In a strange way, the debauchery made Thor homesick. He had done all this before. Drunk with friends until his head was muddled and his black mood was drowned. It was how he had lived in his youth.
“I can’t picture you like that,” Bruce said. “I should have guessed, though—royalty on Earth, it’s not like it’s unusual for them to wind up at the wrong parties. But you have…”
“Stupid hair,” Val volunteered.
“Innate nobility,” Bruce said. “If there even is such a thing.”
“Not before Earth.” He ran one fingertip in circles around the lip of the decanter. “Not before my brother’s fall. This was it, then, only less melancholy. Not melancholy at all, really. I wore the blinders of youth and arrogance very well even when I was sober.”
The three of them were stretched out across the floor. All of them were drunk and Val had smoked something that had smelled excruciatingly bitter and had made her cough, though what she’d hoped to get from it Thor didn’t know, for she seemed no more or less out of herself than he and Bruce did. Though she had looked beautiful, wreathed in light purple smoke. Bruce had rolled over to kiss her, the spark from the lit end of her rolled cigarette hot and orange between them, held up between their bodies. Bruce’s shoulders broad and square, his shirt pulling tight across his body. Thor had had another drink then, watching them, and he could still taste the peculiar crystalline coolness of that particular liquor. A memory on his tongue.
He could drink and not think but he could not drink and forget. Drinking, it seemed, made him maudlin, or at least it did now.
Val seemed to know what he was thinking. “You’re not very good at this, your majesty.”
“I can hold my drink as well or better than anyone,” he said, even though he knew that wasn’t what she meant.
She raised her eyebrows at him.
“And don’t ogle me,” Thor said. “It’s entirely possible Banner will take offense.”
“Yeah, that’s a lost battle right there,” Bruce said. He had thrown his arm over his eyes. “Maybe I’d mind if you were someone else, but come on.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Oh, don’t you,” Val said. It wasn’t a question. “Anyway, I was only looking at you because you were being deliberately thick and it’s funny, watching you try to pretend you’re stupid. Your face almost works for it, except for your eyes. You have his eyes.”
“Eye. And so you said.”
“When you weren’t supposed to be listening.”
He wasn’t surprised she remembered.
“Hey,” Bruce said, lifting his arm. “This isn’t how anybody does this. This is sitting-around-the-student-lounge-getting-stoned, it’s not Velvet Goldmine enough.”
“No one knows what you’re talking about,” Thor said.
“You’re bringing me down, Thor, is what I’m talking about.” Bruce rubbed his eyes. “Not that I ever do an especially good job of being up. We’ve been off the map for, what, a week? Maybe that’s long enough at our age.”
“I’m four thousand years older than you,” Val said. “Blondie’s at least a thousand. You should think you’d be able to keep up.”
“You’d think. But here we are.” He pulled himself up off the floor, wincing as his hand now drifted to the back of his neck and he pinched that. “I’m at least too old to be lying around on the floor, okay? I’m not twenty.”
“If you give up your complaining about it,” Thor said, “I could rub your shoulders for you.”
He didn’t know why he’d made the offer. Oh, he’d done it a time or two, of course, between friends or in the course of a seduction, but it was nothing he should be considering now, when he wasn’t sure how he meant it. Or even how it would be taken.
It was a big galaxy. If Asgard did not usually fit three to a bed, Thor knew it happened elsewhere. And he already knew anything and everything happened on Sakaar. But they were beautiful together, somehow, a gem glittering in a trash heap, and he could not go more than an hour without wanting to tear the world down around him.
“Seriously?” Bruce said.
So he had another chance to not entrap himself in something that would not go well. “Indeed.”
Great. Good job.
They moved to the sofa. Bruce’s posture started off rigid, but he almost immediately relaxed beneath Thor’s hands.
“Oh, fuck,” Bruce said. “Thor, you’re my hero. You can be the Norse god of backrubs if you want.”
“There’s no more Norseway,” Thor said, though he didn’t stop.
“Norway,” Bruce said. His voice hadn’t changed: the destruction of his planet no longer fazed him quite enough to shake him free of his enjoyment. It had not been his country, Thor knew. Midgardians were strange about those borders.
“You’ve been holding out on us, your majesty,” Val said. “We should have been charging you rent in massages this whole time if you’ve got him this relaxed.”
