Loki wakes to a ferocious cacophony taking place somewhere in the vicinity of his nest: banging, hammering, screeching metal, howling impact wrenches, voices bawling to one another over the racket, it sounds as if the whole ship is being brutally dismantled. He scrambles from his bed, fully-awake and half panicked, and jerks his boots on.
Who is down here and what is the meaning of all that hellish noise?
He pauses to take a few gulps from a beaker of water—he ends up draining the glass; why is he so thirsty?—and splashes the remaining droplets onto his face. Then he moves across the room and puts a cautious ear to the door. No nearby voices, no footsteps. The coast seems to be clear.
He slips out onto the walkway and shuts the hatch tightly behind him. He wishes he had the power to cast an illusion over it. Alas, all his energy is being diverted to feed the little life growing inside him. He wonders how long it will take for his magic to return. A few weeks? Months? Once the child is born? Never? Now that’s a terrible thought: spending the rest of his life as a weak, pathetic commoner, no talents to set him apart, no means of expressing or entertaining himself, being forced to rely on others for protection.
A terrible thought, yes, but also ridiculous; Frigga hadn’t lost her magic after having Thor, though he had been a tremendous drain on both her powers and her body for as long as she carried him.
“That is how I knew your brother was going to be a strong one,” she had told Loki during one of their evening sorcery lessons. “He almost took the life from me when I bore him, but within a week’s time the seidr had returned to me threefold. I believe this was so I could protect him from without now that he was no longer protected from within.”
Loki had not responded. He sat hunched where he was, gloomy and frustrated.
Frigga smiled and placed her hand on his back. “Do not fret, darling. Your magic, like your life force, never really disappears; it is only temporarily redirected.”
“Then where has mine gone?” Loki muttered, staring down at the weak green glow on his fingertips—all the magic he could currently summon.
Frigga’s smile faded. “Well,” she said carefully, “our bodies use a great deal of energy to prepare for a baby. A lull in power is a natural thing, part of our cycles. I notice that my abilities seem to diminish at the start of my blood—”
Loki cringed. “Oh, Mother.”
“—yet yours seems to fade just before it arrives. I think perhaps this has something to do with the length of your cycles, darling. Are you keeping a journal like I told you?”
“As much as I can.”
“It would be very prudent, especially considering how unique you are. Keeping a daily record of how you’re feeling and how your magic fares is the only way you’re going to find your rhythm. And once you do, your seidr will blossom.”
Loki strides down the walkway, following the noise. His seidr had certainly blossomed. Blossomed into the weaker servant of his more powerful womb, no thanks to his fertility god of a brother, and now every ounce of his magic is being absorbed by the small, oblivious parasite inside him.
He wants it out. He wants his powers back. He doesn’t want to be a mother. He doesn’t want to see what’s going to start happening to his body in a few more weeks. He doesn’t want to feel the kicking of tiny feet or watch his breasts swell and his stomach grow round and tight. He doesn’t want to feel Thor’s clumsy, beautiful hands on him, coaxing their overactive child to sleep as they lie together in bed, smiling and cuddling and trying on names—
A snarl of disgust escapes Loki’s throat and he thoughtlessly lashes out with his foot, kicking one of the walkway’s support beams. He hears the crack at the precise moment he remembers his magic is no longer protecting him from such impulsive acts of self-destruction, and his snarl rises to a deafening scream.
“FffaaaaAAHHH COCKSKITTFUCK CÀO HELVIT FICKEN LANDĪCA FÖRBASKAT—”
Every bad word he knows in every language he knows, and he knows a lot of them. He collapses against the rail and clings to it with white-knuckled fingers, ranting into the wide open space below. His shouts ring off the metal walls and echo through the ship in an overlapping stream of violent cursing.
When he finally runs out of air, he stands panting and trembling on the walkway, his eyes shut tightly. Then he begins to chuckle. His right foot is a throbbing mass of pain, most likely broken somewhere. His chuckles turn into guffaws. He tries to put weight on it, testing the range of motion. Walking is possible, but it’s going to be excruciating. He laughs as the tears trickle from the corners of his eyes.
“Oh, marvelous,” he gasps. “Brilliant. Absolutely fantastic. Yes, let’s break the whole fucking thing right off then, shall we? Why not.”
After some time he manages to regain both his wind and his senses. He straightens his back and gingerly puts his foot down. He takes a breath and begins to limp—gods, one or more of his toes is certainly broken—in the direction of the ceaseless din he’s been listening to for the last fifteen minutes.
Presently he finds himself in the engine room at the stern of the ship, facing an array of eight massive accelerator drives on the far wall, one of which is silent. The smell of hot metal, smoke, and ozone hangs in the air. A line of workers, composed of Asgardians and former gladiators, stretches from one end of the room to the other, working on the huge cable that leads into the non-functioning drive head. The line is charred in places. The row they are making is nearly deafening; the vastness of the room only amplifies the noise.
At the fore of the defunct accelerator is the Valkyrie Brunnhilde, who also answers to “Val”, “Hilde”, and “Angry Girl”. She is elbow-deep in wires with a medley of power tools lying scattered on the deck around her. Korg, with his pleasant and cheerful tenor, is reading instructions to her from a manual. Loki recognizes the book as one that Thor had given to him, and assumes it must have been taken from his stateroom.
Oh dear, this must be quite an emergency if Thor had been forced to raid his quarters. He is typically very mindful of boundaries. Bedrooms, no matter how infrequently they are used, are practically sacred ground to him.
Loki approaches with an unsteady gait and watches Brunnhilde growl and curse and struggle with something deep inside the power processor. Her knuckles are gouged and bleeding and she looks very hungover.
He clasps his hands behind his back and smiles down at her. “How are things going? Excellent, I trust?”
Brunnhilde stops what she’s doing and slowly turns her face toward Loki. There is nothing in her eyes but murder, misery, and machine-driven madness.
