Natasha has only been back in the city for forty minutes, and twenty-eight of those have been in a debriefing session. She thinks she might have slept sometime in the past few days, but she can’t be certain, and her jaw aches from holding in a series of tremendous yawns. Nick must notice, because he ends the session earlier than he usually does and tells her that she’s dismissed.
“Don’t bother going home right now,” he adds. His voice is businesslike, his expression is not. “Bunk 635-B is empty, you should be authorized to access it. Get some rest.”
She should probably argue, but can’t force herself to do it. Making her way across the city to her apartment just doesn’t seem possible right now.
She’s spent the last six days as Adele Laurier, a former private school brat and current small-time drug dealer working out of Ibiza. Adele is a little neurotic, a lot paranoid, and easily intimidated by the big fish S.H.I.E.L.D. sent her to infiltrate. It was a good cover. She feels the identity fall away from her gradually as she makes her way to the bunk Fury suggested, trying not to wobble with exhaustion. By the time her retinal scan is accepted and the door opens it’s only Natasha who stumbles over the threshold and collapses onto the bed, expecting to fall asleep immediately.
But she can’t, because something’s already there.
“I can totally explain,” Darcy says.
Natasha doesn’t know Darcy Lewis, really. Clint’s told her stories, of course—“thunder god brought low by Taser-wielding civilian” is one of his favourites—and she’s made more than a few appearances in Jane Foster’s official S.H.I.E.L.D. file, but mostly what she knows comes from the interns that huddle around the fifth floor water cooler every morning. Darcy is one of them, technically, but her working relationship with Jane Foster has loaned her a certain glamour. She suspects that the whole Tasering a thunder god thing doesn’t hurt, either. It’s officially classified, but that is the kind of secret that tends to blow wide open.
Her own internal file on the woman is slim. She’s twenty-five; she’s Jane Foster’s assistant; she comes to work every other day wearing jeans, regardless of dress code; she doesn’t go anywhere without her iPod headphones dangling around her neck.
And she has a cat. Apparently.
The cat is young, probably only a month or so out of kittenhood. Its coat is patchy, black and white and orange all mixed together, and stretched over its protruding ribs. The tip of one of its ears is ragged, healed poorly from a fight, and half of its tail is missing, giving it a swaying, uneven gait. It is crouching over a bowl of dry food, wolfing it down so quickly she expects it to get sick. Darcy kneels beside it, scratching between its ears.
“Explain away,” Natasha says, watching it eat. She’s seen skinnier, dirtier animals in her time, but not recently.
“I found her last week,” Darcy says. “She was in a dumpster.”
“Is that actually the whole story?” she asks after it becomes clear that nothing else is forthcoming.
“Uh, yeah?” Darcy says it like it should be obvious. “You don’t just leave a cat in a dumpster. I mean, God. Who would do that?”
“Why didn’t you just bring it home?”
“I live with Jane, and Jane’s allergic. Like, would immediately turn into a pufferfish and die allergic.” The cat looks up from its dish and yowls. Its voice is unpleasantly loud. If Natasha were a more romantic person she could describe its eyes as amber or gold. They’re yellow. “I got her inside and then kind of panicked, but my ID opened this door and no one seemed to be using the bunk, so…” She shrugs. “I figured that since I was working here already and this place is freaking huge no one would ever find her here.”
“Hmm,” Natasha says. “Good plan.”
Darcy, she is interested to note, is a blusher. “Please don’t tell anyone? I can’t put her back outside. And I can’t send her to a shelter, I just can’t.”
“You can’t keep it here, either,” Natasha points out, smothering a yawn. God, she just wants to lie down. “It needs a real home, somewhere safe. You can’t keep it here.”
“Well…” Darcy looks at the cat, then at Natasha. Her expression changes from panicked to considering. “What about your place?”
It has the effect of a double shot of espresso. She sits up straighter, her eyes narrowing.
