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Diplomatic Relations and Intelligence Failures

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“So, a six inch laceration on your left arm, badly bruised shoulder, bruised tailbone, lacerations on both fists, strained wrist, mild head injury, a dandy little case of frostnip, which isn't nearly as adorable as it sounds, exhaustion and dehydration. Did I miss anything?”

Maria Hill stared at the ceiling of medical. There was a picture of a grumpy looking cat taped there, with a word bubble that read, “For God's sake, stop getting hurt!” It was far more amusing than it should've been.

“I think,” she said after a moment of careful consideration, “that I need to get laid.”

Dr. Anna Garza paused, one dark eyebrow arching. “Okay,” she said at last. “I will admit, I missed that one. In my defense, we haven't yet come up with a definitive medical test for that particular ailment, so, I'm not feeling too bad about it. I can add it to your chart, if you'd like, but it'll be for informational purposes only.”

Maria wondered if the cat was judging her. It probably was. Anna appeared to change the word bubble often, and Maria had seen far too many of them. “What, you can't do anything about it?”

“I'm flattered, but all I can offer you is a particularly strong prescription. As a token of my gratitude.” Anna threw herself into the nearby visitor's chair. She looked tired, her skin drawn tight over her prominent cheekbones. She kicked off her shoes. “I question your taste, but I'm flattered. Not interested, you understand. But flattered.”

Maria allowed herself the faintest twitch of a smile. “I wasn't hitting on you.”

“Well, in that case, you can make do with a heavy dose of ibuprofen,” Anna said without missing a beat. “Should've kept your mouth shut.”

“Story of my life.” Maria let her eyes close. Everything ached. She shouldn't have stopped, shouldn't have let herself come to rest. Now it was the weight of everything was bearing down on her, and she wanted to scream. Or sob. Not that she'd ever allow herself either.

“Your life story seems painful and violent,” Anna said. “I'd worry about that, if I were you.”

“Your bedside manner is lousy, has anyone ever told you that?”

“Only the ones who annoy the hell out of me.” She reached for her coffee cup, staring down into the depths with a suspicious look. “You want sympathy and gentle understanding? Go down to the damn psych department, they get paid to put up with this shit. Me? I'm here to keep your squishy, blood filled bits inside your body and functioning properly.”

“You do it well.”

Anna toasted her with the styrofoam cup. “Damn straight.” With the mien of a gunslinger facing down a desperado, she tossed back the remainder of the coffee, and began coughing almost immediately. “Dios mio, that's vile.” She flipped the cup towards the trash. “So, what's wrong, Agent Hill?”

Maria's lips twitched. “Thought you weren't part of the psych department.”

“I'm not.” Anna gave her a shrug. “But we've got a couple of seconds of downtime, and you seem to want to talk to someone. And the good thing about being in the medical department? I'm not above you or below you. I'm outside of the chain of command, on some level. I'm not saying I'm at your paygrade, but neither am I a direct report.” Despite the flippant words, her gaze was level and calm. “So? You wanna talk? We can talk, you and me, and it doesn't have to be a thing.”

Maria shook her head. “Thank you,” she said, and it sounded too polite, too precise, even to her own ears. “But that's not necessary.”

“Okay,” Anna said. She didn't get up. She didn't take it back. She just reached for Maria's medical file and flipped through the pages, making a notation here and there as the silence stretched.

“Don't you ever just-” Maria let her head fall back. “Just want to forget about everything and have grinding, hot, burn the bed up sex?”

Anna chuckled. “Not really my thing,” she said.

“Well, then, what do you do for fun?”

Anna tossed Maria's medical file to the side. “Ponder the mysteries of the universe. Mostly, I attempt to figure out what's keeping Tony Stark's ribcage in one piece.”

That startled a laugh out of Maria. “Yeah? Drawn any conclusions?”

“Not as of yet, but I'm pretty sure it involves stubbornness and a complete denial of accepted rules of medical science.” Her fingers drummed out an easy rhythm. “When's the last time you had a whole weekend off, Maria?”

She had to think about that, and thinking about it was depressing. “I don't even know,” she admitted at last. “I don't think I'd know what to do with a weekend off. Do any of us know what to do with ourselves when we're not doing, well, this?” Her head tipped forward. “What do you do?

Anna grinned. “What do I do, when I'm not working? I have a book club. We meet every other week, on Tuesdays. Week one is serious literature, fussy books about real subjects, deep, meaningful books. Alternate Tuesdays are margaritas the size of our heads and reading bad romance novels aloud. We're currently focusing on the paranormal genre, so werewolves and vampires and faeries and all that shit.” She braced one elbow on the edge of the prep table and leaned her cheek against her fist. “I'm told that my renditions sound like a stewardess auditioning for a phone sex line, it's a point of pride.”

“I can see why it would be,” Maria said, and that did not come out sounding sarcastic. Trashy romance novels weren't really her thing, but right about now? It sounded pretty good. Margaritas sounded even better. Straight tequila sounded best.

“Bowling league on Sunday afternoons,” Anna continued. “I volunteer at a local homeless shelter, and do free medical care at a shelter for victims of domestic abuse a couple of times a month. I have a dog. Nice dog, dumb as a post and very sweet about it. I love him despite myself.”

Maria stared up at the grumpy cat on the ceiling. Damn judgmental cat. “What do you do with him when there's trouble?”

“There's a family that lives next door to me, single mom, couple of boys. They check up on him when I can't get home. Do a good job, too. Walk him, play with him, make sure he's fed and cleaned up after. I've got them on retainer, so between the two of them, he's always taken care of.” One foot tapped at the gleaming tile floor. “It's nice to know that he's safe, even if I get caught up in something.”

