I ain't never been nothin' but tough
All my edges have always been rough
~ Kellie Pickler ‘Tough’~
The world is getting weirder by the week. Sometimes Steve thinks it’s getting weirder by the hour. And then there are some things that feel so familiar, he just wants to curl up in them and forget that he’s seventy years out of time.
“...so with the knowledge that your team-mates were en route, you decided that the for-want-of-a-better-word-we’re-calling-it-a-dragon needed taking on right that instant?”
His brain feels slightly fuzzy, but his eyes are working perfectly well – and his ears, more’s the pity. And Steve’s pretty sure that he’s been here before. Maybe when he was six or seven and being told off by Miss Millard back in Brooklyn for...something he no longer remembers.
It’s that blend of stern martinet and exasperated adult which Lieutenant Hill does so impressively - and impassively.
Steve’s never seen a woman do scathing with such clipped coolness.
You always wanted to be a soldier and now you are - just like all the rest.
Oh, wait. He has.
And, if he thinks about it, he had a small crush on Miss Millard back when he was seven, too.
Lieutenant Hill has paused for breath, and perhaps it’s the poison in his system and maybe he’s been hanging around Stark too long, but what comes out of Steve’s mouth isn’t even close to contrition.
“I didn’t know you cared, Lieutenant.”
The look she gives him would scorch desert sand, but her voice is crisp and biting. “Captain, you’re a useful tool, and one which SHIELD isn’t minded to lose the use of. As such, your physical, mental, and emotional well being is our concern. So yes,” she agrees with infuriating calm, “I care.”
Movement behind her catches Steve’s eye - Stark and Barton at the window, with Stark mouthing, ‘Need a rescue from the iron SHIELD maiden?’ Barton murmurs something to Stark, who rears back as though in alarm.
And Lieutenant Hill, realising she no longer has Steve’s attention, turns to regard the window behind her. “And the peanut gallery arrives.” She turns back to Steve. “Next time, Captain, try not to be so eager to get yourself killed.”
She’s all edges and lines, marble heart beneath linen uniform, steel will behind seafoam eyes...but there’s a wryness in her voice and the shadow of a quirk to her mouth. After a moment of silence, in which she raises her brow, Steve realises he’s staring and drops his gaze to her collar.
She doesn’t quite roll her eyes as she leaves, but Barton murmurs something and gets a shake of the head in answer.
“Such a merry little sunshine,” says Stark a split-second behind the click of the door closing. “I’ve never understood her problem.”
Steve’s gaze meets Barton’s whose mouth quirks as he shrugs. Stark’s in that kind of a mood. Steve settles for saying, “She doesn’t like superpowers.”
“Really? And Fury’s got her babysitting us?”
“Not all of us.”
“Oh, that stings. Nice job, by the way. I never thought you had it in you.” Stark smirks. “I’m referring, of course, to your limelight hog – the star spangled spandex looked great for the cameras, although I don’t think Lieutenant Pill was very impressed with it.”
Steve nearly retorts that he wasn’t out to impress Lieutenant Hill, then sees the twinkle in Stark’s eye and realises he’s being baited.
“Are you okay?” Barton voices the question Stark hasn’t actually asked yet.
“Even after the dressing down by the Pill?”
“I’m fine.” He still feels a little light-headed – just because his metabolism works faster than any human’s doesn’t mean he’s not susceptible to poisons. They just don’t affect him as much - and he wears off the effects faster. “And the Lieutenant was just doing her job, Stark.”
“I thought her job was to be Fury’s echo chamber.”
Barton snorted, leaning one hip against the foot of the bed. “Hill will go up against Fury if she thinks it’s warranted. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s impressive.”
“Really? She thinks?”
“Stark.” Steve frowns at Tony. “Let it go.”
“I’m just saying--”
“You always are,” Steve retorts. “Leave it.”
“He’s very protective,” Stark says to Barton, as though in explanation.
“I’m seeing that.” Barton studies Steve for a moment, then shrugs, as though it’s of no importance. And it’s not. Steve just doesn’t like seeing Lieutenant Hill mocked by Stark when she’s in no position to retort. It’s fairness, plain and simple. “We actually came to break you out of here, Cap. You interested?”
There’s something about the way Barton says it. Steve narrows his eyes. “Do I want to know what you’ve done - or are about to do?”
“Probably not.” The smile slides onto the archer’s face. “But it’ll be fun.”
‘Fun’ involves a medical emergency that Stark assures them is real but not dangerous; Barton playing decoy at least once; and Natasha sitting in the shuttle cockpit with her legs stretched out, calmly ticking off the pre-flight checks.
But the part Steve enjoys most is when Natasha is reporting their shuttle flight outbound for San Francisco, and the cool female voice at the other end gives them the go-ahead without hesitating. “Shuttle 413, you are cleared for takeoff to San Francisco. Keep to starboard on the outbound, and tell Rogers not to fight any more dragons while he’s out on the West Coast. Or, if he must, at least call Stark in to play sidekick.”
Stark turns to stare at the cockpit, with a rare look of astonishment on his face. Steve grins all the way to the mainland.
Maria wakes to a throbbing headache and the sickening aroma of ozonic air, burned oil, and fresh blood. Her shoulders ache in the harness that’s holding her off the floor, and the shuttle cabin seems to lurch a little as she blinks smoky tears from her eyes.
He’s struggling out of his harness on the other side of the cabin, handsome, honest face concerned as he stands uncertainly before finding his feet. “Are you injured? Let me--”
Rogers reaches up, and Maria lets him help her down from the harness, warm hands on her hips, warm chest against her as she slides down until her feet are on the ground. He apologises for putting his hands on her; she doesn’t apologise for enjoying the feel of him against her - if only for a moment. It’s only a moment, though. There’s work to be done.
“Check Katumi and Waters,” Maria tells him, heading for the back of the shuttle. “I’ll check the secondary systems. We have to get out of here as soon as possible.”
“There’s no way this thing can still fly.” He says as he picks his way up to the cockpit.
He’s probably right. Still, Maria pulls down an auxiliary system and begins entering passcodes and prompts as though her life depends on it. It very well might. Whoever brought the shuttle down is still out there. “They’re dead,” Rogers looks grim and bitter. Maria knows how that feels; she just can’t give in to it right now. “Are you calling for help?”
“Not from here.” She takes a deep breath. “Take their tags and get the survival packs out – they’re under seats two and three from the front, unlock code ‘A749F’.”
He hesitates, but does as she says, and she’s thankful for the lack of questions. All her concentration is going into what she’s doing on the auxiliary systems, watching for the prompt, there, now...
The screen goes blank and the auxiliary control unit of the shuttle pops out of its slot. Maria takes it and tucks it in her breast pocket as Rogers hands her one of the two packs.
“Why aren’t we staying with the shuttle?”
“Because someone brought us down in the middle of the Swiss Alps for a reason.” Maria goes to one of the storage compartments, pulls out a package and tucks it in the pack before strapping it on. “Whoever they are, they’ll be looking for us.”
He frowns a little. “You’re sure of that?”
“No,” she tells him, because she’s worked out that honesty is usually the best policy when dealing with Steve Rogers. “But the first rule for any SHIELD operative is to assume that nothing is due to bad luck.”
“Should I ask about the second rule?”
“Get out alive. Worry about the mission later.”
He starts putting on the pack, at least, leaving her free to raid the weapons locker. “Is it my imagination or does SHIELD have a very bad case of paranoia?”
Maria gives a half-laugh as she takes out a couple of handguns, checking the magazines and gathering up replacements for them. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
“Doesn’t it hurt, thinking like that all the time?” He pulls out his shield from one of the storage compartments.
The comment stings, only half mocking. “You were working with British Intelligence in the Second World War for most of your career; your Dr. Erskine died because of an infiltrator in the SSR, and you’ve never practised paranoia?”
“I didn’t have to, I guess. My focus was on HYDRA – and Schmidt didn’t do subtle.”
