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Who I Am Now

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The mutant publicly known as Dr. David Haller, M.D, children of Professor Charles Xavier, co-head of the Xavier-Lehnsherr Institute for Higher Learning, had been called in for consultation at the SHIELD headquarters to meet with Bruce Banner, also known as the Incredible Hulk.

At least, they had met just outside the headquarters, when Bruce said to the former super-hero team Legion, “I’m beginning to feel like they’ve got me in a cage in there,” he admitted. He indicated his head slightly at the building just behind him. The afternoon sunlight against the rows of black-tinted windows was hard to look at directly for too long. Bruce had chosen to face away, looking out towards the driveway in front of the facilities. He was dressed in a simple, threadbare suit that fit comfortably and that he wouldn’t mourn in the case of “hulking out” unexpectedly. There was a funny feeling for him, standing beside this more elegantly dressed and somewhat androgynous person in their early fifties. Actually, Haller was probably powerful enough to have leveled the entire facility without thinking too hard about it.

Dr. Haller was a professor at the Harvard Medical School, currently teaching a course series on the intersection of neurology and genetic expression. Haller looked past Bruce at the black, bleak lines of concrete, glass, and metal that made up the outward façade of the SHIELD facilities, and said, “Quite right. I’m not sure I’d like it so much in there either,” they admitted cheerfully. “Our father had the right idea, I think, setting his school up in the countryside. If you’re going to get together a group of people with extraordinary abilities, doing it here would just about crush down the soul of a person, I’d think.”

“It’s an eight-to-five job,” Bruce said, leading the way back to the car that would be taking them out; one of the facility aides would be driving them. “Except when there’s a ‘threat to humanity,’ as there usually is, and then you’re on a twenty-four hour call until the job’s done. Hulk doesn’t mind so much, I suppose, but I’m… well, here I am, so that’s all there is to that.”

They slid into the back seats of a sleek black car that smelled like new leather, and Bruce gave the driver the name of a quiet restaurant in the city where they could have lunch and talk science, as it were.

“Conversations about groovy mutations, our father used to say,” said Haller with a kind of wicked delight, rolling down the window and letting in the sunlight and the air from outside.

For someone of their age, they seemed to be rather youthful in demeanor, Bruce observed.

“That would probably be me, Kostas,” Haller said. “Or maybe not. David and Julia are telling me to act my age, which I suppose is another way of saying ‘old,’ but I say I’m never so old that I can’t enjoy myself and laugh a little at life.”

He seemed to consider the view for a moment, then turned back to Bruce and extended his hand, which Bruce shook. “I’m sorry, we never did do a formal introduction, did we? Just rolling up to the facility, and the easiest thing is usually saying we can be called David Haller, but you know better than that, and we should extend the courtesy of saying that David, Julia, and Kostas will be talking with you today. I’m sorry if there’s a feeling of confusion, but since there’s three of us here, in general we like to use the royal we and leave it at that.” A sort of wistful look came into their face as they seemed to contemplate the last. “I nearly miss when we went around as Legion. It’s as silly as Dad’s ‘Professor X,’ or Father’s ‘Magneto,’ but at least it told you what was in the tin.”

“Using simply the surname Haller would work as well?” Bruce suggested.

“Perfect,” Haller said, in a pleased way.

--

Dr. Haller was, in fact, a multitude of persons sharing the same body. The history of it was complicated. There was a core three, David, Julia, and Kostas “Spoons” Haller. There was an additional twenty or so persons that had operated under the team called Legion. Stories went that there were even more persons that came and went in the casual way. Nearly all of them had a unique mutant power.

When they talked over lunch in a private room, Haller said things like, “How we like to call it is indirect conscious control of the autonomic nervous system and gene expression. Which is a complicated way of saying, we can’t tell our genes directly to turn on or off to produce certain proteins, or shut off protein production, or do whatever it is that changes us physiologically so that we can have different powers, but we can change in our head who’s going to be out and about, which affects the rest of the body. It’s really extraordinary. Really amazing. And there’s a degree to which this can also happen in non-powered or non-mutant multiples or plurals. It’s nothing so dramatic as suddenly being able to shoot lasers from your eyes or what-have-you, but it’s equally extraordinary. All the little things like blood pressure and allergies and the expression of hormones. That’s my research you know—the physiological implications that has on the nervous system and gene expression among both powered and non-powered humans.”