“Aren't you lonely?” Maria asked, and she wasn't sure why, but this felt like the longest she'd talked to someone about anything other than work in forever. Like she was trying to figure out conversation again, and it was awkward and strange and uneven.

“Everyone's lonely sometimes,” Anna said. “But I have friends. People I can go to movies with, and watch tv with, and go Christmas shopping with. This-” She waved her hand at the room. “Is very intense. Reading people, dealing with people, babying and bullying and being part primary care physician, part emergency room surgeon, part policeman? It's tiring. Sometimes, ironically, I want to go somewhere where no one knows my name.”

“There's a dive bar I know in Jersey,” Maria said. “It's horrible. I go there.”

“That is pathetic, Hill. Seriously. I expected better of you. You're driving to Jersey for sleazy bar conditions?”

Maria shrugged. “No one else goes that far. No chance of running into another agent.” Running into people outside of work seemed awkward. On some level, she suspected that most of them thought she didn't leave. Mostly, she didn't. And when she did, she wanted to get as far away as she could manage.

“Point taken.” Anna leaned forward, bracing her elbows on her knees. “Is it worth it?”

“Probably not.” Maria pushed herself upright, ignoring the twinges of pain from both her hands. “It's a long trip, and everything's the same when I get back. There's no escaping the fact that my job is my life. Spouse, lover, best friend.” Most of the time, she was proud of that. She was good at her job. It was a job that almost no one else could do. She knew her capabilities, her worth, the lasting legacy she was leaving behind.

Sometimes, though, it was damn cold comfort, the fact that she was good at what she did. Sometimes, she just didn't care.

“Jobs tend not to put out much. And when they do, it's never in a safe, sane and consensual manner,” Anna said. “Have you considered a human partner?”

“Wonderful idea.” Maria gave her a look. “And where do you suppose I'd find a partner? Because Match.com doesn't list security clearances. Which is important, because anyone who's cleared to have an actual discussion with me is already employed by a federal agency or foreign government, and most of them can't be trusted anyway. I'm certainly not sleeping with anyone at SHIELD, that opens up issues that I'm not willing to deal with.

“So I need someone who isn't a security risk, who isn't concerned about my boss calling me at all hours of the day and night, or the fact that I haven't had a vacation in six years, or my insane work schedule, or that I might have to take a break mid-coitus to go punch a Frost Giant in the face.”

“Ah, so that's what happened to your hand,” Anna mused. “Consider tools next time. Tools help you not break your damn hand.”

“I'll keep that in mind.”

“As to the other? There are ways, Maria.”

“It's not going to happen,” Maria said, exhausted and aching. “And that is a crying shame. I'm not looking for true love here, I just want someone who can put up with my life and is occasionally up for some hot times in bed. It doesn't seem all that much to ask.” She sounded mournful in the sort of way that should've involved country music or at the very least a lot of whiskey.

Anna reached for her prescription pad. “I'm just going to write you out a couple of things here,” she said. “For once in your life, get it filled.”

With a flick of her wrist, she pulled the sheet free of the pad and handed it over to Maria, who stared down at it, not sure what she was looking at. “Why?” she asked, her voice flat.

“They're only available as medical devices in some states!” Anna grinned down at her prescription pad. She was still writing. It was worrisome. The chortling was even more worrisome. Maria worked with Nick Fury. Chortling was a sound that never came to any good in her world.

“Is this one of these states?”

“No, New York has a sex shop on every corner, go wild.”

“Then why-”

“Better to be prepared. Also, the idea of writing out a prescription for a dildo makes my grinding years of medical training and military service worth it.” Anna tucked the pad in her pocket, grinning the whole time. “What were you expecting, narcotics?”

“Where would I even get a prescription for a dildo filled?' Maria asked her, mildly amused now.

“It's an approved medical device,” Anna said, ignoring the question. “Or maybe a vibrator? Those tend to be non-judgmental and don't care about being ignored during global crises.”

“You know what? Thank you.” Maria picked up her jacket. “Really. This has been enlightening.” She took a deep breath, ignoring how much that hurt her ribs. She pressed a hand against her side, and the pressure helped. At least a little. “I think I'll just swear off sex, trying for it is getting depressing.”

“Maria?” She turned back to find Anna smiling at her, just a little. “Take it from someone who knows? Trying to be something you're not, it's wearing and it's horrible and it robs you of your personhood. You are who you are. There's nothing wrong with that.” She spread her hands wide, her fingers long and delicate and vibrant against the white surfaces and the low light of the medbay. “You want to get laid? Do it. This job isn't enough to sustain anyone. Not forever. Not the way we want it to.”

“I wish it was that easy.” Maria shrugged into her jacket, fastening it with fingers that ached, but it was good. It was an extra support, wearing the uniform. She knew who she was, in this, she knew what she had to do. She knew what needed to be done, and she did it. It was a support, and it was a crutch, and she hated herself sometimes for being more comfortable in it than out. She took a breath, ignoring the draw on her ribs. “But you know, if it falls through...”

“You're always welcome at my book club.” Anna grinned. “Next week's selection is What Do You Say To a Naked Elf?” Maria gaped at her, and she laughed. “It's better than the title suggests.”

“It cannot possibly be worse than the title suggests,” Maria said. She smoothed her hair down. “Thanks, though. For the invitation.”

