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Diplomatic Relations and Intelligence Failures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You do it well.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, then, what do you do for fun?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I'll keep that in mind.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is this one of these states?”

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

“Then why-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Numbers?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

“Why do we still have civilians here?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma'am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you injured?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

“Agent Romanov!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No sheath.”

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

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

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

“In as subtle a manner as possible.”

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

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

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

“It is unbelievable.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

“What, exactly, is that smell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Not at all," Sif said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shovel talk?” Sif asked.

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

“Ah!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Darcy!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sif frowned. “I do not understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would be honored,” Sif said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

The interoffice mail envelope was marked private and confidential, but that wasn't exactly uncommon around SHIELD headquarters. The words “This means you!” printed in a broad tip marker, that was a little more unusual.

Maria weighed the bulky envelope in one hand, and, eyes flicking towards the ceiling, she broke the seal. A book with a cheerful cartoon sort of cover hit her desk with a thump, its pages bulging with post-it note flags poking out in all directions. Maria considered it. “What do you know,” she said out loud. “The damn book actually is titled 'What Do You Say to a Naked Elf?' I really thought she made that up.”

There was a note in the envelope, and for a second, she considered sweeping the whole mess into the trash can and pretending that it had never arrived. Instead, she fished the page out. Anna's writing was surprisingly legible, considering her occupation.

“Just in case you decide to join us,” the note said, “you'll need a copy of this month's gem. It's a fast read, and pretty funny. I've marked the hot n' sexy parts with post-it flags, so you can skip ahead if you get bored.”

Maria looked at the book. There were so many bits of florescent colored paper sticking out of the damn that that it looked like it had exploded. “That's a lot of hot and sexy bits,” she said, her mouth pursed. “And I honestly don't know if that makes the concept better, or so much worse.” She went back to the note.

“Your hot n' sexy mileage may vary, according to personal tastes and orientation, but tell you what, if you suck it up and get through this, I'll nominate you to choose our next 'happy sexy funtimes' book. We do it by picking the most excellent titles we can find off the internet after having a bit too much to drink, then we throw all the names in a hat and choose one at random. This one won out over a book about having sex with a dragon.”

Maria's head tipped to the side. Then went back the other way. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to wrap her mind around that. She was actually happy that she couldn't. Life had gotten weird over the last few years, but her brain still balked at 'sex with a dragon.'

As she was one of the few inhabitants of earth with actual access to, well, dragons, that was probably a good thing.

“Our medical specialist is a lunatic,” she said to no one in particular. She threw herself into her chair, ignoring the way that everything ached, especially her head. She considered going to get another cup of coffee, but she'd seen Coulson prowling out there, looking disapproving, and she really did not need to deal with whatever the Avengers had done this week.

There was a stack of folders on her desk, an unsightly mess that she did not want to deal with. The Mayor of New York was pitching a fit again, and she was out of patience with him. But ignoring local government wasn't likely to make it go away, so she reached for the top one anyway, letting her forehead fall into the cradle of her palm.

She'd barely started in on the swamp of municipal reports when her desk phone beeped. She took a second to glare at it before she reached out, stabbing at the speaker button with one finger. “Yes?”

“You have a visitor, Agent Hill.”

Maria opened her mouth to explain that she was not accepting visitors at the moment, but Agent Stephens continued, “Lady Sif asked to speak to you. Thor is accompanying her to your office, but she asked that I let you know.”

Maria's head snapped up. “Thank you,” she said. “How long?”

The knock on her door was brisk and sharp. “Never mind, thank you, Agent Stephens.” She stabbed the button, disconnecting the line. “Come in,” she said, sinking back into her chair. And even as the doorknob turned, she realized the damn romance novel was still there, on the corner of her desk. With more speed than grace, she lunged, tossing a folder down on top of it, just as Sif stuck her head into the office.

“Hello,” she said, smiling. “I hope I am not disturbing you?”

Maria was half in and half out of her chair, her hand still pinned down on the surface of the folder. She straightened up. “Not at all. Please, come in.” She waved a hand at her visitor chair. “Did Thor come up with you?”

“I have sent him on his way,” Sif said, crossing the room. She moved with sleek, easy grace, her steps light and her spine straight. There was a fluidity to her, to the way she walked, to the way she stood, like she was always on the verge of dancing. “He can be quite overbearing when he chooses to be, and often enough even when he has no such intent.”

“He's very... Large,” Maria agreed. She waited until Sif settled into the seat before she lowered herself as into her own. “How can I help you today?”

Sif smiled as she folded her hands in her lap. “I was wondering if you had plans for the evening,” she said.

Maria reached for her computer, pulling up her schedule with one hand. “No,” she said, after confirming that nothing important had slipped her mind. “Do you need SHIELD's assistance with something?”

“Not SHIELD, just you.” She leaned forward, and her dark hair slipped over her shoulder, the soft locks curling against the curve of her breast. “Agent Hill, will you join me for a meal?” Sif asked. “Tonight?”

Maria paused. “I apologize, but there's protocol here, if you and your people need-”

“This is no matter of protocol,” Sif said, holding up her hands in a placating gesture. “It is not a request from a member of the Asgardian delegation, as I am not inviting them.” She smiled. “I enjoy your company. I thought, perhaps you might enjoy mine, over a pleasant meal.”

Maria bit the inside of her cheek. Giggling like a teenager would not put her in the best light right now. “I apologize, I hope I'm not overstepping myself, but...” She leaned forward. “Are you asking me out on a date?”

Sif laughed, warm and easy. “Yes. Is that so surprising?”

Maria spread her hands, rocking back in her chair. “A bit.”

“Why?”

Maria struggled to find some way to put how crazy this was into words. "Forgive me for my disbelief, but..." Maria stopped, shaking her head. "You don't even know me."

Sif studied her in silence for a moment, then nodded, a quick dip of her chin. "Perhaps I do not," she admitted. "But I know enough to know I wish to know you better.”

“Is that so?” Maria cupped a hand over her mouth, hiding her smile. “And what do you know, Lady Sif?”

“Just Sif, please, Agent Hill.”

“I think if you're asking me out, you have to call me Maria, Sif.”

“Very well,” Sif said, inclining her head. “Maria, then.” She said it slowly, with care, with something like affection, and Maria was pretty sure that her name shouldn't be erotic. “I know you are clever and quick witted. I know you are fierce in battle, and strong-willed in all things. I know you are loyal to your people, and, perhaps more telling, they are loyal to you." Her smile was slow and soft at the edges. “And I know that you have dedicated your life to the service of your people, and that is no easy path to walk.

"I know that I think you lovely, no matter where you are, or what your mood, and I find I like your smile, in all its shades. Though I have seldom enough seen it." Sif's smile stretched into a broad, bright grin. "Perhaps I am conceited enough to think that if you join me for a meal, I can win a few more smiles from you."

"That is pretty conceited," Maria said, but she was struggling against the impulse to smile even now. She refused to acknowledge the warmth that was settling low in her stomach. “Are all Asgardians this charming?

"I am known less for my charm and more for my sword arm," Sif said. Her head tipped to the side, her brilliant eyes slanting a look in Maria's direction from under the veil of her lashes. “But I am a lady trained, and even a warrior can find a tongue of silver, should the cause be great enough.”

“And you consider this to be cause enough?” This felt like flirting. She probably should not be flirting. Of course, it had been so long since she'd actually flirted that it felt like a novel change. It was actually kind of nice, to have Sif smiling at her, her appreciation clear in her eyes.

“More than enough. Will you not give me a chance to charm you properly?” Sif asked. She leaned forward, her arms crossed on the edge of Maria's desk. “I swear, I have been well educated on what is expected of a polite dining companion here on Midgaurd.”

“Oh, really?” Maria leaned forward, mimicking Sif's pose. “And who's your etiquette coach?”

Sif's eyelashes dipped low over her eyes. “Will you be angry with them for helping me press my case?”

Maria's eyes narrowed. “Have my own agents turned against me?” she asked, amused. “Who? Natasha?”

“She speaks well of you,” Sif said. “As does the Lady Darcy.”

Maria leaned back, pointing a finger in her direction. “Do not take dating advice from Darcy.”

Sif laughed. “And why not? She is a clever one, and very loyal to her friends.”

Maria's mouth opened, and her phone started to vibrate. “I'm sorry, I have to-” She pulled it out, frowning down at the face. The number was the emergency line used by the medical staff. “It's medical, I need to-”

Sif straightened up. “Of course.” She stood. “I shall leave you to your work. If you would like to join me this evening-”

“Please, stay here.” Maria fumbled her phone, her hands clumsy, and she bit back a swear. “I just have to handle this, and I'll be-” She grabbed a folder, and another one, anything to cover up the unsteadiness of her hands. “Give me five minutes.”

Sif's smile was beautiful. “Of course.” She sank back down into her seat. “Please, take your time.”

Maria strode out of her office, taking only a glance at the empty expanse of the hallway before she triggered the phone with a flick of her thumb. “Hill.”

“Did you get the book?”

Maria pulled her phone away from her ear to level a brutal glare in its direction. After a long moment, she brought it back up. “You used official lines to ask me this?” she asked, tucking the file folders under her arm. In case she needed to punch a wall or something.

“I don't have your personal cell number.” There was the sound of pages being turned. “Oh, wait, I do, because I am your doctor.”

“You are not my doctor,” Maria said. “You are, for reasons I can't understand, the Avengers doctor.”

“Avengers and associated support personnel,” Anna agreed. “Your file got slipped my way a couple of months ago.”

Maria rubbed her forehead. “I never agreed to this,” she said.

“And no one else in the medical department will agree to treat you, so there's a lack of consent all the way around.” Maria heard Anna take a sip of something. “It's fine, you've got a personal physician, so you'll only have to deal with me for emergencies.”

Maria didn't say anything.

“Tell me you have a personal physician.”

“I have a visitor in my office right now, that's what I have,” Maria said.

“I cannot believe-” There was the sound of pages flipping. Anna sounded very disapproving when she said, “Oh, you are in such trouble, missy.”

“I'm hanging up now,” Maria told her.

“Sexy elf book. Giant cups of booze. You get your ass there or I'm moving the meeting to your house,” Anna said in a rush.

Maria hung up. “I hate that woman,” she muttered under her breath, but her lips were twitching. Shaking her head, she opened her office door. “Sorry, I was just-”

Sif was leafing through “What Do You Say To a Naked Elf?”

“That's not mine,” Maria said, and she regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth, she regretted even acknowledging the book's existence.

“Is that so?” Sif's mouth twisted to the side. “A shame. I was going to inquire if I might borrow it.” She set it down and rolled to her feet. “I apologize, it was just that the cover was so clever, and I have had experience in such things. I was curious as to what a Midgardian author might suggest in the same situation.”

“Nothing of any use, probably,” Maria said, moving the entire stack of folders this time. She dropped them down on top of the book with a satisfying thump, wishing she could flatten it. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

Sif shook her head. “I should not have bothered you here, but I knew no other way to make my intentions clear.” Her eyes were bright when she looked at Maria. “Have your duties this evening changed?”

Maria considered her. And knew that this was her chance. To say that things had changed, that she wasn't available, that she had a job to do.

Instead, she heard herself say, “No. I'm free tonight.”

Sif's grinned “As that is the case, will you honor me with your company this evening?” Sif said, her smile luminous. She was beautiful, warm and proud and Maria knew this was a very bad idea.

Maria took a deep breath. “Yes. I will.”

Sif's eyes went wide, just for a second, and then her face relaxed into a sweet smile. “Thank you,” she said.

“Thank you,” Maria said, smiling back. Her eyebrows arched. “What should I wear?”

“Whatever it would please you to wear.”

“That sounds like a recipe for public humiliation,” Maria said. She folded her arms over her chest. “Are you going to tell me where we're going?”

Sif laughed. “Do you trust me?”

“You? Of course. Your 'assistants'?” Maria chuckled. “No.”

Sif leaned forward, bracing her hands on Maria's desk. It did lovely things for her cleavage. Maria did her best not to notice that, but it was impossible. “You should.” She straightened up. “Tonight. Eight PM. I shall come for you. Here if that would please you?”

Maria nodded. “Eight.”

Sif inclined her head, a graceful little half bow. “Then tonight.” And then, as if she wanted to leave before Maria could come up with additional questions, she turned on her heel and was across the room and out the door in a few steps. The panel shut firmly behind her.

Maria stared at her office door for a long, still moment. “Oh, fuck me,” she said, her head falling back. “This has disaster written all over it.” For a long moment, she just sat there, her head back, her eyes closed, and thought about just what she had gotten herself involved in. She wanted to regret it, but the memory of Sif's smile made that impossible.

Snapping back upright, she pulled her phone out and dialed.

The line was picked up with a brisk, “Special Agent Del Toro.”

Maria tossed her pen on her desk with a little more force than was necessary. “It's Hill. I'm calling in a favor.”

There was a beat of silence. “Is that so? I was not aware that the FBI owed SHIELD any favors this week.”

Maria grinned. “First of all, yes, you do, you always do, Angela, and second of all, this is personal.”

“Well, why didn't you say so?” Maria could hear the faint creak of worn out chair springs as Angela leaned back in her chair. Battered government issue equipment never aged well, and that included the agents in the chairs. “What the hell are you up to, you bargain basement government goon?”

“Aw, still bitter that I rejected your resume?” Maria said.

“Still bitter that I got the drop on your agents during that weapons smuggling mess?”

“Not at all, because sloppy smugglers moving cheap assault weapons from overseas is about the size of what I assume the Bureau is capable of handling,” Maria said, and Angela started laughing.

“Okay, you win this round,” she said, still chuckling. “What's up?”

“I win every round, and I need to call in a favor.”

“So you say. What's the situation, Agent?”

Maria took a deep breath. “I need you to provide some quiet backup tonight.”

“Threat?”

“Probably nothing. But I'm looking to be a little over cautious.” Maria grabbed a pen from her desk and drummed it against the file folders. “I'm going to be going out with an Asgardian tonight, and we really can't afford to have anything go wrong.”

“When we say, 'go out,' are we implying an official function or-”

“I'm implying I have a date.”

A long beat of silence. “With one of Thor's people?”

Maria caught herself grinning down at her desk. “Yes.”

Angela gave a low, slow whistle. “You are running in rarefied circles, Agent Hill.”

“I am, aren't I?”

“And you need me to be your wing woman?”

“I'd like to have someone I can trust who won't stick out like a sore thumb where we're going.”

“Where is that, by the way?”

“I don't know, but I have faith that you won't stick out,” Maria told her. She stilled her pen. “Look, Angela, I need help, and I can't exactly bring my own people.” She stopped, her nose wrinkling. “I can. I know I can. But-”

“But you have a date and you don't need to get work all up in that particular piece of your business,” Angela agreed. “Look, buy me dinner and I'll put on a nice dress and come and melt into the background. Hell, I've got a friend, she's- She's an ex-cop, she works with Luke and Danny sometimes. She can come along, too, if you'd like.”

“Knight?”

“Jesus, do you have to do the creepy spy shit all the time?”

“Yes,” Maria said. “And yes, again. If you can get her on board, then I'll pick up your dinner bill.”

“I'll skip lunch. Where are we going?”

“I have to go plug a SHIELD information leak and find out. I'll get back to you.”

*

"Lewis!"

"There's the voice of doom, gotta go." Darcy dropped the phone back into the cradle and pasted her most benign smile on her face as Hill stalked into what passed for Darcy's office. It was closer to a supply closet with a desk in it, mostly because that's what Darcy suspected it had been prior to her arrival. She wasn't complaining. She liked her little closet. It kept her close to her files and kept everyone else out of them. "Hello, AD Hill! What brings you down here to the nest of vipers that is the science department of SHIELD?"

Hill stared at her, that narrow eyed, flinty look that had caused more than one world leader burst into tears. Darcy found it unsettling, but not as bad as her mother's. "This has your fingerprints all over it," Hill said.

Darcy tried to look hurt. "Ma'am, I don't know what you're accusing me of, but I think I'm insulted."

Hill crossed her arms over her chest. "I think you're full of shit."

Darcy gave up on trying to look hurt. It wasn't her best move, anyway, and if she'd really wanted to go that route, she should've gone with a subtler lipstick. "Yes, ma'am, so I've been told.” She reached for one of the massive binders that lined her desk. Tossing it down, she flipped it open, trying to act busy. It wasn't hard; she did actually have work to do.

She had been an indifferent science assistant, at best. At the time, she'd been the best thing that Jane had, but she'd been the only thing that Jane had. Now that Jane had a job and a name, Darcy had expected to lose her job. Instead, Coulson had found a position that SHIELD needed filled that she was actually good at: riding herd on science staff that frequently forgot what the hell they were supposed to be doing, let alone what the deadline was.

She might not look it, but she was brutal with a schedule, a stack of requisition forms and the most inept science staffers.

“What can I do for you?” Darcy asked, flicking through pages.

Hill reached over and placed one fingertip on the pages, pinning them in place. She waited until Darcy looked up, meeting her eyes. “Ma'am?” Darcy asked.

“What are we doing?” Hill asked.

“Probably something illegal, but I don't have much of a clearance,” Darcy said, without thinking. Judging by the way that Hill's mouth tightened, her levity wasn't appreciated. “Don't kill me.”

“It's tempting, but I'd regret it later.” Hill flipped her binder closed and straightened up. “Sif. What are her plans?”

“Oh, you mean, for the date?” Darcy grinned at her, clapping her hands together. “Does that mean you said yes? Awesome!”

“It would be more awesome if I knew where we were going.”

“It's a surprise,” Darcy pointed out, bouncing in her chair. “I have been sworn to secrecy.”

“Unswear yourself,” Hill said.

Darcy frowned at her. “AD Hill, I am disappointed in you,” she said. “Sif wants it to be a surprise. Don't you like surprises?”

“I'm second in command of a multinational intelligence organization,” Hill said. “I think it's safe to say I hate surprises.”

“In retrospect, yes. I guess it would be.”

Hill leaned up against the wall, her arms folded over her chest. “I'm not taking the chance of showing up in something that's not suitable,” she pointed out. “It's not going to happen, Lewis. So let's cut to the chase.”

Darcy pouted at her. “I don't suppose you'd let me plead sisterhood here, right?”

“They will never find your body.”

Darcy nodded, her lips pursed. “Gotcha.” She leaned back in her chair. “It's no big deal. We found a restaurant and afterward, there will be drinks and dancing. Natasha knows a place, an acquaintance of hers is a guest DJ, she's supposed to be amazing.”

Hill's eyes narrowed, just the tiniest bit. “What kind of restaurant?”

“One of those awesome Brazilian places, where they bring you meat on swords.” Darcy grinned. “It's a real high class Churrasco place, and it is awesome. Sif's gonna love it.”

For a second, Hill's mouth gaped open. “You're kidding.”

