"I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass."
"There!" Cupid pointed and Hulk saw a rooftop deck with a pool and outdoor area. "Set us down."
He landed with a thump, looking around, sniffing the air. People scattered, some running toward the glass doors that led into a restaurant, others stepping away to give them space. Cell phones went up, and they snapped pictures or started a video; even the man in the virtually non-existent speedo, all of his hairy chest on proud display, whipped an iPhone out of somewhere and was clicking away. The bartender, a middle-aged man in a red vest and white shirt, kept mixing the fruity drink he was making, not blinking at the intrusion. One bold woman in a white one-piece took a few steps towards them, a sharpie in her hand.
"We need everyone to vacate this area. Get inside, and go downstairs." Cupid issued the orders in a rapid flow; some of the people obeyed instantly, others hesitated then slowly moved away. A handful stopped to pack up their things. "Now, people. And don't stand by the glass either. Call management," he told the bartender. "Get them to clear this floor."
A 40-something woman in a red sundress hustled away from the cabana bar, and she held out the frozen red drink she'd just picked up. "Here," she said as she passed. "Sounds like you might need this."
"Thanks," Cupid laughed and took a sip before he handed it over; the Hulk downed it in one swallow and very carefully put the glass down on a table. "Daiquiris are his favorite."
"Betty not here," he rumbled. The sweet drink had helped his mood, but he was close to pouting. They'd been following Betty, always a jump behind, and then Cupid had suggested a different direction. Hulk didn't like losing sight of her, but both he and the Little Guy trusted Cupid, so he'd stopped.
"Give it a minute, Big Guy." Clint took a position, climbing on top of the cabana bar, prepping a neural inhibitor arrowhead. "She's keyed on you; she'll come to us."
"Hulk not hurt Betty." The Hulk didn't like that Betty was mad at him. She'd been one of his first real friends, but now she was red and big and unhappy. He did remember what it was like right after the first time the Hulk came out, how confused and angry he was at everyone. Betty didn't hate him, she was just scared, but she wouldn't let Hulk help her.
"You won't have to. I'll get her to change back and then we'll get her and Janet back to the tower." Cupid could do that, Hulk knew, he just hoped that Betty didn't hurt Cupid again. He didn't want to pick between his friends … even if he knew Cupid would win. Tilting his head back, he smelled her before he saw her coming in for a landing. The other woman was awake and as soon as Betty's feet were on the wooden flooring, Betty gently sat her down on one of the wooden chaise lounges. Then she turned to the Hulk.
"Don't want this," Betty said an angry rumble in her voice. "Don't like it. Make it stop."
"Hulk can help." He stayed very still, just like Cupid did when he was watching people through the little lens on his gun. "Let Little Guy fix Betty."
"No!" Her voice gained volume, and she flexed her muscles, the miracle fabric gown straining across her biceps. "No Bruce."
"Then Tiny Guy or Metal Head can do it. Back at Tower." Hulk reached for her; she smacked his hand away.
"NO! Want to go home." Betty was shouting now, the tendons in her neck taut and stressed. People in the restaurant backed away from the windows, staring at the two larger figures outside.
"Betty, we can help you there. Hank or Carol or Tony. Please," Janet begged. "It doesn't have to be Bruce."
"NO BRUCE!" In her anger, she swung her fist and smashed a table, shattering the Plexiglas umbrella pole, sending shards flying. That seemed to open the flood gates, and Betty began destroying furniture, losing control. An arrow whizzed, hitting Betty in the thigh, releasing the medicine into her system. She howled and whirled, but the new fast acting formula had her slumping down, changing back into her petite form, her too large gown flapping around her. Hulk caught her before she hit the ground and laid her on the seat next to Janet.
"Is she okay?" Janet asked, moving to the edge of Betty's seat to take her pulse.
"Sleeping. Take you both back now," the Hulk said; Janet stroked Betty's face.
