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A Painted White Unknown

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"You've been acting weirdly," Natasha states. It's not an accusation. She's not even sure it's an inquiry, although she is curious. The comment feels something like what Natasha can vaguely identify as concern. It's one of her newer emotions and she pokes at it a bit, to see if it will expand or harden into something more definite. It does not.

Clint looks over at her and shrugs. "Weirdly how?"

Natasha can't decide if this is a test. They've been partners for almost three years and she trusts him as much as she's ever trusted anyone or anything, but that doesn't mean she's stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop. He brought her in almost nine months before their partnership, and she'd spent those months being unmade and rebuilt by people who weren't willing to do the things the first group had, and so weren't quite as successful. Natasha cooperated this time around, though, and she suspects it made quite a bit of difference as to the final result.

She knows, mostly because her main field of study has always been human behavior, that she's not meant to spy on her partner. But she doesn't think she has been spying. She thinks she has been...paying attention. She's pretty sure she is supposed to do that. Relationships are confusing when one actually tries to engage in one. She wishes she could sit outside herself and Clint and just watch. She'd have a much better idea of how to handle everything.

Natasha gathers up all the little shifts she's noticed, the slight changes in posture or tone of voice. She decides, "Happier, I guess. But also more scared."

She understands. Anything approaching happiness scares the crap out of her. SHIELD is the closest thing she's had to it, ever, and she wakes more nights than not in a panic, sure she's been found traitor, been thrown back to the wolves.

"Oh. Probably just the new thing with Phil. Shocking as this probably is to you, my track record on relationships hovers somewhere between craptastic and apocalyptic, and Phil's going to be here if I fuck it up, so, yeah." Clint smiles a little. "I mean, worth it, but I don't think I've felt this jittery over something since my actual first time."

Natasha knows everything in Clint's dossier and quite a few things that are not in it. She does not know when he lost his virginity. She's curious, but she figures that's a professional hazard. She doesn't ask. Instead she says, "But you're his best agent. And he—"

She manages to cut herself off just before she says looks at you like the world's axis rests along your spine. Discretion among friends is a trait slowly learned, strangely, even if discretion has been a skill her whole life. Lamely, she finishes, "He wants it to work as well."

Clint rubs a hand over his face. "Look, don't take this the wrong way, or anything, but the whole reason I never even tried to sleep with you was because the thought of fucking what we have up literally caused, like, chest pain from panic, and shit. I—I'm really good at not being good enough, and Phil...Phil's just plain really good."

Natasha blinks, trying to focus, to sort out all of the information she's just been given, free. It's always something of a shock to the system when that happens. She knows she's meant to concentrate on Clint's concern about his own worth, but she can't get there without stopping to ask, "You—you never—it wasn't because I'm...me?"

Clint frowns. "Tasha?"

It is her turn to shrug. "You, more than most, know what was done to me. Who I am. I just figured—"

"Wow, okay, don't finish that sentence. No. No. I mean, in hindsight, I think we're a little too much alike, but I—Nat." He took her face in his hands, and she let him. "Nat, anyone would be lucky to have you."

Clint's a special case of, well, Clint, and probably right about their similarities. But it's something of a revelation that it wasn't her being herself that caused the problem there. She tucks that knowledge away, where it will be available to take out and review later. Then she turns her face a bit to kiss at Clint's palms. "You know why you've always 'fucked up' before?"

Clint huffs. "Do tell."

"For the same reason you ran off eight handlers before Phil: they weren't the right ones."

"That so?"

She leans in and presses her forehead to his for a moment and then slips away, making sure she's out of sight before he can call for her. She needs to think.

*

Natasha has always liked dancing for the mental space it allows her. Ballet in particular is very systematic, controlled, each move fitting together neatly. When she's warming up, or even in the middle of working on a new move, her mind becomes seductively silent, only her breath and the beat behind her, metronome or music.

The first time Clint and Coulson take leave together, Natasha spends the first four hours dancing, and then requests a mission. Fury stares at her for a long time, but Natasha can win any staring contest in the world, and this is no exception. She spends the next three weeks and change playing eager slut to a Hungarian diplomat who's managed to worm his way into HYDRA's good graces by way of adequate money and being a simpering dumbass.

When she gets back, she does not allow herself to shower until after the debriefing and the immediate post-mission paperwork. Coulson, who is back, does the debrief, his questions professional and impersonal, but Natasha reads people for a living, and knows Coulson better than most. He wants her to tell him what's actually going on.

She lets herself turn the water just a shade too hot, but doesn't stay in the shower past having shampooed her hair once and scrubbed herself with exfoliating gloves once. For her, there is no fine line between enough to feel better and too much when it comes to trying to get clean. She has more than once stayed in a shower long enough to acquire first-degree burns and scrub unto bleeding full patches of skin on her palms or the insides of her thighs.

Clint's in her rooms when she steps out. She's already in pajamas, disliking nakedness at times like this, but that's not the point. Nor is the fact that he has her permission to be in her rooms at any time the point. The point is that she wants him there more than she should, and she's got to be pissed at someone for it and he's a much more convenient target than herself.

He must see something on her face because he holds up his hands. "Just checking, Tash. You didn't even text."

"Tired," she tells him.

His eyes narrow a bit. All he says, though, is, "C'mon, I got you empanadas."

She knows it's a bad thing that he knows almost all her weaknesses, but at the moment, she can't be upset. She plows through five of the empanadas and then stumbles to bed. A few minutes later, he's there, wrapping himself behind her. She shakes herself free, turning her face into his chest. He strokes at the back of her neck and makes an unhappy sound. She doesn't usually have a problem with him holding her from her back.

She mutters, "Y'should go. Coulson."

"He knows where I am. If he wants me, he can come get me."

"Clint," she says.

"Sh, just sleep."

She's too damn tired to argue against what she wants most.

*

Natasha does not meet Maria Hill under good circumstances. She has just returned from a mission that went so bad so quickly that FUBAR doesn't cover it. Coulson and Clint are both in medical, the only reason she's not is because—unlike the other two—she can still stand. Clint's taken post-mission duties probably close to fifty times over the years as Natasha gets herself bandaged, but she knows this time will bring her personal count to sixty-two. She prefers the other way around.

Hill is new to headquarters, and Natasha has heard of her. She has quite a record, was transferred from one of the satellite offices to a surprisingly high position. She is sent to debrief while Natasha can keep her eyes open. Natasha can see the suspicion on her face the second she walks in the room.

Natasha is too fucking tired for this. "Go. Have them send someone who will not twist every word I say."

Hill opens her mouth, anger flashing in her eyes for a moment. She sucks a quick breath in through her nose, loosens her shoulders, and says, "Fair enough."

She walks out of the room and Natasha is a little delighted by how unexpectedly easy that had been.

Really, after the eleven days she'd just had, she should have known better.

Hill walks back in, holds out her hand and says, "Lieutenant Maria Hill. Sorry we’re having to meet under these circumstances."

Natasha considers the woman's stance, the bright, cold inquisitiveness of her eyes. After a second, she realizes Hill did exactly what Natasha told her to, just not in the way Natasha thought she would. Natasha raises her hand and shakes. "Natasha Romanova."

*

Without being able to say why, Natasha finds herself going to join Hill in the cafeteria one day a few weeks later. There are plenty of tables open and Hill doesn't do anything to suggest invitation—she doesn't even look up from the file she's reading—but Natasha has never had social graces in any instance. She can pretend with the best of them, but left to her own devices, she just finds them annoying.

