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the wisdom to know the difference

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It takes Maria fourteen days to travel what usually takes twenty-four hours.

All through it, Nick’s pager quietly does its thing on the car dash, never stopping, never running out of juice.

The facility seems empty and abandoned, and her codes don’t work. Maybe Stark cancelled it - only she was here just six months ago to talk out the situation with Parker, but it seems that in that time...

“Maria Hill, Avengers Facility.”

“Identification not recognised.”

Oh, he did not— “Maria Hill, the Chill Pill.”

“Identification confirmed.”

Maria is going to kill Tony. If he’s not already dead.

As she starts the car up and drives it into the compound, she pushes her hopes into the basement of her soul and slams the door on it. They’re probably dead - that’s why this is happening, right? They’ve failed and they’re dead and the world is in a shambles...

Tony hasn’t been answering his phone. Neither has Rhodey or Vision or Pepper or Clint. The number she has for Natasha is six months old, the number she has for Sam is twelve months old, and she always figured she could get hold of Wanda through Vision or one of those two. Steve didn’t give her a number, still angry at discovering that she was in contact with Nick for the year she worked with the Avengers.

Does she head for the parking garage or the main entryway? Maria is caught by indecision for a moment, then sees movement by the doors - the gleam of sunlight off glass and steel as someone pushes open a door and runs out.

Natasha. Sprinting out into the driveway, stopping dead as she sees the car and who’s driving it. Steve is two steps behind, shading his eyes.

Thank God. Thank God.

She hard brakes to a dead stop, shoves the door open and swings herself out.

“Maria—”

They’re not tactile women. No hugs and air-kisses for them. But the arms that wrap around her are flesh and blood, and it feels like it’s been years since Maria touched anyone— It stings her eyes— It stings her heart...

Over Nat’s shoulder, she sees Steve surveying the car, his mouth set in a grim line, looking for the dark figure he expects to see with her.

“He’s gone,” she says, answering the question he won’t voice, knowing it’s what Nat’s going to ask first anyway. Pulling back, she sees the blink of pain and loss in the other woman’s eyes before they shutter. They both know how to put the loss away and deal with the situation. They’re professional women and they’ve done this rodeo before.

“I tried calling, but the number was disconnected—”

“Yours are old, too.” And that’s not important. There are people here - people who know the score. People who might have something for her to work with - a solution - something. “How bad is it?”

They look at each other, and the midday light picks mercilessly at the lines of grief and frustration on their faces.

“You’d better come inside,” Steve says, “It’s a long story.”

Maria reaches back into the car for the pager on the dashboard.

“What’s that?”

“Nick kept it with him. He was activating it when he died.”

She reached out a hand, and her fingers fluttered through dust and ashes....but the pager remained.

Nat takes the device from her hand. “Bruce is here. He’ll analyze it.”

“Banner’s here?” Maria looks from Nat to Steve, startled. There’s been no reports of the Hulk in two years, man and monster both seem to have fallen off the face of the planet.

“So’s Pepper.” The grooves either side of Steve’s mouth have deepened, tucking into folds of defeat that remain even as he speaks. “Another long story. You’d better come in.”

Going inside doesn’t make it any better.

Half the world. Half the universe.

Maria looks at the climbing numbers, at the flickering faces. She listens to the story, told in fragments and spurts, and asks questions about the things she doesn’t understand - and there’s a lot that she doesn’t understand.

There’s a lot she doesn’t understand but has to take on face value - like the raccoon like creature who walks upright, talks like a person, and answers to the name ‘Rocket’. He also bares his teeth when she first stares at him, and demands, “What you lookin’ at?”

Pepper hugs her, tearful but not yet broken. She plies Maria with lasagne and red wine - a welcome change to the tea, toast and boiled eggs that Maria’s been surviving on. Yes, she stopped at places along the way. Yes, she helped out where she stopped. But she didn’t dare stop moving or she was afraid she’d collapse.

“You’re here,” Pepper tells her when she mentions this in the kitchen. Then, “I’m glad you’re here.”

Maria’s glad she’s here, too.

It turns out the pager is sending out a signal. Exactly what kind of signal, or to whom, Banner can’t tell her.

“It’s a pager,” he says in that helpless way of his. “Mid-90s tech - I had this model, once, actually - but this has serious upgrades. A power booster that I haven’t seen, but which Rocket says is Kree technology.”

Maria’s heart chills. “Kree technology?”

“You sure your boss was working for Earth?” Rocket asks. “Because the Kree aren’t your friendly type of aliens - not like me. They’re conquerers. Expansionists.”

“Nick would never—” Nat begins, then pauses, her eyes flicking guiltily to Steve, who looks even grimmer.

“Do you know who it’s calling?”

“No.” But she trusts Nick. She has to trust that Nick wouldn’t betray Earth.

Still. Coulson told her stories - old stories, nothing specific, nothing he could either confirm or deny...

“Another of Fury’s secrets?”

Maria ignores Steve. “Do you know how much longer it’ll run?”

“Two days? Two weeks? Two years?” Banner shook his head. “I can tell you it’s operating, but beyond that...”

They left the pager to do its thing - one more piece of technology in a room full of screens showing names and bodycounts, searches and news channels on silent showing video replays of people blowing into dust...

