Steve and Bucky are the first two people Natasha has ever had a completed bond with, but she knows how they work. The alpha-beta-omega bond lends its participants very specific abilities in regard to each other. There's the empathic strains that come along with it, and the lateral "hierarchy" that they settle into, so as to know which partner is the best for handling certain issues. It's basic knowledge, taught to every schoolchild, even those educated in the Red Room.
Which is why it's kind of a surprise to find out that their bond isâ€¦well, different.
Natasha isn't going to claim she's comfortable with her nightmares, but they are familiar. They are hers. So it's immediately evident when she starts having ones that are not hers. At first she thinks the empathic bleed is causing the bizarre shift. But she has a startling level of empathy with Steve, more than she ever imagined possible, and it's not his nightmares she's getting. Oh, she hasn't asked Bucky, or anything, but she knows. They have a certain level of parity with her own that is hardly surprising, but more than a little unsettling.
She decides she needs to talk to Sam about it. Not just because Sam will listen and not freak out, but because, honestly, anyone who's a beta to Wanda's alpha has got to have experienced some weird shit. And if Sam fails her, she can hit up Pepper. Natasha refuses to believe that having Tony as your omegaâ€”even with Maria's settling influence as the betaâ€”doesn't cause strange crap to happen.
She'd ask Clint, but she's all too aware that even after the psychic break caused by Phil's deathâ€”and the work it took to fix it after TAHITIâ€”Clint, Phil, and Laura have one of the world's most stable and normal bonds. It'd be sickening if they didn't all deserve it so damn much.
She finds Sam sparring with Rhodey. The two are evenly matched, and it's a pleasure to watch. Wanda is lucky to have the both of them. Natasha's not jealous, not exactly, but they're both so even-keeled, so fundamentally stable, that, wellâ€¦it's just that she wonders, sometimes, what that might be like. Of course, Wanda probably needs all of that stability just to stay grounded, so it works out for the best.
When they finish up, they cross the room to her, and she smiles at Rhodey. "Mind if I borrow him for a bit?"
Rhodey shakes his head. "I need to have a chat with Steve and Vision anyway. He's all yours."
Sam towels himself down and takes a long swig of water before asking, "Everything all right?"
It goes against every instinct Natasha has not to prevaricate, but she forces the issue, because she came to Sam for help and he deserves better. "Have you ever heard of dream-sharing occurring through a bond?"
Sam considers her for a second. He asks slowly, "You mean, as in, being carried along on the emotions of one of the others having a dream?"
She shakes her head. "I mean what it sounds like. I mean seeing the other person's dream."
Sam's thrown. He's not showing it, exactly, but Natasha has learned to read his silences. He says, "Not off the top of my head, but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened."
This is true, it's not as if Sam knows everything about bonds, but he is more educated than most. He's got a license in counseling, and the classes he has to take every year to maintain the license require hours in bond management negotiation techniques.
Sam swallows. Hesitantly, he asks, "Is it with Steve?"
She just shakes her head again. Sam looks down at the floor before meeting her gaze. "Nat. What they did to him, to his brain? It's unprecedented and unaccounted for. It's not out of the realm of possibility that it's causing someâ€¦twists in the bond."
Quietly, she says, "What they did to Wanda is unprecedented and unaccounted for. But as far as I know your bond is settled and normal."
Sam winces, but tilts his head in agreement. "She was a willing participant. Things like that matter, especially when it comes to the psyche."
Of course they do. Natasha needs to run. Or fight. Something. "Do you think it's dangerous?"
Sam spreads his hands. "It could be. But breaking the bond's gotta be a million times more dangerous."
Natasha barely catches her flinch in time. "I wasn't going to suggest breaking it."
"Muting might be a possibility."
It's a sensible idea on Sam's part, and Natasha knows it. But something inside her twists in discomfort at the mere thought. "Maybe."
She must give something away, because he reaches out and squeezes her shoulder lightly. "Just keep an eye on it, okay? If things start, uh, unraveling, let me know."
She leans into his hand. "You're a good egg, Wilson."
Maria's in Pepper's office when Natasha drops by. She's only brought coffee for herself and Pepper, but Maria's coffee tastes are similar to Natasha's, so they end up passing Natasha's cup back and forth. Natasha gives a quick overview of the situation, very nearly verbatim to what she told Sam, and Pepper's first question is, "Have you talked with Sam about this?"
