26. Sparring

O

"Budge over," said Natasha's voice, drawing Steve out of the pages of his book. He glanced up to find her standing over him, with her typical blank expression. Her mouth turned with the barest hint of a shy smile.

He smiled back at her with a nod, moving to make room for her on the couch. She sprawled beside him with a sigh, taking claim of the open space heedless of where her limbs came into contact with him. He tried to scoot over some more but she merely spread out further, maintaining the contact. Once Steve forced himself to relax, he had to admit to himself that it felt rather nice.

"So what are you doing slumming it?" she asked with the teasing friendliness that Steve had only heard her use with himself and Barton.

Steve raised his eyebrows as he glanced around SHIELD's library; though small, it could hardly be called a slum. It was approximately the size of the men's showers for SHIELD'S gymnasium. The reading material consisted of a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, all of which were intended for pleasure reading, and none of which had existed when Steve entered the ice, except for those on a small shelf labeled classics. There was little furniture in the room- the ten long bookshelves, a pair of tables with metal chairs, and a circle of couches and club chairs. The overall effect was a nice quiet place to relax.

Natasha nudged him in the thigh.

"You know what I mean," she said. "What are you doing hanging out with sweaty SHIELD agents when you could be living the life of luxury at Chez Stark?"

"And yet, you're here," he said, pointing out her hypocrisy.

"I make it a point to avoid Stark's presence whenever possible, but you, Mr. Leader, shouldn't be avoiding your team."

Steve reopened his book, pretending to read, because as always, Natasha had gone straight for the problem. He didn't want to spend time surrounded by a bunch of strangers that were supposed to be his team within the uncomfortable surroundings of Stark Tower. At least here, things were familiar: soldiers taking a break were soldiers taking a break.

"You," began Natasha, snatching his book away, "need to do some team bonding."

"Team bonding?" he echoed.

"Yes! Go home and challenge Barton to a sparring match," she ordered. "Just don't break him."

Steve glanced at his watch, debating the merits of the idea. It wasn't like he had anything else planned for the day.

"Don't make me order you," she said, with a grin.

"Do you really think you can?" he asked, teasingly.

"Try me."

He grinned, relishing the opportunity to fall back on familiar banter. He stood up from the couch.

"Where do you think you're going?"

"I thought I had an archer to challenge?" He smirked at her.

She let him reach the door before she called out, "Oh, and Rogers; if he beats you, I'm going to laugh then steal the video from Stark and post it all over SHIELD."

Steve laughed.

"I guess it's a good thing I'm not going to lose."

O

He found Barton sprawled across the common room sofa with his feet on the armrest and a large, metallic red bag propped on his chest; one hand hung down to rest on the floor. Barton, who was staring at the television with a vacant, slack-jaw expression, didn't even register Steve's entrance.

"Barton," said Steve, crossing the room to press his thigh against the bottoms of Barton's feet.

Barton oh so lazily turned his head away from the television, disappointing Steve who had been hoping to startle him. So maybe not so unaware.

"Rogers."

"Natasha sent me to challenge you in hand-to-hand," he said, skipping right to the point.

Barton raised a single eyebrow, giving Steve a once over.

"Yeah, nope," he said, turning his head back to the television. He reached into the bag and pulled out what looked like a triangular Frito. He popped it into his mouth biting down with a loud crunch, absently licking at his orange tinged fingers.

"No?" Steve came to a stumbling mental halt as all of his plans derailed.

"Come on, man," complained Barton, taking on a whining tone. "Can't you see I'm trying to become one with the couch?" He crossed his arms over his chest, crinkling the red bag, as he scowled at Steve.

"I'm not asking you to go out and run a marathon," retorted Steve, beginning to feel defensive. "I just asked you for a simple sparring session."

"Oh, no, you do not get to look at me like I'm lazy just because I'm lying here being lazy," said Barton angrily. "I have spent the past three days in the jungles of bumfuck Georgia without even the perks of shooting anyone. I have earned my right to an afternoon off."

"There aren't any jungles in Georgia."

"Well, it felt like it should have been a jungle." Barton scowled again, but this time it wasn't directed at Steve. "It shouldn't be one hundred percent humidity without it raining."

