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Sometimes things work out.

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Sam's second real trip to New York is ninety-five percent very, very deliberate vacation.

He does a couple of overnights, and even a couple day trips. But although he never says it outright, and neither does Steve - or Natasha, for that matter - they honestly amount to home visits. They are, in fact, just him checking in on Steve and Barnes.

Granted, it's not like he thinks Steve's not telling him things - at least not anymore. It's more that both he and Steve know that sometimes, Steve doesn't know what he should be looking at and passing along, so it helps if Sam's actually there, even if it's just for a few hours, once in a while.

It makes Sam think a lot about the nuances of communication and human connection and how all the wonderful technologies of communication - and they are fucking wonderful, and he will defend them against a lot of bullshit from people who are just romanticizing the past and spouting shit - don't seem quite capable of actually duplicating the effect of talking to someone face to face. Interacting with them. Observing them.

Granted - sometimes that's a plus.

Like for instance Sam thinks it's probably a feature when it comes to him being a supportive uncle-figure for Corinne, a lot of the time: the kid almost seems hyper-sensitive to body-language and facial expression, projecting and interpreting things you genuinely never meant to put there.

Or sometimes things that are genuinely not even on your mind, at all.

That makes that it's actually easier to have a useful interaction with her on text, sometimes. When all she's got to react to are your actual words. And emojis.

Sam's trying to talk Cara into getting an ADHD specialist to look at her. It's a careful kind of manoeuver, because it's really hard to get around the part of Cara that can't seem to keep from reacting the idea like a condemnation of her parenting.

Where even if maybe she knows better, she's got her own mom's shit in her head still telling her that stuff like "ADHD" is just white-people talk for spoiled children who don't have any good discipline at home.

At least Cara's dad still seems to just think Corinne hung the sky and moon and is perfect by virtue of being his granddaughter. It's probably not great for the bit where kids do actually need consistent rules, but Sam would rather deal with but oehalabeoji lets me! instead of the endless explosions that'd come if Cara's mom were still alive.

So would Cara, to the point where she's texted Sam more than once with I'm feeling like the worst daughter in the world for being relieved my mother's dead again.

And Sam points out they both know where some of her mom's less fortunate personality aspects come from, and have compassion for their origin, and also it's still okay to be relieved she doesn't have to fight endlessly to get her mom not to disapprove of her her kid, because the woman can't actually separate herself from her children and grandchildren, and so anything about them that's different from her or deviates from what she wants would be a personal insult.

It's taken a long time for Cara to be able to hold the two truths of of I love and loved my mother and my mother was a deeply unhappy person with really unhealthy controlling behaviours and the way she treated me wasn't okay at the same time. To get even remotely comfortable with the idea that thinking the second part doesn't turn the first part into a lie, and Cara into a terrible human being.

But getting to your kid having something neurologically different about how her brain handles attention doesn't mean shit about your parenting is maybe another step forward.

It's making Sam real intolerant of people being shit about that, though. Which is part of why he decides to take a real vacation. Before his diplomacy in certain contexts erodes to the point he says something he'll regret.

 

Now it would be a lie, and a stupid lie, to say that he hadn't started seriously considering this vacation more or less the second he realized just how comfortable staying in the Tower is.

Because he totally did.

In fact he'd started seriously considering it at about the same time as the nice lady from admin had shown him the room and run him through all of the service options that just sort of . . .came with it.

At least, that's the point where he'd started thinking that would be a really nice place to spend a week. That thinking just got a lot more solid right after Stark's insistence that Sam really should feel free to come back.

Historically, Sam prefers to stay home on vacation, at least when "vacation" means "time that's supposed to be restful and relaxing", and these days he generally needs vacation to be restful and relaxing. That means not filled with awkward travel and hotel beds that are worse for his back than his own bed, along with all the rest of the questionable comforts of the kinds of hotels Sam could book for himself without getting anxious about the cost.

Even when he'd been younger, that kind of thing had been more something you put up with in order to have an adventure somewhere, not the kind of thing that was relaxing. And Sam has not felt the need for adventure lately.

But having access to the kind of place that is genuinely more comfortable than home, isn't that far away, and does happen to be somewhere he'd like a chance to get out and just visit and explore and - in some cases - revisit . . .that changes things a bit.

Add in that he can check in on Steve and James while he's at it, but without either having that be all that he's doing or imposing on them much, and it seems like the smartest choice.

Sam'd run the idea by Madlen while in line at the grocery store and she'd replied FUCKYES DO IT!!!! so he let that be the bit that pushes him past the slight residual concern that he's assuming too much on the offer of hospitality.

So he'd dug out the email he has for Stark's PA and sent a polite note saying that Stark had told him to email her about this - ?

About five minutes later he'd gotten a phone-call, not from the PA herself but from a very cheerful and helpful sounding person from somewhere deep within Stark Industries administration saying that absolutely he would be extremely welcome, and by the way had he bought his airfare yet and if not why didn't he just give her the dates and his preferred flying times and she'd sort that out for him, and also if he thought of anything he'd particularly like to do while he was in New York he should either give her a call or send her a quick email (and she gives Sam both number and address that are clearly specifically going to her desk) and she can absolutely arrange that for him.

And that, beyond a few quick questions to make sure that allergies and all are the same as the last time he stayed there, is that.

There was also an email from Stark's PA, whose name is Janine, saying that absolutely, and they're so happy he decided to come, he should be contacted by someone with the company shortly and if he does need anything else to not hesitate to get in touch with her, Janine, again.

When he texted to Madlen that there was some part of him that felt vaguely uneasy about all this, she'd texted back YOU SAVED THE WORLD SAMUEL and then after that you deserve a luxury holiday so enjoy it or else.

And Sam supposes she has a point.

 

It's not a shock when the plane tickets turn out to be first class. Sam stamps on the feeling of guilt that tries to weasel its way in on the basis that he can't even nail down what exactly he's supposed to be feeling guilty about.

It's something he actually works with clients on all the time, given that depression is either a primary or comorbid problem for most of them. Pretty damn often, if he asks when the last time they did something actually enjoyable, they can't remember. Furthermore, often even when they can, they ended up ruining the experience by feeling guilty about it, because they shouldn't be spending the money, or the time, or something.

Or because not everyone in the world could enjoy the thing. Or . . . something.

Do you think most people are happy when there's nothing in their lives they enjoy? is the question that often ends up with a sudden, thoughtful kind of silence.

Of course for a lot of the people he works with, finding some way to get enjoyment back into their lives is more complicated than just realizing that they need it, but that's more or less what they're seeing him for. And while realizing it may not be sufficient, it sure as hell is necessary.

So Sam tries to remember that all the shit he tells people in the office applies to him at least as much, if not more. Which means that this guilt, which is definitely based in some nebulous feeling that he "shouldn't" be able to enjoy this kind of thing, needs to fuck off.

He does get a cab from the airport to the Tower, though, and is kind of relieved there wasn't a car waiting for him automatically.

 

Sam spends the first day of his vacation doing more or less nothing: he sleeps in, he has a leisurely brunch in the room watching random stuff on TV, he gets his stuff settled in, does some laps in the Tower pool and then goes for a walk and gets lunch outside the Tower just so he doesn't feel like he's done absolutely nothing all day. He watches a movie he hasn't seen yet with a beer in hand, and goes to bed early.

I'm officially old, he texts Cara, on the basis that there's no way in hell his twenty-something self wouldn't be giving him the hardest side-eye in the world right now: here he is, in New York, and he's watching a movie in his hotel room and going to bed before eleven. Admittedly, it's a really nice "hotel", and the movie's on a flat-screen larger than most people would have in their living-rooms, but still.

tell me about it, Cara texts back. i realized last week that the only thing in vegas i've got any interest in anymore is the shows, and even them, i'm not sure it's worth putting up with everyone smoking everywhere. we have become ancient.

On the upside, though, Sam's a hell of a lot more relaxed the next morning - the kind of relaxed that means you realize how tense and tired you've been the last little while. Which means taking a day just to reset himself was probably the right choice.

He accepts the invitation upstairs for breakfast, because he figures he might as well. It means this visit he does actually get to meet Pepper Potts, and to find out she's honestly pretty much a different person in person (as it were) than she is at public-figure type remove.

Very different.

Sam can see how you get from the warm, friendly person he gets introduced to - and who spends breakfast being the calm still point around whom Tony Stark darts in a way you really can't avoid comparing to a moth around a light - to the distantly polite, elegant, and razor-sharp public persona that's been on display since after the AIM incident. It's just a really obvious case of the woman putting that display on, good and hard, so that she doesn't get blindsided by so much shit that she snaps and either has a nervous breakdown, or murders everyone.

You can see it best when she gives Stark a kind of a flat look when it's clear that - while Sam kinda assumed it was pretty likely Bruce Banner and Betty Ross were also going to be at breakfast - Tony did not, in fact, tell Sam he'd be meeting Jane Foster and Thor.

"This is why I don't let you arrange things," Pepper says, while Stark looks slightly abashed.

"I meant to mention it," he says, both as if it's a defense he's offering and at the same time as if he is well aware that it's not a good one. Pepper puts her face in her hands a bit theatrically and then apologizes to Sam, who waves it off as no big deal.

After all, he figures it mostly isn't.

Sam's only vaguely familiar with Jane Foster's name, both as a figure in the current exciting kinds of space-related science and as someone mentioned occasionally in association with Thor, but he's still kinda surprised at how tiny she is.

