Actions

Work Header

Late For The Love Of My Life

Work Text:

Maria Hill was aware, probably more than anyone else, that when Romanoff exposed every S.H.I.E.L.D. secret, she didn't exactly expose every S.H.I.E.L.D. secret. Fury's secrets had secrets, after all, and she managed them for a long enough time to know that some things stayed under control.

That was why, after one too many conversations with Coulson about soulmates and happiness, she decided to see if some of the secrets that were still such could help her sort out why she, a thirty-three years old, had yet to hear the words she'd been waiting for her entire life.

Everyone alive knew thirty was the deadline. In a world where everyone had their soulmates' first words craved into their skin, they also knew that, despite some very unfortunate exceptions, everybody met their soulmate within their thirtieth year on Earth.

So either Maria was one of those very painful oddities, or something wasn't quite right. Just to ease her mind, she wanted to check for anything S.H.I.E.L.D. had discovered about those bonds over the years. Out of curiosity and nothing more, that was what she told herself at least. Not because of something silly and naive like hope, nothing of the sort.

But her usual luck led to a series of events that turned her entire world upside down, both because that was just her usual life nowadays, and also because, as Coulson and May put it, soulmates are supposed to shake up your entire life, Maria.

Yeah well, maybe yes, but not like that.

Not in the randomly-uncovered-an-old-conspiracy-while-looking-for-you kind of way. And yet, there she was, stumbling on one of Fury's most buried secrets.

Her first question was how he managed to cover something that big without a slight trace when Natasha had released everything, but her better question was by far her second one. How did she not know about this? She was one of the people Fury trusted most. So how in hell was this a complete news for her?

It all started quite simply, she sat with half of her beer still in the bottle next to her computer and the files Phil had sent her still all opened, both the paper and electronic copy. She asked for everything soulmate-related that Fury left on S.H.I.E.L.D. and Coulson trusted her enough to actually send everything. She ruled out most of the results, actually getting quite bored, but then stumbled on a series of files that fell under the name of project P.O.T.U.S. and there was quite a handful of them. It didn't stand for President Of The United States and that much was clear. What did it stand for and who chose the name?

Her blood froze when she saw the name at the end of the oldest dated file, the one approving of the project. She read it and it had slight similarities with the T.H.A.I.T.I. stuff and that fact alone scared the shit out of her. It wasn't the same, because no alien genetics were involved, it was merely a project that granted the wiping of memory of ever meeting your soulmate if it was somehow necessary or required, and, in very extreme situations, even if the consent wasn't given by both parties involved in the bond.

Who in their right mind could approve of something like this?

Well, her blood did froze at the end of the file, indeed.

Protocol for Operational Threats and Undermining of Soulmates. Approved by Director Nicholas Fury and Deputy Director Maria Hill.

Her name was on it. Her signature was on the damn thing.

But that wasn't all. That was not even near it being all. There were of course files about the procedures and medicals and everything that had to be checked before the procedure and so on. But the thing she was after was another.

The names of the agents that endured the procedure.

She had to right this wrong done by S.H.I.E.L.D. to some of its agents, and she was going to call them all and tell them what was done to them, at least the ones done without consent.

She found a list with seventeen names. Seventeen souls deprived of their mates.

But surely, since it was Maria's life, after all, that wasn't even the most unsettling thing. Because she read the names and the files and there were eight couples and one last file that was not only unmatched, but also contained very little information. Just the name and a couple of lines underneath it.

The others contained the name, the awareness and the match, the words, why they were wiped, a psychological evaluation of a couple of pages at the very least, some file written by the Agent containing reasons and personal thoughts. Everything that could be registered was there.

Not in the last file.

Just a page that was probably meant to be destroyed as soon as it was printed out and was done just to justify the occupation of a surgical room for the time it took for the procedure.

That page – that page took every last faint hope she ever had.


HILL, MARIA

Consent: Unrequested

Soulmate: -

Words: -

Cause of procedure: -

Status: Successful


That was why she didn't know who her soulmate was. It was taken from her.

Just like that, she lost the last hope she had.

Because it didn't matter how long or how far or how hard she looked for her soulmate, it was pointless. She already met them and they wanted nothing to do with her. Or even worst, it was so bad and so messy and so utterly wrong that Fury wiped them from her memory without her consent just because he thought he knew better.

The words she had spent every day waiting to hear? As long as you don't let go of my hand. It was not a bad sentence to have tattooed on your skin, she had seen far worse. And yet, she would never hear them. Because she already did and those words were ripped from her.

And she had to know why.


//


The first time she saw Natalia Romanova was carved forever in her mind, she could never forget how the redheaded spy looked while Agent Barton escorted her through the Helicarrier, blank expression and tired steps. The Black Widow surrendered.

She would always remember how Natalia looked at her the first time she passed her by, handcuffed and bloodied face. Those green eyes, they burned into her own, they reached her soul and in that instant she thought she knew everything had led Maria to her, to that Helicarrier, to S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, just so she could hear the first thing Natalia said to her.

But they did not speak, they just saw each other passing by and went on with their lives and Maria almost convinced herself that those silly feelings were just in her head.

Almost.


Natasha Romanoff was declared an ally and a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent after her reprogramming had ended and she started to work on missions, never with Maria. She couldn't decide if it was for the better or not, she didn't know if she wanted it to be her. The Black Widow.

It would come along with a lot of burdens and complications and Maria had always been told by her father and her grandma that the soulmate thing was supposed to be easy. Her father also told her that what came after was hard, seeing said soulmate die giving birth to a daughter you wished was a son instead, and never even glancing twice her way unless it was in order to beat some sense into her while you were drunk, well sure, that was hard. Maria never minded his antics, and besides, after she left and joined the army she never saw the man again.

Anyway, soulmates were supposed to be easy. And Natasha Romanoff was anything but.

The first mission they were on together, that one was burned into her mind as well. The way Barton and Romanoff brought back the prisoner, the way Coulson handled everything until the moment they returned into the Quinjet and Maria was there, securing the prisoner, when he revealed a knife Coulson had failed to see and aimed for her throat and she launched back, taking a step too many and slipping out of the still opened door the field team had gone back into and that Barton left open. But then, something grabbed her arm. Someone.

She looked up.

And if those green eyes were the last thing she saw before falling to her death? There were worst ways to go, she supposed.

For a split second, she thought about telling Natasha “ Just don't kill me ” but it seemed too rushed and weak and she just muttered something with more sass because that was what she should do, that was what she had to do.

If you kill me, I'll have you fired.”

That was not what she wanted to say, it wasn't. But it was also too late.

Her voice was a bit chocked and she barely registered Coulson and Barton tackling the man, taking his knife and then coming to help Natasha bring her up.

All she saw was Natasha's smirk as she looked straight into her eyes.

She could swear, every time she replayed that moment in her mind, she could swear if she focused hard enough, she could almost hear Natasha whispering the right words.

As long as you don't let go of my hand.

But Maria didn't actually said not to kill her and so Natasha never said those words back then.

Sure thing, boss.”

She also remembered how disappointment burned long and hard in the pit of her stomach, for days and weeks and months, but there was nothing she could do about it.

It just was not meant to be.


//


She stood in front of the door with the file in her hands and that was the first time she realized those people were probably going to blame her for what happened to them.

Not that she could say they were entirely wrong to do so, because she did not remember the extent of her involvement with the whole operation, so she had to take responsibility, even more so since Fury was not there to split it with her.

She glance down and red the information again.


MORSE, BARBARA

Agent 19: Mockingbird

Consent: Signed and in attachment

Soulmate: Hunter, Lance

Words: “I have no idea what I just said”

Cause of procedure: Requested from both Agents due to immediate incompatibility and current statue of agent Morse (married to B.C.). First encounter is to be removed and replaced. Approved by Director N.F.

Status: Successful


She knocked on the door.

Barbara was one of the best agents S.H.I.E.L.D. ever had, but she was also a friend. This was going to be hard, very hard. But she had to do it.