"I see," said Steve, who really didn't, but he was used to feeling lost.

Barton sighed and scrubbed at his face.

"Come find me tomorrow morning," he said. "Wake me up if you have to. We can spar then."

"I can do that," agreed Steve, wondering what to do now. He wished he still had the book he'd been reading; it had been interesting.

"Pull up a chair. Take a load off," ordered Baron, waving towards his left at the rest of the sofa. "I'm watching—" He squinted at the television. "I don't know what the hell I'm watching but that guy keeps going around beating up people in green."

Steve made a noncommittal sound and was preparing to leave when he turned in surprise at the unmistakable sound of Thor's heavy footsteps coming towards them. He wrinkled his forehead in confusion. Thor was supposed to be with his lady friend.

Thor walked into the room looking strange in his jeans and button-up shirt.

"What are you doing here?" asked Barton demandingly, making the question sound more like an accusation.

"The Lady Jane bid me to return."

Thor didn't seem upset, but then few things seemed to break his goodwill, so Steve ventured a question, "Is everything all right?"

"Alas, it seems she finds me," and here Thor's voice turned alarmingly falsetto, "too distracting."

It took Steve a very long, uncomfortable moment to realize that Thor was attempting to mimic Doctor Foster's softer voice.

"She says I may return when she has completed her experiment," he continued, giving them a beaming smile.

"She kicked you out," stated Barton, flatly.

"Yes, I believe that is the phrase."

"And you're okay with this?" he asked incredulously.

"Of course," replied Thor. "Lady Jane's work is very important and I was keeping her from it."

"Huh," said Barton.

Steve watched quietly as a look of understanding dawned on Thor's face. He shook his head lightly and took a pose suitable for long speeches.

"Have I ever told you of the time Volstagg was courting a maiden who wished him to remain behind with her during our campaigns away from Asgard?" asked Thor.

Steve smiled as he recognized the tone. Thor sounded exactly like Mr. Jones, the old man who lived in the brownstone on the corner. He'd been ancient when they were just kids and even more ancient when they'd shipped off to war. His stories had always ended with, "…and that is why you don't—" do whatever it was that Bucky or he had been doing wrong.

"No, you haven't," replied Barton, sounding amused. He sat up leaning forward to listen.

Bucky had always enjoyed listening to stories.

Steve shook his head trying to dislodge the memories. Everything had happened so long ago but it seemed like just yesterday.

"You seem agitated, Captain," remarked Thor, watching him with a worried frown.

Steve turned away, pacing the length of the room. He could feel the press of time weighing down on him. From far away, he could hear Barton speaking.

"I don't know. He was fine earlier. Wanted me to go spar with him."

"Captain," said Thor's voice very close to him. Steve blinked and Thor was standing right in front of him. "I would like to engage you in mock battle."

Steve shook his head, forcing himself back to the present.

"You want to spar with me? Now?" Steve frowned. "But you were going to tell Barton a story?"

"The tale can wait until another day," said Thor.

"You look like you need to hit something," added Barton.

Both were watching Steve with worried expressions.

"Okay," said Steve. He pulled himself into Captain America mode and saw the other two relax. "I have to change. I'll meet you in the gymnasium."

O

The first thing Steve saw as he stepped into the gymnasium was a massive fist flying towards his face. He ducked, dropping to the ground, and rolling away. His hand reaching for his back encountered nothing but air. Steve rolled again putting more space between him and his attacker before bounding lightly onto the balls of his feet, readying himself for the next assault.

Thor's bare chest seemed more massive than usual and his muscles bulged through his leather leggings as he crouched glaring at Steve. His hair messily pulled back at his nape gave him a wild feral air. With a mighty roar, Thor leapt at Steve. Steve managed to duck again but could not avoid all contact. He was surprised when Thor hit hard enough to hurt—the gloves were off, it seemed.

Steve tried to drop to the ground and sweep Thor's feet out from under him but Thor managed to evade. He had to roll away from a kick then caught Thor's foot on the second attempt. He didn't have the leverage to toss Thor so he settled for pushing him back and off balance to allow Steve time to regain his feet.

