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Gone to the Dogs

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Jab, jab, cross, hook, cross.

Natasha's fists connect sharply and precisely with Clint's head, forcing him back against the ropes. She smirks in satisfaction, feeling the blood pumping through her veins, a familiar hum just beneath her skin. This finally feels good again.

Her life has fallen into a regular rhythm, and while the changes taking place happen astonishingly quickly, the routine at least is grounding. At first, they put her through cycles of tests: reflexes, coordination, memory, logic, problem solving. She'd have gotten bored if the doctors hadn't been so amazed with her progress. Their fascination with her resilience was nothing short of thrilling; the constant dread that something had gone wrong during her reprogramming lifted quickly, and the relief and cautious optimism that took its place no doubt helped speed her recovery. They discharged her from the medbay within days.

Physical therapy joined the ongoing tests as part of her daily routine. It'd humiliated her to struggle through it at first, but it got easier once she swallowed her pride and committed to the tasks at hand. Strength returned to her muscles, litheness to her limbs, until both her mind and her body began to feel like her own again. The day they cleared her to start training again, Natasha could've wept with relief.

Clint aims a few kicks at her, effectively disrupting her train of thought and refocusing her attention on their sparring match. She slips each of his attacks fluidly, and fires back a quick combination that leaves him face-down on the mat.

"Proud of yourself?" Clint grumbles, but there's nothing but delight on his face.

Natasha's smirk spreads into a grin to match his. "I am, actually."

"Great, kid. Don't get cocky."

Natasha rolls her eyes and offers a hand to help him back to his feet. "What's up with you today? You're not usually so thrilled to have me punch you in the face."

Clint shrugs unconvincingly. "Nothing. It's just good to see you back to your old self."

Natasha sees right through him; he's been telling her that for days. Her eyes narrow. "Come on, Barton, don't make me beat it out of you."

"Okay, fine!" Clint throws his hands up in surrender, but his grin never wavers. "I was gonna wait to tell you after we'd gotten showered and changed, but…" He pauses dramatically, practically vibrating with barely-contained excitement.

Natasha finds herself holding her breath with anticipation. She lets it go in an exasperated huff. "Dammit, Clint--"

"Fury wants to see us."

Natasha blinks at him, excitement slowly starting to work its way through her body. Fury's visited her a few times since her reprogramming, but this is the first time he's actually summoned her officially. Is it possible she's been cleared for active duty? She wills herself not to get her hopes up.

"What for?" She asks as blankly as she can manage.

"Dunno," Clint answers enthusiastically, "but we'd better not keep him waiting. Go get changed and meet meet me back here?"

Natasha doesn't need to be told twice. She tosses a towel over her shoulder on the way into the locker room, already starting to strip out of her damp workout clothes as she heads directly for the showers. The hot water strips away the layer of sweat, leaving behind a tingling anticipation.

The locker room is oddly silent once the rush of water from the shower shuts off, which does nothing to abate the flutter in her stomach. She makes her way over to her locker and punches in the familiar 8-5-4-2. After all this time, she hasn't bothered to change the combination; it's not like she keeps anything valuable in her gym locker anyw--

Natasha freezes as the door swings open. The contents of her locker are definitely not the ones she'd left in there after her last training session. The tac suit in front of her is reminiscent of her usual S.H.I.E.L.D.-issue field gear, but the cut and material are noticeably different. This particular shade of black seems to distort the light, distorting the edges and details of the suit. The material flows like liquid between her questioning fingers, lightweight but improbably durable, unlike anything she's encountered before.

Drawing her hand back in confusion, Natasha nearly double-checks to make sure she's opened the right locker when she notices the utility belt draped around the waist of the suit. There, emblazoned across the buckle, is a glossy red hourglass symbol. Natasha huffs, almost laughing in disbelief.

"So what do you think?" Maria is a little proud of her timing, considering she'd made her way across the entire helicarrier when Clint contacted her that her Natasha was hitting the showers. She could have waited, of course, but after months of plotting, she wants to see Natasha's reaction, preferably without an audience.

"What is this?" Natasha turns to face Maria, anticipation beginning to flutter in the pit of her stomach. Maria didn't exactly startle her by suddenly appearing behind her, but Natasha definitely didn't expect to see her in the locker room right now.

Maria tilts her head, pursing her lips thoughtfully so she doesn't end up grinning like she really wants to. "Looks like a tac suit to me. Black Widow issue, if the belt is anything to go by."

Natasha cocks an eyebrow at her. "I'm not sure I follow. What's wrong with my regular gear?"

