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Gone to the Dogs

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In hindsight, Maria should have seen this coming. It isn't so much different from the Army where fresh recruits got stuck with the most menial tasks. Even so, guard duty on the helicarrier isn't how she'd imagined her first week at HQ would go. The move was supposed to be a step up in her career. This doesn't feel like a promotion; it feels like being back on her first tour, stuck on gate duty. It is fucking gate duty.

She doesn't understand why they even have a prisoner on the helicarrier to begin with. It seems like a waste of resources to have someone constantly guarding one prisoner. Oh, she's heard the rumours. They'd been eager to tell her once people knew where she is being stationed, despite Maria's insistence that she really doesn't need to know. She's intrigued, but the rumours went from fascinating (some sort of double spy) to downright ridiculous (alien mutant creature) so that Maria couldn't put much stock in them. She'd find out soon enough anyway.

Either way, the security in itself is already impressive enough. The section of the helicarrier where they're holding the prisoner had been completely emptied -save for the guards -and god, they really aren't kidding around with the number of guards they put on this detail. There are guards stationed at the entrance of the hall, another pair at the dead end. Two more are on each side of the door and another pair across from them. If Maria isn't mistaken, they're right in the middle of the helicarrier, as if someone believes the prisoner might just break through the bulkheads, grow some wings, and take off into the sunset.

They even felt the need to pat her down- twice - and Maria's curiosity becomes more piqued as her irritation grows. She pushes it back as they let her inside the room, the person she's replacing slipping out wordlessly, but Maria hardly pays them attention as her curiosity gets the best of her. It's just another room like all the other crew quarters, only even more bare. There's no desk, just a bed (which looks distinctly more uncomfortable than her own bunk) and a chair that she assumes her predecessor vacated moments go.

And then there's the woman. Maria can't help how her gaze lingers a moment too long, taking in the red hair and green eyes, hard and unyielding, looking straight through her, and Maria looks away as she takes her seat in the chair.

Whenever anything changes – not that change is a common occurrence – Natalia is used to re-evaluating her situation. This morning (Morning? Afternoon? It's hard to tell; she hasn't seen natural light in days) is no different. She awoke to the same dull steel walls as always. The same reinforced steel door. The same bulletproof observation window masquerading as a blank section of wall. The same air vents in the corners, too small to fit much more than her forearms into. The same regulation pathetic-excuse-for-a-bed (though admittedly it was better than the ones she grew up with). The same single flimsy aluminum guard chair, the kind that would crumple without transferring enough force to incapacitate someone with. Not that she will have the opportunity to hit anyone with it; the chair and the bed are both bolted – no, riveted – to the floor. It may be monotonous, but at least it's a comfort to know they respect her abilities enough to fear her.

The woman who comes on shift next is anything but monotonous. Hers is the first new face Natalia has seen that has merited a second glance. For one thing, her brown eyes meet Natalia's for an impressive several milliseconds longer than any of her generic predecessors' before looking away. They always look away. She's young, surprisingly so, with a military bearing and a passive, utterly annoyed expression.

Natalia looks up at her from her spot on the floor. <<So they put you on babysitting duty. Congratulations. How does it feel to know you are expendable?>>

Maria blinks, glancing down at the woman and tilting her head as she tries to decide what language she's speaking. Definitely Eastern European, but it'd be such a cliché if it's Russian. She shrugs at the words, and if she's going to be studied, she isn't going to look away. It gives her a moment to truly take in the woman in front of her.

She's smart, this one, Natalia thinks. It's clear she doesn't speak a word of Russian, but Natalia wouldn't put it past her to learn if she's indeed assigned to guard duty for any extended amount of time. She's brave, too; when they lock eyes the second time, the guard maintains eye contact without so much as a hint of apprehension. Her eyes tell of curiosity; maybe Natalia can use that to her advantage. This one's too smart to be foolish, but curious and reckless is also a good combination. She'll have to keep an eye out for the latter trait. Maybe if she's really lucky, Natalia will hit the trifecta with this one: curious, reckless and queer enough to be seduced. Natalia licks her lips experimentally, her eyes never leaving her guard's.

The movement catches Maria's attention and for a moment she's staring at the woman's lips. It's a moment too long, she knows that and she straightens up in the chair, moving her attention back to meet the woman's eyes and resisting the urge to wet her own lips. If the guards outside weren't obvious enough, she's now even more aware that this woman is dangerous.

"If you want an answer, you're going to have to repeat that in English," she says in a clipped tone.

Okay, so this one is also buttoned-down and no-nonsense. Natalia can work with that. She'll have to learn the woman's name somehow, though, if only so she can stop referring to her as This One in her head. Now, to decide on her plan of attack...

Natalia chooses to present herself as the opposite of her guard's personality (what little she's gleaned of it from their brief interaction so far). She lets her limbs loosen as she leans back against the bed frame and rolls her eyes. Let's see how quickly I can push your buttons...

"<<Not very hospitable…>> I just asked if you have any gum."

Maria raises and eyebrow and she shifts back in her chair, creating a little more distance - or at least the idea of it - between them as she shakes her head. "I think you're smart enough to know that even if I did, I wouldn't be giving it to you."

Natalia shrugs. "It was worth a shot. You really think I'm smart?" She bends forward at the waist and reaches for her toes, stretching out her legs and back, but also reducing the distance her guard was so clearly trying to maintain.

Maria snorts and leans her head back against the metal panel behind her. It doesn't do much to create more distance, but at least she's still sitting higher. "I don't have to think about it. You wouldn't have all this security just for you if you didn't pose a risk."

She's not above being honest, it's right there to see, but she wonders if she shouldn't be engaging, if this is already a mistake.

Natalia raises her eyebrows and blinks a few times, her face a picture of mild surprise. It's all an act, of course, but she wants to see if this young guard can tell the difference. "Oh? You mean there's more than just you and your big, fancy gun, those other men on the shifts ahead of yours, and whoever's on the other side of that window?"

Maria's snort is rather inelegant and for a second, her lips curve into a grin, but she pushes it back, reminding herself that she shouldn't be amused by her mission. "Are you going to try the I'm innocent line next? That'd be insulting."

Natalia's eyes instantly darken and her brow furrows. She glares hard at the woman. She's breaking her facade, but she doesn't care; she can slip it back on as easily as a glove in a moment. Right now, though, she needs to make one thing perfectly clear: "No. I am absolutely not innocent. I would never claim otherwise."

The glare cuts through her and Maria suppresses a shiver as she catches a glimpse of the danger that this woman is hiding just underneath the surface. She hopes her nervousness doesn't show on her face as she simply nods her acceptance of the words.

Natalia finds the way This One flinches away from her words incredibly satisfying. Good. Keep her on her toes. Natalia tilts her head this way and that, letting her neck crack a few times before shaking out her arms and letting them rest comfortably at her sides. Her face returns to its previous neutral, almost bored expression, her facade sliding back into place as if it had never faltered. As a final touch, she curls her lip into a casual approximation of a smile and meets the guard's eyes again.

"Are you sure you don't have any gum? My mouth is really dry."

It's disconcerting, but it confirms everything Maria expected and, in a way, that makes this easier. Maria isn't nearly as good as the woman in front of her. Not by far, but she thinks she manages to keep her expression clear of any emotion. It's only the comfortable weight of her gun that keeps her from showing her nerves. She doesn't miss much about being a soldier, but its presence is familiar and there's still a part of her that's meant to be a soldier.

"I can get you water, that's it."

Natalia notes the way her guard tightens her grip on her weapon. There's no doubt in her mind that she won't hesitate to use it on her if she were to do anything to warrant the use of force. The thought makes her mouth twitch into a bit more genuine of a smile. Natalia can respect that. Maybe that's what keeps her talking rather than ignoring the woman outright, the way she does the other guards.

"You don't know who I am, do you." It isn't really a question.

"I don't need to know who you are," Maria says matter-of-factly. That doesn't mean she's not curious; her eyes drift over the woman's body like she might be able to figure it out if she studies her long enough.

"Yeah, well, apparently neither do I," Natalia shoots back, gesturing to the twin bruises on her temples.

Maria's grip on her gun tightens as she takes in the bruises. It's a play, she knows it is. The woman must have resisted to earn her the bruises, but it's stupid and childish to even think that. S.H.I.E.L.D. is not a police force; it's a lot more than that.

"You don't," she says instead, shrugging a shoulder. "I'm just a guard." That annoys her.

Natalia's eyes harden again, just a little, not enough to break her facade. She chooses her next words carefully.

"You don't know who I am or what I've done, yet you still think I deserve this?"

"You think it matters what I think?" Maria snorts and she leans back again, but her body stays tense, her feet planted firmly on the ground so she can push off the instant the woman makes a wrong move. "I'm a guard. Nobody gives a fuck what I think and trying to play at my sympathy will get you nowhere. I don't know what you did, but you're not here for speeding so cut the crap."

She knows it's already a mistake to reply, and she very much doubts the woman doesn't already know everything she's saying, but she never did think she'd make it as one of those English soldiers who have to stand still hours on end as tourist pull the stupidest crap around them. She never did have the patience for that; never did manage to take orders without thinking. She just learned to live with it when she didn't like them and she's not going to let this woman make her shirk away from it now.

Interesting.  Everyone has a line, but Natalia was not expecting to cross this woman's so soon. A few more details fall into place in the profile she's building for her in her head: contrary, argumentative, short-tempered. She'll have to tread carefully with this one; she gets the sense that finding that line and knowing when she's about to cross it will be a moving target, depending on the day, the woman's mood, the situation. Perhaps she's a light trigger today out of indignation over her job. It's clearly killing her that they've stuck her on guard duty. In anyone else, that indignation would tell of arrogance, but with this woman it's more likely ambition. Smart, ambitious, and short-tempered. This woman has the potential to be quite dangerous herself, but at least she seems to strike with words first. Very interesting.

And then there's that snort thing she does. It's a scoff, almost a laugh, not quite derisive, but definitely indignant. There's a power behind it, too, like a bull. The thought makes Natalia shiver inwardly. She's intrigued, too, by the hint of a sense of humor just under the surface. She can't help but be drawn to it, to this enigmatic woman in front of her.

This enigmatic woman with a semi-automatic leveled at your left kneecap, idiot. Don't get distracted.

Since she's already found the line by taunting her guard verbally, it's time for a new technique. Natalia stares blankly up at the corner of the ceiling, ignoring the woman. She begins to fidget, drumming her fingers on her thighs and tapping a toe against the wall every once in awhile.

The silence is almost unnerving and Maria wants to curse when she realises she really did say too much. Her fingers flex against the side of the gun as she keeps from moving, making her annoyance with herself obvious. This woman is good and her gaze drifts involuntarily towards the prisoner's fingers and down to her feet.

She knows this game and she forces herself to look up, her jaw clenched as she meets the prisoner's eyes defiantly.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Really, it's just going to make her more stubborn about it and Maria settles back against the bulkhead. She forces herself to relax, lets her shoulders sag, and she doesn't look away now. If she focuses, she will lose, but it's so damn hard not to focus. Although, the prisoner has interesting eyes and it makes her wonder, almost enough to get lost for a moment. She doesn't even know where she goes. Dark places with gunfire ringing in her ears and the taste of blood at the back of her mouth. And the tap tap tap continues. Like a faucet running that you can't stop and that keeps you from sleeping. Slowly, slowly grating until she moves her finger against the side of the gun, following the beat and making it her own.

Once the woman picks up the beat, Natalia suddenly goes deadly still. She simply freezes in place, ceasing all movement in her fingers and toes. She even slows her breathing so the rise and fall of her chest is barely perceptible. Fixing a cold, unblinking stare on her guard, she remains absolutely motionless, waiting to see what she'll do.

Maria's own beat ceases instantly and for a moment she just watches the woman. It's completely ridiculous, and the moment the thought enters her head, she has the insane urge to laugh. She squashes it, but her lips curve just a little and she exhales slowly as she finally glances away from those eyes.

Natalia continues to stare her down, unmoving, unblinking. She's a bit surprised; she expected her to keep up the beat, out of stubbornness or refusal to admit she'd been mimicking her. After a few more seconds, Natalia's vision begins to cloud, but she fights the urge to blink, just to see how long it takes to unsettle her guard. She also fights back the need to shiver. It's cold - always cold, uncomfortably cold - in this little room. The plain black jumpsuit they put her in is as devoid of insulation as it is of pockets (or fashion sense, for that matter).

She refuses to shiver. She won't give anyone that satisfaction.

Maria refuses to look back for a moment, but she room is too quiet. The constant hum of the engines are barely even audible here, right at the center of the helicarrier, and there is really nothing else to look at. She wonders briefly what the other guards do when they come here; she might have to bring a book, but that's probably not allowed.

So she's left staring again, but the eyes that meet hers aren't as cold as before and the vulnerability catches her off guard for a moment. Her lips are already moving when she remembers, reminds herself what she's here for and how much this woman seems to be eager to play her.

She really wants to know who dumped her ass in here because it's going to be a long fucking week.

Chapter Text

It is a long week. A week of staring at the prisoner or the bulkhead right over her shoulder. Maria is going a little bit stir crazy. Scratch that. She's going very stir crazy, because for some insane reason, this is now her entire schedule. Day in and day out. There's still the training courses that everyone has to attend to, but while some of the others are getting actual assignments or are being shown the ropes around the ship, she is stuck on guard duty.

It's downright insulting, and she starts looking into the prisoner to keep herself entertained, to keep her brain from rotting. (It has nothing to do with curiosity. Of course not.) Not that it helps. Her security level doesn't get her much more than a name (Natalia Alianovna Romanova) and a log of the prisoner's time on the helicarrier. Even the log has holes in it. It keeps track of times when they take Romanova out of her cell, but when she tries to access where they take her, she gets blocked again. Maria is almost tempted to hack the fucking thing, but then she's not known for her hacking skills. At this rate, though, she's not going to be known for much of anything.

The other guards know about as much as she does (nothing) and they're not allowed to discuss the assignment with anyone who's not on the detail. It's starting to give her the creeps and she almost wishes that she was back in the military. Almost. At least S.H.I.E.L.D. respects her for asking questions, but damn, the bullshit she gets in return is annoying.

She gives up eventually, left with nothing but her irritation, and when she makes it into the prisoner's room that day, she's already in a foul mood before Romanova can decide to test her. Though, Maria has the impression that the woman is already bored of her anyway. Romanova doesn't so much as stir when Maria occupies her usual spot in the room. It's almost disappointing, because at least the attempts at getting under her skin are entertaining, but then she can't imagine what it's like being stuck within the cell's dull walls with nothing but guards who try to stonewall you.

When Natalia comes to, she isn't quite sure where she is. It's cold, much too cold, but that doesn't really narrow down the possibilities. She's more than used to waking up freezing. Her thoughts swirl in her brain, hazy and amorphous, hard to pin down. The first thought that crystallizes is the realization that her entire body aches. All the muscles in her back, neck, shoulders, and core are sore, as if she'd been working out and hadn't stretched properly afterwards. The pain in her limbs is nothing compared to the pain in her head, though. She tries to open her eyes, but the harsh overhead lights split into her brain and she has to fight to keep from vomiting.

There's someone else in the room with her, but in her drug-addled haze she can't tell who it is. It's probably one of the usual guards, though she hopes it isn't the woman with the whip-smart brown eyes. For some irritating reason, Natalia wants to cling to some shred of dignity in front of that one, the one who grips her gun too tightly and snorts like a bull when Natalia pushes her buttons. Even though she'd seen her for the better part of the week, Natalia has yet to awaken to find her in that chair after one of their 'sessions,' as they call them. It's always one of the other guards who sees her struggle her way out of the aftereffects of the drugs.

She jams the heels of her hands into her eyes, acutely aware of the ever-present bruising on her temples, and sneaks a glance at the guard chair. Shit. It's definitely the woman. What is her name? It's hard enough to remember through the pain in her skull, even more so because she has only ever heard it muffled through the door to her cell (she's given up calling it a room; it's definitely a cell).

What is her name, though? Agent Mills? Not quite. At one point the name Agent Hell floats through her mind, and – while it seems particularly appropriate – she's sure that can't actually be right. It doesn't really matter now.

When she speaks, Natalia's voice is cracked and hoarse. That, along with the slight ringing in her ears, gives her the sinking suspicion that she's screamed a lot in the recent past, but she can't really remember. She concentrates on evening out her tone.

"Can you get them to turn the lights out?"

The movement is off. Everything is off, even the request, and Maria tenses, watches Romanova for a long moment before she gets up and moves to the door. She's not sure what has her moving, but other than the gum, Romanova hasn't made another request before.

She keeps her back against the wall, eyes trained on Romanova as she opens the door and snaps an order to turn off the lights. It's not like she has any say over these men, but the hesitation irritates her, and she moves her eyes from Romanova, repeating the order and backing it up with a glare.

When the lights shut down, Maria closes the door again and stays where she is, her back against the wall and her gun trained on the bed. There's only the emergency lights now, and her eyes take a moment to adjust. It's enough to make her wonder if she's going to have Romanova on her in the next instant, but something tells her that's not likely, and she doesn't much care for the bad taste that leaves in her mouth.

Natalia can't quite believe that the lights are actually out. She'd expected another terse, sarcastic remark about the woman only being a guard who can't grant such frivolous requests, or she expected to be ignored outright. For several long moments, she's too overcome with relief from the pain to think too much about the implications behind the young agent's actions, but before long the other aches in her body rush in to fill the gap. She can usually bear the aftermath of a 'session' in silence; apparently today is not one of those days. She needs a distraction, any distraction. At the risk of making her turn the lights back on, Natalia decides to try to get a rise out of her guard again.

"Now all we need are a few candles and some wine."

"Keep on dreaming, Romanova." Maria stays where she is, even after her eyes have adjusted. She can make out the woman on her bunk; her movements are still off. Her voice is off as well, and Maria frowns even as she holds on tighter to her gun.

The sound of her name on the agent's lips grates on Natalia's nerves. Even in the darkness, she glares in her general direction. The expression makes her head ache even more, but she can't bring herself to care.

"Congratulations. You finally learned my name. That doesn't give you the right to call me by it," she snaps.

It's like a slap in the face, and Maria doesn't even understand why. She stays quiet for a moment and then moves away from the wall, finally heading back to her seat. She's sick of it, but she stretches her legs out in front of her and watches like she's been doing all week now.

No response. That's just perfect, Natalia thinks.

How is she supposed to get her mind off her aching body and the slowly returning memories of the past 12 or so hours if she can't even play mind games with the only other person available to her? Natalia supposes it's her fault for snapping, but after weeks of being treated a bit like a caged animal, who could blame her for beginning to act like one?

Natalia exhales slowly - a compromise between maintaining her cool exterior and heaving the frustrated sigh that wants so badly to escape her - and turns over on her bed. It's still cold and uncomfortable, but at least if she's facing the blank wall she won't have to look at the guard's silhouette in the darkness.

Maria finds herself frowning at Romanova's back and her anger fades a little. She leans forwards, pointing her gun down towards the ground for a moment.

"Migraine?" she asks when there's no sign of Romanova turning back towards her.

The change in the guard's tone is surprising. It's not quite gentle, but it definitely lacks the terse edge that had been so ubiquitous over the last week. Maybe it's the distinct lack of having a gun trained on her that makes it sound so friendly (Natalia has always had a knack for knowing when she is and is not in the crosshairs, even with her back turned). It might also be the first time the agent initiated a conversation since they'd met.

Curious, Natalia answers her, "Among other things, yes."

Maria's gaze drifts up towards the red dot in the corner of the room where the security camera is. She's not stupid, there are other ones, but this one is placed there for obvious reasons.

"Did they give you anything?" she asks anyway, giving up on the other question. She's not blind; she knows those bruises should have changed colour by now, but they still look fresh a week later.

Natalia almost laughs. She might have actually laughed if her ribs didn't hurt so much. "They gave me lots of things. None of them are intended to help much, I'm sure."

There's not much Maria can say and there's not much she can do, either. She still doesn't understand any of this: why she's here, why Romanova is here. It feels like this is all a game, and she doesn't know what kind of pawn she's playing.

After a moment, she gets up again and heads back out of the door. She ignores the looks she gets from the other guards, and when she returns, she has a bottle of water. She keeps the gun in one hand as she moves to the bunk, keeping an arm's distance away as she waits for Romanova to move.

For a long moment, Natalia can only stare in disbelief at the bottle of water being offered to her. Part of her brain wants to down it in one breath, but another part screams 'trap'. Her thirst gets the better of her eventually, but she tries her best to mask her eagerness for a drink.

"Got anything a bit stronger?" she starts to joke, but changes her tone before the guard can take the bottle away. "Thanks," she adds, her voice as casual as she can make it.

Maria nods and takes a few steps back, keeping her eyes trained on Natalia. "I'm not privy to where they're keeping the good stuff, so no." The words are tense despite her attempts, a part of her ready to have this moment become a regret. She's not allowed to do this, but no one stopped her either, and that's a strange thought.

Natalia unscrews the top of the bottle, noting with comforting satisfaction that it was sealed tight. That means the odds are in her favor that it is, in fact, just water. She takes a long sip. The cool water feels glorious against her raw throat, but while it's nowhere near cold, it still doesn't help the chill she just can't seem to shake. She's so very thirsty, but she knows if she doesn't slow down she'll make herself sick. Forcing herself to take smaller sips, she studies the woman's face. Her eyes have adjusted well enough in the dim light that she can make out the merest hint of uncertainty. Natalia decides to try her luck with a softer, more sincere tone.

"So you've figured out my name; tell me yours." Seriously, she can't keep thinking of her as 'the guard.' Not even as 'the attractive guard," especially since she's only let herself think that once or twice.

"I suppose that's fair," Maria says, but then she also supposes this isn't actually meant to be fair. She wonders briefly if this will come back to bite her in the ass. If she should know better and will know better when she finds this woman tracking her down if she ever gets out of here. If. "Agent Maria Hill."

Hill. That was it. Not Hell. That makes a bit more sense.

"Is that what you want me to call you?"

"Why would you call me anything?" Maria asks, sounding actually confused.

Natalia toys with a number of different responses, ranging from crude ("I want to know what name to call out in bed") to menacing ("I want to know what name they'll carve on your tombstone"), before deciding on harmless, wry honesty. Simple and non-threatening seems to be working for them right now; this is the most they've spoken in days.

"Right now, I refer to you guards as 'This One', 'That One', and 'The Other One' in my head. There's got to be a simpler way to tell you apart."

"Not very creative with nicknames, are you?" Maria says. It could have been teasing in a different life where Maria isn't holding a gun, maybe. Now it sounds dry and too harsh for what it should be.

Natalia scoffs a little and instantly regrets it when the muscles in her chest protest. She hopes the darkness adequately obscures her wince. "Pseudonyms, yes. Nicknames, no. How about just 'Hill'?"

"I don't think it matters much, and I don't think you particularly care which I prefer," Maria points out. She doesn't feel like sitting down again, so she moves her back against the wall. It gives her a better view anyway, not that it's easing her mind about any of this.

There's absolutely no reason why the words should sting, but they do, and trying to analyze why is only making Natalia's head throb. She wants to demand to know what gave Hill that impression, but she simply doesn't have the energy. Instead, she just snaps, "Fine, forget I asked." It's petulant and she knows it, but she just feels too unwell right now to care.

"Hill's fine," Maria says after a long time of simply watching and noticing that slight hitch in Romanova's breathing that wasn't there before. She hates that she notices. It means she's been watching this woman too closely, it means something happened when she wasn't there and she's not even going to stop to think why that makes her feel responsible.

She's just a guard.

Chapter Text

Maria's foul mood hasn't really improved when she gets to the cell the next day. The guards give her a strange look, but they don't comment when she enters the cell and "The Other One" slips out again. The lights are back on inside the quarters. She received a warning for her actions, but nothing that felt sincere enough. She doesn't know whether that's because she doesn't care or because they don't mean it.

Still, there is light now and so she tries to keep her expression blank as she moves to the bed, letting her gaze travel down Romanova's body for a moment.

"Migraine gone?"

At the sound of Hill's voice, Natalia's eyes fly open. Her eyes flare dark and wild, and her voice seethes with venom and desperation.

<<Who are you? Get away from me!>>

The words mean nothing, but the tone says a lot - almost too much - and Maria tenses, bringing up the gun that for once had not been trained on Natalia from the moment she entered the room. Those eyes, though. Those eyes aren't seeing her. Whatever it is they're seeing, it's bad.

"English, Romanova," Maria snaps, using her name on purpose.

There are two voices warring in Natalia's head. One seems to be close at hand – in her ear almost – but soft, telling her to calm down, to focus, to speak English, to remember where she is. The other is considerably louder, angry, terrifying, echoing back from her earliest memories. <<Fight!>> it tells her, <<Do not yield! Survive!>>

She aims a kick at her assailant's gun arm, then whirls in the other direction, maintaining constant motion even in the tiny room.

Maria loses the gun before she can even think of what's happening. It's textbook and she didn't even have time to curse. She does so anyway as Natalia lands hit upon hit, and Maria is pushed back against the wall.

She tries to strike out, but her fists only meet air, and when she does land a blow it seems to  go completely unnoticed. It's all she can do to grab hold of the woman, but nothing is working, and Maria does the only thing she can think of: she headbutts her.

Stars explode behind Natalia’s eyes as she staggers into the wall. She chokes, trying to breathe around the blood that's suddenly pouring from her nose. Once the white-hot flash of pain subsides, she suddenly finds herself able to think much more clearly.

None of this makes any sense. They've done many unpleasant things to her in the weeks she's been here, but not once in all that time has she ever been beaten. Natalia looks up from her blood-soaked hands and is astonished to see Agent Hill standing over her, looking disheveled and aghast.

"Hill, what the fuck?!" she gasps, trying to stem the flow of blood from her nose with her hands.

The words visibly jerk Maria out of the shock that left her staring at Natalia. "Shit."

Maria doesn't even understand why she feels guilty considering she could easily have been killed. There's no doubt of that in her mind. It doesn't make sense how much this pulls at her, but there's voices in her ear now, demanding a status.

She ignores them, moves closer to Natalia and reaches out towards her face before she stops herself, worried Romanova will lash out.

"Hill. Give me your status. Black Squad, get ready to move in."

"No!" Maria reaches up to her earpiece and pushes it on. "Situation under control. Do not move in."

She's going through her pockets with her other hand, trying to find the pack of tissues she stuffed in there somewhere. There's a stand down order in her ear, but the questions keep up, and Maria pulls the earpiece out with shaking fingers.

"Sit," she orders Natalia, jerking her head towards the bed. She hesitates, then adds quietly, "Please?"

Sitting down is the last thing Natalia is going to do. She braces herself up against the wall, trying to get her bearings (which is hard to do with blood dripping through her fingers and down the back of her throat). Her mind races through hazy memories, though she can't tell if the images she remembers are distant or recent, dreamed, hallucinated or real.

Men with heavy fists and loud voices. A sniper rifle in her own hands, pointed into a civilian crowd. Men and women in lab coats bustling around, preparing any number of cold, sterile instruments. More blood than any normal human being could imagine in their lifetime.

The pain and her swirling thoughts make her frantic again, but she knows she has to remain in control. Agent Hill is negotiating a stand down over her intercom. 'Situation under control?' Her brain can't make sense of it.

"'Situation?' What 'situation'? What the hell happened?"

Maria sighs in resignation as Natalia ignores her order, and she studies Natalia for a long moment before she's satisfied. Instinct has her wanting to move to her right away, but she takes the time to secure her gun and remove the bullets. Only  then does she go over to Natalia.

"You went away," she says quietly as she moves within arm's reach. Her stance is weary as she holds out the tissues, her hand not as steady as she likes. The look of determination is obvious, though, and either Natalia can accept the offer and take care of her nose, or Maria will do it herself.

"I don't know who you thought I was, but I'd rather not find out what you plan on doing to them." Maria manages to sound calm, her voice soft enough that it might actually be inaudible for whoever is watching the feeds.

That's what Natalia was afraid of. It's not the first time she's blacked out and lost control, but the last time it happened was years ago. Or has it happened again more recently? She can't remember. With everything that's been done to her, she feels like her memories have been siphoned off, put through a blender, and then poured back into her a little at a time. Nothing makes sense. It's truly disorienting, being able to recall events from what surely must have been her early childhood as clearly as if they happened mere seconds ago, while memories of what she had for what-passes-for-breakfast-around-here seem like the last fragments of a dream she'd forgotten upon waking. Under the circumstances, it certainly makes sense that she had 'gone away' and done something she can't remember seconds after it happened. Then again, she's also been subjected to this kind of gas-lighting in her storied career of being interrogated, so there's no way she's going to take this woman's words at face value.

Her nose is still dripping, though, so she finally caves and takes the tissues before flopping down into the guard chair. Pressing them to her swollen nose helps calm her enough to keep her voice level, matching Hill's even tone, but with a hint of steel in her voice.

"What, exactly, did I do?"

"Attacked me," Maria says dryly, grimacing a little at how efficient Natalia had been in that attack. She has a feeling she's lucky to be alive right now, but at least she has enough adrenaline still going through her to not notice too much of the bruises that are very likely forming underneath her uniform.

"Don't know Russian, so I couldn't tell you what that was about."

Natalia gestures to the camera in the ceiling. "And Big Brother didn't have you just put me down?" Her attempt at humor falls flat; she's feeling too sombre for that right now. She lowers her voice for her next question, trying to pitch it low enough that the audio feed won't pick it up.

"Did I hurt you?" She doesn't look Hill in the face.

The question catches Maria off guard, and she's left staring for a moment too long before she finally moves. She squats down in front of Natalia, reaching out to grab a tissue from the pack, her movements careful and controlled as not to startle her.

"I've had worse. Besides, I'm the one who drew blood here," she answers, glancing up to try and meet Natalia’s eyes.

It's not exactly a 'no,' but Natalia is intensely relieved. Not that she'd ever let Hill know that; she can't afford for her to have that kind of power over her. She lowers the bloody tissues away from her face and prepares herself to be touched, if that is indeed what Hill intends to do with that tissue. Natalia studies her face intently, still trying to make sense of what happened. The agent appears unharmed, but there are flecks of blood on her face, too. It's probably Natalia's blood.

"What did you do, headbutt me?"

The corner of Maria's mouth twitches in what may have been a grin if she let herself. Instead, she reaches out, putting her fingers underneath Natalia's chin to tilt her head and study her face for any breaks.

"You weren't giving me much room for anything else."

The little self-satisfied smirk is the closest Natalia's seen to a smile from Hill since they met. She begrudgingly admits to herself that her respect for this woman is only growing. It's not just anyone who could incapacitate her with little more than their forehead. Natalia lets her tip her chin back, but not for longer than a few seconds. When her head is tilted back, the blood runs down her throat rather than into her lap, and she's already nauseated enough for one day.

"You'd better pray you didn't break my nose, Hill." There's no actual threat intended, but her voice doesn't necessarily convey that information.

"I don't pray." Maria ignores the threat and presses the tissue underneath Natalia's nose while she reaches up with her other hand to gently feel the bone. "You don't want to try anything right now; they're not going to listen to me twice."She's not even sure why they listened to her in the first place, but maybe she's overthinking. They wouldn't be keeping this woman at the Helicarrier HQ if they didn't have a high interest in her.

Natalia blinks in surprise. She's intrigued that Hill would shrug off a threat but take offense to the idea of telling her to pray. The shift of focus back to the ever-present team of people who are ready to subdue her at a moment's notice is unsettling. Natalia isn't sure if Hill is intent on examining her nose out of compassion or guilt, or out of the need to assess exactly how much trouble she's going to be in with her superiors. There are several ways to tell, one of which is -

“Ouch, careful!” Natalia flinches away from Hill's fingers on the bridge of her nose, hissing and coughing a little.

Maria pulls her hand back instantly, frowning at Natalia as she couldn't feel a break.

"I'm going to have to make sure," she says, gently touching the woman's cheekbones.

If Hill is feeling guilty, she definitely isn't letting it show. Her actions are not entirely without compassion, though. Her hands move quickly and efficiently, and her touch is firm and deliberate. She isn't gentle - not by a long shot - but knowing she won't treat her like some fragile, broken thing is better than gentleness to Natalia. She refuses to admit how Hill's fingertips on her cheeks somehow make the room a little less chilly.

"Not broken," Maria says once she is finished, pulling her hand back and studying Natalia's face again. The bruise is going to be interesting, at least, and she absently rubs the tissue over some of the blood that flaked on Natalia's chin. "I thought my head was harder."

"Oh, believe me, it's hard enough." She only half means literally. After a few weeks, she knows how hard-headed Hill can be figuratively, too. Natalia points to Hill's face. "I bled on you."

This time there is a snort and Maria drops the paper tissues in Natalia's lap as she reaches up to rub at wherever the woman is pointing. "Great bonding time. We should do it more often," she comments dryly.

Natalia's brow furrows slightly. "Yeah, I love bonding with people who nearly break my nose."

"Good. I make it a point to only interact with people who try to kill me," Maria remarks as she straightens up, refusing to feel guilty about this. The noise coming from the earbud has been steadily getting louder, and she picks it up and puts it back in.

Natalia's furrowed brow deepens into a full-blown frown. She intended her remark as a joke, but Hill doesn't seem to take it that way.

"I didn't try to kill you."

"No, I don't think you were trying at all," Maria agrees, doubting very much that this woman would have to try. She would have killed her if she hadn't remembered who she was. The thought makes her pause, aware of the voice in her ear that's calling her name, but the words pass her by. All her attention is on the woman in front of her.

"You need a shower."

Natalia shrugs off her last comment. She's not interested in taking a shower; she is interested in making sure she's not misunderstood again.

Her eyes pierce into Hill's as she repeats herself. "No, I said 'I didn't try to kill you.'"

Maria stares at her. The words don’t make any sense to her, but there's an openness in Natalia's eyes that she hasn't seen before.

"Then who?" she asks softly, not liking the way any of this is sounding.

"I don't know." It's the most honest thing Natalia's admitted inside these four walls. The sudden vulnerability, the adrenaline crash, the temperature of the room, and possibly the blood loss conspire against her and she starts to shiver. Just barely, hardly noticeable except for the way the little hairs on her arms all stand up.

The noise in her ear is getting annoying, but Maria ignores it anyway. It's like trying to piece together a puzzle when she's never seen the full picture.

"Who are you?" she asks softly, because it's the only place to start.

Not that question. Anything but that.

"I don't really know that, either." Natalia refuses to meet Hills eyes. The blood on her hands has turned sticky and cool, making her shiver even more. "I have many names. You know one of them already." She isn't sure she should go on. Agent Hill will probably get reassigned after this, or punished, maybe both. On the other hand, she's smart; she's bound to find out on her own anyway.

"They call me the Black Widow."

Maria's breath catches and she swears quietly underneath her breath. There's no one in this organisation who hasn't heard of her, and to think…

But all she sees is a woman right now, one with a bloody nose and traces of blood on her face and hands; only then does she notice the slight tremor.

"It's kind of a miracle I'm still alive, huh?" she says after a moment. She curses again and turns to the bed, tugging off the flimsy sheets and only now noticing how thin the fabric is. She drops it and shrugs out of her jacket instead, holding it out to Na- The Black Widow.

Of course Hill has heard of her. It's clear from Hill's reaction, though, that her reputation has gotten a little out of hand.

"You need to give both of us more credit than that. I'm not a mindless killing machine, and if you were unable to defend yourself, they never would have entrusted you with guarding me."

I'm not a mindless killing machine. That's why Natalia is here to begin with: she wants to make sure that's true. These people promised to help her with that. They just weren't so up-front as to how they'd go about doing that. She supposes she can't really blame them. After all, she can't even count how many of their own she's killed over the years. Natalia shudders and crosses her arms tightly across her chest. She'd rather try to warm them by tucking them absurdly under her breasts than accept the jacket Hill offers her. Why would she do that?

"I didn't need to know your handle to know when I'm outclassed," Maria says roughly, dropping her jacket over Natalia's lap before crossing back and sitting down on the bed. She tugs the earpiece out again, deciding she'll just take whatever flak they're going to give her. So far it doesn't look like they're going to charge inside anyway."No one's mindless, but you've managed to build a bit of a reputation," she points out and it's finally fitting together why S.H.I.E.L.D. is keeping her here.

Natalia still does not take the jacket, even after Hill dumps it so unceremoniously into her lap. She can't take it. She won't. She survived her childhood with all her fingers and toes intact, so she can survive this, too. She ignores the jab about her reputation as well as the jacket. If she wants to gain the upper hand in this situation, it's time to change the subject.

"So. Which of us is going to be in more trouble for this little SNAFU?"

Maria shrugs. "I have a feeling you can't get into more trouble than you're already in," she points out, looking at the door to keep from staring. Strangely enough, she’s not worried about whatever's coming next. If they really only want her to play guard, this probably isn't the job for her anyway.

Natalia actually scoffs at that. It isn't a laugh. It isn't. "I suppose you have a point. Look on the bright side: maybe they'll reassign you like you've wanted so badly all along."

"Maybe," Maria agrees, but she can't help but wonder if this is what they wanted. The Black Widow is still stuck in her cell, after all, and no one got injured. Well, except for the Widow herself. She rolls her shoulders, testing that dull ache that's begun to settle there.

"You don't remember anything?"

"About what just happened? No. To me, it seems like you tried to break my nose for no reason."

Maria might not be an expert, but she knows enough that this isn't good. She just has no idea what level of 'not good' it is. "Too bad I don't speak Russian," she says, more as a thought than something she actually wants to tell Natalia. She knows the translators will be going over it, but she doubts they're going to tell her about any of it.

"You should learn; it's a beautiful language." What a stupid thing to say. Natalia doesn't understand why she said it. She suspects it's because she wanted to get rid of the apprehensive look on Hill's face, but she doesn't really understand why she wants that, either. She defaults to humor to cover her confusion. (She's doing that more and more often these days, but she can't stop and think about why right now.)

"I probably just asked if you have any gum again."

"So you attacked me-" Maria stops herself and glances at the camera before motioning towards her jacket. It feels like a stupid thing to get almost killed over now. She's going to hurt in the morning.

"I don't need your jacket, I'm fine."

Maria raises an eyebrow and pointedly glances at one of the pockets on it.

Natalia slides a hand into the jacket pocket and curls her fingers around what she finds inside. This time her scoff edges a little closer to a laugh. "You asshole. You've had this the whole time?"

It's a little bit strange how normal Natalia looks now, and Maria grins before she can help it and shrugs a shoulder. "I don't chew gum."

"Then why…" She lifts a puzzled eyebrow, the picture of confusion. Come on, just say it. She's already won this round, she knows it. She won it the day Hill decided to slip that pack of gum into her pocket before her shift, but she wants to hear her say it.

"Don't play dumb with me," Maria sighs and gets to her feet, holding her hand out for her jacket. "I need to go do damage control."

Natalia hands over the jacket, but not before pulling a stick of gum out of the pack and stuffing the rest into her cleavage for safekeeping. She unwraps the gum and pops it into her mouth, deliberately staring into the camera as she does so. She tries to keep the evidence of how much she enjoys the flavor off her face as she chews a few times.

"Good luck with that." She snaps her gum with a smirk.

The change is like a mask sliding on and it leaves Maria reeling as she can't tell which of the two is real. It leaves her feeling played and she turns half away as she slides on her jacket. Its weight is heavy and familiar, and when she grabs the gun, it's like another piece sliding in place, letting her keep her face blank. She wonders if this is what Natalia has been doing and if somewhere along the line, she started to believe in each of these parts, losing herself in them.

It's too much to think of when the voice on her radio is turning decidedly hostile and she turns her back on The Black Widow, wondering if this will be the last time she'll ever see her.

Chapter Text

As soon as Hill leaves the room she is replaced by That One and a small team of medical staff, who give Natalia a thorough medical exam (no broken nose, no concussion, probable spectacular bruising) and a strong painkiller. Not long after, she's allowed a shower. The water is hot, the pressure strong enough to scour away the blood and some of her tension, and – though she's still under guard – she's afforded a fair amount of privacy. She's given soap, shampoo, and even conditioner (all of them utilitarian, but of surprisingly high quality), as well as a soft, clean towel.

When they return her to her cell, there's a fresh jumpsuit and a thick wool blanket folded neatly on the bed. The sheets have been replaced and the floor has been cleaned of her blood (and probably disinfected, judging by the tang of cleaning products in the air). Most astonishingly, they let her keep the gum.

This is a trap. It has to be. It seems like she's being rewarded, like this treatment is positive reinforcement of good behavior (not that she'd know what that's like; she's much more intimately acquainted with the punishment end of the operant conditioning spectrum). Beating the shit out of her guard while she was blacked out can't possibly be good behavior.

Can it?

The next few days are nothing like Natalia expects them to be. She expects more 'sessions', more long periods of fragmented memories, or just blank spaces where memories ought to be. Instead of waking up in a haze of sore muscles and drugs wearing off, she's allowed to wake up naturally and to fall asleep naturally whenever she wants to, day after day. The blanket they've given her is by no means soft, but it's warm and heavy and she finally sleeps well under its weight. She's still guarded at all times, but even though a week goes by, it's always That One, The Other One, or The New One, as she's taken to calling the stern, black-haired woman who is clearly Hill's replacement. She hasn't seen Hill since the incident; she doubts she ever will again.

The pack of gum remains under her bed, untouched.


Maria gets chewed out like she hasn't been chewed out since she was sixteen. Admittedly, she hasn't felt like kicking the establishment in the knees this much since she was sixteen, either. It's almost entertaining - almost - until they pull her off the guard detail and confine her to quarters. It's like getting grounded. It's childish and stupid, and she argues . She hasn't talked back like this since she was sixteen either, but everything is grating. She was set to guard the prisoner (the Black Widow for fuck's sake) and she did. She contained her and she kept her from causing harm to anyone else on the ship or from getting herself killed in the escape attempt.

She doesn't point out that she doubts Romanova was trying to escape. She asks for the translations of what Romanova said and gets stonewalled. It irritates her. Everything irritates her and brings her right back to being a teenager. The Army was controlling, but in a different way. It was straightforward and sometimes brutal, but Maria liked both. It suited her and fit her. This is different. It's manipulation, it's a game of control, of keeping as many secrets as possible. (It's her father, red in the face from shouting. A fleck of spittle on his lips. His words passing her by. The same accusations, just for a different reason.) She meets it with a blank stare. She meets it with her shoulders straight, her hands behind her back and her feet shoulder width apart. She meets it with her chin up and her eyes unwavering. She doesn't flinch. She bides her time.

They pull her off the detail and confine her for a week, stuck between four walls unless there's mandatory training. She does pushups like a fucking prisoner. She's stuck as much as Romanova is, and she's growing restless. She finds Russian language courses in the S.H.I.E.L.D. database. It's almost too convenient, and she doesn't believe in S.H.I.E.L.D. being convenient. She does crunches and mouths words that feel foreign on her tongue, mangles them. It's a rough language at first, but it fits to the shape of her mouth, and it fits to the shape of her mood.

It fits the shape of her confines and so she learns. She learns and bides her time.

Chapter Text

After a week, Maria gets an envelope: a new schedule, the same task. It makes no sense, but she goes, a new determination to her step as she enters the cell. She doesn't know what to expect. Hell, she still doesn't know how much Romanova had been playing her sympathy, how much of it had been a victory or a manipulation, and Maria is sick of being manipulated by any of them.

The door shuts behind her with a loud clank, bumping her in the back, but she doesn't move as she takes in the changes to the quarters and then the changes to Romanova. It definitely isn't what she'd been expecting walking in again, and she's surprised to find she's relieved in some way.

"Guess you got that shower after all," she says finally, needing to sound flippant if she isn't going to shut up.

Natalia only stares at her for several long seconds. After a week, it's strange to see her. Strange, but not entirely unwelcome.

"Do I have you to thank for that?"

Maria shakes her head and forces herself to move towards the chair. "I'm just a guard."

Even if Maria doesn't understand why. She would have understood if they'd kicked her out, but putting her on the same job after a week of punishment is jarring.

Natalia raises an eyebrow. Hill's tail is firmly between her legs. Not a good look on her.

"So, which of us got in more trouble?" If they've put Hill back on guard detail, the two of them are going to have to talk about what happened sooner or later. It might as well be sooner; the room is small enough without an elephant in it.

The question surprises her and Maria takes her time to get comfortable, weighing the words carefully in her mind before speaking them. The translation is probably far too literal and she's still not sure she's getting the words right, but she tries anyway.

<<You look much better.>>

She's definitely smart, this one. Natalia smirks, shaking her head. Hill's pronunciation is a bit off, her accent distinctly American. That aside, she's impressed. Not bad at all for a week's work.

Natalia catches Hill's eye and repeats, a little slower than her normal speaking cadence, <<You look much better.>> She is careful to emphasize the correct pronunciation.

It takes a moment before Maria realises that Romanova is merely repeating her words back at her, her surprise showing for a fleeting second before she catches herself. She refuses to be self conscious and repeats the words, trying to mimic Romanova's pronunciation as best as she can. She has a feeling it will take a while before she get this right, but she waits to see if she has Romanova's approval anyway.

<<Better.>> She means it; Hill seems to have a good ear for mimicking accents. Natalia's also impressed with the way Hill manages not to squirm bashfully, though she'd never admit it.

"Want me to attack you so you can actually break my nose this time? Might give you more time to practice." She remains as deadpan as possible when she adds, "Hell, break my arm and you'll probably end up fluent."

Maria snorts and shakes her head. "I think I'll do it the hard way, thanks," she tells Romanova and it's strange how almost friendly this exchange is. "Do you offer this to your other guards as well?"

"No, I don't think That One could handle it, and The Other One and The New One don't talk to me at all." Why is she telling her this? Natalia tries to shake off her discomfort and how easily Hill gets her to talk, even if it is just idle chat. "Tell me more of what you've learned."

The other guards are probably smarter than she is, but it's strange to have Romanova's attention like this and Maria finds herself thinking of something else to say. <<Can I have fries to go with that?>> she says, a little flippantly, mangling the words even more as she's not trying much for this one.

<<Typical American…>> Natalia grumbles good-naturedly. She's not sure what to make of Hill's botched second sentence. Usually, she has an easier time discerning a person's intentions. Hill, however, is proving infuriatingly hard to read. Two possible motives come to mind: either she is unsure of her own abilities and being glib on purpose to cover for it, or she's trying to mask how much Russian she actually knows in the hopes that Natalia will underestimate her and let something slip.

Natalia's eyes narrow. "Don't play dumb with me, either, Hill. Do you want me to help you learn or not?"

It's not what she had planned, but then if Maria thinks about it, there aren't a whole lot of other ways this could go. She takes her time again with her answer, weighing the words as much as the decision. Having the prisoner play teacher definitely isn't in her orders, and she doesn't think they'll let her fuck up a second time.

<<You do not look busy.>>

There's that contrary attitude again. Is this woman even capable of answering a question directly? As much as Natalia finds Hill's evasiveness irritating, she can't help but be impressed. If she can ever shake off her soldier mentality, Hill would make an excellent spy; her double-speak game is strong. Now, if only Natalia can get her to deal more directly with her.

<<That was not a 'yes, please'.>>

Maria grins and leans back, looking like a picture of cocky for just a moment. <<Yes, please.>> The words sound more like a challenge than anything else, though.

<<Better.>> Natalia leans back and crosses her arms across her chest, mirroring Hill's position. So this is how she wants to play it? Let's play.

<<Tell me what you know.>> Natalia was always a better interrogator than teacher.

Switching back to English to reply somehow feels like a loss, so Maria forces herself to stick to Russian, struggling to find the correct words. It does kind of ruin the whole cocky attitude she has going, but she tries her hardest anyway.

<<I know much. Ask something else.>> It's not what Maria was going for, but it will have to do for now.

Natalia raises an eyebrow. <<Fine. If you know so much, it makes more sense to find out what you don't know. What would you like to know how to say?>>

Maria frowns, obviously having trouble making sense of everything, but she nods after a moment as the question at least seems to be understandable.

"I want to know how to pick up a date."

Natalia was not expecting to enjoy watching Hill struggle this much. There's something very satisfying about watching her commit her full attention to mastering a task, to overcoming an obstacle. She's a force to be reckoned with, this one. Natalia almost grins at her request. Almost.

She puts on a show of deliberating what to say next, then levels a sly smile at Hill. "Okay, repeat after me: <<Do you have any gum?>>"

"What am I repeating exactly?" Maria asks because there is something very unsettling about that smile. It's a smile that spells out a lot of trouble and she can see a lot of men falling for this woman.

"It's a pickup line. Try it out: <<Do you have any gum?>>"

She still has no clue why, but apparently Maria is just humouring her now. She wonders if this is how the Widow's targets feel as well. Still, she gives it a go, repeating the words carefully and then raising an eyebrow as she waits for whatever it is that will happen next.

<<Good.>> Natalia can't help but chuckle a little. It's not a particularly warm sound, but it isn't as cruel as it could be, either. "Have you got it? Your assignment for next time is to bring me a literal translation of that pickup line."

"You're giving me homework now?" Maria stares at Romanova like she must have hit her head. She's pretty sure this isn't how a prisoner-guard relationship is supposed to work out.

"Don't pretend you aren't going to rush off to translate it the first chance you get anyway." Natalia takes a gamble, scouring Hill's body language and expression for any hint of a reaction as she adds, "Besides, I know you're too careful to try it on a woman without cross-referencing it first."

It catches her off guard, but it doesn't really come as a surprise that Romanova has figured that much out. She's one of the best spies out there, and reading people is naturally a part of that. That doesn't stop it from being a little unsettling that she's reading her so easily. It's a part she's managed to keep secret from herself (and from the military) for a long time.

"I'm not pretending," she says finally, giving up on trying to translate that.

Bingo. That's good information to have…

"Mm hmm." Natalia hums sarcastically, winking at Hill to see if she can get her to blush just a little bit more. With a self-satisfied smirk, she reaches under her pillow and pulls out the pack of gum and pops some into her mouth.

There's no blush, just a snort as Maria leans her head back against the bulkhead, trying not to watch Romanova's lips. Whatever changes the past week have brought, Romanova seems a lot more at ease now and a little less hostile. A little, because she knows enough about this woman to know that she comes with facades Maria can't even imagine.

<<Teach me to understand you.>> She says after a moment, hoping that Romanova will understand what she means and why she's even doing this.

Images of freezing bunks and young girls with blood under their fingernails rise in Natalia's mind, unbidden. Her eyes darken as she tries to push them away.

"<<You don't want that.>> Learning Russian is one thing; understanding me is quite another."

"That's not-" Maria stops herself before she can continue. The image of Natalia coming at her has been stuck in her head for a week now, and she doesn't much like the helplessness that comes with it. She's not prepared to voice that, however, and she's being way too open with this woman as it is. "I don't expect your life story or all your secrets, Romanova."

She can just deal with it if she still doesn't like Maria calling her that.

The name grates its way down Natalia’s spine. It sounds like it belongs to another person in another lifetime. It's a name she wants to put behind her, to bury it in her past, one more grave in a long, long line. Over the last week, she's had plenty of time to think about it. She's been given the chance to reinvent herself; it's time to choose a new name, one that doesn't sound so wrong on the lips of these new people in her life. Much as she'd like to, she can't completely erase her past, but she can build on it, improve on it. Now is as good a time as any to work on that.

Willing her eyes to soften, she catches Hill's gaze and holds it until she's sure she's listening. "Romanoff."

"Romanoff," Maria repeats, much like she did with the Russian only moments ago. She takes her time here as well, as if she's weighing the word and testing it out. She's definitely testing out the way Romanoff looks in that moment, and she knows she's not likely to fully grasp what just happened. "Got a first name to go with that?"

"Natasha." It's the first time she's called herself that out loud. This is a skin she can slip into and live in. She's not there yet, but this is a start.

"Natasha Romanoff," Maria repeats and purses her lips, studying her for a moment before she nods in approval.

Natalia - no, Natasha - nods in satisfaction. It sounds better coming from Hill than it does from herself, funnily enough. Her eyebrow quirks as she extends a hand toward Hill. "Nice to meet you." There's a note of wry humor in her voice.

"Tell me, Natasha Romanoff, should I be worried that you'll try to kill me if my Russian isn't up to par?"

"Don't let your pronunciation slip and you'll never have to find out."

"That easy, huh?" Maria watches her for an instant, then lets the gun rest in her lap before she reaches out to grasp Natasha's hand in hers. There's no hesitation in her grip.

The handshake is firm and satisfying. It feels like a resolution, or maybe a beginning? Either way, a lot of the lingering tension dissipates as Natasha releases Hill's hand and sits back. At least helping Hill learn Russian gives her something to look forward to every day.

Chapter Text

Sweat beads on Natasha's face and runs in little rivulets up her spine under her jumpsuit. Her feet are propped on the bed behind her, and her hands support the majority of her weight on the floor. She focuses her breathing as she lowers herself toward the floor, then presses her arms straight again. The ever-present burn in her muscles is not entirely pleasant, but after weeks of not being able to identify the cause, it’s about time to make them burn on her own terms.

The sight greeting Maria as she enters the room stops her in her tracks, and before she realises it's happening, she finds herself staring, her eyes lingering in places they probably shouldn't. It takes a moment before she catches herself, and she leans back against the door, hoping she's perfected her cool and appraising look well enough to fool Natasha (and the cameras).

Either way, this is a good sign.  Natasha not sitting and staring into nothingness is good.

<<Too much energy?>> she asks, almost teases, but she'd be going stir crazy too if she was stuck here.

Natasha doesn't look up at Hill, not wanting to ruin her form. She doesn't need to see her face to know she's probably staring a little bit. She tucks one arm behind her to rest on the small of her back and dips into another push up, barely breaking her rhythm.

<<Just showing off.>>

None of the Russian answers Maria can think of seem adequate, so she finally gives up. "You're going to have to wake up a lot earlier for that, Romanoff," she smirks, waiting as Natasha is blocking her path to her usual seat. Then again, she's getting kind of sick of that chair anyway.

Okay then...

Four more pushups with her right arm and five more with her left complete the set. Once those are finished, Natasha swings her feet off the bed and stands up. She moves closer to the wall and bends at the waist, placing her palms on the floor. The view from where Hill is standing is an excellent one, and Natasha knows it. She only pauses in that position for a second before she kicks her feet up from the floor, ending up in a handstand with her ankles resting lightly against the wall for balance.

<<Spot me?>>

Maria sets her gun aside and moves to stand a step away from Natasha. She really needs to think about taking an evening off sometime soon to go out and preferably get laid, because she mustn't be in her right mind if she's checking out the Black Widow's ass. She's pretty sure that's something that ends up getting you killed.

<<You use all your guards like this?>>

Hill might not have perfected her accent yet, but she's certainly mastered being sarcastic. Natasha switches to English and matches her tone as she sinks towards the floor. Her breath comes in a small grunt when she pushes herself back up.

"What else are you here for? I let the New One help me stretch out my hamstrings yesterday. That One and I do yoga on Tuesdays." She scoffs a little to herself. She has no concept of what time of day it is, much less what day of the week it is.

There's a moment where Maria actually believes her, but then she raises her eyebrows at Natasha. "Yoga? You didn't strike me as the yoga type," she admits, only to realise that's probably saying too much.

Another pushup, another breathy grunt to go with it. Natasha's doing it on purpose, of course. Handstand pushups are challenging, but nothing she can't handle.

"What, you don't think I look flexible? I can get both my legs behind my head."

The rational part of Maria's brain is ready to admit that no, she didn't think that for one second. Even if she hadn't seen the way Natasha moves in a fight, she knows her reputation. It's not the rational part that's smirking, though.

<<Prove it.>>

A sly grin takes over Natasha's face at the challenge. She pikes her legs forward slowly, lowering her feet back down to the floor. She stands just as fluidly, stretching out before lowering herself to the floor. Staring Hill in the eyes, she grips her right foot by the arch and extends her leg, toes pointed. She sighs a little, savoring the stretch in her muscles, then tucks her ankle neatly behind her neck.

There's no way she's going to stop there, though. Her shoulder rotates into position in front of her thigh, and she uses it and her other hand to guide her leg back across her shoulder blades until the crook of her knee meets her shoulder. Her eyebrow quirks before she does the same with her other leg.

Fuck me, is about the only thought Maria has left after that. It's one thing to know something and another to actually see it. It's yet another to enjoy the challenge when Natasha meets her eyes, but she laughs away the feeling. It's a fucked up feeling. She's just a guard.

"Should have made me bet on that," she tells her. Not that she would have taken the bet; she's not stupid, but it's definitely more impressive than she imagined, and she holds up her hands in surrender. "I stand corrected."

The look of shock mixing with lust that flashes across Hill's face is exponentially more satisfying that the stretch in Natasha's legs and back. Natasha holds her pose and Hill's eyes, letting that satisfaction go straight to her core. She runs her tongue over her bottom lip for good measure.

"Oh? What should the terms of that bet have been?"

<<Too late. You lost your chance there.>> Maria tries to make it sound cocky and casual, but it'd be more convincing if she hadn't just been staring at Natasha's lips. She quickly glances away towards the camera and the door.

Natasha takes Hill's averted gaze as an opportunity to uncurl and stretch out a bit on the floor.

"It doesn't matter what you'd want from me, seeing as I won this round, but what would you have offered me?" She's blatantly refusing to acknowledge Hill's dismissal.

"Not much I can offer," Maria says casually, finally glancing back as she hears Natasha shift. Not that it's much better, but ignoring the question will just be worse anyway. <<You want me to sneak you in some more gum? A banana from the cafeteria?>>

Natasha thinks for a moment. She could ask for any number of things, none of which are at all appropriate. While she is not exactly a prisoner, Hill is still her guard. Under different circumstances, she would have pushed this little game of chicken to its inevitable conclusion and fucked this woman into the floor. Pity.

"How about a latte?" She suggests. "Although, it's not fair unless we actually agree on the bet beforehand. Care to bet on something else?"

Maria considers pointing out that she wouldn't have taken the bet to begin with, but decides not to.  If Natasha doesn't realise that, then maybe that's an advantage. Then again, she doubts she's fooling Natasha at all.

"If you think you can find something to bet on. It's not like we have a wealth of opportunities here," Maria points out.

"I'll bet I can amaze you with a magic trick." Natasha wants to grin mischievously, but she doesn't want to tip her hand, so she remains as deadpan as possible.

"A magic trick?" Maria actually snorts and raises an eyebrow. "You going to disappear on me?"

"Nope. I'll bet you a latte I can make this room really crowded in a matter of seconds."

Maria shrugs and waves a hand, figuring that if Natasha can pull this off, at least it won't be something she'll mind doing for her. "I'm curious now."

It's stupid, what Natasha’s about to do. Really, truly stupid. But it's probably for the best that something happens to remind them both of the reality of their situation. The flirtation is fun, but it's clearly starting to escalate, and that would be even more idiotic than the stunt she's about to pull.

"Okay then, on three." Natasha tosses a glance at the security camera. "One."

She shifts her gaze to the observation window. "Two."

Then, with lightning-fast reflexes, she darts forward and snatches Hill's gun from its place against the wall. She whirls and pins Hill to the wall with the barrel, taking care to keep the muzzle pointed away from either of them.

"Three," she murmurs in Hill's ear.

Maria gasps as she hits the wall and the lips brushing her ear make her shiver, but the feeling disappears in a second as her mind catches up with the position she's in. All that's left behind is anger. Anger at herself for dropping her guard. For wanting to trust when it's not her place to trust. For stopping to be suspicious. And then there's anger at Natasha for taking that trust and shattering it. For putting her back in her place and making her look like an idiot in the process.

It's only a matter of seconds before she's moving, grabbing Natasha's arm to push the gun and the barrel away from her. She shifts her weight, kicking out to sweep Natasha's feet out from under her while she swings her arm towards Natasha's stomach.

Natasha manages to keep ahold of the gun, but she can only manage to dodge the sweep at her feet or the punch to her gut. Opting for the former, she leaps lightly, taking the full force of Hill's punch to her stomach. The air flies out of her lungs and she doubles over. She doesn't strike back, though; That's not what this is about. She keeps the gun trained harmlessly on the floor and braces for the fallout, both from Hill and the other agents who have begun pounding at the door.

Maria is already moving forward, hands up to strike again when she realises Natasha isn't retaliating. She stops, her breath coming in hard, but she can hardly hear it over the pounding at door and the voice in her ear. She stares at Natasha and holds out her hand.

<<You won.>> Maria says the words through gritted teeth.

Natasha doesn't hesitate when Hill extends her hand. She shifts the weight of the gun in her arms and presents Hill with the butt of it, offering it up in surrender. She's acutely aware that the muzzle points mere inches away from her waist. A flick of Hill's wrist and she could pump Natasha's abdomen full of lead. She won't do it, Natasha knows she won't. Or at least she hopes she won't. Hopefully neither will the strike team at the door.

The balance has been righted. She is once more the all-but-prisoner, and Hill is once more her closed off, no-nonsense guard. The rage simmering behind Hill's eyes is hard to handle, but it's for the best. Isn't it?

Maria snags the gun, automatically checking it while keeping most of her focus on Natasha. The anger's still there, but more controlled now as she studies Natasha. <<I know you do not do this to your other guards,>> she snaps as the door bursts open.

Maria's focus instantly shifts and she moves between the pointed guns and Natasha. "Stand down. I didn't call for backup."

Why is she stepping in front of those guns? It's the last thing Natasha expects her to do. Hill is humiliated and furious, so why is she protecting her?

The words leave Natasha's lips even though she knows she shouldn't be digging herself in deeper. "It's suddenly very crowded in here, isn't it?" She quirks an eyebrow. "Abracadabra."

The words sink in only slowly, Maria's mood keeping her from finding it funny at all. Maybe later. Much, much later, as she's too busy glaring at the idiots pointing a gun at her. She's the biggest idiot in the room, though. The idiot who put her  gun down. The idiot who has her back to the prisoner, who just had her pinned to the wall in a matter of seconds. Her pride bristles and she snags the muzzle of the gun of the guard closest to her, pushing it down to the ground.

"I said stand down." There's a moment's hesitation, but the order is repeated in her ear and the guards lower their guns. Maria doesn't move, glaring as the team moves out with their tails between their legs. She ignores the look she gets from the Senior Officer, ignores that it wasn't her place to give orders or to stand in their way.

She does slam the door behind them and half turns, not quite looking at Natasha. "Sit down, prisoner."

Natasha stands her ground, her arms crossed in front of her chest. << I am not a prisoner.>>

"No, you're here because you want to be, right?" Maria's nostrils flare as she breathes out in anger and she steps forward, moving right into Natasha's personal space as she shoves her gun back against Natasha's chest. "I get it. You're better than me. You can kill me if you want and I wouldn't stand a chance. So fucking do it, or quit playing these games."

The pressure of the gun on her chest sends a chill down Natasha's spine, simultaneously shaking her confidence and igniting her own anger to match Hill's. Still she stands her ground, lifting her chin so she seems a little closer to Hill's height as she shouts back.

"Why the fuck are you so convinced I want to kill you? How the fuck do I benefit from killing you?"

"Because it'd be a fucking hell nicer than you trying to humiliate me," Maria growls, shoving the gun against Natasha's chest again as she doesn't take it.

"Are you serious? You'd rather be dead than humiliated?" Natasha presses her palms to Hill's pecs and shoves her away. "If you've got some sort of stupid death wish, that's your business. Leave me the fuck out of it."

Maria snorts as she staggers back. "Never said that." She doesn't. She's a survivor, even when she doesn't want to be, but trying to kill her is straightforward. It's hostile and it's simple. Humiliation, that's a dirty game, and she's sick of games. She's sick of people playing them with her. "Sit down, Romanoff."

Hill may have used her new name, but Natasha doesn't like the way she's spitting it at her. She ignores the order and continues to face Hill down, though she lowers the volume of her voice a bit.

"Then what the fuck is your problem? Are you really so butthurt over being assigned guard duty that you never considered the possibility that they might not have meant it as punishment?"

It has occurred to her, considering the amount of leeway she's been getting, but that doesn't mean that she appreciates it.

"So what? You're giving them a hand at analysing me?" Maria growls.

"I'm not helping them with anything," Natasha scoffs. "You were right, though: I don't do this to any of the other guards. They're not worth my time."

"I'm so honoured," Maria says dryly, rolling her eyes at Natasha. She doesn't give herself any time to consider the words. They hold very little meaning when she just got caught with her pants down.

The dry humor creeping back into Hill's voice is reassuring - even though her face is still stormy with anger - and all at once the tension begins to drain from Natasha's body. She sinks onto the bed, arms still crossed over her chest. This is not giving up. This is not admitting defeat. This is simply a tactical retreat.

"Fine. If you'd seriously rather I kill you than try to pass the time by fucking with your head, I'll leave you alone. I won't say another word to you. But I will not kill you. <<Do I make myself clear?>>"

There's a part of Maria that wants to give in, because that's as close to a compliment as she's probably ever going to get from this woman. Something in Natasha's posture is almost vulnerable, and Maria doesn't understand half of the reasons why it makes her feel as protective as she does. It's part of her job after all; they put this woman in her care. They made her guard her and put her under her protection. Maria knows it wasn't part of the job to let this woman get as far under her skin as she has. Maybe that's just what the Black Widow does. She just had her own gun used against her, after all, and Maria pulls back hard on the part of her that wants to lower her voice, that wants to shift forward and catch Natasha's eye.

She wishes it was just about wanting to push this woman down on the bed and get her hands down that jumpsuit.

"Trust me. I have no death wish, Romanoff," Maria says instead. She's still got annoyance left in spades, at least.  "<<I just really need to find you another hobby.>>"

It isn't exactly a 'stop fucking with me and shut up,' but it is clearly going to take Hill a long while to recover from this clash between them. On the other hand, her quick glance down Natasha's body did not go unnoticed…

Testing the waters, Natasha pours on the sarcasm while keeping her tone flat. "You think I should learn to crochet or something?"

It's annoying how some part of Maria is still amused, but she tries her best to keep her face neutral. "I doubt anyone's going to give you a crochet hook now," she points out.

She has a point…

"I'll stick with yoga then."

Maria wants to suggest that maybe Natasha should consider basket weaving, but she shuts her mouth with a snap as she realises what she's doing.

"Probably best," she agrees after a moment, then she finally takes her usual seat. It's something she hasn't done for a while now, but now the muzzle of the gun is aimed at Natasha again, creating the distance she wanted.

The familiar sensation of being at the business end of a submachine gun makes Natasha's skin prickle. She has to admit, this is one of the most effective ends of a conversation she's ever encountered. Not wanting to let Hill have the last word, she salutes facetiously.

"Yes, sir."

For good measure, she flops gracelessly onto the bed and turns her back on Hill.

 

 

Chapter Text

Punch after punch lands with a sickening thud. Flesh buckles, bone breaks, blood flecks, yet her fists fly again and again. A hand, an impossibly large hand, catches her bloodied wrist with ease, dwarfing her slender fingers with its enormous, scarred knuckles.

<<Good, Natalia. Again.>>

The garrote in her hands makes her fingers burn, but she doesn't loosen her grip until the body beneath her crumples to the floor. She lands on her feet. Her arms shake, her thighs ache and her blood pounds in her ears, but she remains standing.

<<Good, Natalia. Again.>>

Swirling blackness crowds the edges of her vision and all sounds around her meld into one low whine in her ears. She struggles for air, but none makes it past the fingers clamped around her throat. Her pulse throbs behind her eyes, set to explode as her own hand gropes lower, lower, desperate. Her fingers brush the hilt of a knife, and with her last ounce of consciousness she unsheathes it, only to re-sheathe it deftly between her assailant's ribs. Air pours into her chest as the blood pours out of his, coating her arm in sticky heat.

<<Good, Natalia. Aga-- >>

Natasha sits bolt upright in her bed, limbs thrashing, sweat beading, lungs burning as she screams.

"Easy," Maria breathes as she carefully moves towards the bed. The only sound now is the hum of the engines and Natasha's harsh breathing as she struggles to come back to herself. This is different from the mindless attack weeks ago, and Maria wonders what nightmares come to the Black Widow.

She doesn't usually get this shift, but she can't help but wonder if the other guards are used to this sight. Maria isn't, and it tugs at her. Her fingers itch to reach out, but she knows better. Just because Natasha is sitting up doesn't mean that she's truly awake.

She sticks to squatting beside the cot, her hand bracing her against the edge as she watches Natasha carefully. There is no gun to put to the side, as S.H.I.E.L.D. decided it would be for the best to keep any weapons away from the Black Widow. "Easy. You're good, Natasha."

The deep, gulping breaths of air quickly make Natasha dizzy, so she forces herself to steady her breathing. Her eyes sweep the room as usual, taking stock of the situation. The room is the same as always, except Hill is unexpectedly close to her. That doesn't matter right now, though. Her eyes fly to her hands, fearful of what she might see.

Natasha heaves a sigh, not bothering to try and conceal her relief. There's no trace of blood on her hands or wrists, under her fingernails or on her clothes. Just a dream, then.

Realizing she must look somewhat manic like this, breaths heaving, eyes wide, hands held up in front of her face, she steadies herself and acknowledges her guard's presence. "Hill. Sorry you had to see that."

Maria shakes her head, and as Natasha calms down, she reaches out, lightly touching Natasha's wrist as if she can ground Natasha that way. "Glad to have you back," she says quietly.

The presence of Hill's hand is oddly reassuring. Against her better judgement, Natasha grips her forearm with her other hand and holds on, squeezing her eyes shut. "I'm not quite back yet; give me a minute."

The touch startles Maria, but she doesn't pull back. There's a warmth at the pit of her stomach that shouldn't be there as Natasha holds on to her.

<<Take your time,>> she says softly, wrapping her fingers more securely around Natasha's arm, her thumb rubbing the inside of her wrist where she can feel the flutter of Natasha's pulse going too fast.

<<Thank you.>> Hill's grip tightening on her arm makes it a little harder for Natasha's pulse to settle. One of the reasons for that is not something she wants to think about right now. The other reason - the main reason - is something that can be alleviated, at least. "Just please, don't grip my wrist so tightly."

Maria hates the way she can feel the heat at the back of her neck slowly creeping up to her ears. It's dark, though, and she hopes Natasha can't see this. It's fucking stupid and she hasn't blushed since the first time she took a woman to bed.

She quickly releases Natasha, a mix of emotions going through her that don't quite make sense. She'd draw back completely, but Natasha still has a hold on her arm, and she can't bring herself to force her to let go. "Sorry."

Slowly but surely, Natasha's heartbeat and breathing return to their normal pace. She doesn't look Hill in the eye, especially once she realizes she's curled in on herself mere inches from Hill's body. If she wanted to, she could lean forward just a little and rest her head on Hill's shoulder, her body against her chest. The thought should be off-putting, would be uncomfortable in many other situations, but right now? After dreams like those? With Hill's arm resting hesitantly on hers, having instantly released its grip when she'd asked? The idea of seeking comfort in another person's touch doesn't sound so bad.

What is wrong with me?

Maria's surprised when Natasha doesn't move or push her away. It only makes her realise just how bad those dreams must have been. She tries not to stare, keeping her eyes on Natasha's fingers gripping at her arm. Her knees are hurting from the position, but she stays where she is. There's little point offering to listen when she knows Natasha won't tell.

Several deep breaths and a firm reminder of how inappropriate it would be to lean on Hill right now manage to convince Natasha to stop thinking about doing just that. Instead, she opts to settle back down onto her pillow. She doesn't move her hand from Hill's forearm, though, even in her new, slightly more awkward position.

"Okay. I think I'm alright now."

"Okay," Maria says softly, failing to find any relevant words. When Natasha moves, she finally looks up, her eyes scanning Natasha's face, making sure she's telling the truth. Her fingers for an instant catch at the fabric of Natasha's jumpsuit before she curls them into a fist to keep from repeating the touch.

For a moment it seems like Hill is going to pull away entirely, and Natasha's grip tightens involuntarily on her arm. She releases it almost immediately, though. She doesn't need to keep contact. She doesn't. That floor can't be comfortable to kneel on for this long; she should let Hill go back to her chair. Not that the chair is comfortable either. Nor is the bed, for that matter, but at least it's a little more padded. Natasha slides closer to the wall, leaving a space large enough for Hill to sit down next to her, a silent invitation.

Maria hesitates; she's definitely not used to seeing Natasha like this. It feels like any wrong move will shatter it, but not responding seems so much worse. She can't help the grimace as she gets up, her calves protesting, and she sits down gratefully, her movements careful as not to dislodge Natasha's hold.

The extra weight on the bed makes a dip even in the thin pad that passes for a mattress. Natasha's body cants toward Hill so she ends up somewhat curled around her hips. At this point, trying to scoot backwards would draw too much attention to how much she's trying to avoid closing the distance between them, so she just gives in, letting her body stay in the same position.

"Good thing you didn't headbutt me this time. I don't want to see any more blood tonight."

Maria snorts and she stays as still as possible feeling the heat and press of Natasha in ways she shouldn't when they're barely touching. "Well, you didn't try to kill me, so it seemed a bit excessive."

There's amusement in her voice, but her expression and eyes are serious as she watches Natasha. <<Who were you?>>

<<A monster.>>

It's true. There's no other word for who she was, what they broke her down and transformed her into. But if she can help it, that isn't who she will be forever. She wasn't always a monster (at least in theory; she can no longer remember a time without violence in her life), so maybe it's possible to transform into something else, something more.

It's the transition that is the painful part. That's why her dreams are always of her training, never of her work. While each kill she made as a fully-fledged Black Widow is something for which she will have to atone, they were each just another day at the office. Each kill she made during her training, however, was a knife-stroke, cutting away her childhood strip by strip and replacing it with pieces of the monster they wanted her to be. Yes, it is the transition that is the most painful, and that's what she's going through again now. This time, she took the knife by the blade and surrendered it to S.H.I.E.L.D. to wield against her, stripping away her years of brutal conditioning (and any intelligence they can mine along with it). This time, it's the beginning of her penance; there's some solace in that.

It hurts to become.

Maria shifts just enough so her back is towards the camera and she can look down at Natasha. She tilts her head, letting Natasha notice how she's blatantly studying her.

<<It is gone now,>> she says when she finally seems satisfied and meets Natasha's eyes again.

"It is never gone." Natasha is pretty sure Hill would have understood her in Russian, but she wants to be absolutely certain. She stares up at her, not flinching away from her eyes.

Maria nods her understanding, and she mulls it over for a moment. "But you don't have to be that person anymore," she tries, knowing it sounds way too simplistic, but she doesn't want to push right now.

Natasha nods. "That's why I'm here. It isn't easy, though, not when I'm surrounded with people who expect the worst from me." She's still looking up into Hill's eyes, her expression pointed.

"You want me to expect the worst from you," Maria argues stubbornly, automatically defending herself.

Natasha wants to glare. She wants to shout and spit and curse, but when she opens her mouth to begin, nothing happens. Her face doesn't even manage more than a slight frown. This is exhausting. She's just so tired. Tired of not sleeping well. Tired of being under constant supervision. Tired of the back-and-forth, of knowing that at any moment there could be a gun pointed at her, and the only thing she can do to avoid it is to keep her mouth shut and her eyes on the walls. Her tiredness doesn't edge into her voice, though; it comes out smooth and even when she speaks.

"How can you still think that?" Somehow, she still hasn't moved her hand away from Hill's forearm.

"You seem keen to remind me," Maria points out, her voice low so only Natasha should be able to hear. She's even more aware of how close they are and how Natasha's hand is a welcome heat, even through the fabric of her shirt. There's a part of her that wants to shift and stretch on the cot and keep this silence, demons and all.

Under different circumstances, Natasha might be annoyed, but now she just sort of chuckles under her breath. "I've, what? Yanked your chain? Pushed you around a little? Gotten you in trouble? That's not exactly my worst. Not to mention, I don't for a second believe you couldn't keep your distance if you tried. You're just as complicit in this as I am."

Maria does glare, but there's no heat behind it this time, and she shifts, turning more fully towards Natasha so they're even closer. She has to brace herself on the thin mattress as she leans down to catch Natasha's eye. "Are you going to ask me for gum now?"

Natasha smirks. <<Not exactly…>> She reaches up and cups Hill's face with the hand that had, until very recently, been firmly affixed to her forearm.

Maria can feel the camera aimed at her back almost as much as she can feel Natasha's hand on her skin. It still doesn't stop her from turning her head into the touch, her eyes never leaving Natasha's.

"I don't have a gun to steal," she reminds her, unable to help herself, but then she's not pulling back either. She's very solidly staying put and calling Natasha's bluff. That's all there is to it, she tells herself.

<<I know.>> This is stupid, probably even more stupid than stealing Hill's gun. There's a challenge in Hill's wide eyes, and Natasha doesn't want to back down from a challenge. At least, that's what she'll tell herself later. Now, she pulls herself up and presses her lips to her guard's, gently and firmly.

This is definitely going to rank up there with the biggest screwups of her life, but everything about it catches Maria off guard. Not the kiss; she walked into that. It's how gentle it is when she expected teeth and fire. Well, there's still fire in the pit of her stomach, which should be enough of a sign as to why this is a very bad idea.

This, this is lips and tongue. Her tongue brushing along Natasha's lips as she digs her fingers into the mattress to at least keep from grabbing her.

Natasha didn't exactly expect Hill to try and dodge the kiss at the last moment, but she did kind of expect her to stiffen up and break the kiss as soon as possible, returning to her chair with a snort and a 'Go back to sleep, Romanoff,' or something of the sort. The feel of Hill's tongue sends electricity down her spine, and she parts her lips, her own tongue darting out to meet Hill's. As much as Natasha would like to claim that she only intended to see how far she could push Hill before she pulled away, the truth of it is she quickly finds herself too caught up in the kiss to play games.

It'd be so very easy to give in, to slide down the bed and push Natasha back. Maria can almost imagine what it'd be like... She can't. She really, really can't. This isn't supposed to be happening. When she considered that she needed to get laid, this wasn't what she had in mind.

The soft sound at the back of her throat when she pulls back is completely involuntarily, and she'll deny its existence if Natasha points it out. She's still left feeling dazed; the press of Natasha's mouth a ghost on her lips, and Maria licks her lips before she can even consider it a sign of weakness. "Fuck."

Natasha settles back down onto her pillow, wetting her own kiss-swollen lips to mirror Hill's movement. Her hand starts to reach up to brush Hill's bangs away from her eyes, but she quickly reconsiders, letting it fall to the bed at her side. For a handful of heartbeats, she can't think of a single thing to say. Finally, her lip curls upward in a smirk as she says the first thing that occurs to her.

<<Do you have any gum?>>

There are no walls now. At least, Maria doesn't think there are because she's never seen Natasha this open. She wonders how long it will last. It makes it so much harder to remain sitting, but the words break some of the tension, and Maria's laugh is almost a bark as she leans her head back. It's definitely safer staring up at the ceiling. <<No gum.>>

"You did your homework. <<Good girl.>>" Natasha almost laughs right along with Hill, but she gets distracted by the underside of her jaw. She isn't going to sit up again and kiss Hill's throat. She isn't. Thank goodness for those high-collared S.H.I.E.L.D. uniforms.

Maria glances down, an eyebrow raised, but the words get stuck for an instant as she finds Natasha watching her. It's so fucking stupid, and she snorts and looks away again. Maybe if she doesn't move too much, she can pretend this isn't happening. <<What did I win?>>

Natasha taps the side of her chin in a show of mock-thoughtfulness. "Let's see… I suppose that depends. Are you ever going to bring me that latte you owe me?"

"I'm working on it," Maria says dismissively. At least Natasha seems to be distracted from the dream she'd been having.

Well, it isn't a 'no.' Natasha would kill for some coffee right now. No. Not kill. Oh, how she hates that expression. She shudders a little and shifts up onto one elbow so she can smirk at Hill again to get the thought out of her mind.

"Then I suppose I can let you choose your prize."

Oh, there's a number of things instantly crossing Maria's mind, and she's pretty sure Natasha can read her too well. "I'll think about it," she decides before she can say anything stupid and make this worse.

Coy is not a good look on Hill, Natasha decides. She doesn't need her extensive experience in reading people to know what comes to Hill's mind. "Don't think about it too hard. The offer expires at the end of your shift," she warns. As an afterthought, she adds, "It's not like I've got just tons to offer."

One night with Natasha Romanoff. The thought crosses Maria's mind, and she tries to nudge it away, but it's a persistent thing. The camera behind them feels more like the crosshairs of a gun. She's an idiot for even considering it. <<I wonder how many weeks they would give me for that one.>>

"There's only one way to find out." Natasha arches an eyebrow playfully, dangerously, daring Hill to make the next move.

"You really do enjoy getting me into trouble, don't you?" Maria snorts and shakes her head. It's about the only way she has to try and ignore how much she wants to take that dare. She has an annoying habit of picking dare to begin with, and that has an annoying habit of ending badly.

Smart, cocky, a little bit reckless and stubborn as hell, Natasha thinks.

"I've gotten you into trouble before, and you've always ended up right back here. I'm sure you're already in trouble again; how much worse could this get?"

"How much worse could it get?" Maria laughs, and she rubs a hand across her face. "I'm pretty sure we're talking court martial if S.H.I.E.L.D. was actually military."

"Good thing it isn't, then." Natasha puts a hand on Hill's forearm again. It's a good fit there, she decides, just the right combination of harmless and ill-advised. "Is that something with which you have a lot of experience?"

"No," Maria bristles, but she doesn't pull her arm away. Pride is definitely another one of her traits, and this one isn't too happy with the implication of Natasha's words or how close they come to the truth. Then again, she does seem to be getting a bad track record when it comes to following the rules.

Natasha knows this is a dangerous game they're playing, and she can tell she's toeing the line between safe and sorry. She doesn't move her hand away, but she changes her tone, fixing Hill with a serious stare. "I've said it before: tell me to stop and this is the last I'll speak of this."

"There is no this, Romanoff," Maria says quietly. It's the only way this gets to be, but there's a hint of regret in the words.

"Maybe not," Natasha tightens her grip just a little bit on Hill's arm, "but that doesn't change the fact that you kissed me back." It's a stupid thing to say, partially because of how much it sounds like it belongs in a rom-com, but mostly because she said it just a hair louder than Hill might be comfortable with. "No one's pounding down the door this time."

Maria's eyes darken as she watches Natasha, and she moves abruptly, her hand pushing at Natasha's shoulder, pushing her down on the mattress. She follows and leans her head down before Natasha can protest or push her off. Her lips are a breath away from Natasha's, but she doesn't close the distance. She keeps her eyes locked with Natasha's. Her voice is low, and there's no way anyone but Natasha would make out the words.

"I am not fucking you in front of a camera," she murmurs, her fingers tightening on Natasha's shoulder, but the way her body shifts at the thought betrays her. "And I'm not going to be the guard who used you." Or is used by you.

The unexpectedly rough treatment makes Natasha's breath hitch, and she feels Hill's words more than hears them. Hill's whole body seems to resonate as she speaks, the almost imperceptible movement of her hips telling of more than her concern over her job or reputation. It's satisfying, almost refreshing to watch Hill's integrity and self-restraint win out over the desire in her eyes. It's enough to break the tension like a thunderclap, Natasha's body shuddering and then going slack. She turns her head away, breaking eye contact and letting Hill win this one. <<Good.>>

It's almost disappointing when Natasha looks away, but Maria can't help but wonder how many people have turned this down. There's a moment when Maria's gaze drifts down to the line of Natasha's neck, but she pushes the thoughts away and returns her feet to the ground, standing up from the bunk.

Her hands are steady, but she feels like they should be shaking, and it takes all her stubbornness not to cast a look at the camera.

<<Try to sleep.>> The words are an order, but Maria's voice is soft.

Natasha doesn't answer, only turns over to face the wall. There's no way she'll sleep now, but she won't give Hill the satisfaction of letting her know that. She wonders briefly how much longer Hill's shift is; there's a dull, throbbing ache left over that she wishes she could alleviate with the help of her fingers between her thighs, but she won't give Hill the satisfaction of seeing that either.

However long it is, it takes way too long. Maria has trouble sitting still. Her body is tense, and there's an excess of energy that takes a lot of willpower to control. She tries to ignore Natasha, but she's too aware of the fact that Natasha isn't sleeping, and watching her becomes almost as much of a challenge.

When the reminder comes that her shift is over, Maria almost bounces off her stupid chair. <<You are Natasha Romanoff now,>> she reminds her before opening the door.

Chapter Text

The other guards give Maria a nervous look when she arrives at the quarters the next morning. She supposes that means they've received their orders. She takes a sip from the latte in her hand and waits for someone to get the door for her. Just as she expected, they let her through without making a hassle.

"Morning, Romanoff," she says casually, smirking behind the styrofoam cup.

"Hill." Natasha huffs, not bothering to pause her set of rower's crunches when Hill walks in. Her eyes are immediately drawn to the cup in her hands, but she refuses to acknowledge it. After their last encounter, she wouldn't put it past her to have brought coffee just so she could taunt her with it.

Maria rolls her eyes and holds out the cup. "Don't get any ideas. It's just from the cafeteria, but it's all they have up here. And you might want to save that energy. We're taking a trip today."

Natasha tries - but probably fails - to get up off the floor gracefully and casually. She accepts the cup of coffee and tries - but probably fails - to take her sweet time lifting it to her lips for a sip. She has no concept as to whether it's even decent coffee at this point; it's been so long since she's had any coffee at all that even S.H.I.E.L.D. cafeteria coffee is delightful. It's several long sips before she fully processes the rest of Hill's words. She doesn't respond other than to raise a quizzical eyebrow over the edge of her cup.

Maria's lips are pressed together to keep from grinning, her dark eyes shining with amusement as she watches Natasha drink, and she wraps her arms across her chest as she waits for her to be done.

"You'll see. I'm supposed to keep you off balance by not giving you all the information at once," she says honestly.

"Well, you're doing a great job." Natasha savors another hit of caffeine. Seriously, this coffee is much better than it has any right to be. "What, are you gunning for S.H.I.E.L.D. employee of the month or something?"

"I'm pretty sure I fucked that one up already," Maria points out. She raises her chin a little,  but doesn't look away from Natasha. It's still beyond her why no one reprimanded her for actually kissing the Black Widow, and it makes her a little nervous thinking they're holding on to this one to use when it suits them.

"And yet you're still here." There's no good reason for that, as far as Natasha can tell. They kept Hill on guard detail after the headbutting incident. They kept her on guard detail after the gun theft incident. They kept her on guard detail even after the kiss. And now they're even letting her escort her out of her room. Either no one is paying attention, or they're just letting the two of them do whatever they want. The lack of consequences is puzzling (not that Natasha is complaining). The barely-concealed excitement on Hill's face makes it hard to imagine there's a sinister purpose behind this mysterious trip of hers, but Natasha is prepared to be on guard when they leave, just in case.

"Might as well. If you prove out of control, they can without a problem hang me out to dry," Maria shrugs and motions towards the cup. "You done, or do you need another moment with that?"

Natasha stages a low moan into her cup with her next sip, letting her eyes flutter shut. "I might need a moment alone."

"I said a moment, not a moment alone," Maria says dryly, managing to not show what that sound does to her.

"Spoilsport," Natasha pouts before downing the last of her coffee, maintaining eye contact with Hill the whole time. "So, where are we going?"

"You'll see, Romanoff," Maria's voice is neutral, but there's a glint in her eyes that suggests she might be enjoying this, and she holds out her hand for the empty cup.

Natasha hands the cup back with a small wistful glance. "Can I walk there on my own, or are you going to black bag me?"

"I don't think there's much point to me black bagging you," Maria points out as she heads towards the door. "You'd find your way even if I did."

Natasha smirks, conceding the point. "Lead on, Hill."

"Try to keep up," Maria shoots a look over her shoulder as she steps out of the room. In the same movement, she shoves the coffee cup at one of the guards who takes it before they can think much of it, and Maria starts down the hall. She knows Natasha and the guards are following her, and there's just the trace of a smile as she reaches up and unhooks the earphone, letting it fall to her shoulder.

The feeling of striding down the hall flanked by guards goes immediately to Natasha's head. Her keen eyes scan the corridor, processing the sightlines, storing the details for later use. She can't help it if a large portion of those details involve the way Hill's hips move with each step.

There are guards already stationed outside the gym, and Maria stops at the door, waiting for Natasha and her escort. She pushes the door open, satisfied to find it empty and cleared, and motions at Natasha to go in.

The escort gets a cool look. "Wait here," she tells them, going against the instructions she received.

Natasha can't help but be a little surprised, but she covers quickly. "So this is what, the S.H.I.E.L.D. equivalent of the exercise yard?"

"Something like that, yeah," Maria says once she's closed the door behind them. She's suddenly acutely aware of how much of the equipment stored here can be used as a weapon.

"Are you implying I'm getting a little flabby, Hill?" Natasha's already scanning the room, evaluating the options. Her eyes are automatically drawn to the sparring ring in the far corner.

"I'm starting to worry you're getting a bit rusty, yeah," Maria agrees, now openly smirking at Natasha as she's rather pleased with getting this arranged.

Natasha arches an eyebrow at her. <<Did you bring a fork, Hill?>>

Maria raises an eyebrows right back at her. <<Is this like the gum thing?>>

"No, I just figured it would make it easier for you to eat your words after I kick your ass all over that ring."

Maria snorts and shakes her head. "You say that like I actually think you won't kick my ass even when you're rusty."

Natasha smirks. "If you aren't going to challenge me, I'll stick with the treadmill and the free weights."

"Sounds boring to me," Maria observes. It's not so much of a challenge, but then she isn't fool enough to think she stands much of a chance against The Black Widow.

"Then you'd better bring your A-game, Hill." Natasha cracks her knuckles menacingly.

"I'm getting the feeling you've been waiting for this," Maria jokes, but she shrugs and starts unbuttoning her jacket.

For a moment, Natasha can only watch the movement of Hill's fingers on the buttons of her jacket, but quickly it reminds her that she's still wearing her usual jumpsuit. "It can wait a few more minutes. Can I change into something I can actually work out in?"

There's definitely a smirk now as Maria slides her jacket off, and she motions towards one of the lockers that has ROMANOFF on it. "Combination is 8542."

For a moment, Natasha can't quite believe her eyes. Not only does she have her own dedicated locker, but it has her new chosen name on it. The word trap comes to mind again, and she tries to ignore it. The combination works on the first try, and there's nothing in the locker other than a set of S.H.I.E.L.D. issue workout clothes and a gym towel. She reaches for her zipper and begins to strip out of her jumpsuit.

It takes a moment before Maria realises she's staring, and then she quickly moves to her own locker. If she's going to do this, she might as well change into her own gear. She doesn't quite trust herself to talk or look at Natasha so she quickly starts stripping down further. No reason to overthink it; she's long ago lost her modesty about this.

Once she's changed clothes, Natasha heads to the center of the ring and begins warming up, stretching out her muscles. They are much stiffer than she'd like, but she can probably work around it. She wonders if the locker with her name on it means she'll have access to the gym more often.

Maria joins her a moment later, copying the stretches as she gets ready. She's not entirely surprised Natasha hasn't asked any questions about this setup, but being instantly challenged to a spar is amusing.

"Any rules?" she asks finally when she's satisfied with the stretches.

Natasha bends over to stretch out her hamstrings while she thinks. When she straightens up, she sinks into a fighting crouch. "No biting or hair pulling. We go until one of us taps out. Sound fair?"

Maria raises an eyebrow that those are the two rules Natasha feels the need to clarify. "Fair," she decides, falling back into a fighting stance, hands up to her face and elbows tucked in as she waits.

"And the stakes?" Natasha begins to circle, slowly, watching Hill's movement. Her stance is powerful. It reads as a boxing stance, so Natasha braces for strong, accurate punches and probably slower attacks. Hill can probably take a hit, too. This should be fun.

There's a brief moment where Maria wants to point out she already has enough stakes on this as it is, but she keeps that to herself. She shifts her position as Natasha moves around her.

"That coffee wasn't enough, huh?" she guesses, taking in the way Natasha moves now that there's light and actually distance between them.

"There's never enough coffee," Natasha scoffs. "Is that the extent of your creativity?"

"I don't need to get creative about what you want," Maria points out, taking the opening to move in with a few quick jabs. It's not much more than a testing of the water, and she doesn't expect to actually hit anything but air.

The punches are easy enough to slip. Natasha continues to circle. "Are there cameras in here?"

"Yes," Maria falls back again, wondering if Natasha is worried about any of the guards barging in if she makes a wrong move. It seems unlikely considering their track record. "There are cameras everywhere."

Figures. Natasha drops to the mat and whirls, kicking out at Hill's ankles.

Maria jumps back and away from Natasha's legs, a little bit satisfied with herself that she isn't faceplanting at the first move Natasha makes in the fight. "You knew that already."

Hill moves a lot more quickly than Natasha anticipated. She is up on her feet in no time, aiming a right hook at Hill's jaw. "Does that mean you won't agree to the winner of each round getting a kiss?"

The block is automatic, years of training making her move without thinking and Maria pushes back against where her arm touches Natasha's. The question makes her slow to follow it up, though, and her eyes meet Natasha's for a moment, making the punch at Natasha's ribs come in a lot less powerfully than it should.

Natasha takes advantage of Hill's distraction and sidesteps the punch. She grabs ahold of Hill's wrist as she turns, adding more force in the direction of Hill's momentum, trying to overbalance her.

Maria finds herself struggling to stay upright. She has the mind to grab hold of Natasha's arm, and when she finds her feet again, she kicks at the back of Natasha's legs.

The kick lands squarely on the back of Natasha's knees, knocking her forward. She rolls and comes back up in a crouch. "Is that a no?"

"No," Maria agrees, taking the moment to bring her defenses back up and to ground herself into the fight. Natasha staying low is annoying as she much prefers punching over kicking, but she'll make do.

"You're no fun." Natasha feigns right and then jabs left towards Hill's ribs.

"I'm plenty of fun," Maria growls, tucking her elbow in to take the jab and she quickly brings down her fist towards Natasha's shoulder.

Out of curiosity, Natasha lets the blow land and staggers a little, watching closely to see how Hill will follow up.

There's no pause as Maria instantly moves forward while she aims another punch towards Natasha's jaw.

The blow glances off Natasha's chin when she turns her head at the moment of impact, allowing a brief moment of contact without letting the punch really land. Yes, Hill is definitely a stronger boxer than anything else, while Natasha usually favors quicker, more fluid hand-to-hand combat styles. In the interest of keeping the playing field level, she decides to stick to predominantly throwing punches. If she needs to, she can end the match quickly by making Hill eat mat with a few well-timed kicks, but she's hoping to get a nice, hard workout in first. Her fingers curl into fists as she raises her hands to guard her face, waiting for Hill to throw another punch.

The shift in Natasha's stance is obvious and Maria thinks this is what The Black Widow does: she changes according to the person she has in front of her. It's a change that works in Maria's favour rather than Natasha's, though, and that kind of irritates her. Even if she knows this is just a spar and it makes sense.

It just means she'll have to take Natasha around the ring and force her out of this style, force her to fall back into her own. She's used to fighting against opponents who are bigger than her, stronger and denser and it's taught  her to be fast, to stay light on her feet. Now, she doesn't have that advantage as Natasha is faster than her. Maria has the bulk, but at least she knows what weaknesses that leaves open for Natasha to exploit.

Maria's smirk is grim, like she's just found a worthy challenge that she knows she'll lose, but she'll take it anyway, and for a moment they just fight. It's almost a dance, weaving around each other and moving into openings. She's satisfied to land more than one punch and she takes the hits Romanoff is dealing out. It's a faster fight than she is used to and she works up a sweat, her hair sticking to her head while Natasha still looks annoyingly fresh. And that's an advantage too as Maria slows herself down, lets her left drop from time to time.

Though Natasha was always a bit of a snob when it comes to fighting styles, she has to admit the speed and fluidity of their (mostly) boxing match is exactly what she was in the mood for. She wears a permanent slight smirk at Hill's thinly veiled annoyance as well as her attempts to goad Natasha into using her own fighting style. They both land blows, plenty of them, and Natasha makes a game of imagining what must be going through Hill's mind with each punch.

That's for getting me in trouble for headbutting you, says the blow to her ribcage.

That's for stealing my gun and humiliating me, says the left hook that leaves Natasha's ears ringing.

The irritation slowly ebbs away as Maria pushes herself further. Her shoulder is throbbing where Natasha landed a particularly well aimed blow, but the pain feels good. It means Natasha isn't holding back on her.  She still has her goal, though, and this time she moves in, trying to use that extra bulk as she closes the distance and tries to corner Natasha against the ropes as she aims a series of punches at her stomach and ribs.

After a few more minutes and several deliciously powerful blows, Natasha finds herself nearly cornered by Hill's masterful display of brute strength. The extra spike of adrenaline is sweet in her veins; the Black Widow always does her best work when her opponents think they have her trapped. Rather than blocking or dodging Hill's next jab, she catches her wrist and uses it to swing up onto Hill's shoulders, wrapping her thighs around her head and neck. The momentum works to her advantage, and she uses it to slam them both into the mat.

Before Maria well and truly knows what's going on, her back is hitting the mat hard. It knocks the breath out of her, and she's seeing stars and cotton covered thighs. She can think of worse ways to go... It's still instinct to brace her feet, though, and arch her body up as she reaches up to grab Natasha wherever her hands can find a grip, trying to pull her to the ground.

Natasha rolls them both toward the center of the ring when Hill tries to throw her. She readjusts her weight, centering her hips squarely on Hill's chest so she can use it to pin her down. Then she just waits.

It takes a moment for Maria to give, and she drops her arms to the mats in surrender. Her breath is still coming in fast, and she might have a headache for the rest of the day, but the way her muscles are burning is a good thing.

"Guess you won," she mutters. It comes out a little muffled.

Natasha scans Hill's face and feels for any hint of movement of her body underneath her. She half-expected Hill to try a sneak attack when she lets her up, so she simply decides to stay put, sitting lightly on Hill's chest.

"I'll let you up if you promise to bring me a cup of coffee at the beginning of your shift every day for a month."

"I don't remember agreeing to that," Maria says stubbornly. She's having a hard time resisting the position she's in. She might have been spending too much time around this woman, but there's definitely something different now in the eyes that meet her. Still dangerous - oh, so fucking dangerous - but there's something more that leaves her staring and has her curling her hands into fists against the mat.

"Of course you didn't, but I have you at my mercy right now. You can either bargain with me, or you can try to throw me. The choice is yours." Natasha flashes her a mischievous smile, complete with arched eyebrow and tilted head.

"And your price goes up if I try to get out of this and fail, right?" Maria guesses. She should not be grinning this much when she's losing; she hates losing.

