SHIELD agents do not bounce, Maria reminded herself sternly. SHIELD agents are calm, in control, and they do not get excited.
Even when it is their first day on the job.
Maria walked calmly through the halls of SHIELD’s New York office, where she had dreamed about being for the past three years, ever since she had learned of SHIELD’s existence. It wasn’t every SHIELD Academy graduate who got assigned to their first pick for their inaugural assignment, yet here Maria was.
She was not nervous. She had no reason to be. She’d graduated top of her class from SHIELD Ops Academy. She had gotten plenty of sleep last night, spent an hour that morning in the state-of-the-art gym (taking out her excitement on the punching bag), dressed for success in a smart pants-suit, arranged her hair in a neat bun, and even eaten a well-balanced breakfast in the cafeteria. She was ready for this day, and whatever her supervising officer—an Agent Felix Blake—might throw at her.
When she reached the door of Agent Blake’s office, Maria stopped for a moment. She took in a deep breath, reminding herself that no matter what was on the other side of that door, she could handle it. Because she was Maria Hill, and she could handle anything.
Maria knocked on the door.
She opened the door, immediately plastering on a professionally bland smile. “Agent Blake? I am Maria Hill. Reporting for duty, sir.”
A sour-face man looked up from his computer, his face in a scowl. His desk was cluttered with stacks of papers and folders, most which were covered with bright yellow “CLASSIFIED” cover pages so that Maria couldn’t even begin to see what he was working on.
“That stack right there,” he said, motioning to a stack of folders on the edge of the desk. “Take the lot of them and file them with Records.” He then turned his attention back to his computer screen.
Maria stood dumbly for a moment, staring at him. No introduction? No welcome to SHIELD speech? No…nothing?
She didn’t even know where Records was.
No matter. She would figure it out.
Maria took the stack of files, said, “Right away, Agent Blake,” and then walked out of his office as if she knew where she was going.
Finding Records was easy of enough. Maria filed the papers and then went back to Agent Blake’s office. The man blinked at her owlishly, as if he hadn’t expected her back so soon—which really Records was only in the 3rd sub-basement (down a hallway, turn right, then left, then down a staircase, and past the vending machines). It hadn’t been that hard to find.
“Go to your desk. Someone will be along to set up your computer,” he said, clearly dismissing her.
Maria nodded and stepped out of the room, once again having no idea where exactly she was expected to go.
This is a test, she reminded herself. This is SHIELD. Everything is a test.
She found the Level 4 (the required entry level clearance for agents in the New York office) cube farm an hour later. The other Level 4s were more than happy to point her to her desk. She didn’t even get her own cubicle, but rather had to share it with another junior agent.
“Jimmy Woo,” he said, offering his hand. “I’ve been here for six months. My SO is Agent Garrett.”
“Maria Hill,” she said, taking his hand. His grip was not impressive—rather on the weak side—but she didn’t take that too seriously. This was SHIELD. She didn’t trust anyone to be who they seemed. Woo might just be playing the weak type in order to make people underestimate him. “First day. Agent Blake.”
Woo winced when she named her SO. “Oh, man, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? What for?”
“Agent Blake is a dick,” he said. “His junior agents never go anywhere because he never does anything with them. Just like endless paperwork and no training or explanations or ops. Most of his juniors transfer, become analysts, or wash out.”
Maria studied her cube-mate, her eyes narrowing. There were two possibilities here. He could be telling the truth, and despite being first in her class she could’ve been assigned to the worst possible senior agent. (Possibly because it was the only opening at her first choice, and the powers-that-be at SHIELD assumed a terrible SO at the ideal posting was better than a less ideal posting.) Or this could be a mind game, because SHIELD was highly competitive. There were more Level 4 agents than there were Level 5 positions, and only the best Level 5 agents were allowed to handle assets and run ops.
“That is good to know,” Maria said, pretending she believed him but holding on to a healthy dose of skepticism.
“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” Woo said with a shrug. “Want me to help you set up your computer?”
“I’ve got it,” Maria said, and she turned to her desk.
She could set up her own computer, and if Agent Blake turned out to be a problem, she would deal with it.
Maria had yet to meet a problem in life she couldn’t solve, and her dream job would be no different.
Maria Hill had been at SHIELD for exactly two months, and so far Jimmy Woo’s words had turned out to be truly prophetic.
In the past two months, Maria had filed more forms and reports than she thought it was possible to create. She had been at her desk, filling out requisition for Blake’s assets while other Level 4 agents were sent into the field. She was on a first name basis with the Agent in charge of Records—known by most simply as the Archivist but known to Maria as Jake—and even knew the man’s preferred coffee order. (He had a surprisingly sweet tooth.)
Maria had memorized every kind of form SHIELD had that a Level 4 was allowed to handle. Other Level 4s came to her, asking if they needed a RV-21 or VR-212 in order to requisition a specific poison and Maria knew it was neither. (It was a WR-121.) Maria read every mission report that Agent Blake asked her to file, familiarizing herself with his assets, strategies, and techniques. And she decided that Agent Blake was a decent SHIELD handler.
He was just a terrible supervising officer.
She could understand why so many of his juniors gave up and transferred out of HQ or fell in love with the paperwork and decided to switch over to the analyst track, but Maria Hill intended to do neither. She wanted to be a handler. She would be a handler. And her solution was simple. She would become indispensable to this man, and then one day an op would come and he wouldn’t even be able to imagine doing it without her—because while he was ignoring her and not thinking, she will have taken over his job.
In the meantime, she stapled papers while her peers went on ops.