The other woman glances up at the sound of Natasha's tray sliding onto the table. She looks at Natasha for a moment, then goes back to her reading. Natasha considers the fact that such an action would be her sign she wanted to be left alone. She even considers the fact that normally, she would respect such a wish. But it has been a long time since she has seen another woman and not felt the vague threat the Red Room programmed into her, or the fear of someone who does what she does as well, if not better. It's been even longer since she has felt the kind of curiosity Maria Hill stirs in her, and while she can control herself, she chooses not to.

She eats quietly for a few minutes, half thinking of something worthwhile to say, half waiting to see if Hill will crack. She doesn't. Natasha is pleased. She asks, "How do you feel about muting stupid spy movies and adding your own commentary?"

Hill looks up. "Was there something you needed, Agent Romanova?"

Natasha knows better than to answer that question. She might be interested in whatever Hill has to offer, but admitting to having needs is tantamount to baring her throat and putting a knife in Hill's hand. Not her thing.

She also knows she should leave it. Hill has pedigree. A college education, a decorated military career, she's a soldier more than a killer. She's out of Natasha's league in the same way Coulson has always been, if not Clint. And Natasha suspects that Clint just doesn't realize he's out of her league. But Clint has Coulson, now, and whether she'll ever admit it aloud or not, Natasha needs something. She can survive on scraps, but absolutely nothing is beyond her.

"An opinion on whether I should Netflix '39 Steps' or 'The Ipcress File' next," Natasha tells her, adding a bit of a smile at the last moment, careful not to overdo it.

Hill just glares. "If Director Fury suggested I need a friend—"

Natasha could help laughing if she wanted to, but she doesn't bother. "If Fury wanted you to make friends, he wouldn't want it to be with me."

Something flickers in Hill's expression. For anyone less trained than Natasha in reading others it might be gone too fast, but Natasha sees the moment of uncertainty, bright and clear. She's about to press her advantage when Hill says, "You have a point."

Natasha deepens her smile ever so slightly. "So, spy movies?"

"Noir films," Hill states. "And mud pie ice cream."

Natasha will get some strawberry for herself. She can work with this particular counter. "Done."

*

Maria laughs at the worst of Natasha's jokes, but never at the ones she knows a mixed crowd would find funny. It's stupidly endearing, and Natasha cannot deny that she wants to taste the laughter. Maria is exactly her type: athletic and angular and just a little bit mean. Maria has a small scar in the shadow of her jaw that makes Natasha want to bite into the skin, to leave her own marks.

Instead, she makes fun of Hollywood's idea of intelligence work, eats ice cream, and behaves herself, at least as much as she ever does. A week later—it is supposed to be four days, but work comes first for both of them—Maria brings the ice cream and lets Natasha pick the movies. Natasha wonders if that's Maria's version of acquaintance-level trust. If it is, Natasha can respect that.

Maria invites Natasha to join poker night with her and some of the people she'd served with, but she doesn't get invited back after the first time. Maria explains, "Your poker face makes them shit themselves," in the same way she would debrief Natasha about mission specs.

Natasha mutters to herself about grown-fucking-adults but lets it go, asking if Maria wants to go down to the range for a bit. They amuse themselves with half-assed shooting competitions for about an hour. Natasha loses, but just barely. Her skills lie in the up-close and personal, anyway.

Maria tells her, "You owe me a drink."

Natasha warns, "The only bar I really know has been closed three times by health inspectors."

"You hang out with Barton too often."

Natasha declines to agree or disagree. Maria says, "I'll pick the place."

*

"When you said drink—" Natasha starts, as they walk up to a coffee shop. "Not that I care, but you might've mentioned."

Maria all-but rolls her eyes as she leads them to a door inside the shop, beyond which is a completely different space, almost as if they've stepped back into the twenties. Maria deadpans, "Welcome to Bathtub Gin."

Natasha has to admit: it's the kind of place she'd choose to impress a girl. It's not that she thinks that's what Maria is trying to do, but that only makes it more offensive, because she's managed without bothering. Not one to dwell on things that piss her off but which she's unable to kick in the face, Natasha asks, "What's your poison?"

Maria slides into a booth and a waitress in a nice imitation of 20s-burlesque glides up to greet them. The way she looks at them, Natasha's pretty sure they could take her home afterward. If they were really a thing, Natasha might suggest it. As it is, she might double back once they've parted ways. This girl isn't what she wants, but she's tall and brunette and Natasha is very good at fooling herself.

Maria orders a Creole without hesitation. Natasha peruses her choices for a moment before going with a 2-ounce Death's Door on the rocks.

There's jazz playing lightly in the background: enough to hear, not enough to interfere with intimacy. Maria taps her fingers to the table in time. Natasha tilts her head. "I was imagining something a little less vintage."

"More pizza and darts?" Maria asks, the hint of a smile gracing her face.

That doesn't fit, either, though, so Natasha says, "Karaoke as a distraction, easy anonymity."

"I have a few of those, too," Maria admits after a moment.

It takes Natasha longer than it usually would to realize there's a 'but' there. "But?"

The drinks arrive, and Maria takes a sip of hers. Natasha thinks she's going to lie, or at least ignore the question, but after a second sip, she focuses her attention on Natasha as though she's made a choice and says, "My dad is pretty much a first class dick."

Natasha is not unfamiliar with this phenomenon: her best friend is Clint. If it weren't for Phil, she'd probably think herself lucky not to have parents. She nods.

"But, a lot less so when he's listening to jazz or watching documentaries about the various world wars."

Natasha understands. Fond memories might be impossible, and there's an art to finding comfort where it can be found. "I don't know much about jazz."

Maria actually smiles at that. It's not broad or obvious, but it is gorgeous. She says, "This is early '20s jazz, probably about '22 to '24, somewhere in there. New Orleans Rhythm Kings, I think. New Orleans jazz has a different sound to it than Midwestern or even some Dixieland, depending on the era."

"You know all that from your dad?"

Maria shakes her head. "My fondness for jazz surpassed his, in the end."

"Phil likes jazz."

"Mm," Maria murmurs. "Forties big-band sound. Not my favorite, but it has its moments."

The song changes. Natasha sips at her gin and asks, "What about this one?"

*

Natasha lives in a sleek, modern, largely empty condo in the meat-packing district because it's an easy distance from HQ and because the real estate firm she'd hired had told her it was an excellent investment. Intellectually, even socially, she understands the significance of having a home, but since claiming her life as her own, Natasha's never really wanted somewhere to go so much as somewhere to be and someone to be with. She doesn't avoid her condo: it has a lovely view off one side, and she bought herself an utterly decadent bed, but she doesn't miss it when she's not there.

She's not sure what she'd been expecting Maria's living quarters to be like, but whatever it had been, the reality proves different. It's not long before Natasha's put on a mission that ends with her wanting the longest shower in history, and Coulson is off handling Clint, so they send Maria to do the debrief. Maria is absolutely professional in a way Natasha associates with Coulson and few others, but when she's done she says, "Gonna use the showers here?"

Natasha nods. SHIELD has the best water pressure, ever, in the history of bathing techniques, or anything else involving a spout. Maria asks, "Wanna come to my place afterward? I've got 'The Third Man' queued on Netflix."

For a second, Natasha thinks she's starting to create her own reality. Hers may not be, but she gets that homes are private, places you only invite friends who earn the right. Oh, she has the vague sense that an average person might extend that courtesy to a greater number than Natasha could ever imagine, but intelligence officers are not average. Their home is something outside the war they are never able to stop fighting.

