Bruce looked up at Tony's voice, and only then realised how long he had been standing in the same pose. His back ached from hunching over, and his eyes felt raw from peering at the screen for hours on end. "Dopamine, norepinephrine and synthesised oxytocin suspended in a base of..." he began, and then cleared his throat. His mouth felt full of sand. He wondered what time it was.
"Normal people are content when they're expert in one field, anyone ever tell you that 'scientist' doesn't mean you have to master all the sciences?"
"Normal people. Right," Bruce mumbled. "Uh, so the idea here is to create a sort of antithesis, a - a neutraliser, so dopamine to increase attachment, happiness, relaxation, oxytocin and norepinephrine-"
"Yeah, got it, adrenaline-suppressant, the anti-steroid, natch, but what is it for?" Tony sauntered around the desks to hoist himself up onto it, sitting on half of Bruce's papers and thrusting a mug at him. "Drink that."
Bruce sniffed at it. Coffee. "Uh, caffeine isn't the best idea for..."
"It's nine am, in case you're wondering. Just 'cause, you looked like you were wondering. Now, here's what I'm wondering: Were your ancestors part-hedgehog, or is the hair deliberate?"
One side of Bruce's mouth quirked as he drawled, "I'm one-eighths hedgehog, you wouldn't like me when I'm prickly."
"Is there a Nobel for biochemistry and sass? There should so be a Nobel for biochemistry and sass, I nominate you," said Tony, waggling the mug before him. "Look, Coffee. Nice coffee. Take the coffee, one can't hurt, and you're doing a good thing by encouraging my benevolent impulses with positive reinforcement. Pepper will bless your name."
"Actually, the effects of caffeine on an empty stomach..."
"Would be a wonderful, nay, delicious thing. Bruce. You haven't slept, you look like someone punched you in both eyes, and you're humouring my hedgehog jokes. Desperate measures, my friend. A cup of coffee isn't going to turn you into the Kool-Aid man's grumpy cousin. Drink it."
Bruce obediently took a sip.
"So? What's this cocktail for?" Tony leaned forward and snagged the mug back, taking a sip as well.
"I think if we can combine this with the original level of gamma exposure, I might..." Bruce began.
The click of the mug being set down was disproportionally loud in the empty lab.
"Bruce," Tony said quietly. "He's not a disease."
"But Tony, look, it could work," he almost begged, before swivelling the screen to show his friend.
Tony didn't even glance at it. "And I thought I had self-destructive tendencies."
"He is not me, why does everyone think that," Bruce said hotly, before taking a calming breath and tapping the screen with his forefinger. "Right, so see, I've mimicked the levels that JARVIS was able to measure last time but using the reverse hormones, so adrenaline and testosterone are neutralised by..."
Tony interrupted yet again. "Bruce, he is you. You're him. The same guy, only bigger and greener and less into biochemistry and radiation and particle physics and more into uh, practical physics."
Bruce pulled off his glasses, folded the arms. "No."
"For Christ's sake, Bruce..."
"He's not me, Tony."
"He's part of you! He's part of what makes you who you are!" Tony slid down off the bench, and pushed his face right into Bruce's. The silly fool never did care much about his own skin.
"I'm not like that." Bruce could feel his heart rate begin to pick up speed, and carefully wrapped the feeling in his own, ever-present anger.
He might not be like that now, but he was a changeable guy, after all. Famous for it.
"Uh, yeah?" Tony put his hands on his hips. "You are? Hello? That's you. Green and pink and curly and angry all over."
"I'd never do what he does, what he... thinks." Bruce's lips tightened. He always saw but never heard what the Hulk was thinking when it was his turn to drive. The thoughts came through later, in blurred snatches at the edges of dreams, in that grey smudged space between waking and sleeping.
"Those are your thoughts, big guy, hate to be the one to break it to you," Tony said implacably. "That's you having a fat day. You with PMS. You with 'Roid Rage."