She and Hunter got married after Bobbi's divorce, then got divorced themselves, due to the fact that they knew it was never meant to be, they were never soulmates. But somehow, they found their way back to each other again, working in Coulson's team. After a mission went very wrong they were forced to run and now they were living under false identities in a suburban house, the one Maria was currently visiting.

Hunter opened the door, recognized her, glanced around and then, without a word, he let her in and shut the door.

He called for Bobbi without even questioning Maria and the three of them sat down in the living room.

“I'm not here” Maria started. “I never was. As a matter of fact, we've never known each other, you're well aware.”

They both nodded.

“I stumbled across a project. It's from when Bobbi was still married to” she let the sentence hung there, stopping herself at the slight glare Hunter was sporting. “You know, not you” she caught herself. “Well, anyway. Many years ago, the first time you met. Fury had this project named P.O.T.U.S. that I apparently was part of. When soulmates within S.H.I.E.L.D. met and they had valid reasons why their status could interfere with their jobs, he decided to grant them the possibility to erase said meeting. You don't remember this, I don't either. But everything you need to know is in these two files.”


HUNTER, LANCE

Consent: Signed and in attachment

Soulmate: Morse, Barbara.

Words: “You just asked him to bring you a shitload of drugs”

Cause of Procedure: Marriage of Agent Morse. Incompatibility since meeting. Agent asked to have her removed from his memory due to the fact that he is currently incapable of maintaining objectivity during missions. Compromising risk.

Status: Successful


They read the files in silence and after they did it, they both were at a loss of words.

“I want to deeply apologize for the absurdity of this procedure that S.H.I.E.L.D. subjected you to, I can't even begin to say how sorry I am that for all this time you waited for a soulmate to come along and come in between what you have, when you're each other soulmates.”

They looked into each other's eyes for a long while, then turned to Maria.

“It's okay. We found each other and made it work nonetheless” Bobbi said.

“Thank you” Hunter said instead. “I have to say, this is very good news. So thank you for going to the trouble of informing us. It really means a lot.”

They talked a bit more about what it meant, what the procedure was and everything else they asked Maria supplied with an answer.

When the three of them were satisfied, she left.

She could only wish they were all that easy, but she knew they couldn't.


//


The first time Natasha spoke again to her was after a very rough day. She was in the gym, punching a bag like it was the asshole who shot one of her Agents.

You know you can't kill it, right?”

She didn't answer. Of course she heard her come in, she was a trained S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, for God's sake, but that didn't mean she had to talk to her, so she kept throwing punches.

He's going to be fine, by the way.”

I know” she said through gritted teeth, while she kept landing punch after punch at the bag.

Oh, you're talking to me.”

I'm surprised you are, to be honest. I was starting to think you were just going to avoid me forever, like you've been doing for two months, Romanoff.”

No response came so she stopped for a second and turned.

What, you didn't think I noticed that you've been disappearing into empty rooms and closets whenever you've run into me after the first time we actually spoke?”

Natasha had the decency to lower her eyes.

Did I upset you somehow?”

Her eyes spun back up. “No, absolutely not. I'm just-” she sighed. “Maybe I'm still not used to this place” she sat down on one of the benches near by. “I'm not easy to be around.”

Maria just shrugged. “Usually other people get to decide that for themselves, but okay, if you're not comfortable speaking to me I'll try my best to keep a distance.”

I don't want that” she whispered, and while her face remained stern thorough all the conversation, Maria kept hearing the softness in her voice and she couldn't quite place it.

Okay” Maria whispered to herself, then she sat on the same bench Natasha was on while keeping her distance.

Maybe we could be friends” the redhead said, with an hopeful note in her voice and a teasing smirk.

And despite the painful fall of her own heart at the word 'friends' Maria forced a smile and a nod, because she knew that was all they could be. Friends.

She had a soulmate somewhere and she was twenty-five so it was just a matter of a few years or months before she met them.

That thing she felt around Natasha? That was not real. It was not healthy. It was her own mind playing tricks on her, because they weren't meant to be, no matter how much her heart pushed her to a bond that she knew just wasn't there – because their first words weren't the right ones.

Friends sounds perfect.”

It didn't. In fact, taking their just born relationship and putting the name friendship on it just to smother everything else she might have felt for the woman sitting next to her, was all but perfect. It was the opposite. It was hard and bitter and she didn't want to do it. But she had to. It was all they could have and Maria would have given that woman the world, had she asked, without even wondering why she felt something so strong for a woman that only spoke to her two times. It was just a silly crush. She kept telling herself that, hoping someday she would believe it.


She remembered the first time she opened the door to her quarters just to find Natasha already inside and sitting on her bed.

She was just returning from a mission that had gone very, very south. She was limping lightly and her cheek had a deep cut, one on her left eyebrow too, her neck was bruised from a chock-hold she barely escaped from and two of her ribs were bruised but not broken. Overall, she was fine.

But Natasha concerned look and the way she immediately got up overwhelmed her all the same, so she leaned on the door she just closed behind her, sighing deeply.

You should see the other guys” she tried to joke, but it was lost on the other woman, whose concerned look kept sweeping over her injuries.

Are you in pain?”

Maria shook her head. “It's really just a couple of bruises and a couple of cuts. The worst is my sprained ankle, but it doesn't hurt as long as I don't put weight on it.”

Natasha finished her examination and stared into her eyes.

Nat, I'm fine, really.”

They had known each other for two years and they became really good friends. Enough that when Natasha needed someone to help when she got injured she often called Maria, she didn't mind help patch her up or stay awake with her when she was at risk of having a concussion. She helped with bandages and medications and Natasha always let her, even if it wasn't that bad, because she knew Maria felt better when she could make Natasha also feel better somehow. Natasha knew she worried, every time she was as much as gazed in a mission. Maria just couldn't help it.

It was fine, it made Natasha feel cared for, even if she would have never admitted to it.

Maria almost never got injured and the couple times she did she concealed it to not make her worry. Natasha noticed, of course, because “ you do know I'm a super spy, right?” but never insisted on helping her, maybe because she didn't want to overstep the trust Maria put in her, which was honestly a lot more than she could imagine.

But right then, there she was, in her room, picking lockets to wait for her.

It made Maria want to laugh like a fifteen years old whose crush just serenade her outside her bedroom window. She smiled, instead. A reassuring smile.

Are you sure you're not in pain?” Natasha asked again, walking closer.

She stopped right in front of Maria, who was still leaning against the door, then put her left hand near Maria's head, their bodies too close and their faces just a couple of inches apart.

And sure, she had Natasha that close before, but not when she just barely escaped a death trap meant for her while keeping the rest of her team from getting injured too, not when she was so tired and so done, not when she wanted so badly to just say “ as I was fighting for my life the only thing that pushed me through was the thought that I didn't say goodbye to you, that if I gave up and died there, you would have never known how I feel about you ”.

Maria?”

Natasha's voice was soft and patient and Maria realized she still had not answered the previous question.

I'm sure, Natasha. I'm okay” she smiled again, weak and a little sad.

Natasha's hand that wasn't near her head softly caressed the back of her neck and Maria relaxed into her touch and barely kept from closing her eyes.

When your team lost communications I was really afraid I'd lost you. But of course not, you're as strong as you're stubborn” she smirked with complicity and pride.

Maria smirked back. She liked the teasing, the easy compliments, the smiles. She liked the feeling that settled on her chest when they were this close.

Natasha's fingers on the back of her neck shifted a little and she traced Maria's cheekbone with her thumb.

It was so intimate. She never did it before. It made Maria want to kiss her, but she subtly grabbed the doorknob instead and squeezed as much as she could, trying to hold herself up and back at the same time.

Then Natasha's lips gently fell upon hers and woah . She definitely did never do that before. Not that Maria was complaining that she was doing it then. She kissed her back and somehow the hand that wasn't trying to chock a doorknob to death found its way into Natasha's hair and tugged her gently forward to deepen the kiss.

After a few moments Natasha pulled back and Maria breathed deeply in. somehow the new oxygen seemed to be good for her brain, because she suddenly remembered that she was with her best friend and her subordinate and they were making out against a door and for some reason even if it seemed like the best idea in the world, it just was not the best idea in the world.

