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the infinity of ghosts

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It must be Clint's idea of a practical joke.

The florescent lights flicker above her, an unrelenting pop music beat competes with the chatter of the civilian crowd, and worst of all, the mug by Natasha's elbow doesn't even make up for the experience by containing caffeine. The pocket litter SHIELD gave her says Natalie Rushman is a coffee shop dweller and a green tea drinker, and so here she is.

She can see all the exits and she's in a defensible position, but the sheer unnecessary public exposure still prickles down the back of her neck. Definitely Clint's idea. She sighs and turns back to her paperwork, half concentrating on trying to insert herself into the manic disorder of Stark's life, half pondering the best way to get Clint back. She's considering weighting his practice bow with wax – nearly invisible, but enough to throw his aim off just slightly – when someone calls her name.

Well, not her name.

"Natalie! Natalie, oh my god, it has been for-ev-er!" The voice is high, just this side of natural. There's a brief moment of confusion when Natasha is smothered in a bundle of overly-perfumed cashmere, and then the hug loosens and Maria Hill sits down across from her, swathed in shawls and smelling of honest-to-god patchouli.

Natasha smiles a brilliant smile, one that says college-roommate-I-haven't-seen-in-five-years, never mind that she never went to college, never mind that she grew up in barracks and communal living lost its shine before she was twelve. "Do you know the meaning of the word 'undercover'?" she asks, voice pitched so that nothing beyond her overly-enthusiastic tone is audible to the surrounding tables.

Maria matches her smile for smile, enthusiasm for enthusiasm. Natasha has never before seen her in public with her hair down; a strand of it sticks to the corner of her mouth, and Natasha has to force herself to concentrate. It has, in fact, been too long since they've seen each other.

"Funny, I came here to ask you the same question," Maria says. She curves her hands around the thick porcelain of her mug. She's drinking real coffee. Natasha can smell it.

"Me?" That comes out louder than Natasha meant; she modulates her voice to just under the hum of chatter surrounding them. "I'm not the one surprising an operative in the middle of a Starbucks without any prior contact!"

Maria leans forward, her smile shading from so-good-to-see-you towards smug, just slightly. "I'm not the one putting her target's bodyguard on the ground in a public display of skills her alias has no reason to know," she says precisely.

Natasha leans back, assessing. Ah. Yes.

She didn't mean to drop poor Happy like that. She got into the ring meaning to give him a bit more of a workout than he was expecting, to erase some of that condescension and at the same time let Stark see Natalie's cool reserve crack just slightly. That he ended up on the mat surprised her almost – not quite – as much as it did him. For a moment, for just long enough, being in the ring was like being tested in the Red Room; she reacted like she was facing Russia's deadliest, not an American boxer, and down he went.

But she wasn't about to admit that to SHIELD.

"I needed Stark to notice me," she says now, meeting Maria's eyes evenly.

"Bullshit." Maria's never phased by Natasha lying to her, which is why Natasha tries not to do it very often. "It's not possible for Tony Stark not to have noticed you the moment you walked into the room."

Natasha rolls her eyes at the near-compliment, but she lets her knee brush against Maria's. "Exactly," she says. "Do you think Stark tries to hire every pretty young thing he sees?" The twitch of Maria's lips suggests that yes, in fact, she does think that, but Natasha doesn't give her time to comment. "He and Potts both needed to know that I had... other skills." She's not crass enough to brush against Maria again, but her leg lingers close enough that they each feel the other's heat.

"Potts may be reassured to know that you could put Stark on the floor if you needed to," Maria admits.

"I shouldn't need to." Natasha thinks of the almost avuncular lechery in Stark's eyes, so opposed to the public image she spent weeks studying, and then the way he seemed to gravitate towards Potts wherever she was in the room.

"But that's not why you did it." Maria sounds too sure of herself.

Natasha frowns, thinking. If Fury is worried enough to send Maria out here to check in, then she can't admit to going off-book. Maria will take it back, and they don't have time to get anyone else into Stark Industries. She settles for giving Maria a quizzical look; if she doesn't deny it directly, it's less like lying.

It doesn't work. Maria nearly reaches out and takes her hand. "Nat," Maria says – not her name, but not not her name, a careful compromise between cover story and compassion. "I know, remember?"

Natasha remembers.

The Red Room had trained her in assuming roles, in putting on someone's life as smoothly as a new pair of gloves. What they'd never needed to do – what the drugs had done for them, for her – was deal with the comedown. When she started at SHIELD, when they finally let her out without a handler, when she came back and Fury actually gave her a short nod of acknowledgement, Natasha didn't know how to re-integrate.

