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the wisdom to know the difference

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It takes Maria fourteen days to travel what usually takes twenty-four hours.

All through it, Nick’s pager quietly does its thing on the car dash, never stopping, never running out of juice.

The facility seems empty and abandoned, and her codes don’t work. Maybe Stark cancelled it - only she was here just six months ago to talk out the situation with Parker, but it seems that in that time...

“Maria Hill, Avengers Facility.”

“Identification not recognised.”

Oh, he did not— “Maria Hill, the Chill Pill.”

“Identification confirmed.”

Maria is going to kill Tony. If he’s not already dead.

As she starts the car up and drives it into the compound, she pushes her hopes into the basement of her soul and slams the door on it. They’re probably dead - that’s why this is happening, right? They’ve failed and they’re dead and the world is in a shambles...

Tony hasn’t been answering his phone. Neither has Rhodey or Vision or Pepper or Clint. The number she has for Natasha is six months old, the number she has for Sam is twelve months old, and she always figured she could get hold of Wanda through Vision or one of those two. Steve didn’t give her a number, still angry at discovering that she was in contact with Nick for the year she worked with the Avengers.

Does she head for the parking garage or the main entryway? Maria is caught by indecision for a moment, then sees movement by the doors - the gleam of sunlight off glass and steel as someone pushes open a door and runs out.

Natasha. Sprinting out into the driveway, stopping dead as she sees the car and who’s driving it. Steve is two steps behind, shading his eyes.

Thank God. Thank God.

She hard brakes to a dead stop, shoves the door open and swings herself out.

“Maria—”

They’re not tactile women. No hugs and air-kisses for them. But the arms that wrap around her are flesh and blood, and it feels like it’s been years since Maria touched anyone— It stings her eyes— It stings her heart...

Over Nat’s shoulder, she sees Steve surveying the car, his mouth set in a grim line, looking for the dark figure he expects to see with her.

“He’s gone,” she says, answering the question he won’t voice, knowing it’s what Nat’s going to ask first anyway. Pulling back, she sees the blink of pain and loss in the other woman’s eyes before they shutter. They both know how to put the loss away and deal with the situation. They’re professional women and they’ve done this rodeo before.

“I tried calling, but the number was disconnected—”

“Yours are old, too.” And that’s not important. There are people here - people who know the score. People who might have something for her to work with - a solution - something. “How bad is it?”

They look at each other, and the midday light picks mercilessly at the lines of grief and frustration on their faces.

“You’d better come inside,” Steve says, “It’s a long story.”

Maria reaches back into the car for the pager on the dashboard.

“What’s that?”

“Nick kept it with him. He was activating it when he died.”

She reached out a hand, and her fingers fluttered through dust and ashes....but the pager remained.

Nat takes the device from her hand. “Bruce is here. He’ll analyze it.”

“Banner’s here?” Maria looks from Nat to Steve, startled. There’s been no reports of the Hulk in two years, man and monster both seem to have fallen off the face of the planet.

“So’s Pepper.” The grooves either side of Steve’s mouth have deepened, tucking into folds of defeat that remain even as he speaks. “Another long story. You’d better come in.”

Going inside doesn’t make it any better.

Half the world. Half the universe.

Maria looks at the climbing numbers, at the flickering faces. She listens to the story, told in fragments and spurts, and asks questions about the things she doesn’t understand - and there’s a lot that she doesn’t understand.

There’s a lot she doesn’t understand but has to take on face value - like the raccoon like creature who walks upright, talks like a person, and answers to the name ‘Rocket’. He also bares his teeth when she first stares at him, and demands, “What you lookin’ at?”

Pepper hugs her, tearful but not yet broken. She plies Maria with lasagne and red wine - a welcome change to the tea, toast and boiled eggs that Maria’s been surviving on. Yes, she stopped at places along the way. Yes, she helped out where she stopped. But she didn’t dare stop moving or she was afraid she’d collapse.

“You’re here,” Pepper tells her when she mentions this in the kitchen. Then, “I’m glad you’re here.”

Maria’s glad she’s here, too.

It turns out the pager is sending out a signal. Exactly what kind of signal, or to whom, Banner can’t tell her.

“It’s a pager,” he says in that helpless way of his. “Mid-90s tech - I had this model, once, actually - but this has serious upgrades. A power booster that I haven’t seen, but which Rocket says is Kree technology.”

Maria’s heart chills. “Kree technology?”

“You sure your boss was working for Earth?” Rocket asks. “Because the Kree aren’t your friendly type of aliens - not like me. They’re conquerers. Expansionists.”

“Nick would never—” Nat begins, then pauses, her eyes flicking guiltily to Steve, who looks even grimmer.

“Do you know who it’s calling?”

“No.” But she trusts Nick. She has to trust that Nick wouldn’t betray Earth.

Still. Coulson told her stories - old stories, nothing specific, nothing he could either confirm or deny...

“Another of Fury’s secrets?”

Maria ignores Steve. “Do you know how much longer it’ll run?”

“Two days? Two weeks? Two years?” Banner shook his head. “I can tell you it’s operating, but beyond that...”

They left the pager to do its thing - one more piece of technology in a room full of screens showing names and bodycounts, searches and news channels on silent showing video replays of people blowing into dust...

Maria stares blankly at the numbers steadily climbing on the boards around the ready room. “And no-one’s heard from Tony? Or Peter Parker?”

“No.” Rhodey’s too much the professional to wince, but Maria knows the taste of regret, and the bitter taste that it leaves in the mouth.

“Last seen chasing one of the ships headed out of New York.”

“The aliens only wanted Strange,” Banner says wearily. “He had the Time Stone in his keeping. I guess he gave it up at some point because Thanos had all of them, except for Mind, which he took from Vision. And then...he snapped his fingers and...”

And half the world disappeared. Half the universe, if what Banner and Rocket and Thor were reporting was correct. Half the freaking universe because Thanos believed it was his destiny.

Maria runs her hand over her hair, exhausted.

“How bad is it out there?” Rhodey asks.

“Bad. Nobody knows what’s happening - oh, they’ve linked it to the ships over New York, and there’s been some backlash - against Wakanda mostly, since they were the ones who had the battle on their ground and they put out a statement. Plus,” she added dryly with a glance for Rhodey, “Black people always make a good target for conservative ranting.

“The talkbacks are the usual schtick about the damage cost to save the world, this time with an added dimension of ‘how dare the Avengers fail us’. Nobody knows the death toll right now, only that it’s growing. Vehicles in motion. Hundreds of planes in flight with no-one to land them. Parents holding small children, and people operating machinery... And then there’s the uncertainty: are they dead dead, or just...dissolved? Who’s in charge? What do they do now?”

“Is that’s why it took you so long to get here?” Pepper asks.

“Most of it’s under control by now,” Maria says, thinking of the slow and careful going, stopping to help where she could, but warily, with a shoulder holster for her weapon, because Maria was willing to helpful, but she wasn’t willing to be a victim. And call it cynical, but times like these bred predators as much as neighbours. “At least the areas where I went through. Radio stations and news stations have been telling people to check on their neighbours, find survivors - those that aren’t calling it the rapture, or a judgement on humanity for insert-sin-of-choice-here.”

Her mouth was dry, so she poured herself a glass of water.

“Right now, people are still in shock, so most of them are being decent. It’ll get worse in the coming weeks, as reality sets in. Mostly, right now, they’re shocked, tending to disbelieving. But angry’s on its way.” She knew it was, as sure as she’d seen the wreckage of New York, Johannesburg, and Sokovia. Once people discovered they were alive, they concentrated on what they’d lost.

And this time, the losses are huge.

“If there’s been backlash against the Avengers,” Rhodey begins, “We should probably put out a statement.”

“A statement?” Steve looks at him like he’s suggested they should learn how to fly.

Nat frowns. “You want to do PR now?”

“We want to do a PSA now.” Rhodey looks around the table, “Look, I’m not down with the dog and pony show, but we’ve been in here chewing our gristle the last few days. The acting President put out a statement. Wakanda’s made a statement. China’s spoken up - even New Zealand’s made the news! Us? We’re silent. Now I’m used to Tony doing that part of the job, but we need to get something out there. The Wakandan statement talked about the battle, but they’ve got sovereign rights and nobody expects them to open up. But us? We owe it to them.”

“We owe it to them to let them know that we failed?” Thor rumbles. “That we, their guardians and protectors, could not keep this thing from happening?”

“Rhodey’s right,” Pepper says firmly. “The world needs to know what’s going on. No, it’s not okay...” Her voice trembles. “It’s terrifying, all right? I’m...I’m used to Tony, and this is so far out of even our usual— But I’d rather know the worst than wait and wonder. I want to know what’s going on, not be lied to or left in the dark.”

Maria nods. “I’ll draft something up.” Rhodey can look it over. Or Steve...

“In the morning,” Steve says.

“And I can do that,” Rhodey notes, gently. “It’s not your job anymore, remember?”

Maria pauses. She’d forgotten, sitting back among the Avengers in the middle of a crisis, handling the situation and thinking of what needed to be done next.

“Once a handler, always a handler?” Nat inquires dryly.

“Old habits die hard,” Maria retorts and scratches at her scalp. With a grimace, she realises her hair is utterly filthy and she wants to stand in running water until...until the apocalypse. Except...it’s kind of already come, hasn’t it? Suddenly, she’s exhausted. “All right, if you don’t need me, then I’m going to take a shower. There wasn’t much chance on the trip up.”

Standing, she starts for the door, only to turn when Steve calls her name. She turns, and glimpses Rhodey’s encouraging nod, which makes no sense until Steve hesitates, then says, “We’re glad you’re here.”

She looks at him, then at Rhodey. “You could have just said it, you know.”

“Figured it would mean more coming from the leader.” The smile is rueful, and she shakes her head. Beyond him, Nat puts her face in her hands and starts to shake - Maria hopes it’s with laughter, however hysterical - and beyond her, Steve winces.

I am glad you’re here, commander,” Thor rumbles from his alcove. “I wish it was to impart better news.”

