Maria doesn’t lie to him but she doesn’t tell him the truth either. Sometimes, she doesn’t tell him anything at all and when questioned; her brows furrow like he’s the one who’s overreacting.
She’s too perceptive not to notice that he doesn’t look at her in the quinjet on the way back to the compound. If she’s concerned, then she has a hell of a way of compartmentalizing it. Her laughter at Sam’s joke is frustratingly genuine.
Sam’s doing that thing where he tries to cut the tension by being funny. But it would be nice if Sam had his back once in a while when it comes to Maria. Everyone thinks Steve is a puddle of jelly for the damsels in distress but Sam is a world class sucker for Maria’s baby blues and rare smile.
“She reminds me a lot of my cousin Janelle,” Sam told him once. “Real tough on the outside to protect the softness within.”
Steve doesn’t know about soft, but it’s difficult not to reach out for her when he can finally take a long breath and see that she’s favouring her left leg. He doesn’t though because he knows better than to be over protective around the team. He also can’t get the tightness in his chest to release after the spectacle of Phil Coulson blasting through the entrance of the dungeon with the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D as cavalry.
The others allow Steve and Maria a wide berth once out of the elevator and inside the compound. All except Wanda who casually strolls past him, chewing thoughtfully on a lock of her hair.
“What’s the problem?” Wanda says in that deadpan way that mimics Maria. “Your friend is alive. Isn’t that a good thing?”
He doesn’t have time to lecture because Vision appears through the wall of the lounge and Wanda’s steps lengthen to greet him.
The elevator to their room is mirrored and Maria’s head is turned away but he can see the corner of her lips twitching in the reflection.
“Are you seriously laughing right now?” Steve says.
When she faces him though, her expression is thoughtfully sombre. There is nothing of his Maria in it and everything of Agent Hill of S.H.I.E.L.D. Even though S.H.I.E.L.D no longer exists. Or so he had thought.
“How long have you known?” He questions as the elevator doors open onto their floor.
She hesitates at the threshold, no doubt regretting her acceptance of his suggestion that she move into the compound permanently. He’s still surprised she hasn’t changed her mind.
She’s not one to run though and soon she’s kicking off her boots and slinging her earpiece onto the nightstand.
“Just after New York.”
“When are you going to learn to trust me?” Steve says, with as little bitterness as he can muster.
“It’s not about trust,” Maria sighs, sinking down onto the mattress. She doesn’t flinch the way she might have months ago as he helps her out of her jacket and lifts her shirt to inspect the bruise that stains her torso.
“Then what is it?” His fingers brush against the scar along her abdomen and she shivers. Her dilated pupils make him sure it’s not from discomfort. He should be grateful she’s allowed him to come this far, but he knows Maria can separate physical attachment as easily as she disassembles her gun. It’s those other layers of her that are so enshrouded even he has difficulty peeling them away.
“Security? Agency? None of your business?” She rattles them off with her lips turned down.
“You don’t work for S.H.I.E.L.D anymore. Or do you? Is that why Coulson happened to arrive in the nick of time?”
“Are you questioning my loyalty, Captain?”
He winces. His title, once a verbal barrier to intimacy between them, has now morphed into a warning. Tread carefully Steve, it seems to say. His palm closes over the hand that is searching the bedspread for the gun lying just out of reach.
“Loyalty has never been your problem, Maria. Sharing, however, is another matter.” It reminds him of a conversation he had not so long ago with Fury. He’s never noticed how alike they are in certain respects.
“If I felt like I needed to share I would have. I don’t ask for full disclosure of everything you know about the Winter Soldier, do I? Even though he’s a threat to national security.” That last part trails off in a way that makes him think she’s contemplated making that demand and her only hesitation is him.
He doesn’t expect an apology. Those are like hens teeth when it comes to Maria and they’ve clashed often enough for him to know that her resolve is mightier than her punch.
There have only ever been two times in the span of their relationship when Maria has offered an apology.
The first time she had thrown away a jar of sourdough starter that he had been cultivating in the pantry.
“It smelled like feet, Steve,” She’d said when he took her to task, only relenting when Vision walked past, glanced at the brown gloop rapidly disintegrating in the sink and said:
“It appears your experiment has been disposed of, Captain.”
The second time was after a grueling search for Bucky that resulted in yet another dead end. He’d stepped out of the quinjet, she’d come to debrief, saw the look on his face and mirrored it with her own. Just that alone was enough to lift some of the weight from his shoulders.
"I don’t lie to you about us if that’s what you’re getting at, Rogers,” she huffs.
