Romanoff was standing in the corner of the seconded conference room, watching, holding a plastic cup, and not even pretending that she fit in. As well she shouldn't. Maria was pretty sure that when Coulson had organised this party, he'd ordered her to show up, and Romanoff was by no means secure enough in her position at S.H.I.E.L.D. to tell him to go fuck himself.
Maria watched her out of the corner of her eye, while picking at her piece of store-bought sheet cake, and half listening to Barton insist it wasn't actually his birthday. Which was true; Maria had access to his file same as Coulson. Maybe it was all some kind of test for Romanoff, to see what she would do in a social situation with a body of her ‘peers;’ if she would play agent, or if she would play at vulnerability, and see how many people she could sucker into thinking she was being authentic. The woman was an emotional Matroska, and no one had the least idea of what lay at the centre–certainly not Barton, no matter what he said.
Of course Romanoff knew that Maria, and everyone else in the room, was watching her, so Maria wasn't surprised when their eyes met the next time she pretended to scan the room, while only really watching the one person. That Romanoff was looking right back with a little smirk, and that she raised an eyebrow in the same sort of ironic, know-it-all superiority that occasionally made Maria want to punch Nick Fury in the kidney, well, that made her blink. The woman was wearing black jeans and a S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue unisex t-shirt, and she hardly looked sultry, but she'd managed to work an invitation into the tilt of her hips and the way she folded her arms under her breasts, a pose that disappeared when Maria looked again. The double take got her a tiny shrug and another smirk before Romanoff pointedly sauntered out.
As much as Maria should have had a policy against sleeping with other agents, especially after she and Victoria had broken up, she knew she would follow. She could tell herself it was reconnaissance, that she wanted to see what Romanoff was up to, that the prurient part of herself wanted to know what Natasha was like in bed, but the truth was something else. There was a level to it both baser and more profound underlining the look they'd shared, one that had made Maria's breath catch.
She left ten minutes later, with Barton, but peeled off for Romanoff's quarters. Maria had no notion of remaining unseen, not with the level of surveillance Romanoff was still under, but there was such a thing as decorum.
Romanoff kept one hand on the door as she opened it, making Maria ask if she could come in, then again gave the ironic expression and shrug, as if it were the same one way or another. Yet Maria thought she could see in that way that Romanoff's eye's followed her, the same hunger she herself felt. When Romanoff's eyes widened, and her lips parted to draw a fortifying breath, Maria would swear she saw another wall tumble.
They didn't say anything, only kissed, and then fell onto Natasha's narrow bed.
The larches turned the air sweet and acrid, even when it was cold enough to make Maria's lungs burn. At least they were on a downhill stretch now, their target two days behind them, the extraction site just ahead, and the wind was filling in their snowshoe tracks behind them. They kept on, snow squeaking cleanly with each step until they came into the lee of a bluff, where the soft overcast shadows filled the dell.
"Here?" she said, making it a question, even though she was technically the agent in charge. Natasha had a hell of a lot more experience with winter survival than she did.
The tent expanded with a flick of the wrist, then disappeared as it's image refraction kicked on. Just getting out of the wind raised the temp by ten degrees or so, but Maria rolled out a pair of arctic-grade sleeping bags before stripping out of her coat and folding it into a pillow. She'd left her snowshoes and the worst of the snow outside, but planned to crawl into the bag boots and all. After the first/last/only sock-footed firefight, she'd learned her lesson. Even S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn't make self-warming meals especially appealing, but a day hiking through the snow did wonders.
"You don't want to huddle for warmth?" Natasha asked when they were finished dinner, eyes flicking over the twin sleeping bags.
"Huddle, sure," Maria said. Her rule about sex on missions had held up a lot better than than one about relationships with co-workers.
Natasha nodded, and instead of zipping the bags together, spread one bag flat and laid the other on top of it. "Easier exit," she said, and waited for Maria to lie down before she curled up half beside and half on top of her, and pulled the sleeping back over them both.
Maria leaned down enough to press her lips against Natasha's hair. It was still cold, and smelled as clean as winter. Natasha herself was putting off heat like a sun, even through three thermal layers, and Maria pulled her closer, enjoying the way their curves fit together, and how she could feel the steady rise and fall of Natasha's breath.
