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I Came to Win

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Pepper really thinks that this will be their year. Sure, she’s been careful to say that every year since the New York Knights had truly become her own but even she knows they are going to have a tough few years rebuilding (she’s grown tired of that word, really, truly tired) and would have to remain at the bottom of the league standings for a while yet before they could claw their way up to the top.

The idea of inheriting the Knights had always been at the back of her mind, but she hadn’t expected to become owner at the age of twenty-five when her father died and left her as the sole beneficiary in his will. In the immediate aftermath and outcry (SOCIALITE BECOMES OWNER OF TANKING FRANCHISE the headlines scream), Pepper’s almost tempted to pass the team off and cave to the pressure coming from the other owners and the league itself, but nostalgia stays her hand. She might have grown apart from her father over the years, but one thing that hadn’t changed was their mutual love for hockey. As a child she’d spent many a night in the owner’s box, sitting on his knee while he explained icing and offsides. She’s attended practices and been present at every single media event.

That is one of the first things the media gets wrong about Pepper: not only does she know hockey - she loves it. She loves the speed, athleticism, and sheer physicality of it all. The dichotomy of it speaks to her, the thin veneer of civilization tempered by fierce intelligence and brutal, yet elegant skill. Everything she loves about hockey, she’s taken into herself. She walks on thin ice too, except that she balances on four-inch stilettoes instead of steel blades. Pepper never, ever forgets that, not that anyone – not the media, the fans, nor the league itself – will ever let her forget it. After all, the world of professional ice hockey is a bastion of so many –isms that it gives her a headache even thinking about it.

But it’s her world too and like hell if she’s going to allow it to dictate her actions. The Knights are her team and she’s going to get them to a Stanley Cup by any means necessary.

Any means necessary means massive reshuffling and replacing within the organization. The first thing Pepper does is fire her head coach, which makes things somewhat interesting when she hires his daughter as the new team doctor only days later. “It’s all right,” Betty remarks with an apologetic smile. “My father wasn’t the coach you needed.” And she’s right. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross might have been an amazing player and coach in his time, but by the time Pepper takes the reins he’s no longer a good fit for the Knights. He stifled his players, played mental games with them, had punished them for defeats by sitting them out. It isn’t the kind of atmosphere Pepper wants for her team.

Melinda May, however, is the perfect fit. A legendary right winger in her own right, Melinda coached various teams within women’s leagues and led the Canadian women’s hockey team to an Olympic gold as well as a World Championship. She has a gift for strategy that is unmatched and always overlooked despite her reputation and her accomplishments. She also has an uncanny knack for predicting team chemistry, choosing lines and d-pairings that just work.

Hiring Melinda isn’t the first time people sneer that Pepper and the Knights are a gimmick, and it won’t be the last.

Pepper also replaces her general manager, coaxing Nick Fury away from the Metropolis Mammoths and feeling supremely smug that she’s stolen him right from underneath Lex Luthor’s smarmy nose. Rumor is that Nick had been unhappy dealing with Luthor’s absurd demands and expectations of quick turnarounds and instant results. Nick makes the switch, bringing with him head of hockey operations Maya Hansen. Hansen, who is a stats genius and knows the particulars of nearly every player in the league, including those still in the system.

With Melinda, Nick, and Maya on board, Pepper can then turn her focus on the team itself. The four of them spend hours comparing lists and watching hours of tape. Then they begin trading players to bring in the kind of talent they want, and calling up talented players that haven’t had the chance to prove themselves in the Show. The first two to come up from the Brooklyn Commandos are center Steve Rogers and left-winger James Barnes, and Pepper makes good use of the Knights’ number one draft pick that year to snatch up Swedish defenseman Thor Odinson.

It’s a rough start, but one that puts the Knights in the right direction. It’s impossible to tell that first year, because the Knights still lose fairly miserably. Pepper has to endure the constant accusations that she has no idea what she’s doing and that as a woman, she lacks competitive instincts. It’s worse for Melinda, who is often held directly accountable for the team’s losses. The media remind her of that over and over again. “We’re still trying to find our balance,” she repeats. “See how our players work together, see what kinds of plays work and what don’t.” Years of playing and then coaching high-profile women’s teams have honed Melinda’s skill, because she’s perfectly composed each and every time she appears before the media.

On ice is something of a different story. Melinda is fiercely protective of her players and the organization as a whole, and there’s one extremely memorable game against the Wasps when a brawl erupts in front of the Knights’ bench. She’s in the owner’s box and sees the water bottles flying from the visitors’ bench over to their own, and the screaming match that results between Melinda and Pym. Melinda’s rage is incandescent as she shoves at the glass, and something in that and her expression is enough to make him back down.

What little crowd there was in Madison Square Garden goes absolutely berserk. In that moment, Melinda makes the fans and the team wholly hers, and Pepper can’t ask for more.

That still doesn’t stop her from making sure Melinda apologizes to the league honchos and pays the requested fine. “It’s dumb, I know.” Pepper’s placating Melinda, and both of them know it. “But this is the game we have to play.” Her only consolation is that the Wasps’ players were all fined and had to issue a team apology to the Knights.

“Believe me, I know.” Melinda rolls her eyes.

“What did you say to Pym, anyway?”

Melinda’s dark eyes light up with satisfaction. Pepper would feel bad for Pym, but everyone in the league knows he’s an asshole. “He said he’d put me in my place. I told him my place was here, and that my team wasn’t going anywhere.”

Well. Now she’s really annoyed that Melinda’s is being fined and has to apologize. “Good answer.”

The incident tells Pepper that she probably has to rethink the Knights’ PR strategy, especially if she’s going to push through on some of the changes she wants. Luckily, she knows exactly who will be able to handle those challenges.

One week later, Christine Everhart enters Pepper’s office, shoulders straight and on the offensive, though her gaze is wary as she settles into a seat. “Ms. Potts.”

“Ms. Everhart,” Pepper answers, her lips twitching slightly. “I’m not going to prevaricate here. You’re well aware that I’m making some considerable changes to this organization.”

Christine nods, her fingers twitching as though she wishes for a pad to write in. “Is this a press statement, Ms. Potts? I wasn’t aware-“

“This isn’t a press statement. It’s a job offer,” Pepper interrupts, and has the distinct pleasure of completely blindsiding gossip and entertainment reporter. Her jaw drops slightly, her eyes widening as she casts about for something to say.

“I’m sorry?”

Luckily, she’s already planned her speech. “We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye.” She bites back a smile at Christine’s disbelieving snort. Christine had spent plenty of time hounding Pepper and other members of her circle for the Daily Bugle, but focused much of her attention on Pepper after she’d acquired the Knights and begun making changes. “But I’ve always had respect for you and your work ethic. I believe your talents would be better put to use elsewhere.”

“As?” Christine asks skeptically, but she’s already leaning forward in her seat, interested.

“I need a new head of PR in the front office,” Pepper says bluntly, folding her hands on top of her desk. She’d redecorated her father’s old office (had given the entire Knights’ offices a facelift, to be perfectly honest), but the one thing she’d kept was his antique Victorian mahogany desk. She even keeps Sweet Stripe mints in the top right drawer as he always did. “I need someone who has the skills to show that the Knights are firmly grounded in strong traditions but have their eye on the future. I need someone to keep us looking good. Above all, I need someone who has not only a deep respect, but love for this team and its people.”

She blinks. “And what makes you think that I’m that person?”

“Because I’ve read your work.” It’s evident that Christine not only understands hockey, but she knows the Knights, their long, storied history and their traditions. The stories she wrote after Pepper inherited the franchise were completely different in tone from previous ones – not gossipy or fluffy, but informed. Invested. Interested. “You have unexpected depth, Ms. Everhart.”

Christine stares incredulously, and then laughs despite herself. “Are…are you chirping me, Ms. Potts?”

“You’d have to get used to it if you took on the job.”

She pauses and admits, almost like it pains her: “My parents and grandparents are season ticketholders. I practically grew up in Madison Square Garden.”

“The Knights appreciate their loyalty.”

“Well, the Knights have mine, too. When do I start?”

“Now.”

Christine does more than just take over Knights’ PR and singlehandedly works to change their media image. She brings in a colleague from the Bugle, a young, gawky man by the name of Peter Parker, to run the Knights’ new online TV channel.


