It happened on their designated movie night. One minute they're all sitting there watching Tommy Boy, the next Loki is standing in the center of the ring of overstuffed couches with a glowing, green orb hovering over his outstretched right hand and a wicked smile painted on his face.
Thor was the first one out of his seat. He shouted questions at his brother of how he could be out of the grasp of their father and back on Midgard. But Loki's left hand shot out and with some whisper of words most of them didn't catch, Thor was locked in place.
"I have come bearing a gift," Loki spoke, his silver tongue saying words in that infuriatingly calm tone. "Your greatest desires and your worst nightmares." He paused to hold the orb closer to his face, inspecting the magic within. "It is interesting how much the two overlap, is it not?"
Without notice, Loki slammed the glowing sphere down at the feet of the Avengers. Natasha and Steve, possessors of the quickest reflexes, were closest to the orb when it hit the ground. They tried their best to contain as much of the light and mist expelled, but this wasn't an average grenade that you could throw yourself on to minimize damage. This was magic from a monster, and save for Thor, they still weren't used to dealing with that.
A number of things happened at once: Thor, free from whatever magic held him in place, tackled Loki to the ground and bellowed at Heimdall to open the recently repaired Bifrost; the brothers vanished in a column of light. Bruce morphed into his other self. Tony began rambling equation after number after scientific theory. And Clint let out a guttural yell as something or someone hit the ground.
It was the last one that drew Natasha's greatest worry. She turned to see Clint kneeling beside Coulson's body. And that's all that was left of the handler—a body. It was already cold and pale in its death with dried blood staining his chest all over again. Natasha felt more than heard the imposing footsteps of The Other Guy from behind her and half-listened to Steve's shouts as he tried to calm the beast, but none of them were prepared to hear what the Hulk was actually saying.
"Get out of the way, move aside," the deep voice ordered. "Let me see if I can help." Natasha obeyed the commands out of instinct. She watched as the green giant knelt beside Coulson's still form. He reached out to needlessly check his pulse when he caught sight of his own hands. The Hulk raised them up slowly and turned them over in front of his face. "This can't be," he said softly.
Natasha agreed. They'd all heard the Hulk on the comm lines. The majority of his dialogue involved grunts and barbaric yells. Despite the appearance and sound of the voice, Natasha knew whose mind was in control, and it wasn't The Other Guy's. "Bruce?" she asked softly.
He nodded his large head. "My mind, his body."
"Someone help him!" Clint shouted at them, pulling their focus back to matter at hand.
Natasha didn't know what to do or say. She knew SHIELD could work some medical miracles, already had on Coulson eight months ago when Loki stabbed him on the Helicarrier, but it looked like life had left the handler's body hours ago, not minutes. Despite that, she heard Rogers ordering for a med unit to get to their position immediately.
Natasha reached over the corpse to take Clint's hand but he swatted it away. "No," he ground out. "I just got him back. This isn't going to happen again."
As if willed by the words, Coulson gulped in air as color and life returned to him instantaneously. His eyes aimlessly searched the room until they found focus on Clint's face. "What happened?" he asked, trying to catch his breath.
Clint didn't answer with words. Coulson had lost his tie and jacket before coming to relax with the team, so it was only a dress shirt that Clint had to rip open in order to inspect Phil's chest. Natasha craned her head to examine, too, and she couldn't believe what she saw—or rather what she didn't see. Phil's chest held no marks. There was no scar, and no sign of the source of blood that had dried on his shirt. Gingerly, Clint sat Coulson up and pulled the shirt down further to show that the other man's back was free of scarring, too.
"Sir, how are you feeling?" Steve asked.
Coulson gave his head a small shake and shrugged his shoulders. "I feel fine, a little disoriented, but nothing hurts." He paused as he rolled his shoulders around and rotated his left arm in the air. "Actually, I feel better than I have since before I was attacked." He continued to roll his neck and test muscles. Clint's eyes and hand never leaving Phil's face or back.
Natasha's rolled backwards from her haunches to sit on the ground, trying to process everything that just happened. Before she could even being to think, a med team rushed into the common room with a couple of gurneys and demands of a sitrep.
Bruce began giving an oral report full of medical details to the team who, to SHIELD's credit, didn't look shocked for too long as they heard the fearsome green giant talk about Coulson's condition in full-on doctor speak. Phil tried to wave off the attention the medical team gave him, but one look at Clint's terrified face caused him to change his mind. He still repeated "I'm fine," in response to questions and being poked at, but obligingly laid down on the gurney and was wheeled out of the room to be taken to SHIELD headquarters for further inspection, Clint keeping pace at his side the whole way.
Natasha watched the Hulk's eyes follow them out of the door and recognized the longing to accompany the men, but he remained where he was. "Don't you want me to escort you?"
