It wasn’t how she’d planned to spend her Friday night.
“One glass of the Californian Riesling, one glass of the St. Moritz Chardonnay, one Corona no lime, one bourbon on the rocks, one soda with a twist of lemon.”
Maria fully expected to have to repeat the order at least once, but it seemed the bartender was accustomed to hearing his patrons through the pulsing slipstream of the bar’s music. He went about filling the order without asking her to repeat it.
Either that, or he was making it up as he went.
“That’s a lot for a pretty lady like you to be drinking.” The guy to her right leaned into her space, a businessman with a heavy-handed smile and the reek of alcohol. “Had a bad week?”
...firing at Agent Barton as his jeep pushed hers back, Loki’s gleaming gaze drilling into her head, harsh grit in her nose and mouth as the New Mexico facility crumbled, scrambling for balance as the helicarrier tilted and her stomach tilted with it, cold weight in her chest as Fury relayed that Phil was dead, the sick punch in her gut as she realised the first plane had only been masking the second and even Fury would be too late, then waiting, hoping, praying that Stark had the courage and the strength to get rid of the nuke - that her family wouldn’t be living on the edge of a nuclear wasteland if they weren’t burned into so much radioactive dust by the blast radius...
And then Fury’s news this morning.
A bad week? He had no idea.
Maria gave him a thin, unencouraging smile. “Something like that.”
Between her expression and the vague answer, she hoped to dissuade him from continuing the conversation; but he’d had enough to drink that he was oblivious to the hint.
“Of course, New York’s been having a bad time of it lately - aliens and superheroes destroying the city.”
“Hey!” The woman on the other side of Maria paused in the middle of fishing through her handbag. “The Avengers saved us! The least you could do is show respect.”
“Respect?” The businessman snorted as he rocked forward, one elbow firmly planted on the bar the better to see who was speaking. His jacket gaped enough for Maria to note the weapons harness under his arm. “For a bunch of guys running around in masks and capes? You’ve got to be fucking joking! The city’s a mess after what they did to it--”
“And you’d prefer they’d left us to the mercies of the aliens – the Chitauri?”
“As I hear it, half of these ‘Avengers’ are aliens themselves! And caused the problem in the first place!”
Maria gritted her teeth, kept her eyes fixed on the bartender as he set the beer up next to the wines he’d poured and went about getting the bourbon, and hoped not to be asked her opinion on the matter.
No such luck.
“So what do you think of this superheroes business, huh?”
“Sir, you’re aware of my opinions on the Avengers Initiative?”
“Lieutenant, I am very aware of your thoughts on this matter. Which is why I’m assigning you to be the SHIELD liaison for the Avengers.”
“Phil Coulson believed they could be heroes when they worked past their differences.”
“When pushed, you mean, sir?” She had leeway to say that much. Director Fury could be a manipulative bastard, but he got results when they counted, and he’d give her enough rope with which to hang herself.
So far, Maria had managed to keep her neck out of the noose.
“Pushed, worked past their differences.” Fury shrugged.“They saved our bacon at a time when the fat was in the pan. They became the heroes we needed to fight Loki and the Chitauri. If they did it once, they’ll do it again.”
“If they don’t implode first,” she’d muttered.
“And that’s why I want you as liaison, Lieutenant. Coulson believed in them and it made them a team; what they now need is your unbelief.”
Maria snorted, amused in spite of herself. “So Coulson was the carrot, and I’m the stick?”
Fury chuckled. “That’s a shining compliment you’re paying yourself, Lieutenant, but it’s true enough. Although,” he added after a moment, “I was thinking more of a cattleprod.”
The debaters were waiting for an answer. So was the barman, who flicked her a curious gaze when she hesitated.
She was expected to answer, and it wasn’t as though she had no opinion on the matter. She just didn’t want to get involved in the conversation any more than she had to. “I’m glad they were there this time,” she said with perfect truthfulness. “I just wonder if they’ll be there the next time the world needs saving.”
The guy smirked past Maria at his opponent. “See, a sensible lady!”
On Maria’s other side, the woman gave a little sniff. “Well, I think they’re heroes, and nobody’s going to change my mind on that!”
In Maria’s mind, the problem wasn’t that they were heroes.
The problem was that they were heroes in a world that lionised them.
Two glasses were put down on the tray, a rueful smile touching the bartender’s lips as he put out his hand for Maria’s money. She handed him the bills and told him to keep the change, then began to head back across the room to the table where the rise and fall of Darcy Lewis’ voice threaded over and through the chatter and song of the bar.