“Well, I have no idea who you are,” says the raccoon nasally, “but I guess you got them talking instead of moping, so...you can’t be all bad.”

Can’t be all bad. High praise from a rodent.

Pepper follows her out. “He’s right, you know. They’re a lot better since you came. Calmer. Focused. I couldn’t— I’m not like you, Maria. I didn’t know how to deal with them. How to get them out of it.”

“Nobody expects you to.”

“I know how to deal with Tony when this happens.” It’s almost like she doesn’t hear Maria’s reassurance. “But this is the Avengers...I’ve never seen them like this...”

Maria has. Maybe not in the flesh, but she remembers Stark’s terse report after the Hulkbuster fight in Johannesburg, when they’d been beaten down by the manipulations of Ultron and the Maximoffs. The silence of the Quinjet had that same grim quality to it - an underlying quality of unaccustomed defeat.

Barton knew how to deal with it - a change of scene, somewhere to recoup and regroup. But Barton is silent now, and there is nowhere they can go that won’t remind them of their failure.

Rhodey carries on. It’s his training to deal with the losses and keep going.

Natasha will deal in her own inimitable way. And probably do so by trying to support the others.

Banner is dissociating in a very careful and measured manner. Maria’s not sure what to make of this; he’s doing it without Nat grounding him, which is good - it should only have ever been a stopgap measure - but the result? That’s something else.

Thor... Maria considered telling him that Jane Foster is still alive - one of the people who Maria did manage to make contact with - but then figured that wouldn’t mean much when he’s lost his planet, his people, and his belief in himself. Also...well, it’s not a nice thought, but she wouldn’t wish this Thor on any woman.

And Steve... there’s an anger banked and burning inside him that Maria suspects is immolating him from the inside out. When it dies - if it does - there’ll be mostly ash. On the other hand, she hopes he doesn’t turn that anger outwards; there won’t be much left standing if he does.

God, they’re a mess. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, fucked up nine ways to Monday.

“Get some rest,” she tells Pepper. “I know, the West Coast is still up, but you looked wrecked.”

“Handling me, too?”

“Only if you need it.”

Maria takes her shower, washes her hair, unpacks the miserably minimal contents of her duffle into the drawers, and looks around at the empty room. She makes the bed, then sits on the end with her cellphone and dials a number.

It rings out to the voicemail message, just like it has every time before.

Fury’s contact turns up in a laser tag suit carrying Rocket’s ship, which contains Tony, along with Rocket’s remaining team-mate, Nebula.

Pepper, Rhodey, and Banner take Tony away for care and rehydration, and Rocket and Nebula are having a low-voiced conversation off to the side as the newcomer strides over and eyes them all.

“Where’s Fury?”

Maria answers, because both Steve and Natasha are poised for a fight at the brusque demand. Heroes. “Dust and gone, like the others.”

The woman glances down for a moment, just a flicker of grief. “But you have the pager here.”

“He was activating it when it happened. I was with him.”

“S.H.I.E.L.D?”

“Formerly.” At the narrowed eyes, Maria feels the need to explain, “S.H.I.E.L.D’s no longer in operation. It got...taken down.”

She tilts her head, then surveys the building behind them. “And you got an upgrade. Pretty slick. So if S.H.I.E.L D’s down, what happened to Director Keller?”

Maria blinks. “Director Keller? He was nearly twenty years ago. Retired a year before 9/11…2000,” she corrects, because if this woman dates back to Keller’s time, then she’s not going to know anything about what’s happened since.

“And Agent Coulson? Did he make it through?”

“Coulson’s been radio silent for the last five years.” One last contact, and then...nothing. Nick went looking, found only traces and hints.

“How did you know Nick and Coulson?” Natasha asks.

“‘Nick’?” She blinks and eyes Natasha, then studies Steve. A faint frown creases her brows. “Hey, aren’t you...?”

“Steve Rogers, Captain America. Yes.”

“Actually, I was going to say ‘that guy from the newsreels’,” she shrugs. “But Captain America works, too. Captain Carol Danvers, noble warrior hero from planet C-53.” A brief smile flickers across her face as though at an internal joke, before it fades and she looks expectantly at Maria. “I got the gist of what’s going on from Nebula, but you’d better fill in the details.”

‘Filling in the details’ is one way to describe it, although Maria would more describe it as a textbook example of ‘how to storm out of a meeting’.

In all justice to Tony, he has a point - they could have done with a suit of armor around the world. And, in all justice to everyone else, they don’t make excuses for his physical, mental, or emotional state.

Well, guess what, Cap? We lost! You weren’t there.

But as Pepper follows Tony out, she glances back at Maria, asking a question. Maria nods, assuring the other woman she’ll take care of it. They’ve tag-teamed too often while the Avengers were working out of Stark Tower not to know how this goes.

Then Carol starts for the door.

“Where are you going?”

“To kill Thanos.”

Maria gives her points for style and directness. Although obviously this woman isn’t much of one for working in a team.

Nat picks up on that immediately. “Hey, you know, we usually work as a team here. And between you and I, we’re also a little fragile.”

“We realise up there is more your territory,” Steve says, measured and authoritative, “but this is our fight, too.”

“You even know where he is?”

Carol isn’t daunted by four people getting in her way. “I know people who might.”

“Don’t bother.” Nebula doesn’t raise her voice above its usual husky growl. “I can tell you where Thanos is.”

The resulting mission, in Maria’s opinion, is beyond risky. No intel, no backup, no confirmation. And they’re just going to bring everyone back like that? Can they even use the stones that way? Questions bubble up in her mouth - even she can see it’s not as simple as ‘get the stones, undo everything’. But there’s no stopping them, no hauling back on these reins. The traces – such as they were – are well and truly broken.

Still, it’s not her nature to let them all race off a cliff - not without at least trying to direct where they were going.

“What makes you think it’ll go any differently this time?” She knows the question won’t stop them - she doesn’t expect it to. But it has to be asked, because she needs them to think, not just react. The universe needs them to think, not just to react.

Carol shrugs slightly. “Because before you didn’t have me.”

Maria almost laughs. Under other circumstances, she’d like Carol and her sheer ballsy confidence that takes Steve and Rhodey and even Nat aback with its brazenness. But this isn’t as simple as going head-to-head in a fight; this is half a universe of people. Fury might trust Carol and her ability to solve the problem with her fists, but the thing they’re all looking at was more than just mere power. It’s cunning and forethought and determination and planning. Even without Nebula’s intel, Maria can see that Thanos has been planning this a long time. He knew where to take aim, knew what to do once he had all the stones in his grasp, waited for the moment when all five stones would be available and it would all come together...

How had he known that now was the moment? Was there some metaphysical signal by which he realised this was the time to make is move? Or was it all just blind and ridiculous luck on his part?

Maria pulls Rhodey aside, judging him the most likely to listen to reason. “Be careful. You’re all wound up and angry right now—not the greatest time for a hard calls—”

“I know,” he says. “I’m thinking it, too. But this is our best chance—”

“So make it our best chance,” she says, and knows that he understands what she means. “I don’t expect you to rein them in—”

“What, you don’t think I can?”

The humor helps. She gives him an exasperated look. “You and Tony have been friends entirely too long.”

That sobers him up. “Tell me about it.” He jerks his head back at the facility. “Talk to Pepper if you can. She’s going to be doing it rough. We all are.”

Maria thinks about that as she watches them go from the balcony. Does someone in the ship lift a hand as they take off? She doesn’t know - maybe it was just the reflected gleam of starlight off a panel - but she lifts a hand in return. Then she watches until the Benatar has cleared the atmosphere, and goes back into the quiet facility.

--

She finds Pepper sitting in one of the lounges with a pot of hot lapsang souchang and a poured-out cup steaming on the side table, staring out at the sky.

“Bruce is keeping an eye on Tony. We thought...We thought one of us should stay by him.” Pepper exhales and the steam from the cup she held in her lap eddies in the air before her. “How are you?”

The question is...unexpected. Nobody’s asked how she is in a long time. Not Natasha, certainly not Steve or any of the others, not even Nick when they were travelling together.

She has it all managed, all worked out. That’s the definition of Maria Hill, and nobody checks in on her.

But Pepper’s watching her with steady eyes, expecting a response. And Maria answers because someone wants to know.

“If I don’t think about it, it doesn’t hurt.”

“Keep running or else you might fall down?” Pepper sips her tea. “We’ve talked about allowing yourself to fall down before, Maria.”

Yes, but not now, not yet. Not like this.

“Have you heard from Nathan?”

“No.” Maria gathers herself together and meets Pepper’s gaze. “I don’t think he made it.”

“You seemed... You seemed to be getting along pretty well.”

“Well, there was still time for him to turn out to be an evil mastermind.” Flippancy helps a little.

“As compared to turning out to be a hero?” Pepper’s mouth curves in a wry grimace. “I think getting away from the evil mastermind might be simpler.”

“You’ve left before. You just...keep coming back.”

“Like I said. Simpler.”

They sit there in the darkness and the curling scent of tea for a few minutes, saying nothing, sipping from their cups, trying not to think of the confrontation shortly to take place on Thanos’ planet. It’ll be at least thirty hours before the team reach The Garden and they’ll be sleeping in shifts for most of it. Maria asked Nebula about the living conditions on the Benatar, and received a blinking look before the other woman answered, crisp and almost contemptuous in her description. Maria was stung by the shortness, but she told herself not to take it personally since Nebula seemed to speak to everyone that way.

“What are we going to do if it doesn’t work?”

Maria drops her gaze to the tea, watching the dark liquid shimmer in the light reflecting in from the hallway. “Mourn, and carry on.” What else was there to do?

Can we?”

She meets the other woman’s gaze in the darkness. They both know how Tony and Steve deal with loss: badly.

But the world is bigger than two men. Or they’ll have to be bigger than their anger and resentment of each other.

Is it possible?

“Maria?” Pepper’s voice breaks through the silence. “Would it have made a difference? If they hadn’t fought with each other? If we’d had the Avengers all together?”

“I don’t know.”

