Maria Hill got kicked out of her first prep school when she was fifteen. Kensington didn’t look kindly on girls who rappelled up the high stone walls and broke into the headmaster’s office, even if their cause was just.
“They confiscated my friend's watch,” Maria told the police. “She didn’t have nice things like everyone else here, just that one watch, and some other girls said she stole it. And the headmaster just took it – he didn’t even ask her side of the story.”
Maria’s father loomed over her, his gray eyes stern. “And naturally, breaking into the headmaster’s private office was the only way to remedy the problem. Tell me, Maria, were you truly concerned with justice or did you merely wish to be a hero?”
Maria scuffed at the thick carpet with her toe and hated herself for the childish gesture. She didn’t have to answer her father’s question; they both knew the truth, and they both knew that after a token punishment, he would enroll her in another prep school next week.
She lasted a year at that one, dealing marijuana to rich children for exorbitant prices. When they caught her, she slipped out a window with $8,462 in cash. She’d bought herself a fake ID and enrolled in a new school before the old one managed to get hold of her father in Rio. Setting up a new business wasn’t hard; her classmates all had too much money to spend, and far too little sense. They hadn’t spent their childhoods sneaking away from their parents’ fancy hotels and learning the street value of illicit drugs.
When the cop cars appeared three days before graduation, she told herself to eat the bust and fight the charges. Schools like hers didn’t want a scandal; there was a chance they’d still let her graduate, and anyway, she’d deposited most of her profits in a Swiss bank account over spring break.
The man who emerged from the car was like no one she’d ever seen. When she tore her gaze away from his eye patch, she saw that his leather trench coat billowed behind him even though there was no wind. When he offered her a place at SHIELD, she followed without question.
One night, the old teacher noticed her and invited her inside. He fed her rice and dumplings and taught her in private sessions without asking who she was or where she was from. In exchange, Maria mopped the floors and organized the papers on the receptionist’s desk. Dani – the foster mom of the month – actually seemed to care a little, and when she saw Maria practicing in the yard, she bought her a uniform and enrolled her in her first official class. For a time, it seemed like life might actually be okay. Maria held onto her 4.0 GPA, got an after school job so she could pay for extra classes. A rainbow of belts hung on her wall; she’d finally found something she was good at, and she wasted no time moving up through the ranks.
But then Dani lost her job. Money was tight. She gave Maria away, along with the family dog.
This time, she didn't bother waiting for a new foster home; she slipped out of the shelter in the middle of the night with $24 she'd filched from Dani's purse and the gym bag that held her meager positions. Maybe someone in the studio would have taken her in; she was in the adult classes now, and her fellow students marveled at her skill, her grades, and her confident bearing. But she preferred to sneak back into the studio after the lights were out and everyone had gone home. Locks were never a problem for her, and the showers there were warm.
In the summer of 1992, she watched the Olympics on the flickering TV in the locker room and wondered if she could make the team in '96. Atlanta didn't seem so far away, and maybe if she worked hard enough, she could find a sponsor and pay for a coach. Then she would tell her story, become an inspirational segment on NBC. She would never want for a home then.
"That'll never be you," an unfamiliar voice said just as a slender brunette like Maria climbed the podium to claim a gold medal. He snatched the remote and turned off the TV before she even thought to be afraid.
"You don't know that," Maria told the man. He wore an eyepatch and a leather coat, like a superhero who was trying too hard, and Maria wasn't sure who he was to judge her.
"I do know," he said quietly, and the words stung because Maria knew they were true. "I have something better than the Olympics. Have you ever heard of SHIELD?"
He told her his name was Nick Fury and her country needed her. She took his outstretched hand and never looked back.
The truth is frustrating and pedestrian, and Maria doesn't talk about it because she really can't risk missing home. She can't go back; her nerves jangle awkwardly in her little home town, and she can't say for sure she'd be welcome after the weddings and birthdays and Christmases she's missed.