Maria found her in the gym that night, facing off against the sparring dummy. Natasha flashed her a brief smile, dodged one of the rotating arms, and slammed a brutal kick towards its body.

Maria caught it.

It had to bruise her hand, but she caught the kick and held Natasha's foot suspended in the air.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" They both spoke at once. Natasha refused to feel embarrassed, standing with one leg extended; she tugged, but Maria tightened her grip.

"Were you trying to break a bone?" she demanded.

Natasha looked at her foot. Her toes were pointed, her instep arched: she might have been caught in the middle of a grande jeté, not a roundhouse kick. Had she connected, she could have broken a toe or torn a muscle. Her muscle memory betrayed her.

"Thanks," she said, trying to sound nonchalant. Maria showed no sign of letting go; Natasha was starting to feel the stretch in the muscles of her inner thigh.

Maria looked at her for a long moment, then shoved her foot sideways. In the split second it took Natasha to regain her balance. Maria dropped into a fighting crouch. "Tell me about the mission," she said, jabbing with her right at Natasha's chin.

Natasha dodged. "I've already been debriefed," she said warily.

"Didn't ask you to debrief," Maria said, moving quickly. "Tell me about the mission." Her fist grazed Natasha's upper arm; Natasha blocked, then slid into a defensive stance.

Much to her surprise, she began to talk.

Even more surprising, the talking helped. By the time they'd gone a few rounds, Natasha was sweating more from mental effort than physical, but she was firmly back in her own skin.

Maria noticed and stepped back. "Thanks for the workout," she said, dragging an arm across her forehead. She was sweating more freely than Natasha, but had at least avoided any serious injury.

"Any time," Natasha said, and walked away.

After Natasha's next mission, Maria was already in the dojo when Natasha wandered down. The routine benefitted both of them: after a few months, Maria began presenting, if not a challenge, certainly a more equal playing field. Their sparring matches extended past the time Natasha needed to centre herself and into fights for the sheer fun of it.

It took several months and several missions, but eventually Natasha didn't bother to go down to the dojo. Instead she let herself into Maria's room and waited. It took longer than she expected; when Maria came in, her brow was furrowed. It cleared when she saw Natasha.

Natasha raised both eyebrows and tilted her head. Maria's lips thinned, pressed together as she ran her eyes over Natasha critically. "Okay," she said after a moment, and tugged her top off.

After, once the mission had been exorcised, Natasha kept talking. She didn't know Maria's clearance level, didn't know where her own story had been classified, but at some point policy had to give way to practicality.

She hadn't spoken about the Red Room since she first came to SHIELD. She'd told Clint, then Fury; sitting in a windowless room in the belly of the helicarrier, she'd led them blind through maps and charts.

Maria's room was similarly windowless, but Natasha pulled the sheet up to cover herself regardless.

When she finished her story, the silence hung in the air, suspended, until Maria sat up. "So," she said. "That's why the fighting helps?" Natasha nodded; Maria frowned for a long moment. "If it's all the same to you," she said eventually, "I kinda prefer this method." Her gesture took in the tangled sheets and their discarded clothing.

Natasha felt a bubble of laughter rise up inside her. "Not worried you'll get soft?" she asked, reaching up to wrap a hand around Maria's neck.

Maria swept an arm under Natasha, and Natasha let herself be rolled on top of Maria until they were pressed skin to skin, hands above their heads. "Not really," Maria whispered, then kissed her.

Yeah, Natasha remembers what Maria knows, and how much of it she knows unofficially. "Fury didn't send you, did he?" Natasha asks. She knows the answer, but it's worth seeing Maria's eyes soften. "I'm fine," Natasha says, letting her hand brush against Maria's. "Really, you didn't have to come."

Maria smiles; she's learned to read the truth in Natasha's eyes. Natasha thinks she should find that more disturbing than she does.

"I was in the neighbourhood." Maria rises, her other persona back in place as smoothly as if she'd never dropped it. "We have to do this again soon," she exclaims breathlessly, leaning over to give Natasha – Natalie – another patchouli-scented hug. And if her lips press too insistently against Natalie's cheek, no one in the shop notices. She wiggles her fingers in a wave goodbye and sweeps out of the door, leaving her coffee almost untouched.

Natasha slides the mug across the table; it has cream in it, which Natasha takes when she's feeling decadent, but Maria never bothers with. She lifts it to her mouth, inhaling the bitter scent before savouring the first swallow. Untraceable; ephemeral; exactly what she needed. Sometimes, she thinks, it's nice being understood.