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A Question Of Loyalty

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It’s the power that gives you
the strength to survive

The first time Maria’s father backhands her is also the last.

She stumbles back, her cheek and her heart burning with the blow. There’s a moment when her shock echoes in his expression, before it hardens into something ugly. Then Anna gets between them. “Robert!”

Maria’s father steps forward as though to shove past his wife. Anna flinches and puts up her hands in instinctive defence. He stops and looks at her – a grudging, resentful glance – then turns on his heel and storms out. They hear the back door slam behind him, and the crunch of gravel beneath his boots as he stomps out to the shed.

Anna’s shoulders barely relax as she turns to look at Maria. “Let’s see that..." When Maria flinches away from the gentle touch, Anna only says, “Michaela, get David and Jon to bed. Josh, get the peas from the fridge, please.”

“Michaela can get them!”

“Josh,” Anna sounds calm but deadly, “get the peas from the fridge. Then go to bed. And don’t wake the babies.”

Peas are procured and the kids sent to bed. Josh whines a bit, but he knows his mom’s word is law. Jonny ventures close enough to pat Maria on the arm before scampering off to bed at Michaela’s call.

Maria lets the peas ease the swelling and keeps an ear out for her father’s return.

“I’m going to Trudy’s,” she tells Anna when her heartbeat’s slowed down enough so she can think again. Cold. She has to be cold or she’ll break. She doesn’t dare break. “I’ll be back for my stuff.”

Anna tenses, opens her mouth. Her gaze darts to Maria’s already bruising cheek. Then her shoulders slump a little. “Okay.” She looks Maria in the eye. “Let me know what you want and I’ll get it packed for you tomorrow.”

Maria takes her school bag and her anorak from the peg by the door. She walks a mile through dimly-lit streets to get to Trudy’s house.

Anna doesn’t offer to drive her. Maria wouldn’t accept if she did.

Her father never apologises.

Maria never goes back to that house again.

 

Crowded downtown hit the floor
What are we fightin' for?

In the chaos of Madam Hydra’s city-wide announcement, the little apartment in Madripoor is abuzz with dismay and protest, with confusion about what’s going on, and conflict about what should be done next.

From her perch at the edge of the couch, Maria watches the chaos of a dozen people who each believe they know what’s best to do in this situation, and thinks ‘order, counterorder, disorder’.

A hand brushes hers and she glances down at Ms. Carter, suddenly concerned. In all the fuss and bother, it would be easy to lose sight of the needs of one elderly woman – too much big picture, not enough little people – and the little people should count, too. “Ms. Carter?”

Cold fingers close almost convulsively about her, a grip that burns like hot steel. “HYDRA must be stopped,” she whispers in a thready voice.

“Your agents are working on it,” Maria jerks her head at the rest of the room.

“Not them.” Peggy’s gaze searches Maria’s face. “You.”

Maria nearly laughs. “I’m not one of your S.H.I.E.L.D agents, lady. Semper fi, remember?”

“Yes. But who are you faithful to?”

The question hangs in the air, and before Maria can answer, a big, burly man in a business suit interrupts them. “Director Carter, we’re going to move you into the bedroom – we’ve got a medical unit incoming to look after you, although they’ll have to evade the patrols…”

Maria is shunted aside – of no moment, of no importance. Rather like Peggy, who protests at being tucked away but is overruled by the condescension of men who know better.

She helps get Peggy to bed, partly so she becomes part of the scenery, partly because it gives her time to think.

Where do her loyalties lie?

A week ago, she’d have said ‘the Marines’ without hesitation.

Now? Now she’s a Marine without a command structure, without a mission. And even if there was a USMC command in place, would they give her anything to do other than monitor communications and help with planning? She’s a woman to the Marines, even before she’s a soldier.

At least this S.H.I.E.L.D organisation let Peggy do what needed to be done – even if they’re rather more eager to sweep her aside now than Maria likes.

Who are you loyal to?