He indicated his hand at Bruce slightly, palm open. “You now, your experience as the Hulk is interesting too. It’s another different pathway.”

“Sometimes I wonder,” Bruce admitted, “I can’t tell if Hulk is me, or isn’t me, or sometimes he is and sometimes he isn’t, and it’s difficult for me to control.”

Haller mused, “You put stress on your sympathetic nervous system, which triggers a certain sequence of gene expression, which then causes the manifestation as the Hulk. If it feels confused as to whether he’s you or a part of you, or completely separate, or sometimes one way or another, I wouldn’t worry about that. That can be a perfectly normal experience among certain persons like us.”

“Like us,” Bruce repeated. “I don’t know if it’s the same. I’m trying to find a cure.”

Haller said peaceably, “And how has that come along now?”

“It’s difficult, but not for the reasons I would have expected.” There was a wryness in his voice while he said it. “They keep needing the Hulk to help save the world, and so that’s been a fine distraction from my research. In the meantime, meditation and yoga have helped…quite a lot actually.”

To be honest about it, Bruce felt like a very different person these days, even compared to his self from before the Hulk had emerged. It was a lot of things. It was the years of running and hiding and being hunted. But it was also the months of serving as a doctor in tiny towns and villages of South America. It was forcing himself to do meditative practices and calming his mind.

It had been frightening and terrible, the past few years—but he was a different person now. The Hulk was a different person as well.

“Steve—that is, Captain America, he can talk to Hulk,” Bruce said. “And Hulk actually listens. That never used to happen. I’ll confess, it helps a lot.”

Haller smiled. “I’m glad. It’s a hard line to draw, whether to ‘cure’ something or not cure it, if you can. I think that’s your choice whether or not to pursue it, and you’re the kind of person who can decide that intelligently on your own. Keep us updated on your research though, we’d love to hear on how things are.”

And then Haller was looking up and smiling at the waiter, who had come in to collect their dishes and to ask about coffee and dessert.

Chapter Text

Hulk smashed things because he was good at it, and there was very little that could put a dent in him when he had gotten started, and also when Captain America said things like, “Hulk, smash,” it made Hulk bare all his teeth in a grin because it meant that there was someone who approved of what he did and let him do it; Hulk was useful and doing things with Captain America and he was not a monster. The last of it was the most important part. Hulk was not a monster, and there were a lot of people who couldn’t hear him to understand that, including Bruce Banner who had gotten pulled in under like someone caught in the crashing pull of the ocean tide: Hulk was big like the ocean and he smashed and he jumped and sometimes he even ran when people tried to hurt him for no reason except to hurt him and sometimes he did not want to hurt them back.

Of course, Bruce was getting better at swimming lately. Bruce did funny things nowadays like sit around in one place and be absolutely quiet, and Hulk was told things like sitting in one place and being quiet for a long time could “change the gray matter of your brain,” and whatever that meant, it seemed to also mean that Bruce could hear things better, and Hulk could hear things better too, not with his ears but in his head.

Sometimes Hulk would growl and grumble things at Bruce in their everyday, and Bruce would stop. Bruce might have been working in the lab, or out in the city, but wherever he was, Bruce would actually listen. Hulk would want to go hit something, or he’d want to taste something for the first time, or to stop and look at something small and delicate and green. Bruce would listen, and if the time was right, he’d let him.

Sometimes in battle Bruce would shout at Hulk while Hulk was smashing things, and Hulk would hesitate. Maybe Bruce was saying to be more careful, to watch the world around him. Hulk would stop. He would listen. He’d move a bystander, or watch out for his teammates.

Then he’d wait for the enemy return and his fist would follow.

--

There were many good things. There was a Captain America who sat and actually tried to talk to Hulk. There was a Dr. Ross who came to visit when she could and would hold Hulk’s hand and Hulk would look down at her in way that somehow felt both sad and happy. There was also Dr. Haller, who had met Bruce first. Hulk met a small and slim person one day who looked up at Hulk and said that they were Dr. Haller, and Bruce had asked them to come and help them; Hulk had looked down at this person with a suspicious growl.

