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the bedrock of america's most important cultural export

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She steps into the shower, hot steam a fog around her. The water running off her skin is pink, and everything smells like copper. Scent burning in her nostrils. “I want to go home,” she says. The shower curtain is a sterile white, and her back muscles are so tight they’re spasming.




The hotel gym is crowded, and the woman on the bench press won't stop staring. She looks back. Smiles. The woman nods and turns her attention to the weights.

She loads another twenty pounds onto the leg press. The brunette lifts a hundred pound free weight in retaliation. There’s a bead of sweat tracking down her neck, and her biceps look harder than rocks.




“Black Widow,” Hill says.

“Agent Hill,” she says.




Her hair smells like chlorine, and the bathroom mirror is fogged. There are five standard magazines scattered over the floor. A bottles of hotel conditioner empty on the counter.

Her bathing suit is dripping onto the floor where it hangs on the shower curtain, and the scent of gunpowder is still lingering in the air.




The business card is printed on heavy cardstock, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s logo centered on white paper. Maria Hill, it reads. Commander. A phone number. Nine digits.

She flips the paper into the effete trashcan and loads her purse with the magazines on the floor of the bathroom. She won't need any souvenirs with the slowly-closing exit wound in her lower thigh.




The plane is air-conditioned, and they make her sit in the back with a cuff on her left hand. Everything smells like hand sanitizer, Commander Hill’s perfume.

“Have a sandwich,” Hill tells her. Holding an array of wrapped sandwiches on a plastic tray.

She grabs a turkey avocado club with her right hand. Unwraps it. The bread is dry, and she swallows an entire half of it in one mouthful without asking for a glass of water. Catches Hill watching her.

“Snake,” Hill says.

She raises an eyebrow.

“They can detach their jaws,” offers Hill, and turns back to the People magazine.

She swallows the other half of her sandwich. There’s a smattering of crumbs on Hill’s black pants.




“Hill,” she says.

“Black Widow,” Hill says.

“It’s Natalia.”




Her shoes squeak on the wooden gym floor, and she cringes at every sound she makes. The room is filled with agents. Hill is lifting on the other side of the room.

“I didn't miss,” Hill tells her. Apparently she hadn't been at her max in Stalingrad. 350 pounds piled into the bench press.

One more rep. Hill sets the bar down. “When I shot you,” she clarifies.

"Prove it,” she says. Picks at a loose piece of foam on the bench press handles.

“You’re a valuable asset, Romanoff.” Hill stands up. The rounded angles of her hips visible under a dark blue tank top. Hill’s nipples are tight under the layer of fabric.

“An asset,” she parrots back. “Prove it.”

Hill’s lips twitch. She motions towards the shooting range. As Hill stands up, she notices the Glock 19 in her leg holster.




She dabs Chance by Chanel onto her wrists, reapplies lipstick, and turns to Hill. There’s a coating of face powder dusting the bathroom mirror. A vat of lavender hand lotion. “Do you have any more magazines?” Apologetic lip-bite. “I don’t have any in my purse.”

“Your accent is sharper when you’re nervous,” Hill says.

She licks her lips. Stale taste of lipstick. “Done this a thousand times, agent.”

“Wasn't talking about the mission, Romanoff.” Hill rummages through her purse.

“We have the same gun,” she says. Pushes herself up onto the counter. Dress rucking up her left thigh.

Hill looks up. Magazine in her right hand. “Glock 19,” she says. “Guess we do.”

When she passes over the magazine, Hill’s hands smell like gunpowder and lavender. Their fingertips brush. She leans forward. Looks up.




“Can I borrow a tampon?” Hill asks. Her eyes are blue in the bathroom mirror. Blood vessels red in the corners. Hands wrapped around the edge of the faux-marble counter.

She looks down at the floor. White tile, speckled with blue. “I don't. Um. Work like that anymore,” she says.

“Oh,” Hill says. Bites the inside of her lip. “That's.”

“Thought you might have seen it in my file.”

