A Gift For: hermionerd
Warnings: Irresponsible behavior?
Pairings: Clint/Natasha, past Natasha/Bucky
Summary/Prompt Used: Outsider perspective(s) (another Avenger or S.H.I.E.L.D. agent) at various points in their relationship--first meeting, early days, friendship, get together, etc.
Authors Notes: The working title of this was "Five People Who Knew Exactly what Clint and Natasha Were Up To (and One Who Wished They Didn't.)"
In wild dedication, take the moment of hope/And let it run, and never look back at all the damage we have done now/To each other. - Third Eye Blind, Blinded (When I See You)
Banner by frea_o
Maria Hill knew the moment she laid eyes on Clint Barton that he was going to be trouble. She hadn't been deputy director then; hell, Fury hadn't been director. If they'd had that kind of power, she imagined Clint's orientation would have all gone a little differently.
As it was, Fury was still recruiting for the strike teams when he came across Barton, a sniper of unparalleled caliber, and snapped him up because it was the right thing to do.
Maria had been leading orientations and training after being injured on a mission; it was a three-month desk rotation that made her vaguely homicidal when Barton slunk in to her classroom on his first day, five minutes late and looking like hell, his uniform shedding threads where he had removed the sleeves. (Probably with a dagger, in retrospect, but at the time Maria had been sure it was a set of nail clippers, blunt and tedious.)
He already had a record twice again as long as the sleeves he'd cut off, most of it for insubordination, but by the end of the week, he had aced every skill challenge, scored remarkably on the cognitive side of things, and even won some of the older agents over with his stirring renditions of "My Sharona" in the showers.
(No matter what Sitwell said, Maria had never enjoyed the watery concerts, not even a little. The smile wasn't happiness, it was a primate smile, feral and angry. She swore it.)
But she got used to Barton - she might have even copped to liking him a little by the end of things - and by the time he had been on board for six months, she understood what Fury saw in the guy. He was a complete pain in the ass, slept with far too many coworkers, and was as likely to ignore regulation as to cite it, depending on his needs, but he was good -- no, he was fucking phenomenal at what he did.
And when his two years came and went, when Barton had officially saved more lives than anyone else in SHIELD employ, Maria got used to the idea that he was around to stay.
Still, he wasn't close to anyone. He was cool and professional when he needed (or wanted) to be, he still took to bedding whichever agent took his fancy, gender be damned, but overall, Clint Barton was a loner, an outlier. Maria worried, at times, that he was liable to defect, if he didn't bond to someone sooner or later.
And then he went to Marrakesh and brought home a redheaded stray who had almost twice as many kills on her rap as Barton had saves on his, and Maria got it. She actually understood what he was doing, even if no one else seemed to.
Barton had found an anchor, someone to keep him grounded and sane, and brought her back under the guise of making an executive decision.
Maria said nothing, but she didn't bother to pretend to be surprised when Barton and Romanoff became partners. It was what they both needed, so she signed the order with a smile.
Phil Coulson already oversaw fifteen teams of agents and their handlers when Clint Barton and Natasha Romanoff became a pair. His workload was heavy- excessive, really- but when Fury told him he was getting a sixteenth pair, Phil just smiled.
Everyone knew about Barton and his string of failed partnerships- he'd terrorized Lim, driven Kuhn to transfer, and the less said about him and Cornelius, the better.
But loner or no, Barton was a hell of an addition to Phil's portfolio.
Romanoff, on the other hand, was said to be a dangerously unstable she-devil, the kind of agent who would either ground Barton in reality, or go hurdling over the cliff with him- psych tests had at 50-50 odds as to her effect on him.
The day after they (and their handler, an amazing agent called Sheih, who was probably too by-the-book for it to work, but time would tell on that front) were assigned to Phil, he called the operatives into his office to do what he always did with new teams- set expectations.
Romanoff came in first, blood streaming from her nose and staining her lips and chin, but she seemed content to let herself drip onto her pants and his floor, so Phil handed her a tissue and turned to Barton, who was trailing after her.
Barton, who was sporting two black eyes and a lacerated neck.
Phil shook his head as they each took a seat.
"You two think you're cute?"
Romanoff didn't flinch. Barton did.
