"Well, it's very nice to meet you, Dr. Banner." Pepper slid into the booth next to Tony.
"Just Bruce is fine. And it's nice to meet you too. Sorry about the location; I'm guessing you guys are used to nicer restaurants."
Before Pepper could reassure Bruce that the backwater diner was fine, Tony grabbed two sugar packets of each type and began arranging them along the table's edge. "Here's the question that's been bothering me," he said. "Why doesn't the Hulk have chest hair? I mean, you do. You've got the whole Robin Williams thing going, but the Hulk looks like he waxes."
Bruce rolled his eyes and looked at the menu.
"This is a serious line of scientific inquiry!" Tony wagged his finger for emphasis. "What happens to the hair? Do you shed? Does it get reabsorbed into the increased muscle mass? Does the keratin somehow get converted to other protein? This is keeping me up at night."
Pepper sighed and offered Bruce a sympathetic look. "I really wish I could tell you that's not true but…"
Bruce gave a quiet half-laugh. "I'm pretty sure I don't shed, because then I suppose I would be clean shaven when I turn back, and I'm not."
"True." Tony nodded, looking serious, almost grave. "I have to think about this some more."
"No," Bruce shook his head. "I really don't think you do."
"Fine then, down to business. Have you scoped out the spot?"
"Yeah, it's down in a ravine. Nearest humans are at least 70 kilometers away."
"Speak American." Tony pounded his fist lightly on the table.
"It's Canada; they use metric."
"Okay, but I don't want this getting back to Rogers. He'd have conniptions if he knew we were measuring things like the communists."
Bruce grinned. "I've contacted SHIELD about borrowing Barton for a few days. The other guy can jump at least half a kilometer – I'm sorry, 547 yards – in one go, so we want someone who can take potshots from outside of that range, distract him if he gets hostile."
Pepper flagged down the waitress for more coffee, then turned back to the table. "Do I want to know what you guys have been planning?"
"Every time the other guy has come out, everyone's tried to contain him or subdue him and it hasn't gone well. Every time until the Chituari attack. Then he took orders, helped people, played as part of a team. If we can make that happen reliably, then…" Bruce shrugged hopefully.
Maria Hill handed Barton a file folder. "It seems that Stark and Dr. Banner want to run some experiments on the Hulk. You're to fly them back and forth from the test grounds in Central Canada, assist as requested, and keep Stark from doing anything monstrously stupid."
Hill raised an eyebrow. Barton usually argued with his orders. "Agent Romanov will be assigned also to keep you from doing anything monstrously stupid."
"She's there to kill or capture me in case it turns out I'm still possessed by a murderous alien god."
"On the nose." Hill was kind of a bitch and she wasn't one to mince words. Clint had a certain fondness for her.
Thor knelt before the throne. "Allfather," he said, "I request the use of the Tesseract."
"Be wary," answered Odin. "It is a willful thing and it is best that even minds such as ours avoid rousing its powers."
"You told me once that Mjolnir can be a tool to build, but even with the hammer's power, we are no closer to reconstructing the Bifrost."
"It is far easier to destroy than to build."
Thor waited in silence for his father's decision.
"Nonetheless," said Odin, "it was for feats such as this that the Tesseract was made. Fare well in your task and in your journeys."
Natasha queued up some music before taking off her shoes and padding across the gym to Clint, who was already stretching on the mat.
He squinted when he recognized the song. "Nightwish? Aren't they like, Norwegian? I don't think they're Russian."
"You're suggesting that I can only listen to Russian music? If so, I would suggest that you can only listen to music with banjos in it."
Clint snorted. Nat always got a kick out of making white trash jokes. "Maybe just the theme from Deliverance." He sang the first few notes before shouting in an affected southern twang, "I'm gonna make you squeal like a pig!"
"You're going to try. And you're going to fail. Hill give you marching orders?"
"Yep. I assume that was your doing."
"You don't like it?" she teased. "Little Clint is scared to play with the big boys?"