Natasha holds her hand out for the coffee cup. "He said it's not a thing."
Maria gives it back to her and asks, not unkindly, "Just out of curiosity, why were we on your list of people to talk to about this?"
"Because Tony," Pepper answers. If Natasha weren't stupidly in love with Captain Smart Ass, she'd probably have a Pepper problem. She might have a slight one even with the Captain thing.
Pepper shakes her head, "But no, I haven'tâ€”it's definitely not something we've experienced, and I can have JARVIS run a search, butâ€”"
Natasha makes a face. "I already did that." She fights the urge to shift uncomfortably. "There isn't even lore about it."
Maria and Pepper share a look. Maria is the one to say, "Natasha. He'sâ€”this probably isn't so much a bond thing as a Winter-Soldier-conditioning thing."
Natasha closes her eyes for a moment. When she opens them, she says, "I'm gonna go spar. With Thor, maybe."
She's halfway to the door when Pepper says, "Call. If there's something we can do."
Natasha nods, but doesn't turn around. What she needs right now is some space to not think.
Natasha wakes that night before Bucky, ripped out of the nightmare by a sudden sense of not belonging. She pushes at the bond, not bothering to be gentle, afraid that won't be enough to bring him up. As it is, she has the sense she just barely gets through. He wakes and she can practically feel his heart racing in the pulse at her throat.
It takes him a few seconds, and some serious concentration on her part, sending a humming vibe through the bond, something to help them both even out, but he calms. Steve is awake beside him, too light a sleeper to make it through all the movement. Bucky rasps out, "Thanks."
She shrugs. "Seemed like you needed it."
"No," he says slowly. "No, you knew I did."
"You were fussing," she lies.
"No," Steve and Bucky say in unison. They look at each other. Bucky repeats, "No, I wasn't."
Natasha runs a hand over her face. "I need a drink for this."
Steve rolls out of bed. "I will steal you whatever you want from Tony's stash."
"This is why my heart belongs to you," Natasha tells him. She means it more than she's comfortable with. "Scotch?"
"Sure, be right back."
Bucky contemplates the comforter for a long moment before deciding, "If you get to drink, I get candy bars."
"Only fair," she agrees. "Grab Steve a PayDay and a Mounds."
"Wow, seventy years and he still has the world's worst taste in candy bars." Bucky wanders off to the kitchen. Natasha snorts, but wraps her head around the fact that Bucky seemingly remembers Steve's taste in candy bars. That's a new memory, as far as she knows.
She gets off the bed, stretching, trying to shake out the residual tremors. By the time she walks into their living room area, Steve is back, and pouring a tumbler for her. She takes a sizable swallow and closes her eyes, concentrates on the burn of it. She doesn't want to be drunk, but she wants that slight disconnect that comes after a few glasses of wine, or a generous measure of good Scotch. Hence, her choice.
Bucky returns and tosses Steve the candy. Steve glances at Natasha, who smiles at him. Steve peels open the Mounds and takes a small bite, chewing slowly. Bucky's already halfway through a Skor, but he also has a regular mountain of candy bars waiting for him to devour.
Natasha seats herself on the couch, tucking her feet underneath her and taking another sip of the Scotch. Because it's already obvious, so a good place to start, she levels a look at Bucky and says, "I've been seeing your nightmares."
"Yeah," he says.
"I thoughtâ€”I thought maybe you were seeing mine, and we just weren't saying anything."
Bucky shakes his head slowly. "No."
Natasha takes another sip. "I've researched and, uh, talked with Sam, but there's nothing out there about this kind of bond alteration."
"What did Sam say?" Steve asks.
"That there's not much history for what was done to James' s mind. Which, I point out, is kind of true of what was done to you all over. And it's not like I'm still the unadulterated version of myself. So, honestly, this could be down to any combination of things."
Bucky looks doubtful. "If this had happened to your kind before, somewhere along the way, word would have gotten out. Not that you're not part of the equation, because obviously you are, but your part is a derivative of me and, possibly, Steve."
"I can assume you would have mentioned if this had happened with Peggy, right?" Natasha asks the question quietly, not crazy about having to ask in the first place.
