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Call it your 2.0, your rebirth: whatever.

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Maria manages to avoid dealing with Tony Stark for almost two months.

She has a strict cut-off for that kind of avoidance: she doesn't let it actually be avoidance. If at any point she has to actually make an effort to avoid someone, that's the point she has to stop.

She's never had any patience for people who would let the fact that they don't want to deal with someone else impact their work. If something had come up that meant she needed to meet with Stark, she'd've done it.

But it turns out that moving from CEO to CIO means that Stark really isn't that involved in the day to day running of the company. He exists in his own bubble, his own space, and while he's aware of everything that's going on - to a point of paranoia, Maria is pretty confident saying - he doesn't actually get involved in most of it because he doesn't need to.

"Which is good for both the company and him," Pepper says, firmly, at one of the meetings she and Maria have.

This meeting specifically happens about recruiting Susannah, which Maria really, really wants to do. Air support, supply and presence is going to be crucial to both the Assam project and to whatever the hell happens with all the things that could explode in the next few years, and she wants someone running that arm of operations that she can trust.

Both in the sense of rely on to be safe and also the sense of rely on to be good at their job and to be able to handle whatever comes. And that pretty much makes Susannah the very, very pinnacle top of the heap.

Moreover it shouldn't be impossible. Maybe difficult, but not impossible. And part of it boils down whether or not Pepper's willing to front-load the employment offer with all the things that Maria knows she's going to have to throw to overwhelm the older woman's initial no I'm retired go away response.

All of the things. Including some revelations about aspects of SI plans into the next fifteen years that nobody else knows about, and being really blunt about them. Maria doesn't expect a lot of difficulty, especially once she explains why. It's just something that needs explaining.

"I know this is going to sound absolutely insane," Pepper adds, taking a moment to sit back and roll her shoulders and stretch her neck, "but at least half of Tony's problem is he ends up feeling way too responsible for things that he has no control over, or isn't good at managing, and he's terrible at functional delegating, so then the whole thing turns into a huge, obsessive gorilla on his back until something snaps and he turns into an avoidant teenager. Which is when you get what people see on the outside."

Maria had been giving Pepper a frankly dubious look when she started the sentence, but as Pepper goes on Maria has to slowly admit the whole thing sounds . . . plausible.

Reluctantly.

But she has to admit it. It's not the first time she's encountered that kind of pattern herself.

"So now all he's responsible for is coming up with new ideas, fixing the worst of the persistent bugs and sometimes going out and being a flashy attention-grabbing personality to sell things," Pepper concludes, settling and picking her coffee mug back up. "And when he tries to interfere, because his brain likes making him and everyone else miserable, I tell him to fuck back off to his office and tell Support to throw more problems at him. Works better for everyone."

And Maria has to grant that.

Witness the fact that she manages to go two months without having to talk to the guy. And what a relief that is.

 

In the end they do manage to snag Susannah.

It's not easy. Maria has to take an overnight trip to Toronto, personally, which is in and of itself a pain in the ass with security.

Then she has to drive out to the Ivanov lakefront property, because Susannah's still staying with her father.

Andy - the father in question - insists on calling it a "cottage", but the home is bigger than the house Maria grew up in, and that's without counting the five acre lot or the dock onto the lake. She's not even sure what this lake is called, as Ontario seems to be even more lousy with lakes than Alaska. In fact all the province seems to have is trees, rocks, and water.

Oh, and black flies.

Maria could have done without the primaeval forests of rural Canada and their black flies, to be honest. But since this is where Susannah's holed up, and nobody else could hope to even get her to listen - bar maybe one, and he's not available - here Maria is.

It's possible she's holding a grudge, since the last time she was in this province it'd been her last and most obnoxious field-op, and the first time she'd been here Phil had been giving her the stress-testing she richly deserved - and had been aiming for - for how she'd introduced herself. Since there aren't that many - okay fine, any - of the insects in the hotel she spends the night in, and only a couple of mosquitos get in the car the one time they hit a rest stop.

But inside her own head, she's just going to hold a grudge. It doesn't help that there's literally no way to make it legal for her to carry a firearm in the entire country anymore. With SHIELD, she had a very special exception; now, that's gone. It's enough of a run-around to get the authorizations for her security, and if she hadn't very carefully cultivated actual friendships with certain people, she might not have been able to get those.

For herself, not a chance.

Not that she's not carrying one. It just means everything's going to be that much harder to deal with if she has to use it.

So she's edgy. Very, very edgy.

Granted, when she gets there, Maria has to admit that the property is pretty. And it's got enough of a breeze to have fewer mosquitos and black flies than there could be.

She leaves her security at the car, because there's a significant chance Andy Ivanov won't let her in if she doesn't. Actually there's always a chance the old man will get obstructive just because he's having a bad day, but she'll deal with that if she has to.

Today, though, he seems to be happy enough to see someone else, if only to get to complain about Susannah's insistence on taking the speed-boat around the lake and "burning through gas" as much as she is. And a few things about international affairs and Canadian politics that Maria just makes listening-noises to.

There are people who, after a vigorous and energetic (to put it politely) life, manage to adapt to reduced mobility and to being in a low level of pain all the time. Ivanov isn't one of them, even though (even Susannah will admit) he does try. But all that "trying" does is get him to "constantly cranky" instead of "staring out the window in a deep and vicious depression".

It is actually harder on him than it is on anyone else, so even if she didn't need to, and even if there weren't his own history with the SSR before SHIELD was a gleam in Carter and Howard Stark's eye, Maria'd keep hold of enough self-control to be compassionate instead of aggravated. And she lets him go through the movements of hospitality, complete with muttered Russian curses about how the appliances are out to get him.

"She's being stubborn about every damn thing," he says, sourly, as he gives Maria a cup of wonderfully strong coffee with honey in it. "She's bored out of her mind. Good luck."

Then he wheels his chair back through the house to his wood-working space in the garage, which is apparently what he's spending most of his time on at the moment.

Maria's of the opinion that if Susannah's going around the lake at top speed in that thing every morning that's just proof that she's bored out of her mind and two steps away from committing patricide, and needs a new job.

But she also knows it's going to be an uphill battle to get Susannah to admit that.

Maria takes the coffee and herself out across the top deck, down the slightly precarious set of steep steps (and she wonders how the hell Susannah's father ever gets down here, if he even does) and across the lower deck to the railing beside the gate to the dock.

Then she leans on that railing and waits. Watches the tiny dot out on the water become a shape she can recognize.

She's pretty sure Susannah does at least one extra lap just to make a point before the little silver boat turns around and heads towards the dock.

Susannah looks fine. Maria feels like there's more silver threaded through the older woman's brown hair than there was the last time they saw each other in person, six weeks before Insight, but that could be projection. It's back in a French braid and Susannah's wearing jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt under her lifejacket.

By the time the boat's pulled in, the motor's off and she's starting to pull the rope out to toss it around the tie-off piling, Susannah's already calling out, "I know why you're here and the answer's no."

"You know I'm not going to take that until you've actually heard what I'm offering, Sue," Maria calls back, mimicking the tone and pushing slightly with the name. "Exactly what I'm offering."

She'd found herself wistfully wishing she could call Barton in on this, which just shows how much stress can damage your brain, because she'd sworn that the moment she was thinking wistfully of sending Clint to do things was the moment she'd know she'd lost it. But here she is, and she was kind of wrong.

Susannah might want to drown Clint sometimes - a lot of the time - but there was something about their relationship that worked, and he was also second only to Phil at getting around Susannah's prickly stubborn displays without having to go straight through them.

And as a result, without the risk that she'd dig her heels in just because she thought you were pushing too hard or - just to be extra complicated - not hard enough.

Barton would have opened right with leaping all the way to Syusha and probably have been having this conversation in Russian, but Maria's not Clint, and so Sue is as far as she's going to push, and only to remind Susannah that they do know each other. And Susannah can't scare her off.

"I don't care," Susannah retorts, tying off the boat and stepping onto the dock. "I'm done. I was done when Carter talked me into working for SHIELD in the first place, and I tried to be done ten damn times when Fury still had Coulson to run around and con me into backing down, but now I'm done."

She pushes her sunglasses up to perch on her head and adds, "Two careers, forty years, more bullshit than you could use up on six thousand farms - I'm done, Hill. There is nothing you can offer me that matters, so as happy as I am to see you, and I am, and as happy as I am you're not dead or rotting in someone's cell somewhere, you can - "

She's made her way up to the gate now, and opened it. Maria turns so that she's leaning her hip against the railing instead of her forearms to interrupt Susannah's tirade.