Darcy must notice; she puts her hands up, like she’s warding her off. “Hear me out,” she says quickly. “Everybody I know is either allergic to cats or lives in a building where cats aren’t allowed, or with their parents or something. You have your own place-” She pauses, then asks, “You do, right? I mean, I really hope the deadliest assassin in the world doesn’t have to live with a roommate.”
“I live alone,” Natasha confirms. Clint coming over because there’s nothing in his fridge but condiments and falling asleep on the couch watching bad reality television doesn’t really count as having a roommate.
“Right, okay, so you have space! And your building probably allows pets, and even if it doesn’t you can probably be all sneaky about it because you’re a ninja or whatever, and please, Natasha, please.” She clasps her hands in front of her, all big eyed and pleading. Her lower lip quivers just a bit.
Natasha is the one who plays people, not the one who gets played. Maybe that means she hasn’t had enough practice with things happening the other way around.
That’s the excuse she uses, anyway, because within the hour she’s leaving the building with a bag of dried cat food, a covered litter box, two ceramic dishes, and a warm, squirming bundle of fur tucked into her jacket.
The cat races off to hide under the couch as soon as she gets it home. When Natasha tries to pull it out it growls at her and swipes at her hand, drawing blood.
“Fine,” Natasha says, and leaves it there. It’s not as if she even likes cats, anyway.
The cat stays under the couch while she gets a shower, changes into yoga pants and a tank top, and orders cheap takeout in lieu of cooking. She forgets that it’s there eventually, and is just taking her first bite of beef fried rice when her phone rings. She swallows hastily before answering. “Romanoff,” she says.
“How’s she doing? Did she settle in okay?”
It takes Natasha a moment to realize who the voice belongs to. “Darcy?” she says, frowning. “How did you get this number?”
“I asked Director Fury.”
“And he just gave it to you?” She hadn’t known that Nick was in the habit of handing out her number to anyone who asked.
Darcy snorts. “Of course not. He told me to get out of his office and stop bothering him. So I made Clint do it.”
“Of course.” She can believe that. Clint has proven many times that he is easily bullied by small brunettes, from Kate Bishop on up. “Your cat is fine. It’s hiding under my couch.”
“She, not it.”
Natasha rolls her eyes. “Fine. She. If you don’t have any more questions I would like to continue eating my supper.”
She frowns. “No, Chinese.”
“The cat,” Darcy clarifies. “Her name is Delilah. I thought you might want to know. I named her after Freddy Mercury’s favourite cat. She was a tortoiseshell, not a calico, but he wrote this song about her-“
“That’s nice. I’m hanging up the phone now.” She pushes the end call button and looks up just in time to see a small black paw tugging a piece of beef off of her plate.
“мудак,” she hisses, yanking it away. The paw disappears back under the couch, taking the meat with it.
Natasha wakes up later that night with something heavy on her face.
She doesn’t panic, because panicking is not something she does. Her training takes over, her brain slipping smoothly into cruise control. She lies very still and assesses her options. A sudden move would throw whatever it is off, but would she have enough time to roll out of bed and get the gun from under it? Will she be able to reach the knife under her pillow? Or will she have to improvise—use her sheets, her bedside lamp, the glass of water on her bedside table?
The weight on her face shifts and starts purring. Loudly.
She lets out a quiet string of curses. Slowly—she doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of those vicious claws again—she eases out from under the cat until it’s sitting on her pillow. It blinks up at her innocently.
“I could have shot you,” she tells it. It just purrs louder. “Or thrown you out of the window. Or clubbed you with a water glass. Would you have liked that?”
It closes its eyes, looking smug.
She flops onto her back, careful not to touch it. “I know eleven different ways to kill you with my feet,” she informs it. The cat’s only response is to curl up closer to her, the tip of what remains of its tail brushing her nose.
Natasha gave Darcy a key to her apartment. She’s still not sure how that happened. Blame it on not being used to getting played.
Still, Natasha is somewhat unsettled when, a few days after she brings the cat home, Darcy barges through the front door with a bag of groceries in her hand.