"Absolutely." Natasha's smile widens into a grin. Why is she grinning? Why is Hill grinning? For now, she sticks to blaming the endorphins from the workout.

The logical thing to do would be to surrender. Maria knew how this would end from the very start, but apparently she's not being logical right now. She takes the moment, hoping that Natasha is off guard and not expecting her to fight anymore. She braces her feet quickly on the mat, pushing her body up to try and unbalance Natasha while she grabs hold of Natasha's arm, trying to pull her down on the mat beside her.

Of course she's going to try to fight rather than surrender, Natasha thinks. Hill's stubbornness is admirable, if a little foolish, as is her attempt to throw Natasha. Natasha keeps her thighs clamped around Hill's torso when she kicks up from the floor, the result of which is Hill ending up on top, with Natasha still wrapped tenaciously around her upper body.

It's not exactly how Maria had expected to end up on top of Natasha. Definitely not how she expected it, and she freezes above her, her forearms braced on the mat as she stares down with dark eyes. It'd be really good if she had something smooth or at least cocky to say, but all words seem to escape her, and she's left staring like some idiotic teenager.

Natasha grabs the sweat-ringed collar of Hill's shirt out of instinct, maximizing her hold even though her shoulders are pressed against the mat. She's momentarily distracted watching Hill's pupils dilate, the sight sending fire through her belly. It's almost enough to make her release her hold on Hill for the sake of keeping distance between them. Almost, but not quite. Natasha flexes her thighs and demands cooly, "A cup of coffee and a donut. Every day for a month."

Maria blinks down at Natasha. It seems to take a moment for the words to get through to her. "I don't think you get to make demands right now," she points out, pressing more firmly down against Natasha.

"Oh, no?" Against her better judgement, Natasha arches her back and lets the arch roll down her body in a slow wave, pressing her chest, then her ribs, her belly, and finally her hips roughly against Hill's body. "You think you're in control just because you're on top of me?"

"No," Maria's voice is low, and it's so damn close to a moan it's almost embarrassing. She's very definitely not in control, and she kind of hates her body right now. It'd be so much smarter to pull away and surrender, but she's still stubborn… or just really turned on, and that's even more annoying.

Perhaps grinding her hips into Hill was a bad idea. It had the desired effect on Hill, but with the unfortunate side effect of reminding herself exactly how worked up she's gotten. Natasha blinks back the spike of lust that shoots through her and concentrates on yanking Hill's chain (rather than her hair. She's beginning to regret the 'no hair pulling' rule she's suggested). "Unless you can shake me, I stand by my demands."

The problem is that she doesn't want to shake her, but it's a new game, and Maria changes her angle, pushing up on her hands to see what Natasha will do if she tries to pull away.

Natasha locks her elbows to secure her grip on Hill's shirt and hooks her ankles together behind her back, clinging as Hill tries to pull away. "You're going to have to try harder than that, Hill."

This has got to be the weirdest sparring match she's ever been a part of. Maria rolls them, which just means Natasha is back on top of her, and she ends up laughing because it's about the most ridiculous thing she's done in this gym so far.

The flex and roll of Hill's body sends another thrill through Natasha's as they switch positions on the mat. Natasha still clings on, moving her hips to mirror Hill's movements. It's almost as if she's riding her like a bull, and the thought nearly makes her laugh. Between Hill's indignant snort, her stubbornness, and now this impromptu wrestling match, the comparison continues to be oddly appropriate.

That is definitely not better, and Maria rolls them again, managing to work her hands to Natasha's shoulders as she moves on top of her again. "This is not sparring," she tells her with a growl.

Rather than ending up pinned to the mat again, Natasha leans into the roll, adding more momentum so she comes out on top. She shoves Hill's shoulders against the mat hard and gives her an arrogant smirk. "If you don't like it, tap out."

Maria glares up at Natasha, effectively hiding the grimace as she lands on what are surely going to be bruises. "I'm not tapping out."

The hands on Natasha's hips aren't doing much in the way of shoving her off either.

"Then you'd better make sure those donuts have sprinkles." Natasha sits back and grips Hill's wrists.

"Didn't realise you were this big on donuts," Maria raises an eyebrow at Natasha, her muscles tensing a little to fight, depending on what Natasha is planning to do.

Natasha shrugs and wrenches Hill's arms forward over her head.

It definitely brings them closer, and Maria pushes up against Natasha's hands to test the grip. "They taste like cardboard here."

"Then what will you give me instead?" Natasha braces her weight on Hill's wrists, pinning them to the mat.

It's a little bit surprising when Maria doesn't find herself tensing instantly at the pressure. This isn't a position she's very fond of. She keeps her eyes on Romanoff's face, trying to read her intentions. "Most food here tastes like cardboard."

"I've noticed." They're very close now. So close that the few locks of hair that slipped out of Natasha's ponytail brush against Hill's face.

"Still better than those rations," Maria says, because she has to say something, and it may just hide the way her breath catches, her skin prickling wherever they're touching now.

Before this situation gets out of hand again, Natasha releases her grip and sits back, trailing her fingers down Hill's arms. "So you're tapping out?"

"Didn't say that," Maria smirks, suppressing a shiver at the touch. "I might just be counting on you getting bored."

"How noble of you," Natasha smirks, then drives a half-assed punch into Hill's gut.

Maria tenses up her muscles up out of reflex and instantly reaches to grab Natasha's arm. "You can't tell me you're not dying for that shower. The water pressure's the best on the ship here."

The abrupt change of topic is almost as startling as the way Hill grabs her arm. Natasha isn't sure what Hill's angle is, but a shower does sound good. She gets to her feet and offers her hand to help Hill up off the mat.

Maria smirks and doesn't take the offered hand, pushing up to her feet on her own. "Mmm, guess I won then. I'll have to think about what you owe me. You don't exactly have a lot of pastries to offer right now."

Natasha shakes her head and hip checks Hill hard as she passes her on the way to the showers. "If you say so. Let me know what you decide."

She's not staring after Natasha. She really isn't... Okay, maybe she is. She needs to actually follow. Making a face, she heads for her locker instead, grabbing her own soap and towel before heading into the showers.

Chapter Text

It's been two weeks since Maria gained permission to let Natasha train at the gym. She's a little bit smug that apparently they don't trust the other guards to keep Romanoff in line, so Maria is the one who gets to take Natasha there three times a week. She's not sure she is doing such a swell job of keeping the spy in line herself. Her bruises are getting bruises, but she hasn't had sparring sessions this good in a very long time (if ever, if she's honest; Natasha is more skilled than anyone she's ever met before).

She doesn't realise how much she's taken to it, so when the order for a change comes, she tries to pretend she isn't disappointed. It's just that she put in the work, and now they're taking this out of her hands. She wonders if this is what handlers feel like, working with their agents and then having to sign them over into somebody else's care. It's stupid and sentimental, and her job has no room for either, so she beats it down, knowing it's for the best anyway.

By now, the guards don't question her when Maria takes two cups of coffee into the quarters. There's a donut (glazed, not sprinkled, but she was held up, and it's the only thing that was left when she made it to the cafeteria) hidden at the bottom of the cardboard carton holding their cups.

She takes her own cup out and hands the carton and extra cup to Natasha. "Hope you're well rested today. There's been a change of plans."

As is usually the case for the first few minutes of Hill's shift, Natasha devotes most of her attention to the cup of coffee Hill presses into her hands. The first few cups were surrendered somewhat begrudgingly, but recently there's an air of camaraderie to the exchange. It's almost routine the way they sit in silence, sipping bad S.H.I.E.L.D. cafeteria coffee. On this particular morning, the coffee is a little burnt, and the donut Hill slips her is on the stale side, but the sugar and the caffeine and the companionship make Natasha feel almost human.

Sucking the last of the glaze off her thumb, Natasha quirks a smug eyebrow. "What, are you going to actually win a round or two today, Hill?"

Maria's smile is nothing more than a quirk of her lips. There's a bit of a rueful aspect to it which is quickly hidden as she takes a last sip of her coffee. She's sitting perched on the foot of Natasha's bed, looking ready to bolt up if need be.

"Not me," she says finally, eyes still forward. "They've decided you're getting an upgrade. You'll be training with Hawkeye from now on." She doesn't explain who Hawkeye is. Natasha surrendered to him, so she has no doubt she knows more about Clint Barton than Maria has the clearance to know.

Hawkeye. Clint Barton. He's an exceptionally gifted marksman, but if memory serves, he's not much of a hand-to-hand fighter. It's a shame, really, that this change comes just when Natasha and Hill were starting to click as sparring partners. She'd noticeably improved over the course of their half-dozen training sessions, and Natasha couldn't help but be impressed by how quickly Hill picks up tips and tricks.

On the other hand, if the circumstances surrounding her surrender were any indication, training with Barton could very well be a big step toward getting back into the field under S.H.I.E.L.D.'s colors, and the thought is galvanizing. Natasha can't help but be a little apprehensive, though. The way Hill sits at attention, clearly on edge, is off-putting. There's none of her usual anger, irritation, or restlessness in her bearing, but something else has her keyed up. She seems hurt, almost, or disappointed. Jealous? Natasha pushes away the thought and gives her a silent, quizzical look.

Natasha's silence finally has Maria glance over and she raises an eyebrow at Natasha, daring her to ask whatever it is she's trying to read from her. She has the stupid urge to fill the silence with words, but she knows that rarely leads to anything good, so she just shakes her head and crushes the paper cup in her hand.

Natasha downs the last of her coffee, her skin prickling from the rising tension of the silence. While there's usually an almost tangible energy between them, it's been awhile since an extended silence has been this uncomfortable. She wants to ask what's bothering Hill, almost as much as Hill seems to want to be asked, but things are never that easy between them. Besides, whatever the answer is, Natasha already knows it isn't a good one. She defaults to humor to ease her discomfort.

"Don't be jealous, Hill. If I remember correctly, his right hook isn't nearly as good as yours."

This is the kind of person Natasha is now, apparently: the kind of person who will crack a joke to avoid talking about anything weighty. She's learned how to mask genuine sentiments with humor, too. They're safer that way.

Maria snorts and takes the out, lets it pull up those walls again as she gets to her feet. "I know. The guy's a walking disaster. You're going to miss me."

Natasha blinks, startled by the realization that, despite her sarcastic tone, Hill is right. That's probably not a good thing. She covers by trying to change the subject. "What are you going to do while I'm beating the stuffing out of Robin Hood?"

The irritation is starting to return, and Maria shrugs her shoulders. "I'm to escort you there and back. Still on call in case you're going to really beat Hawkeye up. Think you can behave?"

Natasha almost laughs. Since when does she ever behave? "If I misbehave, you get to come put me in my place, right?"

"Are you implying that you don't think Agent Barton can handle you?" Maria asks, raising both eyebrows now, but she's definitely looking amused rather than offended.

"Oh, I'm sure Agent Barton would love to handle me," Natasha smirks mischievously at her own wordplay, "but he came out on top last time. I don't want him to suffer under the illusion that it will ever happen again."

There's no doubt in Maria's mind that the only reason Hawkeye won the last fight was because Natasha let him. She's spent some time in the gym observing the field agents like him, but she's yet to see anyone move the way Romanoff does.

"Don't make them change their minds about this, Romanoff," she says quietly.

"Are you worried about me, Hill?" Natasha isn't quite sure what to make of the gentleness of Hill's voice.

"You don't need me to worry about you," Maria points out. Not that knowing this has stopped her from putting herself between Natasha and S.H.I.E.L.D. She never quite realised that's what she's been doing, and the thought makes her pause for a moment because it comes along with the realisation that she won't be able to anymore.

"No, but you do it anyway," Natasha points out matter-of-factly. "Sometimes I wonder whether your job is to keep me in line, or to be my personal bodyguard." She's not entirely sure why she said that out loud. She certainly won't say out loud how she appreciates the way Hill goes out of her way to do things for her. She's never really had anyone watch out for her like this before, and while it's definitely something she could live without, it's still nice to have.

Maria snorts and rolls her eyes as she crosses her arms in front of her. "I'm more thinking test subject. Grab the newest recruit on the carrier so it won't be an entire loss if this explodes in their faces." She can pretend she didn't hear Natasha.

The joking tone is completely gone from Natasha's voice at this point. "You really do think everyone is out to screw you over, don't you."

She could brush it off, but Maria has seen this woman at her worst, and something in the way Natasha is looking at her makes her want to be truthful. "It's what I'm used to. No one's going to be in my corner fighting for me, so I learned to fight for myself."

She's the scrappy girl with the flat chest who kicked her bully to the ground, earning her detention for a month and a knock to the head that left her ears ringing and her teeth aching.

Natasha knows that feeling all too well, and it makes her chest ache for a moment. She nods slightly. "That's a good survival instinct, but it's kind of surprising for a soldier."

"Why?" Maria asks. "Do I have to be completely selfless to want to fight for others, too? I'm of much more use to anyone being alive. Most of all to myself."

"No, I meant, aren't you people supposed to trust your brothers with your lives? Trust them to have your back and all that?" Hill seems a little touchy. Natasha will have to watch her step right now, but that doesn't mean she's going to tread lightly.

The cockiness from a moment ago fades, and Maria goes still, her body tense as she glances away. "Just because I don't trust easily doesn't mean I don't trust, Romanoff."

Something about Hill's tone makes the muscles in Natasha's stomach start to coil. Maybe it's the way she snaps her name, but Natasha is suddenly itching for a fight. It's a shame they're no longer going to be sparring partners; she'd love the chance to lay Hill out on the mat a few times. For a moment, she considers trying to push a few more of Hill's buttons, trying to spark a verbal sparring match if they can't have a physical one, but the idea of bickering doesn't sound nearly as satisfying as the idea of popping her one, right in the jaw. She can feel her brow furrow even as she takes a deep breath, attempting to cool down a little. All she manages to think of to say is, "Fair enough."

The words barely register, nothing registers as Maria isn't quite there anymore. (She doesn't flash back. She never has. She just dreams.) But for a moment she remembers what it was like to have people she trusted, what it was like to stand shoulder to shoulder, and what it felt like to have it ripped away. They're ghosts now that follow her around, and she's back in her own corner, fighting her own battles.

She visibly squares her shoulders as she pushes herself to look at Natasha. "Come on, we shouldn't leave your new sparring partner waiting."

"Fine." Natasha gets irritably to her feet, still frowning. "Lead on."

Maria dumps her empty coffee cup on the bed. She's tempted to leave it there, but she makes a face and gathers it and Natasha's up again and heads for the door, handing it over to the guards. This time, the guards don't follow, and Maria doesn't look back to see if Natasha is following either as she heads towards the gym.

Natasha hurries to catch up with Hill's long-legged strides. It takes her a few steps, but she closes the distance, following so close on Hill's heels that the toe of her boot catches on the back of Hill's ankle.

Maria falters a little, but she keeps on walking. It's just an accident, she tells herself, but she knows better. This is Natasha, after all.

The second time it happens, Maria grits her teeth.

The third time… she wheels around and glares down at Natasha. "Are you done?"

Natasha keeps walking, purposely colliding with her under the guise of not having been paying attention. She doesn't avoid Hill's glare, but rather blinks back at her with poorly feigned innocence. "Sorry."

Maria's hackles rise, and she continues to glare at Natasha, wondering why not so long ago she'd almost regretted being pulled off this assignment. It takes a moment before she realises this is what Natasha does, what she's done time and again.

"No, you're not," she argues and turns again, moving right along like she never stopped.

If anything, the rising antagonism between them makes Natasha want to fight even more. She balls her hands into fists, trying to beat down the urge to drop low and tackle Hill with a shoulder to her hip. No. Save it for training. Somehow, she manages to make it to the gym without so much as slapping Hill upside the back of her head.

Maria opens the door to the gym, making a face as Clint is already there and warming up. She merely nods at him and steps back to let Natasha through, her eyes averted as she tries to ignore whatever hostility Natasha seems to be vibrating with. It almost feels like this is punishment, like something a cat would do when you pawn them off to a different owner.

It seems strange to see Barton there, after two weeks of having the place all to herself. Well, herself and Hill, but still: Barton seems very out of place. She hasn't seen him since she let him bring her in. He's disheveled, with tufty hair and a butterfly bandage above his left eye, but his movements hint that this man is not entirely a total disaster. Time will tell.

Natasha ignores Hill just as pointedly as she is being ignored and strides over to her locker so she can get changed.

For just a moment, Maria watches as Clint raises an eyebrow at her. She's pretty sure he doesn't know who she is, and the message is obvious enough. Without another word, Maria turns on her heel and leaves the gym. She's on call, so she can't stray far, but she highly doubts they're going to need her. Whatever moment they had, whatever moment it was that had Natasha hinting that she might prefer her there, it's gone now, and that's probably for the best.

When Natasha returns from the locker room to find Hill gone, she's not sure whether she is more irritated or disappointed. She doesn't have time to think about it, though, because Barton is already approaching her. She shoots him a look, and he stops short a few paces away. Scratching the back of his neck awkwardly, he introduces himself.

"Hi. Clint Barton. You probably remember me."

"Natasha Romanoff." Natasha doesn't reach out to shake his hand. Instead, she bends to begin warming up.

Barton clears his throat uncomfortably. "Nice to meet you. Again. I mean, we kind of already met. I guess you've changed a lot since -"

"Are we going to do this, or what?" Natasha interrupts, having quickly tired of his self-conscious babbling.

"Uh, sure." Barton drops into a fighting stance, but before he can engage her, Natasha decks him with a right hook perfected over two weeks of training with a boxer.

Maria gives herself some time before going back in. It'd be a little embarrassing to give the impression that she can handle Romanoff better than a more experienced agent, after all, and there's still a part of her that rather hates the whole idea of this. She doesn't listen to that part. She washes it away in the sink in the restrooms, hoping the cold water will chase away the ghosts her conversation with Romanoff brought back.

She's feeling a little fresher and a lot clearer when she makes it back to the gym, something telling her that perhaps it is time to check in. When she pushes the door open, she wonders if maybe she should have returned sooner.

Natasha barely looks up from her biceps curls at the sound of Hill's voice. She nods, then jerks her chin towards Clint, still prone on the floor. "He owes me coffee and donuts now, too."

If Maria purses her lips and gives Natasha a strange look, it has nothing to do with them already having the same bet, but then… Natasha never did KO Maria, so there's that. It doesn't even look like they made it to the ring.

"I should have known this was coming, right?" Maria asks as she moves over to Barton's side, tapping him on the cheek to see if he'll wake. She wonders what they'll say about Natasha giving her new partner a concussion in the first five minutes.

"You can't take me anywhere," Natasha agrees, smiling smugly. "He'll be fine. I probably bruised his ego more than his jaw."

She looks way too smug, and despite everything, Maria still wants to laugh. She bites her lip, though, covers it up and hides it as Barton moves, but she has no illusions that Natasha can't see it.

"Easy, sir," she says, putting a hand on his shoulder to keep him from instantly getting up. "What did you do?" she asks Natasha.

"I won." Natasha says simply, raising the dumbbell over her head to work her triceps.

"Awww, man. We didn't even get started," Clint complains, rubbing the back of his neck.

Maria raises an eyebrow and pulls her hand back, glancing over at Natasha as she tries to figure out whether this is going to be a thing.

Natasha tries to ease the scowl off her face. She's beginning to feel a little guilty for letting her terrible mood get the better of her. Hill doesn't really deserve to take the brunt of her bad attitude, and Barton really didn't deserve to be used as a punching bag. As Natasha knows all too well, he could have easily put an arrow through her throat and been done with her.

She squares off in front of Barton once he's regained his feet, and she taps the side of her chin. "Go ahead. You get one free swing."

Clint studies her for a long moment, then shrugs his shoulders. "Not my kind of thing," he says finally and he holds out his hand again to her. "Wanna try this again?"

Maria tenses a little at the gesture, her eyes mostly on Natasha, but she doesn't make a move.

"Very well, let's go again." Ignoring the offered handshake, Natasha sinks into a fighting stance again. Just because she feels guilty doesn't mean she isn't going to be stubborn.

Clint gives Maria a look that says, Is she serious?, and Maria merely shrugs. It's not like she has a manual on how Romanoff works.

"You've got a mean right hook," he comments as he drops into fighting stance. "Do you do this to everyone you spar with or am I special?"

That's Maria's cue to leave again, even if she wants to hear what Natasha has to say to that. She moves around them, heading towards the door.

So this guy's a talker, a little awkward, and possibly a bit sexist, Natasha thinks, but that's assuming he didn't want to hit her because she's a woman and not just because he's afraid she'll lay him out again. Natasha begins to circle, waiting for Barton to make the first move. She doesn't intend to respond to anything he said, but as Hill pulls the gym door open, she finds herself smiling slightly.

"Thanks. I learned from the best."

Chapter Text

The next week runs similarly, except Maria is no longer needed inside the gym. She ends up bored out of her mind, but she can't bring herself to wander away from the detail. When the change in her schedule follows, she tells herself she only feels relief.

Natasha Romanoff becomes a ghost after that. Maria only sees her occasionally in the cafeteria or as they pass each other briefly in the hallway. She tells herself she only feels relief at that, too.

The rumours about Romanoff are a constant by now, but none of them concern Maria. She's thrown back into training as if she'd never left. That's a relief too, but it's tedious and leaves her staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night, her mind running loops around the ship. She speaks Russian to the shadows, but they don't correct her mispronunciations or teach her how to seduce someone with gum.

She has a pack of gum in her pocket, unopened. The corners are starting to rub off, but she leaves it there, even though part of her wants to throw it off the flight deck. She's always been sentimental, but she buries it deeper down alongside memories of desert heat, of blood seeping into parched soil. Of lips on her throat, fingers down her pants, and a hollow feeling that wants to consume and be consumed. She pushes it away along with everything that is her and makes her. Pushes until she's nothing but ambition and efficiency.

They send her out on missions, give her control of her own team. They do well - better than well - and Maria gets her team back in one piece. It's a flawless execution, despite having to fall back on the backup plan, and she's proud. When they get back to the helicarrier, she hears the rumours of Barton and Romanoff, of how they took out an A.I.M. cell. How they form the perfect team.

She dreams that night of her team. She dreams of the people who once were her family, who had her back. She dreams of them, lying under a cloudless blue sky, the cruel sun beating down. She remembers the dryness of her mouth, the stickiness and the iron tang on her lips. She remembers Dawson's hand inches from her, no longer attached, his golden ring gleaming, the only thing she dares to watch. Her ears are still ringing when she wakes up, and she makes it just in time to the tiny bathroom, spilling the contents of her stomach down the stainless steel toilet. Her hands are shaking, her mind is reeling, and she pulls on some clothes and sets to running. She runs along the perimeter of ship until her limbs are only shaking from exhaustion, her stomach growling and empty like the rest of her.

The showers do nothing to relieve the tension in her body, and her fingers between her thighs bring nothing but frustration until she's hitting the wall and choking back on emotions that should be long gone. She's Maria Hill and she's empty. She's Maria Hill and she's the last of her band of brothers. She's Maria Hill and she's a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent: she has no band of brothers. She has herself and her determination. The shower never runs cold, but she can't feel the heat, even when her skin is red.

She's Maria Hill. She's a survivor. She's a fighter. She leaves the showers more than exhausted, but her mind is wound up, and so she grabs the hand wraps from her lockers. It's a calming ritual to put them on, to feel the protection around her wrists and hands. Her body settles into the practice, moving in patterns that don't require thought. She's already exhausted as she starts her drills, hitting the punching bag in the most basic of movements. The sound of her gloves on the bag fill the empty gym, her shoes squeaking on the floor as she adjusts her stance. Every punch that lands makes the images slowly fade, but she pushes on even as her shoulders burn. She pushes on because that's what she does.


Each passing day brings more and more surprises. The first is when Natasha wakes up alone in her room, a file with her training schedule occupying the chair by the door in place of a guard. She's still clearly being monitored, but no one stops her as she makes her way to the gym. Over a period of a few days, they even transition her to meals in the cafeteria, during off hours at first, then during busier times once she's gotten used to being around large numbers of people again. Little by little the feeling of being a prisoner fades. It's almost as if she's an actual person again.

She's also a little surprised to learn that Barton is not as stupid as he looks, and not nearly as stupid as he pretends to be. After their rocky start, their training sessions smooth out and become more challenging, more fulfilling. He learns quickly from their hand-to-hand sparring sessions, and she picks up a few marksmanship tricks from him. Before long, (once Barton stops being quite so afraid of her) they're spending their meals and free time together more often than not. He occasionally calls her 'Tasha,' and though she's not quite sure how she feels about that, she doesn't bother to correct him. They really do make an excellent team. Their first mission together is such a rousing success that she wonders whether their compatibility is something S.H.I.E.L.D. programmed into her.

She's especially surprised by how strongly her eye is drawn to Hill every time she's even remotely nearby. She's surprised by how satisfying it is to see Hill thriving with a team under her command. Natasha watches from the shadows when they return from a successful mission, Hill's face flush with pride and triumph (an incredibly attractive look on her). For all that the command position suits her, though, Natasha is also surprised that Hill's default expression on most days speaks more of frustration and restlessness than of satisfaction and ambition.

So it comes as no surprise when she comes across Hill in the gym, scowling as if she could set the punching bag on fire with her eyes. Natasha tries not to think about the way the sheen of sweat on Hill's skin accentuates her muscles. Instead, she focuses on the way the bag  swings wildly with each punch. She crosses the gym silently and braces her weight against the bag, holding it steady.

Maria's punches falter as the bag stills; she never even heard anyone enter. It's another weakness that she could be this out of it to not notice her surroundings, but she's too tired to care. She's too tired to hide the flash of surprise from showing on her face as she realises it's Romanoff. Too tired to stop that lurching feeling in her chest or the ache that runs even deeper than she cares to admit.

It's all in a flash of a second, a stilling of her hands midair, feet poised in the middle of a move as the world stills, and the helicarrier might as well have frozen midair. Then she moves, a new drive behind her punches that add a little strength despite the tiredness in her limbs, pushing the bag into Natasha's chest with each blow.

"Thought I was the only lunatic awake right now," she says quietly, her voice rough and out of breath, but for some reason she needs to fill the silence to keep it from echoing inside her mind.

Natasha shrugs a little in between Hill's jabs. "The gym's usually less crowded at this hour. I don't have my own personal workout room anymore, you know."

"The drawbacks of being trusted not to kill anyone you see," Maria says with a snort, keeping her eyes on the bag.

"That's not quite it. It's just that they trust me to kill the people they want me to kill now." There's more humor in Natasha's tone than she really feels.

"Fair enough," Maria agrees. It's nothing more than the truth and she doesn't see any point in denying it. It's a bit of a conversation killer, however, and she falls silent again. Her movements are nothing more than habit now, but her mind is slowly pulling back, fitting herself back into her own body, making her aware of the strain in her muscles and the sweat trickling down her neck and back.

With each movement, Natasha can see the strain and fatigue in Hill's muscles. There's a telltale quiver of overexertion, too, evidence that more than just this workout is affecting her. Natasha's seen her running on the ship, too. If she's not careful, she's headed toward an injury, but Natasha knows better than to point that out. Instead she asks, "How long have you been at it?"

Maria shakes her head, but she falters, hands going down as she glances over at the clock, making a face as she realises how little point there is to sleeping now.

"I wouldn't know," she says honestly. It's probably been too long either way.

Well, that's not good. <<Want me to help you stretch out?>>

It's instinct to say no, and Maria's already shaking her head again as she steps back, fighting off the boxing gloves. It's a clumsy effort, and she has to lock them under her armpits before succeeding to tug them off. They drop to the floor with a thud, and she flexes her fingers before reaching up and scrubbing her hand across her face.

Everything is hot and wet, and she huffs tiredly. <<Probably.>> Even her Russian sounds worn out.

<<Come here.>> Natasha motions for Hill to stand in front of her so she can help spot and extend her stretches.

Maria starts unwrapping the ties around her hands as she moves to Natasha, willing her fingers to stay steady. She makes a face when she fails and doesn't look up at Natasha as she fails at her usual efficiency. It makes her glare at her hands in frustration.

Natasha watches Hill's frustration mount as she frees her hands from their wraps. By the time she's standing in front of her, she's almost frowning at them as hard as she was at the bag a few minutes ago. Natasha's first instinct is to pretend she doesn't notice, but the next thing she knows she's gripping Hill's hands in hers, holding them resolutely steady.

It's instinct to want to pull away, and Maria jerks a little before she stops herself and just watches their hands. Natasha's skin is so much paler than hers, but her fingers are strong and steady. She sucks in a breath, leaning her head back as she stares up at the ceiling. She's still feeling raw, but somehow Natasha doesn't chafe.

<<Pathetic,>> she mutters, forcing herself to look down again and meet Natasha's eyes.

<<Of course not.>> She doesn't let Hill pull away. She just keeps holding her hands until they stop shaking so much. "Are you good?" she asks softly, not wanting to embarrass her, but not wanting to help her stretch until she's less frustrated.

Maria wants to say that she's far from good - it's what that shrink told her after all - but she's not even sure how to say those words anymore. It's not what Natasha is asking, either, and she flexes her fingers, nodding slowly as she draws in a breath. "I'm fine."

Always stubborn, this one. Natasha releases her hands and lets her begin stretching. She watches her carefully, looking for signs of too much stress on her joints, too much tension in her muscles. She lends the occasional hand, pushing down on Hill's shoulder to maximize her stretch, helping her keep her balance. She doesn't say anything for a while.

It's almost soothing to go through the familiar motions, pushing her muscles one last time so they  hopefully won't try to kill her when they catch up to the abuse she put them through. Romanoff's touch is oddly comforting and non-intrusive. Steady.

She thinks of Dawson's hand on her shoulder, steadying her when she's bone tired after a night of duty and a day of fighting. Keeping her up long enough to get her in her bunk.

The memory catches her unaware, and when Natasha's hands fall away from her shoulder, Maria rights herself and nods quietly as she rolls her shoulders. <<Thank you.>>

The extra-sudden flinch does not go unnoticed. Natasha drops her hands and frowns slightly. "Where did you go?"

Maria takes her time to answer, she's not even sure Natasha meant now or even earlier, and she doesn't know how to describe either one. She's definitely not sure why she's even considering describing it.

<<A long time ago,>> she says, sticking to Russian, because even when it isn't - it can't ever be too long ago - it feels like it.

Natasha suspected as much. She decides not to push, though. She only nods. She should leave well enough alone. She should go start the workout she'd postponed in favor of holding Hill's bag steady. She should walk away and stick to her own schedule, but she can't seem to do any of those things.

<<Breakfast?>>

Maria knows Natasha isn't there to hold her bag or take her for breakfast. She's ready to point it out, but she falters, and the words never leave her lips. "The muffins are still warm now," she says instead.

"And I'll bet the coffee isn't burned yet, either," Natasha smirks. "Go shower. I'll wait."

Maria's already back in the shower stall by the time she realises just how that sounded. She pushes it away, but she's aware that if she were to reach between her thighs now, she wouldn't be left unsatisfied. It's a shame, really, because she doesn't have the time, and she's soon back out of the showers in the clean outfit she had stored in her locker.

"They might even have donuts with sprinkles now," she jokes as she rejoins Natasha.

"My favorite," Natasha jokes back. The shower seems to have at least steadied Hill's limbs, if not refreshed her entirely. As they head for the cafeteria, they pass That One, and Natasha almost wants to elbow Hill and make a comment about how he's still a guard while Hill got promoted, but she resists. It can wait until after breakfast.

Chapter Text

The cafeteria is blissfully empty when they get there, everything still fresh or still missing, but there's enough to pick from, and Maria fills up a tray. She's grateful when she finally sits at a table. She stretches her legs out in front of her, sighing in relief as she sips from her coffee.

"Going to need a lot of these today," she tells Natasha.

"So you aren't sleeping either, then?" Natasha prompts, dumping hot sauce unceremoniously all over her eggs, fresh from the pan. She's careful to set aside her donut so it doesn't get hot sauce on it, too.

Maria watches Natasha's food with fascination. It's not that she minds spicy food, just not first thing in the morning.

"I slept," she says, raising an eyebrow at the eggs. There's no way Natasha Romanoff can be worried about her.

<<Sure you did.>> Natasha watches Hill over the edge of her mug. She savors the scent of fresh coffee for a long moment before taking a drink.

<<Can't dream without sleeping, Romanoff.>> The admission is half drowned in her coffee, and her eyes stay on the food rather than on Natasha herself. It feels like saying too much, and she braces her feet on the floor.

<<I manage it often enough,>> Natasha shoots back. It's easier to banter like this, to try and one-up Hill, try and catch her off guard. It's easier than admitting that Hill's words make her chest ache. She thinks of waking up screaming with Hill there to calm her down. She can't quite tell if Hill wants to talk about it, or if she's desperately trying to avoid it. So very stubborn, so very proud.

<<Fair enough,>> Maria glances up again, remembering the same moment, and she wonders what can make a woman like Romanoff scream. She wonders if it's the same thing that makes a woman like Romanoff. She takes another long gulp from her coffee before asking casually, "How's Barton?"

Okay, fine, new topic. Natasha should know better than to think there was any way they'd actually talk about what's making Hill so exhausted. She takes a large bite of eggs, enjoying the tang of the hot sauce for a moment. "Probably still asleep. He may no longer punch like a teenage boy, but he certainly sleeps like one."

"Not a completely hopeless cause, then," Maria observes. There's a part of her that wishes she isn't as exhausted as she is, or she'd make Natasha spar with her later. "As long as he's keeping you on your toes. The powers that be seem to be pretty pleased with the last job you guys did."

"It wasn't a complete disaster, no." Natasha takes another long sip of coffee. "Word around the ship is you make a better team leader than you do a babysitter."

Maria snorts and she finally puts the coffee down and picks up her toast. "It helps that they're all more easily intimidated than you are."

"Didn't really take you for a bully, Hill," Natasha teases. A bull, maybe, but not a bully.

"You of all people should know that you can intimidate someone without bullying them," Maria points out, raising an eyebrow at her. She smirks a little, and the next thing she says is definitely teasing. "It's actually amusing watching them trying to decide whether they're terrified of you or turned on."

Natasha arches a haughty and extremely dangerous eyebrow. "Perfect." In her experience, it's that grey area between fear and desire in which her marks are most vulnerable. Not that any of Hill's team are her marks. She wonders briefly whether Hill is using the safe anonymity of her team as an example to point out things that are also true of herself.

Maria laughs softly. "I figured that might suit you just fine," she says with a grin, realising that she has moved passed that stage where she was truly intimidated by Natasha Romanoff. It's probably insane that she actually trusts this woman, maybe a little more so now than she did before. Those hands may be used to killing, but all she remembers now is the steadiness in them.

"It goes well with my codename, yes." Natasha sips at her coffee. It's gotten a little too cool for her taste, so she downs the rest. "You realize they probably feel the same way about you, right?"

Maria gives her an amused look and shakes her head. She's more than aware of the distance between her and the people who came in at the same time she did. If they succeeded in doing anything when they assigned her as guard, it was creating that space.

"If that's true, it's probably more your fault than my own," she assures her. "Besides, I don't have that whole background of mystery you've got working for you."

"There are more ways to intrigue people than by being mysterious. You think it's a 'fault' that you're starting to rise around here?" Natasha ceases picking at her breakfast and just stares at Hill curiously.

"No," Maria says evenly, putting her fork down as she regards Natasha. "I earned this, I'm good at what I do. I am not , however, intriguing."

Natasha isn't sure whether Hill is being deliberately self-deprecating or whether she honestly believes what she says. Either way, Natasha would beg to differ (though not out loud, never out loud). She smirks, then chuckles, then full-on laughs.

"Something amusing?" Maria huffs and picks at her food some more. She should look cranky, but while she's still exhausted and in a strange headspace, there's something thrilling about watching Romanoff be like this.

Natasha doesn't bother composing herself. "Only you. You're funny when you're being stupid."

Oh, that does earn her a glare. "I am not being stupid."

"Of course you are. For one, you're plenty intriguing," (so much for not saying it out loud…) "For another, it's stupid of you not to at least pretend you're intriguing. It's a good strategy." Oh, how Natasha missed pushing this woman's buttons. The realization is sobering, and she stops laughing.

Maria raises both eyebrows before snorting. "Is it? Care to give me any pointers?"

"Nice try, Hill. I'm not going to tell you all my secrets." Natasha smirks and goes back to finishing her breakfast.

"Somehow I doubt I'd even come close to knowing all of your secrets," Maria says softly, studying Natasha for a moment.

"Well, you're right about that. I guess you're not so stupid after all." Natasha kicks her under the table.

Maria raises an eyebrow at Natasha. "Guess so," she says dryly, turning her attention back to her plate. She waits another moment before kicking Natasha back underneath the table. It's childish and stupid, but she has to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from grinning.

Hill's foot connects with her shin almost precisely as Natasha reaches 0 in her countdown. She stares off in the opposite direction, looking bored as she kicks back. Rather than pulling her foot back, though, Natasha hooks her toe behind Hill's ankle and rests it there.

Maria blinks up in surprise as Natasha doesn't draw back. She can feel Natasha's leg press against hers, and it's oddly intimate.

She has to remind herself that this is Romanoff, that pushing her buttons is what the spy enjoys, and that this is just another thing that will end with a fork pressed against her jugular or something. Except for how Romanoff has little reason to do any of those things now, so maybe she's just messing with her mind for fun.

"Do you do this with Barton too?" She asks, and curses herself when she realises it actually sounds like she might be jealous.

"Do I do what?" Natasha blinks at her and tilts her head ever so slightly, feigning innocence and daring Hill to call her out, specifically and out loud.

It's damn annoying how well Romanoff manages to pull off innocent even when her foot is still hooked behind Maria's.

Maria raises an eyebrow and shifts until her other leg presses against Natasha's.

Now this is interesting. Natasha has gotten used to getting Hill to back down when she ups the inappropriate-physical-contact ante, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that she's leaning into it now, especially in the rapidly-filling cafeteria. Beneath the table, Natasha gives Hill's calf a slow stroke with the bridge of her foot - up to the space behind her knee, then back down to her ankle - before stilling once more. She maintains piercing eye contact as she stuffs the last bite of her donut into her mouth and licks the frosting from her fingers.

Maria's fingers tighten around her fork, her eyes inevitably drawn to Natasha's mouth, and she can't help but remember how those lips felt against her own in the dark. It's still stupid, and it's still wrong the way it tightens in the pit of her stomach. She blames her failure in the shower, and she blames exhaustion for the way her mind goes blank when her eyes flick up to Natasha's again. And then she blames it for the images it conjures of pressing this woman up against a wall, Maria's hand in her pants and her teeth at her throat.

She jerks herself out of the moment, pulling her leg back to her side of the table and shifting away to avoid Natasha's foot. <<Not happening, Romanoff.>>

Natasha's teased her like this before, but the way Hill's eyes darken and face flushes is unprecedented in its intensity. Hill must be more exhausted than she's letting on for her to let that slip. Natasha lets her disentangle their legs, and she behaves herself after that. It's a hollow victory, though; she shouldn't miss the contact as instantly as she does. Not good.

<<I don't know what you're talking about, Hill,>> she replies, her eyes and her tone cold.

"Of course you don't," Maria says dryly. She can't decide whether she's grateful for Natasha giving in or not. It's almost too easy, and that shouldn't bug her. It really shouldn't. "So what's on the agenda for today? Any top secret missions that are above my security level?"

"Yes." Natasha smirks cryptically. It's true; they're sending her and Barton on a surveillance detail. A little bit of undercover work for her, at least to get the place bugged. A long couple of hours in a sniper's nest for Barton, though only as a precaution. According to their briefing, they should be back in no time. She has no reason to believe otherwise, of course, but the down time between being briefed and being deployed is starting to set her teeth on edge.

Maria looks amused, and she drums her fingers on the tabletop as she regards Natasha. <<Is it good being out there again?>> she asks, realising that perhaps this is too personal a question, but she's curious anyway.

<<It's… different.>> She isn't sure how to explain to Hill exactly why it's different, even in English, so she doesn't try.

Maria nods and doesn't push. "I've got a few ex-cops on my team who definitely need to get whipped into shape. I don't know what they teach at the police academy, but I doubt they'd survive one tour abroad," she tells Natasha like it's somehow a continuation of their conversation.

It's a little surprising that Hill would volunteer information like that unprompted, but Natasha doesn't mind the change in topic. "This kind of work is different from police work, that's true, but isn't it also different from the military? I imagine it takes everyone a bit of time to adjust to a career shift like this." At least if you come into it via the usual routes.

"I like to think being an idiot isn't so much tied to your career," Maria muses, smirking a little.

"If they're such idiots, why do you tolerate them on your team? You're in charge, right? Can't you restructure?" Natasha frowns a little.

"Not just yet," Maria actually laughs. "I like the way you think, though, but apparently I'm supposed to do this thing with the resources I'm given. I suppose it's a challenge." She shrugs.

"I suppose so." Natasha allows herself a smile to go along with Hill's laugh. "When is your next assignment with these so-called idiots?"

"I don't get the luxury of knowing that. We're just grunts, not valuable assets," Maria teases. "We'll go in when something comes along. Today I get to run them through a couple more simulations to see how many times they can get themselves killed."

Natasha leans her elbows on the table and settles her chin on her hands, looking enrapt. "Do you ever get yourself killed in these simulations?"

"No," Maria says with a snort. "I'm pretty hard to kill." It's a little too close to how she spent the night, however, so her eyes wander away towards the door. "Going to take more than whatever S.H.I.E.L.D. can throw at me."

Apparently that's the wrong thing for Natasha to have asked, so she lets it drop. "We have that in common."

Maria looks back at Natasha. For a moment, there are no defenses there, no walls to hide behind as she meets her eyes.

<<I suppose we do,>> she agrees. She might not have authorisation to read Romanoff's file, but she doesn't need to. She's seen enough of her to know she's stared death in the face more times can Maria could probably imagine.

For a moment, everything else just fades into white noise in the background. These moments are rare between them, little moments of clear, mutual understanding. There's no game right now, no push-and-pull, just two people who might possibly understand what the other has been through.

Natasha shrugs the thought away and gathers her tray, getting to her feet. "I should go. It's getting close to my call time."

It's abrupt, and Maria sits up straight. Whatever openness there was is gone, replaced again by a scowl. "Right. I have some preparations to make myself," she says, not looking at Natasha.

Natasha stands awkwardly, holding her tray. She really does have to go get ready for the mission, but she doesn't want to leave so hurriedly. She gives Hill a small, lopsided smile. "Don't get killed today."

Maria blinks up at Natasha, a little surprised by the comment, but her lips curve into what may be considered a smile. "Not planning on it."

With a nod, Natasha turns and crosses the room to return her dishes. She has to pass by the table again to exit the cafeteria, and as she does she calls out, "Hey, Hill?"

Maria looks up more than a little surprised, and she ignores how a couple of people at the tables near her are looking over towards them. "What?"

<<Do you have any gum?>>

Maria stares for way too long, but then her hand automatically goes to the breast pocket of her uniform. She really needs to reconsider this gum carrying habit she's developed. She grins and tosses the pack to Romanoff. <<Anything else?>>

It's a good thing Natasha's reflexes allow her to catch the pack so easily; she was not expecting Hill to actually have any on her. For a moment, she just stares at the worn packaging, wondering how long Hill's been walking around with gum in her pocket, wondering whether she did, in fact, have it for her, waiting to be asked.

<<Thanks,>> she waves, putting a piece in her mouth (the first piece to be removed from the unopened pack) and tucking the rest into her cleavage. There are any number of pockets for her to choose from, but she has to do something to keep the upper hand here. She isn't touched by the gesture. She isn't.

Maria actually looks a little pleased with herself when she realises she'd caught Romanoff by surprise, but it lasts about as long as it takes for Natasha to stuff the pack that's been so long in Maria's pocket into her cleavage.

She shakes her head, trying not to think of whatever else Romanoff would think to hide there. <<You're welcome.>>

Natasha snaps her gum and turns on her heel, leaving the cafeteria without another word.

Chapter Text

"One last thing, miss," the man jeers, just as Natasha's hand brushes the handle of the boardroom door. Fuck. She was almost out.

The mission has been a success so far. She'd gotten into the building unquestioned under the guise of being a tech for some IT company or another, sent to upgrade the telecom system in the boardroom. She hadn't expected the mark himself to show up while she was messing with the cables, planting bugs and patching S.H.I.E.L.D. tech into the system. They'd chatted pleasantly enough for the past few minutes, almost enough that she was hopeful she hadn't been made.

That hope shatters on the floor at her feet as the man meets her at the door and twists the lock. "If you're an IT tech," he sneers, "then I'm Tony Stark. Who do you work for?"

Natasha's mind races. He doesn't know she's with S.H.I.E.L.D., so the situation could be worse. She needs to get out, but she still has some time.

"I… I'm from Massive Dynamic?" She stammers, gesturing to her nametag and visitor's pass, playing the innocent and confused angle. She takes her (fake) glasses off with her right hand and polishes them nervously on her shirt as she backs away.

Natasha can practically feel Barton's eyes on her through his scope, holed up in his nest in the building across the street. She deliberately sets the glasses back on her face, using her left hand this time. Hold your fire, but GET ME OUT.

 

 

They're already moving when Maria gets the full debriefing across her earpiece. She ends up cursing out loud, getting a worried look from her men. She ignores them and relays the information as the quinjet starts descending. They've been doing nothing but training for days now, and while Maria had been hoping for action, she hadn't been hoping to have to pull Team Wonder out of the fire.

She snaps her orders at her men, interrogates them on their roles, on the position they'll be keeping. They know it by heart, but she's still not satisfied. It will have to do. She does a final check on her guns before getting up as the quinjet sets down. Heat fills the cargo bay as the door lowers, and Maria squints against the harsh sunlight.

"Move out," she yells, watching as her men instantly move in the formation they've been drilling. She follows. They only have so much time before the guards will pull themselves together to meet them, and she wants to be as far up their asses as she can before then.

"Hawkeye. Widow. Location," she demands over the radio as the first shot pins the front of her team by the mandatory fountain these kind of buildings seem to need to have sitting in the middle of the plaza right in front of it. They're not even near the entrance yet.

 

 

Tears are pouring down Natasha's face as she continues to back away from her mark. He's shouting now, the vein in his temple bulging at he stalks her around the conference table. She hears Hawkeye relaying the status of the extraction team, but they're still a ways off. She has to hold this cover for as long as she possibly can.

"Please, sir," she begs, cringing internally at the high whine of her voice. She hates having to use this tactic, even if it is remarkably successful most of the time. "Please, I don't know what you're talking ab -" Shots ring out from below, momentarily distracting her mark and destroying all hopes of keeping her cover. Fucking hell.

Natasha dives for her toolkit and some cover. She keys her mic and barks "Boardroom. Tenth floor, Southwest corner" as she draws the revolver stashed in the false bottom of the kit.

 

 

Maria curses as she realises just how far up they need to go. The constant gunfire, however, goes silent as Hawkeye takes out one of the shooters, and she pushes her men forward, taking charge herself as they break through the front doors. They meet resistance in the lobby, but they've trained for this, and she doesn't even wait for the grenade to blow up as she leads the charge into the stairwell.

She hates stairs. They're a fucking nightmare, especially going up, and the need to be careful at every turn slows them down. It doesn't help that they encounter resistance on every landing. It's taking too long. Maria kicks in the doors on the next landing. The hall is empty (for now), and she leads her team down it, heading towards the second stairwell. "Moving southeast. Status?"

 

 

It's a good thing the podium at the front of the room by the projector is - was - hardwood. Natasha uses it for cover, chips flying as the three thugs who came to back up their boss spit lead at her. When she's forced to stop and reload, she reports in, anger making her voice deadly calm.

"Pinned down, location unchanged. Exchanging fire, three hostiles -" An arrow flies through the shot-out window and lodges in one man's neck. "Make that two. Thanks Hawkeye."

 

 

They're not moving fast enough. "Step it up," Maria growls as they break in the doors to the second flight of stairs. She  wants to charge up the stairs, but that's how you get killed. She forces herself to breathe out slowly and calmly.

So far it's clear ahead, but behind them they're still taking fire. She falls back, joining the rear to get rid of their tail. For now. She missed this: the adrenaline pumping in her veins, the quiet efficiency of a well working team. They're not the best; they can't read each other's minds, and she has to drag Davon out of the line of fire, but they do well enough. They make it up another three flights before they meet resistance again.

It's starting to piss her off, really, and they fight for every step they make up the last flight. "Tenth floor now. Heading your way," she growls through her earset as she's forced to duck behind a water cooler, the container shattering right above her, leaving her pissed off and wet. She props her gun on top of the broken water cooler and returns fire.

 

 

"Copy that, aaghh!" A bullet rips through the fabric of Natasha's shirt (not to mention the flesh of her upper arm) as Natasha ducks back behind the rapidly-splintering podium after discharging the last round from her gun once more. She swears fluently; two of the three gunmen pinning her down are already neutralized, the extraction team just reached her floor, and now she gets shot? Fuck this mission. She reloads, only slightly hindered by the blood running down her fingers.

 

 

"Widow! Status!" Maria barks as the communication is cut off. She moves from behind her shelter, pushing forward as another opponent goes down with an arrow through the throat. There's still gunfire ahead, but no bullets are coming their way as the guy is apparently an idiot and has his back towards them, more worried about the target inside the room.

Maria can't blame him, except for how it gets him killed. She scans the room, taking in the men lying dead before coming to settle on Romanoff.

Natasha snaps the magazine back into her gun, but the rain of bullets seems to have stopped. She leans cautiously around her cover, trying to assess the situation through the rapid blood loss. The three thugs are down, her mark is nowhere in sight, and a hallucination of Maria Hill in full combat gear stands in the doorway. Natasha keys her mic again. "Situation normal, progressing to west stairwell, requesting roof extraction."

Maria raises an eyebrow at Romanoff and activates the headset. "Confirmed. Get the quinjet on the roof," she says as she makes her way over to Natasha, a scowl on her face as she notices the blood. "Get me a medkit," she barks at her men guarding the door now.

When her Hill-ucination crosses the room and kneels next to her, Natasha shakes her head to clear the ringing in her ears. There's a very strong possibility that Hill is actually next to her, and an even stronger possibility that she's bleeding a lot more than she previously thought. Shit. She gets to her feet. "I lost visual on the mark. Hawkeye, do you have him?"

"Negative," Hawkeye answers. "You've got incoming, though."

Maria re-holsters her gun and catches the medkit Becca tosses at her as she pushes to her feet as well. There's no real time to do much more than grab the first bandages she finds and press them to the bullet wound, tying it off to keep Natasha from losing even more blood. "I think it went through," she says, wishing she could take a good look or do this more slowly, but her movements are precise and effective.

"It just grazed me," Natasha insists, but she lets Hill secure the bandages before pushing her away and continuing to the door. "You heard Hawkeye: we've got incoming. Gimme your sidearm."

Maria snorts. She's seen grazes, and they don't end in this much blood loss.

"Hawkeye, get to the rendez-vous point. We'll pick you up there," she orders as she grabs her gun. She unholsters her sidearm and holds it out to Natasha.

Natasha is pretty sure that Hill is not offering her three guns, so she reaches for the one in the middle. It solidifies in her hand and the other two vanish. She checks the magazine, then replaces it, but she leaves the safety on. The hallway is clear, but it probably won't stay that way. "We should move. The roof is two stories up."

"Stairwell's blocked," one of her men reports, and Maria nods.

"North side," she orders, falling into step beside Romanoff as her team falls back into formation. It gives her a little satisfaction, but not enough as she notices Natasha's bandage is already coloured red again.

Hill was wrong: it doesn't seem to Natasha like any of the people on this team are idiots. On the other hand, she doesn't remember Hill being quite that tall, either. There's a sharp pain in her knee, and the next thing she knows she's on the floor.

Maria curses as Natasha goes down, and she instantly kneels beside her, pulling her good arm around her shoulders and wrapping her own around her waist.

"I need you on your feet, Widow," she orders, wincing as there's shooting behind and in front of them now.

With Hill supporting her right side, Natasha switches the gun to her left hand and fires off a few rounds at the opposing gunfire down the hall. The recoil burns up her bad arm, but the pain clears her head a little. She manages to get her feet back under her as they progress down the hall.

Maria doesn't like how much of Natasha's weight she's actually supporting, but she doesn't say anything; she just concentrates on getting them down the hall and keeping their way clear. She barks orders at her men, making sure they keep moving as fast as possible.

This time the stairwell is very definitely not clear, but they have the higher ground now. Maria pulls Natasha over towards the wall, putting herself between her and whatever fire is incoming.

"Get out of my way," Natasha growls. She has to lean around Hill to return fire, and it's irritating, to say the least. The stairway swims in her vision.

"Move. You're slowing us down," Maria snaps, pulling Natasha a few steps up and ignoring her order. There are enough men to take potshots at their pursuers; getting Natasha up the stairs in one piece is their priority.

They clear the first set of stairs and round the landing to the second. Natasha is doing her best to charge up the stairs while still returning fire. "I'd go faster if you'd let go of me."

Maria glares, but she drops her arm from around Natasha despite her instincts telling her this is a bad idea. "Move your ass, then," she growls, coming to a stop and taking a shot at the idiot sticking his head around the corner.

The muzzle of a gun edges around the corner, and Natasha reacts, grabbing Hill's collar and yanking her to the side as a bullet buries itself in the wall. "Move your own ass, Hill."

She probably should be grateful, but Maria only glares at Romanoff, and she keys her radio as she orders a position on the quinjet. It's pointless, as at the same time she can hear the engines vibrating above them, even over the sound of the gunfire.

She grabs a grenade from her vest and shoves Natasha's shoulder to get her up the steps before turning and lobbing the grenade down, running after Natasha without checking where the grenade lands. The explosion that follows is satisfying enough.

Natasha bursts through the door to the roof as the heat of the explosion catches up with her. The quinjet is waiting, and Barton is standing on the ramp, arm extended. His hand clasps around Natasha's forearm seconds before she loses consciousness.

Maria is the last one to make the jump onto the ramp, gunshots ricocheting against the hull of the jet.

"Move!" she shouts, but the jet is already moving, and the ramp is closing. She takes a moment to look around the cargo bay. Her team looks worse for wear, but they're in one piece.

It's the sight of Barton kneeling beside an unconscious Romanoff that has her heart lurching in her chest. The medic is already looking her over, and Maria looks away as she hits her earpiece. "Extraction complete. Have a medical team at ready," she radios.

Natasha blinks awake to shouting and the hum of the quinjet. Barton's face swims into focus for a moment, then fades. None of the other faces nearby are familiar, and her left arm is numb. "Hill…" Her head falls back as she starts to pass out again.

Maria tugs off her helmet and tosses it to the side before making her way over to where Romanoff is lying stretched out. "Status?" she demands.

Barton shoots her a look, but Maria ignores him, and he silently moves back as Maria kneels down at Natasha's shoulder.

"She's lost a lot of blood. I've got the IV up, but that's all I can do right now," the medic says.

Maria nods. She's aware of the quiet around them, but she ignores it as she reaches out to touch Natasha's face. <<You're not dying on me, Romanoff. You hear that?>>

<<Takes more than this to kill me. I'm Natasha Romanoff now.>> Then everything goes black.

Leave it up to Natasha to make Maria want to roll her eyes at her for fainting. With a sigh, Maria sits back, leaning against the benches as she watches Romanoff. There's not much else to do, and she's too tired to get back to her feet now that the adrenaline is slowly draining from her body.

"What did she say?" Barton asks. Maria doesn't even want to know what that expression of his means.

"That she's a smartass," she answers and closes her eyes. Her fingers are inches from Natasha's shoulder, but she doesn't wake anymore. When they finally make it back to the helicarrier, Natasha has a bit more colour in her face already. They whisk her off to the medbay, and Maria is left to order her team to the showers while she goes off for debriefing.

Chapter Text

When Natasha comes to, she first assumes she's back in her room. She soon realizes, despite the haze of painkillers, that she's probably just in the medbay. There's an IV in her right arm, a thick dressing of bandages around her left arm, and Hill sitting in the chair by the door. At least this time she seems more corporeal than she did standing in the door of the boardroom.

<<Hey there.>>

Maria blinks, her attention moving to Natasha's face like she needs a moment to make sure it really is Natasha talking to her.

<<Welcome back,>> she says quietly, leaning her elbows on her knees as she shifts forward.

Natasha smirks, trying not to think too hard about how familiar this feels, how comforting.

"What happened?"

"You decided to pass out on us," Maria informs her. "Turned out it wasn't just a scratch."

"Right." The events of the mission come trickling back, almost the way dreams do, but at least these images come in sharp, clear, and in the right order. Her left arm is still numb, but she can still move all her fingers. It might not be just a scratch, but at least it seems like she won't be out of commission for long. "So it took you, Barton and your team of idiots to get me out?"

"Yup," Maria grins and reaches out to brush her fingers lightly over Natasha's knuckles. It's stupid and sentimental and a little strange that she only takes the chance to touch her now that Romanoff is awake. "I think they're starting to shape up."

It's surreal, watching Hill reach for her hand, even more so because she can see her fingers make contact with her knuckles, but she can't feel it. Natasha is so tempted to reach for Hill with her other hand, just to get the strange, phantom sensation out of her mind, but she doesn't want to appear weak.

"I can't feel that, you know."

Maria falters and hesitates for a moment, but Natasha doesn't seem to be pulling away. That might change, but it's quiet in here, and the silence brings a daring that has her reaching up and brushing her fingers over Natasha's cheek.

"Now that I can feel." Natasha leans into Hill's touch, and even that slight movement of her head makes her vision swim. She wants so badly to blame the blood loss and the painkillers, but the corresponding increase in tempo of the blips coming from the machine that's monitoring her vitals gives her away. Still, she doesn't shift away.

Maria raises an eyebrow, but she doesn't comment, and she doesn't pull her hand away, brushing her knuckle along Natasha's cheek. "Good," she says softly, not finding any other words, but it fills the silence like it might just be a normal thing to do. Maybe in another person's life it even is, but not in hers, and she doubts it is in Natasha's.

For the first time since she started playing, Natasha is in no position to escalate their little game. For once, Hill manages to be the one to initiate contact that is so unexpectedly intimate that Natasha isn't sure how to respond. She can't help but wonder whether there could ever be another situation where Hill would touch her like this, aside from when she's laid out in a hospital bed, having nearly bled out in the middle of her extraction. Rather than touching her physically, Natasha meets Hill's eyes and just stares at her, her gaze too hazy to be a challenge but not enough to keep her from watching for Hill's next move.

Maria's hand stills for a moment as if she's expecting Natasha to tell her to stop. When she doesn't, her fingers move again, tracing along Natasha's jaw and towards the other side of her face. There's definitely something different in Natasha's eyes now, something she doubts a lot of people see, and she's not ready to let it go yet. Not as long as Natasha lets her, even if it's strange to be the instigator, even if she's used to being the one to pull away. Natasha's skin is warm beneath her fingertips, and she traces her cheek, letting her thumb brush the corner of her mouth.

Natasha lets her eyes fall shut. Really, though, it's the last thing she should do. She shouldn't look away, shouldn't let Hill win this one, shouldn't just lie here vulnerable, but the drugs in her system make it so easy to enjoy the touch of Hill's hand on her face.

It doesn't feel like a win; there's no competition left. There's just relief, and Maria lets her fingers brush over Natasha's brow as her eyes close. It's been a long time since she's touched anyone like this. It's been a long time since she's felt this protective of anyone, and it makes no sense when that person can take her out in the blink of an eye.

There's a part of her that's tempted to lean in and close the distance, but she's still who she is even if she remembers how Natasha's lips taste in the dark.

Natasha has to concentrate hard on keeping her breathing and her heart rate steady against the growing sense of tense anticipation that slowly prickles its way up her spine. She's waiting. Waiting for Hill's lips to replace her fingertips on her forehead, her cheek, her lips. Waiting to turn her head away, steeling herself to reject the kiss she won't admit she wants. It can't happen here. Not now. Not like this.

But the kiss never comes.

I'm not going to be the guard who used you.

Good.

Maria waits until Natasha's breath evens out. She knows by now the difference between Natasha waiting and Natasha truly sleeping. It's a strange knowledge to have, and Maria brushes Natasha's hair back from her forehead, watching her more carefully now.

She stays until the night shift changes to the day shift, reality slowly creeping back into the room along with the sounds of the nurses gossiping at the coffee machine. It brings back duties and the prospect of a day filled with debriefings, and Maria slips quietly from the room. When the door closes behind her it's like waking up from a dream she can't quite remember, but can still feel at edge of her mind and the tips of her fingers.

Chapter Text

By the third day of her mandatory med leave, Natasha is starting to go a little stir crazy. With everyone on the helicarrier either immersed in training regimens or terrified of her, there's little for her to do except explore the ship and nap. She toys briefly with the idea of digging around in the S.H.I.E.L.D. database, but with her left arm immobilized in a sling, it's a little more effort than it's worth. The terminal she messes around on lets her into a personnel database without much trouble, but it's little more than basic unclassified information and room assignments. It does give her an idea, though.

It may be childish, but at this point any distraction is a good one. It takes very little convincing to get Barton on board as her hands for the operation. She gives him a bunk number and very specific instructions to bring her every single t-shirt he can find.

"What, no underwear?" Barton whines.

"Absolutely not. Don't be a creepy frat boy."

"Who is this poor sap you've decided to prank, anyway?"

Natasha refuses to answer. "Just get the shirts, Barton. I'll time you."


"Okay, where are they?" It's a rather disgruntled Maria who turns up at Natasha's quarters that evening. It'd taken her a moment to make the connection. She'd gotten out of her shower after training and a workout only to find all her clean shirts gone. Her only other option was the sweatshirt she'd taken off, so she'd settled for her jacket as she headed down the hall to shout at her team.

Which… well, was a big mistake because she's pretty sure there's a lot of gossip going around now about someone stealing her shirts. If she'd thought about it, she'd have known they wouldn't have taken them. She's trained them pretty well not to mess with her, which left just one other option, really. She should have seen this coming. Maybe. Then again... No, you don't see Natasha Romanoff coming.

So there she is, fresh from the shower, glaring at Natasha Romanoff for stealing her shirts. Her hair is still wet and she glares at Natasha, wearing her uniform jacket zipped up all the way. Maria isn't sure when this became her life.

Oh, this is even better than Natasha had hoped it would be. She crosses her arms over her chest in a more relaxed mirror of Hill's pose and leans against the doorframe. "Excuse me?"

"My shirts, Romanoff," Maria glares, and she refuses to look embarrassed, even if she can feel the back of her neck heating up as someone passes behind them. "I know it was you."

"What about them?" It's so tempting to play sweet and innocent, just to see how much she can piss Hill off, and how quickly she can do it. Instead, Natasha opts for mild annoyance.

Maria rolls her eyes and moves closer, using her height to her advantage. "Give them back, Romanoff."

Natasha raises her chin defiantly and arches an eyebrow. She's long since learned not to be intimidated by height. "What makes you think I have anything of yours?"

"Because you're the only one insane enough to try it," Maria snorts and raises an eyebrow at Natasha, daring her to deny it.

"Insane enough to try what, exactly?" If Hill can be evasive, so can Natasha. There's no point in denying anything until Hill paints her into a corner.

"Pulling a prank on me," Maria growls moving into Natasha's personal space, but just maybe there is the tiniest of cracks in her facade.

Natasha lets out a short burst of surprised laughter. "You got pranked?"

"That or you're really in need of clean clothes. I don't think I'm your size, Romanoff," Maria rolls her eyes at Natasha, and there's this stupid urge to reach out and poke the damn woman, which she manages to trample.

"You seriously think I would take your clothes? Why on earth would I do that?" Natasha stares at her as if that's the stupidest thing she's ever heard of.

"That's kinda what I'm wondering," Maria says thoughtfully, tilting her head as she studies Natasha. "Must be part of that whole thing where you enjoy messing with my head. God knows why."

Natasha shrugs, conceding her point. "I do enjoy messing with your head, that's true. That doesn't mean I took anything from you. What proof do you have?"

"I don't need proof to know it, Romanoff," Maria shakes her head. She probably should be worried how easily the other confession came. "Bit surprised you're not trying to bargain anything for them, though."

"Actually, I'm pretty sure you do need proof. Isn't that something this country is big on? Innocent until proven guilty?" The annoyance creeps back into Natasha's voice. "Besides, I can get my own coffee and baked goods now. Why would I need to bargain for anything from you?"

"Because I can still get you stuff actually not made in that cafeteria," Maria points out, rubbing irritably at the collar of her jacket which is getting wet now. She can't quite explain the sudden annoyance that flares up in response. "Forget it."

"Alright, I will." Natasha steps back and swings the door shut.

Maria's already turned away from the door when irritation flares and she swivels around, slamming the door open and inviting herself in. "Dammit, Romanoff. I'm not stupid!"

Natasha has to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. She frowns instead, wheeling on her aggressively. "I didn't take your damned clothes, Hill!" It's technically true…

"And I don't believe you," Maria growls, and this time she does poke Natasha in the chest.

Natasha lets her back go stiff and her eyes freeze over, even though she's thoroughly enjoying herself. She oh-so-slowly drops her gaze from Hill's eyes down to the finger pressing into her chest, then back up to her eyes. Natasha gives Hill her most dangerous blank stare, but says nothing.

Maria's well aware that this is not a look she should be getting from the Black Widow, but she's annoyed right now and she doesn't care. So she simply pokes Natasha again and raises an eyebrow, challenging Natasha to make her stop.

Inhaling deeply, Natasha leans into Hill's touch, slowly driving her finger into her chest hard enough to bruise. "Prove it."

"Dammit, Romanoff, I'm not going to go searching through your things," Maria growls, pressing her hand against Natasha's shoulder because pulling back is not an option.

Natasha steps aside and gives an exaggerated sweep of her arm. "You're more than welcome to. You won't find them here. I told you: I didn't take them."

The words innocent until proven guilty echo in Maria's mind. They're enough to keep her from doing just that, and just maybe there's a part of her that's starting to hesitate. "Fine. If you didn't, you can help me find the ass who did because I'm not working like this tomorrow."

'Ass' is right, Natasha laughs to herself. She has no intention of throwing Clint under the bus for this one, but she agrees anyway. "Deal. I'll get right on that, Sir."

Maria narrows her eyes at Natasha, waiting for some sort of sign that will give her away. "You really didn't take them?"

"Cross my heart. I never touched them." This time it's especially hard to keep the delight off of her face. She isn't even lying; Clint did all the grunt work, including stashing the loot somewhere safe.

"You know something," Maria realises as she recognises that glint and then she's taking a step closer again. "Dammit, Romanoff. What do you want?"

"I don't want anything." That part is also true. She probably should have come up with some sort of ransom demand ahead of time, but truly all she wanted was something to do. Natasha blinks up at Hill, her expression blank.

Maria frowns. It'd be the first time Natasha hasn't wanted something from her, but it's probably as close to an admission as she's going to get. "So…"

Natasha matches her tone, just shy of mocking. "So… what?"

"Am I getting my shirts back or what?" Maria demands, glaring again because this woman somehow knows how to get right under her skin, and whatever she's doing, it's annoying.

"Like I said, Agent Hill: I'm on it." Natasha really shouldn't enjoy making this one scowl nearly as much as she does.

There's a distinct lack of Natasha doing anything right now, but Maria is starting to realise she's not going to get much further. "Fine. You have half an hour," she decides. At least she can sound this much in control.

Natasha snaps a sharp salute. "Yes, sir!" This time she is openly mocking. Somewhat involuntarily, she braces herself for Hill to hit her.

There is no hitting, but Maria clenches her jaw and pulls away, heading for the door without another look at Natasha. "Get to it, Agent."

Somehow, Natasha manages to close the door behind Hill before she bursts out laughing. Once she composes herself a little, she radios for Barton. "Alright, Barton, Phase One complete. Initiate Phase Two."

His response comes almost instantly. "I'll be there in five."

True to his word, Clint brings her Hill's shirts, and she changes into one of them, wincing as she pulls her injured arm through the sleeve. It's a simple black t-shirt, S.H.I.E.L.D. issued, unremarkable except it is clearly a size or two bigger than the ones she usually wears. Perfect.


Maria times it. Of course Maria times it, and exactly thirty minutes later, she makes her way back to Natasha's quarters. She doesn't knock this time, just invites herself in and half expects Romanoff to not even be there.

"Goddamm-" she stops as she takes in the change of clothes and narrows her eyes. "That's mine."

Natasha glances down, pretending to be shocked. "Huh. How about that?"

"Oh for fuck's sake," Maria huffs and glares. It's fucking annoying for reasons she doesn't even want to consider. "Just… Come on."

Natasha sits up slowly and turns towards Hill, no longer bothering to keep her amusement off her face. "You want it back?"

"Yes!" Maria takes a step towards the bed. She has half a mind to actually make that happen, but that'd be bad.

Natasha cocks her head to one side and grins. "Then come take it from me."

There's a part of Maria that wants to, that has her fingers itching to reach out and tug the hem of the shirt up. That grin doesn't help, nor does the tilted head and the look that she so rarely sees on her.

"Natasha," she says quietly, a warning or maybe more of a pleading.

"Do it." Natasha's grin turns a little bit wicked. "What are you afraid of?"

"I am not afraid," Maria objects, glaring at Natasha, determined to ignore how much she wants to get her shirt back and kiss the hell out of this woman.

"Then what are you waiting for?" Hill is stalling, and Natasha knows it. As she watches Hill continue to try to look furious and imposing, it occurs to her she has no idea who will win this game of Chicken.

Maria's eyes darken, a mix of anger and something that may be desire has her moving in, hands going towards Natasha's hips as she backs her up against the wall.

"I'm not," her voice is low, fingers catching in the hem of Natasha's shirt.

Natasha's stomach knots as her back hits the wall. Apparently Hill is about to win; the look in her eyes certainly says so. However, Natasha still has one card left to play…

She unstraps the sling from over her shoulder and tosses it aside before raising her arms gingerly over her head. She doesn't have to fake the wince that accompanies her movement. "Do it."

It just makes Maria's movements faster as she pushes the shirt up, careful to not touch Natasha's skin and especially careful to get it over the bandages.

"How's the arm?" she asks quietly.

Touché, Hill.

"Painful. They took me off the good painkillers." Natasha rolls her left shoulder, wincing, watching Hill carefully as she shifts her upper body around in front of her. Truth be told, she toyed with the idea of going bra-less under Hill's shirt, but thought better of it at the last minute. She lingers topless for another few seconds, then reaches into her locker and pulls out another shirt to put on. As she pulls it over her head, though, Hill's scent is unmistakable, distracting. Natasha inhales deeply before tugging the shirt the rest of the way over her head. This one is also clearly the wrong size for her.

"Seriously?" Maria stares in disbelief as Natasha puts on the shirt. It's so much easier to be annoyed than to admit that she's been staring. "Did they not give you any clothes?"

Still holding on to her regained shirt, she moves to the locker, pulling it open to see just how many of her shirts are in there.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Natasha is still a little distracted by how good this shirt smells. The other one didn't smell nearly this good. With a start, she realizes what must have happened: she told Clint to grab all of the shirts he could find. He must have raided Hill's laundry pile, too. This game suddenly becomes much more intimate than Natasha intended, but she's determined not to let Hill notice how distracted she is or how much she's enjoying being wrapped in her scent.

"Uh huh," Maria is too intent on pulling shirts from the locker. She knows which ones are hers as they have a bit more of a worn look than Natasha's. "Should have searched this place earlier," she grumbles, then pauses and looks at Natasha. "They weren't here then, were they?"

"No, they were not." Natasha grins triumphantly, almost jeering, but then her expression softens. "I didn't lie to you." Why did she say that? There's no reason for her to admit that.

Maria looks surprised at the words, even as she now has a pile of shirts filling up her arms. She can't doubt it, not now, and she nods. "Barton?"

It's not like Natasha talks to a whole lot of people, so the list of suspects is rather short.

Natasha laughs a little. "Who else?" So much for not throwing Clint under the bus… She should fix that. "It was my idea, though. He just executed it for me. Don't kill him too much."

"I didn't doubt that for one second," Maria assures her. She looks a little more at ease now that she's got her shirts back, and her eyes sweep over Natasha, taking in the way her shirt is too big for her. "Well okay, maybe for a second."

Natasha tries not to look to pleased with herself. "You thought your team did it for a little while, didn't you?"

"Yes," Maria huffs and puts her shirts on the bed, tilting her head as she studies Natasha. "I think it might be my treat when they go out for drinks." They, not her. She has no place there. "I should have known."

There's a wistfulness that crosses Hill's face as she speaks, just short of bitterness. Natasha chooses not to think about that right now though. "Yeah, you probably should have. You realize they'll probably try to prank you for real next time? Don't come yelling at me when they do."

"Depends. You're not the only one around here who can be intimidating, Romanoff." Maria smirks. "You're helping me get payback if they try anything."

"Fine by me." It's kind of amazing how quickly Hill can go from irritated to flustered to spitting mad, and then go right back to being cocky so quickly. Natasha can't help but smirk. "Will that be all, Agent Hill?"

Maria raises an eyebrow and lets her gaze sweep over Natasha. She knows she's not going to ask to get the shirt she's still wearing back, even if her reasons for not wanting it back are all wrong. "You don't have anything else of mine hidden here?

Natasha shifts her eyes away from Hill's gaze for a split second before staring her down again. There's the merest hint of hesitation before she answers. "No, nothing else."

There's a part of Maria that wants to step closer and find out what it is that she's reading in Natasha's face. It's getting fucking hard to deny all the things she wants. She breathes out slowly and nods. Showing Natasha that she believes her seems more important. "Okay."

"Okay."

Hill didn't fall for her ruse. Oh well. It would have been fun to watch her drive herself crazy trying to figure out what else of hers got swiped, but it's probably time for Natasha to give up her game for now. Though, truth be told, she isn't sure who won. She's still wearing Hill's shirt. She still has to focus around the scent of her. Hill still hasn't demanded it back. That feels like a victory, but only in a strange, roundabout way. Natasha doesn't need a worn, oversized shirt; she has plenty of well-fitting ones of her own. What is she supposed to do with it? Sleep in it? Keep it under her pillow to perpetuate the illusion that she isn't sleeping alone? That's absurd. The thought makes her want to tear the shirt off and throw it at Hill, but she fights the urge.

"Right," Maria blinks and steps away, grabbing her shirts again. She's not prepared to tear another one off of Natasha, and it's not like she doesn't have enough to go around. "I'd say have fun, but…"

Maria glances at Natasha. "I don't think it matters what I say."

Natasha smirks to keep from frowning. No matter what she does, Hill always ends up saying something like that, like she expects the worst from her. "Here's a challenge for you, Hill: why don't you ask around, see if anyone else's things have gone missing."

Maria snorts and shakes her head as she turns away from Natasha. "Nah, this way I can pretend I'm special."

Natasha shakes her head slowly in wry amusement. <<Jackass.>>

"That's Agent <<Jackass>> to you, Romanoff," Maria smirks, looking rather unbothered now as she moves to the door.

Natasha snaps her another sharp salute. "Yessir, Agent <<Jackass>>. Now, if you're finished ransacking my quarters…" She gestures toward the door.

"It's not ransacking if you've stolen my stuff, Romanoff," she rolls her eyes and doesn't wait for a response as she leaves, leaving the door open behind her.

Natasha waits for Hill's footsteps to die down, then she kicks the door shut. The wound on her shoulder twinges as she claws the shirt off over her head and tosses it into the far corner of the room, and a few minutes later the bandages start to seep red. Perfect. Now she'll have to go back down to medical.

<<Jackass!>>

Chapter Text

"This is ridiculous," Davon complains as he holds out a hand to the sparring partner he just brought down. "We're supposed to be training for our next ops, not stuck in the gym like it's fucking daycare."

"Hill's still in debriefing, Dav. What do you expect?" Greg makes a face and leans against the ropes, needing a moment to catch his breath. Maria Hill's entire team has been taking up the gym for most of the morning, but as noon approaches, boredom is setting in.

"That she'd at least put one of us in charge so we can continue preparing. Just because she fucked up the mission doesn't mean we all have to be punished," Davon argues, making a big show of starting to shadow box while Greg looks out for the count. He's big, a little sluggish, but there's brute force behind every punch.

"The intel was bad. That's hardly Agent Hill's fault," Becca shouts from where she's doing stretches on the other side of the gym.

"Oh shut up, Becs. We all know you military dykes stick together," Davon sneers. "Which is exactly my point. She's not even putting you in charge, and you're her pet."

"Fuck off, Dav. We're all new. It's protocol," Becca grunts, but she goes quiet after, choosing to tune out the complaints that the team is obviously used to.

"Whatever. I say it's because she's a paranoid bitch. Should have seen her go off at me for that shirt thing," Dav continues, pulling a face. "Seriously, she's insane. Who'd want to steal the shirts of someone with a chest that flat? Didn't even ask me, just went off like she just knew. Like I'd go anywhere near that psycho's clothes."

Greg snorts and shakes his head. "She might be a hardass and a bitch, but if anyone of our team would have done it…"

"But I didn't," Dav growls. "I swear she's had it in for me ever since she found out I was a cop. Thinks she's so superior because she's been out there. You know what I found out? Her entire fucking team axed it, dude. How fucking good can she be? For all we know she survived because she ran the hardest."

Natasha listens intently from the far corner of the gym. Her mild training regimen of free weights and little else is starting to get tiresome, but she doesn't have many other options until her left arm is completely healed and rehabbed. Most days, she's content to just listen to the various teams of agents gossip about one another. By the end of her first week after she'd been cleared to train, she already knows about every rivalry, every fuckup, every sordid affair on the helicarrier. This is the first time she's shared the gym with Hill's team, though. As much as she hates to admit it, listening to them blowing off steam is much more interesting than listening to tales of who got caught in which supply closet shagging whom.

They're talking about their latest mission. Natasha was around when they returned, tails between their legs, the glare on Hill's face furious enough to melt stone. The team blows off steam, enough for Natasha to piece together the essentials. Someone should probably tell Hill that her team comes so close to giving up classified information in the gym, but she sure as hell doesn't want to be the one to do it.

But when the ham-fisted asshole they call Davon starts whining about Hill herself, Natasha begins to get more and more irritated. The problem is, she doesn't exactly disagree with much of what they're saying. The thing about the shirts is almost entertaining enough to make her laugh (minus the completely unnecessary jab about Hill's chest, of course; that was enough to raise her hackles). When Davon starts shooting his mouth off about Hill's military background, her stomach knots, and a chill runs through her. She'd had her suspicions, of course, but having them confirmed is sobering. Her entire team… That explains so much.

That asshole is still talking. Someone ought to shut him up. Natasha throws her weights back onto the rack with a clank and approaches the sparring ring, seething.

"That's enough, Davon."

The gym goes quiet then. Most of the agents halt in their exercise, exchanging nervous looks. Davon turns around, staring a little at Natasha, and for an instant even he looks intimidated before he straightens up, automatically looking as imposing as he can.

"Just calling it as I see it," he shrugs and taps his gloves together. "You've got a problem with that?"

"If you think your commanding officer is such a coward, why do you have to talk shit about her behind her back?" Natasha's head cocks slightly to one side, and her voice drips with venom. She ignores the gawks from the rest of the room and just focuses on Davon.

"If she was here, I'd give her shit to her face," Davon argues, making a face, but he doesn't look prepared to back down either.

Becca snorts and shakes her head. "No, you wouldn't."

"Oh shut up," Davon takes a step towards the ropes, looking down at Natasha. "What's it to you what I do or don't do? Don't tell me that dyke's gotten to you too."

Natasha's jaw clenches, but she doesn't give him the satisfaction of responding to his crass, sneering question. "Shut your mouth, or I'll shut it for you."

"Oh come on," Davon groans.

Behind him Greg cringes. "Dav…"

He gets ignored, however, as Davon makes a face. "Come on, you're way too hot to have fallen for the ice bitch. Are all women on this thing gay?"

Natasha's anger starts to drain away. This guy is nothing more than an insecure bully who doesn't know how to shut his mouth. He's barely worth her time or attention, but Natasha has nothing better to do with her time right now. Taking him down a few pegs in front of his team should do the trick.

"Only the ones who've met you."

"Ow!" The rest of the team laughs, and Davon is colouring red with embarrassment and anger.

He glares at Natasha, jaw working as he struggles to come up with a comeback to take the humiliation away. "Whatever, bitch. It's your loss. Tell me, is your girlfriend as frigid between the sheets as she is everywhere else?"

Again, Natasha evades his taunt with ease. She tsks condescendingly, shaking her head. "What's the matter, Dav? Did I embarrass you in front of your friends? Did I hurt your little feelings, and now you feel the need to say mean things so no one will know what a delicate flower you are?" Natasha's voice is syrupy-sweet and dripping with sarcasm.

"Get real." He makes a face and pushes away from the ropes. "Fuck, you're as crazy as that bitch is, aren't you? Figures."

Okay, now he's starting to piss her off again. Natasha crosses her arms across her chest and raises an eyebrow. "Go on, say 'bitch' again." There's a cold challenge wrapped in her conversational tone.

The good thing - or the sad thing - is that guys like Davon fail to read any sort of warning signs.

"Bitch," he smirks. "You don't like me insulting your girlfriend, bitch?"

Behind him, Greg slips out of the boxing ring.

"And where exactly do you think you're going?" Natasha shifts her eyes towards Greg as he tries to make good his escape.

"Out of your way," Greg shakes his head. "I'm not crazy."

"Knew you were just all talk," Davon snorts at Natasha as she shifts her attention, looking pleased with himself.

"No, of course you're not crazy, Greg. But you are complicit in this, too." Natasha turns and raises her voice, addressing the rest of Hill's team as well. "You're all complicit in this." She jerks her thumb in Davon's general direction. "This man is your teammate. You have to work with him, trust him with your life. Are you just going to stand there and let him use language like that?"

"Come on," Greg shakes his head at her. "He's just letting off steam. You know how it goes after a mission."

"Oh for fuck's sake," Davon groans. "What the fuck's your problem?"

"Is that so?" Natasha ignores Davon, turning instead to point her finger at Becca. "What about you? Do you think he's just 'letting off steam'?"

"I think he's a jackass," Becca makes a face.

"Feeling's mutual, Becs," Davon snorts and leans back on the ropes. "Seriously, this is your tactic? Try to get my teammates to shun me or something?"

"And what about Greg, who doesn't think there's anything wrong with what he's saying or the language he uses to say it?" She's still addressing Becca and trying not to smirk at how her inattention is starting to piss Davon off.

Becca straightens up, raising an eyebrow at Natasha. "Someone's got to be bottom in that relationship, right?"

"Hey!" Greg objects, making a face.

"Fucking dykes," Davon growls. "If you've got a problem, come say it to my face."

Natasha laughs a little in agreement with Becca. "You didn't answer my question, though. Do you trust him - either of them - with your life?"

Becca shakes her head, earning herself a protest from Greg.

"Come on, Becs," Davon protests. "You know I've got your back."

"And you're still pissy Hill got yours. Get over it already," Becca argues, getting to her feet.

Natasha looks each of the other team members in the eye in turn. "What about the rest of you? Do you trust them, knowing they think it's okay to talk like this about people?"

Most of them shake their heads, but they don't say anything. Davon bristles behind Natasha.

"You think you're in one of those feel good movies, don't you? Give an inspiring speech, rally the troops," he snorts. "There wasn't a problem until you stuck your nose in."

Still Natasha ignores him. "And the rest of you? How many of you talk like this too?" She cracks her knuckles and continues before any of them can answer. "You know what? It doesn't matter." She finally turns and meets Davon's eyes. "I'm going to kick your ass for shooting your mouth off, and then I'm going to kick all the rest of your asses for letting him. How's that sound?"

"You and what army?" Davon apparently hasn't realised who he's dealing with.

Greg, however, has gone a bit white, as do the rest, shuffling nervously and protesting as they get up.

"Geesh, why are you pussies shitting yourselves?" Davon looks disgusted at his teammates.

Natasha breaks into a grin as she tucks her left arm up behind her back. "There. I'll kick your asses with one arm behind my back. Feel better now?"

"Oh for fuck's sake," Davon rolls his eyes and moves in, tugging his boxing gloves off as he faces Natasha. "I try not to hit little girls, but I'll make an exception for you."

Nobody else looks eager to help him out, however.

Once more, Natasha addresses the group as a whole. "Is he the only one who isn't afraid to fight me? How about this: if you choose to fight on his side, you won't have to face me one-on-one. Any takers?"

"Who says I want them fighting with me?" Davon protests. "Seriously, I'm not a wuss."

"Dude, shut up," Greg makes a face, but he moves forward, still looking nervous. "You really need to start doing your homework."

This is turning out to be way more fun than Natasha anticipated. She glances around once more to see if anyone else will take her up on her offer, then she slides between the ropes and into the ring. Positioning herself between Davon and Greg, she drops into a fighting stance (her left arm pinned behind her back still) and centers herself. "Anything else you'd like to say to me before I beat the shit out of you?"

"Keep on dreaming," Davon growls. He doesn't wait as he lunges at Natasha. Apparently he doesn't have a lot of qualms about holding back.

Greg curses as he stays back. "Seriously guys, a little help here?"

Natasha sidesteps Davon easily and shoves him hard between his shoulderblades, adding more force in the direction he's already moving. She squares off again, calling, "Feel free to jump in any time."

Greg curses again as he moves in. Davon looks a little surprised, but he's too stubborn to give up, and he attacks from the other side. Of course, it doesn't work out for either of them, and Becca joins in because apparently these jackasses are going to get themselves killed.

"Can't believe I'm fucking fighting the Black Widow because of your sorry asses," she curses as she ends up on her back.

"Wait? What?" Davon groans as he pushes up to his feet.

"And he catches on," Greg moans, sighs and pushes up to try and tackle Natasha.

Natasha drives her elbow down on Greg's left shoulder blade as he comes in low for a tackle, and she brings her knee up to meet his right shoulder, spinning him and dropping him to the mat. She turns her head, letting Becca's punch glance off her jaw. Once Davon is on his feet, she grins wolfishly at him. "Nice to meet you," she mocks before punching him squarely in his solar plexus.

It's probably an embarrassingly short time later when Maria makes her way into the gym and finds her team either up against the ropes or lying down in the ring. Natasha looks rather smug and barely out of breath. Maria raises both eyebrows.

"Okay, what the fuck is going on here?" she demands, sounding more than a little irritated after the hours she just wasted explaining her team's failure.

There's some unidentifiable feeling that momentarily distracts Natasha when Hill storms over. Intimidation? No, that's not it… She kicks Davon in the ribs with her toe as he lies sprawled on the mat. "You. Tell her what happened."

Davon winces and glances away from both Natasha and Maria. "Just training," he mumbles.

Maria narrows her eyes as everyone else stays quiet, a cold suspicion settling between her shoulderblades as she keeps studying Natasha. "Training?"

"I suppose this counts as training." Natasha kicks Davon again in the same spot. "What was it you said earlier? 'If she was here, I'd give her shit to her face'? Looks like you have your chance, big guy."

Davon stays quiet, and Maria's eyes are glued to Natasha. She can take a wild guess at what Davon has been saying, though, if it was enough to get Natasha fighting.

There's a split second where she considers this, considers Romanoff fighting for something said wrong. It fades along with the realisation that her whole team is down on the ground, and Maria's nostrils flare as she breathes out her anger.

She can't decide who she's more angry with: her team for doubting her, or Romanoff for thinking she needs someone to fight this battle for her. It's a cold anger that has her moving forward, climbing into the ring and nudging Greg out of her way.

"Fine. Let's train," she says, her voice carrying despite how she doesn't even raise it.

The look of rage on Hill's face quickens Natasha's pulse, more so than the fight she just finished did. The grin falls off her face as Hill steps into the ring. "Fine. I'll give you the same deal I gave your team. I'll keep one hand behind my back at all times, and anyone can jump in at any time."

"No." Maria doesn't snap, but the word is commanding. She falls into a fighting stance, hands coming up. She's not even going to bother wrapping her hands. "No one jumps in, and if you hold back, I'm kicking your ass off this ship."

Something about Hill's utter refusal to play her game ignites Natasha's own anger, sharply and unexpectedly. "As you wish," she growls, whirling suddenly and aiming a kick at the side of Hill's head.

Maria ducks, letting the kick go over her and snaps forward, moving into the opening left to drive a punch at Natasha's stomach. Everything is focused on the fight, and while she knows she'll end up on the floor, she doesn't care. She's going to give this everything she has.

She's hardly even aware of her team scrambling to their feet and climbing out of the ring. Everything is on Natasha, on each movement, trying to predict what's next. There is cold anger in the pit of her stomach that drives her punches, makes her body agile and her feet move fast over the floor. She's a fighter. Right now, that's all she is.

This is a side of Maria Hill Natasha has never seen before. Not in the sparring ring, not in the field, never. Her punches are vicious, her movements precise. Natasha lands blow after blow, but they barely seem to have any effect. Hill unleashes everything she has, everything that was built up from the failed mission, the debriefing, and probably from everything that came before them. It all rains down on Natasha's head, and she takes it all. She takes it all and pushes back just as hard, despite the pain in her arm.

The gym is silent as Maria's team watches their commanding officer go toe-to-toe with the Black Widow, seeing a deadly efficiency to this woman they've only seen as cold. For a moment she seems flawless, even under the blows she's taking.

There's no sound coming from Maria, only her breathing growing a little more ragged with every blow and kick that she takes. Every time she goes down, she's up again in a matter of seconds. She's cold, except for her eyes. Even when she's cool and calculating, there's a fire that keeps her going. There's a fire burning and consuming whatever moan or grunt her body wants to expel. It puts strength behind her punches, speed in her movements… but she's still outclassed, and it doesn't matter.

She needs this, without knowing she did. There's a familiarity between them. She knows Natasha's movements by now. Not all of them. Never all of them. She can't counter half of them, but she needs to punch, she needs to give, and she needs someone to take before it burns her up completely. And she needs to feel. Needs to feel the sharp pains and the dull aches, the breathlessness in her chest and her throat, the prickle of her sweat, the way her hair is becoming damp. She tastes the salt as she licks her lips, tastes the iron and feels the sting as she sneers, her upper lip cut now. She doesn't even remember when that happened. Probably about the same time her ears started ringing.

Not that it stops her. She doesn't stop, doesn't even notice that her team is staring, because whatever they're watching is about as intimate as Maria Hill gets.

Hill's lip splits under Natasha's knuckles, but she barely seems to notice. She's unstoppable, but not in the sense that she's flawless or a match for Natasha's skills. Rather, it's becoming quite clear that Hill will not, cannot stop lashing out until there is nothing left for her to give. The split lip, the hard falls against the mat, the way she takes the full brunt of blows she would normally block or slip... She's reckless, inching closer to the darker side of the self-destructiveness Natasha has always known she carries. It's almost as if she's purposely letting Natasha thrash her as penance for her team's failure, for her own failures.

Natasha didn't agree to be used like this. It has to stop.

Natasha sidesteps a punch and puts on a burst of speed, ending up behind Hill with her neck caught hard in the crook of her elbow. Hill swings wildly, trying to shake her, but she holds tight, putting careful, deliberate pressure on her windpipe.

It's a frustrating position, one that has Maria gnashing her teeth as she can hardly move, can barely breathe. Attempting to drive her elbow back into Natasha only leaves her gasping, and going still to keep from getting choked makes her feel powerless where moments ago she had strength. She reaches up, fingers digging into Natasha's forearm. She still has strength, and she's not ready to give into the blackness that's encroaching at the edge of her vision.

When Hill goes motionless beneath her, Natasha still doesn't let up. There's a tense hum in Hill's body, telegraphing how keyed up she is, ready for another move at any time. Natasha grips the wrist of the arm that's wrapped around Hill's neck, pulls even harder, vice-like, and waits.

It's hard to breathe and harder to move. Maria can feel Natasha against her back, a quiet in a storm that's swirling in her head. A quiet she's fucking pissed at and which has her pinned in front of her team. A quiet she needs as she struggles to breathe, following the rise and fall of Natasha's chest against her back. It's all she has to keep out the panic, it's all that's anchoring her. That and her nails digging into Natasha's skin.

"Let me go, Romanoff," her grip on Natasha's arm tightens, and the words are nothing more than a hard-earned rasp past the iron grip on her throat.

Hell no. Even in front of the team, Natasha has no intention of accepting Hill's surrender on her terms. She tightens her grip even more, shifting a little to utilize the pressure more effectively. <<Let go.>>

It's not a choice. It's as much a fight as anything else when Maria's eyes start to roll back. Her hand falls away from Natasha's arm as her vision clouds and Maria becomes a dead weight against Natasha.

The instant Hill goes limp in her arms, Natasha releases her stranglehold and lowers her slowly, reverently to the mat. Her chest is strangely tight, and she's startled to realize she'd been holding her own breath as she waited for Hill to pass out. Natasha inhales slowly, monitoring Hill's breathing and coloration. She shouldn't be out for too long.

"Are you fucking insane?" It's Becca who's climbing back between the ropes as the rest of Maria's team is standing rooted to the ground.

Natasha keeps a hand on Hill's arm, feeling for her pulse on the inside of her wrist as she turns to acknowledge Becca. "That's what the rumors say, I'm sure. Do you believe them?"

"Fucking hard not to right now," Becca glares. She hesitates, but not for long as she kneels beside Maria, checking her pulse for herself.

An odd combination of emotions raises Natasha's hackles. Considering she was the one to incapacitate Hill, she wants to liken the feeling to a predator guarding her kill against scavengers, but there's more to it than that. There's also a sense of wanting to protect her from harm, which is absurd, considering Natasha is the biggest threat to her right now. She breathes steadily, crushing the urge to snap at Becca and make her back away. "She'll be fine."

Becca glares, and Greg leans against the ropes again, the rest of Hill's team looking about as equally worried. Becca opens her mouth, but whatever she was about to say remains unsaid as in that moment Maria eyes snap open and she gasps.

"What-?" her voice is hoarse, and her throat hurts. Maria reaches up to rub at her throat, making Becca let go of her. She has no idea why both Becca and Natasha are looking at her like that. "Nat?"

"Welcome back." Natasha raises an eyebrow at Becca and nods her head towards Hill. "Tell her what happened."

"She choked you out," Becca snaps, glaring at Natasha.

"It was pretty impressive," Greg adds wistfully.

Maria blinks and glances at Natasha, aware of the fingers pressing against her pulse. It takes another moment before she remembers the fighting, but not the choking. Not that, but there's still an iron tang in her mouth, and her body is aching, her head is slowly starting to pound, and everything is cotton. She starts to remember going up against Natasha, and her blood runs cold as she pulls her arm away, starting to sit up despite her body.

This stubborn jackass is going to get herself killed someday. Natasha puts a hand on Hill's shoulder to keep her from getting up too fast. "Take it easy. You were only out for about a minute."

Maria's whole fucking team is gawking at her like they've just seen a ghost, and Maria keeps her face closed off. She can feel Natasha's hand on her shoulder, almost caring. Almost. She's an idiot for even thinking it.

"Romanoff," she says quietly, ignoring the roughness in her throat. "Get your hands off me."

Only Becca can hear the words beside Natasha, and she acts like she didn't just hear.

Natasha doesn't flinch away, but she does do as Hill demands, instantly and without question. She keeps her voice low, too soft for anyone else to hear. Even so, she switches to Russian. <<Do you feel better now?>>

Nothing feels better. She's aware of her team's eyes on her. A team that got their asses kicked because of one guy Maria has been unable to rein in. She spent the entire morning making up for someone else's screwups, and now she got choked out in front of her team by the one person she thought could be an ally.

She snorts at the question, but doesn't answer as she pushes up to her feet. Her legs are shaky, and she ignores Becca's attempt to help her. "Good training," she says with a nod, half turning towards Natasha but not looking at her.

It is physically painful for Natasha to watch Hill struggling with her anger, humiliation, and self-doubt. She had hoped making her pass out would take the fight out of her enough to help her regain her center, keep her grounded, but clearly that is not going to happen. Fucking Hill, too damned proud to see how much she's hurting herself. The two of them have so much in common.

Suddenly, Natasha is struck with an almost overwhelming urge to wrap her arms around Hill and just cling to her. The feeling closes her throat as her mind rebels against it. She's reminded of the crawling sensation that made her tear Hill's shirt off of her body and throw it across the room. If only she could do the same to this feeling.

Natasha knows better than to touch her now, but that doesn't stop her from stepping a little closer. <<Be gracious in your defeat. No one here wants to hurt you, Maria.>>

Maria turns, and her head throbs at the movement. She didn't even realise Natasha had gotten this close, but she hides her surprise as she meets Natasha's eyes. She sees green, but she doesn't look beyond. She merely nods and licks her lip. It's no longer bleeding, but she's too aware of the cut to leave it alone.

"Thanks for keeping my team occupied, Agent Romanoff," she says, raising an eyebrow at Natasha.

The movement of Hill's tongue across her abused lip is distracting, but not enough to distract Natasha from the look in her eyes. There's a wall between them, steel and barbed wire, giving Natasha the inexplicable need to hit her again, if only to prove she can still reach her. She swallows the urge through the tightness in her throat, her face and body language returning to a careful, calculated neutrality. "You're quite welcome, Agent Hill." She tips a short nod of acknowledgement to Becca, then turns on her heel and ducks out of the ring, headed for the door.

Maria tries not to watch, but she can't help noticing how Natasha ducks out of the gym without another look back over her shoulder.

"I can't believe you just did that." It's Greg who pulls Maria away from any thoughts she doesn't want to have. "Geesh."

There's a couple of murmurs of agreement and Becca hovering close by. Maria rolls her shoulders. "It was just training. Go hit the showers, you've been lazy enough already."

"Lazy?" Greg snorts. "That wa-"

"Can it. Showers. You have half an hour," Maria orders, but no one argues. Well, Becca is still hovering, but Maria raises an eyebrow at her, and she disappears too.

There's a few glances back at Maria and a look that she can't quite place. Davon is quiet, but that's an improvement and Maria reaches up, her hand shaking as she rubs at her temple, willing the headache away.

Chapter Text

Despite the botched mission and her team getting their asses handed to them by the Black Widow, the training session that follows is the best Maria's had so far. The team is focused, and even Davon keeps his mouth shut. They get through another drill without any mistakes, and Maria doesn't have to yell at anyone for being an idiot. Still, the headache remains, a steady throb behind Maria's eyes that makes her wince when she accidentally glances at any lights. She's grateful when she can finally return to her quarters; her body is heavy with exhaustion, but the fire that had her burning is still going. She collapses on her bed, willing the exhaustion to win this one, willing it to take away the drilling in her head.

