Ever since the incident in Sao Paolo, S.H.I.E.L.D. had been tracking a former Russian asset codenamed Black Widow. She’d come out of some mysterious Soviet spy factory known as the Red Room, but intel indicated she’d gone freelance a few years ago, which made her an unknown quantity. All they really knew about her was that wherever she went, she left a swath of chaos and carnage in her wake. It had turned into a sort of cat and mouse game. She’d pop up on the radar and S.H.I.E.L.D. would send in a surveillance team, but as soon as they got her in their sights she’d disappear again, right under their noses.
Clint had been on a few of the early surveillance missions and he’d developed a sort of morbid fascination with her. It started in Kiev. He’d been watching her through his scope as she strolled across Maidan Nezalezhnosti, when she’d paused near one of the fountains, turned, and seemed to look directly up at him. He was 1000 meters above her with the sun at his back, there was no way she could have spotted him with her bare eyes. And yet, somehow, she knew. He was certain of it.
Her mouth curved into a smile that sent a cold shiver crawling down his spine. She had the look of a woman who knew how to break a man in every way possible, and yet … there was something compelling about her, something that made you want a closer look.
He’d surveilled her four other times in four other countries, and each time he could swear she’d looked directly at him. The last time, in Lisbon, she’d gone a step further, smiling at him and then holding up her hand, middle finger extended and pointed in his direction.
Clint had been so surprised he’d laughed out loud, prompting Agent Coulson to ask what was so funny.
“The target just flipped me off, sir.”
“I think that means she likes you,” was Coulson’s deadpan reply.
But that was before the hospital fire in Ahmedabad, before 36 civilians dead and 50 wounded. After that new orders had come through. They weren’t just surveilling the Black Widow anymore. They were eliminating her.
Clint was assigned to the team charged with hunting her down. Coulson pulled him aside after the briefing. “You up for this?” he asked.
Clint raised an apprehensive eyebrow. “Why are you asking me that?”
“Because I thought you might be compromised when it came to the Black Widow. It’s understandable if you are.”
“I’m not,” Clint replied. Too quickly. Coulson took it in but didn’t press. It wasn’t his way.
They tracked her to Omsk, and as luck would have it Clint was the first to lay eyes on her. She was hurrying down a narrow back alley. Her bright red hair was hidden under a blonde wig, but he’d have recognized the sultry sashay of those hips anywhere.
“I’ve got a visual on the target,” he announced over comms.
“Do you have a shot?” Coulson responded.
Clint tracked her progress down the empty street, his arrow nocked and trained on her heart. “That’s affirmative.”
“Then take it.”
His fingers tightened on the grip of his bow, preparing to loose his arrow and put an end to the Black Widow once and for all. Just as he was about to release she turned abruptly and gazed up at him.
There was something different in her face this time, none of the cool confidence she’d always displayed before. She almost seemed to be … he wanted to say pleading, but that wasn’t a word that seemed like it should apply to this woman.
She didn’t smile, but her lips moved, mouthing a single English word: “Wait.”
He’d sighted hundreds of people through his scope and killed more than he could remember, always without hesitation or regret. Never once had he second-guessed his orders. Until now.
He had no idea why he did it, but he let her turn her back on him and disappear inside a nearby building.
“Barton,” he heard Coulson say in his ear. “Has the target been neutralized?”
“Negative,” he answered. “I lost visual.”
A few moments later they heard gunfire coming from inside the building. Clint listened tensely to the comms chatter as the ground team stormed the building. Inside they found a trail of dead bodies and two dormitories full of frightened children who had been left unharmed. But they didn’t find the Black Widow.
Clint was the one who spotted her when she stepped out onto the roof of the building next door. She looked right at him as he lined up his shot, but this time his resolve was firm. Until he saw her put her hands behind her head and drop to her knees. “I surrender,” she mouthed at him.