Dr. Haller met Hulk’s eye in a straight-forward way, and then they had smiled, and then something had changed and Dr. Haller was someone else, bigger and bright, and then they were on equal footing, this not-Haller and Hulk. They had sparred in the SHIELD facilities, and it was good, good like Captain America knocking the sand out of punching bags, or Iron Man blasting targets out of the sky, or Black Widow and Hawkeye engaged in hand-to-hand combat sessions and Hawkeye ending up face-down on the mat afterwards, panting, while Widow examined her nails.

It was good.

--

Tony was an eccentric billionaire genius playboy, but there were still ways in which he was getting used to the other eccentrics living with him under the same roof.

Bruce Banner had been meeting and corresponding with Dr. Haller for the last few months, and Hulk had developed a taste for the rooftop gardens on the Avenger’s penthouse mansion that Tony had so graciously donated to the cause. This was what Tony discovered when he came up there looking for Steve. He found Steve sketching the New York City skyline, the blonde man squinting out at the jumble of high-rising buildings and the view of Central Park. Hulk was sitting like a mountain over a row of potted orchids. He seemed to be quietly examining them with a peculiar sort of delicacy. There was a softness in Hulk’s expression, never mind the craggy features of his face, the enormous, muscled shape of him sitting there.

Tony took off his sunglasses, looked at Steve and Hulk sitting companionably in close vicinity like that, and he said, “My God, I’ve stepped into the Twilight Zone.”

Hulk looked over at Tony and bared teeth. Then he went back to meditating on orchids, or whatever the hell it was he was doing.

Tony sat down next to Steve, gave his Steve a kiss in greeting, and then said, “Did they have the Twilight Zone in your time?” When Steve gave him a puzzled look, he said, “Never mind it, guess I’m thinking of the wrong decade.” He surreptitiously slid Steve’s sketchbook off the other man’s lap and then examined it. “They did have an episode with a character of you in it, and that’s the only episode I ever bothered watching. Jesus, Rogers. You’re wasted in heroics, you know that don’t you?”

Steve took back his sketchbook and said, “I’m sure plenty have said the same about you, Tony.” He was wearing a wry smile as he said it.

“I like to have a well-balanced schedule of crime-fighting and tech engineering. Good for the body, good for the soul you know.” He looked over at Hulk. “So what happened here? Something set Bruce off? I’m surprised he didn’t trash the whole building on his way up.”

Steve was adding some detailing to the sketch on his lap. “Bruce let Hulk out for some fresh air. I said I’d chaperone.”

Tony said, “Huh.”

There were stranger things, he supposed.

Chapter Text

Steve had a bit of experience with government propaganda. When you went across the country punching Hitler in the jaw, only to go oversees to find yourself dealing with real wartime situations—well, it made you think a little harder about the kinds of art and performance shtick that was being shown on the home-front to drum up support. Steve was still an idealist, don’t get him wrong on that count, but being out there as a soldier had made him think a bit harder about the shorts and the films and the newsreels that people got spoon-fed back home.

It wasn’t until later that he found: he hadn’t realized that the propaganda would influence more than just his attitude on war. The first time he was introduced to Dr. Haller and he was told that there were several people sharing the same body in this situation, the first image that had come to mind was of little people literally sitting around in a brainspace and driving a body-suit. The impression was sharp enough to startle him a little, and also to completely baffle him as he tried to work out how to talk with this doctor—or these doctors. It had been a few weeks before he could work out exactly where that initial image had come from, and then a few weeks more for him to admit to Haller that this was the image that had come to mind, and where it had come from in the first place.

--

When Steve came home one Friday evening—that is, when he came back to the Avengers Mansion (as they were calling it) from training at the SHIELD facilities, he found Bruce and Dr. Haller sitting at the kitchen table, along with a StarkPad that Dr. Haller was mulling over, and both of them surrounded by several assorted piles of papers.

“We were monitoring Hulk while he was in a calmed mood,” Bruce explained while Steve helped himself to orange juice from the enormous fridge. “Hulk still isn’t fully comfortable with SHIELD HQ, so we were up on the roof garden all this afternoon.”