"Yes," Steve says. "Before we bonded, for the record."
"I'm not mad." Natasha fixes Steve with a look. "I'm not."
"No." Bucky peels open another candy bar. "But you didn't sign up for this, either."
"With the exception of Steve, nobody in this room has done any signing the dotted line," Natasha points out.
There's a long moment of silence before Steve asks Natasha, "Does it hurt?"
She shakes her head. "No. I mean, itâ€”" She swallows. "It makes me want to kill everyone who's laid a finger on you," she finishes, looking at Bucky. "But it doesn't hurt."
He holds her gaze, says, "That's not what I need from you."
She's pretty sure he doesn't mean it to be deep, to be anything other than the statement it is, but it hits hard. Before Clint, and aside from him, most people in her life have only needed her for those skills. She takes another sip. "Then let me give you what you do need. See where it takes us."
Bucky tosses her a Green Mountain 70% Cocoa. She doesn't know how he knows it's one of her favorites, or even if he does. She smiles down at it. Steve says, "I like this plan."
Bucky can't remember the names of his mother, father, or sisters. He can't remember what wine tastes like, or if he's ever ridden a bike, or how it felt, having two flesh arms. But he can tell you every Major League Baseball rule from the early forties, and all the ones the League currently follows. Give him a team and he can tell you the statistics. He does a good job of commiserating with Steve about the desertion of the Dodgers, but Natasha has had him pegged as a pure fan of the game since the first moment she saw him watching one on the big screen Stark put in each of their common areas.
Baseball games at the stadium are a no go: too many sights and smells and sounds, any one of them a potential trigger, and Natasha and Steve might be good anchors, but there's good, and then there's deity-like, which is pretty much what they'd need to be for that. Not that Bucky has expressed any interest in trying. He's happy, so quietly, simply, beautifully happy, watching it on the big screen, some new snack he's trying out on the corner table.
Natasha enjoys curling up with him at those times, half-listening to the rumble of commentary he keeps going right up until he's on the edge of his seat over a play, when he goes still, and Natasha can feel the anticipation in her bones and muscles, sweet and thick like honey.
It's in the middle of an Astros versus Rockies gameâ€”Bucky hasn't got a horse in the race, but he seems to be rooting for the Rockies, to all evidence because they suck slightly moreâ€”when he takes the seventh inning stretch to say, "It's not fair to you."
One of their rules, unspoken, but hard and fast nonetheless, is that they don't play games with each other. It's why Natasha neither deflects nor pretends innocence. "If you're saying that because you don't like that I can see what's yours, then let's talk. If you're saying that because you somehow think it bothers me that I get another part of you, go back to watching your game."
The Astros hit a fly ball into left field and the Rockies catch it, ending the inning. The game goes to commercial and Bucky says, slowly, like he's thinking about the words even as he says them, "You know Steve would still hold the bond with you if you were to tell him you wanted nothing to do with me."
Natasha just barely catches herself before flinching. She's never met Peggy Carter. Steve's offered, but when it comes right down to it, Natasha's never been able, certain if she meets the woman she's the secondhand replacement for, the lies she's woven for herself will come to a sudden, and very painful halt. But just because she has this sheer screen between her well-constructed lies and reality doesn't mean she has no idea what reality is. Even if Natasha hadn't been indoctrinated by the Red Room about Peggy being All-American Evilâ€”a status given only to the best of the bestâ€”she's been SHIELD for most of her adult life. She knows the stories. She knows the legend. She knows what Steve gave up to go into the ice for Bucky, and it wasn't a redeemed assassin with training in everything except how to be a human. She says none of this, going with, "Of course he would. He's Steve."
Bucky turns the game off, the flicker of the quieting TV almost a snap in the silence between them. "No, Natasha, that's notâ€”his savior complex has nothing to do with this."
Natasha would dismiss the statement out of hand, except for his acknowledgment that, yeah, there are reasons why she might believe that of Steve. Still, the fact is, "Alphas and omegas do better with a beta."
"Of course we do, but that doesn't mean we can't get by without one. If Peg hadn't come along, Steve and I would've made our way, just the two of us. And if you think for one second that we'd replace her just to have that third piece, then youâ€”" Bucky shakes his head. "Well, for one thing, you don't understand how wrong we'd feel, all the time, every day. How it would hurt."