Steve realises as he tempers the challenge in those startling blue eyes of hers with an apologetic but fierce kiss, that Sam’s not the only one who has fallen way too deep for Maria Hill.
Secrets and lies. It’s been an - adjustment for Maria to try and break those habits when it comes to Steve. Let alone when it comes to the team that she unwittingly took on when she agreed to remain with the Avengers after Ultron.
When Wanda began to seek out her company, Steve automatically assumed it was because out of everyone, Maria was the least likely to make her relive Pietro’s death by talking about it. Maria suspects it’s more because Wanda has convinced herself Maria’s propensity to detach from people she cares about is more appealing than having your heart ripped out when they die.
The only problem is that Maria was born into resentment, raised to be solitary and trained for subterfuge. Her shell is hardened even if it’s not impenetrable. Wanda is sweetness at her core and it shows as she covers her mouth with her trembling hands in the aftermath of the explosion.
Maria and Vision watch the footage of the Lagos disaster from the television in the compound’s lounge. Years ago she had argued with Fury about the Avengers Initiative and now her premonition is becoming vivid reality. There was no way the world was going to tolerate the Avengers for so long without putting checks into place.
It leaves a bad taste in her mouth to sneak out in the middle of the night, but if she doesn’t, Vision is going to kick up a dignified fuss. The quinjet isn’t due back for another couple of hours, but Maria slips into stealth mode out of habit. Her footsteps are feather light as she removes the false bottom of her underwear draw, the one place she knows for sure Steve is too gentlemanly to snoop.
Nat calls the case that Maria scoops out of the draw a bad date kit. It’s full of those things you would have to frantically snatch up before you need to get away from a creep while he’s in the bathroom. In truth it’s just a pair of encrypted cell phones, a couple of fake IDs, passports and coded details for safe houses.
More than the lack of goodbye, it’s the fact that Steve will know why she’s left one of the phones on her pillow that tugs at her. Captain America has gotten under her skin and no matter how carefully she tries to scratch, it’s going to leave a mark.
A few weeks later, she’s in a London cab heading to meet Jane Foster when her phone beeps.
She’s sure the Sokovia Accords has been revealed to them by now. Nothing else would have prompted him to contact her.
We need you The message reads. Wanda is not okay.
I know, she texts back. That’s why I’ve gone.
He doesn’t ask how, why or where. These are answers he knows she’d never give. Instead the next message she receives cuts her in a way that nothing else has been able to in a long time.
Are you still my girl?
It’s a question with a thousand implications. She’s spoken to Pepper about the situation with Stark. His guilt has overridden his senses and more than the pain he’s inflicted on her friend, Maria wants to give him five across the eyes for believing accountability could come from giving up autonomy. All it took was one guilt trip and he folded like a deck of cards. Maria’s been in a brig before after disobeying orders and it’s not ideal. But she’d made a mistake and she paid for it. It didn’t stop her from going back out and performing her duty the next time.
She dreads what might have been if she and Steve didn’t see eye to eye on this.
Don’t get sentimental on me, Rogers. She hopes he understands the gentle affection behind the joke or that Sam can explain it to him because she doesn’t have time for this.
And because she knows he’s never going to agree to sign the Accords she adds, be reasonable.
The last thing she needs right now is a distraction. Not when she’s going to try to convince a God for some real estate in Asgard.
He can hear the others talking but his eyes are glued to the screen of his phone. It’s from a number he has memorized. How Maria knows he doesn’t have the encrypted phone with him or that Peggy has passed is beyond his comprehension. Right now all he can do is remember to breathe and focus on not launching the table across the room.
“I need to go.”
His heart doesn’t belong to Peggy anymore but there’s a part of him that will always be the skinny kid trying to prove himself to her.
Steve can barely contain himself as he bears her coffin down the aisle.
Sam had insisted on accompanying him and at the time Steve graciously refused, but right now he’s glad to have a friend beside him. Then Sam nudges him and he looks up to find Sharon taking the microphone.
When she reveals her true identity as Peggy’s niece, all Steve can think is that Maria would have known about this and chosen to keep another secret from him. For a second, his anger surpasses the grief that has gripped him since he learned of Peggy’s death. Then it seeps into exhaustion and Steve realises that he’s not angry at Maria.
He misses her.
When Romanoff mentions that she came because she didn’t want him to be alone, it pushes Steve to do something he’s been trying to avoid for weeks.
He calls Maria.
She picks up and her voice is shaky.
“How was it?”
She’s quiet. Too quiet. They might not have been related, but Steve knows Maria and Peggy were close in a way two women so similar could be. Maria would have been here if she could. The fact that she can’t eats away at him.
