Big Wolf, Little Wolf
. . .
It didn't really matter if the journey in question involved several subspace hops or was made up of good, old-fashioned slow-time space trucking, being cooped up on a massive, rickety vessel was going to make any trip feel about five times as long as it actually was.
When that ship's crew is made up of several hundred near-ageless immortals with the trappings of their eternal daily lives stripped away (along with a handful of deeply confused alien gladiators just happy to be free and along for the ride), Loki mused, that ship turned into a goddamn daycare.
It wasn't that Loki lacked sympathy for Asgard's plight. He had that in spades, if buried deep and any remaining clue kept off his neutral, careful face. All the art he once loved was gone. The libraries that were his childhood life were dust. Every physical scrap of their shared past was exactly that now - the past. The stars that marked all the lives of Asgard that had gone before no longer hung in familiar places to watch over them. No, he was just as sorrowful, and in some ways, perhaps more than some others. The problem was, he'd long gotten into the habit of filtering his emotions into being someone else's pain in the ass instead of the wailing, the banging around, the drunk bar-style fights, and the rising arguments between families.
At some point fairly recently, he had developed the fresh idea that being a pain wasn't always a spiffy way to keep himself in one piece, so now he was resorting to skulking the halls, the catwalks, the out of the way nooks, and observing the frustrated people, trying to figure out how nursemaids and teachers kept from killing their charges. There had to be healthier ways for the orphaned Asgardians to burn off the collective amounts of grief and stress without driving each other crazy, but certainly Loki wasn't in a position to be much of a counselor in that regard. Instead he mildly passed along what he saw of the worst of the dust-ups to the Valkyrie, and to obscenely good-natured Korg, so that they could at least try to not make it worse. The people were not going to be inclined to fully trust him right now, although the worst of the hostility was gone again.
A real valkyrie showing up in full white-gild armor, like a ghost out of legend, well, the sight of her at least shut up a few of the older, more disgruntled men. And Korg was just confusing to most of them. Perfect. Not Loki's problem.
The Hulk, though.
That could become everyone's problem, if the beast got bored enough.
. . .
There was a thin catwalk leading to a space that passed for a narrow balcony along the west edge of the cargo hold. It was a smaller one, used at one point for hazardous but valuable materials, and occasionally a few collectibles the Grandmaster shipped off to his equally eccentric brother, and it was one of the few larger spaces the refugees could spare for just one individual.
Just barely enough room for the broad and dusty green feet to pace back and forth. One hundred and twenty four paces wide for the beast of a man. Eighty-three paces across. An empty arena for a gladiator champion. There were no challengers left.
Loki had yet to see Banner's inner creature sleep. He was certain he did, the beast was no doubt primally careful and probably brief about it. Catnaps, and only when he sensed nothing else close. But every time Loki crept into range, that silent shadow up on the balcony to observe the old enemy, the Hulk only paced. Muttering and glowering to himself.
There were a few common misconceptions about Loki. Many familiar with Earth's bizarre mythology believed he was a patron of lies. And, no doubt, he could lie his ass off with real flair when he needed to - usually to Thor, as these things happened. But on the whole, Loki actually preferred getting people to react in the way he needed with judicious and tactical use of certain truths he dug up. Those could hit bone far more effectively than any lie.
The one person who could have reminded Loki that he truly was a god of lies to one individual above all - himself - was long gone. And so there was no one around to call bullshit when Loki thought to himself that, of course, it wasn't that he was scared of the Hulk. Not at all. Certainly their last meeting on Earth could have gone better for him, and certainly he'd taken an absolutely heroic amount of joy out of watching Thor get the spit knocked out of him courtesy of that familiar towel-like whipping, but it wasn't about fear.
It was simply the reasonable concerns of dealing with a creature whose limitations were still unknown.
Also the bit where the Hulk tried to punch a gigantic flame god in the face, and really, pretty much got away with it. Made an impression.
And he killed an enchanted wolf the size of a mid-range space hauler.
