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Drink our coffee on the run.

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Lia wakes to the sound of her phone ringing, which startles her out of the half-doze and dream about being unable to find the kitchen in a shopping mall.

It startles her for two reasons. Firstly, she didn't mean to be asleep, so it's unsettling and disorienting to have the semi-demi-hemi-real landscape of the dream dissolve into being on the couch with her phone ringing.

Not that accidentally falling asleep doesn't happen all the time lately, leaving her hissing curses at herself about fuck not again as she scrambles to reach the phone. Her doc and her neuro both swear blind that the fatigue is going to get less, and that she's still totally within the reasonable recovery window and nothing seems to be going wrong, but Lia's not so sure she believes them.

The prospect - and she knows it's real, she knows that traumatic brain injuries can just be like that - of never quite getting better again lurks around in the back of her mind, freaking her out. No matter how much she knows they know what they're doing, that these things usually turn out fine, that there's no bad signs yet, that if anything she's healing pretty well and if she follows all the recommendations and (and man does she hate this bit) doesn't strain herself, it'll all be good.

It just doesn't help she keeps falling asleep all the damn time.

The other reason the noise from the phone startles her, though, is that only calls from work make her phone ring. She's got everyone else set to vibrate. It's her personal cell; she's got her work-phone still but it's turned off in her bureau. Work does not call her personal cell much, because work is actually pretty good about that, and when they do it's an emergency, so they get to ring.

Except she's still on leave, so in theory there shouldn't be anything too urgent they can't just email her. Even texting is more immediate than they should need. And it's not like SI messes with that stuff much. They really do believe that when you're not on company time, your time is your own.

Well. HR and - Lia hears - PR heads do, and they dictate how the rest of the company acts on that one. Sometimes Lia thinks that certain people in StarkSec chain of command would like to do the corporate life-takeover thing, but they're not allowed.

Though she wonders how that's gonna play out, if the rumours she's been seeing on the closed company chats are true.

She manages not to drop her phone on the floor in the course of picking it up and swiping to accept the call.

Of course, the second she moves Duke's got his big jowly head up and he's hurrying over to see what's up and if she's somehow being killed by some evil monster. It means that right after she says, "Stone," into the handset she has to go, "okay yeah I'm fine you big-ass sucky baby now get off me - " and add, "- sorry that was to my dog, not you," as she tries to push away over a hundred pounds of concerned mastiff-mutt.

Because if she doesn't talk to him Duke will absolutely keep worrying at whether or not she's okay, whereas now he sort of settles down over onto the other two thirds of the couch where she pushes him, with his head still up and all his attention on her.

The "hey," from the other end is in Mabel's voice and that's a relief, as she goes on to say, "no problem, go ahead and settle Duke, I can wait a second."

Lia appreciates it being Mabel. Not that anyone else at work would be likely trying to make her feel bad, because nobody has an unnecessary amount of stick up their ass - but some of the other admins do still manage to somehow make it clear that they're forgiving you for your lack of professionalism, because they're nice.

Mabel's just Mabel. That helps Lia get a handle on the second or two of scramble.

She scruffles Duke's ears a bit, sitting up and letting him put his head in her lap. She tries to get her abused brain into some kind of gear.

Lia could have happily gone her whole damn life without learning just how wrong all kinds of fiction are about head injuries.

She could have gone without being that person, the person who now gets real cranky at the TV and movies and everything about how casual and cavalier they are about having people bashing each other over the head and then just getting up and being fine.

She could have died happily of old age being completely deceived about the dangers of anything, ever, hitting your head, having believed what everyone else believed. Life could have missed her with the whole "oh hey now you get to find out how it doesn't work like that" thing.

Lia would've been fine with never ever learning better.

It really doesn't, though. Work like that. At all.

The memory of the exact moment the gun hit her skull keeps coming back to her. The shrink calls it "acute traumatic stress disorder", which is basically PTSD that hasn't had enough time to be "post" yet, and they both know she might be making it up, inserting a memory where there isn't one but if so Lia's brain has definitely made up a very very vivid recollection of the exact second it hit and that her brain sloshed around and smashed into her skull.

It's pain and nausea but also a feeling like somehow the whole world is dissolving into sand or individual pixels, disintegrating into the black of unconsciousness - but not just the visual, the everything, sound and feeling and taste and everything - until it all wavered back and she opened her eyes and realized it was only a minute or two later, that she wasn't dead, and that the son of a bitch had put the gun down on the access console.

And he wasn't looking at her.

Especially considering how sick she got afterwards, with the headaches and the nausea and the agitation and even confusion for a while, Lia has no idea how in the hell she could think so clear in that moment, or how she got her body to work. All together. All at once. All coordinated so that she could launch herself forward, get hold of the gun, kick him really hard in the knee sideways, roll over on the floor and shoot the fucker until he was definitely dead.

That is a lot of coordination given that the next day she spilled water all over herself because her hands didn't work when she picked up the jug.

It's really annoying how the moment sticks to her, too, ready to come right back up at a second's notice.

Here and now she says, "Hey, what's going on?" to Mabel on the phone. Because while Mabel is nice to talk to and all that, if it were a personal call Mabel'd be using her own phone, not the work line. And as for work, Lia is still on leave.

Something has to be up.

"Alright first off I want you to be clear you can say no, okay," Mabel says, ratcheting up Lia's wary anxiety just a bit. "You're still on leave, this is out of the blue, everybody knows that, nobody's trying to put you on the spot exactly, okay? And no it's nothing bad, so relax, I just want you to know that before you even start thinking about it."