"You don't rememberâ€”"
"Not the specifics," he cuts her off. "No. I can't remember what her laughter sounded like, or the color of her hair, or what I liked to call her orâ€”" He breathes heavily for a moment. "So much of what matters, I don't. You're right. But I remember what it felt like. The three of us, how itâ€¦fit. And I know damn well it isn't some close second with you. It isn't a substitute, or something to hold onto because there's nothing better."
She swallows. She doesn't really want to say what she's thinking, but she has to, because there's no way past this, no way other than through. "Maybe not for you. Maybe not after they took and took and took. Maybe it would be the same with anyone with enough soul left to make sure they didn't break you anymore. But it's not the same for him."
He doesn't immediately discount her argument. Instead he asks, "Have you ever thought that maybe it's the other way around? Maybe you're the only person I could let do this anymore; you and him?"
"Maybe." He looks a little sallow as he says it, as though even the thought hurts. It shocks her into silence, in any case, which gives him enough time to say, "I loved her, Nat. I remember that, the way I remember Steve. In my bones, beneath everything. I still do, in that way where there's been very little time lapse for me, no break that can be healed over with time and a certain amount of scar tissue.
"But she had a life. Her, and her bright-eyed alpha Angie, her dark-eyed omega Daniel, and all their beautiful, sweet, happy little children."
Natasha blinks. Bucky smiles, of a sort, a sharp-edged tipping of his lips. "You and Steve weren't going to tell me, but JARVIS and his internet had no such issues."
"We were," she corrects. "Steve just wanted to wait until things were clearer, until it might not get messed up with other memories, make things worse."
Bucky shrugs, seeming to accept this. "My point is, the woman I loved, who loved me back, that isn't the woman she would have been, even without the illness. I'm not saying she doesn't still love me, in her way, but I doubt it's the way I need, not anymore."
"And I am," Natasha says flatly. "What you need."
He shakes his head again. "I don't know. I don't know what I need, Natasha. I don't know ifâ€¦sometimes I think I'm beyond needing."
She hears the uptick in his words, even without the frisson of unspoken that passes between the bond, she can hear he's not done. "But?"
"But I want you. I want you like I can only ever remember wanting Steve and Peg."
"I hate that you think my nightmares are all you can have of me. That you'll hold to them because you're not willing to ask for more. Because you think we're like everything and everyone else who's needed you for something, that the second it's easier to push you away we won't even look to see if you've fallen."
"It's not like that," she tells him, mostly sure it's not. "It's not personal."
"Maybe not for you."
"I hate it because I want to give you good dreams."
She startles at the fierceness of the declaration. She supposes it's part of what he's been trying to say all along, but it still feels sudden and impossible to understand. "Iâ€”"
"I hate it because it makes me want to give you up, give you the chance for something better. There's nothing I want beyond you and him, nothing, and the only thing I have for you is fear and darkness and pain."
She takes a shaky breath. "And the part where you want me."
It's her turn to shake her head. "If I get to keep the parts of you you don't want to give, I guess you have to keep those parts of me as well. Desperation is ugly, but most of what I have is. If you really want meâ€”"
His hands are on her face, then, cupping gently, but pulling her insistently toward him. "Tasha," he breathes, right before their lips meet, and it's easy, so dangerously, unbelievably easy to fit her lips to hers, to pull the broken edges of their bonds together. It's not an exact fit, it never is, and both of them can feel the places where the bond is worn, but to Natasha it feels right that way, at least in the moment. It's different when Steve's there, like he can patch over the worst of the fraying, or like the three of them together make that happen. Natasha loves that part, too, but this, this space where the worst of her is met by something that doesn't seem so far off, and the pieces don't break each other more, don't hurt? It's something she's never expected, and she doesn't know how she'll manage to give it up, if the time comes when she has to. When.
Whether because of the shared empathy, or because he's Steve, Steve figures Natasha out much more quickly than she's ready for, giving her nowhere near enough time to prepare half-truths, ways to charm him out of pursuing what he needs to know. It doesn't help that she's tired. It's a rare night when neither she nor Bucky has a nightmare, and while she can fall back asleep after hers, Bucky's are a toss-up: it depends on what the precise feature of the nightmare was about.
