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Look Clear and Calm

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Pepper Potts was a very difficult woman to get an appointment with. She ran the largest corporation in the world, and did it well. And she kept it on an even keel, despite the former CEO (who was still the majority shareholder, and designer of their core product lines) being eccentric and difficult to keep on task. Many people—important, wealthy, powerful people—tried to schedule meetings only to be gently told there was no room in Ms. Potts calendar, would they like to speak to another of the company's officers instead?

But it was not usually this difficult, not for Maria Hill, who had worked closely with Pepper during her time at Stark Industries. They had been friendly; Maria would have said they were on their way to being genuine friends, and that hadn't changed when Maria's department had spun off to be the official organizational department of the Avengers Initiative and moved out to the Avengers Compound.

But perhaps Pepper didn't feel the same way, if the runaround Maria was getting was any indication. On the other hand, maybe Pepper really was that busy. It happened. Either way, Maria didn't take it personally, just kept refusing to be fobbed off on other people. It wasn't SI business, so there would be no point.

And, eventually, persistence paid off.

"Maria, so good to see you," Pepper said, gesturing her to have a seat on the luxurious couch she kept in her office. "Would you like some coffee?"

At Maria's nod, Pepper's assistant got it for them. Maria's was exactly the way she liked it—Pepper had high standards for PAs.

"I'm sorry for giving you the runaround, but I'm trying to be better at maintaining some sort of a work-life balance, and you did say it was a professional matter," Pepper went on. "Otherwise I would have invited you over for dinner or drinks or something. And things have been—" she rolled her eyes "—volatile around here lately."

Pepper was probably telling the truth, or at least, not lying. Maria knew her well enough to tell that. "Believe me, I understand," she said.

The assistant left, closing the door behind her. "If this is about the Avengers, I'm trying to keep out of that as much as possible," Pepper said. "For my own mental health, the stability of the company, and my relationship with Tony, I can't afford to get drawn in."

"And when Tony goes off the rails, superhero-wise?" Maria asked.

Pepper spread her hands. "I leave that in Rhodey's hands."

"That seems like a good solution," Maria said. "Usually. I'm not so sure, in this particular case. Have you read the draft of the Accords?"

"No," Pepper said. "The Avengers—and all superpowered people—need oversight, and Tony and Rhodey both agree that this is a workable way of getting that. You're not going to convince me that you don't want there to be oversight."

Maria leaned back and nodded. "I actually argued against the very idea of the Avengers, for years, as Nick was trying to put together a team roster. The difficulty of command-and-control over superpowered individuals is one of the main reasons why. People like that can do immense damage even when their intentions are good, if they're not careful … and nobody's intentions are always good. There has to be accountability. We didn't have much even when SHIELD was in charge, and we have basically none, now. We desperately need something workable, something with international backing, so it's not just down to a bunch of loose canons and their personal crusades."

"That's not what Captain Rogers says," Pepper pointed out.

"Steve might surprise you, if you ever had a conversation with him on the subject that didn't turn into an argument between him and Tony," Maria said. "But leaving that aside, Pepper, you know me better than that." She leaned forward and locked eyes with Pepper. "Can you honestly tell me you think I would ever change my beliefs or my duty because my lover wanted me to?" It wasn't common knowledge that she and Steve were together, but Pepper knew.

"No," Pepper said after a moment. "I don't think you would." She sighed. "So why are you against the Accords?"

"If you'd read them yourself, you'd know," Maria said. "Whether or not you agreed with me that they have too many flaws to be an acceptable compromise, at least you'd understand my point of view. Look, I know Tony's guilt complex over Sokovia is deeper than the Grand Canyon, but the Accords as written are worse than the problem they're trying to fix. If you genuinely don't have time to read them yourself—and I know how busy you are—hire a Civil Rights lawyer to look them over and give you an opinion. And then once you have that opinion, ask yourself if you trust Thaddeus Ross to be the ultimate arbiter of them, after how he handled Bruce."

"What's Bruce got to do with this?" Pepper asked.

Maria raised her eyebrows. "You know how the US Army tried to capture Bruce and lock him up, after he became the Hulk?"

"Yes, of course," Pepper said.

"Then-General Ross was in charge of the whole Hulk project, including the attempts at capture. He also authorized an experiment into creating more Hulks, which failed dismally—the one survivor, Captain Emil Blonsky, is irrational, cruel, and either incapable or unwilling to rein in his destructive streak. And when the Avengers were being formed, Ross tried to get Blonsky on the team instead of Bruce. Tony knows at least part of this, because he was the one Coulson pointed at Ross to get him to back off."

Pepper's eyes narrowed. "Tony does, occasionally, show himself capable of working with people he dislikes. I knew he didn't like or trust Ross, but I didn't know why."

"I've spent my career working with people I don't like—sometimes people I despise—to get things done," Maria said. "That includes people worse than Ross, when I had to. If the Accords were halfway decent, I'd be willing to work with him now, and get Steve onboard if I could. But they're not. And the biggest flaws line exactly up with Ross's demonstrated ambitions. Please read the Accords before Tony and Rhodey sign them, Pepper. Or at least get a lawyer—one well-versed in Civil Rights litigation—to do so."

"You're not going to lobby me about specific clauses?" Pepper said.

"I have a list of problems with the document, which I've already given to your assistant," Maria said. "But I think, given the current tensions between Tony and Steve, that it would be best for all concerned if you could say honestly that you noticed problems."

Maria didn't have a headache by the time she was done with her last meeting of the day, but she could feel one lurking. So instead of going to her official apartment, which could never be fully secured because it was public knowledge and empty during the day, she spent a while losing any tails she might have and headed to an old off-the-books SHIELD safehouse in the Bronx.

"How was your day, honey?" Natasha asked, ironically, as Maria came in the door of the aging townhouse.

Maria shrugged. "It's a delicate thing, pointing out to people my own Secretary of State can't be trusted, without also destroying my chances of being part of any American-led metahuman regulatory body that might be implemented in the future." She was spending her days quietly making contact with intelligence officers from a variety of nations, and discussing the current state of the Avengers, superpowered people in general, the inherent problems with programs designed to produce more of them, and various other items of interest.

She rarely mentioned the proposed Accords directly. She didn't need to.

"Think any of them will listen?" Natasha asked.

Maria hung up her coat and went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water. Natasha followed. "Lior Bitton at the Israeli Embassy seemed receptive, but then, he had a front row seat to Ross's attempt to capture Banner in Argentina. How much influence he has will depend on how much Ross can convince the President to play hardball with US support for Israel. Stolyarchuk at the Ukrainian Embassy was hard to read. Sokovia was pretty close to home, for them … considering they don't have any metas that we know of, they might figure it's an American problem."

Barnes walked in the sliding glass door from the back deck.

Maria took a drink.

"You don't have to stop talking just because I walked in," Barnes said. "I'm not that fragile."

Barnes didn't like talking about HYDRA, SHIELD, or anything connected to superheroes—too many bad memories. But even leaving that aside, he was recovering from brainwashing and even he didn't know how trustworthy he was. "I didn't come here to talk shop," Maria said, truthfully. "If I spend too much more time working tonight, I'm going to give myself a headache."

Barnes nodded and looked slightly less prickly. "If you're looking for quiet, you won't find it here, today," he said. "Steve's been working on fixing the upstairs bathroom. Starting with demolishing the shower. I had to work out on the deck to get anything done."

"He's probably about done for the day," Natasha said. "It's time to start thinking about dinner, anyway. Anybody have a preference?"

"I'm fine with anything," Maria said, and headed upstairs to find Steve.

Steve was wearing a tight t-shirt and covered in dust, bending over the tub to get the last of the tile and wallboard out. It was a great view, and Maria paused, savoring it. "Hey," she said.

Steve turned around with a smile. "Maria! I'm glad you came. I've been missing you."

"I missed you, too." They rarely spent the night in the same place, unless they were both at the Avengers compound upstate; Maria's credibility would be damaged if it got out she was sleeping with Captain America. They couldn't afford that at the best of times, let alone now, while they were trying to fight the Accords. "You've been busy."

"Well, this place wasn't getting regular maintenance since it was off the books," Steve pointed out. "It needs some work."

"True," Maria said. "But I'm wondering if this fit of demolition was triggered by anything in particular, or if it was just next on your list."

