It was five months after New York and three months after Honduras when the motorcycle roared up to the cottage in Uganda.
Bruce went to the door to see what was going on, and was surprised to see a big dusty blond man in a leather jacket getting off his bike. The big dusty blond man hauled a big duffel bag off the back of the bike, then slung it over his shoulder as though it weighed nothing.
When he came up to the door, Bruce said, “Steve,” because he still couldn’t quite believe it.
“Hello, Doctor Banner.”
Mostly what Bruce couldn’t believe was that they would send him—him, out of all S.H.I.E.L.D.’s best and brightest. He was no longer expecting Tony, and they’d already sent Natasha, but, “Steve Rogers.”
“How are you doing?” Steve asked, and put out his hand.
It was large and strong, tanned, still lighter than most of the folks around here. His nails were well-groomed. He really wasn’t as dusty as he should be for someone who had come all this way. Then again, it was unclear how S.H.I.E.L.D. had found out where Bruce was. Steve could have come by private jet, for all Bruce knew. He could have ridden that motorcycle straight out the back and right up to the health center, and they would have told Steve where the muzungu was. Of course they would have; they were nothing but friendly there.
“Steve Rogers,” Bruce said again. “Say . . . what’re you doing here?” His voice was very flat.
Steve lowered his hand, smiling sheepishly. “Ostensibly I’m here to recruit you for S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“Okay,” said Bruce. “Sure. No. They already tried that. What’re you really here for?”
“Well.” Steve glanced out at the dusty road, grass, the scraggly trees. “Maybe just a bit of fresh air.”
“Uh-uh.” Bruce nodded, thumb running over his fingers. “I hear Prague is nice this time of year.”
Squinting, Steve turned back. “Yeah. I hear that too.”
Lingering there in the doorway, Bruce pursed his lips, wondering why it felt so bad to be rude. He turned into a huge monster and fought tanks, it shouldn’t be a big deal, but here he was and it was Steve Rogers, which made Bruce feel like he was leaving Abe Lincoln out in the cold. “Would you . . .” Bruce opened the door wider. “Come on in.”
“Thank you,” said Steve, and came in.
“Um, you can sit,” said Bruce.
Steve sat down on one of the stools, setting his bag down beside him. He started taking off his jacket.
“You want coffee?” Bruce asked, because he needed things to do with his hands.
“In this heat?” Laying his coat over the bag, Steve looked up in puzzlement.
“I’m making coffee,” said Bruce.
The cottage was more of a hut, really, but he called it a cottage. It was made mostly of mud bricks and clay, corrugated metal for a roof. There were two rooms, the second of which would eventually be the lab. Now it held only a safe for chemicals, a gas tank for the Meker burner, a laptop and a centrifuge. The main room had a kitchen—a corner with a propane burning oven, and a counter attached to the wall with some crates under it. It also had a bedroom in the other corner, a pallet with the requisite mosquito netting and another crate for clothes.
Bruce only had so many hide-outs, and he was pretty sure that S.H.I.E.L.D. knew all of them. It was time to build some new ones, start stockpiling gear—obviously not here, because . . . Steve Rogers.
He was sitting politely at the table while Bruce fired up the oven. “You live here?” Steve asked, also sounding polite. Making conversation like his mama taught him, no doubt.
“Why? Are you interested in real estate?” Bruce put a pan on top of the oven and poured water into it from a jug. Then he poured some coffee beans from a jar into a clay bucket, and started pounding them with a club, in and out, in and out.
“Maybe,” was all Steve said.
Bruce glanced at him. He appeared unfazed by the pounding, and curious about his surroundings. Right, because it was Steve Rogers, who probably couldn’t even think things that were unkind. “S.H.I.E.L.D. not treating you well?” Bruce asked, because he could be unkind all he wanted. He went back to pounding beans. “Thread count a little low? High rise a little high? They cook your steak a little rare?”
“Frankly, yes,” said Steve Rogers.
“Okay.” Bruce glanced at him again. “That’s not sarcasm.”
“No.” Steve met his eyes. Bruce was too far away and the light wasn’t very good, but he would lay money on the guess that they were blue. “It’s not.”
Bruce turned back to the beans. They needed to be sifted to get all of the shells out.
“I can’t get a job of my own,” said Steve. “I get a job with the government using my . . . skills, and that’s what I’m already doing. I get a job using those skills elsewhere, and I don’t know what they’re sending me into. I get another kind of job, I either can’t really use what I’m good at to help anyone, or else I can’t be relied upon to be there when they need me. So instead I’m living somewhere where everything is done for me, and . . . I don’t like it.”
Bruce emptied the sifted grounds into a cloth, then arranged the cloth over the bucket. He got up to check the water, and couldn’t help glancing at Steve.
The table was too little anyway, but Steve looked massive at it, thighs bunched under it and much too broad. Sunlight streamed in from the window, as though it shone specifically to frame his face, and Bruce had to look away. He wasn’t just Abraham Lincoln; he was like Daniel Boone. And Buzz Aldrin. A national treasure and all the right stuff.
The water was starting to bubble, so Bruce wrapped a towel around the handle of the pan and pulled it off the oven. He went back to pour the water over the cloth into the bucket. “You don’t see working for S.H.I.E.L.D. as a job?” he asked, making more of an effort to be polite. He poured the water a little bit at a time.
“Sure,” said Steve. “I get paid. I also get a hotel, three meals a day, a private gym—did you know that? I get a private gymnasium.”
“Life is hard,” Bruce agreed. He kept pouring.
“Yeah. Listen to me.” Steve chuckled. It was a self-deprecating chuckle, precisely the way Captain America would chuckle.
“Look.” Bruce glanced back at him, and then had to concentrate on the water. He thought it was not a good idea for him to look too much at Captain America’s perfect, wholesome face. “I didn’t mean to be a jerk. You have a problem. It’s not . . . unimportant. Have you tried . . . just moving out? Take your paycheck. Go somewhere else.”
“Yeah. I did that.”
Bruce poured the water. When the cloth started dipping down too far, he rummaged through one of the wood crates for some cups. “Um, do you want the one with the dead cockroach in it, or the other one?”
Steve just smiled. “Surprise me.”
It was immediate and wry, just as though Captain America had a sense of humor after all, and Bruce didn’t know why he wasn’t expecting it. “Sorry,” he said, opening the door to toss the cockroach out. “So you didn’t like living on your own?”
“It wasn’t quite that.” The corner of Steve’s mouth turned down, and even that looked self-deprecating; Bruce almost couldn’t stand it. “I couldn’t get the internet connected.”
“I’m sure someone could help you with that.” Bruce concentrated on pouring the last of the water into the bucket, then took the cloth off the top and squeezed the grounds. He dipped the first cup into the bucket.
“Yeah.” Steve snorted. “Tony Stark.”
Bruce raised his brows. “He saved the world.” He poured the rest of the bucket into the other cup, then gave one to Steve. “Thought you’d like him better after that.”
“Thank you,” Steve said. “It smells very good.”
“What about S.H.I.E.L.D.? I’m sure they could give you someone to help get you started.” Bruce leaned against the opposite wall, holding his own cup.
“Of course they would,” said Steve. “The internet’s just an example. There are just so many things that I don’t know, that I find it kind of hard to really . . . cut ties.”
“Ah,” said Bruce. “Is this far away enough?”
“Not really.” Smiling, Steve opened his bag. “They gave me this”—he tossed a satphone on table—“this”—a satellite internet terminal—“and this.” He pulled something round and metal out of his jacket pocket, probably a bug. “They didn’t tell me about this one”—he tossed the bug on the table with the other things—“and I don’t even know what that is.” He nodded at the terminal.
“Well.” Bruce’s lips twisted. “It’ll solve your internet problems. If Uganda isn’t far enough, did you want to go to outer space? Because you’re kind of like Buzz Aldrin.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “Who’s he? I mean, I’ve got all the presidents memorized, so there’s that, and all the wars we’ve fought and the movie stars and I know who Elvis, Howard Stern, and Sarah Palin are, but people keep—they keep doing that.”
“I’m sorry,” said Bruce.
“No,” said Steve. “It’s okay. I’m telling you all my problems; I don’t mean to. I just mean that . . . sometimes it’s easier. Sometimes it’s easier just to do what Fury tells me to, to let them . . .” He waved his hand over the assorted electronics on the table.
“I meant that I was sorry you know who Howard Stern and Sarah Palin are.” Holding his coffee, hips leaning on the wall, Bruce watched Steve chuckle, running a hand through his blond hair. Bruce stopped looking and started working on getting the coffee down. “Buzz Aldrin made the first moon landing,” he said, after a long, burning swallow.
“I thought that was Neil Armstrong.” Steve smiled ruefully. “It’s not like I haven’t done a lot of reading.
“Neil Armstrong was the mission commander. Aldrin was the pilot.”
“Oh, thank you.” Steve was quiet for a moment. “Excuse me, do you have any . . .”
Bruce looked up at Steve’s vague gesturing, even though he didn’t really want to. “What?”
Steve gestured again to his coffee. “Milk, or—it’s okay if you don’t,” he rushed to add.
“Milk.” Mouth twisting again, Bruce squatted on the floor, setting down his coffee. “Let me see. I have . . . um . . .” He sorted through another crate. “Baby formula.”
“I didn’t know you were expecting.”
Bruce smiled. “Yeah, thanks. I’ve got sugar, but it’s . . . stuck.” He produced a box and tossed it at Steve.
Steve caught it with one broad hand and it made Bruce want to look away again. “I bet I can unstick it,” Steve said. “Thank you.” Opening the box, he looked at the brown brick inside, shaking it a little. It had probably gotten wet or something.
Great, so Bruce was giving Daniel Boone— Paul Revere?—wet sugar.
Steve put a corner of the brick between two fingers and just . . . pinched, and it crumbled. He put the pinch in the coffee and carefully cupped the remaining loose sugar back into the box, folding the sides closed. Then he actually checked the floor, as if concerned that he had spilled. “Why do you have baby formula?”
“For babies.” Bruce turned back to the crate. “You want something to eat?” He needed to do something else with his hands. He shouldn’t have had the coffee; it made him jittery.
“Sure,” said Steve. “Thanks.”
“Goats’ or cows’ milk are better, if you have them,” Bruce said, rummaging in the crate. “I mean, for feeding babies. But there was one girl in Kampala . . . I thought I had . . . You want a banana?”
“Thanks.” Steve caught the banana, too. “This coffee is very good. I think I got the one without the cockroach. Not that I’m complaining.”
“I’d offer you a shower. You’ll have to do with a cup and a pump outside.”
“Thank you,” said Steve. “Don’t worry about it. The girl in Kampala?”
Sophie had been nine months old when Bruce determined that both of her parents had cholera. Her eight year old brother, Marcus, had watched Bruce with steely eyes whenever Bruce had prepared fluids, administered them to the parents, brought them antibiotics. Bruce had been sure Marcus hated him, perhaps even suspected him of wrong-doing. Then one day Marcus had looked at him in that hard way, and said, “I’m going to be a doctor like you.”
“Oh,” Bruce had said, stupidly, ineffectually.
“But I will stay until everything is better,” Marcus had said.
Bruce scratched the back of his neck, remembering that day in Kampala. It had been raining, and the sound on a tin roof could sound like gun shot. The only other time Marcus had spoken to him of his own volition, he’d asked if he could try on Bruce’s glasses. “Keep them,” Bruce had said, because he could buy another pair.
“Don’t want to talk about it?” said Steve.
Bruce just shook his head. “There just wasn’t enough milk,” he said. “That was all.” He finished sorting the crate and put it back against the wall. He leaned against the wall beside it, waving vaguely at the room. “I was working on getting some equipment.”
“Milk equipment? They’re called cows.”
Bruce smiled. “No. I mean . . . all this.”
Steve’s smile fell away. “Doctor Banner, I hope you don’t feel insufficient on my account.”
“It’s not that. It’s . . .” Standing up, Bruce ran his thumb over his fingers. “I’d like to set up a lab. Somewhere that’s at least sterile, if not conducive to research.” One hand formed a fist and the other moved over it again and again. He better put the sugar away. “It’s difficult to get anything done with the military always two steps behind me.”
“I guess we have similar problems,” Steve said.
Bruce put the sugar back in the crate. “I guess.”
“So,” Steve said politely. “You feed babies. You help people here? I was under the impression your degree wasn’t medical.”
“It isn’t.” Bruce grimaced, then realized he could wash out the bucket, also. It was a waste of water, but then he could go and get water, too. He poured the remaining water in the pan into the bucket, sloshed it around, then tossed the water out the door.
“Then what do you do here?” said Steve.
Bruce put more water from the jug into the bucket, sloshed and tossed again. Then he guessed the bucket was as rinsed out as it was going to get, so instead he just stood there by the door, looking out. The sun was shining brightly, the long grass very still. “Why do you ask?” he said finally, after a long moment.
There was a beat of silence. “Just making conversation, Doctor Banner.”
“That’s nice.” Bruce turned back into the dark room. “What are you doing here, Steve?”
“I told you—”
“You told me. You’re tired of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s chain; I get that. But you said you’re not here to bring me in for Fury, and I don’t know, maybe it’s because you’re you, or maybe that serum makes you physically incapable of lying, but for whatever reason, I believe you. But I mean, what are you going to do? See the sights, or . . .” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m not actually really a people person.”
Steve was quiet for a while, and Bruce couldn’t help himself. He looked over at him. Steve just sat there, looking back at him. “I just want to help,” he said finally. “That’s really all I ever wanted.”
“That sounds fun,” said Bruce. “It was nice seeing you.”
Steve turned his head, looking out the window. “I thought I might stay here a while.”
“No.” Bruce’s lips twisted, hand rubbing the back of his neck. “No,” he said again. “That’s really not such a great idea.”
“Why not?” Steve looked back at him. “Because you’re here?”
Bruce could feel his lips twist further. “No. Because what are you going to do here, Steve? Punch poverty in the face?”
“With all due respect, Doctor Banner,” Steve said, standing up, putting the electronics back in his bag. “I thought I might just do some good. Thanks for the coffee.”
Then Steve was brushing past him, walking out into the sunlight, and Bruce was standing there in the doorway and the darkness, watching as he revved up the engine of his big, shiny bike. “I was afraid he’d say that,” Bruce muttered.
Time to run again, Banner.
When Bruce was a kid, they still had those little books in the “American Heroes” series that you could buy for a dollar. Bruce had bought the Captain America one because he’d wanted to learn more about the science behind the serum. He’d never thought he was interested in Steve Rogers for the man himself.
And yet, when Bruce had performed the experiment, he’d done it on himself.
He couldn’t think why. All evidence suggested Steve Rogers was the kindest, the fairest, the best, and you couldn’t make that. You couldn’t engineer it in a bottle; Steve wasn’t Captain America because of the serum.
Meanwhile, Bruce wasn’t honest; he wasn’t fair, and he wasn’t kind. He had always been arrogant, and despite everything Dad said—maybe because of everything Dad said—he full-heartedly believed in his own brilliance. He’d never been able to kill his passion to know, and sure, curiosity sounded innocent—until you took it too far without considering the consequences. He’d been so irresponsible and—and careless; he’d been careless.
(Even now, he couldn’t help but ask the questions that should never be answered: if the Tesseract could open portals, what other worlds . . . ? And, if the Tesseract could build that kind of protection around itself, what kind of force field . . . ? And, if Loki’s scepter could control men’s minds, what elements was it comprised of, what wavelengths could interact with the human psyche in such a way, and—could it be replicated. . . ?)
