“I want it off. Now.”
Melinda May looked up from the book she was reading — her one moment of free time in what seemed like a month; she knew it had been too good to be true — to see a redheaded assassin scowling at her, hands on her hips and eyes practically shooting daggers. May glanced around to see if Phil was anywhere near, wondering why he couldn’t be the one dealing with this, but they appeared to be alone. Even Skye, who had been fiddling with the holotable just five minutes ago, had managed to disappear.
May sighed. “You want what off?”
Natasha shoved her left arm, palm up, toward May, the index finger of her right hand pointing at the small identifiable mark on her left wrist.
“This,” she practically hissed. “I want it off.”
May went back to her book. “You get you can’t actually get rid of a soul mark, right, Romanoff? I know you’re not that stupid.”
“No,” Natasha said. If May hadn’t known she could take her, she probably would have feared the icy edge she heard in the other woman’s voice. Instead, she flipped the page of her book. Natasha was not deterred.
“We have run-ins with magic,” she argued. “We hang out with gods, for fuck sake. We stopped an alien invasion of New York. We’re trying to search for an obelisk that can kill people. There has to be a way to remove this. I don’t want it.”
May glanced up. “There’s not.”
“There has to be.”
Natasha opened her mouth to say something else, but May held her hand up. “Go talk to Maria. Figure it out.”
“I don’t want to talk to Maria.”
“Not my problem. Leave me alone.” May flipped another page, and waited until she heard Natasha walk away. She had half a mind to tell her she was acting like a five-year-old, but that would mean getting involved and that was the last thing she needed.
“She is being insufferable.” Maria huffed, picking up a drink and passing a second one to May. “You’d think I handed her over to Hydra and told them to experiment on her with the way she’s glaring at me every time I happen to so much as breathe in her direction.”
“Just talk to her,” May said.
“I’ve tried. She doesn’t want to listen.”
“She’s your soulmate. And you still have higher rank than her. You can make her listen.”
“I’m not going to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do. It’s just going to make this worse.”
May reached over and patted her friend’s hand. “Natasha doesn’t do feelings. At least not very well. You know if you want to fix this, you’re going to have to initiate it.”
“Hmmphh.” Maria made a very inelegant noise before sighing. “I think I almost preferred when she’d just stare at me and pretend everything was alright. Why can’t we go back to that?”
“Because it was very uncomfortable for the rest of us,” May answered. “And indifference can only last so long. Even hers.”
“It was so much simpler, though.”
“Because you could pretend she wasn’t mad at you?”
“Because I could pretend she trusted me.”
“Agent May, please sit down.”
“Oh, no.” May shook her head at Phil’s pleasantly smiling face. “I know that look. You want me to do something you know I’m not going to want to do.”
“Do I ever make you do anything you don’t want to do?”
“Well, then, you should be used to it.” Phil smiled wider. May sighed.
“Let me guess,” she said. “Romanoff and Hill?”
“Those two are worse than Morse and Simmons used to be. At least Bobbi and Jemma managed to keep working while they argued. Yesterday, Romanoff flat out refused to go on a mission if she had to take an order from Hill.”
“You could just fire her.”
Phil frowned. “If you haven’t noticed, we’re a little short on people. Natasha is the best. I just need her to be a little more focused on taking out Hydra and a little less focused on being mad at Hill.”
“To be fair, Sir,” May said, “You did spend a lot of years trying to encourage her to be more normal and embrace her emotions. I think this counts.”
“Hmmm, yes, I did.” Phil pressed a finger to his lips. “That’s a decision I am truly regretting right about now.”
“I’m guessing there is a plan for how you want me to fix this?”
Phil’s grin came back. “Why, yes, there is. You helped Morse and Simmons. Look at them now. They’re like a dream team.”
“They were easier to fix.”
“Use them as examples. You know Simmons is always eager to help, and she idolizes Romanoff. It’ll be fine.”
“It sounds like a bad idea to me.”
“Well, make sure it becomes a good one.”
“I thought SHIELD-mandated psychiatric sessions were over now that there really isn’t a SHIELD,” Natasha grumbled for the tenth time since May had told her what was going to happen, but she made her way across the room and sank down on to one of the chairs that May had arranged in the middle of the empty training room.
Maria shot her soulmate a look as she went to take the seat beside her. “You never even went to any of the sessions you were required to go to.”
Natasha shrugged. “I still thought they were over.”
