The battle for New York was won, the Avengers were all alive, Loki was captured, and Dr. Bruce Banner was leaving.
Naturally, not everyone was exactly thrilled by this decision.
Tony Stark had sworn profusely and wheedled Bruce endlessly about all the science in Stark Tower. Steve Rogers had told him that he trusted him and that Captain America surely could find a place for anyone, let alone a hero. (Hero. Hah. Bruce was many things, but a hero could never be one of them.) The assassins hadn't said anything directly, and their pointed stares and ominous gestures only convinced him further to leave. As for Thor, he was busy. The poor man still seemed convinced he could talk sense into his brother and would spend all day in the cells, trying to reason with a madman.
Thus, it came as a great surprise when Thor pulled him aside just before he left.
"Could I have a word with you, Friend Bruce?" the Asgardian asked, his voice surprisingly soft for the so-called God of Thunder.
Bruce considered it carefully. On the one hand, the other man was massive, armed, and armored. He wasn't exactly a slouch when it came to skill either. On the other hand, he didn't seem to have a reason to do Bruce any harm and, if he was perfectly honest, Bruce was a sucker for the kicked puppy look.
"Sure," he said, although he couldn't quite hide his wariness. He left his lone bag on the floor and followed Thor up to the roof. The god sat down on the wall at the very edge of the roof and let his feet hang over a hundred story drop without a care in the world. Bruce chose to lean against the wall, and even that unnerved him slightly.
"So, what's up?" he asked, aiming for casual and missing it by a mile.
Thor's brow knit in confusion for a fraction of a second. "I am well," he replied. "I was wondering about you. Do you really intend to leave?" He was looking directly at Bruce and shit that was actual concern. Way to make this difficult, Thor.
"I should have thought that was obvious," he said evenly. Even, controlled, that he could manage.
"Since you seem to be unaware, what may seem obvious to you humans is less so to me," Thor said dryly and would you look at that even gods could be sarcastic. "Explain it to me."
"Look around," Bruce said, gesturing to the destruction hundreds of feet below them and the skeleton of a Leviathan still resting on an apartment building. "What do you see?"
Thor gave Bruce a look he couldn't decipher. "I see a battlefield and I see people rebuilding. I know you see destruction, Bruce, but I see only hope."
Bruce gave a frustrated sigh and couldn't help but notice Thor shift his hold on Mjolnir. "It's not just what the Chitauri did," he explained. "I did a hell of a lot of damage here too. I'm too dangerous to stay here."
Thor gave him another look. "You do realize you are the only one who believes that, do you not?"
"I'm not the only one," Bruce insisted, strangely defensive. "The government hates me too."
Thor raised an eyebrow. "I find myself rather less trusting of governments as of late; most seem to be failing to govern. Do not set too much stock in the words of those who seek power. They are those who will say anything to keep it."
"What do you have against governments?" Bruce asked, almost amused. "Not used to democracies?"
"I will admit I find the idea strange, but even the Allfather had made his share of idiotic decisions." Thor looked up at the sky. "Please don't tell Father I said that," he boomed. Then he faced Bruce again. "Heimdall," he said. He probably thought that was an explanation.
"What do you mean, idiotic decisions?" Bruce asked.
Thor looked like he very much wanted to say something, but he restrained himself. "The war against Musphelheim is a prime example," he said instead.
"What happened?" Bruce asked.
"War with Musphelheim was considered an inevitability by most," Thor said. "It was simply the timing that was... erroneous. We had just triumphed over Jotunheim, not destroyed them completely as many had wished, but forced them back into their own realm under the restriction of numerous treaties that perhaps were not quite just. We had even managed to take the Cask of Ancient Winters, their most powerful weapon. We had thought ourselves invincible, and set out to test that theory. It was quickly proven wrong." Thor looked off into the distance, clearly lost in memory.
"Did you fight in that war?" Bruce asked. Knowing Thor's prowess, it wasn't unlikely. He wondered briefly if gods could get PTSD.
Thor laughed briefly. "Oh, no. I was far too young. I barely knew how to hold a sword the right way, let alone use one."
"You used a sword?" Bruce asked, knowing he was getting sidetracked and not particularly caring.
