Much thanks to Alpha_Flyer for beta reading this story! I really appreciate the input!
Natalia Romanova led Clint on quite the chase across Middle Europe. She didn't stay in one location for long.
In Prague, Clint found her, but she managed to elude him after only a brief glance. She left a dead German operative behind, and he and Coulson had to call that in and wait for further instructions.
New intel sent them off to Poland.
In Warsaw, he slipped into the attic of a small pub she'd entered and after drilling a small hole, used a remote camera to watch her as she sipped her drink.
She sensed him. She was wary. And she used a hulking brute of a man as a shield, hanging on his arm and flirting shamelessly.
She was good, but Clint already knew that.
The man left the pub with her, and he followed. They entered an inn, and he set up on a roof across the street. He didn't catch another glimpse of her that night. She was too smart to stand near a window.
The next morning, she left with a group of tourists and caught the train. There was no sign of the brute she had taken back to the inn with her.
In Krakow, he watched her sip coffee and eat a pastry in a quaint shop. She seemed just a normal woman enjoying breakfast, but Clint could see the dark circles under her eyes, the way she jerked around when another patron dropped a mug.
Her eyes were never still. She noticed everyone and everything, and she sensed she was being watched. She had placed herself at the center table in the busy shop, and her eyes scanned the crowds in the street, searching even the rooftops more than once.
But she wouldn't see him. He laid unmoving in the shadows, his eyes always watching, seeing things she probably didn't even know she revealed, such as the tremble in her lower lip when a little girl with ribbons smiled up at her as she walked by with a pastry.
It troubled Clint, the little glimpses that he caught of the real woman hidden inside the outward mask. She was a skilled spy, a notorious assassin, the Black Widow, known to lure men to her bed to get close enough to kill them.
But she was also a troubled woman who had been made into a killer from the time she was a child. Clint struggled with that knowledge. She hadn't chosen to be what she was. But she was dangerous, and orders were orders; he had a job to do.
Some days he really didn't like what he did.
When the little girl and her mother passed Natalia's table again, she smiled up at the mother and spoke, pointing out the window. Her expression bespoke inquiry, and the lady smiled back, nodded, and urged her to follow.
He assumed she had asked for directions. He was under no delusions. She kept the mother and child between her and a direct shot from him. She might not be able to see him, but she could sense him, and she kept the small family in the line of fire, until she disappeared in a crowd.
She turned up next in Vienna, keeping to the busy sections of the city and the tourist crowds. She never strayed off alone. His orders were to take her out quietly, anonymously. He kept her in his sights, watching and waiting for the right moment, even while hoping it would never come.
The last time he'd felt this conflicted over a mission, he had still been in the Army and the outcome had been something of a disaster, even if it eventually led to his recruitment to S.H.I.E.L.D.
In the end, he'd found that being able to live with himself had outweighed following orders. He was beginning to feel that way again. Damn his moral sense of right and wrong!
He began to sweat when she headed into a more deserted part of the city. Could she think she had lost him?
He remained out of sight on the rooftops, but that hadn't stopped her from sensing him before. He watched and waited, slithering along when necessary to stay out of sight while keeping her in his line of vision.
The crowds thinned, and he thought the time had come— that she'd made a fatal mistake, and he'd have to either take the shot or hand Fury his resignation.
But he underestimated her.
She knew Vienna better than he, and she'd led him through the streets, right into a trap.
She made a series of turns, and he had no choice but to make a jump across to a new roof to keep her in his sights, but she spun, spotted him, and then she just disappeared.
And now they were in Budapest, Hungary.
It was a beautiful city, at least the skyline he could see of it from his position laying on a dusty roof on the outskirts was a sight to behold, especially going on sunset. He turned his gaze back to the woman he was tailing.
"Target has stopped, Watchdog."
"Roger that. If you get a clear shot, take it. I'm ready to head home."
Clint withheld his sigh.