Maria stares blankly at the numbers steadily climbing on the boards around the ready room. “And no-one’s heard from Tony? Or Peter Parker?”

“No.” Rhodey’s too much the professional to wince, but Maria knows the taste of regret, and the bitter taste that it leaves in the mouth.

“Last seen chasing one of the ships headed out of New York.”

“The aliens only wanted Strange,” Banner says wearily. “He had the Time Stone in his keeping. I guess he gave it up at some point because Thanos had all of them, except for Mind, which he took from Vision. And then...he snapped his fingers and...”

And half the world disappeared. Half the universe, if what Banner and Rocket and Thor were reporting was correct. Half the freaking universe because Thanos believed it was his destiny.

Maria runs her hand over her hair, exhausted.

“How bad is it out there?” Rhodey asks.

“Bad. Nobody knows what’s happening - oh, they’ve linked it to the ships over New York, and there’s been some backlash - against Wakanda mostly, since they were the ones who had the battle on their ground and they put out a statement. Plus,” she added dryly with a glance for Rhodey, “Black people always make a good target for conservative ranting.

“The talkbacks are the usual schtick about the damage cost to save the world, this time with an added dimension of ‘how dare the Avengers fail us’. Nobody knows the death toll right now, only that it’s growing. Vehicles in motion. Hundreds of planes in flight with no-one to land them. Parents holding small children, and people operating machinery... And then there’s the uncertainty: are they dead dead, or just...dissolved? Who’s in charge? What do they do now?”

“Is that’s why it took you so long to get here?” Pepper asks.

“Most of it’s under control by now,” Maria says, thinking of the slow and careful going, stopping to help where she could, but warily, with a shoulder holster for her weapon, because Maria was willing to helpful, but she wasn’t willing to be a victim. And call it cynical, but times like these bred predators as much as neighbours. “At least the areas where I went through. Radio stations and news stations have been telling people to check on their neighbours, find survivors - those that aren’t calling it the rapture, or a judgement on humanity for insert-sin-of-choice-here.”

Her mouth was dry, so she poured herself a glass of water.

“Right now, people are still in shock, so most of them are being decent. It’ll get worse in the coming weeks, as reality sets in. Mostly, right now, they’re shocked, tending to disbelieving. But angry’s on its way.” She knew it was, as sure as she’d seen the wreckage of New York, Johannesburg, and Sokovia. Once people discovered they were alive, they concentrated on what they’d lost.

And this time, the losses are huge.

“If there’s been backlash against the Avengers,” Rhodey begins, “We should probably put out a statement.”

“A statement?” Steve looks at him like he’s suggested they should learn how to fly.

Nat frowns. “You want to do PR now?”

“We want to do a PSA now.” Rhodey looks around the table, “Look, I’m not down with the dog and pony show, but we’ve been in here chewing our gristle the last few days. The acting President put out a statement. Wakanda’s made a statement. China’s spoken up - even New Zealand’s made the news! Us? We’re silent. Now I’m used to Tony doing that part of the job, but we need to get something out there. The Wakandan statement talked about the battle, but they’ve got sovereign rights and nobody expects them to open up. But us? We owe it to them.”

“We owe it to them to let them know that we failed?” Thor rumbles. “That we, their guardians and protectors, could not keep this thing from happening?”

“Rhodey’s right,” Pepper says firmly. “The world needs to know what’s going on. No, it’s not okay...” Her voice trembles. “It’s terrifying, all right? I’m...I’m used to Tony, and this is so far out of even our usual— But I’d rather know the worst than wait and wonder. I want to know what’s going on, not be lied to or left in the dark.”

Maria nods. “I’ll draft something up.” Rhodey can look it over. Or Steve...

“In the morning,” Steve says.

“And I can do that,” Rhodey notes, gently. “It’s not your job anymore, remember?”

Maria pauses. She’d forgotten, sitting back among the Avengers in the middle of a crisis, handling the situation and thinking of what needed to be done next.

“Once a handler, always a handler?” Nat inquires dryly.

“Old habits die hard,” Maria retorts and scratches at her scalp. With a grimace, she realises her hair is utterly filthy and she wants to stand in running water until...until the apocalypse. Except...it’s kind of already come, hasn’t it? Suddenly, she’s exhausted. “All right, if you don’t need me, then I’m going to take a shower. There wasn’t much chance on the trip up.”

Standing, she starts for the door, only to turn when Steve calls her name. She turns, and glimpses Rhodey’s encouraging nod, which makes no sense until Steve hesitates, then says, “We’re glad you’re here.”

She looks at him, then at Rhodey. “You could have just said it, you know.”

“Figured it would mean more coming from the leader.” The smile is rueful, and she shakes her head. Beyond him, Nat puts her face in her hands and starts to shake - Maria hopes it’s with laughter, however hysterical - and beyond her, Steve winces.

I am glad you’re here, commander,” Thor rumbles from his alcove. “I wish it was to impart better news.”

“Well, I have no idea who you are,” says the raccoon nasally, “but I guess you got them talking instead of moping, so...you can’t be all bad.”

Can’t be all bad. High praise from a rodent.

Pepper follows her out. “He’s right, you know. They’re a lot better since you came. Calmer. Focused. I couldn’t— I’m not like you, Maria. I didn’t know how to deal with them. How to get them out of it.”