With, "Full run of the department, including staffing choices. Name your salary and your benefit points. You'd be running redesigned, optimized quinjets, next-gen helicopters short-range craft - " and she surfs the last bit over Susannah's attempt to start again, " - and SI is planning manned spaceflight within five years."

"Bullshit," Susannah says. Almost blurts, because it's clearly one of those cases where what Maria was saying went in her ears and straight through to reaction without talking to impulse control first, which . . .was admittedly exactly what Maria was aiming for.

You only have to know Susannah for one conversation that veers anywhere near the topic to know that she'd give her soul, and possibly even her father's soul, for the chance at real space-flight.

If you knew her a bit longer, and paid attention, it also wouldn't take much to figure out how many of the reasons she never got there were the kind mired in politics, other people's grudges, and the rest of the petty shit you can accumulate, especially if you're a woman who's not very good at being nice.

Susannah glares at Maria, hard; Maria meets the look and counters it by simply raising her eyebrows and waiting for Susannah to accept that Maria's not in fact all that inclined to bullshit. Ever.

But especially not to her, about this.

"Bullshit," Susannah still insists, like someone giving a hard tug on a rope they might have to use to climb something, to see if it's anchored right. "I'm not that out of touch, Hill, nobody's said any fucking thing."

Maria snorts and gives her a sideways look. "Right and how much did we even manage to get out of SI after Pepper took over, Susannah? And nobody was interfering with that end."

Susannah has to admit that, and she waves one hand irritably to acknowledge it. Then she locks the gate and leans back on it with her arms folded.

"You're trying to tell me," she says, irritable, glaring at Maria, "that he is realistically going to be able to independently put a person in orbit in five years - and don't fucking correct me," she adds, "if we're talking space-flight that's still Anthony Edward Damn Stark's work and his baby."

"Yes," Maria replies. "Cost-effective, realistic public access, don't ask me that - but proof-of-concept, actual living human in orbit and return, yes. Frankly I'm pretty sure he could do it for himself now, but even before Pepper took over, Stark's never been willing to risk other people the way he's happy to risk his own neck."

Susannah acknowledges that and stares into the middle distance for a minute.

Then she gives Maria the most jaundiced look Maria's ever gotten - and she's gotten a few, including from Nick himself - and says, "I fucking hate you. Let's go inside - I need coffee and you need to lay this out."

 

It'd taken another hour and Andy Ivanov had almost ruined the whole thing by agreeing way too enthusiastically that his daughter needed to go do something with the rest of her life. But Maria gets Susannah's signature on the appropriate documents and more importantly gets her to commit, out loud, so it was worth it.

As Maria leaves she's pretty sure she can hear the beginning of a father-daughter fight about hiring in-home care, but that was probably inevitable and she just blocks it out. Not even Phil had ever tried to mediate an Ivanov Family Fight.

It's like trying to separate fighting cats: nobody would thank you, and you'd just get scratched up by both of them.

 

Getting some of the others she most wanted had been almost as inconvenient, if not as fraught: for instance, Monique had taken off to London so as to be right at his bedside when Kaushal Bhardwaj woke up, to make sure they could ask him to come on-board before anyone else got a chance.

Not that he'd been in hospital since Insight, which he'd managed to get through without much more than the psychological injury they all had by now. No, he'd been in hospital because he'd been in some cafe when the poor barista's piece-of-shit, extremely brawny estranged husband had shown up with a kitchen knife and - unfortunately - a lot of alcohol in his system.

The alcohol was unfortunate for a lot of reasons, obviously, but above and beyond anything else it meant that when Bhardwaj threw his cup of extremely hot coffee in the guy's face it . . . had less of an effect than it should have, so that Bhardwaj really did have to wrestle him for the knife. And that's always going to be risky, and given the size-difference, the man's level of belligerence and the potential for collateral damage, Bhardwaj had apparently decided to take the knife out of play by getting it stuck in his shoulder.

Which is exactly the kind of guy he is, and also why Phil and Maria tried not to let him out in the field much. Because taking a knife to the shoulder when you're sixty and diabetic is a much dodgier proposition than Bhardwaj would tend to think. Nobody except him was surprised when there turned out to be complications, post-surgery, and he'd had to go in for more and more risky, complex and lengthy surgery, the whole thing making for at least a week he doesn't really remember, between the anaesthetic from the first surgery, the painkillers, becoming what the surgeons had called "really quite sick", and then the second surgery.

At SHIELD, Maria had rapidly learned that doctors used language differently than other people. When a medical doctor, especially a surgeon or an ER doctor, called someone "quite sick" or "very ill", they didn't mean what normal people meant when they said that. They meant someone had almost died.

It did at least mean that nobody else had yet had any time to try to sign him on, and Maria still did have time for Monique to be the first one there, first foot in the door. But it also meant he was in what Nick used to call Paladin Mode, and not listening very well to medical professionals.

Apparently he'd still been worried about the young woman and the bystanders - who'd included two teenagers, one of whom had tried to intervene before the guy got in the door and had ended up thrown into the side of the building for his trouble - and trying to check up on both of them as he'd been wheeled into surgery, the knife still in his shoulder. Monique had certainly had to give him a full update on what was being done to keep the barista safe before he'd let her get through explaining why she was there.

Then she'd had to hand over the incredibly detailed package on the proposed plant, including every available information on how Pepper planned to house, feed, pay, mediate between and train the workers in Assam and who she was partnering with on the ground.

Two hours later - Monique had gone to get lunch - Bhardwaj was willing to cautiously admit that Pepper might not be committing the same old sins and making the same old mistakes, and agree that if she were willing to take his input seriously then this might be the kind of thing that, yes, he would like to be a part of.

He'd had some conditions, but beyond that one - that really, seriously, Pepper listen - they'd almost all been about wanting to make sure that he could support his daughter while she went to grad school, and that was more about psychological support and childcare than money. It's also readily and easily solved by listing the daughter and the granddaughters as dependants and slotting it right into the general SI employment package. So that had gone pretty well.

On her way out, Monique had done the nurses a favour by tracking down full details of the rest of the police response to the incident, along with the contact information for the lead detective, so that Bhardwaj would stay in bed and stop trying to find it out on his own.

Monique said that when she'd left, he'd already conned a nurse into bringing him his cellphone and was calling said detective. Of course.

 

On the other hand, signing on a lot of the other people she wanted had been easy, although Maria isn't surprised. More often than not, SHIELD ended up being more of a life than a job, and for an awful lot of people, even if they survived Insight mostly unscathed, they were . . .lost. Adrift. For more than a few, getting the call from her ends up being more like a life-line tossed into a really rough sea than anything else, and by that two-month point she's secured more than half the people she wants.

Sadly, though, she had been right about Morse and Wu - but she also can't blame them, and does have them marked as potential contractors for later on.

Bobbi'd even looked more than a little guilty when she'd done a video-call in to pass along their mutual refusal.

"I hope you're not going to take this the wrong way," she'd said, and Maria had waved that off.

Not that either of them would be able to explain, with words, what "the wrong way" is to anyone who didn't just . . .understand what Bobbi meant. But they understand what Bobbi meant, and that's enough. And Maria doesn't take it that way.

"I knew it was a long-shot," she'd replied. "But I had to try."

"If it helps, we talked about it almost all the way through last night," Bobbi'd said, which left Maria a bit touched. It wasn't an invitation to make a stronger case, or an indication that Bobbi didn't mean what she said, because she does, but it's still meant to take the sting out. And this is one of those times when the thought actually is what counts. "But right now - "

"Trust me," Maria'd told her. "I understand. Look after yourselves, okay?"

Bobbi'd hesitated and then asked, "Hey - have you heard anything from Clint? I mean I've gotten a couple not-dead-yet emails, but that's all."

Maria'd shrugged, shook her head. "Nothing more than that," she'd said, and it was and is true. "A few more of those than you're getting, probably, but I have no idea where he is," and she'd had to correct herself away from they, "or what he's doing, or when he's planning to resurface."

Bobbi had probably heard the unspoken they, but since she hadn't gone there, neither would Maria. But Bobbi hadn't looked surprised, either. "I figured it was worth a shot," she'd said, and then they'd exchanged good-byes.

There'd never been drama. Not as such. It's just that when Clint left New York on that particular mission, he and Bobbi had been dating for a little over a year, and living together for just over three months - and when he came back, it was with a beautiful, mysterious enemy operative he'd chosen not to kill, and had convinced to defect instead. And he'd come back to be assigned to supervise her orientation and integration, without him even complaining about the paperwork involved.

