Keep Calm And Carry On
The first day after the Avengers save the world, Maria shuts down her feelings of grief and rage and frustration as she goes in to face the Council.
She knows Fury's blown them off for jerking him around; she knows that they'll want blood. Men and women accustomed to this kind of power do not like discovering that their bark has no bite. They'll be out for blood – and although Maria has her ambitions, she doesn't think it's good business to stab her commander in the back.
If she can't be loyal to the Director, how can she expect S.H.I.E.L.D. to be loyal to her?
Fury was doing his job; protecting the world. Maria may disagree with his methods, but the outcome is more or less satisfactory.
If the Avengers hadn't saved the world, maybe it would be a different propostion, but they did, so Maria's going in fully armed.
She has her thoughts in order and her expressions on a leash as she walks into the Council room the picture of an annoyed subordinate. Which she is. Just not the way they think she is.
Maria walks out with her fist around their short and curlies, and their grudging respect.
The second day after the Avengers save the world, Maria looks at the stinking mess of a city in ruins and thinks that, saviours or not, they should be dragged back to help clean up after themselves.
The Chitauri were mostly technological carapace, so there's not much to rot. Unfortunately, what there is to rot goes rancid damned fast in the heat of a New York summer, and the clean-up crews end up having to take shifts because the stench is that bad.
S.H.I.E.L.D. trucks away the bulk of the corpses for incineration. A handful of medical vans take the less-damaged ones away for study and experimentation. Of particular interest is the telepathic link that connected the creatures to whatever thing was on the other side of the portal. Can that be replicated, and if so, how?
Maria carries all this in the back of her head as she deals with the civic authorities. Phil used to be her buffer for this, but Phil is dead.
If she doesn't think about it, it won't hurt so much.
He would have handled the angry bluster of the mayor and the demands of the civil authorities with the serene calm of a man who had his secrets and would hold them against all comers. Maria has icy anger and a cutting chilliness, and it suffices to keep them at bay. But she can see the resentment in their eyes as they deal with her.
To them, she's just a woman. Not an authority. Not a commander. She should be thinking about boyfriends and babies, not about jurisdictions and units and telling older and wiser men how things will go down.
Nevertheless, she tells them what will happen, what they are entitled to. Streets cleared of Chitauri corpses is the limit of S.H.I.E.L.D's efforts. Anything else is on their own.
S.H.I.E.L.D's mandate is to save the world, not to fix it.
And, no, S.H.I.E.L.D. is not responsible for the Avengers.
The third day after the Avengers save the world, Maria receives a call from Pepper Potts.
Stark's CEO, secretary, and girlfriend doesn't mince words. "Agent Hill. When's Phil's funeral?"
"On the 15th. Notifications will be going out in the next day." Maria sends off a note to HR that the Avengers should be informed of the funeral arrangements – the non- S.H.I.E.L.D. ones, too. Although how they're going to get hold of Rogers is a question since the man hit the road and hasn't come back no more no more no more...
God, she's tired. If she didn't have a reputation to maintain, she'd like to be a blubbering mess right about now. Unfortunately she does, so she can't. And she's not listening to Potts, who is saying something about someone from S.H.I.E.L.D. coming to the tower.
"...backdoor that S.H.I.E.L.D. has put in JARVIS."
Maria arches her brows. She didn't know there was a— Conversational fragments bubble up in her memory.
"Stark's a handful, but Potts has been helpful. The problem is generally getting past the gatekeeper."
"Yes, sir. I have some ideas about that."
You sneaky bastard, Phil, Maria thinks even as she asks Potts, "Is that a request or a demand?"
"A request," Potts says after a few seconds of consideration. "I trust that S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't wish to find itself liable for interference in Stark Industries' private business. And that any backdoors that S.H.I.E.L.D. has coded in will not compromise Iron Man's capabilities."
Maria isn't about to make any commitments; and a S.H.I.E.L.D. backdoor into JARVIS' code might be useful. "Agent Coulson had the backdoor put in," she says. "I'll see what I can find, but I can't promise anything now." Or later. Or, really, ever.
God, she needs sleep.
Pepper sighs, and for a moment it's not just the CEO of Stark Industries who's on the line, but a woman just as tired and weary as Maria. "Yeah, I figure you're rather busy right now."
By the fourth day after the Avengers save the world, Maria is sleeping even less than her usual 'little', sharply icy to everyone – even Fury, and hating Phil for not being here to do his job. Fury retaliates by making her take lunch in the cafeteria – it's a goddamn order, Hill. Maria snarls back at him, but he's adamant and something about his temper warns her not to push.
Which is why she's sitting in the cafeteria with a tray of food she's not eating when Dr. Foster sets her tray opposite Maria and sits down without invitation.
"Tell me about Agent Coulson."
Maria blinks. "Why?"