Oh, and there was that time he broke one of Thanos's leviathans in half while Loki listened from where he was still embedded in the floor of the Avenger's tower. Was it only the one? Might've been more.
But it absolutely was not about being afraid of the Hulk, Loki lied to himself.
What if the beast tore up the ship?
Worth noting, he thought, Thor still doesn't think that's going to be a problem. Fundamental differences. After all this time, my big brother still likes to trust.
You'd think I'd finally break him of that.
He didn't like little Banner much, either, but the human had a reasonable concern about not being able to resume control over himself. Hel, there was almost a glimmer of sympathy there. Dark sides of one's self that you had no full understanding or control over, just shoved into your life and you had to deal with not only with it but with everyone's reactions to you. Loki got that. Wouldn't buy the human a drink, but he got that.
His hand twisted on the thin railing as he thought. Not by much. Just enough that the leather strap along his palm caught the steel, made a faint, plasticky squeak. Like a mouse.
The Hulk whirled, those dark eyes embedded deep into the broad face fixing instantly on the catwalk.
Loki was already gone.
Not that he'd run, of course.
He simply walked away very, very fast.
. . .
"It's a coefficient thing, bro." Korg gestured vaguely at the damage left by Hela's piercing shards of knife-like steel while Thor watched him, brows furrowed in confusion. "Fuel efficiency is off 'cause these brutes look right ugly, but they're also really touchy, aye? So we've got one side a proper boxy mess like it was supposed to be when it came outta production, and this side's all rough and tumble with that mad lady's shards pokin' all out, and it's suckin' all our fuel to compensate, yeah. Math's off, why we lost ten percent when we wasn't lookin'. We'll lose more if we don't fix it."
Korg looked up at the silence, grinning rocklike at Thor's single blink. He took no offense. Kronans were known for brute work, but not so much smart work. His mother had been a little different than most, surviving on Sakaar. "My mum's a builder. Shipwright, like. Scavenge and fix. We do work for a livin', my family."
The next, in a mutter, "Except for her boyfriend. Leech, he is." His voice lifted up again. "Anyway, if we could get the last few spikes out, suss out the holes and whatall, we'll be fine the rest of the way. Wherever we get to." Korg knocked a knuckle against a tall, metal shard taller than himself. "Uh, but they're in right tight. Can't seem to move any of them. Heh."
Thor unfolded his arms and looked around at a handful of chagrined Asgardian volunteers. "None of you, either?"
One spoke up. "No, Your Majesty. Bjorn and I couldn't get it to so much as wiggle. Got the whole crew on it, leverage doesn't quite work when we can barely get a grip. Shards cut even our hands." The man, Halfstad, looked rueful. "And just makes a godsawful noise on Lord Korg's stone."
Thor could feel Korg's delighted beam at being suddenly upgraded to a lordship. Hard to not like the fellow. Well, if they all together couldn't move the wreckage, he certainly couldn't. "All right," he said, temporizing. Then the obvious solution struck him like a bolt. "Hang on, then. I'll handle this."
. . .
"You always tell me how you're the better pilot." Thor couldn't keep the amusement out of his voice.
"That doesn't directly translate to ship repairs, brother." Loki's voice, comparably was neutrally cold behind him.
"All right. You can also magic up a temporary airlock if this doesn't work out right." Thor didn't stop moving back towards the damaged section of the ship. "You can, can't you?"
Grudging. "For a few moments, yes."
"More than enough time for the ship's shields to kick back in."
"And you really think you can coax the Hulk into fixing our little issue for us." Deadpan.
"Not me, Loki. His good friend Bryn."
"Oh, we're on a first name-nickname basis now." Still deadpan.
Thor stopped in his tracks and whirled, staring into Loki's face as the scars from his lost eye made his brother flinch almost imperceptibly. "You really don't want to be in the same room as Banner, do you?"
Loki blinked but made no other move. "That's an utterly ridiculous accusation."
"Mm, that's why you've gone into unreadable statue mode."
The theatrical eye roll Thor received was all kinds of familiar.