Darcy rocked forward in her chair, putting her feet solidly on the floor. “Okay, everyone here he's been to an Asgardian feast day, raise your hand.” She waited for a beat, then shoved her hand in the air. “Oh, me!”

That won her the briefest of smiles. “And you think this is appropriate?” Hill asked, one eyebrow arching.

“I think it's going to be amazing,” Darcy said. "I helped her pick out her outfit.” She let her head fall to the side. She caught a lock of hair between her fingers and played idly with a curl. "It's amazing. Can I just preface by saying it's amazing?"

"Lewis..."

"No, seriously. Asgardian have like, magical abilities with leather pants. I knew that, because I live with Thor, it's like the natural state of his people." She spread her hands in benediction. "Leather pants. And I mean, leather. Pants."

"I got that."

"No, you don't." Darcy gave her a pitying look. "You THINK you do. Like, you know there are leather pants and that people, even Asgardian people, wear them. Let me tell you. There's a difference between intellectual understanding between the fact that there ARE leather pants and seeing one of them IN said leather pants."

Hill pressed a hand to her forehead. "Lewis..."

"They're the sort of pants that if I was involved? I'd still be lying on my back in the dressing room, flailing in a pile of baby powder and tears as I tried to get them on over my ass. Sif? No problems. Right in." Darcy propped her chin on one fist. "Kinda hate her for that. But great pants, they have this, I don't know how to describe it, like this lacing up the sides? Kind of looks like she tied herself into them after getting them on?"

Darcy let out a low, slow whistle. "Honestly? I do not go for the kinky stuff, I want to make that clear, I mean-" She see-sawed a hand in mid-air. "Most of the time. Sometimes, it's-"

"I am not having this discussion, Lewis."

"Right. So anyway? First thought on seeing these pants? Get a knife and slice her right back out of them. Plus, they make her ass look fantastic."

Hill didn't say anything, but Darcy didn't think she was imagining the faint flush that had risen to Hill's cheeks.

"And the top is this like, silky chiffon stuff, it's amazing, and it's less a blouse and more a drape of fabric that's tied at her neck? And the small of her back. It's this gorgeous pale silvery blue stuff, but there's not much of it. Her whole back and arms and shoulders are bare, that's a lot of skin, a lot of really nice skin, by the way, I kind of expected more scars, but-"

"Stay on topic, Lewis."

"It's great," Darcy said without missing a beat. "But I told Natasha, no way. She's too-" She waved her hand in the general direction of her own chest. "Busty. No way she'll be able to pull off a bra in that thing, and she'll-"

"Do you have a point?" Hill asked, and now Darcy was certain she was blushing, a hint of a flush on those high cheekbones.

"My point is? Asgardian underwear is amazing," Darcy said, absolutely serious. "Absolutely Amazing. Like, she's got these-" She cupped her chest. "I would give up American citizenship for one of these things, little cups that kind of adhere to each boob and WHOOP just like that, cleavage like you would not believe."

In the silence that followed, Darcy grinned at her. “Wear something hot, ma'am, because that outfit?” She gave a double thumb up. “It is a very good outfit.”

Hill just stared at her. After a few minutes, Darcy gave a mental shrug and went back to work. She'd die doing what she loved: bitching out primary researchers who didn't bother to submit their requisitions until they were complete out of something. What was up with that? Who lived like that?”

"Why are you here?" Hill asked at last.

"Oh, because if I don't show up, they don't pay me," Darcy said, tucking a pencil behind her ear and reaching for another file. "Coulson says I don't get sick time. He is of the opinion that offering me sick time would just encourage me, and I quote, 'to acquire the sort of disease that would end all life on earth and become a plague rat.'"

Hill's lips twitched, just the tiniest bit. "A plague rat?"

"I thought that was uncalled for." Darcy shrugged. "The way I see it, I'm going to come down with said disease anyway, hello, I work in SHIELD SCIENTIFIC, I think this is a thing that's going to happen no matter what code HR puts down on my timesheet, so now he's just pretty much guranteed that I'm going to bring it here and infect highly trained paramilitary forces with snazzy suits." She shrugged. "End of the world is on him!"

"Zombie paranoia aside, I meant, why do we employ you?"

"Oh, because it keeps Thor and Jane happy, and honestly, bosslady? I kick ASS at all of this back alley, black market document management." Darcy slapped the file shut.

"'Back alley-'"

"I got it under control." Darcy waved her off. "Anyway. The point is, I serve a very important function here, I do a good job, and I got you a date." She gave Hill a sunny smile. "That should count for something."

Hill studied her. "It does not."

"But it SHOULD."

“Good try,” Hill said, but she was smiling. Just a little. She opened the door. “I need the addresses. You have fifteen minutes to forward the club and the restaurant information over to my office.”

Darcy's mouth hung open. “Oh, come ON!” she said.

Hill's head swiveled back in her direction, that faint smile still on her face, one eyebrow quirking up. “Yes, Ms. Lewis?” she asked, her voice precisely polite. “Do you have something to add to the situation?” Darcy took a breath, and Hill continued, “Something worthwhile?”

Darcy deflated. “But-”

“Ten minutes,” Hill said. She stepped out of the door. And closed it crisply behind her before Darcy could do more than get her tongue untangled.

She mentally counted to ten, then reached for the phone just as it started to ring. “How do you do that?” she asked.

“Ancient Russian secret,” Natasha said.

Darcy crept towards the door, pressing her ear against it before cracking it open. “That's your answer to everything. Including why your tuna salad is so good.”

“I put pickles in it, all right? Stop fixating on sandwich fillings, Darce.”

“Ha! I KNEW it.” Darcy pushed the door open.

“Yes, of course you did, honey. How did it go with Hill?”

“Why did she come down here? Why not just ask you?”

“Because she knows you'll crack.”

“Of course I'll crack! She's like Coulson, but she doesn't care about Clint's feelings. She'll have me shot. Or deported. Or remanded to a nunnery,” Darcy said, angling her head out the door. The hall was empty, and she relaxed a bit. “Something horrible will happen. Avenge me.”

“You know the rules, you need to avenge yourself, I have plans.” Natasha sounded amused. “How did it go?”

“She's treating this like a military op,” Darcy complained. “She's going to show up with a bunch of guys in black suits and bad haircuts. She is going to ruin everything.”

“She's going to show up with a few exceptionally well trained women who are going to blend in seamlessly,” Natasha corrected. “In that she's run a few military ops in her time, and she knows how to win them.”

“Disaster,” Darcy said. “I don't think a dance club's a good idea. I don't think that AD Hill is a 'club' type of person. Or even a 'dance' kind of person. Or even a type of 'person.'”

“I've known Maria far longer than you have. She's already looking forward to it,” Natasha said. “In fact, I give her about five minutes before she leaves to go buy a new outfit. That being the case, I think you should get her the information she asked for, shouldn't you?”

“I want a new outfit,” Darcy complained, already scampering back to her desk to pull up her email.

“What do you need a new outfit for?”

“For going clubbing, duh,” Darcy said. “We're going, right?”

“No.”

“Yes we aaaaaaaaare,” Darcy sing-songed.

“Well, I am.” Natasha was chuckling. “You're not invited.

“You are just mean, lady.” Darcy hit send. And hoped that this was going to work out for the best.

*

Agent Speer's eyes got very, very large when Maria stepped into the elevator. Maria decided to take that as a good sign. “Good evening, Agent,” she said, shifting the delicate strap of her clutch purse higher on her shoulder. She had her jacket thrown over her arm, and she considered putting it on now.

She regretted agreeing to meet here at SHIELD, but she didn't know what would've been a better option. She wasn't going to Avengers Tower, she'd prefer to involve her own people than the Avengers in her love life.

Not that she had a love life. She had a date. One date. Her first date in a very long time.

“Good evening, ma'am.” Speer hugged a leather folio against her chest, her short red curls bouncing as her head jerked in Maria's direction, and then away. She was blushing, her cheeks so pink that her freckles nearly disappeared. “If I might, ma'am, that is an amazing dress.”

Maria bit back a smile. “Thank you, Agent.”

Agent Speer's shoulder relaxed, and she risked a smile in Maria's direction. “Whatever you've got planned tonight, ma'am, you're going to knock 'em dead.”

Maria laughed. “I hope so,” she said, and the elevator dinged as it came to a stop.

Speer slipped through the door, then stuck her head back in. “Have a good night!” she said, and darted away.

“You, too,” Maria called after her, shaking her head. She caught a glimpse of herself in the elevator's dark glass, and took a moment to look herself over. Her dress was a stark column of dark red. The neckline was a toga-like sweep of fabric that cupped her breasts and left her shoulders and upper chest bare. It was tight at the waist, and relaxed into an asymmetrical hemline that lapped at her bare legs.

She took a deep breath, one hand coming up to tuck a lock of hair back behind her ear before it could tangle with the gold threads of her earrings. She did her best to ignore the fluttery sensation in her stomach. She wasn't an infatuated teenager. Even if she was stupidly acting like one.

The elevator slowed again, and Maria was somehow not surprised when Romanov stepped in. She was wearing a sleeveless black bandage dress that reached only to mid-thigh. Her hair was a mass of red waves, her lips a matching shade of red. “Good evening,” she said, with an easy smile.

“Nice shoes,” Maria told her.

Natasha considered her spike heels. “I like them. They're so practical.” She glanced back up. “Fashionable and vicious.”

Maria turned her attention to the numbers flashing by on the elevator panel. “Big plans for the evening?”

“Taking a night off.” Her head tipped to the side. “Any problem with that?”

“Since I suspect our plans are going to intersect, I think I probably should. I do not need you interfering here.”

Natasha glanced at her. “Ma'am?”

“Agent?”

“She can't drive, ma'am. She was going to pick you up on a horse.”

Maria's lips pursed. “And you stopped her?”

“I got you a car.”

Maria nodded, just once, a dip of her chin. “I will never forgive you for that.”

Natasha ducked her head, trying to hide her grin. “Maybe indulge your secret fantasies somewhere that isn't the main lobby of SHIELD.”

“Aren't you just a killjoy?” Maria said, her voice wry.

“I'm sure she'll bring the magical flying horse to the second date.”

Maria was pretty sure she should deny that there would be a second date. She was pretty sure she should just walk into the lobby, politely explain that something had come up, and go back to her office. But instead, she just said, “If she doesn't, I will never forgive you, Romanov.”

“I'll let her know you have a thing.”

“I would appreciate that,” Maria said, her chin up. “You realize this could backfire horrifically, don't you?”

“I don't think she's the sort to get upset if you refuse to put out, ma'am,” Natasha said. “She's noble and respectful.” Her lips kicked up at the corners. “In all the right ways and none of the wrong ones.”

Maria gave her a look. “Tell me you have taken pains to make certain that this does not backfire horrifically,” she said.

“I have, and I know you have as well,” Natasha said, waving her off with a flick of perfectly manicured fingernails. “We have backup, and contingency plans.”

“Tell me the contingency plans do not involve Barton.”

“Phil will be distracting him to make sure that he is unaware of the night's events,” Natasha said. She punched the button for the second floor just before they could reach it. “And might I say, ma'am, I'm a bit insulted by your lack of trust in this.” She gave Maria a wicked smile. “I thought we were friends.”

“You involved Lewis,” Maria said. “My estimation of your intelligence has taken a bit of a downturn.”

“Sif involved Lewis, whom she adores,” Natasha said, stepping off of the elevator. “Just saying.” She glanced back over her shoulder at Maria, smiling. “I'd keep in mind just how loyal she is, when choosing to move forward here.”

“Well, I have my questionable friends, too,” Maria said.

“I'm honored, ma'am.” Natasha stuck a foot in the door. “Just out of curiosity, where did you get that dress?” she asked, her eyebrows arching. “Did we take a long lunch?”

“My day ended at six,” Maria said. Natasha just stared at her. “Also I took a long lunch,” Maria said. “Take your foot out of my way before I shoot it.”

“Have a lovely evening!” Natasha said, with a sweet smile. She removed her foot, and the elevator door shut smoothly. Just before the doors sealed, Natasha raised a hand and wiggled her fingers in Maria's direction. Maria wondered if she could have the damn woman fired.

Before she could hit the lobby, she slipped into her coat. She made bad choices, that was true, but there was no reason to make a spectacle of herself. A small portion of her mind wondered what the rumors would be like. She was well of her reputation amongst her people, and she knew there were some who'd see this as a mission, or an assignment. Maria allowed herself a small smile. As Fury would say, never let them know what you're really up to. The elevator came to a stop, and she swept out.

Darcy's description had not done Sif's outfit justice.

It could have been, Maria acknowledged, that it was one thing to hear about this sort of thing. It was another thing entirely to see it. Seeing it was enough to bring a woman much stronger than her to her knees.

Sif was standing at the windows at the far end of the lobby, her back to Maria. She was staring out across the street, her hands clasped behind her back, her hip canted to the side. Maria was surprised that anything was getting done in that lobby, since the line of Sif's bare back was absolutely stunning. It was a work of art, strong and feminine all at once, and Maria wondered if it was too forward if she just suggested skipping going out and heading back to her place.

She didn't have any etchings, but she could buy some on the way.

“Have you been waiting long?” she asked, as she stoode across the marble floor, her heels snapping with each step.

Sif turned, and her face split in a wide, welcoming smile. “Not at all,” she said. She the light played over the curve of her cheek, over the slow of her dark hair, as she inclined her head. The gesture was graceful and respectful, but her eyes were hot when she glanced up at Maria. “You look lovely,” she said.

“So do you.” Maria smiled back, pleasure a warmth beneath her breastbone. She shifted, trying to down play it. “Shall we go?”

Sif nodded. “A meal, first, than an evening's entertainment,” she said. “If that is agreeable to you.”

“Sounds perfect.” And it did. Maria hadn't expected it, but she felt fine with Sif, she felt comfortable, and at ease in the other woman's presence. The desire was there, too, banked now, the slightly itchy feeling under her skin, but it wasn't as important as how good it felt to just be there with someone who accepted her without so much as the blink of an eye.

Sif was smiling at her, even now, even as Maria pushed the door open for her. As if she was simply pleased to be in Maria's presence. It was a very nice sensation.

They headed across the broad plaza in front of the SHIELD building, headed for the street in the brisk evening air. Sif paused, her head tipping to the side, her eyes narrowing. Without thinking, Maria's hand went to her clutch. “What is it?” Maria asked, recognizing the signs.

Sif shook her head. “Nothing,” she said, with an easy smile. “We should go.”

Maria caught her elbow, her fingers firm enough to catch Sif's attention. “What is it?” she asked, her voice quiet.

Sif took a breath. “There was a dog.”

Maria looked, her eyes sliding over the street. “I'm sorry,” she said, eyes narrowed. “What dog?”

“A great black dog,” Sif said. Her voice fell, going quiet and still. “I have seen them. These dogs. They follow us.” She shook her head. “It happens, from time to time, here in Midgard. It is the all-speak. Animals understand, so they tend to appear.”

“Dogs?”

“Cats, dogs, birds,” Sif said, waving a hand. “It depends always on their intelligence, you see. I am accustomed to the animals of this place, but these dogs are...” Her eyes narrowed. “Large. Too large, really. I had thought, at first, that they did not belong here.”

Maria considered that. “More than one?”

“At times.” Sif opened her mouth, then bit her lip. “I was going to say, it is nothing. But I do not believe that.” She looked at Maria. “They have been in the shadows, too often, since we have arrived this time.”

Maria nodded. “But it's gone now?” she asked.

“I do not know if I saw it,” Sif said, frustration slipping into the words. “I know I have seen them, these things, these WRONG things. But perhaps this time, it was just my mind playing tricks.”

“I think I'd trust your instincts over my own eyes,” Maria said, still scanning the street. Even now, in early evening, they were far from alone, but she didn't see anything out of the ordinary between the crowds and the cars.

“You mean that, do you not?”

Maria glanced over. Sif was staring at her, her face unreadable. Maria gave her a smile. “I've seen you fight. I trust your instincts, Sif.”

Sif's smile was slow, so slow to bloom, but it was breathtakingly beautiful. She caught Maria's hand in hers, and raised it to her lips. The kiss, brushed against the back of Maria's knuckles, was so light as to almost be non-existant. The whisper of Sif's breath across her skin raised goosebumps all the way up her arm, the sensation far more tactile than the actual touch of her lips.

She straightened up, but didn't release Maria's hand. “Thank you,” she said, simply that.

Maria considered letting go. Instead, she curled her fingers around the warmth of Sif's hand. “Tell me if you see them again,” she said.

Sif nodded. Her fingers tangled with Maria's, calloused and rough in a different way than Maria's, but still familiar. “Are you hungry?” she asked.

Maria smiled. “Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Then let us go,” Sif said, grinning. “There is a car waiting.”

“So I hear,” Maria said, with a faint, almost silent sigh. But she glanced again along the street as they headed for the waiting sedan.

“It is gone, if ever it was here,” Sif said, smiling. “And is likely nothing but a dog. A very large dog.”

“Or a bilgesnipe?” Maria asked.

Sif laughed out loud. “And what do you know of the bilgesnipe?” she asked.

“Thor mentions them,” Maria said, and Sif laughed. “What?”

“Oh, well, the stories I could tell of our good Prince Thor and his rather unfortunate encounters with that most ignoble of species,” Sif said. She shook her head. “He is the only Asgardian to think that a head on attack was wise. As it turns out, his lack of strategy ended quite badly for him.”

Maria's lips twitched. “How badly?”

Sif slapped a hand on her rear. “Took an horn in a most unfortunate place.” Maria was laughing so hard that she could barely draw breath, and Sif tugged on her hand. “Come, I will tell you the whole story. I think you will enjoy it.”

“I'm sure I will.”

Chapter Text

“So, there they are, each one of them holding a goat and yelling at one another,” Sif said, spreading her hands wide. “In that they were not the correct goats, and yet, none of them would be convinced of it.”

“Oh, my God,” Maria said, her head falling into the cradle of her hand, her eyes squeezing shut. “Tell me they didn't-”

“They brought the goats,” Sif said, grinning, and Maria groaned. Sif laughed, a warm burst of sound that rolled over her skin like a physical touch. “Did you expect otherwise?”

“For the way this story was going, I should've known better than to hope that they'd learned something,” Maria admitted. “How long-”

“How long was I stuck on a vessel with four men and four goats, with the goats being the better smelling of my traveling companions?” Sif asked, slicing neatly into a heart of palm.

“That, yes.”

“Far too long,” Sif said, her white teeth flashing. A curl of her dark hair slipped over her shoulder, shining like silk against the column of her pale neck. “The voyage ought to have been measured in misery, yet I suspect that we were home in a matter of days.”

“You suspect?” Maria asked, taking a sip of her wine.

“I try not to think on it over much,” Sif admitted. “Some experiences are best viewed from a safe mental distance.”

“There are so many ops that I treat the same way,” Maria admitted. She leaned forward. “So? Did you locate the correct goat?”

