It’s an assessment, Coulson tells them once the entire team is assembled in the conference room. The few people above Fury have expressed a desire to see who would be best suited to take down whom in a battle, even though the group has long since moved past the petty fighting and scornful remarks that characterized so many early meetings.
“Are you serious, Agent Man?” Thor’s voice asks incredulously. It has been a while since he’s called the liaison by his last name, finally understanding that the modern-day Earth didn’t use last names as they did in the Medieval period.
“It’s like training, right?” Bruce sighs wearily. “I have to say, that’s not exactly fair if I-” he flexes his biceps and Clint laughs.
Coulson shakes his head minutely. “No, the pairs have already been decided. The Captain and Thor are to go against one another.” The demi-god smiles widely at the blond soldier, who frowns. “Stark, Banner and Barton,” Coulson glares at the slip of paper in his hands. “in which Banner will remain human.”
“Shhyeah,” Tony scoffs. “That’s really fair.” He turns to the scientist clad in the white lab coat. “Have you ever taken a defensive fighting class in your life?”
Bruce’s rebuke is mild but his smirk is not. “You learn a good number of things when you travel, Tony.” Thor’s laughter rings out.
“Wait, hang on just a minute.” Clint points to his partner, who’s standing against the wall in a relaxed pose, arms crossed over her chest. “Who’s gonna fight Natasha? Because I already sparred with her this week and it’s in my file I’m not doing it more than once.”
The men all look at Coulson who gives a rueful smile. “Loki, if he agrees to come in.” The cries are instantaneous and loud.
“That’s not fair, he has magic-”
“You think he’s some reformed villain, he tried-”
“Just last week he blew up half-”
“My brother is not to be underestimated, I warn-”
“I can take care of myself,” Natasha cuts in smoothly. She glares all of them into silence before pushing off the wall. “I’ll make my own arrangements, Agent Coulson.” Her boot heels click on the tile as she walks out and no one dares ask her what she meant.
Steve and Thor meet outside one of the empty rooms of the SHIELD floor that’s dedicated solely to training. They’re dressed in battle gear and carrying their customary weapons.
“You sure we should do this inside?” Steve asks Agent Coulson, who is a step behind him. “I mean, we both hit pretty hard and I’d hate to cause any more structural damage.”
“My powers gifted through Mjölnir are hardly meant for the indoors,” Thor contributes. He twirls the large hammer in his hand like it weighs no more than a regular carpenter’s tool though everyone knows that is not the case.
“Field six,” Coulson makes the executive decision. “It’s surrounded by a forest that’s due for a clearing crew next month. I doubt anyone would object.”
“Just like before, my friend!” Thor claps Steve on the back.
It takes them little time to reach the grass-covered area on SHIELD grounds and the two blond Avengers face each other. Coulson stands at the tree line, a few hundred feet away.
Steve readies his shield and Thor raises Mjölnir. It’s like a replay of the terrible time in the forest, except the sun is dawning over the treetops. The hammer crashes down against the vibranium circle and Coulson shields his eyes from the light.
Thor flies backwards and Steve chuckles. “Didn’t you learn this lesson the first time?” Thor staggers to his feet and throws Mjölnir. Blocking the blow with the shield forces Steve literally into the ground, boots creating deep furrows into the dew-covered grass.
Coulson watches impassively as Steve throws the disc, ducking quickly when Thor blocks the whirling shield with the edge of his hammer and it goes spinning off.
The demi-god raises the hammer high above his head in the air and the formerly bright blue sky of morning darkens slightly as storm clouds roll in. Steve runs toward him and dives for Thor’s knees before he can call lightning down or heave Mjölnir towards him, bringing him to the ground with a heavy thump. Thor tosses his weapon in the direction of Coulson, uncaring that it creates another small crater. The two men ignore the sound of cracking branches and wrestle on the ground, trading punches and grunting.
It goes on for some time before Coulson calls a halt to the evenly-matched fight. “That’s enough, thank you.” Steve and Thor break apart, grinning at the other. “Go clean up.” The SHIELD agent stalks off and Thor looks at Steve.
“You did not happen to see where Mjölnir had fallen, did you?” He looks around at the trees surrounding them. Steve points to a dip in the ground beyond the first line of red-leaf maples.
“I didn’t see it, but I’d guess it’s somewhere over there.” He shakes Thor’s hand in recognition of the fair fight and trudges off through damp grass to locate his own shield.
“Are you sure you can handle all this?” Tony motions to his own body, clad in a tracksuit with gold and dark red stripes down the side. Clint raises an eyebrow and opens the door.
“After you,” the marksman motions for Tony to precede him into the empty training room. Tony strolls in like he’s walking in Central Park and Clint rolls his eyes.
Bruce is in the middle of the room, moving with slow, graceful movements through what looks like Tai Chi. Tony immediately charges him, tackling him in the middle of a pose.
The scientist falls backwards and Tony is quick about pulling Bruce’s left arm up against his own neck.