“Any time, boss lady. Remember. Margaritas the size of your head and a bunch of medicos who have no idea who you are, and even if they did? They wouldn't give a damn. Bring pastry and you're in.” Garza checked her watch. “Aaaaand I have a standing appointment to catch Barton before he can violate the privacy and sanctity of our air ducts in a vain attempt to escape my fiendish clutches, so I'm off. If you see Coulson in the halls, could you send him up?”

“Will do.” Before either one of them could move, the blare of an alarm rocked the building. Maria's teeth snapped together when the screech amplified the ache in her skull. The communicator in her ear chirped, and she raised her fingers to it. “This is Hill, go ahead,” she said, already running for the door.

“We have a new wave of invaders, ma'am,” the voice came back, and she bit back a curse.

“Numbers?”

“Roughly sixty, but new portals are opening,” Agent Patel said, her voice calm, controlled. “Coordinates uploading.”

“Understood. Dispatch response teams, let's get Stark, Rogers and Thor in the air as soon as we can.”

“Copy that, ma'am. The Asgardian delegation are already on the ground facing the first wave and Stark and Rogers are en route.”

“Good, get Romanov in a jet and give her a team, Banner and Barton are out of play.” Maria was running full out, and she knew, without even looking back, that Anna was on her heels, just as fast, just as determined. “Keep Hawkeye grounded,” she snapped. “Put a needle in him if you've got to, but-”

“You take care of the bad guys, leave my patients to me.” With a sharp salute, Anna was gone, running down the corridor, her white coat like wings in her wake. Agents and medical staff alike darted out of her way, but she didn't even slow down, yelling orders as she went.

Maria gritted her teeth and headed for the flight deck. This was getting tedious.

*

“Why do we still have civilians here?”

Agent Richardson gave Maria a flat, unimpressed look. “Because the citizens of New York are idiots?” she said.

“No, the citizens of New York are JADED,” Maria said. She checked the clip of her pistol and shook out her shoulders.

“Also, idiots, ma'am,” Richardson said, running a hand over her close cropped black hair. She had a nasty looking scrape on one high cheekbone, but her big brown eyes were clear.

“We try not to call the citizens of New York idiots,” Maria told her. “At least not in front of them.” She slipped her service weapon back into her holster. “Take the west side, push our area of containment back another twenty-five yards. Clear them all out, if I see one more idiot with a cell phone trying to get YouTube footage, I'm going to start handcuffing them.”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“And Agent Richardson?” Maria waited until Richardson met her eyes, and gave the woman a slight smile. “Try not to hurt anyone.”

Richardson grinned. “Yes, ma'am.” Waving a hand over her head, she headed off at a light jog. “Michaels, Estrella, you're with me,” she called.

The comm unit in Maria's ear chirped, and she took a deep breath, knowing what was coming.

“Incoming attackers, portal locations unconfirmed,” the dispatcher said, her voice calm and even. “Sweeper teams are in motion, all agents, prepare to engage. Avengers are in place, Asgardian teams are taking perimeter positions. All SHIELD personnel, snap flares before engaging any hostiles.”

“Casualty report,” Maria said, her eyes sweeping the landscape, watching for any sign of movement.

“Stand by.” A brief pause, and then, “Medical reports minimal injuries, two serious, seven minor, six agents removed from active duty at this point. Hawkeye is stabilized and sedated, Iron Man has been released on his own recognizance.”

Maria huffed out a breath. “Of course he has.” She'd done the same thing, but she was slightly more trustworthy than Stark. At least, she liked to tell herself that she was.

A scream came from her left, and she bit out a curse. “I want every civilian out of this area now,” she snapped out, already running. “I do not care if we have to carry them, if they're not carrying SHIELD id, a sword, or an Avengers membership card, I want them out. Now!” She cleared the path and went over the small ridge, her booted feet slipping and skidding as she did a controlled descent down the hill. “Point team, to my location, double time!”

She was still rather stymied by the fact that ice could breathe. That she could see the flex and stretch of what should be a ribcage, what should be a body, if, that was, if something was a living organism. Having something that seemed animalistic, seemed alive, formed from ice was still disconcerting. But she was pretty sure that dealing with the disconcerting was in her job description by now.

Maria wasn't sure what it was, what it was supposed to be, but a bear might've been the best equivalent her brain could find. It was a hulking, monstrous thing, all brutal promise and thick weight held above the ground by paws the size of dinner plates. Crackling, shattering ice covered it, flaking with each movement, spikes like damp fur along the full length of the body. As she slid down, its massive, heavy head twisted in her direction, maw gaping wide, teeth flashing in the streetlamps. Its eyes were dark holes hollowed from the skull, but she had no doubt at all that it could see her.

It charged, and Maria bit back a curse. Falling back into firing position without a thought, she let muscle memory carry her into place, her feet braced, her shoulders back, her arms up. She steadied the grip of her pistol with the flat of her hand. “Run,” she said, and the two young men ran, tempting little targets for the marauding thing that had, for the moment, turned its attention on Maria.

She liked to think it knew a threat when it saw one, and the two idiot boys, clutching their smart phones like lifelines, could easily be tracked down and picked off later. For now, it thundered towards Maria, its weight and its roar shaking the ground beneath her feet. She barely noticed.

Maria'd fought them before. A couple of times. She'd learned, and she'd learned fast. A bullet wouldn't do a damn bit of good from this distance. She sucked in a breath, and another, the steam of her breath wreathing her face as the tremors got worse, until she could feel the vibrations of the ground in her bones. She let her lips curl up, just the tiniest bit, just the smallest smirk. “C'mon,” she whispered. “Come and get me.”

