One heartbeat per minute. The armoured truck rocked underneath her as it turned off the highway, and Maria braced her feet against the floor, her knuckles whitening on the edge of Fury's stretcher.
"How long do we have?" Maria glanced at Dr. Fine, cut her eyes to the front windshield, then back to where the doctor hovered over Nick's other shoulder.
"Seventeen minutes," he said, not looking up. He frowned, then dug into the case beside him and began to fill a hypodermic needle with something that glowed electric blue. "Three minutes until I can start administering the antidote."
Twelve minutes by Maria's watch until they reached the SHIELD dam facility. It shouldn't have been hard to keep her expression calm and her voice steady; she'd been in far worse straits before. But Nick was so unnervingly cold and still. Of course she'd known that this might happen someday. She knew what was in that needle, and she knew exactly what had to happen next. But it was one thing to know the effects of Tetrodotoxine B from a briefing and another to have to keep herself from pressing her hands to Nick's chest, hoping against hope to feel that elusive heartbeat.
Fury was the sort of man who could dominate a room or blend into the background on a whim. She'd thought him an apex predator from the moment she'd met him in Peggy Carter's interrogation room in Madripoor. "She say yes yet, Carter?" he'd asked with a grin, as if the chance of Maria not joining SHIELD was so small it wasn't worth mentioning. She knew all his smiles now, knew when he was bluffing and when he was baiting someone. Knew what it meant when he went still, when he watched you like a hawk, when he prowled a room, or swore, or laughed.
It wasn't love. It wasn't Coulson and his cellist. It wasn't Barton buying a farm; it wasn't even whatever was going on between him and Romanoff. Captain America and Director Carter...Maria shook her head. It wasn’t that. But she knew what Nick's skin felt like in the dark and how his hands felt gripping her biceps, the sharp nip of his teeth against her collarbone and the soothing touch of his lips afterward. The bland expression when they were refusing to talk about it, too, and the twinkle in his eye when he was trying to make her blush.
He shouldn't be so damn still.
She tore her gaze away from Fury's broken face and stared over the driver's shoulder again. Eight minutes out, and they were coming up on the turn in the road just as they should be. The forest rose on either side of them, whipping by in flashes of dark evergreen and black. She dug her nails into her thigh, inches from her sidearm, and told herself that they hadn't been followed and they wouldn't be ambushed. She was burying Director Fury, after all--which might make her acting director, not that this was how she'd wanted the job--and their unknown enemies didn't know he wasn't dead.
She’d had to trust Fine and the driver, who doubled as his medical assistant, and the two agents waiting at the SHIELD dam facility. She wanted to trust Agent 13--Sharon--with this, to bring in May and Sitwell and Barton, but it wasn't paranoia when someone had just done their damned best to assassinate her boss. Shared confidences and successful missions meant nothing. If they turned out to be loyal, they would understand; if she found out they weren't, her training would make it possible for her to bring them down. She'd be glad, then, that she hadn't answered Sharon's stories about her Aunt Peggy with an admission that she was fucking Nick. Even if Sharon would have understood that there was a difference between sleeping your way to the top and finding yourself at the top and realizing you liked the view. There were secrets and secrets, and keeping them didn't mean she hadn't cared.
Maria didn't know yet who had done this, but she would. The evidence said it was someone high up, someone with resources. But she'd been wrong before. Was the Widow a long-term plant, a double agent? Had Barton ever actually recovered from Loki's Tesseract mind-control? Had anyone but Rogers actually seen the sniper who’d shot Nick?
"You still believe in protecting people?" Rogers had asked her not long ago. When she closed her eyes she could still see the stunned expressions of shock on his and Romanoff's faces when Fine had ruled Nick dead. She didn't think Captain America could fake that, even if she was pretty sure Natasha could. And Nick had trusted him.
Nick still trusts him, she told herself fiercely. Fury wasn't dead, no matter how well they'd succeeded in making him seem so.
"Is that damn antidote working yet?" she snapped. Her jaw was going to start aching if she clenched it any further, and she refused to stare at Nick's frozen, unmoving chest like she'd suddenly taken up magical thinking.
Fine didn't flinch. "Yes," he said, and Maria let out a slow breath. "One heartbeat every forty-two seconds."
Fuck. She realized she hadn't actually really been sure they could reverse this. That she wouldn't be sure, until Nick opened his eyes and spoke. A heartbeat wasn’t consciousness. It wasn’t him back, not yet. But it was something.
