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Chapter 18: In Which Ducks Fly

Loki never thought he would travel via the Bifrost again. When he fell from its shattered edge, he'd expected to die, or at least pass beyond any place from which he might return. When the Chitauri found him, he expected to die. When he led the attack on Midgard, he expected to rule there. When Thor dragged him back to his old stomping grounds with the power of the Tesseract, he expected to rot away in that accursed tree forever.

The crushing light and rushing noise was just as he remembered it. Exhilarating, terrifying. A kiss of power beyond imagination. The sort of magic that could bridge worlds was mighty, indeed. His own secret ways were quiet – mere echoes of the Bifrost's might – little tears in nature's weave.

He had missed this.

In a blink, they were on Midgard, standing in the park where Thor had launched them back to Asgard after Loki's failed gamble for his own realm. There were so many factors he had not known. So many players he had underestimated. It was no wonder he had failed. But, in his own defense, he had still been addled by the Chitauri's tortures, his mind weakened from months of pain. But no longer. His faculties were sharp once more, and he would not allow his brother and his mortal friends to make such a fool of him ever again.

They would have no opportunity, anyway. What use was a realm? Perhaps he was unready for it. There was a greater matter – or two – that needed tending first.

Speaking of the mortal friends, two stood before them. Only two, and both in 'street' clothes. Loki had been expecting the full army of Avengers to welcome their nemesis home, but perhaps he needed to try harder to get their attention. Should he have leveled a country instead of a mere city?

The two waiting were the Captain and the monster. Loki batted away the urge to roll his shoulders. Memories of the monster's brutality were almost physically painful. It was a beating his body would not soon forget, which, he had to grudgingly admit, was an impressive feat for a mortal.

Thor stepped forward, shining grin spreading over his face. "My friends!"

"Welcome back, Thor," the Captain said. "It's been a while."

"Too long," Thor agreed. Glancing around the park, he asked, "Where are the others? Are they unwell?"

"Natasha and Clint are both on a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D.," the monster said, stooped in his human form, hands in his pockets, pronouncing each word like an apology. "Fury begged. It was almost cute."

"Tony is rounding up a group of thieves who stole some of his weapons," said the Captain. "They're trying to take an office building downtown and turn it into a separate nation."

"How ambitious," Thor said, appreciation and amusement blending in his tone.

"I'd choose 'stupid,'" the monster, Banner, said with a shrug.

"And Bea?" Thor asked. "I thought she might not choose to be here, but I had hoped…"

They all glanced at Loki, the elephant in the room, and then unanimously agreed to look elsewhere.

"Bea's with Tony, actually," Banner said. "He's training her to be part of the team or something. Or at least competent enough to keep out of locked closets during the next crisis."

Six eyes turned on Loki again, and this time they were considerably less apologetic.

The Captain cleared his throat. It was almost apologetic, but not quite. At least it was polite. "We should probably head back to the tower. We can follow Tony and Bea better there on the comms."

"Of course," Thor said. "Lead on, my friend."

.O.O.O.

The tower, once Stark Tower from whence he had launched his attack on Midgard, was now marked with a single A, signifying its place as the 'home' of the Avengers. However, since Tony Stark still held the lease, none of the glitz or glamour had softened. It was still an impressive building, and still impressively expensive. The elevator the Captain led them to might have fed one of Midgard's 'third world' countries if it was decommissioned and sold off for parts.

For a mortal, it was an impressive display of power, channeled through the individual's financial resources. The fact that Tony Stark was the individual in question only slightly dimmed Loki's appreciation. Throwing the man out a window had been one of the single most fulfilling moments of his time on Midgard. He might have to try it again someday.

The doors of the elevator pulled open to reveal a spacious lounge. Incidentally, it was the same lounge Loki had just been fantasizing about, though it had gone through some heavy remodeling since his last visit. The room was no longer the high-rise retreat of a playboy billionaire with a reputation to uphold. It was now a living space for a group of diverse individuals, each of whom had left their mark on the area. But it was still in Stark's tower, even if his name wasn't on the side, and just like the elevator, the room was a testament to the owner's wealth and status. Loki noted, with no little amusement, that the little bar was still stationed against one wall. A giant television screen took most of one wall, and a flotilla of gaming consoles was spread on the shelves around it. The Captain approached it and switched it on. He seemed proud of the act. And Loki had thought modern mortals were woefully impaired in their understanding of technology.

But then the screen came alive with the image of a tall building, probably in Manhattan, and the word 'live' lit up the corner. Loki wondered if he might be able to see the building from Stark's windows. The view rotated, probably recorded on board a hovering transport, and Loki watched without comment as the Iron Man swooped through the shot, blowing out windows and making a general nuisance of himself. He appeared to be doing little real damage.