Admittedly anyone'd probably look small next to Thor, but it's not just that - part of it is that even when you've just met her, she projects personality and energy completely out of scale, so that you're surprised when you're reminded that the person you're talking to really is a tiny little white lady in a long-sleeve t-shirt who comes up to your shoulder.

Admittedly to start with it's mostly anxious apologetic energy as she says, "It was kind of last minute, I'm sorry," and reaches out to shake his hand saying, "please, call me Jane." But there's still a lot of it.

"Sam," Sam tells her, and adds, "don't worry about it, I come prepared for surprises."

And you'd think that given the part where there are, genuinely, plenty of big burly white guys on Earth, and he's wearing jeans and his own t-shirt, Thor wouldn't seem out of place. These days, there's even plenty of that kind of guy with a neatly trimmed beard and longer hair pulled back into a man-bun.

You'd think he'd be just another guy, maybe a bit tall, built, but still.

You'd be wrong.

There's something about the guy that feels, not unreal, but almost too real - just a shade of a hair short of the uncanny valley, like he's walking around living as an expensive special effect.

Sam doesn't find it off-putting, or intimidating, but he does understand why the guy's handshake is actually so obviously careful, why it's so clear - at least to Sam - that he's working very hard not to be overwhelming, not to overawe anyone, or act like it should be okay if he does.

Sam wonders how many times the guy accidentally bowled someone over, or ran into push-back he wasn't expecting, before he got a handle on it. Or if he managed to figure it out the easy way, before anything blew up.

Thor does seem very sincere when he says, "I'm honoured to meet you," though, and the guy does sincere as well as Steve does.

This time, Tony does in fact make everyone omelettes and with only a few prods from Pepper or Betty to keep it from taking forever when he gets distracted. They're even pretty good omelettes.

Bruce asks about Sam's vacation plans, and then Sam asks what brings Jane and Thor, and that turns into an explanation of a current astrophysics project that Sam loses track of.

He'll admit, it's nice - as the conversation momentarily darts well into territory Sam can't follow - that when he glances Pepper's way he gets a look that says, very clearly, no I have no idea what they're talking about either with a kind of fond resignation that suggests this happens a lot.

"But now that we've excluded a third of the table - " Betty says when there's a pause, proving she's clearly the one who has the best social skills, and Bruce, Jane and Tony all look momentarily guilty.

Mostly for Jane's sake, Sam notes, "It's fine, I've got an omelette," and then notes, "besides, it's not even quite a third."

"Technically it's more than a third," Jane says, with a guilty-look that's mostly joking and partly not at all. "Since I think we lost Thor somewhere there too and that's three out of seven so it's almost a full half."

Sam blinks, admittedly a bit surprised, while Thor makes a slight self-deprecating face. "It is a language problem," he says. "I'm getting better, slowly - "

"You are literally the only person who thinks it's slowly," Jane interrupts, mock-glaring, and Thor pauses to smile at her in probably one of the most fondly infatuated ways Sam's ever seen.

" - but we don't use the same language to talk about these things," Thor finishes, accepting his second omelette from Tony. "And not only - "

"It's not just like, language in terms of French or English or whatever," Jane supplies when he seems to founder a bit on how to word it. "That part's sort of easy - there's a thing connected with how the Bifrost works and how, like, the way he can make lightning happen works with Mjolnir, called All-Speech, and it translates basically right, that's why - "

"I did not speak English when I first came here," Thor summarizes. "I did speak what is now called Old Norse but apparently they only use anything like that in Iceland now."

"And even there he sounds like a historical performer," Jane finishes, and Sam wonders if you can be fined for being this adorable. "Although apparently he is completely upending Old Norse studies because, um, he can actually answer questions about pronunciation - anyway," she says, as if corralling her own thoughts, "the point is, it's not just straight translation. It's the fact that when I saw a thing when I was on Asgard and asked them if it was a quantum field generator, I got told it was a soul-forge, and then when I asked about what very specifically it did, it turned out that yep, it was totally a quantum field generator. But if you look at the two sets of terms . . . "

"Yeah," Sam says, "I can see how like even some kind of advanced hyper-complicated . . . whatever," he waves it away, "is gonna take whatever the actual word for 'soul-forge' is and translate it into that, not quantum field generator."

"Right," Jane agrees, "because of course it's also even more complex than that - like yes, the soul-forge basically works on the principles that I described to figure out it was a kind of quantum field generator, but that's like calling a tank a horseless carriage. Like okay yes they're the same basic thing, but - "

"I gotcha," Sam assures her.

"Then on top of that I am . . . not an Artificer," Thor says, a little sheepishly. And Sam can hear the capital letter. "Or a Smith. When it comes to craft and to mechanics, I am a - what do you call it. End-user."

"It's kinda like if someone dropped you or Pep back into a group of artisans in, oh, early Antiquity," Tony supplies, with an expansive gesture with the spatula. "Ancient Persians, that shit. Like sure you definitely know more shit than they do, and on a day to day basis you use technology that'd blow their minds, but if they started talking in detail about how they figure out the engineering involved in building one of their ancient clay freezers . . . "

Stark extends his arms and then shrugs.

"Or it's like that scene with Scotty trying to use the 1980s computer in the Star Trek movie with the whales," Jane offers. "In case that's a more useful comparison."

"I feel like he understood my reference," Tony says, haughtily, and Thor chokes slightly on his coffee.

That leads to five to ten minutes or so of Bruce explaining about the very first time the lot of them had actually been around the same table. Sam spends the story both pretty entertained, and also privately both kinda horrified and not surprised at all that the whole thing had been that kind of clusterfuck . . .and also wincing at the level of acid in Steve's humour at the time.

You have to get to know the guy a bit before that part gets obvious, Sam knows, but there's a lot about Steve that's kinda like that. You get one impression to start with, and then you get to know him a bit better and in hindsight, the meaning of a whole lot of things changes.

Like how when he gets that kind of acidly self-deprecating, he is not in a good place.

 

Sam sets himself up to do a few outright touristy things in his first few days: visit things like zoos, take in an art show, try a couple restaurants. He's meeting Steve for lunch on the fourth day, with or without James depending on how the day goes; up till then, he's just going to enjoy being On Vacation.

The previous quick visits have at least managed an introduction to Barnes that's less overtly uneasy-and-threatened-bordering-on-hostile than the first one. The second time around, possibly because nothing bad happened that first time, Barnes replies to the you remember Sam from Steve with a low murmur of agreement and a nod, and his retreat back to his bedroom with the mug of coffee is plausibly normal, without ending in a closed door.

It makes Sam think of the conversation with Laura at the bar, and how in some ways it does feel like an anxious, wary kid, coming out to take a look at the strange person in the house and then retreating to safer territory.

He's talked to Steve about it, and they've talked at some length about the visits explicitly in the context of even just . . .providing proof, providing evidence, that someone else can be around and it can be okay. Getting used to the idea that other humans don't mean something actually bad. Practice.

That social contact is allowed. That being part of this pattern of human behaviour is available, and acceptable, and okay.

At one point Steve notes, "Honestly - he doesn't seem to want to be around? But the idea doesn't seem to bother him either. He doesn't get more wound up when you're coming or anything, and it doesn't seem to be a relief when you're gone, it just kinda . . .happens, and obviously he doesn't seem to want to be around. Like it would be uncomfortable or difficult if he stayed, but as long as he doesn't, the leaving or going to the other room isn't a problem, or an extra stress."

"Yeah, that's probably the best possible outcome, at this point," Sam tells him, and if Steve looks subtly disappointed, Sam doesn't point it out.

After all for one it actually is subtle, and for another it's also resigned - like sure Steve would like there to be secret wisdom that gets them over that hurdle, but that doesn't mean he doesn't accept that there isn't.

So Sam visits, and there's maybe thirty seconds of interaction at most, and then Barnes goes somewhere else. Doesn't mean it's not useful - it is, and the biggest thing Sam's noticed is that honestly the guy does seem to be slowly improving, and if he doesn't turn into Mr Social they do progress to the point of actual verbal greeting.

And Sam does get the sense that Barnes going to his room is just I'm gonna go over here and read because this is awkward instead of a retreat from something making him anxious - it's just all of it is slow. And painstaking.

Plus Sam actually visiting also lets Sam note things like -

"You know what I'm realizing?" he asks, on one visit, and Steve looks over all quizzical.

This time Barnes is out somewhere; Steve says while he's still usually avoiding the front door he's usually just openly coming in by the deck door, and Steve's been leaving it unlocked. It means that even though they're sitting in the living-room they can more or less talk freely about stuff, and also means that Sam's noticed something about the furniture that gets broken.

Because that does happen. Sam had some very simple practical worries about that until he asked Natasha and she reassured him that between SHIELD danger-pay, her bullying Steve into letting her set up someone to manage his investments, and all of that kind of thing, Steve has a very comfortable financial cushion. And more than that, even if he didn't personally have one, she had like six avenues on backup.

and by the way that's true for you too she'd added, complete with a tongue-sticking-out emoji.

Sam's not sure why it's so weird that Natasha uses emojis, but it is.

As to what she'd said, Sam just . . . left that one alone. He was doing just fine, thanks.

So replacing lamps on a regular basis, and also side-tables, and the coffee table, and occasionally chairs and the fridge and the cupboard doors, while a bit of a headache, isn't really a problem. Which is good.