In the moments before a pack of thieves came flying at her out of the mouth of the Madripoor alleyway, Maria was watching a mother herd her family along through the crowded city – six children, varying ages – and smiling at the sight, even as it occurred to her she should probably call Trudy to let Anna know that she was okay.

Peggy’s watching her with eyes that see too much. Maria scowls at the awareness in that gaze. “I’m one woman.”

“Ever heard of a lynchpin?”

She takes a deep breath and thinks of yesterday’s family huddling in an apartment no bigger than this one, wondering what happens tomorrow, after Madam Hydra creates her perfect city and her ordered government and her little power base with which to challenge the world.

She’s only ever asked ‘why’ once. After the funeral, with her father’s body safely buried, the children hustled off with Anna’s parents, and a moment outside the house that was never a home to her.

Anna took a moment to answer. Because I couldn’t be your mother, but I could stand for you.

Not for the Marines, then. Not for S.H.I.E.L.D. Not even for Peggy Carter.

“All right,” she says. “What do you have for me?”

 

Wars may be fought with weapons,
but they are won or lost by men.

At any other time, Maria would bask in the quirk of Melinda’s mouth – a sign that she’s done well, even if Coulson’s looking pretty bland as he looks from her to the man sitting beside her in the chopper arrowing out of Chinese airspace, back into international waters.

“Didn’t we say easy in and easy out?”

“It was easy in and easy out. You also said to trust my own judgement and not overthink it.” Maria replies. Beside her, the ‘kidnapped’ astrophysicist blinks benignly. “And he knows what we need.”

Coulson glances at May, who leans forward and starts questioning the astrophysicist in Mandarin. The scientist answers back, voluble and excited, and a conversation ensues with a display of eyebrows by May, and expansive gestures by the astrophysicist.

Even before the conversation finishes, Coulson’s resigned himself to the situation. Maria sees it in the way he leans back, his shoulders relaxing. Does he understand Mandarin, too? No, she thinks. He’s watching May and taking his cues from her.

“Richards is going to have a field day,” he mutters when May looks back at him and gives a shrug which Maria interprets as, I’m glad it’s you in charge of this mission and not me.

Maria’s glad of it, too. Especially when Senior Agent Richards is chewing them out for not following the mission plan.

“Four senior analysts, two senior agents, and a regional director looked over this mission, Agent Hill! They conceived, approved, and orchestrated it all the way down to the timing of the cameras. And you – a Level 1 operative with less than a year’s field experience – decide that you have a right to change the plan? To determine what S.H.I.E.L.D needed out of that facility?”

“Sir. Copying the drive would have given us the situation now.” Maria tells him, striving to land somewhere between the certainty of her own actions and the acknowledgement that she’s a very junior agent in the scheme of things. But she knows her own judgement and she trusts it. “Taking Dr. Chu will give us a reading of the situation as it changes.”

Richards is almost foaming at the mouth. “Bringing back a tag-along was not your decision to make!”

“It was when she’s the one out in the field,” May says sharply. “Hill had a decision to make, and she called it.”

“And, as the senior agent on this mission,” Coulson adds in cold and steely tones, “I’m in full support of her actions.”

Richards glares at Coulson and May for a few fierce seconds – but mostly Coulson - before he turns his ominous gaze on Maria. “Deputy Director Boyle will be hearing about this.”

Only Boyle is dead two days later in a car accident – really an accident, not an ‘accident’, so far as anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D can tell – and Richards only gets a shrug from Commander Fury. “We got a long-term resource for minimum pain. Where, exactly, is the problem?

What Maria remembers of the confrontation is walking out behind Coulson and May like a good little junior agent who’s just been trusted by the big guns and having to fight to damp down her grin.

 

Better to have one woman on your side than ten men.

The attack on Viljandi comes unexpectedly, around 0400 hours, just before the dawn shift rouses, when the thirty-eight personnel of the facility are either asleep or wanting to be on their way to it. Which was almost certainly the intention, of course.

