His mouth tastes like wet dog.
Bruce coughs, and thinks there might be hairs of some kind stuck between his teeth. He’s not dead, though, and he’s not the Hulk anymore either. He’s had worse awakenings.
“I assume we won, then,” he says. God, his throat is raw, his voice a gravel scrape.
“We’re alive, we lost the planet,” is the reply he gets. When he turns his head, he finds Valkyrie sitting beside him. She looks tired and a little battered, but not bad. Residual aches and the bitter taste of his own tongue aside, Bruce actually doesn’t feel that bad either.
He doesn’t get a lot of memories from his time as the Hulk: occasional flashes of bright colours and things breaking, but not much more. His last two years are a blank, but he thinks he’d probably prefer them that way. He and the Big Guy share a body, but they are not the same person, and they have distinctly different emotions about things. He doubts he’ll like anything that he discovers. For now, all he’s got since smacking into the rainbow bridge is the impression of water, water and teeth.
“How do we feel about that?” he asks, dragging his thoughts back to the case in point.
Valkyrie shrugs a shoulder. “It’s gonna be fun when the shock wears off. Ship full of Asgardians, no booze to speak of.”
Over the last few years, Bruce has gotten good at filling in his blanks, at putting things together when he wakes up from another blackout of green and collateral damage and something good about the smack of flesh under his knuckles. No. Concentrate.
“So we’re on a big rescue ship?” he checks.
“Something like that,” Valkyrie nods. She’s looking at him with something in her expression that Bruce can’t read, or maybe doesn’t want to read. There’s a conversation there that he doesn’t want to have, not again.
“Have I got pants?” he asks.
Valkyrie laughs, and her laugh is different somehow to the bitter one she bit off when he first met her. Well. You know.
“You don’t need them,” she offers, “the view’s not that bad.”
Bruce wonders if that’s a compliment or an insult or if she’s flirting, and what to do with any of that, and if they have toothbrushes on this ship or if it’s going to be some other weird space shit, and settles for just closing his eyes.
“I would like pants,” he says, because the last few days – well, the last few years – have been insane and a lot, and everything is always better when you face it clothed.
“Spoilsport,” Valkyrie responds, but there’s a fondness to it.
It turns out there’s better wifi in space than there ever is on Earth, and it doesn’t take Bruce long to establish that the Earth superhero scene has gone to absolute shit.
“Maybe this is what happens when you aren’t there to talk Tony down,” Thor suggests, watching another hazy youtube video over Bruce’s shoulder where a bunch of Avengers – including a few that Bruce doesn’t even recognise – punch the crap out of each other and an airport.
“I’m the fucking Hulk!” Bruce protests. “Why is it my job to talk anyone down?”
He’s not looking at Nat, tiny and fierce, security footage showing her and Clint trying their best to kill each other. It makes something fist-sized clench around his heart, and he struggles to breathe.
“I’m just saying,” Thor shrugs, “Tony and Steve didn’t beat each other up when you were around, being science.”
Some part of Thor is different – and not just because of the eyepatch – now he’s king, quietly regal, quietly strong, like he’s now wearing an invisible mantle that was always hidden in the wings somewhere. Some part of Thor is completely the same, of course.
“And what were you doing while this was going on?” Bruce asks. “I don’t see you down there, pummelling our friends.”
“I wasn’t on Earth,” Thor protests.
“Maybe this is your fault, then,” Bruce replies.
No one knows where Nat is, where Steve is, where Wanda and Clint are. They were in jail – seriously, what the fuck, Tony, Bruce needs to have a long conversation with him if they ever make it back home – and then they weren’t, and now they’re missing. Bruce is pretty sure they must be fine, because they’re all survivors, but his chest clenches hard and he doesn’t want to think too hard about it, about who is right and who is wrong.
“I have brawled many times with my friends,” Thor shrugs, though there’s a tightness in his mouth as he says it – Asgardians are hardy and there’s a lot of fancy medical equipment on board, but Bruce knows many of Thor’s friends are in critical condition, and the worry makes him look tired.