But then Natasha's lips were on her neck and she just felt like this crush, this feeling that had been eating her away, just started to take its revenge on her for the cage she had built around it, finally bursting free and exploding all at once.

We shouldn't do this. You're my best friend. We work together. We really shouldn't.”

Her voice was too weak to be convincing, her eyes were closed and her breath was heavy and panting and even as she spoke, her hand still in Natasha's hair guided her movements on her neck to keep her going.

Then Natasha's mouth was near her ear, she felt her breathing harder then usual and her body gently pressed against Maria's as she lightly kissed her earlobe.

Just this once.”

Her voice was raspy and the hand that was now caressing again the back of her neck sent a shiver down her spine.

Maria let go of the doorknob to grab Natasha's shoulder, the body pressed into her own felt like the only thing in the world solid enough to support her.

Natasha pulled back just enough to look into her eyes. And Maria saw it all. She wanted this as much as Maria did, she just wanted to be closer to her like that. It wasn't pity or fear of losing her, it wasn't loneliness or sorrow. It was longing and something else she couldn't grasp.

Just this once” Maria tasted the lie on her own words while they were leaving her mouth, but still pulled Natasha closer for another kiss and tried as she might not to let her see how long and how much she had hoped for Natasha to want her like that.

She felt shaking hands pull at her jacket and lowering the zipper of her uniform and somehow it was all moving too fast and not fast enough at the same time. Natasha helped her sit on her own bed, kneeling before her, she helped her out of her uniform and she was so gentle and careful that Maria found herself wondering again if this wasn't out of worry and fear.

She took Natasha's hands and looked in her eyes.

I told you I'm not in pain” she whispered.

Natasha's confused look struck her a little.

You're being so gentle” she explained. “I don't want this to be just because you were afraid you lost me.”

I was afraid I lost you. But this isn't about that.”

She looked down, but Maria gently put a hand on her cheek, making her look up again, prompting her to continue.

When I was-” she stopped again. “I don't want this to be rushed and rough. This is not a mission, this isn't for a reason beyond itself. This if just for us, and we're always this gentle with each other. Well, aside from when we spar” she tried to laugh a little to lighten the mood.

Maria was dead. She died and never came back, it was the only thing that made sense. Because it couldn't be real. It was the definition of too perfect to be true.

She gently moved Natasha's hair that fell over her eyes and kissed her forehead, then pressing her own against it while claiming her lips again. Gently and slowly, she slide Natasha's leather jacket off her shoulders.

You're right. This is us.”

And it was.

It was gentle and slow and perfect. She felt something above anything else she ever felt. She felt complete and loved somehow, and even if she knew she could never say that out loud, ever, she still felt like she was so happy that nothing else in the world could have ever compared.


You have no soulmark.”

I do, I just keep it covered with one of Stark Industries' skin devices.”

Did you meet them?” Maria asked softly and she knew she shouldn't have, but just as she was about to say that, Natasha started to answer.

Red Room manipulated our brain so that the words on our body would activate a killswitch. If we ever heard the words we would go into some sort of automatized fight mode and kill whomever said them, just like that.”

Natasha had killed her soulmate.

I'm sorry, Nat.”

I'm a monster.”

You're not. They are. The people who did this to you. You had no choice in this, this is not your fault at all.”

She turned over to look in her eyes and Maria realized nobody had ever told her that before. She needed to hear it. She needed to know.

You had no choice.”

I tell that to myself a lot, but I did. I could have walked sooner.”

You were a kid, Natasha. You were four when they took you, you were twenty-three when we found you and it still surprises me that you did walk then. You were a kid, you couldn't have resisted that kind of brain washing, no one could have. The moment you had a choice, you chose to be good and that is the thing that defines who you are now. Who you're choosing to be.”

Natasha hugged her really tight and didn't let go all night.

Maria didn't mind.


//


She knocked on the door after driving for hours and knowing that this was going to be one of the easiest talks, since the people in that household were amongst the happiest she had ever met. Still, she was a little worried by default.

Laura Barton opened the door and Maria smiled at her politely.

“Maria! Oh, darling it's good to see you again, you finally made time for a visit. Come in” she hugged her quickly and urged her inside.

“It's good to see you, too, Laura. I wish I could say I was in the neighborhood but the place is kinda in the middle of nowhere.”

“Here on business, then?”

Laura and Clint's two elder children jumped out of nowhere and launched themselves at her in a tight hug.

“Maria” both yelled.

She ducked just in time to catch both of them and return the tight hug.

“Hey kids, you've grown up quite a bit since last time.”

“Let Maria breath guys” Laura told them, going into the kitchen to start some tea. “So I take it it's not me you came to see.”

“Actually, yes. Both you and Clint” Maria told her while getting back up and watching the kids return to their games while she followed Laura to the other room.

“Is it something bad?”

Maria paused.

“I don't know, actually, but I really don't think so. You're the one who's going to have to decide it, I guess.”

Laura sighed and she honestly couldn't blame her for thinking of something bad. She knew that in times of happiness it is always the dread that the good might end that occupies one's thought. Maria hadn't had that worry in a while.

“It's best if you call him. You might want me to leave after I tell you this and it's going to get dark in a couple of hours, so if I have to drive back it's time we start.”

“Oh, Maria. Whatever it is, I'm sure it's not enough to make us want you to leave. You're family, you're always welcome here.”

Maria smiled but it was too small to be honest and it was gone all too soon.

The front door opening distracted them both and they turned. Maria was paralyzed and immediately straighten her shoulders, albeit not on purpose.

“Barton. Romanoff.”

“Maria” Natasha whispered. “What are you doing here?”

Her jaw tighten. The unspoken question was how she knew Natasha was there. The point being she didn't know at all or she would have postponed her visit.

“I had to talk with Laura and Clint about a very urgent matter and I didn't know you'd be here. I can come back another time, of course.”

“Didn't you just say it's very urgent?” Clint laughed a little, going in for a hug that Maria was very glad came despite everything that happened. She was glad Clint still considered her a friend and she wondered how much Natasha told them, since they treated her like they always did. So maybe she didn't say anything at all.

“It's also very, very private” she lowered her gaze to the ground, before looking back at Barton, conveying with her eyes just how much. “So it's your call.”

“Natasha's like a sister. Let's all sit down and we can talk” he encouraged her.

Laura sat down four cups of tea while Maria tightened her grip on the file in her hands. She took a deep breath and as soon as all of them were sat she started.

“I was doing some research, the new S.H.I.E.L.D. director gave me full access to some files and projects regarding a very specific topic. I was trying to found out something to explain-” she caught herself. She was not there to rant with her friends and tell them her sorrows and broken hopes. She was there to atone. “Well, anyway, I stumbled on a very secret project that I never heard before, which was kind of unsettling since-” she bit her tongue and took a deep, calming breath. “I'm sorry, this was easier with-” she stopped again. That was not a name she wanted to drop in this household, it really was not.

“Do you think you can actually finish a sentence, or” Barton snorted at her.

But then her eyes rose up to meet his and he saw unshed tears. He turned serious. This was personal. It wasn't just S.H.I.E.L.D. business, this was close to home.

“What is it, Maria?” Laura's voice was steady and kind and soft.

And Maria could do it. She could. She just had to avoid looking at Natasha and just look at the Barton's instead.

“I uncovered an old and very secret operation named project P.O.T.U.S., not related to the President, before you make a joke, Barton. It stands for Protocol for Operational Threats and Undermining of Soulmates. It was a project that allowed Agents whose soulmate tampered with their ability to perform on the field or in some way with their jobs so much that it came to choosing between them or the agency, the possibility to erase from their memory their first meeting with their soulmate, to ensure the safety of both parties.”

“What, just, cancel an entire day?”

“Something like that, cancel or alter a memory, yes. I brought the files with the medical and practical details, but it's just creepy and not a really good read, I wouldn't recommend it. But I think you should red yours.”

“Mine?” Barton furrowed her brow. “Oh, Lord, no.”

Maria's neutral face fell a bit when she understood what he was afraid of.

“Yours and Laura's” she quickly added. “You two are soulmates.”


