“Target on the move, headed toward north exit.”
“I’ve got her,” said Clint Barton, notching an arrow in his bowstring and finding Natasha Romanova in his sights as she slipped out of the factory.
“Seems like a crime to kill something so gorgeous,” he said, mostly to himself, as he watched the woman slink along the outside of the building toward the tree line. He watched her scan the forest quickly, looking for threats. Threats like him.
“Do you have a shot?” asked the business-like voice on the other end of his earpiece.
Hawkeye slowed his breathing, aiming for her jugular and spinal cord. Instant kill shot. He was about to respond to his handler when something took him by surprise. Natasha Romanova was looking right at him.
That should be impossible.
He was fifty yards away from her, twenty-five yards from the edge of the forest, fifty feet up a tree. From where she was, he should be completely invisible. And yet she was staring at him down the sights of his bow. Not running, not moving at all, despite obviously being aware of the danger she was in. Instead she was looking at him with a distinctly amused expression.
“Agent Barton, do you have a shot?”
The Black Widow cocked her head to one side and raised an eyebrow, almost like she had heard the agent’s question. Clint lowered the bow to look at her eye to eye. She smiled and turned her head to one side, bringing a hand up to touch her earpiece.
Now it was his turn to smile.
“Clever,” he said softly.
“What?” demanded Coulson. “What’s clever?”
“She’s hacked our wireless transmitter. She’s listening to us right now.”
“What?” The sound in his ear clicked off abruptly, no doubt as panic was ensuing at headquarters. Natasha Romanova smiled again and took a slow step forward.
“Ah, ah, don’t take another step or you’ll be dead before you can blink,” he said to her.
“The techs just confirmed it, Agent Barton, you’ve been made. Abort mission.”
“It doesn’t matter; she’s got nowhere to go but back inside a building that’s about thirty seconds from exploding. She’s just got to decide if she’d rather die in a fiery blaze or with my arrow in her throat.”
She smiled again, taking another step forward in the grassy expanse between the factory and the trees. She held her arms out from her sides in a very clear ‘shoot me’ gesture, and in the second that Clint hesitated, she dropped out of sight.
“Fuck,” he swore, already swinging down from his perch in the tree and running toward the place where she had disappeared, barely even registering Coulson demanding explanations in his ear.
“She’s gone,” he explained as he got to a hole in the grass where she had been standing. “Underground.”
“We don’t have records of any tunnels in that area.”
“Well, your records are clearly incomplete, because I’m looking right at one. I’m going after her,” Clint said, struck with an intense curiosity about this woman who had played him so quickly and efficiently.
“Negative, Agent, that factory could blow any sec-“
But Clint had already ripped the earpiece from his ear and swung down into the pit, having faith that if the Black Widow had purposely fallen down here, it must be reasonably safe. Indeed, he found himself in a long tunnel running away from the factory, and before he could take more than a few steps away from the entrance, the building above exploded spectacularly. Clint took off running, both because he was unsure of the stability of the tunnel he was in, and because he was unwilling to give Natasha another second’s head start.
It was only a minute or so of running before he came to a fork in the tunnel. He paused, trying to imagine what he would do in the Black Widow’s place. Obviously she knew where these tunnels led, and if she was tapped into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s comm system she knew he was after her. Then he realized something. If someone were chasing him, planning to kill him, he would wait for them in a place that he knew they would have to pause. Like a fork.
Just as the thought occurred to him, it was interrupted by her voice.
“You’re giving your bosses quite a panic attack.”
He looked up, and sure enough, perched on a pipe, was the Black Widow with a nine millimeter pointed at him.
“You know, I’m actually pretty insulted S.H.I.E.L.D. sent someone so stupid after me. How could you possibly think you could follow me down here and still have any advantage whatsoever? Planning to kill me telepathically, are you?”
“Maybe I don’t want to kill you,” he said.
“Wrong answer, dubiina. I have this, remember?” She indicated the earpiece. “I know what your orders are.”
“I didn’t say anything about my orders. I said it’s possible that I don’t want to kill you.” A look crossed her face for a second, almost like confusion.
“You saw me,” he said simply. She stared at him curiously, gave him a look that made his heart beat faster. This was not an enemy sizing him up. This was a woman, trying to know him. It was personal, even intimate, and as he gave her an identical look the tension between them grew like a rubber band being pulled tighter and tighter. And then it snapped.
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, lovely, sentimental as well as an idiot. And with a completely medieval weapon, too, christ. Seriously, in what way is that thing even remotely practical? The only thing I can think of that’s more idiotic is if you had tried to chase after me with a catapult.”
Clint was far from phased. He knew that the only reason an assassin talks is because they want something. She was insulting the very core of his being, and she knew it. It was meant to be a distraction, just for a fraction of a second while she jumped to the ground, but she didn’t count on how much he thought like her, or just how quickly he was able to draw that bow.
In the split second that the gun was pointed away from him, Hawkeye drew his bow and fired. His arrow grazed her index finger as it shot through the space between the trigger and the finger guard, ripping the gun out of her hand and then burying itself in the wall. The gun caught on the fletching at the end of the arrow and dangled out of reach.