Part of the reason Phase Two of the Tesseract had bothered him was that he’d thought they’d already learned that lesson. He thought that lesson had been him. He remembered talking to Steve about what Fury had been planning before they found out about Phase Two, and he had really wanted him to understand. Say that something isn’t right, he had wanted to tell him, because if someone like Steve could see something was wrong then it must be true.
I would have made him smarter, if I had made him, Bruce had thought. If I had made him, I would have made him me.
When Steve pulled up on his bike outside Bruce’s cottage four days later, Bruce realized that if they were letting Steve stay here, it might mean at least that Fury wasn’t going to send someone else out after him who was less . . . forthcoming. If he was going to have to deal with S.H.I.E.L.D., Bruce preferred the straight story—not in the least because of what had happened in Honduras.
So Bruce went out and greeted him, and gave Steve the two-bit tour. It went like this:
“Chickens, water pump. House, and now we have more chickens.” They walked on the red dirt road, half a mile from Bruce’s cottage. Tall grass stood on either side of the road. Far up the lane, men were hacking at it with machetes.
“House.” Steve looked at the little shack made out of corrugated metal.
“Banda,” Bruce said. “Cottage.”
“Why don’t you wear shoes?”
“What?” Bruce looked over at him. Steve had taken off his shirt a while ago, sleeves tied around his waist, wearing just an undershirt. Bruce looked at all that smooth gold skin and thought, you’ll get burned, but he didn’t say anything. If Steve wanted to get burned he could get burned, except he probably wouldn’t because his skin was bio-engineered—except if it was, then he shouldn’t have freckles. Then Bruce realized that Captain America had freckles—he was looking at Captain America’s freckles—George Washington’s very own freckles. Bruce looked away.
“They say you’ll get diseases, if you don’t wear your shoes,” Steve prodded.
“I don’t really get sick,” Bruce said.
Steve smiled. “Me neither.”
“Occasionally I do get a little green about the gills.”
“That’s gotta be difficult.”
Bruce’s thumb ran over his fingers. “Just have to be careful.”
“I’ve gotten to know the area a little. Most of the people around here seem to know you. You work at the clinic?”
“Sometimes. Not really.” Bruce shrugged. “Sometimes I teach. There’s a school over that way.” He nodded to a clear spot in the distance. “More chickens. Look, a cow.”
Bruce’s thumb was still running over his fingers. “English. Science. Sanitation. I engineer mosquito netting. Diagnose TB. Eat avocados. Research terrestrial gamma ray flashes; they have good thunderstorms here. The day I got here, I helped birth a calf. It’s a mixture, really.”
“Are the avocados good?”
Bruce smiled. “Yeah. They’re good.”
“I’m not sure I’ve ever had an avocado.” Steve looked down at him thoughtfully. “When you said you make diagnoses—you do that even though you don’t have a license?”
“You wanna tell the authorities?” Now Bruce’s hands were making fists, so he put them in his pockets. “Because I’m pretty sure no one in the immediate vicinity cares.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Steve stopped in the middle of the dusty road.
Bruce sort of wanted to keep walking, but no that would be rude, and Steve was Captain America. He was practically Paul Newman, or something. Most of those other iconic American actors—John Wayne, Marlon Brando—you could say something bad about, but not Paul Newman. His face was on salad dressing. Reluctantly, Bruce turned back, not quite meeting Steve’s eyes.
“You do good here,” said Steve. “That’s what I meant.”
“Want to give me a medal, Steve?”
Frowning, Steve looked down at him, and he was so broad that he made Bruce feel small. The thing was that Bruce was four or five times his size, when he wanted to be. Bruce still didn’t look at him.
“I want to do good things,” said Steve. “I want to help people, serve my country.”
Bruce’s lips twisted. “Maybe you should go back to your country, then.” He started walking.
Steve fell right in stride. “When they gave me that serum . . . I didn’t know what I was. They gave me that costume, too, and do you know what I was then? What I did? I performed. I did commercial spots. Advertisements. I was a symbol, but what was I a symbol of?”
“Shaving cream? Did you ever learn to dance a jig?” Bruce’s hands were still thrust in his pockets. “I’ve always wanted to see a jig. I’m not sure jigs actually exist.”
“You think I’m whining,” said Steve. “Maybe I am.”
“No, I’m listening.” Bruce resisted the urge to sound as insincere as possible.
“You have every right to think ill of me.” Steve put his hands in his pockets, too.
Bruce stopped. Steve stopped too, standing there in his undershirt, his face so open and so honest that Bruce sort of wanted to destroy it. He looked away. “I don’t have the right to think ill of anyone.”
“I’ve talked to people from around here,” Steve pointed out. “They say that you’re a good man.”
Bruce shook his head, fists tightening in his pockets. “I’m not here to help people.”
“You were helping people in Calcutta.”
“I wasn’t really helping.”
Steve frowned. “Then what were you doing?”
There was this slum in Kolkata, about five blocks away from where Bruce had lived. He could have gone to this slum once a day, cleaned up every bit of trash and refuse, and it would still be littered with plastic bags and feces the next morning. He could have visited a patient every hour, and three of them would still have died every week. He could have told women that he knew that some of the things they had been raised to believe were entirely wrong, and they would still have married men who beat them.
He never tried to tell any women what their place in society was. He never tried to tell anyone what they should do with their streets. It wasn’t as if these things worked in America; Bruce hadn’t any illusion that they would work anywhere else, and even if he could have visited patients every hour, he didn’t.
Sometimes he stayed in the room he rented from his landlady, and through the walls, he could hear her sing. She had a little battery-operated machine that played long, buzzing tones in scales, and she would sing in each tone until the note changed. A vocal exercise, she said. The first time Bruce had heard it, it had made his ears itch, the tones discordant to his ears. Eventually, he had begun to think about the many, many ways to divide harmonic frequency, about the cilia in the inner ear that measured vibration of the fluid and sent these measurements to the brain, and he realized it was beautiful.
Before the accident, Bruce used to think that everything could be solved by science. Only once he had realized this wasn’t true did he begin to appreciate that what it lacked in solutions, it made up in loveliness.
“Doctor Banner?” Steve asked. “What were you doing in Calcutta?”
“Getting by,” said Bruce. “Like a lot of people.”
“I can see how that might be nice.”
Steve’s gaze was very level, for all that he had to look down. “Being like other people.” He looked off into the sunlight, squinting, hand on his hip. He should have been a cowboy in a field; he should have been on the cover of Grapes of Wrath. His face should be on salad dressing; he should have walked on the moon.
“So, teaching, treating sick people, assisting at the birth of baby cows—that’s not called helping anymore? What do they call it these days? Being a nuisance?” Smiling crookedly, Steve ran a hand through his hair. “Trust me. I’ve been a nuisance before.”
Bruce pressed his lips together. “I’m just saying it’s hard to make a difference.”
“I don’t want it to be easy,” Steve said. “I want it to be right.”
“You’re looking at a poster boy for ‘not right,’ Captain.”
Steve’s hand descended on his shoulder and Bruce didn’t do anything, didn’t move or flinch or anything, but inwardly he was thinking that if Steve was really going to stick around, this casual touching thing pretty much had to stop.
“I think for once,” Steve said, “you’re doing better than the rest of us.” He kind of squeezed Bruce’s shoulder—Bruce guessed it was a 1940s thing—then turned, walked down the dusty road. Sunlight shone down on his shoulders, bathing him in brightness.
Four days after Steve’s arrival, Bruce walked into the village to find Steve was over in the southwestern corner of it, digging a hole. Some women nearby were watching him as they ground millet, occasionally exchanging smiles. Children—some in clothing, some without—occasionally ran up to him and then away, laughing and smiling. A young man stood close to the hole, leaning on a pole, a group of men further away using more poles to churn the earth with straw and clay.
Bruce stood there for a little while, watching. No one seemed to think it odd that Steve Rogers was digging a hole in the village. Everyone in the immediate vicinity seemed quite pleased with it, actually. After a minute, one of the children saw Bruce, a boy named Julius. Julius raised his hand and waved, but didn’t come running over as he usually did when he saw him. Instead he went back to watching Steve.
Then Steve looked up, saw Bruce, and smiled. He’d done away with the shirt completely this time, red earth streaked down his front and across his jeans. He got out of the hole—thigh deep—and pulled a white t-shirt over his head, just like any gentleman would. When he got closer, Bruce could see gold stubbled on his jaw.
“Very manly,” Bruce commented, without much inflection.
Steve had stopped offering his hand to shake every time they greeted, but he still said, “Hello, Doctor Banner,” in that formal way that seemed so utterly casual to him. “Stream’s a mile, there and back.” He shrugged. “So I decided to dig a well.”
“We all like a morning shave,” Bruce said through five days’ worth of beard.
Laughing, Steve self-consciously scratched the stubble on his chin. “It looks good on you. Distinguished.”
“No one’s ever tried to call me that before.”
“It’s true, Professor.”
“Ah.” Bruce nodded towards the villagers. Some of the people called him that, even though he was about as far from a professor as they. “I see you’ve made friends.”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “Come on.”
They walked over to the well site, where the young man leaning on the pole was talking to a woman of about his age. Steve introduced him to the couple, Esther and Muhindo, saying that he was going to stay with them. Bruce shook hands and smiled, talking to Esther about her brother, Solomon, who she said worked at the clinic. Bruce knew him vaguely, and they talked about how busy the clinic was and how it was low on supplies, and Esther said that Steve had already mentioned he could bring antibiotics from Kampala.
Muhindo talked to Steve in English about how long it might take to build the well, but when Bruce turned from Esther Steve said, “You’re going to have to teach me Luganda.”
“Mm-hm.” Bruce pressed his lips together. “Can I talk to you?”
Steve looked from Esther to Muhindo, then back to Bruce again. “Okay,” he said. “Be right back.”
They walked up the road a bit, until Steve stopped and said, “Alright, I give. What’s eating you, doc?”
Bruce looked back at the hole in the ground, the children laughing and playing. Above was all blue sky; down the road, a boy wheeled a bicycle laden with bananas. Even the shacks with their tin roofs were beautiful things when seen abstractly, without the context of the illness and the privation that so often contained inside. When the world was as pretty as a painting, Bruce sometimes wanted to tear it to shreds, just because he could.
“You can’t do this,” Bruce said, thumb running over his fingers.
Something ticked in Steve’s jaw, but his eyes were steady and warm and kind. “Learn Luganda? Because I’m already picking it up. I know how to say banana, anyway.”
“You can’t just come in here and fix everything.”
“I’m not trying to fix everything,” said Steve. “I’m building a well.”
Bruce grimaced. “And bringing in antibiotics.”
“You have something against antibiotics?” When Bruce glared at him, Steve said, “Kampala’s not all that far on the bike. Just an hour or two. It’s not like I’m going to buy out the pharmaceutical industry. I’ll just spend what I have.”
“And then what?”
“You build a well, you buy some drugs, and then what?”
“Maybe I’ll build a church.”
“The old one burned down.” Steve looked down at him for a moment. “You’re upset.”
Bruce’s fists tightened. “I’m not upset.”
Steve just kept looking at him. “Do we need to go elsewhere?”
Do we need to go elsewhere, just as though they could walk somewhere and everything would be alright; no one would get hurt. For the first time, Bruce realized that with Steve there, it might actually be possible. Bruce rather thought the Hulk could break him in half, if he really wanted, but it would probably wear him down enough that he wouldn’t do all sorts of other damage, and who knew, Steve might not even die. The problem was that Steve really would have escorted him to the savannah so that Bruce could have a temper tantrum that just might kill him, all in the name of protecting some innocents he’d only just met.
Bruce breathed, and then he said, “Smoky the Bear.”
The corner of Steve’s mouth turned. “Who?”
“Sorry.” Bruce smiled mirthlessly. “Must have been late forties. Only you can prevent forest fires.”
Steve frowned. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”
“Yeah. I’ve been trying to settle on an American icon—Thomas Jefferson, Sam Houston, Norman Rockwell—someone you remind me of. I think it’s Smoky the Bear.”
“I knew all three of those,” said Steve. “I really enjoy Mister Rockwell’s paintings.”
Bruce’s fists loosened. “Aldrin was really the only modern example I had. I mean, besides Clark Kent.”
“I know Clark Kent. I read comics.”
“I mean Christopher Reeve Clark Kent,” said Bruce. “It’s a very specific example.”
“Christopher Reeve?” said Steve politely.
“Gregory Peck,” said Bruce. “Only more.”
“Mister Peck was a Broadway star, wasn’t he?”
Bruce couldn’t help a dry chuckle. “I keep not going back far enough. It’s a pity, because Atticus Finch.”
Steve shook his head, smiling. For a moment, Bruce thought he saw what Steve might have looked like younger, before the serum—boyish. Really sweet. “I’m pretty sure Luganda’s going to be an easier language than modern English,” Steve said. “At least I’ll know I don’t know anything.”
Looking over at the hole Steve had dug in the ground, Bruce swallowed a sigh. “Look. I know all this . . .” He waved a vague hand. “I know you want to help.”
“I do,” said Steve. “But I haven’t been here very long. You’ve been here longer. And you’ve definitely been in the twentieth century for longer, so you may know how to help better than I do.”
Shaking his head, Bruce said, “I’m not—”
“If you say you’re the poster-boy for not helping, I’ll get angry.” Steve smiled his easy, charming smile, the one that looked just like baseball and apple pie. “You won’t like me when I’m angry.”
“Funny,” said Bruce.
Steve’s smile faded. “Doctor Banner, if you think there’s something wrong with what I’m doing, maybe you could just tell me what you think I should do instead.”
Bruce didn’t look at him. Instead he looked back at the village, the children playing in the sunlight. Some of the kids were lying on their stomachs, peering over the edge of the hole. Julius was pretending to push another boy in. He wasn’t always exactly nice.
“Giving people drugs isn’t a bad thing,” Bruce said at last, turning back to Steve. “But things like that are . . . quick fixes.”
“I’m listening, Doctor Banner.”
“Hand-outs are only going to delay the inevitable.”
Frowning, Steve said, “Don’t you think that’s cynical?”
Bruce’s lips twisted. “Steve, you’re stronger than any other human being on his own. You can virtually move mountains. Then you leave, and what happens? Water diverts around the mountain, the village floods, people fight, and now you’ve got this mess where there wasn’t one before. The whole unlucky place would have been better had you never come at all.”
“You sound like you’re speaking from personal experience.”
Bruce’s thumb moved over his fingers. “Why do you think I don’t want to work with S.H.I.E.L.D.? They’re trying to save the world, aren’t they?”
Steve smiled, rather grimly. “High rise too high?”
“Thirty thousand foot drop.”
Steve shook his head. “Director Fury’s not going to keep you in that cage.”
“They already did.” Bruce kept his arms crossed. “So it wasn’t Fury. The point is, I’m the mountain. S.H.I.E.L.D. seems to think it’s in the world’s best interest to move me wherever they see fit, no matter what kind of collateral damage that could cause. You want to know why I don’t want to save the world, Steve? It’s because before the Tesseract, I was Phase Two.”
Steve was quiet for a long time. His narrowed eyes slanted to the side, strong jaw held tight. The solid flow from his shoulder up his neck made something poetic in the line of his bowed head, like a contemplative statue, like a benevolent saint. The light caught in his hair.
Bruce longed to smash him into pieces, said statue crushed utterly to dust, because it was an illusion, all of it. Steve Rogers was a dream of heaven and of angels. Bruce was the reality: men had never been anything other than monsters.
