Title: The Set-Up
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.
Halfway through the planning stage Natasha realized that Steve didn't intend for her to go along. She understood why he wanted only a small group to go, but her exclusion was unacceptable.
Stark and Sitwell had already pulled satellite images on the location where the last calls had originated with more precision. They were nearly done, deciding who would be where and exactly how they'd engage the target, but it was entirely unacceptable to Natasha.
"I'm going," she said, interrupting Steve mid-sentence.
When he didn't immediately contradict her Natasha began to think he would agree, that is until Steve looked at Bruce.
"Tasha," he said, keeping his voice low, "are you certain?"
Natasha knew Bruce, and knew that was as argumentative as he would be, but it still stung. He should know already that she didn't only want to go, she had to go.
When she didn't answer, only met his gaze with steady defiance, Bruce shrugged and Steve nodded his acceptance, and out of the group only Maria looked ready to continue objecting but didn't.
"Natasha," Steve continued, "I'd like you to stay on the jet with Agent Morse until we get confirmation."
"So you're going to leave all the women behind?" Morse asked, with more than a hint of derisiveness in her voice.
"No," Steve returned evenly, "Agent Hill is going to make the initial contact."
"She's not qualified," Morse immediately argued, shocked by the suggestion. "She's not a field agent."
She wasn't the only one shocked. Maria looked surprised as well, but not entirely in a bad way.
"Whoever is sending these messages is expecting her," Steve returned, still completely neutral in tone and manner.
"And if it is a set-up?" Jasper asked, but his tone wasn't angry, it was concerned. And not for the first time did Steve wonder how close their relationship was, but quickly put it out of his mind as a petty concern.
"I'll be armed," Maria assured Jasper, who seemed to accept her answer as good enough.
"And you won't be alone," Steve added. "Tony will have scanned the area, so we'll already know what their numbers will be. I'll be on hand if things go badly and it turns into a fight."
"I should be there," Thor insisted. "I will wait back with the others, if that is your wish, but if this is a fight, I wish to fight it with you."
"A little more back-up couldn't hurt," Tony said when Steve looked his way for an opinion.
"A little?" Thor asked with a slight smile.
"Okay," Steve agreed, but still wanting to keep the force as small as possible.
"I can monitor the comms from here," Jasper assured him. "If it goes belly-up, I'll call in SHIELD for reinforcements."
"Bruce, buddy, you sure you don't want to ride along?" Tony asked, tapping the man playfully on the shoulder.
"I'm positive," he answered. "I've got some test results to run through. Plenty to keep me busy here."
Steve and Tony both knew it was a lie, but it was a little one. Whenever Bruce stayed behind on a mission, if possible, he listened in on the comms just in case.
Ten minutes later they were on their way.
As usual, Morse flew but this time Natasha sat in the co-pilot seat.
Maria tried not to fidget, despite her nerves. She had no problem with confrontation. She had no problem addressing the unknown. However, the idea of an actual firefight breaking out around her, of an ambush, was jarring. Maria had training, she'd been shot at and had shot back at enemies before, but this felt different. Those times had been unexpected. Maria was walking into this one willingly.
"How'd today go?" Tony asked, and Maria guessed he was trying to help distract her from herself. That and he was insanely inquisitive. "You never said. I mean, you made it back so I guess they believed you, right?"
"I didn't lie," Maria answered. "Of course they believed me."
"What did they say about your damsel in distress act?" Tony asked with a smirk.
"Excuse me," Steve said, standing abruptly and moving to the front of the jet.
Tony turned and watched him leave, but Thor paid him no mind.
Maria kept her own eyes on the floor and tried to ignore the fact that the very next place Stark looked was at her.
"Maria?" Tony pressed.
"I didn't have to explain it," Maria admitted. "They didn't ask. They only wanted to know how I evaded the man and if I'd noticed anything unusual. It was all very routine."
"Five minutes," Morse said over the intercom letting them know they were close.
Steve walked back and retook his seat as everyone prepared for landing. Maria tried to push down her nerves. She also tried to ignore the way Tony kept looking between herself and Steve, like he was already putting a story together in his head.
If Stark even remotely guessed that Maria had been developing irrational feelings - which she hadn't - towards Steve, or anyone for that matter, he'd never let it go. Stark was an overgrown child who would tease and question and poke and prod with unrelenting mercilessness. Maria was already frustrated with herself for allowing her own feelings to go unchecked. She didn't need a constant reminder.