The dark-haired woman sighs, resting her hands either side of the tray. "Because I didn't like him much. The first time I met him, he took all my research away and wasn't particularly polite about it. And the second time I met him, he was only being nice because it was pretty obvious that Thor was powerful and dangerous and was on my side." She shrugs and picks up her fork, opening up the crust of her penne pasta-bake so steam rises from the dish. "Darcy said he turned out to be quite harmless in a secret agent kind of way, but I avoided him as much as possible anyway. And now he's dead and everyone's talking about how he was the greatest agent that ever lived."
Maria snorts at that. "Phil would never have agreed with them."
"He said that we were cogs in a machine – that we were supposed to be cogs in a machine, or else S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn't be able to do the work it did. When the organisation as a whole becomes dependent on one or two personalities, he said, then it's in trouble – it's the overall work that should be important, not who does it."
Then she pauses and eyes Dr. Foster. "Did Fury send you to talk to me?"
"No," says the other woman, her voice gentle. "But you look like I felt after my father died."
Maria stares at her for a long moment, then takes her tray and walks away before she breaks down in public.
The fifth day after the Avengers save the world, Maria walks into an empty corridor and finds Romanoff waiting for her.
"Clint needs convincing to come to the funeral."
"Tell him if he doesn't turn up, I'll kick his ass off the helicarrier than next time I see him for not paying his respects."
Romanoff's smile is faint but appreciative before she sobers. "You're not sleeping enough."
"I've never slept enough." Maria glances at the Black Widow. "Find me a Time-Turner and I'll get more sleep. And," she adds, "don't even think about kidnapping me. If you think I'll get more sleep with you and Barton fucking like bunnies in the next room—"
It was a shot in the dark. She's almost surprised to discover she's drawn blood. The twitch tells Maria everything she needs to know – from the newness of the relationship, to the uncertainties inherent in it. She doesn't push. Romanoff has delicate, difficult triplines in her psyche, and since they can't cut them, over time they've learned to navigate around them.
"We lost Clint once," Natasha says and beneath the ice is cold steel. "We've lost Phil. I'm not going to lose you, too." They reach the end of the corridor. "I'll come for you at nine tonight."
And she does, 'escorting' Maria to her quarters on the helicarrier, and settling herself down on the floor – and, not so incidentally, between the bed and the door. For the first time, Maria's grateful that her bed on helicarrier is a single, otherwise she'd be sharing a bed with Romanoff.
Maria lies in the darkness and thinks of all the things she could be doing but isn't, because the Black Widow needs someone to manage, and apparently Barton is being truculent.
Barton's ass is so going to be kicked the next time she sees him.
The sixth day after the Avengers save the world, Maria goes to see Peggy Carter and finds Rogers sitting with her.
Considering she thought he was a couple of hundred miles away on a road to nowhere, Maria's surprised.
He stands, polite and a little awkward. "Lieutenant Hill."
"Captain." She bends to kiss Peggy's cheek. "I didn't realise you had company. I can come back later."
"I didn't realise I was going to have company either," Peggy says at the same time as Rogers says, "No, stay. I was just about to go."
Maria looks at Peggy, brows arched, and the older woman reaches out to Steve. "I'll help where I can, Steve," she tells him. "But I've grown old in this world, so it's not a mystery to me. You'll have to learn to live in it as a stranger, and I don't think I can help with that."
He hesitates, then nods and kisses Peggy's cheek. They watch him go, big and broad and blond beneath the sunlight in the garden, but Peggy addresses her the instant he's out of earshot. "You look like you need sleep."
It doesn't surprise her that Peggy noticed. "I got eight straight after Romanoff hijacked me last night," Maria grumbles, making Peggy laugh.
"The leash still goes both ways?"
"She insists it does, and I'm not about to argue with the Black Widow," she mutters. "Damn Coulson and his meddling."
In the silence after her comment, bees buzz around the flowers, happily pollinating away, oblivious to the concerns and heartaches of human beings. Then Peggy shifts in her wicker chair. "Damn Coulson and his death?"
"That, too." Maria watches a bee bumble its way from one rose to the next and struggles for words. "It doesn't feel real."
"It may not until after the funeral."
"How did you cope?"
This time the silence is quiet. Meditative. "I...just kept on keeping on, I suppose."
Seven days after the Avengers save the world, they hold the memorial for Phil Coulson.
Fury gives the eulogy, simple and blunt as is his wont.
Phil Coulson believed in great heroes, but he also believed in little people being their own heroes. He taught everyone present something about the nature of being a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, and he – and the others who died in the helicarrier attack – will be remembered for their sacrifice.
Maria listens and remembers and doesn't cry. Phil doesn't need her tears where he's gone, and she doesn't need them where she's at.
There's life to be lived, a world to be protected, heroes to be dealt with, and job to be done.
The Avengers will come back when the world needs them.
And until then Maria will be right here, doing what needs doing.
On the eighth day after the Avengers save the world, Maria keeps on keeping on.