Author's Note – Written for Kate on Dreamwidth for Galentine's Day!
Everyone knows there are worlds within worlds. Most people live in their safe little world, surrounded by the people they know, suffering their little issues. Every once in a while a major shockwave will travel through this insulated world when something exquisitely beautiful or horrifyingly terrible happens. People will gaze in wonder or gasp in fear as their little bubbles are penetrated. But it never lasts long. Eventually people build their walls back up, hit the snooze button, and wrap themselves in an illusion once more.
Natasha Romanoff never had the luxury - being conscripted into the Red Room, learning to kill before she was ten, to seduce before she could drive, she long ago lost the blinders of humanity. Sometimes she wondered if she could even be considered human any more.
Law enforcement of whatever level, the military forces of the world, the secret agents, the spies - they could tell you of darker levels of society. They could tell you of hellholes that would freeze the blood of the pretty people in their cookie cutter neighborhoods. The rich and famous could tell you of the beautiful levels of society - levels where want and desire rule...necessity is for those lower beings in suburban housing and generic urban apartments.
Natasha could tell you of both. Like a ghost, a shadow, a chameleon she could walk both ends of the spectrum and every color in between. She always found it amusing that the poorer people were the most likely to spot her as a predator - the elite never looked beyond the beautiful mask.
And her worlds?
She walks in multiple worlds all at once. She is Agent Romanoff of SHIELD, Black Widow of the Avengers, Miss Rushman of Stark Industries, Natasha of girls' night, and Nat of movie night. Each of these worlds are clearly defined, their populations limited, more or less, by the meaning of each. Her favorite world though, the one she fights for before all others, the one she claims and clings to with a primal possessiveness, is a personal world, a private world, the only world she considers truly safe - her world, Tasha's world, population three.
Natasha never planned to depend on anyone. The Red Room taught their students how to obey; it kept them chained by fear. It never truly gained their respect, their loyalty. Each girl remained loyal only to themselves, or maybe, in the darkest hideaway of their memories, maybe to their lost family. Most of them expected to die young. Most of them did. It was the only world they knew. Then everything changed.
The leaders of the Red Room scrambled to keep up with a constantly shifting political landscape as the government fell apart. They became lax in keeping track of their agents, and many of them used the opportunity to slip their leash. Natasha looked for the chance to do the same, but her masters had no desire to lose their best asset. She had all the skills she needed to escape, but she lacked the opening.
Until one wet day in London.
Natasha felt the eyes again. Someone nearby watched her. She dropped a piece of paper. Her eyes did a lazy scan of her surroundings as she rose once more from picking it up. She spotted an odd shadow on the roof of the building halfway down the block. The shadow had been dogging her heels for several days. It was beginning to get annoying.
She adjusted her collar as the wind picked up.
An unexpected force knocked her into the brick wall. She spun back quickly to find a gun pointed at her. The man holding it gave her a quick once over before focusing on her face.
"The renowned Chernaya Vdova," he sneered, his heavy German accent dripping with contempt. "I am unimpressed."
Natasha lifted an eyebrow. "I would prefer not to be shot this evening."
"And I do not care for your preferences," he retorted.
She kicked out, sending the gun flying. "Then I'll persuade you."
The fight broke out in earnest. They traded blows back and forth for several moments. Her training might have been superior, but his seemed to be better than her usual adversaries, and he had several inches and a good one hundred pounds on her. He landed a lucky punch. She hit the curb hard, hearing ribs crack.
"Now," he said triumphantly, "you die."
Even as she shifted to face her death, an arrow seemed to suddenly sprout from her foe's chest. His eyes went wide. He stumbled back and then crumpled, folding to the ground in an almost poetic collapse. She stared at his unmoving body.
"Not the way I planned on introducing myself."
The new voice drew her attention. Her eyes shifted slowly up and to the side to meet the newcomer's blue-green gaze. He crouched down and tilted his head slightly, obviously weighing her reactions. A long silence followed. Natasha's eyes flickered to her opponent before focusing on the man before her once more. "Why?"
"Schmidt's always been a jackass," he replied. "He just got worse when the German's fired him and he went freelance."
"You've been watching me," she said, a statement, not a question.
"Clint Barton," he said, holding out a hand.
She frowned, her eyes moving from his face to his hand a couple of times. He waited patiently. After several long moments, she accepted it. He assisted her in standing, but let her move to lean on the wall. He stood back, not crowding her. "Why?" she asked again.
"You could have had your target yesterday," he said in reply. "Why didn't you take him?"
"You are avoiding the question," she accused.
"Not really," he shrugged. "Why did you let him go?"
She gave a small growl, and added a cold glare when he just smirked. They stood in silence once more, her determination versus his patience, before she snapped out. "His daughter was there."
Now his eyes softened. "Your bosses are starting to sell their assets to the highest bidders." She went still, but did not answer. His lips quirked. "Interested in coming out of the cold?"