Maria bites back the retort that he was lucky, but can’t resist from saying, “Welcome to the modern world.”
As the shuttle ramp opens, she shivers briefly at the first whip of the Alpine wind.
“Don’t want to rethink this?” Rogers asks, a wince on his face.
“Want to? Yes. Going to? No.”
They strike out into the snow, Maria initially taking the lead as they pick their way across the icy rock, heading for a more sheltered face of the mountain. It’s hard going all the way, the wind sharp as a knife, the cold leaking through the layers of clothing, seeping into her flesh and bones.
Rogers doesn’t say much until they pause in a hollow that’s just out of the wind. “Got a plan?”
“Not much of one. Don’t die. Find a bolthole. Get a message out to SHIELD.”
“You’re right; that’s not much of a plan.” He glances up at the sky, proud profile stark against the growing clouds in the northwest, the rim of his shield gleaming dully against his back. “We should probably keep going. There’s a storm coming. We’ll want to be somewhere more sheltered before it hits.”
“You’ve had more experience here in Europe than I have. Can you lead?”
He glances at her, surprised. “That was seventy years ago.”
“Seventy years ago or not, it’s more experience than I’ve had in terrain survival.”
“But you brought us out here in the first place.” Rogers doesn’t make it a challenge the way someone like Stark might have, but there’s still a question there. Maria figures she should answer it. They’re going to be a few days in company; better to get everything cleared and squared now.
“I know SOP for what to do when a shuttle is brought down,” she replies, fighting down the edge in her voice. “We were attacked; whoever attacked us will be looking for us. I owe it to SHIELD to keep myself, the shuttle data, and you out of the hands of SHIELD’s enemies. So, yes, I took us out of the shuttle, because staying in there was operationally riskier than coming out here.”
“You’d rather die in a storm than risk enemies getting hold of me?”
“If we fall into enemy hands I’m dead anyway,” Maria tells him. It’s not a pleasant thought, but it’s one she’s faced before and one that she’ll face again before her career is over - assuming she’s not destined to die out here in the Swiss Alps, an icicle until the end of time. “At least I know you’ll survive being frozen. What?”
Rogers is shaking his head, something like a smile hovering about his lips. “I’m beginning to think you’re the most terrifying woman I’ve met.”
The corridors of the helicarrier are dark when they step out of the auxiliary control room that Lieutenant Hill co-opted as headquarters of the resistance with her last two orders being to ‘initiate dogwood state’ and ‘call the muse’.
“Are you going to give me the background on Gittes, then?” Steve asks as the door locks shut behind the chatter and clatter of the techs trying to regain systems control of the helicarrier.After what started as a visit from a US military contingent turned into a struggle for control of one of the most advanced pieces of human technology on the planet.
For a moment, it looks like she’s debating whether he needs to know. “Lieutenant Colonel Jonathon Gittes would call himself a patriot,” she says at last. “He believes that SHIELD should be a wholly American force, under US jurisdiction and autonomous from any other national or international group, council, or organisation.”
Once, Steve might have thought the same. But the America he’s woken up in is not the America he grew up in, and the shades of grey grow with every passing day. He’s not sure he likes the idea of this shadowy council trying to control SHIELD; on the other hand, having met more than a few modern American ‘patriots’ after the Chitauri invasion, Steve definitely doesn’t want to see them in control of SHIELD.
He believes in America, but he’d fight for all humanity. These people believe that the only country worth protecting is America and the only people worth saving are Americans. Steve can’t make that right in his head no matter which way he twists it.
“Is he willing to kill people to make it so?”
Something in her voice makes Steve glance at her profile. “What?”
“Director Fury’s been at odds with the Council ever since the New York incursion when he backed the Avengers initiative.”
“You think the Council would put an American nationalist in control of SHIELD?”
She exhales, and the cool mask slips, showing grim frustration and a pained uncertainty. “I think that this is a set up for a double-cross. Gittes and his people make the initial move, and then another player takes them down while they’re still consolidating power.” The blue-green of her eyes sharpens as she catches his disbelieving expression. “This is an intelligence organisation, Captain. I can’t discount the possibility.”
“I didn’t say a thing.”
“You don’t have to; you’re thinking it.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
She glances at him, surprised, and her expression softens into amusement. “And I’m glad of it. You make good cannon fodder, Captain.”
“So nice to be appreciated.”
She certainly ‘appreciates’ him, if the next hour of confrontations are anything to go by. Maria Hill seems to have no compunction about using him as bait, a distraction, a rallying point, a bodyguard, and once, as a targeting range-finder.
Steve’s had closer calls, but somehow this is at once more exhilarating and more terrifying - relying on the shooting skills of a woman who doesn’t even like what he is. “Good shooting,” he says as the man behind him collapses.
“Barton gives good lessons.” She replaces the clip with a spare stashed in her inside breast pocket, and looks up to find him watching her. “What?”
“I’m trying to work you out,” he confesses. “You don’t like superpowers, but you’ll be the liaison for the Avengers. You took it so coolly when those pilots died in the Alps, but you made sure you brought back Katumi’s present for his daughter. You say I’m just a tool, and treat me like cannon fodder, but you were willing to risk your life to keep me out of enemy hands.”
He didn’t plan on saying quite that much, but the woman is an enigma wrapped up in a puzzle, and topped with a great big red ribbon on top.
Her brows arch. “Maybe I defy definition?”
“You’re defying something.” Steve says, exasperated and frustrated and confused. “If I could only work out what.”
She laughs then - a real, open laugh like he’s never heard from her before. But they’ve been at this for nearly two hours now, moving through the twists and turns of the helicarrier, maintaining comms silence so as not to alert Gittes and his people of their location, taking out Gittes men and the rogue agents who joined his cause, and setting up the loyalists for the attack to take back the main control space. Maybe proximity has softened her edges.
And maybe not.
The next enemy encounter involves a squad of six. Steve only manages to take out half of them; Maria shoots two and punches the third out.
But one of them isn’t quite down. “Target Prime located, SV-465—” Her booted foot slams into the side of his head and the voice falls silent.
“That,” she says with quiet venom, “is for Annapurna, Goldman, you rat bastard.”
“Friend of yours?”
“I keep my friends close and my enemies closer.”
“I’d ask what I am, but I’m not sure I want to know the answer.” Steve’s only half joking.
And now they’re hunted, thanks to Agent Goldman. And it seems Gittes certainly believes in keeping his enemies close; the renegades keep coming for them, and although they make a good team, their luck can only last them so long.
They’re ushered ungently into the control room of the helicarrier, where a man with silvering hair turns from Fury’s customary position. “Captain Rogers, Lieutenant Hill. You’ve caused my forces a lot of trouble.”
The tone is smooth, the expression urbane. If they’d met at one of Stark’s functions, Steve would think the guy nothing more than one more of the military still trying to persuade Tony back into weapons manufacturing. The dog cage at the end of the walk and the man chained inside it like a beast says otherwise.
Steve’s gut locks in revulsion. Even enemies should be treated with dignity; put down like dogs at the worst, not treated like them.
Forced to crouch by the dimensions of the cage, stripped of his clothing and his eyepatch, Nick Fury stares impassively out of one dark eye, uncowed by his humiliation.
“Pleased to be of assistance,” Steve tells Gittes, seeing as Maria’s not going to answer. He doesn’t need to look at her to know she’s probably vibrating with rage. The head of SHIELD should be respected for the position, if nothing else.
“You know, it doesn’t have to be like this. You’re a sensible man and a patriot, Captain. You can surely see that SHIELD needs a guiding hand upon it – a strong hand at the controls – not some gaggle of old women who’ve never seen bloodshed and the cost of war. Fury plays politics and people die; is that the kind of organisation you want to work for?”
“No,” Steve says, and knows it for the truth. “But we had a saying back in my day; sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. And, frankly, Colonel, I’d rather work with the disease than swallow your cure.”