She'd taken one step towards the table when the door slammed open and the gunman opened fire.
Her body reacted to the noise before her brain made sense of the sharp staccato sounds, the splinter of glass, the thud of projectile impact. The drinks crashed to the ground as she reached for the sidepiece she wasn’t carrying and ducked for cover.
Screams filled the bar, over the sound of gunfire – multiple firing streams, more than one weapon. Maria dodged as something came down almost on top of her, heavy and limp.
She shoved him away, pressing up against the underneath of the bar as the businessman hit the floor, his limbs bouncing askew on the polished floor. Maria swallowed hard at the sight of the bloody mess of his head and shoulders - too much like the dead after Loki’s attack on the helicarrier.
The thud on the other side of her heralded the woman with the handbag. The contents of the bag clattered as they tipped all over the floor and stained themselves with her blood.
Above, gunfire continued to shatter the air, underpinning the shrieks and screams of the people in the bar.
Nausea pushed in. She shoved it away and made herself think.
You don’t have time to get sick, you need a weapon and a distraction...
Groping under the businessman’s jacket, she pulled out a Browning GP 35, cocked and locked, the clip full. Thank you, Jesus. Not her preferred piece, but it would do.
She peeked around the corner of the bar itself, trusting to the stools to give her some cover as she assessed the situation.
Most of the bar’s patrons were dead, although a bunch were still alive and screaming as the gunfire stopped. Six men in black fatigues and military boots stepped coolly over the fallen corpses as they advanced on the cowering survivors. Not trigger-happy drunks, but armoured men with a purpose.
Armoured men, with military weapons, helmets and breastplates and boots. But nothing on their legs.
She settled her shoulder against the corner of the bar. Then she turned and aimed for legs and butts.
They weren’t prepared for an assault from behind and low down, but they didn’t completely fall apart either. Two went down, and she plugged them again as they fell. A third stumbled and went down, but she only just clipped the fourth. He was already turning, bringing his weapon to bear on her. Maria scrambled back as a storm of bullets smashed through the edge of the bar where she’d been hiding, spiralling clouds of splinters through the air.
Need a smokescreen.
She turned her cheek from the debris and her eye fell on the scattered contents of the woman’s purse.
There was a shout, and something shattered, glassy metallic. As Maria’s hand closed around her objective, she heard the sounds of fist meeting flesh and the gunshots stopped, then started again.
She dared a glance over the top of the bar. The man who’d been shooting at her was being shot by the fifth, his body jerking in the death-dance as the Black Widow used him as a human shield, her hair bouncing like a dark flame in the low light of the bar.
And Number Three down but not out on the floor was reaching for his handgun.
Romanoff couldn’t see him.
You might only get one shot, Hill. The trick is to make it count.
She rolled out from the bar, aimed and fired into Number Three’s neck. At the same time, Romanoff snapped off a shot at Number Five. He collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. Romanoff dispatched Number Six with Number Four’s sidearm, then dropped Four to the floor.
The sobs and moans of the living and dying rose into the quiet, unearthly peace.
Then one of the radio’s squawked: “Thing One, this is Thing Two. What’s your status? Over.”
“You didn’t have to come, you know,” Dr. Foster said quietly as Darcy Lewis led them up the street towards their destination. “I know Darcy can be overpowering.”
“Something of an understatement.”
Coulson had once made the observation that Darcy Lewis’ ability to beg, bribe, or bully people into her plans was almost a superpower in and of itself.
Considering she was walking down a tattered Tribeca street with four women she either barely knew or didn’t socialise with for drinks on a Friday night, Maria could well believe it.
Dr. Foster gave a little laugh. “It does seem kind of supernatural at times. If it’s any comfort, I think Ms. Potts and Agent Romanoff are feeling out of their depth, too. I told them they didn’t have to stay if they didn’t want to.”
But they had. And since they had, Maria figured she might as well, too. In the name of being a friendly neighbouhood liaison with the world’s most famous superhero team and the people in their lives.
Up ahead, Pepper Potts was picking her way through a smashed mess of cement and metal – just one more architectural casualty of the Chitauri incursion. For a moment, Maria thought that the woman might stumble – those heels were ridiculously high and spindly – but Pepper continued on, never mind that this neighbourhood had to be a far cry from what she was used to seeing as CEO of Stark Enterprises. If her expression was more amused than enthused, Maria couldn’t fault her for being game.
At the other end of the spectrum, Agent Romanoff moved confidently through the darkness and the rubble. If she felt out of her depth – which Maria sincerely doubted – she was hiding it well. No surprise there, infiltration and interrogation were among the skills offered by Black Widow, which meant the ability to blend.