Two weeks later, HR had been finding Clint an apartment for his at-home alias, and it'd been pretty obvious that the orbit of Hawkeye's world now spun pretty tightly around the Black Widow.

There'd never been drama, but while Clint and Bobbi seemed to have eventually settled into a friendship that included regular World Cup and NFL nights, Agents Morse and Romanoff had never developed any kind of camaraderie. Worked together fine, worked together well, even, so much so that Mockingbird had always been a regular backup for Strike Team Delta missions, but not . . .more than that.

And everyone took the hint, and just never, ever mentioned it. To the point where Maria knows for a fact that don't mention it, no seriously, don't had been part of the standard Unofficial New 5 Orientation lessons.

Maria hadn't been there to see that happen, had been sitting in Iraq learning that the Army was never going to be her home because the Army still cared way too much about whether or not the doctor announced it's a girl or it's a boy when she was born. It hadn't been until several years later, when she'd unexpectedly jumped straight from running field ops to Assistant Directorship, that she'd also had the closed-door need-to-know-only meeting - from Barton, personally - that filled in all the details of Natasha's arrival at SHIELD.

Including the part where, contrary to popular belief, Natalia Romanova is younger than Maria, and was barely legal when Clint brought her in. And in fact it'd been several years before they'd so much as slept together.

Normally, asking or angling to get that kind of info out of either of them got you a granite wall of we're going to pretend you didn't ask that question. The rumour mill ran like all rumour mills do - there'd been some pretty hilarious ones about the supposed Strike Team Delta threesome, Coulson included - but firstly very few people ever did have the gall to ask Nat, Clint, or anyone who would know for sure straight out, and secondly when they did they got told off for prying in affairs that didn't concern them.

So Maria'd been a little bit startled to hear him . . .not admit, admit makes it sound like there's something wrong, but acknowledge that at all.

However, Clint's not-brief-at-all briefing had also included details like Natalia spending about six months testing his conviction on that one really hard - and very much as a deliberate, targeted test. A private operation, essentially, to see at what point Barton would cave and admit, or acknowledge, or prove, that it'd all been about wanting to fuck her in the first place.

Maria empathized with the need to find out.

That'd been Maria's first introduction to the fact that while it often seemed like Clint would happily fuck anything female, willing and attractive, and was about as discreet as a feral tom-cat, actually his self-control in that area is absolutely the definition of "immovable object". Time and knowing the man herself had taught her that outside of an op, Clint mostly treated women who were obviously significantly younger than him like younger cousins, and veered to women his own age at the least. There were a few exceptions, but they'd always been the kind of people where you were startled to find out they were actually twenty-five when you were sure they were in their thirties.

And even there in his personal life he had a hard cut off at twenty-one.

She'd overheard him actually have a mostly-friendly argument about that with one of the 6s, who'd floated the usual but what if you met your soul-mate, to which Clint had replied that he wasn't going to hold his breath - and that besides which, any woman who was actually his soul-mate would entirely understand why he'd really rather she went out and finished her college degree and maybe did some world-travel or serious work for a couple years before they tried to date.

Maria's not sure the other agent had ever quite understood, but there was also a reason that agent remained a 6 until he'd had his head bashed in during an op in Belize.

Natasha had apparently given up her attempted seduction, or entrapment, or whatever you wanted to call it, after that first six months; it'd still been another two years - and a mission that came very, very close to getting Clint killed - before anything had happened. And by then things were long past the point where you could argue that Nat was anything but more integrated, more valued, more respected at SHIELD than Clint was.

Or that honestly, whether or not they were fucking was and is the least important part of their bond.

You can't really pin Natasha and Clint down to a useful label, anyway - even now, it's hard to call their relationship romantic, and trying to apply "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" just feels like putting a tutu on a tiger. Knowing Natasha the way that she does, Maria's not sure there's anyway Nat can even make that kind of thing make sense in relationship to herself - it's like the idea of parents, or for that matter of childhood. Nat knows it exists, and knows it's important to other people, and even all the ways it works for other people, and it has nothing to do with her at all. And Clint has at least two semi-casual but semi-permanent girlfriends on two different continents, and is still basically an alley-cat otherwise.

They don't fit into the way the world works for everyone else.

And now that she's known him for years, Maria's pretty sure that Natasha had little or nothing to do with the complete implosion of Clint's relationship with Bobbi - she's pretty sure that was all just Clint, was the fact that while Clint Barton can put on a really good mask of normalcy, and can actually be just about anything you want him to be (as long as he cares what you want) for as long as he can think of it like an op or a game . . .

The real, genuine Clint Barton is paranoid enough to preemptively give Nick Fury shit because he was afraid Nick would forget where the lines were and make it so Clint had to kill him, and if you look at that little fact long enough you'll see how the fucked up just keeps going down to the bottom of the sea and beyond. How it meant something absolutely fundamental is broken.

Bobbi has all the quirks you can't avoid having as a Level 6, sure - a lot of the same quirks Maria has, for that matter. But she's not that kind of broken, any more than Maria is. And even if Clint really wanted it to work, and Maria thinks he did, it just comes down to that. Being a normal guy, even for their variation on the word normal - Maria doesn't think that's actually something Clint can manage, long term. And the way he is, under all the pretense, isn't . . .something someone like Bobbi could meet halfway.

The profound depth of the paranoia, the profound depth of belief in the chaos of the world and what that means and what it makes meaningless - all of that. The nihilism. Maria can find it hard to think on that level, and Barton lives there.

Maria'd actually come to that conclusion herself, but she had checked it with Phil, when Phil was still alive, because if anyone (other than Natasha) actually knew Clint Barton beyond the fronts he put up as automatically as breathing, it was Phil Coulson.

Phil had looked slightly pained and slightly sad, and said, I did hope it would work out. Then, after a pause, he'd admitted, But I was already backstopping options for when it didn't when they moved in together.

On the other hand, when it comes down to it, Maria's not sure knowing that would make any of it better: it might actually be easier to think you lost a guy to the Black Widow than to know there was never a chance in the first place because he's just that fucked in the head and you're not, and since it'd never impacted the work, Maria'd never said a damn thing. And wasn't likely to, if she didn't have to.

Another of Phil's pieces of wisdom had been that sometimes, the Level 6s could give you brilliant insights into the Level 7s . . . and sometimes, they were the very, very worst at understanding them at all, because they were close enough to think they knew what was going on, and still different enough to be wrong. There was a reason, after all, that the proportion of 6s that went to 7 was so small.

Maria's increasingly of the opinion that you actually couldn't do what they'd demanded of 7s without being broken in ways that would never let you go back. She'd actually looked up the records, and while several 6s actually managed to retire - admittedly some of them after losing a leg, or an eye, or contracting some other illness that made the work impossible - the only 7s who hadn't died in the field had been Margaret Carter, and Codename Amber.

And history already knew that Margaret Carter was one in a million if not much, much more, and Amber . . . Maria felt that in a lot of ways, Amber's retirement hadn't really been retirement.

Had more been crawling away to find a warm dark cave to lick your wounds until you died.

Otherwise, even ancient 7s just kept doing the job until it or something else killed them, because there wasn't any other option for them.

Which is kind of fucked up, if you think about it. And there are one or two survivors of Insight that Maria's worried about, and that's exactly why.

She just can't do that much for them. Which she's going to have to get used to, and is always going to hate.

 

Just before she hits two months, though, Maria ends up with a message from Stark's PA asking to set aside a couple hours of meeting time.

Maria gives Monique a very, very wary and extremely dubious look. And Monique says, "I know. But Janine assures me he's not fucking around, and he's serious." She lifts one hand as if to say what can I say?

And Maria has to be fair: Stark's PA is actually very, very good at her job.

Apparently, SI HR had taken the lessons learned in the epic quest to find Pepper in the first place, all those years ago, deeply to heart. As a result, the process involved in finding her replacement had been lengthy, and exhaustive.

It had included drumming up a candidate pool the way that SHIELD analysts used to make lists of potential assets for an op, and they'd been just as thorough, too, looking in all the unexpected places; then there'd been multiple layers of interviews, including one set that had been handing the candidates a package of scenarios the first interview, and then discussing in exhaustive detail all of their choices in the second interview.

According to Ira and Leo, who presided over HR, Janine had started out clearly surprised that she'd even been considered - and had come back from the scenarios without that sense of surprise, and also with the immediate and simple question, Has Mr Stark been screened for Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

They'd stared at her, and asked her to elaborate. And she'd explained that since the overwhelming impression (her words) of the collection of scenarios had immediately made it painfully clear the point of the exercise was to discard previous assumptions in models of behavioural interaction (again, almost all how she actually put it), she'd slept on it and then returned to the given scenarios with fresh eyes and discarded preconceptions.

