Steve Rogers is born four months after the news of his father’s death, a small, squalling thing that the midwife isn’t sure will make it.
Sarah Rogers knows, though; her son is a fighter.
Maria Hill is born on the same day her mother dies. A complication due to the extended labour, too many patients in the system, not enough care…
You can’t just take her away like that, Robert. She’s six!
She’s all we have left of Liliana.
She’s all I have left of Liliana.
Yet what is left in Liliana’s wake isn’t love.
Care becomes duty, and duty, bitterness. Bitterness transmutes to indifference, and indifference, neglect.
She learns not to flinch from anger. She learns not to expect approval. She learns to look after herself, to manage what she can, to let what she can’t manage slide. She learns to hold a part of herself back from others, to avoid making friends who might ask questions she can’t answer, who might expect things she can’t give. She learns to give everything to her studies – to getting away from this life where she’s nothing more than an unwelcome memory.
Her grandparents make contact again when she’s thirteen, and if their reunion is tinged with the awkwardness of absence and geographic distance, it’s anchor enough for the next two years – until the cops come knocking on the door two weeks before end of her sophomore year.
The foster-family who takes her in are kind and practical. They make room for her in their house, at their table, in their hearts.
Yet even as Maria appreciates their care, she feels...distant. Different. She’s included in their family unit, but she’s not a part of it, and something in her senses that she never will be. The foster-family are good people, but they’re not her people. They are summer fields, wind-touched and sun-warm, and she is a battlefield, steeped in loss.
A month before she finishes her senior year, she enlists with the US Marine Corps.
How often is the act of breathing a battle? Too often. Running? Out of the question. Fighting? Only when necessary.
Steve’s idea of ‘necessary’ is not the one most people ascribe to.
For the most part, the Marines suit Maria, and Maria suits the Marines.
She starts in Logistics, although her instructors think she’s got more aptitude for Intelligence. And four years in the field – mostly Iraq – shows her just how badly they need intelligence. Too many gaps in their understanding, too little thought given to what they might mean. An informant might be telling the truth, or they might be ratting out a neighbour they don’t like for a wad of cash.
How do you tell the difference without time her superiors won’t take and effort the commanders won’t give?
And Maria’s Logistics, not Intelligence; what does she know about the Taliban, attack patterns, troop movements?
Well, she knows local gossip says that Kensi Farudh has been bitter at Sarid Hamida for a decade now – ever since Sarid’s brother married Farudh’s eleven year-old niece and killed her in childbirth at thirteen. But Sarid has been vocal against the Allies, and so he must have Taliban sympathies.
She knows that transporting the female contingent of the Marines back to camp at the same time every day is a bad idea when the area isn’t pacified. But when she mentions this to the logistics co-ordinator, he calls her a ‘worrywart’ making trouble where there’s none. Four Marines die and a dozen are injured to prove her right.
She knows that the pick-up area for the joint operations team has been targeted by Taliban snipers before, and that the hills around aren’t yet clear. She knows that the tide of resentment among the locals is rising as the years go by, and that only the threat of hard retaliation keeps most of them in line. She knows that the manifest quantities for the last Stark Industries shipment were fucked up; they ordered a dozen, they got a dozen and a half, or ten, or none. But the accounting came out about right, so Master Sergeant Jonesy said it was an admin error and told Maria to leave it alone when she protested.
So when she’s out at the airfield and the news comes that the incoming CH-49 is under fire; she scrapes together the newest Stark Industries anti-missile tech, a squad of Marines who’ll follow her orders, and hijacks a truck which she drives across the desert roads like the Taliban is out for her blood.
The court-martial decides, in the interests of Public Relations, that Maria will do nicely as a poster girl for integration.
Maria grits her teeth through the publicity, finishes her tour, and bugs the hell out of dodge.
