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Irreconcilable Differences

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"What's this?"

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?"

"No, but..."

"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."

"Excuse me?"

"Sorry, Tasha."

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.



"...uce? Bruce?"

"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.

"He's... gone?"

"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.

"You're sure...?"

"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."

Chapter Text


Hulk roars and hurls himself against the walls that do not smash. He has been trying to smash for ages now. He will not stop. Hulk does not stop!

Noise is good. He roars again, and brings his fists down on the metal floor. The sound is good. Loud.

It fills up some of the empty in Hulk's head.

The walls and floors and ceilings of this room do not smash at all. They are grey and shiny, shiny like Metal Man. They ring when he tries to smash, ring deep and low and loud and long. He roars again to hear his voice bounce around the puny room. It is like a hundred Hulks are roaring.

It is good. Loud.

He smashes at the wall again, at the maddening little gap too small for Hulk's fingers in the metal.

Why does this room not smash? Hulk can smash anything! Hulk is strongest, the strongest there is!

Banner would know, but Banner not here. Banner left Hulk alone.

He roars and roars and roars, making the walls vibrate and shake. The boom-thud-bells of his feet and fists ring against the walls shiny-like-Metal Man. The noise is huge, Hulk's noise is huge! Hulk makes the loudest noise that there ever could be!

It helps. But it still does not fill up the empty place where Banner should be.


Bruce faded in and out over the next few days. Time passed in rapid stop-start bursts. During those brief times that he was able to stay awake, his body felt empty and heavy, like pottery, and just as brittle.

He hadn't felt happy yet. He supposes it'll take a little time. He did just take a pretty nasty beating from his own rampaging id, after all.

"Slowly... easy now..." said the nurse as Bruce edged himself over, grunting in pain as his ribs protested his every move. He gingerly swung his feet over the edge of the bed, his left arm in a sling, his shoulder and ribs bound uncomfortably tight.

"Nothing's wrong with my legs," he said, and reflexively tried to smother a pang of irritation that never came.

"You've had a real shock to the system," the nurse, Gavin, said, his eyebrows rising in admonishment.

"Do tell," Bruce grunted.

The nurse folded his arms. "Look, a little more care now will mean a faster recovery, Doctor."

After so many years of fending for himself the sudden care and solicitousness was jarring, almost irritating. Also the nurse talked about himself an awful lot. Bruce was accustomed to silence, though more recently he'd become used to the eclectic and droll babble that poured from Tony, jumping from topic to topic. Tony never expected him to reciprocate – and oddly, that made it easier to join in.

"Slowly now," Gavin said. "Take your time." He was thirty-five, married with a young daughter, he liked European soccer, motorcross derbies and movies about war and history, he thought the whole of South-East Asia was the 'Third World' and in his humble opinion, green tea tasted like grass and meditation was 'a load of hippie crap'. Bruce rolled his eyes.

"I know. I also know that I'm going to explode if I don't get to the bathroom in ten seconds, so if you don't mind..."

"Do you need a hand this time, or are you okay on your own?"

Bruce could feel his traitorous blush beginning somewhere around his chest and rising slowly. He cleared his throat. "Uh, no. My left arm and shoulder are fine, I've been worse, and besides, the sooner I'm coping on my own..."

Gavin snorted. "If you haven't noticed, I'm the guy with the actual medical degree, not you. There's no first prize for being a tough guy. If you need help, call."

"I'm fine," Bruce repeated, and slipped into the bathroom before his blush could crest the neckline of his pyjamas.

After relieving himself and washing his hand, he examined the face in the mirror with clinical detachment. Unfortunately, it was his own. His right eye was almost closed, puffy and bloodshot, and his forehead had a beauty of a goose egg rising on it. Both cheekbones and the right side of his chin were discoloured and shiny with ointment.

