A/N: For Lalin. Written in about 3 hours, warnings for language and violence.
In SHIELD, there is no such thing as a holiday.
The mission briefing, conducted on the flight over, is remarkably simple. There's an group of manufacturing warehouses on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, normally used for storing crates of machined parts ("Civilians?" he'd said pointedly, brow cocked, and Coulson, calmly making notations to the floor plans in a steady if cramped hand, merely replied, "Cleared out for the holidays, for the most part. Thank the fall of communism for that one, Barton") and in one of them is a section of supervisory offices on the ground floor, offices that aren't being used for their intended purpose, because the lessees have made some unapproved renovations that seem an awful lot like they're turning it into a safe house. Intel says that the target's handlers intend to move her there over the course of the next several days, to acclimate her to the area before the civilians file back in; they're hiding her in plain sight, intending to unleash her like an act of God and then recall her just as quickly.
Agent Clint Barton, codename Hawkeye, had been deployed to make certain that never happened. SHIELD doesn't have much on this female, notated Black Widow in the files that nobody thought that Clint had access to - fingerprints, blood samples, a few strands of scarlet hair taken from crime scenes - but they know she's a vicious, highly trained killer. They know the names of the people who have ended up in the morgue at her hands - and in the end, they know more than enough to sign her death warrant, and that's really all that matters to Clint, who's been doing this long enough that he's stopped questioning his orders.
(It's all that's ever really mattered, if he wants to get right down to it. He's pushing thirty, been with SHIELD since twenty, had Coulson as his handler since he was twenty-two and punched the last guy in his smart mouth for saying something he really shouldn't have about Clint's decidedly checkered past. He hasn't spoken to Barney in years, has no other family he cares to mention, and Coulson, while he's kind of Clint's only friend, is clearly married to the job and probably planned to spend his Christmas doing paperwork and making love to his desk on the floor under the tree. Where the hell else is Barton going to go? Who'd fucking take him, for that matter? It wasn't like SHIELD had a damn Christmas party or anything. He might as well sign on the dotted line, pack his bags and get on the fucking plane.)
This is how Clint Barton ends up perched on the tar roof of a warehouse on Christmas Eve, huddled in his layers with an inadequate heating pad beneath him to keep off the frostbite, snow settling on his modified hunter's blind, his bow coated in resin to keep it from icing over as he listens to distant bells toll midnight out across the darkened city. The plaza of buildings beneath him is dark, snow sifting across the tile and concrete and lending the whole scene a sense of calm and waiting, as if the world itself expects Santa Claus to be flying over at any minute, and damned if the land won't be as picturesque as possible for a cityscape when he does.
(Though he's pretty far from the wharf, he can still smell the river. Maybe someday he'll climb the Winter Palace on the embankment and look out across all that emptiness, and feel clean and calm himself, just for a few minutes.)
A truck, the Russian version of U-Haul, drives up and idles at a red light, across the way, on the backside of the warehouses; Clint watches with avid interest as half a dozen figures in black jump out of the back of it, two of them holding the arms of one much smaller, and suddenly every system in his body and brain goes from passive to active, like a switch has been flipped. Clint doesn't need binocs, or sights on his weapons - when he takes them, it's generally only because Coulson insists - but it isn't masculine arrogance that makes it so, and he isn't boasting when he claims he sees better at a distance. Barton is a master at bringing the target to him, at making it seem in his own mind like he is standing inches away from something, when in reality he is hundreds of feet gone; it's a talent, a mind trick as much as a physical ability, one that SHIELD didn't give him and can't train to reproduce in someone else.
He brings the target to him, and he sees the small, slender figure stumbling over the landscape, hands on her arms to both guide and contain her, a black cloth bag over her head, as if she's a trained falcon and that will be enough to keep her from becoming dangerous. The men around her are grim-faced and full of purpose, two on point and one on rearguard at her back, and he tracks them until they vanish beneath the interfering horizon of the outline of the nearest warehouse. The truck drives on, innocent and heedless; Clint whispers the plate numbers to Coulson, gives a brief, concise update of what has happened.