Plus Steve says it's almost never anything too big to go into the dumpster properly, so it's not going to attract much attention. In theory.

And this time it's the coffee table that's missing, which is what makes Sam think about it, so that he says, "Nothing that's actually important to you really gets broken, you know? Like you've still got that vase," he says, pointing to the vase Betty Ross got him in its place on the faux-mantelpiece over the TV. "And the computer and the computer-desk are always safe. It seems like there's actually a lot of work to avoid breaking something you'd actually miss."

Steve sighs. It's not a sad sigh, or anything - just a sigh. "Yeah," he says, leaning his elbows on his knees. "I noticed the same thing. And the holes in the wall aren't structural and he never breaks anything in the bathroom even though I'm pretty sure it's one of the places that he ends up wound up the most. I kinda keep track just of that kind of pattern, but I try not to make anything of it. Still pretty sure he's waiting for punishment every time it happens."

"He still sleeping in the closet?" Sam asks, to change the subject a little, because nothing turns Steve right back to the bad kind of brooding faster than that train of thought.

"Yeah," Steve says, shaking it off, "but he did find the horrible issue blanket I had in the bottom of the closet and fold it up on the floor. I'm not sure whether that's a good sign or a tragic one, frankly."

"I think you need to embrace the power of and, buddy," Sam tells him solemnly, and Steve deliberately and dramatically puts his face in his hands. But that's a better range of humour than it could be.

And that's sort of where it's been until about six weeks before Sam was already set up to come here for vacation anyway.

 

Sam genuinely wonders what the push was.

Because it feels obvious to him that there was one. It doesn't take even half a brain to look at the progression of events and figure that out, adding together the day Steve was texting him to say that Barnes had actually asked a question about their shared past, asked for confirming details, and the day a few weeks later when Steve was texting about how stupid he felt that it meant that much that Barnes had used his first name . . .

. . . .to the text later that week that read email to follow but I honestly think everything's going to be okay if I don't do anything stupid and the emotional hangover tomorrow is probably going to be awful, how was your evening? . . .

. . . to that being followed by an email explaining that Natasha had been, well: more of the kind of person who breaks in and finishes your basement out of an impulse to thank you, and in the course of her deciding to subject the entire situation to a major unscheduled test (so to speak) Barnes had made it incredibly clear that not only had he at some point in the last couple weeks accepted "James Barnes" and "Steve Rogers' Best Friend" as an identity and all that went with that, but he was now pretty goddamn territorial about it . . . .

Sam had looked at that email, and then just . . . .forwarded the whole thing to Natasha with is this a good thing? noted at the top. Because he'd felt he needed some guidance and he honestly didn't know. He could see ways this was absolutely terrible, and ways it was a miracle, and he just did not feel like he had a solid enough handle to know which it was.

So he'd just . . . ask her. Feeling like she might have a better basis to start from, when it came to interpreting.

Five minutes later he'd got back a reply that was just YES and then five minutes after that a text saying sorry I realize this looks insane I will explain fully and properly later but YES it is a good thing have something nice to drink and a good night's sleep and celebrate we're not going to have to bury Steve as a stubborn idiot.

His eyebrows had gone way, way up, but on the other hand Sam decided to go with what she'd said. And also to go to bed.

Natasha had called to explain the next day, late in the morning, sounding more than a bit hungover. But she'd also sounded . . . better, Sam thought, than she had yet. More like the woman he'd only ever met the most briefly, between his kitchen and getting the wingsuit out of Fort Meade. Which he thinks is probably just about the healthiest he's ever met her.

That worries him, naturally, but that's life. Or at least, that's his life these days.

During the story of what exactly she did, there were several times Clint Barton felt the need to make a loud and exasperated-sounding comment (including where I had no goddamn shot! and man did Sam feel for him for that moment) while Natasha ignored him and told Sam to ignore him too.

She'd explained how for someone in his position she couldn't not be the biggest threat in the room, and also how much meaning had been packed into their brief interaction - and how violent it actually hadn't been, believe it or not.

"Actually almost all of it was a huge display of how he wasn't actually going to hurt me," she'd said, almost cheerful. "Despite the fact that he really could. It was the absolute clearest way he had of making sure I knew that it wasn't that he couldn't rip me apart, but that he was choosing not to. And it was clearly a big effort for him to remember how to threaten."

"You lost me," Sam admits. Natasha's voice turned a little bit wry.

"The shortest version is, threats aren't proof of how willing you are to hurt someone," she says. "It's actually a way of telling them how much you'd rather have them do something else. If you threaten to kill someone if they don't do something, it means you'd rather have them do the other thing than kill them. That's . . . not what Barnes was for. It was clearly a lot of work for him to remember how to make threats instead of just eliminating a target."

Sam'd thought about that for a minute and then said, "That's fucked up."

"It absolutely is," Natasha agreed, "but the fact that he was making the effort is so fucking important. Fuck, Sam, I have never been so fucking happy to be wrong in my life."

There'd be a call from the background of, That's not true and then a muttered Russian swearword - Sam assumes - and Natasha said, in a voice of pained patience, "For the pedant in the bathroom: I have never been fucking happier to be wrong in my life."

Okay that one I'll give you, said the background voice, while Sam shook his head, amused.

He'd told he'd let her go get rid of the hangover, and they'd hung up.

Overall, her explanation made sense, and Laura agreed later that it made perfect sense, and also that what it made perfect sense about was hideously fucked up. So Sam'll accept she's probably right.

He just really is curious what did it. What shift made it all possible. The whole thing.

Of course it didn't have to be anything big. That kind of psychological moment can come from anywhere, Sam knows that from personal experience and definitely from professional experience - the right song on the radio at the right time can make shit cascade in your head and suddenly shit that's been going on in your subconscious for months all tumbles out and rattles around and boom, you're a whole new shape.

Good or bad.

So it's not like he even thinks anything big happened, as such, he just is curious as hell about what specifically it might've been.

He's pretty sure it'll be years before he finds out, though, assuming he ever does: Steve doesn't know, can't think of anything, and Sam agrees that asking is probably a really bad idea at this point: that big step or no big step Barnes is extremely likely to understand inquiry as more like inquisition, the kind that gets a capital "I", and that's not a dynamic anybody needs to introduce.

And somehow that's how it goes.

Doesn't make him less curious, though. Or less curious to see either Barnes or Steve, now that it's happened.

 

Sam'd heard from Steve that Maria Hill'd moved out of the Tower a couple months ago, and he hadn't actually run into her any of the other times that he'd been to visit overnight or during the day, so he's not expecting to spot her in the downstairs cafe in the Tower that morning.

He comes down for breakfast because he realized on his way in the night before that he'd never been there yet, and by then it'd already been closed. But the sign outside had advertised light breakfast and pastries and stuff in the morning, and he figured why not?

It's very hipster, of the winsome-artiste variety of hipster rather than the cutting-edge ironic variety of hipster and he doesn't entirely expect the tiny Asian grandmother with her hair in a tight bun behind the counter who apparently owns the place. And also talks him into trying a sample of a really fancy-seeming tea while she also makes him his mocha and plates his scone.

A younger woman with enough family resemblance to maybe be a granddaughter comes hurrying up the low stairs to the little mezzanine where the cafe is, and scurries behind the counter with the expression of someone who is not having a good morning. There's a rapid-fire exchange in what to Sam sounds like Mandarin, but he wouldn't want to swear to it, that looks mostly like the younger woman apologizing and the grandmotherly woman waving it off.

Then the grandmotherly woman shifts into English and says, "Besides it's still early and you can see we're not busy yet, and I just gave this nice young man some of the silver-tip Darjeeling, and he's very patient with an old lady's speed on the coffee machine, so make yourself an espresso and calm down."

The younger woman flashes Sam a Customer Service Smile with complex underlying harmonics and takes over finishing the tray that she passes him, while the older lady seems to go back to an inventory book that's open on the back counter.

Sam suspects that the younger woman's responsible for the cafe decor, as he spots a very delicate vine-and-flower tattoo going up the side of her neck, her jeans have deliberate stylish worn spots in them, and when she puts her hair up into a pull-through bun it's in an elastic that has a rather better-quality-than-most silk flower on it.

He wonders if granddaughter-grandmother business pairings have all the potential sparks of mother-daughter business pairings, or if the extra generation eases things off a bit. Or makes them worse. Sam's seen one or two mother-daughter setups that really do work, and a lot more that seem to carry serious potential for homicide simmering under the surface.

When he takes his tray is the point he spots Maria sitting at one of the back-most of the tables, furthest from the door. He hesitates for a second about bothering her - she looks like she's reading something - but that's about the same time she looks up and right at him, and goes through the subtle face-journey of recognition.

And it's not unhappy recognition, so Sam lifts his tray slightly in query and gets a gesture to the other chair, and he figures why not?

They exchange hello-how-are-you as he sits down. It turns out what she's reading is actually a book of poetry that she seems kinda dubious about, and that she's down here reading it in the cafe as part of a deliberate Structured Leisure Time initiative.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't mostly doing it so I don't get another lecture," Maria tells him, wryly, when Sam expresses surprise. "Yolanda - the lady who runs PR - is extremely big on health and welfare and downtime and all of that shit."

Sam smiles a bit at the tone. Maria grimaces in a way that's at least half admission.