“Nobody expects you to.”

“I know how to deal with Tony when this happens.” It’s almost like she doesn’t hear Maria’s reassurance. “But this is the Avengers...I’ve never seen them like this...”

Maria has. Maybe not in the flesh, but she remembers Stark’s terse report after the Hulkbuster fight in Johannesburg, when they’d been beaten down by the manipulations of Ultron and the Maximoffs. The silence of the Quinjet had that same grim quality to it - an underlying quality of unaccustomed defeat.

Barton knew how to deal with it - a change of scene, somewhere to recoup and regroup. But Barton is silent now, and there is nowhere they can go that won’t remind them of their failure.

Rhodey carries on. It’s his training to deal with the losses and keep going.

Natasha will deal in her own inimitable way. And probably do so by trying to support the others.

Banner is dissociating in a very careful and measured manner. Maria’s not sure what to make of this; he’s doing it without Nat grounding him, which is good - it should only have ever been a stopgap measure - but the result? That’s something else.

Thor... Maria considered telling him that Jane Foster is still alive - one of the people who Maria did manage to make contact with - but then figured that wouldn’t mean much when he’s lost his planet, his people, and his belief in himself. Also...well, it’s not a nice thought, but she wouldn’t wish this Thor on any woman.

And Steve... there’s an anger banked and burning inside him that Maria suspects is immolating him from the inside out. When it dies - if it does - there’ll be mostly ash. On the other hand, she hopes he doesn’t turn that anger outwards; there won’t be much left standing if he does.

God, they’re a mess. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, fucked up nine ways to Monday.

“Get some rest,” she tells Pepper. “I know, the West Coast is still up, but you looked wrecked.”

“Handling me, too?”

“Only if you need it.”

Maria takes her shower, washes her hair, unpacks the miserably minimal contents of her duffle into the drawers, and looks around at the empty room. She makes the bed, then sits on the end with her cellphone and dials a number.

It rings out to the voicemail message, just like it has every time before.

Fury’s contact turns up in a laser tag suit carrying Rocket’s ship, which contains Tony, along with Rocket’s remaining team-mate, Nebula.

Pepper, Rhodey, and Banner take Tony away for care and rehydration, and Rocket and Nebula are having a low-voiced conversation off to the side as the newcomer strides over and eyes them all.

“Where’s Fury?”

Maria answers, because both Steve and Natasha are poised for a fight at the brusque demand. Heroes. “Dust and gone, like the others.”

The woman glances down for a moment, just a flicker of grief. “But you have the pager here.”

“He was activating it when it happened. I was with him.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D?”

“Formerly.” At the narrowed eyes, Maria feels the need to explain, “S.H.I.E.L.D’s no longer in operation. It got...taken down.”

She tilts her head, then surveys the building behind them. “And you got an upgrade. Pretty slick. So if S.H.I.E.L D’s down, what happened to Director Keller?”

Maria blinks. “Director Keller? He was nearly twenty years ago. Retired a year before 9/11…2000,” she corrects, because if this woman dates back to Keller’s time, then she’s not going to know anything about what’s happened since.

“And Agent Coulson? Did he make it through?”

“Coulson’s been radio silent for the last five years.” One last contact, and then...nothing. Nick went looking, found only traces and hints.

“How did you know Nick and Coulson?” Natasha asks.

“‘Nick’?” She blinks and eyes Natasha, then studies Steve. A faint frown creases her brows. “Hey, aren’t you...?”

“Steve Rogers, Captain America. Yes.”

“Actually, I was going to say ‘that guy from the newsreels’,” she shrugs. “But Captain America works, too. Captain Carol Danvers, noble warrior hero from planet C-53.” A brief smile flickers across her face as though at an internal joke, before it fades and she looks expectantly at Maria. “I got the gist of what’s going on from Nebula, but you’d better fill in the details.”

‘Filling in the details’ is one way to describe it, although Maria would more describe it as a textbook example of ‘how to storm out of a meeting’.

In all justice to Tony, he has a point - they could have done with a suit of armor around the world. And, in all justice to everyone else, they don’t make excuses for his physical, mental, or emotional state.

Well, guess what, Cap? We lost! You weren’t there.

But as Pepper follows Tony out, she glances back at Maria, asking a question. Maria nods, assuring the other woman she’ll take care of it. They’ve tag-teamed too often while the Avengers were working out of Stark Tower not to know how this goes.

Then Carol starts for the door.

“Where are you going?”

“To kill Thanos.”

Maria gives her points for style and directness. Although obviously this woman isn’t much of one for working in a team.

Nat picks up on that immediately. “Hey, you know, we usually work as a team here. And between you and I, we’re also a little fragile.”

“We realise up there is more your territory,” Steve says, measured and authoritative, “but this is our fight, too.”

“You even know where he is?”

Carol isn’t daunted by four people getting in her way. “I know people who might.”

“Don’t bother.” Nebula doesn’t raise her voice above its usual husky growl. “I can tell you where Thanos is.”

The resulting mission, in Maria’s opinion, is beyond risky. No intel, no backup, no confirmation. And they’re just going to bring everyone back like that? Can they even use the stones that way? Questions bubble up in her mouth - even she can see it’s not as simple as ‘get the stones, undo everything’. But there’s no stopping them, no hauling back on these reins. The traces – such as they were – are well and truly broken.