Although from what she could see, the bar they were heading towards, even Natasha Romanoff would have a hard time blending in here.
“Have you been here before?”
“Yes. Back when I first did consulting work for SHIELD, Darcy would drag me here for a night off.”
“Involving large amounts of alcohol?”
Dr. Foster looked rueful as they skirted the debris and made their way to the bar where Darcy was already pushing open the door to a wave of music and chatter and the scent of food that went well with beer. “According to Darcy, it’s not a night out if it doesn’t involve large amounts of alcohol.”
“A second team?” Darcy Lewis asked from the back of the room, her voice distinctive and carrying. “God, what do they want?”
What they wanted was of secondary interest to Maria. “We need to get the civilians out of here. And get help to the injured.” She glanced at Natasha who was already stripping the weapons from the dead. “There’ll be a way out through the kitchens. Come on,” she said, bending to help up the nearest couple - a man and a woman. “We’ll get you to safety out the back--”
The cry came from across the room, and Maria spun.
She drilled the first man through the door in the throat, but there were more behind him and she was nearly out of ammo. Maybe two or three more before she ran out, although Natasha had the weapons she’d taken off the assault team. That would buy them time but they needed more.
The jar of face powder was still in her left hand. She tossed it towards the door, high and arcing.
Her shot shattered the plastic casing, sending up a great billow of powder into the air. Thank you, Phil. It wouldn’t be much but they’d take whatever advantage they got...
It’s not your job to take the advantage, snapped a little voice in her head. You can’t get the civilians out, so think! Why are they here? What do they want?
Then Natasha crashed into her, tumbling them into a roll that took them down the aisle of tables towards the back of the bar. Maria tucked, instinct taking over, but winced as she rolled over a limp hand and felt the knuckles dig into her shoulderblades.
A moment later, she was being dragged to her feet and shoved into a startled Jane Foster who’d been crouching behind an overturned table.
“Restrooms.” Natasha gave no further explanation and Maria needed none.
Maria grabbed the slender astrophysicist and hustled her into the women’s restroom. Darcy and Pepper followed a moment later, and Natasha finished up, closing the door behind her and jamming something underneath the door before she turned off the lights.
“Hey!” Darcy protested as they were thrown into darkness.
“Bars on the windows,” Maria reported. “No exits out.”
“So it’s basically a dead end,” Darcy said. “Not that I’m not glad to get out of the firing line...”
“You weren’t in the firing line to begin with.” Natasha said, turning and striding into one of the cubicles. “Have you gotten Stark yet?”
Pepper brought up her phone. “I’m trying, but there’s no reception.” She sounded plaintive, almost lost without the familiar technology. Not really a surprise considering her position: Stark Industries really did have all the best toys – even SHIELD acknowledged that, as they tried to curb the more egregious of Tony Stark’s excesses.
“They’ll have signal jammers,” Maria said, checking her clip. “They don’t want us contacting the Avengers. Or SHIELD.”
“Us?” Darcy queried, before Natasha thrust a roll of toilet paper into her hands.
“Cover the windows.”
Maria answered her, already seeing what the Black Widow was doing. “In case of snipers. You’ve TP’d houses before.”
Jane gave a short laugh. “SHIELD knows all your secrets, Darcy!”
“And something else,” Pepper said, and now her voice was crisp and clear – no longer the worried civilian, but the woman in whom Tony Stark had put the responsibility of his family’s company when he thought he was dying. “They know what’s going on. Don’t they?”
Her gaze flicked from Natasha to Maria in challenge.
She wasn’t expecting Agent Coulson to be quite so...ordinary. A quiet, unassuming-looking man with competence written all over him. On the other hand, if the reports were true, this was one of SHIELD’s most experienced field agents and not a man to underestimate.
And hadn’t all her assessments from her days in the Marines listed ‘quiet and competent’ as her major traits - right up until she encountered SHIELD in the Madripoor incident?
“Agent Coulson? A pleasure to meet you, sir.”
He smiled a little - a faint, almost cynical twist of his mouth. “I hope you keep thinking that, Cadet Hill. I’m actually here to make your life difficult.”
“Standard procedure for newbies, sir?”
“Pretty much. And you can drop the ‘sir’, Hill. I’m not your senior.”
“Only in the ways that count,” she observed, dryly, and won a flicker of a smile from him. “Isn’t that why I’m here?”
Phil made her life difficult, certainly. Her first two months at SHIELD were spent learning the ropes, which in most organisations, was a reasonably simple process.