BARTON, CLINTON FRANCIS

Consent: Signed and in attachment

Soulmate: Cardellini, Laura

Words: “Oh, it was my favorite”

Cause of Procedure: Marriage of Agent Barton (to Agent M.B.). Risk in fraternizing with a civilian. Compromising risk. Due to the possibility of Agent Barton's retirement caused by bonding with a civilian, it was highly encouraged the treatment in order to maintain his cover and keep his services.

Status: Successful


CARDELLINI, LAURA

Consent: Signed and in attachment

Soulmate: Barton, Clinton Francis

Words: “I'll have to buy you a new one”

Cause of Procedure: Due to Agent Barton's treatment it is impossible to leave Cardellini with the memories of their first meeting.

Status: Successful


“Both me and the director are working on retrieving the medical records to try and bring back to you the original memories” Maria continued after giving them the time to read those files.

“So you just met me, decided you preferred S.H.I.E.L.D. and have my memory erased?” Laura asked incredulously towards Barton.

“We don't know if that's the case” Maria reasoned.

“Laura this is very early. I was still married, it means it was my first or at best second year in S.H.I.E.L.D.” he answered calmly. “You know how difficult that period of my life was. I thought I had to amend for the things I did and that were done to me. I couldn't have left and if I did, I would have messed us up and we would have never had this life.”

A long silence stretched and Maria kept her eyes on the table.

“This happened at the right time” Barton continued. “We have the perfect life, honey. And this is good news, it means what we knew in our hearts is now also on our skin.”

Maria wanted to laugh and cry because that sentence? She thought that sentence a million times before, but it just didn't work out that way for her.

She dared a quick glance only to see Natasha's eyes bore right into hers.

“Why were you researching about this?” her voice was too cold, too steady, almost unnatural.

“I wasn't. I was researching if we had ever demonstrated that the words on our skin might have been wrong, if the person destined to us could be a different one or if it was even possible to mistakenly say the wrong sentence but think about the right one or something like that. There is nothing of the sort documented before, but there was this. And I had to explain to the couples in the files what happened to them, I still have to. I was trying to prove this marks don't define us and I” she laughed bitterly, but her eyes never left Natasha's. “I just proved that every last happy couple I knew who didn't have matching marks actually did have matching marks but got them erased in an attempt to keep a distance, of course said attempt miserably failed as they still found their soulmate regardless.”

“So you just proved there is no escaping your soulmate” Natasha stated.

And, God, Maria would have given anything to be in a room alone with her so that she could scream her heart out and accuse her of things she wasn't to blame for just so she could get a raise out of her, just so they could fight just one time and say everything they never did.

“Are you going to say you told me so? And I thought Barton was the childish one.”

“Hey” he said in an offended tone that lacked conviction.

“I did tell you so.”

She knew at least three non-violent ways to wipe the smirk Natasha was then showing off right out of her face, but none of them was an option in that moment, so she opted for averting her gaze and standing up.

“It's getting quite late, I should go. Thanks for the tea and for whatever question you might have don't hesitate to call me.”

Barton and Laura nodded and accompanied her to the door.

“Hey, mind if I come with you?” Natasha asked, making her freeze two feet from her escape. “I just have to grab my bag upstairs, if you're going to town Clint won't have to make a trip just to take me tomorrow.”

“Sure, no problem. I'll wait.”

“Great, I'll just be a minute.”

She fled the stairs and Maria was left staring at an empty space where she was standing a second before. Barton silently followed her.

“Darling, did something happen? I know it's been a few months, but you two were very close last time you were here” Laura whispered to her. “You've always been the best of friends. What changed?”

Everything. Nothing. Themselves? No, they'd always been the same.

Time changed.

Maria was no longer twenty-five and waiting.

She was also no longer twenty-seven and in love with her best friend.

She wasn't thirty and well past the point where she could hold hope of meeting her soulmate anymore.

She was thirty-three and things were complicated and she had been trying to change her own fate for so long that she almost convinced herself she eventually would have, until the world came crashing down and she realized that no, of course you can't change destiny, Maria.

And maybe if she was still twenty-five, she would have done things differently. She would have said so many things she hadn't and she couldn't say anymore.

“Time changed, I guess. I was late.”

“Late for what?” Laura's voice was soft and patient.

Maria kept looking at the stairs, where Natasha and Barton disappeared and thought that maybe she had been wrong all along. Maybe destiny really wasn't meant to be changed. Maybe she couldn't have her soulmate but wasn't meant for Natasha either.

“Late for the love of my life.”

She didn't say anything else and thank God Laura didn't ask. When they came back down Maria kissed the kids, hugged Clint and Laura, and then went to her car with Natasha right on her heels.


They stayed quiet for a while.

“Who's next?”

And of course she would ask that. Work always first.

“Can I come?” she asked when Maria didn't answer right away.

“Sure” she whispered keeping her eyes on the road.

It was quiet again.

“You're really quiet and really mad. I stayed away for longer after S.H.I.E.L.D. fell.”

“Because you had to, Romanoff, because it was safer. Now it's because you want to. It's fine. I get it. You fell in love. Can't really help it, I should know.”

It was bitter and uncalled for and she really shouldn't blame on Natasha something that was no one's fault.

“That was rude, I'm sorry.”

“What are you talking about?” she sounded genuinely confused.

Maria scoffed. “Really? You want to play it like this? Banner.”

“What about Bruce?”

“Oh my God, really? Why are you making me spell this? I know, and I'm also offended you didn't tell me since I was supposed to be your best friend, but it's fine, it's cool, it's whatever.”

It wasn't.

And as she started to talk, she found out she couldn't stop.

“For a group of superheroes, let me tell you, you're all pretty fond of gossip. Something about a kiss, an heart to heart about your past, some pretty forward advances and a shared shower? Bruce told Stark, then Tony told Thor by mistake and somehow Steve kind of overheard, I don't even know, and he told Sharon and she told me. So really, this-” she took a deep breath and shook her head. It was all coming out fast and harsh but really, she didn't get it. She just didn't. “It's fine, it's cool, it's whatever. You don't need to say anything and we don't have to talk about this, because you've made clear where we stand and that we're nothing more than friends. Except apparently we're not even that anymore, because you won't talk to me, I haven't seen you in weeks nor have I heard from you, but whatever.”

“Maria Hill, I swear to Thor, if I hear you say whatever. One. More. Time.”

That was just typical, the teasing voice and light tone and why the hell was she smiling?

“Pull over.”

“Romanoff, it's late and we're-”

“Pull over.”

She did because, fine, if they were doing the talking on the side of a deserted street at sunset then so be it.

It was fine with her, it was cool, it was-

It wasn't looking like they were going to do so much talk, Maria quickly registered, since as soon as the car stopped on the side Natasha had her seat belt off and as soon as Maria turned the car off a redhead assassin was sitting in her lap, straddling her hips in the small space between the driver seat and the steering wheel. And, would you believe the fucking nerve, Natasha was kissing her.

Muscle memory kicked in because before she fully realized it her hands (the traitors) were on Natasha's hips to steady her and she was kissing her back.

“Why- what- wh-”

“You're hot when you're jealous.”

The raspy voice she knew and adored was almost a distraction enough. But then her mind cleared a bit and she was left wondering if she was currently being played.

So she put her hands on the redhead's shoulders, pushing her slightly away.

“I didn't kiss him, and I thought Fury told you.”

“Told me what?”

“He came to me privately to tell me I had to keep the Avengers together no matter what. So I went to his room, made some advances, yes. I came on very strong because I know the kind of guy and I knew it would put him off but at the same time intrigue him enough that it would make him stay and fight. Maria, don't take this the wrong way, but as far as means of seduction go I'm really well trained and if I wanted to sleep with him, I would have slept with him. Hell, if I wanted to kiss him, we would have kissed, which we did not, by the way.”

Okay, so maybe even if your friends mean well you shouldn't listen to someone who told his girlfriend he overheard an accidental conversation about an half confession because it could be very poorly accurate.

It was silent for very long.

“I feel like an idiot.”

“Good.”

The raspy voice was back and too close to her ear for comfort.