They circled exchanging a pair of punches that made Steve's cheek sting. He tasted blood as he licked his lips. He landed a strong kick to Thor's abdomen making Thor grunt, but paid for it when Thor grabbed his calf and threw him to the ground. Steve did a flip through Thor's spread legs, punching him in the back as he rose to his feet. They separated.

Steve pushed forward with another flurry of hits but Thor remained undaunted. He seemed to effortlessly brush aside Steve's blows. Steve switched his method moving in too close for punching, trying to attain enough of a grasp to generate torque but his fingers kept slipping over Thor's sweaty bare skin and Steve was not about to try pulling the hair of a god. Abandoning to attempt to wrestle Thor into submission, he moved back to put more space between them.

For the first time, Natasha's remarks about his fighting technique were hitting home. He'd never realized how much he relied on his superior strength and reflexes. Steve tried another rush; this time managing to hook his foot behind Thor's ankle, sending them both crashing to the ground. They grappled with each other, rolling around, until they separated and each bounded back to their feet.

"I think you're ready now," said Thor, stepping back and relaxing his posture.

Steve came to a stop, but maintained his edge, breathing heavily as he waited to see what Thor would do next. To his surprise, Thor turned and headed to the corner, where he rummaged through one of the equipment cupboards, returning with two staves. He reached up and caught the one that was tossed in his direction.

Steve hefted it, confused by the light weight. This was no staff, more like a bamboo rod-Steve could crush it in his grip if he wasn't carefully. As he opened his mouth to ask, Thor began to speak.

"You and I are both suited to displays of brute strength," said Thor, "But to show true technique, more finesse is required."

"We're going to snap these things in half."

"Mr. Stark has more," replied Thor with a grin.

He held the twig awkwardly in front of him as he moved into a ready stance.

"No, like this." Thor reached out to adjusted Steve's grip and thus he began instructing Steve in the subtle art of staff fighting as though Steve were a raw recruit.

Steve's original assumption proved correct as his first staff didn't last five minutes, but Thor was right: Stark had more.

O

"You're not as good at this as I thought you would be," remarked Steve as he dumped Barton to the ground for the third time.

"We can't all be super soldiers." Barton grinned as he brought his forearm up to block Steve's hand, but there was an annoyed bite to his words. His next kick landed hard enough that a normal person would have bruised.

"Sorry," said Steve, as they circled on the mat. "I didn't mean it that way. I just thought, you know, being a SHIELD agent and all."

"Ha! I could wipe the floor with any of those Academy grads."

Steve raised a single eyebrow in disbelief. Barton was only slightly more skilled than the youths in Steve's training classes.

Barton rolled his eyes saying, "You don't have to worry about me in a fight."

He dropped his stance, pausing to make sure Steve reciprocated, before running full speed at the wall. He ran halfway up vertical surface the flipped off of it in some sort of a backwards summersault to land in a crouch. Steve would have gaped except he saw similar moves every morning on his runs from kids doing that "parker" thing off playground equipment.

"I have a different skill set," said Barton with a shrug. He came back to stand on the mat.

"You don't have to prove yourself to me," said Steve quietly, feeling like he should be apologizing.

Barton looked up at him, meeting his gaze with eyes that suddenly seemed ancient.

"We're still strangers," he said with startling seriousness. "You need to know whether you can trust me to have your back."

Steve nodded silently. He glanced at the ground; unsettled.

"Come on," continued Barton, now cheerful, "you have to finish kicking my ass so you can brag to Natasha."

Steve began putting Barton through his paces but he let the intensity drop, letting Barton set the speed. They danced around each other working up a sweat. He ducked under a parry by Barton when he thought he saw an opening. With a quick twist Steve—

Found himself on the floor staring up at Barton who was grinning down at him. Barton laughed at his shocked expression.

"You can't steal from Natasha and expect to surprise me. We've been sparring once a week for years: I know all of her moves."

"But she still beats you," said Steve, as he lumbered to his feet.

Barton shrugged.

"Natasha beats everyone, even May sometimes."

"May?"

"Melinda May." Barton picked up a towel began mopping at his face and arms. "She's one of the few people ranked higher than Natasha at hand-to-hand."

"Another woman," murmured Steve to himself, marveling again at how far things had come since his day. He opened a bottle of water with a quick snap of his wrist. It tasted delicious and cold sliding down his throat.

