Maria Hill was not the ideal agent to send on this mission. She was neither the most qualified nor the most objective person. "But no one knows what she's thinking the way you do," Fury observed. "Nobody else has any chance of guessing which way she'll jump. You’ve been watching her."
Which was ridiculous. Hill had overseen 'hostile operative' dossiers for several years; indeed, she’d written much of the mark's file. She might have been an expert on the mark’s movements, but that meant relatively little when the mark was the Black Widow. She was dangerous, unpredictable, and everyone knew it, so any agent going in would be informed and aware of the potential gaps in their understanding. Unfortunately, many of the qualified and supposedly available agents had just come off of the Chongqing op, and too many others hadn’t returned from it at all. They’d lost good people in Chongqing, from brand-new field agents to the assistant director of SHIELD. This wasn’t the right time to take on such a dangerous mission, but the timing was beyond their control, and Maria’s concerns didn’t trump the realities of their losses or the need for SHIELD to continue functioning.
While she might not have been the ideal choice, she was nearly the only choice.
Besides, it could be interesting, getting so close to the Black Widow.
"What is our goal here?" she finally asked. Fury escorted her out to the helicopter that would take them down to the Kazakhstani village they believed the Widow to be recuperating in. "Not for this specific mission. What is SHIELD's end game?"
She wanted to know. There were too many possibilities for trouble; the Black Widow was well known for disrupting your plans long before you knew it. But if she understood what SHIELD wanted, why they were so fixated on the Widow, then she might be able to adapt.
"We want them to stop using her," said Fury, finally. "Every damn enemy we've got has contracted with her at some point. She wants our attention so bad? Then she's got it. I want to know what she wants. And I want her to stop destroying everything we work for."
The ride felt interminable. The helicopter, like every aircraft she'd ever been on, was too cold. Maria wrapped her arms around herself, not caring if the pilot saw her shiver, and wondered when she'd be back on warm ground again. A week on the helicarrier usually left her feeling like she'd freeze inside, but their destination didn't promise to be much better in this weather.
She would go in light, with two juniors in another town ten miles away her only on-the-ground backup. Like everything else on this mission it was less than ideal, but the Widow worked alone more often than not, and spooked at shadows.
(And 'spooked' meant 'had once blown up a grain depot- and set fire to more than fifteen acres surrounding' because she had guessed that SHIELD had eyes on her. In the resulting chaos they'd lost her for six months.)
This time it would be up to Maria.
No pressure,she told herself dryly.
None of the usual supervising agents she worked alongside had been available, which meant Maria was going in with a new voice in her ear. The acting handler, Agent Morse, had taken the helicopter down with them, but would be remote operating from the nearest base- only an hour away by helicopter. The dead time was not Maria’s preference, but would be fine, given her own post-landing commute.
“You’ve got the mission overview? Low-impact, we’re trying not to make a scene, yes, SHIELD is aware this is the Black Widow and you’re supposed to be low-key anyways?” Maria nodded once, confirming that she’d already covered the basics before boarding the transport. Agent Morse shrugged, and Maria had a little sympathy: when a more junior agent played handler to a more senior agent some awkwardness was inevitable. At least Morse tried to walk the line between protocol and condescension.
Morse handed her a tablet containing the mission brief. Apparently aware of the redundancy of briefing the woman who had first created the Black Widow’s file, Morse cleared her throat nervously. “We think she’s in town. We know Hydra is here, and we know two of their men went missing yesterday. We assume a connection.” She glanced up from her own brief, waiting for Maria’s nod before continuing her summary. “There’s nothing linking her to Hydra recently, as an ally or as an employee. We think they may be the target of a different job.”
“While she’s recovering from a broken arm?”
Agent Morse look up, tired but amused. “I have no idea. You want to get into the woman’s head? Be my guest, but don’t come crying when you have nightmares for a month.”
“Aren’t you a biologist? What are you doing here?” she said, not bothering to answer sass with respect.
Morse shrugged. “Sure am. And what I’m doing is exactly what you’re doing: being one of about four people in SHIELD who has the time and clearance to be here.”
Glad we’re giving this all the resources it deserves, thought Maria, but refrained from commenting. It wasn’t Morse’s fault that this operation was sloppy from the start.
The ‘copter dropped her two miles from the village. She hiked in to town at sunset, her breath still visible in the rapidly diminishing light. The town itself was charming enough, if you liked that sort of thing, not wealthy but well-enough maintained. Walking drew attention, and she gambled on having enough Russian to communicate with a bus driver. It took her a moment to orient herself to the currency, but she managed, getting off three blocks from a small industrial building. They might have almost nothing on the Widow, but even a small Hydra research center merited significant attention.
By the time she reached the building it was full dark, the only light coming from street lamps and the occasional houselight. It made climbing to the roof of the adjacent building and crossing to a second story window more difficult, but the darkness did, at least, hide her movements some.
Inside men were arguing, voices low enough that she couldn't recognize the rough, guttural language. She peered in through the window. Two large shapes stood in shadow, and Maria ducked away again before they could turn and see. They grew louder, then stopped as one. The sound of their footsteps had Maria risking another look, just quickly enough to see them vanishing into the hallway.
When she'd made it through the window- leaving behind a cracked frame but unshattered glass- she followed them into the hall. It was narrow and dark, a single lightbulb doing little to help her see.
Maria listened at each door for voices, or movement, or any sign of life. There was no one. It was hard to believe this was the center of a criminal enterprise. It was entirely too pathetic.
“Hill, we’re getting something,” Morse half-whispered through the comm. “Activity to the south. Three men down, we believe they’re Hydra.”
Maria wanted to ask about the Black Widow. She trusted, at least intellectually, that Morse would volunteer any new information on the Widow’s movements, but would have liked a verbal confirmation.
“Hill, do you copy?”
Apparently Maria wasn’t the only one who got twitchy during radio silence. She frowned, and reached up to tap out a quick beat on her com. It was unpleasant for the listener, but preferable to risking discovery.
“Right, uh, I’ll continue to assume radio silence for an hour.” Morse sounded flustered.
Maria tapped a correction.
“Two and a half hours. Just take this as a warning for company in five.”
Maria tapped the comm low twice, and then turned her attention back to the situation at hand. The stairs, she decided after a single look, were the sort that would creak. She sighed, and reconsidered her options. She could wait for someone to make enough noise to cover her movements. She could go back down the outside of the building (unappealing, and risky, but an option) and approach from the ground, or she could race down the stairs with her weapons drawn, turning this into a firefight on her terms. The last might scare the Widow off for good, but on the other hand, it was something she wouldn't be expecting. Was that worth-
The press of a knife into the small of her back, directly over her right kidney, cut off her train of thought.
"Stay very still," said a low, rich voice in her ear, "and we'll be alright."
Maria froze. She forced herself to relax, letting the tension out, minimizing the chance she would move without meaning to, or that the Widow would catch her preparing to strike.
It had to be Romanoff. Maria knew it like she'd never known anything before: she was dealing with the real thing. Her breath was cool when it ghosted past Maria's neck, her ear, raising goosebumps as it went. "What do you want here?"
"I'd like to get out of here without being killed by you or the idiots downstairs," said Maria. When in doubt start with the truth that you can afford to tell.
Romanoff snorted, shockingly inelegant. "I'm not sure you understand the idea of achievable goals, Agent Hill."
Maria felt something dark twist in her stomach, and it was only after she had tensed up that she even realized she had shifted, had given away how much that got her. Romanoff knew her, knew her apart from any other SHIELD agent. That meant she knew a great deal more than they had figured on.
They were so fucked.
There was a warm sensation, like pins and needles without the discomfort, everywhere that she could feel Romanoff close behind her.
"I'd prefer to have this conversation face to face," she said, still stalling. For what? Backup wouldn't come looking unless she signaled them.
"Life can be disappointing." Romanoff was unsympathetic.
"I'm here on behalf of SHIELD," Hill said.
"I knew that, and you knew that I knew, which means you know that saying that is meaningless. What are you stalling for? Those... 'idiots' downstairs?" Romanoff's voice grew more intense, more angry, and Hill frowned. This was escalating faster than she'd hoped, and her hopes had already been low.
"I-" The thunder of footsteps, the men racing back up the stairs, cuts off her parry. Together, they moved, both diving for the room Maria had entered this horrible, difficult, cursed building through. The Widow held back, shoving Maria through the doorway first. Maria didn't fight her, not when she could feel the other woman's hand ghosting over her back, brushing against her field suit. It's like she could feel the heat straight through armor meant to deflect a great many sharp and heavy objects. One part of her mind noted that this meant Romanoff had a weapon in only one hand, consistent with what they suspected her injuries might be, while the rest desperately denied the significance of what was happening.
Romanoff slammed her into a wall, and Maria gasped and spun around to face her attacker.
It was, for a single second, like staring into the sun, or seeing a unicorn or a gryphon or a fairy, something magical and wonderful and unreal. Then she blinked, and Romanoff blinked, too.
She's shorter than I thought, Maria noted, half-hysterical. This wasn't- this wasn't supposed to happen, this wasn't supposed to even be possible, not now, not here.
Maria steadied herself, trying to bring her breathing back into something like a normal pattern, trying to slow her pounding heart. Her eyes are huge. She tried to force her attention back to the situation- they were fighting, she knew that, and there was an outside threat.
Footsteps passed by in the hall. Maria focused- three men, maybe a fourth waiting by the top of the stair? She couldn't tell-
The Widow grabbed her by the arm, twisting hard, taking advantage of her distraction. Maria grunted, mindful of the noise they made and they attention they might attract. She swung with the Widow's movements, until she could spin and kick at the same time, knocking her back.
A crackle and a spark at the Widow's wrist caught Maria's eye, and she winced, even as she crouched and waited for the woman's next attack. The bracelets were her trademark, for all that she rarely used them- something specific for people to fear, more unusual than simple poison or a broken neck, a distinguishing mark that let everyone know 'The Widow Was Here'. Shock weapons that required no fine motor movements would work even if the Widow was favoring her right arm.
Maria dove in low, tackling Romanoff in the legs. They both went down with a thud. Romanoff yelped when her bad wrist took her weight, but whatever pain it caused didn’t stop her from rolling Maria over to gain the advantage. Maria kneed upwards hard, drawing a hard grunt as Romanoff gasped for breath, the wind knocked out of her by the hard hit to her abdomen.
She rolled off of Maria, and came up standing. Her curly hair was mussed, and the dust motes caught the light from the doorway like a halo. The electric blue of her wristbands flashed once, and one of the tough, burly men from earlier when down in a slump.
Maria hadn't even seen them come in the door.
The two behind came in with weapons raised, and Maria jumped back into a corner, her own sidearm drawn and ready. The Widow stayed low, and Maria took her opportunity, firing fast and sure. The first man went down with a chest shot, the second with a neck shot.