"Okay sure," Lia says dryly, "so now that I'm trying to crawl up my own spine, I'm asking again: what's going on?"

"You up for a visitor?" Mabel asks, which is just more weird on top of weird. And isn't really an answer but what the hell, maybe answering it will make Mabel stop playing guessing games faster.

Lia hesitates before answering. She looks around her place and takes it in, checks out her visitor-ready status. Her kitchen's pretty clean, just some snack dishes on the counter she can shove in the dishwasher pretty quick, the nice thing about open floor-plan is it's easy to just do things like fold up your blankets and make them look like part of the decor, and her laundry hasn't been delivered from the laundromat yet so she doesn't even have to move the big bag behind the divider and pretend it's not there.

Basically there's nothing in her loft that she can't make mostly look like it's just boho style in five minutes or less, even if she is a bit woozy. Her hair's a mess but she can just grab a wrap along with her clean shirt, and wash her face.

"I mean," she says cautiously, "as long as they're fine with a big noisy dog and that I haven't exactly vacuumed this week - basically, as long as nobody's expecting much?"

"So here's the thing," Mabel says. "Ms Hill's mom fell down a flight of stairs and broke her hip so she had to pack up with some of the field guys and drive out to Jersey to see her in the hospital, and now they're on their way back and apparently she's wanted to talk to you about Insight Day since she got the debrief on what happened here but she hasn't wanted to make you go in and her going anywhere's kind of a circus right now, but since the circus is already out and they're coming back by you, she wanted to know if you'd be up to her coming by now."

Lia kinda feels like someone smacked her in the head again.

"The circus would stay in the car and at the elevator," Mabel finishes up. "And it's just Jerry and three people she's brought in from SHIELD, but they're nice as far as I've met them so far."

A very definite panicky part of Lia wants to go oh fuck no and go hide in her bedroom, but it's thankfully not the part in charge, or she might never get over the embarrassment. Instead she closes her mouth on the long uuhhhhhhh . . . . as she tries to take that in, and instead she says, " . . . yeah. Sure. That should be fine."

It totally should be fine. And her heart can just slow right the hell back down right now.

"I was told to emphasise it's just a conversation for pertinent details, you're totally not on the spot, you're not expected to entertain," Mabel notes, "and that she'd totally just have scheduled some time for you to come in but she gathers you're still not supposed to be spending a lot of time driving or on transit, especially not in bright daylight, so . . . "

Lia's sighing and nodding to herself even as Mabel finishes that, and says, "Yeah, I know, trust me. And yeah, it should be fine."

As fine as it can be.

After a couple more checks just to make sure, Mabel tells her that they're about an hour or so out, so no need to scramble, and they hang up.

When Lia puts her face in her hands Duke decides she needs kisses. After she fends him off and rubs his tummy for a minute, Lia sighs again. Then she digs through her side-table drawer until she finds her hands-free headset, and gets up to start dealing with the dishes while the phone dials and rings her cousin.

Actually, she rings Brian and Graham's house, since that's where her cousin is and she actually trusts their landline better than she trusts her cousin to actually keep his phone to hand at home. It's a bad habit, but it's a persistent one, and since for now Brian and Graham's house is "home" . . . Lia's just not in the mood to have it ring in Antoine's bedside table drawer for a couple minutes and then have to call the landline anyway.

It's dangerous, being ex-SHIELD right now. Especially if you were far enough up the chain in External Ops to know a lot of secrets, and especially if you were good enough often enough to stick on people's radar. Between other agencies and enemies, and HYDRA assholes looking to settle scores before they finish going down, a lot of those who lived through Insight Day are in hiding, and those that aren't are still taking a lot of precautions.

Graham's not related by blood, but he's family in the big mess that happens when you're descended from the five surviving men who followed Captain America around Europe blowing things up. So he's also a kind of cousin, and also since he and Brian are both ex-Special Forces and kinda paranoid their very nice house is also pretty secure and a good place for Antoine to hang out until fewer people want to kill him.

In Lia's parents' generation you could keep a little closer track of exactly what the relationships might be - uncle, aunt, cousin, whatever - but by now uncle and aunt mostly means somebody enough older than you it feels weird to think of yourselves as the same generation, and cousin covers everyone else.

Graham answers the phone, and it's clearly been A Long Week because he says, "Oh God Amelia please tell me nothing's gone horribly wrong," because he obviously saw her number on the caller ID.

Probably fair: they know each other well enough to have each other's numbers programmed in, even though this one's technically unlisted and wouldn't show up on normal caller-ID, but not enough that she calls, like. A lot. So it's not totally unreasonable to assume she's got something dire to share.

"Nah," she says, immediately, "deep breaths, I just need to talk to Antoine - your week been that bad?"

Graham sighs explosively and says, " . . .nobody's actually dead, no one's in jail, nobody's actually in current danger, and there's no fires currently burning, metaphorical or literal," like that's as much as he'll commit to. "It's a long story, otherwise - you'll get in the weekly email, anyway."

Because post-Insight, after everyone finished panicking and making sure everybody was accounted for, even the five or six people who'd kinda dropped out of contact with everyone else years before, Auntie Brigid had insisted that for the next while at least it was only fair if everyone tossed out an email once a week to let people know what was going on, and that they were okay. A touch in.

We're kind of a special case, was Brigid's argument. Even those of us who haven't been out pissing people off for years.