A burst of laughter interrupted Maria’s thoughts. A group of Level Fours were gathered in a nearby cubicle, swapping stories about their recent ops. It took all of Maria’s self-control to keep a glare off of her face. It wasn’t their fault that their SO’s actually trained them. It wasn’t their fault Maria had gotten saddled with Blake.
Maria turned her attention back to stack of reports on her desk, grabbing the next report and flipping it open.
“So what does Garrett have you working on now?” one of the other junior agents—Diaz was her name—asked.
“Oh, well I can’t really talk about that. You know how it is,” Woo said, and Maria bet he was smirking, a smug grin that she wanted to punch off of his face.
“Awww, really? Nothing? Not even a hint?”
“Well….,” Woo drawled out. Like most junior agents Woo was completely incapable of not bragging. Maria swore all an enemy agent need to do to know all of SHIELD’s secrets was come in as a Level 4 agent, since SHIELD agents gossiped like old nannies. “Let’s just say it involves a rogue Agent.”
“A rogue SHIELD agent?”
“No, a rogue HYDRA agent—of course a rogue SHIELD agent,” Woo retorted. “A rogue Level six.”
A quiet hush fell over the junior agents, as they all thought of the implications of a level 6 agent going rogue. Maria’s own stomach turned at the thought. Level 6 was the highest level—at least the highest recognized level. Maria had her suspicions that there were higher levels they just weren’t allowed to know about. At least Assistant Director Fury and the Director had to be higher levels. There had to be things they knew that nobody else did.
“Jesus Christ,” Diaz said.
“Our team is hunting him down,” Woo said smugly.
“So he’s on the run? He’s not still a mole in our ranks?”
“Aww, come on, Woo.” Maria knew that tone of voice. Diaz could wield her feminine wiles with the best of them. She was probably leaning forward, touching his arm, and batting her eyes lashes up at him. “Just a hint?”
“Well, let’s just say if you see the name Richard Dalton pop up—let me know,” Woo answered.
Maria rolled her eyes. Weak. Woo was so weak. If he made it to level 5 ahead of her, she was going to go on a rampage. Woo gave away secrets because Diaz batted her eyes at him! Maria was a steel trap. It wasn’t fair.
Just because she had a crappy SO, he was probably going to be promoted ahead of her.
Maria gritted her teeth and turned her attention back to her reports.
She had to do something about this. She had to. It was killing her.
Maria hurried down the streets of New York City, juggling sixteen cups of coffee in her arms and hoping the still lingering winter wouldn’t leach the warmth from the cups. When she approached the main entryway of SHIELD, she turned around in order to push the door open with her back.
“Hold it! I’ve got it!” a light baritone voice said. Maria turned and offered a grateful smile. (Despite what Woo may say to the contrary, Maria wasn’t actually opposed to help. Part of being a good agent was understanding her limitations and accepting help when appropriate.)
The man who smiled back at her was—well, he was hot. There was no other way to put it. His eyes were a shifting blue-green, his blonde hair artfully messy, and his shirt unforgivably tight. Maria was adult enough to keep her face from flushing and her eyes from lingering on his ridiculously buff arms. Instead she met his gaze and said, “Thank you” as she stepped through the door.
He followed her through, regarding her with a slight frown. “Kid, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think you have a coffee problem.”
Maria’s smile returned, once again genuine. (Also despite what Woo thought, she did have a sense humor.) “It’s not for me,” she said. “It’s for a meeting. The normal coffee pot died so…”
“So they sent you?” For some inexplicable reason, he seemed troubled by this.
“I was the most junior person at the meeting,” Maria explained, trying to keep any SHIELD specific lexicon out of the conversation. Though they were standing in the lobby of SHIELD, she didn’t know if this guy was SHIELD. Between his t-shirt and sweat pants, he could’ve just been a runner on the street who saw someone in need of help.
“Hmm,” the man said, noncommittally, but his eyes narrowed. Then he unceremoniously took two layers of coffee from her arms.
“What are you doing?” Maria protested.
“Helping,” he said with a smile.
“This is a secure facility,” Maria said, jerking her head in the direction of the first security check point—a bored guard watching a set of turnstiles that agents had to badge through. “You can’t just come in with me.”
The man lifted his eyebrows, his (sexy) lips quirking in an amusement. “Oh really?” he said. Then he walked up to the turnstile, shimmied slightly so that his left thigh hit the badge reader, and then stepped through, the turnstile admitting him. Once on the other side, he balanced the two trays of coffee cups in one arm and pulled a badge out of his left pocket. “What were you saying about a secure facility, Miss Junior Agent?”
Maria felt her face flush despite herself and managed a sheepish grin. Of course he was a SHIELD agent. He might indeed have only been out for a run, but keeping in shape was a part of the job. She kicked herself mentally for assuming he wasn’t.
Paperwork was clearly dulling her edge.
Maria badged herself through security, and then they both walked to the elevator. “Which floor?” the man asked once they were inside.
“Three,” she said. “This is for the handlers’ meeting.”
“Handlers?” he repeated in surprise. He looked over at her, his brow furrowing once again. “It wasn’t Coulson who asked you to get coffee, was it?”
“No,” Maria said, surprised by the question. She didn’t think Agent Coulson had ever looked at her, let alone spoke to her. Operatives of his caliber did not interact with agents of hers. Rumor around the office was he never took on juniors, and that an agent had to be Level 6 before she even came on his radar. “It was Agent Blake.”
