He's been following her for nine days. Gave himself that long because when the mark's a professional themselves you've got to work out what the perfect moment is, when their guard will be down enough, if ever.

It turns out that Natalia Romanova never really lets her guard down.

She's pretending to be a high class callgirl, all big blonde curls and bee-stung lips and wandering hands on the bodies of various desperate and horny Brazilian men; she pretends to have a penchant for the man she's following, a skinny guy who'd have no shot with her in reality but has too big an ego to recognize the fact. He's a murderer, a thief, known for having an interest in the sex slave industry - not a virtuous man by any means. He's actually Clint's second mark and under other circumstances he'd let the other party do the job just to keep more blood off his hands, but he has to get in first because the second Romanova's finished she's sure to vanish into the night so the upper hand is essential. He's waiting for his moment.

He's read her file. She's a dangerous woman - anyone else that age and you'd have to call her a girl, but the things she's done defy the innocence of the word. She's killed a lot of US allies and a few good men in her time. Red Room, raised as an assassin, earned the name Black Widow because a mere look strikes fear into the hearts of men who understand what she is, and her bite is deadly.

Lucky for this guy, Mano de Silva, she hasn't gone in for the kill yet. He assumes there are things she needs to know first, and this is what gives Clint the time to get to know her. From a distance, where he sees best.

She doesn't give away much, but this is what he knows. Her shoes give her blisters; when she sits down to dinner she lifts her heels out of them for relief. This may delay her in a chase, if only for the second or so it takes her to kick them off. She rolls her neck sometimes when her companion's not around and she can drop the poised act; she's tense and her head might be the best target if it comes down to hand to hand combat. She likes to go out on the balcony and smoke at three thirty in the morning, because that's when every other person in the hotel is dead asleep and for ten minutes, she can breathe air that isn't filled with the stench of strange men's breath; she can be herself again, and every night when she blows smoke from her lips for the first time the sheer relief on her face makes him ache. This might be his opportunity; that split second where she lets herself close her eyes and breathe. He'd feel like shit for taking her out like that, but considering her reputation he may have to take his luck where it comes.

She hasn't given any guy a single genuine smile, though it's certainly convincing enough – but he's seen the real thing, when she watched a crabby middle aged woman who'd reduced her maid to tears trip face first into a puddle, and her nose crinkles in a way that's not sexy like she's trying (and succeeding) to portray but almost sweet, and a little bit wicked.

He has no use for that information.

But he can't help but notice her sense of humour. When she's with her conquests, she's a brilliant actress but he's looking for the cracks in her façade and he sees the deadness in her eyes. But every now and then, he'll see the smile, the real one. Like when she's sitting at the bar and the man mixing her drink sees his wife and daughter at the front door and gets so excited he spills her cocktail – the character she's playing narrows her eyes and huffs in annoyance but as the man scrambles to fix her a new one, Clint sees her smile. Or when de Silva bends over and his pants fall three inches past decency – he felt a wave of solidarity when she had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.

Pointless facts, but true nonetheless.

On the ninth day, he goes over what he knows and decides that tonight will be the night. He comes up with a plan – and he tells de Silva. He tells himself this is the best way to do it – he pretends it's not that he just doesn't want to kill her in that peaceful moment on the balcony.

For a guy brought up with a bloodstained spoon in his mouth, de Silva is ridiculously outraged that he's got an assassin after him. He swallows Clint's cock and bull story about a secret sect of the US government wanting a favour from the de Silva family in their ledger and agrees to go along with whatever tactic Romanova implements to lure him to a warehouse she's been sneaking away to look at over the past few days – Clint's expecting her to trap de Silva there at some point soon and he makes sure the moron will take the bait. He'll be watching, and then he'll wait for her there and well, then he'll do what he has to.

The truth is, he doesn't want to do it. He likes her. He wishes he didn't because he knows she's done some fucking awful things, and because it's his job to take her out and no matter what he feels, he'll do his job. But it seems like a fucking tragedy to kill someone who has dead eyes and still manages to laugh.

It's such a waste. Sure she's beautiful, and that's worth something in an ugly world, but he's got this feeling that in another life, if she hadn't seen so much and done so much and been so thoroughly screwed up as a child, her eyes would not be dead and the glimpses of spirit he sees in her would be worth more than just a weapon to do the work of bad men who have taken away any other chance she had at life.


