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Shadows in the Dark

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A little girl sniffled in the corner of the dark training room. Her red hair was often called bright as a beacon, but nothing showed in the midnight shadows of the concrete room, red stains on the walls and floor invisible as her own memory.

She told herself she couldn't remember her family, didn't remember the soft sound of a grandmother's lullaby. Only shadows in the dark.

On the other side of the world, a little boy curled up beneath the dark shadows of his bed, night uncertain comfort for hiding him from his own family. He sniffled in the dark, telling himself he could not hear his parents' raised voices, couldn't smell the reek of alcohol. Only shadows in the dark.

They are grown now, a man crouched on the corner of a rooftop, too close to the edge for comfort, weapon comfortable in his hand, the shadows of night drawn close around him as he waits as still as a gargoyle statue. Down below are the stars, the glittering lights through the windows of a rich man's mansion, the sparkle of champagne glasses and evening gowns beneath golden chandeliers.

He's waiting for red hair bright as a beacon, for the woman to step out from the glittering light and into the shadows that conceal red stains, that she moves and breathes and lives in like home. He's waiting for a woman like him.

She steps out, her laughter bright as her dancing partner slumps against her. She looks up, catches sight of shadows, and he knows she can't see him, that he is invisible in the dark. But she stops, stares at his edge of the roof, and he stares back.

Something taut stretches through darkness between them. He doesn't raise his bow. She doesn't raise her glass to toast the new year as the partygoers inside. She disappears like a shadow in the dark.

She has waited for red, waited for bloodstains to turn bright as a beacon in the dark, and now it is here, her fate, writ in blood from the moment her trainers took a little girl and burned away her tears, honing her into a Widow instead. She returns to her suite, she gathers her things, she was ready to leave anyway.

Her window is open. Breezes ripple through the curtains. She backs up against the door, weapons comfortable in her hands, drawn without thought or breath.

"Natalia." His voice is soft, this American's. It sounds like a wind as he is a shadow in the night. "We don't have to do this."

She doesn't pause to answer. She raises her widow's bites and leaps.

They fight like they were born for each other, made for each other, finding each other's strengths and weaknesses like they have known each other from childhood. It is a dance, macabre and holy, every wound a kiss. At last, there is an arrow at her throat, red on its bared surface from beneath her skin, and she can see in his eyes an understanding she never expected from her killer.

"Natalia," he says again. "We don't have to do this."

But they do, for it is the dance they were born to dance, and she remembers herself as a little girl, sniffling in the dark—years older, years later, as she shivers from where the Hulk threw her, every muscle aching, every limb bruised. Her radio bursts to life, invisible but audible like a memory she shouldn't still be allowed to have. Barton. Her partner, on his way to kill, to maim, to destroy. She remembers the shadows in the dark.

"This is Romanoff. I copy."

She goes to dance with him again.