Coulson's crackling voice in the earpiece is the only touchstone of reality that the sniper has. "Get your bow ready, but don't jump to conclusions until I can confirm the target's in-house."
Clint curls his lip. "This isn't my first rodeo, you know."
"Hawkeye," and Coulson's tone doesn't change, but he only uses the radio callsign when he's annoyed with Clint and his attitude, "we've only got one shot at this. I'd prefer it if you made it count."
The lights are out in the buildings - have been out for the three days that Clint's been up in his nest, eating granola bars and doing his best impression of a Zen master, trying not to think - but he sees movement through the windows near the offices, motion where there should be only stillness. He doesn't get up from beneath the blind, not yet; the snow is still falling, and the human eye is more sensitive to movement in darkness, his more keen to see it than most. It could easily be an illusion, a trick of the wind. But no, he sees the movement again, then hears a soft thwack that echoes out across the plaza, and Coulson whispers into his earpiece, "Phone and electrical have just been cut for the entire building - literally cut, with an axe. I can see it on the cameras from next door."
Bad luck, that - he's going in blind now, Coulson can't relay positional information or confirm the identity of the target before Clint looses arrows. There's a good chance, better than good, that the wrong woman is going to die tonight, and though that thought should really sit uneasily in Barton's stomach, it doesn't, and the fact that it doesn't bothers him more than the actual concept itself. The psych team at SHIELD assigned to his case is going to have a fucking field day with that one, he's sure. "I'm going in," he whispers, belly-crawling back out of the hunting blind with bow in hand, and Coulson doesn't countermand him.
Clint's halfway down the side of the building where he has his nest, abseiling past dark windows like a falling angel (if falling angels wore climbing harnesses and rappelling ropes) when he hears the first shots.
The gunfire is shockingly loud in the silence of the plaza, and Clint, the throttle of his senses thrown open as wide as it will go, flinches from it. "What the hell is that?" he hisses into the radio, and he can hear Coulson scrambling to adjust, but there's two little round holes in one of the office windows now, and when Clint's booted feet set down silently on the concrete, he's got the sudden absolute conviction that this is going to hell in a hurry and there's nothing he can do about it -
A man crashes through the glass as he's thinking this, and he has the bow in his hands and an arrow notched before Coulson can reply. The man-turned-body lies still, a bullet hole between his open, startled eyes - one of the larger figures from the truck - and there's more motion inside the offices, grunts and screaming and more shots going off, a rapid staccato as if someone's emptying the clip all at once. If the area weren't so damn deserted, he'd already be hearing sirens.
Shit shit shit - Clint sprints across the open space between buildings, steps over the body and presses his back to the solid wall beneath the windowsill, expecting shots fired his way at any moment. When they don't come, he pokes his head up over the sill; the office behind the jagged bits of glass is empty but for rolling shell-casings and smears of blood on the wall.
Coulson's muttering in his ear, that cascade of babbling words that means that Phil is really, truly nervous, but he hasn't called an abort mission yet, so Barton isn't listening. He vaults the sill like the gymnast that he is, lands on the floor of the office in utter silence, one knee touched gently to the floor and his bow up and ready. He hears a man cursing, the words echoing back at him as if from in a large space, hears muttered words in a higher pitch, all of it in Russian - Clint's up on his feet and padding for the door when he hears the crack of a slap, the crumpling sound of something small hitting the floor.
When he peers out from the doorway into the darkened warehouse, he sees a man standing over a small shape in the blackness of the warehouse, his night-tuned eyes picking out fine details - the bodies scattered around them, the ragged breath of the man and the blood dripping from his limp right arm, the way the woman on the floor curls around herself, arms up over her head, instinctively protecting her vitals. Clint's not much up on his Russian (he knows how to ask for a drink, and where the bathroom is and not much else) but it doesn't take a dictionary to understand the way the man yells at her tiny form on the floor, the way he paces close and kicks her hard, like a dog that's bitten him.