“And you listened to him?” the man asked. He was watching her through her reflection in the elevator doors, and Maria fought the urge to shift her weight nervously. She wondered who he was, what his job here was. She didn’t recognize him, not even from the cafeteria. Maybe he had been in the field the past couple of months.
“He’s my supervising officer,” Maria said. “It’s my job to listen to him.”
A burst of laughter escaped the man. “Oh, kid, you’ve got a lot to learn about SHIELD.”
“My name is Maria, not kid,” she corrected. She went to great pains to try to look older than she was—from the severe bun to the subdued make-up. She didn’t appreciate nicknames that highlighted her youth.
“And I’m Clint,” he said. “But seriously, as his junior agent, it’s your job to give him hell.”
“In chapter three subsection seven of the SHIELD Handbook, it says that junior agents are to…”
“Aww, you can quote the SHIELD Handbook.” It should’ve come off as patronizing, but his expression was inexplicably fond and Maria couldn’t help but find that endearing. “I like you, kid.”
Before she could correct his use of “kid” again, the elevator lurched to a halt and the doors opened.
Clint badged them through the security check and then the lock on the conference room where the handler meeting was. He held the door open for her, and Maria didn’t protest it. She didn’t think it was an act of misguided chivalry, but rather he had proved himself more capable of holding the trays of coffee in one arm while Maria hadn’t.
Maria stepped into the room, unnoticed by the handlers inside. Blake was at the front of the room, clicking through a PowerPoint presentation while the other handlers watched him with varying states of interest. Some seemed to be hanging on his every word, others seemed to be sleeping with their eyes open, and a handful were blatantly not paying attention him—instead deeply engrossed in their computers.
Then Clint stepped into the room.
Everyone reacted. Some agents paled, others blanched, and a handful rose to their feet with anger on their faces. Maria turned, looking at the monitor next to the door, which displayed the credentials of the person who had badged into the room.
Below Clint’s headshot, in stark letters was the name “Richard Dalton.”
Maria reacted instinctually, throwing her eight cups of coffee in Clint’s face. The man dropped his coffee and cursed at the unexpected shower of steaming hot liquid. Maria took advantage of his confusion, kicking his legs out from underneath him. He fell to the ground, his body twisting, his left arm reaching out to break his fall, but his arm crumpled beneath him instead of catching his weight. Within moments, Maria had him pinned to the ground, her entire body weight keeping him down.
Her heart pumped pure adrenaline through her body. This was the rogue agent. She had the traitor. Oh my God. Oh my God.
To Maria’s confusion, the other agents broke into laugher.
“Agent Hill.” Agent Coulson’s dry voice cut through the laughter, silencing it. Maria didn’t look up at him, afraid to look away from the traitor underneath her.
Except for a wanted traitor, he wasn’t struggling at all, other than a continuous stream of curses. A man his size and with his theoretical training should be able to easily overcome her. Maria had been relying on the fact that the other handlers in her room would come to her aid, after she took advantage of his surprise. But nothing was going like it should.
“Agent Hill,” Agent Coulson repeated her name. “Please let Agent Barton up off the ground.”
Agent Barton? Agent Clint Barton?
How the hell did that make sense?
“Sir,” Maria said, still not getting up. “His badged ID’d him as Richard Dalton.”
“Which is certainly interesting,” Agent Coulson agreed. “And once you let Agent Barton up, I fully expect him to explain to me why his ID claims the wrong name…”
“Melinda fucking May,” the man beneath her spat out the name. “She’s pissed at me so she…”
“Barton,” Coulson said, instantly the man beneath her fell silent.
“Agent Hill,” Coulson continued after a moment. “I am personally vouching for this man. Please let him up.”
It felt wrong, but Maria obeyed. If Coulson said he was not the traitor, well, Maria had no choice but to believe that. Unless Coulson was a traitor too, but the idea of someone at his level going rogue was mind-boggling.
Maria stood up stiffly. The man—Clint? Richard Dalton?—jumped to his feet in a fluid and graceful move and then massaged his left shoulder while cursing softly.
“Barton, Hill, in the hall,” Coulson said. Then his gaze cut across the rest of the room. “I believe Agent Blake was apprising us of the latest situation in Yugoslavia…”
The other agents immediately retook their seats, and Agent Blake went back to his lecture. Coulson turned back to Clint and Maria. He gave them both a stern look and then stepped out into the hall. Clint followed him out with Maria trailing behind.
Once in the hall, Coulson crossed his arms and gave Clint a reproving look. “You know you’re not allowed in handler meetings.”
“I was just helping the kid, sir.” Clint said, still rubbing his left shoulder. “Wasn’t expecting to get beat up over it.”
Coulson’s eyes turned momentarily heavenward before refocusing on the agent. “Go to Medical. Get your shoulder checked out. Then go see Erika in IT and get your badge fixed. In that order. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Clint mumbled, looking down to the ground.
“And then meet me in my office,” said Coulson. “I expect you to have your Medical report in hand.”
“Yes, sir,” Clint said with a sigh. He then shot Maria cheeky grin. “See you later, kid.”
Maria stared after him flabbergasted. Surely she didn’t deserve such a friendly smile after tackling him and sending him to Medical.
“Agent Hill,” he said, and Maria braced herself, preparing for the inevitable lecture. She’d attacked an asset, one of SHIELD’s most invaluable resources. There was no way this ended well for. “Can you tell me why you attacked Agent Barton?”