“I thought you said you weren’t angry anymore?” Thor said.
Bruce tilted his head back. They were still not making eye contact, but Thor could see the dark ends of his eyelashes. “I’m not. But I manage to not feel things in a tightly-wound, live-wire kind of way. All the tension of the fuse on a stick of dynamite, none of the catharsis. I could maybe summon up some anger if you stopped doing this too soon, not to emotionally blackmail you or anything.”
“I have done harder tasks for longer,” Thor said.
“Harder and longer are your operative words for tonight,” Val said. “We’ve got an invitation to one of the boss’s orgies.”
“I don’t want to go to an orgy,” Thor said. “Least of all one hosted by my brother’s lover.”
“Unfortunate for you that it’s mandatory, then.”
“You can have mandatory orgies?”
“You’re not required to sleep with anybody,” Bruce said. “You’re just required to go. The Grandmaster thinks any party below a certain threshold of attendees is, and I quote, a ‘real downer.’”
“Here, your majesty,” Val said. “I’ll substantiate that one for you.” She fetched a heavy piece of crystal off the table and held it up above Bruce’s head, right in front of Thor’s face.
It was a message screen currently emblazoned with unceasing fireworks. YOU DON’T HAVE TO COME, YOU JUST HAVE TO GO featured prominently as a slogan.
“It’s kind of unwittingly ambiguous,” Bruce said. “Don’t tell him I said that.” He turned sideways away from Thor’s grip. His eyes were serious. “Jane will be there, though.”
“That would not be how I’d choose to see her again.”
“So go say hello this morning,” Val said. “Is it still morning?” She swished her hand and the dark tint of the window vanished, plunging them all into blinding sunlight. She ignored their curses and offered up none of her own even though Thor thought she had the most right to them: she’d been drinking harder than either of them and had that smoke in her blood now to boot. “Noon-ish, I suppose. Go see her. Bruce isn’t the only one you’re bringing down. You make a poor partner in Hel. Something about that puppy look on your face, like you remember what hope is, like you’re still angry someone kicked it away from you.” She shrugged. “You never find the bottom, do you?”
“I thought I had.”
“You haven’t,” Bruce said. “And I don’t—never mind. It’s not a good thing to be getting into. Val’s right, you should go see Jane if you want to. It’d be the nice thing to do, so she doesn’t see you alive tonight with no warning.”
“And cause a scene,” Val said, “maybe cluing everybody else into you being a new arrival.”
“Why would that matter?”
She drew her finger across her throat. “Wouldn’t go over well.”
Bruce actually looked grim now, and considering all the things Thor had heard him speak of over the last few days without at all changing his expression, that meant something.
“It didn’t happen with the people Loki brought in,” Bruce said. “Everybody knew Loki at that point, so if he brought them, they were okay,, they were vouched for. But if anyone fell through one of the wormholes—people thought there was a chance they were Hela’s spies.”
“Would’ve been more of a chance, astronomically so, that they were as piss-scared of Hela as everybody else and running like hell from her,” Val said, “but people in a safe place don’t like people knocking on their door. It got bloody.”
“You couldn’t stop it?”
“Are you really asking if I couldn’t or are you asking if I tried?” There was something awful in her eyes. Not shame, or not only shame, more like shame that she felt pride. “Because yeah, perfect golden prince, I tried. And I didn’t have much help in doing it, and I was outnumbered, and I was at the disadvantage of not wanting to kill them, or at least not more than I had to. Feeling sentimental about sentient life, which I’m back to being over. Go on and tell me how you could have done better.”
“You weren’t there?” Thor asked Bruce.
“Still Hulked out. For all I know, I did half of it.”
“You didn’t,” Val said quickly. “The big guy gets angry, yeah, he doesn’t get scared of people that helpless. He doesn’t hate that way.”
Bruce leaned forward and pressed his lips to her temple, but he didn’t look like he believed her.
“Come on,” he said to Thor. “I’ll take you to Jane.”
“I would prefer to be sober.”
“Yeah, but sobriety’s a limited resource right now. I’ve seen you worse. Little bit of spit-polish and you’ll be good as new.”
“Unlikely,” Thor said.