 

In the run-up to Pepper’s second year as owner, the Knights make two strategic trades: Brock Rumlow for Sam Wilson, and Grant Ward for Clint Barton. They decide to award Steve and Thor As, though they have yet to name a captain. Pepper, Nick, and Melinda are in agreement that Steve and Thor are still young and neither is quite ready for that responsibility. Melinda is adamant that the Knights don’t even have the perfect captain yet.

Speaking of Melinda… “What do you think of Peterson?” she asks during a management meeting during training camp.

Pepper’s eyes narrow. “What about Peterson?” Peterson was the last player whose trade her father oversaw. She’s rather protective of him, has sympathy for him because of all the teams he’s passed through and the hardships he’s faced.

“His game’s been off,” Nick comments neutrally, lifting one shoulder in a lazy shrug when Pepper turns in her seat to glare at him. “It’s true.”

“Have you ever seen his game when he’s on?” Maya flips through her ever-present Moleskine, even though she never seemed to actually need it. “At his best, he held the league record for shutouts and his save percentages were always in the ninetieth percentile.”

Nick shakes his head, ever cautious. “He hasn’t made anything even close to those figures for years. I’ll admit that he seems to have taken care of his personal issues, but he still hasn’t shown any sign of bringing it back.”

“What if we could get him to bring it back?”

Pepper, Nick, and Maya’s heads all swivel around to look back at Melinda. “How?” Pepper asks. She knows they have good goaltenders in the system but…she knows Mike still has it in him. If there’s any chance that they can keep him on, she’ll take it.

Melinda exchanges glances with her assistant coaches, Coulson and Sitwell. The two men nod. “A new goaltender coach. We want Bruce Banner.”

Nick’s eyebrows shoot up his forehead. “You want Banner? He has even more issues than Peterson. You sure that’s the guy you want?”

“He’s been working some minor miracles in the USHL after he retired,” Sitwell volunteers. “He and Banner have some shared experiences. They can work well together.”

“And the three of you are in agreement?” Pepper turns to Nick and Maya. “What do you think?”

Maya taps her pen against her notebook, expression thoughtful. “Sitwell’s not wrong about Banner’s record. Goaltending has strengthened across the league since he began consulting.” Absolutely no one is surprised by the fact that Maya can back up Sitwell’s data. She’s always watching hockey games and taking copious notes. She’s thick as thieves with their video coach, Victoria Hand, and when the two of them start talking stats everyone finds an excuse to vacate the immediate area (unless, hilariously enough, they’re Steve Rogers). “It could work.”

“I’d have to see it to believe it,” Nick drawls, still looking doubtful. “But if everyone here is in agreement then fine.”

“All right. Nick, Melinda, we’re going to have to schedule a separate meeting to discuss hiring specifics before we offer him the job.” Pepper checks her watch. “Is there any other business? I have a meeting with Stark Hockey soon.” The coaches and the rest of management demur, eager to return to overseeing training camp. Pepper just hired new training staff and they want to see how the team is faring.

Christine is waiting for Pepper outside the meeting room. “How are the players looking?” Pepper asks curiously.

The blonde grins gleefully. “I admit I thought you and May were cracked the head when you said you were hiring Danvers and Drew, but it makes perfect sense. The Knights are going to be impeccable skaters on top of being the best conditioned team by the time the season starts.”

“Well, they were a package deal,” Pepper concedes as they make their way to Pepper’s office. “And there’s precedent for figure skating coaches helping hockey players with their skating.”

“I’ll never doubt you again.” They pause outside Pepper’s office door and Christine hesitates slightly. “You’ll be all right with Stark?”

Pepper grins. “I know how to deal with Tony. We’ve been moving in the same circles for years. If I can handle him in a social capacity, I can certainly handle him in a professional one.” She studies Christine carefully, noting that her expression shows no jealousy, only an odd mixture of concern and discomfort. And then it clicks. “No, you didn’t!”

Christine grimaces. “It was a party. I was drunk; he wasn’t as much of an asshole as he usually is. It was a thing. Except it really wasn’t. I just thought you should know.”

“I appreciate your honesty.” She really does. It’s good to know these things beforehand, but Christine takes her job very seriously and Pepper knows that she would have already taken steps to resolve the conflict if there actually was one. “But it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Great. In that case, I’m going to head down to the AV room and see some of the footage the boys have been cutting for KTV. I want to make sure it’s different from the stuff the ESPN crew shot yesterday.”

“Have fun!” She lets herself into her office and makes her way to her chair. “Mr. Stark.”

“Ms. Potts.” Tony Stark doesn’t even stand when she walks in but remains slouched down in front of Pepper’s desk, grinning lazily behind yellow-tinted sunglasses. “I assume you’ve thought about my offer?”

She didn’t think she would appreciate it, but Stark’s lack of pretense is remarkably refreshing, especially from a business perspective. “I have, after I went and double-checked everything with the league.”

Tony clutches his heart. “You didn’t believe me? I’m hurt – wounded, really.”

“I won’t apologize for being cautious,” Pepper replies mildly. “The last thing the Knights need are accusations of cheating to get ahead. But since they’ve assured me the requisite tests and approvals have gone through, and that Stark Hockey is testing with some teams-“

“-the ones that aren’t using Wayne Hockey tech,” he grumbles. “Anyway, yes. My New York engineering team will be bringing the new blades and sticks once training camp is over and rosters are finalized for the year. My VP, Rhodey, and I will stop by occasionally to check with progress, but Fitzsimmons will be your point of contact for questions, comments, or concerns.” Tony spreads his hands in an expansive gesture, the curve of his smile sliding into something effortlessly charming and engaging. “Of course, if you want me there all you need to do is ask, Ms. Potts.”

“I’ll be sure to take that into consideration, Mr. Stark,” Pepper says wryly, but she can’t help the little quirk to her lips. Honestly, he acts like some of her hockey players. However, he’s not their age, nor is he a part of her organization, which makes him slightly more dangerous.

Dark eyes glitter at Pepper like Tony knows the exact direction of her thoughts. “Be sure that you do. Hey, do you mind if I take a peek at training camp? I’m curious about your rookies.”

The urge to caution him not to be a nuisance is at the tip of her tongue. Melinda and Coulson are fully capable of handling Tony’s antics. “I don’t see why not. Just let one of my coaching staff know that I gave you permission.”

“Great.” He bounces to his feet and makes his way towards the door. “It’s going to be good working with you, Ms. Potts. By the way, we should grab dinner. Later. Le Cirque?”

“Absolutely not,” she responds automatically.

“Dagger to the heart, Ms. Potts, dagger to the heart. You’ll change your mind someday!” Tony calls as he sails down the corridor.

It’s not an altogether terrible prospect, Pepper admits, but she doesn’t have time to ruminate further on the subject.


        

The Knights end the season with more losses than wins, but the wins are greater in number than the previous years so Pepper thinks that has to count for something. Christine has her hands full, coaching Melinda and the players through the harsh criticism that falls down on them. Pepper makes sure that she sends her a bottle of her favorite wine every week at the end of the season. She also makes sure to take her staff out for dinner several times to show her appreciation (Steve and Thor makes sure that the players arrange them too – those As are certainly well placed).

Every once in a while, Pepper invites only the female members of her staff over to her penthouse for quality bonding time. They spend most of their days surrounded by men, and it’s a wonderful thing to just be together and be…themselves. No questions asked.

Pepper’s ordered boxes of pizza and pastries, there’s a liberal amount of alcohol, and they have movies queued up on Netflix. Carol and Jessica are curled together on one end of the sectional. Melinda and Victoria are next to them, cheerfully chirping each other, leaving Maya and Betty perched comfortably at the opposite end. Christine and Bobbi are stretched out on Pepper’s soft shag carpet, and Pepper’s sprawled across her favorite armchair.

They agreed on a hockey-free night, but once Legally Blonde is finished Netflix suggest The Mighty Ducks and everyone wants to watch it. So they do, giggling over the impossibilities (“Can we even make a flying V work?” Carol wonders, poking Melinda) and sighing over a young Emilio Estevez or even younger Joshua Jackson, depending on the person’s age.