"Hank was making progress. We should be able to balance her brain chemistry to help her gain a measure of control." Janet smiled at that, more worried for her friend than herself, and patted the Hulk on his hand. "You did well, Hulk."
"You take care of her although she cares not for you?"
The Hulk's head craned, pinpointing the new presence. The voice was still Richard Fisk, but his body had become luminous, opaque in the chest and fading to transparent outlines at his hands and feet. Facial features were gone, nothing but glowing golden light, yet his head cocked to the side as he asked the question.
"Betty Hulk's friend." He stepped in front of the women, using his massive body as a shield. "Don't hurt friends."
"Interesting," Glowy Guy said. "You are unexpected, different than the newer creations. We thought you would all be alike, but you are … more human than the others."
"Hulk is Hulk," he stated. People were so stupid sometimes, always naming things and making such a big deal out of the words they used. He was what he was.
"Yes," he said. "Yes you are. This changes our plans, of course, but for the better, I think."
"Plans?" Hulk asked, following the Little Guy's prompting to give Cupid more time.
"Why, to create openings to your world, of course. All those long years of waiting for the seeds to take root and now, finally, to see the fruition of the long vision." Glowy Guy settled down onto the deck and stepped closer.
Hulk snorted and kept himself firmly in front of the women. "Yada, yada, Glowy Guy use big words, not say anything."
"Ah, yes, I shall use simple terms for you. Humans are the doorway; all you needed was a little help to be open to us." He disappeared and the Hulk swung around, searching for him. Betty's eyes flicked open and she screamed as one of the glowing hands sank into her chest. Red bled out from the place they touched, not blood, but skin dyed with gamma radiation. His other hand caught Janet's wrist, and she cried out, wrenching away from his touch that left scorch marks on her skin.
"NO!" Hulk roared and jumped, arms ready to grab and crush at the same instant that arrows flew towards Glowy Guy, but nothing was there as he sailed over the chair. Betty lapsed back into unconsciousness, and Janet sat on the ground staring at the vibrating shafts embedded in the wooden frame.
Reappearing on the opposite side of the pool, he laughed. "This is a great honor," he said. "You should thank me."
The blur of red and blue swung over the pool and flipped in midair, landing near Betty; Spider Guy bounced over a chair and swung up on top of a towel cabinet. "Aw, if I'd had known we were having a party, I'd have brought my trunks. I see you brought the tiki torch."
"We have business to attend to, and you must await your own time. Go." A beam of golden light shot out of Fisk's hand; Peter danced away from it, pushing off the cabana and somersaulting over the pool.
"Whoa, don't let Iron Man see you use that. I think he's trademarked the repulsor blast." Hulk always did like Spider Guy's sense of humor. And his taste in pizza.
"I will admit you have potential as a vessel, but you are wasting it." This time the beam went wide, splitting into two paths before coming back together in the place Spider Guy just barely vacated in time.
"Watch the suit, dude. Just got it fixed. Not all of us are Mr. Money Bags," he complained. "And my potential? What are you, a guidance counselor?"
"I am what you could be." The laugh was low, deep from his throat. All the dancing around left Fisk with his side turned towards Cupid, a perfect target for an arrow, but he avoided that missile too, teleporting yet again. "This grows old. Enough. It is time."
The beam slammed into Janet, scattering lounges as it engulfed her. With a scream that was cut short, she thrashed on the cushions, breaths falling into short gasps. The chair with Betty flew towards the terrace's wall; the back wheels hit the concrete header and tipped over, the unconscious woman sliding off the end without a sound.
"I've got her!" Web shot out, attaching to a cell tower on the opposite building, and Spider Guy swung, dropping after her.
Glowy Guy was right; The Hulk had had enough. He roared and charged only to plunge into the pool when the guy disappeared again. Feet on the bottom, he pushed back up, bursting out of the water and landing on the deck just in time to see Cupid barrel across the space and shove Janet out of another beam's radius, trapping himself inside of it instead. Turning on his heel, the Hulk stepped between the beam and Cupid, trying to shield him with his body, but the beam widened, catching them both.