Then Maria says, "I'll text you the address. You can stop in if you feel like it."

When Natasha emerges from her shower, pruned and red and feeling only slightly better, a Woodside address has been texted to her phone. She ignores her unease at the distance between what her skill set tells her the invitation means, and the world as she knows it, dresses, and gets on the subway.

Maria's building is home to an Irish pub on the ground floor and sports some serious tag art just about everywhere but the front. It's a three floor walk up, and she's on the third. Natasha knocks on the door with the correct number and Maria opens it a few seconds later, looking surprised. Natasha sympathizes, seeing as how she hadn't been sure she was going to show, herself.

Maria steps out of the doorway. "Come in."

Maria's place is full of exposed brick and nicely framed photographs of all types of scenes and objects. Her furniture is all sturdy, well-made pieces, wooden and clearly older than either woman. On one wall, she has an LP collection displayed on shelves, hundreds upon hundreds of them. On the record player, at the moment, Cole Porter yodels out his own tunes.

Choosing the music to focus on—it seems safe, they've already discussed it—Natasha says, "I like this one."

Maria cocks her head and Natasha clarifies, "De-Lovely."

"You like Cole Porter?"

"I like 'Anything Goes.'"

Maria blinks slowly. "The Broadway musical?"

Natasha shrugs. She's gotten that reaction more than once. "I like the ones with dancing and happy endings."

Maria thinks about this. "Don't they all have dancing and happy endings?"

"Sadly, no," Natasha tells her. "That is a myth."

"Okay," Maria says after a moment. "Uh. I got shepherd's pie from downstairs. Interested?"

Natasha is ravenous. She follows Maria to her breakfast nook, where the tiny table is as well-made as everything else and considers the collection of antique glass bottles that peppers the kitchen and dining area. Maria hands her a plate. Natasha says, "Thanks," and, "Your home is really…"

"Old-fashioned?" Maria suggests.

"Real," Natasha finishes.

"As opposed to fake?" Maria isn't kidding, she doesn't understand.

"It just, well, means something about you."

There's a pause then Maria says, "Okay," again.

"That's your response when I say something a child-reared assassin would say, isn't it?"

Maria stills for a second, then smiles. "I learned it from all the people I dated who found my military focus outside of their expertise or comfort zone."

Natasha tries to share the smile. She's not entirely sure that's a good thing. Maria adds, "I'm better at adapting than any of them ever were."

*

It's not exactly that Natasha means to stridently avoid having sex with Maria. Rather, she thinks not having carnal relations with a superior officer and the first friend she's had outside of her team ever is a better idea than doing so. In her experience, sex is one of two things: a professional necessity, or a physical exchange. It's occasionally enjoyable, sometimes funny, but always a complication in personal relationships.

But Maria's wearing Capri-length cargo pants that show off her ankles and sipping O'Doul from a bottle and when she says, "It's late, wanna stay?" Natasha forgets why she should say, "No, I'm just gonna go home."

Natasha isn't exactly competitive, not when it doesn't matter, but on occasion she likes to show off. Mostly, she doesn't need to. She thinks this might be an instance where she does. She suspects the people who have been with Maria have often had to work for it; Natasha doesn't think Maria would accept anything less.

On the other hand, Natasha's not sure 'I was raised to do this professionally' is really how she wants to present herself at this juncture. It's a conundrum, and Natasha does her best to compromise by approaching the situation slowly. Maria initiates the kiss, the slightly bitter taste of beer still on her tongue, her hands rucking up Natasha's shirt to settle firmly around her sides. Natasha lets Maria take control of the kissing, opens to her, leans in, even as she uses her hands to brush along different spots of skin—behind the ears, the back of the neck, elbows, wrists—determined to find what makes Maria purr or buck or melt.

They're both on the couch, still sitting, and when Natasha manages to get a hand between them and sweep a finger along the line of Maria's hip bone, Maria sucks down on Natasha's tongue so hard it almost hurts. Almost, except for how Natasha likes being right on that line. She doesn't care to cross over it, but something about knowing she's on the good side is an undeniable turn on.

Her hands push up at the cotton-tee Maria is wearing, and she breaks the kiss just long enough to pull it over Maria's head. When she unhooks Maria's bra, Maria does the rest of the work getting it off. Natasha cups her hands under Maria's breasts. Maria is all corded muscle and hard planes except for her breasts, really. They're small but Natasha has never been worried about the size of things so much as whether they fit, and Maria's do, perfectly.

Maria tugs at Natasha's shirt in what is clearly a sign that she's impatient with being the only half-naked person in the room. Natasha laughs a little into the kiss and leans back long enough to comply with the demand. Maria dips down, catching one of Natasha's nipples between her lips, sucking hard enough to get Natasha back to that teetering precipice right before pain. Natasha lets her head fall back and murmurs, "Yeah."

She gives Maria some time to explore, because Maria seems to enjoy it. Not so long that the significant history written out on her body in lines of raised skin gets distracting. When Maria flicks her tongue inside Natasha's navel, Natasha moves, flipping them. It takes her less than two seconds to have Maria pinned with her pants down.

Maria growls, "Nice use of surprise."

Natasha smiles with all her teeth. She hasn't gotten where she is by playing fair. She slides down to the floor, pulls Maria's pants off the rest of way, and presses Maria's thighs wide with her hands. She doesn't take her time, doesn't inch along those thighs, despite the temptation. Instead, she penetrates Maria with her tongue and drags her way up to Maria's clit. Maria pants, "Oh. Shit."

Natasha lets the feeling of having won something roll over her upon hearing Maria get slightly less put together, slightly less in charge. Then she pulls out all of her tricks to see what works best. Maria likes a light touch, she realizes, with a bit of teeth for accent. Natasha draws her orgasm from her, even as she fingers herself. Natasha's free hand is still on Maria's stomach, and the way it trembles, tightening as Maria rides out the orgasm makes her double her own efforts, tipping over just as Maria is starting to come down.

When the rushing sensation of Natasha's entire body fades, Maria says, "You know, patience is a virtue."

Natasha cocks her head. Maria asks, "Seriously?"

Natasha shrugs. She can be as patient, if not infinitely more than, the next person; she's got no idea what Maria's on about. Maria sighs. "It was my turn."

"I—" Natasha stops herself before admitting she'd had no idea Maria had wanted a turn. She's not used to doing this for mutual pleasure with women. Men, a few times over the years, but the women Natasha would have considered it with have never given any return signals. Instead she tries, "Next time?" and is glad all of her training has taught her to eradicate hope from her tone.

"Next time," Maria says dryly, like it's not even a question, "I go first."

*

Clint's piloting, so it's just the two of them in the jet when Natasha asks, "You and Phil are dating, right?"

Clint glances over at her. "Is this a new game where we ask each other easy questions, since nobody else ever does?"

She glares half-heartedly. "I mean, is that what you'd call it?"

Clint looks a bit confused, but he says, "I guess? I dunno. We're together."

Together. Natasha sits with the word for a while, but it doesn't feel like a descriptor for her and Maria. Clint is still stealing looks at her, not even really bothering to hide it. He asks, "Is this about the fact that you and Hill have been spending a lot of time together?"

Natasha hasn't said anything about Maria, and while Clint is observant, she'd thought him distracted enough by his own life to miss the change. She's not sure what to say, now that he's called her on it.