"She's not wrong," she sighs, "and I know she's not wrong, and she's old enough to be my mother - "

" - so she's gonna tell you about it, and making her stop means setting a way harder boundary than you really want to," Sam finishes when Maria hestitates, and Maria awards him a gesture with the book, which she's closed up after dog-earing the page.

"So I schedule in one morning a week where I come here and read something that has nothing to do with work," she concludes. "My sister gave me this one, but I still really don't . . . get poetry. I've tried. Every so often she gives me something like this and I try again. But I just don't get it."

"I will admit it is not exactly what I'd expect to find you reading for fun," Sam agrees. "But it's definitely going to be activating different neural pathways than what you're usually reading for work, so there's that."

Maria makes another slight face. "Honestly I'm probably going to give it another ten minutes trying and then give up and go back to the trashy romances," she says, dryly. "Then at least I don't feel like I'm lying when someone says they didn't expect me to read that."

" . . . yeah, no I don't find that one surprising, honestly," Sam says, making a small show of considering. "Although if you did the, whatever it's called, live-blogging while you were reading, I'd expect a lot of sarcasm."

"You're not wrong," Maria agrees. "But I dunno, even though they're stupid as hell they're entertaining somehow. And they have nothing to do with me."

"Bet you can't read thrillers, though," Sam observes, because there's no way in hell all the inaccuracies and insanities wouldn't just get to her. Get to her a lot.

"Nobody likes me when I try to read thrillers," Maria replies, snorting slightly. "Including me. How's your vacation?"

"Good so far," Sam replies. "Admittedly," he says, because he figures it might amuse her too, "feeling slightly old, seeing as the last time I spent much time in New York I was on leave, and we spent most of the time either drunk or hung-over and I don't think I've been either yet - "

And Maria is laughing, the exact kind of rueful laughter he figured.

" - and neither even sounds fun anymore. The ghost of my younger self is disgusted with me."

"Hey, at least you had that phase," she says, sitting back and suppressing a smile with the same kind of rue in it. "I went right from goodie-two-shoes to over it and I kinda resent that, honestly. Oh, I mean, I've been drunk - " she says, holding up one hand to forestall Sam's comment that he does not for one second believe she got all the way through her service without it unless she was a complete teetotaller, and that he also does not believe, " - I just didn't have any fun with it. Ever."

"That," Sam says, "is kinda tragic." And he means it, because that sounds like the worst possible bargain. He'll cop to doing a lot of stupid things in that kind of drunken state, although none of them stupid enough to be serious life regrets, and he'll definitely attest to a lot of hangovers he'd pass on ever having again, but at least at the time it had mostly been a lot of fun.

"You are not the first person to tell me that," Maria tells him, with a touch of mock-solemnity. She shrugs. "It's just what happens when you're one of two girls in the bar-crawl and the other one turns into the equivalent of a bewildered wildebeest calf in lion-country after three drinks, won't stop drinking, and you feel responsible enough for her to need to keep an eye out for her, but people keep insisting you have another beer."

Then she tilts her head a little and asks, "What?" and Sam remembers she's used to working with very sharp operators and probably runs on high alert all the time. He knows he didn't show much on his face, but he hadn't been actively trying to be unreadable either, so there was probably a momentary flash of something in the recgnition.

"I'm pretty sure I've seen, if not your former friend, then at least her spiritual sister more than once in a professional capacity," he says, and it's his turn to be rueful. "And yeah, that'd be a stressful situation to manage."

Nothing like adding the complication of being not quite sure you can trust your comrades to make PTSD worse, after all. A lot worse.

" . . . I'm not even going to tell you her name," Maria says, after a slight pause, "because you know what, you might've actually seen her. She did not learn the hard way while we were still posted to the same place, but afterwards - " she shook her head, and shrugged with just one shoulder. "It's not like there was anyone to replace me when we ended up different continents. Me, I was the girl nobody pulled that shit on, even when I know they did it to others," she adds.

Sam is not surprised. Assuming that who she is now is a natural outgrowth of who she's always been - and you usually don't get people like Maria Hill from one big dramatic incident, they usually need to be built over a life-time - then she'd've already been radiating the aura of the woman who would not only try to break your neck if she needed to (without hesitation), but would also (and maybe more importantly) be willing to report you, be willing to make the fuss, dig in, have the fight, keep making noise about it until something was done, and even if it screwed up her career she'd at least make sure she took yours down too.

And who gave all the other cues and signs that she might well be able to. Including the absolute nearly super-human conviction that she could.

The kind of guy who pulls that shit is just like any other predator, and can read all the same cues. You'd have to be a very stupid predator to go after that kind of person. It's just not worth it.

"I heard the Pope is also Catholic," is what he says aloud, and she laughs again, maybe with an edge of self-mockery.

The cafe makes good scones and good mochas; they talk for a while, and at one point the grandmotherly-lady comes over and presses a different kind of tea on both of them. It's yellow-green and smells like flowers and is shockingly good - and Sam's not usually one for tea. The small talk skims over all the things small talk does, and ends up covering covering her new place and some of his work and his plans to meet up with Steve.

"How's that going?" Maria asks. And then - after a quick glance around - adds in a slightly quieter voice, "I did hear about Nat's . . . test, and the outcome, for what that's worth."

The pause before test is less like she's eliding and more like she's just trying to figure out what even to call what Natasha did; the cafe's busier, by now, but nobody's sitting especially close to them, and Sam figures the only listening devices likely to be anywhere in Stark Tower are, well. Stark's.

Who probably knows just as much about this shit as Sam does. Or at least close.

"Oh?" Sam asks, because he's actually kind of curious - not that he thinks there's any secrets going where they shouldn't or anything, but he hasn't got the sense that Steve and Maria cross paths a lot, these days, and given she's got a heavy schedule and Steve has his emotional hands full, Sam hasn't really pushed at that.

While he's definitely gotten the sense there's a relationship there that could use some maintenance, or even repair, Steve's honestly only got so much energy available for that kind of thing. There is a finite amount anyone can handle, so at this point, Sam'd rather encourage Steve to shore up ties with people who have more time on their end to catch the guy when - not if - he does fall over.

It's a cold and slightly ignoble calculus but this kind of shit can be like that. And eventually Steve is going to fall over, and to some extent the longer he manages to hold it off, the more spectacular the crash is at risk of ending up. That's life.

"Barton needed someone to appreciate his heart-attack," Maria replies, a touch sardonic. "She scared the ever-living shit out of him. Only for about twenty seconds, but that's a long time sometimes."

"I mean," Sam says, "I get her reasoning. I think. Mostly. It's the kind of reasoning - " he trails off, because he can't quite find the right word for it.

"It's very, very Natasha reasoning," Maria tells him, with a kind of resignation that leans towards what you could call fond, except that word comes with way too much of a cute kind of feeling in it to feel appropriate. "It's the kind of thing that used to make people at SHIELD insist she had to be psychic somehow, because she'd do something like that - something that seemed insanely likely to blow up in her face, or in someone else's face - and then it'd turn out to be exactly the right thing. And I mean I think Barton would have been fine, even . . . " she trails off with a gesture.

"Except according to Steve, she ended up where Barton didn't have a shot to cover her," Sam supplies.

"Barton did also say he agreed we could probably ease off on the worry that everything was going to blow up and end up with Steve's corpse hanging out of the window," Maria goes on. "And yeah he more or less said it just like that, except even more graphic. I don't know if that got passed along to you - ?"

"Yeah, Nat gave me a very detailed run-down," he replies. "And I'll admit everything I've heard since then sounds hopeful, so I guess we'll see." He shrugs. "Beyond that I dunno yet - that whole thing, and Natasha's reading of it, and Steve talking about it, is about the last new information I've got either, other than Steve complaining about last week's heatwave."

"Well if there's anything exciting," Maria says, mouth quirking up in a wry kind of way that seems to acknowledge all the weirdness about this entire conversation, even, "let me know."

"Will do," Sam says, before they say their goodbyes and Maria heads to the elevator, and he heads out the door to whatever the day is actually going to bring.

Chapter Text

The let me know had mostly been a joke, so Maria doesn't really expect the text she gets from Sam later that afternoon.

Technically someone could quibble about the precise truth of that. You could argue that by the time she actually gets the text itself she absolutely expects it, given that first Winter, the new receptionist, has to touch in to ask her if Sam Wilson gets Maria's first-layer text contact (which goes to said receptionist), her work-based text contact, or her personal one, because Janine's asking her, but the point is, she doesn't expect him to actually make that kind of big, sustained effort to contact her.   

She doesn't expect the issue to arise.

She tells Winter to pass along her personal, and has already fished it out of her jacket pocket by the time Sam's text actually arrives.

It says, bear with me a second, but: have you ever seen The Princess Bride?

Maria's head is deep in the dynamics of the last five years of separatist activities in Assam, and that wouldn't actually be a problem if he'd asked about any other movie - more or less, except maybe Aliens - but because he asked about that one it's a bit like her mental train did a ninety-degree turn and then gunned it.

She settles on saying, Yes, which is almost a criminal understatement, but is at least truthful.

There are a lot of people who'd be very surprised to find out that she can make the snorting, laughing sound she makes right now, as her screen flashes up an animated gif of Inigo Montoya and the Man in Black, captioned at the bottom, Lemme 'splain. No, is to much, lemme sum up -

Underneath it Sam adds, so while I realize you really probably weren't expecting me to actually give you some kind of debrief, like, today, for reasons that will become clear, is there some place you might want to grab a coffee or a meal or something after you're done? since I doubt you want to hang out in the Tower more than you have to.

