Her first grouping hit the silhouette dead center, but her second drifted to the left and the cluster was a little too imprecise. Maria Hill drew in a breath, refocused, and fired off a series of five shots. This grouping was tighter—this time on the groin of the silhouette—but she could do better. She set the Glock on the shelf in her stall so that she could reload, glaring at the outlying shots as she did so.
When she heard the unmistakable clang of her instructor’s boots on the tile, she snapped to attention, ready to pop off a salute until she remembered that SHIELD did not believe in saluting. She covered her near-gaffe by remaining at attention as Instructor Hogan approached.
“At ease,” Hogan said, a small smirk in place.
Hogan studied the silhouette down-range from Maria’s stall. “Man trouble?”
“Just needed a memorable area of the target, ma’am.”
“And it seems you found one. Pack it in.”
Trainees were required to spend a certain number of hours in the gun range. Maria knew she had exceeded hers for the week, but she had gotten the impression that that was encouraged, provided that an agent didn’t neglect his or her other duties, and Maria had definitely not done that. “Ma’am?”
“Relax, Agent, you’re not in trouble. Early promotion, actually: you’re being sent into the field.” Hogan held out a file folder. “You’re wanted on the upper deck in forty minutes, and you still have to drop by the Armory and Medical, so I’d hustle, if I were you.”
An early promotion? Maria took the file and did not say the thousand things that came to mind, instead choosing to give a curt nod. “Thank you, ma’am,” she said, and began to police her brass double-time, grateful that she hadn’t gone through her full session.
Hogan, however, laughed and pushed her toward the door, startling Maria. She’d gotten used to living in close quarters, but it was always such a shock to reconcile the command structure in the lower ranks of SHIELD with the way her commanding officers had treated her in the Coast Guard. “I’ll handle this. Hurry, Maria, or the Quinjet will leave without you. We’ll celebrate your promotion with a drink when you get back.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She didn’t snap off a salute before she left, though it was a near thing. Her thoughts raced as she tried to put it all together. There had been nothing on the feed about any of the active missions, which meant this was either deep-cover—which she doubted, she hadn’t been with SHIELD that long and subterfuge wasn’t really listed in her skill set—or it was a new assignment. If they were sending rookies, it was probably a cakewalk or an assignment nobody else wanted.
They were waiting for her in Medical, which surprised her. She’d heard horror stories about the wait, but Dr. Stinson had her paperwork signed the minute she walked in. Maybe it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk after all.
In the Armory, Patch Gunner took one look at her PT gear and grunted. “Full kit’s in the back.”
Since he hadn’t even needed to look at her mission loadout, they really had warned everybody she was coming. Maria wasn’t used to anything going nearly this smoothly; prepping for roll-out generally meant some kind of paperwork SNAFU and gear getting left behind, but there was a uniform and her own combat boots already laid out for her on a bench in the back. She scrambled into the ops gear and was just pulling on her boots when the door swung open to admit two more agents.
The first one looked at her with a grin. “Oh, they’re giving us rookies now. Look at that, uniform’s so new it’s practically shining like a copper penny.”
“Greg,” Maria said, nodding at Wallace and his partner, Frederickson. “Chester. They sent you two hooligans? They must really be desperate.”
Chester Frederickson, all six feet and seven inches of him, grinned. He’d earned the nickname Monolith among the crew for a reason. “They just want a job done right the first time, is all.”
“Are we the only ones?”
“AIC’s in the field. Got your gear?”
Maria picked up the kitbag. Even with the rush through Medical, they were cutting it close, so she’d just have to trust that Patch knew what he was doing. She wasn’t going to get left behind on her first mission, and she’d survived with less. “Where are we going?”
“Barcelona. Ready to get a tan, Hill?”
After four years jumping out of helicopters in the worst weather conditions known to mankind, where it was so noisy that you couldn’t hear yourself even try to think, Maria found SHIELD Quinjets disquieting. There was a gentle hum of the engines, but that was nothing compared to the scream of wind and chop of rotors. In her time in the Guard, she’d learned how to sleep through the worst of it, but she couldn’t drop off now, even if Frederickson’s snores were enough to make most Apache helicopters sit up and take notice.
With a sigh, she pushed out of the safety rigging in the cargo bay and stretched her legs out. Greg looked up from the well-thumbed copy of Catch-22 in his lap. “Should’a brought a book,” he said.
“Didn’t have time.” Maria stretched, taking her time to make sure each muscle was well-limbered before moving on to the next. They’d been briefed via comm right after take-off, but the details had been scarce. The Quinjet would take them to Barcelona, where they would disembark and pick up a package. Upon retrieving the package, they would return to the Quinjet and remain vigilant until the package was safely delivered to the aircraft carrier.
“What do you suppose we’re picking up?” she asked Greg, since he set his book aside.
“Probably not a shark.”
“Why would it be a shark?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” Greg asked, and Maria gave him a skeptical look. “Oh, fine. It’s probably some kind of weapon or device causing Fury trouble, and they’re sending us out to clean up the final part of a mess. What we’ll see, Hill, is a box, and that’s it. It won’t be anything exciting. It never is.”
The package was not a shark.
It was also not a box.
“Afternoon, gentlemen,” Agent Clint Barton said as he climbed up the ramp into the Quinjet. He did a double-take at Maria. “Oh. Sorry, didn’t see you. So make that, ‘Afternoon, gentlemen and lady.’ By the way, you can lower the weapons. Pretty sure she’s not going to bite.”
None of the agents in the hold moved.
Clint Barton sighed. “Stand down,” he said, and again nobody moved. “That’s an order.”
Maria reluctantly holstered her Glock. Frederickson and Greg followed suit.
“I made her promise she’d play nice,” Barton said, but Maria noticed that he kept a respectable distance from the woman behind him on the ramp. The Black Widow was shorter than Maria expected, but that hardly mattered. Maria had seen the footage of Sao Paolo. She knew what Natalia Romanova was capable of.
“Pardon the insubordination, sir,” Greg said, “but you do know you’ve got Hostile Number One standing behind you, right?”
“I don’t need my eyes checked, Agent. Sanderson, get us in the air.”
Romanova did not look like a hardened killer. If anything, she looked like a college student, though Maria knew she was older than she appeared. She wore a form-hugging top under a battered leather jacket and jeans that looked like they had been painted on. There were no visible weapons, but she didn’t precisely need them, especially in such close quarters. Her hair, a shade of red so bright it had to be unnatural, was loose around her shoulders.
“Everybody, this is Natasha,” Barton said, needlessly. “Natasha, this is…better not to tell you their names, actually. Gotta protect the rookie.”
Romanova’s eyes cut to Maria immediately, which Maria felt was more than a little unfair. She’d been in the Coast Guard for nearly four years before Madripoor had put her on SHIELD’s radar.
“Sit,” Barton said, pointing at one of the seats toward the back. “Stay.”
Though Maria supposed the Widow had killed people for less, Romanova gave him a dry look. With a small bounce of her shoulders, she took a seat. Maria wondered what the hell Barton’s game was, why he thought bringing in Hostile Number One like some kind of houseguest was a good idea. Romanova had a kill record longer than one of Frederickson’s arms, and that was just the hits they knew about.
But the sniper grinned at the three of them. “You three stay here and watch her. I’m going to go take over for Sanderson. Been awhile since I got to fly one of these things.”
Just like that, he left the junior agents alone. With the Black Widow.
And SHIELD said it didn’t believe in hazing.
An hour into the flight, Maria finally took a seat. It wasn’t directly across from the Black Widow, but she was the nearest, as both Greg and Frederickson had visibly paled. Every single one of Maria’s muscles was tensed. She didn’t bother to try and look casual. She wasn’t fooling anybody.
Romanova hadn’t moved. Her arms were folded across her chest, her feet flat on the floor. She didn’t have her safety rigging done up (which meant the rest of them didn’t, either). She took her time staring at each of them in turn. Frederickson and Greg looked down at the floor.
Maria stared back.
“Having fun yet?” Barton asked over the comm. Maria’s hand twitched toward her gun in surprise; Romanova’s eyes cut down to the movement. “Seriously, you guys still alive back there?”
None of the agents moved to answer.
“Bueller?” Barton asked. “Bueller?”
“No issues back here, sir,” Greg finally said.
“Excellent. Anybody bring anything good to read?” When there was no answer again, he made a disgusted noise. “She’s not actually going to kill you. I had her swear on the grave of some dead Russians that she wouldn’t harm any SHIELD agents. More than she had to, at least.”
Again, none of them answered.
“Oh, fine.” She could practically hear Barton rolling his eyes in the cockpit. “Let’s play a game, then. Let’s play ‘How many things on the Quinjet can Romanova use to kill the three of you.’ We’ll call it a training exercise. Winner gets to swap out with Sanderson for copilot duties.”
“Sir?” Sanderson asked, sounding worried.
She could see Frederickson’s eyes scanning the ceiling, methodically counting each and every thing that wasn’t bolted down (and likely some of the things that were). Greg was a little more subtle about it.
“Well?” Barton asked.
“Thirty-seven, sir,” Frederickson said.
“Wrong, you forgot about the buckle by her right hand.”
As one, the three agents looked at Natasha’s right hand. She stared back for a second before she rolled her eyes, glared toward the cockpit, and rested the back of her head against the headrest, eyeing the ceiling.
“But that’s a nice try, Chester. Doesn’t help you when you’re dead, of course, but props for effort.”
“You’re a twisted bastard, sir,” Maria said.
“Thank you, Agent Hill. I notice you didn’t hazard a guess.”
“I don’t need to. She wouldn’t require anything on the Quinjet. She would simply take Frederickson down with a jab to the throat, followed by a kick to the side of the knee to incapacitate him. Provided she could get enough leverage, she’d snap his neck before she disabled Wallace, possibly with one of her thigh-holds. She would try to finish the job with me using the stiletto in her left boot she thinks we don’t know about.”
There was silence throughout the cabin. Romanova, still staring at the ceiling, began to smile.
“Try?” Barton asked.
“She’d have to be fast, sir, to beat my Glock.” Maria didn’t take her eyes off of the spy.
“I object to being first to die,” Frederickson said.
“Yeah, how come she doesn’t just take you out first? You’re closest,” Greg said.
“Shock value,” Maria said with a shrug. “You expect her to go for the other woman first. Frederickson’s the bigger trophy.”
Romanova finally looked away from the ceiling, eyes amused. She looked Maria up and down, but eventually she tilted her head slightly. Slowly, holding one hand up in caution, she leaned forward.
Maria’s hand tensed on the hilt of her gun. When Romanova pulled a stiletto from her right boot, Maria actually drew her gun. But the redhead just tossed the knife onto the seat next to Maria.
“Wrong boot,” was all she said, and curled up on the seat, hugging her legs to her chest and, by all appearances, falling asleep.
Maria looked at the stiletto on the seat next to her and tried hard not to blanch. She’d been bluffing.
Romanova didn’t say a word for the rest of the flight. When the Quinjet touched down on the carrier, there was an armed escort waiting. They didn’t put her in restraints—it would have been silly—as they led her away. Barton kept in step with his new acquisition, like he was parading for an adult version Show and Tell, with the three junior agents following him. Though she felt vaguely hungover, like she’d been on a long dive in 50-knot winds with no way of getting back to shore, Maria held her head high and moved forward, ignoring the gapes from the deck crew as the processional moved inside and toward the prisoner cells.
Fury was waiting for the team. He stood, arms crossed over the chest of his massive black leather coat as Natalia Romanova was locked into a cell. He dismissed the escort, though Barton and his team were asked to remain behind.
“You were sent to kill her, not to collect her,” Fury said to Barton.
Barton did not shrug like he had with the junior agents. “Figured a job offer would go over better.”
“It’s more efficient not to let something that good go to waste.”
Maria looked over her shoulder at the holding cell, where Romanova was sitting on the cot, legs folded into the lotus position. The same inscrutable smirk from earlier was still in place.
Fury looked unimpressed. “And when she kills us all in our beds, Barton?”
Now Barton did shrug. “Send Hill after her. She seems to have her figured out.”
“That so, Hill?” Fury asked.
“I don’t think anybody truly has the Black Widow figured out.” Maria eyed the team leader, threw caution to the wind, and said, “Except Barton. And that’s because he’s a lunatic, sir.”
Barton’s shoulders shook with silent laughter; Fury did not seem amused, which was okay with Maria. She hadn’t been kidding.
“Very well. Wallace, Frederickson? Anything to report?”
“Dismissed, then. Good work.”
They hadn’t really done anything, Maria wanted to point out, but surviving a flight with the Black Widow was a new accomplishment for SHIELD agents, so perhaps they shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. She turned to follow her teammates from the room, but as she did so, she thought she caught a frown on Romanova’s face. When Maria looked at her, though, Romanova simply looked blank. She gave Maria a small nod, which Maria found herself returning before she left.
It was only when she was outside in the corridor that she finally let herself relax. Romanova had been studying her, eyes narrowed as though there was something about Maria she didn’t get.
The feeling, Maria thought as she walked away, was mutual.
After that first mission, Maria’s time as a full agent passed in a blur of Quinjet cargo bays, stakeouts, and briefing rooms. Perhaps her evaluations cautioned about a detached nature, but what she lacked in empathy, she made up for in skill. In spades. She was popular to have on missions where amphibious rescue might be required, given her background in diving, but really, she could find herself anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat—provided that “anywhere” was usually in the middle of nowhere. Maria came to prefer gritty terrain to five star accommodation. If she’d known how many maid uniforms she would don in the name of justice, she might have thought twice before joining up.
On the aircraft carrier, her downtime was not spent relaxing, as was the habit. She crammed in coursework whenever she wasn’t sleeping. She worked out and worked out hard, honing the skills where she found herself lacking, and beat any challenge the agency threw her way. Occasionally, Greg dragged her to a poker game or she hit a bar with Hogan. She was wound tight, but she wasn’t a robot, something that Greg liked to point out whenever he felt she’d buried herself in too many textbooks to count.
Some days, Maria wasn’t so sure.
She crossed paths with Romanova—now Romanoff—only occasionally. Maria operated on strike teams; Romanoff worked solo. If Maria was the type to blend in, Romanoff thrived in the spotlight, doing her best work under the interrogation lamp and the crystal chandelier. It struck Maria as odd because even though she’d been at SHIELD for months, nobody really knew Romanoff. Maria did know one thing, though: Romanoff didn’t like her.
Oh, Romanoff was polite to everybody at SHIELD. She smiled, if a bit distantly, at other agents over lunch and during briefings. When they made landfall, she hit the clubs and danced with anybody that asked (and both bar brawls, it was noted, had been Barton’s fault). After the terror of her reputation had faded a little, the other agents seemed to like her well enough in return. To Maria, however, Romanoff gave no more than a nod and a blank look—and nothing else. No small talk, no polite smile.
Maria didn’t have to be universally liked, but it was still a bit disturbing. She knew exactly where Natasha Romanoff was listed on the world’s top assassins playlist, and Maria made it a point not to cross anybody in the single digits.
“Should I be worried?” she asked Barton once before a briefing. Strike Team Delta—which was really just him and Romanoff—and her team, Strike Team Juliet, were being called to an op in Malaysia. It would be two weeks in close quarters, and Maria didn’t fancy waking up with a knife between her eyes.
“Worried about what?” Barton sucked away at the sludge SHIELD sometimes called coffee as he piled donuts onto a plate with his free hand.
“Romanoff,” Maria said. “She doesn’t like me much.”
“Sure she does.”
Maria raised an eyebrow.
“You’re still alive, aren’t you?”
“Real reassuring, Barton.”
“Relax, Hill. She’s not affectionate because she’s Natasha. That’s all it is. She likes you fine.”
Maria glanced across the briefing room, where the subject of their conversation was leafing through one of the intel binders. She looked completely absorbed in what lay in the binder. Maria figured she was probably eavesdropping instead and, embarrassed and annoyed with herself for it, she dropped the subject. Or at least she considered it dropped.
Barton dropped into a seat at the table across from Romanoff. “Hey, Nat, Hill thinks you don’t like her.”
Romanoff’s answer was to move a shoulder in a bare approximation of a shrug.
“See?” Barton said, looking smug. Maria refrained from kicking him under the table because it was unprofessional. Two weeks in cramped quarters in a little village outside of Johor Bahru would give her ample opportunity for revenge.
Romanoff looked up from the binder. “You drop your left before you feint,” she said to Maria. “It will get you killed.”
Maria waited, but that was all the spy had to say. “Noted,” Maria said. Had she been dropping her left? Granted, she spent more time in the range than she did on the sparring mat, but she hadn’t neglected her PT time there. “Thanks.”
Again, that facsimile of a shrug.
“Something fascinating in that binder, Nat?” Clint asked. “You seem awful focused for somebody I caught looking at a Dan Brown novel the other day.”
Romanoff raised her middle finger; six days later, something she read in that notebook ended up saving all of their lives (though Cho was critically injured and almost bled out on the Quinjet ride to Bangkok), and twelve days later, alive because she hadn’t dropped her left in a fight against a Lebanese assassin, Maria figured things were probably okay with Natasha as they were, and she went on with her life.
