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Performance Review

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Two years of working with her and Nick’s still not that fond of Agent Romanov. Had Barton asked him—though why Barton would start now after ten plus years of doing whatever the hell he felt like—Nick would have told him the only logical answer: Hell no was he bringing that woman back alive. Barton’s job was to eliminate the killer spy. Not adopt her. You don’t get cuddly with a creature like the Black Widow.

But Nick’s not an idiot. There are precious few people who had ever thought that, and all had been proven very, very wrong. And Nick doesn’t believe in throwing away useful things. So Barton thinks Romanov could be an asset. Alright. Barton has a good eye for things like that. Now Romanov’s an asset. Jury’s still out of whether she’s “good” or not, but the woman’s competent, she’s quiet, she doesn’t kill anyone they haven’t told her to kill, and if she does, she’s smart enough to keep it secret. Nick still doesn’t trust her, and she doesn’t trust him, but that’s fine. This relationship of theirs isn’t based on anything so complicated as trust. As the good book says, you can love your king, but it’s a damn sight better to fear them.

“Director Fury,” Romanov says when she enters his office. From behind his desk, Nick stares her down before he unclasps his hands and holds one towards the empty chair. It’s much smaller than his own. It’s much lower. An obvious trick, but the damn thing is it still works, even if you know about it.

Romanov sits, one leg gently crossed over the other. She’s got a knife in the shoe closest to her folded hands, and she wants him to know that she knows that he knows.

There’s only one rule in this game people like them play—make the other guy blink.

As a rule, Nick Fury does not blink.

“You have a job for me?” Romanov asks.

He regards her with practiced calm. “I might. I have a job that needs doing, that much I’m sure of. I’m just not certain you’re the person we want doing it.”

Romanov isn’t stupid enough to let her pride bristle. She just looks back with equal calm, the ghost of a smirk on her lips. “And why is that, sir?”

“This particular job requires a certain amount of—” He sits back, his hands circling around each other in the universal gesture for let me think of the word. “Likeability.”

“You don’t like me, sir?” She’s mocking him.

“Few do, Agent Romanov. To be honest, I can’t think of a one. And I imagine you don’t lose much sleep over that. Barton’s got a soft spot for you, of course, but he’s about it and he’s always had a thing for strays. We docked him for keeping a puppy in his quarters just last year.”

She does smirk at that, a cruel slash of a smile. But her eyes dart to the left and then to the floor before they come back to him. She smirks because she’s hurt and she doesn’t want to be.

“Do you want me to be someone else?” Romanov asks. Then she disappears. The new woman smiles with all her teeth, so honest and open you wanted to shield her from the world. Her body language is nervous—young woman meeting with the big, bad boss, trying her damnedest to impress. She’s afraid. But she’s also a little aroused, attracted to power as pretty young things like her usually are. She clenches and unclenches her hands. She seems shorter. Her eyes seem wider.

“I just want to help,” this new woman says. “Tell me what you need. Please. You took me in when I was lost, and I owe you all my life.”

One thing Nick will say in Romanov’s favor: she is damn good at what she does.

“Stop that,” he says. “That’s just plain unsettling.”

She sits back, Romanov again, but this time a quietly annoyed variation. “Is there some version of me that you find agreeable?”

“Haven’t found one yet.”

They stare each other down. Romanov’s good. If it weren’t for the slight tightening of her lips, you wouldn’t even know how much she wanted to stab him right now.

The first thing you need to know about the Black Widow is that the Black Widow desperately, tragically wants to be liked for who she is. The second thing is that she has no idea how to make that happen. And the third thing is she hates herself and everyone else for that.

It’s always good to know about your people. Even better when they know nothing about you. A bit of advice for any aspiring SHIELD directors out there.

Suddenly Natasha stands, her chair scraping back and almost tumbling over. More force, Nick would bet, than she meant. “Then I’ll remove myself from your presence, if you find me that distasteful.”

“Sit down, Agent Romanov.”

“And cause you further offense? Director Fury, I wouldn’t dare.”

“Sit your ass down, Agent,” he says, quiet and low. “I have not dismissed you.”

For a second there, Nick thinks she really is going to stab him. The second passes. Romanov sits. Good girl. “Tony Stark,” Nick says as way of opening.

Romanov folds her hands in her lap and keeps her mouth resolutely shut.

“What do you know about the man?” he asks.

“Everything in the newspapers,” she says curtly. “Everything in the SHIELD files.”

“Is that all?”

She cocks her head at the implied challenge. “Give me an hour with him. After that I can tell you everything.”

“You’ve got a very high opinion of your abilities, Agent.”