Romanoff watched her, completely focused. Maria felt like she could drown in it, like she could get trapped in this staring contest and never, ever leave.
The explosion of a gunshot threw her back out of it, and bullet thudded into the wall inches from her head. Romanoff didn't pause, but produced a small semi-automatic pistol and fired three bullets into the man in the doorway. He fell on top of his compatriots.
"Thank you," said Maria, but then the gun was trained on her. She moved, because the longer they stayed here, the worse the situation would get. Romanoff didn't fire, though she was shaking; it could have been pain. Maria closed the gap, and grabbed Romanoff's wrist, twisting as Romanoff had twisted her hand earlier.
The gun fell to the floor, and Maria managed to kick it aside before Romanoff gained the upper hand again, slamming Maria into the wall, the knife back as quickly as it had vanished, poking into her belly.
"What," snarled Romanoff, short of breath and clearly short of temper, "do you want?"
"I'd like to talk to you," said Maria. Her voice came out even. "We'd like to talk to you. Is there something we can do to make you more comfortable with that?"
Romanoff held her immobile. Maria didn't try to fight it.
She continued when Romanoff said nothing. "You're a professional, and you know what you're doing."
The knife twisted, the point scratching through her armor. "And why would I come play with you, little girl?"
Because you want, Maria didn’t say. Because two minutes ago everything changed.
"We've got a lot to offer. You've been doing this awhile, right?"
"Longer than you know," she said.
"Wouldn't you like some resources to work with?" The pressure of the knife eased, but the Black Widow didn’t seem to notice. Maria knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that this was the situation she hadn't prepared for, that she couldn't have prepared for. That there was no rule book and no pre-examined rationale for what she was caught in. Romanoff's breathing was ragged. She trembled slightly.
Maria remained in place, sure in the knowledge that Romanoff wouldn't slip, wouldn't stab her through the kidney no matter how unsure she felt. The trust she felt caught her off-guard. She wanted to gently take the knife, to reassure Romanoff that they would get out of there and that everything would be alright.
Romanoff slammed her arm up across Maria’s throat, applying enough pressure to make it clear she could crush the taller woman’s windpipe. Maria relaxed. She wasn't going to take Romanoff out, she knew that in her gut, no matter what happened next. It made sense, then, to let Romanoff remain in control, let her retain what cool she could.
She could count Romanoff's lashes, their faces were so close together; she could see every shade of blue-green in her eyes. They were so close together, when she breathed in, she could taste the air Romanoff had just exhaled. Romanoff spoke, the curve of her lip simple and precise, outlined perfectly with a dark shade, distinguished and seductive all at once.
"Next time," Romanoff was saying, and her husky voice was music even as dread grew in Maria's belly at the words, "send someone else."
Maria huddled in the corner for a long minute after Romanoff was gone.
Life bonds, Maria had long felt, had an archaic air. They weren't common, and they could occur without apparent regard to the interests (or occasionally the orientations) of the people involved. Sometimes they sparked between two people who couldn't possibly be compatible, or two who, for whatever reason, would refuse to be together.
Destroying that spark, smothering it in time and distraction, was by all accounts a long and painful process. She had heard a theory, once, when she was still young enough to want to be a romantic, that the very sort of people who bonded were the ones most likely to suffer from it. There was a certain kind of poetry in bonding: an openness of the spirit, and a willingness to let the impossible in.
Maria, as her mother had once told her in frustration, had a prosaic soul. They’d stood side by side in the kitchen, with Maria frowning at the burned cookies she was to take to her third grade classmates, while her mother sighed at her hopeless attitude. Maria had shrugged, and said "We'll still need to buy some cookies on the way to school. And you should get that oven fixed." Her mother gave her a Look. Maria stared back, because she knew she had a point. "We put them in as long as the recipe said, but they burned anyways."
Her mother leaned in and explained that each oven was different, special, and that baking required a gentle touch and the patience to learn each set of tools. She said the cookies tasted toasted; Maria claimed they tasted like charcoal. Her mother said the homemade touch was the most important part, Maria argued for edibility.
They bought pre-packaged cookie dough and an oven thermometer, and stayed up past her bedtime making a new batch. Maria considered this a reasonable compromise. Her mother took it as a portent.
Whenever someone asked her, later on, why she didn't care more about romance, she'd remember that evening in the kitchen. It was hard to put an absence of appreciation into words.
She had figured out that this left her in the category least likely to spontaneously spark a bond, and, by the same token, among those least likely to be able to force a bond to grow. When she was seventeen- the year she gave up romanticism entirely- her mother confessed that long before Maria was born, she and Maria's father had tried to force the spark. It worked for nearly a third of the couples who tried, but common wisdom said that if two tries failed, then all other attempts were a waste of time and energy.
They had gone to a sparker four times.
Maria asked why they would keep setting themselves up for disappointment and self-doubt.
Her mother smiled, but seemed sad. "If you have to ask, Maria, then there aren't words to make you understand."
Maria nodded, swallowing back the faint tendril of hurt that threatened to creep out from the back of her heart. She filed the incident under 'the bizarre and the emotional' and let the concept go as one she would never truly understand, not on the most meaningful level.
Being forced to re-examine all of that was unsettling.
"She just ran?" asked Director Fury, staring her down. For the first week Maria had worked directly with the Director, she had found the single-eyed stare intimidating. Now she found it frustrating.
Maria nodded once. "Told me to send someone else next time, and ran."
"Because she was scared." Maria considered, for a moment, how exactly to phrase this. She didn't work on instinct often, and that was a blessing and a curse: on the one hand, Fury knew she wasn't prone to flightiness, on the other, he had no metric by which to measure her current insights. "And it wasn't just of the men in the building. I think she- she knew they were a distraction. She may have been afraid that we were using them."
"She's not wrong," noted Sitwell, and both Maria and Fury glared at him. He didn't look up from the papers on the table. "We were using them to get to her."
"But we didn't set them up," said Maria sharply.
Sitwell shrugged. He'd been the one trying to track down the source of the decoy building. The SHIELD cleanup crew that had come along after Maria had taken a few prisoners who had been easy to intimidate into admitting they knew nearly nothing. Two corpses were linked to previous Hydra activities. The building itself had had the trappings of a bio-lab, in the basement, but half the equipment was outdated or broken, and all the samples were either saline or some unremarkable samples from farm animals. Maria knew; she'd ordered every single one collected and checked.
The only thing even halfway sincere about that place had been the guards. The building appeared to be a set-up. Maria and the Black Widow had stepped up the timeframe and interrupted the preparations for the next day, when Hydra expected the Widow. They would have been ready to defend non-lethally against a serious opponent. As it was, they hadn’t stood a chance.
When they finally brought in the Widow, Hill was overseeing a strange situation in South America involving highly evolved monkeys and a small group of geneticists and chemists who combined a shortage of morals with an excess of curiosity. It was ugly and unpleasant. Fixing other people’s mistakes took up all her time and attention, and kept her from staying abreast of updates on other ongoing missions.
She returned to the helicarrier exhausted, ready to make the full report and then immediately go to sleep. Fury was pleased, at least. "And what did they say about their funding, Agent?"
"They didn't, sir," she told him, not bothering to feel insulted. Of course she would have brought that up during her prior recounting if she'd had any information, and of course he reconfirmed her lack of new intelligence.
It was good to do things properly again, after that debacle.
Fury didn't respond, and she looked over at him, wondering what was missing. "We took all the financial paperwork we could find, but whoever ran this covered their tracks well. The puppet corporation seems to have materialized their foundation money out of nowhere. Half the members of the board don't exist, and the rest are either recently dead or member of the research group who claim to have never had any interaction with the rest of the board." She waited. None of this should be entirely new; they’d seen similar covers for years on the part of Hydra operations, in Santiago, in Mumbai, even as recently as Chongqing.
Fury, however, appeared to be lost in thought. "What do you think their goals were?"
Maria paused. Understand their goals, understand their actions. Simple. "You mean scientifically?" She got a nod of confirmation. "This was applied research, not theoretical. I think they wanted to gain control of certain genes in these monkeys. They wanted to alter attributes and then see how those changes played out in the wild." She took a breath, because the implications of this were unpleasant. "They already knew they could make the changes, so they were more interested in how that altered gene actually changed the monkey's life."
Fury nodded, and rose. "Good work, Agent." He held out a hand, and she shook it, surprised at the gesture. “Hill,” he said, “the World Security Council wasn’t pleased to hear about the... complications on this op.”
“I’m going to need you to stay on top of this. They’ll have questions; you’ll come up with clear and honest answers without giving away the store.” He shook his head. “And you’ll keep a line open on working on this. The less energy SHIELD spends on looking like something they can tolerate, the more we can get done.”
So, it looked like Maria would be spending more time soothing egos and reassuring world leaders that no, there was no growing danger from various groups, and no, SHIELD was not losing any advantage.
"By the way," he added as she turned to go, "we have a new... guest, at present, who you may find interesting."
"'Guest at present?'" she quoted back at him, baffled.
He smiled, unsettling as always. "SHIELD finds her interesting, too."
According to reports the Black Widow settled in quickly, adjusting to a new environment sooner than expected, but not so fast that the psych evaluations suggested she was faking it. She got along well with everyone, said the official status updates, and she had an exceptional work ethic.
Maria trusted reports, largely because she had nothing first-hand to work from. Indeed, working around the Widow- around 'Agent Romanoff', now- was not as stressful as Maria would have expected.
This seemed to be the result of Romanoff ignoring Maria's existence. Or, not ignoring, exactly; if she had truly been ignored then she would have run into Romanoff alone from time to time. Everyone said the woman was antisocial and preferred to be on her own. Yet on the occasions when Maria and she met, it was inevitably in Barton's company: Natasha and he had struck up a strange friendship, it seemed, and when she sought out someone it was usually him. They worked well together.
Maria tried to ignoring the jealousy rising in her gut, and to concentrate on the way that even avoidance was a form of recognition.
She'd never done much field work with Barton; he was somewhat whimsical, prone to last-minute judgment calls and gut feelings. They were only placed together on the largest operations, the ones that required half a dozen senior agents and dozens of juniors, analysts, technical specialists and support staff. It was easy to avoid someone in that zoo, and even easier to make it look like you weren't avoiding them.
She did try approaching him about Romanoff, though. It was, perhaps, silly of her, but she wanted to do something. "Sorry to separate you from your partner," she told him, as they walked out of a briefing together.
Barton just blinked at her, keeping pace with her long stride through the vacated office building SHIELD was using as a local base. "Partner?"
"Romanoff. You've been assigned together a great deal," said Maria, privately proud of her neutral tone.
Barton gave her the look that said she was crazy, or perhaps just had bad motives. "There are times when you want someone you trust watching your back, and not many people trust her." ‘And she doesn't trust many people’ went unsaid. "We're still functioning as standard agents as much as possible. Has this been impacting my performance, ma'am?"