The three of them drifted into silence. May watched as Maria leaned slightly toward Natasha, but as soon as she did, Natasha shifted over to avoid her.
A few minutes later, the door to the room opened and two other agents entered, the exact opposite of the two already there. Instead of being cold and distant, Bobbi and Jemma were hand in hand, all smiles, knocking playfully into each other as they walked.
“Sorry we’re late,” Bobbi said.
“Did we miss any fun?” Jemma asked.
“This is not going to be fun,” Natasha muttered.
“Oh, sure, it is,” Jemma said. “Reliving old times, like how we first met.”
“Like when you thought I was evil,” Bobbi said.
Jemma frowned. “I didn’t think you were evil. I thought you were Hydra!”
“Is that not the same thing?”
“Okay,” May said, interrupting them. “Just sit. Let’s get started.”
“Great,” Jemma said. “I want to hear how Natasha and Maria met.”
Natasha crossed her arms and scowled. “I’m not telling any stories,” she said.
[Ten years earlier]
“It’s about this.” He slid something across the wooden desk toward her. She picked it up. She’d seen it before. It was a close-up photo of a young girl, bright red hair, green eyes. Natalia Romanova, the KGB’s deadliest assassin. She was responsible for the deaths of hundreds, including a few assets SHIELD had been trying to protect, all by the age of twenty.
“We’re still tracking her, Sir,” Maria said. “We’ve narrowed her location to a general area. I’ve got people on it night and day.”
“That’s not what this is about,” Fury interrupted.
“It’s about this.” He slid another photo across the desk. It was of Romanova again, but this time the picture was a full-body shot. She was obviously at a party. She had a black strapless evening gown on, and she was standing with a man in a dark suit. Her left hand was touching his cheek. On her wrist, Maria could see a dark spot.
Fury slid over one more photo. Maria knew what it was going to be even before she picked it up, and dread settled in her stomach. Her fingers shook as she reached for the picture, and the mark on her own wrist burned, like it knew.
It was a close-up photo of the mark on Romanova’s wrist, and it only took a half-second glance for Maria to confirm what she already feared: the mark on her wrist was a perfect match for the one on Maria’s.
Natalia Romanova was her soulmate.
“That’s a little romantic,” Jemma said when Maria stopped talking.
Maria snorted. “That isn’t exactly how I would have described it.”
“Problematic is what it is,” Natasha said. Her arms were crossed and she was staring at the far wall, pretending she wasn’t paying any attention. “It always has been.”
“But it all worked out,” Jemma said cheerfully. “Like Bobbi and me.”
“How did that go?” Maria said, glancing at Natasha and then May as she asked. “May, you said they had some issues?”
May nodded at Jemma, who grinned.
“Oh, yes!” she said. “Did we have issues!”
“That’s an understatement,” Bobbi said.
“It is!” Jemma agreed. “You see, I thought she was Hydra. … Well, I mean, people thought I was Hydra at the time, too, because hello, undercover, but she knew I wasn’t Hydra but I didn’t know she wasn’t Hydra, so the first time we meet, there I am, trying to be all calm and cool and collected and she’s acting like she wants to kill me, because she is supposed to be rooting out the SHIELD mole. And so we meet for the first time, in front of all these other actual Hydra people, and there’s all this chemistry and feelings and I just want to kiss her but she’s evil. It was very problematic.”
“It was,” Bobbi said. “It’s why I stayed away from her so long in the first place, but then I couldn’t anymore.”
“Right,” Jemma said, and then she paused. She turned to Bobbi, almost in slow motion. “Wait. What?” she said. “Repeat that.”
Bobbi frowned. “Repeat what? I said I stayed away from you …”
“You stayed away from me? You knew?”
“Knew what? That you were SHIELD? Of course-”
“Knew that I was your soulmate!”
“Oh,” Bobbi said, a look of surprise crossing her face. “Of course I did.”
Jemma stared at her, open-mouthed. “You never told me that.”
“That’s so not cool! Coulson and I are going to have a talk about this.” Jemma crossed her arms and glared at Bobbi, almost perfectly matching Natasha’s stance.
“It’s not a big deal,” Bobbi said. “He just knows you aren’t a good liar.”
“Not a big deal?” Jemma repeated. “Not a big deal? Do you know how much agony I went through when I thought my soulmate was an evil Hydra dictator? Like would I have to kill you? Would I have to become Hydra myself? Would one of us have to die?”