She closed her eyes.

“I'm sorry.”

“I told you, you're hot when you're jealous and trying to play it cool. But you have noting to be jealous about. I thought that was clear.”

“I just- I got scared. Things were good and then suddenly they weren't.”

“I have to admit, I was pretty curious, when you said you started looking into soulmates stuff, back there.”

“No, I wasn't, I told you.”

“I know now.”

Natasha's hand gently traced her cheek.

“I know” she said again, getting off her and returning to her own seat. “I'm sorry, I shouldn't have kissed you.”

“I didn't mind” Maria said quietly, staring straight ahead. “You know, all the things I found, and nothing has changed my mind. Just so you know.”

“Maria-”

“Just saying. Randomly putting it out there just in case.”

Natasha sighed.

“I guess nothing changed your mind either” Maria whispered starting the car again. “It's fine, it's cool, it's-”

“Don't you dare say it.”

“-whatever” Maria said slowly, savoring each letter as she started driving again with a smirk on her lips, trying to cover the fact that of course she was still heartbroken, but nothing could be done about that.

She turned just a moment, seeing a similar smirk on the redhead lips.

“You're paying for this.”

Maria's smile only got wider.

“Oh, I look forward to it.”


//


They did hold true to the “Just this once” rule. For a consistent amount of time. Seven months or something close to that, anyway.

Things were never awkward, but they were a bit different. Some stares lingered too much, some touches were too intimate, some smiles where too personal. But they stayed best friends even after that one night and everything went back to how it was.

And Maria kept telling herself she wouldn't slip again. Natasha wouldn't let her.

But then, of course, there was that other night.

She thought, as long as they didn't get anymore injuries they weren't at risk of a surge of adrenaline pushing them to let go again, to the addiction of the closeness that made them feel better, safer, and perhaps even something too close to loved.

Surprisingly, it wasn't with a bang, but with a whimper that they caved.

It was a job in New York, in and out in a couple of hours, everything solved and the rest of the night off before someone came to pick them up the morning after, so they headed to Maria's apartment to sleep the champagne off.

As soon as they were in, Maria took off her heels and threw her purse on the sofa.

Want a beer?”

Sure.”

And they sat on the couch and laughed and exchanged undercover stories. And since the job was easy and they weren't injured their guard wasn't that far up. It slipped just low enough that when Natasha put a hand on Maria's knee they both pretend not to notice so it could stay there, just so far that when Maria put her arm on the back of the sofa and inched closer they could act like it didn't faze them at all, and when Natasha's other hand landed on said arm they just ignored the twisting in their stomachs.

Maria's hand landed on top of the one Natasha had on her knee and traveled up, to her shoulder and then her neck and their laughter faded when she caressed gently the hair on the back of her neck.

They looked in each others eyes and suddenly everything else didn't matter.

She moved forward and paused an inch from Natasha's lips to give her a chance to stop her. She didn't. So Maria kissed very gently, just a peck, just a second. Then shyly looked back at her, gauging her reaction.

We shouldn't” Natasha whispered, then she kissed Maria again, a second longer, lingering but still chaste.

Maria could have been fooled, if Natasha's hand on her knee didn't tighten her grip and the one on her shoulder didn't trace the skin of her arm to take the hand still resting on the back of the couch, interviewing their fingers.

Just this once” Maria whispered, then kissed her again, less chastely.

The hand on her knee traveled up to the hem of her dress, slightly slipping under before stopping and Maria tighten her hold on her hair while letting go of her hand to grip her shoulder and pull her closer.

We've said that before, Maria.”

God , that raspy voice. She missed that.

Just once more” she whispered then.

Her thumbs traced Natasha's cheekbones and she kissed her forehead, her nose and her lips with a gentleness that almost startled both of them.

That was the exact moment Maria knew she was in love with Natasha.

The realization hit her so hard, for a moment she thought she should back off and fled, but then Natasha was kissing her and the hand slipped higher and nothing else mattered in that moment anymore.

Just once more” the redhead whispered back as she straddled her.

Maria, without saying anything, got up and carried Natasha to her bedroom.


Another couple of months went by and things went back to normal once again.

But then Natasha went undercover for Stark and they had to stop all contacts for weeks and months and then the Avengers happened.

The battle of New York started and ended and Maria left the Helicarrier to go and see if her own apartment in New York was still standing.

It was.

And when she opened the door Natasha was already there. Sitting on her couch, drinking vodka straight from the bottle.

Maria closed the door as she got up, then walked to her and the bottle was offered but declined.

They stared at each other and said nothing.

Maria's eyes were cold but teary and Natasha's were warm but very tired.

One last time” Natasha said like it was a warning.

One last time” Maria said like it was a promise.

They didn't sleep at all that night, regardless of how tired and in pain and wounded they both were, their eyes just wouldn't close.

They laid on their sides hours after they fell into bed together, facing each other, gently caressing each others skin to memorize it somehow. They were quiet until Natasha's fingertips traced Maria's soulmark.

As long as you don't let go of my hand.

I'm almost thirty, you know.”

So what, I'm twenty-eight, are you telling me I'm too young for you?” Natasha smirked, even though she knew far too well what Maria meant.

Maybe it doesn't have to be one last time, maybe we could go on a date, someday.”

Natasha's smirk faltered and faded.

It wouldn't work out. With our jobs and everything-”

It seems to work just fine for Barton.”

Natasha sighed. “You know me, Maria. I can't do this. Relationships, love, it's just not my thing, I'd screw it up eventually. And our friendship means the world to me, I don't want to ruin what we have.”

Maria's eyes closed at that, as a shaky breath left her lips.

Right.”

If I could have loved someone, it would have been you.”

Right” she whispered again, so quiet she wasn't even sure if she just thought it.

She felt Natasha shifting and she found herself completely pressed against her, the left side of her own face against Natasha's shoulder and sternum, Natasha's arms wrapped around her neck, one hand massaging her back, the other caressing her hair in a shooting manner, while she kissed her forehead again and again and again.

She still felt so safe, despite just being rejected, she felt more at home in Natasha's arms than anywhere else. She kissed the shoulder she could reach and closed her eyes again.

You'll find your soulmate, someday. I promise you. She'll be better than who I am right now, she'll be a good person. She will try everyday to make you happy and protect you and give you everything in the world you could ever want. And when that day comes, when you love your soulmate more than anyone else in this universe, I'll be there to remind you there is no escaping your fate and that I told you so, because I'm a shitty friend.”

Maria laughed lightly.

She thought, maybe if she said something when they were younger and less responsible, maybe this could have gone differently. Maybe not.

It's going to be okay. She'll be there when the time is right and you're both ready.”

Maybe she will” Maria whispered. “But I might be late for that.”

She was always late after all. She had been late for the love of her life, she might have been late for her soulmate, too.


//


They got out of the elevator, entering on of the upper floors of Stark's building, while Steve rose up to greet them, probably warned by JARVIS.

“Hey, you're early.”

“Just ten minutes, we knew you'd be waiting” Maria smiled politely.

“I was kind of puzzled when I was told you were going to be here, too” Steve told Natasha.

She shrugged. “I kinda got involved and decided to help with this thing. Besides, I have nothing better to do, so here I am. Sharon, good to see you again.”

The blond smiled as she walked up to them.

“I just got here right before you, so what did you have to talk to us about?”

“It's best if we sit down” Maria told them.

Steve led the way, he sat on the couch with Sharon and Natasha on either side, while Maria took the armchair.

I've been doing some research regarding soulmates and soulbonds. I know you've both been looking for yours and I found some answers I thought you might want.”

“We're both over thirty, we didn't think it'd matter anymore. I'm actually” Sharon paused but then kept going. “I'm seeing someone.”

“Me too” Steve said quietly.

“Each other” Natasha supplied. “You're seeing each other.”

“How did you-”

“One, Sharon said she just got here but there's two cups on the coffee table, both empty. Two, there are heels on the left corner of the room, and she's wearing casual clothes right now, but there are also two bags and it makes no sense unless she has spares in the house, your house Steve, so I assume she spends the night quite a lot. Three, the sink has two wine glasses, four dishes and two mugs. Four-”

“Ok, we get it. We've been busted.”

