He’d been here like this once before – Budapest, when they had gone over a cliff together while in the middle of a car chase. His grappling hook had saved him that time, too (“you said you wouldn’t need it, right?” Natasha had asked him smugly when they were rescued and not hanging over death’s door; she was the one who had suggested he add it to his arsenal years ago) but he’d been able to hold on, to keep her steady through some miraculous feat of strength and luck. They had survived. They had done this before, they could do it again.
“Let me go.”
He knows that look. He’s seen that look before, the resigned emotion that she’d never let anyone else see, and he knows where her brain is going. Hell, he’d known from the moment they started arguing on this fucking rock.
He fights for control, he fights to keep her in his hold even as he feels her slipping away. She’d be laughing, if the situation was any different. She’d always called him the better fighter, the better tactician, putting down her skills in favor of his own hard-won abilities. She’d learned how to be an assassin, she’d told him on more than one occasion. She’d trained to be the best in the world, and that mattered. But the things she’d learned came from being made, and it meant nothing when it came to Clint’s smarts and quickly timed instincts, the ones that came from years of surviving in an unforgiving world, mostly by himself. He’d taken her compliments in stride, accepted them because no one had ever truly believed that about him before, but he never really bought into it. Natasha was the Black Widow for a reason, and apparently that reason was being fast enough to hijack his own goddamn weapon because she thought she could save his life. Well, he wasn’t going to have it.
Not today, Satan.
“Let me go,” she repeats, and he doesn’t know whether the cold water on his face is from the unforgiving wind of the planet or his own tears. Gritting his teeth, he manages to focus on the way her body is twisting and moving, a little more forcefully than she would be moving if she was just hanging. She’d bested him, just barely, because she got lucky – because she knew him well.
But he knows her better.
Goddamn it, you pain in the ass. I didn’t come all the way to space to watch you die.
When she uses her legs to propel herself off the cliffside – to intentionally break his hold and launch herself out of his grip – he twists with her, managing to dislodge the grappling hook from the rock its embedded in. It takes her a second that feels like an moment to realize what’s happening, that she’s not just falling but that they’re falling together, and he sees when it hits, the surprise and pain clearly evident as her braided hair flings across her face.
“You’re a pain in my ass,” she whispers, tears leaking from her eyes, and he pulls her head into his chest as if he can shield her from the inevitable.
He knows the ground is coming up to meet him – death has never treated him kindly when he’s been close to it; he’s never expected to get anything slow and calm and maybe that’s a good thing – but the fall still feels like minutes instead of seconds, like they’re falling into an endless void.
He doesn’t feel himself die.
The first thing he notices is deafening silence.
Whereas he’d blacked out to the rushing wind of a fall, the scrapes and clangs of assassin tools against hard rock, his ears are now just filled with quiet. He experimentally moves his legs, noticing for the first time that they’re wet, the soft movement of water filling his senses Clint sits up, confused and dazed, taking stock of his uniform which is heavy and water-logged. Almost immediately, everything comes rushing back to him.
He yells out her name, aware that it’s going to do no good, because she’d fallen. She’d died. But…he’d died too, hadn’t he? He’d fallen with her. That hadn’t been a dream, he had broken the hook of his grappling arrow to show for it and he can see its frayed edges when he checks his utility belt. So what the fuck?
“Clint, son of Edith.”
Clint turns, noticing the Red Skull floating a few yards away. In an instant, all of his anger returns, and he scrambles to find a foothold in the shallow water, getting up and sprinting angrily towards the cloaked figure.
“What the hell did you do!” he bellows, his voice echoing across the empty terrain. “This was supposed to – what the hell happened, you spineless piece of shit? She died for nothing!”
“Clint Barton,” Red Skull repeats, not moving even as Clint gets dangerously close to where he’s positioned. “Open your hand.”
He stops in his tracks, nearly falling over, and for the first time he realizes his palm has been tightly closed. Shaking, he opens his fist, surprised to see that there’s a glowing orange stone in his palm – but one that looks like it’s been halved in two. Clint stares at it, his anger momentarily subdued.
“I don’t understand.”
“As I do not, either,” the Red Skull answers. “The rules are simple – a soul for a soul. An irreversible, binding exchange for that which you love most. But what you have done, I have never seen the likes of before. Never before has a double sacrifice been made on my watch. Never before has the stone been able to willingly split itself in two, the way it has for you.”
Split itself in two. Clint stares down at the stone in his hand, trying to register the Red Skull’s words. He has half a mind not to believe him, but the guy hadn’t been fucking around about the death thing earlier and if he was here with half a stone that meant – that meant –
Clint closes his fingers around the stone again and takes off, this time back in the direction he came from. “Nat!” His voice rips from his throat, raw and shrill, and he frantically looks around trying to find where she might have fallen. Come on, come on, come on….please. “Tasha! Natasha!”
He sees her when he turns. She’s sitting up in the water not far from where he’d woken up, her eyes red and wet, her hair a tangled mess of red and blonde. She opens her own palm, staring down at the stone, and then stares up at him in confusion.
“Nat.” He beelines towards her, falling forward as he grabs her shoulders. “Oh my god, Nat.” His body is shaking with uncontrolled sobs, the stone still tightly clutched between his fingers, and he buries his face in her hair, kissing her forehead – anything he can do to prove to himself that somehow, by some miracle, she was alive.
They both were.
On the Benatar, worn out and broken down by exhaustion and grief and fear, they sit together with her head resting on his shoulder and his arm wrapped around her waist, the two broken stones laid out before them, glowing brightly in the dark ship. He tells her what the Red Skull had said: a soul for a soul, but this time, there was a difference. This time, there were two souls, marking two sacrifices. Natasha raises her head and smiles a watery smile.
“So does this mean we’re soulmates now?”
“What, me trying to die for you didn’t prove that enough?” Clint asks tiredly, trying to joke. Natasha buries her head against his chest, her gaze focused on the stone.
“It won’t work if it’s broken,” she says quietly. “We have to put them back together, or this was all for nothing. You know that.”
He nods, because yeah, he knows. He doesn’t like it, but he knows.
“I don’t know what will happen when we do put them back,” she continues, her voice clearly terrified. Clint moves so that she’s forced to lift her head, so he can meet her eyes.
“Do you trust me?”
Natasha swallows and bites down on her lip. “Yes.”
He takes her hand and entwines their fingers, keeping them clasped as he moves the stones together, edging them towards each other. The moment they’re close enough, the stones snap together like a magnetic connection, a bright light sparking into existence before extinguishing. When it does, the stone is glowing whole again.
Clint waits a few moments to make sure nothing else is going to happen, and then looks over at Natasha. “You feel that?”
Natasha nods. “Yeah,” she murmurs. “I do.” As if to test her theory, she moves her knee, slamming it into one of the nearby cargo holds. He grits his teeth as pain reverberates through his worn body, and she grimaces in tandem as she struggles to remain upright. “I guess it’s official - you’ve got half my soul, and I’ve got half of yours. Forever.”
“Forever,” Clint echoes softly. He brings her hand to his lips, kissing her bruised knuckles, and lets a tear fall from his eyes. “We’re forever.”
He’d been ready to die, to sacrifice his life for her and for the world, but now he was going to live. He was going to live, and so was she.
And if they were going to live, he could live with forever.