Maria's expression sobers and she steps forward, reaching behind Natasha to touch the fabric of the uniform. She's seen the tests, seen what this gear can do. "You're not a regular foot soldier, Natasha. Wearing kevlar would impede your style, and the gear you were wearing... a knife cut through that like butter. This stuff, it can protect you better. It won't do miracles, but it will work as well as any bulletproof vest does."

"This stuff will stop a bullet?" Natasha tests the feel of the fabric again, trying to imagine a knife glancing off of it or a bullet leaving a killer bruise but failing to bury into her flesh. It sounds too good to be true, but she isn't complaining. The extra protection is definitely appealing. "Was this your idea?"

"Yes. I remembered what you told me about the Red Room not caring. I felt like S.H.I.E.L.D. could do better, and Fury agreed," Maria smiles, and she drops her arm, letting Natasha take her time to study the uniform. "He gave it to R&D, and well... they kinda went to town on it."

A smile tugs at the corner of Natasha's lips as she turns her attention to the twin wrist-mounted weapons systems, deceptively simple in their design. There will be time to explore their capabilities later, though. She picks up the utility belt instead and traces her fingers over the insignia, chuckling fondly. "Was this your call, or Fury's?"

"I believe it was a mutual agreement," Maria's smile grows wider as she takes in Natasha's reaction. "You approve?" She doesn't intend for it to sound quite as unsure as it does, doesn't realise how much she's been worrying that perhaps Natasha might not want the title she earned in the Red Room anymore, but the Black Widow has become so much more than they ever meant her to be.

"It'll take some getting used to, for sure," Natasha starts hesitantly. "Wearing the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo is one thing, but is it really a good idea to put so personal a call sign on my field gear? It won't exactly help me blend in."

"It's a two edged sword," Maria agrees. "You don't have to wear it if you need to blend in, but it's also become a symbol. You've built up quite the reputation, in and outside of S.H.I.E.L.D., and I don't mean that badly. The agents here respect you, they trust you. You exposed a sleeper agent and rescued an entire unit. You've been building up a name, seeing that in the field is going to give them courage, and it's going to make the bad guys sweat. It's the sign of a hero, Natasha."

Hero. That's not a word Natasha would have ever thought to associate with the Black Widow. She certainly wouldn't choose it herself, but something about the way Maria says it - the way she believes it - makes it almost sound true.

Natasha finally lets go of the new uniform in favor of resting her hands on Maria's hips. "Thank you," she says, earnestly holding Maria's gaze.

"You're welcome," Maria smiles back at her and shifts closer as she brushes her fingers over Natasha's cheek, never breaking eye contact.

Natasha lifts up on her toes and kisses her lightly. "Does this mean Fury wants me back in the field?"

"I'm not supposed to divulge that information," Maria says mock sternly, and she quickly leans down to steal another light kiss from Natasha. "I'm supposed to be discussing something along those lines with him before you and Barton join us for that meeting."

"Then I suppose we shouldn't keep him waiting," Natasha smirks, trying to mask how eager she actually is. Tentatively, reverently, she takes the tac suit out of the locker. "I'll get into gear and meet you there?"

"Sounds good. I did have orders to tell you to suit up, so that works out," Maria agrees. She reaches out to brush her hand over Natasha's shoulder, unable to hide her pride or the affection she feels in that moment. "I'll see you soon."

"See you soon," Natasha agrees with a wink.

Maria is ready to turn when she realises that they're very much alone in here so she can afford to quickly step back in and lean her head down to steal another, slightly more lingering kiss from Natasha. "One for the road."

Natasha happily obliges her for a moment longer before turning her around by the hips and giving her a gentle shove towards the locker room door. "Go on. I'll be along in a few minutes."

Chuckling, Maria ducks outside, and there's a bounce to her step as she heads to her meeting with Nick Fury.

"So what do you think?"

Over the past months Maria has grown used to Nick Fury asking her this question, but that doesn't change that she still isn't sure what exactly she's doing here or why she's being asked now. About this.

She closes the preliminary report, shaking her head. "It's insane."

Fury smirks. "Tell me something I don't know, Agent Hill."

Maria huffs and leans back in her chair, appraising the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. "The man's a loose cannon. Chaotic good, but-"

"Sometimes that's what you need."

"If you can control it."

"You don't think we can?" Fury challenges.

"I didn't say that." Maria frowns and stares down at the report, the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo on top of it. "I don't like eccentrics. He's a rich boy who's always been able to buy his way out of trouble, and now he's bought his way into playing the vigilante." She falters at the grin that's growing wider on Nick Fury's face. "I'm not going to like this, am I?"

Fury shrugs and stands up from his chair, pacing the room with his hands behind his back. "So how would you control a problem like Tony Stark?"

