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The Odd Couple

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Sam invites her to come jogging one day, along the track that runs around the facility, through the open spaces of the property’s training grounds, and around the landing field. “Better than the treadmill,” he tells her.

“Maybe I don’t run,” Maria tells him, barely glancing up from her tablet and the latest list of proposed operations.

“Hey, I’ve seen you on the equipment, Hill.” He tilts his head, his expression turning slightly mournful. “Unless you’re avoiding me, in which case I’m gonna have hurt feelings.”

“And you think that’ll make me change my mind?”

“Ouch.” But there’s a smile in his voice. “Tomorrow, 0530, I’ll see you at the track, right? Right?”

Maria is there at 0530. Partly because he’s correct – it’s better than the treadmill – and partly because keeping track of the team is her job description these days. And Sam’s a pretty good weathervane: a team player with the emotional intelligence to see people problems before they become critical. It’s worth cultivating the relationship.

Plus, he’s good company while jogging.

She doesn’t realise Steve’s also on the circuit until there’s a call from behind, “On your left!”

They shuffle right as Steve jogs past them and turns on one toe, jogging backwards as fast as they're jogging forwards, sure-footed as a cat. “Didn’t know you’d joined us, Maria.”

“I joined Wilson,” she tells him.

“Really?”

Maria nearly smiles at the look he gives Sam – eyes narrowed, eyebrows raised. Sam just grins and shrugs. “I asked her.”

“Don’t let us hold you up,” Maria interrupts before Steve can say anything else. She doesn’t want or need the speculation, especially from him.

Steve’s smile turns rueful. “Keeping on stepping,” he says and turns around to continue on his way. And, yes, Maria watches that well-toned butt all the way up the slope, until he’s vanished around the corner and out of sight.

“Good view?”

Wilson’s smirk doesn’t diminish when she glares at him, so she shrugs, “Can’t complain.” Then she saves her breath for the slope. She needs to get out more – setting up the facility has been an effort, and ironing out all the little wrinkles has been taking time out from her usual regime.

Steve overtakes them twice more before they reach the end of the circuit, calling out both times as he passes.

“He does this to make me look bad,” Sam says as they watch him sprint off into the distance as they reach the final stretch. “Well, worse, I guess.”

Maria notes the singular with some amusment and some resignation, and wonders if she should run a check on Wilson’s psych profile again. Working with Captain America is not a job for a man with an inferiority complex, and although she wouldn’t have initially classed Sam Wilson as the kind to base his self-esteem on how he compares with another guy, a year of constant and steady interaction with the ü ber-man might make even the most confident man question his worth.

They get to the end of the course without being overtaken a fourth time, and Maria makes sure she takes the time to cool down. She’s not as young as she was when she first joined SHIELD and running after the Avengers all the time (cleaning up their mess, setting up their paperwork, handling the logistics) is an exhausting job.

Steve jogs up about ten minutes later. “We’re not going around again?”

“Man can only take so much of being shown up in front of the ladies,” Sam casts a sly glance Maria’s way.

“Didn’t they have to catheter you in Cologne last month, Wilson?” Maria asks then halts Steve’s muffled cough of laughter with a droll look. “And you were more bruise and contusion than skin and muscle after DC, Rogers.”

“Ouch.”

“What I’m saying is that it’s too late to worry about being seen at less than your best.”

“She doesn’t pull her punches does she?” Sam comments, his grin easy and rueful. “Straight for a guy’s weak spots.”

“Wilson, if you don’t want it bruised, you shouldn’t let it hang out there.” When Steve’s cough becomes a choke, Maria puts on her most coolly prim expression. “I’m talking about your egos, guys.”

Steve grins at her, although he addresses Sam. “No, she doesn’t pull her punches.”

Maria leaves them to jostle each other while she does a quick walk to the end of the lane and back. It also gives her an opportunity to check her notifications of the day ahead, and the space to breathe and remind her pulse that Steve’s been smiling at a lot more people lately and it’s not just her.

Physiology’s a bitch, and it’s not going to control her.