“Your brother has been looking for you,” she says, carefully enunciating her words between gritted teeth.
“Indeed? How surprising. No, I’m much more interested in whatever it is you seem to be destroying right here. I hope it’s nothing too important?”
At this point Korg chimes in, which probably saves Loki from getting his nose punched through the back of his skull.
“Ah, yeh, a few awas ago we got a malfunction warning on this thruster thingamajig ere,” he says brightly. “We all came dan ere and it was smoking like med. We had to ron the fens for a bet, but everything’s fine now.”
Brunnhilde curses under her breath and drops her flashlight with a clatter. She grasps the side panel of the processing unit and rips it off with a frustrated roar.
Loki arches an eyebrow. “Yes, it certainly sounds that way. What exactly are you trying to do?”
“Figure out what in f”—a clang as one of the workers drops something—“ing Hel’s arsehole is wrong with this godsdam”—a drill rattles against metal—“piece of cun”—a prolonged session of hammering—“ocksucking thruster!”
Loki discreetly covers his grin with his hand. Thor was right. The Valkyrie is most profane when she’s sober. Poor Korg; his craggy face is a bright, rocky red, and he’s trying vainly to hide it behind the pages of the tiny manual in his hands.
Loki clears his throat and says politely, “Have you tried reconfiguring the primary power connector?”
Brunnhilde gives him a dead-eyed look. “Why, no. Not at all. Never even entered my mind. Wonderful suggestion, your highness, you’re a genius and you’ve just saved all our lives, how can we ever thank you.”
That degree of sarcasm genuinely impresses Loki, and he would have come back with an even more sarcastic retort except that he finds himself suddenly quite interested in this little mechanical problem. Just last week he finished reading the section on the ship’s ionic propulsion system, and despite a couple of huge distractions since then, the details are still fresh in his mind.
“I’m serious,” he says, “have you checked the main leads for electrical problems?”
“That was the first thing I did,” she grunts. “Took me half an hour to find a fuckarse multimeter, but everything on this end is as it should be. I switched everything to manual, overrode the autoremote setting, and took it off maximum power.”
“In case the coils were overheating.”
“Yes. But when I ran a power cycle, something popped in the converter and now nothing works. Our thrust has been reduced by twelve percent and I suggested we put the other seven accelerators on normal ITO for the time being, just in case it’s something power-related.”
Loki nods. “Good thinking. Have you examined the fuel pump?”
“I ran a diagnostic on it,” she answers. “Seems to be working fine. Zenigon-3 gas is very inert, incredibly stable. My Warsong used it. No stripping, no residue, no clogging.”
“If that’s what we’re using.”
“We are. I checked the refill canisters. They all say zen-3.”
“What about in the past? Are there any empty canisters on board? A maintenance log, perhaps?”
“None that I’ve seen.” Brunnhilde narrows her eyes as she catches on to Loki’s thoughts. “You think they might have used old propellants?”
Loki leans against the accelerator’s hull, taking the pressure off his injured foot. “Possibly. Zen-3 was barely in use at the time this spacecraft was built, which, according to those manuals”—he points at the thick book Korg is still hiding behind—“was roughly seven years ago. That means zenigon-3 and zerigon-6 are still standard for a ship of this type. Those older fuels could erode the tank lining after a few years, depending on how often the ship was used. And if the tank lining erodes—”
“Then the ionization process is fucked.”
“Not the word I would have used, but whatever works.”
“And that would overwork the injector nozzles and cause them to shut off,” she says.
“But it would not shut off the power running to them,” adds Loki.
“And the fuel pump has a failsafe protocol, so if anything is going to get fried—”
“It is going to be the converter, precisely.”
Brunnhilde drops onto her bottom and sits with her arms resting on her bent knees. “And if it runs long enough, it could take out the whole frontend of the computing unit. Motherf—”
“Well, let’s not be too hasty,” Loki interrupts, hobbling to her side. “We don’t know how many flight hours this ship has logged, nor do we know what sort of fuel they’ve been using. It could be these drives have only ever seen zen-3 propellants and this is the first time it’s ever been flown.”
She gives him a dubious look. “You sound like your brother, you know.”
“I’m not usually this optimistic.”
She sighs and rubs her face. “I could open up the tank and see if the lining’s still there, but it’s a completely sterile, sealed environment. If I open it up, I’m not sure I can ever get it working again.”
“Then don’t.” Loki’s face twitches as his foot flares with sudden pain. “Ngh. Take a look at the pump and see if the injector main is still working. That should be enough to tell us if the nozzle is functional.”
“But it won’t tell us if the tank lining is destroyed.”
“One thing at a time, dear. Start with the pump and work your way backwards. Don’t worry about the tank. We know what might be wrong with it but we don’t know what’s wrong with the rest of the assembly, so let’s focus on that first, shall we?”
Brunnhilde nods, and Loki sees that her eyes are filling with tears. For some bizarre reason he feels a knot begin to form in his throat. He forces himself to look away. It doesn’t do much good; he can still hear her wet, defeated sniffling.
“I really don’t want to be the one responsible for stranding us all out here in the middle of this empty stellar nothingness,” she snarls, disguising the anguish in her voice. “This is not what I do. I am not an ion drive specialist. I’m not a mechanic or a damned chemical engineer, I am a fucking Valkyrie.” She holds her bowed head in her hands and stares at the floor.
Loki draws his lips into a stiff line and carefully bends down to give her shoulder a pat. “Yes, well, you’re no HVAC technician either, but his majesty said you did an excellent job of replacing the air filter last month, so you never know.”
Brunnhilde snorts. “Air filters are very different from MHD propulsors.”
“We must all start somewhere, mustn’t we?”
She raises her head so he can see the fantastic eyeroll she gives him. “Right. Thanks, Mum. You’re the best.”