“Four” Natasha continued. “Super spy” she pointed at herself. “If you genuinely wanted to hide it, you could have done a better job. You wanted us to notice because you thought it would be awkward to tell us. I'm assuming because Maria used to be Sharon's boss, but it could also be for that time I kissed Steve.”

“You kissed Steve?” Sharon asked, frowning.

“So it's not that, I guess” Natasha whispered with a smirk as Maria rolled her eyes. “It wasn't even a real kiss, I just wanted to see how much it took to make him blush. Very little as I found out, he's even blushing right now.”

“This is getting a bit out of track” Maria intervened. “We're here because, as I was saying, I stumbled on a S.H.I.E.L.D. project, regarding unrequited soulmates. It allowed Agents whose soulmate tampered with their jobs the possibility to erase from their memory their first meeting with their soulmate, to ensure the safety of both parties. You are over thirty, yes, but you already found your soulmate and bonded. It was just erased from your memory. I came to deeply apologize for the poor choices that led to that occurrence and to ask if there's something I can ever do to repair this mistake.”

Steve and Sharon took a long moment to absorb what she was saying, then stared at each other for a couple of very long minutes.

“I don't want to know, do you?” Steve asked softly.

Sharon shook her head. “I'm happy, I love you and I want to be with you. I don't care, that name won't mean anything and it won't change anything.”

Maria cleared her voice.

“This is very sweet and all, but before you set the files on fire, I really think it would be best if you let me show you. Of course, this remains your choice.”

“Just look, you idiots” Natasha told them, rolling her eyes.

“Well, fine, but Sharon's right, it won't change anything.”

It would change everything.


ROGERS, STEVE

Consent: Signed and in attachment

Soulmate: Carter, Sharon

Words: “I just had a date”

Cause of Procedure: Just unfrozen from hibernation, still mourning the loss of previous life, friends and lover. Carter is also related to the woman Rogers was previously involved with, this has caused psychological distress in both of them, Rogers is still unstable, the procedure requested by both the parties is highly recommended.

Status: Successful


CARTER, SHARON

Consent: Signed and in attachment

Soulmate: Rogers, Steve

Words: “No, this can't be right”

Cause of Procedure: Claims that bonding with Rogers would be disastrous for her family (especially former Agent C.M, previously involved with Rogers). He seems unstable and neither reacted well to the bond. They both requested the procedure and while there is a possibility Carter could come to terms with the bond eventually, this could affect both their jobs and personal lives in a dangerous manner. Procedure is highly recommended.

Status: Successful


“You weren't ready. Steve just lost Peggy and you just got promoted and you both could have lost literally everything. Your family could have disowned you, Sharon, at least you thought so, there is your full psychological evaluation in there, so is Steve's” Maria explained calmly. “But you are ready now and you deserved to know, you're with your soulmate. I hope this is good news.”

After they metabolized her words, they smiled a little.

“I mean, this is a lot. But yeah, it's good news” Carter confirmed.

“We're going to be okay” Steve told Maria with a smile.

“Very well. I will leave you to discuss this, then. Thank you for your time” Maria got up and moved towards the elevator.

She just couldn't stand there anymore.

The things they said, about love going beyond soulmarks and bonds, she felt them for someone, too, but while it worked out for them, it would never work out for Maria. It couldn't.

“Thank you for letting us know” Steve said, while she and Natasha walked away.

“No problem” the redhead answered when she realized Maria wasn't going to. “A pleasure to see you both.”

The elevator doors closed and the silence was too much for them to handle.

“I'm okay.”

“No, you're not.”

“No, I'm not” Maria agreed. “But I'm going to be.”

“I know you are.”

When the elevator opened Maria got out and marched towards the car. Natasha didn't follow her, that time. She let her go. Maria didn't look back.


//


So “Just this once” turned into “Just once more” and that turned into “One last time” and they said that it was “One last time” a couple of times every month for three years.

Maria knew what it was for Natasha. At least, she thought she did. She knew Natasha cared about her and she genuinely loved her as a friends. It was just different for Maria, because she loved Natasha more than that. She was in love with her.

They were playing a dangerous game, but they couldn't stop. No matter how much they believed it was going to be just one last time, there was just a look or a touch or a sentence and they fell back into the pattern of sleeping together and be just best friends in the morning.

But then S.H.I.E.L.D. fell and Natasha disappeared and when she came back it wasn't a couple of time a months anymore. It was every night of the week for three weeks and it was just too much, but somehow it was just not enough at the same time.

Maria was thirty-two and she just wanted to forget soulmates existed so she could be with Natasha and she could tell her out loud that she meant the world to her. Hell, she meant the whole universe to her.

You're going to have to chose someday” she told her quietly as they were getting ready for Stark's party, one night.

Natasha looked confused.

We can't keep doing this, you say you just want us to be friends and that's fine, really. But we can't be this thing in the middle forever. We're either friends or a couple, Nat. Friends don't” she gestured around at the apartment that held both of their stuff and clothes and weapons. “Friends don't live together and sleep together every night.”

This is just-”

Until the next world war? Yeah, I figured. There will be a time when the next apocalypse comes when I'd like to know if you'll come back home, at some point.”

I'll always come home.”

I didn't mean if you'll make it alive, I meant here, Natasha. Home.”

Her heart was pounding in her chest and she felt like breathing was harder and keeping the tears from falling was even tougher.

I can't do this, Maria. I'm not good enough for you, I'm a murderer.”

You're a hero, Natasha. And I-” she paused but it just came out anyway. “I love you.”

Time stopped when she realized she just said that out loud.

She felt the other woman kiss her gently on the lips.

I love you, too. I'm just not ready for this. My ledger is dripping red.”

Maria never understood what that had to do with anything, but she nodded like she knew what the redhead meant.

One day, maybe, I'll have atone enough and I'll be able to be the person you deserve.”

I don't want you to be better or different, Nat. I just want you.”

They were standing in front of a line that separated friends from lovers, and they were aware that they were usually on different sides, dancing around it and stepping on it more often than not and surely more than what was wise, edging together on one side or the other from time to time. But in that moment they both chose the side they wanted to be on. And it was not the same, yet again.

A cellphone rang – Natasha's – and Barton told them they were going to be late, so they exited the apartment, went to Stark's party, met Ultron, got separated and found themselves in the middle of a war, again.


//


A lot could be said about Stark, he was a self absorbed ass most of the time, and he could fill the whole Stark building with his ego, which was saying something, but the man really knew how to throw a party.

Maria was sticking to the bar because there were no photographers there on the upper floor and free alcohol was an offer she wasn't inclined to refuse even when her life didn't feel like a pathetic failure, and the fact that it also did feel like that was an added motive.

“Hey, I've been looking for you since I got here.”

She turned her head and was dumbstruck. Natasha was wearing a red dress that stopped barely at the middle of her tights, maybe higher.

“I've been here since I arrived half an hour ago, just” she sighed and nodded to the glass in her right hand. “Drinking my ass off.”

“You look absolutely stunning” she took in Natasha's look and it appeared she wasn't the only one left speechless, but the redhead was having a harder time recovering.

Her eyes traveled the length of the light blue dress Maria was wearing all the way up to her eyes, finding the same color there and finding it even more endearing apparently.

“You do, too” Maria whispered and then lowered her gaze to her glass as she took a sip.

“Can I join you?”

“Please.”

She ordered a drink from the guy behind the bar and then sat down on the stool next to Maria's, crossing her legs.

“I haven't seen you all week.”

“Long few days at work, sorry” Maria smiled, but it was too small to be genuine.

“Did Sharon and Steve upset you?”

Maria laughed at the protective tone. “I'm fine, sweetheart.”

She bit her own tongue as soon as she used the name that had always been reserved for too long conversations with too little clothes on.

You don't have to be, love. It's fine if you're not okay sometimes. I know you're always busy protecting all of us to watch your own back, but that's why you keep me around” Natasha teased her and smirked as Maria rose her eyes.

