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Letters Never Sent (The Girls, Girls, Girls Remix)

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As Maria's mother stepped into her bedroom, she fixed Maria with a stare that managed to be amused, annoyed, and exasperated at the same time. She folded her arms across her chest, allowing the bag she had been carrying to fall against her side with a resounding smack.

It would have been more impressive of a sound, Maria thought, if it had been louder. She surveyed the equipment sitting on her bed and wondered what the best way to amplify the noises would be, using the tools she had present. It had to be a fairly easy procedure; the radio shows all had their own microphones, after all, even the little cheap stations that only played the news and old Captain America serials on repeat. But she didn't think she had quite the right type of tools to give the proper amplification.

"Maria Collins Carbonell," her mother began, and the usage of her full name was a sure sign that Maria had wondered about the potential capacitor possibilities far too long.

She forced her hands into her lap, and turned her attention away from her current project long enough to focus on her mother. "I finished my schoolwork," she said quickly.

Her mother surveyed the materials on the bed (and the ones spilling onto the floor, though in her defense, Maria hadn't even gotten to them yet) and shook her head. "And so it was time for play?"

"It's not play," Maria insisted. She was thirteen, which was practically a grown-up. Grown-ups didn't play.

"Is it fun?"

"Well...yes, I suppose so, but - "

"If it is fun, then it is play. There is no shame in that, Maria; enjoy your play while your years still let you. Soon enough, you will have other responsibilities." Her mother sighed. "I did hope that your play would begin to become a bit more ... ladylike by now."

"I like lady stuff too," Maria said defensively. She pointed to the completed puzzle on her dresser. "One thousand pieces of daisies and roses. Flowers, Mother."

Her mother's lips twisted into a slight smile as she rummaged in the bag and removed a blue leather-bound volume. "Maybe this will help you."

Maria took the book and flipped through the empty pages. "A diary?" she asked skeptically.

"You're entering the more confusing years of your life, Maria. It will be good to have a place to put your feelings and your secrets, particularly when the inevitable day comes that you mistakenly believe you can't bring your worries to your mother."

"Why would I talk about my feelings to an empty book that can't give me any help at all?" Maria asked. "What kind of partnership is that?"

"Humor your mother and give it a try," her mother answered. "After all, I humor you and bring you gifts, do I not?"

"You bring me empty books," Maria said, pointedly. "Very pretty empty books," she hastily corrected at her mother's stern glare.

But they were empty books, nonetheless.

"Not all the books I bring you are empty." Her mother reached into the bag again and removed a copy of McCall's magazine. "I know it's not your typical choice in reading material, but there is an article on that Hopper woman you like so much."

"Really?" Maria reached for the magazine eagerly, flipping through the pages impatiently. She'd adored Grace Hopper instantly, from the minute she'd read about Hopper's involvement with Mark I.

"Someday you will explain to your mother why you like that woman so much."

"She likes math, and building things," Maria explained patiently, still searching for the article. "None of the girls at my school do. They think it's strange."

"I see," her mother replied, as Maria found the article and quickly scanned it. "Maria, always remember, you are a Collins woman - "

"Technically, I'm a Carbonell," Maria pointed out.

"You are my daughter, not my son, and you come from me. That makes you a Collins woman," her mother insisted. "And Collins women never show up to a ball wearing the same drab black dress as everyone else. We wear the brightest reds to the ball, to stand out. You might be a strange girl, Maria, but do not hide that strangeness by slinking into your chair in the back of the room. Be a rose, Maria, never a daisy."

"It's hard sometimes," Maria admitted.

"Only the good things make you fight for them," her mother answered, before kissing her lightly on the forehead. "Now I am going to go scandalize your grandmother by going to get my hands nice and filthy in our garden. Enjoy your play, Maria."

Maria watched her mother go and began to work on carefully clipping out the article. It didn't contain anything new about the Mark I project, and much of it was a rehash of Hopper's collaborative work with Howard Stark during the War, which Maria already knew all about. But it was still an article Maria hadn't had before, and so it joined the pile of clippings pressed into the Bible that Grandmother Rosemary had given her for her twelfth birthday.