The monster crossed to a panel on the wall and pressed a series of buttons likely too complicated for the Captain to understand. There was a crackle, but nothing else. He shrugged. "Comm.'s are on. Must not be any chatter."

"Indeed, Doctor Banner," Stark's automated butler replied. There was a reason why Loki had been waiting outside when Stark arrived just before the battle for Manhattan. That reason was Jarvis. "Mr. Stark called for radio silence until Bea completes her phase of the mission – for her protection, of course."

Thor glowered at the television screen in confusion. "Did you not say Bea was with Stark?" he asked.

"She is," said the Captain.

"But I do not see her."

The Captain shrugged, and his opinion of Stark's battle tactics rolled across his face. There was little respect in the gathering clouds roiling over his eyes. "She's not really a fighter, even though he says that's what he's training her to do. Her strength is infiltration. I'm sure Tony's just making a racket to draw their attention. We won't be able to see Bea until her job is already finished."

And, right on cue, Bea burst onto the scene, popping out of a roof access door, stopping just long enough to jam the door behind her. In a heartbeat, she sped off again, probably to put some distance between herself and any pursuers. She stopped at the edge of the roof, peering over, searching for a means of escape. Loki could see none, and he had the better view. He stiffened. It would not do for her to die now. He had put too much effort into maintaining his connection to let a few mortals kill her before she even reached full maturity.

"Uh, Tony?" she said through the comm.

"Yeah? You on the roof yet?"

Apparently hearing the first sounds of pursuit, Bea glanced back at the door she'd come through. "Yes? But there's no fire escape. And there is no way I'm jumping that alley."

"Never expected you to, Ducky. Now listen close. I need you to jump."

The Captain and Thor both made grunts of denial – or disapproval, it was hard to tell. The monster hunched further forward. Loki tried to glare out his disbelief at the screen. Surely the Man of Iron would not…

Sounding appropriately unnerved, Bea asked, "Come again?"

"Jump," Stark said, as if it was the easiest thing in the world. "Right off the front. You need to jump off the side that faces the main avenue. Got that?"

"No," Bea said. "No, I definitely have not got that."

The first note of gravity seeped into Stark's voice. "Bea. Jump."

"You jump."

"Bea!"

The door crashed open, and Bea hopped back from the edge, looking towards the proper side of the roof.

"Jump now!"

Bleating a curse, Bea launched into a dead sprint as gunfire peppering the ground behind her, sending slivers of concrete and puffs of dust flying. And then she was sailing off the edge. For a moment she sailed. Her momentum carried her well away from the glass face of the office building, and she almost looked like she was flying. But after a moment, gravity caught up with her, and she was definitely falling. The comm. crackled with her shrieks as she tumbled out of control, and Loki realized that the room around him had burst into chaos. All the mighty warriors surrounding him were lunging toward the screen under the momentary illusion that they could reach her in time to stop her fall. They all remembered themselves before they crashed, but they stopped mere inches away, blocking almost all of Loki's view.

Something red slammed into Bea, and she wasn't falling anymore. The camera only recorded the catch as a blur, but as the Man of Iron zipped away the lens managed to focus on the repulsors set in his feet.

It had been a close save. This had not been what Loki expected from his return to Midgard. It was not as he left it.

The roar of Iron Man's suit rattled the windows, and the tower's owner came down on his personal landing with a thump they could hear inside. The girl in his arms dropped free and hurried in ahead of him.

Loki stared as Bea Doe stumbled in from the balcony, mere steps ahead of Stark. Once she was safely indoors, she collapsed face first on the floor, groaning. Beside him, Thor took an instinctive step forward, but Bea's flop appeared to be more dramatic than damaging, and the Oh So Chivalrous prince restrained himself. In another moment Stark walked in behind the fallen time bender, and she finally spoke.

"Solid… ground…"

"Oh, shut-up," Stark said, now freed from his armor. "So ungrateful. I caught you, remember? Really." He finally noticed the two Asgardians and upped his performance. Shaking his head, he gestured down at his prone employee. "You have any idea how hard it is to find good staff these days?"

Snorting, the Captain turned away and went to watch as S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives rushed the hijacked office building, ready to clean up the scraps left for them.

"Caught?" Bea raised her face from the floor, glaring up at her boss. "Caught might be too strong a word. Getting caught by you in the suit is like getting 'caught' by a truck."

Loki snorted as his brother chuckled. Stark simply rolled his eyes and said, "Grow a thicker skin," before marching down the steps to his precious wet bar.