"I don't do what he does; I don't think that way," Bruce said, trying to fight down the sense of revulsion.
"Newsflash, pookie, we all think that way now and again." Tony shrugged, before leaning his hip against the bench in that arrogantly careless way of his and snagging the coffee once more. "You think I haven't wanted to punch Fury until his stupid eyepatch is the thing holding his head together? You think I haven't wanted to bash Cap's head repeatedly against a wall until he stops calling me 'Stark' and starts calling me Tony or dickwad or toots, like a normal person? You think I haven't wanted to blast my wall dow-oh, wait, I did that. Still. Proves my point further, I think."
"With the exception of walls, though, you didn't actually carry through on any of it. See, that's the difference, that's why he's not me," Bruce said, turning back to his screen and the carefully balanced formula, steeling himself as he stared at it. "I don't give in to the urges."
"So he's you with the brake line cut..."
"Oh right, the appropriate reaction to stubbing a toe is murdering the people around you, sure," Bruce said.
Tony reached for Bruce's shoulder, his eyes flashing with frustration. "He wouldn't do that."
"Oh, and now you're the expert on how he thinks? What he is?" Bruce snapped, batting Tony's hand away.
"I know him," Tony retorted. "Which is obviously more than you've ever tried to do. There's more to him than just those naughty thoughts, I'll bet you a million – small change, peanuts, make it two million, 'Know Thyself,' didn't some dead Greek guy say that?"
"Tony," Bruce growled.
"He wouldn't," Tony insisted. "He's you without the slightest bitty bit of situational awareness that even a six-month old baby has. Like a person travelling in another country where everything's different all the time and you can barely speak the language, but times, like, a million. Even Thor's got a better understanding than the green guy and he comes from a different freaking planet. But Thor has the ability for higher order thinking, and my theory is that you called dibs on those particular brain cells. You gotta stop bogarting the brain cells, Bruce, it's rude."
Bruce grunted and resigned himself to Amateur Psychology Hour with Tony Stark.
"Didn't you tell me that the big guy had no idea what thunder and lightning were?" Tony waved the coffee cup in his direction, his eyebrows lifted and his chin set in the way he had when he knew he was completely correct. "He thought it was bullets and guns?"
"Yes," he replied shortly, snagging the coffee cup and finishing it off. "Betty said he roared at the sky."
"See?" Tony clapped his hands. "Situational awareness. His experience was that loud noises equals guns, and didn't understand. He has to be walked through everything, from what thunder is to what food is to which is a smashy thing and which isn't. I'll bet he doesn't comprehend death in the slightest – only his own pain. Yeah, like a baby, a toddler – a big one, lots of tantrums. The whole Theory of Mind thing, with the – the- the understanding that there's you and what you feel and a whole world inside your head. And that's it, that's everything you know and it turns you into a teeny shouty Napoleonic dictator before you finally come to the realisation that everyone else has a world inside their head too."
Amateur psychology and behavioural development hour. Getting a bit afield, there, Bruce mused. "I read Theory of Mind for behavioural science, Tony. Most of us move past this stage, despite your valiant efforts to the contrary."
"Biochem and sass, all I'm sayin'. Anyway, Hulk theories. No clue about death, his limited experience is all he has, and drawing on yours probably confuses the heck outta him, 'cause let's face it, Doc, you're a complicated guy, an adult, and smart, and you somehow think those shoes go with those trousers."
"Is there a point in any of this?" Bruce had heard many theories before. Possibly some of them were right. Not like it made a difference to the damages at the end of the day.
"So," said Tony pointedly, "he probably thinks that smashing something turns it off. No difference to him between destroying the gun or destroying the sniper. The only thing he knows is how to fight, yeah? That's the only thing he had built in. Plus, this world, it's just so small and fast and fragile to him, and he smashes even without thinking..."
Bruce stiffened. "Oh, he thinks about it," he said. "He thought about ending Natasha, about seeing her face flattened under his fists."
