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The Pain of Connecting

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There was nothing now but pain. Pounding behind her eyes, thrumming in her ears, running in her blood.

She was used to pain, had grown up with pain, was trained on it. Trained how to survive it, how to ignore it, how to use it to her advantage.

But this … This was something they hadn’t trained her for. This was something they couldn’t have ever seen coming.

She closed her eyes, focused on her breathing, tried to ignore everything else. In. Out. In. Out.

She still had a handful of suppressants, but they were a temporary relief now. A few hours where the pain was subtler, still under the surface, before it broke back through, more intense than before.

She breathed deeper. In. Out. In. Out.

She could survive this. She had to survive this. There wasn’t another choice.

She forced her eyes back open, reached into her pocket, felt the scratch of the material against the back of her hand as her fingers searched for salvation. She pulled out the tiny purple pill, gritted her teeth, then dropped it into her mouth and swallowed it down.

The nausea always came first. The wave so strong it made her stagger. But then came the few moments, where the fog in her mind cleared, where the pain ebbed enough that she could think again.

She hated this. Hated who she was. Hated who she had become.

She hated having only one choice. But he had taken her other options from her. Or she had. It was hard to remember now, all of the images — the memories — blending together now, haunting her when she was asleep, haunting her more when she was awake.

She pushed herself off the wall, ran her tongue over her dry lips and stepped forward.

She knew where she was going, and she had to see this through.

•••

Natasha had learned about soulmates when she was ten. Their trainers sat them down in a cold, empty room and made them watch a silly movie about two people who found each other because of a mark embedded into the skin on their wrist.

Natasha thought it was stupid, and it made her glad to look down at her own wrist, pale and mark-free, and know that she would never have to worry about being so attached to another person.

The lady in the movie had cried when the man had left her alone. Natasha had thought then that the man should have just killed her for being so weak.

“None of you have soulmates,” their trainer told them after the movie was finished. “It’s what makes you so special. It’s why we chose you.”

Some of them, they were told, were the truly special ones, the rare few born into their world without a match. The others — those who were more lucky than special — had been born with a soulmate, but whoever that other person was, they had died.

It was for the better, their trainer said, and the girls with the scars on their wrists — tiny faded marks that indicated something that would never be — nodded in agreement. Natasha pitied them for even having a scar at all.

Do not get attached, had been the first lesson they all had learned in the Red Room. None of girls watching the movie that day thought they would ever have to.

•••

The ground was littered with unconscious bodies. In between all of them, Natasha sat, huddled on the ground, afraid to move.

“You have the strongest pills in the world,” the leader of the group had told her. But she hadn’t believed him. He had been trying to get in her way, prevent her from being her best.

Except she had searched all their pockets after they had fallen, searched through their lab, upturned every drawer and pried up floor panels in search of a hidden stash. But all she had found were more of the same purple pills she had already had in her pocket.

She had more of them now. Almost one hundred. Clutched in a bag in her hand.

It should have been enough to last her for years, but she knew it wouldn’t be. She would be lucky if it lasted her a month.

She stared in turn at each of the men she had attacked, then struggled to her feet, trying not to think about him as she did so.

He would be so disappointed if he knew what she had done. She was disappointed in what she had done. So much more red. So much more to make up for.

Maybe it was good she was all alone.

She shoved the bag of pills inside her jacket, slipped back out the way she had come.

She needed to find some place to hide. She needed to find some place where she couldn’t hurt anyone else.

•••

Clint was the first person Natasha really knew who had a soulmate — she’d had targets, of course, who’d had them, but they were weak. And if anyone in the Red Room had had one, they had taken care of it long before.

Even at SHIELD, uniforms kept all marks — if there were any — covered up from view. Natasha assumed it was because they were ashamed. As they should be for their weakness.

She had always figured Clint was like her, born without a match. It was why he had saved her, she had told the psychiatrist SHIELD insisted she meet with every week, because he recognized she was like him.

