Author's Note: For my soulmates/soul-bonding square on Trope Bingo Round Three.
'Til Death Do Us Part
When Steve introduces Bucky to the Avengers, Natasha gets up from her weary sprawl on the couch, slides under Clint's arm, and wraps one of her own around his waist. She doesn't lean on his shoulder. It's not pointed, but she does it, and she knows the Winter Soldier won't miss it.
Bucky's eyes flicker over the two of them.
Clint goes with it. He knows her; they've done this. They can slip away into covers at the drop of a hat, and she knows that this is half partnership, half a show for everyone else so that her one-time lover will know in simple, matter-of-fact terms that she's moved on. It's also something else, but that isn't something she cares to look at. Clint and her worked as if they were two halves of one whole well before he was bleeding out and she saved him, before she truly put the Winter Soldier behind her.
It's Bucky now, not the Winter Soldier, not James. They're going to have to work together again. There is no SHIELD and little safety outside of this alliance they have built for themselves, not unless they want to sit this problem out on the sidelines, and no one in the room has ever been very good at that, though Bruce has certainly on occasion tried.
She nods politely as Steve moves from Bruce to smile at her and introduce, "Natasha," as if she and his long-lost friend are almost strangers.
She's tired and still recovering from her injuries, still even suited up from her last drop with Clint since they arrived barely before Steve, Sam, and Bucky. She glances at Clint, message delivered, and slips away to go take the hottest shower she can stand.
Bucky lingers in the doorway briefly as she and Clint wait in the conference room with Pepper for all the non-early birds to arrive. Uncertainty flickers in his eyes. Message received.
Finally, he shoots her a half-hearted smile as he settles into a chair where he can see all exits. "I don't know what to call you," he says.
Natasha hums thoughtfully. Clint studies her face while she considers. James had called her many things, Russian endearments, her own proper Russian name, Widow. She shrugs at last and studies Clint back while she answers, "Natasha."
Clint smiles—slightly. It is his name for her, but not the endearments she goes by now. It is not Nat nor (voice rough and soft for her) Tasha.
She turns to Bucky.
The tension runs out of his shoulders. "Natasha."
Bucky makes no effort to hide that he knew her once, and after the first few double-takes at references to old missions together, the rest of the team becomes comfortable with that. It's on a current mission that he first brings up an alarming piece of data she'd almost forgotten he ever knew.
"No offense, Tony," Bucky steamrollers right over the showboating plan Stark had been proposing, "but I think the supersoldiers should take the first push and most of the heat. We'll heal more quickly."
"And I won't need to heal at all," Tony interjects.
Bucky ignores it. "So Steve, Natasha, and I ought—"
"Nyet." She drops the file she'd been holding and is more startled at the fact that he'd startled her, and into speaking Russian, no less, than at what he actually said. "I'm not a supersoldier."
He blinks, completely taken aback.
She can sense the sharpening interest around the table from everyone but Clint, who simply presses the side of his knee against hers in invisible support. She was—once.
"I was there," Bucky says slowly.
But she shakes her head and shrugs. "Perhaps you were mistaken. I am normal." She holds up her arm and shows a scar from their last tangle with HYDRA. "Makeup works wonders, but…" She flashes him a tight smile and picks up the folder.
The Winter Soldier helped to train her. He knows her tells and when she is lying. I am normal, she says, and it is a truth the Winter Soldier cannot deny. Bucky stares at her arm as if it holds a secret he cannot understand.
It is late. Clint is done checking his equipment, fletching arrowheads, cleaning guns, and is now studying her as she lies across his bed without showing any intention of sharing. She doesn't sleep in his room every night, but there are some nights: on the days when his eyes darken and stare into the distance one too many times; when sometime in the evening, she finds his hand pressed to hers however briefly; when she's tired and weary and feels the Red Room conditioning clawing at the inside of her head. They are partners and solace. They tangle themselves together on his bed so he can call her name when she wakes up the Black Widow, so she can call his when Loki screams inside his nightmares.
Tonight, they are both stretched raw. Bucky has brought the Red Room close. She does not know what lurks beneath the surface of Clint's eyes, but she feels the tension snap between them in a way it hasn't since…
She sits up. Well.
"Nat." Clint settles on the bed beside her, now that she's left more than a sliver of space. "We need to tell them."
She stares at him. For a moment, Natasha has no idea what he's talking about. She knows that every so often things grow tense between them, and it's more because they haven't been doing what everyone who knows them thinks they have. They aren't lovers; they're partners, though they have both played with the idea for years. Clearly however, that isn't something they can tell the Avengers.
He sighs and tugs some more blanket from under her body. "Get under the covers if you're going to."
She huffs at him and doesn't move.
Clint gives up on the quest for more bedding and answers her unspoken question. "About why you're not a supersoldier." His glance is apologetic. His words strike her like a blow.
She doesn't need to think about it. It hits something fundamental inside her consciousness and curls up in her gut. Clint is the bedrock of her world since he saved her life, since she came to SHIELD, since she saved his. She refuses to give up any possible advantage she has in keeping him safe. Even Loki clearly missed this one or he wouldn't have threatened to kill Clint after Natasha was already dead.
