Title: The Set-Up
Rating: T (language)
Fandom: Avengers (movieverse)
Spoilers: Takes place after the movie. Follow-up to Requiem. #12 in Recruitment series.
Summary: Three months after Clint Barton's death and what remains of the Avengers is still struggling to make sense of it all as the threat to SHIELD, and to them all, looms larger.
"What is taking so long?" Darcy whined as she stood up for the fifth or sixth time, craning her neck to see out to the newly restructured landing pad. "I'm exhausted. It's way past my bedtime."
"Five more minutes," Maria assured her as she stifled a yawn of her own.
"You said that five minutes ago."
"Darcy, we can only tell you what we've been told," Pepper sighed.
"I know," Darcy said, bringing her tone back to a semi-respectful level. Pepper was her direct boss and she didn't mean to snap at her, but it had been a long, long week. Which had been preceded by a few very long months. "It's just... when are they going to take a break? It would be nice to sleep past seven and be in bed before midnight every so often. Go on vacation. Something."
"They've been..." Pepper said, shaking her head and meeting Maria's gaze.
"There's been a lot of activity," Maria agreed with a crisp nod.
It was true.
There had been so much activity that, even though she was now technically assigned to the New York office, Maria's duties with the Avengers had yet to come to an end.
"Here they are," Pepper said as the landing lights came into view.
"Finally," Darcy groaned.
All three women rose to their feet at roughly the same time and moved closer to the window, watching as the jet landed.
The jet was new, too.
Tony had decided the Avengers needed their own jet, independent of SHIELD, and had one designed and built in no time. It was smaller and more maneuverable than the Quinjet had been. The drawback was that only Agent Morse was qualified to fly it. Tony and Steve were both working on resolving that issue, but there really had not been a spare moment to get it done.
When no one immediately got off the jet after it had shut down, Pepper and Maria exchanged another look, this one darker than the last.
"Could it really have gone that bad?" Darcy asked no one in particular.
They all knew the answer was yes.
Tony and Steve were butting heads more and more frequently. The problem had nothing to do with a lack of respect or consideration, it went a little deeper than that. The problem was that Steve and Tony were both leaders. With a larger team, that had worked well. Now it was essentially the two of them, with only an occasional assist from Morse or Bruce. Morse had been ordered to sit out of the action, despite proving to be quite capable, and Bruce was devoting all his time to assisting Natasha. It was difficult. Couple that with the fact that they'd had less and less down time and it was becoming more than difficult and more like impossible.
"Here we go," Pepper muttered as Morse left the jet looking exhausted.
She pushed open the door and went straight for the couch, pulling off her gloves and looking up at the others, shaking her head.
"So, Bobbi," Darcy said, trying to sound natural. "How's things?"
"About usual," she answered, rubbing the fatigue from her eyes. Darcy always hoped to get a rise out of her by using her first name, but she never managed to succeed.
"I've already filled out the report," Maria said, all business. "It just needs signatures and -"
"We'll probably need to amend it," Morse interrupted.
"You haven't even read it yet," Maria said tightly, her eyes back on her tablet.
"I know," Morse sighed, "but... I may have left some things out. Nothing major," she said seeing the looks Pepper and Maria were giving her. "Just something Rogers thought wasn't worth mentioning over the comms."
"Oh," Darcy said with a slightly startled gasp, drawing the attention away from Morse as she rushed forward to hold the door. "I've got it."
"Thanks," Steve said, his stance and pace immediately setting off alarm bells for all of them. "Let's wrap this up and -"
"No," Tony interrupted, already out of his suit and looking strained. "That can wait. Get to the infirmary and get that looked at."
"Five more minutes isn't going to hurt," Steve stated with only a bit of irritation. "Let's get this wrapped up and official and call it a night."
Tony seemed as if he wanted to argue it further, but with another look at Steve, who looked determined enough to fight, he agreed. Steve had been refusing treatment for the entirety of the flight because...
"The report needs to be amended to include any and all injuries," Morse sighed, getting back to her feet. "You know the drill."
"For SHIELD agents," Steve said, folding his arms over his chest and standing firm. He didn't like them documenting and cataloging every cut and scratch they received in the field. Ever since their last tangle with medical, Steve didn't like them knowing more about him than was strictly necessary.
Honestly, Tony felt the same, but Steve was a lot more injured than he'd been letting on. It was time to stop delaying treatment and being so damn stubborn.
"And for representatives of SHIELD," Morse added as if she'd been having this same discussion for several hours. Which, she probably had been having for hours. Likely the whole duration of the flight. "Which includes yourself and Mr. Stark. Hill, back me up here."