It's three thirty in the morning and she's running through an alleyway in Rio de Janeiro in a cocktail dress and blonde wig, clutching a hideous gold necklace, bare feet flying across cobblestones as a furious man - the younger brother of a Brazilian crime family, mass murderer and son of the woman to whom her bounty belongs - chases her. It's pitch black but she's planned for this and she knows every step, every contingency; she could do this with her eyes closed. She makes sure to inject a little panic and urgency in her breathing to make him think he's frightening her; she measures her steps carefully, letting him catch up to her at a believable pace. By the time she gets to the warehouse, he's close enough that she can smell the stale rum on his breath and hear the wheezing of his lungs, and she gives a scream of convincing terror to make him think she's as desperate as he wants her to be. She forces herself not to let her eyes stray towards the third storey window, and she slips into the building but lets him leap in after her before the door clicks shut. This is when she drops the scared little girl act and turns around to face him – Mano de Silva.

He's a small guy, sweaty and out of shape, and despite the handgun in his jacket, or perhaps because of it, she's not afraid of him. Besides, she could have it out of his hands and buried in his temple in less than three seconds if she felt so inclined. He's staring at her with slitted eyes, like he's trying to work something out, and then they go wide in comprehension. 'You –you're that whore!'

She's posing as a callgirl and pretended to be interested in him so she could get a handle on his personality, work out an angle to get him alone. He'd been extremely nice to her then, buying her drinks and running his spindly hands through her fake blonde curls. But a man's true colours always come out when he doesn't have the possibility of sex dangling in front of his nose. Like a scrap of meat to a dog.

'I am many things,' she says coolly, 'and a whore is only one of them.'

She's had to be, sometimes. Men are pathetic. From the most powerful criminal operations to the scummiest street rings, there's always a weak link in the chain who'll give her information or an opportunity for a chance to get their rocks off with a pretty girl.

She doesn't say this for his benefit though, but for the benefit of the man in the third storey, who she knows can hear everything they're saying. Just because she's a whore doesn't mean he should forget everything else she is, and if he's going to be the one to take her out she wants him to know exactly who she is. She's killed enough people to know that there's a kind of peace in your murderer at least understanding something about the life they're responsible for ending.

She imagines she can hear the rough slide of an arrow notching itself into place, but she knows it's not time yet.

'Ah, but that I know,' hisses de Silva, and he straightens up in front of her, puffing out his chest; a smirk grows onto his face as he prepares to tell her something he's sure will take her by surprise. He may not have known her in the club, but he knows who he was expecting tonight – though he thinks she doesn't know that. 'Black Widow.'

There's a beat as his words hang in the air and he waits, certain she's about to drop her jaw or sink to her knees in defeat. She raises an eyebrow, unimpressed. A coil of anticipation begins to come loose and billow in her chest; this is what she's been waiting for, for the past nine days of pretending and averting her eyes from the man she's not supposed to see, who is always watching her. 'Congratulations, Mr de Silva,' she says courteously. Calmly. 'Despite your general ineptitude as a covert criminal, you've clearly got the intelligence required to listen to everything the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division of the US government tells you.'

This time a jaw does drop, but it's not hers – he splutters in astonishment, and actually stumbles back in surprise and – she notes with satisfaction – no little amount of fear that she's not as wrong-footed as he'd supposed.

Meanwhile, she hears a rush of air in the rafters above her and knows that her friend from the third storey has been brought down by her words.

'You know?' gasps de Silva.

'That he approached you and told you that I had been hired by your enemies to kill you?' she asks. 'That he knew I'd planned originally to trap you in this warehouse, torture the de Silvas' plans for the Versailles summit out of you and put a bullet through your skull? That he enlisted you to pretend to go along with my little trick – stealing your mother's necklace,' she holds up the gaudy gold chain and lets it slip through her fingers to the ground with a clatter, 'and pretending to let you chase me, so he could ambush me here?'

At last she does what she's been itching to do since she got here; she looks up, and sees the man whose face she is not supposed to know staring at her from the dark. She's an expert in eyes, because she trades in a world where people communicate with little else and are able to hide every other form of expression. His have become a constant in her life over the past nine days, though she's never looked straight into them before; only felt his gaze, following her through hotel lobbies, club dance floors, restaurant patios, crowded streets, quiet streets, beaches. She's a spy and she's known from a young age how to sense another spy. It's the weirdest feeling, and it's different every time. When she was young, still in training, she'd be sent out with an older KGB guy to supervise her and it always felt like an animal nipping at her heels; a constant reminder that if she faltered, hesitated for even a second, she'd have a bullet in her spine from an organization which just didn't have the patience for weakness. She's been followed by gangs, and that's like the sound of a gun being loaded when she doesn't know where it is; the possibility of a bullet coming from any direction.