Shortly after Malaysia, Maria was pulled from her strike team and given command of her own outpost. It meant riding a desk a little sooner than she hoped, but it was a command position, so she tried not to mind, even though the office had no air conditioning and her team was dreadfully understaffed. She’d only just begun to make headway when they called her back to HQ because Hogan was going on maternity leave and somebody needed to train the recruits. Though she had no desire to teach, Maria sucked it up because being at HQ meant it was easier to move laterally through the ranks, and took a crash course in applicable instruction.
It took her two days to earn the nickname Hardass Hill.
She didn’t give a damn. Terrorizing trainees proved to be fun. No wonder Hogan had sometimes walked around with a bounce in her step.
“Again,” she said, walking through the lines of trainees in the gym. They were mostly headed for Engineering—SHIELD was in the process of building something, but Maria had no idea what it was yet—but she was going to make damned sure that any agent trained by Maria Hill could defend himself or herself in the field, and give the enemy hell in the process.
More or less on cue, eight bodies hit the training mats. Maria let the winded trainees climb to their feet. “Again.”
There were a couple of dirty looks; she ignored them. Those trainees would thank her the first time they took a fall in the field and knew how to get up.
She ran through two more exercises with the class in quick succession. SHIELD believed in utilizing different groupings of martial arts in training, though agents were encouraged to master at least two different skills in their own time. Maria had found a local dojo for Muay Thai near the apartment she kept for her land-based assignments. Sure, there were meatheads there, but she’d already beaten all of them, so they didn’t bother her much. Today’s exercises, though, were aikido. She liked aikido, generally, but grappling had never been her strength. She didn’t really believe in letting anybody get close enough to throw her or put her in a joint lock.
“Can I get a volunteer?” she asked when they’d had their water break and had assembled in semi-neat lines on the mat. Usually there was at least one daring candidate to step up and show off, but after she’d taken Jackson—6’3, 250 pounds, Marine with two tours in Afghanistan under his belt—down without blinking, Maria noticed there was a great deal more hesitation.
Indeed, nobody stepped forward now.
“C’mon, Kaminsky, you’re usually up for getting tossed about.”
The MIT grad, who was smaller than the rest of her classmates, however, shook her head. She was smiling a little. “I’d rather watch, if that’s okay. I want to see how it’s done.”
It was a fair point; aikido tended to be more helpful for somebody like Kaminsky than for a brute with raw power like Jackson. You didn’t need bulk and mass to put somebody in a joint-lock as joints were the weakest part of the body.
“All right,” Maria said, and looked for her next victim. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Romanoff slipping between the ropes of the gym’s boxing ring, followed by a sweaty, grinning Barton. Judging by the way some of her trainees tensed, they noticed it, too.
Maria frowned. Trainees might need to respect senior agents, but outright fearing them was counterproductive. Maria made a quarter-turn on her heel. “Hey, Romanoff?”
Romanoff slowed. If she was surprised, she didn’t show it. “Yes?”
“Could I get your help for a demonstration?”
One of Romanoff’s eyebrows went up. “You want…my help.”
“Please.” Maria jerked her head at the trainees. “They want to see an expert do it.”
“And you didn’t ask me?” Barton looked wounded. “Hill, I’m hurt. Hurt.”
“I’m sure you are, but maybe you could lick your wounds a little more quietly while the adults work?” Maria asked, and had her class sniggering behind their hands. The chuckles died when Romanoff kicked off her shoes. The fox in the henhouse, Maria thought.
Romanoff turned to face her. “What would you like to demonstrate?”
“We’re working on aikido,” Maria said, which was probably unnecessary. Romanoff and Barton had been boxing for a good forty-five minutes nearby. She knew what the training class was doing. Still, Maria explained the block she wanted to demonstrate.
Romanoff looked out over the trainees. “I see.”
She received a brief shrug of one shoulder. “Good enough,” Maria said, mostly to herself, and moved to strike out at Romanoff.
It proved to be one of the biggest mistakes of her life.
Romanoff moved in a blur of color: red hair, gray tank-top, black yoga pants. Maria blocked the first punch, mostly by sheer, stupid luck. Romanoff swiped Maria’s block to the side and delivered a short, hard jab to her ribcage. When Maria stumbled back, Romanoff rolled forward in a somersault, lifting herself from her elbows, locked Maria in a thigh-hold, and twisted.
Maria flew through the air, tried to adjust for the landing, and didn’t make it in time. The mat rushed at her for a split second before she crashed into it. Hard. Her wrist, her midsection, her ankle, everything seemed like it was briefly, madly on fire—and then the real pain started. She heard obscenities over the bells ringing in her ears, saw Kaminsky rushing toward Romanoff, fists up. Maria rolled onto her side, teeth gritted, even though Romanoff hadn’t moved. She stood back, hands loose at her side.
Barton stepped between them, and between Romanoff and her trainees. “Shit, Nat,” he said. “What the hell was that for?”
The redhead sent Maria one searing, unimpressed look and turned on her heel.
Maria climbed to her feet, trying not to telegraph that her ankle was throbbing. Pain and shame—she’d never had her ass handed to her quite so efficiently—mingled in her gut. “I’m fine,” she lied, pushing away the trainees that had rushed to help her. “I’m fine, I’m okay, back off.”
“You sure?” Barton asked.
Maria’s jaw clenched, but she nodded. Barton seemed to hold some sort of internal debate for a second because he paused. And then, abruptly, he swiveled to face the training class. “What are you lot standing there for? Pair up into your sparring partners, work on your grappling. Don’t just stand there gawking. Move!”
The normally affable Hawkeye shouting like a drill sergeant was enough to shake the class out of its shocked stupor and into motion. Barton stepped close and dropped his voice to a murmur. “Now that they’re busy, tell the truth. You’re favoring that ankle. You okay?”
“It’s not a weakness to ask for help if you need it, you know.”
“You worry about your own house, Barton.” Maria sent a hard look over his shoulder at where Romanoff stood by the wall, calmly collecting her gear. “I can handle mine.”
“Okay.” Barton spread his hands wide in a peace-keeping gesture. “Just making sure. Let me know if you need anything else.”
“The last five minutes of my life back would be a start,” Maria said, and when Barton grinned at that, she turned to face her sparring trainees, her ankle, her ribs, her wrist, and her pride stinging. So much for convincing them that the Black Widow, trusted agent and operative of SHIELD, wasn’t an absolute psychopath.
It took two hours after sending her class to the range to work on the M4, but Maria swallowed her pride and limped down to the infirmary. They X-rayed her, taped up her wrist, ankle, and ribs—just bruised, not broken, thankfully—and promptly removed her from the field roster. Not that she was likely to be called into the field while filling in for Hogan. But it still burned like a fire that a weakness could be keeping her from being, if not the best, at least her personal best. With resentment a hot brick in her gut, she ignored the painkillers and headed for the bar. It was full of off-shift agents, but her foul mood sat around her like a dour cloud, giving her plenty of alone time at the bar.
Until, that is, she felt movement to her right. She didn’t tense, thankfully, as Romanoff took the seat next to her. “Put her drinks on my tab, Roy,” Romanoff said. “Vodka martini, dry with a twist, when you have a minute.”
Maria nudged the beer away. It was only an inch, but it spoke volumes. “I hope you don’t think that makes up for the stunt you pulled.”
Romanoff sighed. “Barton told me to apologize.”
“For what? For damn near breaking me in half or for thoroughly humiliating me in front of my class?” Maria finally looked over to give her the stink-eye.
“They need to learn that an attack can come from anywhere,” Romanoff said, as if it was a universal truth—and it was, but the way Maria’s middle ached meant she really wasn’t in the mood to hear it. Romanoff accepted the martini from the bartender with a nod and sipped it before adding, “At any time. From anybody. And you needed to learn that, too.”
“I was trying to teach them a simple move, Romanoff.” Maria picked up her beer and finished it off. As much as she wanted to make a statement, she’d learned the value of rationing. The beer tasted bitter in her mouth. “God, you’re a headcase. So much for fostering a ‘Don’t be afraid of the Black Widow, she’s on our team’ atmosphere in the ranks.”
“But they should be afraid.” Romanoff, for the first time, allowed an emotion to cross her face: puzzlement. It really made Maria want to punch her.
“Yeah, got that message loud and clear.” Maria pulled a twenty out of her pocket and set it on the bar.
“I already said the drinks were on me.”
“Then Roy can thank me for a really good tip.” Maria made it two steps before she reconsidered, and turned on her heel. “You know, I don’t get you. I don’t think anybody here really does—except Barton, and he’s nuts—but maybe sooner or later, you can decide whose side you’re on, and let me know when you do. My ribs would certainly appreciate it.”
And with that said, she turned on her heel again and left.
It took her two weeks to feel at one hundred percent, thanks to the flu that ripped its way through the crew on the carrier. With half her class puking into various vestibules and the other half looking like the victims of the zombie apocalypse, Maria spent her days running around like a day nurse for a group of overgrown toddlers. Nonessential personnel were carted off-ship to keep the virus from spreading, but given that Maria suspected patient zero was actually in her class, she was stuck on board. She was tempted to either fail her entire class, or just simply murder them.
Romanoff and Barton were called to an op in Nairobi, and Maria hoped the dust and grit improved Romanoff’s mood. She herself used the time to cool off because, truth be told, she did have to work with Romanoff. As soon as she was cleared for more strenuous activity, she hit the boxing ring with Frederickson and worked out some of her demons. Whenever annoyance at Romanoff rose, Maria dealt with it by gritting her teeth and reminding herself that effective leaders were also team players, and she was going to get over this, come hell or high water. She was going to be a damned team player.
The charitable feelings vanished when the door to her quarters slid open in the middle of the night. By the time the door had fully opened, she was sitting up in bed, her gun pointed at the intruder. It took a nanosecond more for her to process who the intruder actually was.
“Romanoff,” she said through her teeth, “what are you doing?”
Surprise flickered on Romanoff’s face. It gave way to a look Maria hadn’t seen since the Quinjet ride from Barcelona: Romanoff was impressed. She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned a shoulder against the door frame. “I was sneaking in to leave a note. I did not expect you to wake.”
Maria lowered the gun. “I’m going to assume you realize how intrusive this is.”
Romanoff shrugged. “I wasn’t going to mess with your things, Hill.”
“Yeah, because I was real worried about that.”
“I can see that.” Romanoff eyed the room. Other agents crowded their spaces with knickknacks and reminders of family at home. Maria had only her textbooks and her uniforms.
Maria swung her legs out of bed, setting the gun within easy reach. “A note? So you’re not here to prove to me how easy it is to kill me in my sleep? Because that’s really not going to go well for either of us.”
“No,” Natasha said. “It would not be a fruitful exercise. The element of surprise is gone.”
That really wouldn’t have stopped her, Maria knew. “And what was so important about this note that it couldn’t have waited until morning?”
“I’m going to the gym. I thought you might want to train with me.” Romanoff paused. There was a micro-expression of discomfort around her eyebrows, and Maria got the impression that she really would have preferred to leave a note. “I planned to be several hours, so ideally you would have discovered the note when you woke and maybe have come and joined me.”
“Ideally,” Maria said, boggling a little. She couldn’t be certain this wasn’t just some bizarre dream her subconscious was using to torture her. “You want to train together.”
“I thought I could teach you to fight like me.”
Several of the higher-ups had pushed for Romanoff to give a class, especially after she’d first been recruited. They had hoped she would train other agents in her unique fighting style and give some of them an edge, but Romanoff had flatly refused. Even Barton didn’t get personalized instruction.
“Why?” Maria asked instead of staring, which was what she felt like doing.
“I took you out pretty easily in front of your class. I thought you might want to correct that.”
The remark hit a sore spot. Maria scowled. “So…what? You’re doing this out of the goodness of your heart?”
“My heart isn’t that good, Hill.” Romanoff’s smile was tiny and almost humorless, but it was definitely there. “Maybe I need a challenge.”
Maria got the feeling that the implied challenge was not fighting her, but teaching her how to fight. She was still trapped in the This is surreal feeling (and not entirely sure she really was awake) to agree, though. “That sounds…really painful, actually. I’ll think about it.”
“Good enough. You know where to find me.”
As silently as she’d arrived, Romanoff left Maria sitting alone in the dark with her feet on the floor and her gun on the mattress. It took a few seconds for the rest of her thoughts to sort themselves out. Romanoff wanted to teach her how to fight, Black Widow style at—Maria glanced at the clock. “Who the hell trains at three forty-five in the morning?” she said aloud, in disbelief. Even the most hardcore agents tended to wait until at least 0430 or 0500.
Carefully, she checked the chamber, set the gun in its groove in the headboard and crawled back under her duvet. The adrenaline spike from having an intruder in her room meant that she was wide awake, turning it all over in her mind. Was Romanoff serious? Maria had no interest in being humiliated time and again, which was what she suspected training with Romanoff entailed, but it was still puzzling that Romanoff would pick her out of everybody.
She blamed it on the fact that she was still sleep-addled that it took her twenty minutes to realize that Romanoff was extending an olive branch. Maria sat up, rubbing her hand down her face. “Well, dammit,” she said, and climbed out of bed to cross to the dresser.
It’d be rude to turn down the apology. Hadn’t she decided to let the grievances go? And hey, she might not actually like Romanoff much, but she’d never been one to turn down an opportunity like this. She wanted to be the best, and if that meant being Romanoff’s punching bag for a while, it might be worth it.
Romanoff didn’t look at all surprised when Maria walked into the gym ten minutes later. Gracefully, she lowered herself out of the headstand and rolled nimbly to her feet. “Two rules,” Maria said without preamble.
Romanoff tilted her head slightly.
“One: no more displays like the little love-fest we had in front of my class.”
“I will teach you to handle an unexpected attack,” Romanoff said. It wasn’t quite the promise Maria was looking for, but it was close enough. “And the second?”
“Make a damn face once in a while. Some kind of emotion. Something.”
Romanoff actually snorted. “Oh, that’s rich.”
“What the hell do you mean by that?”
“You’ve got two expressions.” Romanoff rolled her shoulders and popped her neck. There was a light sheen of sweat on her forehead and neck. “Pissed off and more pissed off. They call you Hardass Hill, you know, Agent Hill.”
“Two’s still more than I’ve seen you make,” Maria shot back.
Romanoff gave her an absolute false, beaming smile. “That better?”
“Cute. Real cute.” Maria dropped her gym towel and her water bottle off by Romanoff’s stuff. “I guess since we’re going to be beating the shit out of each other, you could drop the title. Hill or Maria’s fine.”
“Natasha,” Romanoff said, and held out a hand.
Maria glared at it.
Natasha gave her a look. “It’s customary to shake hands upon meeting. Our first meeting was not a conventional one, so…”
“Oh, fine.” Maria shook hands with the Black Widow—and had nobody but herself to blame when Natasha blithely flipped her onto the mat.
“And now,” Natasha said, “we begin.”
Maria groaned. “Should’ve seen that coming.”
The scent of coffee had Maria blinking and opening her eyes before she quite understood that she was waking up. Barton, who was holding the coffee almost literally under her nose, grinned at her. “Morning, sunshine,” he said. “Figured you’d need this.”
It only took her a second to put it together: she had fallen asleep on the bench by the wall in the gym. The clock on the wall told her it was half past six, and there were a couple more agents working out than there had been when she’d lain down to snooze. Sitwell, one of the new agents from the ATF, gave her a sarcastic grin from where he was doing bicep curls. Barton crouched next to the bench, holding a cup-holder tray with three coffees and a bag of something that smelled sinfully like croissants.
Maria shook her head a little to clear the sleep and sat up. “Thanks,” she said, taking one of the coffees. She wasn’t surprised to find it doctored to her preferences; Barton wasn’t the type to miss details.
Across the gym, Natasha was still doing a series of acrobatic tumbles that made Maria’s sore muscles wince. She’d been doing pull-ups when Maria had fallen asleep. “She’s still at it, I see.”
“We’re on East Africa time still.” Barton opened the bag and handed her a napkin and a croissant. “She run you ragged?”
“I hurt in places I didn’t know I had.” But the coffee and the pastry were helping.
“Talk to Fury yet?”
Maria’s head came up, sharply. “About what?”
“Guess that’s a no.” Barton leaned back, resting his shoulders and neck against the metal wall behind him. It made Maria wonder what kind of hits they’d taken in Kenya. “Soon as your class graduates on Thursday, you’re with us. You and Sitwell, that is.”
“New op: you’re on Strike Team Delta for the foreseeable future, so welcome back to the field. We’re hunting the Ten Rings terrorists that Stark didn’t take out. I’ll let Fury fill you in.”
Maria blinked. She’d expected the instructor position to be a six-month post, as Hogan had officially put in to work in the Charlotte office. But if she was being put back into the field so quickly, and with a precision team like Barton and Natasha, it was definitely a promotion. And no wonder Natasha had extended the olive branch. She likely didn’t want the dead-weight of a woman that couldn’t fight on the team.
Barton put his hand up to his mouth to shout across the gym. “Nat! Come get some coffee. Give it a rest already.”
