha, anymore.

“Phil,” she started again, but held on to his shoulders as her vision flashed suddenly. Either she was breaking down, or Iron Man was playing tricks with her. And Tony was a tit, but not when it mattered. She took a deep breath, and Coulson looked concerned.

“Lights on in the chopper,” he called, and then the lights were on, displaying the full and true extent of her injuries. She shuddered, because even she hadn’t taken the time to look. Her vision was swimming anyway, so she closed her eyes. But then she couldn’t open them again, and she stumbled, and lost her vice grip on Coulson’s shoulders, and melted. She didn’t remember hitting the ground.

She woke in what she recognized as a hospital room. She refrained from reaching for the lamp. She’d been informed that the throwing-the-lamp-at-unsuspecting-victims-entering-the-room-move had been called the Hill Manoeuvre, and she had smiled because at least something had been named after her, even if it hadn’t been a legal tactic.  She’d never managed to kick the habit, but it had saved her life more than once. She moved to look for a gun under her pillow, where she normally had her gun, but she couldn’t move her arms.

She couldn’t feel her arms. Not good. She still had them, though. She could only move her neck a little bit, and she could see them in her peripheral vision. But she couldn’t feel them. She could also see someone else’s hands on her bed, but she couldn’t see whom they belonged to. Her neck was refusing to obey her commands.

She supposed she’d been lucky that she’d held out for as long as she had. She was strong, but everything had limits. She’d found hers.

The door creaked open, and the body to which the hands belonged to, startled awake. Phil, she thought. Phil was sitting in her room. She would have smiled if her face hadn’t hurt so much. She wondered if Barton would get jealous. She wondered if Phil had honestly told him that he had nothing to worry about. Not from her side, anyway. There was soft whispering, which she couldn’t hear either, and then the lights brightened, just a little bit.

“Maria?” Phil asked. She hmmed slightly, letting her eyes convey sleep, and ease, even if she couldn’t vocalise it. He wouldn’t believe her, but she could try. She’d slept. Drugged or otherwise, she’d got some sorely needed rest. Phil picked up a small Styrofoam cup and slipped an ice-chip between her lips. It felt like heaven, and she could feel her voice again. She parted her lips as far as she could manage, and he gave her another one. A third person, someone who’d just come into a room, unfamiliar, did something that made a clicking noise, and sleep washed over her again. She didn’t care. She was safe, and warm, and sleepy. She gave in, and slept.

When she woke up again, she could move her body more, even though it hurt like anything. “Ow,” she whispered, as she began to wriggle her fingers. She’d missed that. Coulson’s face floated into view. “Hello there, Phil,” she greeted him, politely, and smiled. “It’s nice to see you here.”

He looked sad, and then concerned, and then after exchanging a glance with someone still out of view, in the corner of the room, bemused. “Hello Maria. You gave us quite a scare.”

“Sorry Phil,” she replied, feeling like she was floating in a cloud. “Didn’t mean to. You alright now?”

He sighed and squeezed her hand gently. “I’m fine, Maria. I’m glad you’re fine too. We missed you.”

She stared at his hand, curiously. “Don’t you have a boyfriend?” she asked, wondering why he was being nice to her. He was supposed to be nice to a bird. She wasn’t a bird, and she wasn’t his boyfriend. She was a girl.

He looked terribly worried, so she tried to comfort him. “It’s okay Phil, everything will be fine. Barton loves you too, you’ll see,” and then closed her eyes, because she was really tired.

She woke up again, when the room was dark. This time, she knew it was a hospital room from the clinical smell of the place. She fumbled for the light switch, but could only get her hands on a button on the side of the bed, because her arms hurt. She pressed it anyway, because what the hell. Within seconds, someone had come into the room, a nurse, probably, and had turned the lights on.

“It’s good to see you awake, Ms. Hill,” the nurse said, and she sounded almost relieved.

“It’s good to be awake,” she replied, her voice breaking half way through the sentence.

“Director Fury instructed that he be informed the moment you wake up. I know a bit better about people who have survived traumatic experiences. Do you want a few minutes before I call him in? I’ve been informed that there’s a large group of people waiting to see you, and I thought you might want a bit of a breather before they come in.”

She smiled a little, at the nurses’ thoughtfulness. “Thanks. What’s your name, Nurse?”

“Melissa,” she replied, smiling in return. And then Maria remembered.

Fuck. Call Director Fury immediately, please, Melissa. I’ll rest when I’m dead,” she finished, grumbling, because she wasn’t looking forward to the oncoming swarm, but there were things to be done.

Melissa nodded, seemingly understanding the urgency, and she sent out the page. She barely had time to help Maria sit up, and to adjust the IVs, before Nick came striding in.

He broke into a wide smile, and somewhere people were flinching for no explainable reason. It had been years since she’d seen him smile, and this one was all for her. “Damn, Hill, you gave us a scare.”

“I know, Sir. Sorry, Sir. I have no idea how he got me. We’ve probably got a breach in security, because he got me from inside SHIELD barracks.”

“I know, Hill. We got him. And we got Col. Century too. He’s awaiting your judgment, in the cells. We’ve got Thor riding herd, and you know how Thor feels about torture.”

Maria smiled. Yeah, she did. He believed it was dishonorable, and she could see where he was coming from. Still, she was glad that no one was talking about rape. “What we don’t know, because he won’t talk, is why he took you, and why he targeted Potts and the Widow. We think it’s because he was gunning for your job, before we promoted you from Legal. But we’d hired you with the intention of promoting you, so we hadn’t even bothered taking applications, or looking for other candidates.”

Maria sighed. “I know why. It’s because he believe that we’ve overstepped our bounds.” Fury looked at her, uncomprehendingly. “Women,” she explained. “He wanted to ‘recalibrate’ me,” she inhaled, deeply, to centre herself. “He wanted me to feel like a ‘woman’, and to take my place. He seemed to think that I’d not been treated like a woman, which had led me to become uppity. I did not engage with him.”

“You did the right thing,” Nick replied, face thunderous. “Political ideology is one thing. You couldn’t break, but you couldn’t afford to not break. You did good, Maria. And you did good, getting the beacon. He did have an insider. We had no fucking clue where you were. He managed to wipe their trail clean, and we had to get Stark and Jarvis on the job. He was more than happy to help out, though. He was pissed on your behalf, and because they targeted Potts.”

She nodded. She’d figured she’d owe Stark an apology. “What’s my situation?” she asked, moving on. “And where’s Melissa?”

“The Colonel’s daughter is spending some quality time with Darcy Lewis. She’s fine. Fiery little thing, too.”

Maria nodded. She’d known that. “Good. And my situation?”

“Well, I’ll let the doctors explain the full thing, but on the whole, nothing permanent. Your nose was a little bent out of shape, but it’s nothing that will hinder a normal life. You didn’t have any broken bones, one or two hairline fractures. He stayed away from your head, so nothing to do with your brain. You’ve got a whole fuckload of contusions, bruising and cuts, and yes, that’s a technical term. We think he took a whip to your back, at some point. The most significant thing is the cosmetic damage. Your skin’s badly scarred, on your back. The bruises will heal, and so will the fractures. The doctors might try skin grafts, but that’s a pretty pointless surgery, and I thought you’d want a say in it, so I stopped them.”

Maria did some more deep breathing. “Alright.” She wasn’t sure whether she was devastated, or relieved. Mostly, she didn’t feel anything. A little irritated, but she wasn’t sure at whom. And sleepy. Very sleepy. She couldn’t yet bring herself to be relieved that the damage wasn’t more severe. She knew she should be, but she wasn’t happy about there being any damage in the first place. Fury looked like he understood, and she guessed he did. He had, after all, lost an eye at some point. That was much more devastating than some minor (okay, major, but she wasn’t ready to think about it yet) scarring on her back. Worst come to worst she wouldn’t be able to wear backless dresses, big deal. She didn’t wear those anyway. And she’d last seen a bikini when she was sixteen, so there was no loss there either. And Natasha had more scars than her, and she was still the most attractive person Maria had ever seen.

At some point, while processing, she drifted off, and slept dreamlessly.

The next three weeks were a pain. Both literally, and metaphorically. A major pain.

She had accelerated physical therapy, and she’d managed to get the psychologists off her back. But that didn’t mean that she didn’t hurt all over, and that she didn’t crave the moments when she could lie back down in bed and press the button which gave her the drugs she needed to sleep. But she couldn’t. She wasn’t allowed to. She had to keep moving. So she did. Even though it hurt. Badly.

Phil brought her some paper work, to smooth the transition back into working life, and Fury brought her coffees, on the down-low. Stark brought in a tablet with his name etched in the back, the tit, and ran away before she could embarrass him with feelings. Potts graciously agreed to take him a thank-you card and read it aloud, where he couldn’t escape the feelings, because that’s how they interacted most of the time anyway. Rogers brought flowers, and Thor and Jane brought a cake. But because Thor was physically incapable of being sneaky, the cake had been taken out by Melissa-the-nurse, who had turned out to be an incredibly terrifying woman, before Maria had even had the chance to lick some frosting. Banner came by every-day, to check her charts and explain what was going on in English.

And Barton sat in the air vents above her room, while she slept, and didn’t do anything. She appreciated that a lot more than she let on, because she was, admittedly, having some difficulty sleeping on her own. And her medicated sleep only gave her inescapable nightmares, so she tended to avoid that, even when her fingers itched to press that button.

She missed Natasha, until Phil voluntarily told her that she was handling Century, personally. She didn’t know why Phil had told her, but she appreciated it. And she appreciated that Natasha was taking care of the thing that she was most concerned about, even as she was worried about her safety.

One day, she woke up to a phone call. Fury was holding the ringing phone, and staring at it with a blank face, which was the Fury-Equivalent of the way a normal person would look at a ticking bomb. Fury’s blank looks were terrifying, because they meant he was worried. He noticed she was awake, and smiled at her, faintly. “Good Morning, Hill.” 

She smiled back, and only looked at the phone curiously. “Well, you were gone for six days, Maria.” 

She nodded, waiting for it. There was bad news in there somewhere, and she couldn’t imagine what it could be. Hadn’t she had enough bad news? “We had to let your parents know.”

“Fuck,” she croaked, because fuck. Fury sighed.

“Sorry Hill. You’re just going to have to man up and take it.” He blinked, and that was the Fury-Equivalent of a wince. She only realised after a moment that it was because he’d told her to man up. She rolled her eyes. He relaxed, a little. “But they seem terrified, if that’s any use. We told them that we found you, and that everything was up in the air. They’ve been calling non-stop since then.”

She sighed. “Is that them?” Fury nodded, just as the phone started ringing again. “Give it.” He handed over the phone, wordlessly. “Stay?” she asked, because he would understand she was asking for a friend, not for a superior. He nodded, and settled back in his chair, taking out his phone to further fuel his Angry Birds addiction.

She pressed the button to receive the call. “Hello?” she asked, before they could start. There was a moment of silence, before her mama started crying wordlessly on the phone. “Mom, shh. Shh, Ma, I’m fine. Ma, please stop crying. Ma, shhh,” Maria ineffectively tried to comfort her.

“How is this fine?” she heard her father yell from the background. “How is this fine?!”

She sighed. “Ma, tell him it’s my job. It’s part of what I do. It has good bits and it has bad bits. Every job does. I’m alive. I’ll be fine. I’ll even come home for Christmas, Ma!” she offered the only thing she could, and regretted it immediately after.

“Yes, Maria. Please come home. I need to see you!”