"Yes. Now we shall finish this," Fisk crowed.
The energy washed over them, sinking into the Hulk's flesh, soaking through his muscles and coating his bones. Down into his veins, flowing through them, into his head and whiting out his vision, the power rattling his darkest places. He was drowning in it, pulled away by the golden riptide, losing himself. At the base level of molecules, change was being forced upon him, and he struggled, fighting it, afraid of it.
*Don't be scared,* Little Guy said.
Massive arms curled around Cupid, Hulk could feel the other man shaking. His muscles didn't respond and his legs stayed planted, so he couldn't get them out of the beam, couldn't protect Cupid.
Hulk tried to shout his frustration, but he made no sound as his body twisted and contorted. He was shrinking and growing at the same time, caught in an endless loop of change, sometimes Bruce, sometimes Hulk, sometimes both, sometimes nothing at all. Bruce forced his eyes open; in the brightness, he could make out Clint's face, his eyes gone completely white.
"Clint!" he called, but his mouth didn't open, his vocal cords frozen. *Clint,* he thought. *Trust me. Remember what Xavier said. Let the change happen*
*Cupid,* Hulk thought. *We've got you*
They hugged Clint tighter, closer into his chest, bringing as much of their bodies into contact as they could. With a deep breath, then another, Bruce pictured himself standing on the edge of the cliff. He lifted his foot and stepped off the edge, gave up all control.
The Hulk remembered. The closet was square, not wide enough to lie down in without bending his knees, even at eight years old. The floor was crowded with old rain boots, his bright blue rubber ones with mud caked between the ridges on the sole, a black men's set, polished and set neatly together in their place, and a yellow pair his mom would wear when she took him to the park. The belt of his father's trench coat hung down almost to the top of his boots on one side, the hem of the coat low enough for them to hide behind. If they were covered by the coat, they couldn't see the band of light that came through the crack at the bottom, and if they couldn't see, maybe Daddy wouldn't walk over and block the comforting glow. Maybe he'd forgotten they were there, would go to bed like he did sometimes and Momma would come and let them out. Let him out. Bruce. Not me. I never get out. I'm always locked away.
Bruce hung on to Clint. He ran. He ran a lot; wiry and thin, Converse All-Stars slapping the concrete of the sidewalk as he barreled down Maple Street and cut through Dr. Randolph's yard towards Elm. His lungs were burning as he wheezed in and out, inhaler left behind with his backpack and books and his report for Mr. Adams' Chemistry class. That shit weighed him down, he'd learned; nothing was worth getting caught, so he threw the heavy canvas tote at them to gain a head start, get enough time to make the shortcut to Holliday's Barber Shop where nice Mr. Holliday would let him come in and stay until his mom came and got him. Just a few more steps, just a few, and he'd be at the alley with the dumpster, the one he'd taken the time to pile boxes up to climb for the fire escape, boxes he could knock over when he was up. He saw the phone booth, zigzagged and then cut right, aiming for the first box, clambering up on it, and then the hand closed around the rubber of his heel, Paul's laughter close. Kicking back, he was free for a second, but he knew others were there. *Jump* the voice in his head said. With one leap, he jumped, clearing the second box and barely landing on the third before the bottom rung was in their hands and they lashed out with their foot, tumbling the boxes back down onto the other boys. Together, the two of them climbed up the ladder, fast like the monkeys in the zoo, escaping.
