The clock on the wall of Maria Hill’s office says 4:32. She huffs in annoyance; it’s only been ten minutes since the last time she checked. After a long week, all she wants to do is go for a run, order in, and spend the rest of the night on her sofa, remote in one hand, glass of scotch in the other. She’s only worked for Stark Industries for a few months, but already she’s starting to get used to the regular hours and the time to herself. Her eyes shift from the clock to the window, frowning at the quickly-darkening sky over Manhattan. A few water droplets trace patterns down the window pane, then a few more, until all at once the skies open and the view from her window nearly vanishes in sheets of rain. Her shoulders slump.
"No run in the park for me, then," she grumbles to no one in particular.
Maria absent-mindedly pulls up a weather report, knowing before it loads that there is no chance of her making it home without getting soaked. Even so, she toys with the idea of staying a little later to tie up some loose ends in case the rain lets up within the hour. She manages to kill another 40 minutes organizing her desktop and inbox before Pepper, who was hurrying past Maria’s office, backtracks and leans in the door.
"It's Friday, Maria; go home!" she smiles amicably.
"I was about to, Pepper. I was hoping the rain would stop."
Pepper shakes her head wryly. "Not a chance. It’s supposed to keep this up all weekend.”
Maria’s shoulders slump even further in dismay.
“I take it you had plans that hinged on nice weather?”
“Not really. Just wanted to spend some time outdoors.”
“By yourself?” Pepper asks, concern evident in her voice.
“Who else would I spend time with?”
Pepper smiles mischievously. “Alyssa from R&D, maybe?”
“Why does everyone I know like playing matchmaker?”
“That wasn't a ‘no,’ Maria.”
“Maybe not from me, but Alyssa definitely said ‘no’ when I asked her out two weeks ago.”
Pepper’s smile vanishes. “Oh, Maria, I’m sorry. I didn't realize...”
“It’s alright. With the government inquiries, and the hearings, and the media hype, I’m not exactly the most eligible bachelor around here.”
“It’ll blow over. Just try not to get too discouraged. This can be a lonely city if you spend all your free time by yourself.” Pepper glances at her watch. “Yikes. I've got to run, sorry. I'll see you on Monday?"
Maria nods as Pepper sweeps out of her office. Maria waits for the sound of her heels to fade off down the hall before she begins getting ready to leave. She organizes and re-organizes her things, cursing the rain for disrupting her plans for the evening, delaying the inevitable wet train ride home as long as possible. Just as she thinks she is out of excuses, an idea comes to mind. It might not be as good as running outside in the fresh air, but the gym a few stories up has a great view, even through the rain. She’s pretty sure she even has an extra set of workout clothes stashed somewhere in her office... yes! She searches a few drawers before pulling a small gym bag out of the second drawer she checks and hefting the strap over her shoulder. The rain continues to pound the window as she gathers the rest of her things, but the thought of a nice, hard workout and another reason to avoid going out into the downpour lifts her spirits. By the time the elevator arrives, she already has the cord to her headphones untangled and her workout music queued. Perhaps this evening won’t be such a waste after all.
45 minutes on the treadmill, a quick shower, and eight subway stops later, Maria hurries down her block through the relentless rain. She was right: there wasn’t a chance in hell she’d make it home without getting soaked. The water streaming off her clothes drips onto the floor of her building’s lobby, mixing with the myriad wet footprints from other tenants coming in out of the rain. She follows the rest of the footprints to the elevator, punches the “6,” and spends the brief ride wringing out her hair, wet enough after her shower without the rain’s help. She should really get a haircut, she muses as the elevator comes to a halt.
There are wet footprints leading out of the elevator on her floor too, diminishing in number as the people who left them reached their own apartment doors. As she continues down the hall, however, she gets the feeling that something is not quite right. She passes the second-to-last door on her hall, and she knows immediately what’s wrong: hers is the only apartment at this end of the hall, and yet there is already a set of footprints ahead of her. She follows them cautiously, all her senses on high alert. Just as she feared, the footprints stop at her door. Someone has been in her apartment recently, and judging by the lack of prints leading away from the door, the intruder must still be inside.
Her training takes over as she takes stock of the situation. The footprints are still relatively distinct, meaning whoever broke into her apartment did so quickly, without leaving time to form a puddle while they got the door open. There is no sign of damage to her door nor her lock, meaning they must have picked the lock, and quickly. Her stomach tightens; this person is good enough to pick a lock within seconds, yet they didn’t bother to cover up their footprints. That means they probably don’t care whether or not they get caught, and that makes them dangerous.
Maria pulls her gun from its holster and slowly grips the doorknob. To her surprise, she finds it still locked. The intruder must have locked it again behind them. She fishes her keys out of her pocket, slides them into the lock, and twists as silently as possible. Sure enough, the lock sticks just a little before turning, confirming her suspicion that it’s been picked recently. Gun at the ready, she lets the door cover her as she enters the apartment.
Her heart pounds as she clears the entryway. Other than more footprints, there are no signs of anything amiss in the entryway or living room. The apartment is dark, so she listens intently. She can hear the water running in the bathroom. She sets her keys in their usual place in the bowl on the table by the door, but instead of the sound of metal on wood, she hears the crinkle of paper.
There’s a note waiting for her. Maria reads it by the light from the hallway: Don’t shoot me.
It’s signed with some sort of angular figure-eight shape and a smear of what looks suspiciously like blood. Just as her brow furrows in confusion, from the bathroom comes the sound of clinking glass, followed by angry swearing in Russian.
It isn’t a figure-eight; it’s an hourglass. Romanoff. Maria lets out her breath and relaxes her shoulders. She lowers her gun and crosses the apartment to the bathroom.
Whatever Maria expects to find, it most certainly isn’t this. Natasha Romanoff sits on her bathroom counter, her right foot dangling an inch or two off the floor, her left foot dripping blood into the sink. A silk blouse, once powder-blue, now torn and bloodstained lies in a heap on the floor next to a bra and a pair of stilettos. Natasha herself is also in terrible shape. There is a large gash on her lower thigh, just above her left knee, which until very recently was responsible for the blood running down her leg. Her ribs are visibly bruised, possibly even cracked, and her right eye shows signs of what will soon be a spectacular black eye.
Maria stares, stunned, as Natasha takes a long swig from the bottle of vodka in her hand before splashing a little of it over the numerous fresh cuts on the back of her left shoulder. Natasha gasps, eyes squeezed shut, her left hand clawing at the smooth countertop in a desperate attempt to distract herself from the pain. She sets the bottle down and reaches over her shoulder to pull pieces of glass from her wounds, using the mirror to help locate the shards. She adds the pieces to the already disturbingly large pile of broken glass next to her on the counter, ignoring the blood trickling down her back to her unzipped pencil skirt. Maria realizes with a start that the skirt is the only piece of clothing she’s wearing. Under different circumstances she might be thrilled to come home to find Natasha Romanoff half-naked in her apartment, but now she forces herself to concentrate on the issue at hand.
Suddenly, Natasha looks up, meeting Maria’s gaze in the mirror with dull eyes. “I see you got my note. Thanks for not shooting me.” Her voice is flat and a little slurred.
“Romanoff, what happened?”
“Knife, knee, window, left hook.” Natasha replies vaguely, pointing to her knee, ribs, shoulder and eye, respectively. Her accent, usually undetectable, shows through around the edges as she speaks. “Bad day at the office.”
Maria eyes her up and down analytically. She’s seen the Black Widow come back from missions-gone-wrong before, but this is different. She’s used to seeing her all full of swagger and dark humor and forced optimism, no matter how bad her wounds are: It’s only a scratch. You should see the other guy. It takes more than a bullet through the shoulder to kill me. This time, her wounds are comparatively minor, and yet this is a version of Natasha Romanoff she has never seen before. This Natasha Romanoff is exhausted and miserable and well on her way to drunk. Maria wonders what could have happened in the months since they last saw one another that had such a dramatic effect on her.
Natasha’s choked gasp interrupts Maria’s thoughts, bringing her back to the situation at hand.
“Do you want me to help you with that?”
“No, I think this is the last of it.” Natasha holds up the glass shard she just removed from her shoulder, sets it on the pile with the others, and takes another sip from the blood-smeared bottle of vodka.
Maria recognizes the bottle as the one from her own liquor cabinet, but she chooses not to mention it. “You should probably go to the hospital. I can take you, if you want.”
“Don’t be stubborn. If you won’t go to the hospital, will you at least let me examine you? I’m worried about those ribs. And all that blood.”
Natasha hesitates, then nods slightly. “Yes, sir.”
“You don’t need to call me that. You don’t work for me anymore.”
“Sorry, old habits.”
Maria smiles at her fondly. “Okay then. Give me your hand.”
Natasha extends her arm cautiously. Maria takes it and presses two fingers to the inside of her wrist. Her pulse is a little fast, but it’s steady and strong. Maria is relieved that she doesn’t seem to have lost too much blood, despite the state of the bathroom counter. She shifts her attention to the gash on Natasha’s leg.
“You said this is a knife wound?”
“Okay. I don’t think it’s as deep as it looks, which is good. Can you straighten your leg for me?”
She extends her leg, her toes pointed gracefully even though her leg is a little shaky.
“Good. Bend it again?” Maria holds her breath as Natasha does what she asked, then lets it out when she’s sure the knife wound won’t start bleeding again. “Well, that’s better than it could be. I expected you to need stitches. Let’s hope your shoulder has the same luck. Hold on a minute, there’s a first aid kit here somewhere.”
Maria retrieves the first aid kit from its place in the cabinet under the sink and sets it on the counter. She pulls out a large pad of gauze and hands it to Natasha. “If you’re sure there’s no more glass in your shoulder, put this over the cuts and press down.”
Natasha accepts the gauze, wordlessly pressing it to the wounds on her shoulder. Her face contorts in pain, and her unoccupied hand raises the vodka to her lips once more. When she lowers it again, Maria reaches for the bottle so she can take a swig herself. She frowns, noting that the bottle is nearly empty. To be fair, it wasn’t exactly full the last time she’d put it away, but Natasha has clearly put a dent in what was left.
“I’m cutting you off, for now,” she says gently, setting the bottle on the windowsill out of reach.
“I’ll replace it,” Natasha insists sullenly.
“I don’t care about the vodka; I just care about getting you to stop bleeding. Plus, I want to make sure you don’t have a concussion, and that’ll be hard if you pass out drunk.”
Maria expects some sort of indignant quip about how she knows how to hold her liquor, but Natasha offers none. Instead, she just stares off into space in silence. This is definitely not the Natasha Romanoff she knows. Her sullenness clings to her, making it clear that the botched mission is not entirely to blame for her mood.
“Look at me?”
Natasha lifts her head but doesn’t meet Maria’s eyes.
“Nat, I need to check you for a concussion. Please look at me.”
“Fine.” She shifts her eyes to glare directly into Maria’s.
The intensity of her stare makes Maria’s pulse quicken. She swallows hard, trying not to break eye contact. “You’re a mean drunk, you know that?” she jokes halfheartedly, another attempt to lighten the mood and get a rise out of Natasha.
Once again, Natasha doesn’t respond. She just keeps staring into Maria’s eyes without really seeing her. Maria forces herself to stop thinking about Natasha’s rain-smeared makeup and the bruise on her right eye and cheekbone; she starts focusing on evaluating her eye movements instead. Her pupils look alright, but her eyes keep tracking slightly to the right, whether from the vodka or a concussion Maria can’t tell.
“See? I told you I won’t be able to tell whether you’re concussed or not if you’re drunk,” she scolds, trying to keep her concern out of her voice. “You’re not allowed to fall asleep until you sober up a bit, ok?”
“Okay then. Can I take a look at your shoulder?”
Maria re-positions herself behind Natasha so she doesn’t have to move to let her see the wounds, other than to peel away the gauze. There’s plenty of blood soaked into the gauze, but none seems to be actively pooling in the cuts or abrasions on Natasha’s shoulder. Maria allows herself to relax a little bit.
“No stitches needed here, either. I can help you bandage these cuts up once you’ve cleaned up a bit, if you’d like.” She takes a deep breath. “But first we need to see about those ribs.”
Natasha pulls her foot out of the sink and swings her leg off the counter so she is sitting completely upright, both feet hanging a few inches off the floor, her hands folded in her lap, dull eyes staring straight ahead.
Maria realizes what she has to do next and hesitates. “Nat, I... I need to listen to your lungs, but I don’t have a stethoscope or anything. I’ll have to...”
“I don’t care,” Natasha interrupts. “Do what you need to do.”
Maria squares her jaw and lowers her ear to Natasha’s chest, trying to be as professional as she can be. “Take a deep breath... and exhale.” She doesn’t hear anything out of the ordinary, but she shifts to the other side of her chest and listens again.
“I think your ribs are alright. They’re definitely not broken, but I want to try something else, just to be sure they aren’t cracked. Can you lie flat on the floor?”
Natasha slides off the counter and stretches out on the floor, wincing when her shoulder touches the tile. Maria kneels next to her.
“This might hurt,” she warns. “I’m going to press down on your sternum...”
“I know the drill,” Natasha cuts her off again.
Maria smiles sympathetically, realizing she’s right; she goes through this same kind of exam after nearly all her missions. “I know you do. Are you ready?”
Maria carefully places the heel of her hand on the center of Natasha’s chest and slowly adds pressure, scanning Natasha’s face for any reaction. Her expression remains neutral.
“How does that feel?”
“Any pain where you got hit hardest?”
“Just the bruise.”
Maria sighs with relief, most of the tension draining from her neck and shoulders. “Ok, Romanoff, I think you’ll live. Let’s get you cleaned up.” She offers her arm to help Natasha sit up, and she takes it. She leans against the side of the bathtub, her knees drawn up to her chest. She breathes hard and runs her fingers over the bruise on her ribs a few times.
Maria looks down on her, concerned. “How about I run you a bath?” she suggests, not waiting for a response. She turns on the hot water, holds her hand under the faucet until the water runs hot, then puts the stopper in the drain. The tub begins to fill with water.
“I’ll get you a fresh towel. Be back in just a moment.” She hates the idea of leaving Natasha alone on the bathroom floor for even a minute, but she does it anyway. As she walks out into the dark apartment, she realizes for the first time since she got home that she is still damp from the rain. She detours briefly into her bedroom where she pulls a tank top and sweatpants out of a drawer for herself and a large t-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts for Natasha. She sheds her wet clothes quickly, tossing them into the laundry basket across the room and pulling on her wonderfully dry pajamas. She doesn’t pause to enjoy being warm and dry, though. She slings the other set of pajamas over her shoulder and fetches a clean towel and washcloth from the linen closet and a large glass of water from the kitchen, returning with them to the bathroom.
Much to her dismay, she finds Natasha exactly where she left her. She hasn’t moved an inch. She’s still hugging her knees, her eyes dark, staring straight ahead. Maria sighs and sets the towel, washcloth and glass of water down next to Natasha on the floor and the armful of pajamas on the windowsill next to the mostly-empty bottle of vodka. By now, the bathtub is nearly full, so she shuts the water off. The silence that follows the rush of water lingers uncomfortably for a few seconds. Neither one of them moves.
“I can look away while you get into the tub and close the curtains,” Maria prompts, “but I’m going to stay with you until you’re done in the tub, just in case you pass out or start bleeding again.” She offers a hand to help Natasha stand up.
Natasha gets unsteadily to her feet, impaired in equal measure by the alcohol and the pain in her ribs, shoulder, and thigh. Before Maria has a chance to turn around, she tugs her skirt down to her ankles and steps out of it, then starts to do the same with her underwear.
Maria realizes she’s staring and whirls around, trying not to look at Natasha’s reflection in the mirror, either. Thankfully, the steam from the tub has already begun to fog up the mirror and the window. She hears Natasha step gingerly into the tub, hissing quietly at the heat of the water. Maria waits for her to settle into the water and pull the curtain closed, but only the former happens. After several long moments, Maria turns cautiously around to find Natasha sitting in the tub, the water already tinged a copper color from her blood. Her knees are drawn up to her chest, eyes staring blankly ahead, just like she’d been sitting when she was on the floor.
“Natasha, please. Talk to me. You’re scaring me,” Maria all but begs, giving up on trying to keep her voice steady.
Natasha drops her head onto her knees and is silent for a few moments more.
“Bad day at the office,” she repeats, her voice muted against her legs.
Maria settles onto the floor next to the tub. “I haven’t seen you in months. I don’t even know what ‘the office’ means to you anymore.”
Another long pause.
“Sharon got me the job. Freelance.”
“With the CIA?” Maria asks, for clarification.
Natasha nods, head still on her knees. “It was a test run, to see if they can use my... skillset... in the future.” A hint of sarcasm creeps into her slightly slurred voice. “It did not go well.”
Maria hands her the glass of water in lieu of a response.
Natasha raises her head, takes a long sip, then another. Then all at once the words start to pour out of her. “My handler fucked up. He rushed an extraction before I was ready. I told them before I went into the field. I told them. I told them I don’t play by their rulebook, and I don’t do my best work with a handler breathing down my neck. They gave me one anyway. The guy looked like he was fresh out of orientation. It was insulting, really. S.H.I.E.L.D. would've never tried to pull that kind of ерунда.” Natasha huffs, frustrated and angry. She takes another sip of water, then continues.
“My mark got handsy. Really handsy. And my handler overreacted and blew my cover trying to get me out. He tried to help me and all it got me was an ass-kicking. I had it under control, and he threw me under the bus. I had it under control!”
Maria speaks up. “Sometimes missions go pear-shaped. It’s not your fault if your mark turns out to be a rapey asshole...”
Natasha turns and stares into Maria’s eyes. “That’s the problem. I knew he was a rapey asshole from the get-go. I was using it to my advantage. I know exactly how to get a mark to want to touch me, so by extension I know when a mark is going to touch me, whether I want them to or not. I had it under control,” she repeats, dropping her head back onto her knees. Her voice is quiet. “But that doesn’t make it easy.”
Maria’s heart sinks as she processes what Natasha just said. Natasha always gives off the impression that her work is just work to her, nothing she can’t just forget about at the end of the day once she’s punched the clock. Her nonchalance makes it easy to forget that what she does for a living is maim and murder and steal secrets. Maria knows, in her mind, that there’s more to it than that. She is, after all, a murderer and thief herself sometimes, though her background is vastly different from Natasha’s. She thinks about the woman huddled in her bathtub right now, and for a few moments her brain reels from the fact that she’s the famed Black Widow, a master assassin, the best in the business. Yet here she is, Natasha Romanoff, drunk and naked and in pain, trusting Maria enough to let her see her this way, this utterly vulnerable. Maria wonders for a moment whether Natasha will kill her for seeing her with her guard down, to ensure her silence. Half of her shudders from the thought, the other aches to hold her and help her forget her pain.
The faucet drips slowly, rhythmically. Steam rises from the water in the tub. Natasha drinks intermittently from the glass Maria brought her, and Maria shakes herself to clear her head and bring herself back to the moment.
Natasha still sits motionless, hugging her knees. Maria turns and smiles at her.
“Would you like me to help you wash your hair?” she asks softly.
Natasha jumps at the sound of her voice after such a long silence, but she regains her composure almost instantly.
“Be careful: there’s probably glass in it.” Her voice is clearer, steadier than it has been all evening.
“Come here. Lean your head over the edge of the tub.”
Natasha does as Maria asks, and Maria begins running her fingers through her red hair, rain-damp but wonderfully soft. A few shards of glass fall from her hair to the floor, tinkling as they hit the tile. Maria picks them up carefully and adds them to the pile on the counter to be cleaned up later. She returns her fingers to Natasha’s hair, combing through the tangles until there are no more. Natasha’s eye flutter shut contentedly at her touch.
“You’re not allowed to fall asleep, remember?”
“I’m not asleep; I’m just relaxing. Isn’t that what you want me to do?” The slur is all but gone from Natasha’s voice, and her accent has vanished entirely. Nevertheless, Maria can tell that she’s still feeling the vodka, whether she shows it or not.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” Maria concedes, laughing. She grabs the shampoo bottle from the corner of the tub. “Dunk under and get your hair wet so I can wash it, ok?”
Natasha takes a deep breath and slides down to submerge her head. Her knees, knife wound and all, stick up out of the water, and Maria tries resolutely to look away from the water running down her muscular thighs.
Natasha resurfaces a second later, coughing and spluttering. “Ouch. That’s hard to do with bruised ribs,” she admits, wincing.
Maria winces sympathetically and hands her the washcloth and soap. “Here, clean out that knife wound while I wash your hair.”
Shampoo in hand, she runs her fingers through Natasha’s hair until the lather starts to run down the back of her neck. Natasha bites her lip as suds run into the cuts on her shoulder, adding to the sting of soap in the gash on her thigh.
“Hand me the washcloth and I’ll clean out these cuts on your shoulder, too,” Maria offers.
Natasha only nods, still biting her lip. She rinses the soap off her leg while Maria dabs gently at her shoulder. Mercifully, neither the gash on her thigh nor the cuts on her shoulder start bleeding again, despite being thoroughly cleaned out.
Maria slides a hand behind Natasha’s neck. “I’ll help you rinse the soap out of your hair so you don’t hurt your ribs.”
Once again Natasha submerges in the tub, but this time Maria helps support her head so her face doesn’t end up under water. The fingers of her free hand continue to work their way through Natasha’s hair until the soap disperses into the hot water. Except for a crease between her eyebrows, Natasha’s face is relaxed, her eyes shut lightly. Maria lets her gaze linger for just a moment on the droplets of water on her eyelashes and the way her hair looks entwined in her own fingers. Natasha’s eyelids flutter open sleepily, and her eyes take a second or two to focus, just enough time that Maria hopes she doesn’t catch her staring. Maria helps her sit up, and this time Natasha’s face remains neutral, no sign of pain.
Maria half-expects her to resume her huddled position, but thankfully Natasha stretches herself out to take up the full length of the tub. Her head rests lightly on one edge of the tub, and she props her feet, ankles crossed, on the other edge, just under the faucet. For the first time this evening she looks relaxed, almost indolent.
“Thank you.” Natasha’s voice is so soft that Maria isn’t entirely sure she spoke at all.
She chooses not to respond. Instead, she lets the silence stretch on, noting how comfortable this silence is compared to the rest. Breathing deeply and slowly, she lets go of the last of the tension that lingers in her body. The adrenaline from thinking someone broke into her apartment fades, leaving her limbs heavy and tingling. The panic of responding to Natasha’s injuries also fades, rising with the steam. She takes several more controlled breaths, but she can’t seem to rid herself of the small flutter in the pit her stomach. It’s been a long time since she last felt something like it, but not so long that she doesn’t recognize exactly what it means. She rolls her eyes, picturing the way Pepper would tease her if she ever found out.
After another few minutes, a rumble replaces the flutter in her stomach. She turns her head, finding Natasha all but asleep in the tub. Concern knots her throat again.
“Nat, come on, don’t fall asleep.”
“I’m not asleep,” she mumbles unconvincingly.
“I was planning on ordering in tonight. Have you eaten?” Natasha doesn’t answer. “I didn’t think so. You’re welcome to stay and eat with me. How does pizza sound?”
Natasha opens her eyes and pulls herself upright. “Pizza sounds amazing.”
Maria picks up the clean towel and hands it to her. “Here, get dried off while I go call in the order. I’ll help you bandage your wounds while we wait.”
She turns around while Natasha climbs out of the tub, leaving the bathroom only when she’s sure she’ll be alright by herself. She crosses her apartment, turning on lights as she goes. Her phone is still in her bag by the door. She fishes it out and makes the call, wandering into the kitchen while she places the order. She grabs two more glasses from the cabinet, holding the phone between her cheek and shoulder while she fills them both with water. The person on the other end of the phone promises her a 30 minute wait. Maria thanks them and hangs up. She carries both glasses into the living room and sets them on coasters on the coffee table before hurrying back to the bathroom.
She finds Natasha crouched on the floor cleaning up the last of the blood and glass. The countertop and sink are already spotless. Natasha is wearing the boxer shorts Maria set out for her, but she’s still topless. Her hair is wrapped in the towel and piled on top of her head.
Maria blinks in surprise. “You didn’t need to do that. I could have taken care of it.”
“You don’t have to clean up after me. You’ve done enough already.”
“Well, in that case, thank you. I’m still going to help you bandage your wounds, though,” Maria insists.
Natasha cranes her neck over her left shoulder to look at the cuts there, frowning as if trying to decide whether to argue. After a second she shrugs and turns around to allow Maria to bandage her shoulder.
Maria dresses the wound quickly and efficiently. She finishes taping a clean bandage securely in place and wordlessly hands Natasha the t-shirt. She takes it and pulls it over her head gingerly, her ribs still clearly causing her pain. She turns to face Maria and props her leg up on the edge of the counter. Maria is thankful Natasha finally has a shirt on; it was getting more and more difficult to keep her eyes to herself. Although, the sight of Natasha wearing her pajamas isn’t helping the flutter in her stomach much either.
The t-shirt is a little big when Maria wears it, but Natasha is practically swimming in it. Natasha has a way of filling up an entire room with her presence. She can be incredibly intimidating, even terrifying, towering over the people around her with just a crook of an eyebrow or the deadly flash in her eyes. For all her indomitability, though, Natasha Romanoff is actually quite small. Maria steps closer, realizing for the first time the nearly five-inch height different between them.
Itsy bitsy spider, indeed, she thinks to herself, almost laughing. She covers quickly by turning her attention to the knife wound on Natasha’s thigh. The cut is long enough that she decides to cover it with clean gauze and wrap a bandage the entire way around her leg.
“Is that too tight?” she asks once she’s finished.
Natasha bends her knee and flexes her foot. “No, it’s fine.”
“Okay then.” Maria closes the first aid kit and stashes it in the cabinet under the sink. “You’re clean, your wounds are dressed, and dinner is on its way. Is there anything else you need?”
“Some more water, maybe.”
“There’s another glass of water for you in the living room. Come sit down.” She ushers Natasha through the bathroom door and into the living room, shutting the lights off behind them.