"You've only been here a few months," Phil said to Romanoff's stoic face, "so let me make this clear. This idiot is your partner, not your prey. You can spar with each other, but if either of you ever bleeds on my floor again, I will have you cleaning the retroreflection panels on the Helicarrier for the next year." He sneered at Barton. "You should know we don't bother to land it for that little chore."
Romanoff was smiling, a kind of smile that made Phil think of Charles Manson or John Hinckley- brilliant, dangerous, and unhinged. Phil rolled his eyes.
"You don't scare me, tovarishch," he told her, and she laughed quietly.
"Not even a little?"
Phil shook his head. "Not even a little."
She laughed again, a high, girlish sound that was almost a giggle, and Clint's low chuckle joined her in concert.
"Told you," Barton said, and Romanoff shrugged.
"You did," she agreed. "I owe you a dollar."
Phil wanted to laugh with them, because it was funny, the idea that they had been trying to intimidate him, but he needed to pretend, at least, that he was the grownup in the room.
"Did you two already scare off Shieh?"
Barton nodded, and at least he had the grace to look guilty; Romanoff just looked pleased with herself. Phil gave them his best exasperated sigh.
"Your prize is a month of desk duty," he said. "And if you finish that without scaring off any more agents, maybe we'll talk about putting you in the field. Maybe."
Phil stood and stepped to his office door, wrenching it open for his new charges.
"Turn your weapons in to Hill by the end of the day," he told them, by way of dismissal.
To their credit, neither Barton nor Romanoff tried to bargain or whine- they knew what they had done, and he was happy to see them content to take their licks, rather than complain about it.
Romanoff shot him an honest-to-god grin as she passed, and Phil nodded to her.
They'd all passed their tests today, and he was pretty sure this was going to be a beautiful, strange, wonderful assignment for them all.
Agent Harris had been a part of SHIELD since he graduated college; he was recruited out of his Biodefense program to come and be a part of "something special." And, the way Agent Harris saw it, when a man like Nick Fury gave you an offer, you took it.
He wasn't a field agent, which suited him fine; he wanted to do research, wanted to study and learn, not fight and kill. But still, the field agents were a fascinating study in humanity at its extremes, and Harris loved to watch the way they interacted with each other and the world.
His favorite to watch, when they were around headquarters or the Helicarrier, were Romanoff and Barton. It was rare, as far as Harris could see, for a team to gel so completely that they spent voluntary time together outside of missions, but Barton and Romanoff had, and they did. (Then again, Harris had never seen them with anyone else, so there was some credence to Wu's theory that they simply didn't know anyone else.)
It was taco day in the mess, a Thursday in mid-June, when he figured them out. He'd been eating quietly with some friends from the lab - a break from trying to reverse engineer some toxins HYDRA had made from a lizard only found in a parallel version of Wakanda that was proving to be more difficult than anyone had anticipated.
Romanoff had entered the mess, her slow, lithe steps that Harris was pretty sure betrayed some kind of leonine ancestry, because no mere human could be that fluid. He nudged his lab partner, Agent Varghese, in the side, and they both tracked Romanoff's movements to the food line.
"She's checking her watch," Varghese signed, her fingers stuttering over the words, and Harris nodded. He wasn't aware of any people in this day and age who still wore watches, but Romanoff did, of course she did.
Hill followed after a few moments, and that was a new one - from Harris' observations, Hill's only friends were people who ranked her - which was, at the moment, Fury. But she made a beeline for Natasha, moving with the military precision everyone expected from Hill, her angles and turns standing in stark contrast to the mercury-slide of Romanoff.
He couldn't read most of the chatter between them; they bent their heads close together, strands of red and brown hair obscuring their lips at key moments, but he still managed to catch a few words. It was a short conversation - two minutes, tops - before Hill put a guiding hand on Romanoff's shoulder and led her from the mess.
Maybe no one but Varghese and Harris noticed the exchange, or maybe the room was buzzing with excitement. The only thing Harris knew for sure was that Barton was in some kind of trouble, and Romanoff was upset.
He had assumed, because it was the easy assumption, that Romanoff and Barton were friends of convenience; partners first, killers with a code that bound them together.
And yet, for the first time, he'd seen Romanoff emotional.
It was the quiet kind of emotional, the kind he expected from a woman like Romanoff, who spent so much time hiding what she really felt; he was sure that she thought she wasn't giving anything away. He couldn't even quantify what it was; the angle of her shoulders, the turn of her lips, the way she leaned into Hill's touch, but whatever had given her away, Harris knew something, now, something that Romanoff hadn't wanted to share.