"Well, she lied to you," said Tony. "Plus she did that thing where she flips around a pole, I dare anyone to watch her and not want to hit that."
Despite himself, Bruce felt the corners of his mouth turn up.
"Why, Doctor Banner, are you laughing at a sex joke?" Tony said, eyes very wide and innocent.
"I'm laughing at how dead you'll be once I tell her about it," Bruce said dryly.
"Oooh, snap. Evidently not all the nasty thoughts belong to Hulk. Could this be the beginnings of a hypothesis? Why yes, Professor Stark, it could. Logically, if little Brucie has nasty thoughts of his own, Hulkster might have more than smashy smashy on his mind?"
Bruce sighed. "I'm not going to agree with you on this, Tony."
"That's cool, disagree away, we can agree to disagree on how wrong you are," Tony said cheerfully. "And it won't work."
Turning back to his formula, Bruce frowned. "What? Why?"
"Because you can't erase those parts of yourself that easily." Tony's eyes glanced over the formula, and then unfocused a little. His fingers twitched. "Believe me. That stuff sticks with you. We change for a reason, Bruce."
"Pride and arrogance," Bruce said flatly. "There's my reasons."
"Exploration, knowledge, altruism, bravery," Tony corrected. "Hope."
"I'm never going to stop looking for a cure," said Bruce, picking up his glasses and putting them back onto his nose. "I have to try it. I have to."
"Jesus, he's not a disease!"
Bruce smiled grimly. "He's worse than a disease."
"But all the good he's done..."
"Doesn't make up for all the harm." Bruce breathed in slowly, and then out. His anger simmered nicely, never quite boiling.
"You wouldn't be an Avenger any more," said Tony.
"Small price. I'd be human again," Bruce countered.
"You are human, Debbie Downer," Tony said, his palm smacking down on the brushed steel of the benchtop.
"I break the Law of Conservation of Mass," said Bruce flatly.
Tony winced. "A really weird human."
"Tony. I'm living on your charity, you're the only one apart from Steve who talks to me, my personal space is apparently roughly the size of the room in which I'm standing, I was on the run for five years, I can never contact anyone I knew before and I have the army baying – quite literally – for my extremely poisonous radioactive blood. If this is your version of human, you can keep it. I want what I had."
"See? Debbie Downer, the biggest Debbie Downer, the Debbiest and Downiest, when they write the entry for the English-Alien dictionary they'll just point to you."
Bruce rolled his eyes.
"Besides, it's not charity, ugh," he added, as though only now noticing the substance of Bruce's words. "I invited you here to start our super secret science club away from the meatheads and knuckle-draggers and mouth-breathers and terrifying liars who terrify you and lie and then stick needles into your neck. It's important, vitally so, to the continued running of Stark Industries that you stay here and we paint each other's toenails and make s'mores – did you make s'mores? Dad had a nanny take me camping once – and do awesome science experiments that don't involve some weird chemical lobotomy."
"It's nothing like a lobotomy, Tony..."
"Did you make s'mores?"
"I never went camping as a kid," Bruce said impatiently. "Look, it's not..."
"Well that sucks, we have to go camping. Thor is going to be hilarious trying to put a tent up."
"I've had my fill of camping since, Tony. Look, I have to do this. I'd be safe."
Tony's eyebrows dropped. "No-one gets past JARVIS, so if you're worried about those Army jerks-"
"Oh my god, please, just, could you not, for two seconds, you're like an Uncountable Set..."
"Oooh, baby, talk nerdy to me, we'll do it Zermelo-Fraenkel style." He grinned broadly. Bruce stifled the urge to shake the man.
"I meant I'd be safe to be around!"
A snort, an airy wave of a solder-burned hand. "Please. Safe is boring."
"Tell that to Harlem," Bruce said darkly, and pressed print. He tore the paper from the printer tray as it emerged and began to stalk over to the biochem freezers.
