Tony Stark was one of the lucky ones, reporters said, not to have his birthmark in plain sight. He got his playboy reputation from the fact that he catered to everyone’s interests, as it were, let the audience pretend that it could be them… and then found someone who wasn’t looking for a long term engagement with him to take home for the night if he felt like it. He didn’t seek out temporary intimacy anywhere near what the media portrayed, but didn’t object to the image either.
Rumors said that his company VP, Pepper Potts, was actually the holder of the matching symbol, whatever it happened to be, but they had never seen hers either, whether it was concealed by clothing or makeup. Many women nowadays, and some men too, had taken to using concealer to cover up their birthmarks in the professional world. On one hand, it was slightly taboo, on the other, it was less of a distraction.
Natalia Romanova needed no makeup.
Born in what was then Stalingrad (now Volgograd), her home was attacked when she was just a child, and she lost her mother before the concept of a birthmark was explained to her. When her foster-father Ivan gave her a basic explanation a few years later, she simply scoffed at him.
“Billions of people in the world and one soulmate? That’s stupid.”
As he had never found his own, he simply shrugged, and told her that caring about someone didn’t have to relate to whether they were your soulmate or not. You could marry and lead a perfectly happy life with someone who had a different mark. But that was back when Natalia knew how to care.
Within another few months, it was being trained out of her.
The first thing they did within the Red Room program was to check for aptitude. Those who were suitable for the operation were passed on to the training site, those who weren’t were…disposed of. Natalia held some promise, and they let her continue on. Then came the brainwashing, the intensive training, the combination of tactics and language skills and everything necessary to become a perfect fit into Western society and become the sleeper agent they needed for the KGB.
In the cold of the U.S.S.R., they encouraged her heart to freeze.
Once the few remaining girls were ready for fieldwork, they had to go under the knife. Serums were injected, chips implanted, and birthmarks were removed. Not only were they an identifying factor, but they were also a potential distraction in case they met someone who matched theirs by some chance.
Natalia knew the shape of hers by heart; it had been on the right side of her ribs, covered by her arm when it hung at her side. Thank goodness for that too—any of the girls who had one on their face or neck or anywhere the scarring from its removal would be visible were automatically eliminated from graduating. Still, she didn’t particularly care that it was gone (was that the brainwashing talking? or simply her own lack of interest?) and after leaving Department X, she teamed up with the Winter Soldier for her missions and completely disregarded having ever had a birthmark in the first place.
The people she had her flings with didn’t share her mark, it didn’t concern her. They seemed to think that the scar on her side (mostly gone but still visible) was her birthmark, and she didn’t correct them. She just cut any sentimental ties and moved on.
When she joined S.H.I.E.L.D., when they went to catalog her mark as they did with everyone for security purposes, she lied and told them that she didn’t know. They had no option but to believe it and let her go into operative mode… and then she went to work for Stark Industries.
Being Natalie Rushman was a good job. It wasn’t stressful or life-threatening (mostly), she was good at what she did, became friends with Miss Potts, and experienced some sort of normalcy after a long time. Despite Tony’s ego (which really seemed to cover for a good few other traits, noted in her report back to S.H.I.E.L.D.) and his whimsical decisions, he wasn’t a bad boss, and at least entertaining enough that Natalia—no Natalie—was never bored.
She took files down to his workspace one day, papers to sign (as usual), and below the grease and grime, there was a small birthmark that looked almost like a tattoo settled on his hip. She stared at it for a moment before Tony had even registered that she was there, and then regained her composure, walking over and depositing the request.
She walked out, straight backed and as unconcerned-looking as ever, took the elevator up to the room that Stark had provided to her as a workspace, and sat down.
It existed. A match for her birthmark existed. A perfect match for her… She couldn’t bring herself to even think it. The concept of a soulmate was ridiculous. The idea that someone would be… would be…
She put her head in her hands and fought not to hyperventilate.
“I am whole,” she whispered to herself, “I am whole. I am whole!” Her eyes clenched shut. “I don’t need someone to complete me, I don’t need a soulmate, I don’t—need—you.” The breath that escaped her was nearly a sob. Once, Ivan had spoken of love. She wasn’t ready for this, she wasn’t willing, she’d forced herself not to love for so long. She couldn’t do this.
Nat called Pepper, and requested the rest of the day off. The latter must have heard something in her voice, because she immediately agreed, and told Natalie to contact her if she needed anything.
Natalia took the next two days off, spent them staring out her window, asking how this could have happened. There were just over two billion people on the planet when she was born with her mark, there were over seven billion now… and to find someone who shared the same one? She did the math in her head, and the chances were 2 x 10-20. That was 0.000000000000000002%. How the hell had this happened?
Pepper worried, and called her, asking if she was alright, and, slipping back into Natalie’s character, said something along the lines of having gotten some bad news from her family. Pepper told her to come meet her after hours and share a drink, and they agreed on a time and place.