“What are you lovely ladies up to?” Barton caught up to them, ordering a drink himself and smiling at them both.

“Just small talk. How are you and Laura doing?” Maria asked averting her eyes.

“We're great, thank you. Never better, actually. She's here, her parents are babysitting the little ones and I thought it was about time she came to one of this things. I sneaked her in from the back entrance with some help from JARVIS so she avoided the photographers outside and the mess in the lobby. It's just us up here and you all know her already, it was pointless to come alone.”

“It was a great idea, I'm glad she's here” Maria smiled a little more genuinely.

“I wish she brought the kids instead of you, tho” Natasha complained.

“Ah ah, how funny” Barton said humorlessly.

“Kids, don't fight, mom hasn't had enough to drink to handle you, right now” Maria told them, taking another swing at her drink. “Although, I'm planning on righting that.”

“Careful with whom you tell that to, love, someone with bad intentions might take advantage of your inebriated state” Natasha's teasing and flirting tone just made her drown the remains of her whiskey in one long sip.

“Oh, now you're flirting with her?” Barton whispered. “When I said you two should be together years ago you both almost chew my head off.”

Maria rolled her eyes and ordered another whiskey.

“Peach vodka, Barton? That's for kids and women with a mid life crisis” Maria told him just to change the subject.

“It's delicious” he mumbled.

After a couple of silent minutes music started and Rhodes asked Maria to dance and she took his hand just to get away from an awkward silence, leaving her second drink untouched.

After two dances and an handful of lame attempts at small conversation she told him she was going to go for another drink and he offered to accompany her.

She saw Natasha on the dance floor with Barton, then with Steve, then with Tony. Maria was on her third whiskey and the redhead had also danced with Sam, Rhodes himself and two other men she didn't even know.

She didn't openly watch, but she saw nonetheless.

She had just finished her whiskey when Sam went to ask her to dance. She was about to refuse him, but she saw Natasha looking her way and starting to walk in her direction, so she faked a smile and accepted his hand.

“Did Steve and Tony put you and Rhodes up to this?” she asked right after they started dancing.

He laughed lightly. “I can assure you, more then a handful of men in this room have been looking at you since you walked through the door.”

Maria snorted. “Sure.”

“They're all just really scared to ask you to dance. Their loss is my gain, and all that.”

She smiled, flattered, but didn't say anything.

It was just really a minute or two when someone tapped Sam on the shoulder.

“May I step in?” Natasha asked.

He looked at Maria, as to ask if she was okay with him dancing with Natasha and with apologetic eyes that were a signal he intended to continue the conversation later. But before either of them could say anything, Natasha side stepped him and took Maria's hand, giving her a smirk.

“You leading or am I?” she whispered.

Maria looked down at those bright, gorgeous eyes she knew by heart and barely kept a smirk from forming.

“Sweetheart, I'm always leading” she answered as her hand landed on Natasha's hip and the other adjusted the hold on Natasha's as they started dancing.

Natasha's hand fell on her shoulder but very soon her fingers were caressing the back of her neck as she always did when they danced. Of course, they never did it in public before.

“Who's jealous now” Maria teased her.

Natasha pulled her closer and just said “I am” as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

Maria's smirk faded.

“I wanted to talk to you about something, actually. This P.O.T.U.S thing made me realize something and I think it's time we talk about it, privately.”

Maria took a deep breath. “Sure” she said with a sigh.

She knew where this was going. Natasha was going to tell her that in the end, everybody was with their soulmate. That things always worked out that way. She didn't want to hear it, but she would even if it was just to grant Natasha some peace of mind.

They kept dancing cheek to cheek for two more songs, and after the third song, when the music stopped, Maria took a step back, smiling and leaded them both back to the bar to get one last drink before heading out. When they stopped at the bar, Tony and Steve were there talking.

“Hey, ladies. How did you enjoy the party? Maria, you're a vision” Tony told them, kissing Maria's hand while Steve smiled at her.

“It was lovely” she answered with a smile.

Barton and Laura walked up to them with Sharon by their side.

As soon as Laura saw her, she went up to Maria and hugged her really tightly.

“I'm starting to get jealous, Laura” Natasha warned her with a laugh.

“What were you guys talking about?” Pepper asked, walking over with two glasses and offering one to Tony.

“Actually, the three of us” Barton indicated between himself, Laura and Sharon “were talking about Maria's latest attempt at looking after us.”

Maria was startled at that way to put it. She hadn't thought about it that way at all.

“I was just doing my job, really.”

“No, you weren't. You were being you, always looking out for your friends.”

Maria didn't answer to Sharon, taking a gulp of her drink instead.

“What are you talking about?” Tony asked, suddenly interested.

They all looked at Maria.

“I uhm-” she drank again. “I accidentally uncovered an old project, something very secret and very messed up. S.H.I.E.L.D. used to erase the memory of meeting a soulmate from the Agent's memory if they requested it and if there was a valid reason.”

“My God, that is awful” Pepper looked baffled.

Maria nodded. “I merely tried to repair my errors and I went to them to tell them what I found in their files.”

“Them?” Tony asked.

“Barton and Laura were couple number two, Steve and Sharon number four. Number three, five and seven are either dead or turned out HYDRA, I spoke to number one while the Director spoke to number eight, since they were on his base. And that was pretty much all. Well, of course, except for subject seventeen.”

She gulped down all her drink in one sip and put the glass on the counter, signaling the bartender to refill it.

“Subject seventeen?” Barton asked, puzzled.

Maria nodded, all eyes on her.

“Someone whose soulmate was so bad and messed up, Fury decided to do the treatment without consent, without leaving a record of who the soulmate was. Can you imagine someone so bad? I can't. It had to have been really bad, all kinds of fucked up. Someone like Loki, but it was years before he set foot on Earth. I'm starting to think some kind of Red Skull reincarnation himself or something like that.”

“Who are they?” Steve asked. “Subject seventeen” he clarified. “And is there a way we can help them?”

No, not really. I started looking at old files about soulmates in hope of finding some sort of proof that you don't need to be with your soulmate or even to meet them to be happy. As it turned out, all the happy couples I know are soulmates, so that was kind of the opposite of the goal, but I'm really glad I could help you” she took back her glass from the counter as the waiter refilled it and proceeded to take another sip. She started to feel tipsy. She was good at handling alcohol but even she had her limits. “But of course, that wasn't even the worst part, because being thirty-three and resigned to never meeting my soulmate was bad, but finding out I did have a soulmate and it was so freaking horrific that Fury just thought he would wipe my memory clean so that I didn't have to know, that's an all new level of tragic, to be honest.”

It was all out there before she could stop it.

“But it's fine, really. It's cool. It's-”

“Oh no, you're not saying whatever, Hill” Natasha stopped her with a warning look.

It was enough to make her smile a little.

The others were still looking at her.

“Really, guys. I'm okay.”

“I don't think it was that bad, Maria. Maybe you asked him to keep this off record?” Laura tried to make her reason.

“Yeah, maybe it was some level one agent who would have want you to be a housewife and Fury just flipped him off” Barton joked.

Maria laughed a little at that. “Possible.”

I thought you didn't care who your soulmate was” Natasha told her, her voice a bit cold, because if Maria was going to avoid her and then spill her heart out to their friends, fine, Natasha could play this game just as well.

“I didn't. I don't.”

“Could have fooled me” Natasha looked at her, piercing green eyes staring right at her soul.

“Yeah, well. Someone dumped my ass because I should be with my soulmate, so the problem was never that I cared, but that the one person I wanted to be with did more than I did. But it's fine, it doesn't matter anymore. I'm just glad this thing I dug up helped someone else.”

“I'm really sorry, Maria” Pepper told her. Her voice wasn't filled with pity, but rather with an hint of sadness and anger at who had done this.

“Me too” Steve told her quietly.

“I have this friend, over thirty and single, I'll text you his number” Tony offered.

Maria smiled and thought about the moment Tony was going to realize she didn't swing that way, not since highschool, but didn't say anything.

“I'll head home now, I might have had a whiskey too much.”

As she smiled and waved and started walking toward the elevator, she heard a faint “I'll go with her” and someone rushing to catch up.