… the string was like silk in his fingers, the fletching tickling his face … sight narrowed, time slowed, the ticks between breaths lengthened … and he saw where the target would be seconds before it descended … the crowd roared in approval … but trickshot frowned …
The Hulk's first act was to roar himself into being, pushing back the poison by pure volume of sound and strength of will. He tucked the little guy inside, panic fading into unconsciousness, and shoved out of the too tight, too tiny body that had contained him. Fire raged in the lab, and he crashed through the tables and smashed through the wall, running in increasingly longer strides until he was jumping, covering greater distances. He was out and he wasn't going back …
*Hulk … we have to help Clint.* Bruce felt Clint's pulse; it was wild and erratic. They were asleep, Clint in the middle; the other guy's big body sprawled with arms out, one hand on Clint's stomach. Bruce was curled up on the other side, his leg tucked between Clint's, hand on his warm chest. Clint shifted. Bruce's hand slipped, and then he was touching the green skin, his fingers along the Hulk's. Something shifted and aligned in a new way. He didn't move as he drifted back to sleep.
… Take the shot … Take the goddamn shot … I need proof, not gut instincts … How do you know, damn it? … No more of your creepy vibes and shit. This is it, Barton, last damn straw …
The silence hit him first, the incessant buzzing that signaled the triggered nannites absent. Carefully, Bruce opened his eyes and looked around, recognizing this place, their bedroom, the one Xavier had taken them to, the safe place in his head. Exactly as they had left it earlier, Bruce's clothes were still where he dropped them, a wet towel on the tile floor of the bathroom.
"Pull Cupid?" Hulk asked; he was smaller, almost human sized like before. Wound around his wrist was a shadowy cord that disappeared through the wall, walls that flexed and moved under the onslaught of Fisk's power as he tried to break through.
"Yes," Bruce nodded, and he caught Clint when he fell into the room with them.
"Oh, God. That fucking sucks." The fact that he let Bruce hold him so easily spoke volumes about how Clint was feeling. Eyes squeezed shut, he took a couple of shuddering gasps of air, then he was back, surveying the room. "You two okay?"
"Yeah," Bruce looked over at the Hulk; their eyes met, the same brown color filled with worry and anger. "I think we're protected here for a bit, but he's powerful and will eventually break through."
"Okay," Clint said. He took Hulk's hand, drawing him in closer. "Look, whatever Gabriel did, this connection we have? I don't think he knows about it. We use that against him and turn his own power to our own ends."
Bruce understood; he wound his arm around Clint's waist, tangling his fingers with Clint's free hand and resting their hands on Clint's chest. Stretching out his other hand, Bruce offered it, palm up. The Hulk hesitated; this was, after all, the closing of the circle. Green fingers brushed Bruce's then covered the whole hand. Warmth washed up his arm from the Hulk, sank into his chest from where Clint leaned against him, and, like a rubber band snapping back into shape, they synced, heartbeats meshing, breathing evening out. A calm settled over them, tension bleeding away.
"Okay. What's next?" Bruce asked.
"We let it happen," Clint replied.
"Then smash Glowy Guy," Hulk added.
They took a breath together and let the walls fall. Light broke through and pain returned, but they held on and it receded in the face of their determination. Something pulsed through them, running along the complicated Celtic knot of their bodies, taking the energy and morphing it through their own will. Circling and growing, the power broke down the boundaries between them, flashing over skin, transmitting through the ties that connected them. Bruce stared where the Hulk's hand met his own; green bled over his fingers, up his arm, anger rising only to pass through him and into Clint. Back came emotions, spilling into Bruce – deep worry, sheer cussedness, love, and a fierce pleasure – and the Hulk took them all, echoing the adrenaline rush.
When the melting started, Bruce didn't pull away, just let it happen; the Hulk shrank in size, Bruce grew, and then they had one hand, one arm, one body until he could feel both of Clint's hands in his, could see through two sets of eyes. The memories came, a flow of images, one after the other, like a curtain pulled aside. Running through the slums of Calcutta with Ross's men on his trail. The recognition in Betty's eyes that first time she truly looked at him. A small child tumbling into a lake, mother screaming for help. Catching Tony as he fell, sliding down a building. Playing Halo with Thor. Cradling Clint in the desert, rain falling outside the rock ledge that protected them.