Loki’s heart skips a beat or two. He clears his throat and stands straight. “Erm, well, I’d better go and find Thor and see what he wants. I don’t suppose you know where he is?”
“Last time I saw him he was underneath the instrument panel in the main control room, upstairs.” She points above her head. “On A Deck, I believe.”
“Thank you.” Loki turns, then pauses to look over his shoulder. “Keep up the good work, Valkyrie.”
She gives him an incredulous look. “I’ll keep up the work and see if any good comes of it.”
Loki smiles. “I suppose that’s all any of us can do.”
Thor is striding down the main corridor on C Deck, his footsteps heavy and his long legs slicing powerfully beneath him. In his arms is a tangle of wires and circuit boards and diodes that have lately been ripped from the secondary control panel on B Deck. His face looks like the sky just before a storm breaks: dark and ominous, full of deadly potential. Anyone in his path immediately leaps out of the way and presses against the wall, waiting for him to pass. Though the corridor is not particularly narrow, everyone on the ship has either seen or by now heard of the Battle of the Bifrost, and none of them wants to be struck by a stray bolt of lightning, accidental or not.
Loki can hear Thor’s aggravation even before he sets eyes on him; his stomping is loud enough. He hesitates at the intersection of the access hall that Thor has just passed and almost reconsiders his plan, but the pain in his foot has been gradually eroding his judgement for the last twenty minutes. He grits his teeth, rounds the corner, and does an awkward, one-legged jog to catch up to his brother.
“Thor,” he says breathlessly, “we need to talk.”
“Ah, so the technology wizard finally appears,” Thor declares sourly, “five hours too late and when his knowledge and expertise are no longer needed. I’m sure the selfless humanitarian efforts you were undertaking at the time were far more important.”
Loki feels something in his soul shrivel up and expire. Perhaps now is not the best time to do this. Thor is grumpy and stressed and tired-looking and probably not . . . no. No, this cannot wait. Gods, his bloody foot is killing him.
“I apologize for being unavailable earlier, but there is something I must tell you.”
“I am a little preoccupied at the moment, Loki.”
“I understand, but this is important.”
“Then make it quick.” Thor turns down another hallway and continues his aftward journey.
Loki sighs with irritation and hobbles ahead, then turns around and trots backward to face him. “This is not a subject for quick conversation.”
“Then it will have to wait until I’ve dealt with the thousand other matters that are—” Thor’s frown shifts from one of anger to one of concern. “Are you limping?”
Somehow Loki’s answering smile radiates every ounce of his agony. “No. It’s a new dance I’m learning. Perhaps I could teach it to you later.”
Thor glowers. “If you’re going to be sarcastic, then stop wasting my time.” He pauses before adding: “Nice of you to let me know you had no interest in keeping our appointment, by the way. You know how much I love waiting for hours on end.”
“Come on, Loki, I know you’re not that absent-minded.”
Loki frowns. “You’re not talking about . . . Thor, what time is it?”
“According to the ship’s chronometers, half past nine.”
“In the evening?”
“In the morning.”
Loki pales. His internal clock is nearly eighteen hours behind. How is that possible? He has never slept that long in his entire life.
Thor catches a glimpse of his face and slows his stride. “What?”
“Nothing. It’s.” Loki shakes his head vaguely, and the long-winded speech he has been rehearsing suddenly gets tossed aside. “Thor, I’m pregnant.”
Thor scoffs and resumes his pace. “And I am queen of the fairies. Yes, Loki, I get it. A wonderful joke, very amusing. If you’re done playing games now, perhaps you might find a way to make yourself useful, hm? Just this once?”
Loki stops and watches Thor stalk past him.
“Thor,” he repeats, “I am pregnant.”
Thor slows to a halt. He turns around. His face is blank, utterly unreadable. After what seems like an eternity, he finally murmurs, “That is impossible.”
Terror clutches Loki’s heart. This is not going to end well. He doesn’t need foresight to see that. He wants to run, to flee, to escape the pain and discomfort, the anger and betrayal, that is surely about to crash down on him. But for the first time in his life he has no place to go, nowhere to run, no magic to speed him away from this awful confrontation. He must face it with as much courage as he can muster.
Gods, he’s doomed.
His hands begin to wrestle with one another as he takes a deep breath. “My blood never came. Neither did my season. I thought it was because of being out here, being in this environment. The stress, the changes in—”
Thor holds up his hand. Loki stops mid-sentence.
“You. You told me you bled.”
Loki swallows dryly. “I lied. I’m sorry.”
Thor’s face darkens. “You said you had cramps. Headaches. You . . . I tended to you. I tried to heal you.”
“And I appreciated it, Thor, I truly did—”
“You led me to believe you were feeling awful.” Thor takes a step forward. “I did everything within my power to help you. You looked me in the eye and deceived me for three weeks—”
Loki takes a cautious step backward. “Believe me, Thor, I didn’t want to.”
“Then why did you?”
Loki struggles for words. Honest words. It’s much harder than he thought it would be.
“Because I didn’t want you to worry,” he stammers. “I didn’t think it could happen. I thought it was simply an irregularity. I mean, really, I know nothing of myself. I am a Frost Giant trapped in the form of an Aesir”—yes, good angle, perhaps this will garner some pity—“and I have no idea about Jötunn sexuality or reproduction or how long I’ll—”
Thor tosses the bundle of wires to the floor. Circuit boards shatter on impact, diodes popping and plinking. Loki flinches and backs against the wall, his heart thumping with fear.
He had expected Thor to be happy. Bursting with pride. A grinning, delirious fool with tears in his eyes and rainbows pouring from his heart. Not this angry, menacing beast that bore no resemblance to the sweet, gentle man who had loved him so tenderly yesterday. For the second time in his life, Loki has legitimate reason to believe that Thor might kill him. He is certainly capable of it. And given Loki’s powerless state, it would be easy enough.