"Yeah, it's the curse of SHIELD: all of the women are hot and lethal."

"That doesn't sound like much of a curse to me," replied Steve, thinking of Peggy.

"I like a woman who won't cut off my balls when I piss her off," said Barton.

"Maybe you shouldn't piss them off," suggested Steve.

Barton just laughed.

O

Natasha pulled out the chair in front of Steve, causing him to look up from his bowl of oatmeal. This was his second breakfast of the day. She materialized a knife from somewhere and began slicing away the skin of her orange.

"Have you asked tin soldier over there yet?" she asked, with a nod to the end of the table where Stark and Iron Man were bent over one of those flat computers deep into one of their weird silent conversations.

Steve shook his head silently. "I hadn't thought about it," he admitted.

"Aw, but you're so close to completing the whole set." She watched him with a teasing smile, slowly slipping the sections of fruit into her mouth with deliberate seduction.

Steve felt his cheeks becoming hot and he ducked his head back down to his bowl.

"What are you playing at Romanoff?" demanded Stark.

Stark was staring suspiciously between Natasha and Steve. Steve flushed again: he hadn't noticed when they'd gained an audience.

"Just bringing our Captain out of his shell a little," she said. The words were said lightly but she watched Stark like a predator would its prey.

She stood from the table, crossing to toss her peelings in the trash. As she passed Steve her hand dipped to drag across his back, but her eyes never left Stark's narrowing gaze. The cabinet door to the trash can shut with a soft thud and Natasha brushed the palms of her hands against each other as though wiping them clean. She smiled again at Stark as friendly as a barracuda.

"It's nothing to worry your precious little head over," she added, all false sweetness and dripping condescension.

Steve watched the exchange silently, unnerved as always by how quickly Natasha could change, particularly around Stark.

"That woman is dangerous," said Stark flatly, as Natasha made her exit.

Steve shrugged, resisting the urge to defend Natasha. She'd still been within earshot of the comment and would have addressed Stark if it had offended her. He constrained himself to a mild: "Aren't we all?"

Stark's distrustful gaze switched to Steve.

"You're not dragging us into her game."

Steve rolled his eyes. Trust Stark to be melodramatic.

"Natasha was merely asking if I'd sparred with Iron Man yet," he said, tactfully leaving the "you paranoid idiot" unsaid. "I've been trying to informally assess everyone's abilities."

Steve crossed into the kitchen area, glancing over his shoulder to witness Stark and Iron Man having another silent exchange. He washed out his bowl, setting it to dry in the dish drain.

"I have some free time right now, if you were interested," he said, addressing Iron Man.

Steve watched with irritation as Iron Man turned his head towards Stark for instruction first. Stark might be Iron Man's employer but it was Steve who led the Avengers.

"It could be good practice for you," said Stark, sounding like he was trying to convince Iron Man. "It's not like you're going to hurt him."

Iron Man bowed his head in assent.

"Shall I meet you in the gym at half past?" he asked Steve.

O

Steve frowned as he brushed aside Iron Man's first parry with ease. He was barely using enough force to make contact, in fact…. Steve deliberately didn't block the next hit and wasn't surprised when he couldn't even feel the punch.

"You're not even trying," he complained. "Come on. Hit me."

The next hit came faster and harder than Steve expected, sending him slamming across the room to collide with the wall. The force knocked the air out of his lungs and Steve had difficulty clambering to his feet. He winced at the pain of his protesting back.

"Okay," he grunted. "Not quite that hard."

"Sorry," said Iron Man, standing frozen awkwardly in the middle of the mat.

Steve stared at him, head cocked to the side, as he tried to decipher what little body language managed to bleed through the armored suit.

"Your file said you learned hand-to-hand with Agent Coulson. Why are you still having trouble modulating your strength?"

"I'm afraid that I have become accustomed to using the repulsors," said Iron Man, speaking each word with a strange hesitancy. "The algorithms for adjusting strength are quite different." He raised his shoulders in a brief shrug. "It appears I need more practice."

Steve supposed that he could understand that logic. After all, he was so used to working with his shield that he sometimes had to consciously correct his aim when he switched to firearms.

