Bruce Banner followed Natasha Romanov into the round table room where so much had been realized the last time the Avengers had assembled here. Director Fury was standing at the head of the table, staring balefully at the two of them as they came to rejoin the team after this latest incident.
"Did the two lovebirds have fun without the rest of us?" Stark asked.
"Stop right there," Fury told them.
More than halfway to the table, but not close enough to part company and take their respective seats.
Bruce noticed that, while he was almost huddled over on himself, looking no different than he did the last time he had been brought inside the pressurised tin can of SHIELD's flying fortress...Natasha looked no different than she would after a mission, a briefing, a sit-and-wait assignment... or our date. Bruce wondered if Natasha's emotions were like his rage: always there, but invisible to the eye unless someone made the mistake of pressing too hard.
"I won't bother asking if you know what you were doing," Fury said. "What I want -"
Is for this to never happen again?
"- is for the both of you to tell us exactly what happened."
"I second that," Stark said from where he had practically turned two meeting chairs into a lounge chair. "Give us all the juicy details about your date."
"Or just the part that went wrong," Fury said. "I will expect completeness in your reports, which will not be typed, emailed, or transmitted."
"Spoilsport," Tony muttered sotto voice.
"Just take your time," Jane said.
"We're not going anywhere," Steve said.
"Acquired immortality, have we?" Thor jested.
Taking notes, or forming a comparison? Natasha thought to Jane's question. She knew their respective situations were not completely without parallel. "We went to a little town on the Kazakh border..."
"Karaoke?" Bruce repeated, once Natasha had translated the Cyrillic sign.
"Nice and relaxing," Natasha said. "So I've been told."
"Should I be insulted?"
"Why would you?"
"You obviously plan to have me stand in front of a large crowd of total strangers, and sing. Normal people have a hard enough time not breaking down when they do it."
"We're not normal," she said.
"No one would argue that."
"You'll do fine."
"You went from 'we're not normal' to 'you'll do fine'...why? What about you?" Bruce asked.
Interupted by Stark's persistant throat-based noises he was trying not to let out of his mouth, Natasha asked, "What?"
"Oh nothing," Tony said. "It's just, a professional assassin takes our own Jolly Green Giant out for a sing-along... I don't know whether to laugh or cry."
"Applaud," Hawkeye said.
"I may do that. Thank you."
"There has to be more to the story, and that's what we're here to hear," Jane said. "I mean, singing doesn't destroy buildings."
"You never heard her sing," Hawkeye remarked.
"So much for not remembering Budapest," Black Widow said. "Anyway, it was going fine until -"
"Define 'fine', if you please," Stark said.
"If the lady doesn't want to say, we shouldn't ask," Steve said.
Thor muttered something in Old Norse.
"Don't worry about it," Jane said to Steve; "it's complimentary, about your manners."
"Oh. Thank you," he said to Thor.
"Would it really be so terrible to admit there was tongue?" Tony asked. "Lips?"
Natasha and Bruce didn't reply.
"Owch. You only got to kiss her cheek?" He paused. "Which one?"
They ignored him, and resumed their report...
"What?" Black Widow asked, aware Bruce had been watching her eat for the past two minutes, barely touching his own plate.
"I know you aren't scared," Bruce said. "But...You're not worried?"
"That you'll change?"
Bruce shook his head, slow and careful. "That the other guy will either like you or hate you."
"I'm a big girl," she said.
"Standing next to me, yes."
"I can handle myself."
"I never doubted that. But he can grip anything."
That was when the waiter came over to them and said something that Natasha translated as, "It's our turn on the stage."
"The other guy can't sing either," Bruce said, if that would help any.
"We're going," she said firmly.
"Sounds like it went better than half the assignments you take," Hawkeye said to her. "What went wrong?"
"Somebody got mad," Stark said. "Did you not see the aerial photos? Anyway, back to this romantic dinner for two..."
"I didn't get mad," Bruce said.
"Then you let the big guy out to play."
"No, I didn't."
"Then who was it?"
"We're getting there. But you keep interupting."
"You know ve hav vays ov making you talk," Stark said in a fake accent.
"Tony?" Steve said.
"Not even Germans talk like that."
"Ten bucks says he says 'and how would you know?'" Hawkeye said to Thor and Jane, who nodded.
"Uh, guys, I do read the reports," Stark said.
"Truly?" Thor asked.
"I was under the belief that you read only your second-in-command."
"Hey, Pepper is like fine wine."
"Better on bedsheets than in a book?" Thor asked.
Jane and Steve made strangled noises.