Carefully, Bruce unfolded his arms. “I didn’t mean you couldn’t build your well,” he said gently.
Steve looked up. “I think I understand.”
“Yeah.” Bruce turned to walk back to the village, to Steve’s hole in the ground, but Steve caught his arm.
“Thank you,” he said.
Only someone like Steve would ever thank you for attempting to shatter his comfortable illusions. His voice sounded as deep and full of meaning as that well.
“Webale,” was all Bruce said: thank you in Luganda.
Steve built the well in half the time it would have taken five grown men to do the same job. Then he started on the church, and almost everyone in the village fell in love with him. It would have been the same in any village anywhere, whether he was building wells or working at the local grocery. It would have been like that in any American small town; it would have been like that on an island in Japan even during wartime.
Steve was just that sort of man; his beauty may have been a cultural touchstone, but his kindness and his generosity were a universal language. He was charismatic in a way that made it difficult even for people who didn’t want to like him not to like him, which made it extremely hard for Bruce.
Steve always seemed to be around. When he wasn’t at the church site or in the village, he was at the clinic bringing something to Solomon for Ester, he was stopping in the road to help someone carry chickens. One day he came to the school and found Bruce there teaching a class.
He didn’t teach the little kids, but some of the village’s teenagers were interested in going to Kampala to seek jobs and higher education, while a few of the assistants at the clinic were just interested in learning more so that they could better support their community. The Ugandan physicians at the clinic were overworked, and didn’t have time in after-hours to feed their staff’s interest in biology. Bruce had time. He had all the time in the world.
He was writing on the blackboard, wearing his glasses and talking to Solomon and a girl in her late teens, Irene. Wherever he was, Bruce found it hard not to talk over people’s heads, and here, translation was particularly a problem, since his grasp of the language was not the best. Solomon and Irene, however, besides speaking English relatively well, were also exceptionally clever, and Bruce found that he was enjoying himself until he saw Steve sitting in the back.
He was lounging on one of the benches, leaning against the brick wall, a fond, lazy smile on his face. Bruce wasn’t sure who he was looking at—Irene, or maybe Solomon, or maybe he just found the whole scene quaint or idyllic somehow. The thought made Bruce’s jaw clench. Then Steve caught Bruce looking at him, and grinned.
Later they went outside, and Bruce took off his glasses.
“I see why they call you a professor,” said Steve. “I always needed glasses. I never wore them because I always thought they made me look like more of a wimp than I was already.”
“Thanks,” said Bruce.
“That’s not what I meant,” Steve said. “I meant—I don’t think it’s true, what they say about glasses. You look good. Really smart.”
He looked so earnest in that moment that Bruce took pity on him. “As I understand it, four eyes have become rather attractive, since your time.”
Steve chuckled ruefully. “Sorry. I was really weedy. You know—the kid they all made fun of. I was just . . .” He gestured self-consciously. “Used to it.”
Bruce turned away from the school. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.” He was pretty sure he lied less because he had anything to hide, and rather more because it amused him to make jokes that no one but himself got. God, but he was a sardonic bastard.
“Yeah.” Steve just laughed, walking with him. “You were good back there. Those kids really listen to you.”
Bruce’s mouth twisted. “Don’t call them kids.”
“Sorry?” Steve said, surprised.
Steve hadn’t meant to sound patronizing; of course he hadn’t. Bruce just shook his head. He could feel Steve glancing sidelong at him, and remained resolutely facing forward.
“I wanted to start a garden,” Steve said, after a moment.
Bruce thought of Adam and Eve, and said nothing.
“I wanted to get your thoughts on it.” Stopping, Steve turned to him. They were a little down the road from the school house now, the chickens wandering around them.
“You should definitely put your pretty maids all in a row,” Bruce said.
“I thought a lot about what you said,” Steve said, just as if Bruce wasn’t an asshole. “I don’t want to interfere. I don’t want to cause problems for anyone here; I just want to do some good.”
“I shouldn’t have said those things,” Bruce said. “It wasn’t fair to you. I’m sorry. I’m not your moral authority.”
“Thanks, but I can make my own decisions, Doctor Banner. I respect you. I want your advice.”
Steve was looking at him with calmness and with confidence, and Bruce just felt utterly blank inside. It was almost as if what Steve had said didn’t register at all.
Tony had respected him. Tony probably would have died rather than have said it in that way, but somehow Tony’s respect was comfortable. Tony respected him on a basis of intelligence and that was okay, because even though Bruce hated his own arrogance, he still knew that he was brilliant. But it wasn’t like Tony walked around respecting Bruce on the grounds of moral decency. That had been the problem with Tony, basically.
And many things had gone wrong with Natasha, but the thing Bruce had really, really liked about her was that she was never going to say that she trusted him.
“You look like I just kicked your puppy,” said Steve. “Is it really that shocking?”
“I never had a puppy,” Bruce said.
Steve grinned. “Maybe that’s your problem.”
Bruce thought about his father and then stopped thinking altogether. “So you want to start a garden,” he said.
“Right.” Running a hand through his hair, Steve looked back up the path at the school. “I was thinking a vegetable garden. So there’s food to eat. Then, if people save money on food, they can expand the garden. Eventually they could sell food from it.”
It wasn’t exactly a bad idea. Many of the men in the village and surrounding area harvested cocoa. Others sold cows, goats, and milk, or worked at the cement factory in town, several kilometers away. The women often didn’t have time to make an additional income, but gardening was something both the women and the male farmers might be able to manage. “First, you’d have to make sure someone actually wants a garden,” Bruce pointed out.
Steve nodded. “I talked to Esther, Keisha, and Lillian. And they introduced me to Faridah—do you know Faridah?” Bruce shook his head, and Steve went on, “She knows everyone. She said there’s interest.”
Gazing off into the sunlight, Steve had his hands on his hips. He should have a boot on a rock and be planting a flag or something; Bruce didn’t know; he was all out of icons because Steve was all of them except also very, very alive, and real. Just looking at him made something rush up in Bruce’s chest, something also real and also alive until his heart clenched with it, and his chest felt tight. He didn’t want Steve to be disappointed, he realized.
“During the war we had these Victory gardens,” said Steve. “Do people still do those? They were community gardens, and everyone worked together to keep them up, but you could still have your own plot of land and your personal yield.”
“You want to start a co-op,” said Bruce.
Sheepishly, Steve smiled, scratching his chest. “Are you going to tell me there’s something wrong with cooperation, too?”
“No,” said Bruce. “No. I’m not going to tell you that.”
“Then why are you looking at me like that?”
Bruce looked away. “I’m not looking at you like anything.”
“So,” Steve prodded. “Is it a good idea?”
“Yes. No.” Sometimes Bruce got these thoughts where he started thinking about, he didn’t know, brains and blood everywhere, and smashing skulls. He was pretty sure he did it just to mess with his own head. He’d always had a sick sense of humor. Bruce touched his knuckles, then made himself stop. “I think it sounds great,” he said.
“Neat,” said Steve, and beamed.
“You should think about where to get the money,” Bruce said.
“What?” said Steve. “Can’t I just . . . oh. But if I just front it,” he began, but stopped when Bruce shook his head.
“Try a local bank,” he said.
“See?” Grinning, Steve slapped him on the back. “I knew you’d come in handy.”
Bruce took a neat step to the side. “I’m not really so great with the touching.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
Steve looked concerned enough that Bruce figured he’d better change the topic quick. He started walking. “So, you garden?”
“Nope,” said Steve.
“It’s like you’re expecting this co-op to do all the work,” Bruce said.
“Now you’re catching on.” Smiling again, Steve was keeping pace beside him. “I figure I can do a little research in town. There are more people who garden there. Then I can help dig the plot, then we can go from there.”
“I still think you should put the silver bells next to the cockle shells.”
“See,” said Steve. “This is why I come to you for advice.”
Bruce laughed, startling himself. He hadn’t heard that sound since Tony.
After Steve had been in the country about a month, the bike came roaring up to the cottage. Steve walked or jogged almost everywhere these days, except on his trips to Kampala. Surprised to hear the motor, Bruce went to the door; he was even more surprised when Steve vaulted off the bike and rushed up to the cottage. Steve was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Doctor Banner, will you come with me?” he said.
“What’s the matter?”
“Is she worse?”
“She’s running a fever, and she said she can’t move her head. I wanted to take her to the clinic, but she says it hurts to move. And—”
“Of course I’ll come.” Bruce turned back into the cottage to get his bag.
Steve followed him. “Can you take my bike? I can come along after. I just want—”
“I can ride behind you.” Bruce got his bag, and looked at Steve’s concerned face. “I’m not that skittish.”
They went outside. Bruce put his bag in the pocket in the back, and Steve got on, then Bruce got on behind him. Then they were going, and Bruce yelled over the roar, “You should really wear a helmet.”
“What?” Steve tried to look over his shoulder.
Bruce put his lips by Steve’s ear. “You should wear a helmet,” he yelled.
“Well, you should hold on,” Steve yelled back, probably because Bruce’s arm was just sort of loosely wrapped around Steve’s waist, despite how fast they were going.
“I’m not going to die if I fall off,” Bruce yelled.
“Yes, but did you ever think that I might?”
Bruce thought about what was likely to happen if he fell off, and held tighter.
The orphanage was run by a nun named Faridah. It had been started in the late 1990s as a safe haven for child refugees displaced with in their own country, and continued to take in children orphaned by HIV. The orphanage was two buildings, one a dining hall and the other a dormitory. When Bruce and Steve arrived, most of the children were outside playing, but one of the bedrooms held a small girl on the top of a set of bunk beds.
Steve had been telling Bruce about the orphanage for the past two weeks, describing the children there and the work the nuns did. Apparently Faridah was well-connected to the community and sometimes shared land and business plans with neighbors. Faridah was the reason a bus route existed from Kampala to the nearby town. She was in her early sixties, a ripe old age for this country. When Bruce met her, she wore a brightly printed dress and an expression of concern.
Asha was a little girl of about twelve, closer in size to a child of nine. Her breathing was labored, her lips dry, and she barely took note of them when they came in the room. In those early days, simply looking at her would have made Bruce’s jaw clench; it would have been hard to loosen his fists. It was different now. Bruce knew how to make his hands gentle, and his voice kind.
He got out the stethoscope, laid it on her frail chest. Steve went out to the other children, while Faridah stood nearby. “I want you to take a deep breath,” Bruce said, in his clumsy Luganda.
“We teach English here,” said Faridah.
“Pardon,” said Bruce. “Asha, can you take another breath?”
Asha tried again, another rattling breath.
“Has she been throwing up?” said Bruce.
“No,” said Faridah. “She says her neck hurts.”
“Alright. Asha, this may hurt a little. Can you roll over on your tummy?”
She turned a little on the bed. Bruce lifted her hand to help her, but it was limp in his grasp. When he let go, her arm fell back to the bed.
“I’ll help you,” said Faridah.
“Thank you,” said Bruce. “Okay, Asha, I need to look at your back. I’m sorry if this hurts.”
Faridah came around the bed, and they got Asha turned over. Bruce carefully touched her neck, ran his hands along her spine, over her flower-print dress. Sometimes it helped to grind the tips of his teeth together, and think of things like bacteria. They were amazing things, billions upon billions of tiny miracles, and it was only happenstance that they killed people. It was a brutal thing, but Bruce sometimes found it strangely comforting. They never meant to hurt anyone at all; they only meant to live.
“It’s okay,” Bruce said, when the catch in her breathing told him that the touching hurt. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Faridah held Asha’s hand, but Asha didn’t seem to notice.
They turned her back over, Bruce running some other, less painless checks, then asking Faridah a couple more questions. “I’m pretty sure it’s meningitis,” Bruce said, taking off the stethoscope.
“I thought it was malaria,” she said.
“I thought so too,” said Bruce, “but she would be losing far more fluids.”
“What is it, then?”
“A complication of the tuberculosis,” said Bruce. “It’s an infection in the spine.”
“Will the treatments help?”
Swallowing, Bruce put the stethoscope in his bag. “I can order more medicine from Kampala.”
“He will help us.”
Bruce looked at Asha. “Steve’s a great guy,” he said.
Breaking into a smile, Faridah at last turned to him. “I was speaking of God. Perhaps you mistook my reverent tone?”
“I’m sure God’s a great guy, too.”
Faridah laughed. “I’ve heard you’re an odd one.”
“So, people are spreading rumors.”
“People always spread rumors.” Turning back to Asha, Faridah’s smile died. “Steve is splendid, but there comes a time when things do not rest in our hands.”
Bruce looked at Asha. “I’ve heard you’re very wise.”
Faridah laughed. “I can’t help it if some rumors are true.”
“I think Steve might break out into hives before saying anything untrue.” Bruce looked around. “He says you do good work.”
“He says that you do, too.”
“Proves the hives theory wrong, I guess.” Faridah raised her brows, so Bruce just said, “Maybe we have different definitions of good.”
“I’ve heard that as well,” said Faridah. When Bruce raised his own brows, she said, “Did you think yours was the only opinion Steve liked to get before doing the things he does here?”
“I sort of hoped it wasn’t,” said Bruce. “But I guess I thought it was.” His thumb ran over his fingers. “I sort of have this tendency to assume it’s always about me.”
“Maybe he likes you because you’re so humble.”
Her comment surprised a dry chuckle out of Bruce, but Faridah was looking at Asha. Her brown eyes were very large, weighted at the sides by lines of care and time. She looked like a strong woman, but also one who had seen far too much. She wasn’t anywhere near as old as Steve, but suddenly Bruce wondered whether Steve found it a little easier around people closer to his real age. Maybe it was just that much harder.
“It’s not about you,” Faridah said. “It’s not about Steve, and it’s not about me. It’s not even about our future, my family, or my children. Right now, it’s just about her.” She was still looking at Asha. “I don’t care what you say about money or charity. If you can help her, even just her, that’s all that matters.”
“Until the next child,” Bruce said.
“When life is difficult,” Faridah said, “we take one problem at a time.”
The next time Steve visited Bruce’s cottage, he said, “Hello, Doctor Banner,” like he always did, and Bruce said, “Hey,” the way he sometimes did, and Steve said, “How are you?”
“Fine,” Bruce said, to be polite.
“I wanted to talk to you about HIV,” said Steve.
All Bruce wanted to do was mix this saline solution, go to sleep, and never ever dream. Instead he walked back into the rudimentary lab room and said, “I’d rather talk about how your garden grows,” mostly because if it was hard for him to deal with some of the things that Steve didn’t know, then it must be murder on Steve.
Steve stood at the doorway.
Looking up over his glasses, Bruce saw Steve’s face, and shook his head. “I’m sorry,” Bruce said. “It’s . . . what do you want to know?”
“Everything,” said Steve, and sat down at the bench.
Bruce raised his brows. “You’ve been to the clinic. You know about AIDS.”
Steve smiled mirthlessly. “I’m a year, Doctor Banner, not a day.” The smile fell away. Watching as Bruce measured out salt into plastic bottles, he said, “I thought I understood it. There just seem to be—a lot of different ideas about it.”
Bruce started measuring the dextrose. “What do you know?”
“It’s a disease. A bad one. And smoking gives you lung cancer.” Steve gave him a self-deprecating smile. “Sorry. It’s all a mish-mash of information from various sources. Also, cell phones might give you cancer, but it hasn’t been proven yet.”
“Right.” So, at least Steve was asking science questions; that was helpful. Bruce started measuring the water. “HIV is a virus that affects the auto-immune system; it causes AIDS. It’s a sexually transmitted disease. It’s particularly a problem in Africa because . . . well, there are a lot of reasons. But the main one is unprotected sex.”