He wasn't surprised when Varghese returned from the ladies' room that afternoon, bursting with the need for new signs, stumbling through fingerspelling that Barton was compromised, that he was missing, and they had assembled the Avengers - Captain America was on the Helicarrier, and there was a mysterious prisoner in the Hulkbuster tank.
He was pretty sure Romanoff was compromised, then, be it by the loss of Barton or the looming threat of super heroes, but he didn't say it to Varghese. If Romanoff wanted to love her partner, that was her own business, and she was welcome to it.
There were many things about Midgardian culture that confused and intrigued Thor - he'd spent hours in conversation with his teammates, trying to understand why the funeral for Agent Coulson had involved no feasting, no revelry. It seemed wrong to him that a death met in battle would be seen as an occasion for solemnity, but his friends donned black and spoke in soft voices, so he saved his questions for later, remembering the laughter and color of Loki's sjaund in stark contrast to Coulson's farewell.
Steve was the most forthcoming of his teammates - as a man similarly out of his depth, he was sympathetic to Thor's confusion on the issue, and was willing to spend the time it took to explain the rituals and rites of their world.
But there were some things that were the same, no matter the realm, which was why it was again a mystery to Thor when he found most of his shield-brothers (or his SHIELD-brothers, he assumed) huddled around a table in the kitchen, whispering heatedly.
Tony was leading the argument, his sarcasm setting the tone for the others, as it so often did. Bruce was listening quietly, but Steve was engaging Tony, their hushed disagreements nothing new, but always interesting to Thor.
"Men and women can be close without sex," Steve hissed, and Bruce nodded.
"Not men and women that look like them," Tony countered, and Thor cleared his throat.
"Of whom are we speaking?"
Bruce smiled warmly. "Natasha and Clint," he shrugged. "Who else? Tony thinks they're banging, Steve thinks they're friends. I don't care, but these two are hilarious when they're mad."
Thor nodded his head in agreement before choosing a chair and settling in. "Present your cases," he said.
"One, they're both hot," Tony offered. "Two, they're always wrestling and fighting and they're both hot. Three, they share a bed. Also, hotness."
Those were fair points, though Thor found himself amused at how simple-minded Tony could be; just because he considered Clint and Natasha to be attractive, just because he would have taken sexual advantage of such a relationship, he assumed that the others would, too. It was his way, but Thor still found it to be amusing.
Steve shrugged. "I just, I think they're too close for sex, you know? See, you have your best friends, and even if you have interlocking parts, you don't always want to use them. That's all. I think they're more highly evolved."
And there was the other side of the coin; while Tony ascribed his perversions to all humanity, so also did Steve lend his morality.
"They are neither friends nor lovers, and yet they are both," Thor offered, because it was as simple as that.
The others stared at him, uncomprehending Midgardian expressions painted across all three faces.
"Take, for example," Thor offered, "The Lady Sif and myself. I love her with the passion of a thousand burning forges, with the length of the bifrost and the fury of Dainsleif, and she swears her fealty to me and only me. We are more than either friends or lovers, though we could be counted as both. There is no word that I know, but it is a love deeper and more abiding than love itself."
Tony raised an eyebrow. "Does Jane know about this deep, abiding love you have for another woman?"
Thor shrugged. "My love for fair Sif has no bearing on my love for Lady Jane. Love is not an object to be held, it does not diminish as you give it. But in the case of Clint and Natasha, I would claim for them the same feelings that the Dark-Haired Daughter of Asgard and I share."
"So, they're doing it?"
Bruce sighed heavily, his head dropping to the table, but Thor just smiled. "That is their affair, and not mine."
"But if you had to guess?"
Thor smiled. "I would guess nothing, for I know that a relationship such as theirs is sacred, and beyond speculation."
"Totally doing it," Tony said.
"You're gross," Steve offered.
Bruce just smiled at Thor, who thought, fondly, that no matter what the spies did in their own time, they were blessed with friends who cared.
But for the record, and out of Tony's earshot, Thor was relatively sure he was right.
Pepper got weird relationships. She was dating a man who was, but most counts, an impossible asshole. And yet she loved him, and he loved her, and something in that allowed her to understand the push-pull of Thor and Loki, the ways in which Bruce and Steve could be good friends, and time she'd gotten a little tipsy with Maria Hill and had that chat about what Fury had "under his eyepatch" hadn't even been surprising. Not to Pepper.
