Something was wrong, and it wasn’t just because of watching their friends disappear into puffs of ash and not being able to do anything to help. Natasha had felt out of sorts all day, her mind fuzzy, her body weak.
She wasn’t sure what it was. None of the others had mentioned feeling ill, but then again, she hadn’t mentioned it either.
It had started the afternoon after they had all returned home from Wakanda. They had pulled out all the old SHIELD tech they could find, in the hopes of being able to track down Thanos and the stones. But they had found something else instead. A signal that seemed to be extending out into the galaxy.
Rhodey and Rocket had gone to retrieve whatever was emitting the signal (Natasha still couldn’t really wrap her head around a talking raccoon, but she supposed she had seen much stranger things since joining SHIELD). They had come back with a pager.
And that’s when it had first happened. She had been standing next to Steve, waiting for Rhodey and Rocket to disembark from the Quinjet, when a wave of dizziness so intense it almost made her knees buckle passed over her. She probably would have fallen if Steve hadn’t noticed and gripped her arm.
“Nat?” he said, but his voice had sounded like it was coming from far away. “Are you okay?”
She had forced herself to nod at him, to spit out, “I’m fine,” before forcing herself to stand back up straight. But she wasn’t fine at all. She was weak and dizzy, and she felt like her whole body was trying to reach out for something that wasn’t there.
Rhodey and Rocket took the pager into a different room of the compound, and Steve followed them. Natasha stood alone, taking in as deep of breaths as she could, until the feeling passed, and then she too went to join them.
But whatever it was wasn’t done with her yet. It came on in waves, weakness and dizziness swooping over her, her whole body aching, her head feeling almost numb, like she couldn’t really focus on a single thought. She couldn’t understand what was happening, but she didn’t like it.
She also refused to give in to whatever it was. She was not going to stay in her room or in her bed, not when the whole world needed her — needed them — to be able to do something.
But after two days, the sickness was growing worse. She was once again standing next to Steve, behind Rhodey, as he fiddled with wires connected to the pager they had found on the streets of New York. Fury’s pager, they had finally realized once they looked closer at it. But who — or what — Fury was summoning they still didn’t know.
Rhodey, though, thought he had something, a way to keep the pager on and the signal transmitting. If there was someone — or something — on the other side, they were going to find it.
She had just leaned over to fix one of the connection wires when yet another wave of dizziness, this one stronger than even the previous strongest ones had been, passed over her. She felt herself falling and struggled to hold on, but there was nothing she could do.
Her eyes blinked open to find herself lying on a couch in the common room, Steve leaning over her with worried eyes. She could see Bruce, Rhodey, Thor and Rocket behind him.
She struggled to sit up, shame surging through her at the thought of passing out over something so stupid, but Steve’s hand on her shoulder pushed her back into the cushions.
Someone — Bruce, she thought — handed something to Steve, and then a thermometer was popped into her mouth. She half glared at Steve for the humiliation of this whole ordeal, but she felt much too awful to put her full effort into it.
Steve took it out of her mouth and examined it. “No fever,” he said. “Completely normal, in fact.”
He looked at her. “Are you having any other symptoms?”
She wanted to say no, to tell them she was utterly and completely fine, but she was so tired. Physically, mentally, emotionally. And she had a feeling Steve wouldn’t believe her even if she tried to convince him otherwise.
She tried to think how to answer him, but her brain was once again feeling like it just couldn’t get the words out. “Dizzy. Weak,” she finally managed. “Fuzzy.”
“Fuzzy?” Was it her imagination or did Steve look shocked at that?
She managed to nod. “Fuzzy. Like it’s hard to think.”
Steve looked like he’d had an epiphany of sorts. “And, um, do you feel maybe like you’re craving something? Someone?”
“Craving?” Natasha repeated. She tried to think. Is that what she was feeling, this weird need that was nestling in the pit of her stomach, drawing her to something she didn’t understand? “I guess? I think so. I don’t know.” It wasn’t an answer, but she saw Steve’s expression change, just a little. Or at least she thought. Her mind was still so fuzzy, though, she couldn’t understand what it meant. “Why? Does that mean something?”