They’re strong-willed men, both of them certain of their rightness, that their way is the best way - the only way - and they’ve never not clashed, even when they were friendly. Maybe they would have defeated Thanos if they’d declared a truce earlier, if they’d found the ground that both of them could stand and meet upon...but given how thorough Thanos appears to have been in all this, maybe not.

In the end, none of them will ever know, but all of them will have to live with it.

Seventy-two hours later, Maria and Bruce watch Nat and Steve and Rhodey and Carol cross the tarmac towards them as the Benatar pulls up its ramp and flies off.

Steve stops in front of them, eyes hollow and haunted. “He destroyed the stones.”

“He destroyed...?” Bruce looks from Steve to Nat to Rhodey. “But...that’s not possible!”

“He found a way to make it possible.” Nat’s visibly exhausted, tendrils of hair clinging to her face, her eyes red-rimmed and swollen. “Thanos nearly destroyed himself in the process, but he did it.”

“Is he dead?” But Maria already knows the answer. They wouldn’t have left Thanos behind alive, no matter how damaged or injured he was.

“Thor killed him.”

“So...where’s Thor and the others gone?”

“They’ve gone to find Thor’s people,” Danvers said. “They’ll signal me when they’re located and I’ll bring them back. Earth’s going to need all the people we can get in the coming weeks.”

“To do what?” Steve’s been staring blindly at the building. Now he turns burning eyes on them, and the hard midday light etches bitterness into lines that weren’t there when he walked onto the Benatar three days ago. “Thanos won.”

“He’s dead,” Maria points out, knowing she’s treading on dangerous ground even before Steve looks at her like he can’t remember what she’s doing here. “We’re not.”

“We might as well be. He’s taken half the universe with him.”

“Then we still have half a universe left. We regroup, reconnect, rebuild.”

“With what?”

“With half the universe! With who and what’s been left!” And Maria knows she probably shouldn’t argue this here and now, but she’s at the end of her tether, too, after three days of waiting, watching, hoping, and then finally accepting that, no, this was the world they lived in now. “We’ve done it before.”

“After S.H.I.E.L.D?”

For that sneer, Maria replies in kind. “After the war.” In the corner of her eye, Rhodey flinches; off to the side, Nat sucks in a breath through her teeth; but all she knows is the flash of bitter shock in blue eyes. “It took decades, but they rebuilt. It wasn’t the old world, but they made it work. They dealt with their losses, married, had children. They lived.”

It’s a hard strike and she watches it stab deep. And maybe she’s a bitch for reminding him that life went on without him after the war, but he doesn’t get to give up; to lay down and wallow in his grief and guilt - not when the world needs people like him to lead the way.

There’s a few seconds when she thinks she’s gone too far. Hurt transmutes to shock, shock breaks to fury, fury flares and then simmers down to betrayal. Then he sets his shoulders and his mouth pinches at the corners.

“Point made, commander.”

He nearly spits the title at her as he steps past her fastidiously, turning his body so no part of him will even touch her. The brush-off is clear enough, and very pointed, and Maria winces to herself.

After a moment’s hesitation, Bruce follows him.

The other three are still looking at her. There’s shock in their faces, and a kind of pity. It sparks her temper. “What? Was I too hard on him?”

More silence, then: “He had the pocketwatch with him on the mission.” Nat’s mouth twists. “He was looking at it before we went down to find Thanos.”

The pocketwatch he used to carry around in the war with the picture of ‘his girl’ in it.

“And he sat with it all the trip back,” Rhodey adds.

Maria looks from one to the other. Well, shit. She’s well and truly screwed that up, then. There’s a second when she thinks of turning around and going after him and apologising. But there’s nothing she can say that will make it better. There’s nothing she can do which will give him back what he’s lost.

“It was incredibly bad timing,” Danvers says, her expression is more wry than disapproving. “But...very much on target, too.”

“On target?” Rhodey gives Danvers a look. “Like cutting a guy’s legs off when he’s already gutted?”

“Gutted or not, she’s right,” Danvers says bluntly. “Earth is going to need all the heroes it can get in the coming weeks - superpowered and common human. I’ve seen it before, on other planets. A crisis like this needs leaders - needs heroes.”

“Noble warrior heroes?” Nat asks, a little sarcastically.

“It wouldn’t hurt.” The smile that curls her lips is not exactly amused, but Maria finds it a relief. At least one person isn’t going to give her shit about it.

“And that’s it? We just...pick up and carry on?”

“Unless you want to lay down and die,” Danvers tells him. “And I didn’t figure you for the type, Colonel.”

The comment is off-hand and challenging, a gauntlet laid down for Rhodey to pick up.

Rhodey gives her a hard look. “I’m saying, yeah, there’s a lot to be done. But this...this feels cold. We haven’t had time to grieve.”

“We’ve had four weeks,” Nat says, and Maria breathes a prayer of relief. If Natasha’s on the same page, then she has one ally among the Avengers. “We won’t get more time, Rhodey. And...we’ve failed. We’ll have to live with it, but we can’t sit in paralysis about it, either.”

“Doesn’t it bother you that we’ve lost?”

“Yes,” Danvers says, and her knuckles glow briefly, even beneath the midday sun. “But there’s nothing to be done about it but carry on. Regret doesn’t fix anything. Only getting back up and helping fix what you’ve done does.”

Not for the first time, Maria wishes she knew more about Carol Danvers - about that note of regret, about the things that shaped this woman. She’s done some research, but all she has is a service record and a file number from pre-computerised system days, and who even knows if Nick kept the files after Carol left him the pager? After all, Maria got about as high up in SHIELD as it was possible to go, and even she only found out about the pager two years ago. Of all Nick’s secrets, this is one of the best-kept, and now that Maria knows it, she wishes that he hadn’t kept his damn secrets quite so well...

“I’ve failed before,” Nat is saying in response to Rhodey’s note that they can’t fix this. “Many times. You can grieve about it, but it doesn’t get any better weeping about it. Your best option is to pick up and keep going.”

“The history of humans on Earth is about picking up and keeping going,” Danvers notes with a dry smile. “Mostly by women, since the weight of saving the world doesn’t rest on them or their egos - just the weight of running it.”

“Well, none of you are helping my ego right now.” Rhodey grimaces. “And now I have that song in my head.”

“What song?”

“Never mind.” He looks at Maria. “All right. I’m in. It’s not like I got anywhere else to go.”

“Thank you.”

He tilts his head sideways. “I’m not the one you’re going to need to grovel for.”

“I know.” But that will have to wait until later, once he’s had time to cool off. “Have you eaten?”

“Haven’t been very hungry,” Rhodey admits. “But could probably do with something. Hey, are Tony and Pepper still here?”

“Happy picked them up yesterday morning,” Maria says. “And I don’t know where they’re going.”

“Only God knows where they’ve been,” he murmurs.

“You got Pepper’s number?”

“Even if she didn’t, I’ve got Tony’s.” Rhodey sighs. “He’s in a rough place right now. He’ll come around.”

Maria isn’t so convinced; the conversations she and Bruce have had with Tony after the last couple of days have been...edged. The kind of conversations that a man has when he’s trying to not only burn his bridges but nuke them beyond all repair. “Maybe wait a few days before calling him.”

“Do I look like I was born yesterday?”

“You look like hell,” Nat says lightly.

Rhodey snorts and presses his hands to the small of his back. “That’s because my back is killing me. I haven’t had time out of the brace in three days.”

They start towards the facility, only to turn back when Danvers coughs in a pointed kind of way.

“I’m going heading out for a day or two.” She studies the sky for a moment, then looks back at the others. “I have people to check in on.”

“People from Earth?”

“Yes, people from Earth. Fury wasn’t my only connection here.” There’s no concession in Danvers’ voice and she doesn’t explain. “I’ll be back within a day. If I get caught up, then I’ll let you know. If Thor and Rocket contact me, I’ll also let you know.”

“And if we need to contact you?”

“Use the pager?” Danvers’ mouth quirks as she lifts by her bootheels, like gravity is entirely optional for her. Within moments, she’s soared out of sight, a glowing golden comet shimmering with tinges of blue, leaving them standing on the tarmac looking out after her.

“And if M’Baku makes a bid for the throne once the Queen is determined not to be with child, you will support him?”

“I serve the throne,” Okoye says, her tone slightly repressive, even if her eyes have softened a little. Maria isn’t exactly surprised; she’s thought for a while that the Wakandan woman was enjoying the snap and spar of the Jabari tribe leader more than she let on. “And whoever sits upon it. Just as you serve the world, whoever is saving it. Although,” the Wakandan adds sharply, “you will be no use to the world if you keel over from exhaustion. When did you last sleep?”

“This morning.” Except, Maria realises, it was yesterday morning, now, because it’s...maybe 0200 hours? 0230 hours? “I’ll go to bed soon...”

Okoye is watching her with the eyes of a hawk. “The world no longer needs saving, commander,” she says gently. “Our job is to simply hold together what remains.”

“Harder than it seems.”

“If it were easy, it would not be given to the strong.”

Maria rings off and sits back in her chair, listening to the silence of the facility.

The others are licking their wounds in private. In spite of his assurances to the contrary, Rhodey contacted Tony and got the short, shouty end of the stick. From the sound of it, he said a few things in return, and that wasn’t taken well either.

I knew I shouldn’t, and I blew it anyway, he said to Maria afterwards. Feels like one more failure right now.

You’re a good man, James Rhodes.

Yeah, but maybe a better man would have stopped this. Then he saw her expression, and backed away, hands up. Yeah, okay, I didn’t say that.

No, you didn’t say that. Maria replied. Take your meds and try to sleep. Add a sleeping pill if you’re going to have trouble resting.

The real work starts tomorrow?

But he went, at least. There’s even hope that he might have taken a sleep assist. Not much, but at this point Maria will take what she can get.

Natasha tried to reach out to Steve this evening and was rebuffed. She’s retreated back into her quarters, most likely with a bottle of vodka and a phone that doesn’t have any communication from Barton. Bruce is sitting on a lounge up on the rooftop, just staring up at the sky and possibly thinking about where he’s been and the people he met while out there - the people who might, even now, be waiting for rescue.