“I’ll be home before Christmas eve, I promise, Ma,” she signed her holidays away, because she did feel kinda guilty about it. If her presence in the no-doubt awkward long-weekend made her mama feel better, than she’d go through with it.

“I love you, Maria. Your father does too. We’ll see you soon, alright?”

She sighed. “Love you, Ma. See you.”

She glared at Fury when the call was over, because he was smiling at her. “Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything,” he protested, raising his hands as if he was innocent in all of this.

“I wish you hadn’t told her, Nick,” she confessed.

His smile faded away, quickly, and she wished she hadn’t said it. Fury never spoke about his parents, or his family. She knew he had one. Or he had had one, at some point. She’d seen the framed pictures of his daughters, but he never spoke about them. Sometimes, silence said just as much as words did. “I know, Maria. But you were missing, and we didn’t know where you were. They’d covered their tracks really well. I was scared that we were going to lose you. He was sending us pictures in the mail every now and then, so we knew you were alive. But we didn’t know how much longer that would be true. You looked so bad in every single picture, and just when we thought it couldn’t get worse, we’d see more cuts or bruises, or blood. Romanov--” he cut himself off and sighed, even though she wanted to know what he’d been about to say. “She’s your mother. She deserved to know.”

Maria sighed, knowing it was true. “I just don’t want her to worry.”

“I know, Maria. But it’s your family. It’s their right to worry.”

She sighed again. He was right, even if she didn't want to admit it. There was nothing she could do about it now, though, except to cope. And she was really fucking fantastic at coping. She could cope with anything, and she would cope with this. 

She didn't even bother asking about the pictures thing. She didn't want to know. Nick and Phil would handle it. Even Tony Stark was on her side. He'd help. And Pepper Potts, and the Black fucking Widow. They'd handle it. She didn't want to know anymore. She was so tired. She patted Fury's hand gently, and closed her eyes. She was going to let it go, and step forward. Progress ahead. She was good at that too, right? So she might as well. Painful and awkward questions could wait for later. For now, she wanted to get better.

And she did, over time. She had a month and a half left before she was due home, and every day saw her looking better. Her skin was healing up pretty well, and soon, cuts that bled every time she so much as shuffled, had scabbed over. She was allowed to sit up, and eat normal food if she could keep it down, and was even promised the chance to go outside, at some point. Phil took her. It was nice of him. He had probably been busy, but when she'd asked, he'd put down his files without another word. She loved him a little, for that.

Outside had turned out to be a bit of a shit idea. She'd stumbled her way out of medical, only to face a hundred stares from a hundred different SHIELD employees. She knew it would take a while for them to get over the fact that something like that had happened to one of their own, and it would take even longer than that for them to regain their respect for her, but once she was on her own two feet, she'd whip them into form. She wasn't going to worry about it now, when she needed Phil's shoulder to walk 100 feet.

Stark's tablet came with an Amazon app, and she tried to catch up on her Christmas shopping. There was no way she'd be able to go out to do her shopping. Just the thought of being in a Black Friday crowd, with her body the way it was, made her wince. Apparently, she hated online shopping just as much as she hated real-life shopping. She memorised her credit card number. It had been a long time since she'd needed to type it out anywhere. SHIELD took care of pretty much every expense.

One morning, she woke up somewhere, on a deliciously decadent chaise near a really big window. It took her five solid minutes to get her heart rate down, then another minute to figure out where she was, and that helped her calm down. She was definitely in Stark Tower, because she couldn't see Stark Tower through the window, and you could see the hideous thing from miles away. She noted that line down, to try on Tony, just to see how offended he got.

"Greetings, AD Hill," came a cool British voice, from everywhere. Jarvis never failed to shock her.

"Hello Jarvis. Any idea what I'm doing here? Perhaps a particular group of people should be reminded that some people don't do so well with waking up in a place they didn't go to sleep." She kept her voice deliberately calm, and composed. Jarvis seemed to see through it anyway.

"I apologise on their behalf, AD Hill. Sometimes the residents of this building, particularly the upper floors, get inadvisably excited about their friends. They were so excited to have you over that I hadn't had the time to outfit a room properly, hence your current location."

She shook her head, and didn't comment. She knew Jarvis could see her anyway. "Thanks, Jarvis. Do you mind calling someone to talk to me? I don't think I'd be able to hunt anyone down in the state I'm in."

"Master Barton is on his way as we speak, AD Hill."

 She raised an eyebrow. "Master Barton?"

"Indeed, AD Hill. I was informed by Master Barton that I must not refer to him in any other way, on the pain of death. He then made a Batman joke, so I have decided to honour him in deference to the 'Bro-Code'."

She could hear the amusement in the AI's voice, and once again she marvelled at the absolute wonder that was Jarvis. And Stark, damn him.

'Master Barton' entered the room, wearing no shoes and a terribly holey t-shirt. He walked like a cat, and she wouldn't have noticed him if she hadn't been watching the only door to the room.

“Barton,” she greeted, with a polite smile, waiting to see how he would respond. He beamed at her, and she relaxed slightly.

“Hill. It’s good to see you on your feet again.”

“It’s good to be on my feet again, Barton.” She gave him a moment, before continuing. “So, do you want to tell me why I’ve been picked up, out of the sickbay?”

His eyes flickered over her carefully schooled features, and he seemed to be suppressing a wince. “Sorry, Hill. We didn’t think of that. We just figured you’d want out of the sick bay, and somewhere a bit more comfortable than the standard issue SHIELD beds.”

She sighed a little, but didn’t frown. Good intentions, after all, didn’t need to be punished. They’d punish themselves. “You did let Phil know where I was going, right? Or Nick? Or Natasha?”

Barton’s face paled dramatically. “Fuck,” he swore, and just as he was about to turn around a run out, he crashed into Banner, who stopped their combined fall by holding onto a counter-top.

Maria couldn’t hold back a grin. “Don’t worry Clint. I let them know,” Banner said, before Barton could even start. Barton exhaled and seemingly melted into relief.

“Dr. Banner,” she greeted him, politely.

“Bruce, please.”

“Then, please call me Maria.”

Bruce smiled. “You look much better out of sick bay. I’m pretty sure the halogen lights make everyone look three shades paler.”

She snorted. He was right. “Is Nick around?” she asked, because this was nice and everything, but really weird. She needed something to do. Banner smiled slightly.

“Yeah, he’s upstairs, trying to not kill Tony.”

“Poor man,” she commented.

“Which one, Fury or Stark?” Barton interrupted, curiously.

“Both, probably,” she replied, and exchanged a grin with Bruce. She tried to sit up, but her body, though to all appearances, was healed, it was still refusing to cooperate. Someone must have made a mortifying sound of pain, because it certainly wasn’t her, and both Barton and Bruce were next to her, reaching out to help her up.

She couldn’t help it. She flinched. They both froze. There was a moment of silence. She steeled herself. “Help me up, Bruce?” she asked, and he hesitated. “Well, come on then.”

“You don’t have to, you know? We can get someone—”

She exhaled, loudly, because anger was much more respectable than instinctive recoil, and fear. “Yes, you could, but I don’t want you to. It’s in my head, and I don’t have time for that. Help me up before I try it again, myself.”

Bruce exchanged a look with Barton, whose eyes she was resolutely not meeting, and stepped forward. Barton stayed away, like they were trying to not crowd her. She didn’t roll her eyes, because she appreciated it. He put an arm around her back and helped her up. He was stronger than he appeared, and the fact that he smelled like chai tea was comforting, for some reason. When she was sitting, propped against the back of the chaise, she smiled as best she could. “Thanks.”

“Any time, Maria.”

Just then, they heard the elevator open, and a distinctive tread emerging. Fury’s boots were absolutely unique, one of a kind. So was the way he walked, like a human hurricane. She’d been working on a stride that was a mix between Fury’s, and Natasha’s terrifying and incredibly sexual glide. She hadn’t practiced in a while. They waited for him to emerge through the doors, with the look on his face that characterized his every interaction with Stark. He came in, looking like he was part-thunder cloud, but then he smiled at Maria.

“Hello, Hill. You ready some work?”

She huffed out a laugh. “I was born ready, Boss.”

When time came for her to fly home, she had to talk Stark out of providing her a private jet. The gesture was much appreciated, really. But she didn’t want to have to explain a Stark Private Jet chauffeuring her home. It would make a hell of a statement, but no, that was probably more than she could deal with at the moment.

She didn’t have much luggage on hand, and her number of bandages and splints had dwindled down to two, and she didn’t look too much like she’d been dragged through thorn bushes and dropped off a couple of cliffs in quick succession. She counted that as a personal victory. She didn’t know what to make of the fact that Natasha had kissed her cheek and pressed a small packet into her hand, before turning a leaving without a second glance.

She did, eventually, regret flying commercial. She was too used to the luxury of the Helicarrier, in comparison to the normalcy of economy class. Also, the Christmas crowds were enough to drive a saint to homicide, and she wasn’t a saint by any measure. Fury had, in some twisted joke, found her a uniform. She had a uniform, of course. For SHIELD. It was black, without insignia, like everything else in SHIELD. That wouldn’t do for this particular undercover mission.

Fury had found her a set of digs, manufactured to look like they’d gone through a good amount of wear and tear. It was a federal offence to impersonate an officer of the army, she knew that, but the law was surprisingly quiet when it came to an officer of one agency impersonating an officer of another. She had lots of little stars and things stitched onto her sleeves. She’d had to read up on exactly what they meant.

They’d even given her a fake purple heart, which was a bit much, but there was nothing she could say or do to stop him, when Sitwell went on a roll, designing cover stories. The uniform got her a lot of respectful nods and bobs, especially when combined with the cast around her arm. It had been years since someone had offered to carry her bags for her. It was nice, to be out, surrounded by normal people, for a while. She was sure it would get boring fast, but for now, it was still nice. To prove that not everyone was out to get her.

Her mum had come to pick her up in the car, with her sister. What followed was probably one of the most awkward trips she had ever taken, including even the trips on which she’d been unconscious, or bleeding out. Come to think of it, those sorts of trips were almost par for the normal.

Driving through the neighbourhood she’d grown up in was bizarre. It was exactly the same, and yet so completely different that it was alien to her. She almost couldn’t understand why, until it occurred to her that she was the one who’d changed. In the same way, her house looked smaller because she’d grown bigger. The peace of the neighbourhood felt… unreal. False, and unsettling, somehow. She wasn’t used to the absence of sound. Even the lack of Helicarrier vibrations was off-putting.

The car was much slower than she was used to, even though it was a newer model. Her sister’s, clearly, going by the way she closed the door and stroked the sleek metal of the roof. Maria missed the Helicarrier to the point of nausea. She loved her ship, just like Vivian loved her car. No one offered to help her with her bags, which was well enough. Neither of them would have been able to carry them. Maria stood tallest, in the small group of women. Natasha would have scowled to see that she would have been the shortest.

She finally cracked a smile when Viv’s girlfriend appeared, so very pregnant. “How many months?” she asked, and everyone looked somewhat startled to hear her voice.

The girlfriend, Maria couldn’t even remember her name, smiled tentatively. “8 months,” she replied. Maria beamed. SHIELD had somehow made her start liking babies. It didn’t make sense, but she knew better than anyone, that the way to reduce the fearsome Director Fury into a puddle of goo, was to present him with a baby. And she was much the same. The SHIELD psychologists said that it had something to do with innocence, and their oaths to protect the defenceless. Maria was pretty sure it was just because they were cute.