But Pepper is stuck on Connie. Connie Moreau, the sole female player on the Ducks. And the more she thinks about it, the more she thinks it’s a possibility. There are no specific rules in the league against drafting a female player. The Knights even played Peggy Carter on goal for one game, once upon a time. The Knights already boast the league’s first female owner, the first female head coach, and the largest number of women amongst their management and staff. Why shouldn’t the same thing apply to their players? Why should Peggy Carter remain the only woman to have played in the NHL? “I want the Knights to draft a woman next year,” she blurts out before she loses her nerve.

All conversations go silent. Bobbi scrambles for the remote on the coffee table and pauses the movie. “What?” Christine asks blankly.

Pepper sets her wine glass down and sits up, determined. “Peggy Carter played for us. There are no official rules against it. We need to talk to the league, then get a female player to put herself forward for the draft – and we’ll draft her.”

The room explodes with excited babbling. Victoria, Carol, and Melinda look somewhat reticent, and Pepper knows it’s from their own experiences as professional hockey players, moving from failed women’s league to failed women’s league and missing out on the perks their male counterparts enjoyed without question.

And Christine is outright frowning. “Do you know what this would mean, Pepper? What kind of burden this player would have to bear?” she points out, setting down her pizza. “If the Knights were somehow able to draft her, this hypothetical player would become the face of women in the NHL. She’s going to be the standard that every other female player would be held up to. She’s going to endure excruciating things. Look at the way the media already treats female athletes – what more are they going to do to the sole woman in a sport with so much institutionalized sexism and misogyny?” Victoria and Melinda exchange significant glances, and Jessica reaches out to take Carol’s hand in hers.

“It is going to be difficult,” Victoria acknowledges. “She’s always going to have to play better than her male teammates just to prove that she belongs. She’s going to be questioned every time she steps out on the ice because there will always be someone who doesn’t want to play with a woman.” She tells them about being a goalie in juniors, of teammates and opponents who always took shots straight at her head, shots she had to silently endure. “But we’ll give her a support system,” she says finally. “She’ll have someone like you, Christine, who will be willing to teach her how to face the media and stand with her.” She holds Christine’s stare until the younger woman laughs quietly and concedes the point with a half-shrug.

“She’ll have coaches and trainers that know what it’s like to be a professional athlete,” Melinda adds, looking at Victoria and Carol. “Who won’t expect anything different from what they expect from the men.”

“She’ll have us.” Betty smiles. “And she’ll show everyone that women belong here, and more will come.”

“Shattering ice ceilings,” Bobbi muses with a wry grin.

Christine raises her hands in surrender. “Ugh, okay, fine. It’s not like I really needed convincing. I just wanted to point out that it’s an enormous undertaking and this woman is going to get a lot of shit. More so than any of us ever get, except for probably Melinda.” She sends an apologetic look Pepper’s way and she tilts her head with acceptance. Pepper is well aware that her position as owner and the amount of money she possesses makes things somewhat easier for her. She’s not the one out there calling the plays, or, if they get this player, playing the game. “We need to make sure we have the right plan and the right player.”

“Who is the right player?” Jessica pipes up curiously.

All eyes slant over to Maya, who looks at Melinda. “Maria Hill,” they say simultaneously.

Carol lets out a whoop. “Damn, you’re right. And she’ll be just at the age limit by the end of the season. Where is she right now, Minnesota?”

The movie is abandoned in favor of discussing just how they’re going to convince Maria Hill to put her name forward for the draft, the types of policies that need to be put into place, and the types of initiatives they can create. “She can be the face of a ‘You Can Play!’ kind of thing,” Christine suggests. “We already have the Pages program, but what we should do is organize free skates all over the city, focusing on underprivileged areas and especially girls. I’m sure Stark can pony up some free equipment.”

“Leave that to me,” Pepper agrees, instantly warming to the idea. “And we as an organization will back local women’s leagues, raise money for them, get interest going."

The night was not supposed to involve shop talk, but how can she complain when they have ideas like this?


 

Maria looks at them suspiciously. She’s just come off the ice and the rest of her teammates have already departed for the locker room and the showers. “You’re kidding, right?” She’s mostly addressing Melinda as she says this, because Melinda’s the most familiar and trustworthy face, despite being the coach of the Canadian women’s team that relegated her US women’s team to a silver medal at Worlds.

“We’re not kidding, Hill,” Melinda says gently. “We’re ready. The NHL is ready.”

That last bit is probably a lie, but they’re working on it. Pepper, Nick, and Melinda spent many furious hours over the course of the last few weeks with members of the league, all the way up to the commissioner. The bigwigs finally conceded, albeit begrudgingly, once Pepper dragged in her legal team (bless Murdock and Walters) to reiterate that integration is not against the rules at all and that the Knights have the proper infrastructure to support a female player without giving her any advantages.

Pepper doesn’t really understand that, of course – all they’re asking for is equality and the chance for a woman to play. They’re not asking the league to make things easier for female players, just to make things possible. It’s evidently a difficult concept for some members of the league to grasp.

The young woman – Pepper has to shake herself, because she is only several years Maria’s senior – blinks slowly, her expression settling into a stoic mask that gives absolutely nothing away. And she can see why, above her statistics and her play, both of which are incredible, Melinda and Maya had picked her for the first.

Maria Hill looks like she can take everything the world throws at her with cool confidence and quiet strength. She has an air of competency and a steel spine that will serve her well in the Show.

“I’m going to have to think about this, but…I’ll probably say yes.” The mask slips a little bit and only then does Pepper see the dawning excitement of a dream realized. Good, she thinks. None of this would be worth a damn if Maria doesn’t actually want the NHL.

Months later, Pepper cannot keep the smile off her face as she steps up to the podium with Nick and Melinda at her back and proclaims, “The New York Knights are proud to select Maria Hill.” Maria walks sedately up to the stage, and her smile is genuine as she shakes their hands. She accepts the black, navy blue, and red jersey from Nick, tugging it over her head as flashbulbs go off left and right.

Christine is waiting for them just offstage and she immediately whisks Maria off to the pressroom, head bent towards her and talking the entire time. They’ve made a number of decisions, the most important being the fact that Maria would finish out her college career. Luckily, she’s already decided to fast track her sports management degree so the Knights only have to wait a year before they can call her up.

“We got her,” Pepper murmurs mostly to herself as they follow. The press will have plenty of questions for them as well. The accusations of the Knights playing ploy after ploy are flying once more, vicious statements that say Pepper will do anything to save a losing team, even if it means pulling media stunts. She shrugs it off and tells everyone who will listen that she’s doing what she thinks is right for her team. “I believe there are many things Maria will bring to the Knights. She’s exactly the kind of team player we need and I think she’ll fit in well.”

“Do you think she’ll win you the Stanley Cup?” someone calls out from the back. A few disbelieving snorts rise up from the crowd.

“My team will win the Stanley Cup,” Pepper corrects firmly.

Before Maria goes back to Minnesota to finish everything out, there’s rookie training camp. Maria easily makes the cut and then it’s time for her to train with other promising rookies and the guys. Everyone is eager to see how well she’ll mesh with the team. Pepper knows she needs to be realistic, but she doesn’t believe that they’re going to send Maria down to Brooklyn once everything’s said and done. She belongs with the Knights.

There aren’t any eyes in the locker room, but everyone trusts the guys to do the right thing. Christine’s already sat them down for orientation, not that they really need it – they’ve gotten used to having women around. Pepper still remembers the first time she walked into the locker room after a practice and how plenty of the guys dove for their clothes, blushing because she was not only their owner, but also Pepper Potts, socialite.

She’d dispelled that kind of attitude very quickly, rolling her eyes and informing them that she’s seen naked men before and they’d just better get used to it. She doesn’t go into the locker rooms after every game – she has other obligations – but she still makes a point to come down every once in a while, win or lose, to chat with them and see how they’re doing. They’re still a little formal with her (none more so than Steve), but they’re friendly and that’s all that matters.

The team and the rookies skate out on the ice for stretches. Pepper sits up high in the stands, eager to see how everything unfolds. Christine’s holding court with a small gaggle of reporters down by the visitor’s bench, and their team from KTV is already filming.

Tony settles in next to her. “That was a pretty ballsy move there, Ms. Potts.”

“I didn’t do it to be ballsy, Mr. Stark,” she replies.

“Of course you didn’t. Doesn’t make it any less impressive.” His eyes are focused on the goaltenders and – oh right, he’d been talking about puck sensors and programs so that goaltenders have better ideas of puck trajectories or something along those lines. He’s certainly spent plenty of time with Bruce discussing those things, and they’ve become fast friends.