They had been partners for a year before they had their first overnight mission. SHIELD hadn’t trusted her to do more than easy in-and-outs before that. She’d hated it, but Clint had told her to be patient and it would get better.

They were in Italy, tracking down a lead on some men who had gotten their hands on some tech they shouldn’t have gotten their hands on. They were supposed to have been getting intel only that first day, but things had gone slightly awry, and they arrived at the safe house a little more beat up than expected.

Clint had checked to make sure everything was in place and secure, before directing her to grab the first aid kit hidden in the bathroom. Then he had stripped off his uniform without a second thought.

He turned around, halfway through asking her to hand him a clean cloth, some antiseptic and a bandage, to find her staring at him in horror.

“Natasha?” he asked, and she could hear the concern in his voice.

She lifted her hand to point at his arm, at the very distinguishable red mark on his wrist. There had to be some explanation. Maybe a ruse for their op he hadn’t told her about?

He looked down at where she was pointing, but instead of the shame she expected to see, or maybe a quick explanation, he smiled. A smile different than she had ever seen him make before. More genuine. Full of fondness.

And then she realized.

It was a look she had seen before. In that stupid movie their trainers had made them watch. On the faces of some of the targets she’d had, just before she’d slit their throats.

Love.

“You have a soulmate,” she whispered, not being completely able to keep the horror out of her voice.

“I do,” Clint said. He didn’t seem bothered by her reaction. “Her name is Laura.”

“But …” She struggled to put into words what she wanted to say. “Why?” she finally settled on. “Soulmates are avoidable complications.”

“Not always.”

“I don’t understand.”

Clint looked for a second like he, too, was struggling to find the right words. “Not everything you were taught,” he said gently, “is correct.”

She had heard that a lot. From the SHIELD psychiatrists, from Nick Fury, from Phil Coulson. But standing there, then, hearing it from Clint, she felt as if her world shifted a little, the foundation under her feet slightly less stable than it had been a few seconds ago.

He seemed to get this. He walked out of the small bedroom, gesturing for her to follow, leading her to the small table in the kitchen. While she sat, he fiddled around with the coffee maker. A couple minutes later, he placed a mug in front of her and then sat down beside her with his own.

Their wounds were still unattended to, the mark on his wrist still entirely visible. Natasha couldn’t help staring at it.

Clint held his arm out so she could see, could examine the mark. It was smaller than she had thought when she’d first noticed it. A misshapen heart of sorts.

She lifted her hand, but paused. “Can I touch?”

“Of course.”

The skin was smoother than she had imagined it would be when she’d seen other people’s marks. A little raised but soft.

“Doesn’t it hurt when you’re not with her?” she asked.

“It does. But there are pills SHIELD has that we can take to make it better.”

“We?”

Clint smiled. “Most people at SHIELD have soulmates. Some haven’t found theirs yet, though, of course.”

Natasha frowned, thought about everyone at headquarters, about the uniforms and the jackets. She’d always thought it was to fool the outside world, to put them at ease by letting them imagine they were like them.

“Only a rare few are born without soulmates,” their instructor had said.

She turned her own arm over now, pushed up the sleeve of her uniform, stared down at the pale, mark-free skin.

“People want soulmates?” she whispered, more to herself than to Clint, but he heard her.

“Do you want me to tell you about Laura?” he asked quietly.

There was a weird tightening in the back of her throat, but she found herself nodding, and he began to speak, telling her all about the woman he had met who had changed his life in an instant and how he would never want to go back to before he knew her.

Two months later, after another overnight mission that also unexpectedly went a little haywire, Clint brought her to the farmhouse to meet Laura.

Laura was patient and kind and loving, and she, like Clint, answered all Natasha’s questions. Even the ones she didn’t ask out loud.

That night, when she went to bed, Natasha lay in the darkness for hours, staring at her blemish-free wrist in the dark.

“You are special,” Clint had told her that day back at the safehouse. “Not many people are born without soulmates.”