Nat downed far more alcohol than was healthy. She was emotionally compromised in so many ways, even her Red Room training couldn’t overcome this. She mentioned her nightmares, her listlessness, and Pepper comforted her. Somewhere along the line, after nearly a whole bottle of vodka in her, Nat asked the question:
“Do you believe in soulmates?”
Pepper’s brow furrowed, and then she smiled. “I think so. I’ve seen people who have found theirs. It’s rare of course, but they complement each other,” she said. “Not in the sense that they absolutely need each other all the time, of course, but more that they fit together and work well together. Sometimes they’re similar people with shared interest, sometimes they’re opposites who keep each other in check, sometimes they just lead their own lives but come back to each other to find a harmonious balance.” She’d had a few drinks herself, and that seemed to prompt a sad smile. “I haven’t found mine, of course, but you can love someone without being soulmates. I just think that soulmates have a kind of… peace to them that others don’t.”
“You mean they don’t bicker and do all that normal couple stuff?”
“Oh, I never said that. They have their fights, they have their ups and downs, but they don’t usually stay angry, they don’t keep that tension for long, that’s all I meant.”
“Do you want to find your soulmate, Pepper?”
“I’d like to. But on the other hand, you know the statistics. I take it that you haven’t found yours either, right? Or you wouldn’t be asking.”
“…no.” Natasha was so drunk. That was a terrible lie.
Pepper tugged her into a hug, sighed, and kissed her forehead. “Don’t let it slip by, Natalie. You deserve that happiness. You’re a good person, you work so hard, give yourself something that gives you some contentment.” Natasha nearly laughed. Good person. Right. But she said nothing, and they decided it was time to go home. “Remember what I said, please?” Pepper murmured as she let Natasha leave. The redhead simply nodded.
The next day, she was back at work, looking for all the world like nothing happened at all. Pepper marveled at her lack of hangover and Natalie just grinned at her.
Tony had some sort of fascination with Natalie Rushman, which he mostly kept under wraps. She noticed, but didn't comment, and he gravitated towards her slowly on his time off, inviting her out casually, to which she cited a breach of professionalism. He said he didn't give a damn.
She was on the assignment for a few months, and while she got to know him, he also got to know her. They striked up an odd sort of friendship, laden with sarcasm and rolled eyes, with blown kisses and Natalie saying terrible things about him in a language of her choice. (He had no idea what she said, but laughed anyway.) Despite her initial freak-out, she found that she could ignore the 'soulmate' bit and still get along with him perfectly well, no lovey-dovey business involved. She was relatively sure that he still brought home women (and men), but she didn't pay attention to them and didn't find herself jealous either. She did what she wanted, he did what he wanted, and the camaraderie is welcome.
And then Tony invited her to bed. And wasn’t joking.
“I’m not an easy conquest,” she said blandly, one eyebrow raised.
“Never said you were,” he replied, equally deadpan.
“I can wine and dine you, if that’s what you’re into.”
“You figure it out yourself.”
He sighed, frowned slightly (not the puppy-eyes pout that he pulls on Pepper to get his way, but a real frown, like he’s trying to understand what to do—this is not his area of expertise) and nodded slowly.
For the next few days, he didn't initiate conversation, simply watched her, analyzed her (though really, he was analyzing Natalie Rushman and she almost felt bad for him), and constantly had that look in his eye like he’s trying to figure something out. She continued acting normally, though she sent slightly concerned glances his way. Everyone noticed, but nobody seemed brave enough to comment.
Except Pepper of course, who asked what the actual hell is going on
… and then the ball dropped.
“Do you know what her mark is?” he asked quietly.
She frowned, shaking her head. “Tony… are you serious?”
“I wish I wasn’t. But she’s not giving me anything to work with.”
“You…” She suddenly gave a small smile.
“Do you believe in soulmates?”
Natalie walked in just then, and immediately tensed, wondering if she should leave.
“I don’t know what to believe. But this isn’t like the others, is it? You know that.”
“I know that.”
“I just wish—she’s got this mask up all the time. I want to know, I want… Pep, I don’t know what I want. I just want her to stay.”
Pepper motioned behind him. “Then tell her.”
Natalie’s eyes went wide.
Tony turned and stared.
There was a long pause, and then Natasha offered a shaky smile. “I’ll… take the wining and dining.”
Tony Stark’s lips quirked up and he walked towards her. She hiked up her shirt a bit, showing him her the scar on her side. “It was cut out of me,” she said quietly. “A little bare tree, slender and spindly.”
He pulled at his belt, showing her the match to it.
“Stay?” He asked.
“Talk to my employer about it,” she quipped.
“I am your employer,” he grinned in return.
Natasha smiled, and brushed her lips against his.