Natasha took her time crossing the gym. When she reached them, she took the coffee from Barton and eyed Maria up and down. “Have a nice nap?” There was a mocking sort of humor in her voice.
“Not everybody’s a super-scary ex-Russian with frightening stamina,” Barton said. “Some of us are lazy.”
“I’m letting that one go because you gave me coffee,” Maria said around a mouthful of croissant. Barton saluted her with a couple of fingers. She looked at Natasha. “So, Barton says I’m on your team.”
She couldn’t believe it had only been a couple of hours since she’d accused Natasha of being emotionless and expressionless, given the intensity of the grin that sprouted on the other woman’s face now, a grin that Maria did not understand at all. “Yes,” Natasha said. “You are.”
“God help you,” Barton said, and Maria rolled her eyes at the both of them.
When Maria walked into Sticky Joe’s, it looked like her coworkers had gotten a head-start on drinking, and they were in a good mood. A joyous one, even, from the cat-calls and hollers she received.
They weren’t often in the same place these days. With the aircraft carrier undergoing transformation, SHIELD had spread its agents throughout the continent. Maria had been planted at the D.C. office with several other senior officers, but a business trip had called her to Los Angeles. Natasha was three weeks into her cover as Natalie Rushman, a plant in Stark Industries, and Clint was running training exercises down in San Diego nearby and pretending to be Natasha’s on-again off-again boyfriend. With Maria in town, there hadn’t been any question to get the gang back together for a night of—Maria glanced at all of the empties on the table—a lot of drinking.
“Well, well, well, look at that,” Greg Wallace, her first friend at SHIELD, said as she threaded her way to the table. “Looks like you got free of that desk they chained you to, Hill. What’d you do? Flash the warden?”
She hooked an arm around him to give him a half-hug that was really more of a strangle. “Kerney wishes he were so lucky.”
“Do they even let bigwigs like you drink with such fine commoners like us?” Sitwell asked.
“You’re just jealous because my desk is shinier than yours. And what the hell are you wearing?”
“Now who’s jealous?” Sitwell wanted to know, turning his golf visor backwards.
“You’re wearing two polo shirts,” Maria said, genuinely puzzled.
“Makes him twice the douchebag,” Clint said. Sitwell shot him the finger.
“Thank God you’re here,” Natasha said, reaching for Maria. She elbowed Clint in the side to make him scoot over on the bench, freeing up some real estate for Maria to sit. “Another woman, finally. Sit, sit. I was really outnumbered, surrounded by all of this testosterone.”
Clint gave Maria a sympathetically amused eye-roll as he obligingly moved. “Sorry, Hill, she’s not breaking character this time.”
“Like Borneo?” Maria asked as she sat and Natasha surprised her by giving her a hug. “Oof. Wow.”
“Worse,” Clint said. He had a companionable arm slung along the back of the bench, and Natasha wasn’t quite leaning on it, Maria noticed, but she was close.
Natasha rolled her eyes at them. “It is not that bad.”
“If you say so. Either way, estrogen reporting for duty,” Maria said, and Natasha actually giggled.
God, it was strange to be around her when she didn’t break character.
“What’s your poison?” Greg asked. “This round’s my turn. Nat, need a top-up?”
Natasha took a sip of her cosmopolitan, which was apparently Natalie Rushman’s drink du jour. “Would you? Thanks. I’ll have to call a cab, but it’s worth it.”
Yeah, right, Maria thought. Eighteen months of missions had taught her a lot, but most importantly, it had hammered one thing home loud and clear: Natasha Romanoff could drink them all under the table, through the floor, and possibly into a few sub-basements.
“White wine,” she told Greg. There were immediate boos from the others at her request. “What? Hey! I have a six a.m. flight.”
“The brass really did take your soul, Hill,” Clint said.
“Very funny.” After some jeering and elbowing from all of the other parties at the table—including Natasha—Maria threw her hands up. “Fine! Fine, you win, you barbarians. Make it a Long Island iced tea.”
“That’s more like it,” Greg said and, after checking with the others, headed to the bar to fetch drinks while Maria peeled out of her jacket. She’d managed to get some beach-time in that afternoon. It had been more a relief than she’d realized it would be: it had been forever since she’d done an ocean swim in the Pacific. Two miles had maybe been pushing it, even if it had been enough to give her a nice, subtle tan on her arms. She wanted to show off, as Clint regularly called them, the guns.
“So, what’s the news from HQ?” Sitwell asked. Natasha, Clint, and Maria groaned. “What? What’d I say?”
“No shop talk,” Maria said. “I’ve had shop talk coming out of my ears all day. No more.”
“Wow, Hardass Hill not willing to talk shop? Will wonders never cease?”
“I can’t hear you over the douche-call of your two popped collars,” Clint said.
“And really, you just want to ask Maria if Agent Granelli is still at HQ,” Natasha said.
“I do not.” Sitwell pretended to look offended—for about two seconds. He dropped the act and turned hopefully toward Maria. “Well, is he?”
“I’m sorry,” Maria said. “Barton’s right. You’re talking and all I can hear is, ‘I’m wearing two shirt collars and they’re both popped.’ It’s like a loop, playing in my head.”
“You all think you’re so funny,” Sitwell said.
Clint finished the rest of his beer. “That’s because we are, Jas.”
Thankfully, Greg returned with the drinks before Sitwell could retaliate, saving them from a paper football tournament or whatever stupid thing Sitwell and Clint dreamed up next. It had been arm wrestling in Madrid, mud wrestling in Singapore, and neither would actually confess how they’d all been kicked out of the dive in Berlin.
Maria figured she still didn’t want to know, even after all of these years.
“Here.” Greg passed out the drinks, spilling a little on Clint as he did so, and raised his glass in a toast. “To being together.”
“For the last time,” they echoed as one, which had become something of a SHIELD toast. Even in the Guard, they hadn’t approached anything near this level of morbidity.
Even though they’d promised no shop-talk, the conversation turned, as it invariably did, to past missions. Clint was all too happy to unload the true story of what had happened in Tokyo, which Natasha claimed was all lies, and Maria and Greg took turns ratting each other out for rookie mistakes. At one point, Natasha shook her head and grinned, and Maria remembered a very tense Quinjet ride. None of them dared mention Helsinki, where they’d all gotten gassed with 42XB, for fear that they might not be able to meet each other’s eye for the rest of the night.
“And I hear screaming, right?” Maria said once the Long Island iced tea had loosened her up a little and the follow-up beer had helped. Across the table, Greg had his face in his palm. “It’s four in the morning and we’re in the middle of nowhere, so I’m assuming, damn it, the Libyans have found us and they’re torturing Greg for information. So I run upstairs—”
“In your underwear,” Greg said. “It was really nice underwear, little rainbows on it and everything.”
“Shut up, I was fully dressed.”
“Not how I remember it, Hill.”
“I was not in my underwear,” Maria told the table at large, to boos. “And no speculating on what underwear I was wearing, you three. Anyway, fully dressed, I go upstairs, check the bedroom—it’s clear—but then I hear another scream.”
“A manly scream.”
“High-pitched like a newborn baby, I swear.” Maria put a hand over her heart. “I kicked the door in—”
“Damn, Hill. Hardcore,” Sitwell said, like everybody at the table hadn’t kicked in a door in the past week.
“And there’s Greg, in his underwear. He’s alone.”
“And screaming?” Natasha said, tilting an eyebrow at their colleague.
“I saw a spider,” Greg said, defensively.
“You did no such thing.” Maria pointed at him. “He’s in there, waxing his chest.”
Natasha winced sympathetically, but it was too much for Barton, who tipped over sideways on the bench, a hand over his mouth to stop the laughter.
“Only, he’s going about it the weirdest way. He had the wax on, and he’d ripped off two strips, but—not the regular horizontal pattern at all.” Maria drew an ‘X’ across her torso with a finger. “So we’re on the run from the Libyans, we’re cut off from the rest of our team, and my partner literally has an ‘X’ on his chest. I thought he was going to get shot right then and there.”
Greg gave her a sour look as the others laughed. “From the look on your face, the bullet was coming from your gun.”
“Why were you even waxing, dude?” Sitwell asked.
“Diana Nyad over here challenged me to a race when we got back to the carrier. You know what she’s like in the water.” Greg rolled his eyes and tilted his head back to finish his beer. “I needed any edge I could get. And, Hill, I thought I bribed you never to tell that story.”
Maria grinned. “Forgot.”
“Yeah, right. I highly doubt that. Waxing hurts, for the record.”
“Get a Brazilian and then we’ll talk,” Natasha said, and this time it was Maria wincing in sympathy.
“On that note,” Clint said, “who’s buying next round?”
“On me,” Maria said.
“Then I hope this place has whiskey that’s old enough to drive.” This time it was Greg that pointed at Maria. “You owe me.”
“Whatever,” Natasha said. She pushed Clint with both hands, nudging him out of the booth. “We’re gonna hit the dance floor. Anybody else coming?”
“I’m getting the drinks,” Maria said before she could get dragged to dance.
It took her awhile to get the bartender’s attention, but while she waited, she had the pleasure of dissuading an overeager suit from hitting on her by giving him a deadpan look she’d learned from Natasha. She tossed back a handful of pretzels from the basket by the register.
Greg bellied up to the bar next to her. “Thought I’d keep you company.”
“And try to bribe me not to tell any more stories?” Maria offered him a pretzel. On the dance floor, she noticed, Natasha and Clint were dancing just like a corporate lawyer and her ex-military fling would.
“Nah, though I notice you didn’t tell them you stuck around to help me finish with the waxing.”
“I figured you’d had enough, though they’d understand. Partners do strange things for each other all the time.” Maria eyed him. He still had his beer, though he wasn’t drinking, and he was slightly turned away from her. The body language was telling a completely different story than his congenial tone. “You’re not upset that I got the D.C. post, are you? I haven’t had a chance to talk to you about it.”
Greg swiveled in obvious surprise. “What? Upset that—no, not at all. Everybody knew that desk was meant for you. You’ve been on the fast track to run this place the whole time.”
“It should have gone to you.”
“No. No, I’m a field grunt, always have been, always will be.” Greg’s smile was easy now, putting Maria’s fears to rest. She didn’t have many friends. She had hundreds of colleagues, but the people she could call her friend could be listed on one hand. “I don’t want the headache of subordinates kissing my ass all the time. I’ll keep my real job, thank you very much.”
“Ha,” Maria said, punching him lightly in the arm. “Then what’s up with the stance? You’re either trying to pretend you don’t know me, or you’re pissed off at me.”
“Blonde, the pillar by the door.” Greg waggled his eyebrows a little. “She’s been making ‘come hither’ eyes at—no, don’t look now—oh, God, Hill, I can’t take you anywhere. You are literally the most embarrassing person I know.”
Maria snorted and eyed the blonde. “She’s an improvement over that redhead you tried to pick up in Manchester.”
“I hate you,” Greg said without rancor.
“No, you don’t.” The woman noticed Maria’s attention, and her smile broadened. Maria kindly muffled a snicker. “Oh, Greg, I am so sorry.”
“For wh—oh, damn it. Seriously? Why does this always happen? I need less attractive friends.” Greg pouted into his beer until, abruptly, he perked up.
“What?” Maria asked him, narrowing her eyes at him.
“I’m going to go over, introduce myself. She’ll need somebody to console her over the fact that you’re not into women you can pick up at bars.” Greg popped another couple of pretzels in his mouth in victory as he walked backwards away from her, arms spread wide. Of course, that meant he bumped into a couple of patrons, but when he turned on his heel, he was grinning.
“Never change,” Maria called after him, and turned to order the drinks. As she did so, she spotted something out of the corner of her eye that made her pause. She turned.
A man, portly, in his fifties, wearing a work-rumpled business suit was staring at her. No, not just stared, Maria noticed: he gaped. She automatically shifted into combat readiness, fingers nudging for the S&W she’d tucked in her waistband. Had she been made? She didn’t recognize the man, but that didn’t mean much. Adrenaline could muddy or sharpen memory, depending.
Before she could alert her coworkers, however, the man staggered toward her. “Larochka,” he said, his voice nothing but a rasp. His accent was Moscow upper class. He grabbed her arm. “Larochka—how—”
Before Maria could throw him off or pin him in a lock, the man looked beyond Maria and went bone-white. His mouth moved, bobbing like a fish’s, and he let her go and hurriedly stumbled away. Maria whirled and caught a telltale flash of red following him. Neither Sitwell nor Greg had noticed, and Maria had no idea where Clint had gone. She kept her hand on her gun as she moved through the bar.
The man had thought he’d recognized her, he’d called her Larochka, a diminutive. Seeing Natasha had made him all but run. So who was he? One of Natasha’s old colleagues? A mark? An enemy? Somebody who just knew the Black Widow on sight? The last didn’t seem likely. Natasha wasn’t the type to leave a trail of live bodies. Maria edged out into the alley behind the bar, gun cradled in front of her now.
The alley wasn’t wide, just narrow enough for a dumpster, and it reeked in the evening heat. Maria drew up short when she saw Natasha standing in the center of it with the man on his knees in front of her, facing away from her. They were washed in sickly yellow from the streetlight above. He babbled in Russian, too fast for Maria to really comprehend, but she didn’t need to know more than a few phrases to know when a man was pleading for his life.
Tears ran down his cheeks.
Maria was more concerned about the change in Natasha. Professionally, the Black Widow kept everything behind a blank slate. In training, she was focused and in the field she was calmly, efficiently brutal. Occasionally, Maria had caught a flicker of anger or tension in the way Natasha might throw a punch, but never had she seen this much unbridled rage vibrating throughout Natasha’s body. Every tendon stood in sharp relief, as though a wrong word could send the woman shattering into a hundred thousand pieces.
Maria would never be able to describe the look on her face in that moment, though it would give her nightmares for month.
“What’s going on?” she asked, pushing all of her fear down.
Natasha never even looked at her. “Go away.”
Maria nearly obeyed. However, she’d played chicken with terrifying people before, and would do so again. So she stood her ground, gun at the ready but not aimed at Natasha. “No. What’s going on? Who is he?”
The man started to turn his head, possibly to plead with Maria for his life, but Natasha was faster. Quick as a snake, she pistol-whipped him and the guy staggered to the side, blood a bright red badge on his temple. “You do not look at her,” Natasha said, each word a snarl.
Natasha chambered a bullet, and the man flinched.
“Whatever he’s done, he doesn’t deserve a bullet to the back of the head,” Maria said. She had no idea if she was lying or not. She worked for a shadowy international organization that put down all sorts of terrorists, hostiles, and other bad people. Fair trials were generally not something they dealt in.
She half-expected Natasha to snap and maybe take a shot at her. But instead the redhead nodded, once. “You are right.” She holstered her gun.
“For this man’s sins, I will kill him with my bare hands.” Natasha snapped the man’s neck.
The noise jerked her back. Hideously, the man’s head was pointed toward her now, his face a gruesome mask of eternal surprise. The thump of his body hitting the concrete seemed to echo through Maria’s head.
She stared and as a reflex had to point her gun somewhere else. “What the hell was that? Have you lost it? We’re in the middle of Los Angeles!”
Natasha stood with her head bowed. “He needed to die.”
“Why? Who the hell was he?”
“Somebody I needed to kill.”
“Yeah, I got that.” Feeling sick, Maria switched the gun to her left hand and, eyeing the dead body on the ground, pulled out her phone. It took her two seconds to find the right number in her contacts list, for her hand shook. She couldn’t take her eyes off of the dead body. “We need a scene cleaned,” she said into the phone, and gave Coulson the address before she hung up. “We’ve got to get out of here. Especially you. It’s not going to look great if Natalie Rushman from Stark Industries is on the front page for murder.”
“I do not care.”
“Yeah, well, Fury does.” Maria sent Greg a text to clear out and scatter. “We need to sanitize the area of our presence, Romanoff.”
Now, Natasha did look at her and Maria recognized the expression: for one intense flash of a second, she was back on her back on a training mat, looking up into the face of a woman she didn’t understand. Fear coated in the back of her throat for a second, but she shoved it aside and matched Natasha’s gaze, pound for pound.
“That’s an order,” she said.
It was like watching somebody reassemble herself, piece by piece. The hateful look slid away, leaving a brief abyss, and then Natasha straightened up, pushed her shoulders back. Her posture became less like a wild animal and more like Natalie Rushman’s once more, and all emotion was summarily tucked away behind a cool, professional mask. She looked vaguely curious, nothing more. It was one of the creepiest things Maria had ever seen, but she’d have time to be freaked out later.
The alley door opened. Maria dropped her gun back to resting position when she saw that it was Clint. He only needed a second to assess the situation.
“What happened?” he asked Natasha, ignoring Maria.
“Red Room,” Natasha said, and Clint immediately went into a combat ready stance.
“He had no time to get a distress call out. He was alone.”
“Okay.” Now Clint did look at Maria, and it was an assessing look. “I’ll handle clean-up.”
“Coulson’s team is already en route. Either of you care to tell me what ‘Red Room’ means?”
Clint shook his head, tightly. “But maybe the two of you should go somewhere else. Have a drink. You look like you need it, Hill.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Maria said, but Natasha finally strode away from the man she had just murdered, brushing past both Maria and Clint.