Clint rose and bounced on the balls of his feet like a boxer. "Oh, it's on." He kicked forward, knowing that she would roll back and dodge.
"Don't worry, I'm sure the Hulk and the billionaire genius will be very excited to hear about the time you shot a moose with a rusty speargun." She could put so much mockery in so little smile.
"I think Rusty Speargun is going to be my new porn name." He rubbed his shin. "Ow!"
"Pretty sweet digs you've got here, Stark." Clint sank down into the couch. "I mean, if you ignore all the debris."
"Perhaps I met you at an odd time in your life," said Natasha, "but it seems that this is the norm for your dwellings.
"Are you guys here to help or to mock?" Tony examined the readouts from another set of diagnostics.
"Can't it be both?" Clint put on his best shit-eating grin.
The elevator was dinging. The elevator was not supposed to be dinging. This was what Tony meant about security problems.
"Excuse me, Mr. Stark?"
And the elevator doors opened to reveal Steve-fucking-Rogers. Whom Tony wanted to emphasize he had absolutely no problem with.
"Oh, uh, hello, Agent Romanov, Agent Barton. I didn't know you were, um-" Steve had the manner of a man who had just stumbled across a party he wasn't invited to. "Tony, can I have a word, please?"
"Hawkward," sing-songed Clint.
Natasha glared at him and stood. "We'll wait out by the jet."
As they left, Steve continued to stand awkwardly in the doorway. It was remarkable, the contrast between Steve Rogers and Captain America. "Tony," he began, "I actually just came over here because I realized I never apologized for some of the things I said to you on the first day."
"In all fairness to you, we were at a very high altitude and that can-"
Steve raised a hand to interrupt him and kept talking. "I assumed you were all flash and no substance and I was wrong. I'm sorry. And I'm especially sorry because I should have known better. After all, I knew your father. He was…flashy, but he was a good man."
Tony could feel his own personal Hulk wriggling in his head, but he could also hear a nagging voice that sounded a lot like Pepper demanding that he be nice to the poor little time-dislodged super-soldier, so he patted Steve's forearm and amiably said, "Well, 500 is a good batting average. We're gonna go poke the Hulk with a stick. Want to come?"
They settled in to the jumpseats into the back of the jet as Barton finished up his pre-takeoff checklist. It was sweltering outside, and he had hung his flack vest over the door. This revealed his shirt.
"What's that?" Tony pointed at Clint's torso.
Clint was wearing a pale linen shirt, vertically striped in different shades of green. It looked oddly feminine. "It's a shirt, Stark. I know your servants usually dress you, but I would have thought you'd at least know the names for different kinds of clothing.
"I'm not quite sure about modern fashion," began Steve, "but-"
Natasha shook her head at Steve. "Don't use him as an example of how to dress. Clint is…do you know the expression 'trailer trash'?"
"I am not trailer trash!" yelled Clint over his shoulder.
"You lived in a trailer," answered Natasha, "and it was full of trash."
"It wasn't a trailer," argued Clint. "It was a crooked ring toss game. And it wasn't full of trash. Those were prizes."
Natasha turned to Steve with an eyebrow raised. "He thinks this is somehow supporting his argument."
"Why did you live in a ring toss game?" asked Steve.
"I was a carnie. And the Tilt-o-Whirl got lumpy." Barton flipped several switches. "Pre-flight check's complete, power to manual."
"Well," said Tony, "I think we can count Operation: Hulk as a success."
"It went well," agreed Bruce. "But I still think we should run a few more trials before I start hanging around New York City."
"Safety first, that's what I always say," answered Tony. "I mean, almost always. Well, pretty often, anyway."
"Dr. Banner, if I may," said Steve, "I did want to ask you something about the Hulk, if you don't mind."
Bruce shrugged. "As long as it's not about body hair."
Steve looked confused for a moment, but then he shook it off. "When you get angry, you turn into the Hulk, but then you said your secret is that you're angry all the time. I'm not sure I understand how that works."