With the clippings still on the floor beside Maria, her attention turned back to her diary. It still seemed strange to write to an inanimate book that didn't care about anyone or anything, so Maria didn't.

Instead, she wrote to her hero. After all, her mother had encouraged her to write her innermost secret dreams.

September 3, 1945

Dear Grace,

My name is Maria Carbonell and I am 13 years old. Someday, I am going to meet you and we are going to build amazing things together.

Her roommate arrived to Vassar two days after Maria had already moved in. Maria sat on the bed that she had already claimed - which was fair, in her view, because she had been there first, so she got first call on squatting rights - and watched the larger family move in.

Maria and her father had moved all of her items into the dormitory, but Pearl had the help of her father, her mother, and two brothers. All of them sported various shades of the kind of red that would have been right at home with Maria's mother's favorite throw rug, with complexions that matched when they laughed and dulled to the shade of porcelain when they were serious.

"I'm Pearl Harris," the roommate announced. "And we would have been here earlier, but someone got a little confused once we hit Arizona."

"I was not confused," her father insisted. "They make roads differently in Arizona than they do in Portland, girl."

"Aw, Dad, don't lie in front of the new girl. It makes a bad first impression," the taller of Pearl's brother's scoffed, and he gave a wink that Maria was not entirely certain her mother would have approved of.

"I'm Maria," she announced, trying to ignore the heat in her cheeks, or the way the taller brother's low chuckle made the heat spread.

"It's good to meet you, Maria, and don't mind Dad. The dust storms once we 'accidentally' found ourselves in Southern Arizona delayed our drive a bit," Pearl told her, with the same kind of wink as her brother gave.

In Maria's estimation, Pearl gave much better winks than her brother.

"Oh, what a good influence you will be on our Pearl, Maria. A girl who has her Bible out in the open, and isn't ashamed of it," Pearl's mother said. "And so obviously well worn, too."

Maria opted not to mention that the "worn" look was due solely to the amount of Grace Hopper clippings that Maria was saving.

After the brothers, fathers and mother left, Pearl sat on her bed across from Maria and offered her half of the cookies from the "farewell package" her mother had left.

"Mom says it's a farewell package, but let's be honest. She'll send another package at least once a week. We'll be lucky if we don't end up weighing two hundred pounds by the time we leave here," Pearl scoffed. "Which will likely reduce my number of potential suitors, making poor mom cry, since the only good she can see of me being here is to get a good husband."

"Is that why you're here?" Maria asked bluntly. Two days ago, she might not have been so blunt about it, but after a full day of being on the campus, she'd met more than a small number of women who seemed to be at college entirely to gain a husband.

Maria glanced at the books for classes that wouldn't start for another week, sitting on her desk, not far from the open window. She couldn't even imagine that being her entire reason for being here.

Pearl shrugged. "I kind of want to teach. Maybe work in a library. How about you?"

"Graduate school," Maria said firmly. "Either in mathematics or engineering. Or maybe both. I haven't decided yet."

"I'll tutor you in English if I get free math help," Pearl offered. She leaned forward, and smiled toothily at Maria, and Maria had to agree, because how could she say no to a smile like that?

August 28, 1948

Dear Grace,

Early admittance to Vassar was always my goal, and we're here! We're really here! I still can't believe it.

Today was my second day. I'm still sorry I missed having you as a teacher. It would have been fantastic. Maybe you will decide to stay at Harvard by the time I get there? Probably not; you seem to be quite fond of the Navy these days.

I agreed to Pearl's offer, even though I'm not sure I'll need the help as much as Pearl will (dearest Grace, that isn't ego. I asked her to show me her skills with a few problems and she was awful!)

But Pearl is warm and kind and having her in the room makes me feel much less alone. I want to make her happy and if that means agreeing to an alliance I don't really need, I don't see the harm. Do you?