Steve actually blushed.
Bruce pursed his lips. “Am I embarrassing you?”
“What? No. I knew that much.”
“Good.” Bruce started pouring the water carefully into the bottles. “Embarrassment can be a big part of the problem.”
“I’m listening.” It wasn’t a very deep blush. Just this brush of pink dusting Steve’s cheeks.
So Bruce explained about AIDS, how the disease was transmitted, the common misconceptions about its transference. There were cultural as well as economic reasons that made treatment, prevention and eradication of the disease difficult in sub-Saharan Africa. Scientists theorized that concurrent partnerships could contribute to the problem, as well as the more obvious problems of sanitization and education.
“You mean the natives are promiscuous,” Steve said at last, with a frown.
Bruce grimaced. “Don’t say, ‘the natives’.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“Yeah.” Bruce decided to make the silica gel next. He wouldn’t be able to use it until he got more equipment, but he still planned on setting up a lab. Some time. Eventually. “Preach abstinence and monogamy all you want, it doesn’t mean that people are going to listen. There are three good reasons why fewer people have AIDS in the U.S., and those are, in order of importance, money, education, and condoms.”
“But people do have AIDS in America,” Steve pointed out.
“It happens.” Bruce laid out a cloth, put the silica crystals onto it, another cloth on top of that. Crushing the crystals with a rock, he said, “There are other ways to transmit it.”
“You mean,” Steve said, and the pink was back in his cheeks, “homosexuals.”
Looking at him over his glasses, Bruce couldn’t help the reflexive tightening of his jaw. “No, actually.” He gathered the crushed silica. “I didn’t mean that. I meant needles, and accidental exchange of fluids.”
“I read it in a magazine,” Steve said. “I think. Maybe on the internet.”
Bruce poured the purified water into a jar, then added the sodium hydroxide. Part of the problem was that it wasn’t actually Steve’s fault. He’d lived in the twenty-first century for less than a year, assaulted every day by commercials, blogs, news programs—many of them centered around him—pop music, billboards, webisodes, talk show hosts, Bruce didn’t know, comics. Out of that onslaught of constant information, it had to be difficult to determine what was relevant, much less true. “You don’t get AIDS because you’re gay, Steve,” was all Bruce said.
“But more people are now,” Steve said. “I mean, that one’s hard to miss.” He bowed his head, looking pensive. His voice was quiet when he said, “Why are things so different?”
Bruce fired up the burner, then got the clamps to hold the jar. “It’s probably not as different as you think,” he said. “There’ve always been promiscuity and homosexuality; we just happen to be in an era that’s more open about it.”
“People keep saying that,” said Steve, pink in his cheeks again. “But I didn’t know many people who were like that. The ones who were didn’t seem very . . . nice.”
No, okay, the problem was, Steve Rogers could claim that abstinence was the only answer and that homosexuality was wrong, and many people would believe him. It was because he was Steve Rogers, the hero of the past, whom everyone knew was the American ideal of wholesome goodness; if he said what was right and wrong, it must be true.
And yet people would probably believe him even not knowing who he was; there was something just slightly uncanny about him, a kind of distance that displaced him. It wasn’t just his size, his good looks; there was something pure about him, something so unbroken, as though he were the thing that people believed in when they were young, and later grew to learn could not be true.
And then there was Bruce—who was, let’s face it, as ruined a specimen of humanity as Steve was an ideal—saying things that must sound a lot to Steve like love and God and family don’t matter anymore.
Bruce hooked the gas tube on the Meker burner up to the canister. He knew he probably should be saying something right now, something that would reach past stereotypes and upbringing and into the essential goodness at the heart of Steve’s character. It would be the responsible thing to do in a country where sexual orientation could sometimes result in death.
He held the jar over the flame with the clamps, gradually adding the silica. “I don’t think I’m really the person you should talk to about this kind of thing,” he said finally.
“Who should I talk to? Tony Stark?” Steve laughed a little. “He keeps saying he’s telling me about the real world, but somehow I think he’s really telling me about his own world.”
Steve watched for a while as the silica dissolved, and Bruce added more a little at a time. “I thought you agreed to stop telling me I was wrong without telling me what you think is right,” Steve said.
“Are you sure that was me?” Bruce turned the jar on the flame with the clamps. “It doesn’t sound like me. I have this sort of dual nature.” He took the jar off the flame.
“Why do you do that?”
“What?” Bruce stood up, going over to the safe. He took out the bottle of boric acid, brought it over to the table.
“Deflect,” said Steve. “You do it all the time.”
“I’m not the one with the shiny shield.” Bruce put down the acid. “Look, Steve, I’m not trying to be a jerk. It’s just not really my place to tell you that you’re wrong, or that you should feel differently than you do.”
Steve’s mouth went tight. “Stop treating me like a child. I expect it from Mister Stark, but not from you. It’s not telling me how to think when I ask for your opinion.”
Bruce’s hand spasmed around the acid. “Alright, how about this. What if I want to tell you what to think?” He looked at Steve, his whole face gone taut, and wondered why this always happened to him. “What if I want you to believe exactly what I believe, and you, the perfect model of human decency, preach it to the world, and then it turns out—I’ve made you into me. You don’t have to get green and ugly to be a monster, Steve. You just have to have a lot of power and be convinced you’re right.”
Steve just looked at him, his expression mild. “I would say, with all due respect, screw you.”
Bruce looked at him in surprise.
“My body was made, not my mind.” Steve shook his head. “Stop thinking you can make your thoughts reality just by thinking them. I know you’re a virtual tank, but that’s getting just a little out of your league.”
The tension eased from Bruce’s shoulders. He looked away. “Don’t think it didn’t occur to me, when we had Loki’s scepter.”
Steve snorted. “Don’t think it didn’t occur to all of us in one way or another, at some subconscious level. You’re not so special, Doctor Banner. I’ve known plenty of freaks far worse than you.”
“But did they perform naked,” Bruce said, turning back to the acid. He’d forgotten what he was doing with it. Silica gel, right. Cobalt chlorate. Get on that, Banner.
Sometimes he whined so much he annoyed even himself.
“Wouldn’t you like to know.” Steve was smiling, a corner of his mouth, and Bruce wondered just what kind of mischief Steve had ever got up to as a kid.
He poured the boric acid into the sodium silicate.
“So.” Steve put his elbows on the table. “You going to answer my question, or just sit here and play mad scientist all day?”
“You would know if I was mad.” Bruce looked at him over his glasses. “What question?”
“The evolving social unit that is the American family.” Steve flashed him a grin. “Mister Stark keeps sending me these texts and emails. I think he’s trying to horrify me.”
Bruce pressed his lips together. “Is he succeeding?”
Steve’s smile fell away. He started drumming his hand on the table. “I’m just not sure I see what’s wrong with people caring for and committing to each other before making love.”
“Nothing’s wrong with it.” Bruce mixed the solution, the gel slowly forming, a green blobby mass in the bottom of the jar.
“And what’s wrong with family? If God intended women to be with women and men to be with men—” pink dusted Steve’s cheeks again—“why do women only have babies with men?”
“That’s a rather simplistic view point.” Bruce kept on stirring, then finally poured out the excess liquid.
“So I’ve heard. It just doesn’t seem . . .” Steve waved a hand, as though to encompass all human sexuality in that one small gesture, “natural.”
“I’m not trying to reduce the argument to tautology, here,” Bruce said, rinsing the gel with the saline, “but all of human action is, by definition, natural.”
“I’ve thought about that too.” Steve started drumming on the table again. “Then I think about us.”
“I’m flattered?” Bruce smiled wryly.
“I’m the most unnatural person I’ve ever met.” Steve stopped drumming. “Besides you.”
“I’m sure my sunny disposition makes up for it.” Bruce went on rinsing the gel, then glanced over at Steve. “There’s Tony,” he offered.
Steve shook his head. “Machines were helping people to live before I went to sleep. It was supposed to be the future. And it is weird that Mister Stark has a machine in his chest, but let’s face it. In some ways, you and I, our whole bodies are machines. They’re engineered.”
Bruce wanted to tell Steve that he was the most natural person he’d ever met. He’d never known someone so genuinely kind, not even Betty—someone so completely lacking in pretense. He wanted to tell Steve that there was nothing unnatural about him, but of course it was a lie.
“You wanted my opinion,” Bruce said. Sealing the gel in a container, he opened up the safe again, replaced the chemicals and sensitive equipment. He went to make sure the gas was off, then began to wash the jars and beakers. “Here it is. People have the right to love or have sex with whomever they want. HIV is not a judgment; viruses are just simple evolution—DNA, doing what it does. And you. You are not a disappointment in the eyes of God.”
“Thanks.” Steve smiled ruefully. “Are you just saying that because you don’t actually believe in God?”
Bruce pressed his lips together. “Yes.”
Steve held that smile, a hook at the end of his lips. “I thought maybe you didn’t. I feel like not a lot of people do these days.”
Bruce looked away. “I don’t really believe in anything.”
Steve looked at him a little while, in his thoughtful way, his strong brow clear of any lines, fine jaw generous in regards to his mouth. “I think you do.” He smiled. “Anyway, I believe in you.”
Later that week, Bruce wrote out the drugs that Asha needed, and asked Steve if he needed money. Steve looked at him strangely and said, “I thought charity was a quick fix.”
“It is,” said Bruce, not really looking back. “Do you need cash?”
“No,” said Steve in a slow, thoughtful tone that Bruce really didn’t like. “That’s okay.”
“Good,” said Bruce, and gave him a wad of shillings. “Get some syringes while you’re at it. They’re running tight at the clinic, which probably means they’ll start reusing them.”
Steve took the bills. “Anything else, Doctor Banner?”
“No. Yeah.” Bruce scratched the back of his neck. “I want cantaloupe.”
“I’ve heard cantaloupe grows great in this climate. No one around here is growing any cantaloupe. I want some cantaloupe.”
The corner of Steve’s mouth turned down even as his brows went up. “You want me to buy this before or after the silver bells and cockle shells?”
“I’m not going to eat those, Steve.”
Steve just looked at him. After a while he said, “Is Asha going to be okay?”
“No.” Bruce turned away. “I think she’s going to die.”
“Then why are you bothering?” said Steve.
“Honestly, I have no clue. Maybe I just feel like it.”
“Exactly like that.”
“Alright, Doctor Banner,” Steve said in that same slow tone.
He went to Kampala and got the drugs for Asha, melon seeds for the garden, and syringes for the clinic. He told Bruce they were fresh out of cantaloupe in Kampala, and Bruce said that he was a dirty rotten liar, and Steve just said Bruce would have to wait for the garden.
Keisha, one of the girls who lived in the village, led the co-op, and they drafted a proposal for the money and tools to start the garden. Steve started digging the plot once the microcredit was approved, in between days of work on the church. The latter was slow-going, due to minor set-backs with runny mortar and crumbling bricks, which necessitated more trips to Kampala. The work was slowed as well by some of the children, who liked to play with the tools. Mainly, they liked to play with Steve.
Steve was a kid magnet. He was like their own personal jungle gym, except he also laughed and joked around and sometimes gave them pretty things that Bruce thought he probably shouldn’t give them, but then he saw Steve with a three year old on his hip and it was sort of hard to argue.
There was something arresting about Steve with children. When they started Asha’s treatment, they were both over at the orphanage a lot. Steve would often play with the children outside—jumping back and forth over strings, chasing them around, teaching them games. Steve wanted to teach the kids baseball; Bruce told him to be patriotic and play soccer.
After the first two afternoon, Steve got the idea to put a chair out on the lawn and bring Asha outside. They brought an umbrella and some of the mosquito netting too, and Steve carried her outside wrapped in a thin, bright yellow blanket.
The thing about Steve was that he didn’t even look like he was being careful; he was a man with the strength of ten, and yet he was perfectly at ease in his own body. He made it look so effortless, and it touched something deep within Bruce that he only seemed that way because he had been built to move with ease and elegance, while mentally, Steve apparently felt graceless. Bruce was used to feeling like he didn’t own his own body. There were so many others who could not be used to it; Steve and Asha were only two of them.
Sometimes after the orphanage, Bruce would go back to the village with Steve. Steve usually had to get to work on the church, while sometimes Bruce went to chat with Esther or had a beer with some of the guys at the bar. Sometimes he talked to Steve while he was working, and more often than he liked to admit, Bruce just watched him. Bruce had to admit that there was something arresting about Steve even without the contrast of the children. Compared to Steve, grown men were small and fragile too.
Steve usually worked in an undershirt and wheeled around more bricks than should have been humanly possible; he demolished the wall of faulty brick with a sledge hammer and then got right back to work. He was the strongest human being in the world in his normal state. It didn’t make a difference where he went; he would always be able to do more than others could, give more than others could, fix the things that others couldn’t. People like Steve held this world in the palms of their superpowered hands, and the fate of everyone in it rested on their sound moral judgment.
Normally, it was something Bruce was pretty concerned about, considering. He was still concerned about it, but while Bruce watched Steve build that church, mostly what he thought about was what that having Steve here was the safest anyone around Bruce had ever been since the experiment. Bruce had it pretty well under control—since New York, since Honduras—but he could not deny that he was also one of those superpowered people, and however sound his moral judgment, he would always be a threat. Having Steve around meant that threat was lessened.
Sometimes Bruce watched him, Steve straining against the wooden beams that would brace the ceiling, and all he could think of was what that if they went somewhere secluded, somewhere far from here—he could finally just . . . let go. Maybe Steve could even take it. Bruce didn’t mean to do it; he didn’t even know that he was doing it—but when Bruce watched Steve, he looked to see how Steve moved, how much he could take, what he could withstand and whether he could get away. The odds were not very promising, but they were better than they ever had been with any unarmed human being. Something about that made Bruce feel strangely settled, as though the beast inside, sensing balance, could curl up and go to sleep.
Steve surely didn’t act like he was there to try to pound some sense into him, should Bruce turn into a colossal raging monster. Sometimes Bruce wondered if the thought even ever crossed Steve’s mind. Whether it did or didn’t, Bruce found that over time, tension was easing from his shoulders. When he got a little anxious he thought about Steve’s arms lifting far too many bricks; when he got upset, he thought about the thickness of Steve’s thighs. He thought about Steve taking hit after hit after hit, just taking it and taking it, then getting up again, ruined and golden, but undefeated. Bruce went to sleep thinking of Steve killing him, and for once, he rested in peace.
Once Steve got the garden going, he went to Kampala to get the wood floor and paint for the church. Then he got the idea that the school could use computers, which Bruce struggled to explain to him hardly seemed feasible. The school didn’t have power, and was two kilometers from the village, without anything much around it besides farms and huts. The health center was a little more realistic, especially since it wasn’t far from town, and already had electricity.
Steve decided that if the issue really was about power, then there was really only one person in the world he thought should get involved.
“That really isn’t such a good idea,” said Bruce.
“He isn’t an evil man,” said Steve. “In fact, he can be really keen. I mean, unless he’s near me. Which he’s not.”
“I don’t mean because he’s evil,” said Bruce. Steve was at his cottage again; he’d come over because he had this great idea. Bruce didn’t think it was a great idea at all.
“I understand that it would be charity,” Steve said, “but it’s not a quick fix. Once people have power and electricity and know how to use computers, they can build from there.”
“There isn’t the infrastructure in this area,” was all Bruce said.
“Why can’t we build it?”
