“How dare you proclaim such an act to be on my behalf, you witless ogre! I do not want you to act on my behalf! My powers extend to such heights of cunning and artistry that you are as blunt and paltry as a stump on the plain of Vígríðr!”
Natasha frowned. She was against the wall around the corner from Stark’s shattered windows, on the top level of the besieged tower. She’d thought for sure she was the first on the scene, but then who the hell was Loki talking to? The Chitauri? Or some more dangerous ally? And why had the invading army just plunged out of the sky like flies in a bug zapper right before Natasha managed to close the portal?
“PUNY GOD IS UNGRATEFUL.”
No – no, it couldn’t be. That was Banner’s voice, or at least, that was the voice of Banner’s grumpy, green alter-ego. Had he been working with Loki all along? A surge of anger made Natasha’s heart race. Maybe he transformed deliberately on the carrier. They had defended him, tried to help him, relied on him – and all along –
“Ungrateful? Do not insult me! I need not show gratitude to you any more than I show gratitude to the stones beneath my feet or the water I rinse my mouth with! You are nothing to me! And – look - will you stop following me around the room!”
“HULK WATCHING. HULK READY TO SMASH MORE BIG, BLUE SQUID.”
“Your ignorance is stifling. Those ‘big, blue squid’ are elder gods of such ancient and powerful origin that even the oldest Asgardians shiver at their names. Your existence means nothing to them. They are madness incarnate.”
“HUH. EASY TO PULP FOR MADNESS INCARNATE,” replied the Hulk.
Natasha had to take action. The others had been silent in her earpiece for several minutes. She had no idea if they were even alive, or whether it was just her and Dr Selvig left to bring Loki to justice. She checked her weapons and swept around the corner.
“Don’t move!” she barked, and then frowned.
Loki was standing in the middle of Stark’s trashed lounge, glass crunching beneath his boots as he paced. The Hulk was crouched by the bar, eyes riveted on the sight of the tiny bundle in Loki’s arms.
“And – and put down the baby!” Natasha said, trying to keep up the authority in her voice.
Loki eyebrows were surprisingly eloquent in their sarcasm.
“Agent Romanov,” he said, voice soaked in disdain. “If you attempt to take this child from me again, I promise you, every threat I have uttered to you in the past will become your new reality.”
“Again?” Natasha frowned. “I haven’t stolen any babies. Recently.”
Hulk rumbled. “BIG, BLUE SQUID STOLE BABY. HULK GOT BABY BACK SO PUNY GOD WOULD STOP WAR. PUNY GOD NOT EVEN THANK HULK.”
“I had everything under control. Your interference might have engendered them to harm my precious child, in which case I would have conquered this pitiful world of my own desire and burned it to the ground!” he thrust out his hand violently towards the earth. The baby in his arms giggled. Loki cooed at it, his voice rising to a lilt. “Yes, my sweet little apple, I’d burn down the planet all for you.”
Natasha stared, guns still trained on both Loki and the Hulk’s foreheads. She said tonelessly, “What – why were you conquering us if not of your own desire?”
Loki gave a very condescending laugh. “Conquer Midgard? I’d rather have my eyes burned out with poison. What a dull job it would be, playing tyrant to your sad little species for the rest of eternity.”
He began to pace again, kicking a broken sofa out of the way as it was made of paper. He bounced the baby as he walked, one hand curled protectively around its head. Hulk followed a few feet behind, his face turning to scan the room at the whistle of the breeze or the clatter of bits falling off Tony Stark’s wall art. It was the most disconcerting thing Natasha had ever seen. Luckily she didn’t have to process it alone any longer, because at that moment Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and Hawkeye crashed through the last remaining window.
“Alright, poker-face! Stick ‘em up, and drop whatever that thing you’re holding is!” Iron Man bellowed, charging up his plasma gun. Thor’s hammer was at the ready and Clint was just pulling back his bowstring. Hulk galloped down the steps to stand in front of Loki, uttering a warning growl so low it shook the tiles under there feet.
“Wait!” Natasha yelled. “Stop, all of you!”
Hawkeye glanced towards her. “Nat, don’t tell me he got you under his thrall.”
“I’m not under anybody’s thrall,” Natasha snapped, holstering her handguns. She stepped in between Hulk and the rest of the Avengers. “Let Loki speak. I think he was being held hostage in this war.”
Iron Man gave a very disbelieving snort and Hawkeye was giving Nat a stink eye that would have left a scar if she wasn’t immune to them by now. In the heavy moment of silence, the baby in Loki’s arms began to whimper and then bawl.