Lia figures it makes perfect sense, and she's actually liked doing it and getting the emails, but even the people who were reluctant eventually gave in. You usually eventually give in, when it comes to Auntie Brigid. A couple of times Lia's mom's said it's probably a good thing Brigid couldn't have her own kids, which is pretty unkind but also Lia's not sure it's not . . .true.

With being everyone's auntie, Brigid's fussing is at one remove and it's mostly helpful: if she were someone's mama, that might just be too much.

"But yes, Tripp's here, you need him?" Graham finishes.

"Yeah, if he's not busy," Lia says.

You can pretty much tell when someone met her cousin by what they call him: everyone who met him after he was grown calls him Trip, the nickname he picked up in Basic before he figured out that while he could hack it in the Army he probably shouldn't, that it wasn't good for him, and went for SHIELD instead.

Lia and all the rest of the cousins who actually grew up together - plus the aunties and uncles - hang onto Antoine, even if sometimes Lia gets the sense he'd rather his cousins didn't. Lia considers it fair pay for the fact that her mom will not stop showing any boyfriend she brings home the pictures of her and Antoine when they were tiny and in the bath together.

Antoine sounds tired when he does take the phone. He's still cheerful, still being him, says, "Hey cuz," in at least an attempt at a chipper voice - but Lia can tell.

"Wow," she says, "so it really is all that good huh," to let him know he's not fooling anybody. She hears him sigh, too.

"I could do with this month cutting the hell out, yeah," he says, in a decidedly less chipper tone of voice. "Or this year. Has it been long enough since Insight to blame the whole year? It feels like it."

"Fuck don't ask me," Lia replies, vehemently. "I feel like it's been three hundred years. But everyone's okay, though? Or . . .okay-ish?"

"Yeah," Antoine confirms. "Couple friends in the hospital, but all stable and recovering and all that fucking jazz - trying not to brood, so I'll send you the email, okay? You need something?"

Lia takes the hint: she knows Antoine's tally of dead work friends is already in the double-digits, and since he'd been deep out in an op at the time he hadn't been able to help anybody but himself at first, and that's hard on a guy like him especially. So something else blowing up after they were starting to hope it'd all wrung itself out already . . .can't be easy.

And since Graham and Brian are right there and Brian especially isn't gonna let anything fester, Lia's happy to let her cousin close out going over it all again, if he doesn't feel like it'll help.

"Right, so," she says, "quick and dirty version is: I got Maria goddamn Hill showing up at my place in - " she checks her watch, "a bit less than an hour to talk over Insight Day, so how freaked out should I be right now?"

"Rea - " Antoine starts and then cuts off his own noise of surprise with, "oh right, she's at Stark now isn't she? I did hear that, I just . . .guess I didn't think about it. And you've been home since you got out of the hospital, right? Not back to work at all."

"I'm still on less than an hour of full sunlight a day," Lia retorts, knowing she sounds really cranky. "I'm living like a goddamn vampire. No, I have not been back to work. And yeah, word is they're basically restructuring everything so she's in a consolidated directorship or something like that, running StarkSec and Logistics and a bunch of the back-end of what's currently Operations and stuff. I have no idea what they're planning to do with Hogan, don't ask me, or how it's gonna shake out or anything, and there's only been a tiny bit of official announcement yet, but - " and she just sort of lets that trail off into a verbal shrug.

"Yeah, yeah, I get it," Antoine says, and he sounds like he's perking up a bit. Like maybe wondering about that's more appealing than whatever he's been thinking about. "Okay, right - you know honestly I don't think you need to freak out at all?" And then she can almost hear him grin. "And yeah I can hear that look you're giving the phone right now."

"I don't know what you think you're talking about," Lia says, pretending to be aloof, because she did just give the phone an incredulous expression. "For real, though."

"No, for real," Antoine echoes, "you're fine. Um - okay, think about it like this," he says, and she can hear him sort of shifting around and yeah, he does sound more alive than he did a few minutes ago, so that's nice. "Like yeah: Hill has definitely got standards and expectations, and she can definitely come off as a hard-ass from Hell and if you fuck around on her time she's going to come down on you like the hammer of God, but that's because she sets the world up so if you're working for her it's because you should be that good and you've been given everything you need to meet the expectations she's got. Honestly," he adds, as Lia still gives the handset on the table a dubious look, "I liked ops where she was heavily involved. Because they worked, you knew exactly what everyone was doing because she made sure you did, and when you didn't know things it was because nobody could know them, you know?"

"You better not be messing with me," Lia says, in a mock-warning voice, but she doesn't really think he is. She almost adds Captain America will know if you're lying because that's what they used to throw at each other when they were kids, but all of those things feel weird these days.

It's weird and uncomfortable when you're not talking about the half-mythical Historical Personage who's safely dead and only exists in history books and the Grampas' memories. When it's someone who's actually out there in the world and, like, somewhere out there is eating supper for tonight. Or something.

"Promise," Antoine replies. "And in case you forgot, you're on leave because you saved everyone's ass despite having your skull bashed in, because you're a goody-two-shoes who got super bothered that someone wasn't at their post, right?"

"Tiny fracture," she corrects, automatically. "Not bashed in. Don't do that, the tiny fracture's bad enough I am so goddamn bored of being injured, you have no idea."

"Oh I absolutely have an idea," Antoine disagrees, "I have a solid idea - you know the thing I'm dreading? The thing I'm dreading is when my mom or your mom or both of them realizes they can go digging through the database drop and find all the shit I have not been telling any of y'all for the last ten years, okay? I have done the endless boring recovery from a TBI, Lia, and I know you, I know exactly how out of your mind bored you are right now. And my story wasn't even anywhere near as cool as yours."