What’s that saying about intentions and first engagement with the enemy? Maria doesn’t have time to remember as she taps her way through the security cams, scowling when she realises only a handful of agents are up and capable.

“They really want her back.”

Maria frowns as she studies the videos of the armoured men moving through the base, counting heads. Forty-five intruders – way more than are needed for anything less than a full takeover. “I don’t think they’re here for her, Miri.”

“What else is there in this godforsaken place?”

And that’s the question, right? Only as Maria glances up at the one screen which has barely changed since the alarm – a woman sitting on the spartan bed with her arms wrapped around her curled up knees – she’s still not convinced.

“You better not be thinking what I'm thinking you're thinking, Mars.”

“Turned to mind-reading now, Miri?”

“I don’t need to. I know you.” They’ve known each other since the day they started at Operations Academy – Maria fresh from Madripoor with Peggy’s recommendation stiffening her spine, Miriam straight from MOSSAD with a history that changed with every retelling. “We can’t trust her.”

That’s the conventional wisdom – that an assassin, a former enemy, a current prisoner, and a woman who was born, made, created, and trained to be a weapon cannot be trusted.

“Barton did.”

“You don’t have a little head to do your thinking. No, not even a little little head. Mars—”

If she thinks about it, she’ll hesitate. And she who hesitates is lost. “Are you with me, Miri, or not?”

The grumpy, solitary expletive is all the answer she needs.

It’s difficult, but if they couldn’t do difficult they wouldn’t be S.H.I.E.L.D. And while Maria has gained a reputation for being by the book, she’s very good at taking advantage of sheer chaos.

Miri covers the hallway behind them as Maria walks into Romanoff’s room. “Get up. We need your skills.”

Romanoff blinks at her, the lovely face expressionless. “You need—?” She pauses as Maria offers her the weapon, and the astonishment is sudden and stunning. But she takes the weapon, checks it, cocks it. And smiles.

“You’d better not be wrong about this, Mars,” Miri snarls as they step back into the corridor.

“I’m not,” she says with more confidence than she feels with her career on the line and an international assassin standing behind her, fully armed.

And she isn’t.

Maria and Miriam make a decent accounting of themselves, along with the other S.H.I.E.L.D agents who manage to rally defence, but Natasha Romanoff has her moniker and her reputation for a reason. Four hours, forty-five intruders, a bomb deactivation, and a trojan virus later, the facility is declared clear and the Black Widow relinquishes the weapons she’s accumulated in the last five hours to an impressed-but-still-scowling Miri.

Maria gives the Widow an acknowledging nod as she pulls out her PDA and starts calculating the butcher’s bill for the night. She taps in a memo about Romanoff’s involvement, then pauses when her name is called.

She turns to look, and as their eyes meet it occurs to Maria that Romanoff’s no older than she is.

“Why?”

So many answers, and none of it seems quite adequate.

Oh, wait.

“Because I couldn’t be your mother, but I could stand for you.”

Romanoff frowns. “That makes no sense.”

Maria grins. “It does to me.”

 

Any man can make mistakes, but only an idiot persists in his error.

There are moments in life when realisation hits like Lil Vendi punching out an FBI jerkwad who thinks her hip-to-waist ratio means she’s okay with his hand on her ass. In this case, the realisation is that adulthood is merely a facade that children improve upon with time.

As Maria considers evident watching a respected and respectable politician throwing a tantrum.

Of course, the version of ‘tantrum’ which Secretary Alexander Pierce is throwing has less screaming and thrashing about, and it’s in the privacy of Fury’s office, but there’s plenty of metaphoric heel-kicking, and more than a few hard words.

“Hundreds of other agents, Nick. Thousands. And you pick the one—”

“Who took a city off HYDRA even before she joined S.H.I.E.L.D,” Nick notes drolly. “Who’s proved herself in the field and out of it repeatedly. Who survived chasing Loki out of New Mexico. Who’s standing there taking your disapproval with one of the best expressionless faces I’ve ever seen – and goddamn, I’ve seen a few.”