It was Maria's turn to give him a look that subtly doubted his judgment. Did he think she was making digs at his work ethic? "Hardly. Just wanted to make sure that this assignment was... working for you," she finished, giving up on her line of inquiry. She'd try again another day, another way.
So, perhaps Romanoff didn't want to be approached by Maria, but was still open to forming relationships with others. Maria was a practical woman; she understood the importance of bringing in as valuable an asset as the Black Widow. If never being assigned with Maria had been a condition of Romanoff joining SHIELD, then it was in SHIELD's best interest to honor that. If never having direct contact with Maria, outside of extenuating emergencies, was necessary- well, it would have been appropriate for Nick Fury to order her to give Romanoff a wide berth at all times.
He had not given her that order, however, and in reality no one had even implied anything about her relationship with Romanoff. There was no indication that she was supposed to keep her distance, and no suggestion that there was any reason why they hadn't interacted during the course of their work. SHIELD was a large organization, but the number of field agents and senior supervisors was limited.
Maria didn’t know what it meant, then. Romanoff’s sudden allegiance had been a significant victory for Nick Fury, a living demonstration of the things his leadership could accomplish. More and more Maria spent her time working on SHIELD’s political status and future, trying to make it clear to the world that knew of them that they were, in fact, worth trusting. She found herself knowing more about internal standards than she ever wanted, and far less than she would have liked about the new field agent.
Her own report on her first encounter with Romanoff hadn’t included what Maria had been sure was the spark of a bond. By all appearances, Romanoff hadn’t said anything when she joined. They were not confirmed bondmates, and they were not personally involved, which freed them from the obligation to report a relationship.
That left Maria unsure what she was supposed to do, here. Or rather, she was unsure what the correct thing- both morally and technically- would be.
SHIELD had official guidelines and practices for nearly every possible situation or condition. Official standings on bereavement leave, how to inform loved ones that a SHIELD agent has passed, rules about who can be informed that their significant other or family member is a member of a clandestine pan-governmental organization.
They had guidelines covering appropriate responses to agents being injured in the field on a mission that was previously classified as low-risk, on the same situation when risk alert was already high. What to do about health impairment caused by coincidence, versus problems caused by the agent or employee's own stupidity. (The guidelines do not phrase it that way; several of the analysts doing the review were prone to paraphrasing.) There were guidelines about where an agent may live, how they may commute, and what they may do in their spare time- a thousand and one rules that were never observed, or rarely enforced.
There were a lot of SHIELD guidelines that exist solely to cover SHIELD's ass.
(Maria liked to paraphrase, too.)
Which meant that if she could only figure out where the relevant guidelines were, she could surely find the officially-sanctioned course of action when confronted with her present situation. She could compare it with the ethical course of action- or what she felt was the ethical course- and then reason out which parts she should take into account.
Maria hated not knowing where she stood.
Just because the Widow was arranging distance didn't mean Maria failed to notice her. Maria couldn’t be in a room with her and not know it. Even when she tried to focus on something else a part of her attention was diverted straight to the beautiful, aloof woman. Nevermind that they hadn’t had a full conversation. There was a buzzing under her skin, sometimes, when Romanoff was near, a sense of 'happening'. She tried not to let them lock eyes; that way lay danger.
It wasn’t a problem. They did work together on various missions, they just worked discretely, with no unnecessary direct contact. On one ‘trap and release’ in Malaysia they managed to avoid speaking entirely. Another time Maria supervised the cleanup of Romanoff’s op. They took opposite flanks of the company of local troops that had been caught up in the blast and had been brought to the helicarrier for decontamination. Maria barked out orders from the main deck while Romanoff stood back and watched the military units prepare to board their transports. She was about to order the men inside when she froze.
Romanoff had been leaning back against the port rail, giving off an air of boredom and casualness so clear it must have been faked. In the time it had taken Maria to turn around and consult the pilot of the lead jet, Romanoff had vanished.
"Excuse me," she said to the pilot, turning back to scan for the missing woman. Instinct told her Romanoff hadn't gone far.
The pilot, thankfully, waited without comment. Maria continued looking everyone over. It was possible, of course, that Romanoff had simply grown bored (for real, not for show) and left, but Maria was working on a hunch. The troops were growing uneasy, shifting around while waiting at rest, which suited Maria fine: Having national troops on board a SHIELD vessel was fine in theory, but frequently complicated in practice. She disliked the idea of them growing too comfortable while on board.
A tall, dark enlisted man leaned over to speak to a man so much shorter than he it was comical. In the space between his first word and the end of the sentence, Widow had swung down from the side of the jet behind him and knocked the shorter man straight to the ground. She had him trussed with a wire within moments. Her movements were sleek and sure, and utterly captivating. Maria forced herself to let out the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding, so taken with the way Romanoff fought.
By the time the rest of the military company had the presence of mind to draw their weapons Romanoff had her hands in the air. "Easy," she said, loud enough to carry but not strong enough to be intimidating. "There's no reason for this to get uglier." The ocean wind brushed her hair into her face, conveniently obscuring her expression. She remained kneeling by her target, looking like a prisoner of war.
"Stand down," Maria, yelled, suddenly aware she'd been standing there just staring. "Everyone stand down. Lower your weapons, this is a superior officer." Romanoff wasn't, technically, but Maria figured that could be worked out later.
Half the troops were slowly lower their weapons. The rest continued to aim at Romanoff, though Maria noticed at least a few paying attention to her, rather than to Romanoff. The captain just stared at her. "Ma'am, this woman just-"
"Just brought down a man for good reason, Captain. Stand down,” she repeated. "I won't be saying that again."
The soldier had the good sense to break eye contact and lower his weapon. As soon as he acknowledged her the rest of the troops follow suit. Maria scanned the deck, cataloging behaviors of individuals and groups, evaluating who among the ground troops might be a problem later on.
Romanoff, meanwhile, focused on the man she was kneeling over, but Maria could see the faint hint of sweat on her brow. That many guns trained on you apparently left even the Black Widow showing some signs of stress. Maria was simultaneously please to see the signs of humanity, and angry with the soldiers who had so little sense they drew weapons on their own allies.
"Here." Romanoff stood smoothly, her red hair swinging back over her shoulder as she moved forward. Her stride, Maria noted, was long for her height, denoting purpose and power. In her extended hand was a single white pill, already crumbling at the edges, and a micro SD card. "These were on him. Don't open the file on any networked or unsecured computer," she instructed.
Maria tried not to bristle at the condescension, instead focusing on the other item. "You think this is a sedative or a poison?" She reached out and delicately took the white tablet between her forefinger and her thumb. It was indistinguishable from a thousand other pills. "It could be a painkiller," she suggested.
"In a micro-pocket sewn into the inside of his pants seam, that he kept patting every minute or two to see that it was there," she said, her tone suggesting agreement but her words belying her sarcasm.
"Well," allowed Hill, "we'll have it checked."
She looked Romanoff over, doing her best to remain calm and neutral while Romanoff did the same to her. "I have a theory," said Romanoff, speaking as casually as if they hadn't just been caught in a staredown. "But it isn't for here." A smooth sweep of Romanoff's wrist encompassed all the men still standing around. Two of them had their weapons trained on their downed comrade. Their immediate commander, a nervous and obviously green boy, hovered behind them.
The young officer looked at Hill, clearing his throat awkwardly as if to announce his intention to address her. "Ma'am?" he said. "We can take him into custody?"
It came out as a question, not an order. In all fairness, Maria reminded herself, he might be better with a situation he was aware could happen, like an outside enemy, or being trapped in hostile territory with wounded men and no contact and no supplier. Your first traitor was always confusing.
"Do that," she snapped at him, then caught herself. "And get your troops ready for landing. I want them isolated from the general base population until further notice, understood?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said, with significantly more confidence.
Maria lifted a hand to her ear to key her com on, checking in with the landing coordinator, letting them know of the prisoner and the need for temporary holding. Romanoff waited patiently, without indication of her opinions or thoughts, deliberately closing herself off.
There was a pause, then the base security chief was on the line, "Hill, you're sure you've got something real?"
Maria looked down at the pill still held between her fingers, and then up at Romanoff. She hesitated.
Because there was a moment when a person must choose between doing the thing they agreed to do, like hold up a reasonable relationship with a national military, and what their instincts suggest is right, like trusting a brilliant agent they don't know well enough. The problem, of course, is that when the first goes wrong it is always defensible and honorable, even in hindsight. When instincts are wrong, how does one live with that?
"Yes," she said. "We're sure."
Fury called her up later to answer for her actions, but she never wavered. "I acted in what I felt was SHIELD's best interest, sir."
"You're not usually that instinctual, Agent," Fury commented.
Maria wondered what he was trying to draw out of her. A confession of inappropriate feelings about Romanoff? A self-report that she was emotionally compromised? An admittance that she didn't need to spend time with the woman in order to know exactly what she meant or why she did what she did? "No, I'm not, sir," she agreed, instead. "This time it seemed necessary to protect classified information."
"Classified information? They had our medical records, Hill."
She blinked. "Medical records?"
"Yes, thoroughly stripped of names and other obvious identifiers, for the purpose of neutral analysis and SHIELD-run studies." He must have caught her confused look, because he hurried to add "Ask Coulson if you want to know more, the man gets adamant about sound scientific method."
"If you say so, sir," she said. It was certainly possible: the man had a rather bizarre assortment of interests, which made him suitable as a SHIELD agent and hilarious as a colleague. It would be worth asking for sheer entertainment value. “Whose study was it?”
“Ah- Morse was supervising it last,” said Fury, surprised.
"It is, from what information we've been able to gather from and and about him, the work of a bumbling idiot looking for a quick buck on the black market," Fury said. "Do you agree?"
Hill considered. "It describes this man, if not the standard SHIELD infiltrator."
Fury sighed, annoyed. "This is an embarrassing situation for everyone, Hill."
"And Romanoff had a good idea, but showed questionable judgment. I’ve got at least one member of the World Security Council who is very, very upset right now, and that should not be my problem.” He took a deep breath, and looked straight at her. “What I'm saying, agent, is: Fix it." Or else, for both Maria and Romanoff, went understood but unsaid.
Hill saluted smartly and left. She had a political disaster to fix: For SHIELD, for herself, and maybe (if she could admit it) for Romanoff.
The political machinations and ego-soothing took her out of general SHIELD operations for weeks. She had projects she was still supposedly supervising, including a team to follow up on the research operation she'd recently shut down, and a few other recently closed cases. She still was the primary contact for multiple other espionage organizations worldwide, and frequently the final stamp on a number of internal bureaucratic matters.