“January baby, then. Viv’s a January baby too.”

The girlfriend smiled a little wider. Maria figured she’d just made a friend. She dropped her bags and stepped forward, back straight, and offered her barely functioning right hand. “I’m Maria. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” she said, because what the hell. She could be nice too.

With one hand cradling her enormous belly, the girlfriend stepped forward and shook her hand, reassuringly firm. “I’m Barbara. Likewise. I’ve not heard much about you, but I’ve always wondered when I’d get to meet you.”

Maria studied her for a minute, before deciding that there was no recrimination in Barbara’s words, or tone. She wasn’t criticising - she was just stating. Like Phil would. “I wish I’d had the chance to visit sooner. But the military stops for no man, woman, or family holiday.”

Barbara’s smile softened. “I know what you mean. My brother was infantry in Afghanistan.”

Maria didn’t let her smile dim. Was. More bad news. “He loved it there. He said it was family enough for any man.” She paused. “Or woman, though I don’t remember him talking about many women.”

Maria nodded. “Yeah, we don’t deploy so many women. It’s unfairly rough, because Islamic extremists believe that fighting men is clean and pure. Fighting women is unholy, and there’s added vulnerabilities there. We put them to better use in Intelligence and in other countries. Women have always been better with diplomatic relations than men, and we train them so that if they need to, they can fire a gun too.” Barbara nodded, approving.

“We?” she asked, after a moment of not-too-awkward silence.

Maria bit her tongue, wishing she’d have watched her words. This woman, whom she’d met barely fifteen minutes prior, was far too easy to talk with. She was also much sharper than she let on, which Maria could respect. This visit might not be all that bad.

The front door slammed open, and Maria tensed, moving in front of Barbara without a second thought, and felt for a non-existent gun. Barbara, Vivian and her mama were looking at her in shock until her brother called out, “We’re here, Ma!” and his wife and kids stomped noisily into the front hallway. Her mama’s entire face lit up, which Maria supposed she deserved for being the most messed up child, and she led the group into the front of the house, where greetings were made, and hugs were given out, and polite nods were exchange between Maria and her father.

Her brother had always been a tit, but not as nice, or attractive a one as Stark. “Jesus, Maria. What did you do, shack up with an abusive boyfriend?”

 

“He does this every single time, Phil. Every time I go home, it’s ‘have you made a record breaking number of coffees, Maria,’ and ‘do they force you to cut your hair, Maria,’ or ‘do you like your boyfriends to order you around, Maria’. It makes me crazy, Phil.” 

“He’s doing it to exert control on the situation, I think. I hardly know your brother, except from his files and what you’ve told me--” 

“That’s not ‘hardly knowing’, Phil. You know him about as well as I do. Also, he’s about as deep as a teaspoon.” 

“Regardless, he’s exerting control over you. No one expected you to go into the military. You were supposed to be nice and docile and safe, in some tall office tower somewhere. The thought of you being in harm’s way, on a daily basis, scares them. They don’t want to think about it. So he discounts it. He makes like you’re still in an office, still doing safe things like making coffee. He doesn’t like that your job is potentially more exciting than his, and he tries to downplay what you do, without knowing exactly what you do in the first place.” 

“That’s not fair though. He makes me so angry, Phil, I swear, one of these days I’m going to shoot him!”

 

She’d come in prepared for this thing that Roger did, every time she went home, but it still hurt. “Uncle Sam’s the only man in my life, Roger. Also, Classified.”

The word dropped like a gunshot in the room, and Roger sniggered a little bit. His wife, Janet, giggled. They were either thick enough to not hear the tension in her voice, or they were really good at ignoring it. “Sure, Maria. Did you fall down a flight of stairs? Is it classified because you’re embarrassed?”

She wanted to stop herself, really, she did. It was unseemly, but her brother always brought out the worst in her. Always. He knew her sore spots, and which buttons to press to get her furious. “Yes, Roger, they gave me a Purple Heart for falling down a flight of stairs.” She was using her cutting voice. The one she used to get new cadets into shape, to put the fear of SHIELD into their little innocent brains.

There was a moment of silence, until Barbara came up to her and clasped her hand. “Thank you.”

Maria flushed. It wasn’t her purple heart. Not really. Not even officially. But she knew what it meant. And no one had ever thanked her for doing her job. It wasn’t why she did it, of course, but still. It was nice. “Any time, Barbara.”

“Babs,” she corrected. “Viv calls me Babs, so you might as well.” Maria smiled widely, even though it hurt her almost-but-not-quite-yet-recovered face.

Things went a little bit smoother, after that. Roger didn’t say anything to her, and neither did his wife. His kids didn’t seem to have noticed that anything was off at all, and Maria didn’t begrudge them their innocence. They had to keep it while they could afford to. Vivian was quieter than usual, and didn’t say anything to Maria, but it was not because she didn’t want to speak to Maria, like Roger. It was because she didn’t have anything to say to her.

Dinner that night was quiet, and Maria only spoke when spoken to. She had nothing she could comfortably share, and she’d already used the classified line once. Knowing her family, it wasn’t going to fly again. Everyone else was watching some Friends-like soap opera in the living room, when her mum asked her to come help make hot chocolate. That had always been their private time, with Maria on the kitchen table and her mama pottering around the kitchen. It had been a while since she’d had this. She’d missed it, but then at the same time, she hadn’t.

Spending time with her mama always made her feel like a little girl. Sometimes, she wanted her ma to comfort her, and tell her that her problems would all go away. But sometimes, most times, her mother over-did it. Or maybe, at some point when she hadn’t been paying attention, Maria had grown up. She didn’t want to be babied. She wanted to talk to someone upfront, and face her problems. She didn’t want to pretend they didn’t exist. Sometimes, and though she’d never tell Natasha or her mama so, talking to Natasha was more relaxing than talking to her mother, because she understood what she meant when she said something serious. She didn’t brush her off. She was level with her. She liked that.

This time, though, her mother was silent. They listened to the pre-recorded laughter coming from the front room, and the slight clanking of metal pots on the stove. “Are you happy, Maria?”

And that was probably the least expected conversation Maria had been expecting to have, that night. The least possible one. She took a minute to regroup.

“Yes, Ma,” she answered, honestly. Because yes, sometimes her life was shit, and sometimes she suffered a lot in the name of SHIELD. But she could not imagine being anywhere else. She couldn’t even fathom doing something other than what she did everyday. She couldn’t imagine a single day without Natasha, or Phil, or Nick, or even Stark. “Yeah, I’m happy. Happier than I’ve ever been.”

“Even with everything that happened to you? Even with your arm and--” her mama waved one hand at her face, and pressed the other against her mouth to stifle the sob that Maria had seen coming.

She sighed. “Yes, Ma. Even with all of that. And it’s tough. It’s hard work, what I do. I was with legal, but then I got promoted, Ma. That’s why this happened. No one targets legal. But they needed me. And the higher up you go, the brighter the spotlight on you. I could have stayed in legal, and become slowly obsolete,” she continued, pressing on, even though she wasn’t making immediate sense. “I could have done. But they wanted me somewhere else. They needed me. I’ve been with them for a long time, now. This thing is my baby, Ma. I love what I do, with all it’s flaws and downsides.”

Her mama was crying, tears streaming from her face, silently. “You’re not telling me where you work, Maria. You’re avoiding its name.”

Maria sighed. It was easy to ignore her mother as old, and waffly, and ignorant. But her mama had been, and would always be as sharp as a tack. When Maria was speaking to her over the phone, it was easy to get away with things. But she had not, excepting the Black Widow, met anyone quite as good as her mama, at deciphering body language.

“Yeah. I am. It’s classified.”

Her mama paused. Maria could see her processing. “Are you with some sort of intelligence agency?” she asked, after a minute. She’d clearly been doing some research into Maria’s line of work. Well, good for her. It gave Maria a little more leeway with what she could safely reveal. She had, after all, been trained as a lawyer. Some things never left you.

Maria nodded. “Yeah.”

“And why did they target you?” her mama asked, flicking off the gas under the bubbling milk, and turning to look at her. “What were you involved in?”

Possibly this would be the hardest thing to get across. It was one thing to be picked on for your association, for ideology. It was a completely different thing to be the victim of a personal attack. “I wasn’t involved in anything, particularly. I was picked up because of who I am, and what I do, in my organisation.” There was a difference between what she could tell her mother, and what she wanted to tell her mama. Then there was the category of things her mama deserved to know. Maybe, in this one case, the three categories completely overlapped.

“I told you I was promoted. The guy who picked me up wasn’t happy about it. Especially because I’m a woman. He wanted to… convince me, to reconsider my position. And to consider adopting more feminine characteristics, and stepping away from more masculine leadership roles.” It was a very carefully worded sentence, because Maria knew that her mama only thought she wanted to know what exactly had happened to her daughter.

Her mother had covered her mouth again, and her eyes were welling up, but she wasn’t crying now. She looked furious. That was, well. That was nice. Maria appreciated that, because she could tell the anger was on her behalf. She didn’t need it, of course. She had very powerful people who were very angry on her behalf, who could actually do something about it. But she appreciated it all the same.

“How did you get out?” her father asked from behind her, and Maria startled, violently. She reached for a gun she wasn’t carrying, despite the blinding pain from having banged her injured arm on the table. She’d been off guard, watching her mama as if there was no threat in the vicinity. She’d not been paying as much attention as she should have been. To his credit, her father looked a little abashed at having startled her, or having been caught eavesdropping. Her brother, standing beside her, looked stunned. And angry. Unlike her mother’s anger, she couldn’t place his anger. She wasn’t sure she liked it.

She shrugged, because there was no way she was getting out of this now. She really wished Nick hadn’t told them. She wished she’d had time to heal up completely before she’d had to come home.

“I waited. I was awake when his daughter came in. I made friends with her. Then we escaped.”

“In the condition you’re in?” her brother asked, oddly subdued now. “A month ago, you wouldn’t have been able to walk,” he continued. Her mother covered her face, and she wished her brother had learned tact, in medical school, instead of whatever the fuck they’d filled his fat head with.

She sighed. “I had a panic button. I activated it.” Short and sweet.

“Why didn’t you activate it earlier?” he asked, because of course, he’d not let her get away without sharing the gory details.

“It was a subdermal panic button,” she gritted her teeth, “and I was otherwise restrained.” Her father’s face was pinched, as he tried to comfort his wife. It was the most sympathetic emotion she’d seen on his face for years. She couldn’t even remember the last time he’d expressed anything except disapproval for her life choices.

It was bizarre.

“It was alright though. His daughter was with me, so I was taking care of her. My boss had deployed units to look for me. An aerial got my distress call and they came picked me up. When I was in, I was safe. They’d even brought doctors and stuff, and I had my own personal honour guard. I was fine. No life-threatening injuries.” She knew her tone was off. She knew her flippancy was fake, and it came off as fake. But she was hoping that someone would allow her the dignity of not having to talk about it anymore.

She’d answered her mama’s questions because she deserved to know. She and Maria weren’t really close, but despite what Stark insinuated, she was still a human being. She didn’t like seeing her mother cry, like any other human being. This felt too much like an audience. A public display, of some sort. She didn’t want herself on display. She felt as exposed now as she did with her clothes off, and that brought back all too familiar, unwanted memories.

She took a deep breath to keep herself calm, and counted her blessings when no one asked any more questions. The evening carried on, and it was almost normal, even if conversation was somewhat stilted. Barbara worked in programming, and she ached to tell her about Tony Stark. She was really good conversation. Much better than Maria had expected. She wasn’t sure what Viv had told her, but clearly she was better conversation than Babs had expected, too.

