continued from x

                          [10:48:03] Incoming Call…

   “Hmm, don’t tell me you’re only just waking up–”



She watches the numbers on her phone face tick over to eight o’clock as she slips the device into her pocket at the top of the stairs and exchanges it for keys, letting herself into the apartment without ceremony. The paperwork had come through that morning but, inevitably, there’d been a rush of meetings and ensuing emails that needed to drafted, leaving her unable to send him any sort of message regarding the update. Instead, Maria attempted to get out of the office at a reasonable hour, and when she steps into the flat she’s met with a well-lit living area ( as opposed to the cool navy hues of an apartment in stasis, normally well after midnight )

Maria feels as though she might have surprised him, chin tilted sideways and offering the barest remnant of a smile while she stands at the table jutting out from the entryway, disengaging her concealed sidearm from her ribs, keys clattering to the tabletop.


        “I meant to send you a text.”

what we lost in the fire, we’ll find in the ashes ; bruce + maria


At least the ultrasound has ruled out the most dangerous of side effects – and he takes a broken rib off the table, confident that Maria would be able to tell the difference  ( though if she’d tell him, might be something else entirely– but it’s a pointless path to go down and he busies himself instead, with setting the kettle on while she sits up, and then putting together a cold compress from the freezer )

    “You should get an x-ray,” he tells her, a request layered in the concern – it could still be cracked. And then her voice, with the caught syllables, so soon after the reveal of the gunshot wound…

He doesn’t know if he wants to hear what she’s going to say ( he does ),  but he doesn’t push for more information just yet, drawn to the intricacies of the bruise that have become apparent in the ample kitchen light. The pattern of bruising looks slightly odd, deviating from the expected norm in a way he can’t put his finger on – Bruce tilts his head to get a better look –   “What kind of vest were you wearing?”

A closer examination is enough to make the cup of tea and salt-top crackers he had for dinner  ( – breakfast, lunch? ) creep up his throat, and he dusts the outer edge of the coloured skin with his thumb before gently sliding the compress in place.

“Hold that, please?” he requests softly; there’s still some swelling, the wound occupying a puff of space that rises fractionally up from her torso – the topical cream he has stowed away in the bathroom works better on chilled flesh than it does on warm, too.  Curiosity about her jilted sentence wins out at that point, his trip to the bathroom to retrieve the modified first aid kit that resides there, waylaid, –


          “A reason?”

     “Prototype.” The response comes quickly, she’s grateful for having something to answer. “Courtesy Agent Simmons by way of Sharon.” Of course, Maria hadn’t intended to use it, or have it come in handy like it did, but that was the way things had shaken out. His request for an x-ray is heard and filed away at the back of her mind. She’s appreciative of the worry, but as it doesn’t seem to be a pressing need, she’ll get to it when she gets to it, and considering the past few days- that might not be for a little while at the very least.

The heel of her hand scuffs at his jaw before he turns away, edging just out of her reach to take up the cold compress before passing it to her. Maria complies with the request, dipping her chin slightly in an effort to catch his eye.

     “Reason enough,” she says slowly, the pinch in her brow evidence of her hesitation to continue- information is classified, of course, but there’s also an urge to give him at least a facet of the truth. He deserves that from her. A slow exhale slips past her teeth, palm spreading over the pack while she holds it gently against the bruise. The WSC had acted unilaterally, without consulting her or Carter before sending a S.T.R.I.K.E. team to Rogers’s apartment. It was reason enough to want to stay out of sight for a few hours. Wrap their heads around what was happening and try to collect themselves before having to go up against Pierce. 

Her free hand drifts out, catches his wrist and uses it to pull him back in, fingertips drifting up his arm until they come to rest at the nape of his neck, thumb moving gently over his pulse.

He hasn’t been saying much- sticking solely to the subject of her injury and Maria begins to feel like he might be purposefully avoiding bringing up the discussion they’d had on the morning of the crash.



what we lost in the fire, we’ll find in the ashes ; bruce + maria


It looks worse than it actually is because it looks terrible – the bruised flesh seems inelegantly mashed underneath her skin, with strokes of molting colour that gently center towards the point of impact: a vividly angry mark that remains stubbornly bloodshot.

