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Art: Provided by the absolutely fantastic, supportive, amazing 51stcenturyfox. Seriously, you guys, I didn't even expect anyone to pick this story and then she went SO above and beyond. Art is included in this post, but can also be seen on AO3. For the love of all that is holy, PLEASE go comment and tell her how wonderful her art is, BOTH PIECES.

AN: My alpha on this one was egelantier, who made it possible for the story to even see narrative conclusion. My beta was thepouncer, who was super patient and amazing at finding ways to force this puppy into emotional and logical cohesiveness, no easy feat. Huge thanks, again, to 51stcenturyfox. This was written for the 2013 marvel_bang, which has the BEST moderators on the planet. I am also using it for the "wild card" square on my first hc_bingo card, filling in "insecurity."

***




Part 1: Home


"You've been acting weirdly," Natasha states. It's not an accusation. She's not even sure it's an inquiry, although she is curious. The comment feels something like what Natasha can vaguely identify as concern. It's one of her newer emotions and she pokes at it a bit, to see if it will expand or harden into something more definite. It does not.

Clint looks over at her and shrugs. "Weirdly how?"

Natasha can't decide if this is a test. They've been partners for almost three years and she trusts him as much as she's ever trusted anyone or anything, but that doesn't mean she's stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop. He brought her in almost nine months before their partnership, and she'd spent those months being unmade and rebuilt by people who weren't willing to do the things the first group had, and so weren't quite as successful. Natasha cooperated this time around, though, and she suspects it made quite a bit of difference as to the final result.

She knows, mostly because her main field of study has always been human behavior, that she's not meant to spy on her partner. But she doesn't think she has been spying. She thinks she has been...paying attention. She's pretty sure she is supposed to do that. Relationships are confusing when one actually tries to engage in one. She wishes she could sit outside herself and Clint and just watch. She'd have a much better idea of how to handle everything.

Natasha gathers up all the little shifts she's noticed, the slight changes in posture or tone of voice. She decides, "Happier, I guess. But also more scared."

She understands. Anything approaching happiness scares the crap out of her. SHIELD is the closest thing she's had to it, ever, and she wakes more nights than not in a panic, sure she's been found traitor, been thrown back to the wolves.

"Oh. Probably just the new thing with Phil. Shocking as this probably is to you, my track record on relationships hovers somewhere between craptastic and apocalyptic, and Phil's going to be here if I fuck it up, so, yeah." Clint smiles a little. "I mean, worth it, but I don't think I've felt this jittery over something since my actual first time."

Natasha knows everything in Clint's dossier and quite a few things that are not in it. She does not know when he lost his virginity. She's curious, but she figures that's a professional hazard. She doesn't ask. Instead she says, "But you're his best agent. And he—"

She manages to cut herself off just before she says looks at you like the world's axis rests along your spine. Discretion among friends is a trait slowly learned, strangely, even if discretion has been a skill her whole life. Lamely, she finishes, "He wants it to work as well."

Clint rubs a hand over his face. "Look, don't take this the wrong way, or anything, but the whole reason I never even tried to sleep with you was because the thought of fucking what we have up literally caused, like, chest pain from panic, and shit. I—I'm really good at not being good enough, and Phil...Phil's just plain really good."

Natasha blinks, trying to focus, to sort out all of the information she's just been given, free. It's always something of a shock to the system when that happens. She knows she's meant to concentrate on Clint's concern about his own worth, but she can't get there without stopping to ask, "You—you never—it wasn't because I'm...me?"

Clint frowns. "Tasha?"

It is her turn to shrug. "You, more than most, know what was done to me. Who I am. I just figured—"

"Wow, okay, don't finish that sentence. No. No. I mean, in hindsight, I think we're a little too much alike, but I—Nat." He took her face in his hands, and she let him. "Nat, anyone would be lucky to have you."

Clint's a special case of, well, Clint, and probably right about their similarities. But it's something of a revelation that it wasn't her being herself that caused the problem there. She tucks that knowledge away, where it will be available to take out and review later. Then she turns her face a bit to kiss at Clint's palms. "You know why you've always 'fucked up' before?"

Clint huffs. "Do tell."

"For the same reason you ran off eight handlers before Phil: they weren't the right ones."

"That so?"

She leans in and presses her forehead to his for a moment and then slips away, making sure she's out of sight before he can call for her. She needs to think.

*


Natasha has always liked dancing for the mental space it allows her. Ballet in particular is very systematic, controlled, each move fitting together neatly. When she's warming up, or even in the middle of working on a new move, her mind becomes seductively silent, only her breath and the beat behind her, metronome or music.

The first time Clint and Coulson take leave together, Natasha spends the first four hours dancing, and then requests a mission. Fury stares at her for a long time, but Natasha can win any staring contest in the world, and this is no exception. She spends the next three weeks and change playing eager slut to a Hungarian diplomat who's managed to worm his way into HYDRA's good graces by way of adequate money and being a simpering dumbass.

When she gets back, she does not allow herself to shower until after the debriefing and the immediate post-mission paperwork. Coulson, who is back, does the debrief, his questions professional and impersonal, but Natasha reads people for a living, and knows Coulson better than most. He wants her to tell him what's actually going on.

She lets herself turn the water just a shade too hot, but doesn't stay in the shower past having shampooed her hair once and scrubbed herself with exfoliating gloves once. For her, there is no fine line between enough to feel better and too much when it comes to trying to get clean. She has more than once stayed in a shower long enough to acquire first-degree burns and scrub unto bleeding full patches of skin on her palms or the insides of her thighs.

Clint's in her rooms when she steps out. She's already in pajamas, disliking nakedness at times like this, but that's not the point. Nor is the fact that he has her permission to be in her rooms at any time the point. The point is that she wants him there more than she should, and she's got to be pissed at someone for it and he's a much more convenient target than herself.

He must see something on her face because he holds up his hands. "Just checking, Tash. You didn't even text."

"Tired," she tells him.

His eyes narrow a bit. All he says, though, is, "C'mon, I got you empanadas."

She knows it's a bad thing that he knows almost all her weaknesses, but at the moment, she can't be upset. She plows through five of the empanadas and then stumbles to bed. A few minutes later, he's there, wrapping himself behind her. She shakes herself free, turning her face into his chest. He strokes at the back of her neck and makes an unhappy sound. She doesn't usually have a problem with him holding her from her back.

She mutters, "Y'should go. Coulson."

"He knows where I am. If he wants me, he can come get me."

"Clint," she says.

"Sh, just sleep."

She's too damn tired to argue against what she wants most.

*


Natasha does not meet Maria Hill under good circumstances. She has just returned from a mission that went so bad so quickly that FUBAR doesn't cover it. Coulson and Clint are both in medical, the only reason she's not is because—unlike the other two—she can still stand. Clint's taken post-mission duties probably close to fifty times over the years as Natasha gets herself bandaged, but she knows this time will bring her personal count to sixty-two. She prefers the other way around.

Hill is new to headquarters, and Natasha has heard of her. She has quite a record, was transferred from one of the satellite offices to a surprisingly high position. She is sent to debrief while Natasha can keep her eyes open. Natasha can see the suspicion on her face the second she walks in the room.

Natasha is too fucking tired for this. "Go. Have them send someone who will not twist every word I say."

Hill opens her mouth, anger flashing in her eyes for a moment. She sucks a quick breath in through her nose, loosens her shoulders, and says, "Fair enough."

She walks out of the room and Natasha is a little delighted by how unexpectedly easy that had been.

Really, after the eleven days she'd just had, she should have known better.

Hill walks back in, holds out her hand and says, "Lieutenant Maria Hill. Sorry we’re having to meet under these circumstances."

Natasha considers the woman's stance, the bright, cold inquisitiveness of her eyes. After a second, she realizes Hill did exactly what Natasha told her to, just not in the way Natasha thought she would. Natasha raises her hand and shakes. "Natasha Romanova."

*


Without being able to say why, Natasha finds herself going to join Hill in the cafeteria one day a few weeks later. There are plenty of tables open and Hill doesn't do anything to suggest invitation—she doesn't even look up from the file she's reading—but Natasha has never had social graces in any instance. She can pretend with the best of them, but left to her own devices, she just finds them annoying.

The other woman glances up at the sound of Natasha's tray sliding onto the table. She looks at Natasha for a moment, then goes back to her reading. Natasha considers the fact that such an action would be her sign she wanted to be left alone. She even considers the fact that normally, she would respect such a wish. But it has been a long time since she has seen another woman and not felt the vague threat the Red Room programmed into her, or the fear of someone who does what she does as well, if not better. It's been even longer since she has felt the kind of curiosity Maria Hill stirs in her, and while she can control herself, she chooses not to.

She eats quietly for a few minutes, half thinking of something worthwhile to say, half waiting to see if Hill will crack. She doesn't. Natasha is pleased. She asks, "How do you feel about muting stupid spy movies and adding your own commentary?"

Hill looks up. "Was there something you needed, Agent Romanova?"

Natasha knows better than to answer that question. She might be interested in whatever Hill has to offer, but admitting to having needs is tantamount to baring her throat and putting a knife in Hill's hand. Not her thing.

She also knows she should leave it. Hill has pedigree. A college education, a decorated military career, she's a soldier more than a killer. She's out of Natasha's league in the same way Coulson has always been, if not Clint. And Natasha suspects that Clint just doesn't realize he's out of her league. But Clint has Coulson, now, and whether she'll ever admit it aloud or not, Natasha needs something. She can survive on scraps, but absolutely nothing is beyond her.

"An opinion on whether I should Netflix '39 Steps' or 'The Ipcress File' next," Natasha tells her, adding a bit of a smile at the last moment, careful not to overdo it.

Hill just glares. "If Director Fury suggested I need a friend—"

Natasha could help laughing if she wanted to, but she doesn't bother. "If Fury wanted you to make friends, he wouldn't want it to be with me."

Something flickers in Hill's expression. For anyone less trained than Natasha in reading others it might be gone too fast, but Natasha sees the moment of uncertainty, bright and clear. She's about to press her advantage when Hill says, "You have a point."

Natasha deepens her smile ever so slightly. "So, spy movies?"

"Noir films," Hill states. "And mud pie ice cream."

Natasha will get some strawberry for herself. She can work with this particular counter. "Done."

*


Maria laughs at the worst of Natasha's jokes, but never at the ones she knows a mixed crowd would find funny. It's stupidly endearing, and Natasha cannot deny that she wants to taste the laughter. Maria is exactly her type: athletic and angular and just a little bit mean. Maria has a small scar in the shadow of her jaw that makes Natasha want to bite into the skin, to leave her own marks.

Instead, she makes fun of Hollywood's idea of intelligence work, eats ice cream, and behaves herself, at least as much as she ever does. A week later—it is supposed to be four days, but work comes first for both of them—Maria brings the ice cream and lets Natasha pick the movies. Natasha wonders if that's Maria's version of acquaintance-level trust. If it is, Natasha can respect that.

Maria invites Natasha to join poker night with her and some of the people she'd served with, but she doesn't get invited back after the first time. Maria explains, "Your poker face makes them shit themselves," in the same way she would debrief Natasha about mission specs.

Natasha mutters to herself about grown-fucking-adults but lets it go, asking if Maria wants to go down to the range for a bit. They amuse themselves with half-assed shooting competitions for about an hour. Natasha loses, but just barely. Her skills lie in the up-close and personal, anyway.

Maria tells her, "You owe me a drink."

Natasha warns, "The only bar I really know has been closed three times by health inspectors."

"You hang out with Barton too often."

Natasha declines to agree or disagree. Maria says, "I'll pick the place."

*


"When you said drink—" Natasha starts, as they walk up to a coffee shop. "Not that I care, but you might've mentioned."

Maria all-but rolls her eyes as she leads them to a door inside the shop, beyond which is a completely different space, almost as if they've stepped back into the twenties. Maria deadpans, "Welcome to Bathtub Gin."

Natasha has to admit: it's the kind of place she'd choose to impress a girl. It's not that she thinks that's what Maria is trying to do, but that only makes it more offensive, because she's managed without bothering. Not one to dwell on things that piss her off but which she's unable to kick in the face, Natasha asks, "What's your poison?"

Maria slides into a booth and a waitress in a nice imitation of 20s-burlesque glides up to greet them. The way she looks at them, Natasha's pretty sure they could take her home afterward. If they were really a thing, Natasha might suggest it. As it is, she might double back once they've parted ways. This girl isn't what she wants, but she's tall and brunette and Natasha is very good at fooling herself.

Maria orders a Creole without hesitation. Natasha peruses her choices for a moment before going with a 2-ounce Death's Door on the rocks.

There's jazz playing lightly in the background: enough to hear, not enough to interfere with intimacy. Maria taps her fingers to the table in time. Natasha tilts her head. "I was imagining something a little less vintage."

"More pizza and darts?" Maria asks, the hint of a smile gracing her face.

That doesn't fit, either, though, so Natasha says, "Karaoke as a distraction, easy anonymity."

"I have a few of those, too," Maria admits after a moment.

It takes Natasha longer than it usually would to realize there's a 'but' there. "But?"

The drinks arrive, and Maria takes a sip of hers. Natasha thinks she's going to lie, or at least ignore the question, but after a second sip, she focuses her attention on Natasha as though she's made a choice and says, "My dad is pretty much a first class dick."

Natasha is not unfamiliar with this phenomenon: her best friend is Clint. If it weren't for Phil, she'd probably think herself lucky not to have parents. She nods.

"But, a lot less so when he's listening to jazz or watching documentaries about the various world wars."

Natasha understands. Fond memories might be impossible, and there's an art to finding comfort where it can be found. "I don't know much about jazz."

Maria actually smiles at that. It's not broad or obvious, but it is gorgeous. She says, "This is early '20s jazz, probably about '22 to '24, somewhere in there. New Orleans Rhythm Kings, I think. New Orleans jazz has a different sound to it than Midwestern or even some Dixieland, depending on the era."

"You know all that from your dad?"

Maria shakes her head. "My fondness for jazz surpassed his, in the end."

"Phil likes jazz."

"Mm," Maria murmurs. "Forties big-band sound. Not my favorite, but it has its moments."

The song changes. Natasha sips at her gin and asks, "What about this one?"

*


Natasha lives in a sleek, modern, largely empty condo in the meat-packing district because it's an easy distance from HQ and because the real estate firm she'd hired had told her it was an excellent investment. Intellectually, even socially, she understands the significance of having a home, but since claiming her life as her own, Natasha's never really wanted somewhere to go so much as somewhere to be and someone to be with. She doesn't avoid her condo: it has a lovely view off one side, and she bought herself an utterly decadent bed, but she doesn't miss it when she's not there.