"Don't forget me over Christmas break, Maria," Pearl warned as they were packing up to leave. "We'll be a country apart, so I know it will be tempting, but - "

Maria squeezed Pearl's hand tightly. "I could never forget you," she whispered.

December 15, 1949

Dear Grace,

They say you never forget your first kiss. Red hair, brown eyes and the most beautiful appealing smile on the planet.

I really will never forget it. No Christmas gift will ever be as sweet.

"Edward asked me to marry him," Pearl said, as they sat next to one another on a crowded train station platform.

Maria swallowed down the surprise, and the other emotions she didn't want to feel at the moment, choosing instead to clutch her bag tightly. "Have you even known him that long?"

"The better part of the last year." Pearl pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, and shrugged. "He says he doesn't mind too much, if I get a teaching job. At least until the little ones come along."

"You don't mind, do you? I know we talked about sharing rent on a place while you went to Yale, but, plans change, right?" Pearl asked, and Maria wondered how she could ask such a thing, with so many people near by.

Maybe that was why she asked it, in the first place. With so many people near by, Maria could hardly throw her bag in Pearl's face and yell at her properly.

"We want different things," Maria said coolly. "It's good we found that out now, before any commitments were made, isn't it?"

Pearl reached for her hand, which Maria conveniently found she needed to hold onto her bag even more tightly before.

"You'll come to the wedding, won't you?" Pearl asked quietly, and Maria almost felt bad, at the sound of her hurt little voice.

So she gave her promise that she would come.

June 3, 1952

Dear Grace,

What is wrong with the people in the world? I graduated at the top of my class at Vassar and people are offering me job invitations as a secretary? I'm sure I would have the best accounting skills they've ever seen, but I hardly worked so hard for four years so that I could spend the rest of my life fetching someone his coffee!

Also, that Nelson creep asking me to marry him at graduation in complete seriousness, "because the best should have the best!"

I reminded him that he came in a mere second place and that Collins women didn't settle for second place.

"I thought your name was Carbonell," he said.

Dearest Grace, he doesn't even know my name! He was confused about the matter.

Thank heavens for graduate school. Continuing to remain around these individuals would cause me to lose the rest of my very precious mind, and in that event, I would have no choice but to marry a fool like Nelson.

Dearest Grace, there were a lot of underlinings in this entry, but I assure you, they were necessary.

The invitation to Pearl's wedding was a garish thing. Covered in lavender and green, it quite looked like an Easter hunt someone had vomited up, in Maria's mind.

Though, perhaps that thought was nothing more than spite.

Regardless, the invitation sat, as a reminder, on the counter of her workbench, where she saw it everyday (as though she were in any danger of forgetting.)

But when the special week came, Maria had other commitments to make, and she remained in Connecticut, while Pearl and Edward exchanged vows in Portland.

June 30, 1953

Dear Grace,

Plans change, right? I'm sure Pearl will understand.

The library was nearly empty, as was typically the case on Friday nights. That made it the perfect location, in Maria's estimation, because her lovely apartment just happened to be next door to the three loudest men who had ever stepped foot in New Haven. It was impossible to so much as complete a single calculation with them living next door, let alone complete her article.

But the library, in all its emptiness, allowed her the ability to finish the rough draft of her article in peace. It wouldn't win her any favors, especially with the higher ups in the department, but her mother had always told her to be a rose, and sometimes roses had thorns.

And what was science without ethics? Her field was moving backwards, and if Maria had to prick a few sedentary colleagues; well, maybe that was for the best, in the long run.

"You work too hard, Maria."

Maria glanced up from the dim light of the desk lamp and into the pretty green eyes of Karen Walker, a graduate in the math department with whom Maria shared several classes. Karen was five feet exactly, with hair the color of over-ripe bananas and a figure that relished and enhanced the fuller skirts of the bright dresses that Karen preferred.

Last year's fashions, in Maria's opinion, but Karen could almost pull it off.