“Hey,” she says, dumping the bag on the kitchen counter and pulling a tin can with a brightly coloured label out of it. The cat shoots out from under the couch and races over to twine around her ankles, crying loudly. “Would it have killed Fury to give you an apartment on the other side of town? It takes forever to get here by bus.” She dumps the contents of the can into a bowl and sets it on the floor. The cat dives for it eagerly. “Plus it was standing-room only, so I basically spend the whole ride sandwiched between these two teenage guys talking about Coronation Street. It was so surreal-” She breaks off midsentence, catching Natasha’s expression. “What?”
Natasha looks at her. “Darcy,” she says. “Why are you here?”
She shrugs. “I wanted to visit Delilah. That’s why you gave me the key, right?” She nods towards the kitchen. “Is it cool if I make some coffee? I brought my own.”
She disappears into the kitchen without waiting for a response. Natasha can hear her banging around in the kitchen, the smell of freshly brewed coffee slowly filling the room. The cat stays out there by her, occasionally yowling.
It’s not that she didn’t think Darcy would use the key. She just figured that somehow she’d be at work every time she did. Natasha likes living alone, likes the peace and quiet of relaxing into herself after being other people. Having someone else in the apartment is… disconcerting.
She keeps her eyes fixed on her tablet, but the awareness of an alien body in her space keeps nagging at her, and she misses much of what she reads.
“What are you reading?” The other end of the couch is suddenly very much occupied. Darcy curls up with her feet beneath her, holding what seems to be a quintuple-decker sandwich in one hand and a mug of black coffee in the other. The cat settles gingerly on her lap, giving Natasha a wary look. It’s been sleeping by her every night, but apparently it has different rules in the daytime.
“Work things,” Natasha replies. “Did you just make a sandwich?”
“I did,” Darcy confirms, taking a bite. Natasha’s pretty sure she has to unhinge her jaw to get it all in there. She swallows and continues, “I didn’t have dinner yet, and you have the fancy pickles so I figured why not?”
“Did you eat all of them?”
Darcy makes a sort of wiggly non-committal hand motion. “Like… half? There’s still enough for another sandwich if you want me to make you one.” Taking another gargantuan bite, she reaches for the remote control. “Do you have Netflix?”
Natasha does, in fact, but she’s not going to let this go that far. She reaches out and takes the remote from her, maintaining steady eye contact. As slowly and clearly as she can, she says, “You’ve fed your cat. You’ve used my coffee maker. I think it’s time for you to go home.”
She’s using her Black Widow voice, the cold monotone that’s been second nature since childhood. Usually when she talks to people like that they listen. Occasionally they cry. Darcy makes a face and takes the remote back. It’s so unexpected that Natasha just lets it happen. “Fat chance,” she says. “Delilah and I are halfway through our nostalgic Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon and Faith just kidnapped Angel, we’re not stopping now. There’s a mug for you in the kitchen, by the way. Soy milk, three sugars, and cinnamon.” She takes a long sip of coffee before noticing Natasha’s dumbfounded expression and adds, “Clint.”
“I’m going to murder him,” Natasha mutters.
The coffee, however, is very good, and somehow, even though she keeps meaning to take the remote again, it never happens. The cat stays on Darcy’s lap for two hours of leather pants, bad special effects, and quippy dialogue, most of which she recites under her breath.
It’s not until Darcy is up and out the front door, with a wave and a cheerful “see you tomorrow,” that Natasha remembers that she doesn’t like people in her space.
Darcy keeps coming over after that. She starts bringing her own pickles.
Sometimes she’ll be there for hours before Natasha gets in, and she’ll come home to the smell of fresh coffee and the sound of some indie band whose name she doesn’t know. Sometimes they arrive at almost the same time; when that happens they order takeout, eating it in the living room. (Darcy likes sushi best, but there’s an all-night diner a few blocks away that Natasha introduces her to that she falls in love with, and she’s brought over bagels from a kosher deli near her house that nearly bring Natasha to tears.) Once or twice she’s come over late, and Natasha is never sure if she should invite her to stay the night.