In the farmhouse that night, after meeting Laura, after seeing them together, a part of Natasha wished that maybe she hadn’t been quite that special.

•••

She needed a plan. That was her first thought when she woke up on the floor of the safehouse a few hours later, her mind clear and the pain finally subsided. She had taken five of the pills, but they had finally kicked in. She knew it wouldn’t be long, though, until the pain started to come back and not much after that until it was once again almost overwhelming.

She counted the pills she had left. One hundred and eight. At the rate she was needing them, she could maybe last two to three weeks at most, if she didn’t take them at night and tried to sleep through the worst of it. Or just dealt with it.

She was strong. She was a survivor. She had been taught to withstand everything. She just had to find a way to withstand this. To find a way to force it down enough that she could still function, could still go on.

She thought about trying to get a message to Tony. With all the tech he had, he had to have something that could help her. She had betrayed him, she knew that, and she knew he was probably still angry with her. But he was her friend. Had been her friend at least. Would he really refuse to help her if she really needed him? Would he just let her suffer, or worse, turn her over to Ross?

She knew what had happened to the others, knew they had been taken to The Raft, and she knew the truth. The U.N., Ross — they would care about her even less than they cared about the others. She was a Russian fugitive, as far as they were concerned.

No, she couldn’t risk it. She couldn’t go to Tony for help. She would have to find another way.

•••

It had come without warning. She had been sparring with another agent. No one she couldn’t beat. The other agent had gotten in a lucky kick, his heel hitting her just above her left wrist.

It shouldn’t have knocked her over — it barely should have made her flinch — but she stumbled backward, hitting the ground hard as her wrist burned as if on fire.

The agent came toward her as she heard the surprised gasps from the others watching. She growled, low in her throat, sprang to her feet. She knocked him back, made quick work of finishing the fight, then walked off the mat and out of the training gym like nothing had ever happened.

In the bathroom, she pushed up the sleeve of the shirt she was wearing, intending to check for a bruise or a broken bone. What she saw made her breath catch in her throat, her heart skip beating.

On her otherwise pale skin, there was now a mark. Rough and red. Faint but as she watched, it almost looked like it was growing darker, like it was alive. Two small interlinked circles.

She stared in horror at her wrist.

It wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t.

She needed to find Clint, but Clint was on a mission. So she waited, alone in the small room in SHIELD headquarters she sometimes slept in when she didn’t want to go back to the tiny, barely furnished apartment she was supposed to call home. By the time Clint stepped off the Quinjet, hours later, the mark on her wrist was completely red and painful.

Clint took one look at her face and knew something was wrong, even if none of the others he was with would have noticed a thing.

Safely hidden back in her small room, she pushed her sleeve up and showed Clint her wrist.

He stared at it in amazement. “When did this happen?”

“Today,” she said. “What’s happening?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

She must not have been able to cover the terror she felt like she hoped because he put an arm around her and drew her toward him.

“We’ll figure it out,” he promised her, kissing her gently on top of the head.

“Don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t.”

He didn’t tell anyone, but they didn’t figure it out either. Natasha had a soulmate was all they could surmise, but how or why they didn’t know.

It stopped hurting after the first day and she was able to keep it covered with makeup when she needed to. It bothered her, though, and it scared her, though that part she was hesitant to admit, even to herself. She had spent her whole life learning not to get attached to people. Until Clint. And even that attachment was sometimes more than she was comfortable with, but the knowledge that there could be someone out there that she had to be connected to? She had thought once she might like that, but she hadn’t been made to be connected to anyone. She was made — raised, trained — to be alone. That was the one truth she really knew about herself.

And then she met Steve.

Standing on the deck of the helicarrier, being introduced by Coulson, and it was like her world had suddenly turned upside down. She had never felt something like that before, never even expected to.

The rush of affection and need she felt for someone she just met.

She had never been more glad for her training, more grateful that she had learned long ago how to keep any emotion off her face. Coulson and Steve, they never suspected. She greeted him like she would have greeted anyone else, did her job like it was the only thing that mattered.