He shook his large head before rumbling his answer. "I don't want him to come crashing back into his body in the middle of a hospital floor."
"Where's Stark?" Steve asked, eyes searching the room.
"JARVIS?" Natasha called out.
There was a slightly longer than normal pause before the disembodied voice responded. "Sir is in his workshop."
"Is he okay?" Rogers asked.
Again, a slight pause. "I am… unsure. Scans show that he is healthy physically, but something has changed."
"What is it?" Bruce inquired.
"Sir is producing theories and designs, which is not unusual. But what is strange is the volume and complexity. I have never seen work this advanced, even from him. I, myself, am struggling to keep up with his mind's pace at the moment."
Natasha looked at Bruce with a raised eyebrow, a silent question on how he thought the situation should be handled.
Bruce shrugged, "As long as he's not doing himself any harm, I say we don't fight it. You know how he can go on experimentation benders. JARVIS, keep monitoring his vitals. If anything spikes, let us know."
"Do you think we should call Pepper?" Steve asked.
Natasha answered. "Odds are she was alerted about something happening since we called the medical team up here. But now that most everyone," she paused to throw a sympathetic look Bruce's way, "is okay, we should probably call her to calm her down." .
Steve nodded. "I'll go give contact her." He left the room as he pulled the cell phone from his pocket and began dialing.
Natasha turned her attention back to Bruce. "What are we going to do about you?"
"I don't know, but you and Steve need to be checked out."
Natasha shook her head, "I feel fine. Cap seems okay."
"No, you two were closest. We don't know what it could do. We need to make sure you're not affected in some way that we can't casually observe."
Natasha looked at her nails. She didn't want to go. She hated medical scans; they brought up too many distorted memories of serving as a Russian lab rat in order to be built and genetically modified into the spy she was.
"What about you?"
Bruce looked down at himself. "There are containment chambers on every floor, the largest being on the same floor as my quarters. I can go hang out there for a while."
"No. I'm not letting you lock yourself up. I'll stay with you and keep an eye out."
Bruce shook his head. "I remember how you looked at me after he chased you through the Helicarrier. I'm okay with not having to live with that again."
Natasha refrained from answering for a moment, her brain still trying to piece what all had happened in the span of fifteen minutes. "How do you feel right now?"
His face tightened, his mind apparently tracking on the same path as hers. "Angry, but not out of control."
"What would happen if you lost that control?"
"You really think that's a good idea?" Steve asked as he reentered the room.
She shrugged. "I think I know what will happen, but I want to be sure. Always be prepared, and all that stuff you're usually are telling us about."
Steve shook his head, but gave in anyway. "Doc, you okay with this?"
Bruce looked at Natasha for a moment before answering. "I think I know what will happen, too. Steve, get a little closer, and get ready to put me in a hold if you need to."
A mix of confusion and reluctance to go along with the situation crossed Steve's face. But he trusted his team, so he closed the distance between himself and Bruce until he was standing behind and to Bruce's left.
Natasha gave the man in the beast's body a nod as she tried to keep her face and breathing calm. Just because she had an idea of what would happen, didn't mean she would be right.
Bruce nodded back. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Out of instinct, his limbs pulled away from hanging at his side and a yell escaped from his throat. But instead of deepening in tone, it rose. In a matter of moments the body in front of her shrunk down to Bruce's normal form. When he reopened his eyes, her hypothesis was confirmed; the wild tone to the brown eyes, accompanied by an attempt to lunge forward, was enough for Natasha to drop into a combat stance and prepare for action. But Steve was already ahead of her. With unnatural speed, he had an arm around the now smaller man's neck in a sleeper hold. Natasha felt a warning trying to escape her lips, but then her mind remembered who this was—Steve Rogers was acutely aware of just how strong he was, how much damage he could deal. As soon as the Hulk in Bruce's body lost consciousness and shades of green began to reclaim the color of his skin, Steve eased the limp and expanding body down to the ground before grabbing an afghan off the back of one of the couches to give him some modesty since the pants Bruce wore were able to survive the first physical transition, but not the third.
Natasha and Steve's eyes met with matching expressions of "What do we do now?" She shrugged before he asked if she could handle Banner. She nodded. "I'm going to go down and check on Stark. I told Pepper that we're all fine and I think she bought it, but I'm sure she'll feel better when I put my own eyes on him to double check," Steve responded. "Call Clint and get an update on Phil for all of us, please." With orders dispersed, he turned and headed towards the bank of elevators to travel down to Tony's workshop floor.
She positioned herself on the floor, crossing her legs, and blowing a tuft of red hair out of her face. Natasha pulled out her phone and sent a text to Clint with orders to check in as soon as they knew something. She was inspecting her nails when Bruce began to stir in the oversized body a few minutes later. He let out a short, soft moan before meeting her eyes. "Hypothesis confirmed?"