Gittes nodded and clasped his hands behind his back. “As I more or less expected.” He nods at one of the men standing by – a former agent, if his suit is anything to go by. The man draws his weapon and points it at Maria’s head. “Unfortunately, you’re not as easy to dispose of as, say, Lieutenant Hill, which means you’ll be remaining with us as a guest for some time.”
“Wait—” Steve begins, but Maria doesn’t flinch. Instead, she steps up to the weapon, bringing her temple in contact with the muzzle of the gun.
“Virginia Potts Protocol, code 4119, initiate!”
Cries rise around the room as Gittes’ people lose control of the system. There’s a buzz and a howl, and an arrow protrudes through the wrist holding the gun at Maria’s head, as something else slices through the lock on Fury’s cage with a metallic scrape. Gunfire rings out as precision shots from up high take out the agents around the room. Steve seizes the opportunity to take out his own guards.
When he’s done, Maria has her gun trained on Gittes. “Try it,” she says in answer to something Gittes’ snarled at her, her voice infuriatingly cool. “Please.”
“Lieutenant.” Fury unfolds himself, filling the room with his presence in spite of his nakedness. “Status report.”
Steve silently offers Fury one of the weapons appropriated from his guards, and the old soldier takes it with a nod. The scar tissue in and around the ruined eye is distinctly disconcerting, but Steve doesn’t look away, according the wound – and Fury - what it’s due.
“We have control of the helicarrier thanks to the 4119 protocol; a system check is presently being initiated, and pockets of resistance are being subdued. And someone’s bringing you a coat.”
“I guess we’ll chalk this one up to stupidity, Colonel?” Fury addresses Gittes.
“You can’t evade forever, Fury,” Gittes snarls. “Sooner or later one of us will get you and the little bitch-pup you’ve been leash-training.”
It takes Steve a moment to realise that the ‘bitch pup’ in question is Maria, who looks more amused than insulted.
“Considering Lieutenant Hill and her associates took down you and your crack troops without breaking a sweat. I wouldn’t be so fast with the insults.” Fury doesn’t even hesitate as Natasha walks through the doors and around the conference table, her face cool and inscrutable as she holds up a long black coat for the SHIELD director to shrug into. “And you already know I don’t keep SHIELD agents on leashes, Gittes. They’re far more effective off them.”
Steve happens to be looking at Maria at that moment, and catches the briefest of smirks on her lips. More a baring of teeth than a smile, it’s bright, just a little feral, and breath-stealingly stunning.
And it’s that moment when Steve realises he might be in trouble.
The clan are already at the diner when she arrives, tucked into the back corner and making their usual racket. She nods at the hostess who’s coping with another family of rowdies, and makes for her family.
“Holy shit, Mars!” Jonathan’s voice rises above the others as he spots the bruise on her cheek. “What happened to you?”
The whole table turns to look at her – Anna and five of Maria’s six siblings. In fact, half the diner turns to look, and Maria rolls her eyes as she takes a seat. “Thank you for broadcasting that, Jonny. I really wanted everyone staring at me.”
“It looks awful,” says Paul, from the wide-eyed and appreciative perspective of twelve years of age. Then, because he’s at the wide-eyed and appreciative age of twelve, he adds,“Does the other guy look worse?”
“Paul!” Maria’s stepmother frowns, but is careful as she turns Maria’s head for a kiss on the cheek without commenting on the bruising. “We’re glad you could make it.”
In spite of the circumstances surrounding the bruise, so is Maria. Now that her father’s dead and she doesn’t have to endure the sting of old bitterness every time she sees Anna and the children, seeing her family is actually quite a pleasant experience, from Paul’s attempts to monopolise the conversation, to Michaela’s snarky comments about college life and her roommate.
And, of course, there’s Anna to keep everything in a semblance of calm.
Dave and Jonny are in the middle of telling her all about the aftermath of the hockey game where they apparently not only beat the opposing team until they were black and blue and begging for mercy but also stole the girlfriends of the captain and keeper when Esther – previously quiet and unforthcoming and willing to let her siblings out-talk her – says in a sudden rush, “There’s a man over at the window staring at you, Mars.”
Once again, the entire table turns to look.
Maria meets the embarrassed blue gaze of Steve Rogers under an ancient Brooklyn Dodgers cap, and feels a flush crawl over her skin at the same times as a bloom of outrage grows in her gut. “Stay here,” she says in the tone that usually cows prisoners, fellow-agents, and newbies, but which she is fairly certain won’t work on her siblings – at least, not for very long.
It feels like the length of the helicarrier across the diner to the broad-shouldered man who, in spite of his skillset, history, and fame, still manages to seem self-effacing in person.
“How’s the hamburger?”
“Not great. Although,” he adds, “I think it’s better than the humble pie I’m about to eat.”
Maria exhales. “I know this may be hard for you and Barton and Natasha to comprehend, but I am not in need of a bodyguard. Even after this.” She points at the bruise on her jaw and cheekbone, care of an unfortunate encounter with someone who took offence to her handling of the Gittes’ takeover attempt.
The irony is that she didn’t take the helicarrier back for Fury’s sake; she took it back because there was no way she was going to let SHIELD fall into the hands of extremists.
Steve winces. “Once more, with subtlety?”
“You’re Avengers. It’s not exactly in the job description.” Maria sighs. Then wants to sigh again when she hears a squeak from across the room. “You’ve been recognised. You’d better come over before all hell breaks loose.”
“I’ve seen hell break loose,” he reminds her as he puts his napkin aside.
“You haven’t met my family,” Maria retorts.
Actually, her family behave quite well. The eyes are huge and the ‘hellos’ awed, but they’re...subdued. Terrifyingly so.
Of course Anna asks him to join them, and of course Steve looks at her first, and of course Maria can’t very well say no when half her family (Anna, David, Esther) are staring at her like she’s just been nominated for President, and the other half (Michaela, Jonny, Paul) are staring at Steve like Jesus Christ has just come and sat down at their table.
“First rule of fight club,” Maria says to her siblings before they get over their awe and start pelting him with questions. “We don’t talk about fight club.”
“Captain Rogers is here for lunch,” she tells Paul, who she suspects will be the big offender. “And you are not going to pester him with every inane question you can think of.”
There are groans and protests, but they know her – and they know their mom, who won’t tolerate any shenanigans.
“So...Captain Rogers,” Anna says, “How do you know Maria?”
“You work with Cap--” Paul’s mouth has Esther’s hand over it before he can finish the sentence.
“She’s never said anything about working with you.” Michaela’s tone comes out distinctly accusatory - not at Steve, but at Maria. There’ll be recriminations later - the relationship between Maria and Michaela has always been adversarial at best. Maria was always the older one, the clever, independent one who did what she pleased and was damned for it, while Michaela was their father’s favourite, petted and adored. The street of sibling envy goes two ways.
But Steve just smiles, darting a quick, almost sly glance her way. “Well, I don’t think Maria likes working with me much.”
“That’s not true,” she says immediately. Then, because he’s giving her an arch look, she adds, “You make good cannon fodder.”
“Cannon fodder?” Jonny exclaims. “She uses you as cannon fodder?”
Her family looks like someone’s smacked them in the back of the head with Mjolnir. And Steve is smiling - at them and at her - and Maria thinks he shouldn’t.
Not like that.
Not sitting in a diner at a table with a bunch of strangers who are her family, at a time when Maria isn’t being ‘Lieutenant Hill’ or ‘Avengers Liaison’ or ‘Fury’s bitch-pup’ or any of the other people she is when she needs to be.
As a general rule, Maria doesn’t like superheroes - or, rather, she doesn’t like what their presence does to the minds of ‘ordinary humans’. She doesn’t want SHIELD - or the planet - to become reliant on them; and sees being the liaison to the Avengers as a way of limiting the damage Fury and Phil did when they created their superhero boy-band (complete with token girl).
Personally, Maria could take or leave Captain America; but she likes Steve Rogers.
She just kind of wishes she didn’t.
One thing hasn’t changed in seventy years: it’s still no easier to ask a woman out.
Steve’s not even sure he should.
