Maria Hill stepped out of Stark Tower and onto the busy New York street. She'd been on the job at Stark Industries for a little over a month and wasn't sure if it was more or less stressful working for the idiosyncratic genius, Tony Stark, than it was working in the ordered, but demanding, SHIELD. Putting on her sunglasses to protect her eyes from the noon-day sun, and somewhat conceal her now open identity from the public, she turned and headed to the bistro down the street.
She hadn't gone far when her fine-tuned senses alerted her to the fact that she was being followed. It wasn't a surprise to her, what was a surprise was that her tail wasn't very good. She wasn't used to being followed by someone so green, it wounded her pride to think that her life had reached such a low point that people thought they could send a novice to track her.
Ahead there was a red light. Following that direction would lead her away from her chosen lunch destination, but it would give her a chance to surreptitiously glance at her new shadow. She turned to face the direction to cross the street, and noted her tail was worse than she thought. He continued right up to her, until he was almost close enough to touch her, at which point Maria turned on him and put her hand out to grab him.
His yelp of surprise wasn't what stopped her from further action, however.
"Barney?" she gasped.
Oh, g-d, this was not happening.
"Robin?" he said, his voice strained.
Maria lowered her hand and stared at what she had to admit was her biggest mistake ever. Fury had ripped her a new one after she had allowed herself to become so caught up in her undercover persona that she had actually married a bystander. She had argued that it was a perfectly good cover and could be corrected easily later by ending the relationship. It wasn't as if this was the first time in SHIELD history it had happened.
She couldn't tell him that she had married Barney for the same reason her persona of Robin Scherbatsky would have, because she'd been head over heels in love with him. And she couldn't admit it now, either. Not with the world resting on her shoulders in the aftermath of the attack on the Triskelion. So she squared her shoulders and pulled on a cold mask, just as she had all those years ago.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, using as firm a tone as she could, considering her heart was ready to burst from her chest just from seeing him again.
"I live here," he said, his voice still conveying surprise. "Remember?"
Maria nodded curtly.
"Well, it was good to see you again," she said, then started to turn away. "I really have to go."
"No," he said, his voice taking on a commanding tone. "We need to talk."
She tilted her head at him.
"What on earth could we have to talk about?" she asked condescendingly, hoping he would take the hint.
"How can you ask that?" he spat out.
Maria only shrugged, wondering why she hadn't already walked away, but her feet seem to have become glued to the ground.
"Was any of it even real?" Barney's hurt tone cutting her to the quick, making her feel for a moment that she'd had the breath knocked out of her.
Her emotions must have shown briefly, because Barney took another step toward her. She tried to take a step back, but her feet were still rooted where she stood.
"It was a job," she told him, flatly.
He faltered a moment before reaching out to touch her arm. She saw his hand shaking, a reflection of her inner turmoil, and knew that if he laid it on her, she wouldn't be able to deny him.
"Maria," she heard a voice cry out.
Looking behind Barney, she saw Sam Wilson making his way quickly to her.
"Everything alright?" he asked as he stopped at her side, sizing up Barney at the same time.
Barney glared at Sam for the interruption, and Maria only nodded in answer to his question.
"Um, Sam, this is Barney Stinson," she began the introductions. "Barney, this is Sam Wilson."
Sam held his hand out, and Barney took it hesitantly and shook it, looking from Sam to Maria.
"You were with Robin in DC," Barney turned to Sam, and his use of her cover name caused Maria's chest to tighten.
"Robin?" Sam asked, obviously confused.
Barney turned back to Maria, hurt apparent on his face as the reality of who Robin really was, really had been the entire time they'd been together, finally sank in. Maria's heart ached, but she shut down any outward show of emotion. It was best that the cut be quick. It would be much less painless this way, though painless for whom she didn't want to wonder at the moment.
"I mean, Maria," Barney slowly forced her real name from his lips.
There was a moment of awkward silence before Sam broke in with an excuse to get them away from Barney.
"We were going to have lunch, remember?" he said to Maria.
She nodded, grateful for his lie.
"It was nice meeting you, Stinson," he said in a manner that informed Barney he was dismissed, then he put his arm around Maria's shoulder and turned her back toward the bistro.
Maria fought the urge to turn and look back at her "ex-husband," knowing full well she'd either run to him or possibly turn into a pillar of salt. There was no use longing for something she had to deny.
When they arrived at the restaurant, Sam got them a table near the back and they ordered their food. She knew he was studying her and waited for the inquiries.
"Robin?" he asked.
Maria closed her eyes. It was painful to hear him say it, though not as nearly as painful as it had been to hear Barney say it again.
"It was a cover," she told him, wishing, but knowing he wouldn't leave it at that.
"A pretty serious cover by the looks of things," he commented.
Maria sighed. It was all out there on the internet now anyway. She might as well be the one telling the story instead of some annoying fan-fiction writer who had no clue what he or she was talking about.