To her credit, where anyone else would have been stunned, the Black Widow reacted instantaneously. She swung down and locked her legs around his neck, throwing him to the ground. His bow skittered away from him and they grappled for a moment, and then were both on their feet, preparing for a real fight.
She lunged, he feinted and struck her in the ribs. She used her momentum to spin and kick him in the back of the head and the fight was on, strikes and blocks flying so quickly even the ones throwing them could barely keep up. After a minute, Clint heard Natasha laughing softly. He realized with an internal swoop of exhilaration that he was laughing too. It was amazing. They were perfectly matched, totally complementary. She was like the perfect sparring partner he’d never had. How often did people of their skill level find a real challenge?
She knocked him to the ground and came down on top of him. As she straddled him and pinned his wrists, he allowed his admiration to show for a moment—the closest people like them ever got to complimenting each other. Then a much less controlled expression passed over his face as he dragged his eyes down her body, taking in her heaving chest and the position of her hips directly over his.
She smirked, and began to squirm a little bit, teasing him. With a predatory growl he overpowered her and switched their positions, looming over her. She twisted one of her arms out of his grasp and brought her hand up to toy with the zipper holding in her cleavage. Clint was so mesmerized that she actually managed to take him by surprise, smashing her fist into his jaw and then bringing her legs up to wrap around his neck, slamming him into the ground yet again.
She disentangled herself expertly and they both stood at the same time, on guard. She gave a short chuckle.
“You have no idea how easy you men are to manipulate.”
“I’m slightly offended by that. I thought we were having a moment,” he said in a teasing tone. After a few passes, Natasha lunged at him, and he took the opportunity to grab her arm and pull her tightly against him, her back to his chest. He wrapped strong arms around her, and she froze as he bent his head down and let warm breath play over the back of her neck. He brushed his lips over the shell of her ear and smiled as she drew a shuddery breath.
“Who’s manipulating who now, hmm?” She snapped back to reality and struggled against his grip, but for all her speed and skill, he was much stronger. He realized that if she had slammed her head backward she could have broken his nose, and he took her unwillingness to do so as a promising sign.
“Natasha Romanova,” he said calmly. “My name is Clint Barton, and I would like to have a conversation with you. I’ll do it like this if you want, but I swear I no longer have any intention of killing you. Could we have a truce, please, just for a moment?”
She stopped struggling and seemed to really consider it. Finally she said, “Only if I can have my gun back.”
“Are you going to try to kill me?”
Slowly he released her, and she pulled away from him, swinging up onto a metal beam on the ceiling and climbing over to where her pistol was still pinned to the wall with one of his arrows. She removed both the gun and the arrow from the wall, and Clint tensed, because underneath a projection of confidence, he knew he might very well be about to get shot. She turned, but instead of aiming the gun, she tossed his arrow at him. He caught it smoothly and she jumped down.
He had retrieved his bow while she was climbing, and now they stood facing each other, weapons in hand but pointed at the ground. Natasha just looked at him, waiting. He took a breath, knowing full well that this woman’s life was riding on how persuasive he could be for the next five minutes.
“It’s about the people you work for.”
“Ah, yes. I work for the bad guys, right? And you work for the good guys. And clearly I just need to be set straight.”
“It has nothing to do with who’s good or bad. This is about you, Natasha. You go where your bosses point you, kill who they tell you to kill, and never think about why.”
“So you know me, now? One fight and you understand me? Or are you going to tell me that you were just like me once, a lost soul, until you had some grand epiphany and decided to join the unwinnable war?”
“I think I’m still like you, just not in the ways you’re thinking. I don’t care about the war on evil. Like you said, I mostly think it’s pointless. But I’m not like you, because I decide who I kill. I think that there are people who are making this world a worse place, and I work for S.H.I.E.L.D. because they usually point me toward those people. But I never kill just because I was ordered to.”
Her eyes flashed. “Are you saying I’m a puppet?”
“No. I’m saying you’re taking the easy way out.” Her grip tightened on her gun. He was clearly making her angry. “Not because you’re weak, but because you hate… complications. Am I right?”
She took a breath. That part was true, she did prefer her life to be as simple as possible. She didn’t know who she killed; she didn’t need to know. Sensing her acquiescence, Clint went on.
“I’m not asking you to come join S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m not even asking you to stop working for your bosses. I’m asking you to think for yourself. Because you’ve worked your ass off your whole life to be this good, and if you’re just an indiscriminating killing machine, then what’s the point?”
Natasha pursed her lips, the only sign that she had reacted to his words at all. Finally she let out a breath, and seemed to be about to say something, when she jerked her head up and looked intently down the tunnel.
“What?” he asked.
Natasha touched her earpiece. “S.H.I.E.L.D. found the tunnel entrance. They’re coming to extract you.”
“Go,” said Clint quickly. “I’ll tell them I’ve been searching for you.”
“Thank you,” she said, and there was maybe even a hint of real emotion in her tone.
“Just don’t forget what I said. You have a choice. And if you decide you’d like to help me kill some killers one day, just put the word out that you want to see me. It will get around.”
She turned to leave. “Oh, and Natasha,” he called out to her. “If you make me regret the decision to let you live, I will hunt you down. Alone. And I will put an arrow through your throat.”
“As if you could, Clint Barton.”
And she turned and ran.