And that is harder to resist, the rough-voiced plea as he slides his arms around her and tugs her close. She has wanted this for a long time because Clint may be the sentimental one, but she is the one who has fought beside her lover and fell into bed afterward. She is not worried about them ruining their partnership or her becoming vulnerable to the person with whom she already shares the ultimate intimacy. She is already vulnerable to him. He reaches for her and she tries not to let him melt her as he leans his head against her shoulder, buries his face in her neck, and breathes.
"We need to," he persists. "They're our team."
"We never told the SHIELD teams we worked on," she points out, persistent.
Clint lifts his head, and she almost protests, however wordlessly. She settles for clambering under the covers and into his arms.
"Coulson and Fury knew," he says quietly. "At least tell Steve. He's not a handler, but someone needs to know, Nat."
She huffs at him again but says nothing. For a long moment, they lie together in comfortable silence, Clint stroking her hair. At last, she asks him, "Who should tell him?"
A considering pause. "You know him better."
She has to agree, so she does.
It is a bad night. Clint wakes her from bloody snow and Drakov's daughter and a gun heavy in her hand pointed at the Winter Soldier, no, Clint, but that's his voice calling her, "Natasha," and she wakes abruptly.
They are frozen in place, her snap of alertness and Clint's unshakeable calm as she realizes her hand is at his throat. She takes a deep shuddering breath and drops it away, then trembles with fear of what she almost did until he rubs away the discomfort from his neck and pulls her close again.
They could whisper apologies. Perhaps that would the normal thing to do, but she and Clint have never been normal.
Instead, she says something about the other things the Winter Solider brings close to haunt her. "We could do this," she murmurs. It's the first she's said something instead of stepped too close, almost kissed him, offered sex in any of the many ways they know how to communicate. She gave him her heart years ago; there is nothing left to offer but her body, and even that he possesses in more ways than anyone else.
The short laugh is without true humor. "You know I've screwed up every relationship I've ever been in?" he reminds her. But there's a small, crooked smile on his features that is certainly sincere.
Natasha shrugs. "You'd have done it by now."
It's a point. He acknowledges that before shaking his head. "This thing between us,"—he gestures inarticulately, never quite able to name what she had done to save his life—"it's forever. I don't think we can afford to screw it up."
She rolls over and leans on her arms on his chest, so she can see his face in the darkness. He is looking at her, waiting. She can feel his hand warming her back, it's so close to holding onto her.
"We won't," she says softly. She lets go of 'almost' and kisses him. It feels just like coming home.
Natasha feels light on her feet when she falls into step beside Steve on his morning run. She feels like she could run forever, even if half of her strength is Clint's and not hers.
"Morning," Steve manages to fit in around the necessity of breath. Ever the gentleman.
She settles for nodding back.
They break near a tree in Central Park and he looks at her questioningly.
"Did you need to talk to me about something?" he asks. "Or just taking an earlier run than usual?"
She does run. It's part of the regimen SHIELD agents keep to stay fit, but she has only rarely sacrificed the hours she could share with Clint on a range or a rooftop. "I'll probably skip running this afternoon," she comments, side-stepping the question, then giving up and diving straight in. "Barton thought I should talk to you."
Steve's eyebrows go up. Clint was right. She and Steve have worked together and fought the Winter Soldier together, their own mutual acquaintance. It is a little odd that Clint would be the one to broach the topic of the conference room revelation.
"Bucky wasn't mistaken," she says, proving once again she still lies, however indirectly. Somehow it doesn't shake his trust as much as she keeps thinking it ought to. "He's just wrong."
"Okay." Steve leans against the tree and clearly settles in to listen.
Natasha is spare in her storytelling. She is used to Clint, who never drew the wrong conclusion from a mere handful of words strung together under duress, and to Coulson, who accepted personal admissions in the form of mission briefs. "Have you ever watched Dragonheart?" she asked.
"I'm not familiar with it," he says.
She nods. "Clint made me watch it after Genosha. He was mortally wounded on a mission there."
The word 'mortally' catches Steve off-guard, but she presses on before he can ask questions.
"There was a device there that enabled two bodies to share a single lifeforce," Natasha explains matter-of-factly, ignoring the multitude of implications in her statement. "If I hadn't been an Infinity Formula subject, one or both of us would have died. If you kill either of us, you kill both of us."
There in bald terms is the nature of the bond between Clint and Natasha. When it was all or nothing, they'd given all.
"I don't have any spare lifeforce to heal rapidly," she finishes, "because it's all Clint's."
For a moment, things feel awkward and tense as Steve digests that, clearly uncertain what to say. "The device—"
"Destroyed," she says flatly. She went outside of orders to do that, unwilling for anyone to discover how to reverse engineer what she had done.
Steve studies the look on her face, seeming more enlightened than most by what he reads there. "Why are you telling me this?" he asks quietly. "It must take a great deal of trust."
"Strategically, it's important, Captain," she tells him in a clipped, professional tone, then her voice softens and Natasha tells him the real reason, the one that is hers and not Clint's. "He asked me to."
This isn't a bad night. No demi-gods or bloody memories came to haunt them. Even so, Natasha makes her way to her partner's room and holds him as they sleep.