Steve sagged. "One of Natasha's contacts found Rumlow in Nigeria. They think he's going to steal biological weapons from a lab there."

"And you want to be on the team to pick him up," Maria said.

"Natasha and I can't both go," Steve said. "One of us has to stay here with Bucky." Barnes couldn't be left alone; they were mostly sure his programming was gone, but only mostly, and there was always the possibility Ross or HYDRA remnants or someone else had figured out where he was and would send a team to collect him. "Natasha says it should be her, because she's better at infiltration."

Maria considered this. "Is there any particular reason it has to be an Avengers team? Unless he's working with a metahuman, a regular tactical team could take him."

"Do we have any regular tactical teams that we trust who would deploy to Nigeria on Natasha's say-so?" Steve asked.

"I don't know," Maria said. "But I can think of a few who would deploy to Nigeria on my say-so. One or two who might even be willing to work with Natasha and Sam so we can be sure he'd come back in one piece and go to trial, instead of disappearing into a hole somewhere. Sharon Carter at CIA would probably be happy to help; bringing in Rumlow would be a feather in her cap, and possibly reconcile her superiors to her past with SHIELD."

"We could send Wanda along, too," Steve said. "In case he has any surprises."

"There are very few surprises Natasha and Sam can't handle between them," Maria said, "and I'd prefer it if Wanda had more time to train and get herself on a stable footing before she faces combat again."

"You think she's not ready for it?" Steve said.

"I think she's been through hell and back," Maria said. "That messes with anyone's head. And going into combat with your head messed up is bad enough for ordinary people. With her powers, it could be catastrophic."

"She's strong," Steve objected.

"Of course she is, or she wouldn't have made it this far. Strength isn't the issue." Maria paused to consider how to put it in a way Steve would understand. "You wouldn't send someone into battle with a broken leg unless there was absolutely no other choice. Think of it like that." Wanda was actually more reliable and less damaged than Tony was, but that wasn't saying much. She was also more likely to actually work on her issues. But Maria could bench Wanda until and unless she got her head on straight. She couldn't bench Tony.

Steve sagged a little. "Right."

"They're sorting out dinner, downstairs," Maria said. "After dinner I'll talk to Natasha, make some phone calls."

Steve wiped a hand across his face, which only smeared the dust around. "I should shower, get cleaned up before dinner."

"Can I watch?" Maria asked with a smirk.

Over a dinner of Ethiopian take-out, they discussed Barnes' translation work and what Steve should do with the bathroom, now that the cracked tile and moldy wallboard was gone. Maria mostly listened and let it wash over her.

It was … nice. Pleasant. Which sounded tepid, except Maria had lived through too much action and upheaval to want excitement in her private life. It was good to have a place where she could relax and not be alone. A bit of pleasant domesticity was exactly what she needed right now.

Steve smiled and took her hand as Natasha and Barnes argued about something in Swahili. "Shall we clean up?"

"Sure." Maria gathered up the leftovers while Steve got the dishes.

"Tonight was nice," Steve said as he waited for the water to get hot enough to wash dishes. "Wish we could do it every night." They both knew what he meant. Steve had always wanted a family. Even before they'd found Barnes, he'd spoken wistfully of maybe finding a Morning wife and Evening husband and forming a sedoretu, a foursome-marriage in the old style. Now that Bucky had been recovered and it turned out he and Natasha had been together when they were both property of the Red Room, it wasn't ever far from his mind. He wasn't pushy … but he didn't have to be.

"I may not ever be ready, Steve," she said quietly, putting the takeout in the fridge. "And Natasha might not even be interested in marriage with anyone, sedoretu or not. And that's assuming we can get Barnes a fair trial as a POW who was tortured and brainwashed and not responsible for HYDRA's crimes, and get him cleared to live a civilian life."

"I know," Steve said. He squirted soap into the sink and filled it part-way.

Maria grabbed a dish towel and joined him.

"But I can dream," Steve said, scrubbing glasses. "And even if it never happens, I'm glad we have this, at least."

"I know about taking what you can get," Maria said.

"What would you need?" Steve said. "To be willing to marry me?" He rinsed a glass and handed it to her.

"Monogamously, or in a sedoretu with Natasha and Barnes?" Maria asked as she shoved the towel into the glass.

"Either," Steve said. "You just said you might not ever be ready, but … that implies a chance that you would be ready, someday. Maybe that's nothing I can change, but if there is something I could do, I'd like to know."

Maria thought for a few seconds as she put the glass away and took the next one. "Workable international oversight, so the Avengers' command authorization and relationships with various governments doesn't rest entirely on my work and reputation. That's not the only thing I'd need, but … it's a big one."

"I can see that," Steve said.

"And either proof Barnes doesn't have any latent programming left, or some way of dismantling whatever's lurking," Maria said.

Steve winced. "Yeah."

That night as they lay in bed, Maria propped herself up on an elbow. "So … does Barnes remember your childhood sedoretu pact?"

"We were seventeen when we decided we were going to try to form one," Steve said. "Hardly kids. And … sort of. He remembers going on awkward foursome dates looking for Evening and Morning wives. He remembers talking with Peggy about vague plans for after the war. And he said being the homemaker for a sedoretu would suit him better than joining the Avengers."

"Mm," Maria said. Whatever she was going to say next was interrupted by a breathy moan from the bedroom next door. She looked at Steve and they grinned. "You know, maybe you should have started a project to insulate the walls, instead of tearing apart the bathroom."

"I'll put it on the list," Steve said.

While Natasha left with Sam and a CIA team to capture Rumlow, Steve renovated the safe house, and Barnes worked as a translator-for-hire under a false identity, Maria went on about her normal work. Lobbying against the proposed Sokovian Accords was not her only iron in the fire, nor even necessarily the most important in the long run. It mattered a great deal to Steve and the rest of the Avengers, and all other metahumans, but it was only part of global security and stability.

Working as an information broker behind the scenes was neither exciting nor glamorous, but it was at least as important as the public work the Avengers did, and quite possibly more so.

But it was lonely, and more so now than it had been when she'd had SHIELD at her back. She couldn't visit the safehouse too often or risk revealing it; Steve couldn't leave Barnes alone and join her at her apartment while Natasha was out of the country. And while the Avengers' Compound was secure and private, it was too far out of the city for Maria to meet personally with the people she needed to meet with. So she had her meetings and came back in the evening to an empty apartment and did her best not to mind the quiet.

A day after Natasha got back from Nigeria, Pepper Pott's PA called to schedule an appointment, and to bring Natasha and Steve if they were both available.

"How was Nigeria?" Maria asked as they drove across town to Stark Tower. They'd swept the car before getting in, so they could talk openly.

"Could have been better," Natasha said, keeping her eyes on the road. "Sam and I need more practice working together. But the team Carter got for us was even worse, so I don't think they noticed. Rumlow killed himself with his own bomb, which I wouldn't have expected of him, but in some ways it made cleanup easier—the Nigerians couldn't deny we were responding to a valid threat, but they also couldn't demand we hand over the prisoner captured on their soil."

"Would have been nice to bring him back for trial and interrogation," Maria said. "But at least he's out of circulation. What about the bioweapons?"

"The bomb didn't breach any of the containment units," Natasha said, diving into the next lane and getting honked at by the truck she cut off with only inches to spare. Sometimes it showed that she'd learned to drive in Russia. "We're safe there."

"Could have been worse, then," Maria said.

"Yeah. Anything happen while I was gone?"

Maria shrugged. "I didn't get over there, and Steve only texted a few times, but he didn't mention anything. As for work, nothing new you need to know about." She studied Natasha's profile. What would it be like, to be married to Natasha? There were very few people in the world that Maria respected as she did Natasha, on both a personal and professional level. And you'd have to be dead not to see how attractive she was.

Arriving at Stark Tower brought Maria out of her distraction. And she'd warned Steve about putting the cart before the horse!

They showed their IDs to the gate attendant at the parking garage, and were let in to the level reserved for top level SI employees and their guests, the one with the elevator straight to the C-Suite office floor.

"I was only partially sorry to hear Steve couldn't make it," Pepper said. "If he'd come, Tony would have sat in, and then there would have been too much dancing around. I think Tony's settling down on the issue, and I do think he and Steve should talk it out between them, but perhaps not during business hours."