After the silence has gone on for a bit, Clint asks, "Was it supposed to be a secret? You weren't acting like it."

Oh. "No, I just didn't have anything to say."

Clint smiles a little at that. "Nat."

"I thought I was making a friend." A friend she really wouldn't mind sleeping with, sure, but a friend. "She's not afraid of me."

"Everyone's a little afraid of you, it's just a matter of degree," Clint tells her. Sometimes, she can't decide whether she appreciates his honesty, or wants to shove his balls back up to where they came from.

"Clint."

"You sleeping with her?"

It's happened more than once, now, so Natasha nods.

"Interested in sleeping with anyone else?"

Natasha considers. "Not currently."

Not that Natasha goes around wanting to jump people, but she takes Clint's point: she usually has more interest in scoping other people out.

"Is she?"

All the signs Natasha is reading say no, but one of the times when Natasha's people-sense skills can be completely fucked is when she's in some type of intimate relationship involving emotions with that person. "Probably not?"

"That's probably dating," Clint says. "Congrats. She's a total ten."

He's set the autopilot, so Natasha does shove him off the chair for that sentiment.

*

The next mission, Natasha has to assess Stark, and she's just got other issues to contend with, all more important. Stark, who annoys the crap out of every living being, kind of makes Natasha think of what Clint would be like if he'd had too much money and too little supervision. He's dangerous, but not out of the down-deep desire to create danger, more from constantly being overlooked by those who should see him.

The way he flirts with her should make total sense. Or, no, it does make total sense, it just doesn't fit into Natasha's world view the way seducing a mark always has before. She might let Tony touch her, if the mission requires it—so far, she sees no reason it must—but she doesn't know that she will be able to walk off the touch the way she always has before. Every look she gives him feels like it's meant for Maria, and every time he glances at her she wants to explain to him, in detail, that all of what he's seeing is for someone else.

Given all of this, Natasha is surprised to find herself caring whether he dies or not. To some extent, it's because she respects Pepper, who clearly loves the guy, faults and all. All the same, it's weird, because emotional involvement in missions is not her MO.

Things become even more confusing when she finds herself infiltrating Hammer Industries, roughly four blocks from Maria's place. Her first thought is that she wants Maria as far away from all of this as possible, which is stupid, because Maria's a damn professional. Her second thought is that it feels kind of odd to empathize with Stark, with how he must feel, having Rhodes incapable of ceasing the attack on him. She wonders, not for the first time, if what she's got with Maria is teaching her things about being human that none of her other experiences have ever managed.

She forces herself to focus then, to contain the damage, to save the world, to make everything safe. And when she's done, she goes in and fills out paperwork and doesn't tell anybody about her thoughts during the mission.

*

Maria goes on a mission with one of her specialists and another agent and comes back with a broken wrist, two broken ribs and a concussion. When Natasha can, she goes down to medical and holds out a bag of mint meltaways. Maria takes them with her good hand and tilts her head. "Okay?"

"I told them, if you wanted, they could release you into my supervision."

"Really?" Maria asks, and Natasha can't read her expression. Some of it might be the concussion, which has her appearing a little vague.

Natasha shrugs. "Most of medical wets itself when they have to deal with me. It's useful on occasion."

"The question was more about you wanting to deal with having to wake me up at regular intervals and bully me into taking pills that make me fuzzy and therefore, panicky."

Natasha says slowly, "The pills things would be pretty hypocritical on my part."

Maria just looks at her, unimpressed. "Your childhood and your current profession don't lend themselves well to having a bedside manner. I don't expect you to be Florence Nightengale, nor do I need it."

Oh. Natasha can't decide whether she appreciates Maria's honesty, or wishes the woman had just said no. She considers just turning on her heel and going, but she's learned to front better than that, so instead she asks, "There someone else I could find you? Otherwise they'll keep you."

Maria narrows her eyes as best she can. "Something just happened. You just did something weird."

Since Natasha knows denial never works, and is a little thrown by Maria having noticed—either she's losing her touch, or Maria is ridiculously good—she settles for a bland, "What?"

Maria draws in a slow breath and then exhales. "I feel like shit, Nat. I just went on a failed mission with Dumb and Dumber, barely made it back, let alone accomplishing mission objectives and all I know is you're being weird. I can't do better than that right now."

Natasha doesn't think it's weird to be offended that the person she's sleeping with would prefer to be in a pseudo-hospital rather than cared by for her at home, but what the hell does she know? The only people who let her take care of them are Clint and Phil, and even then, only when the other isn't available. Maybe they're just exceptions, or unusually forgiving of Natasha being Natasha.

Unsure of what to say, Natasha goes with, "Just thought I could try and help. I'll find a doc."

She does turn to leave then, and Maria says, "Wait."

Natasha doesn't turn back, but she does stop. Maria says, "Sometimes I can be kind of defensive about needing help."

Natasha spins around at that. "You're not wrong about—"

"Doesn't matter," Maria cuts her off. "What I said, that wasn't about you, that was about my shit. And I think I kind of hit a nerve that I can't see, but I—If you actually want to come back to my place and stay and make sure I don't wake up dead, I'd, uh, I'd really like that."

"Clint, he says I'm not too terrible at this kind of thing."

Maria laughs, then winces. "Ringing endorsement, Romanova."

Natasha smiles, though, because it kind of is.

*

Once Maria is in her pajamas and safely tucked into her own bed, Natasha goes into the living room and calls Phil. He answers, "Thought you were off-duty."

"At Hill's place," she confirms, then pauses for a moment. "I don't really know a lot of details about her. Not like—"

Phil waits a beat, then asks, "Not like Clint and me? Or you and Clint?"

Natasha gives a non-committal, "Mm."

"The three of us took years, Tash."

Natasha knows that, of course. She puts the heel of her palm into her right eye, pressing back against the throbbing that's taken up residence there. "I'm not supposed to spy on people I'm in relationships with, I know that. But I don't know how else to get the information."

Sometimes Natasha worries that she can't fit herself to the world and its myriad rules, rules she only knows because Phil or Sitwell or Fury or someone has told her. Phil breaks into her concerns with, "Well, asking usually works."

"I interrogate people for a living," Natasha says quietly.

Phil lets that sit for a moment before asking, "What's the difference between asking someone something, and interrogating them?"

"Less mindfucking?" Natasha guesses.

"In the latter instance, you're going after information the other person doesn't want to give you. What do you want to know about Maria?"

Natasha feels herself tighten up and forces her muscles to unwind. "Stupid things."

"Give me an example."

"Favorite food. So maybe I could have it for her, like—like you guys do, sometimes."

"We're going to work on your definition of what's stupid later, but for now, Tash, I honestly think she's not going to mind giving you that information. You just need to ask. That is a normal thing people do in these types of situations, I promise."

Natasha bites back the sigh that's building, because that's kind of the problem: she will fuck normal up, given the chance, and she damn well knows it. Still, she appreciates his confidence. "Okay."

"And Tash?"

"Yeah?" She's tired, working to keep it from her voice. He'll hear anyway.

"Tell her your favorites, while you're at it. So she doesn't have to feel like she's interrogating you down the line somewhere."

Natasha makes a face because nobody is there to see, and hangs up on Phil.

*

Natasha cooks up an omelet and wakes Maria to check on her. The omelet has whatever Natasha could find leftover in the refrigerator: some deli ham, sharp cheddar, tomato and broccoli. It's not the best combination Natasha has ever made, but it's protein-rich and something Natasha can honestly say, "I like this when I'm injured," about.