“He very well could. The question is whether you should.” Bruce started tapping his pen. He’d been going over some notes from his old research.
Steve frowned. “It would benefit people.”
Bruce started turning the pen end to end in his hand. “You ever think maybe it isn’t your job to benefit people?”
Steve just looked at him. “No?”
Of course. It was a stupid question.
“I think you know what I think,” Bruce said, turning back to the paper in front of him.
“I’m just not always sure why,” said Steve.
“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” Bruce said, then turned to Steve again. “I’m sorry. That was really rude. I didn’t mean to—”
Steve gave him a smile that was a lot more like a grimace. “You sort of did. It’s okay, Doctor Banner.”
“No.” Bruce took off his glasses. “It’s not. I should never have—you’re . . .” He looked at Steve’s open, honest face and didn’t even have words for what he was. “You just wanted my advice. Now you’ve got it, and it’s alright for you to make a different decision.”
Steve’s brows went up. “What if it hurts other people?”
Bruce shook his head. “I can’t make you do anything. You do what you think is right, and I . . . do what I can.”
Steve was sort of smirking now, which was a weird thing to see. “That’s why I come to you for advice.”
Bruce looked away. “I thought it was because I’m a great gardener.”
“No, you’re very contrary,” Steve said. “It’s okay. I like it.”
As it turned out, Bruce didn’t have to decide whether to discourage Steve from his plan. Someone else made the decision for him.
“He said, ‘don’t be an idiot,’” said Steve.
“Was that it?” said Bruce.
“No,” said Steve. “He called me Captain Planet.”
“He’s a hero,” said Bruce.
“I printed it out. You can read it.”
There was an internet café in town, which Steve used from time to time to communicate with S.H.I.E.L.D. and whoever else—Bruce wasn’t really sure whether Steve knew anyone, besides S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and the Avengers.
Steve never talked about having any problems with the technology at the café. Obviously, he had had some time to learn the ropes, but it also wasn’t like Steve was stupid. Among other things he was incredibly resourceful, and wasn’t afraid of asking for help. Bruce had thought several times before that Steve’s problem in New York had probably gone much deeper than dealing with the unfamiliar technology.
Bruce looked down at the email. It read:
If you think that the problems of Africa can be solved by bumbling about in a unitard saving orphans and instilling impoverished peoples with the values of the American Way, you’re even more of a clueless bumpkin than I thought. And my thoughts on the subject were myriad.
I submit for your consideration, the toilet. Every twenty seconds, a child in the world dies as a result of water-borne illness. Should you:
A) Offer to carry buckets of water from the local stream, just as any gentleman would, and see to it yourself that each bucket is thoroughly sanitized,
B) Build a sewer system for the local village, ensuring that all water sources are properly treated and all sewage management is regulated, spending years of your life and ignoring other villages in the meantime,
C) Pour money and resources into a country and/or continent in the hopes that historically unstable local governments will be able to use said resources with the wisdom and efficiency even our own government lacks, or
D) Completely redesign the toilet and all waste management technology such that A, B, and C become moot points and water-borne illness is eliminated.
You probably picked A, didn’t you. I would have hoped that someone in your remote proximity could have explained all of this to you, but it’s become clear that some people would rather put their genius to waste—to the detriment of choice D) and all of us—rather than study and put to use green energy. In all its various forms.
You, alas, are not a genius, nor an engineer; however, you are not lacking in certain energies of your own. Do you want to solve world problems? I have a list of guerilla leaders, terrorists, drug lords and mobsters you would do well to locate. I don’t care if you skip the trial of their peers for crimes against humanity; simply proceed to eliminate. Once you do that, we’ll have a nice chat, and I’ll buy you the apple pie you would most assuredly deserve, my fellow American.
Tl;dr, you’re not going to bring pollution down to zero. I am.
Sent from I-civilization
Bruce folded the paper and gave it back to Steve. “It’s too bad he doesn’t take his own advice.”
“What do you mean?” Folding the paper one more time, Steve put it in his back pocket.
Bruce took off his glasses. “Stark Industries pours plenty of money into foreign aid charities.”
“Does he know that?” For the first time ever, Steve’s voice was not quite kind.
Bruce looked down, playing with the ear piece on his glasses, opening and closing it. “Pretty sure he’s the one who sets it up.” He looked back up at Steve. “I’m sure you could get the necessary equipment from elsewhere.”
“That’s not the point.”
“What was the point?” Bruce asked quietly.
Steve’s frown deepened.
“He’s not his father, Steve.”
“I know,” said Steve. “I just don’t want him to be . . .”
“On the helicarrier, you said that he only cared about himself.” Bruce opened and closed the glasses. “Do you still think so?”
“Of course not,” said Steve promptly. His shoulders slumped. “Only sometimes.”
“I think he sees the world very differently from you,” said Bruce. “It doesn’t invalidate either viewpoint.”
“What about you?”
Bruce snapped the glasses shut. “What?”
“I’ve always wondered what you two fought about.”
The glasses were in his fist now—Bruce wasn’t sure how they got there—and he had to think carefully about not squeezing. “We didn’t fight,” he said.
“You were certainly pretty thick. Then you just . . . left.”
Bruce concentrated on not breaking the glasses. They were his only pair. “We weren’t thick. I don’t even really know him.”
“You stayed at Stark Tower five days,” Steve pointed out. “If he wasn’t in your face for even half of that time, you’re luckier than most.”
“I think I’ll go for a walk,” said Bruce. Putting his glasses in his pocket, he grabbed the plastic jugs by the door, and went outside.
Steve didn’t approach him until Bruce was filling the fourth jug, possibly because he was just a nice guy like that. “I’m sorry,” Steve said, as though to prove it. “I didn’t mean to pry.”
“You didn’t.” Bruce didn’t look at him. “I’m not upset.”
“Of course not.” On anyone else, that tone would have sounded sarcastic, but although Steve sounded amused, he also just sounded kind. Steve said, “Let me help you.” He reached down and picked up two of the jugs.
“We didn’t fight,” Bruce said again. “We just have . . . a fundamental difference of opinions.”
Wearing a crooked smile, Steve arched a brow. “Like he and I?”
“Yes. Exactly like that.” Bruce picked up the jugs.
“It’s just that, I don’t know,” Steve said, as they started walking, “he seemed to have similar opinions to you in that email. I don’t mean you sound like a jerk,” and he was still kind, “I just mean, in essentials.”
“I’m nothing like Tony,” Bruce said, mainly because Tony had said almost exactly what Bruce would say, if only Bruce had believed that the world was simple enough to say it.
They walked back in the cottage, where Bruce got the water purification tablets out from one of the crates, then put them in the jugs. “What about the rest of the email?” Steve said, putting his own jugs on the counter next to the stove.
“What about it?” Bruce said, adding tablets to those jugs too.
“The terrorists and drug lords,” Steve said. “Do you think I should be hunting them down?”
Bruce began setting up the water filter. The filter only got some of the bacteria; the tablets were supposed to take care of the rest. Bruce was pretty sure that his body would have done it all for him; at this point, all his gut flora had probably long since died from radiation. It was the radiation itself that was keeping him alive. He still liked to be careful—besides, sometimes he had guests. “I don’t know,” was all he said.
“Why not?” Steve said. “Mister Stark seemed to think it was pretty clear cut.”
Steve leaned up against the wall by the door. He was mostly in shadow there, at that angle, the strong broad lines of him a little gray and a lot less certain. Bruce went back to setting up the filter, pouring the water in. “The world would probably thank you for assassinating several people I can think of,” Bruce said. “It just makes me wonder what comes next.”
“Al-Qaeda,” said Steve.
“Among other things.” Bruce poured the water.
“What about foreign dictators? Would you have killed Saddam Hussein? Are you going to kill Kim Jong-un? What are you going to do about the next coup in Central America? Human rights violations in the Middle East?” Bruce uncapped the next jug. “What if you just don’t like someone’s face?”
“I have a really good retort for that,” said Steve. “It’s biting and sarcastic and about Tony Stark, but it doesn’t seem appropriate.”
Bruce glanced at him. Steve’s face was turned in this direction, but he wasn’t quite looking at Bruce, as though fascinated instead by the pouring of the water. He wasn’t smiling at all. “What do you think?” Bruce said.
“What?” Startled, Steve managed to pull his eyes away from Bruce’s hands long enough to meet his eyes.
“You’re always asking me what I think,” said Bruce. “What do you think? That’s the only thing that matters, when it comes to what you do.”
“I don’t know,” Steve said, something in his voice—maybe chagrin. He smiled a little, ran his hand through his hair and then kept it there, resting on his neck, looking down at the ground. The line of his lips was troubled.
Bruce took the water coming out from under the filter and poured it into another bottle. Time for more saline solution—the clinic could use it anyway, even if he didn’t.
“Why don’t you like people to touch you?” Steve asked.
Bruce poured the salt in. He closed the bottle, shook it, didn’t turn around. “Giant beast of wrath. I think that covers it.”
“I’m sorry,” said Steve. “That’s personal. I shouldn’t have asked. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Bruce took out another bottle before that salt was really mixed, checked the water in the filter, which wasn’t finished either, measured out another percentage of salt, poured more water in the filter, checked it again. He still didn’t turn around.
Steve didn’t leave while Bruce pretended that he had very important things to do; maybe Bruce should have actually gone on that walk, or told Steve to leave, or told Steve why he didn’t much like touching, or showed Steve why he didn’t much like touching, which was why Bruce just kept standing there, not looking, not doing anything except keeping his hands busy.
Steve didn’t leave. As far as Bruce could tell, he had barely moved.
“I thought a lot about what you said,” Steve said, after that long, excruciating silence. “About the government. I’ve read about Vietnam. Korea, Iraq.”
When Bruce glanced back, Steve still had his hand on the back of his neck. He was still watching the bottles and beakers, salt and Bruce’s hands, but Bruce’s guess was he wasn’t really seeing them.
“I read about Hiroshima, too,” said Steve. “Nagasaki. If you were Phase Two, was I Phase Zero? I look at what we’ve done, about all the scientists who had to engineer me, and then I start thinking maybe I’m just another Manhattan Project after all.”
“You have a mind,” said Bruce.
Steve smiled gratefully, a not quite pleasant twist of his lips. “Mister Stark doesn’t think so. He thinks I’m good for exactly one thing.”
“He didn’t mean it like that,” Bruce said, immediately and without forethought.
Steve’s lips twisted further. “Are you defending me, or him?”
Bruce turned back to the counter.
“Let’s face it, Doctor Banner. If the people who built me had intended for me to solve the world’s problems with my brain, they wouldn’t have left that the same and changed all the rest. They intended me to use a fist.”
“I meant that you can decide where to use it,” said Bruce.
“Yes.” Bruce didn’t intend his voice to be so rough. His fist curled on the counter. “You do get to decide. You should keep in mind that some weapons don’t.”
“Doctor Banner.” Steve stepped closer.
“It’s fine.” Putting the traitor fist in his pocket, Bruce turned around. “Really, it’s fine. I didn’t mean to imply that it’s an easy decision for you to make. It isn’t. It shouldn’t be.”
“Mister Stark seems to think it is.”
Bruce put his other hand in his pocket too. “You want to know what’s wrong with Tony Stark?”
The corner of Steve’s mouth twitched up. “I could probably name plenty of things.”
“In your day, a good fight was legit. These days, war—not so universally approved. What we really want is an incisive, directed strike eliminating completely anyone or anything that stands in the way of the pursuit of happiness. We want the defense of democracy at the lowest threshold of bloodshed, but we will sacrifice anything from privacy to simple decency to make that strike.” Bruce kept his hands in his pockets. “So we made Tony Stark. He’s the American dream, you know.”
“And the sacrifice?” said Steve.
Bruce pursed his lips. “I’ve never been able to decide. Every single thing Tony’s ever done with that suit has been completely legitimized by the outcome.”
“What do you mean?”
Bruce looked up at him. “I mean that I don’t have a clue, when it comes to right and wrong.”
Tilting his head, Steve said, “I think you do.”
“I appreciate that. But sometimes I think not claiming to know the right answer is the only moral choice that you can make.”
Steve frowned. “Then what’s the point of making any choice at all?”
“That’s the problem,” said Bruce. “I don’t know if there is a point.”
Though Steve didn’t seem particularly angry at Tony, he didn’t seem particularly pleased, either. Over the next few weeks he seemed restless, going over the plans to get the computers into the clinic and rejecting them—probably thinking too much about what Tony had said, and second guessing himself. Bruce thought that Steve was not going to be able to justify his presence here much longer, and felt vindicated the day that Steve kidnapped him.
Steve had driven up in a jeep, which had brought Bruce outside. Automobiles in this immediate vicinity were relatively rare, but Steve didn’t explain. He said hello and how are you, and they went into the cottage. Bruce went back to calibrating the microscope he’d recently gotten from Kampala, while Steve easily lifted the crate that held Bruce’s clothes and most of his worldly possessions with one hand.
“Um, okay.” Bruce tinkered with the microscope some more. “So, that’s stealing.”
Steve walked out with the crate, and then came back.
Finally, it dawned on Bruce, and a sick feeling began somewhere low down in his stomach. “Are we going somewhere?” he asked, very calmly, and took the slide out from under the clips.
Steve smiled—not very innocently, for all that he was Captain America. “Why, are you busy?”
“Depends on where we’re going.”
A wrinkle appeared between Steve’s brows. “You’re not wearing a shirt,” he said, as though he had just noticed.
“They’re drying,” said Bruce. He only had the two. “Outside. Did you want to steal those too?”
“Yes.” Steve just kept looking at him, head slightly tilted. “You just don’t look very scientist-like right now.”
Bruce was starting to get impatient. “They only want me for my gamma expertise? Are you going to feed me that line—seriously? Again?”
“What?” Steve seemed distracted. Maybe he was feeling remorse about being a dirty rotten traitor. “No.”
“It sure was a long game you played.” It probably wasn’t a good idea to handle glass objects right now. The sick feeling had spread up to Bruce’s chest and was slowly squeezing, and who knew what would happen if he broke the slide and nicked himself. He carefully put the slide back in its box.
“What are you looking at?” Steve came up to the bench, as though by looking at the slides he could tell what they were.
“Blood,” said Bruce.
“Is it yours?”
“Some of it.”
Idly, Steve touched the box that held the slides, carefully keeping his fingers from the slides themselves. “Can I look at it some time?”
Steve shrugged. “I want to see how your blood is different than mine.”
The feeling in Bruce’s chest eased. “You’re not taking me to S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“What?” Abruptly, Steve focused. “Wait, do you really think I would?”
“No.” Bruce took off his glasses. “I thought that. For a minute or two. I’m sorry. You just came in here, and you—” Steve’s brows puckered, and Bruce made a pointless gesture with his hand. “I’m sorry.”
Steve looked at him a little while, then a smile started playing at the corner of his mouth. It was a fond smile, the kind he used when looking at children or girls in pretty dresses or homes with happy people inside of them, and it made Bruce very uncomfortable that that kind of smile was directed at him. “I think you should come with me,” Steve said. “Just for a while. Two or three days, tops.”
For a moment, Bruce didn’t move. “Okay,” he said, which he guessed meant that he trusted Steve implicitly. In his experience, that had never been a good idea.
Then again, he never used to know Steve Rogers.
Bruce got his shirts off the line and put one of them on. They got in the jeep, and Steve drove northwest. As far as Bruce knew, there wasn’t much in that direction besides grass, plantations, and then more grass. Wild boar, elephants, maybe, but certainly not that much that Bruce would have come out here to see.