Natasha wastes no time arranging herself gingerly on the left side of the sofa. She leans up against the arm and tucks her feet up under herself, then reaches for the glass of water Maria left on the coffee table for her. Maria reaches for the remote and switches on the TV before flopping gracelessly onto the opposite end of the sofa. She props her bare feet on the coffee table and rests her head on the back of the sofa, sighing contentedly.
“I interrupted your weekend plans, didn’t I.” Natasha’s voice is subdued. It isn’t a question.
Maria flashes her an appeasing smile. “They’re pretty much back on track now. Don’t worry about it.”
Just as Natasha opens her mouth to argue, there’s a knock on the door.
“That’s the pizza. I’ll get it.” She hands Natasha the remote. “Find something you’d like to watch.”
Maria answers the door, pays the delivery guy, and returns, pizza in hand, to the sofa. She opens the pizza box and sets it in the middle of the coffee table, then resumes her spot on the sofa. Grabbing a slice of pizza unceremoniously, she watches as Natasha flips through a few channels. She scrolls past a basketball game, some sort of action movie with lots of explosions, and a sitcom that seems to involve two people trying to steal a wall decoration from a restaurant. Finally, she pauses on the opening scene of a movie. A kid, apparently sick in bed, is playing an old video game. Maria recognizes the movie instantly.
“Oh god, I love this movie.” she sighs, almost involuntarily.
Natasha shrugs. “I’ve never seen it.”
“You’ve never seen The Princess Bride? You’ve seen every movie, how have you never seen The Princess Bride?” Maria shakes her head in amazement, then reaches for the remote to turn up the volume. “We’re watching it. Right now.”
Natasha doesn’t argue. Instead, she helps herself to a slice of pizza and reclines on the sofa.
They watch the first few minutes of the movie in silence, until Natasha asks skeptically, “Wait, is this a kissing movie?”
“Well, yes, but it’s only kind of...” Maria trails off, noticing the barely-contained smug grin on Natasha’s face. “You little shit! You have seen this.”
“Everyone’s seen this movie, Hill. It’s the best movie.”
“Then why did you say you’ve never seen it?” Maria asks, exasperated.
“I was joking! But then you seemed so excited to show it to me that I didn’t have the heart to tell you I’ve actually seen it more times than I can count,” Natasha laughs.
Maria laughs along with her. This is more like it. This is the Natasha Romanoff she knows. Maria can still see the exhaustion behind her eyes, but the return of her mischievous sense of humor is a good sign. The pizza seems to be helping Natasha’s mood quite a bit. Maria wonders briefly when the last time she ate was. Her attention returns to the screen when Natasha starts quoting along with the movie. She joins in, completely endeared.
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The movie plays on into the night. They two of them sit comfortably together on the sofa, sharing nearly all of the rest of the pizza and quoting along with the movie every so often. As the credits start to roll, Maria yawns and stretches. She grabs the pizza box and carries it to the kitchen, wrapping up the last two slices and storing them in the fridge for later. When she returns to the living room, Natasha is sitting awkwardly on the edge of the sofa.
“It’s late. I should go...”
“Stay.” The word leaves Maria’s lips before she realizes what she’s saying. Natasha looks just as surprised as she feels. Maria clears her throat. “You don’t have to leave. It’s still raining. I can sleep on the sofa. You can have the bed.” She realizes she’s rambling, but she doesn’t care.
Much to Maria’s surprise, Natasha doesn’t put up too much of a fight. “No, I’m fine on the sofa. You’ve done so much for me already; you shouldn’t have to give up your bed, too.”
Maria figures Natasha is likely to reconsider staying the night if she pushes too hard, so she swallows the argument that springs to her lips.
“I’ll get you a pillow and a blanket. There should be an extra toothbrush in the bathroom cabinet, if you want to brush your teeth.”
Neither one of them moves for several long seconds. Finally, Maria turns on her heel and walks toward the linen closet. Natasha takes her cue and heads for the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
Maria pulls a clean sheet and an extra pillow and blanket out of the linen closet. Her sofa is comfy, but it probably isn’t comfy enough to sleep on with bruised ribs and a shoulder that looks like hamburger. She reconsiders trying to persuade Natasha to take the bed, but once again thinks better of it. She’s sure the Black Widow has had to sleep in far less comfortable places, and with far worse injuries than these. She sets the pillow and blankets down on the sofa and goes to the kitchen to refill Natasha’s water glass. She returns to the living room just in time for Natasha to re-emerge from the bathroom, suppressing a yawn.
“Am I allowed to fall asleep yet?”
Maria almost forgot the possibility that Natasha might be concussed. She motions for her to sit beside her on the sofa, and Natasha does so without complaint. She seems sober enough by now. Maria studies her eye movements carefully for a few seconds. Her eyes no longer track to the right the way they did earlier. Other than the darkening bruise around her right eye, nothing seems amiss.
“Yes, you can sleep. You’re really lucky, you know. All of these injuries could have been a lot worse.”
Natasha doesn’t answer. Her eyes cloud over and she frowns slightly. Maria wants to know what’s on her mind, but she knows better than to ask. She turns the lamp on the end table on and flips the switch on the wall to turn off the overhead lights.
“Let me know if you need anything else, alright?”
Natasha nods, stretching out on the sofa and covering herself with the blanket. “Good night, Hill. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”
Maria’s back stiffens for the few seconds it takes her to realize Natasha is quoting the movie again. She laughs appreciatively. “Good night.” Somewhat reluctantly, she turns away from the living room and pulls the bedroom door shut behind her. She doesn’t bother to turn on the lights; it’s easy enough for her to find her way to her bed in the darkness. She pulls the covers back, slides into bed, and spends several long minutes staring at the ceiling, head reeling. Eight hours ago, she was looking forward to a quiet weekend alone. Now, there’s a master assassin spending the night on her sofa. She’s still not sure she believes this is happening. Before too long, the sound of the rain against her bedroom window begins to lull her to sleep.
Perhaps this weekend isn’t such a waste after all.
Maria’s eyes fly open in the pitch-darkness of her bedroom. The clock on her nightstand says 2:17. As she listens to the rain on her window, she wonders groggily what it is that woke her up so suddenly. After a few seconds of silence, the sound of a strangled cry from the living room makes her stomach drop, confirming her suspicion.
Silently, she pulls back the covers and slinks to her bedroom door. She opens it a crack and listens intently, but she hears nothing. For a brief second, she wonders whether she had been dreaming. The sinking feeling in her stomach refuses to dissipate, though, so she decides to check on Natasha under the guise of getting a drink of water. Her footsteps make no noise as she creeps through the living room to the kitchen. Natasha is still curled up on the sofa, ostensibly fast asleep. She sighs with relief as she fills a glass at the tap. As an afterthought, she grabs a bottle of Tylenol from its usual place on the windowsill. Turning, she starts to make her way back to her bedroom.
“The polite thing to do is pretend you didn’t hear anything.” Natasha’s voice is low, but Maria jumps nonetheless.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Maria lies half-heartedly. Even in the darkness of the room, she can tell Natasha is not fooled. “Ok, fine. I was worried about you.”
“I’m fine. I had a nightmare, and then I rolled over on my ribs. It’s nothing.”
Maria winces and turns on the lamp on the end table. The both blink hard, their eyes adjusting to the soft but sudden flash of light. She hands Natasha the bottle of Tylenol with a knowing, sympathetic smile. Natasha accepts the painkillers without meeting Maria’s eyes. She shakes two tablets into her palm and replaces the cap.
“Do you mind if I re-check you for cracked ribs, just to ease my own mind?”
Natasha looks somewhat embarrassed, but agrees anyway. Maria kneels next to the sofa and presses the heel of her hand to Natasha’s sternum.
“Am I hurting you?”
“No, I’m fine.”
For the second time that night, Maria lowers her ear to Natasha’s chest to listen to her breathing, deeply thankful that she’s wearing a shirt this time.
“Nope. Still not cracked.” Maria’s voice sounds far more relieved than she intended to let on.
“See? I told you: I’m fine.”
“Are you sure you won’t be more comfortable sleeping in an actual bed? It might take the pressure off your ribs and shoulder.” Natasha begins to turn her down, but Maria interrupts. “Why do you think I’m such a morning person? My bed is really comfy.”
“If my bed were really comfy, I’d never want to leave it.”
“A good night’s sleep makes all the difference.”
Natasha’s eyes cloud over. “I wonder what that’s like...”
The tone of her voice nearly breaks Maria’s heart. “Nat, come on, just take the bed,” she nearly pleads.
Natasha hesitates, clearly contemplating taking her up on the offer, but again she refuses. “I don’t want you to have to sleep on the sofa because of me.”
“Then we’ll share the bed.” Maria isn’t sure which of the two of them is more surprised by her words, but she commits to the suggestion, lest Natasha realize how spontaneous it is. “There’s plenty of room for both of us. It’s a large bed, and you don’t take up that much space.”
Yet again Natasha looks very tempted to accept, but yet again she shakes her head. “I don’t think that’s such a good idea. I get... jumpy when I share beds with other people. I’m afraid you’ll roll over or kick me in your sleep, and I’ll kill you before I’ve even woken up.”
Maria can tell from the look on her face that Natasha is not just casting about for more excuses to turn down taking the bed, that despite her joking tone she seriously worries that she’ll hurt her. Maria wonders apprehensively whether she actually has hurt someone like that in the past. She admits to herself that this is a serious downside, but a solution springs immediately to her mind.
“What if I keep a point of contact, so you know where I am at all times?”
Natasha blinks in surprise, her brow furrowed. After a long pause, she responds, sounding somewhat impressed. “That might just work. I make no promises, though. I really don’t want to hurt you.”
“I accept the risk. Come on.” Maria ushers her into the bedroom, turning the living room light off behind them. Despite the nervousness that knots her stomach, Maria is determined to keep control of the situation.
“Okay then. You get in and get comfortable, and I'll work around you.”
Natasha slides into bed and shifts around experimentally, trying to figure out a position that minimizes the pain of her wounds. She hisses and winces slightly as she turns, until she ends up curled up on her right side, knees bent almost the whole way up to her chest.
Maria smiles slightly to herself. She was right: Natasha takes up almost no space at all in her bed. Maria’s cheeks start to burn in an uncharacteristic blush at the thought of climbing into bed next to her, but she wills herself to do it anyway. She takes the other side of the bed, matching the shape of Natasha’s body and leaving a few inches of space between them.
She swallows hard. “How about I rest a hand on your hip?”
Maria gently lowers her palm onto the curve of Natasha’s hip, letting it rest there self-consciously. “Like this?”
Natasha doesn't respond for a few seconds. Then, to Maria’s complete and utter surprise, she shifts back towards Maria, taking up the space between them. Her shoulders rest lightly against Maria's chest, close enough that Maria hopes she can’t feel how abruptly her pulse quickens. Natasha pauses, then takes Maria’s wrist, gently guiding her hand off her hip to let it ghost against her belly through the cotton of Maria's borrowed t-shirt.
Maria is too stunned by this unexpected intimacy to say anything for a moment. “No, it’s not too much. It's fine. Are you sure, though? This is a lot of touching.”
Natasha relaxes her shoulders, leaning a little more heavily against Maria’s chest in lieu of a direct response. “You're right: your bed is really comfy.” Natasha is already starting to drift off.
Once the initial shock wears off, Maria admits to herself how comfortable she is with Natasha curled up against her. She would never in a million years have imagined Natasha Romanoff as anyone’s little spoon, let alone hers. She resists the urge to nuzzle into Natasha's hair, instead making a conscious effort to keep her head on her own pillow, even if it means having a stiff neck in the morning. Over the next few minutes she lies there, completely still and silent, barely even breathing.
Little by little, she’s amazed to feel Natasha's breathing deepen. Her whole body twitches once, then again, then finally goes slack as she falls asleep, relaxed, trusting, and completely vulnerable. Again, Maria hopes Natasha won't decide to kill her for seeing her this way. Despite her pounding heart, the rain on the window and Natasha's slow, even breaths eventually lull Maria back to sleep.
When she awakes the next morning, the rain is still driving against her bedroom window. At first, she doesn’t open her eyes, choosing instead to enjoy the sound of the rain and the memories of Natasha falling asleep in her arms. When she finally does open her eyes, disappointment twists its way through her insides.
She is completely alone.
She allows herself only a few minutes to wallow in her disappointment. After all, she always kind of assumed the Black Widow was the type to sneak out before dawn. She chastises herself for daring to hope that Natasha Romanoff was any different. Rolling over onto her stomach in the space Natasha occupied the night before, she buries her face in the pillow. When she lifts her head again, she notices a few strands of red hair resting lightly on the pillow, pressed flat under her fingers. A slight flutter joins the knot in her stomach.
The bedroom door swings open slowly, startling her out of her thoughts. She's astonished to see Natasha, two steaming mugs in hand, walk through the door. She’s still dressed in the borrowed boxer shorts and the t-shirt that’s clearly several sizes too big for her, and her hair is sticking up at an odd angle on the side she slept on. Maria sits up as Natasha perches lightly on the bed next to her. She hands her a mug, and Maria accepts it wordlessly. She hopes the look on her face isn’t half as foolish as it feels.
“I made coffee.” Natasha’s voice is soft and a little hoarse. “You might be a morning person, but I'm hell on wheels until I've had my coffee.”
“You're hell on wheels most of the time,” Maria quips.
Natasha smirks fondly, conceding her point. Maria notes that she seems more like herself this morning. The light is back in her eyes, even if the dark circles under them are still there. She wonders whether she really does feel better, or if her walls are just going back up. She hopes it's the former but knows it's probably the latter. Natasha is excellent at hiding the way she feels, especially when she's in pain. It's a good survival instinct, but it can't be healthy to keep oneself at arm's length from everyone around you at all times. Begrudgingly, Maria acknowledges how hypocritical that thought is, given Pepper's advice to her only yesterday afternoon.
They both sip their coffee.
It's good, nearly scalding hot and strong enough to stand a spoon in. Maria closes her eyes, inhaling the scent of the coffee and letting the mug warm her hands.
“You don't seem to have any cream or sugar lying around, so I assumed you take it black,” Natasha mentions somewhat apologetically.
“Yes, almost always. I'm sorry I don't have any to offer you. There might be some sugar in the pantry...”
Natasha interrupts her. “No, it's fine, this is perfect for me. I like my coffee to resemble motor oil. Why do you think they call me the Black Widow?”
“If that was supposed to be a pun, it was terrible. You should be ashamed of yourself, Romanoff,” Maria laughs.
Natasha flashes her a smug smile, clearly anything but ashamed of herself, and takes another sip of coffee. The two of them lapse back into silence, listening to the rain and savoring their morning hit of caffeine. Maria is surprised by how much she enjoys Natasha’s company. In the time they’ve worked together, they haven’t spent much time one-on-one. Even this past evening they didn’t converse much; neither one of them are big on small talk. The silences on the sofa during the movie and now in her bed sipping coffee are comfortable, more so than any she can recall in the recent past, so much so that she wonders why this is the first time they’ve spent just the two of them. In fact, she starts to realize, she’s not even sure why they’re spending time together now.
“Why did you come here, of all places?” she asks, breaking the silence suddenly. Natasha looks taken aback. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. I just meant... we’re not close. Why did you come to me last night?”
Natasha exhales slowly, staring into the steam rising from her mug, collecting her thoughts before she speaks. “I was ninety-five percent sure I was alright, but the other five percent told me not to go back to my own apartment. I guess I was afraid I’d pass out and no one would find me for days. It wouldn’t be the first time...”
Maria looks horrified for a moment, but she pushes it aside. “That makes sense, but why me in particular?”
“Your place has the ideal security-to-liquor-quality ratio.” Maria raises a bewildered eyebrow, and Natasha quickly clarifies. “Pepper’s taste in vodka is top-notch, but I really didn’t feel like getting into Stark Tower undetected. I would’ve gone to Steve’s place, but he doesn’t keep booze on hand. Plus, he and Sam are in Reykjavik this week looking for Barnes, so I knew he wouldn’t be home for another couple of days, at least. I could’ve gotten into Clint’s apartment easily, but his vodka comes in plastic jugs with handles on them.” She shudders at the thought, takes another sip of coffee, then continues. “So breaking into your place seemed like the ideal solution: you have good taste in liquor, your building is relatively easy to get into, and I knew you’d be home within a few hours.”
Maria can’t help but feel a little hurt. “I’m glad to hear I’m a last resort.”
Natasha has the decency to actually look ashamed of herself this time. She avoids Maria’s eyes for a few moments as she struggles to make up her mind as to whether to keep talking or stick to her original story. Finally she speaks, still avoiding eye contact. “Honestly? You were actually the first person I thought of. I’ve been alright on my own for these past couple of months, but after that mission went south... I was upset and in pain and I knew I needed help. You were the only person I could think of who would really understand, who would help me without being intimidated by me, or thinking less of me for needing help.” She meets Maria’s gaze with a reluctant, begrudging frown. “I don’t know why I trust you the way I do. It’s infuriating, really.”
Maria struggles to keep her face neutral as she waits for Natasha to continue talking, but she lapses into silence instead.
“Thank you for trusting me,” Maria murmurs. “I know it can be hard to trust another person, and it’s even harder to admit that you do. I’m glad I was able to help.” She reaches her hand out, intending to set it on Natasha’s shoulder or knee, but she thinks better of touching her without her permission. Instead, she sets it deliberately on the blanket between them.
Her heart skips a beat as Natasha begins to extend the fingers of the hand closest to Maria’s, but she curls them again after a nearly imperceptible pause.
In one smooth motion, Natasha downs the last mouthful of her coffee and rises from the edge of the bed. “I should go.”
Even though her stomach sinks with disappointment, Maria can’t think of a reasonable excuse to ask her to stay, so she doesn’t try her luck. She does, however, remember that the outfit Natasha wore last night is still in a torn, bloody heap on the bathroom floor. Setting her mug on the nightstand, she climbs out of bed and crosses the room to her dresser. She pulls open a drawer and rummages inside, then pulls out one of her smaller t-shirts and offers it to Natasha.
“This should fit you better than the one you have on. I’ll lend you a pair of jeans, too, give me just a second.” Mentally sizing up Natasha’s waist, she turns to her closet and grabs a pair of jeans, followed by a belt.
Natasha accepts the change of clothes and heads for the bathroom to change. “Thanks.”
Maria grabs both of their mugs and carries them to the kitchen, finishing her coffee as she goes. She washes out the mugs as well as the coffee pot, watching the rain pelt the kitchen window. It’s still coming down so hard she can barely see the building across the street. The thought of Natasha having to go outside in that mess makes her shiver, partially from remembering her own walk home in the rain the night before and partially at the realization that it may well be another couple of months before she sees her again once she leaves. For that matter, it may well be another couple of months before anyone sees her again. Natasha Romanoff has the tendency to drop off the face of the earth when she wants to. It is hard enough keeping track of her with all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s resources; it will be nearly impossible to find her if she disappears again now.
The knot in Maria’s stomach tightens as she sets the mugs in the dish drainer and returns to the bedroom to fetch a hooded sweatshirt and jacket from her closet to offer Natasha. She’ll probably still get soaked, but at least hopefully she’ll be a little warmer with a few extra layers.
When she returns to the living room, she finds Natasha already changed. Maria marvels at how sophisticated she manages to look in an old West Point t-shirt, jeans with rolled-up cuffs, and stilettos. She’s even managed to tame the worst of her bedhead, leaving her hair looking intentionally tousled. Natasha shifts her weight from one foot to the other, eyeing the front door of the apartment impatiently. Maria offers her the sweatshirt, and she accepts it tacitly, quickly tugging it on over her head. She untucks her hair from the collar with a flourish and shakes her head to rearrange the waves around her shoulders. Maria holds up the jacket and helps her slide into one sleeve, then the other. Natasha straightens the jacket on her shoulders and around her hips before stuffing her hands deep into the pockets. Somehow, the slightly oversized sweatshirt and jacket seem to complete her look. Maria stares at her, shaking her head in admiration.
Natasha gives her a quick nod of thanks and heads for the door. As her hand reaches for the doorknob, Maria once again surprises them both.
“Wait, before you go...”
Natasha turns to face her expectantly.
Maria steps closer to her. Their eyes meet, and she swallows hard.
“I’d like to kiss you.”
Natasha blinks in surprise, but she covers quickly with a wry laugh. “What, you want to tell your friends you got a kiss from the Black Widow and lived to tell about it?”
“No, I want to kiss Natasha Romanoff. And I won't tell anyone if you don't want me to.”
Natasha's nonchalant smile fades, her brow furrows, and for a moment she looks almost stricken.
“I'm... not sure how I feel about that.” She steps away and Maria can see the last of her defenses sliding coolly back into place.
“I should go.”
She only takes one step backward, there's less than an arm's length between them, but to Maria they may as well be worlds apart. The woman in front of her is not the one who was curled up in her bathtub, on her sofa, or in her bed just the night before. She is not Natasha Romanoff; she is the Black Widow, and she is untouchable.
She pulls the hood up over her head, turns on her heel and pulls the door open forcefully in front of her. Maria watches her carefully as she strides away down the hall, but she doesn't look back, even for a moment. Within seconds, she rounds the corner and is gone, leaving Maria standing in the doorway, her head reeling.
By the time Monday morning rolls around, Maria has mostly managed to return to life as usual. The first few hours she spends in her office are remarkably productive as she forces herself to focus on her work, rather than reliving the events of her weekend. Not that there is much for her to dwell on; the rest of her weekend had been one failed attempt after another to get Natasha out of her mind.
She’d spent the rest of Saturday binge-watching TV, trying not to remember the way her hair felt swirling between her fingers or the weight of her body curled up next to her in bed. A glass of scotch – she’d stashed what was left of the vodka in the back of the liquor cabinet and carefully avoided it for the rest of the weekend – and then another, and another, helped her think about anything but the blood and glass in her shoulder and the angry, purple bruise blossoming across her ribs.
Mercifully, the rain stopped by Sunday morning, so she had gone for a run in the park like she’d been looking forward to doing all week. She turned the volume of her music up much too high, trying to drown out the sound of her voice quoting along with the movie. She pushed herself too hard during her run, trying to escape the dead look in her eyes in the bathroom mirror. After her run, she stood under a scalding hot shower, trying to forget the light in her eyes as they laughed over coffee, that same light going cold before she turned her back and walked out into the rain, off to wherever it is she goes when she disappears for months at a time.
Now, Maria sits at her desk, trying to decide whether to dive into her next task or take an early lunch. A knock on her door brings her out of her deliberations. She looks up to find Pepper standing in the doorway, balancing a coffee mug on top of a small stack of files.
“Hello Maria. Did you have a good weekend?”
“It was fine, thanks.” She hopes her smile doesn’t look too forced. She really doesn’t want to have to explain to Pepper what happened. “How was yours?”
“I can’t complain. I went out for drinks with a few friends on Saturday night. We’re planning on going out again next weekend or the weekend after, too. You should come with us.” Pepper offers, her eyes bright.
Maria sees right through her. “Are you going to try to set me up with any of them?” she asks, somewhat apprehensively.
Pepper laughs good-naturedly. “Not if you don’t want me to. Like I said on Friday, I just think it’s a shame that you’re alone so often.”
“I appreciate that, Pepper, but really, I’m fine.”
Pepper shrugs, masterfully avoiding spilling her coffee as she does so. “Well, if you change your mind, the offer stands.”
Pepper smiles at her again, then turns and continues on down the hallway. Just as Maria is about to focus her attention back on her work, the sound of Pepper’s heels stops short. Her voice carries from the other end of the hall, nearly stopping Maria’s heart.
“Ms. Romanoff, hello! It’s been awhile... Goodness, what happened to your eye?”
“Come on, Pepper, you know the first and second rules of Fight Club.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry I asked,” Pepper laughs. “What brings you here, though?”
“Actually, I’m here to see Hill.”
“Hill?” Maria can hear the curiosity in Pepper’s voice all the way down the hall. “Her office is two doors down on the right.”
“You’re very welcome. It’s good to see you again, Natasha.”
Maria can’t quite hear Natasha’s reply, but seconds later the sound of Pepper’s heels continue on down the hall, and the sound of Natasha’s footsteps grow closer and closer. Maria scrambles for something to do so she won’t look like she’d been eavesdropping on their conversation. She pulls up a message chosen at random from her inbox and frowns at it in what she hopes is a convincing display of concentration.
She looks up when Natasha raps a knuckle lightly on her door. The first thing Maria notices is how her black eye has bloomed into an array of colors which she hasn’t bothered to conceal. She still looks tired, withered, and miserable, but only deep under the surface. Despite the black eye, the hood pulled up over her head, and the same closed-off, guarded look she wore the last time she saw her, Natasha manages to exude her usual swagger and nonchalance.
“Romanoff, hello, I...”
Natasha interrupts her. “Do you have a minute?”
“Of course. Come in.” Maria gestures to a chair, but Natasha ignores it, instead choosing to stand next to the opposite side of the desk.
Natasha shifts the paper grocery bag she’d been carrying tucked under one arm off her hip and sets it on Maria’s desk. It clinks faintly against the wood. Maria raises a curious eyebrow at her.
“These are yours. I came to return them.”
Maria slides the bag a little closer and reaches inside. She finds her jeans, t-shirt, sweatshirt and jacket, all freshly laundered and neatly folded, with her belt wrapped around them in a tidy bundle.
“Thank you.” She’s unsure what else to say. There’s a tension between them, not quite uncomfortable, but certainly unsure. Maria searches Natasha’s face for any hint of how to break the silence.
For a moment, Natasha looks like she is considering bolting again. Then, she takes a deep breath and lets it go slowly. The corner of her lip curves upward in a lopsided smile as she props her hip casually on the edge of Maria’s desk.
“There’s more.” She pushes the bag closer to Maria.
Maria stares at her for a minute, then reaches into the bag apprehensively. Her hand tightens around the neck of a glass bottle, and she can’t help but laugh as she pulls it out of the bag. It’s a bottle of vodka, identical to the one from her liquor cabinet, except this one is full and it isn’t smeared with blood.