There was a roar as it launched itself into the air, all ungainly angles and the crackling sound of ice collapsing to stone, and Maria waited an instant, and another, until all she could see was the black hole of its mouth, surrounded by viciously sharp teeth, then she fired.

Six shots, quick succession, as fast as the weapon was capable of getting them off, the shots going right as she rolled left, nailing holes in its jaw, its neck, its eye. It crashed down to the pavement next to her, so close that she could feel the cold of its body, and it howled. Tossing its head, it lunged again, and Maria rolled, avoiding the snap of the jaws. Lashing out with one booted foot, she cracked the side of its skull, and when it reared back in pain, she put a bullet right in the flaw.

It shattered, head first, chunks of ice the size of fists rattling to the ground. She rolled again, out of reach, avoiding the hailstones and waiting, still braced, her weapon still ready, until the last of the creature collapsed into a heap of icy slag.

Dizzy, exhausted, Maria slumped backwards, just for a moment, just for a second. She needed to rest. She needed to breathe.

“Are you injured?”

Maria's eyes flew open, and she realized, almost too late, that she'd brought her pistol up, too. Sif crouched down next to her, apparently unconcerned about having a gun in her face. “Agent Hill? You are unhurt?” She slammed the tip of her sword into the sidewalk, resting her hand easily on the hilt. The blade bit into the stone without any apparent effort, slicing through the concrete as if it were turf.

“Yes, thank you.” Maria lowered her pistol and pushed herself up with her free hand. “I-”

Sif's hand came down on her shoulder, firm and steady. “Still yourself,” she said, smiling. “Hogun and I took care of the last of them. Thor and the Man of Iron are making certain none escaped our reach, but for now, it seems we may have a moment of reprieve.”

Maria thought about arguing, and couldn't work up the energy. “Good.” She folded herself around one upraised knee, stretching out her back. “Still clean up to be done.”

“And 'tis being done.” Sif's head tipped towards the approaching agents, a phalanx of them who had appeared in Maria's wake to push the control zone back. Sif smiled, her dark eyes missing nothing. Her long, dark ponytail swung over her shoulder, coming to rest on the gleaming expanse of her armor. “Let another do it, for once.” She turned back to Maria, her lips curling up. “Tis no shame in gathering your strength when you can; there is never any way to tell how short our respite will be.”

“Yes, but-” The comm unit in her ear clicked, and she gave Sif a faint smile. “Excuse me, please.” Raising her fingers to her ear, she said, “Hill here, go ahead.”

“Doctor Strange reports that they have located a way to close the remaining portals,” dispatch said. “Closure estimated in nine minutes and counting.”

“Understood. We hold containment. Keep the teams moving, we don't clear the field until we are certain that the streets are sanitized.”

“Copy that, agents are being scrambled for final clean-up.”

Maria turned to Sif, who was waiting patiently, her head up, her eyes narrowed on the horizon, her armor gleaming. “Looks like we're going to get to sleep tonight, after all,” Maria told her, bringing Sif's attention back around.

Sif's teeth flashed in a grin, wide and bright. “Many a warrior would take such as a blessing,” she said. Her hand flicked up, rolling the sword hilt in her palm. “It is one we get so seldom, a night of peaceful rest.”

“And yet,” Maria said, checking her sidearm and her equipment with quick, efficient movements, “too many peaceful nights and I start worrying about what's out there that I'm missing.” Her shoulders rose in a quick shrug. “Occupational hazard, I suppose.”

“Every sentinel concerns herself with that which hovers just beyond the reach of her vision,” Sif said.

“The good ones, at least,” Maria agreed.

“The ones that live beyond their first watch,” Sif said, and that startled a laugh out of Maria. Sif grinned along with her. “It is an important distinction, after all.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.” Maria inclined her head. “If you'll excuse me, I've got agents to check on, and a scene to secure.”

“Agent Hill?” Sif fell into step beside her, her long legs carrying her along with easy grace. “You are well skilled, but these beasts fall more easily when flanked.”

Maria glanced at her, a reluctant smile curling her lips. “Are you inviting yourself along, Lady Sif?”

“Just Sif will suffice, should it please you.” Sif grinned at her, and there was something open and honest and almost bubbly about this woman. There was a directness to the way she moved, speed and grace and power melded into something that made her just as much of a weapon as the gleaming sword in her hand. But despite that, there was a bounce to her steps, an almost girlish eagerness and and enthusiasm. Despite her height and her impressive figure, and it was quite impressive, not that Maria had been looking, that would be rude, but despite all that, Sif had a certain sweetness to her.

Which was easy to overlook when she was separating a monster's head from it's neck with a single powerful swing of her blade. That was pretty damn impressive as well.

“Your people acquit themselves well,” Sif said, shifting her shield higher on her arm. It caught the streetlights, the silver surface gleaming in the darkness. “They are well trained, and disciplined.”

Maria let herself smile, just a little. “Thank you,” she said. She heard the pride in her voice and didn't make any effort to hide it. Her eyes slid sideways. “Coming from you, that's quite the compliment.”

Sif's mouth curled up. “I can do better than that, should I be given the opportunity.” From somewhere in the distance, there was a howl, high and bright and sharp, and Sif's eyes rolled. “That would be Volstagg, and he's found battle, it would seem,” she said, her head shaking just a bit. “I must take my leave, Agent Hill.”

“Do you need backup?” The words were out of her mouth before Maria could remind herself of how stupid they were. As much as it grated, the Asgardians were here to assist SHIELD, but in the end, the four of them, and Thor, could well have handled the entire situation themselves. Maria's agents could've well been reduced to crowd control.