It doesn't, and when she closes her eyes, she sees Natasha. She sees her smirking, standing over her team. She sees her hovering, feels the hand on her wrist and on her shoulder. She remembers the steadiness, remembers those hands holding hers, stilling their shaking. The tightness in her throat, however, is only the result of the chokehold.

She gives up when she's certain most of the ship has gone to sleep, and she hits the gym again. Weights first, then the treadmill until her head is pounding with every step. When her knees feel weak, she rolls off it and lies on the ground before picking herself up again. The punching bag is next. No gloves. She wraps her hands angrily and punches until her knuckles are sore. Then she punches some more.

 

Natasha isn't sure what draws her to the gym this late at night. Her usual insomniac wanderings don't usually take her to this part of the ship, and it's far too early for the pre-breakfast workout she's gotten used to. Truth be told, she's still on edge from her fight with Hill. Nothing about that ill-advised stunt of hers was even remotely satisfying. She's still angry, still riled up, and the worst part is, she she has no idea why.

No. That's a lie. She has a suspicion.

Even though the punching bags aren't visible from the door, she knows exactly who is pounding away on them. She knows instantly, the same way she always seems to know when Hill is in a room, or even when she's about to enter one.

Unacceptable.

That jackass has no business working out after the day she's had. She's going to injure herself, or worse. Although Natasha's better judgment tells her to turn around and get as far away from the gym - from Maria Hill - as possible, she cannot tear herself away. The sound of her fists driving into the bag somehow sends a hot stab of anger into Natasha's stomach, and the next thing she knows she's crossing the gym and shoving Hill away from the heavy bag. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

Maria stumbles back. She's neither prepared nor capable of staying steady on her feet, but she manages not to land on her ass. She's glaring in an instant. "Mind your own fucking business, Romanoff," she growls.

Natasha refuses to be brushed off. This is her business. If Hill gets injured - or hell, even drops dead from overexertion after the incident earlier - all of the blame is going to come crashing down on Natasha's shoulders. That can't happen. None if that can happen. She doesn't care how loud her voice is, booming through the empty gym. "You're exhausted. Stand down before you hurt yourself!"

"Or what, Romanoff?" Maria's laugh is mirthless and closer to a bark than anything else. She moves into Natasha's personal space, and the only improvement is that her eyes are no longer shuttered off as anger burns behind them. "You gonna choke me out again?"

Having Hill so aggressively close to her makes Natasha's throat tighten. She chokes silently on her anger as she shoves Hill away from her, hard, with the heels of her hands on her shoulders. "I said 'stand down,' soldier." It's a growl, a snarl, complete with a flash of teeth.

There's a part of Maria that will always respond to being called soldier, a part of her that is so ingrained in her very being. She stops, her hands fisting by her sides as she glares at Natasha. "You don't get to order me around, Romanoff. And you definitely don't get to tell me how to command my team."

She should be shouting, but the quiet restraint is possibly more terrifying than any shouted words could be.

"Who's going to stop me? You?" Hill's deadly calm voice is only fueling Natasha's rage. She shoves her again and sneers cruelly. "You can barely stand up."

A storm comes into motion when Natasha pushes her again, one that is tired and has been raging, but she still has fight in her, still has the energy to throw a punch at Natasha's jaw, however poorly it's executed. She's fighting from her gut. She's fighting with emotions rather than cool calculation.

The punch is sloppy, telegraphed, easy to slip or block, but Natasha takes it anyway. Hill's fist connects with her jaw, and she rolls with it to take the edge off the impact. Pain blooms across her face, but she ignores it. She doesn't even so much as shift her jaw. Instead, she stands her ground, acting as if nothing has happened. "I didn't say a damned thing about the way you command your team."

"No, that's right. You just figured you'd go do it for me. Fix what I fucked up, right?" Maria shoves at Natasha, wishing that punch had been a lot more satisfying than it was.

"That's right, Hill. Everything I do is a deliberate attempt to screw you over." Her voice seethes with sarcasm. "I'm a monster, remember?"

"You're not a monster, Romanoff. Beats me what the hell you are, but I'm sick and tired of ending up the butt of every fucking game you come up with," she growls and pulls away abruptly, scrubbing her hands across her face. "Why the fuck am I even having this discussion?"

Natasha bristles, stung despite herself. Of course Hill is a sore loser. Of course she's frustrated with their games. So why is that so hard to hear?

"Because you're a stupid, self-destructive sonofabitch who's running herself ragged for no fucking reason!"

"Two out of three. Not bad," Maria says quietly. She snorts and shakes her head. "I'm done with this."

She turns her back on Natasha to go grab her towel.

It's oh so tempting to tackle her from behind, but she won't. She will not attack her while her back is turned. Natasha wants Hill to face her and take everything she's spitting out. "Don't you dare walk away from me, Maria Hill."

"Gimme one reason why I shouldn't, Romanoff?" Maria picks up her towel and wipes her face, pausing to take in a deep breath that does nothing to settle her.

The moment Natasha opens her mouth to keep shouting, her mind goes blank. Every cruel, stinging thought that was previously boiling in her mind is obscured by fury and a tightening in her chest and throat. She glares daggers at Hill, trying to breathe deeply enough to calm herself down. It takes several breaths but it helps a little. "You don't need my reasons. You have plenty of your own."

Maria jerks her head up and glares over her shoulder at Natasha. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" she asks, gripping the towel tightly. At least it keeps her hands from shaking.

"It means that you don't give a fuck what I have to say. You wouldn't listen to me even if I knocked you down and beat it into that stubborn skull of yours!" Natasha is shouting again, jabbing her finger at Hill.

"And you know this because you've tried how many times?" Maria demands, rearing on Natasha and waving her towel in what is supposed to be an angry gesture but just looks a little ridiculous instead.

"I'm trying now, you jackass!" Natasha's throat closes at the thought of the times she was stupid enough to open up to Hill, even a little bit, and how Hill invariably reminds her that she expects the worst from Natasha. Everyone on this ship does, it seems.

"Fine," Maria throws the towel down and opens her hands in a 'give it to me' gesture. "Then tell me."

"Whatever it is you're so angry about, you need to find another way to fight it. You're going to crash and burn, but you're too stubborn to take your foot off the fucking gas."

Maybe a part of her wants to crash and burn. She looks away then, not sure what to do with this, with Natasha seeing through her.

"What does it matter to you, Romanoff?" she asks, trying to hold on to her anger because she doesn't know what to do if she stops.

Natasha's mind recoils. That's not a question she wants to answer, not to herself and certainly not to Hill. She deflects, her mind grasping for something - anything - else on which to blame her concern. The words leave her mouth before she can even process them, fueled by the rage that flares hotter the more she tries to beat it down. "If you've got a death wish, that's your business, but you're a team leader now. You keep running full-bore like this, you're going to get them killed, too."

This time Maria actually visibly flinches. Natasha's words hit home, and the realisation that she's saying this on purpose and not making a stab in the dark fuels Maria's anger in a second.

"Fuck you, Romanoff. I would never put my team in danger!" She's yelling now, and her hands are going to Natasha's shoulders to shove her back. "I will die for them before I let anything happen to them, and that's not because I have a fucking death wish. If I did, I would have gotten myself killed a long time ago. There's plenty of ways to do it for someone like me. I wouldn't fucking be on this flying fortress for that. Just because you know my past doesn't mean you know me."

Natasha's whole body tenses, almost vibrating, fighting hard to hold in the roar that's builds in her as Hill shouts in her face. She doesn't - can't - back down now. When Hill shoves her away, she lunges right back, standing up to her full height and leering dangerously close. "Then who the fuck are you?"

She doesn't have an answer. She's too angry to even find words for that. She can't remember when she grabbed hold of Natasha's shirt, but she pulls her in and presses her mouth against Natasha's. There's nothing soft about it, and it's hardly even a kiss, but it's angry and it's rough and it's the only answer she has.

The kiss - if that's what this is - takes Natasha completely by surprise. At first, she thinks Hill hit her again. The shock, the way the force of it crushes her teeth against the inside of her lip, the twisting stab of outrage; it isn't dissimilar to being punched in the face.

Unacceptable.

Natasha braces her hands against Hill's chest and pushes her away. Then, with a growl, she dives for her, dropping her shoulder to drive it into Hill's stomach.

The breath rushes out of her lungs, and Maria groans as her back hits the wall. She's not sure what's going on, only that Natasha is attacking. She brings her knee up automatically as she reaches for Natasha's hair, trying to pull her away.

Hill's knee connects with her chest, and between that and Hill's hands tearing at her hair, Natasha is having a hard time drawing breath. Her hands find Hill's wrists as she rights herself, removing the tug at her hair, and she puts all her strength behind pressing them into the wall.

"Let me the fuck go," Maria growls, pushing against the hands. She has a lot of body strength, but it's all been used up already, and Natasha's grip is like steel. She glares down at Natasha and tries to bring her knee between them.

None of it makes sense. A moment ago she had her lips against Natasha's, and now she's up against a wall, Natasha pressing against her. All she can  think is that she needs to get away from this. From her.

She should let go. She should let go and get the fuck out of this gym. She should let go of all of this and never look back. But Hill's breath is hot on her face and her wrists burn in her hands and her knee is pressing into her thigh. It would be so easy to just slam her forehead into Hill's nose and drop her to the floor, but when her head dips forward, her teeth sink into the crook of Hill's neck instead.

Maria hisses, her wrists jerking against Natasha's grip. She doesn't mean to. It isn't supposed to feel good, but the feeling spreads deep in her gut, and the moan passes her lips before she can help it. She can feel her face heat up with anger or embarrassment or something even different. It ends in a growl of frustration, and she presses her leg more firmly between Natasha's.

The effect her moan has on Natasha is instantaneous, and the friction of Hill's thigh driving up against the sudden heat between her legs makes her breath hitch and her hips buck. She presses herself closer and drags her teeth up the side of Hill's neck to her ear.

"Fuck." It's a very different type of cursing that Natasha pulls from Maria now. It feels like someone flipped a switch and the fire that's been licking at her the whole day turns into a different kind of heat. Natasha's mouth against her ear sends a shiver down her body and she pushes against Natasha's hands again, wanting them free for an entirely different reason now.

Natasha unwraps her fingers from Hill's wrists, but she keeps the heels of her hands pressed hard against her as she rakes her nails down her arms. Her mouth leaves a trail of bruising kisses down Hill's neck to her collarbone.

It shouldn't feel this good, but Natasha has a way of keeping her cursing, and Maria finally manages to work one hand free. She instantly reaches out, tangling her fingers in Natasha's hair and tugging to get her to move up. Kissing is probably a really bad idea, but she's not done there yet.

Natasha is reluctant to remove her teeth from Hill's collarbone, but she soon has no choice but to yield to the tug on her hair. She returns the kiss forcefully, and her tongue thrusts into her mouth as her hips cant closer to Hill's. Natasha rolls them experimentally, finding a good angle so she can use Hill's thigh for the friction it provides. It's just sex, she tells herself. She can get off and go back to life as usual. If that's even possible in this line of work.

Maria groans against Natasha's mouth, her fingers tugging at her hair as she sucks on her tongue, uses her teeth to tease at it before she pulls back harshly. She wants to pull Natasha closer, wants to drive herself between those thighs, but there's just a small piece of her mind that's still working. Just enough to manage one word: "Shower."

"No," Natasha growls before crushing her lips back against Hill's, biting and sucking on her lower lip. She knows the cameras are there, but part of her is still torn between biting and scratching and grinding up against Hill until she can't breathe, or beating her senseless until her knuckles bleed. Refusing to move forces Hill to make that decision for her.

It's unfair how Natasha has her moaning again, like her body forgot about its usual filter, and she finds herself grinding back against Natasha. Her other hand is finally free, and she grabs hold of the back of Natasha's shirt, keeping her in place. She should argue, but she hardly has any breath left. She forces her tongue past Natasha's lips and teeth, demanding more.

Natasha bites down on Hill's tongue as she knots her hands into the collar of her shirt. The way Hill moans against her is inching dangerously close to sounding like she's actually enjoying this, and for some reason that brings the anger bubbling back up in Natasha's chest. In a fit of taunting cruelty, she crosses her right arm across Hill's chest and brings it up so she can press her forearm against her throat while she kisses her.

The soreness in her throat is still there, and the pressure against it has Maria wanting to jerk back from Natasha's arm, but that'd be a surrender, and she's not ready to surrender. She keeps kissing Natasha, using the soreness to keep her grounded, and then she moves suddenly, pushing Natasha off and slamming her into the wall. Maria's fingers tangle in Natasha's hair, and she presses her front to Natasha's back and bends down to bite at the nape of Natasha's neck. Her free hand worms its way between the wall and Natasha's stomach, tugging at the shirt to create an opening she can slide her hand into and rake her nails over Natasha's stomach.

Natasha starts to cry out, but the sound catches in the back of her throat as Hill's teeth meet the back of her neck. Her head reels, and she leans her face against the wall to try and steady herself a little. When Hill's hand finds its way into her shirt she bites back the moan that comes with her next breath, but that just turns the sound into something closer to a whimper. Her teeth dig hard into her lower lip; she can't allow that to happen again. Natasha braces her hands against the wall and pushes back against Hill's hips, making more space for Hill to fill with her hands.

Maria smirks against her skin and keeps licking and biting at Natasha's neck, working her way up to her ear as her hands slide higher under the shirt, rucking it up as she palms at Natasha's breasts. She finally lets go of Natasha's hair, trusting her not to pull away now. She'd better not, because her ass is pressing up against Maria at just the right angle. She grabs hold of Natasha's hip, pulls her closer as she grinds back against her.

Her own breath is coming in fast, and she bites at Natasha's earlobe, harder and crueler than is necessary. "I'm gonna fuck you into the ground," she growls, her lips at Natasha's ear. Her hand slips from Natasha's hip, sliding between her thighs and pressing against her as she keeps her hips still, keeps Natasha pressed up against her as she waits. She's either being cruel or giving an out.

Natasha doesn't pull away; she pushes back even harder when Hill starts to move against her. Her words send a jolt through her, lust and anger and spite. Natasha arches her back and lets her head fall onto Hill's shoulder so she can lean into the teeth on her neck. "You're gonna fuck me in front of the cameras?" she mocks.

"Are you saying you're incapable of erasing the footage?" Maria challenges as she pinches Natasha's nipple through the fabric of her bra.

"Oh, I can," Natasha controls her breathing so she takes a slow, deep breath instead of the sharp gasp the pinch should elicit, "but probably not before at least one person sees it."

Maria growls in frustration and bites at Natasha's neck, rubbing her fingers over her before she extracts her hands and pulls back. Her brain might be addled right now, but not quite that much.

The sudden lack of contact is infuriating. Natasha turns slowly and leans back against the wall to which she was pinned moments before. Her eyes are dark as she smirks. "They're sure to see this much already. The damage is done."

There's something hypnotic about the way Natasha looks right now, and Maria steps back into her, bracing a hand over her shoulder as she studies Natasha, shielding her from whatever cameras are on them now.

"I'm not your guard anymore," she murmurs, voice still rough and thick with desire as she runs her other hand down Natasha's body, sliding her fingers back between her thighs.

Natasha lets Hill fit herself back up against her. Her hands find Hill's waist, then she slowly slides them up her back and over her shoulders, finally twining them into her hair. "Even so, you'd probably better make it clear who's in charge here," Natasha growls before pulling Hill's head back and sinking her teeth into her throat again.

Maria hisses and she presses herself into Natasha's body as her fingers rub circles through Natasha's pants. She's quite possibly losing her mind letting this happen, but Natasha's mouth on her skin is better than any of the abuse she's been putting her body through. She moves her other hand back into Natasha's hair, pulling her head back to kiss her roughly.

Natasha clamps her thighs around Hill's hand, immobilizing her fingers but still giving herself something to grind down into. She kisses her back fiercely, her hands still balled into fists in Hill's hair.

It doesn't matter how much she can move her hand; as long as Natasha is grinding down against her, Maria is taking it as a win. She's taking it as a win too that they keep kissing, a mash of tongues and teeth. Her lungs are almost burning, but she doesn't want to stop. She wants to breathe this in, wants to take the anger and desire and let it pool with the heat in the pit of her stomach. She tugs at Natasha's hair, rakes her nails over her scalp and presses her hips forward, trapping her arm between them.

Hill's mouth is so forceful against hers, there's really no need to keep such a tight grip in her hair. Natasha's hands make their way back down her body and find the hem of her sweat-dampened shirt. She pulls upward, dragging her knuckles across the muscles of Hill's back. She wants more. More heat. More friction. More skin.

Maria arches her back and bites at Natasha's bottom lip before pulling back. Her eyes are dark, and she sounds way more out of breath than she would like, but her words are still enough of a command. "Take it off."

"Yes, sir." Natasha's voice is mocking, but her hands move quickly, peeling the fabric away from Hill's body, up over her head. Oh, how she wants to just tear the shirt off her back, but she resists.

Maria pulls her hands back, letting Natasha make quick work of her shirt, then reaches for Natasha's, pushing it up and off as well before she fits herself back against her. Natasha's skin is hot and smooth against hers, and she leans her head down, nipping and teasing at Natasha's shoulder as she pushes her thigh between Natasha's again.

Natasha works her hands between them so she can trace the contours of Hill's abs with her nails. They're taut and slick with sweat, and the way Hill's body moves with each hard breath sends another stab of lust through Natasha. Her hips buck, seeking more contact with the muscle in Hill's thigh.

Maria smirks and slips her hand between the curve of Natasha's back and the wall, pulling her closer against her as she bites a path towards Natasha's ear. "You gonna get yourself off like that?" she whispers, her lips brushing Natasha's ear as she presses her thigh up to meet Natasha's thrusts.

No, almost certainly not. It's good, moving against her like this, but Natasha could get this from the twisted sheets on her bed. She needs more. Not that she'd tell Hill that. "Yes," she lies, "I would if you'd just shut up." Natasha sucks roughly on Hill's earlobe.

"Right," Maria snorts, trying not to let Natasha distract her as she slides her hand into the back of her pants, pulling Natasha forward against her.

Natasha breathes hard, almost panting against Hill's neck. One hand drifts higher so she can rub her thumb over Hill's nipple through her bra while the nails of her other hand dig into her hip.

The breath against her neck is already enough to send a shiver down Maria's spine, and the rest has her pressing forward into Natasha's hands. Her fingers dig into Natasha's ass as she presses open mouthed kisses along her shoulder.

Natasha's thumbs hook under the band of Hill's bra and tug it up over the swell of her breasts. She gropes at them, savoring the feel of her nipples hard against her palms. Soon, she shifts her hands around to Hill's back, raking her nails under the back of her bra and pulling.

Maria can feel the tug, but this time she doesn't comply. She shakes her head and grazes her teeth over Natasha's collarbone.

"Too exposed," she growls, pulling her hand from the back of Natasha's pants. She scratches a line just above the waistband to Natasha's front so she can tease open the button.

"Not exposed enough. That's the whole point." Natasha tugs again, not bothering to be careful about her fingernails.

Maria hisses, but she pulls back with a grunt and tugs the bra off, her eyes meeting Natasha's as she does so. She doesn't wait once she drops it, but reaches down to push her sweatpants off as well, letting her underwear drop with them. She kicks off her shoes, too, and steps out of them, her movements efficient rather than seducing. In the next instant, she reaches for Natasha's pants to tug them down over her hips.

Natasha raises both her eyebrows in surprise. She only watches, still leaning against the wall with a smug, triumphant smile on her face. When Hill reaches for her pants, she makes no move to stop her. If she wants Natasha naked, she's going to have to strip her like a doll.

If Maria is going to be naked for this, damn right she's going to make Natasha be as well. She pushes her pants and underwear down past her hips, her eyes dark as she takes in the sight. She wants to reach out and touch, but that's not what they are doing. She keeps her hands from wandering, but not her eyes. She doesn't kneel down to get Natasha's shoes off either, already satisfied when Natasha's pants are bunched at her ankles.

When Maria tries to stand back up, Natasha takes hold of her hair again and tightens her arms, holding her in a crouch. Maria raises an eyebrow, but she doesn't fight it. Not yet, anyway. "Something you want, Romanoff?" she asks roughly, and this time she does reach out, running her hand over her hip before lightly smacking her ass.

"Since when do you give a fuck what I want?" Natasha catches her wrist and holds it tight, nails digging into her skin.

It hurts, but Maria bites the inside of her cheek to keep from hissing or making any sort of sound. Her breath still visibly catches, but she makes no other sign of the discomfort the grip or the words give her. She doesn't point out that she still has a pack of chewing gum in her uniform pocket or how she brought Natasha donuts and coffee. How she got her out of the quarters.

She just shifts to her knees, leans forward, and licks between Natasha's thighs.

Natasha huffs at the touch of Hill's tongue between her legs. She releases her vice grip on her wrist in favor of tangling both her hands in her hair. The satisfaction of having Hill pinned on her knees in front of her fades quickly once Natasha realizes she doesn't know whether this is what Hill actually wants or just what she thinks Natasha wants. She doesn't know if this is yet another thing Hill is doing for her just because she's beaten right now, just because Natasha has the upper hand.

Disentangling her fingers from Hill's hair, Natasha leans her hips away from her mouth and shoves Hill backward.

Of all the humiliating positions Maria has found herself in since she met Natasha Romanoff, this one has to top them all. She finds herself sitting with her ass on her heels, completely naked, with just the merest trace of a hint of what Natasha Romanoff might taste like on her lips. The embarrassment burns, flushing her chest and the back of her neck, and she grabs at the anger that had been fading. Grabs and holds tight as she laughs and reaches up, wiping at her mouth like she can erase it all.

"You really are a bitch, aren't you? Get what you want and you don't need it anymore." She doesn't look at Romanoff, doesn't trust that she has her walls up well enough.

The urge to punch Hill in the face comes surging back at the sound of her laughing. Natasha's fists clench at her sides, the softness of her hair conspicuously absent between her fingers. "Fuck you." Her voice is low, cold, dangerous.

"Apparently not," Maria smirks, still avoiding looking at Natasha. She is done here. So fucking done with this game.

It takes Natasha no time at all to kick off her shoes and discard them  along with her pants. She can't look at Hill while her bra follows, but a second later she's on the floor in front of her. She wants to lunge, wants to tackle and bite and snap, but she holds back, leaning forward to kiss her instead. It's still rough, but it's probably the first real kiss she's given her tonight. No teeth, no crushing pressure, just her mouth against Hill's.

Despite the fact that Maria had been staring when Natasha started stripping further down, the kiss still takes her by surprise. She's prepared for biting and teeth clashing. She's prepared for rough hands and pushing and pulling. She's not prepared for this, for the rush of emotions that leave her gasping and reaching for Natasha, one hand going up to cup her cheek while the other settles on her hip, pulling her in.

Natasha kisses her until she can't breathe anymore. Stealing her gun, thrashing her team, choking her out on the mat? Those were all stupid. This is downright dangerous. And yet, once Natasha pulls away for air, she returns her lips to Maria's throat, kissing over the bite marks, running her tongue over the bruises that are already starting to show.

Maria's eyes drift shut, and she slides her fingers back in Natasha's hair. It's like pushing a reset button and going back to the start. Only now they're naked, and she should be angry, should pull Natasha away from her. Her fingers tangle for an instant, then relax.

No, no, no, this should not be happening. Hill should be pulling her hair, not petting it. She should be hitting her, not caressing her cheek. Natasha should be biting her, not kissing a trail down her chest. Not taking her nipple into her mouth. This is dangerous.

"Fuck," Maria gasps, because of course it's this that has her gasping. Her fingers tighten in Natasha's hair to hold on and maybe keep her there.

Natasha adds a bit of teeth, grazing them across Hill's nipple. Her hand slides to her waist, pulling the two of them even closer together.

It's different now, but it's still enough to leave Maria moaning. She lets her hand slide from Natasha's hair, fingers rubbing at the back of her neck and smoothing over her shoulder. Maria bites her lips to keep quiet, but she can't help the way her hips shift up towards Natasha's hand and her fingers clench at her shoulder.

Natasha shifts her attention to Hill's other breast, biting back the moan that answers Hill's. Her hand traces its way down to her knee, then back up the inside of her thigh. When Natasha's fingers reach the apex of Hill's thighs, she doesn't bother to tease. She presses into her, moaning against her breast.

Maria curses and instantly moves her hips down, wanting more of Natasha inside of her, and she moves her hand back into Natasha's hair, tugging so she'll move back up her body.

Natasha yields to the pull in her hair and kisses her way up to Hill's mouth. She bites at her lower lip, without the vicious intensity of their previous kisses.

Wrapping her other arm around her, Maria starts to lie back down, pulling Natasha with her as she deepens the kiss. She makes room for Natasha as she does, crooking her leg over Natasha's hip, making it even easier to drive herself down against Natasha's hand.

The kiss is too intense, too much. Natasha pulls away and buries her face in the relative safety of Hill's shoulder, breathing hard. Her hand matches the motion of her hips as she slips another finger inside her. <<Tell me what you want,>> she breathes.

<<This,>> Maria gasps, and when her teeth close around Natasha's shoulder it's not so much to bite as to keep quiet. She drives her hips down faster against Natasha's hand, needing more. So much more that she hooks her other leg around Natasha's hips and rakes her nails down her back.

It's hard to move her hand with much finesse with Hill's legs around her hips, so Natasha concentrates on grinding the heel of her hand against her clit with every movement. She kisses her throat roughly, keeping her mouth occupied so she's doing something other than panting against Hill's skin.

After everything, finesse isn't really what Maria needs anyway. She can contract her muscles, drive down against Natasha's hand, and give herself the finesse she needs. The rest…

"Oh god." It's pathetic how close she already is. Her fingers are shaky as she grasps hold of Natasha's shoulders and arches her back. She's swearing a litany against Natasha's shoulder - somewhere in between, she might even say Natasha's name - until even that becomes too much and it's hard to breathe. It's hard to do much of anything except cling to Natasha as she presses down, her body going rigid, muscles tensing as the world shatters and all she's aware of is the weight of Natasha on top of her, the feel of her fingers, the taste in her mouth, and the heat of her lips against her skin.

"Fuck."

Natasha matches Hill's movements precisely. The sound of her name on Hill's lips is bewildering; by this point she thought she'd gotten used to having her name spat out like an obscenity, but this is entirely different. Natasha isn't sure in which context it sounds more dangerous.

When Hill seizes beneath her and starts to go limp, Natasha is briefly reminded of the way her body became dead weight in her arms earlier. This time, however, she doesn't let go. She keeps her weight pressed against her until she starts to come back to herself.

Maria's fingers finally unclench from Natasha's shoulders, and she smooths her hands over the spots in apology. Her breath is still coming in fast, and she's slowly becoming aware of all the spots on her body that are hurting. It doesn't matter much, not when Natasha is still there and still holding her. It's not something she expected, and she traces her fingers along the back of her neck, slides them into her hair as she turns her head, pressing a soft kiss to her cheek.

Natasha's fingers may still be inside her, but that kiss is the most intimate part of this whole situation. It sends a shiver down Natasha's spine, and she sits up slowly, easing her fingers away.

Maria's hands slide off her back as she moves up. Her eyes are still dark, heavy with desire and satisfaction, and she gasps, chest rising, as she feels Natasha's fingers slip from her, leaving her empty.  She feels more than a little exposed like this, but she doesn't move or try to cover up.

The look in Hill's eyes makes Natasha's throat tighten up. She tries to come up with something to say to fill the silence, but nothing comes to mind through the cloud of lust that's fogging her brain. She absent-mindedly slips her fingers into her mouth instead.

Big mistake.

The soft moan escapes Maria's lips before she can help it, and she quickly bites down before it can get worse. It shouldn't be so easy to turn her on again, but it's not her turn anyway, and she rubs her foot over Natasha's thigh.

For a brief moment, Natasha considers dipping down and burying her face between Hill's legs, but the caress of Hill's foot on her thigh distracts Natasha from how good she tastes on her fingers. She pulls her fingers out of her mouth, sits back on her heels, and reaches for her pants.

Cold dread settles in the pit of Maria's stomach as she realises what is happening. Her eyebrows knit together in confusion, her foot stilling against Natasha's thigh. "What are you doing?" she asks softly, her voice not quite steady.

Natasha shakes her head, her expression neutral. "You won this one, Hill. Isn't that what you wanted?"

There is no barrier now, no way to hide the flash of hurt and doubt that goes through Maria's mind. It's the second time she's left like this, and this time she can't look away or hide. It's like fucking whiplash, and she has no idea what wall she just drove into. Maybe it's not a wall, maybe she's going right off a cliff, which would explain the sickening feeling in her stomach.

She should have left then, should never have let Romanoff kiss her again. "Fuck you." She kicks at Natasha's thigh, because if she's going to be that exposed right now, she might as well use the advantage. So she kicks again as she pushes herself up, her arms still shaky, making it a graceless scramble to sit up rather than a dignified one.

This is better, the curses and the blows being slung at her. This is safer. Natasha should hiss and spit and fight back. She should gather her clothes and leave without another word. She should go back to her quarters and get herself off, too, one set of fingers in her mouth, the other deep inside of her. She can't do it, though. Not yet.

"Isn't this what you wanted from me?" she repeats. "For me to stop making you the butt of my games? For me to leave you the fuck alone?"

Maria stands, glaring down at Natasha like she might just be insane. She's too proud to try and cover up now, no matter how raw she feels, no matter how exposed. Her body is still flushed and glistening with sweat.  "How the fuck is any of this leaving me alone?" she challenges, hands fisting at her side. "How the fuck is getting up and leaving now not making me the butt of another one of your games?"

And how the fuck didn't she register she'd given her a very different answer about what she wanted only her moments ago ?

Natasha gapes up at her, angry and confused. "So you want to, what? Cuddle? I thought we were done here. In what possible universe does this not end with me leaving?"

"You're serious." It sounds more like an angry accusation than an actual realisation until Maria's brain catches up with her. She's left staring, her fingers still hooked in the underwear she just tugged on. "Fucking hell, Romanoff. There's fuck them and leave them, and then there's you."

"And what am I, exactly?" Natasha crosses her arms. She doesn't make a move to put on the clothes she's gathered. She only watches as Hill starts to get dressed again.

"Fuck if I know. I've snuck out of hotel rooms before, but I usually wait at least until the other person isn't wet anymore from everything I did to her," Maria snaps, tugging on her pants next and glaring at Natasha. "I at least let them return the fucking favour."

She growls as she snags up her bra and then tosses it at Natasha's head as hard as you can throw a sports bra. "And I don't fucking kiss them like that and then walk out. You fucking asshole."

The back of Natasha's neck starts to prickle, and she shudders as the realization sweeps over her. She'd been concentrating so hard on keeping her own emotions at bay that she hadn't realized she'd reverted to her old patterns. Hadn't realized she'd basically just treated Hill like a mark - give her what she wants, then get the hell out - and now she's caused more problems than she's solved. Return the favor? What does that even fucking mean?

You fucked this one up, Romanova. She freezes, unable to say anything, with Hill's bra clutched tightly in her fist.

Maria snorts and shakes her head when Natasha doesn't respond. "I'm such a fucking idiot," she curses underneath her breath, turning away from Natasha. She needs her bra, but she's not taking it back. She snags up her shirt instead.

Natasha watches her slip into her shirt, thinking of the shirt she'd stolen from her. It's still on the floor in the corner of her quarters, exactly where she'd thrown it. That same urge floods over her again, the urge to claw frantically at whatever this feeling is that's making her skin crawl, to peel it off of herself so she can throw it away. She wants to hurl the bra back at Hill, but she resists, holding it out calmly instead. Offering it up.

She still can't look at her.

Maria stops in her raging, staring uncomprehendingly at Natasha's hand, at the offered bra, and slowly it sinks in that she's the one dressed now. She's the one ready to leave while Romanoff is still sitting naked on the floor.

It doesn't make any sense. Maria forces a slow breath past her lips as she reaches out for the bra, but she doesn't take it, her fingers instead grasping at Natasha's hand. "Look at me."

Natasha is briefly torn between wanting to be contrary and not wanting to back down from the challenge in Hill's voice. She opts for a combination of both: her eyes shift to Hill's face, but she focuses on the corner of her mouth rather than looking her directly in the eye.

It's frustrating, and Maria's fingers tighten on Natasha's hand, her grip almost painful. "Really look at me," she grits out.

It won't do her any good to wince at the grip on her hand; she knows Hill won't feel guilty about it. Natasha evens out her expression and stares blankly into Hill's eyes.

Of course there's nothing there. Maria lets go of her hand, taking the bra from her. There's a power shift that she doesn't know what to do with. She doesn't want the upper hand, but then she probably doesn't have it, either. Everything between them always ends up being  her imagination, and it beats her why her imagination is so eager to go through this time and again.

"Your loss," she says roughly, stuffing her bra in her pocket.

And now Hill is back to being cocky. Of course. At first, the shift in attitude infuriates Natasha, but then she thinks about how being cocky seems to be the Hail Mary of Hill's defense mechanisms. Somehow, despite the renewed swagger in her bearing, she looks more hurt, more vulnerable than she did sitting naked on the floor. Natasha's expression softens, but all she can think of to say is "Hill, come on…"

Maria raises both eyebrows at her. "Come on what, Romanoff?" she's not even sure why she's still standing there, but then she's not sure why Romanoff hasn't bolted yet either.

Natasha doesn't really have an answer for her. No one here wants to hurt you. It's still true, but Natasha is sure she'll only make things worse if she acknowledges being aware of having hurt her.

"Nothing. Forget it." Natasha gets to her feet and scoops up the rest of her clothes, but she doesn't bother to put them on as she heads for the door. She only makes it a handful of steps before she pauses and turns. <<Get some sleep, alright?>>

Maria's irritation flares again; she can't figure out whether this side of Romanoff that she's seeing is genuine or not.

"Fuck off, Romanoff," she growls. Following her is not an option, so she stalks into the bathrooms like that's where she intended to go anyway.

As soon as Hill turns to leave, Natasha does as well. She slings her clothes over her shoulder and heads directly back to her quarters. At this time of night, she only passes one other person in the halls, but not even the look of shock followed by sheer terror on the poor guy's face as he processes what he's just seen can make her feel even remotely better.

She's entirely disgusted with herself, but the moment she makes it back to her quarters, her fingers find her clit, and she makes short work of getting herself off once, and then again. She grits her teeth and swears into her pillow, and if her lips form Hill's name, there's no one but the darkness to hear her.

Chapter Text

It's not a coincidence. It can't be a coincidence. The thought flits through Maria's mind, but she has no time to consider it since there are bullets whizzing over her head and she prefers not to get hit. Still, the intel being bad on so many missions cannot be a coincidence.

Focus.

"Retreat. Now," she barks down the headset, providing covering fire for her men as they head back down the corridor. It's more than bad intel this time. It's a fucking trap.

There's too many coming at them now; it's as if they knew the raid was happening. Maria only just manages to retreat before someone lobs a grenade down the hall. The blast still sends her stumbling backwards. It leaves her ears ringing, but it buys them time as their attackers can't follow her team's retreat anyway.

"Beta team, position," she shouts, hoping the ringing in her ears won't drown out the response.

"We're almost there, sir," Davon replies over the comm, and Maria growls.

Shots ring out again, this time from behind them, and the fuckers cut off their exit. "Negative, Beta team. Retreat now. Do you copy?"

There's only static on the comm while crossfire tears through the buzz in her ears. Maria can't do anything but duck for cover and wait it out. "Beta team! Retreat. Do you copy?" she shouts again. The fire lets up, and Maria carefully sticks her head out to try and get a position.

Not good. Not good. Fucking hell.

"Becs. Get your team out of there," Maria tries again.

"Can't. We're pinned down. Davon's not-" There's static, the sound of guns being fired, and Maria grits her teeth. One crisis at a time.

"Copy that. Hold position," she orders. They need to clear the entrance first. She focuses on her own position, on the guys at the corridor they just evacuated and the group blocking off their only exit. No, there's another one, but there's no time, and they'll have it covered too.

With a few hand signals to her team, they're ready and waiting as Maria pulls the flash grenade from her pocket. She motions the count down and squeezes her eyes shut, knows the others are doing the same. On ten she throws it, ducks, and when she shouts the order, they move as one. It's good that her ears are already ringing; she doesn't even hear the shots being fired, but watches the bodies hit the ground.

"Hold here!" She shouts, hoping her team will hear her. They're already moving in again, but Maria ducks out, moves up the stairs in the direction of the Beta team.

Her hearing is finally returning when she finds them. One man short. "Where's Davon?" she yells in Greg's ear, but he shakes his head and motions to the door further down the corridor. The one they're cut off from. Fucking hell. Fucking idiot.

"Give me cover fire," she snaps once she's assessed the situation, taking in the position of the enemy. There aren't too many of them, but they're well positioned, and she can't get a good aim at them from her position.

So she moves low against the ground as Beta provides cover fire. It's a close call, and she's only just pulled her legs in when bullets hit the ground beside her. "Good, you should be worried," she smirks, grim determination curving her lips when she shifts up, takes aim and takes out the first guy. She misses the next, but he's distracted, and her team takes him out instead.

It's almost easy after that. The corridor is cleared, but there's still gunfire ahead.

"Sir-" Becca starts, but Maria shakes her head.

"Retreat. Get out of here," she commands.

"But-"

"That's an order, soldier." Maria doesn't wait; she charges ahead. She meant it when she told Natasha that she doesn't have a death wish, but she also meant it when she said she wouldn't let anyone of her team die, either.

It's the last they see of her.

 

Davon makes it out, and all he offers is a shake of his head. Becca stares at him the whole flight, but his eyes are fixed on the floor. Becca wants to shake him, wants to kick him and hit him until he tells.

Greg is the one to pull her to her feet when they get to the carrier, and she's done when they get on the flightdeck. Everyone is giving them grim looks. Everyone looks at her like Hill is dead, and it makes no sense. Becca lunges at Davon, grabs hold of his jacket and shakes.

"What the fuck happened out there? Where is she?"

Davon pulls back, doesn't quite meet her eyes. "We got rushed. She told me to go, so I ran. I thought she'd follow."

"You left her!" It's only Greg's interference that keeps Becca from hitting the guy right there.

"She told me to go. I didn't ask her to fucking stay behind. I was close. We could have finished the mission!" Davon shouts back at her.

 

When Clint bursts into her room, Natasha nearly gouges herself in the eye with her tweezers. "Barton, what the hell?" She turns angrily, but his wide eyes knot her stomach.

"You're gonna want to see this," he explains, looking anxious and uncomfortable.

She eyes him warily. "Can it wait? I still need to do the other one." Natasha points to her eyebrow, but she's already setting her mirror aside.

"Tasha, just come on."

Clint is out the door and she's on her feet and after him in a second. By the time they reach the hangar, the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach is starting to make her sick. The team spilling out of the jet is so caked in dust and blood that it takes her a moment to realize who it is. She recognizes Becca by her voice first as she shouts something Natasha can't quite hear at Davon. Natasha takes in the scene, counting instinctively.

No.

 

"She told us to retreat and you kept going!" Becca struggles against Greg's grip.

"We were close to the objective! Aren't you fucking tired of always being on the losing team?" Davon shouts back.

Becca growls in frustration, and Greg wraps both arms around her waist to keep her from jumping on the guy, even if he doesn't seem too convinced that he's doing the right thing.

 

Natasha's count comes up short the second time, too. The knot in her stomach tightens some more, but she breathes through it, trying to get a more accurate read on the situation.

"Barton, why did I need to see this?" Natasha's voice is low and even, dangerously calm.

Clint grimaces and leans away from her. "Chatter on the comm says they're a man down."

"What?!"

At that moment, Becca's elbow connects with Greg's stomach and he lets her go. She dives for Davon, and Natasha finds herself rushing into the commotion to pull them apart. "Becca, sitrep!" she snaps. It isn't her place to demand a report, but that doesn't stop her.

Becca is breathing hard and she doesn't stop glaring at Davon. "Shit went south fast. Agent Hill split us into two teams: Alpha with her in the lead, Beta with Davon, Greg, Lind and me. Alpha would provide the distraction, we'd go for the objective. Except the place was crawling. We met resistance almost instantly. Dunno how they knew, they were just there. They'd cut us off when Hill gave the order to retreat, but Davon here ignored it."

"It was right fucking there! We could have snagged it," Davon spits.

Becca makes a face, but she doesn't lunge again. "Davon kept going and we got separated. They had us completely pinned. Hill got there, we got rid of the resistance, and she ordered us back. After that, I don't know. Davon came back, Hill didn't."

The words make Natasha's blood run cold, then the adrenaline takes over. "Debrief. Go." She lets go of Becca's collar and steps aside.

"Barton. With me."

Barton falls into step beside her. "It's Hill, isn't it?" Natasha's jaw tightens and she gives him a quick nod. "Where are we going?"

"To the armory. I want boots on the ground the moment the order comes down."

She can feel the look Clint is giving her but she doesn't care. "And if they send someone else?"

"Then we go anyway." It's stupid, but somehow this feels like her fault.

"Tasha, why - "

"I owe it to her," Natasha interrupts, quickening her step. Barton speeds up and keeps up with her without saying another word.


Maria wakes up to a throbbing headache. She's not sure how long she's been out, but she's still tied to the same chair they interrogated her in. Her mouth is dry, thick with the taste of blood, but other than a swollen cheek and a split lip she'll be fine.

It's her leg that worries her the most. The bullet went right through, but she lost a lot of blood and her head is swimming. She's not dead, though, so there's that. She can't have been out for more than a few hours. Maybe just the one. They're obviously not done with her if she's still in the same room.

Lovely. She wriggles her fingers and tests the binds, but there's no give in them. There wasn't the last few times she tried either, and all she has for her efforts are bloody wrists. She's pretty sure Romanoff would have a trick up her sleeve, but Maria doesn't so much. Not when her leg is stiff and uncooperative and most of her strength has drained from her. She needs water (they haven't given her any), and food (they haven't given her that either), and a plan.

She needs a plan.

Fuck. Preferably one that actually works.

 

The sounds of gunfire coming from the northeast quadrant are muffled, but so far the op seems to be going smoothly. Natasha keys her mic, catching her breath and keeping an eye on the incapacitated guards on the floor. "Clear. Proceeding to checkpoint." According to their intel, it shouldn't be too much farther.

She eases up to the corner and pulls a small, flat disc out of her belt, activates it, and tosses it down the next corridor. Two heavy thuds later, she rounds the corner to find a single door, no longer guarded by two large men with machine guns. According to R&D, she has approximately 15 minutes before they come to. Should be plenty of time, but just in case she jams their guns before lifting one of their hands to the touchpad. The door unlocks with a complicated series of beeps and clicks, and she slips through it into the dark room.

Maria squints as the light hits her. She can only just make out a shape moving, but it disappears from sight when the door closes. Her breath catches and she tenses in the chair, listening for sounds. It's not exactly the behaviour she expects from her captors, but it could be a trick, a way to get her off balance.

Her hands clench automatically, and she can feel the trickle of blood as the movement forces the ties deeper into her skin.

The clock is ticking, she knows it is, but when Natasha reaches the chair where Hill is tied up, she pauses, unsure how to proceed. The room is dark, too dark to get a clear read on the situation, and she's going to need Hill's full cooperation if they're going to make it out in one piece.

<<Hill, I'm going to get you out of here.>> Natasha pulls a knife out of her boot, preparing to cut the restraints.

Maria tenses as she hears the movement behind her, but the voice is like music in her ears. It's almost too good to be true. Maybe she's still out and hallucinating. Since when did she start recognising Natasha's voice like that? Then again, very few people actually speak Russian to her.

<<My team?>>

"Intact, as far as I know. Becca and Greg are in the vanguard for this op. Hold on, this is going to hurt." Natasha slashes the restraints away from Hill's wrists and moves to free her legs as well.

Maria hisses as she pulls her hands in front of her. Her shoulders are aching, but not as badly as her wrists. She has the urge to rub at them, but that won't do much good.

<<Good,>> she breathes, finally able to make Natasha out in the dark. "I'm going to slow you down."

"Don't you always?" Natasha taunts. Hill's voice is unsteady, so she hopes she can piss her off enough to keep her on her feet for as long as possible. "Are you injured?"

Maria chuckles tiredly and shifts forward in the chair. The thought of getting out of the damned thing is a good one. "Concussion, most likely. Bullet through my upper left thigh. Lost a bit of blood."

"Can you walk?" Natasha asks warily.

"Can I afford not to?" Maria answers. She holds out her hand to Natasha, knowing it's not going to work any other way.

Natasha evaluates her carefully, then bends to scoop Hill's arm up over her right shoulder. "Come on, we need to get clear before the guards come to."

The moment Maria gets up, pain shoots through her leg and up her body. She strangles a cry, but her fingers dig in Natasha's shoulder all the same, and her breathing comes in fast as she struggles to stay conscious.

"Better be quick about this then," she grits out, panting, but at least she's upright. She forces her fingers to relax their hold even as she puts some of her weight on her injured leg. The pain is blinding, but she can't let Natasha do this on her own, and she won't let Natasha get killed for her.

Natasha pretends not to notice Hill grasping at her in pain, but she can tell she's trying too hard to support her own weight. There are two options here: either Natasha can carry all of her weight and get her out, or she can defend their escape. Doing both at the same time is not really an option, and she can't count on Hill to support her own weight for long in this condition. She'll have to worry about that later, though.

"Hawkeye, get us an airlift. Southwest corner exit. Be ready to cover us." Natasha relays into her mic, already heading for the door, dragging Hill with her.

"Copy," comes the reply, followed by a tentative "Us?"

"I've got her. Have medstaff on standby."

"Roger that. I'll be in position to cover you in 2. Get her out of there, Widow."

Natasha secures her arm around Hill's waist. "Hold on," she instructs as she draws her gun with her left hand.

Maria laughs breathlessly because it's somehow the only sane reaction she has as she moves with Natasha… or more is dragged along. She does her best not to get in the way too much. "You can give me a gun, but I'm not promising any hits."

Natasha shakes her head. "I just need you to hold onto me for as long as you can." They make it out the door and down the hall. So far, none of the guards are stirring. That won't last long.

It should be simple enough, but it proves hard to put one foot before the other. Maria's aware of how she's leaning more heavily on Natasha than she should by the time they reach the end of the hall. She can feel her knee ready to buckle, and she grasps Natasha's shoulder harder, her vision tunneling in front of her.

Natasha jostles her a little to try to keep her alert. "Stay with me. This gets complicated if you pass out before we get outside." As they round the next corner, the men she incapacitated on the way in are starting to come to. Luckily, the heel of her boot slamming into the sides of their heads seems to do the trick. The longer she can avoid gunfire, the better.

"Yes, Sir," Maria grits out. She can't let Natasha down, but she's hardly even aware anymore where they're going. She's only aware of Natasha beside her, the sharp jostling movements that send agony through her body. It's only stubbornness that keeps her knees from buckling, because that would be simply unacceptable.

As painful as she knows it must be for Hill, Natasha keeps nudging her every so often as they make their way through snaking corridors. When Hill starts going limp she feels so much heavier, and the pain makes her go rigid for a few seconds. She's easier to carry that way, though Natasha knows each time inches her closer to losing consciousness entirely. They just need to make it a few more meters. They're so close...

Pain is just a message. A message that she can ignore. She wishes she could ignore.

Maria tries to focus on the sounds. The gunfire getting closer. Natasha's breathing growing heavier from the burden she's dragging along. Dragging now. Her vision grows dim again, and Natasha shakes her, pulls at her as her knees give way. She's grappling in the dark, hand slamming against a wall, trying to stay upright and not drag them both down. Her body is on fire, raw and empty, and the cry she bites back turns into a sob.

<<Dammit.>>

<<Quiet!>> Natasha hisses. It might be crueler than absolutely necessary, but encouragement isn't going to do Hill any good at this point, and if she attracts too much attention before they make it out the doors they're screwed. Just a few more steps.

Somewhere deep down, Maria has the perfect comeback. The perfect one, but damn if she can think of it now when all her energy is going towards those final steps. To holding on, keeping one hand on the wall to keep from slamming down again, and she bites her lip, the pain helping a little to distract her from that other pain that's trying to take over everything.

The door doesn't budge when Natasha tries it. Fuck. She can kick it open easily, but the noise is sure to attract trouble. There's really no other option right now, though.

"Hawkeye, are you in position?"

"Affirmative. Standing by."

"Good. We're gonna need some help here in a second."

"Roger that," Hawkeye confirms. "There's a shed due west of that door. If you can make it, you should have cover until the airlift arrives. 3 minutes."

3 minutes. They can make it that long. "Alright, Hill. Hold on." Natasha reholsters her gun, grabs Hill more securely by the waist and wrist, and kicks the door in.

This time Maria can't help the groan of pain, but there's something in Natasha's movements that tells her to hold on, to stay with it just a moment longer. Biting the inside of her cheek, she forces herself to stay with it, moving as much on her bad leg as she can as she hears the sound of thundering feet behind them.

It's followed by the sound of gunfire - probably aimed at her - but that's not something she can help right now. Then there's the sound of arrows, of explosions behind them and a sound that's familiar. It cuts through everything else and spells home. She holds on to Natasha a little tighter as they make their way towards it.

Chaos rains down on them as Natasha does the only thing she can do. She spots the shed and runs for it, putting all of her strength into half-dragging, half-carrying Hill across the dangerously open yard. Hawkeye is on form today, thank fuck, and except for a bullet nicking her upper arm - the same arm, goddammit, but just a nick this time - somehow they manage to take cover. Natasha dumps Hill unceremoniously in the shadow of the wall and pulls out her gun to return fire.

Everything goes black as Maria hits the floor, the pain finally taking over. It doesn't last long, can't be long, because Natasha's still shooting and the sound of the quinjet is louder when she focuses again. Louder means closer, which means she's going to have to be on her feet again.

Gritting her teeth, Maria tries to push herself up, her arms shaking with exhaustion.

Natasha's hand flies to Hill's shoulder as she struggles to get up. "Take it easy." The quinjet hovers above their heads and a rope and harness fall next to them. Natasha secures the harness around Hill, clips herself in by an anchor point on her utility belt, then pulls the release. Her stomach jolts as they're pulled up and away from the shooting. Seconds later, they're pulled on board and she unhooks herself, panting on the floor.

"I'm not that heavy," Maria groans and glares at the medic poking at her. She doesn't even remember reaching for Natasha, but she's somehow gripping her jacket again, holding on tightly.

"You're a ton of bricks, Hill." The hands on her jacket are a surprise, but Natasha reaches for her hands and grips them tightly, helping Hill steady them against the pain.

"Muscles," she breathes, wishing she would actually pass out for real now. It's strange how Natasha's hands are always steady when hers aren't.

"Donuts," Natasha taunts. The medic gives her a grim nod of encouragement, one that says 'keep her talking, keep her conscious.' She squeezes Hill's hands a little harder. "If you had muscles, I wouldn't have had to carry you."

"I'll show you donuts," Maria grumbles, squeezing her eyes shut as whatever the medic is doing sends agony through her body. "I'm gonna throw up," she adds, just stating facts.

"Charming." Natasha wrinkles her nose and shuffles back a few inches, just in case Hill makes good on that statement. "If you get any on me I'm going to throw you off of this jet."

"I'm not kidding," Maria starts to push up again, but apparently the medic was prepared as she shoves a paper bag in her face. It's nothing more than dry heaving, her stomach long since empty, and it reminds her of the bruising along her abdomen and all the other aches she's gathered.

It isn't exactly instinct that moves Natasha's hand - she's never really had the instinct to comfort or soothe - but she tentatively reaches out and places her hand between Hill's shoulder blades. The medic gives her a slightly dubious look, but she keeps it there, even while her own wounds are being tended to.

When Maria collapses back to the floor, she's feeling utterly spent and her hand is shaking as she presses it against her forehead. She glances at Natasha after a moment. There's no question there, just an openness as she's too tired to doubt or do much of anything. She just stares like she's seeing Natasha for the first time, and only the medic's movement pulls her attention away from Natasha's face. "You're injured."

Natasha shrugs, earning herself a swat from the medic who's patching her up. "Just a few scratches."

"Okay," Maria blinks. The pain is less intense now; whatever they gave her must be working, then. "You sure?"

Natasha chuckles a little, watching Hill's eyes glaze over as the drugs hit her system. "Hill, I could be holding my own severed arm in my lap and I'd still call it a scratch."

"This isn't Monty Python," Maria complains. She reaches for Natasha again, struggling to get back up to get a look at her. She's either completely ignoring the medic telling her to stay down, or she doesn't even realise she's there anymore.

"Don't be an idiot, Hill." Natasha's voice is gentle, but her brow furrows. They haven't spoken for weeks. The one, maybe two times Natasha failed to avoid her on the carrier in that time made it clear that Hill was trying just as hard to avoid her, too. And now she's grasping at her, high on blood loss and painkillers, trying to see whether she's lying about the severity of her injuries? Natasha helps the medic subdue Hill, then pulls her knees back, shifting away just out of reach. "It isn't your job to look after me anymore."

Maria stares at Natasha as she goes away, then she goes still, letting the medic push her down. She remembers her, angry and beautiful, her words cutting through her. Maria's hand stays on the floor between them, fingers grasping at the air before forming a fist as she looks up at the metal ceiling above her.

"I didn't kill them," she murmurs and closes her eyes. Everything is fuzzy, her mind struggling to keep hold of the thought and not slip away. They're dead. The light seeps through her closed eyelids and she remembers gold and red, reflecting. "I didn't get them killed. I didn't."

Natasha exchanges apprehensive glances with the medic, who keeps her hand on Hill's shoulder in a tentative attempt to reassure her. Natasha knows what Hill is talking about, even if she doesn't know the details of what she must be seeing behind her closed eyes. She opts to willfully misinterpret her anyway. "Of course not. The rest of your team made it out, Hill. Becca and Greg even made it out a second time."

The names filter through and Maria nods, licks at her lips, tasting copper and sand. It gets everywhere, in your nose and in your ears. In your underwear and in your shoes. Underneath your fingernails. Annoying. Annoying. Stupid things to think about when you're dying. When the sun drills down on you, lips parched. Cracking. She can feel the heat radiating up from her leg. Making her sweat. She's too dehydrated to sweat. Her lip is throbbing and there's no water. Just sand and blood.

She didn't kill them. She doesn't need to do anything to get people killed. Just be alive. The very act of breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Sand in her nose, in her mouth. Drown in it. Let go.

The sight of Hill lying there - licking her lips, breathing hard, her eyes glassy and far away - is unsettling, to say the least. The medic offers a reassuring hand on Natasha's knee. "This isn't uncommon for ex-military agents. The drugs make the flashbacks worse, but she should be okay."

Natasha grits her teeth and nods, then swats Barton, getting his attention. "Give me your headset."

He gives her an odd look, but complies without a word. Natasha fits his headset to Hill's ear and keys her own mic, radioing to the second evac team. "Get me Becca."

Several seconds pass before Becca's voice replies. "This is Becca, go ahead."

"Becca, I need you to brief Agent Hill on your status. Let her know you made it out okay."

"Okay. Agent Hill?" Becca's voice sounds relieved over the radio. There's a moment's pause, a moment that takes too long. A moment where the voice drags at Maria's mind, then fades. "Um okay… we're all here and accounted for, sir. Greg was an idiot and got his shoulder busted, but he'll be fine."

The voice doesn't belong in the sand. It tugs and pulls until Maria opens her eyes. Natasha's there. Natasha who had left. Who looks too bright and on fire, and is giving her a strange look as the voice in her ears rambles on nervously.

The meaning filters through, slowly, and the voice is quiet. Becca.

"Agent Hill?"

Waiting.

Natasha's waiting, and Maria's arm feels like lead as she drags it up, fingers shaking as she pushes to turn on her mic. "Copy that, Becca. Good work," she murmurs, voice rough.

Natasha slowly let's her breath out in relief, and her hand finds Hill's shoulder again. <<Welcome back.>>

<<I was gone,>> she says slowly, her mind still fuzzy. She knows where she went, even though it feels a little strange that she did. The pressure on her shoulder is grounding and she lowers her arm slowly, her fingers resting lightly against Natasha's thigh like it might just be an accident and maybe her arm just decided she was too tired there.

<<For a little while.>> When Hill's hand falls into her lap, the medic gives Natasha a pointed look. Her instincts tell her to back up out of reach again, but she takes Hill's hand and holds it steady. The medic smiles knowingly until Natasha glares at her, startling her into a hasty retreat.

Maria nods and her fingers curl automatically around Natasha's as she sucks in a breath. <<Don't scare my drug dealer away,>> she murmurs.

Natasha chuckles a little, her expression softening. "Tough, Hill. I'm cutting you off." She lets Hill keep clinging to her hand, pointedly ignoring the sly look Barton keeps giving her. Later, once the drugs wear off, there's no doubt they'll go back to shunning one another, go back to the crackling tension that builds whenever they can't help being in the same room together. For now, though, Natasha's mission is to bring her back in one piece, and if this prolonged physical contact makes that possible, so be it.

"Shame. It's nice," Maria's voice is soft, and she can't seem to take her eyes off Natasha now. "Except for the sand. I hate the sand. Gets everywhere."

It shouldn't be so hard to maintain eye contact, but Natasha has to concentrate on not looking away. She just has to keep her conscious long enough to get her to the med bay on the carrier. Just a little longer. "I know what you mean. I find it in my hair for days after." Somehow the glassy look in Hill's eyes makes small talk simultaneously easier and more absurd.

"Yeah." Maria's gaze shifts to Natasha's hair, and she reaches up, catching a strand between her fingers. It's soft and it brings a different sort of memory. "I'd never kissed a redhead before. Like fire."

The tenderness of the gesture makes Natasha's breath catch in the back of her throat. For a moment she pauses, wondering which of Maria's past selves is speaking now. The Maria she knows has no such fantastical notions of kissing redheads. The Maria she knows would probably sooner tear at her hair than caress it. Natasha's skin prickles with the awareness of everyone else in the cabin watching them. She takes Hill's hand and gently lowers it away from her hair. <<Be careful. You'll burn.>>

It's a little bit impressive how easily Maria manages the language change in her state, but maybe a lot of her thoughts about Natasha somehow end up being in Russian. <<I'm already burned,>> Maria reminds her.

She has two hands to hold on to now and she tries to tangle her fingers through Natasha's.

Natasha thanks anyone who's listening for language barriers and the drugs pumping through Hill's veins. With any luck, she won't remember any of this in a few hours, and no one will be the wiser. The thought is reassuring, but somehow it does nothing to lessen the ache that's building in Natasha's chest. She let's Hill thread her fingers clumsily between hers and lowers her voice to a soft murmur. <<So am I.>>

She won't remember any of this in a few hours.

Maria's fingers move against Natasha's, stroking gently and sliding between them. She hardly seems aware of what she's doing as she watches Natasha, the drugs having stripped her of any of those barriers she usually has up now. <<You didn't let me.>>

Natasha blinks down at her, confused and a little apprehensive. <<Hush. You're not making sense.>> She keeps her fingers completely still as Hill plays with them.

She thought it made sense, but this is apparently one of the few times Maria Hill is going to listen to an order from Natasha as she falls quiet. Her fingers don't still, however, and she rubs her thumb over Natasha's palm, brushes her fingers along hers in a silent caress.

As Hill strokes her hands, the crawling sensation starts to return, creeping slowly up Natasha's spine. Even so, she doesn't let go.

"Hey, are you okay?" Clint asks quietly. Natasha grits her teeth and nods, willing her hands to remain still.

Maria's fingers stop moving, but she doesn't let go as she frowns at Natasha. <<That look never ends well,>> she sighs, because apparently when she's drugged up she's more observant than when she's sober and too busy being pissed off.

Shit. Is she that transparent that Barton and Hill can both read her? Natasha breathes deeply and returns her face to a blank, neutral expression. <<I don't know what you're talking about.>>

Maria sighs and her grip on Natasha's hands tightens as she closes her eyes. <<You'll go.>>

<<Yes.>> Of course Natasha is going to go. They'll get back to the carrier, Hill will be taken to medical, Natasha will go to her debriefing, and that will be the end of it. <<But not yet.>>

<<Soon enough.>> Maria murmurs, and she draws Natasha's hand up, presses a kiss to her palm.

<<Be careful. You'll burn.>> Despite the shock that runs up her arm from Hill's lips, Natasha doesn't pull away. Her ears start to burn from the look she knows Barton is giving her, but she doesn't pull away.

<<I'm already burned,>> Maria reminds her again and she presses her cheek against Natasha's palm, eyes closing at the touch.

Across the cargo bay, the medic stops giving Natasha her slightly-terrified-yet-slightly-endeared look and starts shaking her head emphatically. Keep her talking. Keep her conscious. Natasha does the first thing that comes to mind: she pulls her palm away from Hill's cheek and quickly returns it, slapping her lightly in the face.

Maria's eyes snap open and she frowns at Natasha, her fingers closing around her wrist but she wouldn't have the strength to stop her. "What did I do?"

That's better. The frown is much safer. Familiar. "You're not allowed to sleep, remember?"

"Jerk," Maria murmurs, her fingers tightening on Natasha's wrist, but there's no strength behind it, and her eyes are already drifting shut again.

"That's right: I'm a fucking asshole." There's a hint of bitterness in Natasha's voice, but hopefully not enough to be detectable. She doesn't slap Hill again, but rather jostles her with her knee to keep her eyes open.

"You're confusing," Maria corrects, grimacing as the knee pokes against bruises she didn't know she had.

"That's just the drugs talking." Natasha frowns and jabs at her bruises a little more. This must be the slowest goddamned quinjet in the fleet.

"It's not." There's a hiss now, and she shoves at Natasha's leg, finally letting go of her hand.

Without Hill clinging to her hand, it gets a little easier for Natasha to breathe. Mercifully, the medic returns from helping someone else across the cargo bay, quickly checks Hill's bandages and IV, then kneels next to her and grabs her hand, effectively taking over the responsibility of keeping her awake. Natasha takes the opportunity to scramble away in as dignified a manner as she can manage, going to sit next to Clint.

"So. What was all that about?" Clint mutters, just loud enough for Natasha to hear.

Natasha scoffs. "Those painkillers are potent; she's high as a kite right now."

"Uh huh." Clint replies, unconvinced, but that's the last either of them speak until they dock on the helicarrier.

Chapter Text

She slips through the window and slinks across the room. After checking the silencer on her gun, she raises it and fires two quick shots into her target, a quick, silent kill. Her mark looks blankly up at her with brown, glassy eyes. Familiar.

<<Good, Natalia. Again.>>

The door unlocks with a complicated series of beeps and clicks, and she slips through it into the dark room. There's a woman, a prisoner, bruised and bloody and bound to a chair in the center of the room. She approaches slowly, drawing a knife from her boot. The voice in her ear is familiar. "Get her out of there, Widow." She raises her knife to cut the ties, but she slits the woman's throat instead. Her head falls back, her eyes wide and empty.

<<Good, Natalia. Again.>>

Familiar hands clutch desperately at her jacket as a familiar voice cries out in agony. The body doubled over in front of her convulses, then goes limp, one hand falling into her lap. She sits there, passive and cold, and makes no attempt to revive her.

<<Good, Natalia. Again.>>

This time, when Natasha sits bolt upright in bed, there's no one there to see it. Her shirt clings to the sweat that covers her body, and her heart races, even after her breathing returns to normal. A twisting stab of apprehension makes her shiver as she rises, dresses quickly, and hurries out of her quarters to the other side of the ship.

 

 

The medbay is quiet. Finally. For most of the day, Maria's team hung around, not that Maria noticed often. For the most part, they were just there. Familiar voices that Maria woke up to and drifted off on, taking words and images back with her in her dreams. Strange dreams that blurred together, making it hard to remember which was which. Dreams of sand and blood, dreams of fire and heat.

Someone would wake her every four hours, a hand on her shoulder to pull her back, but never the face she wanted to see. They would look her over, and then she'd slip away again. She's drifting in this in-between state even when Natasha slips into the room, her mind too unfocused to notice Natasha's presence.

Natasha sits sentry in the chair next to the bed. Under different circumstances, she might be amused by this role reversal, but right now she's too distracted by the images still swirling in her brain, left there by her nightmares. Hill's eyes flutter open every so often, but the glassy, unseeing look in them does little to reassure her. Natasha doesn't even really trust the steady noises from the machinery. She'd prefer a good, old-fashioned touch of her fingers to Hill's pulse to convince herself that she is still alive and breathing, but she doesn't trust herself to touch. Not with the feel of that knife in her hand so fresh in her mind.

It takes a little while and several glances longer before Maria's gaze actually focuses on the person in the chair. It doesn't seem real. It makes no sense for her to be there, so maybe her mind just brought her there. "Nat?" she tries anyway, her voice rough.

"Hey there." The soft focus of Hill's eyes is a vast improvement, and the knot in Natasha's chest starts to loosen. She struggles to find something else to say, for some reason to keep sitting here rather than bolting back to her room, or some other secluded part of the ship. "How are you feeling?"

"Like I'm drugged to the gills," Maria replies. She can't decide whether it's more likely that she made up a version of Natasha Romanoff to ask how she's doing, or if the real Natasha would ask her that.

The look on Hill's face is confused, curious, as if she doesn't really know who it is she's talking to. Drugged to the gills is right. "Do you know where you are?" Natasha wants to reach out and put her hand on Hill's but she can't.

"Medbay." Maria crinkles her nose and rolls her eyes. "They gave me the run down, but it's getting kind of fuzzy again."

Her answer is a lot more lucid and coherent than Natasha was expecting. "Do you remember what happened?" she asks cautiously.

"Bits and pieces," Maria admits, shaking her head a little. "It's a blur." Her attention drifts for a moment before she adds, "You came for me."

"Lots of people came for you, Hill. Greg, Becca, Barton, a whole team. They even completed your original mission objective while they were at it."

"Heard Becca," Maria agrees and she reaches up, rubbing at her eyes. They put gauze on wrists, and her face has definitely seen better days.

It's so strange, seeing Hill like this, all spaced out and bleary. Natasha almost smiles, would definitely smile if Hill were in a little better shape. "Not bad for a bunch of idiots."

"They're still idiots," Maria murmurs. "Should have heard them earlier." No, she doesn't really remember, but they were there, and she's sure they were saying stupid things. Then again, she has a tendency to call most people idiots.

"You should give them more credit," Natasha scolds. "At least they came to see you."

"You'd almost think they like me," Maria replies, but there's no maliciousness in the words.

Natasha does smile at that. "You should have seen Becca when they didn't assign her to the rescue squad at first."

"I can imagine," Maria smiles back, and just maybe it's not so much about being amused at Becca, but that she likes how Natasha looks.

As they lapse back into silence, Natasha begins to feel foolish for getting so worked up over a dream. She had nightmares like that all the time; there's no reason to get upset just because the people she killed this time all have a face she recognizes, for once. Even so, she still can't shake the phantom stab of - what? Remorse? Grief? - left over from the nightmare.

No. This is foolish.

Hill is alive and safe. She has her team and a team of highly skilled medical staff to take care of her. Natasha should just leave…

"I didn't expect you to come," Maria whispers, her eyes still focused on Natasha. It's possibly the most awake she's been in a while.

Natasha knows what she means, and she's not surprised to hear her say it. She is surprised at how her words sting, though. Just like she did on the quinjet, Natasha wilfully misinterprets her. "They assigned me to the rescue squad. It's my job." Her voice is soft, if a little cold.

"Not now," Maria says gently, meeting Natasha's eyes as she waits for her to see.

Natasha meets her gaze with guarded eyes. "If you don't want me here, I'll leave."

"I've never wanted you to leave, Natasha," Maria sounds tired and a little wary.

Natasha scoffs a little and shakes her head. This is just the drugs talking. Hill must be remembering some other time, maybe some other person entirely, though she did get her name right. It may seem like what she's saying is true now, but the moment her head is clear, she'll remember that's not how things are between them. Even so, Natasha can't help but murmur, "Why?"

"I like to imagine it's about the same reason that you're here now," Maria suggests softly, then snorts and shrugs her shoulders. "Then again, maybe these painkillers are really making me see things. Wouldn't be the first time."

"Sounds like both our brains are playing tricks on us," Natasha replies softly, shaking her head.

Maria is quiet for a long moment, her face a little more closed off than it was a moment ago. "What trick is it playing then?"

Natasha curses herself silently for putting Hill on-edge like that, but after a moment's reflection she curses Hill out loud. "Dammit, why are you always so quick to expect the worst from me?" she hisses, trying not to let her voice rise. "I'm here to make sure I didn't kill you last night, <<jackass!>>" The dream is still so vivid, so fresh in her mind, and the phantom sensations are only made worse by the memory of what it actually feels like to have Hill go limp in her arms. Natasha's throat tightens before she can say anything else.

Against her better judgment, her hand finds Hill's forearm and grips it tight, just above the bandage. This modicum of physical contact helped ward off the nightmares once; Natasha can only hope it'll help again now.

The shock at Natasha's words is impossible to keep from her face, and Maria flinches as Natasha grabs her arm, but it's not like their last encounter at the gym. It's nothing like that as Natasha's fingers dig into her arm, holding on and her breath catches.

"Of course you didn't kill me," Maria looks confused, but she's puts her hand on top of Natasha's before she can pull back. She's not even ready to think of everything else Natasha said; she's never seen her like this before. Natasha is closed and unreadable, not this. Not raw and open for Maria to see.

"Like I said: sometimes my mind plays tricks on me." Natasha breathes deeply, letting the touch of Hill's hand steady her, for once. The gentle beat of her pulse under her fingertips is reassuring, as is the warmth of her skin. Even more reassuring is the fact that Hill's arm is not slowly going cold in her hand.

"Dreams," Maria says quietly. It's an educated guess, and she's afraid to move in case she scares Natasha off again. It's nagging at her, though, the thought that her dreams would send her here. "Sometimes they feel too real."

"Nightmares," Natasha clarifies. "They're always worse when they're based on memories."

"Tell me about it," Maria lightly brushes her thumb against the side of Natasha's wrist. It's a casual gesture, as casual as her words. A light sympathizing to be left as such, or an invitation for who looks for one.

"I'd rather not." The dreams of an assassin and the dreams of a soldier may differ in the details, but if the look on Hill's face when she flashed back on the quinjet is any indication, they're not so different in their intensity. It's almost nice not to have to explain herself.

"Fair enough," Maria lapses into silence for a moment, Natasha's words still echoing through her. All of them. Natasha having nightmares about killing her; Natasha gripping her arm almost as tightly as when Maria was there when she woke up from the nightmares in her cell.

"I don't expect the worst of you."

This again. They've had this same argument over and over by now, but as Natasha opens her mouth to protest, something about Hill's tone makes her think twice. There's no annoyance this time, no arrogance or defensiveness or obstinance, just a simple statement of fact.

<<Thank you.>>

Maria's fingers tighten briefly on Natasha's when the rebuttal doesn't instantly follow. "I never claimed I'm good at people. I am a <<jackass>> after all."

"That's true; you are," Natasha teases gently. She starts to smile in spite of herself, but it quickly fades as her voice grows sombre again. "I'm glad I didn't actually kill you."

Maria gives her a crooked smile, a little surprised by how genuine Natasha sounds. "So am I," she says gently, teasing a little before she too grows serious. "I haven't believed you'd kill me since you didn't that first time."

"I wasn't trying to kill you then, either." Natasha squeezes Hill's arm a little harder. If she were anyone else, the gesture would be affectionate, but affection is not something that comes naturally to Natasha.

"No," Maria agrees, her fingers lightly brushing Natasha's wrist. "I know that now. If you'd been trying to kill me, I'd be dead. I like it better having you on my side."

"I don't know about that," Natasha smirks, "If I'm on your side, who am I supposed to spar with?" She taps the side of her chin thoughtfully. "Becca, maybe?"

Maria raises an eyebrow. All she can think of is having Natasha pressed up against the wall with her hand up her shirt, but she doubts Natasha's thinking of that particular type of sparring. Not that it stops her from feeling jealous. "Don't you have Barton for that?"

"Barton?" Natasha chuckles, "Hill, please." She makes the mistake of looking directly into Hill's eyes. They're finally clear, with light starting to return to them, and the knot in Natasha's stomach loosens a bit more.

"What? Isn't he cutting it for you anymore?" Maria teases.

Natasha shrugs. "He tries his hardest, I'll give him that." Her next words leave her, unbidden and unchecked, and Natasha doesn't know whether she's more astounded that she says them or that they're actually true. "I just miss you."

"I-" Maria stops herself, blinks a couple of times as she stares at Natasha. There's the ghost of a smile tugging at her lips, but she manages to keep it from turning into a full-blown grin. "You miss kicking my ass to the ground."

"Of course," Natasha smirks, covering quickly, getting her voice back under control, "No one else around here has got fight like you do."

"Damn right," Maria smirks back, but she sobers a little, and it's a struggle to not sound too eager, like she's been waiting for this. "I think we could figure something out. You're up pretty early."

She shouldn't admit that she's aware of Natasha's routines. Neither should she be thinking like she'll be in the gym next week to go one-on-one with Natasha Romanoff.

"I'm up pretty much all the time," Natasha agrees. For a moment, she just stares at her hand, still resting between Hill's hand and forearm. "Come find me when you're cleared to train, and I'll give you a nice, thorough ass-kicking."

"Hey, I might surprise you and wear you down so much you'll actually sleep like one of us mortals," Maria teases. She's not sure why Natasha is staring, and she slowly lifts her hand to give her a chance to pull away.

Natasha pulls her hand away slowly when Hill releases it. "After tonight, I think I'd prefer to keep the insomnia."

The air feels cool where Natasha's hand is no longer resting on her arm, but Maria can still imagine the ghost of her touch. "I suppose I can appreciate you not wanting to see me dead," Maria muses, not quite succeeding in turning that into a joke.

"I'd prefer not to see anyone dead,"Natasha murmurs, "but that's not really an option for me right now."

There's not much Maria can say. She doesn't believe in platitudes, and S.H.I.E.L.D. is going to ask her to kill. That doesn't change the fact that there's a part of Maria that wants desperately to protect this woman, even knowing that Natasha Romanoff doesn't need anyone to protect her.

"You get to keep people safe," she offers quietly, knowing that this one positive thing doesn't erase all the negatives, but she's pretty grateful either way.

"That part isn't so bad, you're right." Without her hand on Hill's arm, Natasha starts to drift. It feels a little like backing down, like a retreat to a safer distance. Natasha shifts a little in her chair, wondering whether it might be wise to retreat even further.

The change in Natasha is subtle, but now that Maria has seen the distance gone, she can't mistake it. It makes her want to reach out and catch Natasha's fingers again. It makes her want to pull her back, but she doesn't even know where to begin with any of that.

"Natasha," she says softly because it's the most personal thing she has on her.

"I should let you rest." Natasha gets to her feet, then reaches out to give Hill's hand a quick squeeze. It's a lame excuse, of course, but the longer she sits here, the more likely she is to say or do something ill-advised. She's said enough already.

Maria lets her fingers hook in Natasha's for however briefly she'll let her. "This may be the most sleep I've had since I left the military," she admits.

"I guess those drugs aren't all bad," Natasha smirks, letting her hand linger in Hill's, telling herself that Hill is holding her there.

"Just need to get tied to a chair and shot through the leg for it," Maria jokes, a little surprised as Natasha isn't instantly gone.

"Just don't get tied up and shot every time you need a few good nights' sleep, <<Jackass>>." Natasha pulls her hand away from Hill's and uses it to slug her in the arm.

"Ow," Maria complains, making a face at her. Not that it hurt, but she can pretend. "Stop calling me that, I'm going to think you like it."

"Make me, <<Jackass>>," Natasha laughs. She punches her again, then before she can think herself out of it, she bends and presses her lips to Hill's.

Maria tenses for a split second before she relaxes, pressing her lips back against Natasha's in a soft kiss. There's no anger, no desperation, just a softness she hasn't felt in a long time.

When she pulls away, Natasha gives her a small smile. "Get some sleep, okay?" She turns to leave just as the voice in the back of her mind starts up. What are you doing? Bad idea.

Maria has no words to offer. She stares, her lips tingling still while she can't help but wonder if maybe she's just high. Then again, she doesn't think her brain, could come up with this. "'Night," is about all she can manage.

Natasha pauses in the doorway and looks back over her shoulder. "Goodnight, Hill."

It's a challenge to not just repeat the words back at her like some lovesick teenager, but Maria manages. She even manages a smirk, <<Next time bring some gum.>>

Natasha shakes her head, her smile widening as she reaches into her pocket, pulls out the worn pack, and tosses it into Hill's lap.

Maria snorts as picks up the familiar package - she doesn't comment on how Natasha still has it - and grins. "Thanks."

Natasha doesn't say another word; she just walks out of the medbay and makes her way back towards her quarters. The warmth of Hill's lips ghosting across hers still feels dangerous, still twists her stomach, but it's vastly preferable to the stabbing sensation she woke up with. It's only a matter of time before this blows up in her face, but for now she can't help feeling lighter than she has for weeks.

Chapter Text

Maria Hill is not good at shore leave. She'd fought with her superiors about it. Just because she can't stand for very long doesn't mean there aren't plenty of things for her to do. Director Nick Fucking Fury himself finally had to come see her and tell her that getting captured, tied to a chair, and worked over for information earned anyone at least two weeks of vacation. Maria had argued him down to ten days.

Which still leaves her ten days to fill, and everything she wants to do around her apartment is proving too exhausting to actually do. It has her gnashing her teeth by day three when she's slept enough to last her a lifetime, especially when she realises someone blocked her S.H.I.E.L.D. account, making it impossible to catch up on some light reading. (Okay, not so light.)

Maria is bored - beyond bored - and the apartment feels unfamiliar, not quite her own. Then again, she doesn't have much that is her own - a few photos taken during her tour and an old faded picture of her mother. She could probably fit her life in a shoebox.

Really, it is a little pathetic the way she jumps on the phone the moment it rings. The Caller ID is blocked, but that is only promising.

"Hill."

"Um… Hi, Agent Hill." There is a long pause before the man adds, "Oh right, Agent Barton here."

Maria raises an eyebrow, certain that if S.H.I.E.L.D. needs her, someone other than Clint Barton would be calling her. "Agent Barton."

"Sorry to call you since you're on leave and everything," Clint starts.

"Not a problem," Maria says quickly, eagerly.

"Okay. Good. Um…"

"Spit it out, Barton," Maria sighs. Apparently she doesn't have much patience today.

"Right. Any chance you've heard from Tasha?"

Maria stills, her annoyance changing into something that resembles dread. "Agent Romanoff? No, why would I? I'm on shore leave, remember?" If it sounds bitter, Maria doesn't care. She hasn't seen Romanoff since the medbay. It was pretty typical, having Natasha waltz in and kiss her, then disappear while Maria's head is still spinning. It doesn't help with the teeth-gnashing.

"Yeah, so are we," Clint says. "Fury gave me permission to take Natasha into the city. I'm supposed to keep an eye on her."

"And she disappeared on you," Maria snorts. It's probably wrong how amused this makes her, but it's nice to see Natasha giving someone else shit for once.

"Yeah," Clint sighs. "I couldn't think of anywhere she'd go. It's not like she knows anyone here except…"

Maria blanks at that. She knows it's true, but Clint can't actually think Natasha would bother to come see her. It's almost flattering, except for how Natasha is very obviously not there. "She's not here, Barton."

"Right. Damn." She can almost picture Clint rubbing at his neck. "Got any idea where she'd go?"

"It's Romanoff," Maria points out. "Your guess is as good as mine."

"Well, you seem to know h-"

Maria decides to talk over him. "Did you check the obvious places?"

"That's going to take ages," Clint whines.

"I'd feel more sympathy if you weren't the one to lose track of her in the first place, Barton." Maria knows that's not fair, but her annoyance isn't entirely rational. This is what Natasha does best.

"Right. Can you um… can you contact me if she does show up there?" Clint asks.

Maria makes a face. "I doubt she will, Barton. Good luck." She doesn't wait for an answer before hanging up and scowling at the phone. Fucking Natasha Romanoff.

 

The lights are beginning to come on in a few apartments by the time Natasha ends up on this same corner again. This time, her feet come to a stop instead of carrying her hurriedly past like they did over and over all day, and she stares up at the side of the building, weighing her options. Clint's apartment in Bed Stuy is easy enough to return to on the subway, but Natasha doesn't relish the idea of spending another evening arguing with him over his insistence on sleeping on the sofa. It's not like she's sleeping anyway; there's no reason for her to have the bed.

She could continue to wander the city. Even on a Tuesday night there's plenty to do, but she's getting tired of being surrounded by people, and the idea of going inside off the street to get away from the crowds sounds better and better by the minute. This building has a doorman, though, so just walking in the front door is not the best option. She could always get to the top of the next building over and work her way down the fire escape, but the most straightforward thing to do is to scale the fire escape from the bottom. It takes a big jump and some scrambling for purchase on the stone walls, but Natasha makes it onto the scaffolding, and from there the climb is easy. When she reaches the sixth floor window, she just sits on the landing for a while looking in.

 

At some point Maria had turned on the television, but sitting on her ass on a couch to watch documentaries isn't something she's used to anymore. It doesn't help that her mind keeps wandering. She'd called Barton back almost an hour ago, but he still hadn't seen Natasha and had pretty much given up looking for her. She'll come back when she wants to.

That's probably the only way to find the Black Widow, really, and Maria knows it's stupid to worry; Romanoff can take care of herself. So Maria sets to the only thing that can marginally distract her: she starts cooking. It's the only plus side of being stuck in her apartment. The food on the helicarrier isn't too bad, but it isn't the same as a home-cooked meal, and Maria missed cooking. She's always had stupid fantasies of cooking Thanksgiving dinners. It's silly and entirely too domestic for her taste, but it would be an excuse to go all out. There's no reason to go all out when it's just her, and cooking for herself is always a little disappointing. That and she never does manage to get the portions right, which would explain why the pasta sauce she cooked up will probably feed her for a couple of days.

It smells pretty damn good, even if she does say so herself, and once the pasta sets to boiling, Maria sits down at the kitchen island with a sigh. Her leg shakes from standing up for so long, and her hair is damp with sweat as she runs her hand through it. "Pathetic," she mumbles, closing her eyes and leaning her head back as she waits for the pasta to cook.

 

Watching Hill cook should not be as mesmerizing at it is. There's just something about the way she moves around the kitchen, even with the pronounced limp, that is fluid, comfortable. Her hands are deft and sure as she chops, dices, stirs, sautees. After a while, she lifts a spoon to her lips for a taste, frowns critically, then adds a dash of something or another. Natasha almost looks away from the small smile of satisfaction that lights Hill's face when she tests the sauce again; she feels like she's intruding, watching something so personal, something Hill clearly enjoys. It's undeniably attractive to see her like this, though: no walls, no pretense, just Hill being herself.

Moments after she sits down at the island, that look of contentment vanishes - chased away by the same restless, frustrated, dissatisfied look Hill always seems to wear on the helicarrier - and Natasha wants to avert her eyes from that, too.

The problem with camping out on a fire escape for so long is eventually even a highly trained spy needs a bathroom. Natasha fidgets a little, shifting her weight around experimentally to see if she can ignore it for a little while longer.

It's only when Maria pulls the pan of hot pasta from the stove that she notices the movement in the corner of her eye. She stops, pot held in both hands with a kitchen towel to keep from burning herself, and she stares at Natasha. Huh.

She raises both eyebrows pointedly at the spy, then turns to the sink to pour the hot water out of the pan. It gives her a moment to steady her nerves, to make sure her hands are no longer shaking, and maybe to give Natasha a way out.

Once Hill's back is turned, Natasha ducks behind the window frame, out of sight, and waits.

Of course she's gone when Maria turns, and she sighs. It's tempting to ignore it, but she moves to the window anyway and unlocks it. She hesitates for a moment, wondering just how hard Natasha ran. It's a little foolish, but she pushes the window up anyway, just enough for someone to slip through. It's tempting to lean out, but she resists and turns her back again.

It's naive and terribly stupid, but she grabs two plates from the cupboard. She starts filling both of them; she made way too much pasta anyway.

The smell of Hill's cooking comes out through the window, making Natasha's stomach growl almost instantly. Rather than taking HIll up on her silent invitation and climbing through the window right away, she inches slowly back into view. Natasha contorts her body and face and presses herself up against the glass in an imitation of something out of a supernatural horror flick. Her eyes drill into the back of Hill's head, willing her to turn around again.

It's stupid. She knows Romanoff is there (sort of). She knows it, and yet still she visibly startles and starts cursing profusely. "Jesus Fucking Christ, Romanoff. Get your fucking ass in here," she swears as she forcibly puts the plates down on the kitchen island.

Natasha grins, immensely pleased with herself, and resists the urge to maintain her contorted position and scramble through the window like something out of The Grudge. Watching Hill jump like that is reward enough, and she doesn't much care to risk getting hit upside the head with a hot pan. Once inside, she lowers the window behind her and wordlessly turns to face Hill, arms crossed, starting to feel a little sheepish.

Maria grabs some utensils and puts them beside both plates. She only briefly spares Natasha a glance before sitting down. "There's beer in the fridge. I don't have wine, sorry. Seemed cruel to buy some and not be allowed to drink it. You can grab me an iced tea. Glasses are in the cupboard beside the fridge," she tells Natasha as she starts eating.

Natasha frowns at the indifferent tone of Hill's voice, then shifts her weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Where's your bathroom?"

Maria snorts and motions down the hall. "Second door on the right," she replies, looking mostly amused now.

<<Thanks.>> Natasha dashes down the hall, not bothering to try and keep her indifferent bearing. She takes the opportunity to scope out this part of Hill's sparse apartment: the wood floors, the plaster walls, the black-and-white tiles of an old New York building. It's tidy, simple, definitely doesn't feel particularly lived in. She wonders how much S.H.I.E.L.D. pays that allows Hill to keep this apartment, and how often she gets to actually stay in it.

Natasha washes her hands, trying to get all the dirt out from under her nails. Not that she's done anything particularly dirty today; the city just has a way of getting into all the cracks.

Hands and nails clean, she makes her way back to the kitchen and pulls open the fridge. She fetches a beer - good beer, too, not the cheap stuff - for herself and some iced tea for Hill, then joins her at the island.

"Thanks," Maria takes the glass from her and takes a sip. She studies Natasha more openly now. "You realise Barton's wetting himself thinking he just lost S.H.I.E.L.D.'s greatest new asset?"

Natasha twists the top off her beer and takes a sip right from the bottle. It takes some effort for her not to moan at how refreshing it is; she can't remember the last time she had a nice, cold beer. She shrugs at Hill's question. "It was his idea."

"For you to come here?" Maria raises an eyebrow, pretty sure that wasn't Barton's idea at all.

No, this definitely wasn't his idea. "To lose me," Natasha corrects, still being as cryptic as possible.

"So why did he did he call me, then?" Maria asks, not sure she's following. "You should eat before it gets cold," she adds, unable to help herself as pasta shouldn't be allowed to get cold. It has nothing to do with worrying that Natasha hasn't had anything to eat since she ran off on Barton.

"It was his idea to go play Hide and Seek in the Ramble. He failed to take into consideration that I am a much better hider than he is a seeker." Natasha picks at her food, but then has to stop herself from inhaling it. It's delicious; who knew Hill could cook?

"Barton's a bit naive, huh?" Maria looks amused, and possibly a little satisfied.

"It isn't all his fault," Natasha says around a mouthful of pasta. Somehow, she can never seem to bring herself to throw Barton under the bus. "I did ditch him." She smiles unapologetically and takes another large bite.

"I didn't expect anything else," Maria assures her and she leans back as she finishes, stretching sore muscles. Natasha's reaction to the food sends a feeling of pleasure down her body, and she smiles. "Not too bad?"

Natasha shakes her head with a small smile of appreciation. "Where'd you learn to cook?"

"Necessity for the most part. A bit from my grandmother."

"It's good." It's a simple, straightforward compliment, so of course Natasha backtracks a little. "Although, after the S.H.I.E.L.D. cafeteria, anything tastes good."

Maria gives her a look. "See if I ever feed you again," she says offhandedly.

Natasha only raises a defiant eyebrow and stuffs another heaping forkful of pasta into her mouth. After the seeming eternity it takes for her to chew and swallow that much food, she changes the topic. "How's the leg?"

"A bitch," Maria says honestly, though the question catches her off guard. She touches the scabs on her wrist and makes a face. "Did you come to check up on me?"

"Just making conversation." It's true; Natasha isn't exactly sure why she's here, but it certainly isn't to check up on her. Not to mention, Hill is sure to get defensive if she thinks anyone is worried about her. Natasha searches for another topic of conversation. For some reason, it doesn't feel right to just sit and eat in silence even though, once upon a time, they used to do that often. "When was the last time you got to spend any time off the helicarrier outside of a mission?"

"I haven't," Maria says simply. She'd leave it there, but Natasha is trying, and they should be capable of normal conversation. "You were my first mission on the helicarrier, and they've had us up there ever since. I came there from Madripoor."

"I'll bet you're bored out of your mind, then." They'd have that in common. There's so much to do in this city, but none of it holds Natasha's attention for very long.

Maria makes a face and she takes a long deep drink from her ice tea. "Fucking assholes locked my account," she complains, obviously taking this personally.

"For being such an overachiever, you don't seem to have many hobbies," Natasha teases, taking a long sip of beer.

"Like I have time for hobbies," Maria snorts. "Boxing is pretty much it for me. Apparently I'm not supposed to do that now."

Natasha chuckles. Even if it is strange to see Hill out of uniform and off-duty, her restlessness is definitely familiar. "If you could do something - anything - right now, what would it be?"

"You want the honest answer or the PG one?" Maria asks with a laugh.

Natasha raises a curious eyebrow. "The honest one, of course."

With a snort, Maria swirls the last of the ice tea in her glass like she might with wine. She takes a breath and downs it all, wishing it really was wine before she puts the glass down on the counter. She really shouldn't have said that, but she's not willing to back down now that Natasha's called her bluff.

She turns in her seat to face Natasha and studies her for a moment as if she's making sure Natasha really does mean that. It's possible she's just buying time, though, trying to think of anything else than the images her mind decided to procure at the question, but Natasha asked for honesty and she can give her that.

Maria can fake confidence; she can pretend not to notice the way her throat tightens around the words. "I'd push you up against that wall, get those pants off as I kneel in front of you, and then I'd have you ride my face," she smirks, tilting her head, all bravado.

Well, that certainly wasn't the answer Natasha was expecting. Her pulse quickens, throbbing hot between her legs for the second or two it takes for the shock to wear off. Natasha sips her beer, eyeing Hill critically, thoughtfully. "I doubt your leg would hold up in that position. Why don't we skip the wall step and I'll just queen you on the rug in the living room?" she suggests conversationally.

Maria laughs, some of the tension rolling off of her. She should have known she wouldn't really shock Natasha. It's a shame, but she likes the images her mind is conjuring up for her. "You said anything," she points out, "but that'd do it as well."

Natasha shrugs. "Just trying to be practical." Her tone remains casual; they might as well be arguing over which movie to see. She's mostly trying to call Hill's bluff, as usual, trying to see how far she can push before Hill pulls away, but somehow the game is different this time. They're both off the clock. They aren't Agent Romanoff and Agent Hill here. Just Natasha. Just Maria. It's not a situation they've ever been in before.

Her next question is meant to be a taunt, but when Natasha asks it she finds she really does want to know the answer. "Do you want me in particular, or would any warm body do?"

The cockiness slips away at Natasha's question, and Maria's eyes soften. "How far would you run if I say it's you that I want?"

"That depends." Natasha's expression is guarded. "Do you mean it, or are you just trying to one-up me?"

Somehow Maria doubts anything she says will sink in, so she doesn't try. She moves slowly, giving Natasha time to pull away as she leans in to brush her lips over Natasha's, keeping her eyes open the whole time to watch her reaction.

Natasha meets the kiss halfway. She keeps it simple, just a touch of her lips and her fingers brushing over Hill's cheek before pulling away. Her eyes are soft as she meets Hill's gaze, making sure she's really listening before she speaks. "After dinner. Let's finish eating and clean up the kitchen first."

Maria's lips still tingle as Natasha draws back, and she nods mutely, trying to get her brain to work again. She's been staring at Natasha for much too long, still leaning forward, and realises how silly - how needy - she must look. Quickly drawing back, she lightly touches Natasha's shoulder, blurting out the first thing that pops into her mind to fill the silence and keep her from feeling so self conscious. "So how long since you've had a home-cooked meal?"

Natasha only blinks at her warily for a few seconds before she manages an answer. "I can't even remember." The switch back to casual dinner conversation is almost disorienting, but it's a pleasant surprise. There's definitely still the flicker of flame behind Hill's eyes, but it's tempered with a patience Natasha hasn't really seen before.

As she watches Hill go back to eating, she wonders what it would be like if the two of them had met under different circumstances. Catching her eye across a bar. Running into her on the street. Picking up her takeout order by mistake... Not that wondering about that will do any good; there is no possible universe in which any of that would have happened.

The answer doesn't surprise Maria, and she nods slowly. "I suppose the whole assassin thing doesn't leave much room for it, huh?"

Natasha shrugs. "Really, it's the 'home' in 'home-cooked meal' that seems to elude me."

"Yeah," Maria agrees quietly, her gaze drifting across the living room. "This is about as close as it gets, and it feels more like a hotel considering how many times I've been here," she admits. It's easier to open up, show her what is inside her than it is to poke at Natasha, but maybe one is an invitation to the other. If she's truly honest with herself, she finds that she actually wants to share these little things about herself with Natasha.

"I wondered about that," Natasha admits. Now that their conversation has veered back into safer territory, this is the most comfortable she's been with small-talk-that-isn't-really-small-talk in a long time. Not that talking about herself has ever felt safe... She diverts the attention back to Hill. "It's a nice apartment; what a shame it's empty so much of the time." She picks up her bottle, only to find it empty already. "Do you mind if I have another one?"

"Go ahead." Maria waves her hand back at the fridge and shrugs. "When I left for the army, I was just a teenager. I didn't have a place of my own, and I didn't need one on my tour. In Madripoor, S.H.I.E.L.D. would house us on base. I was just a grunt so… I dunno. Guess I just wanted a place to touch down for once in my life."

Natasha gets up and brings both of their empty plates to the sink, letting her hands trail along the countertop and cabinets on her way over to the fridge. "Must be nice." She pulls open the fridge and grabs a beer.

"I don't know," Maria says honestly, watching Natasha move around her kitchen. There's a melancholy to all of this, and she rolls her shoulders, considers moving to start on those dishes, but she stays put, preferring to watch Natasha instead. "Feels weird for the most part. Guess I got used to having people around."

"I guess that makes sense." Natasha opens her beer and takes a sip, then turns on the faucet and reaches for the dish soap.

"Yeah," Maria agrees, grinning a little at how stupidly domestic this whole thing is, and she laughs. "Guess I'm drying off?"

"Sure." Natasha grabs the dish towel and tosses it at Hill playfully.

Laughing, Maria catches it, but she only gets up once there's a pile of dishes ready and moves to Natasha's side of the kitchen, propping her hip against the counter as she starts drying them off. "I should probably call Barton and let him know you're no longer MIA."

Natasha makes a face, handing the last of the dishes to Hill. "Let him suffer a little longer," she suggests, stepping closer and taking the dish towel from her hands.

"I'm not done yet," Maria protests, blinking as suddenly Natasha is in front of her. Since when did it become hard to think around her?

"Let them air dry." She sets the towel aside and steps even closer, going up on her toes to kiss Hill lightly.

It's hard to argue when she has Natasha's lips moving against hers, and Maria reaches up, letting her fingers brush over Natasha's cheek as she softly kisses her back.

Natasha kisses her until her head starts to swim, then she pulls back, letting her hands trail down Hill's thighs. She takes a step back, props a hip on the island and takes another sip of beer, returning to her earlier conversational tone, trying to keep her feet on the ground for this. "If you could do something - anything - right now," she repeats, "what would it be?"

It's an evil game, and Maria leans back fully against the counter, watching Natasha hungrily. It'd be so easy for this woman to make her lose control, and she draw in a breath, forcing a light laugh as she braces herself on the counter behind her, taking some weight off her leg.

"Do you want me in particular, or would any warm body do?" she asks, raising an eyebrow at Natasha.

<<Jackass,>> Natasha laughs, choosing to push aside Hill's jab, "Do you want to do this or not?"

There's a part of her that doesn't hesitate; the yes is at the tip of her tongue, and she can imagine it already. She would move in and kiss Natasha, and she wouldn't stop until they're both exhausted. It's the part of her that still tastes Natasha on her lips and wants to feel feel her again. She reigns it in, keeps the word from tumbling from her lips. Her fingers grip the counter tighter, as if she needs the physical restraint to keep herself from falling into this like they did last time.

It's too easy, anyway, as if Natasha is asking only because Maria put the thought out there like it's inevitable, like now it's expected. They've already done blind-and-reckless, and she doesn't think she can handle the fallout again. Not when they're in her apartment, not when she wants more than just the rush of sex and Natasha gathering up her clothes after. She wants it because there's a softness in ever touch they've shared tonight, and she doesn't want to ruin it by rushing in now.

"Let's see how it goes, okay?" she asks softly, tentatively.

"Okay," Natasha agrees, a little hesitantly. She can't tell whether she actually managed to call Hill's bluff or whether she's just having second thoughts. Either way, the change in the air between them tells her in no uncertain terms that she needs to tread lightly right now. She takes a step back and picks up her beer, picking at the label to make it easier to keep her hands to herself. "What would you like to do instead?"

"Oh, the options are thrilling," Maria smirks and moves closer again, holding out a hand. "We can watch television. There's a whole bunch of channels showing the kind of crap that will have your brain dribbling from you ear in under fifteen minutes. I might have some DVDs lying around, too. Maybe even a deck of cards somewhere, but somehow I don't think it'd be smart playing poker with you."

After a moment of consideration, Natasha takes her hand and twirls once under it, coming to rest with her other hand on Hill's shoulder as if they were dancing together. "You're right, that all sounds thrilling."

"Should get the adrenaline flowing," Maria agrees, smiling as she rests her free hand lightly on Natasha's back and steps into her.

Natasha leans into the hand on her back and sways her hips, her feet mapping out a basic rumba in place. "It's a shame you're injured. We could've gone dancing," she teases.

"Maybe when I'm healed," Maria laughs softly. Her dance is rather stationary, but the way Natasha moves against her is enchanting. She's happy to ignore the soreness in her leg a while longer for this.

Natasha raises an eyebrow as her feet keep moving. "Do you dance?"