“I’ll drive,” she said.
“Okay, then,” Maria said and, sparing one last, puzzled look at Clint, she followed Natasha and left the dead man behind.
The dead man that had thought she was somebody else.
Natasha picked the bar. There were Lyrnyrd Skynyrd stickers on the walls and some dead thing’s head mounted in the corner, and Maria figured it hadn’t passed an inspection since the eighties, but she found a stool and ordered whatever was on tap. Bad classic rock would sufficiently cover whatever they had to say to each other.
“Who’s Larisa?” she asked. “And why did that man seem to think I was her?”
Natasha picked up her beer and took a long swallow. When she placed the glass back on the bar, she set it down delicately, never looking up. “Apparently, you know your pet names.”
Maria waited, but it didn’t look like Natasha was going to keep talking. “Well?”
Natasha kept her head bowed.
“Why did that man think I was named Larisa?” Maria asked. There was no answer. “Romanoff.”
Instead of answering, Natasha snapped her fingers at the bartender. “I need a shot,” she said. “Whisky. One for my friend here, too.”
The bartender, who had a jaundiced look to his skin that made Maria suspect he was drinking away his paycheck, looked from Maria to Natasha. Perhaps there was something manic in the latter’s eyes, for he paused.
“Whisky,” Maria said in her best ‘chain of command’ voice. “Now.”
Two women glaring at him made the scarecrow move faster. When the shot was shoved across the bar, whisky slopping over the edges of the glass, Natasha picked it up and slammed it back. Maria knew it was a bad idea, but she did the same.
She coughed a little, more out of how foul the whisky was rather than out of any inability to hold her liquor. “Feel better?”
Natasha wrinkled her nose. “I’ve had better ideas.”
“Halifax was a better idea than this swill.” Maria flicked irritably at the shot glass, glaring at it when it fell over.
“That man thought you were Larisa,” Natasha said, “because once upon a time, I thought the same.”
Maria turned to look at her. “You thought I was somebody else? Who? And when was this?”
“When I first came to SHIELD, I looked at you and thought, it wasn’t possible. You’re the—Barton would call it a ‘spitting image,’ but don’t ask me what that means. Whatever it is, you look exactly like Larisa.” Natasha picked up her beer and took a long swallow, scowling as though the beer had tasted sour.
“Does this Larisa have a last name?”
“I assume she did, but I don’t know. She was like me. We didn’t have last names.”
“Like you how?” Maria asked, suspicion rising.
“A Black Widow.”
“Oh, shit.” Maria went pale. “There are more of you?”
“There were, and now there are not. It was called the Red Room. It was a KGB program until the KGB fell and then it was a program funded by the deep pockets of old men. They recruited me when I was...” Natasha trailed off, frowning. “I never knew how old I was. They expected us to know everything else—how to kill a man, how to seduce a man, how to use a man and twist him until we had every drop of blood or information, but I didn’t know how old I was, and I didn’t know my name. It wasn’t until SHIELD that I even had a birthday.”
No wonder Clint made it a point to celebrate Natasha’s birthday in the most obnoxious way he could find. It had taken a crew of agents that they couldn’t really spare to clean the deck of the aircraft carrier of all of the annoying banners and glitter that could have seriously tampered with the jet engines.
Maria filed the information away. “And Señor Dead Guy in the alley back there. Red Room?”
“One of the Generals with the deep pockets.”
“He got a name?”
Natasha took a long swallow. “SHIELD knows it, but I do not. He had a…an affection for hurting young girls. For Larisa in particular. I have been waiting many years to kill him.”
Maria blew out a long breath. She’d known there wasn’t a happy childhood in Natasha’s past—you didn’t become the Black Widow over something so simple as not being hugged enough—but hearing it laid out, calmly, analytically, made her stomach turn.
“So,” she said. “Why not interrogate him to find the others?”
“Cyanide pill.” Natasha stared across the grimy bar, to the mirrored wall behind the shelves of alcohol. What she saw in herself, Maria couldn’t begin to know. “And I was not going to give him the satisfaction of controlling his own death.”
“Since Barton seems to be in on it, I’m assuming SHIELD knows about your extracurricular revenge activities?”
Natasha’s smile wasn’t on the correct side of sane. “Fury granted me permission himself.”
Maria blew out a breath. It all made sense. Sure, she wanted to double-check it, but there had been clues all along that Natasha’s history as an assassin wasn’t like the others SHIELD employed. There had been no mention of a military background ever, and Natasha did not behave like she had ever been in the service. Maria had never joined in the speculation that went around when Natasha had first joined up, but she’d always suspected something, maybe even something like the Red Room.
However, just because some of it made sense, that didn’t mean there weren’t still questions pinging through Maria’s brain. “Larisa,” she said, still trying to wrap her brain around the fact that there was somebody that looked enough like her to spook both the dead man and Natasha. “What happened to her?”
For a long time, Natasha didn’t answer. There seemed to be a war brewing under her skin, though she didn’t look up from a fixed point in front of her. Finally, she said, “She is dead.”
“It was kill or be killed, and I was always the strongest.” Natasha’s voice was flat.
Maria blew out a breath. That explained a lot about the Red Room. “Were you close?” she asked.
“No, but we were alike, and that was enough.” Natasha pulled her phone out. It had a little Japanese charm on it—a Natalie Rushman touch—but underneath the cutesy bauble, it had one of the most powerful phone processors on the planet. SHIELD kept its agents well-equipped. Her fingers flew over the touch screen. “There are not many pictures from the Red Room, but as you can see…”
Maria took the phone. There were seven or eight young women, girls really, in the picture, sitting in what looked like old gymnasium bleachers. Ages ranged from preteens to sixteen or seventeen. Natasha was unmistakable, as her hair was a frizzy cloud of red around her head. She’d been a gangly kid, skinny like Maria had been, though she probably hadn’t been knock-kneed. The look behind her eyes hadn’t changed, either, but it was the girl two seats down from her that drew Maria’s gaze.
It was exactly like looking at an old photo of herself. At that age, though, Maria had been in Chicago, not Moscow, and she’d had a painfully terrible bowl haircut. This girl’s hair was down past her shoulders and a little darker than Maria’s.
Still: “Whoa,” Maria said.
Natasha nodded once and tucked her phone in her purse.
Maria thought back to their first meeting. “You didn’t give any sign—other than to be dismissive.”
“Can you blame me?” Natasha finished her beer.
She had to think about it for a minute. “Yes,” she finally said. “You were kind of a bitch.”
“That’s a bit unfair, I think,” Natasha said.
“Says the woman who kicked my ass in front of all of my trainees. I’m not her, you know.”
“I know. I looked into it.”
Well, that was somewhat terrifying, knowing that Natasha had researched her, and likely in great detail. When she’d joined up after the Coast Guard, Maria knew that techs had gone over her past with a fine-toothed comb, deleting any evidence others could use against her, and that searches for all SHIELD agents were monitored. That Natasha could look into Maria’s past without triggering anything spoke of hacking skills superior to those that were listed in her files.
Plus, there were a hundred secrets Maria would rather keep locked deep in her past, which she didn’t really want one of the top assassins on the planet to know. She also definitely did not want the other woman’s sympathy. Her childhood hadn’t been the Red Room and kill or be killed, but it also hadn’t been a picnic.
There was no sympathy on Natasha’s face when she looked at Maria, though. There was something Maria couldn’t quite describe, but it flickered out of existence the moment Maria noticed it. She pushed it all aside to puzzle over later—later, when she would be doing her background checks and calling Clint to verify if Natasha’s words were true.
“Okay,” she said. “I guess that was to be expected. Though next time you could probably just ask.”
There was a tiny flicker of relief across Natasha’s features, but it vanished so quickly that Maria half-suspected it might have just been the really crappy lighting. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
“I’m sorry about your—about Larisa.”
Natasha’s face closed off. That was forbidden territory, Maria deduced, but Natasha just said, “So am I.”
Scarecrow the Bartender came back. Apparently they hadn’t terrified him enough on their earlier go-round, for he leered at both of them. “Another beer?”
Natasha pursed her lips, and Maria understood in that moment that Natasha had given away all of the information she was willing to share. It wasn’t complete, not by longshot, but it was more than she’d had before, so Maria pushed away from the bar. The alcohol was definitely making its presence known, and she had an early flight—and probably a debrief with Coulson at the airport, come to think of it. “I’m going to go before this place makes me break out in hives,” she said. “You coming?”
“I need more alcohol.” Natasha rolled her eyes in the first bit of truly spontaneous honesty Maria had ever seen from her. “But you go on.”
Normally, Maria would’ve been perfectly fine taking her at her word, but now she hesitated. “You sure?”
Natasha smiled. “I’m sure.”
“Try not to get in trouble. Accounting’s already on my ass from the bar brawl Barton started last week.” Maria tossed a couple of bills on the bar to cover their drinks and headed for the door. Before she was about to step out into the night, however, she saw the reflection in the glass: Natasha, sitting alone, at the bar, head down. Conscience struck, and hit hard.
With a sigh, Maria turned on her heel and marched right back to the bar. “The mini-bar in my hotel room has alcohol,” she said.
Natasha gave her a surprised look. “Yes?”
“If Accounting asks, we’ll call it liquid therapy. Cheaper than the real stuff, and more effective, too.”
“Works for me,” Natasha said.
Maria’s phone buzzed. She leaned over to grab it before it could vibrate off of the edge of the desk. When she saw the Caller ID, she blanched. “The Director of SHIELD is calling me.”
“You should probably answer.” Natasha grabbed the remote—she was sitting against the headboard, leaving Maria with the desk chair—and hit mute.
“Hill,” Maria said into the phone, wincing at the number of alcoholic drinks she had downed. She wasn’t wasted or anything near it, but she was still too far from sober for her own liking.
Nick Fury wasn’t known to beat around the bush. “Senior Agent Hill, why am I getting reports about a dead Russian in Los Angeles on my desk?”
“I’m also getting reports that the Black Widow is involved, which doesn’t make a damn bit of sense as I specifically remember telling Specialist Romanoff that Operation Stupidly Reckless Billionaire was a non-lethal mission.”
Did they even send Natasha on non-lethal missions anymore? That seemed short-sighted. “It’s my understanding that the deceased wasn’t connected to, ah, Operation Stupidly Reckless Billionaire.” Maria glanced at Natasha for permission and received a nod. “Na—Agent Romanoff assures me that he was connected to the Red Room.”
There was a long, heavy pause on Nick Fury’s end of the line. On the bed, Natasha reached into the bag of microwave popcorn and took a handful. And exactly like Clint, she began to toss the kernels, one by one, into her mouth. Maria gave her a dirty look; she’d really prefer not to sleep on popcorn later.
Natasha grinned—and did not drop any popcorn.
“Sir, if I may, I thought Barton was handling scene clean-up.”
“He is, but nobody seems able to locate Romanoff.”
“She’s here, sir.”
Natasha caught a kernel and raised her eyebrows. On the other end of the line, Fury was quiet for another second. “Where, specifically, is ‘here,’ Hill?” he asked.
“My hotel room. We’re watching Iron Chef. I can put her on, if you want.”
“Do so.” Another pause. “Please.”
Natasha fielded the phone one-handed. Her conversation with Fury was short, two Mm-hmms and one “You got it, sir,” before she tossed the phone back to Maria. Warily, Maria raised the phone to her ear.
“I’m having my assistant set up a meeting, tomorrow at 1500. You’ll be briefed about the Red Room since Romanoff’s decided you’re in the circle of trust.”
Maria blinked. She had been part of several high-priority missions, but usually she reported, at best, to the Deputy Director, not to Fury himself. Internally, she felt herself do a little happy dance. This could only mean good things. “Yes, sir.”
“Don’t let Romanoff drink the entire mini-bar,” was Fury’s parting statement.
Maria hung up. Natasha raised her eyebrows at her, Maria shrugged back, and as one they turned back to watch Iron Chef. Eventually, she gave up and crawled on top of the covers, falling asleep fully dressed while Natasha watched the Food Network and drank her vodka.
When she woke up to her alarm—which she didn’t remember setting—a few hours later, Natasha was gone, but the smell of popcorn lingered.
Maria was deep in a report from Dr. Singh on the effects of interstellar wormholes on the atmospheric pressure systems around Manhattan when she sensed that she wasn’t alone.
With the Helicarrier docked in Virginia for repairs, most of the essential personnel had been moved to the base in Fairfax. Because SHIELD had parceled off most of the base (mostly to pay for the Helicarrier and the base they no longer had in New Mexico), the new headquarters were…constricting. Maria had gone from running the bridge of the Helicarrier to only having enough room at a conference table for her laptop and a latte if she was lucky. These days, she really wasn’t that lucky.
She had a seven inch stack of files under her chair as an organizational measure and a sweating can of Fresca balanced next to that. Her office-mates had gone back to Billeting, but the conference table was still crowded with their paperwork and computers. So she worked on and waited to see if her visitor would make the first move.
He didn’t, so: “Barton,” she said, not looking up. “Stop lurking.”
Clint marched in like a soldier being called in for a reprimand, jaw clenched. The fingers wrapped around a couple of manila file folders were twitching. “Got those reports for you.”
Maria held a hand out for the files. He passed them over and turned to leave.
“Wait,” she said, and he did, but he didn’t turn to face her as she skimmed the files. Fury was due back from meeting with the mayor of New York at any minute and she hoped to include Clint’s reports when she briefed him. Since Romanoff was the only one able to locate Clint if he didn’t want to be found and she wasn’t due back for another week, it was better to keep him there in case there was something nasty buried in the case file.
“Hmm,” she said, “this man, Swerling—suspected Seventh League connection. Not one of the ones we have in custody?”
“Got away.” Tension was visible along the sides of Clint’s neck as he turned, keeping to a parade rest stance. “He wasn’t on the Helicarrier assault team, so I—Loki—Loki cut him loose after Cedar Rapids, when he let everybody not essential for transporting the Tesseract go.”
Maria nodded. They’d launched an assault on Loki’s temporary base in Iowa, hoping to find any of the mercenaries Clint had gathered while under Loki’s control. Given that he hadn’t informed them of its existence until after he’d been busy fighting aliens and eating fast food, they hadn’t been able to act quickly enough to find anything but an empty base. In the meantime, Maria had mobilized a team to track the mercenaries down. As far as she could tell, a few of them had already met their end after run-ins with local law enforcement, but the rest were in the wind, having clearly avoided giving Iowa any more of a try.
Meanwhile, in Fairfax, Clint Barton’s displeasure about not leading that team was being broadcast loud and clear. He didn’t like the mandated appointments with the psychologist, he loathed the limited duties, and he sulked over the fact that Natasha had been cleared for solo ops and he hadn’t. He’d argued about it to everybody that would listen and to everybody that wouldn’t, to no avail: nobody was willing to sign off of an agent that had been compromised so neatly by an enemy combatant without verification, no matter that he’d helped save the world afterward or not.
And since the call to put Kettelmeier in charge of the team and not Clint had been Maria’s, Clint’s anger at her was the loudest of all.
“Anything else you need, sir?” Clint asked, staring at the wall just beyond her head.
Maria leaned down and picked up the Fresca. She was tempted to make up a busywork assignment because Clint’s reticence was getting on her last nerve, but she had enough bullshit to sift through without Clint adding to the pile. “You seem like you’ve got something to say, Agent,” she said, her voice cool.
The title was deliberate: before the mind control and aliens, he would have been Clint or Barton. Now he was Agent and she was Deputy Director and there was no friendliness in either. She’d known when she’d put in an application to get into admin that this would happen. The line between the desk and the field was invisible, but it was strong and resentment could fester easily on both sides with nowhere to go.
“No, sir.” Clint was one second from snapping off a salute, but SHIELD didn’t salute.
“It really is annoying when you can’t hide how pissed off you are behind military spit and polish, isn’t it?” Maria asked, turning back to Dr. Singh’s report.
She kept Clint in her peripheral vision and watched his jaw work a few times, clenching and unclenching as he decided how he wanted to reply. The Clint of yore would have made a joke if he was in a good mood, given her a tired, obscene gesture if he wasn’t, and things would be level across the board.
Now, Clint turned silently on his heel and marched out the same way he’d come in. He didn’t slam the door.
Maria waited twenty seconds to make sure he wasn’t coming back before she sagged. She didn’t mind it being her boot when somebody needed a boot up the ass. She’d dressed down subordinates and occasionally a superior when the situation called for it, and she didn’t give a damn about how that made her come across. Hurt feelings took second place when you were trying to save the entire damned world. But Clint Barton was a friend, had been a boss, and though she might not like that Fury’s response to the Tesseract blowing up spectacularly in their faces had been to rely on superbeings rather than regular humanity, she couldn’t deny that Clint was a hero. He and his ragtag team of friends had saved the city of New York.
The problem was, though he’d returned physically healthy save for some scratches and sprains, mentally, it was like walking around next to a ticking box of infected vibranium all the time. Clint was a bowstring, pulled taut, and Maria had no idea what kind of collateral damage was going to happen when he finally snapped. So she’d pushed for him to have sessions with the Psych Department, he’d pushed back, and now they were right where they’d started.