And, last she knew, Steve was in the training room, systematically and methodically wearing out every piece of equipment there. And the truth is that the equipment will almost certainly wear out before he does.

Maria closes her eyes, pulls out her ponytail, and drags her hands through her hair.

If Rhodey blew that chance with Tony, how much worse did she screw up with Steve?

And then she reminds herself: how was she to know? She can’t know everything – even if she thinks she should. She can’t track everything – even if she feels she should. And she damn well can’t do everything – particularly not if she doesn’t get some sleep tonight...

Getting up, she half-braces herself as she reaches for the phone, charging quietly on the corner of the desk. She set it face down and set it to silent, so she wouldn’t get distracted while trying to sort things out. So she wouldn’t be tempted to check it again and again.

Now, as she picks up the phone, a message bar pops up and for a moment her breath catches. Then she sees Pepper’s name and the short message, Are you okay? Opening the message to the full, it reads, I’m guessing the attempt failed. Will call you in a couple of days to talk about rebuild. Take care.

Maria reads through the text again then closes it up. Pepper won’t want an answer tonight; tomorrow is soon enough to respond.

She glances around the office then commands the lights off.

This section of the facility is quiet, almost hushed. The air conditioning turned off hours ago, still keeping office hours since nobody told it otherwise. And as she makes her way towards the living quarters, the only thing Maria can hear is the quiet slip of her feet on the floor.

And the heavy thud of a punching bag being thoroughly beaten up down the end of the corridor.

Maria knows she shouldn’t. Not now. Not after Natasha tried and failed with him. Not after Rhodey tried and failed with Tony. But maybe she’s just a sucker for failure, too. What’s one more today after the last month?

He knows she’s coming - he might be mired in his emotions, but that’s not going make him oblivious to what’s around him.

But he doesn’t stop punching as she pauses in the doorway, and he doesn’t look up as she steps inside. He’s not going to acknowledge her, not going to give her a chance to say anything more.

Well, why would he?

She only cast the pain he’s been living with for the last six years in his face. Frankly, she should consider herself fortunate he hasn’t packed his bags and gone on the road.

Wearily, she wonders if what she’s done is unforgivable. Or does it only need time for it all to soften? Should she have waited longer? The world waited two weeks for a statement from the Avengers - and two weeks later, they’re still waiting for a follow up. Yes, he’s lost plenty, and grief needs to run its course, but shouldn’t it be balanced against the needs of others, too?

And she wants to rage at Steve, to rail at him, to shake him and make him see. Captain America doesn’t get to give up when he’s failed. He can do more, be more to people than any of the rest of them can, other than perhaps Tony - and Tony’s retired from the ring. When he can lead the way, how dare he retreat? The world needs its symbols now, more than ever, its idealists and not just its realists.

But not tonight.

Coming in was a mistake. Maria watches him for a few seconds more, then gives up. There’s nothing to be gained in confrontation tonight. She’ll head back to her quarters and lie in the darkness wishing she could sleep. Maybe she’ll rest some – it’ll be better than nothing – but she has a feeling that sleep will be a long time coming.

“Did you lose anyone?”

The question echoes around the walls, startling. She turns back and finds him watching her. “Did I lose...?”

“Did you lose anyone? Anyone that really mattered to you.” Steve’s expression is carved in stone. “Fury doesn’t count.”

The walls of the gym fade, become the walls of a toilet stall in a truck stop, her hand pressed hard against her stomach as the cramping peaks, and she prays, please God no without any hope. In two hours she’ll be on her way, still trembling and exhausted, but knowing she can’t stop, can’t stay here, can’t let herself think of what’s gone—

The hand on her shoulder is gentle.

“Hey,” Steve’s expression hasn’t softened, but there’s a sudden concern to it. “You just went white...”

“I’m fine,” she says, reaching for the automatic answer, but she’s not entirely steady on her feet.

Her phone rings.

The tinny burst of electric guitars brings her back to the now: bright and brassy and joyful as it launches into a melodic introduction that repeats itself – variations on a theme. The ringtone made her start the first time he called her after programming it in. Nick’s brows rose to his non-existent hairline. And Maria laughed and blushed, but she didn’t change the ringtone.

Her spirits lift in incredulous delight, and she swipes acceptance of the call, barely seeing Steve’s expression harden.

“Nathan?”

There’s a pause. “Uh, hello?” The voice is hesitant, lighter and softer than she was expecting. “This is...Is this Maria?”

Joy drains away, leaving her light-headed but with the looming feeling of a crash coming. Habit kicks in. “This is she.” The words come out, steady and polite, without a tremble.

“I... I’m sorry. This is... Your number was in Nathan’s phone. We’re... That is, his family... I’m his brother Ian...”

Maria can’t take the hesitant, apologetic tone. Not when she thought for one bright moment— “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“Yes. He’s...he’s... I’m sorry - we’re...we’re trying to call around... One of his workmates delivered his phone and belongings yesterday and we thought people should know... It’s better…we thought it was better than not...”

“Yes.” Maria hears her voice tremble and steels herself. “It’s better than not knowing and wondering...” The last words are thicker than she likes, and she takes a moment to draw in a deep breath. “Thank you. For letting me know.”

“I’m so sorry...”

She hangs up on Nate’s brother before he can draw the call out to a long, stammering close. Before she breaks down on the line.

So. That’s that, then. She knows the worst.

But her next breath catches in her throat and drags up everything that she’s been keeping closed in.

All the long trip cross-country, she watched people step up and help each other, reach out to each other and cling to each other. Shared grief and shared relief, and the angry bewilderment that only wanted to know why. She held on to the pager for those two weeks, trusting that whoever Nick had called would come. She held out against the hope that the Avengers were alive - and against the hope that they were dead and that was why nobody had even tried to call her...

“Maria?”

She forgot he was there, and looks up startled, then down and away. There are tears in her eyes - when did that happen? They spill over as she tries to blink them away. A hand catches her shoulder as she starts for the door and it’s surprisingly gentle, for all that he could wrench her back to face him.

“I’m sorry.”

Maria doesn’t want his pity or his apologies.

What business of his is it anyway?

“No need, Rogers,” she says, smearing briskly at the tears on her cheeks as she lifts her chin. “It’s just one person. Nothing as important or noble as losing everything to save the world.”

But she’s never had many people who were for her in the first place. No-one cheering her on, few people backing her up: S.H.I.E.L.D, once upon a time; Fury, through the years; occasionally the Avengers...

She’s not like Steve. She doesn’t naturally attract people, so when she finds them, she holds to them, because what else does she have?

In spite of wiping away the tears, more come. Then the gates are open and it all rushes out of her – fury and frustration and clogging, sodden grief—

Steve pulls her closer, and she strikes out at his chest. Closed fist, leading with the heel of her hand, not the knuckle – a thump not a punch. And he lets her land the blow, when he could block her, disable her, even as exhausted as he is. He lets her land the next thump, and the next, and the next, and she hates that he’s not even fighting back, his eyes half-shuttered, his jaw rigidly set. His hands cup her shoulders, almost bracing her – not against her blows, she realises as she lets her fists fall to press against him, but against the sobs that she barely even felt wracking her.

Maria lets her head fall forwards until it rests against his chin. It’s too intimate – rank defeat and failed dignity, but she doesn’t care anymore, just lets the tears fall. She’s not the Chill Pill, not Commander Hill, or an agent, or even in charge. She’s just one more woman adrift in a sea of grief and loneliness she didn’t let herself feel until now.

Steve lets her lean against him, leans back into her although he has no reason to be kind to her after what she said this afternoon. The grip on her shoulders gentles, no longer holding, just resting on her – like she’s fragile or precious. And Maria tenses with the urge to shove him away. She’s not fragile, just because she’s lost it like this, just because she’s crying—the proverbial damsel in distress—

But then, slowly, she becomes aware that his chest is heaving, too. No tears, no sobs, just the long, slow shudder of emotions he doesn’t know how to manage any more than she does.

She’s not alone – not the only one struggling.

God, but they’re pieces of work!

And, Maria realises, he reached out to her when he didn’t have to, when he could have walked away and left her to mourn. She would have walked away from him, left him to his anger and his grief and his guilt; he chose not to turn his back on her.

Gradually, the racking sobs subside, leaving her quiet. Steve’s own tension has eased back, but he hasn’t put her away from him. Around them, the lights of the room have dimmed, sensing no movement, and leaving them in the anonymity of semi-darkness.

Maria exhales and steps back. “I’m sorry.”

“So am I.” He blinks as though hearing himself, and grimaces.

“I’m sorry about earlier, too.”

And this isn’t how she planned to apologise – with her eyes red and her nose clogged, and her throat raw. She steps away to cross the room and pick a bunch of kleenex from the box by the water dispenser. She dries her tears, blows her nose, hopes that she doesn’t look like too much of a wreck. Even a woman like her has a little vanity when facing Steve Rogers

“You didn’t pull the punch.”

“I didn’t know I had to.” She picks a glass off the shelf and dispenses a cup of water before looking over at him. Expecting to catch him watching her, studying her, she finds him still standing where she left him, face downturned, looking…hurt by her stepping away? “Sometimes we just lose, Steve. We did everything right but the cards still fall badly. That’s…that’s just how it works for us mere mortals.”

“And you just…pick up and move on?”

“Some of us don’t get to wallow in our guilt.” The water is cool glory going down her throat, and Maria drinks every drop of it and everything is suddenly a thousand times better.

When she sets the glass down to the bench, Steve is watching her.

“Who was he?”

Maria doesn’t have to answer; it’s none of his business. But he didn’t have to stay or care, and he did, so she gives him that.

“Someone who mattered.”

"I'm sorry I couldn't save him for you."

Maria exhales. She's not sure he's capable of understanding this, but she has to try - not just for her sake, but for the sake of the world. He can't go through the rest of his life apologising for not being able to fix it. "It's not your guilt to carry, Steve."

"If not mine - ours - then whose?"

"Thanos. And he's dead." Maria looks at him, bowed shoulders, bowed head, hands clenched by his thighs. "Nothing will change what's done, Steve. We'll just have to live with what's left."