He couldn't quite connect himself to the gaunt man in the mirror. Bruises aside, something wasn't right. He'd told the nurse the truth: he'd been worse off than this before, far worse. Yet he felt somehow dissociated from his own reflection. For god's sake, he'd turned into a green distortion of nature on a regular basis, and he'd still known himself. This guy with the bruises was a stranger, an empty-faced no one.

He studied the lines of the face under the patchwork of purpling bruises and the raspy scruff of beard on the cheeks. He looked the same. High, square forehead, frustratingly untameable hair with a smattering of grey at his temples and in the stubborn lock above his eyes that never stayed brushed back. His eyes, so brown they were nearly black, his small neat ears, square chin. Those deep worry lines between his brows. The even deeper lines of disappointment running from his nose to the unexpectedly soft, gentle mouth. Nothing unfamiliar, nothing strange. Not particularly handsome like Steve, but not ugly. A man of middle height, ordinary-looking, normal.

He frowned, and the brows drew together in a practiced motion, the lines growing deeper, carved-looking. It wasn't right. Something was missing, something important. In the eyes, it was there - He didn't quite recognise the eyes. They looked... flat.

Running his damp hand over his rat's nest of hair, he huffed a quiet laugh. For a clever bloke he could really be stupid now and again. Of course something was missing.

If it hadn't been for the curious emptiness in his head, Bruce wouldn't have been able to believe it. The long nightmare was over. He was free.

He tried a tentative smile. The bruised face in the mirror smiled back. It was a polite smile, flat and vague and a little distant.

It certainly didn't look like the happiest he'd ever felt.

"So, Banner, you're free," he said aloud.

Jesus, even his voice sounded flat. He cleared his throat again. "You're free now," he said, and it felt a bit better. It struck him that he had no need to stifle his irritation at the nurse's solicitousness any more. He could get irritated all he liked. He could be angry for himself!

Why on earth did he feel so damn numb?

"Bad grammar," he told the stranger in the mirror. "Poor service at posh restaurants. The way Tony leaves coffee mugs all over the lab, even when it's supposed to be a contaminant-free area. Bastards who cut you off in traffic. People who walk too slowly in front of you on a narrow sidewalk. Uh, the way Clint picks at his teeth with his arrows. People who don't meet your eyes when they learn about the Other Guy. Pepper's heels on the floor above yours. Thor chewing with his mouth open."

Not a twinge of annoyance. Bruce stared at the guy in the mirror, who looked calmly (blankly) back at him.

Maybe he was still adjusting?

He ignored the little voice in his head that whispered, three days. You've had three days. Why haven't you felt happy yet?

Gritting his teeth, he delved further into what had been a never-ending well of rage. It barely felt like a puddle. He had to dig deeper. He had to break through this numb nothingness.

He gripped the sink and stared into his own flat brown eyes. "Come on, Banner. Wake up. Never being asked to spar, being left out of team photos. People who don't vaccinate their kids. Enforced inequality, caste systems, racism, sexism, ableism. My sixth birthday. Being lied to, over and over again, by the government, by the army, even by SHIELD. Female circumcision, honour killings, honour rape. Mum's funeral. Having my research stolen after the Other Guy happened. People who don't leave me alone when tell them to. When I'm trying to save their damn lives. General Thaddeus Ross. Betty's wedding."

Zilch, nada, zip. Even those things guaranteed to make him upset or outraged or furious didn't pierce through the fog. Bruce tried to feel panicked by this – and of course, couldn't.

So this was how Steve had felt, buried under the ice.

He leaned forward until he was almost nose-to-nose with his own reflection.

"Brian Banner," he said softly.


The sink under his hand vibrated suddenly and he could feel the corresponding shudder in the tiled walls. He stepped away from the cold stranger in the mirror, eyebrows furrowing.

"What..." he mumbled. "What is that?"

"Bruce?" came Clint's voice from his room.

"Um. I'm okay," he called out.

"Good to hear, buddy, but we've um, got a situation with your ex."