“Oh, oh, sparrow, you’re alright,” Loki gushed. His voice turned back into ice, as he looked over Hulk’s shoulder at the Avengers. “Excuse me, but I need to sit down and feed him,” without waiting for permission, he kicked the worst of the debris and glass off the lounge step and settled himself with his ankles crossed. “There now, darling, daddy’s never, ever letting you out of his sight again, is he? No he’s not.”
“Loki,” Thor cried. There was a note of surprised indignation in his voice. “When did you bring a child into the world? Why was I not invited to the birthing celebration?”
Loki rolled his eyes at the ceiling. “Because, brother, you were too busy preparing for your stupid coronation ceremony to reply to my invitation,” he added in a mutter. “Self-centred imbecile.”
“That is deeply unfair, brother!” Thor’s hammer was now hanging by his side, and his other hand jabbed a forefinger at Loki accusingly. “I rather think you could have mentioned something about my new nephew in the last few days!”
“Okay, wait, cut the family soap opera for ten seconds here,” Iron Man lowered his arm. “Were you the one who stopped the Chitauri dead in their tracks?”
“Of course. A battlefield is not exactly the best environment for children,” Loki enunciated clearly, as if Tony Stark was a particularly dense preschooler.
“So conquering earth wasn’t your end goal?” Captain America started to fidget, straightening up out of his battle pose.
“As I’ve already explained to Agent Romanov, it is the very last thing on a very, very long list of life goals,” he was brushing his fingertips across the lips of the grizzling child. The baby’s mouth locked onto his middle finger and began to suck emphatically. Loki didn’t pause in his explanation, “However, I needed a convincing story to tell the Chitauri if I was going to get close enough to their portal technology to combine it with the tesseract and thus release the elder gods.”
“You were going to do what?” Thor roared. “Has your time outside of Asgard driven you insane? Do you wish to tear apart all of matter and space?”
“Oh, for Odin’s sake, put two and two together, Thor,” Loki sighed. “How do you think I survived my fall from the broken bifrost? I wouldn’t have lasted long in the space connecting the nine realms. I fell into the only refuge I had left, the cracks between dimensions, hoping against all odds to be flung back into a world distant from Asgard. Instead, I was drawn into the útanlands myrkr where the elder gods swarm.”
“Brother, that is most terrible,” Thor cried, with what sounded like genuine concern in his voice. Natasha shot him a stink-eye almost as powerful as Clint’s, but he wasn’t looking at her.
Loki nodded, his face a perfect mask of courageous stoicism. “Obviously I would have been offered up as a sacrifice at once, but my approaching fatherhood was discovered. The world-eating servants decided to keep me alive until the birth, to double the offering.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Clint finally lowered his bow. “You’re saying you were pregnant?”
“Is there a reason he shouldn’t be?” Thor said with a glower. “He is a perfectly attractive mate for any lucky Asgardian.”
“I don’t think Hawkeye is criticising his dating profile,” Iron Man said. “Thor, here on Earth, dudes getting pregnant is kind of a rare thing.”
“He’s also lactating from under his fingernails, if you hadn’t noticed,” Natasha pointed out. “Can we deal with the medical questions later and get to the rest of the story?”
“He’s what now?” Captain America said with a note of confusion. Natasha couldn’t tell if he couldn’t see Loki past the Hulk’s body or whether the word ‘lactating’ just wasn’t in his 1940’s sex ed. Clint leaned sideways to get a better look at the baby in Loki’s arms, and his eyes widened.
Loki pulled his hand away from the baby’s mouth to shift into a more comfortable position. A drop of milk ran from the tip of his thin, white finger and down to his knuckle. He licked it off quickly, meeting Natasha’s gaze. His eyes narrowed as he smirked, and then the baby waved its pudgy arms and he went back to feeding.
“Well,” said Iron Man, who had also taken to leaning around the Hulk to improve his view. “That is new information,” he shook his head. “I’m not really sure it excuses you from killing several busloads of innocents and trying to release an intergalactic fleet into New York airspace, though. I’m pretty sure that on Earth, common pregnancy cravings don’t include mass murder.”
Loki’s brows crinkled. “They took my child the moment he was born! I never even held him in my arms! I would have agreed to anything. There was only one bargain they would take – if I freed them from the útanlands myrkr so that they could begin the universal Ragnarök.”
“Yeah, well, that explains it,” Iron Man said with a grimace. “No wait, you killed a bunch of people so that a bunch of uber-aliens could kill everyone else? That’s a dick move.”
“I intended to trick them into returning my progeny before they were fully free!” Loki fumed. “What would be the point of getting him back if there was no universe left to exist in?”
“Loki, my brother, what a terrible burden you have been hiding!” Thor staggered forward, arms outstretched, and the Hulk begrudgingly allowed him to pass. He knelt in front of Loki, gazing at the bundle still sucking happily on Loki’s finger. “I am so glad you managed to save this young one from their clutches before further damage was wrought!”