Maria glances up as Monique comes in, several paper files and a tablet in one arm, and acknowledges her with a half-wave before typing, I'm supposedly done around six, I can meet you downstairs.

"You have your texting-not-work-person face," Monique notes, and Maria supposes that's probably a fair thing to actually notice and to say, because normally she would not be answering not-work texts at this time of the day.

It's not a policy or anything, it's just everything in her life that could explode or need her immediate attention is either work or something she'd get an actual phone-call about, so she ignores her personal communications most of the day.

And she probably does have a different expression-set for answering not-work things.

"Wilson was meeting with Rogers," she says, putting the phone back away, "and I'm assuming it went better than he expected, because those were pretty cheerful texts for something going wrong - but he also wants to talk to me about it. Apparently."

"Are we sure there's no way we can convince that guy to take, like. A stipend? Or a new car? Or something?" Monique says, mostly-rhetorically. "Because there is being a supportive friend and then there is doing a considerable amount of heavy-duty professional-field work within the fraught and complex circumstances of a friendship, for free, and we have long ago moved into the latter."

"According to Barton, Nat says no," Maria replies. Not that she doesn't agree with Monique, because she does. Which is why she asked Barton about it, despite her commitment to otherwise letting that whole quadrant of her life just . . .happen how it happens. "In fact she says it's a good thing that Stark redeveloping the wing-suit is so completely out of any normal model of anything, including completely outside his ability to feel like the financial aspect is real, because that means he can just enjoy that without it making him feel uncomfortable."

Monique sighs, dragging one of the other chairs over and sitting down. "I mean I figured, but Jesus."

"On the other hand apparently Clint and Tasha did break in and finish the reno down in his basement while he was here the first time," Maria notes, "so while it's probably still not enough, considering market value between that and the wings - "

Monique makes a slight yeesh face. "I'm glad he took that well," she says, with all the layers of unspoken commentary. "Although I guess it's probably a pretty nice basement now." She tilts her head. "How's she doing?" she asks, and she means Natasha.

"They did stay overnight when she crashed the gala," Maria replies, "which means New York isn't driving her crazy in twenty-four hours or less. They're back in Prague as far as we know, and Clint doesn't seem worried."

She doesn't bother saying aloud that Natasha still isn't talking to her, since that's obvious, and also still kinda sore.

Because things can be nobody's fault, and not something you hold against anyone - and still be kinda sore.

 

There's probably a side-benefit to meeting Sam around six, which is she can't accidentally work past it - everything is currently in the stages that just need more work, and more work, and more work, and nothing's on the edge of finishing, and that's the stage where even living somewhere else, it's still too damn easy to look up and realize it's ten at night and she's still in her office.

Especially in the middle of the summer, when it doesn't get dark outside early enough to head that off.

She closes down her computer and locks the file-boxes, says goodbye to Monique, Winter, and everyone else still in the office, because the other upside of her leaving around six means everyone else is that much more likely to leave around six.

Sam's at the Dandelion and Driftwood downstairs, and hopefully he meant to get into a deeply earnest conversation with Cynthia the co-owner about (Maria's pretty sure, given past experience) tea, and why he should drink more of it.

He looks like he's enjoying the experience, anyway.

Maria sees him catch sight of her and disengage, waving and saying good bye and coming down the little landing steps with a half-smile on his face.

At least he looks like he's in a cheerful mood.

"That," he says, "is a very enthusiastic lady."

There are a lot of ways someone could say that and about half of them would carry some undertone of mockery or derision or even condescension. Sam saying it doesn't, though. It just sounds like he's happy someone's enthusiastic about things, but also that they're enthusiastic enough it deserves comment.

"Apparently the tea she's pressing on people really is that good," Maria says, acknowledging the wave from the guard currently on obvious desk duty for the lobby as they head across it. "The kind that doesn't usually make it to the USA, and I am reliably informed they really don't ship us the good stuff most of the time."

She pauses at the point where you have to decide if you're going to the front door or the elevator, and says, "So this is where I admit I didn't eat lunch today, so I'm leaning heavily on finding somewhere I at least can get something to eat - ?"

"I currently have no dinner plans," Sam replies, "and I am not a picky eater."

Maria gestures towards the elevator. "That way, then," she says, making the executive decision that they might as well go somewhere he'd never find on his own, and that precludes anywhere in walking distance of the Tower.

 

After he's settled in the passenger seat of Maria's BMW, Sam looks thoughtfully out at what is probably the most exclusive parking-lot in the city, if not further than that, and says, "If I asked exactly how far underground this place goes, and how the hell Stark managed to do that, how much would the answer disturb me?"

"A lot," Maria says, honestly. "A lot of the space that's currently valet-parking for Tower employees who are really committed to driving their own cars into work is designed to be converted into hydroponics bays and all kinds of storage, if necessary, and this place is in fact designed to be completely and sustainably self-sufficient as well as defensible. The Insight helicarriers would still have levelled it," she concludes, as they finish pulling out of the underground parking and Maria acknowledges this gate-guard's wave as well, "because those things could drill into bedrock, and you could nuke it from orbit just to be sure - "

Sam catches the joke and snorts.

" - but anything short of a high yield nuclear missile, the building will still be standing, and even a few of those, the underground parts will be."

Looking out at the traffic in the street, Sam says, "Part of me wants to call that spectacular paranoia, and then another part of me remembers most of this part of Manhattan had to be rebuilt."

"Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you," Maria says, wryly, and Sam gives a short laugh.

"Ain't that the truth."

 

The place she pulls into is the kind of place you'd miss if you blinked, and still makes double its rent just fine in spite of the area. There's technically a discreet valet out front, but Maria parks behind in one of two extra parking spots for visitors, near the back door. Sam glances at her.

"Just out of curiousity," he asks, looking slightly bemused, "if you weren't you, would someone actually be able to just walk in and get a table at this place?"

"Not really," Maria admits, "but the me-being-me is less about being an Assistant Director at SI or formerly at SHIELD, and more the owner being the best beloved nephew of the guy who would have married my maternal grandmother if she hadn't eloped with my maternal grandfather instead. To the guy's credit, he didn't hold a grudge, and even helped my grandparents get themselves set up and handle some difficulties once they came to the USA, and it's the kind of family connection that means Ernie - Ernesto, the owner - insists he's always happy to feed me."

" . . . is this where you tell me your mom's family is Sicilian?" Sam says, mostly joking, and Maria snorts as they get out.

"Funny," she says, but admits, "Calabrese." And she does have to grant him the laugh after that one. She doesn't go so far as to actively disclaim any family involvement in organized crime, since that kind of thing should be obvious given the fact that SHIELD let her join at all.

"But the upshot is," she says, closing the car door and gesturing towards the back door of the restaurant, "I figure if you're going to sacrifice an evening to me picking your brain, I can at least take you to eat somewhere you almost certainly wouldn't even know you were missing otherwise. But also no, preemptively, you're not under-dressed."

Since he's actually in pretty nice black chinos and a light blue buttoned shirt. Although even if he were more casual, he still wouldn't be. She absently wonders if he got changed or if he's actually been wearing that all day. Even now it's too warm, really, to have spent the whole day dressed like that if he didn't have to. But everyone has habits.

Look at her. Even Winter and Monique both found ways to make office-wear acknowledge the heat of summer, but Maria's doubly glad she chose against walking anywhere; she'd have sweat beading on her forehead by now if she'd done that, because outside a space with AC, the night's too warm for a cotton shirt and slacks.

At the door she pauses and feels obligated to warn him, "There is a fifty-percent chance that we'll lose about ten minutes to me being told I haven't come in enough lately and being asked about my mother."

"Only fifty?" Sam says, and Maria sighs.

"If we're lucky he'll be too busy," she replies.

 

Ernie turns out to be half-too-busy: enough that he stops at just the Loud Enthusiastic Cry of her name by way of greeting followed by a hug, and then a hearty handshake for Sam ("hearty" is literally the only adjective you could use for it), along with assurances that no absolutely not she is not putting him out even a little bit and of course they are both dressed for dinner and he is always, always delighted to see her.

Then he apologizes profusely that he can't come and sit and catch up once he's shown them to the table up on the mezzanine by the window that Maria expected, and disappears back to work. Occasionally his voice or laugh rises above the murmur of conversation and low music. One of the floor staff, who's new enough that Maria doesn't know her, brings them sparkling water with an expression of fellow-feeling amusement as Ernie's voice then comes up from the ground floor.

"You know," Sam says, looking back over his shoulder in mild bemusement, "if you just heard that guy instead of seeing him, you would not expect him to look like he does. You just would not expect that kind of booming voice and all the rest of it out of a guy who comes up to my shoulder."

Maria suppresses a smile. "He used to be louder," she offers. "He was a sergeant in the seventies, and he used to joke the only reason they promoted him was for his voice."

"I feel like his personality is a foot taller than he is," Sam says, and he's not wrong.

"His husband's the quiet one," Maria says. At Sam's glance adds, "part of the reason our families stayed close is his uncle took him in after his parents threw him out, and that made for a big family fight. Vincent, his uncle, ended up cut out of the family landscaping business and it almost cost him his house." She shakes her head and looks heavenward a bit theatrically, and Sam gives a grimace of understanding.