She thought they'd drift into sleep, as they had so many times before, but Natasha's breathing wasn't levelling out. Maria knew her well enough to almost hear her thinking as she lay with her, eyes open still.
"What are we doing?" Natasha asked, finally.
Maria could have been smart and said something obvious, but instead she tried to put words to something she'd been doing by feel for months, "I think," she said carefully, "we're leaning on each other." Like two old trees with uncertain roots. Like two wounded soldiers trying to make it home. When Natasha didn't answer, she asked, "Do you want to stop?"
There were a lot more things Maria wanted to say, but couldn't find words for. She wanted to tell Natasha that she no longer thought that Maria was in her bed because Nat couldn't get someone higher up the food chain like Fury, that just seeing her made Maria's day better, and that lying together like this made Maria's heart hurt and feel lighter at the same time. "Good night, Natasha," she said.
"Sleep well," Natasha replied.
The worst thing was that the reek of swamp water was in no way vestigial or metaphorical or any of that other shit. It was Maria's hair. Maria's hair smelled like that Christ-forsaken bog, and she resented every inch of it for reminding her of that shitty mission. Also it reeked. She reeked, generally, really, but the medics had sponged the worst off her body when they'd patched her up, so that was mostly the harsh scent of antiseptic, dried blood, and that weird tacky smell that bandages had. Her hair, however, deserved its own horror franchise and, worst of all, the nurses wouldn't let her shower.
Maria eyed the medical equipment shelved on the other side of the utilitarian S.H.I.E.L.D. field hospital, and considered the electric razors. She'd learned in bootcamp that a buzzcut was not a good look on her, but even so.
She felt too lousy even to smile when Natasha rolled in, saying, "If you wanted down time so bad, you could have put in for it."
"But I wouldn't have got the drugs," Maria replied, raising the hand with the IV in it. "What fun would that be?"
Natasha's lips tightened like she was trying to smile for Maria's sake, but it ended up looking more like a grimace. She didn't bother with the chart, or sitting next to Maria, or even a kiss on the cheek, but lifted a basin from the supply cabinet and vanished into the bathroom.
"We should go up to Massachusetts and get gay-married," Maria said with feeling when Natasha reappeared, basin now full of hot water and towels over her arm.
"I'll take that under consideration."
Maria had to scoot forward a bit, allowing Natasha to do something complicated with her pillows and the level of the bed, but soon she was able to tilt her head back and let her filthy, tangled hair fall into the warm water. Natasha's slender hands threaded through her hair, one moment splashing water over her scalp, the next rubbing in small circles with her fingertips.
"I heard you're up for deputy director."
Sighing, Maria closed her eyes, and ignored the question. She didn't want to talk about the mission, or how worried one or the other of them might have been about not seeing the other. At least she hoped Natasha had been worried.
"No more swamps." Natasha's tone was deliberately neutral, but Maria thought she could hear, "no more hospital beds" implied in it as well, and let herself smile, just a little.
Natasha rubbed soap into her hair, something mild-scented and nostalgic, possibly baby shampoo. When Maria opened her eyes enough to look up, Natasha was watching her with focus and an unusual softness around her eyes. Again, as every day she saw her, Maria felt her breath catch, and she closed her eyes again.
It took three washes and two rinses to properly clean Maria's hair, by which point the morphine had kicked in big time, and Maria was drifting, even while Natasha finger combed the rats’ nests out. She'd almost fallen asleep when the cot dipped and Natasha curled up against her, carefully not putting any weight on her chest.
"About that Massachusetts thing," Maria murmured, but Nat hushed her, and she didn't have the energy to bring it up again.
It took a long time for things to settle down enough for Maria to start to delegate major issues, and even longer before she even considered clocking off. Only caffeine and the vestigial adrenaline were keeping her on her feet, and it wasn't just the rocking of the deck that was making her sway slightly. They'd parked the Helicarrier out past the twelve-mile limit, and the deck rolled slightly with each ocean swell. She usually liked that feeling, but now it just reminded her why the ship couldn't fly.
Fury finally ordered her to bed, and she didn't even protest.