And whether or not this was in fact what they were looking for, it had then rapidly become apparent (she said) that if this were not a screening or diagnostic process Mr Stark had previously engaged with, it was one she suspected would bear extremely useful fruit, sufficient that she felt ethically compelled to ask the question by way of imparting the suggestion. Naturally, if such screening had already taken place, whatever had been determined was obviously Mr Stark's affair, but since childhood diagnosis would have been patchy at best when he'd been a child, and adult diagnosis was patchy now, it was worth raising the subject.

Then she'd run through the scenarios and in almost all of them had actually managed to figure out the Right Answer, which in this case was sometimes not what anyone else would ever think was the right thing for a PA to do, but which had been supplied by Pepper as the answer key.

Things like "what do you do if Mr Stark asks why you're bothering him with these papers when you're supposed to be the person who makes it so he doesn't have to deal with this shit." Which is apparently, "Remind him that company policy firmly states that nobody should ever forge his signature and if he would listen for fifteen seconds he would realize that he needs to sign something, then put the thing he needs to sign on a flat surface beside him with a pen, because he hates being handed things."

Janine had got that one right. Among others.

Eventually - after two more involved interviews, and finally a screening session with Pepper, and then the final two-week audition of doing the actual job and seeing if anything exploded, which it had not - Janine had been the pick. And it's worked unexpectedly well.

Maria gathers that Tony Stark is actually forbidden to refer to Janine as a Vulcan, or as his Vulcan First Officer, or Ms Spock, or anything else.

He apparently gave up on even trying to call her not-Pepper after the first week, not so much because Pepper'd threatened to kill him (although she had), as because Janine had refused to answer to it after explaining, patiently, that in any given room there were innumerable multitudes of things, many of them sapient, which could be characterized as "not being Pepper", and as such it did not count as a sufficiently specific title for herself.

Maria has to admit she can see why Stark might want to call the woman something to do with Vulcans. At least to herself.

She still can't figure out why anyone would want the job, even considering the extremely high salary and benefits, but apparently Janine takes great satisfaction in managing Stark's schedule and it keeps everyone else from having to deal with him unmanaged, so it's a win all around.

Maria figures some people like country music; since it works out great for everyone involved, she's not going to question it. At least not given the level of background check and monitoring JARVIS and the company between them managed before they'd even hired Janine almost certainly counts as illegal.

But one of the things Janine brings to her job is an extraordinary level of up-front honesty, at least when it comes to operating in-house.

If Stark's late for something because he got distracted, for example, then least to other high-level members of the company Janine will flat out say that. She won't try to screen it, she won't talk around it, she'll just say he was distracted by a project and he's being difficult to herd.

Because then, she's apparently replied when asked, if she tells you he's late because he's stuck on an important call, or because there's been an emergency, or anything else, you know he actually is.

Her take seems to be that within the company everyone knows Tony Stark's foibles, and everyone knows they'll happen to a certain extent no matter what anyone does, even Pepper and Col Rhodes couldn't actually make Tony Stark show up to something on time if he was in a Mood, so playing coy games about it just makes everyone's jobs difficult, and actual communication harder, to no purpose.

Outside the company, granted, Janine can and will lie and gloss with the best of them. Maria's been the recipient of that, after she'd been hired. It's an almost creepy switch: with more or less one blink and an almost imperceptible shift in her posture, Janine goes from the incredibly efficient, extremely blunt woman everyone inside the company knows to . . .

. . .well, the Young Female Personal Assistant. Complete with occasional breathlessness. It's almost as complete a transformation as anything Maria's seen Natasha do - the only difference being that Janine appears to just have the one, and has to burn a lot of mental resources to keep it up for a long time.

That last bit is second-hand, from Pepper - although apparently from Janine's self-report during their direct interview, rather than experience. It'd been the major impediment to her career before SI, and the biggest reason her husband had at the time been trying to talk her into trying something else.

Sometimes Maria wonders how Janine slipped under SHIELD's radar; she's exactly the kind of person Coulson particularly tried to recruit. Probably not as field, but as an analyst, she'd've been amazing.

As it is, she's just the thing that makes Tony Stark's life work, and right now is insisting that he really does need a couple hours of Maria's time, for a serious grown up reason.

That he's not actually telling them yet.

Maria gives Monique a sigh, and a shrug, and says, "Okay. Put it in."

It really better not be bullshit.

 

It's either Janine, Monique or both exercising delicacy and tact that means the actual location the meeting in one of the more comfortable meeting-rooms on the floor just underneath Pepper and Tony's offices, and just above the area that Maria's taking over. And not in either of their offices. Or on either floor itself.

It's light, and airy, has a great view, and is big enough that it doesn't feel like she's being forced to be uncomfortably close, while being small enough that it's not patently ridiculous for two people to be meeting in this room.

Maria's day is as full as it always is and most likely always will be, so she goes there directly from another meeting - one about finalizing the changes to operational structure within StarkSec in domestic operations, so that they can start the heavy work on how things are going to work out overseas. Because she wants to get that training started now. She wants to feel confident about the training and the grievance process before any of the buildings on the ground are up.

And that's going to happen.

She shakes her head, trying to clear it, as the elevator takes her up. She's starting to rethink the decision against going to get coffee.

Except she can also hear her mother's comment about acid reflux and ulcers and the amount of coffee Maria drinks, from their last conversation at the hospital (complete with Maria biting her tongue hard because her mother was on a lot of painkillers from the surgery to realign her hip), and the echoes of older conversation with SHIELD physicians (complete with their wry awareness that they were talking to the wall, with her and everyone else), and so she sighs and goes directly to the room.

If it were anyone else, she wouldn't be surprised to find the other person there first, given the tightness of her schedule. Because it's Stark, she is - surprised he's already there, and surprised at the signs that he's been there for a few minutes already, and more surprised than anything that he appears to be . . . .more than a little bit nervous.

Maria's not sure she's ever seen Tony Stark nervous before. Irritable, angry, obnoxious, serious, even thoughtful and attentive a few times in a blue moon: sure.

Nervous, not so much.

He's half-sitting-leaning against the table, staring out the bank of windows with his arms crossed; as Maria comes into the room and hits the button that makes the glass windows into the hallway frost opaque (one of her favourite little grace-note features of the Tower), he stands up, turns to face her and gestures to a table in the corner.

"There's coffee over there," he says. "JARVIS mentioned you didn't stop. Because I asked," he clarifies, as if it did actually just occur to him that maybe that's a bit creepy.

Then he also seems to realize that his having asked JARVIS might be just as creepy, and then just looks like he's giving up at something, aggravated, and sits down at the table. Looking defensive.

All still not exactly what Maria's expecting.

For lack of anything else to do with that, though, she says, "Thanks," and gets a damn cup of coffee because it's right there and coffee being right there is way more convincing than any echo of any argument.

It doesn't actually bother her that either JARVIS might note that kind of information, or that Stark would ask, so it's not like she's concerned.

Maria takes her coffee and sits down across from Stark, and because she figures saying well what do you want, Stark? out loud does sort of count as confrontational, just looks at him expectantly. He still hadn't passed on any agenda or even a purpose for the meeting for the meeting. Just . . . asked for it.

Stark leans his forearms on the table. "Look," he says, like he's decided to skip something, and not for the first time Maria suspects that Stark's two modes of communication are verbal diarrhea and practicing the conversation inside my head for an hour, "I know all our previous . . . interactions, call it, have been pretty . . . antagonistic. Which is mostly my fault."

Maria chooses not to quibble with the mostly at the moment. Besides, he's not done.

"That makes this awkward, so I'm just . . . let's just acknowledge the awkward, and sort of move past it. I have a reason I wanted this meeting, and it's important, but there's no real way to make it . . . not awkward. Especially if we don't move past the awkward." He picks up his cup. "And yeah I could probably use awkward more in those sentences but it's not like I'm being graded on my prose right now. Or should be."

Maria looks at him for a moment, and then sighs. Knows the sigh shows up in her body. Can't help it, at this point.

She can hear Phil, from whatever afterlife he may or may not be in, as well as if she had an earwig in and he were coaching her, so she gives up and asks, "Stark, do you even know how to interact with people you're not trying to annoy them?" because she might as well not play games. And she really wants to know, sometimes.

And crucially - as the echo of Phil is already explaining - because it'll dial the whole thing down away from the formality that's clearly turning Stark into a weird, stilted puppet of himself, and into something that might be less polite, but will also be less painful for them both.

Because even she'll admit Stark's got the ability to recognize when that kind of thing is an olive branch rather than actual disrespect.