SHIELD was not ‘most organisations’. Command structures, political landscapes, technological history, current situations. Chains of command, agents and their specialities, oaths of loyalty, and a running list of every SHIELD operation on the go.
She worked with Phil on the Florida situation, and kept an eye on the operation in Istanbul. When Barton brought in the Widow, she was one of those objecting, thinking the Hawk had begun thinking with his balls.
“I made the call,” Barton said, unrepentant under questioning. “I’d make it again.”
“It’s a political intelligence shitstorm just waiting to happen,” Director Fury muttered later, striding down the hallway with Phil and Maria in tow.
“If it ever gets out,” Phil noted. “We’re hardly the sharing, caring kind, boss.”
“Which is why I’m keeping the lid on this - at least for the moment. Midnight clearance until I say otherwise, and no-one gets in to see her. Especially not Barton.”
Phil shook his head. “If she’s for real...”
“If she’s for real, then we’ve gained a useful operative,” Maria said, seeing the operational possibilities. They had plenty of operatives throughout the world, but the Black Widow was nearly legendary. To gain her skills would be a coup.
“We have to confirm the ‘if’ first,” Phil said. “That’s the real problem we have.”
“What’s going on?” Jane demanded, turning serious again. “What do you know?”
Natasha looked at Maria as though to say, ‘This one’s yours.’ Then, she took Pepper’s handbag and upturned it into the sink in a clatter of miscellany and began sorting through it, looking for weapons.
“They weren’t trying to kill us.” Maria said. “Why not?”
“Are you freaking serious? Did you see the way those guys opened fire on the bar?”
“On certain sections of the bar,” she emphasised. “They were very deliberate about their lines of fire. Which means they wanted some of the people in the bar left alive.”
“And we were in there having a drink.” Jane’s voice was flat, as though the realisation was just coming to roost. Maria pitied her at little; it seemed clear that, in spite of her assignment to Tromsø when Loki came on the scene, the astophysicist hadn’t fully realised the repercussions of being associated with the Avengers after the New York incursion.
“Any one of us would make a more than adequate hostage,” Pepper was saying, more calmly than Maria would have expected of her. “All of us together...”
Maria grimaced. “All of us together is a message.”
“The question is who’s sending it and what they want.” Natasha frowned at a metal nail-file with a rough point, then laid it aside. “Pepper, you don’t have any knives in here!”
“You’re the assassin, Natalie,” Pepper retorted, “I’m just the CEO.”
“What I want to know is what they want us for,” Darcy said, slapping another wad of wet toilet paper at the high window with significant accuracy.
“If we don’t get a message out, we’re going to find out.”
Their prospects weren’t favourable. They were hemmed into the restroom, cut off from communications, with three handguns of which only two had full clips, and they had no idea how many were out there, let alone what they wanted.
Darcy pointed at Pepper’s phone, wiping her hands on her jeans. “It’s a quad-band, right?”
“I don’t know the technical specifications. It does all the things I want it to do.”
Darcy made ‘gimme’ motions, and upon catching it, popped open the case and started working on the insides. “Got a manicure kit in that bag?” A moment later, she was performing technological surgery on the Pepper’s phone. “I have friends, okay? They taught me stuff.”
Exactly what stuff they’d taught her, she didn’t say. Maria quirked an eyebrow at Jane, who shook her head and shrugged.
She made a note to mention Darcy Lewis’ skill set to Fury. He’d pegged Darcy as a survivor from the get-go – even offering her a job, which she’d rejected. But things had changed in the six months since Thor’s arrival; another job offer might not go amiss.
Of course, there were other small considerations that needed to be made; such as getting out of this situation alive.
“It’s gone quiet outside,” Pepper noted after a moment.
They all paused, listening.
“Maybe they’re not after us after all?” Jane looked hopefully at Maria.
“Jane Foster!” They started as the voice seemed to boom through the restrooms. Natasha pointed up to the ceiling and the PA system installed there as the man continued speaking, his tones resonant, European accented, and faintly amused. “Jane Foster, we have four hostages lined up. If you don’t come out of the restrooms in the next minute, we’ll start shooting them.”
Maria looked at Jane - who was staring at the door, disbelief inscribed on every plane of her face. By the faint light of the phone Darcy was still hurriedly adjusting, she looked pale and stunned.
“Whoa. Wanted, dead or alive,” was Darcy’s comment.
“I... I don’t... Why me?”
“Your connection to Thor?”
“But...but he’s not even on Earth right now!”