"Yeah, you need some new routines, Loki." Thor turned back to the hallway. "Come on. You don't want to be dead adrift in the middle of nowhere, either."
. . .
Loki kept himself busy fussing with the series of control panels instead of watching the Valkyrie lead the Hulk in past the observers and the volunteer repair crew. If he had the displays figured right, even if something went cockeyed, he wouldn't need a spell to keep the air pressure in the hold at proper levels. "Okay," he said to apparently no one in particular. "I've got the sealant subroutine on standby. If-"
He looked up at the murmur. The Hulk was already through the small but curious crowd and had one giant-sized hand wrapped around the largest of Hela's left-behind shards. Loki tried to say something - timing mattered. If the shard went awry then-
The Hulk shoved down and away, and the broken shard fell into empty space.
The alarm panels bleeped softly once, and the soft hiss of freshly scrubbed air reached Loki's ears. His hand dropped to his side as he watched the Hulk casually kick out the rest of the shards without causing any extra damage.
"Done," rumbled the Hulk. He snorted, muttered, and looked around at the crowd, all of them looking back at him with startled, even slightly embarrassed faces. Then he looked directly at Loki, gimlet eyes under that thick and looming brow with an amused, somehow knowing smile. "Puny gods."
Loki had absolutely nothing to say to that. He just watched as the Hulk turned back towards the door, his face unwillingly slack at the black joke only the two of them shared. People shifted and moved out of the way of his thudding gait, and tension rose sharper when the Hulk paused by a woman with a small child curled in her arms. The baby looked back up at the Hulk without the fear his mother showed, even when the Hulk blinked and reached down to - gently, strangely gently - tap the child on the brow with one curious finger. Then he looked up, as if sensing the greater-yet rise in tension throughout the hold.
Loki saw a split second of disappointment and hurt on the beast's face, and then the Hulk was gone again, grunting at his friend Brunnhilde as he passed.
. . .
Loki studied his handiwork with a critical eye. It wasn't about sympathy, or pity, just a simple act of minor helpfulness. Thor had been at a loss how to show any gratitude towards the Hulk for his help besides a hearty thank you and a solid clap on the arm. It might not please the beast entirely, but there was an attempt.
The Hulk's hold - really, more of a self imposed exile, Loki unwillingly realized - was now draped in Sakaaran garish flair. A handful of shiny flags he remembered from the crowds draped over pipes, strings of glitter and trinkets, reflections of bony trophies up and out of the way to be admired, the distance hiding that they, like all the frippery, were only illusions. He'd managed to scrounge a few real blankets just to add comfort, and those too wore new colors to brighten up the drab hold.
It was something. It wasn't him being nice, it was sending a message from the new king of Asgard.
Yes, thoughts like that were on constant repeat while he kept touching up his work. It beat introspection.
The iffy part was that Loki needed to anchor the illusion to the Hulk by having him present before Loki could leave, else the new decor would fade. Well, there hadn't been an incident earlier, and one more backup illusion called up on command meant Loki could scoot out the door as fast as necessary.
A sniff behind him, long and deep, was his first warning the Hulk had arrived. Not footsteps, to Loki's shock - how was the beast that quiet all of a sudden? The second was all the tiny hairs at the nape of Loki's neck rising sharp and straight. "Ah," he said, at least sounding completely calm. Third illusion in a row, if he were to be honest. Which he wasn't. "Hello, Banner."
"Hulk," came the rumble.
"Sure," said Loki, agreeably enough. "Whatever."
Another sniff as the wide shadow passed over him. The Hulk moved to the center of the room, sweeping a look at all the finery. He muttered to himself, then moved to the pile of blankets and sat on it, looking down at the clean steel floor.
Loki prepared to anchor the illusion, his hands rising and fingers preparing to twitch. Faster done, faster gone.
"Fake," said the Hulk. His shoulders roiled and shifted, but he didn't get up. He sounded almost sad. Another long sniff as the broad face came up to look at him, and there Loki saw he'd been right. "All fake."