“Is there any point to asking where we’re going?”
Steve grinned his crooked grin. “Nope.”
“Thief and kidnapper,” Bruce murmured, and slouched in the seat. He supposed if he was going to be kidnapped, this was the best of all possible ways—out here in the open, where if he went crazy, little more than the jeep and some trees and maybe Steve would be utterly destroyed. There wasn’t much to drive him crazy, except not having anything to do with his hands.
“You should take up knitting,” Steve said at one point.
“That sounds more like you than me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I think you’re swell,” said Bruce. “Wake me up when we get there.”
Bruce didn’t actually go to sleep, but he opened his eyes when Steve stopped the jeep. “Are we there yet?”
“Doctor Banner.” Steve’s voice was hushed and low.
Bruce thought he should probably tell Steve to call him Bruce, but he knew he wasn’t ever going to. He’d have liked to think it was something very dramatic, such as not letting people get too close to him, but in all likelihood, it was probably just that he wanted to see how long Steve would go on calling him Doctor Banner. Probably forever, which Bruce found amusing, because he was kind of a dick.
Steve’s hand had clamped down on Bruce’s shoulder. Not saying anything, Steve slowly stood up in the jeep, hand tight on Bruce, as though for reassurance and leverage both. He was looking into the distance, so Bruce looked too.
There were elephants after all. Lots of them. Of course, because African elephants were a perfectly American past time.
Bruce should have felt bad for thinking that, but Steve had this look of rather naked wonder on his face, and Bruce concluded that you didn’t have to be American to be moved by huge, awesome beasts. If Bruce wasn’t a huge, awesome beast himself, he’d probably be moved too. Instead, he was a jaded sonuvabitch.
Steve was getting out of the jeep, but he was doing it the hard way, climbing over the back and their stuff, then over the door. He did so silently, as though afraid to make a sound—as though getting out on his own side would be farther away from the elephants and so unbearable. Bruce found that he sort of missed the pressure of his hand.
There must have been at least thirty elephants, heading their way, but at a leisurely pace. There were baby elephants and old ones, the old ones on the perimeter while the babies stayed in the middle. They really were amazing creatures, Bruce guessed, and then mostly looked at Steve, who stared at them with rapt attention.
Steve mostly wore blue jeans. Bruce found that a little odd; Steve was a lot more Jimmy Stewart than James Dean; he was early 1940s, not 1950s, even if he did drive a motorcycle. Bruce guessed that Steve had just looked around New York and tried to find out how to be quintessentially American. He probably ate a lot of McDonald’s, too, and that was after his time.
The jeans were low slung on Steve’s hips, and Bruce was just impressed that he wasn’t wearing a little khaki shirt with matching shorts, if he was going to take him on safari. Because that’s what this was. Captain America was taking him on safari.
“I did get us hats,” Steve said, when Bruce pointed this out.
“Hats,” Bruce said.
“Yup.” Steve just kept smiling. The elephants had at last passed them by—not a quarter mile from the jeep, which they didn’t seem to care about—and Steve was driving again. “It’s alright if you’re too self-conscious to wear it. I know you’re really shy.”
Bruce snorted. “Did you really?”
Steve looked at him innocently. “Did you want a hat, Doctor Banner? I can get you a hat.”
“Yes,” said Bruce. “I want a hat. I want a hat for my safari, and I want those little shorts.”
“Let’s not get carried away,” Steve said. “Who said anything about a safari?”
“Just so you know,” Bruce slumped in his seat again, and closed his eyes, “I’m not hunting anything.”
Steve was quiet for a moment. “Not even lions?”
“No,” said Bruce. “I don’t hunt anything below me on the food chain.”
“What if I find you a rhinoceros?” Steve rested the tips of his fingers on the bottom of the steering wheel and his other arm on the driver’s side door. It was not at all the ten-and-two steering you were taught in school. Rogers was such a rebel. “Doctor Banner,” he said earnestly, “I really, really want to see you fight a rhino. Please? For me.”
“Find me a T-rex,” said Bruce. “Then we’ll talk.”
“Back in my day we fought mastodons and called it good.”
“Wow,” said Bruce. “You’re older than I thought. Why are you stopping again?” Steve nodded in the distance, and Bruce looked in that direction. “A lake. It’s very pretty.”
“If you were a man at all, you would wrestle these hippos with me.” Steve got out of the car, and started walking.
When he kept walking, Bruce got out of the car too. “I’ve heard that hippos are very territorial,” he called out.
“Then it’ll be exciting, won’t it?”
Bruce kind of sort of started jogging. When he caught up, Steve said, “You’re worried about me. That’s so sweet.”
“I said I wasn’t fighting any animals.”
Steve laughed. He laughed and laughed, and Bruce guessed it was okay that they were on safari. The hippos were actually pretty neat. “Trust me,” Steve said, “watching the Hulk fight wild African animals is at the very end of my to-do list.” He smiled at Bruce. “But it’s nice to know you’re looking out for me.”
They watched the hippos from a distance. They sort of looked like huge, lumbering boulders, with birds atop them picking off invisible mites. From time to time, they would splash about, looking both clumsy and strangely graceful, and for a moment now and then, Bruce felt this odd flash of . . . discomfort, maybe, thinking about his own size. At the same time, he couldn’t help but admire them, all that flesh and mass and muscle; they were strong and elegant in their own way, just another of Earth’s miracles. It made him wonder how he looked, when he—
But of course, Bruce had seen footage. Only a little, because there were usually so many things exploding when he was Hulk that it was difficult to get a straight shot, but Bruce had seen enough to make himself lose his lunch more than once. God, it was awful, but then he looked at the hippos, and thought: comparing yourself to a hippo. Come on and admit it, Banner. That’s funny.
“I wish you were young enough to have seen Fantasia,” said Bruce.
“I’ve seen Fantasia,” said Steve.
“It was only a few years—I mean,” Steve said quickly, “it was in 1940.”
Bruce watched the hippos. “I liked ‘Rite of Spring’ best.”
Bruce grimaced. “Maybe ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ was a little too close to home.”
“I would have thought ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ would have been a little too close to home.”
Startled, Bruce looked up at him, because ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ was about pretty much the most epic of all demon rage monsters. Even if Bruce thought of himself that way, somewhere along the line he’d started thinking that maybe Steve didn’t.
Steve gave him a crooked grin.
“I can’t believe you said that to me,” said Bruce.
“It’s not my fault everything is always about you,” said Steve.
“At least I’m not the stupid centaur song no one even remembers.”
“Neither am I.” Steve lifted his chin, looking so noble and genuine that Bruce started trying to come up with more American icons, until Steve came up with one for him. “I’m Mickey.”
They stayed the night at a tourist lodge, and were driving again by the next morning. Occasionally there were people on the road—boys on bicycles, women carrying baskets.
“We’re going to Murchison Falls,” Bruce said, a little later in the day.
“You got me,” said Steve. “But I was also hoping for giraffes.”
“I won’t fight those either.” Bruce watched the savannah pass them by. “This reminds me of David Livingstone.”
Steve flashed a grin at him. “I thought of that.” He was often fairly good-natured about the references he did and didn’t get, but of course it made sense that he got this one. Livingstone had explored Africa in the Victorian Era. “I mean, he was a scientist.” The smile turned rueful. “Sorry. I was never really into any science, except for science fiction. I always thought Doctor Livingstone seemed keen, though.”
Of course Doctor Livingstone had seemed keen. He’d been a thorough Protestant, started out as a factory worker and pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He had spoken out forcefully against slavery, though he had still used slaves and slave traders in his expeditions. He had been wrong about the source of the Nile, but he had made several geographical discoveries.
Bruce was sort of talking about him without really realizing it when Steve said, “I guess other people already knew about those, though. I mean, the people already living here.”
“True.” Bruce drummed his hands on his thighs some more. “But he opened up the way for other missionaries to come to Africa, and however you feel about that, they did help some with health care.”
“And now that I think about it,” Bruce went on drumming, “we’re sitting pretty much in the middle of the Great Rift Valley. Mary Leakey made some pretty famous discoveries not far from here.”
Steve didn’t know who Mary Leakey was, so Bruce told him about her, Louis Leakey, Richard Leakey, the Laotoli footprints and Austrolopithicus bosei. Then he realized that Steve had completely missed Lucy, Donald Johanson’s famous discovery, and he was explaining something about upright hominids and skull cases, when it occurred to him that Steve probably didn’t believe in evolution.
“That’s okay,” said Steve. “I think it’s interesting.”
Bruce thought about Adam and Eve again. He guessed Steve made him think about it sort of a lot.
“You can believe what you want to, Doctor Banner,” Steve said, and Bruce couldn’t stop himself from saying:
“It’s not a belief, though. It’s—” He stopped. The problem was, if Steve was Adam or Eve, what did that make Bruce?
Steve glanced away from the road to look at him. “You do have a rather extended vocabulary.”
Bruce’s fingers ran over the other fist, the way they sometimes did. “I get carried away.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Bruce thought that if there was nothing wrong with that, then his life would probably be a whole lot easier.
Steve glanced at him again. “Misses Leakey sounds like an interesting lady,” he said, in an encouraging way.
“You sound like you sort of had a crush on her.”
Bruce gave him a wry smile. “I was always more of a Marie Curie kind of guy.”
“Of course you were.” Steve grinned. “Come on. Tell me about radioactivity.”
“You should learn Luganda first,” said Bruce. “Chemistry and physics after.”
Steve laughed. “I said, it’s okay. Come on and talk.”
Bruce frowned. “Why didn’t you just bring an audio book?”
“Because I didn’t know they made those.” Steve glanced over at him. “And I like it when you’re having a good time.”
The problem about going on safari with Steve Rogers was that he was quite kind, and very genuine, and he was from 1943, so he didn’t see anything at all gay about it.
Before ending in a single river to empty into Egypt’s famous delta, the Nile River starts as tributaries, the Blue Nile and the White. The White Nile flows through Lake Victoria, on Uganda’s southeast border, and winds its way to Lake Kyoga. From there, it flows further north, where it must push through a seven meter gap to continue on its way to meet with Lake Albert.
From the bottom, Murchison Falls wasn’t exactly a spectacular sight. There were several little humps at the base that denied access to the highest falls, and the turn in the river somewhat obscured the view.
Steve and Bruce got on a boat manned by a man named Moses, who warned them against the crocodiles. Bruce thought Steve was going to make jokes about fighting crocodiles, too, but as it turned out Steve was too enamored of them. It rather surprised Bruce that Steve didn’t seem to be the camera-toting type, but perhaps it was a result of a rather over-developed sense of wonder. Snapping a photo maybe would have lessened it, somehow.
Still, taking pictures of Steve with a crocodile definitely crossed Bruce’s mind. Steve was practically Lewis to his Clark. Captain fucking Kirk to his Spock.
Sometimes, Bruce still couldn’t believe Steve was Captain America, the miracle of science, the great invention. He’d thought of Steve the way other people thought of light bulbs, internal combustion engines, penicillin, microchips, the Large Hadron Collider. Bruce looked at Steve now and didn’t think of any of those things. Steve looked like just a man, and Bruce felt something strange.
It was something he hadn’t felt in a long, long time for a thing that wasn’t a nuclear generator or a particular tenacious strand of DNA—it was admiration. Bruce whole-heartedly admired him, and for the longest time, he’d found human beings so very ugly.
Eschewing the requisite guide, Steve and Bruce got off the boat on the other side of the river, and made the hike up to the top of the falls. In the woods, they saw baboons, who bared their teeth and showed them their bare bottoms, and once or twice threw fruit from the trees. “They remind me of someone,” Steve said as they hiked.
“Us,” said Bruce, because they did.
Steve shook his head. “No. I’m taking about the way they walk—it’s a swagger, really. I know someone who walks that way, with his chest thrust out. I’m trying to think of who.” He thwacked some leaves with a machete. “Oh, I’ve got it. Tony Stark.”
Bruce waited for Steve to clear more of the brush (Indiana Jones, John Smith, John Henry). “You don’t like him?”
Steve grunted, hacking the vines. “I have no opinion of Tony Stark.”
“That sounds like an opinion.”
“I want to like him,” said Steve. “I’ve tried. Sometimes he’s really amenable to me liking him. Sometimes he seems to want the exact opposite.”
Bruce could have all kinds of thoughts about that. He probably did, but he wasn’t going to look at them. He tried not to think of Tony at all, when he could help it.
They walked the rest of the way in relative silence, but for the roar of the water beyond the jungle, and the calls of at least a hundred different species of bird. When they got to the top and saw the water, it was breath-taking.
Bruce hadn’t been awed by the elephants. He should have been awed by the elephants; he didn’t know what was wrong with him. Maybe he just didn’t have that gene; maybe he’d been in the wrong mood. Maybe he’d been distracted enough by Steve’s jeans and the fact that he was on safari, that he’d forgotten to be awed by the elephants; maybe it would just take a while to sink in.
But Bruce was awed by this. All the life-giving force and the death-dealing terror of the Nile was packed between these steep mighty rocks, and pouring in a thundering crash far below to the distant Earth, those ancient stones pummeled for millennia by the towering rush.
Bruce loved the Hubble Telescope. There was something about all that wealth of technology and knowledge packed into that single great machine and turned in one direction, aimed at that single point of the universe. There was something, too, about Steve—all that human strength and power condensed into this one individual, this miracle of ingenuity and biology, a graceful instrument of strength, but also of precision.
Facing the falls, Bruce could feel the spray. He could see rainbows dancing in the mist, and he thought: there is still so much to discover, because man had mastered this. He had learned how to take all this raw, unbridled power and direct it to just cause—not in this particular instance, but Bruce saw the falls, and thought of diverting rivers, of dams and hydraulic power.
If man could master this, he could master other things.
All of space and the human body, no matter how mutated, lay in wait for man’s unlimited power to know.
Steve said something, and Bruce looked over at him. “What?” Bruce yelled, over the roar.
Steve put his lips by Bruce’s ear. “I said, it’s humbling,” Steve yelled.
Bruce felt just the opposite.
On the way back home, Steve bought a box of mangos at a stand on the side of the road, stopped to take them to the school, and Bruce almost hulked out.
It happened just outside the school. Steve had gone up to take the crate inside, and was on his way back. There were lots of children outside, some of them playing soccer, some of the other little ones running around and chasing each other. Somewhere, three girls were singing:
All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel
All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel
All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel
It was just those lyrics, over and over. Bruce didn’t know whether Steve had taught it to them, or whether that was just something they sang here. Either way, the girls had forgotten the rest of the words.
Naturally, Steve stopped to talk to at least half the children. Bruce finally got out of the jeep, hips leaning against the side, watching Steve like he sometimes did. Steve was doing this thing where kids were sitting on his feet and he was walking with them clinging to him like koalas. Seeming to finally remember Bruce was there, he looked up, waved, then bent to tell the kids something. Reluctantly, they let him go, and Steve started walking back to the car.
Because Steve was turned toward him, and Bruce was facing the yard, Bruce noticed the disturbance first. One of the school teachers—not Lillian, the usual girl, but instead a man Bruce had seen once or twice before—was dragging a boy by the arm to the flat grass in the field. The teacher carried a cane.
‘Twas all in good fun, the girls finally sang, and then stopped. Steve turned around to see what had silenced them.
It didn’t really take any sort of thought to realize what Steve would do, though later Bruce would realize he might have had a different reaction. Steve saw what was going to happen, and started moving.
Bruce didn’t think about it at all either. He took two large steps and grabbed Steve by the arm. “Don’t,” he said.