"My..." Bruce swallowed and then turned, yanking the door open. "I don't care," he said truthfully.

Clint was standing at the foot of his bed, the nurse behind him with a put-upon look on his face. The archer was poised on the balls of his feet, a loose professional stance that spoke of coiled tension just waiting to be unleashed. Bruce knew that pose. "There's an emergency."

Clint smirked. "Bingo." He jerked his head towards the nurse. "You're on your feet, you need this guy?"

"You can go, thanks," Bruce told Gav.


"Out, sister," Clint ordered. Gavin scowled, but obediently went.

Bruce gestured at his colourful face. "I don't think I'm pretty enough to go assembling right now. And anyway, what can I do? Go see the Other Guy."

"We did. He roared at us."

"Oh." Bruce shifted his weight. "That... would be a problem then."

"We have no idea what our green friend is gonna do if we let him out of the testing cell. He's been smashing at that adamantium for three straight days."

"Don't let him out."

"Sorry?" Clint blinked.

Bruce gripped the doorjamb hard. "You heard. Don't let him out. Don't ever let him out."

Clint's eyebrows lowered, and he tipped his head. "Don't you think that's a bit brutal?"

He huffed a bitter laugh. "Then he and I still have something in common. Leave him in there."

"Much as I'd like to oblige you on that, we sort of need him. You. The Hulk," Clint corrected himself, and then blew a breath through his teeth. "There aren't enough pronouns for what you guys've got. So, give it a shot?"

"Can't you go without him this once?" Bruce swallowed hard against the sudden swooping sensation in the pit of his stomach. "Look, you don't need me. You don't need him. Just... leave him there. Leave him in there, don't let him out. Don't ever let him out."

He blinked. "Harsh, Doc."

"You don't even know," Bruce said darkly, and hobbled towards his bed. The hollowness that had opened up inside him yawned, a chasm just waiting for him to fall in. The sick feeling crouched like a toad in his belly.

Clint tipped his head the other way, studying Bruce thoughtfully. "You don't look too bad, considering the Hulk used you like a kitchen towel only a couple of days ago."

Bruce smiled thinly. "Thanks."

"Look, Big B, I'm sorry but we could really use the Other Guy on this one," said Clint, sighing. "It's Doom."

"Fuck," Bruce muttered. "Not again. Tony can take that guy out, he did it last time."

"And Doom took notes," Clint said evenly. "The Doombots are three times more deadly, twice as big, and their software is according to Stark, 'fucking impenetrable', and about three hundred of them are swarming towards Istanbul right at this moment. So tell me, Lonely Planet, what's so important about Istanbul?"

Bruce turned his eyes down, hating it. The numbness stole the sting immediately. "Second biggest city in the world," he mumbled. "Almost three thousand years old. Strategic position between Europe and Asia."

Clint folded his arms, the heavy archery muscles clenching. "We could use our heavy hitter, Doc."

"I never want to see him again," Bruce hissed. "Let him stay here. Let him rot!"

"Good night, Istanbul," he shrugged. "I'll tell 'em you couldn't be bothered."

"Fuck you."

Clint only smiled.

Bruce ran his good hand through his hair, rubbed it down his face roughly. "Look, can't you talk to him?"

"Tony's been to talk to him, I've been to talk to him – hell, even Tasha's gone down and tried, and he hates her," Clint said, inexorable as the tides. "He roars and smashes. He's not open for business to any of us. Go and see him."

"Tony said he'd come after me," Bruce said slowly, his chin dipping. "That he'd be after me first."

Clint shrugged again. "Probably. He's not making a lot of sense. He hasn't slept in three days, Bruce."

"Does he ever make sense?" Bruce muttered, and resigned himself to losing the argument. He picked up his robe and shook one sleeve down over his good arm, before hooking it behind him and straining awkwardly to reach the other edge. His ribs screamed at him, and he stopped with a strangled gasp.