All of that made sense.
But the Clint and Natasha thing, that was outside of even Pepper's comprehension.
Or at least, it had been, at first.
To be fair, Pepper had considered Natalie Rushman a friend of sorts. Maybe she wasn't going to ask Natalie to be her maid of honor, but Pepper thought of her assistant as the kind of woman she would have liked to get a drink with, one day, kick off their shoes and talk about reality TV or something.
Those plans had fallen through, as so many of Pepper's plans did.
Then again, not many of Pepper's plans fell through because it turned out that the woman she thought was her friend was actually a secret government spy sent to make sure Tony wasn't killing himself.
Okay, a few of her plans turned out that way. But not many.
So when Pepper had the chance to meet Natasha, the real Natasha, the woman behind the character she had felt so warm towards, she was excited. She was curious to see if Tony's assertions of Natasha's skill and cold-bloodedness were true, curious to see if their connection was germane or just a product of the character.
Pepper tried to spend time with Natasha, at first; she would seek her out when Natasha was at the tower, try to strike up conversations about photography or Japan, or any of the things she and Natalie had talked about.
Except, it became very clear very quickly, Natasha was not Natalie. They might have the same penchant for a good baked brie, they might both enjoy books written in languages Pepper couldn't decipher, they might even both be prone to kicking Tony's ass when he got out of line.
But past that, Natasha was quieter, her humor a little more reserved, her gestures of friendship less overt. And that had thrown Pepper for a really, really long time.
It wasn't until the team had all moved into the tower, when she and Natasha had time to observe each other (and Pepper imagined them like dogs, circling each other and sniffing in confusion) for her to understand.
It was a Sunday, three and a half days since the Avengers last assembled, and Pepper was in her office in the Tower, working on a report for the congressional committee that was riding her ass about Stark Industries turning over patents for weapons developed for defense contracts, or something. Definitely something.
The knock was so soft she didn't hear it at first, but it came again, slow but insistent, and Pepper pressed the fancy button Tony had given her, the one that made the doors open like science fiction. (And Pepper had to stop at that thought - her boyfriend had a robot suit and fought aliens. Doors were hardly the most impressive thing in her life.)
Natasha was on the other side, a smile quirking the side of her lips, and a bottle of wine in her hand.
"Hi," Pepper said, trying not to let the confusion seep into her voice.
Natasha took a step into the room. "I bought White Zinfandel."
Pepper smiled. "Then we should drink it."
Natasha crossed the room, and it occurred to Pepper that the way she moved was different from Natalie, even, the clipped efficient steps gave way to a grace that was almost superhuman.
"I'm--" Natasha set the bottle on Pepper's desk, and Pepper noticed that it wasn't a nice bottle -- it wasn't two-buck-chuck, but it had a twist-top in lieu of a cork -- and there were no glasses. As excuses to come into someone's office went, this one was a little flimsy. "I'm pretty sure I owe you an apology?" Natasha said, more a question than a statement.
Pepper furrowed her brow. "For what?"
"I usually don't have to see people again, after they find out who I'm-- well, who I'm not." Natasha sank into a chair, a move that, on any other person, could be called surrender.
"Oh," Pepper said.
"So I guess, it's a little bad that I lied," Natasha shrugged. "And I'm sorry I'm not-- we had a nice friendship, you and me, and I'd like to do that. If, you know, if you can get over it."
Pepper felt the smile tug on the corners of her lips. So that's what this was. Natasha's way of apologizing, of making amends.
"I'd like that," Pepper smiled. "Do you still like sushi?"
Natasha nodded. "I will always like sushi. And driving fast cars. Those things were true."
Pepper gave in to the laugh that bubbled up into her throat. It was weird, the idea of having to relearn a friend, the idea that this woman was so like, and so unlike Natalie.
"Tell me something else that's true," Pepper said, twisting open the wine and pouring some into a couple of coffee mugs that didn't seem to have any residue in the bottom. (Though that certainly couldn't hurt this wine, she was pretty sure it would only improve it.)
Natasha thought for a moment, and she didn't chew her lip the way Natalie had, but her eyes still rolled up to the left, like the answers were written on the corner of the room.
"Clint is my best friend," she said, and Pepper nodded.