Steve tricks her, invites her to spar with him, and when they're facing each other, weaving and bobbing, kicking and punching, he says, "There's always been thisâ€¦thing, this tug in the wrong direction in the bond with you."
"Thanks, I guess," she says, forcing her focus into the fight, into the physical pain of him getting a hit in, because it's easier, so much easier, than talking about this.
"I thought it was me. That I justâ€¦wasn't what you really needed."
That stops Natasha cold. So much so that Steve ends up landing a punch that has her on the ground, dazed. She blinks several times while he kneels over her, and she can feel his anxiety through the bond, but he's just holding one of her hands in both of his, breathing deeply, as if trying to get her to. He says, "Sorry."
She shakes her head. "You are not the problem here, Steve."
"Bucky says you think you're a consolation prize." The admission is soft.
She sits up and, after a second, moves so that she's curled into his side. She wonders if it makes her weak, the way she feels better when she's close to him, when the bond is a contented hum, despite neither of them being particularly happy. He stays silent, waiting, and eventually she says, "Well. I'm no Peggy Carter."
"No," Steve says slowly. "I didn't want another Peggy. I didn't think I wanted anything untilâ€”until I started realizing you were one of the only things keeping me breathing in this century."
Natasha frowns. "I mostly just made fun of you."
"You treated me like I was a person," Steve argues. Then, pushing at her slightly so that they're facing each other, he says, "You didn't see me rushing out to find us an omega, did you?"
Natasha looks down at her knees. "You've got Bucky, now."
"That's not evenâ€”Yeah. I do. And I need both of you."
The thing that constantly amazes her about Steve is that he gives almost nothing of himself to the world, and holds almost nothing back from her. She doesn't understand what she's done to deserve that, doesn't think she's done anything other than gotten lucky while not paying attention. She can't say, "I need you more."
She tries, but fear and loss well up in her throat instead, until she's barely breathing. Steve pulls her onto his lap and kisses her, gentle and intent. He keeps kissing her, and eventually the knot in her throat lessens, her heartbeat evens out. He says, "You can try and make me let go all you want. There are some fights I can't afford to lose."
She tucks her forehead against his shoulder, closing her eyes. She's so tired of fighting.
Sharon asks her to come out to Langley, makes it sound like a professional request, but when Natasha arrives Sharon asks, "Coffee?"
It's a nice day, so they take a walk with their respective drinks. Sharon's holding hers just a touch too tightly for her to be as relaxed as she mostly seems. Natasha's just about to use some of her more benign interrogation techniques when Sharon starts. "Aunt Peggy says since you won't come to her, she supposes she'll have to send a messenger."
Natasha doesn't wince, but it's a close thing. "I canâ€”"
Sharon shakes her head. "She gets it. Says she's not sure she'd want to see you, were the situation reversed."
Natasha's not sure she believes that, but she appreciates the kindness of it. Sharon takes a sip before continuing. "She says that the problem with the type of love affairs that end up in the story books is that people think that's it, that you're all tapped out of love after one shot."
Natasha looks over at Sharon. Sharon must see something in her expression, because she shrugs. "I guessâ€¦" She smiles slightly. "My Aunt Angie, she was a Broadway actress, you know? She was never one of the big names, but she was well respected in the community, had fans, was even nominated for a Tony once.
"I used to go to her shows sometimes. We'd leave from her dressing room and there would still be fans waiting to get her signature, in the later years, maybe a picture. She was glamorous. And Uncle Danny, he was so steady, and kind, and he always, always knew the right thing to say. The point is, they were both fantastic, completely, and when I was a kid, I thought everything between them was perfect, like magic."
"And then you grew up," Natasha says softly.
"And then I grew up," Sharon agrees. "And I saw all the ways that Angie and Danny worried that they were just second-hand replacements for Steve and Bucky. I saw the ways Aunt Peg would try her hardest to make sure those moments of doubt never lasted, butâ€”but they always came back. And I think, if she could have had one thing different in her relationship with them, just one thing, it would have been to erase that doubt."
Natasha takes a sip of her coffee and considers this. "Your aunt was a Broadway actress, and your uncle was an officer of the law. I'mâ€”"
"An Avenger," Sharon cuts in. Natasha glances over at her. Sharon shakes her head, sharply. "Close or not, I've known you a long time. You're a hard read, and you've done terrible things, and your version of fun doesn't always match up with the average Joe. So what? You care harder than anyone in the world, you're smart and funny and you make a fucking delicious babka."
