Disclaimer: Characters and situations owned by Marvel

Spoilers: For Secret Invasion.

Thanks to: Karabair, for beta-reading!

All Quiet on the Western Front

The Breakworld mission had cost ten SWORD agents their lives. Three of them had families; two more had partners. After her return, Abigail Brand made the calls. She wasn't good at comfort or rhetoric, so she kept it brief, but she saw to it the pensions were transferred as promised and made sure the survivors knew the dead agents had helped saving Earth from destruction. There were survivors, then.

When the Skrulls destroyed the Peak, leaving Brand drifting through space until she managed to claw her way into one of their ships, every single person who had worked or visited the SWORD HQ was dead, except for her. Every single one, and there had been hundreds. She couldn't afford to think about it while the invasion was proceeding. She needed to focus. So she took a Skrull ship with luck, linguistics and her knowledge of how to use a gun, saved Reed Richards and got a lot of stranded superheroes away from the Savage Land, for all the good that did, and became a part of the bloody chaos until it stopped, and the earth hadn't joined the Skrull Empire after all.

Having room to breathe and to think afterwards wasn't what she wanted. This, exactly this had been what SWORD had been created to prevent. And she had been blindsided. Utterly blindsided. She couldn't even say her people had died for a reason. They hadn't bought anyone any time, they hadn't had the chance to fight back; they had simply been wiped out, and she had looked at the Skrull who did it, the one who had come to visit the Peak looking like SHIELD legend Dugan, in the eyes and expressed her admiration, only minutes before it happened.

She looked up to the sky and remembered the bodies drifting around her. Some would have burned up upon entering the atmosphere by now; some would still be in space. No shortage of bodies down here, either, of course. No shortage at all. Turning away from the skies, she saw Tony Stark walking towards her. Nothing like someone who had a worse day to make you get a freaking grip, thought Brand, and snapped to attention. At least she hadn't had an alien virus nearly killing her along with compromising every bit of tech designed to protect the world. He had already looked like hell when she had gotten everyone off the Savage Land, and now he might as well be one of the walking dead. She wondered whether it had been the Skrull masquerading as Dugan who had slipped Stark the virus.

"Too early for a debrief," Brand said and found her voice far too low, but her throat was parched. She hadn't drunk or eaten anything since the reception for Dugan. "There could still be some hidden ships. More sleeper agents."

"Agreed," he said, sounding drained as well. "That's why I need you to interrogate the prisoners."

She stared at him.

"You're the one speaking their language," he said. "Besides, I have to report to the President. It – could take a while. And I'm not sure I'll be in a position to get any intelligence afterwards, so…"

Exhausted or not, she was too familiar with the ways agencies worked not to catch his meaning.

"Director Stark," she said flatly, "you were played for a sucker. So was I. We all were. But other worlds are SWORD business, not SHIELD's, so if anyone is going to get fired for this, it will be me. Hell, you're probably going to get my job as well."

Given that at the moment, SWORD members consisted of herself and any agent who had been either off world or not in the Peak itself, and that SHIELD had lost their headquarters and all their tech, it was all too likely they'd simply reintegrate both agencies. After making an example of her. She hadn't thought about it before, but it made sense to her now. Not to Tony Stark, apparently. He shook his head.

"You're not a public face, Agent," he said. "I am. It's going to be me." Something flickered in his bloodshot eyes. "I have it on divine authority."

Later, she would hear about the former Avenger Thor, who had joined the battle against the Skrulls, walking away from Stark as soon as that was done with such a pronouncment, but right now she wasn't in a position to figure out cryptic hints, and not equipped with the necessary patience, either.

"Bullshit," she said. "You don't get to play scapegoat. You get to rebuild, which is what we really, really need right now. You're an engineer, I'm just a weapon, nobody is going to be that stupid. So skip the martyr act."

He lifted a hand as if to wipe some of the grease and dirt of his face, then evidently recalled he was in an old version of his armor, one that lacked any possibility to dismantle it with a thought.

"I hadn't realized," he said, with some surprise in his voice. "How very young you are."

She had made director of SWORD at 28 and would soon be 30. It wasn't that young. There hadn't been a lot people younger than her at SWORD, true, but that was because she had wanted experienced personnel when the organization was established, and most people didn't start their training as a child. A good thing, too. She wouldn't have to talk to many parents, now. Two hundred and fifty five people at least, if one assumed a minimum of one mourner for a dead agent, but at least not many would have living parents.

One of the female superheroes had screamed about her child, earlier, and taken off in the air. Brand didn't know which one.

"You can skip the condescension as well. You go interrogate the Skrulls," she said tiredly. "They're all fluent in English. You don't need me for that. I'll do the report."

Then he surprised her by putting one of his hands on her shoulder. The metal was heavy, but that was to be expected.

"Those weren't the orders, Agent Brand. You're not about to break the chain of command, are you?"

On any other day, the idea of being lectured about the chain of command by a businessman playing superhero would have made her laugh. Not today, though. The world had turned upside down, and deep inside she wondered whether all of this wasn't just some bizarre last minute hallucination her brain produced while it ran out of oxygen, and space, cold, unforgiving space claimed her. She remembered Wolverine asking her whether she had the guts to die in space as Scott Summers had done, gambling on a resurrection that might never come. It seemed to be a lifetime ago. Now, she knew the answer would have been yes, but what good was that, anyway? What you did next was what counted. After the resurrection, or the miraculous survival.

"Go do your job," Tony Stark continued, as she remained silent. "And if I'm wrong and you're right – have ever you considered entering the private sector, Agent?"

She pursed her lips. "You're not going to ask me to become your bodyguard, are you?" she said, diving into the gallows' humour which suddenly offered an escape of what was an increasingly awkward situation. "No offense, but that armor really isn't my style."

The corners of his mouth twitched. "Don't knock it until you've tried it." One of the remaining SHIELD people approached him. There were medics everywhere now, and it occurred to her that if she stood around any longer without doing something, she might find herself prodded, poked and bandaged very soon, and unable to do anything useful, be it taking the fall or interrogating prisoners or making two hundred and fifty five calls. Which were hers to make. She could avoid it a while longer, but she couldn't let anyone else do it.

"Sir, you really need to…" the SHIELD agent insisted, and Abigail Brand made a decision. "I'll see you around," she said to Stark. Their eyes met, and he nodded at her. She shook her head, and for the first time in any of their encounters raised her hand to a salute. Every muscle in her body ached for relief and a break, but she stood to attention, rigid and flawless, until he was out of her sight.

Then she turned and continued to do her duty.