It's a mistake. The takedown is beautifully executed; in the time it takes Clint to draw the arrow smoothly back against the bowstring, she's gotten the man's leg and swept it out from under him, and when he falls she's on top of him and she takes his face in both her tiny hands and smashes the back of his head against the concrete floor, over and over again, screaming as the man's skull shatters and his brains grind against the pavement, screaming as his nose breaks and the orbits around his eyes fracture, screaming as blood fountains under and across and around her, the repetitive motion an obscene and violent mockery of kneading bread. She doesn't stop screaming when he's dead - only stops when she runs out of breath to continue, and she takes in a shuddering lungful of air with her eyes closed, visibly pulling herself together, before she gets to her feet and steps off of the ruined corpse, looking for the next attacker, the next target.
But there are none; the Widow has killed them all, the kicked dog has turned on its masters. But now, she is bereft of purpose, bereft of meaning, and there is no one left to tell her where to go and what to do and most importantly, who to be - so she stands shivering and forlorn in the empty warehouse and looks around with wild eyes, frightened and uncertain, probably for the first time in her life.
Clint sights down the arrow, and brings the target to him.
A curly halo of hair so red that it is undeniable even in the shadows, short and ragged enough that he gets the impression that it had been shaved off and allowed to grow back untended; feral eyes, green he thinks in the darkness, but there is no rational thought behind her irises, only the drive of instinct, to kill or be killed, and above all the will to survive. But she is skinny and sharp-boned and ill-tended, a bruise on one cheek and the red mark of a backhand on the other, and she moves like she's guarding herself from injury, arms woven across her lower torso and walking backwards away from the corpses, to give the solid wall her back. There is a promise of great beauty in her features, a promise that Clint thinks will be fulfilled, given enough food and time and growth to reach it - but God, she's so fucking young. Nothing in the files ever mentioned that the Black Widow, scourge of SHIELD intel and bane of her handlers' enemies, can't possibly be older than fifteen. And even that's a generous assessment.
Agent Barton, codename Hawkeye, has fingers curled around the fletching of his arrow and the draw pulled back against his cheek, but it is Clint that hesitates to release, Clint that stops and thinks, Christ almighty, she's just a kid! And while Clint Barton is a trained killer, has been making trickier shots than this since he was eight years old and held a bow for the very first time, he can't do it. He just can't.
She's just a kid, and no matter what Clint thinks of himself, it's just not fucking in him to murder a kid in cold blood, no matter what it is that SHIELD says she's done.
"Your vitals just spiked. Have you found her? Do you have a shot?" Coulson, of course, his calm restored - he must have made some sort of technological magic happen, must have maneuvered the camera angles to see inside the office, give him the feeling of a measure of control. But Clint can't bring himself to answer, staring at the Widow's face (and what a farce of a codename that is, because there's no way in hell she's old enough to ever have been married) and when Coulson repeats his questions, Clint reverses the draw, releases the tension from his arm and his shoulders, so that he can hold bow and arrow both in a single hand.
Then he yanks the earpiece off of his head, letting it dangle against his collar while Coulson's voice calls tinnily up at him, and willingly steps out of the darkness of the office.
She sees him immediately, drops into a fighting stance, one fist by her chin and the other held low, flashing her teeth like a wild animal sighting a threat. He puts his free hand up - "I'm gonna set this down now," he adds in his best tiger-calming voice, the one he learned in the circus all those years ago, "and then we're gonna talk for a bit, okay?" - and he sets the bow on the ground first, shrugs off the quiver to lay it down alongside.
His throat is still mic'd up, and he can hear Coulson's voice distantly through the abandoned earpiece, rising in panic. He's almost certain he hears Barton, what the fuck are you doing, and the fact that Clint has brought Agent Phil Coulson to the depths of dropping the F-bomb makes a smile tug at the outer corners of his mouth.
He's got his hands up as he slowly approaches her, as wide and high as if this were a hostage situation, which, Clint supposes, it sort of is, only she's holding herself hostage, and continues in that smooth, calm tiger-tamer's voice. "My name's Clint. I'm not gonna hurt you," and he isn't sure that she understands English until he hears her snort derisively at that, intelligence leaping into her face, and his smile widens into a grin. "I work for some people -"
"That sent you here to kill me?" she asks imperiously, her English impeccable, and even though she's wet to the skin in blood, shivering from cold and terrified about what she's going to do next, the sheer amount of balls it takes to say that to his face, in this situation, makes him grin ever wider. (Clint will look back years later and say that this is the moment when he first loves her, when she is a little ball of exposed neuroses with no direction and even less hope of a future, but she still has the defiance and the nerve to spit in the face of a stranger.)