"Steve would accept an invitation to come over, whether socially or on Avengers business," Maria said.

"I'll see if I can prod Tony into making one," Pepper said. "As to the reason you're here, you were right about the flaws in the proposed Sokovia Accords. Some of the specific provisions—especially the one about a neutral prison to house metahumans who breach the Accords—struck me as odd, even assuming Ross was out for all he could get. So I did some digging."

"And?" Maria asked. Pepper wasn't a trained intelligence officer, but she was CEO of the largest multinational corporation in the world (which had many government contracts), and she was very good at putting the pieces together. SI had access to a great deal of classified information … and for all Tony Stark would never dream of divulging classified information to the public (unless it involved him personally), he also didn't see why he and Pepper shouldn't know anything they wanted to.

It had made him infuriating to try and manage, when she was a government agent trying to keep him out of their secrets. It made him (and Pepper) very good sources now she no longer had access to those channels.

"The prison's already been built," Pepper said. "It may even have prisoners already. It's called the Raft, and it's in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The majority of the guards are soldiers from the US Army. In a pretense of neutrality, there are guards and staff from many UN member nations … and at least two of those are former AIM members. One is a confirmed former HYDRA operative."

"Does Ross know that?" Natasha asked. "Was it deliberate, or just incompetence?"

Pepper spread her hands. "Tony says incompetence, but then, he's biased. I don't think there's evidence one way or the other."

"What sort of documentation is there?" Maria asked. "How much of this can I share?"

"I'd prefer if Stark Industries was not the source," Pepper said. "Give us plausible deniability, at least."

"Of course," Maria said.

"However, Tony and I have decided to advocate for some other solution to the problem of superhero oversight," Pepper said. "Which raises the question: how much do we want to coordinate with your own efforts?"

"It might actually be better not to coordinate in a visible way," Natasha pointed out. "Avengers credit is at an all-time low after Sokovia … and apart from the Avengers, you two move in very different circles. If you have the same talking points and strategy, your work becomes an Avengers policy, and Ross can use that to discredit you. Whereas if you have different issues, solutions, and strategies, there is no clear Avengers consensus, and you have a chance of being heard on the merits of your own positions and experience, not as the Avengers' mouthpiece."

Pepper looked dubious. "Are you sure about that? I would think a concentrated effort might do the most good."

Maria shrugged. "Natasha has a point. We're not lobbying for a specific bill we want passed. Our goal is to sink the proposed Sokovia Accords so that something better can be made instead. For that, separate campaigns might be useful. We can re-assess once the Accords are dead."

Pepper nodded thoughtfully. "I see what you mean."

"Besides," Natasha said. "Tony may not want to work too closely with us for a while." Maria raised her eyebrows at Natasha, getting a head tilt in return. They'd discussed—all four of them—their strategy with handling Tony's probable reaction to Barnes, but hadn't come up with anything. Maria would have waited to tell him; Tony wasn't a trained agent and was unlikely to notice Barnes, or put the pieces of his full history together, without someone laying it all out. And they had bigger problems at the moment. Still, Natasha knew Tony better than Maria did, and Maria trusted her judgment.

"Oh, God, what now," Pepper said. "I thought you said they might be able to smooth things over?"

"Their current disagreements, yes," Natasha said. "There's another one just waiting for the anthill to be kicked over."

"And you want to kick it over now?" Pepper asked.

"I want to kill some of the ants first," Natasha said. "Have Tony do some digging into the Insight data about HYDRA brainwashing techniques."

Pepper raised her eyebrows. "Has someone we know been brainwashed?"

"No," Maria said. "But I can give you a summary of what he'll find: HYDRA allies have known since the 1940s how to brainwash people using various combinations of torture, drugs, hypnosis, and electroshock. We have many proven cases of completely new personalities and actions being imposed, with the victim being unable to resist or disobey orders. All of the cases are gruesome and disturbing. Strength of character, intelligence, physical fitness, training, none of it makes the slightest difference. They didn't use it often because it was expensive and finding people willing to work for them voluntarily was usually easier and cheaper. But when they did use it, it was devastating."

Pepper sat back and thought about it. "If this were a minor issue, or something Tony would get over easily, you wouldn't bother with trying to soften Tony up first, and you wouldn't be mentioning it now. It has to be something Tony will absolutely lose his head over. Something done by a person HYDRA brainwashed. Something he doesn't already know about. Something that happened long enough ago that nobody's found it in the Insight data yet, because people have mostly been looking at recent events."

Maria nodded.

Pepper thought for a minute. Her eyes widened. "Did HYDRA kill Tony's parents?"

"Yes," Natasha said.

"And you have the assassin who did it, and you're going to protect them because they were brainwashed?"

"Yes," Maria said. This was why Pepper had been a joy to work with. If you gave her the information, she could put it together faster than most people could.

"And you're absolutely sure they were not acting voluntarily?"

"Absolutely," Natasha said. "No more than Clint was when Loki made him attack the Helicarrier."

"Clint didn't kill anybody's parents in that attack," Pepper pointed out.

"He did, actually," Maria said coolly. "Several of the agents killed that day had children." They just weren't anybody you or Tony knew or cared about hung in the air between them.

Pepper paused. "I stand corrected." She tilted her head. "And is this person is free from their programming now, I assume?"

Natasha shrugged. "There's no active programming. But given the length of time the victim was a HYDRA prisoner, it's likely there are failsafes and latent programming we haven't found yet. Which is why they are under guard and will remain so until we can dig up verification on exactly what methods of control were used on them."

"Also, we'd prefer not to hand them over to the legal authorities until we have some assurances that their legal rights to things like a fair and speedy trial will be honored," Maria said.

Pepper sat back in her chair, legs crossed, and contemplated them. "I don't like being manipulated or managed," she said. "Tony likes it even less than I do."

"Tony has every right to be furious about HYDRA murdering his parents," Natasha said. "But aiming that anger at someone who has suffered far more at HYDRA's hands than he has is not going to do any good for anybody. I'd like to head that off, if I can."

Pepper nodded, but she still wasn't happy about it, Maria could tell. But she was fair enough she wouldn't claim it wasn't warranted.

"Why did you choose today to broach the subject of Barnes?" Maria asked, as they drove back to Maria's apartment.

"Tony hates being left in the dark," Natasha said. "The longer we know about this and don't tell him, the more hurt he will be when he finds out. There's never going to be a perfect time to tell him when there isn't some crisis brewing. So it's better to start sooner rather than later."

"Barnes may not like the decision having been made without him; Steve certainly won't."

Natasha shrugged. "What Yasha wants most of all is to be safe and quiet. To not have to worry about hurting someone, or being hurt himself. He knows he can't stay hidden forever, not if he wants to stay in contact with Steve—"

"—and yourself," Maria said. Natasha tended to downplay the strength of her relationship with Barnes, especially in comparison to his relationship with Steve. But she'd known Yasha when she was an agent of the Red Room, and they'd worked together for almost as many years as Bucky had known Steve.

"Yes," Natasha said. "To get Yasha settled and safe from legal or clandestine attack, we're going to need Tony and Pepper's support. At the very least, we need them not to be working against us. I didn't tell them anything about Yasha … but I did tell them something that might make telling Tony about him go smoother, when we reach that point. Yasha won't like it, but he knows things can't stay like they are forever."

"And if Tony takes the hint, runs with it, and comes crashing in to the safehouse and blows Barnes' cover before we're ready?" Maria asked.

Natasha shrugged. "Tony doesn't multitask well. Even when he's got multiple irons in the fire, he's really only thinking about one of them—usually the most immediately urgent one, or the one that he feels most strongly about, whether or not it's the most important. That was one of Pepper's most important jobs when she was his PA, and still is now that she's CEO: setting priorities for him. Between lobbying for the Accords and catching up on all the Stark Industries work he wasn't doing while he was working on Ultron and cleaning up after it, I doubt he'll have the attention for it."

Maria took her word for it; Natasha was better at predicting Tony than she was.

They got back to Maria's apartment and swept it for bugs. "We really need to get you an office in the city," Natasha said as she scanned underneath the living room furniture. "Some place with round-the-clock security we trust."