He stopped, paper rustling against his thigh. The anger flooded him, kept him warm. The H - Other Guy was a constant snarl at the back of his mind. His desire to lash out at Tony was almost unbearable.
"That wasn't your fault."
"Were you there?"
"Tony. I know what's best for me, and it's to put an end to him, once and for all."
Tony watched his friend slam the freezer door behind him and sighed heavily. "Hope it doesn't put an end to you too, buddy."
Tony was right. The experiment failed. The hormone cocktail had no effect.
Bruce, reduced to a flicker in the recesses of Hulk's mind, howled in disappointment.
The dose of gamma radiation only seemed to make Hulk madder. He tore out of Bruce and rampaged through the testing cell, hurling himself futilely against its adamantium lining and roaring in frustration.
Bruce could sympathise.
As luck would have it, a two-bit villain called Stingray chose that very afternoon to punish the good people of Brooklyn for not recognising his natural superiority (and for poking fun at his costume). Bruce pinched his nose between his fingers as Steve paced inside the SHIELD helicopter. His cowl was down.
"Why Brooklyn?" he kept demanding. "Why do things like this always happen here? Why can't they happen over open, uninhabited areas for once, and not one of the most densely populated places on earth?"
"It's probably because they are the most densely populated places on earth, and densely populated areas breed loonies," Clint pointed out, snapping his bow open and checking his quiver. "So the loonies go loony because they live in loony-factories."
The Widow – and she was definitely the Black Widow at that moment, not Natasha Romanov - sat on a bench, her eyes closed, unmoving. Bruce could have sworn she was made of wax, had he not known better. She wore her thick black catsuit and her Widow's Bite. The other three Avengers and the harried-looking agent in the helicopter all looked businesslike, professional, dangerous. And here he sat in his old, soft hoodie with bare feet and his hair curling into his eyes. Somewhere outside the helicopter, Thor and Iron Man would be doing stunts, trying to outdo each other.
How on earth was this his life now?
God, but he was tired. His head was pounding after that morning's Hulk-out and the sorta-kinda-maybe argument with Tony (and why did arguments with Tony always end up with him questioning whether they'd occurred or not?). He'd tried to nap, but his brain would have none of it and he kept chewing over the failed experiment and Tony's words. He hadn't been able to get a wink, which meant he was closing in on thirty-eight hours since he last slept.
A sleep-deprived Hulk. Wonderful. Stingray was going to be lucky to get away with both his legs, he mused gloomily.
"Are you all right, Doctor Banner?"
He looked up. Natasha's eyes were still closed, and she hadn't moved a muscle, but it had definitely been her voice that had spoken. "You're all kinds of scary, you know that?"
"Takes one," she said, lips barely moving.
He smiled a little weakly. "I'm fine."
"Your eyes are bloodshot and you have huge black rings under them. Your hair is standing out on one side, but not the other, which suggests you've been running your hands through it, probably in frustration, and after that you lay down – not to rest, but to sleep, you always sleep on your side. But you didn't sleep, because you normally make a pot of tea after you wake up, and I did the dishes this afternoon. No teapot. You've fidgeted with your hands four times in the last two minutes, and sighed twice, which suggests that the problem is something you're working on physically and that it hasn't gone well. Lastly," she opened her eyes, and was that a flicker of concern? "I've seen corpses with more colour than you."
"Oh, I believe it," he said with a small, nervous chuckle.
Her answering smile was tight and tiny and neither confirmation nor denial.
"Well, you're dead on about most of it," said Bruce, and consciously released his hands. "An experiment didn't pan out the way I'd hoped. Can't really do much about it now – well, except the colour thing. That I can fix."
"You never make green jokes, did he just make a green joke?" Clint said, looking around with his eyebrows raised.
"You know, she's right," Steve said, frowning. "You really don't look well. Maybe you should sit this one out?"
Inside, the Hulk bristled in indignation. "I can't really get sick, Cap – radiation poisoning kind of means that I'm sort of pre-emptively sick 24-7. I'm fine, just tired and a bit disappointed."