Thor stands with his arms held out and his fingers bent into claws, staring at the floor and breathing heavily. A tendril of electricity crackles on the back of his hand and races up his forearm, but it is the only one.
“Are you going to get rid of it?” he asks roughly.
Loki gulps. “I would have more options were we not traveling through the middle of space. But as it stands, I don’t believe there is any other alternative. I must keep it.”
Thor’s mouth pulls down into a scowl but his eye gleams with unshed tears. “Do you want it?”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me, Loki. Do you want this child?” He raises his head and Loki puts on a brave but flimsy smile.
“This isn’t about what I want,” Thor growls, stepping closer. “Stop answering questions with questions and speak plainly for once!”
“Fine!” Loki snaps as an unexpected fury takes hold of him. “I’m terrified! Absolutely riddled with fear, is that what you wanted to hear? No? Right, of course, you were probably expecting me to say how excited I am and how I’ve been looking forward to spawning legions of offspring since the day I started bleeding. After all, it’s what every woman yearns for, isn’t it? Motherhood, children, a household to rule. Why should I be any different? I’ve got a womb, haven’t I? It’d be a shame if it weren’t put to use—”
Thor snarls, “If you hated this part of you so much, then why didn’t you just have it removed?”
Something that has been bottled up in Loki’s heart for centuries abruptly pops open, and pure rage comes bubbling out. He slams both hands into Thor’s chest. It doesn’t even move him. That makes Loki even madder.
“Why should I mutilate my body when it’s your fault I’m like this!”
“My fault that you were born with a woman’s parts?”
“Your fault for making them work!”
It takes a moment for it to sink in, but eventually it does. The anger drains from Thor’s face as he recalls what he was the god of long before he ever received his hammer.
Loki is a shaking portrait of anguish before him, teeth bared and eyes streaming with tears. “You did this to me,” he seethes. “You made me fertile. You made me want you. For years I tried to avoid you but you were too stupid to get the hint, and now I am pregnant with your child. My body finally has what it’s always wanted. I hope you’re happy.”
But Thor looks as if his heart has just been ripped from his chest. Loki could almost feel sorry for him if he wasn’t already feeling so sorry for himself.
“How far along are you?” he asks, gazing at Loki’s belly.
“I don’t know. A few months?” Loki makes a fist and holds it out. “According to Heimdall, it’s about this big now.”
“Heimdall,” says Thor. Then his face twists into an expression of unimaginable grief. He turns his head to the side and heaves an unsteady sob.
Loki has never been so stunned in his entire life.
The burst of emotion is brief; after another two half-choked breaths, Thor gives a congested sniff and nods to himself, then raises his face. He looks more awful than Loki feels, broken foot and all.
“Loki,” he rasps, “I will give you anything you want if you spare our child’s life. I will tear the stars from the heavens and split the sky in two. I will give you the throne of Asgard and spend the rest of my life in bondage, but please . . . please don’t kill our baby.”
Loki sighs and puts a hand to his forehead. He is beginning to feel distinctly nauseated. “Did you not hear a single word I just said? I have no other alternative. You’re going to be a father, Thor, and I am going to be a mother, and we are going to be the most inbred royal family Asgard has ever seen. It’s everything you’ve ever dreamed of. Congratulations. I’m sure Mother and Father would be proud of us.”
A tear trickles down Thor’s cheek. “How long have you known?”
“Since yesterday. Though I’ve suspected it for much—” Loki balks, grimaces, then crumples as a wave of nausea overpowers him. He braces his hand on the wall and bends down to spit a mouthful of saliva onto the floor.
Thor is by his side in an instant, which is rather unfortunate because when Loki inevitably vomits up the volatile mixture of acid, bile, and recycled water from his empty stomach, some of it splatters onto Thor’s boots. But Thor either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. He places his hands on Loki, one to his chest and the other to his back, and the nausea that has been churning in Loki’s guts instantly vanishes.
Healing hands. What a multi-talented man.
Loki spits one last time and wipes his mouth on his sleeve, then slowly straightens. Thor is staring at him as if he might be dying instead of just a little sick. Loki grins weakly.
“I should probably eat something. It’s been a while.”
Thor cradles Loki’s neck and strokes his jaw with his thumb, his pained expression deepening.
“Also, I’m afraid I’ve broken my foot, so I really must go see a healer right n—”
“Climb onto my back. I’ll carry you.”
“No, thank you, I think I can manage on my own.”
“Yes, but you don’t have to.” Thor kneels down and gestures to his shoulders. “Come on, up you go.”
“Oh, please. You’re not turning into one of those men, are you?”
“Those silly, fretful fools who smother their expectant partner and treat them as if they’re too frail to do anything. I am not an invalid and you are not going to be my nursemaid.”
“The only thing I am trying to be is a good man, Loki,” Thor says softly. “Surely you cannot fault me for that.”
That sounds like a personal jab, but perhaps it’s only Loki’s imagination. He is very keyed up right now, struggling for control over the mélange of emotions coursing through him. After lengthy consideration, he gives a resigned sigh. He hops around to Thor’s back and wraps his arms around his broad, sturdy shoulders. Thor tucks his arms beneath Loki’s legs and rises, gives him a little chuck to center his weight, and then begins to walk in the opposite direction he was originally headed. Whatever task he had been carrying out is no longer a priority.
Loki rests his cheek against Thor’s collar and tries not to think about how much better he feels. Everything is very surreal right now. The last 24 hours have been a sickening seesaw of extremes: pleasure and terror, humiliation and relief, all-seeing introverts and omnipotent tyrants. And now this. Guilt and comfort. Sorrow and joy. Humility and rage. This powerful, deadly, tender-hearted man who has just learned he’s going to be a father.
“It’s odd,” says Loki.
“You carrying me while I am carrying you.”
Thor pulls his face into a tight expression. “You are carrying us both, Loki.”