"The blankets are real." His lips felt numb. Illusions pierced, just like that. How? "Thor just wanted you to be comfortable."
"Mmrgh." Thick hands reached down to pat them. "Yes. Them real. Keep them. Put things away."
It was the lack of hostility that threw Loki more than anything else. Hel, he almost thought he heard 'please' in the undertone. Still mostly internally frozen, he snapped his fingers and let the illusions drift away.
The Hulk scrunched the blankets around his butt, letting the fabric bunch between his fingers. "Better." He looked up at Loki. "Thor tried. You tried. You mean person, but you tried." He looked away. "Them afraid like everyone else."
The blankets scrunched and unscrunched in those big hands. Loki realized something he'd been wrong about - beastlike, yes. Primal. But the Hulk wasn't stupid. He was a child - made up of all of a human's pent up and immature emotions. A big, angry, but fairly intelligent kid. That was why he responded to the baby earlier. Same big eyes in a lumpy face, same raw state of existence. "Asgard afraid of Hulk, too. Thor wrong. Mean well, but wrong. Hulk not belong."
"Asgard is just afraid in general right now, it's not a good time to assess the emotional situation. They've lost everything they've known."
"They." The eyes fixed on him again, same little light flickering on. That primal knowing. "They."
The hairs on Loki's neck rose again.
Hulk looked away, as if relenting. "Smell was wrong. No smell. Bone smells. Crisp. Dry. Wood smells. Good, warm. Blood smells. Metal, bitter, full of hurt. " He patted the blankets. "Smelly blankets. Dirty. Dusty. Good smell. Someone gave. Real. Better." A big and heavy sigh came out of the Hulk. "Go away, small god," he said, and there wasn't a threat in it.
Loki left, glancing back at the Hulk and thinking quickly to himself, as he did.
. . .
One hundred and twenty four paces, back and forth, back and forth. Many times. Too many for a Hulk to count, numbers were for little Banner and he wasn't allowed here right now. Hulk could feel him sometimes, scrabbling around behind his eyes like a rabbit. Hulk liked that image. A cute, tiny, and harmless animal in a cage. Like Banner, not like Hulk.
Nothing reflected in the empty hold, and he liked that, too. Hulk thumped back and across one more time, then dropped onto his blankets with a grunt, scooping one up to give it a good sniff. The smell was fading. Dusty earth, old perfumes. Lady's blanket. Nice lady, whoever it was. Hulk wouldn't want to hurt her.
He might by accident, because he got angry so easily and broke things, and he didn't like that, but he wouldn't want to. Hulk hoped she was okay. Maybe it was baby lady. But there were a bunch of baby ladies, now that he thought of it.
He sniffed again, and got a different smell wafting into his quiet place. Cool smell, skin, leather. Not Asgardian smell. Mean one that had been acting not so mean. The puny god. Hulk looked up and saw the door to his hold. He'd been leaving it open, no real reason. Fresh air, maybe, though there was no real fresh air on the ship. Maybe for pretend freedom. Maybe for angry girl. But no, there was mean one. "You."
Loki took a breath and stepped in, bobbing his head politely with his arms behind his back. "Banner."
"Hulk." There was another smell in the air. Almost familiar, but small and faint. Hulk couldn't quite catch it in his nostrils.
"Mm. I brought something for you."
"Not at all, I promise. Something real." Loki brought his arms forward from where he'd had them folded behind his back, and across the palms was a thick string loaded with trinkets. Just like the ones Hulk wore on Sakaar.
Hulk cocked his head and sniffed. No, not just like. Different, but interesting. The string was a gold cord - lady cord - and there were nice wood squares, and a handful of silvery orbs, and bone, he smelled real bone! He reached out and touched the large fang. "Bone?"
"It's, ah, from one of the warriors. Actually, all the things come from someone. I did a scavenge around, told people the great gladiator who helped save the people was feeling homesick, too. They gave me little bits and odds, and I found a jeweler who was more than happy to have something to do." He looked up at Hulk's face, realizing he was over-answering. "The fang is from a Jotunheim wolf."