“Sir.” Maria’s heels snapped together, her entire body straightening to attention. She met Coulson’s gaze evenly, keeping her expression level though she wanted to melt in the spot from embarrassment. “The reactions when I entered the room made me assume that Agent Barton was a hostile. I then checked his identification on the monitor and saw his name was Richard Dalton, a current rogue agent. I reacted accordingly.”
“With coffee?” Agent Coulson said, his voice lacking in either condemnation or approval, just flat fact.
“’A good SHIELD agent uses whatever tools she has at her disposal,’ sir,” Maria quoted. “SHIELD Handbook Introduction line twelve.”
“Indeed,” Coulson said. “Who is your supervising officer?”
“Agent Blake, sir.”
For a moment, Coulson looked startled and then his expression shifted back its normal impassivity. “I see. I will have to speak to him. Your tackle was sloppy. If Barton’s shoulder hadn’t already been injured it would have been ineffective. You would have barely even slowed him down. That said…good job.”
Only her training kept her jaw from dropping in surprise. “Excuse me?”
“Good job,” he repeated. “I commend your instincts. That was in fact hostility and shock you saw on the other handlers. Richard Dalton is a name that should warrant an extreme reaction—though I am interested to know how you know that when I’m fairly certain it’s above your clearance level.” Maria kept her face passive. She wouldn’t through Woo under the bus. “But in light of all of that information, using whatever resources you had to subdue such a threat is an appropriate reaction.”
Maria stared at him, stunned.
Agent Coulson was praising her.
Agent Coulson was praising her for attacking one of his assets.
Was it opposite day and no one had told her?
“Agent Hill, if I may ask,” Coulson continued after a moment, “why were you carrying so much coffee?”
The question shook Maria out of her stupor. “Agent Blake asked me to get coffee for everyone, before the meeting started. I don’t believe you were present, sir. I took orders and I…”
“Agent,” Coulson interrupted. “Did you come to SHIELD to be a barista?”
“No, sir. I came to SHIELD to serve and protect.”
“To serve coffee?”
“No, sir. To serve the people of this planet.” Maria couldn’t keep her passion out of her voice, and she couldn’t stop the flood of words. “To protect people from the threats other organizations can’t or won’t acknowledge. To keep innocents innocent and save the people who fall victim to this world’s worst. To make the world a better, safer place.”
Coulson studied her, his eyes searching her flushed face. Maria held his gaze, refusing to look away, willing him to see how much she meant her words.
“Well then, Agent,” he said, “the next time someone asks you to get coffee, you tell them to get their own damn coffee. You are an agent of SHIELD, not a barista. Is that understood?”
She nodded, not trusting herself to speak without trying to pin blame on Agent Blake. An agent of SHIELD also took care of her own problems. She didn’t tattle like a child.
The man studied her for a moment longer, as if sensing the things she was leaving unsaid. Or maybe listening to her thoughts. One of the many rumors about the man was that he was a telepath. Maria didn’t think it was true, but she tried to blank her thoughts just in case.
“Good,” he said “Now get back into the meeting.”
Maria nodded and slipped back into the room.
The next day when Agent Blake asked her to fetch him coffee, Maria politely but sternly told him she wouldn’t be making any more coffee runs.
Blake’s confused expression turned to anger when Agent Barton dropped down unexpectedly from the ceiling and high-fived her.
Maria thought things would be better after she told Blake she wouldn’t be getting his coffee anymore. She thought maybe it was some sort of SHIELD hazing—that they made juniors get coffee until they refused to do it anymore—but apparently, that was not the case. And now on top of still not going on ops, of still being stuck under a mountain of paperwork, she was fairly certain that her supervising officer hated her.
The text on the page blurred into black lines. Maria closed her eyes and massaged her temples. She couldn’t do this anymore.
“Paperwork is part of every handler’s life,” Agent Blake had responded when she protested.
“I know that, sir, and I’m happy to do it, but SHIELD Regulations state…”
“Agent Hill, I think I am more familiar with SHIELD Regulations than you are, as I have been employed by SHIELD for thirteen years and not a mere three months.”
Maria had managed to keep her face impartial, took the forms, and went to her desk.
Forms day and night, every day all day. This was Maria’s life, an endless stack of paperwork. Instead of saving lives, she was killing trees in triplicate.
Maria stood abruptly from her desk, knocking Jimmy Woo out of his daze. “Hey, what’s up?” he asked.
She ignored him and left her cubicle. She couldn’t deal with other people—with SHIELD—right now. She had to get out.
She ended up at the coffee shop just around the corner from SHIELD, the very same coffee shop where the week before she had ordered sixteen coffees. The barista looked a little wild around the eyes at the sight of her, but then visibly relaxed when Maria only ordered one coffee.
Normally Maria would take her coffee back to her desk and inhale it while finishing whatever new stack of forms Agent Blake had left on her desk, but today if she went back, she was going to murder someone. So she picked a table against the wall, where she could see the entire facility and keep an eye out for threats while she nursed her over-sugared, doubly-caffeinated elixir of the gods.
The coffee shop door opened, bringing a gust of cold spring air and bright laughter with it. Maria glanced up from her coffee only to freeze at the sight of Clint Barton and a devastatingly beautiful red-headed woman.
“Kid!” His eyes landed on her immediately, because of course he noticed her. He was Hawkeye. “Nat, protect me from this evil coffee-wielding fiend!” He hid behind his female companion as if her petite form could protect him. The woman just rolled her eyes.
“If you think I’m wasting my personal cup of coffee on you, you are vastly mistaken,” Maria said. “There are at least five other things on this table I could kill you with.”
“Aww, kid,” Barton stood up straight but left an arm around his friend’s shoulders. “You’re fucking adorable, you know that?”