Pepper makes a noncommittal noise. Tony’s been true to his word, only popping into the practice arena every once in a while whilst leaving most of the day-to-day interactions to his team, Leo Fitz and Jemma Simmons. The two engineers are incredibly young and incredibly bright and they’ve made friends amongst the team, finding common ground as they chat about material composites and what makes the perfect pair of skates. They’re currently at the home bench chatting with Hank McCoy, the team’s head equipment manager.

Tony comes by often enough to be a little bit of a nuisance, but Pepper can appreciate the pride he takes in his products and the hands-on approach he takes with product testing. The sticks and skates tested during last year’s training camp will be ready for actual use once this season begins. He’s also been invaluable for providing equipment for Pages, the Knights’ kids program, and was completely supportive and even enthusiastic when Pepper approached him to provide even more equipment for their upcoming “You Can Play, Too!” initiative.

“Here we go,” Pepper murmurs under her breath as stretching ends and drills begin. Melinda puts Maria on Steve’s line.

Maya wanders over and plops down on Pepper’s other side, with a quick hello to Tony. “It’s a bold choice, putting Hill on Rogers and Barnes’ line for now,” she muses. She’ll be off to Europe on a scouting trip soon, but she wanted to see Maria in action with the team. “Hill makes a much better center than winger.”

“Yeah, the Rogers-Wilson-Barnes line is your moneymaker,” Tony agrees. The Knights’ top line leads the team in points, so Pepper is privately of the same mind that Maria will be much better served on a line with some of the other players. It’s just a matter of finding the ones that fit so that the Knights have depth, rather than star players stretched across the top two lines.

“Melinda has a reason for everything she does,” is all she chooses to say. “She likes making sure that the entire team plays together and that no one gets complacent with their lines or pairs.”

Tony leans forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “What’s she doing here, then?”

Maya shakes her hair out of her eyes. “Easy. She’s making sure that everyone gets used to playing with a woman. Today’s about acclimating. I guarantee that tomorrow, Hill will be centering her own line.”

Just at that moment, Maria strips Remy of the puck and streaks up the ice towards Peterson on the breakaway. Thor is right there with her, forcing her in towards the boards but not hitting her. She keeps hold of the puck, puts on some speed, and deftly backhands it in high.

Maya grins triumphantly. “I knew it. Excellent backhand.”

Maria makes two more easy goals after that, leaving Tony snorting. “Everyone’s afraid to lay a hand on her,” he points out. “They can’t do that.”

Evidently Maria’s of the same mind because as play resumes, she shoves against Peter Quill, forcing him onto his ass. “Hit me!” she barks, loud enough to echo up to where Pepper, Tony, and Maya are sitting. She spins around and faces the rest of the guys, who are frozen in place and gaping. “Play like a fucking hockey team and hit me like you would anyone else. Stop giving goals up, you’re not doing me or anyone else any favors.”

Maria’s voice has an air of command to it, different from the Thor’s sonorous roar or Steve’s elegant, authoritative delivery. Her voice cracks like a whip, staccato and imperative. It’s impressive, and Pepper thinks that Melinda just might have found the third person to round out her leaders.

“She’s right,” Melinda calls out from center ice. “You’re all playing tentative hockey. Now go, run it again!”

The guys straighten themselves out after that. In the afternoon, they allow the public in and Pepper takes great pride in watching the way little girls flock to Maria, their eyes wide with wonder. Maria relaxes around them to a degree that no one’s seen yet, smiling and signing autograph after autograph.

“Will we see you at Pages?” one of them asks hopefully.

“I hope so. I need to go back to Minnesota to finish my last year of college, but if I don’t have classes or a game I’ll definitely be there,” she promises, bending down to answer the question.

“Hurry up, we want to see you play here!” an older girl urges. She looks about eleven, just old enough to start getting discouraged about playing hockey.

Maria stands back up and rests a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll be here,” is the solemn reply. “I’ll play hard, and can you make me a promise?” The girl nods, biting down hard on her bottom lip. “You have to play hard too, all right? In a few years you’ll be right where I’m standing. Play hard, and don’t give up.”

“I won’t!”

Out of that year’s rookie pool, only Bobby Drake and Johnny Storm are added to the Knights’ roster. Maria goes back to Minnesota. And miraculously, the team starts winning. They don’t make the playoffs, but they’re no longer at the bottom of the Metropolitan division, either.


 

The following season, Maria officially signs to the team and Pepper makes sure she’s billeted with Mike Peterson and his family. She’s determined to make sure that Maria isn’t treated any differently from the other rookies, and that includes rooming assignments. The only exception is when the team is away for games – then, she’ll have a room of her own.

Christine comes and finds Pepper in her office during a lunch break in the middle of training camp. “Press came in and talked to Maria.” She shakes her head and chuckles. “She’s already tired of being asked what it’s like being the first woman in the NHL. She hasn’t even played a goddamn game yet.”

“How does she take those questions?” Pepper keeps in touch with the media because she wants to know what people are saying about her team, though she counts on Christine to have a handle on all of that, and to give her a heads up when something’s about to blow up.

“Like a pro. She’s smart, doesn’t get caught off guard easily. Honestly, I don’t work as hard with her as I do some of the other guys – but I still spend a lot of time with her because we have to be prepared for everything that’s coming her way.” Christine clears her throat and changes the subject. “I’ve had to talk to the team about Twitter etiquette.”

Pepper raises an eyebrow. “You think the team needs an official account.”

“Yes, we do. I can’t run it myself, though. I don’t think I have the time or capacity to boil sentiments down to 160 characters. I’d say one of the KTV guys should run it – Parker has enough snark, but they have their hands full as it is.”

“What do you suggest?”

“A paid intern.” She leans back, hands dangling loosely on the sides of the chair. “The intern can shadow me for a year and if they do well, we can hire them on as my permanent assistant. Maybe they can handle some of the KTV interviews, spice things up."

It’s a good idea. Christine’s workload certainly hasn’t lessened over the years, and adding the duties of a social media correspondent would just be too much. “I like it. It’s certainly in the budget. Do you have any candidates in mind?”

“You know I do.”

“Great, then I’ll just leave you to it. Once you’ve got someone in mind, just go to Matt or Jennifer to sort out contracts.”

“Got it, boss.”

Three weeks later, Darcy Lewis, senior at NYU in sports journalism and media studies, is following Christine around like her shadow. It’s Pepper’s understanding that Darcy’s also going to use her experience as a senior project, and that suits everyone just fine. Peter Parker is especially delighted to find that the camera loves Darcy, and immediately wrangles her into hosting several KTV videos. The Knights’ official Twitter and Instagram feeds are delightfully witty and both accounts are racking up followers instantly.

The best part about it is that Darcy manages to capture all aspects of life within the Knights’ organization and makes them accessible and inviting. She’ll wander by Pepper’s office and snap a photo of her on the phone with sponsors, but focus on her bare feet curling into the carpet. She goes in the training rooms, captures Carol and Bobbi standing on a sled and yelling as Clint pushes them across the floor. Of Jessica, talking Johnny through a salchow. Of Victoria, sitting in front of a blurry screen in the projector room, sitting on the floor with notebooks and her laptop scattered around her. Of Betty stitching up a scowling Logan. Of Maya and Nick, sitting at a conference table and poring over stacks and stacks of player reports. Of Melinda flying around the ice at practice, Coulson and Sitwell trailing behind her. She gets Peter, Miles, and Ian, hunched over computers and feverishly editing video content. She even gets Fitzsimmons sharpening blades with Hank, and Stark computing engineers Jane Foster and Skye Johnson teaming up with Bruce Banner, bearing new goaltending tools for Mike.

Darcy shows everyone the hard work and sheer amount of love that goes into running an organization like the Knights. She makes the public fall in love with the people behind the scenes, not just the ones they can see on the ice.

But of course, she needs to make sure that everyone loves the players even more, and she delivers spectacularly. Locker room candids, prank aftermaths, players falling down on the ice – they all end up online, retweeted and shared hundreds of times.

It all comes in handy when the season starts and Maria plays her first game. Pepper sneaks into the projector room, where Victoria’s going over video review with the team and coaching staff for the game against the Blades. “They’re strong on the penalty kill,” she tells them. “It makes converting on the power play difficult, but as long as you create scoring chances it should work in our favor. They like controlling the puck, so we need to take that away from them. Centers, you know what this means: win those face-offs. Our percentages haven’t been very good, and we need to take them up.”