“Peggy was an incredible person,” Maria says. “She saw things in people that they couldn’t see in themselves.”
“Sounds like someone I know.”
They don’t talk for a while, each lost in their own thoughts, but it’s comforting to know that she’s there. Even more so because he knows he’ll have to dispose of the phone once they’re done.
He has to hang up when Sharon approaches. Her first words to him are an apology for misleading him even though Steve’s not sure she has anything to apologise for. She doesn’t owe him anything. She was just doing her job. At least that’s how he imagines Maria might rationalise it.
He can’t help smiling, his first smile in days, at how easy it is for some to admit their failings, real or imaginary, while others will go down with their convictions. Isn’t that what Sharon had meant in her speech? Stand your ground if you believe what you’re doing is right? Even if the whole world is telling you you’re wrong?
It strikes him how much those words pertain to Maria. How often she’s had to hold her ground alone, how many people she’s had to hurt in the name of doing what’s right. In Maria’s defense she’s hardly ever wrong. She can’t afford to be and she’s sacrificed enough to make a judgement call.
Two days later Redwing glides back from a recon mission with a new phone strapped to its back.
“Okay, now I’m starting to freak out,” Sam says, looking over his shoulder like he’s being watched.
Steve can only smile.
The first message she sends comes just after the Task Force releases the picture of Bucky after the Vienna bombing.
He better be worth it.
A week ago Maria sat by Peggy’s bedside, her fears laid on the table, her thoughts burdened by contingencies and hypotheticals.
She was lucky to catch Peggy in a brief span of lucidity. Even with the Alzheimer’s ravaging her memories, Peggy’s counsel was direct.
“You can’t plan for everything,” Peggy had rasped. “I planned my whole life and look what happened to S.H.I.E.L.D. You can only pick your battle and fight it with all your heart.”
Her voice was stolen by a fit of coughing. When the wheezing subsided, her eyes were glassy.
“To think I’ve lived to see the day when Steve and Howard’s son would be on two sides of a war. Howard would be turning in his grave.”
Maria’s lips had pressed into a grim line as she thought of the footage of Howard Stark’s death that Nat had leaked onto the internet. Thankfully it was encrypted and Tony had been too preoccupied to go digging for dirt.
“You won’t tell them that I know they’re in touch will you?” Peggy had requested. “Steve looks at me and sees the past and Sharon believes me fragile. She’s afraid of the secrets I’ve kept. Thinks they’ve encumbered me.”
Peggy took Maria’s hand then and Maria felt the conviction beneath the supple tremble of unsteady fingers. “We don’t have power, Maria. Not like they have. But we’re good at keeping secrets safe. They won’t thank you. Won’t even bother to know your name, but if we wanted thanks we’d be in another line of work.”
Peggy smoothed a lock of hair behind Maria’s ear. A tender gesture so rarely displayed in a woman of sensibility that it had sent an ominous shock through Maria’s chest.
“I’ll leave them in your capable hands.”
A week later, just as she was boarding a flight from Heathrow to Seoul, the nursing home had called to tell her Peggy had passed. The late arrivals announcer had to call her name twice over the loud speaker before she could get her legs to move. Her only consolation as she texted Steve with the news was that Peggy had died peacefully in her sleep.
Peggy wouldn’t have wanted her funeral to belay a mission, but Maria’s never been as close to going M.I.A before.
Helen is waiting for Maria in her lab. She grimaces and Maria knows the answer to her question well before the other woman opens her mouth.
“Is this all you have on what was done to him?” Helen wants to know.
“It’s all Natasha and I could decode from the files in Zola’s data banks. It seems a lot of the brainwashing was done using manual Cold War methods. Torture and trigger words. Deprivation and negative association.”
“If he’d be willing to give up the metal arm the cradle shouldn’t have a problem recreating the tissue. But there’s not much I can do in the short term about his mind. That’s going to take a lot of time and even then he might never be completely cured.”
Helen speaks with self assuredness but Maria catches glimpses of her trauma at the hands of Ultron and Loki’s Sceptre. It’s why Helen could hardly be in a room with Vision despite the latter’s unflinching politeness. Knowing the object of your torture is inside the being it brought to life would be disconcerting at the very least. It didn’t help that Vision made a passing remark alluding to Helen being his mother/creator.
“I know I’m asking a lot,” Maria begins to say but Helen cuts her off.
“If there’s something I can do then I want to help.” She scrolls through her tablet and frowns. “Although, if they keep this up there might not be anything left of him to save.”