But when she stood by him, when he hoisted her into the air with his shield, when he brushed her arm when they were eating Schwarma after everything was done, she had to physically stop herself from leaning into him, from trying to touch him.

Looking at him, listening to him, it made her feel things she had never felt. An urge to belong. An urge to just be with him.

But Steve wasn’t her. She knew that within seconds. His emotions were easily readable. His feelings displayed on his face for everyone to see. And he wasn’t looking at her like he wanted her. He wasn’t looking at her like she was anything more than any one of the others who had fought with him. And later, after dinner, when he pushed up his sleeve to rub at his arm, she stole a look at his wrist. If there had ever been a mark there, it was too faded and too small to be seen now.

She knew then the truth.

Steve Rogers was her soulmate, but she wasn’t his.

•••

Fifteen more pills down, and Natasha wasn’t any closer to figuring out a plan. She had done as much research as she dared, but if there were stronger suppressants out there somewhere that would work on her, she had no idea how to find them.

There was only one solution, and it wasn’t a solution. Find Steve, see Steve, be with Steve.

But she couldn’t do that, even if she had known where to find him. She suspected that perhaps he was in Wakanda — she’d heard rumors T’Challa had been in Siberia with him and Bucky, the last time anyone had seen the two of them — but she was pretty sure she was the last person King T’Challa was going to let into the country, and it wasn’t the type of place she could sneak in undetected.

And besides, what would she say? She couldn’t tell Steve the truth. He would think the only reason she had ever spent time with him was because of the mark on her wrist, not because she wanted to or because she had really grown to care about him, in more ways than she probably should.

Steve didn’t love her. That much was obvious. She had pointed her widow’s bites at T’Challa, told him to go and he had. Without a backward glance. He had left her there, knowing they were going to come for her.

And now it had been months and, as far as she knew, none of them had tried to find her, except the people trying to kill her.

It shouldn’t have bothered her. He had no obligation to her, no connection to her that went deeper than just being Avengers. He didn’t have to love her, or protect her, or even be her friend if he didn’t want. She knew that. Rationally, she knew that. But it didn’t stop the ache in her heart, the pain in her chest — the pain that wasn’t the physical kind that haunted her when she was away from him and not on suppressants, but the kind that was worse. The kind that never left.

If only there was a way to see him, to be near him without him knowing …

But there wasn’t. Steve wasn’t an option. There were no other options.

•••

The Red Room lied to her. That was the most she and Clint were able to determine.

They had told her she had never had a soul mark, but that couldn’t have been true.

“What did you say they did to the other girls who had marks?” he’d asked her one night, not long after she had told him the horrible truth about Steve.

“They removed them,” she said. “But I never had a scar.”

“Steve wasn’t alive when you were born,” Clint said. “Not really, anyway. He was frozen in ice. People with soulmates who are dead barely have marks. It would have been easy to remove one like that without leaving a trace.”

Natasha fingered her wrist with her other hand. “Maybe that’s why it hurt so much when it came back,” she said thoughtfully.

“I think so.”

She sighed. “I thought soulmates were supposed to be two ways, though.”

“I did, too, Nat. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” she told Clint. “I don’t care.”

Clint was a good friend. He didn’t call her out for her lies. And he never insisted that she tell Steve or anyone else if she didn’t want to.

And she didn’t want to.

She kept her mark hidden or covered up. And she went about her life as if nothing had changed in that respect.

After New York, with Clint taking time off, Fury assigned her to be partners with Steve. It worked out well. She could be around him enough that it didn’t hurt, and she was trained enough that she could ignore the desire she felt to be closer to him.

He didn’t trust her, and he didn’t want to be her friend — not that she ever gave him any reason to ever suspect she would want to spend more time with him than she was already forced to — but she didn’t need his trust or his friendship. She just needed a close geographical connection, and she would be fine.