Bruce gave him a twisted smile, half-wry, half-wary. “Somehow more likely with you than with anybody else. I’m starting to be pretty sure about that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like Val said. You don’t hit bottom. You haven’t forgotten who you were.”
“Give me time,” Thor said, trying to make it sound like a joke.
“That’s the thing, “Bruce said. “I can’t figure out if I want to.”
He mixed up some kind of vile tonic for the both of them—it was the blue-green of dried seaweed and tasted like salty buttermilk mixed with Earth’s cough syrup, but Bruce promised it would do something to help clear Thor’s head. (“Either that or I’m just fucking with you,” Bruce said, “and it’s worth it for me to drink it to see you forcing it down too.”) Thor chose carefully from among his clothes. Jane, he remembered, had preferred him in red.
“Handsome,” Val pronounced him, when his efforts were done. “Just like royalty.” Her tone was mocking, as usual, but not quite. Day by day, her face had grown more serious, more and more like one of the Valkyries painted on the walls of Asgard’s palace.
Which struck him—
I remember you.
How different she had looked in the blue cape and gray-white armor of her battalion. But she was still the same woman whose portrait had decorated his childhood: in fact, if her hair had been down when he’d met her and if she’d not had the scrapper’s marks painted on her face, he might even have recognized her. Even if he’d never expected to come upon a dream, and here of all places.
“What?” she said.
He shook his head. “Nothing. I’m just a fool, I didn’t realize—when we first met, I’d thought you had tattoos here.” He slid his finger down his cheek. “I was just baffled for a minute to realize you’d gotten rid of them.”
“Yeah. That’s what you do with paint on your face, sooner or later. I’ve got enough ink in my skin to last me a lifetime.”
Nothing more was said about it until he and Bruce were outside in the crushing heat, when Bruce said, “She’s right, you know. You aren’t a good actor.”
“I’m a phenomenal actor. I’ll have you know I led several amateur productions in my youth.”
“Pretty sure that was because you were the crown prince. So what were you really thinking about just now?”
Thor sighed. “That I had seen her, years ago, on the walls of Asgard. Commemorated in the portraits of the slain Valkyries.”
“But she wasn’t slain.”
“No. Evidently my father preferred to keep things simpler than they really were. On a number of levels.”
Bruce patted him awkwardly on the shoulder.
“You’re very bad at offering comfort,” Thor said, with a forced smile.
“It’s not my strong suit, no.” He pointed Thor down a narrow side-alley and they turned. “Fingers crossed for you that Jane will be better, I guess. We had a funeral for you, did you know that? Some guy with a greenhouse got really rich for a while there selling floral arrangements, everybody wanting to do something for all the people they’d lost, for the whole damn galaxy. And Jane and I, we both a wreath for you. This ridiculous looking thing made out of these orange flowers full of pollen that just about knocked you out if you breathed too much of it. We went to this place outside of the city, on the gulf, and we gave you a Viking funeral, or what both of us was pretty sure was a Viking funeral. Lobbed the thing out onto the water and threw Molotov cocktails at it until one of us managed to hit it and burn it up. If Clint would have been here, he could have done the whole burning arrow thing, I don’t know, I think that’s traditional. But we did what we could.”
“Thank you.” He really was honored by it, in a strange way: it was touching to think of the two of them on some silty gulf beach, cobbling together a way to acknowledge what they thought was his passing. “Loki was there, I assume.”
Bruce shook his head. “Loki was… incommunicado for a while.”
“With the Grandmaster, you mean. In your last days of Rome.”
“No—well, yeah, but he was more like a dead battery when this was happening. It was right after everything seemed to be wrapped up for good, and I guess he was just burnt out. By the way, that whole thing with the two of them, that wasn’t a huge surprise to you or anything, right?”
He shook his head. “Loki has ever had a talent for finding influential lovers.”
“The Grandmaster being a guy, though. That’s not something Asgard cared about?”
Thor didn’t know how to explain it. No, Loki’s… softness, as it were, had been the problem: not that he went to bed with men and women equally but that he somehow did it in a way that was either too intense or too decadent. His seductions were always inappropriate in some way, by Asgard’s standards. He seduced and wooed the powerful, the way women were said to; he did not wench or fuck to show off his prowess or even for the joy of it but to prove something. He was cold where he should have been warm. Soft-eyed where he should have been contemptuous. He was a creature of emotion and his emotions always seemed to be ones Asgard did not like.