She's not sure what she'd been expecting Maria's living quarters to be like, but whatever it had been, the reality proves different. It's not long before Natasha's put on a mission that ends with her wanting the longest shower in history, and Coulson is off handling Clint, so they send Maria to do the debrief. Maria is absolutely professional in a way Natasha associates with Coulson and few others, but when she's done she says, "Gonna use the showers here?"

Natasha nods. SHIELD has the best water pressure, ever, in the history of bathing techniques, or anything else involving a spout. Maria asks, "Wanna come to my place afterward? I've got 'The Third Man' queued on Netflix."

For a second, Natasha thinks she's starting to create her own reality. Hers may not be, but she gets that homes are private, places you only invite friends who earn the right. Oh, she has the vague sense that an average person might extend that courtesy to a greater number than Natasha could ever imagine, but intelligence officers are not average. Their home is something outside the war they are never able to stop fighting.

Then Maria says, "I'll text you the address. You can stop in if you feel like it."

When Natasha emerges from her shower, pruned and red and feeling only slightly better, a Woodside address has been texted to her phone. She ignores her unease at the distance between what her skill set tells her the invitation means, and the world as she knows it, dresses, and gets on the subway.

Maria's building is home to an Irish pub on the ground floor and sports some serious tag art just about everywhere but the front. It's a three floor walk up, and she's on the third. Natasha knocks on the door with the correct number and Maria opens it a few seconds later, looking surprised. Natasha sympathizes, seeing as how she hadn't been sure she was going to show, herself.

Maria steps out of the doorway. "Come in."

Maria's place is full of exposed brick and nicely framed photographs of all types of scenes and objects. Her furniture is all sturdy, well-made pieces, wooden and clearly older than either woman. On one wall, she has an LP collection displayed on shelves, hundreds upon hundreds of them. On the record player, at the moment, Cole Porter yodels out his own tunes.

Choosing the music to focus on—it seems safe, they've already discussed it—Natasha says, "I like this one."

Maria cocks her head and Natasha clarifies, "De-Lovely."

"You like Cole Porter?"

"I like 'Anything Goes.'"

Maria blinks slowly. "The Broadway musical?"

Natasha shrugs. She's gotten that reaction more than once. "I like the ones with dancing and happy endings."

Maria thinks about this. "Don't they all have dancing and happy endings?"

"Sadly, no," Natasha tells her. "That is a myth."

"Okay," Maria says after a moment. "Uh. I got shepherd's pie from downstairs. Interested?"

Natasha is ravenous. She follows Maria to her breakfast nook, where the tiny table is as well-made as everything else and considers the collection of antique glass bottles that peppers the kitchen and dining area. Maria hands her a plate. Natasha says, "Thanks," and, "Your home is really…"

"Old-fashioned?" Maria suggests.

"Real," Natasha finishes.

"As opposed to fake?" Maria isn't kidding, she doesn't understand.

"It just, well, means something about you."

There's a pause then Maria says, "Okay," again.

"That's your response when I say something a child-reared assassin would say, isn't it?"

Maria stills for a second, then smiles. "I learned it from all the people I dated who found my military focus outside of their expertise or comfort zone."

Natasha tries to share the smile. She's not entirely sure that's a good thing. Maria adds, "I'm better at adapting than any of them ever were."

*


It's not exactly that Natasha means to stridently avoid having sex with Maria. Rather, she thinks not having carnal relations with a superior officer and the first friend she's had outside of her team ever is a better idea than doing so. In her experience, sex is one of two things: a professional necessity, or a physical exchange. It's occasionally enjoyable, sometimes funny, but always a complication in personal relationships.

But Maria's wearing Capri-length cargo pants that show off her ankles and sipping O'Doul from a bottle and when she says, "It's late, wanna stay?" Natasha forgets why she should say, "No, I'm just gonna go home."

Natasha isn't exactly competitive, not when it doesn't matter, but on occasion she likes to show off. Mostly, she doesn't need to. She thinks this might be an instance where she does. She suspects the people who have been with Maria have often had to work for it; Natasha doesn't think Maria would accept anything less.

On the other hand, Natasha's not sure 'I was raised to do this professionally' is really how she wants to present herself at this juncture. It's a conundrum, and Natasha does her best to compromise by approaching the situation slowly. Maria initiates the kiss, the slightly bitter taste of beer still on her tongue, her hands rucking up Natasha's shirt to settle firmly around her sides. Natasha lets Maria take control of the kissing, opens to her, leans in, even as she uses her hands to brush along different spots of skin—behind the ears, the back of the neck, elbows, wrists—determined to find what makes Maria purr or buck or melt.

They're both on the couch, still sitting, and when Natasha manages to get a hand between them and sweep a finger along the line of Maria's hip bone, Maria sucks down on Natasha's tongue so hard it almost hurts. Almost, except for how Natasha likes being right on that line. She doesn't care to cross over it, but something about knowing she's on the good side is an undeniable turn on.

Her hands push up at the cotton-tee Maria is wearing, and she breaks the kiss just long enough to pull it over Maria's head. When she unhooks Maria's bra, Maria does the rest of the work getting it off. Natasha cups her hands under Maria's breasts. Maria is all corded muscle and hard planes except for her breasts, really. They're small but Natasha has never been worried about the size of things so much as whether they fit, and Maria's do, perfectly.

Maria tugs at Natasha's shirt in what is clearly a sign that she's impatient with being the only half-naked person in the room. Natasha laughs a little into the kiss and leans back long enough to comply with the demand. Maria dips down, catching one of Natasha's nipples between her lips, sucking hard enough to get Natasha back to that teetering precipice right before pain. Natasha lets her head fall back and murmurs, "Yeah."

She gives Maria some time to explore, because Maria seems to enjoy it. Not so long that the significant history written out on her body in lines of raised skin gets distracting. When Maria flicks her tongue inside Natasha's navel, Natasha moves, flipping them. It takes her less than two seconds to have Maria pinned with her pants down.

Maria growls, "Nice use of surprise."

Natasha smiles with all her teeth. She hasn't gotten where she is by playing fair. She slides down to the floor, pulls Maria's pants off the rest of way, and presses Maria's thighs wide with her hands. She doesn't take her time, doesn't inch along those thighs, despite the temptation. Instead, she penetrates Maria with her tongue and drags her way up to Maria's clit. Maria pants, "Oh. Shit."

Natasha lets the feeling of having won something roll over her upon hearing Maria get slightly less put together, slightly less in charge. Then she pulls out all of her tricks to see what works best. Maria likes a light touch, she realizes, with a bit of teeth for accent. Natasha draws her orgasm from her, even as she fingers herself. Natasha's free hand is still on Maria's stomach, and the way it trembles, tightening as Maria rides out the orgasm makes her double her own efforts, tipping over just as Maria is starting to come down.

When the rushing sensation of Natasha's entire body fades, Maria says, "You know, patience is a virtue."

Natasha cocks her head. Maria asks, "Seriously?"

Natasha shrugs. She can be as patient, if not infinitely more than, the next person; she's got no idea what Maria's on about. Maria sighs. "It was my turn."

"I—" Natasha stops herself before admitting she'd had no idea Maria had wanted a turn. She's not used to doing this for mutual pleasure with women. Men, a few times over the years, but the women Natasha would have considered it with have never given any return signals. Instead she tries, "Next time?" and is glad all of her training has taught her to eradicate hope from her tone.

"Next time," Maria says dryly, like it's not even a question, "I go first."

*


Clint's piloting, so it's just the two of them in the jet when Natasha asks, "You and Phil are dating, right?"

Clint glances over at her. "Is this a new game where we ask each other easy questions, since nobody else ever does?"

She glares half-heartedly. "I mean, is that what you'd call it?"

Clint looks a bit confused, but he says, "I guess? I dunno. We're together."

Together. Natasha sits with the word for a while, but it doesn't feel like a descriptor for her and Maria. Clint is still stealing looks at her, not even really bothering to hide it. He asks, "Is this about the fact that you and Hill have been spending a lot of time together?"

Natasha hasn't said anything about Maria, and while Clint is observant, she'd thought him distracted enough by his own life to miss the change. She's not sure what to say, now that he's called her on it.

After the silence has gone on for a bit, Clint asks, "Was it supposed to be a secret? You weren't acting like it."

Oh. "No, I just didn't have anything to say."

Clint smiles a little at that. "Nat."

"I thought I was making a friend." A friend she really wouldn't mind sleeping with, sure, but a friend. "She's not afraid of me."

"Everyone's a little afraid of you, it's just a matter of degree," Clint tells her. Sometimes, she can't decide whether she appreciates his honesty, or wants to shove his balls back up to where they came from.

"Clint."

"You sleeping with her?"

It's happened more than once, now, so Natasha nods.

"Interested in sleeping with anyone else?"

Natasha considers. "Not currently."

Not that Natasha goes around wanting to jump people, but she takes Clint's point: she usually has more interest in scoping other people out.

"Is she?"

All the signs Natasha is reading say no, but one of the times when Natasha's people-sense skills can be completely fucked is when she's in some type of intimate relationship involving emotions with that person. "Probably not?"

"That's probably dating," Clint says. "Congrats. She's a total ten."

He's set the autopilot, so Natasha does shove him off the chair for that sentiment.

*


The next mission, Natasha has to assess Stark, and she's just got other issues to contend with, all more important. Stark, who annoys the crap out of every living being, kind of makes Natasha think of what Clint would be like if he'd had too much money and too little supervision. He's dangerous, but not out of the down-deep desire to create danger, more from constantly being overlooked by those who should see him.

The way he flirts with her should make total sense. Or, no, it does make total sense, it just doesn't fit into Natasha's world view the way seducing a mark always has before. She might let Tony touch her, if the mission requires it—so far, she sees no reason it must—but she doesn't know that she will be able to walk off the touch the way she always has before. Every look she gives him feels like it's meant for Maria, and every time he glances at her she wants to explain to him, in detail, that all of what he's seeing is for someone else.

Given all of this, Natasha is surprised to find herself caring whether he dies or not. To some extent, it's because she respects Pepper, who clearly loves the guy, faults and all. All the same, it's weird, because emotional involvement in missions is not her MO.

Things become even more confusing when she finds herself infiltrating Hammer Industries, roughly four blocks from Maria's place. Her first thought is that she wants Maria as far away from all of this as possible, which is stupid, because Maria's a damn professional. Her second thought is that it feels kind of odd to empathize with Stark, with how he must feel, having Rhodes incapable of ceasing the attack on him. She wonders, not for the first time, if what she's got with Maria is teaching her things about being human that none of her other experiences have ever managed.

She forces herself to focus then, to contain the damage, to save the world, to make everything safe. And when she's done, she goes in and fills out paperwork and doesn't tell anybody about her thoughts during the mission.

*


Maria goes on a mission with one of her specialists and another agent and comes back with a broken wrist, two broken ribs and a concussion. When Natasha can, she goes down to medical and holds out a bag of mint meltaways. Maria takes them with her good hand and tilts her head. "Okay?"

"I told them, if you wanted, they could release you into my supervision."

"Really?" Maria asks, and Natasha can't read her expression. Some of it might be the concussion, which has her appearing a little vague.

Natasha shrugs. "Most of medical wets itself when they have to deal with me. It's useful on occasion."

"The question was more about you wanting to deal with having to wake me up at regular intervals and bully me into taking pills that make me fuzzy and therefore, panicky."

Natasha says slowly, "The pills things would be pretty hypocritical on my part."

Maria just looks at her, unimpressed. "Your childhood and your current profession don't lend themselves well to having a bedside manner. I don't expect you to be Florence Nightengale, nor do I need it."

Oh. Natasha can't decide whether she appreciates Maria's honesty, or wishes the woman had just said no. She considers just turning on her heel and going, but she's learned to front better than that, so instead she asks, "There someone else I could find you? Otherwise they'll keep you."

Maria narrows her eyes as best she can. "Something just happened. You just did something weird."

Since Natasha knows denial never works, and is a little thrown by Maria having noticed—either she's losing her touch, or Maria is ridiculously good—she settles for a bland, "What?"

Maria draws in a slow breath and then exhales. "I feel like shit, Nat. I just went on a failed mission with Dumb and Dumber, barely made it back, let alone accomplishing mission objectives and all I know is you're being weird. I can't do better than that right now."

Natasha doesn't think it's weird to be offended that the person she's sleeping with would prefer to be in a pseudo-hospital rather than cared by for her at home, but what the hell does she know? The only people who let her take care of them are Clint and Phil, and even then, only when the other isn't available. Maybe they're just exceptions, or unusually forgiving of Natasha being Natasha.

Unsure of what to say, Natasha goes with, "Just thought I could try and help. I'll find a doc."

She does turn to leave then, and Maria says, "Wait."

Natasha doesn't turn back, but she does stop. Maria says, "Sometimes I can be kind of defensive about needing help."

Natasha spins around at that. "You're not wrong about—"

"Doesn't matter," Maria cuts her off. "What I said, that wasn't about you, that was about my shit. And I think I kind of hit a nerve that I can't see, but I—If you actually want to come back to my place and stay and make sure I don't wake up dead, I'd, uh, I'd really like that."

"Clint, he says I'm not too terrible at this kind of thing."

Maria laughs, then winces. "Ringing endorsement, Romanova."

Natasha smiles, though, because it kind of is.

*


Once Maria is in her pajamas and safely tucked into her own bed, Natasha goes into the living room and calls Phil. He answers, "Thought you were off-duty."

"At Hill's place," she confirms, then pauses for a moment. "I don't really know a lot of details about her. Not like—"

Phil waits a beat, then asks, "Not like Clint and me? Or you and Clint?"

Natasha gives a non-committal, "Mm."

"The three of us took years, Tash."

Natasha knows that, of course. She puts the heel of her palm into her right eye, pressing back against the throbbing that's taken up residence there. "I'm not supposed to spy on people I'm in relationships with, I know that. But I don't know how else to get the information."

Sometimes Natasha worries that she can't fit herself to the world and its myriad rules, rules she only knows because Phil or Sitwell or Fury or someone has told her. Phil breaks into her concerns with, "Well, asking usually works."

"I interrogate people for a living," Natasha says quietly.

Phil lets that sit for a moment before asking, "What's the difference between asking someone something, and interrogating them?"

