It's raining and freezing and he's been sitting on this damned rooftop for the last three days when he finally sights his target, bright red hair not quite covered by the hat she's wearing in deference to the weather.
"Target in sight," he says, quietly, hearing the hiss of his comm in his ear as his handler thumbs the Talk button.
"Fire at will, Specialist."
"Acknowleged," Clint mutters, eyes on the target. She's stopped at a corner, waiting for traffic to stop so she can cross the street. Their intel says she'll be continuing down this street, headed right for a convenient bottleneck, a narrow, winding stretch of the street where it passes between two high buildings, no windows or fire escapes or doorways in which she might find cover or escape, unless she lives up to her namesake and can actually climb sheer walls.
Traffics halts at the corner, and she continues on, drawing nearer and nearer towards the bullet Clint's been ordered to put through her skull. She pauses at the far end of the alley, fishing in her pocket to draw out a phone.
A moment later, the phone in Clint's pocket begins to vibrate. Clint slips it from his pocket without taking his eyes away from the target. "Son of a bitch."
"Problem, Specialist?" The voice on the other end of the radio (Williams? Wilson? He's had so many handlers, he can never keep them straight anymore) barks at him.
"She's calling me, sir," he says.
There's a moment of static, and then, "Put it on speaker," and, oh, hello, that's a new voice, but whatever, Clint just wants someone to tell him what to do.
"Sir," Clint says, and flips open the phone, hitting the speaker button on the side. Down the street, Natasha Romanov smiles; Clint sees it for a split second through his sight before she turns her head away again.
"So," she says, and there's far less of an accent there than he'd been expecting. "I see you finally got ahead of me."
"For what it's worth, sweetheart," he says, "I don't really want to have to do this." And it's true; he's enjoyed chasing the Black Widow around the globe, enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game they've been playing. She's subtle, and impossibly good at disappearing, but he learned those arts young and only got better; at the same time, he's not arrogant enough to believe he's shadowed her all this time without being noticed.
"Neither do I," she tells him, and he's surprised to hear real regret in her voice. This isn't a joke, he realises, isn't a ploy to stall him until she can slip away again. She believes she's going to die here, in this alley, and that it'll be his bullet that kills her. This is a courtesy, a politeness. She's not calling him to play with him; she's calling him so that she might get the chance to meet her killer, in a manner of speaking.
So he asks for her last words to the universe, expecting something about how she's not sorry, about this game they've played, about the things she's done. Alternately, he expects her to say nothing, to ask him to get the show on the road; after all, the Black Widow isn't known to be sentimental.
Instead, she tells him that he reminds her of someone she used to know, someone close to her.
"A lover," she says, and she can't hide her smile, or the warmth in her voice, so bright and so genuine and so far from the cold, hard assassin he knows she is. It's like talking to someone else entirely, and for a moment, Clint doesn't know what to say.
"Was he handsome?" he asks, finally, because he has to say something, but he doesn't even know where to start. What was he like? he wants to ask, and How do you know I'm like him?, but he can hear his comm buzzing in his ear, reminding him that he's not the only one listening in. It bothers him, suddenly; he wonders if she knows.
If she does, she doesn't show it, because she's laughing, full and bright and amused, and it's startling. "Yes," she says, voice bubbling out of the tinny speaker, "yes, he was."
There are voices in his ear, indistinct, like the handler and his goons are talking amongst themselves. Clint tunes them out; unless they're giving him an order, he doesn't much care what they're saying.
"He's gone, isn't he."
There's no note in her file about the Black Widow having a lover, or even an associate. She operates alone, rarely partners with anyone, and when she does they're short-term arrangements and never repeated. Whoever this man was, he was a long time ago. She must have loved him a lot, Clint thinks, to still think of him with such warmth and such evident happiness after so long. The thought makes something flip strangely in his stomach, and for a moment he wishes he didn't have to pull the trigger, wishes that he could stand up, put away the rifle, and go down to talk to this woman who is clearly so much more than the contents of her file with SHIELD.
"I may still see him again someday," she says, and Clint will deny for the rest of his life that his breath catches, because, Christ, no wonder she'd smiled, knowing she was going to die. If he's dead, then she's soon to join him, and if he isn't, well, someday it'll be his turn, too, and maybe then they'll be reunited.
Clint's not sure if he believes in an afterlife, especially not for people like them, but he finds himself hoping, for her sake, that there is one, and that it won't be so harsh as to keep her and her lover apart.
"Barton," says a voice in his ear, and it's the same one from earlier, the one he hadn't known. "Pack up. We're aborting."
Clint blinks, speechless for a moment before he glances down at his phone, hitting the mute button before speaking.