Loki falls silent for a few moments. Then he says quietly, “Are you frightened?”
“Frightened? Me?” Thor grunts. “I have faced thousands of enemies and fought countless battles without a drop of fear in my heart. I’ve laughed at perils that would curdle the blood of the bravest warriors in the universe. I have had my hair shorn by a nearsighted, razor-wielding old man and my eye gouged out by the Goddess of Death. Being a father?” His voice drops. “I’m petrified.”
Loki swallows the lump in his throat and hugs Thor’s neck, burying his face in his arms.
At least he’s not the only one.
As they enter the infirmary on A Deck, they pass a young Asgardian couple on their way out. The two have smiles on their faces that only grow bigger when they see their king and their prince.
“My lords,” they chime, bowing their heads.
Thor at least has the semblance of mind to acknowledge the gesture, but Loki ignores them completely. He rests his chin on Thor’s shoulder and stares dully ahead as they make their way through the antechamber of the infirmary. Bruce Banner is standing in the doorway to the main examination room, rubbing his eyes tiredly. He looks up when he hears Thor’s familiar footfalls and gives him a feeble grin.
“Oh good, finally, someone who isn’t pregnant.”
Thor nearly stumbles on his last step; both he and Loki stare at Bruce with wide eyes. “What?”
Bruce waves his hand. “Aw, it’s. Y’know. What do you expect. We’re on the outer space equivalent of the Trans-Siberian Railway. There isn’t much to do other than eat and sleep and . . . you know. Make babies. I tell ya, Asgard’s gonna have one hell of a population spike in about six months.”
Loki shrinks behind Thor’s shoulders. Thor puts on a smile.
“Well, that’s good news, I suppose.”
“Oh, yeah, from a survival standpoint, definitely. I just hope we can get you guys settled on Earth before all these babies start popping out.” Bruce clasps his hands together and takes a breath. “Sooo, lemme guess: something’s up with Loki’s motor skills.”
Thor blinks. “I’m. I’m not sure what level mechanic he is, but he did repair a small airship once, so I suppose his skills are intermediate?”
Loki hangs his head in despair.
“What? No, I mean his ability to walk. Y’know, ‘cause. You don’t usually carry him around like that.” Pause. “It looks kinda weird, actually.”
“I’m right here, you uncivilized brute,” Loki snaps. “You may stop speaking of me in the third person.”
“Sorry. I thought”—Bruce squirms—“thought that’s what royalty does. Queen Victoria used to speak of herself in the third person.”
“Do I look like a queen to you?”
Bruce takes a breath to answer, but Thor interrupts before any blood can be spilled.
“He believes he broke his foot. Will you examine him?”
One of Bruce’s eyebrows takes a hike up his forehead. “Uh. Yyyeah, sure. Right this way.”
They follow him into a tidy, state-of-the-art room, all the surfaces white and sleek and clean. In the middle of the room is a comfortable-looking examination bed, and Thor turns around and carefully sets Loki onto it. Loki bends to remove his boot but Thor beats him to it, placing one hand on Loki’s chest and holding him in place.
“I am fully capable of removing my own footwear, Thor.”
“I know, but . . .” His eyes drift to Loki’s midsection and he whispers, “You should not contort yourself.”
“I’m not contorting myself.”
“You were bending over.”
“Yes, well, that’s how it’s done, isn’t it? Taking one’s shoes off.”
“It might hurt the b—”
Loki gives him a perfectly homicidal glare. Thor’s voice cracks.
“Buh, belt. Belly? You could hurt your belly.”
Bruce, who is clearing a variety of phallic-looking instruments from the side table, looks up. “Uh oh. Stomach problems, too, huh? You might have an ulcer. Hell, I’ve had two since Asgard went kablooey. I’m working on my third one right now.” He pats his stomach gently. “I could take a look inside, if you want. I’ve got this little ultrasound pen that projects a three-dimensional image right into the air.”
“Really?” Thor asks, his eye wide. “So we could actually see—”
“Absolutely not,” says Loki sharply. “My foot, Doctor Banner, if you please.”
“Right. Triage. Man, it’s been a while since I’ve done the GP thing, so just bear with me. Gotta get this obstetric stuff outta the way first and then find my scanner . . .”
The moment Bruce turns his back, Thor draws close to Loki and stares at him pitifully.
“I could ask him to show me how to use it,” Thor says under his breath. “Then we could look at it in private.”
“What makes you think I even want to see it right now? It probably looks like some sort of”—Loki’s hand flutters as he searches for words—“stumpy, half-formed piglet with transparent skin. I might vomit.”
Thor looks as if he’s just been stabbed. “Loki, how can you say that, it’s our chil—”
“I want to see it.”
“Well I don’t.”
“It’s the best way to see if it’s healthy.”
“Heimdall said it was. You trust his sight, don’t you?”
“Yes, but Heimdall is not a doctor.”
“Neither are you.”
Thor gives up trying to reason and goes straight to begging. “I want to see it, Loki. Please.”
“For the last time, no.”
“What are you going to do, wait until it’s born before you look at it?”
“If I must look at it sometime, then yes, I would rather wait until it is fully formed and out of me.”
Bruce materializes between them. “What’re you guys talking about?” he whispers, startling them. “Does someone have a tapeworm? Hey, if you do, it’s okay. It can happen to anyone, even royalty and gods. I’ve got a couple good anti-parasite medications in the supply cabinet if you—”
The only thing that prevents Bruce from getting a boot heel to his solar plexus (and his third ulcer) is Thor catching Loki’s foot and pushing it back.
“That’s enough,” Thor says warningly. “Loki, why don’t you just lay down and relax for a moment. You’re being—”
“It’s lie down, you fool, and you should know that ordering someone to relax has exactly the opposite effect.”
“Okay,” Bruce cuts in, “lie, lay, la-dee-dah, it doesn’t matter. I just need someone to take the damn boot off. Please?”