At least that’s what she told herself.

•••

The pain was back now. Worse than ever. Her whole body felt like it was burning. Her muscles screamed in agony. She couldn’t think, couldn’t walk, couldn’t do anything.

She still had a few pills, but they didn’t do anything. Not anymore.

She had been away from him for too long. She didn’t even have an old voicemail message on her phone. She had tossed the one she’d had so no one could track her. She’d tossed everything she’d had so no one could track her.

She wished desperately she had taken something of his with her before everything began, back when she was packing for Vienna to go sign the Accords, but how could she have known then it was going to turn out like this?

And it was too late to dwell on what ifs anyway. They wouldn’t help anything. With any luck, she would slip into unconsciousness soon. Fade away without anyone ever knowing what had happened to her.

She had dreamed about more, once, after she had joined the Avengers, back when she still hoped that maybe somehow Steve had felt it too. She had dreamed that when she died she would be with her friends, with people who cared about her, maybe even loved her. Maybe it would be in a glorious battle. Maybe she would just be struck down by something mundane, like a flu.

She would never have imagined it would be like this, in a dirty, old apartment thousands and thousands of miles away from anyone she knew, her whole body screaming in agony at the distance between her and her soulmate.

Natasha didn’t cry. It was one of her rules, drilled into her head by her trainers years before she had ever watched that stupid movie about soulmates. A rule that she had never forgotten.

But right now, sick and hurting and probably dying on a rotting wooden floor, she let the tears begin to flow. And as she felt them drip down the side of her face and land in her tangled hair, she wished, for the first time since the day she met Laura, that she could have just been normal.

•••

She kissed him on a Tuesday, weeks before Tony showed up with the Accords on hand. It wasn’t a special evening nor was there a further reason behind her action. It had just been an ordinary night, the moon glow lighting up the room through the window, and they had been lying together — talking, laughing — and for a second she had forgotten, forgotten they weren’t more than friends, forgotten only she was the one who had the soulmate, and she had leaned over and pressed her lips to his and smiled against him as her body flooded with warmth.

He’d kissed her back, but pushed her away gently when he felt her hands come up to grasp his shirt.

“No,” he whispered quietly as he pulled back. “Not like this.”

He had wrapped his arms around her then, let her lie her head against his chest. She was too proud to rush away in shame, too needy to want to leave his embrace, but tucked against him, like she often was, she had wished she was the type of person to deserve a soulmate. Maybe then she could tell him the truth.

They had gotten closer over the years. Friends. Maybe even best friends. They worked side by side, they lived together. And after they had moved into the compound in upstate New York, she had taken to slipping into his bed beside him at night.

He never minded, never told her not to. He laughed with her, teased her and even held her when they slept.

But he never made a move, never tried to kiss her or do anything else but be a perfect gentleman. Some days she hated it, others she was grateful she had least had that.

It wasn’t what Clint and Laura had, but it was more than someone with her past deserved. And it was enough.

At least she had thought. But that was before the Accords, before people had taken sides, before Bucky had become the center of Steve’s world once again.

She had tried to help him in every way she could — she had gone to him when she knew he was hurting over Peggy, she had kept him safe when she knew the fight was never going to end and, finally, she had let him go when all she had wanted to do was make him stay.

And then it was time to run, to leave everyone — and everything — behind.

Everything but the memory of his lips pressed to hers and the feeling that, for a moment, she had been right where she was supposed to be.

•••

The first thing she became aware of was the lack of pain. It was gone. The throbbing in her head, the fire coursing through her veins, the numbness in her hands and legs. All of it. Gone.

She felt sore and tired but also almost content somehow.

For a second, she thought maybe this was death. Or dying. But no. She could still smell the rank garbage in the dumpsters behind her apartment and could hear the clanking of the old heater in the corner desperately trying to work.

She also wasn’t alone.

She could feel someone beside her, their presence hovering over her. For a second, her body felt gripped in panic, at the idea that someone had found her, that they saved her so they could torture her later.