She grins at Natasha, who is trying not to look too pleased with herself. “You didn’t have to do that. I told you I don’t care about the vodka. I don’t drink it that often...”
“I know: you prefer scotch. I got you some of that, too.”
Maria’s eyebrows rise in surprise as she digs through the bag to find a bottle of scotch in a heavy cardboard tube. She studies the label in amazement.
“Thank you,” Natasha says quietly, her voice as earnest as Maria has ever heard it, a rare moment of sincerity untempered by a protective layer of dry humor. Her eyes don’t meet Maria’s; she just stares at her own hands in her lap.
Maria only nods, smiling kindly. She’s not sure what else there is to say.
Natasha’s eyes flit suddenly up to Maria’s face and hold her gaze.
“Do you still want that kiss?”
Maria blinks in surprise, her heart rising into her throat. She searches Natasha’s eyes for any hint that she’s joking, but surprisingly she finds none.
“Yes,” she answers softly. “Yes, of course.”
Natasha bites her lower lip as she shifts her hips closer to Maria. She leans one hand on the desk and cups the side of her face with the other, pulling the two of them even closer together. Maria shivers as Natasha slides her hand lower, running her fingers through the hair on the back of her neck, thumb brushing along her jawline right below her ear. She pauses, hesitating for just a moment before pressing her lips to Maria's. Maria leans into the kiss, bracing both hands on her desk.
The kiss is simple but firm, sweet-metallic lingering just a few seconds longer than either of them really anticipated.
Natasha breaks the kiss gently, leaving her hand on Maria's neck. She smirks a little at how it takes Maria’s eyes a second to flutter open. As her eyes refocus, her whole face lights up with her smile.
Natasha smiles back, her hand drifting from Maria’s neck to her collarbone. Her fingers curl around the unbuttoned collar of Maria’s shirt, and her thumb and forefinger fidget with a button for a moment. She surprises Maria by pressing another quick kiss to her lips before releasing her hold on her collar and sliding gracefully off the desk. She gives Maria a small, sheepish half-nod, then turns to leave.
Even though Maria’s brain is still coming back online, she manages to form words before Natasha reaches the door. “Have you eaten?”
Natasha pauses, blinking, taken aback. She hesitates for only an instant, but Maria notices.
“That's a no. Have lunch with me?”
“I'm not hungry.”
“Dinner later, then?”
“Maria, I can't...”
Stung, Maria interrupts her so she doesn’t have to hear her excuse. “It's ok, I get it. I didn't mean to push. Just...” she sighs, concern furrowing her brow, “make sure you eat something, ok?”
Natasha she nods slightly, her eyes downcast, then turns on her heel and is gone.
Frustrated, Maria sends the files on her desk flying with a swipe of her hand. After the way Natasha left over the weekend, Maria wasn’t sure she’d ever see her again, and now that she miraculously had the chance to smooth things over, she fucked it up. Typical.
She takes a few deep breaths to try to calm herself down. Gritting her teeth, she stoops to pick up the papers scattered across her office floor. She mentally berates herself, both for coming on too strong and for losing her temper. It’s going to take her hours to put those files back together...
Just as she sets the messy stack of papers back onto her desk and flops heavily into her chair, Pepper leans into her office, a sly, inquisitive smile on her face.
“So... what was that all about?” Pepper’s voice is teasing, almost sing-songy as she unabashedly fishes for gossip.
Maria huffs, shaking her head. “Nothing.”
Pepper drops her teasing tone at Maria’s curt response, concern creeping into her expression.
“Nothing happened, Pepper,” Maria insists a little too sharply.
Pepper lifts a puzzled eyebrow, then her eyes widen as the realization hits her. Maria curses herself silently for being so transparent.
“Don’t,” Maria cuts her off. “Just don’t. I don’t want to talk about it. Nothing happened, and that’s the end of it.” She squeezes her eyes shut and pinches the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger, trying to ward off the tension headache she knows is coming.
“I’m sorry, Maria. If you change your mind and want to talk about it later, you know where to find me.” Pepper judiciously heads for the door. Maria only nods in response.
Once Pepper is gone, Maria takes a few more deep breaths, then turns her attention to reorganizing the files she disarrayed. She finds the task oddly comforting. It requires a significant amount of her attention, so she’s able to lose herself in the sheets of paper. Tony often pokes fun at her for being ‘old-fashioned’ enough to still prefer to have paper copies of documents when electronic copies are so much more convenient, but in this moment she’s glad she hasn’t given them up yet. She really needs the distraction.
She lets herself get so caught up in the files that she actually jumps when the text alert on her personal cell phone breaks her concentration nearly an hour and a half later. She rummages in her jacket pocket for her phone and frowns at the blocked number on the screen. The message contains only an attached image. For a few seconds, she considers just deleting the messages unopened, but quickly changes her mind. She can’t imagine why anyone would send anything insidious to a phone she barely uses. She’s just being paranoid. Maria unlocks the screen and opens the attachment.
It’s a photo of a mostly-eaten grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup.
Maria lets her breath out in a whoosh, almost laughing in astonishment. Maybe she didn’t fuck up as badly as she thought she had. The flutter returns to the pit of her stomach as she types out a reply.
She hits send and waits, staring at the screen. After a minute or so, her text alert pings again.
She studies the photo, trying to come up with something else to say.
is that the new place over on 7th?
This time, the reply comes almost right away.
I’ll have to try it sometime
Several minutes go by without a response. Disappointed, Maria is just about to put her phone away when the screen lights up again. Her pulse quickens at the message.
The flutter in her stomach turns into a slowly radiating heat that colors her cheeks and the tips of her ears. She types a reply, deletes it, types it out again, and re-reads it before finally hitting send.
sure. meet you there around 1?
A minute goes by, then another, then another. Maria runs her fingertips over her lips absent-mindedly, remembering the feel of Natasha’s lips against hers. The entire situation seems so surreal. Three days ago, she planned to spend yet another weekend alone. Now, she’s re-living a kiss and agonizing over text messages like a teenager.
She pulls the paper bag into her lap and re-examines its contents to convince herself that the events of the past few days actually happened. The weight of the two bottles of liquor is reassuring, and her old West Point t-shirt feels soft and familiar in her hands. Just as she pictures Natasha standing in her living room wearing her shirt and jeans, her phone chimes one more time. She takes a deep breath, then unlocks her screen. Her heart leaps into her throat as she reads Natasha’s response:
it’s a date :)
Maria stares in disbelief at the broken hair tie in her hand. Huffing in annoyance, she tosses the useless strand of elastic into the wastebasket and begins rummaging through her desk drawers and in her bag for a spare. Her search comes up empty; there isn’t even one wrapped around the handle of the hairbrush in her gym bag.
“Shit,” she mumbles again around a mouthful of hair pins. For a few brief seconds, she debates pulling the old hair tie out of the trash and trying to repair it with a knot, but she decides against it. She takes the pins out of her mouth and sets them in a small pile on her desk, shaking out her hair with her other hand.
Her hair falls well past her shoulders in uneven waves. It’s kinked in the middle from having been tied back all morning. It’s kinked from being pulled back all the time, actually; she can’t even remember how long she’s worn her hair in a customary bun at the nape of her neck. Using the camera on her phone as a mirror, she attempts to fuss her hair into some sort of presentable style, scowling at her reflection the whole time. Just as she finally gives up and forces herself to leave her hair alone, an alert flashes across her screen: Lunch with Natasha: 15 minutes.
She shoves her phone into a pocket, checks that she has her keys and wallet, and rushes for the elevator.
The ride down to the lobby is infuriatingly long. It seems like there’s someone getting on or off at every single floor. To make matters even more unpleasant, the doors part on the 12th floor and a petite woman in a lab coat steps into the mostly-full car. Maria pointedly ignores her, hoping that the tablet in the woman’s hands will occupy her attention long enough for her to make it to the ground floor unnoticed, but luck does not seem to be on her side today.
“Maria? Hi. Sorry, I didn’t recognize you with your hair down.”
“Hello, Alyssa,” Maria answers, hoping she doesn’t look as uncomfortable as she feels. “Yeah, I broke my hair tie and I couldn’t find a spare.”
Alyssa gives her a quick, sympathetic look and returns her attention to her tablet without so much as another word. In the silence that follows, Maria mentally slaps herself upside the head. No wonder she didn’t want to go out with you, she thinks to herself, cringing at her lackluster attempt at small talk. It doesn’t bode well for her impending lunch date, for which she will be unacceptably late if she’s stuck on this elevator. Impatiently, she sweeps her bangs away from her eyes and wills the elevator to go faster, but it doesn’t seem to help.
Eventually, the doors open on the ground floor and everyone shuffles into the lobby. Alyssa gets swept along with the flow of people, tossing a distracted “see you around” over her shoulder as she goes.
When Maria pulls her phone out of her pocket to check, the clock says 12:51. Those were six exceptionally long minutes, but at least she isn’t running too late. Maria makes it out of the building without further incident and takes off down the sidewalk on foot. With her long, purposeful strides, she makes it to the corner by the sandwich shop in no time at all. She slows her pace as she rounds the corner, instinctively scanning the sidewalk and the inside of the shop as she approaches.
There’s no sign of Natasha.
Maria checks her phone again: no messages, and the time is 1:03. She stuffs the phone back into her pocket and continues past the door, not wanting to wait inside for Natasha to show up.
Or not show up.
The possibility of being stood up turns Maria’s stomach. She quickens her step in an attempt to regain her composure.
“You were about to circle the block so you wouldn’t be the first one here, weren’t you?”
Much to her relief, Maria turns to find Natasha reaching for the sandwich shop door. As usual, she seems to have appeared out of nowhere.
Maria releases her breath in a surprised laugh. “I was, actually. Hi.”
“Hi.” Natasha pulls the door open and holds it, ushering Maria inside.
At first, all Maria can think about is how overdressed she is for this little hole-in-the-wall place. Her slacks and well-cut blazer are only a small step away from being uniform-like, and she feels out of place next to Natasha’s jeans and Converse. Although, she thinks to herself, Natasha could probably show up to a black tie event in jeans and Converse and not look out of place.
The next thing she notices, however, drives all other thoughts out of her mind: the inside of the shop smells amazing. In the time she spends taking in the scents of warm bread, fresh coffee, and something hot off the grill, Natasha strides up to the counter, places her order, and turns to grab a table in the corner. Maria takes only a quick glance at a take-out menu before tucking it into her pocket to take back to her office later. She orders the first thing that catches her eye – although pretty much everything on the menu looks delicious – and hurries to join Natasha at the table.
The two of them sit for a while in silence, until Natasha finally meets Maria’s eyes. “You thought I wasn’t going to show up.” Her voice is solemn, her eyes dark, and not just from the black eye that’s just beginning to fade.
Maria knows better than to try to deny it. “When I got here and I didn’t see you? Yes, I thought you might not come at all. Kind of like how I thought I’d never see you again after you left my apartment on Saturday. Or after you left my office on Monday...”
Maria isn’t sure how to respond; whatever she expected Natasha to say, it wasn’t “I’m sorry.”
Natasha takes a deep breath and continues. “I’m sorry for my behavior this weekend. To put it lightly, I haven't really been myself these past few months. Not that I've ever really been myself, but with S.H.I.E.L.D. I was starting to build a version of myself that I could actually stand to live in. Now that S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone, I'm not that person anymore. I'm not really anyone anymore."
She trails off, lost in thought. Her eyes carry the same heaviness that Maria saw over the weekend, a heaviness that she's coming to realize Natasha has been carrying for a long time. Maria says nothing, simply waiting for Natasha to collect her thoughts and continue.
"I'm used to carefully orchestrating who is attracted to me, and when, and for which reasons. All of my past relationships were on my terms, with people I pursued, or whose advances I'd seen coming. But you? You saw me at my worst: drunk, bleeding, miserable, depressed... and you wanted me anyway. That’s never happened to me before. I didn’t actually think it was possible for someone to want me without an ulterior motive, or without effort on my part. And it scared me, so I ran away. Twice. To be honest, it still scares me. But that’s really no excuse. It wasn’t fair for me to leave so abruptly, especially after you were nothing but kind to me. You deserve better than that.”
“You don’t owe me anything,” Maria insists sternly. “I accept your apology, and I’m glad you didn’t stand me up, but you really don’t owe me anything. You came to me for help, and I was happy to give it. End of story. You’re under no obligation to spend time with me, or kiss me, or anything like that. I would never ask that of you; I hope you know that.”
Natasha only stares at her, looking somewhat nonplussed.
“I’m serious: if you’re here because you feel like you owe it to me and not because you want to be, please just leave.”
Maria realizes her hands are shaking, so much so that the table they’re resting on has also begun to shake. She balls her hands into fists and starts to move them off the table, but Natasha reaches out to stop her. The two of them sit motionless, Natasha’s hands resting lightly on Maria’s, until Maria stops shaking and uncurls her fingers.
“Don’t worry: I’m here because I want to be.” A small smile spreads across Natasha’s face. Maria can’t help but smile back.
Too soon, the woman behind the counter pushes two trays of food across the counter in their general direction, bringing both of them back to the moment. Maria tries to stand and retrieve them, but Natasha squeezes her hands and gets to her feet.
“I’ve got it. It’s my turn, anyway.”
As Natasha pays for their sandwiches, the woman behind the counter catches Maria’s eye and gives her a knowing smirk and a wink. Maria feels her ears start to burn. She self-consciously tucks her hair behind her ear, feeling a little foolish.
“So. Lunch date,” Natasha prompts, setting the trays on the table and sliding back into her chair across from Maria.
“Lunch date,” Maria echoes. She begins to reach up to fidget with a loose strand of hair, but she forces herself to leave it alone, silently cursing her broken hair tie yet again. “I haven’t been on a date in a long time,” she admits.
“And I’ve never been on a date with a person who’s not only read but also probably wrote my dossier.” Natasha smirks, then takes a bite of her sandwich.
“I didn’t write it, but I have read it, yes.” Maria has read all her files. At one time, it was her job to know everything about the agents and assets under her command. The Black Widow’s files read like some sort of dystopian sci-fi thriller, and Agent Romanoff’s weren’t much better. Maria shudders, recalling some of the darker details, things only a handful of people in S.H.I.E.L.D. had clearance to know. None of them make for good conversation topics.
Maria chooses her next words carefully. “As Deputy Director of S.H.I.E.L.D., I was privy to a great deal of information about you. I won’t pretend I don’t know things I’m sure both of us would rather I didn’t know. But you said it yourself: you’re not a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent anymore. None of the information in those files really applies in this context. I want to get to know you, Natasha. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do on a first date?”
Natasha doesn’t answer, but she visibly relaxes, clearly reassured by Maria’s words. She takes another bite of her sandwich, and Maria follows suit.
“What do you want to know?” Natasha asks once her mouth is no longer full.
Maria studies her thoughtfully, at a loss for anything to ask. “Everything? Anything? To be honest, all the trivial, what’s-your-favorite-book, what’s-your-taste-in-music kinds of questions seem trite, and anything more personal feels like an interrogation.”
“I know what you mean.”
“For now, we could stick to volunteering information about ourselves,” Maria suggests tentatively. “That way we only share what we want to, and no one feels weird about asking or answering questions.”
Natasha’s eyes light up at the suggestion, and Maria is a little taken aback by how enthusiastic she is about the idea.
“We could make a game out of it,” Natasha suggests with a sly smile. “How about this: I’ll tell you two things that are true about myself, and one thing that isn’t, and you try to figure out which is which.”
“Two Truths and a Lie? Is this a date or a slumber party?” Maria teases, but she has no intention of vetoing the idea.
“Indulge me. I didn’t exactly get to have slumber parties when I was growing up.”
Maria’s face must register the wave of horror that sweeps over her at the implication behind Natasha’s retort, because Natasha reaches for her hand again. “Relax, I was joking.”
Even though Natasha’s small half-smile is reassuring, Maria makes a mental note to be more careful about what she says. “Okay then. Two Truths and a Lie. Do you want me to –“
“It was my idea, I’ll go first.” Natasha takes another bite and chews slowly, deciding what to say. She hums quietly to herself, staring into the middle distance as she thinks. “Got it. Ready?”
Maria studies her carefully, examining her neutral expression and relaxed body language. The mild adrenaline rush that usually accompanies the emergence of her competitive side quickens her pulse, and for a moment she regrets agreeing to a game of detect the lie with a master spy. Natasha is damned near unreadable. No backing out now, she thinks to herself. “Ready.”
Natasha’s lip twitches, giving the merest hint of a smile as she recites her three “facts”. “I have never been to New Orleans, but I’ve always wanted to go; I have the high score on three different pinball machines in three different bars in Brooklyn; and I am allergic to mushrooms. Not swell-up-and-die allergic, just break-out-in-hives-and-get-sick-to-my-stomach allergic.”
When she’s finished, Natasha remains infuriatingly unreadable. Her left eyebrow is raised to go along with her small smirk, making her look incredibly confident and self-satisfied. Maria recognizes her expression from the sparring ring when Natasha used to beat the stuffing out of new recruits and seasoned S.H.I.E.L.D. agents alike. She’s in her element, clearly enjoying herself, and Maria admits it’s incredibly attractive. Attractive and distracting. Maria narrows her eyes, refusing to admit she has no idea which thing Natasha is lying about.
“If it helps, you can interrogate me a little before you give me an answer.” Natasha’s smile widens and Maria locks eyes with her, preparing an onslaught of questions for her.
“Weren’t you on the mission with the arms dealer during Mardi Gras in ’09?”
“Broke my ribs the week before, so I was on medical leave. Barton went instead, and he never let me forget it.” Natasha replies without batting an eye. Nothing. Maria scours her brain, but she can’t for the life of her remember ever sending Natasha to New Orleans. Still, it seems very far-fetched that Natasha has never been there in all of her extensive world travels. Maybe she’ll give something away on one of the other facts.
Maria tries again. “S.H.I.E.L.D. had no record of your allergy.”
“I never mentioned it. It’s an inconvenience, not a liability, and it never came up.” Natasha shrugs coolly.
Maria is not convinced. Strategically speaking, the simplest lies are more likely to be overlooked. On the other hand, the pinball thing is just random enough to be true, yet too specific to be true at the same time.
“Where in Brooklyn are your high scores?”
“My highest is on the Theater of Magic table at a place called High Dive. The other two are on the AC/DC table at Glorietta Baldy and the Iron Man table at the Brooklyn Ice House, but I don’t remember which is higher. Also, if you tell Stark about the Iron Man table, I will kill you in your sleep.” Natasha’s expression remains perfectly neutral as she rattles off the information, and her body language gives no hint as to whether or not she’s telling the truth. Maria is still pretty sure the details are too specific to be true, but then again, either of the others could also be lies. Natasha is giving her nothing, so she does what she usually does when concrete intel fails her: she follows her gut.
“Bullshit. There’s no way you’re that good at pinball.”
“It’s true!” Natasha insists, somewhat indignantly.
“Nice try, Romanoff. I’ll believe it when I see it. I’m sticking with my answer.”
“Your wrong answer, you mean?”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Maria repeats stubbornly, committing to her choice.
“Fine. I’ll prove it to you sometime, and when I do, you owe me a drink.”
“I’ll owe you a night’s worth of drinks,” Maria agrees, covering for her wavering confidence in her answer. It’s too late to change it now. The best she can hope for is that Natasha won’t get the chance to prove her wrong.
“Deal.” Natasha grins and picks her drink up off her tray. She shifts her weight and bends her knee, propping a foot up on the edge of her chair and scratching distractedly at the healing knife wound hidden under her jeans. “Your turn,” she prompts, biting down on the end of her straw.
Maria finishes the last few bites of her lunch to stall for time. Once she makes up her mind about what to say, she breathes deeply, putting on her very best poker face. Natasha watches her casually, almost looking bored. Maria is momentarily distracted by the way her fingers play across her cup lid, pressing down the little “Cola,” “Diet,” and “Other” bubbles absent-mindedly, one by one.
Maria levels her gaze to Natasha’s eyes. “I was almost on season two of Top Shot; I have a tattoo; and I play the trumpet,” she states evenly. “You can interrogate me, too, if you want.”
Whereas Maria’s questions for Natasha were rapid-fire, Natasha’s questions are almost conversational.
“I’ve never seen Top Shot. Tell me about it.”
“It’s a marksmanship competition. They divide the contestants into teams and give them challenges each week with different weapons, everything from side arms and machine guns to cannons and bows. Sometimes there are obstacle courses, sometimes the challenges are timed, and they send people home one by one until someone wins. It’s a pretty standard competition/reality show.”
“Sounds fun. I’ll make sure to watch a few episodes sometime.” Natasha takes a long sip through her straw. “What do you mean when you say you were “almost” on season two?”
“I sent in an audition tape, and I made it through all the rounds of casting. The problem was, I didn’t expect to make it that far, and I had to turn them down because I couldn’t get the time off work.”
“That’s a shame.”
“I was happy enough just to have made it that far.”
Natasha only nods, then picks at her sandwich. Maria does her best to remain neutral while she waits for another question.
“Where’s your tattoo?”
Maria shifts sideways in her chair and lifts her left arm, pressing her right palm to her ribs. “Right here.”
“And what is it?”
“Stars. Constellations, actually. Orion and Ursa Major. Not the whole thing, just the big dipper part.”
Natasha raises her eyebrows, intrigued. “Interesting choice. What’s the significance?”
“Well, Orion is a winter constellation, so it was in the sky when I was born. I learned the story of Orion when I was a kid, and it really stuck with me.”
“I don’t think I know that one.”
Maria isn’t sure Natasha’s being serious or whether she’s asking to try and trip her up, but she tells her the story anyway.
“Orion was a hunter and a good friend to the goddess Artemis. Artemis’s twin brother, Apollo, was jealous of their friendship, so one day he dared Artemis to shoot her bow at a target way out at sea. Of course, she took the shot, and hit the target, but it turns out the target was Orion, who was out for a swim. Artemis was devastated that she let her pride trick her into killing her friend, so she honored him by putting him in the stars. The story – and the tattoo it inspired – remind me that there can be consequences to being driven by pride and arrogance, and that other people might use my pride against me if I am not careful.”
Natasha smiles when Maria finishes her story. “Marksmanship competitions and target shooting gone awry, hmm? You and Barton should be drinking buddies.” She laughs and takes another sip of her drink. “What about the big dipper part?”
“That one’s less sentimental. It’s a circumpolar constellation, so it’s always visible, no matter what season it is. It’s an easy constellation to identify, and it points the way to Polaris, the North Star. I got it because, to me, it stands for constancy, reliability, leadership, that sort of thing.”
“I didn’t take you for the sentimental type.”
“What can I say? I was eighteen.” Maria grins. It’s amazing how at ease she feels talking to Natasha like this, considering she knows she’s watching every move she makes and analyzing every inflection in her voice.
Natasha changes topics abruptly, probably in another attempt to trip Maria up. “How long have you played?”
Maria doesn’t miss a beat. “I started with the trumpet when I was ten. I also play the cornet and bugle, but I didn’t pick those up until high school.”
“And you still play?”
“Not as much as I’d like. Now that I’m no longer on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s schedule, though, I suppose I could get back into it.”
“You must really enjoy it to have kept up with it this long.”
Maria chuckles. “I hated it when I first started. I couldn’t stand the way playing made my lips feel,” her face scrunches up and she bites her lips at the thought, “but I was too stubborn to quit.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?” Natasha laughs at her, a low, friendly sound, and Maria is once again distracted by the way her straw sits tucked between her teeth, resting against her lower lip. “What kind of music do you play?”
“I started out with classical, but I played with the jazz band in high school and I loved it. I did a lot of drum and bugle corps kinds of things in high school and at the Academy, too, but jazz is still my favorite.”
Natasha stares into Maria’s eyes for a few heartbeats, her brow just barely furrowed. She chews thoughtfully on the end of her straw. “I’m impressed, Hill. I have no idea which of those is a lie,” she admits.
“Do you give up?” Maria taunts, failing spectacularly to hide how incredibly pleased she is with herself.
“No, don’t tell me. I want to figure it out for myself.”
“Fine by me. Give me a call when you’re ready to admit defeat.”
“I’ll call you when I know I’m right. Shouldn’t be too long after I’ve proven you wrong about my pinball wizardry.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Maria repeats. She laughs good-naturedly, and Natasha joins in. It seems surreal that, after a few years of working together amidst gunfire and spy gear and covert missions, the two of them are sitting in a deli trading friendly trash talk over a trivial, almost juvenile game. On a date, of all things.
As Maria contemplates the absurdity of their situation, the email alert on her Stark Industries-issued phone goes off. She must have forgotten to put it on silent in her rush to meet Natasha earlier. Giving Natasha an apologetic look, she glances at the screen. The subject line is uninteresting, but the clock at the top of her screen catches her eye. It’s already past 2:00.
“I need to get back to work soon,” Maria sighs reluctantly.
“Pepper won’t mind if you’re late.”
“You know as well as I do that’s not true.”
Natasha shrugs casually and smirks. “Yeah, I know. It was worth a shot. Come on, I’ll walk with you as far as the subway, if you want.”
They stand, and Maria gathers their trays so she can return them. The woman behind the counter winks at her again when she hands them over, and this time Maria smiles back at her. With a wave, she wishes them both a good day as they exit the shop.
The walk to the subway is a short one, and it passes quickly. When they reach the green railing at the entrance, Maria stops and turns to face Natasha.
“Thank you for lunch.”
“It was my pleasure. You know, I always thought highly of you as Commander Hill, but after this week, I think I like you better as feet-on-the-coffee-table, hair-down, mustard-on-your-face Hill.”
Maria’s heart leaps in exhilaration at Natasha’s praise, but it very quickly sinks in mortification as she fully processes her words. “I have mustard on my face?” Instinctively, her hand flies up to cover the lower half of her face.
“Just a little, right by the corner of your mouth.”
Maria paws gracelessly at her face in a bashful attempt to clean it.
Natasha laughs at her, stepping closer. “Here, let me...” Her hand reaches up, and Maria freezes as her thumb glides deftly across her chin, just below her lower lip. “Got it.” She lowers her hand but stays close, hips almost but not quite brushing against Maria’s.