She doesn't operate like that; she waits for a perfect moment and so does this guy, whose eyes – grey and almost gentle, but sharp as cut glass, she can see now – feel like a hand on the back of her neck. She doesn't really like being touched but metaphorically, the feeling is different. She's been watched before, but never like this: never so constant and unwavering, and for the first few days it unnerved her, like being in the presence of someone who never blinks, but she's gotten used to him. She knows it's his job to kill her but she doesn't hate him for it. She's glad that since she's going to die, the man who's going to kill her is someone a bit like her: careful, calm, considered. The kind of person who doesn't kill for fun but because it has to be done. He'll make it fast.

He doesn't betray any surprise at her knowledge. Just looks at her, and she's kind of surprised that he's not sick of it by now. She smiles up at him and lifts a hand in greeting.

Slowly, he unfolds himself from his crouch in the rafters and then drops smoothly to the ground, landing straight in front of her.

This is not what she was expecting. This man, she expected to kill from a distance.

It's the first time she's gotten a good look at him. He's handsome, not in an obvious or flashy way but there's those intense eyes and the nice lines of his face and a kind of radiating calmness that she can't help but like. And he's got the body of a soldier; that, she's always respected. He just keeps looking at her.

'Uh – listen, McKenzie,' de Silva says anxiously, stepping towards them, 'y-you said this was a trap, you said she - she had no idea what was –'

'Your job is done, de Silva,' the man says flatly, never tearing his eyes from Natasha's. 'You can leave.'

De Silva's relief is palpable, and he practically bows.

'Great,' he breathes, and his watery eyes turn to Natasha, filled with a combination of fear and contempt. 'Make – make sure the bitch suffers –'

'Now,' the man growls, and Natasha would laugh if she wasn't so well trained because de Silva almost falls on his face, he turns around so fast. He runs gracelessly to the door, and his hand is almost on the knob when the man suddenly swings his bow up and with lightning speed, sends an arrow straight through the back of de Silva's head. He falls like a marionette whose strings have been cut and lands with his face on the ground, blood growing in a puddle around him.

Natasha had a feeling that she and the archer shared a mark, so this doesn't really surprise her. But she expects him to turn on her next and when he lowers the bow to his side again, that does.

'So,' he says, almost conversationally, 'you knew. I've got to admit, I'm surprised. I knew you were good but you didn't see me this whole time –'

'Of course I saw you. I saw you for the first time at three pm last Thursday, in the courtyard outside the Papagaio Hotel.'

This surprises him, she can tell – he's not used to being discovered, especially that early in the game, and he's certainly not used to people concealing it from him. It's obvious he doesn't like it. His gaze seems to intensify.

'So why did you stick around? You knew I was going to kill de Silva. Why bother with the pretence, why let me get a chance to take you out? You could be back in Russia by now.'

'I don't want to be back in Russia. I was paid to make sure de Silva wound up dead by the 7th. It doesn't matter to me or my client how that occurs. And when I figured out I was a mark too, I guess I wanted to stick around… see what you'd do.' She tilts her head. 'And look – you got me.'

'You let me get you,' he corrects her. He gives a humourless laugh. 'Not sure why.'

She realizes she's not behaving the way he expected her to; she's not fighting him, she's not even trying to get away, and she knows that he's being smart by trying to make sure she hasn't got some trick happening before he puts her down. But she wishes he'd just get it over with and stop questioning his good luck. She's here; she's wide open. Why won't he just take the shot?


What the hell is she doing?

Nothing is happening the way he expected it to. She knew about the trap, that was bizarre enough, but she's known he was watching her this whole time? Her eyes never went to him once – he never even considered that she knew he was there, because not only has that never, ever happened before, he knows enough about psychology to know that it's close to impossible to resist looking at someone who is watching you – let alone for nine days straight – and he's always counted on that to let him know if his cover was blown.

It's never happened before.

So she knew. And maybe she was curious about the weird guy with the bow and arrow who was following her and stuck around just to 'see what he would do', but that doesn't explain why she seems to want him to put an arrow between her eyes.

Up close, she looks even younger than from a distance and it's not making his job any easier. Part of the reason he likes to put a good forty foot drop between him and his targets is that the space makes it a lot easier to think of them as targets in the first place. Up close, her dead eyes are a little less dead and he realizes that she may be practically inviting death right now, but it's not that she doesn't want to live – she just doesn't see a way to live any life but the miserable one she's been dealt, and even death is better than that.

He gets her. Which is fucking strange for him because usually he looks at a target and thinks they deserve what's coming to them for all the pain and suffering they dole out. This girl is probably his most dangerous mark yet and despite the goddamn professionalism he prides himself on, what he feels for her is understanding.

But she's looking at him like she thinks he's completely retarded.

'Are you trying to get me to kill you?' he asks bluntly.

'Isn't that what you're here to do?' she asks slowly, her voice clear and almost tentative, like a nurse trying to reintroduce an amnesia patient to the unpleasant details of his life. But more mocking.