Loki sets his jaw and bends down to remove his boot, grimacing with pain as he slides it off.
“Okay,” says Bruce, “let’s get that leg up on the table. Easy does it.”
Thor stands by with his arms crossed while Bruce carefully peels off Loki’s stocking, revealing the damage: his second and third toes are swollen, as is the top part of his foot around the injured digits. The skin has already passed red and magenta and is now darkening to a brutal shade of violet.
He gives a low whistle. “Oh, yeah, that. That definitely looks broken. Jeez, how did you do even do this? I thought you guys were like magically impervious or something.”
“Not anymore,” Loki mutters. “And I’d rather not talk about it. Just”—he grits his teeth and winces—“just heal it, would you.”
“Well, I dunno what kinda medical system you guys had on Asgard, but out here the only thing that’s gonna heal these little piggies is time. And maybe a good splint. I’m a doctor, not a magician.”
Bruce picks up a chunky-looking scanner and turns on the holoscreen. The device flashes and then projects a static-streaked image into the air above. He adjusts a few settings and holds the scanner over Loki’s foot. The image sharpens into lines, refocuses, and reveals the broken bones in perfect clarity.
Thor’s eye widens with interest.
“Yeah,” Bruce declares, squinting at the display as he moves it back and forth, “you’ve got a hairline fracture in that second phalange and metatarsal. That third-toe joint looks pretty swollen but I don’t think it’s broken. Looks like I’m gonna have to rig up some kinda splint to get you by in the meantime.”
Loki groans and slumps onto his back. Bruce turns off the scanner and begins to rummage through the cabinets, chattering to himself. Thor draws closer to the bed and gives Loki a supportive pat.
He also reaches for the scanner that Bruce left lying on the side table.
“I’d recommend staying off of it as much as possible,” Bruce says over his shoulder. “For the first few days, at least. You know, no running or jumping or kicking people in the throat or anything like that. Keep some ice on it, keep it elevated. Ah, here’s the tape. I’ve got some anti-inflammatory pills you can take. They won’t do much for the pain but it oughta—”
“What do you think you’re doing!”
“I just want to see it, Loki!”
Bruce whips around and is met by the sight of Loki trying to wrestle the scanner from Thor’s grasp. It’s turned on and pointed directly over Loki’s abdomen. A jiggling, jolting picture of his spine and ilia is displayed on the holoscreen as they continue to scrabble and bicker. Their struggle is interrupted by Bruce stumbling backward into a stack of stainless steel kidney trays, causing them to crash loudly to the floor.
Thor and Loki freeze.
Bruce is gawking at the screen, which shows a tiny infant skeleton nestled safely in Loki’s pelvic region.
“Oh my Goddd,” he moans, putting his hands to his head. “You ate a baby. You monster, you ate a whole fetus! What is wrong with you!”
Thor stares at the display with his mouth open in amazement. Loki stares at the display with his mouth open in shock. Bruce, meanwhile, has his mouth open because he is hyperventilating.
“Oh man,” he gasps, looking away. “Oh God, I’m gonna be sick. This. This is the sickest thing I’ve ever seen. This is pure evil right here. I’m in a room with an evil, baby-eating psycho.”
Thor makes a startled sound. “Loki, it moved! I saw it move!”
Bruce turns his head. His hair is sticking up in spikes. “It’s alive?” he shrieks. “You ate it alive?”
Loki snaps out of his trance and shoves Thor and the scanner away from him, clawing his way to an upright position. “I didn’t eat anything, you buffoon, I’m pregnant!”
Bruce goes still. Then a high-pitched whine escapes his lips. “Oh man, I don’t know which is worse. I think . . . nope. Nope, this is definitely worse. Definitely.” He puts his hands over his face and moans again.
Thor is torn between comforting Banner and entreating Loki to see their unborn child again. Banner wins, but only because it’s more likely that the outcome will be positive. Thor gently takes the distraught doctor by the wrists and pulls his hands away from his face.
“Banner. Bruce, listen, it’s alright. Everything’s fine.” He gives him an encouraging smile. “I suppose it’s a little late to tell you this, but Loki and I have been having intimate relations with one another for some time now and we’re—”
“Oh my God, he’s your brother!”
“Adopted,” Loki mutters.
“And you’re a guy!” Bruce cries.
“Not just,” Loki mutters again.
Thor maintains his smile, but it’s beginning to look desperate. “See, Banner, it’s a miracle. It’s the miracle of life. When two people love each other, they like to do things that feel pleasurable, and Loki and I—”
“I know how sex works! Please, please don’t finish that sentence.” Bruce jams his hand into his pocket and fishes out a bottle of antacid tablets. He shakes four onto his palm and swallows them in one gulp. Thor massages Bruce’s shoulder helpfully as he nods his way into a catatonic state. “I’m okay, I’m okay. I just. Whooo. I just need to sit down for a minute.”
Loki rolls his eyes. Such ridiculous drama.
Thor helps Bruce into a chair and squats down beside him, gives him a few moments to calm himself.
“So,” says Thor after the panting has subsided, “as you can see, Loki and I are going to be parents. And we need your help, Banner. This is a very unusual case.”
“You’re telling me.”
“What makes it so unusual is that Loki is a Frost Giant.”
“A Jötunn,” says Loki crossly. “I’m not an Aesir.”
“An eye-seer? Wh-what?”
“He means he’s not an Asgardian,” Thor translates. “He comes from a different realm. Our father, he . . . well, it’s a long story, but Loki is very different from the rest of us in that he has both male and female parts, but we’re not sure if—”
“Whoa. Wait. You mean he’s an actual, legitimate hermaphrodite?”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s a person with male and female reproductive organs.”
“Oh. Then yes, I suppose he’s that, too.”
“But you said he was a giant.”
“A Frost Giant, yes.”
