You will know you have reached beauty when you have finally reached pain.
Natalya stretched out her limbs in a trembling arabesque and gasped when the rod came down, correcting her form. She tripped, she stumbled.
"Up. Again. Again." The comrade's words rapped out a sharp staccato, like the blaring drills that ordered her to fight, to kill, to bleed…
No, that is not right.
A haze of red. She falls into line. She folds into a plié, stretches out again. When every muscle is screaming in pain, at last the cold eyes of the comrade with the metal arm warm and he smiles.
Natasha, little Natasha, discovers her soulmark in the dim light of a grey dawn in Volgograd. An arrow mars her right flank. She carefully smooths her makeup over it to cover the mark.
Vdova is a blur of practiced movement. Flip under, turn over, snap a neck, crack a limb, block and parry, fight and bleed. She grins with feral pleasure at the ease with which she brings the assassination team down.
She expects the crack of a gun, but instead she hears a faint whistle before her right arm shrieks in agony as she falls, speared by a weapon she does not recognize. Her vision blurs with the pain. An arrow. It is an arrow.
She looks up at the approaching enemy, hands still steady on the bow.
"You're beautiful," she slurs before the poison knocks her out.
He sits hunched over her bed when she wakes. His intense gaze pierces her as surely as his arrow.
She studies his hands folded together under his chin. A black widow hourglass mars his left wrist, his shooting hand.
"Will it hurt?" she asks in Russian.
He either cannot or will not answer.
She regards him steadily. "Like that then."
He tosses her the standard SHIELD gym clothes. "Yours."
She thinks that he is hers, whether or not he will admit it.
They hardly know each other, yet they fall into a steady rhythm on missions, in sparring, h— in simply moving around his living room and kitchen. They are beautiful together when they fight hostiles, when they dance undercover, and finally when they tentatively find their way into his bed.
He wonders if he can actually trust her. She knows she can't trust him.
Their voices are quiet and steady in the darkness. She has not tried to bridge the chasm between their names since that first training session, and he doesn't mind it when she uses his last, so she says it again, softer, "Barton. Why didn't you kill me?"
He sighs and turns over on his side to tuck her a little closer against him. "I did. You should be dead."
She sits up on one elbow. "I mean after the poison." She has been immune since childhood. "Why didn't you put an arrow in my heart?"
He shakes his head, half annoyance, half something else she's not sure how to read. "Anyone who called me beautiful for putting an arrow in them had a pretty screwed up understanding of how the world works. You deserved better."
Natasha does not know what to make of this. She traces her fingers over his chest, watches his leniency when she knows he does not trust her, knows how quickly this could turn to violence, and remembers the feel of him inside her just bordering pain, just bordering pleasure.
"You will know you have reached beauty when you have finally reached pain," she murmurs. Half-forgotten snatches of dance make her legs restless with the desire to stretch.
Barton absently runs his fingers through her hair until they tangle and it pulls against her scalp.
He is down on the ground, breathing hard, a bullet wound in his thigh. "It's a graze," he tells her. He is lying.
Romanoff feels something go cold inside her and she drops down to bandage him hastily, then holsters her gun and draws her knives.
"Leave something for the coroner." He shakes his head at her, and she sees that glimmer of some emotion she does not understand.
"If I must." She does not wait for him to tell her she must to go find the hostile who shot him.
Natasha, little Natasha, once loved her family, but they are dead now and she is no longer a child.
She sits hunched over his bed in medical when he wakes, studying him with a fathomless gaze. "Does it hurt?" she wants to ask but she doesn't. She holds him with her gaze and waits for a long moment.
The silence stretches.
She opens her mouth. "Barton—"
"Clint," he corrects her.
Natasha leans back, surprised. She smiles.
He is her soulmate, the other half of her everything, and anyone who watches them move together or work together knows it. It is effortless, pleasurable in its practiced ease. It does not hurt.
Then in Budapest, they stand in the streets, fighting off too many hostiles and he takes a bullet for her in his side. She sees the blood, sees him go down, and it lances through every nerve in her body, an indescribable agony. "Clint!"
He is not allowed to die. He is not allowed…
She's killing with bullets, with knives, using teeth and hands and legs and bricks from the rubble, anything she can use to reach him through the battle. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts.
She holds him, shielding his body with hers, and promises, "I love you. You're my soulmate. You have to live," because this is beautiful. She has finally reached pain.
Coulson never shares a word of what happened on that street. Natasha remembers when Clint opened his eyes and promised her, "Not done yet." Clint only remembers the same two words that began everything.