reptile house (butterfly garden)

Published on Archive of Our Own on July 13, 2018.

reptile house



author’s note:

inspired by that one incorrect thorbruce tweet.

big thanks is due to six (who literally watched infinity war specifically so she could beta my thorbruce fic), megan (light of my life), and sam (trusted boy (TM)) for looking this over. even bigger thanks is due to laura, who went on a date to the zoo with me so that i could do research for this fic. it was a very good date.

all the zoo details and scientific jargon in this fic is as accurate, or at least as plausible, as i could manage. also, when i write bruce, he has two phd’s, for reasons i explained in detail here.


 

The first time Bruce Banner visits the Bronx Zoo, he is four years old.

Four years old and speedy on stubby legs, zooming from one exhibit to the next and asking questions about everything from the squawking birds to the circling fish.  His parents can barely keep up, rushing behind him with the stroller as though he’s a tiny president and they’re his personal secret service.

“How come no legs,” he says, jabbing one finger at the python in the reptile house.

“I – Bruce, you know I’m a physicist, not a biologist, I can’t answer that,” his father says.  He swivels his head helplessly, looking for anyone who can answer.

“How come it has no legs,” Bruce insists.  He knocks on the glass, sunhat slipping off his head as he stares at the snake, willing it to communicate the secrets of its evolutionary history.

The snake remains curled up, deep in slumber.

Bruce watches for a long moment, wonders how the snake manages to sleep with so much noise around it.  Wonders if the snake might teach him that trick.  His father counts to thirty.  His mother wonders if they couldn’t find some tour guide or attendant who might have an answer.  His father hisses at her no, if he can’t give the brat an answer, nobody’s giving the brat an answer.

They are shouting by the time they reach the butterfly garden, Bruce now trailing behind.

 

The fifth time Bruce visits the Bronx Zoo, he is forty-eight years old.

Forty-eight years old and exhausted, bones too small for his body, still wakes up every morning surprised he’s not ten feet tall.  It takes a few seconds to remember half the world is gone, see Thanos smirk out of the corner of his eye, push himself upright and remind his blood to keep circulating.

Bruce is split between looking for Thanos, consulting in rebuilding efforts, and keeping the remains of the Avengers from killing each other.  He barely has time to eat, most days, much less take an afternoon off to go to the zoo.  But Thor wants to go somewhere to look at animals.  And, these days, there is so little Thor wants.

“It’s like a museum, but all the exhibits are living creatures?” Thor asks.

Bruce nods, absent-minded, then cranes his neck to look at the little lights along the wall of the two train, looking for Pehlam Parkway.  The subway is sticky and crowded in the June heat, but the MTA just got this line running again, and what kind of environmentalist would Bruce be if he didn’t insist on public transportation whenever possible.

“How do they do that?” Thor wonders.  “Isn’t it a lot of work to recreate all the creatures’ natural habitats?  And don’t the creatures hate being caged up?”

They’re at 174th Street – four stops to go.  Bruce redirects his gaze over to Thor, tries not to be distracted by Thor’s right arm where it’s extended just above him, muscles pulled taut as his hand grips the metal bars.

“It is.  And yeah, some of them probably do hate it,” Bruce says.  “But there are scientists who dedicate their whole lives to this.  They’ve gotten a lot of practice at building these places, so the animals can live the same way they would out in the wild.  And zoos are useful for other scientists outside the ones in the museum, too – ecologists can design more complex interaction studies using stuff they learned in these isolated environments, conservationalists figure out which resources to prioritize when they’re setting up preserves, stuff like that.  Populations of some endangered species have actually been significantly recovered from individuals in zoos.”

Thor’s nodding along, but Bruce can tell he’s going to need to go back and define, like, twenty of the words he just said.  So he goes back, and he goes over it again, and then he asks what zoology was like on Asgard, to try to match his context with Thor’s.

He asks what zoology was like on Asgard.  This somehow leads to a long description of the migratory habits of birds as affected by wind patterns over a flat planet, apparently the topic of one of Thor’s favorite projects in school.  Thor talks so animatedly he lets go of the handrail to stimulate bird movements, sending him lurching across the car when the subway finally reaches their stop.

 

The Fordham road gate is mostly deserted when they arrive, populated only by a few cars and a single ticket booth.  But it’s still a formidable structure – the stone gate rising like the walls of a gothic castle, the wide parking lot stretching out like a vast garden of concrete and paint.  Bruce recognizes the dark green paint of the ticket booth, the signs directing visitors to the sea lions and Madagascar exhibit, the smooth pathways leading up into the zoo.  It’s as though he’s stepped into his early grad school days, or even his childhood.  This place hasn’t changed, even as the whole world is thrown into turmoil.  The animals remain protected.

“Where are all the creatures?” Thor asks.  “I thought you said this was it.”

Bruce smiles, shakes his head.  “We have to get further in first.  And pay for admission.”

“Pay?”

“Don’t worry, I got you.”

“Ah.  I see.  Thank you.”  Thor grabs Bruce’s hand as they make their way to the ticket booth.  This isn’t exactly new – Bruce thought he’d be accustomed by now to Thor’s warmth, his texture, rough like an old leather jacket in the back of a consignment store.  But the contact still sends his body temperature skyrocketing, has the big guy stirring in the back of his head.

His face is redder than its usual baseline when he knocks lightly on the window of the ticket booth.  The attendant inside, a spindly, dark-skinned kid with curly hair tucked beneath an official Bronx Zoo baseball cap, looks up.

“Hi,” Bruce says.  “I’d like to purchase two full experience tickets.  What is that these days – twenty bucks each?”

The kid reaches to press something on his computer, then freezes.  Looks at Bruce again.

“You’re… Dr. Bruce Banner,” he says.  His voice is more high pitched than before, as though coming through an unstable phone line from far away.

“Yeah,” Bruce replies.  He sticks out the hand that isn’t attached to Thor.  “And you are?”

The kid looks at it for a second, as though not quite sure what to do with it, then reaches out his own and shakes several times, hard.

“I’m Leo,” he says.  “Junior at Fordham, studying biochem.  And such a big fan of your work, holy shit, your paper on the use of radioisotopes to diagnose the genetic markers in struggling bee colonies changed my life.”

“Wow.”  Bruce runs a hand through his hair, flattening the part of his curls that always sticks up in the back.  “I didn’t realize people were still reading that.”