“Thanks.” Even though her pulse races, Maria decides to try her luck. She takes Natasha by the waist and pulls her even closer. Pausing just long enough for Natasha to pull away if she wants to, she leans down to kiss her in one smooth motion. To her amazement, Natasha lifts up on her toes to meet her, keeping her balance with the help of her hands on Maria’s hips.
They part before they attract too much attention on the street corner, Natasha sinking back onto her heels and Maria reluctantly letting go of her waist.
Natasha takes a step backwards, putting space between them. It’s more space than Maria would like, but unlike Saturday morning, Natasha is still within reach. “Do you have plans this weekend?” Natasha asks casually, tucking her hands into her pockets.
“Not really, no.”
“Do you want to grab a drink tomorrow night?”
Maria has to work hard to contain the grin that threatens to take over her face. “I’d like that. Do you know a place?”
“I’ll text you the address. Nine o’clock?”
The rumbling, screeching sounds of a train approaching drift up from the subway. Natasha glances in the direction of the stairs and starts to head towards them.
“I want to catch this train...” she starts, her expression apologetic.
“Go. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Maria waves her on and smiles reassuringly.
“Okay, bye.” Natasha turns and almost instantly blends seamlessly into the handful of people rushing for the train, vanishing down the steps in a few smooth strides.
Maria watches her go. This time, the sinking feeling that she’s never going to see her again is conspicuously absent. In its place is the elated disbelief that she merits a second date, along with the fluttering sensation in her stomach that’s starting to become incredibly familiar.
One thing is certain: she’s going to have a very hard time focusing on her work for the rest of the week.
Those of you who want to play along at home, please feel free to guess which ones are the lies in the comments!
(cw for depression, PTSD, anger issues, self-harm, and misogynistic and homophobic language)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The address Natasha texts her late on Friday afternoon turns out to be a small bar in Bed Stuy, only a short walk from the C. Even though she descends the steps from the elevated track a few minutes earlier than she’d anticipated, Maria is pleasantly surprised to find Natasha standing on the corner waiting for her. She’s distracted by her phone at first, but she looks up as Maria approaches, smiling widely.
“Hey there.” Natasha leans close to greet Maria with a kiss on the cheek and a barely-contained smirk.
“Hey yourself. Have you been waiting long?”
Natasha shakes her head. “I wanted to be here early so you wouldn’t worry about being stood up again.”
“I appreciate that, thank you.”
Natasha brushes off her thanks with a small measure of diffidence. “Come on, the place is just around the corner.”
Maria follows a step behind her, wondering what’s so special about this bar that has Natasha almost buzzing with excitement. From the outside, it looks pretty much like any other bar of its kind in Brooklyn. The whole shop front is made up of large windows with plain black trim, and the name of the bar is printed in neat white capital letters on the left side of the awning: GLORIETTA BALDY. The name sounds familiar, but it takes Maria a moment to remember why. When she does, her confidence falters. Apparently, Natasha is about to call her bluff. Her competitive side backpedals, searching for a way to avoid being proven wrong. If Natasha notices her hesitation, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she takes Maria by the wrist and guides her into the bar.
The place is mostly full, but the crowd is fluid, moving out of their way without much effort. There’s a space open at the far end of the bar, but to Maria’s surprise Natasha passes it by. As they pass, the bartender waves and beams at Natasha over the heads of the people sitting at the bar.
“Hey Natasha! Look at you, out on a Friday night. I don’t usually see you with the weekend crowd,” the bartender calls over the hum of the crowded bar.
“Hi Priya. It’s good to see you, too.”
“Make sure you give someone else a turn on the tables tonight, okay?” Priya teases amicably.
“I’m not here to play; I’m just here to settle a bet. We’ll be right back,” Natasha counters, smiling wolfishly.
As Natasha starts to pull Maria through the crowd to the back of the bar, Priya catches her eye and gives her a sympathetic sort of half-smile. Maria wrinkles her nose and shakes her head in a show of mock recalcitrance as Natasha leads her away. Priya laughs at her, then returns her attention to the other patrons.
The other side of the long, narrow room ends in a small alcove off to the right. Natasha rounds the corner and turns to give Maria a wide, self-satisfied grin. Maria peers around the corner apprehensively.
There are two pinball machines against the far wall: a black one with “Metallica” emblazoned on the side and, wedged against the wall, a red one with AC/DC across the backboard. Both machines have someone at their controls, but it doesn’t take long for the person at the AC/DC table to lose, banging his fist on the edge of the table and swearing.
Natasha elbows eagerly past him when he grabs his beer and walks away. She leans on the machine and cocks her thumb at the display, still grinning at Maria. The top three scores flash across the screen in bright red letters. At the top of the list are the initials NAR and a score in excess of 5.5 billion points.
Maria has no choice but to throw up her hands in defeat. “Okay, fine, you win,” she concedes. She tries to scowl at Natasha, but her smile is too infectious. It’s the same self-satisfied, confident expression from the sparring ring again, and it makes Maria want to pin her against the wall with a kiss. Somehow, she resists.
“Come on, I owe you a drink.”
They make their way back to the bar, where Natasha wedges in between two people and catches Priya’s attention. She orders something Maria can’t quite hear over the commotion, then gestures to Maria. Maria has to press up against Natasha’s back and lean over her shoulder to get close enough for Priya to hear her. Natasha doesn’t seem to mind, though; she leans her shoulders back against Maria’s chest, maximizing the contact between them.
Maria tries to order something off the list on the chalkboard behind the bar – a local microbrew with a rude-sounding name – but she trips over her words, remembering the way Natasha spooned into her in her bed last weekend. She swears inwardly, hoping no one will notice how flustered she is, but a quick glance at Priya’s amused but politely discreet expression dashes that hope.
While they wait for their drinks, Natasha manages to commandeer the bar stool she’s standing next to. Maria misses the closeness of her the instant she moves away, but she keeps her distance anyway, unable to find a subtle way to keep contact. Before long, the guy on the stool behind Maria gets up and heads for the bathroom. Natasha takes the opportunity to hook the rungs of the stool with her foot, dragging it closer to hers. The stool catches the back of Maria’s legs as Natasha pulls on it, and she sinks down onto it to avoid falling into Natasha’s lap. They sit, knees touching, until Priya returns with their beers.
Maria takes her drink and hands Priya her card in return. “I’m buying both of our drinks for the rest of the night,” she explains, tossing Natasha a fake scowl.
Priya picks up the card and chuckles. “I take it you lost the bet?”
“She didn’t believe I’m good at pinball,” Natasha gloats.
“Rookie mistake, friend. Natasha’s in here on that machine all the time.”
“Well, I know that now.”
Priya laughs again before excusing herself to the other end of the bar.
Once Priya is gone, Natasha grabs her glass off the bar and lifts it in Maria’s direction in a silent toast. Maria clinks her own glass against Natasha’s with a nod, and they both drink.
“So, you’re here frequently enough to be on a first-name basis with the bartender, huh? Using your actual first name, no less.” Maria’s not sure whether to be impressed or concerned.
Natasha shrugs. “The beer is good, and people usually leave me alone when I’m playing, so I’m in here a lot. Well, here or a few other places with machines. I’ve gotten really good over these past few months. Sometimes I just need to get a little drunk and lose myself in flashing lights, you know? It’s a good distraction.” She stares off into space, nursing her beer and starting to look stormy again.
Maria nudges her knee to bring her back. “We don’t have to talk about that right now if you don’t want to.” Natasha takes another sip of beer, looking grateful over the edge of her glass. Maria scrambles to find another topic of conversation. “Since the pinball thing is true, were you lying about New Orleans or mushrooms?”
Natasha sits up a little straighter on her stool, her eyes starting to light up again at the mention of their game. “I’m not going to tell you; you have to guess.”
“That didn’t work out so well for me last time.” Maria grimaces, pointing with her thumb in the general direction of the pinball machines in the back.
“Come on, you’ve got a 50/50 shot.”
“Fine. I've been thinking about it, and I’m pretty sure there's no way you've managed to travel this much of the world without ever going to New Orleans.”
“Wrong again, Hill.” Natasha smirks, containing her satisfaction with her victory. “It's improbable, but I've really never been. I've never been assigned a mission there, and I don't exactly get to travel for fun all that often.”
“I guess that makes sense, it's just hard to believe." It’s also hard for Maria to believe how content she is, having just lost their game so completely. She suspects it’s because she now knows a few more things about Natasha, things she doubts many other people know. It may be just trivial information, but then again she didn’t really expect Natasha to divulge anything too personal.
“No one ever believes it. I use that one when I play Never Have I Ever, too.”
“Two Truths and a Lie and Never Have I Ever, huh?”
Natasha smirks defiantly. “Here's something else you can know about me: I love playing stupid drinking games. I guess I never had the chance to grow out of them in college, or whatever excuse most adults have for not playing them." She takes a swig of her beer, then adds, "The exception is, I hate playing beer pong with Clint. He never fucking misses, and he's a little shit about it. It's fun to watch him and Kate play, though. They turn it into beer H-O-R-S-E, trying to one-up one another's shots. They use pretty much every surface of his apartment, and it usually involves a fair amount of property damage.”
“I can only imagine...”
“It’s kind of incredible, actually. Only Clint Barton could manage to shatter a window with a ping pong ball.” They both laugh at the thought.
This is more like it, Maria thinks to herself. At this point, she’s pretty sure she’ll do anything to keep Natasha laughing.
“So you aren't allergic to mushrooms? That was your lie?”
Natasha shakes her head. “Not at all. In fact, I'm not allergic to anything.”
“You won't throw up if we get mushrooms on the pizza for our next movie night?”
“Is that your not-so-subtle way of asking me for another date?” she asks with a sly smile.
"Maybe," Maria flirts, the beginnings of a good beer buzz making her brave, "but you didn't answer my question."
Natasha laughs and puts a hand on Maria's knee. "I promise I'm not trying to trick you for the sake of winning at Two Truths and a Lie. But if I did want you to think mushrooms make me sick, it wouldn't be too hard to do.” Maria raises a curious eyebrow. “I can vomit on command," she explains.
Maria wrinkles her nose at her. "Charming."
"What? It comes in handy when you’re stuck in a room full of dead bodies and the cops show up."
"How could that possibly – “
Maria stops abruptly, mid-sentence, her blood running cold as Natasha suddenly goes white as a sheet. Her whole body trembles like a leaf, and she sways on her stool as if she might faint. Maria isn't sure what to do when her eyes fly open, bulging slightly as they fill just short of overflowing with tears. When she speaks, her voice is unsteady and pitched slightly too high, making her sound hysterical. "Help, he has a gun! I think he ran out the back. Oh god, there's so much blood..." Her whole body heaves, and the sick choking noise she makes draws the alarmed attention of a handful of bystanders.
Instinctively, Maria's hands fly to Natasha shoulders to steady her. Just as she’s about to launch into full-blown first aid mode, Natasha looks up at her, grinning. The color returns to her cheeks as quickly as it had vanished. The tears stop and she smirks, shrugging nonchalantly as if nothing had happened. "It's gotten me out of a few tight corners and kept some of my best covers intact over the years. It's usually worth the humiliation. And the mess."
Maria stares at her in awe. "I'll take your word for it," she laughs nervously, feeling foolish for having been taken in so completely by Natasha's performance but also relieved that nothing is actually wrong.
They lapse into silence, waiting for the people around them to stop staring. Once they’ve finished their drinks and gotten another round, they return to their previous conversation.
“Have you made up your mind about my lie yet?” Maria asks, hoping to redeem herself by stumping Natasha as thoroughly as she’d been stumped.
“Not quite; I'm still gathering intel. I do have an unrelated question, though, if you don't mind.”
“Not at all. What would you like to know?”
“I've been trying to figure out your timeline, so to speak. I don’t have the luxury of having read your files. You grew up in Chicago, right?" Maria nods her affirmation. "And then I know you went to West Point, followed by the armed forces, but I’m not sure how you ended up with S.H.I.E.L.D. Did they recruit you directly from the military?”
“Not exactly. They approached me shortly after I was discharged.”
Natasha looks at her in surprise. “Discharged?”
Maria scoffs, a bitter sound, but not an entirely humorless one. "Don't ask."
Natasha winces slightly. “Oh. I'm sorry, I didn't mean – “
“Don't worry about it. It was a long time ago,” Maria cuts her off. “S.H.I.E.L.D. actually used to recruit pretty heavily from DADT discharges.”
“I didn’t know that.” Natasha thinks for several seconds, looking more and more amused each moment. “That explains so much about so many of you.”
“Laugh all you want, but it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. It was great to finally have such a strong support system after having lived without one for most of my life.”
“I know what you mean,” Natasha says quietly. Maria nudges her knee, and Natasha nudges her right back.
For a while after that, they both just sit quietly, enjoying their beers and one another’s company. The crowd in the bar is eclectic and energetic, making for good people-watching. More accurately, Natasha watches the crowd, and Maria watches Natasha. She finds herself captivated by the sweep of Natasha’s eyes as they drift around the room, alert but relaxed, or the way her lips move, absent-mindedly mouthing the lyrics to whichever song happens to be playing. Maria is amazed that she seems to know the words to most of the songs when she herself hardly recognizes any of them. She’s also amazed at how much she wants to bite down on Natasha’s lower lip.
Maybe it’s the alcohol making her a little slow, but Maria is not quite quick enough to avoid getting caught staring. Natasha smirks when she catches her eye but doesn’t call her out. Instead, she gestures to the empty glass in her hand. “Want another one?”
Natasha signals to Priya at the other end of the bar. When she returns with their refilled glasses, a man elbows his way up to them, standing much closer to Natasha than absolutely necessary. He bumps up against her as he leans across the bar to order.
“Can I get a redheaded slut?” he shouts, ostensibly to Priya, but he cocks an eyebrow at Natasha as he does so. Natasha – and Priya, to her credit – ignores him. Maria's jaw clenches, but she follows their lead. What an asshole.
“Whassamatter, gorgeous,” he slurs, nudging Natasha, “heard that one before? I'll bet you've heard that one before. Let me buy you a drink."
Natasha glances over her shoulder at him, making brief but piercing eye contact. She gives the guy a flat, unequivocal "not interested" and returns her attention to Maria, rolling her eyes in annoyance.
"Yeah, well, fuck you anyway. Learn how to take a compliment." The guy stomps his way across the room, mumbling obscenities under his breath.
Maria bristles, her hands balling into fists, itching to break the guy’s nose. She looks pointedly at Natasha, who shakes her head slowly and places a hand on her knee.
“I’m okay,” she assures her, pressing Maria’s beer into her hands, then lifting her own.
Maria breathes deeply and exhales slowly a few times, calming herself a little. She keeps half an eye on the guy, though, and Natasha does the same, her eyes narrowed. Sure enough, it takes him very little time to corner another woman at the other end of the bar. Maria tenses, watching him over the edge of her glass. She can’t hear what either of them are saying, but she can see how uncomfortable the woman is as she pretends to laugh at whatever the guy is saying. She’s clearly having a much harder time getting rid of him than Natasha had. Little by little, she leans away from him until he’s backed her into the bar. A moment later, she actually resorts to putting her hands up to physically block him from coming any closer.
That’s when Maria finds herself on her feet, rapidly closing the distance between herself and him.
“Leave her alone,” she growls, shoulders squared, eyes cold. The guy turns to face her, looking bemused. Taking advantage of his distraction, the woman he’d cornered slips away into the crowd. Maria nods in satisfaction to see her make her escape. She stares daggers at the guy, but he doesn’t back down.
"Calm down, I was just talking to her. What, are you jealous I'm not paying attention to you instead? Don't worry, there's plenty of me to go around." He takes a menacing step toward Maria, but she doesn’t flinch or even blink. Even though he’s standing up to his full height, he only has about an inch of height on her. She stares him down, daring him to make the next move.
They stand toe-to-toe, neither one moving, until Priya yells, “Hey, creep! Get out of my bar.”
The guy looks at her, then back to Maria, then stands down, throwing his hands up in disgust.
“Go!” Priya shouts, pointing at the door. Grudgingly, he makes his way through the crowd and out onto the street. There’s a smattering of applause as the door shuts behind him, but the noise level quickly returns to its earlier hum, and Maria returns to her seat.
She downs the last quarter of her beer in one long swig. The mild rush of adrenaline from the confrontation ebbs away and is slowly replaced with a radiating warmth in her chest, thanks in no small part to the centering pressure of Natasha’s hand between her shoulder blades.
“That was impressive, friend!” Priya sidles over to her and extends her hand for a high-five. Maria obliges, somewhat self-consciously. “Any chance you’d like a security job?”
“Thanks, but I’ve already got one.”
Priya throws her head back and laughs. “I like her, Natasha. You should bring her around more often.”
“I might just do that.” Natasha throws an arm around Maria’s shoulder and pulls her close in a rough, amicable hug. Maria, already close to blushing from the unprecedented attention over her minor act of heroism, flushes a vivid scarlet when Natasha’s lips brush her ear. “Do you want to get out of here?”
Struggling to maintain her composure, Maria only nods. Priya gives her an amused, you’re-not-fooling-anyone kind of look when she asks her to close out their tab. She returns Maria’s card with a flourish and laughs again as Natasha wastes no time pulling Maria towards the door.
“Have fun, you two!” she calls after them.
They only make it part of the way to the corner before Natasha twists the collar of Maria’s shirt in her fists and pulls her down into a fierce kiss. Maria’s hands fly to Natasha’s hips, tugging her closer, pinning her forearms between them. Without breaking the kiss, Natasha is able to disentangle her fingers from Maria’s shirt and straighten her arms. She opts instead to drape them around Maria’s neck, pressing the full length of her body against her. Maria’s hands find their way into the back pockets of Natasha’s jeans and Natasha gasps, lips parted, as Maria’s fingertips dig into the curve of her ass. Maria seizes the opportunity to deepen the kiss, hooking her tongue against the back of Natasha’s teeth. Natasha shivers and sighs, but just as she’s about to respond in kind, a low whistle from close by makes them pull instinctively apart.
The asshole from the bar steps out of the shadows, tossing away a cigarette butt. He sneers at Maria. “Oh I see how it is. You weren't mad I wasn't talking to you, you just wanted that chick for yourself. My mistake. I didn't realize you're a dyke.”
Under normal circumstances she would have just ignored him and moved on, but with this confrontation coming so closely on the heels of the previous one, the gut-wrenching swell of anger is too much. She wheels on the guy, fuming, tension coiling in her jaw, neck and shoulders as she advances on him.
“What did you call me?” she shouts, backing him into the wall.
Natasha places a firm hand on her forearm. “Come on, Hill, he’s not worth it.”
“Back off, Nat, I’ve got this,” she snaps. A small voice in the back of her head screams for her to calm down, to walk away, to pay attention to the way Natasha pulled her hand back as if she’d been burned, but her control is quickly slipping away. All she can see is the asshole’s arrogant smirk.
“You scared away your little girlfriend,” he taunts. Maria spares a quick glance and finds that Natasha has indeed disappeared, but she’ll have to deal with that in a moment. “Maybe that will teach you not to be such a cun– OW, FUCK!” Maria’s fist flies of its own accord, connecting solidly with his jaw. He crumples to the ground in a pathetic heap, and she leaves him there.
Although the sting from the punch is deeply satisfying, it isn’t enough to drown out the sick feeling that something is very wrong. Her mind struggles to regain control of her body, and she starts to process what just happened. Enough details fit together – Natasha’s hand on her arm, her own voice snapping at her, the look of shock in her eyes – for Maria to remember that Natasha took off in the direction of the subway. Rounding the corner, she scans the block for any sign of her. She breaks into a run when she catches sight of her, her hair unmistakable even at this distance. The adrenaline from her outburst lends a tremendous amount of speed to her sprint. Were she not disgusted with herself for losing her temper and afraid she’d scared Natasha off for good, she might be proud of how fast she catches up.
Natasha rounds on her, planting her feet in a defensive position. Her jaw is tight, her eyes wide. “Hill, what the hell was that?”
“He was being an asshole. I took him down a peg. Someone had to do it.” Maria is aware that her voice is raised, but there’s little she can do about it right now.
“Is that your deal, then? You get a little drunk, someone pisses you off, and you start throwing punches?” Natasha spits, her voice sharp.
“What? I lost my temper. It happens; I'm my father's daughter.”
“No, I've seen you lose your temper. Back there? You practically hulked out on that guy.” It’s barely perceptible, but her voice breaks.
Maria puts two and two together and the wind leaves her sails immediately. She takes two full steps back, deliberately putting distance between them.
“Fuck, Nat, I'm sorry.”
Natasha says nothing, just shakes her head, working hard to control her breathing and to keep herself from shaking.
“Can we talk about this, or are you going to run away again?” It’s a harsher question than Maria intended, but at least she’s no longer shouting. It’ll have to do.
Natasha glares at her, and for several painful seconds, Maria is afraid she will run. To her surprise and relief, Natasha stands her ground. “Fine, let's talk.”
She turns abruptly and heads down the block, motioning for Maria to follow. She falls into step beside her, and they walk silently for several blocks.
By the time they arrive at a nearby diner, the last of Maria’s anger has drained away, leaving her feeling sick and shaky. It’s an all-too-familiar feeling, even though she hasn’t felt it in a long time. Her head throbs, partially from the alcohol and partially from the imminent adrenaline crash, as she slides into a corner booth opposite Natasha. The server takes their order – a chocolate shake for Natasha and coffee and fries for Maria – then leaves them alone to stew in a tense silence.
“You scared me,” Natasha murmurs, finally breaking the silence. “I've never seen you lose control like that.”
Shame twists its way through Maria’s insides. “I know. I’m sorry.” Her apology feels pathetically insufficient. “You know I'd never hulk out on you, right?”
Natasha studies her carefully. “No, I don’t really know that. I know you don’t intend to, but that doesn’t really help. I know Banner doesn’t ever intend to do it, either.” Her words drive the air from Maria’s lungs like a punch in the gut, but she knows better than to say anything until Natasha is finished.
“I only look like I’m invincible, but everyone has their weaknesses. I’ve always done my best work from the shadows, striking first, using speed and the element of surprise. Usually, I can end my fights before they even really begin. It’s harder for me to win in a head-to-head fight against someone with a size advantage. I can do it, but it’s a lot less of a sure thing. That’s why the Hulk scares me so much: height, weight, strength, and rage, with no chance for a sneak attack? That’s not a fight I can win. Rationally, I know you won’t turn into an enormous green rage monster, but you do have height, and weight, and probably strength to your advantage, and this fear of mine is not exactly rational. When you snapped at me, I automatically sized you up for a fight, and I wasn’t sure I could win, especially once that panic took over...” Natasha trails off, clearly re-living the incident.
It breaks Maria’s heart to see her struggling against her fear, knowing she had been the cause of it this time. However, she knows there’s nothing she can really do to help right now. Luckily, at that moment the server returns with their orders. Maria immediately takes a sip of her coffee, even though it is a bit too hot. Somehow, her scalded tongue feels like a penance, and she starts to feel a little better. Natasha sips at her milkshake. It seems to help her, too: her breathing steadies and the color of her cheeks returns to something close to normal.
“Please say something.” Natasha’s voice is subdued.
“I’m not sure what to say. ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t really cut it. I’ve had this problem for most of my life, and I’ve mostly learned to control it, but sometimes I do still lose my temper.” Maria pauses for a moment to collect her thoughts. She’s not sure anything she might say right now will excuse her behavior, but after Natasha spoke so openly about her fear, she figures she at least owes her an explanation.
“I’ve always hated the fact that I inherited my father’s short temper. We don’t get along, to put it mildly, so I try to be as different from him as I possibly can. The anger issues are one of the only things we have in common, and that’s still one thing too many, you know? So whenever I lose my temper, it’s a vicious cycle: I lash out, I remind myself of my father, and then I hate myself for it. I figured at a young age that, if we have to share the same short temper, I should learn to control mine better than he ever could.” Natasha stares at her, horror and empathy mixing in her expression. Maria realizes what she must be thinking and quickly clarifies, “Oh, he never laid a hand on me or my brothers. Not out of anger, but never out of affection, either. It’s a double-edged sword, really. He may be many things, but he is not a violent man. We have that in common, too. At least, I like to think I’m only violent when it’s warranted.”
“Did you hit that guy tonight?” Natasha asks her guardedly.
“Yes,” Maria answers solemnly, unflinching. Lying about it will only make her feel worse.
“Was it warranted?”
Maria thinks hard, choosing her words carefully. “You saw the way he behaved in the bar. I didn’t intend to hit him, but he called me a cunt.”
Natasha studies her for what seems like forever, but then, slowly, she starts to smile. “Well then, I hope you decked the bastard.” She steals a few fries off Maria’s plate and dunks them unceremoniously into her milkshake.
Maria lets her breath out in a whoosh, almost laughing. “Yeah, I pretty much did.” She slides her plate into the middle of the table in an open invitation for Natasha to take more.
Between the two of them, they devour the rest of the fries in no time. The server clears their table and brings them their check. Maria fishes in her wallet for enough cash to cover the bill, and neither one of them speaks until they’ve left the diner and are well on their way back to the subway.
Maria gathers her courage and comes to a halt on an empty street corner. “So, where does this leave us?”
Natasha doesn’t respond. She stares off into space, and the look of exhaustion she usually keeps masked rises to the surface.
Again, Maria chooses her words carefully. “You said before all this that you trust me. Has that changed?”
“I’m not sure.”
“If you no longer feel you can trust me, I won’t blame you for walking away from this. But if you think you can still trust me... it sounds clichéd, but you’re just going to have to trust me. I would like to keep seeing you, but I understand if you don’t feel the same way. You don’t have to answer right now, though; take some time to think about it.”
After staring at her with an infuriatingly neutral expression for several long moments, Natasha finally responds, “That sounds fair.”
They both stand awkwardly for a moment, neither one quite sure what else to say. Finally, Maria clears her throat. “Are you headed back to Manhattan, or – ”
“I think I’m going to go to Barton’s. He lives around here, and I don’t really want to go back to an empty apartment tonight, in case I have nightmares...” she trails off.