“H-hello?” A new voice came over the PA, young, female and stuttering. “J-Jane Foster, m-my name is Mina Buschaus and they...they have a gun to my head. I’m a fourth year med student at New York University...”
“It doesn’t matter why,” Natasha said, her voice low and throaty beneath the trembling quaver of the med student as she explained why she’d been out tonight. “We have to make a move now. Maria?”
Maria studied Jane, her eyes narrowed. “Take off your jacket.”
“Swap clothes.” She tugged out her hair and, running her hands under the tap to wet them, quickly tried to style it as the other woman did as the med student gave way to a businessman - Mark Li - who had a wife and three kids at home. “Give me your jacket, your scarf, and your earrings. Hurry!”
“You’re not going out there alone,” Pepper objected.
“No,” Maria agreed. “But I’m going out there first. Dr. Foster is a civilian, and this is a SHIELD matter.”
“You don’t know that...”
Natasha was already helping Jane out of her jacket. “No, but it’s a good guess.” She helped Maria into the jacket. “You know you’ll only buy a few seconds before they realise it’s a switch.”
Maria arched a brow as she put on the earrings. “All you need is a few seconds distraction. I can provide that.”
The third hostage had said his piece, and the fourth hostage was trembling as she sobbed out her name but couldn’t do anything more than weep.
“It’s working,” Darcy said, holding up the phone. “Who’re ya gonna call?”
“Fury,” Maria said, at the same time as Natasha said, “Stark.”
Pepper took it from Darcy and pressed her speed-dial. “I’m calling Tony. He can get hold of Fury--”
“Are you hearing this, Dr. Foster?”
Jane took a step towards the door, only to be caught by Natasha. “Yes!” She called. “I’m hearing you! But I’m not coming out until you can guarantee the safety of the--”
The gunshot echoed through the speaker, followed by moaning and a shriek, quickly muffled.
“That’s your guarantee.”
“All right!” Jane’s voice cracked and there were tears forming in her eyes when she looked at Maria. “I’m coming out!”
In the background, Pepper was talking to someone on the phone - possibly Stark, although the cadences didn’t sound right. She paused a moment to look at Maria. “They’re on their way. If you wait a minute...”
It was tempting. Oh, Maria was tempted. Wait for Stark and whoever else to turn up and deal with this - after all, this was the kind of thing that Stark and the Avengers did, right?
She thought about a silent crowd kneeling before Loki, with only one man who believed that it didn’t matter if a hero came to save him or not, dying on his feet was better than living on his knees.
She thought about heroes in a world that lionized them, then worshipped them, then waited for them to swoop in and save the day.
And she thought of Phil Coulson, bleeding out his belief and faith in heroes who’d failed him.
Maria shook her head as she faced the door. “We can’t afford to wait.”
Every agent knew that sometimes missions went wrong.
They all dreaded the thought that things might go bad on one of theirs.
With one agent confirmed down and another probably similarly dead, Maria made the call to Hawkeye.
“Send in the Widow. You’re covering. Get that drive or we’re all screwed. Call in at the standard time.”
Hawkeye’s answer was typically direct. “On it.”
Alan Thorpe swivelled on his chair, briefly turning his back to the bank of screens in the surveillance vehicle. “We’re screwed anyway now that you’ve sent Romanoff in. If she’s recognised...”
“She won’t be.”
“Whatever. You know the instant she gets her hands on that drive, she’s gone. There isn’t a government in the world that would turn away someone who turned up on their doorstep bearing that. Even our own.”
“SHIELD is unaffiliated with any international government,” Maria recited as she watched the camera feeds into the building. “And Romanoff will come through.”
“Sisters standing together?”
Maria ignored the other agent’s taunt. Romanoff was good; everyone agreed on that. Whether she could be trusted...well, nobody seemed to agree on that. And Maria would freely admit she was among the doubters.
Still, the Black Widow was the operative most likely to manage to get into ‘the cage’ and get out with the drive. And they had to use her sooner or later or else finish what Hawkeye had held back from doing. The truth was that Natasha Romanoff was a weapon; and one either used a weapon, or made sure one’s enemies couldn’t.
Trustworthy? Maybe. Hawkeye was still vouching for her; unwavering in his decision. Fury said nothing. Coulson was leaning towards trust. But trust was earned – so long as the opportunity to earn it existed.
Hawkeye had earned SHIELD’s trust; why shouldn’t the Black Widow have the same opportunity?
So maybe it was ‘sisters standing together’.
Either way, Maria figured now was as good a time as any to test the Widow’s loyalties.