   The words of her text message flash in his mind as a pained inhale forces his heart to drop down to somewhere around his feet – war wounds he’s seen before, treated gnarled and ghastly and lost causes drawn out to provide a few more hours of struggled life –  

( but this is more akin blunt force cruelty, the patchwork of struggling cells marring the skin on yet another person he holds near and dear; and the downplaying, the minimizing, the attempted concealment – )

God,” he breathes, and he’s crouching down to get a better look at it, slipping into an analytical triage that does little to mask the concern and pain on his face, but at least cushions him from chasing down any distressing threads.  ( she said she was okay )  The area’s still slightly swollen, and Bruce trails his thumb along the nearest edge of it, feeling the furious heat it’s radiating.  ( she said that she was good )  

      There’s no doubt that it must have hurt; knocked the air out of her, likely, and he’s concerned there might be a dislodged or cracked rib underneath the bruising   ( he’d pulled her into him, he’d hurt her )  –

“Did you get an x-ray?”   The constant flicker of the television doesn’t make the lighting for this ideal, and he needs a better look.   ( this isn’t in the least fine )   “Come sit in the kitchen.”    ( ‘why didn’t she tell him’ wars with ‘of course she wouldn’t tell him’ – )  

     but he doesn’t move yet, the palm of his hand resting along her jawline, and he wants to ask ‘why’ but it turns into a selfish, affirming kiss instead, and when he pulls away he can’t help the look of confusion and hurt that flashes before he shifts back into a worrying assessment, taking her hand and moving them into the kitchen.

An exhale that catches when he drops to his knees, fingers carding gently through his hair while he offers a careful inspection of the bruise. It’s bad, but not as bad considering the alternative, she’ll maintain that forever if she has to. Still, it doesn’t help to see the concern twisted so plainly in his expression, writ in the scrawl of his brow- it’s still there when he straightens, a question in his eyes when he moves in to kiss her. Fingers are hooked into the fabric of his shirt, another breath before Bruce is leading her into the kitchen.

       “No,” Maria replies, utilizing the handle of the fridge to help herself onto the countertop- a chair seemed too low and she doesn’t want him nursing sore joints tomorrow if she can help it. “–I haven’t been by HQ yet.” There’s an implication in those words, one she knows he’s intelligent enough to get and she dips her chin a little while working her left arm out of the t-shirt’s sleeve, eyes on his face.

Beneath the light over the stove the injury is illuminated, revealing spots that may have gone unnoticed out in the fringes of the living room, lit by the flicker of the television. Her hands come to rest in her lap, legs crossed lightly at the ankles with her toes pointed toward the linoleum.

      “It doesn’t feel like a broken rib.” It’s sore, her body’s been through a trauma and needs to heal, that’s all. Her next words are a stutter step, a false start that threatens to die on her tongue. “Bruce–”

There’s a heaviness to the quiet that settles in between them, almost physical in the way it occupies the space.

              “There was a reason we took a step back.” Went off the grid is probably the better term, but Maria doesn’t want to lend a sense of drama to her paranoia ( that was always Fury’s MO, anyway ). A reason, because she wants him to know that he’s important enough to her to deserve some sort of explanation for what happened. Her tongue darts out to wet her bottom lip, internally warring with the reasoning for her abrupt disappearance- it’s like teasing out a knot that’s waiting to unravel, but for now she’s unsure just how much she can afford to let slip, and so she settles with a shoulder against the refrigerator, exhaustion rolling off of her in waves.

what we lost in the fire, we’ll find in the ashes ; bruce + maria


The shift of her hands prevents his from pushing up the bottom of her shirt, and he pauses momentarily as his gaze rises back upward to meet her eyes, still narrowed slightly with a question. That wasn’t a nothing, and it wasn’t necessarily a fine either ( though a part of him is starting to suspect a breakdown in terminology… )

      He’s getting qualifiers, words of reassurance, but not a specific reassurance that nothing happened –

It’s foolish to think she might have escaped without a touch, and the continued deflections are only solidifying his suspicions.    “Maria…”

As desperate as he is to touch her and rectify the unpleasant note they’d left their last encounter, he needs to know what’s causing the skirting around; there’s part of him that’s inclined to believe her while the other half fears of what the outcome might be, given their particular brand of luck.