Maria’s heart breaks a little more. “Take care of yourself, okay?”
Natasha nods, already walking away. “I’ll try. Good night, Hill.”
“Good night.” This time, she doesn’t bother to watch Natasha leave. She takes the stairs up to the subway two at a time, resolutely keeping herself from looking back.
You fucked this one up, Hill, she chastises herself. If she’s gone for good, you have no one to blame but yourself.
The ride back to her empty apartment is long and full of regret, disgust, and self-pity. She pours herself into bed, not bothering to find out what time it is. For a while, she worries that she won’t be able to fall asleep, but as is usually the case after one of her angry outbursts, the aftermath of her adrenaline crash mercifully knocks her out cold.
Congratulations to all of you who were not fooled by Natasha's lie! You're winning so far! The vote is still pretty split on Maria's lie, though. There's still time to weigh in.
Maria sleeps fitfully, her dreams filled with raised voices and holes punched through walls. For the first time in a long time, she silences her alarm when it goes off in the morning and allows herself to sleep in. She wasn’t kidding when she told Natasha she’s a morning person; under normal circumstances she’s an exceptionally early riser, but this morning, the morning after her disastrous second date with Natasha, is not one for which she particularly wants to be awake. It’s pathetic, really, how this is the second weekend in a row she’s spent wallowing in self-pity over Natasha Romanoff. It’s uncharacteristic of her, to say the least, and it leaves a bad taste in her mouth.
Maria drags herself out of bed a little past noon and makes herself some coffee to try and ease her aching limbs and throbbing head. It’s not exactly a hangover – she didn’t drink enough for that – but she certainly feels like she’s been hit by a truck. She’s still furious at herself for the way she behaved last night, but as the caffeine starts to work its way into her bloodstream, she decides it’s probably for the best that she scared Natasha off. It doesn’t excuse losing her temper – that kind of lack of control over herself is still unacceptable – but if she’s going to continue to be this emotional every time things with Natasha get intense, it’s better if they don’t see each other anymore. She can’t afford that kind of distraction. In her experience, it’s only ever brought her trouble.
The text alert on her phone goes off just as she finishes the last mouthful of coffee in her mug. Her stomach tightens involuntarily at the sound, and she instantly chastises herself for it. She’s tempted to ignore the phone, if only to prove to herself that she can, but her curiosity wins out in the end.
There’s no way it’s Natasha. She knows that. But maybe...
The text is from Pepper. The disappointment is almost sickening, and she chastises herself for that, too.
Dinner tonight? 8:00?
Maria presses the heel of her hand against her eye as the throbbing in her head intensifies. This is just perfect. The last thing she needs right now is an evening spent trying to be polite while Pepper tries to set her up with one of her friends.
Almost as if on cue, another text flashes across the screen: Just you and me. Not trying to play matchmaker, I promise.
While Maria doesn’t exactly believe her, she also can’t seem to come up with an acceptable excuse to turn down Pepper’s invitation. At the very least, dinner with Pepper will be a good distraction for the evening. If she’s going to commit to letting go of her infatuation with Natasha, there’s no reason not to start as soon as possible.
Maria types out a brief acceptance and hits send before she can change her mind. Several seconds later, Pepper replies with a ‘Great! See you then,’ followed by an address.
So that settles it.
Maria eyes the clock, frowning. She still has several hours in which to improve her mood. Miraculously, a long, hot shower helps her do just that. The pressure of the water scours away most of the tension in Maria’s body, and the steam helps clear her mind of the storm that followed her home last night. In fact, it clears her mind of most things, leaving her feeling calm, if somewhat hollow. Still, she supposes it’s easier to think of nothing than to have her mind working on overdrive like it has been for days.
By the time evening rolls around, Maria takes her time getting ready to go meet Pepper. She pulls her hair back into its usual bun and fusses with her bangs for a few minutes. No matter what she does, they won’t seem to stop falling into her eyes, so she finally sweeps them out of her face and pins them there. It’s not ideal, but it will do for now. A touch of concealer neutralizes the dark circles under her eyes, and a bit of eyeliner and mascara complete the illusion that she hasn’t spent all day in her pajamas. Stepping back from the mirror, Maria gives herself a quick appraisal; she looks half-decent, almost human. It might not be enough to fool Pepper, but it’s close enough. She hurries out the door before she can change her mind.
When Maria reaches the address Pepper sent her – a little Thai restaurant near Washington Square Park – Pepper texts her again: Running late. Go ahead and get a table.
Maria rolls her eyes. She’s not at all surprised Pepper got held up, even on a Saturday evening. The woman never seems to stop moving. It’s remarkable, really; even Maria, who’s used to working almost around the clock for S.H.I.E.L.D., isn’t quite sure how she does it.
Maria gets a table for two in the back corner, and within fifteen minutes Pepper sweeps into the restaurant, full of her usual formidable energy. Anyone else would look frazzled, but Pepper always has a way of looking put together, even in the midst of her chaotic schedule. She waves a familiar hello to the hostess and the woman behind the bar as she makes her way to the table. Maria stands and accepts Pepper’s hurried hug and quick kiss to the cheek somewhat awkwardly. She's much more comfortable with a salute or handshake as a greeting, but she's getting used to Pepper's way of doing things.
“Hello, Maria.” Pepper collapses unceremoniously into the chair opposite her. “Have you ordered yet?”
Maria shakes her head, smiling fondly. She admires the way Pepper never apologizes for being late, how she keeps to her own schedule, knowing full well that people will wait. It’s impressive, powerful in a way she’s never seen from anyone else in her long career working with powerful people. Fury once joked that if Pepper were to take S.H.I.E.L.D.'s reins, she'd give the place such a shakedown that they'd end up the most efficient agency in the world by the end of the first quarter – not to mention she’d probably fire both their asses – and Maria didn't think that was much of an exaggeration.
They place their orders with a server Pepper knows by name, then Pepper turns her full attention to Maria. “Thanks for agreeing to have dinner with me. I was originally supposed to meet with those friends I mentioned the other day, but they had to cancel.”
“Thank you for the invitation. I haven’t had Thai food in forever.” Maria cringes internally; she always feels so awkward making small talk.
Pepper doesn’t seem to mind. “I love this place. I come here all the time.”
There’s a brief silence, but Pepper is quick to fill it by launching into a detailed story about her day. Maria is content just to listen as Pepper regales her with tales of the party planning escapades that apparently have been slowly encroaching on her free time. Pepper first mentioned wanting to throw a party a few months ago, not long after Maria started working for her. Maria had nearly forgotten she’d agreed to attend.
She listens for a while as Pepper tosses around phrases like ‘rooftop venue,’ ‘black tie gala,’ and ‘small media presence’ as if they’re inconsequential, everyday things. Just thinking about attending a party like that makes Maria tired; she can’t even imagine having to plan all of it too. She doesn’t know how Pepper stays sane doing all that on top of her CEO duties.
“That reminds me, Maria,” Pepper gestures at her with her chopsticks, and Maria focuses a bit more carefully. “I know this party started out as a way to showcase the renovations to Stark Tower and to assuage Tony’s need for a big party, but I think it’ll be a really good opportunity to take the edge off the media shitstorm around the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. You and Steve should definitely make an appearance. You know, let the media see you haven’t gone to ground after the senate hearings. Show them you have nothing to hide.”
“I don’t know about that, Pepper.” It isn’t a bad idea, not by a long shot, but Maria is not thrilled about the idea of stepping into the spotlight again.
“You won’t have to make a statement or anything. Just shake a few hands, take a few photos.” Pepper takes another bite and adds, “Besides, it will be fun. You can bring a date.” Her eyes flash playfully.
“What? I don’t need a name for the guest list or anything; anyone who shows up on your arm get in, no questions asked. How’s that for a pickup line?” Pepper teases.
Maria shakes her head, grimacing. “You don’t quit, do you?”
“Of course not!” Pepper laughs good-naturedly. Maria prays that will be the end of the discussion, but she has no such luck. “And speaking of dates: how are things with Romanoff?”
Maria blanches. “How did you know about that?”
Pepper’s smile widens. “I guessed, and you just confirmed it.”
“Pepper...” Maria groans, partially at Pepper’s clichéd interrogation technique, but mostly at herself for falling for it.
“It wasn’t exactly espionage on my part, Maria. You were upset after she left your office on Monday, but then you floated around with your head in the clouds for the rest of the week. The connection practically made itself.”
“I did not ‘float around’ all week.” She sounds petulant and she knows it, but Maria decides it’s better to try and avoid addressing the issue directly.
“Maybe not outwardly, no, but you definitely had a sort of, I don’t know... lightness to you.” Pepper’s smug smile fades and a look of concern replaces it as she gives Maria a once-over. “It’s gone now, though. What happened?”
Maria frowns, trying to divulge as little as possible. “I patched her up after a mission last weekend. We went out a few times after that, but I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere.”
“Why’s that? You two seem like you’d be good together.”
“Pepper, I don’t really want to t-“
“Don’t say you don’t want to talk about it. Of course you want to talk about it,” Pepper interrupts.
To Maria’s chagrin, she realizes Pepper might actually be right. For the second time that evening, Maria notes how Pepper would’ve made a formidable S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. She could probably pry information out of even the most recalcitrant of prisoners, if the way she makes Maria want to tell her about her troubles with Natasha is any indication of her aptitude for interrogation. Either that, or she’s a good friend with a flair for putting people at their ease. It’s maybe a little fucked up how Maria’s mind jumps to ‘master interrogator’ instead of ‘trustworthy friend,’ but she can’t worry about that right now.
Over the next few minutes, Maria recounts nearly everything about the last few days. She tells Pepper about coming home to find Natasha drunk and bleeding in her bathroom, about inviting her to stay the night and ending up in bed with her. Pepper listens intently, keeping her expression considerately neutral as Maria tells her about their lunch date and how Natasha wasted no time winning the bet over their stupid game. Despite her best efforts, Maria can’t help but glower as she recounts her altercation outside the bar. By the time she reaches the end of her story, she’s not sure whether she feels more miserable or more foolish.
“So that’s why I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere,” Maria finishes, somewhat lamely.
Pepper blinks at her for a few seconds, then throws her head back and laughs. It’s an amicable, genuinely amused sound, but Maria flushes with embarrassment and indignation until Pepper composes herself again.
“Wow, Maria, you’ve really got it bad for her, don’t you?”
Maria glares at her, jaw tightening. “I don’t see how that’s relevant...”
Pepper laughs again, but quickly stifles it with her napkin. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh, it’s just so unlike you to misread a situation so thoroughly.”
At this point, Maria is confused as well as indignant. “I don’t think I misread the situation. It’s just... complicated.”
“Don't be so overdramatic. It isn't nearly as complicated as you think it is.” Maria raises a skeptical eyebrow at her, so Pepper continues. “You're attracted to her. She's attracted to you. You're both too self-critical and stubborn to let yourselves get close without sabotaging yourselves. How am I doing so far?”
Maria huffs dismissively and tries to divert the conversation rather than admit how shrewd Pepper’s assessment is. “It doesn’t really matter anyway. I doubt she’ll want to see me again.”
Pepper refuses to be sidetracked. “Maria, please. This is Natasha Romanoff we’re talking about. Do you really think you scared her off by snapping at her a little?”
“You didn’t see the way she looked at me.” Maria shudders at the thought.
Pepper smile sympathetically, then presses on, unabated. “I don’t doubt that the incident was triggering for her, but you can’t take that personally because that’s out of her control. You said you talked about it afterward, right?” Maria nods. “And she calmed down?” Another nod. “Then do you really think that one isolated incident was enough to change her opinion of you?”
Maria pinches the bridge of her nose and squeezes her eyes shut. Everything Pepper is saying makes a lot of sense, and the more she thinks about it, the more foolish she feels.
Pepper places a gentle hand on her forearm. “Maria, listen: Natasha Romanoff is not an easy person to get close to. You should know that about her by now. I won’t pretend to know what her reasons are for shutting you out right now, but from what you’ve told me, I’m willing to bet this is not the last you’ll hear from her.”
For a moment, Maria entertains the possibility that Pepper might be right. “Okay, say she does show up again. What then?”
“Like I said: she’s a difficult person to get close to. If you think she’s worth the effort, I can give you some advice. After all, I’m somewhat of an expert in dating difficult people.” Pepper laughs again, and Maria smirks, conceding her point.
“I suppose I need all the help I can get.” Maria picks at the food on her plate as Pepper collects her thoughts.
“Okay, first tip: you have to be patient with her. I’m sure you already know she’ll pull away if you try to rush things, so give her time to get comfortable with you, and give her space when she needs it. It also helps to be really direct. Tell her what you want from her. Ask her what she wants from you, and listen to what she tells you. Don’t leave anything up to guesswork; you seem to have a flair for thoroughly misinterpreting situations.”
As much as she usually hates being teased, she has to admit that Pepper is doing an excellent job of making her feel better. Maria scoffs, pretending to be insulted.
Pepper laughs and squeezes her hand affectionately. “Finally, you have to be patient with yourself, too. It’s not like you to doubt yourself this much. You’re completely justified in being upset about losing your temper, of course, but just keep in mind that you only add more distance between you if you beat yourself up about it too much.” Maria shrugs, but Pepper grips her hand a little harder, maintaining pointed eye contact. “I’m serious: you’ve got to let it go. Find a way to feel like you’re in control of yourself again, or you’re just going to go crazy.”
“I’ll try.” Maria takes a deep breath and releases it slowly, shaking a little bit of the tension out of her shoulders. Of course, Pepper is right about all of this. Now it’s just a matter of actually putting her advice into action.
“Good. I can’t have you sulking at work. It’s not a good look on you.” Pepper teases, finally goading Maria into a smile. “That’s better.”
After a brief silence, Maria finally manages to turn the conversation to something other than herself by asking Pepper about Tony. They spend the rest of the meal laughing about his recent attempts to hijack the party planning process, and Maria has to admit she’s glad she decided to accept Pepper’s invitation to dinner.
It’s much less awkward for Maria to accept Pepper’s parting hug when the time comes for them to part ways for the evening. “Thank you for everything, Pepper.”
Pepper smiles genially. “You’re very welcome.” She hails a cab, and as she climbs in, she adds, “This was fun; we should do it more often.”
Pepper is absolutely right: Maria has to feel like she’s back in control of herself, and the best way she knows how to do that is to keep as busy as possible. She may have worked herself to the bone as the assistant director of S.H.I.E.L.D., but at least she was always focused, always centered. The same was true of her military career, and even the years before it. She’s always been an overachiever, taking on too many duties, too many extracurricular activities, anything to stay active, to keep her out of the house, to keep her moving. It worked in the past; there’s no reason it shouldn’t work now.
She wakes up before sunrise every morning so she can run before work. She throws herself wholeheartedly into her job. It might not be as challenging as she’s used to, but she does it well nonetheless. The redoubled sense of discipline is satisfying, but ultimately it’s what she does after work that really helps: she leaves Stark Tower every day exactly at 5:00 and is in the boxing gym near Madison Square by 5:30.
The weight of the gloves on her hands is centering, calming, reassuring. Her stance is strong and familiar, and with the first jab her mind begins to clear. She dials in, focusing on her form, her rhythm, her breathing. She throws jabs and crosses with precise, controlled energy, the heavy thud of her gloves against the bag drowning out all other thoughts. It’s almost meditative, like a runner’s high, but more closely attuned to fight than flight. It’s a rush she’s loved since she was a teenager, a child even. She loves the discipline, control, and power of it, even when she’s just doing drills on the heavy bag rather than sparring with a living, breathing person.
This will work.
Once she’s good and warmed up, Maria’s mind starts to wander, bringing up memories and disconnected images. During one workout, she’s in the gym at S.H.I.E.L.D. HQ, taking out her frustration on the heavy bag in the corner, about to meet Steve Rogers for the first time. Fury’s being especially infuriating, so she’s really laying into it, and Steve just silently comes over and holds the bag steady for her. They’ve been boxing buddies ever since. She calls drills for him, and he keeps the bag steady for her. They rarely talk, other than the occasional words of encouragement or admiration, but Maria likes it that way. It’s nice to have someone to work out with who isn’t condescending, who doesn’t try to correct her form all the time, for a change. They never spar, though; Steve always refuses on account of his unfair advantage. Maria respects that about him, even though it always drives her crazy. It’s pure arrogance on her part, wanting to square off and go a few rounds against a supersoldier. Still, she misses working out with Steve. She could use that kind of quiet support right now.
The next day, as the sweat starts to run down the back of her neck, she’s back on the base, surrounded by a ring of shouting, jeering soldiers. She throws punch after punch to the sounds of Take her down, Jackson! and Kick his ass, Hill, I’ve got fifty bucks on you! She grins through a split lip, circling her opponent predatorily. A quick combination knocks the guy on his ass, and someone raises her hand over her head, declaring her the winner, earning her an exuberant cheer from her comrades. She offers a hand to help her opponent to his feet and he takes it, the two of them laughing and slapping one another on the back.
Another time, she’s seventeen, training for an important match, but her mind is far away. Her coach is shouting at her to focus, to pace herself, to save some of her energy for the ring, but she doesn’t care. She drives punch after punch into the bag with all her might, but she can’t get that girl out of her head. This is not happening. It can’t happen. She has a plan: she has to get out of here, and the military is her ticket out. They won’t take her, though, if they find out about the way that girl’s smile makes heat pool in her belly. Her punches become more and more furious until she comes dangerously close to injuring herself. She barely hears her coach shouting at her to go cool down.
On Thursday afternoon, Maria keeps careful control of her form as she remembers getting hauled to the principal’s office for fighting. She’s maybe eleven, already taller than most of the other kids in her grade, sitting sullenly with a handkerchief pressed to her bloody nose. She no longer remembers what the fight was about, just that she’d gotten her ass thoroughly kicked. They let her off with a warning, but oh, how her father yells at her that night. The very next weekend, her older brother takes her with him to his boxing class. If you’re going to keep getting into fights, hermanita, at least learn to throw a decent punch. She did learn how to punch, but she also learned how to take her anger out on a bag or the pads the coach held. By the end of that first year, she stopped getting into fights entirely.
After work on Friday, Maria’s just finishing her warmup when someone reaches out to steady the bag. At first, she’s inclined to think her mind is playing tricks on her, but no, it really is Natasha standing there, watching her guardedly.
Maria takes a step back and drops her hands. “What are you going here?”
“I followed you.” Natasha glances in the direction of an empty sparring ring. “Want to go a few rounds?”
Maria eyes her warily. She’s tempted to refuse, but after a week of only bag drills, a sparring match sounds too good to pass up. “Sure.”
Natasha wastes no time securing her hand wraps, grabbing a pair of gloves and ducking under the ropes of the ring. Maria follows her, but neither of them says another word. Once Natasha finishes checking her gloves, she holds them out and Maria taps her own gloves against them without hesitation. They both take up fighting stances and begin circling, their eyes locked. Maria waits for Natasha to make the first move. The jab is quick, but Maria blocks it easily. She dodges the next two just as easily, then aims a few of her own at Natasha’s jaw.
Maria doesn’t exactly pull her punches, but she’s certainly not giving Natasha her best. Natasha knows it, too; after a few minutes at this pace, her eyes begin to flash with frustration. “Stop fucking around, Hill. You’re not going to break me.”
Maria frowns, her own irritation rising. She throws a quick combination, faster this time, but still not at full force. Natasha blocks the first two blows, but the third one lands.
“Don’t insult me,” she spits. “I can take it.”
“Oh, now you can take it?” Maria wants to shout, but she keeps her voice level. “A week ago, you’re not sure you can trust me not to hulk out on you, and now you want me to hit you harder?”
Natasha only growls and throws a fast series of punches, a few of which actually land.
Can’t win against me in a fight, my ass, Maria thinks. She feigns left and hooks right. “Did you lie to me then, or are you lying to me now?”
“I overreacted,” Natasha huffs, avoiding the question as readily as she avoids Maria’s right hook. She goes on the offensive next, forcing Maria back towards the ropes. Maria ducks low, swings with her left and recovers a bit of ground. She feigns another few jabs, which Natasha deflects. Sweat starts to prickle on Maria’s forehead, though her simmering anger is just as much to blame as the exertion.
Maria lashes out in earnest this time, her voice starting to rise. “You made me feel like a monster.” The next few punches have her full power behind them, one or two of them landing hard on Natasha’s shoulders.
Natasha dodges the final punch in the barrage and continues to circle, her breaths coming faster now. “Don’t blame that on me, Hill.” She feigns two jabs, but Maria isn’t fooled. “You’re a grown woman; you should know how to handle guilt by now.”
“I snapped at you and made you feel unsafe. Of course I’m going to feel guilty.” Maria puts her weight into the next combination, but Natasha is ready for her. Their fists fly, but neither of them lands any significant blows. After a furious storm of punches, they break apart, sweat running down the sides of Natasha’s face, air burning in Maria’s lungs.
“Give me more credit than that,” Natasha snaps, eyes flashing. She throws three more punches, and the last one hits Maria sharply in the jaw.
Maria feels the jolt in the pit of her stomach and she lashes out again. By now, she’s practically shouting. “You said you didn’t know if you can trust me.”
Natasha pushes back just as hard. “I lied!”
Maria hurls a vicious punch, and the next thing she knows, Natasha catches her forearm between her gloves and leaps up into the air. Maria staggers forward as Natasha clamps her thighs around her neck and slams them both into the mat. For several seconds they both just lie there, panting. When Natasha finally speaks, her voice is so low Maria can barely hear her over the sound of blood pounding in her ears.
“I have a bad habit of getting in my own way when I’m this attracted to someone, so I used my Hulk fear as an excuse to maintain some distance.”
It’s probably the most backhanded compliment Maria has ever received, but she can’t help but be a little bit flattered. “Is that the truth, Natasha?”
Natasha doesn’t hesitate to respond. “Cross my heart.”
All of the bitterness and confusion ebbs away as Maria processes how momentous it is that Natasha would actually admit that to her. “Okay, then. Truce?”
She can practically hear Natasha’s smirk. “Truce.”
As the tension dissipates, Maria becomes painfully aware that Natasha’s thighs are still wrapped around her neck. She coughs self-consciously and taps Natasha’s knee with her glove. “You can let me up now.”
“Right. Sorry.” Natasha releases her hold and the two of them roll apart, taking their time getting to their feet and pulling off their gloves.
Maria grabs two towels and tosses one to Natasha. They take a minute to mop up the sweat from the match before starting to stretch and cool down.
“So what now?” Natasha prompts, stretching her shoulders with her arms above her head.
“That depends,” Maria answers cautiously. “Do you want to keep seeing each other?” She holds her breath, waiting for Natasha to respond.
After several long moments, Natasha offers her a barely perceptible smile. “Yes.”
Maria lets her breath out slowly as Pepper’s advice from a week ago resurfaces in her mind. She meets Natasha’s eyes intently. “Then I need you to be more honest with me. Don’t lie to me, and don’t shut me out. Can you do that?”
Natasha’s brow furrows, but she doesn’t look away. “I can try. It’s not exactly easy for me.”
“I know.” Maria smirks. “I’ll try to be patient. That should be a fair trade; patience isn’t my strong suit, either.”
“Deal,” Natasha laughs. She extends her hand, and Maria takes it.
They shake on it. It seems like an odd thing to do in the wake of their heated sparring match, but the feel of Natasha’s hand in hers brings the flutter back to the pit of Maria’s stomach. When she tries to pull her hand away, though, Natasha won’t let it go. Instead, she tugs Maria closer, pulling her in for a slow kiss that leaves her head spinning.
Only after she breaks the kiss does Natasha release Maria’s hand. Before Maria can even think of anything coherent to say, Natasha scoops up her gloves and heads for the locker room. Her voice is friendly, conversational as she calls over her shoulder, “Good match, Hill. We should do this again sometime.”
Hey, would anyone be interested in hearing (or contributing to) a soundtrack for this fic? I use a lot of music as inspiration when I write, and I'd love to share. I can't post a mix just yet (for spoiler reasons), so in the meantime, I'd be interested to know what you think should be on it.
For those of you following along at home: yes, I changed the rating, and yes, it's because of this chapter. Enjoy! ;)
Maria wanders from the bathroom to her bedroom, wrapping her hair in her towel and piling it on top of her head as she goes. As she begins digging in her dresser for a clean set of clothes, the little blue light on her phone flashes, catching her attention. She sinks down onto the edge of the bed to check the message. It's from a blocked number, and she breathes deeply to keep from getting too hopeful before she opens it.
free to meet up tonight? -N
Maria lets her breath go with a whoosh, grinning despite herself. It’s a good thing the message came while she was in the shower; it saves her the trouble of trying to keep herself from texting back right away.
Sure. When and where?
After several minutes without a response, Maria reluctantly sets the phone down and continues getting dressed. She pulls on a pair of sweatpants and, after a moment’s hesitation, the old t-shirt Natasha borrowed to wear home after spending the night. Maria inhales deeply as she pulls it over her head. It doesn’t smell quite the same as the rest of her clothes, even after a few weeks in the back of her drawer. Wow, Maria, you’ve really got it bad for her, don’t you? Pepper’s words float into her mind, and Maria shakes her head, almost laughing at herself. Somehow, she manages not to dive for her phone the second her text alert goes off.
The text reads ‘great. 7?,’ along with an address in the East Village.
Maria deliberates for a moment before deciding it’s just the right amount of cheesy to text back, ‘it’s a date :)’
This time, Natasha’s response comes right away: see you then ;)
Even though the rest of the day drags on, the walk from the subway to the address Natasha sent her is surprisingly quick. With each step, the flutter in Maria’s stomach intensifies until it turns into a knot. It’s absurd, really, how nervous she is for this evening, but then again she doesn’t really know what to expect. Maria supposes that this date can’t possibly end up worse than their previous one, so she tries to relax, hoping she won’t prove herself wrong.
Maria rounds the corner onto a side street, and just as she’s about to double-check the address to make sure she’s in the right place, she spots Natasha farther up the block. She’s sitting on the steps in front of a brick building, talking to a woman with greying hair. Maria is too far away to hear what they’re saying, but not too far that she can’t see the wink the woman gives Natasha before picking her bag of groceries up off the step and disappearing into the building. Natasha shoos a little black cat off her lap and gets to her feet as Maria approaches.