"Yes," he returns, immediately, illustrating her point, "but not really with people I've pissed off and now need to un-piss-off. Scortched earth has kind of always been my thing, not that much practice trying to walk it back. Besides," he says, like he can't help it, "you can't actually say you weren't backing Fury up when he was outright fucking with me. And lying. A lot. That's what you were doing. That was happening."

And that's true, and Maria tips her coffee cup and leans back. Watches Stark unwind a little, so now she does ask, in a voice that makes it not confrontational, but just . . .direct, "So what do you want, Stark?"

Stark sits up and runs a hand through his hair, and it strikes Maria - he's fidgeting.

Oh Christ.

It's an almost unsettling realization, as if someone swings the camera of her life around inside her head and she gets the scene from a whole new angle - and not just here but in every single fucking memory of watching Stark do. . . anything.

Maria resists the urge to literally bang her face on the table, but it's a near thing.

She doesn't wonder why she's never thought about this before. She knows why she's never thought about this before: before, this wasn't her job. Dealing with Anthony Stark wasn't her fucking job except in the most utilitarian, immediate of ways.

It was Phil's job and then it was Natasha's job - Maria's job was just to believe what they told her (even if it seemed ridiculous) and respond accordingly. Her job was just to trust them to do their job. Decoding Stark was not part of that. It was part of their job.

Now she doesn't have Phil and she doesn't even have Natasha and this is in fact her job. Part of her job.

Honestly, she kind of resents it.

But there's a lot of shit in her life she resents, and life hasn't given a fuck yet, and frankly she can almost hear her Nona frowning at her from Heaven about not being grateful for the blessings she's received. Like not being dead, in prison, in "protective custody" and in fact living in a luxury suite with a ridiculously well-paying job that's, let's be real here, letting her keep doing what it would be driving her fucking crazy not to be doing even if she were just forcibly, truly retired.

And to the mental shade of her tiny grandmother she thinks, Yeah yeah okay Nona I get it.

Stark's now giving her a sideways look and seems somewhat derailed, like he lost track of what she asked before he coul danswer. Before she can repeat her question, he says, "You just got a funny look. Or maybe not a look. A vibe. There's a vibe here. Other than hostility."

And he gets up and veers towards the coffee machine himself, asking, "Your coffee good? You want something else?"

"I'm fine," Maria says, giving up. And not bothering to comment on the comments about vibes.

Because he's fidgeting. And she has to recognize that now.

It is weird, and uncomfortable, to think about Stark fidgeting. As he goes through the steps of getting his own . . . whatever the hell he's drinking, Maria's actually kind of impressed at how well he hides it. Disguises it. How he turns the impulse to fidget into something much bigger, more grandiose, more dynamic and much harder to understand as a sign that he, Tony Stark, is really nervous and uncomfortable.

In her head, whether she wants to or not, she's replaying the mental footage of the asshole walking onto the helicarrier and walking up to the command post, every bit of snark and excessive gesture, up to and including the one that let him put that fucking bug on the side of the fucking console. All of it.

He was fidgeting.

And, probably most importantly, how it stopped the second he was rattling off technical specifications to Banner - the part he had absolutely no nerves about - and then came back again as soon as he was being introduced instead.

Every single moment reframing itself in the absolute understanding that Tony Stark would rather make everyone in the room hate his snide and arrogant guts and want to throw him off the deck than actually let them know he's anxious, uncomfortable and apprehensive.

The worst part is, the realization doesn't even give her anything to make this entire meeting - whatever the fuck it's even about - less . . . . whatever it's going to be.

Mentally exhausting. Irritating. At least at the moment.

It's just there. Reinterpreting everything.

"So here's the thing," Stark breaks the silence by saying, or almost announcing, like he's now actually starting into his prepared speech - now that he has his coffee, his coffee-spoon to fiddle with, and also an excuse to pace and gesture while he talks.

Jesus Christ. Maria actually has at least three more hours of work to do after this meeting, and she already needs a drink.

"I'm pretty sure it's not gonna shock you to know I've been deep diving into the database drop," Stark goes on, coming back around the other side of the table - but slowly, at a pacing pace, and yes: gesturing with his spoon-hand.

He pauses and adds, "In between coming up with ways to block satellite scans that'll install on smart-phones, anyway," as if it's an afterthought.

Although Maria did already know about those. It has a lot of flags and exclamation-markers attached to it in her own planning files, along with a polite formal request that she wants to see that as soon as he actually does have, or know of, a working model.

"Right," she agrees, by way of listening-noise, since he appears to be looking for one.

"Lots of different reasons," Stark goes on, "but there's one that's both kinda big and also that I'm not finding a single fucking thing about, and since I know he's gonna fucking ignore me assuming he even acknowledges that I know where he is - which I am not assuming - I'm gonna open this conversation by asking the single other living person I think might actually know, which is you - " and Stark stops, standing behind the chair he had been sitting in before to take a deep breath before he asks, " - what the fuck was Fury actually even thinking, with the Avengers Initiative?"

This is not actually a question Maria's expecting. Or has ever expected.

Technically it's not even a question she has an answer to, at least inasmuch as an answer would be something she's ever gotten from Nick, because she never asked.

And ten minutes ago, she'd've happily stonewalled Stark on any kind of answer at all, and just told him that she had no idea what he was talking about, that she and Nick had never discussed any hidden motives for the Initiative, that as far as she knew there'd never been any hidden motives for the Initiative, and that she also isn't sure what he'd be talking about anyway.

And so on.

It'd be true, too.

Ten minutes ago.

Mother. Fucker.

Here, now, she sighs and rubs her forehead. "Fury had twenty reasons for every damn thing he did, Stark, you're gonna have to be a bit more specific if we're not going to spend an hour figuring out what exactly you're even asking me about," she says, flatly. The kind of flat that isn't about being irritated at him, but is about wanting to put her head in her hands at everything.

Stark looks surprised. Like that's not what he was expecting her to say. Like he was absolutely prepared to launch into whatever he decided approximates interrogation tactics (and Maria doesn't even want to know) in response to her stonewalling him, and her actual response knocks him off balance.

Probably what's happened.

It takes him a minute or two to recover, and Maria takes advantage of those minutes to drink coffee and settle that urge to bury her face in her hands.

" - okay," he says, eventually, sitting down. "Fair point, I can see how that - right so here's the thing." He sits down in the chair all in one movement, and leans forward, putting his hands palms together and pointed at her on the table. "And this has bugged me from day one okay. Here's Fury's ideal formulation for this clusterfuck."

He ticks things off on his fingers as he lists them off.

"Me," he says. "Just to start with. And trust me I am not unaware that the shit that he contributes to our not-particularly-cordial relationship does in fact reside in paternally tinged disappointment that the fact that my dad trusted and relied on him without question just means I trust him less, and that aggravates the hell out of him and hurts his feelings. Whether or not that's justified is besides the point," Stark notes, as if to head that off, not that Maria was going to bother, "the point is, despite his inappropriate investment, I'm pretty sure I'm responsible for his dentist making a few thousand bucks off broken teeth. And that's just him. Even assuming the parts of the WSC and SHIELD that aren't actually corrupt, I'm still kind of a nightmare."

Maria snorts softly and says, "I can't exactly argue with that," and both is and isn't surprised when it gets her a brief, slightly bitter, but genuine smile.

Stark's inclusion had been one of the famous times that Strike Team Paperclip had pretended that they hadn't been listening to her demand, at considerable volume, if Fury had lost his god damned mind because he'd blown off everyone else who tried to ask that without an explanation, and if he'd wanted someone who wouldn't challenge him, he shouldn't've made her his Assistant Director.

Stark ticks off another finger. "Bruce. Yeah, sure, the Hulk," and he waves that away, "but more importantly, Bruce. Who started getting arrested for civil disobedience and non-violent protest-based sabotage when he was in high-school. Who was already on a government watch-list before it was cool, and before he was green. Who only ever worked with the military to start with because Betty talked him into doing the project because General Asshat managed to appeal to both their professional pride and terminal curiousity at the same time, plus unlimited funding. My point here being that while sure, Blonksy's a nightmare, Bruce isn't exactly who you'd expect SHIELD to welcome in, even without the whole ragemonster problem."

And the thing is, Maria was literally in the meetings where multiple people pointed all of this out. Hell, she'd pointed it out. Once. Before she figured out what Nick really was playing at.

A third finger-tick follows as Stark says, "Captain Overreaction."

"I'm not sure you can call it that," Maria finds herself saying; to her surprise Stark actually seems to acknowledge her point with a gesture with his mug.

