Maria was not fretting, because Maria Hill did not fret. Possibly she was giving her control-freak aspect slightly more control than usual, but the Maria Stark Foundation benefit concert on the Mall for victims of the Hydra attacks was one of the more important PR events they'd finagled in the aftermath of the fall of the Triskelion.
And she had no idea what Natasha Romanov had done to convince Captain America to take a break from his Secret Roadtrip of Pain and agree to introduce one of the performers, but whatever it was, Maria didn't quite trust that he wouldn't still back out. Even five minutes before he was due to speak.
And it was, in fact, less than five minutes before he was due to speak. "Go," she told him. "You're up."
He gave her the sort of look that probably could have melted a heart of stone. "Maria--"
"Captain Rogers," she said. "You just have to go around that curtain and give an inspiring speech. I know this is a thing you can do."
He pouted. It was an impressive pout. For a moment Maria was convinced that he was going to argue, but finally he turned and trudged toward the curtain that separated the backstage prep area from the main stage. He looked like he was marching to his doom, but Maria knew that the minute the eyes of the crowd were on him, he would manage to pull out the old Captain America grin from somewhere.
He disappeared around the edge of the divider, and Maria almost let herself relax.
Luckily, she knew better.
"Maria, where's Steve?" Natasha's voice came urgently through her earpiece.
"How did you get this frequency?" Maria asked. The last she'd heard, Nat was in New York.
Natasha didn't bother to answer. Maria hadn't really expected her to. The question was a pointless social nicety. "Banner finally got results from his energy tracking program," she said instead.
"Don't tell me, he's found Barnes. Great timing."
"He hasn't exactly found Barnes," Natasha answered. "He's got it narrowed down to a radius of about 150 feet, and apparently he only gets a signal when the man's in a wide open space. But he's within that radius of your current position, and not very near a wall."
Maria rapidly evaluated her current position. Behind the stage was the Capitol reflecting pool, and sweeping forward to both sides, a wide area cleared for security purposes. It was possible Barnes could have infiltrated security, but it didn't match particularly well with his known methods.
"He's in the crowd," she breathed.
"He must be in the crowd," Natasha confirmed.
"Dammit, of course he is. We can't search this crowd, half of these people are already convinced we go through their recycling to prove they're Communists, it would be a clusterfuck of--"
"You have to tell Steve," Natasha cut her off. "Now."
"I can't tell Steve, he is literally walking out on stage right this very moment," she replied.
"You can't not tell Steve," Natasha repeated.
And, damn it all, Natasha was right. If Rogers learned that they'd known he was this close to his old friend and they hadn't told him in time to do something, all hell would break loose. Again. God knew what kind of hell would break loose if they did tell him, but at least he'd still be willing to work with them afterward.
"Fine. I'll tell him. You'll explain to the Mayor," Maria said.
She poked her head around the curtain and started trying to plot out exactly how she was going to explain to the Mayor when Natasha inevitably weaseled out of it. Luckily, Rogers hadn't quite gone on stage-- one of the stagehands was holding him back while somebody was fiddling with microphones. Maria pulled him aside. Best to get it over with quick.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Banner's finally traced the arm's energy emissions," she said. "Barnes is somewhere in the crowd."
He-- well, the only way she could describe it is that he woke up. It was as if he'd been sleepwalking until then, and now he was actually bothering to process. "Thank you for telling me, Maria," he said. "Do you happen to have an RFID tracker on you?"
Of course she did. She passed him the tiny adhesive dot, and he unslung his shield from his back, stuck the tracker under the rim, and then-- walked right out to downstage center.
"Rogers!" she hissed, and went to pull him back, but the stagehand grabbed her arm.
"You can't go out there," she said
Maria glared at her and the stagehand let go like she was grasping a hot coal. "You still can't," she said miserably, "It's on live television."
Maria conceded the point. She'd managed to mostly keep her face out of this clusterfuck so far. But she didn't have to like it. "What the hell is he going to do?" she muttered.
"He's Captain America, I'm sure he knows what he's doing," the stagehand said, at the same time that Natasha said in her ear, "What the hell is he doing?"
He was peering out into the crowd, one hand heroically shading his noble brow from the sun, the other holding his shield at the ready. He had a look of tactical assessment that Maria was familiar with from a dozen missions - he was figuring the angles.
"He can't think he's going to manage to take him out with the shield, in that crowd," Natasha said. "Even Steve-- With a sniper rifle maybe, but the shield's got a much wider area of effect."
Natasha was right, Maria thought. The crowd wasn't quite packed shoulder-to-shoulder, but it was tight enough that there was no way he could pick off one person with a two-and-a-half foot diameter flying disc without injuring bystanders.
Even as she thought that, he lifted his arm and threw the shield, in one elegant motion. Maria didn't gasp, not in view of the stagehand, but Natasha gasped in her ear, and so did the stagehand beside her.
"He can't--" she started, but before she could finish, she realized he hadn't aimed into the crowd, but well over it. The shield hit one of the tall scaffolds that held the amplifiers, ricocheted, still a good fifteen feet over the crowd, hit one of the trees that lined the Mall, ricocheted again, hit the support of a projection screen at just the right angle to gain altitude and bounce off a tree on the other side of the Mall--
"He's running a search grid," Natasha breathed, and as soon as she said it, Maria could see it: he'd lined up a shot that would criss-cross over the heads of the crowd until even the vibranium-adamantium alloy ran out of kinetic energy.