Personally, Maria had hoped that Natasha would fix this. Clint had sometimes let the job get to him before, which had made him hard to tolerate. Whenever that happened, Natasha usually dragged him to the gym and sparred or drank with him—sometimes at the same time—to chase the demons, if not away, at least back. But on the subject of Clint Barton, Natasha remained silent and inactive.
It made Maria sigh. Apart from goading Clint, there wasn’t much she could do either, so she turned back to the report she’d been reading and forced herself to focus. When Fury called her an hour later to tell her he’d been up in New York, Maria gave him an abbreviated briefing over the phone.
Before she could hang up, Fury said, “Got a call from HR today.”
Maria nearly groaned. “About whom?”
“Am I in trouble?”
“Should you be?”
Maria rubbed her hand down her face. She could only think of a dozen or so laws she’d broken lately, but that had been in the name of SHIELD and with Fury’s full knowledge.
“They wanted to know if you’re ever going to use those sixty-two days of leave sitting in your file.” Fury laughed. “I told them I’d get back to them.”
She hadn’t realized she’d accumulated that many. When was the last time she’d taken a vacation? Maria frowned when she realized she couldn’t remember. Had it been Vietnam with Greg four years before? No, she’d taken a personal day last year to accompany Phil to the Philharmonic.
“Probably for the best, sir,” she said. Evil never took a holiday, so it wasn’t like she could afford to, either.
“If you change your mind, let me know.”
“Of course, sir. Have a good night.”
After hanging up, Maria pushed away from the table and rolled her shoulders. Thanks to an injury she hadn’t noticed during the assault on the Helicarrier and the never-ending work to get SHIELD back into shape, tension sat between her shoulders like a rock. She turned, eyed the table and the remnants of the workday belonging to the other agents, all of whom had wisely gone to get some sleep or do something that wasn’t work-related.
“Screw it,” she said, and packed up her laptop and relevant files. She’d hit the range; it would feel good to shoot something, and maybe she’d get some work done later.
When she arrived at the range, though, the sight that greeted her made her stop and stare for a good thirty seconds.
“Well,” she said to nobody in particular, as she was alone save for the neatly drilled arrows in the back wall of the range, “at least now we know he feels something.”
Maria spotted Natasha as she made the turn to start a new lap, but since the woman hadn’t chucked anything at her to get her attention, she finished the lap and swam back. Natasha had rolled up the cuffs of her jeans and was sitting with her feet in the water at the end of her lane.
“Thought you weren’t due back until Thursday,” Maria said, swimming over to the edge of the pool. She pulled off her goggles.
“Vasily Yaranov is a moron.”
“So you got everything?”
“This time, I did not even rip my hose.” Natasha’s smile only seemed young. Maria knew her well enough to see the sharp points in the look and the exhaustion it hid.
Maria slicked her hair back with one hand. “That’s good. You don’t need to debrief tonight?”
“I already talked to Harris.” Natasha frowned. “What did you do to Barton?”
“You saw the message?”
“Yes. ‘Fuck you, Hill’ doesn’t seem like his normal eloquent self, but I suppose he was trying to save arrows by avoiding full sentences.”
“At least we don’t have to worry that the concussion you gave him affected his aim. He even punctuated it.” Maria sighed. “I won’t let him lead the team to go after those mercenaries Loki hired. And perhaps I tried to push his buttons.”
“Nobody else seems willing to do it.”
Natasha idly kicked a small wave of water around her left foot. “That sounds like an accusation.”
“Normally you’d have fixed this by now, so I guess I just don’t get it.”
“You might consider that we’re not machines with interchangeable parts for R&D to fix,” Natasha said.
Maria gave her a confused look. “Nobody ever said you were.”
“But it would be easier for you, Agent Hill.”
“Also not what I said or meant.” Maria squinted at Natasha. It was impossible to tell how angry she was, but she knew she’d hit a nerve. “I’m just saying that you and Barton, you’ve got a thing. He gets broody and you beat his ass, you get…” Maria thought about it for a second. “You get like you do and he does something really stupid to make you laugh.”
“Usually by ending up in the infirmary,” Natasha said. It wasn’t a concession; there was a cold undercurrent to her words.
“I gave the assignment to Kettelmeier, so it’s not like I can just turn around and give it to Barton without stepping on toes and making others think I doubt their competency. I have more people on my staff than him. I can’t be seen granting him a rock star pass just because he—”
“Because he what? Faced down the Chitauri?”
And had jumped off a building and risked his life—with a concussion, on what they figured no sleep since he’d been taken by Loki. Maria had read the file. But the truth was that she couldn’t play favorites, or worse, be perceived as playing favorites. There was too much at stake with SHIELD in an uproar, the WSC breathing down their necks, and midtown Manhattan hip-deep in bodies and rubble. If they hadn’t sent the man responsible to another realm, it might be different, but people were looking for somebody to blame and Maria was damned if it was going to be anybody she knew.
“I was going to say because he and you and I have a history of working together,” she told Natasha.
“Were you?” Natasha asked.
Maria sighed. “Is this an interrogation, Agent Romanoff?”
There was nothing nice about Natasha’s smile now. “Only if you feel guilty,” she said. “Do you feel guilty, Deputy Director?”
That was rich, coming from a woman who saw life as a ledger full of debits and credits to be balanced. “Fine. I’ll be blunt: are you going to do anything about him, Nat? He’s missing appointments and drawing the kind of attention that trust me, none of us want for him. Frankly, you’re our only option here.”
Now, Natasha looked outright annoyed. “Why does it have to be me?”
Maria stared at her for a long time, trying to figure out her game. Did she really not know? Was she oblivious? Or was it straight-up denial? Finally, she settled on saying, “I thought Barton was the one that got hit on the head, not you.”
“Fuck you, Hill,” Natasha said, pushing herself to her feet.
Maria watched her go for a long moment before she blew out a long breath and adjusted her goggles back over her eyes. “Well, at least I got a matching set,” she said to the pool, and dived back underwater.
“All right,” Greg said. “Out with it, whatever it is.”
Maria swiveled on one knee to look at him. “Right now?” she asked.
“How about later? I don’t want to break your focus.”
“Excuses, excuses.” Greg scoffed as Maria finished checking the fastenings on his prosthetic foot, ensuring that it was attached firmly. It was, just like she’d known it would be, but if checking his work put her ex-partner’s mind at ease, Maria was willing to jump through that hoop.
She rose to her feet, stepping back. Slowly, he swung his legs out of bed, resting his remaining foot and his prosthetic foot on the linoleum. He had to lurch to get upright, but Maria didn’t say anything. He stood there, face flushing as he struggled to get his balance. It took everything Maria had not to try and brace him, which the physical therapist had warned her about.
At this stage, Greg Wallace needed to learn to rely on himself again.
“How far are we walking today?” she asked once he had steadied himself.
“Nurse Ratched bet me I couldn’t hobble all the way down to the end of the hallway and back.” Greg took the first, hesitant step. “I intend to make her eat crow.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“You can come a little closer than that,” Greg said.
She wasn’t a maternal sort—had never wanted to be, had never had an example to follow, either—but Greg seemed to be her exception. “You sure?”
“Who else is going to catch me when I fall?” Greg’s face flashed with a bit of humor through the strain. “I’d rather bruise my pride than my hip. So damn it, Hill, you’d better be the wind beneath my wings.”
Maria angled herself toward his weaker side. “Glad to see that your incredibly bad sense of humor remains intact.”
“Yeah, the IED can’t take it all from me, dammit.” Greg hissed out a breath as he miss-stepped. “Just my foot and my chance to finally beat Chester at that Iron Man we were thinking of running in Honolulu.”
“You can still do that,” Maria said, rolling her eyes at him. “It’ll just take time.”
“Maybe, but I definitely can’t beat Chester. He manages to be both as nimble as Romanoff and as big as a tank at the same time. It’s not natural, I tell you.” Greg slanted a look at her. “A-ha.”
“It’s something with Romanoff, isn’t it? The thing bothering you.”
Maria rubbed a hand down her face. “Barton’s gone.”
Greg looked up so sharply that he nearly overbalanced. Maria reached for him, but he stumbled away, into the wall. “I’ve got it. I’ve got it,” he said, repeating it under his breath until he had steadied himself. “Sorry.”
Maria shrugged. “Reflex makes me want to be the wind beneath your wings, Wallace.”
“I deserved that.” Greg’s grin pulled slightly to one side. The scars on his cheek and chin were still shades lighter than the coffee-bean-brown of the rest of his skin. “But I’ve got it. I think. Is Barton…?”
“Gone, not dead. I didn’t mean to make it sound that way.” Maria frowned. “Remember that op in Hanoi?”
Greg winced. “Ouch. How long’s he been gone this time?”
“Two weeks.” After Hanoi, Natasha had gone and collected Clint from where he’d brooded in some redneck bar in Alabama, Maria remembered. It had been one of the duo’s more explosive fights. Everybody else had avoided the gym for the entire day out of a sense of self-preservation not normally found in SHIELD agents. Coincidentally, the pool about whether or not Natasha and Clint were together had started around the same time.
Greg let out a low whistle.
“I pissed him off,” Maria said. “I tried to see if I could get a rise out of him because I figured yelling at somebody might be therapeutic and I don’t have a horse in this race, so it might as well be me. And I guess I got to him—he left me a message before he took off.”
“I’m going to guess it wasn’t a nice message.”
“I’ve heard worse.” At long last, they reached the end of the hallway. Maria waited while Greg, who was beginning to sweat through his T-shirt, made the shuffling turn. “And in a show of pure dumbassery, I also managed to piss Romanoff off.”
Greg eyed her. “Are you sure? Neither one of your arms looks broken.”
“Didn’t think it was actually possible to piss Romanoff off. She’s got that stoic ex-Russian thing going on. What’d you actually say? You know, so I can avoid saying the same thing?”
Maria told him about her conversation with Natasha by the pool, pausing every time Greg stumbled. By the time they got back to his room, he had one hand braced on her shoulder, and he was gritting his teeth, but he was walking on his own power. When she told him exactly what Natasha had said in parting, he started to laugh. “Only you,” he said.
“What does that mean?” Maria started to cross the room toward his bed.
“No, the chair, not the bed. I’ve spent enough time in there this week.” Greg was still laughing as he flopped into the chair, relief finally spreading over his features. “Your interpersonal skills could use a little work.”
“Considering that both of SHIELD’s top specialists have told me to fuck off recently, I can’t really argue with you.”
“You can’t actually make them work out these problems. Sometimes the problems are bigger than that.”
Maria gave him a Cut the bullshit look. “That’s what you said about yourself when I came to see you at that awful hospital in Tehran.”
“You just got lucky that I fear you more than death, Hill. But seriously, Romanoff probably has a point. She and Barton went through a lot—or so they tell me, nobody actually will say what really happened in New York—”
“Sorry, Greg, that’s classified.”
“Figures.” Greg let out a long, gusty sigh. Being on the sidelines during SHIELD’s biggest battle had frustrated him more than the loss of his actual lower leg, Maria figured sometimes. “And they’re going to deal with it however they deal with it. You can’t actually just order them to get better. And even if you could, you know how those two view orders.”
“What, because they went through four handlers in three months?” Greg and Maria shared a grin; Natasha scaring off two handlers in the space of a week was SHIELD legend.
“Just give it time.”
“And if time’s something we really don’t have?”
Greg shrugged. “I really don’t know what I can tell you, Maria. But you can’t just boss them into better health. They’ve got to figure it out for themselves.”
“Great help you are.”
“Bring beer next time and maybe I’ll be more help.”
Two days later, she got a call from Greg that had her canceling a meeting and coming straight over. “How will you miss me if I won’t go away?” she asked, dropping a bag from a local fast food joint on his belly. The food at SHIELD rehab was infamous for being more detrimental to patients than actual active duty.
“Easily,” Greg said, grinning. He all but pounced on the burger, speaking around a mouthful. “No beer, I see.”
“Sorry, not sneaking you alcoholic beverages into a hospital, I don’t care how pretty you are.”
“Oh, well. I got you a present.”
“Does it have a four hundred horsepower engine and leather seating?”
“Better. Check that drawer.” Greg gestured at his desk. Curious, she reached in and pulled out a postcard. “Surprise.”
There wasn’t a message, so Maria flipped it over. It was a street corner with a marquee that read “Powell’s Books!” The script on the back told her that the shop was located in Portland. “Who do you know in Oregon? I thought you were from Fresco.”
“It’s more, ‘who do we know in Oregon?’” Greg chewed while she frowned at him. When she didn’t figure it out in time, he rolled his eyes at her. “Hill, duh. Your archer is ready to be found.”
Maria dropped the postcard on Natasha’s desk in the R&D division as she passed. Natasha went still, her eyes cutting to the picture of the storefront, but the woman’s face showed no change.
“What’s this?” she asked, voice neutral.
“Wallace got it in the mail today. Seemed relevant.”
“Hmm,” Natasha said.
Maria wanted to sigh, but Greg’s reminder that people could not be forced into action, no matter your rank, stopped her. She knew that Natasha understood what the postcard meant—she was regularly the smartest person in the room—but the woman just set it to the side.
“Just thought you might want it,” she said.
“Thanks.” Natasha’s tone was icy.
Maria had already decided on the way over that she’d let Natasha think whatever she wanted about her motives. She gave a crisp nod and continued on to the main part of the office building, as if Natasha’s actions had no effect on her whatsoever. In the hallway, though, she paused and sneaked a look back around the corner.
She didn’t have long to wait. Natasha set the Widow’s Bite down and picked up the postcard instead. The look on her face was indecipherable. Maria simply had to hope that it was the first crack in the ice. She stole away, almost ashamed of herself for spying on the Black Widow. As penance, she queued up the motor pool database on her laptop, ready to sign off on Natasha’s request the moment it came through.
It never did.
The next morning, Natasha was back at her desk, like nothing at all had happened.
Maria told herself that she had endless wells of patience, when really, she knew it wasn’t true. She had a temper that seethed rather than flared, the impressive ability to keep a grudge alive well past its sell-by date, and an edgy, demanding personality that was quick to take offense at slights. It made her good in high-stress environments when rapid-fire commands were needed, but in an office environment with no space to herself, it felt like she was slowly inching toward a dark abyss of madness.
It got to the point where whenever the admin assistants saw her coming, there were suddenly quite a few remembered last-minute meetings and tasks that they had to do. Maria watched them go with narrowed eyes. She knew she was being a bitch, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself. It almost made her want to scream.
“I need a break,” she grumbled to Fury one day while they worked through case files in his office. She had a folder open in front of her that ideally would have been given to Clint, as it required a marksman, but the damned idiot was in Oregon.
Fury kept signing away at documents, not looking up at her. “You’ve got sixty two days of unused leave, Hill.”
“Don’t tempt me.”
“Work’ll still be here when you get back. One of the hazards of being in the business of saving the world.”
“You’re serious,” Maria said, looking at her boss in surprise.
“Hill, you’re wound tighter than that inbred thing Davison calls a poodle. The Helicarrier’s still a month from completion and frankly, you’re setting people on edge.” Fury steepled his hands together. “You know what edgy people do? They shoot things I didn’t give them orders to shoot.”
“Sir,” Maria said, suddenly and acutely mortified. Had she really been putting the entire office on edge?
“Take a holiday. Get sloshed on a beach or cave dive or whatever the hell it is you do for fun. But I don’t want to see you back here for at least two weeks, and that’s pushing it. That’s an order.”
Maria, about to argue, stopped and actually looked at the stack of files under her chair. The thought of opening even one of them dragged at her limbs like they were lead. “You know what, sir? I think you’re right.”
“Always am. Have a nice trip.”
She had to delegate, of course, which meant that she couldn’t walk out and hop on a plane, as was her first instinct. Even while she parceled off her work, she debated where to go. She liked Southeast Asia, but Greg would be jealous if she went for a long hike like that without him. When he was better at using his prosthesis, more comfortable, they’d go back. A beach holiday, though, that sounded nice. Some place where she could do ocean swims and spend lots of time on the sand. There was a nice beach down in the Keys that a friend of hers owned, actually. She could call in a favor, be there within a few hours and away from all of this.
She picked up the file for Nigel Swerling, who had been recruited by Clint during his mind-controlled phase and now had ties to Seventh League, a group SHIELD was watching. There were notes she’d written two weeks before about follow-ups, follow-ups that hadn’t happened because the person she would ideally have assigned those follow-ups to had gone AWOL.
Suddenly, she knew exactly where she was going.
It didn’t take her long to find Natasha, who was out on the range. “I’m going to Oregon,” she said without preamble. “You in?”
Natasha actually faltered. A look that seemed almost alien on her face—shock—flickered and vanished just as quickly. “No,” she said.
“Okay. I’ll get him myself.”
“You’ll never find him by yourself.”
She knew that much already. “Then come along.”
Maria gave in and let out an exasperated sigh. It was taking your life in your own hands to taunt Natasha Romanoff, but she just didn’t understand. “What the hell are you so afraid of?”