Steve Rogers is reborn beneath an antiques shop in the Bronx, and within minutes of his rebirth is back in a fight again – this time to avenge Dr. Erskine’s death. Except that catching the spy isn’t enough to earn him the trust of the Army – another avenue of disappointment.
Becoming the poster boy for the war efforts back home isn’t even close to what Steve wanted when he signed up for Project Rebirth, but he has no other choices right now.
And he figures that, eventually, he’ll get to the frontline.
The VA pays part of Maria’s tuition through the college she chose – private, but with good history and good vision for the future. There’s only two years of study since she managed to get through a year and a half of the coursework while in Iraq.
She makes friends of a sort, but there’s a distance. She’s older – only by a couple of years in age, but by four years of experience of war in the field. And, too, she’s seen what happens when Intelligence gets it wrong – or is just plain stupid – and knows that the examples they’re given to study have been largely cleaned of blood and bone and guilt.
It’s hard, being back in civilian life; accepting the ordinary, the frivolous, when she’s seen blood and death and life on the line. Something in Maria resents this humdrum existence; but she’s got no other choices right now.
And, too, she’s not sure she could go back to the war, assuming she could.
She’s not sure she believes in the kind of war that countries wage anymore either; it’s one thing to serve God and country, it’s another to make monsters out of themselves. There’s a balance between protection and paranoia, and Maria thinks it’s tipped over. That wasn’t what she joined the Marines for. And so she slogs through her coursework and tries not to think about where she’s going, because she doesn’t really know.
One of the women from her Marine squad makes contact, invites her to come on a holiday to South-East Asia during spring break of her final year. Something to wash the taste of war out of her mouth; something for Maria to celebrate before she knuckles down for her finals.
Ho Chi Minh City is wild and chaotic and cheap. Singapore is prim and manicured and expensive. And Hong Kong is like rush hour in any American city – only all day, every day.
Visiting the little city-state of Madripoor is really an afterthought.
As Howard pilots the plane through enemy territory, and Peggy lays out the maps they have of the area, Steve’s blood pulses through him, a drumbeat of intent and fear and uncertainty.
This is what it comes down to, in the end – the reason for which he underwent Dr. Erskine’s treatment. Even if it’s only the once, to rescue Bucky and the others of the 107th, it’ll be something.
He was born to do this.
When Agent Hand said she belonged to the Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement Logistics Division, Maria imagined a small paramilitary branch of one of the armed forces.
Six hours after the Division ‘drops in’ on Madripoor with one hundred special forces soldiers, a dozen suits who would give Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones a run for their money in the ‘mysterious secret agent’ department, one cross white politico, one amused black politico, and one extremely annoyed Agent Hand, Maria is coming to understand exactly what she’s done.
She’s signed her death warrant.
The only question is whether this Division will make her dig her own grave first.
When the door opens, however, it’s neither the white politico nor the black one enter, nor any of the suits. Instead, an elderly, white-haired lady sets her laptop down on the table and regards Maria with a shrewd gaze.
“You don’t regret it, do you?
Traces of Britain linger in the accent, enough to make Maria blink before she answers.
“Handing the security codes back to the Hoans? No, not really.”
“You are aware that the ‘not really’ contradicts the ‘no’?”
Maria shrugs and figures that if she’s in for a cent, then she’s in for a quarter. “No, not really.”
The white-haired woman regards her for a long moment, then tilts her head. “Why don’t you trust S.H.I.E.L.D?”
Maria goes with honesty, because if she’s in trouble with these people, then telling the truth isn’t going to make a whit of difference.
“I don’t know S.H.I.E.L.D.” She meets the woman’s gaze. “I don’t know what they stand for – the organisation, not the acronym – what they do, what they want with a financier city in South-East Asia. But I do know that the locals here just want to be left in their version of peace; and they weren’t going to get it with another bunch of westerners taking over their city, even if the badge said S.H.I.E.L.D rather than HYDRA.”
“A fair estimation.” Dark eyes study Maria for a long, silent moment. “How would you like to get to know S.H.I.E.L.D better?”