“Are you kidding?” the kid – Leo – exclaims.  “They taught it in my intro bio course.”

“You must’ve had a great intro bio course, then,” Bruce says, grinning.  He feels a tug to his left side, then realizes Thor has raised his eyebrows and is bouncing almost imperceptibly on the balls of his feet.

“Oh, this is Thor,” Bruce adds, gesturing at him.

“You might be familiar with my work as well,” Thor says.

Leo cocks his head.

“You know, god of thunder?” Thor asks.  “King of Asgard?  Savior of the Earth?  Strongest Avenger?”

“Isn’t Dr. Banner the strongest Avenger?  You know, because of the Hulk?”

Thor frowns.  “Sure, you might think that at first, but when you consider my ability to control lightning, not to mention that I can wield weapons literally forged from the heart of a dying star –”

“Two tickets, please,” Bruce says before Thor launches into a full description of his powers.  He fishes his wallet out of his back pocket.

“Oh, no need for that, Dr. Banner,” Leo assures him.  “You and your guests get in for free.”  He takes a step to the far side of the ticket booth and gestures at a sign reading RECOGNIZE THESE FACES, including headshots of several big New York philanthropists, Bill Nye, Jane Goodall, Tony Stark, and, sporting a dark purple shirt and wire-framed glasses, Bruce himself.

“You’ve been on our automatically in for free list ever since you designed that device to sweep for low levels of gamma radiation, helping scientists quarantine animals that might have been mutated by the radiation leftover from the Chitauri invasion,” Leo explains.

“What about me?” Thor asks.  “I helped save the earth from that invasion.”

“Sure,” Leo says.  “Still, any friend of Dr. Banner’s is a friend of the zoo’s.”

Leo gets Bruce to sign his orgo notebook and shakes his hand (vigorously) one more time before sending them off with two free tickets and a recommendation to make sure they visit the reptile house, Thor tugging Bruce forward the whole way.

 

The second time Bruce visits the Bronx Zoo, he is twenty-two years old.

 Twenty-two years old and fresh out of undergrad, couch surfing across the east coast while he resigns himself to another five years of school.  He spends his days at cafes, poring over any paper he can wrangle out of free trials to low-impact journals and print at public libraries.

And then, when he runs out of emails to burn on trial accounts, he takes the train down to New York.  Skips the museums and the theaters, pushes through the tourists, ignores the restaurants, and rides the red line all the way up.  Argues with the ticket booth workers about student discounts until they let him in at half price.  And he takes that half price ticket as far as it will go – visits every exhibit, some of them twice, writes down the Latin names of species he doesn’t recognize and runs his fingers along the plaques with the reverence some people reserve for temples.

Most of the tourists who seem him probably think he’s crazy.  Mothers draw their children closer when they spot him, tour guides direct their groups quietly to the other side of the room.  If he stepped outside himself for a minute, floated up into the humid air and stared at this curly-haired kid muttering endlessly about distribution models and climate change implications, he’d probably agree.  But he is not outside himself – he is not even within himself, not entirely.  He is in the pond with the turtles, in the glass tanks with the alligators, in the hillside caverns with the bears.  He is sitting quietly at their sides, whispering, hey, you can get through this, too.

The guards practically have to drag him out of the gate when the clock strikes five.

 

The first part of the zoo they come across is a large, circular pool full of clear, blue water and towering rock formations.

“Who’s here?” Thor asks.  He starts walking faster, pulling Bruce along beside him.

“I’m not sure,” Bruce replies.  “Sea lions, maybe?”

“Sea lions?  Lions that live in the sea?”

“Well, not exactly…” Bruce says between strides.  He’s a little out of breath from all this hurrying around in the heat – maybe he is spending too much time in the lab.  “It’s kind-of a misnomer.  They’re a completely different family from lions, but they are mammals, and they do look a bit…”

They arrive at the edge of the pool, which does, in fact, contain sea lions – four or five of them, their sleek, gray forms jumping and diving through the water in an animated dance.  There’s a large group of kids, fourth or fifth graders, all lined up along the edge of the pool.  They cheer whenever the creatures emerge up out of the water.

“They look like lions!” Thor exclaims.  “I see it.”  He stops behind the row of children and watches intently, as though determined to memorize every detail of the animals’ movement – how they glide beneath the water, how they waddle up onto the rocks, how they flop down to take a nap.

“They’re beautiful,” Thor says, finally looking away from the pool to grin at Bruce.  “So strong and fast.  They would be very useful in a fight.”

Bruce rubs the side of his head.  “I guess.  But no animals here would ever be used in a fight.”

“Why not?” Thor wonders.  “In Asgard, our museums are full of our prize weapons – we preserve them, to remind us of the horrors of war during times of peace, and to help us fight during times of war.”

“The animals here are saved so that we can study them,” Bruce says.  “And protect them, in some cases.  And for tourists to come see them. Places like this let other people, like the kids in this school group, come and experience something outside their usual environment.  And they help kids appreciate why stuff like conservation is important – why we need to protect endangered species, and build back native habitats, and just keep supporting science.  They see that humans aren’t alone in the world, you know?”

Bruce closes his eyes for a moment and sees a four-year-old kid race down the tree-lined pathways on chubby legs, pointing at everything, waving hello to each animal he passes –

“Bruce?” Thor asks.  When Bruce opens his eyes, Thor is looking at him – all that intense curiosity trained to a single point.

He seems about to ask a question, but before he can, one of the kids lined up in front of them turns to see who’s talking and lets out a screech.

“THOR!”

Soon enough, Thor is being swarmed by screaming preteens.  Bruce watches a few steps back as Thor distributes hugs, high-fives, photo ops, and even a quick piggyback ride to one tiny girl with her hair in elaborate braids.

“I used to have nice, long hair like yours,” he tells her gravely, after setting her back down on the ground.  “I even braided it sometimes.  But then a scary old man cut it all off, and now it looks like this.”  He runs a hand through the short golden fuzz.

“I think it looks good,” the girl says.

Bruce can’t help smiling at that.

“Mr. Thor,” a kid this close to growing out of his bright Spiderman T-shirt says, “are you gonna find Thanos?”