"Of course," Thor replied. "All Asgardian children learn swordsmanship. It's not until we are much older that we choose our own weapon. Anyway, in those days I was no part of the war. I wouldn't have fought even if I could. I much preferred the gardens."
"Gardens?" Bruce repeated incredulously.
"I don't understand why everyone finds it so shocking," Thor said peevishly. "They are beautiful gardens." He was smiling softly now. "I would describe them to you, but I don't know that your language has the words I need. Chance are it does not. They can't be found in my own language either."
"I wish I could see them," Bruce said. They would have to be stunning to keep Thor's attention for so long, and he always did find gardens peaceful.
"You might someday. Once the Bifrost is repaired, I will be sure to bring all the Avengers home to Asgard."
Bruce snorted. "You keep acting like we're a team."
"We fought together," Thor stated as if there was all there was to it. As if working with a monster was no big deal. As if Bruce could be part of anything meaningful.
"That doesn't mean anything."
"Do you actually believe you are a monster?" Thor asked, halfway between gentle and disapproving.
"I've never had any reason not to," Bruce replied cautiously.
"When I was a child, my favorite part of the garden was always Eir," Thor said. Bruce looked up abruptly, startled by the seemingly random topic change. Thor looked pleased.
"Mother's chief gardener. She was ancient, even by my people's standards, but she was warm and friendly and always had such wonderful stories for us." Bruce assumed 'us' meant Loki, but he didn't comment. "I remember I would sit at her side for hours and she would tell me of the plants, and how to care for them, and what it takes to care for people." Thor sighed heavily. "Now, I see I should have listened closer."
"Why?" Bruce asked, curious despite himself.
Thor shook himself. "It doesn't matter now. I have learned my lesson. But, I am getting off course. During the war with Musphelheim, Loki and I, as princes, were kept under close guard. In the darkest days of the war, the enemy drew so close that we could hear them at the gates of Asgard. We could not even leave our chambers without a full company of guards. Loki was a master of deception even then, and he could slip away when he wished, but I did not have that skill. It was...stifling. The garden was my refuge."
"You didn't have guards with you in the garden?" Bruce asked. "Were the gardeners that badass?"
Thor chuckled. "Eir was the only gardener, and she was old and feeble enough that she did not walk without a cane. But no, there were no guards."
"That's pretty stupid," Bruce mused, "Leaving the crown prince unguarded in a garden."
"So I thought as well," Thor said. "Although I said nothing. It was foolish, but I did not wish to risk my freedom."
"Don't blame you there," Bruce huffed, knowing the feeling all too well. "So, you were alone in the gardens," he prompted.
"Save for Eir," Thor corrected. "One day, we awoke and the armies at our door were gone. No one knew why or where, but we took it as a sign that we were winning. We let our guard down. That day was the day the assassins found their way into Asgard.
"I remember it clear as day. Eir was telling me of poppies beneath the old oak tree in the west garden. Medicinal uses. They have pain relieving properties, as I recall. And then, the old oak tree was burning. There was an assassin in the garden. I was young, I believe around six years of age in human terms, but I was convinced that I could save Eir from the enemy. I told the man if he wanted to harm Eir, he would have to go through me. The man laughed." Suddenly, Thor was grinning. "Eir laughed louder.
Thor fell silent, staring out over the ruined city as though it held the answers to every question he could think to ask. Bruce found himself drawn into the story.
"Why was she laughing?" he asked, wide eyed.
"Because she knew something that he did not," Thor explained. "She told me to run along, find father, tell him she had a prisoner. The man laughed again, asked her what an old woman, although he used a much cruder word, could do to stop him. And then she smiled.
"Eir had this way of smiling, like everything was all right in the world when she wanted it to be. It wasn't that sort of smile she had. She smiled and her eyes turned green, a particularly unnatural shade.
"I ran, because she had told me to, and I trusted her. I found Father, and when we returned, the man was dead, and Eir's hands were bloody. As were the poppies. And the oak tree. And the grass. But there was not a drop of blood on her face, or on the body." Thor looked directly at Bruce for the first time since he had started the story. "She had killed him."
"I don't see what that story has to do with me," Bruce said warily.
"Do you know what a berserker is?" Thor asked.