Maria narrows her eyes at him. Fury obviously already has the answer, but he's checking to see if they're on the same line here. "I'd keep him on a tight leash. Surround him with people who can pull him back when needed."

She frowns when Fury's gaze flickers to the door, and through the matted glass she can see the silhouette.

"I'm glad you think so," he says absently as the door opens and Clint pokes his head in. "Agents Barton and Romanoff. Please enter."

"Of course," Maria mutters to herself as everything starts sliding into place.

Natasha strides into the room, her expression completely blank. Beside her, Clint is doing his best to look anywhere but directly at her. She's already cuffed him upside the head once for staring at her curves in the new suit, and he doesn't seem to keen on repeating the experience. Not that she really minds, exactly. The suit, while exceptionally form-fitting, is not nearly as tight as it looks. The material moves with her as smoothly and seamlessly as she could have hoped, yet it feels protective despite its lightness. She hopes she won't have to find out if it really is bulletproof anytime soon, but she's beginning to trust that this suit will actually do everything Maria said it can.

"You wanted to see us, sir?"

"Agent Romanoff." Fury's voice has an almost happy boom to it as he turns his attention towards Natasha and Clint. "Please," he motions towards the empty seats at the opposite side of the table where Maria is sitting. "I see you've found your new gear."

Maria had already told him about it, but she can't fault him for bringing it up. The suit looks good on Natasha, but then anything looks good on her. This, at least, will help keep Natasha safe. There's no guarantees in their line of work, but at least they can try to even the odds in their favour.

Natasha allows herself a small smirk as she sinks into the chair Fury offered. "I hear I have you to thank for it."

Fury raises an eyebrow as he glances briefly at Maria. "I only authorised the project when it was brought to my attention." He dutifully ignores the snort coming from Maria.

Well, that sounds evasive. Though, Natasha supposes she didn't really expect anything different from him. She shoots Maria a sidelong glance, shifting her weight in her seat. "You didn't call me here just so I could show it off, did you?"

"No, I did not," Fury agrees, and he's certain that by now Natasha has already guessed what this is about. "Doctor Sen tells me that she's cleared you for training and she sees no further reason to keep you out of the field. Would you agree with that assessment?"

"Absolutely," Natasha answers a little too quickly. She can't help the excitement that tingles along her spine. It's been so long.

"That is exactly what I wanted to hear," Fury says smugly. He half turns towards the blank wall behind him and with a sweep of his hand, the projector jumps on.

Maria smirks at Fury's sense of drama as the S.H.I.E.L.D. logo is projected into the wall.

"S.H.I.E.L.D. has always gotten by using ordinary people to accomplish the extraordinary, but sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes the world needs more, and now I've been told I'm a pessimist, but where we are heading we very much will need more." Fury turns towards Clint and Natasha, raising a meaningful eyebrow. "Our own government realised that when they created the super soldier serum. We might not have Captain America available right now, but things are changing, and if we want to keep up, we'll have to change with them. That's why you are here. All of you."

Natasha casts a furtive glance at both Clint and Maria sitting beside her. A puzzled frown has replaced Clint's Christmas-has-come-early grin, but Maria remains impressively hard to read. Natasha sits up a little straighter in her chair. "What do you need us to do?"

"Long term, you and Barton will be my foundation. You've both proven yourself, and I need someone I can blindly rely on. I want to gather the best of the best. People with powers and skills we can't find elsewhere. You both bring something to the table yourselves, but we need more. People with special skills, special powers, and not everyone we're looking at will play ball the way we need them to."

Fury smirks and turns his attention to Maria. "You said you would keep them on a leash, surround them with people who can control them. Barton and Romanoff should do that job, don't you think?"

Maria keeps herself from grimacing, and she glances at Natasha for a long moment. "Yes, I believe so."

"Good," Fury claps his hand together. "That's a start. Do you see where this is going, agent Romanoff?"

Natasha raises a skeptical eyebrow at him. "You want us to babysit hypothetical superheroes?"

"I suppose you could call it that in part," Fury muses. He braces his hands on the table, leaning down to meet Natasha's eye. "That wouldn't quite cover it, though. I want you to be our superheroes. Minus the powers, but I reserve the right to think these potentials have nothing on you."

Maria shifts uncomfortably in her chair. "They don't have superpowers, sir. Someone like Banner..."

"Won't be kept in line by decking him. I know, Hill. Banner is not at the top of my recruitment list to begin with, but he does prove why these measures are necessary. We need people who are cunning, who can infiltrate and manipulate. Who can kill when necessary. Who have a sharp eye and street smarts. You two work well together; now we just need to see who else we can bring to the table to complete the skillset."

