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To Keep the Home Fires Burning

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The meeting room is cramped. It would be decidedly uncomfortable quarters for anyone else, but Agents Barton and Romanoff look thick as thieves. They’re shoulder to shoulder, and smirking at the contents of their manila briefing folder, which is strewn across the metal table. As they are, it’s easy to see why the rumors about them fly, though Maria personally doesn’t believe the gossip.

Her eyes linger on Romanoff and the way she leans over the table, all long limbs poised with a sinewy grace. For a moment Maria allows herself a moment of unprofessionalism, wondering what it must be like to sit side by side with the red-headed beauty. Then she shutters the thought as she closes the door behind her and gets down to business.     

Neither of the agents seems impressed as she enters. Maybe it’s that, through multiple promotions, Maria isn’t a field operative these days. Or maybe they were expecting top brass since they have something of a reputation around SHIELD. The two are known for getting results, and as top agents in the department, they’re usually briefed by Fury himself.

Maria keeps her back straight as she sits opposite them, reminds herself that it doesn't matter what they think of the person conducting the briefing. It’s Maria’s job to make sure Barton and Romanoff have all of the information they need to get the goods and come home safe.

So Maria dives right in, starting with how urgent it is they find and extract their target before a mole helps the crimelords in Madripoor grab him off the streets.

“You leave immediately,” Maria says. “Bags have already been packed for you.”

The agents exchange glances, and Barton looks down at the photos spread in front of them again. “We’ll need at least a week. Two if we want to get out without raising any suspicions.”

“All the more reason to move quickly.”

Romanoff purses her lips at Maria's reply and scans the file again. “So the fewer people that know we’re gone, the better.”

It’s not a question, so Maria doesn’t respond. She waits for Romanoff to continue.

The barest shade of a stricken look flits across the agent’s pretty face. “I have a favor to ask, Agent Hill.”

Maria cocks her head, and is momentarily taken aback when Romanoff’s sea green eyes lock with hers. Instinct kicks in, and Maria covers up her falter with sarcasm. “What? Need your plants watered?”

Romanoff looks down at the photos again, resting her chin on laced fingers. “Something like that.”

#

Maria lets herself into the darkened apartment. The walls are paper-thin. She can hear the blare of the next door neighbor’s TV, and the stomp of footsteps and raised voices speaking in a Slavic tongue from the unit above. She tosses Romanoff’s spare key onto the kitchen counter and takes in the tiny apartment.

Romanoff’s walls are barren, no pictures or art.  Her furniture is standard IKEA fare. The place is clearly used regularly—but it feels like there’s nothing of substance—nothing that tells Maria anything of the other woman's taste or interests. It’s a house, not a home. Which, Maria reflects, actually says quite a bit about Romanoff, though nothing she didn’t already expect.

Maria draws the white mini blinds up a bit farther and cracks the window, letting in the cool breeze of a spring night. Romanoff’s view of the street is unremarkable, but it’s inconsequential to Maria’s mission for the night.

She probably should have said no to Romanoff’s request. Maria has a thousand things that are more important than lounging around the apartment of a coworker she barely knows, waiting for some stray cat to show up for dinner.

And yet, here she is. Damn her soft spot for cute things--redheads and cats alike. Romanoff didn’t even have to bat her eyelashes to get Maria’s yes.

Maria winds up rummaging through Romanoff’s cabinets, looking for tea. Help yourself to anything while you wait, Romanoff had told her. Maria comes up with the grand choices of mint and green, and settles for the latter in a plain white mug. Romanoff has no other type of mugs, not even the black and white SHIELD one given to all new hires. Maria thinks this, more than anything else, is proof that Romanoff wants as little about herself on display as possible. In Maria's experience, most adults accumulate an odd assortment of mugs--she thinks it may be some sort of unwritten law of the universe.

Maria puts a pot of water on the stove, and it’s just reaching a rolling boil when she hears a knock on the door. She takes a deep breath, not sure who to expect on Romanoff’s doorstep, and lets her fingers brush over the grip of her sidearm before she cracks the door open.