Natasha simply turned away, put on her ear protection, and lined up her shot. Her face was completely impassive. If she was at all conflicted, it didn’t show.
“Whatever,” Maria said. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning. There’s room for you to come along if you change your mind.”
“I won’t,” Natasha said, and unloaded her clip into the silhouette as Maria walked away.
When Maria strolled to her car just before dawn, clutching a cup of coffee, Natasha was leaning against the passenger door with a duffel bag at her feet.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” was all she said.
Maria nodded. “Driver picks the music.”
In Hagerstown, Maria pulled over at Mack’s Diner, which looked like it had been transplanted out of the fifties. She’d eaten in joints like Mack’s all over the world—and had the heartburn to prove it—but nobody did breakfast quite like a greasy spoon. Since it was vacation, she indulged herself with regular eggs instead of egg whites in her omelet.
Natasha surprised Maria by unfolding a map of the United States and spreading it out in the booth between them.
“I prefer to see the route on paper,” she said. “That makes it a proper vacation.”
Maria raised her eyebrows. “So this is a vacation.”
“As long as we’re making the trip, we should enjoy it.”
“Oh, y’all planning a trip?” their waitress asked when she came over to top off their coffees. “Where to?”
“Nowhere,” Maria said at the same time as Natasha said, “San Francisco.”
“Oh. Sounds…interesting.” The waitress gave Maria a wary look as she left.
Natasha’s lip curled up with humor. “You need to work on your people skills.”
“I get that a lot.”
Maria nixed the idea of staying in Chicago for a couple of days (it held no good memories for her), Natasha got a dark look on her face when Omaha was mentioned, and none of the other cities held much appeal to either of them, so it was decided that they’d sleep when they were tired and drive when they weren’t, and whenever they reached Oregon, that was that. Once they’d settled on a route, Maria plugged it her GPS and Natasha rolled up the map.
“You good with driving?” Natasha asked after they’d paid the check.
“Yeah. Trade off at lunch?”
Maria climbed into the driver’s seat, unable to shake the surreal feeling of being on an actual road trip, like they were just college roommates or heading to spring break. Natasha spent a few minutes fussing with the radio, finally stopping on soft rock.
“We should get some snacks,” Natasha eventually said.
“Something with cheese.” Natasha pulled out her phone. “Anything you want to see in Ohio?”
“Uh, never thought Ohio was good for much.” Maria thought about it. “Except tires and duct tape.”
“There’s more to it than that, I think.” Natasha made a noise in the back of her throat as she thumbed through the app. “Oh, here is something we should see.”
Without another word, she grabbed the GPS and entered the address.
“I must say, I’m a little nervous about what you might find appropriate road trip entertainment.”
Natasha gave her an innocent look. “What? Don’t trust me?”
“I remember Bern.”
“That was Davison’s fault, not mine.” Natasha hummed again and leaned back in her seat, evidently pleased with her choice of location.
Two hours later, Maria pulled into the parking lot of the place Natasha had chosen and sat in place for a moment, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel. “Never figured you for a fan,” she said.
“I am not. But it’s vacation, is it not?”
“Can’t argue with that logic.” The women headed into the visitor’s center for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house together, where within minutes, Natasha had everybody believing that she and Maria were post-grads, and that Maria was something of an architecture nerd. Maria gave her an unimpressed look for that one, especially when the others in the tour group started quizzing her.
They toured the house, which was interesting but nothing to write home about, in Maria’s opinion. She wandered behind her friend, thanking any listening deity that she’d had claustrophobia trained out of her at dive school. She wasn’t particularly tall, but the ceilings were incredibly low, only about three inches over her head.
They breathed a little easier once they’d left the house behind and were free to hike down to the clearing and view the waterfall under the house.
“Hmm,” Maria said. “Seems a waste that you can’t see it from the terrace.”
“Beauty loses its appeal with familiarity.”
“Maybe. I don’t know, though.” Maria frowned. “Anything else you want to see?”
“No. Let’s go somewhere else.”
They reached “somewhere else” five hours later. Natasha had taken over driving by that point.
“Seriously?” Maria asked her.
Natasha gave her a bland look. “Are hot dogs not an American tradition? We are in the middle of America. We should celebrate that.”
“But a hot dog museum?”
“Celebrating America, Hill.”
“You’re nuts.” Maria climbed out of her car, stretching her legs out as she did so. “What’s our cover this time, O Great Road Trip Director?”
“I’m Nat, you’re Maria, we’re friends on a trip and you saw this place on an app.”
“I saw this place?”
“Yes. I might get recognized as the Black Widow—” Not likely, Maria thought, as PR had erased all footage of Natasha and Clint from the Battle of New York. “—and it’s bad for the image to be visiting a hot dog bun museum. Or for it to be her idea.”
“But a hot dog is an American tradition, and we’re in the middle of America. We should celebrate that.”
Natasha grinned. “This is why I like you,” she said, and held the door open for Maria.
The smell hit Maria the second she walked in and had her mouth watering. “I thought you said this was an American tradition,” she said, recognizing the scent. “You could have mentioned you were craving Hungarian.”
“And spoil the chance for you to give me that disdainful look you do whenever I bring up overblown patriotism?” Natasha slid into the booth that the hostess directed them to and picked up her menu.
Maria eyed the wall display of signed hot dog buns, which Tony Packo’s Café was apparently famous for. “This is the strangest road trip I have ever been on.”
“I know. But it’s not bad.”
Maria looked at the menu for a second, the Hungarian choices crowding in among the typical café offerings, and thought, yeah, it wasn’t bad.
They made the most of their early dinner, though Maria was positive she was going to walk away with heartburn. Natasha’s delight couldn’t be topped by the fact that among the hot dog buns signed by celebrities on the wall was one signature belonging to Steve Rogers. Maria, thinking of Greg, angled her phone to get a picture of both of them with the hot dog bun between them. Natasha bought postcards, which seemed oddly sentimental to Maria. She said nothing when Natasha spent the next half hour of the drive filling those postcards to the edges.
By mutual agreement, they stayed in South Bend, Indiana. Maria caught up with the emails that were marked urgent before collapsing on the mattress and staying put for eight solid hours. It felt like heaven. She imagined that back at headquarters, the emergencies continued apace, but she couldn’t quite drag herself to care.
She was on vacation.
Their first adventure the next day was a monastery in Munster famous for something called the Ultraviolet Apocalypse. They walked through a room that bore the figure of Jesus Christ on an altar, through a room that was helpfully labeled as the flagellation chamber, and finally up to the apocalypse itself, which was a scene of the archangel Gabriel and Jesus raising the dead. Maria frowned and wondered if it was irreverent to think of black-lights being tacky in the face of such a religious message.
“Clint would find this hilarious,” Natasha said.
Maria eyed the tour group they’d followed through the grotto, most of whom were trying to capture the scene with their cameras. “He’d piss somebody off by laughing at the wrong moment.”
They stepped out into the sunlight ahead of a tour group. Maria looked down to dig her sunglasses out of her purse. When she looked up, Natasha had gone tense.
“What is it?”
“Nothing.” Natasha caught Maria’s wrist, keeping her from reaching for her gun. “It’s nothing.”
Still, Maria looked around, trying to see what Natasha had noticed in a sea of tourists and suburban Chicago greenery. She didn’t sense any overt threats, unless Natasha saw something about the couple from Idaho that she didn’t. Turning, though, she spotted a young man, slender of build, with a thigh-skimming green jacket. His hair was dark and scraggly and nearly to his shoulders. Everything inside her chilled until she realized that this was just some sulky teenager and not Loki. He noticed Maria’s attention and straightened up.
“Oh,” was all she said. Her direct exposure to Loki had been brief: a glance, and then she had been too busy rolling out of the way because the world’s greatest marksman was shooting at her. She’d been more focused on Clint during their high-speed chase through the underground tunnels than the demigod in the bed of the pickup truck, and she hadn’t seen him aboard the Helicarrier at all. So truthfully, it had been a limited exposure, but it was enough to cast a pall over her day. With that brief reminder, every open, ugly wound left from the Chitauri invasion was exposed to the air once more, dragging their vacation back to reality.
How Natasha felt, she hadn’t any clue. Natasha had faced Loki in battle. Even more harrowingly, she’d matched wits with him, and had bared a part of her soul that Maria suspected not even Clint got to see. Fury had locked copies of those interview tapes from all but a select few, Maria among them. At the time, Maria had assumed that Natasha hadn’t been affected, that Loki’s sly words and oily manner hadn’t gotten to her at all. But maybe she was wrong about that.
She thought about it on the ride through Illinois, where they stopped for lunch and root beer in Oglesby because the restaurant had a giant statue of a root beer vendor. She mulled it over on their way through Iowa, where she knew Clint was from. Natasha didn’t have much to say. Sure, she commented vaguely on various town names, but Maria was convinced she could do that in her sleep. It was part and parcel of the training that turned her into an effective interrogator.
In Prairie City, Iowa, they stopped at a Casey’s General Store because it was next to a giant statue of a buffalo. When Maria asked her why, Natasha shrugged. “It’s there.”
Because Natasha got a call from headquarters, Maria had to content herself with chewing on a greasy piece of gas station pizza while staring at the giant, rusted sculpture, trying to puzzle out what possessed artists to create the things they did. She’d drawn a picture of the Cubs logo for her father one time because he’d liked baseball. He’d criticized her for using the wrong shade of blue. She wondered what it meant that instead of looking at a building like the Fallingwater House and seeing an amazing marvel of human accomplishment, she saw something the Hulk would laugh at even as he toppled it with a single crash of the fist. Maybe the two events were connected.
When Natasha wandered back, Maria held out the other piece of pizza on its little triangular plate. “Need to head back?” she asked.
“It’ll keep.” Natasha chewed for a few seconds, wiping at the corner of her mouth with her sleeve. She eyed the statue across the parking lot. “Why the hell would you sculpt a buffalo?”
“Beats me.” But Maria was glad that she wasn’t alone in not getting it. “They’re not particularly majestic creatures.”
“Are they different or the same as bison? I’ve seen bison, I think. Maybe. Your middle American animals hold little interest for me.”
“When did you see bison?”
“The cattle rancher job, last year.”
Maria wrinkled her nose. She had been working on the deck the day the crew from that op had rolled in on their Quinjet. It had taken them weeks to get the smell of cow shit out of the Helicarrier.
“We should get a picture with it,” Natasha said around a mouthful of pizza. “And send it to Fury.”
Maria stared at her and thought they should maybe review the footage from New York to ensure the Black Widow really hadn’t hit her head. “Officially?”
“You’re his second in command. You have got to know his private email.”
Maria did, but… “You want to send the director of SHIELD a picture of us in front of a giant metal buffalo.”
“Or a bison. We haven’t actually established if there’s a difference.”
“You haven’t been writing him postcards this entire time, have you?”
Natasha gave her a sage look. “I am waiting for just the right one.”
The right postcard ended up being one found in a spin-rack at the small hotel just outside of Pine Bluffs, Wyoming (which Maria was convinced Natasha had picked because it was called The Buffalo Motel). While Maria talked to the desk clerk, Natasha plucked up a postcard and held it up for her approval. By this point, Maria was so used to her that she didn’t even blink as she paid for a postcard with gigantic green aliens riding horses on it, and for the hotel’s last room, which she and Natasha would have to share.
“I think he’ll keep it on his desk,” she said, handing the postcard back to Natasha.
Overall, it looked like the pall cast by the Loki lookalike had vanished completely. She and Natasha wasted time by playing a few hands of Texas Hold ’Em (Natasha’s lack of tells made her a match for Maria’s ability to bluff) and watching infomercials. Luckily, the room had two beds instead of just the one, as Maria knew for a fact that Natasha stole all of the covers.
Natasha was still watching TV as Maria drifted off.
When the call of nature woke her after three in the morning, the hotel room was dark. Maria waited before moving, staring at the giant red letters on the clock between their beds. What was it about flea-ridden motel rooms and three a.m.? She rolled out of bed, casting a glance at Natasha as she did. The other woman was shivering. Probably a bad dream, Maria thought, but she hated the embarrassment of being woken up from nightmares and she knew Natasha did, too. So she headed to the bathroom and weighed the pros and cons of taking an impromptu shower, which she figured would wake Natasha without any awkwardness.
Sleep sounded better, so she stepped out of the bathroom. As she did, she stepped on the floorboard she’d avoided on the way in.
The floorboard creaked; Natasha twisted into wakefulness, sitting up. Maria saw the gun too late to dive out of the way. Both of their eyes widened even as Natasha’s finger squeezed the trigger. “Nat, n—!”
In the silence, the gunshot was deafening.
Pain sliced up the left side of Maria’s arm as she rolled away. She hit the ground, going for the first weapon she could grab, but there weren’t any follow-up shots.
Instead, there was Natasha, covered in sweat and wide-eyed. She didn’t seem to be trapped in the nightmare anymore. Maria clapped a hand over her arm, hissing out a breath. She’d been winged before, but that didn’t mean she relished the experience.
For another long, dragging second, the two women remained shocked silent, their shoulders heaving as they breathed and tried to process. Blood trickled down Maria’s arm.
As one, they looked at the bullet hole embedded in the wall: “Shit!”
The scramble took less than twenty seconds before Maria was scrubbing the remote for fingerprints and Natasha was racing to the door with their bags. Natasha peeled out as they raced out of the parking lot, even as windows in the long row of rooms lit up, the other hotel patrons no doubt wondering about the gunshot in the dead of night.
Natasha kept a stream of Russian cursing up under her breath, while Maria breathed hard and applied pressure on her wound with a cluster of wadded up Kleenex she’d grabbed from the room.
“How bad is it?” Natasha asked. “How bad did I get you?”
Maria gritted her teeth and checked. “A graze, but it’s bleeding like a stuck pig. Thanks a lot, by the way. I swear to God, I’m going to kick your ass.”
“Like you could,” Natasha said, but her voice shook.
“I’m never sleeping in the same room as you and a gun again.” Maria poked at the wound; white sparks skittered across her vision, warning her that repeating this was a Very Bad Idea.
“Yeah, apparently I’m not the greatest company.” Natasha blew out a long, unsteady breath, glancing at Maria as she made a steep turn onto the Interstate. “Think you can hold on for a bit?”
Maria glared at her and shifted the hotel pillow she’d stolen so that she wouldn’t bleed all over her car.
They stopped at another motel, hiding the car in the back, and Natasha retrieved the first aid kit from the trunk. They had a brief battle of wills over Maria taking some Motrin for the pain (Maria lost), and who would patch her up (Natasha won). So, sitting on the hood of Maria’s car and using the night vision that her SHIELD file listed as uncanny, Natasha worked on her arm.
“I’m sorry,” Natasha said as she used a water bottle to rinse Maria’s arm. “I…sleeping with my gun so close was a mistake.”
Maria wanted to pinch the bridge of her nose, to stave off a headache she knew was coming, but she abstained. Natasha wouldn’t have shot her without a reason. “Mind telling me what the nightmare was about?”
“I do not want to talk about it.” A dark look slid across Natasha’s face, and Maria reflected that it could be hundreds of things. Perhaps she was better off not knowing. She didn’t really want to become closely acquainted with whatever scared the Black Widow.
She swore again as antiseptic was applied to the wound. The adrenaline from their little encounter had begun to ebb, leaving her with nothing but the shocky, throbbing agony in her arm and the feeling that she should probably call headquarters. Because she’d used her own credit cards and they’d be checking hotel rooms to see where the shot had come from, it would pop up on SHIELD’s radar, but it might take hours, so it was better to head everything off at the pass.
She sighed as Natasha finished applying the antiseptic. “Do we need a cover?”
“Just say it was a misfire.”
Maria would much rather make up an enemy combatant who’d gotten away with no identifying marks, and from the look on Natasha’s face, the redhead clearly agreed.
Sitwell picked up on the third ring. “What’d she do?”
“The Black Widow must have done something if you pissed her off enough to take a shot at her.”
“She took the last cookie, Sitwell, what the hell do you think happened?”
“Duh, Hill, what do you think the betting pool is for?” Sitwell’s scoff made Maria roll her eyes again. “Amateur.”
“Whatever. Is it handled?”
“Yes, already spoke with the local sheriff. I’ll tell you what I bribed him with if you tell me what the Widow did.”
“Pass,” Maria said, and hung up. She tossed the phone onto the hood and used her good hand to rub at a spot between her eyes. “They think I shot at you, so we’re clear.”
“You’ll have parallel scars,” Natasha said.
Maria frowned and craned her neck to look around the gauze Natasha was using on her arm. The graze had created a long, hopefully-shallow horizontal scrape across her left bicep. Two inches above the scrape was a thin scar, white and shiny with age.
“Oh,” she said, frowning. “Yeah, I got that first one in Madripoor ages ago. Forgot I had it.”
“Mm,” Natasha said. She swiveled and pulled up the hem of her sweatpants over her right ankle. Maria could see the patchwork scar covering said ankle. “My own Madripoor souvenir. It’s bigger.”
Maria rolled her eyes for the third time. “Show off. What’d you do?”