“But I wasn’t!” Bobbi said. “And neither were you.”
“That is not the point!”
“It wasn’t my decision! It was Coulson’s.”
“Which is why I am going to talk to him!” Jemma declared.
“Okay, okay,” May broke in, shooting glares over at both Bobbi and Jemma. “You two are not helping.”
Jemma took a deep breath. “Sorry,” she said. “Slight misunderstanding apparently.” She forced a smile. “We’re good.”
“It’s not a misunderstanding,” Natasha said. “It’s lies. It’s always lies.”
“Says the master liar,” Bobbi said. May shot her a look. Bobbi shrugged. “It’s true,” she mouthed back.
May ignored her. She turned to Maria, who looked like she was biting her tongue. “Maria?” May said.
Maria turned to the woman beside her. Natasha kept staring straight ahead. “I never lied to you, Natasha,” Maria said. “Not even in the beginning. I promise.”
[Nine years ago]
“I need to see her,” Maria answered.
“You know once you do this, you won’t be able to be too far from her?”
“And you know just because she’s your soulmate doesn’t make her trustworthy? We have to know she’s on our side.”
“She came to us willingly. She didn’t know about me.”
“She came to us because she didn’t have another choice,” Fury said. “Barton had a gun to her head.”
“She had a choice,” Maria said.
“If she betrays us, SHIELD will take her out. Soulmate or not. You know that, right?”
“Okay, then,” Fury unlocked the door. “Good luck then.”
Maria stepped inside the small room and blinked, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the low lighting. And then she saw her.
It was like being hit with a bus.
Maria had heard stories of what happened when you finally came face to face with your soulmate, but none of them prepared her for the onslaught of feelings.
Desire, arousal, attraction. Love.
She knew Natalia felt it, too. Maria had been watching her on the monitors for days, as SHIELD psychologists and agents and guards all talked to her and ran tests on her and made sure she didn’t escape, and through it all, she had kept her eyes blank, her face neutral. But now, as she saw Maria for the first time, the emotions crossed her face almost in a whirlwind — confusion, panic, fear the most obvious.
“Who are you?” Natalia whispered, and her voice was small.
Maria took a step toward her. “I’m Maria Hill. It’s nice to meet you, Natalia.”
“What did you do to me?”
“I didn’t do anything to you.”
“You’re lying.” Natalia’s eyes narrowed. “I felt something. They promised they wouldn’t …”
“I’m not lying,” Maria said. “No one is messing with your mind.” She lifted her right hand to point at Natalia’s left wrist. “You have a mark on your wrist, correct?”
Natalia didn’t answer, but she shifted slightly so her hand slipped behind her back.
“Do you know what the mark is?” Maria continued.
“Yes,” Natalia whispered.
Maria took another step forward. She reached out her own arm, showing the mark to Natalia. She watched as the other woman’s eyes opened wide in fear.
“That’s impossible,” she breathed.
“It’s true,” Maria said.
Natalia shook her head. “No,” she said. “They told me my mate was dead. You can’t be her.”
“Who told you that?”
Natalia didn’t answer, but the unspoken words hung in the air. The Red Room.
“They wanted you to think I was dead so you wouldn’t look for me,” Maria said.
Natalia shook her head again. “No,” she whispered.
Maria took one more step toward her. If she wanted to, she could reach out and touch her now. Instead she nodded at Natalia and then to her own mark. “You can touch it if you like. See for yourself.”
Natalia looked up and met her eyes. For a moment, they both just stared at each other, Natalia looking like she was trying to weigh out Maria’s true intentions. Finally, she reached out carefully and gently placed a finger over Maria’s mark.
It was like being hit with an electric shock.
Maria gasped as the emotions she had been feeling the whole time intensified. Love. Trust. Respect. Protection. Comfort.
She dropped down in front of Natalia, almost as if on instinct, placing a hand on her knee. “Look, Natalia,” she said softly. “It’s going to be okay. I promise. I won’t let anyone hurt you. We’re in this together now.”
“What if I don’t want to be in this together?”
“Well, you don’t really have a choice.”
“I do have a choice,” Natasha said. Her arms were still crossed tightly across her chest. “You should have given me one then.”
“Natasha!” Maria exclaimed, but May shook her head at her and turned to the redhead.
“You don’t really get a choice over who you bond with,” she said quietly.