“Only you find death threats adorable,” the woman said. She pushed his arm off her shoulder and stepped up to the counter.
“You know what I like!” Clint called after her, and Maria wasn’t sure if that was a reference to death threats or coffee. Regardless, he sauntered over to her table and plopped down in the chair next to her. “Wuzzup?”
My handler hates me. He’s never going to let me out in the field. I’m never going to qualify to be a Level 5 agent and my career is going to end before it ever started, Maria thought. Instead she said, “Nothing much. Just needed a break from the office. What brings you here?”
“A beautiful woman,” Clint said. “I’ll do anything for a pair of pretty blue eyes.”
“Yes, and coming here has nothing to do with your caffeine addiction.” The red headed woman was suddenly at the table, handing Clint a cup of coffee. Her voice dripped with disdain, but there was a slight quirk to her lips.
“We can’t all have super metabolisms,” Clint responded before downing half of his coffee in one gulp.
Maria frowned. Super metabolism? She looked to Clint questioningly, and the man said, “Oh! Introductions! I nearly forgot. Kid, meet my partner, Nat. Nat, meet the kid, you know, the one who dunked me in coffee.”
“And here I thought you had simply decided to wear a coffee scented cologne to ingratiate yourself to Phil,” said the woman, Nat, and HOLY MARY MOTHER OF GOD, he had to mean Natasha, as in Natasha THE BLACK FREAKING WIDOW Romanoff.
“Hey, kid, you feeling okay?” Clint’s expression suddenly turned concerned. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”
“My name is Maria,” she corrected him, aiming for a firm tone and instead hitting slightly winded. “And I’m fine. Just a little tired.”
“It’s a little early in the year for junior agents to crack, isn’t it?” Natasha asked.
“Nah, she’s not cracking,” Clint said. “Are you, kid?”
The both looked to her, Clint with bright eyes and raised eyebrows, Nat with narrowed eyes and a thoughtful crease in her brow. Maria’s mouth was dry under such scrutiny but she managed to say, “No, I’m not.”
“Yet,” Natasha said, her eyes narrowing.
Clint frowned, his gaze flickering to Natasha and then back to Maria. “Someone giving you trouble, kid?”
“No, I’m fine,” Maria said, this time firmly.
“Mmhmm,” Clint said. All mischief and playfulness left his expression, and Maria was reminded that for all of his joking demeanor, she was sitting across from one of the most deadly assassins in the world.
Correction: the two most deadly assassins in the world.
“Is Blake still trying to send you on coffee runs?” he asked. “That’s not what you’re here, is it? To get him coffee?”
“No, no,” Maria said. “No more coffee runs…” She hesitated, her eyes flickering between the two agents. Clint was all grim concern, while Natasha looked slightly bored by the entire thing. “Look, I don’t want to complain. I don’t want to be that guy, you know?”
Natasha snorted, and Maria nearly dropped her coffee. She hadn’t thought the Black Widow was capable of such an indelicate sound. “As long as you’re in the same agency as Clint, you will never be that guy.”
“Nat, I’m touched.” The archer paused. “What guy exactly?”
The Black Widow responded by patting Hawkeye on the head like he was a puppy.
It was surreal. She had to be dreaming. SHIELD’s most competent and lethal strike team could not possibly be sitting across the table from her, bantering like an old married couple.
“So, kid,” Clint said, turning his attention back to her. “Really, you can tell us. We promise we’re the soul of discretion—“ Natasha snorted again. “—and really Nat, I’m trying to get the kid to trust me. Do you have to undermine me at every turn?”
“You undermine yourself,” she said, but then she turned her analytical gaze to Maria. “Frankly, I don’t care about your problems. We have no stake in your junior agent games or politics—“
“Unless, of course, you rise up to be like Director one day,” Clint said. “Then we’ll use whatever you tell us as blackmail. And since you have to survive SHIELD long enough for this to be good blackmail, you can see we might have a vested interest in your sticking around. So basically, kid, we’re here to help.” Natasha flicked her eyes in his direction, and Clint amended, “Well, I’m here to help.”
“Surely you don’t help every new agent who comes through the doors of SHIELD,” Maria said, because no matter what people said, she had to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“Not every SHIELD agent tries to subdue me with coffee. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s a first.”
“So I make a futile attempt to attack you, and now you want to be my friend?”
“Kid, the first time I met Nat, she was trying to kill me—and she was much more effective than you,” he said. “Death threats are the best way to make friends.”
Maria stared at him, not sure if he was serious or not. She looked to Natasha. “Is he for real?”
“Sadly, yes,” the other woman answered, taking a sip from her coffee. “SHIELD’s psychology department has been dying to get their hands on him. Fortunately for the sanity of everyone involved, he’s managed to evade their clutches.”
“So, kid, what it is? Dish. What has that stupid dick Blake done this week? Asked you to get his laundry?”
“No,” Maria said, and though she was certain she was going to regret this later in life, she told them. She explained how she’d come to SHIELD to save people, because she wanted to make a difference. How she had spent her entire student career aiming to get into an international organization like this. She’d done foreign exchange and spent more semesters of college abroad than domestically. How she’d taken all the martial arts and hand-to-hand combat courses she could afford as a kid, how she’s qualified on every required weapon and more at SHIELD academy. How she’d been thrilled to be assigned to the New York office, because she wanted to learn from the best and this was where the really good handlers were. But that in three months since she’d been here, she hadn’t been assigned so much as a milk run.