Thanks to Christine and Darcy’s PR strategy, the cheers outnumber the boos as the team makes Maria skate out first. Maria has a New York type of attitude: tough, hard working, and grounded. She rewards her welcome by lighting it up.

Melinda has, as predicted, come up with the perfect line, with Maria as center and Antoine Triplett and Lance Hunter as wingers. Maria focuses Lance’s inherent flashiness, even harnessing it to draw attention away so that she and Trip have multiple opportunities to chip the puck in, banking on their uncanny ability to find each other on the ice.

Maria’s first NHL goal is a beauty. Trip snatches the puck away and the two of them streak up to the offensive zone, passing it back and forth until Maria reaches the crease, dekeing it in with another one of her backhands in a nearly impossible goal that hits the top of the net, just behind the bar. She skates up and pounds her gloves against the glass, facing the screaming crowd, and Pepper can see from the replay that she yells, “Fucking right!” before Lance and Trip jump on her.

The second one is just a great play. This time it’s Lance who gets the breakaway, but he fakes a shot, wraps the puck around the boards to a waiting Trip, who passes it over to Maria without so much as a glance. The goal light flicks on.

Pepper glances over at Tony in the adjacent box. He raises his glass of champagne. “Dinner?” he calls over.

She rolls her eyes. “Call me when we win the Stanley Cup!”

“I’ll hold you to it!”

The Knights win, 3-2.

“You’re playing like you have something to prove,” a reporter tells Maria later during the scrum.

Maria shrugs. “I do have something to prove. I’m here to play hockey, and I’m here to play it well. If anyone thinks that my sex somehow hinders either goal-” She cuts herself off and lifts one shoulder, censoring herself.

“They’re dead wrong!” Sam calls from one of the nearby stalls. Everyone laughs, even Maria. Pepper ducks in after the reporters leave and goes around shaking hands and giving out congratulations, though she beats a hasty retreat when they start making plans to celebrate a good start to the season. It’s not like they haven’t invited her out with them before – they have, and she’s close enough in age to be tempted, but that’s a professional boundary she’s not quite sure she can cross.

The Knights lose three straight games after that. The losses aren’t pretty and the guys are pulling in penalty minutes in an absolutely bewildering way. Well, perhaps not so bewildering, as most of the calls happen just after Maria’s targeted. Maria plays like a star despite everything, putting up goals if not points in each game.

After the third loss, Pepper is waiting outside the locker room as Christine shoos the reporters out after the media scrum, so the two of them have front row center seats to the following skirmish. “Enough. I didn’t say anything at first because I thought this would all clear up but you’re all acting like idiotic cavemen.” Maria’s voice is flat and furious.

“What are you talking about, Hills?”

“You know damn well what I’m talking about, Rogers. Especially you, because you’re the worst.” Steve makes a wounded noise. ‘Stop fighting the other teams over me!”

It’s Thor who speaks up after she falls silent, not Steve. “Do you expect us to let them get away with the vile things they say to you?"

Maria laughs, low and bitter. “It’s nothing I haven’t already heard.”

There’s a chorus of swears and both Pepper and Christine wince. Maria’s absolutely right, but it’s probably the wrong thing to say to the guys when adrenaline is still running high. They’re sweet and very, very overprotective. “Was that supposed to make us stop?” Bucky asks coolly.

“I don’t want any special treatment, especially from you guys. You’re no good for playing when you’re stuck inside the fucking penalty box! The last thing we need is to make it easier for other teams to score against us.” There’s a long, low silence. “So just stop.

Maria nearly bowls Pepper over exiting the locker room. “Oh, um, sorry Ms. Potts. Christine.” She winces slightly, pushes sweat-damp hair back from her face. “I hope you didn’t hear that.”

“We did. You have nothing to apologize for because you’re right.” Pepper smiles and hopes she looks encouraging. “You played well tonight, Maria.”

She shrugs ruefully. “Yeah. Well, I can be better. We can be better.” She strides down the hallway to the bike room, clearly intending to work just a little bit more tonight. It’s a sentiment that Pepper appreciates and understands. How many times has she spent hours in her office, or working at her dining room table, all so that she knows that she’s doing absolutely everything she can to make this team succeed?

And it’s not just Pepper. Maya’s never content to just talk to her scouts or read their reports – more often than not she’s out there too, making the road trips and watching the games. Christine keeps tabs on pretty much every news agency in North America, while Darcy does the same on social media. Victoria spends hours watching tape, rewinding plays over and over until she knows every play backwards and forwards. Melinda’s often there with her, when she’s not with the players on the ice or working with them one on one. Carol, Jess, and Bobbi are never content to just talk the players through training – they’re often right there working alongside them. Betty, bless her, is a constant, calming presence because she knows they try to hide injuries from her and she’s definitely not having it.

Christine watches Maria go, one eyebrow hiked contemplatively. “I think I’ll send Darcy in with her,” she decides. “Maria shouldn’t be alone right now, and she probably won’t kill Darcy.”

Darcy captures a photo of Maria on the bike. The caption below simply says: Still working hard after the game #HigherFurtherFasterMore

The next day, Carol is amused to find her motto is now trending on Twitter.

Maria’s words must have struck a chord with the men because they start taking fewer penalties, and the Knights start winning again. It’s Melinda, however, who brings up a separate, but related set of problems to Pepper. “We need to talk about Maria,” she says over lunch.

Pepper just barely holds back some sort of West Side Story joke. “Is everything all right?” Maria’s been playing well – so well, in fact, that people are already talking about her as a candidate for the Calder.

“For the most part, yes.” Melinda’s expression is inscrutable. “Do you know that she comes in an hour early for practice and often stays late? Or how she puts herself on a bike after nearly every game, but especially when we’ve lost?”

There’s something off in her voice. It’s not necessarily accusatory, but it’s close enough to make warning bells go off in Pepper’s head. She puts her fork down. “I knew about the bikes, and I’ve seen her stay after practice sometimes, though I wasn’t aware she was coming in early. What’s going on, Melinda?”

“She’s afraid that if she doesn’t produce, if she’s not good enough, you’re going to send her down or trade her.”

Pepper blinks because that’s the stupidest thing she’s ever heard. She makes a commitment to her players, especially those that make the roster. She believes that most problems can be solved internally rather than externally. She believes in loyalty and making things work with what they have. Her management team knows this, so she’s not quite sure why Melinda’s bringing this up now. “I’d like to know why she thinks such a thing is even possible,” she says finally.

Melinda rolls her eyes. “You know why, Pepper. We’re held to a higher standard under these circumstances. We’re never given as much leeway. She expects that any of the guys can go through a multiple-game slump and still keep their spot. She doesn’t expect the same thing for herself.”

It’s another uncomfortable reality. The standards are unbelievably high for women in male-dominated fields, and it’s even worse in the world of professional sports. How much so must it be for Maria, as the first woman in the NHL and the face of women in professional hockey? Now she knows why Christine was so cautious at the beginning.

“Well,” she says finally. “She has nothing to fear from me.” She shakes her head in disbelief and watches Melinda relax. “The last thing I want to do is send her away. We’re not even halfway through the season.”

“I just thought you should know.” Melinda resumes eating, picking sedately at her steak.

The Knights play steadily, winning more games than losing them. Suddenly, there’s hope for a wildcard slot in the playoffs if they can just keep this up.

One of the most anticipated games in their schedule is the Winter Classic against the Mammoths. It’s the first time the Knights have been chosen to play in the iconic game, and it’s against their conference rivals. The only team they hate more are the Blades. A film crew starts coming in to film a lead-up documentary to the game on January 1st, and Pepper wishes they could have just contracted the filming out to the KTV crew because at least the team is comfortable around them.

Melinda hates having them around, because they film her when she’s talking to the team before, during, and after several games. She feels as though those times are private, but there’s only so much Pepper can do. Victoria gets twitchy when they come in to take shots during film review, because she doesn’t want to spill any secrets. Maya’s strategy is to start talking player stats until they extricate themselves. The rest of them just take the entire thing in stride.