"Poorly, but it's been known to happen," Maria looks amused. She can hold her own, but she has a feeling anyone dances poorly when compared to Natasha Romanoff. "Is that so hard to believe?"

"I'll take you for a test drive the next time we're both on shore leave at the same time." Natasha spins under Hill's arm another time, ending up pressed a little closer, her cheek brushing Hill's.

It's not just the closeness that has Maria's breath catching, and she doesn't quite understand how it is that Natasha is suddenly talking about next time when they've barely had a first time. Her fingers flex against her back, and she presses her cheek against Natasha's, holding her for a moment.

These moments don't happen often. Not for her, and she doubts they do for Natasha, either. It's strange and almost normal; it aches how normal this feels. They're not normal people, but she slides Natasha's hand to her shoulder all the same, traces her fingers down her arm so she can wrap both her arms around her waist. "Okay," she agrees quietly.

"Okay," Natasha repeats. She lets go of Hill's hand and wraps her arms around her neck. Her feet slow until she's just swaying, their bodies pressed together.

Natasha is muscles and fluidity. She's agility and danger, but right now she's soft against her. Maria's fingers lightly trace along her spine as she sways with her. She turns her head slightly, catching the scent of Natasha's hair and she lets her lips brush softly over her ear.

The hint of a touch makes Natasha shiver and lean her own lips closer to Hill's ear. She whispers low, repeating herself, "If you could do anything right now..."

Natasha's breath is warm against Maria's skin and it sends a shiver down her spine. Her hands flatten against Natasha's back, and she draws back a little, turning her head to capture Natasha's mouth with her own.

Natasha sighs and clings to Hill's neck, her fingers threading into her hair. She kisses her slowly, trying not to overanalyze the fact that she isn't running from this, despite the way her heart is racing. There are no cameras to worry about, no uniforms, no guns, no blood, no games. Nothing to stand in the way of whatever comes next.

The feel of Natasha's hands in her hair has Maria humming into the kiss. Her hands drift down Natasha's back to her hips, pulling her closer as her tongue teases at Natasha's lips. She isn't thinking now. Thinking only makes a mess of things, and Maria is rather enjoying just feeling. Just for a little while longer.

Natasha's lips part instinctively, deepening the kiss. She has to remind herself to breathe; all she can think of is the warmth of Hill against her. This is so different from everything that came before it, and yet it feels familiar, like she missed this even though she hasn't ever had it before.

Maria's fingers tighten their hold, drawing Natasha's hips closer against hers. The pressure hurts, but it's a pain at the edge of her mind, not nearly enough to drown out the feeling of Natasha's lips against hers or the press of their bodies.

The twinge that goes through Hill's body does not go unnoticed. "You should get off of that leg," Natasha murmurs into the kiss, but she doesn't pull away.

"I know," Maria whispers back, nuzzling Natasha while she rubs her thumbs over Natasha's hips, reluctant to let her go.

Natasha's fingers hook into the waistband of Hill's pants and pull gently. "Sofa or bedroom?"

The simple tug sends a jolt down her stomach, and Maria grins and ducks her head, stealing a soft kiss from Natasha. "Depends. How much were you looking forward to watching television with me?" she asks, eyes twinkling with amusement.

"Oh, so much," Natasha laughs, trying to catch her breath a little. The gentleness is not what she's used to, but she doesn't want to pull away. She strokes Hill's cheek and kisses her again.

Maria smiles against Natasha's lips. "Does that mean you're going to be heartbroken if I admit that I really need to lie down for a while?" she asks as she slides her arm up, pulling Natasha closer against her.

"Not at all," Natasha chuckles, grazing her teeth over Hill's bottom lip. She soothes the bite with the tip of her tongue, an odd combination of the familiarity of her lip between her teeth and the almost tender flick of her tongue. "Do you need me to carry you?"

Maria's breath catches, and she looks a little dazed as she processes the question.

"I think I can manage," she finally says with a laugh, letting her arm slide slowly away so Natasha can move.

Natasha chuckles and nuzzles her cheek against Hill's. "Lead the way?"

Chapter Text

Maria is much too old to be nervous, and much too practical not to recognise the limits of her body that keep her from lifting Natasha up into her arms and carrying her into the bedroom like she's in some stupid rom-com. She settles for brushing a soft kiss over Natasha's cheek as she reaches for both her hands, tangling their fingers as she leads Natasha to the bedroom. It's not a very long walk - it's actually pretty short - but Maria is aware of every step, and not just because her leg is aching by now.

There's something about the tangle of their fingers that seems so much more intimate than the tangle of their mouths, and it makes Natasha shiver a little, but she lets herself be pulled along down the hall. Her stomach knots a little, but she breathes through it. She owes her this.

Maria comes to a stop beside the bed. Sitting would be smart, but something in Natasha's face has her hesitating. She leans in, brushing her lips over Natasha's.

"You okay?" she asks softly.

"Yes." Natasha kisses her again, a little hesitantly. She's still waiting for the voice in the back of her mind to start telling her to run. It's conspicuously silent, and the fact is as unsettling as it is liberating.

Maria kisses her back just as softly, gently rubbing her thumb against Natasha's palm. She doesn't try to escalate now, just follows the soft touches of Natasha's lips against hers.

Before she can overthink it, Natasha pulls slowly away and sits on the edge of the bed. She leans back on her elbows and levels an inviting stare at Hill, waiting to see what she'll do.

It's with some relief that Maria sits down beside Natasha, a soft groan escaping her lips before she laughs and reaches out, tracing her fingers over Natasha's cheek.

"I promise I'm normally a lot smoother," she says, leaning in to kiss her again.

"Mmhmm, sure," Natasha teases, kissing her back. She tangles her fingers into her hair and settles back onto the bed, pulling her with her, taking her time. Even without the fierce intensity, there's still plenty of heat between them.

Maria settles to Natasha's side, kissing her languidly as her fingers trace over her cheek and down the side of her neck, soft touches that ghost across the skin and are such a contrast to the way they've touched in the past. It fills her slowly, heat and warmth building inside her, and it becomes part of their kisses, lips parting, her tongue teasing as her fingers curl in Natasha's hair.

Stubborn, arrogant, and an exceptionally good kisser. Now that their kisses are not a battle, Natasha lets herself get lost in the slow burn generated by Hill's lips and tongue. She matches her touch for touch, breath for breath, content to follow Hill's lead, curious to see where this goes now that they're no longer driven by danger and animosity.

Maria shifts carefully, putting a little more of her weight on Natasha as she deepens the kiss, her thumb pressing at the soft spot behind Natasha's ear. It's tempting to stay there, but there's so much left to explore, and she reluctantly draws back from the kiss. It makes her breath catch in her chest, and her lips are tingling, wanting more, but she waits, wanting Natasha to look at her before she continues.

It takes a moment for Natasha's eyes to focus on Hill's face once she breaks the kiss. She blinks a few times then raises an eyebrow. "What is it?"

Chuckling, Maria leans down, resting her forehead briefly against Natasha's, taking the moment even if it wasn't what she'd meant to do. "Nothing," she whispers, bumping her nose against hers.

A touch so gentle should not make Natasha twitch, but it does. She tries to shake it off. "Thanks for not headbutting me this time."

"You deserved that," Maria snorts and draws away, pressing kisses to Natasha's jaw instead.

"I deserve worse than that," Natasha mutters, going still. Her eyes squeeze shut as she tries to reconcile the intoxicating sensation of lips on her jaw with the memory of her bloody, nearly-broken nose. The cognitive dissonance is disorienting, to say the least; she reminds herself to breathe again.

Maria can feel her going still beneath her, and she quickly moves up again, bracing herself on her elbow as she looks down at Natasha.

"Shit, Nat. No," she says, a little desperately as she cups Natasha's cheek in her hand, her thumb rubbing over her cheekbone. "You don't. That wasn't you."

"That's a hard lesson to unlearn." Hill's fingers on her face send jolts across her skin. She keeps her eyes closed, concentrating on her breathing.

Maria leans down, her fingers sliding into Natasha's hair as she presses a kiss to her forehead. "I'm sorry," she whispers softly.

<<Thank you>> Natasha ducks her head under Hill's chin and rests her cheek against her chest. She can hear her heartbeat muffled against her ear, and it is oddly reassuring. Natasha balls her fists around the collar of Hill's shirt.

Fuck, but she really screwed up. Maria wraps her arms around Natasha, carefully rolling onto her back and drawing Natasha on top of her.

"Me and my big mouth, huh?" she murmurs, hugging her close.

Natasha chuckles and finally opens her eyes again as Hill rolls them over. She studies her face for a moment. "You confuse me, Maria Hill."

"How's that?" Maria asks, reaching up to brush Natasha's hair back behind her ear.

"After everything I've done to you..." Natasha trails off, shaking her head. What is she supposed to say? 'You confuse me because you're kissing me when you should be throwing me out of your apartment?' 'You confuse me because I don't know whether I want to hit you or kiss you?' 'You confuse me because I can't explain why it's so important to me for you to think well of me?' 'You confuse me because I want to make you happy, but I'm not really sure how to do it?'

"You've been a bit of a handful," Maria agrees quietly, cupping Natasha's cheek to make sure she doesn't look away. She's hard to read again; Maria doubts she'll ever truly be able to read this woman.

<<I'm sorry.>> It takes a tremendous amount of effort to get the words out of her mouth. "I don't really know how to be anything else."

"You seem to be doing pretty well so far," Maria murmurs, sliding both hands into Natasha's hair. She doesn't push or pull her closer, however, just watches her quietly. Then she grins a little. "Barton might disagree, but I don't particularly care about that."

"Barton," Natasha scoffs, almost affectionately. "I'd say he underestimated me, but if he thought to call you in case I turned up here, he knows me better than I do." The thought is sobering. She could have gone anywhere in the city…

Maria hums and rubs her thumbs over Natasha's temples, raising an eyebrow. "Guess he's not completely useless then," she says softly.

Natasha freezes. The bruises on her temples have long since healed, of course, but she can't help but feel them under Hill's thumbs. "Who is it you want me to be?" she asks quietly.

The question cuts through her, and Maria slides her hands gently over Natasha's face, cupping it between them as she watches her. "You."

"That doesn't really narrow it down." There's wry humor in Natasha's tone, but it doesn't quite reach her eyes.

"Doesn't it?" Maria brushes her fingers over Natasha's cheek, but she doesn't let her go. "Tell me who you are."

"Fuck if I know,"Natasha shrugs. "They scooped me out, scrambled me around, and poured me back in. And they did it because I asked them to. Now, your guess is as good as mine."

"You picked a name," Maria says quietly, brushing her fingers over Natasha's forehead. "Who do you want Natasha Romanoff to be?"

"If you want me to answer that right now, off my cuff, I can't." Natasha sits up and moves away from Hill, pulling her knees up to her chest. "Maybe a better question is, who did you think I am when you invited me in tonight?"

Maria sighs at the distance and reaches out, letting her fingers brush Natasha's ankle, but she makes no move to pull her back if space is what she needs. "How about the woman who's been getting under my skin ever since we met?" she suggests. "The one who tries to flirt with me over bubble gum and who can kick my ass. Or the one who's there to push and pull at me when I'm so stubborn I go blind, or who doesn't seem to like it when I want to run myself into the ground? And then there's the woman who reaches for me, who holds on to me like maybe I might actually mean something to her, but she keeps pulling back when I reach for her. I keep thinking I made her up, but then she's there again, and she's in my kitchen doing my dishes, and it's the first time this place hasn't felt so damn empty."

She shuts up then, glances up at the ceiling because that was more than she wanted to say. She half expects Natasha to be gone when she finally dares to look back at her.

As she listens, Natasha's chest constricts tighter and tighter until she can hardly breathe. "But you hate me."

Maria huffs and glances back at Natasha. Natasha, who is still there. They're still talking, even if Maria can't read that expression. "You've pissed me off a couple of times," she agrees. There's no point in denying it. "I don't think that constitutes hating you, though. Most people tend to piss me off at one time or other."

Maria makes a face and rolls her eyes. "I'm not good at this. I'm not good at knowing someone can…" She lets out a breath and glares back up at the ceiling. "I don't do this. I don't open up and I don't know why it keeps happening with you." Or why she keeps coming out feeling like she got kicked.

After a few deep breaths, Natasha releases her death grip on her knees and sits cross-legged on the bed. "I know what you mean." Her voice is calmer and much more even than her thoughts. "You'll forgive me if I'm taken aback by how gentle you're being tonight; it's not what I expected after the snapping and the swearing and the punches." Natasha tempers her straightforwardness with sarcasm.

The words sting, even as Natasha sounds almost formal - maybe they sting because she sounds so formal. Maria rolls back to her side so she can watch Natasha as she tries to figure out what she means. "Do you mind?"

Natasha blinks in surprise, both at the question and at the answer that comes immediately to mind. "A little, yes."

"Do you want me to stop?" Maria asks. The question leaves a tightness in her chest.

In lieu of an answer, Natasha leans forward onto her hands and knees, positioning herself over Hill. Her face hovers a breath away, unmoving.

"That'd better be a no," Maria mumbles, half joking, but then she leans upward, closing the distance between them as she kisses Natasha tenderly.

Natasha bites Hill's lower lip and pulls slowly until it slips from between her teeth. "It is." She lowers her head to kiss the underside of Hill's jaw.

Maria's eyes close at the touch, and she slides her fingers in Natasha's hair, tiling her head back to give her room. "Okay," she breathes.

"Okay," Natasha repeats, mouthing at Hill's neck. Her fingers find the hem of her shirt and slip just below it.

Maria arches her back, pushing up against the touch. She's pretty sure their roles were reversed a moment ago, but for now she's happy to let Natasha take control again, to let her get comfortable with whatever it is that they're doing.

This is better. Safer. Natasha's teeth close around Hill's collarbone, but she doesn't bite down. It's a sort of compromise, the touch of teeth without leaving a mark.

With a soft hiss, Maria's fingers flex against Natasha's neck before relaxing and tracing softly down, slipping under her collar.

Natasha works the bottom few buttons of Hill's shirt open as she kisses her neck, then slides abruptly lower. She pulls Hill's undershirt untucked as she goes so she can press her tongue to the newly exposed skin beneath it.

Maria sucks in a sharp breath at the feeling, and she slides her hand back into Natasha's hair. "Nat." She breathes the name and shifts underneath her, pressing upwards towards the touch.

Nat. Hill is the only one in the world who ever calls her that, and this is by far her favorite context in which to hear it. Natasha sighs as she runs her mouth up the cleft in the center of Hill's abs, swirling her tongue into her navel as she passes it.

Maria's fingers flex in her hair, there's a light tug before she stops herself and laughs breathlessly. "Thought it was my turn to drive you crazy."

Natasha raises an eyebrow and nips at her skin. "You don't like this?"

"Oh, I do," Maria assures her, lightly scratching at Natasha's scalp.

"But?" Natasha prompts between open-mouthed kisses.

"No buts," Maria murmurs. "Just that I owe you still."

Natasha huffs against her belly and works her way lower, her fingers hooking into the waistband of her pants. "No, you don't."

"I can count," Maria argues, lifting her hips for Natasha and grimacing a little at the pull on her leg.

"That's not how it works." Natasha slides Hill's pants down over her hips, carefully avoiding her leg wound.

"Tell me how it works then," Maria asks softly, pushing up on her elbows to look at Natasha.

Natasha shrugs and pulls her top off unceremoniously. "What's the point of keeping score?"

It isn't usually, but the words get stuck in Maria's throat as she remembers Natasha leaving. Or was she the one who left in the end?

Hill's silence makes the corner of Natasha's lip curl in a close approximation of a smile. She unhooks her bra and tosses it to the floor with her top, then reaches for the rest of the buttons on Hill's shirt.

Maria's eyes flick down, taking in the sight of Natasha Romanoff topless, but when Natasha reaches for her buttons, she covers her hands and leans in for another kiss.

Natasha turns her head slightly so Hill's lips meet the corner of her mouth, then she dips to kiss her ear. Her breasts press into Hill's chest, pinning their hands between the two of them.

"Nat." Maria's voice is husky, but that doesn't change that her name is spoken in a plea or a warning.

"Mmn?" Natasha hums into the crook of her neck. She throws a leg over Hill's lap and sits lightly on her hips.

"Kiss me," Maria pleads, and she hates the words, hates how much she needs it and how it feeds the tightness in her chest.

It would be so easy to turn this into a game, to keep pressing her mouth to Hill's pulse point and point out that she is kissing her, but something in the unguarded, pleading tone of Hill's voice wins her over. She props herself up on her elbows, then slowly lowers herself down to brush her lips against Hill's.

Maria's fingers curl behind Natasha's knees, and she quickly presses her lips up against Natasha's, needing that kiss, needing the reassurance it brings.

The need behind the kiss is grounding, centering. Desire is a language Natasha speaks fluently, and she can feel her own rising to meet Hill's. She lets it take over as she kisses her deeply, a little sloppily. Her fists ball in HIll's hair, trying to pull a moan from her.

The tightness slowly eases as Natasha's kiss deepens, and Maria can feel herself sink into it. It's heat and warmth that pool in the pit of her stomach, that has her tilting her head to draw Natasha in deeper, her hands sliding to her hips, pulling her closer. The tug at her hair draws a moan from deep within her chest. It's like falling; it's like floating. It's Natasha keeping her there, hips pressed against hers, hands and mouth and tongue drawing her in, stripping past all those defenses like they aren't even there.

Eventually the need for oxygen wins out over the need to have her tongue in Hill's mouth. Natasha breaks the kiss, breathing hard. She sits back on her heels - careful not to put too much weight on Hill's hips - and shakes her hair away from her face. Her fingertips trace the lines of Hill's face, her creased brow, flushed cheeks, strong jaw, swollen lips. Natasha's eyes darken, but they never leave Hill's.

The soft touches make Maria want to close her eyes, but she couldn't look away from Natasha even if she wanted to. She doesn't want to.

"Like what you see?" she asks quietly, her hold on Natasha's hips tightening.

"Yes," Natasha answers simply. Her hands make their way to HIll's shirt, and she undoes the last button. "Show me more." Her hands tug at the shirt, pulling Hill up off the mattress.

Maria chuckles and sits up. She starts shrugging out of her shirt, letting it fall to the bed. "Which part exactly do you want to see more of?" she asks as she lets her hands slide up Natasha's sides.

Natasha slides her hands down Hill's arms, helping her out of the shirt, then she presses a hot kiss to her shoulder. "All of it."

"Greedy," Maria shivers and trails her fingers up Natasha's back, brushing her neck before letting her hands fall away and reaching down to get her undershirt off.

Natasha only hums, her palms sweeping over as much newly exposed skin as they can. Her eyes wander, mesmerized, admiring.

There are still bruises left, all colours of the rainbow, but Maria doesn't seem to mind or notice when Natasha touches them. Maria leans in, brushing her lips over Natasha's cheek as she reaches behind herself to unhook her bra.

Natasha leans her head against Hill's. Her lips start to reach for her ear, but she stops herself and pulls back. She studies Hill's face for a moment before cupping her cheeks in both hands and kissing her slowly, full on the lips.

Maria forgets about taking off her bra, leaving it hanging loose on her shoulders as she reaches up, curling her fingers around Natasha's wrists as she leans into the kiss.

Hill getting distracted is enough to make Natasha chuckle against her mouth. "Need a hand with that?"

"Isn't that what you're here for?" Maria asks, grinning against Natasha's lips. She releases her wrists and lets her fingers trail down Natasha's arms as she tilts her head and presses kisses along Natasha's jaw.

Natasha's breath catches in the back of her throat as Hill kisses her. Natasha's fingers hook into Hill's bra and pull it the rest of the way off her. She wastes no time palming her breasts, brushing her thumbs across her nipples.

Maria hums low in her throat and she stills, her lips brushing lightly at Natasha's jaw as she gets distracted. She arches her back, pressing into Natasha's hands before she remembers what she was doing and returns to kiss Natasha's skin, pressing kisses below her ear and nipping softly at her earlobe.

Natasha savors the warmth that spreads from Hill's lips through her entire body for a few more seconds before placing her palm on the center of Hill's chest and guiding her gently back down onto the mattress.

Maria chuckles, but she doesn't fight it. She's not done touching, however, and she reaches up, tracing her fingers along Natasha's collarbones and down her chest, brushing the side of her breasts.

Natasha shifts to straddle Hill's uninjured leg and, after a moment of letting her gaze sweep hungrily over her bare torso, she slides further down her body. Her hands wrap around Hill's wrists, pulling them away from her breasts, but rather than pinning them to the bed, she takes her hands and threads their fingers together.

It's surprising, more intimate than Maria expected, and Maria presses her palms against Natasha's, sliding her fingers slowly between Natasha's in a teasing movement. Her eyes are dark as she watches Natasha; it's entirely silly how she's even a little nervous. She hasn't been nervous about sex in a long time.

Slowly, Natasha bears their hands down onto the bed and lowers her head to kiss Hill's ear, her throat, the center of her chest. She pauses, her mouth tantalizingly close to her breast, and exhales slowly. Her breath plays across Hill's skin. <<Beautiful,>> she murmurs before closing her lips around her nipple.

Maria gasps, her fingers tightening their hold on Natasha's as she arches her back up.

"Fuck," she curses, laughs a little, and rubs her thumb over Natasha's. She's not sure when Russian suddenly became sexy, but it's definitely doing it for her right now. <<So are you,>> she manages, her breath coming in fast.

Her laugh is low, warm against Hill's skin. She teases her nipple with the tip of her tongue, flicking lightly and sighing appreciatively as it hardens in her mouth. It's amazing how quickly Hill's voice - whether she's swearing or speaking Russian with her American accent - manages to quicken the beat of Natasha's pulse between her legs. As much as she wants to rub up against Hill's thigh, she resists.

Maria's hold tightens on Natasha's hands. It's a restless movement where she relaxes when she's aware of it and clings when Natasha's catches her off guard or when she gets lost in the sensations. It doesn't take too long before her hips are moving, looking for more friction.

The movements of Hill's hands, her back, her hips are mesmerizing. Almost reluctantly, Natasha frees one hand and trails it down Hill's body, reaching for the waistband of her underwear, craving the reactions she knows are sure to follow.

Maria nods in approval, her hand settling on Natasha's shoulder, rubbing at the muscles there and she lifts her hips off the bed. <<All of it.>>

<<Not yet,>> Natasha chuckles and slips her hand lower. She curls her fingers between Hill's thighs, teasing her with a light touch through the thin fabric.

"Tease," Maria breathes, biting her lip. The touch is light, but she's already sensitive, making it a struggle to stay still.

"Were you expecting anything less?" Natasha grazes her teeth over Hill's nipple to contrast with the gentle stroke of her fingers.

"No," Maria hisses, fingers grabbing at Natasha's hair. She pushes her hips down towards Natasha's fingers.

Natasha pulls her hand away, sliding it lightly up Hill's body to her other breast. She rolls her nipple between her thumb and forefinger. <<Want more?>>

It takes a moment for Maria to manage a response aside from a frustrated whine at the loss. <<You know I do.>>

The instinct to make her beg for it is strong, but Natasha has no doubt that, were she to actually try that, she'd end up getting thrown out on her ass. Besides, she'd be lying if she said she didn't want to give her more right now.

<<Yes, I do.>> She leans up to press a quick kiss to Hill's lips, then gets up off the bed. Her hands find Hill's hips and she tugs firmly, prompting her to shift closer to the edge of the mattress.

Maria moves willingly; there's the distinct possibility Natasha can make her do just about anything right now. The new position gives her a better view of herself, and she chuckles as she takes in the bruises and bandage. "So hot." When her gaze shifts back up to Natasha, the humour disappears, and she reaches up to touch her face. "You're overdressed for this."

Natasha glances down, then shrugs. "It can wait." She hooks her fingers into the waistband of Hill's underwear and tugs.

Maria laughs and she puts her hand on the mattress, lifting her hips so Natasha can tug her underwear down."What if I like it?"

Natasha pulls Hill's underwear most of the way down her thighs, then she drops to her knees in front of her and uses her teeth to help pull them the rest of the way off. The close proximity means she has no trouble catching her scent, and it makes her mouth water. Natasha would never admit it, but she'd been craving more than just the hint of a taste, licked off her fingers in the empty gym. Eyes darkening, she tucks Hill's underwear into the back pocket of her jeans.

Maria's breath catches just looking at Natasha, and she reaches out, tracing her fingers over her temple and down her cheek. It's hard not to feel exposed when someone looks at her like that, which is entirely insane as she never really had problems in this department either.

<<You want this?>> she asks, her voice hoarse and she shifts a little, spreading her knees further apart.

The question catches Natasha off guard. "Of course," she answers cautiously, pausing. "Don't you?"

"Yes," Maria strokes her fingers through Natasha's hair, they tangle at the back of her head, but she doesn't tug or try to take control. "Will you get undressed for me?"

"You want me to strip for you?" Natasha teases in her best mock-sultry voice. She gets to her feet, kicks off her boots, and reaches slowly for the button of her jeans.

"Only if you want to," Maria says, but her eyes betray her as they follow the movement of Natasha's hands. There's nothing this woman does that isn't mesmerising in some way or another.

Of course a simple 'yes, please' would be too straightforward for Hill. Natasha smirks and shakes off the pretense of doing anything but quickly and efficiently shedding the last of her clothing. She tosses them aside and turns to face Hill, her stance and expression neutral. For a few seconds she just stands there, out of reach, letting Hill look her over.

"Like what you see?"

Maria smiles - even if she's a little disappointed Natasha didn't put on a show, - taking her time to let her eyes move up and down Natasha's body.

<<Beautiful,>> she whispers, holding her hand out.

Natasha scoffs gently. "That's what they tell me." She doesn't take Hill's hand, but she steps closer, within reach.

Maria frowns as she reaches out, brushing her fingers gently over Natasha's stomach, but this time her eyes are fixed on Natasha's face. She doesn't believe for one second that Natasha doesn't know she looks good, and she can easily imagine all the men who fell into the spider's web told her as much. She wonders if she's echoing them now, if every touch here is an echo as her head goes spinning while she's caught in a web.

"Tell me what you want," Maria says quietly.

Natasha catches Hill's hand, stilling her fingers. "Don't ask me that."

She releases her hand and sinks to her knees, keeping eye contact. Her hands slide up Hill's legs to her hips, and Natasha lowers her head to kiss her knee.

"Why not? It's an important question, Natasha," Maria says gently. She moves her hands to the mattress, keeping herself from reaching out as Natasha doesn't seem to want that at least.

There's no easy answer for that question either. Natasha kisses her way up the inside of Hill's thigh, heat flaring brighter and brighter in her belly with every inch. "I want to give you what you want."

Maria's breath hitches and she wonders if she needs to stop this, if it'd be fairer to stop this, but there's an honesty in Natasha's voice. An honesty in her touches, and she wonders if it's wrong how much she doesn't want to stop this.

She makes a noise that's embarrassingly like a whimper as she slides her fingers in Natasha's hair, trying to keep her from going too far. "What if I want to do the same for you?"

It's so tempting to ignore the pull in her hair and bury her face between Hill's thighs until they both forget what they're talking about, but Natasha resists. She sits back on her heels in an attempt to regain a little composure. She meets Hill's eyes again and raises a questioning eyebrow. "I thought you were kidding when you said you wanted me to ride your face."

Maria blinks and she shakes her head, grinning a little as she rubs her thumb along Natasha's hairline. "Oh, I can assure you I was perfectly serious about that."

Natasha laughs and licks her lips. "Can it wait?"

"Yes," Maria grins and slides her hand out of her hair, stroking Natasha's cheek and jaw. "If that's what you want."

"Okay then." Natasha smiles wickedly and leans down to nip at Hill's thigh. Her arms wind around her legs so her hands can get a good grip on her hips. A mixture of lust and nerves - as absurd as it is for Natasha to be nervous - knots her stomach. She pauses, lips close enough to feel the warmth of Hill's skin, and looks up, questioning.

Just Natasha looking at her like that sends heat pooling in the pit of Maria's stomach, and she bites her lip.<<Please,>> she whispers, sliding both hands into Natasha's hair.

A shiver flies down Natasha's spine, erasing any lingering thoughts of teasing from her mind. After everything they've been through - the games, the teasing, the fighting, the flirting - the first touch seems like a resolution, and she can't help but groan at the feel of Hill, hot and slick under her tongue.

"Oh god." The touch sends heat through Maria's body, her fingers flexing in Natasha's hair, and it takes effort not to pull Natasha closer, not to buck up instantly into the touch, not to close her eyes and sink back into it.

This won't last, not the way her body is practically humming at the first touch, as if she's been waiting for this a long time. Maybe she has, and she laughs breathlessly, scratching her nails affectionately over Natasha's scalp. "Fuck, Nat."

Any tension that may have broken at the first touch very quickly builds again as Natasha continues to work her over with lips and tongue. The way Hill swears when her lips close over her clit makes Natasha's breath hitch; the way Hill breathes her name when she slips her tongue inside her leaves her aching. Natasha tightens her grip on Hill's hips, partially to hold her in place but mostly to keep from reaching between her own thighs for some desperately needed friction.

It takes a lot of control not to shove Natasha closer or try to guide her, but Maria manages. She doesn't manage to stay still. She doesn't manage to keep her eyes open, but she tries up until the end. The sight of Natasha buried between her legs is as arousing as her touch is.

Until it breaks. Then her eyes snap closed as everything is heat and gold. Fire in her stomach, racing up her spine. Fire sliding between her fingers as Natasha's name slips from her tongue like a litany.

And then all she wants to do is fall back on the mattress.

Natasha slows, helping Hill ride out the aftershocks. She's reluctant to pull away, even after she collapses back onto the bed in a breathless heap, but somehow she manages. Her eyes are dark as she gets to her feet again, wiping her mouth and resisting the vulgar urge to lick her fingers clean.

It takes several seconds for Hill to come back to herself, but Natasha waits for her eyes to flutter open before kissing her lightly on the lips.

No running this time, Maria thinks. She hums softly into the kiss, her arm feeling heavy as she reaches up to stroke Natasha's hair back down. She did make a mess of it, and that only makes her grin wider.

"Not bad," she teases, her voice low and not completely steady as she rubs her thumb along Natasha's jawline.

Natasha props herself up on one elbow and traces lazy circles on Hill's belly with her fingertips. "You think you can do better?" she chuckles.

Maria laughs and she strokes Natasha's cheek as she considers it. "I wouldn't say better, but I'm fully intending on rocking your world."

It takes all of Natasha's willpower not to roll her eyes. "You mean you're gonna rock my world like you do in the sparring ring?" she taunts. For some reason, treating this like a challenge seems to help ease the flutter that's starting to return to the pit of her stomach.

Maria's definitely laughing now, and she wraps her arms around Natasha's neck to pull her down to her. "Definitely not. I know you can beat me any second you like, but with this?" Maria smirks and kisses Natasha deeply, pressing up against her to get the full effect. Her smirk is even wider when she pulls back. "I'm not going to let you fake this."

If she wasn't still so turned on right now, Natasha might argue that she doesn't 'fake it' in the ring, either. Instead, she arches an amused eyebrow and smirks playfully. "Alright, hotshot, show me what you've got."

"Damn right," Maria laughs and rubs her hand down Natasha's neck as she leans in to kiss her again. She takes her time until the playfulness disappears and she's kissing Natasha deeply. It turns the languidness in her limbs to fire once more, and she doesn't stop kissing Natasha, not even when it feels like her lungs are burning.

She lets her hands slide down Natasha's back, pulling at her hips and drawing her closer as she breaks away from Natasha's lips and presses open mouthed kisses to her jaw and to her ear. "Show me how much that turned you on," she whispers in her ear before closing her teeth on Natasha's earlobe.

The kisses leave Natasha gasping for breath, and she moans low in her throat when Hill's mouth presses against her jaw. Hill's words send a shudder through her body, and she bites her lip against the whimper that accompanies it. Natasha curls her fingers into Hill's shoulders and growls back, <<Why don't you see for yourself?>>

"Oh, I plan to," Maria promises, grazing her teeth over Natasha's ear as she moves one hand between them, her fingers rubbing at Natasha's nipple while her other hand slides to her hip.

Natasha groans as her hips buck involuntarily. She's already incredibly sensitive, and Hill's hand on her breast only heightens the ache between her thighs. Natasha lets her eyes fall closed, her back arches into the touch, and she breathes harder to keep from squirming.

Maria's fingers grip Natasha's hipbone, keeping her still against her. "Definitely turned you on," she whispers, voice husky and there's a note of amusement in it. She pulls away and shifts down under Natasha, eagerly taking her other breast in her mouth to tease her further.

"I can't exactly deny it, can I?" Natasha laughs breathlessly. She throws her leg over Hill's hips and leans forward to support her weight on her hands and knees to make it easier for Hill to keep teasing her.

"Fuck no," Maria has to pause her teasing as she feels the dampness against her skin, and then she licks at Natasha's breast with renewed determination. Her hand finally slides away from her hip, moving between them as she wants to feel for herself.

Natasha rocks her hips to meet Hill's fingers, her breath hitching. <<Please,>> she hisses through gritted teeth, completely unashamed of how much she needs this.

She doesn't need to beg as Maria is eager to slide her fingers between Natasha's thighs, and she moans against her breast. If she wasn't a little busy, there'd be more swearing, but instead her fingers explore gently, seeking the sensitive spots that will have Natasha's hips bucking against her.

The combination of Hill's mouth and hands quickly makes it difficult for Natasha to keep herself upright. Her teeth dent into her lower lip as her hips sway, sometimes to guide Hill's fingers, sometimes because she just can't help it.

It's probably one of the most mind blowing things Maria's done. Not that it's groundbreaking. At all. Not the act. The person, that's a different matter. Maria draws back after a moment, replaces her mouth with her fingers so she can glance up at Natasha's face.

Her thumb rolls around Natasha's clit experimentally and she watches the way Natasha bites her lip. <<I want to taste you,>> she murmurs.

By this point, Natasha is practically panting, and the pressure on her clit makes her whine as she meets Hill's eyes. She's reluctant to move away from the hands on her body even if she knows it'll only be a matter of seconds before they return. Fortunately, her mind clears a little without the contact, enough for her to speak coherently, with a hint of teasing. "Do you still want me to queen you?"

"Yes," Maria breathes, palming Natasha's breast a little roughly. "Move up, Nat," she adds with a laugh.

Natasha doesn't need to be asked twice; she shifts forward eagerly, up past Hill's shoulders, then sinks back on her heels. <<Better?>>

<<Perfect,>> Maria replies, sounding just a little distracted. She slides her hand down from Natasha's breast, uses both hands to gently open Natasha up before she leans up, running her tongue along the length of her. The taste makes her moan, and she moves eagerly then, tracing the path her fingers explored before.

As much as Natasha would love to watch, the sight of Hill's mouth on her brings her too close too quickly. She lets her eyes fall shut again, moaning in echo with the sound Hill makes against her. It's all Natasha can do to keep her hips still. She wants to avoid smothering her, though somehow she's sure that would be preferable to the last time she made Hill pass out from lack of oxygen.

Maria hooks her arms around Natasha's legs, her hands gripping her hips to guide her as she teases her further. She lets her tongue trace around her before pushing inside, her hands tightening their hold on Natasha's hips as she draws her down.

Hill's tongue finds a particularly sensitive spot, drawing a moan out of Natasha as her head falls back. "Oh god, right there..."

It's all the encouragement Maria needs as she concentrates on the spot, teasing it with her tongue. She unhooks one of her arms as well, tracing her way up to cup Natasha's breast.

It's so good, perfect even, and Natasha threads her hands into Hill's hair to anchor herself. Her eyes open so she can see the look of determined concentration on Hill's face, and from there it's not long before -

"God, Maria, yes!" Natasha gasps, her body seizing in sharp, shuddering waves. She rides the rest out silently with her lip between her teeth and her hands tight in Maria's hair.

It's only when Natasha slows down that Maria becomes aware again of the throb between her own legs. She ignores it, concentrating on gently lapping at Natasha, taking everything from her as long as she stays. Her hands slide slowly up and down Natasha's back, soothing as she waits for the grip in her hair to loosen, even though she doesn't really want it to.

The last few strokes of Maria's tongue are almost too much. Natasha twitches away from her mouth and collapses on her back on the bed, breathing hard. Eventually she starts to chuckle. "Yeah. Not bad."

"I'll take it," Maria smirks, taking her time to take in the sight of Natasha flushed and out of breath. With a snort, she pushes up the bed, moving to her side by Natasha. She reaches out, drawing her knuckle gently down her ribs.

"Did it rock your world? Did your toes curl?" she teases.

"Oh baby!" Natasha teases right back, still trying to catch her breath. She's still hypersensitive, so she squirms away from even Maria's light touch. "Proud of yourself?"

"Yes," Maria tilts her head, but she doesn't comment as she stretches out beside Natasha. Then she casually reaches up, wiping her own face with her thumb before sucking the digit into her mouth.

Natasha blinks languidly at Maria's mouth and licks her own lips. The thought of tasting herself on Maria's lips is enough to darken her eyes again. <<Kiss me?>>

Maria can't help the soft sound she makes at the request. It takes some effort to keep her movements slow and controlled, to shift closer languidly, her hand sliding over Natasha's stomach as she presses her mouth against hers. Shallow, teasing. Even if her breath is coming a little too fast.

Natasha wraps her arms around her and kisses her eagerly. It's sloppy and probably even a bit obscene, but she loves the way Maria's lips are slick against hers. Her knee slides between Maria's, not to try to turn her on again - although Natasha could certainly go for round two - just to fit the two of them closer together.

It's tempting to press herself down against Natasha's thigh, get some more friction back, but Maria restrains herself for now. Even if that kiss is most definitely getting out of hand in a way that has her moaning into it, her fingers gripping Natasha's hip again.

When Natasha eventually has to come up for air, she smirks at Maria. "Aren't you glad you didn't tell Barton I'm here?"

Maria snorts and she reaches out lazily, letting her fingers brush through damp and definitely dishevelled hair. "Wouldn't have made a difference. I wouldn't have let him in."

The sheen of sweat on Natasha's body starts to cool, making her shiver a little. "Should I call him now?"

"No," Maria says definitively, reaching her arms around Natasha's neck and drawing her in.

Chapter Text

Nearly an hour after Hill's breathing slows and steadies into the unmistakable cadence of a deep sleep, Natasha is still staring up at the ceiling. Her mind is blank, but (as usual) sleep eludes her. The sweat on her body has long since cooled, so she shifts a little deeper into Hill's arms to keep from shivering. Hill doesn't so much as stir. Natasha is grateful for that; she'd really rather not have to admit how comfortable she is like this. She should not feel so calm curled up in Hill's bed, smelling like sex, no cameras, no interruptions.

It probably doesn't say good things about her that it's the lack of complications that's disconcerting. Natasha catches herself wondering what it would be like to have nights like this one be a regular occurrence in her life, and the thought is starting to make it hard to breathe. Chatting over dinner, sharing kitchen chores, falling into bed, drifting off to sleep with another person? There is no room for any of that in her life, whether she wants it or not.  

With a huff, Natasha moves Hill's arm off her waist and slips out of bed. She gathers her scattered clothes and heads for the bathroom.

It takes a moment before Maria wakes up enough to register that something is missing as she rolls onto her stomach, burying her face deep in the pillows. The scent she inhales is new and familiar all at once, and she pushes up with a groan to take in the empty bedroom. Empty save for the blinking light of her cell phone on the floor.

It's only when the feeling eases at the sound of her shower turning on that Maria realises just how much she'd been dreading this would happen. "Dammit, Hill," she mutters, scrubbing her hands across her face and then through her hair. The blinking light is still right there at the corner of her eye, and she pushes up off the bed, her leg stiff and clumsy as she picks the phone up.

Four missed calls from Barton and a couple of text messages she opts to ignore. She tosses the phone back on the bed and throws on a pair of boxers and t-shirt before heading towards the kitchen, pretending she's not tempted to follow Natasha into the bathroom. She wants coffee, but caffeine is probably the last thing she needs, so she puts on the kettle instead and takes a seat at the kitchen isle as water really doesn't boil faster if you glare at it.

 

The water pressure in Hill's shower is excellent for an old building. It doesn't take long for the hot water to wash away the tightness in Natasha's chest. She washes quickly and shuts the water off. As she towels off, she eyes the pile of her clothes on the floor. It would be so much simpler to get dressed, slip out of the apartment, and go back to wandering the city, but she can't quite bring herself to do it. On the other hand, she doesn't think she can go climb back into bed, either. She opts instead to wrap herself in a towel and head for the living room.  

Maria glances up when she finally hears the bathroom door opening and closing. She busies herself pouring out their tea as she pretends she isn't anxious about what's coming next. She fails because she can feel the relief wash through her as she spots Natasha and realises she isn't exactly dressed to make a break for it.

Maria pushes the second mug of tea across the counter from where she's sitting, hoping she looks more relaxed and in control than she actually feels. "Tea? I've got sugar if you want. Or if you just want something else…" she stops herself short before she can actually ramble. That really isn't her style; nor does it look good on her. So much for faking being relaxed.

She'd never admit it, but Natasha is startled to find Hill in the kitchen. She regains her composure and sinks down opposite Hill at the counter.

"Just tea is fine, thanks. Did I wake you?"

"Not exactly," Maria shrugs and wraps both hands around her mug, bringing it up for a slow drink. "I've been getting way too much sleep lately anyway." It's a rare thing for Maria to say, but the drugs at least have that going for them. "Good shower?"

"Your water pressure is better than the showers on the helicarrier, that's for sure." Natasha combs her fingers through her damp hair and sips at her tea. "I hope you don't mind that I helped myself to your soap."

"Or the towels?" Maria teases, raising an eyebrow at Natasha before grinning. "I don't mind. Looks good on you."

Natasha strikes a sarcastic pose. "Yeah, I think we should slap a S.H.I.E.L.D. logo on this and pitch it as an alternative field uniform."

Maria snorts at the mental image that instantly procures for her and she shakes her head violently. "Let's not, there's just some people who I don't want to see in a towel."

"That would be an advantage. Our enemies would be too busy averting their eyes. Or staring. Can't you picture me, dual-wielding pistols, towel falling off?"

Maria raises both eyebrows as she takes a moment too long to stare at Natasha. "Keep that up and you're going to need to take another shower later." Or she was going to need a cold one.

Natasha shrugs and goes back to sipping her tea. "Whatever does it for you."

Maria puts her mug down, studying Natasha as she tries to figure out whether Natasha meant to sound dismissive. She gives up after a moment. "I thought you might have left when you weren't there when I woke up."

"I almost did." She's not proud of it, but she wills herself to look Hill in the eyes as she admits it.

Maria's fingers still against the mug, but she nods slowly as if Natasha just confirmed something for her. "What changed your mind?"

Natasha opens her mouth to respond, but closes it again a moment later. She searches the depths of her mug for something to say. The truth is probably the best option, but she can't seem to get the words to form.

"I didn't want you to hurl your bra at my head again."

The look on Maria's face is somewhere between embarrassment and what may be amusement, and this time she's the one to stare too deeply into her mug. "We're really good at making a mess of things, huh?"

"We really are, yeah," Natasha chuckles, but her face stays sombre. After a moment's hesitation, she reaches out to place her hands around Hill's, wrapped around her mug.

The touch catches Maria off guard, and she glances up in surprise, a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth but it disappears as she takes in Natasha's expression. She doesn't look away as she slowly shifts her hand underneath Natasha's until she can slide her fingers through hers, the touch slow and deliberate.

Hill's fingers are still hot from the mug. It's nice, and Natasha wills herself to relax and let their fingers thread together. Her hands are steady, and she hopes her voice will be, too.

"What are we doing?"

It's tempting to point out that they're drinking tea. It's about the only response Maria can think of that she knows makes sense. "Getting in way over our heads?" she guesses.

Natasha only nods. She really should let go of Hill's hand, but she doesn't. Except for the sound of traffic drifting up from the street, the silence lingers.

There's the soft, muffled beep from her cell phone coming from the bedroom, slicing through the silence, but Maria ignores it. She gently brushes her thumb over Natasha's as the touch is somehow easier than finding the right words for any of this.

Natasha jumps on the opportunity to break the silence, gesturing in the direction of the bedroom. "That's Barton, isn't it."

"Probably," Maria says like she might actually have other people who contact her. "You're making him sweat a lot with your disappearing act." It's a topic change, a much too convenient one.

"I should probably tell him I'm okay. Mind if I use your phone?"

"Of course not," Maria starts to pull her hand back, but something inside her makes her change her mind and tighten her hold instead. "Tell me something first?"

Natasha's stomach knots, but she doesn't let go of Hill's hand. "Okay."

"Of all the places you could have gone..." Maria says quietly, her voice low as she tries to keep from getting nervous. "Why come here?"

Natasha takes a deep breath. Of course that's her question. She finally disentangles her fingers and reaches up to cup Hill's cheek. "Why do you think?" Natasha leans across the counter to kiss her.

It surprises Maria, but she doesn't hesitate as she leans into the kiss. She wouldn't have been able to come up with any words, anyway. It leaves her speechless time and again when Natasha opens up, when she slips right underneath Maria's armour in these moments of honesty.

The hand on her cheek is warm and almost tender, and Maria curls her fingers around Natasha's forearm. It's just a press of lips. There's a counter between them, one that's digging against her ribs as she leans forward, and she'll blame the lack of air in her lungs on that.

The kiss lingers and Natasha's heart starts to race, almost as fast as her thoughts do. This is a lot for one night. Too much? She pulls away as gently as she can manage and stands up, adjusting her towel self-consciously. "I'll be right back."

Maria bites her lip and nods, trying not to stare or overthink. Natasha's already in the bedroom when she remembers. "The code is-" she calls after her, but she stops herself and shakes her head, getting up from the stool. "Never mind. You know what it is."

Natasha laughs appreciatively, relaxing a little. It's easy enough to find Hill's phone, complete with an absurd number of missed calls and texts. She returns to the kitchen with it and slides it across the counter for Hill to unlock. "I didn't want to intrude," she explains.

Maria snorts, but the smile that lingers is genuine as she picks up the phone and unlocks it.

"Not much to intrude on," she assures Natasha as she thumbs open the text messages and raises an eyebrow at the last one: Aww, Hill. You can't be sleeping. Fury will have my hide.

She shakes her head and passes the phone back to Natasha. "Want more tea? Or should I make coffee?" Because apparently they're not getting back to sleep anyway.

"What does Barton have to say?" Natasha forces herself to stop gawking at Hill's smile and settles back into her chair. Her chair. As if anything in this apartment is actually hers.

Maria raises an eyebrow, but she withdraws her hand and thumbs through the rest of the messages. "Basically he's trying to make me feel sorry for him so I'll help him find you," she says and stops at one particular message. She flushes and hits delete before quickly holding the phone out to Natasha again. "Just put him out of his misery already."

Natasha raises an eyebrow. "Oh, no. You made that face out loud. What was that?"

Maria pointedly puts the phone down on the counter and turns her back on Natasha, busying herself with making coffee. "He's more perceptive than he lets on, huh?"

She probably wouldn't be asking any of that if she remembered half of what had happened on the quinjet.

"Well fuck. I'm never going to hear the end of this, am I?" Natasha groans and drops her head into her hands for a moment. An idea occurs to her, and she lifts her head again, fixing Hill with a serious stare. "I can throw him off the scent if you want me to. Do you want me to lie to him?"

Maria frowns and she adds an extra scoop of coffee - just for good measure - before she turns on the machine and turns her attention back towards Natasha.

"Is that what you want?" she asks, gripping the kitchen counter on either side of her as she leans back against it. "I mean, I wasn't exactly planning on your partner knowing about… this, but it's not like it's the end of the world either."

"And what exactly is…" Natasha gestures back and forth between the two of them, "... this?" She sets Hill's phone, screen-down, an arm's length away across the counter. "Maybe we need to figure that out before I call him back."

Maria's knuckles turn white as she grips the counter tighter, until she becomes aware of the tension in her body. She slowly exhales and lets go, stepping forward. She's buying time as she moves to Natasha's side of the kitchen island, but she doesn't think she can do this with that much distance between them. She doesn't think she should do it with that much distance between them.

She still hasn't come up with a good answer as she sits down on the stool beside Natasha, her back towards the kitchen as she glances sideways at Natasha. "I don't know, Nat," she says honestly, because they at least seem to have that going for them. "I'm not good at sticking labels on these things. Fuck, I don't want to slap one on it and have it be the one that sends you running a mile."

"You don't want me to run. That's something, at least." Natasha observes, her voice contemplative despite how distracted she is by the red mark on Hill's neck, barely visible under the collar of her shirt.

Natasha frowns at it a little. She's not sure which is stranger: the fact that she'd left a mark even though she'd tried to be gentle, or the fact that she'd tried to be gentle to begin with.

"Yeah well," Maria shrugs and she shifts uncomfortably, not sure what to make of the look Natasha is giving her or why it makes her want to rub at her neck. She keeps her hands still in her lap instead. "If you run off, we can't do that again, and I'm not against a repeat performance."

"No, neither am I," Natasha chuckles and shifts closer to lick the mark.

Maria's breath catches and she reaches up, fingers curling around Natasha's shoulder as she laughs softly. "That's good to know."

Just to tease her, Natasha nips a little, careful not to get either of them too distracted. Judging by Hill's reaction, it wouldn't be too difficult to get her off topic completely if she wanted to. That thought sends a sobering shiver down Natasha's spine, and she sits back.

"So, is this just sex, then?"

It's unfair to go from teasing her to requiring her to think, and Maria blinks slowly at Natasha, her brain taking a moment to catch up.

With a sigh, she reaches out, cupping Natasha's cheek in her hand, her thumb brushing over her cheekbone. "No, Natasha, it isn't," she murmurs, leaning in to kiss her softly.

"Is that... wise?" Natasha murmurs before Hill's lips can meet hers. She doesn't pull away, exactly, but neither does she want to accept the kiss without question.

Maria stops short of kissing her, drawing back to meet Natasha's eyes instead. Her hand slides to Natasha's shoulder and she manages a crooked smile. "Is it ever?"

Natasha can't help but smirk back at her. Hill is being evasive as ever, but the urge to punch her for it is conspicuously absent.

"I'm serious. If this isn't just sex, what is it?"

"I know," Maria says softly. She lowers her eyes for a moment, watching as she traces her fingers along Natasha's collarbone. She's aware of how close they are, of how different they are in this apartment. Her fingers finally still, but she keeps her hand against Natasha's shoulder as she looks up to meet her eyes.

"You're infuriating, you know that?" she asks, but her tone is soft and there's no bite or accusation to the words. "But you're there when I don't even know that I need you to be." She snorts. "Even when I don't want you to be."

"Oh, believe me, I know the feeling. Sometimes, you walk into a room and all I want to do is hit you." Natasha wants to laugh, but all she can do is stare. "We do seem to keep getting in one another's way, though. It's almost as if..." She trails off, her stomach sinking.

No. They couldn't have…

"As if what?" Maria asks, eyebrows knitting together. She doesn't quite want to head down the path Natasha's thoughts are leading them.

Natasha shakes her head, trying but failing to will away the thought."Nothing. I'm being paranoid."

"You're a spy, that's kind of a given," Maria points out, reaching up to brush her fingers over Natasha's cheek.

"Yeah, I suppose so." Natasha forces a smile. She gives Hill the kiss she knows she wants, then changes the topic. "So what is it about your apartment that makes me want to kiss you instead of punch you?"

Maria laughs and shrugs a shoulder, glancing around for a moment. "I dunno. I think it's because you came flying through my window. Or is it because I fed you?"

"I'm not just some stray cat that you can win over with food, Hill," Natasha insists. "Besides, you fed me plenty while we were on the helicarrier, so that can't be it."

The helicarrier. In a week they'll be right back there. Getting back to training and missions will be most welcome, but Natasha doesn't know whether they'll also go right back to tense silences and awkward interactions and avoiding one another in the hall. Hill's leg will heal and she'll go right back to rising up through the ranks. Natasha will go back to breaking up AIM cells and the like with Barton. What happens if their paths keep crossing?

What happens if they don't?

"Exactly," Maria teases, thinking Natasha might just be exactly like a stray cat. She's not sure Natasha is listening anymore, though, and she reaches for her hand, drawing it into her lap to get her attention back.

"Hey," she says gently, her fingers tracing the lines on Natasha's palm. "Where did you go?"

Natasha catches her fingers to still their movement. "I was back on the helicarrier. Do you think things between us will go back to the way they were once we're not on leave anymore?" She searches Hill's face for any hint of a reaction.

"No," Maria says without thinking over the answer until she catches herself and hesitates. "Is that what you want?"

"It doesn't really matter what either of us wants. Our options are pretty limited."

"Limited, maybe, but they're not exactly nonexistent either," Maria points out, wondering what it says about her that she has more options even now than she's had for a huge part of her life.

Natasha raises a skeptical eyebrow. "What do you think our options are?"

"Be discrete," Maria tilts her head. "I'm sure you can manage that at least. You're not in my line of command, and S.H.I.E.L.D. is hardly the military, so there's no DADT to deal with."

With a mischievous smirk, Natasha insinuates herself nearly into Hill's lap, careful to avoid putting weight on her injured leg. Her face hovers millimeters away from Hill's.

"Maria Hill, are you suggesting we carry on a sordid affair, right under S.H.I.E.L.D.'s nose?" she purrs, with just a hint of sarcasm.

Maria laughs as she puts her hands on Natasha's ass to keep her from sliding down. "What if I am?" she asks with a grin, leaning a little closer.

"I didn't exactly have you pegged as the type who gets off on sneaking around," Natasha chuckles, lowering her lips to Hill's throat.

"I'm not," Maria gasps, and she moves her hand to the back of Natasha's head, fingers tangling in her hair. "That's not what this is about."

Natasha mouths at Hill's throat and the underside of her jaw. It's easier - so much easier - to have this conversation this way, without the pressure of eyes on her. It helps that Hill goes a little foggy when Natasha kisses her. She can use that to her advantage.

"What is this about, then?"

It's unfair, but at least Natasha's talking. Maria tugs at her hair for a moment as she tries to keep her mind on the conversation. "It's about wanting to avoid having to throw my bra at your head again," she murmurs.

"We've already established you don't want me to run," Natasha breathes, nipping at her collarbone. "Why? I'm a barely-rehabilitated ex-KGB assassin; I'm almost literally nothing but trouble."

Maria closes her eyes and leans her head down, her cheek brushing Natasha's hair. She smells like her shampoo; it's strange and intimate at once. "And yet, I still seem to like you."

The words freeze Natasha dead in her place. Even though it's exactly what she'd been fishing for, she is not prepared to actually hear it. She tries to move again, to breathe, but she can't quite manage.

It's not that she's expecting an answer so much. They're not exactly words she'd been planning on dropping. Maria shifts her hand up to the small of Natasha's back, fingers bunching in the towel.

"You asked," she whispers, keeping her head bowed as if she's afraid to move now. "It doesn't have to be a big deal."

It's tempting - oh, so tempting - for Natasha to drop her head onto Hill's shoulder and muffle her voice against her neck, but if these are words she's actually going to speak aloud, there's no sense hiding them. She leans back, lets her hands rest on Hill's knees and finally looks her in the eye.

"You drive me crazy. I hate you, but maybe I like you, too."

The shift puts pressure on Maria's leg, but the pain at least confirms that she isn't just dreaming this. Then again, they're not exactly the words she'd be dreaming up. "Okay," she says slowly, struggling to keep from grinning like an idiot, and she reaches up to touch Natasha's cheek. "Does that answer your question?"

"It answers one of them, yes," Natasha concedes, leaning into the touch. "It doesn't exactly help figure out what to do about… this."

"You want a plan of attack?" Maria teases gently, rubbing her thumb over Natasha's cheek. "I think we might have to improvise some of it, but I'm sure we can work something out if we want to."

Natasha only studies her silently for a moment. No matter how hard she tries, she still can't quite picture how this new development will fit into her life  - life as a spy, life as an asset, life as a killer. She can't quite picture anything after this tension between them dissipates, like a thunderstorm breaking a heat wave. Finally, an idea occurs to her.

"How's this for a plan of attack: give me your phone."

"This better not involve Barton," Maria jokes, but she pulls her hand back and reaches behind her. She unlocks the phone and hands it to Natasha, trusting her without question.

"Tough." Natasha taps the screen a few times and lifts the phone to her ear.

Barton answers between the first and second rings. "Hill? Any news?" He manages to sound both groggy and frantic at the same time.

"Wow, Barton, were you actually waiting by the telephone?" Natasha chuckles. She can practically hear his jaw drop, followed by the actually audible sound of his palm slapping against his forehead.

"Tasha? Oh my god, where the fuck have you been?"

Natasha can't help but taunt him a little more. "If you were better at Hide and Seek, you'd know the answer to that already."

"Fuck you! That's not funny; do you have any idea how many different ways I've imagined Fury murdering the absolute shit out of me over the last few hours?" Barton shouts into the phone, but there's an unmistakable note of relief in his voice.

"Don't be so overdramatic," Natasha huffs, rolling her eyes. "I'm at Hill's, I'm fine, and no one at S.H.I.E.L.D. is the wiser."

"Eh, whatever. I'm still gonna kick your ass when I see you tomorrow," he grumbles.

The teasing tone drops from Natasha's voice immediately. "Yeah, about that…" She shoots a sidelong glance at Hill. Here goes nothing.

"I'm not coming back."

"What?" Maria can hear her reaction echoed on the other side of the phone, and she reaches out, curling her fingers around Natasha's wrist. She doesn't try to stop her or pull the phone away, the touch more a reassurance to herself than anything else.

"Nat?" She asks softly to keep Barton from overhearing. "What the hell are you doing?"

It's all Natasha can do not to laugh at the panic on Hill's face and in Barton's voice. She ignores the hand on her arm and continues.

"Un-bunch your panties, Barton. I'm going to stay with Hill for a few days."

Oh. Oh. Maria's eyes widen in shock before a slow grin starts spreading across her face.

"Tell Barton I'll kill him if he sends me any of those text messages again, will you?"

Natasha gives her a sly smile, then returns her attention to Barton on the phone.

"Are you serious? Wait... you're not gonna kill her, are you? I swear to god, Natasha, if they pull her body out of the Harlem River..."

Natasha rolls her eyes again. "No, I'm not planning on killing her. She's stuck in her apartment with a wounded leg. I figured she could use the company."

"Then... oh god, you slept with her, didn't you?" Barton groans.

"Goodbye, Barton." Maybe she hangs up a little too fast, but she'd rather not push her luck trying to pretend she isn't a bit flustered. Natasha hands the phone back to Hill. "How's that for a plan of action?"

"Unexpected," Maria blindly puts the phone back behind her on the counter, her eyes not leaving Natasha's face for a second. "You're sure about this?"

"<<Of course not.>> We're both on shore leave; there's no need to sneak around right now. We've got a week to see where this goes before we have to deal with the consequences. Maybe we'll get it out of our systems. Maybe I'll drive you crazy after two days and you'll throw me out. Who knows?"

Maria laughs and slides her hands to the small of Natasha's back, drawing her closer. "I'm pretty sure you're going to drive me crazy regardless," she teases. "The question is whether I'll want to strangle you or fuck you for it."

"With you, the two seem to go hand in hand," Natasha teases, giving in and leaning against Hill's chest. She slips her arm around her waist and lets her head rest on her shoulder. "We'll just have to see what happens."

"Yeah," Maria says softly, wrapping her arms around Natasha. She should probably be insulted or something, but her brain is refusing when she's hugging Natasha Romanoff like it's the most normal thing on earth. It should be strange, it is strange, but it's good too. Maria rests her cheek against Natasha's temple as she lets herself relax.

"Sounds like a plan."

Chapter Text

It's already mid-morning by the time Natasha finally blinks herself fully awake. For a long time she lies still, content just to watch the light filter in through the shades and to feel the steady rise and fall of Hill's chest beneath her. If it wasn't for the ubiquitous undercurrent of traffic noise, everything would be perfectly still and calm.

Natasha finally lifts her head off Hill's shoulder and smiles sleepily to herself when she realizes the two of them are still in nearly the exact same position in which they'd fallen asleep the night before; there's even the faint imprint where the curve of her ear was pressed against Hill's shoulder all night. Natasha traces the mark lightly, almost reverently with her fingertips, marvelling at the quickly-fading proof that she'd actually slept soundly through the night for the first time in recent memory. After a moment, her lips replace her fingertips, brushing softly against Hill's bare skin.

There's a soft noise of approval or pleasure even before Maria wakes up fully. It comes with a stretch of limbs, a wince as the wound in her thigh reminds her of its presence, and her hand pressing against the small of Natasha's back.

It's one of the better ways to wake up, with no dreams sticking to her skin and driving her to her feet. Natasha's lips are warm and soft, reassuring, and Maria exhales slowly, tracing a finger up Natasha's spine, but doing nothing to distract her or stop her.

The touch leaves a slight shiver in its wake. Natasha's smile widens as she continues to kiss Hill awake.

<<Good Morning.>>

<<Morning,>> Maria murmurs, a slow smile spreading across her face as she rests her other hand on Natasha's hip. She doesn't even bother to keep from humming, sounding way too pleased. <<Sleep well?>>

"I did, actually," Natasha chuckles. "You're a much better pillow than you are a prison guard."

"I'll let Director Fury know," Maria laughs as she tangles her fingers in Natasha's hair, scratching lightly at her scalp.

"I'm sure he already knows." Natasha settles her head back on Hill's shoulder and snakes her arm around her waist. "He probably knew from the start."

"I doubt that," Maria chuckles and presses a kiss to Natasha's forehead. "It's one of my better kept secrets."

Natasha raises a skeptical eyebrow. "I don't think it's that big a secret that you're a terrible guard."

That earns her a light tug on her hair, and Maria scowls at her. "I wasn't that bad a guard. You didn't escape, did you?"

"Oh, well done," Natasha teases. "You managed to keep a 'prisoner' - who was there of her own volition - from escaping."

Maria huffs and pokes at Natasha's side. "Keep that up and I'm not making you any pancakes."

The jab between her ribs makes Natasha's body leap involuntarily, and she bites back on the choked sound that leaps to her throat. Her hands fly to Hill's wrists and hold them tight.

Maria stiffens for an instant. The speed with which Natasha moves is impressive, and it catches her off guard before she realises what's going on. "Really now?" she asks, laughing. The smirk she gives Natasha doesn't promise a lot of good.

Natasha covers quickly, pinning Hill's arms to the headboard and batting her eyelashes in a show of mock-innocence. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"'Course you don't," Maria is still laughing, but she doesn't fight the hands pinning her down. She likes those hands, and it's far more effective to press up against Natasha, raising an eyebrow in challenge.

Natasha shifts her weight to more effectively keep Hill pinned without putting too much pressure on her leg. "Don't struggle too much. I still owe you a nearly-broken nose."

It takes a second for Maria's brain to catch up with Natasha's words as she's thoroughly distracted by Natasha's effectiveness. Some of the laughter fades when the words do sink in. She tilts her head, studying Natasha for a moment. "What else do you owe me?"

The shadow that falls over Hill's face is not at all what Natasha intended. She releases her grip on her wrists and cups her face in both hands.

"Don't do that. I was joking." Her voice is soft and earnest. Slowly, she lets her head drop, her forehead coming to rest on the bridge of Hill's nose. "I owe so much to so many people. I don't want to keep any kind of score with you."

Maria closes her eyes and slowly moves her hands to Natasha's shoulders. "No score," she agrees quietly, smoothing her hands down Natasha's back, and it hits her just how surreal this is.

It's probably against all the rules to have the prisoner she guarded naked and in bed with her, but she can't really care. She never really was Natasha's guard anyway; there's no way Maria could have stopped her from escaping. Maybe it was the other way around, and she was there to keep Natasha safe instead. She can't really explain the feeling of protectiveness that washes over her as she slides her arms around Natasha. "You don't owe me anything. That's not how this works."

"Thank you," Natasha murmurs, her head still resting against Hill's. "It's more than I deserve, but thank you."

"You don't need to thank me either," Maria says gently, loosening one arm around Natasha so she can touch her cheek. "Look at me?"

Wordlessly, Natasha pulls back just far enough for her eye to focus on Hill's.

Maria falls silent as she meets Natasha's eyes and strokes Natasha's cheek, her thumb brushing gently over her lips. "Even you deserve to be happy, Natasha. I mean, that's awfully presumptuous of me, but…" She sighs and presses her thumb against Natasha's chin. "Please, don't think that you don't."

"It's not really happiness I'm after."

No, Maria supposes it isn't. She strokes Natasha's cheek. "What are you after?"

"Absolution?" The word feels foolish, woefully insufficient, but it's the only one she has right now. Hill's eyes on her are too much, so she lets her gaze drop, struggling to swallow away the tightness in her throat.

Guilt. Maria knows her fair share of it, but not like this. She's no Black Widow, and she can't even imagine what it would be like, let alone that she'd find the words to give to Natasha, so she doesn't. She wraps her arm tighter around Natasha's back and slides her fingers in her hair, pulling her back down against her.

Natasha tenses, but eventually allows herself to be held. She'd never admit it, but she's grateful for Hill's silence right now. Syncing her breathing with Hill's helps quiet her mind until she's able to just go limp in her arms again.

Maria presses a kiss to her shoulder, her hand smoothing up and down her back as she feels Natasha relax against her. She wonders if it's the right thing, but then she can't imagine pushing Natasha on this subject. She can be there, though, and let the way her fingers caress her skin or the way she nuzzles her shoulder do the talking for her. She's always been better at actions anyway.

The tension drains away, leaving only the absurdity of their situation. Only a few months ago there was a semi-automatic weapon between them. Now, there's not so much as a scrap of clothing.

Natasha huffs, nearly laughing. "Well, that got heavy. Sorry about that."

"Don't apologise," Maria says, her words are firm but her tone is gentle. "You can talk to me, Nat… If you want. You can."

"Maybe another time. That's more than enough for now." More than enough of that topic, and more than enough of this vulnerability. Natasha doesn't mind that she isn't wearing any clothes, but she's had quite enough of feeling so naked.

"Whenever you want," Maria assures her.

It's a little mean what she does next, but it seems a rather effective distraction as she lets her hand ghost along Natasha's ribs, just to see how ticklish she is.

Natasha can't help but jerk ungracefully away from Hill's touch. Again, she grabs for her hands to still them, probably gripping them much tighter than necessary.

"That's not fair."

"It's not," Maria teases, grinning cheekily at Natasha. "It's really not, but it evens things out a little, considering you can deck me in under a minute if you choose to."

"Well, the urge to punch you is certainly back," Natasha laughs. "I was starting to miss it." It's kind of incredible how quickly her mood has shifted; Natasha blames it on getting a decent night's sleep.

"Can't have that," Maria jokes as she tries out Natasha's grip, seeing if she can sneak her hand closer to her sides again.

Grinning, Natasha lets up just enough to let Hill think she might stand a fighting chance at tickling her again.

It's much too easy, but Maria isn't one to just give up, and she braces her good leg on the mattress, getting some leverage to roll them around.

Natasha good-naturedly wrestles with her for a moment, ending up with her back pressed into the mattress.

Way too easy, but Maria isn't about to complain as she shifts her full weight on top of Natasha, sliding her leg between hers as she tickles Natasha's side.

Now that she's expecting it, Hill's touch does not tickle nearly as much. Natasha releases her hands in favor of wrapping her arms around Hill's neck and kissing her deeply.

That's definitely unfair. Maria's fingers still against Natasha's ribs, and then she flattens her hand, giving up on tickling as she lets herself be thoroughly distracted. It takes all of her willpower to pull back from the kiss, and Maria licks her lips as she catches her breath.

"You're definitely not getting breakfast if you keep that up," she manages, her voice husky.

The pout that Natasha aims up at her is somewhere between petulant and sultry. She squeezes Hill's leg between her thighs and cants her hips just so.

"Technically, you started it."

"God," Maria groans softly, eyes fluttering shut. She leans down to kiss Natasha as she shifts her body languidly along Natasha's. "Technically," she murmurs, her lips still brushing Natasha's as she doesn't bother to pull away. "You did when you kissed me awake."

"If you say so," Natasha breathes, kissing her again, and again. "You promised me pancakes yesterday -" she kisses the corner of Hill's mouth, then her jaw, "- and the day before. Do you think today's the day we make it out of bed for any significant amount of time?"

Maria laughs breathlessly and tangles her fingers in Natasha's hair.

"It might be," she agrees, pressing her cheek against Natasha's to try and stop her from distracting her. She's not sure why she's trying. "Not if you keep that up, though."

"I'll stop distracting you if you stop lying on top of me."

Maria snorts and buries her face against Natasha's neck, nipping playfully at the skin. "Don't want to," she complains, sounding petulant.

Even though she knows Hill can't see it, Natasha raises an amused eyebrow. She never would have guessed Hill even had a petulant side, much less that she'd ever let it show this blatantly. Natasha sighs appreciatively at the flash of teeth on her neck.

"I don't really want you to, either."

"This is pathetic," Maria laughs and pulls away, putting her weight on her elbows as she looks down at Natasha. It's a damn gorgeous sight that stops her for a moment to just appreciate it. Dammit.

She sighs and leans her head down, touching her forehead to Natasha's. "I'm making you pancakes."

"We should both put some clothes on first. We won't stand a chance otherwise." Natasha kisses her lightly once more before giving her shoulders a playful shove.

"Yes, sir," Maria laughs and rolls with the shove, landing on her back in the bed. She reaches down to absently rub at her wound. "Maybe we'll even get to leave the house today."

Now that the two of them are no longer entwined, Natasha stretches luxuriously with her arms above her head. "Mmn, ambitious. Where do you want to go?"

"I should be asking you that," Maria glances sideways at Natasha before groaning and letting her head fall back on the pillow. She really does need to get dressed if she's serious about this. "I'm guessing you haven't really done the tourist thing in New York yet?" she asks as she forces herself to sit up.

Natasha shrugs. "Not really, no. I've never been much of a tourist anywhere."

"I know how that goes," Maria rubs her thumb over the bandage. She'll have to change it later, but that can wait until after she's showered. She pushes carefully to her feet and snags up the clothes from the other day, tossing them at the laundry basket in the corner of the room.

"Feels like you've been all over and seen nothing?" she guesses, glancing back at Natasha.

"I've seen plenty, I've just never had the luxury of travelling for its own sake."

Maria nods as she moves around the room, grabbing clean clothes for herself. "Would you like to?"

Natasha considers the question for a long moment. "I'm not sure; I have a lot of bad memories of a lot of places."

"What about new places?" Maria turns around to face Natasha after she's tugged on her shorts, her t-shirt still in her hand. "Not that everyone likes to travel, especially not when you spend most of your time doing it. I think I'm starting to feel that way."

"I know that feeling." Natasha sits up in bed and wraps her arms around her knees, watching the way Hill moves around the room. Her limp seems to be improving, at least, and Natasha smiles to herself because of it. "I'll probably end up pretty much everywhere eventually. I'm not really in a hurry to get anywhere in particular."

"Fair," Maria agrees and quickly tugs on her shirt before moving over to the bed, leaning down to kiss Natasha's temple. "You can shower while I start on breakfast if you want," she offers, squeezing Natasha's shoulder.

"Alright," Natasha smiles, grabbing the collar of Hill's shirt and pulling her in for another kiss.

A shower is probably a good idea. Natasha is a little reluctant to wash Hill's scent off, but more likely than not it won't be gone for long.

Maria grins into the kiss. It's so tempting to lean into it again, but she brushes her lips over the corner of Natasha's mouth and forces herself to pull away.

"Right. So… breakfast," she nods to herself and turns, heading for the kitchen before she can let Natasha distract her again.

Chapter Text

This is almost normal. Except this kind of thing is far from normal in Maria's life. Maria is used to cooking for people. She actually enjoys it. She's used to having people around; the odd moments in her life are the ones when there's no one else. She went from her father's house to West Point, then overseas. Madripoor is a void in between, and now she lives more on the helicarrier than in her apartment.

This is different. Having Natasha in her apartment is different from everything that came before. It should be normal, but then again, making pancakes for the Black Widow probably isn't meant to be normal. They're thoughts that will lead her nowhere, so Maria shrugs them off and flips the pancake in her pan. There's already a small stack beside her, and she should have plenty more because you don't make pancakes in small batches (and she really never did learn how to accurately guess portions).

 

By the time Natasha steps out of the bathroom, the whole apartment smells like breakfast, and it's all she can do to make herself head back to the bedroom to find clothes rather than wandering into the kitchen in her towel like she did her first morning in Hill's apartment. Her stomach rumbles in protest while she dresses quickly. She wraps her wet hair in the towel and piles it on top of her head as she makes her way down the hall.

"That smells amazing," she nearly moans, going up on tiptoe to kiss Hill's cheek before pouring herself a cup of coffee.

"Let's hope it tastes amazing too," Maria smiles, watching Natasha for a moment. "Can you check that cupboard?" she asks finally, motioning towards it with her fork. "There should be sugar and nutella in there, and I'm hoping there's some syrup too."

"Ooh, fancy!" Natasha teases. She has no trouble finding the sugar or the nutella, but the syrup is on the top shelf. She sneaks a glance at Hill to see if she's paying attention, then climbs up on the counter so she can reach it.

"You could have just asked, you know," Maria says casually, trying not to laugh as she watches Natasha stand on her kitchen counter. It's not a bad view, and she decides it's not worth the bother to keep herself from laughing.

"Where's the fun in that?" Natasha grabs the syrup and settles down, sitting cross-legged on the counter just to see what Hill will do about it.

"Really?" Maria raises an eyebrow at her, but she doesn't fight it as she puts another pancake on the pile and pours out the next one. "You can start if you want, I'm gonna be busy until I finish the batch."

Natasha eyes the stack hungrily. They look amazing, but she can wait until Hill is finished to start eating. Maybe. She sips at her coffee, letting it warm her hands.

It's actually comfortable making pancakes with Natasha sitting on her kitchen counter, which weirdly enough isn't driving Maria crazy… yet. She's pretty sure anyone else would already have been chased off.

She bites the inside of her lip when a thought strikes her, trying to keep her face carefully neutral so Natasha won't suspect what she's doing. It's been a while since she's done anything like this, but it's simple enough.

"Hand me that plate, will you?" she asks Natasha, looking pretty pleased with herself that she managed not to fuck it up, and now she has a pancake with an hourglass shape in it.

When Maria turns and hands the plate to her, Natasha is at a complete loss for words. She only stares down at the pancake version of her insignia, unsure whether to laugh or - much to her chagrin - cry.

Maria's expression sobers as she can't figure out what to make of Natasha's reaction. "Bad idea?" she asks. "I can toss it..."

Instinctively, Natasha tightens her grip on the plate. "No, don't toss it," she insists. "It's really…" Really what? She's used to Hill being cocky and trying to show off, but something about the way she presented Natasha with this pancake is so very far from cocky. Natasha realizes she's trailed off, so she tries again.

"It's really sweet. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Maria says automatically, still frowning. "Are you sure?"

Natasha sets the plate next to her on the counter and reaches out to pull Hill closer by the waistband of her shorts. "Yes, I'm sure." She wraps her legs around her and kisses her lightly with one hand on the back of her neck.

"You should get your weight off of that leg, though. Go sit down," Natasha prompts, releasing her hold.

"I'm fine," Maria says, making a face as she steps back. It's not so much a lie as a stubbornness to finish the task she set out on first. "I still have a couple more to do, then I'm done. You shouldn't let that get cold," she adds, motioning to the plate.

Hill's stubborn determination would usually irritate her, but right now Natasha is nothing but endeared. She slides off the counter and goes about setting the kitchen island for the two of them while Hill finishes the rest of the pancakes. She refills both of their coffee mugs, but she can't quite bring herself to start eating without her, whether or not the food is getting cold.

Maria adds the last pancake on top of the stack and joins Natasha at the counter. It's a relief to be off her leg, but she's rather pleased with the result.

"You didn't start," she realises, giving Natasha surprised look.

"It seemed rude," Natasha shrugs. Now that they're both seated, though, she wastes no time filling a plate with pancakes. She saves the hourglass one, setting it off to the side.

"I told you it was okay," Maria reminds her. She resists the urge to point out Natasha's custom made pancake won't remain warm forever and starts filling up her own plate instead.

"I know," Natasha insists. "I just wanted to wait." She's not even sure why. She's starving, and the food smells so good, but it just seemed like the thing to do. The first bite is delicious, and Natasha sighs appreciatively. "Definitely worth it."

Maria laughs, trying to hide the grin that's threatening to break through. She busies herself by pouring too much syrup on her own stack. She's already scooped up a bite to eat when she stops and glances sideways at Natasha. "Thank you."

In lieu of a response, Natasha takes another bite and hooks her ankle around Hill's, letting it stay there while they eat.

It's comfortable as they eat in silence, the point of contact between them enough to have Maria smiling. When she finally pushes her plate back, she's rather pleased with how much Natasha ate.

"Someone work you hard last night?" Maria teases as she stretches her arms over her head. It's the oldest trick in the book, but she doesn't quite care as she rests her hand on Natasha's shoulder.

"Something like that," Natasha chuckles before elbowing her playfully in the ribs.

Maria laughs and leans into Natasha, pressing a kiss to her shoulder as she lets her hand trail down her back. She takes a deep breath. She smells clean, like soap and shampoo, but Natasha's scent is still there underneath. She wakes up to this scent now. It still clings to her skin and some of her clothes even smell like Natasha now.

Maria sighs as she leans her forehead against Natasha's shoulder. "I don't think you're going to be out of my system by the end of the week," she admits quietly.

Natasha goes still for a moment, unsure what to say. She isn't surprised to hear Hill say that, nor does she think she's wrong, but she knows she stands a real chance of ruining everything if she lets herself overthink this right now. It's probably best if she doesn't say anything at all.

It's not so much the silence as it is the way Natasha tenses beside her that makes Maria inwardly curse herself. She stays still herself, eyes squeezing shut as she berates herself for not keeping her mouth shut. She lets her hand slide down to the small of Natasha's back, rubbing gentle circles as she slowly shifts away.

"I should actually shower, huh?"

Natasha only hums in agreement, shooting Hill what she hopes is a reassuring smile as she pulls away. The change in topic is welcome, even if it sends a twinge of guilt through her.

"Let me know if you'd like help changing your bandages once you're done."

"I can manage," Maria says instantly, it's an automatic response grown from habit more than it's a rebuff. She hesitates when she realises that and gives Natasha a crooked smile, the awkwardness still lingering. "But thanks."

Stubborn as always…

"I just figured I'd offer." Natasha wonders briefly whether Hill might have accepted her help if she hadn't just closed herself off a moment ago, but she quickly dismisses the idea. Hill is too proud for that.

"I appreciate that," Maria says gently, shifting in her chair to get up. She makes a face at the mess in the kitchen. "Don't start cleaning up without me, okay? You don't have to do this alone."

Natasha shakes her head. "You cooked, I'll clean up," she insists.

Maria wants to argue, but between the cooking and the shower, she's not sure she'll be of much help anyway.

"If you're sure." She gives in a little too easily as she gets to her feet.

"Don't worry about it. Enjoy your shower."

"Think I will," Maria says lightly as she gets to her feet, her hand still on Natasha's shoulder as she tries her balance. When she's confident, she lets her hand slide away and heads down the hall.

Natasha watches her limp down the hall and disappear into the bathroom before she gets up to clear the dishes. She turns on the tap and reaches for the dish soap, giving the water a moment to run hot. The sound of Hill starting the shower drifts down the hall, and Natasha is struck by the way the tension between them lingers, even though they're no longer in the same room. She washes one plate, then another, but the feeling refuses to dissipate. With a huff, she shuts off the water, dries her hands on the dish towel, and heads for the bathroom.

She pauses outside the door, her mind racing. Don't do this, you're only going to make things worse… She tries the doorknob, hoping to find it locked, but the door opens in front of her, and she slips through it.

Maria doesn't hear anything but the water rushing past her ears as she faces the spray, intent on letting it wash away her thoughts. Her hands are braced against the tiles, keeping her weight off her leg as she lets the water pound her.

When Hill gives no indication that she heard her come in, Natasha nearly turns around and leaves again. It'd probably be smarter for her to leave, but instead she sheds her clothes and drops them to the floor next to Hill's. If she hasn't heard Natasha by now, there's probably no good way to keep from startling her, so Natasha just pulls the curtain aside and steps into the shower behind her.

The cold draft that enters the shower along with Natasha makes Maria shiver. Even with a bum leg, Maria turns around too fast, instinct - and possibly paranoia - taking over even now. The tension fades quickly because, of course, it's just Natasha. Wet and naked Natasha.

Maria wordlessly reaches for her, fingers brushing her cheek as if she needs to make sure Natasha is really there.

Natasha leans into the touch, stepping closer and slipping her arms around Hill's waist to maximize contact between them. The water is hot, almost too hot, but she doesn't flinch away. Natasha shuts her eyes and lifts up onto her toes so she can rest her forehead against the bridge of Hill's nose.

"I don't think I can get you out of my system either."

Maria's breath hitches at the words, and she slides both her hands into Natasha's hair, her fingers tangling in the copper strands as she squeezes her eyes tightly shut. She nods her agreement, not trusting herself to reply.

The water beats down on them as Natasha clings to her, breathes with her, holds her up.

It isn't until the water beating at Maria's shoulders cools a little that Maria shifts. Her fingers tug at Natasha's hair, encouraging her to tilt her head back so Maria can press her lips against Natasha's. The kiss tastes like water and coffee, like pancakes and Natasha, and it's hard to breathe and harder to keep her balance as she presses closer. She braces one hand against the cool tiles, but she doesn't stop even as her lungs burn.

The kiss drives the air from Natasha's lungs, but she kisses back, melting. The water flowing over her face and dripping down her body make her feel like she's about to drown, but she doesn't let go.

Natasha's hold is probably all that's keeping Maria from landing on her ass. The tiles are slippery underneath her fingers and they don't give way as her fingers dig at their smooth surface. They're unyielding while Natasha's mouth moves with hers, gives and takes. Sometimes resists as their teeth clash and nip, tug and pull. Sometimes she follows, sometimes she melts, and Maria feels a little less raw.

Natasha isn't sure how she manages to stay steady in the midst of all of this. She's getting dizzy, and her heart feels like it did that time she got kicked off a balcony in Shanghai - at least, it feels like it did up until the point when the roof of that car broke her fall (and two of the bones in her arm). Natasha breaks the kiss with a gasp and buries her face in the crook of Hill's neck, her skin slipping against her own.

The sudden loss leaves Maria reeling, but she instinctively wraps her arm around Natasha, keeping her close. Her breath is coming in way too fast, and she can't make out if the rush in her ears is the water or her heartbeat.

"Damn," she laughs breathlessly and tightens her hold, fingers grasping at Natasha's side as she leans her head down, resting her cheek against water-slick hair.

The sound of Hill's laugh brings Natasha back to herself, and she begins to laugh along with her. "I really do seem hell-bent on distracting you today."

"Uh huh," Maria grins at her. "I'm not complaining." Her body is starting to, though. She feels the tremor in her thigh, and she pushes her elbow flat against the wall to steady herself.

Natasha secures her grip around Hill's waist. "Should I let you finish washing up so you can get off that leg?"

It's still surprising how strong Natasha is despite her size and the lightness to her movements; it's a strange feeling knowing that Maria won't fall, even if her leg gives out.

"Probably." Maria moves her arm off the wall and wraps it around Natasha as well. "Any other day I'd be all about you distracting me further."

"There's no shame in needing time to recover from a wound like that," Natasha reminds her gently. "I certainly don't think any less of you for needing to take it easy."

"I know," Maria assures her, not that it keeps her from getting frustrated at needing time to heal. She sighs and leans her forehead against Natasha's, not ready to let her go.

Natasha lets Hill cling to her for another moment longer before coaxing her into loosening her grip.

"Are you sure you don't want any help with your bandages when you're done?"

"I..." Maria hesitates this time. "It might make things easier."

It's all Natasha can do to keep from grinning at Hill for swallowing her pride. "Let me know when you're finished. I'll come give you a hand," she promises.

"Thanks," Maria says quietly, letting her hands slide off Natasha's shoulders.

When Natasha is sure Hill is going to stay up on her own, she gives her one more quick kiss and steps out of the shower. She picks up her towel and wraps it around herself. As an afterthought, she leans over the sink and writes, <<Do you have any gum?>> with her finger on the fogged up mirror.

Maria can think of plenty of ways she would have preferred to finish that shower, but there's some things you can't argue with, and she doubts Natasha would have been impressed if her leg gave out and she landed flat on her ass in the middle of sex. Honestly, Maria is just grateful when she manages to finish her shower without incident.

She takes a moment to sit on the edge of the bathtub, waiting for the dull ache to dissipate before she tries anything else. There's no way she'll be in the field next week. It irritates her that she let this happen, but the thoughts fade as her eyes land on the mirror. It's possibly the one sentence in Russian that she'll recognise without even having to finish reading, and she grins.

"Keep that up and you'll get anything you want, Romanoff," she calls out (it's true while they're in this apartment anyway), not sure if Natasha is in a position where she'll hear her.

This time, Natasha knocks a few times before poking her head through the bathroom door. "Did you say something?"

Maria chuckles and shakes her head. She tries not to think of how she must look to Natasha sitting naked on the edge of the tub with only a towel around her shoulders, unable to keep herself from grinning. "I'm ready, if that offer still stands."

Natasha laughs. "Good. I was getting ready to come hold you down and help you whether you like it or not."

"Hold me down?" Maria repeats, raising an eyebrow at Natasha. She tries her best to look serious, but her eyes are glinting with mischief. "I'd like to see that."

Natasha swats her good-naturedly. "Yeah, I'll bet you'd like that. Now hold still."

"I would," Maria says easily, reaching out to brush her fingers over Natasha's cheek.

It takes a lot of willpower for Natasha to concentrate on bandaging Hill's leg. The wound still looks painful, and it's sure to leave an impressive scar, but at least it seems to be healing nicely. Natasha thinks back to her own most recent bullet wound. Hers healed absurdly quickly, but then again, all of her injuries do.

Natasha finishes dressing Hill's leg and returns her attention to Hill's hands, grabbing them and kissing her palm.

"There. That should do it."

"Thank you." Maria breathes, finally relaxing now that Natasha is done. The tightness across her face is replaced by a soft smile as she watches Natasha, her lips warm and gently against her palm.

Natasha gets to her feet and offers a hand to help Hill get to hers. "This isn't your first GSW, is it?" she asks, suddenly curious.

"Not the first," Maria confirms as she accepts Natasha's help getting to her feet. Her body has a few tales written across it. They're not that different in that regard; Maria has spent the last few days tracing some of the scars etched into Natasha's skin. "Got lucky most of the time. Obviously."

She glances down and presses Natasha's fingers to a small scar right below her ribs. "This one hurt like a bitch."

Natasha traces the scar with her fingertips, almost reverently. "What happened?'

"It was one of my first missions," Maria traces her fingers up Natasha's forearm. "There were snipers in the area. We got a tip about a house they were hiding in. We went in, scanned the house. I missed a door. I wanted to be fast." She shrugs. "Stupid."

Natasha shakes her head. "Not stupid enough to get you killed." She presses a kiss to the scar. "That's something."

"Wisened me up," Maria murmurs, brushing her fingers over Natasha's hair. "Not sure if it was getting shot or Dawson shouting at me until he was red in the face that did it."

"Did you get yelled at more often or less often without me around to get you in trouble?" Natasha teases.

"Definitely less," Maria nods sagely and leans in, resting her forehead against Natasha's. "I'll have you know that I was the perfect soldier."

"Yeah, perfect unless there are doors to check, apparently." Natasha smirks, but almost immediately she changes her tone. "Do you miss it?"

The question catches Maria off guard, and the cockiness fades in an instant. No one's asked her that before, but she knows the answer without having to think. She shakes her head. "It wasn't the same."

Natasha raises a slightly apprehensive eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

Maria's face closes off, and she glances away. "Can we do this somewhere else?"

"We don't have to do this at all if you don't want to," Natasha assures her, placing a hand tentatively on Hill's forearm.

It's almost too gentle, the words or the touch, Maria can't quite work out which. She avoids Natasha's eyes as she reaches for her other hand, tugging for her to follow.

Hill's silence does nothing to assuage Natasha's apprehension, but she follows anyway.

Maria hesitates at the bedroom door, her back towards Natasha, and she threads her fingers through Natasha's, tightening her hold as she seems to make up her mind and pulls Natasha with her into the living room. Apparently they're going to have this discussion naked.

She stops in front of the mantle piece. The picture there is one of the few personal items she keeps around, and Natasha must have seen it by now. Hell, Natasha probably already knows what it is. Letting go of Natasha's hand, Maria picks up the frame. Her eyes linger over the faces she hasn't seen in years - except at night, but they don't smile when she dreams of them.

She offers the picture to Natasha, then quickly retreats to the couch as she waits, the words refusing to come to her.

Natasha accepts the photo without a word, her eyes passing over each face in turn. She knows who they must be, of course, but only one face is familiar. She lingers on the image of Hill's younger self. Her eyes are bright and determined. Proud. It's a spark she shares with everyone else in the photo. It's a spark Natasha hasn't ever seen in her eyes as they are now.

"Tell me about them?" she asks quietly, moving to sit close to Hill on the sofa.

Maria worries at her bottom lip as she tries to figure out where to even start, but there's no right way. Not really. "You know how they say the Army becomes your family when you join up?" She doesn't wait for an answer before she continues. "It wasn't the Army, it was them. I came out of West Point ready to prove myself, to show what I was capable of, and they took me down a notch. They grounded me, kept me alive. Dawson, he was tough on us, worked us into the ground. He kept all our asses safe, but…"

She stops, because it's not quite true. She's the only one who's alive now. "He could be downright terrifying, but he wasn't mean. He shouted when he had to, when he had to get it into your head, and he was kind when you needed him to be."

Natasha only nods, listening intently. This is not a world she knows, and she's acutely aware that anything she might say could be the wrong thing, and Hill will stop talking. Hill clearly needs to talk about them, about what happened, needs to talk to someone far more qualified than Natasha, but at least it's a start.

Maria stops talking anyway, her eyes fixed on the picture in Natasha's hands.

"The woman beside me? That's Ash, she was…" Maria grins a little, head tilting. "She taught me most of my curse words, actually. She was tough as nails. Her parents were what she called 'a bunch of hippies' and she went the other way. Probably not the right mentality for joining the Army, but it worked for her.

"Everything used to work for her," Maria adds as an afterthought as she draws her legs up, wrapping her arms around them. The picture blurs a little, and Maria blinks until it clears again. "Rhee was a fucking wizard with explosives. He was quiet, but he was always there. You know? The kind of guy who has your back no matter what. Dragged my sorry drunk ass through camp one night and got me into my bunk without anyone noticing."

The idea of Hill drunk and stumbling seems so absurd that Natasha can't help but laugh. "Those are good kinds of friends to have. All of them."

"Yes," Maria grins, but it turns wistful as it reminds her of the hole they left behind them. The one she's been struggling not to fall down ever since they left. "Did you ever have people like that?"

"No," Natasha breathes, her reply automatic but not bitter, a simple statement of fact. "Barton's about as close as I've ever come." Barton and you, she thinks, but she can't bring herself to say it.

Maria reaches for Natasha's hand and presses a kiss to her palm, remembering the comfort Natasha gave her earlier with that gesture. "I think you would have liked them," she murmurs. "I mean, I'm not sure I would have survived you meeting Ash, but I like to think you would have gotten along too well."

The sentiment twists Natasha's stomach in a way she can't quite place. Part of her uncertainty comes from the elephant in the room: she knows, albeit vaguely, how Hill's story ends. Perhaps it's better to meet it head on.

"What happened?" Natasha asks, her voice barely above a whisper.

The question comes as no surprise. She's been working her way around it, and maybe she's a little grateful for Natasha to shove her in that direction. It doesn't make it easier, though. Maria leans her head back, staring up at the ceiling.

She doesn't let go of Natasha's hand, however, the touch something to ground her. The chill in the room keeps her from imagining the desert sun beating down on her. She still remembers the way her brain felt like it was melting in her helmet, her uniform sticking to her skin.

"It was a pretty standard mission. Go in and retrieve," Maria starts. "The area we were heading into was a red zone, but we never even made it that far. The road we were on was supposed to be clear. I don't know if they were tipped off, or if we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time… They just blew up the vehicle. I was in the back with Dawson manning the top gun…"

She shakes her head and forces her grip on Natasha's hand to relax, forces herself to take a deep breath. "It's a haze, I don't remember much. I think it was a rocket launcher, blew us right off the road. Dawson shoved me, maybe that's why- That's why I'm here. I got knocked out, woke up half buried under the truck, unable to move."

Her breath hitches, and she lets go, racking her hand through her hair and shielding her face with the movement. "I didn't dare call out. I couldn't…" There was smoke and sand, and Dawson's wedding band glinting in the sun. "Dawson was dead, but I couldn't see anyone else. It was quiet. No sound."

Just her breathing, her heartbeat pumping in her ears, and the numbness of her body. She clings to the latter, holds it like a shield. "I thought they'd come to finish us off, but they never did. Or maybe they had, and they thought I was dead. Rhee apparently made it out of the car; they found him with a bullet through the head."

The words are harsh, but the reality is harsher. She read the reports. She knows them by heart. "I waited. I had my gun, but they never came. Never gave us a fair fight."

It's not the first time she's said that. The words sound detached.

Natasha's heard worse - been the cause of worse - but the hardest part of Hill's story is the look on her face as she tells it: withered and haunted and broken. Her voice catches on the names, and her fingers dig into Natasha's hand with a quiet intensity that matches her expression. When finally she grows quiet, Natasha hardly knows what to do.

"I'm sorry." The words are woefully insufficient, but Natasha means them wholeheartedly.

Maria nods and bites back a flippant remark to brush this off. It's not what her team deserves, and it's not what Natasha deserves either. She doesn't know what to do now. She feels naked, and unlike how she has no urge to hide her body in front of Natasha, this she does want to cover up.

Instead she pushes herself, answering the question Natasha asked before all this. "When I was healed, they wanted to assign me to a different team, but… I couldn't. They were my family, and I couldn't imagine myself without them."

"Must've been hard," Natasha says quietly. She wants to reach out, wants to ask more questions, but she can sense Hill retreating, so she doesn't push her luck.

"That's…" Maria snorts and glances sideways at Natasha. "It sucked, so I tried to ignore it." She grimaces. "Didn't work so well."

There's a hint of wry humor creeping back into Hill's tone, and Natasha knows that means her defenses are nearly back in place. Tentatively, wordlessly, almost as more of an experiment than anything else, Natasha spreads her arms wide, offering up the space in between them.

It's such a simple gesture, but it makes Maria's breath hitch. She can't remember the last time someone offered her this. The humour disappears in an instant, replaced by something that leaves her eyes too bright.

When she moves, it's a rush of motion, and she presses her face against Natasha's shoulder, arms wrapping around her waist. A tremor runs through her body, and Maria sucks in a breath as if Natasha's scent might keep her from falling apart.

Natasha's arms circle Hill's shoulders, holding her securely, anchoring them both. She'd half-expected Hill to shrug off the gesture, to choose to cling to her pride rather than to Natasha's body. She does her best not to go rigid, to stay relaxed, to offer as much comfort as she can.

Maria's fingers curl into the towel, and she sinks into the embrace. She holds on too tightly to Natasha and to her control, struggling to keep her breathing even. She doesn't even know why she's still fighting: habit or fear, maybe both. It makes her self conscious, and she tenses up. "I'm sorry."

Natasha strokes her hair as she coils tight in her arms, trying futilely to ease some of the tension from Hill's limbs. "Don't be. It's okay."

It feels far from okay, but eventually Maria lets herself notice the fingers in her hair. It's almost hypnotic, and it takes another while before the tension in her shoulders eases and it no longer feels like she's ready to push away in an instant.

Even after Hill relaxes a little, Natasha keeps up the movement of her fingers through her hair. <<You okay?>>

I'm fine would be the automatic reply, but Maria manages to keep the lie from slipping off her tongue. She slowly forces herself to stop grasping at Natasha's towel, flattening her hands against her back instead.

"I've been better," she murmurs against Natasha's shoulder. "I've been worse, too."

Natasha only nods in acknowledgement; she knows the feeling all too well. After a few moments, she adds hesitantly, "Do you want me to let go?"

A moment ago, Maria would have taken the out, but the question alone has her leaning more heavily against Natasha. She likes the feeling of Natasha's fingers in her hair; it seems like a silly thing to like.

"No," she breathes, following the words with a brush of her lips.

"Then I won't let go," Natasha murmurs, "but you can if you need to." She isn't sure whether Hill will catch her meaning, but it doesn't really matter. She keeps her arms wrapped securely around Hill's shoulders.

"I can't." The words are strangled - a little desperate - and Maria's fingers flex at the small of Natasha's back.

Instinct tightens Natasha's hold, trying to steady both of them.

<<Let go.>>

It doesn't work that way. You can't just order someone to let go. The suggestion has anger rising from within, and Maria wants to snap, wants to lash out, but the sound she makes is nowhere near coherent. It's guttural, and she thinks it's anger - it has to be - but Natasha's skin is damp against her cheek, and Maria tries to fight the sob that follows it. It's frustrating and humiliating, but Natasha's arms are strong across her shoulders, and there's nowhere else to go.

The anger and pain and frustration radiating off of Hill in waves make Natasha's breath catch in her throat. The sensation of tears pooling on her shoulder is something she hasn't felt since she was a child, and as much as Natasha saw it coming, she is in no way prepared to actually comfort a sobbing Maria Hill now that the dam has burst. Natasha clings to her heaving shoulders in silence, overwhelmed. Her own eyes begin to prickle, but she bites her lip against the sensation and holds tight.

Maria tries to hold still, tries to keep silent, but after years of having this be a part of her, there is no keeping this in control anymore. What she had is gone, and the only thing keeping her from shaking apart are Natasha's arms around her. Everything else blurs, fades, and gets swept away into a maelstrom of emotions Maria always tried to deny existed.

When it settles, when the tremors turn into shivers and all that's left inside of her mind is a splitting headache, Natasha is still there, steady and strong. Maria presses her face closer, her arms tightening around her in thanks.

Only after she's sure Hill has calmed down a little does Natasha try to break the silence. "Do you feel better?" she asks hesitantly. It's probably a stupid thing to ask, but nothing else comes to mind.

The question shouldn't be amusing, but maybe that's because it's the only emotion Maria has left inside of her after everything. She doesn't honestly know if she does, but she takes a moment to consider it, to feel past the headache and the exhaustion that's settled in her limbs.