“Well, you sure don’t waste any time,” Clint chuckles, watching as Bruce goes limp in a few minutes from Tony’s chokehold. He helps carry the unconscious body to the corner of the room and then springs to his feet, away from the genius.
“No time to waste,” Tony retorts cheerfully. “Your agency scheduled this stupid thing in the middle of the afternoon, a prime time for some of my best ideas.” Clint shrugs because it’s not like he made the schedule either.
Both men are the same height, which puts them on even footing in that regard. Clint is trained in various forms (and lord knows what he’s picked up from his partner in the art of hand-to-hand) but Tony has Happy and Rhodey as teachers, not to mention the best money could buy.
It’s a boxing match without gloves or safety gear, feinted punches, ducks and weaves. Tony and Clint resort to dirty tactics just as often as they follow the rules, dodging fists and feet of the other man.
Tony grunts when Clint’s fist connects with his ribs but he manages to block the next punch. Clint’s face registers surprise and Tony smirks.
“Weren’t expecting that, were you?” Tony pants even as he stumbles back a step.
Clint shrugs just before he drops to the ground and attempts to kick Tony’s feet from under him. “I’m not surprised as I might have been. You’re on the team for a reason.”
Tony puts a hand to his chest in feigned shock. “Careful, I might think you’re sweet on me.” He jumps over Clint’s leg and aims a kick at his torso. The marksman grabs ahold of his ankle and pulls Tony to the ground.
Both men fight for the upper hand and Clint ends up on the defense as Tony does his level best to pummel the other man. Tony eventually gets the drop on Clint, pinning him with strong arms muscled from hours in the lab.
Clint groans. “Let’s not put this in my file, okay? Natasha will never let me live this down.”
“You could always cop out and say your injury from the mission last week suddenly gave you a Charlie Horse.” Tony manages to get his arm around Clint’s neck, the same technique he used on Bruce. Clint’s body takes a few minutes to relax into unconsciousness; Tony drops him when he’s left holding a lax body.
The genius looks at Clint sprawled at his feet and Bruce propped against the wall. “Well, we could cuddle and it’d certainly be fun,” Tony winks at the camera that recorded the entire fight from the top-left corner of the room. “But I have things to do now. Thanks for the exercise, guys.” He leaves Clint where he is in the middle of the room and walks out with a wide grin.
Few people at SHIELD HQ notice Natasha leaves the grounds in a black cocktail dress, or that she takes Tony Stark’s custom-made Acura. The GPS tracking device is disabled inside the garage and the convertible peels off into the darkness.
She leaves it with the valet of a high-end restaurant in downtown New York City and waltzes through the doors like she owns the place. A quick look around and Natasha heads toward the table on the far left.
Loki stands as she approaches and holds her chair out for her. “Pleasant drive?”
“Very,” Natasha replies, smoothing the dress over her knees. There is no need to say she had broken at least three laws on the way in just for the hell of it. “Do you want red or white?”
“Red.” and Natasha beckons the waiter closer, ordering a bottle of Château Margaux. It’s delivered to their table shortly after and Loki swirls the wine in one hand.
“Isn’t this better than any sort of silly test your employers would have you fulfill?” He questions idly, eyes scanning the menu and not looking at Natasha.
She makes a noncommittal noise, sipping from her glass. “We could always fight, practice never hurts.”
“I would hurt you,” Loki reminds her, deadly and intense. “It would be so easy, your fragile mortal body is weaker than you think.” Natasha stares back at him without blinking.
“I know,” her lips twist up for a split second in a wry half-smile, recognition of her own weakness that she can do little about and the arrival of the waiter stops any more conversation.
It’s a dinner between two people who are sort of enemies, a meeting of two kindred souls in some respects. They don’t discuss the Avengers or what new scheme Loki is planning to wreak havoc, but the conversation flows smoothly from their shared enemies and the best balance for a throwing knife to modern-day philosophy and ballet. Loki tries to charm Natasha into seeing his side of things, she counters with the destruction his earlier magic had caused to the city.
“We would be so good together, you and I.” His voice is low, hardly louder than the din of the other patrons around them. “I understand you, I see the way you look at them with their orders for minimum damage.” Loki scoffs at the idea like it's unheard of.
“We would,” Natasha admits. She finishes her poached salmon and sets her knife down. “Except I have chosen my side and you would never see me as an equal.”
Loki inclines his head in acceptance of the statement. “You aren’t. None of your band of merry warriors comes close.” The woman doesn’t bother responding and they finish the meal, the bottle of wine in comfortable silence.
Loki stands when Natasha does at the end of the meal and presses a careful kiss to her pale cheek. “Until next time.” He smiles at her wickedly, smoothing his green silk tie down. He strolls out and leaves her to pay the bill. It’s no different than any other monthly dinner they have.
Natasha pays with SHIELD's money and drives back to HQ. The wind whips through her short red hair, stealing her laughter as it leaves her mouth. She keys in a report at her computer, telling SHIELD that nothing unusual happened and Loki pinned her down, knife at her throat. (Maybe that will happen next time.)