In other words, she had good excuse to be busy, and she absolutely was not taking her own turn at avoiding Romanoff. They simply had no reason to connect, at the moment, and all other senior members of SHIELD took it as given that Hill’s interest in Romanoff ended the day she was brought in.
No one mentioned anything to Maria until Romanoff had been missing for three days.
It wasn't her job to keep track of every high-risk agent. Just because she has access to the information doesn't make it her immediate concern. She had been busy fighting political battles on behalf of the Division, while simultaneously trying to prevent anyone outside of SHIELD connecting the two ongoing 'genetic engineering' cases with the ones they had previously shut down.
"How long?" she snapped at Coulson.
He held out a thick packet. It couldn't be the complete relevant dossier, but it seemed to be a succinct low-clearance summary. She flipped through the pages, documenting the times and locations of any possible data points on tracking Romanoff. "It has, at this point, been seventy-eight hours since her last check-in." His calm grated on her temper. "Forty-two hours ago we established that she might or might not have the package she was sent to collect from her mission."
Maria blinked. That changed things, but at the same time, it didn't change anything at all.
"What are we looking at?"
"Four probable points of return, three possible points of attack against her original target, and forty-four possible points of resale of the package. At last count."
"At last count?"
"That is, if she doesn't store it. That would change the odds entirely," said Coulson.
"Of course," agreed Maria, letting her sarcasm through. "And who is looking for her?"
"Pretty much everyone we can spare."
"Not yet," admitted Coulson. "He's expected to wrap up his current operation within the next forty-eight hours, on an accelerated scheduled."
'His current operation’ referred to the mission Widow had disappeared from, a two-pronged affair where each one was to take the lead on a single objective, but they worked together and from the same resources. They'd done it before, but this time they were impersonating a reclusive wealthy couple, with the implication that they were married, perhaps even bonded. As a cover it allowed the two of them to stay close (which Maria appreciated) and it allowed Widow to flirt and seduce men and then plausibly drop them (which Maria tried not to think about.)
Maria frowned at Coulson when he produced no further information. She took the lead towards the third deck ‘war room’. She scanned the flimsy file as she walked, trying to figure out what it was she was missing, and why. There was so little information here, and that, too, was a mystery. Coulson stopped her with a hand on the door, just before she stepped into the control room that bustled with activity. "Maria," he said, and it was the use of her first name as much as the gentle tone that caught her attention. "You're not on this one."
She stared at him for a long moment, trying to understand. She had seniority,here; she hadn't been with SHIELD as long as certain people, but she had rank. She wanted to object, to argue, to point out that she had originally been sent to find Romanoff exactly because she understood her movements so well.
But Coulson, staring at her with equal parts sympathy and resolution, wasn't the one making these rules.
Maria snapped the file shut, and turned on her heel to go find someone who could actually make a difference.
"You want in," repeated Fury, blandly.
"Yes, sir," said Hill.
Fury arched an eyebrow, and she wondered, not for the first time, where a military man had learned such casual sarcasm and such a complete disregard for hierarchy. "And why should I bring you in on this? You've hardly worked with the woman since she's been here."
"Perhaps that gives me neutrality."
Fury snorted outright. "Neutrality, Commander?"
"If she's been selling lies to everyone, I haven't had the chance to buy." Fury just stared her down. She knew, on a certain level, that this was bullshit. She wouldn't believe Romanoff had turned on SHIELD until presented with the woman herself, holding a gun to Maria's head. But it was truth, at the same time: If Romanoff had been sowing seeds, then Maria would be in a position to see the things everyone else took for granted.
She recognized that there was a chance that Romanoff was truly gone. She'd come to SHIELD in exchange for a certain kind of safety. If SHIELD had failed their end of the deal, knowingly or unknowingly, of course Romanoff would see herself as a free agent again. But this wasn't just running: this was abandoning her field partner, leaving any number of important operations hanging. That required motive. She followed that through, took it to the logical extreme, and shivered. "Sir?"
"Is there..." she struggled for a way to phrase the question, a good approach to the situation. "We believe there are still people hunting Romanoff.” Fury nodded once. “Is there any chance, any way that SHIELD could have... put her in their path?"
"What are you asking, Agent?" Fury looked unhappy, sitting back in his absurd desk chair. He was going to make her spell it out.
"Is there any way SHIELD could have, deliberately or through negligence, betrayed Romanoff to the people she came here to... avoid?" It was easier to ask than it should have been, given that she'd never before suspected the organization of lying to its own agents on that scale. On the other hand, they'd never before dealt with the Black Widow.
Fury stood and reached for his ridiculous black coat. "While you're at it, why not ask if we sold her out to anyone else? Maybe the highest bidder? She's worth a lot on the black market, you know, if anyone can figure out how to get into her head again. Hell, how did your last meeting with the World Security Council go, Hill? I bet there are some people there with an unusual interest in an asset like that."
She matched his pace as he headed back down towards the third deck. "Because, sir, sometimes there are things that need to be done. Sometimes we need to take down a threat even more than we need to protect any given agent. And sometimes, you send someone you don’t like into a meeting you don’t want to have, and they do their damn job and answer the damn questions. So perhaps you’d like to answer the question?"
"The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division," said Fury, giving the name as much gravitas as it could be lent, "does not betray its own agents to anyone, for anything. Are we clear?"
Maria considered this. There were times and there were reasons to put a mission above an agent's life, but they were far and few between. "Would she be clear?" she asked, instead. "Would Agent Romanoff know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that SHIELD wouldn't renege on the bargain we made with her?"
Fury stopped, and Maria realized they had reached the war room again. He turned and looked her over, as if considering just who stood in front of him. He reached for the door, swiping his thumb over the keypad, and held it open broadly. "After you, Agent Hill. I think you might be needed on the search team."
Later on, Maria would remember the forty-two hours she spent looking for Natasha Romanoff, Agent of SHIELD, as among the worst of her life. At the time, she felt a mix of gratitude and anxiety with a large blanket of sleep deprivation smothering all other feelings. She didn't remember a lot of it; the false leads, the strange suggestions, the people she had kidnapped or threatened because they weren't giving straight answers.
What she remembered, later, were three things:
First, that she had never in her working life gone that long without chemical stimulants.
Second, that the greatest threat to Romanoff was clearly the incompetence of the people on the search teams, not the hostiles chasing her on the ground.
Third, that her greatest concern was for threats to Romanoff.
Romanoff showed up at a hastily-erected safe house in Provence. Following hints that Romanoff might be headed that direction, Maria had suggested putting a handful of SHIELD agents in her path, all obvious and approachable. Sure enough, it had worked, luring Romanoff in to the safety of SHIELD's waiting arms and heavy weapons.
Maria observed the entire debrief, including the part where Romanoff was asked to debrief on her original mission with Barton. Romanoff had, it turned out, gotten the information she was looking for, set up multiple contacts, and neutralized a small but growing faction of Hydra that was trying to make a profit on the illegal organ market.
It wasn’t until they went into the later part of the mission that Maria was invited to participate in the debrief, or was even allowed into the room itself. The level of security was, in Maria's opinion, both overkill and rather pointless. The Black Widow was clever enough to simply think around most of SHIELD's security, when she couldn't punch her way through it, and she was merely under suspicion of being compromised: not a hostile.
Maria was the one sent in to ask the unpleasant questions. This was old hat- she'd long been the hard-ass side of 'bad cop/worse cop' that SHIELD liked to play- and she knew exactly what she was expected to ask. "Treat all suspects as guilty until proven innocent: you're not under US civilian law here, Hill," Fury told her, but that did little for the odd feeling of guilt that twisted her gut around whenever Romanoff met her eyes.
They began politely, with Hill ensuring there was water available to the both of them, since she herself disliked a dry throat and Romanoff had already been talking for hours.
"Would you care to justify your actions, Agent Romanoff?" Hill asked mildly.
The woman studied her face. "No, not really, but thank you."
"Why not?" Maria kept her voice easy, because yelling would not intimidate Romanoff, not here, not yet. It had nothing to do with the fact that she couldn’t stomach the idea of bullying Romanof. Her hands clenched and unclenched as she held back the desire to reach out and smooth the strain and tension out of those gently sloping shoulders.
The corner of Romanoff’s mouth twitched in amusement. "I was prioritizing."
"And continuing your mission as assigned wasn't your priority?"
"Would it have been yours?" Maria had to admire how quickly she had turned it around, making the interrogation about Maria. "I had reason to believe a high-priority person of interest was about to make a move. Agent Barton was capable of adequately achieving our original goals. There was no one else available to attempt this particular objective."
"You dropped all contact."
"It was necessary. Too much connection could have slowed me down, and would have made it obvious I was working with a group. Where I went the people I talked to needed to see me as a free agent."
"Agents are sometimes sent out without a direct link to SHIELD or a handler," said Maria. It was a casual comment, but Romanoff's eyes narrowed. "You could have called in. We would have been able to set something up."
"SHIELD moves slow." Agent Romanoff shrugged. "I move fast."
Maria raised an eyebrow. Romanoff raised her own in return, and it was all Maria could do to resist cracking a smile. "You didn't alert anyone but Agent Barton about your change of plans."
Maria cut her off, humor gone. "We have procedures for this sort of situation, and we have them for a reason."
"And if they were as effective as they should be then I would have been brought in a lot sooner- or I wouldn't be here in the first place." Romanoff leaned across the table, not quite reaching out. Maria reminded herself that many people with heavy armament waited just outside the room, and that even blinking wrong could bring them down on Romanoff in an instant. It kept her from flinching away from that hard green gaze. "I did what had to be done. If SHIELD had a problem with my methods..." Romanoff trailed off, uncertainty showing through her voice for the first time.
Maria waited, focusing on the other woman's hands instead of her face in a meager attempt to give her privacy and a moment to think. When Romanoff seemed content to let the sentence lie as it was, Maria pressed on again. "Yes? If SHIELD has a problem with your methods?"
"Then we might have a problem," she said.
Their eyes met, and this time Romanoff looked away first.
Maria had, during her brief time in the Navy, known three bonded couples. Two were bonds between officers and civilians, the third were a pair of medics who had met and spontaneously bonded shortly after basic, their bond cemented within days and their training only slightly interrupted. The Navy had not been happy with the disruption to what is supposed to be a period of instilling military values, but there were too many federal laws protecting basic rights for bonded pairs for either partner to be discharged.
Those two were very romantic, and slightly annoying. Maria didn’t know them well.
Of the two officers, one was open about meeting his wife and bondmate, and about how they had met and fallen in love in a whirlwind, from meeting to bonding within two weeks. "Best decision I ever made," he'd say, proudly, but he also described how inevitable it was. He was sweet, and domestic, and terribly macho, and Maria never could understand him.