“It could,” Steve said. “It’s not always common, but sometimes it happens this way.”
“What happens?” Natasha said. Her head was beginning to pound now — which was just what she needed — and she still couldn’t begin to understand what Steve was talking about.
“Reactions to meeting your soulmate,” Steve said.
Natasha tried to focus. “What?”
“Sometimes, when you’re getting close to meeting your soulmate, your body begins to react physically,” Steve said slowly. She saw him look toward Bruce for help.
“Soulmate?” Natasha echoed. None of this was making sense. She didn’t have a soulmate.
“Bucky had these symptoms before we were finally … together,” Steve said.
“Yes,” Bruce jumped in. “I had some of them too. Before I knew it was Betty.”
Natasha shook her head. “That’s impossible,” she said. “I don’t have a soulmate.”
“Almost everyone has a soulmate,” Steve said.
“No, the Red Room …” Natasha tried to explain. The Red Room didn’t want girls with soulmates, so they had created a way to sever the connection. Wipes, recalibrations, whatever you wanted to call it. She still remembered hearing some of the girls’ screams, echoing out into the halls while the rest of them practiced ballet or practiced their fighting techniques.
But the scientists had performed the tests on her, repeatedly, every year of her life that she was with them, and they could never find that connection.
“There is no one in this world who is her soulmate.” Natasha remembered one of the scientists saying that to Madam B. on her twelfth birthday. She had been lying on an exam table, still hooked up to an array of machines, while the man looked over something on a computer screen.
“Are you sure?” Madam B. had said, in the same tone she used when she thought one of the girls was trying to deceive her.
“We’ve tested her countless times,” the man said. “If she has a soulmate, they are not of this earth. And that, frankly, is impossible. Soulmates are human connections. And aliens? That’s a fairy tale.”
“Fine,” Madam B had said. “Then we won’t need to worry about this one.”
The man had returned to Natasha, pulling the wires off of her body. “You can go,” he’d said, and she still remembered the rush of relief she had felt upon realizing that her forever single status ensured that she wouldn’t have to undergo those same experiments that the other girls did.
So Steve was wrong. He had to be wrong.
He was still watching her, though, as she struggled for words.
“They said I don’t,” she finally spit out. It was the most she could explain.
“Well, we’re not saying that’s what this is one hundred percent,” Steve replied, and she noticed his voice had changed again, to something gentler, kinder, like she was a child who needed to be taken care of. “Just that this is when I’ve seen the symptoms before.”
“With soulmates,” Natasha said. She started to shake her head, but it hurt too much. “Yeah, it has to be something different.” But something else tugged at her mind, something Steve hadn’t said. Bucky had symptoms, Bruce had symptoms …
“All soulmates get symptoms?” Natasha asked.
There was a very long pause before Steve finally answered. “No, Nat,” he said softly. “Just the sub half.”
Natasha had never understood soulmates, not even before she knew the Red Room tried to break the connection of any girl who might have one. Another person who you were fated to be with, even if you didn’t want to be, and more than that, as soon as the soulmate bond was activated, so were the dom and sub sides.
That, Natasha really didn’t understand. One person fated to be in charge, to lead the way, to have full command. The other to do exactly what their dom wanted at all time. No free will.
“It’s not like that, Natasha.” Steve had tried to explain it to her back in the early days of their partnership, but that was exactly what it had sounded like to Natasha. She had seen doms and subs together, seen the way the subs craved their doms, their love, their attention, their touch.
It was disgusting, humiliating.
Very few people in the world were born neutral, but Natasha had been grateful every day that she was one of them.
Except now, Steve and Bruce and even Thor and Rhodey and Rocket were telling her she wasn’t neutral after all. That she had a soulmate and, worse yet, that she was the sub. That she was the one who was meant to be controlled, the one who would need someone when she had never needed anyone before in her life, the one who would want to obey even when every instinct she had fought against that, the one who would want to submit to someone when the very idea of it made her want to throw up.
