Maria had ended up dividing her time between the Helicarrier and Stark Tower. Her days were spent onboard, giving orders and making plans, same as it ever was. Her nights were spent among people she was gradually learning to think of as friends, and in Clint's arms, where it felt right and she felt needed. The carrier wasn't going anywhere for the time being, the repairs needed would not only be costly, but time consuming. The Tower was also a mess, but Stark already had big plans for all of them, whether they liked it or not. What also took time was the construction of the container-transport device for the Tesseract. The initial estimates had called for a few days tops, when reality dictated nearly a week.
She hated to say it, but Clint needed that time.
Each day he'd gotten a little better, a little more settled back into his own thoughts and patterns than he had been the day before. Maria couldn't be there as much as she'd wished she could, and had resigned herself to the fact that when she couldn't be at Clint's side, Romanoff would be.
It was an adjustment and took an awful lot of faith on Maria's part, but she didn't question it because it what he needed. Clint needed someone nearby to trust, at all times, and if he trusted Romanoff, she would too.
Maria was learning what faith and trust were all about between two people who were desperate to make it work; to have something more than themselves to believe in and that was a good thing. With every passing day it got just a little bit easier, a little less confusing and a whole lot more satisfying. She really couldn't figure out what had taken her so long. This was almost easy.
The nightmares were the worst, and not just his. Clint had finally tallied up his totals and the news had nearly broken him all over again. He spent a large part of his nights thrashing about when he finally fell into a deep sleep, which wasn't nearly as easy to do after that first night. A few times he'd even become physically ill, but was slowly getting better. Maria still woke up in a cold sweat some nights, panicked over chasing cars down tunnels in her sleep. A few times he'd snapped in public at nothing in particular, too on edge to relax. A few times she'd jumped at trivial noises. They were both kind of a mess, a fact that only made them cling more to one another. It provided a weird kind of solace, even if it might be a bit unhealthy. Stark had suggested a vacation, a long one. He'd even gone so far as to offer to send them on one himself, down south to some island or another.
Something for another time perhaps.
Finally the day had come and Maria waited as patiently as she could onboard the ship. They were supposed to see Thor off and come straight back to officially report in. Director Fury had just gotten off the VTC with the World Security Council. Maria was trying to stay busy, but it was hard to do. Everything was done. There was nothing to do but wait.
A few hours after they'd received confirmation that Loki and the Tesseract were gone back to Asgard with Thor, Clint and Romanoff arrived back at the Helicarrier. Romanoff had already been cleared, almost immediately after the battle, but that wasn't the case with Clint. His first priority had to be medical which he'd been deftly avoiding at every turn. A unit had even showed up at the Tower, but Stark wouldn't let them in because they all knew Clint wasn't ready. He still wasn't ready in her opinion, but time had run out.
Maria didn't follow him, she knew she'd have to wait to see him, but she did track his progress from her workstation. As she'd expected, he sailed through the physical, it was the mental evaluation that held him up and he ended up stuck there until the end of the day. They had wanted to keep him overnight, which hadn't gone over well at all. Clint ended up raising such a ruckus that Director Fury had to go and personally sort it out. In the end they compromised; he was free to leave medical hold as long as he didn't leave the Helicarrier. More than before, Clint had begun to abhor the idea of being stuck in one place, but it was only temporary, so he reluctantly agreed.
As he said he would, Clint met her outside the cafeteria for dinner, but he looked uneasy. His eyes kept darting from person to person, and not helping the situation was the fact that more than a few people were openly staring back at him. And whispering. Maria knew he wasn't just being paranoid, people were talking.
"This was not a good idea," Clint said, leaning in close and managing to wipe the emotion from his face. "I shouldn't be here."
"I told you, they've all been briefed," Maria returned. "They all know what really happened."
"Sure, they've been told, but you can't make them believe it," Clint said, shaking his head. "I'm not going in. I'm..."
"Yes, you are," Romanoff answered, having snuck up on the two of them, thrusting a tray into his hands.
"What? You're going to make me," he fired back at her, his voice low but definitely threatening.
"If I have to," she answered, completely unfazed and so steady that Clint eventually shook his head and let out a small laugh.
"Okay, you probably could," he admitted, "but come on, Tasha. I don't need this. I can't..."
"You run now, you'll always run," she said, evidentially her last words, as Romanoff took her own tray and got into line.
Clint stood there for a moment and Maria stepped back and let him. She wouldn't force him, one way or another, even if she thought Romanoff was right.