Some time after everyone had gone to bed, that night, she got a call from Phil. She answered on the first ring, lying on her childhood bed and staring at the ceiling. Nothing much had changed. Her glow-in-the-dark stars had nothing on the real thing. “Phil?”

“Hey, Maria. How’s the family?” She sighed. “That bad?” he asked, before she could answer.

She thought about it. “No, not really. Different. They’re all a bit weird now, about the thing.” She didn’t bother specifying - he knew exactly what she was talking about. It was hard to put into words anyway, and the ‘thing’ was as good a title for the recent months as any. “I like my sister’s girlfriend.”

Like, like?” he asked, specifically to make her laugh.

It worked. She snorted, unladylike and loving it, and muffled her laugh into her quilt. “Jesus Phil, what are you, twelve?”

She could see him shrugging, the way he did when he wasn’t watching his reactions. “I’d still be older than everyone else around me.” Which, true. She heard a semi-outraged ‘hey’ in the background. She grinned.

“How’s Barton?” she asked, because surely that was a never-ending source of entertainment. “What’s he wearing?”

It was Phil’s turn to laugh. It felt good. Relaxing, even. “He’s wearing what he usually does, in bed.”

“Nothing, then,” she responded, sniping a little. “Nothing to be ashamed of?” she asked, needling him because she couldn’t resist it.

“Nothing at all, Maria,” Phil growled back, and that was possibly the best thing she’d heard in a long time. Phil had been alone for almost as long as she’d known him. He’d also been pining after his young, and very attractive charge, who happened to be, according to him, unattainable. Ninety percent of the time, she agreed with Pepper when she said that boys were stupid. It didn’t matter how old they were. “Did I ever say thank you for that?” he asked, with Barton piping in his thanks in the background.

“You’ve never had to, Phil. I’m happy for the both of you. You deserve each other,” she said, making the last part sound like an insult, but he’d know. They’d both know what she meant.

“Anyway, it’s my turn. Get dressed.”

She froze, spine stiffening with tension. “What? What’s happened? Your turn for what?”

“Nothing bad, Maria. Just get dressed. Something nice, to match with your cast. The jet will be there in ten minutes.”

“What the fuck Phil,” she demanded, still whispering, because she was a thirty three year old, grown ass adult, but god forbid her parents heard her on the phone, in bed.

“Leave someone a note. Stark’s decided to throw his party a night in advance. You can come by, and you’ll be back before sunrise.”

“For me?” she asked, hardly able to believe it. But then, some part of her did. She hadn’t been expecting it at all, but this kind of thing was just up Stark’s alley. And he’d have pulled all the strings, and he’d have to have been planning it for a long time now. Probably since that time she’d let slip that she had parents, and hadn’t actually been manufactured in a lab.

She could hear Phil rolling his eyes. “Yes, Maria, for you, Christ. Get dressed!” he said, and put down the phone, because they both knew good-byes were pointless when she’d be seeing him before midnight.

She hadn’t really brought anything too fancy, because the most she’d have done with her family was go to the park to watch fireworks. That did not call for anything more than a t-shirt and jeans. No one would care, anyway. If she knew Stark, and she was pretty sure she did, this would be a private party. There would be no paparazzi, and no strangers. It would just be their inner circle, so she didn’t need to worry about her cast, or about pictures of her in the newspaper with Pepper Potts and Captain America, when she was supposed to be at home with her family.

It also meant Nick, Phil, Jasper, Natasha and Barton would be there. They were still trying to keep their identities under wraps, so they avoided cameras. That meant this would be a good night.

She popped half her dose of painkiller, and found the nearest building likely to have a landing pad. She thanked Thor that Stark’s jets were so quiet. Her note hadn’t said much, but then again, if they’d woken up (which she doubted), they’d call her cellphone, and she’d answer it. She wasn’t going to get any sleep that night, and it wasn’t good for her recovery, but she needed a proper celebration.

When they landed in New York, a ridiculously short time later, she’d made Happy come with her, to the party. She was pretty sure Stark had him on standing invitation, but she’d gotten to chat with Happy, and he seemed like the kind of person who took his job very seriously. She’d managed to persuade him to come with her, because what the heck! Christmas had literally come early this year.

When she’s walked in, everyone (the whole gang, Phil, Barton, Fury, Sitwell, the Avengers, Pepper Potts, and a few other members of SHIELD) had jumped out from behind various pieces of assorted furniture. It could have gone very badly, considering her mental state, but apparently she’d let her guards down in Stark Tower. Not the wisest idea, but it felt really good to let go. It had been a while since there had been any reason to celebrate. Also they had obviously dragged furniture into the centre of the room, for the sole purpose of hiding behind it. The game had been up the moment Maria had walked in to see a dresser in the middle of the living room. Probably, they’d already started on the alcohol which so distinctly characterised Stark parties.

It was great. They had amazing food, and Stark spent the evening entertaining his guests from behind the bar top, and mixing drinks for them. Pepper Potts was wearing red silk, and so ridiculously pleased to see Happy that she was blushing the same colour as her dress. Natasha was breathtaking, but Maria couldn’t for the life of her remember what she was wearing. Thor had brought some of his friends, and Tony had invited a little boy, who was calmly chatting up Melissa, completely unphased by her absolute disinterest. He was probably Stark’s son, but he didn’t look like him. It was hilarious. She would have been more worried about it, if she hadn’t known that Stark would take care of his own, and if he needed help protecting his own, he’d be very vocal about it.

She’d been so distracted by that little slice of drama that she almost didn’t notice Natasha sidle up to her, just when Stark initiated the countdown, which, what? It wasn’t even Christmas, why was he doing a New Years’ Countdown? Why did Stark ever do anything? She figured it had something to do with them wanting her to be able to celebrate the major occasions with them. It was nice of him, if incredibly eccentric, so she’d gone along with it. She’d been smiling stupidly at Phil and Barton making out not-very-discreetly in a corner of the room, when Natasha had grabbed her by the waist at the count of ‘9’, and pulled her into a kiss.

Presumably she was doing it on a dare, but Maria was just about buzzed enough to play along, and not really worry about her suddenly re-emerging Black Widow fantasies. She’d kissed back, because kissing was nice, and it was Pseudo-Christmas/New Years, and she wanted to celebrate by doing nice things. Also Natasha was a really good kisser, and had no qualms about tongue. So she ignored the cat-calls and the wolf-whistles and the sound of someone (Rogers, probably) dropping his glass, and kissed as if no one was watching, and Stark wasn’t secretly videotaping them.

When the fireworks went off, Natasha pulled away, and Maria thought that had been the end of it, but apparently not. Natasha pushed her up against the wall, and very carefully maneuvered around her cast, and kissed her again. She wasn’t sure whether it was the fireworks, or whether lightbulbs were actually going off behind her eyelids. She couldn’t even hold in her moan, and what the actual fuck? She was attracted to the woman, but that was because everyone was attracted to the Widow - she was gorgeous. But this wasn’t the sort of kiss one would have, if it was a dare. She moaned again when Natasha pressed a thigh between her own legs, and threw back her head, wincing slightly when it bumped into the wall just a little carelessly. The slight pain was enough to clear her head from all the endorphins, to let her think for a split second.

She dislodged Natasha, and hated that her face went back to its passive state. She took her by the wrist, delicate bracelets tinkling, and led her out of the room, where it was significantly quieter, but Natasha’s expression remained neutral, and now that Maria had seen her look happy, she couldn’t stand it. She kissed Natasha, soft and as sweet as she knew how, in the dimly lit corridor, and watcher her face light up.

That made her happy. Natasha’s happiness was important, and she had always known that, but there was something very profound about that realisation. She was just a little too tipsy to be thinking that far ahead, so she just kept at it, to see Natasha smile.

Nothing happened. Nothing else, happened. They stood there and kissed, until they decided to sit down and kiss, and Maria could have kissed Natasha until she died from it, because there was nothing normal about the way her heart felt like it was going to burst out of her chest, even as she was more relaxed than she had been in months. It was something about Natasha, about the way they weren’t really speaking about it, that made her feel like they’d been building up to this for a long time, and she just hadn’t realised it.

There was an ease in the way she didn’t mind leaning into the shorter woman, when they undoubtedly made a silly picture, because she didn’t even care when she could feel Natasha’s deceptively soft body behind hers, warm, through simple, classy fabrics.

When she considered how her every thought had been somehow oriented towards Natasha in the not-so-recent past, it definitely made sense. It also made sense that Natasha had been the one to see it, because Maria had only been good at work things, never her personal life.

It was some sort of bizarre Cinderella thing, when Natasha brushed her lips against Maria’s exposed neck, and murmured the time in her ear. It actually took her a moment to understand, because she’d been completely absorbed in the sensation of whatever they were doing, that she’d lost track of the real world.

The party seemed to have quietened down a little. The roar of music and laughter had dimmed to a low murmur, less exuberant and more laid back, more enjoying the peace than rejoicing in the fact that they’d survived yet another year. And the fireworks were nowhere to be seen, but Maria hadn’t missed them, because she’d had her own little show, behind her eyelids. But the sky looked a little brighter than it had when she and Natasha had left the room, and if Natasha was telling her it was 4 am, there was a reason for it. And when she remembered, she swore under her breath, and Natasha laughed at her.

She felt inexplicably pleased about that, for some reason. It probably had to do with Natasha’s happiness being important, which still felt a little obvious. She was surprised that she hadn’t seen it before, considering how high it was on her list of priorities. She’d never pretended to be perfect, though. And Natasha, the ultimate reader of body language, liked her anyway.

Still feeling a little kiss addled and stupid, she pushed herself up, and then pulled Natasha with her. She hummed, thinking of the muscles Natasha would have had to use to get up like that, without having any help from Maria’s not-very-strong arm. Natasha smiled again, teeth glinting in the darkness, like she could read her mind.

“You really should go home,” she said, stroking Maria’s hair. It felt very nice. Maria didn’t want her to stop.

But she was right. “Yeah. I should. Natasha,” she started, without knowing where she wanted to go. “I’ll see you around?” she asked, finally, hesitating, and so fucking relieved when it turned out to have been the right thing to say. Natasha smiled, tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear, and vanished into the darkness, leaving her alone with her thoughts. But obviously not so alone, because Phil and Barton appeared soon after, greeting her with pleased smiles and knowing smirks, respectively.

They made their way to the Starkjet without bothering to say goodbye to everyone. There was no knowing where they would be, and to be honest, Maria would be seeing these people soon. All of them, very soon, and she was sure she’d be sick of their faces in no time at all. But it didn’t matter now, because she was tipsy, and Phil and Barton were much more than tipsy, and they were still sitting on either side of her instead of being in a room, having mad monkey sex.

Happy, who had manfully avoided the free-flowing alcohol, was piloting, and they had her home in no time at all. Phil had walked her to the street corner, and she’d gone the rest of the way on her own.

She’d unlocked the door and walked in, humming under her breath, and smiling slightly because it had really been a wonderful night. When she saw Babs and Viv in the kitchen, she froze, suddenly all too aware of her kiss smudged lipstick, mussed hair, and unsteady gait, a combination of tiredness and tipsiness. She flushed, because there was nothing more important her body needed that blood for, obviously.

Babs and Viv were both staring, shamelessly taking in her simple attire and the single cell-phone in her hand, and the way she tucked the same strand of hair behind her ear that Natasha had, so lovingly.