Maria raises an eyebrow in the direction of the door, but doesn’t say anything other than, “Hey.”
“Hi,” Natasha replies, looking almost bashful. It’s not a look Maria’s used to seeing, and she smirks, wondering what that wink was about that has Natasha all self-conscious.
“So, who was that?” Maria prompts, her curiosity getting the better of her.
“Her?” Natasha jerks a thumb toward the top of the steps. “Oh, that was just my neighbor, Ana.”
“Yes.” Natasha stuffs her hands into the pockets of her jacket and cocks her head to the side, meeting Maria’s eyes with a suddenly serious expression. “Remember how you said you don’t want me to shut you out?”
Maria nods, eyeing her warily.
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and I want to let you in. Literally.” Natasha makes a face at her own cheesy wordplay, then continues. “My apartment is upstairs. Do you want to come up?”
Whatever Maria was expecting, it certainly wasn’t this. She blinks, surprised, and trips on her words. “I... yeah. Yes. I’d like that.” She can’t help but smile as Natasha’s face lights up.
“Okay, come on.” Visibly relieved, Natasha starts to climb the steps up to the front door, beckoning for Maria to follow. As she reaches her key towards the lock, the little black cat reappears out of nowhere and wraps itself around Natasha’s ankles, looking up at her with expectant yellow eyes. Maria watches in surprise as Natasha rolls her eyes and pushes the door open. “Sure, you can come, too.”
The cat darts through the open door and runs to the top of the first flight of stairs, looking back at them impatiently.
“And who’s that?” Maria asks, amused.
“That’s m... a cat.” Natasha ushers her inside and pulls the door shut behind them.
“I can see that,” Maria laughs. “Is she your cat?”
“No,” Natasha insists, following the cat up the steps. “I just feed her sometimes.”
As if to call Natasha’s bluff, the cat puts her front paws on Natasha’s knee while she unlocks her door. Natasha automatically bends to scratch her behind the ears, and Maria raises an eyebrow at them both.
“Okay, fine, she’s pretty much my cat,” Natasha admits with a smirk. She straightens back up and holds the door open, and the cat trots ahead of Maria into the apartment. “I call her Liho.”
“Nice to meet you, Liho,” Maria calls to the cat. Liho ignores her. With a laugh, Natasha kicks her shoes off next to the door, and Maria follows her lead.
Standing in her socks in Natasha’s living room is distinctly surreal. For a moment, Maria just lets her eyes wander around the apartment, taking in all the details. The apartment is very nice, but it certainly doesn’t seem like a place Natasha Romanoff would live. Then again, that’s probably the point. The living room is sparsely furnished but well-coordinated. Everything from the throw pillows on the sofa to the framed paintings on the walls is colorful but tastefully nondescript. Except for a handful of details – a mostly-empty water glass on the end table, a jacket draped over the arm of the chair, a stack of junk mail on the coffee table – the room could’ve been pulled directly from the pages of a catalogue. There are no photos on the walls, and the books and other items on the shelves are clearly for show, rather than being a personal collection. It must be incredibly lonely to live in an apartment that feels more like a safehouse than a home.
Natasha shrugs, as if reading Maria’s mind. “I’d give you the grand tour, but there’s not much to see.” She waves her hand toward the darkened hallway across the room. “The bedroom and bathroom are over there, and the kitchen’s in here.” Natasha flips on the light and beckons for Maria to follow her.
“Nice place,” Maria comments, scanning the kitchen the same way she did the living room. It’s huge, by New York standards, but just as spare as the living room. Only the coffee mug, bowl, and spoon drying on a towel by the sink indicate that anyone actually lives here.
“Thanks,” Natasha shrugs again, pulling a bowl and a bag of cat food out of the cabinets. “I don’t really spend much time here. Don’t you dare jump up on my counter!”
Maria turns from admiring the view out the window over the sink to confirm that Natasha’s last comment was indeed directed at the cat, not Maria herself. She chuckles, watching Liho practically dance with anticipation as Natasha fills the bowl with food and places it on the floor. She strokes Liho’s back, then leaves her alone with her supper.
“Want a drink? I’ve got some wine, or there’s probably some beer in the fridge if you’d prefer.”
“Wine is fine, thanks.” Maria smiles as Natasha goes up on her toes to grab two wine glasses off of a not-so-high shelf. She sets them on the counter and motions towards Maria.
“The corkscrew is in the drawer behind you.”
Maria quickly locates the corkscrew and hands it to Natasha. While Natasha opens the bottle, Maria’s eye catches on the one thing in the kitchen that seems strangely out of place. Leaning up against the wall near the sink is a small, framed painting about the size of a postcard. It shows two dolphins leaping through abstract purple swirls, and it’s the absolute last thing Maria would think to associate with Natasha Romanoff.
Natasha must notice her amusement, because she hands Maria a glass of wine and picks up the frame, laughing at it affectionately. “It’s terrible, isn’t it? Clint gave it to me as a housewarming present a long time ago. It’s... kind of an inside joke.”
Maria steps closer and pretends to admire the painting over Natasha’s shoulder. “No, I think it’s beautiful. It suits you. In many ways, I’m sure you are that teal dolphin,” she teases, earning herself a swat on the arm.
Natasha laughs and puts the frame back in its place. “Come on, there’s something I want to show you.”
Wine glass in hand, she leads Maria back into the living room and over to the door on the far wall. The door opens onto a small balcony, just big enough for a pair of wrought iron chairs, a glass-topped deck table, and a handful of potted plants. The cat follows them out onto the balcony and jumps up onto the ledge where Natasha sits, looking out at the view of the city.
“Oh, wow,” Maria murmurs, again at a loss for words. She props a hip on the ledge next to Liho and Natasha and sighs happily, taking in the way the lights are coming on as the sun sinks behind the buildings. “Natasha, this is beautiful.”
Natasha hums in agreement, leaning her back against the brick wall behind her. She sips her wine and scratches the cat under the chin as she climbs into her lap. She looks so content, so picturesque, that Maria finds herself staring. Once again, she’s struck by the realization that this is not a side of Natasha that many people get to see. She takes a sip of wine to cover her amazed, probably stupid-looking smile.
If Natasha notices, she doesn’t comment on it. “I thought we could have kind of a quiet night tonight: order in, maybe watch something together... you know, start over?” There’s an apology in her voice and an earnestness in her eyes that has Maria’s heart fluttering.
“Sounds good to me.” Maria smiles at her over the edge of her glass. “Although I vote we skip all the blood, broken glass, and bruised ribs this time.”
Natasha smirks and holds out her glass. “Deal.”
“Deal.” Maria touches her glass to Natasha’s with a soft ting. They both drink, and Maria breathes deeply, letting go of the last of her apprehension. Natasha smiles at her, and Maria realizes with a start that she’d been staring again.
“Come on, it’s my turn to order pizza.” Natasha gets to her feet and heads back inside, the cat padding after her. Natasha pulls her phone out of her jacket pocket, then reaches for Maria’s glass. “Want more wine while we wait?”
Maria hands it to her with a smile. “Yes, please.”
While Natasha disappears into the kitchen to refill their glasses and call in the order, Maria settles onto one end of the sofa and clicks her tongue to try and coax Liho to come closer. At first, the cat ignores her, so Maria redoubles her efforts, wiggling her fingers to catch her attention. Liho approaches her cautiously and sniffs at Maria’s fingers, whiskers tickling across her knuckles before she rubs her head against Maria’s hand, then headbutts her leg. Maria grins and reaches out to scratch her behind the ears and under her chin. Liho accepts the attention eagerly, leaning so hard into Maria’s hand that she ends up flopping over onto the floor, exposing the fur of her underbelly. Maria knows enough about cats to know what’s about to happen, but she takes the bait anyway. Her fingers wriggle into the fur of Liho’s belly for a few brief seconds before the cat grabs her hand between her paws and mouths at her fingers, hind legs thumping against her wrist.
“Liho, no!” Natasha scolds, setting the refilled glasses down on the coffee table and sitting down on the sofa opposite Maria.
Maria only laughs and scratches the cat under the chin again. “It’s okay; she’s just playing.” She extracts her hand from Liho’s mouth and holds it up for Natasha to examine. “See? Not even a scratch.”
Natasha raises an amused eyebrow as Maria resumes playing with the cat. “I don't let her do any of that to me. No biting, scratching, whining or licking.”
“Not much of a cat person, are you?”
“I like cats just fine; I just want to set boundaries.”
“Why doesn't that surprise me?” Maria teases.
Natasha laughs and reaches over to stroke Liho's back a few times. Immediately, the cat gets up, stretches, and jumps up onto the sofa and into Natasha's lap. She flops over and nudges her hand, begging for more petting, and Natasha immediately obliges. Liho goes still and starts to purr, a surprisingly loud, deep rumble for such a small cat. She doesn't even try to bite or lick Natasha’s hand.
Maria smiles, completely endeared by the two of them. “She sure seems to like you a lot, boundaries or not.”
Natasha practically beams down at the purring bundle of fur in her lap. “Yeah, I suppose she does.”
While one hand keeps petting Liho, Natasha reaches for the remote and switches on the TV. Neither one of them pays much attention to it, though. Liho’s yellow eyes close as she purrs even louder, clearly reveling in all the attention they’re both giving her instead of the TV. Even though she’s practically asleep in Natasha’s lap by the time the pizza arrives, the sound of the buzzer has her ears and whiskers instantaneously on high alert. She jumps down off Natasha’s lap and leads her to the door, then follows her back to the sofa like a shadow, eyeing the pizza box expectantly the whole way.
Natasha sets the box down on the coffee table between them. “Help yourself.”
Maria flips the lid open to find- “Mushrooms? Really?”
Natasha smirks, doing a decidedly poor job of masking how pleased she is with herself as she grabs a slice. She raises an eyebrow pointedly at Maria before taking a bite.
“You just have to rub it in, don’t you?” Maria chuckles, taking a slice for herself.
“What did you expect from me, Hill? You weren’t nearly as sore a loser as I thought you’d be. I couldn’t resist getting in one last jab.”
“Don’t get cocky. You still haven’t guessed my lie yet,” Maria reminds her.
Natasha remains unperturbed. “Patience. I will soon enough. Liho-” She draws out the last syllable in a warning as the cat gets bold enough to reach a paw towards the pizza. She eyes Natasha and slowly retracts it again, but her eyes remain relentlessly fixed on the box, her tail twitching. Every so often, Liho starts to rise up on her hind legs, but she settles back down the moment Natasha goes pssst at her. Finally, once both Maria and Natasha have had their fill, Natasha shuts the box again, but the cat remains vigilant.
“She just doesn’t quit, does she?” Maria laughs. “You two are perfect for one another.”
“She’s a tenacious little beastie, I’ll give her that,” Natasha agrees, reaching out to give Liho an affectionate scratch behind the ears. “I should put the rest of the pizza away, though.”
“I’ve got it,” Maria insists, picking up the box before Natasha can reach for it.
“You can probably just put the whole box in the fridge.” Liho starts to follow Maria (and the pizza) into the kitchen, but Natasha scoops her up into her lap before she can get far. “Oh, no you don’t, Pizza Cat!”
Natasha wasn’t kidding: there’s next to nothing in the fridge, and the box fits neatly onto the bottom shelf. Her first instinct is to be a little worried, but if Natasha is serious about not really spending much time here, there’s probably no cause for concern. Probably. Maria shuts the fridge door with a thump and returns to her spot on the sofa.
For once, Maria turns her head to catch Natasha watching her thoughtfully. Maria cocks an eyebrow at her. “What?”
Natasha tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Do we have to start over completely?” she asks, as tentative as Maria has ever seen her.
At first, Maria can only blink at her in amazement, but she quickly uses Natasha’s uncertainty as incentive to be bold. “Of course not.” She shifts her hips closer to Natasha and reclines back against the arm of the sofa. “Come here.”
Natasha does not hesitate to close the distance between them. To Maria’s surprise, she settles her weight against Maria’s body and rests her head on her chest. Maria tenses beneath her, suddenly very unsure what to do with her arms.
“Too much?” Natasha asks softly.
Maria shakes her head, willing herself to relax. “No, this is fine. It’s nice.”
“It is,” Natasha agrees, sounding almost surprised.
Maria wraps her arm around Natasha’s back and starts to relax as Natasha’s attention returns to the TV. Somehow, they just fit like this, Natasha’s weight resting comfortably on top of her, her head tucked neatly under Maria’s chin. They’re close enough that Maria can catch the scent of clean hair, warm skin, a hint of some elusive perfume, earthy and sweet. Familiar. It’s the same scent that followed Maria around all afternoon, at least until she changed out of the West Point shirt and into a more date-appropriate outfit.
Though Natasha’s attention is still ostensibly directed at the television, Maria’s is entirely focused on Natasha’s fingers as they trace small circles through her shirt, just under her collarbone. There’s nothing tense or irritable about it, though, just a steady, unobtrusive motion of her fingers. Maria lets her eyes fall shut and concentrates on keeping her breathing steady as Natasha fidgets with a button on her shirt. It’s a losing battle; the swirling touch of Natasha’s fingers quickly starts to go to her head.
Natasha deftly works open the topmost button of Maria’s shirt and her thumb hooks under the collar, pulling it aside. Maria gasps as she presses a kiss to the hollow of her throat.
“There’s the reaction I was hoping for,” Natasha chuckles as she begins to trail kisses along Maria’s exposed collarbone. “I was beginning to think you’d fallen asleep.”
“Definitely not sleeping,” Maria breathes. Her hands find Natasha’s waist and hold there firmly, keeping herself anchored.
“Good.” Natasha’s voice is muffled in the crook of Maria’s neck.
She kisses her way slowly up the side of Maria’s throat to the underside of her jaw, her lips growing hotter and hotter against her skin. At first, Maria is too stunned to do much more than cling to Natasha’s hips. She sighs as Natasha’s tongue glides across her pulse point, and Natasha hums lightly, working her way up to nip at Maria’s ear.
The feel of Natasha’s teeth on her earlobe and the rush of her breath, already starting to come faster, bring Maria back to herself. No longer paralyzed like some stupid teenager, she turns her head to meet Natasha’s mouth with her own. Natasha leans into the kiss, her lips parting eagerly as she straddles Maria’s lap. Maria immediately misses the press of her weight against her body, but she’s quickly distracted by the slick heat of Natasha’s tongue in her mouth.
Natasha pulls back long enough to catch her breath and reaches for the rest of the buttons on Maria’s shirt. She makes quick work undoing them, and the efficiency of her fingers leaves Maria breathless, arching up under her hands. Natasha’s palms graze across Maria’s abs, then up over her breasts to her shoulders, pushing her shirt out of the way as she goes.
The lack of Natasha’s lips against hers starts to make Maria antsy, so she rises up to kiss her again. Her arms wrap around her waist as she bites down on Natasha’s lower lip; the small sound she earns in response sends shivers down her spine. Natasha reaches up to tug Maria’s hair out of its bun, her fingers working the handful of pins out of it just as surely as they undid her buttons. Maria shakes her hair the rest of the way loose and dips forward to kiss along Natasha’s collarbone. Natasha draws in a sharp breath, but then she pulls away, coughing and spluttering.
Maria looks up at her, concerned. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Natasha laughs and swipes at her mouth. “I think I inhaled your hair.”
“Sorry!” Maria scrambles to sweep her bangs out of her face, but her attempt is mostly ineffectual. “I’ve been meaning to get it trimmed for ages.”
Natasha catches a strand between her fingers and strokes her knuckles down Maria’s cheek. “I could cut it for you if you want.”
“What?” Maria starts to scoff, but the animated smile that spreads over Natasha’s face gives her pause. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Of course I am.”
Maria wrinkles her nose. “I don’t know, Natasha...”
“What’s the big deal? I cut Clint’s hair all the time.”
Maria remains unconvinced. “I wouldn’t exactly put that on my resume.”
“Have you ever seen it after he’s combed it? It’s not half bad. I cut Steve’s hair sometimes, too. Hell, I even cut my own hair from time to time.” Natasha seems incredibly eager to win Maria over. Much to her chagrin, it’s actually working.
Maria laughs. “See, I would’ve led with that.”
Natasha punches her arm. “Oh, come on, Hill. Don’t you trust me?” Her tone is lighthearted, but there’s no doubt in Maria’s mind that Natasha’s question is deadly serious.
The pleading look on Natasha’s face is too much. Maria finally caves, excitement slowly taking over her exasperation. “I... yes. Sure, okay, fine. What the hell.”
“Really?” Natasha’s face lights up almost the same way it did over their game of Two Truths and a Lie.
Maria can’t help but smile back. “Do it.”
Natasha is on her feet in an instant. She grabs a wooden chair from against the wall and hands it to Maria. “Take this into the kitchen and turn on the lights,” she instructs. “I’ll be right back.” Maria does as she’s told while Natasha darts off in the direction of the bathroom. She returns in no time, carrying a barber’s smock and a professional-looking stylist kit in a leather case. She sets them on the counter and repositions the chair so it’s facing away from the kitchen window.
Maria shoots her a quizzical look, which Natasha answers with a mischievous smirk. “I don’t want you to see it until I’m finished.”
“Fine.” Maria’s stomach starts to knot with apprehension, but there’s a challenge in Natasha’s eyes that she just can’t back away from. She sinks into the chair with a huff and lets Natasha drape the smock securely around her neck.
Natasha takes her time circling her, running her fingers through Maria's hair, comparing its length against her shoulders, her jawline, the curve of her breasts. She threads it between her fingers and pulls it through slowly, evaluating its strength and the extent of the split ends. Maria wishes they were positioned in front of a mirror so she could see the look on Natasha's face as she works. For now, she settles for stealing glances when Natasha circles in front of her or into her peripheral vision. There's a small crease of concentration evident between her eyebrows, and she hums every so often, sometimes in deliberation, sometimes in satisfaction. Maria can see the wheels turning behind her eyes. She watches as Natasha's plan, whatever it may be, clicks into place before she repositions herself squarely behind her shoulders, out of sight.
Natasha rakes her fingers back across the top of Maria's scalp from forehead to nape, gathering her hair into one thick bundle with both hands. She transfers the bundle to her left hand and picks up a set of shears with her right.
She holds Maria firmly by the hair and asks simply, "Do you trust me?"
"Yes," Maria responds hesitantly, a kind of dread weaving its way into her throat as it occurs to her to wonder why Natasha asked.
"Okay then." Natasha opens the shears with the smooth sound of metal sliding against metal.
"Wait, I – !" Maria's panicked protest springs to her lips just a moment too late.
The shears sink into the base of Maria's ponytail. Several aggressive, hacking snips later, Natasha tosses the lopped off fistful of hair into Maria's lap.
"Natasha, what the fuck?!" Maria whirls on her in stunned horror. Her temper flares up at the smug, unapologetic look on Natasha's face.
"No turning back now, Hill."
Maria grits her teeth to keep from shouting some more. "I'm going to kill you," she seethes.
Natasha ignores the threat. “You said you trust me; you don’t get to take that back.” Maria opens her mouth to protest, but Natasha cuts her off, her voice sharp and clear. “Let me finish. If you hate it, I’ll let you kick my ass all over this apartment.”
Maria glares daggers at her and takes several deep breaths, her nostrils flaring. Surprisingly, Natasha’s steady hands on her shoulders help to calm her down.
“Admit it, Hill: if you wanted someone to just take an inch or two off the bottom and trim your bangs, you would've gone to a salon or something ages ago.”
Maria stares mournfully down at the remnants of her ponytail in her lap. Natasha’s right, of course, even if Maria didn’t realize it before. With one last deep breath, she lets the severed ponytail fall to the floor and raises her chin defiantly. “Finish it.”
“That’s more like it.” Natasha gives her a bolstering clap on the shoulder and immediately picks up the shears again.
She works quickly and confidently, wielding the comb and shears as skillfully as any weapon. Maria’s anger quickly subsides, replaced with amazement and admiration. The look of pure determination on Natasha’s face is mesmerizing, but Maria eventually chooses to shut her eyes to avoid thinking about how large the drifts of cropped hair on the floor around the chair are getting. Natasha’s fingers continue to glide through Maria’s hair, smoothing and ruffling and measuring and evaluating in even intervals until at last she steps back, flips Maria’s bangs to the side one last time, and sets the shears down, apparently satisfied.
“Okay, I think that’ll do it.” A delighted grin breaks across Natasha’s face as she removes the smock from around Maria’s neck.
“Can I look now?” Maria asks hesitantly, reaching up to touch the back of her neck.
Natasha swats her hand away. “Not yet. Close your eyes.”
Under different circumstances, she’d be inclined to cheat, sneaking glances through imperceptibly opened eyelids to keep some shred of control over the situation. Tonight, though, Maria obliges without any further complaint. She’s trusted Natasha this long; she can give her this, too. Natasha takes her by the hands and leads her through the apartment to what Maria assumes is the bathroom.
Natasha flicks the lights on and speaks close to Maria’s ear. “Okay, now you can look.”
A part of her expects to cringe, to flinch away from her reflection, to round on Natasha with venom on her tongue.
All of those expectations vanish the moment Maria opens her eyes.
It’s short, shorter even than it felt when Natasha was cutting it, but short hair suits her far better than it really has any right to. Her neck looks longer, her jawline and cheekbones look sharper, stronger. The bangs are the perfect length to accentuate her eyes and the arch of her brows.
Maria gapes at her reflection, turning her head this way and that to take in all the angles. Even though she can see her hands make contact with the sides and back of her head, she still can’t quite believe how little hair is left there. She runs both her hands from her temples to the nape of her neck, and the phantom sensation of the bun that used to be there sends a shudder down her back. She’s so caught up in wrapping her mind around her reflection that Maria startles when Natasha wraps her arms around her waist from behind.
“So?” Natasha’s lips tickle against Maria’s ear. “Still want to kill me?”
“No.” Maria breathes. “I love it.”
Natasha’s eyes meet Maria’s in the mirror and she flashes her a triumphant smile. “See? I told you.”
“Yes, you did,” Maria concedes. “I should’ve been quicker to trust you.”
In lieu of a response, Natasha wraps her arms a bit more snugly around Maria’s waist and lowers her lips to her shoulder. The kiss is light, almost imperceptible, but it burns against Maria’s skin, drawing her attention away from the mirror. She lowers her hands onto the edge of the counter as Natasha kisses her again, and again. The warmth of her lips on her shoulders and the back of her neck is almost enough to make Maria’s knees buckle. Her breath catches when Natasha pulls her undershirt untucked from her pants and slips her hands under it so she can drag her fingertips over Maria’s abs. Her hands roam over her belly only momentarily before they inch lower, reaching for Maria’s belt buckle.
“Okay there, Delilah...” Maria chuckles, a little breathlessly.
Natasha stills her hands. “Too much?”
“Not at all.” Maria grabs Natasha’s wrist and tugs her around in front of her, pinning her against the counter with her hips.
Natasha laughs and drapes her arms around Maria’s neck. Her fingers thread into Maria’s short – oh, so very short – hair and she lifts herself up onto the counter, simultaneously pulling Maria down for a kiss. For the second time that night, Maria digs her fingers into Natasha’s hips and kisses her back. Natasha hooks her legs around Maria’s waist, pulling her closer. She quickly kisses her way along Maria’s jaw to her ear.
Maria nods fervently. “Hold on.”
Natasha clings to her as she takes a step back, lifting her off the counter and into her arms. Maria pauses only long enough to support Natasha’s weight with her hands on her ass before carrying her into the bedroom.
“Impressive,” Natasha smirks in between pressing open-mouthed kisses to Maria’s throat.
Maria tumbles the both of them down onto the bed, careful so as not to crush the cat, who had been snoozing by the headboard. Liho gives them a sleepy, disgruntled look before she hops off the bed and disappears back into the living room. Natasha chuckles and reaches for the hem of Maria’s undershirt, and Maria helps her tug it off over her head.
No sooner has Maria settled her weight back down onto her forearms than Natasha’s mouth finds her throat again. The combination of the scent of Natasha’s hair and the pressure of her teeth on her skin makes Maria’s head swim. She tangles her fingers in Natasha’s hair, reveling in the heat that radiates from Natasha’s fingernails raking their way up her back. When she reaches for the clasp of her bra, however, Maria stops her.
Natasha stills her hands immediately, looking up at her with confusion in her darkened eyes.
“If we’re going to do this, we should set ground rules first. Is there anything off-limits I should know about ahead of time?”
Natasha blinks at her, a little taken aback. “You know, I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that before...” She thinks hard for a moment, her brow furrowed. “I don't mind if you touch any of the rest of my scars, just try to avoid the one that's right–“ She traces her fingers along the underside of her breast through her shirt “–here.”
“I will. Anything else?”
Natasha shakes her head. “Nothing else comes to mind. What about you?”
“I don't like being held down,” Maria shudders a little at the thought, “especially not by the neck.”
“Okay then.” Maria leans down to kiss her lightly, fingertips sweeping across her cheek. “I think we can work the rest out as we go.”
"Works for me," Natasha agrees, reaching for Maria's bra clasp again. "May I?"
Maria laughs. "Yes, please."
Natasha makes quick work of undoing the hooks. Maria shrugs the straps off her shoulders, tosses the bra to the floor, and sits back on her heels, shoulders squared. She learned years ago not to be self-conscious about her body, not even in front of a woman as formidable as Natasha Romanoff. Not even when her eyes – followed by her fingers – are tracing the curves of her breasts. She meets Natasha’s gaze with confidence when it eventually returns to her face.
“Gorgeous,” Natasha breathes, surging up to crush their lips together.
The fabric of Natasha’s shirt is soft against Maria’s skin, but it’s not what she wants right now. Her hands work their way under the hem, and Natasha helps pull it up, breaking their kiss only long enough to tug the shirt off over her head. One of Maria’s hands flattens against the small of Natasha’s back, and the other glides up her spine to hover by her bra long enough for Natasha to nod her approval. The clasp comes undone with only a flick of Maria’s wrist.