Tony, Darcy and Morse all looked directly at Maria.
Pepper and Steve casually looked away.
Maria was with growing frequency being called upon to mediate between Agent Morse and the Avengers. It wasn't a comfortable spot, and she was thankful it was really only Tony and Morse who called upon her to do so, but it was never easy.
Giving Steve a once over, she shrugged at Morse before she declared, "If he's standing, he's fine."
"Of course," Morse returned, as if she knew how that would play out. As if she'd been testing Maria, which she probably had been. She walked over and held out her hand to the other agent, silently asking for the report and signing it without hesitation with the stylus.
"You're not going to read it?" Maria asked pointedly.
"I trust you," the other woman smiled in return. "And I'm tired. No one call me unless the world's about to end," she said, heading for the door without a single look back. "Even then, only as a last resort."
As soon as she was out of the room, Steve made the small concession of leaning on the nearest arm chair. He looked tired and in pain; he finally felt comfortable enough to allow himself to show it.
"Bruce in?" Tony asked, giving Steve a half-worried glance.
"It's a graze," Steve said, back on his feet and ready to argue again. "With a little help, I can patch it up myself. Don't bother Bruce."
"I know first aid," Darcy volunteered with a mildly suggestive leer. She liked to flirt with Steve, because he simply did not know how to handle it. It was cute.
"I'm sure Agent Hill can take care of this," Pepper said, still careful not to look directly at either of them; just a hint of a smile on her face.
"Yeah," Maria said, trying to ignore what was obviously going through the other woman's mind. "Whenever you'd like."
"Okay," Steve said, not stupid enough to keep arguing, and heading with her towards the elevator.
They didn't look back and the ride to the infirmary was completely silent, and maybe only a little awkward. It would have probably been a lot awkward, but Steve really was in pain. Maria had not noticed at first, but he was wearing his jacket despite the mild weather. Now that she did see it, see him, it was an obvious attempt to hide something more than just fatigue and a simple graze.
"Okay," Maria said once they'd arrived, motioning for him to take a seat.
Steve shrugged off his jacket, he'd already removed his gloves and cowl before leaving the jet, and hopped up onto the table so that they were, more or less, eye-to-eye.
"That..." Maria began, shaking her head and looking shocked. "That's bad, Steve. That looks... I can't believe I'm about to say this, and you can in no way repeat it but, Stark was right. You should have had this looked at sooner."
His suit was torn and burnt on his left side. It was ripped enough so that skin was exposed, and Maria knew what kind of force that had taken. Their suits were tough and designed to be durable. The skin she could see underneath was raw and red; some parts looked blistered.
"If I'd done that Morse would have landed on the Helicarrier instead of here. She'd have taken me straight to medical and..."
"No, I understand why," Maria admitted.
Since Barton, none of them had stepped foot in that section, Maria included. She was certain they'd done everything they could, but she was still angry about the aftermath. She was angry at their flat out refusal to wait to follow protocol. The rest of his team should have been allowed to see Barton and to grieve. As it turned out they'd barely allowed Pepper back into the room along with Maria in the immediate aftermath, and even that had been brief.
"What do you think?" Steve asked, straining to see but the worst part was mostly on his back.
"I think... I think you're going to need to lose the top," Maria said, her eyes darting down as she realized she was practically demanding that Steve strip.
"Oh, yeah. Sure," he said, moving to pull the shirt off but momentarily stuck. "Can I get a little help, please?"
Maria just nodded and did her best not to injury Steve further as she lent him a hand. She immediately put her eyes on the injury, anxious to avoid catching his eye if she could.
It really looked bad.
"What happened? What... what did this?" she asked, stepping back to retrieve some gauze and burn ointment.
"Is it bad if I can't remember?"
"Should I be checking you for a concussion?" she asked with a completely straight face, but he could see the amusement in her eyes.
"No," he said, shaking his head with a small smile. "No, I'm sure... I'm not confused or having memory lapses. I didn't hit my head. I just... there was so much going on. I think it was a laser of some kind but it could have been the fire-breathing hyenas."
"Who has fire-breathing hyenas?" Maria asked, moving in close enough to start cleaning the area.
"Um," Steve said, breathing out the word in a hiss.
"It's fine," he assured her, the sting already gone. "That guy did. Whoever he was. Did we ever find out who he was?"
"Morse probably did."
"You still don't like her."
"Do you?" she asked, her eyes finally meeting his, and immediately wished she hadn't. It sounded petty and childish. It sounded jealous. Maria hated sounding that way but Morse brought out the worst in her.