It takes several seconds for Maria to find her voice. “You’re offering me a job?”
“We’d rather have you with us than against us, so...yes.”
“And are you authorised to do so, ma’am? With all due respect.”
The woman smiles and sits back in her seat. “Considering I founded S.H.I.E.L.D, Miss Hill, I believe that, yes, I have the authority to recruit you.”
The war is everything Steve wanted and nothing he ever imagined.
At last, he’s doing something; fighting a battle he can win – does win. He’s doing it with Bucky and the group of men who’ve become friends and buddies, and with Peggy, who has her own missions on the QT, and passes on intel to the Howling Commandoes with a cool competence and a wry smile.
If battle is in his bones and his blood, he’s not quite so sure what to do about the squeeze of his stomach when Peggy smiles at him from across the ready room.
S.H.I.E.L.D takes Intelligence and Logistics to a whole new level of complicated.
And Maria finds herself thriving.
Here is the leeway she didn’t have in the Marines, the flexibility that she wasn’t permitted. The rear echelon was too easily caught up in ‘the way things are done’ instead of ‘the way things get done’ - and maybe that was necessary when training Marines. But, as Maria’s supervising officer points out, S.H.I.E.L.D doesn’t need footsoldiers who’ll jump when they’re ordered – they need agents capable of operating independent of command.
“Agents think for themselves, work the angles, find a solution that achieves S.H.I.E.L.D objectives,” says Agent May as she takes Maria through Seoul on Maria’s first official S.H.I.E.L.D mission. “And if you need to go off the plan, then it’s the job of your superiors to listen to your reasons and look at the outcome. That was Director Carter’s policy from the start, and we’ve kept that as much as possible.”
Of course, it’s not allplain sailing.
Maria’s history works against her in some ways – particularly among those who saw what went down at Madripoor. Agent Hand is cool and a little snippy, while several of the Ops from Madripoor are snide. She weathers it with the same cool defiance that got her through the remainder of her tour. It helps that she has people on her side: former Director Carter for one, Melinda for another, and – somwhat surprisingly – the amused black politico from Madripoor who turns out to be the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury. This turns out to be particularly useful since the angry white politico from Madripoor is none other than Alexander Pierce, Director of National Intelligence.
Not an enemy Maria particularly needs.
And then there’s the time that her history actually works for her.
The face is familiar, although she doesn’t remember his name.
“Anti-Missile Marine Girl,” he says as they shake hands. “Clint Barton. I don’t think we ever got to say thanks before they hauled you off for reprimand. Good to see you survived.
“When did S.H.I.E.L.D recruit you?”
“Just afterwards. I was on my way out anyway; S.H.I.E.L.D snapped me up.” He shrugs, blue eyes sharp on her face. “So are you still Logistics, or did they shuffle you off to Intelligence?”
“A little of both, but still mostly Ops Logistics. You?”
“Plain old Ops.” A warm, calloused hand grips her shoulder. “Good to have you on board.”
Steve turns in a tight circle, barely recognising the city. Lights and noise and people— Cars and technology and— This can’t be— It must be a HYDRA trick— Only...it feels real, smells and sounds and looks...
Seventy years, he thinks as Fury drives him back. A lifetime lost in the close of his eyelids.
And, deep beneath the unfathomable loss and burning confusion, the question resonates: who is he in this new world?
Maria is so angry at Phil right now. And at Fury. And at the Avengers. And at the Council.
Which is probably why Fury set her to deal with Steve Rogers in his new-found desire to work with S.H.I.E.L.D.
“There’s a questionnaire we give new recruits, Captain,” she says, briskly. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for you.”
“So I get the direct interview instead?” There’s a flash of something like humor in his gaze as he regards her. “Fire away.”
“All the questionnaire boils down to is why do you want to work for S.H.I.E.L.D?”
He considers the answer for a few moments. “It’s something I can do.”