Pierce swings around and pins Maria with a frank look that doesn’t bother to hide the irritation. “Is she even old enough to drink, Nick? For God’s sake, at least pick someone with a few wrinkles!”

“Can’t afford to – got too many of those myself. Alex, the future’s coming faster than we can meet it. We need young minds, capable of change, not old minds set in their ways. And,” he adds as he leans back against the desk, “informing you of Hill’s appointment to Deputy Director is a courtesy, not an invitation to criticise. The Director’s decision is final, and no correspondence will be entered into.”

Pierce huffs and puffs (okay, so he puts his hands in his pockets and gives Fury a long hard glare) but when he turns to Maria, his expression is civil. “Commander Hill.”

“Mr. Secretary.”

“I’ve been blunt,” he says. “Even rude. However you’re the plain-spoken type and you’re up for a job that comes with a permanent disapproval rating, so I’ll just lay it out for you. I think you’re too young for this job, and there are more suitable candidates. But as Nick’s reminded me, you’re a good agent, a solid asset, and his choice. And I have great respect for you and the work you’ve done for S.H.I.E.L.D, even if we’ve never gotten on.  Now I’ve disapproved of Nick and his actions plenty of times, and we’re still working together for the good of the world. Are you able to put our history aside in this job?”

Maria notes that the requirement to ‘put their history aside’ is all on her, since Pierce is the one who’s made his disapproval plain. But there’s nothing else to say other than, “I can do that, Mr. Secretary.”

She shakes hands – firm, dry, and assured: a politician’s handshake – and Pierce gives Fury a look and says, “I’ll call you when we get the confirmation about Insight.”

Fury waits until the door seals behind Pierce. “I wouldn’t have picked you if you couldn’t handle shit that comes with the role, Hill.”

“Including Secretary Pierce, sir?”

“Including him.”

Maria arches a brow. “So will that be in my job description, sir?”

Deputy Director of S.H.I.E.L.D, Wrangler of Idiots, Shit Handler, and Cat Herder.” He snorts. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

 

And the most she will do
Is throw shadows at you
But she's always a woman to me

One of the first lessons Maria learned from S.H.I.E.L.D. was not to try to be one of the boys.

Coming out of the war, Peggy said when Maria was explaining why she was on ‘leave’ in the middle of South-East Asia, I learned not to be anything but myself. You may have to play by their rules, but they’ll never accept you as one of them, so be respected on your own terms.

The women in S.H.I.E.L.D Operations deal with the innate sexism of intelligence work – in command and in the field – in their own separate ways. Romanoff chooses the extreme end of cool competence. Carter is politely politic and slides neatly in under the radar. Hand sticks to the rules, steps on the toes of those who trespass, and hardlines everything. May pokes fun – or did, before Bahrain.

Maria likes to take a little of all of the above, and toss in some sarcasm for good measure.

Of course, respect is always a slippery thing for a woman.

“Dang, boys, looks like we’re swallowing the Pill today.”

Maria can’t quite hear the groans through the ducting – the echoes are indistinct in the locker room, although the words are clear enough in the quiet of the women’s change rooms. The ability to overhear conversations in the men’s change rooms is an architectural quirk of the recent renovations that none of of the female S.H.I.E.L.D personnel have yet reported to building maintenance.

She wasn’t intending to eavesdrop, but it looks like she has.

“Do it fast and think of America,” another man advises. “No offence, Cap.”

“None taken,” Rogers says after a second. “Which would mean something if the offence was against me.”

Someone’s snort is audible. “Looks like Cap’s a believer in taking your medicine like a good boy!”

“No, I believe that Commander Hill is doing her job and doing it well. Calling her a Pill puts down both the job she does – which isn’t easy to begin with – and disrespects her.”

There’s a chorus of ‘ooohs’ and some laughter. “Looks like Cap’s got a girlfriend,” someone teases.