It had been stupid to hope, to think for even a moment, that Steve might be inclined to feel the same. In a lot of ways she was happier for knowing where she stood. Maybe happier wasn't an exact description, but she hoped to be. It would, eventually, make things easier between them. When they'd talked about relationships, especially working relationships, months back it was in very broad terms and Maria had let Steve know exactly how she felt about them in an effort to squash her own feelings. It hadn't worked. She wished it had.
Hearing how he didn't view her in that light would have been easier to take if it had.
Granted, he hadn't actually said those things, but Steve had said enough. Maria knew the drill. And not for the first time Maria knew she should be relieved, but she wasn't.
There wasn't time to continue to berating herself, they'd arrived.
The first thing they did was let Thor provide them some cover. It was risky, because it wouldn't just limit their potential enemies visibility, but their own. However, the risk was worth the reward. Iron Man was too easy to spot and, if it came down to it, so was Captain America. A little rain and lightning went a long way.
Tony took off next, promising to make a wide arc and stay as much out of sight as possible while scanning the area.
After a few minutes of radio silence, Tony came online saying, "Looks pretty empty. Got a house just over the ridge that I'm guessing is our place. Looks like there are two occupants."
"Are you ready?" Steve asked Maria directly.
Instinctively she checked her sidearm before giving him a nod and without anyone else saying a single word, they were off.
"It's about a hundred and fifty yards up the path," Tony informed them. "I'm hanging out overhead. Holler if you need me."
"Copy that," Steve returned as they got underway.
They walked in absolute silence, careful to keep their distance and avoid accidentally brushing together their arms or hands in any way. Neither of them used to mind much if that had happened before but now it seemed to matter.
"There's an incline," Tony informed them. "From the top you'll have a clear view of the house. Be ready."
"Okay," Steve said, turning and stopping. "I'll head into the brush. They should probably see you alone. If no one approaches, keep going and I'll follow."
"Good," he said without moving.
Steve continued to stand there, looking at her as if he had more to say, but without saying anything. Maria looked up at him and almost immediately looked away.
"Good," he repeated, this time with a nod. He brought his hands up and let them hover over her shoulders for a split second before pulling back and away. "I'll see you soon."
Maria took a deep breath and watched him move away before turning and continuing down the path on her own. She was halfway there when Tony cut in.
"Got movement. I think you've been spotted, Hill. Looks like one of them is moving to the front of the house and the other has slipped out the back."
"Hold your position," Steve urged, "but keep them in sight."
"Roger, Rogers," Tony returned.
When both Maria and Steve got a little closer, the house went entirely dark. Not liking that one bit, Steve moved quickly from cover and joined Maria as they picked up their pace.
"A little help, Stark," Steve called out. "Where is this guy?"
"The other guy," Maria snapped, the rain was coming down heavier than before.
Tony said something, but it was unintelligible over the din of the storm. Steve asked him to repeat it, but to no avail. He knew asking Thor to reign in the storm would be pointless, so he didn't bother trying. They asked for this so now they'd have to work with it.
Maria and Steve stopped on the porch and both drew their weapons ready to enter.
Before they could, shots rang out and the both ducked down on either side of the door. Waiting for a pause, for the combative to stop and reload, Steve stood up and kicked in the door, pressing forward into the house to find a better vantage. Maria was right behind him, picking a spot directly across from his own.
More shots were fired and they knew that whoever it was, they were nearby.
"Hold your fire!" Maria shouted, making brief eye contact with Steve. "We want to talk."
When there was no answer, but also no return fire, Maria took it as an invitation to continue.
"Who are you?" she asked, careful to keep her body tucked behind the wall and not give them an opportunity.
"Agent Hill?" a voice, raspy from neglect, asked with some amount of authority.
Maria thought she recognized it, despite the condition. Locking eyes with Steve she could tell that he did too.
"Identify yourself," Steve demanded.
"I'm putting down my weapon," the man continued, clearing his throat and making his voice even more recognizable.
They heard the weapon when it touched the ground and a moment later it slid into view, just between where the two of them were still crouched. Steve continued to look her in the eye, making it Maria's decision. When she bobbed her head slightly, he returned the gesture and together they stood up, guns still drawn, to see what they were facing.
They weren't really prepared.
"I see you got our message," Agent Coulson said with a wry smile.
Notes: Here's where I apologize profusely because, despite all my best efforts, I'm still only like two chapters into the next one so I will not be posting it any time soon. Keep in mind, this may change. As soon as I have enough to feel comfortable posting, I will, but right now I can't. Thank you all so much for reading and reviewing and genuinely being super great and supportive of this series. I love you all! It will continue. I will keep at it and this will be done... one way or another. Thank you!