Still, it’s good to turn at the end of the lane and see the two men joking with each other, Sam poking Steve lightly in the chest and saying something that looks like it might be a warning or an injunction against something. Hey, don’t get yourself in too deep.

She wonders if she should be worried about whatever it is they’re talking about.

Steve’s been...different lately. Easier with himself, less driven. A question he maybe didn’t even know he was asking has been answered since he faced Ultron.

Or, maybe more specifically, since Ms. Maximoff did a fear-whammy on him and the other Avengers.

Natasha gave her the rundown – or, at least, the rundown-lite, which is about as much as Maria could hope for from Nat, and rather more than she was expecting. Just as well that Nat was forthcoming, though, because getting anything out of the other Avengers would have been like trying to bleed stone.

Even if Banner wasn’t missing and Thor hadn’t gone back to Asgard, interrogating the Hulk or a Norse God has never been on Maria’s list of favourite things if she even had a list of favourite things. And that leaves Barton, who’s had his head picked apart more than Maria cares to compound, Tony, which would only expose her to enough lighthearted quips and casually joking deflections to drive her to commit Stark-cide, and Steve.

Whatever reply Steve makes, Sam’s brows rise and his whole pose becomes one of disbelief. He asks another question and for some reason Steve glances her way, causing Sam to turn and look in her direction. She lifts her brows at them in query, and Sam gives her a quick, easy smile as he replies to Steve, who shrugs a little and says something back to Sam without taking his gaze off her.

If Steve’s embarking on something new...

She reminds herself that Sam is sensible, and that even if he wasn’t, Steve is grounded. He isn’t about to start collecting groupies, or taking excessive risks, or...whatever it is that super-soldiers do when they decide to change direction.

Moments like these, Maria wishes Peggy spent enough time lucid to answer her questions about Steve. There’s nobody else to ask – except, maybe Bucky Barnes, and even if he turned up on their doorstep, willing to co-operate after what HYDRA did to him, chances are getting answers out of him would be fraught. Still, it would be helpful to have a benchmark for whatever change is facing Steve Rogers, Captain America – even if that benchmark is Steve Rogers, little guy from Brooklyn.

Then again, Maria has never known the universe to be particularly helpful.

Her phone chimes a reminder that she’s used up her exercise time, and she starts back towards the guys.

“Hey, you got a breakfast meeting this morning?” Sam asks as she walks up. “If not, you could join us. Vision’s trying to cook. Apparently the part of him that was JARVIS was never allowed near Stark's kitchens. It gets...interesting.”

“I’ve got a busy day and I’d like to get a move on my work.”

“Lunch, then?” Maria notes Steve’s wince – a slight tightening around his eyes – but only gives Sam a very steady look which makes him shrug. “A guy can ask,” he defends. “And, I figure, we should make sure you get fed proper. Steve said you’re always skipping meals.”

She looks at Steve, slightly surprised that he’s noticed – that anyone has noticed. Sorting out Sokovia, and the Avengers, and the new facility has been just this side of insane. They’ve all been flat out, and Maria sometimes finds that getting lunch is secondary to simply getting the job done.

“Yes, you can look after yourself, Maria,” he says as though she’s demanded an answer of him. “That doesn’t mean we can’t help.”

She doesn’t know what to say to that. She doesn’t know what to do with that. But she figures gratitude is usually safe.

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And the invitation’s standing open if you ever want to take it up.” He leans slightly on the ever, and, held in the steady directness of his gaze, Maria finds it impossible to tell him she won’t.

So she just tells him, “I’ll keep that in mind.” Then drags her gaze to Sam and smiles. “Thanks. For the invitation to breakfast, and the run.”

“Same bat time, same bat channel tomorrow?”

“Same time next week,” she tells Sam, and gets a rueful shake of the head. “Thank you, gentlemen. Have a good day.”

Maria heads towards the open hangar doors where the early shift has just started assembling, and tells herself it’s just her imagination that Steve’s watching her go.

She doesn’t look back to check.