“He’s going to,” Steve said, but didn’t even finish, just pulled out of Bruce’s grip.
The school teacher made the boy kneel on the lawn.
This time, Bruce moved in front of Steve. “You can’t do this,” he said, but Steve could, because he just brushed past him, as though Bruce wasn’t even there. He had eyes for nothing except that child in the yard.
The cane came down; Steve got closer, and Bruce could feel the ripple under his skin. Jogging after Steve, Bruce grabbed him by the arm again, hard enough to pull him around. “You better not,” Bruce said, rather calmly, considering, “or I’ll get angry.”
Steve was on a mission, but that stopped him. “Doctor Banner,” Steve said, and his eyes narrowed.
Bruce, feeling his hands tighten into fists, said, “Let’s go.”
Steve glanced at him, then back at the school yard. Bruce had come to think of Steve as a warm, compassionate man, but when Steve looked at that school teacher, all of that seemed gone. In its place was coldness, and there was something uncanny about that too, something unnerving. Somehow Bruce had managed to forget that Steve was a warrior—and here he was; this was it. This man had killed people too.
Bruce felt his eyes go hot and thought, he could stop this. “Right now,” said Bruce.
Steve’s jaw clenched, and for a moment, he wavered. Then at last, decision made, his hand descended firmly on Bruce’s bicep, and he turned him around. Then he started walking toward the jeep.
The problem was the boy was wailing now and Bruce totally could have ripped that school teacher’s head off. Bruce could see absolutely no way in which there was a problem with that, since he wasn’t going to do it. He just totally could have.
Steve’s hand tightened then, and he was pushing him. When they got to the jeep he didn’t even say anything, just opened the door and hauled Bruce into the passenger side, and Bruce decided right about then he didn’t like being manhandled. Poor fucking Steve. He just wanted to do the right thing.
That fucking kid was still fucking screaming.
Pop goes the weasel.
Steve revved the engine, and then they were pulling. A couple of the kids watched them go. It was totally cool, and everything was going to be fine. Sure, Steve could’ve taken that cane and showed that teacher just what he could do with it, but the teacher would have been angry, and then, who knew, Bruce might’ve smashed his face in. He hadn’t, so that was . . . friendly of him.
Except how Bruce could still hear that goddamn screaming and Steve, so fucking righteous, was sitting there all clenched and stiff with his foot clamped down on the gas like he couldn’t fucking stop for a single fucking bump, as thought that might infringe upon his fucking noble rage—
But everything was really alright. He could not stop hating them—
That fucking teacher—
Fucking Steve, such a goody two-shoes—
Dad, the belt, that crack in the kitchen tile—
The goddamn fucking bumps—
—but Bruce could clench his jaw, and he’d found that numbed his hearing a bit. He could unfocus his eyes, and he found that kept him from seeing red. He could clench his fists so tightly that his fingers ached and slowly, oh so slowly, uncurl his fingers one by one. Big deep breaths, diaphragm and up, in out in out in out, close his eyes and breathe. Curl his toes, unclench his jaw. Open his throat way up in the back so it could scream, relax his shoulders. Keep going and going and going, muscle by muscle, until he could hear himself think again, and that thought was: okay okay okay. You’re okay. You’re okay. It’s going to be okay.
There was a reason why cultural interference was a bad idea.
There was a reason why he should not be angry with Steve.
There was a reason why he shouldn’t kill his father: Dad was already dead.
Here was Bruce’s secret: it was perfectly alright to feel angry. It was not okay to do anything about it.
“You’re a coward,” that was what Tony had said, and Bruce had been alright with that. He’d been fine with that, because Iron Man and the Hulk and Thor and even Captain America, they were weapons, and even if Tony was alright with using them, Bruce couldn’t be. He could never be.
And if it wasn’t for these fucking bumps—
“Slow down.” Bruce tried to say it in a normal way, but it came out rather ragged.
Steve’s jaw ticked, and he immediately slowed down.
They drove for a long time, back across the barren savannah, the way they’d come. Bruce kept breathing deeply, and thought: this way, there had been elephants. Elephants were tremendous beings of epic proportions, and yet they could be very gentle. They ate plants and cared for their young, and were very social animals. For centuries, men had hunted them for their ivory, and Thomas Edison killed one with electricity once, just to show what alternating current could do.
Bruce had seen one in a circus when he was seven. He’d touched it. It had been warm.
Steve stopped the jeep, got out. Slammed the door shut a little harder than was necessary, but when he walked off a few feet away to stand farther down the road, he didn’t do anything but jam his hands inside his pockets. The lines of his back were tight and strong. His head bowed down, the sun arcing down toward west, as though unable to bear his gaze.
After a while, Bruce got out of the jeep and went to stand beside him. There wasn’t anyone on the road, and the trees over in the north looked like low dark clouds with legs. The grasshoppers clicked in low tones in the grass, and Bruce said softly, “I’m sorry.”
Steve looked down at him, the yellow sun dimly reflected in his face. “Are you alright?”
“I won’t bust,” said Bruce.
“Are you sure?”
“Good,” Steve said, tone clipped. “I’m going back to the school.” He turned back to the jeep.
“Wait a minute.” Steve turned back, and Bruce licked his lips. “You,” he began, then trailed off.
“You said you were alright,” said Steve. He looked like he was strung as tightly as one of Barton’s bows.
“They had corporal punishment back in your day,” Bruce said.
Steve’s mouth went tight. “I’m sorry?”
Of course they’d had corporal punishment in Steve’s day. They’d had more of it. That was sort of the point, but somehow with the way that Steve was looking at him, Bruce felt awful making said point. He pressed on anyway. “It’s accepted in this culture,” he said. “That is, it’s against the law, but it’s commonly practiced in—”
“It’s not acceptable in any culture.” Steve’s eyes were about as cold as the ice they’d cut him out of.
“I know that,” Bruce said gently.
“Then excuse me, why are we having this conversation?”
“Steve, you can’t just . . .”
Steve waited. When Bruce didn’t finish, Steve took a step closer. “Bullshit.”
“Steve,” Bruce said, and didn’t really know whether it was a protest or a warning. Something inside him was thrumming.
“I said, bullshit,” said Steve. “You could do so much; you could be so much, and you don’t. You sit there wallowing, thinking about so many things you can’t do until there are a thousand things you won’t do. And the one time you decide to do something—the one time—it’s to stop me from doing the right thing?” He took a step closer, until he was right in Bruce’s face. “How dare you?”
“You’re right.” Bruce looked up at him. “I don’t like you when you’re angry.”
“You want have at it?” said Steve. “Let’s have at it. Right now. You and me.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Bruce.
“Him and me,” said Steve.
Pressing his lips together, Bruce finally looked away. “I’ve been thinking about the elephants.”
“Doctor Banner.” Steve’s voice was strained.
“I’m really glad I got to see those.” On this lonely road, it seemed as though there were little in the world besides the sun, the sky, the road and the jeep. When Bruce listened, he could hear the grasshoppers again; when his eyes sought them out, he could see the trees. Somewhere underground there were mole-rats building burrows; there were ants and other things. Somewhere in the trees there were birds and monkeys; somewhere there were elephants.
“Doctor Banner,” Steve said again, his voice more even.
Bruce turned back, and Steve’s eyes had melted into warmth.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” Steve said.
“I know,” said Bruce. “I’m sorry.”
“They did have that in my time,” said Steve. “I saw it happen. It happened to me. Before, I was never strong enough to do anything about it, but it doesn’t make a difference. The only difference is that now I can actually stop those who would hurt others who are weaker. I’m strong enough to do that now.”
Bruce swallowed. “I know,” he said again.
“You don’t have to agree,” said Steve.
Bruce thought about trying to discuss why it was not a good idea for Steve to exert his authority over someone else in a society that was not his own, but then again, they’d already discussed it. “Alright,” said Bruce.
Steve nodded, the way that soldiers did, and said, “Come on. I’ll drive you home.”
“You’re bad at losing your temper,” said Bruce. “Sometime, remind me to show you how it’s done.”
“Not many things make me very angry,” said Steve. “Some things do, though.”
They got into the jeep. Steve revved the engine again, and turned the vehicle around. The savannah began to shoot past, beige and dry, dust kicking up in the road. Bruce knew that mulberries grew in Africa, but he kept thinking of the poem that went: Here we go ‘round the prickly pear. Here on this desolate road, a thousand things could have happened, but nothing had. Somehow it almost seemed worse.
The poem ended:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Three days later, Bruce hadn’t heard from Steve, and Solomon came over to his cottage. Solomon had asked Irene to marry him, and they had announced their plan to move to Kampala so they could go to school and find work. Solomon had come to ask Bruce to look at his résumé. Bruce went over it with him, and they talked about the future. Bruce thought Solomon would make a fine doctor.
“Thank you,” said Solomon. “I think that you would make a fine doctor too.”
Bruce’s mouth twisted. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. You never acted like you were going to stay.” Solomon was a powerfully built young man with sharp eyes and prominent ears. His head was shaved and he often wore a smile, but he wasn’t smiling now. “Captain Rogers didn’t make friends with the school principal,” he said, after a while.
Bruce looked down at Solomon’s résumé, took off his glasses. He guessed the principal was the man with the cane. “I suppose he didn’t,” Bruce said.
“The principal hasn’t paid Miss Lillian in over three months,” said Solomon. “Captain Rogers didn’t like that either.”
“I suppose he wouldn’t,” was all Bruce said.
“Now the people in the village are saying Captain Rogers will make the principle pay,” said Solomon, “and the principal is saying that Captain Rogers is stealing from the people by taking the bank loan for the garden.”
“Steve wouldn’t take a diamond ring out of a garbage can,” said Bruce.
“Everybody knows that, but that is what the principal says.” Solomon tilted his head. “What do you think?”
“I don’t.” Looking down, Bruce started fiddling with his glasses. “I don’t have any opinion.”
“You don’t think Captain Rogers should make the principal pay?”
“I don’t think it’s any of my business.”
“I think the principal, he’s afraid of Captain Rogers.”
“Steve would never hurt anyone,” Bruce lied.
“You don’t think so?” Solomon raised his brows. “Captain Rogers sure lets us know he’s mighty strong.”
Looking down, Bruce found his glasses in his fist again. He switched them to the other fist. He put them down. “He would never hurt anyone unless he has to,” said Bruce.
“Ah,” said Solomon. “When he has to.”
Bruce shook his head. “Steve would be appalled at the idea of anyone here seeing him as a threat. He would never hurt anyone here; he doesn’t—” He stopped himself.
“He doesn’t have to.” Solomon’s voice was quiet.
Bruce looked up. “Steve would never fight anyone who wasn’t his physical equal.”
“And we are puny.” Solomon smiled wryly. “Professor, I understand.”
Bruce shook his head again. “He doesn’t look at it that way. He doesn’t see himself as superior.”
“Of course not.” Solomon kept his easy smile. “He is Captain Rogers. Quite humble.”
Looking at the glasses—somehow in his fist once again—Bruce said, “He’s just trying to do what’s right.”
Solomon’s voice was still soft. “I think that for a century, white men have come to my country to do what’s right. Somehow they think they know that better than we. Of course, before that, they came to my country to do what’s wrong. It’s an improvement, I suppose.”
Bruce’s fist tightened. “I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry? You come, you pay your rent, you mind your own business. No problem. I plan to be a tourist myself someday.” The wry smile was playing on Solomon’s lips.
“Tourist,” said Bruce, and played with the glasses some more.
“Yes. Irene will become a great physicist, world renowned, and we will visit the great Doctor Banner in New York.”
“Why would I be in New York?”
Solomon just kept smiling. “You are not an Avenger, then?”
Bruce’s lips twisted in a return smile, not quite mirthful. “You know.”
“You think we don’t see the world news, because we are in a remote part of the country.”
“No. Well.” Bruce’s lips twisted further. “I look a little different than I do on the news.”
“Smaller,” Solomon suggested.
“Just trying to fit in.”
Solomon just laughed.
“Come in,” Bruce said about a week later, when there was a knock on his door.
“Hello, Doct—you’re shaving,” said Steve.
“Stranger things have happened.” Bruce finished spreading on the shaving cream, and dipped his razor into the bowl of water in front of him. He’d seen Steve a couple times since Steve had driven him away from the school yard. Bruce thought that they were okay, but they hadn’t really talked about it.
“What’s the momentous occasion?” Steve asked.
“It itched,” said Bruce, and pulled the razor down the side of his cheek.
For a moment, Steve just stood there in the shadow of the door, while Bruce stood over the bowl of water and carefully moved the razor over his face. “Why are you doing that without a mirror?” Steve asked at last.
“I don’t have one,” said Bruce. He wasn’t going to tell him that he didn’t like mirrors.
“You could hurt yourself,” said Steve.
“I’ve done it before.”
“So I’ve heard.” Steve didn’t sound happy about it.
Bruce rinsed the razor again. “Trust me. I only plan on a minor transformation.”
“You mean I just need to worry about guns.”
Steve obviously remembered what Bruce had told them in the helicarrier. Bruce didn’t like it, but his hand moved steadily over his chin. “Then again,” he said, tone just as steady, “you may want to watch it. I am holding a sharp object relatively close to my neck.”
“You don’t want to talk about it.”
“Not particularly.” Bruce rinsed the razor.
“Alright.” Steve sat down, settling into Bruce’s line of sight. Bruce looked at the wall even though there wasn’t any mirror. “There was something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Steve said.
Bruce glanced at him then. Steve’s expression was pensive, thoughtful eyes watching Bruce’s hands. Bruce looked away. He didn’t like the serious note in Steve’s voice, and he had been expecting Steve to want to talk about what had happened.
“I thought a lot about what Mister Stark said,” Steve went on.
“You don’t have to listen to Tony.” Bruce put the razor in the water.
“I know I don’t,” said Steve. “That doesn’t mean I can’t.” He watched as Bruce brought the razor down over his upper lip. “I’ve just been thinking about what I’m doing here.”
Bruce knew it was pointless to tell Steve Rogers that he didn’t have to help anyone. Instead, he swirled the razor in the water.
“I don’t want to be a weapon. But I don’t want the serum to go to waste, either. It wouldn’t be just.”
“It’s your body,” said Bruce, scraping the razor down the other side of his lip.
When Steve didn’t say anything, Bruce glanced over. Steve wasn’t frowning. He just looked thoughtful, big arms crossed over one another, legs spread out casually. He started thrumming his fingers against a bicep. “Kasule doesn’t like me,” he said, in a sudden turn of subject.
Bruce just shaved his other cheek. “The school principle?”
Steve nodded. “He’s spreading rumors about me. Trying to turn people against me.” He made a noise of disgust. “As though this were some kind of schoolyard rivalry.”
“And you think that that will work?”
“No. But it’s a sticky situation. I want him off the board. He won’t go. The other fat cats in the district benefit from his sleazy deals, so they’re not going to kick him out. It stinks.”
“Solomon says Kasule’s afraid of you.”
“I didn’t lift a finger to him—which is a lot more than can be said for Okello,” who must have been the boy. “But I may as well have. Every single one of them watched me build that church brick by brick. They know what I can do.”
The razor scraped along Bruce’s jaw. “Are you finished with the church, then?”
Steve ran a hand through his hair, fingers coming to rest on the back of his neck. “Almost.”
“Most of the people know you would never hurt them,” said Bruce.
“Does it really matter? They know that I could.”
Bruce didn’t say anything. Instead he rinsed the razor off, starting to wipe his face with the towel.
