And it’s all Thor’s fault, really.
It begins, as many things do in his life, with lightning.
The days drag on without much progress. They have chosen to stay in Wakanda for the time being, using Wakanda’s technology to track down Thanos. All of them have suites in the west wing of the palace. They rarely leave them. The only one who ever haunts the halls of the palace, these days, is Tony.
Tony Stark came crashing back to Earth a couple of months ago with two aliens in tow: Kraglin Obfonteri and Nebula. His side was torn open, the wound hastily cauterized; his blood ran with disinfectants and anesthetics. There was an alien poison in his blood that still saps strength from his limbs. He can barely stand, so he zips around Birnin Zana in a Wakandan wheelchair. It goes faster than any wheelchair has a right to go, and it flies on miniature repulsors.
Everyone blames Shuri for including them. Shuri blames Tony for adding them. Tony says nothing, merely vrooms away to terrorize M’Baku, who doesn’t seem to mind the distraction at all.
Nobody mentions how he still hasn’t cleaned the dirt from under his fingernails.
They are torn edges. Broken porcelain, jammed together incorrectly, gruesome gaps and jagged points grinding. Rocket shoots illegible names into the walls and drinks coffee. It’s the strongest thing anyone will let him have; the palace would be leveled in seconds if they let him get drunk, let his grief and rage loose from the floodgates. Steve performs some kind of awkward emotional dance around Tony: careful not to step on toes, eager to duck away, leaping in and out and around.
Young Queen Shuri sometimes sits on the floor in front of her brother’s throne, head on hands, elbows on knees. She waits. Okoye waits. Thor slides through the throne room on his way to the courtyard and nods politely. Okoye gives him a coolly acknowledging stare. Shuri does nothing.
He leaves the palace. There are still Outrider corpses on the old battlefield; even from the courtyard, he can see them, black cinders on yellow cloth.
Thor clenches his fists, and lightning forks from the sky to burn them all to ash.
It’s not until later - four minutes later, to be precise - that Thor learns he partially summoned Stormbreaker to him while he was incinerating the rotting Outriders. “Partially?” he echoes. “What do you mean, partially -”
“Meaning,” Rocket drawls, crossing his arms, “Stormbreaker crashed through a couple ‘a walls trying to get to you, but never got out.”
“Yeah, it’s buried in the countertop next to my dishwasher,” Clint says. “Swing by and pick it up. I dunno if the ‘worthy’ clause applies here or not, so I don’t wanna try to lift it -”
Thor feels his jaw clench. He forces out a smile and says, “No, not anymore. That was my father’s spell. Knowledge of their like died with him.”
“Oh. Sorry, dude,” is all Clint says. Thor resists the urge to sigh, long and loud. Clint clears his throat and adds, “You got a place to room?”
Thor blinks. “What?”
“Stormbreaker zapped your room to kingdom come,” Tony says. The wheels on his wheelchair are equipped; there’s a new house rule for him, where he has to keep the repulsor tech off in the palace so he doesn’t singe the floors. “Everything’s on fire. Everything’s supposed to be fireproof, too, which makes that a great achievement, I guess. No bed, no bathroom. Kitchen’s shot to hell, coffee machine’s broken.”
“Oh, the horror,” Rocket says flatly.
“I think there’s an empty room at the end of the hall,” Steve chimes in, and he’s so awkwardly far away from them - specifically Tony - that he’s practically shouting. “You can -” But something about moving into another sterile room - uninhabited, un-lived-in, alien yet again - makes Thor want to tear his hair out, and he blurts out the first thing that comes to mind.
“I’ll just move in across the hall.”
Tony blinks slowly. “Ooo-kay,” he says. Thor lifts his chin defiantly. “You sure?”
“I’m down,” Bruce suddenly interjects, from behind Thor.
Thor turns to see Bruce standing by his door, holding Stormbreaker with one hand and a steaming mug of tea in the other. Over the past weeks in Wakanda, his friend has… changed. His hair has grown out to a cacophonous thunderhead of dark grey - like his hair in the days before Ultron. Now it’s streaked with white like lightning bolts through clouds. A few curls drop over his eyes. He’s a monument to injuries, his forearms still bruised and cheek scraped from tripping on the way up the stairs last week.
Last week. Normally, his wounds would have healed by now. But the Hulk has been silent - literally, silent - ever since Thanos’s snap, and since then…
“Thor, can you get the door for me?”