Sif paused. “No, but you do me honor with the offer.” She paused, and her face was flushed with the cold, or with excitement, but her eyes were clear and bright. “I admire your skills, Agent Hill, you have a fierce way about you. You would be welcome by my side at any time.”

Maria felt her face flush, surprise overtaking her usual reserve. “Thank you. And it's Maria.”

Sif grinned, her face beautiful with it. “You honor me.” With a flicker fast move, she resheathed her sword and reached for her belt. “If ever you have wish of my company, I should be pleased to offer it.”

Maria opened her mouth, but before she could figure out what she was supposed to say to that, Sif was pulling a knife from her belt. She tossed it in the air and caught it neatly by the blade, offering it hilt-first to Maria. Maria took it, the movement instinctive as her fingers closed around the knife's grip. It was perfectly sized for her hand, light and beautifully constructed.

“Keep yourself safe,” Sif said, redrawing her sword. “And I look forward to our next meeting.” With that, she took off, running in the direction of the sounds of battle, her blade held high, her shield gripped firm, and her long ponytail waving in her wake like a war banner. In an instant, she was into the darkness and out of sight.

Maria stared down at the blade in her hands. “Okay,” she said, a faint ache starting behind her temples. “I have no idea what to do now.”

*

“Agent Romanov!”

Natasha slowed down, letting Maria catch up to her. She shifted her weight, her gun case over her shoulder, a file under her other arm. “Agent Hill?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Walk with me for a moment?” Hill asked, her voice pitched low.

Natasha felt a lick of surprise roll through her head, but knew better than to let it show by so much as a flicker of an eye. “Yes, ma'am.” She fell into step with Hill, weighing the other woman's behavior. Hill had a damn fine poker face, when she chose to employ it. Most of the time, she didn't. Once Maria had made up her mind, she didn't care what anyone else cared about it. She could be relied upon to follow orders under all circumstances, but she could also be relied upon to register her feelings of the matter early and often.

It was part of why Natasha didn't mind working with her. If she was being perfectly honest with herself, she enjoyed Hill's mix of military precision, strict obedience to policy, and withering disdain for stupidity.

Maria led the way to her office, holding the door open for Natasha and shutting it firmly behind her. Natasha arched an eyebrow, and Maria waved a hand at her visitor chair. “Have a seat, Agent.”

Natasha set the gun case and the folder on Hill's desk, a not so subtle reminder of the fact that she had, in fact, been on her way somewhere, and then sank into the chair.

Hill slumped into her own chair, and opened up the top drawer. A moment later, she was dropping an ornate knife into the middle of her blotter. “One of the Asgardians gave this to me,” she said, skipping the pleasantries. “I've been through the protocol files. We have nothing on this sort of unofficial gift. Previously, all gifts have been formally presented from one of the ruling body, to someone in the chain of command.”

Natasha leaned forward, her eyebrows creeping up. “May I?” she asked, her fingers gesturing at the blade, and Maria nodded. Natasha slipped her fingers around the handle, learning the grip before she lifted it from the desk. It was amazingly light for it's size, the metal intricately worked against the hilt and the seam of the blade. Natasha shifted her grip, and it felt natural and right in her hand. “Excellent workmanship,” she said, letting the light roll over the knife's edge.

“And very sharp.” Maria leaned back in her chair, rubbing her forehead. Natasha glanced at her, and Hill held up her left hand, where a thin red line bisected her index finger.

“Not like you to be clumsy with your weapons,” Natasha said.

Maria huffed out a quick laugh. “You have an alien warrior hand you a knife in the middle of an active battlefield and see if you don't fumble it at least once.”

“No sheath?” Natasha asked, setting it carefully back on the desk.

“No sheath.”

Natasha nodded. “But a gift, and not an insult. Not a challenge?”

“The giver seemed perfectly cheerful about the giving,” Maria said. “But maybe that's what the Asgardians look like when they challenge someone. I don't know.”

“You want me to speak to Thor about what the protocol is here?”

“In as subtle a manner as possible.”

Natasha arched an eyebrow. “Subtle is not often something that can be achieved with Thor,” she said, biting back a smile.

“How do you live with him?” Maria asked. She rubbed her forehead with tense fingers. Before Natasha could reply, she dropped her hand to the desk. “No. How do you live with any of them?”

Natasha considered that. “Once you get used to them,” she said, feeling the smile curve her lips, “they're not that bad.” Maria stared at her, and Natasha shrugged. “As it turns out, you can get used to just about anything, no matter how unbelievable that might seem.”

“It is unbelievable.”

“In some ways,” Natasha said, “it's easier.” At Maria's disbelieving look, she added, “It's like having a constant babysitter for Clint.”

Maria blinked at her. “You leave him alone with them?” she asked, deadpan. “I think we might have to reassess your guardianship of him.”

“With due respect, ma'am,” Natasha said, “you don't have anyone else who'll take him.” Allowing herself a small smile, she stood. “I'll see what I can find out for you.”

“Thank you, Agent Romanov. Your assistance is greatly appreciated.”

Natasha arched an eyebrow. “But if this is off the record-”

Hill waved her off, her lips twitching. “Yes, I know, I owe you one.”

“As long as we understand each other,” Natasha said. Inwardly, she smiled. She enjoyed having favors outstanding, just waiting to be called in. It was so convenient.

*

“What, exactly, is that smell?”