"It wasn't easy" was what the other bonded officer told her, the one time she dared to ask. "We knew... we could feel we were compatible, but that wasn't all, because we could feel the pull of the bond. All the time, whenever I thought about him, wherever we met, there was this sense of 'You should be closer'. It was hard to resist."
"You didn't, though," said Maria.
He smiled at her. His hairline receded while his pot belly stuck out. Maria wondered if he cared that he no longer looked the model of a US Navy sailor, but rather resembled a weary middle-manager. Of course, she reflected, the latter might be a more accurate description of his job. "We did. For fourteen months, we did. Even after we started dating, we still didn't let the bond confirm."
Confirm. It was formal language, and Maria didn't claim to understand it all, but something about the Bond had to be accepted by both parties, mentally or emotionally or, hell, even chemically. Different schools of thought said differently, depending on a person’s philosophy and the research they chose to believe. It wasn't always voluntary, and a genre of literary characters from Romeo and Juliet to Lancelot and Guinevere had been built around couples who bonded without meaning to. Nevertheless, two adults could be expected to exercise a certain amount of control most of the time.
A 'certain amount' was usually less than a year, however. "Why did you wait?"
He shook his head. "Because I didn't want to ever think: ‘What if I only love him because of this chemical thing? What if I never really fell in love with him?’ Now I know."
"The bond could have made you fall in love, even before," she said, and immediately felt uncomfortable.
He shook his head. "It could have." He stared right past her, and Maria suspected he was no longer paying any attention to her. "I can't prove anything. I just know I'm glad I have him."
They were put on an operation together the following week. It was, with Maria's usual luck, one where they would have little high-end backup available, and the analysts and juniors would be communicating from the helicarrier or their assigned bases. It was also a clear retaliation for her overwhelming defense of Romanoff, a sort of 'If you trust her so much then she can watch your back'. Maria was in no position to argue with the assignment, not on those grounds.
They were, for the purposes of public cover, two Americans playing tourist out of a short-term rental apartment in Jerusalem. Romanoff's accent was a flawless as her attitude, making her every inch the homespun Carolina Christian. Sometimes, looking at her like this, Maria had a hard time reconciling her aggressive ordinary-ness with the incredible woman underneath.
"Thank you," said Romanoff out of the blue. She sprawled on the comfortable but hideous floral couch, taking up more space than a woman of her size should be able to.
Maria blinked, off-balance and confused.
Romanoff barely smiled, an expression that struck Maria as being incredibly personal. She was beautiful like that (she was beautiful all the time) but the radiance was nothing next to the honesty, the self shone through her expression. "You brought me back when I was stuck," she said. "And I know you're the reason I got sleep that night, instead of sitting in the brig until everyone had calmed down. Sitwell must have argued for a forty-eight hour observation, at least. Probably some of the others did too, and for longer."
It was true, they had. Maria had convinced Sitwell that if they still mistrusted Romanoff, not only was two days too short an observation period but two years might not be enough. "Well," Maria cleared her throat, mouth suddenly dry and words thick on her tongue, "you'd had a long day."
Romanoff laughed, and Maria couldn't help but start at the sound, even as it took her breath away. She wanted to hear that sound every day, forever. She wanted to know that she was really there- not just Agent Romanoff, impressive and frightening as she might be, but Natasha, the woman standing in front of her now.
Maria reached out, but stopped her hand short. She stepped back and settled herself against the bookshelf, not sure enough of her welcome to want to sit down.
Natasha's face smoothed out to blankness.
"I'm sorry," said Maria, softly. "That was... over the line."
Natasha nodded, but she was all Agent Romanoff again, thinking and judging and using her excellent instincts. "This-" she gestured to Maria, then back to herself, as if indicating the invisible tie between them. "This is not a good thing to base your judgement of me on."
"Was I wrong?"
Romanoff blinked. "I don't understand."
"I based my judgment of you off of what I had seen. I came to certain conclusions about how you would behave, and what would motivate you." Maria hesitated, trying to find the right words to make it clear that she hadn’t and wouldn't sacrifice her responsibility for the sake of feeling. "I... I believe that everyone else, despite their best efforts, had certain biases about you based on prior knowledge, or beliefs, about you and your history. My biases just allowed me to judge your behavior accurately."
Romanoff flinched, and brushed past her. It was like a spark and a calling, the feeling of cloth against cloth and firm muscle and soft curves hidden just beneath. Maria turned to stare without bothering to hide it, just watching as she poured herself a glass of water. She tracked ever move Romanoff made, every tiny involuntary flinch, and there it was: she was starting to see it, now, the holes in the facade, the person who was there even when Natasha didn't want to show it.
When she looked up, Maria met and held her gaze. Her breath caught again, and her thoughts cartwheeled out of control, from what color that was, exactly, to how close she wanted to see, how carefully she wanted to count each lash and run her thumb over the curve of Natasha's cheekbone.
"We don't really know each other," said Romanoff. "We've never worked particularly closely. You tracked me. You know facts and figures, or you think you do."
Maria nodded. It was a fair point. "There are more holes in your dossier than facts, I think."
"SHIELD wanted a lot of information from me, but they never asked for information on me."
"Fury values his people highly," said Maria. It was true. "He has a great deal of faith. He may want to know everything about you, but he... recognizes limits." She tried for light-hearted, joking "I'm not sure that getting your birthdate will make a real difference to your life with SHIELD."
Romanoff took her water over to the tiny kitchen table. "You might be surprised about that."
"Matters of international security? Or just birthday cake?"
"German chocolate, please," Romanoff returned, her smile real (everything she did was real. That was the most fascinating thing, the way she took her emotions, felt them, and turned them into weapons and tools and supports as needed) but controlled. They lapsed into silence for a moment, letting the sounds of the city filter through the heavy walls.
"You never ask anything of me," said Romanoff, finally. "You want, but you don't ask."
Maria shrugged. She sat down across from Romanoff, letting the table force some small distance. Their knees bumped and when Maria rested her hand palm down on the smooth wood, she was only inches away from the other woman. It was at once maddening and wonderful.
"I'm not your commander," she said, finally. "I'm just... I'm just another senior agent, but that means I have some authority, anyways."
"And if you tried to use that," Romanoff pointed out dryly, "I can name six people who would happily take you down for abuse of power."
"Only six?" asked Maria, matching her tone. "You should start socializing more at SHIELD. There’s plenty who would help just for the chance to take me down."
Romanoff grinned again, and Maria felt herself smile in response.
When she did answer, though, it was more serious. "You know what this is," she said, finally. She lifted a hand, mimicking Romanoff's earlier gesture by indicating the space between the two of them. "You know what we are, what we could be. You've been avoiding me. I'm not... I'm not going to chase you down."
There was something in those words that sent Romanoff far away in her head. She stilled, reminding Maria of a deer or rabbit catching a scent, trying to decide whether or fight or flee, comparing this threat with all those it has seen before. When she came back and refocused on Maria, she was more relaxed, a faint slope to her shoulder that had been missing before. "I don't like cages," was all she said, and Maria nodded.
That was reason enough for now.
The operation was a ridiculous affair that dragged and dragged on in more than one way. They spent days sitting together, on a wall just enjoying the sunshine or in a cafe, or a car, or anywhere else they could observe the wife and three children of Israel's fifth-most-impressive crime lord. The man himself should have been beneath SHIELD's notice except for the fascinating connection he was building with several of Hydra's top operatives, and the recent business he had done with a number of more borderline-legitimate groups and companies, most notably AIM.
Rather than focus solely on the man himself, they had chosen to spend some time looking into the relevant people around him. That became their saving grace.
They were very, very lucky, and the stupid mistakes made by research division (the wrong name of the youngest child, a series of missing bills) by the analysts (failure to recognize that one of the man's meetings was, in fact, a standing date with his mistress) and by prior observation (failure to identify the existence of the mistress in the first place) each caused chaos, but not disaster. Every setback of prior investigation meant more time on the ground for the two of them, trying to untangle and correct the information SHIELD had.
The rolling weeks allowed a certain amount of familiarity between the two of them. ‘Romanoff’ became ‘Natasha’, who in turn stopped addressing her as ‘Hill’ but never quite got around to calling her ‘Maria’. They didn't talk much. Natasha didn't like having saying things that mattered where they could be seen or heard. At first it confused Maria, who was used to long conversations on stakeouts with a recorder running the whole time, but then, she was also used to trusting that no one would listen in unless necessary. She was used to the idea that everyone involved in an op was an friendly, that she didn't have to worry about later betrayal from her current allies. She was used to professional pleasantries, trust built on familiarity. Natasha had a history that didn't include much of that at all.
Still, they built a certain trust between them. At the end of a long night or day, she knew she would hear Natasha’s voice come in steady and true over the comm. It was reassuring and familiar and felt, at times, like home.
"I've got all I'm going to get tonight, unless I'm cleared to move in and interrogate directly."
"Negative, Widow," Maria said, only slightly regretful. On the one hand she knew Natasha wanted to be done with this case, but on the other she was just as glad not to send her in alone. Knowing Natasha could handle less-than-ideal conditions was a very different thing from wanting her to be taking those risks. "Come on in."
"Forty minutes. Black Widow out," said Natasha, and Maria started turning monitors off.
She left her headset in while she headed into the kitchen to make dinner. She might not be much of a cook but she made a mean frittata. Anyone, she reasoned, could crack eggs.
The sun was coming in the western window when Natasha walked in, tired but not worn, a bottle of red wine in her hand. She dropped her jacket on the back of the hideous sofa, and then went straight for the cupboard, brushing past Maria with a soft 'hey there'. Maria was hit with a sudden ache of rightness.
Natasha placed the glasses on the table carefully, and then glanced up, as if to check on Maria, carrying in the plates. Their eyes met, and Maria spared a moment to wonder if it would always be like this: Days of the two of them operating as an excellent team, no sign of interruption or oddness, and then these brief breaks where the simple curve of Natasha's lip was enough to take her breath away from across the room. If they were so smooth together in the field, and so easy together like this, what would they be like together, a thousand soft touches of silk and fire every hour, words and kisses and sweetness into the night?
With effort, Maria took another breath, and another.
"I'm not..." Natasha whispered, and Maria could see her gather herself. Her face smoothed, the fire in her eyes dimmed. "I'm not interested in..."
The words cut sharp. Maria suppressed a flinch, but Natasha must have seen it in her eyes or her stance. "Not- it isn't about you, it's about..."
"Yeah, I know," Maria said, even as she wanted to shout 'Can't you feel this? Don't you get chills when we're in the same room? Can't you tell this is about you, and me, and us and us alone?' But there was something so sad in Natasha's voice, it was infuriating- who was she to be sad? Maria was here. Natasha was the one holding back. The anger and frustration she felt brought out more sarcasm than she intended, and she spoke without thinking. "Not about me. It's, what, it’s about all the other people you've half-bonded with, right?"
Natasha played along, smiling a little and looking down coyly. “Of course.” Her humor was forced.
