Maria Hill’s day goes to hell approximately seventeen minutes after she walks into the Rahway facility of Stark Industries. It’s a think-tank, full of geeks and pencil pushers, many of whom apparently have no fucking clue what proper security consists of, which is why she’s there. Ben Arnold, the head of security for that installation, is within seconds of having his ass chewed out. Then, there’s a commotion in his outer office and six heavily armed and armored troops burst into Arnold’s office.
By contrast, JB Barnes is loving life. He’s been promoted to the executive chef’s team and he’s happily setting up the buffet table for today’s quarterly meeting. It’s amazing, how much you can learn from You Tube, including the finer points of fancy-carving fruits and vegetables and how to arrange silverware to look sculptural. It’s fussy, but he savors the minutiae of it. Feeding people is important, but nothing he does now is life or death. His day goes down the toilet when he gets an urgent summons to Tony Stark’s private suite.
“What’s wrong?” he asks as soon as he sees the look on Tony’s face.
“There’s a problem in Rahway.”
JB starts. “Hill?” That’s where she was headed this morning, she told him so over coffee.
“She got there, but shortly after that, the facility was invaded. They banjaxed the visual feed from our cameras, but we’re still getting thermal signatures. Unfortunately, the rest of the Avengers are dealing with a situation in Madripoor. I need back-up. Can you handle it?”
Goddamn it, I was in the middle of something. I like not having to fight for a living. JB thinks violently as he absorbs Tony’s words. But…Hill.
“Fine,” he says calmly. “Let me just let my boss know someone else is going to finish up in the executive conference room. Unless you’re going to cancel the meeting?”
“No, that’s not for another two-and-a-half hours. I don’t think it’s going to take that long, do you?”
When the intruders shoot Ben Arnold, Maria has the grim thought that this is exactly why she’d been preparing to tear him a new one. Now these guys have, and she doesn’t dare make a move with all six of them now covering her.
Sometimes, you have to wait for an opportunity. She knows that. No one has ever accused Maria Hill of being hair-triggered. In her prior lives, first as a Marine and later as a SHIELD agent, she’s learned to spot those moments. Meanwhile, she’ll play dumb and listen to the chatter droning from their comms and when they’re properly distracted, they won’t know what hit them.
If today was a normal day, I’d be getting ready for that damn meeting of Stark’s and then sparring. But no, I had to deal with numb-nuts Arnold not reporting a data breach. Today, of all days!
She’s spent the last year working out with The Winter Soldier--Tony Stark put his foot down when she’d referred to him as the Winter Soldier, and she refuses to call him JB, because it’s affected. It’s only since Christmas that he’s started answering to Bucky (and then, only from Steve)--so Maria addresses him as James…and still does, out of habit, even though their relationship has progressed to a physical level that has nothing to do with the kind of sparring they still engage in during work hours.
The fact that she can hold her own with him gives her confidence that, one on one, she can take care of these clowns. If, that is, they’d put down those damn military-grade assault rifles for a minute….
JB enters Stark’s armory and whistles appreciatively. That niggling instinct that’s always been drawn to big guns and other shiny toys of death is licking its lips. It’s been nearly two years since he escaped Hydra’s clutches, and it’s unnerving to discover those reflexes are so easily resurgent.
“Put this on your right wrist,” Tony says, handing him something that looks like a chrome bracelet on steroids. “and touch the round pad.”
He does, and to his astonishment, the bracelet eats him alive. At least, that’s what it feels like. One second he’s standing there in his white jacket and black trousers, the next, the bracelet seems to be melting to encase him in a thin, silvery layer. It isn’t tight, exactly, but he feels oddly compressed.
“Can you hear me?”
In the few seconds it took for him to armor up, Tony has activated his own suit. His voice is perfectly audible as he coaches JB on the properties of the new armor.
“How come you have it ?” he asks once Tony is satisfied that he’s absorbed the briefing. “Is it some kind of prototype?”
“I made it with you in mind,” Tony answers as JB helps himself to various weapons. “If you’ll notice, it stops at your left arm but seals to it so you’re fully protected..”
He’s right. JB flexes his prosthetic and as promised, the armor butts up to it but doesn’t overlap or restrict him in any way. Which means he’s been living in a fool’s paradise in the kitchens, when clearly Tony has been planning to make use of his other skill-set all along. “Thanks,” he says with a side of irony.
“One other thing--” Tony produces another bracelet. “Hold on to this for me.”