Darcy chewed enthusiastically on her lower lip. “One third the best of Stark's liquor cabinet, one third those really excellent doner kabobs from that place in midtown-”

“These are most excellent!” Sif held up her pita, grinning wide and bright. She licked a bit of sauce off of the inside of her wrist. She was wearing one of Darcy's exercise outfits, and it was about three sizes too small. She made it work though, even if the yoga pants were at her knees and the tank top bared about six inches of toned, perfect stomach. “A feast fit for any warrior!”

“Yes, they are. And the last third,” Darcy said, leaning back and holding up one half-painted foot. She wiggled her toes. “Is the best nail polish available under current federal standards.” She gave the bottle a quick shake. “You want in on this? We got, uh, Crimson Cowl, Blizzard, Blacklash...” She glanced at Jane. “What do you have over there?”

Jane tucked her feet up under her. Her ragged cut off sweat pant shorts and one of Thor's t-shirts were both too big and she swam in them, perfectly happy to be lost in a sea of warm, soft boyfriend fabric. The neckline of her shirt slid down over her shoulder as she sorted through the bottles. “Sunset Bain, Firebrand, Grey Gargoyle, Shockwave?”

“These things have stupid names,” Darcy said. She grinned up at Natasha, who was now standing over her, one hand propped on her hip, her hair a perfect wave of red over one brow. “Why do they all have such stupid names?”

Natasha picked up a bottle of Crimson Cowl. “Deadlines,” she said with a faint smile. “And likely drugs.” She rotated the bottle in the light, letting the light play over the polish. “It's a good color, though.”

Darcy held up a hand, where the deep, gleaming red lacquer covered her fingernails. “I think it suits me.” She made claws with her fingers. “Second only to the blood of my enemies!”

Laughing, Natasha patted her lightly on the head. “Well said.” She took a seat with a faint sigh. “Why are are we painting nails and drinking tonight?”

“Because cake is fattening,” Darcy said. “And we don't have any.”

“It was a difficult day,” Jane said, the tip of her tongue sticking out as she squinted at her fingernails. “All around.” Her bright eyes flicked up. “But I wanted to get cake.”

“Course you did, skinny britches,” Darcy said, and ducked when Jane kicked at her. “Fine! We'll get the damn cake, it's New York, you can get cake in the middle of the night. Why are you so crazy?”

“You keep talking, that's why I'm crazy, what else would it be?”

“Thor,” Sif said, her eyes dancing, and Jane stabbed a finger in her direction.

“Truer words have never been spoken. Thor, Thor is why I am so crazy,” she said, rolling her eyes. “No insult, Sif, but he is a pain in the ass sometimes, really, don't get me wrong, I love him, I do, but-” She ran out of words and grabbed the bottle of vodka that she'd been nursing all evening. She just dumped the rest of it into her glass. “Sometimes I want to strangle him.”

Natasha slanted a glance in Darcy's direction, who was already shaking her head. “That bottle had like two inches in it when she started,” she said under her breath. “Sometimes Jane just likes to feel like she's more of a baddass than she really is.”

“Not all of us can be lushes,” Jane told her, already in sustained pout. She tossed back a swallow of booze and promptly started coughing.

“Yeah, some of us are always going to be a cheap date,” Darcy said sweetly. “Now that you've killed the bottle, you crazy baddass biker chick, try not to get nail polish on your face.”

“You are horrible,” Jane told her, her face flushed and her breathing ragged. She slumped back into the couch, her lower lip stuck out in a pout.

“Yeah, I need to get laid,” Darcy said, yawning. "I'm considering finding a nice girl. And by 'nice girl' I mean not at all a nice girl."

"On average, Darce, women are too smart to get involved with you," Jane said, and Darcy decided to let her live, despite the patent unfairness of that statement.

"I'm not looking for average,” she said, arch about it. “I'm looking for 'not male,' and we can go from there."

Sif chuckled. "Have the charms of the men around you worn thin, then?"

"No, it's that once they realize where I live, their balls fall off," Darcy said. She bounced one leg in mid-air, half-heartedly trying to get her nails to dry. She wiggled her toes, checking the finish. "It's getting to be frustrating."

"How does where you live affect your potential romantic partners?" Sif asked, curious. She finished her pita in a couple of quick bites, managing to look both feminine and also adorable with chipmunk cheeks as she chewed and swallowed. “Let alone their private parts?”

"It's got nothing to do with where she lives," Jane said before Darcy could even open her mouth. Darcy glared at her, and Jane gave her a smirk. "It's got everything to do with who she lives with."

"Being wary of who she lives with is a sign of good sense, and practicality," Natasha said, pouring herself a shot into a mostly clean glass and stealing one of Darcy's fries. She settled down in the nearest unoccupied chair, idly considering the various nail polish bottles.

"And no girl was ever looking for 'good sense' when she set out to get laid. Hot. Built. Clever with his tongue, sure. But no one has ever sat in a bar going, 'Damn, I bet that guy has good sense,'” Darcy said. Her head rolled back. “'Look at the practicality on that guy. Bet he makes sound decisions all night long.'”

“Stop being tacky,” Jane told her, but she was smiling down at her nails. Darcy stuck her tongue out.

“You got laid. Now, if you could please keep your gigantic boytoy out of my love life, that would be great.”

Sif's eyes darted between them, consideration clear on her face. "Has Thor caused you consternation?" she asked, her lips turning up.

“No,” Jane said, at the same time Darcy said, “Yes!”

Natasha chuckled. “Darcy is adjusting to the nosiness of certain of her housemates.”

“Ah,” Sif said. Her eyes danced. “So, you are saying that Thor desires that you have a romantic partner who is worthy of you?”