"Less mindfucking?" Natasha guesses.

"In the latter instance, you're going after information the other person doesn't want to give you. What do you want to know about Maria?"

Natasha feels herself tighten up and forces her muscles to unwind. "Stupid things."

"Give me an example."

"Favorite food. So maybe I could have it for her, like—like you guys do, sometimes."

"We're going to work on your definition of what's stupid later, but for now, Tash, I honestly think she's not going to mind giving you that information. You just need to ask. That is a normal thing people do in these types of situations, I promise."

Natasha bites back the sigh that's building, because that's kind of the problem: she will fuck normal up, given the chance, and she damn well knows it. Still, she appreciates his confidence. "Okay."

"And Tash?"

"Yeah?" She's tired, working to keep it from her voice. He'll hear anyway.

"Tell her your favorites, while you're at it. So she doesn't have to feel like she's interrogating you down the line somewhere."

Natasha makes a face because nobody is there to see, and hangs up on Phil.

*


Natasha cooks up an omelet and wakes Maria to check on her. The omelet has whatever Natasha could find leftover in the refrigerator: some deli ham, sharp cheddar, tomato and broccoli. It's not the best combination Natasha has ever made, but it's protein-rich and something Natasha can honestly say, "I like this when I'm injured," about.

She brings the plate and a glass of water to Maria, who looks at it with something like regret and says, "I'm still nauseated."

"Try drinking, anyway," Natasha says, getting her started on the water.

After several sips and a few moments resting, Natasha is able to get her to take some small bites, slowly. She doesn't get through much of it, but Maria admits, "That helped, thanks."

"You should rest again," Natasha says, instead of something real, like she promised herself she would. Natasha is a pro at breaking promises to herself.

Maria smiles a little, but drops off quickly. Natasha cleans dishes and does some topical snooping of Maria's music collection—she always finds new things—in the hour between needing to wake Maria up again. She steeps some peppermint tea, making a face when she discovers Maria has only bags. She doesn't even really mean to talk as she gets Maria to sip at the tea, but she finds herself saying, "This isn't real tea."

"It's fake tea," Maria says, flat and maybe amused.

"It's trash," Natasha corrects. "It's more cotton-mill than leaf-based."

Maria tilts her head, then winces, but manages to say, "You're a tea snob."

"Trash isn't worth ingesting," Natasha explains patiently.

"And yet, it settles my stomach."

Natasha sighs. Maria laughs a bit, and says, "So, what I'm hearing is that if I steep you some Lipton while you're in recovery mode, I'm sleeping on the couch for the next week?"

Natasha doesn't blink, but only because she's been trained out of it since having been an embryo. "This isn't quid pro quo."

Maria takes a long sip of the tea. "I'm too tired to have this conversation, really, but, are you here because you think you have to be?"

Natasha does think she's supposed to be, but she also doesn't think that matters, because the last time she did what she was supposed to simply because it was expected of her was well before SHIELD. She takes Maria's point: she's here because she wants to be. After a moment, she says, "I'm working on understanding reciprocity."

Maria smiles then, tired but genuine. "It's gonna have to wait a little while longer. At least until next time I wake up."

*


Natasha stays over that night, and the next, twining herself around Maria, but otherwise simply sleeping. Outside of with Clint, it's not something she's ever done with another person. She's always assumed she likes it because Clint is synonymous with safety in her world. But there's something impossibly nice about waking to the soft in-out of Maria's breath against her shoulder and feeling as if she's rested for the first time in weeks.

She pours them cereal for breakfast, even going so far as to cut a banana up into the two bowls, and starts the coffee maker. She's about to take things to Maria when the other woman stumbles into the kitchen area, barefoot and with her hair mussed and kind of perfect in a way Natasha can't explain.

Natasha says, "I'm heading back in a few." Thinking about how Clint and Phil have taken care of her before, she adds, "Need anything while I'm out?"

Maria shakes her head. "Just more sleep. If you wanted to pick up something with toffee in it, however, I wouldn't complain."

Natasha has never asked Clint or Phil for anything. Occasionally they'll bully her into admitting she's out of toilet paper, or whatever. She's surprised by how much she likes that Maria has entrusted her to get this part of things right. She nods, "Certainly."

She means to finish breakfast, brush her teeth and head out. Somehow, she ends up being there until Maria has crawled back into bed and settled.

*


Natasha is a creature of the present. She might acknowledge, learn from, and care about the past, and she might make plans for the future, now and then, but mostly she concentrates on what is happening in the moment, and how to either solve the present problem or enjoy the good times while they last. She is not one for marking time.

As such, she gets a little blindsided by Maria's, "Hey, next Thursday is roughly our one year. Wanna see if we can get Friday off and take a road trip? I looked around, and it turns out Connecticut Rep is doing 'Music Man.'"

Natasha loves that musical. She remembers telling Maria, but it was in passing, a joke about librarians aimed at the SHIELD archivist who was giving Maria fits regarding security clearance. Because she gets things like this wrong all the time—and because she didn't see Maria as being someone who kept track of these things—Natasha asks, "As an anniversary thing?"

Maria shrugs. "My longest relationship to date was a little less than two years, and that was a friends-with-benefits thing. I guess it's anniversaryish. I just figured it'd be fun."

Natasha already knows Maria's dating history, and not because she's spied on her or even interrogated the information out of her. It's just come up, over the past…huh, year. "Probably a lot of fun."

"Are you freaking out? You've got the expression that is either you freaking and covering it up, or just thinking too quickly to be bothered with schooling your face."

"I'm okay," Natasha says, and she's even pretty sure it's the truth. Oh, she'll spend some time picking Clint's brain about this later, maybe throw some questions at Phil. But she doesn't feel scared or shocky, she feels like she'd appreciate it if these plans don't go awry. SHIELD employment has a way of screwing with her personal life that she hadn't noticed, until recently, is pretty fucking annoying.

"Because if you are, we can just go back to pretending like we're not exclusive and spend ninety percent of our free time together out of convenience, or lack of conscious choice." Maria's tone is dull-edged with a tinge of sarcasm, but underneath, there's insecurity about the situation.

Natasha has reveled in making others feel that exact insecurity. In this instance, she says, "I'd prefer it the other way."

"Other way?"

"Where I buy you an anniversary gift you pretend to like and wear a dress to the show you do like and we spend the weekend being consciously anniversaryish." Natasha tilts her head, smirking just a bit.

Maria's eyes flare with interest for a mere second before she recovers her composure. She says, "Make sure you file the proper leave-request forms, Agent."

*


Natasha fills out the forms with more care and clarity than she can usually be bothered by, and it wins her a weekend with just the two of them. Maria does her hair up with a pretty little vintage headband the night of the show. She sweeps her eyes over Natasha's black Jackie Kennedy-esque number and holds Natasha's hand throughout the show.

It occurs to her, as the meter of the closing strains of music play, that she might be interested in marking this time, these moments, in keeping them for herself.

*


Natasha's noticed that considerable amounts of her belongings have somehow been assimilated into Maria's place, but she hasn't thought about what it might mean. So it surprises her when Maria says, "My lease is coming up. You wanna find somewhere that's a little more us and little less me?"

Natasha's reaction, which is to stare at Maria blankly for the better part of sixty seconds, is perhaps not the best response. Maria says, "Or we could keep living separate lives until the time when you feel the need to escape."

Natasha hears the anger in Maria's voice, but isn't entirely sure how things escalated this quickly. "I don't—you asked me to move in with you. Aren't I supposed to get some time to decide that sort of thing?"

Maria takes a very controlled breath. "Don't take this the wrong way, but I've spent the last twenty-one months even beginning to figure you out. And it's not like I'm Miss Share-a-Lot, but at least you know I have a dad. And that I named a tree in my backyard out of the desire for someone to talk to. You know why I went into the military and why SHIELD.

"What I know about you? Aside from the food you like and your taste in American musical theater? I know from a file, Nat. You don't trust me. I'm not even sure—I think, mostly, you care about me inasmuch as you care about anyone who's not Barton or Coulson. But I spent my entire childhood with a father who didn't care, and I promised myself better if I ever met someone."

Maria's eyes are bright with tears, but her cheeks are dry. Natasha makes herself not panic. It is a skill she has honed in situations a million times worse than this one. She is having a hard time implementing it, nonetheless. Because she does not know how to answer the accusations, or if Maria is even wrong, she says, "I don't remember my parents. I don't remember—all I have to give you is pain and anger and evil. And I—" She shakes her head. "You should have better than that."

There's a moment when Natasha's not entirely sure she isn’t about to be decked. Then the tension seeps from Maria, and she runs a hand over her face. "Fuck, Nat."

Natasha bites the inside of her cheek. She wants to touch Maria, to have some physical sense of where they are, which is easier to understand when in contact. Instead, she says, "I don't—this is your home, right?"

Maria nods slowly. Natasha asks, "And that means something?"

More nodding. Natasha says, "But you're willing to change it to fit me in, make me part of it."

Maria narrows her eyes. "I'm in love here. I realize it's not glamorous, or anything, but it took me a fuck of a long time to realize I could love someone, and I'm still getting used to the idea. And yeah, that makes me want to make you part of it, of home, of everything."

Natasha doesn't respond in kind. She knows that she wants Maria around more often than not, which isn't something she can say about most people. She knows she'd jump in front of a bullet for her, or take a week's worth of interrogation in her stead. She knows the thought of not having Maria in her life causes emotions she won't even let herself investigate. She knows this isn't the first time she should have explained about herself, her methods of survival, but it's going to be, and as there is nothing she can do to change that, she will just have to try her best to make sure this is not too late.

"We were—the other girls and I, in the Red Room—we were given things. Well, we found them, but it was intentional, both the finding and that we not know we were supposed to have come across them. Not dolls or anything so tangible, but some little thing which we were meant to form an attachment to. Tiny, stupid, treasures. This was done when we were six or seven, old enough to both develop full responses and learn from whatever lesson was being taught.

"Mine was just this button. Black and with four tiny holes and it felt so smooth under my palm, knew all my secrets and kept them. When they 'found' it after eight or so months, they melted it down into tiny, sharp plastic scraps and pushed them under my fingernails while they were still hot. If I screamed, it meant no food for twenty-four hours."

Maria was breathing too quickly and Natasha wanted her stomach to settle, but she had started and she wasn't going to stop until she was finished. "Now it's almost laughable, the technique is so textbook. I know what they did and why it shouldn't matter, but I learned—no, it's not learning. It's more than that, like instinct only deeper. The doctors call it behavioral conditioning. Everything in me kicks and bites and rages against keeping anything, attaching at all. I'm not supposed to keep things or moments or people."

She knows this: "But you fuck all that right up." She swallows and forces out the words, "I want a home with you. My first home with you. But I…I don't know that that's enough. I don't know that I will ever…have what it is you deserve."

Maria smiles, and it's only then that a few of her tears spill over. She nods. "It is. Enough. For now."

Cautiously, Natasha leans in to kiss Maria. Maria responds, and it's a while before they get to talking about neighborhoods they both like.

*


They end up in Astoria, with a rental house, because Natasha feels more secure with an entire structure to rig out for the unsuspecting—or highly suspecting—intruder. Natasha helps Maria pack her place up, but when Maria tries to return the favor, they both discover there's not much to bring. Natasha isn't terribly surprised; she's always been hesitant to collect anything. She would use the word afraid if she were brave enough to be honest about it. Possessions, as much as anything, can be used against a person. Worse, if one actually becomes attached to them, it makes running nearly impossible and one need always be able to run.

When they're sitting in Maria's place, labeling the last of the boxes with kitchen plates and other necessaries in them, Maria says, "That's why we're doing this."

Natasha smiles wryly from across the room, capping her Sharpie. "So I can begin accumulating things I don’t need?"

"So you can have design input in your own home." Then, after a beat, "So you can have a home."

"Phil says things aren't a home."

"Phil grew up in a functional family, his expectations are weird."

Natasha laughs. "I thought it was the other way around."

"Let me ask you this: how many people do you know with functional families?"

Natasha raises an eyebrow. "That presumes people like us are a representative sample."

Maria tucks a hair behind her ear. "Maybe. Maybe not. And Phil—he's not wrong, exactly, about the things, but it does help. It does for me."

Slowly Natasha nods, admitting, "I wouldn't know where to start. Clint decorates with medieval weaponry."

Maria laughs. "Somehow, I'm not surprised. Do you like it? Is that something—"

Natasha shakes her head. "Even if it was, I don't think it would work quite as well with your décor as Phil's WWII memorabilia."

"I was never really into matching perfectly," Maria says.

"I like mosaic art." Natasha has never said this aloud. It's not precisely that she was hiding it, but it's never felt as though it mattered before. It's weird to feel that way now. "Not just the real stuff, but paintings that look like it, all of it."

Maria slips away from the box she's labeling and crowds into Natasha's space. Natasha lets her. Maria swipes her lips over Natasha's. "I bet we could find some of that."

"And," Natasha leans into a kiss, "and the pictures in your coffee table books."

"The pin-ups?" Maria asks, sounding a little surprised. "I've never even seen you looking."

"I'm sneaky," Natasha tells her. "Also, a spy."

"You might have a point," Maria says, and makes it the last word by way of occupying Natasha's mouth.

*


SHIELD discovers Steve Rogers' frozen not-corpse on a Thursday, at eight eleven am eastern standard time. Coulson gets the call about two hours later, and flies out. Clint shows up at Natasha's house as quickly as he can get his motorcycle from their place to hers, which, considering Clint couldn't give a crap about traffic laws, is lightening fast.

Natasha isn't read into the Arctic Circle goings-on, although she's aware of the base. Clint lets himself into their house with the key he's been given and disables the alarm, but not before Natasha and Maria are both in the front hall with guns trained on him. He looks at them tiredly and says, "You could just make me knock, you know?"

Natasha puts the safety back on and says, "You look like someone kicked your dead puppy."

Maria throws her a questioning glance, and Natasha shakes her head. She's got this. Maria wanders back to the office space they've created in the house. Sometimes, on quieter days, she works from home, where people are less likely to find and bother her, dealing with a backlog of truly inane administrative bullshit. Natasha really does not envy Maria's responsibilities.

"Thanks for that mental image," Clint grumbles, and stalks past her, mumbling to himself about coffee.

Natasha follows him into the kitchen and watches him grab a mug and pour coffee like all inanimate objects have wronged him deeply. After a moment she asks, "Are you being assigned a solo?"