They spar in the same room most days--Maria has arranged the schedule, switching it up once in a while so he can’t say she’s being predictable. He’s still better than she is, she admits, but she’s improved enough that at least now he has to work for it. If she’s inconvenienced him in any way, it’s that he’s trying not to hurt her. And although she’s tried whole-heartedly to kill him--at least in the beginning--she regularly winds up with him dealing a symbolic coup-de-grace.
When he does, he always taps out a fast para-diddle on the mat--tap-tap-thud!--which he refuses to explain. She’s asked. His response is always, “Don’t worry about it.”
Don’t worry about it. Sure. Which is more dangerous, long term, being surrounded by assholes with big guns or sleeping with the most feared assassin in the Western world?
She blames Steve Rogers, at least partially. Which is ironic, since Steve had approached her very earnestly after the 4th of July party, blushing like a radish, to caution her that Bucky Barnes had earmarked her for conquest. She’d laughed it off, but after that, she started to realize that he might be a quasi-reformed scoundrel, but he was also a damn fine-looking man.
Then he’d delivered the one-two punch of getting a haircut and a new wardrobe, and he was impossible to ignore.
Cut to the November evening when they’d been involved in an attempted mugging. It was four on two, and not even close to a fair fight. Maria lowers her face so the intruders don’t notice her smile. There’s nothing like a spot of mayhem to get her going…they’d returned to the Tower and she’d shamelessly jumped his bones and enjoyed every minute of it.
Now, they’re…together. She’s not even sure how it happened; it was supposed to be a quick no-strings tumble, not…a thing. But here they are, two-and-a-half months later, spending most nights together--and it’s just as incredible as it was that first night.
It’s no use thinking about James; he’s not here. If he was, they’d make short work of these cretins, but they’re smart enough to stay out of her reach. She needs to think of a diversion….
The easiest way to get to Rahway, NJ, is for Tony to fly them. JB takes deep breaths and reflects that he’d probably enjoy this a lot more if he hadn’t had breakfast. Or if it wasn’t, y’know, life and death. Because what is he going to do if anything happens to Hill?
He’s pretty sure she isn’t as serious about them as he is. He’s never been more serious. She’d always intrigued him--she’d loathed him from the beginning because she was Nick Fury’s protege, and he’d damn near killed Fury. That’s reasonable; he’ll give her points for honest loyalty. At first, she’d been seriously trying to kill him. Gradually, she’d gotten more involved in the process, in learning how to really fight. She was good to begin with; now she’s excellent. Perhaps not quite up there with Romanov, but not far behind.
“JARVIS says there are two main groups with a few strays that are probably their patrols. The trouble is, both groups are separated. One is in the big conference room on the main level. We’ve got a count of thirty-eight in there, no idea how many are intruders, although JARVIS confirms that thirty employees were logged in prior to the invasion and a few more .may have been on their way in and been rounded up before they got that far.” Tony briefs him as they zoom through the air over Jersey. “The other group is up in Security. The number has fluctuated between five and eight people….”
“If they have patrols, there are probably a couple on the roof,” JB notes. “They may be using Security as a base and trading off sentries. It’s a clear day, but it’s cold as fuck. We need to knock those guys out before they let the boys downstairs know we’re coming.”
“We need to get the greatest number freed, then we can fight our way upstairs. We can crash right through the wall into the conference room. What the hell, it’s only a wall, right?”
“I think a two-pronged approach would be most effective.” Strategy is as natural as breathing. “Drop me on the roof and I can fight my way downstairs. Give me five minutes, enough time to get their attention distracted, then, if you still want to smash a wall, go for it.”
“JB…” Tony sounds apologetic. “From the thermal readouts, it looks like one of the occupants in Security was cut down when they went in.”
Hill? No, it can’t be her. He won’t let it be her. He’ll kill them all, take pleasure in it if they’ve hurt her. His voice is cold. “Drop me on the roof and wait five minutes.”
Maria is contemplating the old “I really have to pee” gambit, because, surprise, surprise, she really has to pee. None of these clowns has checked the ensuite adjacent to Arnold’s office and if he was any kind of security man at all, he’d have back-up weapons stashed in what would amount to a panic room. And damn it, she’s tired of sitting here.
There’s a staccato sputter of distant gunfire. The clowns glance at each other, worried. To Maria’s trained ear, it sounds as if it came from slightly above them. A moment of quiet, then something booms. Doorbuster, is her diagnosis. Probably the roof door.
It would be nice if that was reinforcements, she fantasies, calculating the distance to the nearest gun and trying to vector in the rolling capacity of the office chair she’s been parked in.