"Get me an organizational structure with a budget, and I would be thrilled to have a whole office full of assistants," Maria said. "And an office that isn't also my apartment." She'd never liked the idea of being funded by Tony; he was too capricious. But after the fall of SHIELD there had been work to be done, and he'd been the only one with the money and willingness to pay for it that she knew didn't have HYDRA ties. His failure with Ultron had put an end to the political viability of his sponsorship of the Avengers, at least for the moment. They still had the compound upstate, and she had a whole team of assistants there, but that didn't help much when she needed to be in the city for both personal and professional reasons.

"You're the bureaucrat, not me," Natasha said. "How long do you think it'll take to build what you need?"

Maria sighed. "Tough to say. A lot depends on whether or not we can sink the current version of the Accords, and what the final laws governing superheroing end up being. Worst case scenario, it's simply not possible, Steve and the rest end up doing random missions on an ad hoc basis as necessary, and I go to work at the CIA or the Department of Defense and try my best to continue our work against HYDRA with whatever support I can convince them to give me."

Natasha winced. "Let's hope that doesn't happen."

Maria got her laptop and files out of the safe, and they got to work analyzing the intelligence they'd received lately and figuring out what needed to be acted on. Nothing major had come up, but then, Maria hadn't expected it to; intelligence work rarely produced large, immediately obvious signs. Most of it was putting together the tiny pieces of a puzzle when you didn't know what the finished image looked like.

HYDRA had targeted SHIELD because, as the most multinational intelligence agency on the planet, it had had the best chance of spotting them and coordinating the international community against them. Instead, SHIELD had become HYDRA's, well, shield, and they hadn't had time or enough trusted people to sort the wheat from the chaff in the heat of the moment, which was why Maria had backed Steve's call to tear it all down.

But the work—the core of what SHIELD had stood for—still needed to be done. Informal lines of communication needed to be maintained. Information on threats to global security needed to be gathered, evaluated, and quietly passed on to where it could do the most good (even if that were not one's own nation). Beneficial relationships between security institutions needed to be nurtured; less beneficial ones discouraged. Corruption in all its forms rooted out in whatever way it could be.

And instead of having thousands of people to do that, Maria now had herself and Natasha and a small team at the compound and a few other trusted contacts who could only help occasionally.

At least she had Natasha; Natasha was worth any hundred analysts, easily. "You know, it's almost a pity you were in field work instead of the Triskelion," Maria said when they took a break. "There aren't many as good as you are at this end of the business."

Natasha smirked. "Yeah, but there's nobody as good as me at the other end of it."

Maria nodded. "Want some coffee? Or tea?" She got up to head into the kitchen, selecting a coffee pod and putting it in the machine.

"The stuff you get out of a Keurig isn't tea," Natasha called after her.

"No, I've got an electric kettle and some Krasnodar, if you want it," Maria said.

"Krasnodar?" Natasha followed her into the kitchen and took the box Maria handed her. "You imported tea from Russia?"

Maria shrugged. "It's your favorite, isn't it? That's the brand Nick used to keep for you."

"It is," Natasha said. She smirked. "Why, Ms. Hill, are you trying to woo me?"

"Not with tea," Maria said. "Armies—and intelligence agencies—work on their stomachs. And this is New York. Russian tea is easy to get."

"'Not with tea,'" Natasha parroted. She took the electric kettle and filled it with water at the sink. "But maybe with other things? Have you bought in to Steve's dream of a nice happy townhouse in Brooklyn just like he wanted when he was a kid?" Her words were mocking, but the tone … wasn't. Maria wasn't sure what it was, and she couldn't see her face.

"'Bought into' it, no," Maria said, slowly. "But I'm not dismissing it, either. There's a lot of other things that have to be settled, first, before that even becomes an option worth seriously considering. But if everything else works out and it's a viable option … then I think it would be seriously worth considering."

"You never struck me as the domestic type," Natasha said. With the kettle on, she turned back to face Maria.

"I'm not," Maria said. "I don't think any of us are, not really. Well, with Barnes it's hard to tell what he'll be like when he's more recovered and has his life back." Her coffee finished brewing and she added real cream and sugar, stirring slowly. "I don't think anything we'd ever come up with would look much like a traditional household. But I love Steve, I care deeply about you, and I like Barnes. I respect all three of you, and since the safehouse has been established I've found I like spending time there with all of you. Even when you and Barnes get a bit loud."

"You're one to talk, there," Natasha said.

Maria smirked. "Actually, I think Steve is the one who has no room to complain." She took a sip of her coffee.

"Point," Natasha said. The water in the kettle started boiling, and she removed it from its stand to cool for a bit.

"I'm not the type to get swept up in grand passions, you know that," Maria said. "I care too much about the practical details for that. I care about what works to get the job done." She shrugged. "In all the upheaval of the last few years, I've been wondering: what does that look like for my personal life?" She paused to take a more substantial drink of her coffee, now at just the right temperature for drinking.

"And, what, you decided you wanted to get married?" Natasha asked.

"I decided I wanted a stable home life of mutual support with people I trust and care about." Maria shrugged. "Some people call that a marriage. And if you get the paperwork filed with the state, it also gets you legal and tax benefits."

"And you think that living with two superheroes and a formerly-brainwashed assassin will get you a stable home life?" Natasha sounded amused. "Didn't work out so well for Laura Barton."

Maria laughed. "Can you picture me out in a field in Iowa someplace? My life only looks steady and predictable in comparison to yours. I don't want quiet. What I want is people who will be there even when the world is going to shit around us."

Natasha turned to the counter and scooped some tea out of the box into the strainer. She closed the strainer, put it in the mug, and poured hot water over it. With a few practiced motions she stirred the strainer through the water, removed it, and dumped the used tea leaves in the garbage. She picked up her tea and took a sip. "Sounds nice," she said.

"I think so," Maria said. "Doesn't hurt that I already love Steve, and admire and trust you, and you're close with Barnes, who is also Steve's lover. And you and Steve bicker like true moiety-siblings. It's a ready-made sedoretu. Barnes and I for the Evening, you and Steve for the Morning."

"You don't even know Yasha very well, and you're thinking of forming a family with him?" Natasha asked.

"I wouldn't be marrying him, we're both Evening," Maria said. "You and Steve would be the ones marrying him. And you both love and trust him already. All I need to know is, do I trust him enough to live in the same house and be honest in his relationships, and do we get along okay. Unless something changes drastically once we're sure he's free from brainwashing triggers, we'll be fine. I've spent enough time at the safehouse with all of us there to know that."

"I can't have kids," Natasha said.

"I don't know that I want kids," Maria said. "I don't know if Steve wants them. Does Barnes?"

"I've never asked," Natasha said. "It wasn't something you talked about in the Red Room, and we've had much more important things to talk about since we brought him home."

"Then it might not be an issue," Maria said. "But if it bothers you, talk to Dr. Cho—her work with the Regeneration Cradle might be able to fix what the Red Room did to you."

Natasha blinked twice, and then looked down at her tea, taking another sip.

Had Maria actually surprised Natasha with something Natasha hadn't considered? That didn't happen often; Maria was tempted to write it down on her calendar to commemorate. But she supposed that even Natasha couldn't always think logically and clearly about her traumas.

"You wouldn't just be marrying Steve, though," Natasha said. "You'd have to marry me, too, in this hypothetical sedoretu."

"I already trust you and care about you," Maria said. "And you know exactly how attractive you are. As long as you're willing to marry me, I don't foresee any problems there."

Maria thought they were making some headway on the Accords, when word came that Peggy Carter had died.

"I've been asked to be a pall-bearer," Steve said over dinner that night. They were eating some kind of chicken bake Barnes had made. Apparently, cooking helped ground him. Steve was pushing his food around on his plate, instead of chowing down with his usual appetite.

"I've been invited as a representative of SHIELD," Maria said. "Should be Nick, but he's dead."

"If anyone would appreciate someone not going to her funeral because they were undercover and thought dead, it would be Peggy Carter," Natasha said. "The stories they told at SHIELD about her—the Red Room had stories, too, but different ones."

"Wish I could go," Barnes said.

"She'd understand," Steve said, "but I wish we could have told her you survived."

Barnes shrugged. "It's not right. We almost formed a sedoretu, would have if Steve and I had … survived the war and we'd found a fourth. I know she'd be too practical to mind, but … it's not right I can't go."

