Maria isn't smothering. If anything, she's hyper sensitive to all of Natasha's needs, including the times when what she needs most is distance and space.
It's strange to be read so well by someone else. Not unnerving exactly, but unusual. Clint is one of the only people who consistently understands her, but communication between them is often non-verbal. She relates to him best without speaking aloud.
But whether it's some kind of analytical switch inside her head that she can't turn off or something else entirely, Maria isn't as much of a fan of silence. Her observations are quick, clipped, and directly on point, but always there.
She doesn't disguise her feelings as well as Natasha is used to with other partners -- both sexual and those in the field. Most of the people Natasha has chosen to associate with (those who weren't marks), have been a very specific sort of person.
Maria is many of those same things, but she is also far more soldier than spy. She often discusses their relationship as if she's preparing a field report.
She insists on saying "relationship," somehow searching to refine and define.
Maria is enamored with definitions.
While she's not smothering, there are some ways in which she is constantly hovering.
Sparring offers clarity for both mind and body. Bruises are sharp reminders of imperfections in need of wearing down.
It's easy and instinctive, all acting without thinking. It's nice not to have to think. Actions do speak louder than words, but they also require less active input.
Unlike her hours off-duty at the moment. Every conversation at home is like a minefield. Natasha is used to watching where she steps, but most people she has chosen to bed with lie at either end of an extreme. She likes the intense and quiet types, but also the kind and simple ones who ramble endlessly about nothing. But everything Maria says is something.
It's always something.
She takes another swing, but he dances back.
"Is it her?"
He's the one bleeding, but she has a sharp pain in her chest. No, her side. Just to the left, along her ribcage. Breathe in too quickly and she feels it.
The next hit lands, jolting both of them. They grapple, and he pants against her cheek, laughing. "So it is--"
Natasha blinks up at him. It's meant to be composed, unfeeling, but the heavy beating of her pulse makes her eyelashes flutter and she can see him taking it in -- an obvious mistake. He's right, she's distracted.
But she swallows, saying, "I don't know what you're implying."
"So there's something to imply?"
They withdraw, each pulling away and back into themselves. "… I don't know."
She doesn't speak for the rest of their training, except in grunts of agreement or instructions. It wouldn't do to let Clint think he can poke around inside her head without first being invited inside.
That's what welcome matts are for.
Assuming you're the sort of person to stay in one place long enough to have one.
* * *
Instead, one night Natasha was waiting for Maria in her car.
Agent Hill didn't ask about the keys already in the ignition or even the intention. For once, she was mercifully silent.
Things progressed rather differently from there. It was very noisy on that first night, Natasha made certain. First on top of the counter, and then on to the king-sized bed.
They chose Maria's house because it is much more like a home is meant to be. In fact, it's everything you might imagine in how a grown woman should live, complete with designer sofa and table set. Probably picked from a catalogue.
Natasha has trouble picturing Maria Hill allowing herself the luxury time for shopping. Not when there are lists to be made and reports to file.
Everything has its exact place, but somehow since that night they haven't found the time to talk about their own. They speak about everything else: any upcoming mission, every trait or interest in bed. But intentions are somehow left off the table.
That was weeks ago, and now Natasha wakes up there every morning to the smell of whatever it is that Maria uses in the wash, and a faint hint of shampoo on her pillow. Mangos and something else.
It's a pattern, but little more.
Natasha reminds herself that she still has her own place to go back to any time, and the bed is large enough that they each sleep to their own side. It's convenience. Practical.
The logic of it is something they can both appreciate.
* * *
Run her tongue far enough back into her mouth and she might taste blood, but she smiles anyway.
There's an empty spot for the keys on the table at the door and a space left for Natasha's boots next to Maria's -- well-polished and perfectly aligned with the wall. Her footsteps echo in the quiet, mixed with the soft ticking of the clock. This is all becoming so familiar; it almost feels safe and nearly neutral.
It's all so easy, almost instinctive, especially when she sees the slant of Maria's shoulders bent over writing at the table. Paperwork. Another pattern.
"Agent Barton again?"
There's no point in denying. It would only seem suspicious. Maria knows the answer even before she asks. She probably has the schedule for the next two weeks at the training facility memorized -- complete with Agent ID numbers and half their dossier.