“I know,” Natasha said. “That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“I want a choice about what comes next.”
“Okay,” May said. “What do you want to come next?”
Natasha was silent for a few moments. All eyes were on her, watching, but she just looked at May, ignoring everyone else. Finally, she spoke. “I blew all my covers. I could leave, go make new ones. I can’t do that here.” She paused, then added. “Alone.”
Maria sighed. “You could,” she said, “if it didn’t mean we’d both be in agonizing pain in a few days’ time. You know what happens when we’re apart too long.”
Natasha turned to her. Anger flashed on her face. “Well, maybe you should have thought of that before you left me alone and let people try to kill me.”
“For the hundredth time, I didn’t let people try to kill you!” Maria threw her hands in the air, frustration evident. “Natasha. I didn’t tell you to run off with Steve Rogers and become a fugitive.”
“No,” she snapped back. “You didn’t tell me anything. That’s the problem.”
“I was trying to protect you.”
“Bullshit! You don’t trust me. Nine years later and you still don’t trust me!”
[Six Months Earlier]
“It must be important if you wanted to talk to me here,” she said.
“It is.” He made sure the door was locked and turned to face her. “I think it’s about to happen. I need to be sure you’re prepared.”
Maria nodded. “I’m prepared.”
“I’m going back to D.C. tonight. Make sure you’re by your phone.”
“I’m going back to D.C. tonight too.”
“You can’t.” Fury’s voice was urgent.
Maria blinked. “I have to. Nat is there. You know I can’t be away from her.”
“Well, you’ll have to be, for a couple days.”
“Look.” He dropped his voice. “You know how important this is. If something goes wrong, if they don’t think I’m dead … they might come after you.” He trailed off.
“And her,” Maria finished.
“You promise me she’ll be safe? You promise me she won’t be involved in this?” Maria felt panicked. She and Fury had gone over this before, but if Hydra got Natasha, if they hurt her to get to Maria or Fury …
“You have my word,” Fury said. “She won’t be involved. I have another way, someone else who will help.”
Maria frowned. “He’s her partner.”
“Don’t worry,” Fury said. “He won’t trust her enough to go to her. It will be fine. Natasha will be safe.”
“She better be.” Maria took a breath. “You know I love you and I love SHIELD, but she is my life. If anything happens to her …”
“It won’t,” Fury said. “She’ll be fine. But it’s time. We need to do this now.”
Maria nodded. She didn’t want to, but she knew he was right. It was time.
Maria slipped out of her chair and knelt in front of Natasha. Natasha still had her arms crossed tightly against her chest, but she looked almost like she’d stopped breathing otherwise, she was so still. Her eyes, though, were glassy, and May could see that her eyelashes were wet.
Maria reached up and put a hand on her arm. “I love you,” she said quietly. “You mean everything to me. I’m sorry I lied to you, and I’m sorry I hurt you, but it was never because I didn’t trust you. I have always trusted you. It’s why I can’t lose you.”
Natasha blinked and struggled to find words. “You should have told me.”
“I know,” Maria said. “I’m sorry.” She reached up and cupped Natasha’s face with both hands. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Natasha said softly, as Maria leaned up and kissed her, the two of them instantly melting together.
“Awwwwwww,” Jemma cooed.
“Okay,” May said, tearing her eyes away from Maria and Natasha and signaling to Bobbi and Jemma to get up. “Let’s leave them alone.”
“But it’s so adorable,” Jemma said.
“You know Natasha will rip your throat out if you call her adorable to her face, don’t you?” Bobbi said. Jemma jumped instantly to her feet.
May smiled, “You two are still okay, right?”
“I think so,” Bobbi said. “Jemma?”
“Oh,” Jemma said, “Coulson is so not going to be okay after I have a few words with him. But Bobbi and I, we’re good.”
“Great,” May said, “because I really did not sign up to be team counselor.”
“But you’re so good at it!” Jemma said.
May didn’t bother answering her. She just shot her a glare, rolled her eyes and headed toward the door, pausing for one last second before she exited. Behind her, she could hear Jemma and Bobbi whispering. In her peripheral vision, she could see Maria and Natasha still in each other’s arms. Their problems probably couldn’t be fixed in a day, but May had a feeling they were going to be okay.
She smiled to herself and looked down at her owl soul bond mark gleaming on her wrist. She had been in this meeting too long. She had someone who was expecting her.