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Nikolai isn't a child anymore, and he doesn't think he's ever been an innocent.

There's always been a darkness lurking inside.

He is the Black Widow.

An inappropriate name for a boy, he thinks sometimes, but it's the only code name he's ever been given, and he doesn't think for himself.

He's a killing machine, that's all. A strong, silent, talented young man who was born for this.

Sometimes there are things people are born to do, after all and this is it for him. He was stupid to think that he was a dancer.

Nikolai is eighteen years old, and he is not human anymore.

Which is why it puzzles him that this woman is acting like he is, looking at him with a narrow-eyed curiosity.

She must be his age, now that he thinks of it, and she's holding a bow and arrow (of all things) and she's got him right where she wants him, and she's winning.

She's going to kill him, and it's almost a relief. He's never supposed to let others win, he's supposed to be as brutal as possible to get results, but he thinks that maybe it's time to finally give up.

Nikolai isn't stupid enough to think that this is absolution for a lifetime of sins (remember the hospital fire? a voice whispers in the back of his mind. Of course he remembers the hospital fire, sometimes it's all that he remembers), but he has no way to fight back. He's injured, he doesn't have any of his numerous guns or knives except for the ones in his boots, and he can't reach down there because of his injuries, because this young woman with the steady hands will surely see what he's doing and kill him, and no matter what how ambivalent he feels towards the matter of his death, it's still hardwired into him to survive.

He's tired, though.

He breathes deeply, and it sends an unexpected jolt of pain through his body.

It's almost like he's real again.

The girl who is going to squash the famed Black Widow takes a deep breath, raises an eyebrow, and says, "I thought you were gonna be a girl."

Nikolai tries to shrug. His breathing isn't quite labored. He hopes she strikes the killing blow soon, though. He years for peace. His mind is a violent place, a deadened landscape, and he's grown bored of it, wants to tear it all apart, but doesn't know if he can do it himself.

For now, though, he looks into the girl's eyes and thinks about her life. Some sort of operative for some sort of hush-hush organization. Too young for it to be anything that's terribly preoccupied with legality. She's tough. She's good at what she does, that is something Nikolai knows first hand. She's a sniper, though, not used to killing people close range. He doesn't understand her as well as he wishes he could. He's going to die soon, though, so what's the use?

"Lots of people think that," he finally says.

The girl nods. "You're pretty good."

"I am."

"Have you ever thought of doing something with your life with, y'know...the good guys?"

"No." She might not get around to killing him, Nikolai realizes with a bittersweet feeling. He looks closer at this mysterious woman's face. Strong jaw. Delicate cheekbones. Short brown hair.

The steely look in her eyes has given way to something more gentle.

She's making him an offer. Not in so many words, but that's what's happening right now, and Nikolai isn't sure what to do. One part of him wants to spit at her feet, try to hurt her before she kills him, tell her and her pity to fuck off and let him die gloriously in battle, as men do, which is what all those that he has served said he will do someday. They didn't mean so soon, but Nikolai has lived a full life.

That's a joke, but he's not very good at them. In truth, he hasn't lived at all. His whole life has been people programming him, feeding him memories that are not his own, making him into a puppet. A perfect murderer. That's what he is.

So why can't he be the perfect murderer for people who want to do good?

(How does he know that this organization wants to do good anyway? They could be just as brutal as the people he works for now, but for some reason he's convinced that this fierce woman at least thinks that she's doing good, protecting the innocent. For some reason he thinks that that's enough for him.

In any case, he's been due for a change for a while now.)

The woman has gone into a more relaxed position, so that she can still shoot him without a second thought, but doesn't really consider him a threat anymore, and she's still got that inquisitive, gentle look on her face. She's guarded, he can see that, but she's not lost her humanity completely. Not like he has. He is suddenly filled with terror and just a the slightest shred of hope. Real, complex emotions.

"What's your name?" the woman asks.

"What's yours?" he rasps, trying to sound confrontational but instead sounding exhausted, because that's what he is, exhausted with everything.

"Claire. Your turn." She's assertive. He thinks that maybe he likes her, but he doesn't like people, so it's probably just the blood loss.

"Nikolai."

"Nikolai. You wanna die here?"

"Maybe."

"Well, tough. Because I think you should come with me. Work for S.H.I.E.L.D. It's better than whatever you're doing here. I mean, do you actually like it?"

Nikolai stays quiet, which might as well be no, and Claire, who clearly isn't the most subtle of women, manages to pick up on it with no problem. She smiles triumphantly.

Nikolai twists his lips in something that might be disgust or happiness, because he has no idea what he's feeling right now.

At the very least, he doesn't feel the need to fight. It's a novelty. It's a relief. Maybe it's time to atone for his sins as well as he can. Time to finally be a human being.

He notes for the first time that his injuries have brought him to his knees, and he feels a jolt of disgust at himself, kneeling in front of another person as if he's less than them. Instead of doing anything rash, though, because if he's anything it's calculating, he holds out a hand.

Claire takes it and pulls him up, and helps him walk. He feels weak and wants to push her away, but doesn't, because there's something deep in the pit of his stomach that knows that he's not really being weak at all. That he's finally being a man, not a mindless creature to be played with.

"Hey, Pippa? It's Hawkeye." Claire speaks into an earpiece. "There's been a change of plans."

He almost smiles to himself, managing a bitter twist of his lips.

For the very first time in his life since he was very young, Nikolai Romanoff thinks for himself.