    Soft stubbornness is prevalent in the challenge he issues next – either way, he needs to know:

             “Let me see then, if it’s fine.” 

It’s a call on what he hopes isn’t a bluff, the regained freedom of his hands sending them pushing her shirt up again, tilting his head to the side and landing a kiss on her chin, dipping down to continue a gentle trail downwards, lips soft against her neck until he has enough of the fabric bunched up he can start tugging it upwards and off.

          She knows it’s bad, and that’s why she’d initially planned on keeping it from him. It was a bruise, nothing serious. Her own little sliver of pain, perhaps, stashed away for her own personal reckoning- a reminder of their collective failure ( tinged with the sour taste of betrayal ). But it’s also not as bad as it looks, and that’s saying something. Maria wishes that she didn’t feel like she was treading on eggshells ( even now, after all seems to be well ) and that she could spare him the frustration because she knows that she could have told him outright, she should have- and she doesn’t really have an excuse for why she didn’t ( anger, maybe, with a dash of pettiness or maybe the belief that– ).

The dredges of tension lingering from their discussion a day and a half prior is still wound tight between her shoulder blades, in her throat, in the coil of her abdomen. But Maria can feel it start to slide away beneath the warmth of his mouth and she allows herself to drift, briefly, until the starkness of the cool air meets her skin when he’s hitched the fabric up far enough.


              “It looks worse than it is,” Maria explains immediately, watching only his expression because she knows what the site of impact looks like. The nebular swath of purple bruising has darkened since the initial incident, she knows because she’d looked that morning. It runs the gamut of violet to indigo while pooling black in a few spaces. Swirling seemingly like a storm around the obvious eye- a stark dot of red surrounded by yellow where the slug had hit. Not a hematoma- that had been the initial concern. It looks awful, but to Maria it looks a hell of a lot better than being dead, so she’ll happily take the W.

She catches the hem of the shirt ( an orphan of Sharon’s that she’d claimed in the chaos after the carrier went down ), keeping it from going up and over her head because the motion is painful and constricted by stiffness in her left side, but holds it so that he can continue looking if he wants.

                “Agent Simmons did an ultrasound around the site to confirm that there’s not an internal bleed,” as if this will somehow be helpful, placating news.

what we lost in the fire, we’ll find in the ashes ; bruce + maria


So many deserved apologies between them, and yet they seem inconsequential now, the heated actions and words of that morning lost in the oasis of her skin against his, her breath against his throat and the weight of her body as it slips deeper against him; the memory of their intimacy is refreshed in a staggering instant, the nefarious undercurrent of fear now subdued by her presence.  

      He has no idea what’s happened or where she’s been – but Maria’s alive and well, in one piece and breathing. The same longing that guides his arms around her, he can feel reflected in her touches as she presses against his chest, pushes through his hair, pulls the fit of his shirt tighter…

All the words that have passed between them without being said –

            “Are you okay?”

The extended absence has made their last encounter and the harsh words that accompanied it seem inconsequential, her peace of mind and body the first priority. ( what would’ve he done if she hadn’t – )

Bruce presses against the line of her body, stepping into her and trying to convey the novel of concern and worry that’s been percolating since the TV feed cut out, and the relief that’s flooding through him now; it’s a sentiment he doesn’t know how to express with words, the sheer force of the feeling consuming his core with a passion that rivals only that of the Other Guy smashing his way through.

        Before she has a chance to answer he kisses her, with the force of a lover’s last kiss, sinking the taste of her lips and the press of her tongue deep into his memory.

There’s a glaring edge to the guilt that’s seared across her subconscious- there’d been a point to her avoidance, a delicate subtext to the blank day between the crash and now. They’d served a double purpose, of course, a lucky coincidence that she was somehow able to excuse her hesitance in the name of duty. Because it had made sense- she and Sharon had needed to lie low for a bit, just enough time to clear their heads before taking on Pierce.

           It doesn’t help that the emotion welled up in his expression is so earnest, so sincere- Maria feels that twinge of regret worsen.