This time the silence goes a long time. "I don't know if I can."

Silently, she curses Abraham Erskine, who could give Steve the body to match the courage of his spirit, but couldn't provide Steve the serenity to accept what he couldn't change. Then again, wasn't the inability to accept what he couldn't change the reason Steve took the serum in the first place?

"You might have to do it the way the rest of us do."

"Which is?"

"One day at a time." Maria half-smiles at his expression. "You won't be alone this time, Steve. Or you don't have to be if you choose not to be."

She doesn't know if he will; she doesn't know if he can. Steve's so used to thinking of himself as the only one that finding himself in the midst of millions of others may not be something he can deal with. But the offer is there - the reminder that they've all lost something they can't get back, and that they're all going to have to live with it.

"You don't have to struggle alone if you choose not to," she repeats.

Steve's eyes remain on hers as he slowly nods. "I'm starting to see that," he says.

A week later, Maria stands back in the crowds, as both Steve and the Prime Minister of New Zealand greet Thor and the Asgardian refugees to Earth.

“In this time of sorrow and difficulty, we welcome you to our shores, and to share in what we have. Your people will be our people, and your troubles will be ours, and together, we hope to build a future for all of us that is worthy of who we are.”

There’s grief still, the occasional outburst of sobbing, but the sombre faces of Asgardian and New Zealander are leavened by faint hope.

Nothing will bring back what’s gone – what all of them have lost – but this is a beginning.

 

Chapter Text

By the time the cheese is properly melted, the meeting in the next room is most of the way through. Maria spreads relish on the top slice of the grilled cheese sandwiches, and listens over the sizzle of the skillet.

The original plan was for fish, but when it came time to cook the idea turned her stomach. Grilled cheese was fast and easy and filling, and for once they had all the ingredients to hand. Fish tomorrow, grilled cheese tonight.

“Ripples in the timestream don’t sound like something small.”

“They might be. They might not be.” Wong doesn’t mince words. “Strange was best at reading the currents – he’d worked with the Eye extensively, and it helped. The rest of us are good, but the Eye gave focus. Right now, we know that something is happening in the ocean of time – that someone is playing with the currents – but not what they’re doing. If something pops through, you’ll get as much notice as we can give,” Wong promises. “Apart from that, things have settled down a little in the South-East. Stabilized. In favor of the criminals, but...around here, sometimes better the devil you know.”

“Okay.” Nat pauses. Through the vertical slats that form the ‘wall’ between the kitchenette and the study, Maria can see that Nat is leaning back in her chair, looking through the page of notes Maria wrote in preparation for the meeting. “Carol? Last time you reported in, you mentioned the Kree empire falling apart. Do we have anything to worry about with renegade elements?”

“No. I’ve taken care of it.”

“Do I want to know what ‘taken care of it’ involves?”

Rocket snorts. “She started a small war with some planetary warlord at the edge of Kree space.”

“And it won’t trace back to Earth?”

“I didn’t get involved. I just made a suggestion to some friends.”

“Good friends,” Nat comments, her eyes still skimming Maria’s notes until her eyes fall on the ones that Maria circled down the bottom of the page. She glances up at Maria and doesn’t quite roll her eyes when Maria gives her the ‘go on’ nod. “You also mentioned the Xandarian empire is coming apart? How’s that going to affect us?”

Carol snorts. “Where is Maria and why can’t she just ask these herself?”

“Because she’s making dinner. So you’re stuck with me asking one question instead of Maria asking fifty.”

Oh, she can’t let that pass. Maria leans over so she can call through the door. “There are eleven questions. Eleven.”

“The Xandarians are stable at the core,” Carol says, flashing an open grin before it fades to serious, “although they’ll have to let some of their protectorates go. Those are on the far side of the galaxy, though, so we shouldn’t get spillover. Frankly, I’d worry more about the Yggdrasil connection.”

Maria ducks back to the skillet and the frying sandwiches, because she doesn’t dare leave it too long and burn it. This is the last of the hard cheese for another two weeks, and while the facility has no trouble laying hands on more, Nat and Maria discussed it and decided it wasn’t fair to just lay in supplies of everything on the off-chance that they might have a yen for it.

It turns out Steve is a restraining influence when it comes to...not rationing, exactly...but limiting their use of resources.

In the other room, Nat notes that Brunnhilde last reported that the other Eight Realms were quiet. “Most of them were recovering from Hela anyway.”

“If I might interject,” Rhodey notes, “it’s worth remembering that the Asgardians spawned a large portion of Viking culture, and some of that might have carried through to their subject realms. I’m just saying.”

“Fair call. Okoye, how’s the Wakandan techs coming along with the Statesman?”

“Slower than we wished. Without significant technological advances, it is possible that it may only be fit for a monitoring station or perhaps a weapons platform.”

“So we’re sitting ducks if someone decides that we’re ripe for the picking,” Rhodey mutters.

“A weapons platform is more than we presently have,” Nat points out reasonably.

Carol coughs. “I don’t think there’ll be many people coming this way – we’re further out than the galactic center to begin with, and, well, what happened in the Garden has gotten around. You might not have been able to stop it, but the other planets have heard that you took out Thanos.”

“Hey, and let’s not forget that you’ve got powerful friends,” Rocket comments. “Asgardians, the amazing flying rainbow comet over there, and the Guardians of the Galaxy – that’s pretty big.”

“It’s a photon blast.”

“Yeah? Well, your photo blast manifests as a glowy golden-rainbow comet thing, so that’s what I’m gonna call it.”

As she flips the sandwich tops over onto the melted cheese base and turns the flame off, Maria imagines the expression on Carol’s face. From the way Nat coughs, it’s probably fit to fry Rocket.

Undaunted, Rocket echoes Carol’s opinions that there’s spillover happening in the galaxy but none of it should touch Earth. Then he grumbles about why he’s bothering with a bunch of idiot monkeys on a back-ass planet.

“Because Quill was an asshole but you still loved him?”

“Yeah, but Quill hated this planet, too,” Rocket mutters.

The meeting winds up with Okoye’s report on the African harvests. M’Baku takes a more...active interest...in the workings of the continent, which means that out of all the regions of Earth, sub-Saharan Africa has come through the last five years much better than, say, Asia, which went through a near-catastrophic collapse. As a result, they’re producing an excess of food and are willing to share it – for a price, of course. M’Baku is also very much not a ‘bleeding heart’ which has caused all kinds of conniptions in politics the world over.

She slides the sandwiches onto the plates, checks that nothing’s been left out that shouldn’t be, and takes dinner into the study.

“Okay,” Nat is saying as Maria enters, “well, this channel is always active, so...anything goes sideways, let us know. Yes, Carol?”

“Is that a grilled cheese sandwich?” Carol asks as she lowers her hand, mock-outrage trembling in her voice. “You made grilled cheese sandwiches and you didn’t invite me?”

“You’re somewhere past Andromeda,” Maria tells her as she sets the plate down in front of Nat. “If you can get here in time for dinner, then sure, I’ll make you grilled cheese.”

“I’m on the same continent,” Rhodey remarks, “And they didn’t invite me, either.”

Rocket sighs. “Humans. Your tastebuds are utterly shit. Oh, and Nebula says we’ll be back in the next month. Something about...sunlight? And maybe oranges.”

“Sunlight and oranges?”

“Look, she ain’t tellin’ and I ain’t askin’.” And with that Rocket’s hologram collapses down and vanishes, leaving the others in various states of bemusement. Carol shrugs and vanishes a moment later, and Okoye nods at Maria and Nat, then leaves the call. Rhodey stays.

“Where’s Steve?”

“In New York, doing his counselling thing.” Maria says it lightly since Nat’s mouth is full of grilled cheese. “He’ll probably be back tomorrow.”

“I thought he’d finished those. Wasn’t the last one...three months ago? Six?”

“Four months.”

“Right. After five years, you figure people have worked out how to move on.”

“Some people have a harder time letting go than others.” And sometimes, even years later, things come to light that tear open old wounds. Maria resists the urge to feel for the chain around her throat. “You’re not here to make small talk, Rhodey. What’s up?”

“I’m in Mexico right now. A friend of a friend called me in – wanted an opinion on... Well, the federales found a room full of bodies. Looks like a bunch of cartel guys. Never even had the chance to get their guns off.”

“This is a bad thing?”

“If you saw what’s been done, it’s a bad thing. It’s also Barton’s work. No doubt about it.” Rhodey shakes his head. There’s a bleakness in his eyes that transmits even through the hologram, and it chills Maria spine. “This is... Look, we’ve seen shit go down, okay? We know how bad it can get. I know you want to find him, Nat, but this...”

“Can you ask around and find out where he’s going next?”

“Nat, it’s been five years. The man doesn’t want to be found.”

“Rhodey.”

Rhodey shakes his head. “There’s a part of me that doesn’t even want to find him.”

“But you will.”

“But I will.” He sighs and half-smiles. “Enjoy your grilled cheese sandwiches. You owe me one next time I’m in town.”

“Come by next time you’re in town and collect, then,” Maria tells him.

“If there’s bread and cheese available.”

“We’ll get some in just for you,” Nat promises, a gleam in her eye.

“You’d better.”

The comms channel goes silent.

Maria stretches her legs out beneath her desk and leans back in her chair. “What did I miss?”

As Nat catches her up on earthquakes and space scavengers and eddies in the timestream, Maria lingers over the grilled cheese sandwich. It’s not that it’s rare, exactly, just that fresh bread and cheese are harder to come by than they were before the snap. Wheat is still grown, cows are still milked, but the processes to get food from the soil to the table – unspoiled and unrotted, fit for human eating – no longer have economy of scale to back them up, and there are limits on what’s available.

A notification beeps for the front gate, and Nat calls up the feed.

Maria blinks, surprised. It’s Steve in the truck, back from New York.

“I didn’t think he’d be back for another day at least,” Nat remarks as the utility truck rumbles through the gates, the profile of the driver perfectly clear, the truck bed filled with boxes and sacks that are probably their dry goods supplies for the next month. “Wasn’t the support meeting supposed to be this morning?”