Finally, with a deep breath, Clint shrugged and handed the tray he'd been holding off to Maria, before grabbing another for himself and getting into line. Once they had their meals and stepped out onto the cafeteria floor, Clint swore quietly and shook his head again, having spotted where Romanoff was sitting.
She'd picked the table in the dead center of the room.
"We don't have to sit there," Maria offered, but even she had to smile at sheer persistence of the other woman.
"If we don't, it'll be worse," Clint returned. "And not like... worse this way," he said, taking a quick look around the room; he was still drawing stares. "I mean worse like she'll start paging me over the PA and locking me out of my room. Screwing with my equipment. Whatever she can do to torment me, she will. For my own good, of course," he tacked on sarcastically. "I've done this dance before. It's easier to just go along."
Clint's idea of going along was decidedly different than Maria's. Clint sat down across from Romanoff and purposefully let his tray drop to the table the last few inches so that it made a nice, loud, bang, which actually elicited a smile in return. Maria sat down beside Clint and shook her head at the two of them. Sometimes they were kind of ridiculous together.
"Nice table," he said evenly, looking the other woman dead in the eyes. "What, you couldn't get a platform? No spotlight? I'm a bit disappointed. I'd have thought, if nothing else there'd be streamers and balloons. Maybe a clown."
"Clowns are for birthdays. But, tomorrow I'll set the two of you up a little sweetheart table," Romanoff said, wagging a finger across the table, "if you'd prefer."
"Please don't," Maria said, picking at her food with her fork.
"Are we talking the whole nine yards? Like, candlelight and china?"
"I think I can even arrange a violinist, if you're interested."
"No," Maria said, shaking her head firmly. She knew they were joking, but sometimes it was better to just say no on principle. Or on the off chance that they weren't joking.
"Sorry, Natasha," Clint said, shaking his head as well. "The boss says no."
"Does he call you that in bed?" Romanoff asked Maria, eyebrow raised and looking very much like she expected an answer.
Before Clint could object, thinking that maybe she'd crossed a line, Maria said completely straight-faced, "Well, I do out rank him."
Natasha nodded approvingly and Clint only shook his head and muttered, "I have made a horrible mistake," into his hands.
"Can I join you," Agent Sitwell said, briefly interrupting them as he stood beside the empty chair on Natasha's right. "Or is this a bad time?"
"No, it's fine," Maria said, surprising even herself by the laugh still in her voice. "Have a seat."
Before he did, Sitwell stopped and reached across the table to shake Clint's hand. "Good to have you back, Clint," he said.
After that the conversation became more general and the time passed rather pleasantly. They all knew Agent Jasper Sitwell, knew that he was a good man, and while there was no replacing Agent Coulson, he was the obvious choice. The best choice if one had to be made.
It was all going to be a major adjustment, but Maria was fairly confident they'd be okay.
Dinner done, Clint and Maria took a quick walk on the upper deck. He had confided in her, long ago, that tight spaces didn't always agree with him, but since the incident with Loki it had become more pronounced. Now it wasn't just small, crowded rooms or tight spaces he didn't like, it was all rooms, especially windowless ones that he couldn't stand. Elevators were completely out of the question. It all made his skin crawl. He needed a walk in the air before a night spent locked inside.
After their walk they ended up outside her door where Clint seemed hesitant to follow her inside.
"You don't have to stay," she said as she opened the door, "but I need to talk to you for a minute or two before you go. If you want to go."
"I don't, actually," he admitted as he entered the room and shut the door behind himself. "But I know I've been crowding your space. You don't have to ask me to stay over every night or even stay with me if you don't want to. You're busy. I get that."
"I'm not that busy and... I like having you around."
"But eventually... eventually I'm going to have to be alone again," Clint said. Maria didn't realize it, but she must have given him an odd look because he quickly added, "Not that I have plans to end this. That's not what I mean. I just... if I go out one assignment or on a mission. If they ever let me do that again... We're not always going to be at the same location so..."
"You think you should try a few nights alone," Maria finished for him, understanding why it was important, even if she didn't necessary like the idea much.
"So," she said, dragging the word out. "Tonight?"
"No," he answered emphatically. "Tonight... tonight would not be good at all. Tonight," he repeated, stepping closer to her and wrapping his arms around her waist as he spoke, "I'd like to just crawl into bed beside you and listen as you read all the new policies that have no doubt popped up since I lost my mind and destroyed the place."
"Clint," she said warningly. He was toeing the line between self-mockery and self-hate. It was something Natasha had been very stern with him over, and Maria planned on doing the same.