"I hope you don't think flattery's gonna make me forget you just admitted you've been injured that we don't know about yet," Lia tells him in a mock-dire voice. "Besides, stop it, you're embarrassing me."

"Pfft," Antoine replies, and goes on without waiting for her to respond, "my point is, Miss Invalid, unless there's something big you left out of telling us in the first place, right now you're already in Hill's Gold Star book and she hasn't even met you. So relax."

"You better not be messing with me," Lia repeats, but this time she makes it clear she's joking. Mostly.

 

She talks to Antoine a while longer while she finishes tidying up and digs out a nicer shirt and a matching wrap for her hair. Mostly she explains why Maria Hill's stopping by her place at all, and then she digs out some admissions about when he cracked his head (apparently during a car chase that ended in a car crash), because he sounds more upbeat and less dragged out while he's pretending not to be really damn proud of his work and scared of their moms freaking out about the danger instead of pleased they finally get to know what he did.

He's had a shitty month, so Lia doesn't give him shit about that for now, either.

When she says good bye, she turns off the handsfree and puts it away, picks up her handset instead and slides it into her pocket. Pausing in front of her mirror she really hesitates over whether or not to put on makeup, too, but makes herself skip it.

She is on leave. For an injury.

A thought occurs to her and she cleans out the coffee maker and puts a new pot on to make because she figures there's just about zero chance that Maria Hill isn't just as addicted to coffee as anyone else Lia knows. She double-checks to make sure she's got milk, soy milk and sugar. And actually she's got honey too so that really covers everything.

Then she pulls out her iPad mini and messes around on Facebook, because she won't keep that app even on her personal phone but it's still kinda the only way to keep up with half the friends she has who aren't just at work with her all the time. So she keeps it sequestered to the one little iPad that doesn't link up to anything else, with a purpose-made email address, and makes sure people know it's not a good way to get ahold of her fast.

 

Of course when the intercom goes, Duke goes into full alert; and when Lia answering and Jerry letting her know it's him - or rather, them - leads to noises outside the loft door Duke follows up by a full explosion of loud, territorial barking that makes Lia hope that her one set of pain in the ass neighbours aren't home.

Not that they can say much as long as it doesn't go on for a long time and it's during daylight hours, but that lady's just a mean, mean bitch and she looks for everything to complain about. Lia's not sure if the husband's just as much of a douche or if he's just totally a doormat but either way . . .when she first got Duke it'd eventually come down to her having to get signed testaments from every other neighbour she's got that Duke's barking was not, in fact, that bad.

Jerry's the one who comes up to her actual front door, too: Lia checks the peephole and opens the door while blocking Duke from bursting out onto the porch and says, "Hi, sorry, come in and let me get this idiot under control."

She grabs the dog's collar to pull him over and out of the way and then gets him to focus on her and to sit. He whines, and his tail sweeps a small dust-bunny back and forth on the floor, but he does keep his eyes on her face until she tells him to lie down and gives him a treat from the container in her pocket.

Out of the metaphorical corner of her ear she hears Jerry note that he's stepping back outside, and there's a momentary weirdness at the idea of someone doing the bodyguard stand outside her door, even if it is for someone else. But it's not a very loud weirdness.

She's had this job for six years now, after all.

She wonders, suddenly, if Antoine even thinks about that stuff as weird anymore. She should email him and ask. Maybe he'll talk about it now.

Lia's not sure if having to settle Duke makes her nerves better or worse as she turns back to the dark-haired white woman standing just inside her door. Maybe it does both. On the one hand, now she could be being judged for her dog-training skills as well as her housekeeping and her clothes and everything else; on the other, who the hell cares? And it does help to break that initial moment of anxious fright.

The woman standing in her doorway isn't exactly intimidating. Not as such.

Maria Hill's wearing what they call business-casual, but the collar of the light-blue shirt is open and the sleeves are rolled up to her elbows and it's definitely got "I have been wearing this all day and I also had a nap in the car" creases in it. No jewelry, basic makeup, black flats and her hair pulled back into knot at the nape of her neck. She's got a small messenger-bag on her shoulder, and a definite stance of "I have been let in the door but not actually invited in yet so I'll just wait here."

She's also smiling, a little bit, and asks, "Rescue?" about Duke as Lia finishes turning back and putting the little bag of treats back into her jeans pocket.

"Yeah," she says, dredging up a smile back. "Yeah, he's a mastiff crossed with who knows what, the rescue org says he came from a farm in Kentucky where the original owner had an animal hoarding situation, and he's only about two years old."

Duke's gotten back up and come over to hover behind her legs, but this time he's just doing it slowly and a bit nervous, instead of full on anxious explosion barking.

"Looks like he's doing pretty well," Hill says, with the kind of weight to the words that at least tries to imply that the person knows about dogs and how recovery looks. And so knows that yeah, actually, Duke is doing pretty good.

She extends a hand, and adds, "Maria," and that's the tone of voice that is totally wryly aware of how ridiculous formal social forms sound when you know the other person knows who you are.

Lia takes the handshake and says, "Lia," and then hesitates on whether or not she wants to say it's an honour to meet this woman out loud.

It honestly is. Unlike most of the world, Lia knew about the Assistant Director of SHIELD before Insight, and while SHIELD was better than most of that kind of organization about sexism . . . well, it's not like it existed in a whole different world or anything. Society is what it is, and being a woman and the Assistant Director couldn't be easy. Being a (comparatively) young woman . . .