( It should’ve been easy. Coming home to this in the aftermath rather than slinking around, waiting in the shade to see what shakes out of the settling dust– )

           Fingers curl against the back of Bruce’s neck, holding him close, the hand at his shoulder blade sliding until she can push a finger through a belt loop to ensure that he stays there. A reiteration of the unspoken has her arcing into him and regretting the movement almost immediately when his arm tightens at her back, the pressure surprising a sharp inhale from her lungs at the sudden dull ache in her ribs.

     It’s nothing new, not an added sensation to an already days old injury, but rather a heightened sensation in a steady thrum that’s been kept at its baseline by a couple of pills here and there. Her hand shifts, pressure applied to the belt loop when she steps to the side in an effort to turn them, breaking briefly to take a breath and press a secondary kiss to his jaw. A slower, more controlled inhale scrapes the back of her throat, pushes against the worry ebbing there before she lets the breath back out again. 

                  “I’m–” Her hesitation will be noted, she knows, and there’s no real reason to keep information from him at this point. All it’ll do is make things worse. “I’ve been better.”

what we lost in the fire, we’ll find in the ashes ; bruce + maria


             For the past several hours Bruce has been fighting off a daze, alternating between a blank stare at the bedroom door, and a snap-focusing back to the television. There’s been no forthcoming information on the news, just a sleepless night and the trickle of worry that maybe, just maybe – something could be wrong. 

The pillow that’d been clutched against his chest slowly comes to nestle in the gap between the back of the couch and his side, mindlessness loosening his limbs for the moment. So much so the scratch and click of the key doesn’t register on a conscious plane, though it must register somehow because when he sees the shadow of a person moving through the room he isn’t startled.

        His breath catches on an inhale, pausing momentarily; he’s not sure what impedes the realization from settling, but it takes a moment, his eyes falling to his phone on the coffee table ( has he missed a text? ), right next to the one delivered by Harry ( she texted him once, maybe she would’ve again before – )

    Bruce picks himself up off the couch slowly, with a reservation that haunts people too used to expectations falling short. But it’s her, it’s Maria, sliding instead of marching, the light from the kitchen catching her face enough for him to see that the hard edge of frustration he last saw there has been replaced by a softness he’s more used to seeing.

                     The first two steps he takes towards her feel like falling, body still tense despite the sagging relief that bottoms out his stomach – she’s okay – four more steps and his hand feathers the top of her hip before slipping around her back; he pulls her against his chest, presses his cheek tight against her head and smells the faint remnants of smoke as he holds her close.

        ( his fingers shift against her restlessly: affirming, reassuring, grateful )

Exhaustion begins to settle and it’s been slow to do so over the last stretched out hours as though ( fittingly ) dust after a disaster, aloft in the air for days and choking out the sunlight before it falls to rest heavily in the recesses of her bones and sore muscles. A quick check confirms that they’re not still in the place they’d been the last time they’d spoken, the resting expression on his face a far cry from before and Maria shifts forward, meeting his chest firmly. The top of her cheek settles against his clavicle, arms wind around to rest just below his shoulder blades.

          There’s an unspoken apology in the way her body settles against his, fingers curling into the material of his shirt; the inhale and exhale that cycle through her lungs ( too much of an intake and she’ll get a sharp jab of pain for her effort, so her breaths are marginally shallow ). The pain of the bruise has lessened with each oblong pill she’s downed, and the damage to her core muscles makes moving around a sore and slow process- so standing still like this, the warmth of him radiating against her is actually a pleasant alternative.

   In another time she might think it’s stupid how much this makes her feel better– how to be held close can be some physically soothing thing to her, but it is, and she’ll take it. Her nose is pressed against the line of his throat, mouth ghosting over the pulse point as she shifts, one hand from his back coming around the card through the hair at the back of his neck.

                  ( He’s still here, even though she’d given him a very clear out)

A shift and her lips meet the top of his collarbone, fingers tightening in the fabric of his shirt.

      “You’re up late,” and her voice is ragged, quiet, but the undertone in it suggests that she’s pleased with the observation, even if her brows are knitting at the broadcast covering the wreckage of the Iliad over his shoulder.