“Yeah, are you?” several more voices chime in.  Students begin shouting over each other – Thanos took my mommy, Thanos took my sister, Thanos took Ms. Angelo and she was so nice and always let us have extra reading time, Thanos makes me wanna steal a spaceship and go across the universe and shoot up every planet until I find the one he’s hiding on but Dad says I’m too small to drive  – until the teacher leading the trip claps a few times to quiet the kids down, gives Thor a tired smile and a shake of her head.  Bruce has seen this before – remembers wide eyes and questions back in Rio de Janeiro, back before he was given a title and a team – but it brings him to a standstill every time, how kids can land on their heads, break every bone, lose every battle, and still keep fighting.

“It’s alright,” Thor reassures her.  “I’m happy to talk about it.  But I’m not sure I’m the best person to explain the Avengers’ plans.”

And then, he turns to Bruce.

Bruce… suddenly has the full attention of an entire elementary school class, not to mention their teacher, and his teammate-possibly-boyfriend-but-they-haven’t-really-talked-about-it-and-boyfriend-seems-too-mundane-a-word-for-Thor-anyway.  Bruce is good at this.  Or at least, he used to be good at this, when he taught lectures full of undergrads, before an experiment gone wrong turned him into a vessel for a rage monster who would rather smash a lectern than stand behind it.

He takes a deep breath and says, slowly, “Well, after the battle of Wakanda – you all are familiar with that, right?”

Most of the class nods.  One kid, the one in the Spiderman T-shirt, starts shouting about how cool all the Avengers are, and how smart the queen of Wakanda is, but a glance from his teacher gets him to pay attention.

“Right.  So, after that,” Bruce goes on, “the Avengers had to regroup.  We’d lost half our team, and so many vibranium weapons, and Stark suits, and – and other tech.  Now, we’re putting things back together and making new weapons.  We’re working on shields that can withstand blasts from the power stone, and sensors that can trace the particles connected to the reality stone.  One guy, Dr. Bill Foster, is working on a portable tunnel that can bring energy from the quantum realm that can destabilize whole armies if we work out how to harness it.  And we’re trying to find Thanos.  I’m one of the main people working on that.  We’ve got – it’s really interesting, actually, we’ve got this long-range telescope – well, it’s not really a telescope, it’s more like a long-range gyrotron, or a long-range carbon dating tracker.  Or maybe, actually, it is like a telescope.  It’s like if a telescope was run on radiation.  Because Thanos’ gauntlet, whenever he uses it, it emits a new type of radiation we’re calling omega.  It’s like gamma radiation, but faster and more chaotic.  I figured this out by sweeping the battle site at Wakanda.  And I think that if we can track this radiation– if we can find its traces in other parts of the universe – we can find where he is.  But it’s been tricky so far because his signature is all over the universe, right, we have to find a way to isolate the trace of the space stone from the others –”

Bruce looks at the class, trying to gage how he’s doing.  A couple of the kids are watching him intently, their brows furrowed as though they’re in the middle of taking a math test.  But most of them have wandered, returning to watching the sea lions.  One girl looks thisclose to falling asleep.

There’s a cough to his left.  Bruce shifts his gaze and finds Thor, one eyebrow raised.  Define your terms, Banner.

“Or I could.  Uh.  Let you get back to your field trip,” Bruce says.

Ten pairs of eyes shift back to him.  The kid with elaborate braids gives him a thumbs up.

“But, Dr. Banner,” a girl slumped inside a massive black sweatshirt pipes up, “if you’re working around the clock to find Thanos, why are you here?”

“Miranda,” the teacher hisses at hoodie girl.

Miranda glares back at her teacher.  “I wanna know.”

Bruce takes a few steps forward and kneels down, brings himself to eye level with Miranda.  She’s got a thin face, bony, shadowed by her sweatshirt’s hood, with huge circles beneath her eyes and this tightness to her jaw, as though every moment is a struggle not to cry or blow something up.  He knows that look.

“Miranda,” Bruce says quietly.  “Who did you lose?”

She stares back at him.  Her eyes are wide and dark, so old in her thin face.

Bruce shakes his head.  “It doesn’t matter.  But I promise you – I swear – we are gonna get them back.  I’m here at the zoo today because sometimes, even a scientist like me needs a day to step outside.  To remember what we’re fighting for.  But I’m going to go back to my lab tomorrow.  And the day after that.  And every day after that, until we find Thanos.  I’m gonna keep fighting.  And I need you to keep fighting, too.  Can you do that?”

Miranda looks at Bruce for another long moment – he can hear his heart beating in his ears, loud as a rocket crashing back to earth – and then she nods.

“Yeah,” she says.  “I can.”

Bruce stands back up, brushes the back of his hand across his eyes.

“Thor and I are gonna get going now,” he tells the class.  “That bathroom on the other side of the Madagascar exhibit is calling my name.  I hope all of you enjoy the rest of your field trip.  And let me know if you have any leads on Thanos, okay?”

He gets a few laughs out of that one.  The teacher leads the class in a chaotic chorus of Thank you, Thor and Dr. Banner.  Bruce offers Miranda a low five as he passes her.  She grabs his hand instead – holds tight, just for a moment.

 

Thor is standing with his back to the wall when Bruce gets out of the bathroom.  His arms are crossed against his chest, and he’s staring into the distance, expression hardened.

Bruce rests a hand on Thor’s arm, gentle, as though leaning in for a kiss.

“Hey,” he says.  “You okay?”

Thor blinks, refocuses.  Returns from the far reaches of space to the real world.

“I forget, sometimes,” he says.  “That it wasn’t just my brother, my friends, my people.  It was everyone’s people.”

“Yeah.  But it’s important to be reminded.”  Bruce leans in closer, moves his hand up – Thor lets Bruce untangle his arms, grab both of his hands, stitch their fingers together.  Bruce is struck all over again by Thor’s strength, his warmth.  He is always at motion quietly, almost imperceptibly, even when at rest – like a distant star.

“I know,” Thor says.  He closes his eyes for a moment, then opens them – a summer sky of blue.  “Thank you – for talking to those children.  You explained everything well.”

Bruce smiles.  “They wouldn’t even have noticed me if you weren’t there.”

Thor shakes his head.  “I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Dr. Banner.”

His voice goes lower, on those last four syllables – doctor banner transfigured into a new title, a new language – and Bruce is one tug of gravity away from leaning in, closing the distance – but he remembers twenty-two and just out of undergrad, running his fingers along the plaques with the reverence some people reserve for temples – and he steps back.  Tugs his fingers free.