"Hulk? Hawkeye?" The light stuttered, then broke completely, and they could see Tony hovering beside them. Steve caught his shield on the rebound; it had deflected Fisk's energy long enough to free them.
"We're here," Bruce answered; they may have let their hands drop and stepped away, but the connection was as strong as if they were still touching.
"You will be our greatest accomplishment." Fisk demanded their attention, reminding them the danger was still very real. "Look at all of you; the human race has far exceeded our wildest dreams for you."
"Question is," Clint drawled; he had drawn his bow, another arrow notched and ready to fly. "What did you do to piss off Mab and draw the short straw?"
"Wait, that's not Mab?" Carol asked, touching down on the Hulk's left.
"Then who the hell is he … she … it?" Steve threw in.
"Do you dare doubt my power? After all you've seen?" Fisk directed his malevolent question towards Clint.
"Okay, look, I'll explain it to you … let me know if I need to use small words for you to follow. First, you are not Mab because she's like the big badass Queen of the Winter Court. Popping in and out and tossing a few beams of energy around doesn't rise to the level of competent much less frostiest bitch of all time. Second, the whole Trojan Horse thing? Sorry dude but something tells me Mab isn't that stupid and she'd know that's been done to death. Ergo, you're more like a sacrificial lamb sent to test our responses. Poor Fisk; he probably expected to be the queen and got a page boy instead."
"I am the harbinger, the one who will prepare the way. I am one of the four Princes of Darkness, royalty of a thousand generations." That accusation had definitely hit home; he was getting pissed off.
"Yeah, okay maybe you're Justin Beiber, but you're no Elvis. She wants to know how formidable we are, so she sent you, Mr. Expendable, to find out. You defeat us, fulfill your mission, she gains knowledge about our world and makes it a little easier to invade, takeover, whatever the bee in her bonnet is. You lose, she still gains knowledge and she loses a low-level asset that's a thorn in her side. That's what we call a win-win situation." Clint's tone was conversational, light even, but he was slowly moving to the right as Steve flanked Fisk on the left.
"I am M'ordin, the keeper of night, and I am no one's fool," he spat out. "Your petty enhancements are no match for me!"
Pulse beams flew from his hands; Steve rolled out of the way of one as Carol deflected another with her own bolt. The rooftop became a warzone as Fisk … M'ordin … blasted away at them all while nothing they threw affected him. Tony's repulsors, Carol's bolts, even Cap's shield (were all ineffective) all met no resistance as he rapidly blinked in and out, appearing in a new, unexpected location. Windows shattered from stray shots, and people screamed, fleeing from the wreckage.
In the middle of it all, the Hulk stopped to toss Clint on to the restaurant roof, then went back to trying to catch the glowing figure, the time between his lunges and M'ordin's disappearance getting less and less with each attempt. Brown eyes watched the movement, tracked it, calculated possibilities, and noticed the slower reaction times when more people attacked, passing it along through the connection to Cupid. Then M'ordin got the drop on Steve, a beam catching him in the side and sending him crashing into the cabana bar; in seconds, Steve was right back up fighting. Carol fired off a couple of close shots; he reappeared hovering above the pool, slamming two pulses into Tony who swooped right into his path. Red armor jerked, electricity arcing between joints, and fell into the water, sinking fast.
"JARVIS!" Steve shouted. With explosive force, the suit shot out of the pool and landed, settling down on its back. Tony's faceplate opened; Hank was the closest where he was stationed between Janet and Betty, keeping an eye on their conditions. Feeling for a pulse, Hank bent low to talk to Tony.
"See? You cannot stand against me." M'ordin touched down in front of the restaurant. "Admit it and we can stop this senseless fighting."
"Hulk like fighting. Having fun." All teeth, the Hulk's grin was pretty damn scary. "Blondie more fun than this, though."
"And here I thought you more than a mindless brute," M'ordin said, teleporting as Steve's shield whizzed towards him. With an audible twang, the arrow cut across the roof; M'ordin reappeared right in front of it, just in time for the head to slice into the fleshy part of his side. He staggered back two steps, banged into a bar stool, and flickered, light draining. For a couple of seconds, he was human again, blood oozing from the wound.