Still, it’s not her nature to let them all race off a cliff - not without at least trying to direct where they were going.

“What makes you think it’ll go any differently this time?” She knows the question won’t stop them - she doesn’t expect it to. But it has to be asked, because she needs them to think, not just react. The universe needs them to think, not just to react.

Carol shrugs slightly. “Because before you didn’t have me.”

Maria almost laughs. Under other circumstances, she’d like Carol and her sheer ballsy confidence that takes Steve and Rhodey and even Nat aback with its brazenness. But this isn’t as simple as going head-to-head in a fight; this is half a universe of people. Fury might trust Carol and her ability to solve the problem with her fists, but the thing they’re all looking at was more than just mere power. It’s cunning and forethought and determination and planning. Even without Nebula’s intel, Maria can see that Thanos has been planning this a long time. He knew where to take aim, knew what to do once he had all the stones in his grasp, waited for the moment when all five stones would be available and it would all come together...

How had he known that now was the moment? Was there some metaphysical signal by which he realised this was the time to make is move? Or was it all just blind and ridiculous luck on his part?

Maria pulls Rhodey aside, judging him the most likely to listen to reason. “Be careful. You’re all wound up and angry right now—not the greatest time for a hard calls—”

“I know,” he says. “I’m thinking it, too. But this is our best chance—”

“So make it our best chance,” she says, and knows that he understands what she means. “I don’t expect you to rein them in—”

“What, you don’t think I can?”

The humor helps. She gives him an exasperated look. “You and Tony have been friends entirely too long.”

That sobers him up. “Tell me about it.” He jerks his head back at the facility. “Talk to Pepper if you can. She’s going to be doing it rough. We all are.”

Maria thinks about that as she watches them go from the balcony. Does someone in the ship lift a hand as they take off? She doesn’t know - maybe it was just the reflected gleam of starlight off a panel - but she lifts a hand in return. Then she watches until the Benatar has cleared the atmosphere, and goes back into the quiet facility.

--

She finds Pepper sitting in one of the lounges with a pot of hot lapsang souchang and a poured-out cup steaming on the side table, staring out at the sky.

“Bruce is keeping an eye on Tony. We thought...We thought one of us should stay by him.” Pepper exhales and the steam from the cup she held in her lap eddies in the air before her. “How are you?”

The question is...unexpected. Nobody’s asked how she is in a long time. Not Natasha, certainly not Steve or any of the others, not even Nick when they were travelling together.

She has it all managed, all worked out. That’s the definition of Maria Hill, and nobody checks in on her.

But Pepper’s watching her with steady eyes, expecting a response. And Maria answers because someone wants to know.

“If I don’t think about it, it doesn’t hurt.”

“Keep running or else you might fall down?” Pepper sips her tea. “We’ve talked about allowing yourself to fall down before, Maria.”

Yes, but not now, not yet. Not like this.

“Have you heard from Nathan?”

“No.” Maria gathers herself together and meets Pepper’s gaze. “I don’t think he made it.”

“You seemed... You seemed to be getting along pretty well.”

“Well, there was still time for him to turn out to be an evil mastermind.” Flippancy helps a little.

“As compared to turning out to be a hero?” Pepper’s mouth curves in a wry grimace. “I think getting away from the evil mastermind might be simpler.”

“You’ve left before. You just...keep coming back.”

“Like I said. Simpler.”

They sit there in the darkness and the curling scent of tea for a few minutes, saying nothing, sipping from their cups, trying not to think of the confrontation shortly to take place on Thanos’ planet. It’ll be at least thirty hours before the team reach The Garden and they’ll be sleeping in shifts for most of it. Maria asked Nebula about the living conditions on the Benatar, and received a blinking look before the other woman answered, crisp and almost contemptuous in her description. Maria was stung by the shortness, but she told herself not to take it personally since Nebula seemed to speak to everyone that way.

“What are we going to do if it doesn’t work?”

Maria drops her gaze to the tea, watching the dark liquid shimmer in the light reflecting in from the hallway. “Mourn, and carry on.” What else was there to do?

Can we?”

She meets the other woman’s gaze in the darkness. They both know how Tony and Steve deal with loss: badly.

But the world is bigger than two men. Or they’ll have to be bigger than their anger and resentment of each other.

Is it possible?

“Maria?” Pepper’s voice breaks through the silence. “Would it have made a difference? If they hadn’t fought with each other? If we’d had the Avengers all together?”

“I don’t know.”

They’re strong-willed men, both of them certain of their rightness, that their way is the best way - the only way - and they’ve never not clashed, even when they were friendly. Maybe they would have defeated Thanos if they’d declared a truce earlier, if they’d found the ground that both of them could stand and meet upon...but given how thorough Thanos appears to have been in all this, maybe not.

In the end, none of them will ever know, but all of them will have to live with it.

Seventy-two hours later, Maria and Bruce watch Nat and Steve and Rhodey and Carol cross the tarmac towards them as the Benatar pulls up its ramp and flies off.

Steve stops in front of them, eyes hollow and haunted. “He destroyed the stones.”

“He destroyed...?” Bruce looks from Steve to Nat to Rhodey. “But...that’s not possible!”