The lack of surety unsettles her. One of the things that make her who she is is being sure of things. But Darcy takes care of it by never asking. When Natasha says she’s going to bed, or even yawns or looks tired, she leaves.
“Gotta get my beauty sleep,” she says one night as she shrugs on her coat, the tail end of her scarf trailing along behind her. The cat jumps at it, misses, and sits down to wash its paw as though it never really wanted it anyway.
“You don’t need beauty sleep,” Natasha responds without thinking, which is not something she ever does. She is rewarded with a slow and brilliant smile before Darcy breezes out the door.
She didn’t think about it, but it’s still true. Darcy is just pretty all the time: scowling down at her phone as she plays Words With Friends, coming in out of the cold pink-cheeked and shivering, humming to herself as she leans over to tie her shoes. Natasha’s own prettiness, she feels, is carefully constructed, artful, deliberate. There’s nothing artful about Darcy, nothing subtle. Everything about her is just there.
Natasha hoards information about people as easily and naturally as she breathes. Darcy is no exception, and she’s talkative enough that Natasha’s internal file fills quickly. Parents still alive and married, living in Long Island. An older brother, on the tenure track at Chicago State. Had two dogs growing up, a Golden Retriever and a terrier mix, but never any cats. Speaks English, Hebrew, and “enough Spanish to make sure that Jane didn’t die while we were in Puente Antiguo—she can’t even count to ten, it’s like she’s never seen Sesame Street.” Majored in Political Science at Culver University, is thinking of the Institute of World Politics for her Master’s. Also thinking about skipping graduate school altogether and opening a restaurant in Santa Fe, but admits that could just be because she saw Rent one too many times as a teenager.
She broke her left arm climbing a tree when she was eight. She hates cherries but loves cherry-flavoured things. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of 90s television programs and a small scar on the underside of her chin that she swears she doesn’t remember getting. She likes soft sweaters and loud music and has a trick of shifting her legs bit by bit when they’re sitting together until Natasha is pressed up against the arm of the couch.
Natasha knows enough about Darcy that she could become her if she had to. She tries it once when she’s alone, attempts to adopt her voice and manners, but finds it unsettling, somehow.
The cat starts sitting between them sometimes. Once or twice it even perches on Natasha’s lap, lifting its chin imperiously for scratches, which she provides. She doesn’t mind, really.
She doesn’t really mind any of it.
Which is a problem.
She’s not sure who knows about this… whatever it is. Nick does, of course—it’s his business to know these things, no matter how little he cares about agents’ personal lives—and she’s got no doubt that Darcy has talked about it to Jane Foster, but everyone else at work is notably close-mouthed about the whole situation.
With one exception.
“So how’s your cat?” Clint asks. They’re on a stakeout in Dallas for a few days, renting a motel room across the hall from a man who may or may not be part of a smuggling ring. She is Andrea Morgan (brittle, flirtatious, just got into the real estate business and checking out some leads in the area), and Clint is Jesse Anders (pretty much just Clint in jeans and a Springsteen T-shirt, because while Clint has many skills, he can’t turn himself into someone else the way she can).
Natasha rolls her eyes, not looking away from the camera feed running on her laptop. She bugged the guy earlier when they met by the pool, playfully grabbing his arm and transferring a tiny StarkTech tag to his coat sleeve. It’s not showing anything interesting at the moment, but you never know. “It’s not my cat. It’s Darcy’s cat.”
“Ah. Darcy.” He fits way more innuendo into those two syllables than should be possible.
“No, not Darcy,” she replies, mimicking his tone exactly. Their target is lying on the bed in his motel room; all she can see on the feed is a water stain on the ceiling of his room. “Just Darcy. No italics necessary.”
“I’m sorry, are we talking about the same person?” Clint asks, eyebrows raised. “Because the Darcy Lewis I’m thinking about is definitely an italics kind of girl.”