“Sounds like a grand old time.” Steve put the juice cartoon back into the fridge, and then pulled out the very large pot of yesterday’s basil and tomato bisque. He set that on the counter, then also the butter and a package of sliced cheese. “It’s nearly seven. Did either of you even bother to eat anything?”

JARVIS was fretting at Steve and asking if he wouldn’t like assistance in the kitchen. Steve smiled, used to this by now. “I think I’ll be fine. You can probably help with dishes, though, that would be great. Thanks, JARVIS.”

Steve grilled his way through an entire loaf’s worth of cheese sandwiches, and while they all sat around eating cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, Dr. Haller pulled up youtube on their tablet, turned it so that Steve could see it from where he was consuming his third sandwich wedge, and Steve felt himself blush like the tomato in his soup.

“Disney’s ‘Reason and Emotion,’” Haller said with a smile that crinkled their eyes—well, actually, Steve thought, her eyes, this was Julia Haller talking, he thought; he was starting to recognize a bit of the body language. “Found it, of course. It’s a very cute little short.”

The cute little short was the same one that had put in Steve’s mind images of little people driving a body around—well, more specifically, here they were personifications of the faculties of reason and emotion. Reason was the one in a suit and glasses. Emotion wore an animal-fur caveman ensemble and carried a giant club.

“Hulk’s telling me that he’s obviously the one with the club in this outfit,” Bruce remarked. “I’m the skinny fellow in the suit.”

Steve said, in some embarrassment, “I’m definitely not suggesting that’s how it is—“

“Obviously not,” Julia agreed. “You’re a silly thing, aren’t you? Cuter than puppies! I’m just giving you a hard time,” she teased.

On the tablet, Reason and Emotion were arguing over whether or not to pursue flirtatious relations with a passing dame. Across the table, Julia—no, it had to be Kostas now, he was the resident telekinetic—had floated over the pepper shaker and was shaking it a bit over the inside goo of their cheese sandwich. “Thanks for the sandwiches, by the way. This is great. Our father—you know, Erik Lehnsherr—he can make a terrific grilled cheese too.” Kostas shook his head, laughing a bit. “You’d watch him do it, and everything he did was like—well, he is a very intense person. Or, he was very intense, for a very long time. I think things are very much better for him and Dad these days, and even better once they could legally marry, make it official you know. Or, for father, I think it was a bit of giving the conservative establishment the finger, to be honest.” Kostas squeezed his sandwich halves together, looking thoughtful. “But aside from that idea, it was a very nice thing that happened for them, I think.”

Steve had heard a bit about the Xavier-Lehnsherr family while working for SHIELD. That is, he’d heard that if there was one mutant group that the government left well enough alone, it was the family that included the world’s greatest telepath, an equally terrifying manipulator of magnetic fields, a shapeshifter, and a literal army of one.

Dr. Haller did not look like a particularly dangerous character—of course, Bruce hardly looked like he had a Hulk sharing physical space with him either. And before Project Rebirth, well, Steve wouldn’t have cut any kind of intimidating figure; that was just the facts of it.

“So what’s the most amazing thing you’ve come across in the new millennium, Mr. Rogers?” There was a sedate air about Haller now, sitting back peaceably and pulling off a chunk of sandwich. He stirred it through tomato soup. This was the way David sat, and his feeling of being collected and cool. He was looking at Steve curiously though. “Although maybe with everything on top of everything else—maybe there’s nothing that could surprise you now.”

“I’m constantly being surprised,” Steve said honestly. “I’m just trying my best to keep up.”

David nodded sagely and then gave Steve a thumbs up. The image of it was so unexpected that Steve laughed and then so was David and Bruce and, oh, here was Tony, coming in through the door and looking like he needed a shower and bed, but he came round behind Steve instead, scrunching his fingers though his lover’s hair in a comfortable way. “This is awful,” Tony said. “I give you all the best living arrangements money could pay for, not to mention the fat paychecks SHIELD forks over for us risking our asses for them on a daily basis, and you’re eating like hobos.”

“Nice to see you too, Tony,” Steve said, while Julia smiled into her water glass and Bruce reached over to turn off the youtube video still playing on the tablet.

Tony grumbled, “Hope you all saved me a sandwich at least.”