Author's Note: So I got soulmates/soul bonding on my second trope bingo card and decided to write a prequel to the other piece I wrote.
In Sickness and In Health
Clint nodded to his partner when she appeared on the SHIELD gym floor. The gym bordered on empty this time of morning (before dawn, four a.m.), but he liked to come in early for his other training and get it out of the way so he could spend his best hours at the range practicing archery. Natasha on the other hand seemed to be built for early hours, and some days he had watched her spend more than six hours training before breakfast. Today was the first day training together since... Well, after.
He watched her idly while he ran through basic exercises before moving to weights.
She pulled on her boxing gloves and attacked a punching bag with fists, kicks, and twisting moves he was fairly certain would throw his joints out of whack before causing any harm to his opponents. It was a well-known fact that Natasha was far better than Clint at close combat, and he was staring at the reason why.
Ten minutes in, a frown glimmered between her eyebrows, and he stopped watching idly and started paying close attention. Her lunges redoubled. Her kicks picked up speed. She threw her punches twice as hard. Breath went ragged and that frown deepened, frustration tensing her muscles in ways he wondered if anyone else would recognize. He couldn't see any cause for her reaction, so he watched for some hint of what was wrong.
Finally, she kicked the bag one last time and shoved away on the rebound, eyes flashing fire. She stripped off her gloves and stared at her hands. The fire banked; her face was blank.
Blank was a very bad sign.
Clint abruptly set down the weights and crossed the room to reach her. Natasha didn't do blank faces. Blank was the Black Widow and programming written inside her brain. Blank was her conditioning reasserting itself, mind rewinding into something scientists had written for her.
She looked up at him then back to her hands.
He followed the look with his eyes to her bloody hands and flinched.
"I don't—" Her frown came trembling back. "I don't understand." Her voice sounded so lost, and it hit his gut like a sharp ache.
He gently touched her hand, and she shuddered. She had beaten the bag too hard, pushed too hard, but he had seen her push even harder and had seen for himself her insanely accelerated rate of healing. He had watched her bounce back to from an arrow wound in less than two days when he first brought her in. He had seen her learn to hold back in the gym to not destroy their equipment.
"Tasha." He spoke slowly, reassuringly.
She didn't react. He might as well have been a fly.
But there was only one thing that had changed, only one thing different, and Clint had to swallow down his fear that this was all his fault. "Tasha. Let me bandage this up."
She let him, holding out her hands to him to make it easier, but he didn't think she really got out of shock. Her eyes stared uncomprehending at her hands and her expression remained blank.
Natasha left immediately afterward. When Clint suggested she stop by medical, she just shot him an annoyed glance and gathered up her things.
He tried to ignore it, tried to forget it, but he couldn't, so he went back to his own place and stared at the spare but comfortable surroundings. Natasha had left her touches there, small signs of her presence in a scattering of books, a teacup on the counter near the stove (he was not a tea drinker), the extra pillows she'd installed on his couch for their odd-end movie nights. They had only been partners for two years, but it was starting to feel like she was a permanent fixture in his life, which was only fitting he supposed. That was always around the time it went to hell.
Two mornings later, Clint tensed awake, feeling a shift in his apartment that spoke to another presence. He was out of the bed in a few seconds, gun in hand, and peering around the doorway of his room to where… Natasha had just walked into his living room and was dropping onto the couch.
She was breathing hard, red hair in a ponytail, yellow tank top, athletic pants, running shoes, skin flushed with exertion. Morning run, he surmised, but he couldn't stop staring anyway. He had never seen her breathing hard after a simple morning run. Her hands were trembling as she shoved loose strands of hair out of her face, and he suddenly realized she was barely holding it together.
He put the gun away and pulled on a t-shirt as he headed for the living room. She wouldn't be here if she really wanted him to ignore whatever was wrong. Natasha may not have always known what she wanted from him, but she never came when she wanted nothing, even if that was simply company.
"Hey." Clint stopped by the coffee table and studied her.
Natasha barely looked up. She wiped the sweat from her face and twisted her hands in her shirt to dry them. "I'm winded," she said. "After an hour." She stopped abruptly and shook her head. "I'm stronger than this, Clint. I've always been stronger than this."
He looked into her lost eyes staring up at him, saw the question in their depths. What is wrong with me?
He sat down on the coffee table and reached out gently to take one of her hands. He studied the way she flinched when his thumb pressed too hard on where she'd split the skin boxing the other day. It was healing nicely but normally.
"Hm." He stood and went in the kitchen without saying anything. He could feel her gaze heavy on his back, but he focused on pouring himself a cup of coffee and heating some water to pour over a tea bag out of the box he'd bought with her in mind. Finally, he returned and handed her the cup. "I'm going to show you something, then we're going to visit medical."
He just looked at her, and she fell silent. There was only one thing different, one thing changed, and he had a terrible feeling that all of this was his fault. He put on the movie he had in mind, Dragonheart, and settled in beside her on the couch.
Natasha was silent after the movie stopped. She stared straight ahead for the longest time, long enough that in another context, Clint might have said something, but he didn't disturb her. Somehow he knew that this was the sort of thing that required him to sit still and wait, so he did.
Her voice broke through quietly, but she did not stir or move. "Am I a monster?"
"No." He didn't know whether she referred to the dragon in the movie, offering his heart to save a life, or to the unworthy human who had been saved, but he knew the answer anyway. "You saved me," he said quietly.
She flinched then and looked up at him. He couldn't read her face or her eyes, but they were far from blank. So many emotions seemed to be struggling for dominance and all of them as understated and minute as her usual flickers of expression.