Maria crossed her ankles and smoothed down her pencil skirt. "I have plans, Karen, and they will not build themselves. Working is the only way to accomplish them."

"Another article?" Karen smiled at her and leaned onto the desk. "Is it as scandalous as the last one?"

"I didn't write the last one to be scandalous, Karen."

"Oh, of course you didn't. Why would anyone write an article proclaiming that the American government was directly to blame for the loss in Korea because they didn't put as much effort into producing the same amount of specialized weapons as during the last World War, if they weren't writing to be scandalous?"

"Because it's true," Maria answered.

"Someone's going to peg you for a commie, any day now."

"I'm not a communist, though I do wonder about those who would argue against my thesis. Maybe they are communists," Maria said, petulantly.

"Quite full of ourself, aren't we?"

"We've all seen the newsreels, Karen. Tell me, where was the Korean equivalent of Captain America's Shield? Or Captain America himself? Where was the effort we put forward in the last war that mattered?"

"You do realize that this time around, we weren't fighting Hitler or Hydra?" Karen asked, taking a seat on the desk.

Maria frowned and moved her books out of Karen's way. "No, and the American government decided that was reason enough to not put forth any considerable technological effort, and so we lost. It's rather apparent, Karen, to anyone willing to open their eyes."

"Most people call Korea a win, Maria.

"Most people are silly. That wasn't a win by any stretch. At best, it was a stalemate. We could have done better, if our government had not been sitting on their hands from a technological standpoint.

"Poor Maria. My mother used to volunteer at the Red Cross, during the 'last war that mattered,' but somehow I suspect you would not have been content with that. I suspect you would have cut your hair even shorter than it is now and ran off to try to shoot alongside the boys."

"No," Maria said firmly. "I would have been building the guns, not shooting them."

Karen's laugh echoed obnoxiously in the nearly-abandoned library, and Maria contemplated holding a grudge. "You really do work too hard, Maria. You know Williams, don't you?"

Annoying creature always trying to one-up her in their classes, Maria thought. But she simply nodded her head.

"He's having a party tonight, said I should invite you if I see you. Why don't you come? It's good to fill your life with boys as well as toys."

"I'm not interested in filling my life with boys," Maria muttered.

"That's the rumor," Karen agreed, and Maria glared at her, even as her heart raced. She had a career to plan. She didn't need those types of rumors to pop up and get in the way.

"Of course," Karen said, leaning over to caress Maria's arm lightly, "they'll be other incentives at the party, besides boys."

Her green eyes really were ridiculously inviting, and Maria considered the very important fact that she had already completed a first draft. What would be the harm of giving in?

January 1, 1955

Dear Grace,

The realization I've come to about parties is that they are immensely useful in all the ways they aren't supposed to be. For pure, carnal fun, they fail on a number of levels.

But they allow you to sort through the acquaintances. They allow you to realize who is interested in nothing more than "play," and who can let loose while still retaining their dignity. For example, Williams remains the fool that I always believed him to be, but Karen retained greater control of herself than her reputation would have led me to believe.

I will continue to shun that terrible man, but perhaps Karen is worth a greater consideration.

Observational skills were an engineer's best friend, and if there was anything that Maria was proud of, it was her skill as an engineer. It therefore went without saying that her observational skills were pretty keen ones.

Even if they hadn't been, the sight of the lanky man with a mustache (Grace Hopper's old collaborative partner, Howard Stark, Maria recognized) and the brown-haired, brown-eyed lady in red that stood so close to his side would have been noticeable. In a departmental celebration full of recently graduated doctoral students, they were distinctly out of place.

Maria idly wondered who the woman was. Maria doubted it was a romantic interest; their body language did not convey a particular closeness. Besides, the news reports were always full of the romantic liaisons of Howard Stark, Famed Nazi Fighter, primarily because those romantic interests tended to be famous, blonde and considerably younger than himself.

