Natasha thought she understood her mission. It had seemed straightforward when she was briefed. Tony Stark was dying of heavy metal poisoning: get close enough to him to access his systems and ensure he had placed adequate security on his more dangerous technologies.
He had; there were biometric locks keyed only to himself and Colonel Rhodes. Natasha reported her findings and expected to either be reassigned or instructed to stick around and make sure no one caused additional trouble for Stark during his final days.
Instead, she got the strangest set of orders she'd ever received.
"Sir," she said, staring straight ahead.
Fury raised an eyebrow. "Problem, Romanoff?"
"No, sir. I was just curious about the rationale, sir."
Fury leaned back in his chair to regard her. "Stark's brilliant. Determined. He took down Vanko in Monaco. I have a suspicion we've only seen a fraction of what that suit is capable of. I want to know if he'd be a good fit for the Initiative."
"Yes, sir," Natasha said carefully; "it's just that... I understood he'd already declined a place on the Initiative."
Fury shrugged. "Minor detail."
"...And that he'll be dead in a few months."
"Maybe, maybe not," Fury said vaguely.
Natasha paused. Every bone in her body told her not to question her handler. Clearly, Fury knew something she didn't. It wouldn't be the first mission she'd undertaken that seemed pointless on the surface. It wasn't her job to worry about that.
What she did worry about, though, was the success of the missions she carried out. And - "Director, with all due respect, wouldn't it be better to have one of the recruitment assessors--?"
"I want you," Fury said, and that was that.
Natasha nodded and clasped her hands behind her back. "Yes, sir," she said with a nod. "Understood."
Natalie Rushman had resigned as administrative assistant in the Legal department of Stark Industries in order to take up a position as Tony Stark's private P.A. Therefore, it was a little bit of a surprise to Natasha when she was told that she'd be remaining at Stark Industries while Stark himself was confined under Agent Coulson's supervision.
However, she didn't ask how she was supposed to assess Stark without being anywhere near him; nor did she ask how she'd suddenly become the CEO's assistant instead of Stark's. She had orders and she was going to carry them out.
While she was there, she helped fend off the little terror attack by Ivan Vanko and Justin Hammer - and that was much more within her comfort zone. But more importantly, she finished her report and turned it in.
Fury called her back to his office.
"Agent Romanoff," he said.
Natasha stood with her spine straight, staring at a fixed point on the wall. "Yes, sir."
"I have some questions about your... recommendation."
Natasha nodded and braced herself. She was an assassin and a spy; she was used to assessing people as marks or targets, not potential recruits. She fully anticipated the report might not be up to her preferred standards, and that grated. Nevertheless, it wasn't difficult to see that Stark was an 'extraordinary individual', the exact target of the Avengers Initiative.
Fury stared at her for a moment, then said, "Romanoff, are you familiar with the minimum physical and mental fitness requirements for field duty?"
Natasha allowed her brow to furrow a little, uncertain why Fury was asking her that. "Yes, sir."
"You noted here," Fury tapped the report sitting on his desk, "that Stark displays compulsive behavior."
"Yes, sir," she said again. "Minor compulsions, primarily relating to physical contact with others, likely germ-related judging by the frequent use of anti-bacterial hand sanitizers."
"And you don't think that might be a risk in the field?"
Ah, he was challenging her to defend her judgment. Natasha let some of the tension in her spine ease. Occasionally Director Fury felt that she was backsliding, becoming too much the trained Red Room creation, not a 'person'. Natasha wanted to tell him she was a trained creation, that was exactly her strength, why he could rely on her, but she knew that wasn't what he wanted to hear.
Very well. She would defend her report and 'assert herself' until he was satisfied with her independence again.
"They're minor, and can be worked around," she said confidently.
"Right," Fury said. "It's not like minor symptoms ever escalate. And they're just compulsions, after all. Just little things he literally cannot prevent himself from doing. What could go wrong?"
Natasha felt unease clench around her gut at the biting sarcasm. It took all her willpower not to visibly check the room's escape points. "I considered it a risk worth taking, sir."
"So you said." Fury frowned at her. "You also said he was self-destructive."
"Was," Natasha confirmed. "He was also dying at the time."
"Well, it's a good thing you were assessing him for such a safe, low-stress role, wasn't it?" Fury retorted sharply.
Natasha winced slightly but said, "Even under pressure, his tactical ability is incredible. When Colonel Rhodes confronted him at the birthday party, Stark displayed precision control of the armor and its abilities despite being heavily intoxicated--"
"He fights well when he's drunk," Fury summarized. "Well, that's great. You know what would be even better, Agent?"
An answer was clearly not required. Natasha pressed her lips together grimly.