For all her show, Bea seemed genuinely unwell. It took her much longer than it should have to rise, and when she was upright she all but limped down the stairs. Loki frowned. And he wasn't the only one to notice Bea's discomfort. The beast was eying her as well. Of course. The hawk had told him that the beast was working as a physician somewhere on the continent of Asia when Loki last visited Midgard.

The man met Bea at the bottom of the stairs and tentatively touched her arm.

Bea seemed determined to ignore him. "Hi, Thor." She waved.

"Greetings. Bea."

Next she welcomed Loki. The smile withered into a frown. "Oh. You."

"A pleasure." Loki smiled, clasping his hands behind his back and leaning forward in a friendly gesture that served to both close a little distance and bring the two to a closer height. "As always."

Thor was giving him a warning look, but Loki elected to ignore him.

"Bea," Banner said, resting a hand on her back, "you took quite a hit. Would you mind coming down to the lab so I can do some scans?"

Stark, who had been fixing himself a drink, looked up and started paying attention.

"Whatever," Bea said. "I'm fine."

Banner took the opportunity to give her a firm pat on the back. The yelp this procured from Bea was almost painful to hear.

Finally realizing that the scene was more than mere theatrics, the Captain approached Bea and the doctor, worry scrawled across his poster-boy face. "Are you alright, Miss Doe?"

"Uh, Bea?" Tony said. "Not to be bossy on your day off, but I think you should go with Dr. Jekyll here."

"You're always bossy," Bea said.

At that point the Captain took her arm and pulled it around his shoulders. Banner took the hint and did the same with the other arm. Bea twitched and hissed as each limb was lifted. Strung between the two men, her feet barely even reached the floor. If it wasn't so pitiful, it would be comical. "Come on, soldier. Let's march."

"Not your soldier."

All too true.

.O.O.O.

Bea kicked her heels as she waited (im)patiently for Doctor Banner to finish his examination. He'd already confirmed that she had two cracked ribs. No big surprise. Now he was recovering from his shock at the amount of bruises hiding in clever places all over her body.

"Like I said: the lighter ones are from Clint. The blotchy ones are from Agent Romanoff. She thinks I'm too weak. I think she sees me as a disgrace to our gender. Damsels in distress went out of fashion a century or so back."

Banner closed his eyes and took off his glasses, cleaning them with the hem of his shirt. It was a nervous habit. But not nervous. It was one of his anti-Hulking rituals. That meant he was getting angry. Bea wasn't sure she'd like him when he was angry. She'd never met the Hulk, but she'd heard stories – and seen the wreckage.

"Bea," Banner said, opening his eyes and returning his glasses to his face. He leaned in gingerly against the exam table. "Why have you been sparring with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents?"

She shrugged. "Clint started it. Well, no, that's not right – Tony started it. His whole 'I'm going to train you into an Avenger-duck' thing has kinda caught on, and now Clint wants to put his two cents in my P.E. schedule. Then Agent Romanoff found out and, yeah, the rest is history."

"Anyone else on the team you're trading punches with?"

"Not yet."

"Bea…"

"Give it time. I'm sure with enough hours in the gym and a few hundred boiled chickens I can buff up enough to take on the Other Guy. Be patient."

"Bea." It was a shame Banner never had kids. He had the disappointed daddy voice down pat. "I'm serious. This isn't good for you. You've got your talents, but I don't think hand-to-hand combat is one of them." He poked her in the ribs, and she hissed a few curses at his ancestors. "Neither is flying."

"You should blame Tony for that."

"Blame me for what?"

The duck and the scientist looked over to find the genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist joining the scene. Together they made quite the tableau.

"Global warming, cancer, and Pepper's ulcer."

Only the last of those conjured so much as a blink. "Pepper has an ulcer?" Tony asked.

"Yeah," Bea said. "It's due in a couple months. You should be shopping for the ulcer shower."

"Do I want to know what an ulcer shower entails?" Banner asked, the dry humor restored to his voice.

"Probably not," Bea said, "but I'd still tell you if I knew."

"So…" Tony drawled. He joined the party gathered around/on the exam table, looking between the two original party-goers as he waited for an answer. "What's the diagnosis?"

"You cracked my ribs," Bea said. "Two of them."

Tony 'hmm'ed and his attention wandered to the legions of toys waiting patiently on the lab's shelves for his foolhardy fiddling. "That all? I thought it was something serious."