Clint doesn't mind solo missions, so long as Coulson is the handler. If Coulson is otherwise assigned, however, they make him edgy and grumpy. Clint takes a long draw of the coffee and says, "Phil's going to leave me."

Natasha had seen both of them together two evenings before and sensed nothing out of the ordinary, so all she can do is ask, "Why? And how do you know this?"

"They found Captain America. Alive. Unconscious, but they're pretty sure it'll wear off." Clint says all of this like he's reading a newspaper article, his tone flat and even. Then, "I'm not supposed to know."

Natasha tilts her head, momentarily glad Maria's security clearance is higher than either of theirs and undoubtedly already knows all about this. "Phil told you?"

"I've never seen him so stoked. It's like every Christmas of his life wrapped into one."

Natasha doesn't frown, but only because she's used to not displaying emotion. On the one hand, she doesn't think Phil would tell Clint about this if he meant to start making moves on Steve Rogers, and Phil has been steady and loyal and true since the moment he made the decision to help bring her in. On the other hand, she doesn't know how to believe any more than Clint does. She's seen Phil's collection, heard him rhapsodize about the purity of action embodied in the Captain. She asks, "What did he say, Clint? Exactly."

"I—I might have lost focus after he first told me where he was going, why."

Natasha raises an eyebrow, because he knows better. He rubs a hand over his face. "Yeah, well, we can't all be perfect at compartmentalizing." Then, softly, "I love him. I haven't…I mean, he can't really want to hear it, right? Ex-carnie, ex-merc, ex-"

"Clint." Natasha takes the second of silence interrupting him buys her and swallows. Her throat is dry. "I think he might need to hear it."

"Fuck," Clint says after a moment. "I just. I do this every time, Tash. I go and get in over my head and then I'm surprised when the other person doesn't want a screw up on his or her hands."

"Your brother and your mentor were immoral dicks, Clint. This isn't the same." She takes a breath. "And I don't think it's a flaw, falling in love. I think…it's good. Human. Proves you're still real inside."

Clint narrows his eyes at her for a moment, then looks back down into his coffee. "Until it gets you broken again, then it's just stupidity and the inability to learn from your own mistakes."

Maria walks into the kitchen. Natasha is still turned on by the fact that Maria can sneak up on her, when she chooses. She says, "I can't concentrate on work with all the stupid happening in here, Barton."

Clint's expression goes entirely blank and Natasha has to fight her own protective instincts. Maria's not tactful, but she's not cruel, either. If she's here to say something, she has a point. Maria sighs. "Clint. Yes, Phil probably had a childhood crush on Captain America. And yes, he might still admire the ideal of him. But he would walk barefoot over burning coals for you and not even fucking blink at the pain.

"All of us have had crushes on someone who wasn't 'real' for us. It doesn't mean that presented with that person, we'd take them over the person who reminds us where we put our keys or knows what our favorite snack is. Phil's not going to throw you over for a guy he doesn't really even know, or even someone he does really know, and honestly, it's insulting and fucked up that you think he's that fickle."

Clint opens his mouth, then closes it. Natasha sees Maria's point, although she feels for Clint. Trusting someone else has been the hardest thing Natasha has ever done, and her life hasn't lent itself to much easiness.

Maria asks, "Can I go back to work now? Or do you need me to insult your emotional intelligence some more to get my point across?"

"I've probably been insulted enough," Clint tells her.

"Good," she says, and stalks back to her office.

Clint looks at Natasha, who shrugs. "She grew up without anyone who gave two shits about her, so it's not an idyllic childhood speaking."

Slowly, Clint says, "She loves you?"

Natasha closes her eyes for a moment. When she opens them, she tells him, "So she knows a little something about being foolish when it comes to love."

"You've always undervalued yourself."

"Pot," she shoots back.

He laughs, small and sad. "What do I do, Tash?"

"I think you probably have to take a chance on him," she tells him quietly.

"Yeah," he nods. "Yeah, I probably do."

*


Natasha hears about Steve Rogers' dramatic revival third-hand, from Maria, who hears about it from Sitwell. Honestly, if she were the type of person to waste pity, she'd feel sorry for the guy, but mostly she just hopes SHIELD gets his shit figured out before they have a rogue super soldier on their hands. Fuck knows Clint and she will probably be sent to take care of it.

She doesn't completely forget about the situation, but Maria's working on something she can't even mention the name of, and Natasha's assigned to deep cover work on the remains of Hammer Industries. It took less than a week for the scavengers to appear, and less than a day to figure out most of them were not SHIELD-friendly. For that matter, most of them weren't anyone friendly, and there was a significant chance Hydra had agents trolling around.

She's busy infiltrating the companies looking to pick off contracts and doing the forensic accounting necessary to trace all the investors and connections. The work requires a certain amount of absolutely meticulous technique, which is wearing. All the same, she misses it when she moves on to acting the part of an acquisition executive for hire, investigating everybody she can identify and quite a few she can't. The easiest way to get hired as a female executive—and therefore, in an instance where haste is necessary, the only one—is to make the men hiring her think they have a chance.

It's something she's been so good at for so long that she doesn't even think about it. Even with Stark, and the thread of unease he tugged loose, she'd assumed her problem was with Stark. But it seems her problem is with the fact that she might care about the work she does, but her heart is no longer in this particular aspect of it. It doesn't mean she can't do it. Natasha can do all sorts of things she secretly abhors.

Strangely, she thinks her lack of detachment makes others find her more compelling, which is useful, if sort of terrifying. She wants Maria, but she also hates herself more than a little for the desire. She knows that's just part of her damage, but it's ever so much safer not to want anything or anyone at all.

Maria and she aren't able to communicate regularly, hearing from each other on a secured line once a week, and even then speaking in code. It's not the same, and for the first time, even given how long they've been together, Natasha wishes she could go home at the end of her day, feel Maria's hands on her, taste her, fall asleep near enough to be warmed by her body heat. She wonders if this is what love means for her, or if she's simply become codependent.

She asks Phil when he comes to play guard dog. They're sending her out of the country for some basic intelligence gathering, but she has a couple of hours with him. He looks at her with a gentle expression and asks, "What do you want it to be, Tash?"

"When has what I've wanted ever mattered?" She's not bitter, at least not in this instance. It's a serious question.

"Now. So you should figure it out."

She tells him, "She loves me."

"That's not a starting point. That's a piece of information. You can't confuse the two."

"What if I want it to be a starting point?"

Phil gives her a rueful glance. "Then try to understand what that means to the other question."

*


In the middle of trying to get perspective, find something to hold onto that makes sense, that makes this work for herself, Natasha wrangles a free weekend on a Friday when Maria can also escape before ten and she texts, "Mt @ 55?"

Within seconds, Maria texts back, "W/ fucking bells on."

This particular club isn't well-appointed on the inside, but it makes up for the lack of décor with a world-class mixologist running the bar and a wooden dance floor dating back to the inter-war period that brings in both dancers and good bands. Tonight a jazz quintet out of San Diego is playing, their sound a little bit early 30s, a little bit Balboa.

Natasha orders a highball, sipping off of Maria's Dubonnet cocktail.

The server, Cecilia is definitely flirting with Maria. Maria's not exactly encouraging it, but Natasha gets the feeling they've spent time chatting on the nights Maria's come in when Natasha hasn't been around. Cecilia's good looking in an edgy kind of way, the too-vintage rockabilly style of hipster. Natasha guesses she's of Latin American descent, possibly Honduran, with black hair that falls to her waist when braided and lips that most lipstick models would fall over themselves trying to achieve.

She's ex-military, Natasha has listened enough to know that much. That, and she's pulling night shifts while going to NYU on the GI Bill for pre-med. Natasha enjoys hating her a little, despite the fact that she seems like a fairly nice person. She's a good listener, and Maria likes to talk about their common taste in music. Natasha knows, in the way she can professionally assess these things, that the flirting is harmless, a bit of fun in a night full of customers who tip Cecilia because she lets the edge of the ink flowing over her breasts show. The part of Natasha that never was taught to share, never grew up and dated and dumped someone, got dumped, that part wants to rip Cecilia's throat out.

It's too tempting tonight, so she moves away. The music is Maria's thing, but Natasha had fallen in love with swing dancing the moment she'd seen it done well: a casual, if compelling conversation between dancers. It hadn't taken much for her to force her body past the muscle memory of ballet and ballroom, to learn the basics of Lindy, and later some of the other dances. She's recently begun allowing her former dance training to flavor her style, but she's cautious, partly out of the fear of being too recognizable, partially because it's so easy for the styles to clash.

Tonight, it's mostly a Balboa crowd, although there's a couple going all-out on Charleston variations, and a few east-coasters. Natasha likes the way the Bal dancers seem as though the only thing keeping them up is each other and the music.

She's taken lessons, here and there. Maria will come with her from time to time, but she just doesn't have Natasha's sense of rhythm, her feel for it. She likes to watch, though, so when Maria glances over at her, Natasha quirks a tiny smile at her, stands and finds herself a lead.

It's not hard. Good leads can be—often are—dicks, but they're also largely men, and Natasha has only ever met three of those she couldn't play. The right amount of invitation in her voice, a small amount of skin flashed and she's good. Once the others have seen what she can do—and dancing, even more than fighting or fucking or even sleeping, has always made sense to her body—she doesn't have to ask anymore, just say yes or no.

When she sits back down at the band break, Maria is waiting at a table for her, tracking her every move. She leans over to murmur in Natasha's ear, "One more set. Then you're taking me home."

Natasha knows Maria, though. One more set is the equivalent of staying through the ninth inning, in this instance.

*


"So, last night," Maria says. "You were showing off."

Natasha doesn't say anything to this, unsure of how to take the observation. Maria glances over from the road and rolls her eyes. "You danced with Mickey, Nat. Who's a) an asshole and b) someone you'd like fifteen minutes in a soundproof room with, but c) a really, really great lead."

"You have a point," Natasha allows, her tone cautious. She's shown off before and Maria has never felt the need to bring it up, just enjoyed it at the club and later on.

"Is this about the flirty, jazz-aficionado bartender?" Maria asks, and there's something careful in the question.

"Maybe I just like the way it makes you look at me," Natasha says lightly. She doesn't want to talk about this.

Maria's voice only gets more careful. "We have a lease together, Nat. I don't think I'm going anywhere."

"If the lease is the issue, I'll buy out my portion for the rest of the year," Natasha tells her evenly.

After a beat, Maria says, "You're serious."

Natasha notes the surprise in Maria's voice. "You saw the way she looked at you."

"Yes, it's part of my job to be observant as well." Maria says sharply. "But I see the way a million people look at you every minute of every day and I'm not offering to find a new living space."

Natasha takes a slow breath. "You're a decorated military officer with a command role in a multi-national agency. I'm a killer-for-hire with dental and a slightly better moral compass than I had a few years ago, mostly due to outside influences. People look, but they only see the surface. There's something more there with you, something to take forward."

"You're being insulting right now." Maria's whole body was tight, her fingers tense on the steering wheel. They'd been heading into the offices, because both of them had tasks they'd wanted to put away while the building was mostly quiet.

Natasha knows she should apologize, but she finds herself unable to, instead shrugging. "You knew what you were getting into."

There's a beat, then Maria peels off the road headed into work and starts toward the nearest freeway. Natasha says, "Clint will find my body, you know?"

"And Fury will find mine," Maria tells her, before settling into silence and refusing to respond to Natasha, no matter what she says.

*


Three very quiet hours later—at one point Natasha resorts to turning on the radio and picking stations she knows will annoy Maria—they arrive at a small townhome somewhere in Pennsylvania. Natasha has texted Clint to let him know everything is fine; she can only assume he's spread the message.

Maria parks the car on the street and gets out. She doesn't invite Natasha to follow. Natasha does anyway. She stands back as Maria rings the doorbell and waits. Minutes later, an older gentleman answers the door. There's a second of uncomfortable silence before he asks, "What the hell are you doing here?"

"Nice to see you too, dad." Maria steps back a bit, and motions to Natasha. "I thought I'd introduce you to my girlfriend."

"Why?" he asks, not seeming offended or even really curious, just genuinely uninterested. "Think being a dyke somehow makes things better?"

Maria's smile is sharp, shattered glass and knives just off the production line. "Well, a boy would have probably brought a girl home, so there's that, isn't there?"

If anything, her dad's eyes became colder. "If this is about money—"

"No," Maria says. "No. It was about proving a point. For that, I guess, thanks."

She walks away. Natasha stands where she is for a few moments, considering whether she can walk away without, in some way, hurting this man even a fraction of how much he has tortured his only child. She's almost decided that she can't when Maria calls, "Nat, c'mon." And then, in a voice Natasha has never heard her use, she says, "For me."

Natasha walks to the car without a single glance back.

*


Maria takes them to a Korean grill nearby, evidently run by a guy she went to prom with. His twelve year-old son, the oldest of three, takes their order, while his wife canoodles stories about him from Maria, who acts exactly like the financial professional on a business trip she's supposed to be. Sometimes, Natasha thinks Maria missed a calling in on-the-ground-intelligence. Other times she's glad for this small favor.

When they've been left alone with their food, Maria steals the first bite of Natasha's without asking and chews until she can say, "I've read your dossier. I read it before I ever met you."

Natasha nods. "Of course."

"And I let you get away with a lot, honestly, because the shit in that file makes it look like I was raised by a single-dad Ward Cleaver, but the thing is, I wasn't."

Maria seems to be waiting for a response, so Natasha says, "I know."

It must be good enough, because Maria continues. "I was raised by an asshole who was actively convinced I killed his wife and that he hadn't even gotten the consolation of a child with a cock for his troubles. And it wasn't until I was eleven, and I joined a co-ed soccer team, knowing soccer was his favorite sport, that I figured out that it didn't matter what I did. He signed up to coach our rival team and I realized, then, that it was who I was that wasn't enough, wasn't what he wanted and never would be."

"More the idiot him," Natasha says softly, and breathes out her desire to go back to that house, to introduce the man in it to the Black Widow.

"Yes." Maria rubs a hand over her face. "But it wasn't until I was fifteen and a ROTC recruiter saw just how badly I needed to be worth something that I could even begin to figure that out, and there's some damage that can't entirely be fixed."

It is only now occurring to Natasha—which is probably, she realizes, an issue in and of itself—that when Phil has told her, again and again, that she and Maria need to talk, this was likely what he was getting at. It is not reassuring, does not make her feel that she is any more qualified to handle this situation than your average sea urchin, but she's smart enough about the human psyche to know none of that matters. If she weren't involved in this situation, if she were just manipulating it, she would know that she needed to make Maria aware of her worth to Natasha just now.