"He keeps you out late." There are things Agent Hill intends to ask without directly saying, but she isn't cautious like a spy might be. She is earnest and overly stubborn, just like a soldier. "Is that a habit from before?"
Natasha can hear paper rustling but can't see past the curve of Maria's shoulders. "I think you know."
So this is the game for now. Jealous housewife.
"I think I'd like a drink."
No vodka in the cabinet, but beer. It will suffice.
Maria is watching her, twisted around in her chair at the table with her eyes locked on Natasha, watching the movements of her hands.
And what if it's not a game or an act? What then.
"I made food, if you'd like to reheat it."
"… you shouldn't have."
"I know that now." Her eyes are steady and unblinking, like her voice is steady and unflinching. "But it's there if you want it."
No. Natasha really means that she shouldn't have. That it was never a part of the agreement that they don't even have with each other to care enough -- or to be enough of a caregiver -- to provide any necessities outside of warmth in bed.
This wasn't the plan, assuming there ever was one. Maybe Maria means that too. Maybe she knows.
Probably, they both should have known it even then.
In some situations, her arsenal is her own knowledge of a target or given situation. Analyze and assess before determining the best outcome. This is something she and Maria share, but her own data is kept locked up in her head.
She doesn't report directly to the Director and as long as the work gets done, they don't ask too many questions.
Correction: Maria is the only one who asks too many questions.
Natasha should have known early on that it would eventually be a problem, but she's the kind of girl who likes a challenge. Evasive maneuvers against the average citizen or even many a government agent is old hat by now. Boring.
Agent Hill is persistent. She is a mystery in many ways, not the least of which are in her contradictions. Perfect soldier, straight and saluting, but she doesn't bother to hide her disappointment when Director Fury gives an order with which she disagrees. She's the first to tell a subordinate to straighten up and get back in line, soldier, but she's come close several times to directly undermining the Director's authority. It'd almost be appealing if it didn't come so close to chaos.
However she tries, Natasha doesn't know how to make those two images fully align.
Maybe that was always a part of the appeal.
* * *
This is not a euphemism.
In the shockingly bright bedroom, with sunlight streaming in, Maria has occupied a chair close to the bed -- or rather, the bedside table -- and busies herself with the careful inspection and disassembly of her weapon.
Natasha watches for a moment without moving. She considers the quick movements of the other woman's hands and a small and very basic part of her is almost aroused at their precision, aching with the memory of the night before. If she were alone, it might be enough to smile.
The gun cocks, releases. Maria pulls the pin and slides it loose, only then looking up and locking eyes. "Hey." Her hands continue without the assistance of her eyes for a few moments, laying the separated pieces out on a cloth left on the table. Eventually, she looks away, but there's a tension left in her jaw, working itself out.
In spite of all her observations, Agent Hill isn't used to being the one who is watched. Not in the privacy of her own bedroom, performing what is undoubtedly a normal morning ritual. Someone like Maria wouldn't handle her firearm maintenance in the living room where she'd risk leaving grease stains on the sofa. The kitchen would be unsanitary.
That leaves few other options in her tenth-floor apartment, so the bedroom it apparently is, even when that means she has to suffer under Natasha's watchful gaze.
And suffer Maria seems to, shifting uncomfortably in the chair until Natasha does her the courtesy of looking away. She eyes the rooftops outside the window instead and imagines the city waking up. It's so easy to think about those other lives -- with a clarity that can only come with calm and compassionless observation -- and sometimes she finds herself trying to think what it must be like. What is it really to wake up as a normal person whose first thought in the morning isn't of national security or new defense techniques, but rather a choice between bacon or eggs? The closer she can come to approximating such a person, the better she becomes as a spy. Consider such curiosity an occupational hazard.
The slide on the 9mm clicks back into place and, without thinking, Natasha shifts across the empty space in bed to hold out her hand. It's only once her eyes are on Maria again, and she sees the reluctance there, that it fully registers what she's doing. "… may I?"
It's against several basic protocols to handle another agent's firearm. Whenever a shot is fired in the field, it must always be traceable back to the weapon it originated from and an agent should never risk misplacing his or her weapon, or (far worse) swapping it with another agent's.
The request is intrusive, and Natasha shouldn't even be asking, but she still holds Maria's gaze without relenting. Almost as an after-thought, she adds, "Please."