Peggy is gone, like the world he saved and lost when he brought the Valkyrie down in the ice. If she were here-- But she’s not. She lived her life and died her death, and from all accounts it was a full and beautiful life and a calm and quiet death, and although it hurts in a strange, selfish part of him, Steve is glad she didn’t mourn forever.
But he regrets they only ever had that one kiss.
He doesn’t want to regret not taking the chance to love a woman again, but neither does he want to upset the way things are.
And he learned a lot from watching Maria with her family – a lot about where she came from, about the people she loves. He saw who she was when she wasn’t working, and got an idea of some of the scars she carries beneath her skin.
“You like her.” The older of the twins had managed to get a moment alone with Steve while the rest of the family was trying to say goodbye to Maria. Dave Hill had looked at Steve with the same sea-coloured eyes as Maria, the same piercing gaze, the same adamantium determination.
“Yeah, I do.”
The boy’s lips pressed together for a moment. “If you hurt my sister, I will find a way to make you hurt, too.”
“I’ll do my best not to hurt her, then.”
Steve didn’t dismiss the threat. The young man is powerless, yes, but he’s serious – and Maria’s brother. And the warning isn’t about power or dominance or masculinity; it’s about a guy looking out for someone he loves.
Steve respects that.
And then there’s the Avengers, the fact that the world still occasionally needs saving, and that Maria is still the SHIELD liaison for the team. She doesn’t seek Steve out for any particular attention, and he’s careful not to give her the impression that he knows where she is and what she’s doing, even when he does.
Still, when the elevator doors at Avengers Tower open to show her tapping furiously away at a tablet screen, Steve feels a jolt in his belly.
“A meeting with Tony?”
“Unfortunately. Although at least Banner was there this time.”
“We never shout. We just argue. Endlessly.” She exhales as the doors slide shut behind him, a huff of frustration that eases as she surveys him. Briskly, not in the way he’d like, but Steve will live with what he’s given when it comes to Maria Hill. “Going out?”
He hefts the helmet. “Yeah, I thought I’d head upstate to Bear Mountain. Clear my brain for a while.” Something like envy flickers across her face, inspiring him to ask, “Would you like to come along?”
Her lips twitch, as though it’s a joke. “Oh, sure. Let me just grab my riding gear and we’ll—” She pauses. “You’re serious.”
“Shouldn’t I be?”
“No, I just—I didn’t—”
Her cheeks colour a little. Hope rises, an incorrigible bubble of elation.
“Do you have anything else on this afternoon?”
Maria hesitates, and they reach the ground floor. The doors open on the lobby – all polished marble and ostentatious gilt, filled with the clack of heels and the murmur of business conversation. Steve puts out his arm to hold the doors back, but waits for her answer.
“I don’t have any gear,” she says as the elevator doors begin to beep.
Steve grins as he drops his arm and lets the doors close, taking them down to the parking garage. “We’ll work something out.”
Twenty minutes later they’re weaving in and out of New York traffic, headed across the Hudson and then upstate. Helmeted and jacketed, Maria presses up against his back as the wind comes in off the river and a smile finds Steve’s lips as they ride smoothly along the highway, leaving New York City behind.
He’d only had an hour’s ride in mind, a quick push out of the city, into the suburbs – a change of place and a change of pace. But they cross the George Washington Bridge, and head up through Bergen County, and Maria doesn’t say anything, doesn’t tap him on the shoulder or give any signs that she wants to stop, just leans against his back as the bike eats up the miles of the Palisades Parkway.
Steve’s enjoying the ride so much, he doesn’t really notice how fast they’re going until the siren burls behind them.
He pulls over, guiltily. “I didn’t realise,” he murmurs as Maria climbs off, her absence leaving his back chilly.
“I thought we were going a little fast,” she says as she tugs off her helmet and runs a hand through her hair. She let it down so it would fit under the helmet, and it curls about her throat with a sunlit sheen of copper beneath the dense brown. “Unfortunately, I don’t think I can get you out of this.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to.”
The cop strides up, harried behind his sunglasses. “Licence and registration, please.”
Steve meekly hands over his licence and the bike’s registration. If he were Tony, he’d argue, but he’s not Tony and he was breaking the law.
“Did you ever get a ticket back home?” Maria asks, turning her head a little as a light gust of wind tries to pull her hair across her face, and giving him a nice look at the line of her jaw.
Steve snorts. Partly because ‘back home’ was pretty much just on the other side of the river, and partly because the idea of getting ticketed for speeding back in those days was…well, not unheard of, just…uncommon.
“Not really. The roads weren’t as good, and cars were becoming more common, but still luxury goods after the Depression.” He glances up the long, smooth stretch of highway, remembering the road that used to pass through here. “You wouldn’t want to do even fifty-five on the road here back then.”
The cop’s exclamation is reverent, and Steve frowns at the wide-eyed man, wondering why the guy is staring… Oh.
“You… You’re that Captain America guy, right?”
Maria gives a little cough that’s almost certainly hiding a laugh. Steve glares at her. He could lie, of course, but the man has his licence and his name, and there’s not really any point.
“Jesus H. Christ,” the man breathes. “I mean, sorry about my language, sir, it’s just… Thank you. I have to say that, because, I mean, goddamn, that was amazing— What you and the Avengers—” He breaks off and looks at Maria slightly accusingly as though wondering why she’s not Natasha.
“It was no-- We were doing our job, Officer. Just like you.”
“But—But—I can’t issue you a ticket, sir!”
Maria’s teeth are probably leaving marks in her jawbone, she’s biting her lip so hard. Steve gives her a ‘do you want to help here?’ look and receives a ‘no, I’m going to sit back and laugh’ look in return. He figures friendly and polite is the way to go. “I—That’s very kind of you, Officer, but—”
“No! God, no. I mean, shit, I’d never hear the end of it if I gave Captain America a ticket.” The licence and registration papers are nearly shoved back into Steve’s hands. “I… I’m Greg Holmes, sir. Can I just say, it’s a real honour to meet you? After the alien invasion and everything. My daughter was in the city that day –one of the lucky ones. Came out without a scratch. But we’d all have been in trouble if not for you guys. And I... Would it be too much to ask…?”
He offers the ticket book and pen.
Steve signs the ticket with his name on it, smiles, makes the expected small talk about family - the man’s wife, daughter and sons, and oh-so-gently, extricates himself from the conversation with the now-obsequious cop. It takes a good ten minutes.
“And I didn’t even have to open my mouth to get you off the ticket,” Maria says when Officer Holmes finally walks away. A grin peeps out of the twitching smile that plays around her mouth. The flash of it is brutal as a punch to the gut back in a Brooklyn alleyway.
Still, he thinks he manages to sound calm. “Get back on the bike,” he tells her, and she does, her mouth still quivering with amusement.
For the rest of the ride up to the State Park, though, Steve can feel her laughter against his shoulder.
“So,” Pepper says as the car pulls away from the kerb, heading into the midst of New York traffic. “Tony says you named a virus protocol after me.”
“Not exactly. ‘Virginia Potts’ is a takeover protocol to be enacted if the situation becomes dire. We thought it appropriate.”
Maria smiles briefly at the woman who took over Stark Enterprises and runs it with all the poise and composure with which she once ran Tony Stark’s life. Pepper’s smile flirts at the corner of her mouth as she notes, “And an opportunity to annoy Tony?”
“It may have factored into the choice of name.”
Fury still hasn’t forgiven Stark for the system intrusion during the Loki situation. He was furious at the breach; Maria looked at it as an opportunity to improve their security protocols on the helicarrier. If anything changes in the vicinity of Stark or a representative from Stark Enterprises – or, really, any external visitor – then alarms start beeping in a quiet little room deep in the substructure of the helicarrier.
It was their first indication that something was wrong when Gittes and his colleagues first came on board. Which means that, in a way, Stark actually helped them by hacking into SHIELD.
Not that Maria plans to send him flowers anytime soon. She and Stark are not exactly a club of mutual admiration.