"In-field risk re-assessment," the voice says, bland and maybe just a little bit amused. "We're calling off the hit on the Black Widow, pending new intel. Pack it up."
"Right," Clint says absently, eyes trained back on the Black Widow, still standing at the end of the alley, phone pressed against her ear, faint smile on her face. "Yes sir."
He thumbs the phone's mute button again, hears her breathing on the other end of the line.
"I guess we'll just have to wait and see," he tells her.
He sees the moment she gets it, because she turns, tilting her head up until he can see her face fully for the first time. She's not quite looking right at him, focusing more on a spot about ten feet to his right, but it's clear that she's known all along where he was. He flips the phone shut as he stands, rifle scope still focused on her, and watches her gaze shift over until she's staring straight at him.
He lowers the rifle and walks away; down on the street, the Black Widow keeps staring after him.
The handler, Williams (he's pretty sure it's Williams), is standing outside the van they've been using as a mobile base on this operation. He throws his hands in the air when Clint jumps the last three feet to the ground from the metal railing he'd used to get up to the top of the building in the first place.
"What the hell, Hawkeye," he starts, talking entirely too loud for the neighbourhood they're in, rough and gritty and full of the sorts of people who wouldn't think twice about filling a couple American government types full of lead.
"You do not communicate with the target, do you hear me?" Williams is ranting. "You don't call them, or answer their calls, or talk to them about their poor dead boyfriends!" He looks like he's honestly about two second from literally shaking a finger in Clint's face.
"You broke radio protocol," Williams goes on, and Clint feels his eyebrows shoot up towards his hairline because, what?
"I was on comms the whole time," he says, and it's a mark of how agitated Williams is that he doesn't even notice the hint of anger in Clint's voice.
"You went silent, Barton, and you let the target go!"
Williams' face is approaching a rather ugly shade of purple and Clint entertains a brief fantasy of punching him right in the nose and letting him sort out all out later. But Clint's got enough black marks against him; he doesn't need one for striking a superior.
"I was just following orders," Clint says instead, breezy and light, because he knows the tone will just piss Williams off, and he's been irritating Clint since this mission started.
"Following--" Williams stares, disbelieving. "I'm the senior officer in charge of this operation, Barton," Williams says, glaring now. "So who the fuck gave you that order?"
Clint opens his mouth to speak, but he's beaten to the punch.
"I did," says someone behind him, and Clint turns to see a man step out of the back of the van. He's in a suit, plain black coat and trousers and tie against the crisp white of his shirt. He looks harmless enough, neat brown hair and lines around his eyes and mouth that look more like they're from laughing than frowning, despite his bland expression.
"I'm Agent Coulson," he says, turning to Clint and holding out a hand, and it's him, it's the voice who told him to pick up the phone, the one that told him to abort the hit. "I'm in charge of all field operations," he says as Clint reaches out to shake his hand. Coulson's grip is firm, and Clint can feel callouses from handling a gun; despite the suit and the blank face, he's clearly a seasoned field agent.
"I'm afraid I had to intercede here," he says, still without looking at Williams, and Clint can't hear much of an apology in Coulson's voice. "New intelligence suggested our termination of the Black Widow may have been a premature decision."
"We had her!" Williams interrupts, glaring at Coulson. "We had her, and you let her get away! Now she knows we're following her!"
Clint can't help it; he snorts, trying to hold back his laughter. Coulson flashes him something that looks like a ghost of a smile before he turns to Williams.
"The Black Widow has known SHIELD was following her from the moment they picked up her trail in Vienna," Coulson says. His voice is flat, moreso even that it had been when he was talking to Clint. His eyes are harder, too, his jaw clenching slightly as he continues, "It was sheer luck that you managed to box her in like this, and certainly due more to Specialist Barton's instincts and familiarity with the area than your tactics and planning which got her in your sights."
Williams' eyes bug out slightly as he stands there gaping at Coulson, mouth moving without making a sound. Coulson, apparently satisfied, turns back to Clint.
"That was an interesting discussion back there," he says, eyeing Clint with something like interest, like he might be impressed, even, behind the bland expression that Clint is becoming more and more certain is more of a mask than the man's true expression.
"I didn't honestly say much, sir," Clint says, shrugging. "She did most of the talking by herself."
"That's what makes it interesting," Coulson says, and there's a slight smile on his face, evident in the faint upward tick at one corner of his mouth.
"Pack up your gear and head back to headquarters," he tells Clint, taking a step back towards the van. "We'll speak more when you get back."
Clint nods, feeling a vague smile forming on his face.
Coulson pauses, hand on the handle of the open front door of the van, and gives Clint a smile, a real one, tiny, barely more than a twist to his mouth, but it makes the lines around his eyes deepen.
"I look forward to working with you, Barton."