That meant zero to Hulk, and it showed.
"A frosty wolf, from a cold place. We can't make a trophy out of Hela's pet for you, but it's supposed to mean that. A symbol."
"Symbol." The Hulk plucked the thick cord from Loki's hands, listening to it rattle and jingle around. "Sign."
"Of respect, yes." Loki watched the Hulk try to process that. "It's not like an illusion. It's like your trophies. It means a real thing, by trying to mimic it with something real." He winced. "I'm not getting that across very well, for some reason."
"You did this."
"Thor no ask."
The look of deep discomfort on Loki's face was all the explanation anyone would ever need. Hulk let the beads click between his fingers, thinking as best as a Hulk can. "Why you still call Hulk Banner?"
Loki shifted his weight. "Because, and without meaning to upset you, it's all the same person to me."
"Hulk is Hulk. No Banner."
"Hulk is Banner and Banner is Hulk. You're pieces of each other, sometimes man and and… beast." Against his will, that sounded apologetic.
"HULK IS NOT A PIECE." It came out in not quite a roar, but one mighty, low, and pissed-off grumble.
Loki's body twitched in a full body wince, but he didn't run. "That's not what I meant."
"Is you said."
"That. I. Shit." Loki temporarily gave up, his hands gesturing vaguely.
Loki raised a single hand, palm up and towards the Hulk. "Will you let me try to explain?"
"Because I'm a curious arsehole and we don't like each other very much, but figuring out how people work is kind of my thing and I'm out of good books to read."
"You do mean things with that thing."
Loki took a long, deep inhale. "Sometimes, yeah. But if I try that with you, you're going to smear me all over the walls, and that's not my best look."
Hulk sat on his blankets with a grumble, but the beaded cord with its given trinkets stayed in his hands. It felt good there. Cold metals and woods and that nice piece of sharp bone. Given to him. A good thing, right thing. "Okay. Try. No promise Hulk no get mad."
"Can't hardly ask for that, can I?"
Hulk studied Loki, brow furrowing and smoothing and furrowing again. "Why Hulk same as Banner?"
"You're not the same."
"But?" The word rose, confused and already freshly pissed again. "But?"
"You're… fuck." Loki gave up again and sat and a piece of the blanket near the Hulk. "No offense, but I'm used to people who can hold up their end of the conversation a bit more. Okay. You see me and Thor together. We were raised as brothers. But we're not alike are we?"
"No." It came with a somewhat insulting laugh.
"Not at all, fair. But you talk to bards and taletellers and the sort of people that pay attention to palace drama, and you almost never get stories without the both of us in them." Loki deliberately left out the part where that drove him up the wall. "We're not the same person, but for people who watch us, it's sort of… a set. A matched set."
"Banner like brother?"
"I… well. Little Banner is made up of the things you don't do. You don't faff around with science and numbers, you don't think. You feel, you react. You're everything he's afraid to be." Loki ran a hand through his hair, finishing with a good hard rub of two fingers across his forehead.
"Little Banner scared."
"Sure. Fear is sort of like this… wall that you can't see. Like how Asgardians are afraid right now. They can be very strong people, but they've just gone through a lot and they don't know what's going to happen next. Things are uncontrolled. Big emotions are like that, you don't control them, you just get through them best you can. You feel a lot, and it's uncomfortable, and people get upset. They get angry. Like you feel angry. You're angry instead of afraid, because your smaller side has all the fear. And nobody likes being like that. So you feel divided, you angry and Banner scared, only with you it's literal instead of metaphorical." Loki studied the toe of his boot, looking up at the Hulk's shift.
Loki sighed, tired. "Fuck. A little like your trophy cord. The cord means you killed big wolf, but we gave you little wolf tooth. Most people, fear is like an illusion of the little wolf. It hides, it barks, it's not actually so dangerous. You, you are the big wolf, big and real and not just a symbol, and everyone else gets scared because they sort of understand the symbol."