"Yeah, the babka really makes up for all the murdering."
"You've paid your debt, you just can't see it. You've paid it in blood, and fear, and a million small orders followed that you didn't want to follow. You've paid it in time and service and probably a few things I don't want to know about or mention. They can see it. And they have enough love in them to love what they see, just like my Aunt Peggy did. She never stopped loving the two of them. Iâ€”I'm not sure, but I don't think love works like that. But her love for my Aunt and Uncle was different, and it was a power to be reckoned with, Natasha."
Natasha swallows the last of her coffee. "Your aunt generally know what she's talking about?"
Sharon sighs. "She has an annoying habit of always being right."
Natasha pulls herself and Bucky out of one of his nightmares two nights later. Bucky's a mess, chilled to the touch despite being in bed with them, shocky, and only somewhat responsive to Steve's careful questions. Natasha gets out of bed and makes them all tea, because if she doesn't have something to do with her hands, she's going to hit something.
She's listening to the water start to bubble, trying to use the sound to slow her heart, when it occurs to her that she should be in there. She should never have left in the first place. If she were a real beta, something grown into instead of crafted, she wouldn't have the instinct to run first, to stitch herself tightly together before she sets to mending them.
She turns to go back, to try and be the beta she wishes she were, but the tea starts whistling and she hesitates, her eyes straying to the kettle.
From behind her, Bucky says, "Sometimes, you still think the way they taught you to."
She whirls around, not used to being surprised, not even by him. Her heart ratchets up again. He's not quite solid on his feet, but he's standing on his own. Steve is a little behind him, watching them. She casts her gaze to him, looking for rescue.
Steve holds her gaze for a moment, then looks at Bucky. He says, "You can't open with that and then leave it there, Buck."
The tea kettle whistles, and Natasha feels jumpy, too big for her skin, too small for the room. She turns the stove off, pours the water equally between three cups and puts the strainers in each of them. Bucky takes it easy on her, talking while her back is to him. Softy, he says, "They tell us there are roles, that things are defined, immutable."
She turns so that he can see her profile and nods the slightest bit for him to go on. He leans against the doorway. "Nothing else they told us was true, Natasha. Why should this one thing be? Why do you always have to be the strong one? What fucking sense does that even make?"
She raises an eyebrow. "And everything you believe makes sense?"
His smile is shaky, but it appears. "We make a good trio for a reason. You think Captain Red, White and Blue back there has his shit together?"
"Everything's relative," Steve says dryly.
Natasha's laughter chokes her, and she feels her eyes burn. Before she knows what has happened, both of them are there, surrounding her, and she should feel trapped, she should, but mostly she just wants to cling, to breathe them in and hold them in her lungs. Her heart.
Steve says, "Let us, Tash, c'mon. Let us."
Bucky says, "Why do you always get to be the bulwark? Why?"
Laughter that's at least part tears bubbles up again, and her nails sink into the flesh of Bucky's right arm, but he doesn't flinch, doesn't pull away. "Because I love you," she says, the words burning three times as much as the tears. "And I don't know how else toâ€”I don't knowâ€”"
"Then don't," Steve says. "Neither of us does all the time, either. You don't blame us for that."
It's different, it's so different, but she knows there's no rational reason for that. Bucky kisses the top of her head. "Steve's saying we love you too. That'sâ€¦that's probably important."
Probably, she thinks, the word too big for her throat, a sob of its own. All she can manage is a helpless, unintentional, "Why?" And she hates that, hates that they're the only people in the world who can make her say things she would rather keep silent. But she doesn't hate them, and that's perhaps the worst part.
Bucky doesn't even hesitate to say, "Because you're brave and warm."
Steve says, "Because you make everything make sense, even when you don't see it."
Natasha blinks. She doesn't know what she expected, but neither of those answers were it. "Oh."
Bucky murmurs, "Now that you've been my hero once tonight, can I maybe be yours for a bit? Cuddle you back to sleep?"
"Tea first," she mumbles, feeling drained in the wake of the conversation, the nightmare preceding it.
"Yes ma'am," Steve says. She feels his smile down to her toes.