"If he didn't screw around with lethal weaponry while drunk off his ass to begin with!"
Admittedly, the birthday party had been... not ideal. Natasha had told him to do what he wanted; she hadn't anticipated that 'what he wanted' would be to recklessly endanger his equally intoxicated party-goers. But that could hardly be blamed on Stark. She'd given him a vague provocative line; clearly she bore all responsibility for what he did with that.
"He was dying," she repeated. "He did program the armors to respond to Colonel Rhodes. Just because he has been self-destructive in the past--"
"He's been self-destructive his entire goddamn life but that doesn't prove he's going to keep being self-destructive, is that what you're saying?"
"Exactly, sir," Natasha said firmly. She had a pretty good idea it was not what he wanted to hear but backing down now was only going to make things worse. "He clearly has a sense of responsibility, as shown by his actions on return from his captivity in Afghanistan, by his efforts to ensure his company was in the hands of someone he trusted--"
"Yes," Fury said slowly. He leaned back and steepled his fingers. "Let's talk about that."
The tone of his voice was not encouraging.
"The Avengers Initiative," Fury continued, "is intended to be a team of extraordinary individuals, who can do the things no one else can do."
Natasha nodded. She'd heard this before. It made sense; SHIELD knew of threats that operated on a level beyond what society was prepared for.
"You think Tony Stark would function well in such a team, Agent Romanoff?"
Natasha frowned a little. "Yes, sir. His abilities--"
"I'm not talking about his abilities, Agent, we all know he's a goddamned wünderkind. I'm talking about teamwork."
"He performed well with Colonel Rhodes in the secondary armor--"
"The armor that he manipulated Rhodes into confiscating," Fury clarified.
Natasha exhaled carefully. "Yes, sir."
"Rather than communicate openly and directly."
Now Fury was just being an ass. Natasha narrowed her eyes slightly, enough to let Fury know she wanted to glare at him. "Yes, sir."
"Nor did he tell Potts he was dying when he turned over the company to her. Something that an incoming CEO might want to know."
"I believe that he wanted to spare them, sir," Natasha said stubbornly. "Surely compassion doesn't disqualify him from--"
"Compassion, unilateral decision making, to-may-to, to-mah-to." Fury gave that infuriating shrug again.
"Director--" Uncharacteristically Natasha found herself floundering. Stark was brilliant, dangerous, and powerful. More than that, he genuinely wanted to protect people. She'd thought Fury agreed with that. Yet... he seemed to be implying that he didn't want Stark on the Initiative.
"He's been a CEO of a major multinational company for two decades," she tried; "he can obviously work with other people--"
"I know you didn't just try to argue that leadership experience means someone makes a good team player," Fury said flatly.
"But when he needs to--"
"Exactly." Fury ran a hand over his face tiredly. "When he needs to, when it is his absolute last resort, he can let people help him. But it's not his strength, it's not his preferred way of working, and it doesn't make the best use of his abilities. If anything, a team would probably slow him down."
Natasha decided she'd probably defended her report enough. She fixed her eyes on the wall again and said, "It sounds like you've already assessed his suitability, sir."
"He's a self-destructive torture survivor with mysophobia-related compulsions that will probably intensify," Fury said, voice becoming oddly gentle. "That alone would disqualify him. If he was an existing field agent, he'd be benched. That's without even getting into his clear inclination towards operating independently. Tell me why you recommended him, Romanoff."
Natasha didn't flush. She had excellent control of her autonomous responses. But she felt the pit in her stomach and the sour taste in the back of her mouth. "I believed he could be an excellent asset, sir."
"He could," Fury allowed, "but it wouldn't be safe for him and it wouldn't be safe for the agency. Tell me why."
Frustrated, she said, "He deserves a chance--"
"To do what?" Fury raised his eyebrow at her. "Expose himself to more trauma? Make himself miserable working at a pace other people can handle?" He placed both hands on the desk and rose, leaning towards her. "The Avengers Initiative is not a prize, Agent Romanoff, and even if it were, 'deserving' a place is not the same thing as being well-suited to it. It's a specialist team, not a moral judgment on his soul."
Oh. Natasha inclined her head, receiving the message. That just because she, like Stark, worked better independently - didn't mean Fury didn't value her skills. "Yes, sir," she said softly.
"More and more extraordinary people are coming out of the woodwork. We still have time to find the right ones - not the best ones," he added pointedly; "just the ones who bring out the best in each other."
Natasha nodded slowly.
"Well," Fury muttered, half to himself, "unless the shit hits the fan first, then I'll just have to grab whoever's nearby and halfway competent."
"I'll make sure to dodge," Natasha said dryly.
"Let's hope we all do," Fury returned.