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It wasn’t like Sam Wilson was afraid of Maria Hill or anything; he wasn’t afraid of anyone, really. Well, except for Barnes; sometimes he didn’t know for sure if he really wanted to find Barnes, because he still occasionally woke up nights, sailing off the helicarrier and his chute didn’t open this time. But that wasn’t why he hesitated to ask her out. With Maria it was different--young Sam might have nervously hung out at her locker or in the break room, charming her until he broke through that cool, steely demeanor and got a date. But as this Sam, the one who was still flight-testing in the brave new world of Avengers (and seriously, how had that become his life?), he wasn’t sure what his moves were here. Because really, what did you do with someone who had literally snatched you from the jaws of certain death? How did you turn such a heroic and daring (and okay, incredibly, hotly competent) act into a mere launchpad for a “hey, girl, wanna go out sometime?”

It just seemed pathetic and inappropriate and skeevy, and this Sam might be a work in progress but he never wanted to be that kinda guy. So he kept it stowed and locked down--which was easy, really, since he and Steve were gone all the freaking time chasing down Steve’s favorite ghost. When they were in the States, inevitably Sam and Maria would run into each other, but beyond friendly banter--possibly some flirting? he wasn’t sure, because he could be a stupidly imaginative sap--and a little bit of in-the-trenches reminiscing during group dinners or drinks out, their interactions were pretty, well, depressingly professional.

Not that he didn’t dream a little dream about her smooth, gardenia-petal skin or twining his fingers through her ebony hair. She sometimes had what Sam thought of as a melancholy face, a lot like Steve’s when he wasn’t focused on a task or aware anyone was looking. Haunted, maybe, occasionally, and that was a look Sam was achingly familiar with--it had been the one he’d seen in the mirror after Riley had been blown out of the sky next to him, the one most of his vets wore when they first started out at the meetings.

Everyone in the agency had seemed to wear the same look at times, but they were doing their best to move on in the face of what they’d lost. But for Maria, it had to be excruciating, not the least because, as she’d let slip one night over drinks, she had been close to Sitwell. SHIELD had been Maria’s life, the thing she defined herself by, and now it was a smoking ruin and she’d helped make it that way. Sam knew how hard that made it to sleep through the night.

Sam thought about her, though, a lot. If Steve was aware Sam was nursing a crush on Maria, he’d never said, and Sam thanked his lucky stars for that. Steve would get all excited in that kidlike way he had and do some damn fool embarrassing thing in the mistaken belief that his interference was required by the international laws of friendship, so Sam kept his yap shut even though he often wanted to ask Steve what Maria was really like under all that supremely sexy swagger.

He hadn’t even been sure she’d noticed him after she’d found out who he was and why he was with Steve and Natasha that day, until she’d been helping him suit up with his wings and run systems checks. “So, where did you serve?” she’d asked.

“How do you know I’m not just some weirdo inventor like Tony Stark and I made these things my damn self?” he’d answered, and laughed.

She’d snorted and checked down the barrels of his machine pistols, making sure everything was spotless, like she was his CO. “You know that answer.”

If she’d been looking at him then, she’d have seen the hearts shooting out of his eyes. From the moment she’d asked “who’s this guy?” he’d thought that she was as fine a specimen of womanhood as he’d ever met--and that was with Natasha on his other side, and shit, he hadn’t even met Pepper Potts yet.

It was intriguing that all but one of Fury’s top lieutenants had been women, and that Maria was essentially his right hand, because in Sam’s experience, the service wasn’t exactly progressive. When SHIELD dissolved, no one had been surprised to see SI snatch her up from the ruins. Who else could match Pepper Potts in capability except Maria goddamn Hill? Sam was absolutely dazzled by it all.

And damn, but he wanted to get to know her. Get her away from all this insanity for an evening, something simple like dinner or a sweet jazz club. Treat her nice like she deserved, see her relax and let that no-nonsense French twist down. Sam was a fucking expert at relaxation, he could show her how.

He and Steve hadn’t planned to stop in LA on their way back from Manila and yet another failed Bucky search, but when Steve found out that Tony, Pepper, and Maria were there, working out of Tony’s newly rebuilt Malibu compound before heading to Japan, they’d decided to see how the house had turned out and give themselves a much-needed break.

It was beautiful here, palm trees and sunshine, swimming pools, movie stars. Sam reminded himself that Pepper and Maria were exceptionally busy women and didn’t need him bugging them, occupying himself instead with the glorious pool, the beach and hiking trails nearby, Stark’s vast entertainment libraries. Steve mostly worked out his frustrations on a series of punching bags or swam laps till he was a giant pink prune.