She had to talk to him, had to find out what had happened in those lost hours between when he'd called her from the SUV and when he'd been shot in Rogers' apartment. Who he'd seen and what he'd done that had made him order her back to DC so suddenly yesterday morning. It might be the key to everything.
The dam loomed up on their left, and the armoured truck slowed. Gravel crunched beneath their tires as Fine said, "Four beats per minute."
The blast doors rolled up silently and the truck came to a halt in the echoing bay inside the base. Maria was out of the truck while it was still moving, gun up and scanning for trouble. But the inner doors were opening and Alexanian and Koenig were jogging across the concrete, twin expressions of relief on their faces. Maria gave them both a curt nod, and let them assist Fine in maneuvering Nick's stretcher from the back of the truck, but she took point heading into the base herself.
Three doors down and a hard left into a cool, sterile medical bay, its lights already on and a bank of machines already blinking softly along one wall. Maria checked the room, feeling a muscle in her jaw jump, then dropped her gun to her side and took a long breath. "Clear."
Then Nick's stretcher was rattling past her and Fine was issuing rapid-fire orders to his assistant in a low, no-nonsense voice. "Will he--" she started to say, then bit her tongue.
"Heartbeat and respiration are fifty percent of normal," Fine said, sparing her the briefest of glances. "Agent Hill, it would be best if I weren't interrupted at this time."
"Understood." She sagged against the wall, belatedly holstering her gun, unable to take her eyes from the scene of frantic medical efficiency in front of her. They were connecting Nick to the machines with truly impressive speed. She recognized the heart monitor and let herself zero in on it, watching the numbers as they crept slowly upwards.
SHIELD could survive without Nick, but she was damn glad it wasn't going to have to.
"Agent Hill." Alexanian was a tall, broad shadow in the doorway, and she held a glowing tablet in her hands. "There's something you should see." There was a small worried crease between her brows as she passed Maria the tablet. "Captain America is a fugitive from SHIELD."
Maria stared at the footage. The bottom was dropping out of her stomach like it had when they'd told her Nick was missing. There's a pattern here, she thought suddenly, and then she was striding down the corridor, forcing herself not to run towards the nerve center of the base.
Three increasingly frustrating and revelatory hours later, Maria's passive scan of the SHIELD network was yielding unexpected access errors and weird snatches of information on missions she had no knowledge of despite being deputy director. She was also looking at evidence that Romanoff was on the run with Rogers, and that Secretary Pierce wanted them both dead.
There was something bigger here. Something was wrong. Either Captain America was up to his neck in a sudden, unexplained move against Fury like Pierce seemed to think, or it was no coincidence that the last man to speak to Nick was now running for his own life.
Koenig appeared at her elbow. "Director Fury's awake."
He looked like hell. They weren't letting him sit up yet, but he was already growling at Fine when she walked in. "You look like hell, sir," Maria said, to cover the smile that threatened to twitch at the corners of her mouth. Worry had settled into her bones over the last few hours and the smile felt strange.
"I've been better," he ground out, his voice turning from a sandpapery husk to a cough halfway through the sentence. He was tracking much better than she would have expected, given the amount of drugs he was on, and he took one look at her face and stopped trying to sit up.
"Get over here, Hill," he said, waving the arm not in a sling, "And tell me what the hell's going on."
She'd been wrong, she thought, as she dragged a stool over to his bedside and started calling up data for him on her tablet. He was back when he started to swear, and not before. It felt like the end of the world, hiding out in this cave, and she had the horrible feeling that worse was to come. But she'd brought a man back from the dead. In any other line of work that would make me feel like a god, she thought, but she'd met Steve Rogers and Phil Coulson, and she knew a guy who called himself the God of Thunder--with the lightning to prove it.
It had still been a damn close call, though, and when Nick's hand brushed hers on the tablet as he rumbled "Missiles to LeHigh?" she didn't pull back. He looked up at her and the expression in his good eye softened. His hand stilled over hers, warm and strong and very much alive. "Hill--"
He didn't have to say thank you, and if he got sentimental she'd know she'd brought him back wrong. "Yeah," she said quietly, giving him a wry smile and letting the moment stretch comfortably between them.
He gave her a brief, approving nod, as if he found her presence just as reassuring as she found his. Then he tapped the video capture of Rogers and Romanoff fleeing the mall.
"Go get my people."