“And it’s not like I’m expecting to be out there doing the super-critical missions right now,” Maria said, staring into the depths of her now too empty coffee cup. “I get that I have to work my way up, that I need to prove I’m not a liability in the field, that I can work with people. I am more than happy to go on milk runs or to do the undercover jobs that no one else wants. But Agent Blake won’t even give me the option. Whenever I try to ask when I might get to go in the field, he waves it off or makes it sound like its years in my future. And all I’ve been doing since I got here is his paperwork and I just feel like he’s using me. Other people from my year have gone in the field. Jimmy Woo has Agent Garrett as his SO and he’s gone in the field twice already. Boring milk runs—awful milk runs from what I hear—but I’d rather be sitting in a van listening to white noise than do another stupid form.”
She stopped talking, as if she’d expended all the words left to her. She still stared into the depths of her coffee mug, afraid to look up, afraid to see the judgment that would inevitably be on their faces. This was Hawkeye and the Black Widow. Maria had only read the redacted versions of their files, and she knew that her sad sob story was nothing compared to their pasts. They probably thought she was pathetic, complaining about her cushy life.
“Nat,” Clint said. “I’ve got the most scathingly brilliant idea.”
“I thought we had a rule about you quoting Haley Mills movies.”
“No, seriously, Nat,” Clint said, and Maria looked up. The archer’s eyes were filled with a manic glee. Natasha was stirring her coffee with a spoon idly.
“Isn’t Coulson always telling us how we should be like working for the common good of SHIELD and not just ourselves?”
Natasha did look up at this, her eyes narrowing. “Yes.”
“And kid,” he turned his brilliant, excited gaze to Maria. “Isn’t there a guideline about senior assets and junior handlers?”
“SHIELD Handler Guide, Chapter 7 is dedicated to the many permutations of the senior asset and junior handler relationship. To which specific section are you alluding?”
“The one that says senior assets can help train junior handlers by taking them out into the field with them, if both the senior asset, the senior asset’s handler, the junior agent, and the junior agent’s SO sign off on it?”
Natasha blinked, as if Clint had surprised her. Maria stared at him like he was insane.
“Did you just quote a regulation?” Natasha asked.
“Phil must be rubbing off on me,” Clint said with a cheeky grin. “So kid, what do you say? Want to go into the field with the World’s Greatest Marksman and His Girl Fri…OW! Nat!” He rubbed his ear where she had flicked it.
“You can’t be serious,” Maria said. She looked to Natasha. “Is he serious?”
Natasha narrowed her eyes and studied Clint. He waggled her eyebrows at her, and the Black Widow sighed. “I’m afraid he’s very serious. And, apparently, an idiot.”
Clint—well, Clint pouted. Maria can’t say she’d ever seen a grown man pout before, let alone pout so attractively. “Well, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
“This is an idiotic idea and if I don’t come you’ll get yourself killed,” Natasha said, and Clint’s eyes lit up. “But--” and his expression froze, hanging on her pause “--we do nothing without Phil’s approval.”
“Deal,” Clint said, and he spit in his hand and held it out to her. Natasha, without missing a beat, spit in her own hand and shook his.
The two master assassins then turned their gaze to Maria. “So, you in kid? Want to run an op for Hawkeye and Black Widow?”
“Oh God, yes.”
Clint smirked. “That’s what she said.”
Natasha hit him in the back of the head.
It undoubtedly said something about the sort of ideas Clint regularly brought to his handler that Agent Coulson didn’t bat an eye at Clint’s proposition. Instead he gave the assassins a sheet of gold stars, telling them to put one next to their name for “playing nice.” While the two bickered by the behavior chart that was hanging on Phil’s wall, Phil handed Maria a file folder.
“You have 24 hours. I expect you to arrange the brief and let your assets know everything they need to. I will be sitting in on the brief and debrief.”
Maria took the folder with a nod, half convinced this was all a dream.
Less than six hours later, Maria found herself in a van, surrounded by monitors and linked into Strike Team Delta’s comms.
I’m going to be fired, the voice of fear whispered in the back of her mind. She was going to mess this up and put SHIELD’s most valuable assets in mortal danger. Her career at SHIELD was going to end before it started, but at least if it did, she was going out with a bang. How many people could say they worked with Strike Team Delta? How many people could call Barton and Romanoff friends?
Well, maybe not friends, but at least amicable acquaintances.
Maria’s attention was on her three monitors. This op was in a coffee shop. In the first monitor, Maria could see Barton behind the counter, smiling and chatting with a customer as he made a cup of coffee. (She had been surprising to learn that Barton was a fairly competent barista.) Romanoff sat at a table in the corner, a pair of glasses perched on her nose as she read a commentary on Moby Dick. She looked like a studying college student, but the book was a signal to their contact.
The other two monitors showed the back door and the front door.
Their mark was supposed to arrive in five minutes, and it was supposed to be a simple information hand off. A milk run of the sort that Strike Team Delta only did when they were injured and couldn’t go on anything more strenuous.
(“I hate milk runs,” Clint had complained.
“Then stop getting shot,” Natasha had responded.)
Maria watched the other barista take an order as Clint made a coffee. The coffee shop was fairly busy, people rushing in for their midafternoon pick-me-up, but Maria still recognized the mark when he came through the front door. No one else in NYC would be wearing a Marlins cap.
“Mark in sight,” Maria said into the comm.
Barton hummed his acknowledgement into the comm, while Romanoff leaned forward in her seat as if really into the book.
The mark stepped into the coffee shop, nervously scanning the room until he saw Natasha. He approached her, hands in his pockets and said, “Are you in Fury’s literature class?”