"It is serious, Tony." And the daddy voice was back, tinged, Bea thought, with a bit of green rage monster. "Just a little more force and they could've broken. A lung might've been punctured…"

"Could've, might've," Tony said. This was a challenge of his duck-caring skills. Things just got real. He jerked his eyes away from the toys and pinned Banner with the deadpan stare he generally reserved for Steve when he was being especially sanctimonious. "Possiblities. Not fact." Banner opened his mouth, preparing a rebuttal, but Tony pressed on. "The fact is, she only suffered a couple cracked ribs, and for her first mission, I'd say that's pretty good. She took down the insurgents' computers and cleared the way for S.H.I.E.L.D. I count this as a win."

"A win for what?" Banner asked. He took his glasses off again, but he didn't wipe them. Instead, he twirled a stem between his fingers, like he was angry, but only absently so. "You like Bea. She's your Ducky…" Bea gave a half-hearted: "Hey!" but no was listening to her anyway. "… so why are you trying to turn her into us?"

"Uh – us?" Tony gestured around the room, around the tower. "Ducky is us. One of. Part of the team. She's not some hapless kid I yanked off the street and dumped in a suit. (She doesn't even have a suit yet, thanks for reminding me) I'm just equipping her to take better care of herself. What's your problem with that?"

Banner's hunch had gone from shy to strained. He was holding himself back, and Bea wondered how long he could keep arguing before he had to leave the room. "As she said to Steve less than an hour ago – she's not a soldier. Why are you trying to turn her into one?"

"You're right. She's not a soldier. She's my Ducky."

"And that's another thing." Banner was using the glasses as a pointer now. Definitely a bad sign. "She's always 'your Ducky.' Like she's a kid. Or a possession. Do you even realize how old she is?"

"Hey, if I got offended every time Tony referred to me as his personal property I would've quit years ago," Bea said.

"I don't refer to you as property." Tony tried to look wounded.

"Yes you do. Shut-up. That's not the point." Bea took an exaggerated breath, giving Banner time to wind down a notch and Tony time to get over his bruised ego. She was well-versed in the art of handling the Science Bros. "I don't want to be an Avenger. And, no, Tony, I don't really care if that hurts your feelings. But I'm getting tired of near death experiences. The point is that nobody is forcing me to do this. It's not my favorite thing, but, hey, I can stop time, and it looks like I'll be able to do a lot more than that someday, so learning to pose heroically and jump off rooftops seems to be in my future, no matter what I want. I'd rather take a few bruises and cracked ribs now than get stuck in a closet by the next Loki who comes to town."

Tony perked up. "Speaking of Loki."

"Shut-up. I shouldn't have mentioned him. I'd almost forgotten him already."

"Good luck with that," Tony said. "He's going to be staying here with Thor, you know."

Bea was insulted that Tony thought so little of her aversion tactics. "I have an apartment, you know. I don't live here. And as for socializing…let's just say Clint's gonna be getting some company in the air ducts."

"Oh!" Childish glee lit Tony's eyes, and Bea wondered what monster she'd just birthed. "Air Ducks!"

"No."

"But it's perfect!"

"Don't even go there."

"But I could make you a webbed cape…"

"Which would be useful, how exactly?"

Tony sniffed. "You have no imagination."

"Yes I do," Bea said. "I just have logic to go with it. They're a matching set."

Doctor Banner wandered over to a microscope and began adjusting the settings. "We're done here. Now go play nicely, kids."

"Did you just group the two of us together?" Bea asked, pointing between herself and Tony.

"Uh." Doctor Banner looked up. He seemed to contemplate his actions for a moment, then capped his thought with a shrug. "I guess so."

"You." Her finger became a stabbing indicator of justice. "You have been around Tony too long. Or Clint. No. Definitely Tony."

Another shrug. "Probably. Now get out of my lab."

A/N: Loki's POV scares the crap out of me. Just saying. But I really wanted that scene to be through his eyes. Hopefully it came out ok. And Tony's back! IronDuck fans rejoice! They're not a ship, FYI, just a friend-ship. Bruce is a pain to write. He's so demur, but there's... so much... happening...yeah.

THANK YOU ALL FOR THE REVIEWS! The next few weeks are going to be really weird. I'm getting my license (finally) and I have the whole house to myself. I'll be working 36 hours straight every weekend, but I'll have a lot of writing time... or a lot of social time. Or both. I just don't know. Life's weird right now. So, please, keep reviewing. It reminds me that I'm supposed to be writing fics and not just reading them.

Anon Replies:

Guest: Thanks for the review! No. No, she's really not.

Mariah Byers: Whoa...thank you! Personally, I think it could be better, but I do have a blast writing it. It means a lot that you enjoy reading it so much! Thanks again!