He doesn't answer her question, though, because that would give her power over the flow of the conversation. "How about we call it a rescue?" he says instead, and he stops his forward movement when her knees tremble and her shoulders tense, as if she is considering throwing herself at him in a last desperate bid for true freedom. "Your handlers are dead, which is good for you and good for my agency. But I don't think you've got anywhere left to go." He tilted his head, studied her expression, flickering under the shadows, and with a toe, nudged the ruined corpse of the man who had tried to kick her into submission. "And if this isn't all of your handlers, the ones that're left will be pretty pissed at you, don't you think?"
"So, what, I should just blithely go with you instead?" she spits at him even as she takes a step back and away from his influence, cowering from his offer, hissing as ineffectually as a kitten before a Doberman. Clint is overcome with the sense that she has never had to make her own decisions before; that she mistrusts all paths equally because she has no sense of safety or wisdom, there has never been safety or wisdom in all her young life, and it makes Clint's chest hurt just thinking about it.
It hurts to use the tiger-voice now too, because it's trickery of a very specific sort, and he thinks that this little red-haired girl-assassin has had enough of trickery. "You don't have a whole lot of options," he says frankly, brows up, allowing his arms to hand at his sides. "And honestly, if I were you I'd probably tell me to go fuck myself and jump out the nearest window. But aside from that, what're you going to do? Where will you go?" He rolls his shoulders, feels an uncomfortable parallel with his own thoughts from earlier in the week, the sniper with no past and the girl with no future. "Who else'd take you, for that matter? Best case scenario, you're on your own. Worst case, you're on your own with people hunting you, tracking your every move. I'm offering you a way out." Coulson's stopped screeching in the earpiece, and the lack of noise in that cold, open space is almost deafening; Clint can feel it weighing down on them both like a physical presence, and when the girl's knees tremble again, he thinks it's from weakness rather than the cold. She doesn't appear to be injured, but how can he really tell, in this darkened warehouse? Even his eyes can barely detect blood on black.
She presses her lips together in a thin white line, sweeps her feral gaze up and down his frame, assessing, sniffing out the myriad ways in which he could be a threat to her. "Take off your shoes," she says suddenly, and the oddness of the command makes his forehead wrinkle; seeing his momentary confusion, she notes in tones like a queen, "You could have knives in your boots. Take them off."
Bemused, he does, hopping from one foot to the other to pry the boots off of his feet for the first time in days - "Socks too," she adds, and Clint is almost certain that she's fucking with him as he peels off the socks, drops them on top of the boots on the warehouse floor. Fuck that floor is cold against the soles of his feet, and he's a German terrorist and a bad cowboy joke away from being John McClane; he's about to say something like Gonna ask me where the detonators are now when her trembling knees finally give and she goes down in a heap of limbs on the concrete.
Anyone else would rush to her side, heedless of the danger she represents, but Clint, heart thudding in his throat, merely pads over at an unhurried pace, walking on the balls of his feet to minimize their contact with the frozen floor. When he draws close enough to hear her cursing in Russian, he stops, watches her sit herself up and smack at her own knee and the meat of her leg, unwontedly pissed beyond all reason. Clint sees a smattering of dark droplets on the floor now, black in the dimness and round as drops of oil left from a leaky car engine, and drops into a delicately balanced crouch, his heels against his glutes, forearms resting on his thighs.
"You hurt?" She gives him a glare that, if looks could kill, would have immolated him into ashes on the spot - he brightens his grin in response, easily sidesteps the malice in her eyes. (In time, this half-starved kitten will grow into a sleek huntress, able to reduce even brave men to puddles of quivering goo without so much as touching them; but today is not that day.) "Look, clearly you're not going anywhere, and you're smart, you know I ain't going anywhere. What say you come with me, just for now, and you think about what I said?" He lifts his hands, spreads them wide in a deflective gesture. He knows she can see the calluses on his palms, watches her eyes flick to them before they return to his face.