“You missed a spot,” said Steve.
Bruce wiped his face with the towel some more.
“Here,” Steve pointed to his chin. Then he stood up. “Let me—”
Bruce drew back. “I said I’m alright with sharp objects. I’m not alright with other people and sharp objects.”
“I just meant right here,” said Steve, pointing to the corner of Bruce’s jaw.
Feeling the roughness of the hair there, Bruce picked up the razor, and took care of the last patch.
“You look good,” said Steve. “Younger.”
“We can’t all be frozen in time.” Bruce started rinsing the razor again.
Steve smirked. “You do have a lot of gray.”
“Thanks, Rogers.” Bruce dried off the razor, then went to go toss the water out.
“Maybe Tony’s right,” said Steve, when Bruce closed the door and they were sealed back within the gray, unfocused light. “Maybe I’m just treading water, here. Not doing any real good.”
“You’ve done fine.”
“And then there’s you,” said Steve. His eyes were not unkind, but Bruce felt the tension ratchet up his shoulders.
“I told you I wasn’t here to do any good.”
“Tony was talking about you,” Steve said, “when he talked about genius going to waste.”
“He just didn’t want me to feel left out of the ridicule,” said Bruce. “Tony is very considerate in that way.”
“You don’t belong here,” said Steve. “You’re not a medical doctor. Even if you were, you could be curing diseases.”
Bruce didn’t look at him. “There’s a cure for cholera. Drink clean water. The cure for malaria is not getting bit.”
“Those aren’t cures. That’s prevention. Mister Stark was right about that, too. There’s so much technology, so much knowledge—so many good things in this world, and what do we use them for? Music and games and going to the moon.”
“So you’re not Buzz Aldrin,” said Bruce, mostly because he wanted Steve to stop.
“I just don’t understand why . . . we’ve come so far. We’ve done so much, but as far as I can tell . . . we haven’t actually made a difference.”
“Welcome to the world,” Bruce said.
“Thanks, Doctor Banner. That’s really appreciated.”
The thing about Steve Rogers’ sarcasm was that he didn’t sound sarcastic at all. He just sounded nice, which was awkward when you wanted to be a bastard to him. “I’m sorry, Steve,” said Bruce, because that was his default answer. “I’m sorry the world isn’t as you want it to be.”
“It could be, though.” Steve looked around the room, and then back at Bruce.
“It could be,” agreed Bruce. “It could be the way I want it. The way Tony wants it. The way the Avengers want it. You do realize that’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Yes.” Steve tilted his head. “That doesn’t explain why you came here, though.”
“You mean, why aren’t I reinventing the toilet with Tony? Probably because he’d just talk a lot of shit.”
“Are you afraid of him?” Bruce opened his mouth, and Steve said, “Not Tony.”
Bruce shut his mouth.
“I’m sorry for the way I spoke to you that day,” said Steve, “but I did mean some of what I said. Doctor Banner, don’t you think it would be more fruitful to try to learn to control him? Because it’s going to happen one day, and you won’t be able to stop it. Don’t you think it would be better spending your time trying to make the world better than running all the time?”
Bruce wanted to fiddle with the razor, but realized that would be a really, really bad idea. Instead he kept touching his knuckles, and thinking about touching the razor, because that would be very delicate and precise—cleaning the blade, removing it, replacing it—it would help him concentrate.
“I’m trying to make the world better,” Bruce said, and didn’t touch the razor.
“You mean, by not letting the government have you, or by working on a cure?” When Bruce didn’t answer, Steve went on, “Don’t you think it—your condition, I mean—could be of use? In the end, don’t you think that you could do more good?”
Bruce looked at him. “You asked what Tony and I fought about,” was all he said.
Steve looked surprised. “I guess Mister Stark and I agree on something.”
Bruce shoved his hands into his pockets. “I guess.”
“I’m not trying to tell you what to do, Doctor Banner.”
“It sure sounds that way.”
“I’m not,” said Steve. “I’m speaking to you as a friend.”
“Interesting. That’s what he said.”
There was a silence; Bruce guessed Steve was startled again. He wouldn’t know; he wasn’t looking at him. Then Steve said, “I understand why you would think that Mister Stark was lying. Maybe he was. I’m not.”
“He wasn’t lying,” said Bruce.
“Oh,” said Steve. “Well, good.”
Finally, Bruce looked up again. “Listen, Steve. I’ve been trying to say this all along. I’m not a hero—with this thing inside me, I . . . I find it hard to believe that someone is not going to find a way to use what I am to destroy any attempt I make to do the right thing. That’s what Loki did. Or weren’t you paying attention?”
“I was paying attention. The Hulk saved Mister Stark’s life.”
“You’re just like him. The two of you—you know that? You think what you do is justified because you mean well.”
“The way I see it, meaning well is all you can do.”
“You can stay out of it,” said Bruce.
Steve shook his head. “There has to be more than that.”
Bruce turned away. “Let me know when you’ve found it.”
Asha, the girl with tuberculosis under Faridah’s care, died on a Tuesday.
When Bruce found out, he walked to the village. Esther told him where to find Steve.
He was in the church, which as far as Bruce could tell, was complete. The bricks were white-washed and there was wood paneling on the floor. There were even pews, and an altar in the front with nothing on it. Steve sat in the middle of one of the pews, his folded hands on the back of the pew in front of him, his head down.
Bruce walked down the aisle and sat down on the edge of the bench behind him.
After a while, Steve lifted his head. “People don’t really believe in God anymore,” he said, without his customary hello.
“You didn’t pay attention to this year’s election.”
Steve just kept looking at the altar. “When I talk about God, people think it’s quaint.”
“Not here,” said Bruce.
Steve snorted softly. “Folks believe in witchcraft here just as much as they believe that Christ died for their sins.”
“Faridah believes in God.”
Bruce could only see Steve in profile, but he saw his jaw go tight. “Look what good that did her.”
“Steve,” Bruce said, running his thumb over his fingers.
“I pray every day,” said Steve. “Sometimes, I don’t even know what for.”
Bruce looked up at the empty altar.
Bruce’s mother had been Italian, and very Catholic. She took Bruce to church when he was little, and even as a little kid, he had found the whole thing phenomenally stupid. By the age of six, he was spending Sundays dissecting everything the priest said for logical fallacies and internal inconsistency. He had stared up at the stained glass window behind the pulpit and deemed the sizes of the angels’ wings irrational. They might at least have attempted a little realism, had they really expected anyone to swallow this load of horseshit, because everyone knew that people didn’t glow like that.
After the accident, Bruce had come to appreciate some of the principles within Christianity, though never the framework. As for iconography, he preferred abstraction, rather than literal representations of things that weren’t real. But thinking about Steve, Bruce realized why those artists always painted on the halo. Good could be real—as real as stone and skin.
“I always used to know what I believed,” Steve said, looking at the altar too. “It’s not that easy, here.”
“I know what you believe,” said Bruce.
Steve laughed a little, didn’t turn around. “Really?”
“The strong should protect the weak. Do unto others. And the meek shall inherit the earth.”
“I feel like you just read that in a book somewhere,” said Steve, and he was teasing, except there was a heaviness there.
Pressing his lips together, Bruce looked down at his hands. “Does that matter?”
“Maybe it doesn’t,” said Steve. “Maybe if no one believes anything anymore, nothing matters.”
“Steve,” said Bruce, looking at the back of Steve’s neck. It was incredibly erect, head held high, short blond hairs in a tidy row along the back. Bruce tried again. “Steve, they don’t have to believe the story is true to get something from it; you’ve just gotta tell it well. Why do you think Fury named us the Avengers? Why do you think there’s merchandise?”
Steve inclined his head, not quite turning back to him. “Money.”
“That’s very twenty-first century of you. You’re catching on.”
“Maybe Mister Stark just wanted his invention to be an action figurine.”
“Maybe,” said Bruce. “But Tony—his whole capitalist scheme—the whole point is to sell a story. People believe in Iron Man.”
“They’ve seen him,” said Steve.
“You know they believe in more than that. All you have to do is tell a story, and tell it well. People will care.”
Finally turning to him all the way, Steve shook his head, the corner of his mouth turned down in a rueful smile. “I’m no good at selling myself, Doctor Banner. I’m terrible at embellishment.”
“You don’t have to,” said Bruce. “All you have to be is who you are.”
Steve frowned. “What if that’s not enough?”
“You’re Captain America in Uganda. If that doesn’t get people thinking about something bigger than themselves—” Bruce shrugged—“wear your suit, and dance a jig.”
Steve smiled a little. “I thought you didn’t believe in jigs.”
“I believe in this,” said Bruce. “This matters.”
The church with its white-washed walls mattered; Betty—pale and beautiful, with her red mouth and raven hair—mattered. Steve, with his big hands, boyish smile, and kind eyes mattered, and it was more than had mattered to Bruce in a very long time.
Irene and Solomon were married on a Sunday.
Irene wore her mother’s dress, made of lace, linen and white. Solomon, in his suit, clasped her hands inside Steve’s church, promised to love her and hold her, and then kissed the bride.
Outside there was a feast, a fire, and lots of dancing.
“I hate getting dressed up,” said Steve. “I do like weddings, though. Usually there’s a lot of food.”
“You don’t like the old women who want to dance with you, and the mothers crying?” Bruce asked.
Steve smiled. “That too.”
Bruce glanced at him. Apparently Steve’s version of dressed up was a white, short-sleeve button-down that somehow he had managed to make look pressed, and khaki slacks that were equally pristine. His hair was wet and parted very careful to the side in a way that didn’t at all suit him, and Bruce wore the same thing he always wore, since he basically had maybe five or six articles of clothing. “I was hoping you’d wear safari shorts,” said Bruce.
“You just want to look at my legs,” said Steve.
Bruce just shrugged. “So many people have seen me naked, I take retribution where I can.”
Steve clapped Bruce on the back; then thought better of it, and kept his arm there, slung around Bruce’s shoulders. In the distance, beyond the haze of smoke, a woman was singing, a man beside her playing a drum. Esther tipped her head back and laughed; the smell of smoked beef and spices filled the air. Muhindo danced with a tiny child, while Julius tried to rustle up a game of soccer. “Some things never change,” Steve said, looking around.
Bruce supposed that that was true.
The next time Bruce saw Steve, the kerfuffle with Kasule had mostly blown over. Kasule was a greedy man; a lot of people with official titles in Uganda were, but then again, so were a lot of people with official titles everywhere. Lots of things got lost between the cracks of bureaucracy and graft, but though politics was a little rougher around the edges here than some places, at the heart of things Bruce thought they were pretty much the same.
The villagers loved Steve, and didn’t love Kasule, so in the end no one believed Kasule’s wild accusations. He was eventually ousted from the position and a new principal was appointed, and Lillian began to get paid her school teacher wage again. The co-op Steve had started was already reaping benefits from the garden, and there was talk of another co-op forming to make women’s jewelry.
Bruce was teaching a class when Steve showed up again. Solomon and Irene had gone three days ago, making the class somewhat less interesting, but Bruce did his best. Steve sat in the back of the school house as he had done once before. He smiled when Bruce caught his eye, but otherwise, he looked rather pensive.
After the class was over, Bruce took off his glasses, and walked to the back of the classroom. Steve stood up, and they went outside.
“I thought about what you said,” said Steve.
“I’m starting to think I should be careful what I say around you.”
“You’re always careful about what you say.”
Bruce looked at him a little while. Steve looked just as neat and clean as he had at the wedding, a little more relaxed, maybe. His large hands were loose by his sides, white chickens scattering at his step down the red path. Bruce looked away. “Not always,” was all he said.
“I’m going back to the States,” Steve said.
“Okay.” Bruce watched the chickens. They were such awkward animals, and yet somehow seemed so bright and clean against the grass.
Steve was looking off into the distance as they walked. “I love my country, despite some terrible things it’s done.”
Bruce still didn’t look at him. “Maybe that’s the difference between you and me.”
“I love ‘My Country Tis Of Thee,’” said Steve. “I love “we hold these truths to be self-evident,” and the Emancipation Proclamation; I love the Empire State Building and Los Angeles. I even love the new things—Bill Gates’ brain and Oprah Winfrey’s conversations and I think I might even love Lady Gaga’s clothes. I love fireworks and corn and the Fourth of July.”
Bruce kept his eyes on his feet. “I never said you couldn’t love America, Steve.”
“You didn’t,” said Steve. Another chicken clucked into the grass. “Remember, you don’t actually form my thoughts, Doctor Banner,” Steve said gently. “I do.”
“I know.” Bruce shoved his hands in his pockets. Steve was just so open to listening; he took to heart anything everyone said. It was sometimes difficult to remember that underneath that open, generous exterior, there lay steel.
They walked a while, and the grass was wet; there had been a storm the night before. It had been a rollicking good one, plenty of thunder, but Bruce hadn’t had the heart to go out and see if he could measure gamma. Instead he’d stood outside and watched the lightning crack the sky, and tried to think of what kind of man he’d be, if he believed in God.
“You said my body was my own,” said Steve. “That’s the part I thought a lot about, because I decided that it’s not true.”
Bruce glanced up at him. Steve’s eyes were cast down toward his feet in front of him, and his eyelashes were golden like his hair. Bruce had certainly taken the time to appreciate all that strength leashed tight in him, but he wondered now how he had managed to miss that tiny, delicate soft detail.
“I’m six foot three,” said Steve eventually. “I can bench press thirteen hundred pounds, and I can run a mile in under three minutes. I need about three and a half hours of sleep a night, and sometimes, all I want to do is lie down and do nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Steve stopped. He could have no idea of what he looked like, standing there in the wet road, framed by the red dirt and tall green grass, sky as clear and pristine as starched cloth.
“I’m tired, Doctor Banner,” Steve said. “Not physically. I’m tired of this, of everything. But there are plenty of other people who can’t stop, just because they’re tired. There are plenty of other people who don’t have the choice to stop. And because I have this—all of this—” he gestured to his ridiculously well-proportioned body—“this—” he laid his hand over his heart, “I have to keep going. No one has the privileges I do. I have to make the most of them.”
“Good speech,” said Bruce.
Steve took his hand away from his heart.
“I meant it,” Bruce said quietly. “It was a good speech.”
“What I mean is,” said Steve, “I have to be a part of this world whether I like it or not. You do, too. You said it yourself—one day, someone will force you.”
“I’d rather that be on my own terms,” said Bruce.
“If you’re not careful,” said Steve, “it won’t be on your terms. It will be on his.”
Bruce pressed his lips together. He looked away, and when he looked back, just said, “Thirteen hundred pounds, really? I would have thought it would be more.”
Steve put his head to one side. “There’s a question I’ve always wanted to ask you. I never did, at first it was because it wasn’t my business. Later, it was because I consider you a friend.”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t,” said Bruce.
“You have no idea how much I respect you, Doctor Banner.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t,” said Bruce, tension slowly curling from head to neck, right into the depths of his spine.
Steve nodded, looking grim. Then he said, “Did you ever think about what would happen if the radiation experiment didn’t work?”
The silence stretched out.
Out and out and out.
“I didn’t.” Bruce swallowed. “I didn’t think at all.”
“I don’t mean to judge you.” Steve’s eyes, Bruce realized, were piercing. Bruce had finally found a name for that incandescent blue. “I just thought that you might start thinking about it now.”
How dare you, Bruce wanted to say, because of course he’d thought of nothing else since the experiment had failed. Instead, Bruce said, “When you tell people about Uganda, don’t forget the elephants.”
“I won’t,” said Steve.