Clint picked up the dangling cloth and draped it over Bruce's bound shoulder. "Surprisingly, yes. He makes sense now and again," the archer said in a quieter voice, as though sensing his victory.

"Well, yeah, that is surprising."

"You fight alongside someone, you get to know 'em pretty well," Clint said, wrapping the robe around Bruce. The demonstration of care seemed a little out-of-place, and he raised an eyebrow suspiciously.

"You drew the short straw, huh?" he said as Clint tied the drawstring around his waist, over the sling. "Get Frankenstein to go down to see the monster?"

"I volunteered, actually," Clint said shortly. "Stark's been a pain in the ass, not letting anyone in to see you. Said you'd had a big shock and not to disturb you. But now he's busy trying to crack the Doombots, so I took the opportunity to see you and tell you the score. The others have been worried."


Clint stood back, regarding Bruce with a sort of weary sympathy. "I know it's sort of a habit by now, but can you at least pretend not to expect the worst from everybody?"

Through the numbness and the emptiness, Bruce felt a little pang of shame. "Clint. Um, sorry."

The archer simply nodded his head and turned to lead the way out.

As he stepped into the elevator, he turned back to Bruce, his face carefully neutral. "This is gonna get loud."


Bruce hadn't known what to expect.

It wasn't this.

He now knew what had caused the shuddering of the sink under his hand. The whole of the testing cell was ringing like a struck bell – a bell the size of a barn. Over the deafening sounds of metal chiming was a long, continuous howl. The vibrations shuddered through the air, and every now and then he could feel the tremors escape under his feet into the Tower's very skeleton.

Bruce turned back to Clint with an incredulous look.

"Three whole days," Clint yelled. "No breaks, no change. He just keeps smashing and roaring!"

Bruce turned back to the cell, eyes wide in dawning horror.

Clint edged towards the peephole, a small slit in the cell's door at eye height on an average human. His hands were clamped over his ears. "You gotta get right up against that for him to hear you over that racket!" he yelled.

Bruce eyed the slit in the adamantium dubiously. "You're sure he can't get his fingers through?" he shouted back.

The blows stopped with shocking suddenness, echoes dispersing into the air like ghosts.

"I..." Clint's hesitant voice was very loud in the ringing hush. "I think he knows you're here, Doc."

"No, really?" he muttered, and swallowed.

Slowly, Bruce edged towards the slit in the metal. The inside of the cell was gloomy and indistinct. No light source, Bruce realised. Of course.

He tried not to think about what it would be like, locked in a room for three days, screaming and railing against the dark.

Framed by the peephole, something moved in the shadows. Oh god. Oh god.


Bruce's breath caught in his mouth and every muscle in his body locked.

"Banner," the subterranean growl came again.

"Oh, my god," he whispered, his hand flying to his mouth and shaking uncontrollably against his lips. The emptiness, the hollowness was gone, oh god, was it ever gone. In its place was a quivering, fluttering dread that was as familiar as breathing.


He'd had practice against this fear. He knew it well, knew how to use it and tame it. He set his jaw, breathing slowly, so slowly. His pulse jumped in his neck like a trapped frog.

"Yes," he managed.

"Banner. Here."

Bruce sent a desperate look back at Clint, who shooed him on. The archer's own eyes were ringed in white, his pupils shrunk in fear.

Slowly and tremblingly, he crept closer until he could raise his gaze to the hole in the testing cell.

Green eyes met his.

Bruce cried out wordlessly and stumbled away from the wall, his hand clamped back over his mouth.

"Bruce!" Clint hissed. "Get back there!"

Bruce tried to calm his breathing, and couldn't. All his study, all his techniques had flown. He took two more faltering steps backwards and teetered as though on top of a tall building, his balance shot to pieces. His good hand clenched into a tight fist as he shook uncontrollably, his eyes squeezed shut. The intensity of it. The anger in those eyes.