Sam, because he was a putz and because he was a good friend, was dumb enough to try to hold on to the last new bag in Stark’s state of the art new gym as Steve pummeled the shit out of it. Sam pushed against it with all his might but he still ended up being bounced across the floor every few minutes.

“Hello?” Steve said, and his face loomed into view. “Earth to Sam?”

“Oh, yeah,” Sam said with surprise. He hadn’t even realized Steve had stopped punching. “You done, man?” His shoulders were hopeful.

“For now,” Steve said, giving Sam an odd little look as he wiped sweat off his forehead, and began untaping his hands. “Would you be willing to do me a favor? I’ve lined up some hospital appearances, and I need to leave for one soon. Would you take those field reports about Manila to Maria for me? She says she needs to keep the documentation for DoD purposes and she quote unquote thinks I’m holding out on her because I refuse to file them electronically.”

“Are you scared of her?” Sam asked, untaping his own hands, laughing.

“Hell, yeah, aren’t you?”

Sam looked carefully at Steve’s face. He was about ninety-nine percent certain Steve was fucking with him, that he was trying to put Sam in Maria’s orbit and get this show on the road, but fuck if Steve wasn’t taking poker-face lessons from Natasha Romanov or something. “Sure, okay.”

“They’re in my guest room. Though of course you could come with me instead.” Steve smiled serenely, and if that didn’t look like a man trolling someone, Sam didn’t know what did.

He weighed the options for a moment--he loved going to the hospitals with Steve; seeing little kids in Falcon costumes was maybe the greatest thrill he’d ever had.

But hell, he realized, if Maria was around, no time like the present, right? He suddenly remembered the SAS’s motto: who dares wins. Who knew when he’d get another chance to dare. “I’ll go with you next time, okay?”

There was the tiniest little tug on the corner of Steve’s mouth, a smug smirk that Sam wanted to wipe off him with an elbow jab. “Thanks, Sam, you’re a lifesaver.”

“Literally!” Sam called after Steve as he walked away. “Don’t you forget that, Wonder Bread!”

Steve flipped him off as he went through the double doors leading to the locker room.



“Auughh!” Sam heard the scream before he got around the corner to the offices Pepper and Maria worked out of. His heart rate skyrocketed, readying himself to spring into action and he leapt forward into the room. Maria was sitting there alone at the ginormous desk, fingers in her hair, pulling at it. Her face was scrunched up. Well, didn’t he feel like the dumbass.

Maria looked up calm as could be, as if he hadn’t just hurled himself into the room like some terrible action hero, smoothing her hair down and motioning him to come in with an abrupt swish of two fingers. Her crisp efficiency and no-frills approach always left him a little tongue-tied.

“I feel like I don’t even have to ask who that was about.”

She threw her hands into the air and let loose a string of invective in Spanish that Sam couldn’t even parse, and he thought he knew all the swear words in Spanish. “He just--why do we even bother with an R&D budget projection if he won’t even try to stay within it? We’re not four weeks into the fiscal period and he’s already blown everything up.”

Sam’s eyebrows knit together. “Wait, literally or figuratively?”

Her mouth twisted in a cute little moue. “Both, maybe?”

With a shrug, Sam said, “At least you technically work for Ms. Potts, not himself.”

She sparkled in his direction. His heart subsequently missed a few beats. “Himself! Wow, I haven’t heard that in a long time. My Irish grandfather used to say that all the time. He died when I was really little, but I do kinda remember that.”

“Picked it up from my wingman, Riley. Never knew where it came from, but I always thought it was funny.”

She tilted her head and stared at him for a while, then hit a key on the keyboard very very hard. “So, what do you have for me?”

“Oh! Uh, Cap said you needed these before you left. I just do not understand why he keeps writing these things out on paper. This pretense of being technologically incompetent is getting really old.” Not to mention the pretense of making Sam hand deliver them for him, like they were passing notes in school.

“Well, the only one who continues to fall for it is Stark. You’d think after the tenth time Steve trolled him, he’d have figured it out.” She took the papers from him and added, “Speaking of that devil, I need to go deal with him.”

Sam followed her out in the direction of Stark’s new lab--Pepper had forced him to put it well away from the living and working quarters--noting the sensible yet cute brogues she wore, the crisp black ankle pants that hugged her hips just that tiny bit too snugly, the way she rolled the sleeves of her deep blue shirt in precise thirds to just above her elbows. He wondered what the hell he was gonna do if she spurned his advances. Get by, he supposed, the way Steve got by without Barnes and Agent Carter, but just getting by wasn’t really what he wanted to do.

