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Where One Path Ends

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Natasha had been gone for hours. That part wasn’t worrisome — or surprising — in the least. It was the look Maria had seen on her face before she had disappeared that was worrisome.

That tiny flicker of emotion, usually so carefully hidden from outside eyes, suddenly so prominent on her face and in her eyes, so visible and on display. Only for half a second, but that was long enough for Maria to see it for what it was.

Doubt.

The one thing Maria couldn’t remember ever seeing on the face of the woman she loved.

Natasha had been standing by the door when it happened, silent, watching her teammates — Steve and Sam arguing over who was going to get shotgun on the way to the new training facility, Thor regaling Clint with a tale of some amazing battle he had once partaken in, Tony on the phone talking to Pepper and assuring her he would be there soon, and Wanda, off to the side — much like Natasha — alone and also watching the others.

Maria had stood across the room, watching Natasha watch the others, watching the way she studied them, the way she took them all in.

Natasha had looked up then, at Maria, like she could feel the heat of her stare even across a crowded room. Maria had smiled. A few feet away, Steve had laughed. Sam slapped him on the back. Tony put his hand over his phone and hollered, “Hey, keep it down over there, Avengers!”

And then Natasha had blinked. And the blank face, the neutral expression — for a split second they were gone, and Maria had finally seen through all the “I’m fine”s and “We’re good”s Natasha had been uttering since Ultron had fallen and the team had decided to split up. For a second, she saw how Natasha really felt — she saw the doubt and the fear and the newfound insecurity. All the things Maria had feared were there but had hoped really weren’t.

But then they were gone and so was Natasha, disappearing quicker than Maria could follow with her eyes, retreating into a place she hoped no one would follow.

•••

Maria waited twelve hours before going after her.

“Go on,” Clint had said to her as she stared at her phone, waiting for a message she knew wasn’t going to appear. “She’s stubborn, that one. Sometimes she just needs a little sense beaten into her.”

Maria smiled at him, almost a little sadly, as if she didn’t know there were some parts of Natasha she was never going to know better than Clint. “We’ve always had an unspoken agreement that we would give each other space,” she said. “We agreed we wouldn’t intrude until the other one was ready.”

Clint frowned at that. “But how do you know she’s not ready if you don’t go see her?” he argued.

“Clint …” Maria started, but she didn’t finish. She hated when he had a point.

He just laughed. “You know you want to,” he said, and then he went back to polishing his bow.

•••

She knew exactly where Natasha had gone. The very first safe house she’d ever been given in New York City. The one Maria had taken her to when she was just a baby SHIELD agent, a six-month newbie who no one except Maria, Clint and Coulson were sure they could trust.

It was old on the outside, a rundown apartment, dirty and unfurnished, but Natasha had smiled like Maria had given her the world.

Maybe she had. Natasha had told her once, years later, that the day Maria first took her there was the day she knew Maria was different, the day she knew maybe she could love her.

The old rusty key Maria kept hidden in a pocket of her wallet still slid as easily into the lock as it did on that first day. The door, for as ancient as it looked, still slid open just as quietly as it always did. Not that it mattered. Maria knew Natasha already knew she was there, had known it the second Maria had stepped foot into the hall. Upset or not, Natasha had been trained her entire life to know things like that, and one thing she never failed on was knowing everything others did not.

Maria stepped quietly and carefully into the apartment anyway, made her way silently across the polished wood floors. She knew exactly where Natasha would be, and she wasn’t wrong.

She found her on the couch, curled up in a little ball, her knees pulled to her chest, her arms wrapped around them, her head on one of the many pillows — the only real comfort in the still very shabbily furnished location — covered almost completely with an old tattered quilt that Maria’s grandmother had knitted for her before Maria could even walk.

Natasha’s green eyes, sadder now that she was out of the line of sight of her teammates, followed Maria’s every move, followed her as she made her way across the living room, as she moved into the kitchen and put a pot of water on the stove to boil, as she prepped two cups of chamomile tea and carried them back into the living room to sit beside Natasha, placing the cup that was for her on the edge of the coffee table.

Neither of them said anything. Natasha just watched her, and Maria just drank her tea, waiting until the moment was right, waiting until she knew Natasha was ready to hear what she needed to say.

Finally Natasha shifted, turning toward Maria just a hair, the grip of her arms around her legs loosening just a touch. It was all Maria needed.

She reached out, placed a hand on Natasha’s leg over the blanket covering her, felt the familiar warmth of the woman she knew so well.

“You don’t have to be an Avenger anymore if you don’t want to,” Maria said softly. “You could quit, walk away, never pick up a gun again.” She turned her head, looked into those beautiful eyes, the ones now staring back at her with something close to incredulousness. “I don’t love you because you’re an Avenger, Natasha. I love you because you’re you.”

She felt Natasha shift beneath her hand. She went on. “Being an Avenger is just a career choice. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”

She watched as Natasha pursed her lips, as thousands of unspoken words crossed her eyes. “But what if I don’t know what to do if I’m not an Avenger?” The words were barely spoken, barely breathed even, a tiny inflection in the air.

Maria squeezed her leg. “Then we’ll figure it out together. That’s why I’m here.”

“Yeah?” Another question, another hint of doubt.

Maria smiled, waited till it faded.

“Yeah.”