“The question is more if there was a correct goat to find,” Sif said.

Maria waited, but Sif said nothing, a smile curving her lips. “Was there a correct goat to find?” she asked, doing her best to keep a straight face.

“Not at all,” Sif said, and Maria lost her grip, laughing out loud, a bit too loud. She covered her mouth, trying to hold it back as Sif smiled at her.

One of the servers passed by, glancing in their direction, checking to see if they wanted another serving. Maria looked at Sif. “Do you want anything more to eat?” she asked.

Sif shook her head. “No, I think I've had my fill.” She grinned. “I like this place. The food is excellent, and the wine almost better.”

The restaurant was not one Maria would've chosen, but she had to admit that it was a good fit. It was one big dining room, dark wood tables scattered around the staggered floor levels, leaving plenty of room for the wandering servers to pass through, offering new dishes every few minutes. It was warm and full of laughter and conversation, with huge fires and grills visible in the kitchen and bright pops of red and yellow art decorating the exposed brick walls.

“Darcy chose it?” she asked.

“Darcy is clever,” Sif said. She looked around, and the light played across her face, across her face. “I like this sort of place. Full of people, full of families. People who seem happy for the company, for a fine meal and fine company.” She tore apart a piece of bread, popping a bit of it into her mouth. “A meal in front of a fire has more warmth, more than the physical.”

“It's busy tonight,” Maria said. “I suppose I should be glad that she could help you get a table.” Not that she would've cared, either way. She would've taken a slice of pizza from a storefront just as gratefully.”

“So how many of those here are keeping watch over me?”

Maria looked up, her eyes canting up over the rim of her glass. Sif was smiling at her, just a bit, just the faintest upturn of her lips. But her eyes were full of laughter, and so was her voice. Maria made the deliberate choice to not look around. At all.

“At least two,” she admitted. Sif arched an eyebrow, and Maria smiled, a tad rueful. “More likely four or five.”

“More like,” Sif agreed. She shook her head. “Are you so concerned about my behavior?” There was a teasing note in her voice, a twinkle in her eyes, and Maria reminded herself that blushing was for infatuated teenagers, something that was definitely beneath her. She kept reminding herself of that, because her face felt hotter than it should.

“You're an honored guest in our country,” Maria said, smooth and professional. “On our world. We have a responsibility to protect you, to the best of our capability.”

Sif leaned forward, a smile curling her lips. Her own cheeks had a wash of pink across her skin, from heat or good food, or something deeper. “I should be insulted by that,” she said, her eyes tipping up under the veil of her lashes. “That you think I cannot take care of myself. I think in most cases, I would be, if my dining partner made much of so simple a thing.

“And yet...” She reached for her wine glass, her fingers cradling the stem with a graceful sort of ease. “Somehow, with you, I find it to be an outgrowth of your calling.”

“That's not fair,” Maria said, smiling. “I was paranoid and suspicious long before I took this job.”

Sif grinned. “You take care with all things. But especially with the things that you consider under your protection.” Her smile softened. “I find I don't object to counting myself in that category.” One eyebrow arched. “As long as you realize that I do not require your protection, Agent Hill.”

“I understand completely,” Maria said, keeping a straight face. “As long as you understand that I will do what I can to provide you with a certain amount of support while you're here.” She made her eyes as wide and innocent as she could manage, a trick she'd picked up from dealing with congress. She was pretty sure Sif was significantly harder to trick, but it was worth a try. “You don't have all the support you might have in Asgard.”

“I don't need the support there, either,” Sif said, her fork and knife busy on a particularly beautiful cut of steak. Maria looked at her own plate, considering it, but there was no way she could eat another bit. “Still, it is nice to have witnesses for you noble deeds.”

Maria laughed. “Building up a reputation as a steel plated ball-buster is what got me to where I am today,” she admitted. “Also, spreading some false intelligence has worked out well for me.”

“Is that so?”

“It's the only reason we continue employing Agent Barton,” Maria said. She finished her wine. “He's very good at talking people into believing insane things.”

Sif reached for the bottle, filling Maria's glass, then her own. “Still, you are too concerned for my welfare. There's no danger here.”

“You're important,” Maria said, taking her glass. “Thank you.”

“As are you,” Sif said, her smile dying. “Does no one stand guard for you?”

Maria made her eyes as wide as she could manage. “I thought you would take care of that,” she said, and Sif laughed, soft and warm.

“Now who has a clever tongue?” she asked,

“Have I insulted you?” Maria asked, biting back a smile of her own.

“Only should you stop.” Sif reached for her glass. She brought it to her lips, taking a sip before cradling it between her palms. “I find I crave such words from you.” She ran her index finger along the rim, her eyes down, her smile soft. Her eyes flicked up, meeting Maria's. “They are lovely.”

“I wouldn't have thought you'd be so susceptible to flattery,” Maria said,

“When words are empty attempts to please, I find nothing to enjoy in them,” Sif said, her voice quiet. “But when you speak, there is no excess to it. You take your time with your words, and hoard them in front of most.” She smiled at Maria, wide and bright. “I came to hope that I had won your favor, at least on some level, not when you smiled at me. But when you spoke to me.”

Maria could feel the heat in her cheeks, and did her best to ignore it. “The smile didn't impress?” she asked, trying for levity.

“Your smile is lovely, but practiced.” Sif reached across the table, one finger just barely brushing against a lock of Maria's hair. “You know how it is received, and you can cut as easily as charm with a flick of the lips.” Maria resisted the urge to turn her face into Sif's touch. It was harder than it should have been.

Sif settled back into her chair. “Your words may be just as practiced,” she said, going back to her meal, “but they hold honesty still, and thus, do you guard them.”

Maria's mouth was dry, and she reached for her glass again. “You,” she said, after downing a healthy swallow, “are dangerous.”

“So I am told,” Sif said. “And will be happy to hear again.” She pushed her plate away. “Would you care for some dessert? Or shall we wait for that, and have a taste of something sweet after we dance?”

Maria steadfastly refused to ask just what kind of 'sweet' Sif had in mind. She could offer some suggestions, but she was pretty sure at this point that she would be up for whatever Sif wanted.

“I think that we could stand to work off some of what we just had,” Maria agreed. “I'm warning you, though. I'm an excellent dancer.”

“I shall do my best to keep up with you, then.”

*

"Help me out here. Is our goal to make sure she scores, or make sure she doesn't?" Darcy tipped her head towards Natasha, her teeth flashing in a grin. "'Cause I can work with either, but I need a goal here."

"Your goal is to be invisible," Natasha said, amused despite herself. That was her default outlook around Darcy.

"Well, I could've used that information earlier, this dress will make 'invisibility' really, really hard." Darcy cocked a hip and crossed her arms under her breasts. They didn't need the extra encouragement. Her black and red dress was sleeveless, with a semi-sweetheart neckline that barely met community decency standards and a skirt that swept over her curves to end at mid-thigh.

It was impressive. And Natasha was hard to impress.

"Yes, it will," Natasha said. Her own dress was a simple black sheath that was cut high on a square neckline and left her arms bare. It was the back that was daring, dipping low enough to show off the upper curve of her ass. It was one of her favorites, because she loved the doubletakes she recieved as she walked by.

Shaking her head, she cut through the crowd, heading towards the bar. Darcy wandered along behind her, her head craning to tip a flirtatious smile at a woman passing in the other direction. The woman smiled back, and Natasha slipped her hand into Darcy's elbow, moving her firmly in the correct direction. "Do not get lost."

"Not going to get lost." Darcy tossed her head, her dark hair bouncing around her bare shoulders. "I know right where I'm going." Her red lips parted in a very dirty grin. “The only question is how I'm getting there.”

Natasha's eyes rolled up towards the ceiling. "Don't wander off, either," she said.

"How am I to acquire alcohol if I don't ply my wiles?" Darcy asked, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. "I deserve alcohol."

"I'll buy you a drink."

"Oooo, are we on expense account?" Despite her towering heels, Darcy's steps acquired an extra bounce as the bar loomed in front of them.

"I am on expense account. No one in their right mind would give you an expense account."

"Tony gives me an expense account," Darcy pointed out.

"I repeat. No one in their right mind would give you an expense account."

“Oooh, burn,” Darcy said, grinning. “So...”

“I'll buy you a drink,” Natasha said.

“Yes, yes, you will,” Darcy agreed. She manuvered her way to the bar, smiling and fluttering her eyelashes at every woman she passed. Smiling, Natasha followed her.

The club was a converted industrail space, far off the beaten path. But it was well designed and laid out so that traffic flowed easily from the from door, through the broad, open dance area, and up to multiple sets of stairs that led to the second floor, where broad bar areas allowed for a rest, a drink, or just simple observation of the show happening below. The bars were all crowded, but the areas around the railing were packed with woman laughing and talking, flirting and watching the stage and the dancers. The opening DJ was deep into her set, a mix of electronica and J-Pop that worked far better than it should have, and the dance floor was alive with women of all shapes, sizes and colors.

It didn't keep Natasha from spotting a familiar face through the crowd.

“Stay out of trouble for five minutes,” Natasha said to Darcy. To the bartender, she said, “She's on my tab,” and handed over a black AmEx. It might have been one of Tony's. He would want Darcy to have something nice.

The bartender grinned. “Does she need a babysitter?” she asked, her head tipping to the side. Her dark hair was shaved on one side, a smattering of freckles visible across the bridge of her broad nose.

“I might be willing to pay extra for that,” Natasha said.

“Hey!” Darcy interjected, grinning. “I do not need protective custody.” She leaned over. “Do you have one of those martini glasses the size of my head?”

“You are precious, you are,” the bartender said. “I'll watch over her as if she is was my own,” she told Natasha.

“Your tip will be enormous.” Natasha patted Darcy on the head, and then leaned in to brush a kiss against Darcy's cheek. “Behave,” she breathed.

“Never,” Darcy said. “All right, what've you got in a potential hangover in a cup?” she asked. Natasha decided to leave before she would be forced to intervene.

Her quarry looked up as Natasha approached. “Good evening,” Angela Del Toro said, clearing a spot for Natasha at the rail. The chatter and music around them covered up their conversation easily, but Natasha still leaned in.

“Business or pleasure?” she asked, her head tipped toward Angela.

“Can't it be both?” Angela shifted her weight, her long legs flexing with the slight movement. Her white pants flared wide at her calves, swirling around her feet. A gold belt rattled against her hips, a gold cat head shaped token bouncing against her leg as she turned. "She call you in?" she asked, arching one dark eyebrow.

Natasha arched an eyebrow, her first suspicion confirmed. "Please," she said. “She'll have my head for showing up.”

“And yet you're here.”

“And yet, I am here,” Natasha agreed. She propped her hip against the railing. “You?”

Angela shrugged. Her white halter top set off her warm brown skin, and her black hair swirled around her bare shoulders. “Just here to see the show.” Her fingers slid up the length of her straw, slipping it between her lips. “We're fans.”

“We?”

One of Angela's fingers came off of the straw, pointing across the crowded floor. Natasha's eyes followed the gesture, catching sight of the stunning black woman who was leaning up against the bar, clad in a red leather catsuit that hugged her like a second skin. It was open at the throat, showing off the curves of her breasts, and the long sleeves didn't cover the glint of gold that marked her right hand.

“Knight?” Natasha asked, her eyebrows arching.

“You've met?” Angela didn't sound surprised, just amused.

“No, but Stark is in a losing quest to get his hands on hers,” Natasha said. She sipped her drink. “From the way he goes on about it, I always expected that it would end up like something out of The Adams Family. He'd start kissing it on her fingers, and work his way up.”

“She'd meet him at the shoulder with a left hook,” Angela said.

“Now I want to see it even more,” Natasha said. Her eyes slanted in Angela's direction. “Both of you? For something this small?”

“Our mutual friend has a strong streak of paranoia, I might have owed her a few favors, and I really am looking forward to the show,” Angela said. She paused. “Is she really-”

“On a date? As shocking as the idea may be, yes.” Natasha smiled, slow and easy. “This is not cover. Though 'we have to pretend to be dating for the sake of national security' has been used to fairly good extent in our history.”

“Your cover stories are always better than ours,” Angela said. She folded her arms, her glass held idly in one hand. “Remember that thing in Oregon?”

Natasha arched an eyebrow. “I had repressed that,” she said, letting out a sigh. Her eyes fluttered closed. “Thank you so much for reminding me.”

“Worst cover story,” Angela said, sipping her drink.

“Which, yours or mine?”

“Flip a coin, hermana.” Angela's head tipped in her direction. “They were both bad.”

“Someone ought to have gotten fired over that one. I lost a perfectly good pair of gloves.” She made a face. “Almost lost a junior agent. But I think the gloves were more useful.”

Angela laughed. “They usually are.” Her eyes went wide. “Oh, remember that idiot-” Her fingers wiggled in mid-air as she struggled to find the proper words. “You remember. In Paducah?”

“The one who crashed his own cruiser off of a bridge?” It was a pleasant memory; that guy had been a disdainful misogynist and more than casual racist. “Still think that was you.”

“I told my boss it was you.”

“What's the good word, girls?” Knight appeared through the crowd, her afro gilded by the club's lights, Ororo Monrue a step behind her. “Hey,” she said to Natasha, her gaze level and frankly appraising. Knight hooked a thumb at Ororo. “Found a suspicious character hanging around at the bar,” she said, her white teeth flashing.

“I thought I'd escort her back. She seemed like she needed some protection,” Ororo said, smiling. Her dress was a fall of sheer lavender fabric, the layers swirling around her with every movement, the toga style neckline dipping low over her breasts and a beautifully worked necklace of gold and opals shifting over her chest. She tipped a nod in Nat's direction. “Good evening, Natasha.”

“Good to see you,” Nat said.

“Nat, this is Misty. Misty, Nat Romanov,” Angela said, around her straw.

Misty's eyes widened, just for a second, just a flicker of her eye lashes. “Yeah?” She held out her hand. “Your reputation proceeds you.”

“So does yours.” Nat shook her hand. “Pleased to meet you at last. I just missed you after that thing in Madison Square Garden.”

“Shit, that was a mess.” But Misty was grinning, wide and sharp. “Show before the attack was a hell of a thing, though.”

“I missed that one,” Angela said.

Misty gave her a look. “I invited you.”

“And I reciprocated by inviting you tonight,” Angela said.

“And I appreciate it. The headliner's supposed to be amazing.” Misty looked out at the club floor. “Give it to me straight, both of you, are we actually expecting anything to go down here?”

“No,” Angela said.

“Not at all,” Nat said. Ororo's head tipped to the side, a questioning expression crossing her face. To her, Nat said, “One of our agents is escorting a member of a foreign delegation here this evening. She's concerned that there might be an incident.”

Ororo's eyebrows arched. “Escorting?”

“Agent Hill got herself a date,” Angela said. When Natasha gave her a look, she shrugged. “What? She's going to figure it out as soon as the woman walks in, Nat.”

“Good for her,” Ororo said. “Are they-”

“'Ro!”

Alison Blaire came bouncing across the floor, a tiny streak of light and force. She was wearing silver lame halter top over black leather pants and a pair of platform boots, her wrists heavy with bracelets, and her short white blonde hair was spiked with tips of glittering blue and pink. The crowd parted for her, and every eye followed her as she flung herself into Ororo's arms. “You came!” she said, grinning.

Ororo was laughing as she hugged Alison. “Didn't I tell you I would?” She leaned back, running a careful hand over Alison's hair. “I love this!”

“I think it suits me,” Alison said, tipping her head to the side and pursing her lips in a model's pout.

“I agree,” Ororo said, brushing a kiss against Alison's cheek.

“She turned her megawatt grin on the other women, and Natasha found herself smiling back. “Ready to dance?” she asked.

“Depends on how good the DJ is,” Ororo said, her lips twitching.

“Ouch.” Alison clutched at her chest. “I'll take that as a challenge.”

“Exactly as intended.” Ororo inclined her head. “Go and make it impossible for us to stay still.”

“Don't I always?” Alison snapped her fingers, and the crack of her fingertips sliding over each other set off a spark of light. “Ladies!” She threw her hands up. “The Dazzler is ready to go! Let's get this party started!” The crowd erupted in cheers, and Alison was off and running again, smiling and high fiving women as she passed, a brilliant firecracker as she danced her way towards the stairs.

“Wow,” Misty said, and there was laughter in the word, but also a certain amount of respect.

“Wait until you see her actually perform,” Ororo said, crossing her arms over her chest. She looked in Natasha's direction. “Your delegation here yet?”

Natasha's phone buzzed in her clutch. “Looks like they're finally here.” She glanced at Angela. “Feel like dancing?”

“Always.”

*

“Another?”

Darcy considered her mostly empty glass. “Maybe,” she said after a moment. She looked up. “I'm on a stipend.”

The bartender considered her, a faint smirk on her face, her arms crossed over her chest. Her biceps were impressive, even to Darcy, and Darcy lived with Thor. She knew some quality biceps. “Kiddo, I'd say it's just as likely that you're on an allowance,” the bartender said.

“I showed you my id,” Darcy pointed out, unconcerned. She bit the swizzle stick between her teeth. “That's how I got this drink.”

“And I was pitying enough to take it.”

Darcy pointed the swizzle stick in her direction. “I am legal.”

“I know. But fun to tease.” The bartender gave her a warm grin. “Let me know if you need anything else, darling.”

Darcy arched an eyebrow. “Anything?” she asked, her teeth sinking into her lower lip.

“You're like twelve. Cute, but twelve,” the bartender said, and headed up the bar, her hips swaying with each step. Darcy watched her go, perfectly happy with the view.

“Hi.”

Darcy looked up. “Hi,” she said, grinning automatically as the woman slid onto the stool next to her. She was small and slim and delicate, with long, straight pale hair that glinted copper red under the lights. Her dress was a gorgeous confection of layered fabric that floated around her thighs as she settled into her seat. Darcy watched her, not bothering to disguise her interest.

The woman leaned forward, her ankles curving together around the leg of the stool. “I'm Callie,” she said, with a sweet little smile.

“I'm Darcy,” Darcy said, folding her arms on the edge of the bar. She caught Callie's eyes flicking down, just for a second, at the cleavage the gesture created. She grinned, pleased. Even more so when Callie's eyes, at this distance revealed to be a clear, startling green, came back to hers.

“Pleased to meet you, Darcy.” Callie played with the necklace around her throat, a tangle of silver strands studded with little green glass balls that rolled over her fingers. She grinned at Darcy. “I haven't seen you here before.”

“There's a reason for that,” Darcy agreed. “It's because I've never been here before.”

“That would explain so much.” One of Callie's slim legs swung in mid-air, her high heeled shoe flicking against the leg of leg of her chair with a sharp click. “What brings you in tonight?”

“Just watching out for a friend,” Darcy said.

“Where is she?”

“No idea,” Darcy admitted.

Callie giggled. “Well, then, you're not doing a very good job at it, are you?”