Thor realizes that he’s been staring and falters. “Sure, sorry,” he says, nearly stumbling on his way to open the door. Bruce smiles at him, and Thor smiles back, and for a moment Thor believes that everything will be fine.
But there’s a new scrape on Bruce’s elbow. His smile fades.
Bruce is surprisingly fine with Thor moving in. He even offers to share the bed, after Thor tries and fails to fold himself into the armchair on the first night. Thor spends that first night in a half-awake delirium of anxious terror. They face away from each other; his back feels exposed and cold in the space between them. Bruce’s breathing is soft and low, a distant breath of wind.
He’s an… interesting roommate.
Bruce hasn’t been quite the same since Thanos’s snap, Thor realizes, as he huddles too close to the edge of Bruce’s bed. At first he put it down to the hazy grief of the Dusting: seeing the world crumbling to ash, people dissolving, trees and animals vanishing, and that odd certainty of knowing that it was happening everywhere in existence as well. A haunting solidarity.
But as the weeks wound on, it was clear that it was something else.
In the beginning, Bruce was as calm and placid as always - perhaps a bit too calm: the calm of apathy, of emptiness. But then his moods began to stutter like an old car, swinging wildly between glee and rage, between warmth and cold. It’s as if a wall has been removed in his mind. Bruce once acted caged, restricted by the Hulk’s presence in his mind; now that the Hulk has “gone on vacation,” as he once put it, he no longer fears emotion. He no longer fears spontaneity.
But the Hulk never appears. No matter what happens - a computer simulation fails, Bruce stubs his toe, he picks a fight with Clint (which is beyond bizarre, nothing like the Bruce he once knew) - the Hulk never, never comes out.
Silence falls, briefly; the mattress shifts, and he feels Bruce shift closer to him. His breathing resumes. Thor clutches his blankets closer to him and burrows into the pillows, staring blankly at the sliver of moonlight between the curtains.
It’s too quiet.
The mornings are strange.
Sometimes Bruce is there next to him when he wakes, his grey-streaked curls spread like a halo on the pillow. Sometimes he’s not; he’s off in Shuri’s lab running simulations and collecting data. On those mornings when he’s gone early, Thor remains in bed; he rolls into the center, buries his head in the pillows, and simply breathes. He only rolls into the middle when Bruce is gone. Never at night. Thanks to some nameless fear, he spends the nights stiff as a board along one edge of the mattress, one bad dream away from falling out of bed. It’s happened, too. Bruce gets most of the mattress, and they never say anything about it.
Bruce’s pillow smells like green tea and smoke - and beneath, a thread of something like clouds, too. Thor knows the smell of clouds like the back of his own hand. Rain-soaked leaves. Damp earth. There’s a word for that, a word Bruce would probably know; something that rolls off the tongue like memory itself, smooth and cold.
Thor doesn’t know what his side smells like. Depression, probably. Sweat and sadness.
On other mornings, Bruce is still in the room, but not in bed. Sometimes he’s in the kitchen, humming too cheerfully as he makes tea and drums his fingers on the countertop. Or brushing his teeth, or taking a shower. Thor always stays in bed until Bruce leaves the bathroom. There’s something terrifyingly intimate about sharing a bathroom with someone - weaving around each other to grab the comb, the razor, toweling your hair dry while the other person brushes their teeth. Always orbiting, never meeting.
So he stays out of the bathroom until Bruce is done.
Bruce takes long showers at night. Long enough that Thor sometimes falls asleep waiting for him to come out.
He doesn’t know why he’s waiting.
His smiles are too wide, his movements too wild. At times Bruce seems like a caricature of a younger Tony Stark: flashy grins and a swagger more suited to a red carpet than a laboratory, quick turns on one heel and finger guns across the room. It’s as if there’s a silence he’s trying to fill. His false cheer is infectious as the flu. It burrows into Thor’s heart, and the bitter aftertaste of something wrong, something wrong makes him cringe.
So in the kitchen one day, orbiting each other in their quest to make dinner, Thor asks him, “Are you okay?”
Bruce pauses over the stove. He’s cooking some kind of dish from Southeast Asia, packed with spice and flavor that zings like lightning across Thor’s tongue. It’s something they can both agree on. When he looks at Thor, the greying curls tumbling softly into his eyes, he smiles. And it’s a different smile then - not a bursting camera flash but something soft and sweet. Thor feels warmth bloom in his chest.
“Yeah,” Bruce says. “Yeah. I’ll be okay.”
