She slides in the key to her new apartment, – which is near Stark Tower (of course), better to keep an eye on her with, closer to Pepper if needs be – turns the knob and she’s greeted by darkness. (She welcomes it, savors its embrace. These days, no one is as friendly as darkness, no one as reassuring, no one as comforting.)
She locks her door and strolls further into her place (home, no, not quite, not even close), kicking off her heels (damn torture devices, why do they even exist) as she goes. She shrugs off her jacket, flinging it carelessly on the ottoman, before flopping down on her couch, too tired and sick of the idiots-of-the-day to even go to her bedroom.
It hasn’t been a minute yet when the air shifts (imperceptible to regular people but Maria Hill’s not one of those).
She’s up in under a second and the gun she keeps hidden on the table is in her hands and her eyes scan the darkness with a focus that even Hawkeye would commend.
And then her blood runs cold and warm at the same time when a voice she’s familiar with (excruciatingly so) says, “Good to see you too, Hill.”
She automatically turns her aim at the general direction of its source (to her left) and a lamp switches on and beside it stands her.
She’s wearing dark jeans and a black jacket over a grey shirt that Maria recognizes as her own. Her hair is now back in its curly style (the one that Maria likes better – not that she’s admitting that ever), and her green eyes are glinting in the dark like emeralds.
Natasha (Natasha, Natasha, Natasha) has the goddamn audacity to smirk at her and Maria couldn’t be held accountable for her next move, not when all she wants to do is scream at her for disappearing like a goddamn ghost and punch her for leaving without a goddamn word and kick that smirk off her goddamn face and –
– and then they’re kissing, a violent clash of lips and teeth and tongues and hands all over and fingers tangled on hair and breaths mingling between the spaces (and Maria forgets all about the pain and worry and irritation and all her frustrations about Natasha Romanov who’s in her arms right now and she just feels and makes sure this is real and not some product of a vivid imagination that she’s certain she doesn’t possess in the first place).
It tastes of despair and hope and betrayal and faith and doubt and trust and it’s a flurry of things that Maria can’t (doesn’t want to) process.
(There’s time for that, later.)
The kisses eventually slow down and the urgency fades but there’s still the desperation and the desire (always, always, there’s always the desire).
(Of course. Who cannot feel desire when with the Black Widow?)
There are arms around her neck but it’s not a threat (no, it’s a much more pleasurable thing).
Her own arms are wrapped around Natasha’s torso, and she’s gripping the redhead like she’s a lifeline (maybe she is, she is Maria’s lifeline, Maria’s salvation, Maria’s Maria’s Maria’s).
Their lips are practically still connected to each other, and they are practically breathing the same air, and they are practically one.
“I am so mad at you,” Maria says, and she knows Natasha feels the words on her mouth.
There’s the smirk again, and Maria’s annoyed (that freaking audacity’s still at play) so she bites down on Natasha’s lower lip in retaliation and she hears her moan and that’s better.
“What did I do?” Natasha asks.
(They both know the answer.)
“What did you not do?” Maria answers with a question of her own, and she pulls back (a little – she can’t handle any more than that) to stare at those eyes. “You just left and I didn’t know what happened to you or where you were and with everything that’s happening all at once I just –” she shudders, and the next words are just whispers, “I was worried.”
One of Natasha’s hands comes to rest on Maria’s cheek. “I’m sorry,” she says, and her voice is laced with regret and guilt and remorse (and to Maria it’s worth more than a thousand apologies). “It’s better that you don’t know.” She ignores Maria’s scoff of disbelief. “Plausible deniability and all that.”
Maria grumbles. “You’re speaking lawyer to me now? Seriously?”
Natasha shrugs. “I’m just saying. You’re safer this way.”
“You don’t have to protect me.”
“I know,” Natasha says softly, and she’s as serious as she’s ever been, “but I need to.”
(Maria understands the sentiment. After all, it’s what she always feels where Natasha’s concerned.
They know the other can protect herself, but it’s not that simple, not really, is it?)
They manage to un-wrap themselves from each other, but there are still the burning looks and lingering touches and an undercurrent of everything that perpetually boils between them.
“So, what have you been up to?” Maria asks as they cuddle on her couch. They’ve eaten something that Maria’s put together from what little stock is in her fridge – not much, but it beats ordering take-out and risking observation (the surveillance detail assigned to her are a bunch of puppies who thinks they’re wolves but she is not really in the mood to take risks, no matter how small or insignificant).
Natasha raises an eyebrow at her.
“You don’t have to tell me where you’ve been or where you intend to go,” Maria amends, “just what’s kept you busy.”