But no. She didn’t feel threatened. She felt … safe.

She opened her eyes.

She was on her bed, not the floor like she remembered. He was beside her, sitting in one of the shabby kitchen chairs that looked like it didn’t really want to hold his weight. It barely liked to hold hers.

He was watching her, his eyes on hers, a tender smile on his face, an expression she couldn’t really decipher. Fear. Sadness. Something that reminded her vaguely of an expression she once saw on another man’s face.

Clint when he talked about Laura.

She opened her mouth to talk, but the words stuck in her throat. Steve’s hand was instantly on her forehead, palm cool against her still feverish skin.

“Shhhh,” he whispered, and he handed her a glass of water, helped her hold it steady enough to gulp down.

When she handed him the glass back and he placed it beside him on the floor, she searched again for words.

“How?” she finally asked. It came out rough, hoarse, but she could tell he knew what she was asking. How did you find me? How did you know?

He reached over her, lifted her arm — the one with her soul mark — pushed up the sleeve of the shirt she was wearing and tenderly traced his finger over the rough red mark.

“I’ve always known,” he said softly.

She blinked. No. That wasn’t possible. That didn’t make sense.

“How?” she asked again, because she didn’t know what else to ask.

“The serum,” he told her. “Unintended side effect. It washed away the mark I’d been born with. But not the connection. Never the connection.”

She started to shake her head. No. It didn’t make sense. He had never looked at her, he had never said anything …

“Why?” she managed.

“Because you weren’t ready,” he said softly. “And I didn’t want to make you do anything you didn’t want to do. I wanted to give you time. I thought … I thought I was doing the right thing. Until I lost you.”

“I thought you didn’t care about ….”

Steve bowed his head. “I’m sorry.” His voice cracked on the word.

She wanted to be horrified. All this time, she had thought she was hiding it, thought she was the only one feeling it, thought she wasn’t good enough for him. But he had been hiding it from her, keeping it from her.

But she couldn’t be horrified. She couldn’t even be mad. He was sitting with her, touching her. He had come for her. He had found her. She was dying, and he had found her.

“How?” she asked. She waved her hand around vaguely in the air. “Here.”

Steve looked back up at her. “I feel pain too,” he told her. “Just not as much as you. The serum helps a lot. Holds it back. I tried to find you, after Siberia, but no one had any leads. But the pain. It got worse.” He shrugged. “I followed it to you.” He looked down again. “I’m just sorry it took me this long. I should have said something a long time ago. I should have told you the truth the night you kissed me back at the compound. I wanted to.”

She shook her head. “I never told you I was your soulmate,” she said. She wanted to hold it against him, but she couldn’t. She had done the exact same thing.

But now Steve was the one shaking his head and a bigger smile was toying with his lips. “Not that you’re my soulmate, Nat,” he said. “I wanted to tell you I love you. Not because you’re my soulmate, but because you’re you. I love you. Not because I have to, but because I want to.”

Natasha blinked. She was rarely at a loss for words. But, finally, “You love me?”

“I love you,” he repeated. “And it’s okay if-”

“I love you too,” she interrupted, and as the words left her lips, she felt something else she had never felt before. Like a weight she never knew she had been holding releasing itself from her chest.

Steve was the one staring now.

“You love me?” he asked.

“I love you,” she whispered, and she pushed herself into as much of an upright position as she could.

He met her halfway, wrapping an arm around her back to support her, dropping his head, his lips meeting hers, a perfect beautiful reunion.

She pulled back, much too soon, her body still so tired, even if the feeling in her belly, between her legs, wasn’t quite so ready to let go. She looked up at Steve, saw he was already searching her eyes.

“Will you take me home now?” she asked. She wasn’t really sure where home was anymore, but it didn’t matter. Not if he was with her. Not if he was there.

Steve pulled her against his chest, his arms safe and warm around her.

“There is nothing,” he whispered into her ear, “that I would like more.”