“Come on, let’s get you out of here.” Pepper says, pulling away and crouching next to the brunette. She tries to urge Maria into standing. The violent sobs have died down, but tears still streak down her face. Maria shakes her head, she’s cold, probably shivering, but she doesn’t think her legs will hold her. She sees Pepper nod and settle back down next to her.
“I know you’re hurting, we all are too. Not as much as you are, but we are. But you don’t have to do this alone. You’re a part of this family as much as anyone. You have a support system, Maria. We can all get through this together.” Pepper says after a few moments, and Maria turns to face her. Her walls are down, and she rationalizes that it makes her braver.
“I don’t know how to rely on other people. It was always Natasha. Is always her.” Maria says softly, her voice hoarse from crying. Her face falls when she mentions Natasha and she drops her head back onto her knees, but angled so she can watch Pepper. The blond just reaches out and lays her hand on one of Maria’s.
“I understand that, I do. You know that I do, but you can learn how to let other people in. How to let us help you. You can’t do this by yourself. And I’m not calling you weak, or anything like that. No one could do this by themselves. And no one should have to try.” Pepper’s voice is gentle, and Maria wants to believe her. Wants to let people in. But she’s not sure she can even learn how to anymore.
“It’s not arrogance, I just never learned. Before her, it was just me. And I learned how to do things alone.” Maria responds after a moment, flinching at a particular memory. She closes her eyes and lets the tears come.
“I know it’s not. Just trust me, Maria. Trust me and let me help you. And let the others help. Don’t refuse us when we offer to help because you think you can do it on your own. Let us support you.” Maria opens her eyes and reaches up to wipe her eyes. She’s still not sure she can do what Pepper wants, what Pepper is saying. But she supposes it can’t hurt. These are people Natasha let into her life, people Natasha trusts with her life. And Maria knows her fiance doesn’t trust easily. Maria lets out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding in. The tears have at least stopped, but her nose is stuffy and her head hurts. She hasn’t cried like that in years. It takes her another long moment to realize she’s completely naked on her shower floor with Pepper crouched next to her. She shakes her head to clear it.
“Ready to get out? You should eat something and then try to sleep.” Pepper’s voice is gentle and Maria nods. She wraps the towel tighter around her, angling it to cover more than it is; she’s not body shy, she’s done communal showers, but something about being naked at that particular moment makes her feel more vulnerable than she has in years. She doesn’t like the feeling, and averts her gaze from Pepper’s even as she takes the blond’s hand. With Pepper’s help and the support of the shower wall, Maria’s able to get herself on her feet. It takes her another moment to steady herself before she pulls away from Pepper and turns to dry off. When she turns back to grab the clothes she laid out Pepper is still there, eying her speculatively.
“I’m not going to fall apart.” Maria says gruffly, though that’s exactly how she feels. She’s not used to being vulnerable in front of people, only Natasha and Phil have, and with Phil it was once. She usually has such a great handle on her emotions. A small sigh before she gets dressed, she knows food will come up next. She’s not hungry, but she’ll force herself to eat. There should be leftovers from the night before in the fridge, and while the idea of eating that food turns her stomach, it’s quick and easy. She’ll go with that. “I’m okay now, Pepper. You don’t have to stay. I’ll eat and sleep and take Tasha’s car in the morning.” Maria says once she’s dressed in her comfortable clothes. Pepper is still eying her carefully and Maria challenges the CEO with her body and face. Non-verbal cues are Maria’s expertise, and her walls are slowly going back up, quicker than Maria expected they would be. Well, they’re up enough for Maria to fake being better at that moment.
“I don’t believe you, but if you need anything, JARVIS can find one of us.” Pepper finally says, leaning in to hug Maria. The brunette allows it, she trusts Pepper, so the touch is somewhat soothing. But Maria had her breakdown, she’ll be able to face the world now. And maybe she’ll try leaning on others, but not right then. She needs to be alone. Pepper finally leaves and Maria pads out to the kitchen to heat up some leftover roast and vegetables. She’s able to force herself to eat enough to sustain her energy before putting everything away. She’s still so wound up, coiled like a spring, but she also knows she needs to sleep.
She finally forces herself to go to their bedroom again. She pulls out what she’ll need for the night, bundles it up in her arms, and heads for the spare bedroom. She knows she won’t be able to sleep in the bed she usually shares with Natasha, not with her fiance’s scent all over everything. This is so different from their usual time away from each other. This still feels wrong, leaves a rock in Maria’s gut. Natasha’s scent, her blankets and pillows and even those two stupid rotund plushes, that damned tiger and smaller dragon. Maria sighs as she lays her stuff on the guest bed, and turns around. She goes right back to their master bedroom and plucks up the stupid tiger, it’s pretty damn massive for a plush, maybe it will help her sleep. Finally sorted, she goes back to the guest bed and sorts everything out. It doesn’t take long before she climbs in, curls up and clutches the plush tiger to her chest. She really hopes she can get some sleep, but finds herself staring at the wall for what seems like ages.
Too slow. Yet again, she’s too slow. Everything seems to get going to fast, she can;t keep up, her reflexes are inadequate. Yet again she watches the shot, watches Natasha fall, her movements slowed until everything just stops. She’s on the ground and Maria’s staring blankly at the man, except he doesn’t have a gun in his hand. She does. A strangled cry rips it way out of her throat as she screams at the world, at the people around her, screams at everything.
The noise wakes her up, the noise coming from her. She sits bolt upright, shaking and struggling to regain her breath. She knows it was a dream, but it was so realistic. She can still smell the gunpowder, feel the weight of the gun in her hand. Feel the sun on the rooftop, and the thick scent of blood. It stands out in her mind, in stark contrast to any other night terror she’s had. She’s used to them, you get used to them with a life like hers. But she never wakes up screaming, she never wakes up this shaken. Hasn’t in years. It takes her several minutes to calm down and re-orient herself. It doesn’t help she’s never slept in this room, so it’s unfamiliar in the dark. She’s still unsettled when she motions for the lights to come on, and she sits there on the bed even longer trying to regulate her breathing. Glancing down, she finds that she’s clutching the tiger to her chest. Maria closes her eyes and presses her face against the fluffy plush, inhaling Natasha’s scent that still heavily lingers on it. Finally, she glances over at her phone to check the time. A little over three hours of sleep in her, she can work with that. She knows she’s not sleeping again that night. Laying the tiger on her pillow, she sighs and makes a decision. If she’s not going to sleep, she’s going to keep busy. Maria grabs her phone and climbs out of the bed, heading for the master bedroom.