She stood there, a little like a deer in the headlights, unsure of what to do next, until Babs mercifully pulled out a chair for Maria. She wasn’t sure what she’d be able to tell them, or whether her internal filter was working well enough for a conversation with her sister and her sharp girlfriend, but she was too tired and relaxed to care.

“Met someone?” Babs asked, pouring her a cup of coffee. Maria accepted it, wondering if she could swap it out for water while no one was noticing. Given that two people were watching her intently, she gave up and took a sip of the heavenly liquid, that her doctors had strictly prohibited.

“Well,” she started, and was cut off before she could take it anywhere.

“Don’t bother if you’re just going to lie,” Viv said, probably the longest sentence she’d said to Maria this Christmas.

“Why do you immediately jump to the worst conclusion possible, Viv? What the fuck? What have I ever done to you?” Maria’s pleasant buzz was quickly fading, and she went back to wishing that she’d never come here, that she was in Stark Tower with Natasha, instead.

“Because you’re always lying, Maria. Always.” Viv stirred her coffee with more anger than Maria was sure the beverage merited. “You lie about everything, to all of us, and we can never tell where the lies end and where the truth starts. You act like you’re something amazing, and special, that you can’t lower yourself to talk to your only sister, even when you only see her once a year. You’re always boring and quiet and studious and then suddenly you’re going out to parties without telling anyone and coming back late in the morning and it’s like you don’t want to be part of this family, even.” Vivian had been staring at her coffee for the duration of her monologue, but at the end she looked up to glare at Maria, and Maria felt her internal filter dislodge, against her will.

“You should have thought of that before you made me feel like you didn’t want me in your family, Vivian. You should have thought of that before I found a family who actually wants me, who cares for me and respects me instead of dismissing everything I’ve ever done. Why should I tell you anything when you hardly say a single sentence to me, but won’t shut up when Roger is in the room? Why should I treat you like a sister when you fought tirelessly for Rogers’ right to get a tattoo against Dad’s disapproval, but stayed quiet when I joined the army, even though Dad was on the verge of disowning me? Did you guys think I didn’t hear about your little ‘family meetings’? To decide what to ‘do’ with the wayward child of the family, poor misguided Maria who can’t be trusted to make her own decisions, let’s try to strip from her everything that makes her happy because it doesn’t match with our opinions on properness.”

Maria was very proud of the way she’d maintained coherence, and how she’d managed to keep her volume down, and kept eye-contact. She was very proud of the way she put down the cup, instead of throwing it at the wall like she wanted to. She was very proud of the fact that the look of shock on her sisters’ face did not make her happy, because she knew she’d have a problem with herself the day she became so vindictive.

Just as she was turning to walk away, she turned and said one last thing. “It’s easy to push the blame on the outsider, for being different. It’s harder, but more necessary to ask why there are outsiders in the first place. Considering that we share blood, ask yourself why I’ve always been an outsider, and whether it’s really my fault that I went off to join an organisation where people swore oaths to stand by my side as we charged unto the breach. I’ll leave tonight, so you can spend more time with your family, Vivian, Babs,” she nodded, and left.

Her good mood was completely gone, but at least Natasha was less than twenty-four hours and a mere phonecall away.

The day passed uneventfully. Well, it was Christmas, so there was only so much you could say. Presents were opened. Food was eaten. Nothing too disastrous happened, because it was Thursday and no one was quite stupid enough to taunt Thor into ‘defending’ his ‘namesake day’.

She gave the charm bracelet with a January birthstone to Babs, as if she had always intended to, for the baby. She’d bought just enough presents for the children, and alcohol and chocolate for the adults. It would have to do, because she didn’t care, anymore. She’d thought things were getting better, but she’d obviously thought wrong.

In the privacy of her own room, she opened the package Natasha had passed her, and found a white, lace handkerchief. It was utterly impractical, likely to tear or get stained if someone even looked at it wrong. It was also the prettiest, loveliest thing she owned. She turned it around in her hands, terrified that she’d somehow smudge it, or ruin it, and found her own initials embroidered in a corner, neat, and precise. Somehow she knew, without having been told, that this had been made by Natasha. Something about the lines, and the thoughtfulness of it.

The fact that she’d been kidnapped to have femininity stomped into her, as if it was something distinct from what she already was, as if it was somehow lesser. And the handkerchief, which was unabashedly feminine, and would have been completely reminiscent of her ordeal, if not for the fact that Natasha had made it. To remind her that it was okay to be whatever she chose with no regard for the consequence, because it didn’t matter. It meant nothing. She blamed her failure to find words on the previous nights’ alcohol, surely. But she knew without a doubt what Natasha was saying, and appreciated it more than she would ever be able to express to the other woman.

She’d been hoping that this year, somehow, she could make things better with her family. She was partially to blame, because she’d always been quick to give up on lost causes. She’d never felt the need to keep giving people chances when it was clear that they weren’t interested. Still, maybe if she’d persisted a little longer, and tried a little harder to fit in, she wouldn’t be in this position, with her parents and her siblings. But as it was, there was nothing to be done about it.

“Sorry Ma, I’m heading out,” she’d had to say. The look on Vivian’s face had told Maria that she was terrified Maria would spill the beans on their conversation. But she wasn’t a snitch, whatever else her sister thought about her. “I’ve got to get started on my PT. The doctors don’t want me to put it off for too long. I’ll see you guys soon, okay?”

They hadn’t kicked up too much of a fuss, and Maria hadn’t been too surprised. The tension in the household was tangible. Things would probably never be normal between them, and she just had to accept that. She was pretty excited about going back to SHIELD, though, because of Natasha. They still hadn’t discussed how the thing between them would change, but Maria really hoped it would. She hadn’t felt so… so much about another person in a very long time.

She’d honestly been surprised by how much she felt for the other woman. She hadn’t expected it, at all. Not that she didn’t know her own latent bisexual tendencies, it was just that she’d believed Natasha to be a good friend. A very close friend, and nothing more. She’d attributed their rapid closeness to the fact that there were very few people who knew how to do hair and makeup on the Helicarrier, and that in their line of work sometimes such things were necessary.

She’d also been very impressed by the way Natasha had kicked the ass of that one kid who’d thought he could make fun of Maria for helping the Black Widow with her costume for a mission, ignoring the fact that she was Assistant Director and his boss. She’d not expected it, of course, but she’d appreciated it all the same. Fury could still have told her off for doing the same thing, and she knew why. Very few people told Natasha what to do, ever. Natasha did what she thought best and other people pretended it had been their idea.

When she and Natasha had been the only ones leaving the Helicarrier for nights off, they’d gotten to talking. They had nothing in common about their childhoods, nothing in common at all, except for where they were now, and what they did. They bonded over that, and when Natasha understood what Maria was trying to say about her family, despite her inability to find the words to express herself, Maria had been so grateful. Because it had meant she wasn’t making things up. It had meant that the problems were real, and that she wasn’t exaggerating. It wasn’t exactly validation, by a person she trusted, but it was close.

Leaving the house was anticlimactic (she packed up her bags and walked out the door and into a cab - her family had shut the door before the cab had left the cul-de-sac), but walking into SHIELD felt like home.

Things went back to normal so quickly it was obscene. It felt like she’d never been away. The saluting in corridors and being called “Sir” felt more familiar than she’d felt, sitting in her mother’s kitchen like she had when she was a girl. Phil and Clint were still necking like teenagers around every corner, but apparently not everyone was observant enough to see it. Phil himself had quarters in the Avengers Tower, with Clint, so he only spent half his time on base. That part was a little weird, because sometimes she’d feel like complaining about something to him, and then she’d remember that he’d not know which new, idiotic recruit she was talking about, because he hadn’t been there. But with Natasha spending more time than ever on base, with her, she didn’t really notice the loss. Much. She just chose to be happy for Coulson.

Natasha was another major thing, a major event, but she slid into Maria’s life like she’d always had a place there. If she really thought about it, maybe Natasha had always belonged with Maria. It was sickeningly soppy, but no one had ever fit into her spaces like Natasha did.

And every time she walked onto the bridge in full uniform, wearing her calf-high boots and a gun in her holster, Maria’s mouth went dry. They hadn’t yet spoken, properly, not like people did on television and in books when they started serious things. Natasha had just turned up outside her barracks one evening, and it had been as natural as breathing to invite her in. They had dinner together, regularly, if business didn’t interfere. They occasionally went out on dates, even if no one called them dates, and fell into bed together most nights, even if nothing happened.

It was honestly the most chaste relationship Maria had ever been in. Beyond kissing, there was nothing. It was also the most satisfying relationship she had ever been in. She didn’t even feel the need to ask for more, because she had everything she wanted. She had no idea why they hadn’t done this earlier - being with Natasha made her stupidly happy.

And then one day, Fury was taken. They knew where he was, of course, because after Maria had been kidnapped they’d all been chipped very carefully with very reliable trackers, with little regard for privacy. Even Fury. Though, with his ranking, only Phil and Maria were allowed access to his tracker. And Stark, but that was because they couldn’t stop him. The little shit. Also it was helpful because Fury had been kidnapped by a career villain, who tended to much flashier displays than the run-of-the-mill sexist scumbag with an agenda.

It did mean that Maria had had a field promotion, and was made the acting Director of SHIELD pretty much the moment Fury had been declared MIA.

It was fine. It was okay. Maria had been working in SHIELD for fuck knows how many years. She knew everyone, knew how everything worked. She was perfectly capable of running the Helicarrier and simultaneously executing a large scale search & rescue mission. She’d done it all before. She was fine. 

She was also terrified.

But Natasha was behind her, and Phil, and Jasper, and the Avengers. Everyone seemed to have stepped up, because for all Fury’s vaguely terrifying tactics, he was a good leader, and a good boss. She was ready to step up, and she’d always been ambitious. But not like this. She wanted Fury back. This job was about more than just career advancement. They did important work. They helped people, and prevented large-scale destruction most of the time. She could do it without him, but not as well. Not yet. There were too many things at risk, for her to be thinking about her career. Fury was where he was in SHIELD because he was just that good. They needed him back. And she was terrified that they wouldn’t be able to get to him.

It was one thing to be held up in a suburban basement by one man and his daughter. It was another thing to be strung up in a super-villain’s castle, in full view of a live-stream being broadcast across the internet, and exposed to public scrutiny in an unprecedented manner.

Things happened very quickly, once the live-stream went up. SHIELD was a covert agency. Fury was a skilled operative, one of the best, but any sort of exposure on that scale was bound to harm them, and put hundreds and hundreds of their own operatives at risk. Once people realised that Fury belonged to a covert agency, everyone associated with him would be suspect. The Avengers mustered at high speed. Xavier himself confirmed Fury’s location. And then they went in.

They had JARVIS and their own tech department trying to take down the feeds, but they were being very skilfully blocked by a system that didn’t seem to respond to normal stimuli. They had a garrison of snipers set up outside the evil-lair-of-the-week, and a miniature battalion of agents ready to invade. It wasn’t a huge operation, because they were experienced enough to know that this could very well be a play for the Helicarrier, and that they’d be fools to leave it undefended. But it wasn’t a regular mission task-force either, because this was their director. No chances could be taken with his safety.

Between Maria and Phil, they’d had to decide who’d stay behind and co-ordinate. One of them had to go in, and the other had to hold down the fort. Ordinarily, neither of them would go in, because it was too risky, but because they couldn’t completely rule out the possibility of an inside leak, again, they couldn’t entrust anyone else with Fury’s tracker codes. And the other had to watch over the Helicarrier and make sure the Avengers didn’t start World War IV.