Lia already knew enough about her to respect her before the world turned upside down; since then, well. It might've been a little intimidating to find out the woman was going to be coming to Stark, and that StarkSec was going to be under her wing, and all of it.

And now she's standing in Lia's apartment and Lia hasn't vacuumed in like a week. There was a dust-bunny for Duke's tail to bat back and forth.

In that split second, though, before she can make the decision, Maria's already saying, "I'm very glad to finally meet you," and then with a small smile she's adding, "and I'm absolutely aware of how much of an awkward intrusion this is. I also do want, if possible, to talk to you about Insight, but -" She makes a slight gesture with one hand to go with the admission. "I have to admit to you now that's not actually the reason I needed to speak to you so soon."

Part of Lia thinks, Oh hell. Out loud she says, "Should I be worried?"

"Personally, or professionally, no," Maria tells her, which is not the most reassuring qualification ever, but is at least something. "All things considered, your neurologist may be pissed off at me in about ten minutes, though."

Lia's not even sure how that sounds. Other than that Hill's definitely got a "competent not-quite-friendly-but-not-averse-to-friendly" vibe going on. Like she knows she can be overwhelming and actually being friendly as such would come across as completely false, but she's found a place where she's not metaphorically looming. Or something.

Lia absently rubs the back of Duke's head and says, "Can I offer you coffee before we sit down? It's a fresh pot, and I have milk. And sugar. And soy milk."

"Oh god please," Maria says, and sounds like she means it.

Lia's pretty sure it's also a deliberate ice-breaker move of the "make myself seem more human" variety crossed with the "people feel less awkward when they can do something for you" variety (thanks, Antoine, she thinks, I will never be able to just have neutral feelings about hospitality rituals again because you felt the need to share your learnings with everyone after SHIELD started making you take those courses), but hey: it was on her end, too. Except with the offering, instead of the letting-someone-do-something.

She gets Duke to sit in front of the couch by giving him a chew-treat to work on, and gets coffee for her and for Maria, who says she takes milk but no sugar.

When Lia finally settles herself on the couch with Duke at her feet, Maria pulls a security-sealed envelope out of her bag. It's opaque, and it's serious-business, and Lia lets her eyebrows go way up.

People are sometimes surprised that SI still uses hardcopy stuff like this, but then most people would be surprised to know that there is a kill-switch in the Tower that serves to take it completely offline and dead to the rest of the world, all connections wireless and otherwise severed, complete with extremely robust signal jamming.

The in-house incinerators could also totally reduce a body to total ash in seconds, although Lia doesn't really mention that to people very often. And apparently there's some kind of in-house super-magnet that all hard-drives are fried by before they're even taken apart and crunched.

Hard-copy isn't exactly better than quantum-encrypted digital - everything has its up and downsides. It's just that . . . everything has its upside and downsides, and you pick which one's more important.

If something's being handed around in hardcopy, it just means that it's really, really important it stay under specific physical control, and be limited in distribution as hard as possible. It implies pretty strongly that whatever's in this envelope is the equivalent of unstable nitro. It needs to be easy to destroy, and even more easy to disavow - after all, anyone could copy SI stationery and letterhead and stuff, if they tried hard enough.

Lia takes the packet, giving Maria Hill her wide-eyed questioning look, and Maria shrugs. "I'll let you read it," she says. "That'll get us there fastest, and I'm confident you won't need a lot of extra catchup from me once you have."

Fair, although Lia cannot for the fucking life of her think what could possibly be in this envelope.

Until she's pulling it out, opening the file inside and going wait, fucking what now? and realizing that she apparently just lacks a certain amount of imagination.

Lia reads through the file the first time in a kind of weirdly detached, suspended moment. It's not a very long moment, she knows that. She's been able to speed-read since she was a kid and her mom had to go fight with the Gifted program to let her in. So it can't take her more than a minute or two to get through the whole thing.

It just feels like there's no time until she's done that, like time stops for the first scan and then restarts when she starts over. And she has to start over. To read it through again.

It's like she can't actually absorb the content until she's already looked through the shape, put the shape of the words and the reports in her head, and now her mind can actually colour in the shapes in terms of deriving meaning from that shit.

It takes a third reading for the meaning to actually mean anything, to connect to the rest of her brain and her thoughts about the universe. For her to totally grasp what's in there.

Then she says, "Oh holy fuck."

Because she can't think of anything else to say.

As a general rule she'd prefer not to spout profanity in front of her possible new boss but the fact is oh holy fuck is just about all she's got. Or some other profanities. And she has to say something or her head's gonna explode.

Duke picks his head up and whines and she absently reaches over to scratch behind his ears while she flips back to stare at the page of the five comparative photos and says, "Holy shit. Oh shit. Holy fuck."

And there's a part of her that wants to ask if this is a joke, except obviously it's not. Hill's sitting back in her chair with a kind of tired satisfaction on her face and her coffee in her hands; Lia figures it probably is kinda satisfying to have someone react to . . . this, especially if it's mirroring your own feelings about it.

So it's obviously not a joke. And also who the fuck would set this up as a joke? Maria Hill definitely has better things to do with her time than come over here to punk Lia. So no, this is not a joke. This is real.

It's really real.

Lia's thoughts are going around and around in circles like a mass of fucking spooked rats in a barrel until one of them pops out like a cork and Lia blurts, "Oh shit Cap must've lost his fucking mind," without any part of her asking whether she wanted to actually say that out loud.

But oh shit Cap must've lost his fucking mind.