The headline screams with extra exclamation points that the Winter Soldier has finally been caught in Bucharest. Along with Captain America and Falcon. The picture shows them with their hands behind their heads and War Machine pointing his blasters at them.
“They’re going to tear each other apart,” Helen observes.
Maria blows out a frustrated breath, her fingers pinching the bridge of her nose.
“At this point, maybe that’s not a bad idea.”
“Kiss her,” Maria says on the other end of the line. Intermittent static buzzes through the speaker and because it’s Maria, his brain analyses the suggestion, scrambles it and transmits it back as, kill her.
“Come again?” Steve stutters.
“Kiss her!” Impatience creeps into her voice. “Make it convincing and get Sam to record it to leak to the CIA.”
“How is that going to help Sharon when they come after her for helping us?”
The long pause is weighted. “If they suspect she’s helping you because of a romantic relationship they’ll be more inclined to excuse her actions. A woman acting of her own volition is dangerous but one hampered by her feelings is manageable. Understandable.”
“Welcome to my world. It’s about time misogyny gave back a little. You don’t have to like it Steve, but it’ll work. Disgusting as it is.”
“What if she gets…ideas?”
He doesn’t imagine the irritated sigh. “It’s a kiss. Not a marriage proposal. She was S.H.I.E.L.D Special Services. Give her a bit more credit. If things go south, I can get her out.”
“Are you sure?” It’s not a question of her judgement so much as a clarification of her permission.
“I wouldn’t have suggested it otherwise.” She hangs up without a goodbye. She only does that when she’s especially annoyed at him and he knows it’s not because of Sharon. He’s messed this up pretty badly and if he’s not dead by the end of it, he’s pretty sure Maria’s going to kill him.
Steve kisses Sharon when she returns his shield and Sam’s suit. It’s more awkward than convincing but it’s all Steve can manage under the circumstances.
Sam and Bucky give him shit eating grins from inside the car just the same. Sam because he knows how uncomfortable Steve must be right now and Bucky because of misplaced pride.
“Don’t even think about showing that video to Maria,” Steve warns Sam later on. The way Sam won’t meet his eyes is not encouraging.
It feels like she’s gone back in time. This could be four years ago and she’s standing behind Fury as they overlook the city from a high rise with windows made almost entirely of glass. Except this time, Maria’s the one with the incredible proposal.
“One more time, Hill,” Fury says.
“The Department of Defense's annual financial report has quoted figures well above estimated spending calculations. Either someone’s getting a bonus to the sum of trillions of dollars or there’s a building somewhere we’ve lost track of.”
“When did you become an accountant?”
The question is rhetorical. They both know Maria’s head is in security and Pepper can read figures better than any super hero can throw a punch.
“I’m assuming you have a location,” Fury turns to her.
“Just off the coast of Ryker’s Island.”
“And an extraction plan?”
Maria checks the details off on the fingers of her left hand. “Floor schematics, guard rotation schedule, weapons guidance and access codes all accounted for.”
He might only have one eye but his scrutiny is no less piercing. “You know, I remember a real pain in the neck conversation we had after I suggested the Avengers Initiative.”
“Yes, Sir. And four years later I’m still cleaning up their mess.”
He shakes his head but the skin around his eyes crinkles. “You know why I didn’t make you director don’t you? Sure you could have done the job with your eyes closed but I’m convinced now that I made the right choice. They would be dead in the water without you. Figuratively and literally. It seems you’ve got a handle on everything. What do you need me for?”
The grin lights up his face. “You know how I love to make a dramatic entrance.”
Steve has reservations. Leaving Bucky here feels like taking a step backwards. Like losing him all over again. But even Steve can’t argue that his friend is a time bomb waiting to go off and at least under T’Challa’s care he knows Bucky will be safe.
What Steve doesn’t expect as he awaits Bucky’s procedure is for two women to walk into the room.
He’s happy to see Helen, she’s always a great grounding force when Stark’s head blows out of proportion because by all intents she’s smarter than him. But it’s the sight of the other woman that sucks all the air from his lungs and makes the dull pain from his wounds disappear.
He figures it’s not out of order to snatch Maria around the waist and draw her up for a lingering kiss. After all, they’re on foreign soil and that doesn’t count. She seems to have a different perspective and after the initial surprise she pushes him away.
“So you’re the elusive Maria,” Bucky says, with a honeyed smile. “I can see why Steve wasn’t interested in the blonde.”
It seems there are some things that seventy years hasn’t changed and stealing Steve’s girl is one of them. Back in the day Steve’s date would smile coyly back and by the end of the night she would hardly be Steve's girl anymore.