And because Coulson was a more experienced Avengers wrangler, it had fallen to Maria to go in with the extraction teams. She’d also be the person best placed to do damage control, in case they’d been too far compromised. She didn’t really want to think about it, but it was her job to consider all possibilities. Phil had helped, some, while she was prepping the teams for the extraction, but since she had the highest control powers when Fury wasn’t around, it eventually fell to her.

She had to leave without saying goodbye to Natasha, and she hated it. She only hoped that her text message with three kisses would get through the massive signal interference on the Helicarrier, and that Natasha would understand.

All was quiet, in the lair. It made them more alert, than if there had been hundreds and hundreds of henchmen. It generally meant that the villain was over confident, but that he had a reason to be. That never boded well for their teams. The tracker ran true, and they found the room where Fury was, with no problems. The tension and unease was prickling at them, by then, each member of the team somewhat jumpy and stressed out. Because where was the bad guy? Where were the foot-soldiers? This was the dictionary definition of too easy. Most of them were only alive because they were firm believers of Murphy’s laws.

The Avengers were waiting overhead, in case she signalled for their fire-power, and Coulson was in her ear. She was snapping updates and observations at him, and it was clear that he was equally tense, and they were unprepared, and that was never good, when suddenly Stark interrupted their private conversation.

“Get Fury, and get out of there. Now, Hill.” 

Both she and Phil started talking at the same time, but Stark ignored their questions and protests. “Get the fuck out, Hill. You’re all being compromised. The entire place is being monitored and JARVIS just informed me that everything is being broadcast. There’s a five minute delay and we’re trying to interrupt the signal, but you need to get Fury, and get out, because your faces are on national television, now, and all over the internet. Pepper’s trying to handle Fox and CNN, but there’s nothing we can do about the internet. Get out.” 

They didn’t question it, anymore. For all that Stark was a tit, he was a genius, and he was on their side. He knew best, and the consequences of a covert agency being exposed on this scale were going to be catastrophic. Everyone whose face had been recorded would be on the firing line. They’d never be able to work undercover again. 

It was alright for Fury and Maria herself, because they rarely did undercover themselves, anyway. But for the rescue teams and the tactical squads, it would be the end of their careers and livelihoods. And very possibly, it would be the ends of their lives. No covert or government agency would ever hire them; too high a security risk. No civilian agency would need people with their abilities and talent sets. SHIELD wouldn't even be able to write them recommendation letters. That was the problem with being a covert agency. You could only ever leave in a body bag. 

And that didn’t even take into account the consequences for SHIELD as a whole. SHIELD was one of the better agencies. They’d done everything they could to fulfil their mission aims, to protect the citizens of Planet Earth. They had done their jobs to the best of their ability, and if there was anyone who felt they could have done it better, Fury had always brought them aboard because there were never enough competent agents. 

If - When the other agencies who hadn’t known about SHEILD finally found out about the other agency they were sharing funds with, there would be chaos. All of these agencies would turn on them, en masse. Every single decision made by SHIELD would be questioned. Every agent of SHIELD would be publicly discredited. People would be screaming for accountability, not knowing that SHIELD was often the only thing that stood between their continued existence and guaranteed destruction. People would only see the fact that they hadn’t been elected, and that there was no one in charge of them. The WSC would publicly disown them because they hated the Avengers anyway. 

Stark would probably help them out, make SHIELD a subset of Stark Industries, but that would mean they’d retain none of the privileges that government agencies had. Stark was a good man, but SHIELD was used to operating independently. Having to comply with SI codes of conduct would slash their effectiveness.

Maria herself was all for freedom of information in principle, but considering that most of the public had no idea what to do with the information except potentially endanger important operatives more than the job already did, she had felt no personal qualms in embracing a role which involved keeping more secrets than anyone could count.

But this was not the time to worry about consequences. It was, technically, but they didn’t have that luxury. They needed to get out, to minimise damages. She didn’t know what good that would do, unless Stark and JARVIS came up with a way to magically solve all their problems, but she could do nothing else.

 

“Ma, turn on your television.” 

“Roger, your father and I are sleeping, baby. It’s late for us.” 

“Ma, it’s Maria. Turn on your television. Wake Dad up. You need to see this.” 

“Which channel?” 

“Any one will do.”

 

Fury was… not good. They’d got him down from the structure he’d been suspended on, and the first thing Maria had done was to press a gun loaded with blanks into one hand, and to hold his other hand. Some of the team had been tasked to taking down every camera they could find, just in case it helped. They didn’t have much time to linger, so they didn’t bother clearing the periphery completely. It was an in-and-out mission, and that’s what they did. The bastard who’d done this was clearly not there anymore, and they’d just send the Avengers to blow up the facility once Fury was out. Maria didn’t even care. It was safe enough, far from even the suburbs. She’d like to see who challenged her.

Fury wasn’t conscious when they reached the Helicarrier, and they had him installed into the med-bay with minimum fuss. She’d asked Coulson’s assistant to get her work to her in the waiting room. She knew people would be asking why she didn’t just sit in the offices, in her own office, or Fury’s. She didn’t really have an answer, but thankfully no one challenged her directly. It was probably the crazed look in her eyes, or the constant series of phone calls which resulted in her yelling at the top of her voice, every hour or so.  Pepper Potts had come over in person, steely eyed and ridiculously tall, to discuss options. No one did options like Pepper Potts.

Maria finally understood why Fury had shaved his head, because this job did not contribute to hair health. She had no idea what time it was, or how many days had passed. She didn’t remember the last time she’d bathed, or eaten something not left on her desk by Natasha. She didn’t know how many people had come to meet her, for things that just had to be done. She didn’t remember when she’d last slept. The hours and days melted into each other, punctuated by Natasha’s occasional visits, when Phil gave her time off from whatever they were doing.

She’d gotten Phil to handle the reconstruction and the safety of the SHIELD agents most at risk, the ones whose faces had been most clearly broadcast. But beyond that, she was handling the entire cover-up, doing the jobs of both the Director and the Assistant Director. These were exceptional circumstances, and exceptional measures had to be taken. 

Normally it was completely against Fury’s personal charter to have any one person with that much power, because it generally led to insanity and other bad things, but since he’d very inconsiderately gotten himself kidnapped, and left her with no choice, he could take his charter and suck it. It wasn’t like she had any other choice. There was no one else she could possibly ask to look for internal leaks. They didn’t even know if they had internal leaks. Until they were sure, she wouldn’t be able to trust anyone with anything vital, and these days, everything was vital. 

It felt like it would never end. 

Everyone was treating her with a certain deference, and she was sure it would go back to normal when Fury was back in action, but for now it was driving her mad. Banner, Rogers and Thor were in and out to give her updates in person, to bring and carry files and tables as she needed. Banner sometimes stopped to translate Fury’s medical charts into English for her, which she appreciated. Clint and Phil also stopped by, with people whom they thought needed to speak to her, about stuff happening in the outside world.

The public, and the government agencies who hadn’t been in in the know were baying for blood. The agencies and the bodies who had known were divided, torn between castigating SHIELD as a bunch of out-of-control military freaks, and supporting them as the first barrier between the planet Earth and the rest of the unknown. Politicians were taking the opportunity to pass laws which were both more and less restrictive to agencies, and definitely more restrictive to the people, and the courts were going insane, overturning increasingly ridiculous laws. The panic was leading to chaos, and people were being misled left, right and centre. There was no one in authority who could give a straight answer, and no one who could give a straight answer would have enough authority to be believed. The public would have laughed if anyone from SHIELD had asked them to keep faith, and trust.

Darcy Lewis, bless her weird little blogger heart, had taken social media platforms by storm. She’d started her own campaign, gathering support for SHIELD and the Avengers. She’d faced a fair few threats herself, but she was a strong, admirable woman. Maria Hill had enjoyed meeting her, even as she had been worrying about everything at the same time.

Somehow a couple of reporters had gotten into SHIELD HQ, which was simultaneously horrifying and infuriating, because how dare they, and how the hell did they even get in? Thankfully they’d been caught long before they reached the med-bay, deep in the bowels of HQ, but it was worrying. The public was in a frenzy.

She got a text message from Natasha, telling her that someone had dug up information on her, of all people, and records of the old case she’d argued, all those years ago, were coming to light. The judge whose life she’d saved was openly praising her as a defender of human rights, and an impressive lawyer. It helped, a little, because SHIELD’s assistant director being praised as a defender of human rights by judges from the 9th circuit meant a lot against criticisms by the director of the NSA saying that SHIELD should be shut down for massive human rights violations.

It was open season on SHIELD. On National Security. Open season on any agency which had ever engaged in covert operations. It was like Watergate, all over again. The newspapers were taking things out of context, making things worse for everyone involved, and Clint had had to be forcibly stopped from hunting down Rupert Murdoch personally, and shooting him in the face. Maria had only stopped him because it would legitimize the criticisms that were being levelled against them.

More than Watergate, it was like an amplified version of the Wikileaks scandal. So many people had come down against SHIELD, just because they hadn’t been open, and disclosed their activities and functions. Julian Assange himself had spoken up from the Ecuadorian Embassy he’d been hiding in, diverting a little attention to the fact that if they’d accepted Wikileaks as a legitimate asset for the freedom of information, they might have uncovered SHIELD earlier. Maria had been sorely tempted to let them go, but Natasha had stopped both Clint and Sitwell from hunting the bastard down. 

Stark was a godsend, though, and she’d never thought she’d ever say something like that. He didn’t even gloat when she blurted it out to him, which was a miracle all in itself. He understood exactly what was going on, and it wasn’t that she didn’t either, but he understood it with the intimacy of personal experience. Having grown up as he had, he’d been in the public spotlight his entire life. Nothing he’d ever done had been graced with privacy, and while he pretended that he didn’t care, that he enjoyed the constant over-exposure, she knew they were all smoke-screens.

He’d learned young to throw up smoke-screen after smoke-screen, one cover on top of another. SHIELD had rested on its laurels, confident in the assumption that they’d always be able to defend their privacy and integrity as a covert organisation. They had covers, but they’d never been tested like this. Stark knew what it took to hide from the public. He was an expert at making the media his bitch.

And confidently, no questions asked, he’d thrown the weight of his support in with SHIELD. Defense contractor or otherwise, the opinions of Stark as himself, and Potts as the voice of SI were incredibly powerful, and it helped a lot in stemming the flow of challenges and criticisms flowing in.

The Avengers were also suffering, because of their tainted association with SHIELD. It was something they’d never imagined would happen, because it was so far out of the realm of possibility. Maria had broken a vase the day someone had first suggested that Captain America was a spy for the other side, whatever that might be. Again, Stark had stepped in and helped out more than she’d imagined was possible.

The fact that he’d kept an independent presence from the Avengers, something that had annoyed Fury to no end, had come in incredibly useful, because it meant that much more when he sided with them. Rogers, Captain America, was more credible because Tony Stark, billionaire capitalist, had publicly supported him. That too, had been incredibly bizarre, but she could only be grateful that it had worked. If there was another emergency and SHIELD couldn’t support the Avengers, at least Stark would make sure they could go out there and do what needed to be done.