“He found a way to make it possible.” Nat’s visibly exhausted, tendrils of hair clinging to her face, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen. “Thanos nearly destroyed himself in the process, but he did it.”

“Is he dead?” But Maria already knows the answer. They wouldn’t have left Thanos behind alive, no matter how damaged or injured he was.

“Thor killed him.”

“So...where’s Thor and the others gone?”

“They’ve gone to find Thor’s people,” Danvers said. “They’ll signal me when they’re located and I’ll bring them back. Earth’s going to need all the people we can get in the coming weeks.”

“To do what?” Steve’s been staring blindly at the building. Now he turns burning eyes on them, and the hard midday light etches bitterness into lines that weren’t there when he walked onto the Benatar three days ago. “Thanos won.”

“He’s dead,” Maria points out, knowing she’s treading on dangerous ground even before Steve looks at her like he can’t remember what she’s doing here. “We’re not.”

“We might as well be. He’s taken half the universe with him.”

“Then we still have half a universe left. We regroup, reconnect, rebuild.”

“With what?”

“With half the universe! With who and what’s been left!” And Maria knows she probably shouldn’t argue this here and now, but she’s at the end of her tether, too, after three days of waiting, watching, hoping, and then finally accepting that, no, this was the world they lived in now. “We’ve done it before.”

“After S.H.I.E.L.D?”

For that sneer, Maria replies in kind. “After the war.” In the corner of her eye, Rhodey flinches; off to the side, Nat sucks in a breath through her teeth; but all she knows is the flash of bitter shock in blue eyes. “It took decades, but they rebuilt. It wasn’t the old world, but they made it work. They dealt with their losses, married, had children. They lived.”

It’s a hard strike and she watches it stab deep. And maybe she’s a bitch for reminding him that life went on without him after the war, but he doesn’t get to give up; to lay down and wallow in his grief and guilt - not when the world needs people like him to lead the way.

There’s a few seconds when she thinks she’s gone too far. Hurt transmutes to shock, shock breaks to fury, fury flares and then simmers down to betrayal. Then he sets his shoulders and his mouth pinches at the corners.

“Point made, commander.”

He nearly spits the title at her as he steps past her fastidiously, turning his body so no part of him will even touch her. The brush-off is clear enough, and very pointed, and Maria winces to herself.

After a moment’s hesitation, Bruce follows him.

The other three are still looking at her. There’s shock in their faces, and a kind of pity. It sparks her temper. “What? Was I too hard on him?”

More silence, then: “He had the pocketwatch with him on the mission.” Nat’s mouth twists. “He was looking at it before we went down to find Thanos.”

The pocketwatch he used to carry around in the war with the picture of ‘his girl’ in it.

“And he sat with it all the trip back,” Rhodey adds.

Maria looks from one to the other. Well, shit. She’s well and truly screwed that up, then. There’s a second when she thinks of turning around and going after him and apologising. But there’s nothing she can say that will make it better. There’s nothing she can do which will give him back what he’s lost.

“It was incredibly bad timing,” Danvers says, her expression is more wry than disapproving. “But...very much on target, too.”

“On target?” Rhodey gives Danvers a look. “Like cutting a guy’s legs off when he’s already gutted?”

“Gutted or not, she’s right,” Danvers says bluntly. “Earth is going to need all the heroes it can get in the coming weeks - superpowered and common human. I’ve seen it before, on other planets. A crisis like this needs leaders - needs heroes.”

“Noble warrior heroes?” Nat asks, a little sarcastically.

“It wouldn’t hurt.” The smile that curls her lips is not exactly amused, but Maria finds it a relief. At least one person isn’t going to give her shit about it.

“And that’s it? We just...pick up and carry on?”

“Unless you want to lay down and die,” Danvers tells him. “And I didn’t figure you for the type, Colonel.”

The comment is off-hand and challenging, a gauntlet laid down for Rhodey to pick up.

Rhodey gives her a hard look. “I’m saying, yeah, there’s a lot to be done. But this...this feels cold. We haven’t had time to grieve.”

“We’ve had four weeks,” Nat says, and Maria breathes a prayer of relief. If Natasha’s on the same page, then she has one ally among the Avengers. “We won’t get more time, Rhodey. And...we’ve failed. We’ll have to live with it, but we can’t sit in paralysis about it, either.”

“Doesn’t it bother you that we’ve lost?”

“Yes,” Danvers says, and her knuckles glow briefly, even beneath the midday sun. “But there’s nothing to be done about it but carry on. Regret doesn’t fix anything. Only getting back up and helping fix what you’ve done does.”

Not for the first time, Maria wishes she knew more about Carol Danvers - about that note of regret, about the things that shaped this woman. She’s done some research, but all she has is a service record and a file number from pre-computerised system days, and who even knows if Nick kept the files after Carol left him the pager? After all, Maria got about as high up in SHIELD as it was possible to go, and even she only found out about the pager two years ago. Of all Nick’s secrets, this is one of the best-kept, and now that Maria knows it, she wishes that he hadn’t kept his damn secrets quite so well...

“I’ve failed before,” Nat is saying in response to Rhodey’s note that they can’t fix this. “Many times. You can grieve about it, but it doesn’t get any better weeping about it. Your best option is to pick up and keep going.”

“The history of humans on Earth is about picking up and keeping going,” Danvers notes with a dry smile. “Mostly by women, since the weight of saving the world doesn’t rest on them or their egos - just the weight of running it.”