“Don’t start, Clint.”
He shrugs. “I’m just saying,” he says, a little too innocently. “It must be nice to have her around the place.”
She sighs and turns to face him, keeping one eye on her laptop screen. “If you were planning on this turning into some kind of twisted girl-on-girl That Darn Cat situation you’re going to be disappointed. She comes over—usually without calling, by the way—looks at the cat for a while, makes coffee and leaves. Not exactly Penthouse Forum.”
“‘Dear Penthouse. I never thought this would happen to me, but-'”
“-‘my partner went through the hassle of sending me a cute, funny, feisty brunette to make me coffee, and I am a big scaredy, ha, cat who is too terrified of acting like an actual human’-“
“This isn’t funny.”
“-‘to make a move on her, so instead I have decided to be a huge grump about it’-“
“I will actually murder you, Clint.”
“-‘because if I pretend I don’t actually like her I won’t have to deal with how distracting her enormous rack is’-”
She opens the night table drawer, removes the obligatory King James Bible, and throws it at him. He shuts up, although every so often he glances at her and snickers.
Later that night, after their target has gone to bed and they’ve turned off the light to keep their cover, Natasha gets a text message from Darcy. It’s a picture of Delilah curled up into a ball on Natasha’s pillow, her eyes shut tight.
Somebody misses you, is all it says. She can’t help but smile.
Natasha is not worried that Darcy will stop visiting when they finish the last episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But when she comes home a few days later and finds her there making spaghetti and singing tunelessly along to some song telling her to shake it off, Delilah on the counter attempting to stick her paw in the tomato sauce, a knot she hadn’t realized was there loosens in her chest.
“To the couch,” Darcy orders, spooning noodles onto a plate for her. “We have nine seasons of The X-Files to get through.”
Nick says to her one day, “Barton tells me you’ve been seeing a lot of Dr. Foster’s assistant.”
He says it without any particular inflection. There’s no innuendo there, none of Clint’s italics (or his later hand gestures). But she finds herself bristling anyway, has to draw herself back a little. Which is… surprising. Not the good kind.
“She’s a friend,” she says. Just that. He raises his eyebrows a little.
“Well,” he says after a brief pause, “that’s your business.”
He continues then like he said nothing at all, but she understands what he means, and she doesn’t like it.
Maybe that’s the reason for what happens later.
“You don’t actually like cats, do you?”
The words take a second or two to sink into Natasha’s head. She blinks and looks up from the Stark Industries brief she’s reading. “What?”
“You don’t like cats that much, do you?” Darcy repeats. She’s kneeling in front of the bookcase Natasha hasn’t quite filled yet, running an idle hand over the smooth spines of the paperbacks on the bottom shelf. It bothers Natasha for reasons she’s not willing to analyze just yet. Delilah is napping in the patch of sunlight on the floor in front of the balcony door, her paws twitching as she runs in a dream.
“No,” she replies shortly, and glances back down at her screen. But of course, Darcy isn’t finished.
“That’s so weird,” she says, shaking her head. She sounds amused.
Darcy makes a considering sort of noise in the back of her throat. “Well, you’re kind of like a cat, you know? Sort of finicky. Standoffish. You jump at loud noises-“
“I don’t jump,” Natasha corrects. “I react.” Sometimes her reactions might seem like jumping, sure, but that’s only to the untrained eye.
She shrugs. “Potato, po-tah-to. And you take a long time to trust people. It took weeks of bribes to get Delilah out of that dumpster and into the building.”
“You haven’t bribed me.”
Darcy grins, straightening and stretching luxuriously. Her shirt rides up a little with the movement, exposing a pale sliver of hip and belly. “Sure I have. With coffee, conversation, and TV marathons. And you need someone to take care of you.”
Natasha doesn’t respond to that one. She’s pretty sure Darcy can divine her response from her expression.
“You do,” she insists. “You’re like Jane. If I don’t remind her to eat every few hours she’ll go days without meals. I need to make her go to bed sometimes. You’re like that.”
