"So, have you tasered Stark yet?"
Maria's phone buzzes across the desk and she reaches for it idly, swiping a practiced thumb across the too-shiny Stark Industries surface. She hasn't even had it for longer than a week yet and the list of people who have her number stands at a grand total of two: Pepper Potts and Nick Fury.
But she doesn't have to guess who the mysterious unknown number is.
Maria shakes her head, a grin tugging at the corners of her mouth as she clicks add to contacts and types in rapidly, Natasha Romanoff.
This is her life now:
Finely pressed suits, all dark colors and neat lines, hair pinned back and heels clicking sharply along the marble floor of Stark HQ. A state of the art SI phone that spends most of its time glued to her ear, a team that works on implementing good, meaningful technology-driven projects across the globe and a boss that's just about the most impressive woman she's ever met in her life and she's met some pretty impressive women, and redheads to boot.
It's a uniform. She's comfortable with uniforms, with the process and the implications of them -- the clean line of her lapel, the sweep-back of her hair -- it means something, stands for something, like armor she takes on and off every day as she goes out into the world.
She has her doubts. She always will.
Private sector projects claiming to better humanity set her teeth on edge, a bit, but evil lurks in the hearts of many and often in the ways you least expect -- she knows this, now, a hard lesson learnt over and over and so there is something reassuring in Stark's brashness, his honesty, in how he throws money and resources at a problem. Stark means well and his team means well and for as long as she's here, well, she figures she's the best woman to help make sure they keep on meaning well.
She's the best woman for the job, period.
She always is.
"I didn't know they let you use cell phones in prison."
A minute later, Maria's phone buzzes and she swipes it open to reveal not a text message but a picture of Natasha, one eyebrow coolly raised, in front of the Bastille.
Maria lets out an ungainly snort before she can help herself and Stark spends the rest of the day making jokes about how he didn't know robots could even do that, who re-wrote her programming and how soon can he shake their hand, and well -- yeah, the tasering is starting to sound like a better idea with each passing minute.
Rarely, does Natasha send texts. Usually, it's photos which just goes to show -- what, Maria doesn't know. That Natasha is embracing the rules of her new world order, that she is throwing it all in the face of those who expected her to fall off the grid, to hide herself away forever.
To show that she's making it count, now. Everything's on the record.
There's no rhyme or reason to the photos. The Mona Lisa. The Berlin Wall. A Starbucks that looks like it could be anywhere but might just be in Tokyo. On one memorable occasion, there's a drooling Captain America, his head resting on the shoulder of a grinning Sam Wilson, who is making a bunny ears gesture behind Steve's head. The backdrop is bland and unassuming -- a beige wall that could be a motel or could be a VA or could be…she could play guessing games all day and still never come up with the right answer.
There's no explanation for that one and Maria can't decide if that makes it better or not.
"Who is it?"
"Hmm?" Maria says, raising her head from where it was bent intently over a SI file as she and Pepper go through the quarterly reports, making sure there's nothing out of the ordinary. "Who is what?"
Pepper smiles gently, that warm, familiar smile that could end wars or set fires, as she says, "whoever it is that's always sending you messages. You don't have to discuss your private life with me if you don't want to. Let's just call it…curiosity."
"But not the kind of curiosity that comes with a metaphorically loaded gun and all of the subtlety of a dump truck?" Maria says, flipping the folder shut on the desk and leaning back in her chair.
Pepper laughs but there is something achingly, obviously fond in it that Maria's not sure she entirely understands. "Fortunately, Tony and I operate on completely different levels when it comes to work-level appropriateness."
"It's Natasha," Maria says at last. A calculated risk -- Pepper values honesty and companionship and Maria likes her a whole lot, even if she'll never understand the other woman's taste in men, and it feels worth it, giving that little bit up.
Pepper blinks, like that was probably the last thing she was expecting Maria to say.
Well. It probably was.
"I wasn't aware you two were…involved."
We're not comes to the tip of Maria's tongue but falls short just as quickly because it's both true and not true. What they are, what they have -- this undefined, on and off affair that they've never put a name to might not be Tony and Pepper arm in arm for all the world to see but it's not, it's not nothing, not an absence for all of its lack of definition.
Maria lets the silence fall in the space between them, the distance from Pepper's desk chair to hers, the bright afternoon sunlight glinting down on Pepper's strawberry blonde hair, but it is not displaced, not awkward. Pepper accepts Maria's silence for what it is.
Maria likes that about her. Whatever else she might think about this job -- about what it is, about who she is, about how sometimes she wakes in the night and her fingers itch for a gun and a mission and the beat of pavement beneath heavy booted feet, she thinks she could work with Pepper for the rest of her life and never tire of her.
She refuses to believe it has anything to do with the red hair.
Maria slips off her heels the second she's through the door to her apartment, letting them clunk firmly to the floor. She takes a second to breathe in, breathe out, center herself, feel her heels dig into the hardwood floor. It's been a long day and an even longer week and -- and there's someone in her apartment.
Natasha is perched on her kitchen counter.
Maria relaxes, reaching over to flip on the light switch.
"What, no Paris?"
Natasha shrugs. She's dressed casually, in torn, faded jeans and a t-shirt with a military logo that looked like it might have once belonged to Sam Wilson, hair up in a ponytail but she looks good. She looks rested and happy and good.
"Thought I'd drop in for a quick visit."
Maria steps into the v made by Natasha's legs, one hand rising up to tease at the edges of Natasha's t-shirt, fingers barely grazing the skin beneath, the whorls of Maria's thumb brushing across the harsh knotting of that old familiar scar.
"Have you figured it out? Who you're going to be next?"
A small uptick of the lips, the secret to a joke that only Natasha is in on. "Yeah. I'm going to be an Avenger."
Nick's bright idea made flesh and bone and standing on its own two feet in the real world. There was a time when she never would have thought they could have the Avengers without SHIELD. There was a time when she never would have thought they should.
But here they are. The Avengers could never have moved forward in the shadow of SHIELD, not the way it was. Now, it might really work. Now, it might really be something.
"I'm not going to have to deal with any of the others crashing in on my kitchen, am I?"
"Just me," Natasha says but Maria's not going to hold her breath on that score, not even a little bit. "Does the Avenger get a kiss?" Natasha asks, all coy voice and put upon charm in just the way she knows annoys Maria most and Maria -- Maria likes that, likes that she does that -- it means Natasha's not trying to be anything to make Maria happy.
Whatever else they are, right here in this space, when they're together, they are never anything but unflinchingly honest.
"Yeah, yeah," Maria says and closes the distance.
Maria wakes up to the sound of buzzing, her phone going off on the bedside table. She stretches an arm out to grab it, blinking blearily at it in the early morning light. She swipes it open only to find…a photo of herself, deep asleep, buried amongst tangled sheets, looking more peaceful and off guard than she's entirely sure she's comfortable with.
Natasha's watching her with a Cheshire Cat grin and sex-mussed hair and something should be said here, probably, but it can wait until after coffee.
They're good for now.