Thorpe turned back to his monitors, and Maria began arranging someone to clean up the mess, and to get the dead agents shipped out via their port in Thessalonika.
Nothing showed on the screens, which was precisely as it should have been.
The coffee was cold and thick, and the deadline fast approaching before which Hawkeye was supposed to report in with success or failure.
She ignored the look on Thorpe’s face as the deadline drew closer, and forced herself to open the report on the iron suit that international weapons manufacturer Tony Stark had developed to get himself out of captivity in Iraq. Phil had come back with promises from Stark’s assistant, but not much else.
Still, the reports of the suit’s capabilities were impressive. If SHIELD could leverage that - learn how he’d made it, developed it, powered it...
Her comm beeped.
“This is Hill.”
“Hawkeye here. We got it.” There was a murmur in the background - Romanoff’s throaty voice. “We got something else you should see, too...”
The ‘something else’ turned out to be one of the programmers of the virus - a skanky weed of a guy who mostly stared at Maria’s breasts until the other agents dragged him off to a Greek safehouse for questioning.
She was just about to contact Fury with the news when she realised Romanoff was waiting for her by the van. “Yes?”
The other woman hesitated. “Thank you. For letting me out there.”
There were a lot of things she could say. Maria settled for, “You were needed.”
Romanoff nodded, hearing what went unsaid.
They hadn’t turned up the lights in the main bar, so most of the illumination was coming from the backlit panel behind the bar.Five armed shadows held weapons on the kneeling hostages, their outlines dark against the coloured lights.
Maria moved quickly forward, knowing she was out of time. In a moment, they’d realise they’d been duped and--
She ‘stumbled’, bumping her hip on the corner of the nearest table, and felt a sudden sting in her throat about the same time as she heard the buzz. The next stumble was real.
Dizziness swamped her, the room wavering before her eyes. Tranquiliser. So they wanted Doc Foster alive, at least...
She might have blacked out, because there was suddenly noises and shouting. Someone was firing shots, a steady blam-blam-blam that shuddered through Maria’s skull. Red hair caught fire in the blur of her vision as Natasha Romanoff moved like a whip and dealt death where she struck.
Necks cracked, limbs flailed, shots fired, men grunted.
There was more screaming from hostages who didn’t have the sense to keep quiet and not draw notice to themselves.
Maria pushed herself up, leaning heavily on the table the better to see. Sweat broke out across her brow, and she winced as a fist clenched in her gut, twisting with pain. Breathe deep and don’t let it dominate. You’re stronger than this. Think past the pain. Squeezing her eyes shut, she forced them open again.
Natasha moved with ferocious grace and deadly intent that held the eye and caught the breath. The Widow was dancing, and men danced with her - four men, three men, two men, one...
There’d been six in the first assault team. She’d taken out one in the initial assault, which should have left five for the Widow to deal with. Why weren’t there six in the second assault team? Or were there?
Where was the sixth man?
Around her, the world wobbled, and for a moment the bar was overlaid by a galaxy of stars out in endless space. She shook her head and the dark lines and shapes of the bar solidified, driving away the impending blackout.
Don’t be sick. You’re not allowed to be sick, goddamit!
But what the hell had been in that tranq?
She pushed herself upright, pulling the gun from her jacket. Her vision was clearing, her thoughts screaming at her that there was a sixth man and he was--
The bartender. Rising up from behind the bar, the long line of a customised weapon in his hand. Not a rifle, not a baseball bat, not a handgun; not anything that he should have, not anything he should be pointing at Natasha.
Maria’s hands were shaking as she brought up the gun. Don’t lose it don’t lose it don’t lose it...
Make it count, Lieutenant.
Coulson’s voice in her head, calm and quiet. Reassuring. Believing. Maria exhaled, aimed, and made it count.
Glass tinkled down around the remains of the bar, noisy in the silence.
Natasha knocked the last one out, then turned, eyeing the man whose brains were now plastered across the mirrored back of the bar. She looked at Maria, the hint of a smile shadowing her mouth. “Thank you.”
Maria managed a shrug. “It was needed.”
The next minute they spun to point their weapons at the door as it slammed inwards. At least, Maria pointed her weapon at the door as Natasha dive-rolled out of the way - and came up with her weapon trained on Stark in full Iron Man gear.
Maria’s arms dropped like they were made of lead. Oh, thank you, Jesus.
Later, she reflected that she should’ve been glad that Stark didn’t just blast first and ask questions later.
As it was, he took one look at the room, landed, and raised his faceplate. “You know, when Pepper called me to say you were in trouble, I imagined you were actually in trouble. But I have to say, you certainly know how to throw a party.”