“So do you. If you didn’t, you would have killed me when Barton brought me in.”

Now, aren’t they feeling honest today?

“Agent Romanov, see, the funny thing about murder is that it’s never really off the table. You can always go and do it later if the mood strikes you. Although,” Nick says with a grin she doesn’t return, “I bet you know that.” He let the words sit for a moment. “Now, obviously, undoing a murder is a hell of a lot harder than doing one—though our boys and girls down in R and D promise me some exciting developments on that front. But until such time as their wildest scientific dreams become a reality, we don’t kill without cause. Do we, Natasha?”

He’s silent. He waits. “No,” she says at last, sullen and glaring.

“No, we don’t,” he says. “Otherwise we might do something we regret. And regret’s a heavy load to carry. Isn’t it, Natasha?”

This time she refuses to answer.

“I want you to get close to Tony Stark. I want you to learn his deepest darkest secrets. I want the shit that the most shameless man in the world keeps hidden. I want to know his favorite food, his singing range, whether he wears boxers, briefs, or nothing at all, and once you get all that information together, Agent Romanov, I want you to tell me if you’d entrust the fate of the world to him.”

Romanov’s eyes narrow. “No.”

He raises his eyebrow. “You’re turning the job down?”

“I’m telling you my conclusion.”

Nick smiles as he puzzles her out. “You think that one of the smartest men alive and his flying death suit can’t help the world?”

She shrugs one shoulder, the most elegant display of calculated apathy Nick’s ever seen. “He might. But I wouldn’t entrust the world to him.”

“And why’s that?”

“He’s not me.”

Nick steeples his fingers and laughs. “A very high opinion of your abilities, Agent.”

“I’m not delusional, Director.”

“You just like to be in control.”

She raises her eyebrow. “You’re going to judge me for that?” Natasha breathes through her nose in a way that might be a laugh. “And your secret little superhero collection doesn’t inspire much confidence.”

“Whoa, now, Agent,” Nick says, holding up his hand. “This project has nothing to do with the Avengers Initiative. You know as well as I do, on the advice of our sage Security Council, that particular scheme was wisely discontinued.” Natasha looks at him like he’s an idiot. That’s fair. He should know better than to treat her like one. Nick raises one finger towards the door. “You have a cover story to build, Agent Romanov. Stark Industries has world-class security.”

Suddenly, the other woman is back. She smiles shyly at Nick and tucks her long red hair behind her ear. “I’m sure that Mr. Stark won’t mind another pretty face around.” Her voice is sweet as a spoonful of sugar, as southern as a junebug in July. Nick almost feels bad for Stark. He’s not ready.

“Dismissed, Agent. And watch the sweetness. Stark likes his women mean.”

Romanov stands. “Duly noted. And if you don’t mind some advice in return—”

“I didn’t ask for any.”

“—then I’d say, stop listening to Agent Coulson. Start listening to Agent Hill. The Avengers Initiative is a disaster waiting to happen. Stark’s not trained for this. Your monster man can’t control his powers. And your ice block…” She shook her head with a wry smile. “Even if he is back to normal after you thaw him out, it’s been a long time since World War II.”

“You’re still a damn bit too Soviet for me to trust your appraisal of Captain America, Agent.”

“But you’ll trust my appraisal of the bourgeois capitalist, Tony Stark?”

“I’ll ignore any references in your report to the oppressed proletariat.” Nick looks pointedly at the door. “I will keep your advice in mind,” he says pointedly.  

“I doubt that,” Romanov says. She dips her head in something Nick would call a bow if it wasn’t so damn sarcastic, turns on her heel, and leaves. As the door shuts, Nick lets himself slump in his seat. She’s a sharp one, Barton got that right. Quick mind. Very good at what she does. Extraordinary, even, and that’s a word that Nick doesn’t use lightly. He’s seen a lot of things that are out of the ordinary. And she’s efficient. Probably because you can move pretty quickly without scruples holding you down. But she wants to be liked. Maybe she even wants to be good. He can work with that.

Don’t get him wrong. Nick doesn’t trust her. As far as he’s concerned, you spend the majority of your life working for the other team, you’ve got a hell of a lot of trust to earn. And after the things she’s done, there may not be enough trust in the world for Nick to turn his back on her. But, he thinks, the gears in his brain whirring speedily along,he can trust her to do what’s in her best interest. Saving the world would be in her best interest. She does live in it after all.

Nick grins and takes out the notebook in his jacket, the one that no other eye has ever seen. What the hell, he thinks as he adds Natasha Romanov to the shortlist for the Avengers Initiative. Who knows? Maybe she’ll make a friend.

And Nick likes to get the most out of the useful things his agents bring home.