“I’m staying with Sam and Clint,” she replies, and she reaches out to play with Maria’s hair. “We’ve been travelling a lot, not staying for more than three days in one place. They actually want to go out of the continent but,” Natasha smiles – a little wistful upturn of her lips, “they know I won’t be able to keep myself away from you.”
“I think you’ve been doing a rather good job at that,” Maria says, and it’s not bitter, but still fairly hurt.
“You’d think,” she chuckles wryly. “But I was never that far away from wherever you were.”
This time it’s Maria who raises her eyebrow.
“What, you think I’d just let you out of my sight that easily?” She presses their foreheads together. “I might not be present, but I still see you, you know. I’ve been keeping tabs.”
“You could have at least sent me a sign or something.”
“Not my style.”
“And I can’t believe you’ve been anywhere remotely nearby.”
“I’m a spy for a reason, Hill. Of course you won’t detect me.”
Maria still looks unconvinced. Natasha just laughs.
(It’s carefree and lovely and it’s like molten chocolate and it is Maria’s favorite sound in the world).
* * *
She doesn’t want to believe this.
But Phil’s tone has an unfamiliar edge to it, and she knows he’s not kidding, and wow, usually she could process information without taking a breath but this – this is something else.
Almost everyone is HYDRA, and John Garrett is free, and Grant Ward is his pet, and Hand’s dead, and goddamn it, “I vetted Ward,” she bites out, feeling the sting of how it’s kind of her fault he’s gotten this far, gotten to cause this much damage.
“You want to make this right? Stop wasting time.”
Then Talbot’s marching in with his smug little face and his stupid little mustache and his merry little band of idiots and Maria’s mad.
“Knock yourself out.”
And then they’re fighting – or not, since it can’t be called fighting, not when those soldiers don’t even stand a chance.
She’s Maria Hill and she’s more than a match for them, and she might be out of practice but she can still kick ass.
She’s still grateful for Phil’s assist though, since it speeds things up, and that ICER he fires is handy, too.
“Get your people, we need to move.”
Phil just stares at her. “‘We?’”
She gives him a look that clearly says ‘What do you think?’ and he wisely doesn’t say anything else, bless his revived soul.
She turns and storms away with him hot on her heels.
She’s fuming. She basically wrote half of the S.H.I.E.L.D. manual on intelligence and espionage, and she gets duped by a rookie.
Not that Ward’s a rookie, but seriously? Maria’s met better agents. And she’s supposed to know better.
She won’t stand for this. She just won’t.
This is a serious offence to her pride, and her pride happens to be one of the most important things in the world to her.
That bastard porcupine is going to pay for this dearly.
(That poop-with-knives metaphor suits him better, she realizes now.)
Okay. She supposes given her current situation – not being a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent anymore, since there is no more S.H.I.E.L.D. – she’s not the best person to deliver retribution.
And now that she thinks about it, Phil’s team has got to have more beef with the guy than she does.
(Phil trusted him, and she thinks of how much those two soft-hearted geniuses looked up to him and how betrayed they probably feel, and she knows May’s got to be real pissed when she learns he managed to trick her too.)
Fine. She’ll just lend a hand then. She doesn’t need another reason to attend even more meetings with clueless people (i.e. Congress, CIA, NRO, etc.) anyway. (She expects a meeting with the Special Forces will be added to her list of things to do. Talbot would make sure of that, once he’s awake.)
That doesn’t mean it’s easy to let the porcupine go.
“You want me to pursue?” another of Phil’s agents (Triplett, formerly under Garrett’s supervision, she recalls warily) asks beside her.
Her every instinct urges her to engage (and it’s a testimony to how much self-control she has when she answers). “No, their tracking systems are up and running. Just hope we bought enough time.”
Turns out they did.
They head to a motel – the kid (Skye – former hacker for The Rising Tide, who was the source of many a headache before they found her and later recruited her – lots of potential, if only S.H.I.E.L.D. is intact it could give her what she needs to flourish, but Maria doesn’t think about it, no, it’s much too painful, how her home is now in ruins, no, no, no) is safe, and Lola’s shot.
“I can’t believe they shot Lola.”
“I can’t talk about it.”
“I should go.”
If she spends one more second in this small room she’s gonna stay with them and fight and that’s not an option for her.
(Everything they worked for would be compromised. That’s never an option.)
The trip back to her apartment is spent in a haze of what-ifs and should-haves and if-onlys.
(What if she discovered that Ward’s a traitorous bastard the first time she met him; she should have seen this coming; if only she realized that Ward’s a traitorous bastard the first time she met him…) (What if she just joined Phil in his personal vendetta; she should have not vetted the porcupine; if only she’s been better at spotting liars and traitors given that she lies all the time – to the Avengers, to her friends, to herself…) (What if… should have… if only…)
(It goes on like that, her personal hurricane that wreaks havoc within.)