“Have you ever thrown a plane at them?” Bruce asks, closing the window quickly when the next suggested video involves Tony beating the Hulk into submission, and he can’t look at that.
“Well,” Thor replies thoughtfully, “there was one time with Loki.”
“Most of your anecdotes start with that sentence,” Bruce remarks.
Thor shrugs. “Next time, you can grow up with the god of mischief as your little brother and see how you fare.”
Asgardian pants are much roomier than Tony’s cast-offs; clearly these guys are kinder to their balls than Tony’s ever been. Bruce is glad that Tony and Pepper have finally gotten engaged, but he hopes they’re not planning on children – years of those pants must’ve rendered Tony infertile by now.
“I have questions,” Valkyrie says.
She’s still in her glittering valkyrie armour, hair sparkling and loose, and there’s something different about her. Maybe that’s what purpose does to her.
“I don’t want to answer them,” Bruce replies.
She ignores him, flopping down onto the couch beside him with perfect grace. For a moment he’s reminded sharply of Nat, and it makes him bite the inside of his mouth until the blur of colour and noise in his head recedes again.
“We could drink our way through it,” Valkyrie offers.
“I can’t drink,” Bruce replies.
She tips her head. “I definitely drank with you loads of times. Drank you under the table a couple of times.” She grins, all razor teeth. “For the Incredible Hulk, you were a lightweight.”
Bruce makes himself smile. “The Big Guy can drink,” he replies. “I can’t. Not if I want to… stay me.” He holds up a hand. “And before you say anything, I like being me, and he gets pretty restless in enclosed spaces, we need this ship in one piece.”
Valkyrie is watching him with a thoughtful expression. “I knew your Big Guy a couple of years,” she says, “and I never met you.”
“We’re not exactly great roommates,” Bruce tells her. “Sometimes we can work together, but the rest of the time we just beat each other into oblivion. I was him for two years because he didn’t want me to come back.”
They’re silent for a long moment; then Valkyrie says: “there’s a woman on Earth, isn’t there?”
Bruce doesn’t want to talk about her. And he does, he wants to know how she is, what she’s thinking about, if she misses him, if she’s done the smart thing and let him go. He’s going to do the right thing and try to let her go too, but it’s been two years for her, and… a few days for him. It’ll take time: these things always do.
“There is,” he allows.
“There always is,” Valkyrie says, nodding. There’s sadness on her features, a different kind to the one all the Asgardians have worn in various shades since their planet exploded.
“What happened to yours?” he asks, careful.
Valkyrie doesn’t look at him, her expression tight, lips pressed together while her mouth works. Bruce waits. “She died,” she says at last. “A long time ago. A long time ago. She died and I lived and for a long time I thought, you know, she saved me for nothing.”
Bruce wonders if she’s saying more than she means to, more than she’s said to anyone for that long time.
She looks back to him, forces a smile. “I liked the green guy,” she says, like an explanation, an excuse. “We were friends.”
“I’m not him,” Bruce reminds her.
“I know.” Valkyrie shrugs. “You’re alright.”
“Thanks,” Bruce says dryly, and she grins easier this time.
An alarm goes off somewhere; Valkyrie rolls her eyes, presses back onto her feet. There’s a lot of them on this ship, and a lot of emotions rolling around, bouncing off the walls. It’s a wonder there aren’t riots.
“Maybe he didn’t let you back because you didn’t want to come back,” she offers, and then she’s gone, running towards the noise on light feet, leaving Bruce and his ever heavier heart.
Yeah, two years of not existing haven’t made him any better at metaphor.
Loki is pleasingly apprehensive around him, despite the fact that days go by and Bruce remains Bruce: sharp of mind, kind of squashy around the middle, and very unlikely to be able to put Loki through a wall without help and maybe some kind of trebuchet.