Natasha gave a quick nod. "Seems like your two options are your mind in his body, or his mind in your body."
Bruce looked down at himself. "They'll probably want to run tests," he said quietly.
Natasha felt herself bristle. "They'll have to get through me first. If you want them to."
He gave her a small, grateful smile. "Honestly, I've always wanted to run tests on him myself. Maybe we can work out a deal where I share my data once I'm through."
So that became the new plan. They stopped at Bruce's quarters for him to grab a pair of Hulk-sized pants before moving into the containment chamber on his personal floor, and she made a note to thank Tony for making sure everything—including elevators—was heavily enforced enough to easily bear the weight and density of the Hulk. Once they reached the door hidden towards the back of a corridor, Natasha showed more apprehension about stepping into the room than Bruce did.
"It's okay," he said. "I came in here voluntarily. You're not helping cage me in. Besides this one has the most advanced and precise scanning equipment." Reluctantly, Natasha moved her way through the entrance and stood just inside the large, round room. "JARVIS, do you have any processing power left if Tony has gone into full-on mad scientist mode?"
There's a pause before the answer sounds. "Of course, Doctor Banner, there are reserves in place. How can I assist you?"
"I need a new baseline for myself. Run the standard set of scans on me, please." He paused a moment. It was weird to see Bruce's mannerisms reflected in the Hulk's body. There was hesitancy, then a small nod as he decided to go ahead and do whatever he planned on. "And run a med eval on Agent Romanoff, too, please." Natasha felt her eyes roll. "It's either that or you go down to medical and have the scans run there."
"Fine," she acquiesced.
"Anything else?" JARVIS asked.
"Yeah, give us a video feed of Tony."
The round curve of the wall lit up into a bank of monitors. Natasha's eyes flicked from one to the other. Several showed various medical scans being run on Bruce's brain, a couple displayed her own vital signs, and another three randomly flicked through various camera feeds set up in Tony's workshop. On them, they saw and heard Steve try and ask a few questions to Stark to check on his condition, but the engineer ignored him completely. This wasn't anything new, especially when Tony was in the zone when it came to work, but that did not help ease the obvious look of concern written on Steve's face.
Natasha pressed at a holographic notification on one of the screen to open a comm channel to the room. "It's okay, Cap. We've got eyes on him from up here. JARVIS will tell us if this is something we need to worry about. Why don't you come up here and join us? If I have to get scanned, you do too."
Rogers seemed unconvinced, but left the workshop anyway.
Tests were run on everyone all through the night. Coulson was released in the morning after it was determined that his body showed no signs of the injury he sustained eight months ago. Steve, Clint, and Natasha's scans were all clear. Bruce's mind was still in the Other Guy's body, but if he wasn't too upset about it, then no one else was. Tony was still going strong in the workshop.
Thor returned the next afternoon with a look of remorse and shame in his eyes. He explained to them all how his brother had managed to escape, and how Odin had exiled Loki to a prison cell that operated in another dimension, and was therefore inescapable. It did little to put them at ease, but no one said much about it, at least not to Thor's face. They briefed the Asgardian on what had transpired while he was back home, and he nodded throughout the report. "Aye, this is Loki's magic indeed. It took a lot of conjuring to produce something powerful enough to affect all of us."
"Not all of us were affected," Steve commented.
Thor's expression turned to one of near pity. "It may not seem that way, and I truly hope that is the case, but just because you do not see the effects currently does not mean they are not present."
"What did he say the orb represented?" Coulson asked. "Greatest wishes and nightmares?"
Bruce nodded. "Something like that. I can see this," he paused to look down at himself, "fitting into the nightmare category at least."
Thor agreed solemnly, "I, too. Loki attacking all of you again, and so personally, is a nightmare of mine."
"That makes two of us," Phil added quietly.
Natasha didn't need to see the look on Clint's face to know he could join in on that feeling.
"I think I didn't show any signs of things changing because I'm already living my greatest nightmare and desire," Steve said, his eyes sticking to the floor. They waited silently for him to continue. He shrugged his wide shoulders before doing so. "Everything I ever wanted to be my life is gone and dead. But at the same time, all I ever wanted to do was to protect people, and I get to do that all of the time." He paused before turning blue eyes on Natasha. "What about you?"
She collected her thoughts a moment before speaking. "My worst nightmare is…" she paused, slightly unable to believe she was willing to admit such a big weakness and what the statement implied, but she went ahead with it anyway, "is seeing those I care about in pain and not being to do anything about it." She caught Clint and Coulson's eyes before looking back to Rogers.
"What about your greatest wish?" he asked.