“It’s kind of embarrassing,” she said sheepishly, “how easily I let him get to me. But if we want to support the Avengers Initiative, we can’t run SI into the ground.” She glanced away, drawing her mouth in a tight line.

“This is when you feel the loss of SHIELD most intensely. Stark might have done a good job of privatizing world peace before, but it’s a whole new ballgame now with Hydra and AIM and all that shit. You got a lot on your plate.” Maria might have gotten in the SI door because of her friendship with Pepper, but that wasn’t why they hired her.

“I’ve been going over the intel about the last couple missions in Eastern Europe. Have you given any more thought to officially joining the Avengers?” she asked.

“Ah, you know, I don’t really think that’s in the cards. It’s been tough enough, this traveling, being away from my vets and my family. Helping Steve feels like the right thing to do, but I think you guys are a lot better at the world-saving shit.”

There was a look in her eyes, Sam thought it might be disbelief, but he couldn’t be sure. “I remember the way you sounded that day at the Triskelion, the way you whooped and laughed when you flew. You love it up there. Don’t you want a chance to put those wings to good use again?”

Well, never let it be said Sam didn’t know how to turn an opening like that to his advantage. He smiled and said, “I don’t think I’d need those wings to fly if you were steppin’ out with me.”

Her eyes lit up, sparklers of laughter and astonishment, and she bit her lower lip in an attempt to keep from smiling. Sam held the door for her and they stepped inside before she could give him an answer.

Stark was moving around his lab like a mad symphony conductor, arms flying all over the place, hands moving up and down and sideways through the blue-tinted schematics splayed across the room.

“Oh no,” Stark said, “it’s the crusher of dreams. I swear to you that I am making very serious, very aggressive changes in my life. Pepper says.”

“I’m imagining you just like this,” Maria said, and held her thumb and forefinger up in front of her eye, squeezing them together slowly. “You’ve blown through the R&D budget for the next two quarters already.”

“Wait, didn’t my lady friend hire you to be--I don’t know, it’s on the tip of my tongue--chief operating officer, not chief financial officer?”

“Unfortunately, Tim Leung is in New York and can’t pound on you like I can.” She leaned against one of the counters.

“Did you just offer to pound me? I’d have to ask Pep, but I don’t know, I’ve kind of missed three-ways. I’m fairly certain she’d say yes, if it was you. Though I feel like you and I have a weird history.”

Maria squinted at him. “You know this is all tied in together, these budgets and this--this Avengers Initiative fantasy superhero league we’re running here. You used to head up this company.” Sam felt like he was watching a U.S. Open match between the top-seeded players or something.

Tony finally raised his head and swiped all the blue screens away. “That’s the nice thing about dying, though. You reconfigure your priorities. Giving Pepper charge of the company was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Sam looked around the room at all the gleaming new equipment, the spruced up robots, the tech Tony was in the process of building. Tony didn’t even have a glowing blue light in his chest anymore. Sam got it, somehow, the need to start fresh, to create after all that destruction, even though he’d never experienced anything quite as dramatic. There had been plenty of sleepless nights when he’d tried to grapple with the sheer gargantuan size of the destruction he’d been part of that day in D.C.

“That’s what I’m trying to control,” Maria said. “I don’t want this company lost on Pepper’s watch. We blow a huge part of the profits on the Avengers. I’m not complaining about that, I wouldn’t be here if I saw anything wrong with it. But if we want room for the other stuff, your R&D, Dr. Banner’s, or Cap’s projects, we have to manage it properly.” She paused. “You’re too freaking smart to be this dumb.”

“Some of us have greatness thrust upon them?” Stark said. Sam couldn’t help himself, he laughed and then bit down hard on the inside of his cheek. The last thing he wanted was for Maria to think he was on Stark’s side.

Maria dropped a USB drive on the desk next to him and slid it over. With an almost imperceptible roll of her eyes, she said to Sam, “He hates to be handed things.”

“What?” Sam said, incredulous.

“He’s afraaaiid of it,” Maria teased, almost sing-song.

“I’m not af--” Tony huffed. “Yeah, I’m terrified, it’s my third-worst fear, behind hairy spiders and little kids who cosplay me with the beard.” He put his fingers around his elaborately shaved goatee, then picked up the USB stick.

