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A Saucer of Milk

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When Maria Hill first came to S.H.I.E.L.D., she was young and eager and pony-tailed and had some serious hero-worship for Fury. But she also had enough steel in her spine to make the tough calls and keep the big secrets, and she was ascending the chain of command rapidly. So Melinda started taking Hill out for drinks with some of the old-timers, the ones who'd come up with Fury or just behind him, or had been in close quarters with the man. The ones who could tell long stories about his … peculiarities and how they had to be managed in order to keep the S.H.I.E.L.D. train on the tracks.

Hill ate up these stories with a spoon. Her eyes lit up and she asked question after question—smart ones that both flattered and impressed these senior agents and, more importantly, earned their respect. Melinda just watched, unsurprised at how well Hill played the game, and wondered if Hill could tell that Melinda was playing right along. After all, little could help an agent quite as much as having someone in the senior command structure who remembered you fondly as a mentor.

But Melinda wasn't entirely sure the lesson had held until the day that Hill, in response to one of the more junior agents, said, "Trust the system, not the man."

Coulson, who'd also watched the exchange, leaned into Melinda's ear and whispered, "Your heart grew three sizes today, didn't it?"

Melinda didn't give him the satisfaction of a reply, but then, he probably didn't need one.

To say that Melinda was unimpressed with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s latest intake was putting it mildly. When Barton returned—Coulson had been scarce, likely because he feared her disapproval, as well he should—he'd talked up this Romanov in a way Melinda had never heard from him about anyone, even Coulson himself.

"She's better'n me," he'd said, over beer and tacos. "Might even be better'n you."

"Then how'd you catch her?" Melinda had asked.

He'd looked at her like the answer was obvious. "She wanted to get caught."

Now, as she watched Romanov move about the gym (alone, of course; S.H.I.E.L.D. was still keeping her isolated) she wondered if the buzz was wrong, if the reason the "Black Widow" got herself brought in was that she couldn't take it out in the cold. Melinda knew well that looks could deceive, but Romanov didn't move like a predator; she was laying at the center of the mat doing yoga. Well, perhaps she'd lost her protector and was looking for a new one.

"Are you going to come out, May, or are you just going to stand there watching me?" Romanov suddenly asked while casually doing a shoulder stand. "I'd be putting on a better show if I'd known."

No wonder Barton liked her.

"Let's go," Melinda said, coming out of the shadows and onto the mat. "You and me."

"All right," Romanov said, and did a flip that put her back on her feet.

Melinda went in strong, not wanting to waste either of their time; they both knew what was happening here and anyway, Melinda preferred being on the offense. She could tell from her opponent's movements and counter-punches that Romanov was the opposite, liked luring her attackers into a corner and then slipping out of their clutches to deliver a decisive backhanded blow. Very effective, just not against Melinda, who could not be lured. But nor could she gain the real upper hand, so they went on for nearly twenty minutes, landing few blows and evading all holds. Often even experienced agents became impatient, started making mistakes, but Romanov showed no signs of that, and was plainly waiting for her moment to strike—a moment Melinda was certainly not going to give her.

So Melinda leapt backward off the mat.

"Why are you stopping?" Romanov asked.

"I don't think we're getting anywhere," she replied.

Romanov raised her eyebrows. "I can't be tiring out 'The Cavalry,' can I?"

"I don't like to waste time," she replied, not rising to Romanov's bait. "Mine or yours."

"These days all I've got is time," Romanov said, shrugging.

Melinda walked away. "They'll put you to work soon enough."

"Is that your recommendation to Fury?" Romanov asked.

"That's for you to find out," Melinda said, but couldn't help smiling to herself.

"And are you going to lay off Coulson?"

She turned at that. "No," she replied. "It's good for him."

Romanov cocked her head. "I meant, about me. About bringing me in."

Melinda looked her up and down, could sense the emotion behind the words and the overly casual stance, and was glad to see it. Coulson could use a few more loyalists.

"Perhaps," she replied, and walked out of the gym.

Melinda did tell Fury that Romanov should be made a full S.H.I.E.L.D. agent—with proper shadowing and supervision, of course; Melinda wasn't a fool.

As for Coulson, she mostly laid off. Though whenever he was tempted to bring in another stray she was there to remind him that they weren't all like Romanov.

Simmons was just a kid, really. Melinda had trained her in hand-to-hand herself, during her academy days. And once Melinda had withdrawn from the field she'd come across the chemist's name more than once in the official reports she was charged with redacting. Simmons was intuitive, inventive, and never allowed herself to be outshone by her male engineer partner, which was quite a trick; despite the advances of female agents, S.H.I.E.L.D. could be just as much of a boys' club as anywhere else, especially in the labs.

What surprised Melinda once they were in the field together was that Simmons was more resilient than she seemed and unafraid of forging ahead when there was the prospect of discovery. If there was a question, she kept going until she'd answered it. In short, the kid had guts.

Or no discernible sense of self preservation. With S.H.I.E.L.D. agents it was often difficult to tell the difference.

Skye, on the other hand, was nothing like Romanov. She was young, full of herself, had no training and less loyalty—but that was Ward's problem. Melinda kept herself to herself driving the bus, and let Coulson sort out the messes his latest stray was making. If he wasn't going to listen to her advice, then she wasn't going to offer her assistance.

And then Coulson gave her a direct order, because he was just that much of a pain in the ass. Melinda was already a little rattled by miscellaneous other bullshit and did not need some child coming up to her yammering about gratitude and feelings and other things that were in no way part of Melinda's somewhat grudging agreement with Coulson.

If Skye tried to hug her, Melinda refused to be held responsible for her actions.

So when Skye came into the cockpit, Melinda kept her eyes on her instruments and tried not to tense up. She had a plane to fly, and if Skye got in her way then she would be well within her rights to eject her. Even Coulson couldn't have anything to say to that.

Then Skye … didn't say anything. Or at least, not anything much. She sat silently looking out the window for a while before drifting off. When Skye woke up an hour or so later she left and Melinda figured that was the end of it. No one had ever sat in the cockpit with Melinda for an extended period of time—Fitzsimmons were uninterested, Ward complicated, and Coulson only came when he needed to talk himself into whatever decision he'd already made.

But Skye returned. She had her laptop and a sandwich for Melinda, which she silently placed on the console next to Melinda before going to work. Flying to the accompaniment of Skye's fingers softly tapping on her keyboard, and occasional intakes of breath, soft huffs of displeasure or yeses of discovery, was actually quite pleasant. Melinda wouldn't even mind if it happened more often.

Of course, she wasn't about to give Coulson the satisfaction of telling him.