"Why--" she started, and then-- then someone in the crowd jumped, an amazing standing leap, and caught the shield as it passed over, in one bare hand that glinted blindingly in the summer sun.
"He never could keep his hands off my things," Rogers said, too quietly to be caught by the mikes but loud enough for Maria to hear, and then he leapt off the stage, heading down one of the roped-off emergency corridors toward the man who'd caught his shield.
Barnes seemed to realize his mistake almost immediately; he let the shield go, a powerful straight shot vaguely in Rogers' direction, and then Maria lost him in the crowd. Rogers caught it and threw again, in one graceful motion; not a search pattern this time, just a virtuoso arc that somehow changed direction in empty space like a boomerang before hitting a tree limb it shouldn't be able to hit and then spinning back over the crowd again.
The crowd was starting to be restless, unsure what was happening but sure that one way or another, it was exciting; as tightly packed as they were, though, they had little room to react - except where someone was somehow managing to make headway, in a diagonal roughly toward the stage, just in time to catch the shield as it skimmed overhead.
This time he didn't even pause a second before he threw it again. It flew in a high loop, spinning not around its axis but end-over-end, so that it sent flashes of reflected sunlight sparkling over the people below - until Rogers snapped it out of the air and then flicked it away again with - was that a smile?
"Goddammit," Maria muttered to herself. She tried to remember if she'd seen him smile like that before, and then faded back to try talk to the security team. Someone was going to have to make sure things didn't get out of hand while the country's hero was busy playing Frisbee.
"The bastard is showing off," Nat said admiringly before Maria could flip the channel on her headset to Security. Maria looked back one more time, as Rogers ran toward the shield, the crowd parting around him as the Red Sea, and then sent it off in another fancy move. Then she squinted as a new pattern suddenly clicked into place.
"Wait," she said. Not a search pattern, no, but not just showing off either. "He's herding him."
Every catch Barnes made was bringing him a little closer to the open space at the front of the stage. It wasn't obvious, and sometimes he caught it on the third ricochet when it looked like it would fly all the way back to the Washington Monument - but the sum total of all his catches was that in a couple more throws, he would have to either show himself at the front of the crowd, or miss a catch.
"For Christ's sake, Rogers," she said, and then she did flip to the Security channel. "Stay on crowd control but do not engage the man who is catching the shield. Repeat, do not engage. Captain Rogers has the situation under control."
Then she turned to the stagehand. "Can I put my headset mike over the main sound system?"
"Um, yes," the woman said. "Channel seven, I think?"
"Thanks," Maria said, then added "Get the next act ready; we'll probably need them soon." She switched the mike over - cutting off the protests of the head of Security - and then walked out to stage center.
Nobody was paying attention to her. The show Captain America was putting on was far more interesting. At least, nobody paid attention to her until Rogers's final throw sent the shield in a complicated multi-bounce trajectory that ended in a straight path to the stage - and Barnes pushed through the last few yards of the crowd, caught it six inches off the grass, stood up, and only then seemed to realize he'd lost his cover.
Maria held her breath. This was the moment when her trust in Captain America's judgement had better hold up - but all he did was stand there, the shield held loosely by his side, looking lost. He was wearing a tattered gray canvas jacket, a faded Nationals cap, a t-shirt and jeans that looked as if they'd come out of someone's garbage; his hair, uncut and unwashed, straggled down to half-hide his face, and his eyes--
The thing about Captain Rogers that was easy to forget when you saw the costume and the muscles was that he was, above all, a master tactician. The crowd was half in love with Barnes already - Rogers hadn't left her any other choices even if she'd wanted to, not with the need to keep the concert from becoming a fiasco - she stepped down to the front of the stage, and held her hand out to Barnes, her other arm held unthreateningly away from her body. An invitation.
He lifted his head, slowly; some of his hair slid back away from his face; and he looked at her. And then, a moment later, slowly, he moved the shield to his other hand, and stepped forward, and gripped her hand in his metal one, with the eyes of thousands and the TV cameras of millions more on him, and let her help him up onto the stage.
She led him back a couple of steps from the edge, and then raised up the hand that was still holding hers. "America," she said into her mike, "Meet Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes. He's spent the last seventy years as a Nazi POW, and today, he's coming home."
There was a shocked silence for maybe two seconds, and then the crowd exploded in cheers. Maria gave them her best publicity smile. Barnes blinked, and looked surprised and vunerable. There went the plans of anyone who'd been thinking about turning the Winter Soldier into a Hydra scapegoat.
Before the noise had even peaked, Rogers had made his way back to the front. He stood right where Barnes had stood, and just drank him in. Barnes looked back like Rogers was his only lifeline to the Earth. Maria let go of his hand, and whispered, "Go."
He managed to tear his gaze away from Rogers to glance at her in confusion. "Go get him," she said, "he's been waiting long enough."
He looked back at Rogers and then took one step forward, and then another, faster, and Rogers came to meet him, and then he was leaning down and pulling Captain Rogers up on stage with him, and then they just folded around each other.
The crowd got even louder.
Rogers lifted his head off of Barnes's shoulder just long enough to mouth "Thank you," at Maria.
She shook her head at him, and then faded back into the shadows where she belonged, and switched her mike off the public channel.
"Nat, you still there?" she said, as soon as she was safely back in the wings.
"Yeah," Natasha answered.
"Are you in DC by any chance?"
"Might be," Nat answered as Maria wandered farther backstage. Sam Wilson passed her at a run from the green room. She gestured him on toward the stage; why the hell not.
"Come kidnap me in two hours or so, please," she said calmly. "And get me very drunk."