True, it could be these guys, anything from testing something they found in the labs, brought a grenade and dropped it--but her captors are too spooked for that--then she hears it. Something strikes the metal doors of the stairwell quickly and rhythmically: Bang! Bang! BOOM!
“Don’t worry about it,” James always says, and this time, she doesn’t.
At this point, the four in here with her wouldn’t notice if she was naked and dancing a can-can. She stretches, slowly, not attracting attention, getting ready for action, because she knows the distance from the rooftop stairwell to the Security office, and if she’s right, someone ought to be coming through that door in three, two, one--
The door erupts off its hinges. Maria doesn’t pause to see who comes through it--it already knows. She launches herself out of the chair, grabbing the nearest merc’s gun and bashing his skull with it. She swivels the firearm and gets off a blast at one of the others, who goes down just as James is inflicting major damage on the second of his two. He’s wearing a suit, tight-fitting black and silver, and she watches admiringly for the few seconds it takes to dispatch the last of them.
“Hill? Status!” His mask retracts, and James is looking her over for wounds. There’s concern in those pretty blue eyes of his.
“They started with twelve, by my count. Minus these four, and the ones on the roof---”
“Two on the roof. So they’re down by half.” He looks pleased. “I’ve also got armor for you. It’s basic; bulletproof and built-in comms, but none of the fancy toys like Tony’s has.”
She’s going to have to have a word with Stark. Armor? Great, she’s delighted to have it. But for fuck’s sake, did he have to make it matchy-matchy with James’s suit? “Three of them are holding hostages in the conference room,” she recounts as the suit seethes over her. “From what I overheard, the boss, her bodyguard and their pet hacker are down in R&D trying to pick our brains.”
“JARVIS, did you catch that?” JB asks.
Yes, JB. Their hacker is very clever. I’d go so far as to say he’s a legend in his own mind. I’m keeping him entertained. They haven’t noticed yet that the door to that floor is now locked. They’re the only ones in there. There’s some chatter about what ‘all that noise’ was about. They haven’t been able to contact their forces upstairs and are beginning to be alarmed.
“Okay, good,” JB says. “Let’s get downstairs and see if we can liberate the conference room before Tony gets here.”
“Stark’s coming?” He kind of understands Hill’s dismay. Tony’s a genius when it comes to tech, but when it comes to military maneuvers, not so much.
“In about three-and-a-half minutes. Think we can get it mopped up by then?” Hill’s fierce smile is all the answer he needs. “Let’s go.”
JB takes point, because now he’s a human tank, ready to roll over anybody or anything in his path. The part of him that’s lived a happy, law-abiding life since his defection wants to be appalled, but having a mission and being able to release that energy without holding back is glorious. He feels drunk with it. Even the prospect of Hill following him with a very big gun is more exciting than intimidating. The suit’s bullet-proof, right? And she hasn’t tried to kill him for real in a while.
They’re on the final landing when something rattles the building. It’s not an explosion, but it was something seriously concussive.
“Damn it, he’s seventy-five seconds early,” JB says with disgust. “That’s cheating.”
“Well, there’s still the three in R&D,” Maria says thoughtfully. “JARVIS, which door is farthest away from their current position? We can sneak in that way.”
They’re barely past the door when the bodyguard pulls his sidearm. JB knocks it out of his hand.
Maria’s Russian is a little rusty. The bodyguard swears at him, and James answers back without hesitation. Something crude, she suspects, about the guy’s mother and a bear from the circus.
The last thing this guy expected was someone responding in kind. He looks flabbergasted--but not nearly as much as he does when James deactivated the armor. He’s standing there in his catering uniform, and his shiny Stark-made prosthesis is there for all the world to see. Or anyway, this guy. And the bodyguard must have heard those stories about the Winter Soldier, because he stops and stares and surrenders his piece to Maria without a struggle.
The hacker is so engrossed in what he’s trying to do that he doesn’t notice at first that the forces flanking him aren’t his cohorts.
“Shut it down,” JB says from behind him, and the young man almost falls out of the chair.
“You’re not--” he begins, blinking at the sight of the bodyguard disarmed, and finishes with, “Shit.”
This kid can’t possibly be eighteen Maria Hill thinks. Or am I just getting old?
The screen in front of him blurs. JARVIS has exited out of whatever program he was keeping their hacker busy with, and replaces it with food porn. JB grins privately. The buffet in the conference room has turned out great, even if he didn’t do it all himself. And there’s still more than an hour before the meeting commences.
“Where’s your boss?” Hill demands. If she isn’t here, she must have slipped out while she and James were dealing with the bodyguard. Of all the annoying, rookie mistakes!