An older woman with a bent frame and gray hair meets her on the other side. The woman blinks and her tired eyes widen and then quickly narrow. She’s clearly surprised to see Maria. “I did not know Natasha had company.”

“She doesn’t really—“ Maria starts, about to explain that she’s cat sitting. But before she can get further, the woman looks her up and down, the sag of her shoulders temporarily gone as she draws herself up and looks at Maria with a critical eye. “Are you her new girl?”

“New girl?” The question rolls around in Maria’s head for a few moments, nonsensical at first.

“You better be quieter than her last one.” The woman scolds. Before leaving, the old woman points to the ceiling, reinforcing Maria’s impression about the thickness of the walls.

As much as Maria would love to dissect every syllable of what the woman just dropped on her, she turns as she locks the deadbolt and sees the black, furry little reason she’s here in the first place. The cat is pawing and meowing at the window pane, and Maria realizes that she doesn’t have the faintest idea where Romanoff keeps the cat food.

Smelling a stranger, Liho’s back arches and her fur puffs up as Maria opens the window wide enough for the cat to jump down into the apartment.

Maria’s mouth twists in impatience and she stretches out an open palm. “Hey, do you want to get fed or not?”

The cat sniffs at her fingers, and her stomach seems to win the battle of trust. She hops down from the sill and follows Maria into the kitchen.

#

The week is full of long, grueling days. SHIELD narrowly averts a cell of dissidents intent on taking over a BART station in San Francisco. The day after, they completely fail to stop a data breach of a top secret server, but they do get the perp before he can sell the information on the black market.

The length of Maria’s stops at Romanoff's apartment vary, depending on when the cat decides to show.

On the third day she brings a box of frou-frou Earl Grey blended with coffee beans and cacao nibs, because caffeine is a tasty, tasty drug. She brings over a mug too, shaped like a smiling cat, because Romanoff’s plain white mugs make her irrationally irritated.

To pass the time she flips through the TV channel presets. The first three are C-SPAN, C-SPAN2, and C-SPAN3. Either Romanoff is scarily devoted to the US political system, or thumbing her nose at snoopy people like Maria. Maria is comfortable that it’s the latter.

As she looks for something interesting to watch, her mind also keeps turning over what the old woman said. “Are you her new girl?” Roommate? She probably meant roommate.

Though there is no way a second bed would fit into Romanoff's tiny bedroom.

Maria didn't intend to be snoopy there. The bedroom door happens to be open, and she can see the foot of the bed from the kitchen. And if she just so happens to notice how big it is, then sue her. She's part of an Intel organization. Inquisitiveness is a hazard of the job.

On the fifth day, Maria is pondering feeding the cat the rest of Romanoff's milk, which is close to its use by date, when she hears raised voices again from above. A door slams, and footsteps pound down the stairs, followed by a tentative knock.

When Maria opens the door, it is the same woman from the other night. This time the stooped woman’s frown turns into scrutiny as she sees Maria again. “Still here?”

Maria smiles. “Cats don't feed themselves.”

The other woman doesn't seem to take the meaning. “You lasted longer than last one.”

Maria smiles politely and opens the door to show her the empty apartment, “I'm just doing her a favor. Keeping the cat from going hungry.”

“Natasha is gone?” For a moment the woman looks despondent.

“Not for long.”

The woman doesn't seem comforted by this at all. She casts a hesitant look up the staircase and rubs at the crook of one arm.

It feels funny inviting a stranger into an acquaintance's apartment. But something in Maria’s gut tells her it's the right thing to do. And a career in Intelligence has taught her to trust her instincts where people are involved.

Mrs. Hubenko, as Maria later learns the woman is named, shuffles into the apartment and straight to the hutch that houses a set of plain white dishes. She pulls a deck of playing cards, yellowed with age, out of a drawer. Maria’s first thought is that the cards feel out of place, like a wrong note in the otherwise impersonal room.

“Do you play Durak?” Mrs. Hubenko asks.

When Maria says no, the woman shakes her head, plops herself down at the kitchen table, and waves Maria over with a wrinkly hand, saying, “Then I will teach you.”