“I know your tactics, Stark,” Maria said with a kind of deadly glee, leaning toward him. “I’m in your head. I’ve bought a furnished condo in there with quartz countertops and a fully stocked wine fridge.” Goddamn, but that was hot. Sam sighed inwardly. “And you know you need me to keep you in line.”

“Sometimes I hate that my girlfriend is your bestie. But that was really hot. Can we return to that pounding thing?”

She grinned and started toward the door. “And it would help if you didn’t do things like have donuts flown in every day from Portland, Oregon--”

“They are amazing do--”

“--on the corporate ledger. Put them on your own personal expenses.” She held her hand in the air like she was training a dog. Sam half expected her to pull out a clicker.

“Thor freaking loves those donuts. So does Bruce. If he couldn’t get those donuts, there’s no telling what might happen.”

“Then make Thor fly them in. I bet they’ll give ’em to him for free if he wears his sleeveless tunic.” Though she smiled, it was very tight. “It’s little things these days, Tony, we’re alone out here. All I’m asking is for a fragment of the attention you put into your pet projects going toward the care and feeding of this company.”

Stark raised his eyebrow and tilted his chin. Uh oh. Sam may not have known him long, but he’d seen that very look on Steve’s face often enough to know what it meant. “Hey, J, have one of the minions meet us out on the landing pad with Staff Sergeant Wilson’s kit.”

“Certainly, sir.”

Maria rolled her eyes. “Minions?”

“Also known as interns. They’re all sort of vaguely yellowish and speak a language I don’t understand.”

“How many times I gotta tell you I’m not a sergeant anymore,” Sam grumbled, as Tony grabbed them each by an arm and yanked them along behind him.

“I like titles. They’re fun. Though I suppose once you find Barnes, it won’t make sense to call you Sarge anymore. Do you think it’ll drive him crazy if I call him that? For values of crazy that are worse than trying to beat your old boyfriend to death on a flaming helicarrier.”

“Stark,” Maria said, pulling back on her arm. “I so don’t have time for show and tell.” But they were interrupted when a young woman appeared with Sam’s wings and handed them to him like she was offering him a leg up to the Rainbow Bridge. Sam wondered where the hell Tony had been hiding interns, he hadn’t seen any sign of them the whole time he was here.

Tony jerked his chin and Sam sighed. He took the wings out of the box, slipping the pack on. “My pet projects,” Tony said, and pointed at Sam, “are freaking awesome. Look at what I can make. Did you ever actually watch him fly before?”

Maria opened her mouth for a quick retort, but stopped--almost surprised--and gave a minute shake of her head. “No, I guess I never actually watched him fly.” Her smile was a little sheepish, yet still at full wattage.

“I can do you one better than that.” Sam finished clipping in and unfurled the wings, then pulled the secondary harness out from under the base of the power pack.

“Carrying that giant side of beefcake we call Cap around wouldn’t be feasible with the previous wing design, so I improved on that, among other things. I spent some time in Wakanda, resourcing extremely rare materials and doing bleeding-edge science with the king himself. That’s where I’m blowing my budgets.”

“Tony, you don’t have to impress me. You’re a perfectly impressive person when you’re not being an ass. That’s not what this is about.”

But he ignored her and clapped his hands together once, before throwing his arms wide. “Take the lady to church, Reverend Wilson.”

Sam laughed and shook his head. With a pounding heart, he held his arms out to Maria. “Once I hook you in, just hold on to me till you get used to it. I’ve already tested this out with Steve and he weighs a crapton, so nothin’ to be scared of.”

She scoffed. “I’m not scared.” The way she stared at him made his neck feel hot. “Are you?

God, but he loved her sass. “I’ll take it slow.” He glanced over to see Tony smirking ridiculously, giving him two thumbs up. Jesus Christ, he and Steve were a couple of little old lady matchmakers, like they had absolutely nothing better to do with their limited time. Sam slipped his goggles down to check his readouts.

“You don’t have to prove anything to me,” she said sternly, and Sam wondered if he’d finally found the one thing Maria Hill was afraid of, even if she wouldn’t admit it. She held on to his shoulders as he ignited the thrusters, and they lifted off the ground. He took her up about ten inches, just enough to give her a feel for what it was like, and she laughed, flustered, her blue eyes wide. He could smell her perfume, something crisp and bright, maybe paperwhites. They hovered for a bit moving around and around, and Maria looked down to see her feet dangling in the air above the asphalt of the landing pad--then she slipped a hand off his shoulder and held it out in the air, the way you would riding in a car, dipping it up and down in the breeze.