She extrapolates from that awareness the appropriateness of her next actions, and figures there's at least very little she can still manage to fuck up. "I still wake up wondering when you'll come to your senses. I…theoretically, I understand that your father's emotional failings made you feel on some level that it was your fault, but in the place where you exist for me? The place that's not logical, right there, all I know is that you could do better. I can't help that."

Maria spends some time picking at her food before asking, slowly, "If you could believe you deserved anyone you wanted, would you still be here?"

It's nice, for once, not to have to think about something, to just know. "Yes. Only, not here, because I wouldn't have messed this up, and we'd be at work, texting each other arguments about what our next night off is going to involve."

Maria's expression softens a bit, which is exactly what makes Natasha continue. "But I see the way that girl, who is lovely and interesting and going to be someone who saves people's lives for a living, I see how she leans into you, I know what she could offer you and…and there is nothing in this world I won't give you."

Maria blinks slowly. "And I don't want anything that doesn't include you."

Natasha runs a finger over the table in a random pattern. "I think being raised by your father may have caused you to take what you were given, even if it wasn't enough."

"Maybe," Maria says quietly. "But nobody I know who is worth anything and in her right mind is going to look at the web I've made, the one that's kept the Black Widow from moving on, look at the home we've put together, that's kept Natasha Romanova from running, and think I'm settling. Because that would be stupid, and most of the people I know aren't stupid." Then, after a second, and with a smile, "Present company evidently excepted."

The look in Maria's eyes is too warm, too engaged, for Natasha to do anything, but laugh and reach out to squeeze her hand.

Part 2: Is Where The Heart Is


Events and the world have settled into what Natasha feels are an amazingly acceptable pattern when she gets a call from Coulson in the middle of a job to tell her that Clint is in the hands of a monster and she needs to head to India because, yeah, the world might be ending. Sardonically, Natasha thinks it pretty much figures.

She goes to India like she's told, but on the way there she punches through SHIELD's firewalls from the quinjet sent to fly her, and gets through to the helicarrier. That's where Maria will be, now that New Mexico is gone and they need to present a moving target.

Maria answers with, "I'm all right." She looks battered and somehow cold over the video feed.

"Phil says Clint shot at you." She doesn't allow herself to think. She's not sure what she'll do if she has to consider the meaning behind those words.

"He missed, babe."

They don't use pet-names, but Natasha finds it strangely reassuring, like there's a connection despite the distance and uncertainty of the moment. She finds herself wanting to reciprocate. "He doesn't miss, Masha."

Maria nods. "He aimed for the wrong part of the Director as well. He's in there somewhere, Nat. We just have to get him back and pull him out."

Natasha spends most of her time buried inside herself, but closer to the surface than she was before SHIELD. She has never wanted that for Clint. She won't waste time on wishing things were different, but she will admit, "I was looking forward to coming home."

"You're bringing the doctor back to the helicarrier. Not long." Maria's tone indicates she'd like it to be 'now' as well, but is too much of a professional to admit it.

Natasha thinks of the footage of what the doctor is capable of. "Mm. See you then."

*


Shaky and exhausted and numb from repelling an alien invasion, the first thing Natasha does after Stark is confirmed alive is begin her hunt for Clint. She finds him holding onto the stair railing on the third floor of the building he'd been atop of. He's leaning up against the wall with his forehead, eyes closed. He says, "Hey," when she approaches, not opening them. Then, "Use stairs in case of emergency is kind of bullshit."

There's glass sticking out of the backs of his arms, and the shadows around his eyes are bigger than she's ever seen. She doubts he's slept or eaten since all of this started, given his appearance. She doesn't want to do what she has to right now, wishes there was anyone she could make do this in her place. But Natasha well knows the value of her own wishes.

She goes to him, cupping a hand over his elbow, and guides him down to sit on a stair, where she settles next to him. He says, "You've got bad news."

He sounds utterly resigned and she wonders if maybe he had thought things couldn't get worse. He should know better, but she won't scold, not now. She wants to make this as painless as possible, but she thinks about how she would react if Clint were sitting here, about to tell her Maria was dead and she'd missed it, been playing for the other team while it happened. She shakes her head and goes with what she knows: the truth. Truth is useful for a myriad of things, but here, in this moment, it is the only option she can conjure.

She takes a breath and says, "Phil's dead, Clint."

He doesn't make her repeat it, even though she can feel that it takes him a moment to understand. After a second, he says, "It—it wasn't me, I remember—"

"Loki." All of it was Loki, but that's something she'll deal with later. "He was trying to delay him."

Clint sounds creepily calm as he says, "I can't kill him, can I?"

Natasha knows it will be their jobs and their lives, but she says, "I'll find a way."

Clint shakes his head. "Nah, Phil—Phil'd be pissed. Disappointed."

She finds herself pressing her lips to his forehead. There's the beginning of a fever, but she doubts it's anything some food, a little patching up, and a few days of solid rest won't heal. Assuming, of course, she can get him to do any of that. She decides to start small. "We're going to get a meal when we’ve secured him. Join us? Me?"

Clint uses the railing to pull himself back up to his feet. "Haven't got anywhere else to be."

He makes it down the rest of the stairs without her help. She wishes she thought everything was going to be that simple.

*


Sex that night is desperate but not violent: mostly just urgent and clumsy and strangely fulfilling. Natasha has been cleared by medical, but Clint hasn't, so they're on base. Maria hadn't even mentioned going home, just said, "I went and checked your quarters, made sure we had shampoo and clean sheets." The bed is too small and despite the shower Natasha can smell blood on both of them, but she doesn't care. She cares that she can feel Maria under her skin, that her breaths crest hot and even over Natasha's shoulder when Maria falls into an exhausted sleep a few minutes before Natasha does the same.

Maria's awake but unmoving beneath her when Natasha surfaces. She says, "Stay with me for a few minutes before you go collect him."

There's no question as to who "him" is. There's no question that the two of them will keep him standing until he can do it on his own again. Natasha thinks they might have different reasons, but it doesn't matter. She sinks as deeply as she can against Maria and whispers, "Thank you."

Maria's blunted fingernails drive into her skin. It hurts in every way she needs it to.

*


Natasha spends the next few weeks keeping vague tabs on where the other "Avengers" have scattered to, helping with the bits of clean-up she has some power over, and doing her best to keep Clint from losing his shit. When it's determined that if Clint is still compromised, it's not in any way SHIELD can find, they release him.

The fact that he's waited patiently for them to unclip his leash worries Natasha, but it's only one thing on a very long list. He asks her, "Think I still have quarters here?"

She shakes her head and takes him home with her, where Maria forces him to cook for them. He learned from a friend in the Berets and is far better at it than either of them. Also, it gives him something to do, makes him think without having to process.

He's been living with them for three weeks when Steve Rogers reappears and, just like before, completely overturns the order of the universe.

In fairness, Steve is trying to do the right thing. He's been out discovering America, or whatever, for nearly two months and that's evidently brought him to a lot of collector shops in small towns across the heartland. He shows up at SHIELD HQ on a Monday morning, knocks on Maria's door and when she calls, "Come in," steps inside with a hesitant, "Lieutenant."

It's early enough that Natasha's still sharing a thermos of coffee with her, flipping through the briefs she's been sent, figuring out an order to her day. Maria says, "What can I do for you, Captain?"

Natasha stays quiet. If she's honest about where she stands with Steve, it's in a big, swirling pit of confusion. Steve has gone from Earnestly-Spoken-About-Idol to Man-Likely-To-Unknowingly-Break-Best-Friend's-Heart to Team-Leader-Who-Trusted-Her-Repeatedly-When-The-Chips-Were-Down, and she's not sure how she feels about any of those things, let alone all of them combined.

Steve nods politely at Maria, and says, "Agent Romanova. I—I was unaware, I mean, I wasn't told you'd be here."

"We drive in together most mornings," Maria says. "From our house."

It's a two-part test, Natasha knows. The first to see if he even understands, the second to see if he accepts. Natasha usually doesn't mind doing the heavy lifting, but she does appreciate that Maria takes care of it for her from time to time.

Steve glances between the two of them, blushes, coughs a bit and says, "Well, that saves me having to find Agent Romanova."

Natasha sees the smile Maria doesn't allow to form. Instead she asks, "You needed something, Captain?"

Steve shifts slightly on his feet. "Rumor has it the two of you know where Agent Barton is."

At that, Natasha raises an eyebrow. Steve sighs. "When I asked who was listed as Coulson's next of kin, Tony told me it was Barton. I'm guessing he shouldn't have that information in the first place, but I'm also guessing nobody else was going to tell me. Anyway, he gave me the address on file for Agent Barton, but he's not there, and I haven't found him at HQ or the helicarrier repair site, so I asked around and it led me here."

Maria's expression hasn't changed, but Natasha wonders if she'll be allowed to watch her put the fear of All Things True and Sanctified into Tony. Her voice is even when she asks, "Why do you need to find Agent Coulson's next of kin?"

Steve rummages around in the satchel he's slung over his shoulder and produces a vinyl sleeve, filled with cards. Natasha zeroes in and notes that they are all vintage Captain America, pristine, every one of them signed. Softly, Steve says, "It doesn't bring him back, but I—I thought they might…it felt wrong, leaving his collection marred that way."

Something twists in Natasha's stomach. "Marred?"

Steve nods. "They, that is, the cards, when he died, they were ruined. Blood."

Natasha looks at Maria, who seems uncomfortable herself. She says, "The Director had them. He said it was a push. I should've said, but I forgot with everything else. I forgot. I'm sorry."

"What?" Steve asks.

Natasha stands up. "I've got…business to see to."

She only feels a little bad leaving Maria to try and explain.

*


Natasha only has to look at Fury's PA for him to wave her in and key open the door. He's alerted the Director, though, as Fury just glances up and asks, "Something I can do for you, Agent?"

"If I say to you that there is information I want, and I will get it one way or another, can we do this the easy way?" Because Natasha can pull it out from him, but she is tired and sad and would like to have faith in her own side every once in a while.

Fury just tilts his head. "I suppose that depends."

"What have you done, Director?" she asks softly. "Why is Captain Rogers offering to give Clint unbloodied collector's cards when Phil's never would have been bloodied in the first place?"

Fury considers her for a long moment before saying, "You, more than anyone, must understand the importance of a little tactical…misinformation."

Natasha has never felt quite so much like she might vomit right on the spot. "Not against what is mine. Not—Clint has been a zombie."

"And there is no guarantee Agent Coulson will wake from the medically-induced coma we had to put him in. No surety that the incredibly experimental measures we took to save him will succeed."

"As a palliative lie, how is that working for you?" She isn't even sure if she intends the question to be edged or sincere.

Fury's expression never changes, but after a moment, he says, "You and Barton. That's all. The others can wait until we know he'll pull through."

It's not fair, but Natasha doesn't care. This is what she knows: "Give him Clint. He will."

*


Natasha spies on Steve because she spies on everyone: it's her way of settling people in her mind. He's earned a bit of a pass based on how he treated her in the field, and his respect for Phil. But when she drops by Stark's tower one afternoon to talk to him and Pepper about consultation on energy issues—Maria wants the helicarrier reworked as green so long as they have to almost rebuild the damn thing—and catches Steve doodling in the sitting room where she's waiting, it isn't something she can let go without having a peek.

Steve is good, there's no doubt about what she sees. At the sight of a pencil composite of Maria as an Army-girl pinup, Natasha thinks two things. Her first thought is, we should try that some time because it's unbearably hot and Maria would be all about the retro-vibe. Her second thought is a growl of mine in the back of her mind. It shouldn't surprise her, not after the blow-up over Cecilia-the-bartender, but it does. She's so very used to reserving possessiveness for Clint, to feeling it rear its head only when others are placing him in mortal danger.

She finds herself saying casually, "She's taken, Cap."

Steve pretty much flies out of the chair, sending the notebook halfway across the room. His expression is half-panic, half-mortification, and Natasha would bet he doesn't even realize he's speaking until after he's said, "If it helps, there're some of you, too."

If Steve were the type to cover his face, Natasha has no doubt he'd be doing it now. She tilts her head. "Really?"

Steve sounds tired and maybe a bit bereft when he answers, "I'm only human, Agent."

Natasha raises an eyebrow.

He shrugs. "I like women who know what they want and how to get it and don't mind going after it. It's just looking, honest. No disrespect meant. Back during the war, those girls were home."

Natasha flips this over in her mind. She was pretty sure Steve wasn't being disrespectful. Aside from his actions toward her in the heat of battle, he just didn't seem to have it in him for anyone besides Tony, and everyone acknowledged that Tony was a special case of special. Slowly, she says, "You should call me Natasha."

What strikes her about this conversation is how weirdly…familiar it all seems. Only she's in the wrong role. She's so used to being the outsider, craving a little something from the inside, so attuned to harsh , unending loneliness that seeing it on someone else—and not simply feeling an echo of empathy—is throwing her a bit.

She knows it's socially inappropriate to be reassured, but finds it nice that Steve's thrown some, too. "Um, all right?"

Kindness isn't one of her strengths, and she's having a conversation with a man who is a role model for all that is good. She thinks if she were smart, she'd leave, go on to her meeting, let him think what he will, but she's only smart when it comes to trickery and deceit, pain and death. "Is it because Maria has some similarities in color to Margaret Carter?"

Steve's mouth tightens. "Those aren't the similarities that interest me. And, for the record, whatever else, Peggy was my friend."

His tone tells her more than his words. It is psychologically axiomatic that Steve is isolated in this time, but until this moment, Natasha hasn't had any context for that. Natasha was raised to view others as a threat, and it was only later that she learned to accept them in her life in any other capacity. She's never had to give that up. The closest she's come is believing Phil died, and she had been surprised to discover that type of pain far exceeded anything physical she'd felt.

She asks, "You do realize most people would tell you to run the other direction from either of us? Not attempt friendship?"

"Most people are cowards," Steve tells her evenly.

He's not wrong, but she didn't expect him to know something like that. She says, "Barring work, Maria and I were going to hit up a new jazz bar Thursday evening. Are you free then?"

Steve smiles. "I don't know much about jazz."

"Good. Maria will enjoy introducing you."