He hesitated, though, to say all this. He was aware that, by Earth’s standards, it would seem cruel; perhaps it even was. Certainly it had done his brother little good.
“His romances, such as they were, were sometimes considered a bit unnatural, but not for that reason. It was more that he was never confident in his own power: always either seeking after more of it or seeking to affirm it. He faced disapproval. I wish now that I had—well, it’s done, is it not? There is no more Asgard to censure him, for good or ill. But men, women, no. I’ve been to bed with both myself.”
Bruce turned his head with cobra-like quickness. “You have?”
“And that’s not unusual, where you’re from?”
“A little, but not amazingly so. Perhaps a little more common than on your world.” He considered this. “But then less common later. It is not considered… responsible. People settle down.”
“You would have settled down with Jane.”
“Not after we’d parted from each other, obviously.” He didn’t know why Bruce was pursuing this so. They couldn’t be that short on conversation. And Bruce couldn’t want—
Unless he did.
He did sometimes have contempt for his own happiness. And I’m as good a way as any to ruin what little he’s found.
So don’t ruin it, Loki said in his head. But you could at least have a little fun, brother. This isn’t Asgard.
No. If it were, he could disobey its unwritten laws. But he was more bound to them than ever now that they were gone.
“This is Jane,” Bruce said, thankfully interrupting this train of thought. He pointed at a relatively simple house, its outer walls painted the color of sand. “Her lab is underneath, really spacious.” He sounded just a little bit bitter in a way that made Thor smile. “You should probably let me say hi before you make an appearance, okay?”
“Yes. I don’t want to startle her.”
So he waited around the blind corner as Bruce gave his name and handprint for the door-scanner. In another moment the door creaked open.
“Bruce,” Jane said warmly. “It’s good to see you.”
He had not heard her voice in so long. She sounded as she always had—like summer and excitement, like wisdom and hot chocolate and Earth. A jumble of all the good things she had brought him.
He heard them hug, their clothes rustling together.
“Come in,” Jane was saying.
“I—this isn’t that kind of visit, actually. This is a weird kind of visit. I need to just talk to you in the doorway for a little bit, okay?”
“Okay.” Now she sounded a little hesitant. She reached for a joke. “Tell me you’re not setting me up for a hit or anything.”
“No, just a surprise. A pretty big surprise. So—you remember that whole story Loki gave us about how he got knocked out of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, how that was the last time he saw Thor?”
“It’s not the kind of thing you forget.”
“Well, we all always assumed that Thor made it the rest of the way. That what happened to everybody else happened to him first, if anything.”
“Yeah.” He could hear more rustling: her wrapping her arms around herself, maybe. “I don’t need a recap of this part, you know. It’s permanently engraved on my memory.”
“It turns out… Thor got knocked out too. And fell.”
“And landed,” Bruce said. “Just a lot later than anyone would have thought.”
“Are you really telling me—”
Thor stepped around the corner. “Hello, Jane.”
She had changed in a way that made his heart ache, but she had not changed so much as Bruce, at least: she wore her hair differently, had cut it quite short, and she was paler, as if she’d been spending all her time indoors. She wore Sakaaran garb and it made her look half-alien, unfamiliar.
Her lips parted at seeing him. “Thor?”
“I’m sorry to be so late.”
She rushed toward him, a tiny hurricane, and wrapped her arms around him, pressing her face against his chest. Something inside him gave way and he was suddenly weeping, his head down against hers. His tears dampened her hair.
“I thought you were gone,” Jane was saying. “That I’d never see you again.”
Thor could not say anything at all. She seemed to understand—she took him inside and they stood there in the warm shadows of her unlit kitchen, their arms around each other, both of them crying now. He could not let go of her, not when he had let go of everything else. She was the first he had known of crash landings, his first refuge in his greatest trouble, and alone of those he’d found here whom he loved, she had never been an enemy. They had been good to each other, even at the end. They’d not broken each other’s hearts.
Jane was safe, and he felt, like a child, very much in need of safety.
When at last they were calmer—when she had brushed his hair away from his face to see him better and they had offered each other wobbly smiles, awkward presents between old lovers—Thor took several deep breaths and pulled back. Bruce, he saw, had gone.