Maria is, after all, a stickler for basic protocol. Shifting, half-standing, she hands the gun over, and Natasha simply smiles her thanks. For a moment, their fingers graze together across the metal and she thinks she can hear the heartbeat of the woman leaning over her. It's pulsing on a similar frequency to the sunlight in the room, and almost just as jarring. Intense.
The metal of the 9mm has a cooling effect and fits naturally in the palm of her hand. Take a deep breath.
Click and recoil.
* * *
She has bags to pack anyway. They've been called to duty on the Helicarrier -- something about monitoring a potential threat of suspected Hydra agents located somewhere in Amsterdam of all places -- and while this all should feel relatively routine and normal, it simply isn't. Not anymore.
There are new considerations, other reasons to add to the growing list of why this was all a miscalculation. A mistake.
She packs the essentials. Her guns and her knife, bandages, a wire, and a set of lock picks. More than one change of uniform, and options for civilian clothing.
The bag is light except for the guns (easy to carry), and she seals it up tight with a few clicks and zips.
All she needs in life slung over one shoulder. Turn off the lights and go.
* * *
For a moment, they linger on Clint at Natasha's side. Duly noted.
Their instructions are terse, but the dossier is thorough and informative. Maria lingers to, "answer any and all questions," but then she's the one with her hand on Natasha's arm, keeping her back.
"Agent Romanoff, a moment, if you don't mind."
Clint smirks as he saunters past and it's all Natasha can do not to register any response on her expression. Certainly not annoyance or skepticism. She's cool and collected as she swivels around, eyes completely blank as they take in the sharp lines of Maria's shoulders -- the jut of her jaw and the twist of her full lips.
Alright, mostly blank. "Director."
"You've been busy."
"… occupied." Natasha chooses her words carefully, but makes a show of being unconcerned.
"Well, that's good."
They're both standing to attention, hands clasped at their backs. Maria's posture is more uniform, keeping to code, but one look at her pupils and Natasha can see she's shaken. They dilate as she takes another breath in, expanding when their two bodies draw closer.
"You haven't been in touch."
"I expect more consistency from you in the field with this one." Maria swallows, but her expression is as firm and unyielding as her resolve. "Is that understood?"
"Of course." This time the smirk just comes, and Natasha doesn't try to stop it. "Director Hill."
Once again, Maria just tenses her jaw the way other women might work a crick out of their neck or roll their shoulders. It clenches, then releases. "… dismissed."
"Aren't anything," Natasha supplies helpfully. She crosses to her own targets, firing off several rounds with her pistol without blinking. Clear the chamber, then finally turn to consider him again.
"I know you aren't any one thing, but I think you're something." Clint smiles. "I mean, she is-- Well, she sure is something, but so are you."
Natasha blinks slowly, processing. It still doesn't quite make sense.
"So you two would be something. Or are already." He frowns at her expression. "You know what I mean."
"I'm not sure I do."
"You do." He puts the bow back on the rack and reaches for a handgun. "You just might not know it yet." He fires. "Give it time. Everything good comes with time."
"… your aim with a side arm certainly hasn't." Off his scowl, she only smiles, but it's an expression that clearly says: Back off, Barton. We both know that I bite.
Not that he'll take a hint.
No one on this ship is with S.H.I.E.L.D. because they're very good at heeding warnings.
It's to be expected, just another occupational hazard, but a bullet still hurts every time.
This one enters low at her side, fracturing the pelvis and making a mess of her nervous system. Her whole body shakes with the force of it and she wretches once, twice.
The bandages would have been an even better idea if she had brought needle and thread to sew herself back together. As it is, she has one hand clenching down against the flow of blood as the other fires off a few more rounds in quick succession.
Then Clint is there, at her side, and the world can go mercifully black.
She wakes in a bed with plugs up her nose and needles in her wrist. It's almost insulting.
In fact, she would pull them out immediately if it weren't for Maria sitting there at the bedside table, elbows on knees and shadows under her eyes.
If Natasha didn't know better, she'd say that she was worried.
"Agent Barton brought you in." Maria's voice, usually so crisp and strident, drops off into a silence tinged with uncharacteristic uncertainty. "I'm… grateful."
Natasha blinks. The faint, cottony softness that wraps around the sharp planes and lines of Maria's face confirm that the tubes strung from her wrists are pumping pain relief and quiet contentment directly into her veins. She grunts and pulls them completely loose this time.