It's a long minute in the silence before she answers; until she does, Clint sits there in the cold and pretends he isn't thinking about how long it'll take bare feet on that cold concrete before SHIELD has to start cutting off toes. "You're not armed," she says reluctantly, as much to affirm it to herself as to question Clint, and the uncertainty in her hooded gaze is almost endearing. It's a tactic, he's sure, a gambit to make him judge her less than him, but even this early in their acquaintance, Clint sees right through her.
"Helpless as a newborn babe," he says somberly, and she snorts and curses under her breath again, and Clint takes it as tacit permission. She's impossibly light when he scoops her up off the floor, cold as the air around them, and for a moment Clint considers putting her down in order that he can shuck off his outermost layer, but he expects her to smack him for the princess-carry and doesn't expect it when she tangles one of her fists in his collar, the backs of her frozen fingers pressed to his skin, up against his collarbone, her other hand tucked beneath her chin. It's a surprisingly vulnerable gesture, like a child clinging to a parent, craving the comfort of warmth, of touch.
Damn, he should never have let her this close. Even he isn't completely immune to her ability to ingratiate, playing on the hardwired instincts of all humankind.
"Put my earpiece in, would you? Lucy's got some esplainin' to do," he says in a low voice, and though from the frown on her face she misses the reference, she complies anyway, her fingers deft despite the cold; immediately Coulson, once again calm and poised, comes crackling over the radio.
"This is so far outside the mission parameters than I think we're entering Narnian territory, Barton. How, exactly, do you want me to explain this to the Director? You haven't blown a mission like this in years."
"Yeah, well," and Clint's already moving, striding silently for the only doorway to the outside that he can see, "I made a different call. You owe me like six favors, if we're keeping track, and I'm cashing them all in. Make it work. Besides, look at it this way, you can tell Fury I got him a Christmas present, or something -"
She socks him across the mouth with her free hand for that, growls under her breath exactly like the little feral thing she is, and though Clint doesn't drop her or even go off his balance, he works his jaw, grins down at her with the sort of martial respect that one ought to treat a loaded weapon with. "I deserved that," he says, for her benefit; she has otherwise barely moved, unblinking and staring up at him, all piss and vinegar and poisonous regard. Her fingers are still in his collar, and he guesses from this gesture and the look on her face that the punch is a mild form of correction, nothing more. This speaks volumes about her previous life, volumes that Clint doesn't even want to peruse, much less read in detail.
When he shoulders open the door of the warehouse, he can hear chopper blades, distant but still disrupting the solitude of the snow-sifting night; he hopes like hell there's a good medic on that Kasatka, because the girl's blood is starting to drip down his forearm and off his elbow, to spatter a slow trail against the concrete.
"You're gonna want to scramble a cleanup team," he adds into the mic, waiting for the running lights of the chopper to appear in the cloud-shrouded sky. "Send someone to recover my bow. And my boots."
"Your boots." Coulson sounds skeptical. The girl doesn't bat an eyelash, even when Clint laughs, and he really ought to have known that this isn't going to go down easy, that his life will never be simple and empty again - but honestly, he really doesn't give a damn.
Today, a killer saves a life, and that's more than enough to lend him some badly-needed hope.
"Yeah. I'll tell you later. Think you can find me a fresh pair of socks, while you're at it?"
Her name is Natasha. Barton re-christens her Nat pretty much immediately, and from the sudden curvature of her split lips, the little nickname is the first real gift that she has ever been given, the first thing she has ever received both without expectation of reciprocity and that cannot be stripped from her without her permission. The second gift is when Coulson, still mid-debriefing speech about how Barton's misbehavior on mission is unacceptable, shrugs out of his suit jacket and swirls it over her shoulders, a makeshift blanket infused with the smell of Phil's cologne. It almost covers up the scent of blood, and Natasha, her bandages already turning scarlet, presses closer into Clint, tense, wary, as if she expects this sudden tide of goodwill to dry up just as quickly as it appeared, certain that she will find herself cast out in the cold at any moment.