The entire thought brought a sharp stinging to the back of her eyes. They had to be wrong. They had to be.
Natasha didn’t get better. She pretended she did, but she had a feeling she was fooling no one. The dizzy spells were coming more and more frequently. The fuzzy feeling in her head was increasing. Sometimes it was all she could do to get a sentence or more out. She felt like she was constantly on the verge of collapse, and she found herself, despite every ounce of her willpower, wishing someone would just take her into their arms and hold her until this awful feeling went away.
But worst of all, they had made a discovery of sorts. The feelings got worse the closer she got to the pager Rhodey had found, and even though no one could really explain how, there was only one thing that made sense: whoever or whatever her soulmate was, was on the other end of that signal, and they were getting closer to coming.
She was once again with Steve, this time sitting because she wasn’t sure if she could remain standing for more than a few minutes at a time, when Rhodey poked his head out of the room where the pager had been set up.
“Bad news, guys,” he said.
Steve turned away from the lists of the missing that were flashing across screens in the room he and Nat were in to look at Rhodey. “What?”
“The signal on the pager went out, and we can’t get it back on.”
Natasha turned to look at him sharply. She could feel the anger inside her, anger that seemed to be there for no reason, except the idea of having to feel like this for even a minute longer was beyond imaginable. She was going to go crazy if the person on the other side didn’t appear or if Bruce or someone else didn’t find another way to cure her.
“Well, plug it back in and reboot it!” she almost snarled.
Steve flashed her a look, one she knew to say “Cool it,” but before she could snap at him too, Rhodey answered. “It is plugged in. It just went dead.”
“I thought you said that couldn’t happen?” she snapped, and she knew her voice was more accusatory than she normally ever would be.
“I thought so too. Come look for yourselves.” He shot Natasha a look, not of anger and annoyance like she would have if someone was rude to her for no reason, but more one of empathy and pity. It made her want to throw things. Or punch the person on the other side of that pager in the face.
Rhodey turned around to head back to the pager, gesturing for them to follow him. Steve grabbed Natasha’s arm and helped hoist her out of her chair. Since Steve was a dom, his warm fingers gripping her so tightly helped a touch, a little bit of warmth spreading throughout her body, easing a bit of the fuzziness in her brain. He pulled her into the other room after Rhodey. They stopped behind Rhodey’s chair as he and Bruce tapped on the pager and tried to figure out what went wrong.
Natasha stared at the now dead little device.
“You have to get it back online,” she said, and she cringed at how desperate she sounded. “I need to know what or who is on the other end of this thing. And I need to know now! I can’t do this anymore!”
She whirled around, yanking her arm out of Steve’s grip, adrenaline and fury and frustration and maybe fear spreading through her entire being, but she had barely taken more than a step when she stumbled to a halt. She felt Steve, and Bruce and Rhodey, all behind her, turn too.
In front of her was a woman she had never seen before. She had long curly blonde hair and was dressed in a stealth bodysuit of red, blue and gold. She was glaring at all of them, like she was somehow the one who had been wronged in this situation, instead of her appearing in the middle of their completely locked and secure compound and being completely uninvited and unwanted.
Natasha gaped at her, and the woman’s eyes seemed to focus in on her own. The two of them stared at each other, and it felt to Natasha like she had stopped breathing.
For what could have been an hour or maybe just a half second, the world and time all seemed to stop. Everything else faded away, until it was just Natasha and the blonde woman.
Natasha stared at this woman she didn’t know but who she suddenly felt such an affinity for, and then a feeling of warmth surged through her entire body, so strong and so sudden and so complete, she felt like she was on fire. The room started to spin, and somewhere beside her, she heard a voice — probably Steve — ask, “Who are you?” And then, just before the world faded into blackness, she heard the woman speak.