“As it turns out,” Darcy said, her nose in the air, “she's far more competent than I am and I am the only one surprised by this.” She let out a melodramatic sigh, her eyelashes fluttering. “Guess I'll just have to have a good time on my own.”

“What a pity,” Callie said, her green eyes huge.

“I suffer so much,” Darcy agreed. “So much.” She slanted a look in Callie's direction, her fingers playing with the swizzle stick in her drink. “What brings you here?”

Callie gave her a sweet grin. “I'm the bouncer.”

Darcy stared at her. “Well, fuck,” she said at last, laughing.

Callie pressed a delicate hand to her slim chest. “Don't you believe me?” she asked, her eyes fluttering.

“Considering you might weigh a hundred and ten pounds soaking wet and carrying that chair,” Darcy said, “I'm just kind of wondering what kind of a secret, deadly badass you are.”

Callie's eyebrows arched. “Is that a problem?”

“Pretty sure it's a turn-on,” Darcy said. “Let me check.” She leaned forward, and said, “Say something threatening.”

“I couldn't,” Callie said, her lips twitching. “You haven't done anything bad.” She paused, her eyes going flinty and narrow. “Yet.”

“Yet?”

“I have hopes for the evening,” Callie admitted, leaning an elbow on the bar.

“Yeah, it's a turn-on.” Grinning, Darcy stirred the ice cubes in her glass, considering the last of her liquor.

“Since you're not frightened off by my baddassness, does that mean I can I buy you a drink?” Callie asked, her eyelashes sweeping down over her cheeks.

“Not thirsty,” Darcy said, and drank the last of it before setting the glass back on the bar. The music changed, the beat rolling through the air. “Sounds like the main act's up. Can I interest you in a dance?”

Callie's teeth flashed in a gamine grin. “It would be my pleasure, Ms. Darcy.”

“It will be, soon enough,” Darcy promised. “Come on, before the dance floor gets too crowded.”

The music was pounding by the time they reached the nearest staircase, the club exploding with light and sound and something hotter, something more primal. Through the crowd, Darcy caught Natasha's eye, giving her a wave as they moved along the railing towards the dancefloor below. Natasha nodded, before disappearing in the other direction.

“That your friend?” Callie said, drawing Darcy's attention back to her. “Is she a friend, or a friend friend?”

“Friend,” Darcy said. “But I do like redheads.”

Callie's head tipped to the side, her long red hair slipping over her shoulder. “You don't say,” she said, one finger tangling with her necklace. “How lucky for me.”

“It really is,” Darcy said. “This is your lucky day.” Slipping past Callie, she slipped onto the dance floor, just as the music hit a crescendo. As the song segued into another, she started to dance. It was wonderful, it was amazing, it was the freest that she'd felt in forever. She spun, her arms tangling above her head, her feet skimming over the floor. Callie was right there, almost in reach, and they danced, light seeming to explode like fireworks all around them.

The DJ was amazing, a firecracker of a woman who rolled one song into the next, who moved like she couldn't get enough of it. Her head was thrown back, her eyes closed, and when she spoke, her voice was a husky siren's melody. The music was a mix that shouldn't have worked, but it did, and Darcy didn't question it.

She spotted Sif at one point, half a head taller than most of the others, despite the heels worn by so many. She was laughing, her face flushed, her expression adoring. Darcy hadn't even considered that Hill could dance, let alone that she liked to. But judging by the lovesick expression on Sif's face, Hill was definitely doing something right.

When the music shifted again, for the third or the thirtieth time, Darcy wasn't sure, Callie leaned in, her mouth hovering over Darcy's ear. “Wanna go somewhere quieter?” she asked, and she was grinning, her cheeks pink, her eyes dancing. The skin of her exposed shoulders and chest gleamed in the brilliant lights, and Darcy would've followed her anywhere.

“Maybe,” she said, drawing her lips up into a wicked smile. “Got somewhere in mind?”

Callie grabbed her hand. “C'mon!” Holding their hands over her head, she headed across the dance floor, still moving with the beat, her skirts flickering around her knees with every step, her necklace swinging, the glass beads catching the flares of light.

Even as crowded as the dance floor was, Callie maneuvered them through the mob with ease, and darted up the stairs, still towing Darcy behind her. They ducked around women and couples, those dancing, those having a drink, and those just seeing how far they could get on the scale of public displays of affection before someone threw them out.

Pretty far, it would appear.

Callie headed straight for the bar. “Hey, Kitt!” she called. The bartender, taking a chance during the lull to clean up, glanced up from restocking her glasses. “We're going to head up, okay?”

“Not open,” the bartender said. “And you know it.”

“Well, not for the clients,” Callie said, her fingers still tangled with Darcy's. “But I'm staff.”

“Oh, is that right, little miss bouncer?” Kitt crossed her arms, trying to keep a straight face. “And how do you intend to do your job when you're up on the roof?”

Callie put her nose in the air. “Darling, I'm not here for the little stuff. You know this. You have people for this. I'm here for the-” She flipped a hand in midair. “The special situations.”

“And how are you gonna deal with those from the roof?”

“If the situation merits my intervention, Allie will let me know,” Callie said. She leaned over, half bouncing onto the bar. “Come on. I wanna look cool in front of the pretty girl.”

Kitt looked at her, then looked at Darcy. Darcy wiggled her fingers in a little wave. “I am a very pretty girl,” she said, her tone arch. “And I do like cool things.”

“Uh-huh.” Rolling her eyes, Kitt leaned down, reaching under the bar. “Don't get me in trouble, Cal.”

“Never, darling.” Callie caught the key that Kitt tossed her, and blew the woman a kiss. “Thank you!”

“We're going to the roof?” Darcy asked, as Callie pulled her along, heading for a double set of doors in the back of the bar area.

“It's cooler than it seems,” Callie said. “Probably literally. Which is why it isn't open.”

“Excellent,” Darcy said, as Callie unlocked the doors and handed Darcy through. Her chin up, as regal as a queen, she swept through, ignoring the way that Callie giggled in her wake. Callie pulled the doors shut behind them, securing them before she headed up, leading the way. She threw open the doors at the top of the stairs, grinning at Darcy.

“Welcome,” she said.

It was pretty beautiful, actually. Darcy stepped out onto what was a broad and well maintained patio, with low stone walls surrounding the rooftop space. There was a small stage, and a covered area that Darcy guessed hid a bar area. Wrought iron fences kept anyone from falling, no matter how much they'd had to drink, and pots of plants dotted the edges of the space. Darcy guessed that when it was in use, they probably lit it a bit better, but for now, Callie threw a switch by the stairs, and dozens of strands of lights flickered into existence.

“The view's included in the cover.” Callie came up behind her, and Darcy stared at the skyline, brilliant against the night sky.

“You,” Darcy said, “have the best ideas.”

“Don't I?” Callie spun on one foot, her dress flaring around her like a handful of scarves. The thin fabric fluttered against her pale legs, and her long hair swirled around her shoulders, just as light and bright. She looked back over her shoulder at Darcy, grinning. Darcy grinned back, her pulse speeding up, and crooked a finger in Callie's direction.

Laughing, Callie slipped into her arms again, and this time, she wound her arms around Darcy's neck, leaning in until their lips just touched. It was delicate and sweet and that bare contact had Darcy shuddering, heat swirling through her.

Callie was light and slim, and she sank into Darcy's arms. Darcy could feel her smile, where their lips pressed together, where their mouths clung. Darcy closed her eyes and sank into the kiss, less sweet now and more hot, the faintest touch of tongue against the seam of her lips, the hint of nails along the skin of her shoulders. She pulled away and went back for another kiss, and another, quick touches lingering now.

It was hot and filled with promise and something wasn't right. She ignored it, for a moment, and another, because, oh, God, she wanted to be kissed. She wanted to kiss someone, who wanted to kiss her back, she wanted the heat and the need and she wanted the WANT, she wanted the sweep of hands and the press of fingers, she wanted so much.

And this wasn't going to do it. Because it wasn't what she really wanted.

Darcy leaned back. “I'm sorry,” she said.

Callie grinned, her pupils huge in her green eyes. “I'm not.”

“No, I'm-” Darcy took a step back. “I thought I could do this, but I don't think I can.”

Callie's smile just stretched. “Seemed to me you were doing just fine.” She leaned in again. “But if it's practice you need, I'm happy to oblige.”

“No, I think-” Darcy stopped. “I think that-” Her hand came up to her lips, her fingers brushing over her mouth. “I think that I might be-” She stopped. “There's a boy I like.”

Callie's eyebrows arched. “A... Boy?”

“I'm bi,” Darcy explained.

Callie's head tipped back. “Ugh,” she said, her voice filled with disappointment. “You're one of those.”

Her stomach iced over, so fast that the nausea caught her off guard. Embarrassment curled in its wake, her face going hot, then cold, and she fought against the need to apologize, to explain. To defend herself, to provide proof of who she was. To recant. To straddle the line. To be what others expected of her.

And right on the heels of that was rage.

“You know what?” she asked, and her voice was audibly shaking. “No. I kissed you because I wanted to, because you're beautiful and amazing and so-” She spread her hands. “I kissed you because I was hoping you were the one I needed right now, and I don't think you are, and that's not your fault and it's not mine, but it's my right to decide that.”

Callie was still, her eyes wide, and it didn't even slow Darcy down.

“I get to decide that, because I'm bisexual, and I'm sick and tired of dreading the word, of dreading every reaction. And I mock it all the time, I say things I shouldn't say, because I run myself down and I make jokes to fit in with people who aren't even judging me.

“But it's so engrained now, ha ha,” she bit out. “Isn't it funny? Boys AND girls, who does that? I've head every fucking insult, every backhanded compliment, every 'you'll get over it' and 'it's just a phase,' every stupid ass thing people can say, and you know what? It's not that big of a fucking deal.”

Her hands were fists at her sides, and Callie was staring at her, her eyebrows arched, and Darcy wanted to scream. “I'm bisexual, and I like a boy. I'm one of THOSE,” she bit out. “So if you've got anything to say about that, feel free, because then I can go back downstairs and find someone who isn't fucking biphobic.”

Callie was silent for a second. “Well, I was going to say,” Callie said, at last, a faint smile curling her lips, “that you're one of those women. You know, one of the ones that are emotionally invested in someone else.” She tipped her head in Darcy's direction, her hair caught by the wind, rising like a banner behind her. “Before I even get a chance.”

Darcy stared at Callie, her heart pounding in her chest. “What?” she asked.

“C'mon, hon, let's sit down, okay?” Callie took her by the elbow. Confused, disoriented, Darcy followed her without objection, taking a seat on the wall beside Callie. They sat there for a second, staring out at the city.

“So a little bit of an over reaction, huh?” she asked at last. She was shaking, not from the chill air, but from the reaction. She wanted to be ashamed, but she wasn't. Her eyes closed. She wasn't ashamed of herself, or standing up for herself. “Sorry. Sorry, I shouldn't have gone off on you like that.”

“It happens.”Callie leaned her weight on her hands, her feet swinging idly in front of her.

“You think I'm a psycho now, don't you?”

Callie glanced at her. “I think,” she said, her voice gentle, “that you've had your choices and your heart maligned. Who can blame you for taking a swing when you get the chance?”

Darcy nodded. “Thanks,” she said. “For that.”

Callie shrugged, the gesture more a duck of her head than a raise of her shoulders, but Darcy realized she had no problem interpreting the gesture. “Seems like something's weighing on you. So, wanna talk about it?” she asked, turning her face toward Darcy's.

“Do you want to hear about it?” Darcy asked, bracing her hands on the wall on either side of her hips.

Callie considered that. “Well, it appears I'm not going to have hot and sexy lady makeouts tonight-”

“There's like two hundred women in there who would do you in a heartbeat,” Darcy said, laughing.

“No, no, I had my heart set on you, so if you're not up for it, I proclaim my eternal spinsterhood.” Callie grinned. “At least for tonight.”

“At least,” Darcy agreed.

“But since I am not going to be getting some, I think you owe me some drama, at least.”

Darcy's eyebrows arched. “Oh, I OWE you some drama? I? Owe you?”

“I think so, you were just very mean to me,” Callie said, her nose wrinkling as she tried to hold back a giggle. “C'mon, Darcy, put out.”

Darcy laughed. “Okay, fine.” She looked up, staring at the night sky. “I think I like this boy.”

She stopped, and Callie waited patiently for a few moments. “That's good,” Callie said, and Darcy made a face. “That's not good?”

“I don't know.” Darcy took a deep breath, trying to put her head in order. “This is- This is part of how I define myself, Callie. I'm bi. I'm queer. Sure, I fuck around with boys, but I like girls.” Her jaw was tight, her eyes burning as she stared at the sky. “I feel like I'm losing something, some part of my identity, that I'm going to go and have a boyfriend and it-” She stopped. “It'll erase who I am. I'll just be, you know, another straight girl, and maybe that's why I'm doing it, maybe I'm just tired of fighting all the time, of the stupid little micro aggressions.”

Her shoulders slumped. “Maybe I'm just telling myself that I like him, because it's easier, and I hate that thought, you know, because I thought I was better than that.” She stopped. “But I'm afraid I'm not.”

Callie sat quietly. “Do you really believe that?” she asked, her mouth pursed.

“I don't know what I believe.”

Callie shook her head. “Bullshit.” She leaned her shoulder against Darcy's. “Who you're sleeping with doesn't define you. Only you do that. And sure, people want to put you in little boxes, but that's just to make it easier for them, because you're messing up their nice little world, and good for you.”

“Falling for someone shouldn't feel like a loss,” Darcy said.

“No,” Callie agreed. “It shouldn't.”

“So do I like someone because of who it'll make me?” Darcy asked. “Or in spite of it?”

Callie's head tipped back, her chin pointed up at the sky. “I think,” she said, “that there are two types of labels.” She drew her legs up, tucking them close to her chest, her arms looped around her knees. “The ones you choose for yourself are a comfort. They help you find your place in the world, they help you find your people, the places where you're safe, and they help you make peace with yourself. They connect you, to something bigger than you, they help you realize that you are not alone, you are not broken, you are not-” She paused, her teeth sinking into her lower lip.

“Alone,” Darcy said.

“Yeah,” Callie agreed. Her skirt fluttered in the breeze, and the strands of her hair. “The ones that you choose, they make things better.” She shifted. “Then there are the labels that others give you. Those are the ones that isolate, that humiliate, that dehumanize. When someone forces a label on you, that's an act of cruelty, Darcy. That's nearly an act of violence in a lot of cases.

“So you are bi.” Callie's legs swung back and forth, carrying her skirts along with the movement. “Right?”

“Well, I've always-”

Callie took her hand. “Darcy. What are you? How do you define yourself?”

Darcy met her eyes. “I'm a bisexual woman.”

“Then fuck whatever label anyone else attaches to you, because they do not get to label you,” Callie said, squeezing Darcy's fingers. Her hand was small and warm and strong, stronger than Darcy expected it to be. “So you go and you give this guy a try. And if someone calls you a straight girl, then that is not something that defines you.” She leaned in. “Only you define you, right?”

Darcy stared at her. “You're really good at this,” she said, a grin blooming over her face. Something cold and sharp in her chest seemed to shift, and she relaxed, muscle by muscle.

Callie took a deep breath. “I know a little bit about labels,” she said, and her free hand came up, sweeping her long red hair behind her ear.

Her perfect, pointed ear.

Darcy's hand spasmed on hers. “Oh. You're-” She caught herself, not a second too soon, and far too late, but Callie just smiled.

“I'm a mutant,” she said, her chin up. “That's my label. That's part of my identity. That's part of how I define myself. It's not everything, but it's the thing. THE thing. The thing that I get judged on.” Gently, she extracted her hand from Darcy's. “Of course, I'm also a daughter, and a sister. I'm a Buddhist and a vegetarian. I'm a dog lover and a hardcore fan of The Dukes of Hazard-”

“Wait, what?”

“I'm a knitter and a quiller, and occasionally a pretty good baker. I'm a lesbian woman of Irish and Scots descent.” She smiled. “My name is Callie Betto. And I'm a mutant.”

Darcy considered her, then held out her hand. “I'm Darcy Lewis. Pleased to meet you, Callie.”

“Pleased to meet you, too. And so sorry that you're not interested.”

“Any chance you'd like to meet for a movie sometime?” Darcy asked. “I mean, I don't want to be a tease, but I could use more friends.”

“I'd love too, but is this the part where I whine about being friendzoned?” Callie asked. “I can never figure that out.”

“We'll find a frat boy, you can ask. But before, maybe we can get dinner. I know a good place for felafel, if you're interested.” She hopped down off of the wall, and offered Callie a hand down before heading back towards the door to the club.

“Oh, God, always. Darcy?”

Darcy glanced at her, and Callie gave her a smile that was full of confidence and heat, promising untold pleasure in the curve of her lips. “If your boy doesn't live up to your expectations?” She stood, and crossed the patio to Darcy, her slight form moving with sweet purpose. She paused in front of Darcy, one hand coming to rest with delicacy on Darcy's arm. She leaned in, and Darcy met her halfway. The kiss was sweet and soft and full of promise that wouldn't be fulfilled.

It tasted all the better for it.

Callie pulled away, but her fingers lingered on Darcy's arm. “If it turns out that he isn't what you're looking for? Look me up.” Her lips curled in a sweet smile. “I'll make it worth your time.”

“You need to do better than that,” Darcy said, laughing. “C'mon, sell it!”

“That dress does awesome things for your breasts,” Callie said without missing a beat. “But I could do even more amazing things for them.” Her eyebrows wiggled. “And to them.”

“Remarkably effective,” Darcy said, meaning. “Except, one correction.”

“Yes?”

Darcy leaned in. “My tits,” she said, grinning, “do awesome things for this dress.”

Callie started to laugh. “Are you absolutely certain you've got a hangup on this boy?” she said.

“Pretty sure,” Darcy said.

“That is an absolute shame.”

“The question is, does he have a hangup on me?” Darcy asked

“Well, has he seen that dress?” Callie asked.

“No.”

“Consider it. I'm not saying that men are shallow, but...” She tucked her hair behind her ear. “That is an amazing dress.”

“I appreciate the response it gets, I'll be honest.” Darcy folded her hands together behind her back. The bodice of her dress strained, and Callie's mouth kicked up on one side. “Would it be a tease if I asked you for another dance?”

“I think a dance is a good-” Callie's head swung around, her words dying in her throat.

Darcy stepped up behind her. “What is it?”

Callie moved towards the wall, bracing her hand there, staring down into the darkened streets. “Do you smell that?” she asked.

Darcy looked over her shoulder. “No, what-”

“Blood.” Callie took off for the door at a dead run. “'RO!”

Darcy paused only for a moment, then followed her.

*

Chapter Text

She had almost forgotten how much fun dancing could be.