She brings the plate and a glass of water to Maria, who looks at it with something like regret and says, "I'm still nauseated."

"Try drinking, anyway," Natasha says, getting her started on the water.

After several sips and a few moments resting, Natasha is able to get her to take some small bites, slowly. She doesn't get through much of it, but Maria admits, "That helped, thanks."

"You should rest again," Natasha says, instead of something real, like she promised herself she would. Natasha is a pro at breaking promises to herself.

Maria smiles a little, but drops off quickly. Natasha cleans dishes and does some topical snooping of Maria's music collection—she always finds new things—in the hour between needing to wake Maria up again. She steeps some peppermint tea, making a face when she discovers Maria has only bags. She doesn't even really mean to talk as she gets Maria to sip at the tea, but she finds herself saying, "This isn't real tea."

"It's fake tea," Maria says, flat and maybe amused.

"It's trash," Natasha corrects. "It's more cotton-mill than leaf-based."

Maria tilts her head, then winces, but manages to say, "You're a tea snob."

"Trash isn't worth ingesting," Natasha explains patiently.

"And yet, it settles my stomach."

Natasha sighs. Maria laughs a bit, and says, "So, what I'm hearing is that if I steep you some Lipton while you're in recovery mode, I'm sleeping on the couch for the next week?"

Natasha doesn't blink, but only because she's been trained out of it since having been an embryo. "This isn't quid pro quo."

Maria takes a long sip of the tea. "I'm too tired to have this conversation, really, but, are you here because you think you have to be?"

Natasha does think she's supposed to be, but she also doesn't think that matters, because the last time she did what she was supposed to simply because it was expected of her was well before SHIELD. She takes Maria's point: she's here because she wants to be. After a moment, she says, "I'm working on understanding reciprocity."

Maria smiles then, tired but genuine. "It's gonna have to wait a little while longer. At least until next time I wake up."

*

Natasha stays over that night, and the next, twining herself around Maria, but otherwise simply sleeping. Outside of with Clint, it's not something she's ever done with another person. She's always assumed she likes it because Clint is synonymous with safety in her world. But there's something impossibly nice about waking to the soft in-out of Maria's breath against her shoulder and feeling as if she's rested for the first time in weeks.

She pours them cereal for breakfast, even going so far as to cut a banana up into the two bowls, and starts the coffee maker. She's about to take things to Maria when the other woman stumbles into the kitchen area, barefoot and with her hair mussed and kind of perfect in a way Natasha can't explain.

Natasha says, "I'm heading back in a few." Thinking about how Clint and Phil have taken care of her before, she adds, "Need anything while I'm out?"

Maria shakes her head. "Just more sleep. If you wanted to pick up something with toffee in it, however, I wouldn't complain."

Natasha has never asked Clint or Phil for anything. Occasionally they'll bully her into admitting she's out of toilet paper, or whatever. She's surprised by how much she likes that Maria has entrusted her to get this part of things right. She nods, "Certainly."

She means to finish breakfast, brush her teeth and head out. Somehow, she ends up being there until Maria has crawled back into bed and settled.

*

Natasha is a creature of the present. She might acknowledge, learn from, and care about the past, and she might make plans for the future, now and then, but mostly she concentrates on what is happening in the moment, and how to either solve the present problem or enjoy the good times while they last. She is not one for marking time.

As such, she gets a little blindsided by Maria's, "Hey, next Thursday is roughly our one year. Wanna see if we can get Friday off and take a road trip? I looked around, and it turns out Connecticut Rep is doing 'Music Man.'"

Natasha loves that musical. She remembers telling Maria, but it was in passing, a joke about librarians aimed at the SHIELD archivist who was giving Maria fits regarding security clearance. Because she gets things like this wrong all the time—and because she didn't see Maria as being someone who kept track of these things—Natasha asks, "As an anniversary thing?"

Maria shrugs. "My longest relationship to date was a little less than two years, and that was a friends-with-benefits thing. I guess it's anniversaryish. I just figured it'd be fun."

Natasha already knows Maria's dating history, and not because she's spied on her or even interrogated the information out of her. It's just come up, over the past…huh, year. "Probably a lot of fun."

"Are you freaking out? You've got the expression that is either you freaking and covering it up, or just thinking too quickly to be bothered with schooling your face."

"I'm okay," Natasha says, and she's even pretty sure it's the truth. Oh, she'll spend some time picking Clint's brain about this later, maybe throw some questions at Phil. But she doesn't feel scared or shocky, she feels like she'd appreciate it if these plans don't go awry. SHIELD employment has a way of screwing with her personal life that she hadn't noticed, until recently, is pretty fucking annoying.

"Because if you are, we can just go back to pretending like we're not exclusive and spend ninety percent of our free time together out of convenience, or lack of conscious choice." Maria's tone is dull-edged with a tinge of sarcasm, but underneath, there's insecurity about the situation.

Natasha has reveled in making others feel that exact insecurity. In this instance, she says, "I'd prefer it the other way."

"Other way?"

"Where I buy you an anniversary gift you pretend to like and wear a dress to the show you do like and we spend the weekend being consciously anniversaryish." Natasha tilts her head, smirking just a bit.

Maria's eyes flare with interest for a mere second before she recovers her composure. She says, "Make sure you file the proper leave-request forms, Agent."

*

Natasha fills out the forms with more care and clarity than she can usually be bothered by, and it wins her a weekend with just the two of them. Maria does her hair up with a pretty little vintage headband the night of the show. She sweeps her eyes over Natasha's black Jackie Kennedy-esque number and holds Natasha's hand throughout the show.

It occurs to her, as the meter of the closing strains of music play, that she might be interested in marking this time, these moments, in keeping them for herself.

*

Natasha's noticed that considerable amounts of her belongings have somehow been assimilated into Maria's place, but she hasn't thought about what it might mean. So it surprises her when Maria says, "My lease is coming up. You wanna find somewhere that's a little more us and little less me?"

Natasha's reaction, which is to stare at Maria blankly for the better part of sixty seconds, is perhaps not the best response. Maria says, "Or we could keep living separate lives until the time when you feel the need to escape."

Natasha hears the anger in Maria's voice, but isn't entirely sure how things escalated this quickly. "I don't—you asked me to move in with you. Aren't I supposed to get some time to decide that sort of thing?"

Maria takes a very controlled breath. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I've spent the last twenty-one months even beginning to figure you out. And it's not like I'm Miss Share-a-Lot, but at least you know I have a dad. And that I named a tree in my backyard out of the desire for someone to talk to. You know why I went into the military and why SHIELD.

"What I know about you? Aside from the food you like and your taste in American musical theater? I know from a file, Nat. You don't trust me. I'm not even sure—I think, mostly, you care about me inasmuch as you care about anyone who's not Barton or Coulson. But I spent my entire childhood with a father who didn't care, and I promised myself better if I ever met someone."

Maria's eyes are bright with tears, but her cheeks are dry. Natasha makes herself not panic. It is a skill she has honed in situations a million times worse than this one. She is having a hard time implementing it, nonetheless. Because she does not know how to answer the accusations, or if Maria is even wrong, she says, "I don't remember my parents. I don't remember—all I have to give you is pain and anger and evil. And I—" She shakes her head. "You should have better than that."

There's a moment when Natasha's not entirely sure she isn’t about to be decked. Then the tension seeps from Maria, and she runs a hand over her face. "Fuck, Nat."