This woman could certainly hold an audience, with her tight-fitting mauve silk dress and a set of matching black hat, heels and silk gloves. But even beneath the hat, there were signs of gray at the temples, and the way she carried herself made it abundantly clear that she was no mere Famed Nazi Fighter arm candy. She was much more Katharine than Audrey, and if the news reports were to be believed, completely not Stark's type.

Maria watched them curiously, as they made their way over to where she stood with Karen and Williams.

"Miss Carbonell?" Stark asked, extending his hand.

"My dissertation was finished two months ago," Maria answered primly. "It's Doctor Carbonell, and I will thank you not to forget that."

Beside her, Karen sighed. "There went your chance at being employed at Stark Industries, Doctor."

The woman beside Stark smiled, and that smile grew wider as Stark awkwardly put his hand down at his side. "On the contrary, Doctor Carbonell," Stark began again, "My associate and I would very much like to discuss employment opportunities with you."

"Perhaps somewhere less crowded," the "associate" suggested.

That made perfectly good sense to Maria; she'd applied for a job opening at Stark Industries last week. So she bid Karen goodbye and led them to her currently abandoned TA's office.

"Did you ever consider college teaching as a full time career?" Stark asked, as he took a seat across from her. The woman leaned, with a type of laziness that took considerable effort, against the closed door, as though she were listening for .... something. Eavesdroppers?

That was silly. An interview with Stark Industries was all very nice and good, and competitive, even, but nobody was going to listen in on the conversation.

"Teaching is very good and very safe. But, in the words of the esteemed Doctor Grace Hopper: 'A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are for. Be good ships. Sail out to sea and do new things.' I'm an engineer; doing new things is part of the job description."

Stark smiled. "I worked with Gracie during the War."

"Yes, I know."

His smile grew. "You're familiar with my work, then?"

Maria contemplated telling him that anyone with a history book would be, and really, would she have applied for a position with his company if she wasn't familiar with the opportunities it could have provided her?

But tact. Tact was important with job interviews, or so her professors had told her.

Instead, she answered, "I am familiar with Doctor Hopper's ground-breaking work. That naturally includes her collaborative efforts, as well as her solo endeavors."

His smile faltered a bit, and his associate took the time to pick up the slack. "We've been reading your work, Doctor Carbonell. It's quite impressive. You don't seem to have a very high opinion of the American government's ability to defend itself."

Maria folded her hands in her lap and crossed her legs. Stark, naturally, watched her legs, while the woman studied her face. That wasn't new. Even the women Maria had shared beds with tended to focus on her legs less than men with whom Maria would never dream of sharing a bed.

Maria focused on the woman's face in equal measure as she answered. "I think we've grown complacent. I think complacency, in terms of defense, is dangerous. Our current weapon designs are progressing backwards, instead of moving forwards. As a scientist and as an American citizen, I find that to be ... unfortunate."

"In the War," the woman began, "we were all quite ready to show our brightest and the best to everyone. There was a lot of bragging taking place, in public, in the theater, on the battleground."

"These days, we play our cards a little closer to our vests," Stark interrupted.

The woman shot him a look. "These days, we lack flair," she answered simply.

"Our ships are staying in their ports too often, would you say, Doctor Carbonell?" Stark asked.

Maria had the distinct feeling that she was in over her head, as though her ship had capsized. But she gave an honest answer. "Maybe not. But their sails certainly aren't as full as is befitting a proper ship."

"The game has changed. It's all submarines now," the woman answered. "Sometimes necessarily so. Do you think submarines are the ship for you, Doctor?"

Maria considered that, and wondered if the conversation had suddenly become literal and someone had forgotten to tell her. "I think," she answered, "that would depend on who the captain of the sub was."

The woman smiled, but it was a sadder smile this time. "They don't make captains like they used to, either. But sometimes, they still manage to get the job done."

Curiosity got the better of Maria at that moment. "I can't quite see you working at Stark Industries," she said to the woman, and both Stark and his associate laughed.