“You don't have to.”

“I want to” Natasha told her.

Maria just nodded and gave her a hand gesture to invite her to lead.


They took a cab to Maria's apartment and silence followed them all the way home.

It was okay, she knew how it ended.

When she opened the door and threw her keys into the little table next to the door where she also left her purse, Natasha headed for the couch and sat down.

Maria watched her. Just watched her for a minute.

So at ease, so at peace, so at home.

That was what could have been but could never become of them. A sneak peek into the life they could have led.

“We don't have to do this” she whispered quietly, taking off her heels and heading towards the couch as well. “I know what you're going to say. Everyone is either with their soulmate or alone, so this thing, this thing that doesn't even exist, it would never work out.”

She popped down and sighed, resting her head back.

“That is definitely not what I was going to say” Natasha told her with a smirk.

When Maria didn't smile back, her smirk slowly subsided too.

“I know who your soulmate is.”

Maria felt her heartbeat in her ears. Maybe she heard wrong. Maybe she was having a nightmare, maybe she was actually drunker than what she had thought.

That couldn't be right. Could it?

“What do you mean you know who it is?”

“That I know who it is.”

“Oh, it's so much clearer now, thanks for explaining” she told her sarcastically.

“I need you to stay calm and if after I say this you don't want to talk to me anymore, I'll just walk, alright?”

Maria bit her lips hard and nodded.

“When I first got to S.H.I.E.L.D., you might remember this, I was a total mess.”

Maria did remember it. And the first months were though, she wasn't going to lie. She heard stories and saw Natasha's hunted eyes more than a couple of times. She knew it had been bad. It was still pretty difficult for Natasha when they started being friends and even after the first time they slept together. But things got easier with time.

“When they undid what Red Room did, they managed to turn off the killswitch for my soulmate, so I wouldn't kill them if I met them.”

“Wait. So your soulmate's alive? But I thought-”

“She is. But the fact that I didn't kill her doesn't mean that when I met her I was in a good place or that I could be with her. I heard stories about her and I'd seen her a couple of times around the Helicarrier, but we didn't speak until the end of our first mission together. She slipped and almost fell to her death and I caught her by the hand. She looked up at me and I'll always remember what she said.”

She slowly took off the electronic skin that covered her left arm at all times, revealing a sentence that immediately rang a bell in Maria's mind.

“Just don't kill me” she red.

“As long as you don't let go of my hand” Natasha whispered. “That's what I answered. But then I panicked. You were right about one thing, your soulmate was a monster. That's why Fury has kept it off record. It wasn't safe.”

No, this could not be going where Maria thought it was going.

It could not.

“Natalia Romanova was a murderer. A cold blood killer. Ruthless. She could snap at any given moment and revert back into a Russian trained assassin. It wasn't safe and she wasn't good enough for you, she'd never been and she never will, but she's trying her very best ever since she saw your eyes for the first time.”

Maria was the one that was going to snap and go on a murderous fury and kill her in cold blood, that was more like it.

“Let me get this straight. It was you, all along.”

“I couldn't tell you. I just couldn't be that person. I went to Fury in total panic and I told him what happened. He handed me the papers and told me he could make you forget about me, but that he wouldn't do the same for me. He was right, knowing you were my soulmate did help to keep me in S.H.I.E.L.D. even when I had my doubts. But it was a torture. I knew it was you and you were just there. All the time. By my side.”

She could see unshed tears in Natasha's eyes by that point.

“The deal was I could never be with you. Not until I was truly ready. If I tried to tell you, he would have wiped my memory too and I was going to be alone again. After a couple years, you were my best friend. How could you not be, given the whole soulmates thing?” she tried to laugh but she didn't even managed half of it. “When I kissed you, that first time, I knew I was risking it all, but I just-” she sighed and lightly shook her head. “I was so scared that I was going to lose you anyway that I told myself, if tomorrow Fury's going to wipe my mind, at least I will remember this. I will remember how perfect this was, how perfect we were.”

Maria kept listening, as breathing became harder and harder.

“He didn't. I don't know if he never found out since we hid it pretty well, or if he just decided to let it slide. But he let me keep your memory and it was the best thing to ever happen to me. That night meant everything to me. I agreed to the Avengers, I agreed to every mission Fury gave me, just to attempt to atone and be vaguely worthy of you. I was so in love with you, Maria, and I still am. But I was a monster, I-” her voice cracked.

Maria took her hands on instinct.

“Then it happened again and I thought I could tell you, I had to tell you. But then New York made me see that you were in danger because of me more than you were with me. Everyone who wanted to hurt me could do it by hurting you, so it was even less safe. But at the same time, the more I was with you, the less I could stay away. I was always drawn back to you, even if I wanted to keep you safe, to keep you just my best friend, I couldn't do that. I just couldn't, because I look at you and I see what I want the rest of my life to be like.”

Maria knew what she meant.

Every time she told herself it was the last time, because of S.H.I.E.L.D. fraternization policies, because it was better or safer, but then Natasha would look at her a certain way or take her hand or smile at her that one sided smile and it was just impossible to stay away.

She understood that. She did.

“Why didn't you say something before? We could have kept it between us, we could have found a way.”

Natasha shook her head. “This things always come out, you know that. And I couldn't protect you if something happened. I still can't. But I see how much this is hurting you and I can't keep doing that.”

Maria sighed, looking down and shaking her head too.

“There where so many times I wanted to say something but then some disaster happened and I remembered why I shouldn't. I was going to tell you after Stark's party, you know? You told me I had to chose and” she laughed a little. “I couldn't go back to being just your best friend. Not after we were practically living together for weeks. So I was going to tell you everything then. But then Ultron kind of ruined it and the first time after that I saw you at Barton's and you had already figured out most of it.”

“Did you?” Maria whispered. “Choose, I mean. Did you decide what you want?”

“I always wanted to be with you, Maria. I just- I couldn't before. You deserve” she looked down again, holding back tears. “You deserve the sun and the moon and all the stares. And I can't give you anything, all I have is me. And I'm broken, I'm a monster.”

“God, stop saying that, Nat. You're a hero. And not just to New York city and the whole world, you're a hero to me, too. What you went through and came back from, it's almost unbelievable how good you are after all the terrible things that happened to you. You're a hero” she said again, squeezing her hands.

Natasha looked at her and she tried to hide back behind an emotionless mask, but Maria could see she was scared and worried.

“Are you going to leave me?”

She never saw Natasha so defenseless before.

So it didn't matter if she was mad as hell. She had to choke it back and be mad the next day, because in that moment she had to do what she didn't have the chance to do for all that time. Be a soulmate to the woman who needed her. To the woman she loved more than anything in the universe and more than life itself.

“Nat, maybe you didn't notice, but I kinda went a great length to prove to you we could be together even if we weren't soulmates, so if I got this right and you're telling me we actually are soulmates, why on Earth would I leave you now?

“Because I've been keeping this awful secret and I've been an idiot.”

“You have. And I'm so mad at you, right now. And you're going to pay for this and we're going to fight and it's going to be far worse than anything you've ever faced and yes, I'm including the Chitauri into that. But not right now, we're not.”

“We're not?”

“No. because, right now? I just met my soulmate. And it turned out she was also the love of my life. So if you don't mind, I think I'd like to kiss her now. We can fight tomorrow. We can fight for the rest of our lives. But right now, I'm too happy to fight. I'm just-” she tried very hard not to cry and she could tell Natasha was too. “I'm so happy it was you.”

“Really? Even considering all the bad things I've done?”

“I wouldn't have chose someone else even if I could, Natasha. I'm in love with you, with who you are. And you couldn't have been this person without your past. If I could go back in time and spare you all the horrors you had to go through, I would. But I can't. And you turned out to be the best person I know. So yeah, really. I'm glad it's you. And I'm also really glad I'm not too late, just this once.”

The redhead smiled at her. It was little and tentative, but it was there.

“I'm in love with you back. And I'm glad I wasn't too late, too.”

Natasha moved forward and kissed her gently.

And for the first time in a long while, Maria felt like everything was exactly how it was supposed to be.