She figures she should be glad that he hasn’t found out about her and Steve. Not that there is anything between her and Steve. They’re colleagues. Friends. The fact that he kissed her isn’t part of the equation, doesn’t have to be.
It could be, though.
He kissed surprisingly well for a guy who, reputedly, hasn’t done all that much of it. Brief and soft – more of a nip at her mouth than an actual kiss as she turned to ask if he’d let her ride them home. Unexpected, yes, and sweet – warm lips against her, a warm hand curving around the back of her neck for that moment.
Then he’d pulled back, the blush on his cheeks quite visible, even in the fading light of dusk.
“Think about it,” he’d said before he put the helmet on leaving her with confusion on her face, and a pit in her belly. And of course she did – all the way back to Avengers Tower with the big, heavy warmth of him pressed up against her in the fast-cooling evening.
But it’s more than just hormones. Physical desire is easy - Maria’s never been ruled by her glands, even as a teenager. Caring about him, wanting to see that light in his eyes when he’s done what he thinks is right - that’s more difficult.
And then there’s who they are.
He’s not just Steve Rogers; he’s Captain America of the Avengers.
If things go bad - and there’s always the possibility they will - between SHIELD and the Avengers, then Maria will be on one side, and he’ll be on the other, and she knows exactly how public and private sympathy will fall.
It squeezes her, this conflict of possibilities: the hope of what could be and the risk of what might be.
“Well,” Pepper says, unaware of the direction of Maria’s thoughts, “I’m honoured to be thought dangerous enough to have SHIELD name a takeover protocol after me.”
She says it with a certain amount of emphasis, and Maria arches a brow at her, relieved to leave her thoughts behind. “Stark’s still annoyed we didn’t name it after him?”
“I told him he can’t have everything named after him, even after the Chitauri invasion. Besides, a little letdown does his ego good.”
“And the gloating is fun, too?”
“I would never gloat.” The smile is prim with just a hint of mischief dancing at the corners.
Maria’s mouth twitches. She likes Pepper. Although the woman tends to panic when Stark’s in trouble, she’s level headed and a cool thinker otherwise. And people are allowed to have their Achilles heel; it’s not inexplicable that Tony Stark in danger would be Pepper Potts’ weakness.
At least Steve isn’t hers. Not yet; hopefully not ever.
Exasperated at how her thoughts have circled around, Maria peers at the traffic ahead of them. “I’m a little surprised I got an invite to the Stark Industries fundraiser.”
“You’re the Avengers liaison,” Pepper says, relaxed as only someone intimately familiar with the traffic patterns of a dozen cities can be. “And with all the Avengers along - to say nothing of the Stark Enterprises board of directors - I need someone sane to help ride herd.”
“I fit your definition of sane?”
“I live with Tony.” Pepper points out. “Sanity is relative. I can trust you won’t get drunk and end up dancing naked on the tables.”
Maria quirks a brow at the redhead, amused. “You’re sure of that?”
“Well, we couldn’t find any half-naked pictures of you on the internet, so that’s a point in your favour for me.”
“And a point against me for Stark?”
A smile tilts up one corner of her mouth. “You know, it was Tony who put you on the guest list. I didn’t have to say a thing.”
That surprises Maria more than a little.
“He likes you, you know. He wouldn’t argue with you so much if he didn’t. He’d either shut you down straight off, or undermine your authority.”
“Arguing isn’t undermining my authority?” Maria asks wryly.
“Not to Tony.” Pepper laughs a little. “If he’s arguing with you, he’s engaging with you - he thinks you’re worth his time and effort.”
“That’s...” Maria bites back what she was going to say because it’s starting to make a certain amount of sense. She settles for finishing with “...complicated.”
“He’s a complicated man. Now, Steve, on the other hand...”
When the conversation trails off expectantly, Maria glances over, already knowing what she’ll see on the other woman’s face: the frank query of a woman who’s taken personal interest in Steve Rogers’ life and either knows or suspects that Maria’s contemplating getting involved.
It would have happened sooner or later, she supposes. At least it’s Potts and not Stark. “I suppose it was the cameras in Avengers Tower?”
“Actually, Steve asked me for advice about modern relationships. He talked about it in general terms, but I can read between the lines. He’s a good man - and not just because he’s a hero.”
Maria knows. “Are you encouraging me, or warning me away?”
“That depends,” Pepper says, conversational and easy, “on whether you care about him or not.”
I didn’t know you cared, Lieutenant.
“It’s not that simple.” Maria begins, then halts as Pepper tilts her head to one side.
“Sometimes it is.”
And Maria suddenly remembers that this is the woman who went from being Tony Stark’s personal assistant, to the CEO of his company, to his fiancee.
Back in his days with the USO, Steve got accustomed to shaking everyone’s hand. Back then, he did it in the hope of someday getting out to the frontline. Seventy years on, and he’s still shaking hands like a trained monkey in a suit. Only he is the frontline now - Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, as declares the banner hanging up the end of the hall - so he’s not sure why he’s doing it this time.
On the plus side, this suit isn’t blue and stretchy.
“Isn’t this a great party?” Tony asks in a break between handshaking, during which he crooks a finger and a waitress hurries along with drinks for them.
Steve gives him a look “Didn’t you organise this?”
“Uh, actually, Pepper organised all this. I just turned up.”
“He comes, he eats the food, he shakes hands, he leaves a mess for me to clean up,” Pepper says.
“I never said I was housebroken.” Tony smiles charmingly at the pretty waitress. He takes a drink of champagne and turns to Pepper. “Luckily for you, I’m no longer your mess to clean up. Although I haven’t seen The Pill around tonight, so maybe you’re still on clean-up duty.”
“I haven’t felt the touch of ice in the room yet,” Tony continues on, blithe and insouciant. “Maybe she decided not to come?”
“She accepted the invite.” Pepper slants a look up at Steve. “She’ll be here.”
He shouldn’t be surprised Pepper knows about Maria.
They haven’t spoken since the kiss. Not privately, anyway. He’s been doing a course of long-promised training with the Rangers, bringing his skills up to par in the modern military, and while she turned up to observe the training, she didn’t stay for dinner in the mess.
Think about it, he said. And she’d stared at him with startled eyes, like she’d never even thought of him that way. Maybe she hadn’t.
“Ah, Rhodey’s decided to grace us with his presence, even if he couldn’t leave the uniform behind. And who’s that he’s got with hi-- Good God!”
Steve glances in the direction of Colonel Rhodes - distinctive in his dress blues, and speaking with a dark-haired woman in a sky blue dress that looks like it’s been tied on at the shoulder and wetted down to cling to her figure.
A moment later, Tony’s realisation smacks Steve in the face. The woman in sky blue is Maria.
“Oh good,” Pepper says. “She used the stylist I recommended.”
“You helped perpetrate this?”
“It’s a fundraising dinner, Tony.” Pepper rolls her eyes. “To which you insisted I invite Lieutenant Hill.”
Steve isn’t sure whether he wants to shake the stylist’s hand, or punch him - her? - in the face. He knows he can’t do anything to Pepper, although he’d really like to shake her for, yes, perpetrating this, as Tony put it. Sure, Maria’s dress is no worse than most of the dresses he’s seen here tonight, and in fact is considerably better than some of the bits of fluff the women are wandering around in...
Only it’s Maria. Looking more than just beautiful, because she’s always been beautiful - looking noticeable.
And Steve’s no longer the only one noticing.
“You know, I had no idea she had it in her. Rhodey’s nearly salivating.”
Pepper rolls her eyes. “No, he’s not,” she says, more to Steve than to Tony. “He’s being polite.”
Maybe he is, but Steve would prefer Colonel Rhodes be polite somewhere else, to some other woman. It may be an irrational reaction, but it’s his irrational reaction.
“With his tongue hanging out of his head.” Tony sounds like all his birthdays have come at once. “Can we go over and tease him about it?”
“No, because Sophia O’Dell is waving at us, and if you don’t go and speak with her, I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“I can live with that.”
“Yes, but you have to live with me.”