"So your secret is that you're always sick?" Clint smirked. Natasha's hand shot out, grabbed the lower arm of his bow and jabbed upwards. The other end knocked him directly between the eyes. "Ow! Tasha!"
"Clint, we've talked about the difference between funny and incredibly insensitive, yes?" She leaned forward the slightest degree. "Do we need to have it again?"
"No, no, that's fine," he said hurriedly, and then rubbed his forehead, glowering at Bruce.
"So what's this Stingray's party trick?" Bruce said, trying to change the subject.
"Electrical manipulation – a mutant, apparently. Not tremendously powerful, but enough to cause some serious damage and threaten the safety, property and liberty of..."
"Gotcha, electrical powers, right," Bruce interrupted before Steve could really get a head of steam. Sometimes the Captain sounded like a civics essay run through an internet translator.
"Just wish it wasn't Brooklyn," Steve mumbled, and turned away to glare out the window. His expression was alarmingly close to a pout.
Bruce didn't want to have to be the one to point out that Captain America was pouting and so he asked, "why'd he decide to do the cheap Magneto act?"
"Apparently his landlord asked for the rent in a very rude voice once too often," Natasha said without a flicker of emotion.
"And now he takes his sweet revenge, bwa-ha-ha?" Bruce finished, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"Spot on, Doc," Clint said sourly.
Bruce let his head fall into his hands.
It's a clusterfuck.
Bruce came to wearing rags. He ached as though someone had wrung him out like a dishcloth. Nothing unusual in either one of those.
He pulled himself up by palming hand over hand along the wall, and practiced a few deep diaphragmatic breaths, out of habit. It had never helped, but it had proven a curiously hard habit to shake. Behind him, Tony groaned.
"Did we just get knocked out by a kid wearing painted scuba gear and Crocs?" said Clint in a blurred voice. He was sprawled near Natasha's prone body. She twitched slightly, her eyes shut.
Bruce didn't turned his head. "Yes."
"Oh. It wasn't a nightmare."
"Crocs," moaned Tony. "Oh, that just puts the tin lid on everything."
"They wouldn't conduct electricity," Bruce pointed out.
"On the other hand, my suit does. It's out for the count, guys, sorry, just so much extremely expensive dead weight. I'm going to have to get it off me before it generates an electromagnetic induction and fries the magnetism in the arc reactor..."
"Didn't understand a word, Stark."
"Understood it, too sore to care," Bruce mumbled.
"Wow, Bruce, that Nobel's getting closer and closer. What did you have, bitch juice for breakfast?"
"I had a little turd in Crocs fire honest-to god force-lightning into my... his... whatever's chest until his heart went into arrest and he turned into me to escape. That has never happened. He never hides behind me. You can imagine my delight."
"Did some weedy jerk really put the Hulk away?" Clint demanded. "Did that really happen?"
"Not so loud," Bruce groaned. Hulk shifted indignantly behind his eyes.
"Or what, scuba-boy hears?" Clint reached up under his vest and pulled out a wicked-looking little dart. "I really hope he comes down to shut us up."
"Tranqs?" asked Tony, pressing a panel that looked identical to all the others over his stomach. The hiss of hydraulics sounded, and the whole back of the suit fell with a loud clatter.
"Ow," Bruce said plaintively. Inside his head, Hulk grumbled about the noise.
"He broke my bow," Clint said, tossing the dart up and catching it expertly. He smirked. "Guy deserves a lot more than a tranq. I mean, Crocs, Jesus."
"Yeah, he's a little shit," Tony said with a forceful yank. A clang sounded as he freed a hand from a gauntlet.
"We've been captured by said little shit," Bruce reminded him.
"Ow. Oh, my pride."
"I think your pride can survive a bit of denting."
"Wish my suit could. This one only had three outings and look at it," Tony said sadly, pulling off the chestplate and examining it.
"He had an douchy wispy little goatee," said Clint with a shudder.