"And where would I go?" She gave him a dignified stare. "Are your employers any better than the vultures circling to pick up any weapon they can?"
"Well," he replied. "At least it would be your choice, not your handler's." Now he folded his arms over his chest. "I was supposed to take you out. I had three shots at it."
"So," she tilted her head in disinterested curiosity. "Why didn't you?"
He gave her a real smile. "Because you let a man go just to spare his little girl from watching him die." He held out a hand once more. "You want out, Natalia Alianovna Romanova?"
"Clint Barton," she said the name, testing it on her tongue. He gave her a quick grin and she inclined her head. "My name is Natasha Romanoff." She took his hand.
It wasn't a sexual thing with them. They were both less and more than lovers. It was home and comfort and trust and all of the things neither of them had ever really had. She knew the darkest parts of him even as he saw the deepest shadows in her. They got one another. The two of them finished each other's sentences and meals. They covered each other whether they faced enemies or bosses, medics or paperwork. She kept him company when sleepless nights drove him to the roof. He curled around her when nightmares woke her screaming. Gossip whispered around them at every level, but no one ever came close to understanding their connection.
Then Clint met his romantic match. Darcy Lewis could dish out sarcasm as fast as he could, but she radiated sunshine, drawing him out of the shadows he usually lived in. Her figure might have been the first thing to catch his eye, but simple eye candy would never have snared his attention long. The quick wit paired with a bright smile and an overprotective, mother-hen attitude ran circles around his tendency to withdraw, cutting him off at the pass. He couldn't wall her out or run her off. The girl would narrow her eyes, dig in her heels, and force him to deal with her.
Natasha expected to hate anyone who threatened her connection with Clint, but this was different. The spy found the girl amusing to watch, but, even more, she found herself comfortable with her. Darcy never avoided Natasha, even tracking her down for lunch or joining her for coffee. She drew the spy in, offering her friendship without cost. Sometimes Natasha would catch herself watching the girl, looking for the string, the catch. It never came. For the second time, ever, Natasha found someone who accepted her for what she was and liked her anyway, never asking for more than she was willing to give. Darcy wasn't scared of her.
Most important of all - Darcy could read them both and accepted their bond.
In Natasha's mind, that was the final checkmark, making her perfect for Clint.
Clint still held himself back though, not letting things go deeper than friendship…until the night when everything nearly shattered.
"Look, Tasha-" Clint began, but she cut him off.
"No, Clint." Natasha glared at him. "I will lock you in a closet if it will help."
"It's not fair to her," he argued. "Look at our lives! We risk our necks on a regular basis, and sooner or later the Reaper's going to come calling."
"It is Darcy's choice," she replied, her eyes freezing into diamond-hard clarity.
Clint raised a skeptical brow. "Didn't you tell me to avoid entanglements?"
"That was before I met her."
"I swear, you'd think she was your sister." He rolled his eyes. "I thought older sisters were supposed to warn the younger ones, not set them up with shady characters?"
"We set them up so we don't have to warn them."
Their gazes locked, implacable determination facing off against a stubborn certainty. Clint opened his mouth to speak when the building shook. The two agents fell into a crouch as the sound of the explosion reached them. They waited, back to back, to make sure nothing else would explode. The alarms began to blare. They moved swiftly. Guns appeared in their hands, aiming without forethought as they cleared each level.
Natasha aborted her movement even as her gun aimed towards the disembodied voice. Clint shook his head as he did the same. "Don't do that, Jarvis. We'll shoot up Stark's tower."
"My apologies, Agent Barton," the AI replied. "Mr. Stark has asked me to direct you towards the fifth floor with all possible speed."
"The medical wing?" Clint glanced at Natasha with a frown. "What about the explosion? That was a little higher, somewhere near the…" His voice trailed off.
"The fire has been contained and the building has suffered no more than cosmetic damage." There was a discernible pause and Natasha felt her heart start to pound. "Mr. Stark and the Captain are pursuing the person responsible." Jarvis paused again in distinct discomfort, and Natasha wondered, at the back of her mind, when she started assigning emotions to computers.
Clint stiffened. "Darcy?"
"I am afraid Miss Lewis was injured-"
Natasha scrambled to keep up with her partner as he tore down the hallways. They rushed into the waiting room to find Jane pacing. She started as they barreled in, but she began talking as soon as her eyes met Clint's.
"The blast knocked her into the wall." The scientist spoke rapidly as they advanced. "It knocked her out, and they want to do a quick scan just to check."
"What else?" he bit out, glaring at the door.
Natasha put a hand on his shoulder. "Clint-"
"The glass," Jane whispered. "It blew in, cutting at everyone. She…" She trailed off, shaking.
Both of them focused on her, realizing the scientist bore her own bandages. Natasha made her sit down and wrapped a nearby blanket around her. Clint stood guard, scaring off the other scientists who tried to pester her while his gaze remained glued to the surgery door.
Time passed slowly, second after second, minute after minute.