“Yes.”

“He usually stays in the city overnight.” Nat looks at Maria and smirks. “Guess he must have missed us.”

“Maybe.” Maria can think of several other possibilities, too – catastrophe, news that he wanted to deliver in person, the desire to be among trusted people...

She’s not going to think about Steve actually missing them.

“How did Rocket and Nebula get the intel about that scavenger ship anyway?”

“First rumors came through Carol,” Nat tells her. “And then some other contacts – I think they were Quill’s, once upon a time. The...Ravagers?” She shakes her head. “At least with Carol’s news we don’t have to worry about space for a while...”

“I kind of miss the days when we didn’t have to worry about space at all.” Except that those days were apparently gone even before Maria got out of high school if Nick and his friendship with Carol are any indication.

Sometimes she wonders what Nick would make of the world that they’ve found themselves in. Would he have stuck it out in world security the way she and Nat have, or would he have finally walked away like Tony and the others?

Steve walks in carrying a box of supplies on one shoulder and holding his duffle in the other hand.

“You made grilled cheese sandwiches while I wasn’t here?”

Nat openly laughs. “Next time, we’ll throw a grilled cheese party and everyone’s invited. Except Rocket, since he doesn’t like our food.”

“You’re back early.”

Maria doesn’t sound accusing, she’s sure of it. But Steve seems taken aback by just that simple statement. He looks from her to Natasha for a cue, then back to her.

“I picked up the supplies yesterday afternoon, so I thought I’d just come straight back after the meeting. I never expected you to make me dinner...”

“I wasn’t expecting her to make me dinner,” Nat says light and easy. “The trip up was fine?”

“All quiet. The roadside stalls are starting up again – early spring fruit from the south.”

“And priced accordingly, no doubt,” Maria lifts her brows. “How many boxes did you buy?”

A smile flickers across his mouth. “Only one. It’s an heirloom range of apples – from a backyard orchard in their elderly neighbor’s property. They’ve spent the last few years cultivating the property – working it as a farm, actually…” Because of course he stopped to talk with the farmers and exchanged life histories. That’s just the way Steve works.

“I suppose if it’s an heirloom range, we should be glad you stopped at one box,” Nat remarks, putting down her grilled cheese and dusting the crumbs from her fingers. “Hand a couple over, then.”

Steve drops the duffle, and reaches into the box, tossing her two fruits – one each – before striding off to the kitchen to put the food away.

Nat looks over at her. “He’s in a good mood.”

“Yes.”

Usually, it takes a couple of days for Steve to make his way back to the facility after one of his counselling meetings. He comes back distant and a little morose, restless, and prone to answering anything in terse sentences.

Being reminded of the loss of the love of his life tends to do that to him.

Maria elbows her mouse so the computer wakes up, then lets the machine do its facial recognition to unlock the system. Her desk faces Nat’s desk, lined up along the sides with the back edges meeting. Their computers sit catty-corner to each other so they can talk over the middle. It’s an efficient way of organizing the office space so they’re not looking over each other’s shoulders, and they can ignore each other if they need to.

Back in the first year, they worked in different offices, poking their heads in when they needed to consult about this or that. About nine months after Thanos, with Steve living in the city, Rhodey moved back to California, and Banner gone to Boston, Maria realized that Nat was spending the majority of the day on the couch in Maria’s office instead of in her own. At that point it made more sense to bring the second desk in and arrange it so they were working in the same office space.

Within an hour of Steve moving the desk into position (because why strain themselves when they had a supersoldier to hand?) Nat had her system set up and was happily working at the station.

The shared space means they can consult easily, but they can just as easily call each other out. The way Nat is about to do – she’s giving Maria the eyeball.

“You’re not working tonight,” Nat says. “We were going to watch a movie, remember?”

You were going to watch a movie,” Maria reminds her. “I was going to make cynical comments.”

“I thought it was my turn to make cynical comments.”

“No, I think it’s always my turn.” Maria dodges the pen that Nat flings at her – a slow arc, not so fast that she can’t evade the projectile. “Steve’s back, you’ve got company. And he’s never seen the Clooney trilogy, remember?”

“A serious oversight,” Nat remarks as she clicks through a number of things on her computer.

“I know. What were you all doing while on the run, anyway?”

“Wasting our time with inferior movies, obviously.” Nat looks over at her. “You can spare a little time. He’s home early.”

No, Maria wants to say, he’s just back early.

She doesn’t, because that’s not how Nat thinks. This is home to Nat. They are home. They belong here, and the others are just...temporarily absent.

For months after ‘the Snapture’, Maria thought about trying to get out of international intelligence and world security. She stayed because she doesn’t have any training outside of it – the year she was employed by Stark Industries doesn’t count – and because Natasha was determined to stay and hold the fort, alone if necessary.

Sometimes Maria wonders if she should have dragged Nat out and burned the facility to the ground back in that first year. If she could have. If Nat would have forgiven her afterwards. After all, Nat came to the Avengers after S.H.I.E.L.D crumbled, and for a while this became her home – not just a place of work, but a place with people who mattered.

Maria didn’t have that – maybe a little at Stark Tower, but that was as much because of Pepper and Helen and Jane and Sam and Rhodey – all the people who weren’t Avengers, but who were in and out of the Tower and paused by her office to get the downlow – as because of the Avengers.

All that was lost to Maria when the Avengers moved to the facility. This new space they’re sitting in doesn’t hold the same kind of emotional warmth that it does for Nat because she was never part of the Avengers here.

Maria is here because Nat insists on staying.

Determination? Or penance? Maria still doesn’t know.

They don’t do well with guilt and failure, Jane Foster said briskly the first time she and Maria met after the Snap. They don’t understand it, they don’t like it, they can’t handle it. Science is about picking up the remains of the experiment and keeping going. Try something new. Throw new co-efficients in. Work out how to manufacture quantum variables, just add vibranium... But heroes are...once they’ve failed, all they can see is that failure – until something or someone kicks them out of it again...and even then the failure will probably haunt them...

But failure in science doesn’t usually have a body count.

Jane sighed. And that’s also true.

Maria looks at Nat. “I need to talk to Michael Hing in Sydney. It’s scheduled in an hour.”

Nat rolls her eyes. “Fine.” Steve walks back in with a plate of food. “Maria isn’t going to join us watching the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy tonight.”

“Oh?” He sits down in the guest chair with his plate of pre-boiled eggs, cold ham, pickles, and the leftover coleslaw from yesterday, and looks expectantly over at Maria. “Why not?”

“Sydney asked for a meeting.”

“Anything important?”

“He didn’t say it was.”

“But…?”

Something about the careful way Hing phrased it caught her eye. She sent back a meeting time and received the response. It was nothing she could put her finger on, just a lingering sense of…something.

“I have a feeling.”

“It could be bunnies.”

Maria rolls her eyes at Nat’s quip. Steve grins.

“Is it anything you might need us for?”

She shakes her head. “No. You can still start the movie, I’ll just join you when I’m done.”

They accept that, although the look Nat gives her is suspicious before she shrugs.

As Steve eats, Nat updates him on the World Security meeting from intergalactic empires to cartel corpses. Unsurprisingly, both of them linger on Rhodey’s news.

“So Clint’s still out there...” Steve muses, setting his finished plate on the desk and leaning back in the visitor chair. “Do you think he’d come out if he knew I was looking for him?”

“He might...” Nat sounds hopeful.

Maria disagrees, but doesn’t say so. There’s no point in bringing her down. Nat wants to find Clint but Clint doesn’t want to be found – and short of main force, there’s no way to bring a reluctant spy out of hiding when he’s resisting coming in.

“And Carol’s sure that we won’t have to worry about spillover from the collapsing empires?”

“Apparently we have a reputation after Thanos, so most people aren’t willing to try it.”

Steve grimaces as he links his hands behind his head. “The problem isn’t usually most people, the problem is the one or two who want to try themselves out against your reputation...”

“Well, most of us are still here, even if there aren’t so many of us in the game. anymore” Nat points out, leaning back in her chair and putting her feet up on the desk. “And there’s Carol.”

“Yes,” Steve echoes, “There’s Carol.”

It’s not that the guys don’t like Carol – Thor, in particular, thinks she’s great. But Steve and Rhodey are accustomed to Natasha’s more subtle, self-effacing style of competence, and Carol’s in-your-face feminism straight out of the 90s is disconcerting.

Maria finds it disconcerting, too, but she also enjoys watching the guys squirm, just a little.

Steve glances over at Maria who’s savoring the last crunchy bit of her sandwich and half-smiles, as though he’s got a gift for her. “I saw a pod of dolphins when I was coming up the bridge.”

“A pod of dolphins?” Maria blinks. “In the Hudson?”

He laughs. “Not quite. Lower Bay. But it shows the toxic waste dredgers are working. And that was your idea.”

“With Pepper and Okoye’s support.”

The mention of Pepper doesn’t make Steve or Nat wince anymore. For a while, anything associated with Tony was touch-and-go, the memory of Tony’s last slam – you weren’t there – echoing in their heads.

“It seemed like something to do at the time,” she replies.

The conversation had been between her and Pepper and Okoye about technology and how they were going to use it going forward. Things that might make the world more livable, not just fancier and cooler gadgets.

If we’re going to be down half the world population, Maria had argued, then we’ll need to be proactive in looking after what’s left.

Wakandan technology played a part, but the landlocked African nation didn’t have the base equipment capable of the job. They provided the filter components, a lot of the design ideas, and a great deal of the chemical processing formulae since vibranium apparently has unique properties when it comes to catalyzing chemical reactions with baser metals.

It also provided Wakandans with world-class visibility and employment opportunities everywhere.

Sometimes Maria wonders what Okoye bargained in exchange for that – or if she went ahead and pushed the project through before M’Baku had a chance to get his ruling feet under him. It wouldn’t surprise her; Okoye can be ruthless in politics where she sees the need.

This is possibly why they get along so well.

Steve sits up and collects their plates. “I’m going to put together something more substantial. Did either of you want anything?”