It was only later that they understood the building had been part of an attempt to revive the Red Room program. The children they’d found inside were all being trained as assassins. The people Black Widow had killed were their captors, the very same people who had created her. Word came down that S.H.I.E.L.D. had reversed its position on the Black Widow and decided to keep her as asset.
Her real name, Clint would eventually learn, was Natasha.
He didn’t mince words in his after action report. He owned up to his failure to follow orders and waited calmly to hear what disciplinary action he’d earned himself.
A full week passed before Agent Coulson summoned him to his office. The report lay open on his desk. Clint stood at parade rest and waited to be told his fate.
“Agent Barton, am I to understand you had a clear shot of the target and elected not to take it, in direct contravention of orders?” Coulson asked impassively.
Coulson nodded. He flipped the file closed and pushed it to the side. Underneath it was S.H.I.E.L.D. report labeled “Black Widow.” The word CLASSIFIED was stamped across the cover page in red ink.
He picked it up and held it out. “Read this,” he said. “I think you two should meet.”
Clint met Natasha Romanoff face-to-face for the first time the next day, in the interrogation room of a S.H.I.E.L.D. detention facility. He still didn’t understand why he was here. Face-to-face wasn’t exactly his specialization.
“You,” she said when he entered the room.
“Me?” he repeated, baffled.
She smiled, the kind of look a shark might give you just before chewing your leg off. “The hawkeye,” she said. “The one who watches from above.” Her English betrayed no trace of a Russian accent.
“Agent Barton,” he offered, lowering himself into the chair across from her.
“I’m glad to finally meet you,” she purred, gazing at him winsomely through her lashes. He wondered how many men had been taken in by her seductive posturing, and how many of them were still alive.
“Why?” he asked flatly.
She shrugged, her manner cooling a little. “Are you here to interrogate me? Did they give you a list of questions to ask?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Then why are you here?”
He was acutely conscious of Coulson watching and listening from the next room. He had the sense he was being tested, but no one had given him a study guide. He didn’t know what the right answers were.
“I honestly have no idea,” he admitted.
For some reason, this seemed to amuse her. “Coulson’s better than I expected.”
Clint shrugged. He didn’t understand what she meant, but in his experience Coulson was pretty much always better than everyone expected.
She laid her hands on the table and leaned forward to rest her chin on them. “Don’t suppose you brought any cards or anything to pass the time?” she asked, looking more like a bored teenager than an incarcerated master assassin.
“Sorry,” Clint said.
“Oh well.” She gazed at him with what appeared to be a neutral expression, but even so he had the distinct impression she was making some kind of mental list of all the ways she could break him and play with the pieces.
Neither of them spoke. He was a patient man and he was good at waiting so the silence didn’t bother him. After ten minutes had passed she sat up straight in her chair. “Why didn’t you kill me when you had the chance?” she asked.
“Why’d you turn yourself in?” he countered.
She regarded him somberly for a moment before answering. “I’ve got a lot to atone for.”
He nodded. Then he said, “I guess I do too.”
There was a sharp rap on the door. “That’s my cue,” Clint said, rising.
“This was fun,” she told him. “We should do it again sometime.”
Coulson was waiting for him out in the hall. “What’s your impression?” he asked.
“My impression,” Clint echoed. “Um. She’s terrifying?”
“You think you can trust her?”
The dossier S.H.I.E.L.D. had complied on her had made for a harrowing goddamn read. The list of atrocities she’d confessed to had been chilling, but it was nothing compared to the things they’d apparently done to her in the Red Room program. Clint thought about the look on her face in that alley in Omsk. Then he thought about the way she’d said the word “atone” just now.
“I do, yeah,” he said, even though it sounded crazy.
“Glad to hear it, because I’m partnering you up for her first S.H.I.E.L.D. mission.” Coulson’s mouth curled into a smirk. “Good work, Hawkeye.”
Clint groaned. He’d successfully managed to avoid getting saddled with a nickname so far, but he had the feeling that one was going to stick. On the bright side, though, with the Black Widow for a partner, he probably wouldn’t live long enough to suffer much.