There's something gone, a heaviness she didn't even realise was there, and she nods slowly, then presses a kiss to Natasha's skin. "Yes."

<<Good,>> Natasha breathes, kissing the top of Hill's head. "Come on, we should probably get dressed." Natasha prompts her to straighten up. Noticing the slightly hooded look to Hill's eyes, she adds without thinking, "Do you want me to get you something for your head?"

"That'd be good," Maria settles back against the couch. She's cold, but getting up seems like a lot of work, and she lets her head fall back. She must look like a mess, and the distance leaves her too self-aware.

Natasha nods and beats a hasty retreat to the bedroom. She tells herself it's to give Hill some time alone to compose herself and regain a little of her dignity, but the truth of it is, she wants to put as much distance between herself and whatever it is that just happened. There's no reason for that whole situation to have been so… what's the word for it? Intuitive? Can that possibly be right? How did she know that Hill was about to cry? Or that it might have been exactly what she needed to do at the time? How was she able to tell that she'd ended up with a headache just from the look in her eyes?

Rather than thinking too hard about the answer that edges into the corners of her mind, Natasha shakes herself over and turns her attention to dressing as quickly as she can in the first set of clothes she can get her hands on.

 

Now that Natasha is gone, Maria becomes aware of how cold she is. It's a coldness that comes from within her bones, contrasting with the heat coming from her face. She presses the heel of her hands against her eyes. It feels raw, just like the rest of her, and she wonders what Natasha is making of this. She's pretty sure you're not supposed to have an emotional breakdown before you've even gone on a date with someone.

Making a disgusted noise, she forces herself to get up. Her clean clothes are in the bedroom, but Natasha's in there, so Maria heads for the bathroom instead. She tries not to look in the mirror that's still a little fogged up, Natasha's words visible even now.

The water is cold when she pushes her head under the tap, making her shiver even more, but it cuts through the exhaustion, makes her feel less raw and makes the headache that much worse.

 

When Natasha hears the water running in the bathroom, she gathers an armful of clothes for Maria and picks up the bottle of painkillers from the bedside table. She hesitates for a moment outside the bathroom door, not wanting to intrude. She did, however, say she'd bring Hill something for her head, so she crosses the threshold and wordlessly offers her the bundle.

Maria straightens up quickly, cold water trickling down her neck, and she can't help the shiver.

"Thanks," she mumbles, avoiding meeting Natasha's eyes as she accepts the bundle. It actually takes her a moment before she realises what Natasha just gave her. She glances up in surprise, looking a little lost for words.

Natasha blinks at her, uncertain. "They were the first things I could get my hands on. I can find something else, if you'd prefer…" She trails off awkwardly.

"It's fine," Maria says quickly, glancing down at the clothes. It is awkward, and she hates that she did this. She sucks in a breath. "I'm sorry you had to see that."

"Don't be. It's okay," Natasha insists. That seems to be her default answer today. She frowns a little, but there's no heat behind it. "You don't always have to be so proud, you know."

Maria laughs a little and snags the bottle of painkiller from on top of the pile, tossing the clothes on the hamper for a moment. "Sometimes it seems like it's all I have," she says, turning to the sink.

Natasha shrugs. There's not much she can say to that that won't sound petulant, so she changes the subject. "I should go finish washing the dishes."

"Right," Maria says dully. She shakes a couple of pills into the palm of her hand and stares down at them for a moment before downing them.

Natasha lingers, eyeing Hill cautiously. She knows she should turn and leave the room, but her feet are frozen in place.

Maria runs her fingers through her damp hair, but she stops when she realises Natasha isn't making any sign of moving.

"What?" she asks uncertainly, turning away from the mirror.

"Nothing." Natasha scowls and shakes her head. "Forget it." She wills herself to turn around and head for the kitchen.

Maria's tempted to instantly follow, but she forces herself to stay and put on clothes first. She's cold and she feels a little hollow still. Natasha's strange behaviour isn't helping. It's tempting to sit and stare off into space once she's dressed, but she eventually follows Natasha into the kitchen.

Once she's there, though, she doesn't quite know what to say, so she moves to snag the towel from Natasha's shoulder and helps by drying off.

Natasha can't bring herself to look up from the dishes she's scrubbing down. She scours them as much with her scowl as she does with the sponge, then sets them unceremoniously in the dish rack for Hill to dry off, or not, as she chooses.

It doesn't take too long for Maria to pick up on Natasha's mood, but she doesn't get where it's coming from. She hesitates, unsure if she should just help out or…

She's been enough of a coward already.

"Nat," Maria says gently, reaching out to touch her shoulder. "What's wrong?"

It's all Natasha can do not to shake off Hill's touch. She takes a deep breath to keep her voice steady as she shoots Hill a glance over her shoulder.

"I know that hurt your pride, but don't take it out on me. I was only trying to help."

"What?" Maria drops her hand from Natasha's shoulder. "I'm not. I-" She breaks off, frowning at Natasha. "What am I taking out?"

"You're…" Natasha blinks, suddenly unsure what to say. "You're trying to shut me out," she accuses, but then shuts her mouth so hard her teeth ache. That's what they do, the two of them. They keep their walls up, because every time they come down, they both end up raw and confused and smarting. It's safer to be kept at arm's length; why does it bother her so much right now?

"Oh." Maria blinks, for a moment incapable of doing anything more than staring until she realises that if she doesn't say anything, Natasha might just hightail it out of there.

"That's…" she makes a face. "I thought when you left-" She swallows and glances down, embarrassed. "I thought I'd fucked it up. I wouldn't blame you if it'd been too much."

Natasha's expression softens when she realizes what Hill means. "You thought I was running again."

Maria nods and steps forward, reaching up to cup Natasha's face in her hands as she rests her forehead against Natasha's. "I'm sorry."

Even though she accepts Hill's touch, she's not quite ready to accept her apology. "Did it not occur to you that I was just trying to give you space? That I didn't want to embarrass you by sitting and staring at you?"

"No," Maria admits quietly. It hadn't, and she doesn't see the point in trying to hide that. "Did it not occur to you that I didn't need space? That I wasn't embarrassed until you gave it to me?"

It's a little hard to eye her skeptically when their foreheads are touching, but Natasha does her best. "You seemed really self-conscious…" she trails off again as memories float, unbidden, into her mind. She squeezes her eyes shut in an attempt to fend them off.

"I wasn't," Maria huffs and she wants to explain how she hadn't been until Natasha's arm had fallen away from her shoulders. She doesn't know how to put any of it into words, and something in Natasha's eyes has changed. Maria isn't even sure she's still listening. "Nat?"

She's huddled in an alcove, knees drawn up tightly against her chest. Her fingernails dig into the thin skin that webs the base of her fingers, pinching hard in a desperate attempt to keep the tears from spilling over. She prays that no one will find her until she's back in control. Everyone knows they beat you if they catch you crying.

<<I'm fine.>> Natasha doesn't mean to flinch away, but the voice cutting through her thoughts inexplicably startles her. She squeezes her eyes shut even tighter and rubs at them, trying to scrub away the images with the heel of her hand.

Maria drops her hands and takes a step back, giving Natasha the room she seems to want. It doesn't stop her from worrying; there's something definitely not fine about her.

<<You don't seem fine.>>

"I'll be fine," Natasha insists. "It'll pass." It always does.

"What will?" Maria tilts her head. She wants to reach out again, but she fists her hands by her side instead, not wanting to push her luck.

Natasha shakes her head again. "Nothing. Just memories."

Memories that hit like that are rarely just memories. Maria tentatively reaches out, brushing her fingers lightly over Natasha's cheek. "You know I'll listen if you want to talk, right?"

This time, Natasha doesn't flinch. She forces a small smile. "I know. I just don't even know where to begin."

"Wherever you want. It doesn't have to make sense," Maria offers gently, leaning her head down to catch Natasha's eye and make sure she knows she means it.

Natasha stares back, a hint of a challenge in her eyes. "I was thinking about what used to happen to me when I cried as a child." Her voice is completely devoid of emotion.

It's almost like the first time she met Natasha, and Maria doesn't look away now either. There's a cold dread this time, though, because whatever is in Natasha's past is not pleasant.

"What would happen?" Maria asks softly.

"Oh, any number of things," Natasha smirks, her voice dry. "If I was lucky, I'd get kicked a few times, maybe get my ears boxed."

"If you were lucky," Maria repeats quietly, frowning. She wonders how often Natasha had been lucky. Not often, probably, not from the way Natasha is acting, brushing it off.

"If I was lucky," Natasha repeats. "If I wasn't lucky, I'd get the belt. And I don't exactly have the best luck in the world."

"I'm sorry," Maria murmurs. The words are inadequate, and she wants to wrap Natasha in her arms, but she doesn't know if that'd be welcome. She doesn't think it will make anything better, either. She can't even imagine it.

Natasha shrugs. If Hill is appalled by that story, she can only imagine what her reaction would be to any of her other stories. "I learned quickly. We all did." She considers leaving it at that, but she figures she should maybe explain herself fully. "We also learned not to look when one of us started to cry. Made us more likely to get caught."

Maria nods slowly, but what happened between them seems long ago now as she imagines a young Natasha having to learn that lesson. She knows it's the tip of the iceberg, and she probably can't even fathom the rest.

"How old were you?" she asks softly.

"Five? Six, maybe."

Too young either way. Maria digs her nails into the palm of her hand. "Assholes," she growls because there are no faces to break.

Again, Natasha shrugs off Hill's reaction. It's part confusing, part exhilarating to see Hill's hackles start to rise. It's far, far too late for her to protect Natasha from any of it, of course, but the sentiment does not go unappreciated. To show it, Natasha steps close again and reaches up to touch Hill's face. "Do you see why my instinct was to give you your space? I held on as long as I could."

Maria uncurls her hands and moves them to Natasha's waist, resting lightly there. "Yes," she agrees, her thumbs rubbing over Natasha's hip. "I appreciate that. All of it."

"Good." Natasha finally relaxes a little. "You always do expect the worst from me," she teases gently.

Her tone is light, but Maria doesn't like it anyway. She grasps Natasha a little tighter, tugging her closer. "I expect the worst from life," she admits, leaning her head down against Natasha's. "You don't fit the pattern, so I get suspicious."

In lieu of a response, Natasha bumps her forehead against Hill's. Not hard enough to hurt, just enough of a tap to be momentarily jarring.

Maria grins a little and finally gives in, wrapping her arms solidly around her. "Noted."

Natasha smirks and headbutts her again, a little more insistently this time.

"Hey," Maria protests, but there's no heat to it, and she's already moving her hand up Natasha's side to see if she can tickle her now.

Natasha wriggles out of Hill's grasp and slugs her on the arm. "No fair."

Maria laughs and tries reaching for Natasha again. "Never said I fought fair."

It's all too easy for Natasha to evade her grasp, and she lands a light tap to Hill's other arm. "What kind of soldier doesn't fight fair?"

"The one that's currently off-duty," Maria raises an eyebrow at her, but if that's the game they're playing… She moves towards Natasha, trying to catch her around the waist, but she isn't half as fast as she'd like to be.

"You're off duty, not dead, Hill," Natasha taunts, dancing out of her reach. "You can do better than that!"

It's somewhat doubtful that she can. Tackling Natasha is an option, but Maria definitely isn't up for that right now. She takes a step forward, expecting Natasha to move back in response. "Oh, I know very well that I'm not dead," she smirks, feigning another grasp for Natasha, but she shifts at the last moment, trying to block off Natasha's escape route and back her into the kitchen counter.

It's a clever trick. Natasha makes a show of allowing herself to be cornered, fetching up against Hill without overbalancing her.

Maria smirks as she puts one hand on Natasha's back and moves into her. She knows it's too easy, but maybe Natasha allowing herself to be caught is half of the appeal of this. "Maybe we should stay in after all," she suggests, ducking her head. She stops short of kissing Natasha.

Natasha grins mischievously, then hitches her hips up so she's perched on the edge of the counter. "Fuck me on your kitchen counter? You know you've wanted to since breakfast."

"Who's playing dirty now?" Maria laughs. It's a low sound, and her eyes are dark as she steps between Natasha's legs. It's definitely unfair what this woman does to her. Unfair and exhilarating.

Her headache has faded to a dull, distant memory. Maria still feels raw - she knows that's not just going to go away - but everything's a little brighter now. Especially Natasha, who somehow is still there and didn't run when Maria laid herself bare.

This is far from normal, especially for someone who's learned to expect the worst from life. Normal doesn't make Maria's heart race the way it does when Natasha wraps her legs around her. Normal shouldn't make her feel like everything is golden, but she does and Maria sinks into it. She leans into the feeling and the warmth that's threatening to spill over. She leans into Natasha, her hands dragging along Natasha's thighs as she kisses her.

Chapter Text

The next few days are a blur. The two of them (and Clint, of course) are due to report back for active duty at 08:00 the next morning, and to Natasha it seems simultaneously surreally distant and alarmingly close. She shifts her weight, pulling Hill's arm a little closer and nestling a little more securely against her on the sofa.

"You were right," she murmurs suddenly, breaking the silence.

"Of course I was," Maria teases gently, but she obliges and tightens her arms around Natasha, as she continues in a more serious tone. "What was I right about?"

"We haven't gotten this out of our systems yet," she chuckles, trailing her fingers over Hill's abs.

Maria laughs and she stretches into the touch, her feet pushing at the armrest of the couch. "I'm glad you agree. I'd be disappointed if you didn't."

"For a while, I was sure we would," Natasha admits.

Maria grows quiet as she mulls it over, tracing her fingers idly down Natasha's forearm as she does. "Were you hoping we would?"

Natasha doesn't answer for a long time. "How much would I hurt you if I said yes?"

That's a yes. Maria doesn't answer. She watches as she traces her finger along Natasha's skin. She sighs finally and leans her head back against the pillow. "You weren't exactly in my plans either," she assures her.

Fucking Maria Hill, evasive as ever. Natasha sits up and turns to catch Hill's eye before clarifying. "When I first made the suggestion, I was hoping this would burn out. It would be less complicated that way." She pauses long enough to kiss Hill lightly. "But I think I stopped wishing for that somewhere along the way."

Maria's aware that she's smiling like an idiot, and she reaches up, brushing her fingers over Natasha's cheek. "It would have been less complicated," Maria agrees, "but that's boring, right?"

<<Jackass.>> Natasha smiles affectionately for a moment, but her expression quickly turns sombre again. "Are you still going to be so confident this time tomorrow?"

"Confident in what exactly?" Maria asks, sliding her fingers in Natasha's hair. "That I'll still want you? That we can make it work?"

"That it's worth it?" Natasha offers, without missing a beat.

<<Idiot,>> Maria says gently. She pushes up on her elbow so she can brush her lips against Natasha's. "I don't need to wait until tomorrow to know it's worth it."

Natasha smirks, but it doesn't quite reach her eyes. "How are we going to play this?" This close to the end of their shore leave, there's little point in avoiding the question anymore.

"We're not doing anything wrong," Maria says gently, leaning back down again. Maybe the words are more meant for herself than they are for Natasha. "You aren't anywhere near my chain of command. It's no one else's business as long as we keep it discrete."

"Discrete. Right," Natasha huffs, not entirely humorlessly. "At least we know the gym tends to be empty at 3:30 in the morning."

Maria makes a face. "How much did Barton guess?"

"On the plus side, his first guess was that I was planning to kill you. The downside is, he very quickly jumped from there to guessing that I'd slept with you."

"Well," Maria smirks at Natasha. "On the plus side, it means we can force him to run interference for us." She's joking. For the most part.

Natasha chuckles at that, but she can't seem to shake the paranoia that this will all end badly. She never can bring herself to throw Barton under the bus. She kisses Hill again as a distraction, just like she has over and over for the past few days. It's becoming automatic by now.

It's not that Maria doesn't always notice, but most of the time she's willing to give Natasha her way out if she wants it. (And okay, there are plenty of times when she doesn't notice. Being distracted by Natasha Romanoff isn't an unpleasant experience.)

She lets Natasha kiss her, but this time she lets it come to an end rather than let Natasha sweep her away. "Are you okay with this?" she whispers.

"I'm not running, am I?"

"No," Maria agrees, stroking her hands down over Natasha's shoulders. "I'd like to keep it that way."

"I'll keep that in mind," Natasha says, almost teasing.

"Good." Maria's reply sounds more serious than she intended it to be. She looks serious, like she's about to say something, then changes her mind and quickly leans up to kiss Natasha soundly. Maybe she's the one trying to distract now.

Her indecision does not go unnoticed, of course. "What is it?" Natasha breathes around the kiss.

Maria tightens her fingers in Natasha's hair. It's a little easier with her eyes closed and Natasha's lips so close to hers. "I'll miss this," she admits, the words barely audible, and she catches Natasha's bottom lip between her teeth, tugging gently before releasing. "By 'this' I mean cooking for you."

Natasha laughs. "After a week of cooking whatever you make me fetch for you from the bodega downstairs, going back to sneaking me donuts is going to seem like such a letdown, isn't it?"

"It is," Maria agrees, grateful for Natasha to not make a fuss about it. It's nothing more than the truth; Natasha is a grateful person to cook for. "I suppose it'll keep you from becoming spoiled."

"You don't want to spoil me?" Natasha scoffs, feigning mild indignation. "Some girlfriend you are." Her stomach lurches as the words pass her lips, then she freezes, as if staying perfectly still will somehow un-say them.

The slip might have gone unnoticed - or Maria could have pretended it had - but the way Natasha tenses makes it hard to ignore. Maria gently smooths her hands down over Natasha's shoulders, her expression carefully neutral. "It's okay."

After a few painfully long seconds, Natasha opts to pretend like she hadn't said anything rather than deny it outright. It would be easier if she could just slide farther into Hill's lap like she's wanted to all week, but her leg wound kind of prohibits that. Natasha settles back onto her shoulder instead. "I guess we'll need to find something new to bet on so you'll have an excuse to keep bringing me donuts."

"I guess," Maria agrees, pressing a kiss to Natasha's forehead. She doesn't pull back from there, but close her eyes and breathes in the scent of Natasha's hair. "I do want to spoil you," she murmurs.

"Don't you dare," Natasha warns mildly. "Who knows what would happen?"

"I wouldn't mind finding out," Maria grins and leans her cheek against Natasha's forehead. She doubts Natasha will become spoiled so easily, no matter what she does.

"You'll probably have to try pretty hard," Natasha frowns slightly. "I'm not exactly conditioned to spoil easily."

"No, I figured as much," Maria murmurs as she  brushes Natasha's hair back from her face.

Natasha lapses into vaguely mortified silence. Somehow, Hill has managed over the course of the week to strip away all of her walls, leaving her neigh on defenseless and prone to blurting out whatever ill-advised thoughts come to mind. That will have to stop if they want to have any chance of being discrete from here on out.

Maria stays still for a while, but she can almost hear the wheels turning in Natasha's head. She thought that perhaps ignoring would be the easiest way out, but that's obviously wrong. Finally she shifts from underneath Natasha, carefully rolling to her side to face Natasha. "How much are you freaking out right now?"

"Is it that obvious?" Natasha cringes, injecting more humor into her tone than she really feels.

"No." Maria gently rubs her thumb along Natasha's jaw. "My guesses just aren't as uneducated as they used to be." And if she's guessing anything right, it's because Natasha is letting her. "Which part is freaking you out? That you said it at all or..." She trails off, not sure how to finish that sentence.

"Said what?" Natasha half-asses her air of false innocence.

Maria pointedly raises an eyebrow at Natasha. Natasha isn't even trying, and the look should be enough of a reminder not to bullshit her. "You realise it doesn't matter what word you stick on it, right?" she says instead. Not that the word in itself isn't intimidating. "I'm not going anywhere either way."

"You're not going anywhere," Natasha repeats pensively, "And you don't want me to run." The knot of tension in the pit of her stomach uncoils, leaving her with an unsteady lightness, a weightlessness, like reaching the vertex of a leap before the fall that inevitably follows. "Does that mean we're going steady now?" she teases. "Do I get to wear your pin?"

"You can wear my West Point shirt," Maria says with a laugh, stroking her fingers through Natasha's hair as she steals a quick kiss from her.

Natasha laughs into the kiss. "With a little help from Barton, I can wear whichever shirt of yours I want to."

"Hrpmh," is about the only reply Maria has (that and a poke to Natasha's side).

"Good comeback," Natasha taunts. "You aren't still sore about that, are you?"

Maria scowls, and it's tempting to take advantage of her position since Natasha can't easily get off of the couch without climbing over Maria first. That's before she remembers and she smirks at Natasha. "You already have one of my shirts. What did you do with it?"

Natasha's smirk falters. "I think it's probably still on the floor in the corner of my quarters."

Maria raises an eyebrow at her. "Should I ask, or am I better off not knowing?"

"I threw it there," Natasha shrugs, being intentionally vague.

"It bugged you that much?" Maria tilts her head. "I'd say that must mean I won that round, but I'm not sure what we were doing."

"No, nothing like that," Natasha lies smoothly. "That particular one must've been from your laundry pile. Gross."

Maria narrows her eyes at Natasha, but she shakes her head after a moment. "Doesn't matter. Did that answer your question?"

"What question?" Natasha narrows her eyes right back.

Maria hadn't counted on having to repeat that, and she looks a little sheepish as she does. "Whether we're going steady," she mumbles.

Natasha rolls her eyes. "Whatever words we put on it, let's not say we're 'going steady.' This isn't the 50s." She laughs a little. "And no, that didn't really answer my question. You never answer my questions directly."

"Oh," Maria frowns, wondering if that's true. She makes it a point of meeting Natasha's eyes. "Yes, I think it does mean that we are. Whatever words you want to put on it."

Nothing evasive about that. "I hope you're up for making things up as we go along. I've never done this before."

"Not at all?" Maria asks curiously. It shouldn't be shocking; it's not like she's doing so great in the serious relationships department herself.

"Natasha Romanoff has never had a girlfriend, no."

That's hardly an answer as Maria was there when Natasha picked her name. "And before that?"

Natasha frowns. "It doesn't matter. I'm not that person anymore."

"Okay," Maria says gently, brushing her fingers down Natasha's neck. "I should warn you, I'm not exactly a pro at this either."

"No?" Natasha scoffs sarcastically. "You're telling me you're not the ladykiller everyone thinks you are?"

"I know. Shocking." Maria huffs at her and rolls onto her back again.

"Come on, Hill, has there ever been anyone…" Natasha trails off, partially worried that Hill doesn't want to be asked, partially unsure she wants to know the answer.

"Anything serious?" Maria shakes her head. "No. Guess we're going to have to make up a lot."

"Not everything, luckily." Natasha slides a hand slowly up Hill's uninjured thigh. "Tell me, who taught you how to do… this?"

Maria snorts at the question and brushes her fingers through Natasha's hair. "No one in particular. Picked it up as I went along. Or are you asking me who the first woman was that I slept with?"

"Well, I'm asking that now," Natasha chuckles.

"I should have seen that coming," Maria shakes her head. "Her name was Elisa. She was very pretty and I was just drunk enough not to care about the consequences."

"How old were you?" Natasha's stomach tightens with something that is not entirely unlike jealousy.

She should have seen that coming too. Maria wets her lips before replying. "About twenty five."

Natasha nods, her expression neutral as she presses on with her pseudo-interrogation. "Do you sleep with men, too, or just women?"

"I used to," Maria shrugs a shoulder, but it does little to assuage the sudden nerves she feels at Natasha's questions. "Haven't since then. Guess I figured out why I wasn't all that big on sex before."

Natasha chuckles. "Yeah, I guess that makes a difference."

"I've definitely changed my opinion on that," Maria grins and leans in to steal another kiss from Natasha. "So does this mean I'm the first woman you've slept with?"

"Technically, no." Natasha returns the kiss, stroking Hill's cheek. "Not by a long shot."

"Technically?" Maria asks, staying close to Natasha, and she trails her fingers slowly down her back.

"Like I said: I'm not that person anymore. But that doesn't mean I don't still have all of those memories, those experiences."

"I'm aware," Maria agrees, "so why make the distinction earlier, but not now?"

Natasha considers her answer carefully. "Relationships are one thing. I haven't had many, at least not personal ones. Sex is different."

"And you don't like looking back on the relationships?" Maria guesses.

"No, it isn't that…" Natasha's brow furrows as she struggles to find words to explain herself. "Sex is a tool. At least, it can be. I've used it that way, more often than not. Relationships - real relationships - are about people. I've become a new person, so my past relationships are irrelevant."

"That's a very rational way to look at it," Maria points out, not able to imagine herself doing that. "Relationships aren't usually rational."

"That's true." Natasha continues to frown. "Are you saying that you want to hear about all of it, or are you saying you'd rather I'd put all of it behind me?"

"It's not my place to tell you to put something behind you, Natasha," Maria reaches up, brushing her fingers over Natasha's frown. "I want to know, but I'm not going to force you to tell me."

"Why does it bother you that I make a distinction between sleeping with people and being in relationships?" Natasha challenges, propping her weight on her elbow.

"It doesn't," Maria shakes her head. "I'm just trying to understand why you avoided answering my question earlier, but not this one."

"I'm not avoiding anything. I said I've never been in a relationship, because I was a different person in my past relationships. I treated them differently; they treated me differently. None of it is relevant to what's going on between us," Natasha insists, confused.

"I think that's why they call it past relationships, Nat," Maria frowns, but she shakes it off. "It's okay."

"It's an important distinction for me to make. Don't dismiss it." She doesn't snap, but there's a hint of a chill in her voice.

Maria's eyes widen a little as it finally clicks into place what Natasha is saying. "I won't, I'm sorry. Sometimes it just feels like you came into being right in that cell."

"It feels like that to me, too, sometimes," Natasha admits, relaxing a little. "S.H.I.E.L.D. did a really thorough job reprogramming me. I could've had them scrub my memory, but I chose not to, and now I have to live with it. With all of it." Natasha's hand finds Hill's cheek again, stroking reassuringly. "I'm not that person anymore, but she still existed. Just leave it up to me to decide what to make of those memories, okay?"

"Of course," Maria murmurs, covering Natasha's hand with hers and pressing a kiss to her palm. It's an uncomfortable thought that someone can be programmed and reprogrammed at all, but it's not an unimaginable one.

"Did you really consider letting them take your memory?" she asks, wondering if they'd even be here if that had happened.

"Yes." Natasha interlocks her fingers with Hill's. "They told me they could strip away all my conscious memories and leave my skills, training, and muscle memory intact, but it was an all-or-nothing kind of deal. There are things I wish I could forget, but there are others I can never let myself forget,"  Natasha draws a deep breath, "so I kept them all."

"Would you have trusted S.H.I.E.L.D. with it?" Maria wonders as she squeezes Natasha's hand. "Even this way, having your memories, you took a gamble approaching us."

"I didn't have much choice; I was desperate." Natasha frowns, staring off into space. "For all I know, they could have taken away important memories, or left me with false ones, but I had to trust them."

Maria gently rubs her thumb over the back of Natasha's hands. "Why were you desperate?" she asks quietly.

"The things I've done..." Natasha's grip tightens as she chooses her words, "were getting too hard to live with."

"Is that what you needed to remember?" It's a guess, but it doesn't feel like Natasha wanted to remember the good things in her life. It doesn't feel like there were many of those.

"Which part?" Natasha scoffs bitterly. "The appalling number of people I've killed, or how close I came to killing myself because of it?"

"Nat..." Maria starts, but there's nothing much she can say. She reaches up to stroke her cheek.

Natasha leans into the touch, her eyes boring into Hill's. "Still sure you aren't going anywhere?"

"Yes," Maria says without hesitation. She doesn't look away, but she rubs her thumb over Natasha's cheekbone. "You're not that person anymore. You chose not to be."

"And you want the person I am now?" Natasha asks softly, still searching Hill's eyes.

"Yes. Very much so," Maria meets Natasha's gaze, letting her look for whatever it is she needs to find. She's a little surprised by how convinced she is about this herself, but it feels true. "Does that surprise you?"

"A little," Natasha admits, kissing her lightly. "I wouldn't want me. Not with all these ghosts. But if you're sure, I'll believe you."

"I have my own ghosts," Maria whispers, bumping noses. "I'm sure. I want you, ghosts and memories included."

"Then I believe you. I don't understand why, but I believe you."

"I think it's one of those things that aren't meant to be understood," Maria smiles, and she kisses Natasha again, slowly and softly to put credence to her words.

"That's probably true." Natasha smiles into the kiss, then breathes, almost inaudibly, "I'm going to miss this."

It's as if Maria can feel the words more than she can hear them, and she closes her eyes briefly. "I will, too," she murmurs, keeping the words between them.

"At least we get one more night," Natasha says, a little louder this time.

Maria grins and draws back a little so she can meet Natasha's eyes. "What would you like to do with your one more night?"

Natasha bites her lip and traces her fingers absentmindedly across the front of Hill's shirt while she thinks. She smiles slowly as an idea occurs to her. "Want to go up on the roof?"

The touch is distracting; it's something Natasha seems to do when her mind is occupied, and Maria thinks it may get her to agree to pretty much anything. Even going up on the roof. It wasn't quite what she expected, and she laughs. "Sure."

Natasha grins, pleased to have caught Hill off guard. "Is there a deck or something up there, or are we going to have to sneak out?"

"I..." Maria frowns. "I don't actually know. It wasn't really on my priority list when I got the place." She hadn't really expected to spend much time here, but a place of her own had had its appeal.

"Come on, let's go find out," Natasha laughs. She springs to her feet and grabs Hill by the wrists, pulling her insistently up off the sofa.

"I didn't realise you had a thing for roofs," Maria teases, letting herself be tugged along because there's something about an enthusiastic Natasha that Maria dares anyone to resist. It should be a good view, though, and Maria can't deny she's curious herself. She can, however, downplay it.

"I don't, really," Natasha insists, releasing Hill's wrists at the door in favor of grabbing her shoes. "I just wanted to go outside without having to go out in public-" Natasha slips one shoe on, "- and I'll bet the view will be pretty cool-" and then the other one, "- and I like being up high... yeah, I guess I have a thing for roofs."

Maria laughs and takes a seat again to put on her own shoes, not trusting her balance just yet.

"That's not a bad thing, and I get the feeling I'll be stuck in filtered air for a while." She realises she hasn't even checked if they gave her access again to her account, but she can't seem to care. Tomorrow will be soon enough. Right now she has a roof to check out.

Maria gets back to her feet and grabs her jacket just in case. "Ready?"

Natasha holds up two fingers and tugs on her thumb like she's cocking an imaginary pistol, moving fluidly to flank the door. "On my signal. You breach first, I'll cover your six."

Maria snorts as she steps to the door. "Wouldn't you like that?"

"Of course," Natasha smirks, reaching out to grab Hill's butt. "You've got a really nice six."

"Of course," Maria laughs, and it's not so much that she minds. They won't even get up to the roof if she lets Natasha feel her up like that, so she reaches behind her, gently pulling Natasha's hand away. "Maybe you should go first, and I'll watch your six."

"I don't trust you to watch my six, Hill," Natasha teases. "You'll get too distracted to offer much cover."

"I'll have you know I'm excellent at covering sixes," Maria huffs and pulls Natasha closer as she draws Natasha's arm around her waist. "So are we going to stand here and talk about asses, or are we going up on the roof?" They could very well do both, of course.

With a laugh, Natasha gives her a playful slap and heads for the stairwell.

"You're lucky I like you, Romanoff," Maria teases as she follows Natasha. Her leg is still stiff, but the stairs are at least less of a bitch than they were before, and Natasha is a welcome distraction either way.

"Or what, Hill?" Natasha challenges over her shoulder. There's really no reason for her to sway her hips nearly this much as she climbs the stairs.

"You're doing that on purpose," Maria accuses. She'd frown at Natasha, but there's really no reason for her to even pretend she's not distracted. Distracted enough to forget about any mock-threats she's supposed to make. Life is unfair, but she really doesn't mind when it comes to this type of unfairness.

"Are you complaining?" Natasha grins, turning around at the top of the stairs. Being a few steps ahead, she's taller than Hill (for once), and she tilts Hill's chin up so she can kiss her.

There's no complaint at all, and Maria moves her hand to Natasha's hip as she returns the kiss. The angle is strange, but it's not unpleasant. Definitely not unpleasant. Maria is a little breathless when she draws back. "Nope."

<<Good.>> Natasha turns and frowns at the 'Emergency Exit Only: Alarm Will Sound' sign posted on the door leading to the roof. Instinctively, her eyes trace the wires of the alarm system, looking for a way to temporarily disarm it. "Keep a lookout, will you?"

Maria laughs softly and leans against the railing so she can keep an eye on the stairwell and one on Natasha at the same time. <<Yes, Sir.>>

The system is easy enough to disarm; it's only a matter of pulling a few wires. Natasha tests the door, smirking in satisfaction as it opens silently. "Come on," she prompts, slipping through the door and holding it open for Hill to follow her.

"Tampering with an emergency exit," Maria teases as she slips past Natasha onto the roof. She smiles at the view, even if part of it is obstructed by the block to their left, there's still enough of the skyline stretching out before them. "Not bad."

"I'll fix it when we're done," Natasha insists, but then she, too, gets distracted by the view. There's nothing fresh about city air, but the breeze is pleasant. Natasha breathes deeply, moving to belly up to the ledge for a better look.

For a moment, Maria lets herself be distracted, watching Natasha rather than the view stretching out in front of them before she finally joins her. She leans her elbows on the ledge and takes in the city lights. She lets the silence settle between them as she takes it all in. It's comfortable, and the sound of traffic seems to fade. By tomorrow she'll have a hard time imagining a city like New York can be like this.

After a while, Natasha turns her attention from the buildings to the sky. It's clear, but with all the lights on, only the brightest stars are faintly visible. There's a metaphor to be found here, but Natasha doesn't want to think too hard about it. Instead, she shifts closer to Hill, pulling her arm around her shoulder and wedging herself between Hill and the wall.

Maria doesn't need much prompting; she wraps her arms around Natasha and drops a kiss to the top of her head. There's the sound of a siren in the distance, and she tightens her arms around Natasha. "Maybe it's good we had to sneak up here, otherwise we might have had to share."

Natasha hums in agreement, pressing back into Hill's arms, content to enjoy the silence and the privacy for as long as possible.

It's almost easy to imagine that they're normal, that tomorrow they won't be up on the helicarrier trying to catch the bad guys. Normal is boring, but Maria doesn't mind holding onto it a moment longer. Especially not when it means holding on to Natasha. After a moment she leans down to press a kiss below Natasha's ear.

Natasha gasps and tilts her head to give Hill better access. "Yeah, I'm definitely glad we're the only ones up here right now."

"Why's that?" Maria chuckles and presses her hand against Natasha's stomach as she lets her lips brush over her ear.

Natasha arches her back. "Because I don't want you to stop kissing me."

"Then I won't," Maria says simply, pressing herself closer against Natasha's back as she trails soft kisses down Natasha's neck.

<<Good,>> Natasha breathes, her knees already starting to buckle. She turns so she can wrap her arms around Hill's neck and kiss her full on the mouth.

Maria instantly deepens the kiss, her hands trailing down to Natasha's ass so she can pull her flush against her. She moans against Natasha's lips at the feeling, and then she grins into it and nips at her bottom lip. <<Better than good.>>

Natasha nods and threads her fingers into Hill's hair. "Do you think we should go back inside before this gets out of hand?"

Maria laughs softly as she leans her forehead against Natasha's. "I doubt anyone's going to come up here and catch us, but I can behave myself." Not that she's moved her hands.

"I don't want you to behave yourself," Natasha chuckles low in her throat and taps her forehead against Hill's.

"That can probably be arranged," Maria smirks, and since she's got permission, she decides to take advantage of it and pinch Natasha's ass.

"If that's what you consider bad behavior, I've gotta say, I'm disappointed," Natasha teases, lowering her head to bite at Hill's neck.

Maria hisses, her fingers flexing against Natasha's ass. "I'm just getting warmed up," she breathes.

"Do your worst," Natasha growls into the crook of Hill's neck.

"A bit horny, are we?" Maria teases, but she shifts her hands so she can lift Natasha onto the ledge.

"Just a bit, yes." There's no point in denying it. Natasha's breath catches as her feet leave the ground. It's an impressive display of strength on Hill's part; her leg really has healed quite well over the course of the week. Natasha wraps her legs around Hill's waist and draws her even closer, clinging tight. She isn't afraid of falling off the ledge, but she anchors herself nonetheless.

<<Good,>> Maria smirks and she leans down, her lips demanding as she wraps one arm firmly around Natasha's waist. Natasha's grip is strong, her legs a tight band around her hips that have Maria moving into her. She gasps as she shifts, and she nips at Natasha's lip.

Natasha kisses her hungrily, sloppily, breathing hard. Her hips grind against Hill's, and her hands tug at her hair, wanting more.

Fuck. Maria's fingers grip the back of Natasha's shirt and she groans her approval, the sound swallowed between them as she can't pull away from Natasha's mouth. There's teeth and tongue in the kiss, and something feverish that has her tugging up Natasha's shirt, her hand sliding underneath to palm at her breast.

Natasha arches into the touch, letting her head fall back. She tugs insistently at Hill's hair, trying to redirect those teeth to flash against her throat. The breeze feels glorious against the hot skin of her belly, exposed where Hill's hand rucks up her shirt.

<<Oh, god…>>

Maria smirks against Natasha's throat and she nips at the skin before she soothes the spot with her tongue. It's tempting to leave a mark there, but she moves lower, kissing and nipping a path down Natasha's throat. They just have this one night left before they have to sneak around and Maria intends to take advantage of the empty rooftop.

 

Chapter Text

Yet again, Natasha finds herself wide awake, watching Hill sleep, listening to her heartbeat in the dark. They're due to report back for duty in a few hours, but all she can think of right now is how damned good Hill smells. Her eyes flutter shut as she inhales, and a small shiver of pleasure accompanies the rush of air she exhales. It’s all she can do to keep from waking Hill up by burying her face in the crook of her neck, needing to be closer, needing more.

This reaction is visceral, instantaneous, as if her brain is hardwired to respond this way to the scent of Hill's body.  Almost as if...

A cold dread starts to work its way through her veins.

This isn't real.

This isn't the first time the thought has occurred to her, but this time Natasha's stomach drops as it crystallizes in her mind. She wills herself to breathe slowly, to keep her mind from racing, to keep her skin from crawling.

Natasha's been drawn to Hill since the moment they met, that much is undeniable. Drawn to her strongly enough to get her through the aftermath of her reprogramming. Drawn to her strongly enough to get her to ditch Barton to come spend time with her, even though they were barely on speaking terms after the incident in the gym. Is it possible that S.H.I.E.L.D. intended for this to happen? Is it possible that S.H.I.E.L.D. made this happen?

They can't possibly have built in a safeguard to prevent her from bolting. They can't have. They can't have. They promised...

Don't panic, she begs herself. Don’t panic. Think this through.

I don't want you to run, Natasha. Hill's words echo through her mind, bringing with them a blinding headache behind her left eye. Though the sentiment had previously made her feel wanted - safe, even - the more she replays it, the emptier it feels. As far as passphrases go, it's not a bad one. Simple, direct, easily mistaken for affection or any number of genuine emotions.

Stay. Don’t leave. Don’t run.

This isn’t real.

No matter how many ways Natasha turns the situation over in her frenzied mind, she can’t quell this feeling that is threatening to crush her from the inside out. So Natasha does exactly what her instincts are screaming at her to do: she runs.

Her bag is already packed in anticipation of reporting back to the helicarrier, so it's just a matter of slipping into her clothes and then slipping through the door, disappearing into the night.

Chapter Text

Maria wakes up with a start to find the bed beside her empty. A quick glance at the clock tells her there's still time before dawn, so she rolls over into the space Natasha vacated. The sheets feel cool against her skin, and she buries her face in Natasha's pillow, inhaling slowly as she waits for the sound of the percolator or the flush of the toilet to filter through.

She waits because at any moment she'll hear Natasha slip back into the room, but the moment doesn't come, and the bed doesn't dip as Natasha doesn't join her.

There's only silence and a churning in her stomach that she can't blame on any nightmares. Not when the emptiness of the space around her - space that she'd gotten used to being filled by someone else - is more disconcerting as any dream she may have had has faded from her mind.

Everything feels wrong. The thought comes unbidden. It sits at the front of her mind, refusing to be ignored until she sits up and turns on the lights, her eyes falling instantly to the empty space where Natasha's bags used to be.

Natasha's name is on her lips, but there's a tightness in her throat that keeps her from calling out. The sound would echo if she did, and she doesn't think she can deal with only silence as an answer. She slips out of bed instead, her movements mechanical and efficient as she searches each room methodically.

There's no trace. Natasha might as well have never been there at all. All that's left is her scent still clinging to Maria's skin.

Maria sinks down on a stool at her kitchen counter, hardly aware of the stiffness in her leg, the muscles sore from their time up on the roof. At some point during her search she must have picked up her phone. She can't even remember it, but she must have as the phone is in her hands and she's staring down at the display.

There is no number for her to call to reach Natasha. Even if there had been, Maria doubts it would have done her any good. For a moment she tries to kid herself, tries to imagine that Natasha freaked out and went to Clint, but she can't. She can't…

The display darkens as Maria fails to take action, the dim light fading and leaving the kitchen dark save for the time display on the oven. There are only two things she can do. Three, if she includes tracking down Natasha on her own, but she doubts she can do that alone. She doubts Natasha wants to be found.

<<Fucking hell, Romanoff.>>

She drops the phone on the counter and leans her head in her hands, her fingers tangling in her hair, tugging as she tries to think beyond the sickening feeling in her stomach.

They're due on the helicarrier in a matter of hours. If they don't show up… If S.H.I.E.L.D. figures out Natasha has run… No, she can't do that, but she can't find Natasha on her own either. She might have a safe house somewhere, but if she does, S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't know about it either. Then there's her tracker, but Maria needs S.H.I.E.L.D. resources to access that, and there's no way she would be able to get to those systems from her laptop.

Maria picks up the phone again and thumbs through the numbers. What if this is truly what Natasha wants? What if this is her freedom and her way out from any institution that will use her skills for bad?

She hesitates, puts the phone down again. The longer she thinks about it, the fewer ways forward she sees and the less chance they have of finding Natasha. She should feel angry, should feel angrier with every second that passes, but it doesn't come. She feels empty, like her apartment and her mind and the time that ticks past, getting away from her.

She grits her teeth and doesn't think as she finally hits the one number sitting on top of her contact list. It takes too long and every ring grates; by the time a sleepy "Barton" comes through from the other end, Maria feels like she wants to throw up.

She sucks in a breath. "She's gone." The words come out in a rush of air and Maria feels like she can't breathe.

"Hill?" Barton groans on the other end. "Wha' timezit?"

"About 4:00," Maria replies, biting off the words as she pinches the bridge of her nose.

"Go back to sleep," Barton mumbles, still mostly asleep himself.

"Jesus Fucking Christ, you jackass," Maria curses, and it's like a dam breaking. "Do you think I'm calling you for fun? Dunk your head under water or something and wake the fuck up. Romanoff's gone."

Hill's tone manages to cut through the fog. "Wait, what? Shit. When?"

"Fuck if I know. I was sleeping," she growls, but it's followed by a sigh as she can't decide if she should be relieved that Natasha isn't just running from her at least. "Guess that means she didn't head over there."

"No, I don't think she's here. Might be, I just woke up. TASHA?" Bartons shouts. "Nope, not here. What happened? Did you two get in a fight again?"

"Again?" Maria growls. "No, we didn't fucking fight. Everything was fine last night, I just woke up and she was gone."

She tries not to think that she was played again. Tries very hard, but she feels sick to the stomach at the thought. If Natasha wanted to run, she could have done it a week ago. Maria had nothing to offer her. There was nothing to gain from staying with her. "All her stuff's gone. Somehow I doubt she went to report in without either of us."

"Okay, okay, god, sorry I asked," Barton stammers. "Well, shit. Shit. Fury is gonna skin us both. What do we do?"

"Not much we can do," Maria says slowly, staring ahead of her. "We can't go AWOL too. This is my mess, Barton. I let her go." After sleeping with her.

Barton winces and rubs the back of his neck. "Nah, it's my fault, too. I was supposed to keep an eye on her. There's no way I should've let her stay with you."

"I didn't think she'd run," Maria admits, the words are out before she can stop herself, leaving her vulnerable. She squeezes her eyes shut. "Guess she fooled us both."

"That's Tasha," Barton shrugs. "If she's really gone, we're probably not gonna find her and get her to the pickup location in the next four hours. Unless you know where she'd go. Did she say anything?"

"If I had any idea where she went, I'd be there right now and not on the phone with you, Barton." Maria groans and rakes a hand through her hair. "We're not going to find her, no matter how much time we have."

"No, you're right. Shit. Maybe she'll show up here? Or maybe she'll turn up at the pickup. I dunno. Whatever happens, we're both fucked if she doesn't show."

"Maybe," Maria agrees, but there's no conviction behind it. It makes no sense for Natasha to run and then show up again. She hesitates. "So we wait until the pickup."

It will give Natasha more time.

Barton grimaces and scrubs a hand across his face. "Might as well. So much for a nice, relaxing shore leave..." He heaves a frustrated sigh. "Do you want me to come over? If we're both gonna get thrown under the bus for this one, we might as well present a united front."

Her instinct is to tell him no, but then she can't imagine sitting in the apartment until it's time to leave. "Might as well," she agrees because just maybe Clint is making sense with the united front thing. "You got the address?"

"Yeah. I'll be there as fast as the C can carry me. Uhh… bye."

Maria hangs up and re-checks her phone, just in case there's some sort of message. (There isn't.)

There's not much to do but to clean up and get dressed which doesn't take nearly as long as she would like it to. She hesitates for a moment, lingering in the hall before she realises the stupidity of it all and heads into the bedroom, pulling the sheets off her bed.

It feels like erasing the last trace of Natasha's presence, the one thing she couldn't take with her when she left.




The moment Natasha's feet hit the pavement, her brain snaps into flight mode. She's alone, unarmed, and she has maybe four hours tops before S.H.I.E.L.D. knows she's AWOL and activates her tracker. That's assuming Hill is not in on it; if she's in on it, Natasha has until she wakes up and finds her gone. If Hill is in on it… Natasha's stomach wrenches at the thought, and her toe scuffs on the sidewalk, nearly tripping her.

Unacceptable.

Now to figure out where to go... There's no point in fleeing the city. With her tracker, she won't get far, and the farther she gets from Manhattan, the fewer people there will be to hide amongst. Hiding in plain sight is the best way to beat a tracker, so she decides to head for Penn station. What better place for a girl in a sweatshirt with a duffle bag to spend a few hours without being noticed?




Barton drops his bag at his feet and hits the buzzer up to Hill's apartment. The sun is barely up. Fucking Natasha Romanoff.

There's one foolish moment where Maria lets herself hope as she opens the door, but she thinks she manages to hide her disappointment well enough. Being back in uniform at least helps; it's easier being Agent Hill right now.

"Barton," she greets, stepping back from the door and leaving it open for him to follow her in. She doesn't ask him anything. If Romanoff showed up at his place, she would know by now. "Coffee?"

"So much coffee," Barton says, following her into the apartment and looking around awkwardly. "I mean, yes please. Nice place."

Maria shrugs. She doesn't have nearly enough patience right now to deal with niceties, but she does fill Barton a mug and hold it out to him. "Fucking Romanoff," she growls because that's the only place she knows where to start this conversation.

"You can say that again," Barton grumbles. He swigs his coffee and makes a face as it burns his tongue. "We could throw her under the bus," he suggests half-heartedly. "You could rough me up a bit, and we could say she got the drop on me and took off." He has no intention of actually following through with his own suggestion, nor does he expect Hill to. Not after spending the week with Natasha. She's clearly really hurt under her facade of seething anger.

Maria laughs, but it's a humourless sound and she leans back against the counter. She rubs the heel of her hand across her brow as she thinks it over. Her mind has been going in circles the whole time and she can't seem to find a way out.

"We're all going to end up under the bus." She wonders if Natasha considered that when she took off, or if she just didn't care. "I keep trying to think of where she'd go. We have no way of knowing if her web is still in place or how fast she can disappear back into it if it is."

"Nah, she's too smart for that," Barton waves off the idea. "She knows S.H.I.E.L.D. can track her, but maybe she thinks she's got a few more hours before they start. We could report her right now, maybe get ahead of her?"

"No," Maria says instantly with too much conviction, and she glances up at Barton. She hesitates, but if anyone is going to care about this, she thinks Barton must be it. Natasha seemed to trust him - at the very least, she seemed loyal to him - and Maria can't deal with everything Natasha told them being a lie.

"If this is what she really wants…"

Barton blinks skeptically at her. "You're kidding, right? Are you seriously thinking of White Fang-ing Natasha Romanoff?" He shakes his head. "If she wanted out, she wouldn't have run. She knows better than that."

"And yet she's gone," Maria snaps at him. "She's not the type to fucking run so we can chase after her and tell her how much we don't want her to run. She's gone for a reason."

"Hey, don't yell at me. I'm trying to help," Barton snaps back. "Yeah, she's gone. Yeah, she probably has a reason. But we have no way of knowing what that reason is or where she went. That means it's pointless for us to try and figure her out right now. We've got to figure out what we're gonna do."

Maria knows he's right, and she leans her head back, taking a moment to get her temper under control. "I've considered it all," she admits, letting Barton figure out for himself what she means by 'all'. "I don't think there's much we can do except call in S.H.I.E.L.D. now or give her time and just go to the pickup."

"I say we give her the benefit of the doubt. If she doesn't show, she's only got a few hours' head start."

Maria nods, but she can't find it in herself to believe Natasha will show up. "They're not going to be happy if she doesn't."

"Well, no, probably not," Barton agrees, "but S.H.I.E.L.D. probably anticipated this would happen. Maybe they'll go easy on us?"

Maria raises an eyebrow at him because she can't believe that either. "It doesn't matter. I let her stay here; it's my responsibility that she's gone. Mine and Natasha's."

Barton's expression softens a little, and he gives Hill a curious look. "You're really taking this personally, aren't you?"

"She disappeared from my bed, Barton. How else am I supposed to take it?" Maria scoffs and glances away, jaw clenching as she glares out of the window.

Whatever Barton expected Hill to say, it wasn't that. He goes a little pink. "I… okay, wow. You actually slept with her, didn't you?"

"Yes, Barton. What else do you think we were doing here?" Maria wonders if she made a mistake admitting to that.

Barton shrugs, trying to regain his composure a little. "I was trying not to think about it."

"Fair enough," Maria leans back on the counter and takes a deep breath. "I'd prefer that knowledge not to get back to S.H.I.E.L.D., but I don't think we should hide that she was here."

"Well, I'm not gonna tell them," Barton promises. "Doesn't mean they won't find out, but I won't tell them. Anything else you want to keep from them? We should probably get our stories straight."

They'll find out. Maria doesn't even know if she'll hide it, but at least it will come from her. "It doesn't have to be complicated. Romanoff preferred spending her shore leave here. We agreed that I could take over from you."

"Fine by me," Barton agrees. He takes another sip of coffee, now that it's finally cool enough to drink, and frowns at it thoughtfully.

Maria falls silent and crosses her arms, her gaze fixed somewhere in the distance, not quite seeing anything. She thought she'd gotten past these Romanoff screw-ups by now. In a way, this one is the worst. Losing her gun, it was easier to hold on to her anger.

She wonders if she's wrong, if she shouldn't be giving Natasha this extra time, but she can't bring herself to change her mind either. And she just told Clint Barton of all people about her fuck-up. She has a feeling this isn't even close to the worst part of her day.

No, the worst part already passed.

"So now we wait," Barton says awkwardly, breaking the silence. "Do, uh… do you need anything? Is there anything I can do?"

The offer is a genuine one, Maria can tell that much, but it chafes all the more. She hates that look Barton is giving her. She makes a face. "No. I'm fine. You're welcome to turn on the television."

Barton blinks at her. "Okay. Sorry, I didn't mean to offend you."

"You-" Maria sighs and shakes her head. "No, I'm sorry. This isn't your fault, I shouldn't take it out on you."

"It's kinda my fault…" Barton mumbles. "Have you eaten?" he asks suddenly.

Maria stares at him for a moment as if that's the silliest question she's heard in a while. "I haven't."

"Do you have any food? If we're gonna go face the consequences, we might as well do it with full stomachs," Barton suggests, partially because he's getting hungry, partially because he's heard Natasha bitching about Hill and her tendency to run herself into the ground when she's upset. And right now, Hill is devastated.

"Yeah, there should be enough for breakfast at least," Maria says slowly. She'd been planning to spoil Natasha for breakfast while she still had the chance. She opens the fridge, pulling out the eggs and bacon.

Barton raises an eyebrow; he hadn't expected anything that fancy, but he doesn't comment. "I can cook, if you want."

"No, it's fine," Maria says, already pulling out two pans. It will give her something to do, and she's eager for something to do. "How do you like your eggs?"

"Uh… I'm not picky." Barton slumps awkwardly at the kitchen island and watches Hill move around.

Maria hardly seems to take notice of him as she concentrates on the food. Soon the kitchen smells of bacon, her stomach rumbling and reminding her that she is, in fact, hungry. It's only when she fills up a plate for Barton that she realises she made the eggs the way Natasha likes them.

She makes a face, but doesn't comment as she puts the plate down in front of him. "There's more coffee if you want."

"Thanks," Barton smiles a little at her and gets up to refill both of their mugs. "So you like to cook, huh?"

"It's a useful skill to have," Maria says, turning back to the stove to make herself breakfast, too. That may mean 'yes', but that'd be far too easy an answer.

Barton nods and stuffs a piece of bacon into his mouth. The ensuing silence makes him antsy, so he clears his throat. "This is weird."

Maria snorts. If nothing else, she can appreciate the honesty. "It wasn't exactly how I was planning for this day to go, no."

Barton makes a face and goes back to his breakfast. 08:00 cannot come soon enough.

Fucking Natasha Romanoff.




The Amtrak waiting area in Penn Station proves to be the perfect place to lie low for a bit. There are constantly people around, turning over every few minutes as each train arrives and departs. All Natasha has to do is glance up at the departures board every couple of minutes and heave an exasperated sigh, and no one gives her a second glance.

Her outward appearance is that of a bored and antsy traveler, but inside it's as if every last nerve is firing at once. Her heart pounds hard and impossibly fast, making her pulse thunder in her ears and her blood hum under her skin. No amount of deep breathing helps calm her down or ease the constant throbbing in her head. If she didn’t know better, she might suspect someone had slipped her digitalis again, but she can’t afford to dwell on that right now.

Over the past few hours, she must've thought through every angle of her situation, but she can't shake the sickening feeling that she got well and truly played. A few times, she almost convinces herself to show up at the pickup location, but it's too late for that now.

08:00 comes and goes, and still she stays rooted to her piece of wall in Penn Station.

Chapter Text

Natasha isn't at the pickup. Of course she isn't, and everything gets more complicated after that. The other agents are nervous around Maria and Barton, casting them quick glances. It really doesn't come as a surprise when they're escorted to a holding cell as soon as they land on the helicarrier. This is definitely not the way Maria intended for this day to go.

At least they're not splitting them up for now, but then Maria wonders when she started to appreciate Barton's presence. An agent she's never seen before interrogates them separately. He doesn't seem very satisfied with any of the answers Maria gives him, but after dealing with Natasha, she very much doubts anyone can stare her down. She has the bullet wound in her thigh to prove it. He eventually gives up and returns her back to the cell where they're left to stew.

She wonders if they tracked Natasha by now, if they at least have her whereabouts. There could very well be a S.H.I.E.L.D. team on the ground now, trying to hunt down the infamous Black Widow. Maria doesn't know which outcome she should be rooting for.

Fucking Natasha Romanoff.

It's possibly the worst place to get pissed off. It's a terrible place to get pissed off when the only punching bag in reach is Clint Barton. He doesn't deserve that. He could have let her hang out to dry, but he's still there. She doubts punching a wall is going to go over well either, so she threads her fingers in her hair and stares at the door. So much for her promising new career.

Barton must've dozed off or something, but when he wakes up again, Hill seems like she's about to go critical. For a moment, he just sits and watches her seethe, but eventually the silence gets to him.

"Hey. You okay?"

Maria throws him a disgusted look and she gets to her feet, because pacing is going to make this all so much better. "Go back to sleep, Barton."

Barton holds his hands up defensively in front of himself, eyes wide. "Okay, geez, sorry."

Maria growls and turns her back on him, staring at the door. "I swear if I ever see her again, I'll punch her," she grumbles. It doesn't really make her feel better.

"Yeah, I owe her a couple myself," Barton nods, eyeing Hill warily.

"And the only way we're getting a hit in is if she lets us," Maria snorts and leans her back against the wall, staring up at the ceiling.

Barton scoffs in agreement, then lapses back into uncomfortable silence. What more is there to say, really?

Maria can't seem to care to fill that silence, as awkward as it may be. She's gotten used to being locked inside four walls with someone else, but it'd been very different with Natasha and not just because Maria is a detainee as well. At least, she's pretty sure they're not under arrest so far.

She doesn't even realise she's drumming her fingers against the wall behind her, a slow tapping that keeps her on edge, keeps her thoughts on point. Thoughts that have her running in a circle, trying to figure out what she missed. Was there a sign? Should she have known? Had she pushed too far? Had she imagined it all? Had she been played from the very start?

She comes up with nothing, and she hits the wall behind her in frustration before plopping down on the bench beside Barton again.

No sooner does Hill's ass hit the bench then the door bursts open and in storms Nick Fury himself. The door clangs shut behind him, and he fixes the two of them with an imposing glare.

"Okay, which of you wants to be the one to tell me exactly what the hell happened?"

Maria jumps to her feet in an instant. It's reflex, too many years spent in the Army, and it's almost a miracle that she doesn't snap off a salute. She stands to attention nonetheless - that much they won't beat out of her - her hands behind her back and every muscle in her body tensed.

"Starting where, Sir?" she asks, knowing full well Fury knows every word she and Barton have uttered since stepping on the Quinjet.

Both Fury and Barton raise an eyebrow at her.

"Starting with why the hell you're even here, Agent Hill," Fury prompts.

"Romanoff was staying with me, Sir," Maria replies, her gaze fixed on a spot over Fury's shoulder. The question isn't exactly surprising, but it's a little harder to keep her face neutral in front of him. "She proved to be a handful for Barton and preferred spending her leave with me, so I agreed to keep an eye on her. She stayed with me for a week, until she took off this morning."

Fury stares unamusedly at Barton. "And you thought it would be a good idea to just let that happen?"

"I kinda figured she was gonna do what she wanted, Sir. I didn't think she'd run off on Hill, too," Barton stammers, looking uncomfortable.

Fury's eyebrow arches again. "'Too?'"

Barton winces, kicking himself for slipping up. "Yeah, I kind of… lost her? In Central Park. She showed up at Hill's apartment a few hours later. She told me she was going to keep her company and help her out, with her wounded leg and all."

Fury turns back to Hill. "That's how that happened?"

"Yes, Sir," Maria nods, forcing herself not to look at Barton. "She showed up at my place and offered to stay. I figured we'd have a better chance keeping her around if she was where she apparently wanted to be." Or pretended to.

"So you anticipated she'd try to run again?"

"No." She may not snap, but the response isn't kind either. "Natasha gave me no reason to believe she would run. She seemed content with her agreement with S.H.I.E.L.D. She either let me see what I needed to see, or she had another reason to leave so abruptly. If the latter, I can't even guess what that would be."

Fury nods thoughtfully, evaluating Hill's statement. "Barton?"

"No, Sir. It was a surprise for me, too."

After a seemingly interminable silence, Fury heaves a sigh and shakes his head. "Alright. Barton, you had no authority to relinquish supervision without S.H.I.E.L.D. approval. You're confined to quarters until your disciplinary hearing, unless I decide I need you in the field."

"Yes, Sir," Barton grumbles, looking dejected but by no means surprised.

"And Hill… I don't even know where to begin with you."

Maria finally moves her attention away from the wall, meeting Fury's eye. She knows the smart thing would be to apologise, but she wouldn't mean any of it, so she doesn't even try.

"I fucked up, Sir," she says. Not an apology, but an acceptance as she waits for her punishment.

"You can say that again." Fury motions to the observation window, and two agents enter the room. "Barton, you're dismissed."

Barton shoots Hill a pained smile as he gets up and lets the agents escort him out of the room and down the hall. Once the door closes behind them, Fury turns and stares down Hill again, his expression conspicuously softer but by no means relaxed.

"Is there anything else you'd like to tell me, Agent Hill?"

The question catches Maria off guard. The change in her commanding officer is obvious. He's slipped on another persona, one she might have an easier time confessing to. It doesn't exactly make her relax - this version of Nick Fury could be gone as fast as he appeared - but it does tell her that he knows something.

It's an opening, one she'll get slammed in her face if they do figure out what's going on. It's going to hurt either way, but at least this way it really does come from her. In for a penny…

"Romanoff and I got involved while she was staying with me, Sir," she says finally.

Fury blinks at her and almost smirks. "Well, that was easier than I thought it was going to be," he muses. "Thank you for your honesty, Agent Hill. I guess that means you won't deny any of the previous... encounters you two have had?"

The half second of relief Maria felt quickly dissipates and she can actually feel the heat at the back of her neck which she prays isn't spreading across her face. "No, Sir. There were some encounters before we got involved."

The words are detached and she slowly eases her grip, her fingers aching from how tightly she had them bunched behind her back.

"I know," Fury says dryly. "Remind me to deal with that later. You really have no idea where she could have gone? Or why?"

"No, Sir," Maria's response isn't as terse this time, but it takes a fair amount of effort to keep her reply neutral. "Like I said, there was no indication that she didn't intend to return to S.H.I.E.L.D. with Barton and me. I've been going over it for the past few hours; there was nothing."

The slight frown Fury gives her is almost sympathetic. "Alright, Agent, don't beat yourself up. I just need you to answer one more question for me: would you say you are emotionally compromised because of your... involvement with Romanoff?"

Maria tenses up completely at the question. There's a stubbornness to the way she lifts her chin, a denial ready on her lips, but it fades in an instant.

"Yes, Sir," she admits, knowing it's true and the least she can do is keep to her commitments by being honest here as well. No matter how much it smarts that she let herself get dragged into this situation. So much for discretion.

"Huh." Fury's surprise is written on his face for a brief moment. "That's brave of you to admit. Let me rephrase: are you saying you'd rather I throw your ass in jail, pending disciplinary action, than help us get her back?"

Maria frowns and she takes a deep breath. "Can I ask a question before I answer that?"

"Of course."

"Romanoff came to S.H.I.E.L.D. out of her own volition," Maria remarks. "What if she wants out? Will S.H.I.E.L.D. respect that choice?"

Fury gives her a decidedly unimpressed glance. "You really think that's what's going on here?" It's a rhetorical question, but it gives him a moment to think through his answer. "The conditions of Agent Romanoff's recruitment are classified. Suffice to say… she knows how to get out if she wants out. We'll keep our end of the deal if she keeps hers."

"I don't know what's going on," Maria points out, but she nods at Fury's answer. She can only trust that Natasha does know, but if that's the case, her disappearing is only more confusing than it was before. "Then yes, I will help if I can be of use."

"Smart choice." Without preamble, Fury turns and heads for the door. "Follow me."

She doesn't have much of a choice, and Maria falls into step behind Fury. She can't help but wonder why Fury wants her to help when she just admitted to being compromised. She can't help but think that maybe she's the one being used. Fury knew at least some parts of her relationship with Natasha, and the thought leaves a bitter taste in her mouth.

An armed escort flanks them all the way to a large room full of computers, holo displays, and a team of agents who have clearly been waiting impatiently for orders. One agent meets them seconds after they enter the room, standing tensely at attention in much the same way Hill had in the holding cell.

"Agent Simon, this is Agent Hill. She's agreed to help your team recover the Black Widow. Agent Hill, Agent Simon is head of our tactics division. Help him in any way you can," Fury inclines his head and lowers his voice, speaking conspiratorily to Hill, "and I won't take the stupid amount of money I now owe Victoria Hand out of your paycheck."

"Sir?" Maria manages not to wince at the thought, her confusion winning out, but somehow she doubts Fury is going to tell her exactly what bet he lost. "Yes, Sir," she adds quickly.

"Get it done, agents," Fury says as a dismissal before turning on his heel and exiting the room, muttering to himself under his breath. "I was sure she'd have killed her by now. At least shot her a little. Damn!"

Maria watches after him. When she finally looks around the room, she realises what's going on.

There are several displays on, showing different angles of a crowded area. It takes her a moment to piece it together and figure out that she's looking at the live feeds of a train station.

"Penn Station," Agent Simon supplies, following Maria's gaze. "Tracker's located her there, she's been stationary for a while now."

"Any visual confirmation?" Maria asks, her eyes scanning through the images, but the quality is poor.

"None so far, and Fury didn't let us go in," Simon replies. "I guess we'll know where she's heading if she tries to catch a train."

"She won't," Maria gives up on the footage and glances at the people in the room. There's a strike team waiting, some techs pouring over the videos, and then there's Simon and herself. "She's hiding in plain sight, so either she managed to remove the tracker-"

"That's not possible."

Maria glares at the tech who interrupted. "Either she removed the tracker, or she's waiting for us to make our move." It makes no sense; why run and wait? The tracker's going to be there, and taking a hostage isn't going to warm S.H.I.E.L.D. up to take it easy on her either. What the hell are you doing, Romanoff?

"I can send agents in on the ground, but I could have done that an hour ago already," Agent Simon points out. "Fury wanted us to wait. We're not going to catch her if she doesn't want to come with us. My men are good, but this is the Black Widow we're talking about."

Maria nods slowly. "So we need a fly to draw her out."

Chapter Text

"I'm in position." Becca keys her mic under the guise of adjusting her headphones. "Does anyone have visual? I don't see her; it's a madhouse in here."

"Negative," Maria replies as she gets a wordless headshake from Simon. She glances up at the screens. Everyone is in position, and Maria can only be satisfied with how fast they got the op running. "The tracker has her somewhere to your 6 o'clock. Keep your eyes peeled."

"Copy that. I'm going to sweep on foot." Becca tries her best to make her posture and bearing read as 'bored tourist' to anyone else around her while her eyes are busy scanning the crowd as quickly and thoroughly as she can. She wades casually through the crowd, occasionally bobbing her head and mouthing the lyrics to the nonexistent music that's ostensibly playing in her headphones, and no one gives her a second glance. She makes it a third of the way across the crowded room before she gets a glimpse of red hair near one of the gates. Becca focuses her attention on the red-haired woman. She's the right height and build, but she's chatting animatedly with a 20-something year old man in a North Face jacket, which just seems odd for someone who's trying to avoid detection.

"I might have her," she reports uncertainly. "West wall, near the Track 12 gate. I can't see her face from this angle..."

"Got a visual," Maria confirms, but if the woman is Natasha, she's well aware of where the cameras are and stays turned away from them. "Can't confirm identity. Approach with caution, just try to get her to see you."

If it is Natasha, she's already seen Becca, so why pretend she hasn't? Why engage someone else except to hide? It's too obvious a guise, though.

"Yes, Sir. Approaching now." It's getting hard to keep pretending she's not zeroed in on this woman, so Becca changes course, swinging wide and heading for a trash can that's within the woman's line of sight. She only spares a glance or two on her way over, not enough to get a good look. She reaches the trash can and tosses in a wadded up tissue from her pocket, then turns and heads back in the direction from which she came. That's when green eyes lock with hers, flashing cold and deliberate for a heartbeat before turning right back to the man she's talking to, almost as if she hadn't seen Becca at all. Almost.

Becca startles at the sudden intensity and nearly falters, but manages to keep her composure well enough to avoid staring. "Visual confirmed! That's her, I'm sure of it," Becca relays, her voice pitched higher than usual with adrenaline. Combat, she can handle; this covert ops stuff is making her jumpy.

"Nice work, Becs," Maria says gently. Her eyes lock on the figure on the screens for a moment and she can feel the lurch in her chest before she glances away. Simon and the others are already locking on to her, and Maria can trust them not to lose sight of her. Not until Natasha wants them to. "Now fall back. Give her space, but keep in her line of sight."

Becca's doing well even if this isn't her usual op. She's handling herself well, and Maria is glad with the choice they made. A friendly face for Natasha who shouldn't scare her off.

"Yes, Sir." Becca finds a nearby pillar to lean against and does her best to stand still, even though her nerves are all on edge. Another minute passes, and Natasha gives the guy she's been talking to a friendly laugh and a wave as he wanders off. Becca tenses, but Natasha just props a foot against the wall and glances offhandedly at the departures board.

"Hill, what is she doing? Why isn't she running?"

"Testing the waters," Maria says, but she's guessing. If she knew what was going on in Natasha Romanoff's mind, they might never have ended up in this position at all. "She can't run for now, not with the tracker, so we wait her out, let her see that we're not going to force her to return." She tries to keep her voice level, reassuring.

Maria ignores Natasha on the displays, but one has a visual of Becca, so she watches her instead, taking in the way Becca's standing: tense, almost at attention. "At ease, soldier," she says softly.

Becca makes a face and tries to relax. "Sorry, this isn't really my game," she mutters, her eyes flitting towards Natasha again. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see the guy in the North Face jacket heading back in this direction, having just gotten himself a coffee. Just when Becca is about to stop paying him any attention, it becomes clear he's headed right for her.

"Hill?" she hisses, waiting for orders.

Shit. She only has a split second to decide between trusting Natasha and keeping her agent safe. Later, much later, there will be time to consider the gut wrenching feeling when she makes her decision. "Back off slowly, move to your left." That should keep her out of the guy's path while keeping Natasha in her sightline.

It would be easy enough for Becca to sidestep, but the man stops a few steps away from her, a friendly but somewhat tentative smile on his face.

"Hey, sorry to bother you. Are you Becca?" he asks.

"Uh, yeah," Becca replies automatically, too taken aback to do anything else.

The man's smile widens with bolstered confidence, and he jerks a thumb in Natasha's general direction. "Your friend asked me to tell you, 'next time send fury,'" he recites with a shrug that says he clearly has no idea what that's even supposed to mean.

Becca blinks at him, confused, but as she opens her mouth to speak, all at once the crowd around her starts to move with sudden purpose away from where she's standing. The departure board must've announced a track for an outbound train, and all these people must be hurrying to catch it. The timing can't possibly be a coincidence. Becca's heart races as her eyes find Natasha long enough to watch her pull her hood up, turn fluidly on her heel, and slip into the rushing crowd.

"Hill! Orders?" Becca calls, trying not to let panic get the best of her.

"Keep a visual on Romanoff," Maria barks to the room in general before thumbing on the radio again.

"Follow at a distance. Keep your eyes on her," Maria orders, heart racing as she tries to think ahead, tries to see where Natasha is moving. If she gets on a train, she'll lose the advantage unless she has a plan to get rid of the tracker. They can't discount that.

Becca springs forward instantaneously, but she's already a split second too late. "Fuck, I lost visual!" Becca shouts, wading along, hindered by the jostling crowd. "She just... disappeared."

"Simon," Maria snaps, but the agent is shaking his head and the techs are looking frustrated as they're pouring over the images of the crowd in motion.

"Fuck." Maria grits her teeth. "Fall back, Becs. You did good."

Maria sits back in her chair, staring at the images projected in the room. For a split second she thinks she sees Romanoff, but she's already gone. It was probably just wishful thinking anyway.

Next time send Fury.

"We got what we wanted." Or at the least, what Natasha wants them to have.




"You have ten minutes," the guard posted at Barton's quarters says before letting Maria inside. Maria thinks she got the better end of this bargain. Then again, being threatened with losing her job isn't what she'd call a good deal either.

"Hey," she says as the door shuts behind her. Barton is stretched out on his cot, giving her a bleary-eyed look. It's been a long day, but Maria can't even think of sleep now.

"Hey. Didn't think I was allowed any visitors," Barton says, propping himself up on his elbows.

"I managed to get permission from Fury to give you an update," Maria says. A quick glance around the quarters tells her she doesn't even want to touch the pile of clothes growing on Barton's desk chair, so she sits down on the edge of the desk instead. "We made contact with Romanoff. Sort of. She made it clear she only wants to talk to Fury."

Barton nods and waits, but Maria can't find the words to fill the void.

"You agreed to help them find her?"

"Yeah," Maria nods. "Let's just say it was the least painful solution."

"Right."

Maria can hear the hum of the engines even here. It vibrates in the space in her head where exhaustion is slowly starting to creep in.

"How are you dealing with that?" Barton asks warily. Maria has bitten his nose off already for similar questions.

Maria hates the question; she's had people ask it too many times before. She never knows how to answer it, and rarely do they genuinely care about the answer anyway. She doesn't think the latter holds up for Barton, strange as that may seem. She glances down at the floor, for a moment letting herself feel the weight of the day, from the heart-lurching moment of finding Natasha gone to the dawning realisation that she doesn't trust her not to harm her team right now. "She made her choice."

"Yeah," Barton agrees.

"It's up to Fury now," Maria adds.

"Yeah."

They both fall silent until the guard knocks at the door and Maria takes her leave again. It's probably the most civil conversation they've ever shared.

Chapter Text

Natasha follows the crowd down to the train platform and onto the train. She doubles back, gets off the train before it departs, heads back up into the station via a different stairwell. The handful of plain-clothed S.H.I.E.L.D. agents she spots along the way make no move to stop her; whether they don't see her or they're under orders not to engage, she doesn't know. Either way, Natasha has no trouble walking right through the doors and onto 7th Ave.

It's clear they aren't going to chase her down, so she slows her pace, trying to stay at a brisk walk instead of breaking into the full sprint her body is screaming for. Her tracker is still active, she knows; at this point, she's counting on it. Natasha sticks to crowded streets anyway, heading for Central Park. It's a long walk, but it'll give her time to try to calm down, to clear her head. She half-expected them to send Hill to try and lure her back. Sending Becca was almost as bad. Natasha can't be sure, of course, but she wouldn't be at all surprised if Hill had been playing handler for the op. She grits her teeth and quickens her step, trying to let her mind go blank despite the blood pounding in her ears.

Natasha wanders the park for nearly an hour before claiming a bench with a view of Bethesda Fountain. There are plenty of people around, and the sightlines are decent. It shouldn't be too hard to spot agents moving into position, and there are numerous possible means of escape, should they send anyone but Nick Fury himself.  

Now all there is to do is wait.


Central Park. Of course. What better place to settle down than the fucking middle of Central Park. There's no way to secure it, no way to cut off all the paths and shortcuts through. Fury's order to keep all agents out of the park when he goes to meet Romanoff makes little difference. No way are they going to cut her off inside anyway.

Maria checks the position of the strike teams, her eyes moving over the map and trying to picture how Natasha would slip past them if she tried to escape. There are too many ways, too many routes that cut through the park and can bring her within seconds from another subway station where she can disappear underground.

At the very least the teams have now covered all the nearest exists, and they should be able to go in and reach Fury and Romanoff relatively quickly - never quickly enough. It's like trying to stop a river from joining the ocean when all she's got is a fishing net. Maria grits her teeth in frustration and presses her knuckles down against the hard desk as she glares at the tiny dot sitting in Bethesda Terrace.

"There's a subway station on 72nd. Do we have a team there?" Maria asks, trying to keep her mind focused on the mission and far away from the gut-wrenching feeling she gets any time she lets her eyes drift over Natasha's tracker dot.

"No, that's past blue team," Agent Simon replies, and Maria turns away from the screens to meet his eyes.

"We're dealing with the Black Widow." She raises an eyebrow and keeps her voice low, giving Simon the time to process the information.

He nods shortly and turns to the communications officer. "I want two teams to cover each direction," he orders.

"They're not to engage until ordered," Maria adds. Widow is poised to take the most important hostage she could. Chances of her running are slim. Chances of her running and not taking out whatever team they send to stop her are even more so. This isn't an operation they're going to execute without casualties, and definitely not in a crowded subway stop that they don't have time to evacuate.

Not that she even pretends to know what Widow is thinking. The only person she could even marginally read was Natasha Romanoff who would play with Maria's fingers or her hair or her shirt buttons when she got lost in thought. Maria couldn't even read her, and for all she knows that woman is gone now. Gone as easily as she came into being in front of her eyes.

"Agent Hill?"

Maria blinks and curses herself as Simon is giving her an odd look - it looks like concern, and it makes Maria's skin crawl.

She shakes her head and moves to the table set in the corner of the room, grabbing a plastic cup and filling it with the lukewarm coffee someone left them.

"The teams are in position," the communication officer says.

Maria turns her gaze back to the maps in front of them, checking the position of each team. They have a quinjet on standby and a chopper up in the air.

Maria can't shake the feeling that it doesn't matter how many people they throw at this op. It's ultimately Fury who will bring her back, or no one at all - least of all her.

"Nothing left to do but wait," she mutters and downs the coffee. She hates lukewarm coffee.


If there is one thing that should be clear, it's that Nick Fury moves at his own pace, so he lets Natasha wait before making an appearance. It's been a while since he's been in Central Park anyway, so he takes his time moving down towards the fountain where the tracker has positioned the Black Widow.

A quick scan of the crowd has him satisfied that there is no one other than Romanoff he needs to worry about. He slowly wanders over, hands deep in his pockets. "Romanoff," he greets with a nod of his head. The tone is casual, almost friendly, but the look he gives her is steel.

He doesn't wait for her to acknowledge him as he sits down on the bench beside her, leaving a comfortable distance between them so he can lean his shoulders on the back of the bench. "You care to explain why the hell I'm making house calls now?"

"Fury." The only outward movement Natasha makes is a simple quirk of an eyebrow, but inwardly she seethes. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't vanish off the face of the earth right now," she counters, pointedly ignoring his question.

"How about because we had a contract, and you're the one breaking it right now?" Fury suggests, his posture and voice casual, but there's danger in his words. "I don't know what the hell has gotten into you, but you're definitely reminding me of how I can make the sky fall down on your ass."

Natasha laughs humorlessly. "I'm not breaking anything that hasn't already been broken. Don't threaten me just to try and cover your own ass."

Fury raises an eyebrow at her, letting her see for a moment that his patience is wearing thin. "I have better things to do than play riddles with you, Romanoff. You wanted me to meet you. I have. God knows I have plenty of other things to do, but here I am. So stop wasting my time, and say what's on your mind."

"My mind?" Natasha spits, temper flaring hot in the back of her throat. She bites it back, opting to keep it out of her voice, even if it's still flaming behind her eyes. "You already know everything that's on my mind. You put it there."

"We took it out, Romanoff," Fury reminds her, head tilting as he tries to make sense of her anger. "That was the deal: we deprogram you, and you come work for us."

"Exactly. I agreed to let you recalibrate me so I could start to atone for the things I've done. I didn't consent to anything else." Natasha shudders at the thought, a hint of shame mixing with her anger.

"We didn't do anything else, Romanoff," Fury says slowly, raising an eyebrow at her. "Care to elaborate on what exactly you think we've done? Because I'm starting to get curious here."

"Prove it." Her voice is deadly calm, her face neutral. "I want to see what you did to me. The tapes, the files, the records, everything. You're going to show me everything, or I'm going to walk."

"All you had to do was ask," Fury shrugs, and he glances back towards the fountain as if Natasha's threat didn't even register. "Why didn't you? This is all very dramatic: making us chase you, compromising two of my agents…"

Natasha only stares at him in disbelief. "Because I don't trust you. I needed to be sure you'll take this seriously."

"You don't know me," Fury corrects, sitting forward. "Fine. How do you expect to get this information?"

"You're going to show it to me. All of it," she says simply.

"And why should I trust you, Romanoff?" Fury mirrors her tone. "You haven't exactly given me much reason to."

"Because you made me like this," Natasha scoffs. "You have three options here, Fury: either prove to me that I'm wrong, let me walk away right now, or put into action the contingency clause of my contract."

Fury gets to his feet, his attention still ahead on the fountain. "You should be careful before breaking what you assume is already broken, Romanoff, because sometimes you end up breaking what was whole."

He casts a look over his shoulder then, a brief invitation before he starts walking in the opposite direction of the one he came from.

Natasha hesitates, surprised by how little runaround he's giving her. The warning is unsettling, too, but if this is Fury trying to bluff, she's sure as hell going to call it. She takes a deep breath and moves to follow him, making no effort to catch up.

Fury doesn't once look back. His strides are wide, and people seem to naturally avoid getting in his way. He quickly leads them out of the park and down a couple more blocks before stopping beside an unmarked, black SUV. It's the first time he turns around, and he fishes a key from his pocket, tossing it at Natasha.

"You can drive. I suggest you step on it before my agents start to panic about losing track of us both."

Natasha snatches the keys deftly out of the air, unlocks the doors, and slides into the driver's seat. She shoots Fury a dirty look to help preserve her dignity as she shifts the seat most of the way forward so she can reach the pedals. "Where exactly am I going?"

Fury hits the screen on the dashboard in between the both of them and taps a few keys. Instantly a map of New York pops up, an arrow showing the way.

"Somewhere you won't put any of my people at risk and I can still give you the information you want," he replies before settling comfortably in his chair.

Natasha signals and makes a turn before shooting him another disgruntled look. "I haven't threatened any of 'your people,' Fury," she points out.

"We're not trusting each other anymore, remember?" he reminds her. He hits another button on the screen that ends in soft classical music filling the car.

Natasha tries to keep from grinding her teeth. The music grates on her nerves, but she doesn't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing that. She digs her nails into the steering wheel until her fingers ache, and she leans a little more heavily on the gas than is strictly necessary. She fights down the urge to put her fist through the screen.

A quick glance to the side has Fury taking in Natasha's posture, the tension running through every muscle. He imagines he can almost hear her teeth grinding, and after a moment he leans forward, wordlessly turning the music back off.

"Park here," he says a little while later. It didn't take them too long to reach their destination, but he's even more aware of the tension radiating off of Romanoff now. It's a strange thing, so much different from the Black Widow who came to him at the start of this. "They'll be able to track us both once we get out of the car, but they have orders not to intervene."

He's showing his hand, but then, someone will have to trust again or everything they're doing will be pointless anyway.

Duly noted. Natasha does as he says and then kills the engine. She doesn't move to get out of the car, though. The thought of the tracker under her skin makes her itch, as does the knowledge that she's willingly giving up control of the situation. Handing control over to the person she trusts least in the world right now. But this is the only way to get the answers she needs, so she kicks the door open and gets out.

"What now?"

"Now we go down the rabbit hole." Fury slams the car shut behind him, but he doesn't ask for his keys as he leads the way down a narrow alley between two buildings.

Natasha jingles the keys as she follows. "Bold move for someone who doesn't trust me," Natasha quips, conspicuously stuffing the keys into her pocket.

Fury gives no sign that he heard her. The door he stops in front of has paint peeling from its surface. Fury pulls out a keycard and opens it. It's too simple a security system, but there's another one right behind, a complex panel the only light in the small room. "Better stick close."

He waits for the door to shut behind them before leaning in front of the panel. The retinal scan takes a matter of seconds and then he's leading Natasha through the thick metal door.

There are three more scanning points after that, each different, each only designed for him, until he leads them into a large room, lighting instantly flickering on.

There are cabinets on one side of the room, a sleeping cot on the other. A large desk dominates the room, and several screens take up most of the far wall. They flicker on along with the lights, a login screen with the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo appearing instantly.

Fury glances at Natasha for a moment, motioning towards the keyboard that sits in the middle of the desk. "Log into S.H.I.E.L.D. Access code Alpha 391."

He waves a hand at the only chair in the room. "I assume you'll find what you want."

Natasha stares at the chair as if it might suddenly become animate and attack her, then turns a suspicious eye on Fury. She can feel her anger begin to rise again. "That's it? Just like that?"

"You want me to make you solve a riddle first?" Fury raises an eyebrow at her. "We had a deal, Romanoff. I kept my end of the bargain."

"So you claim." Natasha turns her attention to the monitors. The display in front of her has a different interface than the terminals on the helicarrier. She can figure out how to navigate, of course, but she really doesn't want Fury to watch her initial struggle.

Natasha glares at him and points at the screen. "Start with the information about Barton's mission to take me out. Briefings, objectives, everything." If this runs deep, it's probably best to start digging from the very beginning.

Fury raises an eyebrow at her, but he takes the seat anyway. His fingers fly over the controls, pulling up the information. "And how are you going to be sure I'm not feeding you false information?" he asks casually.

Natasha arches a dangerous eyebrow at him. "Are you feeding me false information?"

"No, but you're the one convinced I'm breaking our contract." He shifts back, giving Natasha room to read through the files on her "capture". "If I'm doing that, I could as well be faking this. I would be prepared for when you figure it out if I was."

"Dammit, Fury!" Natasha snaps, her fists clenched so hard her nails might actually break the skin of her palms. "If you're trying to fuck with me just so I'll go back to being your puppet, then you might as well activate the contingency plan. That'd be far preferable to this."

"I'm not telling you anything you haven't already thought of yourself," Fury says calmly. "You got yourself stuck in a loop of paranoia, and the only way out is to trust. What you find here is the truth. These files are open level 10 security. No blacking out information, no restrictions, but I can't give you more proof than my word."

A significant part of her knows that Fury might be right about this, but the rest of her is too angry and confused and, frankly, scared to listen. "Don't patronize me," she seethes. "You've got the upper hand here. My only option is to trust you; don't play it off like it's my choice. None of this is my choice!" Her voice is starting to rise, but she doesn't care. "You made sure of that, didn't you? You had them take me apart and put me back together so I'd be yours to control. You had them build in failsafes so I won't run off with your investment, made me compatible with your agents so I won't turn on them, turn on you. Do I have a killswitch, too, Fury? Some phrase your men can say if they ever need to just fucking put me down?"

"That's what this is about?" Fury stares at her. He can see the danger, but he's not one to back off or flinch away from it. "We took you apart, yes. You asked us to, and we did what you wanted. But we're not the Red Room, Romanoff. There's no failsafe. There's no killswitch. I believe in choice, and we gave that back to you. If you can't turn on my agents, it's because you don't want to. Nothing more."

"No!" Natasha snarls, her head and her heart pounding like she's about to explode. "It can't… That's not possible!" It's taking all her willpower not to shake, not to let her voice devolve into an incoherent roar. The room suddenly feels incredibly small, and her eyes instinctively dart around, searching out a means of escape.

"The evidence is right there," Fury growls, motioning towards the monitor and giving her a point to focus on. "All you have to do is look, Romanoff. That's what you're here for, isn't it?"

Natasha glares daggers at him, breathing hard and fast in an attempt to keep from shouting again, to keep the walls from closing in. He's right about this, she knows he is, but the monitors are blazing impossibly bright, making stars pop in front of her eyes. As she reaches for the back of the chair, though, it falls away, tilting sideways out of her reach. The last thing she sees are the rapidly rising floorboards.

Chapter Text

Fury swears violently as Romanoff's body crumples in front of him. Against his better judgement, he darts forward to catch her before she hits the floor, rather than reaching for any of the various weapons he has concealed on his person. If this is some sort of ruse, at this point he can only hope she'll let him live to regret it.

He's quick enough to be able to support her head before it can strike the floor, and - just in case - he reaches out to pin her arms up behind her back. Surprisingly, she offers no resistance whatsoever.

Something is very wrong.

"Shit," Fury growls, feeling at Romanoff's feverish throat for a pulse. As if on cue, she begins to seize in his arms. Her chest heaves, but she's clearly unable to draw so much a breath.

"Agent Simon," Fury shouts, keying the intercom, "I need a med evac unit to my location, and I need them yesterday!"

"We have a quinjet on standby," Simon replies instantly.

Maria doesn't wait for the room to set in motion. Their response is sluggish, as this wasn't the command anyone was expecting. She snags up a headset herself and opens the comm to the quinjet, relaying the order.

"They'll be there in five, Sir," she snaps off. "Status?"

"Two would be better." Fury wipes a hand down his face. How the fuck is he supposed to relay their status when this entire situation is both bizarre and unprecedented? "Medical emergency in progress, no imminent danger on location. Have all available medstaff on standby," he orders, "and someone get Agent Hill off this channel."

Maria can feel the instant all eyes in the room settle on her. She raises her chin stubbornly, her stance shifting unconsciously to attention.

"With all due respect, Sir, you ordered me here," she says coolly. Her face and tone are blank, but she can feel her heart beating in her chest, the room around her dimming as she realises something is wrong. "ETA three minutes," she adds, relaying the information from the quinjet.

"And now I'm ordering you out of there, Agent," Fury shoots back, his tone even and decisive. "I don't want you on the comm."

There's only silence in the room. Agent Simon hasn't moved, but she knows he'll follow orders, and no one can afford to waste their time on her.

"You better get her back in one piece," she snarls the words and only just manages to tack on a 'sir' before she pulls her earpiece off with shaking fingers, dropping the headset on the desk.

"I'll inform medbay," she tells Simon. She could do that from the comms, but her skin is crawling with the way everyone is looking at her, and she needs to do something other than turn around. She doesn't wait for Simon to acknowledge her. She thinks he does, but it's a blur as she turns on her heel and takes long strides down the corridor.

Her heart is in her throat, and she blinks rapidly, forcing herself to draw in a deep breath to try and stop herself from overthinking. To try and stop herself from shaking apart.

 

It might be too late to get her back in one piece. Fury grimaces at the thought and swears again as Romanoff suddenly goes limp. A few commands typed into the module on the wall and the flick of a few panic switches ensure the med team can access the safe house unhindered when they arrive.

What the fuck is taking them so long?

Almost as an afterthought, Fury keys the intercom again. "Someone keep tabs on Hill. Lock her up with Barton if you need to, just don't let her go off on her own."

"Copy that," Agent Simon responds, signalling to relay the order.

 

Maria makes it down to the medbay in record time. It takes little effort to shake the medstaff awake and have them at full alert. Her urgency is enough to snap them to attention, the medbay turning into a hive of activity as they ready themselves for anything.

"It'd be easier if we knew what to expect, Agent Hill," the doctor informs her as she's about to take her leave.

The question grates, and Maria clenches her fists. "Contact Agent Simon," she snaps.

She turns to leave and go up to the deck to wait for the quinjet, but two guards who definitely hadn't been there before are blocking the exit. Maria's nostrils flare as she exhales in irritation. Between the humiliation of being sent away and not knowing what's going on, Maria's seeing red.

She can almost feel the doctor's eyes boring into her shoulders, and the guards flinch as she glares at them. Gnashing her teeth, she turns and lands her ass in one of the few seats in the waiting area.

The guards exchange grim glances before one of them steps forward. "Agent Hill, the medbay is temporarily designated clearance level 10. We're to escort you to holding until further notice."

If Maria didn't know before that something is seriously wrong with Romanoff, she does now. Her body is wound tight, every muscle tensed as she can't bear the thought of being locked between four walls while Natasha is... She doesn't even know what she is, and that's unacceptable.

"Not going to happen." She grinds out the words as she plants both feet solidly on the floor, her body ready for the fight that's sure to follow.

"Agent Hill," the doctor speaks up, drawing her attention away from the guards. "It would be better if I have time to prepare for the incoming emergency, rather than having to patch you all up."

Maria stares at the doctor, the words slowly sinking in and leaving nothing behind. "Of course," she mutters and gets to her feet, trying not to feel like a chastised teenager.

The guards still look uncomfortable, and she motions towards the door. "Lead on," she commands in resignation.

She barely notices the relief washing over the guards faces; she hardly even registers where they're taking her. Her eyes remain fixed on the guard in front of her. It isn't until she's ushered inside of the room that she realises where they brought her.

"Talk about déjà vu," she mutters, failing to put any humour in the words.

Barton wakes with a jerk and a snort when the door opens, and he squints through bleary eyes at the newcomers. "Hill?" It doesn't take more than a glance, once he's fully awake, to see that she's wound impossibly tight. He sits up apprehensively. "It… didn't go well, did it?"

It feels like every emotion in her body has crawled inside of her throat, making it impossible to so much as utter a word. Not without throwing up. The way Barton is looking at her doesn't help one bit. She hasn't felt like this in decades.

She shakes her head and presses her lips together like she might keep it all in if she does. Her arms feel useless by her sides - she feels useless - and she wraps them around herself as she leans back against the closed door, staring up at the ceiling because it's better than looking at Barton.

This is a side of Maria Hill Clint has never seen before. One he has no idea whatsoever what to do with. He's seen her seething with anger and frustration, the force of which could easily level several city blocks. He's seen her radiating triumph and pride, a force to be reckoned with, and woe befall anything stupid enough to get in her way. This? This is infinitely more terrifying. Whatever it is she's trying so hard to keep off her face is pulling her inward, and when it finally detonates, she'll be completely destroyed.

That can't happen.

Clint gets up off the cot and approaches Hill cautiously; he's never been great at defusing bombs. Everything he can think of to say is most likely the wrong thing, but eventually his curiosity and growing sense of dread win out. "What happened?"

It takes much too long for Maria to respond, but she finally drags her gaze away from the ceiling, settling on Barton, who is much too close for comfort. She presses her shoulders further against the door, the metal cool and grounding.

"I don't know," the words are soft, but her voice is surprisingly steady. Maybe she's too used to relaying fucked up situations when she feels like the ground under her feet is falling away. "Fury made contact with Romanoff. They went off the radar for a while, but showed up at one of the safe houses. From there…"

She licks her lips, but forces herself to meet Clint's gaze. He needs to know. "Next thing we know, Fury was calling for a med evac, and he ordered me off the comms." She grimaces. "Guess he decided I am a liability, because it landed my ass in here."

"Wait, med evac?" Clint stammers. "Did she hurt somebody, or-?"

"Doubtful." Maria leans her head back against the door and closes her eyes. Her fingers grip her upper arms so tightly they start to cramp, but she doesn't let go. "Fury wouldn't just pull me off the op because somebody got hurt, and he wouldn't be bringing a civilian to the helicarrier…"

She trails off, because for some stupid reason she can't seem to bring herself to say it out loud.

Hill's words piece together with a force like a punch in the gut, and Clint slumps against the wall. "Oh my god. Do you think Fury took her out?"

Maria's eyes snap open, and there's nothing but coldness and darkness there as she considers it.

"No." There's a determination there, because the alternative isn't an option. She'd been too worried to even think about this. "I don't know," she amends. "He sounded frantic."

It doesn't help, and she turns in one furious movement, her hands pulling at the doorknob, but of course it's locked. "Let me the fuck out of here!" she shouts, slamming her fist into the door.

Well, that's bad. 'Frantic' is not a word Clint would ever have thought to associate with Nick Fury - or Hill, for that matter - but it's very much a word he'd use to describe this current situation. He's gotta do something before Hill either breaks all the bones in her hand or gets them both forcibly subdued by the guards he knows must be just on the other side of the door.

"Hill, get it together!" he shouts. He knows better than to try and physically keep her from pounding on the door, at least until he absolutely has to.

The order does nothing to calm her down. It only serves to remind her how much of a liability she seems to be right now. She slams both her hands on the door and follows it up with a kick. The sound resonates in the room, and Maria growls as she pulls away from the door and glares at it.

Her chest is heaving, and every muscle in her body is tensed, filled with too much energy that needs out. It needs out, and if she doesn't throw it at the door, she'll throw it at Clint, and that's not acceptable.

So she lashes out again, and she hardly even notices how her hand is throbbing as she hits the door.

"Dammit, Hill," Clint sighs as he reluctantly falls into a fighting stance, "If you've gotta wail on something, at least wail on something that can fight back. I'll never get my security deposit back if you put a dent in my door."

"Shut. The. Fuck. Up." Maria grits out the words. Each is followed by a punch or a kick, ignoring the sharp pain in her knuckles and the red spots each hit leaves behind.

"That's enough!" It might get his ass kicked, but Clint throws himself between Hill and the door, arms thrown wide. He steps in close, bracing for whatever blows she wants to throw at him.

Maria's already throwing her next punch when Clint is suddenly in the way, and there's nothing she can do as her fist connects with his jaw.

She pulls back, half stumbles back, her eyes wide in shock, and she shakes her head as if she can't believe what just happened. "Fuck," she curses, turning her back on Clint.

Despite the pain in his jaw, Clint follows her as she steps back, staying closer than is probably advisable, ushering her further away from the door. "That's enough," he repeats, softer this time.

It's not nearly enough. It couldn't ever be enough, but Maria lets Clint guide her to the bed. Not that there is much guiding going on, but the room is tiny enough, and the bed is the only other thing in it. Maria slumps down on it because she doesn't quite trust herself to be on her feet anymore.

She finds herself staring at Clint's shoes. There's spot of dirt on the tip and it's the most fascinating thing she might have ever seen. "I can't do this again," she tells the spot.

Clint sinks to the floor in front of her, giving her a bit more space now that she's finally sitting down. He can only assume she's been on her feet literally the whole time since he saw her last. Fucking stubborn woman. All he does is nod slowly, waiting for Hill to continue, or not, as she chooses.

She props her elbows on her knees, leaning forward but not quite meeting Clint's eyes anymore. There's still anger simmering just underneath the surface, but there's a tiredness that goes bone deep, and she leans her head in her hands as she lets herself feel it.

"If I'd just woken up." The words are soft and barely there. She doesn't usually play what-if games. That way lies madness, but right now it's nothing more than a wish. A wish to set this right and take away the last forty-eight hours.

"Do you really think that would have made a difference?"

She wouldn't have been alone.

She doesn't voice the thought. It's not like she even knows that - Natasha might as well have knocked her out - but at least she'd be stuck in the medbay then rather than in this room with no chance of knowing what was going on.

"No," she says instead, pulling her hands away to stare at her bloodied knuckles. "How's the jaw?"

"Which jaw?" Clint cocks his head to the side, frowning. "The jaw you just punched in a blind rage? That jaw?"

Maria purses her lips and quickly glances up at him. "Don't make me wish I'd hit the other side too," she warns, but her eyes flicker with something like regret. "Sorry."

Clint turns his head, presenting the aforementioned other side of his jaw. "Go ahead. I'm sure it'll help just as much as wishing things were different does." Not that his particularly wants another one of Hill's hooks to the face, but being a little belligerent seems to be the way to get her to listen right now.

"Fuck you," she growls, and it's definitely tempting to hit him. She gets up instead. Tries to, but her leg is finally done with her, and it gives out in an instant, forcing her back down on the bed.

"Yeah, okay, sure. Fuck me. It's better than being so fucking angry at my door," Clint shrugs. "And it's a hell of a lot better than being angry with yourself."