Maria shook herself. She felt like an ass, and knew she deserved that sort of brush-off response. But she also knew that Natasha said very little that meant only one thing, and if her answer was a joke that didn’t make it untrue.
She was still, absurdly, holding the plates. She set them down gently, one at her place, one at Natasha's, the steam still rising up. "I'm sorry," she said, instead of asking for more. "That must be... how often does that even happen?"
"Once in a lifetime," said Natasha, her voice heavy with the irony. "I’ve just had a few too many of those.”
She'd been the premier assassin of the Soviets, before their fall, and then she'd been the premier assassin of everywhere, belonging to no one but herself. At some point she must have been a child. Now she was Natasha Romanoff, still the Black Widow, still belonging to herself alone, but working for SHIELD because she chose to do what she could for the world.
She had been a lot of people, and yet, Maria had to wonder if that was exactly what she'd meant by lifetimes.
"Let's eat." Natasha smiled, again, this time more sincere. "Food's getting cold."
"At least the wine had time to breathe," joked Maria. Natasha raised the bottle, glaring pointedly at the cheap label, and Maria had to laugh.
The next day was more of the same: Widow out hunting, waiting for something to turn up, while Maria worked back channels and tried to find what they had so far missed.
Eleven months ago an employee of AIM had come to town, dined with the family, and then left three days later. AIM was high enough on SHIELD's threat index that that rated a mention, but for the life of her, Maria couldn't figure out how. They weren't known for weaponry, though of course, they had developed weaponizable technology. They were mostly known for medical advancements, so what did they want with the arms dealer? What did they want with his organization? And did this have any relevance to the suspect's later involvement with Hydra, or was it just another sign of the sort of shifty people he dealt with: criminals, but preferably those who walked a fine line and managed to appear presentable, at least from a distance.
Somehow it had to do with the wife, Maria was sure. The husband's affair seemed to have distracted him from the deal his wife was cutting on the side. That, in turn, had something to do with the youngest child, at least if they were interpreting Natasha's intel correctly.
"Can you check medical records?" asked Natasha, out of nowhere in the middle of a brilliantly sunny afternoon.
"We've got them- his, hers, hell, even the mistress," said Maria. "What do you need?"
"The kid," said Natasha, instead. "We checked him as Avi, have we tried Tzahi yet?"
She was right; they hadn't bothered to update all their research when they corrected his name in their notes. There it was: Signs of a degenerative illness, source yet to be determined. It had failed all the classic tests- it wasn't Tay-Sachs, Alper’s, Kugelberg-Welander, or any one of a dozen other things. The mother had been checking in with continually sketchier and sketchier doctors. Any illusion Maria might have had that the woman didn't know, or was in denial, about her husbands work was destroyed. "She's plucky," said Natasha.
"She's ruthless," corrected Maria, and Natasha hmm'ed in agreement.
"We should have caught this sooner," said Natasha.
Maria flinched. "Sorry," she blurted out, like a rookie. "I should have checked that."
"We have it now."
That night they grabbed food from a hole-in-the-wall. It was the sort of place that was meant to look homey enough to lure in the tourists, without being an actual spot for locals. Maria liked it. Natasha seemed to appreciate it, though whether that was the food or the cunning, Maria couldn't say.
"I'm sorry," she told Natasha again, between bites of falafel. "I'm not entirely sure why I'm here, instead of a more regular handler. I'll try not to miss something like that again."
"You're here because I asked for you," said Natasha, and oh.
That changed everything. Maria blinked, and swallowed her bite of food half-chewed. Natasha wanted her here, which meant Natasha wasn't here against her will, which meant Natasha was spending time with her on purpose-
It was too much. Maria shoved all of those thoughts aside, ruthlessly stuck them in a compartment to be revisited later (or never.)
"I'm not as fresh in the field as most of our handlers," she said, because it was true. For every boots-on-the-ground mission she ran, she worked half a dozen projects that never took her far afield, or involved agents and juniors by the score rather than one-on-one. She hadn’t done extended cover for years. "You had better options."
"No," disagreed Natasha. "You were the best choice for this mission." She looked as if she had no intention of explaining herself, instead taking another bite of salad, nibbling it daintily off of her fork.
Finally she gave in and answered. "You found me, didn't you? Twice now."
"I don't play favorites," said Maria, and almost bit her tongue at her own stupidity. That wasn't what she meant to say at all. That was the opposite of what she wanted to say. (It also happened to be true.)
"No," said Natasha. "You don't. That makes it... you’ve always been generous with me." Maria's confusion must have shown through, because she added "since I came back in, you were ready to give me the chance to prove I was in the right."
There wasn't much Maria could find to say to that.
They caught the wife two days later, trying to run a dirty deal on her husband. She was double-crossing him with a Hydra operative, offering intel from the AIM agent and arranging for the Hydra operative to get a larger selection of Israeli-made arms. She asked a lower price but also access to the best of Hydra's experimental genetic research. It was a rather ingenious plan, except that she had been relying on her husband's name and security system to see her safely through it.
That didn't work on SHIELD agents.
They took her in, under arrest and with no sign of a release anytime soon. The Israeli government had no interest in letting anyone know how close they had come to letting international terrorists interact with domestic criminals, and were perfectly happy to lend what little assistance was needed and then get out of the way- provided, of course, that SHIELD kept the operation from ever coming to light. It seemed like a fair deal to Maria.
"I wonder what that would be like," mused Natasha, sitting across from Maria in the small personnel carrier. The air was stuffy and chilly, but the ride was smooth. Maria concentrated on the thought that soon she'd be sleeping in her bed, and tried to push aside memories of the small apartment with a west-facing window.
"What what would be like?"
"To have someone love you that much," she said. "That boy- whatever else he lacked, he has a mother who loves him. Had," she corrected hastily.
Maria considered, trying to figure out how to speak honestly without mis-stepping in what she suspected was Natasha's emotional minefield about children. "Not enough to make sure she stayed with him.”
"No," agreed Natasha. "She didn't love him like that."
"She didn't love her husband very much." Maria she was less sure of that one. Who knew what drove someone to betray their other half in such a complete and irrecoverable way?
"No, she didn't. He didn't love her," said Natasha, agreeing again, but this time far more indulgently. "Does that matter?"
"I can't imagine marrying someone and then turning on them like that," said Maria, finally.
"Some things are more important."
Oh. Well, when put like that, it made everything the two of them had- or didn't- seem rather petty in comparison. Maria could respect that. Putting the greater good above the needs of two people was the sort of thing she herself would do. Did not knowing what you were giving up make it any different?
"Maybe," said Maria. "But maybe that's because what they had wasn't that important to either of them. Maybe they’d seen what they could have and decided they didn’t care."
"Or maybe it's because they each had a greater sense of the world," said Natasha. "Maybe they each knew what they wanted. Maybe in the end that always wins."
"Maybe," said Maria.
They sat in silence the rest of the way back to base.
"It is possible," Maria told the Director, "that I am emotionally compromised regarding Agent Romanoff."
"No shit. I told you that weeks ago."
Maria bit back a snarled response. She'd engaged in extended strenuous activity with adrenaline levels raised due to significant danger, she'd forgone sleep, and then she had given a very thorough debrief to a group of agents and analysts who, in her opinion, had failed so completely that they didn't deserve their continued positions, let alone to be allowed in on the results of the mission. (For that matter, she had refrained from making her opinions clear to every person on the base. Call that yet another feat of will.)
She was growing tired of all this bullshit.
"Sir, if I may-"
"No," said Director Fury, in his usual angry tone. "I don't care. You've both already proven you can be professionals, and the rest of this drama is yours to work out. You have a problem with her, you come to me. You have a problem with you, you fucking deal with it."
"Sir, I don't-"
He stood up and loomed over his desk. She rose to match him. "You did good out there," he told her. "You two took a shitshow and turned it into a success. I'm impressed, and I'm keeping you available for future missions involving Romanoff as needed, until she requests otherwise."
So that was settled.
They reverted to 'Romanoff' and 'Hill', but it was gentler, somehow. It served a reminder, day in and day out, that on the helicarrier and in the field they were professionals first, people second. It didn't sting.
They worked together freely now, and Maria was grateful enough that she didn't comment on it to anyone. Director Fury, for all he was a nosy, controlling bastard at times, was astute enough to know when not to interfere, and had been doing an admirable job of leaving the two of them alone to work out their issues on their own schedule.
Romanoff (Natasha) walked through the halls of SHIELD headquarters like she meant business, but somehow she always seemed to know the little things about the agents around her. Who had children and who didn't, who was married and who recently single, who had hobbies and interests all their own and who brought their work home with them, training in martial arts or endurance or doing code-breaking for fun in the evenings.
Maria would see her casually steer the conversation in the direction of each agent's life, of their passions and loves, and she'd marvel at the woman's kindness and cleverness. There were, she reflected, many people in SHIELD who might have been able to do that if they wanted to. There was only the one who had bothered.
Every agent was now an ally of Natasha's, whether they knew it or not.
It only came up when she wanted it to, though, and that was rare. Mostly she preferred to handle any difficulties on her own, or let people handle it for her without noticing they were doing so.
For example, a truly stupid plan involving some ridiculous undercover work was something she needed no help at all bringing down. Agent Blake was a solid, dependable agent, a man who had survived many a crisis and had served SHIELD's interests in the process. He was, unfortunately, prone to the worst sort of bad habits in a man of rank: dismissiveness, failure to understand, and unoriginal thinking.
Blake had been in charge of designing the next operation against this militant branch of Hydra. It was Blake who had first brought forward clear evidence that linked Maria's investigation across South America, the Israeli arms dealer, a series of ugly situations in China (including the one where Romanoff went incommunicado), and various other operations with a single arm of Hydra. ('Or a head', snickered Sitwell. Everyone chose to ignore him.)
That alone would have been fine- well, it would have been alright, except for the way his plan to flush out the head of this Hydra arm (cell, wing, branch- they didn't have ideal terminology for how to refer to Hydra groups, largely because Hydra themselves were inconsistent) involved agent Romanoff going undercover, alone and without any clear backup.
“I am, as always, flattered by your faith in my skills,” she told him gravely. “But perhaps for this one I could use a little aid?”
Blake glared at her, and came back the next day with a plan Maria found even more absurd. Romanoff was to play the injured woman, slowly dying of a degenerative disease that no one had been able to positively identify, while Barton played the grieving, angry bondmate in denial, the one who insisted on finding a miracle.
Barton, called in at Blake’s insistence, had rolled his eyes outright at the whole suggestion. Coulson and the Director wore matching frowns, in a sight that could have been comical, were Maria the sort of agent who laughed at her coworkers. However, the breakdown of exactly why this plan was terrible fell to the master of undercover work herself.