Stark had even roped in Professor Xavier, who had a not-too-great history with SHIELD. Apparently the Canadian lumberjack from that case, the one which was being furiously dug up by reporters around the world, was a mutant, and was working closely with Xavier. It had earned SHIELD the grudging support of the mutant community, and that was nothing to be scoffed at. Apparently Xavier and Stark were old casual sex buddies, because according to Stark they’d bonded over being rich, brilliant, bisexual, and secretive. It was more information than she’d ever wanted about Stark’s private life, but she and Fury were going to owe him big time, after this.

And just when things looked like they were getting better, Coulson had come in with a look on his face that spoke of nightmares still to come.

“Do you remember what we talked about? About families? All those years ago?”

 

“What about your family, Phil? How have they handled this? SHIELD, I mean.” 

“Well, you know I was an Army Ranger, before this. When I met Fury, and he wanted me.” 

“Yeah.” 

“Back when SHIELD was younger, we needed everyone full time. We had fewer options. Before we took you on, we’d decided that it was safer for all parties involved to make sure there were no loose ends in real life.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“They think I’m dead, Maria. They got a letter with the Rangers letterhead, signed by Nick, telling them that I’d died in the course of duty, and that they hadn’t been able to recover my remains. We sorted out a pension plan, and I gave them everything I could afford to, so they could live well. Nick and I planned out a living pension scheme for SHIELD employees. The pension increases if the employee is actually dead, of course, but if they’re alive and they need to be passed off as dead, for the sake of this career, we take care of it.” 

“God, Phil.” 

“It’s not as good as it sounds, Maria.” 

“Are you sure? Because I’m pretty sure my family would be delighted--” 

“Don’t say that,” Phil had snapped, sounding angry for the first time she’d ever heard. He got impatient, and irritable, and tetchy, because he was human, but she’d never heard him angry. “It’s horrible, Maria. My mother died, two years ago, and I couldn’t go to her funeral. I couldn’t say goodbye to her.”

 

It wasn’t a conversation she was likely to forget. She nodded.

“I hate to say this, because you know how I feel about it, but this is an opportunity if there ever was one.”

“Explain,” Natasha said, from behind Phil, walking into the room and studying him with careful eyes. Maria allowed it, because she wasn’t going to hide behind her scarier girlfriend, but this conversation sounded like she’d need a hand to squeeze.

“If you want to ‘die’, this is the time. We’ve got the media on your side. Maria Hill, Assistant Director of the big bad SHIELD, defender of human rights and good looking, smart lawyer from a good family. If we put it out that you died to save your boss, when Nick wakes up, he’ll be seen as the man who earned the loyalty of good people. Potts and Stark think it’s a terrible idea, because it’ll make you simultaneously more and less visible, but they don’t know what we’re capable of when we want to hide people. I’ve been ‘dead’ for years now. My entire family is military and law enforcement, and we’ve still managed to keep it on the down low.”

Maria took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Is there a deadline?” she asked, resisting the urge to cover her face with her hands and pretend she was anywhere but there.

Phil studied her, and she allowed it. He’d known her for such a long time that he knew her, and she trusted his opinion. She’d take his criticisms and opinions if she had to. “Two days, and then the plan’s no longer workable.”

“Your opinion?” she asked, because it mattered.

“I can’t tell you what to do, because we’re in different situations. I was close to my family. I don’t know, but you don’t seem very close to yours.” It hurt, but she’d asked for his opinion and he’d not do her the disservice of lying to her now. “From what I can tell, your Christmas didn’t go very well.” Phil took a deep breath and ploughed on, “If I were your boss, and a different person, I’d order you to do it, for the sake of the agency. It would be incredibly useful in getting public opinion on our side. Stark’s already got the reporters and publicity company in mind, should you chose to go through with it, and the paperwork won’t take more than a few hours. But remember, there’s no turning back.”

With that, he left Maria and Natasha. She dropped her pen onto the table, and stretched her fingers, feeling blank. Natasha stroked her head in silence, and Maria leaned into the simple,  human comfort. Natasha had been incredibly busy herself, Maria wasn’t sure with what, but she’d made the time to drop by with food and the occasional cup of coffee, for a quick kiss or a hug, and it was honestly what had kept her going.

It really wasn’t the time to be making important, irreversible personal decisions, not with the world crumbling around them and Fury not waking up, and the doctors getting more and more worried, and the constant media reports and exposés, and her history and life being thrown in her face at every corner. There was a reason she’d been hiding here, inside SHIELD, doing work that needed to be done, away from prying curious eyes.

She’d seen the video of the rescue. She’d seen her team, working fast, with precision and motivation, towards their common goal of rescuing Fury. She’d seen the snapshots of Fury, bloodied and unconscious, silent despite the regular and methodical beatings. She’d seen her own face, clear and recognizable, features unhindered by glasses or cowls, snapping out orders and hefting a gun larger than her own arm in one hand, and a miniature tracking device in the other, speaking constantly and rapidly in code into her earpiece. She’d seen the sudden concern and tenderness in her own face when she pressed the gun into Fury’s limp hands.

She knew that was the scene that would be replayed to death on the newsreels in the following months. She knew there would be conspiracies of her sleeping her way to the top, and that there would be riots and protests both in her name, and against it. She knew that they’d all focus on her, as the only woman in the tactical team, and the one clearly in charge. She’d been around the block more than once, with Sue Storm, and Natasha, and Pepper Potts. There would be the usual barrage of sordid nonsense, and everyone would either love her, or hate her, and everyone would pretend to be her friends but no one would actually do her any favours and keep their mouths shut. She knew what was going to happen.

The SHIELD agents working beneath her knew more about her from the news reports than she’d ever told them, in all the years she’d worked with them. For the first time, a flash of concern flitted across her mind for her parents, and how they’d be inundated by reporters, how they’d have their own privacy invaded by people camping in the driveway for any glimpse of Maria Hill’s family. She thought about how they’d be picking up calls from strangers, asking about their daughter, but not the musician. She wondered if the media had managed to trace her siblings. She wondered if the neighbours were being good, decent people, or if they were selling her childhood stories to the highest bidder.

She refocused on the room, with some effort. Natasha was studying her, but not impatiently. Maria sighed and tilted her head up, for a kiss. She’d needed a five minute breather anyway, from the damage reports that were flooding in from agents around the world. Natasha obliged, sweetly and gently.

“You’re going to do it.”

It wasn’t a command, or a question. It was a statement, and Maria knew it, because she was thinking it. There were bound to be consequences. She’d never be able to sit at her Ma’s kitchen table ever again. She’d never be able to fix things with her father. But there were more important things. People had sacrificed their entire lives for SHIELD, and the work it did. She’d wished for it often enough, herself. This was the time to do it, without hesitation. It would even spare her family some agony, if she was dead, because even the media vultures respected the dead. The main regret was that she wouldn’t be able to introduce them to her friends, to Phil and Natasha.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “I am. Can I ask you for a favour?”

Natasha studied her. “Will you and Phil tell them?” Maria knew most SHIELD families merited a personal visit when something like this happened. Generally the visit was made by a run-of-the-mill agent, or people from HR such as SHIELD had. This would be off the books, though. Phil Coulson and the Black Widow, but she figured she was entitled to some nepotism. There was still some part of her that wanted them to think well of her in death, and there were no two people better placed to do it.

Natasha nodded, and that was the end of it. She’d do it for Maria, and that was good enough for her. She got the paperwork started, and then went back to the rest of it. There was limited time for personal business anyway. She’d have to think about it later. She didn’t have time for this. She could only hope that she wouldn’t regret it later.

Roger opened the door to a plain looking man in a suit, and a lady with bright red hair in what looked like a cat-suit. “Who are you?” he demanded, and the two exchanged glances.

“I’m Phil Coulson, and this is Natalie Rushman. We’re from SHIELD. Are Mr. and Mrs. Hill around?”

Roger studied them, and nodded. “Come in,” he said, opening the door a little wider. There was a small congregation of people in the living room and the kitchen, all the curtains closed. One or two paparazzos had jumped on Coulson, but they’d been very quietly taken care of, in the front garden.

Phil took off his sunglasses indoors, and stood ramrod straight, and Natasha stood behind him, to his right, in resting position. “Mr. Hill, Mrs. Hill. My name is Phil Coulson, and I’m from SHIELD. It’s with great regret that I have to inform you that Director Maria Hill passed away in the course of duty last night. She was an incredible agent, and an excellent leader. She will be missed, and we would offer our condolences to you.” It was a standard speech, but this was going to be a little different.

Maria had begged them to be nice to the Hills, because they were still her family, and now that she was never going to see them again, she was seeing them a little more favourably than normal. Natasha and Phil had immediately agreed, because there had been no need to beg.

There was a split second of silence, and then noise. Mrs. Hill sagged against her husband, crying, and Mr. Hill had one arm around his wife, but he was yelling the loudest, putting Roger to shame. The sister and her girlfriend were crying softly, and Roger’s wife had gathered her children around her, and was soothing them in the face of the uproar.

Phil and Natasha waited it out, because there was no nice way to tell them to shut up. Finally the outburst of questions dwindled down to a few pertinent ones. “What happened?” Mrs. Hill asked, and everyone silenced immediately.

Natasha spoke for the first time. “Director Hill was on the team to rescue Director Fury. She was the highest ranking official on the team, and she was required because no one else was allowed access to Director Fury’s details. There was an ambush waiting for them, as they left. She split the team into two, half to remove Director Fury from the situation and half to stay and fight. She, herself remained with the latter team. There were no survivors. We understand that it was quick.”

There was more silence, and the crying was intensifying. It had been a little insensitive, but it was the story they had agreed on with Maria, least likely to prompt requests for a body. Roger was pale, and he kept covering his mouth as if to block the sounds he didn’t want to make.

“Director Hill was invaluable. She will be impossible to replace. SHIELD will be holding a closed casket funeral for her in Arlington Memorial, in Washington. She will be receiving a military send off, as someone of her position deserves. You are more than welcome to attend.”

“When?” Roger asked, voice rough. “We’ll need to book tickets.”

Phil and Natasha exchanged glances again. This part wasn’t Maria approved, but she had given them discretion. “You don’t need to. Tony Stark has offered a private jet to Washington, and accommodation for Director Hill’s family.”

“Tony Stark? Iron Man?” One of the kids asked, and her mother shushed her.

“Yes,” Natasha responded, and something must have struck.

“You’re the Black Widow!” the child exclaimed, and Natasha figured it was typical that the kids would recognize her first, because they spent all their time glued to the television.

She nodded, because there was no point denying it. Roger gaped. She ignored him.

“Did you know her?” Mrs. Hill asked, crying somewhat under control, even if she still looked wrecked.

Phil and Natasha nodded together. “I recruited her, Mrs. Hill. Many years ago. Director Fury and I selected her out of hundreds of promising legal students.”

“She applied to Shield?” Roger asked, incredulous.

“No one applies to SHIELD, Mr. Hill. SHIELD picks you. Maria was extraordinarily talented. Most of our recruits are military in origin. We needed someone with Maria’s aptitude. We trained her, of course, but she was always destined for leadership. She was one of my best friends,” he finished, looking genuinely sad. Natasha gave him credit.

“Why are you here, Ms. Widow?”

Natasha made eye contact and said with no hesitation, “Maria and I had been romantically involved for some time, now. She was my handler in the field, and off field, we were close. She’s family. She was family,” Natasha amended, with pain in her own eyes at the correction. Phil was good, but no one was as good as her.

One of the women, Barbara, stepped up to her and hugged her, and Phil was momentarily worried that he’d end up resuscitating a pregnant woman, but Natasha relaxed, and allowed herself to hug back. “I’m sorry for your loss,” Babs said, sincerely, and they both understood why Maria had spoken highly of this woman.