Maria stares at him for a long moment, fighting all the things she’d like to say to him in this moment. Something to do ? Like a hobby? Her voice, when she finds it, is precise and very carefully level. “I’m sorry, Captain. That’s not good enough.”
He winces. “Sorry, that was—” His lips close over whatever he was going to say. “Why are you working for S.H.I.E.L.D?”
“I asked first.”
He exhales, his mouth quirking sideways. “I’m a soldier – it’s what I took the serum for. And while I’m pretty sure the US Army would take me back in an instant, I don’t think I’d like what they’d do with me.”
As reasons go, it’s one that resonates with Maria – and with what she understands of this man. Still, that doesn’t mean he’s suited to S.H.I.E.L.D any more than he’s suited to the modern military.
“Are you sure you’d like what S.H.I.E.L.D sent you to do any better?”
“I can argue with S.H.I.E.L.D. With Fury, or you, or whoever else is handing out the missions.” Shrewd blue eyes study her. “You can’t have always agreed with your orders.”
“No, but there’s a chasm of difference between a common soldier and a national hero.” If Maria breaks the rules, she has to take on the consequences of it – whether court-martial, review board, or a dressing-down by Fury; if Steve Rogers decides he doesn’t want to play the game, then who’s going to argue when he upends the board?
The noise he makes is disbelieving. “You were ever a common soldier?”
“We all start somewhere.”
“So let’s start with why you joined S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Maria stares at him, not quite believing that he really wants to know. But he stares back, waiting, so she figures he literally asked for it.
“Because someone has to protect the world – not just in the big battles against great evil, but in the little things – keeping an eye on genetic modifications, making sure that technology isn’t misused, and managing superpowers. S.H.I.E.L.D does that in ways no-one else can.”
“You had Phase 2 of the Tesseract project waiting in the wings.” It’s an accusation. Justified, just not worth arguing in Maria’s view.
“Sometimes a higher-level weapon is needed to fight an unexpected battle.” She folds her hands in her lap. “Who would have stopped the Red Skull if Erskine hadn’t given you the serum, Captain? As it turns out, you were waiting in the wings; so was Phase Two – only now it’ll stay waiting in the wings.”
“Because you have the Avengers.”
“Because we are S.H.I.E.L.D.” Maria isn’t nice about it; she doesn’t think he wants nice. “The Avengers are the first response; but nobody expects you to stick around and help clean up the mess.”
“Romanoff and Barton are.”
“They’re S.H.I.E.L.D. You don’t have to be.”
His gaze drops for a moment, staring at her desktop. Then he looks her in the eye. “I was made for war – quite literally. And I told you the truth – I don’t know what else I’d do. Working with S.H.I.E.L.D is something I can do in this world – it’s something I think that...I need to do.”
She wants to tell him that his needs are immaterial; S.H.I.E.L.D has a battle to fight – the quiet one of diplomacy and spycraft and covert missions that are there to keep the balance of power between humanity and whoever or whatever would upset it more or less equal.
But they could certainly use Captain America.
We’d rather have you with us, than against us, Peggy Carter told her after Madripoor. At the time, Maria thought it foolish flattery – appreciated it, sure, but it was a sweetener, not the truth. Then again, she’s now Deputy Director of S.H.I.E.L.D, so it seems the former Director was right.
What could Steve Rogers become in the hands of S.H.I.E.L.D?
Maria figures they might as well find out.
“In that case, Captain,” she tells him, “welcome to S.H.I.E.L.D.”
S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t the Howling Commandos, not even close.
But Steve’s back in the fight again; another battle against the evils within humanity and without. And the Howling Commandos found peace – earned decades of it, prospered, had families, grew old – so maybe someday Steve will have that, too.
It just won’t be with Peggy.
At the head of the briefing room, Commander Maria Hill lays out the mission with cool competence and a wry smile, and Steve feels the rise of battle in his blood again.