“Okay, now that you have a feel for it, I’m gonna have you turn around and face away from me. I won’t take you horizontal yet, because that’s tough the first few times, it’s like you’re holding a plank for a really long time till you learn how to hold your body. Once we get some speed, it’s easier. But this might give you vestibular problems, mess with your equilibrium. If you feel sick, tap out.” He dropped down, and she let him turn her around, his hands on her waist, just under her breasts. Christ, she was made of steel rebar, all sinewy muscle and her abs were so strong they would give Steve’s a run for his money. The repulsors fired and they moved up and forward toward the cliff edge, his arms still wrapped around her waist, sun glinting off the wings.

As they reached the edge, Maria threw her head back and laughed. She had an amazing laugh that came from deep down in her chest, the laugh of someone who didn’t give a shit if any man felt threatened by a woman like her. “Oh god, this is just wild,” she said and spread her arms wide. They were still mostly vertical, or at least, semi-diagonal, and for the hell of it he tilted sideways; a little yelp slipped past her lips. His mouth was almost in her hair, and he wondered what it would be like to lean forward and nip her earlobe.

“All right, you ready? I’m gonna go faster.” He took his arms from her so he could open the wings to the proper position. He was--well, soaring, was the word he wanted, despite the cheesy pun, feeling her laugh against his chest. He dipped them down along the cliffside toward the beach, the sun like diamonds on the calm waves of the Pacific Ocean, the briny scent of the sea pungent and fresh. Her back rose against his chest as she inhaled it. They streamed up toward the bluff again, and Maria squealed in delight. He brought them above some eucalyptus trees to hover so she could reach out to the tree tops and look down through their lacey branches. “I’m gonna twist us sideways, don’t worry, you won’t fall.” She fanned the leaves on the topmost branch, almost giggling.

Sam coasted back out along the property. Tony Stark was nowhere to be seen now. Freaking busybodies, Tony and Steve, but Sam had to give them both gold stars now that he had Maria in his arms. They perched at the edge of the cliff, wings closed, his hands on her hips, before pushing forward, and she whooped as they dropped for half a heartbeat--then his wings unfurled and they zoomed upward into the sun.

He remembered this, the eddies of joy that swirled behind his ribs, the spark of the endorphins that lit up his skull when they’d finally taken the training wheels off and he and Riley had really flown. Experiencing it with Maria was just as good as the first time.

“Now we’re really gonna pick up speed,” he warned. “You’ll feel it in your abs and thighs later, but I can tell you work out.”

She brought an elbow in and popped him one. “Bring it, Wilson. I can take care of myself.”

“Yes, I do believe you can.”

With a whoop, he hit the power hard, and they sped up and up into the cloudless blue sky. He spun them around in barrel rolls, dipped and turned, made figure eights. She alternately threw her arms wide or brought them close in like she was born to it, her head tucked against the crook of his neck. As they flew over the water she moved her left leg back, hooking her foot over his calf, and he almost lost control for a second as she slid her hand atop the one he had on her waist. For the next ten minutes he zipped them up and down and around, until he took them back, both breathless, to the white buildings of Stark’s compound.

They landed softly--Stark had given him so much control on landings with this new design--and Maria let him slide his hands along her hips to unhook the harness. She grinned at him and pushed his goggles up on his forehead, sliding her hand around the back of his neck to pull him forward.

Her kiss was every bit as authoritative as anything else she did, and Sam let himself sink into it, his hands coming up to cup her jaw.

“This is the best first date I think I’ve ever had,” she said, and gazed up at him with those glittery blue eyes.

“Fly the friendly skies, you know?” he said, and then, “wait, does this mean there’s a second date in our future?”

His phone buzzed in his pocket, and she nodded at him to take it, since he had no idea these days what kind of news it would be, if they’d have a fresh lead on Barnes or maybe the world was ending. But it was only a text from Stark: Greasy spoon just up the PCH with killer waffle fries. They take fly-ins. Coordinates on your maps. BTW you’re welcome.

He laughed and showed it to her. “Think you can step away from work for a little bit longer?”

“If Stark thinks this distraction will deter me from keeping his ass in line...”

“I don’t think anyone who knows you would think they could deter you from anything, ever. In the zombie apocalypse, my money’s on you to survive us all.” He hooked her back into the harness and touched the side of her face. “You sure you’re ready for this?”

Maria grinned and kissed him, quick and light. “I told you, Wilson. Bring it.”

“Oh, I plan to. I plan to very much.”