Maria shrugged, and kept eating. He wasn't wrong about it, but there was nothing to be done. He couldn't go out in public—or anywhere he was likely to be spotted by an intelligence agency, which definitely included Peggy Carter's funeral—until they had some reasonable assurance that he would receive a fair trial, at the very least. Preferably, not until they had the keys to whatever latent brainwashing might still exist.

"I'll tell her you were sorry you couldn't go," Steve said.

"We'll probably be flying commercial, unless Pepper invites us on the Stark jet," Maria said. "Would you get the tickets and arrange for a hotel room?"

"Sure," Steve said. He'd probably be glad for something to do.

"Are you two going to need any help, staying here alone?" Maria asked Natasha and Barnes.

"I'm fine," Barnes said. "I don't go out much anyway, even with that fancy face mask of Natasha's. We've got plenty of groceries."

Natasha shrugged. "Secrecy is our best security. Somebody who wanted Yasha badly enough and had enough trained people could overwhelm us if they got lucky, especially if they came while we were asleep. But that's also true with Steve here. Bringing in a couple extra people to replace Steve while you guys will be gone wouldn't be worth bringing more people in on Yasha's existence."

Barnes nodded. "We'll be ok."

"Bring us back some Cadbury's, though," Natasha said. Barnes raised his eyebrows at her. "What?" she said.

"You can get chocolate here," he said.

"Cadbury's never tastes the same outside the UK, though," Natasha said.

"I'll put it on the list," Maria said.

"Natasha's been a little different, the last couple of days," Steve said as they got ready for bed that night. "A little more thoughtful. Watching how Bucky and I interact."

"We had a conversation, the day we went to see Pepper together," Maria said, shrugging into a sleep top. "About sedoretu. Us four. Why I'm interested in the possibility."

"What'd she say?"

"Not much," Maria said. "But then, I wasn't expecting her to. The only experience she has with any kind of marriage is Clint, intelligence targets she's gotten close to over the years, and the media. She's always had trouble connecting herself with ordinary life." She sat on the bed and watched Steve lay out his clothes for the next day. He always woke before she did, and was good about tiptoeing out without waking her.

"I know she thinks I have some kind of rosy-tinted idyllic picture of a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and five kids per sedoretu," Steve said. "Which just isn't the case."

"You'd never go for the suburbs when you could live in a townhouse in the city," Maria said.

"Exactly!" Steve said. "And kids … if we had them, I'd love them, but I'm not expecting any, you know? Before the serum, I wouldn't have wanted to saddle a kid with my heart and lungs, and after, well, they'd just be targets." He slid into bed. "If I were looking to re-create the Average American Serviceman's post-war life, I wouldn't be trying to do it with SHIELD agents, for God's sake."

Maria slid in next to him. "I didn't think you were," she said. "I might be up for the occasional role-play, if you wanted, though," she said, propping herself up on one elbow. She tried for a suitably submissive, valley-of-the-dolls expression. "How was your day, dear?"

Steve burst out laughing. "I think if one of us was staying home, it'd be me, don't you, dear?"

"You'd go just as stir-crazy as I would," Maria said, snickering.

Steve sobered and flopped back in bed. "Yeah." He stared up at the ceiling for a bit. "It feels wrong to laugh when Peggy just died."

"I was expecting a bit more grief from you, to be honest," Maria said.

Steve shook his head. "Peggy's been dying slowly, by inches, since about a year after I came out of the ice. And there hasn't been much left of her for the last six months, at least. I've had a lot of time to grieve. I'll always love her, and I miss her, and I'm sad that we never got to build the life together that we talked about. But I'm not sad she died now, if you know what I mean. She had a good life, a long one, she's earned her rest. I'm glad I can go to her funeral and be there for her this one last time. But I want to build a life, not sit in the ashes of the one I could have had if everything had been different."

"I get that," Maria said.

"Do you think Natasha might be interested?" Steve said. "I haven't wanted to pressure her, or spook her, or distract her."

Maria flopped down and brought the covers over her shoulder. "I think your instincts are right, and she'd feel pressured if you talked about it. I think she got some food for thought and a different perspective than she was expecting, when we talked. She might decide she likes it. She might not. I have no clue, and some of the best agents and analysts in the world have gotten themselves into a lot of trouble trying to predict her or force her hand."

"If she were easy or simple, I doubt she could handle Bucky," Steve said. "Or you. And I'd rather stay friends than risk messing up what we have."

"And also, I'm not fully on board yet," Maria reminded him. "There are a lot of other things to handle first."

"Yeah," Steve said. "I just … Peggy's death has stirred some stuff up."

"Well, we do seem to be making progress on sinking Ross's proposed Accords," Maria said. "So things are heading in the right direction professionally, at least."

The funeral was everything Maria had known it would be: formal, large, and a fitting tribute to such a great woman whose work had shaped the preceding century. It was also an excellent occasion to both network and lobby against the Accords, as all the major players on the international intelligence stage were there.

Steve and Maria were packing to return to New York when word came that an international summit in Vienna had been bombed, resulting in the death of a number of world leaders.

"Do they need us?" Steve asked.

Maria shrugged. "So far, there's no indications of any ongoing threat, and no superpowered individuals or HYDRA involvement I'm aware of. But we're close, and it's rarely a bad thing to be visibly present."

"Vienna it is, then," Steve said.

When Ross showed them the faked footage of the bomb being planted, only Maria's iron control kept her from reacting. On the one hand, they weren't ready for news of Barnes' recovery to go public. On the other hand, that was no longer under their control, and this was a perfect opportunity to discredit Ross (and therefore his pet project).

"Your cameras have been hacked," she said coolly.

Next to her, Steve was tense, but he trusted her and said nothing.

"Of course they haven't been hacked," Ross says.

"The Winter Soldier is currently in Avengers custody in the US," Maria said. "He can't have planted the bomb."

Tony turned from where he was examining the footage to stare at her. But he glanced between her and Steve, and then at Ross, frowning, and kept quiet. He attached one of his devices to the side of the monitor and began hacking his way into the systems.

"If he's in custody, why haven't you reported this to the proper authorities?" Ross said. "And are you sure he hasn't escaped?"

Maria shrugged and flipped open her phone, calling Natasha through her Avengers com which didn't use the regular cell system, so it couldn't be tracked without Tony Stark's compliance.

"Black Widow," Natasha said.

"Agent Romanoff, you're on speaker phone," Maria said. "Is the Winter Soldier still in custody?"

"Yes," Natasha said without hesitation.

"Has there been any break in custody in the last month?"


Maria raised her eyebrows at Ross. "He's in custody on a different continent. Therefore, he didn't plant the bomb. Therefore, your cameras have been hacked. Besides the obvious security issues, I want to know who wants to frame the Winter Soldier, and why. Is it a grudge against the Soldier? Against HYDRA? Some other plot?"

"The file replacement was done manually, but from the central memory, not the cameras themselves," Tony said. "It was someone with physical access to your systems. So, two separate security breaches: one to plant the bomb, one to spoof the footage."

Ross ignored all of this. "How long have you had the Winter Soldier, and why haven't you turned him over to the appropriate agency?" He turned to T'Challa, the new King of Wakanda, whose father had been killed by the bomb. "This is clearly a sign the Avengers can't be trusted—"

"He was a prisoner of war and victim of extreme brainwashing techniques," Maria said coolly. "SHIELD had the expertise to handle that, and the Avengers have it now."

Tony snorted. "Also, your new metahuman prison is infested with HYDRA and AIM. Did you build it to contain people, or experiment on them?"

So much for Pepper's desire to keep their hacking of Ross's prison files secret, Maria thought. This was why she didn't like Tony having access to classified information.

"It is not—" Ross began.

"In any case, that's not the immediate issue," Maria said. "Who planted that footage, and why? And who planted the bomb?"

"It's the most secure prison on the planet," Ross said, "and far more trustworthy than your—"

"My father is dead," T'Challa said. His voice was quiet, but the intensity of it could have turned stone to magma. "My father has been murdered, and this is what you argue about." He turned to Maria. "Whoever did it, I want their head. Can the Avengers find them?"

"Possibly," Maria said. "We'd need cooperation from the UN and other intelligence agencies; our own intelligence gathering is limited, since the fall of SHIELD, as our focus is on operational matters."