“I take care of myself just fine.” The edge in her voice is there on purpose. She hopes Darcy will hear it and take the hint.
She doesn’t. “Yeah, you shower and sleep and stuff, but outside of work how often do you have a conversation with anyone? How many people have been in this apartment? Not targets or colleagues, just friends?” She comes over and plops down on the couch, one arm slung over the back. The seats are small enough that her hand is nearly on Natasha’s shoulder. She can feel the heat of it. “Admit it. You’d go crazy without me.”
Darcy’s fingers brush her skin. It’s a small touch, but deliberate, like the way she touched the books moments before.
Natasha doesn’t say, “What the hell would you know about it?” She doesn’t say, “I made my first kill when I was four.” She doesn’t say, “I know enough about you to become you.”
She definitely doesn’t say, “I want to kiss you.”
What she says is, “You should probably get going.”
Darcy frowns, glancing out the window. “Not really. The sun hasn’t even gone down.”
“I have work to do.”
“So do it. I promise I won’t say a word. I’ll just sit here, read a book or-” Something in Natasha’s expression makes her stumble to a halt. “Wait. Do you really want me to go?”
No. Yes. She doesn’t know. The silence stretches out for a long time, more uncomfortable with each passing second.
“Dr. Foster probably needs you for something,” she says at last. It’s weak and inadequate, and that frustrates her. She’s supposed to be good at this.
“Right.” Darcy stands up slowly, her expression complicated. There’s confusion there, definitely, and annoyance, and hurt. She gets her coat from the closet, ties her shoes slowly, like she’s trying to give Natasha enough time to say something. Anything.
She keeps her mouth shut and her eyes fixed on her tablet screen until Darcy is gone and tells herself that she missed the quiet.
Natasha does not respond the next time Darcy texts her, or the time after that, or the time after that, and soon the texts stop coming. Natasha does not see her for over a month, although there’s the occasional sign that she’s been in the apartment while she was at work: an empty mug in the sink, the bathroom rug knocked slightly askew, Delilah sitting by the door, looking forlorn.
An entry for the internal file: Darcy Lewis’s absence is even louder than her presence.
“I have an assignment for you in Prague,” Fury tells her. “If you feel comfortable being away right now.”
It’s a question poorly disguised as a statement, and it’s not one he’s ever had to ask before. Natasha resents it.
“I’m comfortable with everything,” she reminds him, and leaves without being dismissed.
The night before her flight to Prague, Natasha wakes up to her phone ringing. Delilah is already awake and batting at it curiously. Groaning quietly, she swats her away and picks it up, recognizing the number on the screen as her intercom connection. “Hello?” she croaks.
“Natasha!” a familiar voice says, cheerful and loud and very very drunk. “Nataaaaaaaaasha. Nat. NateNat. Nat Natty Nat Nat-“
“Heyyyyy! How are you?”
“It’s three in the morning and I have a flight to catch in four hours. I’m sleeping.” Not anymore, though—Natasha is wide awake all of a sudden, her veins humming and warm. “Where are you calling from?”
“’m at your front door. I was out with someone and then I was on the train and now I’m here!” A pause, and then, sounding sheepish through the slurring: “I can’t find my keys.”
Natasha considers hanging up, calling her a cab, and going back to sleep. It would be easy. Even as she thinks about it, she hears herself saying, “Stay there. I’ll be down in a second.”
This is stupid, she thinks, and pulls on an old coat over her pajamas before going out to the elevator.
Darcy is leaning against the intercom in the lobby, her eyes half closed. Her hair was probably artfully tousled a few hours ago, but is now headed into bird’s nest territory. She is wearing a dress that is more than a handful of shiny blue fabric, but not by much. It looks silver when she moves, and reminds Natasha of nothing so much as folded steel. She attempts to straighten when she sees Natasha, smiling broadly.
“Hi,” she says, swaying a little. She extends her left arm. “Do you like my bracelet?”