Natasha bites the inside of her cheek. She wants to touch Maria, to have some physical sense of where they are, which is easier to understand when in contact. Instead, she says, "I don't—this is your home, right?"

Maria nods slowly. Natasha asks, "And that means something?"

More nodding. Natasha says, "But you're willing to change it to fit me in, make me part of it."

Maria narrows her eyes. "I'm in love here. I realize it's not glamorous, or anything, but it took me a fuck of a long time to realize I could love someone, and I'm still getting used to the idea. And yeah, that makes me want to make you part of it, of home, of everything."

Natasha doesn't respond in kind. She knows that she wants Maria around more often than not, which isn't something she can say about most people. She knows she'd jump in front of a bullet for her, or take a week's worth of interrogation in her stead. She knows the thought of not having Maria in her life causes emotions she won't even let herself investigate. She knows this isn't the first time she should have explained about herself, her methods of survival, but it's going to be, and as there is nothing she can do to change that, she will just have to try her best to make sure this is not too late.

"We were—the other girls and I, in the Red Room—we were given things. Well, we found them, but it was intentional, both the finding and that we not know we were supposed to have come across them. Not dolls or anything so tangible, but some little thing which we were meant to form an attachment to. Tiny, stupid, treasures. This was done when we were six or seven, old enough to both develop full responses and learn from whatever lesson was being taught.

"Mine was just this button. Black and with four tiny holes and it felt so smooth under my palm, knew all my secrets and kept them. When they 'found' it after eight or so months, they melted it down into tiny, sharp plastic scraps and pushed them under my fingernails while they were still hot. If I screamed, it meant no food for twenty-four hours."

Maria was breathing too quickly and Natasha wanted her stomach to settle, but she had started and she wasn't going to stop until she was finished. "Now it's almost laughable, the technique is so textbook. I know what they did and why it shouldn't matter, but I learned—no, it's not learning. It's more than that, like instinct only deeper. The doctors call it behavioral conditioning. Everything in me kicks and bites and rages against keeping anything, attaching at all. I'm not supposed to keep things or moments or people."

She knows this: "But you fuck all that right up." She swallows and forces out the words, "I want a home with you. My first home with you. But I…I don't know that that's enough. I don't know that I will ever…have what it is you deserve."

Maria smiles, and it's only then that a few of her tears spill over. She nods. "It is. Enough. For now."

Cautiously, Natasha leans in to kiss Maria. Maria responds, and it's a while before they get to talking about neighborhoods they both like.

*

They end up in Astoria, with a rental house, because Natasha feels more secure with an entire structure to rig out for the unsuspecting—or highly suspecting—intruder. Natasha helps Maria pack her place up, but when Maria tries to return the favor, they both discover there's not much to bring. Natasha isn't terribly surprised; she's always been hesitant to collect anything. She would use the word afraid if she were brave enough to be honest about it. Possessions, as much as anything, can be used against a person. Worse, if one actually becomes attached to them, it makes running nearly impossible and one need always be able to run.

When they're sitting in Maria's place, labeling the last of the boxes with kitchen plates and other necessaries in them, Maria says, "That's why we're doing this."

Natasha smiles wryly from across the room, capping her Sharpie. "So I can begin accumulating things I don’t need?"

"So you can have design input in your own home." Then, after a beat, "So you can have a home."

"Phil says things aren't a home."

"Phil grew up in a functional family, his expectations are weird."

Natasha laughs. "I thought it was the other way around."

"Let me ask you this: how many people do you know with functional families?"

Natasha raises an eyebrow. "That presumes people like us are a representative sample."

Maria tucks a hair behind her ear. "Maybe. Maybe not. And Phil—he's not wrong, exactly, about the things, but it does help. It does for me."

Slowly Natasha nods, admitting, "I wouldn't know where to start. Clint decorates with medieval weaponry."

Maria laughs. "Somehow, I'm not surprised. Do you like it? Is that something—"

Natasha shakes her head. "Even if it was, I don't think it would work quite as well with your décor as Phil's WWII memorabilia."

"I was never really into matching perfectly," Maria says.

"I like mosaic art." Natasha has never said this aloud. It's not precisely that she was hiding it, but it's never felt as though it mattered before. It's weird to feel that way now. "Not just the real stuff, but paintings that look like it, all of it."

Maria slips away from the box she's labeling and crowds into Natasha's space. Natasha lets her. Maria swipes her lips over Natasha's. "I bet we could find some of that."

"And," Natasha leans into a kiss, "and the pictures in your coffee table books."

"The pin-ups?" Maria asks, sounding a little surprised. "I've never even seen you looking."

"I'm sneaky," Natasha tells her. "Also, a spy."

"You might have a point," Maria says, and makes it the last word by way of occupying Natasha's mouth.

*

SHIELD discovers Steve Rogers' frozen not-corpse on a Thursday, at eight eleven am eastern standard time. Coulson gets the call about two hours later, and flies out. Clint shows up at Natasha's house as quickly as he can get his motorcycle from their place to hers, which, considering Clint couldn't give a crap about traffic laws, is lightening fast.

Natasha isn't read into the Arctic Circle goings-on, although she's aware of the base. Clint lets himself into their house with the key he's been given and disables the alarm, but not before Natasha and Maria are both in the front hall with guns trained on him. He looks at them tiredly and says, "You could just make me knock, you know?"

Natasha puts the safety back on and says, "You look like someone kicked your dead puppy."

Maria throws her a questioning glance, and Natasha shakes her head. She's got this. Maria wanders back to the office space they've created in the house. Sometimes, on quieter days, she works from home, where people are less likely to find and bother her, dealing with a backlog of truly inane administrative bullshit. Natasha really does not envy Maria's responsibilities.

"Thanks for that mental image," Clint grumbles, and stalks past her, mumbling to himself about coffee.

Natasha follows him into the kitchen and watches him grab a mug and pour coffee like all inanimate objects have wronged him deeply. After a moment she asks, "Are you being assigned a solo?"

Clint doesn't mind solo missions, so long as Coulson is the handler. If Coulson is otherwise assigned, however, they make him edgy and grumpy. Clint takes a long draw of the coffee and says, "Phil's going to leave me."

Natasha had seen both of them together two evenings before and sensed nothing out of the ordinary, so all she can do is ask, "Why? And how do you know this?"

"They found Captain America. Alive. Unconscious, but they're pretty sure it'll wear off." Clint says all of this like he's reading a newspaper article, his tone flat and even. Then, "I'm not supposed to know."

Natasha tilts her head, momentarily glad Maria's security clearance is higher than either of theirs and undoubtedly already knows all about this. "Phil told you?"

"I've never seen him so stoked. It's like every Christmas of his life wrapped into one."

Natasha doesn't frown, but only because she's used to not displaying emotion. On the one hand, she doesn't think Phil would tell Clint about this if he meant to start making moves on Steve Rogers, and Phil has been steady and loyal and true since the moment he made the decision to help bring her in. On the other hand, she doesn't know how to believe any more than Clint does. She's seen Phil's collection, heard him rhapsodize about the purity of action embodied in the Captain. She asks, "What did he say, Clint? Exactly."

"I—I might have lost focus after he first told me where he was going, why."

Natasha raises an eyebrow, because he knows better. He rubs a hand over his face. "Yeah, well, we can't all be perfect at compartmentalizing." Then, softly, "I love him. I haven't…I mean, he can't really want to hear it, right? Ex-carnie, ex-merc, ex-"

"Clint." Natasha takes the second of silence interrupting him buys her and swallows. Her throat is dry. "I think he might need to hear it."