*


"I invited Steve on our date," Natasha says when she calls Maria a few minutes after getting out of the meeting with Stark. It occurred to her that may not have been the proper thing to do, and honesty seems like the best approach. Natasha likes honesty a lot, it just doesn't always share the sentiment.

Maria asks, "At the club?"

"Should I find a way to uninvite him?"

"That's not going to fuck with team morale?"

"If I want to make him feel honored by a retracted invite, I will."

Maria laughs. "Good point. Can I ask what it was that inspired you to add a third wheel?"

"You want the long or the short version?"

"I spent all day talking with politicians about emergency response plans and now I have to write a memo. If you care for me at all, it will be the unrated, director's cut version."

Maria sounds exhausted. Natasha wishes she were there, could rest her hands on Maria's shoulders. Instead, she just starts from the beginning. "I found him drawing us."

"Portraits?"

"Done in pin-up style."

Maria must be drinking, because she chokes on something. "Seriously?"

"I called him on it," Natasha says softly. "It's not as if you'd think there'd be much he could say."

"But?"

Natasha swallows. "When Clint found me, it wasn't just that I was alone. It was that I didn't even know what it meant not to be. And Clint, who didn't know much more than I did, he taught me. Phil and him, and then, you. You had to finish that up."

"Okay," Maria says, but it's a question.

"I never had to go back, though. I didn't have to learn that, and then let it go. I tried, but you—none of you let me."

"We won't."

"He's lost. He had people. James Buchanan and Margaret Carter and his unit. He was raised in a context where human interaction had positive and important connotations and then ripped away from everything and everyone.

"It's worse, maybe, than the way it happened for me. I didn't know what I was missing, even if I had the instinctive sense that something probably was. Steve, he's more loneliness than person at this point. I hate knowing how to read people when I'm near him. I just…it is childish and perhaps even cruel, but I've never been a person who helped others. I was helped, if help entered into the picture. But I can maybe be that person, with him. If you're there."

Maria's voice is a little too even when she answers, "For the sake of later arguments, I am tabling the sentiment that you give yourself too little credit, and me possibly too much, but for the moment, I'm going to tell you that sounds neither childish nor cruel and Thursday's going to be enjoyable."

Natasha smiles and hangs up. Maria will know.

*


While they're at the club, Natasha receives a text from Clint. It says, "Come and say good morning, sunshine."

She reads it twice before handing it over to Maria.

Maria scans it, leans over, kisses Natasha's cheek and whispers, "Go. I've got Project: Captain America Shouldn't Look Like a Kicked Puppy under control."

Natasha hesitates for less than a second, then gives Steve a work-related excuse, and is out the door.

*


By the time she reaches HQ, all of fifteen minutes later, Clint is sleeping tucked up beside Phil on a bed that is not meant for two grown men, let alone those men and about a million pieces of medical paraphernalia. For the first time since her best friend's brain was hijacked by an overgrown elf with daddy issues, something settles in her chest -- the thought that they might make it out of this, might heal from this round of battering.

She leaves them alone once it's determined neither of them is waking up in the near future. She slips into Maria's office and works on a backlog of requisition forms for herself and Clint, wanting to stay close. Tony's been giving them "presents" right and left, but there are still a few things she wants SHIELD to keep stocked.

They don't get home that night. Maria comes into SHIELD after seeing Steve back to his apartment, and stays with Fury talking reveal strategies until almost three. Natasha doesn't want to leave in case Phil wakes up again and she has a chance to let him know she's there. She takes herself down to the gym and does everything she can to exhaust her body.

At four, Steve Rogers walks in. She's not the only one in the gym, but it's sparsely populated, not quite at the before-work hour and a little too late for the after-third shift people. She crosses over to him and says, "Spar with me."

It's not a request. It's something she needs, a tactile experience to cement the things she's been thinking about. Steve doesn't protest, just says, "Can I at least have a warm up round? You look like you've been here for a while."

It strikes her as hilarious, that Steve does right by his body despite the fact there's no need, and she snorts. "Sure."

So they go easy the first round. Natasha wins the second but only because Steve clearly isn't expecting her to fight dirty. Once he's learned better she gets pounded most rounds, but still manages a win due to a particularly sneaky move Clint and she dreamed up while bored on a mission.

The fact that she's bleeding slightly and has more bruises than she has since the Battle of New York when they finish is helpful in a centering way. The fact that he frowns and says, "You're bleeding," but doesn't try to force her to medical is helpful in a different way.

"How good are you at battlefield medicine?" she asks with a smile.

He takes a serious look at her condition and nods. "Good enough."

"C'mon. Maria keeps stuff in her office."

"Why am I not surprised?" he asks. Natasha doesn't dignify that with an answer, or let him see her smile, but she thinks he might be on to her.

*


Maria finds them there, assesses the situation and states, "You are both assholes."

Steve blinks and opens his mouth—probably to apologize without even knowing what for—but Natasha puts a hand over his and says, "Trust me, I think he's good for a few more rounds."

Maria eyes Steve thoughtfully. Steve blinks again, more slowly this time, "Oh. Ah, yes, if you wanted, certainly."

"I want," she says, "but I need a minute with Agent Romanova first, please, Captain."

Steve takes the hint that the titles are meant to convey and nods. "Meet you on the mats in, what, twenty?"

"That should do it."

When he's shut the door behind him, Maria, who hasn't taken her eyes off Natasha, starts to speak, but Natasha shakes her head. "You want Clint and me to talk to the team."

"One of these days I am going to make you reveal my tells," Maria informs her.

Not that Maria doesn't have them, but, "It wasn't that. I've been thinking about the problem since I found out and that's the only solution I've been able to see. There was a bit of hope that you and Fury might have a different angle, but not much of one, and here you are, asking to see me privately on business."

"I'm not sure I believe it's a solution." Maria rubs the back of her neck, her eyes closing. "It's not that I think they don't like you, because, for fuck's sake, even Stark seems to have taken a shine to you guys. It's that the gambit was to cause that cohesion in the first place."

"You think this will make SHIELD the bad guys again."

Maria opens her eyes and looks up. "I think it's a strong possibility."

"Fury overrode you?"

"He asked me to come up with a better solution," Maria says, the exhaustion in her voice evidence enough of how impossible that demand was.

Natasha, because she's alone with Maria, makes a face. It's a very slight one and she has to think about it, but it makes Maria smile just a bit and ask, "What?"

"You aren't going to like it," Natasha warns.

"Tell me, what's new?"

"Mm," Natasha commiserates. "We should speak to Pepper Potts."

Maria goes absolutely still for half a second. "Why?"

"Because she knows how to manage informational disasters, and, more importantly, she knows how to manage Stark."

"I'm going to state the hilariously obvious, because I feel it is my job: she doesn't have clearance."

"It's adorable that you seem to think that woman doesn't know as much, if not more, about SHIELD as we do."

Maria runs a hand over her face. "Fucking Stark."

"Honestly, unless you've kept every reference of Phil off the mainframe, I—"

"Fury did. He can be Stark-proof when he's really trying."

Natasha smirks. Softly, she says, "Let me talk to her."

"It's very hard for me to have plausible deniability when it comes to you," Maria points out.

"Luckily, I'm excellent at dissembling."

*


Natasha schedules a meeting with Pepper at her office, because this is almost business, and because Pepper refuses to have her office monitored 24/7. It's one of the only spaces in the tower without audio and video records.

After the pleasantries—edged and uncertain on Pepper's side, which is understandable—Natasha gets to the point. There's no way to make this any less shocking, any easier on the system. "I need your help with something," Natasha tells her.

Pepper raises an eyebrow, in a diplomatic display of doubt. Natasha says, "Really, the team needs your help, and Tony's part of the team."

Slowly, Pepper makes a go-on motion. Natasha takes a breath. "Agent Coulson is alive."

There's a long silence. When Pepper speaks up, her voice is more a growl than anything. "I swear on everything important to me ever, if you are screwing with me, master assassin or not, you will die screaming."

Natasha deserves that, she knows she does, but she's had both her best friends—her family—taken from her and then returned in the space of two months and she is exhausted. She needs several seconds longer than normal to resume her professional façade. "I assure you, I am not."

"So, what you are telling me is that you lied to all of us, told us our friend was dead—"

"I didn't know," Natasha says softly, but with enough emphasis that it stops Pepper. "Not until later and it wasn't clear that he was," she swallows and forces the words, "going to wake up, let alone get better."

"But he is," Pepper says, as if she's asking. Natasha nods. Pepper leans back in her chair. "And you need me to run interference with Tony, and by proxy, the rest of the group."

"Not…need. I could do it. I will if I have to. Do I think it would be better coming from you? Yes."

"What does Phil think?" Pepper asks.

"Phil has woken up coherent exactly two times at this point. The first time he was panicked, because his last memory had his domestic partner compromised and probably dead. The second time he just wanted to hear about Captain America leading a team."

Pepper smiles. "He has a Captain America thing?"

"Of the schoolboy-lunchbox variety," Natasha tells her dryly.

Pepper laughs at that. "Of course he di—does. Does."

Natasha doesn't follow that up with anything, waits for a response. Pepper sighs. "You owe me, Romanova."

*


Pepper delivers, though, and—to everyone's surprise—the team remains, if not team-like, then at least interested enough in each other to make an effort at coming together for the sake of saving the world now and then.

It's a good month before Phil starts waking with any kind of coherency. Natasha spends most of that time training specialists and keeping the peace now and then with Steve or Clint or Tony, sometimes all four of them, depending on the problem. When it happens, Clint doesn't sleep for close to 36 hours, afraid he won't be awake when Phil is.

Natasha returns from a recon that didn't involve face-to-face contact and Maria says, "You're on Barton duty."

She doesn't sound pissed about it, just factual, which is probably the number one reason Natasha wants to spend the rest of her life with this woman. She thinks that might be what love looks like, for her, at least. She wonders if it is enough for Maria, but believes it is. She's turning around to go collect Clint when Maria says, "Steve brought me coffee last night when I was here late."

Natasha tilts her head. "That was nice of him."

"He is nothing if not nice," Maria agrees.

"Did he need something?"

"Other than someone else in the near vicinity? I don't think so. I do think he would have preferred you, but he didn't make me feel like a consolation prize, so I won't second guess him."

Having read Steve's file more than once, Natasha suspects Steve was always kind of awkward in the early stages of friendship. "He's fought next to me. I think he feels like you're a superior officer, to an extent."

"Should I tell him I had two clearance levels on you when we first began making time?" Maria's smile is mischievous.

"Maybe later, when we've trained him not to turn his head every time he blushes."

Maria laughs at that outright. "And how do you propose we do that?"

"You think you'll get off before nine?" Natasha asks.

"Things will be under control by seven, probably."

"Can you make dinner?"

"For how many?" Maria asks.

"Three."

"Are you asking him, or am I?"

Natasha thinks about having to settle Clint. "You mind?"

Maria waves her away.

*


Natasha has to physically subdue Clint to get him to agree to leave medical with her. She takes him up three floors and over four quadrants to where her SHIELD quarters are. She keeps shampoo and soap in her shower, and a change of clothes for both of them. She's glad she did laundry and remade the bed after the last time she crashed here.

She bullies him into the shower and takes the two minutes that gives her to go a few doors to the common "kitchenette" and pilfer a protein shake. Returning to Clint, Natasha gets a water bottle from his mini-fridge and coaxes him into drinking both. Once he has, she herds him toward bed.

"Do you have to leave?" he asks once settled.

"Eventually," she tells him.

"In the next couple of hours?"

"No."

He pulls up the covers. "Please."

The thing about Clint is he's never once called in her debt to him, never even indicated he believes it exists. When he asks for things, they are needs, and he won't ask for those if he thinks it's asking too much of her. He has never come close to asking too much. She toes off her shoes and strips down to her panties and tank top, then slips in beside him. She could use a nap.

Clint isn't breathing correctly for someone trying to sleep, though. She says, "Clint."

"I've been talking to the medical personnel. About what Phil needs when he goes home."

"Okay."

His arms tense around her, but she stays loose, lets him squeeze. "Tasha, I don't know if I can do what needs to be done. Not on my own. And even with you and Maria helping, I'm worried we can't be around enough, can't—"

"Hey." She makes the word loud enough to get him to quiet down, to breathe. When she thinks he might be ready to listen, she says, "Stark had this idea. Mostly for Thor, because he's not from here, and Banner and Steve, because they're not really from anywhere, anymore. He's giving each of us a floor in the tower."

Clint waits a few minutes then says, "What?"

Natasha smiles. "He made all this noise about not expecting us to move in, and I don't think Maria and I are going to, not just now, but Stark rarely says what he means. It's actions with him. I've seen the rough blueprints, Clint, he's not joking."

"What are you—"

"The tower has JARVIS," Natasha says. "Phil would never have to be alone if he wasn't feeling like it."

"And Stark could see anything and everything he did," Clint says.

"I didn't say it was a perfect solution."

"Stark, Tasha."

"He let himself get thrown out of a window in memory of Phil. I think we might want to give the slightest benefit of the doubt."

Clint sighs. "I'll sleep on it."

Because it's closest to her face, Natasha kisses Clint's shoulder, then shuts her eyes, waiting for him to drift off first.

*


Steve is already in their house by the time Natasha delivered Clint back to Phil's room and made certain both of them are all right. He says, "I was early."

Natasha wouldn't have expected anything else. She asks, "Do you want something to drink?" and walks toward the kitchen, where she can hear Maria chopping things.

"Beer?" Steve asks.

"I think all we've got right now is a Belgian brown," she tells him. Maria likes beer, but she's picky about what she'll drink.

"Guess I'll have to try something new," he says with a smile and Natasha almost doesn't catch the ironic twist of his voice, but she does.

"C'mon."

Once in the kitchen, Maria tells her, "We're doing a burger bar. I put actual charcoal on the grill, so if we get the cops called on us, you're dealing with them."

The only space for grilling is on their back porch, where it is technically not allowed. They have had the cops called on them once, but Maria pulled rank. It was pretty hot, if Natasha's honest.

Natasha smiles easily and grabs Steve a bottle. She mixes orange juice with the vodka they have in the freezer, then asks Maria, "Want anything?"

"Not just yet."

Natasha busies herself with setting places for three at their table and flipping the record Maria's put on when it reaches the end of the A side. Steve asks if he can help, but Maria says, "You're the guest, Steve. Pretty sure it still counts for something."

Steve fidgets, though, so Natasha takes him outside with her to check the burgers and asks, "How was your day?"