Natasha gives it a cursory glance before slipping her arm around Darcy’s shoulders. “It’s very nice,” she says, walking them both towards the elevator. And it is nice: a silver bangle set with little blue crystals that catch the light. If Natasha was a more romantic person she would think about Darcy’s eyes, which are the same kind of blue, and which shine in the same way.
“My parents got it for me for Hanukah last year,” Darcy confides. Her voice is as strong as ever, if a bit blurred around the edges. “And tonight was Ian’s birthday so we all went out for drinks and I wore it because it’s so. So sparkly.”
That much conversation seems to exhaust her. She slumps against Natasha for the rest of the ride to her floor, her hair tickling her neck. She smells like perfume, something spicy and warm Natasha can’t identify. She tries to cooperate as Natasha hauls her into the apartment, but she’s drunk enough that her feet keep tangling up in themselves and eventually Natasha just shakes her head and barrel rolls her into bed before leaving to get her a glass of water.
“Your bed is soft,” Darcy informs her when she comes back.
“You sound surprised.” Natasha tilts her head up a little, making sure she drinks half of it before setting the rest on the night table. Her bed is soft, and wide, and has about six blankets and quilts and comforters piled one on top of the other; she had enough of sleeping on hard surfaces as a girl, had enough of the kind of cold that seeps into your bones when you sleep.
“I am.” Darcy bounces a little, experimental. “Did you know the last czar of Russia made his daughters sleep on military cots? I kind of thought maybe you’d have something like that. Or a bedroll. Hammock.” She bounces again, then says abruptly, “I used to make out with Ian. A lot. But I don’t anymore. I thought you should know that.”
Natasha doesn’t respond, doesn’t want to. Delilah curls up on Darcy’s chest, purring loudly.
“Why are you mad at me?” Darcy’s voice is quieter now, more subdued, and she looks as serious as a very, very drunk person can look.
Natasha shrugs. “I’m not mad at you,” she replies.
Darcy looks at her for a minute, her eyes narrowing. Suddenly she’s struggling to sit up, wallowing in blankets and nearly knocking over her water glass. Delilah jumps off of her and stalks away indignantly. “You’re lying, though,” she says. “You are! You’re totally mad and I don’t know why. I didn’t do anything wrong. And you told me to go and then you didn’t talk to me for a month. It’s not fair.”
Natasha grabs the glass before it topples over onto her favourite chenille blanket. “It’s got nothing to do with you.”
She’s using her Black Widow voice again, and again, Darcy isn’t intimidated. She makes a rude, dismissive noise. “Does too. You told me to leave and then you didn’t answer any of my texts and I know at least, like, three of them were hilarious. So it’s got everything to do with me. Nerd.”
And that—well, that’s unexpected. “Did you just call me a nerd?” Natasha asks, taken aback. She’s never been called a nerd before. (Except by Clint, once, and the things that Clint calls her barely count.)
“Yes I did.” She sounds proud. “I called scaaary Black Widow a nerd. And I made her coffee and brought her bagels and I guess she just didn’t like it because now she won’t-“
“I liked it.”
She says it partly to make the flurry of words stop. But only partly.
Darcy is silent for a moment, looking at her. “How much?” she asks.
Natasha takes a deep breath, exhales slowly. “A lot,” she admits.
There’s no explaining that one, or how difficult it is to say. So she doesn’t try.
Darcy looks at her for another long moment, then reaches out and drains the rest of her water as though she’s tossing back a shot.
“Okay,” she says, setting the glass back on the night table. Her voice has changed again, become clearer and more purposeful. “I’m really, really drunk right now and I know I might regret this tomorrow but I think the chances of me not regretting it are, like, significantly higher, so. Just let me, okay?” She hesitates, opens her mouth as though to speak again, then shakes her head. She leans forward.
Natasha knows what’s coming, and she doesn’t move.