“Well, none of you are helping my ego right now.” Rhodey grimaces. “And now I have that song in my head.”

“What song?”

“Never mind.” He looks at Maria. “All right. I’m in. It’s not like I got anywhere else to go.”

“Thank you.”

He tilts his head sideways. “I’m not the one you’re going to need to grovel for.”

“I know.” But that will have to wait until later, once he’s had time to cool off. “Have you eaten?”

“Haven’t been very hungry,” Rhodey admits. “But could probably do with something. Hey, are Tony and Pepper still here?”

“Happy picked them up yesterday morning,” Maria says. “And I don’t know where they’re going.”

“Only God knows where they’ve been,” he murmurs.

“You got Pepper’s number?”

“Even if she didn’t, I’ve got Tony’s.” Rhodey sighs. “He’s in a rough place right now. He’ll come around.”

Maria isn’t so convinced; the conversations she and Bruce have had with Tony after the last couple of days have been...edged. The kind of conversations that a man has when he’s trying to not only burn his bridges but nuke them beyond all repair. “Maybe wait a few days before calling him.”

“Do I look like I was born yesterday?”

“You look like hell,” Nat says lightly.

Rhodey snorts and presses his hands to the small of his back. “That’s because my back is killing me. I haven’t had time out of the brace in three days.”

They start towards the facility, only to turn back when Danvers coughs in a pointed kind of way.

“I’m going heading out for a day or two.” She studies the sky for a moment, then looks back at the others. “I have people to check in on.”

“People from Earth?”

“Yes, people from Earth. Fury wasn’t my only connection here.” There’s no concession in Danvers’ voice and she doesn’t explain. “I’ll be back within a day. If I get caught up, then I’ll let you know. If Thor and Rocket contact me, I’ll also let you know.”

“And if we need to contact you?”

“Use the pager?” Danvers’ mouth quirks as she lifts by her bootheels, like gravity is entirely optional for her. Within moments, she’s soared out of sight, a glowing golden comet shimmering with tinges of blue, leaving them standing on the tarmac looking out after her.

“And if M’Baku makes a bid for the throne once the Queen is determined not to be with child, you will support him?”

“I serve the throne,” Okoye says, her tone slightly repressive, even if her eyes have softened a little. Maria isn’t exactly surprised; she’s thought for a while that the Wakandan woman was enjoying the snap and spar of the Jabari tribe leader more than she let on. “And whoever sits upon it. Just as you serve the world, whoever is saving it. Although,” the Wakandan adds sharply, “you will be no use to the world if you keel over from exhaustion. When did you last sleep?”

“This morning.” Except, Maria realises, it was yesterday morning, now, because it’s...maybe 0200 hours? 0230 hours? “I’ll go to bed soon...”

Okoye is watching her with the eyes of a hawk. “The world no longer needs saving, commander,” she says gently. “Our job is to simply hold together what remains.”

“Harder than it seems.”

“If it were easy, it would not be given to the strong.”

Maria rings off and sits back in her chair, listening to the silence of the facility.

The others are licking their wounds in private. In spite of his assurances to the contrary, Rhodey contacted Tony and got the short, shouty end of the stick. From the sound of it, he said a few things in return, and that wasn’t taken well either.

I knew I shouldn’t, and I blew it anyway, he said to Maria afterwards. Feels like one more failure right now.

You’re a good man, James Rhodes.

Yeah, but maybe a better man would have stopped this. Then he saw her expression, and backed away, hands up. Yeah, okay, I didn’t say that.

No, you didn’t say that. Maria replied. Take your meds and try to sleep. Add a sleeping pill if you’re going to have trouble resting.

The real work starts tomorrow?

But he went, at least. There’s even hope that he might have taken a sleep assist. Not much, but at this point Maria will take what she can get.

Natasha tried to reach out to Steve this evening and was rebuffed. She’s retreated back into her quarters, most likely with a bottle of vodka and a phone that doesn’t have any communication from Barton. Bruce is sitting on a lounge up on the rooftop, just staring up at the sky and possibly thinking about where he’s been and the people he met while out there - the people who might, even now, be waiting for rescue.

And, last she knew, Steve was in the training room, systematically and methodically wearing out every piece of equipment there. And the truth is that the equipment will almost certainly wear out before he does.

Maria closes her eyes, pulls out her ponytail, and drags her hands through her hair.

If Rhodey blew that chance with Tony, how much worse did she screw up with Steve?

And then she reminds herself: how was she to know? She can’t know everything – even if she thinks she should. She can’t track everything – even if she feels she should. And she damn well can’t do everything – particularly not if she doesn’t get some sleep tonight...

Getting up, she half-braces herself as she reaches for the phone, charging quietly on the corner of the desk. She set it face down and set it to silent, so she wouldn’t get distracted while trying to sort things out. So she wouldn’t be tempted to check it again and again.

Now, as she picks up the phone, a message bar pops up and for a moment her breath catches. Then she sees Pepper’s name and the short message, Are you okay? Opening the message to the full, it reads, I’m guessing the attempt failed. Will call you in a couple of days to talk about rebuild. Take care.

Maria reads through the text again then closes it up. Pepper won’t want an answer tonight; tomorrow is soon enough to respond.