Steve blinks at her, then laughs a bit. "Uneventful. Yours?"

Natasha isn't really ready to talk about her day, so instead she asks, "Has Stark asked you to move into the tower?"

"Less asked, more loudly insisted." Steve doesn't sound angry, though, just fondly annoyed. "I suppose you too?"

"No, actually." Tony's more than a bit scared of her, in a way he isn't of anyone else. She wants to feel proud about that. She would have, once. Now, she just feels tired.

Steve frowns, but Natasha shakes her head. "Not the point. I believe Clint is going to take him up on the offer."

"You believe?"

"Clint doesn't listen to me as often as I would like."

"I can't imagine Clint listens to anyone as often as they'd like."

Natasha tilts her head in acknowledgment. Steve asks, "You want me to be there?"

For reasons Natasha cannot and does not want to explain to herself, it would make her feel better. "It's a lot to ask."

"And yet you're asking." A pause. "But not playing games."

"I don't always know what it means to be human, but you should have seen me when Clint dragged me back." She's flippant.

Steve, maddeningly, isn't fooled. "You're plenty human. There's not just one way to be a person."

Natasha agrees with the second sentiment. She reserves the right to disagree with the first. "You'll consider moving?"

"I was already considering it."

She looks over at him. He shrugs. "The place SHIELD found me isn't--" He pauses, and Maria steps out onto the deck

She asks, "How're we doing?"

Natasha tells her, "Almost done."

*


Steve leaves after the three of them have gorged on grilled peaches with cream. Natasha's glad Maria had the foresight to buy an entire box, because Steve is unstoppable. He hesitates after the fourth, his cheeks coloring, but Natasha just nudges another toward him, the bowl of cream following not far behind.

There's a moment where he pauses in the doorway and then, ever so politely, kisses each of them on the cheek. Natasha knows she finds restraint in other people attractive, but the spike of desire is surprising all the same. She folds her hand around the doorframe to keep herself where she is.

When the door is closed, a moment of silence follows. Then Maria breathes out. "Is it just me, or are we going to have fantastic sex while talking about all the dirty, dirty things we want to do to Captain America tonight?"

"Just you," Natasha says, for the fun of it, but she's already reaching for the hem of Maria's shirt.

*


"Not that I'm opposed to having three orgasms on top of each other because you have perfected the art of fantasy-based dirty talk," Maria prefaces the next morning, dumping coffee grounds into the machine's basket, "but should we talk about this like adults?"

"Adults?" Natasha asks, teasingly. Maria flips her the finger without turning around.

Natasha stares at Maria's back. "Was that not normal? I—my experience of sexual enjoyment has been that it is as variant as the number of people involved."

Maria pushes the start button and turns around. "I couldn't give less of a fuck about normal, but I give a lot of fucks as to whether you really want Steve Rogers in our bed, or not."

Natasha never even went to grade school, but some things are classics for a reason. "Do you?"

Maria rubs a hand over her face. "Honestly, I don't know. He's the kind of boy you take home, and neither of us are that girl. And if it meant, for a second, that you thought you weren't enough, that would be the end right there, for me."

"But the idea is hot," Natasha finishes.

"Of course it is. I'm pretty sure we covered that topic last night."

Natasha is pleasantly sore from how thoroughly they covered it, so she hums a bit in agreement. Slowly, she says, "Steve is the boy you bring home, yes, but neither of us have homes, except with each other."

Maria goes to pour herself a cup of the finished coffee, waving a mug in Natasha's direction. Natasha nods. Maria pours and brings the cups over to the table, where they both sit. "Keep talking."

Natasha traces the rim of her mug with her finger. "We started this because he needed friends and I needed…to be something different, for once. We started this because I'd learned what it meant to have a home. There might be a million reasons not to do this, starting with team dynamics and ending with possibilities even I can't see, but because adding him in might damage us, I don't think that's one of them."

Maria says, "I won't let go if you won't?"

"Something like that."

Maria smiles a bit, reaching out with her free hand to the middle of the table. "Then let's just not make plans. Just see what happens."

Natasha takes the hand. "Neither of us is that girl, either."

"Yeah," Maria says, "it's going to be an experience."

*


Having Captain America move into the tower gives Clint leverage to cajole Phil into doing so as well, which is hilarious and endearing and Natasha is still too close to having lost him. Everything is too raw for her to handle. Phil is a discussion topic both she and Maria avoid, unless they have to organize logistics.

Having Captain America in the tower, along with Clint and Phil, also means that Natasha and Maria spend more time there than either of them planned on. Clint tells her, "Bruce evidently lives a floor below us, but I've yet to see him. And Cap, thankfully, is three above, because I'm not sure Phil could handle the proximity, otherwise."

She likes hearing him say it easily, without fearing another loss. Which is probably why she keeps putting off telling him about the thing between Maria, herself and Steve. She should know better—Natasha might be the superior intelligence agent, but all that means is that Clint is second best to the absolute top—Clint sees her differently than other people, can sense change in her.

Eventually he asks, "Are you and Maria okay?"

"Yes," she says, because they are and she will have no misunderstandings on that topic.

Clint tilts his head. "But?"

"But Steve is lonely and strangely, he fits."

Clint blinks slowly. "I'm going to take this in pieces. First, he fits? What does that mean?"

It's a good question, one Natasha has been avoiding answering. She could ask Clint to lay off or she could misdirect him, but those both feel counterproductive. Instead, she gives it some thought. "It means he makes me feel like a better woman than I am, and he and Maria can listen to jazz for hours on end without a word between them. He doesn't hold either of us back in the field, and he looks at us like nobody else in the world exists for him."

Clint takes a while to respond. "When we first found Cap, and I was, well, you remember, I made myself talk with Phil about it. Not right after I came to you or anything, but when it was pretty clear we'd be able to wake him and I…I had to know. Phil said that Cap was always who he'd wanted to be, but never who he'd wanted to lie down beside at night, not even when he was a teenager and linoleum would have done it for him, direct quote."

Natasha smiles a bit, but doesn't say anything. Clint laughs. "It's just, I mean, Phil's always been the anchor for us, right? The magnetic north, or whatever. Because we trust him to do the right thing and to steer us in the right direction and to care about us."

"You think I'm using Steve as a stand-in for Phil?" Natasha raises an eyebrow.

"No," Clint shakes his head. "No, I'm saying that I think Steve does for you what Phil does for me."

Curiously, she asks, "And Maria?"

"Maria was brave enough to break you open again, see what was inside and claim it for herself. Steve, I don’t think Steve could have done that. It took a lot of screaming at times and, fuck, I'm still not sure you've ever told her you love her."

Natasha instinctively stops her frown. "Do you and Phil? Say it?"

"Tasha," Clint says, his voice soft with something like pity. She would gut him, but she thinks he might be right.

She's quiet herself when she asks, "How…how do you know? I was taught to view love as an emotion that was more open to manipulation than any other but anger or hatred. I was taught to exploit it, and I was taught, more than anything, to never, ever let myself feel it. I was taught that I existed outside of love, a thing, a machine, a tool, a weapon, but not—not something that could be loved."

"Someone," Clint says. "You're someone. And they taught you a lot of things that were wrong."

"But this one took in a way the others didn't. That must mean something."

"I think it means you were a child raised with no notion of caring and affection and that goes deeper than anything else. I think that's all it means."

"She was too," Natasha points out. "Her dad didn't want anything to do with her, despite how she tried. But she can say it. She's said it. She's meant it."

"It's not the same, and you know it. She grew up in a world where she saw examples, and she wasn't brainwashed."

Natasha has never allowed the words 'I wish' into her vocabulary, but all the same she wishes Maria had found someone less emotionally fractured. Yet, the thought of Maria having someone else without her makes Natasha's lungs hurt and her throat go tight.

Clint says, "Hey."

She looks over at him, her lips twisting a bit. He says, "You've got this, Tasha. You do."

Clint has always had more faith in her than she deserves.

*


Maria gets pulled by the director—mostly because he's probably going to kill someone if he has to take care of the problem himself—to attend a WSC summit. Maria tells Natasha, "There are days when I long for one of those seven corporate management jobs I've declined in the last three years."

"As a spy," Natasha responds, "I have to inform you that you'd be vastly disappointed in the difference between bureaucratic dip-shittyness and corporate assholery."

"Can't a woman have her dreams?"

Natasha raises an eyebrow. "I'm not enough for you?"

Maria laughs and kisses her. "Don't do anything I would have to kill you for while I'm away."

"No promises."

When Maria is gone, Natasha either requests a mission, hangs out with Clint and Phil, or spends some time by herself, doing whatever the hell she feels like. The first is not as easy these days, given that she's pretty recognizable; she's been trying to give Clint and Phil time to themselves since Loki; and she finds herself restless when she tries to catch up on movies she has queued on Netflix.

By the third day, she seeks out Steve, who makes himself easy to find. He smiles, though, when she comes around, like he didn't expect his implicit offer to be taken . Since she's only half-sure she should be there, she figures that's fair.

They spar because it's safe. It's routine. She goes at him until he stops holding back, which ends with her having a sprained wrist, but that's her own fault. And she feels better than she has since Maria left, more anchored in her own body.

They decide to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge together, something she's never done and he hasn't since waking. Once there they order pizza at a hole in the wall that smells just right. After the third sneaking glance Steve gets from the waiter, who's probably college age, and, from his accent, a native, Steve signs a napkin and leaves it at the edge of the table. Natasha doesn't even know if she wants to roll her eyes or blow him under the table. He confuses her more than she's used to and the fact that she likes being confused makes her even more on-edge about it.

Later that night, they watch one of Natasha's movies in the common room, Bruce wandering in at some point and joining. When the credits roll, Steve tells her, "I've got four guest rooms, if you want to stay."

She considers whether that crosses the line, but something in the offer makes her think it will be no different than crashing at Clint's. She takes him up on it and finds she's right. It's comforting and only makes her want to accost him in his own bedroom more, but she's patient. She wants it to happen with Maria, because without her would feel like something vital was missing.

She eats Steve's frosted wheat with one of his bananas and heads into work before he wakes. She doesn't leave a note; she's pretty sure he'll be able to find her if he wants.

Instead, it is Stark who finds her, mid-day, in a break between discussions of her evolving role at SHIELD—she suspects they're trying to get her to accept a handling job, which, no—at her favorite coffee shop. She glares at him for effect, but he buys her drink and doesn't say anything until they're outside, which is practically gentlemanly of Stark.

He starts with, "So, Anastasia," but that's really par for the course. Natasha just takes a sip and waits.

"Look, I don't want to be the one to defend Captain America's virtue and emotional purity, but clearly it falls to someone on this team, so I have to ask: what are your intentions? Do you and Hill plan to make an honest concubine out of the manchild, or am I gonna have to put on the suit?"

Sometimes—all right, most of the time, but he deserves it—Natasha enjoys unsettling Stark. Loyalty, though, is precious, and she's not going to fuck with his toward Steve. Steve can use all the friends he can find. "We were thinking more along the lines of consort."

"Almost respectable. What happens when the political alliance is no longer useful?"

Natasha crushes down the desire to punch Stark in the face. It's instinctive, she'll eventually train herself out of it. She thinks. Hopes. "I play with marks. And with you and maybe Fury, because you're the type who know how to play back. I don't play like you're suggesting, not for the thrill of the chase."

"You'll forgive me if I'm uncertain that you couldn't lie to my face and I wouldn't believe you. History being what it is, and all."

It's fair and she knows it is, but it doesn't make her want to flinch any less. Coldly, she tells him, "History being what it is, I know everything there is to know about being discardable."

She can see in his reaction he's read more of her file than he should have, that he's maybe found more than SHIELD has ever known. He opens his mouth and she shakes her head, "One suggestion of an apology and I will make you limp for a month."

"I was just going to congratulate you on your upcoming non-marriage alliance."

She holds his gaze for a few minutes to determine his sincerity. When she decides he's made the choice to trust her, at least for now, she says, "Thanks for the drink," and walks back to the office.

*


Natasha is running interference with a SHIELD affiliate in Mongolia when Maria gets back. Maria puts in a call through a secure line and says, "I need a promotion."

Natasha smiles. "Did you kill anybody?"

"Classified," Maria tells her, "and I meant so I could keep you at home for my own convenience."

"I know." Then, "Stark threatened me over Steve's virtue."

"Why do I miss all the good stuff? Was it in the tower? Will JARVIS have it if I ask?"

Suddenly, Natasha misses Maria in a way that aches, a way she doesn't usually allow. "I've no doubt he's got something prepared for you as well. And no, on the street."

"Fuck my life."

"Hockey season starts up soon," Natasha segues.

"Two weeks, three days, eight hours and thirty-six seconds, but who's counting?"

"I was thinking we should broaden Steve's appreciation of sports."

"Should I maybe check and see if taking him to an arena with a big chunk of ice is going to be an issue, first?"

Natasha closes her eyes, listening to the layers of Maria's tone: the way she isn't one to coddle, the way she does actually care. Natasha shakes her head. "We'll bundle him up. Ice is less a thing for him than silence."

"Did he tell you that?"

"I asked. Over muffins."

"Asked asked or manipulated him with truths, asked?" The question is quiet, as though Maria doesn't want to know.

"Asked. Promise."

There's a smile in Maria's voice when she says, "I miss you. Kill whoever you need to and come back."

"On it."

*


As with everything, Steve is a good sport about attending the game. It's opening day at Madison Square Garden. Natasha notes the badly hidden distaste on Steve's face when he sees the building. It's basically a concrete block, so she sympathizes.

Inside it is even louder and cruder than it will be again until playoffs come around, but he just watches the play with an intensity usually reserved for battle plans, occasionally pulling his scarf down low enough to shout encouragement.

If he blanches a couple of times at Maria's rather fervent "advice" to the players, Natasha's not going to tell. Instead, she buys a hot chocolate and shares it with him, and even snuggles a bit into his side, pretending it's about helping him stay warm. Maria catches her at it and smirks, but Natasha notices her joining in a bit later. Steve has a nice expanse of space to burrow into.

They end up back at Steve's place in the Tower afterward. He makes chicken pot-pie casserole while Natasha calls out movie suggestions, and Maria mixes them all sidecars. Natasha idly wishes it were cold outside, the kind of cold where a fire would be warming and cozy.

Maria falls asleep during the movie, her head resting on Steve's lap, his fingers brushing through her hair. He looks down, surprised. Natasha isn't: Maria will keep herself going until she can't anymore, and the last few weeks have been intense.