“Very smooth, show-off,” Natasha chuckles. She bites down on Maria’s lower lip, then slowly pulls back until it slips from between her teeth.
“How’s this for showing off?” Maria leans her weight into Natasha, bearing her down to the mattress. She lowers her mouth to Natasha’s throat while the pads of her thumbs find her nipples. She teases them gently at first, then harder until Natasha’s nails dig into her shoulders and her hips buck underneath her.
From there, Maria trails kisses down the center of Natasha’s chest to her belly. Her fingertips ghost over her ribs as she goes, carefully avoiding the underside of her breasts. To her surprise, Natasha squirms and gasps at the touch, apparently a bit ticklish. It’s so tempting to take advantage of this new information, but Maria decides not to push her luck this time. She kisses her way lower, swirling her tongue in Natasha’s navel as she passes, all the way down to the waistband of her jeans.
Maria pauses only briefly, glancing up to find Natasha watching her intently. She raises a questioning eyebrow, and Natasha nods, catching her lip between her teeth. It’s easy enough to work her jeans open, but they’re tight enough that she needs Natasha’s help to tug them – along with her underwear – off her hips and onto the floor. Maria sinks slowly to her knees, her eyes sweeping over Natasha's naked body. She really is exquisitely beautiful – scars, bruises and all.
As usual, Natasha catches her staring and smirks, though her expression is much less cocky when her eyes are so dark with desire. "Like what you see?"
"Of course I do."
Maria nips at the inside of her knee, making her twitch in surprise. With a warm chuckle, she replaces her teeth with her tongue, gliding slowly up Natasha’s inner thigh. Maria’s eyes remain locked with Natasha’s, daring her to look away. She doesn’t – of course she doesn’t – even though she’s practically squirming with anticipation.
When she reaches the apex of Natasha’s thighs, Maria manages to wait just a few racing heartbeats longer before closing what little distance remains. For a moment, she’s completely unable to hold back her groan of satisfaction or the shiver that flies down her spine.
As fidgety as she was before, Natasha goes surprisingly still at the touch. She’s hard to read at first, but Maria is keen and attentive. It doesn't take her long to figure out precisely the right spots to make her sigh, the right speed to make her breath hitch, the right amount of pressure to make her hands ball into fists in her hair. Maria moans against her; she wasn't even sure her hair was still long enough to pull, but oh, she's glad it is. She can’t help but wonder if Natasha left it that way on purpose.
A slight cant in Natasha’s hips refocuses Maria’s attention. Natasha’s hands move from Maria’s hair and she gropes blindly for Maria’s hands. Maria intertwines their fingers, holding their hands steady against the bed as Natasha draws in a sharp breath. Her back arches up and then –
Her name on Natasha’s lips is the most exhilarating thing Maria has heard in a long time. Heart pounding, she drives Natasha relentlessly through her orgasm, then slows to help her ride out the aftershocks. Only after Natasha's hips jerk away involuntarily does she pull away entirely.
Maria climbs back up onto the bed next to Natasha and wraps her arms around her. She expects her to need a moment to catch her breath, but Natasha immediately curls a hand behind her neck and kisses her hungrily, clearly reveling in the feel of Maria’s lips, slick against hers. Natasha’s moan catches in her throat, but it’s more than enough to make heat flare between Maria’s thighs, building and building until she’s gasping into the kiss.
The next thing she knows, Natasha does something that leaves her flat on her back on the mattress with Natasha above her, already working the button of her pants undone. Maria stares up at her in amazement for a moment before lifting her hips to help facilitate Natasha undressing her the rest of the way.
Once the rest of her clothes wind up on the floor, Natasha’s hands start to wander over Maria’s body, sliding up her thighs, tracing the contours of her abs, palming at her breasts until her nipples are peaked and sensitive enough to send electricity through her body with every touch. Natasha takes one in her mouth and Maria’s back arches, her gasp deepening into a moan.
It isn’t long before Natasha’s clever tongue leaves Maria shaking. Natasha cups her hand firmly between her legs, but she keeps it frustratingly still. Maria begins to worry that Natasha's just going to tease her until she begs for more, but Natasha’s patience runs out mercifully soon. Maria's not even sure how many fingers she slips inside her; she just knows it's exactly what she needs. Little by little, Natasha presses the heel of her hand against her too, but it's not quite enough.
"God, Nat, just – " Maria huffs through gritted teeth.
Suddenly, Natasha’s teeth close firmly around Maria’s nipple and she cries out as her body jumps, shuddering hard in waves until she has to grab Natasha's wrist to cease the friction. A whimper accompanies the last twitch of Maria’s hips, and she blushes furiously, her hand flying to cover her face. Natasha begins to laugh, a warm and genuinely delighted sound, and – much to her own astonishment – Maria joins in, collapsing in a boneless, breathless heap.
Natasha settles next to her, resting her head on her shoulder as Maria wraps her arms around her.
"Uh huh," Natasha agrees, laughing even harder at her own incoherence.
For what seems like forever, the two of them just lie there laughing until they can't anymore.
Once they’ve recovered their breath, Maria starts to shiver despite the warmth of Natasha's body curled around her. Natasha notices immediately. She tugs at the blanket underneath them and they both slide under the covers, somehow still entwined.
“Will you play for me sometime?” Natasha asks quietly, her fingers once again tracing absent-minded circles across Maria’s chest.
Maria struggles to focus enough to figure out what she’s talking about, but her mind is completely blank. “What?”
“Well,” Natasha smirks impishly, “I think it’s safe to say I’ve seen every inch of your body by now, but I haven’t found a single tattoo. That was your lie.”
Maria gawks at her for a moment; somehow, she’d completely forgotten. “Oh my god, Nat,” she laughs, pressing the heels of her hands against her eyes. “Please tell me you didn’t seduce me just so you could win our game.”
“Give me a little more credit than that.”
It really is incredible how Natasha’s triumphant, self-satisfied smile more than makes up for the exasperation of losing so thoroughly. Maria wrinkles her nose, but her indignation is entirely feigned. “Okay, fine! You win. Again. I’ll play for you on one condition.”
“Be my date to Pepper’s big, fancy party?”
Natasha’s smug smile falters. “Your date?”
That wasn’t the reaction she was expecting. Maria nods cautiously, her chest beginning to tighten.
“I don’t know, Maria...” Natasha’s thumb strokes Maria’s cheek in what is probably supposed to be a reassuring gesture, but her words still sting. “Can I think about it?”
Maria would’ve preferred an immediate ‘yes’, of course, but at least it isn’t an outright rejection. Be patient. Give her time. She nods again, affecting more confidence this time. “Of course. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”
The silence that follows does nothing to loosen the knot in Maria’s throat. She takes a few controlled breaths, unsure of what to do to ease the tension between them. Maybe it’d be best for her to leave before she makes things worse.
“Do you want me to – “ Maria trails off and gestures half-heartedly toward the door.
“Stay.” This time, Natasha does not hesitate for even a second. She cups Maria’s cheek and holds her gaze with soft eyes. “Please?”
Maria lets go of the breath she’d been holding and leans into the touch with a small smile. “Alright.”
Relief breaks across Natasha’s face as she shifts up to kiss Maria. Grinning, Maria meets her halfway, the last remnants of tension evaporating with each brush of their lips. They kiss until it seems like they’ve melted into one another again, their limbs becoming languid, their touches soft and slow.
Eventually, Natasha lets her head fall to the pillow with a contented sigh. She shifts around in Maria’s arms until her back is pressed up against her bare chest, her skin warm and soft against Maria’s. Just like their first night together, Natasha takes Maria’s arm and pulls it around her waist, maximizing the contact between them. Maria wraps herself around her securely, protectively, no longer hesitant to nuzzle her face into Natasha’s hair. Maria breathes deeply, eager to memorize the scent of her, of the two of them together.
For the first time in a long time, Maria drifts off to sleep completely at peace.
It’s early still when Maria wakes, slowly and gently, to the sounds of traffic filtering into the room through the window along with the first hints of sunlight. She blinks away her drowsiness, and it doesn’t take long for her to remember where she is.
Not that she quite believes it anyway.
Miraculously, Natasha is still asleep next to her, sprawled across the bed on her stomach, the covers kicked down around her hips. It’s almost comical how she manages to take up most of the space even though she’s so small. Clearly she’s used to having the bed all to herself, and yet Maria still seems to fit beside her. The arm Natasha’s slung across her ribs is comfortable and secure, as is the warm press of their thighs under the sheets. Natasha’s breathing is deep and slow, almost hypnotic. With a contented sigh, Maria stretches, trying her best not to wake her as she shifts closer, seeking more contact. She rests her hand gently on Natasha’s forearm and is about to drift off again when the cat, suddenly alighting on the edge of the bed, startles her awake.
For several seconds they both freeze, Liho eyeing Maria suspiciously as if she had somehow been surprised to find her in Natasha’s bed. For all Maria knows, she could be usurping the cat’s spot, but soon enough Liho flops over against the curve of her waist and begins to purr, apparently content to share the space. A fluttering warmth spreads up from Maria’s stomach as she threads one hand into Liho’s fur and the other into Natasha’s hair. The touch is light, but it’s enough to make Natasha twitch and start to stir. Her eyes flutter open and meet Maria's with a sleepy smile.
"Morning," Natasha mumbles, wrapping her arm a little tighter across Maria's chest and burying her face into her shoulder with a groan. "What time is it?"
Maria chuckles and cranes her neck to glance at the clock on the nightstand. "Not quite seven. Do you want to go back to sleep?"
"No, I'm awake," Natasha insists as she props herself up on one elbow, though the way she scrubs a hand across her eyes makes the assertion somewhat unconvincing. “I slept really well last night.”
“Did I wear you out?” Maria teases gently.
Natasha smirks and answers her with a light kiss. “You’re two for two getting me to sleep without nightmares. I might have to keep you around.” Her voice is lighthearted, but her eyes are completely earnest.
Maria knows her well enough by now that the weight of Natasha’s admission does not go unappreciated. It leaves her at a loss for words, so she opts instead to pull her even closer, her arm wrapped protectively around Natasha’s shoulders. Natasha settles back down onto Maria’s chest, her head tucked securely under her chin and her fingers tracing the line of Maria’s collarbone. Maria breathes in the scent of her hair, laced with the faint smell of sex.
“I could get used to this.”
She can feel Natasha’s smile against her skin. “So could I.”
Grinning, Maria presses a kiss to her forehead. Natasha leans into her, then raises her chin to kiss her back, lifting her hand to glide along Maria’s neck. I could get used to this, too, Maria thinks as even the simple brush of Natasha’s lips against hers starts to quicken her pulse. The sweep of her hand on her jaw, her neck, her shoulder isn’t helping, either.
As if reading her mind, Natasha pulls away with a smirk and props herself up on one arm. “What do you normally do on Sunday morning?” she asks softly, a little breathless herself.
Maria shrugs, trying to string words together. “Probably go for a run. Maybe do my laundry or buy groceries.” She cringes at how utterly boring she must sound. It hasn’t even been a year and already her life is so different from the life she had as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s second-in-command.
She must not do a very good job of keeping the wistfulness off her face, because Natasha offers her an empathetic sort of half-smile and brushes her fingers along her cheek. “Will I disrupt your schedule too much if I ask you to spend all day in bed with me?” The mischievous glint in Natasha’s eyes just barely conceals a hint of trepidation underneath.
A slow smile spreads across Maria’s face. “You know, I can’t remember the last time I did that.”
“Neither can I.”
“Sounds wonderful.” Maria reaches up to tuck an errant strand of hair back into place behind Natasha’s ear.
“Good.” Natasha’s face lights up as she leans down to kiss Maria again. Maria meets her eagerly half way, but before either of them can get too caught up in it, Natasha pulls away again. “Coffee first, though?” she asks, looking a little sheepish.
Maria lets out a short bark of surprised laughter. “Caffeine addiction?”
“Just a little one,” Natasha grimaces, holding up her thumb and forefinger with barely any space between them. “Stay here; I’ll be right back.” She disentangles herself from the sheets and Maria’s arms and slides out of bed, pausing just long enough to ruffle the snoozing Liho’s fur before heading for the kitchen.
As her footfalls fade off down the hall, Maria tugs the sheet up to her shoulders and stretches out a bit. Her eyes wander around the room, taking in all the details – or rather, the lack thereof – she’d been too distracted to notice the night before. Like the rest of the apartment, nothing in the bedroom, aside from the jumble of quickly-shed clothing on the floor, indicates that anyone actually lives here. There’s nothing personal about the personal items on the bureau or the artwork on the wall. Even the blankets on the bed are nondescript, bordering on monochromatic.
With a small shudder, Maria turns her attention to scratching the cat behind the ears and under the chin in an attempt to banish the urge to jump out of bed and follow Natasha into the kitchen. She’s only been gone for a few minutes. Maria can already hear the coffee machine, meaning she should only be gone for a few minutes more.
“I’m a bit pathetic, aren’t I?” Maria asks Liho, laughing a little at herself as the cat only blinks slowly at her. Almost as an answer, Liho uncurls, stretches, and sets a paw tentatively on Maria’s belly. “No, kitty, don’t – oof!” For such a small cat, her paws dig heavily into her stomach as she walks over her to the other side of the bed. Liho hops lightly off the far edge of the bed and pads off down the hall, probably to go curl around Natasha’s ankles until she feeds her.
Maria climbs out of bed a moment later and tugs on her underwear and tank top rather than having to walk around Natasha’s apartment naked. As much as she’d love to follow the cat into the kitchen, she opts to head for the bathroom, thanks to the cat paws making it hard to ignore her bladder any longer.
When she flips on the lights, her reflection in the bathroom mirror very nearly startles a shout out of her. For one, she’d somehow managed to forget that Natasha had chopped all of her hair off last night. For another, her incredibly short hair is sticking up all funny where she’d slept on it. She turns on the tap and does her best to tame her hair by running her wet fingers through it a few times. It only helps a little, but as she wrinkles her nose at her reflection she hears Natasha making her way back to the bedroom, so it’ll have to do for now. Maria finishes up in the bathroom and quickly returns to the bedroom, trying not to look too self-conscious.
If Natasha notices, she doesn’t say anything. She holds a mug out to Maria, but when she reaches for it, she leans just out of her reach with a smirk. “Not so fast, Hill. I’m enforcing the dress code.” She eyes Maria’s tank top pointedly.
Maria rolls her eyes in as overdramatic a manner as she can manage, but she quickly sheds her clothes without any further complaint. “Is that better?”
“Much,” Natasha agrees, presenting her with a mug of coffee as a reward.
“Scoot over,” Maria prompts so she can join Natasha on the bed. She sips her coffee, letting her eyes fall shut contentedly. Just like the first time the two of them shared coffee in bed, it’s black and very strong, exactly the way she likes it. “You remembered,” she murmurs, nudging Natasha affectionately.
“Of course I did,” she scoffs, feigning indignation, but quickly her voice softens. “I think about that weekend a lot.”
The raw honesty in her voice takes Maria by surprise. She’s thought about it a lot over the past few weeks as well, but she would never have expected Natasha to admit it to her. At a loss for words, Maria just takes another sip of coffee and gives Natasha space to continue if she wants to.
It takes her a little while, but eventually she looks up from her coffee and meets Maria’s eyes. “You took really good care of me. You've got a reputation for being such a hard-ass, but until that night I hadn’t realized how sweet you can be. At least, you're really sweet to me.” By this point, Maria isn’t sure which expression she’s wearing, but whatever it is earns her a good-natured smirk. “Don't worry, I won't tell anyone,” Natasha teases.
“I don’t think anyone would believe you even if you told them.” Maria smirks back. She can feel her cheeks and the back of her neck start to burn, but she ignores it in favor of wrapping her arm around Natasha’s shoulders and drawing her close.
“Maybe not,” Natasha chuckles in agreement. She settles her shoulders against Maria’s chest, and for a long time the two of them just sit quietly, sipping their coffee and enjoying one another’s company.
When Natasha’s mug is empty, she sets it aside and takes one of Maria’s hands in both of hers. She absent-mindedly turns it this way and that, fidgeting with her fingers, her hands in constant, gentle motion while her thoughts are somewhere else. Her touch is quietly intimate in a way that captivates Maria’s attention completely. She rests her chin on Natasha’s shoulder and just watches their hands, mesmerized and endeared.
Suddenly, Natasha’s fingers still and her voice fills the silence. “Look, I’m sorry I was so cagey about being your date to Pepper’s party. I really do want to go with you...”
Maria’s smile fades. “But?” she prompts apprehensively.
Natasha takes a deep breath and turns to face her more directly, but she doesn’t let go of her hand. “Do you really think that's the best idea? Remember when the tabloids got ahold of those photos of you and Rogers, and for weeks everyone thought you two were involved? That got really ugly- ”
“’Ugly’ is an understatement,” Maria interjects, her skin crawling at the memory. The photos were innocuous enough – just some paparazzi shots of the two of them in good spirits making eye contact with each other outside some building or another – but apparently it was more than enough to convince most of the internet they were having a sordid affair. Cap had come out the other side largely unscathed, but for several weeks Maria had been the subject of more than a few violently misogynistic and racist hashtags accusing her of everything from sleeping her way to the top to being some sort of Hydra succubus hell-bent on destroying American freedom or some bullshit like that.
Natasha squeezes her hand, centering her thoughts before she continues. “That got really ugly, and people love Captain America. Can you even imagine what they'd say if they knew the ex-Assistant Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. was sleeping with the Black Widow? I don't want my bad name to rub off on you.”
Maria heaves a sigh and pulls Natasha back into her arms. “I’ve weathered all kinds of defamation and verbal abuse in my life; I don’t intend to start letting it bother me now,” she smirks, hugging her a little closer, “but I understand if you want to avoid that kind of publicity yourself. You don’t have to go with me, but will you at least make an appearance? It might not be as unbearable if you’re there, whether you’re my date or not.”
“It’s a party, Maria. It’s supposed to be fun.”
Maria wrinkles her nose. “I know, but – “
“I think I can manage an appearance,” Natasha chuckles, much to Maria’s relief. “I do already have a killer dress.”
“’Killer’ as in ‘gorgeous’ or ‘killer’ as in ‘full of concealed weaponry’?” Maria teases, earning herself a nice, hard slug on the arm.
“I’ll never tell,” Natasha laughs. “Plausible deniability and all that.”
“I suppose that’s fair,” Maria smirks, then gasps as Natasha begins to brush her lips against the underside of her jaw, abruptly and effectively ending the conversation. She takes the hand she’s been holding and guides it to her breast, chuckling warmly when Maria groans in response. “You weren’t kidding when you said you wanted to spend all day in bed, were you?”
“Not even a little bit.”
The night of the party finds Maria in her office in Stark Tower, trying her hardest to avoid going upstairs for as long as possible. She drags a comb through her hair one more time for good measure before setting it aside. There’s a lot more product in her hair than she’s used to, but not a single short-cropped strand is out of place. Turning her head this way and that, she smiles in satisfaction at how sleek and elegant she’s managed to make it look.
Her makeup, too, is a work of art: razor-sharp eyeliner, curled lashes, subtle contouring to compliment the angles of her face, several extra steps she doesn't often bother with. She’s even allowed herself an indulgent hint of the perfume she's taken a liking to. She might as well have a little something purely for her own enjoyment; everything else is for the sake of the cameras. Her eyebrows knit together in her reflection in the mirror. She looks amazing, and she knows it, but she'd really rather not have to put in all the extra effort.
Oh, how she's come to hate cameras.
For what seemed like ages after S.H.I.E.L.D. fell to pieces, the media hounded her absolutely everywhere she went. She’d expected it on her way to and from the Senate hearings and the occasional press conference in which she’d agreed to participate, but she never got used to encountering flashbulbs every time she tried to leave her apartment to go anywhere at all. If it’d been up to her, there’s no way she’d voluntarily venture back into the spotlight tonight, even for so brief a moment. Pepper knows what she’s doing, though, and Maria begrudgingly agrees that making the occasional public appearance makes her look a lot less suspicious than she would had she gone to ground entirely. Plus, she trusts Pepper to have invited only the right media contacts to ensure the events of the evening are presented in as positive a light as possible. Not that the night will be any easier because of it.
Dealing with the media was always one of her least favorite part of her job at S.H.I.E.L.D. – second only to dealing with politicians – but at least she’d had the S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform to fall back on. Somehow it was easier to approach the parts of her job she hated when she knew she had the support of her organization behind her, when she knew she was a part of something bigger. Typical soldier, Maria thinks to herself, shaking her head in amusement. Of all the things she could miss from S.H.I.E.L.D. – and from the Army before that – of course she misses the uniform. Uniforms make everything easier.
Fury once accused her of hiding behind her uniform, but she suspected he only said it to piss her off, to goad her into action. She never hid behind the colors she wore – you don’t get to the top doing that – but she was first and foremost a soldier, and she knew the benefit of uniformity, of camouflage.
With each passing day, however, it seems clearer and clearer that that part of her life is over. She only has her own colors now, whatever they are. On the plus side, the benefit of being a free agent for once in her life is she gets to decide what her colors are for herself. She gets to choose the front she presents to the public now, and the thought is as terrifying as it is liberating. Thanks to Natasha, she's off to a good start with the dramatic change of hairstyle. There’s no reason she shouldn’t continue to play to her strengths.
Maria moves away from the mirror to continue to get dressed, pulling the garment bag off the hook on the back of her door. Yes, she could have gone with her usual standby – the navy blue dress that shows off her back and shoulders, with heels that make her tower even higher than usual – but at the last minute she'd changed her mind. If she can’t have her Army dress blues to fall back on tonight, she might as well have the next best thing.
She quickly strips down to her underwear and steps into a perfectly tailored pair of pants, leaving them unfastened around her waist for the time being. The shirt she tugs on next is crisp and well-pressed, and her fingers deftly fasten the long row of buttons in no time. In a few quick motions, she straightens the shirt around her shoulders and hips and smooths out the front. Once the shirt is neatly tucked in, she zips and buttons her pants. The leather of her belt is buttery soft in her hands, and she takes her time buckling it into place. The waistband sits just right above her hips, the neat creases align just right down the front of her legs, and Maria allows herself a satisfied grin at her reflection.
The tie is next, knotted quickly and slid expertly into place at the base of her throat. Maria shrugs into her vest and buttons it closed over the tie, admiring the way her sports bra evens out the lines without concealing the curve of her breasts entirely. After a quick, critical frown in the mirror, Maria tugs the bottom of the vest a little lower at her waist, then smooths a hand down her stomach to even it out. Perfect.
The fabric of her suit shifts deliciously against her skin as she moves to sit on the edge of her chair. She lifts up her shoes to inspect them for scuffs, even though she knows they’re already buffed to an impeccable shine. Satisfied, Maria puts them on and laces them up, then stands to check the length of her pant legs. A quick adjustment of the waist ensures the hemmed cuffs fall to just the right spot. Definitely worth every cent of the custom tailoring price.
Maria reaches for her jacket next, plucking a stray thread off the sleeve before slipping into it. As she fastens the middle button, the transformation is automatic, instantaneous: her posture straightens, her chin rises, and her shoulders square off. Although she’s wearing flats, she might as well be a full two inches taller from sheer confidence. Even her thoughts seem clearer, calmer as she tugs the cuffs of her shirt out of the ends of her jacket sleeves and reaches for the small box on her desk.
Inside is a set of silver, monogrammed cufflinks, the finishing touch on her outfit for the night. They were a parting gift – midway between a good luck charm and an apology – from her commanding officer after her discharge, and she’s held onto them for years, even though she rarely gets the opportunity to wear them. It seems fitting for her to wear them now. They’re a reminder that this is not the first time she’s had everything taken away from her. This is not the first time she’s had to build herself back up.
Maria fastens the cufflinks in place reverently, then turns to face her reflection. After a few finishing touches - tucking a strand of hair back into place, touching up the line of her lower lip where she'd manage to smudge it, double-checking she'd blended well enough under her jaw – there's nothing left for her to fix or adjust. She gives herself one last critical once-over in the mirror, ending in a satisfied nod. The figure looking back at her is impressive: proud, powerful, ready for battle in a uniform of her own design.
With one last deep breath and another quick glance at the clock, Maria decides there’s no use putting off heading upstairs to the party any longer. Her footfalls ring out formidably as she makes her way down the empty hallway. She steps into the elevator when it arrives and spends the brief ride to the uppermost floor putting on her very best, most impenetrable Commander Hill face, steeling herself to make her entrance with her head held high.
The moment Maria steps out of the elevator, everything around her erupts into light and noise. ‘Small media presence’, my ass, she thinks to herself as she wades through the throng of reporters and photographers who have all turned their attention on her. To be fair, there are far fewer of them than there have been at other Stark events she’s attended, but even one camera in her face is too many.
“Ms. Hill, what inspired the new look?”
Maria squares her jaw and pointedly ignores the reporter. God, how she misses having a title. Commander Hill, Agent Hill, anything but Ms.
“Who are you wearing?”
“No date, Ms. Hill?”
It’s sexist bullshit, the lot of it. They definitely won’t ask Steve Rogers any of these asinine questions. Right now, though, there’s nothing for her to do besides grit her teeth and wait for the barrage of flashbulbs to subside.
Mercifully, she manages to catch Pepper’s eye through the crowd and starts heading in her direction. Pepper raises a questioning eyebrow at her as she approaches, clearly noting the fact that she arrived alone. Maria offers a small shrug and a slight shake of her head in response. The way Pepper purses her lips is almost enough to get Maria to smile, even in front of all the cameras; with nonverbal communication skills this strong, the two of them would have made an excellent field team.
By the time they’re close enough to actually greet each other, they’re the picture of professional courtesy. Pepper shakes her hand and kisses her politely on the cheek, to the flash of the cameras.
“Maria, so good to see you. Glad you could make it.” Pepper’s blithe smile and benevolent tone are the perfect front for the reporters, making it easy for Maria to slip into a similar façade.
“I wouldn’t have missed it.” It’s trite bullshit, of course, but it’s expected of her. There will be time to talk to Pepper privately later. Right now, she has to concentrate on making it the rest of the way through the gauntlet.