She glances around the office then commands the lights off.

This section of the facility is quiet, almost hushed. The air conditioning turned off hours ago, still keeping office hours since nobody told it otherwise. And as she makes her way towards the living quarters, the only thing Maria can hear is the quiet slip of her feet on the floor.

And the heavy thud of a punching bag being thoroughly beaten up down the end of the corridor.

Maria knows she shouldn’t. Not now. Not after Natasha tried and failed with him. Not after Rhodey tried and failed with Tony. But maybe she’s just a sucker for failure, too. What’s one more today after the last month?

He knows she’s coming - he might be mired in his emotions, but that’s not going make him oblivious to what’s around him.

But he doesn’t stop punching as she pauses in the doorway, and he doesn’t look up as she steps inside. He’s not going to acknowledge her, not going to give her a chance to say anything more.

Well, why would he?

She only cast the pain he’s been living with for the last six years in his face. Frankly, she should consider herself fortunate he hasn’t packed his bags and gone on the road.

Wearily, she wonders if what she’s done is unforgivable. Or does it only need time for it all to soften? Should she have waited longer? The world waited two weeks for a statement from the Avengers - and two weeks later, they’re still waiting for a follow up. Yes, he’s lost plenty, and grief needs to run its course, but shouldn’t it be balanced against the needs of others, too?

And she wants to rage at Steve, to rail at him, to shake him and make him see. Captain America doesn’t get to give up when he’s failed. He can do more, be more to people than any of the rest of them can, other than perhaps Tony - and Tony’s retired from the ring. When he can lead the way, how dare he retreat? The world needs its symbols now, more than ever, its idealists and not just its realists.

But not tonight.

Coming in was a mistake. Maria watches him for a few seconds more, then gives up. There’s nothing to be gained in confrontation tonight. She’ll head back to her quarters and lie in the darkness wishing she could sleep. Maybe she’ll rest some – it’ll be better than nothing – but she has a feeling that sleep will be a long time coming.

“Did you lose anyone?”

The question echoes around the walls, startling. She turns back and finds him watching her. “Did I lose...?”

“Did you lose anyone? Anyone that really mattered to you.” Steve’s expression is carved in stone. “Fury doesn’t count.”

The walls of the gym fade, become the walls of a toilet stall in a truck stop, her hand pressed hard against her stomach as the cramping peaks, and she prays, please God no without any hope. In two hours she’ll be on her way, still trembling and exhausted, but knowing she can’t stop, can’t stay here, can’t let herself think of what’s gone—

The hand on her shoulder is gentle.

“Hey,” Steve’s expression hasn’t softened, but there’s a sudden concern to it. “You just went white...”

“I’m fine,” she says, reaching for the automatic answer, but she’s not entirely steady on her feet.

Her phone rings.

The tinny burst of electric guitars brings her back to the now: bright and brassy and joyful as it launches into a melodic introduction that repeats itself – variations on a theme. The ringtone made her start the first time he called her after programming it in. Nick’s brows rose to his non-existent hairline. And Maria laughed and blushed, but she didn’t change the ringtone.

Her spirits lift in incredulous delight, and she swipes acceptance of the call, barely seeing Steve’s expression harden.

“Nathan?”

There’s a pause. “Uh, hello?” The voice is hesitant, lighter and softer than she was expecting. “This is...Is this Maria?”

Joy drains away, leaving her light-headed but with the looming feeling of a crash coming. Habit kicks in. “This is she.” The words come out, steady and polite, without a tremble.

“I... I’m sorry. This is... Your number was in Nathan’s phone. We’re... That is, his family... I’m his brother Ian...”

Maria can’t take the hesitant, apologetic tone. Not when she thought for one bright moment— “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“Yes. He’s...he’s... I’m sorry - we’re...we’re trying to call around... One of his workmates delivered his phone and belongings yesterday and we thought people should know... It’s better…we thought it was better than not...”

“Yes.” Maria hears her voice tremble and steels herself. “It’s better than not knowing and wondering...” The last words are thicker than she likes, and she takes a moment to draw in a deep breath. “Thank you. For letting me know.”

“I’m so sorry...”

She hangs up on Nate’s brother before he can draw the call out to a long, stammering close. Before she breaks down on the line.

So. That’s that, then. She knows the worst.

But her next breath catches in her throat and drags up everything that she’s been keeping closed in.

All the long trip cross-country, she watched people step up and help each other, reach out to each other and cling to each other. Shared grief and shared relief, and the angry bewilderment that only wanted to know why. She held on to the pager for those two weeks, trusting that whoever Nick had called would come. She held out against the hope that the Avengers were alive - and against the hope that they were dead and that was why nobody had even tried to call her...

“Maria?”

She forgot he was there, and looks up startled, then down and away. There are tears in her eyes - when did that happen? They spill over as she tries to blink them away. A hand catches her shoulder as she starts for the door and it’s surprisingly gentle, for all that he could wrench her back to face him.

“I’m sorry.”

Maria doesn’t want his pity or his apologies.

What business of his is it anyway?

“No need, Rogers,” she says, smearing briskly at the tears on her cheeks as she lifts her chin. “It’s just one person. Nothing as important or noble as losing everything to save the world.”