He dared to reach out, to slide his hand over hers, and she didn't stop him, just stared at him as if he was the one who didn't make sense.
"What did I do to you?" she asked, sudden and sharp.
It was the first time they had talked about it after Genosha; no, the first time ever. They didn't talk about it when it happened. They didn't because he was half-dead with blood loss and she was too busy taking care of him and everything else. By the time, he had realized she had done something far outside of regulation and he hadn't been saved by the medical unit of their extraction team, there wasn't much to talk about.
Clint was alive. That was something.
"I'm more concerned about what you did to yourself," he said dryly.
She shook her head, gaze flitting about his apartment. She looked at him. "Fine." Then she was on her feet, springing up with her usual speed and reflexes. She had recovered from her run, and if he hadn't seen her come in the way she had, he would never have guessed how much was off about her.
"Fine," he repeated back and put on shoes to walk her over to SHIELD.
Genosha had been the messiest op they had been on since Natasha's arrival. Genosha had been a breaking point, the moment where everything would come together or fall apart. Genosha had been the mission Clint realized she wasn't his charge anymore, his partner he felt responsible to be there for, to take care of. She was his partner, and they took care of each other.
Strike Team Delta was going after a human trafficking ring that seemed to end in genetic experimentation and enslavement of the resulting mutates. Natasha was a perfect fit as the program she'd come out of had genetically enhanced her in ways that were easy to display rather than hide: enhanced strength, enhanced healing, reduced or negligible aging. Clint was a perfect fit because she trusted him enough to play the part of her owner long enough for them to get a shot at taking down the ringleaders and destroying them.
They were made before they got off the boat.
Plans changed, and they played the victims. Clint nearly died in interrogation (and not by accident); Natasha broke down whimpering under hers until she got enough intel to break out and locate him, stealing the facility's virtual database while she was at it. He had lost too much blood though. He wasn't going to make it.
"Get out," he'd told her.
"D— it, Clint! Stay with me."
He didn't remember much after that. Flashing lights, a strange metal machine, Natasha's hands wound tightly around his wrists, her gasp, blackness.
All her readings were normal. Too normal. They weren't normal for her at all.
The doctor frowned and asked them to sit down, never a good sign. Clint already wished he were anywhere but here, but Natasha's hand on his wrist was tight enough to bruise. He had no intention of leaving her.
"One of the problems with technology like this," the doctor began, "is that we don't know entirely how it operates, especially if that technology is destroyed before thorough examination."
She shot a disapproving look in Natasha's direction and was met by an uncompromisingly unrepentant one. Clint had read the report. He had already known that Natasha had destroyed the machine after using it as she had determined in advance there were no 'applicable side-effects.'
"I wrote up how it worked," Natasha stated calmly, the almost blank mask she generally wore in place. "It joins one lifeforce in two bodies until such time as the machine or a similar means is used to reverse the process."
It still made Clint restless to hear it said. He had been half-dead, and she had bound her life with his.
"Yes, but according to these scans," the doctor continued undaunted, "there are side effects. Your readings come up normal for a non-genetically enhanced human."
Natasha leaned back in the chair. She started to say something, but Clint spoke first.
"What were the non-applicable side-effects?" he asked her quietly.
The question was clearly aimed at Natasha, and the doctor wisely refrained from speaking.
Natasha gave him a look. He was her partner and supposed to be on her side, but then she sighed in acceptance and answered. "One lifeforce is not normally enough to sustain two people. They were very clear that only Infinity Formula subjects or supersoldiers could safely use the device. Otherwise, one or both parties would die."
"That is entirely applicable," the doctor admonished.
Clint glanced up and shook his head slightly. "Just chill for a moment, Doc."
She bristled but let him handle his partner since he clearly belonged to one of a handful of teams where only one member of a partnership could really be expected to cooperate with the white coats at any given time.
"So we still share the same lifeforce?"
Natasha's grey-green eyes widened slightly as she realized what he was thinking. He wasn't sure if it disturbed him to see her reaction or if he felt relief that he wasn't the only one bothered by all of this.
"And the only reason you could do what you did was because you had some to spare, right?" Clint didn't wait for an answer. "So you don't have it to spare anymore unless something happens to me again."
"I'm afraid it's not that simple," the doctor interjected politely but with no small amount of concern in her tone. "If anything 'happens' to you and you are not able to heal from it, using a normal rate of healing, as that is all either of you now sustain, then in all likelihood, you will both die."
Natasha's head snapped up, every muscle in her body tense.
Clint chewed that over. One life, two bodies. It only made sense. "That's a locked file, Doc, right?"
"Print it out and wipe it then." He stood and handed over his security clearance for her appraisal. "I'll take the hardcopy."
Clint and Natasha informed Coulson of the issue, who informed Fury personally and ensured no one else would find out without being personally informed by both of them. He went down to medical to ensure the doctor understood the same.
Natasha went home with Clint after and lingered just inside the doorway.
"So what now?" he forced himself to ask in as normal a tone as possible. "Do you need training time to figure out your new limits? Or—"
Her fingers curled around his, and he stopped talking abruptly to stare at their hands.
Natasha didn't touch casually. Every move she made, every facial tick was intentional, chosen even when unplanned.
Clint looked up and met her gaze. He read no uncertainty there; it had all been banished behind a look he had never seen on her before.
"Clint." She said his name like that sometimes, like it was paragraphs and paragraphs of meaning too big to be contained in words. "I don't regret it. I would do it again."
He stared at her, studied the absolute unflinching certainty in her eyes. His hand tightened on hers.
"Partners," he said.
For the first time since Genosha, the knot of tension between them relaxed and she smiled.