Maria Hill had long ago become resigned to the fact that, as a woman in a position of of power in a military organization, she could rarely afford to be seen receiving any kind of favor. People would make ridiculous assumptions about how she had gotten where she was and would then fail to take her seriously.
It was more recently that she'd had reason to notice that the same thing applied to her damn personal life. Her personal life shouldn't have any impact on her career. But she recognized the signs of people brushing her off or resenting her as if she was a pet or a mascot rather than a soldier, and even dating a civilian and letting him drive her places and hand her in and out of the car led to the same problem, apparently.
Maria had sworn off relationships entirely after that.
The thing was, Maria liked those sweet little touches. That was romance, for her. All those little signs that someone was paying attention, someone wanted to take care of her, even though they both knew she was very much capable of taking care of herself. She'd tried dating in secret, for a while, but it just meant denying herself some of the favorite parts of having a significant other.
And her career was more important to her than any aspect of dating, so dating would have to go.
The person who made her reconsider that policy was Steve Rogers.
Captain America and his old-fashioned politeness had a reputation that preceded them. Steve would lend anyone his jacket. That was just who he was. Everyone knew that. Regardless of gender, rank, or ability. If you were cold, well, the super-soldier probably wasn't, and it was polite as well as practical for him to hand over his own coat.
Everyone knowing, that was the important thing, to begin with. That was the only reason she'd actually taken the (soft, rich leather) jacket in the first place. No one assumed that, just because Steve Rogers was being gallant, the subject of his attention was anything less than badass. Especially not at SHIELD, where the legendary badass nature of their first director often dwarfed that of her one-time suitor.
Well. Maria reconsidered that maybe there was a bigger factor than the fact that it was Steve. Maybe she just worked with fewer macho assholes these days.
It was still going to take more than a pretty face and a couple of polite gestures to get through her years of resistance to letting herself be cared for.
Maria had whiled away many a long shift on the Helicarrier with Phil. It was a friendship that worked for them both. They knew better than to assume anything about each other's abilities based on appearance, right from the start.
Everyone knew that Maria would shut down, hard, anyone who tried to flirt with her in any form, ever. Phil wasn't the type to flirt until he knew the other party would be receptive to it, so with Maria, he never did. He was always bland and respectful in front of others, giving others a model of how to get on her good side. Newbies assumed that Phil, like so many others, was way out of her league. People who knew better also respected the both of them and their wishes well enough not to speculate.
In private, she was happy enough to indulge him in his need to talk about his enormous crush on Captain America.
Or, well, no. If you listened long enough, you'd quickly come to realize that Phil's crush was firmly on the man, Steve Rogers, although he appreciated the symbol that was Captain America, as well.
"I can't help thinking it would be something else, what he would be like in person. In a social context. On screen, he was all about supporting the soldiers, and by extension, the military. On his own time... if you pay attention... people had to earn his respect, and he would do anything for the few people he was really close to. Director Carter. Sergeant Barnes. The U.S. Military created Captain America to be their literal poster boy. It takes some reading between the lines to learn about the Steve Rogers who was always there."
The problem was when he used that conversation to segue into conversation about Maria, her personal life, and that uncomfortable duality.
He tried to convince her that just because she felt the need to project the appearance of hypercompetence, the lack of weakness or neediness that it took to get the worst of her colleagues to take her seriously, didn't mean that she wasn't human underneath.
"All of us are," he'd reminded her. "Sometimes having that armor pierced can be painful. But it also presents... opportunities."
Maria just shook her head. But it was a sign of how close they'd gotten that she didn't try to deny any of it.
When Nick threw those cards down on the table, some part of Maria's shocked and grieving brain came back to awareness.
If Maria knew her Phil, and she did, that was a story, and the reality behind it was something else again. Phil had been a dork, and obsessed, but he was far too experienced and far too pragmatic to keep something so precious to him on his person in what might well become a combat situation at any time.
Maria Hill was very much familiar with the leadership of military organizations, the way they used symbols, the way they put meaning and motivation in a rallying cry. She knew what Nick had done the moment she set eyes on those cards. He turned Coulson's memory into a symbol. Set it right next to Captain America. Motivation. An image to rally around.
But Maria knew the human Phil. And the human Phil would have liked nothing more than to be like his hero, Steve Rogers. The man who'd woken up again after sacrificing himself for his people, and had one immediate regret - that he'd missed a date.
It was nothing in battle that swayed her. No dramatic and visible show of affection.
It was when Clint, the insatiable coffee monster, came down to raid the pantry on the common level, and started muttering something about "Seriously? We only have decaf?"
She frowned, turning to Steve, but he just held up the almost-empty package of her favorite Italian roast from where he'd hidden it in his jacket at Clint's approach, and winked.
That was when Maria finally broke down, and asked the guy on a date. It was almost worth it just to see how red he turned. He'd heard the scuttlebutt about her, same as everyone else. "I thought you didn't do dates?" he asked.
"For you, Steve," she said, "I'll make an exception."
Captain America was a symbol. Captain America was a rallying cry.
But Steve Rogers?
He played favorites all the time.
And Maria Hill was in love with Steve Rogers.