“Sam,” she says brightly, “what’s up?”
He pauses in the doorway, watching as Maria straightens up, slinging a sleek leather bag over her shoulder. She’s in a smooth, tightly tailored suit that’s all clean lines; the pointed toes of her heels, the length of her legs, the strength in her bared arms, the bones of her cheeks. Corporate business is a good look for her, and he tries not to swallow his own tongue.
“If you like,” he says, “I’d like to take you out for a drink.”
Maria steps out from behind her desk, keys jangling in her hand. “Like a date?” She levels a measured look at him.
“Only if you like,” he says again. His heartbeat thuds in his ears.
Something complicated happens behind her eyes and her chin tilts, just a little, to one side. “I don’t…” she says slowly, “normally date men.”
Sam feels a touch like a fool. He looks down to his shoes for just a moment to keep from laughing at himself – what other response is there? – and then smiles at her again. “Okay,” he says. “Can I invite my friend – who I should get to know better,” and at that Maria stifles a snort, “out for wing night, instead?”
Maria considers him for a moment. Sam’s in solid brown boots, dark, smooth chinos, and a pale blue shirt with a neatly pressed collar. Everything she knows about him is solid, consistent; Sam is a good man to have in any corner, and while she’d never thought much past his presence as colleague and ally, she finds herself warmed by his ready offer of friendship. Maria knows she has been cold for a very long time; SHIELD, while it stood, only accepted her authority with the accompanying whisper of the icy bitch. Cool and untouchable were protective airs for so long that Maria now wears them with proud habit, but the respect Sam radiates for her has little to do with the superficial.
“Hot wings?” she asks.
“Oh-ho,” says Sam, rocking back on his heels and standing to the side as she shuts and locks her SI office door, “you better be careful what you wish for.”
She tosses a smile over her shoulder, leading the way out of the building. “Is that a dare, Wilson?”
Sam rubs his palms together, keeping pace. “Easy does it, bright eyes.”
“Oh my God.” Maria takes a gulp of her beer and wipes at her streaming eyes. “Fuck. Christ. What the Hell.” She resists the urge to blow her nose, instead pressing her lips against the back of her hand.
Sam politely watches her breakdown, smile hiding behind the edge of his glass.
“What the Hell,” she says again, thumb and forefinger poised to reach back into the basket between them. “Why do I want more? The fuck is this nonsense?”
“I told you,” says Sam, taking another wing and neatly picking it all the way down to the bone. He even licks the sauce from his fingers afterward, the asshole.
“You shut up,” Maria growls, taking another wing.
Sam has to smother his laughter behind his fist.
Sam still puts in time at a couple of local VAs in the city, near the Tower. It’s less his own, since he can’t commit to running his own sessions, and moreover that he’s a somebody now, according the rags. Strangers know his face, his silhouette, and some even know his name. Even New York City, the promised land of impossible feats, is only so comfortable with people who can fly under their own steam.
Maria stops by on a beautiful afternoon, lingering on the edge of a room of young vets, men and women whose eyes show them sand and ghosts with the slightest provocation. As the group breaks up into pockets of chatter and silence, Maria approaches Sam.
As they walk out into the sunshine, Sam asks, “Where did you serve?”
Maria doesn’t respond immediately. “Madripoor,” she says, after a long silence. “Eight years ago.”
Sam keeps his pace beside her, hands in his pockets. “How long?” he asks, after another whole block of quiet has passed.
They find a shady bench and sit side by side, pressed together from knee to shoulder. After a while, Maria says, “It never leaves you.”
Sam leans forward, his elbows on his knees. He scrubs his palms over his face briefly, and then lets his hands dangle in the space between his legs. “I know.”
Maria, hesitantly, reaches for him, letting her palm rest flat on the smooth, hard bulk of his shoulder. The leather of his jacket is warm in the sun. He arches, just a little, into the touch.
Wing night becomes a tradition between them, when the bad guys don’t get in the way. The third time they go out, the wait staff recognise them and have their order memorised. The basket comes out so hot the meat’s practically still on fire, but they set into it anyway, burning their fingers as well as their tongues. Maria, Sam notices, never orders a third beer. The next and all subsequent times, he switches to water with her.