“Let’s go to the reptile house,” he says.

 

The third time Bruce visits the Bronx Zoo, he is twenty-eight years old.

Twenty-eight and between doctorates, still bright-eyed and ready to take on the world, jumping at every journal that will publish him and every conference that will let him speak.  Ready to collaborate with anyone who will give him the time of day, not yet aware that some of them want patents more than progress.  Columbia University’s summit on the economic ramifications of climate change is a good one, though – full of young geniuses and free lunches for which one sandwich costs more than Bruce’s hourly wage.

New York is a different city from the twentieth floor of an Upper West Side hotel than it was from the couch of a broke friend’s walk-up.  It’s bright lights and towering skylines.  It’s music in the honking horns, it’s harmony in the sun setting over the Hudson.  Bruce never wants to leave.

And when a tall, broad-shouldered associate professor with long, dark hair and a brilliant smirk says at final-night drinks, “Anyone want to take a night trip to the zoo?  I know a guy who’ll let us in,” Bruce doesn’t hesitate.

A couple of waved arms – a couple of glasses of sangria – and Bruce is pressed up against the wall of the gift shop, Long Dark Hair and Brilliant Smirk’s hands on his hips and mouth on his neck.

“We can’t,” Bruce says, toppling from floor twenty back to the ground all at once.  “I can’t.  Not here.”

“Why not?” Long Dark Hair and No Longer Brilliant Smirk asks.  “All the animals do it here.”

Bruce stumbles back, and back, and back, until he finds the exit.  It takes him three hours to find the right subway back to his hotel.

 

The reptile house is green and dark inside.

Technically it’s not called “the reptile house” – “World of Reptiles” is the label on Thor’s map and in the center of the concrete façade – but that name does not quite roll off the tongue as easily as stepping into this cool room, air conditioned just enough that Bruce no longer feels the individual drops of sweat rolling down his neck but not so much that he wishes for a jacket.  And besides, “reptile house” is what Leo called it – is what Bruce’s mother called it, lifetimes ago.

It is green and dark inside.  It reminds Bruce of stepping into a rainforest – or at least, how he imagines stepping into a rainforest, he never got to do that kind of field work.  It’s a new universe parallel to that of cement and skyscrapers, where the ceilings are all massive leaves and the air is always heavy and you have to crane your neck just to catch a glimpse of your own shadow.  This room, inside the reptile house, with its low ceilings and its low lights, its softly glowing glass chambers lining the walls, its snakes and lizards who may or may not want to emerge from their naps – it all reminds Bruce of a dream of the rainforest.

It reminds him of the look on Thor’s face when he came into Bruce’s corner of the lab last week.  Everyone else had gone home but Bruce was still scribbling on the massive whiteboard, trying to find the best representation for his remote tracking algorithm.

Thor cleared his throat.

“Banner.”

“Bruce,” Bruce corrected him, not turning around.

“Do you know where in this city I could find green animals?”

And then, Bruce turned around.

Thor looked then as he looks now – as he looks often these days, when he believes no one is watching.  Like a shadow, or an echo – a projection of himself beamed in from another world, striped down and sharpened to a point as precise as the blade of the axe he carries.  He is a strange figment here on earth in the weeks after Thanos – not of this world and not equipped for it, not without folktales or Shakespeare to soften his edges.

And he is a shadow now in the reptile house – he is a projection, colors shimmering even as he bounces from one cage to the next, barely staying still long enough for Bruce to read the descriptions.

“I think this is it,” he says of the Burmese python, once Bruce explains how the snake’s two jaws can move independently of one another in order to help it swallow much larger animals.  “That kind of absolute disregard for others’ comfort and wellbeing, not to mention that color scheme… it has to be him.”

“But what about this fellow,” he says of the giant snapping turtle, paddling quickly across its tank on strong flippers, only pausing to glare out at them.  “He’s quick, he’s versatile, he wants me to go away… another strong candidate.”

“But who could be hiding here,” he says of a small display built into the wall, wood panels attached by hidden hinges inspiring children to learn animal facts by asking, Who’s under this rock?  “A tiny spot, to be sure, but not confined by glass, and an easy home base for shape-shifting…”

Thor doesn’t voice the name, but Bruce is skilled enough at reading lips to catch it.  To catch the darkening in Thor’s eyes when the plaque beneath Who’s under this rock? is only cartoon drawings.   To put a hand on Thor’s arm and steer him towards a different tank.

Thor is smarter than this.  Bruce knows.  He’s seen Thor calculate the strain of a wormhole’s singularity, seen him find the malfunctioning hardware in an old Stark suit, even seen him solve one of Bruce’s own equations when the night sky was beginning to lighten and Thor really wanted him to go get some rest.  But the brain is a large and unpredictable beast – solving technical problems and believing one’s brother is hiding behind a glass wall at the Bronx Zoo are not mutually exclusive.  Depth perception has never been Thor’s strong suit.

And so Bruce takes Thor’s arm, and Bruce smiles at Thor’s stories of long ago pranks, and Bruce memorizes all the Latin on the plaques, just to keep from banging his head into a wall.

 

Towards the end of the reptile house, next to a tank full of small, long-necked turtles, Bruce comes across a sign he doesn’t remember from any past trips.

“Reptile detectives,” he reads aloud.  The sign explains how conservation biologists study the behavior and needs of endangered reptile species around the world, collect representative individuals, and recreate their native habitats at the Bronx Zoo. But it’s all told in language that readers of any age could understand and augmented with pictures and diagrams, all illuminated in neon light.

“This is incredible!” Bruce exclaims.  “They’re using the actual animals in the exhibit to get kids excited about conservation, and explaining strategies in a kid-friendly way.  If I were a five-year-old reading this, I would so want to be a reptile detective.  Wouldn’t you, Thor?”

Bruce turns around.  There’s another row of glass tanks on the other side of the hallway.  There’s a father and daughter in front of a napping iguana, eyeing him with trepidation.  There’s an older couple pointing at a green tree monitor that climbed to the top of its tank.

“Thor?”

Bruce wanders into the next room.  This one has a few more lizards, plus smaller reptiles – salamanders and frogs.  Thor is standing in front of a display at the far end.  His right palm is pressed against the glass.  His back is very straight – muscles tense, as though readying for a fight.

Bruce crosses over to him, places a hand lightly on his left arm.  Gentle.  Balancing a world on the tip of his finger.

“Hey,” he says.  “Who’s here?”

Thor doesn’t answer.  His gaze is stuck in the center of the case, where a tiny, green frog is perched on a leaf.  The frog is colored a bright green – probably poisonous, Bruce’s ecologist brain supplies – and streaked with black.  It’s sitting perfectly still, surveying its surroundings with dark eyes that seem to take up half of its head.  The frog is the size of Bruce’s pinky finger.  But something in its posture or its poise or its huge, dark eyes reminds Bruce of a gargoyle atop a Gothic church – ancient and deadly, prepared to spring at enemies the size of an entire galaxy in order to stay alive.

“Poison dart frog,” the description reads.

Bruce slides his hand down Thor’s arm until he can link their fingers together.

“You think this is…” he says.

Thor nods.  “Yes.”  His voice is quiet, shaking like a tree on the coldest night of the year.  This close to shattering.

Bruce wishes he could shatter instead.

“I see it,” he replies.

Thor lets out a long, slow exhale – the kind of exhale that starts wars, or ends them.  He closes his eyes and leans in, rests his forehead against the glass.  Bruce lifts their joint hands, presses a kiss to the back of Thor’s, then goes still.

They stand there for a long time.

 

The fourth time Bruce visits the Bronx Zoo, he is forty-two years old.

Forty-two years old and invited on a special mission, his wrinkled suit met with firm handshakes and a tour of the biggest donor favorites.  Some of the scientists are concerned about leftover radiation from the Chitauri invasion affecting the animals, and so the Avengers sent their top radiation expert.

It takes Bruce an hour to convince the zoo’s higher-ups that no, this isn’t just a cursory visit, and yes, he is qualified to help, and yes, he is capable of professionalism after years on the run from the military, and yes, the device he designed to test for excess radiation will actually be useful.  But after that, he tours every exhibit, from the towering elephants to the squawking birds.  He advises the specialists on where to put detectors in all the large cages, how to conceal them so that the animals won’t be disturbed but leave enough space for easy maintenance.

“There’s just one more,” the research director says, looking at her clipboard.  “The butterfly garden.”

Bruce stammers, and then stops.  Puts his hands in his pockets and takes them out again.  Runs his fingers through his hair.  It’s starting to go gray.  How long has it been starting to go gray?

“I’m sorry,” he says.  “I have to go.  Dinner appointment with, uh, an important friend.  Can’t keep him waiting.  But I’m sure you can figure out how to deal with that one – I wouldn’t be much help there anyway, I’ve never been very good at entomology – it was a pleasure though, hope to see you again soon.”

He shakes the director’s hand, hopes she doesn’t notice the stickiness of his palm, and nearly sprints for the exit.

 

Where the reptile house was depths of a rainforest, the butterfly garden is the streets of Sakaar – movement everywhere Bruce turns – a pair of wings zipping across the ceiling – several tiny feet fighting for purchase on one bright flower – workers releasing a whole colony of newly hatched adults– a pair of children clapping and shouting at the creatures.  Bruce can barely focus on one static color before it is whisked away from him.  And it doesn’t help that the air is so damp, so heavy – plopping down on Bruce’s chest and refusing to let him breathe easy.

Thor pushes ahead, following every butterfly he sees and asking Bruce to identify each one.

“Who’s this?” he asks, pointing at a bright orange insect with black stripes perched on a low-hanging milkweed.

Bruce peers in, pretends his hands aren’t shaking.  “I think it’s a monarch,” he says.  “Although I’ve never been very good at entomology.”

“Monarch,” Thor echoes.  “As in, ruler?  King of the butterflies?  I apologize, sir, I did not realize I was in the presence of royalty.”

He takes a step back, presses his palms together, and bows gravely to the butterfly.  In response, it lifts off the flower and flutters to the ceiling.  Thor gasps, his face shifting to a comically large frown.

Bruce – is grounded for a moment by the sight.  “They’re not really royalty,” he tells Thor.  “I think they just have the name because of their orange color.”

“I still say that was rude,” Thor says.  But he’s forgotten the slight in a minute, moving on to blue butterflies and red butterflies and golden butterflies as Bruce is still struggling to remember where it is the monarchs migrate to in the winter – is it Mexico?  California?  Both?  God, he can never remember this shit.

He can never remember this shit.  He must’ve learned it in grad school or undergrad or maybe even fucking kindergarten but of course he’s useless when the information might actually be relevant when someone actually needs him –

Thor is already fifty feet away – when did that happen how did he walk so fast – Thor is laughing as a blue pansy lands on his outstretched palm – or is it a blue morpho or is it something else fuck he has no idea – how can Thor be so comfortable how can he be so still isn’t he suffocating with the heavy air in here isn’t he vibrating out of his skin just trying to make himself breathe –

something brushes past Bruce –

a child, laughing and shouting at the flying creatures around her – long braids floating out behind her head – parents yelling, “Slow down!” –

slow down –

slow down Bruce I’m talking to you –

Bruce is used to growing too big – he can prepare for the expansion the expulsion but this is the opposite – this is bones cracking cells spilling out skin pinching trapping him inside no air no air –

Bruce is four years old and everything moves too fast and he only knows how to scream –

“That stupid child has been fucked up from the day he was conceived, I don’t know why you still protect him –”

“Brian, please, not here, please at least save this for when we get home –”

“I’ll tell you what I’ll save for when we get home, you ungrateful bitch –”

– four years old and running on too-short legs – muscles pumping legs expanding heart pounding anywhere but here –

anywhere but here –

 

Bruce’s back hits the side of an oak tree and he crumples in on himself, legs barely able to hold his weight.  The air is drier here – a breeze drifts past, cool against his forehead.  He’s outside the butterfly garden.  When did that happen.

“Bruce… Bruce!”

And Thor is in front of him, blue eyes wide with concern.  He grabs Bruce by the arms, helps him lean more comfortably against the tree.

“What happened?” he asks.

You scared me, he doesn’t say.  He doesn’t say, but Bruce feels it – in the tightening of Thor’s hands around his arms, leaving white circles in the flesh – in the tightening of Thor’s jaw, steeling for a fight.

And Bruce is shaking again – this time with anger.  Even when he’s trying to comfort someone, trying to do a favor for his friend – maybe boyfriend – whatever the fuck he Thor is to him these days he’s too useless to even define the fucking relationship – he’s so goddamned weak that he can’t keep it together for one afternoon.  Puny Banner.  Baby.

“Panic… panic attack,” he says between shaky breaths.  “Haven’t had one of those in a while.  Usually… triggers the other guy.  We probably shouldn’t’ve gone in there.  Bad memories.  But I’ll be okay, just… give.  Give me a minute.”

He tries to break free of Thor’s grip, but Thor keeps him in place – less with his arms than with his eyes.

“Bruce,” Thor says.  “Tell me.”

Puny Banner.  Puny mind.  Soft.

No.  Not soft.  Tired.  Damaged.

Not soft?  Prove it.

Bruce takes a shaky breath and counts to ten.  Then he speaks.  “My parents, they took me here when I was little.  Four years old.  My dad had some kind of conference in New York and he took me and my mom along.  She wanted a nice family outing, just the three of us.  But a couple of hours in, they were screaming at each other – or no, no, he was screaming at her.  He was always screaming at her.  I don’t remember why it started, but it was probably my fault.  By the time we got to the butterfly garden, people were staring.  But he didn’t care.  He never cared.  It was my fault – my fault, I –”

“Bruce.  Hey, Bruce.  It wasn’t your fault.”  Thor’s hands are on Bruce’s shoulders now, his thumbs rubbing circles into the skin.  Like a centrifuge, some part of Bruce’s brain that is watching this from fifty feet in the air thinks, like a centrifuge bringing all the solid particles to the bottom and letting the supernatant drift.

Thor keeps rubbing Bruce’s shoulders, and then he’s moving up, cradling Bruce’s neck, his cheeks, the corners of his eyes, wiping away the tears just beginning to gain substance.  He has strong hands, warm hands, not the hands that Bruce would expect from an alien king but rough, calloused from centuries of wielding hammers and swords and battleaxes.  Strange, how weeks ago these hands were holding the reins of a dying star and now they can be here, soft in their purpose, yielding.

Bruce concentrates on breathing in time with Thor’s hands.  One circle, one inhale, one circle, one exhale.  Maintain a rhythm, find a baseline, and expand.  Remember four years old and speedy on stubby legs, remember four years old and pushed by the pulse of screaming, remember four years old and wishing to fly south for winter with the butterflies.  Remember, remember, remember.

Bruce concentrates on breathing, concentrates on remembering.  He doesn’t know how long he stands there, back against an old oak tree, learning once again how to turn with the rotation of the earth.

He only knows that when he smiles shakily, tells Thor, “It’s alright, we can move on now,” Thor pulls him closer and wraps those arms that have conquered worlds around him.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Thor repeats.

Bruce presses his forehead against Thor’s shoulder.  “I know.”

 

Bruce says he wants to keep moving, but Thor insists on finding a place to stop and rest first.  He also goes to buy Bruce a bag of popcorn, then remembers that he doesn’t have any money, and asks Bruce if he can borrow five dollars to buy him a bag of popcorn.  But when Bruce tries to pay, the worker manning the snack cart stops him (they have RECOGNIZE THESE FACES signs everywhere in this place, apparently) and gives him a bag for free, so after only mild embarrassment they’re both planted on a bench next to a small, out of the way pond, shaded beneath a large willow tree.

“This is delicious,” Thor says, shoving a large handful of popcorn into his mouth.  “What did you say it’s called?”

“Popcorn,” Bruce replies, snagging a handful of his own.  “Because it’s made from, well, popping the kernels of corn.”

“Ingenious.  My compliments to the chef.”  Thor grabs more popcorn this time, enough that some of it spills onto the bench.  He considers the lost kernels for a moment, shrugs, and then scoops them up and drops them into his mouth.

“You know, that’s not very sanitary,” Bruce tells him.

“Sanitary?”

“You don’t know what germs could be on that bench.”

“I’ve defeated monsters capable of wiping out entire worlds,” Thor says.  “I think I can handle a few ‘germs.’”  Who taught him air quotes?  “Besides, Captain Rogers told me about something called the five-second rule.”  He drops a piece of popcorn onto the ground, counts to four, then picks it up before he reaches five and pops it into his mouth.  “See?”

Bruce stifles a laugh.  “Well, I guess as long as you obey the five-second rule,” he concedes.

He moves closer to Thor until their sides are pressed together.  Thor drapes an arm over the back of the bench, his non-popcorn fingers resting lightly on Bruce’s shoulder.  It’s something like eighty degrees out, and sunny – it should be too warm for cuddling.  But Bruce leans into the touch – anchored, as though Thor’s arm could scare away any more potential panic attacks that might be lurking, out there in the dark corners of his mind.

The popcorn is half gone, the next time he speaks.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

Thor finishes chewing his god-sized mouthful, swallows, then turns to look at Bruce.  “What for?”

“Losing control like that,” he replies.  “I’m supposed to be helping you look for – I’m supposed to be helping you.  Not freaking out over something that happened forty years ago.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for.”  Thor puts the bag of popcorn down, turns, and takes Bruce’s shoulders in his hands again.  “That memory is a part of you.  Remembering it, understanding it, learning from it – that all makes you strong, just as your intelligence and your creativity and your kindness all make you strong.  It’s all part of why you’re a hero.”

“Am I, though?” Bruce asks.

Thor grins.  “Whoever hung those pictures of you inside every ticket booth and snack stand in this place seems to think you are.”

Bruce puts his head in his hands.  “I still can’t believe they did that,” he says, voice muffled.  “I don’t deserve this special treatment.”

Thor takes his arms, and gently, gently pries them away, then smiles at Bruce until he has to lift his head.

“This pond,” he says.  “There are creatures in it.  Tell me about them.”

Bruce stands up, a little shakily, and takes a few steps towards the edge of the water.  “Oh – these are Trachemys scripta elegans,” he says.  “Red-eared sliders.”  There are several of the turtles paddling about, their brown, ridged shells blending in with the dark water.  Two smaller turtles resting on a log near the center of the pond are sitting very close together – almost as though they’re cuddling.

“They’re native to this area,” Bruce goes on, “which is why they’re out here rather than in the reptile house.  You can see a bunch of these guys in Central Park, too, especially in the reservoir.  They’re popular as pets, and have kinda become invasive in other parts of the world – that means they’re taking over environments and out-competing local species, which isn’t great – but I still like them.  Actually, I remember this site from the radiation testing – it was hard to find a spot to stash the meter that would both be close enough in range to test all the turtles but hidden enough that they couldn’t mess with it.  I ended up designing a special underwater case for these guys so that we could attach the meter to a rock at the bottom of the pond, just out of their diving range.”

Bruce turns around, and Thor is looking at him.  If he seemed out of range and fuzzy at the edges in the reptile house, he is the opposite here – focused, tightly packed energy all in one place and all concentrated on Bruce.  Looking at him feels like walking into a lightning storm.

Thor stands up, takes a few steps closer, and leans down to kiss Bruce – all hard intent and sun-soaked warmth.

“See?” he says.  “You do deserve it.”

Bruce smiles – a response as instinctive a lizard seeking a spot in the sun.  “You taste like salt and butter.”

“This popped corn is very powerful,” Thor replies.  He returns to grab the bag from the bench, tips his head back, and pours the rest of the popcorn into his mouth.  Bruce watches the movement of his throat, half disgusted and half – well.  Something else.

“Now, there must be other worthy creatures here to look at?”

“Oh, yeah.”  Bruce grabs Thor’s hand and begins leading him in a new direction.  “We should go see the bears, next.  I bet you’ll love those.”

 

Thor loves the bears.

In fact, he stands in front of the grizzly exhibit – an expansive hillside full of trees and rocks for the bears to play with – for almost half an hour, asking Bruce to explain everything he knows about the creatures.  Bruce stifles the urge to explain the behaviors of a different kind of bear (which he thinks Thor would probably enjoy just as much, if not more), and instead tells him all about hibernation.  Thor asks how sure Bruce is that humans are actually the most intelligent species on earth.

“You think hibernation is smart?” Bruce asks.  “Mr. ‘I’m going to run towards my problems because that’s what heroes do?’”

Thor looks at him strangely for a moment – Bruce isn’t sure why, it’s definitely something Thor said – they were in Bruce’s room on Sakaar, and – wait.  Huh.

Bruce saves that for unpacking later, and asks Thor if he’d like to go see the polar bears next.

“Polar bears?” Thor echoes.

“Yeah, they’re, um, bears that live in very cold climates, like Alaska or northern Siberia -”

“A most majestic species,” Thor agrees.  “Yes, I must pay my respects.”

The polar bears, as it turns out, are all inside awaiting colder weather.  (Bruce can’t blame them.)  Bruce steers Thor towards more large mammals – the snow leopards in the Himalayan Highlands, then over to the lions and tigers in the African plains.  At every exhibit, Thor asks questions.  He wants to know why the giraffes have such long necks, why the zebras have such vivid stripes, if he’d be allowed to fight a lion, “just for training purposes.”  (Bruce has to say no to that one, although he has to admit it would be fun to watch.)

Bruce’s favorite question, though, is the one Thor asks when they come across a peacock, perched atop an out-of-use restaurant building next to the antelope exhibit.

“Hey,” Bruce says, pointing with the hand that isn’t holding Thor’s.  “Look up there.”

Thor follows Bruce’s gaze to the bird.  It’s hard to miss, between the bright blue feathers and the long white claws and the long neck stuck out in a clear gesture of superiority.  It’s a male peacock, Bruce is sure – he can see long wings poking out in the back.

“Why are his wings down like that?” Thor asks.

“That’s a peacock,” Bruce explains.  “He’s got beautiful, vibrant wings, but only flares them out in mating displays.”

“Oh.”  Thor nods.  “I see.”

And then he climbs on top of a nearby picnic table, the plastic bouncing slightly under his weight, and begins squawking at the peacock.

“Hey,” he shouts.  “Hey, hey!  I think you’re gorgeous!  I think you’re very cool!  I think you’re the best bird I’ve ever seen!”

The bird cocks its head, gaze shifting to focus on Thor.  Thor jumps back and forth, then raises his arms to flap wildy in a poor imitation of wings.

And then, the peacock flaps back.

His wings are incredible – a mosaic of bright blue and green and aquamarine, flashing and shimmering in the afternoon sunlight like the surface of the ocean on a clear day.

“Yeah!” Thor shouts.  “That’s it!  That’s great!”

He turns to Bruce, grinning so widely that Bruce wants to pull him off that picnic table and kiss him until they both run out of oxygen.  Who cares where they are.  Who cares who sees.

“He likes me,” Thor says.

Bruce smiles back at his stupid-wonderful, they-haven’t-talked-about-it-yet-and-the-word-could-never-do-him-justice-but-let’s-be-honest-probably boyfriend.

“Yeah,” he says.  “He’s got good taste.”

 

They get recognized a few more times.

Nothing as intense as a full class of elementary school kids, thank god.  But it happens.  There’s a tiny kid in an Avengers T-shirt near the elephants, bouncing out of his mother’s arms, shouting that he wants to train and get stronger so that he can smash like the Hulk one day.  There’s a pair of elderly women near the flamingos, who say they’ve lived in the Bronx their whole lives and thank Thor and Bruce for saving New York City, “and the rest of the world, too, I guess.”  There’s a young couple by the fountain, one woman with long, red hair and a sweet smile and the other with a frizzy ponytail above a New York Botanical Garden tank top, who call Thor the “god of lesbians” and insist on getting several selfies with him.  There’s a family of tourists who start taking pictures of Bruce next to the world of birds, then apologize profusely and insist on buying him something when Thor calls them out on it.  (Bruce refuses to let them spend money on him, but goes into the gift shop himself while Thor is in the bathroom and buys a stuffed frog.)

And then, there is this.

Two girls approach Bruce and Thor as they stand in front of the rhinoceros statues, arguing over whether Thor should climb on top of one for a photo.  The girls emerge out of the trees, their steps quiet in old sneakers.  They both have long, dark hair, tied up in similar high ponytails.  One is taller, maybe seventeen, with bags under her eyes and a slump to her posture that Bruce recognizes from his years of undergrad – the classic can someone just kill me before I fail this final pose.

“Come on, Alicia,” the older girl says, nudging the younger one.  “Go on and ask him.”

The younger girl – maybe ten years old, much shorter than her sister and less worn down – takes a few steps closer.

“Excuse me,” she says.  “Are you Dr. Banner?”

Bruce crouches down to look at the girl more closely.  Her face is all wide circles – her cheeks, her eyes, peering at him as though through a portal to another world.

“I am,” he tells her.  “What’s your name?”

“Alicia,” she replies.  “And this is my sister Luciana.  But I call her Lucy.”

“Nice to meet you, Alicia,” Bruce says.  He reaches out a hand for her to shake.  Her fingers are sticky, but her grip is firm.

“We have a picture of you up in my school,” Alicia says.  “With all the great scientists.”

Bruce has to take a second to process that.  A picture?  Of him?  But then he remembers Leo, and Miranda, and you deserve it.

And he asks, “Why do you have a picture of me up in your school?”

“Miss Andrews – that’s my teacher – she says you’re a really great scientist.  You’ve helped save the world a bunch of times.  And you know all about gamma – gamma rada-something.”

“Gamma radiation,” Bruce supplies.

“Yeah!” Lucy grins.  “And my sister, Lucy, she’s gonna be a great scientist, too, someday.  Even though her grades right now kinda suck.”

“Ali,” the older girl hisses, grabbing her sister’s hand tightly.

Bruce stands back up, refocuses his attention.

“Is that true?” he asks Lucy.

“Well.”  Lucy glares at her sister, then answers.  “I’m in all the top classes at Bronx Science.  And yeah, I want to study bio in college.  But our parents – our parents went away ‘cause of Thanos, and I had to get a job to support us.”

Bruce turns around, looks at Thor.  Thor is glancing back and forth from sister to sister – he is lost, floating in space light years away, or trapped in a cage in the reptile house next to a tiny green frog.

“You know, what, Lucy,” Bruce says, “we’re actually looking for interns in my lab, and I bet you’d be a great fit.  Shoot me an email, and I’ll see what we can work out.”

He fishes in his pockets for a pen and slip of paper – his ticket, as it happens – scrawls down his email, double-checks that it’s actually legible, and hands it to the girl.

She stares at it for a second – pinches it, as though to check that it’s not about to dissolve into dust – and then steps forward and wraps her arms around him in a hug.  Bruce reaches one arm around, pats her back a couple of times, before she steps back.

“Oh my god – sorry – sorry -” Lucy stammers.  “I wasn’t thinking – I just -”

Bruce smiles at her.  “It’s fine,” he says.  “Just stay strong.  Stay in school.  And email me, alright?”

 

“I didn’t know you were looking for interns,” Thor says, after the girls have walked away.

Bruce grabs Thor’s hand, links their fingers together.  “I wasn’t.”

 

The last exhibit they visit is the komodo dragon.

This animal is one of Bruce’s favorites, and he tells Thor as much once they’re inside.  There’s something about them – these ancient, massive lizards, the only remaining survivor of a whole clade of large reptiles, once-rulers of expansive domains with claws and tongues.

Thor watches the one komodo dragon currently out in the exhibit.  It’s prowling around the enclosure of rocks and sand, sometimes pausing to turn and flick its tongue out at Thor and Bruce, as though to warn them against daring to enter its kingdom.

“How do these creatures manage it?” Thor asks.

“Manage what?”

“Being so far from home.”  Thor keeps staring out, his gaze trained on the dragon.  “You can figure out everything this dragon needs, all the food and water and space.  You can build him a new place to live that’s an exact copy of his native space.  Same with all the other creatures in this zoo.  But won’t he know that home is really across world – in Australia or Indonesia?  Won’t he feel… won’t he know something is missing?”

If Thor is a projection, it is because his background is missing.  All the colors, all the details that would fill out his shadow, give it depth and angles – they’re all scattered across the cosmos – splintered to pieces first by a hardened father, next by a vengeful sister, then by a power-hungry god trying to balance the universe without stopping to define his terms.  Bruce wishes he could bring it all back, reach through time and space and pull the edges together, give substance to the ghosts quietly tearing Thor’s limbs apart.  He wishes he could find Loki and pull him into a poison dart frog, wishes he could find Asgard and build a new home for its people out of New York forests, wishes he could at the very fucking least find Thanos and drive an axe through his head.

But all he can do is this: grab Thor’s shoulders.  Hold on tight.  Press their foreheads together.  Who cares who sees.  Give him an anchor – something, anything.  The shape of gravity, if not the substance.

“Nobody has ever asked the animals if they miss their homelands,” Bruce says.  “We don’t know how.  But if they do – that’s not the end of the world.  Anything is capable of evolving.  Anyone is.  You just need to keep going.  Keep going, and eventually you’ll find what you need.”

This is all Bruce can do.  But Thor’s breath hitches, and he leans in – he holds on.  He lets this be enough.

 

 

 

“Bruce?”

Bruce rolls over onto his side, pushes closer into the arm Thor has wrapped around his waist.  Thor is looking down at him, blue eyes calm and unwavering.

“Hey,” Bruce says.

“You’re not asleep yet.  Good.”

Bruce waits for more, but none is forthcoming.  He reaches one hand up to trace his fingers through Thor’s hair, the soft fuzz along the side of his head.  Thor’s eyes flutter closed at the touch.

“What’s up?” Bruce asks.

Thor is silent for another long moment, then he reaches up to grab Bruce’s hand, stilling its path.  And this is good, too – fingers twine together automatically, easily as water molecules flowing together.  “Thank you,” Thor says.  “For going to the zoo with me today.  I know you are very busy, and you have many other things to work on – more important than my silly quest to find my brother.  And –”

“Hey.”  Bruce stops him.  Rests his hand on Thor’s cheek.  It’s a little funny, or a little sad, how formal he can be sometimes.  Fifteen hundred years of almighty power, and nobody has ever taught this god how to prioritize what he really wants.

“You don’t have to thank me,” Bruce says.  “This is important.”

Thor’s brows lower for a moment, as though he might argue, but then he softens, goes pliant, presses his face to the curve of Bruce’s shoulder.

“I should be thanking you, really,” Bruce goes on, his fingers returning to their path through Thor’s hair.  “You gave me an excuse to go see the turtles.”

“We should go back next week,” Thor says, muffled.  “To check on them.”

“Yeah.”  Bruce dips his chin, presses a kiss to the top of Thor’s head.  “We should.”

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