It was Natasha’s chance to smile this time. She folded her arms. “Actually, it sounds like Loki has Hulk to thank for that.”
Hulk snuffled and beat his fists on the ground, making them all struggle for balance. “HULK SMASH ELDER GODS. HULK PULL BABY THROUGH FROM OO-TIN-LAND.”
Thor gaped up at him. “Banner, you are indeed strong, but how could any mortal mind survive such a feat? The mere sight of their true form was said to have driven mad the entire pantheon of the mighty Yamna people!”
“HULK NOT GO MAD,” the Hulk shook his huge shoulders. “HULK GET MAD!”
In Loki’s arms, the baby released his father’s finger long enough to let out a tiny laugh, and stretched its grasping hands towards the Hulk’s face. The huge creature grumbled and leaned over it, tilting his head.
“Please be careful not to drool on me, beast,” Loki frowned up at the Hulk.
Captain America took a couple of tentative steps forward. “So – and I’m not saying I think what you’ve done in the last three days is acceptable, I’m just trying to get it clear in my mind – so all that stuff about how we were meant to be ruled and freeing us from freedom, y’know, that was all an act?”
“Oh, no, I quite genuinely believe you are a tragically pathetic race that has barely stretched your minds or bodies further than your ape cousins, less capable than the Frost Giants to rule so much as your own bathroom habits, let alone take unwarranted charge of the future of this planet,” Loki said brightly. He paused. “But I don’t actually care whether you live or die. I just wanted my son back.”
After a few seconds, Iron Man cleared his throat. “So, um, congratulations, I guess. You mind helping us clean up the mess you’ve made of New York?”
Three and a half years later
Bruce had his eyes glued to the microscope. The sight of his own blood, which under normal magnification made him feel woozy, became a spectacular new world under the lens. The cells clumped together in the plasma, drifting lazily through the thin space between the slide and the cover slip. He was still narrowing down exactly which peptides and monoamines were necessary, but he’d found a cocktail of adrenal hormones and a tiny pulse of electricity was enough to trigger the Hulk reaction in them even though they were outside of his body. Whenever he liked he could watch that terrible transformation in greater detail and with a much more level head than when he usually experienced it. Knowledge, to Bruce, was very often synonymous with beauty. It was why he considered the Hulk to be such an idiot even though experiments had clearly shown that Bruce’s cognitive functions remained intact no matter what colour he was.
He felt something tugging at his leg. For a moment he ignored it, caught in the near-spiritual wonder of science, but the tugging was very insistent. He drew away from the microscope and looked down with a wrinkle in his brow.
Standing by the wheels of his lab chair was a very small boy. He was black-haired with a thin, serious face and was dressed in a pale green suit with copper pinstripes. It was so neat and well tailored that one might have thought the boy was going to a wedding. But Bruce knew better.
“Barn!” he said in surprise, putting on his glasses quickly. “When did you get here?”
The name, according to Thor, simply meant ‘child’. Barn would get himself a proper name when he proved his true character. Bruce wasn’t sure how you did that, but he hoped it didn’t hurt.
“Just now,” Barn said sourly. He looked a bit pale. He hated travelling. Bruce wondered what he’d be like on a long-haul flight. Hell, no doubt. “How are you, Uncle Bruce?”
Bruce laughed. He couldn’t help it. Barn was so earnest. “How am I? I’m pretty good, y’know. Only had to save the world a couple of times. How’re you and Loki?”
“Very well,” Barn was getting to the end of his patience for the formalities and manners that his father drilled into him. “May I see?”
“What, this?” Bruce glanced at the microscope. “Sure, why not?”
Barn held up his arms and Bruce pushed the chair away from the bench, leaned down and heaved the small boy up onto his lap. Barn had to stand on Bruce’s thighs to reach, and Bruce prayed desperately to the God of Toddler Behaviour that his balls didn’t get stepped on. He was pretty sure he would Hulk out, and although that would delight Barn, it would not be healthy for the lab. He put the microscope eyepieces as close together as he could and explained to Barn how to look down them. The boy studied the blood cells for almost an entire minute without saying anything, and then looked over his shoulder at Bruce.
“They’re pretty boring.”
“Are they? I think they’re kind of exciting,” Bruce said. Barn glared at him as if he suspected his Uncle Bruce of lying to his face. “Well, I need to look at them for at least another hour, kid, so how about you go find your dad?”
“He’s with Uncle Thor. That’s super-boring!” Barn complained. “Can I see Hulk?”
“Ah, Hulk’s sleepy right now,” Bruce said in what he thought was a very convincing voice. “He’s having his daily nap. Maybe if you tell your dad to come and help us out with this month’s alien attack instead of dropping off the radar every time we need him, you’d get to see Hulk more often.”