"Fuck," Clint says after a moment. "I just. I do this every time, Tash. I go and get in over my head and then I'm surprised when the other person doesn't want a screw up on his or her hands."

"Your brother and your mentor were immoral dicks, Clint. This isn't the same." She takes a breath. "And I don't think it's a flaw, falling in love. I think…it's good. Human. Proves you're still real inside."

Clint narrows his eyes at her for a moment, then looks back down into his coffee. "Until it gets you broken again, then it's just stupidity and the inability to learn from your own mistakes."

Maria walks into the kitchen. Natasha is still turned on by the fact that Maria can sneak up on her, when she chooses. She says, "I can't concentrate on work with all the stupid happening in here, Barton."

Clint's expression goes entirely blank and Natasha has to fight her own protective instincts. Maria's not tactful, but she's not cruel, either. If she's here to say something, she has a point. Maria sighs. "Clint. Yes, Phil probably had a childhood crush on Captain America. And yes, he might still admire the ideal of him. But he would walk barefoot over burning coals for you and not even fucking blink at the pain.

"All of us have had crushes on someone who wasn't 'real' for us. It doesn't mean that presented with that person, we'd take them over the person who reminds us where we put our keys or knows what our favorite snack is. Phil's not going to throw you over for a guy he doesn't really even know, or even someone he does really know, and honestly, it's insulting and fucked up that you think he's that fickle."

Clint opens his mouth, then closes it. Natasha sees Maria's point, although she feels for Clint. Trusting someone else has been the hardest thing Natasha has ever done, and her life hasn't lent itself to much easiness.

Maria asks, "Can I go back to work now? Or do you need me to insult your emotional intelligence some more to get my point across?"

"I've probably been insulted enough," Clint tells her.

"Good," she says, and stalks back to her office.

Clint looks at Natasha, who shrugs. "She grew up without anyone who gave two shits about her, so it's not an idyllic childhood speaking."

Slowly, Clint says, "She loves you?"

Natasha closes her eyes for a moment. When she opens them, she tells him, "So she knows a little something about being foolish when it comes to love."

"You've always undervalued yourself."

"Pot," she shoots back.

He laughs, small and sad. "What do I do, Tash?"

"I think you probably have to take a chance on him," she tells him quietly.

"Yeah," he nods. "Yeah, I probably do."

*

Natasha hears about Steve Rogers' dramatic revival third-hand, from Maria, who hears about it from Sitwell. Honestly, if she were the type of person to waste pity, she'd feel sorry for the guy, but mostly she just hopes SHIELD gets his shit figured out before they have a rogue super soldier on their hands. Fuck knows Clint and she will probably be sent to take care of it.

She doesn't completely forget about the situation, but Maria's working on something she can't even mention the name of, and Natasha's assigned to deep cover work on the remains of Hammer Industries. It took less than a week for the scavengers to appear, and less than a day to figure out most of them were not SHIELD-friendly. For that matter, most of them weren't anyone friendly, and there was a significant chance Hydra had agents trolling around.

She's busy infiltrating the companies looking to pick off contracts and doing the forensic accounting necessary to trace all the investors and connections. The work requires a certain amount of absolutely meticulous technique, which is wearing. All the same, she misses it when she moves on to acting the part of an acquisition executive for hire, investigating everybody she can identify and quite a few she can't. The easiest way to get hired as a female executive—and therefore, in an instance where haste is necessary, the only one—is to make the men hiring her think they have a chance.

It's something she's been so good at for so long that she doesn't even think about it. Even with Stark, and the thread of unease he tugged loose, she'd assumed her problem was with Stark. But it seems her problem is with the fact that she might care about the work she does, but her heart is no longer in this particular aspect of it. It doesn't mean she can't do it. Natasha can do all sorts of things she secretly abhors.

Strangely, she thinks her lack of detachment makes others find her more compelling, which is useful, if sort of terrifying. She wants Maria, but she also hates herself more than a little for the desire. She knows that's just part of her damage, but it's ever so much safer not to want anything or anyone at all.

Maria and she aren't able to communicate regularly, hearing from each other on a secured line once a week, and even then speaking in code. It's not the same, and for the first time, even given how long they've been together, Natasha wishes she could go home at the end of her day, feel Maria's hands on her, taste her, fall asleep near enough to be warmed by her body heat. She wonders if this is what love means for her, or if she's simply become codependent.

She asks Phil when he comes to play guard dog. They're sending her out of the country for some basic intelligence gathering, but she has a couple of hours with him. He looks at her with a gentle expression and asks, "What do you want it to be, Tash?"

"When has what I've wanted ever mattered?" She's not bitter, at least not in this instance. It's a serious question.

"Now. So you should figure it out."

She tells him, "She loves me."

"That's not a starting point. That's a piece of information. You can't confuse the two."

"What if I want it to be a starting point?"

Phil gives her a rueful glance. "Then try to understand what that means to the other question."

*

In the middle of trying to get perspective, find something to hold onto that makes sense, that makes this work for herself, Natasha wrangles a free weekend on a Friday when Maria can also escape before ten and she texts, "Mt @ 55?"

Within seconds, Maria texts back, "W/ fucking bells on."

This particular club isn't well-appointed on the inside, but it makes up for the lack of décor with a world-class mixologist running the bar and a wooden dance floor dating back to the inter-war period that brings in both dancers and good bands. Tonight a jazz quintet out of San Diego is playing, their sound a little bit early 30s, a little bit Balboa.

Natasha orders a highball, sipping off of Maria's Dubonnet cocktail.

The server, Cecilia is definitely flirting with Maria. Maria's not exactly encouraging it, but Natasha gets the feeling they've spent time chatting on the nights Maria's come in when Natasha hasn't been around. Cecilia's good looking in an edgy kind of way, the too-vintage rockabilly style of hipster. Natasha guesses she's of Latin American descent, possibly Honduran, with black hair that falls to her waist when braided and lips that most lipstick models would fall over themselves trying to achieve.

She's ex-military, Natasha has listened enough to know that much. That, and she's pulling night shifts while going to NYU on the GI Bill for pre-med. Natasha enjoys hating her a little, despite the fact that she seems like a fairly nice person. She's a good listener, and Maria likes to talk about their common taste in music. Natasha knows, in the way she can professionally assess these things, that the flirting is harmless, a bit of fun in a night full of customers who tip Cecilia because she lets the edge of the ink flowing over her breasts show. The part of Natasha that never was taught to share, never grew up and dated and dumped someone, got dumped, that part wants to rip Cecilia's throat out.

It's too tempting tonight, so she moves away. The music is Maria's thing, but Natasha had fallen in love with swing dancing the moment she'd seen it done well: a casual, if compelling conversation between dancers. It hadn't taken much for her to force her body past the muscle memory of ballet and ballroom, to learn the basics of Lindy, and later some of the other dances. She's recently begun allowing her former dance training to flavor her style, but she's cautious, partly out of the fear of being too recognizable, partially because it's so easy for the styles to clash.

Tonight, it's mostly a Balboa crowd, although there's a couple going all-out on Charleston variations, and a few east-coasters. Natasha likes the way the Bal dancers seem as though the only thing keeping them up is each other and the music.