Nat bites conspicuously into her apple. “I’m good. I’ll head out and set up the movie so Ms All-Work-And-No-Play here can do her thing with Hing.”

“You make that sound so dirty.”

“It’s a special skill I have.” Nat moseys off in the direction of the rec room, and Steve smiles ruefully at Maria.

“You’ve been okay?”

“It’s been quiet,” she says. “Not much happening. I heard from Valkyrie the other week. She said Thor might be coming out of his mood early this year.”

“The years give it distance,” he says after a moment. “But the anniversary always stings.”

“It’s still not your failure.”

“I know that in my head.” He taps himself over the chest. “It’s here that it’s hard to believe.”

“I can keep saying it.”

“I hope you will.” Steve’s expression softens. “You’re sure I can’t get you anything?”

“Just some peace so I can get this call done.”

She regrets being brusque when his half-smile fades.

“I’ll do that, then.”

Maria watches him walk out and wonders why she has to be this way. “Steve.” He pauses out in the corridor, turns back. She holds up the apple. “Thank you.”

The flickering smile isn’t quite what she wiped from his face, but it’ll have to do.

The meeting with Hing is simple enough. Things are happening in central Australia – the parts that are less inhabited. He calls them shimmers – like mirages, but ones that don’t vanish as the viewer approaches. Trying to toss something through a shimmer makes it vanish; trying to plunge into the shimmer makes it vanish – and Maria is not to ask how drunk the people trying this were – and they move around – the sightings have been several hundred klicks apart, and several of them happen at the same time.

“Our physicists and astrophysicists are at their wits’ end. And yeah, I’ve called Doc Foster,” Hing says wryly. “As the foremost scientist with any kind of portal experience, she’s fully booked up until the end of next century.”

Dr. Erik Selvig – the other scientist with significant portal experience – died in the Snap. And while others have done plenty of theorizing in the days, weeks, months, and years since the events of New Mexico, New York, London, and Wakanda, what they lack is the actual experience.

“I’ll have a word with Jane,” Maria promises, “and see what she can fit in.”

“Good. Because I’d hate to discover the next invasion has just popped up in our backyard. We’d much rather leave that kind of thing to you Yanks.”

“Well, we are better at dealing with it.”

“Ouch.” Hing pauses. “I was going to say ‘all times except the last one’ but that’s a bit close to the bone.”

“Just a bit.”

Maria ends the call, calculates the time in Europe where Jane is living, and sends off an email rather than texting or calling her. Then she dashes off an email to Brunnhilde about the Australian anomalies, an email to Okoye about the dolphins in the Lower Hudson, and a text to Pepper about the same.

Really? Dolphins? Morgan asks what kind and did he take photos? A moment later, Pepper adds, Tony is telling her that he can get her pictures from all the way across the continent. However, I think a visit to New York may be on the cards... Got time to see your goddaughter?

Maria smiles. I always have time for my goddaughter and you.

hi anty maria thisis morgan will u brng me pizza

Did your dad tell you to tell me to bring you pizza?

There’s a long silence on the other end of the phone, during which time Maria imagines a three-way tussle for Pepper’s phone.

Apparently we’re doing pizza the next time we’re in New York.

It’s not really deep dish in New York; Maria types, it’s just faking it.

Oh God, don’t you start. Look, I’ll organize in next few days and we’ll have a real proper talk while Tony and Morgan play floor bingo in Tower elevators. Maria can almost hear Pepper rolling her eyes.

A moment later, another message pops up, Bring Natasha if she wants to leave the compound.

The inclusion surprises her a little. Pepper and Natasha have always been friendly, but have never quite managed anything more. Maria’s not sure how much of this hails back to the initial deception by Nat, back when she was faking it as a legal secretary to get close to Tony, and how much of this is just two women who respect each other and like each other but somehow can’t quite match up to friendship.

I’ll ask, Maria types back. She doesn’t think Nat will come along – not if it means stepping foot in Stark Tower – but she’ll ask.

She leans back in her chair.

Tony’s bitterness towards the Avengers hasn’t abated any more than Steve’s guilt. No surprise there, they both have root in the schism between the Avengers and their subsequent failure to stop Thanos. It’s been something of a stumbling block in the last few years, even if Pepper has done a lot to keep things going professionally and personally.

Fortunately, Tony and Rhodey had made up by the time Pepper’s pregnancy was announced. Maria was acceptable since she’d left the Avengers long before the schism. But Nat was still an Avenger – and, moreover, one who’d ended up betraying him by siding with Steve.

When Natasha had turned up with Maria to Morgan’s fourth birthday party a few months ago, the reception from Tony had been civil and brutally polite. Nat had responded with pristine courtesy, and Maria and Rhodey spent the afternoon heading off world war three, while Pepper distracted Morgan who knew something wasn’t quite right among the adults, but was more than willing to be occupied by cake and gifts and her friends from pre-school.

I’m not going back,” Nat said as they drove away from the house. “I won’t do that again.

Maria didn’t try to convince her otherwise.

She glances at the clock – Nat passed by the office door early on in her conversation with Hing, and Steve peered in five minutes after that. They’d be about an hour in at this point, the point at which Brad Pitt works out that this is revenge and not just a heist.

As she shuts down the computer and tidies her desk, her phone rings – Jane.

Maria leads with, “Why are you even up?”

“Because there’s far too much to know and not enough time to know it in.” Jane is matter-of-fact as she adds, “And because more points of weakness in the fabric of the universe is a bad sign. Especially when they’re appearing in places we haven’t found them before.”

“Because it means the temporal fabric all around Earth is getting thin?”

“You read my report?”

“Always the note of surprise,” Maria quips, making Jane laugh. “I skimmed it; the technical details aren’t my forte, but I got the gist of it. When Thanos used the stones on Earth it affected the fabric of the universe around us – basically thinned it to the point where theoretically something could pass through from one universe to another.”

“Did you read the note I added where it would help if I got to Thanos’ planet to observe and runs some testing there? Seeing as he destroyed the stones there, it would be useful to know what kind of effects that planet is experiencing – to compare two ground zeros, as it were…”

“I completely ignored that part.”

“I figured you would. I don’t need to point out that if this is a problem that we’ll be living with, then getting to it sooner rather than later is a sensible decision?”

Maria sighs. “I’ll talk it over with Carol next time she’s in. Or Rocket and Nebula – whoever turns up first.”

“That’s all I’m asking for.” Jane pauses. “Well, that and how the fifth anniversary went.”

“Quietly.” Maria glances at the door, but judges it safe enough not to close. “They’re still beating themselves up over it.”

“They’re heroes.” And, really, that says it all, doesn’t it? “Saving the world is their by-line. If they can’t even do that…?”

“Well, on the positive side, Valkyrie says Thor might be coming out of his annual binge a month or two early…”

“Positive,” Jane agrees. “Look, if I’m heading down under at some point, I could maybe drop in…”

“You could.” Maria puts the phone on speaker and starts typing up an email to Michael Hing. “I’ve given you Michael’s number and details. I’ll let him know that you’ll be in contact with him.”

“I’ll let you know if I’m passing through the US, too. Because I think it’s been at least two years since I last saw you or Bruce. How’s his diner going?”

“I…didn’t know he had one.”

“Oh. I thought you guys were in touch.”

“Pepper is.”

“Of course she is.” The smile comes through in Jane’s voice. “Between the two of you, you’ve got all the people relevant to world security pretty much tied up. Well, I want to know how the astronomy book went over, so I guess I’ll call her and find that out at the same time.”

After Jane hangs up, Maria sets the phone down on the desk and stares out the window into the night.

Between the two of you...

It’s not just her and Pepper, though – it’s Pepper and Okoye and Nat...

Okay, so Okoye is Dora Milaje: her first loyalty is to Wakanda and always will be. She has a trained and instinctive distrust of outsiders and a wariness of colonizers – people who think in white superiority, even if they would never consider themselves racist. Her best skills lie in the knowledge of Wakandan capability – military, political, and technical – and in her ability to see solutions that the others haven’t seen because of their common background.

Nat’s foremost connection after S.H.I.E.L.D was always with the Avengers. It had to be – they were her team, the people she counted on in a fight, who counted on her. Natasha was an Avenger. Is still an Avenger, even if there are no Avengers any more, even if there’s nothing to avenge.

Tony stormed off and Clint went radio silent. Bruce left, and Thor went back to his people. Steve ran away to the city, and Rhodey moved across the continent.

They might have been functional in the field, but when it came to their interactions…well, dysfunctional was maybe a bit strong, but thinking about the quiet in the facility behind her, Maria supposes it’s not entirely wrong. And until Nate, she thought she was dysfunctional, too – what kind of woman picks world security over personal security, over a husband and family and children? Not a normal one, that’s for sure!

Her hand finds its way to the chain that dangles in the throat of her shirt, the ruby in its old gold setting warm and caressing between her breasts.

I should like the woman my son loved to have this in remembrance of someone who loved her.

Sometimes Maria wonders if she would have said ‘yes’, or if she would have run far, far away from the terrifying prospect that here was a man who was prepared to lay his heart and his future in her hands, even knowing what she was, who she’d worked for, where she’d been.

There’s a soft noise at the end of a corridor – someone pausing at the entryway to the office wing, and as the footsteps start up the corridor, growing closer, Maria lifts the chain off over her head and drops it into the pen-holder with a loop of chain out so she can retrieve it easily later.

A few moments later, Steve pauses in the doorway, his reflection a silhouette against the corridor before he comes forward and the side lamp casts shadows across his face.

“Trilogy can’t be finished yet,” she says lightly.

“We only watched the first one.” He doesn’t stand beside her, but goes to the window and peers out into the darkness of what used to be the ‘landing field’ and which has, in the last two years, become a vegetable patch that goes by the name ‘Steve’s Space’.

Initially Natasha called it his ‘Victory Garden’, before Rhodey – in a cynical frame of mind that day – pointed out that it was really a ‘Defeat Garden’. Calling it ‘The Garden’ was completely out of the question, so Maria just called it ‘Steve’s Space’ and when Nat tried to point out that it was earth, not space, and she was mixing metaphors. Exasperated Maria threatened to brain Nat with a pitchfork and see how that mixed metaphor went down, at which point Steve took the pitchfork out of her hand and told them if they were going to kill each other, then they could go back inside to do it, and leave him to his space in peace and quiet.