"I married him," she said. "And it wasn't part of the assignment."
She watched Sam's eyebrows raise an inch and his mouth open slightly in surprise. He cleared his throat and, after a few moments of fumbling, simply gave her a confused look.
"Yeah, I know, it was stupid," she said.
"Were you drunk?" he asked.
Maria shook her head.
"It was a long-term undercover assignment," she told Sam. "It only ended about two years before the Battle of New York."
She took a deep breath, then let it out very slowly before continuing.
"I was supposed to work my way up as a reporter at WWN," she said. "SHIELD suspected some of the international reporters of aiding and abetting terrorists."
"WWN?" Sam interrupted for clarification. "You mean World Wide News?"
Maria nodded and noted the furrow in Sam's brow, then a slight nod as he realized the resemblance.
"Anyway, I hated it," she said. "It had to be the most humiliating assignment I'd ever been given, and the fact that it had no definite end made it all the worse."
Their food arrived and Sam dug in, but Maria found she had suddenly lost her appetite.
Sam looked up at her from his sandwich and waved his hand to indicate she should continue her story. She smiled and gave a slight laugh.
"I was ready to spend several months, or years, bored to tears," she said. "Then one night I went to a bar with a friend who had broken up with her boyfriend, or something, and there was this guy there and he says to me, "Have you met Ted?"
Maria smiled at the memory. It had certainly been the strangest introduction she'd ever had.
Sam was looking at her now, a question on his face.
"Who's Ted?" he asked.
Maria shook her head.
"It really doesn't matter," she said. "The person who 'introduced' us was Barney."
She picked up one of the chips off her plate and nibbled at it. Her mind no longer in the bistro but in a bar not too far from there.
"Did you run off and marry him then?" Sam smirked.
Maria glared at him then rolled her eyes and went on with her story.
"No, I went on a date with Ted," she told him, which garnered another questioning look. "It didn't work out, but I knew it never would. It was just something to make my cover more believable."
"So you dated Barney after that?" he asked.
"No," she said. "It was years later."
Sam's eyebrows went up again.
"Exactly how long did this assignment run?" he asked.
"Nearly a decade," she told him, and he almost choked on the drink he'd just taken.
"10 years?" he asked, sputtering.
"How did you last?" he questioned. "I would have gone mad by then."
"Barney and his friends made it surprisingly bearable," she said with an obvious smile.
"I started hanging out with them and it was just nice to not have to go home to an almost empty apartment every night," she said.
Maria felt herself blush.
"Part of my cover was that I had four dogs," she said with a slight chuckle.
"Four?" Sam's surprise was expected.
"It was only supposed to be one, to give me something slightly normal to discuss at work, but I just kept adding more," she told him with an almost sigh. There were times she missed the dogs.
She finally took a bite of her sandwich then chewed it before going on.
"Barney was crazy," she continued. "But he made my ridiculous job as a reporter covering those feel-good stories much more fun."
She related the time when Barney dared her to say insane things on the air and paid her to do it. It had been just what she needed to get herself out of her self-pity, and she finally started enjoying her assignment.
"When did you know you were in love with him?" Sam asked.
"Not for a few," Maria started, then stopped, realizing what she had just stepped into. "I'm not, I mean, I wasn't."
Sam was laughing heartily at her now.
"You are totally in love with him," he said, as he tried to catch his breath.
Maria opened her mouth to rebut him but she realized there was no use. If Sam had figured out in minutes what it had taken her years to admit to herself, there really wasn't anything she'd be able to say in her defense.
"It was a few years later," she said. "But I think I knew I liked him a lot almost from the beginning."
She paused a moment, a memory she'd shoved aside for so long becoming more clear in her mind.
"I went as his wingman one night," she said.
Sam paused, a chip half-way to his mouth.
"Wing-man?" he gave her a strange look. "As in?"
"I told you, he was crazy," she laughed.
"I honestly never had so much fun in my life as I had that night," she told Sam, smiling uncontrollably.
"We ended up playing laser tag," she laughed. "He was just a blast."
She told him more about the night, but left out the part where they went back to her apartment and Barney had come on to her. Maria had told him he'd misinterpreted things and made up an excuse about being interested in Ted. Barney had respected that, never realizing that Maria had really wanted more. It would be years, and so much of a mess, later before she finally gave into that desire.
"Maria?" Sam's voice broke into her thoughts.
"Huh?" she hadn't even realized she'd drifted off.
"I was saying that maybe you should talk to him," Sam told her. "Maybe he still has feelings for you, too."
Maria scoffed at that idea and shook her head.
"I lied to him," she said. "I lied from the moment we met. No one can forgive that."
This admission settled in her chest like a weight and they sat in silence as they finished their meal.