"It was a joke."
"It was a bad one."
"I only know bad jokes."
"That one was better," she said with a faint laugh and he leaned in and kissed her, quick on the lips. And then again, lingering longer than the first time. But before he could move in for a third kiss, Maria stopped him. "We do need to talk," she said as she reluctantly extracted herself from his arms and crossed the room to the corner desk.
Clint stood there and watched as Maria pulled out a single sheet of paper from the drawer and waved him over.
"What's this?" he asked.
"It's an HR form," she answered, holding out a pen for him to take. "For us."
"Now you're joking," he laughed, but she just shook her head slowly. "You're not joking? Wow, they really do have one of these for every situation, don't they?"
"They are thorough," she admitted.
"So... what is this exactly," he said, picking it up and looking it over. "Some kind of contract? An agreement? I mean..."
"It's not anything like that. It just basically says we're... that we're... you know... involved in a..."
"Relationship?" he provided for her, smiling a little bit too smugly for Maria's tastes.
"Yes," she said. "A relationship. This way it's on file. It's known. We'll probably work with each other less directly as a result but... but this is the right way to go about it."
Clint nodded along with her words as he scanned over the form, but there was a frown on his face.
"What happens if..." he started to ask but had to stop and clear his throat, the words having gotten stuck along the way. "If I do something... If something happens again and I lose control or... What happens to you? What does this do to you?"
"You can't know that."
"I do know that," Maria answered, "because... nothing happened to me this last time."
"We weren't -"
"We weren't really," she agreed, "but we were. And they already knew. Everyone already knows. The council did... they did question me but nothing more. I wasn't reprimanded or censored or anything else. Really."
Clint nodded again but she could tell he wasn't sold.
"And..." she said, shutting her eyes and knowing she had to just get it out there. Maria had wanted to wait for the right time to bring it up, but that right time was never coming. Now was the only time. "...about that. Right after Loki took over, right after you..."
"Yeah?" he said, indicating she didn't have to spell it out.
"Like I said, they questioned me and... and I was the one that told them about you being with him. I didn't... I wasn't looking to get back at you. I swear it. I didn't know everything that had happened just that... just that you'd left the lab and... They asked me and I told them what happened, exactly as it had happened."
Clint stood there and stared at her for a minute, waiting for more information.
"Yeah," he said simply.
"And you're not mad?" she asked, confused.
"You told them the truth. Am I supposed to be mad?"
"I don't know. I thought you might be. Everyone else..."
"Who?" he asked, his eyes narrowing.
"It doesn't matter now," Maria answered.
Clint nodded and let it go, but Maria had a feeling it was just a temporary reprieve. He was going to find out who on his own. He'd have to, because Maria wasn't going to say.
"None of that makes me feel any better about signing this," he said. "But... if you think it's important," he finished, leaning over and adding his signature to the bottom. "There. All official. Happy?"
"I don't need the form."
"Good, because neither do I. But it does make you happy, a little bit, right? Admit it. I know how you like to follow protocol."
"I really do," she said with a smile, wrapping her arms around his neck.
"It's a kind of disease," he replied. "You may want to get that looked into."
"Is it that hard for you to follow directions?"
"Yes," he laughed, pulling her closer and leaning in for a quick kiss. "I like to do things the way I like to do them."
"And I like to do things the way they're supposed to be done."
"Are you already trying to break up with me or something?" he asked jokingly. "Because we just signed the form."
"No," she answered, and she really meant it. "No... but..."
Maria couldn't help it. Doubt was practically her middle name. She wanted this, she wanted to be with Clint, and she wanted everyone to know it, but it was still scary. They were different people and nothing was guaranteed, especially with the lives they both lived. It was a risk, and Maria wasn't normally a risk taker. But she wanted this. Ultimately, that mattered most. She wanted this, and when she wanted something, Maria made it happen no matter what, and she knew Clint was the same.
That didn't mean it wasn't going to be a difficult transition for them both.
"Listen," Clint said, sensing some of her internal struggle, "I'm pretty sure I'm looking at a month solid of sitting on the sidelines after the docs are all done peeking into my head and making sure they got all the Loki out. Now, and this is just a guess, but you've probably got some vacation time coming. So do I. Why don't we take Tony up on that offer? Take a week or two off and just sit on a beach somewhere sunny and warm. No work. No alien attacks. No anything just... just relaxing by the water with some of those pink drinks that come with tiny umbrellas in them."