She didn't appear to have sensed him yet, but that didn't mean she didn't know he was there. He'd learned an important lesson in their chase across Europe, and he kept his direct gaze off her as much as he could, using small glances to mark her position and keeping as far back as he could and still manage to follow her.
She led him to what appeared to be a dead end. Only one way in or out with high stone walls leading to what appeared to be an ancient abandoned building that looked ready to collapse if given a strong enough wind.
She was tense and wary, darting looks over her shoulder. She didn't like the situation, he could tell. He didn't blame her. Too many things could go wrong in a place with only one exit.
And she wasn't at her best.
The circles under her eyes were darker than they'd been in Vienna. He'd bet she hadn't slept at all in days, and probably hadn't had a decent night's sleep in weeks. Her shoulders were slumped, and she looked nothing like the woman he'd seen in that video in Fury's office.
This woman was tired, paranoid and conflicted. She crouched by a pile of stones and Clint could see defeat in her eyes when her fingers came up empty.
That look bothered him. This woman was never meant to look defeated. There was so much more to her, behind the mask she wore, behind what the FSB had made her.
He wanted to find that woman, the one she hid deep down. He wanted to awaken her, release her from her internal prison and set her free to soar…
For over a week now, he'd watched her off and on, and over the course of his mission, he'd come to the conclusion that he'd been right. There was far more to Natalia Romanova than what he'd read in her file.
Oh, she was dangerous, elusive, and currently seemed to be rather unstable, judging by the wild look in her eyes. She kept reaching up to touch her temples, then lowering her hands and shaking her head slightly. There was something wrong with her, and if she kept going like this, she was going to end up dead.
Never mind that he was there to ensure just that.
But beyond the wild eyes, the exhaustion, the cold intensity of her gaze, Clint saw something else. He saw her longing for something more, her desire to be free. He saw potential for something so much greater, and even as he positioned himself behind a wall and unfolded his bow and strung it, he knew he couldn't do what the Council wanted him to do.
She deserved more than a quick death at his hands. She deserved what Phil had given him: a second chance.
He smirked. Fury had told him that he expected Clint to do the right thing. Well, that was almost license to do what he felt was right. Wasn't it?
He'd argue with the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. about it later.
Of course, Fury had also made it very clear that she was to be put to death.
It was all in how you looked at it though. Words could be used like weapons if you wielded them with enough skill.
If he could kill the woman the FSB had created, and in her place give S.H.I.E.L.D. an asset—
Well, it was a dangerous play on words, and he was putting his career on the line — a career that meant the world to him and had saved his life — but as much as his job with S.H.I.E.L.D. meant to him, he still had to live with himself. Killing this woman would mark his ledger with so much red he'd never be able to wipe it out. Not when he knew deep down that he could save her.
He had to try, consequences be damned.
"Watchdog, change in plans."
"I don't like the sound of that." Coulson's voice was resigned.
"Trust me on this. Going silent."
"Hawkeye, don't you dare turn your comm off."
Clint hesitated a fraction of a second, then clicked it off.
Compared to what he was about to do, turning off his comm couldn't possibly get him into more trouble. Phil would be frantic, worried, but there was nothing he could do about that.
He needed to be able to think without Phil talking in his ear. Besides, the less Coulson knew, the less the Council could blame him for what Clint was about to do.
He drew an arrow from his quiver and nocked it to the bowstring before peering down again at the woman below.
She still didn't seem to sense him. She had her back to one of the walls, peering at the crumbling building. He turned his attention to it as well, watching for moment, but there was nothing, only silence as the sun slipped lower on the horizon.
He moved into position.
It is a trap.
That was all Natalia could think as she crouched by the wall, staring at the building just up the street. At her feet was a pile of loose stones. She was supposed to have received instructions from her contact here.
Her Makarov was a comforting weight in her hand, but this was all wrong. The instructions were not there, and she had the strongest sense of unease churning in her stomach along with the nausea induced by the constant headaches that plagued her.
And then she felt the tingling sensation of eyes burning into the back of her neck. Her blood ran cold, and she knew she was a dead woman.