Natasha asks, "Mind if we stay here tonight?"

Steve can't look at her, but his, "I'd like that," is pleased.

*


Natasha expects not to sleep. She had trouble sleeping with Maria for the first year they lived together, fighting herself just to fall asleep and waking with every brush of skin, every shift in Maria's breathing. Steve puts a tentative hand to her hip, though, stroking, and soon enough she drifts off to the rhythm of his thumb against her skin.

She does wake a few times: to the sound of Maria turning over, the sensation of Steve going still, clearly in the throes of a dream. But it is easy enough to close her eyes again and send herself back into sleep.

Natasha wakes the earliest of the three of them. Maria beats her on occasion, but not when she's worn out like she currently is. Natasha showers, wrapping herself in one of Steve's towels. It could be a mumu.

She makes coffee in the towel and hands over a cup when Steve shuffles into the room. He asks, "You sleep all right?"

"Well. Your file says you don't sleep much."

He looks into his cup as he says, "Not alone, no."

She doesn't press. Even if he's given her the right, she thinks Maria should be present for that. Steve changes the subject. "Word is Thor's coming back planet-side."

"That would be Stark's word," Natasha says. She's dismayed at her lack of reaction; the fact that she's gotten used to Stark stealing into classified files feels like resignation. Then again, she's never seen Stark do something foolish with that information, so.

"Via SHIELD," Steve agrees, with an ironic smile. Steve, Natasha thinks, is like an iceberg. You only ever see the tip until you're drowning.

"We're bringing Dr. Foster back to the city."

"So Thor will stay here," Steve says, motioning to his surroundings.

Suddenly, Natasha knows where this is going. "Making me the only member of the team not to live here."

Steve just lets the comment lie between them for a moment. He says, "Maria has reservations?"

Maria does, it's true, and Natasha could let him believe that, but she just slept through the night with him at her side, so she gives him, "It's me. I'm not ready."

"Stark doesn't—"

"It's not that. I can handle Stark. It's." She regroups. "That house? That's my first home. Maria's and mine, something we created together." She knows Maria has woken up, is listening. She has different patterns of turning when she's asleep.

Steve tells her, "In a lot of ways, this is my first home. I—it would be hard to move."

Natasha finds herself relieved he'll never have to. Clint told her Stark deeded the floors to each of them, so even he couldn't legally kick them out. Steve is safe, nobody can take this from him. It is a consideration.

Into the silence, Steve says, "I'm gonna make breakfast. Lots of breakfast."

*


Two days later, on the drive into work, Natasha brings up the idea, because Natasha is the one who thinks about costumes and play-acting, and because it's been on her mind ever since she saw Steve's drawings. "I think we should do Halloween this year?"

Maria doesn't swerve off the road, or anything, but that's clearly only because she's a professional. "Do Halloween? I don't know what that means, Romanova."

"Dress up. Hand out candy. There are kids in our neighborhood. I know, I've seen them."

"And by 'seen' you mean 'created dossiers for'," Maria says fondly.

Natasha lets her have her amusement: paranoia has saved Natasha's ass more often than not. Besides, Clint and she had spent a number of enjoyable afternoons creating those files. It was an honest past time. "Clint'd like it. He's wanted to be Timothy from the Rats of Nimh for eight years now."

There's a beat before Maria says, "Steve'd like it, too, huh?"

Natasha doesn't give anything away because she's been trained in the art of nonchalance since she was in the womb, but she says, "Don't tell me you've never wanted to see me as a pin-up and I won't tell you I haven't wanted to see you that way."

"If you keep talking, we're going to have to have a nooner at five-thirty in the morning in the back of my SHIELD-issued car."

Natasha considers this a moment. "I was thinking I could do one of the bathing suit ones. Cherries, maybe."

Maria does drive off the road at that, but it's completely intentional.

*


By the time Halloween rolls around, Maria and Natasha are hosting the equivalent of a super hero and super spy kegger at their place. Natasha blames this on Steve having mentioned his plans to Tony, after Tony asked, "What're you doing for Halloween?" and Steve said, "Handing out candy at Natasha and Maria's."

Then again, Natasha could have put a stop to things if she'd chosen. Instead, she'd said to Maria, "Might as well see if Jasper and Melinda and anyone else want to come."

Maria asks, "Can I make gin in the bathtub?" and that is where Natasha does put her foot down. Instead she gets an expense card from Pepper, who can be counted on for these sorts of not-at-all-emergencies in the course of team building and creates a bar to rival the best speakeasies they hang out in.

When Maria discovers what Natasha's done, she says, "No, really, I love you."

Natasha feels like the line 'I know' has a certain used-up feel to it, as does 'ditto' so she goes with, "Me too. I think."

Maria goes still. Natasha says, "Sorry," because she wishes she had more, wishes she knew the right thing to say.

Maria turns away from perusing the alcohol to look at her and say, "Hey, no."

Natasha meets and holds Maria's gaze. She tells her, "I don't want to have a home without you," which is real and true and means more than the words people are expected to say.

Maria nods.

Natasha takes a deep breath and says, "I need to go for a walk."

Maria turns back to the bottles, body language easy and casual even if there is a small smile playing at her lips. "I'll be here."

*


Steve brings pizza before all the madness begins. Natasha and Maria are dressed for the evening, and when Maria answers the door in her green slip of a dress, Natasha hears her reach out to catch the pizza box. Maria says, "Hey there, Cap," not even bothering to keep the laughter out of her voice, then takes the box and walks into the house, door open behind her. For a woman who does all her best work in combat boots, Maria knows how to use stilettos to her advantage. Natasha has gotten distracted three times, and Maria only put them on about ten minutes earlier.

Steve makes it inside the door and even manages to close it. Natasha watches: it's not a sure thing. When Maria disappears into the kitchen, Natasha murmurs, "Evening, soldier."

Steve looks over at her, as if seeking something safe, only for his eyes to widen. "Hi?"

Natasha smiles and walks over to him. She's got her own pair of heels, cherry red and Mary Jane and she has known how to walk in heels since she was eight. He looks her up and down and breathes, "Natasha."

"Always wanted to do this for Maria," she tells him. "Never…got up the nerve until now."

His head tilts. "You kinda had me believing you weren't scared of anything."

She twists her lips. Maria appears in her peripheral vision, her own expression understanding. Natasha explains, "Costumes for me have always been masks to wear, places to hide."

"You didn't want to give that up?" Steve asks.

"She was scared putting on the clothes would make it so we weren't looking at her," Maria corrects. Steve's gaze whips to her. She saunters over to where she can drape a hand around each of their waist's. "Pizza's getting cold."

Natasha bumps her hip, then pulls away to grab a slice.

*


Tony brings a candy store's worth of goodies with him. Maria looks over at Natasha who mouths, "Told you so." She'd had to talk Maria out of buying anything but bowls for the treats two days earlier. Maria rolls her eyes and starts digging through the stash to find her favorites first. Natasha respects her ability to prioritize.

Pepper says, "Do I get a tour?"

Natasha stills for a moment. Nobody's ever asked. She smiles. "Won't take long."

Bruce arrives while Natasha is showing off Maria's vinyl collection and he makes a little sound of envy. Natasha asks, "You like jazz?"

He shakes his head. "Mostly seventies glam and eighties punk, but one of the only things I left behind that I miss is my vinyl."

Natasha peripherally notices Tony looking dangerously thoughtful. The moment is broken up by Thor and Jane arriving. Jane has an angelic look on her face, and is dressed up as a play doll of some sort, one that looks like the kind of thing a smart kid would want to enjoy. Thor is a pirate; a pirate with an eye patch. And a vocabulary consisting of, "Arrr, matey."

Jane explains later that she made the mistake of showing him old Errol Flynn films. She shakes her head. "Everything always seems like a good idea at the time with him, you know?"

Natasha knows the feeling, and she likes the underlying affection in Jane's tone.

Clint and Phil arrive last of the team, Jasper and Melinda in tow. Clint, feathers and all, says, "Sorry we're late," in the most unapologetic tone ever. Phil, who is a scholar and a gentleman in all things, Natasha has decided, has gone through the trouble of finding a costume and is decked out in full Victorian-era gentleman garb. Natasha just murmurs, "How long did it take to get it all reassembled?"

Clint snickers, and goes to make Maria mix him, "One of her moonshiney drinks."

"You're all class, Barton."

Melinda thanks Natasha for the invite, then worms her way toward Maria and the drinks. Jasper's already shooting the shit with Tony, who has only made one terribly inappropriate comment about Maria and Natasha's costumes. Pepper stepped on his foot with her stiletto heel, though, so Natasha had let it pass.

Natasha finds Steve at the door, first candy bucket in his hand, waiting. She puts a hand to the small of his back. He looks down at her and says, "Y'know, lots of groups opposed trick or treating when I was a kid. Said it encouraged 'bribery and begging.'"

"And yet yours is considered to be the greatest generation," Natasha says lightly.

"So they tell me." Like everything related to his past and the way it intertwines with his present, Steve seems unsure of what to do with that.

A passel of kids comes to the door, and for a while both of them are distracted by handing out candy. Pepper and Clint arrive to relieve them after the first rush and Natasha pulls Steve back to where Maria is munching on a candied apple, talking with Phil and Bruce. Bruce is stolen away by Tony, who evidently has had an idea, and Phil goes to help out with the candy after a bit, leaving the three of them.

Maria takes a slice of the apple and holds it out to Natasha, who takes a bite. It's a granny smith in caramel with peanut bits over it. She takes her time chewing, not unaware of Steve's eyes on her, Maria's eyes on Steve. Maria says, "Trick or treat, Cap?"

Steve's lips quirk. "Treat, ma'am."

She gives him the rest of the slice, his lips brushing her fingers in the transaction. He closes his eyes, flushing. Natasha asks again, "Trick or treat?"

He swallows, opens his eyes and says, so soft she strains to hear him, "Treat."

"Stay with us tonight," Natasha offers.

He looks at Maria, finds her gaze on him. He swallows again, and there are a million questions, concerns and reservations in his eyes. All he says is, "Yes."

*


Tony is hesitant to leave Steve unsupervised with the two of them, but the unspoken truth that Phil will remove him and Pepper will sit back and watch takes care of the problem. After that, Phil and Clint both help clean up before taking their leave. Natasha gives Clint an ironic thumbs up when he looks back to wave and he laughs, calling, "Have a good night, kids."

Steve, who has been having a great time, reverts back into his careful mode once the door is shut and Maria has locked it behind them. Natasha says, "If you do not want this, you can take the guest room or go home for the night, and we will still be teammates and friends."

Steve coughs out a little bit of a laugh. "That's not it."

"So tell us," Maria says.

"I just, believe me I know there are plenty of pictures of tonight and that I've already sort of tried it and it's late, but, before you, ah, get ready for bed, could I sketch the two of you?"

Neither of them looks as perfect as they did at the beginning of the night. Maria has hairs out of place and both of them are barefoot. Natasha suspects she has almost no lipstick on at this point. Judging from the look on Steve's face, that's exactly how he wants things. "Do you want us to pose?"

"Not exactly," Steve says, relaxing a fraction at the easy tone of her question. "More like something the two of you would do at the end of any day. Sit on the couch together or at the kitchen table."

The two of them look at each other and without saying anything, they both head to the back porch, which is more like a glorified stoop. That spring, Maria decided she wanted a swing out there. When she can, she enjoys her coffee in the morning, or reads a book in the sun. Natasha flips on the overhead light and sits down. Maria follows, curving into her slightly. Natasha hooks her arms over Maria's shoulders and kisses the line of her jaw. Without looking over at where Steve is finding a spot to sit, she asks, "This good?"

Steve tells them, "Perfect," and it sounds like he's talking about more than the pose.

*


Natasha falls asleep on the chair and wakes to Steve's quiet, "Ladies?"

She's smiling before her eyes are even open, and when she does open them, Steve has the softest expression she's ever seen. She asks, "Did we ruin your picture?"

He shakes his head. "Not at all."

Natasha murmurs, "Masha," into Maria's ear and the other woman stirs. Natasha whispers, "Bedtime."

Grudgingly, Maria allows herself to be prodded into the bedroom. Once there, Natasha, catching the way Steve is looking at them, says, "Want to help us get ready for bed?"

He agrees, and Natasha can't help but watch the way his hands shake ever so slightly as they peel down Maria's nylons. They are sure, though, as he touches Natasha's chin, removing her makeup with a warm washcloth. It takes a while, but soon she and Maria are in sleeping shorts and t-shirts, hair and teeth brushed, faces clean. Steve strips down to his boxers, then hesitates before getting in the bed.

Maria says, "Get over here, Cap," and they pull him down between them, their hands finding each other, fingers intertwining. She mumbles, "I set the alarm to give us some time."

"Mm," Natasha hums against the skin of Steve's arm.

Steve says, "Sweet dreams."

*


Natasha wakes minutes before the alarm, the way she always does when either anxious about or looking forward to something. She suspects this morning is a little bit of both. Steve is curled on his side, an incongruous pose for someone of his size. Behind him, Maria is playing at big spoon.

Natasha leans over and kisses Maria's hand. Her eyes flutter open. Natasha mouths, "Hi."

Maria smiles and tickles at Steve's stomach. He wakes, grabbing her hand reflexively, and letting go just as instinctually. He blinks and says, "Good morning," his smile shy and pleased, and best of all, not so haunted.

"Come," Natasha says, slinking from the bed and pulling him with her. He goes easily, Maria following, and the three of them brush their teeth in companionable silence. Natasha leans against the bathroom door frame and asks, "Breakfast first?"

Maria's eyes brush over Steve's frame and she says, "No, I don't think so."

Steve's blush goes down to his stomach. Natasha trails a finger up the center line of it, along his sternum, flattening her palm over his heart. His eyes are huge in his face, and he says, "I, uh, this isn't really my area of expertise."

"If it helps, it's been, I don't know, twenty years since I was with a guy? High school," Maria tells him. "So really, there's only one person in this room who has any clue what she's doing."

Natasha laughs, easy and happy. "Just pay attention, and try to keep up."

*


That evening, when Natasha and Maria get home from the office, there's a sheet of drawing paper on the kitchen table. On it, the two of them in their pin-up costumes are curled up against each other, dozing. It's softly shaded and somehow terribly sweet and sultry at the same time.

At the very bottom, there's a note: "Peggy once told me that soldiers carried pictures because it was like having a little piece of home in their hands. Yours, Steve."




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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile