bottleneck

Published on Archive of Our Own on May 17, 2018.

bottleneck


author’s note: subtitle: Local Bio Major Has A Lot Of Feelings About How Stupid Thanos’ 50% Plan Is, Has To Fucking Put Them Somewhere


It’s too quiet.

This room is all metal and mirrors, silver panels extending from the wall and silver blankets slipping into a hidden panel beneath the bed and silver moonlight just blinking in from the sky outside.  The new queen of Wakanda called this building a palace but it feels more like a factory, or perhaps a hospital – clean, clinical, mechanized to meet every need and possible to navigate without encountering another breathing person.  And outside, the world is half empty.  Where there were once insects chirping, birds calling, trees whispering in the wind, there is now only a faint humming, as though the animals that remain are singing for their dead.

“We should all sleep,” Steve said.  “None of us are in any position to plan a counter-attack right now,” Steve said.  “We’ll reconvene in the morning,” Steve said.

Thor doesn’t think he’ll be in any position to plan a counter-attack in the morning.  Or he won’t be as ready as he is right now, lying here on his back with his cape still on, moving through a million what ifs and should haves as though they’re so many stretches at the beginning of a training regimen.

If Loki were here, he wouldn’t be sleeping.  He’d be combing this strange nation for any shard of useful tech.  He’d be getting someone important drunk and probing them softly for their access codes and most closely kept secrets.  If Loki were here –

Thor closes his eyes.  Thanos looms, purple and mountainous and jeering, brandishing one bulbous fist and hissing no comebacks this time.  Loki drops to the floor beneath him.  A thud louder than any thunderclap.

Thor catches himself just before he punches a hole through the slick vibranium bed post.

If Loki were here, he’d be thinking ahead.  He’d be turning the problem upside down and pushing at it until something gave.  But if Thor turns Thanos upside down, all he gets is an angrier Thanos, maybe a little redder in the face.

He’s trying to focus on that image – Thanos would balance so well on that flat head, it would be quite a sight – when the door opens.

“You awake?”

Bruce Banner steps out of the hallway’s shadows, looking half corporeal in a borrowed T-shirt.

“What do you think?” Thor replies.  “My brother’s dead, half of my allies have gone with him, the new axe that I just made is in another plane of reality –”

“Thought so.”

Bruce pads into the room, quiet on bare feet, and sits down next to Thor on the bed.  It’s not a very big bed – clearly designed for one Midgardian person, not for an Asgardian, much less for an Asgardian and a Midgardian person – so Bruce has to sit right up against Thor in order to fit, both of them leaning against the headboard.  Thor has to reach his right arm up and around Bruce’s shoulders just to be comfortable.  He’s not really certain of the protocol for this – is it normal for friends from work, is it too close, is it still too much distance – but Bruce leans his head against Thor’s shoulder, so he figures it must be alright.

He’s warm.  Bruce is.  Thor isn’t very sensitive to temperatures these days – being stranded in empty space one hour and letting the full power of a dying star shoot through you the next tends to do that – so it takes him a minute to notice, but once he does, it’s nice.  Bruce is just a human person, with warmth and a heartbeat, not trying to kill him, or betray him, or otherwise use him.  Stepped out of the shadows to illuminate the night, like the sun rising up out of a cloudy sky.

“I can’t stop thinking about it,” Bruce says.

“About what?” asks Thor, who, huh, might actually have been dozing off a bit.

“Thanos’ plan.”

“What about it?”

“It’s just so… it’s so stupid!”

Thor tilts his head to try to look down at Bruce, but ends up just sort-of looking down at Bruce’s ear.  Geometry was never his strong suit.

“I have to be honest,” he admits.  “I don’t really remember what Thanos’ plan was.”

Bruce shakes free from their rough configuration, twists, stares – and, ah, that’s how you look someone in the face, all sharp and glaring.  Thor misses the warmth.

“Restore balance to the universe by murdering half of it!” Bruce exclaims.  “That plan!”

“That plan,” Thor echoes.

“You don’t remember.”

Thor shrugs.  “I was mostly focused on getting revenge for him killing my brother.  And Heimdall.  And most of the rest of my people.”

“Not most,” Bruce says.  “Fifty percent.”  But he’s softening now, glare receding.  Remembering.  Both of them are quiet for a moment, returning to that ship somewhere past the ruins of Asgard, watching hundreds of innocent souls cut down like so many trees.

“It’s a stupid plan,” Bruce repeats, more quietly this time.  “I can’t stop thinking about it.  I mean, if you looked at basic ecology for one minute, the whole thing falls apart.”

And for a moment he seems to be falling apart, there, in front of Thor on the bed.  He’s stuck inside himself, just as lost within this broken human body as he is within the Hulk, humming quietly like the birds without half their harmonies.

Thor reaches out and grabs Bruce’s shoulders.  Just to keep him tethered to the earth.

“Tell me,” he says.

Bruce blinks – his gaze gains substance again – and his right arm crosses slowly to his left shoulder, the palm of his hand rests on the back of Thor’s.

“It’s a stupid plan,” he says.  “I mean, Thanos hadn’t thought it through at all.  One of the first things you learn, right, when you study population ecology, is that when a population is depleted, because of a shrinking habitat or hunting or mass fucking genocide, it goes through a genetic bottleneck.  Losing half the population means you lose half the possible genes, half the possible options for any given trait.  Which means that now, when something happens and the population needs to evolve, it has half as many possible options for mutation, half as many possibilities for sexual recombination, basically half as many ways to deal with its new environment.  So by just killing half of everything, Thanos is killing half its possibility to change – probably more than that, really, because recombination is exponential, and…”

Thor runs his fingers lightly up and down Bruce’s arms, tries to match the rhythm of his voice.  He’s raising the volume and the speed like a ship kicking into warp drive, but he’s not going so fast Thor can’t keep up.

“Recombination is exponential,” he echoes.  “Go on.”

“Okay.  Well.”  Bruce takes a shaky breath, and goes on.  “After that, there’s the question of his definitions.  Kill half of all life.  But what does he mean by life?  Sentient life?  I could argue that the redwood trees out in northern California are just as sentient as you or I.  Or life in general period?  Did he take out half the mycorrhizae that are actually keeping soil systems alive?  Did he whiz through the Great Barrier Reef?  Did he disintegrate half of the contents of my gut?  Where does he stand on the fucking virus debate?  And that’s just on Earth for fuck’s sake – there have to be other systems out there with more complicated ecological systems than ours.  How did he decide what counts and what doesn’t?  Where is his list of criteria?  How did nobody peer review this shit?”

Bruce is definitely halfway to shouting now, and Thor thinks he recognizes fewer words every second.  But he keeps steady, he keeps constant.  He gets this.  This is Bruce’s version of punching through the wall.

“It’s so goddamn disrespectful,” Bruce says, “it makes me want to find whatever planet he finds most fucking precious and drop a fucking atom bomb on the place.  So many scientists put their life’s work into protecting earth, into studying species and tracking mutualisms and cataloguing the top priorities for conservation and trying to convince governments that don’t give a damn to just cordon off a few hundred acres, just give them a few thousand dollars, just anything to save and study what little life they can protect, and it finally feels like they’re getting somewhere when some alien nutcase with a power complex comes in and blows their work to shit!  If he actually wanted to restore balance to the universe, he’d fucking bring back primary growth forests or increase the photosynthetic capacity of phytoplankton or just reallocate some fucking funds or anything, anything productive at all, not whipping his huge purple dick out and whacking us all across the faces with it.