It’s not a promise, but it feels like one. Thor pats him on the shoulder - sparks fly from the contact, and Bruce laughs, startled. He grins sheepishly and grabs a jar of turmeric from the fridge; he passes it to Bruce, silently hoping their fingers meet again, just so he can see the sparks again. So he can hear that laugh, honest and real.
Bruce’s smile widens briefly, when he grabs the jar. “Thanks, Thor,” he says, and turns back to the stove. He lifts the lid from the saucepot, and a great puff of steam escapes, blowing his white-streaked hair back. He’s humming softly - humming, unbelievably so. He spoons turmeric into the pot, stirs, and swipes a finger through the sauce to taste it. Thor knows deep in his chest that he’s seeing the true Bruce here. The Bruce without the mask; the Bruce that he’d become friends with, what feels like years ago.
He’s still watching, as Bruce sucks the sauce off his finger and makes a small, thoughtful noise.
Thor blinks. Slowly, he turns to stare into the fridge, his gaze landing on a bag of celery. The celery does not respond, but he imagines that its leaves look a bit sympathetic. He sighs heavily.
“Nothing,” Thor says to the celery. He hides behind the door and covers his face with his hands. What the hell, he mouths. What the hell.
“Hey, while you’re there, can you get me some garlic?”
So when it begins, it’s Thor’s fault.
It begins, as many things do in his life, with lightning - but the moment, his memories of the moment, forever linger in the breath afterwards. In the silence. Charged, and tense, and eternal before the thunder.
It begins with the steam, and the dark.
It is almost night - a bluish-grey twilight paints the room, and a thunderstorm rages overhead. Thor wakes from a midmorning nap that had quickly turned into actual slumber, and his teeth feel like they are wearing sweaters. He is shirtless and spread-eagled on the mattress; his face is pressed into Bruce’s pillow. Smoke and rain, smoke and rain.
Bruce is not there.
Overhead, rain drums on the roof, so loud that Thor can barely hear his own breath. He swallows, grimacing at the staleness of his mouth, and unfolds himself from the bed. It’s dark enough that he can barely see the his own hand. It’s odd, for Bruce to be gone at this time of night. Usually he’s back by now. Perhaps he’s still in Shuri’s lab, running the numbers on their Thanos-tracking simulation.
He peers into the bathroom.
The door is open, but steam fogs the mirror, and there’s a damp towel on the floor. Thor automatically picks it up and pitches it into the laundry chute. Bruce must have taken a shower and left for the labs. He briefly regrets not being able to see Bruce before he left, and the same embarrassed heat he’d felt in the kitchen flares in his cheeks.
This is a disaster.
Something tells him to leave the lights off - to let the night linger, to feel rather than hear or see the rain pounding the roof. Steam still billows; Bruce’s shower must have been recent. Thor starts to brush his teeth, and hopes that he’ll be able to get back to bed. His nap had lasted most of the day, and he feels too - alert. Too charged. He might be up all night, but he doesn’t want that - unless Bruce is awake too, in which case he’ll go to the lab to help him work. Thor suspects that he’s not much help in there, though the Wakandan tech is much like Asgard’s own. He just… He’d rather just be there, sitting on a desk and watching the others work. Watching Bruce work.
Thor has gotten used to falling asleep at the edge of the bed, with Bruce just behind him. Not quite next to, but still there.
He spits in the sink and rinses. Then lightning flashes through the skylight, and -
The shower turns off. The shower.
Thor hears the sudden gap in the hiss of water and drops his toothbrush, dread surging through him. He’d thought Bruce had left. He didn’t - he hadn’t -
The door slides open.
In the nightlike gloom of the bathroom, Bruce’s body is nearly invisible - just a blue-black-glimmer through the water droplets on his shoulders, a shine in his hair. He doesn’t see Thor. He reaches for a spot on the floor and, finding it empty, gropes for a fresh towel. He is turned away from Thor, and the muscles of his back flex, as he drapes the towel over his head and furiously dries his hair.
Thor’s eyes drift down - then, embarrassed, snap back up. Steam curls around his ankles.
Bruce puts on the fresh clothes he’d laid out, and runs a hand over the back of his neck. He twists, winces slightly. There are fresh scrapes on his knuckles.
Unthinkingly, automatically, stupidly, Thor says, “You okay?”
Bruce flinches so hard he crashes into the shower door. The sound echoes impossibly loud, a clap of thunder in the small space. “Sorry!” Thor says, holding both hands out. “I - I didn’t mean to startle you, I was just…”
Bruce’s mouth falls open slightly, his chest heaving. His hair drips forward into his eyes. Thor swallows and, as lightning flickers through the skylight, can’t bring himself to look away.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers. The words are nearly swallowed by the sound of rain.