“Good point. We’re going,” Tony speaks as though the whole conversation hasn’t just taken place in front of Steve. “Try not to drown in women. Oh wait, I forgot who I was talking to. I recommend the brunette with the choker.”
“Tony,” Pepper makes apologetic faces at Steve, who smiles a reassurance at her as they drift away. He doesn’t get more than a moment to glance back across the room to where the Colonel is introducing Maria to another man with the look of career military about him, before a silver-haired gentleman sweeps in with his wife and his daughter and Steve finds himself on the hand-shaking rounds again.
It’s Bruce who comes to his rescue; looking decidedly uncomfortable in his suit, and making people look just as uncomfortable when he enters the conversation. The crowds melt away like snow under the spring sun, and Bruce give Steve a gently sardonic smile that says he knows exactly what his presence does, and stepped in for that exact reason. “Want a drink?”
“Yeah.” Steve surveys the busy room as they go. On the other side of the dance floor, Maria’s in conversation with some older women now, their staid and saturated colours setting off the bright blue of her dress, and the silver swing of her earrings.
At that moment, Maria glances his way and their gazes clash.
His shirt is suddenly too tight, and his collar is suddenly too hot. She stares at him for a moment, her eyes crystal clear as though she stood in front of him, before her attention is captured by a comment by one of the older women - surprise and embarrassment on her cheeks. The burst of laughter from that corner brings a flush to Steve’s cheeks, and he’s only too glad to be given a glass of Heineken and the chance to breathe.
Not that he gets much breathing time. Bruce is served almost immediately, and leans back against the bar, ignoring the wary looks of the bar waitstaff. “The Lieutenant seems to be making a splash.”
Great. Another man who’s noticed. “Is that what they call it these days?”
“Green’s not your colour, Steve.”
The gentle observation pricks. Steve bites back the natural snap, and thinks that, once again, he’s hanging around Tony too much. Bruce is a good man, with a kindness to him that Steve would never betray. He’s just trying to help. Still, Steve can’t help asking, “Was there an announcement in Avengers Tower?”
“No.” The scientist’s voice is wry. “But give us credit for having eyes.”
“Tony hasn’t noticed.”
“Tony doesn’t notice everything,” Bruce says after a moment. “And even when he does, he doesn’t always understand it.”
“She’s not afraid of the other guy.” It’s still a source of amazement to Bruce that not everyone is terrified by the other guy. And Maria, having come to terms with her eventual death, wouldn’t shy from Bruce. “I don’t think she ever has been. Wary, perhaps - but she’s wary of all of us - of what we can do.”
“Especially you.” Dark eyes rest on Steve with quiet clarity. “The Avengers could destroy the country if we set our minds to it. You could destroy her.”
“I would never--” But Steve stops in the middle of that protest, remembering.
There’d been slurs against Peggy back in the days of the SRS, and all Steve had ever done was carry her picture around in his compass. The Howling Commandos had quickly defended Peggy’s honour, and after a while, anyone saying such things was either not saying them, or saying them very quietly somewhere else. And that had been back in 1942, where a woman could still use respectability as a shield.
In the modern world of Twitter and Facebook? Where a person could become popular overnight and become a pariah just as fast? The first hint of disagreement between them and the world wouldn’t just be calling Maria names, they’d be crucifying her.
It’s a bitter realisation. Steve puts his drink down on the bar, turning away from the room and what he now begins to see was too high a price to ask of Maria for nothing more than a relationship with him.
And the irony of it all?
He’s attracted to Maria because of her edges - the marked lines of her personality, crystal-clear in her choices and decisions, in her determination to do right by the people whom she thinks need protection, even when that sets her up against Fury, public opinion, the Avengers, or Steve.
It’s those same edges that will keep them apart: her need to be herself, and seen as herself, and trusted as herself.
And Steve can’t blame her for it, even though it hurts.
“You haven’t danced tonight, Dr. Banner.” Her voice, cool and crisp, runs down his spine like a blade.
Steve turns as Bruce gives a short, amused laugh. “I don’t dance, Lieutenant. I’ve got two left feet.”
She looked stunning from a distance; up close, she’s exquisite. Yet the dress and the jewellery and the makeup don’t change who she is at her core; a soldier, a fighter, a sister and daughter, a friend. And the trappings don’t change who she is to Steve, either - a woman he loves but can’t have. Steve feels his heart squeeze even before her eyes come to rest briefly on his face.
He catches the edges of the smile she quirks at Bruce. “And two right ones, too?”
Bruce doesn’t flinch at the reference to the Hulk, half-smiling as he answers, “I’d hate to be responsible for your toes, Lieutenant. You’d have better luck with Steve.”
“Only if you want to,” Steve says immediately. The last thing he wants is for Maria to feel she’s been pushed into this, however well-meaning Bruce might be.
“If I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t.”
“So, is that a yes or a no?”
“I didn’t realise we were asking.”
“Would you like to dance, Lieutenant?”
“If Dr. Banner doesn’t mind being deserted.”
Bruce smiles. “I’ll relinquish Steve to your care, if you promise to take good care of him.”
Maria looks at Steve, steady and unflinching. “I can do that.”
A few heads turn as Steve leads her out to the dance floor. Maria doesn’t let it bother her.
But she wishes his touch wasn’t so warm, or so careful as he closes one hand over hers, and slides the other around her waist. She wishes his shoulders weren’t so broad, and that he wasn’t radiating heat like a furnace on a cold winter’s night. She wishes she could drown out the persisting belief that this is all a mistake, and one day she’ll wake up and discover that these last few months - the diner, the ride, the kiss, this dance - was all a dream.
She wishes she’d decided what she’s going to do about him.
Yes, he’s a risk, and she’s naturally risk averse...except when she isn’t. But he’s Captain freaking America and she’s the liaison for SHIELD. It has ‘doom’ written all over it, like some Nordic saga complete with Valkyries.
Well, there was the Valkyrie; Steve did lie like the dead before being woken to life. And there’s a Norse god sitting on an upholstered chair across the room, holding – yes, there’s no other phrase for it – holding court.
Maria recognises she’s mentally babbling. You’re a SHIELD agent, not a girl with a crush!
“You look beautiful tonight,” he says after a few moments when she can feel the heat off his cheek, even though there’s at least a few inches of air between their faces. “That is, you always look-- I mean, I’m not the only man noticing-- Tony didn’t even recognise you.”
It feels better to hear him babbling too. “I feel like a pig in lipstick.”
“Well, you look...stunning.” His thumb slides along the line of her index finger where her hand rests in his, and she tenses with the caress. So does he, when he feels her stiffen under the hand against her back. “It’s a pretty impressive party.”
“No-one’s going to argue that Stark knows how to throw them. Although they might argue that he doesn’t know when to stop.” At Steve’s querying look, Maria tells him about Stark’s birthday party a year ago - the one Natasha monitored, during which things got way out of hand, and Colonel Rhodes requisitioned the Iron Man Mk II prototype. “That was where SHIELD came into the picture.”
It’s all public record, nothing hush-hush about that, even if the details of SHIELD’s involvement aren’t something Steve needs to know, nor that they found him in the ice mere days after that.
“Colonel Rhodes has been Tony’s friend for years, hasn’t he? Do you know him well?”
“Mostly through dealing with Stark. He’s been co-operative with SHIELD when we’ve needed to exchange information.” Maria’s a little wary of where this is going, only to realise a moment later that this isn’t about work at all.
“You seemed...friendly with him, earlier tonight.” He lifts his gaze to hers, blue eyes beneath long, dark lashes.
Maria almost laughs. If it was any other man saying this to her about Colonel Rhodes, she might. “You do know he’s old enough to be my father?”
“And I’m old enough to be your grandfather.”
“That doesn’t seem to have stopped you from cradle-snatching.” The retort escapes her lips before she can rein it in, and Maria bites down on anything more as her cheeks go pink. “Sorry. That was out of line.”
“Do we have to worry about the lines?”