Her stepmother had aged in the last six months, although the smile was still there, warm and gentle as she kissed Maria on the cheek.
“Paul keeps asking when you’re going to come home.”
Inwardly, Maria shuddered at the thought of returning to the house where she’d grown up. ‘Home’ it might be to her six younger brothers and sisters, but never to her. “I’ll see what I can manage. Work’s busy right now.”
“You’re working too hard.” Anna studied her, pale eyes flicking across Maria’s face. “Don’t lie to me, I can see it.”
“We have a lot of projects in the works,” Maria said lamely, stirring her coffee although there wasn’t any sugar in it. “A number of things came up all at once...”
“And that means you can’t look after yourself?”
“I’m looking after myself.”
“You’re too thin, dear. I’m sure you’re cheeks are thinner. And you don’t talk about your friends anymore.”
Which was mostly because Maria had so few friends anymore - most of them were SHIELD agents, and what they discussed was primarily about the work they did at SHIELD. She could hardly talk about that to her stepmother.
Sometimes Maria wondered why she kept up with Anna now that her father was dead. Of course, now that her father was dead, it was much easier to see her stepmother. There were no harsh comments to weather, no criticisms to swallow - no sting of disapproval to endure without saying anything back.
Then the older woman reached across the table. “I’m nagging. I know. Michaela has a lot to say about that now that she’s in college.” She sighed. “I just worry about you, Maria.”
And this was why she kept up with Anna.
“You don’t need to.”
“No,” Anna agreed. “I don’t. I know you’re a grown woman who can look after yourself. You’ve got your own life, and it’s a good one. It’s just that sometimes I think you should have someone to look after you a little, too.”
It wasn’t how she’d planned to spend her Friday night.
The cops came and took statements from the survivors of the attack. The EMTs came and patched up the injured - a very small number. The coroner’s van came to take away the dead. Two more coroners’ vans from the neighbouring boroughs came to assist.
Maria reported in to Fury.
“There was significant organisation behind it, sir. Two strike teams with a man on the inside. They had a plan for getting hold of her, including a prepared tranquiliser, and a vehicle for the getaway.”
The getaway vehicle was an ambulance with what looked very much like a steel coffin in the back. Maria took one look at the coffin and had the doors closed and a beat cop posted to ensure they stayed closed. Jane should not see that. She was having enough trouble dealing with the idea that the assault teams had been gunning for her.
Dr. Selvig was with Jane now, holding her by the shoulders and talking to her in low, calming tones.
It turned out that, with Pepper out having a ‘girls’ night’, Stark had been drinking with his fellow Avengers and Dr. Selvig in Avengers Tower. The others might not have taken the time to suit up, but they’d come at a dead run, ready for battle all the same, only to find they’d missed the party.
Stark was snarky about getting all dressed up with nowhere to go. And even more snarky about the fact that Maria had shot up the bar when she took out the bartender, so he couldn’t even have a drink. Pepper had him in hand right now, and was arguing with him over her need to be checked over by the EMTs since she hadn’t been involved in any of the action.
“Natasha and Maria are the ones--”
“Who I don’t care about. Or, rather, I do - but more in the way of other people’s small pets that I’ll try not to kick but I’m not particularly going to worry about if they choke to death on a sausage. Pepper.”
“Tony. I’m fine.”
“And we have no idea who these people are?” Fury was saying in Maria’s ear.
Across the street, Barton paused as the EMTs brought out one of the corpses, then grabbed a flashlight and headed for one of the bodies - the bartender.
“We have their bodies, their uniforms, and their weapons for study... Sir, will you hold a minute?”
She strode over to Barton.
“Old friend of yours?” She saw Dr. Banner wince, and caught the edge of Captain Rogers’ frown, but didn’t look away from Barton. There was no point in mincing words; Barton didn’t expect kindness from anyone, least of all her.
“One of Loki’s.” He met her gaze, angry but uncowed. Accepting his responsibility, but not about to bow under the weight of it. “This guy, and these two...” He turned to check the others. “Him, him, not him, and those two.”
“Sir, are you getting this?”
“Loud and clear, Hill. Over half the strike team were Loki’s leftovers.” Fury made a growling noise in his throat. “Looks like we got another infestation to clean out. Tell Barton to get his ass in to my office tomorrow morning. Selvig, too. We’re going to need to pick their brains clean on this one. Tell Romanoff she’s not to come in with Barton, either. He’s a big boy, he can carry his own balls.”