"I'm glad his uncle stood up for him," Sam says, genuinely. "And it's nice your family stood by him."

"My grandparents were furious at his family," Maria says. "They were still furious decades later. Nona - my grandmother - ripped a strip off Ernie's mother and grandmother, in public, and then got into a big feud with their church. She never set foot in it again, and she and my grandfather refused to take any business from the priest or any of the rest of Ernie's family. They had a tailor-shop," Maria notes. "Just before Nono died I guess he and Nona grudgingly started going to a church my mom found where she insisted the priest wasn't terrible, and I guess he didn't piss Nona off because he gave both Nono and her Last Rites eventually, but that was a big concession."

"Your grandmother sounds terrifying," Sam observes, sounding amused.

"Nona was a very quiet, very dignified, very refined woman of about five-foot-three," Maria replies, mouth quirking, "who was also the kind of lady who would quietly and dignifiedly beat a burglar to death with her rolling pin. Her parents didn't like my grandfather," she adds, when Sam grins, "so she came to the conclusion that arguing with them was pointless, didn't bother, squirrelled away money for a year and a half and then ran away with him to Rossano where his family lived. She left a note."

"Yeah, terrifying," Sam says. "The kind of lady who doesn't bother fighting with anyone she just makes things happen and everyone else can either get with the program or get left behind."

"Pretty much," Maria agrees. "She passed just after I got back from Baghdad. She said people who thought God was more worried about the configuration of how people willingly had sex than about a family who would turn their back on a child were definitely going to Hell anyway, or if they weren't it was entirely from God's grace. She informally adopted Ernie as a foster-son, and helped him and Luis get their first house later on."

"That's really sweet," Sam says. "I can see why you'd still be close."

"He and Luis met in Vietnam, I think," Maria finishes. "In the Army, anyway. They're actually in a bunch of the photos that tend to show up of the weddings the day the Marriage Equality Act went into effect in the state. Around the edges. Luis manages the business stuff and Ernie pretends to tyrannize the kitchen."

"It's a nice place," Sam says, with the glance around that's meant to take in everything. "Should I be surprised I never heard of it?"

"Nah," Maria says, dismissive. "Ernie refuses to be trendy or to court publicity, and a lot of the time people who find it kind of deliberately keep it out of the limelight so it doesn't get impossible to visit. You'll see it pop up in food blogs sometimes, but if that's not your niche?" She shrugs.

"I know a couple places kinda the same in DC," Sam says, tone half-agreement. "And it's always nice to see the places people who aren't local don't usually find."

 

Katherine, one of the servers Maria does know, brings up bread and the bottle of wine. Maria realizes she should have warned Sam that Ernie would choose a bottle of whatever he thought was best to send up, probably without asking, and she says, "I don't know if you're into red wine - ?"

"I am absolutely happy to drink red wine," Sam says, and takes the glass from Katherine with a smile. He adds, as Katherine heads to a nearby table for the moment, "I'm also gonna figure out what I'm eating before I say anything else, so the nice lady doesn't come back three times and have me going 'uhhhhh' each time because I got distracted."

"Good call," Maria agrees. "Let me know if you've got any questions, I kinda know this menu pretty well."

Sam grins at the deadpan understatement.

Maria realizes she's starving right about the time she absent-mindedly takes her first bite of the bread, so she gives in and orders the rack of lamb - even if she can't eat the whole thing, it's not like it's not just as good as leftovers. Sam gets the ossobuco, Katherine suggests the antipasto share-platter and Maria figures why not, and then Katherine's flitting away again and Sam's reaching for his piece of bread.

And looking like he's settling himself in for a story.

"So what was too much to 'splain," Maria asks, sopping up a little bit of the olive oil and vinegar with another piece of bread, "and needs to be summed up?"

"Right," Sam says, "and also, I'm sorry if that seemed a little ridiculous and like . . . giddy, or something, I just couldn't get that moment from the movie out of my head as I was trying to figure out how to word shit - "

He actually seems a little abashed, so much that Maria feels mildly compelled to clear her throat and say, "So it's possible I have had to replace my copy of that movie more than once, because I wore it out."

At Sam's look of startled (but maybe pleased) amusement, Maria says, "Yeah, it's also possible I had a giant poster of Westley as the Man in Black over my bed in my dorm. So it's fine, I got exactly what you were trying to get across, I think."

"Yeah," Sam says, "so, you remember where we were at when we last talked about this over food?"

There's a difficulty to these moments, sometimes. The first time Maria realized what it really was, she felt like she understood Natasha better than ever before - because the difficulty is not quite knowing which version of herself to be.

It's not like the woman who answers phone-calls, reads briefs and lives in meetings all day every day is any less Maria Hill than the woman who visited her mother at the hospital. Or more Maria Hill. It's just a different facet, a different set of aspects. A different language.

It's all context.

Usually it's not something she even thinks about, because her situation dictates things easily and smoothly, but it's more complicated with Sam Wilson than most people. The closest precedent she's got is a work friend - actual friend, not just colleague - but without anywhere near as much of the time or actual experience of one another that usually would go with that.

Just the abrupt and necessary bonding of doing something as crazy as they did, and then handling the ongoing shit. Which is a bit different.

There are a dozen ways to answer that question. There's the way Ms Hill or Assistant Director Hill would answer it - actually, there's three or four ways she'd answer it, depending on who she was talking to, insider or outsider, subordinate or peer, on what she thought of their intelligence.

Then there's the way Maria would answer it if she was trying to be other people's idea of "normal" and not scream all the tells she's got that she doesn't quite live in their world, and there's the way she'd answer it if she was trying as best she ever knows how (which is admittedly not much, but she tries) to be gentle . . .

And the way she'd answer it if she were talking to Phil, or to Natasha, or even Barton, or Nick if nobody else was around. It's the way that feels most natural but it also feels like a risk. Like she's not sure if she can actually assume Sam'll follow what she says to what she means.

All of those thoughts flicker across her mental screen in half a second hesitation, and she sighs, and does the mental equivalent of throwing up her hands. She answers the way she would answer any of those people, and says, "Only not forcibly institutionalizing because there isn't anyone who'd cooperate who's better at force?"

Because fuck it: that's the honest answer. That's the truth. It's not a nice truth, and it's not even a truth Maria's entirely sure you can defend based on anything but fucking expediency: that it's not the kind of truth where if you did end up at some kind of fucking Pearly Gates asked to account for your choices, St Peter's not going to inform you that actually your unwillingness to deal with risk means you're going to Hell.

It's just that the risk was a lot of lives. And if you could always argue that nobody's actually innocent, they'd definitely be collateral. Have no responsibility for this. So no: it's not one she would've been willing to take if she didn't have to.

"Yeah, that pretty much sums it up," Sam replies. He at least has the expression that says he kind of wants to find the whole thing funny but isn't sure he should. Maria can live with that reaction. Then it turns slightly sheepish as he adds, "Frankly the reason I had to let Laura - my supervisor," he interrupts himself, and Maria nods, "in on more than I really would've liked just . . . in the ideal, is because without all the details . . . " he shrugs.

"How did she take that?" Maria asks. Has to ask. Sam half-grins.

"She used to work with refugee families out of active war-zones," he says. "I'm not sure you can come up with something she can't take in stride, although she did have to make an effort this time. But yeah, you're right - and you know it's funny," Sam adds, taking another drink of wine and shaking his head, "at no point was I . . . kidding myself? About how wrong it could go. Definitely wasn't kidding you. But it's still almost like since there was nothing I could do about the worst-case scenario - within the space of still being accurate," is what he settles on saying, wryly, "I was still leaning on the positive indicators."

"Trust me," Maria says, with feeling, "I know exactly what you mean."

"So with that in mind," Sam says, "I'd even maybe . . . let's call it, reframe that, even. The person I met last time would not, in normal circumstances, have been outside of an institution. Best you could hope was enough funding for care that it'd be a good one. And I would have expected him to remain institutionalized for more than a year. At the least - at the least, on the best possible outcome, over a year. I would have expected extensive medical intervention and a treatment team. And if I'm completely honest I . . . would have expected that team to need to resort to sedation a lot. To top it all off," he says, "that's still a hell of a lot better than the guy was when he first showed up.

"Essentially," Sam concludes, "the guy I met first time around was way above my pay-grade. Just about most people's pay-grade."

Maria says, "That's about what I took from it, yeah. Just - " she half smiles, tipping her glass slightly, "the version where we're both not dwelling on it, because there's nothing we can do but try and clean up the mess if it ends badly." She takes a drink, and says, "So?"

"So today I met up with both of them at Starbucks," Sam says, "and we had coffee. Well, I had a mocha and both of them had more calories in a drink than normal people could get away with, but - same thing."

Maria feels her eyebrows try to hide in her hair. "Starbucks," she says, and she knows she didn't hear wrong, but she almost feels like she has to have heard wrong.

Is looking at the image of a Starbucks, during the day, on a warm day, in summer, in Brooklyn, in her head. Is trying to paste Steve and Barnes into this picture and not panic. Since obviously it was fine.

She's having a lot of difficulty with that.