“The lines are written into our job descriptions. Fraternisation policy,” she says when he looks a little blank. “Personal relationships in hierarchical structures.”
“And I’m asking you to cross those lines.” He exhales, a noise halfway between a laugh and a sigh. “It wasn’t a fair thing to ask, was it?”
“The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.”
“So which are we?”
“Both?” Maria turns her head to watch as another couple dance by, a little closer than she’d like. There’s not much by way of privacy on the floor, but at least the constant movement means the entirety of their conversation won’t be overheard. “Things between us...they could go bad very easily.”
“You can say no, you know.”
“I never thought I couldn’t.”
“Right. Of course you didn’t.” He sounds resigned, and it’s so strange seeing him like this – yet reassuring, too. If he’s the perfect hero, he’s also very human: a man with his doubts and his hopes and his fears.
And isn’t that what she loves about him?
“It’s okay. I wanted you to think about it and you have.”
Maria digs her nails into his shoulder, because otherwise he’s not going to understand why she can’t let this go any further. “Steve.” She waits until he has her attention – full and undivided – and what she was about to say comes out not quite the way she intended to say it. “You terrify me.”
As declarations of love go, it’s not very good. And Steve stares at her for a stunned moment during which she can hear someone’s hoot of laughter across the room and randomly hopes it’s not because someone’s sneaked a parabolic mike into the room and is training it on them.
His mouth twitches. “It’s mutual, you know. You… You’re just…scary.” Then rushing a little as though she might order him shot him down, he adds, “We could agree to terrify each other.”
“I don’t think that makes it better.”
“It’s a risk,” he acknowledges, “for you more than for me.”
“And we’re not the risk taking kind.”
“Not the reckless kind. I’m happy to leave that to Stark and Thor, personally. But if we don’t take unnecessary risks, we don’t always play it safe, either. Or we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing.”
“Judiciously dangerous.” The words escape her lips before she can stop them. And then Maria wants to laugh – at his expression, at their conversation, at herself.
Then a twinkle comes into Steve’s eye – a gleam of laughter, bright as day. “I’ll be judiciously dangerous if you will.”
Her own laughter bubbles up, laced with an aching tenderness; and the truth is that she’d never silence it completely. And she wants this – wants him and his steady, unflinching honesty, his frank uncertainty, and the belief that runs through his veins, as necessary to who he is as blood.
“All right.” She meets his gaze, feeling the moment stretch out in challenge. “We’ll be judiciously dangerous together, then.”
Steve smiles – a slow, easy grin that uncoils desire in her belly and makes her think that this won’t be easy, but it’ll be good. “Yeah, we will.”
The rest of the dance passes in a blur for Steve.
They converse in fits and starts, like waking up briefly before falling back into a dream.
Steve draws her a little closer when someone looks about to bump into them, and doesn’t let go once they’ve passed. Her mouth curves, close enough that he could turn his face and kiss her if he wanted. And he wants to – but not here, in public, with God and New York looking on.
Later, he promises himself, and sees the same restrained desire in her eyes.
When the music ends – too soon! Maria says thanks for the dance and Steve says thanks for putting up with his feet, and it’s all politeness on the surface, while tenderness and terror boil beneath their skins.
She’s almost smiling as she walks away, crossing the room to speak with someone else, and Steve’s almost smiling as she goes – until Natasha comes up beside him, hooking her arm in his.
“Would you like a suggestion?”
“Try not to look quite so happy.”
“I didn’t think I was smiling.”
“You were about to. Don’t.”
Steve doesn’t ask how Natasha knows that he and Maria want their relationship to be professional in public, but he’s grateful for the reality check. And grateful for the decoy. With Natasha on his arm, people turn to look and talk, and there’s speculation in their eyes as they chat.
“Natalie, so nice to see you in something that isn’t black,” Tony announces from behind them. “Should I ask how you got in, or will I find security guards dead in some storage closet?”
“Stark.” Steve’s protest is at least half-laughing, although Natasha barely bats an eyelash as she regards Stark with mild exasperation.
“And you,” Tony claps him on the shoulder. “I see you survived a dance with the iron SHIELD maiden.”
“Or she survived one with me.”
“True. See, that’s what I like about you - you’re so modest. And I am so...not.”
Steve has a sudden memory of Howard assuring him and Peggy that one of his inventions would work – he made it, after all. It makes him smile.
“Isn’t this a great party?” Tony beams around him, slightly bent but - so far as Steve can tell - not yet blind. “I think it’s a great party - even if Barton is skulking up in the balconies.” He turns to Natasha, “I swear that next time I invite you two, you’re required to dress in neon yellow, just so I can keep an eye on you. With stripes. And then you can be the Wasp and he can be Bumblebee!”
Steve exchanges a look with Natasha, who shrugs. “He’ll be like this for the next dozen drinks. Then he gets rowdy.”
“I object to being spoken of like I’m not here!”
“Are we speaking of him like he’s not here?”
“Yes, we are,” Natasha answers. “But I think that Pepper wants his attention.”
“Pepper always wants my attention,” Tony says, turning. “I think she’s spent most of the last twelve years trying to get my attention. And mostly failing, although not for lack of trying on her part.”
“I can’t imagine why.” Steve turns Tony towards his fiancee, giving Natasha a rueful glance. “Let’s go see Pepper.”
Pepper is starting off the ‘formal’ part of the night - the announcement of the Avenger’s Rebuilding Initiative - a fund and committee set up to help rebuild New York neighbourhoods damaged in the Chitauri attack - specifically the less-moneyed neighbourhoods. Community halls, sports centres, and some smaller businesses will be eligible for assistance.
There’s a lot of speeches, including one of the state Senators, a director of Stark Enterprises, and the mayor of New York who goes on for nearly ten minutes about heroes and saviours and courage and generosity.
Then it’s Steve’s turn.
He argued against having to do this. Steve’s no good at speeches. He never was, even before the USO. And the USO wasn’t speeches so much as a script. Scripts he can do; speeches? No. However, as Pepper pointed out when he protested, the alternative was Tony.
Steve figured he’d give something short and simple. ‘Thank you for coming and for your generosity; the Avengers appreciate your contribution.’
The Mayor’s speech leaves him feeling like he has something to say.
“Uh... Hi. Thank you all for coming here tonight, and I’d like to thank Mr. Mayor for his kind remarks about the Avengers.” Steve pauses, gathering his thoughts. “The banner behind me says Earth’s Mightiest Heroes - seems like an overly-grand name for a bunch of people who did what they did because they had to - because they had the ability to fight the Chitauri for those who didn’t.
“I can’t speak for all my fellow Avengers, but I know that I’m here tonight because I can help people who might not be able to help themselves right now. That’s not heroic to me - that’s just what people ought to do.”
His gaze drifts over the crowd and comes to rest on a sky-blue dress and a faint smile. And Steve thinks of her standing in an Alpine storm, telling him that keeping him out of enemy hands was more important than her life.
“Sometimes heroism isn’t doing the great things; sometimes it’s just doing the little things because someone else needs you to do it. Winning a war might take strength and strategy, but rebuilding takes courage and persistence. And what we build today might last longer than we imagine.” And now that he’s got that out, he’s got nowhere to go. It’s an awkward moment as he searches for an ending that’s meaningful and relevant to the evening. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m no good at speeches, but I hope you’ll dig deep into your pocketbooks, because this is a good cause, going to good people – real heroes. And the Avengers are proud to be doing this work in partnership with you.”
The applause is more than he deserves for what he’s starting to think was a pretty limping speech, even if Pepper’s smile says it was fine.
Tony is considerably less appreciative when he gets off the stage. “We have to get you speaking lessons before we ever let you near a microphone again,” he mutters as Pepper announces that every dollar donated tonight will be matched by one from Stark Industries.
“It sounded fine to me,” Barton says, appearing out of nowhere with a couple of bottles of beer and handing one to Steve. “Thought you might need one of these.”
“We are never letting you anywhere near a speech,” Tony tells Barton. “You’d probably just strangle it in the dark. No, wait, that’s Romanoff.”