"Nobody calls the Hulk names," Clint said as he jumped down. "Last chance. Get the hell out of our world and tell the bitch Mab she's not welcome."
Light flared, and the arrow disintegrated. "For that, I will kill you, orders or not." The beam was too bright to look at and aimed right at Clint; the red, white, and blue of Steve's shield bounced the energy away. Clint spun and shot to the left as Carol sent pulses where M'ordin had been. Two more arrows pierced his chest as he blinked back into existence; this time, he screamed and the glow died down to embers. Richard Fisk crumpled to the ground, groaning in pain. His hands closed around the hilt of an arrow and tried to pull it out, but he couldn't. "Doesn't … matter …" he was panting, gritting his teeth in agony. "I am here and you cannot separate me from this body."
"Actually," Tony drawled. "I think I know someone who can help with that."
A swarm of insects came from the roofline of the restaurant; they buzzed around Janet briefly before descending upon Fisk's body, landing on his chest, neck and shoulders. He swatted at them, motion hampered by the pain of the arrows.
"This passage is open and cannot be …" he coughed "… closed again. Human physiology does not …" a series of three coughs, "… allow for the reversal …" his arms began twitching, the moves wrenching sobs of pure pain "… of evolution."
"See, the problem with the nannites was how to reprogram them without damaging the body and the brain of the person once the process had started since we couldn't remove them," Tony said. He was sitting up now, face flushed, but breathing normally. "The program is simple but the side effects were unacceptable. That's what we learned from the Chaoue."
"The program." Fisk's voice dropped to a whisper; tremors wracked his body. "Once begun… cannot be changed."
"But it can be stopped," Hank said after he grew back to full size; he knelt next to M'ordin and the bugs fled back to their hives. "Just a few infected nannites with alternate programming can throw the whole system into chaos."
"Time to shut the door, fairy boy," Tony said.
"No." Fisk groaned, convulsed once, twice then fell silent, his eyes rolling back into his head.
"He's not …" Janet started to ask, eyes wide.
"Just unconscious. We have about twenty minutes or so before the primary code reasserts itself," Hank assured her. "Tony's just grandstanding."
"I prefer dramatic license, thank you very much." Tony tried to rise on his own, but Steve was there, arm under his shoulders, guiding him. "JARVIS, tell Fury to get a room ready for our guest. He's got cells that can block teleportation. Seems our prince here is about to get a taste of SHIELD hospitality."
"Tony, you need to take it easy," Steve said. "You could have died."
"Indeed, I could have." Tony waggled his eyebrows. "In fact, I'm feeling the need for a nice long evening on the couch with a marathon of … hmmm … Lord of the Rings? Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other alien invasion movies?"
"Wait, wait," Janet sank down onto one of the surviving chairs, cheeks pale. "Let's see, Carol shoots bolts out of her fingers? How did Clint know where Fisk was going to be to hit him? Was Hank riding a bee?"
"Actually, they were yellow jackets. They had a nest up under the eaves," Hank sheepishly admitted.
"Oh, okay, yellow jackets. And you were tiny." Janet shook her head. "And I'm, what, a mutant now too? Going to sprout wings and fly?"
"Technically, we don't know for sure. We'll have to run tests, check it out." Hank sat down next to her and awkwardly laid a hand on her shoulder. "It's not that bad, honestly, I mean if you do become … I mean, look at Bruce. He's got this figured out, right?"
"Speaking of Bruce," Tony asked, tossing attention his way. "What's up with you and Big Green?"
"Me?" Hulk asked, confused, then he caught sight of himself in the remaining window. A Bruce Banner sized Hulk stared back at him with humor and intelligence in his eyes. As he watched, he shifted completely back to Bruce, then into the Hulk again, before stopping somewhere in the middle. "Well, damn."