"But you will share your data with my people, yes?" T'Challa said. "And you will not waste time with petty maneuvering for status?"

Maria nodded. "Of course."

"Then let the Avengers take the lead," T'Challa said.

"We'll need to get the team over here as soon as possible," Steve said once the diplomats had left and it was just the three of them.

"I don't know how much of a 'team' it is, since you can't be bothered to tell me we're holding a notorious HYDRA assassin," Tony said. "That's a bit of a major thing to hide from me."

"We're fairly sure he's got latent brainwashing still present, waiting to be triggered," Maria said. "You've read the files on HYDRA brainwashing, right? You know how irresistible it can be? We probably won't be able to root it out until we find HYDRA's operating manual for him, which wasn't in the data dump or any files we've found yet. All it takes is one person getting close enough to yell a code phrase, and we have one of HYDRA's deadliest operatives active again. The best way to prevent that is to restrict the number of people who know where he is, or even that we have him."

"Yeah, but you know you can trust me," Tony said.

"To stand against HYDRA? Absolutely," Maria said. "To protect the planet from invasion? Without question or hesitation. To keep your mouth shut about something you care about or find interesting? Or can use to score points? Not at all."

"I'm not that bad," Tony said.

"How happy is Pepper going to be that you spilled the beans that you already know about the Raft and its vermin problem?" Maria asked.

Tony opened his mouth to respond, hesitated, and closed it again. "Okay, fine. But you still should have told me."

"First we need to get the ball rolling on calling in the team," Steve said. "Natasha's got to stay guarding—the Soldier." At least he didn't mention Barnes' name; there was time for that can of worms to be kicked over after the mission planning was done.

"If we had more time, I'd say you should head back and take over that, and send her over here," Maria said. "This is more her line of work than yours. Hawkeye, Falcon and Vision we could definitely use here; I'd have Wanda backing up Natasha, now that the cat's out of the bag. If someone does find them and trigger the Soldier's programming, Wanda's probably the best chance we have at knocking that loose."

"Maybe she'll be able to root out the triggers without needing to have the codes," Steve said hopefully.

"HYDRA buries its triggers deep, so I doubt it, but it's worth a shot," Maria said. She looked at Tony. "Think we could get War Machine over here, too? It may be overkill, but there's a chance the bombing and faked footage was specifically to draw the Avengers out. If it's a trap for us, I'd rather go in with more firepower."

"I'll ask him," Tony said.

"Do you think there's anything in the faked footage that can help us figure out who actually did it?" Steve asked.

Tony shrugged. "I can give you the time it was uploaded, which would let you narrow down the possibilities."

"Thank you, Tony, that would be helpful," Maria said. "I can take that and any other data you give, and work with Sharon and the UN security people to drum up some leads. Hopefully, by the time the team gets here, we'll know who we're looking for."

"We need to come clean to Tony about Barnes killing his parents," Maria told Steve when they had a few quiet moments alone. "It should be now, before the rest of the team gets here, so he has time to process before we have a chance of needing to go into battle."

"Shouldn't we wait until after, when it won't be a distraction?" Steve said.

"With anybody else, I'd say yes," Maria said. "But Pepper put it together, and Tony might, too … and so might Ross. Ross is a power-hungry control freak with a taste for human experimentation, but he's not stupid. He wants the Avengers divided because that way it'll be easier to get his Accords ratified by the UN. If he figures out the Winter Soldier killed Tony's parents, you can bet he'll tell Tony at the worst possible time. Hell, he might just tell Tony that without bothering to check if it's true—Tony Stark's daddy issues are well known in the US military-industrial complex."

"Whereas if we tell him, we can at least control how he gets the news," Steve said with a nod. "Pepper's not here, but Rhodey will be—and while he won't be happy about the Avengers holding the Winter Soldier without telling anybody, he does understand 'classified' and 'need to know.' And how to focus on the mission."

"Exactly," Maria said.

"I hate telling anybody without Bucky's say-so," Steve said.

Maria shrugged. "Avengers communicators are probably secure enough to call him up, especially now that Ross knows he's in our custody."

Barnes listened quietly as they explained. "Of course you should tell him," he said when they'd finished. "He's got a right to know."

"It wasn't your fault, Buck," Steve said.

"It was sure as fuck my hand, though," Barnes responded. "And his parents. He's got a right to know."

"I want to be on the line as part of the conversation when you tell him," Natasha said.

"So, how many prisoners do you have squirrelled away in deep dark holes that I don't know about?" Tony asked.

"Just the one," Maria said. "And he's not in a hole, he's in a former SHIELD off-the-books safehouse in the Bronx."

"Oh, just the one then," Tony said. "Only one thing my team doesn't trust me enough to tell me about. That's nice. Who all else knows?"

"Sam and Natasha and I brought him in," Steve said. "Maria handled setting up the house. That's it."

"Clint doesn't know?" Tony said, taken aback.

"Clint didn't need to know," Natasha said over the communicator. "And also, I didn't want to stir up bad memories until I had to. It will be easier for Clint once the Soldier's deprogramming is complete and we don't have to worry about latent triggers."

"Speaking of Clint, why couldn't you just hit the Soldier in the head and clear out his programming that way?" Tony asked.

"Loki had Clint for a few days, and his technique was simple but overwhelming. HYDRA had the Soldier for seventy years, and their techniques were complex and layered."

"Seventy years? What, he's as old as Capsicle here?" Tony said.

"Yes," Steve said. "They gave him a version of what Project Rebirth gave me. And they kept him cryogenically frozen whenever he wasn't actively in use. When they wanted to use him, they'd defrost him, program him, point him at the target, and send him out on a leash. Afterwards they'd reel him back in, wipe him, and freeze him again. It meant he lasted decades, but it also meant that he was seldom awake long enough at any one time for the programming to break down."

"And it also meant that he doesn't remember a lot of what he did over the years, and only some of what was done to him," Maria said. "Which makes figuring out who his handlers were and what techniques they used on him—and where their records might be—difficult. Our plan was to get him deprogrammed, and then hand him over to the Justice Department to figure out what, if anything, he is actually legally liable for, and get him a fair trial."

"So that's why you had me researching HYDRA brainwashing techniques," Tony said. "Which was really gruesome, by the way, and I didn't find anything useful. But thanks for the nightmares, I guess."

"Sorry," Steve said soberly. "It gives me nightmares, too. But the reason you haven't found anything useful is that there was a lot that HYDRA kept completely separate from SHIELD, things they couldn't have covered up if there were any hint of a connection. That includes a lot of the Winter Soldier program … including most of the missions they sent him on."

"Let me guess, there's a lot of dirty stuff in there," Tony said.

"Yes," Steve said. "He was the weapon used in a lot of high-profile unsolved assassinations."

"Don't tell me, he shot JFK," Tony said flippantly.

"He did," Maria said.

"Huh," Tony said. "I always thought the conspiracy theories were a bit far-fetched, but I guess not."

"And HYDRA also used him for quieter assassinations, when they wanted things to pass unnoticed," Maria said. "Car accidents, for example."

All trace of humor drained from Tony's face. "Are you saying that my parents were murdered? By the Winter Soldier?"

"By HYDRA," Steve said. "Using the Winter Soldier as the weapon."

"Well, that makes a real difference," Tony said. "I'm sure it made such a difference to Mom and Dad, knowing the man who killed them didn't choose to do it. Let me ask them what they think about it. Except I can't, can I? Because they're dead, because he killed them!"

"Tony, you're entitled to your feelings—" Steve said, which he must have gotten from Sam.

"Damn right, I'm entitled to my feelings!" Tony said. "He murdered my parents! And my father was a son of a bitch, you could argue he deserved it, but what about my mom?"

Steve shrugged helplessly. "HYDRA's evil, Tony, you know that."

"Yeah, and the Winter Soldier spent seventy years doing their bidding!"

"He was brainwashed!"

"He should have resisted better!" Tony said. "I did!"

"How long did the Ten Rings have you before you agreed to work for them, again, Tony?" Natasha said from over the phone. Maria had been wondering when she'd speak up.

"I didn't," Tony said. "I just said I would, so they'd give me the tools I needed to escape."