“Trying to get away from Barton, when he was still hunting me. Made a jump between buildings, misjudged a landing, balcony railing, iron spikes, you get the drill.”
Maria winced. “Ouch, and now I wish I didn’t. How long did that take to heal?”
“I heal quickly. Not long.”
“I don’t know where mine came from. I wasn’t even supposed to be on the op—I was doing a friend a favor because he wasn’t feeling well, and I’m glad I did. He wouldn’t have survived if he’d gone.”
“That’s an egotistical assumption to make.”
“I only survived because I could last fourteen hours in the water. SHIELD hauled me out of the drink and while I was still shivering and dehydrated as all hell, they offered me a job.” Maria sighed as the bandage was applied; the Motrin had finally started to kick in. Her arm hurt, but it was now an annoying ache rather than a vicious throb. “Obviously, I wondered what they were on. I was a rescue diver, not an operative. Only reason I was on that op at all was because my friend and I lied about what I did.”
“Nick Fury is a lunatic, if it makes you feel better.” Natasha packed up the medical kit. “We’ll change the bandage in a couple of hours. For now, I think we should get some sleep.”
Maria climbed into the car and reclined her seat, intent on getting a couple hours of shuteye. She was still in her pajamas and even though it was summer, the Wyoming evening was chilly and damp. She’d slept through worse, after all. Trying to put it out of her mind, she tapped the edges of the bandage experimentally, ignoring Natasha’s glare as she messed with the other woman’s handiwork. “Looks good,” she said. Then she looked directly at Natasha. “Now tell me something, as honestly as you can. Where’s your head at?”
“I won’t shoot you again, so you don’t have anything to worry about.”
“Wasn’t what I was asking.”
A muscle at the corner of Natasha’s jaw worked, once, twice. “I have nightmares sometimes,” Natasha said. “But I am fine.”
She wasn’t, not really, as far as Maria could tell. Natasha usually woke up knowing more about the room she was in than the people who had already been awake inside it. For her to think that her temporary roommate was a possible enemy was problematic. Perhaps Barton wasn’t the only one who needed to talk to the Psych Department after the Battle of New York.
And just like that, Maria understood: Natasha’s reluctance to knock Clint out of his funk wasn’t anything to do with a paralyzing fear that Clint might not get over it—she was suffering just as much as Clint was, and didn’t want him to know it. Or perhaps she was simply worried for his safety. Maria didn’t necessarily like to elevate her own importance when work wasn’t involved, but she couldn’t deny that she was one of the people Natasha was closest to at SHIELD, and Natasha had shot her. Certainly, she had tried to correct the course, but for a moment there, Maria had been a dead woman.
No wonder Natasha had been so distant after Loki’s attack.
“Are you sure about that?” Maria asked her.
Natasha didn’t look away from the ceiling of the car. “Are you?” she asked. “Last night was the first time you’ve slept more than three hours at a time since the attack on the Helicarrier. You claim to be so busy because everybody needs you, but really, I think you distract yourself because in sleep, you’re vulnerable, and you can’t have that.”
Maria felt a frisson of annoyance begin to itch along her skin. “Am I the pot or the kettle?”
Natasha shrugged. The night outside was absolutely still and quiet, which meant that there was nothing but the throb of her wound—in time to her heartbeat—and the sound of their breathing filling her existence.
“Tell you what,” Natasha said. “I’ll work on mine, if you work on yours.”
Maria turned that over in her mind for a minute. Out here, where there wasn’t a Helicarrier bridge humming under her feet or a cramped office confining her, where there was nothing but the chill of the Wyoming night and the one person she could probably call a friend, it didn’t seem so hard to acknowledge things. It was like that was another Maria Hill, somebody far away. And promising things for that Maria wasn’t difficult. “Deal,” she said.
“Good. It’s your turn to buy the coffee in the morning.”
Maria’s phone woke them just shy of dawn, when light was beginning to peek at the edges of the horizon. Maria, who was so cold by this point that she was shivering, grimaced and started to reach for it with her left hand—until she remembered, quite forcefully, their middle of the night encounter. She swore and switched to her other hand. “Hill.”
“Miss me yet?” Sitwell said.
Maria turned her wrist around so that she could get a look at her watch. “For me to miss you, you’d have to go away first, Jas.”
“Something’s come up.”
“I’m on vacation.”
“Which actually makes you the person closest to the problem and most able to handle it, if you’ll believe it.”
Maria squeezed the lever that would bring her chair back up to the upright position and rubbed at a crick in her neck. She eyed the emptiness of the Wyoming wilderness all around the parking lot. “There’s been a SHIELD-priority event out here in the middle of nowhere, Sitwell? Please, God, tell me it doesn’t include alien horses.”
“No aliens. I’m patching an address through to the GPS unit in your car.” On the dash, the GPS flickered to life, which made Natasha twitch. Though Maria tensed, the other woman did not reach for her gun. “See? It’s not that far from you. Think of it as a sightseeing excursion.”
“And what exactly are we going to sightsee, Sitwell?”
“Something magnificent,” Sitwell said, an obvious grin in his voice, and Maria rolled her eyes.
Natasha didn’t give a damn that there was something magnificent waiting for them or not: she wanted her coffee, and she wouldn’t budge until she had some. So they stopped at a truck stop restaurant, where the pancakes tasted like sawdust and the coffee was burnt. “Better?” Maria asked after Natasha had sucked down half a cup.
The redhead gave her the stink-eye.
“I thought you were a morning person.”
“Clint’s a morning person.” Natasha kept her nose buried in the coffee. “If it were up to me, he and all other morning people would be rounded up and shot.”
Maria wisely ordered another coffee for her.
“Did Sitwell even give us a hint?” Natasha asked once they were on the road again.
“So we’re just supposed to roll up into Fort Collins and deal with…whatever this is?”
“Yes. And I think he was laughing at us.”
“I’m going to use his kidneys as earrings.”
“I can’t figure out if you’re this frightening on purpose or if it comes naturally, like breathing.”
“That is a silly question and I will not dignify it with a response.”
“Fair enough.” Maria plugged in the iPod Coulson had given her out of the blue when she had visited the site that would shortly become the Operation Pegasus base. “Any preferences?”
The address in Fort Collins led them to an automotive shop outside of town. She traded glances with Natasha as they climbed out of the car, weapons holstered. Given that it was before eight in the morning, the shop wasn’t open yet, though the gravel lot was full of half-disassembled cars and other vehicles. Natasha moved over to one of the garage doors and peered inside.
When she visibly relaxed, Maria raised an eyebrow. “So is it as magnificent as Sitwell promised?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Natasha bent to yank the garage door up. She then strolled into the garage, ignoring all laws about breaking and entering. “Morning, sunshine.”
Confused, Maria trailed after her, and barely managed to quell her double-take at seeing none other than Steve Rogers sleepily sitting up in a cot off to the side of the garage. He wore a motor-oil-stained SSR T-shirt and his hair was tousled, but it was definitely Captain America.
Maria was going to kill Sitwell for not warning her. The bastard had spent the entire week following the battle making kissy noises whenever Maria had brought the Captain up during the debriefings. You drink too much and admit that maybe the man has an ass you can bounce a quarter off of, she discovered, you don’t live it down.
“N-Natasha?” Steve blinked at Natasha. “What’re you doing here? Is something wrong? Has there been an attack?”
“Ahem,” Maria said.
Steve swiveled, almost guiltily. Maria couldn’t tell if the flush at his neck was embarrassment at not having seen her or mortification at having been caught in bed by two women. “Ah, Lieutenant. I, uh, didn’t see you. Sorry. Is there a problem?”
“Headquarters sent us.” Natasha turned on her heel and eyed the motorbike in the center of the garage. “Looks like your bike’s toast, Cap.”
Sheepish, Steve swung his legs out of the cot. He was wearing athletic shorts rather than the boxers Maria expected (she tried not to be disappointed). “Yeah, looks like. Jake offered me a place to stay to see if I could fix it, but I’m going to have to rebuild the engine.”
“Jake?” Maria asked.
“He owns the garage. He’s a nice guy, but his taste in beer is pretty terrible.”
“SHIELD sent us to be your ride,” Maria said, finally getting it. From the amused look on Natasha’s face, the other woman had put it together the minute she’d opened the garage door. She’d likely known it was Steve before they’d even reached the garage. Hell, she’d probably known Steve was in the area the whole time and hadn’t seen fit to share with the rest of the class.
“SHIELD sent you? You’re not in uniform,” Steve said, eyeing first Natasha and then Maria.
“No, we’re on vacation.”
Steve looked surprised. “Together?”
Natasha stepped up to Maria and snaked an arm around her shoulders. Maria didn’t have time to step away before she had a redheaded spy pressed up to her side. “Yes, together,” Natasha said. “Does that bother you?”
To Maria’s surprise, Steve just shrugged. “No. Just didn’t know that the two of you—”
“You can’t help yourself, can you?” Maria asked, rolling her eyes at Natasha as she stepped away. Natasha smirked. “We’re taking a trip to Oregon. We were in the area.”
“What happened to your arm?”
“My a—” Maria glanced down and realized that she hadn’t put the light jacket that covered up the gauze and bandaging. The wound had started bleeding, so she’d had to rewrap it. “Oh, nothing important. We can have your motorcycle transferred back to New York for you.”
“Sure wouldn’t mind,” he said. “Would either of you like some coffee?”
Natasha’s eyes practically gleamed at that. Maria expected for there to be some sort of coffeemaker, but Steve pulled out a hotplate and heated water. The coffee was instant and almost as terrible as the diner coffee they’d suffered through in Cheyenne, but dosed heavily with the powdered creamer Steve kept on hand, it wasn’t so bad. Or so Maria told herself as she sipped and listened to Natasha tease Steve about the hot dog bun museum.
“So what’s in Oregon?” Steve asked after they’d both turned down his offer of scrambled eggs and bacon on the hotplate. “I read a couple guidebooks about it that somebody left in a motel. I was thinking of swinging by.”
“It’s more a ‘who’ than a ‘what,’” Maria said before Natasha could deflect the question. Natasha sipped her coffee wordlessly.
“Oh?” Steve looked interested. “Is it a person of interest? A—a terrorist?”
Maria toasted him with her coffee cup. “We’re going to collect Barton.”
Steve’s surprised look was aimed at Maria instead of Natasha, which Maria felt earned him quite a few points. Even Maria had been guilty of associating the partners too closely lately, a fact that had been driven home by Natasha telling her to fuck off. “Is he…okay?”
“I’m sure he’s fine,” Maria said, with a smile she didn’t feel.
“If he’s been bothering to eat,” Natasha said under her breath, and Maria actually felt a glimmer of hope for the first time since Natasha had shown up at her car for the road trip. The subject of Clint’s breakdown and all subsequent pondering about where he might actually be or what he might be up to had been considered taboo since Fairfax.
But Steve didn’t know that, so Maria shrugged. “We’re just going to get him. He’s had enough time in the wilderness.”
“Well, I wish you luck with that.” Steve gave her a little half-salute, just two fingers. It was pretty criminal, in Maria’s opinion, that he could look so good sleep-rumpled and tousled as he was, and it took her twenty minutes to not look like death first thing in the morning. And looking that wholesome should not be sexy. “But I do appreciate you taking time out of your way to come get me. I guess you’re giving me a lift to the nearest airport?”
“You’re welcome to come along with us,” Natasha said, and Maria nearly did a double-take again.
“Are you sure? I wouldn’t want to get in your way.”
“We’ve got room.”
“And you’re both okay with this?” Steve asked, looking at Maria for confirmation.
Maria had a few seconds to marvel that she was currently having the strangest week she’d ever lived before it occurred to her that her silence could be considered rude. She normally didn’t have a problem with being perceived as rude or abrasive, but it was hard to look Captain America in the face and say no. So she shrugged. “Romanoff’s right. We’ve got room.”
“That wasn’t actually a confirmation,” Steve said.
“Oh, she’s fine.” Natasha stood and brushed off her jeans. “Might not be happy about it, but she’s fine.”
“I’m happy to have you along if you take my side against Romanoff,” Maria said. “But be warned, she hogs the covers.”
Natasha laughed and punched Maria’s good arm. Thankfully, she didn’t put any power behind it, but the move still had Steve giving both of them a sort of cautious, wide-eyed grin.
And that was how Maria found herself on a road trip with Captain America and the Black Widow.
After Fort Collins, they still weren’t in a hurry. Maria thought she’d grow impatient, but Steve made the trip interesting. He had the ability to make friends with anybody, anywhere he went. It was almost like a sickness. Like Maria and Natasha had on their solo leg of the trip, the trio stopped at landmarks and other roadside attractions, the more disturbing the better. Now, though, they talked to people, mostly because Steve started up conversations with all and sundry. It made the women look at him as though he had come from another planet at times, but he made it look easy.
Natasha began to come up with elaborate covers for the three of them, likely hoping to trip Steve up. At one point, she introduced herself as Odette, calling Maria “Rue” and Steve “Sonny,” and the young couple from Vermont that they were talking to didn’t even blink at the fact that Natasha said they were all circus performers.
Maria decided the best defense was a shrug. Steve, on the other hand, joined in. It escalated to a game of one-upmanship, which was how Maria became an archaeologist, a Serbian farmer, a principal for the American Ballet Company, and married to first Natasha, and then to Steve (twice). She hoped SHIELD was keeping score. Her days were full of driving and talking, and her nights were full of trying to sleep. She’d promised Natasha she would work on her sleep troubles, and she wasn’t a woman to go back on her word.
The night the motel only had two rooms left, though, Maria insisted that Natasha have her own room. Steve looked surprised, but clearly he caught the subtext and decided not to ask. He offered to stay in the car, which both of the women vetoed as silly. Maria didn’t sleep a wink that night, knowing that Steve was only five feet away. Given the way his breathing steadied and slowed, he didn’t seem to have the same problem. Natasha quirked a brow at Maria the next morning when she showed up looking like a zombie, but she mercifully didn’t say anything.
Crossing the border into Oregon was a sobering experience.
“So,” Steve said, leaning forward in the backseat. He had a Colorado Rockies ballcap and a slight sunburn from their last stop—which would fade in less than an hour, Maria knew by experience—so he looked like a tourist. “How exactly are we going to find Clint?”
“Tracker,” Maria said. When Natasha stayed quiet, a way of masking her surprise, Maria looked at her. “You said I’d never find him on my own, and I know you’re not clairvoyant. You just want everybody to think you are, and to my knowledge, you and Barton haven’t had a mission in this state, which means you don’t have a hidey-hole here.”
“He has a tracing arrow,” Natasha said, her voice begrudging. “I have the frequency. It’s got a sixty mile range.”
“So what you do propose?”
“He sent the card from Portland. We’ll get a signal from there.”
“Great.” Maria checked the GPS. “Six hours, give or take. Do you want to stop for the night or keep going?”
She could see the war taking place behind her friend’s façade, which surprised her. Had Natasha always shown this much emotion? Or had Maria simply become so accustomed to her that she could now pick up micro-expressions?
“We’ll go on. We’ve left him on his own long enough.”
“Sounds good to me,” Steve said. “Though maybe we could get some food first?”
A hundred miles from Portland, Natasha’s phone buzzed, indicating that they were within range. The longer they drove, the quieter Natasha became. A sense of anticipation lingered in the car, thrumming through the wheels and engine as they watched the little blip on Natasha’s cell phone screen grow larger and larger until they were twenty miles away, fifteen miles.
At ten miles, Natasha leaned forward and rummaged through the glove box, pulling out a Glock Maria hadn’t realized she’d stashed inside. “You expectin’ trouble?” Steve asked.
“Rogers, I am trouble.” Natasha’s voice was wry.
“No argument here,” Maria said.
Steve sat back, shaking his head at both of them. He’d been doing that a lot, Maria thought. Sometimes he would squint at them like there was something that he didn’t understand about their relationship, though Natasha had finally given up the jig and confessed to him that she and Maria were not actually together. Maria was curious to know what he thought, but she didn’t dare ask. So she kept mum and Steve kept studying them, and the road trip went on.
The tracer arrow led them down a country back road, into the pitch black of no streetlights. Naturally, Clint Barton wouldn’t stay in a hotel near civilization. When he brooded, he did so with a full set of camping gear. Maria could rough it with the best of them, but she preferred room service. At half a mile from the tracer, she pulled the car over.
“We drive all the way up, we might spook him,” she said.
The corner of Natasha’s mouth twisted up a little. “He’s not that skittish.”
“I’m not getting arrows sticking out of my pretty new car, Romanoff.”
“Fair enough. I’ll take it from here.”
Maria climbed out of the car. She wasn’t sure why: she certainly didn’t have plans to go with Natasha. Knowing Clint, he’d avoid them if she were there. But she still jerked her head to indicate that she wanted to talk out of Steve’s range of hearing. Looking amused, the redhead followed her to the tree-line. “Something on your mind?”
“Are you okay?” Maria said.
Natasha paused. “What?”
“I didn’t want to say anything in front of your teammate, but we haven’t had a chance to talk about any of it since Wyoming.” Where you shot me, Maria didn’t add.
Natasha, however, was still giving her a puzzled look. “You want to talk about my feelings. When did you become my psychiatrist?”