"Okay, fine, knee-jerk, let's go with Captain Extreme Reaction," he says, and Maria can't argue with that, "the point is, the old SSR shit is in those files too, which means I can now say with pretty solid confidence that a) my dad was full of shit, and also b) there's no way that Nick Fury, Spy of Spies, did not realize that Steven Grant Rogers just basically does whatever he decides he's gonna do, and it that means he has to lead, he'll lead, and if someone else is leading he'll follow, and if someone tries to get in his way he'll go through them. There are some people I would buy could not read between those lines but if I can see it there you are not going to get me to believe some bullshit about Fury not being able to."

It takes a lot of self-control for Maria not to say anything about what that implies about Stark's frame for Nick. Fortunately, she has a lot of self-control.

Stark repeats, "You cannot tell me that Fury didn't know the second he started trying to pull shit on Captain America, Captain America was going to become a problem. Although I will note - " and now Stark gives her an ironic look, " - that all that shit got hidden behind some pretty impressive protection around 2013. And the official files started getting as misleading as you can get without lying."

"Fortunately," Maria retorts. "Imagine how fucked we'd've been if Pierce had expected Steve to be a recalcitrant pain in the ass who only cared about authority and the chain of command as far as he could throw you."

She's thought about that a lot. It would have been much, much easier for Pierce to use his asset to take Steve out preemptively, if he'd realized it. Granted, it'd also be wasting a potential valuable asset in Steve himself, which accounts for why Pierce didn't do it out of an abundance of caution anyway, but . . .

After a thoughtful pause to drink a mouthful of coffee, Stark makes a show of acknowledging that point, too. He sits back.

"Now like I said, that always bugged me - that is, my inclusion always bugged me, which is why I told you guys to go piss up a rope, and then as soon as I started looking up anything about him, Bruce bugged me, but I figured hey: I am the only guy I know of who can do what I do, and the other invulnerable rage-monster started out as a violent psychopath, so maybe Fury's stuck with what he can get. And while I'll admit that I maybe initially made some hasty judgements about Rogers, even on a second glance he still didn't look terrible until I actually thought through a lot of the shit that happened that day and figured out how fast he went from telling me off to physically breaking into the hold."

"I meant to ask," Maria says, because she kind of has meant to ask whenever it came up, "did JARVIS disable the breach-response on that?"

Because there should have been an electric shock that would have given even Steve pause, and alarms. A lot of alarms.

"Ah-yeah," Stark confirms. He looks slightly abashed, of all things. "Don't ever tell Rogers that, though, he was so proud of having solved that mystery all on his own, I don't want to step on his moment. But okay sure, maybe same applies to him as to me and Bruce, or I figured at that point maybe Fury didn't realize and was working off the same wrong impression we all had about the Noble Captain America. But you know what's in the database drop?"

Now that she's got a sort of working picture of where Stark's going with this, and what's taking him there, and so what he actually wants to know, Maria decides to skip to the end. "Was it Barton's personnel files that tipped the scale, or Romanoff's?" she asks.

"Yes," Stark replies, with only the slightest hint that she's caught him off-balance again. "The answer there is 'yes', Hill. Because see he might not have any choice about me, or about Bruce, or even about Rogers, but he had his fucking choice of you guys, and yeah okay so Romanoff is kinda superlative, but it's not like he's not gonna have other shit for her to do, and from what I hear Melinda May's pretty damn good too. And a bunch of other people. But no, Hill. No, he picks Clinton Francis Barton, whose file actually has a specific flag on it stating that nobody should try to make him do anything he's said no to, and Natasha freaking Romanoff, whose file has a specific flag on it saying that if anyone makes her choose between SHIELD and Barton, she'll pick Barton and then light SHIELD on fire."

"No it doesn't," Maria says, suppressing a smile, because while she could resist, she can't be bothered. And it doesn't say that.

She wrote it, she should know.

"I'm paraphrasing," Stark retorts. "But it's pretty strongly implied. So what the fuck was he doing, Hill? Okay, Loki and his weird army came out of nowhere, we were a scramble response to that, fine, but that just makes trying to figure out what the fuck he was trying to set up for the long game even more fucking confusing. Because then on top of the rest of us, he starts pushing for the crown prince of the fucking interstellar empire we're apparently part of whether we like it or not, aka the person he is least able to control in any way in the universe bar possibly the guy's dad. And frankly having had a couple chats with Thor since then about his dad I'd actually give Fury better odds at manipulating that asshole than manipulating Thor."

Maria exhales, and crosses her forearms on the table. Leans on them. "Honestly?" she replies.

And there's the ache, as she says this. Again. The same ache. The ache for everything that didn't work, that went wrong, that's still going wrong. But she pushes it away. She doesn't have the energy to give it a home right now.

"If Nick Fury could've had his way," she says, levelly, "when Pierce tried to pull his shit, he would have hit an integrated, cohesive, mutually-practiced wall of all five of you."

Stark looks at her for a long moment, eyes narrowing slightly. "Alright," he says. His voice is dubious, but he doesn't argue, just says after a beat, " - keep going. I mean I just talked for like ten minutes, you could at least give me five full of explaining."

"Do you have any social skills, Stark?" Maria asks, getting up to go get herself more coffee. She asks because she wants to see what he'll answer, and because she honestly wonders, and finally because she might as well start getting a handle on Stark as someone she actually has to understand. And get to understand her, at least enough that he's only getting under her feet on purpose. And her other option was pointing out that it wasn't ten minutes, if only because the guy still talks at the speed of light.

"I hire people for that," Stark parries. "Creates employment, increases circulation, helps the economy, means there's at least two things in the world I'm any good for."

"This is not a conversation Nick and I ever had, Stark," Maria tells him, noting the self-directed acid but not responding to it for now. "This is the kind of thing where if I'd outright asked him Nick would have denied it. He might have had an honest conversation about this with Coulson. Might. Once." She finishes spooning sugar into her cup and goes to sit back down. "In private. Outdoors, near a really loud waterfall."

"Did he ever try and see if he could partition off the right side of his brain from the left side of his brain and keep secrets from himself, or did even he see how that would be a bad idea?" Stark asks.

It feels reflexive, like he can't actually let this moment go by without being an asshole.

"Nick didn't know a god-damn thing about HYDRA," Maria says, ignoring that. "None of us did. If we had it would have been handled a long, long time before it ever got this far, believe me. It took all the way to the near-completion of Insight before even Nick started getting enough hints that something was wrong that he started shaking trees."

"But - ?" Stark prompts, and for once Maria feels like she might have his full attention, even if it does come with a scowl, like he's trying to solve a puzzle. It's at least the look of someone doing that, instead of thinking of his next smart-ass remark.

"Nick was fully aware of how ugly the spy-games get, Stark," she says, quietly. "He cut his teeth on Operation Atreus, which was ten years of us lying bald faced to MI6, the CIA and the KGB and playing the whole fucking lot of them against each other because there were so many agendas going in the fucking Cold War that half the time the people on our fucking side were the problem. He was 2IC on that entire fucking nightmare and all of the shit it involved, and all of the shit it stopped. And he knew what kind of tech and what other shit was coming down the pipe, and what that meant. About how much worse that kind of shit might get."

Stark's tapping his spoon on the back of his hand. It strikes Maria as weirdly considerate: the soft noise of metal on skin is way, way less irritating than it would be if he were tapping it on the table or on the cup. She shrugs.

"He wasn't making a SHIELD team with the Initiative," she finishes. "He was making a failsafe. He was making a group of people who could, and would, tell SHIELD and the WSC to go fuck themselves if and when they crossed the line. It more or less worked," she adds, "at least as well as it could, given all the shit that went wrong."

For a minute, after she stops talking, Stark's quiet. He looks like he's staring through the table, and Maria opts not to disturb the silence. Honestly, she's kind of curious what he'll come up with.

Eventually, all he says is, "Huh," and to Maria's bemusement he just keeps staring at the table, through the table, for another beat or three.

Then, just when she's about to say something, he sits up, looks directly at her and says, "Cool, makes sense. So - that was easier than I expected. Now - second half of the meeting."

Maria doesn't laugh in his face. But she does really, really need a drink.

 

Later, she gets one - and also texts Monique to ask her if she can detour to Maria's suite before she heads home.

Monique's settled in Harlem, because even a lot of deep-digging hasn't revealed a higher-than-normal risk to her living in an upper-floor building with good security. And it's a nice building, and a very nice place, and according to Monique she's sworn blind to her mother that she'll eat dinner and sleep there at least four nights out of seven.

(Monique has forbidden anyone to even say, out loud, that going back to her place isn't going to stop her from working, in case her mother hears. Somehow.)