"I'd have to buy a bathing suit."
"You'd have to buy a bikini," he corrected with a wicked smile.
"We'd need to get this approved first."
"Of course," he agreed.
"It... it sounds like fun," she finally admitted.
"Good," he said, kissing her again, this one lasting a little longer than the last. "And, you know, until then... let's ease back into this. There's no hurry to make us any more than we are. I know things have been a bit... I know I've probably... Damn it, I'm just saying I don't want you to feel obligated to be with me because it kind of seems like you do."
"That's not why I'm here," Maria said sincerely. "I've never been very good at expressing myself and I know I come off like I don't... care for you, but that isn't true. I do. I really do."
"I'm not very good at that myself," Clint admitted, smiling easier than before. "I've always been more comfortable showing instead of telling."
Maria looked at him and it suddenly struck her how true his words were.
She dropped her head against his chest and pulled him to her and thought about what a fool she'd been, as what he said washed over her and truly sunk in.
For all her tightly held beliefs about needing proof and evidence before she could trust, she'd been ignoring all of what Clint had been providing. She'd spent years guarding herself against people who spoke lovingly and acted cruel; expecting that behavior from everyone no matter the case, because of the past and because it was what she was conditioned to expect. But here he was. Here was the exact opposite. Clint's words had never been cruel or even very mean, often only as direct as her own words could be and had been to him, but Clint's actions had always been kind. He'd always been nothing short of loving in the way he touched her, held her, and ultimately treated her.
Maria thought of herself not just as a fool, but as a blind one as well.
How had she missed it for so long?
"What's wrong?" Clint asked, whispering softly in her ear as she continued to cling to him, desperate not to cry.
"Nothing," Maria answered, shaking her head and finally able to meet his eyes again. "I just... I understand you. What you mean. I understand."
"Good," he sighed, looking relieved before he continued on, his tone lighter, "Because I'm never going to be that guy who is writing you love poems or singing you songs. Maybe I can get you flowers. I don't know. Do you even like flowers?"
"I have allergies."
"Well then, no flowers for you."
"I don't need those things," she said with a shake of her head. "Just you."
"I am up for that challenge," he replied, half serious again and looking at her like no one had ever looked at her before. It made her whole body feel lighter somehow. The very next thing he did was tilt his head towards hers and press his lips slowly against her own.
"Hmm," she said, breaking away after a moment or two lost in thought, "but I will need that trip to the beach."
"Oh, that's happening," he said with a sly grin, kissing her quickly again. "That is a very good idea. One of my better ones."
"Wasn't that Stark's idea?" she shot back at him playfully, sneaking in another kiss.
"I'm going to pretend it wasn't. Unless you want him to come along?"
"No. Just you."
"Are you sure?" he asked before Clint leaned in and kissed her again, harder this time. With more intensity and need. Moving her back towards the bed. His hands slid into her hair, gently pulling it free and loose.
"I think you just like hearing me say that," she said as she sat down on the edge of the bed, a smile on her lips.
"I do," he said, in between kisses, each more urgent than the last. "I really do," he finished, kneeling down in front of her, his arms wrapped tightly around her waist.
"Is that what you want?" she asked as he continued to nuzzle her neck. "To hear me say that I want you?"
"Yes," he said, meeting her eyes and kissing her, gently pushing her backwards as she drug her hands over his shoulders.
"That I need you?" she continued, smiling at his reaction. At his smile, as he leaned over her and their lips met again with a desire of their own.
"Oh, hell yes," he laughed as they broke apart again, content to take this slow. To make this moment last as long as it could.
"That I..." she started and then abruptly stopped herself.
She couldn't finish. Not because she didn't mean it and not because she didn't want to. Maria hesitated because, even if it was true, it was still frightening. She trusted him, she wanted this and she believed in him, completely.
Clint didn't flinch or hesitate or show any reaction, any indication that she'd said, or not said, something wrong. He continued to look at her, to keep looking at her, exactly the same way he had been before. He kissed her forehead. He kissed her lips. He kept his eyes on hers until she felt like it was okay.
She didn't have to say it because he knew.
"You," she said softly. "There is just you."
"No," he said, his voice barely a whisper against her lips. "There's us."
Notes: It's done! I never, ever, ever thought I'd be writing fic for this ship, but once I started I couldn't stop. I'm currently working on the next story in my Recruitment series, so I don't have anything immediately planned to follow this one up, but I wouldn't rule it out! Thanks for reading - I hope you liked it! Thanks again!