Maria glances away, glaring at the door because that can't see through her at least. "I'd rather go back to being pissed off at Romanoff."

She can't now. She can't fool herself into thinking that she's wrong about this, that things are alright and she misread the seriousness of the situation.

Hill's response is enough to soften Clint's expression. His shoulders sag for a moment, but then he scoops himself up off the floor and slumps down on the mattress next to Hill. "Yeah, I'm scared for her too."

There's nothing left to say to that. Maria keeps her gaze fixed on the door, like she can will it open and magically bring them more news about Romanoff. It's doubtful that's going to happen any time soon, and she finally shifts just a little, her shoulder lightly coming to rest against Clint's.

It's a casual shift, but it's no accident. Just maybe she needs that comfort, and there's no one else in the world who understands just how scared she is.

Chapter Text

The first thing Natasha notices as she slowly regains consciousness is the fog that's replaced the throbbing in her head. All of the pain is gone, replaced by a cloudy sort of calm. That is, until she notices the restraints binding her to the bed and the doctor in a S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform adjusting the IV connected to her arm. Her hands ball into fists, testing the restraints as inconspicuously as she can through the drugs and the rising panic. The doctor reaches for her face, and Nat flinches away, only to have a cool compress laid on her forehead.

"Let me go," Natasha manages to growl, pulling harder against her restraints. Her legs are bound just as securely as her arms.

The doctor - Dr. Sen, according to the embroidery on her lab coat - purses her lips. "I can't right now."

"Let me guess: Fury's orders?"

"Actually, no. He advised against restraining you, but the med staff decided it'd be safer for everyone involved." Dr. Sen gives her a pointed but not entirely unsympathetic look. "That includes you."

"I'm sure," Natasha seethes.

Sen shoots her a withering look over her shoulder as she records something on Natasha's chart, her patience clearly wearing thin. "Sulk all you want; you owe him your life. He made the right call bringing you in."

The tone of her voice cuts right through Natasha's panic and indignation, replacing it with sobering apprehension. She wets her lips, remembering the feeling of her racing heart and throbbing head. "What happened?" she manages after a moment.

"That's what we're trying to figure out," Sen sighs. She moves to sit close to the side of Natasha's bed, her concern winning out over her waning patience. "I'll tell you everything we know so far, of course. Do I have your permission to share this information with Director Fury as well?"

Natasha scans her face skeptically. "Do I really have a choice?"

"You do. I won't so much as tell him your blood pressure if you don't want me to," the doctor assures her. "And those are Fury's orders."

Nothing about this situation makes sense - not after the way she behaved the past few days - yet being afforded her privacy like this is enough for now. "Fine. Get Fury."

Sen gives Natasha another sort of half-smile and leaves the room.

It only takes a few minutes before she returns with Fury. There's a flash of relief as he takes in Romanoff being awake, until his attention falls to the restraints and his expression darkens.

"We talked about this," he says darkly, his displeasure clear as he turns to the doctor.

"We did, Sir," she agrees, offering no other response but to motion towards a chair next to the bed - too close, for Natasha's taste.

Natasha studies both of them impassively, unsure what to make of their exchange. Unsure what to make of any of this.

Fury narrows his eyes, but he shakes his head and chooses to stand at the end of Natasha's bed instead. His attention shifts back to Natasha for a moment, his expression softening. "Good to have you back with us, Romanoff."

"What happened?"

Dr. Sen glances down at the tablet in her hands. "As far as we know--"

"What happened?" Natasha repeats pointedly, never taking her eyes off Fury.

"You collapsed," Fury replies, meeting Natasha's gaze steadily. "You had some sort of seizure, so I brought you back to the 'carrier. Believe me, Romanoff. You didn't leave me much choice."

Natasha slowly lets out the breath she'd been holding, then silently shifts her eyes from him to the doctor.

"I can confirm that," Sen says evenly. "Like I said before, Director Fury made the right call. You went into cardiac arrest shortly after the seizure."

That doesn't make sense. Natasha frowns, struggling to grasp any of the disjointed thoughts in her mind. There's a piece missing, she knows it. Something that will complete the picture if she can only figure out what it is. She remembers the room spinning as she lost control and shouted at Fury. She remembers her head splitting as she tried to defuse her panic in Penn Station, she remembers her heart starting to race as she scrambled to get out of Hill's bed…

Natasha chokes on her next breath, squeezing her eyes shut. "Why?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Fury mutters, his voice low. His attention is fixed on Romanoff rather than on the doctor, however, taking in her reaction with quiet concern.

"Physiologically speaking," Sen speaks up, "We don't know what caused it. Your tox screen came back completely clean, and none of the usual indicators turned up on any of the other preliminary diagnostics."

Natasha can see the hesitation written on Sen's face, and she grits her teeth. The way the two of them are staring at her is putting her uncomfortably on-edge. "What did you find, then?" she prompts.

"We're not sure yet," Dr. Sen admits, her face stony, "but I'm afraid we may have missed something during your reprogramming."

"Missed something," Fury repeats, his displeasure obvious. He leans his hands on the footboard of the bed, fixing the doctor with a glare. "What exactly can you have missed that almost killed Agent Romanoff?"

"With all due respect, Sir, this is Agent Romanoff's consultation. You're here by her invitation -"

"Answer him," Natasha interrupts. She's tired of waiting for an explanation.

Dr. Sen casts Fury a furtive glance before addressing her answer to Natasha instead. "If you recall, our deprogramming techniques primarily involve reversing psychological and neurological processes - brainwashing, operant conditioning, hypnosis, and the like - but I believe the KGB may have altered the way your body responds to hormones and neurotransmitters on a molecular level. We missed it because, simply put, it isn't supposed to be possible."

The thought sends a chill down Natasha's spine that condenses into a ball of ice at the pit of her stomach. "Where did you get that idea?"

"Well, your hormone levels are, frankly, bizarre." Sen scrolls through her tablet, pulling up a chart and showing it to Natasha. She points to a few peaks on a graph. "Your epinephrine and cortisol levels are consistent with an extreme stress response. Basically, your 'fight or flight' mode has been working in overdrive, but that's not surprising considering everything you've been through in the past 48 hours.

"What's strange, though, is your serotonin and oxytocin levels are also incredibly high, a lot higher than they were when you went on leave. Serotonin and oxytocin are associated with feelings of well-being and happiness, and they're supposed to reduce fear and anxiety.  If I didn't know better, I would have guessed these readings came from two different people."

She zooms in on another section of the chart and points again as she continues. "See these numbers? That kind of dopamine elevation is consistent with cocaine addiction, but there's not a trace of anything remotely like cocaine in your system. Dopamine levels that high can cause intense paranoia and psychosis, but serotonin is supposed to inhibit dopamine..." She raps her knuckles on the screen as she trails off, her frustration increasingly evident in her voice and bearing.  "I've been over these readouts again and again, but I can't make sense of them. Even the way they're changing over time goes against everything I could have predicted. I've never seen anything like this before. It seems that feeling calm and content triggers a stress response in you, and feelings of safety and trust trigger your paranoia."

Natasha's expression is unreadable, and Fury wonders if she's even registering what Dr. Sen is saying. Damn, but he's not even sure he's registering it all. "You're saying there are still triggers in place, and something set them off?"

"Essentially, yes." Sen gives them both a sombre nod.  "Although, I think there's more to it than that. On one hand, I can see why the KGB would want to program this kind of a response in their operatives: you'd be pretty much on constant alert, distrustful, disinclined to form connections with other people on your own. It'd be virtually impossible to lull you into a false sense of security. But a reaction strong enough to cause cardiac arrest? That can't have been an accident. I don't think we're dealing with a trigger so much as -"

"A killswitch." The word leaves Natasha numb, distant, as if she no longer inhabits her own body. Perhaps she never really inhabited it to begin with.

"Motherfucker," Fury curses and pushes back from the bed, scowling. "Are you fucking telling me I currently have three of my best agents out of commission because the Red Room didn't like their assets to be happy and make friends?"

Natasha stomach turns, and she blinks at him, nonplussed.

"That's quite an oversimplification, but yes," the doctor confirms "Though, to be more accurate, I think a very specific set of conditions must be met in order to trigger the lethal response, like a combination lock. We still don't know what those conditions are."

"What do you need to get to the bottom of this?" Fury demands. "I want this fixed, and keeping Agent Romanoff unhappy is not a viable option."

"With Agent Romanoff's consent, there are tests I can run that will give me a better idea what we're dealing with," Dr. Sen begins, frowning, "but that will really only help us solve this immediate problem. Without knowing exactly what was done to her, I have no way of knowing what even needs fixing, let alone how to fix it."

By this point, Natasha's skin is crawling, and she pulls at her restraints again to keep from clawing at the sensation. "Run the tests. Do whatever you need to do to me. Just don't keep me tied down."

Normally Fury would give the order, but this time he steps forward himself. He reaches for the restrains, but stops himself before actually touching them, looking at Romanoff for permission first.

"Do you have any idea where we'd be most likely to find this information, Natasha?"

Natasha inclines her head, giving him a tacit go-ahead. "I have some idea, yes. It won't be easy to get to."

"Is it ever?" he asks dryly. He quickly undoes the restraint, letting the doctor get her other wrist. "You get me the intel and let me worry about the rest."

Having her full range of motion restored helps Natasha focus a little more clearly. She rubs at her wrists as she thinks. "I'll need maps and access to the SHIELD database." That's assuming they hadn't terminated her account the moment they realized she'd gone AWOL.

"You already have access to everything," Fury confirms, then turns to the doctor. "Whatever resources you need, you have them. This is your number one priority from now on. I want you and your team on it 24/7 until you fix this. Understood?"

He doesn't wait for an acknowledgment, used to people obeying him. "Now if you will give me a moment with the patient..."

Dr. Sen gives a curt nod. "Of course.  I'll be down the hall if you need me."

With that, she leaves the two of them in a silence that does nothing to quiet Natasha's thoughts. Anger is still simmering under the surface, but it's slowly being smothered by humiliation. Natasha closes her eyes, but without visual cues to remind her where she is, she may as well be back in Psych after one of her 'sessions' all those months ago. It's disorienting, to say the least, and she shifts her gaze to the ceiling, willing herself not to throw up.

"So just like that, I'm back on your asset roster?"

"I restored your account and raised security to level ten," Fury explains, moving to the night table and retrieving a S.H.I.E.L.D. stamped laptop from it. He raises an eyebrow at Romanoff and sets it beside her on the bed. "I assumed that while I could give you all the necessary files to your case, you would want to verify that I haven't tampered with any and that I didn't leave anything out."

He waits for a moment, making certain that he has Romanoff's full attention before he pulls a flash drive from one of the many pockets of his trenchcoat. "This contains all your files. All the ones I think you will find relevant. Your new security level should allow you to access whatever files you think I may have missed."

Natasha stares at the flash drive, but she can't quite bring herself to reach out and take it yet. "Can I ask you something else?"

"You did just get level ten security, so yes," Fury jokes quietly, placing the drive on top of the laptop. "What's on your mind, Romanoff?"

"A minute ago you said three of your agents are out of commission. What happened to..." Natasha's jaw clenches, but she can't bring herself to say their names, "the other two?"

"Agent Hill was temporarily assigned to help with your retrieval ," Fury says honestly. "I pulled her off the operation when I brought you in. She and Agent Barton are currently cooling their heels in confinement until further notice. Their hearings are pending."

So that was Hill in Becca's ear at the train station. And Barton… Natasha squares her shoulders and looks Fury directly in the eye. "Let them go."

"That's not a demand you get to make, Romanoff." Fury doesn't look away, steadily meeting Natasha's gaze. "They're both already lucky enough that I didn't put them under arrest straight away. Don't push their luck."

"You said their hearings are pending? How's this for a hearing: they had nothing to do with any of this. They neither aided nor abetted my actions. None of this is their fault," Natasha insists. "And I think you know that."

"I also know that they have both disregarded protocol," Fury replies, and he sighs. "Right now, they're both better off where they are. Once this situation stabilises, I will release them without a mark to their records. That's the best I can do right now."

It isn't enough. It isn't nearly enough, but Natasha knows better than to argue anymore. There's no way she'd be able to put words to what she's feeling, even if she tried. Instead, she finally picks up the flash drive and turns it over in her hands. "You were right about all of this, weren't you?" Her voice is only a murmur.

Fury's expression softens and he reaches out, pressing his fingers to the edge of the bed. "Unlike you, I know what S.H.I.E.L.D. has been up to, and I know the orders I gave my people. As much as I like people agreeing that I'm right, it wasn't exactly hard for me to be right in this instance."

He taps his fingers against the sheet once, the movement casual as if he's stressing a point he's making in his mind but hasn't spoken yet. "Apparently S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn't have foreseen this particular situation, meaning you weren't exactly in the wrong either. We did fail you. I plan on making that up to you. Afterwards, you're free to decide where you wish to go."

Natasha only nods. She's got a complex, convoluted web to untangle, equipped with little more than a laptop and a brain she can't trust anymore. She's back to square one, just when she finally felt like she had made it out, and there's a very real possibility that she's already destroyed everything she's built.

She broke what was whole.

Even though she knows Fury is still watching her closely, Natasha swallows what's left of her pride and drops her head into her hands.

It's not exactly a situation Fury knows how to deal with. Romanoff is strong and resilient, watching her like this…

"Natasha," Fury says quietly. He hesitates, but finally rests his hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. "We will figure this out."

Somehow, the weight of his hand on her shoulder makes it a little easier for Natasha to keep her walls from crumbling entirely. She chuckles, a humorless sound that reminds her how sore all of the muscles in her body are. "Careful, Sir. Apparently I don't respond well to being comforted."

"Somehow I don't think I'm taking a risk here." Fury squeezes her shoulder reassuringly before slowly pulling his hand back.

"You're right about that, too," Natasha says with a half-hearted smirk before reaching for the laptop. Anything to keep her moving forward.

"Usually am," he says casually, but his eye is still fixed on Romanoff, studying her carefully. "Any more questions you have for me? Anything I can get you or do for you?"

"Don't let her do anything stupid." The words leave her before she can even process them.

"Barton's with her," Fury assures her. He doesn't need to ask who she means, and maybe that's exactly why he isn't planning on releasing either of them just yet.

Natasha nods, concentrating on breathing through the tightness in her chest. "Thank you."

"You've got nothing to thank me for, Romanoff." Fury is already halfway to the door. "Let me know if there's anything you need. I'll check back in with you later."

He doesn't wait for an answer as Natasha seems to need the space. When he talks to the doctor, he orders her to give Natasha a few moments to herself.

Chapter Text

At some point Natasha gives up trying to keep track of how many days have passed. Just like when she first gave herself over into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s custody, she starts to measure her days in terms of treatments and not-treatments, consciousness and unconsciousness, clarity and confusion. It's exhausting.

The tests are simple, if taxing. The doctors inject her with any number of cocktails, trying different doses, different combinations, quantifying every conceivable parameter of her responses to them. They poke and prod and ask her what she feels.

Restless. She feels restless and impatient, but she cooperates as best she can.

They learn quickly, and they keep her updated on their progress every step of the way. Dr. Sen's original hypothesis is holding up so far, it seems: above a certain threshold, the chemicals in her brain that are supposed to make her feel calm and safe trigger an intense stress response instead. Before too long, they figure out how to send her into a blind panic using only a syringe and a hormone cocktail that would send anyone else into a state of bliss.

Natasha only lets them do it to her twice.

On the plus side, the tests also help the med staff find a way to bring her back down.

"I can't guarantee it will work in the field," Dr. Sen explains, presenting Natasha with a small, easily concealable auto-injector device, "And it's a stopgap, not a cure. Think of it like carrying an EpiPen for a severe allergy: it will help until you can get medical attention, but you're better off not getting stung in the first place. It's not ideal, but without the Black Widow Program records, it's the best we can do."

Natasha thanks her numbly and stashes the device in the nightstand drawer for safekeeping.

 

 

When she's not recovering from her sessions as a lab rat, Natasha spends every waking moment poring through the S.H.I.E.L.D. database. She scours maps and schematics of all known KGB research sites and bases of operation, trying to piece together enough information to pass along to Agent Simon and the tactics team. The intel recovery mission takes shape slowly; so much of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s information is outdated or incomplete. Natasha knows that, even if the program files still exist, they'll be an incredibly well-protected needle in a devastatingly large and hostile haystack. She works until the medstaff return to put her under again, searching for something - anything - to help narrow the search. After all, this mission is a matter of life and death, and she is nothing if not a survivor.

Then there are the files Fury gave her, the ones she demanded from him in the throes of her neurochemically-induced paranoia. With everything else that's come to light since then, she's barely touched them, despite having been so desperate to know what they contain. Or maybe she's avoiding them, unsure if she really wants to know the answers after all. Either way, it's a long time before she can bear to focus her attention on unravelling that particular web.

Fury certainly kept his word; there are more files on the flash drive than Natasha even knows what to do with. They cover everything she would have thought to look for, and even things that never occurred to her to ask about. There are mission logs, transcripts of debriefings and meetings, and even personal correspondence from Fury himself, dating back well before Barton was ever assigned to track her down. There are personnel files - hers, Hill's, Barton's, all of the medstaff, scientists, and guards assigned to her deprogramming. Though she pulls up Hill's file over and over again, each time she can only stare at it until she's forced to close it again, unread. She skims a few of the medstaff's files instead, then moves on to the other guards' files. The information is pretty basic, but a single statistic near the top of each file catches her attention: percent match. That One's profile says 75% match. The Other One's profile says 79% match.

Match for what?

It takes some digging, but Natasha finally unearths an explanation that makes her blood run cold. According to the records, the top brass had indeed intended to program her with a connection to her handler to ensure her loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury unequivocally overruled the notion, but that wasn't the end of it. A team of psychiatrists developed an algorithm designed to identify the S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel best suited to interact with her during and after her reprogramming, based on an extensive set of psychological parameters. S.H.I.E.L.D. may not have imposed these connections against her will, but they were certainly not coincidental.

She breathes deeply, and it's all she can do to convince herself not to overreact until she's ready to speak to Fury about everything she's learned. The bitter taste in her mouth refuses to dissipate, but she does her best to push past it; there's still more she needs to know.  

Next, Natasha turns her attention to the hours and hours of security footage from nearly every inch of the helicarrier she's even been allowed access to. It quickly becomes clear that she could re-live her entire time with S.H.I.E.L.D. sitting in front of her laptop if she wanted to. Natasha accesses a few recordings from her reprogramming sessions, watching with morbid fascination as her past self undergoes treatment after treatment, until she can't stomach one more frame of herself screaming and incoherent from the intensity of it all.

One particularly torturous afternoon (evening? dead of night? who even knows anymore) Natasha accesses a handful of videos which are all flagged as having accompanying incident reports. As painful as it is, she can't bring herself to look away from Hill, rankling in her guard uniform, barking the order to shut the lights off, headbutting her in the face, setting her gun aside only to have Natasha snatch it up instead. Even now, she's amazed how much they'd let the two of them get away with, how lenient all of Hill's reprimands were. Then again, if Hill was so carefully selected for guard duty, of course they wouldn't be quick to remove her from the detail. The thought makes her stomach turn again, but she files it away with the rest of the things to confront Fury with and moves on.

There is footage of her early sparring sessions in the gym, too, though Natasha loses interest after the first few weeks. She's about to move on entirely when she's seized with a mix of curiosity and dread. She scans quickly through the gym's security footage until she finds what she's looking for.

"Fuck you, Romanoff. I would never put my team in danger!" Hill shouts from the video feed, reaching out to shove Natasha away. Natasha watches, frozen, as they continue to shout into each other's faces.

"Then who the fuck are you?"

Natasha holds her breath as Hill grabs her shirt and lunges for her --

And then the feed goes black.

She stares in disbelief, her mind going almost as blank as the rest of the file. She rewinds and fast-forwards a few times, but the rest of the video is indeed completely redacted. The breath she'd been holding leaves her slowly, and she's overcome with a mixture of relief and gratitude. She allows herself only another moment or so to process the implications before she flags down a medic and asks to see Fury.

 

 

For someone who's busy running an international secret spy agency, Fury shows up only a short while after Natasha's summons. .The slump of his shoulders changes as he closes the door behind him, his face softening as he takes in the sight of Natasha on the bed. "Romanoff," he greets, voice rough, but maybe there is a hint of fondness to it.

"Fury." Natasha looks up from her work and eyes him coolly as he enters the room. She tilts her head in the direction of the chair next to the bed, offering him a seat.

If Fury is surprised by the invitation, he doesn't show it. The chair is much too tiny, but he sits down regardless, bracing his elbows on his knees as he waits Natasha out, giving her the time to figure out what she wants to tell him.

There's no need to stand on ceremony when it comes to dealing with Nick Fury by now, so Natasha gets right to the point. "I've come across some permanently redacted information. Was that you?"

Fury hums, nodding slowly. "I am the only one at S.H.I.E.L.D. with the authority to do that. If I didn't do it personally, I gave the order to do it. Anything specific you're wondering about?"

Natasha hadn't really expected a different answer, of course. "Why did you do it?"

"They were private matters that had no influence on any of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s operations," Fury says calmly. "Keeping that footage would serve no one. It's not the kind of leverage I wish to have on any of my agents, so I had it destroyed. That isn't to say that I'm condoning either of your conduct, but I believe that has already been sufficiently dealt with."

Natasha raises an eyebrow at him. "I would think it has at least some relevance to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s operations. At the very least I'd have thought you'd want to document the results of your experiment."

"What are you talking about, Natasha?" Fury asks, frowning at her. "I thought the information I gave you would make it clear that we haven't been experimenting on you."

"Are you saying S.H.I.E.L.D. uses a complex algorithm to assign guards based on personality traits to all of your recruits?" Natasha cocks her head to the side, studying Fury carefully. "I know they weren't picked at random. I know you carefully selected the people I interacted with during my reprogramming. Was that not an experiment?"

"In some ways," Fury allows, sitting back with a sigh as he mulls it over. "There was the suggestion to attempt to force a connection, but I overruled it. I didn't overrule the selection of your guards; it seemed to me that if we wanted you to become a part of S.H.I.E.L.D., you should find people here you would wish to work with. So yes, we looked for people who were… I wouldn't say compatible, but who would show you the best of us."

He hesitates for a moment. "Are you curious to know why Agent Hill was assigned to you?"

"No." Natasha bites off the word a little too quickly. "I want to know whether she was in on it. Did you tell her or the others how you were using them?"

"She wasn't," Fury's words are soft, but the reassurance comes quickly. "How could we show you what we're about if the people we put at your side were part of a game as well? Anything that happened between you was real, Romanoff. What is between you was never part of a mission. She was your guard, that is all the orders we gave her. You have the access to review the mission details she was given."

A wave of relief eases some of the tension Natasha's been carrying for days. The relief is short-lived, though. "So you manipulated both of us."

Fury snorts. "When it comes to manipulation, this must be one of the lesser things I have done. We needed guards on you while we made certain the deprogramming worked." He pauses and makes a face, motioning around the room. "Clearly we were right in that assessment, but we still failed."

"Agent Hill had been on the list for a promotion for a while by then. The timing to bring her in was right. Was it manipulation to sign her up with you and see if she had it in her to become your handler? Probably, but at least we learned that wasn't the right track for either of you."

"It sounds like lots of things didn't turn out the way you planned." Under different circumstances, Natasha's remark would be teasing. The corner of her mouth curls upward, but there's no humor in her eyes.

This could all have turned out so differently. Just for a moment, Natasha lets herself imagine what it could have been like to have Hill's voice in her ear during missions, to have her as a lifeline if things went south, to work together so closely as a team. To trust her with her life.

Maybe Fury is right: the two of them aren't cut out to be handler and asset. At this rate, they may not be anything at all.

Natasha refocuses her attention on Fury again. "What happens now?"

"With what exactly, Romanoff?" Fury asks.

"Are you going to tell her that you used her like that? Were you ever going to tell her?" Natasha does her best to keep her voice steady and her expression blank.

"No," Fury says honestly, not making any excuse and not showing any regrets about it either. "Throwing challenges at my agents is nothing uncommon."

"Challenges," Natasha repeats, shaking her head slowly in disbelief. She knows there's no point in arguing with Fury about it; clearly his mind is made up. It does nothing to settle the sick feeling in her stomach, though. "Do you still have her locked up?"

"She and Agent Barton were released a few days ago," Fury replies. "They're on probation for now. And before you ask, I have instructed them to stay clear of the medbay. If they haven't been here, it's not their choice. As long as we don't know the trigger, it seemed best to keep them away. They do know you're stable and out of danger for now, but nothing more."

Natasha frowns at him and falls silent. She's relieved to know Hill isn't still stuck between four walls with no way of knowing what's going on. How she must've hated that; Natasha wouldn't be at all surprised to hear she'd broken her hands - or Barton's face - out of anger or frustration. Though, she supposes Hill is equally frustrated by being put on probation. Natasha can almost see the way Hill's jaw clenches, biting back any number of arguments. She can almost hear her indignant snort, powerful like a bull.

She mentally shakes herself over to clear the image from her mind. How absurd for her to be so concerned about Hill when she's the one confined to the secure ward so she won't hurt anyone if she snaps again.

"Do you think that's a mistake?" Fury asks when Natasha doesn't respond.

The frown fades from Natasha's face, and she stares down at her hands rather than having to meet Fury's gaze as she answers him. "No, neither one of them deserves to be imprisoned. Like I said before, none of this was their fault. Ordering them to stay away from here probably wasn't even necessary."

"Do you truly believe that, or are you just telling yourself that?" Fury asks casually, tilting his head as he studies her.

"Why wouldn't I believe that?" Natasha counters. "After everything I've done…"

"After everything you've done because you're still being manipulated," Fury corrects, shaking his head. "As I understand it they almost had to bodily drag Agent Hill from here when I brought you in. Your friends are very stubborn, Romanoff."

Natasha scoffs and shakes her head as she struggles to process what Fury's telling her. "They don't know that I wasn't entirely in control of my own actions. As far as they know, I chose to run."

"My point exactly," Fury agrees. "From their end, you did a stupid thing for reasons they can't imagine right now, and they're still willing to disobey orders to check on you. I'd say we picked the right people to assign to you, don't you think?"

Natasha presses the heel of her hand against her eye in a futile attempt to ward off the headache that's building. Fury is right; he's been right about everything. "I owe them one hell of an apology, don't I?"

"Some groveling may be appropriate." There's the hint of a smile which has nothing to do with amusement and everything to do with what may be relief. Fury shifts forward again, his eye intent on her. "If they care about you as much as they have me believe, they will understand, Natasha. What the Red Room did to you is appalling. You can apologise, but you're not to blame for what happened, and they will see that too."

Natasha nods and swallows thickly. She doesn't quite believe him, not really, but it's got to be worth a shot. She hates herself for the uncertainty she can't seem to shake. There's no reason for her to be so hesitant. Natasha sets her jaw, steeling herself for the request. "Can I see them?"

"That would be… inadvisable," Fury replies with a frown. "We still don't know what triggered your reaction. Both Hill and Barton were there when this started. I can't risk you like that."

"I can handle it," Natasha argues, her chin rising stubbornly. That could very well be a lie, but she meets Fury's eye with enough conviction that she almost convinces herself it's true.

"I'm not risking your life on this," Fury says instantly, shaking his head at her.

"It's my life to risk, Sir."

Fury sighs, but after everything he's been trying to accomplish here, he can't ignore her.

"That it is," he relents. His shoulders slump as he sags back in the tiny plastic chair, studying her. He doesn't seem pleased with the option either way.

That was easier than she was anticipating. At least Fury hadn't made her beg; she's had enough humiliation already, and there's certainly more to come. "I can handle it," she repeats, as much to convince herself as to convince him. "I don't think I'll be in danger anyway."

"We both know you can't be certain of that," Fury argues.

"Of course not." She stares him down without blinking, refusing to acknowledge how disconcerting she finds it that he can see through her so easily. "I know we don't know what the trigger is, but I have a feeling I won't come anywhere close. Not like this."

"I suppose this isn't exactly happy-making," Fury relents. "That doesn't rule out that there aren't any other triggers, but I won't overrule you on this. As you said, it is your life to risk, and I will respect that."

Natasha should probably know better than to push her luck, but her morbid curiosity gets the better of her. "Are you concerned for me, or are you just worried you'll lose your investment if this goes poorly?"

"Can't it be both?" he asks, raising an eyebrow at her.

Natasha surprises herself with a short burst of wry laughter. "Well, at least you're honest. I appreciate that."

Fury snorts. "I think we've both dealt with enough bullshit in our lives that we at least can be honest with each other, no?"

"That's true," Natasha concedes, offering him a small but genuine smile.

"Good," Fury nods his approval. "I'm not going to talk you out of this, am I?"

Natasha smirks. "Not even a little bit, Sir."

"Fine," he sighs and gets to his feet. "Should I send them both in, or would that be too much of a good thing?" Good, of course, is subjective.

"Two against one? I don't think I like those odds," Natasha jokes to stall for time. Barton is probably the safer choice, but she knows she probably only has one shot at this, and playing it safe is not the way to go.

"No, I wouldn't either," Fury allows. "Though, as I understand it, Barton's the only one brave enough to approach Hill at the moment."

The mental image would almost be endearing if Natasha didn't know exactly how formidable Hill can be when she's upset. The thought makes her stomach twist painfully. "Will you give me some time to get cleaned up before you send her?"

"Half an hour should do it?" Fury asks, making no comment on her choice.

"I'll make do," she agrees.

"Alright," Fury nods. He's already moving to turn when he hesitates.

"You'll be fine, Romanoff," he says roughly before turning on his heels and leaving her alone.

Chapter Text

Maria tries to ignore the medic who is giving her weird looks as she stands transfixed, staring at the door to Natasha's room. She's dressed in sweatpants and a tank top, looking very much like someone who'd just spent the better half of her afternoon pushing her body to its limits. Maybe she should have stopped to freshen up before heading down to the medbay, but when the guard had shown up in the gym with a summons to the very spot Fury had been denying her access to, Maria hadn't cared to question it.

Being allowed back in the gym had been Maria's only reprieve the past week as she'd been slowly going stir crazy. No one would tell her how Natasha was doing other than that she was stable and out of danger. For now.

Even Agent Simon had been failing to keep her busy, pawning off mindless tasks any junior agent could do. He'd been distracted himself, and Maria is certain that he's working on something big. If she has to guess, it's something to do with Natasha, but she's been getting stonewalled from all ends on that particular subject.

Training is by far the only thing that's been a challenge, and that's where the guard found her only moments ago. She'd been doing presses, one eye on Becca, who had been running her team through their drills. Becca had been doing a good job, and Maria was satisfied that she'd suggest her to take over in her absence.

The medic clears her throat, pulling Maria out of her thoughts, and right back to the sickbay. Staring at Natasha's door, her stomach a turmoil of… something. The medic has this look about her, a look that Maria knows will mean she's about to ask her if she's alright, and Maria doesn't even want to think about answering that question.

Gritting her teeth, Maria quickly knocks on the door.

The half-hour was both the longest and the shortest in Natasha's recent memory. She'd managed to wash up and change into a fresh set of clothes with plenty of time to spare, but the knock at the door still makes her jump. She stares at the door until she trusts her voice enough to manage a simple "come in."

Maria's hands are sweaty, and she rubs them off on her pants before pushing the door open and stepping inside. It all feels too much, even the glimpse of Natasha she gets before she quickly turns to face the door as she pushes it closed.

It locks with a quiet snap, and Maria squares her shoulders, steeling herself before she turns back towards Natasha. Romanoff. Romanova? She doesn't know which anymore, and her eyes stay locked on the foot of the bed.

At first Natasha can only stare at the woman in front of her. After everything that's happened, she can't exactly be sure it's actually Hill standing on the opposite side of the room. Her face is familiar, but she lacks the color and vivacity that Natasha remembers. Her stance is familiar, too, and just for a moment it's as if the two of them are back in Natasha's cell after her reprogramming. This version of Hill still looks like she'd rather be anywhere else in the world, but she looks exhausted instead of restless like she did all those months ago.

Natasha is painfully aware that every second of silence that ticks by probably brings Hill that much closer to changing her mind and leaving again, so she forces herself to say something. Anything. Anything to fill the silence.

<<Hello.>>

Maria's gaze flicks back to Natasha at the words, and then she's scanning her. It's not even a conscious decision as her eyes shift up and down her body, looking for injuries, for any sign that she isn't alright.

There aren't any. None that she can see, anyway. No bandages or scrapes, but they may as well be hidden because Natasha being out of bed says very little about her state of wellbeing. There must be something, something that's kept her locked in here and away from Maria, something that explains the tired look.

Are you alright? Maria tilts her head, the words on her lips, but she can't seem to get them past the lump in her throat or the tightness in her chest.

Hill's eyes on her body send an involuntary shiver through her, but Natasha doesn't flinch away. She keeps her eyes on Hill's face, searching. The lack of response grates, and Natasha gets to her feet in an attempt to keep from shaking apart.

There's a part of Maria that wants to step forward, that wants to fall to her knees so she can bury her face against Natasha's stomach and just inhale her. There's a part that wants to imagine Natasha would let her, and she'd bury her fingers in her hair and tell her lies about how this will all be okay.

Maria doubts it will be; that's not how her story goes, and she's spent the past week being reminded of that. She flinches back as Natasha gets up, even as her feet stay rooted on the floor.She doesn't quite know why she says what does. She doesn't even know where the words come from or why they're the first thing she seems capable of saying.

<<Do you have any gum?>>

Natasha wants to laugh in disbelief, but her chest is too constricted for that. She just chokes instead. She wants to move closer, to eliminate at least some of the distance between them, but her body feels like lead and her mouth feels like cotton. <<I don't,>> she manages. <<They took it away from me.>>

It's not quite a smile or a grin that curves Maria's lips, and it doesn't reach her eyes, but it's a start. "I don't either. It's in my uniform," she says, her voice hoarse, and she has no idea why they're still talking about gum or why she can't seem to move.

The expression on Hill's face is almost painful for Natasha to look at, and she realizes for the first time that she's in workout gear instead of her S.H.I.E.L.D. uniform. Her eyes instinctively shift to Hill's hands, but to her surprise her knuckles are not as red as she expected. That's something, at least.

"Maria…"

It's almost too much. Maria can feel whatever resolve she has left crumbling at her name. She shudders, takes a step forward, but stops herself because she can't just fall into this. She can't.

"Tell me I didn't make it up," she pleads. She's fucking pleading, and her voice is breaking, making it hard to breathe. "Tell me you weren't playing me."

"You didn't. I wasn't. I didn't..." The words rush out of Natasha, almost too fast for her to really be sure what she's saying. All she knows is she needs to get that look off Hill's face. "It was real. All of it."

"Then why did you leave?" She imagined shouting these words, imagined that after a week of seething they wouldn't leave her feeling so raw and open. She was wrong.

"I had to." It's a pathetic excuse for an answer, but it's the only one Natasha has.

Maria's eyebrows knit together, and there's that spark of anger that's been underneath the surface ever since Natasha left. "You had to?"

Natasha wants to explain everything - wants to sit her down and tell her every detail of every minute that passed since they've been apart, wants to make her understand - but she's at a devastating loss for words. "Believe me, I didn't have a choice."

"I want to," the words are but a whisper. There's more, there's a but and conditions, but Maria can't even think that far as her eyes burn and her throat closes up even tighter. "I want to, Natasha."

Hill's reticence is palpable enough to push back at Natasha as she takes a few steps forward. No longer able to help herself, she reaches for her face, half convinced her fingers will only find thin air. "Maria, I'm so sorry."

Maria flinches back before she's even fully aware of what Natasha's doing. Her back is to the door instantly, her eyes are wide as she stares down at Natasha. "No," she shakes her head. "Not good enough."

Natasha draws her hand back instantly, balling it into a fist at her side. "I don't expect you to forgive me. I wouldn't blame you if you walked out that door and never spoke to me again."

"I'm here, aren't I?" Maria replies, and she watches Natasha's knuckles turn white. It's enough to make her almost regret pulling away; she has a hard time even imagining what Natasha's fingers would feel like on her skin anymore. "If I was going to walk away, I might as well not have come."

"Why did you come?" It's a stupid, counterproductive thing to ask and Natasha knows it, but it's a question she needs to have answered before she can even think of continuing.

"I'm not the one who should be explaining myself here, Natasha," Maria growls. She steps away from the door, careful not to brush against Natasha as she moves to the other side of the bed.

"I know. You're right." Natasha doesn't snap, not quite, but the words are clipped short with desperation. She bites back on it, torn between wanting to reach out again and not wanting to push Hill away any more than she already has. "Where would you like me to start?"

"Why did you leave?" Maria asks instantly, not giving herself time to regret not answering Natasha herself.

"I panicked," Natasha replies, her eyes boring into Hill's. There's no way to make any of the things she has to say hurt less, so she opts to be blunt. At the very least it'll be over sooner. "I convinced myself that nothing that was happening between us could possibly be real."

"You thought I was playing you?" It's not a question, neither is it an accusation. There are too many emotions and too much disbelief for it to be either. Maria wants to break their eye contact, wants to look away to keep Natasha from reading everything that's going through her. She can't, not when all she sees in Natasha is honesty.

"Not exactly. I wanted to believe you weren't in on it," Natasha's voice nearly catches, but she forces past it. "But I couldn't be sure."

"In on what?"

"Manipulating me," Natasha says without missing a beat. "I convinced myself S.H.I.E.L.D. had forced a connection between us, to make sure I couldn't turn on them."

"I wouldn't," Maria protests, her breath catching and she takes a step back from Natasha, increasing the space between them. She needs space to process to words, to fully grasp what Natasha's saying, but the words rattle inside the emptiness.

"I didn't," she adds, her voice softer. "I couldn't use you like that."

"I know that now, but I wasn't exactly in my right mind at the time." Natasha shudders and finally tears her eyes away.

Somehow, Natasha no longer looking at her makes it all that much worse. "What does that mean?" Maria asks, her tone much harsher than she intended it to be.

Natasha flinches and scowls at the edge in Hill's voice. "Have you ever been brainwashed?"

"No," Maria says flatly, frowning at the question, and there's a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that tells her she's not going to like where this is heading.

No, of course not. That was probably a stupid question. Natasha tries again, forcing herself to speak through the growing tightness in her throat. "Have you ever been raped?"

Maria stiffens. It does nothing to put that sinking feeling at ease. "No," she murmurs, her voice rough.

The breath Natasha had been holding leaves her in a rush. Good. Her nails dig into her palms, gripping tight, anchoring her as she tries to find words for what she's thinking. "How would you feel if you thought someone had forced their way into your mind, your body, and left something behind against your will?"

Nauseated is the first word that comes to mind, as it's exactly how Maria feels at the mere thought. "I'd go out of my mind." In hindsight those were perhaps not the best words to pick, but they seem accurate.

Natasha huffs, almost laughing at Hill's unwittingly apt choice of words. "Exactly. That's exactly what happened."

Maria can't even begin to imagine what it'd be like to have thoughts you don't know are yours or someone else's. She tries to picture it for a moment, waking up beside Natasha and not knowing if it's real. That part, at least, is all too easy to imagine, considering her mind has been replaying every moment between them, wondering exactly that.

"You thought S.H.I.E.L.D. created this," she says slowly, motioning between them. "You wanted it to be real, but you didn't know for sure, and you couldn't risk staying in case it wasn't."

"Yes." For a moment, Natasha dares to hope that Hill actually understands what she's talking about. "I was wrong though. S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn't responsible for what happened. At least, not the way I was afraid they were."

"What do you mean?"

Natasha gives her a wry sort of half-smile. "Which do you want to hear about first: how S.H.I.E.L.D. selected you specifically for guard duty, or how they were less than thorough with my reprogramming?" She does her best to keep the bitterness out of her voice, but it's a losing battle.

"The latter," Maria says instantly, taking a step forward. She can't even think about the former; it doesn't seem to matter.

Something about the way Hill answers so emphatically is enough to drain the last of Natasha's resolve to stay standing. She manages to pull the chair into position behind her before she slumps down into it. Her arms fold in front of her, as if that will help get her through this part of the story unscathed.

"I thought I was finally free," she begins despondently, staring at the bed between them. "I thought S.H.I.E.L.D. had gotten them out of my head."

"Them," Maria repeats quietly. She's still frowning, but the anger has faded. She moves closer after a moment, squatting down in front of Natasha's chair to try and catch her eye. "The Red Room?"

Natasha nods slowly. "They're still controlling me, and I had no idea."

"How? How can they?" Maria asks instantly, bracing her hand on the floor as she leans forward.

"It's complicated," Natasha breathes. "That's why I'm in here; the doctors don't know exactly what they did to me or how they did it. S.H.I.E.L.D. was able to undo all of my psychological conditioning, but the Red Room is still controlling me on a chemical level. That's not even supposed to be possible," Natasha spits. Her skin is starting to crawl again, and she draws her knees up to her chest.

"The emergency," Maria guesses. Her fingers are itching, wanting to reach out, but Natasha is withdrawing, and she knows enough that sometimes it's what she needs. "Was it them? I thought Fury might have-" She cuts herself short, and she wishes she'd opened with this question now.

"Fury never laid a hand on me," Natasha assures her firmly. "If it weren't for him I'd be dead right now. Everything that happened - the paranoia that convinced me to run, the 'emergency', as you called it, everything - was the result of a chemical killswitch they programmed into me." Natasha draws a shaking breath and digs her nails into her sides to keep from screaming.

"No." There should be anger behind the word. Maria can feel it boiling beneath the surface, but it comes out broken. It comes out as a denial, because that's not supposed to happen. That's not allowed to happen.

She moves then, before she can think about it, hands reaching for Natasha's, needing to make sure she's alright and alive and there.

Natasha freezes, unable to move except for the words spilling from her mouth. "I didn't have a choice. It wasn't my fault."

"I know that now," Maria says quietly, meeting her eyes. She hesitates before lightly brushing her fingers over Natasha's knuckles, every muscle in her body tensing as she doesn't know how Natasha is going to respond. "I'm so sorry, Natasha."

The touch sends a jolt up Natasha's arm, and she grips Hill's hand like a lifeline.

Maria's breath catches at the suddenness and the strength of Natasha's grip, but she merely squeezes back as she shifts forward to her knees. <<I'm here,>> she murmurs, because everything else is a lie.

<<Why?>> Natasha whispers. "If I were you, I'd run far, far away from me. I'm a time bomb."

"I just spent the better part of a week trying to hate you," Maria admits. She slowly reaches up with her free hand, brushing Natasha's hair back from her forehead. "I spent the other half scared out of my mind for you."

Even if she hadn't made that admission to herself, Maria knows it's true when she says the words. "I don't think I can run away from you."

"You may not have a choice. Fury is pretty intent on keeping you away from me." Natasha grips Hill's hand even tighter, as if holding on can somehow make that less true.

<<I do not care. If you want me here, I will be here,>> Maria says stubbornly. If nothing else, the way Natasha is holding onto her convinces her of it.

She brushes her thumb over Natasha's temple, and the thought that the Red Room still has a hold on her in her mind makes Maria's blood run cold. "What did they do to you?" she whispers, the question soft enough to ignore.

Hill's hand on her face is the last straw. Natasha slips off the chair, practically collapsing into Hill's lap. <<I do want you. I never meant to make you think I didn't. I'm so sorry.>>

The weight is enough to push Maria back, landing her on her ass on the floor. She shudders as suddenly the distance between them is gone, and it's all she can do to wrap her arms around Natasha and pull her in close. She buries her face in Natasha's hair, inhaling deeply. <<I thought I lost you.>>

The moment Maria's arms wrap around her, Natasha buries her face in the crook of her neck and breathes like she's just been saved from drowning. "<<You almost did,>> and until they figure out how to undo what was done to me..."

Maria stiffens, her fingers digging into the fabric of Natasha's shirt. "That killswitch is still active?" she asks, her voice rough.

Natasha nods, still clinging to her. "Very much so. They've been running tests on me for days, trying to figure out what the trigger is, how to disarm it. It's…" Terrifying comes to mind. "... unpleasant."

"Jesus," Maria breathes, and she presses her cheek against Natasha's. Her breath is shallow with anger, and she grips Natasha's shirt tighter, pulling her even closer against her like she might be able to fix it all like that.

"There could be others, too. S.H.I.E.L.D. has never seen anything like this before. They don't know how to fix it, how to mitigate it, or even what will set it off." Natasha's aware that she's rambling, but she has no idea how to stop now that she's started. "I'm still dangerous."

The thought is a chilling one, but right now that's Fury's problem. The only person Maria can think of right now is the one in her arms.

"You've only been a danger to is yourself," Maria argues, shifting back just enough to touch her forehead to Natasha's.

"You don't know that," Natasha argues, but here's no heat behind it. She leans her head against Maria's and shuts her eyes tight. "I could hurt you. I've already hurt you."

"That wasn't you," Maria reminds her, sliding her hand in Natasha's hair, fingers tangling. "Do you still believe I could be faking this?"

"No," Natasha breathes without hesitation.

"Good," Maria nudges Natasha's nose with hers. She brushes her fingers gently over Natasha's temple again. "Whatever happens. Whatever anything in here says, <<I am on your side. I promise, even if you hurt me. I am on your side before I am on anyone else's.>>"

There's no way Natasha trusts her voice right now, so she answers the only way she can. Her hands wind their way into Maria's hair and she kisses her desperately.

Maria gasps softly. Her surprise only lasts for a second, and then she's kissing back. She cups Natasha's cheek as she presses forward, needing more. They've shared a lot of kisses by now, but this is desperate and heavy. It's hungry, and it eases the wrenching feeling in her gut that she didn't think would ever go away again.

After everything that's gone wrong, Natasha can't quite believe this is happening. She was so sure she would never have this again, and yet here they are, sprawled on the floor, clinging to each other as if they can't fully function without the other's touch. The taste of Maria's kiss and the scent of her skin are familiar, comforting, grounding. No one in her life has ever had such an effect on her before. The past several days have been the worst in recent memory, and yet now that they're back together she finally feels wanted after being alone for so long. As she traces Maria's jaw with her fingers her restlessness fades, leaving her content. Though seconds ago she was frantic, it gives way to an unlikely calm as Maria's fingers tug at her hair. As she folds into her arms, even the lingering sense of betrayal abates and she just feels safe.

And then it all shatters as the pieces fall into place. Natasha breaks the kiss with a gasp, her eyes wide.

"I know what the trigger is."

Maria blinks owlishly, her reaction a little sluggish as her lips are still tingling. "What?" She asks before her brain manages to catch up with what Natasha is saying.

Whatever she'd been feeling moments ago disappears, because Natasha had an epiphany while they were liplocked, and that can't be good. "What?" Her tone is completely different now, and her fingers curl in Natasha's hair like she's scared she'll go away again. Or scared of what she might say.

"It's you," Natasha breathes. She strokes Maria's cheek, her mind alarmingly calm. "It's this."

Maria's eyes widen in shock, and she flinches back from the touch, hands reaching up to catch Natasha's wrists, failing to hide the way they're shaking. "I'm triggering your killswitch?" She can't pull away because Natasha is on top of her, but her whole body goes tense.

Against her better judgement, Natasha refuses to move away. "Not right now, no. At least, I think I'm okay."

"You think?" Maria tightens her grip on Natasha's wrist. "I can't risk you, Nat. I should… Do I need to get the doctor? Can they use this to help you?"

"Maria." Natasha meets her eyes intently. "I'll be fine. I just need to think this through."

"Okay," Maria nods, swallowing thickly as she tries to let Natasha's confidence reassure her. It isn't working, but she slowly forces herself to let go of Natasha's wrists, stroking her hands down her arms. "So how does this work? I know the basics of killswitches, but…"

"We knew that a specific combination of chemicals in my brain set off an extreme, ultimately lethal stress response, but we didn't know what the exact combination was or what caused it," Natasha explains hurriedly.

"And you think kissing me creates the right sort of chemical combination to trigger this?" Maria asks, frowning at her.

"Not quite. If it was that simple, I'd have been triggered months ago."

Maria opens her mouth. Then shuts it again, still frowning. "Is it…" She trails off and glances down between them as she forces her mind onto a different track. "They wouldn't want a trigger that'd be pulled easily. It's a failsafe? One that wouldn't occur under normal circumstances for the Black Widow."

"Exactly. It's something that isn't supposed to happen, something that would make me useless to them, a liability." It's sick, is what it is. Diabolical. Natasha stares helplessly at Maria, at a loss for words.

"Can't have a Black Widow who actually thinks she might be happy," Maria whispers, reaching up to cup Natasha's face in her hands. "If I ever get my hands on any of them…"

"It's more than that." Natasha shakes her head and reaches out to cup Maria's cheek again. "Maria, I love you."

"I…" Maria stares at her, completely stunned. The words make her head spin, and she tries to reply, but her voice keeps failing. So she leans forward in a rush and kisses Natasha, kisses like she hasn't kissed her before, kisses Natasha like she's trying to imprint her lips with the feeling that's swelling inside her chest, expanding until she might actually burst.

The sound Natasha makes against Maria's mouth is part way between a whimper and a sob. She wraps her arms even tighter around her, trying to convince herself this is actually happening, that it's not the effects of yet another test.

Natasha's arms around her are familiar - even the way she's holding on a little too tightly, - and Maria wants to lose herself in it. She has to force herself to ease up, her lips lingering as she leans her forehead against Natasha's and draws in a deep breath.

<<I love you,>> she finally whispers, the words a little shaky. She wonders what Natasha will make of the fact that she even knows the words in Russian.

<<I love you,>> Natasha repeats, even though Maria's pronunciation was perfect.

"So it only took you nearly dying because the Red Room are a bunch of assholes to get here, huh?" Maria muses. It's not funny - it's far from funny - but she can't help a breathless chuckle. She presses her lips against Natasha's again. "Fucking hell, Romanoff."

Natasha tucks her face into the safety of the crook of Maria's neck. "I fell in love with you and it damn near killed me," she muses. "How did we end up here?"

"Fury, I think," Maria murmurs as she traces her fingers down Natasha's neck. The amusement fades as Natasha's words leave a bitter taste and a lot of anger she can't aim at anyone. She tries to push it aside and closes her eyes, focusing on Natasha who is there now. "At least he brought you back."

Natasha sits back a little so they can speak face-to-face. "You're more right than you know."

"What do you mean?" Maria asks, only now remembering what Natasha had said earlier about them.

"S.H.I.E.L.D. selected you specifically for guard duty," Natasha recounts. "They wanted me to see there were good people here, people I could trust, and they wanted to see if you had the chops to be my handler eventually. They may not have forced this connection between us, but it wasn't an accident."

"How do you feel about that?" Maria wonders, studying Natasha carefully.

Natasha weighs her answer carefully. "Considering I expected much worse from them, I'm inclined to forgive them. I still wish I had known."

"I can understand that," Maria agrees, brushing her fingers over Natasha's cheek. "Being your handler would have been a bit of a pain," she muses. "I don't think I'm supposed to want to sleep with the people who put their lives in my hands."

"No, I suppose not," Natasha chuckles before settling her forehead against Maria's. "I wish they had told you, too. I can't stand to think that they manipulated you because of me."

"Not that I'm a fan," Maria muses, "but if they had told me, I would have acted differently. If I'd seen you as a potential agent instead of a dangerous prisoner, I would have treated you differently. Tried to connect with you more intentionally. It'd just have made you suspicious of me."

She hesitates and nudges her nose against Natasha's. "I can't help but be relieved they never asked me to manipulate you."

Natasha kisses her again, lightly this time. "You mean maybe if you'd known, you would've been a better guard?" She teases, mostly to see if she still can.

Maria snorts and she huffs in indignation. "I'm getting the feeling the only person who thought I was your guard was me." She looks thoughtful for a moment and strokes her thumb over Natasha's chin. "Fury told you all this?"

Natasha nods. "He told me everything. Upped my clearance to level 10, gave me access to every last file pertaining to my recruitment, the works. I wouldn't have come back otherwise."

"If your killswitch hadn't been triggered," Maria adds quietly, trying not to think too much about how Natasha seemed resolved not to come back. "Did you find what you wanted?"

"More or less," Natasha shrugs. "There's so much information; I'm not finished sorting through it all yet."

"Okay." Maria doesn't ask if it's enough to make Natasha stay, not when it seems that Natasha can't even leave. "What about the programming? Will knowing the trigger help them undo it?"

Concern is etched into Maria's face, and it's almost enough to make Natasha want to lie to her to chase it away. Almost. She knows complete honesty is her only option right now. "I don't know. It might help, but I don't think they can reverse it without the original project notes."

"Which we don't have," Maria guesses, because that's how these things work. It's at least something. "Any way to get them?"

Natasha raises an eyebrow at her. "How do you think?" she asks softly.

"You've been in here for a week," Maria points out, shifting a little and stretching her leg out as it's starting to cramp up. "You can't tell me that's a route that hasn't been considered. If the docs can't do anything, and you need the original files… Even something like the Red Room has to leave traces. Especially something like the Red Room."

"I know. I've been looking." Natasha's brow furrows. "If the records still exist, there are only a handful of ways to access them."

"Like?" Maria prompts instantly.

Natasha eyes her apprehensively. "You sound like you're asking to be debriefed for a mission."

"Is there a mission?"

"Maria…"

"There is." Natasha's refusal to tell her is enough of an affirmation, and this is something she can do. This is something after a week of worrying and doubting that maybe she needs.

"I'm not really authorized to tell you that. I don't know any of the parameters; I'm just trying to find a way in." Natasha grips Maria's hand and meets her eyes intently, hoping to keep her attention.

"I'll talk to Fury." Maria gently squeezes Natasha's hand, trying to reassure her as she leans her forehead against Natasha's.

"Don't."

"Nat," Maria sighs, and she wraps her arms around Natasha, drawing her closer again. "I want to help. If there's anything I can do, I need to do it."

Natasha braces a hand on Maria's shoulder to maintain some space between them. "I mean it. Don't rush into this because of me."

"I can't think of a better reason," Maria says stubbornly. She lets her arms fall away and shifts back a little further to give Natasha space.

"It doesn't have to be you," Natasha argues. "I know you want to help, but getting in over your head isn't the way to do it."

Maria raises both eyebrows at her. "You're just going to have to trust me to not get in over my head, then. This is my job, Natasha."

"We're all in over our heads. I don't even know if the information even exists, much less what it will take to obtain it." Natasha heaves a frustrated sigh, then wills herself to soften a little. "I don't know what I'd do if you got hurt because we're flying blind."

"I understand that," Maria says gently, reaching up again to slide her fingers in Natasha's hair, ducking her head slightly to meet her eyes. "I don't know what I'd do if you end up dying because you care too much about me."

"I've already survived it once," Natasha smirks, injecting more humor than she feels.

"No," Maria shakes her head, unable to let Natasha joke this away. She brushes her thumbs over Natasha's temples, taking a deep breath as she meets Natasha's eyes. "You came to S.H.I.E.L.D.to start over, to be free of them. This was your way out. I'm not letting them keep a hold on you like this. I'm not going to sit back and let them continue to get to you. I'm sure as hell not going to let them use me against you."

Natasha can only blink in amazement as she searches Maria's eyes for some sign that she doesn't mean what she's saying. She finds none. "I'm not going to change your mind about this, am I?"

"No." Maria manages a crooked smile. "I don't have a death wish, Natasha. I never did, and I sure as hell don't now. I'll go to Fury and volunteer, but I'm not going to charge in blindly."

"What if Fury turns you down?" Natasha asks with a slight frown. "You're still injured." And on probation, she adds silently. There's no point in saying it out loud; she'd only embarrass Maria and make her angry.

"I'll just have to be convincing," Maria shrugs a shoulder. She supposes now is not the time to point out Natasha has been in her lap regardless of the pressure she's been putting on the injury. "And I'm healing. No cane, and I got cleared to start exercising again." Light exercises, but those are details, and Maria may have been interpreting that order rather loosely.

Fucking stubborn woman. Natasha shakes her head in defeat, an affectionate smile creeping across her face. "Just don't do anything stupid, okay?"

"I won't," Maria promises quietly, returning the smile. "I've got someone I can't upset by getting my ass shot again."

"You're right, I'm sure Becca would be devastated," Natasha teases.

Maria huffs and rolls her eyes at Natasha. "Don't get smart with me," she grumbles, but there's the trace of a smile curving her lips.

"I'm sorry," Natasha yields, reaching for Maria's hand again. "Bad habit."

Humming softly, Maria threads her fingers through Natasha's and runs her thumb over hers. "I can't judge," she admits. "She was worried about you, by the way. No one was eager to go retrieve the Black Widow, but she volunteered. You have more allies here than the people S.H.I.E.L.D. picked for you."

"How about that?" Natasha muses, her fingers toying with Maria's absent-mindedly. "I've never had so many people in my corner before. It's a little overwhelming."

"A good kind of overwhelming?" Maria checks, trying to fight the smile that's tugging at the corners of her mouth because it sounds good to her.

"I'm not sure. It goes against everything I've been told my whole life." Natasha gives Maria's hand a gentle squeeze to try and take the edge off her statement.

"By the people who did this to you?" Maria asks quietly as she brushes her fingers over Natasha's temple.

"Yes. My whole life I've thought I'm better off alone. It's a hard lesson to unlearn."

"I know it is," Maria whispers, leaning forward to press a lingering kiss to Natasha's forehead.

Natasha lapses into silence after that, willing the moment to last, knowing that it can't. It shouldn't. She's not in any danger of being triggered again right now - she's too unsettled and uncertain for that - but it's really only a matter of time before a medic interrupts them, or someone comes looking for Maria. Besides, it's foolish to stay entwined on the floor like this when there's so much more work to be done before anyone is safe. If Natasha can ever truly feel safe again.

For a few moments more, though, the work can wait.

It's a little worrying watching Natasha go quiet, but they both need this, and Maria wraps her arms around Natasha and draws her a little closer. She knows she can't protect her, even if she wants to, even if she'd do anything to protect her. It's not what Natasha needs from her, but maybe knowing that someone at least wants to is enough.

<<I love you,>> Maria breathes the words into Natasha's hair. Natasha smells like the medbay, and Maria wants to take her back to her apartment and let her shower. She wants to give Natasha clothes that are too big, but make her look warm and comfortable. She wants to see the sunlight catch in her hair rather than the harsh fluorescent medbay lights that make Natasha look so much paler.

<<I love you too. I don't want to let you go.>>

There's so many ways for Maria to interpret the words, and she can't tell which Natasha means. Maybe all of them at once. <<I can stay a bit longer,>> she offers, deciding to deal with the immediate, which she can do something about. <<I can return later.>>

They're so close already, but Natasha manages to nestle a little closer in Maria's arms. <<Thank you.>>

<<Always,>> Maria murmurs before she can think better of it. For a second she tenses at the word, at the meaning, but she quickly tightens her hold on Natasha.

Natasha stays perfectly still, considering the word. "Don't promise me that," she warns gently. "I have no idea what happens next. I don't want you to feel like you have to stay if you're better off walking away from all of this."

So much for hoping Natasha would ignore it and let the remark slide. Maria closes her eyes, trying to ignore the part of her that's embarrassed and wants to pull away.

"I'm not promising anything," she says. "I'm not stupid. I don't control the future. I don't get to decide everything I do. I know that." Every word becomes a little more heated, and she can feel her face heat up, feel the flush creeping up her neck and along her cheeks. She presses her face against Natasha's shoulder, the rest of the words getting stuck inside her throat.

Natasha places a tentative hand on the back of Maria's head, stroking her hair in what she hopes is a reassuring way. It'll have to do; she's sure anything she might think of to say would be the wrong thing right now.

It doesn't help, quite to opposite and Maria pulls back quickly. "I don't- I-" she stops herself. "Is it really such a bad thing that I know I don't want to walk away from you?" She cringes and shakes her head, quickly glancing away. "Don't answer that. You don't need that right now."

Natasha does her best to disentangle herself and shift away from Maria to give her space. She keeps ahold of her hands, though, unwilling to give up a point of contact. "Maria, it's okay," she murmurs. Her voice is steady, even if she isn't sure which situation she's referring to, exactly.

"No, it's not," Maria argues, she doesn't even realise how tightly she's gripping Natasha's hands. "Nothing has been okay since you left!"

"I know. I'm sorry," Natasha insists for what feels like the thousandth time. "Believe me when I say I'm going to make it right. I have to."

"No, you don't," Maria insists, making a face. "It's not your fault, you don't have to make up for what someone else is doing to you."

Natasha frowns. "My programming may have influenced my decisions, but my actions were my own. I'm not just a puppet." There's a harsh edge to her voice. As much as it would be easier to relinquish all responsibility, she can't stomach feeling so damned helpless.

"Fine," Maria snaps, and she wonders how one stupid wrong word got them down to this.

Natasha recoils as if Maria had slapped her. "Don't do that. I'm doing the best I can."

"So am I," Maria points out. Now that Natasha has let go, she moves her hand to the floor and starts pushing up. Her leg has cramped up from the position and the weight Natasha has pushed on it, but she tries to keep her face carefully blank.

Natasha can only stare as Hill gets to her feet. She wants to reach for her hand again, to find the right thing to say, to throw herself at Maria's feet, anything but sitting here under the crushing weight in her chest.

<<I don't want to let you go.>> The words echo in her mind as Maria glances down at Natasha. It tugs at her chest watching Natasha like this, and her expression softens as she holds out her hand to Natasha.

Natasha takes it without hesitation and presses a kiss to her palm.

Maria can feel her skin tingling where Natasha's lips touch, sending tendrils of warmth down her body. "Dammit, Natasha." Her breath catches and she steps closer, brushing her fingers over Natasha's hair. "What am I going to do with you?"

"Be patient with me?" Natasha kisses her palm again, a small self-defensive smile tugging at the corner of her lip.

Maria licks her lips, but she doesn't trust her voice to not break, not when her vision is getting blurry. She nods instead and strokes her fingers over Natasha's cheek.

Natasha gets unsteadily to her feet and raises a hand to Maria's face.

Maria doesn't hesitate as she tilts her head into the touch. It's her turn to press a kiss to the palm of Natasha's hand, and she thinks maybe she really is a fool for this woman.

With a watery laugh, Natasha leans in close and taps her forehead against Maria's. She winds her fingers into her hair and squeezes her eyes shut, willing her knees to keep holding her up.

"What?" Maria asks quietly, nudging Natasha's nose with hers as she wraps her arms around her again, drawing her back against her.

"Nothing. For some reason, things are just easier when I'm this close to you," Natasha admits.

"I know," Maria agrees, rubbing her hands along Natasha's back. The fingers in her hair feel good, and she closes her eyes as well, concentrating on the sound of Natasha's breathing.

Natasha only kisses her in response.

Maria doesn't try to deepen the kiss this time. She merely returns it, taking comfort in the brush of lips and the way Natasha's body leans against hers.

"I can come back this evening?" Maria checks, not sure if she'll be allowed.

"I'd like that," Natasha smiles into the kiss.

"I will then," Maria presses a last kiss to Natasha's mouth, her arms tightening for a moment around Natasha before she steps away. "I'll let you know what Fury says."

"Okay." Natasha reluctantly lets her go. "Will you get them to send Dr. Sen in on your way out? We've got work to do."

"Of course," Maria swallows thickly, not liking the idea of leaving Natasha alone when they might go back to experimenting on her. It's not like she can do anything about it; there are no infinite number of solutions left open to either of them.

"Can I get you anything when I come back?"

Natasha shakes her head. "I'll be fine."

"I'm holding you to that," Maria warns. She nods once as if to confirm that she truly means the words before quickly turning onto her heels before she loses her determination. She can't afford to sit around and do nothing, if Fury's mounting a mission, she needs in now.

Chapter Text

There are ways to go about seeing Director Nick Fury. Maria knows there have to be, but she's never before wanted to actually meet with the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Now that she does, she isn't prepared to waste time jumping through all the hoops it'd probably take to get her face to face with the director.

Honestly, it's almost too easy in the end. All she needs is enough patience to wait out Nick Fury's latest meeting. It lasts much longer than she expected it to, but she's waits, her entire body practically vibrating with everything that's happened. She can't wrap her head around half of it; she can't bring herself to think about the other half. All that matters is that Natasha's life is in danger, and for once, she might actually be useful.

The instant the door opens and Fury exits the meeting room, Maria snaps to attention. "Sir! I'd like a word, Sir."

"Agent Hill." Fury's step falters almost imperceptibly. He allows Maria to fall into step on his good side as he continues down the corridor. "Take a few deep breaths first, Agent."

She doesn't want a few breaths, she wants to get on topic, but she takes a moment to steady herself as her long strides easily match Fury's.

"I want in," she says after an instant. "Whatever mission it is you're running to help out Agent Romanoff, I volunteer."

"Any alleged missions like that would be above your clearance level," Fury says evasively. "Are you sure this is something you want to be talking to me about?"

"Is there anyone better I should be not talking to about it?" Maria demands.

Fury heaves a resigned sigh. He should have known better than to think she'd be easily dissuaded. "Alright, Hill, come with me."

Maria blinks in surprise, not having expected Fury to actually give in so easily. She's not about to complain or question it. "Yes, Sir," she says instantly, not that she wasn't already planning on dogging Fury's every step until he did give in to her.

They walk on in silence. It takes a significant amount of willpower for Fury not to smirk at the way Hill keeps up with him at every turn, following along at his heels like an over-attentive puppy. When finally they make it to his office, he ushers her inside and puts the room on lockdown. "Take a seat, agent."

It's almost predictable how Maria tenses up at the offer. It's hard to tell if it's a personal dislike to being seated in front of a superior, or if it's ingrained into her after too many years in the Army. Right now, she knows it's a futile fight, especially when she's still sore after her conversation with Natasha.

With a small nod, she sits down and waits impatiently for Fury to do the same, her mind already going over the very little information Fury did just give away. "What clearance level are we talking about?"

Fury raises an eyebrow at her and leans against his desk. "Higher than yours. Why don't you tell me what, exactly, you think this alleged mission entails, and we'll go from there."

The height disadvantage is annoying, and Maria sits up even straighter in the chair, her eyes fixed on Fury.

"Data retrieval," she says. That part is easy. "Deprogramming failed, and the Red Room still has a killswitch active. That means other triggers could be active as well. Only way to make sure and to remove them without potentially killing her is to either get the doctors who performed the programming in the first place - I'm assuming that's not an option - or to get all the medical files we can find on the Red Room."

She pauses. "I don't know much about the Red Room, but that's Soviet territory. Russia's not going to admit to having that kind of information, and they're definitely not going to hand it over to us if we ask nicely. So you're working on a mission to get that intel, and I want in."

"Careful, Hill," Fury admonishes. "You're in an exceptionally bad position to be demanding anything right now."

"I know." Nothing in Maria's tone sounds even close to regret, and she raises her chin stubbornly. "Frankly, Sir. I don't care. I'm not even going to pretend that I'm the best you have to send on this mission, but I am the most determined. I will get this done, and I will not let anyone get in the way of completing this mission. Not even myself. If I'm not the person you need, I'm the person you want because you want Romanoff free of this as much as I do."

A pause. "You can put me under arrest after."

Fury nods slowly, considering her words. "Not bad. You come up with that on the fly, or did you practice it while you were waiting to ambush me?"

"It wouldn't do to give away my entire hand, Sir," Maria quips. It comes out much sharper than she thought she had the energy for, but she's going to be grateful for small victories.

"No, that wouldn't do." This time Fury does smirk. "When you're not being a pain in my ass, you're an excellent agent. I'll give you that. But you're not one of our elite operatives. Not by a longshot. What makes you think you'll be of more use in the field than the ops room?"

Because she'll shake apart if she doesn't face this with a gun in her hands.

"I might not know everything there is on the Red Room, but I know enough that whatever plan we come up with here is likely to fall apart when we touch ground," Maria points out. "You know as well as I do that missions like this tend to go FUBAR. You need someone there who can think quick and change plans without needing to fall back on HQ. I can do that."

"Can you keep your head on straight when things go to shit? I seem to recall you saying something about being compromised."

"Like I said, Sir. I won't let anyone get in the way of completing this mission. That includes myself," Maria replies. This question she expected. "We'll go in, get the data, and I'm getting my team and the data back out. Failure isn't an option."

"Failure is always an option, Agent Hill. You know that." Fury's scowl is sharp, but his voice is soft. "Are you really prepared to die for her?"

Maria's smirk doesn't hold much humour. "I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade," she recites, the words still come easy even after all these years. "I might have left the Army behind me, but that's still what I am."

"You didn't answer my question."

"Yes, I did, Sir," Maria argues. She's tired of their positions and she gets up from the chair, pushing it back. "Getting this data is my mission. I've risked my life for many causes less worthy than Agent Romanoff's life."

"A simple 'yes' or 'no' would have sufficed, but I take your point," Fury grumbles, pushing off from the desk to stand face-to-face with her. "How does Agent Romanoff feel about you referring to her as a 'worthy cause'?"

Maria snorts, but she quickly sobers up and shakes her head. "She's not happy, but apparently that's for the best."

Fury gives her a withering stare. "So you're determined to do this thing even though neither she nor I want you anywhere near it?"

"Do you think she'd sit back and do nothing if she was the one causing me to possibly die?" Maria snaps, glaring at him. "I've lost enough people in my life and I could do nothing about it. This I can stop. So yeah, you bet your ass I'm determined to do this."

"Try again, Agent Hill," Fury prompts, not entirely unamused.

Maria stares blankly at Fury before she realises what's going on. It's sheer stubbornness that keeps her from flustering or looking away. "Yes, Sir."

Fury pinches the bridge of his nose and chuckles a little, shaking his head. Then, cocking his head to the side, he meets Maria's eyes directly. "Okay."

Everything about this conversation has Maria flashing back to her first week at West Point, bumbling her way through like an idiot teenager. She's ready to start arguing, to prove that he's wrong and she can do this, the actual reply only barely filters through.

"Okay?"

"Okay," Fury echoes, a wry smile tugging at his mouth. "Get cleared by medical and psych, and then report to Agent Simon. If you're serious about this, I need you fully prepared."

"I will be," Maria assures him, pushing her embarrassment aside. Her hand already rises to snap off a salute, but she catches herself and takes a step back. "Thank you, Sir."

"Don't thank me," Fury smirks, clapping a hand to her shoulder. "I'm still putting you under arrest after."

Maria tenses instantly. It's not much more than she expected to hear, and she nods briskly. "Understood, Sir."

"Okay," Fury repeats. His hand falls away from her arm. "Is there anything else you need to say to me?"

"No, Sir," she replies, looking a little puzzled that he seems to think she might have. It makes her wonder if there's something she should be saying.

Her confusion does not go unnoticed. "Relax, Agent, I'm done interrogating you."

"I'll relax when this is over, Sir," Maria says dryly.

"That's probably wise," Fury agrees. His arms cross in front of him as he fixes her with a sombre stare. "A bit of advice?"

Maria swallows thickly, then nods sharply, uncertain what to expect.

He stares at her for a few seconds more, hoping that she'll listen - really listen - to him. "There are some battles you fight with your head, and there are some you fight with your heart. Picking the wrong strategy can be disastrous, but if you can learn to pick the right one, every time?" Fury stands up a little taller. "You could be unstoppable. That's a skill worth cultivating."

Maria blinks at him slowly, wondering exactly which strategy he seems to think she should be using. There's only one way for her to go anyway, and she nods slowly. "I have to do this."

"I know," he nods, resigned. "I won't stop you. But I will be watching."

"I wouldn't expect any different, Sir," Maria assures him. "I won't let you down."

"Good." He turns away from her then, disabling the lockdown and pulling out a tablet to start notifying the right people. "Now get out of my office. You have a lot of work to do."

Chapter Text

It's the middle of the night by the time Agent Simon insists they all need to get some sleep. Maria wishes he was wrong, but her head is clogged with information, and they need fresh minds to tackle this mission. Besides, she promised Natasha she would see her again, and she doubts 0200 still counts as this evening.

The medstaff at the station gives her an odd look, but Maria merely nods at her, and there's no protest as she pushes the door open and slips inside Natasha's room.

A small smile curves her lips as she finds Clint asleep in the chair beside the bed. Natasha seems to be out like a light, a tablet lying on her chest as she must have been reading when she dozed off.

Quietly, Maria moves to Clint's side and reaches out, squeezing his shoulder carefully.

Clint jerks awake at the touch, and Maria pulls her hand back quickly before he decides she's the enemy. "Just me," she murmurs.

Clint blinks up at her, looking owlish, and he scrubs a hand through his hair before glancing over at the bed. "What time is it?"

"Late," Maria says simply. "Thanks for keeping her company."

"Yeah well…" He trails off and shrugs a shoulder.

He doesn't need to say more; Maria can read it all on his face. She wonders when exactly it happened that she started to be able to read Clint Barton. "I know," she agrees quietly. "You should get some sleep. That didn't look comfortable."

"It wasn't," Clint agrees, rubbing at his neck as he gets to his feet. He's already at the door when Maria calls after him quietly.

"Barton. You should check in with Agent Simon and me in the morning," she says as loud as she dares.

He gives her a questioning look, but he doesn't ask for an explanation and simply nods as he slips out.

Maria sucks in a breath and turns back to Natasha. She's not sure how Natasha slept through all of that but it seems that she did. It seems the stress her body put her through the past few days was enough to knock her out and keep her knocked out despite the movement and noise in her room.

Amused, Maria steps closer to the bed. She carefully picks up the tablet and sets it in the night stand before turning back to really study Natasha, taking in the paleness of her skin and the sharp lines of her face. Natasha doesn't look peaceful; her brow is furrowed even in sleep. The nights they spent in Maria's bed seem impossibly far away now, as far away as the softness that was in Natasha's expression then.

Maria's jaw clenches as she leans down, brushing Natasha's hair away so she can press a soft kiss to her forehead. Everything around her is quiet. Natasha's skin is warm, and the sound of her breathing is comforting. Maria finds her eyes suddenly burning, and she closes them to stop the feeling.

Natasha makes a small sound in her throat, starting to stir. With a soft intake of breath, she twitches herself awake. The frown is still etched on her face as her eyes dart around her, disoriented.

Maria quickly draws back as she notices the change in Natasha's breathing, and she gently brushes Natasha's hair in apology.

"I'm sorry, querida," she whispers, feeling guilty for having woken Natasha up. "Go back to sleep."

Natasha drags a hand across her eyes and groans a little. "No, I'm awake," she insists.

"It's 0200. You shouldn't be awake," Maria argues as she traces the back of her index along the inside of Natasha's arm.

A shiver follows in the wake of the touch, and Natasha takes Maria's hand in hers to keep herself anchored. "I'd rather be awake," she admits softly. "I've only been sleeping when I can't possibly avoid it any longer."

"Now I definitely feel bad about waking you," Maria sighs, leaning down to press a kiss to the inside of Natasha's wrist.

<<So sweet,>> Natasha chuckles. She shifts all the way over to one side of the narrow bed, then pulls on Maria's arm. <<Come here.>>

There's a moment's hesitation, and Maria glances at the door briefly, but she knows she's just kidding herself if she thinks she isn't going to give Natasha what she wants. She squeezes Natasha's hand before letting go and leaning down to pull off her combat boots.

"If we get caught, I'm blaming you," she warns, but she's already climbing on the bed, stretching out beside Natasha.

"So much for our plan to be discrete once we're back on the helicarrier." Natasha repositions herself more securely in Maria's arms, trying not to think about how far away that conversation seems.

"I think it's safe to say any plans we had are well and truly ruined by now," Maria snorts. Her arms tighten around Natasha, and she presses a kiss to her temple.

"Hopefully not all of them." Natasha's hand rests lightly on Maria's shoulder, and her fingers tug at the collar of her shirt.

<<Not all,>> Maria agrees quietly. She inhales slowly and closes her eyes, nuzzling Natasha's temple. She had questions, but they fade into the warmth and comfort of having Natasha this close again, and for just a moment longer she doesn't want to think.

Little by little, Natasha just dissolves into the pattern of Maria's breathing, into her scent, the weight of her arms around her. The tang of disinfectant and the hum of the fluorescent lights remain ever-present, though, serving enough of a reminder of where they are and what could happen if she gets too comfortable. Natasha's stomach knots, and she glances toward the nightstand where she stashed the auto-injector for safekeeping, doing her best to keep her concern as inconspicuous as possible.

It'd be easy to fall asleep like this if it wasn't for the undercurrent of tension, the tightness in Natasha's muscles that doesn't seem to disappear. Maria rubs her thumb between Natasha's shoulder blades like she might be able to ease some of it away with the touch while she draws back just far enough to take in Natasha's expression. "Is this okay?"

"Yes," Natasha says without hesitation. "I want you here."

"And your doctors?" Maria asks with a wry smile. She knows all too well there's a difference between what they want and what they can have.

Natasha frowns despite herself. "Are you going to second-guess me every time we're together? If it was dangerous for you to be here, you wouldn't be here."

Maria blinks in surprise and cups Natasha's cheek in her hand. "It's not me I'm worried about, Nat."

"I know, but my point still stands." Natasha adds a wry smile that's supposed to be reassuring.

It's not really, but Maria nods and shifts forward, resting her forehead against Natasha's. "Can they use the information you gave them?"

Natasha shrugs. "They agree that falling for you probably triggered the killswitch, but that doesn't exactly help us know how to disarm it. The best we can do for now is try to avoid it."

"What? Avoid falling for anyone else?" Maria teases, sliding her fingers in Natasha's hair. "I was kinda hoping we were going to avoid that anyway."

"It's not that simple." Natasha shakes her head slowly, trying to clear away the strange jumble of thoughts without dislodging Maria's hold on her.

"Tell me about it?" Maria asks quietly as she brushes her thumb behind Natasha's ear.

It takes Natasha a while to collect her thoughts; Maria's hands are wonderfully distracting. When finally she speaks, her voice is contemplative, far away. "I don't think it's just about how I feel about you. I think it's more about how I feel when I'm with you."

"Oh."

Maria's fingers still and she frowns as she studies Natasha. She hates how the Red Room took this, took something that makes her curious and a little excited, and twisted it into something that she needs to be wary of. "Like what?"

"Like how when I'm with you - truly with you, just the two of us - I feel so content. Safe." She kisses the underside of Maria's jaw. "Like there's nowhere else I'd rather be."

Maria's breath hitches sharply, and she squeezes her eyes shut. Her hand grips the back of Natasha's shirt as she pulls her closer against her. "I want to kill the bastards who decided they'd rather see you die than feel like that," she says, her voice rough.

Natasha kisses her again, briefly. "Will you get the opportunity?" she asks cautiously.

"Yes." Maria forces herself to loosen her grip, rubbing circles at the small of Natasha's back. "Fury wasn't happy about it, but he let me join the mission. We should be leaving in two days." It feels too long of a wait, but they need to do this right.

The breath leaves Natasha's lungs with a whoosh. She leans a little more heavily on Maria, as if she could keep her there with only her weight. She doesn't trust herself to say anything, so the silence lingers.

It's unnerving, and after an instant, Maria shifts further back, drawing Natasha on top of her. "If I thought for one second that staying here would help you get better, I would," she explains, staring up at the ceiling. "I need to do this, Natasha. Please, understand that."

"I do, Maria, I do," Natasha assures her, stroking her fingertips along her cheek. "I'm just not used to feeling this helpless. I'm not used to needing to be rescued. Even if you're the one doing it."

"Not used to having people who want to help," Maria guesses, reaching up to mimic Natasha's touch. "I can't even begin to imagine what you're going through."

"You shouldn't have to imagine it," Natasha shudders. "I'm sorry you got mixed up in all of this, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't glad to have you on my side."

"Good," Maria murmurs, managing a soft smile and she leans up, pressing a kiss to Natasha's forehead. <<I am not sorry.>>

<<Good.>> Natasha settles her head against Maria's. "Just promise me something?"

"What's that?" she asks, bumping her nose against Natasha's.

"You have to come back."

Maria huffs softly and quickly brushes her lips over Natasha's. "I never had so much to come back for."

Natasha almost smiles against her lips, but it quickly fades. "I mean it. If things go south, get out of there. You have to come back."

There's something in Natasha's tone, something she hasn't heard before. She sees it in Natasha's eyes, and she recognises the look; she's been seeing it in the mirror for the past week now.

<<I know.>> She's not even sure why she keeps switching to Russian now. There's little point in hiding anymore, but there's something about the way it forces her to weigh each word that makes it fitting. She reaches up cupping Natasha's face in both her hands. <<You know I cannot promise that, but I will do everything I can to come back to you.>>

<<Even if it means abandoning the mission?>>

"Don't," the words slip off her tongue before Maria can even fully register the question.

"Maria, answer me," Natasha demands, though it comes out sounding more like a plea. Her breaths start to come faster, but she doesn't back down.

"We get one shot at this, Natasha," Maria reminds her. She tangles her fingers in Natasha's hair, drawing her back down so their foreheads are pressed together and there's barely any space left between them to breathe. <<I will finish this mission. I will come back.>>

"You are more important to me." Natasha is sure Maria would understand her in Russian, but there is no way she is taking any chances. "Don't forget that."

"But being with me could kill you."

<<I don't care.>>

<<I do!>> Maria growls, her fingers gripping Natasha's tighter. She tries to continue, but her tongue is tripping on the words now, and suddenly she doesn't have the patience for it. "I'm not letting them have you. I'm not letting them take you from me. I don't- I can't lose you. I can't be the reason..." She's the one pleading now, or maybe it's praying. She can't remember what the difference is.

"Maria." Natasha takes her by the shoulders and all but shakes her to get and keep her full attention. "I am saying the same thing to you. Exactly the same thing."

Maria curses - it's really the only answer she has - and wraps her arms tightly around Natasha's shoulders as she presses her face against her neck.

Natasha clings back just as fiercely. "I never thought it would hurt this much," she murmurs against Maria's shoulder.

It's a little easier to breathe with Natasha holding on so tightly, and Maria presses a kiss to the crook of her neck. "What does?"

"Love," Natasha replies, almost laughing. "But then, I suppose the pain means this is real."

"It's real," Maria agrees, pressing a kiss beneath Natasha's ear. <<That I can promise.>>

As much as Natasha wants to keep pressing her face against Maria's shoulder, she gives it up in favor of kissing her slowly, full on the lips.

Maria sighs against Natasha's mouth, and she melts into the kiss, grateful to let it say what she can't even begin to put into words.

After a few long moments, Natasha reluctantly pulls away. "You have to come back," she says yet again, unable to help herself, unable to think of anything else.

"It's a search-and-retrieve mission," Maria said gently, brushing her thumb over Natasha's lips. She wants to kiss her again, wants to try to distract her long enough that she stops trying to get a promise that Maria isn't sure she can keep. "We're not going in to take out the Red Room or whatever's left of it. We get the info and get out."

"I know, just…" Natasha trails off with a sigh. She knows Maria is right, but she also knows things are never that simple. There's no point in arguing over it anymore, though. "Just be careful, okay?"

"Always," Maria makes that promise easily, "and I do know, but I also know I've never had this much to come back to. Who else is going to make you pancakes, right?"

That does earn her a laugh, which Natasha follows up quickly with an affectionate punch on the shoulder. <<Jackass.>> It almost feels normal, if only for a few seconds.

Just the sound of Natasha laughing is enough to have Maria grinning, and she's looking rather pleased with herself as she beams up at Natasha. "And yet, you love me."

"That I do," Natasha agrees instantly.

Maria swallows thickly, the smug smile replaced by something infinitely softer. "You were supposed to protest," she says dumbly, like it's only now catching up with her.

Natasha shakes her head, smiling softly. "I did that for months. I don't think I can do it anymore."

"Lucky me," Maria whispers without any trace of irony in the words. She strokes her fingers gently down Natasha's cheek, eyes wide in wonder.

"Stay with me tonight?" Natasha breathes, leaning into the touch.

At least Maria knows better than to question her now, and she nods as she traces her fingers down beneath Natasha's chin, gently guiding her in for a kiss.

"Te quiero," she breathes against her lips.

Natasha hums happily into the kiss. The words still sound strange in any language, but she can't bring herself to care as she settles further into Maria's arms.

The bed is incredibly narrow - under most circumstances it would be too narrow for two - but considering they usually sleep intertwined anyway, there should be more than enough room for one night.

Maria wraps her arms around Natasha again, and she takes a long, deep breath. It feels strange and familiar at once. She tries not to worry about what this can do to Natasha; she tries not to worry about what will come in the morning. "Will you try to sleep now?"

"I'll do my best," Natasha agrees, almost reluctantly. She acknowledges that she should sleep, but she just doesn't want to waste that time. Still, the thought of falling asleep in Maria's arms has its appeal. "Will you? You must be exhausted."

"I'll do my best," Maria echoes quietly, pressing a kiss to Natasha's temple. She's tired, and their cramped position should be annoying, but instead Natasha's weight on her is a comfort. The way their legs are tangled and Natasha's foot presses against her calf is almost reassuring, and Maria sighs with relief.

"Better," she decides.

Natasha hums in agreement, leaning in for another kiss. "Goodnight?"

"'Night," Maria breathes against Natasha's lips. When she kisses her, it's slow and tender, and she can't bring herself to stop as she gently brushes their noses together, and then tilts her head for another delicate kiss.

Natasha bites back a contented sigh. "If you want me to actually sleep, you should probably stop kissing me like that."

Maria huffs with quiet laughter and presses her cheek against Natasha's. She doesn't point out that she should probably stop kissing her like that anyway because it's making heat pool in her stomach, and that's a feeling she should be avoiding right now.

It's only in that instant that Natasha's earlier words seem to sink in. She's not sure why they didn't before, or why it comes backs now, and her arms tighten around Natasha. "Did you really say 'months'?"

It takes a couple seconds for Natasha to process what she's asking. When it clicks, her ears heat up a little bit. "I did, yes."

"That's a long time," Maria observes, a note of wonder in her tone. She presses another kiss to Natasha's cheek in reassurance, and draws back in surprise, blinking. "Are you blushing?"

"No," Natasha answers a little too quickly, burying her face in the crook of Maria's neck.

"You are," Maria realises with a laugh, but she lets Natasha burrow closer and she cups the back of Natasha's head, almost protectively.

"You're adorable." She just said that out loud, and Maria feels like people may have died for less than calling Natasha Romanoff adorable, but she has no regrets whatsoever.

"Don't make fun of me," Natasha grumbles, nipping at Maria's collarbone.

"I'm not," Maria reassures, her breath catching as her body doesn't quite respond like it should to the admonishment. "I don't think I could love you more." She thinks maybe she might have a problem because she likes saying that too much. She didn't think she had it in her to be this sentimental.

Natasha shivers and nuzzles her cheek against Maria's. "Say it again?"

Maria's mouth goes dry at the request, and she turns her head so her lips are brushing Natasha's ear. <<I love you,>> she repeats. She follows the words up with a kiss to her ear, before she hooks a finger under Natasha's jaw, gently urging her back enough so she can meet her eyes.

"I love you."

"I love you," Natasha echoes. "I don't think I'll ever get used to this."

"I know," Maria agrees with a crooked smile, unable to look away. She brushes the back of her fingers gently down Natasha's cheek.

It's a little absurd how Natasha seems to be incapable of doing anything other than kissing Maria right now, sleep be damned.

Maria's fingers curve behind Natasha's neck as she returns the kiss, trying to keep it soft and gentle.

Natasha pulls away with a soft gasp. "We're definitely not going to sleep at this rate."

"Right," Maria clears her throat and she leans her head back on the pillow rather than kiss her again. "We both need to get some sleep, it's been a long... week."

"It really has," Natasha laughs softly. "Now quit kissing me and go to sleep."

It's possibly exhaustion, or maybe her life has just gotten a little absurd, but Maria cracks up at the order, and she tightens her hold on Natasha, trying not to shake too much as she bites her lips together to keep from laughing out loud.

Natasha grips her tight, alarmed for the second it takes her to realize Maria is actually laughing. She doesn't loosen her hold, though, choosing instead to revel in the way Maria's body moves with it. It isn't long before Natasha is laughing herself.

Maria presses a wet kiss to Natasha's ear, still chuckling. She loves the way Natasha's body shakes against her, and her arms tighten around her fondly. "I don't think that's ever been an issue before," she admits. It's followed by a snicker which turns into a snort.

The snort makes Natasha laugh all the harder. "We're gonna get caught. Is this what being in high school is like?"

"According to television," Maria presses her face against Natasha's shoulder. "I'm too old to get caught."

"Sure you are." Natasha rolls her eyes. Her hands thread into Maria's hair and she holds her like that, cheek resting on her head.

The laughter fades, getting stuck in Maria's throat. Natasha's almost too tender, the warmth of her touch slipping underneath Maria's defenses, and her fingers twist in the fabric of Natasha's top as she holds on to her. <<I will come back to you,>> she whispers.

Natasha's breath catches instantly. <<You'd better. I need you.>>

No one's ever really needed her. It's strange to think Natasha would when Maria can feel the strength of Natasha's body beneath her palms. This is just the latest roadblock on Natasha's way, and she'll get through it even if Maria doesn't make it back. Natasha will live, because they're alike in this at least; they're both survivors, but this isn't about surviving.

<<I know. I do too.>>

Natasha only nods; the weight of the words make it hard to breathe. She knows this is not something either of them have felt often in their lives, much less said aloud.

Maria turns her head and presses another kiss to the side of her neck. "Kinda makes me want to kiss you again, though," she admits, smiling against Natasha's skin.

"I know," Natasha smirks. "I also know you probably shouldn't, but I don't really care."

"Tell me when to stop," Maria shifts. It's tempting to just kiss her, but she leans her forehead against Natasha's instead, making sure she's still okay.

"Don't," Natasha breathes, brushing her lips against Maria's.

"Okay." Maria murmurs, so she doesn't. She kisses Natasha until the tension drains from her shoulders, and she's not quite clinging anymore. She kisses Natasha until it's just a brush of lips, their minds and bodies heavy with sleep as they drift off.

Chapter Text

Blip. Blip. Blip.

The monitor in the mission control room tracks the quinjet's steady progression over the ocean and into former-Soviet airspace. Natasha stares down the flashing light, resolutely avoiding the eyes of the rest of the techs in the room, all of whom are giving her strange and slightly apprehensive stares when they think she isn't looking. She feels entirely useless at this point. She's given Agent Simon and his team of tacticians all the information she can, and in a few minutes the op will go dark, and there will really be nothing she can do until Maria and her team make it out again. Even so, she keeps herself occupied, going over every possible scenario she can think of, just on the off-chance she missed something the first hundred-and-some times she's gone over it. Maps, schematics, coordinates, comm lines, everything seems to be five by five.

She checks them again.

In the midst of Natasha's restless pawing through the data on her tablet, Fury comes and stands silently next to her, presumably in an attempt to put her at ease. He raises an eyebrow at her, and she gives a small nod, her jaw tight.

"Coming up on the final checkpoint," an agent reports, focusing everyone's attention back on the screens.

"All systems go."

Agent Simon exchanges glances with Fury, then keys the radio. "Strike Team, what's your status?"

"Ready to go, sir," Maria's voice filters through the comms, crackling with static. "ETA to drop point thirteen minutes. Radar's clear. Awaiting orders, sir."

The sound of Maria's voice over the radio sends a fond but anxious jolt to the pit of Natasha's stomach, but her jaw clenches nonetheless. Negative, she wants to call out. Abort mission, return to base. It isn't worth it.

She stays resolutely still and silent, her eyes tracking the monitors. There must be something they've overlooked, misinterpreted, failed to take into consideration. Try as she might, she can't find a single thing out of place. This mission is as well-planned and expertly-executed, even on short notice, as any she's been a part of with S.H.I.E.L.D. They might just stand a chance.

"Affirmative, Strike Team," Agent Simon radios back. "Proceed to checkpoint. Prepare to go dark."

Maria's voice sounds muffled for a moment as she orders her team to get ready, making them go through the standard checks and making certain everyone knows their target for the operation.

"Everything's set. Transmitting shortwave radio frequencies to you now." It's standard procedure, even if they're not expecting anyone to come rescue them if the mission goes tits up. "ETA to drop point seven minutes. Please confirm Operation Alpha."

"Operation Alpha confirmed," Agent Simon replies.

True to Maria's word, the frequencies appear in the S.H.I.E.L.D. log on Natasha's tablet. Across the room, a tech confirms their arrival. "Comm frequencies logged."

"Classify them. Clearance level 10," Fury orders. "Fully restricted access."

As the tech scrambles to follow the order, a modicum of relief washes over Natasha. The last thing the team needs is to have their comm systems hacked.

Agent Simon and Fury exchange glances, then Simon keys the mic again. "Initiating blackout protocol."

Natasha watches, still as marble, as Simon's team runs through the standard blackout procedure. It's nothing they haven't done countless times before, nothing Maria and her team haven't trained for extensively, even before this mission took shape. Everything is running smoothly, but that does nothing to warm the ice in her veins.

"Vitals monitoring systems going offline in 3 - 2 - " Even though Natasha was expecting it, it still comes as an unsettling shock when the steady pulse of data from each team member flatlines on the screens for half a second before going blank entirely. They aren't dead, she reminds herself. They're just off S.H.I.E.L.D.'s grid.

Next to go is satellite tracking. The tech counts down, and then the quinjet vanishes from their maps as if it was never there to begin with.

The person to terminate communications, essentially severing the last of the team's ties to S.H.I.E.L.D. mission control, is Agent Simon himself. He keys a few commands into the console, then reaches for the mic. "Comms going offline on my mark. Good luck out there."

"Roger that," Maria acknowledges. There's the smallest of pauses, and the next words are meant for just one person. "See you on the flip side. Strike Team signing off."

Natasha clenches her jaw. There's pressure in her chest like she's about scream. She has nothing coherent to say, and the visceral noise that's building inside her won't do anyone any good, so she bites it back, forces it down.

With the flick of a switch, all that's left is the sickening silence of dead air.

"ETA to drop point three minutes," Simon says quietly, his eyes on the clock which is the only active display left now. He shifts his stance, straightening his back and folding his hands behind him. "It should take them an hour to reach the Russian border and another three to reach their target."

It's nothing they don't all know yet, but he turns towards Natasha and Fury. "Nothing left to do but sit tight."

Natasha nods sharply, still unable to trust her voice.

Beside her, Fury steps forward again. "Good work, agents. This room will run on a skeleton crew until the team makes it to the extraction point. Agent Simon has volunteered to take first watch. The rest of you are on call between your shifts." He gives Simon a nod.

"Dismissed."

The room clears quickly at Fury's dismissal, leaving only Simon, Fury and Natasha behind. There is no point in anyone else staying as there are no satellite images or radio frequencies to scan, and all tracking devices have been disabled.

There is only the steady hum of the helicarrier's engines now that everyone is gone, and Agent Simon looks to Fury to see if there are any further orders.

"Agent Simon, if anything out of the ordinary happens - anything at all - I expect to be notified immediately. That goes for the rest of your team, too." Fury stares him down, unblinking.

Natasha is grateful to him for taking this so seriously, for setting the tone with the gravity in his voice.

"Of course, sir," Agent Simon nods. "We have bots in place to scour for any relevant flags that might go up."

It's minimal, the barest they can do in these missions. There is no emergency frequency to scan, no other intel but circumstantial noise coming from general communication channels where no one can detect that S.H.I.EL.D. is listening.

"So now we wait." Fury turns on his heel and heads for the door, pausing at the threshold. "You should get some sleep, Agent Romanoff. I'll alert you if anything happens."

Natasha's back stiffens. "I'd rather stay here, sir, at least for a while. If Agent Simon doesn't object," she adds, shooting him a hard stare that brooks no argument.

Agent Simon meets her gaze, and there's only the barest of traces of his jaw clenching. "There won't be much to do here, but you're welcome to stick around, Agent Romanoff."

"I won't get in your hair," Natasha promises, her voice flat. She settles into the chair she'd spent the last few hours in and swipes her tablet screen unlocked. With one final glance in Simon's direction, she resumes poring over the mission stats and schematics, and Simon turns his attention to the laptop screen in front of him.

Fury mutters something under his breath, but a moment later he takes his leave, his boots ringing out down the corridor. The door seals behind him, leaving Natasha and Agent Simon in silence.

Even with all of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s resources at her fingertips, Natasha keeps cycling back to the same files, the same programs she's looked over countless times over the past few days. She traces the path the team will take from the drop site to the facility, first with her eyes, then with the tip of her finger. She scours the blueprints of the building, remembering the hallways she walked so often, and wondering about the ones that she was forbidden to access during her time there. Of course, that's exactly where the team is headed. The diversion team heading for the armory should have an easier time of it, but none of her expertise will help the part of the team that's going for the Black Widow Project records. Once they breach those doors, they're truly on their own.

She taps into the blacked out systems from time to time, even though she knows it's futile. Vitals, tracking, communications, all are dark. There's absolutely nothing getting through. She's blind and deaf and powerless to stop anything that might befall Maria and her team. The thought turns her stomach and sets her teeth on edge. She's about to lock her screen again in frustration when something catches her eye.

At first, Natasha assumes she's seeing things. She's exhausted, after all, and she's been staring at this screen for far too long. No, there it is again: the slightest of flickers on the comm log screen. A short burst of transmission over what should be dead air. Frowning, she pulls up the specs, trying to figure out where it's coming from and where it's going. It doesn't take long for her to cross-reference the other lines of communication from S.H.I.E.L.D.'s other operations; it certainly isn't bleedover from another system. The signal originates from S.H.I.E.L.D. and is being transmitted to an outside receiver she can't quite get a lock on.

Natasha hardly breathes as she digs deeper, her blood running cold as she realizes the message being sent is in code. No. Not just in code. In a code she recognizes. She flinches as if bitten, and then she jumps from her tablet to the nearest desktop, pulling up the same systems.

"Agent Simon, are you seeing this? We're still broadcasting on the dead comm line. Some sort of encoded message, I think it's-" Numbers, she realizes. Frequencies. The short-range commlink Maria and her team are using to communicate on the ground.

"Fuck!"  

"What is it?" Simon demands, his voice tense. He barely looks at the screen, his attention on Natasha's face as he leans back in his chair. "It's just bleedover, isn't it? Happens all the time."

"It isn't. I checked." Natasha's fingers are flying over the keys, her eyes going wide as if that'll help her see better, see more, figure out what's going on. "I'm going to jam the line."

"No," Simon says sharply, getting up from his chair and moving behind Natasha to look at the screen over her shoulder. "That might alert them that we're on to them. Try tracing it instead."

Natasha studies him for a second. Something is wrong. What Simon is saying makes sense, but her instincts are telling her not to listen. She goes with her gut and jams the signal, then moves to pull up a backlog of transmissions sent over that frequency.