Darcy’s mouth is as warm as the rest of her, her tongue laden with the taste of tequila and lime. Her lips are the softest thing Natasha’s ever felt. She doesn’t kiss back—that’s not where she’s willing to go right now—but she lets it happen, letting her eyes drift lazily closed, trying to ignore that part of her brain telling her that this is bad, that she’s compromised.
Another addition to the Darcy Lewis file: very, very good kisser.
Darcy already looks half asleep when she pulls back, lying down again. Her dark hair spreads across the pillows like spilled ink.
“Yeah,” she murmurs, her mouth curving. Her eyes flutter closed. “I don’t think I’m gonna regret that.”
The assignment in Prague takes less time than Natasha thought it would. She is Lauren Brascombe, a sullen, irritable graduate student from the East Coast who wears thick eyeglasses and dresses exclusively in grey. She drinks cheap whiskey, snarling at the few men who try to speak to her in bars, and does not look both ways before crossing the street. Natasha finds the identity oddly comforting, submerses herself in it, gets the job done quickly.
Brascombe would not have let Darcy in last night, she thinks. She would probably have slammed the door in her face the first time she showed up.
She definitely wouldn’t have let herself be kissed.
The plane ride back to the United States is long, uneventful, and mercifully free of crying babies and aviophobes. She spends the better part of her time in the air sleeping. Officially sleeping. Not worrying about whether or not Darcy will be in the apartment when she gets in, and if she’ll want to talk, and what she will say if she does.
She sheds the last vestiges of Brascombe at the Triskelion, giving a brief verbal report to Nick before bowing out to go home. The trip feels both longer and shorter than usual.
She has a brief moment of panic in lobby. And in the elevator. And in the hall. When she actually gets to her front door she has to stop for a moment, breathing deep. Maybe she shouldn’t go home yet. She could probably use some coffee. Or a jog. Maybe a night in a hotel.
“This is ridiculous,” she mutters. Less than twenty-four hours ago a man who specialized in black market organ sales was holding a gun to her head, and this is what makes her nervous? She squares her shoulders and straightens, reaching for the door.
Before her fingers touch the knob it swings open.
“Hey, you,” Darcy says. Her smile is the broad one, the one that makes her nose wrinkle. Natasha really, really likes that smile.
She pulls Natasha inside, closes the door with her foot, and kisses her. It’s a short kiss, even chaste, but firm somehow; Natasha gets the impression that she’s being told something, in no uncertain terms.
“Okay,” she says when she pulls away, her cheeks flushed. Her eyes are—God, Natasha likes those too. A lot. “I figured I should do that first, just in case you’re planning on having any kind of weird emotional flash freeze or whatever. How was spy stuff?”
“Good,” Natasha says. She’s not prone to nose-wrinkling smiles herself, but she can feel her lips curling anyway. “Spy stuff was good.”
“Okay. Are you jetlagged?”
Natasha considers. “I could eat.”
Darcy nods, evidently satisfied. “Good. You’ve got an hour to get ready.”
“We,” Darcy says, “are going on a date. An actual, going-outside, cell-phones-turned-off, fancy-pants reservations date. I booked us a table at that new Korean place three blocks down. You’re paying, though, I looked through the window and it has real tablecloths so I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to afford it.” She grins again. “What I said before about taking care of you? That goes both ways, you know.”
Natasha can feel a laugh bubbling up in her throat. “You’ll remind me to eat and I’ll pay for your food. How romantic.”
She’s not sure who she is right now, Lauren or Andrea or Adele, the Black Widow or Agent Romanoff or Natasha or any of the other people she’s been.
Mostly she’s just happy, she thinks.
“Well, not just that,” Darcy says. “You can… kill the spiders. And protect me from monsters and stuff. Like in New York. I can do coffee, but I can’t do monsters.”
A furry head butts against Natasha’s leg, and she looks down into a wide pair of yellow eyes. Leaning down to pick up the cat, something occurs to her. “Delilah’s our cat, isn’t she?” she asks. Delilah squirms a little in her grip, but doesn’t jump. “Not just yours.”
“I was wondering when you’d notice," Darcy says.