Maria smiles to herself. As memories go, it’s a good one – the sunlight, Nat’s arch laughter, Steve’s exasperation, the sudden spurt of fondness and gratefulness and relief that they were still here and so was she.

Steve’s fallen silent at the window. Uncomfortable with the quiet, Maria asks, “How’d the session in the city go this morning?”

“Only a dozen people.” Steve half-smiles. “Down from nearly forty last time. Maybe it’s the anniversary.”

“Maybe,” Maria says, although she wonders if it’s also that he hasn’t been there for them to lean on in the last four months. “Was much progress made?”

“One of the guys went on a date. First time in five years. He cried and so did his date, but he’ll see the guy again so...that’s something.”

It’s something. Five years later. Of course Maria doesn’t say this: Steve’s been mourning what he lost for the last ten years, after all, and she has some sensitivity to her.

She tries to avoid thinking about why it stings so much.

“There’s a woman whose daughter is old enough to ask about her father. But she didn’t know the father all that well when he died. The pregnancy wasn’t planned, she actually intended to have an abortion, and then...”

“She loves her daughter now, though, doesn’t she?”

“Yeah. But she was struggling with telling her daughter that she was accidental – that she wasn’t even wanted to begin with.”

Maria thinks about the child that she wanted and lost on the long trip to the facility. She thinks about the child she was – unwanted and feeling it like frosted steel against her skin. “If she loves her daughter now, then her daughter knows it. She’s got nothing to feel guilty for.”

“We told her that. She still struggles with having even wanted the abortion. With not wanting her daughter.”

“‘You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.’”

“Well, the reassurance probably helps.” Steve smiles a little at the shadows outside the window. “At this point, it’s mostly reassurance.”

Isn’t it all? The words hover on Maria’s lips, but she leaves them unsaid.

The first counselling groups were in the hundreds – days and days of counselling of advice, or dealing. Groups were full of people trying to cope, people trying to manage their grief, people dealing with anxiety about the sudden uncertainty of everything in their lives. And what had resulted was basically mass therapy – less about the individual, more about finding ways to deal with the extreme loss they’d all experienced.

It’s not going to be perfect,” the head psychologist had said in one of the early sessions, “but even what you lost wasn’t perfect – just familiar. And we’re all going to have to deal with the unfamiliar now – all of us, together and individually both. So let’s choose to be kind to each other, and we’ll work this out as we go along.”

Some people chose to be kind; others didn’t. Some people worked out mechanisms to cope that worked for them. Some people developed communities that held each other up through the grief. Others self-medicated in various ways – found something to fill the hole, or dull the pain. Not a few gave up, unable to bear survival when they’d lost so much else. But time kept moving and life went on, and those who clung to life made connections that were worth keeping kept going.

Overall, the meetings helped some people.

Others didn’t even try.

Nat refused point-blank to let anyone trawl her psyche.

Maria went a few times, but didn’t feel comfortable continuing.

Steve went back. And again. And again. And again. Then he started studying the techniques used, researching the various therapies and systems for counselling. When the organiser withdrew from the group at the end of the second year, Steve took over as the co-ordinator for the greater New York area.

One by one, the other counsellors closed up shop, leaving Steve to running the sessions alone. The attendees left now are the hard cases: the ones who can’t let go of their loved ones but aren’t willing to let go of life either.

“Does that sound familiar?” Nat asked when Maria made that observation nearly a year ago. “Hmm, let me think...

Maria thinks that with the five year anniversary, there’ll be more people finding that time and new situations will tear open old wounds.

Steve is still staring out the window into the night.

Then he turns, and Maria realizes he was watching her in the reflected window. “I’m sorry about the movie.”

He shrugs a little. “I’m not the one who needs the apology.”

Maria winces. “I was...there were things that needed looking into.”

“There always are.” Steve hesitates.

“What?”

“Earlier, when we were talking about Clint, you were going to say something but you didn’t. You...” He hesitates, then continues. “I asked if Clint might come in if I went looking for him and you didn’t quite wince.”

Maria sighs and glances automatically to the door just in case Nat’s hovering there. Still, she lowers her voice.

“Clint knows where we are, how to reach us. While we’re not exactly front and center anymore, neither have the Avengers been operating beneath the radar the last five years. Yet, for all that...Clint hasn’t contacted anyone.”

“He doesn’t want to be found.”

“Now ask why he doesn’t want to be found.”

Now it was his turn to wince. “Because of Nat.”

“If he’d asked, Nat would have gone hunting with him, and there’d be nothing and no-one to stop them.”

“But he hasn’t.” Steve exhales. “Does Nat know?”

“I don’t know.”

But at some level Nat must know. She’s no idiot, and five years of Clint running lone wolf when there are people who would welcome him in isn’t just a mood, but a conscious and hard-held decision – maybe even a cruelty.

Maria wants to punch Clint for being an idiot and clinging to the old order of things, but...well, she’d have to  punch Steve while she was at it. And maybe herself and Nat, too...

The truth is that they’re surviving, but sooner or later they’ll have to move past mere survival to living for tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that.

Maria’s starting to think she’s about to get her wake-up call; tears in the temporal fabric of the world would be game-changers – and they’re not the only ones in play.

At the window, Steve tilts his head at her.

“So are you done for the night now, or am I going to have to carry you off to bed tonight as well?”

Her skin heats, but she doesn’t drop her gaze at the reference to the way he got her into bed last time. “Yes, I’m done for the night. I’ll come quietly.”

As he crosses the room towards her, his mouth quirks. “That’s not usually the case...”

When he pulls her up, Maria makes sure Steve’s mouth is put to better use than making smart remarks.

And no, she doesn’t come quietly.

They’ve been fuck-buddies – or friends with benefits, or however this thing is described – for nearly two years now, and while the sex isn’t pedestrian, it’s not exactly wild anymore either.

Tonight, though, there’s an edge.

If he doesn’t quite carry her off to bed, the hand that presses in the small of her back is insistent as they walk to her rooms. His mouth is on hers before the door is closed, and she’s one pair of panties shy of naked before she’s managed to do more than get him out of his shirt. And even once they’re in bed, he wants to touch and taste and linger.

Maria lets him drive – right now, fighting him for control would only lead to frustration, even if not the sexual kind.

So she lets herself be kissed into dizzying breathlessness, stroked into liquid heat, and licked into brutal orgasm before Steve fits himself into her body. Then he takes his time, forehead pressed against hers, blue eyes watching her half-shuttered as he moves to his own completion with long slow, steady strokes, shattering her twice more along the way.

Pepper once asked what Steve was like in bed. “I guess I’m curious.

The word Maria finally came up with was ‘Thorough’.

Afterwards, breathless and brainless, with her arms draped limply around his neck and his face buried in her shoulder, Maria lies there and thinks that this is...pleasant.

It won’t last, of course.

He needs to deal with the condom and clean up. Then he’ll get dressed, kiss her goodnight and go back to his rooms. That’s how they’ve done this relationship for the last two years, that’s how this  post-coital script goes.

Maria’s never looked for more from Steve. More died with Nathan, drifting into dust and ashes; with her unborn child, bled out in a truck stop on the way to the facility; with the death of Marilyn Pryor, who sent her son’s lover the ring he’d intended to give her four years earlier.

She takes pleasure in the now, but she’s been careful not to think beyond that. And the truth is that Steve isn’t the kind of guy to think about the future; he lives in the now. Maria was okay with that.

Tonight, when he kisses her before getting up to deal with the condom, Maria wonders about the future of this relationship. Sex when he’s here, out of sight and mind when she’s not – and when he goes to sleep, Peggy Carter stares out from the old pocket-watch he keeps on his nightstand, guarding his heart with unseeing eyes.

After the first time they had sex – when he swept the pocket-watch into the drawer not quite fast enough for Maria to miss – she’s made sure that they have sex in her room. She doesn’t need Steve to be emotionally available, but she’d rather not be made to feel guilty for fucking him under the watchful eye of ‘the love of his life’ seven years after the woman died aged ninety-two, having gotten over him, and married another man to live her life out with him, thank you very much!

Steve emerges from the bathroom, cleaned up but still naked, and with a warm, damp washcloth in hand for Maria to clean herself up.

When she takes it, though, rather than pull on his jeans and say goodnight, Steve sits down on the bed and drops a kiss on her shoulder. “Do you mind if I stay tonight?”

“No,” she says. “Of course not.”

It’s not the first time he’s asked to stay the night. It’s not the first time she’s said yes.

But tonight Maria has the lingering feeling that the ground has shifted beneath her feet such that she no longer is sure of where she stands.

She slips out to clean herself up and do her bedtime routine – brush her teeth, apply cold cream, drink a glass of water. She tries not to overthink what’s changed. Whatever happened at the counselling session in New York shook him enough that he wants someone to hold through the night, that’s all.

She doesn’t know why it unsettles her.

When she emerges, Steve’s waiting for her on the bed, the covers thrown back so she can climb in. And as she orders the lights out, he spoons up against her back, an arm over her waist, his legs tangling with hers.

Maria stifles her shiver as his lips brush her nape. “You’re cuddly tonight.”

“I missed you…”

“And?”

“And I like this.” He shifts a little. “Do you mind?”

Would it matter if I did?

“Do I mind that you like being cuddly?” She keeps her voice light. “Not particularly. You’re my savings on electric blankets.”

Steve’s huff of laughter stirs the fine hairs on her nape and unfurls something in her chest. “I’m always happy to help save on electric blankets.”

She lifts her hand to brush his jaw, almost pettingly, and he turns his cheek to nuzzle against her palm.

Something’s changed, and Maria doesn’t know what. But she doesn’t need to know right now, tomorrow will worry about itself when they get there.

Tonight, they lie together, quiet and peaceful and intimate in the darkness.


Twelve hours later, Scott Lang arrives at the gates of the Avengers compound.