“A Jötunn,” Loki repeats.
Bruce is now on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. “But he’s not a giant! He’s normal-sized!”
“He is a very small Frost Giant.”
“Then you should call him a Frost Regular or something. Misnomers like that are confusing.”
Thor grips Bruce’s shoulder firmly. “What I’m trying to say is that nothing like this has ever happened before. Loki knows nothing of his people or how they even reproduce. We will need your help to ensure he and our child are well-cared for. Can you do that for us, Banner?”
Bruce turns from Thor to Loki to Thor again. “You guys’re serious? You’re seriously gonna have a baby?”
Bruce stares at Loki. Some of the initial shock has begun to fade now. “Wow, this. I can’t believe this is happening. Seems like just a couple years ago we were all trying to stop you from destroying New York City, and now you’re . . . gonna be somebody’s mom. This is crazy.”
Loki gives him a withering look. “I assure you, Doctor, you have not yet seen crazy.”
“Yeah, I know. That’s the kicker, ain’t it? Shit.” Bruce gives his face one last scrub before standing up. “Okay. Okay, lemme get your foot fixed up and then I’ll take a look at this poor kid. Lie back, please, okay? Thank you.”
Grumbling, Loki reclines on the exam bed and tries to make himself comfortable. Thor rises from his crouch and moves over to stand beside him. He picks up Loki’s hand but Loki twists out of his grasp and tucks his hands against his sides. Thor wilts like an unloved flower.
Bruce returns to the bed with a plastic splint and some medical tape, and neatly binds Loki’s injured toes together. He is quick but not very gentle; Loki winces every time the tender digits are touched.
Bruce finishes the job and moves on to his next task. He picks up his ultrasound pen from the nearby instrument tray and clicks it on.
Thor nervously chews his upper lip.
“Okay,” says Bruce wearily, “let’s take a look at Loki two-point-oh here.”
Loki shuts his eyes.
Thor stands on one side of the bed while Bruce stands on the other and extends the pen over Loki’s belly. A three-dimensional holographic cube flashes into the air, its contents scaled a few times larger than life. Both he and Thor lean forward with wide eyes.
“Oh, wow,” Bruce murmurs. “Look at that. Two whole reproductive systems, side by side. There’s his ovaries—looks like they’re healthy, no cysts or lesions. That’s good. Got the fallopian tubes right here. Bladder. There’s the vas deferens . . .”
“I’m right here, you know,” Loki grumps.
“Sorry. It’s just, uh.” Bruce grins. “From a purely scientific standpoint, this is pretty awesome. Lemme enhance this a bit more.”
While Bruce continues to marvel at Loki’s internal plumbing, Thor stares at the more obvious picture: the blue monochromatic infant floating safely in its warm cocoon, unaware of its astounded audience. It has tiny feet, each one bearing five impossibly small toes; lean, perfectly-formed legs which are bent at the knees; little hands with fingers at the ends of two arms, tucked beneath a large head; a stubby nose that Thor just knows is going to look like his own, gods have mercy; smooth cheeks, closed eyelids, a soft mouth. His sleeping child.
He can’t help it. He begins to weep, hot tears rolling down his left cheek and disappearing into his beard.
“Looks like it’s a boy,” Bruce says, turning his pen for a better view. “Yup, testes are just about fully formed. You can see ‘em right there.”
“A boy,” Thor repeats, and pulls his gaze away from the hologram to look at Loki, who has his teeth bared and his hands pressed over his eyes, desperately fighting his own curiosity. “Loki, we’re having a son. It’s a little boy.”
“Wonderful!” Loki blurts. “Let’s hope that’s all he is!”
Bruce scrutinizes the hologram from every angle. “Um. I really hate to ask ‘cause I definitely do not want this image in my head, but do you have any idea when you might’ve conceived?”
“When was your last period?”
“I beg your pardon.”
“Your, uh, moon-blood, I guess. Visit from the red fairy or whatever. You menstruate, right?”
“And when was your last one?”
“Six months ago, roughly.”
Bruce’s eyes widen. “Ohhh-kayyy . . .”
“I only cycle three times a year. It’s complicated.”
“Oh. Right. Like this wasn’t already complicated enough.” A heavy sigh.
Thor draws in a long, soggy breath and digs at the tears clinging to his lashes. “Does he look alright to you, Banner? Is he normal?”
“Loki? Oh, hell no. I’ve never seen a less-normal guy in all my life, but as far as the baby, yeah, it’s totally fine. If I had to guess, I’d say we’re looking at the end of the first trimester, but there’s no way of telling how old it really is. I mean, this is kinda unprecedented, y’know? I’m gonna have to run some calculations to see exactly what stage of development we’re looking at. Lemme see if I can record a few images here . . .”
While Bruce goes about gathering vitals and other information, Thor gazes at the live picture of his unborn son, his heart a soft, sore lump in his chest. Then he looks down at Loki, who still has his hands clamped over his eyes.
“Do you not want to see him?” he asks gently, touching Loki’s wrist. “He is beautiful.”
“Half of him is me. How beautiful can he be?”
“Well, he is,” Thor insists, “even with the tail.”
Loki’s hands fly from his face. “The what!” he shouts, eyes wide as he lifts his head.
“Hey, keep it steady, I’m taking a video!” Bruce squawks.
Thor points sadly. “Look for yourself. It’s only a small defect, but he’s still beautiful to me.”
Loki eyes dart furiously back and forth over the hologram, searching for abnormalities and finding none. There is no tail sprouting from his son’s behind. In fact, there is nothing wrong with him at all, he’s perfectly—
Loki slowly turns to scowl at Thor, who has the barest hint of a smile on his lips. “That was a dirty trick.”
“I told you he was perfect.”
“You said he was beautiful. He isn’t.”
“Maybe not yet, but he will be.”