"Thor is a nightmare of a cockblock, that's what I'm saying."

"Thor is very protective of you," Jane chided. She blew lightly on her fingernails, and held them up to the light before she reached for the bottle of nail polish. "I think it's sweet, and you should be nicer to him."

Darcy gave her a look. "You are kidding me, right? You are joking."

Jane's shoulders rose and fell in a smug little shrug, and she looked down the length of her nose at her fingernails. "I'm just saying that he cares about you and your happiness, and that's-"

"Do you know what he did?" Darcy said to Sif, ignoring Jane now, because Jane was clearly crazy. "Do you have any idea what he did?"

"Not at all," Sif said.

"I had a date. A very nice date with a very nice man."

"He was a condescending asshole," Jane said under her breath, but still more than loud enough for everyone to hear her. Darcy stared at her, her mouth pursed up tight, and Jane glanced up. "What?" she said, trying for innocence. “He was, Darce, he was a dick."

"ANYWAY," Darcy said, her head rolling back in Sif's direction, "I thought, foolish of me, really, but I thought I could meet him out front, and when he comes to pick me up, Thor comes down and just stands there, being Thor." She spread her hands. “And when I say, 'comes down?' I do not mean he took the elevator. I mean, he did that crashing to earth thing that he and Stark enjoy doing. The thing that leaves dents in the sidewalk? I bet the city is billing him for that, don't you think?” she asked Natasha.

“I wouldn't try it if I were them, but you're probably right.”

"He was just trying to help," Jane said.

"He was wearing the armor, Jane. He was wearing the FULL ARMOR, including that helmet thing of his, the really threatening armor with pointy bits, and the cape, and he had the damn hammer." Darcy slashed at the air with a bright red nail polish brush. "The hammer! Don't tell me that was accidental."

Sif was struggling to keep a straight face, one hand held delicately in front of her mouth. "He means no harm," she said.

Natasha gave a very ladylike little snort. "He means a great deal of harm," she said.

"My date took one look at him, standing there, crackling, and the guy took off running. He didn't even speak to me! He just ran!" Darcy stared at the ceiling. “Took off like a jackrabbit.”

"Pretty sure he's still running," Jane said, and she sounded pleased with that. "By now, he's probably hit the Canadian border, and he is still running."

"He ran directly into New York traffic," Natasha pointed out. "He might not have lived that long."

"My point is," Darcy said, "is that I am never going to get another male date again. Not as long as I live in this hive of heroism and virtue."

"Now, Darce," Jane said, laughing, and Darcy cut her off.

"No. Seriously. I work for SHIELD. And the majority of SHIELD is rather wary of Clint and terrified of Natasha," Darcy pointed out. "Despite the fact that Natasha is a reasonable and intelligent woman who will let me choose my own dates.”

“True,” Natasha said. She considered her nails. “Also, I've given you the tools to take care of your own problems, it would be disrespectful for me to assume you needed me to give anyone the shovel talk.”

“Shovel talk?” Sif asked.

“I have a shovel, and no one will care if you go missing,” Jane said. “Or words to that affect.”

“Ah!”

“Clint doesn't even hesitate,” Darcy said, morose. She kicked out with one foot, idly imagining Clint on the other end of her heel. “Like, he is not my brother, he is not my father, he's not my boyfriend, so I don't see what business it is of his.”

“In his defense, Darcy, he was your bodyguard slash guardian slash prison guard for months in New Mexico,” Jane said. She sounded insufferably smug for no good reason; it wasn't Darcy's fault that the average SHIELD agent was a giant wuss who couldn't handle their alcohol. “At some point, it's possible that he imprinted on you or just became convinced that it was his God-given duty to keep you safe.”

“Not God-given,” Natasha pointed out. “Coulson-given. In many ways, that is much worse.”

“So ANYWAY,” Darcy continued, ignoring them all, because they were horrible bitches, all of them, and she loved that about them. “The last time I tried to flirt with someone at SHIELD, Clint nearly disappeared the guy right in front of me. I could kill him.”

“How about Harris?” Jane said. She was applying a clear top coat. “They like Harris. More importantly, they trust Harris.”

“Harris refuses to take me seriously. It's infuriating.” Darcy applied Crimson Dynamo with a little bit more force than necessary. “So I need to find a sweet, hot lesbian who appreciates a girl with a good set of breasts and an even better sense of humor. Let me tell you, I am so down with that right now.”

“I could set you up with Ellie in purchasing,” Natasha said.

“Oooh, really?” Darcy considered that. “She seems a little, you know, straight laced.”

“No sane woman will put up with you, Darce,” Jane said.

“Don't knock it till you try it, straight girl,” Darcy told her. “I mean, I like myself some dude action, but it is not worth the fight right now.”

“I do not dissuade men from my bed,” Sif mused, “but their antics quickly grow tiresome, do they not? Everything is ego, when men take to bedsport, and some days, all I want is to take my pleasure without having to protect such delicate sensibilities.”

“Delicate?” Jane asked, and her cheeks were red, but she was hanging in there like a champ.

“She's right,” Darcy said. “It's all about size with guys.”

“Darcy!”

“Size and stamina and constant reassurances,” Sif said, rolling her eyes. “More often than not, lovemaking with a man begins with taking a seasoned warrior to bed and finding a callow youth in need of direction residing in his spot in a matter of minutes.” She leaned back on her elbows. “Pleasure should not be such work, and some days, I am far too tired to bother.”

Natasha was laughing, high and bright. Sif grinned at her. “Do you find me over blunt?” she asked, and Natasha shook her head.