Maria frowns her disapproval, but says nothing.
"I can see that."
"This is nothing. I've been hurt worse by a cat." Natasha Romanoff has been hurt worse by a great many things.
"Mm." Maria's hands are moving, folding and shifting, flexing and unclenching. She has no gun to clean, but the tiny movements are still there. Precise gestures and a tensing jaw. "I'm-- Actually, I came for your debriefing."
"… jesus." It could almost make her smile, if smiling didn't hurt. "I was shot once, and they were shot many more times." In fact, the satisfied way her mouth twists as she speaks is almost the same thing as smiling, if you watch closely.
And Maria's eyes are unblinking. "Oh."
"They're dead now."
"All of them."
"Good." Maria's hand is on the table, almost reaching for Natasha. But she hesitates. She waits. "I'll write that then."
* * *
She paces. She stretches until it stings too much. She inspects her gun and dresses her own wound with the bandages from her travel case.
She picks lock after lock, laying their insides out on the bed like corpses all in a row. When the first soldier comes to fetch her, he hesitates in the doorway and eyes the mess she's left spread out on display as if it might be something to be feared. Like he's heard rumors -- and most of them have -- and he's not sure what this might say about Natasha's stability and sanity.
That always works to her advantage.
When she locks eyes with him, the grunt stammers, cheeks flushed. "Ma'am. Err-- Agent Romanoff?"
"Obviously." Her eyes are on him when another lock clicks loose, sliding open in her hands. She grabs another and smiles her most disarming and pleasant smile. Lots of teeth. "Who else?"
"The Director, ma'am, she's--"
"Tell her I'm not interested."
"Therapy, right? Rehab." Another click. "I'm fine."
"As you can see." Scratch, rattle, click.
"So tell her that."
"Did she send you?"
"She?" He grins and cocks his head. "What, are you implying something now?"
"Don't be clever, Barton." She hates the way he flinches when she stands, his every instinct clearly evident on his face, telling him to move to catch her if she sways. He resists, at least. Clint would always give her that courtesy. "It doesn't suit you."
"I'm touched, Tasha."
"In the head?"
She elbows him on the way past, and he exaggerates his response.
Clint exaggerates a lot of things.
"She's the acting Director. It's her job to worry."
"It's more than that."
Natasha stretches and tries not to wince while Clint pretends not to draw closer.
"She's very good at her job."
"So are you." His eyes try to meet hers in the mirror, but she looks back toward the ground. Considers her feet as she bends to touch her toes, hissing softly. "You are very good, but she's worried."
She feels a hand settle at her lower back and straightens instinctively, taking hold at his wrist and squeezing sharply. She feels his pulse flutter and jump, and she smiles. "So are you."
Clint doesn't smile this time, but he flexes his hand and they both feel the beating of his pulse. "Exactly."
They each take a step back and begin again.
Natasha knocks and then waits, arms folded. If she listens closely, she can hear Maria moving on the other side of the door.
What's the angle here? What is the optimal result? Natasha knows that she ought to already know, or she shouldn't even be here.
She knows it as naturally and instinctively as she knows every exit in the room without having to look.
And yet here she is.
The door opens, and Maria blinks from the other side. She wasn't expecting this; advantage Natasha.
More blinking, but this time Maria stands aside to let her in. "I'm sorry, but you'll have to clarify what--"
"Stop sending subordinates whose names you probably don't even know to boss me around." That's probably not true, actually. Maria knows everyone's name -- probably birthdays too -- but Natasha is already building moment, so she keeps going. "You managed it fine on your own before."
For a moment, Maria looks set to argue, but she holds back.
That's almost even more infuriating, and maybe she knows it. "Well?"
"You can sit."
"So can you."
With a casual shrug, Maria returns to the chair behind her desk. "Agent Barton tells me you're recovering well. I trust that you can continue your progress without my having to send anyone else?"
Natasha inclines her head slightly in grudging agreement. Antagonism at this level is undeserving of a full nod.
"So there shouldn't be a problem then."
* * *
She's not supposed to go back into the field yet, sure, but nobody said anything about the air. So Natasha switches rotations with a rookie who doesn't know yet how seriously Director Hill takes her schedules and routines, and is in the sky before anyone knows what's up.