The betrayal.

"Banner!" the rasping voice rose in a roar, and Clint swore under his breath. He strode forward and grabbed Bruce's shoulders, ignoring the cry of pain as the knitting bones protested.

"Get in there," Clint growled. "Talk to him."

Bruce's teeth had clamped together so tightly that his jaw muscles were aching. He looked back at the little peephole where those burning green eyes still hovered.

"Talk to him!" Clint snapped, and pushed Bruce back towards the door. The physicist stumbled, biting off another cry of pain as his shoulder and collarbone spasmed in agony.

"Banner!" Hulk said sharply, and there was a new note in the gravelly voice. A panicked note. "Shooty-bird hurt Banner! Hulk hurts Shooty-bird!"

"No!" Bruce cried, and threw himself up against the adamantium door. "NO, DON'T HURT HIM!"

"He hurts you, hurts us!" Hulk snarled, and the green eyes met brown once more. Bruce swallowed. The eyes were the same shape as his, the exact same shape. "Always hurting! Hulk smash Shooty-Bird!"

"No, he didn't," he said frantically, "he didn't hurt me!"

"Banner hurt?"

"I'm okay," Bruce said, almost gabbling in his panic, in the need to have the behemoth understand. "I'm okay, I'm fine, Clint didn't hurt me, I'm all right, there's no need to hurt anyone, no need to smash anyone, it's okay, it's all right, I'm all right, I promise, I promise..."

And oh, this was familiar too. This was what it felt like to be locked inside Hulk's head once more, to plead with the monster over and over again to listen, to understand, to stop. Even the sense of panicked despair felt the same.

"Banner promises to Hulk?"

"I promise!" Bruce said desperately.

With a growl, the Hulk subsided. The eyes moved back a few feet from the peephole, still glowering at Bruce's.

"Banner is there."

"I'm here," Bruce said.

"Hulk is here," the beast said, and thumped at the ground. "Hulk is here."

"That's right."

"Banner left Hulk alone," he rumbled.

"I'm here," Bruce said again, wondering what the fuck this was, what the fuck he thought he was doing, and was a nine-foot tall radioactive green rage beast trying to make him feel guilty or something?

The monster made a noise that was half-roar, half-snarl of frustration. "No! Hulk is HERE! Not THERE! Banner left Hulk alone!"

"You..." Bruce stopped.

A fist the size of a man's skull crashed against the metal wall. "Banner left Hulk alone!"

"Oh fuck," he breathed. "I did. I left you alone."

Green eyes dropped to the ground, hurt as a child, and then snapped back up, glaring. "Banner is there!"

"I know," Bruce said, and pressed closer to the door. "We're not together any more. We're separate now. You're your own self, and so am I."

"No," Hulk grunted. "Not. Hulk isn't finished."

Bruce waited, but the monster didn't elaborate. "You're not finished? You need to say something else?" he prompted tentatively.

Hulk growled low and his huge arms tightened, the muscles swelling ominously. "Banner so stupid."

That was rich, coming from someone who hadn't yet discovered the wonderful world of adverbs.

"What?" Bruce whispered. "What's the matter?"

The Hulk shifted in the cell, the darkness shifting around his massive shoulders. "Empty."


A finger as thick as Bruce's wrist rose and tapped on the brutish head. "Alone. Empty."

"I know," Bruce said, and took a long, shuddering breath. "Me too. Empty."

The monster moved back even more, and Bruce got his first impeded, clear look at what the gamma radiation had wrought.

It's so huge, was his first thought.

It... looks like me, was his second.

Is it... sulking? was the third.

Hulk shuffled back in the room, his stone-like teeth bared in a snarl and his massive hand knuckling the metal floor. He smashed it once, twice, and then turned his back with a grunt. "Banner left Hulk alone," he growled darkly.

"I'm sorry," Bruce said, and peered into the gloom.