In reality, Maria grew up on the poor side of middle class. She made good grades, and in the summer she skipped the obligatory retail job in favor of mowing lawns. By the time she turned sixteen, she'd saved up enough to buy a car, which -- like everything else her family owned -- was just a little tired and broken. After she graduated, she got a job at an auto repair shop and puttered around at the local community college to make her parents happy. She was smart enough to ace her classes, but it was hard to spend her parents' money when she had no idea what she wanted to do with her education.
She stumbled onto an Army recruitment fair on her way to spring enrollment. When they asked her what she wanted, she said, "to see the world." She signed the enlistment papers on the promise of a few glossy brochures. Her mother cried; her father was proud.
At Basic, she learned what it meant to blossom. Everything she did had a purpose and meaning, unlike the hours of studying she'd done for Freshman Comp and Biology 101. Her superiors called her a natural leader, and she finished the obstacle course faster than the boys. She knew she was the best of her class, and she gritted her teeth as she watched the combat assignments go to men who couldn't run as fast as she could.
In Somalia, she asked to be a sniper.
"You know I'm the best shot on the base," she said.
Her commander shook his head. "You're a woman, Hill, no can do."
"Soldiers will die in the streets because you won't put a woman in combat," she argued. Her commander said he didn't remember giving her permission to speak quite so freely, and she spent a week cleaning the latrines. When he put his hand on her shoulder and said, "Sorry, Hill, you know I don't make the rules," she put her fist through the wall. The pain did not make her feel better.
In Afghanistan, they attached her to a combat unit -- support position only, as close to the action as women were allowed. When an IED blew half the convoy sky high, she jumped in the gun turret and picked off insurgents till help came from the base. They gave her a medal and she buried it in her sock drawer after her application for special forces was denied. No women allowed.
When Fury offered her the job at SHIELD, active combat and covert ops, she said, "I assume, sir, that you did not somehow overlook my vagina when you decided to offer me this position."
Fury made a barking noise that might have been a laugh and looked at the bland and impeccable man behind him.
"Agent Coulson, make a note that Hill has a vagina."
"Duly noted, sir," Coulson said with a twinkle in his eye. "Do we give a shit about whether people have a vagina?"
Fury's smile was like a gash in his face. "We didn't last week. Has there been a memo this week?"
"One moment, sir, let me check." Coulson flipped through the papers in his folder. "No, sir, no memos about vaginas. Official SHIELD policy is still that we hire the best people for the job. Welcome to the team, Agent Hill."
The room is silent except for the hum of machinery and Phil's slow, steady breathing. Rogers is standing over the bed, watching. There are fresh flowers on the table behind him.
Maria clears her throat softly, and Rogers startles.
"Excuse me," he says. "I know it's after visiting hours. I just, um, came to drop off these." He gestures vaguely at the daffodils on the table. "I came late so I wouldn't get in the way of real family and friends."
Maria lays a hand on his arm. "It's alright," she forces herself to say. "I don't mind people being kind to my friends." That part is true at least.
After that, they run into each other once or twice a week, always outside the hospital's official visiting hours. Neither one of them wants to run into Phil's other friends, it seems. Maria keeps up a gruff front, but privately she's glad for Rogers' silent companionship.
"Why do you come here?" she asks one night. The question is rude, but she wants to know. It's as close as she can get to asking Phil if meeting his idol lived up to his dreams.
"He said he was with me, when I was asleep. I wanted to return the favor, I guess." Rogers looks awkward; Maria guesses he doesn't talk about his feelings any more than she talks about hers. "He seemed like a good guy. Seems, I mean. Like a real soldier and a real human being."
Maria nods. Seemed, seems -- she gets them confused too. First Phil was dead, and then he wasn't. Now he's asleep, and no one knows when -- or if -- he'll wake up. She doesn't know whether to mourn or celebrate.
"He'd be glad you're here," she says. "I mean, he is glad you're here. I'm sure he knows."
She isn't sure at all, and she hates uncertainty.
"Did I get it right?" he asks. "You like your coffee black?"
"Yeah. When I was a little girl, I always begged my dad for coffee at breakfast. Finally he told me I could have a cup, but only if I could drink it black. He thought it would put me off, but I didn't want to back down." Maria's a little surprised at herself; she doesn't usually volunteer stories from her past. SHIELD is a here-and-now sort of place, and she likes it that way.