Coulson watches her with an odd, almost fatherly combination of outrage and sympathy, and Clint knows without asking that the agent will go to the gates of Hell and back before he lets Fury kick her out from under SHIELD's protection. Clint's never been more grateful for anything in his life.
She falls asleep on the plane, and Clint can't bring himself to wake her in order to strap her in; in sleep she still retains the innocence that her handlers stole from her, and though he never asks her about her previous existence (and she never tells, aside from a few hints here and there), he gets the feeling that his imagination can't even compete with the horrors of reality.
It'll be years before she's anything approaching normal, of course. The first couple months, Coulson drags Clint out of bed at four AM so many times that Barton just starts sleeping on a military cot in the hallway outside her (keycard-locked) room, because he won't have to walk so fucking far when she starts screaming - which she inevitably does, and Clint doesn't blame her, knowing what she's been through. When she wakes in a cold sweat from her nightmares, in her own mind still trapped in that frozen Russian hellhole that had been her home for the first fifteen years of her life, she won't let anyone other than the archer near her; the first time one of the doctors tries to sedate her, she throws him through a wall, and after that the psych team sticks to observing Natasha at a distance and letting Clint handle the close-up work.
Eventually she asks him not to leave when he puts her back to bed, and against his better judgment, he stays, leaned up against the side of the bed with his legs stretched out along the floor, one of her tiny hands in his hair, reassuring herself that he hasn't vanished while she wasn't paying attention. (Coulson gives him a lecture in the morning, about how easily she could have strangled him in his sleep with his own dog tags, but Clint's not awake enough to hear most of it. It's not the first such lecture on his reckless behavior, and he's damn sure it won't be the last.)
Some nights she wants space, and sends him away; other nights, she invites him to migrate into the bed, and though nothing ever happens (because no matter what the psych team thinks, Clint isn't laying one inappropriate finger on Natasha while she's underage, he feels enough like a dirty old man already) his mere proximity seems to keep away the bad dreams.
She levels out, with time, and given room to grow she blossoms, just like Clint thought she might. She'll never stop watching people with an eye for their weaknesses, he thinks, never stop planning escape routes and the most expedient ways to kill those around her should they turn on her, but it's less a defense mechanism and more a mental exercise, now; when she returns from her very first solo mission, face flushed from victory and eyes alight with the sense of accomplishment, he knows she's gonna be okay. Not good and not great, because Clint knows from personal experience that when you've got a background like that and you work for SHIELD for a living, nothing's ever really great - but Nat's gonna be okay, and really, he can't ask for much more than that.
Somewhere between St. Petersburg and Budapest, Clint stops thinking of her as a kid he rescued and starts thinking of her as an equal.
Somewhere between Budapest and New Mexico, he stops thinking of her as as an equal and starts thinking of her as the woman who rescued him.
And then somewhere between New Mexico and New York, she actually goes and does it, pulls him out of the darkness in the way only Natasha can: by slamming his head into a metal guard-rail until he literally has the Loki knocked out of him, and Clint wakes up in a world without Phil Coulson in it.
She's the one who keeps the bad dreams away this time. He doesn't invite her, because he knows that if she comes she'll migrate under the covers to touch him skin to skin, and he's over forty by now while she's still younger than he was when he found her, and that's got to be eight different kinds of illegal - but Nat shows up anyway, and she winds herself up against him under the sheets, all coiled strength and sinuous curves, and she holds his cheeks between her clever fingers and tells him with absolute sincerity that she isn't going anywhere, that if he wakes in the night she will be right there to remind him who he is. Natasha knows better than anyone what it's like, to be afraid to sleep, because when you wake up you might find yourself a stranger.
In the dark he touches her face and tells her he loves her, and she smiles and tells him that she's known all along.
Seven months later, Christmas bells in the air, she gives him a box wrapped gaily in paper decorated with snowmen, and much to the bemusement of the rest of the Avengers, it's stuffed to the brim with socks.
Clint laughs until he cries, and he knows they're gonna be alright.