"No!" Hulk whirled. "Not sorry! Never sorry! Banner never sorry for Hulk!"

Jesus, he's so fast!

"No, I..." Bruce tried, but Hulk roared in outrage and smashed at the metal floor once more.

"Not true!" Hulk threw both colossal fists against the walls, and it boomed out like a struck gong. "Banner lies!"

"Look," Bruce managed, but the monster cut him off once more.

"No lies! Not sorry! Banner never sorry! Banner always hurt Hulk, make Hulk run, tell Hulk hide, make Hulk stop, keep Hulk trapped, try to put metal in Hulk's head! Banner sorry for everyone but Hulk! Banner hates Hulk!"


"Banner hates Hulk!"

"Stop it!"

"Banner hates Hulk!"

Bruce felt his spine stiffen. Where the emptiness had been there came a giant wave, a tsunami of pure hatred that rose up within him and spilled out of his mouth. "Yes!" he bellowed. "I hate you, all right? I hate you so, so damn much! Banner hates Hulk!"

The Hulk roared like a wounded lion.

"I hate you! You hear me?" Bruce grated through the slit, his whole body ablaze, his eyes hard. "You hear that? I – hate – you!"

"Banner hates Hulk!"

"Finally got through, has it?" Bruce spat, feeling wild and slightly unhinged. "Has Hulk ever thought why? You cost me my life, my job, my home, my humanity, my dignity, the woman I loved, everything!"

"Banner hates Hulk." The monster's voice sounded satisfied this time, and he settled in the gloom with a purling rumble. "No lies."

Bruce's breath was coming quick and fast, and his chest was heaving. He glared at the beast his arrogance had created with light-headed loathing. "You should never, NEVER have existed," he said, the words whistling through his teeth. "You're a mistake, a fucking mistake. An accident, an abomination, a freak of nature, an – you're an abortion. A monster."

Hulk's eyes glittered at him in the gloom, green as acid. "Hulk always there," he said, and the tone sounded almost mocking. "Hulk always exists."

Bruce laughed, hearing the note of hysteria in his own voice. "God, you're so fucking thick," he said, his voice dripping in scorn and fury. Oh, the anger was familiar, so familiar. He embraced it like an old friend, feeling it fill his chest with red coals. His breath came hard and fast through his nostrils as he glowered at the eyes so unnervingly, unnaturally like his own.

Hulk's lip curled. "Hulk knows liars. Leave Hulk alone. Banner leaves Hulk alone for always now."

Bruce glared back, revelling in the feeling of such utter hatred where only a short time earlier, the emptiness had consumed him.

Hulk grinned like a shark, his pebble-like teeth very white against the olive-green of his skin. "Hulk hates Banner," he said. It was a promise.

Bruce whirled on one heel and stormed out of the room as best he could.

"Oh yeah, that helped," Clint muttered. "Really got him on our side."


It was very quiet in the Tower with everyone away on the Istanbul mission. Bruce wandered about for half a day, dodging the irritating Gavin and investigating some of the projects on Tony's server. Some of them were intriguing and inspired a few ideas and modifications, but he couldn't seem to drag up the enthusiasm to dive into the blueprints and work them out. Very unlike him. Normally he'd have stuck his glasses on and become surgically grafted to a chair, no matter his physical condition.

"Well, maybe you're still healing," he told himself, and drifted out of the workshop aimlessly. The hollowness was returning.

Empty, the Hulk had said.

Tea, Bruce decided, and tried to force the hollowness and the growing worry and the memory of those horribly familiar green eyes out of his mind.

Pepper found him in the eighty-seventh floor's communal kitchen, making a pot of tea and idly channel surfing for news about the battle. She was dressed like a pinstriped javelin of business, all long legs, sleek narrow skirt and killer heels, and she tapped her glass tablet as she walked. "Channel two-four-two," she said crisply as she flopped down on the sofa and kicked the heels off, throwing the tablet onto the cream leather beside her.