Maria’s left eye twitches and her stance becomes rigid.
Steve thinks of the moment they met when she’d punched that guy outside his apartment in New York for coming on to her.
“I still haven’t decided if this is an acceptable level of security measure, Sergeant Barnes. There’s still plenty of time to change my mind.”
Steve catches Bucky’s attention over her head and there’s alarm in his friend’s eyes. Steve tries to suppress his grin. There’s always a first time for everything.
Maria takes him aside. “Helen’s going to stay here to help with his reprogramming. If it’s possible she’ll find a way.”
“Don’t you mean sorry?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Is this your definition of being reasonable, Steve?”
His mouth opens but nothing comes out. Not least because some of the staff are eyeballing him getting chewed out.
"Things worked out for Barnes but what about Sam and Wanda? And Clint and Scott Lang?”
“I’ll get them out somehow. Maybe….” He stops when he realises she’s flipping through a tablet. He should have known she’d already have a plan.
“This is going to be harder without your suit and shield,” Maria says. “But you’ll have to live with it. Fury’s going to make some noise over DC. We’ve got a few hours at best.”
He recognises the girl on the quinjet who comes to pick them up with Melinda May as Daisy Johnson. She does things on the computer that he hasn’t even seen Stark do. After that it’s almost too easy to overcome the guards and wait for Daisy’s signal in their earpieces that the cells are unlocked.
Sam’s grin when he realises what’s happening is infectious.
It takes Steve a moment to realise the focus of Sam’s attention is behind his shoulder where Maria is gathering Intel from the raft’s security system.
“It’s good to see you too,” Steve snarks.
“I see you all the time,” Sam says, though his grip on Steve’s hand is firm and then the hug he gives Steve is fierce.
“Sam, give me a hand,” Maria says, tossing him a flash drive.
Wanda doesn’t move a fraction when the door to her cell is opened. Steve scoops her up in his arms and doesn’t set her down until they’re safely back inside the quinjet.
“This is their definition of security, is it?” Maria snaps as she frees Wanda from her straight jacket and disables the neuro interceptors programmed to scramble Wanda’s brainwaves.
Melinda eases them into the air.
“Errr,” Lang says just over an hour later. “I think we missed our turnoff.”
All eyes settle on Maria.
“T’Challa’s offered us asylum in Wakanda,” Steve says.
“Which is great until Ross and Stark find out where you are,” Maria says.
“Where are we going then?” Sam wants to know.
“Are you serious?”
Steve can see that Sam is just as stunned as he is, but nobody questions Maria’s decision. They’ve caused too much trouble to fight her on this.
Melinda drops them in front of what appears to be abandoned warehouses and as the quinjet’s hanger opens, Barton grins.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he says. Steve follows the line of his focus and then he too can’t help smiling.
“It’s about damn time,” Nat says as she hugs them. Vision keeps his distance but the sight of him breaks Wanda from her stupor.
“Vision?” Steve asks Maria.
“He was surprisingly easy to convince after I showed him the footage of Wanda in her cell. Jane’s been coaching him on astrophysics and how to move us through the dimensions. The gem will do the rest.”
“So he’s our ride?”
“More or less.”
“I’m not sure how I feel about running,” Steve starts but then he sees the flare of ice in Maria’s eyes and his mouth closes.
“Who says we’re running? Thor told me a while ago that something’s coming. That we need to be ready and judging by the state of us, we’ve got no chance at all. Let Stark deal with what he can on Earth. If the world needs us, we’ll be back. Until then some of you need to get a better handle on your powers. We can’t win if we’re fighting each other. Asgard is better equipped to withstand the fallout of your mistakes.”
“What about the Accords?”
Maria shrugs. “This isn’t the first time humanity has tried to segregate itself and it won’t be the last. We’ve made mistakes and people have died but a lot of people were also saved. Besides, I said you were going to stay underground. I didn’t say I was.”
“Always two steps ahead,” Steve shakes his head.
He takes her hand as they step into the circle and doesn’t want to let go even after they’re on the other side. She has to pry his fingers off and gives him a dirty glare before heading off to find Sif.
“Strap yourself in, Cap,” Barton says, appearing at Steve’s shoulder. “She’s going to make you pay for this mess bigtime.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“Thank God she’s on our side,” Sam says.
As Steve takes in the ancient structures of the city floating in the sky and the enormity of what Maria has managed to achieve, he feels dwarfed and slightly ashamed. And grateful. Eternally grateful for a woman whose made a career of planting herself like a tree, telling everyone else to move.