Barn narrowed his eyes as if his tiny sarcasm detector was pinging. A moment later he let out a huff. “I’m hungry. I want Midgard food.”
“I don’t think you’re allowed Midgard food. Your dad says it keeps you awake.”
“Uncle Bruce!” Barn turned around – oh God, not the balls, not the balls – and flung his short arms around Bruce’s neck. “Please please please please please please!”
Bruce saw movement out of the corner of his eye and spun the lab chair around just before Clint, who had been curiously peering in the doorway, could escape. “Oh, look, it’s Uncle Clint! I bet he’ll get you something to eat. Go chase Uncle Clint, quick! Get him!”
He swung Barn down onto the floor and the boy took off in a sprint. Bruce could just hear him yelling as he bolted after Hawkeye, “Uncle Cli-i-int! Dad days he mind-controlled you! I bet I can mind-control you too-o-o!”
Bruce sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, going back to his samples. He took off his glances and peered down the microscope, raising the pipette with his latest concoction of purified hormones. Just as he lifted the cover slip with a thin needle, he twitched as Clint’s voice rang down the corridor and into the open door of the lab.
“I am not falling for that. Stop it. I’m walking away now.”
Bruce steadied his hand and checked the needle again. Just as the tip of his pipette touched the edge of the liquid, Bruce heard Clint stomping down the corridor. He removed the pipette and looked over to find the archer glaring at him in the doorway, with Barn sitting on his shoulders. His legs kicked against Clint’s chest as he beamed from ear to ear.
“How’d he get you to do that?” Bruce asked Clint.
“He lay on the floor and pretended to have a seizure,” said Clint through gritted teeth.
“Nuh-uh!” Barn curled over Clint’s head, wrapping his arms across Clint’s eyes. “I was really sick, Uncle Bruce! And then I was so-o-o tired I needed him to carry me!”
“You fell for that?” Bruce raised an eyebrow.
“Up yours, Banner, you know the kid’s already got the Oscar for Best Actor in his toy box. I’m gonna go take him to the gym and let Cap look after him,” Clint pried Barn’s arms off so he could see.
“Aw, but you have such a talent for keeping him entertained,” Bruce sniggered.
Clint pointed at Bruce and made a throat-cutting gesture with his thumb. Barn banged his fists on the top of Clint’s head. “Let’s go visit everyone, Uncle Clint! Everyone in the tower! Let’s go!”
“Alright, alright, but we’re starting with Uncle Steve,” Clint demanded.
Bruce laughed and finally got back to his samples. He had just mixed in a few microlitres of his perfusion and was watching anxiously for any change in the cells – previous combinations had taken up to five minutes before the final, dramatic shift – when there was a soft rap from behind him.
“Just a second,” said Bruce. Was that a hint of green? No, the flattened globes of the erythrocytes were still a rusty orange from the stain he’d administered. It was much more obvious when they became Hulk blood.
“Still trying to find a cure, Dr Banner?” came an oily voice.
Bruce jumped and spun around to find the God of Mischief himself leaning against the doorframe. “I do wonder if our dear friend the Hulk puts such effort into getting rid of you.”
“What do you want?” growled Bruce. No matter what, the bastard would always be a bastard in Bruce’s eyes. He may have helped them out a few times since their first meeting, but Bruce would never forget the lives that had been lost or shattered because of what Loki had done.
“I want you to tell me which of you is more useful,” Loki oozed, folding his arms. “This… philosopher you play at, searching for tiny specks of human knowledge that will never truly help a single soul – or the anger that swipes missiles away from school buses, who carries your team mates to safety and shields the innocent from the flames of evil. Which of you is needed, in this world, Dr Banner?”
Bruce felt the pulse of it in his blood, the green flickering just out of sight behind his elbows, but he would not give Loki that satisfaction. “No, really, you didn’t come down here to bug me. What do you want?”
Loki’s nose wrinkled. “I want to know which way my spawn went.”
Bruce pointed in the direction Clint had disappeared. “Try the gym.”
Without a word of thanks, Loki straightened up and strode down the corridor. “Barn, my love! Where are you? Please stop playing with the mortals, I don’t want you to catch anything!”
Bruce put his hand over his mouth to smother a laugh and went back to his experiments. He hoped Barn insisted on kissing each of the Avengers on the cheek before he left at the end of the day. Loki absolutely hated that, but to Bruce it was a sign that no matter where you’d come from or what you’d been through, there was always hope that you’d turn out okay.
Also, Barn would almost certainly throw a tantrum if he didn’t get what he wanted. Bruce never tired of Tony’s sigh and the same quip right to Loki’s face, “Aw, isn’t he growing up just like his dad?”