It doesn't take long, however.
The radio squawks a few times, first from command and then it's acting Director Hill herself, loud and impatient. "Natasha."
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Flyby recon, right? Pretty standard, I'd say."
"He looked a bit ill. Maybe you should check the meat in the cafeteria, huh?"
The silence is so thick, Natasha can just imagine the look on Maria's face. Eyebrows pinched, jaws and hands in a war to out-clench each other. "Your ass in my office, Agent Romanoff. The moment you return."
"Sure thing, boss."
Natasha refrains from adding any ass-related remarks. Clearly not the time.
It really is a pretty standard mission. They fly over, get a rough count of the artillery below, and head back. Natasha calculates the miles between the last building and the shoreline by counting slowly in her head.
She's at 21 miles when all the calculations disappear, lost in a few blaring chords and a familiar voice, "Busy, Natasha?"
Tony rockets so close to the plane that it actually rattles, and Natasha clutches the controls in grim silence.
"I take your silence as a yes. Or as a sign of overwhelming affection getting the better of you." His laugh reverberates in the cockpit. "But working under the assumption that it's the former, I'll gladly accept a silent escort back to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, if you don't mind."
There are about a million things Natasha could think to say, and every one of them would only keep him talking.
For now she keeps silent and Tony (mercifully) does (largely) the same.
* * *
"Painful. And stupid." She frowns. "Aren't your ears ringing?"
The suit recoils as Tony spins around, arms outstretched, ever the showman. "I've been in space."
"… okay, fair enough."
He produces sunglasses from one of his jean pockets, miraculously unbent, and slaps them into place with a grin he's probably practiced in the mirror since he was thirteen. "So, uh." Tony tilts his head and eyes her over the reflective rims. "What's this I hear about you being…" One of his hands is suddenly reaching for Natasha's side, and it genuinely looks as if he intends to poke her.
He can't be serious.
With minimal effort, Natasha manages to snatch his hand away, twist it around behind him, and tweak the wrist and elbow few times for good measure.
Bent over double, with his mouth somewhere close to his knees, Tony sounds slightly muffled, saying, "Good reflexes still, I see."
Natasha squeezes again, underlining every question when she asks, "You hear? How? From who?"
"People talk. Or rather, I talk with people." She releases his arm, and immediately Tony straightens. "I talk, people listen. But sometimes they talk back."
"Mr. Rogers let it slip during one of our nightly chats. I guess he and Agent Hill talk about-- I don't know, line formations and … drills? Marching, I think, not power tools. But who knows, that might be her thing. Is that her thing?"
"Nightly…" There are so many potentially dangerous paths of conversation here that Natasha doesn't want to head down. Best to settle for the safety of, "What?"
"Well, I chat. He mostly looks annoyed and then hangs up. Do you know where this wire goes?"
Hard to say which of them she looks more annoyed with.
"Yes. How do you solve a problem like me, Maria?"
"Mm," she purses her lips into a thin, unimpressed line. "Funny."
"I don't think you mean that."
"We're not your own personal refueling station, you know."
"I beg to differ." He claps his hands together and moves very close into Maria's personal space. "So which one of you lads or ladies is going to wipe me down and change the tires? Any takers?"
Not a lot of people can break through Maria Hill's icy composure, but something about Tony brings out her most overt and exaggerated distaste. The look on her face is like she just swallowed a bug. "Stark--"
"You two might look disgusted, but I think a young gentleman in the back row over there seems interested. We might consider that." He begins poking at the computer screens and keyboards, only stopping once Maria quite literally elbows him aside. "So anyway." Tony spins back around and flashes Natasha a smile. "What's this about Hydra and you know I can find out on my own if I want to, right?"
"Nothing important," acting Director Hill says in her most official voice. "And not anything we need the Avengers for."
Tony points. "She's here! In fact--" He looks between Maria and Natasha. "She was shot. That sounds important."
"That was unfortunate, but incidental--"
"Incidental? It was an incident, but I'd hardly call it--"
"As I said, it's unfortunate, but--"
He scoffs. "That's putting it mildly. Big words, but diminishing importance."
"I'm not sure why we have to put it any particular way at all."