“I have a lot of respect for Commander Hill – for all the women working in S.H.I.E.L.D,” Rogers answers levelly. “It doesn’t mean I want to bed them all.”

“Just one or two of them, hey, Cap?”

There’s a pause then, “I’m taking the Fifth on that.”

While the guys push at him to name names – which, thankfully, the man has more sense than to do – Maria gathers up her things and heads out to the briefing. She didn’t intend to overhear the by-play, but her period decided to make an appearance early, and counter-measures were required.

Just one more reminder that Maria will never be one of the boys.

Still, she thinks as the men file into the room, as she receives a faint smile and nod from Rogers, while she’s never needed the approval of the men she works with – apart, perhaps, from Coulson and Fury – it’s good to know that, female or not, Captain America has her back.

 

Be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.

Well, this is awkward.

“Excuse me?” Maria stares at her new employer, tired and punchy after the last few days, and wondering if she’s heard right.

Pepper Potts folds her hands on top of the desk. “I asked why you’re here.”

“Because you’re offering me a job?”

“You came to us, Ms. Hill, not the other way around. Which means there’s something here that you want. Hence the question: Why are you here? Now that S.H.I.E.L.D’s down for the count, where do your loyalties lie?”

It’s not a question she expected to be asked. Not here, not after the last few days she’s had, scrambling to get S.H.I.E.L.D resources out of the hands of HYDRA agents, trying to preserve what’s left of intel and knowledge and technology and world security, wondering if she’ll ever sleep again for fretting over who she trusted and shouldn’t have, how she unwittingly contributed to the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D.

It’s not a question she wants to answer right now.

Some things will have to give way – some of their people will have to be written off. There’s no way for Maria to save them all, no more than there was any way to save all the people who took up arms to fight HYDRA at the Triskelion. But Steve could give them the choice, and Maria’s trying.

She’ll have more options after Stark Industries hire her.

If they hire her.

Pepper’s looking at her now, though, brows raised, waiting to find out who Maria serves when it comes to the crunch.

And that’s the question, isn’t it? The people she followed in S.H.I.E.L.D are all gone – dead or as good as, and the organisation itself has split into HYDRA and the scattered, shattered remnants of those who were S.H.I.E.L.D but aren’t HYDRA and won’t change their sails.

Suddenly Maria remembers another woman, another room, another question: Who are you faithful to?

She wasn’t S.H.I.E.L.D that day, she just did what needed doing.

Maria looks Pepper in the eye. “The Templars once said Kill them all and let God sort them out. I’m going to protect them all, and let someone else sort them out.”

“To serve and protect?” Pepper asks, seemingly surprised.

“From the things that go bump in the atmosphere, and the monsters we make of ourselves,” Maria replies. “And to those who’ll similarly serve and protect.” She may not be able to protect them all, but she’ll do her best with what she has.

“The Avengers?”

“Even the Avengers.”

“And you’ll use Stark Industries resources to do it.”

Maria pauses, judges her audience, and asks, “Is that a question or a directive?”

The smile Pepper gives her is genuine. “Let’s call it an expectation.” She stands and holds out her hand across the desk for Maria to shake. “Welcome to Stark Industries.”

 

Heroes are the people who do what has to be done regardless of the consequences.

That night, standing at the window of her spiffy new suite in Stark Tower, Maria looks out on the city with it’s millions of little souls who want to do nothing more than keep on living their lives.

The martini is dry with many olives. It’s not her usual drink, but she’s developing a taste. And if she has to save the world (and face Congress) then a strong drink every now and then is probably going to be necessary.

Jasper – and Alexander Pierce with him – completely missed the point. It was never S.H.I.E.L.D that commanded Maria’s loyalties but what S.H.I.E.L.D stood for: as much protection as could be afforded for those who had no power to fight the monsters without (and the monsters within when they became monsters without). And particularly not just for those who fit the bill, who would never challenge authority, who could be good little automaton droids and do as they were told – but for all humanity, good or bad, right or wrong.

Maria sure as hell won’t be their mother; but she will stand for them.