There was nowhere to go. Only a few piles of stone to use as cover.
The building in front of her reeked of danger, though she could see no sign of movement behind the ancient broken windows. But she could feel the malevolence emanating from it. There was no refuge there.
She put her back to the wall and kept her eyes on the building, ignoring the threat above her. She could do nothing about her shadow. She was cornered and alone. He would make his shot, and she would die.
Part of her welcomed the end. It was a relief, a balm to her weary soul.
A deeper part of her screamed in denial that it could not end this way, that this was not the life she had been meant to have.
But that life had been stolen from her when she was but a child. She had never been given a choice to be anything other than what they had made her. And now she was tired and compromised in more ways than one.
She knew that she wasn't thinking clearly, that the headaches and sleep deprivation were affecting her cognitive processes. She could try to run back the way she had come, but she would die before she made the end of the wall-lined street.
She would rather face her fate head on as she had always done, the given outcome be damned.
Several minutes passed and nothing happened. She began to wonder if she had imagined that burning sensation. When would the bullet bite into her head?
She jumped when something hit the crumbling wall beside her. She ducked, then looked up, expecting to see a bullet hole in the wall.
Instead, Natalia blinked at an arrow, still wobbling from its flight. Then she slowly turned her head, following the path the arrow had taken until her eyes locked on his.
Bojemoi! What kind of joke was this?
It was him. Robin Hood. Or rather, Hawkeye. Or should she think of him as Clinton Barton? Did it even matter? The irony was not lost on her. It was fitting, actually. If she was going to die, who better to do it?
So why was she still breathing?
He held her gaze, and it felt as if he was searching her very soul for answers to questions she did not know. All she could do was look back.
Her head pounded in her ears, and she closed her eyes briefly, then blinked them open to find him still looking back at her, his face void of expression.
He was probably kind of pissed about that whole file thing and his name. She would be, if the situation were reversed. Hell, if things were opposite, he would be a dead body on the ground at this point.
He reached back and methodically pulled another arrow from his quiver and nocked it…
Then she knew. He had wanted her to know. To have her look into his eyes as the life faded from hers. So be it. She would give him that.
He drew back the string, his thumb against his cheek, holding for three heartbeats, his eyes not leaving hers. But then his gaze shifted ever so slightly up and to her left.
The arrow flew towards her. It was as if everything slowed down, and she could see it in its flight: the slight upwards arc before it leveled out, the ruffling of the wind over the fletchings, the grappling hook tip…
The arrow slammed into the wall above where the last one had hit, a long thin line extending from it up to where the Hawk stood. She followed it with her eyes, stunned and uncertain as he hooked his bow to the line and slid down it, coming to a stop several feet in front of her.
He unhooked his bow, but did not draw another arrow. He just stood there, watching her. Waiting.
She did not have a clue what to think, so she stared back. Had he come to kill her or not? Should she ask? What the hell was going on?
In the face of a potential threat, no matter how odd the situation, her training kicked in, and she raised her gun, aiming it at his face.
"Are we really going to go there?" he asked, his voice rumbling in his chest.
Of all the cocky, arrogant bastards!
But it seemed rather unsporting to shoot him in the head when he did not have a weapon drawn. Why did he not have a weapon drawn?
Not to be deterred by such an oversight on his behalf, she attacked, but not with her gun. She dropped and kicked out at his legs in a move that would have taken out just about anyone.
The Hawk was not just anyone, she discovered.
As she kicked out, he simply flipped backwards, or perhaps folded backwards would be a better description, kicking his legs over his head and landing in nearly the same position as he had begun but several feet further from her.
She had never seen another man perform such a move before, and still crouched on the ground staring up at him, she raised a brow. "Gymnast?"
He shrugged. "I grew up in a circus."
"You ask that a lot. Do you really expect an answer?"
This time she shrugged, and flipped up into a handstand, pivoted and attempted to catch him with her legs around his neck.