Maria threw her head back, moving smoothly and easily to the throbbing beat of the music. The DJ, Dazzler, was living up to her reputation, keeping the floor moving, the music almost as good as the light show. Everywhere, women were dancing, bodies illuminated by bright explosions of light and color. Under the music, there were hints of laughter and speech, and it curled over her skin like a physical touch.

Actual physical touch was better, however, and Maria was reminded of that every time Sif brushed against her, every time their hands or arms twined together, every time they swept along within each other's space, hips and breasts and legs pressing together. Sif had watched the dancing at first, her smile full of warmth and her eyes huge and fascinated. When she'd finally tugged Maria towards the dance floor with a cajoling smile, she made it clear that she'd gotten an idea of how this kind of dancing worked.

And she did it very well.

The song came to something like an end as the DJ smoothly slid into another track, and Maria pulled back, just a step. She caught Sif's hand, her fingers curling into Sif's palm. “Get a drink?” she said, and Sif probably couldn't hear her, but she seemed to get the gist when Maria pointed up at the bar. She nodded, her fingers tangling with Maria's.

They headed off the dance floor, still holding hands like a couple of children. It was crowded, and by necessity, they stayed close the entire time. Maria felt Sif's body at her back, at her side, and had to make a deliberate effort not to lean back. To see if Sif's arms would slip around her waist, if she'd drop a kiss against Maria's temple, or her cheek, or ear. If she'd whisper something against Maria's ear, words that didn't mean as much as the contact they allowed.

Apparently, she was actively regressing into a lovesick teenager. She wished she could regret it.

By the time they reached the stairs, she could hear herself think again, even though the throb of the music still made the floor flex beneath their feet. “Enjoying yourself?” she asked Sif, who grinned at her.

“Very much,” she said. She leaned in, her hand still in Maria's. “Are you?”

“Definitely.” She started up the stairs, and Sif's hand settled at the small of her back, steadying her. She resisted an urge to start laughing. “I can walk, you know,” she asked, glancing over her shoulder at Sif.

Sif gave her an innocent look. “I am aware,” she said, puckish humor lighting her face. “However I do like to take any excuse to touch you.”

“Shameless,” Maria said, not able to stop smiling.

“Sadly, it is so.” They got to the bar, side by side, and Maria leaned forward. “Whiskey sour,” she said, catching the bartender's eye. “Sif?”

“A Manhattan,” she said. At Maria's look, she shrugged. “I like it here.”

“I'm glad.” The bartender handed over the drinks, and Maria handed over her credit card.

“Start a tab?” the woman asked, ringing it up.

“Please,” Maria said, just as something shattered down below with a crash that was almost lost beneath the beat of the music. Someone screamed, and the music seemed to skip, then scratched to a halt. Without thinking, Maria turned back to the railing, her hand pinning her purse to her side.

“Everyone. Stay. Still.” Dazzler's voice was low, and calm, and it brooked no objections.

Maria stared down at the floor, her heartbeat accelerating as she spotted the black thing standing in the middle of the shattered glass of the front window. It was huge, big and bulky and heavy, something like an oversized lizard or a small dinosaur, with broad, clawed feet and a huge, reptilian head. Outside, on the street, she could hear squealing tires and the roar of engines, but in the club, there was silence. Just the scrape of claws on the floor. The club patrons were pressing back, up against the walls, up against the stage, pushing back away from the creature. Its head swung from side to side, its nostrils flaring as it sniffed the air.

“I know that beast,” Sif said, and Maria's head snapped around.

“What?” she asked, but Sif was already turning away.

Sif hopped over the bar, reaching for a massive magnum sized bottle of champagne on an upper shelf. “I need this,” she said, and just like that, she was off and running, heading straight for the railing. She caught it with one hand, and flung herself over, and she was gone before Maria could even yell after her.

“Put it on my tab,” she said, because her mind was not working the way it should. She pulled her sidearm out of her purse. She had it out and ready, drawing a bead on the monster even as it twisted around, claws scraping against the floor.

The thing, the massive, black THING, was now completely focused on Sif, its head tossing from side to side. It straightened up, its muscled back legs flexing as it rose up, off the ground, and it sniffed the air again. This time, its jaw dropped, showing off rows of viciously sharp teeth, and it let out a barking sort of cry. Its feet braced, its long, serpentine tail swishing through the air, it crouched low.

Sif shifted her weight. “You have been hounding my steps,” she said, her voice low and cold and still. “You want me? You have me.” Her teeth flashed. “If you've the strength to take me.”

The beast leaped, and Sif held her ground for an instant. And then she swung.

The bottle, massive and heavy, came around like a club, like a bat, catching the creature in the side of the head, twisting it in midair with a sickening crunch. It went flying, away from her now, and when the body hit the ground, it barely twitched before going still.

In the silence that followed, Sif straightened up. “Lock the doors,” she snapped, and the bouncer lunged. In an instant, the club's door was shut, and the bolt drawn, and someone was lowering the shutters on the windows.

And almost before they were closed, there was the sound of something clawing at the wood of the door.

“Everyone back!” Maria said, firm and controlled as she ran down the stairs. The crowd, confused and stunned, just stared at her, but there was no panic, no overwhelming fear. She'd take what she could get. “Stay back from the windows. Stay away from the doors. Move back, onto the dance floor.” She spotted Natasha, phone to her ear as she cut through the crowd. “Call it in.”

“Already done, they're waiting for additional details, but strike teams are en route, Avengers suiting up, ETA fifteen to twenty minutes,” she said. “Local authorities have been waved off. They're not equipped for this.”

Sif swung the bottle up to her shoulder. “What is that thing?”

“It's no dog, but I can see why you might think so, if they stuck to the shadows and weren't moving. They have limited cloaking capabilities.” Maria was mentally running through every curse word she knew in half a dozen languages. “That's a biomechanical construct. We've seen them before, some maniac created them. They're called Krill.”

Sif's lips curled back from her teeth. “Why create abominations?”

“To hunt the Hulk,” Maria crouched down, one arm braced on an upthrust knee. “The teeth at elongated and hollow. They were created to track the Hulk, and bite him.” She glanced up at Sif. “Their creator wanted a blood sample. He made these, to try to get one.”

Sif nodded, her mouth thin. “Now they're after Asgardians.”

“So it would seem.” Maria stood. “And since they were designed to be able to bite through the Hulk's skin, they could potentially get through yours, too.”

Sif's teeth flashed, a sharp, hard grin. “I should like to see them try.”

“So would I, except we're in a crowd of civilians, and these things run in controlled, disciplined packs. There isn't just one. There's more out there. Probably a dozen or more.” Maria pointed at a waitress, who was hovering at the edge of the crowd, her eyes huge in her pale face. “Get me a tablecloth to cover this.” The woman blinked at her, clearly in shock, and Maria leaned forward. “I need you to get me a tablecloth,” she repeated. “Now.”

The woman moved.

“Everyone stay calm,” Dazzler said, her voice soft and easy, almost amused. “The cavalry is on its way, all we have to do is sit tight, and stay chill.”

Maria looked in her direction, then back at the dead Krill. “I'll watch it,” Romanov said, her voice soft.

“Good.” Hill headed for the DJ stand, cutting through the crowd. Up on the stage, she could see Ororo Munroe, her feet braced, her eyes narrowed and pale behind the sweep of her lashes. Del Toro and her friend were watching the windows, and out of the corner of her eyes, Maria saw Knight nod towards the stage. Angela nodded back and headed in that direction, one hand curled like a claw against her hip.

“What's happening?” Ororo asked as Maria and Sif reached the stage.

“We need to get these people away from the street, there’s more of those things out there, and I can't tell you how many,” Maria said, swinging herself up onto the stage. Sif hopped up behind her. One of the club's bouncers, a big, broad shouldered woman with warm brown skin, and the bartender from upstairs were both there, too. “Is there a back door?”

“Yeah,” the bouncer said, her arms crossed over her chest. “Emergency exit, and the kitchen exit, but both lead into the same alley and right back out front. I pulled my girls back, and I don't think there's anyone out there anymore, but I am not going out that way.”

"The roof."

Maria spun around, just as Darcy came up behind her, a redheaded girl right behind her. "The roof," she repeated, her breath coming in sharp pants. "The roof patio. There's room up there, and two fire escapes, down to different sides of the building. If they're on the streets, we can keep people there until help arrives."

Maria nodded, her mind cranking through the possibilities. "Can it hold everyone?" she asked the bartender.

The woman nodded, her face shallow and her eyes huge. But her voice was steady. "Yeah. I wouldn't recommend having a rave up there, but it's safe. Fire escapes were just inspected last week, cause we're opening it up soon. They're solid."

Sif took a breath. "High ground. Limited access. We get them up."

"Block the stairs from the floor, and the ones up to the roof," Maria agreed. The muscles in her jaw flexed. "Angela, you, Knight and the staff, take the staircases, keep it orderly and keep them calm.”

Angela nodded, her face calm. “We'll need your help,” she said to the bouncer. “You know the layout, where people might be hiding, where the bottlenecks'll be.”

“I got your back, don't worry, I don't want to see anyone get hurt here.”

Maria left them to it. “Ororo, I need you to take Romanov, and do a sweep of the roof, make sure nothing got up there. If it's occupied, we're going to need you to make it clean."

"A bit of wind will keep anything back," Ororo said. "Give me the proper angle, I may be able to push them back from the door, even from above."

"Good." To Darcy she said, "Get Natasha, then go with her, show her the way, stay behind her, and help us keep this crowd calm." She gave Darcy a tight smile. "You're good at that."

Darcy nodded. "Yes, ma'm."

"Ro, I need you," the redhead said, and Ororo gave her a look out of the corner of her eyes.

"They need me more, Callie." She pointed up. "Hit the sprinklers, if you need the rain, I'll be back if I can."

"Go with them," Maria said, and Callie gave her a disdainful look.

"She stays here," Ororo said. "You'll need her, if they start coming." Her hand closed over Callie's shoulder. "Not unless there's no other way. Once you start..."

"I know." She smiled, a gamine little curl of her lips. Her nose wrinkled up, and Maria wondered how old the woman was, because right now, she looked about sixteen. "Go."

"Call it, Alison," Ororo said, her feet skimming over the floor as she took off for the stairs. Her hair crackled in her wake, lightning sliding over her skin. “We're running short of time.”

"All right." The voice was clear, and calm, and commanding, and the massive space went silent, every eye turning in her direction. Alison smiled. "In an orderly fashion, move towards the stairs, and you will receive directions as you go. I'm counting on all of you to watch out for each other, to move together. Now's the time to shed those heels if you chose shoes that impede your movement; as hot and smoking sexy as they might make you look, don't slow up the works. Ladies who block the way, they ain't getting laid."

That won her a nervous, uneven burst of laughter, and she grinned. Maria felt her shoulders relax, and wondered if it was just a natural talent, or something more potent at work. But she could almost feel the crowd fall under Alison's sway, focusing their attention, their trust, on her. Maria was all for it, because it kept things simple.

Alison was still speaking, low and easy, a smile on her face. "If you need help getting up the stairs, step to the side and let us know. If you're capable of helping someone up the stairs, do the same. We'll move everyone up, as quick as we can. Anyone with military or police training who feels the need to serve and protect, get up here and let us know." She leaned forward, her teeth flashing in a hot, sweet grin. "I think women in uniform are sexy, if that helps sway you in the direction of assisting your fellow women.”

She glanced around. “Help is on the way,” she said. “Let's all stay safe and sane until then.”

"Let's go," Maria said, raising her voice. "Take the staircase nearest you. Do not approach the doors, or the windows. Get off the main floor, and let's get everyone to high ground.” She looked around. “Let's go.” And just like that, everyone started to move.

Sif watched them go, her eyebrows arched. "No panic."

"As long as someone appears to be in charge, and there is a clear course of action, there's less chance of panic. They believe what Alison told them." Maria's eye narrowed. "They trust that she's giving them good information. Minimizes problems."

“A good battlefield commander is worth her weight in gold,” Sif said, earning her a grin from Alison.

“I'll add it to my business cards, I've been looking to diversify,” she said. Her fingers flew over the equipment. “Just let me queue this up, and I'll join them.”

“What, you have a bar fight mix?” Maria asked her.

“Honey, I'm a mutant DJ who specializes in playing bars in the greater metropolitan New York area,” Alison said, grinning. “Of course I've got a bar fight mix.” She hopped down, ruffling the redhead's hair as she did. “You've got yours in there, baby.”

“Thank you,” the woman said. She was removing her shoes.

“What're you-”

“Need the ground,” she said. Maria was going to ask why, but a few women hovering in front of the stage caught her attention.

She eyed them, recognizing military bearing when she saw it in two of them. “What branch?”

"Navy," the woman said, smiling as she ran a hand over her shaved head. "Always ready."

The woman behind her rolled her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest. "Marine corps."

Everyone looked at the smaller woman. "Librarian," she said. She paused. "But I've got anger issues and a third degree black belt in krav maga."

"Good enough for me," Maria said. “We're going to block the stairs, we'll need your help with that.” She glanced at Sif. “Let's go.”

Sif arched an eyebrow. “I will stay here, and fight.”

Maria stilled. “No.”

Sif grinned. “Yes.”

"They're after you."

"And that means, if I head up with the others, they will follow," Sif pointed out. "If I am the target, then best I stay far away from the others." She leaned in. "Protect your people. They need you now."

Maria's jaw was locked. "You are-"

"I have faced worse than this," Sif said. She swung the massive bottle around, and the muscles in her arms and shoulders pulled tight with the force. She grinned. “Go. I will hold them off until your people arrive.”

Maria hated this, but knew she was right. “Stay safe. Be careful.”

“You as well.” Sif's head tipped to the side. “May I beg a boon from you? A kiss should assist my efforts...”

Maria's jaw dropped. “You are unbelievable,” she said, her voice flat, and Sif grinned, unconcerned. Without giving herself time to think, Maria reached out, her fingers curling along the side of Sif's neck, sliding into the soft cloud of her hair. She didn't have to pull Sif in, Sif came of her own accord.

The kiss was soft and gentle, far more chaste than any Maria had indulged in since the time when she was thirteen or fourteen. But Sif's breath was warm against her mouth, and Maria felt her smile as they pulled away.

“Fight hard, and don't bother fighting fair,” Maria said, her thumb stroking along the side of Sif's neck. She pulled away, reluctance in every moment. “I want to see you after this is over.”

Sif's eyes were heavy lidded, her lips curled up in a secret sort of smile. “As my lady wishes,” she said, and then she was off and running. Maria watched her go for a moment, then her hand went to her purse. She was going to kill these things for ruining the best date she'd had in more than a decade.

Sometimes, life was not fair.

*

“That door isn't going to hold much longer.”

Sif straightened up, the bottle hanging loose and easy from her fingers. Natasha's eyes were locked on the door, her hands curled into fists at her sides. “No,” she agreed. “It will not. How long do we have to hold them?” The panel, wood and metal, strained against the assault, and as one, they took a step back, and away.

“Not long,” Natasha said, her body swaying like the dancer she was, her feet light on the floor. “But longer than I would like.” She didn't take her eyes off the door, but she tipped her head to the side. “Roof is clear, Hill and Storm have things under control up there, as much as we can, and we've got ten minutes or more until we've got backup. Knight, del Toro, you ready for this?”

“Ready as I'm gonna be.” The taller of the two women, the one with dark brown skin and hair like a storm cloud of black curls, pulled the zipper of her one piece red cat suit up to her neck. Her hand gleamed gold, both a weapon and an ornament. Metal fingers flexed, and closed into a fist. “Got any hints about taking these things out?”

“Small eyes, small chest,” Natasha said. “Resist the urge to aim for the inside of the mouth; they were created to bite one of the most dangerous beings on this planet, and that means open mouths can't be vulnerable.”

“That's where we can't kill them. Let's move on to where we can.” The other woman, willowy and lean, with huge brown eyes and a sharp jaw, pulled her long black hair back. She twisted it up with a flick of her hands, getting it out of her way. “We don't have time for Russian fatalism.”

Natasha's teeth flashed. “Blunt trauma. Go for the throat, the joints. In a close fight, go for the snout. The eyes aren't so good. The nose... Is very sensitive.”

“Great, someone get me a bottle of cheap cologne and watch me crush it,” Knight said. She gave Sif a narrow look and a short nod. “Misty Knight. This is Angela del Toro. We'll be your backup tonight.”

“And glad I am for it,” Sif said. “Sif, of Asgard.”

Del Toro's hand closed on the cat's head amulet hanging at her hip, and took a deep breath. Light crackled between her fingers, gleaming through the cracks. “Angela, of the FBI.”

Knight rolled her shoulders, her eyes fixed on the door. “Misty, of kicking your ass now.”

“This is why we invite you along,” Natasha said.

Misty grinned. “You love me.”

“You are loveable.” Natasha glanced back over her shoulder. “Status?”

A head poked over the edge. “Everyone's upstairs,” the woman said, her hands braced on the bannister. Her face was set, her voice steady. “Where do you want us?”

“Block the stairs with something, you won't be able to stop them, but let's slow them down.”

The woman nodded, disappearing again. There was a bang as the door shuddered under a fresh assault. “That sounds both big and nasty. Are we sure about this?” Misty asked, and Sif's shoulders shifted in a shrug.

“I am open to a slightly less foolish plan, should there be one on offer,” she admitted.

“I've got one. Get out of my way, before you get hurt.”

Sif glanced back. The tiny woman, barely bigger than a girl, was smiling at her. As Sif watched, confused, she yanked a little green ball off of her necklace, throwing it with some force against the stairs. It shattered, thin shards of glass going in all directions.

“What are you doing?” Sif asked.

“Blocking the way, isn't that what you wanted?” the girl said, her long copper hair sweeping behind her as she darted towards the next staircase. Her feet were bare on the ground, her pale dress floating around her legs. “Can you break that?” she asked, pointing up.

Sif looked up. A silver disc was almost invisible on the ceiling. “Yes,” she said, and she should question this. This child. But somehow, she didn't, she couldn't. There was something solid, something centered, in that tiny form, and without another word, Sif crouched down and pulled a knife from her boot. Flipping it around in her hand, she reared back and threw.

“Wait, don't-” someone yelled, but it was too late.

Her aim was true, and the blade hit hard enough to snap the silver disc free. It clattered to the ground, followed by a torrent of water.

“Why?” Natasha gritted out, scrambling back away from the splashing water.

The girl looked at her, her eyes huge in her wet face. “Because I need it.” There was a sharp crack, and Sif knew the hinges were giving way.

“We need to fight,” she said. “The rest can wait.”

Callie tossed a few little glass balls. They hit the ground and rolled, bouncing with a faint, musical ringing, across the floor. “Lady? You need to run.”

Sif shook her head, and turned back towards the door. “Get upstairs, little one,” she said, striding forward. “We don't have time-”

The door gave way with an explosive bang, and Sif saw something dark and heavy force its way through the gap, a streak of violence that was speeding straight for her. She moved, instinct and training and pure, hot anger pushing her forward. Her boots hit the slick surface of the ground, skidding and catching as she forced her way forward and then she was swinging.