She tries to shake off the haze, she does.
But the smell of panic still lingers and she remembers the taste of sweat and blood and gunpowder in the Triskelion and she wants to fight.
That’s what she’s been taught to do (that’s what she’s good at) and S.H.I.E.L.D. was (is) the only home she’s ever known and she misses it.
She misses the rush of adrenaline that comes with the life-threatening situations they deal with daily.
She misses overseeing missions or even being in one, undercover or not, be it mere interrogation or retrieval or close-contact or whatever the order is.
She misses training newbies and scaring the hell out of her agents just because she can.
She even misses Fury (not that she’d tell him that – she can’t anyway, since he’s technically dead and she’s technically not supposed to know otherwise), how he speaks in riddles that frustrate her more than she lets on (because she refuses to give him that satisfaction).
She misses the Helicarrier, because it’s her baby and no one can say otherwise.
She misses Cap’s calm presence, and Barton’s pranks, and even mission reports.
(Okay, that last one, not so much. Just a bit.)
There are people trailing her again – this time a college kid out for a late-night run (desperate, incompetent fools), a guy selling hotdogs (almost as offensive as the fake homeless person – not that she’s judging but she’s offended in behalf of hotdog vendors and homeless people everywhere), and a street musician (who plays well, Maria admits, but can’t they think of anything else).
Like the good (great) agent that she was (is), she wipes all emotions off her face (except boredom because that’s the only acceptable thing to feel after a day of dreary work) and pretends she doesn’t notice the amateurs they sent.
* * *
“How was your day?” Natasha asks her from the couch, in lieu of proper greeting. (Well, between the two of them, ‘proper’ is not really a thing.) She’s wearing one of Maria’s old S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy hoodies (stolen from one of her hidden trunks, definitely), and on the coffee table is a laptop where she’s presumably binge-watched some show (again), and she looks pleasantly disheveled.
Maria pauses from removing her boots (not S.H.I.E.L.D.-issued, therefore, painful to wear). “What?”
“You’re gone today. Radio silence,” there’s a small thoughtful scowl now, “and you don’t disappear like that unless you don’t want to be found by anyone.”
And Maria remembers that Natasha doesn’t know.
She can’t tell her about Phil, or helping him, or his quest for wiping out the remains of HYDRA.
“How do you even know that?” she says instead.
“I told you I keep watch.”
“Don’t change the subject. The only reason I didn’t actively search for you was because Pepper told me a beacon would light up if you were in any real danger.”
“There’s a tracking device on me?” she frowns.
“The tracking system would be activated only if you were in serious trouble. It’s like, connected to your heartbeat or something,” Natasha explains, waving a hand.
“Why am I not surprised that I’m being tracked?” Maria wonders out loud. Then she mutters, “Doesn’t even matter now. Privacy’s non-existent. Yeah, ‘Oh, someone’s tapping your phone? That’s so cute. I have a tracking device on me.’ Can’t even go to the bathroom without someone else knowing.”
“I told you –”
“Yeah, yeah, I heard you.”
“So where were you?”
Knowing there’s no escape from Natasha’s interrogation, Maria just answers vaguely, “Helping out a friend.” Not the whole truth, but not an outright lie either.
“A friend?” Natasha prompts. (Of course she won’t leave it at that, and Maria thinks of a suitable response.)
“You remember Agent May?” she asks, sitting on the couch beside Natasha, who then scoots closer to cuddle her (she’s surprisingly affectionate, for a former assassin).
Natasha nods, and her scowl is fuller now. “The Cavalry. What of her?”
“She’s been given a special team after the Battle of New York,” she says. “It’s kind of a mobile command unit relatively independent of S.H.I.E.L.D. I helped vet out its members, you know, background checks, combat skills assessment, that sort of thing.” Maria wrinkles her nose, and her disdain is evident. “Well, it turns out one of them is a HYDRA agent. And I knew there was a reason I disliked him the first time I saw him, but I never thought he’s such an asshole.”
Natasha’s grip on her tightens. “You were battling HYDRA?” Her worry is palpable.
“‘Battling’ is too strong a term.” Maria assures her, running a hand up and down her arm. “I just provided distraction. One of May’s people – Skye, brilliant kid, she managed to hack into S.H.I.E.L.D. databases with just a laptop – she was abducted, so I distracted Ward while one of the other agents sneak in their plane to get her.”
“This Ward, he’s the HYDRA drone?”
“Is he any good?”
“He managed to deceive you,” Natasha says (as if Maria needs the reminder). “That doesn’t happen very often. Is he at least good?”