But he moved quickly, far more quickly than the other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents she had gone up against when she had accessed that stupid file.
He turned, caught one of her legs with his hand and twisted, throwing her off balance. She dropped to her shoulders, swinging her other leg around him and reached out to punch him in the back of the knee. He grunted, and released her, allowing her to gain her feet.
They faced each other for a moment, sizing one another up, and then they both moved, trading blow for blow, or rather blocking blow for blow. Natalia was impressed. He was good. Very good. Not as good as she was, but she was not well, and it showed.
In less than five minutes he had her pinned against him, one arm around her neck, the other around her arms, pinning them to her body. This was where he would snap her neck. It was what she would do, if she were him.
But instead, he spoke, his voice rumbling by her ear and his breath blowing against her long red hair. "I'm going to let you go now, alright? Then we can talk?"
Talk? He wanted to talk?
The strangeness of the whole situation bordered on ridiculousness.
She nodded, and he stepped back and did not even blink when she pointed her gun back at his face. It was a reaction. She had no intention of pulling the trigger.
"What is this? Have you come to kill me or not?"
He shrugged, looking almost sheepish. Boyish even, with a half smile turning up one side of his mouth.
"Well, I was sent to kill you, but I think that would be rather a waste, don't you? So how about I recruit you instead?"
She blinked. Twice. Slowly.
"Why don't you lower your gun and we'll talk. You're making me a little nervous."
"If I wanted you dead, Barton, you'd have been dead in Amsterdam."
The boyish smile turned into a wolfish grin. A grin! What was wrong with him? His eyes even did that twinkle thing she had read about in a romance novel once.
"So it was my name you took from the list." His brows raised in curiosity. "Why?"
Why? The hell if she knew. She just stared at him, keeping her pistol raised.
None of this made any sense. It felt surreal, and in the back of her mind she thought she ought to be remembering something important, but with that cocky grin, she could not remember what it was. Perhaps she was dying and this was all some sort of hallucination?
"Huh?" She frowned, staring at him in confusion.
"The gun. Can you please lower the gun so we can talk? I promise I won't hurt you."
As if he could.
But he had asked nicely, so she slowly lowered her pistol, keeping it at her side. "I do not understand."
He snorted. "Yeah, I'm not really understanding myself, and my handler is going to have my head for not obeying orders, but…"
He let out a long sigh and reached up to run a hand through his hair.
Her training did not react well to sudden movements. Her gun was back in his face, but this time her reaction sparked his own.
He mirrored the move so fast she did not see his hand move to his side arm, but suddenly there was a gun pointing back at her. They stared at one another a moment, then he smirked again.
"I'd really rather have this discussion without guns drawn, but if it makes you feel better, then I'm sure you'll understand if I play along."
She shook her head, staring at him in bemusement. "Why didn't you kill me?"
When she just stared at him, he shook his head, pressing his lips together in what she could only call an adorable expression. Was he a hardened assassin or a puppy dog?
"Why?" she asked.
Something changed in his expression, even as he shrugged again. All the arrogance and teasing fled and his demeanor became serious.
"Because there's more to you than what they made you. You want more than this life. I know you do. I saw it even in Amsterdam."
She snorted softly in derision. "Wanting doesn't make it happen. This is all I know. It's what I am."
He shook his head. "No, it's not. But you can use you skills for a much better purpose than lining your pockets, Natalia."
She inhaled sharply. When was the last time someone had used her real name? She was a number, or the Black Widow, or any number of aliases. She was only Natalia in her own mind, and in long buried memories of her life before the Red Room.
"No one calls me that. No one."
He inclined his head. "As you wish. What shall I call you then?"
Her mind produced a list of aliases, but she rejected them all. They were not her, and he had seen her. Really seen her, and it felt wrong, to use an alias with him.
But she was not comfortable with anyone calling her Natalia. No one had, not since she had been a child. She was at a loss, confused by the bizarre situation, disoriented from the lack of sleep and the persistent headache and the faint niggling sense that she should be worried about something other than the strange S.H.I.E.L.D. agent asking her questions.