"I was going to say, smarter than you," Tony told Thor.
"Were you sick the day they taught about metaphors and similes?" Steve asked.
"Likely he paid his teacher to go home like a good skraeling," Thor said.
More of the strangled noises.
"Speaking of," Tony said, "what did you sing? Please tell me it wasn't Little Red Riding Hood."
"I know the story, I don't know the song," Steve said. "Was it the one about the witch doctor?"
"Actually, if you must know, I was planning to sing The Hunting of the Snark," Bruce said.
Everyone paused, looked at each other, and asked in unison, "Why?"
Everyone except for Hawkeye who recited, "'But if your snark be a boojum, then you will suddenly and silently vanish away.'"
Bruce and Natasha nodded.
"Who says romance is dead, eh?" Tony asked.
Bruce and Natasha were about to begin singing, when there was a noise and a kerfuffly THUMP into the ground outside the restaurant. The two of them ran outside, dropping payment for the meal on their table as they passed it.
There was something half-perched and half-clinging to something invisible overhead. Like neon lights, fog, and corded muscle, Bruce thought, trying to describe it to himself.
Beneath the 'something' was one woman running away from them all, to some science office from Soviet days. And there was a woman almost the mass of Thor - though where Thor was broad, she was tall.
"Who are you?" Black Widow asked the tall one, the one who wasn't running.
"I am Sigyn, little worm," said the tall Asgardian, and casually side-stepped a Hulk leaping at her.
"Sigyn?" Thor repeated.
"Wasn't that Loki's wife?" Stark asked.
"One of his wives," Steve said.
"One of?" Jane asked.
"I figured if I read some of the Teutonic myth crap the Red Skull was so hot about - no offense," Steve said to Thor, "I would have a better shot at figuring out his next moves."
"Did it work?"
"Not really - the Red Skull's first priority was killing Hitler."
"And we were against that...why?" Tony said.
"One, I didn't like him. Two, he was going to kill all the capitols of all the countries at war."
"Well that's not nice."
"Or sporting," Thor said.
Sometimes the fighting resembled fighting, and at some points an outside observer would swear they were playing catch - or a form of catch - with Black Widow. The fighting only stopped when the other woman ran out of the Soviet-era research station.
Sigyn hurled Black Widow far into the air, then clutched the researching woman, and hurled themselves up to the down-reaching something...and were gone.
Hulk cradled Black Widow within the sphere of his rolled-up body as he bounced back to earth repeatedly.
"Alright, fine, no more of me asking for details of the date. I swear," Tony said.
"Just one question."
"Ask," Natasha said.
"When can we expect the wedding invitations?"
"Question," Steve said.
"Oh come on, you can't be that old," Stark said. "Thor here, sure. I'd buy it from him."
"Buy what?" Thor asked. "I want to hear the story."
"Actually I was going to ask who pulled Sigyn out of there," Steve said.
"I've no idea," Black Widow said. "If I had to guess, I'd say Ratatosk."
"The climber who runs up and down Yraggasil to the various worlds," Thor said.
"And that's not all," she said.
"I recognized who Sigyn picked up..." Bruce said. "I don't know what she was doing while we were fighting Sigyn, but I've seen her before."
"You have?" Tony asked. "Competition for the lovely Black Widow?"
"Where did you see her?" Steve asked. "You've seen her...you haven't," he said to Natasha, who nodded once
"Footage," was all Banner would say.
Steve was quiet, and everyone watched him to see what he would do.
Finally, Captain America stood up and, hands on the table, said to Thor, "Is there any way to track where that Rat went?"
"Indeed there is. It is not easy, but -"
"I'm going. I'm not asking any of you to go with me, but if there's any chance Peggy Carter is still alive, I have to take that chance."
"We'll go," Bruce said, and Natasha nodded.
"When have I ever been able to refuse a party?" Tony asked. "Of course I'm going too."
"Ratatosk remembers me with even less fondness than Loki bears me," Thor said. "This shall be great fun."
"You guys got room on this mission for a second mere mortal?" Hawkeye asked.
"Always," Natasha said.
While everyone was packing supplies and equipment for the mission onto-into the Worlds Tree in pursuit of Ratatosk, Stark came up beside Bruce and almost slapped him on the back as a buddy...but then thought better of it. "Bruce, buddy," Tony said, "if this is the sort of adventure we get when you don't even get to First Base, imagine what'll happen when you reach Second."
Bruce considered that. "Destruction of the Earth."
Tony shook his head. "I can only accept that for a Home Run."