"Oh, heaven forbid," the woman answered. "Doctor, I'm Agent Thirteen, and the job we're about to offer you is ten times more impressive than anything Stark Industries could ever offer."

Maria stole a glance at Stark then, who could only shrug. "I'd like to be offended, but I'm afraid it's rather true."

June 15, 1958

Dear Grace,

I signed on to my first official job as Doctor Carbonell today. The pay is fantastic, far more than I expected to be making. Much of that is hazard pay, which is very bizarre but also thrilling.

I can't list many details, of course. That part is extremely frustrating. Most people just assume I'm working for Howard Stark. Which means I can't tell them about A.T., her glamorous stories, or the exact nature of the work I'm doing.

Of course, I do spend a good deal of time with Howard, and getting time to match brains with goals as equally high as mine is thrilling. He's even stopped looking quite so long at my legs, and can be coerced into a good game of chess. His personality is a little dry compared to A.T., but I suspect the Atlantic Ocean is dry, compared to A.T.

In short, dearest Grace, it isn't your beloved Navy. But I think this job suits me.

Maria gave a pleased cry as her climax washed over her, and the sound of her cry mingled with Peggy's equally pleased laugh.

"To think," Peggy said, as she unplugged the vibrator and curled up beside Maria, tapping the device lightly on Maria's stomach, "you doubted my plan."

"You'll have to be more specific," Maria responded lazily, wriggling her toes against the foot of the bed lazily. "Are we still talking about your foolhardy last mission or the vibrator?"

"The latter," Peggy answered. "The mission was never in doubt, Maria. With your tools and my experience? We're unstoppable. And we did win, you know. I feel that is a very important fact to keep in mind. Of course, I'd call the last scream of yours a win in my corner, as well."

Maria shook her head with a display of dismay she didn't truly feel. "The design is inherently flawed, you know. I like tools that are designed correctly."

"Nothing short of perfection for Doctor Carbonell," Peggy teased, then paused. "It's going to be difficult, calling you Doctor Stark."

"Mm." Maria glanced over to her closet. Her wedding dress had been hanging in her closet for two days, and part of Maria still found it difficult to imagine life as a married woman. "It is fortunate, then, that you have all the freedom to call me simply Maria, Agent Thirteen."

Peggy drew circles across Maria's thigh with the device. "In the days of my youth, we did not make such arrangements as the one between you and Howard."

Maria shrugged. "Sex is ... complicated," she answered. "There is no need to make it more complicated with such rigid rules, is there? It's supposed to feel good and make life better. Not make your life miserable. Howard can have his dalliances with Obadiah, you and I can continue our partnership, and Howard and I can discuss equations long into the morning hours."

Peggy smiled and kissed Maria's brow. "And later, when you have grown more comfortable with the male body, you will set those engineering skills of yours to work and redesign this." She waved the vibrator teasingly in Maria's direction.

"It will be my greatest invention," Maria agreed solemnly, taking the device from Peggy.

Peggy reached over and plugged the device back into the socket. "A device for a woman's body actually designed by someone familiar with how it feels. It will be more revolutionary than anything you have designed for S.H.I.E.L.D."

"Indeed," Maria agreed, and she made a private note that her designs would be much more quiet than the current models. "Of course, part of every good scientist's work is copious research."

Peggy laughed before spreading her legs.

April 30, 1960

Dear Grace,

If I signed these letters, I would officially be signing them as Maria Stark as of tonight. It's very ... bizarre.

Aruba is a beautiful place, though I miss my lab. Howard laughs at me and reminds me that I will have more workspace than I have ever had once we move into the mansion.

I suppose that is worth a month away.

Maria preferred to have the workshop in the home itself, rather than the separate workspace Howard preferred. That worked out extraordinarily well for Maria, because it meant more space for herself in the basement of the mansion. It also meant that Maria was able to have her work constantly with her, and her home constantly a part of her work; they were forever intertwined and all of her mother's comments about having to choose never materialized.