"How about Natasha?"
She blinked. "What?"
"My Russian isn't great, but I seem to recall that Natasha is a form of Natalia. Right?"
It was. And it felt…right.
She nodded. "Very well."
He smiled. Really smiled. Not the smirk or the grin but an honest to goodness smile that lit his face.
For a moment, Natalia wished things were different, that she was someone else, and that she could have the chance to get to know this man. To call him a friend. It would be nice to have had a friend before she died.
But reality was cruel and heartless. They were enemies on opposing sides, each pointing a gun at the other while having this bizarre conversation about her name. Was this even real? She should be dead by now. None of this made any sense.
"Alright, Natasha, so how about it?"
"How about what?"
"How about you put down your gun, and I put down my gun, and instead of killing each other, I take you out of this miserable existence and give you a better life." He seemed rather pleased with himself over that speech.
"No?" He looked rather surprised.
He really should not be. What did he expect? That he would slide down a line and sweep her off her feet and rescue her like some damsel in distress?
"What… How… You're insane."
"I know people who would agree with you on that. One in particular is probably cursing my name at the moment for my temporary insanity."
The man was baffling, in an adorable sort of way. She had never met anyone like him.
"I do not understand. Why are you doing this?"
He paused, his eyes leaving hers for the first time. It showed a level of trust. A trust she had not earned. A trust he should not by any means give. That one small gesture stirred something inside her.
He focused on the arrows in the wall beside her. "Five years ago, my future was bleak, my past staining everything. My ledger was dripping in blood, and I didn't know how to reconcile it. I was considered a threat." His gaze slid back to hers. "S.H.I.E.L.D. sent a man to take me out, but instead he saw something in me worth saving. He taught me that I couldn't erase the red, but I could balance the ledger."
He lowered his gun. "You're worth saving, Natasha."
She just stared. He was crazy. Completely insane. And damn him if his words did not stir hope in her chest. He was offering her what he had, what she had seen in him that first time: the freedom she had longed for, a choice, and something even more — a purpose?
That part of her that wanted to live screamed at her to take the leap, take what he offered.
She lowered her gun, uncertain of what to say. Finally she just shrugged. "It does not matter who I work for anyway. It might as well be for S.H.I.E.L.D."
He smiled, nodded, then reached up to his ear. "Watchdog? You still…"
He winced. "Yeah, yeah, I know, you're going to kick my ass. But listen…" He sighed and drummed his fingers on his leg. "Ass. Toast. I got it. You wanna listen yet?"
He looked at her and raised his brows, then shook his head. "I really pissed him off this time," he explained.
Natalia wondered if she would ever stop staring at the man. Everything about him confused the hell out of her. He was cocky, arrogant, and she was certain he was a complete ass.
He was also charming and she was pretty sure she liked him. And he had managed to do what no other shadow had ever done: he had caught her. He had even bested her in hand-to-hand combat, though she blamed herself more than his skill for that. She really did not feel very well.
And he had trusted her. Trusted her not to kill him, first when he had slid down that line, and again when she had pointed her gun at him and he had just stood there. And finally, when he had pulled his eyes from hers…
She stood listening as he argued with whoever was on the other end of his mic and wondered what the hell she was getting herself into, while at the same time not really caring.
"My recommendation is recruitment, Watchdog. Requesting immediate extraction. I'm bringing company home for dinner." He winked at her.
Somehow she did not think his superiors would find that funny. But she did. She smiled back. The first real smile that had stretched her lips in a very long time.
He saw it and grinned back, his piercing blue-grey eyes meeting hers.
Then all hell broke loose.
He lunged forward, taking her to the ground, and she thought it had all been an elaborate hoax, until the bullets started pinging against the wall.
Only then did she remember the abandoned building and the malevolence she had felt from it earlier.
The trap had been sprung.
Ass. Toast. Definitely. Bojemoi!
To Be Continued…
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