It was the agreed upon question, so Romanoff looked up from her book and said, “Not in the class. I’m his TA.”
“Oh, can I ask you some questions then?”
Romanoff nodded, and the mark slipped into the seat across from her.
The exchange continued, but Maria’s attention went to the other cameras. Three large, dangerous looking men were loitering by the back door, while four more had gathered at the front.
“We have bogeys…,” but before Maria could warn them as to the exact number and situation, the com lines went dead, the screens went blank. Only static filled her ears.
Maria froze. This wasn’t how milk runs were supposed to go. There wasn’t supposed to be any actual danger. It was supposed to be boring and awful and miserable, not…not this.
Seven against two, and they had to protect the mark. If anyone could do it, it was Hawkeye and Black Widow, but…seven against two while protecting a mark? Not to mention all the civilians
No. She was their handler. It was her job to warn them of this, to protect them from this.
But she couldn’t just barge in there screaming a warning. That would start a firefight. She had to be more subtle, she had to blend in, she had to…Maria’s eyes landed on a purple back pack shoved in a corner.
Moments later Maria was hurrying down the street—not quite running but definitely too fast to be walking. The purple backpack was slung across her back, she’d pulled at her bun, loosening and freeing some wisps of hair to give herself a slightly frazzled look.
She pushed past the goons lurking outside the shop with no hesitation, bursting into the coffee shop and making sure to trip over the threshold. She caught herself before she fell, but she made it look close, flailing her arms about wildly.
Everyone in the coffee shop stop and starred at her. Maria allowed herself a blush, held her head high like someone trying to rise above supreme embarrassment. She approached the counter, pulling out her wallet. She pitched her voice slightly higher than normal, playing up her youth. “I need a grande white mocha four pumps peppermint no whip, and I need it like five minutes ago because I’m going to be late for my final!” She added the slightest hint of whine to her voice, leaned on the counter, and batted her eyelashes at Clint.
The assassin only stared at her in shock for a moment before he relaxed back into his barista pose. “It’s gonna take at least two minutes, honey.”
“Clint, pleeeaassseee,” she added extra whine to her voice. “My professor is going to kill me.”
The bell at the front of the coffee shop rang, and Maria stopped herself from turning to look back. Clint looked over her head and then back to her with a smile. “Two minutes, I promise.”
Maria pouted and then walked to the end of the counter. She turned, leaning back against the counter and finally let herself look around the coffee shop. Natasha and the mark were both gone. The four goons, who had entered the shop, were scowling spectacularly and generally making the regular civilians feel uncomfortable.
If Nat was gone, the mark was undoubtedly secure.
“Here’s your drink, kid.” Maria turned back to the counter and accepted the sugary caffeine from her asset. She smiled at him and then raced from the shop, in keeping with her cover.
She ran all the way back to the van and didn’t relax until she saw Natasha lounging inside.
“Got the information,” Natasha said, holding up a CD in a jewel case.
“Excellent,” Maria said, collapsing into her chair. “Sorry about the comms. I don’t know what happened, how they knew we were here.”
“The techs will figure it out,” Natasha said with a shrug. “Assuming you had scans running and have all the telemetry.”
“Yes,” Maria said. She turned back to the monitors, discovering that the comms were up and running again. Whoever was jamming them must have stopped as soon as the realized the op was blown.
Clint was still in sight of the camera, working at the coffee shop and making a cup of coffee. Maria pulled on her headset. “Can you hear me, Hawkeye?”
“Ten-four.” His voice was soft, almost muffled by the sound of the expresso machine in the background.
“Mission complete. Finish out your shift and meet us back at the van,” Maria said.
Clint turned on the camera looked up at the camera with a smile and winked, before turning to a customer.
Maria relaxed back into her chair. She had survived her first op, even if it wasn’t quite the milk run she’d been promised.
Now she just had to survive debriefing Coulson.
A debrief was at its heart a simple procedure. A handler walked through everything that occurred with the agents from the mission, listening and trying to figure out if there were things they had seen that she hadn’t. Debriefing was, in many way, identical to the report-writing process, but debriefs gave the agents’ immediate impressions of the events while reports were frequently colored by extra thought and interpretation.
So Maria debriefed SHIELD’s two most deadly assassins while Agent Coulson watched impassively from the background.
“Well, does anyone have any additional thoughts?” Maria asked, looking between Clint and Natasha. The all three sat at a table that was really slightly too large for so few people. But Coulson had scheduled the room for them, and Maria certainly hadn’t been going to complain.
“I think should I ever decide SHIELD isn’t for me, I could make a pretty good living as a barista,” Clint said.
“Any thoughts applicable to this mission,” Maria responded, rubbing her temple. In the back she saw the tiniest hint of a smile cross Coulson’s face.
Clint and Natasha exchanged a glance. Clint shrugged, and Natasha said, “No, that’s all.”
“Well then, reports on my desk within twenty-four hours please,” Maria said. She began to clean up her notes, slipping them into her folder, and added, “But good job, everyone.”
Coulson rose smoothly to his feet, but Clint and Natasha did not move. Instead the two assets looked to the senior handler at the same time.
Maria froze halfway out of her seat. Was she supposed to be leaving? Was something more going to happen? She didn’t understand.
Coulson walked by the door of the room, opening it as he passed, and saying, “Come in, Rumlow.”
Another man stepped into the room, and Maria rose to her feet in alarm when she recognized him. It was one of the goons from the coffee shop.
“Please sit back down, Agent Hill,” Coulson said.