Loki makes a sour face but inevitably finds himself drawn back to the display. He gazes at it for a long while, his expression relaxing into a more neutral, introspective frown. Thor says nothing, allowing Loki to ruminate without disruption. When he finally speaks, his question is directed at Bruce.
“What are the chances I’ll miscarry?”
“I dunno, honestly,” Bruce answers, scrunching up his face. “There’s about a twenty-percent chance with first pregnancies. Most miscarriages happen during the first trimester, then the numbers get a little better the farther along you are. I dunno what stage of gestation this little guy’s in, though.” He shrugs. “It could happen. It might not. There’s no telling.”
“Still hoping for a way out?” Thor mutters, crossing his arms.
“I was simply asking the man a question,” says Loki. “This is general information. It’s not as if I were sitting here and willing the child to die.”
“Really? Because that would be the most convenient outcome for you, wouldn’t it? It’d solve all your problems, free you from any unwanted responsibilities.”
Bruce’s face tightens with discomfort. He shuts off the ultrasound pen and carefully backs away.
“Do you really think me so cruel as to be capable of such a monstrous wish?”
“I know what you are capable of, Loki, and this would not be the worst wish you’ve made.”
Loki curls his lip. “Oh, you know me so well, don’t you? Fuck me for a few months and you have me all figured out. Go on, say it. I am a terrible person and you think having a child might be good for me, that it would cure me of all my undesirable qualities and turn me into a virtuous, docile little pet.”
“I absolutely do not think that. You are projecting your feelings onto me.”
“Am I? Are you sure about that? You haven’t fantasized about the two of us raising a brood of children together? Me, selecting you from a host of hundreds for precisely that purpose?”
Color springs to Thor’s cheeks as he recalls the words he spoke seemingly years ago. “Fantasy is of no matter, Loki. This is reality. You are not a terrible person and I am not trying to cure you or change you. I love you as you are. I care about you.”
“Then you can at least pretend to be a little concerned about my well-being instead of obsessing over that thing inside of me!”
“I am concerned about you, you fool! Can’t you see that!”
“No, I can’t!” Loki shouts, squaring his shoulders. “I see a man who cares more about propagating his own wretched bloodline than the one who shall be forced to bear it! The one he claims to love!”
“That is a lie!” Thor thunders.
“Is it? Admit it, I was only ever a vessel to you! You wanted this to happen! You were praying it would happen!”
“I wanted no such thing! I knew how much the thought of pregnancy terrified you—”
“And yet you did it anyway!”
“Right, I chose to impregnate you, Loki, without your consent, even though I knew you had no desire to be a parent. I have been forcing myself on you since this journey began, taking you against your will, holding you down and making you—”
“How dare you insinuate that this is my fault!”
“You’re responsible, too!”
“How can I be responsible for something I have no control over!”
“Guys, guys.” Bruce has finally had all he could take; he steps into the midst of their quarrel with his hands raised. “Jeez. Take it easy. You . . . you two have some serious issues you need to work through, like I’m not even kidding. This whole ‘brother’ thing just creeps me out, but then you throw in a uterus and an egg and a few million sperm and—oh God I did not need to say that—and now you’ve got a baby on the way, and screaming at each other isn’t gonna help anyone. Especially not that poor little fetus in there”—he points toward Loki’s belly—“who’s already beaten like a million odds just by making it this far. And he’s still got a long way to go.”
The fury that had been raging between Thor and Loki quickly dies to a smolder.
Bruce continues, “Look, I’m no shrink or anything, but I can tell when people are having major problems, and you guys take the freaking cake. I’m serious, you need to sit down and figure out how the hell to get on the same page. You’re gonna be parents, for crying out loud. I know that doesn’t automatically make you perfect or anything, but come on, blaming each other? Calling each other names? I know teenagers more mature than you two. You’ve gotta try harder than this. ‘Cause this . . . this right here is unacceptable.”
He puts his hands on his hips and a moment later a funny look crosses his face. “Aw hell. I sound just like my dad.”
Loki slides off the examination bed and snatches up his stocking and his boot. He gives Bruce a tired but polite smile. “Thank you for tending to my foot, Doctor Banner.”
“Uh. Sure, no problem. Hey, lemme give you a few of these vita-packs before you go, I’ve been giving ‘em to all the other moms that come in here. Folic acid is really important, you know, and these things have a mix of everything: B-vitamins, calcium, trace minerals, omega-3s, they’re good stuff. Might as well schedule your next appointment while we’re at it. I’d say two weeks from now would be a good—”
But when Bruce turns around to give Loki the vitamin packets, he discovers that he is talking to thin air. He looks over at Thor, who is staring at the doorway with his mouth bent into an unhappy frown.
“Did he just disappear?”
“He walked out,” Thor mutters. “Limped out. Doesn’t matter, he’s gone.”
Bruce pulls his lips into a sad, sympathetic line and hands Thor the packets. “Well, uh. Just make sure he takes some of these soon, okay? Microgravity environments are hell on the unborn. I know he’s been having problems with the food here, too, so he really needs all the nutrition he can get.”
Thor nods solemnly and accepts the packets as if they are priceless jewels.
“And try to get him back here in two weeks. If you can.”
“I will try.”
Bruce smiles thinly and claps Thor’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay. I dunno how—I mean. You’re sleeping with your adopted brother who’s a hermaphrodite, and now he’s pregnant with your kid and it sounds like he totally hates your guts, but . . . uh. I forgot where I was going with this. Sorry. I’m lousy at comforting people.”
Thor bows his head. “What am I going to do, Banner?”
The frailty in his voice makes Bruce wince. “I don’t think there’s anything you can do, man. Just . . . he’ll come around soon, I think. And when he does, be there for him, okay? Just listen to him. Don’t try to say anything, just let him vent and get it all out in the open. It sounds like he’s got a lot on his mind.”
Thor looks down at the packets in his hands.
“He always does.”