There's a man sitting across the room from her, features lost in a haze of smoke and dim lights and the shadow over his eyes from the brim of his fedora, but he's been watching her since he walked through the door. She can feel the weight of his gaze on her bare shoulders, the way he tracks every movement she makes, every sip of her vodka, every tap of her foot to the music.
He's followed her from Chicago, from Atlanta, from Boston, all the way to New York, and he's gotten closer with every city, every neighbourhood, every block, although this is the first time they've been in the same room.
She wonders, vaguely, who he's working for. There are any number of people who'd pay dearly to see her bleeding on the floor, men she's cheated, women she's scorned, bosses she's stolen from. There are people who want her dead for revenge, for ruining them, for lying to them, for killing friend or family, for breaking their hearts. Any one of them might have sent this gunman after her, paid him to make her pay.
But it doesn't matter. She has no intention of dying at his hand. She waves over a server, instead, and sends him a drink. She borrows a pen and writes on the napkin: I hope you're not tired of chasing me.
She watches the server weave his way through the maze of cluttered tables and towards the back corner where the man sits. The server sets down the drink, gesturing in her direction, but the man's eyes are already on her; through the haze, she can just make out a smirk. She looks away.
The server returns and hands her the napkin; on the back, in loose, looping handwriting, it says: Not a chance, doll.
She slips out an hour later, goes through the back just as a gang of three crowds past him, blocking his view. She waits in the alley, thin cigarette on her lips, knowing that he'll come looking the moment he realises she's gone. She's just finishing it when he comes out the back door, smirk still in place.
"Nicely played," he says cheerfully, "Almost lost you for a moment." His voice is rough around the edges, and a trace of an accent, but not enough to place.
"That was rather the point," she says, smiling. "But I didn't want to lose you altogether."
"Is that so?" He arches an eyebrow and leans against the wall beside the door. "And why's that?"
She shrugs. "Call me intrigued."
And she is, she really is, somehow fascinated by this man who'd followed her through three cities and some of New York's shadiest dens, who'd sat and stared at her across a room and hadn't even bothered to hide it, who'd followed her into a back alley, knowing she could kill him in a heartbeat and he'd never even see it coming.
Without the smoke and the dim lights, she can see his face clearly now, bright eyes and weathered features, but handsome still. His hands rest against his hips, thumbs tucked into his pockets; his knuckles are scarred but his fingers still look strong, and she can see the hard, rounded outline of muscle in his arms through his shirt. He's left his jacket inside, and standing before her in only his shirt and vest he should look smaller, somehow, more vulnerable, but instead to seems to have the opposite effect, emphasizing the compact bulk of him, the efficient way he moves, no wasted gestures or motions.
He looks dangerous, she thinks, suddenly, dangerous and deadly and somehow beautiful, standing in the puddle of light cast by the lamp above his head, shadows pooling behind him.
"Intrigued, huh?" he says, and the smirk is back, lighting his eyes with something almost playful. "Can't say I've ever heard that from a mark before."
"And what have you heard?" she asks, because clearly she was meant to, and because she thinks she actually wants to know.
He shrugs. "Not much, honestly. Mostly I'm not close enough to talk to them. Guess you're a special case. Never had a job on a dame like you before, either," he says, and it sounds like a compliment.
Now it's her turn to smirk. "I'm honored," she says, smiling at him, and it's the smile designed to lure, to throw men off-track, make them lose their train of thought just a little. The man before he just laughs.
"You're something else, you know?" he says, still laughing, like it's funny, like they're friends, like she isn't basically just waiting around for him to try to kill her.
"Darling," she says, slipping a hand into her pocket to smooth over her gun, "You have no idea."
The truth is that she should have walked away when she had the chance, should have disappeared the moment she wasn't in his sights, because this has already gone on for too long. There's a reason she doesn't generally let herself talk to people who want to kill her, because conversation leads to banter, and banter leads to letting things slip, and that is a weakness she can't afford. Better to have slipped away in the night, just a silhouette in the door for him to chase after.
It's a pity, she thinks. In another life, she might have liked to get to know him better.
She pulls the gun in a single quick motion, has it leveled between his eyes before he even realises she's moved, and she treasures the half-second of shock on his face. She's always liked this part, the moment when the charade falls apart and her opponent realises that she's had the upper hand all along, that this is her show to run. This is the moment when her opponents show themselves for what they are, snarling, shouting, crying, begging for mercy or forgiveness or an explanation, or any number of other things she never gives. She wonders which one this man will ask her for.
Except he doesn't. He just stands there, hands held loose at his sides, palms turned up slightly, and makes no move for his gun. He's smiling, even, a small, quiet thing that looks like genuine amusement glinting in the light.
"Now that's more like it," he says, and it's such a strange statement that she simply stares at him for a moment, trying to make sense of it.
"Who are you?" she asks, finally. "What's your name?"
"Don't you want to know who I'm working for?" he asks, and he sounds honestly curious and not at all like he's feeding her a line.
She shrugs. "Not particularly."
"Fair enough," he says with a shrug. "Name's Clint Barton," he tells her, raising one hand slowly to tip his hat to her.
And Christ, she should have known, between the way he'd followed her and the way he'd stared, so intentely focused. Even the banter fits in with the image she's putting together in her head. After all, he's not exactly unknown to her; she's a fool not to have seen it earlier.
After Boston, she'd had a few of her contacts look into him for her, half as a precaution and half out of pure curiosity. Her contacts had come back to her with a list of information that read almost like a love letter.
He's a one-hit-wonder, they say, a crack shot, never misses.
He's a ghost, they say, no one ever sees him coming until it's too late.
He's a magician, they say, ain't no other way to explain the shots he makes.
He's the best, they say, like it's a simple fact.
Now, looking at him down the barrel of her gun, she's starting to see what everyone was talking about.
"Do you know why I took this contract?" Barton asks her, and doesn't wait for her to answer before he continues.
"Because you're the real deal, sweetheart, a real class act. The Black Widow, the first femme fatale, the woman all other women model themselves after. Do you know how many women I've met who tried to pass as you?"
He grins at her expression; she's not entirely certain what her face must look like, and that's terrifying, because that's a loss of control that hasn't happened since she was a girl, but the man in front of her just smiles again.
"Didn't fool me for a minute," he says. "Knew I'd know the real you when I saw you."
"And what do you see?" she asks him, because there's something so compelling about this man, sent to kill her and left standing in a dirty alley with her gun pointed at him and all he seems to want to do is talk.
She can't remember the last time someone wanted that.
Barton smiles at her, and it's sweet, almost, bright and genuine and all the more startling for it, and for a moment she's caught off guard.
"Oh, sweetheart," he says, "I see something fucking beautiful."