The bottle hit the beast in the jaw, snapping its head back on its neck and sending it crashing away from her. It hit the beast behind it, and both of them slid backwards, tumbling across the ground. But as soon as there was space, there was another, and another. They came so fast that Sif couldn't bring her bottle back quickly enough to swing at them all.

The others were there, she could see them moving in the corners of her vision, and she was used to keeping track of others in the midst of a battle. Even as she took down one beast after another, she kept watch on the others, watching as they fell into step with her without a single qualm.

One of the creatures snapped at her, and Sif gave it her full attention. Twisting her upper body around, Sif hit it, putting the full weight of her body into the swing, and knocking the beast into the wall. It hit with a sickening thud, but it rolled, getting its feet back under it, and then it was lunging again. Biting back a curse, Sif caught it by the throat and slammed it into the ground. This time, it twisted and jerked, its mouth snapping as it tried to get its teeth into Sif's skin.

“These things will not stay down,” Sif yelled, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw Natasha fall back, hopping lithely out of the reach of snapping teeth. Without thinking, Sif brought her arm up, and with a massive effort, flung the creature she'd been battling into the one after Natasha. The two of them went down in a snarling, snapping tangle.

“There's more coming,” del Toro yelled, her foot snapping out in a kick that was almost too fast to see. Her foot caught a beast in the throat, knocking it back, and del Toro was bouncing back, out of reach. “Widow, can the SHIELD strike teams handle these?”

Natasha cursed, rolling onto her back as she used the force of her legs to launch one of the monsters over her head and into a wall. “I don't know.”

“They can't.” Alison was above them, on the second floor, her arms filled with bottles. Out of the corner of her eye, Sif say her raise a hand, a bottle clutched in her fingers. “Now! Throw it all!”

Sif jumped back as the women above started throwing bottles. They hit all around, smashing against the beasts, against the floor. The bottles shattered on impact, and in a matter of seconds, the air was thick with the smell of mingled liquors. One of the monsters, caught in the act of trying to bite her, reared back, its head tossing from side to side as the smell hit its nose.

Sif pulled back, and saw Misty do the same on her left. The music, which had been playing all along, now spiked in volume, and Sif heard Alison yell, “Close your eyes. Now.”

The explosion of light was so stunning that even with her eyes shut tight, for a second, Sif saw stars.

When she pried her eyes open again, the beasts were crashing into each other, into the walls, claws scrambling and heads rolling as they fought against the sensory overload from the lights and the smell of the alcohol. “What are you doing?” Sif asked, shifting her weight.

“When Callie tells you to run, hon, you fucking run.” Alison had her hands over her head, lights still exploding all around her as the music changed. “Dryad, go.”

“Really?” Callie asked, moving forward. “Hosier's 'Take Me To Church?'”

“I thought it was fitting,” Alison said.

“Hate you.” Callie rocked her body forward, then back, one bare foot sweeping through the puddles in a wide arc. She took a deep breath, and then another. One of the beasts shifted forward, finding a new target, and Callie's teeth flashed in a brutal grin. “Okay, ladies,” she called. “Do me a favor. Try not to breathe.”

Her fingers snapped, and the glass bead between her fingers shattered. Callie leaned forward and blew against her palm. For an instant, it was as if nothing had happened, and nothing would happen. The beast reared back, and Callie didn't move, not even when it lunged, straight for her throat.

It happened so fast, Sif didn't even comprehend it at first. For an instant, that horrific mouth was wide open, dead and white, a gaping hole in the air, surrounded by teeth. And in the blink of an eye, faster than a blink, there was green, heavy and rippling and moving.

The beast tumbled over, tossing its head, writhing at Callie's feet, as it tried to close its mouth. But there was something in the way now, something filling the whole of that empty space. Its claws scrambled against the ground, for an instant, and an instant more, but the green was spreading, curling along its body, reaching out like fingers. And Sif realized they were vines.

They were living plants.

The massive creature lunged up, head going back, but it was a last, panicked effort of a doomed creature, and it seemed to know it. A moment later, it crashed to the ground, vines curling around its body, around its throat, around its muzzle. Leaves fluttered against its skin, twitching with each breath the creature struggled to take, until it lay still beneath a growing shroud of green.

Callie's head came up. “One down,” she said, her voice melodic and lilting. She reached up, pulling two more glass balls from her necklace. Her hands went to fists with the muffled crack of breaking glass, the sound muffled by her fingers. “Who's next?”

She spun, her long, straight hair sweeping out around her in wet strands, swirling around her body as she moved. Her hands snapped out, and there were vines curled around her arms now, secured at her shoulders and her wrists. As she moved, the vines snapped out, cutting through the air like whips.

“Move, move now,” she yelled, and everyone moved. Natasha, Misty and Angela scrambled for the stairs, hopping and jumping as plants exploded from the puddles all around them. Vines snapped across the floor, traps for the unwary, and the women scrambled for the stairs. At the top, hands reached for them dragging them up and out of the way.

Sif watched, her lips parted, as the stairs slowly disappeared under a heavy hedge of thick, thorn covered stems. Brambles sprouted, curling against the bannisters and straining the metal as they grew up and out. In a matter of seconds, the stairs were impassible.

There was an explosion like a burst of wind, or a wave crashing over itself, a massive wall of green that exploded up from the floor. Vines whipped out, thorns rattling against leaves as the beasts pulled against them, struggling to break free. But there were too many now, they crawled up the walls and across the floors, they dripped from the ceiling and exploded from thin air.

And Callie was in the center of it, vines curling around her arms, her legs, extensions of her own reach, anchoring her, weaponizing her every movement.

One of the beasts ripped free of the vines and tried to get past, still aimed straight for Sif. She met its charge, grabbing it by the throat and slamming it to the ground. She barely had a chance to pull her hand free of the heavy, leathery hide before the plants latched onto it, dragging it back. Its claws scrabbled against the floor, but the plants lashed out, curling around every limb, drawing it inexorably into the shadowy depths of the tangled foliage.

It a matter of minutes, perhaps less, Sif found herself standing in the middle of a jungle, and the only thing that still moved were leaves, rattling and trembling all around her. “By the All-Father...” she whispered, the sound of her voice almost lost amid the thud of the music and the rustle of the vines.

But Callie seemed to hear her, her head tipping in Sif's direction, slow and deliberate. Her hair was plastered against her skin now, the pale line of her cheek and jaw shadowed by the vines that curled around shoulders, around her head like a crown. Her lips were parted on a soft, sly smile, and when her eyelashes lifted, they revealed eyes that had turned a solid, silvery black, like dark pearls in moonlight. “No fathers here,” she said, lilting and light and filled with a strange joy. “Only mothers.” She stared at Sif, her eyes without pupil, without iris, fathomless and ancient, and Sif felt a shiver chase itself over her skin. Her fingers tightened on her makeshift weapon.

“Okay,” Alison said, her hands braced on the railing. “This is bad.” Her head flicked back over her shoulder. “STORM!”

Sif shifted forward. “What do you do now?” she said, her voice calm. The bottle swung loose at her side.

Callie's head tipped to the side, her eyes locking on the bottle. Then her pointed chin angled upwards, her lips parting. “You would bring me destruction?” Her voice seemed to echo in her own chest, as if it were coming from an inconceivable distance. Sif's shoulders pulled tight, her back went tense, an instinctive reaction to something foreign, something alien to her experience. Callie's lips pulled back from her teeth in a wild, wicked grin. “Shatter the earth, and water it with blood. Bring me death, my lady, and I shall show you life like you've never seen.”

She stepped forward, her hips swaying, her bare feet moving delicately across the wet floor. Her toes brushed against the battered floor, and it shattered, cracking and fracturing as tiny green tendrils forced their way up to cradle her feet. Around her, every vine was straining, twisting into thick ropes, crackling with a thrust of thorns. She breathed, and they flexed. She moved and they crept along in her wake, swirling out to fill the wake her body left in the air.

And Sif found herself struggling to breathe.

“Dryad. That is enough.”

Ororo was at the top of the stairs, her hands braced on the bannisters, her chin up, her face calm. The vines curled towards her, leaves unfurling as they stretched for her fingers, but she didn't even glance at them. Her eyes were locked on Callie. “Do not make me do this.”

Callie blinked, slow and easy, and her lips parted on a sigh that curled through the wet air. Then her head rolled forward, her fingers stretching towards the ground. She bent over, her wet hair slipping over her shoulders, tumbling toward the gleaming puddles that covered the floor.

And Sif felt the ground beneath her feet begin to move.

“That is enough,” Ororo repeated, her voice calm and even. “Callie.”

Callie's knees bent, and her fingers brushed the floor. The tremor grew, shaking enough that Sif had to brace her legs, and Ororo's hand snapped out. The gust of wind was hard and fast and formed into a mini cyclone in an instant, wrapping around Callie's body and lifting her from the floor.

For an instant, her fingers clawed at the ground, her toes pointed, clinging to the contact for as long as she could, vines wrapping around her legs, trying to keep her in place. But the wind would not be denied, and she popped up, tossed a few feet in the air, her hair exploding around her face like dandelion fluff.

She landed back on the ground a moment later, crashing back to the floor and landing ass first in a puddle. She sat there, blinking, her expression one of benign confusion. She looked up, and her eyes were back to normal, wide and shocked.

She stared at the room. “Oops,” she said, her voice small.

“Very much oops,” Ororo agreed, but she was smiling. “Deep breath, and center yourself.”

Callie rubbed both hands over her face, and she was shaking. “Yeah, sorry, uh, yeah. Give me a sec.” She took an audible breath, and the plants all around her subsided with a rustle that sounded like laughter. “Yeah, yeah, thanks, you are all the worst,” Callie said. But she reached out a hand, delicate fingers brushing against a hanging tendril. The thin thread of a vine curled around her finger, and she grinned up at it. “Thank you.”

“Holy FUCK,” Angela said, her voice awed. “Holy, holy FUCK.”

“That is one way to put it.” Sif bent over, holding a hand out to Callie. “Most impressive, little sorceress.”

Callie took it, and her hand felt far too warm, despite the dampness of her skin, despite the way it shook. “I do my best.”

“Hey, Callie-baby,” Alison said. “Wanna let us out?”

Callie looked back, pushing her hair away from her face with one hand. Her skin was pale, almost milky, and there was still a faint tremor to her shoulders. “Yes. Sorry. Yes.” She held up a hand, her eyes closing, and the massive hedge of thorns shifted, the wood creaking as it untangled, flexing back and out of the way.

She let out a shuddering breath, and without thinking about it, Sif wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Are you well?” she asked.

“Fine,” Callie said, but she leaned into Sif's body, her head tucked into Sif's shoulder. Sif rubbed a hand over her head, stroking her hair back, and Callie let out a sigh. The sound seemed to echo around them as the plants settled.

Ororo was smiling when she stopped in front of them. “Good job.” Her eyes tipped up. “I think the new theme will be very popular amongst the clientele, don't you?”

Callie started to giggle. And Sif watched, a smile dawning on her face, as flowers began to unfurl all around them.

“We have containment,” Natasha yelled from the second floor.

“Thank fucking God, I am not doing any more freelance work for any of you,” Misty said, her arms folded on the bannister. “Seriously. You all are crazy.”

“You love us,” Angela said, and Sif let herself breathe again.

*

“SHIELD has an insurance policy for these sorts of situations,” Maria said, doing her best to hold onto her temper. Considering her life experience and her current job description, it was harder than it should've been. Of course, she was juggling a confused and traumatized mob of civilians, around three dozen biological specimens that violated almost as many laws, two squads of SHIELD strike teams and three more sweeper teams. She also had no idea where her date had gone.

Considering all of that, she wasn't sure how her most pressing concern was horticultural.

She took a deep breath, letting her fingers tighten on the SHIELD tablet in her hand, like it was a security blanket. Or a potential bludgeon. “We can cut it-”

“You can't,” Callie said, her hands spread wide, standing between them and the building. “You CAN'T. You can't kill it!”

“We can't LEAVE it!” The bartender had been splitting her attention between them and her phone, where the club's owner was apparently having a drunken meltdown. Even from here, Maria could hear her yelling. “Have you seen our goddamned building?”

She stabbed a finger at the club, and everyone looked.

The whole building was covered in heavy vines, the stems as thick around as Maria's wrist, and studded with nasty looking thorns. Here and there, thick, glossy green leaves and thin tendrils flicked against the heavy brick facade. All in all, it looked like something out of a gardener's nightmare.

“We can transplant-” Maria started.

“We can kill it with fire,” Angela said, and Callie let out a howl. The bartender flinched when her phone made a very similar sort of sound.

Maria shut her eyes, and gritted her teeth.

“All right, before she gets out her sidearm,” Natasha said, and took the phone out of the bartender's hand. “She'll call you back,” she said, and disconnected the call. “Do not pick up,” she told the bartender, handing it over. “And tell her the authorities confiscated it if she calls you on it.”

“Thank you,” the woman said.

“Explain,” Maria said to Callie.

Callie took an audible breath. She was barefoot and pale, a SHIELD issue emergency blanket wrapped tight around her shoulders like a cape. Her fingers clutched at the material, but her voice was steady. “They grow because I ask them to,” she said. “Because I make them.” Her mouth went tight. “It's against their nature, but they grow for me, they do what I need them to.”

Her fingers brushed against the remains of her necklace. “Let them live. Until they can seed.” She smiled, a little bit. “Then they can rest. They live on through their seeds.”

“So it's okay to kill them after they seed?” Misty asked, her eyebrows arched.

“They're annuals,” Callie said. “I bred the strains that way. Only the seeds carry them from season to season.” She grinned. “Otherwise, you'd have bigger problems than you have, imagine something like this resprouting next year.”

“Thank you for breeding annuals,” Natasha said.

“Yes, thank you for giving your death vines an expiration date,” Angela muttered.

“We've all got an expiration date,” Callie pointed out. “This one is just a little more... Defined. And as long as I can collect the seeds, it's not expired. That's its purpose after all. To grow, germinate, and return to the soil.” She paused. “Or the sidewalks of one of the greater burroughs, as the case may be.”

“What happens if someone else gets the seeds?” Natasha asked. “These things could be weaponized, Callie.”

“They are. By me. But they don't germinate easily, without me telling them it's time to grow, they won't sprout. The conditions necessary for natural sprouting are contradictory, and very complex. Because of that, the seed just waits for a time that's never coming.” Her eyes narrowed. “I just need a couple of weeks.”

Maria pressed a hand to her forehead. “Callie, we can't leave something like this in the middle of New York,” she said. “It's going to attract attention.”

“Also, we're going to go bankrupt and I'll lose my job,” the bartender said. Everyone looked at her, and she shrugged. “It's not a matter of national security, but the job market being what it is, it's kind of important to me, okay?”

“You're over complicating this, it is not that difficult,” Darcy said, and for some reason, everyone actually paid attention to her. She had her arms crossed under her breasts, making her dress strain at the seams, and that might've had something to do with it.

She tipped her head to the side. “It is a sucktastic time to be in the club business. Slow season, right? That's why you're going all out with the entertainment, but that gets expensive, and you're just holding out for the summer season, god, we all want the summer season.

“So here's what you do.” She hooked a thumb over her shoulder at the building. “You call this a special event.”

“What kind of special fucking event-” the bartender started, and Darcy let out a loud sigh.

“You call it 'Sleeping Beauty's Bower,'” she said, long suffering. “You institute a strict dress code. Like, I'm talking STRICT. Make it work, or no one's gonna go for it.” She ticked things off on her fingers. “Gowns. Crowns. Opera gloves. Glass-ish slippers. Shining armor. Bring out your chain mail, unearth that velvet doublet, grab your corset.”

She leaned in. “You throw the biggest, brightest costume party with a theme on the East Coast, because every woman alive kinda wants to either be a princess, or a conquering hero.” She grinned. “Or both. Give them the ability to do it, and get laid at the same time.”

The bartender stared at her. “That... Could work.”

“Fuck you, that will work,” Darcy said. “New York might be jaded, but you know what? Do this right and you'll have every lady loving woman from Portland, Maine to Tampa, Florida scrambling up here.” She waved a hand in the air. “Jack the cover charge. Give out a literal crown for the best outfit. Hire a couple of hot, muscley girls from some university's sword fighting club, and give them roses to hand out. Have a bard style poetry slam, get a Broadway costume designer in here to judge the craft work one night, women will come for this shit, you know we will.”

The bartender was flushed now, her mouth hanging open, her eyes huge in her face. “Dear God, we're going to make a fucking mint.”

Darcy patted her on the back. “Fuck right, you are,” she said, slipping an arm through Callie's. “Now, Miss Betto, I wonder if we might be able to persuade you to put in an appearance. We can find you something properly elfish, you can walk around looking beautiful and mysterious and make the girls swoon.”

“I can do that,” Callie said, her eyes huge. “No, seriously, I can do that.”

“I know you can.” Darcy grinned at her. “The question is, can you still make these bad boys move on command?”

Callie blinked. “Yes?”

“Like, in a sexy kind of way?”

“That would be weird and perverse,” Callie said, her voice prim. “I mean, unless you're into it. And then, hell, yes, I can.”

“I never understood tentacles as a sexy thing until this exact moment, and now I annoyed by having to redefine my sexuality again,” Darcy said. She pointed a finger at Callie. “You have broken me. I promise to find you a lovely girl with enormous tracts of land.”

“I love you,” Callie said.

“You have no idea how often I hear that,” Darcy said, waving a hand in mid-air. She grinned at Callie, and at the stunned looking bartender. “I seem to recall that Ororo and Alison are still inside, right? Let's go talk to them, and let's make ourselves a fairy tale, shall we?”

“I wanna wear pretty armor,” the bartender said.

“You are in luck, I know a woman who might be able to help us with that,” Darcy said, linking an arm with one of each of theirs and heading back towards the building.

“Oh, this is gonna be great,” Misty said, grinning at Angela. “I'm crashing this.”

“You want to be a knight?” Angela arched an eyebrow at her. “Or a princess?”

“Fuck you, I'm a queen,” Misty said. Her head up, her shoulders back, she swept towards the club. Laughing, Angela followed behind, her hands in the pockets of her borrowed coat.

Maria stared at nothing. “What just happened?” she asked Natasha.

“It got handled, ma'am,” Natasha said, sounding amused. “Perhaps not as you would've intended, but I think if we put this down as a publicity stunt, we can keep it under the proverbial radar.”

Maria's lips pursed. “I remain confused,” she admitted, a bit reluctantly. “How did it get handled?”

“Lewis missed her calling as a high pressure tactics campaign manager,” Natasha said, her arms crossed over her chest. “Politics' loss is our gain, I suppose.”

Maria decided not to fight that particular battle. “Not sure anyone gains there,” she said, checking items off on the SHIELD tablet in her hands. “Have we cleared the last of the specimens?”