"Yeah," Sam says. At least he looks satisfied at her reaction. "Apparently they're regulars. Girl behind the counter knew them by sight and name, at least by 'Steve' and 'James' - nice girl, very friendly. We sat at one of the tables out front, and if you didn't know any better you'd think Steve just had a really introverted friend who was resigned to being dragged out for coffee but still tended to just sit quietly while other people chat. You were observant, you might notice he's hypervigilant enough to keep his back to the building and watch the street, but otherwise - "

Sam spreads his hands. "It was arguably a bit awkward, the way it usually is with that kind of guy, but that's all."

" . . . huh," is just about all Maria's got.

"The guy I met last time," Sam says, "was honestly a horror story waiting to happen. A really goddamn sad horror story. The guy I met today is still a mess, don't get me wrong. Still the most severe case of PTSD I've ever seen, to start with, but now it doesn't . . . break my entire scale, if you know what I mean."

"Yeah," Maria says, still not much further than huh but absolutely aware of what he means. "Yeah I know."

"This is not a guy who could live with less home care than he gets with Steve," Sam elaborates, like he's getting it all out where both of them can look at it, "which . . . is a lot, for sure, but this is also a guy for whom that much is an appropriate level of care."

Then, like he's stopping himself, he pauses and revises with, "Okay - I'll be real, I'd still want to be able to send him to someone who can give him an antipsychotic, probably some kind of SSRI or similar long-term anti-anxiety treatment, plus appropriate breakthrough sedatives like Ativan, and in my perfect world I'd like to get him, like, a fucking highly trained service dog or something, but I'd want that for his quality of life, because if you could find the right ones it'd make his life easier and less stressful and so aid recovery, not because otherwise he represents a significant threat to himself and others - and particularly others."

"Not an option?" Maria asks, meaning doing any of those things, even in a sort of modified form. Sam shakes his head.

"Steve says there's every reason to think he burns through sedative and other stuff same as Steve does," he replies. "Which is fast - I remember the docs had to use pretty heavy stuff for the surgeries after they pulled him out of the river. Plus Steve's pretty sure HYDRA used sedation as a control method even with that, just basically kept the guy hooked to an IV, so something that feels like sedation isn't going to go over well even if he's taking the pills himself."

Sam leans back and sighs. "Maybe one of the atypical antipsychotics might do something, but honestly the potential negative reaction to any of the many, many potential bad side effects is . . . significant. And given the apparent massive leap forward in his basic function and stability, I wouldn't want to risk it if I were him, let alone in terms of me being me. And I've actually talked with Steve about the dog part before but Steve says that dogs barking in the building or in the neighbourhood make the guy six levels more edgy, so I'm thinking there's more trauma there than it's worth. Makes sense, anyway. Lots of armies and bad people use guard dogs. "

Maria nods, gestures with her glass to make it clear that she gets it: it's not like there weren't worst-case situations with mental well-being of operatives in SHIELD. And if specific details of specific cases were governed by patient-physician privacy just like anywhere else, it'd been policy since Carter's time that anyone supervising in the whole damn organization knew why the psychs made the calls they did, and how they arrived at those decisions, and if the reasons kept getting updated and changed as practices changed?

That just meant people in supervisory roles got a new set of sessions on the new treatment paradigms.

It's a shame about the dog, but they'd actually run into that, too. The medically-retired Level Six agent hadn't actually accidentally killed her service dog candidate in that flashback, but it'd come close and it had been a bad scene. Dogs could be really bad news, in their business.

"But bar the medication angle, yeah," Sam goes on. "Sure, he's a total fucking mess, but his situation at this point is . . . what you'd want for someone who's his kind of total fucking mess. Home-based care where honestly the biggest focuses are establishing regular, reliable staple parts of life - nutrition, sleep, surroundings conducive to recovery. Which usually means either living with family or in a group home setting, because while sure we had coffee I'm not sure the guy could handle a grocery store. But it's like . . ."

He takes another drink of wine like he's going to find the words in there, and then when he puts his glass down he says, "I guess it comes down to: a few months ago I couldn't believe this shit was even happening. And today I met someone who is . . . I mean he'd definitely be the absolute worst off of any case I've ever handled, but at least - " he trails off.

"At least he's on that scale," Maria supplies, and Sam agrees with a gesture.

Maria sits back, holding her own wine glass and gazing into the middle distance over Sam's shoulder, trying to take all of that in. Absorb it.

It is a lot to absorb.

"That is really hard to believe," is she says.

Sam takes it the way she means it, which is nice: he gets exactly what she's trying to get across in the tone and inflection. She figured he would, or she wouldn't've said it that way, but it's still nice to have been right.

"I know," Sam says. "Trust me I absolutely know. If you'd told me that'd be what I was looking at when we met up today I'd've said you were absolutely beyond too optimistic. If I wasn't biting my tongue I might've even called you an idiot. But it's what happened. Which is why I actually did want to, you know, get back to you now. And I'll admit - " and he grins briefly, " - also wanted someone to say it to, since this reaction," and he gestures to encompass himself and everything, "is not really the best one for Steve to get."

"How is he?" Maria asks, the next thing on her mind and her mouth running on automatic while she tries to process and knows part of the problem is what she's trying to process is, in fact, relief and she's not good at trusting relief.

Sam actually laughs a bit. "You know what, you ever seen one of those, the sled dogs, huskies?" he asks. "Or a really energetic German Shepherd or something? When they're well-trained so they're not actually jumping around like lunatics but you can tell they really, really like the human they're with?"

Maria finds herself snorting a brief laugh, and also trying to picture Steve like that. Trying, and absolutely failing. Just completely failing. "Really?"

"Seriously," Sam confirms. "I mean he's also absolutely exhausted, and anxious as fucking hell. Like even if I'm right," he goes on, more seriously, "and I'm pretty sure I am, and things do keep levelling out - "

He pauses, looking thoughtful. He drains his glass and Maria pours both of them a little more

Sam says, "I mean, even then, okay so we've had a miracle and we're at a place where the guy's just a severe psychiatric patient who can't live alone, that's still a lot of work, taking care of someone like that. Lots of people do it, and usually it's family and friends and they're doing it because it's worth it but it's work, and it's exhausting work. All the more because it doesn't always seem like it's work, from the outside."

Maria nods slowly, thinking about her oldest uncle, when Nona was in decline. Thinking about Nona, for that matter, when Nono was.

Sam goes on, "People ask, oh, so what'd you do today, and you say, 'we got groceries and had lunch and did the laundry and went for a walk' and it sounds like nothing, but . . . ." he shrugs. "It's exhausting, and Steve's exhausted. Eventually it's gonna catch up with him, at least a little. But I'm . . . less worried," Sam concludes, "about the fallout from that than I was a month ago."

 

It's pretty soon after that Katherine brings their food, and there's a few minutes of appreciative quiet interspersed with appreciative noises like happens when someone brings you good food.

And it's gratifying to hear them from Sam in the same way it's always gratifying to find out someone does in fact like the place you've brought them to eat. While all that happens, and Katherine also stops by to pour more wine into their glasses, Maria turns the whole thing over and over in her head, looking at it from different angles.

At a certain point, Sam looks up and then gives her a quick flash of a grin - but one that's edged with knowing, and sympathy. "Seems too good to be true, right?" he says, and he doesn't mean the food or the wine.

Maria doesn't bother to deny it.

"I've just been waiting for it to blow up," she admits, outright. "There's just been this little knot of who-knows-what-bad right over there in the back of my mind, in my mental map over there in Brooklyn and I've been waiting for it to burst like an infection, and you're telling me that actually it just quietly cleared up a whole shitload and it's not like I don't believe you! It's just . . . "

"Yeah, I know," Sam says. "Because yeah, exactly - like I can't do anything but push forward, I can't do anything but strike out in that direction and hope for the best and keep doing what I can, and that includes saying hopeful words and focusing on the possible and all that shit, but honestly at the core of it I was always afraid it just . . . "

"Wasn't possible," Maria finishes. "Yeah. Exactly like that. And fuck, it's not like - " she stops because she doesn't quite have the words right.

"It's not like shit hasn't gone wrong more than enough lately," Sam supplies, wry. Then he tilts his glass a little and adds, "Though I do see that you've managed to get out of the Tower."

"Jesus fucking Christ," Maria exhales the words in their own little quiet explosion. "Fuck those hearings were a fucking farce. And Christ have you seen the people starting to line up for the fucking election already? Jesus Christopher."

It was a curse of her father's, and it shouldn't actually carry more weight than just outright blasphemy, but somehow it does.

"I'm trying not to think about it," Sam tells her. "Although I suppose you kinda have to."

"Unfortunately," Maria agrees, with a crooked smile. "But yeah I bought a place. For a ridiculous amount of money. Like it may surprise you to hear," she adds, as he looks amused, "but while I'm not saying they underpaid us at SHIELD exactly, we were not getting Manhattan penthouse levels of salary I am just saying. I am by no means going to say it's not nice because that'd be absolutely stupid but it is just bizarre having this kind of money to throw around."

She might be a little tipsy, and that might be because they've actually gone through most of the bottle of wine. But it's good wine.

Sam grins, and she goes on, "And the security in the building and the additional stuff I put in is in fact still well beyond what most people would consider extremely paranoid, but - "

She waves that away. "Yes, at this point, everyone with enough clout to make me that on guard knows that I've had more than enough time to make sure that if anything happens to me whatever of their secrets I still have that are secrets will be plastered all over the front page, assuming I haven't told everyone they didn't want to hear about it already, and likewise anyone scary enough to be a problem who wants to know what I know also knows that everyone else has had time to make sure what I know is of minimal value. So I'm no longer that high-value as a target for my own sake."