Maria sat down just as the goon—Rumlow—sat down next to Clint. Clint didn’t look at the man, but he did hold out his fist. Rumlow fist bumped him without breaking his gruff exterior.
Coulson pulled a folder out of somewhere, opening it and setting it on the table as he slipped into his own seat. He looked around, meeting everyone’s gaze—including the very confused Maria—and said, “Today we’re here to debrief Operation Coffee Run. Rumlow, let’s start with you and your impressions.”
“I gotta say, sir,” the big man leaned back in his seat, crossing his arms in a move that was both casual and dangerous. “I had no idea that the student who ran in demanding coffee was an agent, at least not until she called Barton by his name.”
“Yes, that was an oversight on her part,” Coulson agreed, writing something down on his notes. “In the future…”
“Wait, what?” Maria slammed her hands on the table and rose to her feet. All of the agents in the room, except for Coulson, turned to stare at her. “Was this…was this some sort of test?”
Coulson sat back in his seat, slowly turning to face Maria. Both of his eyebrows were raised. “Welcome to SHIELD, Agent Hill. Everything is a test. Now please, sit down.”
Stunned, Maria obeyed. She sat and listened as Coulson ran a smooth and efficient debrief.
Apparently as soon as Clint had had the idea of running an op with Maria, he had texted Coulson, to let him know. Coulson had then created a fake mission before they even reached his office. Rumlow and his strike team had been chosen as the assailants because they had never seen Maria and did not know what she looked like, putting them on watch for anyone. Coulson had hired another agent to be the mark, and Coulson had been running the entire Op from a different location. It had been Coulson who had cut her van’s power, cutting her off from her assets and forcing her to make a decision. And it had all been a test to see how Maria would react when a mission went unexpectedly.
She listened as they tore apart her handling of the mission. Much of it was complimentary—and it took all of Maria’s self-control not to blush when the Black Widow said she handled something well—but they all also had criticisms of her handling.
By the end of the debrief, Maria had learned more about handling agents than she had in her entire time at SHIELD Academy.
“So,” Coulson said, looking up from his notes and to the assets, “recommendation?”
“Yes,” Clint said without hesitation. He didn’t elaborate any more, but his single word seemed to mean something to Coulson, who nodded.
Rumlow glanced over at Maria. “She’s scrappy,” he said. “Thinks quick on her feet. I say yes.”
Yes for what? What were they recommending her for?
“And you, Romanoff?” Coulson asked.
Natasha studied Maria, who tried not to go pale under the intensity of the other woman’s gaze. The Black Widow did not even blink until several long moments later when she said, “She handled it—the mission, the unexpected events, and us—well. I say yes.”
Coulson nodded. “Well that makes it unanimous then.” He closed the folder and then turned, so that he was facing Maria.
“Agent Hill, I do not take on junior agents lightly,” Coulson said, his blue eyes both kind and stern. Maria’s entire body froze at his words. What did they mean? What did he mean? “I find I have little time for training amongst my normal work and little patience for the stubbornness and arrogance that seems to be a byproduct of a SHIELD Academy degree. Handling assets is hard enough without adding mentoring a junior agent to the mix.
“However, you caught my attention with your coffee stunt, have somehow managed to earn the trust of one of my least trusting agents…” Clint distracted Maria by pointing to himself and winking. “…and impressed me with how you handled this op. For a person with no field experience outside of SHIELD Academy, you handled it extremely well. Therefore, I am willing this once to make an exception to my rule.
“Serving under me will not be easy. I rarely take or operate milk runs unless an asset is injured. It will be a trial by fire, but if you survive it, I can guarantee you will be twice the agent any of your peers will ever be. So Agent Hill, would you like to serve the rest of your probationary period with me as your supervising officer?”
“Yes,” Maria said without even a second’s hesitation. “Sir, it would be an honor.”
Coulson nodded. “Excellent. I will speak with Agent Blake and Assistant Director Fury. Expect to hear from me shortly.”
The man then rose, turning his gaze to the assets. “This debrief is over. I expect your reports within twenty-four hours, yes, even you Barton.”
With that Coulson left the room.
Rumlow followed him out shortly, leaving just Maria and the two assassins who were now, she guessed, her agents. At least somewhat. They were Coulson’s agent and she was Coulson’s handler-in-training and oh God, this was it. Everything she had ever wanted was coming true. She would finally get to make a difference.
Clint rose to his feet, smiling at Maria. “Congratulations, kid. Welcome to Coulson’s Crew where we’re all insane but the benefit is gold star stickers.”
“Sadly, he isn’t joking,” Natasha added.
Maria looked between the two of them. “Thank you,” she said. “I know without you, Coulson wouldn’t have…I would still be…”
“Don’t mention it, kid,” Clint said. “We consider it investment. Someday, you’ll pay us back by being the badass motherfucker you are clearly destined to be.”
Clint offered his arm to Natasha, who took it upon standing up. “I meant what I said. You have potential. Now you have the chance to rise to it.”
Maria watched as the most deadly pair she had ever met left the room and waited before the door closed behind him before she stood.
She silently gathered her folders, made sure all the chairs were pushed under the table and straight, and then turned off the light.
Today had been her first true debrief and it would not be her last, because somehow she had managed to impress SHIELD’s premier strike team.
She would not let them down.
Maria walked through SHIELD and back to her desk, where she would write her mission report of today’s op, and as she went she sternly reminded herself, SHIELD agents do not bounce. SHIELD agents are calm, in control, and they do not get excited.
Even when all their dreams come true.