The film crews also go and film some of the more outgoing players at their homes. Pepper knows that they’ve followed Steve, Bucky, and Sam at their house, as well as Johnny and Ben. Most amusingly, they inadvertently capture the blossoming relationship between Thor and Jane Foster. “He’s a goner,” Darcy giggles to Pepper as Thor listens intently to Jane’s impassioned explanation of computer programs while Skye and Mike fight to keep from laughing in the background.

Of course, the crew tries to get as much time with Maria as possible. She flat-out refuses to let them follow her around, but allows some interviews, which she deftly steers towards the subject of the Knights’ charitable projects and the importance of developing women’s hockey, starting from the ground up.

Unfortunately for Maria, the cameras are present during one of Pepper’s Ladies’ Nights, because she thinks it’s important for the world to see the friendships and the support group that’s formed within the organization. Luckily they’re not terrible intrusive, hovering quietly as the women trickle in bearing food and drinks, and then settle down to watch that night’s movie.

“We try not to talk about work,” Christine admits when they pull her aside for a quick interview. She grins. “But we’re all workaholics, so some shop talk is inevitable. Some of our best ideas have come out of nights like this.”

“Of course we chirp each other!” Darcy laughs when one of the producers asks. “We love giving each other shit – crap, are you censoring this? Oh, you’re not? It’s how we show affection.”

The day of the Winter Classic dawns bright and white. The blizzard of the past few days has softened to flurries, but it’s enough to add to the already buzzing atmosphere at Metropolis U stadium. The fans bustling into the stadium are bundled up so warmly that they look more like marshmallows than humans, but it’s all part of the experience.

For most of the players, it’s a call back to childhood, of pickup games on frozen ponds. They were like giddy children the day before, whizzing around as snow blew around them, exclaiming over the simultaneous novelty and nostalgia. “Are you guys going to be able to see anything?” Pepper asks Steve as the team’s families come on to the ice for a brief family skate. “It’s hard to believe that you can play in these types of conditions.”

Steve pauses to watch Thor tow Jane across the ice. The tiny scientist is awkward but beaming, her cheeks red beneath a giant Knights toque. “We’re just going to make sure that we communicate really well, make sure our guys are where they’re supposed to be.”

“We’ll just play ‘Marco Polo’ the entire time,” Maria comments wryly, spraying Steve with snow and grinning as he swears at her. “That’ll confuse the hell out of them.”

“Lack of visibility should give us an advantage over Jones, too.”

Pepper hopes so. John Jones is one of the best goaltenders in the league, though she still believes that Mike can beat him in a shootout any day. She hopes it doesn’t come down to a shootout, though. She can never quite bring herself to watch them, and just watches the replays when it’s all said and done.

Now both teams are on the ice for warm-ups and the Knights look so wonderful in their white vintage away jerseys. Pepper had been the one to pull up a photo from the archives, with the lace-up collar and the numbers and edging done in Knights’ colors.

She casts her eyes around the stadium and is relieved to see a number of Knights jerseys dotted around, not just in the family and visitors’ sections.

Darcy plops into the seat on Pepper’s other side, phone already poised and ready to go in her hands. “I don’t know how much live-tweeting I’ll be able to do,” she confesses. “These touchscreen gloves are not the warmest things in the world, you know?”

“Take it easy,” Pepper reassures her, and passes over a spare pack of glove warmers. “The last thing we need is for you to get frostbite.”

“Sure thing, boss lady.” Darcy captures a quick shot of the stadium and fires something off before slipping her phone into her pocket and pulling out a thick pair of mittens to place over her gloves.

“Excuse me, are these seats taken?” Pepper looks up to see Tony Stark grinning down at her, She’s amused to note that, like all of the Knights’ staff attending the game, he’s wearing one of the Winter Classic jerseys, only his is oversized and he’s wearing it over all of his cold weather gear. He’s wearing a Mike Peterson jersey. Pepper and the rest of the women are wearing Maria’s jersey, naturally.

“I’m pretty sure they’re taken if you buy them,” she responds with a small smile. “Mr. Stark. I didn’t think outdoor games would be your style.”

He plops down and peers at her over red-tinted glasses. Knights’ red, Pepper notes. “Are you kidding me? The Knights haven’t been in one of these for ages. I went to one as a kid, was one of the best days of my life.” He nudges the man sitting next to him. “Besides, Rhodey’s never been.”

Pepper leans around him to wave. “Hello, James, it’s good to see you. Welcome to your first Winter Classic.”

James Rhodes grins. He, like Tony, is wearing his Winter Classic jersey over his other clothes and it’s a Sam Wilson one. “It’s nice to see you too, Pepper, and thanks.”

“Wait, you guys are on a first name basis?” Tony squawks indignantly. Luckily, they’re spared from any further protestations as the game is announced and the players all file out for the national anthem.

The game starts off fast and furious, though it could be much, much dirtier considering the rivalry that is at play. Still, plenty of elbows are flying, people are shoving, and Pepper doesn’t even want to think about the level of chirping that’s going on down there.

Ten minutes into the first period, both teams are scoreless, but then Oliver Queen draws a penalty for tripping Bucky and suddenly the Knights are on the power play. “Come on, Knights, convert,” Pepper urges as Melinda calls for a shift change, swapping Steve’s line for Quill’s and putting Lance in for Mack. It’s a good decision – Quill’s line is a fast, scrappy bunch, especially with the addition of another winger. They’re the line she sends in when she wants them to really dig in at the front of the net and just keep shooting the puck until something goes in.

Sure enough, Summers sticks himself just outside the crease while Remy, Peter, and Lance circle and take shots. Thor is absolutely solid, hovering at the edges of the offensive zone and making sure that the puck stays on their end. Summers catches one of Remy’s rebounds and is shoved out of the crease, so he sends it back to Thor, who immediately goes for the slapshot. He’s so far away that Jones can’t track him, especially with the number of bodies out front.

Their section of the stands explodes. Pepper grabs Darcy in a hug and exchanges high-fives all around. As they settle back down, Darcy pulls out her phone and starts typing away frantically, while Maya pulls out her notebook, only for Victoria to reach over and pluck it out of her hands. “Watch the damn game, Hansen, you can take notes later!” Christine passes her hot chocolate over and Pepper takes a grateful sip, thinking that there’s nothing better than hot chocolate at an outdoor hockey game.

The Mammoths are quick to equalize when Hal Jordan slides a shot, as neat as can be, past Mike’s left leg.

But it’s Maria who breaks past the Mammoths’ D with a pass off Trip with just ten seconds to play in the first period. She plays like her skates are on fire, fakes glove side and sends the puck in high over Jones’ blocker-

The light goes off. Their section erupts once more and this time Pepper even grabs Tony in an exuberant hug. She’s already hugging Darcy a second later, completely missing his stunned reaction.

Maria scores her first NHL career hat trick that game and the Knights win, 5-3.

They win enough games to clinch the wild card slot for the playoffs, their first appearance in over ten years. The Mammoths sweep them in the first round, but the playoff appearance gives them hope that just maybe, they’re getting right to where they need to be.


 

Shortly after the playoffs, Nick comes into Pepper’s office looking perturbed but…anticipatory. “I’ve just received an interesting array of phone calls,” he says mildly. “Natasha Romanoff has seen Hill play. She wants to know: if she submits her name for the draft, will the Knights sign her?”

“Natasha Romanoff? Is she in the KHL?” Pepper doesn’t really keep track of the European leagues, though she supposes she ought to. She relies on Maya and her team for that type of information.

Nick shakes his head. “Come with me.”

Victoria and Maya are waiting in the video room, eyes riveted on the screen. “She plays like no one I’ve ever seen,” Victoria’s saying almost reverently. “Look at how she skates.”

Pepper looks. It doesn’t take her long to find Number 84, ROMANOVA in her red Team Russia jersey, weaving seamlessly in and around fellow players. She can’t help but think Jessica would love to work with her. Then she blinks. “She plays defense?” she blurts out.

“Oh yes,” Maya confirms. She doesn’t even bother to look over her shoulder at Pepper. “And she’s brilliant. Good luck trying to get past her to your own offensive zone and if you do? Watch out.” On screen, Romanoff deftly nabs the puck from between her opponent’s legs and sprints away. “Have I mentioned she’s fast? There’s no catching her.”

“And…and she wants to come here?”

Nick snorts. “Why wouldn’t she? Best team in the league.”