Over the course of the night Maria loses every game, but learns a lot--about Mrs. Hubenko, or more accurately her husband, who is terrible at cards and gambles too much--about the building, which is impossible to heat during the dead of winter and broiling during the summer--and even a bit about Romanoff.

“She takes good care of these,” Mrs. Hubenko says, looking fondly at an ace of diamonds that is decorated with red Russian lettering. She lays it down, successfully defending against Maria’s ten. “They came from my home, but I gave them to Natasha because he,” her eyes roll to the ceiling, “would lose them.”

“You play her often?” Maria inquires.

“After fights.” From the evening’s conversation, Maria gathers that when it comes to Mrs. Hubenko’s husband, this means it is often. The old woman smiles. “Natasha has always opened her door.”

#

Day seven brings a hostage crisis. There’s a team of them, all working together, but it still wearying work, and when it’s over the end of the adrenaline high hits Maria hard.

Her head is swimming--just a little bit--as she pushes the window wide to bleed off the warm day’s heat from the apartment and drops down on Romanoff’s couch to wait.

She must doze off, because when Maria opens her eyes again it's dark, and there’s a warm, dark puffball purring in her lap.

“Funny,” says a voice at the door, silhouetted by the bright light of the hall, “I don't remember inviting either of you to stay.”

Maria scrubs at her eyes, tired and disoriented. She still has the wherewithal to know that Romanoff is back early, though. Possibly too early. “How'd it go?”

Romanoff quirks a confident red eyebrow at Maria. “You want a debrief now?”

“No.” The last thing Maria wants is more work today. “Not unless someone’s dead. Is someone dead?”

“No,” Romanoff assures her.

Maria stifles a yawn and stretches. Maybe it’s her wishful imagination, but she thinks Romanoff’s eyes linger on her throughout. “Good to have you back, Agent Romanoff.” She pats Liho on the head, who has still refused to budge from her lap. “I’m sure your cat agrees too.”

“She’s not mine,” Romanoff replies.

Maria gathers up the cat in her arms. As she stands, she hands Liho over to Romanoff. The cat’s purring seems to grow more pronounced as she settles into the redhead's arms. Maria smirks. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

Romanoff arches an eyebrow at her again, and then the look softens. “Thank you for making sure she was fed.”

“Any time,” Maria replies before thinking through the ramifications of that offer. Oops. Maria glosses over it by changing subjects. “Give my condolences to your upstairs neighbor.”

Romanoff’s expression falters. It’s the first time Maria has ever seen her alarmed. “Why?”

Maria grins as she grabs her purse to leave, memorizing the look of Romanoff unguarded. “She’s going to be out of easy money. I lost twenty dollars in quarters to her playing Durak.”

#

“I think these are yours.”

Maria looks up from her paperwork to find Romanoff holding her cat mug and the box of fancy tea.

“So they are.” It’s been about a week since Romanoff got back from Madripoor, and Maria was beginning to wonder if she would ever notice the oddball items among her blank slate belongings.

Romanoff purses her lips as she hands over the items, “What do I owe you for the week?”

Maria waves a hand dismissively. “Pay off my debt to Mrs. Hubenko and we’ll call it even.”

That gets a snort out of the redheaded agent. Then, in a hushed voice, so that only Maria can hear, she says, “Thank you for looking after her too.”

Maria smirks. “I don’t think she needs caring for as much as she needs someone to vent to.”

“For her, it’s one in the same.”

“Isn’t it for us all?”

Romanoff doesn’t answer that, just smiles mysteriously, and Maria would happily trade another week’s worth of cat sitting to know what thoughts are running through her mind.

“Normally I would have asked Clint to stop by the place on his way home,” Romanoff says. “I still would, only on this mission, he told me his situation is going to be changing soon. So I was wondering...since Mrs. Hubenko already seems to like you…”

“Your cat does too.”

“She’s not my cat,” Romanoff protests, but the corners of her lips quirk at Maria’s interjection.

Keep telling yourself that, Maria thinks.