But she’s never had many people who were for her in the first place. No-one cheering her on, few people backing her up: S.H.I.E.L.D, once upon a time; Fury, through the years; occasionally the Avengers...

She’s not like Steve. She doesn’t naturally attract people, so when she finds them, she holds to them, because what else does she have?

In spite of wiping away the tears, more come. Then the gates are open and it all rushes out of her – fury and frustration and clogging, sodden grief—

Steve pulls her closer, and she strikes out at his chest. Closed fist, leading with the heel of her hand, not the knuckle – a thump not a punch. And he lets her land the blow, when he could block her, disable her, even as exhausted as he is. He lets her land the next thump, and the next, and the next, and she hates that he’s not even fighting back, his eyes half-shuttered, his jaw rigidly set. His hands cup her shoulders, almost bracing her – not against her blows, she realises as she lets her fists fall to press against him, but against the sobs that she barely even felt wracking her.

Maria lets her head fall forwards until it rests against his chin. It’s too intimate – rank defeat and failed dignity, but she doesn’t care anymore, just lets the tears fall. She’s not the Chill Pill, not Commander Hill, or an agent, or even in charge. She’s just one more woman adrift in a sea of grief and loneliness she didn’t let herself feel until now.

Steve lets her lean against him, leans back into her although he has no reason to be kind to her after what she said this afternoon. The grip on her shoulders gentles, no longer holding, just resting on her – like she’s fragile or precious. And Maria tenses with the urge to shove him away. She’s not fragile, just because she’s lost it like this, just because she’s crying—the proverbial damsel in distress—

But then, slowly, she becomes aware that his chest is heaving, too. No tears, no sobs, just the long, slow shudder of emotions he doesn’t know how to manage any more than she does.

She’s not alone – not the only one struggling.

God, but they’re pieces of work!

And, Maria realises, he reached out to her when he didn’t have to, when he could have walked away and left her to mourn. She would have walked away from him, left him to his anger and his grief and his guilt; he chose not to turn his back on her.

Gradually, the racking sobs subside, leaving her quiet. Steve’s own tension has eased back, but he hasn’t put her away from him. Around them, the lights of the room have dimmed, sensing no movement, and leaving them in the anonymity of semi-darkness.

Maria exhales and steps back. “I’m sorry.”

“So am I.” He blinks as though hearing himself, and grimaces.

“I’m sorry about earlier, too.”

And this isn’t how she planned to apologise – with her eyes red and her nose clogged, and her throat raw. She steps away to cross the room and pick a bunch of kleenex from the box by the water dispenser. She dries her tears, blows her nose, hopes that she doesn’t look like too much of a wreck. Even a woman like her has a little vanity when facing Steve Rogers

“You didn’t pull the punch.”

“I didn’t know I had to.” She picks a glass off the shelf and dispenses a cup of water before looking over at him. Expecting to catch him watching her, studying her, she finds him still standing where she left him, face downturned, looking…hurt by her stepping away? “Sometimes we just lose, Steve. We did everything right but the cards still fall badly. That’s…that’s just how it works for us mere mortals.”

“And you just…pick up and move on?”

“Some of us don’t get to wallow in our guilt.” The water is cool glory going down her throat, and Maria drinks every drop of it and everything is suddenly a thousand times better.

When she sets the glass down to the bench, Steve is watching her.

“Who was he?”

Maria doesn’t have to answer; it’s none of his business. But he didn’t have to stay or care, and he did, so she gives him that.

“Someone who mattered.”

"I'm sorry I couldn't save him for you."

Maria exhales. She's not sure he's capable of understanding this, but she has to try - not just for her sake, but for the sake of the world. He can't go through the rest of his life apologising for not being able to fix it. "It's not your guilt to carry, Steve."

"If not mine - ours - then whose?"

"Thanos. And he's dead." Maria looks at him, bowed shoulders, bowed head, hands clenched by his thighs. "Nothing will change what's done, Steve. We'll just have to live with what's left."

This time the silence goes a long time. "I don't know if I can."

Silently, she curses Abraham Erskine, who could give Steve the body to match the courage of his spirit, but couldn't provide Steve the serenity to accept what he couldn't change. Then again, wasn't the inability to accept what he couldn't change the reason Steve took the serum in the first place?

"You might have to do it the way the rest of us do."

"Which is?"

"One day at a time." Maria half-smiles at his expression. "You won't be alone this time, Steve. Or you don't have to be if you choose not to be."

She doesn't know if he will; she doesn't know if he can. Steve's so used to thinking of himself as the only one that finding himself in the midst of millions of others may not be something he can deal with. But the offer is there - the reminder that they've all lost something they can't get back, and that they're all going to have to live with it.

"You don't have to struggle alone if you choose not to," she repeats.

Steve's eyes remain on hers as he slowly nods. "I'm starting to see that," he says.

A week later, Maria stands back in the crowds, as both Steve and the Prime Minister of New Zealand greet Thor and the Asgardian refugees to Earth.

“In this time of sorrow and difficulty, we welcome you to our shores, and to share in what we have. Your people will be our people, and your troubles will be ours, and together, we hope to build a future for all of us that is worthy of who we are.”

There’s grief still, the occasional outburst of sobbing, but the sombre faces of Asgardian and New Zealander are leavened by faint hope.

Nothing will bring back what’s gone – what all of them have lost – but this is a beginning.