"Dead to me, Barton. You're dead to me. Say goodbye to the free fancy arrows."
"Wha—no, Stark, your goatee is full and luxurious... and... and..."
"Manly! Right, and..."
"Uh, okay, whatever, so please don't take away my toys..."
"And you feel less of a man every time you gaze upon its glory?"
"Shut. Up," Natasha mumbled, blinking rapidly and slowly pushing herself upright. At her wrists the Widow's Bite had shorted out and the fire-retardant material of her catsuit still smoked. She twitched now and again. "Where's Thor? And Steve?"
"Don't know," Bruce said, and closed his eyes.
"Probably still out there, looking for us," grumbled Clint as he tested the door. "Door's secure, Tasha, solid oak, new frame, hinges on the other side, flush lock, deadbolted and no door handle. I've checked perimeter, there's no windows. Grille over there's too small to get through."
"When'd he check the perimeter? Did you see perimeter-checking happening?" demanded Tony.
"Doctor Banner? Would you be able to assist us in the matter of getting the hell out of..." she peered around and her eyes widened, "some idiot's basement. Bozhe moi."
Bruce ached at the idea of another transformation. The Hulk groaned at the back of his mind. "Three in one day? There isn't a prize for the most Hulk-outs," he snapped, and immediately regretted it.
"Three?" Tony pushed himself upright, the remains of the suit sparking and fizzing. "So there's been two today?"
Bruce clamped his mouth shut.
"You tried the experiment," he realised.
"And as you saw, it didn't work," Bruce said evenly.
"And as you saw, he didn't hurt anyone!"
"He destroyed eighteen cars, three storefronts, the wall and roof of an entire apartment building and a fire hydrant," said Bruce, weary of having the same conversation over and over again. "Any one of them could have been a person, it makes no difference to him."
"He dodged the people! He grabbed the fire hydrant, not the woman standing beside it!" Tony flipped out two handles at his knees and pulled, hard, and the leg-coverings fell away with a loud clatter. He stepped forward, eyes flashing. "He's learning, Bruce, that part of you is learning, for god's sake, it's like killing a child!"
"What, what the hell is this fuckery?" Clint said, alarmed at the sudden tension.
"This idiot has been experimenting on himself," said Tony, calming himself down with a huge effort.
Bruce smiled bitterly. "Again."
"What the experiment, the one from before, it's a bad experiment?" Clint said, looking between the two scientists. "Are we talking really bad? Is Banner gonna go supervillain Dr Moreau-style?"
"Can we perhaps have this conversation, fascinating though it is, elsewhere?" said Natasha. "Bruce. Can you get us out of here?"
"Yeah, fine," he sighed.
"I'm not done with you, buddy," Tony promised, his eyes bleak. "We'll talk about this later."
"I'll book you in, shall I?" he muttered under his breath, and reached for the complaining, protesting Hulk.
The green guy wasn't real happy at being roused again after his incident with the electricity. It was almost unheard of for him to come across something that he couldn't beat, and having his huge superhuman body fail on him was totally alien. He steadfastly refused to come out to play.
"Any time now?" Clint said.
Bruce frowned. "He... doesn't want to."
Actually, it felt more like he was clinging...
"Doesn't want to?" Tony blinked. Then he tipped his head. "How long ago did you inject yourself with that dopamine mixture?"
"Long enough, as you saw," Bruce said, frustrated. For once, his frustration didn't make him fear an episode. "Come on, you stupid thing..."
"Hey, don't talk to him like he's a broken car," Tony flared.
"You talk to your robots like that," Clint said.
"That's different. That's affectionate."
"Enough of this," Natasha said, fast and determined, and she took four short strides to Bruce and punched him hard across the jaw.
His eyes flashed green, and the Hulk finally, grumblingly took the reins. As he slowly faded into the background of his own mind, all Bruce could sense from Hulk was a feeling of resignation. He didn't seem to be that angry about the punch – or no more than his ordinary, background level of anger. It sort of felt as though he was satisfied by it. Perhaps he thought Bruce had deserved it.