"That's what we're here for," he said, sweeping an arm to indicate the training facility. "I want to get everyone fighting to their strengths. Ideally, we'd have you out of the suit, learning this for real."

"That's not going to happen," replied Iron Man.

"I'm just not happy with you being so vulnerable outside of the suit," he said, honestly, with no reproach.

"You needn't worry, Captain," said Iron Man, simply. "My anonymity protects me."

Steve shrugged. He knew he didn't have a chance at winning the argument now but that didn't mean he wasn't going to try, and one day in the future, Iron Man might change his mind.

O

Steve hadn't considered inviting Banner to a sparring session until he walked into the gymnasium and spotted him in the corner doing bicep curls.

"I haven't seen you in here before," he said.

Banner glanced up with an expression of polite interest. Steve didn't know the other man well enough to guess whether it was feigned or genuine.

"I keep odd hours and I'm not in here as often as I should," replied Banner, never breaking the rhythm of his flexion. "Since I don't have to worry about cardiovascular health, it's hard to get motivated to go to the gym."

"Yet here you are."

"Maybe I just got tired of the muscle-envy," he said, eyeing Steve's arms.

"Good luck with that," said Steve with a laugh, thinking of Thor.

He started warming up by skipping rope. Once he found his rhythm, his mind began to wander and he looked back and forth between the exercise mats and Banner thoughtfully. The room was silent except for the swoosh of the rope through the air and the repetitive rap against the rubber tiled floors.

"You know," said Steve, as he wound down, "I've spent the last week slowly working through your teammates." Banner looked up and Steve nodded towards the mats. "How would you like to have a go?"

"No, thanks," said Banner politely. He stood up from his bench and moved over to work on his legs.

Steve frowned. He hadn't thought of it before because it was rarely Banner that they had with them in the field; but now that he had thought of it, he didn't like the idea of leaving Banner out of his informal evaluations.

"I think you should," he tried again. "It helps to know what everyone's capable of."

Banner just shook his head.

"You have had training, haven't you?" Steve knew that Banner wasn't a soldier like the rest of them.

Banner ignored him.

"I could teach you a few moves. It'll be fun."

Banner stopped what he was doing and turned to look Steve in the eye. He took a deep breath and stated as calmly and plainly as he could, "Being hit makes me angry."

Oh.

"And, uh, the big guy doesn't need hand-to-hand," finished Steve, feeling slow.

Banner just smiled silently. He dropped back to the ground and began doing crunches.

"Why don't you ask Tony?" he asked, during the moment of rest between sets. He wiped the sweat from his face and neck.

"Stark?" repeated Steve, sure he had misheard.

Banner shrugged.

"He takes self-defense: modified martial arts mostly, but boxing for fun." He glanced at Steve and shook his head. "I don't know why you look so surprised. Iron Man is his body guard for a reason. The man has enemies."

"No, I understand that," said Steve. He blinked looking confused. "But how does he spar?"

Steve couldn't wrap his head around the mechanics. He tried to picture it but couldn't get past the image of someone kicking over Stark's wheelchair, leaving him helpless.

"Haven't a clue," admitted Banner, freely. "But I'm sure he'd be willing to show you."

Steve smiled at Banner's tenacity but shook his head.

"Not today," he said, instead. "I could hold your feet," he offered, when Banner resumed his exercise.

Banner stopped, flopping onto his back as an expression that might have been annoyance crossed his face.

"You're not going to leave me alone," he said, resignedly.

"Nope," replied Steve with a cheeky grin.

"What is this? Some teammate bonding exercise that I missed the memo for?"

"Pretty much." Steve shrugged with a smirk.

"Sometimes," said Banner, struggling to his feet, "I think the Avengers real superpowers are being annoying." He started towards the far corner of the gym. "Come on, soldier boy, we can play catch with the medicine balls."

"You've been spending too much time with Stark," noted Steve.

"Oh, that I don't doubt."

O

O

O

AN: I'm sorry, everyone. I really do try to get these things out faster. I don't know why I thought this chapter would be a good idea. I mean, I like the concept, but I'm pants at writing fight scenes so all too often I ended up staring at the computer screen blankly before giving up in frustration and doing something else.