She's taken lessons, here and there. Maria will come with her from time to time, but she just doesn't have Natasha's sense of rhythm, her feel for it. She likes to watch, though, so when Maria glances over at her, Natasha quirks a tiny smile at her, stands and finds herself a lead.

It's not hard. Good leads can be—often are—dicks, but they're also largely men, and Natasha has only ever met three of those she couldn't play. The right amount of invitation in her voice, a small amount of skin flashed and she's good. Once the others have seen what she can do—and dancing, even more than fighting or fucking or even sleeping, has always made sense to her body—she doesn't have to ask anymore, just say yes or no.

When she sits back down at the band break, Maria is waiting at a table for her, tracking her every move. She leans over to murmur in Natasha's ear, "One more set. Then you're taking me home."

Natasha knows Maria, though. One more set is the equivalent of staying through the ninth inning, in this instance.

*

"So, last night," Maria says. "You were showing off."

Natasha doesn't say anything to this, unsure of how to take the observation. Maria glances over from the road and rolls her eyes. "You danced with Mickey, Nat. Who's a) an asshole and b) someone you'd like fifteen minutes in a soundproof room with, but c) a really, really great lead."

"You have a point," Natasha allows, her tone cautious. She's shown off before and Maria has never felt the need to bring it up, just enjoyed it at the club and later on.

"Is this about the flirty, jazz-aficionado bartender?" Maria asks, and there's something careful in the question.

"Maybe I just like the way it makes you look at me," Natasha says lightly. She doesn't want to talk about this.

Maria's voice only gets more careful. "We have a lease together, Nat. I don't think I'm going anywhere."

"If the lease is the issue, I'll buy out my portion for the rest of the year," Natasha tells her evenly.

After a beat, Maria says, "You're serious."

Natasha notes the surprise in Maria's voice. "You saw the way she looked at you."

"Yes, it's part of my job to be observant as well." Maria says sharply. "But I see the way a million people look at you every minute of every day and I'm not offering to find a new living space."

Natasha takes a slow breath. "You're a decorated military officer with a command role in a multi-national agency. I'm a killer-for-hire with dental and a slightly better moral compass than I had a few years ago, mostly due to outside influences. People look, but they only see the surface. There's something more there with you, something to take forward."

"You're being insulting right now." Maria's whole body was tight, her fingers tense on the steering wheel. They'd been heading into the offices, because both of them had tasks they'd wanted to put away while the building was mostly quiet.

Natasha knows she should apologize, but she finds herself unable to, instead shrugging. "You knew what you were getting into."

There's a beat, then Maria peels off the road headed into work and starts toward the nearest freeway. Natasha says, "Clint will find my body, you know?"

"And Fury will find mine," Maria tells her, before settling into silence and refusing to respond to Natasha, no matter what she says.

*

Three very quiet hours later—at one point Natasha resorts to turning on the radio and picking stations she knows will annoy Maria—they arrive at a small townhome somewhere in Pennsylvania. Natasha has texted Clint to let him know everything is fine; she can only assume he's spread the message.

Maria parks the car on the street and gets out. She doesn't invite Natasha to follow. Natasha does anyway. She stands back as Maria rings the doorbell and waits. Minutes later, an older gentleman answers the door. There's a second of uncomfortable silence before he asks, "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Nice to see you too, dad." Maria steps back a bit, and motions to Natasha. "I thought I'd introduce you to my girlfriend."

"Why?" he asks, not seeming offended or even really curious, just genuinely uninterested. "Think being a dyke somehow makes things better?"

Maria's smile is sharp, shattered glass and knives just off the production line. "Well, a boy would have probably brought a girl home, so there's that, isn't there?"

If anything, her dad's eyes became colder. "If this is about money—"

"No," Maria says. "No. It was about proving a point. For that, I guess, thanks."

She walks away. Natasha stands where she is for a few moments, considering whether she can walk away without, in some way, hurting this man even a fraction of how much he has tortured his only child. She's almost decided that she can't when Maria calls, "Nat, c'mon." And then, in a voice Natasha has never heard her use, she says, "For me."

Natasha walks to the car without a single glance back.

*

Maria takes them to a Korean grill nearby, evidently run by a guy she went to prom with. His twelve year-old son, the oldest of three, takes their order, while his wife canoodles stories about him from Maria, who acts exactly like the financial professional on a business trip she's supposed to be. Sometimes, Natasha thinks Maria missed a calling in on-the-ground-intelligence. Other times she's glad for this small favor.

When they've been left alone with their food, Maria steals the first bite of Natasha's without asking and chews until she can say, "I've read your dossier. I read it before I ever met you."

Natasha nods. "Of course."

"And I let you get away with a lot, honestly, because the shit in that file makes it look like I was raised by a single-dad Ward Cleaver, but the thing is, I wasn't."

Maria seems to be waiting for a response, so Natasha says, "I know."

It must be good enough, because Maria continues. "I was raised by an asshole who was actively convinced I killed his wife and that he hadn't even gotten the consolation of a child with a cock for his troubles. And it wasn't until I was eleven, and I joined a co-ed soccer team, knowing soccer was his favorite sport, that I figured out that it didn't matter what I did. He signed up to coach our rival team and I realized, then, that it was who I was that wasn't enough, wasn't what he wanted and never would be."

"More the idiot him," Natasha says softly, and breathes out her desire to go back to that house, to introduce the man in it to the Black Widow.

"Yes." Maria rubs a hand over her face. "But it wasn't until I was fifteen and a ROTC recruiter saw just how badly I needed to be worth something that I could even begin to figure that out, and there's some damage that can't entirely be fixed."

It is only now occurring to Natasha—which is probably, she realizes, an issue in and of itself—that when Phil has told her, again and again, that she and Maria need to talk, this was likely what he was getting at. It is not reassuring, does not make her feel that she is any more qualified to handle this situation than your average sea urchin, but she's smart enough about the human psyche to know none of that matters. If she weren't involved in this situation, if she were just manipulating it, she would know that she needed to make Maria aware of her worth to Natasha just now.

She extrapolates from that awareness the appropriateness of her next actions, and figures there's at least very little she can still manage to fuck up. "I still wake up wondering when you'll come to your senses. I…theoretically, I understand that your father's emotional failings made you feel on some level that it was your fault, but in the place where you exist for me? The place that's not logical, right there, all I know is that you could do better. I can't help that."

Maria spends some time picking at her food before asking, slowly, "If you could believe you deserved anyone you wanted, would you still be here?"

It's nice, for once, not to have to think about something, to just know. "Yes. Only, not here, because I wouldn't have messed this up, and we'd be at work, texting each other arguments about what our next night off is going to involve."

Maria's expression softens a bit, which is exactly what makes Natasha continue. "But I see the way that girl, who is lovely and interesting and going to be someone who saves people's lives for a living, I see how she leans into you, I know what she could offer you and…and there is nothing in this world I won't give you."

Maria blinks slowly. "And I don't want anything that doesn't include you."

Natasha runs a finger over the table in a random pattern. "I think being raised by your father may have caused you to take what you were given, even if it wasn't enough."

"Maybe," Maria says quietly. "But nobody I know who is worth anything and in her right mind is going to look at the web I've made, the one that's kept the Black Widow from moving on, look at the home we've put together, that's kept Natasha Romanova from running, and think I'm settling. Because that would be stupid, and most of the people I know aren't stupid." Then, after a second, and with a smile, "Present company evidently excepted."

The look in Maria's eyes is too warm, too engaged, for Natasha to do anything, but laugh and reach out to squeeze her hand.

***

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