"That oversells it a bit, don't you think?" said Romanoff lightly. She scanned the room, and if her eyes skipped over Maria too deliberately at least no one else noticed.
Blake took offense. "I don't believe it does. You can handle a strong cover."
"A strong cover, yes, but not this. This is a great distance to plan to go without backup."
"Agent Barton doesn’t count?” Said Blake. “And you've gone without backup before.”
Coulson stepped in, his voice commanding but calm. "Not, however, when other options have still been viable. Mostly it has been a plan of last resort, and a call only the agents involved can make."
Maria wanted to step in. She wanted to argue that it was a call that no one should make, that SHIELD should be good enough that not only should they not be using it as plan A, but it should never come down to 'go off the grid' as plan Z, either. She also wanted to yell about how trying to pass Romanoff and Barton off as bondmates was ridiculous, how the two of them couldn't possibly play that, but an even uglier part of her whispered the truth. The problem with that argument was that they had often pulled it off, and well; Barton and Romanoff were eerily in sync.
Maria had even heard stories of how the spontaneous bond between those two had brought Natasha in to SHIELD in the first place. She'd flushed an unpleasant shade of red, turned on her heel, and left the training room without any further interaction that day. It had been a reminder of how much she needed to keep in check when it came to Natasha- to Romanoff- and her own feelings.
"Sir, I think this is unwise," Romanoff continued, still addressing Blake with more respect than Maria could have mustered. "It exposes us too much, and draws attention where we should be avoiding it."
"I thought that was your favorite strategy, Agent Romanoff," snarked Agent Blake.
Maria caught her breath. So did everyone else in the room; over the stillness she could hear the sound of Blake shifting his hands across the table. No one exhaled until Romanoff smiled at him.
"The basic premise of that is to distract from one's actual goal, Agent, rather than spell it out."
"What did you have in mind, Romanoff?" she cut in, before Blake could take open offense.
"I'd like to see a situation that looks less like something out of Agent Barton's romance novels," she said. (Barton's head snapped up from where he'd been reworking a print-out into a tiny paper ship, complete with steam stacks and multiple decks.) "Perhaps we could try something other than pretending to be bondmates. Again."
The meeting turned into interminable arguments, but resulted in a cover story that everyone could, in fact, live with. They had a hard time at first trying to identify the problems with the current cover and the operation it detailed, but it was Agent Coulson who finally had a breakthrough.
"We still don't know why they're doing all this research, all over the place. We know each part but we don't know what it means," he said.
Fury acknowledged that, and they all settled in to work in earnest. Romanoff, they agreed, would go in behind Barton, who would draw them out. The point was that they had to get to the top, they had to meet the man behind the curtain.
"They're stepping it up," pointed out Blake, and obnoxious as he was he wasn't wrong. Hydra had recently increased the pace of their research, with more frequent strikes and their oddly public covert actions. That, in turn, meant SHIELD was running out of time.
"But why now?" Barton wondered aloud.
No one had a good answer.
Maria stayed behind to go over details with Blake, and try to send something down to the analysts they might not fuck up. Barton was the first one gone, with Romanoff close on his heels. As she walked by Maria, her hand knocked against Maria's shoulder, the most casual of brushes. Heat pooled through the thick technical fabric of her suit, and Maria could have sworn she felt Natasha's growing distance as she walked down the hall. It could have been an accident. (It wasn't.)
Romanoff and Barton went in with Coulson handling direct contact, and Blake running strategy. They’d recruited from various departments to put together a small team. Maria was not included in that, and she couldn’t come up with a good reason she should be. It made her nervous anyways.
“At some point I’d appreciate it if you stopped abusing your position to review ongoing ops and actually concentrated on keeping the Council out of this mess,” the Director told her.
“I’m pretty sure they only trust me because I won’t do what you say,” said Maria. “This would be a stupid time for me to start listening. Sir.”
He snorted. “Don’t get too distracted, Agent. I need you here, not there.”
“Yes, sir,” she said.
She did what she could, but concentration became more and more elusive. Maria found herself fielding questions on things she didn’t understand, prodding from the World Security Council about connections that hadn’t been confirmed.
“Your turn,” she told Agent Morse.
Morse looked unamused. “You pulled me out of bed at 0300 hours. You better have more for me than ‘your turn’, Agent Hill.”
“I’m missing something here, and I need another person to look at it.”
“And I’m here because...”
“You’re competent, and your background means you’re more likely to see what goal these could possibly have in common.” She held out a paper folder, and dropped in on the desk in front of Morse. “Chongqing.” Another, this one thicker. “Mumbai.” The one she’d been reviewing was “Santiago.” Another “Pedro Afonso.” There were others, and she didn’t bother with files for all of them, but “Jerusalem. Alice Springs. Muncie. Meknes. I could go on, if you’d like?”
Morse reached for the files, but she didn’t sit. “And what do all these things have in common, besides being names of municipalities?”
“They’re all successful ops we’ve run, and they all have involved some form of genetics related research, and the majority of the ones we can link tie back to Hydra. The rest fit a dead-end pattern of ghost corporations, and we now think that Hydra has used that pattern at least once.” She blinked, remembering the mother who had been remarkably eager to sell out her own work, if it would bring her access to her children again. “We’ve got a reasonably reliable source who said she had contact with a shell corporation through a Hydra operative.”
Morse flipped through the first one, then sighed. “I want coffee if we’re doing this.”
Maria got up to make another pot.
They were still going strong when the helicarrier crossed into daylight. A knock on the door interrupted them after about the eighth hour of review. “Yes?” snapped Maria.
“Uh, not to disturb you, but have either of you been following Blake’s op?” The junior glanced back and forth between the two agents, and then continued “I was asked to please get your opinion, Agent Hill.”
Morse and the kid- god, what was his name- both stared at her in shock.
“Update me on the way down,” she said, and headed for the main deck.
It turned out he didn’t know anything: Fury had upgraded the priority of the operation in question, and had started redirecting some additional resources towards research for it. Romanoff and Barton had encountered unanticipated numbers of personnel. There seemed to be additional infrastructure, not previously uncovered.
“What other resources can be diverted-” Maria started to ask, but Fury shook his head.
“They’re trying to force through the assistant director confirmation this week.”
“Sir?” she blinked.
“I’m not about to let the entire organization get caught up in a single op. Barton and Romanoff aren’t blown yet. Let’s not borrow trouble.”
“Borrow trouble? They- sir, this isn’t-” Maria cut herself off, trying to rein in her temper. “Sir, with all due respect, do the politics of the Council really take precedence over the lives of our own agents?”
Fury glared her down, trying to live up to his name. Maria glared at him right back. They stood that way, at an impasse, for a long moment.
“Twelve hours, and if there’s no good news, you can go in.”
“Two hours and I take a team of my own choosing,” she countered
“Four hours, and you can use three agents, level three to level five, for up to twenty-four hours.”
She didn’t bother saluting when she left.
Three hours later she had no good news from anyone. She’d left Morse doing additional review while she did her own prep work for the op, gathering supplies and bullying an analyst into putting together an entrance for her. She’d been in contact with Blake and Coulson. Blake refused to take any action yet, for reasons she found to be even more specious than Fury’s, and Coulson was waiting for a signal.
“They’ll let us know,” he insisted.
Maria just went back to planning.
“I don’t know what to do with this,” admitted Morse, after another hour locked in the secure room. “I feel like my eyes are glazing over. You look for a while, I’ll review the inventory for you.”
She accepted the stack of handwritten notes Morse handed her without comment. They were all stuffed together in an envelope labeling them as classified, and it made no sense to her pulling them out and reading them at random. “Sirtuins, APOB, jesus fuck this is dry. What the hell were they trying to do here? Create an immortal?”
“Trying to fix human flaws,” said Morse. “Call Coulson, he can tell you what research Hydra used to do on that. Funny, but so much above-board research has the same dreams-”
“But not the same methodology.”
Maria sighed. Once upon a time they’d found a shortcut to creating the peak of humanity, and now everybody wanted to recreate that success. What horrible things had come out of that idea, they might never know, but at least they knew that the original was gone and couldn’t be used as a resource.
‘Research complete, cover blown,’ noted one sheet. ‘Deliberate reveal? Obvious.’ It was tagged ‘Mumbai’, and Maria agreed with that assessment. It was one of the few files that had indisputable Hydra links, but it also seemed to be the most carefully arranged situation, like someone had tried to make it look like a sloppy cover.
‘Subjects destroyed?’ another note read. ‘All data lost,’ it added. Maria held it up. “What’s this?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I thought it was related to some of Schmitt's stuff- he had Zola try to do some super-soldier work, did you know that? Turned out badly. And he had other scientists working on it as well- but then, I think this relates to a USSR project that was destroyed. It’s hard to tell, most of the notes from Alice Springs were pretty well destroyed before we collected them. Oh,” she said. “I pulled the op we were on, too. I don’t know why, I just...”
Maria nodded. If they were dealing with Hydra, and they were dealing with set-ups and potential traps, it made sense to at least see if they had missed something there. Maybe it was supposed to fit a pattern. The problem was she saw about five different patterns, and most of the data points fit two or three of those, not all. There were so many things going on.
Maria tossed the words around in her head. They meant something, they meant- “Son of a bitch,” she swore. Morse looked up, curious. “I know what they’re after.”
The door swung open behind them. There was only one person who even had that kind of override on Maria.
“You’re up,” said Fury. He sounded unhappy, even by his standards, and Maria was surprised to realize she did not give a fuck. “Barton’s on his way back to us, Coulson’s coordinating retrieval. Romanoff’s been taken. You’d better have your team ready, because I don’t have any more for you on this, and Romanoff may not have much more time.”
So, ‘ready’ may have been an overstatement. The base was huge, both cavernous and warren-like. She’d run through rooms big enough to house the helicarrier, and through tunnels she thought wouldn’t end.
‘Field-skills test’ didn’t begin to cover it.
She broke into a building that was larger than the helicarrier, one that SHIELD hadn’t known existed, and went looking for Natasha. At least she had a clue now as to where to look.
By the time she got to the other woman, it had been nearly twenty-four hours since Hydra had grabbed her.
Hundreds had died. The floor was littered with broken glass and equipment, and equally broken bodies. There had been a trail of destruction leading out; Natasha must have doubled back to throw the remaining guards off.
“Are you-” The words wouldn’t come, Maria found, choking on feelings of relief and anger. She reached out, grabbing Natasha by the shoulders and holding her steady even as she swayed on her feet.
Natasha smiled. “What do you think?”
“I think that if they’ve taken DNA samples, we’re going to have to take out the whole building,” said Maria.
“Alright,” agreed Natasha. “They took DNA samples. Maria, I think they were-”
“-hunting you,” said Maria. She pushed back the guilt that threatened to overwhelm her, the feelings of failure, that she hadn’t done better to stop Hydra’s interest. “Trying to get you in a position where they could take you down.”