“Not at all.” Natasha raised her glass. “I salute you.”

Sif shifted in her seat, her eyes wide. “May I ask an impolite question of you? I seek no offense, but I find myself in need of your guidance.”

Darcy paused in the act of putting on another layer. “Ooooooh, mysterious. What, what?”

“I'd be happy to help, if I can,” Natasha said, ignoring her.

Sif glanced quickly at Jane, who needed, her expression encouraging. “What is it?”

Sif drew her knees up and hugged them to her chest. “I seek a romantic partner of my own. But I do not know if my suit will find favor. Will you-”

“OH my God, who?” Darcy nearly knocked over a bottle of pale blue polish as she turned. “Is it Morriston? Uh, or, um, Agent Baker? She is so cute, she's-”

“Your Assistant Director Hill,” Sif said, and Jane choked on a mouthful of vodka.

Darcy realized she was literally gaping, her mouth hanging open. “You? And Hill?” A drop of nail polish hit her bare knee, and she swore. “Really?”

“Really,” Sif said, grinning down at her. “She is lovely and clever and a fine leader and a fierce fighter.” She waved her polish brush in midair, sounding almost besotted. “I had thought that perhaps she grows tired, from time to time, with the company of men and might be amenable to a slightly...” Her eyebrows arched up along with her smile. “Softer company within her bed chambers?”

Natasha was considering her. “You are not... Wrong about that,” she said at last.

Sif's smile was luminous. “I had hoped for such.” She leaned forward. “Think she might consider my suit?”

“I'd say your odds are better than average.” Natasha was trying to hide a smile.

“Fuck that, you're smoking hot and you can punch a dude through a wall, I'd say it's a sure thing,” Darcy said, because everyone needed some encouragement from time to time. Judging by the smile Sif shot her, it worked here, too.

“I hope your instincts are correct,” Sif said. Her smile was sweet, almost besotted. “We shall see, will we not?”

Natasha was considering her. “By any chance,” she said at last, cautious now, “did you give Maria a knife?”

“It is a token of my esteem.” Sif blinked at her, her eyes huge. “Did she not like it?”

“Oh, she liked it, I just... Think you might have to explain your feelings in ways that don't involve weapons at some point,” Natasha said.

“Your point is well taken. I shall seek to speak to her in more poetic terms.”

“I hate to bring up the obvious,” Darcy said, because, yeah, it looked like this was going to fall to her, “but have you the means to make the scene?”

Sif frowned. “I do not understand.”

“Cash, chica. Dating in New York is not for the faint of heart or the light of wallet, and while I'm sure your heart-” She wiggled her eyebrows. “And hips are in the right place, your wallet might not be.” She scooched herself back upright, folding her legs under her. “So? How well does saving our collective asses pay?”

Sif's face fell, and it was painful to watch. “I... I had not considered,” she said, her teeth working against her lower lip. Her shoulders slumped. “I have not the way to provide so much as a meal.” She drew one leg up, draping her arm across her knee and bracing her chin against her wrist. “Not in the realm of Midgard, at least.” Her eyes came up, her face brightening. “Think I might convince her to travel with me to Asgard?”

“Not on a first date,” Natasha said. She gave Sif a faint smile. “She's far too cautious for that.

“And such intelligence is partially why I enjoy her company.” Sif's nose wrinkled., and when she huffed out a sigh, she blew her hair away from her temple. “Still, foolish of me to do such a thing without any thought as to how I would follow through on my esteem.”

Natasha was considering her, her fingers idle on the nail polish bottle. “I could provide a bankroll,” she said, and before Sif could object, she held up a hand. “Hear me out.” She tucked one leg up under her, leaning forward. “Teach me to fight with a sword.”

Sif was already shaking her head. “That, I would do, gladly, but there is no reason to offer me coin for such a simple thing.”

“Simple for you,” Natasha said. “Not for me.”

“You have no use for such skills,” Sif told her, shaking her head. “Though you are skilled with many a blade, this world has no need for the longsword.”

“We seem to ask you guys for help often enough,” Darcy pointed out. “So I guess our world needs a sword or two more often than you'd think.” She slashed at the air with her nail polish brush. “I could-”

“No,” Jane told her, and Darcy stuck her tongue out in her direction.

“There are things I can use from any martial art, provided I trust the teacher.” Natasha leaned forward. “Do we have a deal?”

“I would be honored,” Sif said.

“Sweet, what do you want to do, we got plans to make,” Darcy said, almost bouncing in her seat. This was going to be fun. Hell, this might be an excuse for a shopping run. She eyed Sif's impressive figure. “Damn, we get you the right club clothes, and you'll be beating them off with a stick.”

“What need have I for a stick? I have a sword.” Sif folded her legs under her. “And what service shall I render you in exchange for your assistance?”

“You could teach me how you braid Thor's hair,” Darcy said. She leaned back and reached for her glass. “You do all the fancy stuff, and I can never figure it out. Seriously. That's some good shit.”

Sif's lips parted, and then she paused, a smile blooming on her face. “No,” she said, drawing the word out. “No. A deal I will make with you. Assist me, and you will have your date, without the interference of any male within these walls.”

Darcy's hand stopped, her glass at her lips. Slowly, she set it back on the table. “You'll chase them off for me?” she asked.

“Nay. What good be that, when I am not often here?” She leaned over. “I shall teach you how to handle them.” She held out a hand. “Have we a pact, little sister?”

Darcy gripped it, grinning back. “We have a deal. Leave it to me.”