Hill doesn't say anything; the hairs on Lia's neck just stand right the hell up and she ends up looking at the other woman and wishing she hadn't said that. But Maria's expression doesn't look hostile. Not exactly.

In fact it doesn't look negative at all. Just suddenly all interested and maybe like she's curious about something. Lia looks down at the file again, and then back up, and tries to think what to say.

Hill puts down her empty coffee cup. "Well you're sure as hell not wrong," she says, in a complicated tone of voice Lia can't quite get a read on. "You could definitely call what Rogers did and is doing 'losing his fucking mind' and nobody could really argue, but I'm going to have to admit I'm really curious why your mind went there first and above all else."

That is probably a really fair question. There's so much bad in this whole file, so much complicated and messy and yeah, you could definitely say there should have been some other thoughts first. Like holy shit how dangerous is this? or, like, is something being done to catch him? or how much of a threat - but . . . no.

No Lia's really gotta go with holy shit Cap must be out of his goddamn mind oh my fucking god.

There had been a point in Lia's life when she swore that the whole "open mouth, realize you don't know what you're going to say, close mouth again" thing wasn't something that really happens to people in real life, and now she realizes - as she opens, and then closes her mouth - that she's wrong.

How about that.

"Okay," she says, trying to do a quick and dirty reshuffle of all her thoughts that just, like, fell out of her head onto the ground like dumping a whole five packs of cards from a great height, "like two things, okay?"

Maria makes a little go on gesture. Lia grasps at the words.

"Okay," she says, "so one is that I was only twelve when Grampa Jones passed so like, I never talked to him about shit about the War beyond the simple fun stories cuz as far as he was concerned twelve was way too young for that, but Mom was totally his favourite," - which is noooot the kind of thing Lia's normally say out loud because that is a touchy family point but fuck she can't even be bothered to give a damn right now - " - and he eventually told her a lot and I've talked to her but it's gonna get real annoying if I have to put 'Mom said that he said' in front of everything so just . . . assume that? Like yeah this is all second hand, but it's second hand from a really good source and she wouldn't lie to me either."

And Maria's nodding as Lia takes a deep breath and goes on, "And second, while all things considered there might be like, a special clause because of like, your history - but I don't know - and I mean I don't know if you've noticed but the Family -" she makes a little jazz-hands gesture with both hands spreading out as she tries to keep herself from sounding like a babbling idiot, "- kinda keeps secrets?"

Maria Hill gives her a no shit Sherlock look. It's a really, really good one, too, not confrontational at all, just all of that feeling in the slightest few seconds of blank look and tiny quirk of eyebrows.

"You know Fury consulted directly with your cousin when we found Rogers, right?" Hill says, dryly.

Lia stops, a little derailed. She tries to grasp that, and then covers her face with one hand. "Oh god I didn't even think," she admits. "But yeah right, of course he did, why wouldn't he?" She actually puts her face in both her hands, trying to imagine that.

Asks, "Did Antoine actually tell him to go fuck himself? In so many words?" Because now she's got to know.

"At one point yes," Maria replies, in the same dry voice. "I mean I thought he might die of a heart attack as he did it, but he did. Fury was impressed, not that he'd've ever admitted it to Trip right then. Or admitted that it contributed to his getting fast-tracked promotion, since it definitely showed he had the strength of character to maintain his resolve in the face of extreme stress."

Given that Fury, Nicholas J was in so many ways basically Antoine's hero . . . yeah that'd pretty much cover it. Poor Antoine.

"Yeah so, in the interests of not having me killed in my bed by my relatives," Lia says, "I didn't tell you shit, for the record, but I mean . . . "

Her head feels like her brain's running down a steep slope, that feeling like where if you don't run fast enough you're not gonna stop you'll just stop running and instead end up pitching ass over teakettle all the way down and maybe break your neck, and as it runs it's throwing out all kinds of thoughts that Lia hasn't had time to really think about, but she's pretty certain of.

And thus far she's never gone horribly wrong trusting her brain to handle this kind of stuff under stress, so she might as well not stop now. And besides, there's absolutely considerations she can already see.

Like -

"I mean if this shit - I mean," she rephrases herself, "he's still alive, right, he's out there, which means no matter what the answers to the like eight hundred questions I've got right now are, this is holy-shit complicated and there are so many ways it can blow up and I'm assuming since you're here and you're giving me this to read that if it blows up then we, I mean the company, I mean especially StarkSec, we're gonna be right in the middle of it, right?"

"That's a pretty good summary," Hill agrees. Lia thinks maybe she looks impressed? But that might be a bit of wishful thinking on the part of the part of her that is totally also now, in the background, reassessing the whole future of StarkSec and also Lia's own career.

It never hurts to impress your boss.

Duke whines a bit and noses at Lia's arm, so she strokes his head - she must smell pretty agitated again. "Yeah so," she says, looking at the file again and shaking her head, "I'm gonna go with you actually kinda . . . need to know the things I've got that we're not supposed to talk about? So I'm gonna tell you? But seriously if it gets back to my mom there is a serious chance she will take my head off."

Then Lia puts the file down on the table. Suddenly just all the paper and stuff feels way too heavy and primed to explode. And this might all be too much, except she needs to get it together.

So she adds, "Also I . . . totally need more coffee and also this is really annoying, but I need to turn the lights down a bit?" She grimaces. She hates this. It's already dimmer in her apartment than she'd honestly like but no: no her head has to need even less light right now.