“I didn't look,” Hill says. Tugs her hair out its ponytail holder and brushes her bangs off to the side. “That’s your information, I didn't want to-”

“Oh,” she says. Scuffs the toe of her boot on the line of grout between tiles.




“Natalia,” Hill says.

“Hill,” she says.

“It’s Maria.”




The cup of coffee on her desk is so acidic someone could use it to corrode teeth. She wraps her hands around the paper cup holder. Inspects the dark purple polish on her left hand. Her nails are chipping after two days, and she has a still-pink mark on her index finger from target practice.

“Natalia,” says Maria. “Hope you’re enjoying the coffee.” Hill might be smirking. Her bodysuit clings to the muscles in her thighs, and the zipper on the pullover is so low she can see a hint of cleavage.

“It’s excellent,” she says. Picks at a bit of loose skin on her middle finger.

Maria’s lips twitch. Her ponytail swings as she walks away from the desk.




She twists her hair into a bun, pins it in eight different places, and twists the transparent hair net around escaping strands. There’s a layer of highlighter on her cheeks, and the coat of mascara on her eyelashes is so heavy her eyes are closing as she peers into the compact mirror.




The gunshot shatters the window. Glass gleaming everywhere. “Christ,” says Barton.

“Status report?” The microphone crackles.

“We’re fine,” she says. Picks a shard of glass out of her leather bodysuit. “Thanks, Commander.”

She turns off the microphone.

“You like her,” Barton says. Grins.

She shrugs. Ignores him. “I’m thinking about going by Natasha.”

Barton whistles. “Would not like to be the one to do the paperwork for that.”

She brushes plaster dust off of her shoulders. Barton watches, wary. “C’mon. Let’s go punch some people.”




“Maria,” she says.

“Natalia,” Maria says.

“It’s Natasha.”




The bedroom is empty, hints of dust on the windowsill and a security camera mounted in the entryway. A woman’s red stiletto on the floor next to an unmade twin bed. She disables the security camera with an uppercut that goes halfway through the drywall.

“You’re getting messy,” she hears through the comms.

“You’re getting slow,” she tells the room. The room is cold, and she can see the white cloud of her breath in the still air.




She tugs the pins from her hair, rummages through her makeup bag for the cleaner, and swipes at her cheeks. Unzips her dress, lets it slide down. Winces as fabric brushes the road rash on her left ribs. Her bra is backless and comes off when she removes the double-sided tape. The hotel room is quiet, and the window is open. Her nipples pebble in the cold air.

She steps out of the bathroom.

“Hi,” she says.

Maria lifts her head. She’s reclined on the bed, head propped up on the pillow. The covers are rumpled. Purple camisole pushed up over the bump of her hips. “Hi,” Maria says.

She sees Maria’s throat working air down. The sound of spit moving through her mouth.

“Hi,” she says again.




“Natasha,” says Maria.

“Maria,” she says.




The box in her kitchen has fifty mugs in it. Antique silverware.

“We’re combining our assets,” Maria tells her. Arms tense, folded over the countertop. Her breath comes quickly.

“This is the free market system,” she says. Inspects the rim of a Starry Night mug from the Metropolitan Museum. Maria’s hips within the trajectory of vision. “Which I believe in.”


She smiles. Lips tight over teeth.

“If you don't want-” Maria picks up a mug, “-a limited edition Garfield mug, let me know.”

“I think I might have space for them after all,” she says.

Maria’s hands leave the counter. Rest on her hips. “That's good,” she says. Corners of her mouth twitching up.




The umbrella blocks most of the light from their table, but the occasional ray of sun makes its way to their eyes. She’s overdressed, wearing a black leather jacket and aviator glasses. Maria has her hair back in a low ponytail, strands hanging around her ears. She orders cream of mushroom. Pushes her bangs away from her eyes.

“Turkey avocado club,” she tells the waitress.

“Nice choice,” Maria says. Looking over the rims of her Ray-Bans. She drums her fingers over the tabletop.

“Thanks,” she says.

The breeze almost knocks the umbrella over. Maria trails a straw through her Coca-cola, and her sunglasses glimmer in the bright sun. She smiles.

Natasha smiles back.