"Yeah, but what if they hadn't wanted you to build weapons, or do anything that needed tools," Natasha said. "What if they'd wanted you to give them details on some of your defense contracts? What if you'd been completely alone with no hope of rescue and no way to save yourself? What if they'd had you for months or years, instead of weeks?"

"You have every right to be angry, Tony," Maria said. "But no good can come of taking that out on someone who's suffered more from HYDRA than anyone else."

Tony looked to the side, jaw working. "And I suppose you're all perfectly rational on the subject."

"I'm certainly not," Natasha said. "He was one of my few friends, when I was with the Red Room. We were sent on missions together. We protected each other from our masters, to the extent we could. Without him, I might not have survived, and I might not have been able to escape them even if I had."

"I'm not, either," Steve said. "Did your dad ever tell you about Bucky Barnes?"

Tony shrugged. "Not much, but I read the comic books as a kid. And Aunt Peggy told me some here and there when Dad wasn't around. He died tragically falling off a train—or maybe he didn't." He threw up his hands. "You're telling me that my parents were killed by your long-lost BFF?"

"Yes," Steve said.

Tony turned to Maria. "Okay, so what's your story. Is he secretly your father?"

Maria snorted. "No. For me, he's the one who almost killed Nick, who almost killed Steve multiple times on Insight Day, who's spent longer than I've been alive doing the work of people who want to destroy everything I value. And he's also a quiet, courteous man who just wants to be left in peace and never have to hurt anyone ever again, a man who is close to two of the people I value most in the world. Even if I had been when we brought him in, you can't keep someone under this kind of security without getting to know them and be affected by it. No, I'm not perfectly rational. That's what proper oversight is for: so that decisions can be made by people who are hopefully less biased and definitely aren't swept up in the heat of the moment."

"And we can't turn him over to stand trial until we're reasonably certain he doesn't have latent brainwashing just waiting to be triggered," Natasha said. "And until we know he's actually going to get a fair trial, rather than be locked up by people who would be happy to use him themselves."

"And Ross has a prison pre-staffed with former HYDRA and AIM agents," Tony said. "And a history of unethical experimentation to create supersoldiers. And a proposal for an 'oversight' that conveniently puts any metahuman who ever commits any crime directly in his hands."

"Yeah," said Maria.

"I'd offer to let you fight me while wearing the suit," Steve said, "if we didn't have a mission right now."

Tony just shook his head and walked out of the room.

Tony was unpleasant to be around, and when the others had arrived and been briefed on everything (including Barnes), Rhodes stepped in to mediate between him and Maria and Steve.

They made progress on finding and plugging the security holes the bomber had used to plant the bomb and the footage, but hadn't managed to identify the culprit when there was a second bomb, this one at an industrial facility in Herefordshire, England.

"More faked footage of the Winter Soldier," Maria said, reviewing the information. "Is it someone with a grudge against him, or a grudge against HYDRA in general, or do they just want to throw suspicion elsewhere?"

"Gee, I don't know why someone could possibly dislike the man with the longest kill-sheet in the world," Tony said. "But I can tell you from internet traffic before and after the blast that there's a HYDRA server farm somewhere in the area."

"Can you tell whether that was the target of the blast?" Rhodes asked.

"Nope, it'll need someone on the ground to figure that out," Tony said.

"Then it sounds like that's our first target," Steve said.

The facility in Herefordshire was definitely HYDRA, or had been before the bombing; HYDRA had known their cover was blown and started to destroy what they couldn't evacuate. Even with the Avengers getting there as soon as possible (and coordinating with the UK anti-HYDRA taskforce to interdict anyone coming out before they got there) a lot of information was lost.

But they hadn't been able to touch the bomb site itself, because the local first-responders weren't HYDRA.

"I think the bomber was Sokovian-trained," Maria said after surveying the site and looking at the forensics report. "That, or wanted to make it look like they were." She pointed out the hallmarks of bomb construction and placement that corresponded with classic EKO Scorpion technique, and the similar elements of the Vienna bombing.

"Could be another layer of misdirection, like the faked video footage," Rhodes pointed out. "Either way, I'm not crying over dead HYDRA operatives. The bomber did us a favor."

"I'd buy them a beer," Steve said. "If it weren't for the first bombing and the death of King T'Chaka and all the other people there."

"Yeah," Tony said. "I don't think we're going to get anything more tonight. We've got the Castle House Townhouse booked. Sorry, Steve, Maria—I checked, but it doesn't have a honeymoon suite for you." He flipped the mask down on his helmet and took off.

Maria wiped a hand over her face, glad that the only person in earshot besides Avengers was Colonel Rhodes, whose professionalism she could trust. "There are a few things I need to coordinate with the Anti-HYDRA Taskforce, and then I need to brief King T'Challa, but the rest of you can head to the hotel."

"Not exactly the way I wanted to tell people we're together," Steve said as they got ready for bed. It was a well-appointed room in a luxurious townhouse, exactly the sort of thing Tony would pick.

"If this is the worst he does, I'll be pleased," Maria said. "But I'm fried. I don't want to talk business—I'll be better able to think in the morning if I give myself time to relax now." She pulled the covers back on the bed and flopped down.

"We could call Bucky and Nat," Steve said, crawling in beside her. It was a cozy fit; the bed wasn't designed for a supersoldier.

Maria shook her head. "If we use our Avengers communicators, Tony could listen in if he wanted to, and if we used a cell phone, Ross could trace the call. I don't think we should contact them on personal business until this mess is over." She hesitated. "But a quick check-in should be fine."

Natasha answered her communicator quickly. "Nothing out of the ordinary here," she said when they asked. "Nobody's found us yet that I can tell. Wanda hasn't found any triggers she can undo, so there's been no progress on that front. Barnes has been working on his translations and doing the cooking, as usual. I've been looking over the information you've sent on. I think you're right that the bomber was Sokovian-trained. I've got a few thoughts, but nothing solid enough to send the team on. How are things there?"

Maria grimaced. "Could be worse."

"It'd be better if we could find that bomber," Steve said. "I hate being a step behind. I feel like we're being led around by the nose."

"We can't get ahead of him until we figure out who it is and what he wants," Maria said.

"I'll do my best to help with that part from here," Natasha said. "See if I can track down any of the Scorpions who dropped off the grid after Ultron."

"Thank you," Maria said. There was nothing else she could say that she'd be willing to let Tony overhear. From the look on his face, Steve was thinking the same thing.

"Well, I guess we should let you get on with it," Steve said awkwardly.

"Good night, you two, sleep tight," Natasha said, and closed the channel.

"I don't know what time my body thinks it is right now, but it doesn't feel like time for bed," Steve said.

"Not to me, either," Maria said.

"What should we do, then?" Steve asked.

She wasn't in the mood for a movie, reading would take too much effort, and she had no life outside work (and thus very little to talk about that wasn't business). "You could tell me about how the bathroom reno went," she said, "and what your next project is going to be." It sounded soothingly mundane.

Steve smiled. "Alright." Maria curled up next to him, leaning her head on his chest.

The door banged open, and Maria dove for the floor, grabbing her handgun off the nightstand as she went.

"Guess what present I just got," Tony declared, and Maria took her finger off the trigger guard.

"Tony, I almost shot you," she said, rising to her feet.

"And I almost took your head off with the shield," Steve said from the other side of the bed.

"Wanted to finish what your good ol' boyfriend Bucky started?" Tony said, but he looked a little startled by the vehemence of their reaction.

"Tones, what's going on?" Rhodes said from behind him. Rhodes was standing in the hall in his boxers, service pistol in hand.

"I just got sent some very interesting files from a concerned citizen," Tony said. "I think you need to see them." He pointed a device at the TV on the wall. It turned on, and began showing footage of what Maria quickly realized was the assassination of his parents. It was grim and brutal. By the time it was over, the rest of the Avengers present had gathered, awoken by the commotion.

"Tony, I'm sorry," Steve said, after it was finished.

"You are protecting the man who did that!" Tony shouted. "I don't want your apology, I want him to hurt!"

"Will that make you feel better?" Sam asked.

"I don't need a VA group leader psychoanalyzing me," Tony said.

"Man, I am not paid enough to deal with your messed-up brain," Sam said. "Or any of y'all's brains. I just think striking out blindly because you're hurting leads to some really bad places."