While Thor is still off-world, and Natasha is still the target of a witch hunt by all and sundry, Steve calls Sam to help with a local operation. They troop out for pizza while they’re still sooty - Hawkeye and Hawkeye say they know a place that doesn’t mind their messes - and just as Steve finally comes to the end of his appetite, he levels a heavy look at Stark. Stark belches into his fist, doesn’t excuse himself, and then tosses a crumpled, greasy napkin in an empty pizza box.
“Whadaya say, Wilson,” he asks, biting his cheek and looking at Sam with sharp eyes, “Avengers can always use more air support.”
Sam shoots a look to Steve. The corner of his mouth twists up, and he makes a small, open gesture with one hand. He’s leaning back in his plastic seat, legs splayed and boots filthy. A posture of absent authority, Steve’s look says it’s all you.
“Do I get an apartment in the Tower?”
The Hawkeyes trade looks.
“Sure,” says Stark easily, “tons of space, not a problem.”
Sam nods. “All right,” he says, “okay. I’m in.”
“Good,” says Stark.
Hawkeye raises a rootbeer toast, and Hawkeye claps him on the back with an open palm. “Bro!” he exclaims.
Sam returns the gesture, shaking his shoulder. “Caw caw, motherfucker,” he laughs.
“Falcon,” he shows Sam, the smooth arc from shoulder to fingertip reminiscent of a wing. “That’s your sign.”
The first person Sam tells is Maria.
Sometimes Maria joins them on ops, especially when Steve needs to delegate aspects of field organisation. She’s incredibly intelligent, and frequently better versed in the contemporary politics of their international missions than he. She and Sam are still days away from extraction - Sam flying stealth reconnaissance over their multiple targets from command base - and they’ve got hours yet to while until the night’s op begins.
“Spar with me,” says Maria.
Sam looks up from the photographs he’s studying. “Okay.”
They make room, tilting the drafting table on its side and shoving it out of the way. From her stance Sam can tell that she doesn’t like having empty hands. It’s a slow-dawning realisation for all that he should know it already; from the swagger of her walk to her iron determination, Maria is every inch the classic gunslinger. She embodies the hard lines of swift justice, the turning-tide moment between war and right. She’s got a roundhouse kick that’ll decapitate a man, but what makes her a truly terrifying opponent is the thoughtless grace of how well she handles her guns. Her empty fists are a distraction, and Sam can see that empty-handed, she thinks too hard.
When they get back to the Tower, days later, they start to spend time in the gym. He helps her with her hand-to-hand, demonstrating the deadly reality of bare knuckles. Sam stands opposite her, behind the sandbag, guiding her punches, and later, in the ring again, making feints to showcase her weak spots. There’s a peace on her face as she listens, calculation and readjustment, and Sam notices the way that she nods along to the cadence of his speech.
He notices, too, that Maria never makes the same mistake twice.
A handful of his mediocre lessons have given Maria the tools to seriously challenge him, and their sparring sessions give him a sense of genuine delight. Her lithe strength is fast in a way Sam’s bulk can’t match, and she’s got the creative intelligence of survival on her side. If Sam finds he ever wins a round, it’s dollars to donuts he’s done it by brute strength and sheer luck. They’re both on the floor now, laughing and panting for breath, and they lend hands to help each other up.
Sam mops his face with the end of his shirt. Behind him, Maria’s gloating laughter fades with an uneven sound. He steals a confused glance over his shoulder, and catches the way her eyes drag up from his exposed back. There’s no shock on her face - Maria Hill is too disciplined for anything like that - just careful neutrality, her surprise evidenced by its absence.
“S’nothing,” he waves a dismissive hand as he turns around. He doesn’t do himself the indignity of pretending to smile in excuse. “Emergency release on the first model was a tricky sonovabitch.”