“No idea,” says the hired gun, and the kid echoes, “No clue.”
“JARVIS,” JB says loudly, “We need a scan for one lone thermal signature.”
I’m noting the presence of one individual departing by way of the loading dock, the AI announces. There’s a vehicle in the parking lot with its motor running…they’re leaving the property.
“Damn!” Maria swears.
I will endeavor to follow them by means of traffic cameras.
“Meanwhile, let’s go see how Tony’s doing,” JB suggests.
The hacker gasps. “Tony Stark is here?! I thought the Avengers were all in Madripoor!”
“Not all of them,” JB comments dryly.
When they reach the conference room, it turns out that their captives are the only ones without bullet-holes. None of the hostages have been harmed.
Several police and paramedics are on the scene already. Tony is arguing that smashing through a wall in a building he owns isn’t a crime. This is going to get ridiculous fast. The next thing you know, someone’s going to complain that he didn’t file a building permit first.
“I’m Maria Hill, I’m Chief of Security for Stark International,” she tells them. “This is James Barnes, my Deputy Chief.” JB’s eyebrows lift slightly, but his expression doesn’t change. “I was on site at the time of the incident, while Barnes and Stark came in as back-up. Between us, we managed to neutralize the threat and free the hostages.”
JB knows they’ll have to discuss this later. Deputy Chief? What the fuck? Is she joking? Or trying to cover our asses in front of the cops? I hope so--damn it, I like working in the kitchen. Still, his self-interest reminds him, being Deputy Chief of Security means working closely with the Chief of Security--even closer than they are already. Days and nights…. No, it’s a crazy idea.
Maria takes half the cops upstairs to show them the bodies there. Tony is besieged by the R&D geeks, as well as the hacker. Bucky explains his side of things to the other cops, who have custody of the contrite bodyguard. He checks that the freed hostages are all okay. He consults with JARVIS about added security until they can get the structure repaired. He’s trying to think of things that will help wrap this up in good time for Tony’s meeting and make life easier for Hill, who’s had a hell of a morning so far.
Although he’s tying up loose ends, something nags at him. It’s more than the escape of the ringleader of the thugs. Something’s missing. It isn’t until they’ve wrapped up the situation there and made it back to the Tower for the meeting that he realizes what--or who--it is.
Tony has changed out of his armor, but neither JB nor Hill have. There probably isn’t going to be a second attack on the same day, but Tony would certainly be a prime target if there was. They stand ready in the boardroom. JARVIS is on high alert. JB scans the executives seated around the conference table and suddenly he knows what was bothering him.
Seated midway down the table is a blonde woman in a trim business suit. Her name-tag lists her as Elizabeth Cochran…and Elizabeth Cochran was one of the employees listed as having logged in before the takeover, but now that JB thinks about, she wasn’t checked off on the list afterward. Co-workers mentioned she’d gone to the toilet, so he hadn’t thought about it again--but here she is, looking fresh and collected.
“Hill,” he breathes on her comm channel. “That woman in the plum--colored pants-suit. Her badge says she’s Elizabeth Cochran. She was logged in this morning at Rahway, but she wasn’t among the hostages, I’d swear it.”
“You’re right,” she agrees quietly. “Here she is. Which is more than a little suspicious, in light of the fact that our mastermind got away.”
Tony is startled when they interrupt the meeting to take his R&D Liaison with Defense into custody, but shrugs and says, “Do what you gotta do.” Cochran sputters, but without hired muscle, proves a less-than-formidable foe.
“She was in a position to know what was in the development pipeline, and apparently has ties to a foreign government,” Maria tells them later. “The last thing we want is our tech getting into the hands of the Latvarians. I don’t trust VonDoom any farther than I could throw him.”
“Good job,” Tony congratulates them., lifting his glass.
She and JB are having drinks with in the penthouse that evening, after the last of the loose ends have been wrapped up. Stark has insisted they keep the armor, although James keeps rubbing his wrist, not yet accustomed to the presence of the metal cuff. He’s wearing off-duty clothes--charcoal grey trousers and a cranberry-colored pullover…Maria approves. He looks sleek and polished, a complete change from the ragged, shaggy refuge they’d taken in last year. He’s demonstrated his reliability; she’s glad he’s on their side.
As if he caught her stray thought, Tony nods at James and says, “And congratulations on your promotion. JARVIS tells me you’re our new Deputy Chief of Security.”
JB face-palms. “Not a chance.”
Tony and Maria exchange glances. Characteristically, Tony is the first to speak.