"And not because of the company?" Sam asks, like he's genuinely curious, and Maria knows she's totally failed to keep this smile from being what one of the older Sevens used to call full of razor-edged teeth.

"Anyone with the resources to get past my habitual levels of security," she says, "is smart enough and good enough at this game to know that they don't want to deal with the fallout of actually succeeding." She shrugs. "That's honestly what prevents the world from being just endless games of assassination, you know," she tells him. "In terms of pure capability, honestly, SHIELD could have had any number of world leaders assassinated. It's just once you do that, you have to deal with a world wherein, say, the Russian president has been assassinated and that's almost always a mess you don't want to deal with. It's like nuclear war. By the time you're actually in a position to set it all off, you're also in a position to know why that's the last thing you want to do, for sheer self-interest."

"Huh." Sam looks thoughtful, and then like he's going to say something - and then thoughtful again. "You know," he says, "I was going to say something about 'until HYDRA shows up with helicarriers', but then I realized that's why HYDRA never made any really big moves before that, isn't it. Like Pierce could've had a hit out on Fury or any other SHIELD leader years ago, but he never did, because until Insight was really in play there was never anything big enough to be that decisive, was there."

Maria nods. "And honestly," she says, because she's had these thoughts before, "I think he pushed it because he was getting old. When it comes right down to it. He was running out of time - if he was going to be king of the whole damn world, well - he only had a couple decades left. I mean imagine if he'd pulled this shit after we'd already had the program in effect for ten years?"

Sam makes a face. "I'd rather not. But I get what you mean - if he'd've waited, he'd've been in an even better position, but on the other hand if he'd waited, he's old enough he doesn't feel secure about having another ten years."

He looks thoughtful again. "I feel like there's something thoughtful to say here about mortality and what it means to know you're gonna die, but I also think I might have had too much wine to get it right."

Maria laughs.

 

Ernie does come around after their plates are cleared away to guilt them into dessert, although he doesn't have to try very hard. Sam gets the creme caramel, and Maria gets the rose-and-saffron semifreddo, because she can never quite be bothered to make that one for herself.

Then Ernie comes back to perch for a few moments on a chair with them, bearing limoncello he won't easily let Maria refuse, and peppering her briefly with questions about work - "at least the parts you are allowed to tell me" - before being a bit less invasive about asking Sam his life and what he did for a living.

At clinical social worker for the VA, Ernie announces, "Oh, my god - your meal is on the house. Including the wine."

Maria blinks at him.

Sam also blinks at him.

Ernie's mouth quirks a little and he says, "Look, you're here with the young lady - yeah, look, I am old," he says, even though Maria wasn't even going to protest, "you're still a young lady, and this is a young gentleman, you won't have enough white hair not to be young until after I'm dead, anyway, you're here with her, which means you're a good egg and you're a smart guy, because Maria only deals with people who aren't both when someone's paying her to be patient - "

Because she's slightly buzzed, Maria maybe glances up at the ceiling and has to press her lips together in order not to laugh.

" - yeah, right, see," Ernie interrupts himself, gesturing at her, "she wouldn't say it out loud but that is basically her admitting I'm right - anyway the point is, because of all that, I know you do a damn hard job without enough support for not enough money, especially these days, and since I was a messed up veteran once I know how much of a mess we can be and also how much the good support people are worth, so I'm buying you dinner."

Then he gestures sort of at Maria and adds, "That's what Luis' grandniece is doing, you know. Catriona, over in Maryland."

"What, Cat went in for her MSW?" Maria asks, surprised, but at the same time Sam's face goes from the kind of awkward modest disclaiming that was waiting for Ernie to stop to try to get a word in edgewise to a new kind of half-suspicious surprise.

"Catriona? Uh - short white lady, pixie cut red hair?" he asks. "Last name, Fa - not Fabio - "

"Fabiano," Maria supplies, as Ernie looks delighted.

"Right," Sam says, "yeah she's actually doing her internship with a friend of mine at Perry Point. Nice girl, really bright."

"Yes! Yes she is," Ernie says, definitely delighted. "There, you see, I know what I'm talking about."

"I always know you know what you're talking about, Ernie," Maria says, knowing she's slid into the fond tolerant tone of younger family member to older family member and totally unable to do anything about it. He beams at her, anyway.

"She and Luis are very close," Ernie supplies, for Sam's benefit. "I'll mention you were in when she Skypes tomorrow. She calls regularly because she knows she can tell us that she's completely overwhelmed and feels like she's lost at sea and we'll tell her that we have every sympathy and she's doing fine treading water, where her mother and her father get all anxious about her instead."

Sam laughs at that, and then smiles and says, "Well. The dinner was fantastic, and my mother taught me it was ungracious to turn down sincerely-meant generosity, so I'll just say thank you very much."

Ernie beams again, asks after Maria's mom's hip, and then there's one of the busser's at his elbow looking a bit anxious, and he leans over to kiss Maria's cheek before disappearing back downstairs.

"Cat is a nice girl," Sam adds, absently.

"Ernie says he's figured out that if you don't let people have time to argue with compliments they don't," Maria replies, the unasked for explanation, because she feels like it's needed. Slightly quieter just in case, she adds, "If he'd been less busy tonight I might have had to admit you took down HYDRA with us and you might not have gotten out of here without some kind of ceremony."

"I'm not gonna lie and pretend it's not nice to be appreciated," Sam says, giving her a knowing look, and she laughs. He adds, "You should bring Steve here some day."

"Oh god, no," she says, putting a hand over her eyes. "That would be cruel to Luis. Absolute fanboy," she explains, at his glance. "He would be absolutely dumbstruck, and awestruck, and then mad at himself for being that way and making it awkward. And then he'd be horrified at the fact that Ernie wouldn't be dumbstruck and would probably start trying to set Steve up with the nicer waitresses because Steve's entire everything would scream lonely - no," she says, as Sam shakes his head in a way that's less disagreement and is more rueful recognition of what she's describing, "some day I'll get Steve to sign something for him, and that'll be about as much as would actually, you know, make Luis feel better afterwards than before."

"You know, I've seen that happen with other people," Sam says, thoughtfully. "Get all overwhelmed like that with their heroes. I have a lot of empathy for it, since it's clearly stressful. Never once felt that way myself."

"Closest I ever got was with Margaret Carter," Maria mostly agrees. "And that wasn't very close, since I knew I just had to keep from fucking up the first few minutes and convince her I was worth talking to."

Sam laughs.

"Even then it's not really the same," Maria adds. "I only really felt that way because I was actually talking to her as Assistant Director for SHIELD."

"I guess it's just hard to forget that all people are people," Sam muses. "Like no matter what amazing things they've ever done, they were born out of a mess just like anybody else and their shit still stinks and they've probably spent at least one morning looking for their keys after putting them somewhere really obvious. You can appreciate people, when you can't help remembering that, you can respect the hell out of them, but it's hard to be awed by them."

Maria glances at him, suppressing a laugh, and he gestures solemnly at the second empty bottle. "Look that was good wine, okay."

"Yeah there is no way either of us is fucking fit to drive," Maria says, and it's definitely agreement.

 

There are absolutely disproportionate advantages of her job, and Maria genuinely feels no guilt about making use of one of them now: she gets two of the drivers to come out in a car, one to take Sam back to the Tower and the other to drive Maria home in her own car. The first will double over to pick the second up.

"There's really that many people sitting around there waiting to drive people places?" Sam asks, looking bemused.

"At the Tower, absolutely," Maria replies. "Not so much most of the other facilities, granted, but the Tower, yes. Partly because it's the Tower, and partly because it's Manhattan and more than half the time it's just easier all around to have drivers than it is for people to even try to arrange things around their own cars."

"Yeah that's probably fair," Sam notes, thoughtful. "You know in a lot of ways it's a lot like Stark's gone and embedded his own little city-within-a-city here."

"Oh I know," Maria says. "Ten years ago I'd've been a lot more upset at the implications, but frankly right now the whole world still scares the shit out of me and at least I know what's going on in his and Pepper's minds."

It's not that she didn't mean to say it - she's got pretty good control over her tongue even when she's actually drunk - but it's definitely not something she'd've probably got all the way to saying if she was completely sober.

"I don't blame you," Sam says, soberly in all ways but the literal. "To be honest I can't even really think about the big picture, the implications of everything's such a goddamn mess. It's too fucking overwhelming. I end up back focused on the job because at least that I've got a handle on."

"I'm not much different," Maria tells him.

"Bigger job," he says, and she tilts her head back and forth, waggles one hand.

"Not when you're doing it," she says. "Just the same, really - paperwork, handling people's egos and agendas, making sure the right meetings are happening at the right time, navigating systems you'd rather burn down. I'm good at what I do," she adds, and doesn't bother being self-conscious, "but there's a reason I never wanted Fury's job. Ever."

"A-fucking-men," Sam says, with feeling, as the car from the Tower pulls up.

They exchange thank yous (for talking about stuff, for passing things along, for company, for dinner) and good-nights and Maria drops herself into her own passenger seat.

And she kind of wishes she did have a dog to go home to. It'd be nice to open the door to something that was happy to see her. But all the reasons not to get a dog still stand, so she's not going to.

She's just going to drink a lot of water and eat some vitamins against a potential hangover in the morning.