Maria sweeps her sweaty hair away from her face. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff the kids in Stark’s R&D keep pushing across my desk,” she tells him, distracting herself from even inadvertently hunting out the bumps and shadows of further scarring under his shirt. “They wanna equip my staff with tech nobody even can tell me how to use in the field.”
“Baby geniuses,” he complains with her. “When are they ever gonna learn?”
That night, Maria dreams of Sam in Madripoor. He’s an angel, collecting the translucent souls of those people she couldn’t save, and he bears them up to heaven on wings made of fire.
It’s a Saturday, which means it’s wing night, but Sam’s busted ankle doesn’t feel like getting off the couch. He sends Maria a text:
I have beer in the fridge, or we could take a raincheque.
A few minutes later, he gets a response:
How do you feel about thai food?
Sam sends back:
Is it being delivered?
Sam laughs as he taps out:
OK. 41st floor, door’s open. Robo-bulter will let you in.
They still go out for wing night every few weeks, but that first time in at Sam’s starts a shift in their routine. When Maria extends an invitation for pizza and a Fast and Furious marathon, Sam doesn’t think twice about saying yes.
They both fall asleep halfway through the third movie, Maria’s feet in Sam’s lap.
“You remember,” she says one evening, standing in her kitchen, sipping wine and watching him cook, “way back, when I said I don’t normally date men?”
Sam casts a glance askance over his shoulder. “Hm-mhm,” he agrees, mostly just to see where she’s going with this train of thought.
Maria puts her glass down, wrapping her hands around the lip of the kitchen island and balancing on her locked elbows. Sam can see her posture in the nighttime reflection of her kitchen window, and it strikes him as childish, nervous somehow.
“That’s ‘cause I don’t normally date anybody,” she says, looking at her hand, “but men even less frequently than women.”
Sam turns around, leaning against the cool part of the stove, conscious of keeping his hands at his sides. “Mar,” he says, “I don’t… need any kind of explanation. You don’t owe me. You don’t owe anybody.”
She watches him. “I know.”
“Okay,” he says.
Maria looks past his shoulder to her reflection in the bright glass of the window. The kitchen is quiet with the sound of their breathing, the muted sizzle of the dishes in the oven. “I know I don’t owe you. I just want you to know.”
Sam takes a sip of his own wine and putting down the glass, nods. “Then I’m listenin’,” he tells her.
“It’s…” Maria starts, “it’s not for lack of interest,” she says, her brows expressive, “it’s,” she bites her lip before continuing. “It’s the gap between interest and trust.”
Sam’s chin dips in a nod.
Maria looks over his smooth face, the hollow and bulk of his clavicle and chest left exposed by the vee of his t-shirt. There’s a shadow there that she wants to touch, dip her fingers into. Sam breathes slowly, waiting for her. She feels herself beginning to smile, an unprompted pull in her cheek, and she doesn’t try to contain it anymore.
“I trust you now,” Maria says, adding with emphasis, “I trust you enough.”
A soft smile works at the edge of Sam’s mouth. “I get it,” he says, looking down at his stocking feet for a moment. He looks at his wineglass but doesn’t drink any more, biting the inside of his cheek. “I think I get it.”
“You’re in charge, Mar,” he says, not unkindly. His smile broadens, tone teasing. “But that’s always the case.”
She raises one brow in a sly expression, and Sam laughs. He approaches the other side of the kitchen island, and stretches one hand out towards her. He waits for her nod before he cups her slender wrist in his palm. Maria relaxes her arm, turning her hand around and gently trailing her fingertips over the heel of his hand.
“Okay,” he asks her, still looking at their knotted hands, “so, what changes?”
She smiles, softly. “We’ll figure it out.”
Maria stays over that night, borrowing a soft shirt of his to sleep in. Sam says nothing of the spider-silk scars that lace her thighs – at first glance he thinks they’re just a trick of the shadows cast by the dim en-suite lights. As they settle, the shirt slips away from her shoulder, and the same scars, a little deeper, a little heavier, checker her nape. Maria, unbothered, curls into Sam’s body and pillows her head against his chest. Sam sweeps the hair away from her neck and presses his lips there, very gently, for a short moment.