Bruce’s hands, splayed on the shower door, curl into fists, and he breathes something that Thor can’t hear. Thor moves closer, and Bruce repeats it a bit louder. “He was afraid.” His voice cracks slightly.
“Who?” Thor says.
“The Hulk,” Bruce says, and Thor draws closer, and now - now he knows something is deeply, deeply wrong. Bruce’s face is wan and hollow; galaxies swim in the dark circles under his eyes, that’s how dark they are, dark as space, and -
His eyes. Bruce is terrified.
Thor closes the toilet lid and sits on it, looking up at Bruce. The man is a ghost made of cloudy moonlight, shivering against the wall. “Please,” he says, and cannot say anything more. Please talk to me. Please let me help. Please, come closer, closer.
Bruce does. “He used to hate thunderstorms,” he says shakily, leaning against the shower door so heavily that it creaks. “Thought they were guns, or cannons. He tried to punch the sky, once.”
Bruce swallows; Thor’s eyes drift down to watch his throat. “Even when he was… when it was just me,” he says, “I used to hear him scream at thunderstorms. Just - constant, in the back of my mind.”
Lightning, thunder, thunder - a great drumroll, a crash of cymbals so loud that Thor’s teeth rattle, and he feels the storm stirring in his blood.
“He’s gone,” Bruce whispers, and suddenly he is shaking. His eyes pierce through Thor, and Thor shivers at the terror he sees within them. “Thor, he’s not there."
“What,” Thor breathes.
Bruce shakes his head. “He’s gone," he repeats, his voice cracking. “He hasn’t been here for months, not since -”
“Not since Thanos,” Thor says. His chest hurts. “Oh, Bruce -”
He surges to his feet, ready to catch Bruce if he falls over, and he does, huddling right against Thor’s bare chest. Bare chest. He had been shirtless this whole time. His mortification vanishes as Bruce’s damp hair touches him; it’s like ice on his skin, and Thor slowly reaches up, for Bruce’s head. Even wet, the curls are soft beneath his fingers.
The pieces fall into place, then. Bruce’s early quietness; his coldness and swinging moods, testing the limits of his soul without the Hulk caging him. Then the wildness. The fistfight with Clint in the dining hall. Everyone had wondered why the Hulk had never appeared that day, even when Clint punched him square in the mouth. Bruce’s lip is still scabbed over. The Hulk’s healing factor had left him, and every scrape, every mark stayed on his skin as if tattooed there.
Thor sees a bruise on the back of Bruce’s neck and ever so lightly runs his fingers across it. His nose dips into Bruce’s curls, and now - now he smells the rain. The thread of sky that lingers in his nostrils, when he buries his face in Bruce’s pillow.
So the Hulk had a soul. There were two souls in Bruce’s body all along. And when Thanos snapped, the Hulk vanished.
Bruce had been trying to fill the silence this whole time.
Arms loop around his waist. Bruce’s hands skim over Thor’s lower back, and press there, cold against the heat of his skin. His fingers twitch slightly over his waistband. This isn’t a hug. It isn’t just a hug. Thor’s heart pounds, pounds in his chest, and his own hand drifts over Bruce’s shoulder blades.
“You’re going to be okay,” he says.
“It’s so quiet,” Bruce whispers into his chest. Into his heart.
“Do you need anything?”
“I… I need…”
Bruce shudders and inhales, and looks up at Thor. “I need sound,” he whispers. He swallows, an embarrassed flush creeping up his neck. God, Thor can feel him blushing, with his hand on the bare skin of Bruce's neck. “In there,” he says, tilting his head towards the shower. “The water, and the storm outside - all that noise made me feel like the Hulk was back. I went back in for another round, when it... wasn’t enough...”
Thor took a deep breath. “Okay,” he said. His hand crept up, threaded through Bruce’s lightning-streaked hair, and the other man shivered. “Sound. I can do that.”
Bruce is shivering. “Thank you,” he whispers. “God, thank you,” and he leans his forehead against Thor’s chest again. Thor looks down at the top of Bruce’s head, at the small patch of bare skin where his curls bloom outward, and feels a strange urge to kiss it.
He doesn’t. Not quite.
His free hand leaves Bruce’s waist and reaches towards the skylight - and his fist clenches.
Lightning explodes across the sky, thunder tripping on its heels.