Two hours after the initial explosion, a doctor finally stepped out of the surgery. He nearly stepped back as he spotted their fierce expressions. His eyes skipped over them, apparently trying to decide who to lock on and finally chose Jane as the least dangerous. "Miss Lewis is stable. While she did sustain multiple cuts and abrasions from the glass, most of them only caused minor surface damage. There were three deeper ones, one of which nicked an artery and caused substantial blood loss. This is what kept us in surgery for so long, tracking down the bleeder and making sure it was the only one."
"What about the unconsciousness?" Natasha kept a firm hand on Clint's arm as he vibrated beside her even as she questioned the man.
"Despite rendering her unconscious, the scan did not show any major damage. It was light enough to allow the use of anesthesia before surgery. We expect her to wake up within the next couple of hours."
"Can we-" Jane started to ask a question when Clint pulled away from Natasha and strode through the door. "Never mind," she continued and followed.
The doctor started to protest. "You really shouldn't-"
Natasha pinned him with an icy stare and he stumbled to a stop. She circled around him as he flinched back to follow the others into the surgery room.
Darcy lay on the table as the nurses finished cleaning her up. All of the vibrancy, the light of her, appeared to have been eclipsed. The stillness was wrong, criminal even. Natasha lightly clasped the girl's ankle as Jane tenderly held her hand.
Clint moved to the head of the table and leaned down. "Hey, Sparky, we're here." He placed a kiss on her temple. "You need to wake up soon."
The nurses were ready to move her to a room, and the whole party followed. Natasha sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed, still holding Darcy's ankle, while Jane sat on the right and held her hand. Clint sat on Darcy's left where he could whisper in her ear.
Natasha watched as Clint's internal walls and barricades waivered with each whisper, each shift, and finally came crashing down when Darcy's hazy green eyes blinked open and focused on him. "Hey." Her soft whisper gave the last blow and Clint pressed a soft, but intense kiss to her lips.
A tiny, but self-satisfied smirk flickered over Natasha's face as she watched. That settled that. Now she just needed to hear from Stark or Steve so she could kill the man who hurt her new little sister.
Minimalism was not Darcy's style. Natasha would be happy to ignore the rest of the world except as allies in necessity, but Darcy loved to be surrounded by friends – and she dragged Natasha right along with her. It might be as simple as sitting and listening to Jane and Erik debate various scientific theories, even though neither of them had any clue what the two were talking about, or as complicated as the entire team and associates going bowling. Although Natasha did have to admit it had been amusing to watch Hill and Banner completely demolish the others and take Stark and Fury for five hundred each.
Darcy was the one who started them on movie night to help Steve catch up with the times. She drew the entire team in with promises of homemade baked goods for anyone who agreed to stay for the whole movie. Food will always draw a crowd, and the Avengers were no different. Natasha quit bothering to watch the movies themselves after three nights; watching her teammates had been much more entertaining. Whether it was Clint's critique of Robin Hood, Steve's confusion at Space Balls, Pepper's enthrallment with Pride and Prejudice, or the three scientists debating over the technology of Star Trek, they provided her a great deal more enjoyment.
Darcy had also been the one to initiate girls' night.
Natasha looked up from her paperwork as Darcy sauntered into the kitchen. "Darcy."
Darcy hopped up on the counter next to her. "Why are you doing that in here? Wouldn't the table be more comfortable?"
"I work faster standing," Natasha answered, turning back to the SHIELD forms.
"Right." Darcy watched her for a few minutes before breaking the silence. "You know, I had an idea."
"Do I want to know?" the spy asked without bothering to look up.
Darcy laughed. "At least that was better than Jane's question. She wanted to know if I broke something." Natasha's mouth quirked to one side and Darcy continued. "I was thinking us girls needed to get out and do something."
Natasha lifted her head and her green eyes narrowed as she focused on the brightly grinning woman next to her. "I am not going to like this, am I?"
"What?" Darcy's own green gaze blinked and went innocently wide. "I just thought we could grab some drinks and invite a couple of the others."
"Well, Jane of course," Darcy answered, tilting her head to the side in consideration. "Maria naturally, and can I just say how weird it is to call her by her first name? Sif's been visiting more often, and Pepper could use the break from the SI insanity…not to mention Tony." She frowned. "Do you think we should include Betty?"
"Yeah, of course," Darcy replied. "I think the karaoke place down on Avenue A would be perfect." She hopped down from the countertop, giving Natasha a grin over one shoulder as she hurried out of the room before the woman could reply.
Natasha put her head down on her arms. "How do I always let her do that?"
She has come a long way since her only world centered on the Red Room. Clint gave her new worlds to walk in while Darcy turned allies into friends. They alone have ever looked at her for herself - not a weapon, not an asset, not a spy, not even as another fighter, just her. They were the only ones who ever tried to see the girl the Red Room tried to destroy. No matter how blurred her lines get, no matter what worlds or friendships the future brings, Tasha's central world will always focus on keeping them, her family, safe.