And then the door slammed open. The thing that was mid-way between Bruce and Hulk looked up.
"Motherfuck," gasped Stingray, dropping the pizza he had been carrying and firing a bolt of electricity directly at their head.
The world went white.
Sensory deprivation, his doctor's mind informs him clinically.
A sensation like someone taking a scoop to his brain, carving into his mind like icecream.
He groans. Concussion? His eyes don't follow the finger.
He can't focus. His head hurts. He can't put any of this together. Flashes, here and there.
A terrible, deep, full-throated roar – furious and determined.
Hands on his body, dragging him. Natasha's hands, Natasha's voice, incredulous and shocked.
Sunlight, very bright. Oh, his head hurts.
The sound of Thor shouting, the zip of Steve's shield. Tony yelling at the top of his lungs.
The idiot kid, yelping and yammering in fear.
Another roar – betrayed, hurt. Afraid.
Screams. Pain. So much pain.
He needs to change, to protect himself. The Other Guy can shrug this off like snowflakes, and when he wakes he'll be healed.
Oh god, so much pain. His arm is on fire.
Reaching for the other side of himself, and groping at nothing. A vast, sucking vacuum where he had been.
Anger, his lifelong constant, gone.
More pain, and then black. He dives into it gratefully.
Red-black Woman hits, makes hurt again! Out of Hulk's way!
Lots of white, white everywhere.
Then back. Where is this? Head hurts. Smash, get out. Bring Shooty Bird and Metal Man. Red-Black Woman can take herself.
Stupid Red-Black Woman.
Head hurts, chest hurts.
Run, run, to the safe places, the green places?
Shouty Long-hair, Star-man. No run. Stay.
There! The little man who hurts Hulk's chest! Smash him, smash him, make it stop!
Hurts, oh, hurts. Hulk angry! Hulk will smash little man. Stupid man. Puny man! No-one is stronger than Hulk!
Chest hurts. Head empty. Banner, make it stop, take it away. Hulk is tired now.
Banner isn't there.
Nowhere to run to. No place to hide inside. Nowhere to rest.
Banner... Banner left Hulk alone.
"Lights," he croaked.
"JARVIS, dim 'em to 30%. How are you feeling, big guy?"
Bruce's eyes cracked open. The lids felt gummy and sticky, and he was having trouble breathing. "Fan.. fantastic," he managed. The blur that was Tony grinned a little.
"You've been asleep for ages. You scared us. Do you think you'd be okay with me raising the bed a bit?"
Bruce considered it, and then shook his head. Or tried to – at the first movement, his whole back shrieked in pain and his ribs screamed. "Oh god," he gasped.
"Easy," Tony said, his brows knitting. "You've had a bit of a shock."
"What...?" Bruce said. His mouth was rubbery and slack with pain, and he couldn't seem to get it to work properly.
"Uh, well, there's good news and there's bad news," Tony said, his eyes skittering away from Bruce's.
He grinned again. It was bright and cheerful and a complete sham. "Well, you know how you've always wanted to have the Hulk out of you?"
Bruce's breath stopped.
"Uh," Tony rubbed the back of his head. "Not exactly?"
"He's not gone?"
"He's downstairs in the testing room," Tony blurted.
Bruce stared at him.
"So, that's the good news, hey buddy?" Tony said in a jovial way, smacking Bruce's knee in a show of heartiness that was honestly painful to watch. "What you've always wanted!"
He stared some more.
"Bruce? Shit, did I break you?" Tony peered at him. "How many fingers?"
"What. What... did you..."
"He's downstairs," Tony repeated, and winced.
"And I'm... awake?"
"Yep," Tony said, popping the 'p'.
Bruce stared some more.
"Bruce, you're freaking me out a bit here," Tony said, his brow furrowing.
"That it's the Hulk downstairs? Oh yeah, he's sorta distinctive," he drawled. "That's one guy you can't miss in a lineup."