Her mother seems to be the only first-degree relative Monique's currently talking to, plus a couple of second-degrees (including her cousin, who additionally leapt at Eva's subsequent job-offer for him to come work for her), and has apparently promised not to say anything about the fact that all those dinners are going to be coming in from someone else cooking, if Monique promises to actually eat them at her condo, and sleep there.

And she's also promised not to go on about Monique moving back to the south and family and so on.

Since Maria really, genuinely understands how much Monique does miss her family, and how few of them are apparently willing to even meet her that kind of halfway, she adds to the end of the text, I fully understand I'm using up one of your Evenings.

Because she does. And so otherwise she's trying to just not cross over the line of eighteen-hundred-means-the-work-day's-over without a significant and urgent reason.

Monique texts make me a Vienna with amaretto and I'll forgive all and Maria smiles slightly.

And makes sure there is in fact a Vienna with amaretto made to go with her own two fingers of scotch when Monique gets there.

Well. Two fingers, assuming you've got pretty big fingers. Maria doesn't, but nobody's going to call her on it.

She's also got Anger Bread she made late last night after getting back from the goddamn Congressional bullshit - again - and then left to slow-rise over the night and most of the day in the fridge, so that it's basically coming out of the oven just before Monique knocks at the door, and Maria can add a plate of fresh bread with butter and jam as a further bribe.

The nice thing about food-bribes is they work on just about anyone who isn't allergic to whatever you're trying to feed them.

"So I'm assuming the meeting wasn't nothing, then," Monique says, as Maria closes the door behind her. "Oh thank god," she sighs, as she shrugs off her jacket and picks up the cup full of whipped cream, amaretto and espresso that's on the counter in one hand, her own plate of gently steaming bread-et-cetera in the other. She follows Maria over to the couch and flops dramatically down onto it.

"FBI?" Maria asks, doing more or less the same thing except with less flop, because she doesn't quite have Monique's skill with not spilling her drink when she does that. Monique's already ripping the bread into bite-sized pieces with the kind of movements that tell you someone'd really kind of like to be ripping someone's face instead but they're not allowed to.

"NSA," Monique says, rolling her eyes. "We have the FBI mostly sorted, I get the feeling they saw the Great Wall of Eva and knew they were outmatched, but they've had to deal with her before. I think the NSA is new to the whole idea, so they're still under the delusion they're going to win."

Maria echoes the eye-roll: the NSA often has delusions. Always has. So it's not surprising they're falling victim to them again now.

And while the FBI would definitely have butted heads with SI already over things like where privacy, corporate and industrial security meet national security (answer: further back from where the FBI would like them to than the FBI would also admit), since SI's out-of-country holdings pre-Insight and pre-Assam weren't that central to issues the NSA cared that much about, this could in fact be the first time they'd really hit that wall.

And the fact that they couldn't just do what they wanted illegally and expect SI not to catch them. That was the big trick, really. Maria knows, just like everyone in the business knows, that the NSA in particular breaks the law all the damn time, but mostly they do it in ways that mean the victim can't track it and doesn't know.

It's much harder to do that with SI than with most people. For a number of reasons. Maria's not surprised the NSA is turning out to be real unhappy with finding that out.

But to some extent, it's all in a day's work. It's just always kind of annoying when you realize your opponent not only brought a knife to a gun-fight, they didn't realize it was going to be a gun-fight and think you're just going to be using your fists, then gets indignant when you point the gun at them.

And when that's all a metaphor, more work, too. Because you can't just shoot them and get it all over with.

Fuck'em all, anyway, growls the part of Maria that's still angry and probably will be for a long time.

She'd expected more trouble with the CIA, but it hasn't materialized.

According to what's coming out in bits and pieces from the bloodbath of post-Insight Langley, it's starting to look like the one who's going to come out on top, figuratively and literally, is a woman named Landy that Maria knows nothing about.

That's actually a good sign: by the time someone even has a shot at being a mover and shaker inside the Company's Byzantine mess, you know they've got some basic competencies, and if Maria doesn't know someone it means they've never either been responsible for a major fuck-up, or a major piece of bullshit.

And Landy appears to have zero interest in making unnecessary outside enemies. It looks like Sharon Carter's hitched her wagon to that star, too, which is at least a small indication that Landy isn't Satan incarnate. Maria can't actually imagine what it might end up being like to have someone competent and non-malign in Langley, calling the shots.

She's perfectly happy to find out, though, if the universe is throwing that curveball.

"So what did Stark want?" Monique asks, baldly, and Maria rubs her temple. Leans her hand on her fist.

"He wants to make the Avengers into an unaffiliated non-governmental emergency response and proactive consultation outfit," she says, and watches Monique only not choke because there's actually relatively little liquid in a Vienna coffee and most of it is the kind you drink in tiny sips.

"He what," she says, her voice flat and Maria nods slightly.

"It's not as stupid as it sounds," she notes, and Monique shakes her head. She coughs a few times to get the last bit of the liquid or alcohol-burn out of her throat and picks up a piece of her bread-and-jam.

"It's not even that it sounds stupid, it's just - Stark what? What does he even mean by that? The last time we let him respond to emergencies - " and her look turns Dire.

"You know," Maria says, sitting up and reaching for her glass, "I have to actually give him credit, he acknowledged he was a genuine miserable pain in our ass." At Monique's startled look she says, "Seriously. And that his entire lone-wolf Iron Man 'privatizing world peace' bullshit was a bad strategy with questionable tactics and he's lucky he didn't make more of a mess."

Monique makes a mimed gesture at looking around. "I don't hear any oinking or feathers, but they've gotta be somewhere," she says.

"Right?" Maria agrees. "But it happened. But he also made a half-decent point. A few actually."

"Well, there's a few he could make," Monique says, dubious. "I mean somebody could make them, anyway. A few good points exist to be made. So I guess theoretically Stark could make them. I'm not sure I know what universe I'm in if he did, but I guess it's possible. What did he actually bring up?"

"You know the Scepter's missing," Maria says, baldly. Monique actually shudders.

"I just want to point out I always said Strucker was a piece of shit," she says, voice actually diamond-edged hard under the pretense at banter. And she absolutely did always say that. There just wasn't any actual proof of it, anywhere, and there was a lot of pressure from the European segments of the WSC to give him the project. A lot of it.

"Von Strucker," Maria replies, mocking the memory of his precise corrections, and Monique snorts.

"A snobby piece of shit," she amends, vicious and dry, "and I swear he couldn't spend more than twenty minutes without staring at my tits for at least three. Being in the same room with him I needed a fucking decontamination procedure, fuck shower."

Maria remembers. Strucker'd never quite given her the same vibe, and at this point she's not sure that examining exactly why is going to make her feel better or send her to metaphorical decontam with Monique.

Parts of HYDRA seemed really committed to the idea that they'd ditched the white supremacist eugenics for - let's be totally fucking clear here - more all-embracing power-based eugenics, but you could tell that other parts of it were right along with the original Nazi program. And that meant it was hard to call whether he didn't set off her skeeze meter because she wasn't Strucker's type, or if he didn't set off her skeeze meter because she was only a dye-job away from the Perfect White Bride and he was on his best behaviour even in his head.

Either way he's definitely close to the top of her list of people she would really, really like to see dead. See. Personally.

"He's out there somewhere with the Loki's fucking Scepter," Maria says aloud, and Monique shudders again, nodding, because yeah: she knows, "so there's that. Plus even if any of the national agencies are competent to catch him - and they probably aren't - then we'd have a fucking war over any nation having it."

"Yeah trust me, that's on our list for the next series of International Concerns," Monique agrees.

Maria reaches over to grab her piece of bread. "Well, Stark pointed out that a way around it that might actually work is that Thor can lay a legitimate claim."

Monique blinks, frowns, and then nods, slowly. "Loki brought it here," she notes, thoughtfully, "so - yeah. I mean there'd probably be a lot of yelling about it, but - " she shrugs.

They both know what she's eliding in a lot of yelling about it - the kind of stuff that doesn't need saying but which they both know is the kind of thing that would stop most people from thinking this was a viable plan. But most people aren't them.

It's not about whether or not something's difficult. It's about whether it can be done and if it can, whether it's worth it. And this would automatically be worth it. Without question.

"All at a secrecy level nobody'd actually admit to the public even happened," Maria agrees. "Stark pointed out the same actually goes for any extant HYDRA Phase 1 shit, and any Chitauri shit, which you know are just going to keep popping up."

"Fucking glitter," Monique agrees, acidly. Maria smiles, as she pauses to take a drink of her scotch.