"I don't like fear." The big broad lip stuck out in a poof. "Others don't like me."
"Many people don't like being afraid, because it's being out of control. You're the trophy of that to some people. But. Well." Discomfort struck again. "Fear itself isn't bad. Being afraid can help people survive."
"Hm. No understand." Hulk turned away from him, scooting across his blanket to stare at a wall.
Loki leaned back on his arms, unable to help a small smile. "I tried."
"Hulk never scared."
A tiny bit of inspiration hit him. "But if you were, you know, it might be something that other piece of you could handle better."
"Well, he is small and annoying, sure, but sometimes the thinky bits can be useful when punchy doesn't work."
"You thinky too much."
Isn't that the godsdamned truth? Loki stared at the ceiling. "Okay, Hulk. Whatever."
"You don't like either. Hulk. Bruce. Either."
"Not particularly. You were mean to me."
"You mean first."
"In my defense, I was having a bad day."
"Give you a bad life."
"Far too late for that, beastman." It was impossible to not find some humor in that.
Hulk roared out a big, happy, belly laugh in return. "Funny small god. Funnier than Thor."
Here we go. The high point of my life revisited. I'm better than Thor at something, and it's being a joke. Loki kept staring at the ceiling, the good humor fading some.
"You no fit either. That why you mean?"
Loki snapped a glance at the Hulk, closing off entirely now. "I don't know what you mean."
The Hulk looked back at him, and those eyes were full of bright and strangely sharp knowing. "Sakaar. All trash go to Sakaar, nothing belong, nothing wanted. Thor went to Sakaar, tried to leave. You tried to stay. No fit. Not wanted. Like Hulk. Hulk wanted to stay." Hulk looked away, the cord pulling and gently clicking in his hands. "No want to stay there anymore. Trash. Not want to be trash. Rather find place to stay. Good place. Real."
"Thor keeps wanting to go back to Earth." Loki did his best to make it sound neutral.
"I'm thrilled." Loki's natural defensive tendency to be an ass came out, his voice becoming a rattly monotone of complete non-delight.
That sat in the quiet for a while, the soft rattles and bumps of the ark echoing through the metal as they sailed on into space with graceless power.
The silence finally broke with a thoughtful boom. "Maybe place to belong not going to be real place. Like Asgard." Hulk hunched forward, playing with the bone fang. "Maybe we have to find place some other way."
Loki didn't say anything in response. He kept looking at the toe of his boot instead, and his mind was oddly, forcefully blank.
Hulk shoved a wad of blanket at him, burying him. "Smell good blanket. No pout."
"I am not pouting," came the muffled shot.
"Oh for fuck's sake."
"Tiny puny pouty mouthy god." The Hulk started laughing again. "I like tiny puny pouty mouthy god better than puny mean god."
Loki got up from underneath the blanket, folding it with delicate pissiness and shoving it back at the Hulk. "I'm going to go see what Korg's trying to break now." He turned on his heel, snapping his way back towards the door.
"Hey. Small god."
Loki didn't turn around.
"Thank you. For real thing. Good cord. Thank you." The bone and wood rattled, again sounding a bit like chimes.
Loki turned now, slightly, eyeing the Hulk with a careful, blank expression, and he tilted his head politely. "You're welcome," he said with formality, and he gave up nothing else. Then he left, and he forced the door to close behind him with a snap of his fingers.
The Hulk laughed again, happy in his quiet arena with his blanket and his trophy. "Small sad god," said Hulk, knowing and no longer inclined to smash the small god again (at least not for a while), and he looped the cord around his neck, to keep it close, so he could smell its good, real smell.
No home, not here, not anywhere, but there were friends. Angry girl Bryn, big Thor, silly Loki, funny Korg.
And maybe little Banner.
Hulk would think about what Loki said, as best as a Hulk could.
. . .
"It is impossible to conceive of many without one." ~ Plato
1/5/2018, all relevant rights to Marvel and the usual suspects.