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Mel was avoiding her.

Natasha stalked through the halls of Base 375-8C (Phil had started insisting that everyone use the formal designations rather than the informal nicknames), looking for the shooting range. When Mel was pissed she vented in the gym, putting on a clinic at the heavy bag if she couldn’t find someone to spar with; but when she was thrown, when she was questioning herself, she preferred the solitude and cold calculation of target practice.

And sure enough, there she was, in the lane farthest from the door. There were no other exits, so after peeking in to confirm she was there, Natasha took up position lounging against the wall in the hall just outside the range. Better to wait until Mel wasn’t holding a loaded weapon to ambush her.

It was well-past midnight, but SHIELD agents tended not to sleep well so Natasha watched as a half dozen people came and went before Melinda finally emerged. She didn’t seem surprised to see Natasha waiting for her; but then, Natasha knew exactly how well Mel could hold that emotionless expression.

(Natasha knew, because she had once brought Mel to a climax under the table at a debriefing, and the only outward crack in her mask was a sigh. When Mel had pushed Natasha into a closet afterward, however, Natasha learned the cost of that sort of control when she tasted blood, felt the swelling cuts on the inside of Mel’s lower lip.)

Melinda tilted her head in invitation and began her usual purposeful stride down the hall, so Natasha fell in beside her. They walked in silence, several inches of air between them, and maintained that silence and space until the door to Melinda’s quarters closed behind them. Then Natasha reached out to spin her around, forcing Mel to face her, and said, “You've been avoiding me.”

Melinda snorted. “And yet here we are.”

Natasha peered at her face, trying to get a read on her, but Mel was projecting indifference hard. “Why have you been avoiding me?”

Melinda shrugged her off and headed over to the rudimentary kitchen, filling a kettle and setting it to heat on the electric stovetop. “I’ve been busy.”

Natasha settled cross-legged on the couch, watching Melinda closely for any sort of tell. “Is it because I made SHIELD’s deepest secrets a trending topic on twitter?”

Melinda turned around just to roll her eyes at Natasha, the first sign that things between them weren’t irreparable. Natasha felt a tightness in her gut release just a little. “You did what was necessary. No one questions that.”

“Plenty of people question my decision. Congress questioned my decision for four days straight. Is it because I didn’t call you for backup?”

The kettle started to whistle, and Melinda poured it over the leaves in her little ceramic pot to get the tea steeping before she answered. “I was too far away to be any use.”

Well. That left only one explanation. “So this is about Ward then.”

Melinda didn’t respond, and now that Natasha had her answer she was content to let the silence grow between them again. Melinda settled into the other side of the couch with the tea tray and poured for them both. Natasha curled her hands around the cup, breathing in the fragrant steam, then spoke again.

“Mel. Did you break your rules for him?”

She scoffed. “No.”

“So what is it? And why are you taking it out on me?”

Mel’s eyes were trained on the table in front of them, her lips tight. “I just need time.”

Natasha uncurled, spreading her legs and stretching her arms over the back and arm of the couch so that her uniform gaped where she had unzipped it. “Is there some reason we can’t get a little mutual stress relief in the meantime?”

Melinda slammed her cup down on the table. “Don’t do that.”

Natasha sat stunned for a moment, then drew her limbs back in carefully, arranging herself in a neutral, attentive pose. She didn’t speak until she knew her voice would be steady, abstractly curious instead of defensive. “Don’t do what?”

Melinda took a deep breath, then looked her straight in the eyes. “Do not seduce me to get what you want.”

That. . . hurt, far more than Natasha expected. She kept her breathing steady as she considered, then discarded as counter-productive, the first three defenses that came to mind.

Finally she settled on: “That was an invitation, not a seduction,” and shut her mouth on everything else she wanted to add.

Melinda exhaled and settled back into her end of the couch. Her eyes slid away from Natasha’s, settling somewhere over her shoulder. Her voice was tight. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t just apologize,” Natasha snapped. “Tell me what’s going on.”

Melinda was getting that shut-down look on her face, so Natasha opened up her body language again, projecting patience and receptivity. “Mel. Come on, talk to me.”

Her jaw worked, but eventually Melinda bit out: “I didn’t have feelings for Ward.”

Natasha hummed acknowledgement, but left the silence for Melinda to keep filling.

“It was just sex. He was hot and I was horny and the Bus had good soundproofing. I made sure he knew the score.”

Mel was good with setting boundaries -- Natasha knew that first-hand. But she had ground to a halt again, so Natasha decided to help. “But...?”

“I was so busy making sure he knew the score that I missed that he had an agenda of his own. That he was distracting me, using his body as a blind.”

Oh. “Like I do.” It came out colder than Natasha wanted.

“Yes.”

Natasha stood, abruptly done with the conversation. “I’m not playing you, Mel. But I am a spy, and I do what has to be done. If you can’t handle what that means, you should have stayed with the Air Force.” And then she walked out, only her own impressive control keeping her hands from shaking.

They’d make up at some point; they always did. But right now, Natasha needed some time of her own with the heavy bag.