“They don’t pay me to do more than look pretty.”
“And you hardly manage that anyway. Where’s my beer, by the way?”
Barton grins. It’s not quite malicious. “I left yours back at the bar. I think Hill’s drinking it.”
Steve begins to turn, looking for Maria. Barton’s hand on his shoulder recalls him back to their surroundings and the people beginning to crowd in around them, having got up the courage to approach them. He doesn’t get to do more than take a sip of his beer before they’re surrounded by people and conversation, and there’s yet another round of handshaking, name-dropping, and even some flirting.
He converses, he’s polite, he doesn’t quite know what to do with the flirting – it’s so obvious these days.
Tony loves it, of course.
Barton makes a getaway that can only be described as cowardly, leaving Steve to deal with Tony– at least until Thor comes over.
“Oh good.” Tony’s still in the voluble stage of his drinking. “Fresh blood.”
“This party is hardly comparable to bloodshed,” Thor observes before shaking Steve’s hand. “An excellent speech, Steve Rogers. Warriors fight and are duly glorified, but it is in the aftermath of battle that a man’s true mettle is shown.”
Tony frowns. “That sounds like something from a book of inspirational quotes.”
“It is a saying of my father’s. I do not believe he has ever put them down in runes.”
“Well, it sounded much better when you said it,” Steve observes with a wry smile. “Next time, you can give the speech.”
“No, I would not deprive you of the pleasure – or the pain – by any means.” Thor laughs. “I fear my style of oratory is not suited to the people of your planet. A little too high-fluting, I believe.”
Since Thor is anything but fluting, his words earn him some very blank stares. “That’s...probably ‘high-falutin’,” Steve says after a moment.
“But I have the meaning correct?”
“Yeah, I’d say you have the meaning down pat,” says Steve.
“Good. Jane believes that what is said is less important than that one is understood, and I’m growing accustomed to your idiom.” Thor looks a little beyond Steve. “Lady Hill.”
Steve turns in time to catch Maria’s twitch of the lips. “Lieutenant will do fine, thank you, Thor.”
“What, you don’t want us to call you ‘Miss Lieutenant Major, sir’?” Tony jokes. “You’re looking surprisingly elegant tonight, Hill. I didn’t even recognise you without your gun.”
“It’s understandable, Stark. Visual acuity tends to decrease after forty-five.” Maria meets Steve’s eye for a moment, and he sees the glint of rueful laughter there. “I came to say thank you for inviting me to the party.”
“You’re leaving? So soon?” Thor frowns faintly, saying what Steve wants to before Steve has to. “The night is yet young.”
“And I have work in the morning.” It’s a calm statement of a fact – no complaining or recriminations. “Commander Fury allowed me the afternoon off, but I’m due back on the helicarrier at 9am tomorrow.”
“No rest for the wicked.”
“Or for the responsible,” comes the wry and pointed reply. “But I’m not sure you know so much about that, Stark. Gentlemen, enjoy yourselves. Try not to raise hell. Do not do anything that will require SHIELD’s intervention. I’ll see you when I see you.”
Her eyes rest on Steve as she says that last, and while he’d like to follow her, he resists. There’s a time and a place and this isn’t it. But it takes some reminding, all the same.
The next hours seem endless.
It’s nearly midnight when he manages to extract himself from the party. Tony’s firmly sozzled by now, but nobody seems to mind. “Classic Stark,” Natasha tells him as Tony laughs a little too loudly and slaps the New York Senator on the back. “This is actually quite restrained for him. He’s gotten much better since he and Pepper got together.” She smiles at him, a little kindly. “Do you want an exit?”
“I’m wishing I’d left with Maria two hours ago.”
“I’ll call you a limo,” Natasha says, heading for one of the doors that lead out of the room.
“I’m able to do that myself, you know.”
She doesn’t miss a step. “Of course you are.”
Steve shakes his head, and goes to tell Pepper that he’s leaving and that it was a lovely party. She looks tired, but pleased, and although many of the guests have wilted, she manages to maintain that air of classy elegance that wouldn’t have put her out of place back in Steve’s time.
“I hope it wasn’t too tiresome for you,” she says, smiling and nodding at a couple who are just on their way out. “I was hoping Lieutenant Hill could stay longer, but...”
“Work. Duty. Responsibility. I know how it goes.”
“Do you need me to call one of the limos?”
“No, Natasha’s already doing that.” Steve grimaces. “I think she’s managing me.”
“It’s a sign of affection.” Pepper kisses him on the cheek and looks towards the entranceway where Natasha is making her way down the stairs to the ballroom floor, her fiery hair an unmistakeable beacon. “There’s your call. Thank you for coming, Steve.”
Natasha waits for him at the foot of the stairs. “You’re good to go.”
Steve leans over and presses a kiss against the pale temple, ignoring the buzz of speculation around them. When he draws back, she’s staring at him.
“Do I want to know?”
He grins then. “Probably not.”
The promised limo is waiting in the hotel drive, and the doorman opens it up with a tip of his cap. “Sir.”
Steve starts to get in, then pauses as paper rustles. Inside the limousine, the downlights throw sharp shadows over Maria and the files she’s picking up off the seats so he can sit down beside her.
“Whatever happened to a nine o’clock start?”
“I called Fury and switched shifts.”
“And didn’t come back in?”
“I thought I’d get some paperwork done.”
He settles in beside her, closing one hand over hers. “You terrify me.”
And her mouth curves - that bright brilliant grin that punches him in the chest. “I know.”
Maria leans in then, and Steve meets her halfway, and there’s an avoidance of noses and bumped teeth and a breath of laughter before their mouths meet.
He’s been wanting this all night – the taste of her mouth, the shape of her lips under his – and if the way she leans into the kiss is any indication, she’s been wanting this, too. Maria meets him without shyness, without hesitation, without shame – she knows what she wants and Steve’s heart pounds at the thought that it’s him.
Now that they have time, they take it, savouring the touch and the privacy, the tenderness and the uncertainty. No rush, no haste, no world to save, no cameras to avoid, just her hands on his thigh and shoulder and his hand in the small of her back and the nape of her neck…
Steve lets himself drown in the rightness of it. A woman of edges, yes, but not unyielding and not hard. She’s what she needs to be, and he can respect that and admire that, love it, deplore it, and be terrified by it. Doubtless he will in the coming months. Doubtless, sooner or later, they’ll find themselves on opposite sides of the fence.
When they do, they’ll deal with it.
But in the meantime, he’ll savour every moment with this unique, unexpected woman.
When Maria draws away, he follows instinctively, but her expression is puzzled. “We’re not moving.”
Dim murmurs outside turn to voices as the limousine door opens, and Tony declares, “Of course he won’t mind sharing; it’s not like he’s got a-- Good god!”
Tony looks like Thor just smacked him across the back of the head, and Thor and Dr. Foster are trying to hide their grins – Dr. Foster less successfully than Thor.
“Hello, Stark, Thor, Dr. Foster.” Maria leans against Steve - sprawls, as a matter of fact, like Jean Harlow in a pin-up poster. “Please shut the door. We’re busy.”
“Ah, Captain. We apologise for interrupting,” Thor says, not quite solemn. “May your evening be full of enjoyment.”
Tony’s jaw shuts with an audible click of teeth. “We,” he says to Steve, “are going to have a talk about this.”
But he shuts the door on Dr. Foster’s laughing comment of, “It’s not like we can’t just fly home--”
The limousine moves off then, sliding out into the midnight streets of the city. Steve glances at Maria, who looks vaguely exasperated. “I guess that cat’s out of the bag.” Then, because Tony could make things awkward, he asks, “Do you mind?”
The silence gives him pause. Then Maria smiles. “Kiss me again and I’ll think about it.”
Steve does as ordered.
“People “with edges” take up space.
They give us a reason to talk, to wonder, to think.
People with edges can alter their surroundings,
as opposed to having their surroundings alter them.”
~ joseph riley land ~