"Hmm?" He said absently, bringing over his tray. It was awkward with one hand.

"They're on two-four-two, it's World News," she said, bringing her legs under her like a little girl. Her hands gripped her knees tightly. "Turn it over?"

"Oh, right... hang on," he said, and tried to put down the teatray on the side-table one-handedly. She took it from him without a word and put it on the coffee table before them as he grabbed the remote and turned the channels.

"... say that the Avengers have been on the scene for at least an hour now," said the pretty if dishevelled Istanbul anchor. Her hair was coming out of the elegant chignon in messy, sweaty strands. "Eyewitnesses report that the improved Doombots are finally responding to the Avengers' tactics. However, it seems there has been a controversial lineup shuffle amongst New York's favourite heroes, with the familiar green behemoth known as the Hulk not included in the response to today's incursion."

The scene flipped to a wobbly, out of focus shot of what looked like an ancient fort, its ramparts and medieval turrets squatting amongst a small clump of trees that hugged a brilliant blue harbour. Around this tiny speck of greenery sprawled the whites and terracottas of Istanbul. Silvery robots flew, stiff and unyielding and predictable, all around. They reminded Bruce of moths circling a lamp.

"Why'd they pick that beautiful old castle to make a stand?" Pepper asked, almost indignant. "It'll get destroyed, and it's obviously ancient!"

"The trees, the wood - that reserve area has very few buildings in it, despite the fort," Bruce said, tightness in his chest and throat. "No civilian casualties from the battle."

"Just from the fire, then," she drawled, as the little wood went up in flames from a misplaced bolt of lightning.

Bruce coughed. "Well, uh, it's the thought that counts."

The bright gold and red of Iron Man could be spotted amongst the Doombots' bulky bodies, as could the occasional crimson flash of Thor's cape. And then, a steel-grey streak flashed across the scene, followed by one or two detonations.

"From first impressions on the scene, we can speculate that Iron Man Tony Stark has contacted the War Machine in order to make up the shortfall in the team's numbers," the anchor said. Bruce felt his eyebrows knit. "Stark and War Machine are well known to be close associates, though we have had no comment from either at this point."

"Why do you think that might be, sweetheart?" Pepper asked the woman in a voice like sugared poison, and rolled her eyes.

"He called in Rhodes?" he said, and Pepper nodded, her gaze locked to the screen.

"Had to," she said. "I don't understand all the jargon Tony spouted, but these things have been upgraded to the point where basically nothing except brute force can stop them. Rhodey's not as fast as Tony, his suit's older and he's not as manoeuvrable – but he does have a lot of guns."

"But he's only getting three or four at a time," Bruce pointed out.

Pepper smiled faintly. "Oh yes, right, he's really letting the team down."

Sometimes he forgot about Pepper's ability to skin people with faint sarcasm.

Bruce flopped back heavily, ignoring the twinge from his ribs and tapping his fingers against the bandages around his arm. In half an hour, he could have reduced that entire flock of robots to so much scrap metal, and he could have done it single-handedly. Or well, the Other Guy could have. Rhodes was good, but these things were right up the Hulk's alley – unfeeling, numerous and just strong and smart enough to put up a bit of a challenge.

Clint had been right. They really could have used him.

"The reaction to the change in lineup has already drawn comment from key political figures and online, with several high-profile military commanders denying all knowledge of the change," the anchor continued. "The US Army has not yet released a statement as to whether Lt. Colonel James Rhodes, the pilot inside War Machine, has permanently replaced the Hulk in the Avengers lineup."

Pepper sucked in a breath as one of the Doombots came close to frying Tony, and then buried her face in her hands. "Oh god," she said, muffled.

"Hey, are you okay?"

She sighed heavily into her palms and then sat up very straight, gazing at the television. "I thought it'd get easier when we broke up," she said softly. "But it hurts to watch just as much as ever."