Barney Stinson sat on a bench in front of the building that once housed McClaren's Bar. It, and the surrounding buildings, had been among those destroyed two years earlier in, well, Barney still had trouble wrapping his mind around an alien invasion so he just tried to ignore it, pretend they'd been attacked by humans, though, how that was any better he still wasn't sure.
He'd gotten good over the last few years, living in denial. Denial of the invaders, denial of the radical changes the invasion had caused in his life, denial of the fear he'd felt when he tried to find Robin afterwards only to discover she'd basically disappeared off the face of the earth. He'd only wanted to find out if she was safe, but, after a year of searching, he'd found nothing.
Then, one afternoon, after the horrific events in DC, he'd received a frantic call from Lily. She ordered him to turn on C-SPAN right away and he'd made a joke about mud wrestling female senators as he lazily reached for his remote. But his jovial mood was cut short by what, or rather, whom, he saw on his screen.
"What is Robin doing on C-SPAN?" he asked.
"Not 'Robin,'" Lily told him. "Look at the name."
On the screen, below Robin's face, crap she really was beautiful even without make-up, he read "Maria Hill" and below that, a title, "Former Deputy Director SHIELD."
"What the hell was she doing working for SHIELD?" he asked.
He didn't really know much more than the media had said about it since DC. It really hadn't mattered to him, not a lot had for the two years since the invasion.
"I'm looking it up now," Lily said. "Everything about them is online now so it shouldn't be difficult to find."
As Lily searched the internet for information about a woman Barney once thought he knew well, he watched Robin on the screen. Her face was different, hard, cold, calmly answering the inane questions the Senate Panel asked. She never cracked one of her beautiful smiles, he never saw a glint of her twisted sense of humor in her eyes, she was Robin, but she wasn't.
"OK, I have something here," Lily broke into his thoughts. "Maria Hill started working for SHIELD in 1995, she was recruited from the Air Force."
Lily went on mumbling about different ops this Maria had been a part of, Barney caught something about Madripoor and Budapest, otherwise he was actually focused on his TV screen. Then he heard Lily gasp.
"Oh, here it is," she said, and Barney swallowed, wondering nervously what 'it' was.
"In 2000 she was given a cover of a television reporter for WWN apparently to ferret out terrorist sympathizers."
Barney was sure his heart stopped.
"It was all a lie?" he whispered, not even sure if he'd said it aloud until Lily responded.
"I'm sorry, Barney," she said, her voice thick with emotion.
"Yeah," he breathed out. "Me, too."
After hanging up with Lily, Barney continued to watch Robin's, no, Maria's testimony. It all seemed so surreal.
Over the next several weeks, Barney spent every free moment reading everything he could find on the Internet about Maria Hill: from her background, and he thought he'd had a messed up childhood; to how many people she had probably killed over her career, glad his messed up childhood didn't mess him up that badly.
He learned that she had been recently hired by Stark Industries, not very surprising, all things considered. At first he determined to do nothing about it. His friends all encouraged him to do nothing about it. It had been four years, what did it matter now? But Barney wasn't surprised when he found a new path home past the SI building every day after that.
The first time he saw her, he froze, unable to do more than breath, as he watched her walk out of the building. She was speaking with a woman with long strawberry-blond hair whom Barney later learned was Pepper Potts, CEO of SI and girlfriend of Tony Stark. They got into a waiting car and drove away. He determined that the next time he saw her, he'd say something.
One month, and about a dozen sightings, later, Barney finally followed her down the street. And now he sat outside the old site of MacClaren's Bar, feeling like his heart had been ripped out.
That man, Sam Wilson, he must be her boyfriend. This caused Barney to remember the first time he'd told Lily about his feelings for Robin. She had asked if he wanted to be Robin's boyfriend and he'd thought the word so petty for what he felt. But, later, when Lily had locked the two of them up in Robin's bedroom insisting they define their relationship, Barney secretly crowed at hearing Robin claim him as her boyfriend. Even later than that, when Robin first referred to him as her husband, Barney was certain his feet wouldn't touch the ground for months.
It had gone sour so quickly after that and Barney had never understood why, not really. Sure there were all the things they said, some things they did, but where did they come from? Looking back, knowing what he now knew, he wondered if this Maria person hadn't intentionally sabotaged the whole thing because her assignment was ending. He'd read in the files that were now public that she'd been given quite the promotion, and several commendations, for her work at WWN. But, even if that was true, why had she married him in the first place? Why all those years of pretending to love him?
There was no evidence she'd mentioned anything about her relationship with him to SHIELD. He hadn't found anything about Lily or Marshall or any of their friends in her SHIELD files. So why had she married him?
The only conclusion Barney could draw was that she had actually been in love with him. He wouldn't dare to share it with the others, they would think he was nuts. A spy from a super-secret government organization falling in love with someone like him was probably the craziest thing he'd ever conjured up in his mind. And that was really saying something.
Sighing, he rose and started to walk back to his apartment, and as he walked he started to formulate a play. Of course, he'd need a name. He'd call it...