“Look, buddy, I’m not saying you aren’t a terrific cook, but good cooks are a helluva lot easier to find than guys who can stop a group of industrial terrorists in their tracks in under five minutes. That’s talent we need.”
“Maybe it’s a talent I’m tired of using,” JB fires back. “Don’t you get it? I’ve been killing people since before you were born, and I hate it!”
“There’s a difference,” Hill says quietly. “Yes, you did a lot of heinous things for Hydra. But we’re not talking about sending you out to assassinate people. We want your experience to help protect them. You’ve got a lot of friends here in the Tower, James. You can help me keep them safe.”
“Just here?” His voice is wary.
“Most of the time, yes.” Maria studies him. He looks like he thinks he’s about to be trapped, and the last thing she wants to do is make James feel backed into a corner. She elaborates. “Maybe inspect some of the other Stark facilities for weak points. God knows, today might not have happened if Arnold had had a few more security audits before things got so lax. But there’s only one of me, and I don’t trust a lot of people.”
JB side-eyes Tony, who shrugs. “She’s got carte blanche to hire and fire within her department. If she wants you, I’m not arguing. Besides, I think she’s right. That’s why I had that armor ready.”
The glass in JB’s hand sloshes. Maria reaches out and takes it from him. He’s absolutely capable of squeezing it to death with his own hand. “James? I’m asking, not ordering you. But we work well together, don’t we? As soon as I knew you were incoming, I didn’t worry at all.”
“It’s just for Stark Industries?”
“What else would it be?” Maria asks, puzzled by his intensity.
James is staring at Tony, who looks equally perplexed--then he blinks. “What, you think I’m trying to recruit you into the Avengers? Nope, that’s not on the table. Hill needs you here, and I think you could be a real asset.” The former assassin winces. “I thought you and Steve had all your differences worked out?” Tony adds. “I’m surprised you’re not interested.”
JB sighs. “Yeah, we’re good now--but we’ve gone in different directions. We spent close to twenty years in each other’s pockets back in the day, but that was then. He doesn’t need me to baby-sit him any more, and I don’t want to undermine his authority, because I have no problem telling him to go shit in his hat if I think he’s wrong.”
“I’d pay money to see that,” Tony tells him gleefully.
“Enough with the comedy. Are you going to be my Deputy Chief or not?” Maria demands.
James smiles at her Damn it, why does he have to be do ridiculously hot?! “It would be an honor, Hill,” he responds. “May I have my drink back so we can toast it?”
After they’ve finished their drinks, she takes him to see his new office. It’s maybe a quarter the size of hers, which he finds oddly reassuring. Maybe a third the size, if you include the modest outer office.
“Most of the time, I expect you to be looking into day-to-day infractions--people forgetting or losing badges, background checks, that kind of thing. That’ll free me up to coordinate with other Stark facilities and keep up with what’s happening there.”
He prowls around the small space. It’s furnished in the same style as his apartment: sleek monochrome in shades of black and grey with industrial-looking lighting.
Cozy as a Soviet bunker, is his ironic thought.All the more reason to be out and about keeping an eye on things.
“And your assistant--” Hill is saying.
Assistant? Nope. He’s not really going to need an assistant, is he? “Never mind that,” he says, pinning Hill back against his desk.
She gives him That Look from under her dark brows, direct and unflinching. “Is that supposed to be your idea of seduction?” she challenges him. “I’ve been pushed around enough for one day, thanks.”
“No…” He kisses her left cheek. “Of course not.” Her right cheek receives a tender peck. “I wouldn’t dream of it.” Her lips…a lingering press, no tongue. “I certainly wouldn’t want to add to all the stress you’ve been through today…Chief….” He punctuates his words with a series of little kisses on her neck and throat. His hips haven’t backed off an inch.
Hill purrs. He knows how to push her buttons…right now, she’s midway between very relaxed, thanks to the booze and very aroused, thanks to James. She wraps her arms around his neck. “I’m sure I could’ve taken them down without your help…it would have taken longer, that’s all. I don’t think I was actually in danger--Cochran wasn’t planning to off anybody but Arnold. Apparently he was in on it with her and she didn’t want to pay him. Whereas you are incorruptible.”
A chuckle. “I don’t know about that,” he teases. “I can be bribed….”
With a bounce, she gets her legs around his waist and lets him push her back onto the desk. This late in the evening, the Tower is mostly deserted and his office is at least as private as his apartment.
“Enjoy it while you can, James.” She smiles up at him. “This is probably the only time you’ll ever see this desk without stacks of paper on it.”