Maria groans, and it’s obvious she’s upset with herself. “I gave him the highest espionage marks since you,” she confesses, albeit grudgingly.
Natasha lets out an appreciative whistle. “So he’s that good.”
Maria tries to glare at her, but with Natasha’s head resting on her shoulder, it’s kind of tricky. So she settles for, “Being impressed with him is not the thing to do, Romanov.”
“Sorry,” she says, but Maria can hear her smirking.
She huffs an irritated breath “I’m serious. He’s a prick. An overgrown prickly porcupine.”
“Wow, he’s even got a pet name already. I’m jealous.”
“Shut up,” Maria tells her. Then she remembers something. “Oh, I told him I’d tell you this.”
That seems to confuse Natasha. “What, how did I even get into your conversation?”
“He said that ‘if Fury wanted eye candy around,’ he could have at least picked you as his second.”
Natasha lifts her head to look at Maria incredulously. “He said that?”
“Uh-huh,” there is a gleam in Maria’s eyes. “And I’d be offended, if I didn’t happen to agree with the assessment. That actually appears to be the only thing we’d ever agree on.” Her voice lowers an octave, (and it sends delicious chills down Natasha’s spine). “You are an eye candy.”
Natasha just shakes her head. “Is he taken care of right now?”
Maria lifts her other shoulder in a shrug. “I sure hope so. But since May’s there now, I’d like to believe he’s not a problem anymore. Or at least he won’t be soon.”
“You seem to have a good deal of respect for The Cavalry,” Natasha observes.
“Well, I do,” Maria replies, frowning thoughtfully. “She’s strictly professional and doesn’t get involved in trivial affairs and she gets the job done. She’s efficient and keeps to herself too, not drawing unnecessary attention. It’s good to have her in a team.”
Natasha suddenly stiffens in her arms, and her voice is low and menacing. “Do I need to be concerned?”
“Concerned about whom? May?” she snorts, rolling her eyes. Then she sees Natasha’s carefully neutral expression, and Maria knows that she’s dead-serious. “Come on. She’s hot, but she’s not my type.”
That seems to be the wrong thing to say though, because Natasha abruptly breaks free from her embrace, standing up.
(Maria is surprised she doesn’t have a whiplash yet – the way Natasha’s moods swing from one to another is as incredible as the Hulk.)
“Not your type, huh.” Her back is to Maria, and her posture is rigid.
“Romanov,” Maria sighs. She stands up too, placing her arms around Natasha again. (She’s taller by only a couple of inches but she likes it, the slight height difference.) Natasha doesn’t yield. (Stubborn, hard-headed, obstinate spider.)
“Total opposite of me, is she.”
“She is, but –”
“So do I have to watch out for any other redheaded superspy now? To make sure no one of your type manages to get your attention?”
“Don’t be ridicul –”
“I can’t be here all the time with you.” The words are clipped, shot rapid-fire.
“You weren’t with me all the time when there’s still S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Maria says, exasperated.
Natasha’s form slumps down. “I know, and I –”
“– shouldn’t think about stupid things,” she cuts her off. “That doesn’t matter to me.” A particularly strong tug forces Natasha to finally face her. She tips Natasha’s head up to look her in the eyes. “I know what I got into when we entered this relationship,” she says fiercely (because Natasha’s a freaking stubborn woman who needs a shove in the noggin most of the time).
“I know threats are everywhere and it is not wise to start this and to pursue this is an entirely different league of foolishness, but I wanted it and I still do, and that won’t change.” She puts her lips next to the spy’s ear, whispering, “You won’t get rid of me that easily, Natasha.”
She feels the tension leave Natasha’s body (like a dark cloud that lifted), and soft (yet strong), gentle (but powerful) arms are encircling her again.
And she receives a kiss – or more like a succession of kisses – and she knows the trouble has passed.
(For now. Natasha Romanov is a stubborn, hard-headed, obstinate spider, but she’s Maria’s stubborn, hard-headed, obstinate spider.
Everyone knows that.)
Maria breaks away for air after minutes (because they’re both former agents of a collapsed super-agency and they have skills that regular people don’t). She grins as Natasha continues on, leaving a wet trail down her neck. “For the record?” she breathes, and she gasps as the redhead sucks on a particularly sensitive spot, just beneath her ear, on her jaw, “There’s no other redheaded superspy anywhere.”
“How do you know?” Natasha asks.
“I checked,” Maria answers impishly, and as revenge Natasha bites down on her shoulder, and she can’t bring herself to care that she’d probably have bruises the next day.
“Shut up,” Natasha now says, and Maria does (because she can’t reprimand Natasha for insubordination now, not that she did when they were still subordinates).
There are a lot better things for which she could use her mouth, anyway.