Of course, it also meant not having to hide essential parts of herself whenever Agent Thirteen stopped by for another one of Maria's toys. Maria supposed she could have gotten up and greeted Peggy, but she did have a project to finish, and Peggy was a super spy. She was more than capable of finding her way into Maria's lab.

Peggy's voice announced her presence in the mansion, as reliably as the sound of her heels clicking against the wooden floors, and the sound of the several sets of locks being unlocked and relocked as Peggy made her way to Peggy's workshop. As she descended the stairs into Peggy's workshop, she sang an old (but currently quite familiar, because Maria had heard Peggy sing it many times before) song. "Though our country will never make war, we've a reason that's worth marching for. Not for battle our banner unfurls. But for girls, girls, girls, girls, girls."

"You certainly seem to be in a good mood," Maria greeted.

"I am in a good mood, Maria, because I hear you have good things for me, and like all proper ladies, I love a good present. It is a good one, isn't it, Doctor Stark?"

Maria set the flat-head hammer down on her workbench. "Have I ever disappointed you?"

"Never." Peggy walked over to Maria and brushed the hair away from the front of Maria's goggles. "Tell me about this newest present of yours."

"The last Hydra toy you brought me, it was quite impressive."

"I will say this about Hydra - their scientists are very good," Peggy admitted, grudgingly. "They gave us a good deal of headaches during the War."

"Fortunately, your scientists are better," Maria answered. She picked up the object, which would have appeared to be a pen, to anyone who didn't know better. "The original design was a low-grade laser, which would have allowed you enough power to slice through paper. I've upgraded the design to a more S.H.I.E.L.D. appropriate design. This laser will cut through steel if you twist it clockwise. If you twist it counterclockwise, you will have laser powerful enough to light things on fire. Oh, and the laser is invisible to the naked eye, so be careful."

"Always am," Peggy answered.

"That is a barefaced lie, and you know it."

Peggy laughed and took the pen from Maria's hands, allowing her fingers to linger on Maria's for a moment.

"When will you be back?" Maria asked. Peggy's hands were rough, like Maria's own, like Howard's. They showed the lifetime of work that Peggy had lived, starting well before Maria had even gained her first blister.

The hands were only a part of the overall masterpiece, but they would always be Maria's favorite.

"If all goes well, I should be back within a week."

Maria nodded, and pulled up her goggles, placing them on her head. "Give me something to remember you by, Agent Thirteen."

"My pleasure, Doctor Stark." Peggy squeezed her hands and leaned in for a kiss.

As she walked up the stairs and out of the workshop, Peggy resumed her song. "Let us gaze in the wine while it's wet. Let's do things that we'll live to regret. Let me dance till the restaurant whirls! With the girls, girls, girls, girls, girls!"

February 28, 1965

Dear Grace,

Tonight, I attended a party full of people I don't know, and who don't know me. They know my last name - the one I have borrowed from my husband - but they don't know my accomplishments. They don't know the things that motivate me or the things I discuss with Howard or P. long after they are gone.

This is a life I grew up in, and I smile and discuss curtains with them, and the hem lengths for next year, and whether or not I think gloves will still in fashion next year (was that a slight, Susie Ford? Because dearest Grace, let me tell you that my silk gloves look twice as fashionable as her wretched little polyester dress ever could. Also, I suspect that Ermine is fake.)

But I always feel as I did, all those years ago when my mother stood in my doorway and chided me over my "play." You would think, with all that I have accomplished, that the guilt would get sick of following me around.

Ah, well. All the ones that I have loved have led a double life. I suppose I can be strong enough to live a similar one.

In all earnestness, the day should have came long before it actually did. Maria had long since held the credentials to have a meeting with Grace Hopper, and she had adored the woman since childhood.

But despite the numerous invites to various Stark Industry functions, or another other, more official gatherings ("Doctor Hopper declined to be part of S.H.I.E.L.D.," Peggy explained. "It was a conflict of interest with her beloved Navy) Doctor Hopper was always busy.