Tony is next in line, somehow managing not to look like a complete sleaze in his tux. He greets her with an exaggeratedly good-natured handshake. “Hey, Butch. Nice haircut.”
Her grip on his hand tightens, and she smirks inwardly to see him flinch ever so slightly. When she responds, her voice is sweet enough that anyone other than Tony himself can hear only her tone, not her words. “Thanks. Call me ‘Butch’ again and I’ll hand you your ass,” she warns. “And I know how much you hate being handed things.”
“Ignore that asshole, Maria. You look wonderful,” insists Rhodey, who appears at her side as if out of nowhere.
She accepts both the champagne flute and the hug he offers her with a genial smile. “Thanks, Rhodey. You clean up pretty nice yourself.”
He beams, but just as he begins to respond, the renewed commotion from the press draws their attention to the elevator bay.
“Captain Rogers, what do you say to the rumors that S.H.I.E.L.D. is secretly rebuilding?”
“Cap, is it true you’ve just returned from Iceland? What were you doing there?”
“Ms. Carter, who are you wearing?”
“Sir, are you a friend of Captain America’s?”
Maria can’t tell whether Steve, Sharon or Sam looks more affronted by the onslaught of questions being thrown at them. Poor Steve and Sam wave at the cameras wearing identical, forced smiles, the kind that just barely conceal how much they regret promising to be on their best behavior. Sharon shoots them both a commiserative glance as she steers them through the crowd. It would almost be comical, had Maria not just been subjected to the same treatment.
Rhodey nudges Maria’s elbow and silently suggests she slip into the crowd to avoid any further interactions with the press. She doesn’t hesitate to take him up on it. She makes her escape easily, keeping to the edge of the enormous room. The jazz combo onstage is quite good, now that Maria spares them any attention, and despite it being relatively early in the evening, there are already quite a few people on the dance floor. A few of them are even familiar after the months she’s spent working in the tower. She has to hand it to Pepper: the woman knows how to throw one hell of a classy party.
Maria sips her champagne and scans the room for an inconspicuous place to stand and observe from the sidelines. It’s only a few seconds before she spots Bruce Banner nearby, doing just that.
He offers her a wry smile and fidgets with the cuff of his jacket as she approaches. “You look about as thrilled to be here as I am.”
“You can say that again; I promised Pepper I’d make an appearance.”
“I promised Tony the same thing,” Bruce chuckles, then inclines his head conspiratorially. “I didn’t promise I wouldn’t disappear back downstairs after an hour, though. Perks of living in the tower.”
Maria wrinkles her nose. “Oh, how I envy you. I’ll probably be stuck here all night.”
“And I envy Thor: he didn’t have to come at all. Business on Asgard to attend to or something.”
“I’ll bet Thor is disappointed he’s missing out,” Maria muses. “He loves this sort of thing. Good food, plenty of alcohol, excellent music...”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Bruce concedes. “It’s a shame, really. It would’ve been nice to have everyone together in a situation where we aren’t all about to die, for once.”
“Speaking of having everyone together,” Maria tips her head to acknowledge Sharon as she pulls Steve and Sam through the crowd in their direction.
“Maria Hill, you look even better in a suit than Sam does!” Sharon gushes by way of a greeting.
Sam tugs at his jacket by the lapels and grins at Maria in agreement. “And I look pretty damned good in a suit.”
“Thanks, you two.” Maria accepts Sharon’s hug and Sam’s slap on the back in rapid succession, then offers her hand to Steve. “Hey, Rogers.”
“Hey, yourself.” Steve smiles as he shakes her hand. Maria can’t help but note how exhausted he looks around the eyes, even though he’s putting up a good front.
“How are you?” She’s asking for more than small talk, but she leaves him the option to interpret it as such.
“We’re not making much progress,” he confides in a low voice, taking the opening. “No matter what I do, we’re always a step behind. It’s... disheartening.” A muscle in his jaw ticks as he smirks, a lopsided approximation of a smile that doesn’t come close to reaching his eyes.
Maria’s heart sinks. “You’ll find him.”
He gives a half-hearted shrug, clearly unconvinced. “I hope so.”
“Are you in town for a while? We should go a few rounds, catch up,” she offers.
“I’d like that.” This time, his smile is a little more genuine.
Maria smiles back, then lets Sharon goad him into joining her and Sam in bantering with Bruce. For a few minutes, she’s more than content to drink her champagne and stay out of the conversation.
That is, until Sharon’s delighted laugh catches her attention again. “Natasha? I didn’t see you come in!”
Sure enough, Natasha’s joined their circle as suddenly and inconspicuously as if she’d been there all along. She gives them all that smug, enigmatic little smirk of hers, the one that makes Maria’s knees go a little weak on a good day. Tonight, as clichéd as it sounds, the sight of her takes Maria’s breath away.
Killer dress, indeed. The black lace falls perilously low down her back, and Maria catches a glimpse of the remnants of the glass scars on her shoulder every time her hair sweeps out of the way. The skirt flows perfectly around her legs as she moves from person to person, greeting each of them radiantly in turn. She really is stunning; Maria is far from the only person in the room who’s staring.
Somehow, Maria manages to recover from the short-circuit in her brain before Natasha reaches her, though the warm brush of her lips on her cheek doesn’t help at all.
“Hey, you,” Natasha murmurs in her ear, soft enough that only Maria can hear, and her hand lingers almost imperceptibly on Maria’s waist.
“Hi,” Maria breathes, trying her damnedest not to look as flustered as she feels about the unexpected intimacy of their exchange. Natasha gives her a quick, surreptitious wink, then turns to flag someone down across the room without so much as missing a beat.
Maria follows her gaze and spots Clint Barton and Kate Bishop wading through the crowd towards their small circle. She can’t be sure from this distance, but it looks very much as if there’s a bullet hole or something through the arm of Clint’s jacket. That man is a disaster.
Clint signs something to Natasha, who smirks and rolls her eyes.
“What did he say?” Maria prompts.
“I think he said Kate bullied him into bringing her as his plus one. I missed the last part, to be honest. My ASL isn’t all that great yet, and I think he makes it up as he goes along half the time anyway.” She signs a quick reply, and Clint responds.
“Now, that I understood,” Natasha laughs, then answers him very eloquently by flipping him off.
Maria raises an eyebrow. “Do I want to know?”
“Not at all.” Natasha accentuates her point by punching Clint hard in the shoulder the minute he’s within reach.
“Nat,” Steve begins to admonish her, but Barton cuts him off.
“It’s okay, Cap, I deserved that. Hi, everyone. Do you all know Hawkeye?” he asks, then stands back as Kate makes the rounds. She shakes hands, introducing herself and making small talk as if she attends black tie events like this all the time. For all Maria knows, she probably does. Despite all her confidence and charm, Kate pointedly stays as far away from Maria as possible; Maria knows full well she’s thinking of the time Maria had her arrested in L.A. She does her best to hide her amused smirk at the thought. There’s something incredibly satisfying about making such a confident, self-assured person a little nervous.
A sudden uproar from the press and the subsequent murmur that runs through the crowd turns everyone’s attention toward the door. There, amid flashbulbs and clambering reporters, stands Carol Danvers herself, beaming and posing good-naturedly lo let the photographers get a few good shots. Soon - with a grinning Rhodey on her arm and Tony Stark on her heels – she, too, makes her way through the crowd to the corner where the rest of them are assembled.
“Hey, strangers,” she calls, all excitement and delight. Her attitude is contagious; even Tony doesn’t seem to mind not being the center of all the attention as she jubilantly greets them all one by one.
“Cap,” she nods at Steve, eyes gleaming.
He grins at her and nods back. “Cap. Aren’t you supposed to be off-world right now?”
“Yeah, I’m only planet-side for a few days, and then I’m supposed to meet up with the Guardians again. Perfect timing, right? Pepper throws one hell of a party,” she laughs, waving off the champagne a server offers her.
“She certainly does,” Tony interjects, puffed with pride.
“Hey, Avengers!” comes a voice from the crowd. “Is this the first time so many of you have been in one place since the Battle of New York? Can I get a photo?”
It takes a bit of shuffling, but the eleven of them manage to arrange themselves so they’ll all fit in the frame. The problem is, once one camera focuses on them, out come half a dozen others. It isn’t too long before they’ve attracted a crowd and Maria’s gritting her teeth looking for a means of escape.
Steve, to his credit, is quick to intervene. He adopts a tone of voice straight out of an old radio adventure show. “We’ve made a critical tactical error, team. Let’s disperse before we attract too much more attention. On my mark… go!”
In one motion, everyone breaks away from formation, laughing.
Tony excuses himself to the bar, and Rhodey immediately turns and offers an arm to Carol. “Care to dance, Cap?”
“Sure!” She takes his arm with an amicable smile.
Sharon smirks as they make a beeline for the dance floor, then offers her arm to Steve. “Care to dance, Cap?” she apes, grinning. Steve takes her arm with a chuckle and allows her to lead him away.
Kate is quick to drag Clint off after them, marshalling him into place with an authoritative, “Come on, Hawkeye.”
Natasha laughs affectionately at Clint’s reticence, the sound filling Maria with a warmth that has nothing to do with the champagne.
“Nat?” Sam tries hopefully, offering her his arm.
Natasha takes it without hesitation, without so much as a glance towards Maria. “Think you can keep up with me, Wilson?” she teases, already leading him off.
Maria clenches her jaw as the two of them leave her behind, stung despite herself. She finishes the last mouthful of her champagne in an attempt to keep her disappointment off her face. This is foolish, of course. They both agreed it’d be best to keep their distance at the party. Maria knew going in that they probably won’t get to spend much time together tonight.
She just didn’t expect it to be so hard.
With a start, she realizes Bruce is the only one left standing off to the side. She glances at him, only to have him pointedly avert his eyes from her gaze. He clearly doesn’t want to dance, and luckily for him, that’s the last thing she wants to do right now as well. With a frustrated sigh, she heads for the bar.
The scotch she orders is expensive, partly because she knows Stark is footing the bill for the open bar, but mostly so she won't follow through with the urge to just knock it back. She sips it slowly, trying to let the satisfying burn override the bitter taste in her mouth.
Natasha is not here as her date; she can dance with anyone she wants. There’s no reason at all for Maria to begrudge her the opportunity to spend time with the people she’s close with. Besides, all these people are Maria’s friends as well, at least as close to friends as one might have in her line of work. There’s no reason at all for her to be standing on the sidelines by herself, watching the rest of them dance and laugh and enjoy themselves. They all deserve it, after the year they’ve had, and she deserves to enjoy herself right along with them.
And yet here she is, sulking in the corner by herself. Foolish.
The touch of a hand on her elbow startles her out of her thoughts, and she blinks at the woman suddenly standing quite close to her.
“Hello, Alyssa. I didn’t recognize you without the lab coat,” she covers quickly.
Alyssa grins up at her, subconsciously smoothing her hands down the front of her dress. “Hi. What are you doing over here by yourself? They tell me you’re supposed to dance at these things.”
Maria humors her with a small chuckle. “It’s a little hard to dance without a partner,” she admits.
“Well, you’re in luck: I don’t have a partner, either,” Alyssa laughs, immediately offering Maria her arm. “Dance with me?”
Maria deliberates for a moment, but when no decent excuse to decline presents itself, she downs the last of her scotch and sets the glass down on the bar with a resolute thud. “Sure.”
Alyssa wastes no time taking her hand and leading her towards the dance floor, though once they’ve taken the floor, she’s content to let Maria lead. It takes the two of them a while to find their rhythm. Alyssa dances close, jostling against her from time to time, though Maria isn’t sure whether her clumsiness is due to inexperience or inebriation. To be fair, Maria’s starting to feel her liquor herself. She chooses to blame the heat creeping up the back of her neck on the alcohol, at least. Alyssa, to her credit, laughs good-naturedly along with each minor mishap, completely unperturbed and unselfconscious whenever they step on each other’s toes or fall off beat. The awkwardness doesn’t quite fade, but eventually Maria lets herself relax in spite of it.
“You look incredible tonight. Short hair really suits you. I hardly recognized you when you walked in,” Alyssa confides after a while. She shifts just a little closer and brings a hand up to run her fingers through Maria’s hair.
“Thank you.” Maria’s too acutely aware of the pressure of Alyssa’s hand, firm and sure against the back of her neck, for any other response. Maria swallows thickly as Alyssa’s eyes flit to her lips for just a moment before returning to meet Maria’s gaze again.
“Any chance you’d still like to get a drink with me sometime?” Alyssa asks, her voice velvety if somewhat tentative.
Maria blinks at her, taken aback. She knows she has to answer, has to say something, but her voice falters as she catches a glimpse of Natasha and Sam over Alyssa’s shoulder. The two of them dance fluidly, almost effortlessly together. Sam grins from ear to ear, and Natasha throws her head back, laughing in delight as he spins her. Just for a moment, as Natasha completes her rotation, Maria swears their eyes meet, swears the delight flickers out of Natasha’s eyes to be replaced with something like bewilderment.
It passes in an instant, leaving Maria stinging, unsure whether the pang in her chest is jealousy or guilt. She does her best to shake it off; she’s uncomfortably aware that Alyssa is still looking up at her expectantly, awaiting her answer.
Maria meets her eyes apologetically. “Actually, I’m kind of seeing someone right now.”
“Oh.” Alyssa sucks in a breath, and her hands fall quickly away from Maria’s hair. “Okay.”
“I’m sorry…” Maria begins, but Alyssa quickly cuts her off.
“No, no, don’t be. I should’ve taken you up on your offer when I had the chance. I guess I just have bad timing,” Alyssa insists, offering her an unconvincing smile that is embarrassed and crushed in equal measure. “Have a good night, Maria. Enjoy the party.”
With that, she beats a hasty retreat, leaving Maria standing awkwardly in the middle of the dance floor. She can feel the prickle of eyes staring at her, but when she glances around her, all of the bystanders quickly avert their eyes.
Maria stands there, stunned, her face falling into her usual closed-off expression as a defense mechanism. A light but firm hand on her elbow cuts through the daze, and the next thing she knows, Pepper is steering her off of the dance floor and pressing a fresh glass of scotch into her hand.
“I didn’t expect you to need rescuing so early in the evening. What just happened?”
Maria feels the bite of humiliation at the back of her throat – too familiar a taste, of late – and tries to wash it away with an inadvisably large gulp of her drink. “Where do you want me to start?” she grumbles, not bothering to try and convince Pepper that nothing is wrong; she’ll just see right through her, as usual.
Pepper raises an apprehensive eyebrow. “Why don’t you start with why you were dancing with Alyssa and not Natasha?”
Leave it to Pepper to get right to the heart of the matter. Maria pinches the bridge of her nose and closes her eyes tight. “Natasha isn’t my date. She didn’t want to risk ending up in the tabloids. Alyssa apparently has no such compunctions.” Try as she might, she can’t keep the edge of bitterness out of her voice. She can feel the anger starting to creep up the back of her neck, taking over for the liquor and embarrassment at making her ears burn. Not good.
“Then why did she leave you standing by yourself in the middle of the dance floor?”
“Because she asked me out and I turned her down,” Maria fumes.
Pepper’s face softens and she sets a steadying hand on Maria’s forearm. “Oh, Maria, what a mess. I’m sorry.”
Maria’s jaw clenches in lieu of a response, but Pepper doesn’t notice. She rolls her eyes in exasperation at the sight of something over Maria’s shoulder, and Maria turns just in time to see Tony cut in on Clint and Kate’s dance. He sweeps Kate away across the floor, her violet gown twirling, leaving a bewildered and apprehensive Clint in their wake.
“Speaking of messes,” Pepper sighs, turning to Maria with an apologetic wince.
“Go supervise,” Maria prompts. “I’ll be fine.”
With that, Pepper takes off across the room, somehow managing to look poised and collected even as she makes a beeline toward her errant boyfriend. Maria almost laughs to see her grab Clint by the arm on her way by, commandeering him as her dance partner so the two of them can keep an eye on Tony and Kate. At least it’s a distraction from watching Natasha dance with…
With a start, Maria realizes that Sam has somehow managed to convince Banner to dance with him, and Natasha is nowhere to be found.
She downs the rest of her drink and starts to circle the room, her eyes scanning the crowd. With each passing minute, the knot in her stomach winds tighter until she’s left with a feeling like hot lead in her gut at the realization that Natasha is probably long gone. It’s a feeling somewhat like guilt, though Maria isn’t entirely sure what she’s done wrong.
Thunder starts to rumble, just barely audible over the full jazz ensemble that’s taken the stage. A thrill of excited murmurs sweeps through the party, the name ‘Thor’ on everyone’s lips. Those hopes quickly dwindle, however, once streaks of precipitation start to cloud the windows. Little by little, the partygoers on the terrace come back into the main hall to escape the rain.
That’s when Maria catches a glimpse of red hair and black lace on the far end of the terrace. She makes her way across the room until she convinces herself it is indeed Natasha leaning on the railing by herself, looking out over the city lights.
In the rain.
Pepper thought of everything including the weather forecast for tonight, it would seem, and Maria thanks her silently as she grabs one of the black umbrellas from the stand by the open doors. She opens it above her as she steps out into the rain, the cool night air a relief after the crowded dance floor.
“It’s raining, Natasha.”
Natasha glances upward and shrugs as if she’s only just now noticed.
Uneasiness knots Maria’s stomach as she steps just close enough to cover her with the umbrella. “You okay?”
“I just wanted some air.” Natasha’s voice is flat, unreadable. She offers no other explanation, no other topic of conversation, no indication that Maria’s presence even registers to her. She’s untouchable.
The silence stretches out between them, crackling like the lightning across the river. Maria’s heart sinks with every passing second. She has no idea how to bridge the gap between them. The woman standing next to her is not the same person whose bed Maria shared all day on Sunday, and the difference makes her head spin.
No, she supposes, that’s not true. Natasha is still Natasha, whether she’s holding her close or keeping her at a distance. As if to prove the point, a small mark on Natasha’s collarbone catches Maria’s eye. It’s barely visible beneath the concealer Natasha so expertly applied, and Maria would not have noticed it at all if she didn’t so distinctly remember working that mark into Natasha’s skin with lips and teeth and a stubborn determination that had made Natasha laugh with delight. The mark may have faded away to almost nothing over the course of the week, but it is definitely still there.
Be patient. Be direct.
“Natasha, what’s wrong?” Maria tries again.
Beside her, Natasha lets out a breath. “Who was that?”
Maria doesn’t need to ask who she’s talking about. “Her name’s Alyssa. She works for R&D.”
Natasha doesn’t move, doesn’t even blink. Except for the slight furrowing of her brow, her expression remains completely neutral, which may well be worse than any other reaction Maria could imagine.
“I asked her out a few months ago, but she turned me down,” Maria continues, needing to get all of her cards out on the table.
Maria blinks at her, finally putting words to the question that’s been buzzing around in her head. “Are you jealous?”
“No.” Natasha gives another half-shrug, but her words are clipped short. “I'm not your date; you can dance with anyone you want.”
Against her better judgement, Maria keeps talking. It might be petty of her to try to goad a different response out of Natasha, but anything would be better than this measured indifference. “She asked me if I still wanted to go out with her.”
“You can go out with her if you want. It’s not like we’re exclusive -”
“I turned her down.”
Natasha sucks in a sharp breath and finally turns to meet Maria’s gaze. She opens her mouth, then shuts it again, bewildered.
Maria rests her hand on the railing in front of them so her fingers just brush against Natasha’s. “I’m not really interested in seeing anyone else right now. Are you?”
“No.” Natasha’s answer is soft but instantaneous. She blinks a few times, as if she startled herself with her reply. A smile starts to tug at the corner of her lips as she threads her fingers with Maria’s.
“Okay, then.” Maria can’t help but grin back at her. She angles the umbrella so it shields the two of them from the rest of the party as well as the rain, and Natasha doesn’t hesitate to meet her halfway when she leans in for a kiss.
For several interminable seconds, all that matters is the taste of Natasha’s lips and the smell of the storm and the sound of rain on the umbrella. This is better; things are always so much better when there’s no distance between them at all. Maria hardly even notices when the umbrella slips and the rain starts to pelt them, but Natasha is quick to catch it and pull it back into position above their heads.
Maria laughs and pulls away just enough to meet Natasha’s eyes. “Let’s try this again: Natasha, will you be my date to Pepper’s big, fancy party?”
“I’d love to,” Natasha beams. She spares a quick glance across the terrace to the rest of the party, then looks back up at Maria with a mischievous glint in her eye. “Want to dance?”
“Are you sure? What about the paparazzi?” Maria asks, amazed.
Natasha cocks her head to the side and slips an arm around Maria’s waist, pulling her closer. “Are you going to bail on me if things get ugly?” she asks, her voice light despite the weight of her question.
“No,” Maria promises. “No, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Then fuck ‘em. If we end up on page six, at least the salacious rumors about us dating will be true,” Natasha smirks, eyes flashing.
“That’s something, I guess,” Maria chuckles, offering her arm.
Natasha takes it and practically drags Maria back inside out of the rain. There’s a hint of trepidation in Natasha’s movement, as if she’s trying to avoid overthinking the situation, but by the time they’ve returned the umbrella to the stand and made their way onto the dance floor her hesitance has evaporated entirely.
Maria reaches for Natasha’s waist at the same time as Natasha reaches for hers. They fumble for a moment - uncharacteristically clumsy on Natasha’s part, pretty much par for the course in situations like these on Maria’s part - but they eventually get themselves sorted.
Natasha’s hair sweeps around her shoulders as she laughs. “Maria Hill, why doesn’t it surprise me that you’re used to leading?”
“Hmm,” Maria makes a good-natured show of deliberating. “Maybe because of my charisma and natural flair for leadership? Or maybe because I’m taller than you?” She twirls Natasha under her arm to prove her point.
Natasha laughs again and rolls her eyes. “Alright, soldier, I’m relieving you of your command for the night. Trust me?”
A camera flashes in the corner of Maria’s eye, but when she shifts her glance in its general direction, Natasha brings a hand up to her cheek, refocusing her attention.
“Ignore them,” she says softly, making Maria’s mouth go dry. “Just keep your eyes on me.”
“Okay,” Maria nods, mesmerized, as Natasha spins her effortlessly despite their height difference and takes the lead without missing so much as a beat. It takes Maria a moment to make the transition from leading to following, but it becomes easier once she relaxes and actually lets Natasha guide her movements.
Once the two of them hit their stride, they move easily together. Their bodies shift fluidly along with the music, Natasha’s hands and hips and eyes the only things Maria can focus on. She lets the self-consciousness and disquiet slough off of her, giving into the spreading warmth Natasha’s touch brings. Song after song drifts past as they dance and touch and laugh their way through the night, until they’re both breathless and glowing.
All too soon, the band switches to a slow number to end their set. The singer is excellent, her voice rich and velvety, and the two of them dance a little closer, melting into each other until they’re practically cheek to cheek with Natasha’s arms draped around Maria’s neck. She tangles her fingers into Maria’s hair, and soon her lips are warm and sweet against Maria’s, intoxicating long after the alcohol has left her system.
The crowd around them erupts into applause, startling them apart. Natasha’s body tenses in Maria’s arms, but she quickly relaxes as they realize the cheers are for the band and have nothing to do with them. Maria laughs sheepishly, and Natasha joins in, pressing her face against the crook of Maria’s neck. From across the room, Pepper catches Maria’s eye and winks at her. Maria’s ears start to burn, but she winks back, a stupid smile spreading across her face.
Most of the band vacates the stage, leaving a small combo behind to finish off what little of the night remains. Nevertheless, the two of them stay rooted right where they are, downgrading their dancing to a simple swaying of their hips.
“Take me home tonight?” Natasha asks softly after a while. She fidgets with Maria’s tie in what is probably an attempt to seem casual.
That familiar flutter returns to the pit of Maria’s stomach. “Of course.”
She can practically feel Natasha’s smile against her shoulder. “Fair warning: I’m probably going to make you stay in bed with me all weekend.”
“I’d be disappointed if you didn’t,” Maria chuckles.
Natasha lifts up on her toes to kiss her lightly. “It’s a date, then,” she laughs before settling her head against Maria’s shoulder again. Maria rests her hand securely on the small of Natasha’s back, pulling her even closer; if she could, she’d stay like this forever.
Little by little, the crowd starts to dwindle around them. Carol and Rhodey disappear the first chance they get, and Sharon, Sam, and Steve follow not long after. On their way out, Sharon and Sam flash Natasha the least subtle thumbs up in history, and Steve offers a more subdued nod of approval. Maria makes a face, equal parts pleased and mortified, but Natasha laughs and waves them off without so much as a hint of self-consciousness. Maria stares down at her, amazed and touched by her confidence.
“Hey, sorry to interrupt,” comes a voice from behind them. Natasha pulls away reluctantly, and Maria turns to find Clint and Kate watching them. Clint smirks and glances between the two of them, but he but makes no mention of how close they were dancing. “We’re gonna get out of here.”
“We’re going for pizza or something. Want to come?” Kate offers.
Natasha glances up at Maria before answering for both of them. “Maybe next time, Kate. I think I’ll stick around a bit longer. Say hi to America for me?” She adds with a wink.
“Suit yourself,” Kate huffs, but she looks pleased with herself despite her feigned offense. “Have fun, you two! Let’s go, Dude Hawkeye.”
“Coming, Hawkeye.” Clint rolls his eyes good-naturedly. As he follows after Kate, he calls back over his shoulder, “Nat, you should come over tomorrow. We’ll get takeout and play like 18 hours of Mario Kart. We haven’t done that in forever.”
“Not this weekend, Barton,” Natasha grins, giving Maria a surreptitious nudge with her hip.
“We’ve got plans.”
Well, friends, this is it. The end of an era. I started this fic well over a year ago, back when I had just dipped a toe into this corner of fandom. I seriously can't thank you enough. Thank you to everyone who read this, who waited so very patiently between updates, who encouraged me and supported me and was generally amazing. This is the best fandom I've ever been a part of. You all win for life. ♡♡♡