“Yes. The techs are sanitizing the place now.” Natasha looked up at the sky. “Go home, ma'am.”

“It'll be a long time before I'm going home, Agent Romanov.”

Natasha held out her hand. “Give me the tablet,” she said, her voice low.

Maria ignored her. “You do not want this mess, Romanov.”

“And I'm not dealing with this mess,” Natasha said. “Coulson is here. Let him deal with it.”

“I can't-”

“He owes you.”

Maria gave her a cutting look. “Everyone owes me. Every. One,” she gritted out.

“And some of us are trying to work off that debt, despite how difficult you make it,” Natasha shot back. “Give me the clipboard, Del Toro and I can handle the stuff on the ground, Coulson can deal with the paperwork, and you can get your date, and get into the car I got for you.”

“Who's-”

“Sitwell.”

Maria ignored a pang of what felt unpleasantly like yearning. “Have him take Sif back to the tower.”

Natasha's eyebrows arched. “Wow,” she said.

“Don't,” Maria started.

“No, I'm sorry, ma'am, that lacks class.” Natasha leaned in, and her face was tight, her dark eyes snapping sparks in the low light. “You want her to go home, you ought to at least get her back to her door, like a civilized woman who's not regretting her date.”

Maria's fingers tightened on the tablet. “Don't,” she repeated, her voice like ice, every letter of it cold on her tongue, in her throat. “You're overstepping yourself.”

“Someone has to,” Natasha said. She jerked her chin towards the building. “Don't create a diplomatic incident because you suddenly got cold feet. Escort the lady back to her door, or, if you're smart, you'll act like an adult and bring her back to your place. Where both of you want very much to be.”

Maria considered denying that. There didn't seem to be much of a point. “That'll get the shop gossip going.”

“Sitwell's discreet, that's why he's driving you.”

“I am not having a SHIELD agent drive me back, no matter how discreet you might think he is,” Maria said. “I don't need that kind of gossip about my personal life, Romanov.”

“He can be trusted to keep his mouth shut,” Natasha said, and Maria let out a snort of disbelief. Natasha's eyes rolled upwards. “Listen, Hill, you know how he and I have been fucking for the last nine months or so?”

Maria stopped. “What? No. Wait, what?” Natasha was just smirking at her, and Maria closed her mouth with a snap. “Of course I didn't know that?”

“And you know why?” Natasha asked, considering her fingernails. She rubbed at a minute chip in the glossy polish, her face drawing up in an expression of annoyance. “Because he's fucking discreet.” She dropped her hand with a sigh. “Which is why I am, in fact, sleeping with him.”

“That's not discreet, that's terrified of you,” Maria pointed out.

“Ma'am, anyone at SHIELD who's scared of me?” Natasha gave her a smile. “They're far, far more afraid of you. So if fear is keeping him in line, it'll work in your favor.”

“Romanov, are you implying I rule through fear and intimidation?” Maria asked, crossing her arms.

“There's no implication, that's fact. The only implication is that you do it very well.” Natasha smiled. “And that you enjoy it.”

“That may be the nicest thing you've ever said to me.”

“I could do better, but I'm afraid of your girlfriend.” She held out a hand. “Go ask Sif if she wants a cup of coffee at your place. Not because she deserves it, after having such a lousy night, but because you do.”

“I should've put a bullet in Barton when he brought you in,” Maria said, holding out the tablet.

Natasha took it. “I would've shot you right back, ma'am.”

“You probably would've.” Maria took a deep breath, and told herself that she absolutely did not feel her stomach churning. “You and Sitwell? Really?”

“Me and Sitwell, really,” Natasha said, unconcerned.

“How does that work?”

“I know you like girls, but really, do I have to draw you a diagram?”

Maria considered it. “You might have to, I'm confused by this turn of events.”

Natasha's mouth curled up. “I like him, he's not traumatized or overly intimidated by me-”

“Just intimidated enough,” Maria mused.

“It's lovely if you can keep them just a little intimidated,” Natasha agreed. “There was a mission, things got ugly, no one died, I wanted to get laid, I asked him if he was interested in getting laid, he asked 'with you?' I said yes, he indicated informed consent, we had sex.” She looked down at the tablet. “I enjoyed it, so did he, apparently, because every time I've asked him since then, he's been amenable to repeating it.”

Maria stared at her. “That was the most business like report of a sexual relationship I've ever heard.”

“Coulson has encouraged me to keep things brisk,” Natasha said.

“Does he know-” Maria stopped, and held up a hand. “On second thought, no. Let's not go down that particular garden path, I'm not certain I'm capable of surviving it.”

“We are an odd, incestuous little group at time,” Natasha agreed. She turned around. “Get the Lady Sif. Ask her if she'd like to see your etchings. Go buy etchings, if need be. But do it, ma'am.” She headed off, her footsteps brisk. “I'll let Agent Coulson know that you are escorting our high priority diplomatic envoy away from the scene and that he is now in charge.”

And just like that, Maria found herself alone, standing in the middle of the street.

It was still chaotic, with agents corralling the last of the samples and civilians, a protective barrier between them and the rest of the city until they could fully sanitize the scene, until they could be sure that none of the creatures had slipped free. That none of them were still loose on the city streets.

But for a brief moment, no one was looking to her. No one expected her to handle it, and the lack of reponsiblity was heady. If she had any sense, she'd grab a bottle of tequila, a vibrator, and about fourteen hours of sleep. But as tempting as that thought was, it didn't hold a candle to the thought of finding Sif. And seeing what her opinions were on sleeping with someone on the first date.

“Ma'am?” Sitwell had materialized behind her, silently enough that she had to resist the urge to go for her damn gun. “Agent Romanov mentioned you might be ready to go?”

Maria took a deep breath. “I'll go find the Lady Sif.” She paused, her eyes cutting in Sitwell's direction. “Breathe a word of this, and I will bust you down to level one clearance personally, Agent,” she said.

He nodded. “Yes, ma'am.”

She leaned in. “And that includes removing the access you currently possess, probably through direct cranial reprogramming. Do we understand one another?”

“I blab and you hit me with a heavy object until I can barely recall my own name?” he asked.

“That'd be the gist.”

He blinked, calm and collected, behind the rims of his glasses. “Always wondered how SHIELD handled demotions.”

“We find blunt force trauma works well for that.”

“Understood, ma'am.”

Chapter Text

“So someone's going to get laid tonight.”

Sif turned, pushing a few trailing vines out of the way. “May you find much pleasure this evening,” she said, smiling down at Darcy. “You deserve such, for such a clever plan.”

Darcy grinned back. “You think so?” She bounced up the stairs. “Callie's off with the staff and half of SHIELD, working out the details.” She waved a hand in the air. “Coulson's gonna kill me.”

“He shall not, I shall protect you,” Sif said. She reached up and ran a careful finger over the velvety petal. “I heard you talking. It was very well done of you.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere, missy. You said you were going to teach me how to deal with Thor,” Darcy said, crossing her arms over her chest, her lips set in a distinct pout. “And now you're fluttering off to whisper sweet nothings into Hill's ear.”

Sif laughed. “I am doing no such thing.”

“But you want to,” Darcy said. “Admit it.”

“Perhaps.” Sif hid a smile behind her hand, pretending to consider that. “But I did promise you my help,” she said, her voice very serious. “Come then.” There was a table in the corner, its chairs still miraculously intact, and Sif waved a hand towards it, inclining her head in a slight bow. “Sit. And we will speak at length as to your concerns.”

Darcy flounced over, taking a seat and folding her legs at the ankles, leaning her elbows on the table. “All right,” she said, grinning. “Spill all your secrets.”

Sif sat down across from her. “Your issue is that Thor scares all your suitors away, am I correct?”

“That is one of my many issues, but the only one that you might have insight into,” Darcy said. “So?”

Sif took a deep breath. “Find someone you actually like.”

Darcy stared at her, visibly unimpressed. “What.”

Struggling against the need to laugh, Sif leaned forward. “Darcy. He has chased your suitors away, and you have not stopped him.”

“He's kinda bigger than me,” Darcy pointed out. “Hard to stop him. I push and push and it's like he's just a giant blonde mountain. He barely notices. And when he does, he just pats me on the head and keeps doing what he's doing.”

Sif caught Darcy's hands in hers. “Darcy, speak nothing but the truth to me. Have you been seriously interested in any of the men, or women, that you have tried to date?”

“Yes,” Darcy said. Sif stared at her, and Darcy slumped a little lower in her seat. “No.” She made a face. “I might've ended up seriously interested! But I just wanted a date, that's normal, right? Human companionship, maybe some hot sex, all that shit?”

Sif struggled against a smile. “And that,” she said, her voice gentle, “is the problem.” She squeezed Darcy's hands. “Darcy. When you find one worthy of your attentions, then you shall face your fears, and you shall prevail.” She straightened up. “Of this, I have no doubt.”

“So that's it?” Darcy asked, but she was smiling. “Face my fears? And Thor?”

“He is mostly bluster,” Sif said. She gave Darcy a level look. “You have met his mother?” Darcy nodded. “Then you know that he may respect his father, but he fears his mother. We all do.”

“Summon my inner queen?” Darcy asked. “Be icy, precise and regal?”

“Indeed.”

“I don't know if I'm capable of that,” Darcy said. “I'm not really the regal sort.”

“I have faith in you,” Sif said. She smiled. “But without a reason to fight, you will fail.”

“Question,” Darcy said, leaning her chin on her folded hands.

“Yes?”

“Did you, and Thor? Were you ever?” Darcy gave an exaggerated wink. “Was he your boytoy?”

Sif started to laugh. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “There were hopes, when we were both young. Our mothers had such hopes for the two of us.” She paused, considering. “I fell into my lady mother's thinking, for years. As a child, I dreamed of marrying him, of being queen.”

She stopped, a quick grin crossing her face. “But one day, I realized that being queen held more a sway over me than taking him to husband. A marriage to him had become an afterthought.” She met Darcy's eyes. “Power is a strong lure, little one, but it seemed unfair to him. He was always a trusted companion, a loyal friend, and he deserved one who could love him with all her heart.

“And he was too spoiled, too brash, too rash and too stubborn for me to trust him with the whole of my heart.” She leaned in. “He would've made a great bedmate, and a poor husband, Darcy.”

Darcy's nose wrinkled up. “You think so?”

“I thought so.” Sif shrugged. “He has changed. As people are wont to do.”

“Because of Jane?”

“Because of Jane,” Sif said. “Because of Loki. Because of his father, and his mother. Because of Midgard. Because of Jotenheim and Asgard. Because of me, and you, and because of Mjolnir.” She missed Thor, from time to time. She missed his jokes and his smiles and the force of his personality and the strength of his arm. Sometimes, it was hard not to be jealous of this place, and these people, it was so hard to remember that she had not lost him.

Sometimes, she wanted things to be as they had always been. But she was no child, and neither was he, and everything changed.

“It is a bad idea to think you can change someone, or that your love can change them,” Sif said. “However, it is a wonderful thing, when your love makes someone want to change. Want to be better, and stronger. But you cannot do it for them, nor can you force it upon them, and no amount of love, or adoration, will cause that to happen.” She reached out, brushing a curl of hair away from Darcy's cheek. “Wanting to be better for one you love, it is a rare thing, and it should not be counted on.”

Darcy grinned. “So, do you want to change for Hill?”

“Well, Maria seems to like me, just as I am,” Sif said. “And that is even rarer. Despite the fact that I am not the norm for your world, or your people, or even my own, she seems to...” She paused, a feeling of warmth curling through her. “Like me.” Sif leaned forward, lowering her voice. “Which does not mean that I cannot improve myself. I should think I have some room to better myself.”

“Nah,” Darcy said. “You're like Mary Poppins.” She stood up, and leaned over the table to brush a kiss across Sif's cheek. “Practically perfect in every way.” She stood up. “Also, smoking hot, and the toughest person, male or female, that I've ever met.” She put her hands on her hips. “Both of which also kind of describe Mary Poppins, wow, how did I not realize I was seriously into girls when I was dreaming of being married to Mary Poppins?”

“You flatter me,” Sif said, smiling up at her. “And as to the other, some things take a longer to discover than others. We all reach our own conclusions at our own time, do you not think so?”

Darcy was silent as Sif stood. “Darcy?” She waited for Darcy to look at her, to meet her eyes, and then Sif smiled. “Find someone who likes you, just as you are, all your strengths and flaws, all your spirit and fire and frustrations and shortcomings.” She cupped Darcy's face in her hands. “Find someone who likes you, whom you like, just the same, and Thor will cease to be a problem.”

Darcy took a breath, and it shuddered through her. “Sif?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you.” Darcy threw her arms wide and half fell into Sif's arms. Sif pulled her close, her arms squeezing tight. “You're the best kickass sister figure a girl could want.”

Sif laughed. “Always, I have wanted a sister.” She pulled back, just far enough to see Darcy grinning up at her. “And I could not have asked for a better one than you. May Thor be blessed for his failures, and his mistakes, for they have brought me not just Jane, but you.”

“Sif, darling?” Darcy grinned up at her. “You're giving him and his failures too much credit.”

“You speak the truth.” Laughing, Sif kissed one of Darcy's cheeks, and then the other.

The obvious sound of a foot on the stairs brought her head around. Maria was hovering there, at the top of the stairs, graceful and lithe and so beautiful that for an instant, Sif lost her breath. Maria's eyes were bright and sharp, and she rested one hand on a chunk of the exposed bannister. “Sorry,” she said, a polite smile curving her lips as she weighed the situation, always so quick and clever, so careful with her surroundings. “Am I interrupting?”

“Nope,” Darcy said, pulling away. She caught Sif's hand and gave it a squeeze. “You should hit that,” she mouthed, and Sif pointed at the stairs.

“Away with you, brat,” she said, holding back a laugh.

“Going, going,” Darcy sang out. As she passed Maria, she leaned in, and mock whispered, “Pretzels. Dipped in Nutella. She's nuts for the stuff.”

Sif let out a dramatic gasp. “You would betray me thus?”

“Baby, the only thing better than you favorite treat, is having your lover feed it to you,” Darcy said, grinning. “Hey, Agent Hill? I'm going to take off now, as it turns out, I think I have a date, so if you could just add this into my timesheet, I'd really appreciate it.”

Maria rubbed her forehead. “Lewis?”

“Ma'am?”

“Please go.”

“Going!” Darcy said, unrepentant, and Sif couldn't hold back a laugh as she bounced down the stairs.

Maria's eyes rolled up towards the ceiling. “Do not laugh, it only encourages her,” she said, but she was smiling as she took a step towards Sif.

“I enjoy encouraging her.” Sif smiled. “She deserves encouragement.” The floor was silent and empty now, in this isolated corner of the club. The vines created a sense of privacy, of isolation, here on the second floor, and out of the sight of others, Maria seemed to relax. Sif glanced up, at the vines, and the warm light the slipped through the leaves. “This is lovely, don't you think?” she asked, reaching up. “I should like to return, when Darcy's plans are put into effect.”

“You heard about those, did you?”

Sif smiled. “She is clever, admit it.”

Maria chuckled. “Only because she's not here.” She glanced behind her, and Sif stepped back, further into the shadows the plants provided.

“Be not tense,” she said, her voice quiet. “There is no one here but us.”

“Instinct, sorry. I'm going to be blunt,” Maria said, her hands going to her hips. Her shoulders back, her chin up, her long legs braced apart, she was strong and fierce, and Sif wanted to drown in her. “Please excuse me, but I'm fucking tired, and this has been a hell of a night.”

“I can find nothing to object to within your words,” Sif agreed. Her hands twitched at her sides, and she wanted to reach out, to take, to touch, to worship. But for the moment, she contented herself to stand there, drinking in the sight of her.

Maria smiled, her head ducking down for just a second. “I'm not really up on Asgardian protocol, and I mean no offense, but I want you.” She paused, her brilliant dark eyes coming up to meet Sif's. There was heat there, heat and need, and a thousand other things that Sif enjoyed seeing in her lover's eyes. “And I think you want me, too.”

Sif smiled. “More than you might know,” she said. She took a step forward, and another, close enough to touch now, but she kept herself still. Maria inhaled, and Sif shuddered from the sound, her skin prickling from the tiny sound. It called to mind a thousand other small, sweet sounds that she was now desperate to hear from Maria's throat. “Would you welcome me in your bed?” she asked, her voice low and husky and full of need. It would've been embarrassing, it would've been humiliating, but Maria's eyes fell shut, her head tipping back. The line of her throat was irresistible, and Sif licked her lips.

“Lady, if we don't get moving, I'm going to start taking my clothes off here and fuck the consequences,” she said, and Sif kissed her.

Maria's mouth was hot and fierce against hers, kissing her back with a need that made Sif dizzy. Her arms went around Sif's back, her fingers, strong and rough and calloused, slid over Sif's skin, smoothing up and then down along the line of Sif's spine. Sif moaned into Maria's mouth, her hands cupping the slight curves of Maria's hips, dragging their bodies together.

It was too fast, and too desperate, and Sif tore her mouth away from Maria's, burying her face into the arch of Maria's neck. Maria's head fell back, her breath coming in sharp little pants, her hips arching against Sif's. “Can I just say-” she gasped out, and Sif lifted her head, relinquishing the heat of Maria's skin through a force of will. Maria met her eyes, her pupils blown wide and black, her lips swollen and bright.

“Yes?” Sif said, when Maria stopped talking. She licked her lips, and then, when Maria's eyes dropped to stare at her mouth, Sif leaned in, nuzzling at the skin of her neck again. “You may say, whatever you please.”

“I am going to do such filthy things to you,” Maria gasped out, her fingers digging in, tight on Sif's skin.

Sif's mouth brushed against the line of her jaw, against the soft, delicate skin just below her ear. “When?” she whispered. “And for how long?” Her hand slipped up the arch of Maria's ribs, her fingers curling against the slight weight of Maria's soft breast. “And am I allowed the same?” Maria shuddered, and Sif exhaled. “I've thought often enough, of how to please you.”

Maria's eyes closed, her whole body seizing up as she pinned Sif's hand to her. “Now,” she said, her voice raw and filled with a brilliant heat. “As long as possible.” She slid a hand into Sif's hair, her fingers curling around the back of Sif's neck and pulling her in for another kiss. “And oh, God, yes, please, did I mention now?”

Sif kissed her back, her eyes falling shut, her body rolling against Maria's. When they finally broke apart, Sif's head fell into the curve of Maria's shoulder. “You did, but here we remain,and sadly, still fully dressed.”

“I can fix that,” Maria said, and for an instant, she just curled into Sif's body, and Sif fought against the urge to just drag her down here. Luckily, before the thought could take root, Maria pulled back, catching Sif's elbow in one hand. She turned, heading back for the stairs, and Sif was laughing as she followed close behind. Maria glanced back over her shoulder. “What, you prefer to lead?” she asked, grinning.