"That was an order, Romanoff," Simon sounds wistful, almost regretful as he moves a step to the side so he's no longer behind Natasha's chair. The next instant the muzzle of a gun presses against the base of Natasha's skull, followed instantly by the sound of the hammer being pulled back.

<<This wasn't how it was supposed to go.>>

Natasha's stomach drops instantly, but she doesn't move. Everything around her goes calm and clear and cold as she tries to wrap her mind around what's happening.

<<Who are you?>> Her voice is a steely growl.

<<Close the laptop and put your hands down flat on the table,>> Simon orders, pressing the muzzle harder against Natasha's skull.

Teeth gritted, Natasha does as she's told, slowly and deliberately.

<<Good, little spider.>> Simon says quietly, his voice much too calm. <<You just made this a lot more complicated than it needed to be.>>

<<Good,>> Natasha seethes, but she doesn't let her voice waver. <<I've had enough of making things easy for you. Who are you?>> she repeats a bit more forcefully.

<<I am your reminder that the Red Room made you, and they can tear you apart again.>>

 <<I don't need you to remind me of that,>> Natasha spits. She doesn't. She hasn't spent a waking moment where that thought wasn't at the forefront of her mind since Fury brought her back. Bracing her hands on the table, she whirls, slipping her shoulders to get her head out of the line of fire and sweeping out her leg.

Simon falls back, reflexively squeezing the trigger even as he attempts to stay on his feet. The silencer muffles the shot, but the sound still cuts through the air, and there's a hole left in the laptop and the desk.

He falls back on the desk behind him and kicks at the chair behind Natasha, sending it crashing into her.

Natasha topples over the chair and rolls with her fall, regaining her feet almost instantly. She kicks out again, aiming for Simon's gun arm. This will be a very short fight if she can't disarm him.

Simon cries out sharply and another shot goes wide, ricocheting off the steel plates in the ceiling, before the gun goes skidding over the floor. Cursing, Simon pulls a dagger from his sleeve and instantly charges at Natasha, slashing at her torso to try and force her back.

Of course he has a blade too. Natasha dodges the swipe, slipping to the side rather than giving up ground. She lets Simon's momentum take him past her, then drives her elbow back into his shoulder.

The push sends him crashing down into the desk which topples over, sending everything on top flying across the floor. The impact drives all the air from his lungs, and he blindly turns around to face his opponent. The knife at least is still in his hands, and he kicks low at Natasha's legs.

Natasha leaps the kick, vaulting over the desk to put some space between them, but Simon is still between her and the door. She needs to get by him. She needs to get out of this room as fast as she possibly can. If Simon's been feeding information to the Red Room, Maria and her team are heading into a trap. With a growl, she dives for Simon, maintaining distance be damned. There are worse things than knife wounds.

Simon stands his ground as Natasha charges at him. The impact of her body sends him toppling down on the remains of the desk, but he brings the knife in low towards Natasha's stomach.

Natasha hisses as the knife glances off her hip. The fabric stops some of it, but the blade nicks her skin just enough to slash a line of pain that slows her down momentarily.

The hesitation is all he needs, and Simon uses the opening to slam his arm into Natasha's torso, bringing her off balance. Her back hits the floor hard, and he drives his knee into her stomach and brings the blade down to stab at the crook of her neck.

The weight of Simon's body pinning her to the floor greatly restricts her mobility, but Natasha desperately tries to throw her arm across her body, praying the knife will slash her shoulder and not her throat.

She braces for the pain, but it never comes. She breathes hard, trying to make sense of what's happening as Simon is lifted bodily and thrown a fair distance across the room.

A scowling Nick Fury stands above her, his nostrils flared. "What the goddamned hell is going on?" he bellows.

Natasha manages the words 'sleeper agent' and 'trap,' her eyes pleading with Fury to understand her.

"Have I mentioned that I don't approve of either of those things? Especially not in my fucking organisation," Fury growls as he stomps over to where Simon lies unmoving on the floor.

Before he can so much as bend over, Simon suddenly rolls to his back, the gun he'd lost earlier is back in his hands and aimed squarely between Fury's eyes.

"Back off," Simon commands.

Natasha stares in awe as Fury doesn't answer - doesn't so much as put his hands up - at Simon's command. He does stop advancing on Simon in favor of stepping between Natasha and the gun. Natasha takes full advantage of the opportunity to get to her feet. Her eyes dart around the room, looking for some way to subdue Simon without getting Fury shot.

<<Move where I can see you, Romanova,>> Simon orders as he slowly rights himself. <<Or I swear I'll put a bullet in his brain now.>>

<<She doesn't answer to you anymore,>> Fury growls, as dangerous as Natasha has ever heard him, which surprises her more than the fact that he's speaking Russian.

Despite Fury's good intentions, Natasha steps out from behind him, her hand brushing his forearm for a moment in reassurance or thanks. Hopefully she'll have time to figure out which when all of this is over.

<<We all answer to the Red Room.>> There's the barest hint of desperation to Simon's tone before he steadies himself. <<You know how this ends, Romanova. Even if you kill me now. That mission is never going to succeed.>>

Simon nods towards them both. "Step back. Backs against the wall."

The two of them stand their ground. <<You underestimate them,>> Natasha say simply. She takes a slow step forward, her eyes locked with Simon's.

<<And you overestimate us.>> Simon changes targets, cocking the hammer back as he aims the gun at Natasha. <<You cut the signal. They know everything. Now back off, or you'll be dead even before they are.>>

<<You won't kill me. I'm too valuable to you.>> Natasha is mostly bluffing, but it makes sense. Simon had plenty of opportunities to take her out before now. His threats barely even register to her. Maria is in danger; she needs to get out of here. She needs to do something.

She takes another slow step forward.

Simon sneers at her. <<None of us are valuable to them. They'll discard us without a second thought. They'll just make certain to break us before they do.>>

He gives no warning this time; his aim changes back to Fury, and a sharp pop follows as he shoots.

Fury staggers and swears violently as the bullet lodges in his arm.

Natasha reaches out, but Fury has already sprung into action. He tackles Simon with a speed that belies his build, using his entire weight to drive Simon back, gun be damned.

"Go!" he bellows, and though it drives all the air from her lungs to leave him, Natasha dives for the door. She doesn't spare even a millisecond to look back as she gains the hallway; she takes off for the flight deck as fast as her shaking legs can carry her. The whistle of two silenced rounds reaches her as she rounds the corner, but still she runs.

They've lost too much time already.

 

Chapter Text

I have a bad feeling about this.

Maria's seen enough movies - hell, she's lived through enough - to know that you're not supposed to voice these thoughts, but that doesn't mean she can shake them. She tells herself it's the same nervousness as always, it's what is at stake that's had her on edge for over a week now. None of it helps, and she listens blankly to Hawkeye as he relays the positions of the guards to her.

It's all like planned, everything fitting perfectly into the place they expected it to, and it's enough to set Maria's teeth on edge. Nothing should go exactly as planned. There should be deviations. There should be something off. There isn't, and she doesn't like it.

"We're changing targets," she announces. Clint raises an eyebrow at her, but he doesn't argue. Becca just looks expectant, waiting for orders like the good soldier she is.

Maria nods and pulls out the blueprint. "Scratch alpha, we're going for gamma." She places the map on the ground between them and meets Becca's eyes. "Mission objectives, LT."

Becca glances down and touches the map, indicating an area that is on the opposite end of the compound from where the armory they were originally planning to target is. "We hit the depot. There should be guards placed here, here and here." Becca touches the points on the map. "We take the north side. There's an entrance here, make our way through the building. We'll place explosives along the way." She traces the path on the map, taps the spots that should be vulnerable and where the explosives should damage the stability of the building.

Like the armory plan, this one is meant to draw attention. The risk to Becca's team is greater, but by the time they're noticed, her team should be pulling out. Unlike hitting the armory, where getting inside would have drawn the most attention. The new plan is louder, but safer. At least, Maria hopes it will be.

When Becca finishes explaining their evacuation route, Maria looks over at Hawkeye. He rolls his eyes, but takes over. "I take up position here," he touches the map. It's high up on the roof where he can keep track of Becca's team. "The instant you are in, I rejoin Agent Hill and we make our way into the building using this entrance on the second floor. We make our way down and wait for the explosions. That should give us time to break into the main medical labs and find the data we need."

It'd better. Maria listens to the rest of Hawkeye's explanation and nods in satisfaction that everyone seems to be aware of their orders. "Any more questions?"

Becca and Clint shake their head and Maria pushes to her feet. "Good. Let's do this. Synchronise watches."

 

"You're clear, Strike Team." Hawkeye's voice crackles through the radio.

Maria can only just make him out from his vantage point up on the roof of the compound. Becca and her team are out of sight, but she can follow their progress on the radio. She hates this part, sitting and waiting as others work, and her eyes move up the building, looking for the drainpipe Romanoff told them would provide enough handholds to get them up to the second floor.

"One guard neutralised. Ready to head in."

"Hawkeye?"

"All clear."

"Permission to continue, Strike Team. Hawkeye, make your way back."

The acknowledgments follow instantly, and the radio goes silent again. Maria is left waiting, but not for long as there's the sound of a bird whistling. Maria responds, and a moment later Hawkeye joins her.

They don't need to speak. Their target is clear, and they cautiously approach the compound, heading straight for the drainpipe. Maria goes first. The pipe is rusted over in places, but all too soon she's up on the second floor.

The window is a single pane, and Maria cuts a hole through it easily enough. A moment later she tumbles into the empty room, crouching down and listening carefully for any sounds that might indicate they heard her.

"You're up, Hawkeye," she murmurs, tapping on her radio. She moves towards the door, trying to ignore the room around her. She fails. It's obviously a bedroom, long abandoned now. The bunk beds have no mattresses, but they look clean, like someone recently came in to tidy up. There's a sink and a speckled mirror on the other side of the room. It's tiny, no closet space. Room for a desk, but there's none.

Maria wonders if this is where Natasha lived, if she snuck out through the window a lot. She pushes back the thought. There's no time for this, no time to think about how the bedrooms are in the same wing as the medical labs.

Out of the corner of her eye she sees Hawkeye come up. She doesn't wait to see him enter the room before she quietly opens the door, sticking her head out to check if the corridor is clear.

"Wait," Hawkeye hisses. He's still peering intently out the window they just climbed through.

Maria draws back, sliding the door closed again. She looks over at Hawkeye, raising an eyebrow in question.

He frowns slightly, then shakes his head, partially for Hill's benefit, partially to clear his thoughts. "Sorry, I thought I saw movement behind that window over there. If it was anything, it's gone now. This place gives me the creeps."

"Seconded," Maria makes a face, and if she hadn't been on edge before, she is now. She listens for a moment longer, but there's nothing to be heard, and they're just wasting time.

"Let's move," she decides, opening the door once more. The corridor is still empty, and she slips outside. The hall feels more like one in a hospital than one where someone would live. It does nothing to help with the creeps.

Maria raises her gun as she slowly starts forward, trusting Barton to be right behind.

After checking to make sure the door will not lock behind them, Clint slips it silently back into place and follows Hill down the hall. This wing of the building is supposed to be deserted - it certainly feels deserted - but he keeps his bow trained on the far end of the corridor, covering their six.

If Maria believed in ghosts, she's certain this place would have them. Everything is quiet - much too quiet - and she almost wishes an entire squad of Red Room agents would jump out of one of the doors just so the sound of gunfire can distract her.

They don't. They're left completely unchallenged by the time they reach the stairs. She tells herself this is a good thing, everything is going according to plan, but it does little to put her at ease. Not that she should be. Not here.

She checks with Barton again, making sure he's still with her before heading down the stairwell. She hopes the strike team is having as easy a time as they are.

The hairs on the back of Clint's neck rise as they head down the steps. The apprehension is almost enough to make him reach out to stop Hill's descent with a hand on her arm, but he resists. "This seem too easy to you?" he wonders aloud. "No offense, but your missions never run this smoothly."

Maria stops and turns to face Clint, her gun trained at the corridor they just left while Clint covers her back. "Why do you think I changed plans?" she grimaces. "We usually don't have Widow on our intel." It feels wrong to say Natasha's name here, a name she took when she left the Red Room.

"Yeah, but…" Clint scrunches his nose and shrugs expressively, hoping Hill will take his meaning.

"I know," Maria breathes. Her grip on the gun tightens, and she turns back to face the way they were heading. "We need that intel." And they're not pulling out because this place is giving her the creeps.

Clint only nods sharply and goes back to covering the steps behind them. The sooner they can bust into the medical labs, the sooner they can get the hell out of here.

The quiet murmur of voices reaches them by the time they make it to the first floor. Maria carefully leans over the railing, glancing down briefly. She holds up two fingers at Barton, indicating the sides where the guards are standing. Then points to the left and towards Barton before indicating herself and the right.

She waits until Clint slides into position beside her, then starts counting down on her fingers. They move as one. The quiet pop of her gun feels much too loud, and she holds still, waiting to see if anyone else will come running as their targets lay crumpled on the floor, one with an arrow sticking up from his back.

Clint meets Hill's eyes, his expression grim, before approaching the bodies. It's little comfort to know there are indeed enemy agents here, especially as these two are the only ones in sight. He takes the arrow by the fletching, unceremoniously yanks it out of the guard's ribcage, wipes the head on his pant leg, and nocks it again. No sense wasting ammo and leaving such a distinct calling card until he absolutely has to.

Maria drags the other guard out of the doorway and a little more out of sight. There's nothing to be done about the red mark he leaves behind, but at least it won't be visible unless someone gets really close.

Two lives, and it still feels too easy. She moves to the side of the door again, listening for other noises. There's the faintest sound of classical music playing down the hall. More guards, no doubt, but their target and the labs are one floor further down. With luck, they'll be out well before these guards realise what's up.

"More guards," she mouths to Clint. "I say we move on."

"Avoid the creepy music," Clint nods, "Good plan. After you." He motions back toward the stairwell, already bringing the bow up to cover them again.

"Strike Team is in position." Becca's voice crackles over the radio, but the static does nothing to cover the trepidation in her voice. "Agent Hill, something's wrong."

Maria bites back a curse and instantly thumbs on the comm, coming to a halt at the top of the next flight of stairs. "Report, Strike Team."

"There's no one here. I know this place is supposed to be running on a skeleton crew, but this is uncanny. We've got eyes on one set of guards, but they're the only ones we've encountered since we breached this wing."

Maria glances at Barton, checking to see if he's thinking the same that she is.

"Acknowledged. Continue setting the charges as planned. Change to fallback plan beta." No meeting up. The Strike Team will be headed directly to the evac point.

"Copy that. Hold on… The guards just abandoned their post. Something must have come in over their comms. They just left! I think they're headed your way."

"Noted. Scratch plan and fall back," Maria orders. "Confirm."

She never gets an answer as suddenly the radio seems to explode with noise. Maria winces and pulls the earpiece out, she can still hear the whistling, but there's no time to check the other channels and see if it's still working.

"Double time," she grits out to Barton, starting down the stairs with a new sense of urgency.

Clint yanks his earpiece out and wastes no time following the order, all senses on full alert. "What the fuck is going on, Hill?"

"They know we're here." Saying the words out loud brings a strange sense of calm. The instant Maria's feet touch the landing, she runs forward. Her shoulder slams into wall beside the door, and she waits just long enough for Clint to take up position on the other side before she opens the door.

It's still clear. So far. Not for long. It doesn't matter, they'll use the time they have. The room they need is at the end of the corridor. A lifetime away, but close. So fucking close.

"Shit. This is bad." Clint barrels after her, caution be damned. "How?"

"Comms? Fuck if I know." It doesn't matter.

They're at the door now. White and steel, dented and worn with age. Maria kicks her foot into it and it slams open, a loud bang resonating through the hall.

The men behind the door don't look startled at all, and it's all Maria can do to dive behind the nearest desk as the agents open fire at them.

Clint swears again as he follows close on her heels. He looses three arrows in the time it takes him to reach cover, but they hardly do anything to reduce the rain of bullets headed their way. He glances back toward the door, but it's already slammed shut and heavily guarded.

"Don't shoot the computers," Maria grits out. She takes out the agent trying to flank them, then moves up and sends a volley of shots around before ducking back behind the desk. Bullets fly over her head, leaving holes in the wall behind her, and she swears.

"Got any of those trick arrows?" Maria shouts at Barton.

"At this close range? I'd either fry the equipment or knock us both out too." He draws a pistol from its holster and joins Maria in keeping the men around them at bay for as long as he can.

Maria curses, but there's no point in arguing. They walked into this. They had no choice but to walk into this.

There are too many of them, and there's no way out. She slaps another magazine in her gun and moves to the edge of the desk. "Cover me," she orders Barton.

"What are you going to do?" Barton's already moving into position as he asks, but he doesn't bother to hide his apprehension.

"Divide their attention." Maria moves to the edge of the desk, staying low so they can't see her.

"Now," she hisses as she dives across the gap to roll behind the other desk. The instant she reaches her destination, she pushes up, taking aim over the desk. Some of the guards are too slow to face her, leaving them open for her to shoot.

Clint takes out a few of the men who do follow her movements, but he reaches the end of the clip before he can get off any more shots. "Fuck!" He reloads the last of his ammo; guns really were not plan B or even C for this mission.

Maria quickly glances to the side when she ducks back behind cover, alarmed and worried that Clint is hit. She quickly realises what's going on and pulls her handgun from its holster, sliding it and a magazine across the floor towards Clint. As long as she sticks to short bursts, she should have plenty of ammo to deal with the rest of these guys, at least.

Another burst of fire, and any advantage she had from the change in position is gone. She moves to the other end of the desk and hand signals towards Barton for him to cover her once again.

It takes Clint a moment to get his gear in order, but he's back in action soon enough. He provides cover and takes stock of their situation. The air is thick and cloying with gunfire and blood, and it's hard to tell whether they're making any headway. He grits his teeth; why can't he be on the roof for this part? Things are always easier from a sniper's post. They're still alive - for now, anyway - and he intends to keep it that way. He squeezes off another round.

Clint's fire draws enough attention, and Maria rolls behind the next set of desks. She's almost behind the guards now. Her move hasn't gone unnoticed, and the minute she's in sight, a bullet whistles past her head. She flinches, but she can't give them a chance to find better cover.

There's only one guard left standing when the bullet hits her square in the chest. The impact knocks her off her feet, like someone took a baseball bat to her sternum.

"Hill!" Clint drops the last guard with a quick, clean shot. There's no time to help her until the room is secure, though, so he leaps over the desk and examines the door. The latch is busted from when Hill kicked it in, but it's easy enough to shove the nearest desk in front of it. It's heavy, hopefully heavy enough to serve as a barricade long enough for them to get the intel and figure out how the hell they're going to get out of this one.

When he's satisfied with the impromptu fortifications, Clint moves to Hill's side. "Don't be dead, don't be dead, don't be dead…"

"Not dead," Maria groans, already starting to push herself up. The kevlar stopped the shot, but that doesn't stop all her ribs from aching. "Fuck, I hate getting shot."

Clint eyes her warily. "Anything broken?"

"Don't think so." She puts her hands on his shoulder, using him as leverage to get off the floor. She's winded, but that doesn't mean anything's cracked. It doesn't even matter; they don't have time for this.

"You keep an eye on the door?"

"Yeah, okay." Clint winces as he watches Hill get her bearings, but he moves into position without another word. He nocks an arrow and aims it at the door; if anyone so much as cracks it open, he's got a clear shot at their ribcage. Or their eye socket, if they're really short.

Some of the workstations have been shot up, but Maria finds one that's still up and running. She fumbles for the flash drive, taking a moment to be grateful for how sturdy R&D made these things. She almost wishes Natasha were here for this, but the techs assured her that all she needs to do is pop in the device and it will do the work for her.

"Come on," she murmurs, restlessly rubbing at her chest as she watches the display go dark. A moment later, code runs across the screen faster than she can read. It's only when she gets a Downloading files message that she breathes a little easier.

Clint spares her a glance over his shoulder. "You get it?"

"Downloading," Maria growls, glaring at the screen as it's going slow. That has to be good, if there's a lot of information that means it might be enough to help Natasha. It doesn't stop her from moving restlessly, tapping her fingers against the desk. "Still clear?"

He gives a curt nod. "So far. I could do with a bit more action. It's too quiet. Again."

"I don't think that will last," Maria says soberly. She glances over at him. "You good on ammo?"

"For the time being. We need an exit strategy." The sound of voices drifts through the door from down the hall. "That'll have to wait, though. We've got company."

Maria swears as the program hasn't even reached 50% yet. She takes cover behind the desk, aiming her carbine at the door. She holds her breath as she waits, muscles tensing, and her finger moves to the trigger at the sound of combat boots pounding down the hall.

Someone slams into the door from the other side. The crash echoes through the room. The door barely budges, but the desk against it scrapes against the floor. Clint drops his bow in favor of lunging toward another desk.

"Quick, help me block the door some more!"

Maria runs across the room, picking up the other end of the desk so they can haul it towards the door. With a grunt, they haul the desk on top of the other one. The instant it's on top, Maria puts her back against them.

The pounding on the door continues, interspersed with gunfire. The door is heavy enough to block the bullets, but it won't stay intact for long at this rate. Instinctively, Clint scans the room for an air vent, a drainage grate, anything that might spell out an exit route once the data transfer is complete, but his search comes up empty. They're well and truly trapped.

"Got any ideas?"

Maria tries not to flinch at the sound of something heavy thumping against the door. She's shoved forward, pain shooting through her chest, but she shoves right back as her eyes scan around.

"No. The floorplans were clear. There was only one way back out of this room," she tightens the hold on her gun. "Let them open the doors and let them swallow a grenade."

Her eyes come to rest on the desk and she wonders if the download is finished. So close. They're so close, they can't fail now.

Muffled shouting joins the ruckus in the hallway. The frequency of the gunshots increases dramatically, and the barrage against the door stops, to be replaced with an odd series of scrapes and thuds. With a crunch audible even through the barricaded door, everything falls unsettlingly silent.

'The creeps' doesn't even come close to it anymore. Maria swallows nervously and glances at Clint. "Becca?" she mouths. It's the only explanation there is, but the silence is unnerving, and she doesn't want to give them away in case it isn't the strike team.

In the silence that follows comes a sharp knock at the door.

Maria pulls away from the door, turning to train her gun at it. "Archer," she calls, waiting for the countersign.

"Lancer," comes the response from the other side of the door.

Maria's eyes widen as that is most definitely not Becca's voice. It's hard to tell, but the voice is too familiar, and it makes no sense. None at all. She instantly lowers her gun, charging forward to pull the top desk down and out of the way.

Eyes wide, Clint steps between her and the door. "It could be a trick."

Maria shakes her head, but she stops, her hand still on the desk. Think, Hill.

"How do you pick up a date in Russian?" she calls, flushing a little and trying to ignore Clint looking at her.

<<Do you have any gum?>> The answer is immediate, followed by the slap of a palm against the door. "Open the door, <<Jackass,>> we don't have much time."

"That's Natasha," Maria growls, pushing past Clint and tugging at the desks, sending the top desk crashing to the side. It makes no sense, but for all she knows reinforcements are coming and she is not going to listen to Natasha fighting off another squad of guards on her own. She's nearly frantic by the time she can pull the second desk aside to open the door.

The moment the way is clear, the door swings open and Natasha freezes on the threshold. Her eyes sweep from Clint to Maria and back, disbelieving. "You're alive."

"Of course." Maria finds herself glaring and she reaches for Natasha's arm, dragging her into the room so Clint can close the door behind her. "What the fuck are you doing here, Romanoff? You shouldn't be here!"

Natasha winces at the pressure of Hill's grip doing into a fresh bruise, but she ignores it in favor of gripping Hill's arm just as tightly. "You went dark. I couldn't warn you. I had to do something."

"Warn us of the ambush we just walked into?" Maria hazards a guess. She can't quite believe that Natasha is here - the very place she didn't want Natasha to be - but Natasha's hold on her arm hurts and grounds her in the moment. Her eyes rake over Natasha's face, but it's too dark to make out much of anything. Something in Natasha's eyes gives her pause, though. "What's going on?"

"Simon set us up," Natasha grits out. She swallows back the bitterness in the back of her throat and throws a glance at Clint. "They know all your plans, backup plans, everything. We're going to have to improvise."

Maria and Clint's curses are almost instantaneous. Maria squeezes Natasha's arm before letting go and heading back to the computer to check on the download.

"Fuck. That explains some things at least." Clint grimaces and he opens the doors just enough to look through and make sure the hall is still clear. "I guess we should expect-"

"Goddammit!" Maria snarls at the screen, glaring at it like she might get it to say what she wants it to if she just keeps it up long enough. "They blocked us."

That's not surprising, but it's certainly a complication they don't need right now. Natasha nudges Hill away from the console and hits a few keys. "Let me see what I can do. What's the status of the rest of your team?"

Maria moves a step behind Natasha, giving her room to work. She glances over at Barton for a moment, recognising the look he's giving her. "They should be on their way to the evac point." If Simon went traitor, there's a good chance they'll be cut off. Unless the Red Room is focussing on them, but the silence outside their door doesn't bode well for that. "We can't make contact. They're jamming our frequencies."

No surprises there either, but Natasha swears under her breath. Her fingers fly over the keys, bypassing firewalls just to run into new ones. She swaps out the S.H.I.E.L.D. issues flash drive for one of her own and tries again. "I think it's safe to assume it's not your team they're after," she mutters.

"No," Maria agrees, not that this means her team is safe by a long shot. Her eyes are fixed on Natasha, however, taking in the way her shoulders are tensed as she types furiously. No. The person they're after just walked right in and put herself back into their reach. You shouldn't have come. She bites back the words, replaces it with a string of curses, her knuckles turning white as she tightens the grip on her carbine.

"There!" Natasha lets out the breath she'd been holding as she finally gains access to the data she's looking for. As far as she can tell it's all here, all the records and notes and raw data going all the way back to the Black Widow program's inception. There's far too much to sort through to pick out just the files they need, but there's no way they can risk leaving something essential behind. They'll have to take it all and let S.H.I.E.L.D. sort it out. Natasha wonders briefly if Fury will give her access to these files too. She wonders if she is even capable of seeing what's inside and walking away with her mind intact. The thought sends a shudder down her spine, and she shifts backward in the chair, resting her shoulders against Maria's hip as the data transfer begins. "This might take a few minutes."

Maria slowly exhales and without thinking she lets go of her gun, resting her hand on Natasha's shoulder and squeezing a little too tightly. "Good work," she murmurs in a tone that's usually reserved for anyone on her team.

"We still clear, Hawkeye?" she asks a little louder. "I'm guessing we're pissing them off right about now."

"So far so good. I don't like it."

Natasha doesn't either. "It's a long shot, but it's possible Simon couldn't warn them that his cover was blown. It's possible Fury bought us some time." Natasha concentrates on Maria's hand on her shoulder and tries not to think about what the price of that time might be.

"You don't know," Maria realises, her fingers curl in the fabric of Natasha's suit. "What happened, Nat?"

Natasha's brow furrows, her shoulders sink, and her voice goes monotone. "After the blackout, I noticed an outgoing transmission that should not have been on the air. I jammed it, and Simon attacked me."

Clint glances over from his position at the door, his expression dark. "That's one plot twist I didn't see coming," he grumbles.

If Natasha didn't, Maria doubts anyone of them could have. There's the slightest change in her stance as she processes the words, her hip pressing a little more solidly against Natasha's shoulder. She tightens her grip, resisting the urge to kneel down and check Natasha over. "That was hours ago."

"He shot Fury," Natasha murmurs, as if that's an answer. "And then Fury held him off long enough for me to get away and come after you. I don't know-" she trails off, her throat tight. It's difficult to resist the urge to tap at the keys; it won't help the data transfer any faster.

"You weren't able to get back into contact with the helicarrier?" Maria asks. She can feel the tension in Natasha's body and she rubs her thumb over her shoulder, knowing it isn't enough.

"It wasn't worth the risk. I didn't want to put anyone else in danger." Natasha's mouth goes dry at the thought. She knows she acted rashly, knows she let her fears get the better of her, but she made her choice.

To her relief, Barton gives a sharp nod. "No sense in alerting the rest of the ship to the mole until we know whether there are more."

"Exactly," Natasha says grimly.

Clint lets out a whoosh of breath, rubbing the back of his neck. "I've worked with Agent Simon for years. I never would have guessed... are you sure-"

Natasha pierces him with a sharp stare. "Trust me, Barton, I'm sure."

"For an organisation that's supposedly dead, they had an agent pretty damn deep into the ranks of one of the most powerful forces in the world," Maria frowns. "They gave up a valuable asset in order to get to you."

"You don't make it that far up the ladder just to get to one target," Natasha muses. "Simon must've been a sleeper agent in place for years. I can't believe I never spotted him," she seethes, leaning her head back against Maria's stomach. The odd look Barton gives the two of them grates, but she can't bring herself to care right now. She needs the contact, the reassuring warmth of Maria's body.

"A sleeper agent in the middle of a secret organisation, working right under the nose of Nick Fury. You're not the only one who missed him," Maria says gently. She lets go of Natasha's shoulder, brushing her fingers lightly over her hair instead. She ignores Clint by glancing at the screen, wishing the download to fucking hurry up so she can get Natasha out of this place.

Natasha concedes her point and tries to let some of the tension out of her body. Even with Maria's fingers in her hair, it's a difficult task. The stretching silence and the seemingly interminable stream of data flashing by on the screen in front of them set her on edge. Finally, Barton breaks the silence with an awkward cough. "Not to interrupt, but shouldn't we be coming up with an exit strategy?"

Maria snorts and she pulls her hand back. "Any thoughts?" She asks Natasha. "I'm assuming all the planned exits are out." She grits her teeth. "An alternative route out of here would be nice. All they have to do is choke us off on those stairs."

"I have a few ideas that weren't in the original mission logistics. It'll be tricky, but if we move quickly we stand a chance."

Maria sucks in a breath. "Walk us through your plan."

Chapter Text

Even after all these years, Natasha knows these halls like the back of her hand. She slinks along on silent feet, all too conscious of Clint and Maria following close on her heels. The cognitive dissonance of having them here, these two people from a whole other life, is distracting, like the nagging feeling that there's something she's forgotten, if only she could put her finger on it. Still, muscle memory takes over as they make their way toward the kitchens. She'd opted not to mention this particular point of egress during the planning stages of this mission. Somehow it seemed too simple, too personal to point out. The service exit by the pantry is the kind of thing a twelve, thirteen year old girl could sneak out of; it seems absurd for highly trained operatives to do the same.

Natasha shudders and motions for Maria and Clint to stop at the end of the hall. They've had decent luck making it around the small handful of corners they've had to negotiate so far; this corner should be no different. Hopefully. She holds up her hand and counts down from three.

The instant Natasha's hand turns into a fist, they move forward. Maria quickly crosses to the other side, but even before her shoulder connects with the wall, a bullet lodges itself into the wall just ahead of her. She drops to her knee, instantly returning fire at the barricade the guards have put up, her bullets sending wood flying every direction. Clint has a little more luck, and Maria barely registers as one of the agents goes down.

"Fall back," she barks over the sound of gunfire.

Natasha manages to get a few shots off before having to duck back behind the cover of the wall. Her mind races, tracing down all the halls of this place, trying to get a few steps ahead. "With me," she calls, taking off in the direction they just came from.

Maria fires a last round before running after Natasha. They're making too much noise, but the element of surprise is gone now, and what's more worrying is how no one comes chasing after them. The Red Room is confident, but they don't have the Black Widow on their side.

Natasha swears under her breath. It makes no sense that this hall was so well guarded when the last few gave them next to no trouble. As she rounds the corner back down a corridor they've already cleared, a thought solidifies in her mind and she stops short, signaling for Maria and Clint to do the same.

"What's wrong?" Clint asks.

Natasha grits her teeth. "We're being herded."

Maria curses as she realises Natasha is right. She absently reaches for Natasha's shoulder, gripping the fabric as she considers their options. "We double back and take down that barricade," she decides.

Natasha gives a curt nod. "With any luck they won't be expecting that. If they're closing us in and we can make it past their perimeter, that should at least buy us some time."

Knight to e5. The memory hits her, potent and unbidden. She can almost feel the old, worn chess pieces in her hands, can almost see the knobby, bandaged knees of the girl sitting cross-legged on the floor on the other side of the board. It's almost enough to drive the air from her lungs. She shakes her head to clear away the image, but the gnawing familiarity of this place lingers like smoke in her clothes.

"That's what I'm thinking," Maria agrees. Something in Natasha's eyes makes her tighten her hold on her shoulder for a moment longer before she lets go. "I'll go first. I'll draw their attention, you two get behind me and take them out."

Be careful. Natasha swallows back the words and her brow furrows before she turns to Clint. "Hawkeye, do you have any tricks up your sleeve?"

He shakes his head. "Nothing that won't backfire in a closed space."

"Let's hope we can surprise them, then." She nods again, giving Maria the go ahead.

Maria takes point and they double back quickly. When they reach the blockaded corridor again, it's Maria who leads the countdown. She knows it's crazy, but her kevlar hasn't disappointed her so far, and Natasha and Clint have a much better aim than she does. Noise, that's something she can do, no problem. She charges into the corridor yelling and opening fire without really taking aim. It's enough. The agents scramble behind their cover, and Maria is sure she hit at least one of them.

Clint manages to take out two guards, then barrels his way down the hall, breaking through their ranks. Natasha takes advantage of the hostile agents' split attention and cleanly puts bullets in several more. "Go!" she shouts, taking off after Clint.

They won't have much time. The noise will have alerted whatever backup is waiting. Maria takes up the rear, not sparing a look at the devastation they leave behind. She changes the clip on her carbine as they come up to the service exit.

"How about one of those tricks now?" she asks Clint as they each take a position beside the door.

"Cover your faces," Clint growls before he nocks and looses an arrow that detonates at the far end of the corridor, filling the space with a bright flash and cloud of gas. It blocks off their retreat, to be sure, but until the gas dissipates, no one will be able to follow them out through the service door.

"Hawkeye, you scan for snipers on the roof and windows. Romanoff, you take the left. I go right." Maria makes sure both are ready before starting her countdown.

Natasha squares her jaw and checks the clips of her pistols for good measure in the last remaining seconds before Clint shoulders the door open. She slips out through the service exit, guns trained on the shadows, but she stops short a few steps from the door. The all-too familiar prickle of being in the crosshairs grates down her spine a split seconds before her eyes fully adjust to the darkness, where a phalanx of 20 or so armed guards waits for them. Clint growls a vicious curse under his breath, but he wisely holds his fire.

<<Sneaking out after dark, Natalia? We thought you might have outgrown such childish things,>> a man sneers from the shadows. That voice and the face that goes with it are not ones Natasha recognizes, but they're still familiar somehow, like something out of a dream. Something out of another life. Natasha keeps her weapons leveled at his eyes.

<<You know who I am, and you know what I'm capable of,>> Natasha calls, her voice cold. <<I will give you one chance: let us go.>>

The answering laugh is just as cold. <<I think not.>>

The man's accent is strange and unfamiliar, but Maria catches the meaning of his last response well enough. She grits her teeth and steps forward, effectively putting herself at the foreground of her group, if not completely in front of them. "You sons of bitches have anything to say, you say it to me, and you do it in English," she growls, drawing up to her full height. With some satisfaction, she notices some of the guns are now aimed at her.

She notices Clint looking at her too, and she imperceptibly tilts her head towards Natasha, praying that their silent communication is strong enough for him to get her meaning. Their mission is to get Natasha out now.

She turns her attention fully towards the group in front of them, towards the man she can barely make out. Whoever he is, he isn't getting them. "Step forward and hold up your hands where I can see them."

"I do not take orders from you, Agent Hill," the man says, his English only slightly accented. He takes a step forward nonetheless, but the low light does not make his face any more recognizable.

Try as she might, Natasha can't seem to put a name to his face, nor is she able to identify the small object in the palm of his hand.

Natasha wants so badly to put herself in front of Maria and Clint, to shield them for as long as she can. Still, she knows that any move she makes could be the one that gets them killed, so she stands her ground.

As if reading Natasha's thoughts, the man addresses Maria again. "Do not think we will not kill you to get to her. You are expendable."

"Clearly." A strange calm falls over Maria as she regards the man. She's aware of everyone's position in the courtyard, of Natasha and Clint only a step behind her. She smirks as she takes aim of the man's head. "But my first bullet is going to go right between your eyes."

"Do you really think that's wise, Agent Hill?" He chuckles and slowly raises his hand, lifting the object in his palm into the light.

Clint stiffens, his knuckles going white around his bow. "He's got some sort of explosive," he hisses.

"Put that down now, or I will shoot!" Maria barks, all too aware that she shouldn't shoot around explosive devices she knows nothing about.

"I have a counter-proposal," the man replies, his face stony. "You put down your weapons, and I will release the rest of your team. They go; Romanova stays."

"Here's a better proposal," Maria growls, and this time she does put herself solidly between Natasha and the man. "You go to hell."

"Maria, what are you doing?" Natasha murmurs, hardly moving her lips as she speaks. "Take your team and go."

One for the many. No.

"You don't even have them," Maria sneers.

The man raises an eyebrow, unperturbed. "You do not know that. Are you sure you want to gamble with their lives as well as your own?" He turns the device over in his hand, almost absent-mindedly.

Natasha's mind races, searching for a way to diffuse the situation without getting anyone killed. They need some sort of diversion, but they're well and truly cornered. The best they can hope for is to buy more time. <<Give us proof,>> she snaps. <<Show us they are safe and free to go. Only then will I surrender to you.>>

Maria's knuckles turn white as she grips her gun tighter, but she doesn't show any sign that she understood any of what Natasha said. "Are you sure you want to gamble with yours?"

"My life is not important. There are others who will take my place," he says with a shrug and a sneer, then lifts the device above his head. "This is your last chance. Put your weapons down."

They're not going to bargain their way out, and whatever the device is, Maria would rather not have them use it. "I don't think so," she growls, even as she fires at the man.

Natasha reacts the instant the gun goes off. She shoves Maria out of the line of fire and hits the ground herself, rolling and coming up shooting as the man's body crumples to the ground. Clint puts arrows in two of the men, and Natasha drops two more before she realizes something is wrong. None of the agents in front of them are returning fire; their eyes are all fixed on the device that's tumbled from the man's hand and sits sparking and hissing on the ground. An instant later, a ring of compressed gas erupts out of the device, billowing out in all directions.

"Back!" Maria orders as she rolls back to her feet. She keeps her gun trained on the men as she takes several steps away from the device and the rapidly expanding ring of gas, waiting to run until Clint and Natasha are moving with her.

"Go!" Natasha shouts, scrambling to her feet. At the rate that cloud is expanding, she isn't sure they stand a chance of outrunning it, especially if they hesitate. To make matters worse, the phalanx starts to close ranks, advancing on them, giving them nowhere to run. Advancing right through the gas cloud, apparently with no ill effects. It makes no sense.

Natasha manages to cover her mouth and nose and squeeze her eyes shut as the wave hits her. She braces herself for the burning or numbness or lightheadedness or whatever this stuff is about to do to her, but all she feels is the coldness of compressed air. It's all she can do to keep holding her breath, torn between her need for oxygen and her need to keep the gas out of her lungs. She sinks to her knees, no longer able to keep herself on her feet.

"Hill!"

Maria ignores Clint's shout and lunges forward the instant she sees Natasha go down. "Get out of here," she orders, not bothering to see if Clint listens. She's at Natasha's side in an instant, holding her breath, but the prickle of irritation to her eyes never comes. She grabs hold of Natasha's upper arm with one hand as she fires at the men advancing on them.

The grip on Natasha's arm comes just as her lungs are about to burst, and it startles her into a gasp. Her eyes fly open, meeting Maria's in horror and confusion as she takes another involuntary breath. She expects fire and agony in her throat and lungs, but all there is is cold and an oddly familiar scent. Natasha blinks and coughs and pulls herself to her feet. She only makes it two steps before a blinding pain splits into her skull and drives her, screaming, to her knees again.

There's no time to think. All Maria knows is that when she finally sucks in a breath, she feels nothing at all, and yet Natasha is down on her knees. She fires another burst into the advancing soldiers and an arrow flies past her, bringing down another guy. She's grateful Clint didn't listen, as it gives her the time to bend down and pull Natasha up in a fireman's carry.

Natasha's body goes rigid in Maria's arms, and she claws at her head for a few seconds before going totally limp.

"Nat?" Maria shouts as she breaks into a run, heading towards Clint and away from the men. It's hard to move. Natasha's a dead weight on her shoulders. She wants to stop, feel for Natasha's pulse, but there's no time.

A few more steps and Natasha's eyes fly open again. It takes her a moment to get her bearings, but then she drives her elbow hard into Maria's ribs.

Maria stumbles as pain shoots up her side, Natasha's weight bringing her down to her knees. "Nat, it's me," she says through gritted teeth as she tries to let her down from her back.

"Don't mean to rush you, but we need to keep moving," Clint moves up beside them, turning to let another arrow fly.

Natasha shakes herself free and is on her feet in an instant. She turns to the men surrounding them with flashing eyes. <<Drop your weapons. These two are mine. >>

Maria's head jerks back in surprise at the words.

"What did you just say?" Clint asks wearily as the men stop and lower their weapons.

"She told them to stand down," Maria says incredulously, pushing back to her feet.

One by one, the men put down their guns and step back into the shadows. Natasha smirks in satisfaction and drops into a fighting stance. She fixes Maria with a cold stare, daring her to make the first move.

This is wrong. Everything is wrong. With a sickening feeling to the pit of her stomach, Maria meets Natasha's eyes, but Natasha is gone. There's no recognition there. There's no familiarity, and with a shock Maria realises that she's facing Natalia Romanova, the Black Widow.

"Hawkeye, go find Becca and her team," she says as she steps forward.

"No. What the hell is going on?" Clint demands.

Natalia spares Clint only a brief, appraising glance before she lunges forward and aims a kick at Maria's stomach.

Despite everything, Maria isn't prepared. The kick knocks the wind right out of her, and she's pushed back several steps. She barely hears Clint's words as he moves forward, and she motions for him to stay back. "Just fucking go, Clint. I'll bring her in." She can see him hesitate, but Natalia is already moving. "Go!" she yells and throws her gun to the ground, bringing up her guard so this time she'll be prepared.

Clint finally snaps out of his stupor and makes a break for the nearest opening.

<<Stop him,>> Natalia calls to the guards before striking out at Maria's knees, her stomach, her face.

Whatever hope Maria may have had that Natasha was faking this disappears at the order. She doesn't have time to check as she brings up her hands to take the blows to her head, but the hits to her stomach and knee connect. Pain shoots up her leg as her knee buckles and she hits the ground. She only barely has time to duck and roll away as Natalia strikes out again. "Don't do this, Natasha."

"Who are you to talk to me like this?" Natalia spits. She's heard people beg for their lives before, but this is different. She strikes again and again, toying with the woman in front of her.

The question is real. Maria can see it in the blankness of Natalia's eyes. She can feel it in the viciousness of her blows. It hits harder than the punches, leaving Maria disarmed as she takes the blows and lets herself be pushed back rather than retaliate. "I'm yours." She swallows the sob and the desperation that threaten to follow the words.

Natalia blinks, momentarily taken aback by her words and the shooting pain behind her left eye. The confusion doesn't quite ebb away, but she raises her fists again and begins to circle her. "Why won't you fight back? Do you wish to surrender so soon?"

"I'm not surrendering," Maria shakes her head, and the corner of her mouth lifts up just barely as the takes in Natalia's stance. It's familiar, one Natasha learned in the boxing ring with her, and Maria matches it. "That'd mean giving you up, and I'm not letting them have you."

"Very well," Natalia growls, throwing a quick combination at Maria's head and neck.

It's faster but much more familiar, and Maria ducks and sidesteps, moving into the opening it leaves and hitting towards Natalia's ribs. The punches are controlled, just like they would be if this was the gym. "How did you get here, Natasha?"

Natalia gives a derisive snort, but the shooting pain returns as she struggles to find an answer to the question. "That's not my name," she huffs in lieu of a response. Her punches meet nothing but air, and her anger starts to rise as she redoubles her efforts.

"It is. You chose it." Maria keeps weaving in and out, trying to stay as far from Natalia's fists as she can. "Natasha Romanoff."

"Enough!" Natalia grits out through clenched teeth. She puts on a burst of speed and lunges for Maria, her hands wrapping around her throat.

Natalia's grip is tight and Maria tries to move back, but her back hits a wall and there's nowhere to go. Her fingers scratch at Natalia's wrists and hands, trying to get her to loosen her hold while she tries to knee Natalia in the groin.

Maria's attempts to fight back just make Natalia tighten her grip all the harder. Her lip curls into a sneer as she leans closer. <<You're mine.>>

The fight goes out of Maria at Natalia's words. Her hands stay around Natalia's wrists, but she's no longer trying to get her to loosen her hold. It's harder to breathe and she's light headed, which might explain why the only thought she has is how she misses the warmth in those eyes. <<Yes,>> she rasps. She leans further into Natalia's hands, her forehead barely brushing Natalia's now. No, not Natalia. Natasha. Always Natasha.  <<I am. I love you.>>

<<What?>> The pain in Natalia's head is blinding, nauseating, but she doesn't let go. The touch of Maria's forehead against hers burns into her skin, and she wants to jerk her head away, but she can't.

They've been here before. A lifetime ago. Maria remembers the feeling, the feeling of sinking as her lungs burn for air. Natasha had been behind her then, solid and grounding, her voice echoing in Maria's ears, <<Let go.>>

She can't afford to let go. Her eyes snap open. <<I love you,>> she repeats, and she uses the last of her energy to headbutt Natasha.

Natasha gasps as stars explode behind her eyes, and her hands fly involuntarily to her face as she crumples to the ground at Maria's feet.

Maria doubles over as the hands fall away from her throat, gasping for air and coughing when it finally fills her lungs. She should move - she should do something - but all she can do suck in air as she stares down at Natasha.

It takes Natasha a long moment to pull herself together enough to look up at Maria with unfocused eyes. She chokes on the blood streaming from her nose and presses the back of her hand against her face in confusion. "Maria?" she manages, her voice rough.

Maria's head jerks back at her name, and she falls to her knees beside Natasha. "I'm here," she chokes out the words. Her hands are shaking and she reaches out, gripping Natasha's shoulder and curling into her clothes. "What's your name?"

Natasha blinks hard and frowns, trying to wrap her head around the question. Cold dread knots in her stomach as she answers. "Natasha."

"Thank god." There's only relief in Maria's eyes and then she sags forward, resting her forehead against Natasha's collar bone. She's too tired to think that maybe she's being played again. "Welcome back."

Natasha wraps her arms instinctively around Maria's shoulders and holds tight. "What happened?"

"I don't know," Maria's voice is muffled. As long as Natasha is holding her like that, this can't be a trap and if it is, then maybe she wants to fall for it. "You were gone. Just gone." She grips the fabric of Natasha's shirt tighter. "Like it all never happened."

"I'm here," Natasha promises. Despite the pain in her head and the blood still dripping from her nose, her thoughts start to clear as she wraps her arms tighter around Maria's shoulders. Bits and pieces start to come together in her mind: the guards, the cloud of gas, Maria headbutting her, asking for her name. She can't be sure what, exactly, just happened, but she's beginning to form a disturbingly good guess.

<<On your feet,>> comes a voice from behind them.

Natasha freezes, her eyes finding Maria's. "Do you trust me?" she murmurs, her voice barely audible.

Maria tenses, inwardly cursing herself for letting her guard down. She meets Natasha's eyes for a long moment, aware of the weight of Natasha's arms still wrapped around her shoulders. She nods slowly, her hand flattening against Natasha's chest.

Natasha gets to her feet, her eyes going cold again. She kicks Maria over backwards with a foot to the center of her chest. "Get on your knees. Hands behind your head," she spits, then turns to the guard beside her. <<Give me your gun. I've toyed with her enough.>>

The pressure on her chest leaves her gasping, and Maria scrambles back to her knees. She can't help the feeling of dread at seeing Natasha like this again, even knowing that for a moment she had been there. It's an act, but even as she puts her hands behind her head, a part of her is braced for the worst.

Natasha checks the clip of the guards sidearm as she positions herself behind Maria. This all feels so sickeningly familiar. Her mouth goes dry as she cocks the gun and levels it at the back of Maria's head. "Any last words?"

Maria's eyes train up to the two guards who are staring at them, a detached, vaguely bored expression on their face. She closes her eyes again and thinks that maybe she lied about trusting Natasha even as she shakes her head.

Natasha takes a deep breath, then fires off two clean shots. They both hit their marks, square between the guards' eyes.

Maria flinches at the sound, but she keeps her eyes shut even as she hears the bodies fall to the ground in front of her. Very slowly, she lowers her hands from behind her head, and when she opens her eyes, she watches the pool of  blood slowly spreading across the concrete.

Natasha's hands start to shake as she flicks the safety back on and lets the gun drop to the ground. She sags to her knees on the concrete next to Maria, but she doesn't dare touch her. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Natasha's words pull her out of her stupor, and Maria glances sideways at her. It's only now that she fully registers the blood on Natasha's lips and chin. She did that. Her hands are unsteady as she reaches out, sliding her fingers in Natasha's hair, gently tugging.

Natasha leans into the touch, but it does little to stop her shaking. "I could've killed you."

"Not you," Maria says quietly. She tries to shake the cold feeling as she remembers the gun at the back of her head. "Not Natasha Romanoff."

"They changed me back so easily," Natasha shudders. "I could've killed you just as easily…" She shifts backwards, away from Maria, just in time to spill the contents of her stomach on the concrete.

Maria wants to pull her back when Natasha draws away until she realises what's going on. Wincing, she settles her hand on Natasha's back instead, rubbing soothing circles. "No. You came back before you could."

Natasha wipes at her mouth and nods slowly. "We have to get out of here. As long as these triggers are still in place, I'm still dangerous."

"We need to find Clint," Maria agrees, squeezing Natasha's shoulder before getting to her feet and holding out her hand.

Natasha lets Maria help her to her feet, her eyes going wide. "What happened to him?"

"I told him to go." Maria grimaces and squeezes Natasha's hand before letting go to retrieve her gun. "What's left of these guys went after him."

Natasha wills some of the tension in her shoulders to relax. Clint can take care of himself. Probably. "Let's head for your evac point. No sense in going after anyone until we're sure they've been captured."

Maria nods and glances quickly around, but she can't make out any snipers or anyone else. That won't last. Her throat aches. Her whole body aches, and it's probably only adrenaline that's keeping her going at this point.

"Get us out of here."

Chapter Text

The muffled darkness of the woods is a welcome relief from the fluorescent lights and commotion of the compound they're rapidly leaving behind. Natasha's footfalls are light and cautious; the last thing they need right now is to leave a trail that makes them easier to track. Sneaking through these woods is almost second nature to her, even though she hasn't done it in years. The soft sound of footsteps behind her is familiar, too, the memories making the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She pauses for a moment, turning to get a good, clear look at Maria's face. To chase away the ghosts.

Maria almost stumbles as Natasha comes to a stop. Once they left the compound and there was no sign of pursuit, she'd just fallen into step behind Natasha. It'd been automatic to put one foot in front of the other, the adrenaline slowly fading from her system and leaving her exhausted and aching.

It's bad. She knows it is. She needs to be alert just for a while longer, until they find Clint and Becca's team. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing." Natasha's response is sharp and automatic, and she regrets it almost instantly. She takes a breath and tries again. "I'm still disoriented from whatever happened back there. I'm assuming it was another chemical trigger. It's still messing with my head."

Maria nods and she reaches out tentatively, touching Natasha's cheek and ignoring the way her hands are shaking. "The device they had. It released some sort of gas, but it only affected you," Maria realises, her mind finally connecting what had happened. "I tried to get you out, but it was too late."

"I don't remember anything after the cloud hit me," Natasha admits, feeling a little sick. "Did you headbutt me again?" She means it to be teasing, but she just doesn't have the energy to follow through.

"I had to," Maria's voice breaks on the words and she shifts forward, sliding both her hands into Natasha's hair. "You didn't know me."

Natasha goes up on her toes so she can rest her head against Maria's. The contact puts pressure against her swollen nose, but she doesn't flinch away. "You brought me back."

"I don't think you were really gone," Maria murmurs. "Whatever they did, I don't think they could erase you completely. Unless I'm giving myself too much credit here and you always were a boxer."

"I'm not sure whether I find that comforting." Natasha's brow furrows and she falls silent.

"I think I'd be dead right now if you'd really been gone," Maria admits. She can still feel the ghost of Natasha's fingers on her throat, and she hopes the collar of her jacket is hiding the bruises well enough.

"But you're alive," Natasha says resolutely, trying hard not to picture Maria dead at her feet. "And with luck so are Clint and Becca and the others. We even got what we came for." Natasha runs her fingers over the outline of the flash drive in her pocket.

"I'll believe it when we're all on that quinjet out of here," Maria grimaces.

Natasha nods, kisses her quickly, and takes a step back. "We're not too far from the evac point. We should keep moving."

"Yeah," Maria nods and she glances around them. "I can't decide if it being quiet is a good thing."

"I know the feeling. So long as neither of us are being shot at, I'll take it as a win," Natasha murmurs. She takes Maria's hand in hers and threads their fingers together. She knows it's foolish to try to navigate the woods hand-in-hand, but she can't stand the thought of Maria simply following behind her with no point of contact. Even if she follows closely enough to catch the toe of her boot against the backs of Natasha's heels, there's already so much distance between them.

There's a soft sound of surprise at the touch, and the next instant Maria's hold on Natasha's hand tightens. It's the first thing that's felt real since they entered the forest, and she's not about to let go of it now. "I think I prefer getting shot at to how the Red Room seems to like to conduct their fights."

Natasha squeezes back just as tightly. "I can't say I blame you. I wish I could've spared you even that glimpse of their cruelty."

"I'm not the one who got used by them," Maria says quickly. She feels sick thinking how close she'd come to losing Natasha again, how much she'd failed to keep her out of their hands.

"I wanted to keep it that way." Natasha's voice is no more than a whisper.

"I wanted you safe." The words slip from her tongue, and Maria doesn't know if it's an argument or a confession of failure.

"I'm never going to be safe. Not really. This place is always going to be a part of me; it was foolish of me to think I'd ever truly be rid of them. The best I can hope for is to be fully under my own control from now on. Thanks to you, I might actually stand a chance."

Maria reaches out with her free hand, her fingers tangling in the back of Natasha's shirt. "You did this, Nat. You just gave yourself a chance."

"I couldn't have done it if you hadn't been there to beat some sense into me. Literally." Natasha smirks.

"So what you're saying is that next time I should skip the love declarations and just headbutt you?" Maria tries to joke, but it falls a little short.

Natasha blinks back at her, her eyebrows rising in surprise. "Love declarations?"

"I-" Maria swallows back the words and shakes her head as she strokes her hand up Natasha's back. "It doesn't matter. I got you back. Now we just need to find Clint and the others and we can get out of this hell hole for good."

Natasha only nods, letting the weight of Maria's hand on her back keep her centered. They walk on in silence for a while, until the sounds of hushed voices nearby catch Natasha's attention. She signals for Maria to stop. "You'd better go first," she whispers. "I don't want to startle anyone."

Maria nods her agreement and she lets go of Natasha. It feels wrong when she does, like the fragile connection they'd made a moment ago is crumbling in an instant, but she pushes the thought to the back of her mind. Gripping her carbine tightly in both hands now, she moves forward quietly until she's almost certain that the voices they're hearing are speaking English rather than Russian.

She missteps then, leaves crunching loudly underneath her feet and everything goes quiet before a voice calls out. "Archer."

Becca. Maria closes her eyes in relief. "Lancer," she calls back before she moves further forward and into view of the strike team.

It tugs at Natasha's heart to see how instantly and visibly relieved Maria's whole team is to see her step out of the shadows. She follows her out of the treeline, unthinking, and a second later Clint is on his feet with an arrow pointed at Natasha's throat.

"Don't fucking move," he spits, his eyes wide.

"No!" Maria instantly moves in front of Natasha, putting herself between her and Clint. "It's good. She's good. It's her, Clint. I promise. It's her."

Natasha freezes, her mouth going dry as she watches the muscle in Clint's jaw twitch. He glances back and forth between Maria and Natasha, but he doesn't lower his bow.

"Hill, what the hell is going on?" Becca demands.

"What is she even doing here?" Greg echoes, only to have Becca silence him with an elbow to the gut.

"We'll explain when we're on the quinjet out of here," Maria promises. "Suffice to say that she's here having just saved our collective asses."

She takes a step forward, ducking her head to catch Clint's attention. "She shot their agents right in front of my eyes, Clint. She could have killed me, but she didn't. It's her." It has to be.

Clint's breath hitches, and he keeps his arrow trained on Natasha. He narrows his eyes, studying her closely. "What happened the first time you and I trained together after you joined S.H.I.E.L.D.?"

Natasha doesn't flinch away from his stare. "I knocked you on your ass. A one-hit K.O."

Clint's shoulders sag and his breath leaves him in a whoosh. He lets his bow and arrow clatter to the ground at his feet. "Fuck, Tasha, I'm sorry."

"It's okay," she assures him. "I don't blame you for not trusting me."

Maria jerks herself back before she ends up staring too long at Clint's weapons on the ground. She turns her attention to the men around her, her eyes roving over them as she quickly does a headcount.

"All accounted for, Sir," Becca reports.

Maria huffs as she's apparently obvious. "Good. We've got a ride out of here. I suggest we take it. Romanoff?"

Natasha nods her acknowledgement to Maria and addresses the assembled team. "I've got a quinjet not far from here. Are you all okay to debrief on the move?"

Maria opens her mouth to order them to it, but she stops herself as obviously she needs to let Natasha take charge on this.

There are a few nods - mostly just puzzled looks being passed around - and Becca is frowning.

"I'd like to know why Clint was pointing h-ow!" Greg rubs at his ribs and he shoots Becca a look.

"Debrief on the move is good," Becca speaks up. "Get your gear together, we're moving out."

Natasha is impressed but by no means surprised by how quickly Maria's team is ready to leave. She takes the lead as they make their way through the woods, glad to have Maria and Clint fall into step on either side of her. She shoots Maria a look, silently offering her control of the debriefing.

Maria sucks in a breath as she tries to figure out where to best start. There's no point beating around the bush. "We've been compromised. Agent Simon appears to have been a Red Room agent. He was feeding the Red Room with all the mission information. When Agent Romanoff found out, it ended in a fight that we don't know the outcome of at this point. Director Fury faced off with Agent Simon while Agent Romanoff came to our rescue to keep us from walking into a trap. As of now, we don't know what's going on on the helicarrier."

"So there's a chance we're flying out of the frying pan and into the fire?" Becca asks. "I don't like the sound of that."

Natasha shakes her head. "We won't know for sure until we dock. We can make an extra stop to drop off those of you who would rather not take the risk, but if you're coming back to the helicarrier with us, you'd better be prepared to fight." Her voice is flat, betraying none of her own apprehension.

Greg swallows audibly. "What about our original mission, sir?"

The thought of another fight is daunting, but Greg's question at least pulls Maria back from the grim thoughts of what might lie ahead of them. "We successfully retrieved the data," Maria says. "We probably wouldn't have been able to do it without Agent Romanoff."

"And the arrow thing?" Greg asks tentatively, making sure he's out of range of Becca's elbow.

"Above your clearance level," Clint chimes in. "It's taken care of."

Natasha shoots him a small, appreciative smile.

Maria is grateful for Clint cutting off the question. Her fingers itch to reach out again to Natasha, to make certain that she's still actually there. She stops herself, changing her gun to her other hand. "Any more questions?"

For several long seconds, no one speaks. Finally, Becca clears her throat. "You know none of us are going to take you up on your offer to avoid the fight, right?"

Maria bites back the grin, but she glances briefly at Natasha. "I didn't doubt that for one second."

Chapter Text

Maria watches as the doors of the quinjet's cargo hold close, taking away the view of those haunted woods. They can't see the Red Room's compound from here, but Maria can still feel its pull, the hold it had on Natasha, almost like a visible wire. She imagines it cut now, imagines Natasha finally pulling truly free. Or at least as much as she'll ever be. She knows the weight of these things better than anyone.

She checks on her team again before moving out into the pilot's compartment. As the only one beside Natasha with piloting skills, Clint has taken the second seat.

"The kids are all buckled in and ready to go," Maria says as she comes up behind Natasha. She doesn't let herself think for too long and drops a kiss to the top of Natasha's head before retreating to the side seat in the back of the compartment. "Let's get the fuck out of here."

It's a shame they never did finish placing those charges. Maria imagines it would have been cathartic to blow the place up.

"Let's get this thing in the air," Natasha nods, her hands already working the switches on the console in front of her. Clint does the same, and the quinjet thrums to life. Natasha is grateful for the familiar lurch in her stomach, followed quickly by the tops of the trees falling away beneath them. The outline of the compound is visible in the distance, but Natasha doesn't spare it so much as a glance. She's done looking back, looking over her shoulder. She's made it out of that place alive, if not completely intact, not once but twice. It's far more than she can say for so many of the women she knew in that life. She should count herself not just lucky, but powerful.

Even so, she doesn't dare relax even a bit until the cloaking device is active and their radar is clear.

Maria leans her head back, watching in silence how Natasha's fingers move over the console, how she grips the steering wheel.  It's mesmerising and almost hypnotic. Her body is drained now, all the adrenaline is gone, leaving only an aching shell. She quietly takes stock of her injuries: the way her throat hurts when she swallows, the tightness and ache in her chest with each breath, and the way her knee throbs from the overload. Could be worse.

With a few final adjustments, Clint scrubs a hand through his hair and stretches his shoulders out as best he can in the cockpit. "Autopilot's locked on. We should be good to go for the next few hours." He fiddles with the harness holding him in his seat, finally managing to unlatch it. He clears his throat awkwardly and none too subtly, then jerks a thumb at the cockpit door. "I'm just gonna..." he trails off by way of an excuse.

Natasha makes a small, noncommittal noise as he leaves. The moment the door latches behind him, she turns to Maria, unsure what to say. "How's the leg?" she decides to ask.

"Cranky," Maria says with a crooked smile. "How's your head?"

"Painful," Natasha winces. It's an understatement. If she's honest, she's not sure how she's managed not to throw up or pass out yet. She's made it this long, though, and at least it doesn't seem to be getting worse. "Were any of your team injured?"

"No, seems they got out without a hitch," Maria unbuckles from her seat and gets up, slowly approaching Natasha.

"Good," Natasha breathes, finally letting some of the tension leave her body.

"Do you want me to get you something?"

Natasha shakes her head at Maria's offer, but stops abruptly when the room starts to spin. "No, thank you, I'll be fine. Just sit with me awhile?"

Maria frowns as she's not sure she can believe Natasha, but she can understand not wanting to have more drugs in her system right now. "I can do that," she says quietly as she sags down in the seat Clint vacated. Her bulletproof vest is bothersome right now, but she's not sure she has the energy to take it off and put it on again.

Natasha takes a breath, then another, and another. The silence between them is full of all the things Natasha has no idea how to say. There's no way she's going to leave any of it unsaid, though. Not after tonight. She opts to say the first thing that comes to mind. "Your team got out without a scratch. You must be really proud of them."

Maria blinks; it's not the subject she'd been expecting. "Yeah," she agrees softly. "Becca's doing good with them. They're in good hands with her. Almost makes me feel unnecessary," she jokes.

Natasha smirks and reaches for her hand. "That just means you're an effective leader from one rung higher up the ladder. That's a good thing."

The instant Natasha's fingers touch hers, Maria grips her hand tightly. "So they say," she agrees, her thoughts distracted.

The intensity of Maria's grip is startling, and Natasha's brow furrows. "What are you thinking about?"

Maria shakes her head, not sure she can even put it into words. Her grips tightens even more and she tugs on Natasha's hand, suddenly needing her closer.

Natasha follows the pull instinctively, stopping short only because she's still buckled into the pilot's seat. She fumbles with the clasp one handed so she doesn't have to let go of Maria's hand.

Maria blinks at the pause, then snorts when she realises what the problem is. It's absurd how the laughter bubbles up inside her, but it's short lived. It turns into a sob the next instant - there's nothing funny about any of this -  and she's still shaking.

With a desperate growl, Natasha lets go long enough to unstrap herself from her seat and throw her arms around Maria's shoulders.

Maria's arms instantly go around her, pulling Natasha further into her lap as she buries her face against the side of her neck. Natasha smells of gunfire and blood and sweat, but there's that trace underneath it all that Maria needs to breathe in. Her fingers dig into Natasha's back as she clings to her, her body shaking as she tries to keep quiet, tries to keep it in. It wasn't her head that got messed with, it wasn't her agency that got taken away.

Natasha pulls her impossibly close and buries her face in Maria's hair. "I'm sorry."

Maria shakes her head and she tangles her fingers in Natasha's hair. She wants to say that it's not Natasha's fault fault, but she's having trouble breathing, let alone talking.

The tightness in Natasha's chest has little to do with Maria's arms around her. She wills herself to breathe as she tries to put words to the swirl of thoughts in her pounding head. "I told you once that I was a monster. I said that no matter what I do, she's never really gone. Do you remember? You told me I don't have to be that person anymore. You were so adamant about it; I started to believe it, too." Natasha's voice breaks, but she pushes on. "I never wanted you to see me like that. I'm sorry."

Maria shakes her head again, presses her face against the crook of Natasha's neck as she sucks in breath after breath until she feels steady enough to shift and press her lips to Natasha's ear. "I still believe that. More than I ever did." She squeezes her eyes shut, struggling for a moment, her throat feeling raw. "You came back to me."

"I did," Natasha breathes. "But can you really look at me the same way now that you've seen that side of me?"

"Nat..." Maria murmurs, her voice breaking. She shifts back, forcing herself to really look at Natasha, even if she wants to keep her face buried right against her skin.

Natasha continues, unabated. "I don't even know if I can trust myself. I wouldn't blame you if you decide you can't trust me either."

"I trust you," Maria whispers, leaning her forehead against Natasha's. "I trust Natasha Romanoff. I don't-" She chokes on the words, hating herself and it takes all her willpower to not sag forward and press her face against Natasha's shoulder. "But she was gone and I didn't know if it was really she who came back. I didn't know. I didn't- I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't know."

"You really thought you were about to die, didn't you?" Natasha realizes with a start. She can only stare, horrified, into Maria's eyes.

"I wanted to believe you," Maria whispers. "I wanted to believe you so badly, but I didn't know. Not really."

"And you went along with it just because I asked you to trust me?" Natasha chokes.

"Yes. You felt like yourself." She wants to pull back and look away, but she forces herself to hold Natasha's eyes. She deserves that much. "If you weren't, there wasn't a chance I was getting out of there."

"We both made it out," Natasha says, as much to reassure herself as Maria. It's going to be okay, she wants to say, but she doesn't quite believe it.

"So why do I feel like I failed you?"

Natasha's breath catches, and all she can do is shake her head. "You didn't. You didn't."

"Yes, I did," Maria's words come out as a growl and she draws back, her hands gripping Natasha's shirt. "You were supposed to be out of their reach. This whole thing was to keep them away from you. We would have failed, Natasha. We never would have gotten the data without you. Fuck, Clint and I would have never made it out of there if it wasn't for you. You had to come save our asses, and it put you right where they wanted you. They played us all, and they almost got you, and I couldn't stop them. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even trust you when you needed me to."

"Listen to me." Natasha takes her by the collar and holds tight. "None of that is your fault. You did everything right. You haven't failed anyone."

Maria's grip on Natasha's shirt loosens, her hands sliding down to her waist as she sags forward, but she can barely see Natasha as her vision is suddenly clouded. "Then why do I keep losing you?" It's pathetic and it makes no sense, not even to her when Natasha is right there and alive, but for a moment she was gone, no matter how solid the Natasha in front of her had been.

"You haven't lost me, Maria. I'm right here."

"Show me," Maria pleads as she leans in, pressing her face in Natasha's hair as her fingers flex against Natasha's sides. "Please?"

"I'm right here," Natasha says again. She cups Maria's face in her hands and kisses her forehead, her eyelids, the bridge of her nose. Her lips ghost against the corner of Maria's mouth. "Right here."

Maria's breath catches at the tenderness of Natasha's touch. Her lips are warm and soft against her skin. She can feel Natasha's breath on her lips, and it's only natural to tilt her head and brush her lips over hers. "Nat."

Natasha kisses her again and again. "I love it when you call me that."

There's just the faintest of smiles at the admission, each kiss slowly pushing away the feeling that she's still in that courtyard. "I love you," Maria breathes against her lips, her hands flattening against the small of Natasha's back.

"I love you too." Natasha doesn't hesitate even for a second.

Maria bumps her nose against Natasha's. "I'm sorry, that probably didn't help your headache," she murmurs, sliding her hand up to the back of Natasha's neck so she can gently rub at the base of her skull in apology.

"Don't worry about it," Natasha chuckles, burying her face in the crook of Maria's neck. "I've had worse."

"I'm not sure that's a good point of reference," Maria whispers. She leans her cheek against Natasha's as she gently moves her fingers through Natasha's hair. She can feel the weight of Natasha's body against her chest. It's a little uncomfortable, but even that is grounding and real. They really did make it out.

Natasha hums, conceding her point. "For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure most of the pain is not from you headbutting me."

Maria winces anyway and she turns her head, pressing a kiss to her ear in apology. "It worked, though."

"I'm glad," Natasha murmurs. She lets her head drop onto Maria's shoulder and just sits still.

"So am I." Maria gently strokes her fingers through Natasha's hair, needing the small touch and hoping it helps at least a little.

Little by little, the touch starts to make Natasha's limbs feel heavy, and her eyes are becoming impossible to keep open. She's tired - so very tired - but just as she's about to drift off, she flinches herself wide awake again. "No! Don't let me fall asleep," she pleads, eyes wide.

The sudden move startles Maria, and she tightens her arm around Natasha's waist in surprise. "Shhh, I won't," she says gently, rubbing her thumb over Natasha's jaw. She can hazard a guess as to why Natasha doesn't want to sleep. She doesn't want to think about the dreams she'll be having when she finally closes her eyes herself, but Natasha… Maria knows how sleep can be a void, how sometimes she didn't know how she'd wake up when she'd get to the other side of it, and Natasha lost herself.  "Do you want to talk, or should I distract you?"

"I don't know." Natasha sits up and scrubs a hand across her eyes. "Eventually we'll need to figure out a plan before we get back to the helicarrier."

"I know," Maria sighs. "I don't suppose we can hack into the systems and see what's going on?"

Natasha's brow furrows. "It's worth a try. Simon deceived everyone for so long, though. It might be hard knowing what to believe."

"Anyone over the radio can be coerced if they're not in league," Maria points out.

"I'll stay off the comms," Natasha assures her. "If I can get into the system undetected, I should be able to get an idea what's going on."

"Sounds good," Maria nods. She hesitates, then leans forward, resting her forehead against Natasha's shoulder as she selfishly doesn't want to let go of Natasha.

"I suppose we should prepare for the worst, just in case," Natasha murmurs. She's just so tired.

"We will," Maria assures her, drawing back to study Natasha. "We will, but it's been a rough day already and I think we all need to take a moment to decompress before we get back in gear."

Natasha grimaces. "I don't think I can."

"Okay," Maria says after a long moment, wondering if maybe she just took on Natasha's tiredness as well as her own. She runs her hand down Natasha's back, trying to kickstart her brain again to focus on what needs doing rather than all that's past. "Tell me what you need to get started."

"I can manage with the equipment in here. You should sleep if you need to."

Maria shakes her head, waving off the suggestion. "Are you sure I can't get you anything for your head?"

"Maybe some water," Natasha admits sheepishly.

"I can do that," Maria sounds almost eager to have something to do. Not that she's moving, or that she even can.

"Do I need to let you up first?" Natasha teases.

"I could just carry you around," Maria smirks at her. It's probably a very bad idea.

Natasha chuckles. "Neither of us would ever hear the end of it."

Maria laughs. "You can handle Clint." Her team is too wide eyed to try to tease them at this point.

Natasha just makes a small disgruntled noise and drops her head onto Maria's shoulder.

Maria chuckles and she wraps her arms securely around Natasha, just holding her for a moment. "I know it's stupid because it's not happening for a long time, and I couldn't ignore what's going on anyway but… I wish I could just take you home with me now."

Natasha's first instinct is to argue. True, they'd been happy there what seems like a lifetime ago, but she'd pretty thoroughly ruined it. She can't help but wonder whether Maria would spend the whole time wondering if she's about to run again. Still, she can't deny that the idea of disappearing to Maria's apartment sounds wonderful. "I'd like that," is all she chooses to say.

"Me too," Maria murmurs as she buries her face in the crook of Natasha's neck, taking a deep breath.

Natasha ruffles Maria's hair gently, almost absentmindedly. "Are you sure you don't want to fall asleep for a little bit?"

Maria sighs softly at the touch, her eyes closing briefly before she realises that won't make her argument convincing. "I want to know what's going on on the helicarrier as much as you do," she murmurs, idly rubbing her thumb over Natasha's hip. She stiffens when Natasha hisses and flinches away from her touch. Her eyes widen as she glances down, taking in the bare skin and the angry wound. "Shit. You're hurt."

"Only a little. It hurts, but it hasn't slowed me down."

"I'm sorry," Maria whispers. She settles her hand on Natasha's thigh beneath the cut, her fingers stroking carefully in apology. She should have noticed, and her heart lurches at the pain she just caused, at the fact that she missed this. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"

Natasha gives a noncommittal shrug. "Some bruises, probably. That knife wound is the worst of it, I think. Well, that and the headache."

"Okay," Maria nods purposely and she sucks in a breath. "Okay. Let me get you that water and I'll clean that up for you?"

Once again Natasha wants to argue, but she swallows it back. "Okay."

Maria smiles gently as she notices the brief reluctance and she reaches up, cupping Natasha's cheek. "I know it's not bad, but it's something I can do."

Natasha offers a small smile in return. "Thanks. Do you have any injuries I can help patch up? I might as well return the favor."

Maria grimaces and shakes her head. "Gonna be black and blue, but nothing that can be patched up, I'm afraid."

Natasha nods. "Well, I'm calling that a win, then."

"It is," Maria agrees. She got lucky when her vest stopped that bullet, and for a moment she wonders if Simon fucked up the information he gave the Red Room.

It doesn't matter. She gently strokes Natasha's thigh. "Want to let me up, or should I take this as a sign that you need this more? Because I can't blame you if you do." She's not exactly eager to put any distance between them right now either.

"It can wait a few more minutes." Natasha's limbs feel like lead, and the warmth of Maria's body is the only thing keeping her from shivering.

"As long as you need," Maria promises as she slides her arm around Natasha again, drawing her closer. "I'm not going anywhere."

Chapter Text

Natasha looks up from the console and glances over at Maria in the co-pilot's seat. Her eyes are shut and her face has gone slack in sleep. Natasha smiles fondly and sifts her fingers through Maria's bangs.

Maria takes a deep breath as the touch drags her slowly from her sleep. She hums in approval, a smile curving her lips before she becomes aware of where they are and her eyes snap open. "I'm awake."

"Mmhmm," Natasha hums with a smirk. "You were only out for 15 minutes or so."

Not long enough to have any sort of dreams. "Thanks," Maria murmurs, stroking her fingers down Natasha's arm. "Any progress?"

"Hard to tell." Natasha frowns at the screen. "No red flags on any of the logs, which is encouraging, but there's also no information whatsoever on Fury or Simon. Doesn't exactly help us know what to expect when we get back."

"Any way to hack into the security feeds?" Maria asks, leaning forward to better see what Natasha is doing.

"I tried that. The place isn't in chaos, but I can't get visuals on either of them."

"No chaos is good," Maria muses. "That means there wasn't a fight, and we should only have to deal with a limited amount of agents. Unless Simon somehow has everyone else convinced we're the enemy."

"I suppose we'll just have to see." Natasha's jaw tightens. "How do you think we should play this?"

Maria grimaces as she mulls it over. "If I had taken the deal they gave me, if I had let them take you instead of my team, would they have let me? Is there a chance Simon thinks I could be coming back without you?"

"I don't know. If he's a sleeper agent, he may only have been sending information. He may not know what happened at the compound," Natasha muses. "Still, it might not be a bad idea to let them think I didn't come back."

Maria nods. "Us coming back without you, it will be his best case scenario. He'll want to believe it. You can stay hidden until we've confirmed Simon's whereabouts."

Natasha grits her teeth. "I don't like the sound of that."

"I know," Maria reaches out, cupping Natasha's cheek. "I don't like the idea of splitting up either, but we'll never be able to get the quinjet in undetected. If they take us prisoner, you'll still be able to move freely and get us out."

"That's a good plan," Natasha agrees, "but I'm not just going to hide. When we dock, you and your team find Fury. I'll go after Simon."

"Never expected you to sit and wait. If we can move freely, we'll find Fury." Maria has a feeling that won't be the case if the Red Room is now in charge.

"And if you are arrested when we land, I'll still go after Simon. Let's hope it doesn't come to that."

"I want you to stay out of sight until we've established his whereabouts," Maria nods. "Even if Fury were to meet us. Keep hidden and find Simon."

Natasha cocks an eyebrow. "You know very well I could run a full operation without ever being seen."

Maria smirks. "I do. You're the trick up our sleeve here." She leans forward, touching her forehead to hers.

"We'll at least have the element of surprise on our side." Natasha lets her head rest there. Just for a moment, she closes her eyes. "Wouldn't it be great if, just once, this went smoothly for us? If, just once, no one got hurt, and the bad guys haven't gotten the upper hand?"

Maria nods wordlessly and she slides her hand behind Natasha's neck, gently rubbing at the tense muscles there. "It's Fury. We shouldn't underestimate him, but I'm not risking you or my team on that."

"That's probably wise," Natasha agrees. "I'll leave the strategizing to you. You seem to have a knack for it."

Maria huffs and she lightly scrapes her nails over the back of Natasha's head. "Any plans I've made today we've had to toss away and revise. S.H.I.E.L.D. has more need for improvisors than they do for strategists." She grins and bumps her nose teasingly against Natasha's. "Especially when we're dealing with the Black Widow."

"Strategy on the fly is still strategy," Natasha argues half heartedly. "Or maybe you just have a knack for dealing with me."

"It's not dealing," Maria murmurs, regretting her words. She draws back far enough to meet Natasha's eyes and cups her face in both her hands, her thumbs brushing along her jaw. "We couldn't have done this without you."

Natasha smiles sadly. "And you wouldn't have had to do it at all if it wasn't for me. It's almost funny." She shudders and shakes her head to clear her thoughts. "No matter. I suppose I should let you go prep your team."

"I should," Maria agrees, but she doesn't move. Her fingers brush the side of Natasha's neck as she slides them down, curls them into the collar of her shirt. "I know things got fucked up today, and I wish I could change some of it, but I don't regret being there. I don't regret anything when it comes to you."

"And I'm going to do everything I can to make sure it stays that way," Natasha promises.

"You don't have to try very hard," Maria whispers, still gripping Natasha's collar. She's not sure why after everything, the admission makes her feel self conscious now. She quickly leans in again, brushing her lips lightly over Natasha's. "I love you."

"I know." Natasha kisses her back, letting it linger this time.

"Good," Maria whispers against her lips. She leans her forehead back against Natasha's, closing her eyes. It'd be so easy to just stay there, but she releases her grip on Natasha's collar and slides her hands down her shoulders as she slowly pulls back. "I really should go brief them."

Natasha hums in agreement. "I'll keep an eye on things up here until you and Clint are ready to take over flying. I want to check a few more things in the system before it's time to call in our return."

"Shouldn't take too long," Maria agrees as she gets to her feet. She heads for the aft section to brief Clint and the others on what's to come. There's a slight limp to her step at the movement, but it disappears after an instant and she squares her shoulders as she focuses on what lies ahead.

 


 

"We're coming into range now," Clint announces. He's taken up the pilot's seat, as Natasha retreated to the cargo bay once everyone had been debriefed. It's a little strange not having her there, but Maria pushes the stray thought aside and focuses on the radar that's showing the helicarrier straight ahead of them.

"We should have short range communications any minute now."

Maria nods and she pulls on the headset from the dashboard. "I'm going to take the fact that we haven't been shot out of the sky yet as a good sign."

"Easier to fight when you're not blown to pieces."

Maria snorts, but the radio crackles the instant they're in range. Just as they'd expected. So far, so good.

"Quinjet Omega Two Seven, this is Helicarrier Six Four. Identify yourself. Over."

"Here we go," Maria says to Clint before she switches on her mic. "Helicarrier Six Four. This is Agent Maria Hill. Asking permission to return home. Over."

"Copy that, Agent. Stand by." The radio falls silent for several long seconds before Air Traffic Control comes back on the line. "Agent Hill, we have you and your team down as awaiting Evac Team oh-two-six, not en route. Report?"

Maria grimaces at the question. "That is need to know, Helicarrier Six Four. A different evac was provided. Over."

Another brief pause. "Copy. Enter your security code and we'll clear you for landing."

"Wilco," Maria replies shortly before punching in her security code and waiting for confirmation. She chooses to ignore the way Clint is grinning beside her.

"It's an older code, sir, but it checks out. I was about to clear them," Clint mutters under his breath.

Maria shoots him a look this time, raising an eyebrow, but Clint doesn't have time to answer before ATC is back on the line.

"Agent Hill, you're cleared to land. Proceed to Bay Seven"

"Wilco," Maria acknowledges. "Proceeding to Bay Seven. Quinjet out."

She pulls off the headpiece and lets out a breath. "So far so good. Let's see who they bring to the welcoming committee."

Clint only grunts and fiddles with the controls in front of him. All of the tense humor from before has vanished, leaving only a slight crease in his forehead. There's no turning back now.

Maria lets him concentrate and switches on the intercom. "Get ready for landing," she announces. She imagines the flurry of activity happening now as her team prepares to land and face a possible enemy. She imagines Natasha with them, steady and always prepared.

Maria's eyes scan over the helicarrier as Clint brings them in, but there's nothing there to tell them what is going on inside.

As soon as the quinjet sets down, Maria is out of her seat. She's already in the cargo bay when the engines finally shut off. "You all know your orders. Stick together. Remain armed. If they try to arrest is, you don't put up a fight. And no matter what happens, follow my lead."

"Yessir," Becca, Greg, and the rest of the team respond at once. They all grip their gear a little tighter in anticipation of whatever is about to befall them. Clint waits to be sure they're all prepared before he opens the hatch and vacates the pilot's seat, making his way back from the cockpit to join them. He can almost feel Natasha, tensed and waiting in an empty compartment of the cargo bay. He resists the urge to glance in her direction as he passes.

"Here we go," he mutters as he takes his place at Maria's shoulder, echoing her words.

Maria grits her teeth as she moves down the ramp. Soldiers have lined up on either side, their weapons trained on the cargo bay. Maria ignores them as her eyes land on the man waiting for them.

He stands out everywhere, but there's a tiredness to his stance. Still, it beats the alternative, and Maria struggles to keep the relief she feels from showing on her face. "Director Fury," she says loudly, for no one else's benefit but Natasha's.

Her boots ring loudly as she stomps down the ramp, her jaw squared. It's all too easy to call up the anger, to imagine this is how their story really could have ended. She ignores everyone, even her team and Clint who are following her out, their own weapons loosely in their hands.

Maria tightens her hold on her carbine, makes herself as threatening as possible so most guards have their eye on her and not the empty quinjet behind them. She's not that much shorter than Fury when she comes up to him, and she glares, her anger genuine. Fury's playing it safe by having the guards ready in case Maria and her team were compromised. She hopes he won't hold it against her when she does the same.

"What the fuck was she doing there!" She spits out the words.

Fury signals for the soldiers to put up their weapons and raises a withering eyebrow at Maria. "She did what she had to do to ensure the success of the mission. Do you really think I could have stopped her, Agent Hill?"

"She was the mission!" Maria growls. The words come too easy, the fear that this could have been reality still lying much too close to the surface, that Maria can feel the impact even now. "We have nothing now. No Romanoff and no intel."

Fury's glare wavers just for a moment as the blood drains from his face. His voice is lower but still edged in steel as he stares Maria down. "You'd better not be reporting complete mission failure. That is unacceptable."

The look Fury is giving her is enough to make Maria pause. She has to remind herself that even if his reaction is genuine, there is no knowing if somehow Fury is being forced by Simon here. Maria swallows and looks away, knowing Fury will read her hesitation as what he thinks he's seeing. "We were outnumbered. The Red Room must have given her the option: our lives for hers."

Fury blinks, nonplussed. "You expect me to believe she took the deal, and you left her there? Walked away, just like that?"

Maria's eyes widen at being called out, and she glances around at the confused looking agents standing around. "No," she admits, blinking. "I don't expect you to point that out like this if you weren't in control anymore."

"Weren't in control?" Fury's brow knits in confusion, but clears almost instantly. "Ah. I see. Romanoff told you about the leak, did she?"

"It's contained?" Maria asks, her hand tightening on her gun all the same as she's not quite ready to fully believe that the danger is gone.

"I stopped up the leak myself," Fury nods, his face grim. "Twice." He taps himself between the eyes.

There's still a moment where Maria remains sceptical. Her brain goes over all the alternative paths that somehow Simon could still be playing this, but if that was the case, Fury would never have called her out on leaving Natasha behind.

"Good." She means it with all her soul, and a weight finally falls from her shoulders. She didn't even know it'd been there. She takes a step back as the loss almost physically makes her stagger. "The mission was a success, sir. We couldn't have done it without her."

"Now, that's more like it." Fury gives her another curt nod. "Welcome back, Agent. Send your team to medical. Debrief is at 0800 tomorrow. I'm assuming Romanoff is still somewhere on that quinjet?"

"Unless she already snuck out, sir," Maria replies. She nods at Becca, giving her a small smile as there seems to be a collective sigh of relief at Fury's order.

She doesn't follow when the strike team heads inside, and she's unsurprised when Clint hangs back along with her. She doesn't go inside the quinjet like she wants to however, sensing that maybe it isn't her turn.

Fury wastes no time striding up the ramp towards the quinjet's cargo bay. "Are you coming, Agent Hill?" he calls back over his shoulder.

Maria blinks in surprise. "Yes, sir."

She starts after him, quietly squeezing Clint's arm as she passes him by and murmuring her thanks to him before she follows Fury up into the cargo bay.

Fury comes to a stop, hands on hips, in the middle of the cargo bay. "Agent Romanoff?"

No answer.

Maria can't help the moment of pride at the silence that meets them. "It's okay, Nat." She's not sure herself where Natasha is now, exactly. "Simon's dead."

After a long moment, Natasha slinks out from her hiding place, coming to stand face to face with Fury. "Simon is dead?" Her face is inscrutable.

"Very."

"Good," Natasha spits, her lip curling.

Maria can only imagine she feels but a sliver of what is going through Natasha right now. Her fingers itch to reach out, but she holds back. "I don't suppose he gave some answers first."

"The opportunity never came up." Fury gives an offhanded shrug. "What's important is the helicarrier is secure, S.H.I.E.L.D. is no longer compromised, and you all made it back with the data. All things considered, I'd say that went pretty smoothly."

Natasha scoffs weakly, unbelieving. "For once."

"Smoothly," Maria echoes, giving Fury a blank stare. "We got lucky."

"You say 'potato'..."

"It was more than just luck," Natasha interjects, breaking up the staring match between Maria and Fury. "From what I saw, Agent Hill didn't need me to tell her the mission had been compromised. Her instincts were spot on, and she got her team out of an impossible situation before the trap was even sprung."

Maria's left staring at Natasha, the praise completely unexpected that she even forgets to protest. "We couldn't have done it without you," she says quietly, even if she hates that she didn't keep Natasha out of the Red Room's reach, that they played another mind game on her, but it's the last time, and they're both still standing.

"That doesn't matter now," Natasha insists. "We made it out. We won."

"And we can cut those bastards out of your life once and for all," Maria agrees, smirking just a little because despite everything, they did outplay them.

"That's assuming the data you retrieved does the trick," Fury grumbles.

The reminder that this is not all over yet makes it hard for Natasha to breathe. She reaches into a hidden pocket of her jumpsuit and pulls out the flash drive she'd hidden there. It's warm from being kept so close to her body for the entirety of their flight home. Natasha stares down at it, cradled in the palm of her hand, and only nods slowly.

"You beat it even without that," Maria says quietly. She looks at Fury for an instant before she moves closer and reaches out to touch Natasha's wrist. "Now we've got more ammo."

Natasha gives Maria a small smile, equal parts gratitude and relief, and entwines their fingers.

Fury raises an eyebrow but otherwise fails to acknowledge the intimacy behind the touch. He clears his throat and tugs at the strap of the sling holding his arm in place.

"How's the arm?" Natasha asks, as much to change the topic as to convey her concern.

Fury gives an offhanded shrug with his good shoulder. "You should see the other guy."

The grim truth Fury's wry humor belies makes Natasha's stomach turn, but she chooses to ignore it. Fury risked his life to give her the chance to go after Maria and her team; he's earned the right to be flippant.

"I'm glad to see you're alright, sir," Maria says. There's little sympathy left in her for Simon. His betrayal stings, and the only reason she wishes he was alive was so that they could get answers from him. "We'll have to profile everyone again, make sure he was the only one. I think Natasha's files might be helpful. Any sleeper here may carry similar triggers. They might not even know they're a sleeper until we trigger it."

"Another round of background checks is already underway. Let me worry about the rest of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Hill. Weeding out traitors and double agents isn't exactly part of your job description."

It might just be the exhaustion making Natasha a little loopy, but she thinks she catches a glimpse of an impressed smirk on Fury's face.

"Wouldn't be the first time I do something that isn't in my job description," Maria says dryly, she briefly glances at Natasha and knows she should let go of her hand, but she can't help but worry. "The Red Room is really pissed off at us right now. Not only did we steal their data right from under their nose, we spoiled their entire ploy to get Natasha back under their control. They might decide to use whatever sleepers they have left to take her out permanently. With your permission, I'd like to have my team on her security detail. They've proven they can be trusted already."

"And who is going to protect them from me?" Natasha counters. "We have no idea how many of my triggers are still active. For all we know, I'm still a time bomb."

"They can serve as backup if it's necessary," Maria suggests, squeezing Natasha's hand reassuringly. "There were measures last time for this, weren't there?"

"Last time we were dealing with a hostile agent we'd intended to take out anyway," Fury muses. "That protocol doesn't apply anymore; this time we're rehabilitating one of our own."

Next to him, Natasha sucks in a sharp breath. Her back stiffens and her mouth opens to argue, but she shuts it again, at a loss for words.

Fury raises an eyebrow in amusement as he's only met with silence. "Why don't you start by telling us what would make this process easier on you, and we'll go from there?"

Natasha swallows hard and takes a few even breaths before she can trust her voice again. "I need to know that I won't be allowed to hurt anyone. I'm grateful you don't want to treat me like a prisoner, but I need to know that the people guarding me will not hesitate to do what needs to be done if I turn again."

"What needs to be done is a very relative term, Natasha," Fury points out. "Many people use it to justify a lot of things. What is it that would reassure you? If I give them the order to shoot to kill if you turn on anyone?" He instantly shoots Maria a look before she can protest. "That is not an order I'm willing to give."

"I need to know they won't let their guard down. I need to know they won't hesitate to incapacitate me by any means necessary," Natasha repeats, unblinking. "Lethal force doesn't have to be the default response, but if it becomes clear that I am out of control - my own or anyone else's - then yes, I want you to give them the order to shoot to kill." Natasha can't bring herself to look at Maria as she speaks. She's not sure she can bear to see the look on her face.

There's a long silence in which Fury simply meets Natasha's eyes and Maria's hold on her hand becomes painfully tight.

"No."

Fury's denial echoes in Maria's ears, and she finally breathes. She didn't even realise she'd stopped to begin with. Natasha seems like a stranger beside her in that moment, her hand something foreign that she doesn't dare to let go of.

Fury draws up to his full height, and even with his shoulder in a sling, his presence is imposing. "S.H.I.E.L.D. has more ways to incapacitate someone than even you know, Natasha. Don't think for one second I won't use them all before I even dream of giving that order. You want reassurance? Look around you. Tell me that not everyone here will do everything in their power to keep you from harming yourself or anyone else. You can't trust yourself right now. I get that. We all get that, but now it's time for you to trust us."

Natasha's heart and mind race, but Maria's death grip on her hand manages to keep her anchored. She turns and searches Maria's face. For what, she's not quite sure.

Maria's lips twist in what may be a smile, but it never goes further than a grimace. She meets Natasha's eyes as she reaches up, her fingers brushing lightly over Natasha's cheek before she ever so gently brushes her thumb down the bridge of Natasha's nose.

Even the light touch on her bruised nose hurts, but Natasha doesn't flinch away. "I do trust you."

"Then trust us with this," Maria pleads softly. She slides her fingers in Natasha's hair, her thumb rubbing at her nape. "I'm not going to let you lose yourself again. Neither will Clint, or Becs or anyone on that team."

"I will try," Natasha nods, holding Maria's gaze. "But I want you to understand me completely: if reprogramming is not going to succeed, if there's no way to cut me free of these ties for good, if I'm always going to be a weapon in their hands..." Her chest constricts and she trails off.

It'd be easy to dismiss it, to argue that it's not going to happen and that they need to stay positive, but Maria can't. She nods and shifts closer, tilting her head down so all she sees now is Natasha and the words she murmurs are left between them. "I won't let that happen. If we can't get you back, I promise I won't let them have you."

Natasha shudders and shoots a glance to the other side of the room where Fury is watching them intently.

Fury shakes his head at her once. "I'll trust Agent Hill's judgement on this if you do."

A weight lifts and Natasha wills some of the tension out of her body. She gives a sharp, certain nod. "I trust her with this." With her life.

"Very well," Fury agrees.

It's like a deal being sealed, and Maria can feel the weight of it. She lets her hands drop away, and she's stuck for words now. She's stuck for anything, so she's grateful when Fury continues talking.

"I'd rather put that scenario aside then. I want to get that data to the doctors right away so they can work on actually fixing this."

"The sooner the better," Natasha agrees, finally drawing away. She hands Fury the flash drive as if it were burning a hole through her palm.

It's a tiny thing to have so much importance, and Maria stares at it lying on Fury's palm before his hand closes around it and he puts it away.

He regards them both a long moment, taking in the disheveled state and obvious exhaustion. "As much as I want to know exactly what happened, I'll save the details for the debrief. Is there anything I should know right now?"

Natasha squares her jaw. “During the mission, I was briefly incapacitated and used as a weapon in the Red Room’s hands.”

Fury's eyes darken, but he catches on quickly. "They used another trigger?"

"They did. I'm back in control for now, but I really don't know how long that will last. It's probably best to keep me under guard for the time being." Natasha's shoulders sag and she fights to keep her humiliation off her face.

"Nothing there has changed, Natasha," Fury points out, not unkindly. "The security measures from before when we found out about the trigger are still in place and should be sufficient. How did you regain control?"

Natasha grimaces and tacitly looks to Maria.

"I headbutted her," Maria says calmly. She's fallen into an at ease stance, her hands behind her back.

Fury raises both eyebrows and glances between the two of them. "Well, that explains that," he says. "That was enough to break the trigger?"

Maria hesitates, but she shakes her head slowly. She isn't sure, but there's a nagging suspicion that she can't just ignore if it can help them. "I think it may have been more than that. Some of Romanova's actions were almost familiar. I believe perhaps she still remembered and responded without being fully aware of it."

"That's possible, but I don't remember any of it," Natasha confirms. "All I know is I came back after she hit me really hard on the head." She can't help but give Maria a small nudge, whether to tease or to reassure, she doesn't know.

Maria lets out a breath and she briefly leans her shoulder against Natasha's in acknowledgement even as her eyes stay on Fury.

"It could be useful information," Fury notes. "I'll let the doctors know, and you can inform them about what happened. For now, you both look like a complete mess. Let the docs look you over, and get cleaned up."

"Yes, sir," Natasha mumbles. She rubs self-consciously at the cut on her hip. "Do you need me for debriefing tomorrow morning, or just the agents actually assigned this mission?"

Fury frowns and his attention shifts back to Maria for a moment. "You've been briefed of everything that's happened?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then we'll debrief in private tomorrow unless the doctors want to start your deprogramming," he decides. "That takes precedence over everything."

"Thank you." Natasha's words carry the weight of all the sincerity she can muster.

Fury's expression softens, and there's the ghost of a smile on his lips. "It's good to have you back, Natasha."

Natasha only nods in response. She's not sure how much longer she'll be able to stay on her feet.

Fury squeezes Natasha shoulder as he passes them by towards the door. "Agent Hill, I'm expecting you at the briefing at 08:00," he tells her on his way out.

"Yes, sir," Maria replies.

Chapter Text

Natasha’s shoulders fall as soon as Fury leaves the quinjet’s cargo bay, and she turns to Maria, letting her head rest against her chest. Maria finds herself responding automatically, stroking her fingers through Natasha's hair.

"That's a lot of trust," Maria says quietly.

"What do you mean?" Natasha's question is muffled against Maria's body

Maria glances down, marveling at the feeling she gets seeing Natasha like this, trusting and vulnerable. It's all she wants in this moment. She gently rubs the back of Natasha's neck and leans down to drop a kiss to the top of her head.

The silence is enough to start to set Natasha on edge again. She pulls away and brings a hand to Maria's cheek. "What's wrong?"

Maria turns her head into the touch, pressing her lips against her palm. "You just put your life in my hands."

"I trust you," Natasha says simply, running her fingers along Maria's jaw.

"Enough to have me kill you," she whispers the words against Natasha's skin and finally meets her eyes to let the weight of that trust truly sink in.

Natasha stares back into her eyes, unblinking. "Yes. I trust you to kill me if you have to."

Maria stays silent for a long time, not looking away from Natasha. She can feel it inside of her, the piece in her chest that would go with Natasha if she had to kill her.

"Do you also trust me to fight for you as long as there's hope?"

"As long as there's hope," Natasha breathes as she kisses her, slowly and deeply.

Maria leans into Natasha as she lets herself just feel, her fingers tangling in Natasha's hair.

"Don't give up on me," she breathes against Natasha's lips.

"I won't." The words come effortlessly. It very well might be out of Natasha's power to keep such promises, but that doesn't keep her from wanting to make them. Especially when Maria is the one asking. Natasha supposes that kind of devotion is exactly why the triggers exist in the first place. What better way to defy the people that did this to her than to embrace the person she's become, the person they feared she could be.

"I won't," Natasha repeats with more conviction this time. "I'm not giving up."