Within SHIELD, "glitter" usually meant HYDRA tech, based on someone in Wardrobe at some point declaring that the goddamned stuff was like glitter: it got everywhere and you'd never get rid of it.

If you felt like being crude about it, you'd even jump to herpes, because according to Wardrobe in the craft and clothing world, that's also what you called glitter.

It all came with the bonus of making the frustrated contempt for the damn things baked in.

"And then beyond that," Maria continues, "he pointed out there's a lot of shit they could help with, both in consult and in direct intervention, if they actually were a known commodity. It'd be limited by the fact that the host country would have to invite them in, and then the limit on their end would be that they'd take or refuse as appropriate, but - " She shrugs.

"I mean it's possible," Monique acknowledges. "But Jesus Christ the back-end. . . . "

Maria nods very firmly, behind her mouthful of scotch. "Exactly."

"God, just the diplomatic - " Monique starts. She stares into the middle distance and lets it drop there, scooping out some whipped cream to eat.

"I told him I'd think about it," Maria says. "And start looking at the logistics when I had time or needed a change of pace, and then throw it at him and see if he thought he actually wanted to do it. Since bar another alien invasion it's not going to get started soon - "

"No shit," Monique says, "we don't know where Romanoff and Barton are, Rogers is on his quest, Thor's bouncing all around the damn globe with Foster - "

"Right," Maria agrees. "And if we do get another fucking alien incident that's a totally different fucking paradigm. So I told him I'd turn it over and see if I still mostly thought he was insane in a week or two."

Monique shoots her a dubious look. "He took that?"

"Honestly," Maria says, "he mostly seemed relieved I didn't tell him he was a fuckwit and shout him out of the room. And he insists he should have something concrete on the satellite blockers within the week."

"And he figured consultation, too," Monique says, frowning like now she's turning the ideas over and over in her head. Maria nods.

"There's going to be a whole lot of bush-fires that the national agencies are going to have to take on, onesthat they're not expecting," Maria says, flatly. "You and I know that. Sure the files are available - assuming they have the staffing to dig, and assuming they know what to do with them, and assuming they even make sense."

"And we know sometimes they don't," Monique agrees. "Yeah that's definitely something. That'd be mostly Barton and Romanoff and - well, you," she gives Maria another Look and Maria makes a face. "But I could see some for Banner with the gamma shit, too."

"Plus they're going to start to want to do orbital shit, if they're not already trying down in their little holes," Maria agrees, "and Stark's probably their best consultant for that."

"Where's he think the money's going to come from?" Monique asks, her frown deepening. Maria feels her mouth quirk.

"Stark," she says. Monique looks dubious.

"Doesn't seem like a great idea to tie the company - "

"No, him, personally," Maria explains, and Monique's eyebrows shoot up.

Maria shrugs again. "As he pointed out, he's worth several billion and it's not like it does anyone any good just sitting in hedge funds, so he might as well use it. There's a lot of reasons to keep the whole thing pretty parallel to SI locations and operations, but should also be able to set it up so that they could be split in two days or less if necessary."

" . . .huh," Monique says, in an odd echo of Stark's earlier noise of agreement. Or something like agreement. She doesn't have to point out that brings up a whole new set of complications, because they also both know there's ways of dealing with that, and it is at least a viable funding source. "I guess it's worth thinking about."

She looks at Maria over the rim of her cup and adds, ironically, "Because you needed another thing to think about."

"It keeps me from thinking about the shit I can't deal with," Maria retorts, and she's thinking about the 7s she hasn't managed to find yet, again. And about Nick. And . . . everything.

 

That evening Maria tosses an informal memo to Eva to have an international specialist she can spare look into all the potential legal issues (all the many, many, so many, potential legal issues). Then she runs a bath so hot she almost can't get into it, and tries not to think too much about all the shit the conversation shook loose.

If she doesn't let herself look at it too hard there's a good chance her subconscious will shuffle it all back into temporary storage for now. And she needs it to do that.

She should probably be talking to a mental health professional of some kind. On the ideal scale of this shit, anyway. A counsellor, a straight-up psychologist, something.

But there still isn't one she can think of that she can trust with all the shit she actually needs to talk about. There might not even be one on the face of the planet, for all she knows.

Amanda's in a coma. Still enough brain and nerve response that nobody's willing to pull the plug, but no sign of her actually waking up. Her wife's basically moved to the DC hospital where she's being cared for, and Maria knows Monique is keeping a discretely invasive eye on the finances there, because if it starts being a problem, Maria would much rather pour a metric shitload of the money she's now got coming in that she doesn't even know what to do with than have the woman stress about needing to work.

Or wondering how to pay for the therapy their kid is undoubtedly going to need.

But that pretty much takes out the only person already privy to enough secrets that Maria could talk to her without risking a whole new round of revelation and associated risk. Makes it hard.

So she does what she has to, alone. And hates days like to day, where something that isn't even bad - as such - kicks up all the mental silt old and new and reminds her of how many people are dead, how many are gone, how many turned out to be holding a knife behind her back, and everything else.

Like how there are people out there who built their lives around something that's crumbled away like sand, leaving them stumbling. Like how many dangerous fucking things got dumped back into circulation in the world.

Like how Fury's going to end up killing himself on the job - on the job for a job he doesn't have anymore - because he doesn't even know how to retire after he's officially dead.

There's nothing she can do about it, though. So she just goes to bed.

 

Three days later, she hears a sudden burst-out mother-fucker! from, of all places, Monique's temporary office beside hers (she's done the specs for the permanent ones, and now the construction's getting into swing), and Maria's already blinking at her door when Monique comes in.

She locks the door behind her and just drops the tablet onto Maria's desk, sliding it across to her. Warily, Maria picks it up.

When she's managed to skim it, she doesn't swear out loud, but only because six of them get stuck in her throat at once and she can only stare at it.

"Does anyone other than us know about this?" she demands, and Monique shakes her head.

"We know about it because Brian Little walked into the Tower today," she says, and it only takes a second for Maria to place the name as former analyst, allied governments, who as of yesterday had been working for Homeland Security and, presumably, had just quit and come here, with this. "They're keeping this buried."

This being a highly classified report about how a full six crates of the Chitauri tech that the US government had taken possession of out of SHIELD's LA facilities were gone. Just gone. Poof. Not accounted for.

And that, that's not the problem. Well, it's a problem but frankly, the change-over was about as bad a situation as you can get with this, of course there were always going to be mistakes, and there was always going to be at least one or two bastards who decided to take advantage of the situation and try to make their fortunes before someone murdered them.

Trying to bury it, though, means that whoever's doing this shit is prioritizing their fucking public image way, way above actual fucking security and that, that means there's probably way more than this that's gone wrong and that's already buried.

Jesus fucking Christ.

Maria realizes she's clenching her teeth tight enough to risk breaking them and makes herself stop. "What's our assessment on him?"

"Wasn't high on the priorities," Monique replies crisply, because of course he wasn't: he was working for someone else already. "We've got him checked into a Tower guest-room right now, and he's been bumped to the top of the list, with related Legal prioritizing of setting up a whistleblower protection case."

"Motherfucker," Maria sighs, and rubs at her temples. "Okay," she says, several things clicking into new positions in the back of her mind, "we're following that, and I also need someone from HR to start running projections for staffing a project, and right now I need fifteen minutes to hopefully not learn how to hate Stark all over again."

Because god fucking damn it, yes, when in however long - God, please let it be at least a year - the shit that went missing surfaces on the market or worse, on the battlefield, Maria needs to know something out there is equipped to deal with it.

And clearly no fucking government is going to give her that right now.

"Yeah that's what I thought," Monique says. "Gonna take a while still though."

Maria grimaces. "Faster we start, less time it takes," she says, which is actually agreement.

"Think the rest of them will go for it?" Monique asks, and sounds just for a second genuinely curious. Maria's pulling her desk phone over and calling up the menu to find Stark's contact point.

"I think Stark could talk Banner into most things and he's the only one I'd wonder about," she replies. "Thor's a fucking knight errant, and the other three won't like it, but even if she hates everything about it, Nat's not going to be able to just consign the world to dealing with that shit on their own - "

" - and Barton'll follow where she leads," Monique agrees.

"And Rogers - who the fuck knows, I don't even know what he's going to be doing next month," Maria sighs. Monique nods.

Then she gives Maria a bright, absolutely false smile. "Good thing Stark's a billionaire. Good luck," she adds, and then heads out, leaving Maria to call Stark back and start firing off a lot more questions than he probably thought he'd have to deal with yet.

It's not like she doesn't understand why Nick won't ever retire, after all.