"Happy is mine," Pepper said, taking a sip if the wine - which was free of coffee, but still not very good, all things considered.
"I think bubble baths are silly," Natasha offered. "And indulgent."
"You've never had a whirlpool in your bathroom," Pepper laughed. "Changes the whole scene."
Natasha laughed, thinly, and Pepper was happy to hear that the laugh hadn't changed, though it was harder won from Natasha than it had been from Natalie.
"I'm a really good liar," Natasha said. "Almost no one knows the whole truth about me."
Pepper shrugged. "No one knows the whole truth of anyone. It's your truth, not theirs."
Natasha seemed to think about that for a long moment, and the reality of her sentence settled in Pepper's mind. Almost no one. Not no one, there was a qualifier.
"Does Clint know the whole truth?"
Natasha ducked her head and nodded.
Pepper got it, then. The last piece clicked into place, and it was all she could do to keep the understanding off her face because she knew Natasha didn't want to see that.
Of course Clint knew everything. Pepper was willing to bet, hands and money on the table, that Clint was the one person Natasha never had to lie to - that he held her truth when she was being Natalie or Nancy or Black Widow, and helped her put Natasha back on when she was done.
It made the kind of sense that two international spy-assassins made; the kind of truth between them that was unsafe anywhere else - liars being truthful, but only to other liars.
Pepper poured more wine into her coffee mug. "I really like Caddy Shack," she said, sitting back in her chair. "But don't tell the magazines, I claim to like CEO-appropriate movies for them."
Natasha grinned, honestly, a smile that wasn't even a little scary, and took a sip of her wine, too. Pepper watched the muscles in her friend's hand as they relaxed, one by one. Now that she had cracked the whole Clint relationship, Pepper thought she might actually understand Natasha. Maybe. A little.
It was a nice feeling.
The world was cold, he thought, the kind of cold that sank into his bones and stayed there, waiting. The kind of cold that meant more than temperature, more than skin.
It was cold, and he was cold, and he'd rather sleep a thousand more years than be away now, here, with Steve and Natashenka and all the other memories that didn't make sense but were there clear as rain and burry like fog.
He was The Winter Soldier, and he was Bucky Barnes, and he was cold and he was so, so tired.
They gave him a blanket, in the med bay of their floating fortress, and he hugged it tight around his shoulders, waiting for Natashenka to appear at his side, the way she had before, every time she hurt him, to offer comfort and kisses, and he partook of both.
She didn't come for hours, days, cold eons of sleep that Bucky couldn't express in any of the languages he had in his head.
Steve came, and Steve read to him, the way he had when Bucky got the mumps, pages of story after story until Steve had succumbed, too, his face flushed pink from fever in the bed next to Bucky's.
(and was that real or was it just a lie)
She showed up every other day or so to say hello, to tell him about the world he had woken to. On the seventh day of Bucky's stay in the med bay - they had taken his arm, his lovely metal arm, and were poking and prodding at the pieces of him they could remove, Natashenka came to the room with her red hair like the fire of a thousand cities, the girl who would burn the world, burn him up from the inside out.
She stopped at his bed, brief words of sympathy, but no kisses, nothing of solace. Nothing he remembered too much of, would never know the whole of. She moved on quickly, that day, to a bed across the room, where the blond man Bucky remembered - the archer they had brought in the day before - was laid out, unconscious for the second day running.
Natashenka perched on the side of the archer's bed, light and deadly, and she took his hand in hers before raising it to her lips.
Bucky, whoever he was in his head, screwed his eyes shut. He knew what he was seeing, what this was. This was Natashenka in love. These were the same light touches and affectionate moments she had given him, three lifetimes, thirty years, or three days ago - it was all the same to a man who did nothing but sleep.
He had lost her love, then, and the archer had it.
Bucky screwed his eyes shut, pretending to be asleep until he heard her diamond-sharp footsteps leave the room.
The world was cold. His Natashenka, his dancing flame, was still burning. But not for him.
Across the room, unaffected by the winter cold that wad Bucky's blood now, the archer slept on.
When he got his arm back, he would leave this place, go out in the world and find a new warmth. (He would have preferred to stay, to have Natashenka at his side. But she loved the archer, and that was her right.)
Time would ease the pain, memory release the sorrow, like the snow concealing footprints in a mountain pass. He would keep moving, and let Natashenka be happy, with or without her Winter Soldier.