“And that’s just our planet!” Bruce shouts, he’s definitely shouting now, and Thor really hopes the walls are soundproof in case anyone is trying to sleep.  “There are so many planets in the galaxy my mind can’t even comprehend them all, a billion planets filled with a billion other organisms just trying their best to go on living, just evolving across centuries to be the most suited to their environments, and this purple nutcase comes in and says actually, fuck you, eons of evolution are worthless because I can destroy your capacity for evolution with the snap of my finger.  If he actually wanted to conserve anything, if he’d read one chapter of one goddamn textbook, he’d know that you can’t just apply one conservation strategy to every situation.  You have to go in, you have to do the legwork, you have to talk to people.  What works in New York City won’t work in Indonesia.  What works on Earth, even if this did work on Earth, won’t work on… I don’t know, anywhere else.  You’ve gotta adapt your policies.  And he just comes in and says I’m treating every planet in the universe exactly the fucking same.  It’s like he’s some five-year-old who read the first two pages of someone’s paper on eugenics that wasn’t even that well written and just fucking ran with it.”

Bruce takes a breath.  (Thor, who hadn’t realized humans could go that long, is impressed, even though he knows that’s far from the point of the rant.)  Bruce takes another breath, and then another, and then he’s falling forward and collapsing against Thor’s shoulder, his tears scratching against the chain mail.

Thor pulls Bruce closer, wraps his arms around him.  He bows his head into Bruce’s dark hair, matted with dirt and sweat and something that might be ash from the ship.  Bruce is warm.  Bruce is warm, and here, and he may use words Thor hasn’t heard since biology lessons in secondary school but Thor understands him loud and clear.

Bruce is warm, and here, and he is someone more than a friend from work now.  Thor doesn’t have a definition for this, doesn’t really need one.  He just knows that, if he were to lean into Bruce, if he were to think of his brother sputtering up his last words and his home going up in flames, if he were to add something else to the dirt and sweat and ash in Bruce’s hair, Bruce would keep holding on.

They stay like that for a long time.  Shaking together.

And then Bruce sits up.  His eyes glitter in the faint light, and he scrubs at them with the back of his hand before sighing and leaning back against the headboard.

“Sorry about all that,” he says.  “I know it’s not really useful for me to rant about all that shit, but… the big guy seems done with me, and I just needed…”

“You needed to get angry,” Thor supplies.

Bruce smiles, a faraway sun in the darkness.  “Yeah.”

“I get it,” Thor says.  “Thanos has made me the angriest I’ve ever been.  And I had a sister who I didn’t even know existed come back to take my throne and rip out my eye.”

Thor could be imagining it, but he thinks Bruce almost laughs at that one.

“I don’t remember much ecology,” he goes on, “and I’m no expert like you are.  And I’m definitely not trying to solve… everything that you just described.  But I do think – I think if there were a, what did you call it, something with a b –”

“Bottleneck.”

Thor moves closer, leans in, until his face is only a few inches from Bruce’s.  “I think even if there were a bottleneck, with Thanos wiping out half the possibilities for evolution, between you and me and the rest of the Avengers, we’ve got a lot of good genes left.  Or at least, enough of them to make sure that asshole gets what he deserves.”

“Yeah,” Bruce says.  “Yeah.  He’s got to.  The universe tends towards chaos, right?”

“Right,” Thor replies.

He resumes his previous position, sitting back against the headboard, and is trying to think of a polite way to ask Bruce if he has any more anger he wants to get out when Bruce asks:

“Do you mind if I… stay here?  Tonight?”

Thor slips off the bed and stands up.  He lets first his cape, then his chain mail, then his pants, then his shirt fall to the floor.  It’s strange, how light he feels without all that clothing – it’s strange to only wear his own skin.

He sits back down on the bed, wraps his arm around Bruce’s shoulders, pulls him in close.

“I’m taking that as a yes,” Bruce says.

Thor smiles.  He rests his head on top of Bruce’s, presses the lightest of kisses to Bruce’s hair.  In the morning, they’ll meet with the rest of the still-remaining Avengers, they’ll talk through all their options, they’ll argue and shout until they have a plan.  But for now, two hearts beat quietly in the darkness, and Thor and Bruce slip into moonlit sleep.

 

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