“If you’re going to ask what I think you’re going to ask, then you’d better keep these.” Maria hands the cat mug and tea back to Romanoff. “Because I’ve seen Fury’s latest plans for you. You’re gonna be busy.”

#

Maria does three tours of cat sitting duty before she and Romanoff come to be on a first name basis. She claims a whole shelf in the pantry and sneaks in two more cat mugs too.

“Liho’s been sick,” Romanoff says as she presses the spare key into Maria’s hand for the fourth time. “The vet’s supposed to have tests done by Monday.” She doesn’t let go of Maria’s hand. Her expression is stony, but Maria has been around her enough now that she can see the hairline fractures. It’s the closest thing to distress that Maria has ever seen on the agent’s face.

“I’ll spoil her rotten and find a way to send you the results.”

The expression cracks a bit more, and Romanoff squeezes Maria’s hand before letting go. “Thank you, Maria.”

#

Liho is a fighter. And in that regard, Maria muses, she has chosen her human well.

Saturday and Sunday pass far too slowly. Maria reprograms the TV, replacing CSPAN3 with CNN, and follows the news in Budapest religiously. As a ranking officer in SHIELD, odds are good that at any given moment she knows more about the situation than they’re feeding to the public, but the vigil in her off hours helps ease her mind. At least if there isn’t breaking news, it means things haven’t gone sour.

Probably.

Waiting is so very hard.

Liho stays curled up on a chair, her black side rising and falling too quickly. For the most part, Maria lets her be, rubbing her furry head gently only when Liho seems to be awake. The cat rewards her on these occasions with soft mewling and the twitch of her tail.

When the doctor calls early Monday with a diagnosis of pneumonia and a prescription for antibiotics, Maria is relieved to finally have something to act on. She sends a surreptitious message to a very classified satellite phone number and Liho goes on medication by noon.

#

“Where’s my cat?”

Liho isn’t quite up to bounding around the apartment yet. But it’s a small room. A slow lope is enough to get her close enough for Natasha to scoop up into her arms before the agent is more than a few steps through the front door.

The next thing out of Natasha’s mouth is, “Did you buy a litter box?”

Maria shrugs. “Liho wasn’t up to going outside.”

“You’re going to fill my apartment up with junk.”

“Hey, it’s not junk if it’s useful.”

“Right--” Natasha looks like she’s about to disagree, but Liho shifts in her arms, and she winces.

“Natasha? Are you alright?” Maria’s good humor evaporates in an instant.

The redheaded agent’s lips thin. “Fine. Nothing that two Advil won’t cure.”

Maria smells a lie. “Medkit?”

Natasha shuts her eyes for a few moments before letting out a held breath. “Under the bathroom sink.”

When Maria returns, she finds Natasha grimacing, the bottom of her shirt bunched in white knuckled fingers. Maria urges her down into a kitchen chair.

“Need help?”

“Please.”

“I assume you don’t want to be cut out of that.”

“Only if you have to.”

Maria nods, threads her fingers under the cotton and tugs gently. Natasha raises her arms, and cooperates with the removal of her shirt. To her credit, she doesn’t make a peep, even though she’s clearly in pain. Beneath Natasha is wearing a plain black bra, and it stands out in stark contrast to her pale skin, which is marred by an angry red gash along her right side and a nasty burn down the back of her left shoulder.

“Did you even go to the medbay when you got back?” Maria asks, aghast.

“I needed to get back.” She says defensively, eyes firmly on Liho.

Maria makes a disapproving noise in the back of her throat, and presses an antiseptic wipe to the cut.

Natasha actually yelps.

“Careful, Mrs. Hubenko may start to think you have another loud girl after all.”

Natasha’s eyes open wider and her mouth gapes like a fish on dry land, indignity apparently overriding pain. “Please tell me she didn’t complain to you about that.”

“At first she thought I was one,” Maria smirks, pressing wound tape over the cut and smoothing it. The chill of the air leaves Natasha’s skin goosebumpy under her fingers.

“I don’t think she’s ever going to let me forget that horrible one-night stand.”