“And we are, for yours,” Natasha responded.

“This is a difficult time, but there are certain things that need to be handled. The media frenzy, for one.”

“Oh god,” Roger said, under his breath. “Is it going to get worse?”

Phil shook his head. “As a matter of fact, with your permission we will be publishing a list of the dead. Maria will be declared a national hero, along with the teammates who perished in the attack. This is highly unprecedented, but since we have been damaged by this over-exposure, our tactics will be to give them what they want and demand respect. We know that the families of heroes are generally undisturbed, and it is our hope that you will also be allowed to grieve in peace.” 

“That’s fine,” Mrs. Hill said, making the decision with surprising sureness. “Maria deserves to be honoured, and we can only hope she knows that we were wrong to doubt her.”

Phil nodded, and Natasha offered a little smile to the older woman. “Secondly, the issue of Maria’s assets. There is a will, and she has left most of her property to assorted members of her family both by blood and by law. She has left some things to us, her friends and family at SHIELD. The will cannot be contested, because of Maria’s position and her signature, but we can assure you that 98% of the financial assets will remain with the Hill family. If you should so choose, you can hire a manager to liquidate the assets, or you can elect a SHIELD lawyer to handle it, free of charge. It would be the least we could do,” Phil said, gently. 

Mrs. Hill nodded, “yes please.”

“And the final issue is that of her pension. As a high ranking officer in an agency like SHIELD, Maria has a family pension. It will increase with time, and it is little solace, but hopefully it will help smooth the years ahead.” Rogers’ wife looked like she was dying to ask the sum, but even she knew it would be rude. “We just need to know where to deposit it, and we’ll take care of the rest.” This was a lie, because they already knew where to deposit it, but they just asked because it would be creepy otherwise. 

“I don’t remember the details off the top of my head, Paul,” he said, looking a little blank. Phil didn’t blink, or give any indication that Roger had made a mistake. “Can I send you my parent’s bank details?” Roger asked, sounding more subdued than he had during the entire conversation, like he’d only just realised what he was feeling. Natasha herself understood that shock often numbed grief, until you’d processed it. Roger looked like he’d finished processing it. She was sure the tears would start soon. Phil nodded, sensing the same thing. These visits were never easy. They’d be glad when this one was over.

Fury woke up the morning after the announced Maria’s death. Some nurse had put a newspaper in the room, as per Maria’s request, and it was one of the rare occasions she’d taken a break to make out with the Black Widow in the ladies restroom. 

She arrived back to a room containing a, well... Furious Director, and a petrified junior nurse. She had her gun in hand and her girlfriend at her back when she stormed the room, half terrified that they were being attacked again. She was only surviving because of the thought that this would all be over when Fury woke up. If Fury never woke up, she’d have to deal with this shit forever, and she honestly had no desire to actually die by drowning in paperwork. Also she’d miss him, but she’d never say it to his face because he’d laugh at her for being mushy. 

“Thank fuck, you’re awake!”

“Why the motherfuck are you in the obituaries ?” he demanded, shaking off the hand of the nurse as she tried to re-attach an IV.

Natasha narrowed her eyes at him and did it herself, moving the nurse gently aside. “Shake me off and I’ll break your hand.”

Fury, still probably a little high and dazed from his comatose state, gestured expansively with his other hand, as if to say, ‘this? the fuck is this?’. Fury always had the most hilarious expressions when he was drugged and/or tired and/or facing Stark. The tit.

“You’ve been out for a while, boss. Shit’s gone down. We dealt with it the best way we could. If that needed me to be in the obituaries, then I’ll be in the obituaries for as long as you need.”

His face tightened, as if he could understand what she was not saying. “What the hell happened, Maria?”

“We got you out. Everything else was unavoidable.” She wasn’t being deliberately obtuse, honestly. She wasn’t sure how to tell him that she’d faked her death because he hadn’t been waking up, and because SHIELD was in trouble, and that she hadn’t known what to do. She’d not have been in this position if she’d been in any other job, honestly. After that thing with the Mutants exploding the Moon, and her having to explain the SNAFU to the WSC, she’d never thought she’d face an explanation like this again. But then, here she was.

Nick continued glaring at her with his one good eye, in complete silence.

She caved. He was the only one who’d ever been able to do this to her. “I used the Pension Clause.”

Nick sighed. “God fucking damn it, Maria. I’m sorry.”

Before she could stop herself, she’d pushed out of her chair and was on her feet, next to the bed. “No, Nick. It’s not your fault. This was my choice. I chose to do this. You’re not allowed to take responsibility for it. Understood?”

He relaxed, and she only knew it because she was watching his heart monitor, but he didn’t smile. “You know I’m still your boss, right?”

She snorted. Fury had promised her and Phil years ago that he’d never use the “your boss” line on them, because he respected them more than that. “Not anymore, Nick,” she responded, mustering as much cheer as she could manage. “I’ve been Director of SHIELD for a while now. I haven’t reinstated you,” she said, smirking.

It was a sign of the respect and trust between them that Nick’s heart-rate didn’t jump, didn’t even twitch. He wasn’t worried that she wouldn’t hand the title back. He wasn’t worried, and she wasn’t offended by his assumption. If anyone else had assumed it, she’d have kept the job, even if she hated it, because how dare someone tell her what she was and wasn’t going to do. But Nick knew she hated it, and she knew she was going to give it back. She wasn’t ready for it yet, and they both knew it. She was prepared, sure, but not ready, not in her mind. Not to take over that kind of responsibility on that time-scale.

With the whole thing with her family and with Natasha, it wouldn’t be long though, and when the time came, Nick would hand over the reins with grace, and dignity, and she’d accept his mentorship and his guidance and his friendship. There was no other way this could possibly have gone down, in any world.

Natasha coughed, gently, and Maria didn’t startle. She’d not forgotten her presence. Fury did, and it was only a little funny. She smirked. He rolled his eyes at her. “Widow. It’s good to see you.”

“And you, Director,” Natasha replied, because she too, could appreciate having someone in charge who knew what the fuck he was doing. Natasha had done a lot of things in her not-very-long life. She, of all people, knew the value of a commanding officer who genuinely cared for his people.

“Boss, I’m going to call Phil. And some other people, who’ve been waiting to see you.” He nodded and relaxed back into the bed. He didn’t normally relax, visibly, but he was giving in to the drugs, and that was okay. His only responsibility for the moment was to get better, so Maria didn’t have to deal with the godforsaken nightmare of paperwork ever again. If she’d stayed with the legal department, she’d probably have been able to do this shit in her sleep, or blindfolded. But it had been a long time since she’d had to deal with the esoteric stuff that lawyers sometimes took joy in dealing with. Now that Nick was awake, there was an end in sight, and wasn’t that just an amazing thought?

The funeral took place on a summery Saturday, in Arlington. It was unfairly summery, and a brisk breeze threatened to steal people’s hats. Maria was feeling… conflicted. She was attending her own funeral. She was officially, and legally dead. There was no coming back from this. There was nothing a court could do, to undo a death certificate. And she could never reveal herself, for SHIELD’s sake. She was pretty much looking at her final resting location, because they couldn’t have two grave slots reserved for the same Maria Hill, so when she did eventually die, this is where she’d be buried.

It was nice. Peaceful, and pretty. Shady trees and the sunshine dappled the grass in green and gold. It looked like something out of a postcard. Maria sat in the Helicarrier, several thousand feet in the air, and watched a live-stream from a camera held by Barton, who was sitting in a tree in Arlington. They wanted some Avengers presence, but it wasn’t supposed to be overwhelming. The idea was to portray a family in grieving, not a group of people celebrating (more or less) the success of their cunning plan. So the party from SHEILD had been limited to Rogers, Stark, Potts, Tasha and Phil. Banner and Fury were chatting quietly behind her, and Sitwell was nursing a coffee beside her, while she watched a casket with her own name, being put six feet under. It was truly a surreal experience. More so, probably than the exploding Moon thing.

Maria wanted to laugh, and she wanted to cry at the same time. She wanted to hide her face so she didn’t have to look at the screen, but even though she knew she didn’t have to, she did have to. She wasn’t sure what was happening to her feelings, and she felt like an emotional wreck. She thought that maybe it was just sinking in, that she’d never be able to visit her mum and her dad and her irritating knob of a brother. She’d never be able to tell them everything she’d wanted to say to them, or be able to hear that they loved her, from their lips. She might never do any of the things which she had spurned, for so many years.

It was incredibly silly, because if she’d had the option, she’d not have done any of it. She’d have had to be dragged to her parent’s home tied to a wild horse, if someone had told her to go visit them. But now that it simply wasn’t an option, she found herself feeling bereft. Maybe it was childish, but now that she couldn’t say a single thing to them, she found herself remembering a hundred different things that she’d always intended to tell her parents. Things like the fact that she loved them. That she missed them, and that she never wanted anything but acceptance from them. That she’d forgiven them for all the cruel things they’d said, and that she could only hope that they’d done the same. That she wanted to know how her mother made meatloaf, because though she hated it, it tasted like her childhood. That even though they’d been through a lot of stuff, and they hadn’t always got along, she wouldn’t have swapped her family for anything in the world.

It was a bit of a shock. For the first time in her life, all she had left was faith, that they knew all of this anyway. She could only hope, because there was no way she was ever going to get to tell them in person, and for the first time, she really understood why Phil had been so angry, all those months ago. In that older lifetime. Because it was a futile sort of rage, at a problem that could never be solved. Pointless. And she wanted to rationalise it, because there was no reason to be angry. But there was, because you never knew what you had, until it was gone.

But when Natasha was in her arms again, and in her bed, in the darkness of their bedroom, it occurred to Maria that Tony Stark had been right, all those years ago. That everyone involved in their business had a Sad Tragic Past ™. She’d thought that she was the exception to the rule. But the fact was that not everyone came into the business with a Sad Tragic Past ™. Sometimes the business created one for them.

That was pretty much exactly what SHIELD had done for her. It had taken away her family; her relatives and blood. Their relationship had soured the moment she’d left the legal profession, for SHIELD. It had taken a fragile thing, and snapped it, twisting the broken halves beyond repair. It had given her a Sad Tragic Past ™.

But the way it had taken from her, it had also given. She had found friends, and family, and success, and joy, and love. She had found confidence and ability and skill. She had found someone to share her life with. Multiple someone’s, whether they were romantically involved, or whether they sat in the rafters and wolf-whistled when she kissed her girlfriend, or whether they gave her advice, or weapons tech, or sub-dermal trackers, or options.

So maybe Stark’s thesis wasn’t wrong. She’d die before she told him that, though, the tit. Maybe she wasn’t the exception to the whole thing. Maybe, it was just incomplete, because yes, while everyone involved in this disaster of a business was in some way damaged and messed up, it wasn’t a bad place to be. Maybe this was the only place that many damaged people would ever belong. Maybe Stark needed a new thesis.

Maria Hill’s “SHIELD” Thesis: Every man, woman and person in-between with a Sad Tragic Past ™ would find kinship at SHIELD. SHIELD would function for those looking to escape their Sad Tragic Past ™, as a home, and a family.

She was sure Stark would kick up some sort of definitional fuss, about the meanings of words. But you could take the girl out of the legal system, but you couldn’t take the lawyer out of a girl. And it seemed to be a valid thesis so far. It was more encompassing than his, anyway.

She couldn’t wait to see how he reacted to that statement.