“Well.” Pepper’s hands flutter a little bit. She hadn’t really thought about them taking another female player so soon, but now she wants it. “Then we’ll have her.”

Except of course, when they draft her they find that some combination of Natasha’s management and perhaps her country are stopping her from coming over. Pepper’s not the only one feeling robbed. “Of course I’m disappointed,” Maria tells the media as the season starts. “It’s been two years since I was drafted and no other team seems to want to take the chance. And I really want to play with Natasha. She’s a dynamic, talented player and we’d be lucky to have her with us."

They spin it, of course, saying that Maria wants women to take over the NHL and leave all the men out in the cold. Christine rolls her eyes, swears under her breath, and wades in to do damage control, though not before muttering, “It would serve them right if we did,” to Pepper.

She laughs.

They give the media something more to fuss over when Steve’s A is upgraded to a C, and Maria takes the other A. There’s bluster about favoritism and tokenism, which is enough to enrage Steve. “I don’t know if you guys have been seeing what I’m seeing, but Hill’s a natural leader.” His disappointed glare is enough to cow many of the reporters standing around his stall. “She knows how to motivate, how to push, and how to make us all play better. Why shouldn’t she have the A?”

The rumor mill blows up after that, speculating that there’s an illicit locker room romance. Christine definitely deserves the bottle of wine she receives that week. “I am going to cry,” she says at the next Ladies’ Night. “How did I think things were going to be better than last year?”

Maria scowls, picking at the label of her bottle of beer. “At least they’re not speculating about your love life. Or asking you for the millionth time what it’s like to be a woman in the NHL.”

“Too bad you’re not actually banging Rogers,” Bobbi says with a lazy smirk. “I’m sure that would take the edge off some of those questions.”

The younger woman makes a face. “Ugh, just because you and Hunter-“ she freezes, as does Bobbi and everyone else in the room. The revelation is not exactly a surprise – everyone’s gotten used to the pair’s sexually charged banter, though how they keep it up after a day of strength conditioning is anyone’s guess. However, it’s one thing to speculate on it and another to find out it’s actually happening.

Melinda just shakes her head. “I don’t want to know. Just don’t bring it in to work.” She looks at Pepper for confirmation and Pepper tilts her head in response. She hasn’t really given a thought to fraternization policies, but as long as it doesn’t affect work, she doesn’t see a problem.

Bobbi doesn’t even look angry at being thrown under the bus. She nudges Maria with her toe. “How did you know?” she wonders.

“Please, he’s my linemate. He pines when you’re not around. It’s disgusting, really. Trip and I chirp him all the time.”

The night just sort of devolves from there because they can’t help but give Bobbi crap about her taste in men.

Pepper’s away with the team for a series of road games in Canada at the beginning of December when Nick calls her. “Natasha Romanoff’s disappeared.” He sounds deadly serious, even more so than usual.

“What? What does that mean?” she demands. Has something happened to her back in Russia? She knows that Natasha’s Russian team had her sign another yearlong contract but beyond that, there’s nothing. They’re all hoping that Natasha can somehow make it to the US to play, even if it means waiting for years.

Nick sounds oddly satisfied. “I have my suspicions. But I think you should come back as soon as possible. I know you wanted to be with the team for the rest of this leg, but-“

“If you think I need to be back then I’m coming back,” Pepper says firmly. She’s already checking the earliest flights out for the following morning. She’s running through all of the possibilities in her head, from best-case scenario to worst, but Nick doesn’t sound worried. If anything, he sounds relaxed, and even eager, which – is strange, for Nick. “Do we need to tell Jennifer and Matt?”

Now there’s a disgruntled noise over the line and there’s the Nick she knows and loves. “I suppose so. I’ll call them tomorrow morning.”

“All right. You’d better have something for me when I get back, Nick.”

“I’ll keep you updated,” he promises.

Pepper makes her apologies to the team the following morning at breakfast, and then pulls Melinda aside. “I’m not entirely sure what’s going on right now, but hopefully there will be some news when you return to New York.”

Melinda tilts her head to the side. “Good news?” she asks carefully.

“I wish I knew.”

Nick has a text waiting for her when she lands, asking if he can meet her at her place, and that he’s bringing Christine. Pepper frowns, wondering why they’re meeting at hers when surely the offices are better, but lets it slide.

She gets the surprise of her life when she turns up in the lobby of her building and Nick and Christine are standing there with a petite, stocky redhead.

Pepper skids to a halt. “Oh my god.”

Nick’s not smiling, but she gets the distinct feeling that he’s laughing at her anyway. “Looks like we picked up a Russian stray.”

Christine hisses, “Nick, Christ’s sake,” but Natasha doesn’t even flinch. She’s just looking steadily at Pepper; already fair skin pale with fatigue, with dark circles smudged beneath her eyes.

“Where are your things – where are you staying?” Pepper blurts, finally getting her feet to move. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter. You’re staying with me until we sort everything out. Come on everyone, upstairs.”

Once everyone’s firmly ensconced in her penthouse, Pepper calls for food and makes tea, a good strong black blend that she thinks Natasha will appreciate. “Okay. Tell me what happened,” she demands once everyone has a mug in hand.

It’s Natasha who speaks up first. “I want to play for the Knights. So I came.” Her English is excellent, and she has only the slightest hint of an accent. Her tea is cupped between her hands and her shoulders are hunched defensively, though her chin is tilted up. It’s like she expects Pepper to turn her away.

As if Pepper’s going to allow that to happen, but there are still plenty of things she’d like to know. “I’m sure there’s more to it than that,” she remarks dryly, glancing over at Nick for an explanation.

He shrugs. “Natasha can tell you.”

Natasha sends him a cross look. “Dynamo forced me to sign another contract. They didn’t want me to go, even though they promised I could. It was unacceptable, so I took the first opportunity I could to come here.”

Meaning she smuggled herself out of Estonia while she was there partying with her teammates,” Christine shakes her head a little bit, looking completely nonplussed.

It sounds like a plot from a spy novel. Pepper can’t quite believe it herself, except for the fact that Natasha Romanoff is in fact sitting in her living room. “Wow.”

“I want to play for the Knights,” Natasha repeats, her green gaze flicking from Nick to Pepper to Christine. “The KHL is not for me.”

“Even though it’s already been integrated for several years?” Christine asks curiously. “Maria’s still having a tough time, and we don’t see any of it lessening over the years, not that we’re trying to change your mind or anything,” she adds quickly, raising her hands.

“It’s different. The style of play is different. It doesn’t suit me.” Her accent is getting thicker and she’s clearly becoming more agitated, which can’t be good because it’s clear she’s been traveling for days at this point. “I don’t want to go back.”

“And you won’t,” Pepper reassures her quickly, wishing she could give her a hug. “Believe me, Natasha, we’re ecstatic that you’re here. We will do everything we can to keep you here, I promise.

Natasha stares at Pepper for a moment before she relaxes, apparently trusting whatever she sees there. Luckily, that’s when the food arrives and they eat, chatting about the team. Pepper sends Natasha off to take a shower while Nick brings her lone suitcase of stuff over from his car, leaving Pepper and Christine alone.

“So what did she do, call Nick the moment she landed?”

“Pretty much,” Christine confirms, shaking her head in disbelief. “He busted his ass getting over to the airport, then he took her to a Starbucks and called me, so we just waited there until you arrived.”

Pepper rubs her eyes. “Wow. Okay. This is interesting. I need…I need Legal over here. We need to fast track her visa and get a contract signed.” She rolls her eyes at the significant look Christine sends her. “Yes, she’ll be signed to the team right away if I have anything to say about it. It’s Natasha Romanoff, for crying out loud.” She grins. “Melinda and Maria are going to be so happy.”

Natasha is on the ice practicing with the team only days later. The team accepts her with open arms, and soon she’s playing as a pair with Clint. The two of them form an uncanny bond on the ice, skating in tandem and playing off one another so well it’s as though they’ve been a d-pairing their entire lives. It’s a thing of beauty and Coulson in particular is over the moon.

No one’s happier than Maria. She and Natasha hit it off right away and there’s already talk of the two of them getting an apartment together. They start pranking the entire team and it takes everyone months to realize they’re the culprits. See, the two of them chirp the guys off-ice as well as on-ice, but they’re not flashy and outgoing the way some of the guys are. And when they get pranked they just laugh it off, so no one attributes the subtle happenings to them until it’s too late.