Somehow, Tony has worked his way back into Maria's personal space again. They're practically toe-to-toe. "Agent Romanoff is a highly valuable asset, and a member of the Avengers. Things might be a little slow right now, but if she--"
Suddenly, it snaps into place. "Oh, I see." Both sets of eyes turn to consider Natasha at the same time, but she focuses her attentions on Tony, lifting her eyebrows in a half-challenge.
He scowls. "See… what?"
"I am not--"
"Of course." The color of Maria's face is already returning to normal. This might be outside the routine and schedule for the day, but at least now Tony Stark's sudden arrival can make sense. "Thank you, Agent Romanoff."
"Mr. Stark, if you're really so eager to occupy yourself, there are any number of tasks that need done around the ship." With a few rapid button presses, Maria pulls up the schedule rotation. "Latrine duty is always an option."
The look that Tony shoots Natasha would be reward enough, but somehow Maria's quiet gratitude is almost more fulfilling.
* * *
Most partners that Natasha has chosen for herself -- in the field or in bed -- have been a certain type of person. They communicate with each other without needing to speak.
There are kinds of understanding that exist beyond words. Somewhere even beyond reason, logic, and protocol.
If that place of uncertainty and doubt is where Maria Hill has curled herself up inside the chest of Natasha Romanoff, it's no wonder really that she finds herself so uncomfortable there.
That wasteland beyond the edges of protocol is much more Natasha's area of expertise. There lies improvisation and inspiration.
* * *
"I'm reasonably sure."
Clint looks nonplussed. "You live together, don't you?"
"Something like that."
From most men, that might not even register a response, but Clint's special. He at least deserves a smirk. "Yeah."
"And does she cook for you?"
This time, he only gets a "hm."
"Told you." Clint grins, lopsided and smug. "She's your girlfriend."
"She doesn't cook, actually," Natasha corrects, speaking carefully. "Not… anymore."
Clint raises his eyebrows in a fashion that is probably intended to be read as meaningful, but says nothing.
"I'm not talking!" Probably for the best that sharp shooters aren't expected to do a lot of face-to-face interactions; Clint's poker face is for shit. "I'm just--"
Natasha sets down her gun, just so it's clear that she means business. "Clint--"
"You should talk to her, Tasha."
Low blow. Surprisingly on the mark. "We talk."
"Not true, and you're usually a better liar."
"If you're talking to her, why does she keep asking me how you're doing?" He grins again, flashing teeth. "I'm not entirely sure she likes me, and I think that is your fault too."
"She thinks you know me better than anyone. She's jealous."
If he wasn't so hard headed, Natasha might hit him. "She's--"
"One of the only people stubborn enough to put up with your shit? I know."
Hell, maybe she'll just hit him anyway, knock that smirk off his face. This rising urge to kill -- or possibly just maim -- really can't be good for all this relaxation everyone's so concerned with her getting. "It's more complicated than that."
"Jesus christ, Nat, have you met her? Un-complicating is like a hobby." He laughs, already amused by whatever joke is to follow, and she's kind enough to give him time for the punch-line. "I bet she untangles cords to unwind in the evening." His eyebrows raise. "Or untangles you."
"… I'm not listening." She picks up the gun, starts again.
"Good. Go talk to her next time. Your sulking is driving me crazy."
Natasha Romanoff does not sulk, and if she were to it wouldn't happen in front of other people. Certainly not Clint Barton.
Still, it couldn't hurt to talk to Maria again.
* * *
It's a violation of several rules for her to be waiting for Maria in her quarters, but somehow the Director seems unsurprised to see her.
"You really need to stop calling me that."
Maybe it's teamwork, or something else inside Natasha's voice, but Maria seems to sense it. Her expression softens. That look in her eyes is almost affectionate. "Natasha."
Their bodies draw closer together. Pupils dilate. Natasha's fingers grip the back of Maria's neck, working through strands of hair, pulling her closer. The Director is taller, but that only means she must be pulled. Force and friction.
The muscles in Maria's jaw tense as lips meet.
Her breath is warm inside Natasha's mouth, but calming. Everything appears to slow down, even as their mouths pick up speed. When one hand, unaccounted for, manages to press too sharply against Natasha's side, she gasps, and her teeth graze Maria's mouth. She feels it pinching. Together, they breathe in.
"Better," Natasha says slowly, breathing out against Maria's cheek. "Now let's work on getting you to scream it, hm?"