Natasha stares blankly back at Fury and does her best to ignore the anxious way Clint is rubbing at the back of his head. Not that she blames him; he's an exceptionally good shot, but that hardly qualifies as superpowers. Her own training and conditioning might set her head and shoulders above her fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, but nothing she does is outside the realm of human capability. Hell, it's not like either of them can catch bullets or leap tall buildings in a single bound. Then again, she isn't exactly convinced anyone else on the planet can, either. Still, if Fury sees the need for a team like that, and he thinks they're capable of being a part of it...

Natasha shrugs a shoulder. "Who else do you intend to recruit?"

"There are a few potentials we've been looking into," Fury replies, ignoring their unease. The screen behind him changes, pictures and names flashing past. "I'll want your input on who you think you can work with, and that's what this meeting is about, really. We narrowed down one potential." The slides behind him stop, the name Tony Stark projected above a picture that looks suspiciously like a mugshot. "Agent Hill, as I'm putting you in charge of this mission, why don't you continue?"

Maria hardly has time to reply as Fury tosses the remote to the projector towards her and she catches it quickly. She never even realised he was holding the damn thing. She blinks and stares at the mugshot, already disliking this guy's smug look. "Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man. Inherited Stark Industries from his father. I'm sure I don't need to explain what they do. Stark is a spoiled little rich boy who ran into more trouble than he bargained for in Afghanistan. Since then he's been playing vigilante wearing the Iron Man suit. Ego aside, this man is smart and if he doesn't join us, we need to at least make certain that his new tech is safe, because if some of that technology ends up on the black market, it will be a nightmare waiting to happen."

"Stark is Iron Man? Why doesn't that surprise me?" Natasha skims the information in front of her and thinks back to what she remembers from the news reports. There'd been chaos when Stark had been captured, and the longer the search for him continued, the more people started to fear the consequences of his tech falling into the wrong hands. She'd stopped paying attention once he made it back to the States; she'd had other things on her mind at the time. Time to start paying attention again.

"Do you want me to try to bring him in?" Barton asks apprehensively. "Take him out if he doesn't want to play nice?"

It takes a fair amount of willpower to keep Natasha from rolling her eyes at him. "Or would you rather us keep an eye on him and intervene if he gets out of hand?"

"The latter," Maria casts Natasha a look. It's only now that Natasha is within reach that she realises how much she won't be if they agree to this mission and Fury's proposal. "You'd be infiltrating Stark Industries. We'd need you to get a position close enough to Stark that will allow you to get a better understanding of how he works and if he is what we need."

"Long-term undercover work? Nothing like hitting the ground running, I suppose," Natasha muses, trying not to let her uncertainty creep into her voice. She holds Maria's gaze for another moment and shifts her weight uncomfortably. "How exactly do you want me to get close to him? Do you want me to run a honey trap on him?"

The "no" gets stuck in Maria's throat, but she doubts she does a good job at hiding her reaction for Natasha. Her stomach churns even as she forces her mind on the job, tries to put up the walls that separate Agent Hill from Maria Hill. "That'll be up to you. If you agree to this mission, we'll provide you with the psychological report we have on him. A honey trap would work on Stark, judging by his reputation, but it will be up to you to decide how you wish to approach the mission."

"What Agent Hill is trying to say," Fury adds softly, "is that it is up to you to determine what your boundaries are and how you wish to handle this operation. You have enough experience to figure out how you can get the information we desire from Stark. How you do this, and the physical and emotional boundaries you set, is entirely up to you."

Natasha releases some of the tension from her shoulders. It's good to know she'll have some flexibility with this mission, and even better to know that she has this kind of support. She squares her shoulders, feeling the ripple of her suit over her newly-rehabilitated muscles. If they want her to be a superhero, at least she'll look the part.

The task Fury asks of her is daunting, to be sure, but she can't deny it's appealing, too. After everything she's been through, everything Fury's done for her, she can't help but trust him. For once in her life, she's more than just some expendable pawn. She has people who trust her, people who love her.

She meets Maria's eyes, silently questioning, even if she's not quite sure what it is she's looking for.

Maria's grip on the remote tightens. Fury's idea is insane. Stark is a loose cannon, but Natasha has handled far worse than Tony Stark. He won't know what hit him, and this is Natasha's chance. A chance to go out there and do good, a chance to become the hero that the world tried so hard to keep her from becoming. A soft smile curves her lips and she nods her head minutely.

That's all Natasha needs. "When do I start?"

It may have been a grin that crosses Fury's face, but it's gone in a matter of moments. His expression is serious, but there's a trace of satisfaction as he straightens up.

"You start tomorrow, agents. Welcome to the Avengers Initiative."