they had already abandoned those traditional roles to create ones drawn loosely along lines from ages past. Roles and relationships forged in blood and dependence, in comradeship and battle. A form of love if one chose to look at it that way. But love as defined by older standards. Standards that modern society had forgotten how to measure and primitive society had never used when referring to male and female...
Yet how could he ever explain... That love and friendship had merged with comradeship and oath-bound duty to form a new creation that - for lack of a better word - he called partner?
~Found by Wintersong
It's Steve (of course it's Steve) who ends up... not cornering him, because Clint really doesn't think he sought him out to deliberately ask the question, but Steve's the one who brings it up. Nat's already gone to her room, armed with the round of the painkillers Banner had pressed on her and a singular intention to have a long hot shower followed by eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. It's her usual routine and Clint knows when he's supposed to step in to play his part (not for another hour yet, at least.)
Steve's still wandering around the common floor because he doesn't sleep much these days. He jokes about being through with naps and having had enough sleep for several lifetimes but several of them suspect the truth is he's afraid of what will happen when he wakes up. If he'll lose more time, more people, more of his already mixed-up life. Since it doesn't seem to be affecting his field performance, they've all let it slide by mutual, unspoken consent.
He gets pensive though. Everyone also knows that sticking around after about eleven p.m. opens you up to the possibility of all kinds of deep, probing questions about life, the universe, and all the things he's still trying to figure out. You might end up trying to explain the differences between Star Wars and Star Trek, or you might end up at a loss trying to help him work through the horror of the Vietnam War.
Tonight, his questions hit a lot closer to home.
That makes it easier to find answers for him, and harder to give him the answers he wants. Because he wants honesty, but there's an answer he's predisposed to expect and he mistakes that for truth, like so many people do.
"How can you stand it?" is the question that he asks Clint.
They're both facing the windows - the glass walls reflect back their ghosts. Clint doesn't have to turn around to see the expression on Steve's face or the set of his shoulders as he mirrors Clint's stance - feet hip distance apart, arms loose, hands in his pockets because that's less formal than behind the back at parade rest. Military trying not to be military anymore, that's them.
"Watching... her. Them. When she-"
Ah. Clint thinks, zeroing in on Steve's meaning. He'd protested that part of the plan earlier and Clint and Natasha had both shut him down. The seduction angle played better, and had the least chance for loss of life, so they'd run with it. They'd been in agreement about it and Steve had been on the verge of real anger and Clint doubts it was because they'd bucked his attempt at authority.
"You expect me to be jealous, don't you?"
Steve's eyes widen. "Of course I do. We're not blind, we all know the two of you are together. I've seen the way-" he hesitates, like he's wondering how much to admit to. "Sometimes, I catch you looking at her, once I saw her looking at you, and I saw the way she was during... Loki. That. I mean- sorry," he finally manages, because except for Tony (who always pokes the elephant in the room) Clint's time with Loki isn't discussed by anyone.
"Don't apologize, Captain. You're not wrong about us. Except that you are." He'd learned cryptic from the best, after all. "Watching her work doesn't bother me."
"You love her." Steve states flatly. "And don't try to deny it, or explain it away like Natasha did when he threw it in her face. I know you do, because I can see it. I'm not blind, and despite what Tony likes to imply, I'm not stupid."
There are moments in Clint's life when he realizes that the way he normally does things won't work. It's not some kind of change-your-ways epiphany, it's just a sense that in this one instance, this one time, the accepted way of doing things is the wrong way and to get the job done he needs to do what is entirely uncharacteristic, even inadvisable. He had one of those moments in a hotel in Paris when he came face to face with a haunted woman who was going to let him pull the trigger, and he's having a similar moment now.
He's never regretted that day in Paris, and he hopes he won't regret this.
"Cap, love is the wrong word. You think we don't use it because we're scared to? Like it's some 'final line' we haven't been willing to cross that will make it all 'real'?"
Steve doesn't speak, but his face says yes, that's exactly what he's thinking.
"That's not it at all. We don't call it love because that's the wrong word. It's the wrong shape for this thing between us. People talk about holding each others hearts. She doesn't have my heart, Captain. She has my soul. And I willingly gave it to her."
Natasha might not approve. Well, there's no "might not". She wouldn't. He doesn't even say this stuff to her even though they both know it's true. He struggles for a minute with why he feels the need to tell him, and finally settles on a cold, hard truth.
They've accepted this team, this job, this new life. Steve is their defacto leader and he needs to know all the information to make the best decisions. If it ever comes to the point that he has to ask one of them to make a sacrificial play, he needs to know where their limits and loyalties lie, what he can and cannot ask of them.
"If this is supposed to explain why you're not jealous..." Steve starts again, clearly uncomfortable with the direction the conversation is taking.
It's frustrating, trying to figure out a way to explain someone as intricate as Natasha, something as complex as 'them'. "If you had any idea how long it took me to get her to open up, you wouldn't- hell. That's a different her out there, when she's with a mark. She's someone else when she works, that's how they trained her to do it. She doesn't view sex the way that you do, or the way that most people do. It's no different than the actions involved in picking a lock or firing a gun. People hold up sex as some kind of holy grail because they associate it with intimacy and vulnerability, and for her, neither one is involved. She's got so many layers of armor between her and a mark she's better protected with her clothes off than on.
"It took years for me to get through all of that, to find 'Tasha, underneath. No one else has the parts of her that I have, so what should I feel threatened about? You wouldn't expect me to be jealous of a guy when she's shaking his hand or cutting his throat. Why this?"
Steve doesn't have an answer, or at least not one he's willing to share, and the silence lingers between them.
She slips out of the shadows off to his side a few minutes after Steve leaves. Her face appears over Clint's shoulder and her arms slip around him, one around his waist, the other across his chest.
"Your soul?" she asks with just the slightest upward turn to her mouth.
"All yours," he replies. "But you knew that."