When Steve didn't immediately answer, only watched her for a moment, Maria felt the air get thin and tried to shake that feeling off immediately. That was not a good idea. That was not a path they could go down. They both knew that and had been very clear on the subject; she'd been very clear on the subject. But, not for the first time, Maria wished Steve was a little less... everything.
"She's..." he said, clearly not certain how to finish that thought at first. "Intense. She's a little intense."
"Intense is bad?" Maria asked her brows knitted together as she started to apply the ointment and now certain she couldn't look back into his eyes again.
"No, it's not bad. Lots of people are intense and it's fine. I don't mind... Um..."
Maria nodded and kept her eyes down as she put the bandage in place. Finally finished.
"It's okay if you like her," she said after a long pause, not moving out of his space but not looking at him either. "I don't expect you to hate her. I don't hate her."
"Does it seem like I do?" she asked curiously.
"Yes," he returned with a smile.
"I don't," she repeated, maybe even smiling a little herself. "Everyone always seems to think I hate everyone. And I don't, I just... I don't warm to people. And Morse..."
"I don't know what to think of her either, to be honest," he admitted, understanding where she was going. "It feels like she's playing a part. Like... Well, like we all are. I can't say she's with us, but I'm not certain she's against us either."
"It's exhausting," she sighed.
"I know," he agreed. "I'm sorry you have to keep doing this. You know Fury was trying to protect you when he moved you off the Helicarrier and out of that job."
"I know he was and it still pisses me off."
"I'm glad he did it."
"I don't need protection."
"Maria," he said seriously, "something big is happening. Something is changing and... and I wish you weren't so closely involved. I'm worried for you."
"Steve, I've been taking care of myself for a very long time. I'm good at it."
"You might be but... I want... That doesn't mean I don't..." he said, stumbling over his words as the tips of his ears began to flush red. "I worry."
"I don't think I'm a threat to anyone," Maria said with reluctance, hating to admit what was probably true. "Not enough to be a target, anyway. Especially not now. I'm so far out of the loop..." Steve fixed her with a look that she read far too easily. It was clear he was thinking the same thing she was, that being out of the loop hadn't stopped whoever it was from murdering Clint. "It's not the same," she stated in a tone that invited no further discussion.
"No, it's not," Steve said, but it wasn't in agreement.
"I'm being careful. I'm keeping my head down and I'm not making waves. Honestly, I spend most of my time here," she reasoned, but he still didn't look pacified. "Look, Barton was paranoid, with reason, and he was cautious and careful, and they hit him where he wasn't expecting them to. Same with Romanoff. I'm not faulting either of them but they have no way in with me. Whoever it is out there, they won't attack directly and there's nothing in my life but this job for them to attack me with. There's no one or thing they can use to get to me but this job, and Fury took care of that part. Until they grow a pair and start moving in for real, I'm safe."
Before Steve could respond the elevator dinged, announcing a new arrival to the floor, and a moment later Bruce walked towards them looking half asleep. He was still in his pajama bottoms and wearing a t-shirt, his feet bare and his hair ruffled.
"Sorry," he yawned as he came into the room, giving them both half a glance with a semi-amused smile.
"Tell me Tony didn't wake you up," Steve sighed.
"No," Bruce assured them both, stifling down another yawn. "JARVIS did. I asked him to get me whenever anyone came into the infirmary needing help. Guess that one has a few kinks to work out since you seem to be all done here."
It was then that Maria realized how close she'd been standing to Steve, despite the fact that she'd finished bandaging him up already. As casually as she could she stepped away. Bruce's eyes went to hers, briefly and still amused, but he didn't comment on it.
"Sorry you got out of bed for nothing," Steve said, sliding off the table and pulling his undershirt back on with more ease than before. "You should ask JARVIS to check ahead next time so you don't waste a trip."
"He didn't?" Bruce asked, a little confused. "JARVIS," he called up to the AI. "I thought you asked."
"I'm sorry, Dr. Banner. Normally, I would have, but Ms. Potts instructed me to leave Captain Rogers and Agent Hill alone."
Maria bit her lip and nodded tightly as Bruce tried not to laugh and Steve looked clearly puzzled.
"It's late," she said after a beat. "I've got a oh-six-hundred brief and a hellish commute across town so..." she said, trailing off. "Goodnight, gentlemen."
Maria left so quickly that it wasn't until she was gone that Steve even thought about walking her out.
"What was that about?" he asked, still confused as he turned his attention back to Bruce.
"You should probably talk to Pepper."