Bruce’s lips smile against his chest.
Thor drifts out of the bathroom as if in a dream; the thunder knocks the floor out from under him - the lightning flashing through the windows makes the walls seem invisible. Bruce’s hand is locked around his wrist, grounding him through it all. Lightning arcs between them where their skin touches.
His heartbeats slam in time with the thunder.
The time between leaving the bathroom and collapsing into bed is fuzzy, for him. The growling thunder overhead vibrates so deep within him that it shakes loose reality - it erases time, it consumes space. All he knows is that he is facing towards Bruce, now, closer to the center of the bed. Closer to him.
“Is this okay?” says Bruce, in the breath between lightning and thunder.
Thor can only nod and draw closer. Bruce’s eyes are fixed on his, unblinking, intent. He nearly freezes, and unbidden his hand snakes from under the blankets to cup Bruce’s cheek. His fingers slide up into Bruce’s hair, and Bruce closes his eyes, leaning into the touch.
“It’s okay,” Thor says quietly. Bruce’s own hand finds Thor’s hip beneath the blanket and tugs him closer. To Bruce’s side of the bed.
Their breath mingles.
“Did you know,” Thor whispers, when there’s a hush in the storm outside, “that your hair looks like lightning in the clouds?”
Lightning flashes to punctuate his words, and Bruce smiles. “You would know,” he mumbles. His fingers dig into Thor’s side - preparing himself, anchoring himself - and somehow that touch makes it easier for Thor to surge forward and kiss him.
The whole time, he is afraid of going too far. His hands held apart the energy gate to the neutron star in Eitri’s forge - and now, Bruce’s skull lies in those same hands, bone thin as porcelain. His nails can scratch; his arms can squeeze hard enough to break bone; his weight alone is enough to crush Bruce beneath him. After all, the Hulk is gone, and all his benefits with him.
Well, so he thinks.
Bruce dispels any fears that he might break in Thor’s grip when he suddenly seizes Thor’s wrist and flips them both over. Thor startles when he feels the faint stirrings of arousal, and nearly wriggles away, but Bruce seizes his head in both hands and kisses him into the pillows, sharp and fierce. There are teeth, there is tongue, and electricity thrills up Thor’s spine.
Then he moves down to mouth at Thor’s throat. A strangled moan escapes him; he throws his head back. Bruce’s hand still anchors one of his own to the pillow; their fingers lace together.
Bruce moves down and sinks his teeth into the flesh above his collarbone. The pain and pleasure make Thor arch his back, gasping, and his hand grips Bruce’s even tighter. His other hand has found its way to Bruce’s waist.
His blood sears, and lightning arcs through the room.
The loudest clap of thunder yet rattles the glasses in the kitchen.
Later, when the kisses subside to the point that they’re merely holding each other, Bruce reaches across Thor to turn on a light. The whisper of cloth and Bruce’s weight over his chest distract him for a while - but then Bruce lies back down and Thor sees -
“Oh,” he breathes, mortified. His hand reaches out, seemingly of its own accord, to brush the red and purple on Bruce’s skin. Thor’s handprint is nearly purple on Bruce’s hip, and jagged red bruises mark the path of lightning across his skin. Bruce’s hand is hardly better - the same marks streak down his forearm nearly to his elbow.
“I’m so sorry,” Thor says.
“It’s fine,” Bruce whispers. His own hand traces the bite on Thor’s neck, and the scratch marks on his chest. There are probably bruises on Thor’s shoulders. “I gave as good as I got.”
Thor lets out a startled laugh.
By unspoken agreement, Thor reaches to turn the light off. Bruce huddles closer, tucking his head under Thor’s chin; he throws one leg over Thor’s, and Thor reaches below to press a hand to the small of Bruce’s back. The other hand crosses over and rests on Bruce’s head, Thor’s fingers lazily toying with his hair. Bruce smells like a forest after rain.
The smell of the world when a storm has passed; the shadow of a thunderstorm, the prologue to life. There’s a word for that.
“Petrichor,” Bruce mumbles.
Thor blinks, not realizing he’d said that out loud. He whispers back, “What?”
“Smell of rain. Petrichor,” Bruce says again, mumbling directly into Thor’s chest. The words vibrate in his ribs. “That’s the word.”
And with that, his head drops against Thor’s chest, and he falls asleep. Thor hugs him closer. He finally presses that soft kiss to the crown of Bruce’s head, and closes his eyes.
Thunder rumbles in the distance. Somewhere, rain is falling in a forest.