“Never, hopefully. I was just checking.”
“Well, stop. Stop checking. Stop giving me those looks when you think I don’t notice. I’m fine.”
Maria could feel a flush growing on her neck, which pissed her off. “Yeah, sure you are. People that are fine usually wake up and shoot things in the middle of the night.”
“I find it can be very therapeutic, so if they don’t, maybe they should.”
Maria decided to let that one go since one of them had to be the bigger person. “I was only asking.”
“Asking, giving me concerned looks, making comments. I’ve had what feels like four weeks in the car with you flirting with Rogers, I’m tired, and my partner has turned into a hermit. There. My feelings, packaged neatly to fit in one of your assigned boxes, Maria.”
The flush only grew stronger. Maria felt one of her fists clench. “I was not flirting with St—with Rogers.”
Natasha’s look was pure skepticism, which made Maria want to take a swing at her. She pulled on a jacket—one of Maria’s, Maria noticed, which served to annoy her further—and gave her a stony look. “Can I go get my partner back now? Not that I haven’t enjoyed all of the together time we’ve had this week or anything. But maybe we should stop pretending to be nice to each other and just do what we came to do all along.”
“Sorry for caring,” Maria said, biting her words off.
“Now there are words you’ve never had to say in your life,” Natasha said, and turning on her heel, she strode off into the forest.
Maria didn’t flip her off. She considered it a point of personal pride, though she imagined there was probably literal steam pouring out of her ears as she stomped back to the car. Both Clint and Natasha could go rot in hell: so much for sticking her neck out for either of them, and so much for giving a damn. She climbed onto the car trunk and sat there, glaring into the forest until she could feel her heart rate begin to decelerate.
She really, really wanted a punching bag, she decided. Or a gun range. Shooting something would make her feel better.
She felt the car shift as Steve climbed out of the backseat. Maria forced her breathing under control and could only thank her lucky stars that she wasn’t the type to overreact. Sure, she’d gotten a few demerits for cold-clocking bastards before she’d learned to control her temper, but in her opinion, every hit on her record was worth it.
One look at Steve’s face had her groaning and turning red for an entirely different reason. “Even your hearing can’t be that good, Rogers.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and he genuinely sounded it, which only upped the embarrassment more.
“Shit,” Maria said, glad she’d gotten over her thing about cursing in front of Captain America early in their first day together. In addition to her problems with the wonder-twin assassins, now she had to live with the sheer, unending mortification that Steve had heard every word of their argument, including Natasha’s accusation that she’d been flirting with him. She was having a hard enough time figuring out her feelings as it was, and this was much, much worse. So she sighed and didn’t look at him. “You can knock somebody out with that shield of yours, can’t you?”
She could practically hear his smile. “Legend has it I did it to Hitler.”
Maria raised her head to give him a boggled look.
“It’s not true, and I don’t think it would help you much.” Steve shifted, a bit awkwardly. “Do you…do you want to talk about it?”
She didn’t, but the words exploded out of her anyway. “What’s her problem?”
“I was just asking how she was doing, it wasn’t like I was asking her to give up her damned firstborn. I do care, you know? I know I’m Hardass Hill, and hell, most days, I’m proud of that, but that’s not all I am. I have feelings. I care about things other than mission statements and success rates—and she knows that. She’s the Black Widow, she knows all, so she doesn’t have to jump down my damned throat about it.” In a fit of pique, she jumped off of the trunk, scooped up a flat rock from the asphalt, and flung it as far as she could.
Steve’s eyebrows rose when the sound of the rock connecting finally came back to them. “Huh,” he said, clearly impressed.
Maria didn’t blush, thankfully, though she did feel an annoying flutter of pleasure. “Wallace swears I could give Don Meredith a run for his money.”
“Guess your sports coverage so far doesn’t include the Dallas Cowboys. Wallace, on the other hand, is a friend who will be very pissed at me if I don’t get him your autograph because he’s in a hospital while I’m cavorting with Captain America.” Maria sighed and climbed back onto the hood. In addition to her anger, she now felt very foolish for throwing a temper tantrum, no matter how brief, in front of Steve.
“No.” She sighed and rested her chin on her hands. For a long moment, there was nothing but silence, the Oregon night settling around them. The only sounds were crickets, off in the distance, the gentle swoosh of the wind, and Steve’s breathing. “You know, I get it.”
Steve looked puzzled. “Get what?”
“She’s worried about Clint, I get that. But you know, a road trip with her isn’t easy, either.” Maria frowned. “And you don’t see me taking it out on her. I have feelings, too. And you know what? I was just being considerate. That’s what people do. So she’s not being entirely fair.”
“I think I’m better not getting in the middle of this.”
“I can be smart.” He looked up, not at her but at the trees, and she got the feeling he wasn’t seeing anything around them. “I know I wasn’t supposed to overhear anything, but your fight kind of reminded me of how I used to fight with—with my friend Bucky. During the War. Before it some, too, actually.”
“I don’t think Romanoff and I are friends like that, Rogers.”
“Maybe.” Steve shrugged. “But you seem to know how to push each other’s buttons.”
Maria couldn’t deny that. She’d never seen Natasha lose it at another agent, Clint aside. Agent Romanoff was either polite or icy, but she never raised her voice at another agent and if she argued, it was usually a life or death situation.
“Back in the War, we’d all get into scrapes—probably more than they actually have on record, come to think of it—and we’d fight among ourselves, just letting off steam. But Bucky and me, when we fought, the others would clear out. Gabe always said they were lucky there were survivors. It was like we fought because we knew we could say terrible things to each other and have each other’s backs at the end of the day. We’d been through too much not to.”
If she hadn’t witnessed superheroes with oversized egos nearly destroy a Helicarrier with the sheer force of their personalities alone, Maria would have had a hard time believing that Steve was capable of getting into squabbles. “It’s not the same.”
“It’s not?” Steve raised an eyebrow. She’d learned that he had a sneaky sense of humor and a somewhat infuriating habit of being right. She had to bite down the irrational urge to snap at him to butt the hell out of her business, but after his confession about his friend—who was probably dead, Maria realized, just like everybody else the man had known—she lacked the heart.
So she scowled. “Maybe. However it all shakes out, she’s a pain in my ass.”
“But you’re fond of her.”
“I guess. There’s a lot of history there. Retrieving her was my first assignment.”
“We started being friends after—and if you repeat this, I will order R&D to dismantle your shield on a molecular level—she kicked my ass.”
“What’d you do to her first?”
“Nothing intentional,” Maria said, thinking of the long-dead Larisa and the other doomed Red Room subjects. “Anyway, it’s not something either of us wants to talk about. And why the hell am I telling you all of this?”
“Neutral third party?” Steve asked, shrugging.
“For the record, I think you secretly like being friends with Natasha.”
“Shut up,” Maria said. She felt the corners of her lips turn upward on their own and realized with a vague sense of horror that she was actually smiling.
“Yes, ma’am.” Steve made a show of biting his lips.
Maria looked toward the forest. Nothing had blown up, which had to be a good sign. Not for the first time, she wondered about the relationship between Clint and Natasha, if they were as platonic as they claimed. It wasn’t a secret Natasha was likely to share, and Maria didn’t mind. She really didn’t want to know.
Friends or not, though, Maria wasn’t quite ready to forgive her for the line about flirting with Steve, though. She said as much to Steve—mostly to prove it to herself.
He chuckled. “Aw, shucks. I was hoping that part was real.”
Maria did the first double-take she’d done in years.
“What?” Steve asked, looking a little self-conscious. “I’m really bad at flirting. I never recognize it for what it is. So it was nice to, you know, have confirmation.”
“I’m going to kill her,” Maria said under her breath.
Steve hummed. “Good luck with that.”
“And you’re going to be my alibi.”
“Not your accomplice? That’s a relief. I’m pretty sure Natasha could take me.” Steve gave her that little salute again, and in one fell swoop knocked away most of the awkwardness Natasha had introduced between the pair of them with the fight. He leaned back against the rear window of the car, tilting his head to look up at the sky. Thankfully, the stars were putting on quite a show for the evening, which meant Maria only felt a little silly when she mimicked Steve, letting the cold of the window seep through the thin jacket she was wearing.
He was quiet for a minute. “So I’ve been meaning to ask about something. Your arm—she shot you?”
“It was a graze.”
She saw Steve’s nod out of the corner of her eye. “I know a thing or two about being shot at by the people you care for,” he said, and it sounded like there was a story behind it. For a moment, she wondered if he was going to share, but he remained quiet.
She studied the constellations she knew only because she’d been taught to navigate by the stars. There were stories there, but Maria had never bothered to learn them. They didn’t help.
“What happened to your friend Wallace?” Steve asked at length. Maria half-raised herself on one shoulder to give him a surprised look. “You said he was in the hospital.”
“He stepped on an IED. We weren’t sure he was going to wake up, but he’s fine and adjusting to the new foot.” Maria’s laugh didn’t hold much humor. “I’m apparently the wind beneath his wings.”
“That’s a reference I don’t understand, but I’m glad he’s okay. Bucky…he didn’t make it.”
“I’m sorry,” Maria said.
Steve nodded stiffly, and Maria remembered that seventy years, for him, had passed in a blink. It had to be lonely. And first thing he’d done on his own, save for hijacking a Quinjet and a couple assassins to go save the world, had been to take a solo road trip. Maybe breaking down in Fort Collins had been a blessing, and he’d needed people more than he had let on.
The silence stretched out for so long that Maria, entertaining the thought that she was rather melancholy and she didn’t particularly like it, drifted off to sleep.
Of course, it was an arrow that woke her. A plunger arrow, but an arrow nonetheless. It made a sproing noise as it landed three inches from her left ear.
“Dammit, Barton!” She reared to life, gun up. And there they were, standing fifty feet away in the road. Clint had a full beard, his hair longer than Maria had ever seen it. It sat in an untidy nest on his head. There was a quiver at his hip. He was grinning, which was an expression Maria hadn’t seen since before New Mexico. And Natasha, standing next to him with her arms folded over her chest, was smirking.
“What’s the matter, Hill?” Clint said. “Don’t tell me I caught you sleeping on the job.”
“I’m on vacation, damn you.” Maria holstered the gun before it occurred to her that she had fallen asleep out in the open, in the middle of nowhere. Steve was still there, his eyes closed despite the arrow six inches from his right ear. He wasn’t sleeping, though.
“Heard ’em coming,” he said without opening his eyes. “Figured Agent Barton wasn’t going to shoot us.”
“A warning might have been nice,” Maria said, clambering off of the car. She yanked the arrow free of the window. The time on her watch told her she’d been out for a couple of hours. “Why the hell do you even have this arrow?”
“Because, plungers.” Clint took the arrow back. “Miss me?”
“Not as much as Natasha did,” Maria said because she was still annoyed and sometimes she could be petty. Natasha only shrugged in a that’s true way, so Maria turned her attention to Clint. Though there were still bags under his eyes, it seemed like the time away from headquarters had actually done him some good. He seemed less raw, at any rate. She quirked an eyebrow at him. “You ready to stop fooling around and come do actual work?”
“You ready to stop giving me bullshit assignments?”
“Barton, we work for SHIELD. Bullshit is what we specialize in.” She crossed over to her bag, where she’d kept the file she’d brought specifically for Clint. She held it out. “Jasper Swerling, suspected Seventh League terrorist. He’s yours if you want him.”
Clint didn’t move. “Does this mean you’re trusting me again?”
Maria opened her mouth for a scathing retort, but Natasha cuffed Clint on the back of the head. “Don’t be an ass,” she said as he gave her a mock-wounded look. “Take the file.”
“And learn to recognize an olive branch when you see one,” Natasha said.
“She ruins all of my fun,” Clint told Steve. But the archer took the file, though he didn’t flip it open. He did meet Maria’s eye, suddenly serious. “Sorry about the message I left you. I mostly didn’t mean it.”
“I’ve heard worse, but Sitwell has it as his desktop background, so thank you for that.”
Clint’s smile was almost apologetic.
“What message was this?” Steve asked.
“Nothing,” all three of the SHIELD agents said at once.
Clint grinned. “You guys got any gear with you? You should stay for a couple of days, it’s nice.”
Though Steve looked tempted, Maria shook her head emphatically. “Hotel.”
“And a shower,” Natasha said pointedly, elbowing Clint. He made a grumbling noise as Natasha eyed Maria. Maria stared back, still unimpressed. “Actually, gentlemen, if you could wait a moment, I need a word with Hi—with Maria.”
“Plug your ears,” Maria told Steve before she followed Natasha back to the same patch of forest where they’d argued earlier. “He heard all of that before, by the way. Super soldier hearing.”
The fact that Natasha winced made Maria feel better. But the other woman course corrected easily enough by saying, “Doesn’t seem to have hurt the two of you any. You looked pretty cozy when we got back.”
Maria gave her a stare that had once terrified a trainee into spontaneously dropping and giving her fifteen.
“What? I’m just pointing out the obvious.”
“You can be a real asshole sometimes,” Maria said, deciding that if Natasha got to point out the obvious, so did she.
“You’re no picnic yourself.” Natasha, however, stepped back and lifted a hand for peace. “But I’ve been harsh. So I’m sorry for that.”
An apology was really the last thing Maria expected to hear. It made her falter, verbally, and consider what she was going to say next. A sense of guilt arose. “Maybe,” she said, drawing the word out because it tasted her foul in her mouth. “Maybe I hovered a little much. I can see where it would get annoying.”
Natasha nodded, slowly. “You’re forgiven.” Her eyes suddenly gleamed with amusement. “Now that we’ve got that squared away: wanna blame Clint?”
“He’s a good scapegoat,” Maria said, not looking toward the car.
“Done.” Natasha held out a hand.
Maria just gave her a You have got to be kidding me look. “I’m not falling for that again. You’ll have to take me at my word, though it feels nice. Back to normal and to confusing the hell out of each other.”
She didn’t expect the laugh this time. “Are you joking?”
“Why would I be joking?”
“Hill, you’ve had my number from the beginning.”
“Okay, one of us is very confused.”
“You called the knife in my boot, remember?”
“The knife in your…” It took a moment. Finally, it came back: her first mission. There had been a mind-game—one of Clint’s favorites, as he’d repeated it on several trainees—and a show-down, and she’d called that Natasha had had a stiletto blade concealed in her boot. “Oh, my god, Romanoff, that was a bluff.”
“What?” Natasha looked as though suddenly, basic laws and principles of gravity and science no longer made sense. “You were bluffing?”
“I had no idea what the hell I was talking about. I was a rookie, and SHIELD are a bunch of sadists for even sending me on that mission, by the way. So I pulled something out of my ass, and trust me, nobody was more shocked than me when I was right.”
From the darkness, they heard Clint’s throat clear, though he was still by the car. “Have you ladies kissed and made up yet? I’m starting to realize how much I stink.”
“Shut up,” Maria and Natasha called back.
“Guess that’s a no.”
Abruptly, Natasha pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and her forefinger. “You were bluffing,” she said, her voice slow and disbelieving.
“I think I’m a little flattered that I rattled you so much,” Maria said, marveling. She remembered their first meeting but it hadn’t occurred to her that with all of the horrible things Natasha had seen and done, that encounter would stick with the other woman.
“It doesn’t happen much.” Natasha eyed her. “No offense.”
“None taken. But if it’s all the same to you, maybe we could play catch-up in the car. It’s cold, I can’t feel my feet, and Barton’s right, he reeks.”
“I heard that,” Clint called.
“Good. I meant you to,” Maria said. She looked back at Natasha. “We good?”
“Sure,” Natasha said, and they headed back to the car together. They had to tell Steve it was okay it unplug his ears, and fitting Clint’s gear in the already-full trunk was a tight fit, but when they were all piled into her car with the windows down, Maria sat at the wheel, tapping her thumb against it.
“Hey, Hill, are we going anywhere tonight?” Clint asked, nudging the back of her seat with his knee. “I’m good with sitting here and all, but anybody who comes along is going to think we’re out here necking and you know Fury’s not going to let you live it down if there’s a police report about you making out with Captain America.”
Maria laughed, though Steve went as red as a siren. “Shut up, Barton,” she said, turning on the ignition. “Where to?”
“We could head back to HQ,” Natasha said, her voice neutral.
Clint, on the other hand, wrinkled his nose. “Do we have to?”
At this, Steve glanced at Maria, silently echoing Clint’s question. Natasha did the same, and then Clint, until everybody in the car was staring at her. Her word, apparently, was the one they were going to take in this situation.
Maria tapped the steering wheel again. Fury had said to take two weeks, though as much as he had claimed SHIELD could run without her, Maria suspected they were probably missing their deputy director—or at least her sense of precise organization. She was also itching to get back to kicking some ass, if she was being honest with herself.
But being in the car with the others, aimless and shiftless, also felt right.
So she sighed. “Yes,” she said, and Clint’s and Steve’s faces fell. If Natasha were any less controlled, Maria suspected her face would have done the same.
“But,” Maria said, “there’s nothing that says we can’t take the long way back.”
Steve’s face lit up. “I hear there’s great barbecue in the south,” he said.