She shrugged. "I don't really know. Those two idiots safe and sound, I suppose," she said while pointing at Barton and her handler. "It would explain why I didn't show any signs of things changing, either."
Coulson took some notes in a file he was compiling on the incident, but for the most part they left it at that. Things were kept quiet about the attack. Fury and Hill were notified, but not too many others. Everyone at SHIELD, for understandable reasons, were extremely jumpy at any mention of Loki's name and Fury didn't want his people bent out of shape for something that seemed to have already resolved itself.
Tony remained in his lab for another day and a half. Stark awoke seven hours later and drug everyone else out of bed, since it was the middle of the night, to—in between swears and threats—order them all down to his workshop. He was only momentarily fazed by Bruce's Freaky Friday act before demanding to know what had happened, and who broke into his lab. They looked at each other confused and promised that he was the only one in there working on things. "That cannot be," Tony yelled, "because while I am a genius, I don't operate at this level." He pointed at the various schematics still floating in the air. He turned to Bruce, "Do you even know what this means?"
Bruce shook his head, "I was able to follow you for the first few hours, but then you lost me."
"Nightmares and desires," Coulson commented.
Stark spun on his heel. "What did you say?"
"When Loki attacked us, he said the magic he was going to unleash would cause us to experience our greatest desires and nightmares. Desire: you've come up with something that the word 'genius' doesn't even begin to cover."
"Yet, you can't grasp now what it means, how it works, or its purpose. And now it will haunt for who knows how long."
Tony's face slid slowly into an expression of loss, and the "Sonofabitch!" that erupted out of him confirmed Coulson's theory to be true. Steve and Coulson ushered everyone but Bruce from the workshop, and left the doctor in charge of calming down the raving Stark.
The following morning Bruce's mind was reunited with his body. Natasha was pleased to see the look of peace on his face at the matter.
Things continued on quietly for the next couple weeks. It was not quite a month after Loki showed up that Natasha was awoken by the Assemble alarm. She sat up quickly in bed and regretted the motion immediately. In her mind, she cursed Clint for dragging them all to the hole in the wall Chinese place for dinner the previous night. She was tempted to give in to her sour stomach and vomit in his quiver for introducing her to some foodborne illness, but she managed to keep things under control as she quickly dressed. Natasha was the last to board the Quinjet, right behind Clint and Coulson. Her handler gave her a concerned look when she let Thor ride shotgun in the cockpit with Hawkeye. "I'm never eating at that place again," she said in response and Coulson gave her a sympathetic look before giving them all a quick rundown of the situation.
A group of AIM scientists decided to test out some new weapons in Boston. The team quickly made it to the city and had the yellow-clad attackers incapacitated before too much damage was done. They were back on the Quinjet three hours later. Natasha, still not feeling quite on top of her game, used the hum of the engines to lull her into a quick nap. When she awoke, everyone had left the craft and Coulson was staring down at her with his business face on. She hated that face.
"What did I do this time?"
"We're going to medical," he ordered.
"You feeling sick, too? I think it was the moo shoo pork."
He paused a moment before speaking. "You never sleep on the Quinjet."
"I also usually don't get sick from spoiled food. And since when are you getting mad at me for actually sleeping? You typically gripe that I don't sleep enough." He stood silently in front of her with arms crossed across his chest. She sighed. "If I don't go voluntarily, you're going to just order a full medical work-up anyway, aren't you?"
The handler was kind enough to have the tests run on the medical floor of Stark Tower instead of dragging her to SHIELD headquarters or the Helicarrier. But she still wasn't happy to have to spend her day in a paper gown being scanned and prodded.
Coulson returned once they were done with a change of clothes, a bottle of ginger ale, and a sleeve of saltines. "Everything looks fine so far, but bloodwork won't come back till the morning. For now, go upstairs and rest. You're okay with Bruce looking over your tests?"
Natasha nodded. One of the ways Phil could bribe the team into coming to medical was handing over some of the doctor duties to Bruce. She changed and nibbled on crackers on her way back to her personal floor of the tower. She was finally starting to feel better, but didn't want to push her system. Once in her quarters, she went to the bookshelf to grab the well-worn copy of Enchantment and curled up in bed to re-read the story.
She awoke the next morning to the sound of the JARVIS insistently telling her that Doctor Banner and Agent Coulson were waiting outside. She grabbed a robe and threw it on while telling the AI to let them enter.
"What time is it?" she asked while yawning.
"Almost nine-thirty," Coulson answered.
The answer was surprising, but not as much as the look on Phil's face. She turned her attention to Bruce, who was avoiding her eyes and scratching his head. Never a good sign. "Out with it," she ordered.
"Your bloodwork came back," he said as he stepped forward to hand over her file.
Her eyes scanned the page until they fell on the two words that had the two men visibly upset: Pregnancy Confirmed.