In the days since joining S.H.I.E.L.D., Maria had been quite busy with her inventions. She didn't keep up with the journals that she had once dreamed of being published in, and the inventions she was responsible for held greater purpose than could ever be revealed to the public.

To the world at large, Maria simply wasn't part of the science scene. Even the controversy her papers had once stirred seemed to be forgotten, in the midst of being Mrs. Stark.

So, when the day came that she was actually able to take off from work long enough to attend a public speaking engagement of Grace Hopper, Maria was thrilled.

She hadn't expected to run into Karen. Or, apparently, Doctor Williams, these days.

"Well, well, if it wasn't the star of our graduating Harvard doctoral program," Karen said.

Years had done something to Karen's voice, Maria decided. All the warmth that had been there once had vanished, to be replaced by a sluggish smugness that drooped almost as much as the excess skin Karen was trying unsuccessfully to stuff into her tight mini-dress.

"Of course. I wouldn't miss it," Maria answered. Maria ran a hand down the front of her dark blue business suit, something that was much more appropriate for a Grace Hopper lecture than the regurgitated-rainbow look Karen was spouting.

"Mmm. They let you out of Stark Industries for a while, then?" Karen asked. "Do you even still work there? The world's a little unclear on that."

"Really?" Maria said calmly. "Just how is the world confused about my current occupational status?"

Karen waved her hand dismissively. "The most promising female engineer of our generation, Maria. We see you running around to do all the charity work that a good little wife does, but your entire scientific goals seemed to have vanished the minute Howard Stark took you for an ... 'interview.'"

"I suspect, Doctor, that you have no real idea the amount of effort - much of it unpublished, trade secrets being tricky that way - that goes into making sure Stark Industries runs effectively."

"But you were never the shy type, Maria." Karen shook her head, and really, she needed a haircut, Maria thought, viciously. That longer than shoulder-length deal only worked for woman under 30, and nobody in this room was that age anymore. "It just seems a very sad end. It would be different if you had children, of course, but ... oh, there comes Doctor Hopper."

But Maria didn't have time to respond, because the tiny communication device in her ear was interrupting. The invisible work that she adored was calling her name.

"I know you're busy, but we're sending a car to pick you up," Peggy's voice told her. "We have an audience willing to tenatively approve the funding of the latest project of yours - providing you can be convincing."

Doctor Hopper would have to wait for another day.

"Maria, where are you going?" Karen asked. "You're going to miss Doctor Hopper's speech."

"I have work to do, Karen."

March 10, 1968

Dear Grace,

I'm afraid I had to miss your lecture. I'm sorry about that, but in your words, I had to go sail my ship.

If the United States government ever decides to quit being cheap, the rest of the world might see the fruits of my labor.

There was a card on the stand beside her bed, from Peggy, and flowers from Howard. Neither were able to be with Maria; Howard had to rush out shortly after the main event to attend to an emergency at Stark Industries and Peggy had S.H.I.E.L.D. business. Both of them were at an age when they should relax and leave the gallivanting around the world to the young, but they wouldn't hear of it.

Of course, having children was a game for the young as well, but Maria's body apparently had different plans.

She held the new born child close to her and ran her fingers through his dark hair. "You certainly know how to make an entrance, Little One," she told him. "Coming to us so late, putting your mother through so much pain that you are definitely going to be an only child... oh, don't look at me like that, Anthony. I would like to have a little Grace, but I am never doing that again. In fact, every research company responsible for manufacturing The Pill is getting a hefty anonymous donation tomorrow morning."

Anthony wrinkled his nose and yawned.

"Don't take it personally, Little One. You were worth it, I promise." She kissed his forehead gently and held him to her breast to nurse. "More than worth it."

July 21, 1972

Dear Grace,

I have created a lot of wonderful things. But Tony is the first creation that I have made that has signs of me, written so obviously all over him. I search his tiny features every day, looking for the parts of him that are me and the parts that are Howard.

After years of not sharing my creations with the world, I can't wait to send this one out into the open to see what he will do.