"Umm, yeah. I think so. Old Viking warriors who, uh, who basically turned into wild animals in battle, or something. Right?" Bruce was pretty sure he'd known at some point.
"Close enough," Thor said. "Berserkers are people born with an instinctive ability to enter a battle trance. As I understand it, human berserkers had to train their abilities, but they are natural in certain Asgardian children."
"I still don't see what this has to do with me."
"Do you know what the signs of a berserker are?" Thor asked.
"No," Bruce admitted.
"Extreme increase in strength, extreme decrease in self-control. The berserker is usually incapable of higher reason, but undeniably intelligent in combat scenarios. The berserker rarely remembers the exact details of his or her time in a battle trance. During they trance, they frequently do not register pain or exhaustion, although it does effect them once they are calmed. They have a limited ability to determine friend from foe, but once their allies are determined, they are unflinchingly reliable. Does none of that sound familiar, Friend Bruce?"
"What?" Bruce asked, blindsided.
"In Asgard, berserkers are the highest class of warriors. They possess skills and command respect that few others, not even the Allfather are capable off achieving. Eir is a berserker, and even in the midst of war she was permitted to tend to her gardens. Heimdall, who guards the Bifrost, my father's most trusted lieutenant is also a berserker. In Asgard, you would be honored for your gift. It is the fault of humanity that you are persecuted, not any monstrosity of your own."
"I turn into a giant green rage monster when I get angry," Bruce said, "How the hell is that something to be honored?" He hadn't let himself hope in a long, long time. He didn't dare start now.
Thor sighed. "The physical transformation does not change the reality of the mental situation. It is likely you were born a berserker. I am certain it was not coincidental that you underwent the transformation at the same time as the Hulk emerged, but that is more due to survival instinct than anything else."
"Look," Bruce said, almost annoyed. "I know you're trying to help, but the Other Guy is dangerous; there's no way around it."
"Bruce," Thor said, making it sound like an order. "I do not like how desperately you try to convince yourself that you are a monster."
"I don't like it either, but," he trailed off.
"But?" Thor asked. Then he changed tack. "What do you recall of the battle?"
Bruce sighed. "Not much. Just images, feelings. Basic, like one-word thoughts."
"Do you remember saving Tony's life?"
Bruce hissed in shock. "What?" he whispered, almost beginning to hope.
"After the portal closed," Thor explained, "the Iron Man fell from the sky. I might have been able to save him, but the Hulk got there first, and revived him once they had landed."
"No," Bruce whispered. "No. I appreciate the effort, but you're just making things up so you can keep me here. I'm not buying what you're selling."
"I'm not selling anything," the God of Thunder said, confused.
"It's just a figure of speech," Bruce explained, "Means I don't believe you."
Thor was unperturbed. "If you choose not to believe me, then believe Jarvis. I believe he can show you images of what happened during the battle."
That was true. Bruce considered it, the weight of Thor's words hanging in the air like a tangible thing.
"Thor?" he asked, his voice sounding oddly small. "When the Bifrost is repaired, can I meet the Asgardian berserkers, learn to control my abilities."
Thor patted him on the shoulder. "I would be glad to bring you to my home," he said, "but I do not think that you are in need of lessons. You seem to have the battle trance under control.
"I lost control on the Helicarrier," Bruce pointed out, ashamed.
"Only because Loki drove you to it," Thor shot back. "I know my brother-"
"We've noticed," Bruce muttered.
"-and he can drive anyone he wishes to madness," Thor finished as though he hadn't heard. "You cannot blame yourself for that." He gave that a few moments to sink in. "Do you wish to stay here?"
There it was. The million dollar question. Strangely, it was the first time anyone had asked him. It was always "Why won't you stay?" and "Where the hell are you gonna live if you leave?". No one had ever asked him if he wanted to stick around.
"Yes," he answered, "but-"
Thor raised his hand. "Then stay."
Bruce's mind immediately snapped to the old arguments, the old excuses, and found them shot to pieces.
"I'll give it a week," he finally decided. "But after a week, if I wanna be gone, I'm gone."
"I will not stay you," Thor said, "but I sincerely doubt that you will make that choice."
"We'll see," Bruce said, and it almost felt like a challenge.