"Please," Maria says, and it sounds absolutely genuine. "I told you your neurologist might hate me. And yes," she adds while Lia gets up and goes for the coffee pot again, "Stark and Potts have committed their resources to backing Rogers actions on this issue and yes, there is a significant potential that could get explosive, which is also yes, why I couldn't quite justify waiting until after your neurologist wouldn't hate me any more to tell you."

Lia's coffee isn't actually finished, but the stuff in the pot is way hotter and it brings the stuff in her cup up to a temperature that actually feels grounding to drink, solid. So it counts.

She also silently offers to refill Maria's cup, which is empty, and Lia figures the woman must run on coffee.

Duke follows her to the coffee pot and then to the lights to turn two off and dim the overhead hanging light, glad in retrospect that she'd let her mom talk her into getting the dimmer switch installed right away even if it did cost extra.

"Uhhuh," Lia says, and also grabs her worry-doll from its place in the kitchen as she comes back to sit, because she's gonna need something to do with her hands. "I guess concussion management must be - "

"Concussions, broken ribs and gunshot wounds," Hill says, accepting the coffee back with a grateful look. "The three most common injuries that would keep an agent out of the field and need careful monitoring because agents are absolutely terrible at admitting when they're injured. Yeah."

"I hate it so much," Lia confides, even a bit more edged than she means it to be. She sighs. "Like every time I push too hard I get reminded but I am not made for sitting still. Anyway."

She takes a sip of her coffee as a way to brace herself.

And it's kinda ridiculous, she supposes. She's thought that more than once lately: that in this day and age the Family's protectiveness around this stuff is probably not necessary, maybe even . . . not a great idea? But it's so ground in. It's habit.

Even for her. Even talking to someone who has got to have a pretty goddamn broad mind about human relationships.

"So," she says, taking a deep breath, "you know, like, Cap and Barnes weren't just friends."

Maria leans back in her chair, face kind of impassive but not in a bad way. It's just like she's listening and absorbing now, like Lia's got her full attention and she'll take in the whole thing before she decides how to react. Lia sighs, the doll moving through her fingers.

"Nobody ever talked about it, and I mean that includes Grampa and the rest of them, and like they weren't 'out' in any sense of the word at all but. . . . according to Grampa there was absolutely no question they were sleeping together."

And then again right up against the part of her that thinks maybe they don't need to be like this anymore, Lia has to admit, there's the part that knows from experience that there's a goddamn reason her shoulders are tight now. That you can suddenly get the most bigoted shit from the most unexpected quarters and just because someone's made peace with the way "the homosexuals" are "in society today" doesn't mean they're not gonna lose their shit when you you imply that gay people (or bi people, or whatever, Lia reminds herself) didn't spring fully formed out of the Stonewall Riots and someone they looked up to might have been one.

It's like everything else. Like you're going along with someone until suddenly their well women have no place in combat and-or affirmative action is reverse racism! or whatever hits you in the face and it's ugly.

Lia really, really hopes Maria Hill's not gonna make herself into Lia's next memory of that shit happening. She's got enough of those. Some of them pretty painful.

So her shoulders are turning into blocks of wood.

"Grampa had no idea how that squared with the part where Cap was also clearly totally gone on Carter?" she continues, also trying to pretend she's not watching for Hill's reaction like a hawk.

But she feels like she's gotta add that part, since it's the part that just about everyone in the Family asks when they get to this part of the lore, and it's easier to just get it over with.

She goes on, "And he said the one time he tried to ask any of the others - specifically Monty and Frenchie because it worried him for all of them, because he could see how it could go bad, or . . . well actually he said he couldn't see how it wasn't guaranteed to go bad since nobody seemed to be figuring it out? Anyway when he did that, Monty told him very politely and very firmly to mind his own business and that kind of thing wasn't anyone else's job to think about."

For a second Hill almost looks fleetingly amused, or knowing, or something - like somewhere in her head for a second there was a thought that was like well of course he did. But it's gone and Lia doesn't know how to ask about it.

Maybe someday.

She shrugs. "He said they didn't act like boyfriends? Exactly? Said the closest it ever came was that when they were annoyed with each other they sounded exactly like a cranky married couple except with insults instead of saying dear or honey or anything. Said they were never lovey-dovey or anything, and he wasn't even sure if they were sleeping together from before, like, back in Brooklyn or if it started some time after Cap blew up the factory but - "

She takes a drink of the coffee and thinks of the perfect illustration and says, "You know the stories about Paris? Like the one about the Eiffel Tower?"

"And having to keep Dernier from assassinating de Gaulle?" Maria asks, mouth quirking up and impassivity cracking for a second. That bit of history'd been declassified a while ago.

"Right," Lia says, "well the thing is, contrary to popular belief Cap did not skip the drinking and the brothels and all that because he was just such an upstanding young man, okay - according to Grampa, Cap and Barnes skipped all that because they did not make it out of bed and into actual clothing and out of the hotel room for more than a few hours, right. Like they met the other guys for dinner every night and that was just about it."

Now Maria does get a kind of an Expression, and not one Lia can read at all so she gives in and goes, "What?" and takes a drink of her coffee to cover her own spike of nervousness.

Hill looks ever so slightly embarrassed, but also like she's owning it, and says, "Probably the most inappropriate - " she sighs and leans her head on her hand, " - I just found myself immediately wondering how Barnes could even walk."

Fortunately Lia's almost finished swallowing her coffee by that time so she only chokes a little, and manages to gasp out, "Oh my Mom said that's what Grampa'd admit if he was drunk enough," so that maybe Maria would stop looking quite so suppressed-awkward. And she does, trading it for amusement.

"But I will also absolutely say that's none of my business," Maria adds, "so I'm gonna apologize for that."