Maria lets out a long breath and wraps her arm around Sam’s torso. She whispers, “My dad was a mean son of a bitch,” closing the thought with a small sigh.
Sam skids his palm up and down her bare arm. “He still around?”
Maria shakes her head. “He’s also a dead son of a bitch,” she adds, voice much firmer.
Sam laces their fingers together, and then turns out the light.
That night, Maria dreams of Sam again in Madripoor. He is an angel, and Low Town is on fire. Sam wraps her in wings fletched with feathers like champagne, and she lets him take her away.
The intimacy that builds between them is a slow, foggy thing. He does not gracefully avoid her hand on his back; she does not tense when the heat of his body passes behind her. They trade kisses one morning over coffee, and surprise each other with the accidental realisation of such a simple first act. The drinks go cold and forgotten, their lips too happy and preoccupied with each other.
The following weeks remain just as exciting, their skins flushed with the pleasure of finding a body like theirs, a body to trust.
The first time they act on that intimacy, it’s in his unmade bed, the blinds open enough to let in the bright, clean light of the early spring morning.
Maria finds herself overwhelmed and exhilarated with the joy of being touched, being loved, giggling like a child as Sam drags his scruffy chin over the sensitive inside of her thigh, as he smiles into the soft bend of her knee. She trails her fingertips so lightly over his belly that his breath catches, and she traps his wrists first as he reaches for her, pinning them to the mattress and laving her tongue over the strong sinew at his throat.
They are extraordinarily patient with each other, nothing calling them outside but the Sunday sunlight. When they finally move together, Maria is breathless, full and alive, the stretch and ache so easily giving way to the joyful burn that feels like heaven.
Sam’s scars vary – there is a pale discolouration spread indiscriminately across the breadth of his back, shoulder to shoulder, nape to tail. But it is trisected by two heavy, raised parts; sustained contact burns on either side of his spine, as thick as two of Maria’s fingers. They run from the middle of his shoulder blades to the first narrowing of his waist, precisely, she thinks, where his wings should be.
He never says anything, but his hand frequently strays to the mottled spot just beside the dimple of her left hip. He touches it very gently, often with his nose or forehead pressed somewhere else against her skin, like he can think the marks away.
They’re lounging in the bathtub, suds clinging to their shoulders, when Maria tells Sam, “He remarried when I was twelve.”
Sam presses his stubbly cheek against her throat, and she leans into the touch.
“I told him to hit me instead of the little kids.”
“Shit,” says Sam. He catches her hands in the water and folds her up in his arms.
They stay like that until the bubbles collapse and the water cools. Sam never pushes for the details; they both know that he knows what burn scars look like.
The end of SHIELD does not spell the end of Maria’s days in espionage.
“How’d you feel about party crashing?” she asks Sam as she’s studying personnel files. She’s sprawled across her couch, surrounded by paperwork. Pens and highlighters litter the tabletop.
“Nobody you like for it?” Sam asks.
“They’re good agents,” she allows, “and they’re all field experienced, but there’s no one who’s gone undercover. This is subtler stuff. Nat needs capable backup that absolutely cannot be noticed. Everyone and their dog knows Barton’s face now.”
Sam frowns a little. “You know what they say,” he says. “You need somethin’ done right…”
“…you gotta do it yourself,” Maria finishes by rote. Then she pauses, and blinks at him. “Wait,” she says.
Sam grins. “Now she’s got it,” he says.
“So what,” asks Sam, as he fiddles with his tie in the hotel’s full-length mirror, “we just sit pretty until either Nat gets what she needs or everything goes to hell?”
Maria steps out of the bathroom, and Sam forgets about fixing his tie. She’s in floor-length blue silk with an open neck that falls all the way to her navel.
“Well,” she says, “I was thinkin’ we could dance a little, too.”
She’s wearing a delicate chain that falls all the way to the end of her sternum. The pendant that hangs at the end, resting flat against her skin, is a single feather, gilded to the colour of champagne.