Steve smiles in the dark. "You like a challenge."
"I do." Maria feels a smile tugging at the edges of her lips, realizes it's been a long time since she felt that sensation. Too long, Phil would tell her. He was always making her go on leave, shipping her off to unfamiliar and fascinating places like Antananarivo and Kathmandu.
"Why do you come here at night, Maria?" Steve asks. After last night, she supposes it's his turn for a blunt and uncomfortable question.
Maria licks her lips. "There was a cave-in once, in Budapest. Enemy agents everywhere, and Phil was a sitting duck, just holding my hand where it was sticking out of the rubble. I would have been fine if he'd taken cover, but he refused to leave me alone in the dark."
"A good soldier and a good man," Steve says.
"Yeah," Maria echoes. "Absolutely."
"Would you go back where you came from, if you could?" she asks one night.
Steve turns his cup of coffee in his hands. "A year ago, I would have said yes."
"I don't know if there would have been anything waiting for me back home. America would have changed. I changed during the war. It would have been hard either way." Steve looks out into space, his eyes not focused on anything in particular. "Let's just say I'm glad it's not a choice."
"Your turn," Maria says softly.
Steve looks at her carefully, the way he always does before he asks a question. The SHIELD psychiatrist would tell her that this signals his desire to connect with her, and her reluctance to look him in the eye is a sign of deep dysfunction on her part. Good thing she doesn't listen to the SHIELD psychiatrist. Much.
"Why are you such an international woman of mystery, Agent Hill? Why won't you tell anyone how you got here?"
"I live in the present. SHIELD operates in the present. The past doesn't matter." It's true, but it's also the easiest part of a tangled answer she doesn't completely understand. Steve will call her on it, she knows.
"Fair enough," he says. "Except for the part about how the past does matter. It shapes and defines almost everything about who you are. Well." He smiles crookedly. "Unless you've been to a lot of therapy, anyway."
Maria has been to a lot of therapy; it is the almost inevitable byproduct of shoot-outs and cave-ins and everything else that happens at SHIELD. Unfortunately, her therapist agrees with Steve.
"I guess I don't want to remember why I came here," she says. "I still have scars on my hand because I put my fist through the wall the day my CO said women couldn't be snipers. I won a medal for valor, I met every physical requirement a man did, and the Army wouldn't even consider me for the special forces. I don't want to remember I pledged my life to an organization that considered me less because I'm a woman."
"You didn't pledge your life to the organization. You pledged it to the men and women who fought beside you. That wasn't a bad thing." His hand brushes against hers in the dark, and he squeezes her fingers. Maria nods weakly. Thinking about it that way makes it easier to forgive her youthful naivety - she hadn't even thought to ask if the opportunities were different for women when she enlisted.
"Your question," Steve says softly. Maria's fingers feel cold when Steve's hand retreats.
"Are you here for him or me?" She nods at Phil, still asleep in the hospital bed.
Steve's answer is swift. "You." He follows her gaze to Phil's bed. "Do you think he minds?"
"No." Maria smiles in the dark. "Well, maybe. I think he had a man crush on you."
"He can live vicariously through you when he wakes up."
"If he's going to do that, we should probably try to see each other outside the hospital sometime. I think there might even be a dress in the back of my closet somewhere." If it hasn't been eaten by moths; Maria hasn't done anything frivolous in a long, long time.
"I'd like that," Steve says. "It's a date. Or it will be. You know, when we set a time and a place."
"Did you fake die just to set me up with Captain America?" Maria asks, ignoring the glare of the nurse who'd stationed herself in the corner of the room.
"I don't know. Are you going out with him?" Phil's voice is thin and reedy from disuse, but still unmistakably his.
"I think so," Maria says. "It was an accident."
The corner of Phil's mouth twitches into something like a smile. "Yes," he says, "I let a Norse god stab me just so you could finally get laid."
His eyes drift shut. Maria squeezes his hand, thinking he'd fallen asleep again. "I didn't leave you alone in the dark," she whispers.
Phil's eyes don't open, but he whispers back. "I know."