It strikes Lia that Maria Hill may be a bit overtired. It also strikes her to wonder if Maria's one of those people who is just . . . incapable of resting, herself. Like she had to have gone through a lot recently, and yet here she is, taking on huge new jobs . . .

Well. She's also a grownup, and that's none of Lia's business.

"Yeah, anyway," she lets that all go, "there wasn't anything like boyfriend-y, just the bickering and the part where they seemed to like, almost be connected by some kind of invisible string, and how any time you couldn't find them for a bit it was always both of them, and then the leave, and they just . . . knew? You know? But nobody talked about it."

Lia looks down at the worry-doll. It's not the same one her grandfather brought back from Guatemala, because she'd worn that one out ages ago, but it looks pretty close still. "Grampa also said," she adds, "that the days in Paris were pretty much the only handful of days the whole war Barnes didn't scare him a bit. Said he always felt bad about that, because he couldn't pin down a reason and wasn't like Barnes was anything other than a friend to him, but still.

"He also said half the time it was like Cap and Barnes were in each other's heads, like they knew each other so well they could have three quarters of an argument without even saying a single word out loud," and then Lia pauses, distracted, by the not-quite-sigh Maria breathes out. She tilts her head in a question.

"I've known people like that," Maria explains. "Honestly with a couple people I've been a bit like that, but not anywhere near as bad as I've known."

"Grampa said it could get straight-up unsettling," Lia says, and smiles a little bit because those stories were ones she got straight from her grandfather, and he did always seem a bit baffled by it, even all those years later.

Then she takes a deep breath and finishes with, "And mostly, I guess most important - Grampa said Cap went down with that airplane on purpose, because he didn't want to stay alive in a world Barnes wasn't in, and really this was his best chance of getting any way out without having to actually admit he was killing himself."

Lia glances at Maria's face and then shrugs as Maria's eyebrows go up. "It doesn't take a pilot to point a plane down and crash it into the North Atlantic," she says, "and they'd pulled Cap out of some bad stuff before and he'd healed okay, so there wasn't any reason why he couldn't've tried giving them his coordinates and abandoning the plane and seeing if they could pick him up. Hell according to Grampa, Carter tried to get him to do it and he gave her some bullshit about it being too late and being his choice and that's when they left her alone in the room with the radio?"

Maria's eyebrows are way up by now, not like she doesn't believe what Lia's saying, but like she's surprised by it. Lia shrugs again.

"Grampa said something inside Cap died the day Barnes fell off that train," she says. "Like he was half dead. He says it was like Cap just had to finish off the Red Skull first before he could finish off the last half and stop hurting. But he was too Catholic to even say anything about actually killing himself, he just . . . made sure he could die doing his duty. Like really sure."

She takes another mouthful of the coffee and says, quieter, "It came up a lot, I guess? According to Mom, Grampa always felt guilty about it. It ate him up. Like if he'd done something different that day on the train, been faster or something, made different choices, Barnes wouldn't've died and none of it would've gone wrong. Which was stupid - he did everything he was supposed to do and he did exactly what he was supposed to do but . . . "

She shrugs. "Mom says the only one who could tell him anything about it was Gramma and after she passed it started haunting Grampa a lot again. She said any time that came up, all there was left to do was take the glass away and make him go to bed."

That's probably a little bit more than she really had to share but it did come out, like it couldn't stay behind. And now Maria's nodding slowly.

Then she pinches the bridge of her nose and looks really tired when she says, "That . . . tracks, and clarifies, some of - actually a lot of what he did on Insight Day and what he's doing now. So thank you. And I absolutely understand that everything you've said is in confidence. And I truly appreciate it."

Duke's wormed his head under Lia's arm. She gives up and sits back enough for the big doofus to pretend he's a lapdog and get half in her lap, lay his head on her chest because right now she'll take something to hug for a second and just . . . not bother feeling defensive about it.

But she gives up after a second and asks, "Do I even want to know what Cap's doing?" because oh man her imagination's going to come up with so many bad things otherwise. Maybe Hill won't tell her, but she's still got to ask.

"Currently, scouring the globe," Maria replies, sitting back again, her voice somewhere between sour and resigned. "With Wilson, the man who took down the helicarriers with us. How much luck he's going to have, I don't know, and what he's going to do if he succeeds I also don't know."

Which she's clearly not happy about, and Lia does not blame her.

"But," she says, taking a deep breath herself, "as you surmised, yes: whatever he does manage to do and decides to do about it, the intention in place is that Stark will back him with anything Stark has, which in this case is going to include the company, and StarkSec in particular. And given your family, and your actions on Insight Day, I figured it wouldn't be fair to drop that on you after it happened."

Lia breathes in deeply, rubbing at the side of her neck and trying to figure out how she even feels right now. It's not . . . easy.

This is all a lot. Like a lot.

She can't even decide if she's glad Grampa's already dead and doesn't have to deal with this shit, or if it would've been better if he weren't, or if that'd be the worst thing ever because this was maybe even worse than Barnes just being dead and she just . . .

Lia has no fucking clue, even. No clue.

. . . and now she misses her Grampa. And kinda wants her mom. And she's definitely getting a headache but the last, last thing in the universe she wants to do, right now, is go lie down in the dark with this all in her head and try to have a nap.

She strokes Duke's ears for a second of silence before she says, "Okay this is probably gonna sound weird but, like, if you want to go over what happened on Insight Day I would really rather do that than sit with this."

Maria actually says, "I can completely understand that," and it feels like she means it.