“There are things you don’t know about me.” It was an agreement, not an apology. “There are things that I don’t know about me. Before I came to SHIELD-”
“They want you for their genetically-engineered Übermensch program,” Maria cut in. “And SHIELD was supposed to offer you the support to keep out of their hands, but...”
“Didn’t work out,” said Natasha. “Not SHIELD’s fault.”
Yes it was, Maria wanted to argue. We should have protected you better. You should have told us, let us protect you better. She didn’t, though, just stepped back and surveyed the damage. It was pretty total, but sooner or later someone would be back through the destroyed laboratory, and they needed to be gone before then. Ideally, the entire base would be gone, too.
“Ready to wreck some destruction?” she asked.
Natasha just nodded at the entrance. The violence in that simple gesture awoke something primal in Maria, and she checked her explosives. Taking down Hydra, with Natasha at her side- now there was something she was ready to do.
It turned out that rigging an archaic and damaged base to explode was easier than Maria expected.
Three hours later she staggered across rough terrain, a barely-conscious Natasha clinging tightly to her side. She was exhausted as she’d never been; fear and grief giving way to relief, and a different sort of worry. Every now and then she made a bad step. Natasha would gasp roughly, or start to cry out and cut herself off just as fast. The sound made Maria’s heart twist in her chest, pain of a different sort filling her from the inside out.
An hour later they sat- collapsed- under the cover of evergreens. Maria breathed deeply, trying to collect herself, for Natasha's sake if nothing else. She still had a responsibility here, and no matter how much Natasha scared her by trying to pass out (not die, she couldn’t even think it) she had to stay collected. She had to fight back the fear of loss and the anger at those who would take Natasha- not just from Maria, but from the world, from herself. That thought roused her, and she briefly turned on her sat-com and sent the coordinates to Morse, Coulson, and Fury himself. She didn't wait for a response; either retrieval would come or they were screwed, but right now she was more worried about the things she could influence.
Natasha had taken advantage of Maria's distraction to slump down onto the ground. She lay on her back, ignoring the roughness of the earth beneath them. The sight of her pain and exhaustion gave Maria a strange boost: she was angry, furious even, at a world that would let this happen. She wasn't giving up, she wasn't taking a break, she wasn't even relaxing until she could believe that Natasha was going to be okay.
“Hey.” She reached out to poke Natasha in the shoulder. “Come on, soldier, up and at ‘em.”
Natasha blinked up at her for a long moment. Clarity returned to her eyes slowly, her gaze focusing and starting to track Maria's movements. Maria felt a burst of relief. There was blood streaked across Natasha's face. She was wearing a pantsuit; they’d still been undercover when she was taken. There were rips and streaks of dirt across the light fabric, and it looked ridiculous and perfect.
“Sorry,” she whispered, her voice raspy. “Trap.”
“Hey, hey, I know,” said Maria, not sure what she meant. “I know, I’m sorry, we should have figured it out sooner, I just didn’t know- I didn’t- I’m sorry.”
“Stop that.” She licked her lips. Maria pulled a small soft canteen from her belt. Natasha struggled to sit up, Maria trying to help without dropping the water. They worked themselves into a mutually sitting position, with Natasha leaning her weight across Maria’s legs tucked up to her chest.
Natasha drank the whole canteen down in one long drink.
“Thirsty?” Maria asked.
Natasha laughed, but she sounded better. Maria glanced up, wondering where the hell extraction was. They needed to get out of there, they needed medical, and they needed it now.
She leaned in and she looked at the woman who lay injured before her. She wondered, for the first time, what she would do if they both made it back and Natasha decided she didn’t want to see her again. Maria could live with it; she could. She’d need to distance herself, it was true, but there were things SHIELD needed that could easily keep her away from all primary field-oriented operations for the rest of her life. She’d be alright, knowing that Natasha would be alright, would be out there fighting alongside the people she’d chosen. It would be a life she could live.
That didn’t mean she would be whole.
“Come back with me,” she said to Natasha.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the plan.” Natasha met and held her gaze. “Getting back, both of us. That was the idea, right?”
“Okay?” Maria shook her head, trying to clear the muziness and exhaustion that were setting in as adrenaline faded. Natasha seemed more alert, at least, though she still leaned on Maria.
Natasha pressed in closer. “Yes. Okay. I’ll come back with you.”
“It’s just- now? Seriously?” Maria realized she might be undermining her own cause here, but found she couldn’t stop. “I thought you didn’t want this. I thought you didn’t want... cages.”
“Are you going to try to cage me?” Natasha smiled at her, warm and steady. She pulled back a few inches, taking her own weight again, for the most part. It let her come up closer to Maria, putting them on the same level. “You keep coming for me when I need you to, but you always let me go.”
It was true. It broke her heart a little more each time, but she’d continue to do it if she had to- let Natasha walk away, leave her behind.
Natasha reached out, bracing one arm against the ground while the other wrapped around Maria who let herself be pulled in close. The warm scent of rubble and smoke and under it honey-scented shampoo filled the air. Natasha’s hand came up behind her head and she pulled her in close.
Maria bridged the final distance. Her heart pounded as their lips brushed. Kissing her was perfect, it was freedom and safety and surety. Her arm snaked around Natasha’s chest, pulling lightly against her soft breasts, fire in her fingertips.
She broke the kiss, but it was awe at the sweetness she found that left her gasping for breath. Natasha smiled. It was the smile she’d been waiting for, real and present for no other reason than that Natasha was happy, and Maria got to see it. The cold of the evening couldn’t touch her, she was so wrapped up in the warmth of the moment. Maria stroked lightly across Natasha’s cheek and down her neck. Her skin was soft, smooth, daring Maria to taste it.
She did. Her lips brushed across the milky pale skin on her neck before she started sucking in earnest. It was all sweet and salt, the faint taste of smoke across Natasha’s neck. She let out a groan, but no, that was wrong- it wasn’t Natasha groaning, it was Maria herself.
“Please,” gasped Natasha, and Maria could only respond by kissing her again. They breathed into each other's mouths for a moment, sharing air, sharing the moment. Maria never wanted to be anywhere else again. She felt Natasha clutch at her shoulder, felt the heat and rightness, felt Natasha's happiness and relief through it all.
"We're okay," she muttered, not caring how unlikely that was. "We're okay."
Natasha pulled back to smile at her. Something inside Maria's chest unlocked at that, some key finally turned. She knew who she was. She knew why she was. She knew that right then, in that moment, she had everything she ever would want again, that all the other things wouldn't matter in the same way- except they would, because she had never been so much herself. She was exactly Maria, because who else could she be for Natasha?
It was purpose and it was peace, together.
"I think-" began Natasha. She didn't need to finish, because Maria understood. They were done, now, they weren't going to fight against this any more. They were one as two, and it was the strongest and the most sure she'd ever been. The fear, the pain, she'd welcome all of that, because she was doing it with the woman she loved- so obviously loved, the woman whom she would have loved no matter how or when or where they'd met, the woman she'd have loved eve if they'd never done this. This was her, right here, Natasha, complete with all her realities in conflict, modified in ways she'd never controlled and then controlling herself in ways no one else could ever imagine.
"I love you," said Maria.
"Yeah," said Natasha. It was all Maria needed to hear.
It took twenty-eight hours for medical to allow Natasha out of their sight, and then both women, without discussion, agreed to sleep for the following few days.
Everyone was surprisingly understanding about leaving them alone. Maria got up, once, just before Natasha was feeling well enough to get out of bed (or stay in, as the case may have been) and filed a succinct report.
"Good work," Fury told her the first time she did an in-person debrief.
"Thank you, sir." She shrugged, and looked down at the table. The newness of the bond buzzed beneath her skin. A part of her hoped it wouldn't distract her in the field, while the rest of her hoped it would never fade: a constant reminder that Natasha was there, so near and so loving. "Is there anything else?"
"I believe so," said Fury. Maria looked up sharply. A small flicker of hope, that things would be fixed at long last, sprung to life within her. "There was a suggestion made that you and Romanoff be paired together in the field more permanently, however, I believe there would be some drawbacks to that."
The hope guttered and died. SHIELD might allow fraternization, to a point, but putting two lifebonds together was too risky. "Understandable."
"However, the Council has been... rather outspoken on some other issues, concerning SHIELD's practices. Apparently, this latest... disaster... was something of an embarrassment."
"Sir." Maria couldn't argue, and while she didn't like the council, for once she was more than happy to agree with them. SHIELD never should have failed to make those connections. They were supposed to be a superior intelligence organization, not a bunch of bumbling children. How could she have faith that they were properly valuing Natasha's life when they were making mistakes like this?
Fury must have understood some of that. "So, obviously, it has become a... bargaining chip, if you will, in the competition for assigning a partisan assistant director."
Maria frowned. "This seems rather important to be turning in a political ploy, sir."
"I couldn't agree more, which is why I accepted your nomination for the position."
That was not how she had seen this going. "Ah, sir?"
"You'll need to go through some confirmation hearings, but they should be... moderate. Given your experience in managing larger elements of the division, and your recent heroism, I think you'll be a shoo-in." Maria opened her mouth to protest, but Fury shook a finger at her. "You've got problems with the organization, don't lie. I'm giving you a chance to fix things."
And that, that was something Maria could do. She could do it for herself, for Natasha, for the world, for the sake of doing the right thing.
It took her out of Natasha's immediate chain of command. It put her in a position to see that no traps of that scale were ever sprung on any of their agents.
"What do you say?"
"You don't want me to take it?" Maria was doubtful; she couldn't imagine why Natasha wouldn't approve, but at the same time, she wasn't going to risk it. If Natasha said no then she'd deal with it, somehow. She couldn't bear the thought of the job coming between them, not when that was supposed to be something they understood about each other. They lived dangerous and powerful lives. Was Natasha okay with that? Rising to the top hadn't been her only goal in life, and there was no reason to make it that now, not when her worldview had changed so much.
Natasha shook her head. Maria felt herself relax. "I want you to be prepared for the scale of stupidity you'll be facing."
Her first reaction was to jump to their defense, arguing for respect of position if not personnel. But this was Natasha. Maria didn't have to be the soldier all the time: she could be herself, could have human flaws and reactions, at least in private. She let the anger go, and surprised herself by smiling. "At least I'll be getting to say no to it."
"You like that," accused Natasha. There was laughter in her voice.
"Yes," agreed Maria. "I do."
Natasha pulled her close, wrapping her arms around Maria's waist. "I like it when you're happy."
"And you?" asked Maria. "Are you happy?"
Natasha smiled up. There was nothing contrived, no reason for her to smile other than that she felt like it, and Maria thanked powers she'd never believed in that it was so. "Yes."
Maria kissed her, and stayed in her arms as the sun went down.