Maria coughed. “I’ll tell them.”
“I’m sending in a cleanup crew - Thorpe’s on call, he’ll be there in...fifteen.”
“What else do you need me to do, sir?”
“I need you to go home.”
“Sir, I’m on the scene...”
“Don’t make me repeat myself, Hill. You were supposed to be relaxing into the weekend.”
Someday, Maria thought to herself, she’d learn exactly how to make a simple statement sound suspiciously like an order.
“Things didn’t exactly go to plan, sir.”
“Then get back with the plan, Lieutenant. I assure you that both SHIELD and the helicarrier will stay operational without you.”
Maria couldn’t quite bite back a wry smile. “Yes, sir.”
Maria closed the phone and dragged a hand across her brow, surprised to feel a little flushed. Maybe the director was right; she was more tired than she’d thought.
Still, there were loose ends to tie up before she could go home. Starting with the corpses of the assault team, which had to be requisitioned from the coroner’s vans so SHIELD could take them. And yeah, Thorpe was on his way, but the sooner they arranged for the bodies to be handed over, the less paper were there would be later.
She turned back towards the bar, intending to find Barton and get him on that detail. Instead she found herself facing a wall of chest under a white shirt.
“Are you okay?”
She blinked, looked up into the earnest and concerned features of Steve Rogers. Great, just what she needed: Director Mother Hen Fury on one side of her case, and Captain Overly-Concerned Rogers on the other. “I’m fine.”
“And have the EMTs seen you?”
“Why would they need to?”
He gave her a steady look and touched his throat before pointing at hers where the small sting of a graze from the tranq dart still lingered. “You’ve got a graze on your throat, and several of the witnesses said you stumbled as you came out of the restrooms.”
“Captain, it’s called playing decoy.”
“I know that. And you’re still doing it. Playing decoy, I mean.” His expression was easy, polite even, but the way he spoke was implacable. “One of the weapons found in the bar was a tranq gun; and Miss Potts mentioned that they wanted Jane alive.”
“And so she is. As am I. If you’ll excuse me, Captain, there’s work to do.”
“If you got hit while in the line of duty, you should at least let them check you over.”
It was easy to see how he’d become the de facto leader of the Avengers. Trying to fight a man like this was impossible - he was like a steamroller - but nice.
“I’m not one of your soldiers, Captain.”
“No,” he agreed, just as pleasantly and just as implacably. “You’re one of Fury’s. So I’ll just report to him that you’re resisting medical attention after injury--”
“It’s a graze.”
“--And I’ll let him chew you out. Or, we can do this the way that involves ten minutes of your time and no Fury at all. You have to wait for the SHIELD cleanup team to arrive, anyway.”
He wasn’t going to let up. That much was clear.
Maria gave in with a sigh, heading for the ambulance - the real ambulance. Rogers fell in step alongside her, apparently intending to stand over her until the EMTs gave her the all-clear. She shot him a fulminating glare. “I don’t suppose anyone’s ever told you you’re a pushy bastard?”
“Nope. Never. You’re the first.” Rogers smiled a little, as though something amused him, but he didn’t say what.
Maria acquiesed, if ungracefully, to the hands of the EMTs.
Deep inside the hollow hills, a phone rang and was answered.
There was a moment’s hesitation on the other end of the phone. “The mission was a failure, sir. We delivered the package, but there was a...mixup.”
“It got sent to the wrong address?”
Another hesitation. “Yes, sir.”
“And you failed to secure the payload.”
“And lost two teams in the process.”
“I see.” There was a thoughtful pause. “The loss of your men is...unfortunate. But although the package was tailored for Dr. Foster, it will be effective wherever it was delivered.”
“So should we attempt to acquire the payload again?”
Another thoughtful pause, interrupted only by a groan across the room. The speaker turned to regard the middle-aged man who twisted in blood-stained restraints, the muscles of his throat corded as he strained against his bonds.
“Not yet, commander. I think we’ll let this sequence play out. Dr. Foster was only ever our first choice - a way to fulfil the agreement we began with the Asguardian. Now that he is out of the picture, we need not hold to those promises.”
“So what do you want me and my men to do, sir?”
“Start Phase Two.” A twist curled the thin lips. Fury’s Phase Two had ultimately been a failure, counting on power beyond humanity’s ability to grasp. His Phase Two was rooted in a much simpler, far more predictable source: the nature of humanity.
“Yes, sir. Is it ready, then?”
Once again, he turned to look at the man in the bed, watching as the thrashing quietened and stilled. “Oh, yes” he said.“It’s ready.”