“I think the fact you fucked Loki up that much is my favourite thing about you,” Valkyrie says. Bruce is drinking the shitty approximation of coffee that they have on this ship, and he nearly chokes on it when she appears out of nowhere, all swish and glitter. His brain reprocesses her sentence and it gets slightly better.
“We’re members of a not particularly exclusive club,” Bruce offers, and bumps her fist when she offers it.
“Compared to Hela he’s okay, I suppose,” Valkyrie muses, taking Bruce’s coffee and chugging half of it. “More like an annoying household pet: when it gets out of line you whack it on the nose.”
Bruce has heard from Thor that Valkyrie and Loki are engaged in a very complicated longterm drinking competition/game with rules that only they understand, and no one’s exactly sure where they’re getting all the alcohol from, but the victor will presumably be the second one to succumb to liver disease.
He’s mostly gotten a handle on Asgardians by now, crammed on this ship with so many of them, but he’s still a little bemused by them.
“Please tell me you told him that,” he says, taking his coffee back.
“Of course I did,” Valkyrie replies, “why d’you think he’s looking so sulky today?”
“I thought that was just his face,” Bruce says, and for a moment he feels like a part of something for the first time in a long time when she throws her head back and laughs.
“I know,” Bruce sighs, and maybe it’s late or it’s early, there’s no times here, no daylight, just endless pinwheeling stars. “Everyone prefers the Big Guy.”
“He’s not much of a conversationalist,” Valkyrie offers. Earlier, she warned that the only form of self-pity she’s got time for her is her own; it’s a good rule to have, Bruce might implement it with Tony when he gets home. If. That thing.
“Last time I was me,” Bruce says, “I accidentally helped build a robot that decided to eliminate humanity and take over the world.”
“We’ve all done things we’re not proud of,” Valkyrie shrugs.
Bruce knows bits and pieces of what the Hulk was up to the last couple of years, the fights, the brutality, the killing that he didn’t even think about. Sometime that’s going to hit home and he doesn’t know what he’ll do, but he’s keeping it at bay as best he can. He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes for a moment, and when he looks up again Valkyrie’s poured him a glass of something.
“I’m still reckless as fuck,” Valkyrie replies on a shrug. “And so are you.”
“I try not to be,” Bruce offers.
“And there’s the tragedy,” Valkyrie agrees, handing him a glass and clinking hers against it. “C’mon, Bruce Banner, you can’t spar with me anymore, if I can’t enjoy flattening a big green guy then you’ve got to give me something else.”
Tony didn’t push like this, but then Bruce was one of the few things standing between Tony and incipient alcoholism, and Valkyrie’s survived hundreds of years of hard drinking, Bruce doesn’t need to save anyone. Not today.
“If I change-”
“I’ll tell you the sun’s getting low and pat you awkwardly a lot?” Valkyrie suggests, amusement twinkling in her expression.
“Don’t,” Bruce says swiftly, knocks back the glass quicker than he meant to, the alcohol burning sharp and good. It’s not like anything he’s drunk before, but it’s not… it’s not bad. He shakes his head a little to clear it. “Is that how Thor brought me back, after Asgard?” he asks. He’s been wondering.
Valkyrie’s expression is hard to read, but she tops up his glass. “No,” she says. “He asked, and here you are.”
Bruce blinks. It’s been a while since he drank, and this stuff wasn’t designed for humans anyway: his head feels light, a swoop of an elevator, a rollercoaster. “Thor asked and I changed back?”
She shrugs. “This won’t mean much coming from me, but not everything has to be done the hard way.”
He doesn’t know how to feel about that; maybe he’ll ask Thor about it later, find out Loki hit him with something magical after all. It might be simpler if that turns out to be true.
“Anyway,” Valkyrie adds, shaking back her hair and holding out her glass, “to missing girls and ending fights and the monsters we let share our skin.”
There doesn’t seem to be anything else to add; Bruce drinks.