“No, I much admire the view here,” Sif said. Her free hand went out, her fingers sliding over the taut curves of Maria's ass. “It is most lovely.”

Maria let out a faint, choked off moan. “My lady Sif?”

“Yes, Agent Hill?”

“Move faster.”

Laughing, Sif did just that.

*

Darcy tried to look at objectively. It was harder than it should've been.

Especially when Harris opened the door to his apartment, dressed in a pair of plaid pajama pants and a battered gray Navy t-shirt with a hole near the hem. His pale hair was sticking up in the back, a very obvious cowlick, and his glasses were crooked on his freckled nose. He was eating instant ramen from a styrofoam cup, disposable chopsticks in his other hand. He was a disaster of a man, thin and quiet and easy to overlook. But he smiled at her, wide and bright and real, his lips stretching around his chopsticks, his blue eyes dancing with it, and Darcy's stomach turned over.

Yeah, she had a serious problem.

“I like you,” Darcy said, the words coming out in a rush, and Harris stopped, chopstick caught in between his teeth, ramen cup hanging from his hand. He blinked at her, looking so goofy and confused that it was all that she could do not to laugh.

“I kissed a perfectly lovely girl tonight,” Darcy said, and she didn't know what she was saying, and she didn't care. She just said it. “She was hot and pretty and really nice and really wanted to kiss me, and I realized that as nice as she was, as nice as she is, I wanted to be kissing you.”

Darcy took a breath, let it out on a laugh. “I could be having really hot girl sex with tentacles right now, I could be living the damn sexy dream, and instead I'm here.” She leaned in, just a little, because he wasn't much taller than her, and with heels, he wasn't any taller at all, an she kind of liked that, being eye to eye with him, not smaller or less or needing to reach for him. He was eye to eye with her, and kissing him wouldn't be any effort at all. “I'm asking you honestly, I like you, I really like you, and can I kiss you?”

She leaned in, just a little, and he recoiled, his head snapping back. For an instant, she just hung there, her lips parted for a kiss that she wasn't going to get, not understanding, and then Darcy's stomach turned to ice. Instincts taking over, she took a step back, pulling away, trying not to let the sharp prickle in her eyes be anything at all. “Wow, okay, misjudged that, sorry, I can-”

Harris held up the cup. “Spicy garlic ramen,” he said.

Darcy stared at him. “What?”

“I'm eating-”

“Spicy garlic ramen?” she repeated, her hands going to her hips. “I want to kiss you, and your response is spicy garlic ramen?”

He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “I should brush my teeth, that's all I'm-”

She caught the front of his t-shirt in one hand. “Cannot tell you how much I don't care.” She leaned in, her fingers curling into the soft, battered gray fabric. “Can I kiss you, you spicy garlic dork?”

His smile was warm and sweet and real. “I'd like that,” he said, and Darcy hooked a finger under the stem of his glasses, lifting them off of his nose. He didn't move, even as she leaned in, her lips brushing against his. It was delicate and tentative and not at all like her. She paused, her heart pounding, and Harris whispered, “That all you got, Lewis?”

“Oh, it is ON,” Darcy said, and he was laughing as she kissed him, hot and hard and with everything she had, her fingers holding onto the front of his shirt for dear life.

His arms went around her back, and some part of her brain wondered where the ramen cup had gone, and then she had more important things to think about. His hands were gentle, not pinning her in place, not forcing anything, but there, warm and strong. There was something delicate about that touch, almost reverent, and she thought of those hands everywhere. Thought of his hands smoothing up her back, against bare skin and without thinking about it, she deepened the kiss.

He met her halfway, his head tipping to the side, and their noses bumped. She felt him laugh, felt the shiver go through his body where it touched hers, felt it on her lips, on her tongue. It was sweet and hot and it felt right. She didn't know much, she wasn't even sure she knew herself, but she knew that for her, for right now, this was just right.

When they finally pulled away from each other, she was breathing hard, and so was he. Darcy leaned back, her back arching as her hand came up to cover her mouth. “Okay,” she said, her voice unsteady, her lips tingling. “Damn. That's spicy.”

“I warned you!” Harris said, and he was flushed and laughing, his eyes brilliant and his mouth pink. Darcy's tongue flicked out to lick her lips, and his eyes locked in on the movement.

Darcy grinned. “I like it.”

He grinned back. “Me, too.” He paused. “Do you want to come in?”

Darcy paused. “We're in the hallway,” she said. Harris nodded, unconcerned, and she let out a groan. “This is your fault.”

“My fault?” he asked, grinning. “I was sitting on my couch watching PBS and eating instant ramen when you showed up to confuse the shit out of me. Now my ramen is on the floor and I have no idea what's happening.”

Darcy looked down at the cup, it's contents spilled across the wooden floor. She was pretty sure this is what triumph felt like. “Damn, I'm good,” she said.

“Yes, you are.” Harris picked up the cup, scooping a few errant noodles up with it. “Call ahead next time and maybe we can do this on the couch instead.”

“What's the fun in that?” Darcy leaned in, her chest brushing his. She held out his glasses, held between two fingers, and he took them from her. “You got another one of those?”

“Ramen? Yeah.” He stepped aside. “Or, you know, we could order pizza or something.” He shoved a hand through his hair, which just made it worse. Darcy giggled, and reached up to smooth it back down.

“Yeah,” she said, her fingers playing with the strands of his hair. “What's on PBS?”

“I no longer care,” Harris admitted.

“Excellent, then we won't be disappointed.” She paused, one foot halfway across his threshold. “Harris?” He glanced at her, eyebrows arched. “Do you like me?”

His face went still. “Darcy, I've always liked you. From the moment we met, despite the fact that you were doing your best to make me cry-”

“I was not!”

“You did everything but poke me with a sharp stick, and that was only because you didn't have a stick.” He smiled. “And I liked you anyway.” His head tipped to the side. “Actually, maybe I liked you because of that. Because you were just rolling with the hits, and you were still going, with a grin and a snarky comment.” His smile was sweet and warm. “I always liked you.”

Darcy nodded. “Wanna make out on the couch?”

“Yes, please.” He stepped out of her way and waved her in with a slight bow. “Darcy?” When she looked at him, he just raised an eyebrow. “Tentacles?”

“In a manner of speaking,” she said, her chin up. “What do you think of my dress?”

“I'd compare it to a solar eclipse,” he said. “I suspect it's a miracle of the natural order, but I can't risk looking directly at it without risking permanent damage to my eyes, and possibly my brain.” He paused. “It'd probably be worth it, though. I really suspect it would be worth it.”

Darcy stopped, her mouth gaping open. “You silver tongued devil.” She snagged the front of his shirt with one hand. “Let's go.”

“Darce?”

“Yeah?”

“If I'm dying and this is a bizarre hallucination, you'll tell me, right?”

“Aw,” Darcy said, grinning. “You hallucinate about me?”

“Way more than is healthy. In general.”

“Get me a cup of ramen, and I'll race you to the couch.”

*

Maria woke slowly, the the familiar sound of her phone buzzing in her ear.

She pried open one eye, catching sight of the phone in its usual spot on her bedside table, right where it always was. Instinct kicked in, and she moved to grab it. But the soft, warm form on the bed between her and the phone brought her up short.

The bare curve of Sif's ass might've been the most perfect thing that she'd ever seen.

Sif was sprawled out on the bed, facing away from Maria, into the morning sunlight. She took a moment to appreciate the lithe, sweet curves of Sif's back and legs, the arch of her shoulders and the flex of her foot as it twisted the sheets. Here and there, there were the traces of scars, thin white slashes and puckered dark marks, and there was no doubt that Sif had seen battle in her life.

Of course, so had Maria. She let her eyes closed, a soft, almost drunken memory of Sif's lips lingering against the bullet scar on her hip. And the one on the back of her shoulder. She'd found every mark, with clever fingers and sweet, hot lips.

Maria knew she was already in over her head. She wasn't sure she cared.

She shifted, hugging the pillow to her head. “Morning,” she whispered, pushing her hair away from her face. “Did you sleep well?”

Sif glanced over her shoulder, her dark hair a mass of tangled curls, her cheeks flushed pink, her smile warm and lazy. “I am sorry,” she said, her voice soft and low. “Did I wake you?” She rolled over, one arm sliding across the sheets as she moved back up next to Maria. As soon as she was close enough, she reached out, brushing a strand of hair away from Maria's cheek. Her knuckles brushed over Maria's skin, and Maria shuddered, her whole body waking up all at once, in the most pleasant way.

“No,” she said, catching Sif's hand in hers. She brought it to her lips, kissing Sif's knuckles with a foolish sort of affection. She couldn't find it in herself to regret the gesture, especially given how Sif smiled at her. “I overslept, actually.”

Sif rolled over, naked and at ease with it, her legs tangling with the sheets. The fabric curled around her, making her skin gleam in the low light. “The sun has barely risen. Surely you're allowed more sleep than this.”

“Sometimes,” Maria said, making no effort to get up. She was warm and comfortable, and pleasantly sore. “Usually there's no reason to stay in bed.”

Her phone buzzed again, and she gave it a dark look, but reached for it. “Sorry,” she said.

Sif rolled onto her stomach again, folding her arms beneath her chin. Maria missed the view of her breasts immediately. “I had considered tossing it from the window,” she said, giving Maria a gamine smile. “But I did not think you would appreciate my efforts to coddle you such.”

“I don't know, who objects to a good coddling?” Maria said, still slumped back against the pillows. She probably should sit up. She didn't think she had the energy. She eyed Sif as Sif arched and stretched with a sated little sound. Maybe she did have the energy, but she was saving it for something more important.

“Silence it,” Sif said, her grin stretching, “and I shall coddle you no end.”

“That shouldn't sound as pornographic as you make it seem.” Ignoring Sif's giggles, she flicked her thumb over the surface of her phone, pulling up her messages.

'The situation is under control,' the text read. 'And you called out sick.'

“Like hell I did,” Maria said, her eyebrows arched. “And if you think I'm going to take orders from you, Romanov, I-”

Sif's fingers slid over Maria's stomach, her nails scraping lightly over the skin, and Maria forgot what she was saying. She looked down and found Sif smiling up at her, big golden brown eyes glinting, and Maria wasn't sure she remembered how to breathe any more.

“She does me a kindness,” Sif said, her palm warm on the delicate skin just below Maria's belly button. “She buys me some measure of your attention, and your consideration, just for a day.” Her fingers stroked, sliding out to the curve of Maria's hip. She leaned in, brushing her lips against the skin her hand had just warmed. “Will you leave me here, sad and neglected?”

“As if you'd suffer without my company,” Maria managed, and Sif's hands were everywhere, clever fingers and clever lips and Maria closed her eyes and let go.

The sun was a lot higher in the sky when Maria finally slumped back against the pillows, her breath coming in ragged gasps. To her delight, Sif slumped next to her, her face flushed and her hair a halo on the pillows. “You,” she said, her smile obscene on her face, “are a dangerous woman, Maria Hill.”

“The same could be said of you, Lady Sif.” Maria grinned, and listened to her pulse thud in her ears. “Have I thanked you for asking me out, yet?”

“You have shown your appreciation in other ways.”

“Still used my tongue, so it counts.” Maria considered getting up. They had to get up eventually. Eventually. She pushed herself up. There was a strange expression on her face, and Maria settled back against the pillows. “What's wrong?” she asked.

Sif shook her head. “I cannot stay,” she whispered. “This is not my world. I have responsibilities, and I must return to them.”

“I know,” Maria said. She stretched her arms above her head, biting back a moan as her muscles throbbed with the movement. “So do I.”

Sif was silent, her long lashes low on her cheeks. “I will return, as often as I can. I have loyalty to Thor, and our worlds will stand together, now. More than that, I like this world, and the people I have met here.” She paused, and her eyes came up to meet Maria's. “You, more than any other.” She reached out, her fingers light on the curve of Maria's cheek, on her jaw. “If I return, will I be welcome?”

Sif's fingertips were calloused and rough, her nails short, trim ovals, and her touch was already far too familiar for Maria's peace of mind. But even the brush of her fingers was enough to make Maria's heart skip a beat, even the soft, curve of her lips was enough to make her want. Want everything, all at once.

And for once, she was going to have what she could, for as long as she could.

“My life is almost as chaotic as yours,” she said, letting her thumb stroke along the line of Sif's cheekbone. Sif leaned into the touch, her lips parting on a slight smile. “I can't promise that I'll be available, every time that you're in town.”

“I am no child, to demand your attention to the detriment of others,” Sif said. She caught Maria's hand in hers. “Nor to take you from your duties.” She moved closer, her body slipping along along the length of Maria's, until she was sprawled half across her. Maria welcomed her weight, her arms slipping around Sif's back. “I seek only a brief moment of your time, your touch.”

Maria kissed her, partially because she needed to think, and mostly because she was starving for the touch of Sif's lips. “Will you spend your nights with me, then?” she asked, the words whispered against Sif's lips, secret and strangely shy.

“I should be pleased to find myself in your bed, no matter the time,” Sif said. She rolled over, pulling Maria with her until Maria was sprawled across her chest. “I dream of seeing you in the sunshine, warm and sleepy in the afternoon light.” She swept a hand up Maria's back. “Or naked and wanting in the firelight.”

“I don't have a fireplace,” Maria said, smiling.

“I do.” Sif's kiss started out sweet, but flared with heat in an instant, and Maria shifted, need rolling through her.

It took a force of will to pull herself away, to sit up, still straddling Sif's hips. “Is that an invitation?”

“Would you accept it, if it was?” Sif's hands slid up Maria's legs, up her hips, her fingers wrapping around Maria's waist.

“It's not a good idea,” Maria said, her back arching as Sif's hands played across the span of her ribs. She let out a faint moan. “You know it isn't.”

Sif surged up, breast to breast with Maria. “Imagine a massive fireplace,” she whispered. “Fire burning low on the hearth. Warm and sleepy.” She brushed her lips against Maria's, teasing little kisses.

“Hmmm,” Maria hummed into her mouth. “Are you there?”

“Would you wish to find me there?” Sif nuzzled her throat. “Bare and warmed by the fire, but heated by the thought of you?”

“Please tell me there's a fur rug of some sort,” Maria said, barely aware of the words. Her head was spinning, her breathing was ragged.

“And all the wine you could hope to drink,” Sif whispered. “Do I tempt you, then?”

Maria's eyes opened. “More than you know,” she said, and Sif stilled. Maria's hands went to Sif's shoulders, buying herself a little space a little sanity. “This isn't wise.”

“The best things aren't,” Sif said.

“You're going to outlive me,” Maria said. “You're...” She shook her head. “I'm going to be old and gray and senile, and you'll still look exactly the same.”

Sif's mouth curled in a soft smile. “Or I could take a blade through the back tomorrow,” she said. Her eyes closed in a slow, careful blink. “We are warriors, both of us, by nature and by choice. Our lives may not be so long as we would like them to be, we may lose everything in a single breath.”

Maria stared at her. It took her a long moment, but she nodded, slowly at first, then with force. “But we'll go down fighting.” She flopped back, and Sif followed her, and for a moment or two, they were tangled together, less sex and more comfort and contact and that was almost as good.

“We should get up,” Maria said, even as she snuggled down in the blankets. “I should feed you. But I don't want to bother.”

Sif curled up against her back, her body tucked up tight against Maria's. “Then shall I entertain you?” she asked, draping an arm around Maria's waist, pulling her back into a warm embrace.

Maria tangled her feet with Sif's, loving the ease with which they fell into each other's space. She caught Sif's hand, weaving their fingers together and bringing it to her mouth. “What do you have in mind?” she whispered against the battle worn skin of Sif's palm.

“Well,” Sif said, the words soft against Maria's ear, “I did find this.”

Maria twisted around, just in time to see Sif hold up a book. The rather lurid cover was all too familiar. Maria stared at her. Sif grinned. “No,” Maria said.

“It's far more interesting than I had thought it would be,” Sif said, cuddling closer.

“No.” Maria tried to wiggle out of her grip, and Sif didn't move.

“The author has few, if any, correct ideas about elves, but that is to be expected, as they are seldom found here. She is very imaginative,” she said, as if Maria wasn't trying to kick at her shins with each word. “And it is quite enjoyable to read.”

“Get out of my bed,” Maria said, and Sif was laughing against her back. Maria twisted around, and tossed the blankets over Sif's head. “Out!”

Sif pushed the blanket up, peering at Maria from under the edge. “Such cruelty,” she said, grinning. “And here I seek only to bring you warmth and pleasure.”

“Oh, is that what you seek?” Maria asked, biting her lip to hold back a laugh.

She wasn't sure how long this was going to be a thing she could sustain, but she realized that she wanted it, for as long as she could hold onto it. She wanted adrenaline and relief fueled post-fight sex and light night lovemaking and stolen kisses that took the place of rushed lunches. And more than anything, she wanted the occasional lazy morning, waking up with warm breath on her skin and soft hair tangled in her fingers.

She wanted it all. And she was going to make a run at it, with all the stubbornness that she possessed.

She smiled. “Want to come to my book club next week?” she asked.

Sif's eyebrows arched. “Are you sure I would be welcome?”

“Sure,” Maria said, an unholy feeling of glee sweeping over her. “Dr. Garza made it clear that they welcome new members.” She flopped back against the pillows. “Besides, I'd think that they'd appreciate the real world perspective that you could bring to the discussion.” She grinned. “Do you like margaritas?”

“I'm not certain. What are they?”

“Fruit and booze and ice, glass the size of your face, salt on the rim.”

Sif considered that. “There is no part of that explanation that I do not find pleasing,” she said, with all the appropriate gravity.

“It does mean that you'd have to read the book,” Maria pointed out, trying to keep her face straight. It was hard, and she wasn't sure why, but she felt like smiling, like laughing. It might be a passing fancy, for her or for Sif, but she didn't care. She was boneless and sore and wanted things, wanted them fiercely now, now that she knew what those things could be. She smiled, and it felt right. “All of it.”

“I have nearly finished it.” Sif held it up. “You were sleeping so sweetly, I thought it best to amuse myself and let you gather your strength.” Her voice was low and husky and full of heat, and Maria shuddered.

“It does mean that I'll have to read the book,” Maria said, on a weak exhale.

Sif started to laugh, and Maria grinned at nothing in particular. “Sometimes, there is a price to be paid for your leisure,” she said. Her grin taking on a wicked edge, she sprawled back against the pillows, her long legs smoothing out over the sheets. “Shall I read it to you?”

Maria kissed her shoulder, the curve of her throat, the angle of her jaw. “No.”

“Perhaps just the sexy parts?”

Maria paused. “Fuck it, how bad can it be?”

Sif laughed. “Is this your new motto?”

“Motto or battlecry. Or a little of each.” Maria kissed her. “Entertain me, and I'll feed you.”

“Add a kiss to your terms, and you will have a deal.”