Oh. Just like that Maria’s curiosity about the other woman is cured. Natasha has always been such a private person that at first Maria wonders if she is just very open about this aspect of herself. And then the truth of it hits Maria. It’s not that Natasha is being open about this. It’s much more than that--it’s admitting that she was worried about Liho, it’s about how she’s accepted Maria’s help with her injuries--she’s being open with Maria about everything.

Maria considers returning in kind, pausing as she slips one of the silky black straps off of Natasha’s lean shoulder and turns to get the burn cream. She wars with herself, but ultimately decides there is a time and a place. Natasha has had enough lobbed at her today without Maria dropping an emotional bomb on her too. Besides, as Maria clinically spreads the medicinal smelling ointment over Natasha’s shoulder, she's certain she can find a better moment.

#

Maria begins to spend more time at Natasha’s apartment outside of cat sitting duty. It starts with a joke about Liho visitation rights, and it evolves into nights ganging up against Mrs. Hubenko at Durak (they still mostly lose) or spy movies and desserts. Natasha likes Spy Game but hates the brownies they make, and she hates The Spy Who Came in from the Cold but loves their peach pie. They play footsie with a jar of ice cream batter and rock salt through the better part of The Spy Who Loved Me before giving up on it and making it into a milkshake with a pint of Dryers from the 7-11 down the street.

The next time that Maria comes over, she has an icecream maker in tow, which Natasha frowns at. “You’re not leaving that over here.”

“Of course I am,” Maria grins.

“Are you trying to prove a point?”

“Only on the superiority of consumerist capitalism.”

“You’re lucky I like you,” Natasha says, wrinkling her nose in feigned disgust.

Maria’s heart skips a beat, and she almost says, I love you on the spot. Almost, but not quite.

#

The days are growing colder and shorter. Maria gets to experience Mrs. Hubenko’s complaints about the building’s frigid winters first hand. Movie nights are now spent with the two women and the cat huddled beneath Natasha’s light throw (which soon gets traded out for a brand new quilt).

“I think you have a problem,” is Natasha’s favorite new quip about Maria’s tendency to show up on her doorstep with stuff. “Do they have AA for shopaholics?”

Maria pokes Natasha with her foot playfully and gets a soft jab in return.

“Well if you don’t like my blanket,” Maria teases, tugging at the quilt, and the two women briefly wrestle over it, tugging back and forth until Maria gets the upper hand. Natasha is stubborn though, and refuses to let go. As a result, she gets pulled over, laughing and sprawling face up across Maria’s lap, her long red hair spilling everywhere.

For a moment the sound of the TV is forgotten. All Maria can feel is a trembling lightness, giddy and happy, and her hand seems to move of it’s own accord, snaking out to unsnarl a knot in Natasha’s hair.

Natasha stops laughing, surprised by the tender gesture.

This is a good moment. Maria wants to get lost in it--because it finally feels like the right one. She runs her hand from Natasha’s wavy hair to the soft curve of her cheek.

Only to feel Natasha stiffen.

Maria’s fingers curl back as if burned, breaking contact and letting Natasha sit up. Did she read the signs wrong? It’s hard to fathom that possibility. Maria was so sure of what was blossoming between them, and she is very rarely wrong about people. But then, maybe she saw what she wanted to see. Or perhaps Natasha just fit too perfectly into one of Maria’s blind spots. Maybe--

Maria shuts down her thoughts, before her heart can shrivel further. “I’m sorry, I thought--”

“No, you were right. But I would hate to see you get hurt.”

Too late for that.

“I’m a big girl.”

“I don’t think you know what your bargaining for.”

That stings. “I know plenty about you, Nat.”

“Do you? Have you read my file?” The redhead’s voice is tinged with bitterness. “Little old ladies and cats can’t erase the past.” When Maria is at a loss for what to say to that, Natasha shakes her head. “Read it. Then let me know if you still feel the same.”

From the tone of her voice, it is clear she doubts that Maria will ever return here.

#

The next day Maria sits at her desk, the Personnel Records database one double click away. She stares at the laptop screen, her mouse hovering over the little icon of people holding hands, and debates the merits of doing what Natasha told her.