Bruce's brow lowered and he exhaled quietly. "There's an answer to that question, but it's pretty long, and possibly slightly disgusting."
"Hawkeye," yelled Steve, "what's our ETA?"
"Ninety minutes or so."
"I'd say we have plenty of time."
Bruce half-smiled again. "Well, it's like this. My parents were both physicians. And they were both hippies."
"Hippies who named you Bruce?" said Tony skeptically.
"Bruce is a family name. My middle name is Moonsong."
"Wait, what?" Clint swiveled around from the front of the plane.
"Eyes on the road," answered Tony. "But no, that is incredible. I think that should be your new superhero name. We can be Iron Man and Captain America and Moonsong. Fits right in."
"I always wanted to change it," said Bruce, "but I kept putting it off and then, well, I couldn't exactly just walk into the county courthouse."
"What are hippies?" asked Steve, apparently willing to ignore the Moonsong debate.
"Oh happy day!" cried Tony, "We get to teach you about the 60s!"
"I think Dr. Banner has first dibs on that topic," said Natasha. They'd almost forgotten she was there.
Tony pouted. "Okay, but I call teaching him about designer drugs and Fleshlights."
"So you have to start with the 50s," said Bruce. "World War II had just ended with an atomic bomb and the communists took power in Russia and they were developing nukes too. So everyone was scared and they channeled that into bring really rigid and proper and conformist. Then came the hippies who tried to be the opposite. They were pacifists, naturalists, do-what-you-feel types. Make sense?"
"My mother taught anatomy and procedures to first and second year medical students. Mostly they practiced on models or patients. For procedures they had to get right the first time, like intubating someone, they practiced on cadavers. But, luckily, there aren't very many baby cadavers, and doing procedures on babies is different, needs its own practice. It turns out that an adult ferret has a throat about the same size as a human infant, so when they had to learn tracheotomies, they would practice on ferrets. Here's where the hippie part comes in. My mom understood the value to practicing on them, but she didn't want the ferrets to die, so we'd adopt them. We would get a new bunch each year and they would live a couple of years, so pretty soon we had a whole bunch of trached ferrets running around. I would name them and teach them to do tricks and I thought it was really fun.
"But eventually they'd die. And not all at once, one at a time. And since we had so many, one died every month or two. I started to get really upset about it and I stopped naming them or playing with them. Being around them made me angry, so I avoided them. My father was an oncologist. I asked him why it never made him angry, the way his patients kept dying. He said it did, he just learned to get a different kind of angry.
"I really forgot all about that. After the first Hulk incident, I focused all my energy on not getting angry, on staying perfectly calm. I spent so much time meditating that I can intentionally lower my heart rate to fifty beats per minute. But after a while, I remembered what my father had said about getting a different kind of angry. Maybe the solution wasn't to never get angry, it was to get angry in a way that didn't make me transform involuntarily. So I started sneaking into towns at night and getting newspapers – there's always something to make you angry in a newspaper. I started just a little at a time, built up to more and worse once I got the hang of it. Then I realized I was reflexively calming myself every time I started to feel a little annoyed, so I made myself listen to the worst kind of talk radio while going for a run to keep my heart rate up. Once I could deal with two hours of Glenn Beck, I knew I was ready to live around people again."
"I wouldn't call Glenn Beck 'people'," said Natasha.
"Hey," said Tony, "Steve, it was fun, wasn't it? It was fun having you along today. You want to drop by for dinner some night?"
She held the phone to her ear. "Romanov."
"It's Fury. The shock treatments were unsuccessful."
"Any reaction at all?"
"He said ow."
"What are they going to try next?"
"They haven't told me. I have a sneaking suspicion that they don't know."
"There's no sign of any after-effects on Barton. He's pretty much his usual self."
"Does he suspect anything?"
"I don't think so, but he knows SHIELD, and with all due respect, he knows you."
"Keep him distracted. You know how this could go down. We don't need this situation getting any worse."