"Who sent the files?" Maria asked.

"They were anonymous," Tony said. "And I ran a very thorough analysis looking for any kind of deepfake or special effects. The footage is genuine."

"Genuine or not, whoever sent it had an agenda," Maria said. "What do they want you to do in response to that footage? How do they expect you to react?"

"They didn't ask for anything," Tony said. "Maybe it was just out of the goodness of their heart."

"Tony, she's right," Rhodes said. "It could be the bomber. We know he's got a thing about the Winter Soldier, or why would he be trying to pin it on him? And then you get an anonymous message with footage of the Winter Soldier killing your parents? It can't be a coincidence."

"It does seem likely that someone is trying to manipulate you," Vision said. "We should analyze it to see if we can find the source."

"What about you, Robin Hood?" Tony asked the one person who hadn't said anything yet.

Clint shrugged. "I'm just remembering what it was like, after Loki, coming to in the Helicarrier's medbay strapped to a gurney, and realizing what I'd done. And having to walk past a memorial wall with new names on it that I put there."

"Right," Tony said, stomping out. Rhodes and Vision followed him down the stairs, presumably to try and trace the files.

Sam grimaced. "I'm going to try and get a couple more hours of sleep."

"Me, too," Clint said. The two of them left, closing the door behind them.

"I'm not going to be able to get back to sleep," Maria said. "Guess I'll check and see what might have come in overnight."

The anonymous email was too well-scrubbed to lead them all the way back to its author, but it gave them some clues; combined with Natasha's research and some information from the investigation, they were able to tentatively identify the bomber as Baron Helmut Zemo of Sokovia, formerly a member of the Sokovian Armed Forces.

Maria passed that information along to the head of the Austrian Federal Police investigation into the bombing, who put out an arrest warrant for Zemo. A few hours later, he was caught at the Vienna airport trying to get on a flight to Siberia.

Sharon Carter was closer than Maria was, so she was the one who sat in on the interrogation.

The Avengers gathered around a screen to hear her report.

"He wanted to destroy the Avengers for their role in the Ultron disaster," Sharon said.

"And to do that … he blew up a UN gathering and a HYDRA facility?" Tony said, skeptically.

"He had the codes to the Winter Soldier's conditioning," Sharon said. "He was trying to draw Barnes out with the bombings, so Zemo could trigger him and set him loose to wreak havoc. Zemo knew he couldn't kill you by force, so he wanted to divide the organization. He saw the Accords were divisive, and he hoped that that plus the Winter Soldier having killed Howard and Maria Stark plus the Winter Soldier killing again would be enough to get Steve and Tony fighting, and hopefully draw in the rest of the team."

Maria carefully did not look at either Steve or Tony, at that.

"His plan was very complex, with too many moving parts. If he'd managed to get his hands on Barnes, it might have worked, but as it was … " Sharon shrugged. "He knows a lot about HYDRA, both things he put together from the Insight data dump and things he got from other places. And he's got no love for HYDRA, so he's willing to spill at least some of it. Especially if it will keep Austria from allowing the Wakandans to extradite him—Wakanda has the death penalty, Austria does not. I'll keep you posted on any actionable intelligence that comes from that."

"You said he had the Winter Soldier's codes," Maria said. "Do you have them now? Can you pass them on?"

"Of course," Sharon said.

There were a few other matters to cover, but that was the main gist of it, and then Sharon signed off.

"Well that was anticlimactic," Tony said.

"Best kind of mission, if you ask me," Sam said.

Tony shook his head, and got up and left.

Rhodes watched him go, and then turned to Maria and Steve. "Should we stick around a couple of days, see if Zemo coughs up another HYDRA base or two we can take out?"

Maria tilted her head. "And the base here in Herefordshire didn't manage to destroy all their records before we got here, there might be something there, too. It's worth a shot, but at least one of us needs to get that code book back to Natasha to see what she and Wanda can do with it."

"Tony won't want to stick around, but I wouldn't ask him to ferry the code book," Rhodes said. "I'm detached to the Avengers for at least the next week, maybe longer if we find something big.

"I'm good with staying in Europe on the Avengers' dime for a few weeks as rapid-response," Sam said.

"I'm always up for hunting HYDRA," Clint said. "As long as we don't have to stay too long."

"I have no pressing engagements," Vision said.

"I've got work piling up at home," Maria said, "but there's also a lot I could be doing here." She cocked an eyebrow at Steve.

"I'd like to be there for Bucky when they try deprogramming him," Steve said, "but I have a feeling he'd tell me that hunting HYDRA is more important."

"That depends on what kind of intelligence we dig up," Maria said.

Two days later, Maria was back in New York. The Winter Soldier notebooks were safely in Natasha's hands, and she and Wanda were working to see what they could undo.

Maria got to work on all the things that had been building up since she'd left for Europe, and when the most urgent things were dealt with, she went to see Pepper again.

"How's Tony?" she asked over coffee.

"Upset," Pepper said. "He may never trust you or Steve or Natasha the same way again."

"For what it's worth, I'm sorry, and I wish things could have been different," Maria said.

Pepper nodded, but didn't offer to pass it along. "He might finally be willing to quit the Avengers, I don't know," she said. "Between the Ultron fiasco, and almost falling for Zemo's manipulation, and feeling betrayed by Steve and yourself … I don't know."

Maria nodded. "As long as the Avengers are available for truly world-shattering events such as alien invasions, much of what they've been doing for the past several years could be handed back over to traditional military, intelligence, and law enforcement services. I think we've gotten enough of HYDRA's heads rooted out that it shouldn't be too much of a problem."

"He might continue to fund the Avengers even if he steps down," Pepper said. "He might not. He might demand Steve step down in order to keep funding the rest of the Avengers. I don't know."

"I think Steve would accept that without too much trouble," Maria said. "He's been on active duty for about seven years without much of a break, unless you count 'frozen in the ice' as a break."

Pepper nodded, and took a sip of her coffee. "How's Barnes?"

"We're hopeful that between Wanda's powers and the information retrieved from Zemo, we can remove the triggers, or at least lessen them enough that Barnes has a fighting chance of overcoming them," Maria said. "We've gotten him a lawyer who specializes in prisoners of war and similar issues, and now that the Accords are dead in the water we're working with the US Attorney of the Southern District of New York, the Army Judge Advocate General's office, and the International Criminal Court to determine who should put him on trial and what, exactly, he'll be charged with."

"So there is going to be a trial, then?" Pepper said. "Tony didn't think so."

Maria shrugged. "Of course there's going to be a trial, now that he's got a fighting chance at a fair one. Possibly multiple trials, depending on jurisdictional issues." She changed the subject. "We discussed working together on a proposed replacement for the Sokovia Accords, a few weeks ago. Are you still interested?"

"Yes," Pepper said.

"Then let's get to work," Maria said.

Steve got home a week later, tired, but content. There had indeed been a few more HYDRA bases and heads in the information from the Herefordshire facility and Zemo's confession, and he and his team had taken out the largest ones, in a coordinated series of attacks, while the smaller and less dangerous ones had been handled by the nations they were in. He came to the house in the Bronx, and the four of them had dinner together. It was a quiet night, but that was just what she'd needed. It felt more like home than her own empty apartment did.

Maria spent the night; she'd missed him, while he was gone.

"We've knocked out a couple of things on your list of necessary preconditions for marriage," Steve said as he unpacked his bags. "Or, at least, we're closer. Bucky's head is getting fixed, and hopefully the trial will clear his name. You and Pepper and Natasha are working on getting the Avengers regularized and more stable oversight and structure. How are you feeling about it?"

Maria shrugged. "There are so many ways it could be used against me, professionally, whatever I might personally prefer. Even if everything goes right. But … I like coming home to you. To all of you."

Steve smiled. "I'm glad. Whether or not things are ever stable enough that you'd be willing to get married, I'm glad we have this."

"So am I," Maria said.

In the next room, a bed-frame started squeaking rhythmically. Steve met her eyes, and they both cracked up. "My next home improvement project really should be insulating the walls, huh?" Steve said.

"Oh, yeah," Maria said. "But in the meantime, I know a way to make sure we aren't just standing around awkwardly trying not to listen to them."

"Oh?" Steve said.

"Yeah." Maria grabbed his collar and drew him down for a kiss.