She has the clearance to access Natasha’s file. Maria won’t deny that she’s curious. She may even see the agent’s file someday out of work necessity.

On the other hand, Natasha came over willingly to SHIELD, has consistently been rated well by her fellow operatives, and has cooperated with counter-Soviet teams.

And that's not even counting what Maria knows of her at a personal level.

When she finally arrives at a decision, Maria shuts the lid of her laptop and goes to clear her mind over a cup of warm tea.

#

“Well?” Natasha asks when Maria comes by the apartment again. She leans against the kitchen counter, waiting for Maria to say something.

“I didn’t read it,” Maria replies, moving closer to Natasha.

Natasha frowns at her, chin jutting outward. Today she is much more guarded than she was that night under the quilt. Maria wants the other Natasha back.

“I don’t care what your file says.”

“You should.”

“Why? I don’t care who you were. I care who you are now --for the woman I’ve been falling in love with over the last eight months.” Maria holds Natasha’s beautiful green gaze steady with her own, planting a hand on the counter on either side of the other woman’s hips.

She sees Natasha swallow as the word love leaves Maria’s lips.

And then they’re closer than ever. Natasha slides herself up onto the edge of the counter with the fluid grace of a dancer, and her arms circle Maria’s neck, leaning into a long awaited kiss. Her lips are soft and pliant, moving against Maria’s with an insistent urgency, and Maria takes this for permission. Her hands move to Natasha’s hips, then up to curl possessively around the small of her back, tugging her even closer till they’re breast to breast.  Natasha’s lips curve into a smile around Maria’s, and then the redhead wraps her long legs around Maria’s waist.

“I promise not to be loud,” Maria murmurs, breaking the kiss to rest her forehead against Natasha’s. It just so happens to also give her a wonderful view, right down the other woman’s shirt.

She feels Natasha’s huff of laughter. “Well I don’t.”

#

Maria has had more than her fair share of seeing Nat go off on undercover missions, of standing by and keeping the home fires burning, waiting for Nat to come back. It never gets any easier. Maria hates being the one left behind. This time she’s comforted by the fact that the mission will be on home soil, even if Nat will be in California while Maria is stuck on the Atlantic seaboard.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a skirt,” she says, looking Natasha up and down. Her favorite femme fatale is practically popping out of the white button down shirt. “Was the honeypot angle Fury’s idea or yours?”

She is not going to be jealous. Nope. Not jealous at all.

“Apparently Tony Stark has a thing for redheads,” Nat says, avoiding the question. Collusion then.

Maria does up the last button on the blouse for Natasha and presses a kiss to her lips.

“I’m going to miss you.”

They’re not sure how long Natasha will be assigned to monitor Stark, but early estimates put it at four weeks, minimum.

Natasha gives Maria a half smile and hugs her close. “I’ll miss you too. Take good care of Liho.”

Maria runs her hands along Natasha’s back, memorizing the feel of her one last time. “I always do.”

#

“Honey, I’m home,” Nat’s voice is sing-song light as she strolls through the door.

Maria hears the thump of a bag hitting the floor. Maria sits up, folding her arms over the back of the couch next to where Liho is napping, and watches Nat innocently. That, in itself, is a feat since Natasha is still wearing a slinky black dress. Maria hopes this is her reward for waiting patiently.

“I think you’ve finally gone and done it,” Nat says, still surveying the apartment. “I think you finally have more crap here than I do.”

“To be fair to me,” Maria objects, “I have been house sitting for the past six weeks.”

“Well, do you want to make it official then?”

Maria blinks. “What?”

Natasha waves her arms at the cluttered apartment. “You’ve practically moved in already. Do you want to make it official?”

Oh. Maria’s completely taken off-guard by the offer. But that’s the only reason she doesn’t respond right away. The place has felt like home for so long now that there’s really no question what her answer will be.

“I’d like that a lot, Nat.”

As if on cue, Liho unfurls and rubs her head against Maria’s elbow.

Natasha strolls over to Maria and leans down to plant a long overdue kiss on her lips. “I think we all will.”