Maria was one of the lucky ones whose quarters hadn't been shot up by Loki's goons, caught in the explosion, or smashed by the Hulk. With gratitude for small mercies she sank into her own bed, only bothering to peel off her boots and earpiece, and take down her hair. It felt good to press her back against the wall and curl up tight, but the moment she closed her eyes, her mind filled with images of the day: Barton's eyes white and blank as he took aim at her, the sticky patch of blood on the conference room table, the telemetric blip of that fucking nuclear missile as it headed for Manhattan, the death throes of those damn cyborg space whale things.
Every head shrink in S.H.I.E.L.D. was going to be spending years on the critical incident stress debriefings. She'd have to plan for that, and for badgering agents into co-operating, and for...
Maria started as the door opened, eyes snapping wide, hand going for her sidearm, but it was only Natasha. Of course it was; Nat was the only person who had her door code.
"How's Barton?" Maria asked, but Natasha shook her head.
The light from the hall caught her expression before the door closed behind her. Natasha's whole body was strung tight like she was still in the middle of a fight for her life, and her full lips pressed thin. Without a word, Natasha stripped naked and crawled into bed. She turned until she was spooned into Maria's arms, then went still.
"How bad is it?" Maria asked as her fingers found the edge of the bandages padding Natasha's belly. She'd read the medics' reports as soon as they'd come in, but she wanted to hear Natasha say that this at least was fine. Natasha shook her head again, negating the question, and Maria slid her arm up until it rested over her ribs, just under Natasha's breasts, and pulled her in tight.
She kissed the back of Natasha's neck, twined their hands together, and breathed with Natasha until she dropped off. Maria could feel the moment she fell asleep, how the tension flowed out of her body and her muscles went limp in Maria's arms. Maria had envied the ability to just switch off like that, until she considered where Natasha had learned it. Another horrifying image, but now that Nat was safe and warm and in her bed, Maria found that she, too, was able to rest.
"So this is where the private sector gets you."
Maria pretended not to notice Natasha until she was standing right in front of her porch swing, then she marked her place, set down her book, and looked up. It'd been a month since she'd seen Natasha on anything other than C-SPAN, hadn't met her at all in person since they'd ended S.H.I.E.L.D. and both their careers. Now Nat looked like an ad in an autumn issue of a magazine aimed at twenty-somethings who were planning to buy a place in the country: hiking boots, jeans distressed but not too distressed, a loose-knit sweater long enough to hide her hands but tight enough to show off her curves, a crocheted slouch hat in a contrasting brown. The colour set off her hair, which she undoubtedly knew.
How good Natasha looked only had a small part in how seeing her made Maria's heart clench, but she tried to laugh it off, asking, "Didn't Stark pay you when you worked there?"
Natasha shrugged. "Skipped out before payday." The porch swing rocked gently as she settled next to Maria, curling her legs up under her and resting her head on Maria's shoulder. "But Ms. Potts didn't sue me for breach of contract or corporate espionage, so I came out square." She flicked her hand at the view. "I may reconsider."
"You did say you were going to disappear," Maria commented, unable to resist prodding a little, even if she was pretty sure Natasha was joking. A down payment on this place had been the first thing Maria had done with her signing bonus. It had heated floors, and a deck with a view of a lake, but most of all it was quiet. She was overdue for some quiet.
"Can't get much more disappeared than this," Natasha noted, still lightly, and Maria slid her arm around Nat's waist to hold her close.
"I get whole weekends, sometimes." More often than she had with S.H.I.E.L.D., at least. "Hardly know what to do with myself. I may take up quilting."
Natasha snorted, and they both watched the little wind waves on the lake. A loon called somewhere in the distance, faint and haunting, and Natasha sighed and still said nothing.
She wanted to ask how long Natasha could stay, but Maria tilted her head to rest her cheek on Natasha's hair, and let her be. In the years Maria had known her, she'd learned that space without expectation was what Natasha wanted most. She could be–and had been–anything asked of her, but here, with Maria, she could begin to piece together something for herself. She could be someone who was allowed to lean on a friend and support that friend in return, a person wholly her own, and maybe a tiny bit Maria's too.
They stayed that way until they both nodded off, and woke up with the autumnal chill biting through their clothes, and then, laughing, went inside.