"Good," Maria whispers as she leans her forehead against Natasha's. "Neither will I."

It'd be almost peaceful if it wasn't for the ache in her leg and the pressure against her ribs, every part reminding her of how far she pushed her body now that the adrenaline is gone.

"You're shaking." Natasha presses her hand to Maria's shoulder, concerned. "Or is that me?"

"Am I?" She doesn't even know at this point. "I think we're both a little shaky."

Natasha hums sarcastically. "I wonder why." She settles her head on Maria's shoulder again. “I suppose I should head to the medbay sooner rather than later. Don’t worry: I won’t rat you out for busting up my face.”

"You can." Maria will have to head over to medical herself, but she won't say no to a shower first. It does little to stop her reluctance from letting Natasha go. "Come find me?"

"If I'm free to go? Of course I will," Natasha answers without hesitation. For a moment, she can almost picture this as a routine mission, one where her life and free will are not on the line. What would it be like to come back from the field, get cleared by med and psych, and head directly to Maria's quarters? To fall into her bed for comfort and to sleep off the exhaustion?

"If you're not there in an hour, I'll come find you," Maria promises, ducking her head to press a kiss to Natasha's temple.

"It's a date," Natasha smirks halfheartedly. "And if they send me directly to reprogramming..." She hooks her hand around the back of Maria's head and kisses her hard, full on the lips.

The idea that they could just send Natasha there without giving her a chance to talk to her first hadn't even occurred to Maria. Her breath catches and she instantly grips Natasha's hips, drawing her closer as she lengthens the kiss, not willing to just let her go.

Natasha lets her arms wrap around Maria's shoulders, the length of her body seeking every possible point of contact. "This might be it for us," she murmurs when finally she draws back for a breath. "I don't want to spend a minute longer than necessary attached to these marionette strings."

"No." It's like breaking water. Like she's been submerged ever since Natasha held that gun to her head, and finally, finally there is air in her lungs again, but it hurts. Maria follows when Natasha draws back, she presses her face in her hair and brushes her lips over her ear, her jaw, her cheek. She smells like sweat and gunfire, and everything that's bright and warm. "No," she repeats, presses it into Natasha's skin with her lips. "It isn't. We're just starting and you're stronger than they are. You're stronger than they ever knew you could be."

For a minute longer, Natasha sinks into Maria's arms, into the desperation that's kept her on her feet and moving forward. There's nowhere to go but forward. "Then I'll see you on the other side," she murmurs against Maria's neck.

Maria bites back a sob. She tangles her fingers in Natasha's hair, holds her tight even as her ribs protest but somehow even that feels right. "I'll be there," she promises. She has to force herself to draw back, but it's not far and she needs Natasha to meet her eyes, needs her to see that she means it and that not even Nick Fury himself is going to stop her.

"You'd better," Natasha swallows hard. "You got me through it last time; I don't think I can do it again without you."

"You could," Maria says firmly like there is no doubt to it, and she rests her forehead against Natasha's, "but you don't have to. I'm not going anywhere unless you want me to." She hesitates, but it's even harder now to imagine letting go. "Do you want me to come with you now?"

"Yes," Natasha murmurs, sounding impossibly small. She covers quickly, pressing her cheek to Maria's. "You should get yourself checked out, too. Don't think I haven't noticed that you wince whenever I put my arms around you."

"I knew I couldn't fool you," Maria murmurs. It's probably the only reason why she isn't trying to lift Natasha up so she can bury her face in the crook of her neck. She settles for leaning more firmly into the touch.

Natasha bites her lower lip. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

Maria's answer takes a second too long as she can't bring herself to lie or try to hide it. "You didn't cause that. I'll be fine, I promise."

Of course her hesitation does not go unnoticed. Natasha tightens her grip on Maria's shoulder. "What aren't you telling me, Maria?"

With a sigh, Maria draws back and tugs down the collar of her jacket so Natasha can see the bruises along her neck that look suspiciously like hand prints. "I think I managed to push your buttons," she says sheepishly.

Reflexively, Natasha disentwines and steps back, pressing her back against the wall in horror. "I did that to you?"

"I didn't give you a bloody nose for the fun of it," Maria says quietly. She shakes her head and takes a step closer again, testing to see if Natasha will let her. "The Red Room did this to me. They did this to you."

Natasha doesn't retreat - can't retreat - but neither does she reach for Maria. "Those are still my handprints around your neck. I could've killed you."

"But you didn't," Maria moves closer still, ducking her head to make sure Natasha is really looking at her. "They tried to take everything from you. They tried to erase who you are, tried to get you to kill the people you care for, and they failed. Despite everything, you came back to me."

Natasha's back goes stiff. "That doesn't mean it won't happen again. We have to end this."

"And we will," Maria emphasises the word as she holds out her hand to Natasha. "I can't do this without you either, Natasha."

Natasha takes her hand, squeezing as hard as she dares, and finally steps away from the quinjet wall. She searches Maria's eyes, hoping to convey whatever it is she can't find the words for.

Maria instantly squeezes Natasha's hand back, having no qualms to hold on tightly. "I'm not letting you go." It's a promise.

"Good. Then come with me?" Natasha cocks her head to the side and takes a few steps toward the ramp, tugging at Maria to follow.

"Of course." It's all the persuasion she needs to follow Natasha. When they clear the quinjet, she brushes her thumb over the back of Natasha's hand and loosens her grip, but she doesn't let go.

It's both sweet and strange to walk down the halls of the helicarrier hand-in-hand. Even if they are walking up to the edge of a chasm too vast to even think about. Natasha nudges Maria's hip as they walk, bringing up the question still lingering. "So if I'm not responsible for your injured ribs, who or what is?"

Maria takes a moment to glare at an agent who's given them a curious look. The agent quickly looks away and scurries further onto his path.

"Remember those guys lying dead in the lab where you found us?" she asks, answering like that didn't just happen.  "One of them wasn't that bad of a shot. I'm okay," she hastens to add. "The kevlar blocked it. At worst I cracked a rib, but it doesn't feel broken."

Natasha stops and tugs Maria around in a half-circle to look at her. "You got shot? Maria..."

"I've had worse," she falters when she realises how unhelpful that particular argument actually is. She reaches up her free hand and cups Natasha's cheek, shaking her head. She could argue, but she doubts Natasha will truly listen or that she'll be convinced, so she kisses her instead.

Natasha kisses her back, then chuckles exasperatedly. "Were you going to tell me you'd been shot, or..."

"I don't think I could have hidden this from you indefinitely," Maria grimaces. "I don't want you to blame yourself. Not for this, not for what happened when you were under their influence. I don't blame you, and I don't regret any of it... Okay, I regret getting shot, but it was worth it."

Natasha gives her a half-smile and drops a kiss to the center of her chest, right over the top of her kevlar vest. "What's it like, getting shot through kevlar?"

"You haven't been shot like that before?" Maria asks in surprise, a small smile curving her lips at the affection and she gently brushes Natasha's cheek.

Natasha scrunches up her nose. "Nope. Bullets either miss me, or they go through flesh. I've never been issued kevlar."

Maria frowns. "Not even here? I can look into that if you want, you should get it with your standard gear." She can't change the past, not even now when she's seen a glimpse of the halls Natasha grew up in, but she can change this.

Natasha shrugs. "I'd have to train with it first. I'm used to having my completely unrestricted range of motion." She can't deny that the idea of working for an organization that puts her safety first and efficiency second is appealing, even if she feels a little foolish for never having thought of it before.

"I can give you pointers," Maria says gently, and she rubs her thumb over Natasha's cheekbone. "Not that I can pull off half of your moves."

Natasha nudges her hip again and shoots her a mock-skeptical look. "I don't know... Do your pointers include how not to get shot?"

Maria makes a face at her and nudges her right back. "For the record: that does hurt like a bitch. Think jackhammer to your chest."

Natasha rolls her eyes. "And yet you still tried to play it off like it never even happened."

"There are worse things than my discomfort," Maria says stubbornly, tugging Natasha along.

"Like what?" Natasha shoots back without missing a beat.

Maria's expression darkens and her grip on Natasha's hand tightens. "Failing that mission is one. Losing someone to those assholes is another."

Natasha falters. "You're right. I'm sorry. I just really don't like it when you get shot. Apparently."

"I understand that," Maria's tone softens as she glances at Natasha. She stops again, and they really shouldn't keep the medstaff waiting, but there might not be time for this later. "I understand that all too well. I feel like I keep almost losing you, and I can't picture anything beyond that. I don't want to."

"I can't promise I'll always make it back," Natasha says regretfully. "Not in this line of work. But I can promise I will try."

"I know," Maria reassures her gently, giving her a rueful smile. She knows that all too well, just like she can't make any promises herself. "That's enough."

Natasha squeezes Maria's hand and continues on down the corridor. "I'm going to hold you to that."

Maria falls silent as they continue. She wonders how much she's going to regret saying that, but then it seems like a luxury to worry that far ahead. She has no idea how long it will take them to beat Natasha's programming once and for all; she can't even think of them failing. Luckily she doesn't get the time to let her mind wander by that path as they reach the medbay and the medic ushers them through to the room Natasha had been staying in before.

The moment they're alone, Natasha lets her knees buckle, landing her securely - if not gracefully - on the bed. She lifts her hand holding it out for Maria to take. Maria steps closer to the bed and takes Natasha's hand in hers, and Natasha tugs her even closer, leaning some of her weight against her body.

Maria slides her arm behind Natasha's back and presses a kiss to the top of her head. "Will you do me a favour?"

<<Of course.>>

Maria huffs softly, her breath ruffling Natasha's hair. It's a little surprising how little she minds asking Natasha while she hates the thought of having to ask the medic. "Please, help me out of this gear?"

Natasha lets out a short bark of surprised laughter. "I think I can manage that." Her hands are already reaching for the clasps.

"Thank you," Maria murmurs, letting her hand trail down Natasha's back. She's tempted to help, but she'd get in the way so she makes herself a nuisance instead and reaches up to stroke her fingers over Natasha's cheek.

Natasha makes quick work of undoing all of the straps holding the vest and various holsters in place and carefully lifts them away from Maria's body so as not to aggravate her injuries. She smirks to herself as she works, eventually deciding to actually voice her thoughts. "How have we made it this long without me having to strip you out of your tac gear?" she chuckles.

Maria's snort ends in a grimace, and she shakes her head. "I'd say we're just good at our jobs, but I'm guessing it's just luck." She rubs her hand over her chest even though it makes things worse. It's good to be free of the continuous press against her sternum.

Natasha sets aside the last of Maria's gear and fists her hands in the sweat-damp shirt Maria had on underneath it. "You know, there are other things I'd rather strip you out of, given the choice," Natasha teases.

"Oh?" Maria raises an eyebrow and she carefully wraps her arms around Natasha again. "Like what?"

"Like that blue button-down shirt of yours," Natasha supplies, tracing circles with her fingertips, "Or that tank top you kept foolishly trying to wear to bed."

"I don't know if it was foolish," Maria muses. "It got me lucky every time." It doesn't matter how tired she is, Natasha's touch makes her skin tingle and sends a thrill down her spine.

Natasha hums. "I guess you have a point." She kisses just below Maria's ear before setting her head back down onto her shoulder.

"Course I do," Maria teases quietly, and she rests her cheek on top of Natasha's head. She knows they're stalling, but she's not quite ready to let this moment go. She can feel every soft breath warm against her neck, and she wants nothing more than to lie back and draw Natasha down with her.

She can't put the world on hold; she can't stop what will happen next. She shouldn't even try, but just for a little while longer she wants to linger there.

As if reading her mind, Natasha gingerly swings her legs up onto the bed and into Maria's lap, then reclines back against the raised head of the bed, beckoning for Maria to join her. "Come here."

It's not either of the things Fury told them to do, but Maria finds herself not caring. "I will," she promises, but she still takes the moment to undo Natasha's boots and drop them to the floor. It's only when her own boots are off that she settles down beside Natasha, wrapping an arm around her waist.

Natasha folds herself neatly into Maria's arms and sighs in as close an approximation of contentment as is possible, given the situation. She flexes her feet, glad to be rid of her boots only until she realizes their support was the only thing keeping her ankle in place. Pain shoots up her leg and turns into a small sound in the back of her throat.

That was not a happy noise. Maria knows Natasha's happy noises, and that definitely wasn't one of them. "What's wrong?" she asks, drawing back a little to get a better look at Natasha.

"I must've busted my ankle at some point," Natasha groans, more out of annoyance than pain. "I don't even remember doing it."

If Natasha's ankle was broken, there'd be no way she wouldn't have noticed before now so Maria leans in instead, gently kissing Natasha's cheek in apology. "Maybe I should check you over."

Natasha shakes her head. "You don't have to do that. I'm going to be checked over plenty soon enough."

"I'd better be the only one offering to kiss it better, though," Maria teases, pressing a kiss to her temple.

"I think you're the only one on this ship that's brave enough to do that," Natasha laughs.

"I'm definitely not the only one who's dreaming of it," Maria murmurs, snuggling closer against Natasha. She reaches for Natasha's hand and threads their fingers together. "That's the second time you came to save me."

"You really should learn to stay out of trouble," Natasha muses, but her teasing is short lived. "I know it upsets you that I put myself at risk for you, but I couldn't just let you walk into their trap. I couldn't."

"I know," Maria says gently. "I would have done exactly the same." She falls silent for a moment, trying to find the right words while she unconsciously plays with Natasha's fingers. "I was scared. Everything about that place, the rooms we'd been in. It felt haunted, like you could feel the evil that happened there. I don't know half of what they did to you and I hated the thought of you being back there, of them getting a hold on you again. I don't think I could have lived with it if they'd got you back because of me."

"I was scared, too," Natasha shudders. "Being back there, it was as if I'd never left. Even when I'd caught up to you, it felt like I was imagining things. You don't belong there. I never wanted you to end up a part of that place."

"I'm not," Maria gently presses her fingers against Natasha's jaw, turning her head towards her so she can meet her eyes. "You don't belong there either. Not anymore."

Natasha balls her fists into Maria's shirt, and her eyes become dark and distant. "But we always went back."

"We?" Maria asks softly, brushing Natasha's hair away from her forehead.

Natasha's eyes fall shut as she realizes her mistake, and for a moment she remains silent, trying to find the words to explain herself.

"I used to sneak out a lot when I was a kid," she says at last. "I'd go alone at first, but eventually some of the other girls asked to come with me. We'd go in groups of two or three, sometimes more, out through that service exit by the kitchens."

Natasha's breath catches as the memories she'd tried so hard to keep at bay while they were actually at the compound come flooding back. She always chose a night when the moon was new and the sky was clear, and she'd wake the other girls, shivering in their bunks. They made their way to the kitchens, filled their pockets with what little food was sure not to be missed, slipped out through the door and into the night. She remembers the way they walked so close to one another once they'd made it into the trees, pressing together for warmth and to make sure no one got lost in the dark. They stepped silently, cautiously, until they made it far enough into the woods that the crushing dread of being caught lifted and they could breathe again, exhaling clouds into the sharp night air. Then they would run, as far and as fast as they dared, until they had to stop to rest, collapsing into a pile of warm bodies and lanky limbs on the ground in a clearing. In those moments, Natasha almost knew what it was like to have sisters.

With a start, Natasha realizes she's trailed off, so she clears her throat and tries again. "We ran away into the woods, looked up at the stars, and vowed we'd never, ever go back. But we always did." Back through the trees, back over the fence, back across the yard. Climbed hand over hand up the drainpipe to the window. Slipped, shivering, back into their bunks. "Sometimes we were allowed the illusion that our excursion had gone unnoticed. Sometimes we were caught and punished. But we always went back."

"You had nowhere else to go," Maria realises quietly. She traces her fingers gently over Natasha's face, wiping away tears that aren't there. The thought that that place was all the home Natasha would have known then cuts her up, and she has nothing to offer to make up for it.

"We didn't," Natasha agrees. "But I do now, and I still ended up back there."

"To burn your bridges." Maria shifts carefully, her hand resting at Natasha's throat as she searches her eyes, trying to understand what she's saying. "You don't believe that?"

"I might believe it someday, but I can't right now," Natasha admits.

"I'll believe it for you," Maria offers gently, touching her forehead to Natasha's. There's a question burning at the back of her mind, but she doesn't know if she should ask, doesn't know how much she should let Natasha take this trip down memory lane, or whether perhaps Natasha needs to. "What happened to those other girls?"

Natasha shudders, starting to feel a little sick. "Are you sure you want to know the answer to that?"

"I am," Maria answers and she brushes a soft kiss to Natasha's cheek before she draws back a little, giving Natasha space to consider it. "I'm not going to make you tell me, but I want to know if you're willing to tell me about it."

"I don't really know what happened to all of them," Natasha starts, forcing the words past her tight throat and dry mouth. "Some of them never returned from missions. Some of them just disappeared. Nothing was ever said about it. No funerals, no vigils, nothing." Natasha swallows hard, her eyes welling. "But some of them, I..."

"You what?" Maria prompts gently as she strokes Natasha's hair, the touch feeling inadequate.

"I killed them." Natasha stares blankly into Maria's eyes, her whole body going numb at the admission.

Maria's fingers still as the words sink in, and she finally presses her palm against Natasha's cheek. She never looks away from Natasha, even if Natasha might not really be seeing her. "Why?"

"I had to." The words feel hollow, inadequate. "We had to fight each other, sometimes as training exercises, sometimes as punishments. They died. I survived."

"I'm so sorry, Nat," Maria whispers, her voice near breaking. It feels like a stupid thing to say, but it's all she can manage. She can't even begin to fathom what Natasha went through.

Natasha makes the mistake of blinking just then, and it's just enough to make tears slip down her cheek. "They're dead because of me, and I lived to escape the Red Room not once but twice."

"Nat..." Maria shakes her head and she rubs her thumb over her cheekbone. "The Red Room used you, and if it hadn't been you, they would have used someone else to kill them."

"I know. But I still pulled the trigger." Natasha drops her head into her hands.

Just like they would have pulled the trigger on Natasha if she hadn't done that, but Maria doubts knowing that is a comfort. She reaches out instead, brushing her fingers over Natasha's arm, wishing she had words to offer, wishing she didn't feel grateful that Natasha was the one to make it out alive. "You had no choice, I know that doesn't make it better. I know nothing will make that better...."

Natasha struggles to keep her breathing even in an attempt to maintain some control. When that doesn't work, she takes a deep breath and holds it for as long as she possibly can. She realizes too late what a bad idea that is; when she finally releases the breath, it brings with it a sob that shakes her whole body.

The sound cuts through Maria and she instantly wraps her arms around Natasha, drawing her closer against her like she might be able to shield Natasha and keep her past away if she holds on just tight enough.

Trying so hard to hold back only makes the pain in Natasha's chest worse, but she fights for a few more seconds before dissolving into tears. She can feel them running down her wrists as she presses the heels of her hands against her eyes.

Maria can feel the spasm run through Natasha's body and she rubs her hand soothingly down her back as she presses her face in Natasha's hair, murmuring softly in Spanish, words she remembers from a lifetime ago.

Maria's voice in her ear is enough to convince Natasha to uncurl long enough to press her cheek to Maria's chest. Her fingers catch at her shirt as her body continues to shake.

The pressure hurts, but it's a relief when Natasha moves against her, and Maria presses soft kisses to Natasha's hair. "I've got you," she whispers as she rubs her hands over Natasha's back, wishing desperately that she had more to offer, but all she can do is hold on.

Little by little, Natasha manages to get herself back under control, leaving her feeling calmer but still numb. When she's able to lift her head again, she smooths her hand over the place where she'd soaked through Maria's shirt. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Maria shakes her head and she manages a soft, reassuring smile. "You have nothing to apologise for. Not here. I wish there was more I could do."

"Can I at least apologize for getting snot on your shirt?" Natasha jokes half heartedly.

Maria laughs shortly and presses a kiss to Natasha's temple. "You're already forgiven."

"Well in that case..." Natasha grabs the collar of Maria's shirt and vehemently wipes her nose on it.

"Gross," Maria complains, wrinkling her nose in disgust, but she still pulls Natasha closer against her. "You're doing my laundry this week."

"You sure you want me to do that, Hill?" Natasha asks skeptically. "Remember what happened the last time I got my hands on your laundry?"

"You look hot in my clothes," Maria says mildly. She runs her fingers through Natasha's hair as she studies her.

"I do, don't I?" Natasha smirks before leaning in to kiss the corner of Maria's mouth.

"You do," Maria whispers absently as she turns her head and kisses Natasha softly on the lips. "Are you alright?"

"No," Natasha murmurs. "No, I'm not."

"We can talk more," Maria offers, "you can tell me about them." She hesitates and gently nuzzles Natasha's cheek. "Or I can tell you more about how hot you look if you prefer."

"Let's stick to the latter for now. I don't know how much more reminiscing I can do right now," Natasha admits.

"Okay," Maria agrees as she traces her fingers along Natasha's spine. "I like you best in nothing but my West Point shirt."

Natasha bites her lower lip and suppresses a groan. "That was a good afternoon, wasn't it?"

"The best," Maria whispers and presses her lips to Natasha's ear. It feels so long ago now, so far out of their reach, but Natasha is still there and Maria can't regret anything that's brought her here.

Natasha sighs and snakes an arm around Maria's waist. "We'll have to do that again, once all this is over."

"You bet," Maria promises. "I'm thinking you'll have earned a long vacation. I'll take you anywhere you want to go."

"Really?" Natasha breathes. "Even if it isn't likely to happen for a while?"

"I don't care how long it takes." Maria tightens her arms around Natasha. "I'm not going anywhere."

"Promise?"

"Promise," Maria answers instantly, and she shifts on the bed until she can rest her forehead against Natasha. <<I promise. I will not leave you.>>

<<Good.>> Natasha strokes her cheek and kisses her slowly.

For a moment, all Maria can focus on is the feeling of Natasha's lips on hers and her fingers warm and soft on her cheek. Her breath catches, and she nips slowly at Natasha's bottom lip.

<<I'm yours.>> She's not sure why she echoes the words, why she needs to repeat them now.

<<You're mine,>> Natasha murmurs, though the words feel surreal.

Maria swallows thickly. She can feel the ghost of Natasha's fingers on her throat as she does, but Natasha's voice sounds so different now from when Natalia said those words. She nods and buries her face against Natasha neck, slowly inhaling her scent. <<I love you.>>

<<I love you, too.>> Natasha plays with the hair on the back of Maria's head. "I'm lucky to have you."

The fingers in her hair are distracting and Maria hums her approval as she relaxes against Natasha. "Careful, that might go to my head," she teases.

"I mean it," Natasha insists, scratching a little more firmly at Maria's head.

"I know," Maria breathes, nuzzling Natasha's neck. "I feel the same."

Natasha smiles and lets her head rest on Maria's. "You know what's funny?"

"What's that?" Maria asks quietly.

"We keep having really intense, poignant moments in hospital beds," Natasha smirks.

Maria huffs and shifts so she can lean her head on the pillow and meet Natasha's eyes. Natasha's eyes are swollen and red, and Maria traces her finger down her cheek. "We should try not to make this a habit."

"We might not have much of a choice for a while."

"Point taken," Maria makes a face, but she grins a little as she considered it. "I guess that means I can practice my sneaking you food skills."

"I hope you haven't gotten too rusty," Natasha chuckles. "I miss our coffee and donuts mornings."

"Really?" Maria grins and pushes up on her elbow so she can whisper in Natasha's ear. "I was missing our breakfast in bed mornings. I hope you haven't gotten too rusty."

Natasha shivers but recovers enough to slug Maria in the shoulder. "How's that for rusty?"

Maria grimaces, and she presses a kiss to Natasha's ear before she lies back down with a fake sigh. "I do miss our gym sessions too," she says airily.

"I think it's going to take me a while before I'm comfortable sparring with you again," Natasha admits quietly.

"We can take our time," Maria offers. It seems impossible not to touch Natasha right now, and she brushes her fingers gently over her cheek and down her neck. "I'd like to get there again. You keep me on my toes."

Natasha turns her head into the touch and smiles sadly. "I'm sure we'll get there eventually. I just want to make sure you never have to doubt me again."

Maria's expression falters and she cups Natasha's cheek in her hand. "I'm so sorry, Nat."

"So am I," Natasha says softly.

Maria shifts closer, resting her forehead against Natasha's. "We're going to be okay."

"I hope so." Natasha buries her face against the crook of Maria's neck.

Maria hums softly before she falls silent. She wraps her arm around Natasha's shoulder, holding her close. She wishes she could make promises, but she knows she can't. She closes her eyes, revelling in the feeling of Natasha's breath warm against her skin as she's pressed close against Maria, like maybe she belongs there.

It's entirely too short a time before Dr. Sen herself leans her head in the door. "Agent Hill? They're ready for you down the hall." There's a polite apology in the tone of her voice. "Agent Romanoff, you can stay right here."

Natasha grimaces and props herself up on one elbow. "Can we have another minute?"

"Of course." Dr. Sen's expression softens. "Just don't be too long. The sooner we can get started, the better."

The doctor steps back into the hallway, and Natasha stares after her, her stomach plummeting. They're out of time. There's no point trying to delay what has to happen next.

"This is it."

It's much too soon. Whatever control and peace Maria finally found slips from her fingers, leaving her breathless. Her arms tighten around Natasha like she might just be able to hold on for just that instant longer, even if she knows this has to happen.

It has to, and it won't help Natasha if Maria loses it now. She swallows thickly before loosening her hold just a little, forcing a calm that she doesn't truly feel. "Yeah," she finds herself agreeing because any other words seem to have rapidly fled her mind, and all she can do is stare at Natasha.

Just the feeling of Maria tensing beside her sends Natasha's heart pounding again. She grabs at Maria's hand and grips it hard. "I'm not going to say goodbye."

"Good," Maria squeezes her hand back instantly, and she forces a smile, "because it isn't. I've got way too much chewing gum you're not allowed to leave me stuck with it."

"You might have to hold onto it for a while," Natasha says, forcing a laugh.

Maria snorts and she rubs her thumb over Natasha's knuckles. "I'm a patient woman when I want to be."

"I'll believe that when I see it." Natasha's smirk falters almost instantly, and she throws her arms around Maria's shoulders. Her mind races with all the things she should say, all the things she has no time to say.

Maria instantly hugs her back, pulling her as close against her as she can, ignoring the pain in her ribs. "I'll show you," she promises as she turns her head, slowly inhaling the scent of Natasha's hair. "I'll show you when you wake up and I'm right there next to you."

"I'll see you then." It takes all the willpower Natasha can muster to let go, but if she doesn't do it now, she may not be able to at all.

Maria lets her arms fall away and lets Natasha pull back. She wants to follow, wants to kiss her one last time, but she's not sure she can let go again a second time. She has to force her body to move and slip off the hospital bed, ignoring sore muscles and a sore heart as she tugs on her boots.

She stands to face Natasha, feeling awkward and all too aware of how they're not touching now. <<I love you.>>

<<I love you too,>> Natasha promises, trying hard not to think about how final it sounds. "Go. I'll see you soon."

She should have something witty to say in response. Something meaningful that will take some of the weight off of this, but nothing will come. So she nods wordlessly, and she's already taking half a step back when everything inside her freezes, because none of this will do. None of it is enough, even if it isn't goodbye.

Swearing, she turns quickly, stalks back to the bed and stoops down, kissing Natasha hard and fierce, and with everything she has. It isn't goodbye, but it's something to hold on to, something to take with her that isn't Natasha looking lost and vulnerable.

Natasha gasps and tugs her closer by her collar, kissing her back with the full force of all the fear and uncertainty she's been holding back. It all comes bubbling to the surface until she has to pull away. "Go," she pleads, her voice breaking. "I don't know how much more of this I can take."

Maria nods and briefly touches Natasha's cheek, meeting her eyes to try and convey whatever certainty she feels that this will be alright. It has to be. She'll kick whatever ass she has to to make it alright.

"I'll see you soon, Natasha Romanoff."

Then she turns, beating a hasty retreat before she loses whatever control she has left.

 

Chapter Text

Natasha barely registers the poking and prodding and routine questions that go along with the thorough medical exam the medstaff subjects her to. She ignores the anxious glances and the scribbled notes and the hushed voices. She shuts out the sting of antiseptic in her cuts and scrapes, the tug of the stitches binding up the knife wound on her hip, the ache of her sprained ankle being immobilized. There's nothing to be done about her nose except wait for the bruising to fade. No concussion, no broken bones, no internal bleeding, this might as well have been just another mission. She clings to the routine, lets it numb her.

She's allowed a shower, hot but brief, before an armed medic escorts her back to the secure ward. The man seems sheepish, apologetic for the way he's treating her, but she ignores that, too. She climbs into the narrow bed but declines the medic's offer of 'something strong to help you sleep.' He doesn't argue with her, and she's grateful for that. She's grateful for the heavy thud of the door bolting behind him when he leaves her alone, too.

This is the way it has to be. It's safer like this.

A handful of hours pass before Dr. Sen and her team are ready with a plan of action. By then, Natasha has to struggle to focus on the words Sen is saying, but the doctor is incredibly patient with her. She explains that the data Maria and her team retrieved contains more than enough information to confirm what the medical team had already suspected and to shed light on the procedures that would hopefully reverse the Red Room's handiwork. The majority of the medical jargon goes right over Natasha's head, but she appreciates not being talked down to, even in her current state of exhaustion.

"I'm not going to lie to you," Dr. Sen cuts right to the chase. "This is going to be very hard on you, both physically and emotionally. The fact that even those monsters in the Red Room saw fit to sedate you and then wipe this procedure from your memory speaks volumes. How anyone could do something like this - to children, no less -" Dr. Sen cuts herself off with a scowl. "I apologize. That was unprofessional of me."

Natasha only stares blankly at her until she continues.

"Think of it as intensive chemotherapy. We're going to flood your body with chemicals to try to override the neurological responses programmed into you when you were young, and we're going to hope for the best. With luck, biology will be on our side. I'm hopeful that it will be easier to revert to your body's natural state than it was to alter it, but I can't guarantee that will be the case.

"The procedure will more than likely be quite painful. There are a number of options for managing that pain, but I think the most humane thing to do is to put you under for the duration of the treatment."

Natasha cuts her off before she can say anything further. Pain is the least of her concerns at this point. "Will this even work?"

Sen blinks at her, taken aback. "According to the files, the procedure has close to an 80% success rate, but--"

Again, Natasha interrupts her. "How long will it take?"

"I don't know," Sen answers honestly. "Weeks? Months? We won't know until we see how your body responds to the first round of treatment."

Months. The idea drives the air from Natasha's lungs. The prospect of spending that much time unconscious on a medical table is almost incomprehensible, but she knows that this is her only chance at freedom. Real, actual freedom to be her own person, to atone for her past. She's survived this before; she can only hope she'll do it again. "How soon can you start?"

"Immediately," Sen promises without missing a beat. "My team is standing by. With your consent, I can sedate you right now."

Despite the panic welling up in her chest, Natasha steadies herself and raises her head defiantly. "Do it."

Dr. Sen wastes no time fitting a syringe to the IV connected to Natasha's arm. She sets a hand on Natasha's shoulder, directing her to lie back, but she leaves it there even after Natasha is settled. The doctor gives Natasha's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Count back from ten for me."

Natasha makes it slowly to eight, to seven, to six, and then everything goes black.

 


 

"She wanted to start treatment right away."

Maria nods numbly, staring at the monitors beside Natasha's bed. It's the first time in three days that they let her inside, and part of her wants to turn and walk out again. "How long?"

"It's hard to tell. The recovery is going slower than we'd hoped."

"How long?"

"We're looking at months."

The words echo in her ears, they're stuck there every time she walks into Natasha's room. Every time she glances at the monitors or reads through Natasha's charts, trying to make sense of the chemicals and procedures until her mind clogs up and she falls asleep in the chair beside Natasha's bed.

"You know you can sleep in your own bed. They're not going to let her wake up without us knowing." Clint looks on edge any time he visits.

It freaks him out to see her lying there, he tells Maria one evening. Maria thinks it'd freak her out more if she couldn't see her.

The transfer to tactical is a welcome change. It keeps her busy most of the time. She's handling several teams at once, organising bigger ops, and they're still cleaning up after Agent Simon. They don't find any other sleepers, and everything suggests that Simon only became active when Natasha joined S.H.I.E.L.D. They find traces of communications with the Red Room shortly after Hawkeye brought Natasha in, and after that it's a trail of breadcrumbs.

He leaked information on the operation when Maria first joined Natasha in the field, making sure Natasha's cover was blown. He even had a hand in Maria's own capture. They never wanted information from her, they wanted Natasha.

They failed.

Maria gets her own office, but she's hardly seen the inside. Most of the spare time she has, she spends in Natasha's room whenever they let her in. She has enough paperwork to catch up on to keep her busy, to keep her from staring at the many tubes going inside Natasha's body.

It keeps her from worrying that the chemicals they're pumping inside Natasha's system will somehow erase the Natasha Romanoff she knows.

"We're confident this won't impact her memories." Doctor Sen tells her.

"But not certain."

"No. No one's attempted to do this before."

"What about personality?" Maria asks, trying to ignore the sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Sen shakes her head. "We don't know."

Maria thinks, perhaps, this would be when she's supposed to start talking to Natasha. Clint does it with ease, and Maria is jealous of it. She sometimes grumbles, runs an idea past her, but she can't bring herself to just talk and not expect an answer. She can't bring herself to share memories, to just chat or read whatever report she's working on.

She's grateful when Doctor Sen shows her some of the exercises they're putting Natasha through each day. It gives her something to do, gives her a reason to touch, but she can feel the strength fading from Natasha's limbs, no matter how much physio they put her through.

"We're looking at months."

Months that Maria sees dragging by, never fast enough. Never with an end in sight as Natasha's body pays its toll, and Doctor Sen can only shake her head. They're optimistic, but they never know. Not for sure. Not enough.

"We're looking at months."

And Maria waits.

Chapter Text

The visitors chairs in the medbay have got to be the most uncomfortable things on the whole goddamned helicarrier. Complain as he might, though, Fury has to admit that it's worth it for the chance to sit and collect his thoughts for a few minutes. He could easily barricade himself in his office for some peace and quiet, but over the past few weeks he finds himself lingering in the medbay after his meetings with Dr. Sen. Some days he stays just long enough to glance through the window. Other days - rare days like today when Natasha is alone - he sits for upwards of half an hour, staring off into space.

He knows there are more pressing things for him to do with his time. There are personnel background checks to oversee and teams to debrief and the WSC to put up with, a never-ending flood of high-stakes bullshit to deal with. Even so, he takes the time to sit here in this flimsy, uncomfortable chair, keeping Natasha company. He owes her this. Despite all the shit he'd gotten for agreeing to take on a dangerous, infamous assassin, he'd made his decision. He made it his responsibility to give her the best shot at the redemption she was brave enough to seek. It was his responsibility to help her, and he'd failed the first time. The least he can do is be here for the second attempt.

Goddamned uncomfortable chairs.

Maria knows Natasha's timetable as well as she does her own, knows when the doctor does her usual checkups, when they put Natasha through physio, and she knows for a fact that Clint was somewhere in Berlin chasing a lead. So when she pushes her way inside Natasha's room, hip checking the door open, she stops short when she finds the Director folded up in one of the plastic chairs. Her chair.

"Sir." Maria blinks. She can't help but feel like she just got caught, she just doesn't know what exactly she's supposedly getting caught at.

"Agent Hill," Fury greets her. He sits up straight in the chair and winces as he tries to stretch out the kink in his lower back. "I figured I'd run into you here eventually."

"That seems to be a safe bet," she agrees as she moves into the room, the door thumping quietly shut behind her. "Is everything alright?" She can't help but check, even as her eyes skim over the monitors, and the steady beep reassures her that Natasha is comfortable.

"Everything's fine," he assures her. "It's slow going, but she's doing well."

Nothing new, nothing bad. Maria relaxes and puts her coffee mug, laptop and tablet on the table beside the bed before turning her attention to Natasha. She doesn't lean down like she normally would, but she traces her fingers down Natasha's arm in greeting. "Am I interrupting?"

"No, I was just leaving." Fury gets to his feet and offers her the chair.

"You may want to think twice about that, sir," Maria says, making no move to take the vacated seat. "I believe there was something about an incoming call from the White House when I left. Something to do with the incident in Nairobi..."

"Well in that case..." Fury chuckles and sinks heavily back into the chair. "If they didn't believe that wasn't my fault the first four times I explained it to them, they probably won't get it this time either. Maybe I need to use smaller words."

Maria huffs and squeezes Natasha's hand before she draws back and pulls up an extra chair to sit. "Have someone put it in writing so they can reread as much as they want," she suggests.

Fury nods thoughtfully. "That's not a bad idea." He lapses into silence again, watching Maria out of the corner of his eye. "How are you holding up?"

Maria blinks in surprise at the question and shakes her head ruefully. "I can't complain. Tactics is keeping me busy."

Everything else is a different matter that she doesn't quite know how to broach.

"From what I've heard, tactics is a good match for you," Fury says evenly, casting Maria a sidelong glance, "but that wasn't what I was asking about."

"I know." Maria keeps her eyes on Natasha, and she finally reaches out, her fingers curling against the palm of Natasha's hand. Her skin always feels too cold to the touch, but it's no longer clammy like on the first few weeks, at least. "I miss her."

Fury nods slowly. "Of course you do. Have you been talking to psych about it?"

"Among other things," Maria shrugs, not eager to stay on this particular topic with her boss.

"Good. So have I," Fury confides quietly.

Maria looks up in surprise and smiles ruefully at Fury. "I don't think she realises just how much of an impact she's had here." Or how much of a hole she'd leave behind.

Fury glances at Natasha, then turns his attention back to Maria, studying her carefully. "No, I'd imagine it's hard for her to see the positive impacts through all the negative in her past. She's lucky to have you to see it for her."

Maria snorts and shakes her head. "Not half as lucky as I am." Her expression darkens, and she holds Natasha's hands a little tighter. "I still wish we could have blown that place to pieces. People like that, who take children and twist them into weapons..." Her voice is a low growl now, and she trails off, knowing her anger isn't going to get them anywhere.

Fury's expression sharpens into something harsh and cold. "I know the feeling. The WSC had us wipe out a bunch of their facilities a few years back, but we knew there was no way we'd get them all. I've gotten the ball rolling on planning another strike. Play your cards right, and you might get the chance to have your finger on the button." He heaves a sigh and unclenches his jaw before shooting Maria a conspiratory smirk. "But I never told you that."

"Of course not," Maria says evenly, but there's a glint to her eye as she glances towards Natasha. "I know someone who'd be even more skilled at pushing that button."

"She'll get the opportunity if I have anything to say about it," Fury agrees, "But as for you, Agent Hill, I was talking about more than just this one scenario. If you play your cards right, a lot of opportunities are going to open up for you."

Her career has been the furthest from her mind lately, and it takes a second before the words sink in. It takes a moment longer for her to realise that maybe she has been thinking this over without realising it. "My team is in good hands right now. Becs is ready to keep that command, and I've got some ideas for Tactics to get us running more smoothly."

Fury raises an eyebrow, impressed. "I'll see that your clearance level gets raised. Tactics needs all the help they can get."

"Just like that?" Maria asks in surprise, expecting to have to put up a fight.

"It's a promotion, Agent. You've earned it," Fury says evenly. "Or do you think I'm making a mistake, putting my trust in you?"

"No," Maria says forcefully, straightening up in her seat without ever letting go of Natasha's hand. "No. I can do this. I'll write out my proposals. I... Thank you, sir."

Fury gives a satisfied nod and extends his hand in congratulations. "Like I said: you've earned it."

"I suppose it helps that I'm most definitely not a Red Room sleeper agent," Maria jokes. She releases Natasha's hand to firmly shake Fury's, still looking a little surprised, but she starts to smile as it slowly sinks in. "There was actually something else..."

"Yes?"

"I was looking through some reports from R&D, and it reminded me of something Natasha said to me," Maria explains. "I don't know what's feasible, but the Red Room never put much stock in the gear they gave her. Stopping bullets wasn't much of a concern, and she's not used to wearing kevlar. If she still wants to stay with S.H.I.E.L.D. after this, she deserves better than that."

Fury grits his teeth and mutters "motherfuckers" under his breath. "Yeah, we can take better care of her than that. I'll see what I can do about getting her a uniform upgrade."

If anything, Maria never expected that their shared protectiveness of a tiny Russian spy would be the thing that would endear the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. to her. "Thank you. It should be something that suits her fighting style."

"You think? I was picturing a big, bulky suit of armor that shoots rockets," Fury deadpans.

Maria laughs at the thought. "She's trouble enough without rockets."

"Rockets might be a bit excessive, you're right," Fury concedes. "What about a bell to go around her neck?"

"It would make it easier to find her if she gets lost again," Maria agrees, grinning as she thinks of Natasha showing up right outside her kitchen window. "Or keep her from sneaking up on us."

"My thoughts exactly," Fury chuckles, then sets a tentative hand on Maria's shoulder. "She'll be okay. You both will."

Maria swallows thickly, her eyes fixed on Natasha as she struggles to keep her vision from blurring. "She will be. I'll kick her ass if she isn't."

Fury smirks, not unkindly. "I don't doubt it. I also know she'll kick your ass if you run yourself into the ground while she's under."

"She'll have to wake up for that one first," Maria huffs. "Besides, I'm spending too much time sitting on my ass in here to do that."

"You still need to take care of yourself, sitting on your ass or not," Fury points out.

There's a moment of irritation before it really sinks in what's going on, and Maria shoots Fury an amused look. "How much of a secret is it that you're really a mother hen, sir?" She asks cheekily, tacking on the last part as an afterthought.

Fury scowls unconvincingly. "You can interpret it as me protecting my investment instead of actual concern if it helps you feel better, Agent Hill."

The times that someone actually cared are rare, and Maria shakes her head even if she doesn't know what to do with this new knowledge. She can understand it when it comes to Natasha, but she's just another agent.

"Of course, sir. I'll make it clear that's all it is if anyone catches on," she chooses to joke instead.

"Sounds like we have an understanding," Fury chuckles. "I value that in my agents. I expect great things from you," he adds, all trace of humor vanishing from his voice.

"No pressure," Maria smirks before growing serious. "I won't disappoint you, sir."

Fury stares right through her for several long moments, as if deciding whether or not to actually give voice to the thoughts in his head. "For what it's worth, Agent Hill, I'm sorry. We dealt you a bad hand when you got here - and you've played it admirably - but it wasn't exactly fair to you."

"As things that aren't fair to me come, this wasn't the worst of them," Maria says after she gets over her shock at the apology. It reminds her of Natasha's indignation on her behalf, but even now Maria doesn't feel it.

"You don't need to apologise to me, sir. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't frustrated with the assignment at first, but a soldier goes where she's told. I knew what I needed to know to get the mission done. The only one who you owe an apology to is Natasha, and as far as I know you already did that."

"You're a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent now. You're not a soldier anymore. It wasn't fair of us to send you in blind."

"Maybe not," Maria shrugs and she offers Fury a crooked smile, "but she never would have trusted me if I'd been playing a role. I'm glad I never had to deceive her."

Her expression hardens then. "That doesn't mean I won't be pissed off if it were to happen again..."

"It won't," Fury counters. "With your new security clearance, you're entitled to full mission details. Within your level, of course."

"Of course," Maria agrees. She knows how this goes, however, knows the value of "need to know" and sometimes it comes before a promise made to an agent. "If I hadn't been compatible with Natasha, would I still be here?"

Fury thinks for a moment. "The path would have been different, but you'd have ended up here eventually. You're here on your own merit, not hers."

She hadn't known she needed to hear those words until Fury says them, and she feels a weight slide from her shoulders.

"Damn right," she agrees a little too softly, but becomes more determined as she straightens up. "I'll prove it."

"I don't doubt it." Fury gets reluctantly to his feet and makes a futile attempt to stretch the knot out of his lower back. Goddamned uncomfortable chairs. "Do you think I've managed to avoid talking about the Nairobi incident?"

"I think you might be clear," Maria smirks. "For now, anyway."

"Then I suppose I should get back to work. Take care of yourself, Agent." He makes his way toward the door.

"I-" Maria falters as she looks after Fury. She knows he was there for Natasha, but she thinks maybe there was more to it than that. "Thank you, Sir," she says before he can slip out of the room, finding that she means every word.

Chapter Text

It's hard to focus on the words in front of her. Maria can't remember how many times she tried to read the same paragraph before she puts her tablet aside with a frustrated groan. It's been two days since they pulled Natasha off the medication that was keeping her sedated.

Doctor Sen had been optimistic. For all they could tell, Natasha's body had adjusted well to the treatment. The chemicals in her body had been balanced out and restored, but they wouldn't know for sure if it had worked until she finally woke up. When that would be, that was up to Natasha. Her body was still healing, and the doctor didn't want to push the process. "She'll wake when she's ready."

Maria had been a nervous mess since the first day. Any movement or change in Natasha had her sitting to attention, but it seemed that Natasha would be taking her time to wake up.

"Whenever you're ready," Maria murmurs, taking Natasha's hand in hers. She waits for a moment, studying Natasha's face for any sign that maybe tonight would be it. "No, of course not. Knowing you, you're going to wait until I get called out for some sort of emergency, and Clint will get to do the honours."

She waits for a moment longer, but when nothing happens, she finally reaches for her tablet again. Really, she should be in her bunk, but she can't bear the thought of Natasha waking up on her own in the dimmed medbay with no one familiar by her side. She lights up the screen, grimacing as she forces herself to focus on the report.

 

 

At first, sound is the only thing that gets through, short bursts of ambient noise or muffled voices, like a radio left on in another room. The sounds fade in and out, none of them coherent enough to make an impression. Light follows soon after, coming through in stabbing flashes that force her eyes shut again within a fraction of a second. The first coherent thought that registers in Natasha's mind is that she must be dreaming. She's submerged, sinking, unable to move, unable to breathe. She has to make it to the surface, somehow. If she can do that, maybe she won't drown. Maybe she can wake up. All she has to do is make it to the surface.

 

 

Maria glances up as she feels Natasha's fingers twinge underneath hers, and she rubs her thumb soothingly over the back of Natasha's hand. It's not the first time this has happened since they took Natasha off the sedatives. It's easier to talk to this Natasha, the one who looks a little tense, like she might just be dreaming and she'll wake up any moment now.

"It's okay," Maria murmurs, their setting still making her keep her voice low. "You're okay."

Little by little, the sounds around her become less muffled, the light less blinding when it slips past her eyelashes. Natasha wants to gasp for breath, to strike out against the last remnants of the darkness that press in around her, but all she can manage to do is will her eyes to focus on the ceiling above her.

Maria's breath catches when Natasha's eyes open and she freezes, unsure what to do. Calling the doctor is probably the sensible response, but for the moment she can't move. She doesn't want to rush this, she doesn't want to spook Natasha with her movement, and she most definitely doesn't want to leave the room. So she waits and very slowly brushes her fingers over Natasha's palm, just a gentle reminder that she isn't alone.

Natasha blinks slowly as the images resolve themselves into something she can almost understand. When she finally realizes she is not alone, she slowly turns her head.

"Hey there, sleepyhead," Maria whispers, voice breaking on the words, and she squeezes Natasha's hand reflexively.

Natasha struggles to make sense of the words, frowning slightly with the effort. "Where am I?"

"The helicarrier. Medbay," Maria explains quickly. "Does that make any sense to you? Do you-" She stops, and shakes her head. "Fuck. Sorry. Let me get you something to drink," she says quickly, dropping Natasha's hand to grab a glass instead.

"Wait," Natasha croaks, grasping blindly for Maria's hand.

Maria freezes at the touch, staring at Natasha's hand finally grabbing hold of hers after months. She sags back down in her chair and takes Natasha's hand in both of hers. "It's okay. I'm not going anywhere," she promises, a grin tugging at her lips as she meets Natasha's eyes.

"You look," Natasha tries to wet her lips, her frown deepening. Her mouth feels like cotton, and her brain isn't much better, "...different."

Maria huffs, but her grin grows even wider as Natasha actually recognises her.

"Speak for yourself," she grumbles, but it doesn't come out half as cranky as she wants to as she reaches out and brushes her fingers over Natasha's cheek. "Hey, you."

"Hey yourself." Natasha manages a small smile. She leans her cheek against Maria's hand and lets her eyes fall shut again.

"Tired?" Maria asks gently, rubbing her thumb over Natasha's cheekbone.

Natasha nods slightly, her eyes remaining shut. "Everything hurts. What happened?"

"The doctor can explain it better," Maria grimaces and slides her fingers in Natasha's hair, stroking soothingly. "You've been out for a while. The treatment… It was very painful, so they put you under so you could take your time to heal up."

"How long is 'a while'?" Natasha hardly dares ask the question; the strange weakness in her limbs and the haggard, hollow look on Maria's face make her fear the answer.

"One hundred twenty-seven days," Maria murmurs, brushing Natasha's hair back from her forehead. "But who's counting?" she jokes gently.

The blood drains from Natasha's face. "Please tell me you're kidding."

"I wish," Maria sighs and gets up from her chair to sit on the edge of the bed so she can more easily face Natasha. "It went a lot slower than they were hoping. Do you want me to get the doctor so she can explain it to you?"

Natasha raises her arms and presses the heels of her hands against her eyes. "No."

"Okay." Maria doesn't know what else to do, so she sits and waits as she gives Natasha a moment to let everything sink in. Like she's been doing for four months now. This time Natasha is awake and talking, though, and that's progress.

Four month. Four months. Natasha's mind reels with the effort of making sense of all this. As hard as she tries to think of other things, those two words just keep repeating over and over. She breathes harder, trying to stave off panic. "I don't really remember," she starts, trailing off weakly.

"That's okay." She reaches out, touching her fingers to Natasha's wrist. "What is it that you don't remember? I can walk you through it."

"I don't know." Natasha frowns again. "I can't tell which of my thoughts are my own, let alone which ones are real."

"Then let's do it the other way," Maria suggests. "You tell me what you remember, and I'll tell you if it's real."

"I can try. Can I take you up on that drink first?" Natasha asks, somewhat self-consciously.

"Of course," Maria agrees, eager to have something useful to do. She stands up from the bed and moves closer. "You should probably sit up first. Do you want my help?"

"No, I can do it myself," Natasha protests. Much to her embarrassment, however, her body seems to have other ideas. She grunts, half in indignation and half in pain as she struggles and fails to sit up under her own power.

Maria grimaces and reaches out, resting her hand on Natasha's shoulder to stop her from hurting herself any more. "Please, let me help you?"

Natasha's shoulders sag as she sighs, resigned. "Alright."

"Thank you," Maria says like Natasha is the one doing her a favour. She leans down and carefully moves her up and forward so she can pull the pillows up behind her. Her movements are fast and efficient, and she gently settles Natasha back against the pillows.

"How's that?"

"Better. Thanks." Natasha can't bring herself to meet Maria's eyes as she shifts her weight on the bed. It takes more willpower than she cares to admit to resist chewing anxiously on her lower lip or picking at the tape holding the IV line in place on her arm.

"You're welcome," Maria teases. She waits a moment, but when Natasha won't meet her eyes, she sets to grabbing her some water. She fills the glass on the night table and sits back down on the edge of the bed, holding the glass out to Natasha.

"You just spent four months stuck in an artificial coma. Give your body some time to catch up again. No one here is going to judge you."

"That's going to take some getting used to," Natasha admits once she's had a few sips of water. She's tempted to down the whole glass in one breath, but she knows better than to make herself sick like that. She forces herself to take a few more short sips while she debates which questions she wants answered. There are many, but one needs to be answered first. "I didn't hurt anyone, did I?"

"No," Maria shakes her head. She sits back, forcing herself to give Natasha room for as long a she seems to need it. "You've been unconscious ever since they started the treatment. This is the first time you've woken up."

"Good," Natasha breathes. Knowing that helps take the edge off as she continues to wrack her brain. "But I hurt people before they put me under?"

"During the mission when we tried to get the information to undo your programming," Maria nods. "They used a trigger on you, but no one got badly hurt."

"I remember that. Or rather, I remember before and after that." Natasha sips at her water again, her mouth still unpleasantly dry. Somehow, this all feels different from the way it felt during the first round of reprogramming. She can't quite put her finger on why. The drugs still make her feel vaguely ill, her head and her body still ache to the core. Her memories return slowly, just like they did the first time, only this time they seem to be clearer and in the correct order. Not that she trusts any of them as far as she can throw them.

"None of this feels real right now."

Maria twists her lips in a crooked smile. "No, it doesn't and I'm not even the one who had her brain chemicals messed with."

She hesitates and holds out her hand to Natasha. "What can I do?"

Natasha sets her glass aside. There's one more pressing question she needs answered, though she fears the answer to this one, too. Finally she meets Maria's eyes, affecting more confidence than she feels. "You can forgive me and chalk it up to faulty brain chemistry if I'm wrong about this," she smirks, ignoring Maria's outstretched hand in favor of tugging her closer by her collar and kissing her full on the lips.

Maria gasps in surprise, but it lasts only for a second and then she's kissing Natasha back. She braces a hand against the headboard as she lets Natasha pull her in, her other hand settling in Natasha's hip.

One hundred twenty-seven days of worrying slowly melt away as Natasha's lips move over hers, and this is real. Natasha is real, and she remembers, and Maria wants to sink into the feeling, but she can't stop grinning.

"Welcome back." She breathes the words against Natasha's mouth, her nose pressed against her cheek, and she doesn't remember when she tangled her fingers in Natasha's hair.

"This is real." Natasha hardly dares believe the words. She kisses Maria again and again. "You are real. We are real."

"More than anything," Maria promises. She meets each end every kiss, trying to reassure, trying to make Natasha feel what she needs to feel and she catches Natasha's bottom lip between her teeth, nipping gently.

Natasha breaks the kiss in favor of pressing her forehead into the crook of Maria's neck. It feels familiar there - safe - but the apprehensive tightness in her chest is conspicuously absent. "Good. I don't know what I'd have done if I'd dreamed all of this."

"You'd have charmed the hell out of me," Maria murmurs as she strokes her fingers through Natasha's hair. She wraps her other arm around Natasha's back, and for the first time in months everything feels right again. "I don't think I ever stood a chance to resist you."

"You're probably right," Natasha teases with a smirk, but she quickly sobers. "I remember bad things, too. I remember abandoning you. Hurting you. I didn't dream that either, did I?

Maria's breath catches and she shakes her head, pressing her face in Natasha's hair. "No," she admits. "You didn't dream that."

No. Of course Natasha wouldn't be that lucky. Remorse makes it hard for her to breathe. "I'm sorry."

"Don't." Maria's fingers twist in Natasha's hair and she turns her head, pressing her mouth against her ear. "It doesn't matter. Not anymore. We can start over."

Natasha finds herself grinning despite herself. "I'd like that."

"Me too," Maria whispers. She shifts so she can lean her forehead against Natasha's, their noses bumping as she meets Natasha's eyes and a warm smile curves her lips.

<<Do you have any gum?>>

As improbable as it seems, as much as it goes against everything she's feeling right now, Natasha's head falls back and she laughs until her sides hurt. "<<Jackass.>> You know I don't."

God, but she missed that sound. She missed the sight of Natasha laughing and smiling. Maria finds herself grinning, her eyes fixed on Natasha's face like she's drinking her in even as she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a package that's been there much too long.

"Good thing I've got you covered."

Natasha freezes, touched beyond words at the gesture. For just a moment, the two of them might as well be back in her cell at the heart of the helicarrier. They might as well be strangers, mistrustful and naive, but the light in Maria's eyes as she teases Natasha chases away those thoughts. Natasha pulls a face. "Is that your way of telling me I've got four-month-old morning breath?"

"Maybe," Maria tilts her head, studying Natasha for a moment too long. The smile because something more wistful. "I've missed you."

"I've missed you, too," Natasha admits. "I've missed you for much longer than four months."

"I-" Maria blinks rapidly and her fingers tighten around the pack of gum as she nods. "Yes," she agrees and quickly wraps Natasha up in her arms as words fail her.

"I'm going to make it up to you," Natasha promises, trying to ward off the prickling behind her eyes. "I don't know how, but I'll make it up to you."

"You already have," Maria mumbles the words against Natasha's shoulder.

Natasha nearly laughs again. "How do you figure?"

"You came back to me," Maria admits. Suddenly it seems impossible how she managed to get through the last four months every single day.

"And you were right here waiting for me." It's almost too good to be true.

"I made a promise," Maria reminds her. She draws back just enough to meet Natasha's eyes, and she brushes her fingers over her cheek. "I didn't want to be anywhere else."

"I'm glad," Natasha smiles gratefully, then frowns a little in concern. "Please tell me you still have a job, though."

Maria gives a startled laugh at Natasha's concern and she kisses her lightly. "I have a job and a promotion. You shouldn't be worrying about me right now."

"You got promoted?" Natasha's face lights up, and she shifts so she can sit up a little straighter.

"I've moved to tactics," Maria explains, amused at how excited Natasha seems for her. "We've done some changes to how that's organised, split it up in different divisions. I might be head of the counter-terrorism division."

"Congratulations." Natasha reaches eagerly for her hand. "You've come a long way from babysitting duty, haven't you?"

"I'd say so," Maria grins and squeezes Natasha's hand. "Though that job had its own rewards."

"You'll be running this place before too long," Natasha teases, but she isn't entirely joking.

Maria shakes her head, finding that hard to believe. "Maybe I should get Sen so she can check you over."

"Can it wait?" Natasha asks in a small voice. Right now, she feels about as well as she could've dared to hope: her memories are becoming clearer by the second, her body isn't in that much pain, and Maria is here by her side. All she wants is more time to be cautiously optimistic before the doctors detail exactly what's gone wrong.

"Of course," Maria agrees a little too eagerly, not minding to keep Natasha to herself for now. "If you're feeling okay? Are you in any pain?"

Natasha waves her question off as convincingly as she can. "Nothing I can't handle."

Not exactly the response Maria was hoping for. "Promise you'll tell me if it gets worse?"

Natasha's expression softens, and she brings Maria's hand to her lips so she can brush a light kiss over her knuckles as she considers her response carefully. "I'm going to do my best. I need to give myself the best chance at recovery, and I know that means letting all of you help me. Even if that isn't easy for me."

"Good," Maria smiles and brushes her thumb over Natasha's cheek. "So are you feeling well enough to share that bed of yours?"

Natasha stages a scandalized gasp. "Maria Hill, what are you implying?"

Maria snorts and leans forward to steal another kiss from Natasha. "I'm implying that I missed my girlfriend being awake and conscious enough to share a bed with me."

"Girlfriend." Natasha rolls the word around her mouth experimentally, contemplatively. It still feels strange. "Well, I'm awake now," she agrees, sliding over as much as she can manage to give Maria enough room to join her.

"You can kick me out if I take up too much room." Maria don't hesitate, but she's careful as she slides into the bed, letting Natasha guide where she wants her.

It takes some doing, but Natasha manages to turn onto her side. She winces with the effort, but it's worth it to be able to rest her head on Maria's chest.

"Is this okay?" Maria asks, worried that she's being selfish, but it's good having Natasha beside her, it's good being this close.

Natasha shifts even closer by way of a response. "This is great," she admits, letting her fingers trace swirling patterns through Maria's shirt. "Are you comfortable? I'd ask how your injuries are, but I guess after four months they're fine. Unless you've sustained new ones?"

"I'm not usually in the field now," Maria reassures her. Even through the layers of clothes, she's almost too aware of Natasha's touch and the fluttering it causes low in her stomach. "Worst I suffer lately is a headache."

She turns her head and presses a kiss to Natasha's forehead. "You okay that I dropped the g-word?"

"It still sounds strange," Natasha muses, "but it wasn't nearly as terrifying as when I said it the first time." That feels like a lifetime ago.

"Sorry, I wasn't thinking," Maria says softly. She smooths her hand down Natasha's back. "I don't... I can't imagine what it's like waking up and knowing you missed so much. Did you dream?"

"I don't really know," Natasha admits. "I don't remember dreaming, at least not the way I usually dream. It's all just blank."

"I suppose that makes sense," Maria muses. "At least that means you've been spared all the bullshit Clint's been trying to tell you."

"I can only imagine," Natasha chuckles. Really, though, she's touched to hear he'd visited her while she was out. She'll have to be sure to show her appreciation for that when she sees him again. Even if it's sure to make him all awkward and uncomfortable. The thought makes her smile to herself.

"Try not to," Maria jokes as she rubs her fingers down Natasha's neck. "I do wonder what Fury's been telling you. He probably has the best gossip on the ship."

Natasha raises a skeptical eyebrow. "Now you're just fucking with me. Surely Fury had better things to do with his time than visit me."

"You wouldn't say that if you'd seen him." At first Fury would visit when Maria wasn't around, but once R&D started working on the Black Widow suit, Fury would be in the medbay a little more often. Usually to talk something over, check some part of the design with Maria. Sometimes even to talk shop, but Maria knew better. "You mean a lot to him."

Natasha goes completely still. "Are you sure I'm not still unconscious right now?"

"Positive." Maria strokes her fingers through Natasha's hair. "He cares a lot about giving people a chance to choose their own lives. I don't know what it is is he sees in you - you'd have to ask him that yourself - but this matters to him. He made you a deal, and he's hellbent on keeping up his end of the bargain."

"I made the right choice turning myself over to S.H.I.E.L.D.," Natasha muses, overwhelmed. "I owe him - and all of you - so much."

"You owe yourself," Maria corrects quietly.

"What do you mean?"

"You don't owe me, and I don't think they see it as that either," Maria explains, struggling for a moment to find the right words to explain this. "You gave yourself this chance coming to S.H.I.E.L.D., and I want you to be who you can be without anyone having this hold over you. I want you to be able to be Natasha Romanoff. You chose to be her, and no one gets to take that away from you again."

"That means a lot to me," Natasha assures her earnestly, "but I think you've misunderstood. I don't mean I owe you in terms of accounts to be settled. I have plenty of those already. This is different, though. This is gratitude. I don't see it as handing anyone else power over me. Quite the opposite: it's liberating, and that's valuable to me." Natasha sobers under the weight of the realization that's slowly crystallizing in her mind. "I think I need to be grateful to you, to Barton, to Fury, to all of you. I think it'll make things easier on me from here on out."

"In that case..." Maria is smiling as she presses a kiss to Natasha's temple. "You're welcome."

Natasha accepts the kiss with a fond smile, but the gears are still turning in her head. "Letting myself get close to people, to rely on people, goes against everything I've ever been taught. But if the Red Room went to such extreme lengths to make sure none of us ever formed bonds with anyone - if they feared it that intensely - maybe it's time I learned to try."

"If the Red Room feared it, there's got to be something good to it," Maria agrees. She hugs Natasha closer, wanting her to know how proud she is of her, how glad she is. "I know it's hard."

Natasha is more than content to be held so tightly. "It's getting easier. At least, it's easier with you."

It's a privilege being trusted by someone who hasn't learned to trust before, and Maria finds herself smiling. "I'm honoured. You know it means a lot to me."

Natasha hums her assent. "And it means a lot to me that you're here right now."

"I promised I would be," Maria reminds her, her smile fading as she thinks of the last four months. "Even if I hadn't, I still would be. I didn't want you to wake up alone."

"Thank you." Natasha tucks her head a little more securely under Maria's chin. "I promise I'm going to learn not to be so surprised when you're sweet to me," she chuckles.

Maria chuckles and squeezes Natasha affectionately. "It's nice to feel appreciated."

Natasha laughs weakly. "Can you imagine how much easier this could be if they really have managed to reverse what was done to me? No more neurochemically-induced paranoia. Just good, old-fashioned regular paranoia."

"They were hopeful," Maria tells her. "I imagine they're going to want to do a lot of poking and prodding to make sure, but you feel like you to me."

"I feel like me to me, too." If she's completely honest, it's almost disconcerting how much she feels like herself. Exhausted and aching to the bone, yes, but otherwise she doesn't feel any different now that she's fully awake.

"That's good?"Maria checks, noting the slight hesitation in Natasha's tone. It's almost comforting to know she can still read those nuances.

"I don't know," Natasha admits. "I thought I'd feel different."

"Different in what way?"

Natasha shrugs eloquently. "I just had my brain rewired. Again. I thought I'd at least be confused and disoriented for a while, like last time."

"It feels too normal," Maria nods. "Maybe last time what they undid influenced you more, while these triggers were meant to override who you are rather than change you."

"That could be. Or maybe I just skipped the transition state by being kept unconscious."

Maria hums in agreement and strokes her fingers through Natasha's hair. "As much as I missed you, I'm glad you didn't have to spend all that time in pain."

Right now, Maria playing with her hair is the best thing Natasha can imagine. "I'm sorry you had to instead."

She's had better months, but she's had worse, too. Right now it's hard to imagine when Natasha is a pleasant weight against her side. It does feel strangely normal, even when they're in a hospital bed. "It was worth it."

Natasha summons enough energy to prop herself up on her elbow so she can brush Maria's hair out of her eyes. She stares deeply into them, through them, her own eyes going slightly unfocused as a smile tugs at her lips.

"What?" Maria asks softly, but she's smiling as well and she can't seem to look away. There are no walls now, nothing to hide behind and nothing she wants to keep hidden. They made it this far, and Natasha is still there, still whole and Maria's smile grows even wider as she reaches up to brush Natasha's cheek.

"Nothing." Natasha's smile widens, and she doesn't so much as blink, not wanting to break eye contact. "I missed you."

"Me too." Maria exhales sharply, the words tugging at her chest. She pushes up just far enough so she can brush her mouth over Natasha's, never looking away.

Natasha meets the kiss gratefully. With a sigh, she lets her weight settle into Maria's body, both to maximize contact and minimize the strain on the arm holding her up.

Maria wraps her arm securely around Natasha, keeping her in place, and her eyes finally drift shut as she deepens the kiss. She can't help but feel like even this is part of the healing process, and maybe she needs this just as much as Natasha does.

As much as it concerns Natasha that she doesn't feel any different, she could not be more relieved that this still feels the same. Her fingers sift through Maria's hair again and again as she kisses her for as long as she can.

Maria moans softly against Natasha's lips. Her scalp is tingling from Natasha's touch and she can feel the heat where their bodies are touching. It's so familiar, and so easy to get lost in it.

Natasha is just about to take Maria's lower lip between her teeth when the tug of warmth in her chest pulls her back into the reality of their situation. She breaks the kiss reluctantly, but her hands remain in Maria's hair. "We should probably cool it until I'm officially given a clean bill of health. Just in case."

"Right." Maria sucks in a breath, trying to steady herself, but she's still staring at Natasha's lips. "Also because we're still in the medbay. How are you feeling?"

"A little breathless," Natasha winks, "but otherwise I feel fine."

"You do," Maria teases, laughing softly. She has to stop herself from leaning in and kissing her again. "Right. Cooling it."

To her surprise, Natasha begins to laugh - truly, genuinely laugh - her whole body overflowing with the sound. It's infectious, even if Maria isn't quite sure what Natasha is laughing at. It feels good, and the sight is mesmerising. It's with a pang that Maria realises that after everything, she hadn't dared to hope to see Natasha like this again. She pulls Natasha closer against her. "Are you laughing at me?"

"Yes," Natasha gasps once she's able to regain a little control, unashamed to admit it. "And I'm laughing at us, too. It's like nothing's changed at all."

"You're going to have to do a lot more than be unconscious for a couple of months for me to change how I feel about you," Maria tells her mock seriously, even if it's the truth.

Natasha chuckles despite the soreness in her ribs and kisses Maria again. "Any chance your big promotion came with more vacation days? I owe you a night out dancing."

"I've got some overtime that I can cash in on," Maria grins. "You really think we'd make it outside?"

"I don't know how soon we'll be able to pull it off, but I still think it's a possibility," Natasha smirks. "Unless you don't think you can keep up with me."

Maria raises both eyebrows at Natasha, and she snorts. "Try me."

"First things first," Natasha chuckles affectionately. "I've got to get out of this bed."

"I suppose there are better locations," Maria muses. She crinkles her nose at the joke and caresses Natasha's cheek. "We'll get you out of here, and I'll take you to the cafeteria or anywhere you want to go."

"How romantic," Natasha teases. "Should we call Dr Sen, then? Stop putting it off?"

"The faster we do it, the faster it will be over, right?"

"That's the idea," Natasha says reluctantly. Not that she's making any effort to let Maria up.

The lack of movement is telling, and Maria curls her fingers underneath Natasha's chin, gently turning her head up so she can meet her eyes. "If you're not ready, we can wait. And if you want me to, I'll stay with you. I'll make sure everyone is safe." Natasha included.

Natasha thinks about it for a moment. "I think I'd like for you to stay," she decides at last. She doesn't know what the doctor will say or do to her, and while the idea of preserving her dignity is appealing, she can't bear the thought of kicking Maria out right now.

Despite that she would have gone with whatever decision Natasha would have taken, Maria feels nothing but relief. She tightens her arms around Natasha and presses a kiss to her forehead. "Thank you."

"No need. I want you here," Natasha assures her with a fond smile. "Well, maybe not exactly here in bed with me while I'm getting poked and prodded..."

"I think that means you're going to have to let me get up," Maria teases.

Natasha grimaces, trying not to be too embarrassed. "I might need help with that," she admits, already starting to try to push herself up.

"It's okay," Maria says quickly, wrapping her arms around Natasha more securely. "Just hold on for a moment."

Natasha braces herself against Maria's body and holds tight.

"Mmm, I do like how you're holding on," Maria teases, pressing a kiss to Natasha's neck as she carefully sits them both up, then twists slowly from underneath Natasha so she can lay her back down on the mattress.

Even though Natasha isn't exerting much of her own energy, the shift leaves her breathing a little harder than she should. She keeps her hands balled up in Maria's shirt once she's settled. "Thanks," she murmurs, but she can't quite meet Maria's eyes.

"Always," Maria murmurs. She leans in close, brushing a kiss over Natasha's cheek and temple, she kisses her brow and her nose, trying to distract her from her awkwardness.

Natasha reaches for her hands, somewhat reluctantly putting a stop to the kisses. "I'm alright," she assures her. "I'm just not used to needing this much help."

"I know." Maria gently rubs her thumbs over Natasha's knuckles in reassurance. "It's okay. You'll be kicking ass and taking names again in no time."

"That's the plan," Natasha smirks, trying to bolster her confidence. "Now, can you go find Dr. Sen so we can get started?"

"Yes, ma'am," Maria teases, leaning in to steal a soft kiss before she slides off the bed. "I won't be long," she promises as she quickly goes get Doctor Sen. It's rather unsurprising that she finds the doctor outside. "She-"

"She woke up," Doctor Sen finishes for Maria, giving her a soft smile. "I know. We've been monitoring her. Let's see how she's doing, shall we?"

Maria simply nods and follows the doctor right back in, grateful that she doesn't have to sit this one out.

Sen offers Maria a chair sufficiently out of the way, then wastes no time cross-checking the data on her tablet against the data on the various monitors at the head of Natasha's bed. "How are you feeling? Are you in any pain?"

Natasha draws a breath. There's no point in downplaying anything she's feeling right now, so she meets the doctor's eyes and answers honestly, "My head hurts and my whole body aches, but I was expecting more pain than this."

Dr. Sen raises an eyebrow and messes with something on her tablet. "Is the pain in your head sharp or dull?"

"Dull. Kind of foggy, but it was worse when I first woke up."

Sen's posture visibly relaxes at Natasha's answer. "That's a good sign. More than likely it's just the aftereffects of the anesthesia. Can you sit up for me?"

Natasha braces her hands against the mattress for a moment, then lets them drop back to her sides. She can feel her cheeks coloring, but she grits her teeth against the feeling. "I don't think I can," she admits, casting a glance at Maria. "Maria, will you help me?"

"Of course." Maria had been glued to her chair, but the instant Natasha says her name, she's up and by her side. She leans down, letting Natasha wrap her arms around her shoulders as it seems to be the easiest way to draw her up into a sitting position.

With Maria's help, Natasha is able to pull herself into an approximation of an upright position. She's grateful for Maria's steadying arm in the center of her back as Dr. Sen shines a light into her eyes and guides her head this way and that, evaluating her movements and reactions.

"The loss of strength in your muscles is to be expected after four months of disuse," Sen explains. "With physical therapy and your training regimen, you should be back to peak physical performance in no time, provided there's no lasting neurological damage from the treatment. Are you experiencing any numbness or tingling?"

Natasha shakes her head.

"That's very good. We'll have to test your reflexes and coordination, but that can wait." Dr. Sen smiles encouragingly. "The next step is to ascertain whether you've sustained any memory loss or change in personality."

Natasha swallows hard, her stomach knotting at the thought, but Sen continues before she can say anything.

"If it's alright with you, Agent Romanoff, I think Agent Hill can probably be of more help right now," Sen says, turning to Maria. "How does she seem to you, Agent Hill?"

"Um..." Maria blinks, caught by surprise as she hadn't expected to be much more than a bystander for this. She squeezes Natasha's hip as she considers it. "She seems... like herself?" She makes a face. "I expected it to be more awkward, and she was confused at first, but she seems to have settled well enough all things considered. I'd say she's almost calm, at ease?" She glances at Natasha, checking to make sure she hasn't misread the situation.

"I don't know about calm, exactly," Natasha offers, "but it was easier waking up with her here. More familiar. Not like last time."

"Did you recognize her right away?" Sen prompts, looking to Maria for input as well.

"Not quite," Natasha admits. "I knew who she was, but I wasn't sure which of my memories were actually real. I couldn't remember if we..." She trails off. She's reluctant to bring up the subject of their relationship so frankly, but she knows this is probably an important detail for the doctor to hear.

"If we were together. Are together," Maria supplies when Natasha falters. "I'm sure you've guessed by now," she adds wryly as Doctor Sen had found Maria asleep in that damn uncomfortable chair all too many times by now.

Sen's brow furrows in concern, and she taps something into her tablet. "You remembered Maria but not the nature of your relationship to her?"

"No," Natasha is quick to clarify, "I remember everything that's happened between us. I just didn't know if I could trust those memories at first."

"But you do trust them now?"

Natasha shrugs uneasily. "I can't think of any reason not to, unless the treatment didn't work."

"Or if you still think Fury is playing you," Maria adds gently, hating that this is the first thought that comes to mind.

Natasha shakes her head vehemently. "No. I trust him. I have to."

Dr. Sen sets a reassuring hand on Natasha's shoulder. "You have no reason not to. The procedures took longer than we anticipated, and we had to modify a few of them on the fly, but overall everything went about as well as we could have hoped. Fury's made sure you're authorized to see all of the project records if you don't believe me."

Natasha smirks despite herself. "I have him pretty well trained, don't I?" She can't even come close to processing the good news Sen has just given her.

Maria snorts and she rubs her hand up Natasha's back. "I think the phrase you're looking for is 'wrapped around your little finger'," she jokes.

Natasha grimaces, but Dr. Sen cracks a smile. "She's not wrong. He was adamant about being kept up to date on your progress. I'd like to call him down here soon, if you're feeling up to more visitors, but I'd like to try something first."

Natasha meets her eyes apprehensively. "What is it?"

Sen purses her lips. "Do you remember the tests we ran when we were trying to figure out what was wrong to begin with?"

Of course Natasha remembers; it's impossible to forget being injected with hormones until she was out of her mind with panic. She grips Maria's hand and nods.

"I'd like to try that one more time. It's the most straightforward way to see if the treatment was effective," Sen explains apologetically.

Maria doesn't know what exactly they did last time, not in detail, but Natasha's reaction tells her enough. She squeezes Natasha's hand and sits up a little straighter, pressing closer against Natasha. "I'm not leaving this time," she tells Sen.

"I won't kick you out if you'd really rather stay, but I think Agent Romanoff might prefer for you not to be here for this."

"No," Natasha argues. "No, I want her here."

"Let me explain," Sen insists. "Like last time, I'm going to inject you with a mixture of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. Unlike last time, this particular cocktail should do to you what it does to everyone else. That is, it should make you feel calm, content, and relaxed."

Natasha frowns, unconvinced. "So why can't she be here for that?"

Sen casts Maria a furtive glance. "Because oxytocin also facilitates social bonding. This dosage is not strong enough to force a connection that isn't already there. You'd get the same effect from a few good orgasms, to be honest--"

Natasha can't help but flush at the implications behind Sen's explanation. "So you're saying you're not going to do anything to me that wouldn't happen naturally under the right circumstances?"

"Exactly. It's all well within normal physiological parameters. Still, the fact remains that I'm going to induce the effects artificially. If you want to be very sure that S.H.I.E.L.D. is not manipulating your relationship, you should probably stay separated until the effects wear off. The choice is yours."

Natasha exhales slowly. "I appreciate your concern, Dr. Sen, but after everything that's happened, I think I owe S.H.I.E.L.D. more trust than that. I want her here."

"Then I'm not going anywhere." Maria can't help the way her lips tug into a smile, relief washing over her at the thought that she won't have to leave Natasha alone already, and that Natasha trusts them. "Do you need me to move her back down on the bed again, doc?"

"However she'll be most comfortable," Sen smiles kindly, turning her attention to her equipment.  

Natasha squeezes Maria's hand before letting go. "Maybe just help me lean back a little more?"

"Sure thing," Maria agrees. She quickly presses a kiss to Natasha's cheek while Sen's back is turned towards them before she moves back. With one arm around Natasha's middle, she pulls the pillows up a little higher against the headboard, then helps Natasha scoot back against the pillows. "Okay?"

Natasha nods. "Thank you."

Dr. Sen sets her tablet aside and returns to the head of the bed. She makes a few adjustments to the equipment, then sets a hand on Natasha's shoulder. "Are you ready?"

"Let's just get this over with," Natasha grimaces, reaching blindly for Maria's hand as her heart starts to pound.

Maria instantly grasps Natasha's hand with both of hers, and she can feel the flutter of Natasha's heartbeat underneath her fingertips as her thumb brushes the inside of her wrist. She's gotten used to watching Dr. Sen do her work, but this is different now that Natasha's actually awake. She forces her attention back to Natasha. "Maybe I'll smuggle you in some candy after," she tries to distract Natasha.

"Maybe a drink instead?" Natasha forces a chuckle, resolutely looking anywhere but Dr. Sen's hands as she enters a string of data into her tablet, picks up a syringe, and moves towards the IV line leading to Natasha's arm.

Sen pauses, sensing Natasha's fear. "Try to relax. If everything went well, this should actually be quite pleasant."

Natasha draws and releases a deep breath. "Do it."

Maria watches briefly as Sen administers the drugs, and she squeezes Natasha's hand in encouragement. She hesitates only for an instant before she reaches up and brushes Natasha's hair away from her forehead. "Irish coffee? I should be able to sneak that through," she suggests, even though the doc is listening.

Natasha watches as Sen sets the syringe down on the tray. That's it, then. All there is to do is wait. After all this time, this all seems incredibly anticlimactic. She forces herself to concentrate as Sen shines a light into her eyes.

"After you're cleared, you two can drink each other under the table if you want to," Sen says, as close to laughing as Natasha has ever seen her. "But I can't have you doing anything that'll impair your reflexes or coordination until I get the chance to thoroughly test them. How do you feel?"

"Fine," Natasha responds automatically. Her breath catches the moment she truly processes what she's said. For once, she is not just putting up a brave front. She actually means it. There's not a trace of tension in her body. The headache and soreness are still there, but right now they barely register. An amazed smile spreads across her face. "I feel fine."

Maria's breath catches as Natasha smiles, and she grins in return, gripping Natasha's hand a little too tightly. "That means you did it." She glances at Sen, wanting to hear it said out loud. "There should be a reaction now of the programming was still in place."

"You're responding within normal parameters across all metrics," Sen reports, The relief in her tone speaks volumes. "I'd give it another few minutes, just to be sure, but the worst is over."

Natasha can only stare at her, overwhelmed. "Does that mean--"

"There are still more tests we need to run, but yes. There's a very good chance that the treatment was successful," Sen confirms, smiling just as widely.

"I'm smuggling you in a whole bottle of whiskey. You too, Doc," Maria declares. It comes out half laughing in relief until the reality hits her, leaves her reeling. She promptly sits down on the edge of the bed, her back to the doctor as she brings up Natasha's hand, pressing a kiss to her palm.

"I'm free." No other words, no other coherent thoughts make it to the surface of Natasha's mind. Instead, she musters all of her strength so she can sit up and fall into Maria's arms.

It's so incredibly easy for Maria to wrap her arms around Natasha and to hold her close. She can't bring herself to care that the doctor is still right there as she presses kiss after kiss to Natasha's temple, her cheek, her jaw until she presses her face against the side of her neck.

"I'm still asleep, aren't I? Am I dreaming all of this?" Natasha asks in a tiny voice.

"You're not. I promise: you're not dreaming," Maria murmurs into her hair.

Natasha's face must still register her disbelief, because Sen chimes in, too, tapping one of the monitors next to Natasha's bed. "See all the jagged little spikes on this display right here? Those are brain waves consistent with active thought. Sleeping and dreaming brain waves look nothing like that. You're most certainly awake."

Natasha can't help but laugh at the earnest expression on Sen's face. "Thanks, but I still don't quite believe it."

"I don't blame you. You've been through a lot. I'll give you two some time alone to process all of this. I'll be right down the hall if you need me." With that, Dr. Sen gathers her tablet and beats a hasty retreat.

Maria threads her fingers through copper strands and shifts back, leaving her forehead against Natasha's. "So, good dream? No heart attacks or urges to get away?"

Natasha shakes her head, bumping Maria's nose with her own. "I want to get the hell out of this bed, but I don't think that's the same thing."

"No, but I can't blame you," Maria agrees, nudging Natasha's nose right back. "Anyone's bound to get some medbay cabin fever being cooped up in here. Maybe I should sneak you out rather than sneak stuff in."

"Something tells me that wouldn't go over too well," Natasha chuckles. "I can be patient. I think. After four months, what's another few tests? I was incredibly lucky to be given yet another chance; I have every intention of doing it right this time."

"Then I'm sure you'll get it right," Maria smiles at the thought of how far they've come already in such a short time. "Thank you for letting me stay."

Natasha grabs Maria's hand and brushes a kiss to her knuckles. "I don't want to have to do this without you."

"You don't have to," Maria smiles as she caresses the back of her fingers over Natasha's cheek. "You have no idea how good it is to have you back."

"I'm sorry you had to wait so long."

"Having you free makes it worth it," Maria says seriously, meeting Natasha's eyes to make sure she understands, knows it's the absolute truth. She grins then, and quickly leans in to steal another kiss. "You're worth it."

Natasha blushes a little despite herself. "I'm certainly going to work to make sure that's true."

"I know," Maria says confidently, grinning widely at the rare sight in front of her, and she may be staring.

Natasha wrinkles her nose bashfully. "No fair staring at me while I'm all bedridden and vulnerable. Haven't you done enough of that already?"

"Yeah, but your eyes weren't open and you couldn't scold me for it," Maria teases as she hugs Natasha fondly.

Natasha tucks her head neatly under Maria's chin where it seems to belong. "Should I scold you extra now to make up for it?"

Maria laughs softly and drops a quick kiss to the top of Natasha's head before snuggling Natasha closer. "Maybe later. I'm a bit busy right now."

"That's just fine," Natasha chuckles, "I don't think I have the energy to scold you right now anyway. At least, not to do it properly."

"Going soft on me?" Maria teases, her grin even obvious in her voice.

Natasha punches her shoulder, but the weakness of her muscles only proves Maria's point.

Maria laughs and tugs Natasha closer in response. "So what's it like being post-coital without the actual orgasms?" She asks cheekily.

"I wouldn't really know. I'm not used to the new way my body responds to these chemicals yet," Natasha says with a slight shudder.

Maria hums softly as she brushes her lips over Natasha's temple. "We can work on that."

"That's going to have to wait until they let me out of here. The gym was one thing, the medbay is quite another," Natasha teases lightly, leaning into the kiss.

"Oh, is that where you draw the line?" Maria laughs and nuzzles Natasha's cheek, breathing in the warm scent of her skin. "That seems like a lifetime ago now."

"In a way, it was." Natasha goes still then, lost in thought.

"Penny for them?" Maria asks softly as she lightly rubs at the nape of Natasha's neck.

Natasha shrugs. "Where would I even start?"

"Wherever you want. Whatever pops in your head," Maria suggests. "You've been on a bit of a rollercoaster, I'm here if you want to talk. Or even if you don't."

"I want a long, hot shower." Natasha smirks to herself. It's the first thing that comes to mind. "And I want to get back on my feet. I need to get back into the field again."

"Knowing you, you'll probably be back there before anyone expects it. Fury's even got some ideas for when you do," Maria shifts back a little to catch Natasha's eye. "Now, I can't make that happen faster, but the shower? If you're not opposed to being lent a hand, I can probably throw my weight around and make that happen."

Natasha hums in mock deliberation, her eyes sparkling. "I don't know, do you think you can keep your hands to yourself? I really do need to scrub off four months worth of gross."

"And here I was going to offer helping with the scrubbing," Maria sighs heavily. There may even be the trace of a mock pout, but she'd deny it instantly. "I suppose I can try."

It does not go unnoticed, but Natasha lets it slide with a small smile. "Then I suppose I can try not to get distracted either."

"Shame," Maria laughs and she smirks at Natasha, "but then I shouldn't wear you out anyway."

"It would serve me right, I guess, after giving you a run for your money while your leg was injured," Natasha muses.

"I suppose, but I expect you to be smarter than me," Maria teases, trying to ignore what the thought of that adventure in the shower is doing to her.

"No promises. I did just have my brain scrambled."

"I suppose I can try to be the responsible one for once," Maria deadpans.

"Sounds like you're the responsible one most of the time these days. What's it like, having your new security clearance?" Natasha's time is teasing, but the pride underneath is unmistakable.

"Aside from headache inducing?" Maria jokes, but she grows more serious, giving her answer a moment's thought. "It's good. Relevant. I went into the army because I wanted to help. I wanted to make a difference the only way I knew how, but...." She shakes her head. "It's good to have a purpose again. To see what needs doing and to actually be able to do it."

"I can understand that," Natasha nods slowly, then leans in for a kiss. "We have that in common."

Maria hums her agreement into the kiss and she leans her forehead against hers. "Something I never expected when I got assigned to guard you."

"We both got a lot more out of that situation than we bargained for, huh?" Natasha murmurs, leaning a little more of her weight on Maria. All the muscles keeping her upright have started to complain; it won't be long before she needs to give in and rest again.

"I'd say," Maria marvels at it as she glances down at Natasha. The added weight doesn't go unnoticed, and she brushes Natasha's hairs back from her forehead. "Tired?"

"Yes." There's no point in pretending otherwise. After four months the idea of spending any more time asleep leaves a bitter taste in Natasha's mouth, but she swallows her pride. Her body needs the rest. "That shower might have to wait."

"We'll get there soon enough," Maria promises, then winks teasingly at Natasha. "Give me some time to work my charms on the doc." More like bullheadedness, but it's close enough. She rubs her hand down Natasha's back before shifting carefully to help Natasha lie down again.

Natasha lets out an involuntary sigh of relief once she's reclining comfortably again. Already it's hard to keep her eyes open, though she does her best. "Do you need to get back to work now?"

Maria's lips quirk in guilty amusement, and she shakes her head as she fusses with the sheets, drawing them up higher around Natasha. "No. It's the middle of the night."

"Since when has that stopped you from working?" Natasha teases. "Will you at least get some sleep?"

Maria glances at the tablet she abandoned when Natasha woke up, grimacing at the thought of all the reports she has to still catch up with. "I will if it will keep you from worrying," she promises, and leans down to press a kiss to Natasha's forehead. "If you don't mind if I sit with you until you fall asleep again."

"You won't have to wait long," Natasha admits. "But you've spent too much time watching me sleep already. I want you to get some sleep of your own."

They're not exactly the words Maria would use to summarise the past four months, but she doesn't argue or correct Natasha. "I will," she reassures her again. "Now go to sleep. I'll talk to you soon."

"Talk to you soon," Natasha echoes, tugging her close for a long kiss that leaves her melting. "Goodnight."

"Night," Maria whispers, touching her forehead against Natasha's before she draws back. <<Sweet dreams.>>

Sleep is not nearly so daunting now that Natasha knows it'll only last a few hours. Natasha lets her eyes fall shut, and it isn't long before sleep overtakes her.

Chapter Text

Jab, jab, cross, hook, cross.

Natasha's fists connect sharply and precisely with Clint's head, forcing him back against the ropes. She smirks in satisfaction, feeling the blood pumping through her veins, a familiar hum just beneath her skin. This finally feels good again.

Her life has fallen into a regular rhythm, and while the changes taking place happen astonishingly quickly, the routine at least is grounding. At first, they put her through cycles of tests: reflexes, coordination, memory, logic, problem solving. She'd have gotten bored if the doctors hadn't been so amazed with her progress. Their fascination with her resilience was nothing short of thrilling; the constant dread that something had gone wrong during her reprogramming lifted quickly, and the relief and cautious optimism that took its place no doubt helped speed her recovery. They discharged her from the medbay within days.

Physical therapy joined the ongoing tests as part of her daily routine. It'd humiliated her to struggle through it at first, but it got easier once she swallowed her pride and committed to the tasks at hand. Strength returned to her muscles, litheness to her limbs, until both her mind and her body began to feel like her own again. The day they cleared her to start training again, Natasha could've wept with relief.

Clint aims a few kicks at her, effectively disrupting her train of thought and refocusing her attention on their sparring match. She slips each of his attacks fluidly, and fires back a quick combination that leaves him face-down on the mat.

"Proud of yourself?" Clint grumbles, but there's nothing but delight on his face.

Natasha's smirk spreads into a grin to match his. "I am, actually."

"Great, kid. Don't get cocky."

Natasha rolls her eyes and offers a hand to help him back to his feet. "What's up with you today? You're not usually so thrilled to have me punch you in the face."

Clint shrugs unconvincingly. "Nothing. It's just good to see you back to your old self."

Natasha sees right through him; he's been telling her that for days. Her eyes narrow. "Come on, Barton, don't make me beat it out of you."

"Okay, fine!" Clint throws his hands up in surrender, but his grin never wavers. "I was gonna wait to tell you after we'd gotten showered and changed, but…" He pauses dramatically, practically vibrating with barely-contained excitement.

Natasha finds herself holding her breath with anticipation. She lets it go in an exasperated huff. "Dammit, Clint--"

"Fury wants to see us."

Natasha blinks at him, excitement slowly starting to work its way through her body. Fury's visited her a few times since her reprogramming, but this is the first time he's actually summoned her officially. Is it possible she's been cleared for active duty? She wills herself not to get her hopes up.

"What for?" She asks as blankly as she can manage.

"Dunno," Clint answers enthusiastically, "but we'd better not keep him waiting. Go get changed and meet meet me back here?"

Natasha doesn't need to be told twice. She tosses a towel over her shoulder on the way into the locker room, already starting to strip out of her damp workout clothes as she heads directly for the showers. The hot water strips away the layer of sweat, leaving behind a tingling anticipation.

The locker room is oddly silent once the rush of water from the shower shuts off, which does nothing to abate the flutter in her stomach. She makes her way over to her locker and punches in the familiar 8-5-4-2. After all this time, she hasn't bothered to change the combination; it's not like she keeps anything valuable in her gym locker anyw--

Natasha freezes as the door swings open. The contents of her locker are definitely not the ones she'd left in there after her last training session. The tac suit in front of her is reminiscent of her usual S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue field gear, but the cut and material are noticeably different. This particular shade of black seems to distort the light, distorting the edges and details of the suit. The material flows like liquid between her questioning fingers, lightweight but improbably durable, unlike anything she's encountered before.

Drawing her hand back in confusion, Natasha nearly double-checks to make sure she's opened the right locker when she notices the utility belt draped around the waist of the suit. There, emblazoned across the buckle, is a glossy red hourglass symbol. Natasha huffs, almost laughing in disbelief.

"So what do you think?" Maria is a little proud of her timing, considering she'd made her way across the entire helicarrier when Clint contacted her that her Natasha was hitting the showers. She could have waited, of course, but after months of plotting, she wants to see Natasha's reaction, preferably without an audience.

"What is this?" Natasha turns to face Maria, anticipation beginning to flutter in the pit of her stomach. Maria didn't exactly startle her by suddenly appearing behind her, but Natasha definitely didn't expect to see her in the locker room right now.

Maria tilts her head, pursing her lips thoughtfully so she doesn't end up grinning like she really wants to. "Looks like a tac suit to me. Black Widow issue, if the belt is anything to go by."

Natasha cocks an eyebrow at her. "I'm not sure I follow. What's wrong with my regular gear?"

Maria's expression sobers and she steps forward, reaching behind Natasha to touch the fabric of the uniform. She's seen the tests, seen what this gear can do. "You're not a regular foot soldier, Natasha. Wearing kevlar would impede your style, and the gear you were wearing... a knife cut through that like butter. This stuff, it can protect you better. It won't do miracles, but it will work as well as any bulletproof vest does."

"This stuff will stop a bullet?" Natasha tests the feel of the fabric again, trying to imagine a knife glancing off of it or a bullet leaving a killer bruise but failing to bury into her flesh. It sounds too good to be true, but she isn't complaining. The extra protection is definitely appealing. "Was this your idea?"

"Yes. I remembered what you told me about the Red Room not caring. I felt like S.H.I.E.L.D. could do better, and Fury agreed," Maria smiles, and she drops her arm, letting Natasha take her time to study the uniform. "He gave it to R&D, and well... they kinda went to town on it."

A smile tugs at the corner of Natasha's lips as she turns her attention to the twin wrist-mounted weapons systems, deceptively simple in their design. There will be time to explore their capabilities later, though. She picks up the utility belt instead and traces her fingers over the insignia, chuckling fondly. "Was this your call, or Fury's?"

"I believe it was a mutual agreement," Maria's smile grows wider as she takes in Natasha's reaction. "You approve?" She doesn't intend for it to sound quite as unsure as it does, doesn't realise how much she's been worrying that perhaps Natasha might not want the title she earned in the Red Room anymore, but the Black Widow has become so much more than they ever meant her to be.

"It'll take some getting used to, for sure," Natasha starts hesitantly. "Wearing the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo is one thing, but is it really a good idea to put so personal a call sign on my field gear? It won't exactly help me blend in."

"It's a two edged sword," Maria agrees. "You don't have to wear it if you need to blend in, but it's also become a symbol. You've built up quite the reputation, in and outside of S.H.I.E.L.D., and I don't mean that badly. The agents here respect you, they trust you. You exposed a sleeper agent and rescued an entire unit. You've been building up a name, seeing that in the field is going to give them courage, and it's going to make the bad guys sweat. It's the sign of a hero, Natasha."

Hero. That's not a word Natasha would have ever thought to associate with the Black Widow. She certainly wouldn't choose it herself, but something about the way Maria says it - the way she believes it - makes it almost sound true.

Natasha finally lets go of the new uniform in favor of resting her hands on Maria's hips. "Thank you," she says, earnestly holding Maria's gaze.

"You're welcome," Maria smiles back at her and shifts closer as she brushes her fingers over Natasha's cheek, never breaking eye contact.

Natasha lifts up on her toes and kisses her lightly. "Does this mean Fury wants me back in the field?"

"I'm not supposed to divulge that information," Maria says mock sternly, and she quickly leans down to steal another light kiss from Natasha. "I'm supposed to be discussing something along those lines with him before you and Barton join us for that meeting."

"Then I suppose we shouldn't keep him waiting," Natasha smirks, trying to mask how eager she actually is. Tentatively, reverently, she takes the tac suit out of the locker. "I'll get into gear and meet you there?"

"Sounds good. I did have orders to tell you to suit up, so that works out," Maria agrees. She reaches out to brush her hand over Natasha's shoulder, unable to hide her pride or the affection she feels in that moment. "I'll see you soon."

"See you soon," Natasha agrees with a wink.

Maria is ready to turn when she realises that they're very much alone in here so she can afford to quickly step back in and lean her head down to steal another, slightly more lingering kiss from Natasha. "One for the road."

Natasha happily obliges her for a moment longer before turning her around by the hips and giving her a gentle shove towards the locker room door. "Go on. I'll be along in a few minutes."

Chuckling, Maria ducks outside, and there's a bounce to her step as she heads to her meeting with Nick Fury.




"So what do you think?"

Over the past months Maria has grown used to Nick Fury asking her this question, but that doesn't change that she still isn't sure what exactly she's doing here or why she's being asked now. About this.

She closes the preliminary report, shaking her head. "It's insane."

Fury smirks. "Tell me something I don't know, Agent Hill."

Maria huffs and leans back in her chair, appraising the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. "The man's a loose cannon. Chaotic good, but-"

"Sometimes that's what you need."

"If you can control it."

"You don't think we can?" Fury challenges.

"I didn't say that." Maria frowns and stares down at the report, the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo on top of it. "I don't like eccentrics. He's a rich boy who's always been able to buy his way out of trouble, and now he's bought his way into playing the vigilante." She falters at the grin that's growing wider on Nick Fury's face. "I'm not going to like this, am I?"

Fury shrugs and stands up from his chair, pacing the room with his hands behind his back. "So how would you control a problem like Tony Stark?"

Maria narrows her eyes at him. Fury obviously already has the answer, but he's checking to see if they're on the same line here. "I'd keep him on a tight leash. Surround him with people who can pull him back when needed."

She frowns when Fury's gaze flickers to the door, and through the matted glass she can see the silhouette.

"I'm glad you think so," he says absently as the door opens and Clint pokes his head in. "Agents Barton and Romanoff. Please enter."

"Of course," Maria mutters to herself as everything starts sliding into place.

Natasha strides into the room, her expression completely blank. Beside her, Clint is doing his best to look anywhere but directly at her. She's already cuffed him upside the head once for staring at her curves in the new suit, and he doesn't seem to keen on repeating the experience. Not that she really minds, exactly. The suit, while exceptionally form-fitting, is not nearly as tight as it looks. The material moves with her as smoothly and seamlessly as she could have hoped, yet it feels protective despite its lightness. She hopes she won't have to find out if it really is bulletproof anytime soon, but she's beginning to trust that this suit will actually do everything Maria said it can.

"You wanted to see us, sir?"

"Agent Romanoff." Fury's voice has an almost happy boom to it as he turns his attention towards Natasha and Clint. "Please," he motions towards the empty seats at the opposite side of the table where Maria is sitting. "I see you've found your new gear."

Maria had already told him about it, but she can't fault him for bringing it up. The suit looks good on Natasha, but then anything looks good on her. This, at least, will help keep Natasha safe. There's no guarantees in their line of