Scott and Lance emerge from the men’s bathrooms one day, plucking soaking wet shirts away from their torsos and looking pissed. Wade goes into the bathroom right after them, wondering, “Why are your shirts wet?”

Natasha and Maria exchange sly looks. Clint makes a noise and points at them. “It’s you!” he accuses. “You’re the ones who’ve been pulling all that shit!” He pulls a sad face. “Nat,” he whines, “I thought we were bros. Why didn’t you let me in on it?”

Sam glares. “Were you the ones who sent all the Girl Scout cookies to our place? We had to pay for one hundred boxes!”

“And the naked rugby calendars?” Johnny asks.

Bobby’s eyes go round. “Are you guys the reason why the Kiss Cam keeps finding the bench?”

“Please, that’s Darcy,” Maria snorts.

“But you don’t deny the other pranks. Like stealing shirts in Colorado?” Mike looks impressed despite himself. The shirts had disappeared on the flight over, meaning that half the team had to go to the hotel shirtless beneath their suit jackets (much to the internet's delight).

Natasha grins, and it’s the kind of grin that makes opponents recoil from her on the ice. “Why deny what’s true? Slow, guys. Real slow.”

The locker room erupts in protests and promises of retribution. The rest of the staff stays clear of it, though the KTV boys gleefully film as much as they can, and of course Darcy’s there, tweeting and putting up photos on Instagram.

On the ice, Natasha’s what everyone expected and more. She and Clint don’t allow anything through, and that shows in the stats. The Knights suddenly start racking up shots on goal, which means actual goals as well.

Maya is right – Natasha is fast and brilliant. And even though she’s small for a defenseman, she uses that to her advantage. She protects her goalie like a terrier, shoving opponents out of the crease if they get too comfortable. And while her slapshot isn’t anywhere near as hard as say, Thor’s or Mack’s (which have been known to break bones), it’s accurate as hell and gets better thanks to her partnership with Clint.

She’s also completely unafraid to drop the gloves and go toe-to-toe with anyone that’s threatening her team. Maria doesn’t fight, knowing full well the responsibilities of being the first woman in the NHL. Oh, she’ll dole out dirty hits as much as the rest of them, and her chirps are knows for being absolutely vicious, but she’s never, ever fought. Natasha’s a different story.

The Knights are playing the Serpents. Maria receives a pass from Trip when Rumlow slams into her blind side, forcing her into the boards with a sickening crack. Natasha tears up the ice at full speed, drops her gloves and slams into him. Even though Rumlow has a few inches and at least a hundred pounds on her she wins the fight, breaking his nose with one well-aimed punch before the linesmen and their teammates are there to separate them.

The Knights’ home crowd is on their feet and roaring so loudly Pepper thinks the glass is going to shatter from the sheer volume. Natasha receives a major and, according to Melinda, a blistering lecture from Maria once the period’s over. She draws no more penalties after that, and the Knights win in a shootout, 4-3.

New York might adore the Knights, but they truly fall in love with Natasha and Maria. The fans see their passion, sense their purpose, and rally around them in a way Pepper knows makes them uncomfortable, but Christine and Darcy use to their fullest degree. Support for women’s leagues in and around the city shoot up – not just in hockey, but especially hockey.

They fall in the Eastern Conference Finals of the playoffs, another devastating loss to the Mammoths. Still, the team hopes that next year will be their year. They’re so, so close and if they can just get past the Mammoths they know it can happen.

No one’s surprised when the Knights draft Sharon Carter as their new backup goalie. The big surprise is that the Mammoths draft Laurel Lance and the Blades select both Selina Kyle and Barbara Gordon. Well, the hockey world is surprised – Pepper and her team are not. After all, the Mammoths have just hired Diana Prince as their GM, and Bruce Wayne has been pushing his team to draft female players for months.

She knows that Maria and Natasha reach out to the other female players because despite their teams’ rivalry, they need to stick together.

One of the best things to come out of this is that the Knights are no longer being treated as a joke. They’ve been winning. “I think we can attribute our success to a variety of factors,” Melinda says during one of her pre-game interviews. “Of course we have the players. We’ve been working hard over a number of years to carefully select and train not necessarily the best players, but the right ones. That’s all thanks to our GM, Nick Fury, and Maya Hansen, our head of ops. And yes, I’m biased but I also think we have the best coaching and training staff. Phil and Jasper are invaluable, while Victoria, Carol, Jess, Bruce, Betty, and Bobbi ensure that the players are in the right frame of mind and body. And we have an owner that believes in everything we do and provides endless support. It’s a winning combination.”

“Do you think the number of women in the organization helps this?”

Melinda smirks. “I think our numbers speak for themselves.”

“And the Cup?”

“We’re looking forward to bringing it back to New York.”

There are plenty of people that fire back, citing Melinda’s arrogance and hubris, but Pepper sees it as sheer honesty. They are going to bring the Cup back, and that’s that.


 

That year, the Knights shoot to the top of their division. When the playoffs come around, they’re the ones sweeping the other teams, and they come up against the Mammoths once more in the Eastern Conference Final. Both Maria and Natasha have been growing their hair out of their usual bobs for the playoffs, wearing their hair loose beneath their helmets. Pepper is just thankful that their hair isn’t long enough to grab. Darcy’s suggestion of knitted beards doesn’t go over particularly well, though she takes to wearing one for all of her playoff videos for KTV.

Game One goes into triple overtime, a harbinger of games to come. The Mammoths take that game, with Laurel Lance squeaking a beauty of a wrister over Mike’s glove. Game Two also goes into overtime. It’s the second game on home ice, and Mike clinches it by scoring his very first goal, saucering the puck across the ice and right into the Mammoths’ empty net. The score is 3-2.

Game Three is an away win for the Knights. It’s a vicious, penalty-filled game and Pepper thinks she’s going to have a heart attack over the number of odd-man rushes. Mike is absolutely rock-steady through the entire game, shutting the Mammoths out until the last few minutes of the game. It is the only game that does not go into overtime. The Mammoths take back the win on Game Four. It is a battle of the captains, as both Steve and Clark Kent put up hat tricks. However, the Knights fall in overtime as Barry Allen puts his famous speed to use and leaves everyone in the dust, sliding one in past Mike.

They go back to New York for Game Five and the Mammoths win. Melinda tells Pepper and the others of how Maria breaks her stick and then Steve’s after the loss, making her point and prepping the way for his quiet speech. Whatever it is, it works, because Maria puts up a goal in the first period, Sam in the second. The Mammoths tie it up and they battle through one, two, and then three periods of overtime, until Natasha absolutely snipes it past Jones to take them into Game Seven.

Game Seven, unsurprisingly goes into overtime as well. Maria proves herself once more by scoring the game-winning point off assists from Natasha and Trip. The win is sweeter because it’s on Mammoth ice, and they now have the Prince of Wales trophy to bring back to New York.

After that, the playoff finals are (nearly) a cinch in comparison. The Wasps certainly put up a fight, but the Knights emerge victorious after Game Six and, best of all, in New York. The home crowd is absolutely ecstatic, their joyous screams filling Madison Square Garden as the team floods the rink, sticks and helmets flying and collapsing in a giant pile at center ice.

Pepper is on her feet in the owner’s box, hands pressed to her face and tears streaming down her cheeks. She’s dimly aware of the celebrations happening around her, of Darcy and Christine jumping up and down, of the hugs, screams, and pop of champagne bottles. In the back of her mind she knows that she should be shaking hands and thanking everyone for their hard work. They have poured everything – their hearts, their minds, their souls – into this, and the Knights wouldn’t have gotten here without them.

But first, she closes her eyes, breathes deep, and smiles. She said this year was their year, and she was right. Everyone else, everyone who said that she was a failure as an owner, that she was crazy to hire a female coach, take on a largely female staff, and take in female players, was wrong. There was something absolutely glorious and vindicating in that. Suddenly, the years of long nights, even longer practices, grueling trips across the country, and the losses are worth it. “We did it,” she whispers, and buries her face in her hands. “We did it.”

“Fucking right we did!” Darcy yells in her ear. “Have some champagne, boss-lady.”

“We need to talk to the press,” she mumbles. “Go down to the team-“

Christine shoves an open bottle at her. “Drink first, Pepper,” she says firmly. “You deserve it.”

So she does.