"No... that I'm," Bruce swallowed against his parched throat, "awake."
Tony rolled his eyes and nudged Bruce's arm. Pain blossomed and spread, and immediately his eyes filled with tears.
"Right," Bruce croaked, and then cleared his throat. "So the Hulk. The Hulk. Is downstairs."
"I'm beginning to think we've overestimated your intelligence, Doc," Tony said.
"And I'm... here," Bruce said, and looked pleadingly at his friend. "But Tony, I'm here."
"Your grasp of the obvious is as keen as ever."
Bruce floundered, utterly lost. "How...?"
Tony took pity on him and sat down on the bed. "No-one's all that sure. But the upshot is, you're two separate people now. Well, one person and one gamma-Shrek."
"This is impossible," Bruce breathed.
"You broke the Law of Conservation of Mass, and I'm battery-powered, our roomie is the God of Thunder, and Steve's birthday is actually I-shit-you-not July 4th. Impossible is relative." Tony said matter-of-factly.
Bruce tried to wrap his head around it, and failed. "What... do you... think?"
"Hmm?" Tony gave him a sidelong look.
"You must have..." Bruce broke off as his ribs screamed at him, and he had to hold his breath for a second, "theories."
"Theories?" Tony gave him a look that was at once shocked and a total lie. "Thought you hated my theories?"
Bruce tried to glare at him, but it felt empty. Nothing was behind it. The usual fond exasperation, the familiar warm glow of his anger, the intensity that had driven his every interaction was gone. Empty.
The engineer chuckled. "Down, tiger. Well, here's what I'm thinking: you were still humming with that hormone cocktail and a double-dose of gamma radiation when the kid zapped you, yeah?" Tony said, and his eyes never quite met Bruce's. "He managed to get a bolt straight through the limbic and neocortex layers of your brain right down to the primitive archipallium while you were in the mid-stages of changing. One minute there's a halfway Hulk, next thing you know, there's two of you."
"There's... always been... two," Bruce said, and willed Tony to look at him. He didn't oblige.
"Yeah, guess so."
Bruce lay there, his mind cut adrift, reeling. The Hulk was gone. It was out of his head. The terrible responsibility was not his any longer.
"So you must be pretty happy, huh?"
"Yeah, 'course," he rasped. Of course he was happy. He was the happiest he'd ever been! Of course he was!
He wondered why he couldn't feel it more.
"Bet you are," Tony said, his fingers tapping absently against the arc reactor.
"What's. Bad news?" Bruce managed, and licked his dry lips. Tony took a glass from the table and filled it with water from a jug, sticking a straw in it.
"Well, maybe you've noticed the searing pain you're in?"
Bruce tried to glare again. As before, it felt hollow and empty.
"Uh... Hulk... didn't take kindly to the whole Athena-birth scenario thing, and kind of went ballistic," Tony said in a rushed voice. "He was okay at first, just smashed Natasha against a wall – she's fine, just bruised – but then he got another dose in the chest from the kid, and his head went down like he was trying to change back into you. Uh, so. When he noticed you on the ground he went sort of incandescent. He grabbed you and bashed you against the floor a few times, and then shook you and roared in your face."
Bruce stared at him again.
"So," Tony held out the glass and tucked the straw into the corner of Bruce's mouth. "Three broken ribs, broken shoulderblade and clavicle, fractures in your left arm where he grabbed you, no internal bleeding, but you're a lovely shade of purple all over. Don't do the broken face thing again, it creeps me out. Drink up."
He drank some water, and choked promptly. He wondered why he couldn't feel the happiness he knew he was experiencing.
"He's downstairs?" Bruce said, floating, drifting.
"Yeah," Tony said, and sighed. "He won't stop roaring or trying to break through the adamantium. We had to sedate him to get you away from him."
Bruce let out a long, slow breath.
"If he gets out," Tony added, "we think he'll come straight for you."