'Yeah… but you're practically begging for it, Romanova.'

Her eyes narrow and for some reason he feels triumphant; she's still got pride – if he had to guess, he'd say that's what's stopped her killing herself since she cares so little for her life; suicide isn't very honourable but being assassinated has its merits. The expression on her face tells him she's starting to worry; she'd counted on dying today and she doesn't understand why it hasn't happened yet. Neither does he, really. But…

'I don't beg, McKenzie.'

'Waiting for it, then,' he corrects himself. He hesitates. He'd given de Silva a fake name for obvious reasons, but something makes him want to give this girl the truth. 'And… my name's Barton.'

She inhales sharply and he knows it's been a long time for her, since someone who knew her real name gave her theirs. He sees her lips shape silently around the consonants of his name and is glad to have given her that, glad to realize that in the past nine days of him watching and her feeling him – letting him, really – watch her, she has come to be curious about him. She cares what his name is.

'And it matters to you how I feel about my own death, Barton?' she asks angrily. She's asking to be set free. 'How the fuck are you a master assassin?'

'Usually it doesn't. But I've never killed someone who wanted to die before.'

It's as he says it that he realizes this is it; this is what makes her so different from the other people he's killed. There were some whose lives he had woven himself into before taking them out and their faces always had absolute betrayal on them, whether they knew or liked him at all – just because they felt life itself had betrayed them by letting him get close. Some got a glimpse of him bow in hand before he released an arrow and the sheer power of their desire to live rushed to their faces like blood. Because they were bad people, responsible for the murders of others, this usually felt like justice. And there were those who never saw him at all; shot down mid step, mid sentence, or mid breath, which was almost the most concentrated form of the will to live; actually living.

Never before had a girl stood in front of him wanting nothing more than for him to kill her. And he thinks it's because she recognized how awful she had become; not just a child assassin anymore, not a member of the KGB, because she'd run away from them a year ago, but a mercenary. She killed for cash and she didn't want to live and it's the fact that she still has the goodness in her to feel suicidal that makes him think there's hope for her yet.

'Are you saying you're not going to?' she asks disbelievingly. And he sees the despair in her eyes.

He takes a deep breath. Imagines the look on Coulson's face – shit, the look on Fury's face – and makes a choice. He kills for them – they owe it to him to trust him when he makes a different call.

'I don't think so.'

'Why?' she cries, and her voice cracks.

'I was sent to kill you because you're a threat to SHIELD's interests and the interests of my country. Or you were. But if you're looking to die that means you're done with that life… maybe I can get you a new one.'

She looks like she's been slapped in the face, and a split second later rage sets in and he realizes that in offering her salvation he has confirmed that he doesn't want to kill her today, and in her mind that's robbing her of the salvation she had planned. He doesn't even have time to blink before her foot is flying towards his head in a roundhouse kick – staggering from surprise, he brings his bow up and just manages to catch her ankle, shoving her away. She

'I don't want to fight you but I will if I have to,' he warns her, and she snarls, running towards him, and he realizes that's exactly what she wants, to force him – he takes a flying leap and grabs one of the low hung rafters in his hands, swinging himself up into them. He gapes as she just keeps running, shaking her blonde wig free, until she hits the wall, runs several more feet up the vertical surface and flips herself up onto a rafter a small distance away from him, crouched steadily and with her eyes still glittering with anger. Long, auburn red curls frame her face.

This is why she's called the Black Widow.

She starts swinging gracefully towards him and he notches an arrow, reluctant but ready to hurt her if he has to if that's what it takes. He sends one flying but she dodges and it whistles past her arm. When she gets closer he swings his bow lengthways towards her legs in an undercut which she jumps, aiming a punch at his nose; he catches her fist and grunts with the effort of twisting her arm behind her back and pinning her against him in a headlock – he yelps as she flings her head backwards and he nearly gets clobbered.

'You ready to talk sensibly yet?' he growls into her ear.

'Sensible,' she grits out, voice hoarse, 'doesn't seem to be your style.'

He sighs.

'I don't want to be saved.'

This time, her voice is quiet, and he gets the impression she thinks she has a shot at convincing him to let her go. But no matter what happens, whatever choice she ultimately makes, he can't let her leave this warehouse tonight.

His hand is currently pressed against her neck, and he moves his thumb slightly, finding a spot just below her jugular. Carefully, he applies the pressure he practiced a million times in basic training and after a few seconds, Natalia Romanova's body goes limp in his arms. Her breathing gets slow and even and her head lolls back against his shoulder. He manages to scoop her legs up and adjusts so he has her in a fireman's carry, preparing to make a potentially dicey jump back to the ground of the warehouse.

'Too bad. I want to save you.'