"He's still your friend, of course it does," he said.

She shook her head, her fingertips hovering over her lips. "No. He's more. He - he'll always be special. But that," she nodded to the screen, "is why he can never be everything."

Bruce didn't quite know what to say to that.

"Questions have already been raised as to the Hulk's current whereabouts, and the reasons for the switch. There is already widespread indignation online from Hulk fans, and newly formed American basketball team the Harlem Hulks have already created a Facebook petition to bring back the not-so-jolly green giant," the anchor said.

Bruce's eyebrows shot straight up. "The Harlem Hulks?"

Pepper huffed a laugh. "You stopped Blonsky from trashing it completely. Did you think they wouldn't remember?"

"I thought they might remember it a bit differently," he mumbled.

The anchor appeared a little blase about the whole 'robots of death' issue behind her, and continued talking as though she were reporting on a particularly juicy political scandal with all the time in the world. "Some may consider that the substitution is not in the best interests of the Avengers, or indeed of the world. Without the Hulk, the team's effective brute force has diminished significantly; there is no measurable upper limit to the Hulk's strength. We can only hope that Thor and Captain America's more-than-human strength can make up the lack. Judging from the duration of this battle compared to that of the Doombot invasion of Darwin last year, War Machine has some extremely big footprints to fill."

Bruce shifted a little uncomfortably, and wondered when the Other Guy had grown a fanbase.

"Tony," Pepper breathed anxiously, as the bright figure was backhanded by a robot into the walls of the fort. The ancient stone didn't budge an inch as Iron Man slid down the wall for twenty or so feet before his repulsors caught alight once more. The offending robot was swiftly dispatched by a hammer as Thor sent Mjolnir barrelling through the flock.

"I freaking love that hammer," Pepper said fervently.

Steve and Natasha were fighting in close formation back to back by the main entrance to the Fort. Bruce's good hand clenched involuntarily. As magnificent as they were, their skills were not the best suited for the brute strength and high-explosives fight. Both of them were firing guns that looked like SHIELD experimental weapons – Natasha cool and collected as she aimed for heads and necks, Steve squinting slightly in concentration. When the robots got too close, Steve's shield would lash out with his normal targeted precision, and Natasha laid them out for him by creating a swift and sinuous target.

But it would take only one shot, just one in the wrong place. He swallowed against the hollowness.


Shut up, Hulk, he thought angrily. You're not in my head any more.

"They shouldn't be there," he croaked.

"None of them should be there," Pepper replied in a harsh tone. "But they are, because they're all gigantic idiots with overblown senses of..."

"No, you don't get it." Bruce said. "The fight should be over by..."

"It should never have started," she muttered. "Now, shut up and drink your..."

"I'm not Tony," he snapped. "You can't just..."

"I know," she sighed. "I know, I'm sorry."

He reached over with his good hand, and patted hers gingerly. "Me too."

"I just..." she stopped and made a frustrated noise under her breath. "I just wish that what happened to you could happen to him, you know? That the Iron Man could just get zapped out of him, and he'd be normal and safe from now on..."

Bruce froze for a moment. Then he forced himself to relax, hoping that she hadn't noticed. "But then he wouldn't really be Tony any more, would he?"

She closed her eyes and sighed again.

On screen, Clint took out a cluster of robots with one of his scatter-arrows, and then threw himself off a building with casual ease, still firing. The sight sparked something deep in his memories, and he leaned forward. "Wait."

Pepper glanced at him. "Oh, he's always doing that. The Hulk usually..." she trailed off and stared at him in horror.

"Shit," Bruce said.


Hulk does not miss Banner.

Hulk does not miss Banner.

Hulk does not miss Banner.

Hulk does not miss Banner.

Hulk does not miss Banner.

Hulk does not miss Banner.

Hulk does NOT miss Banner.

Hulk does not, not, NOT miss Banner!

Banner is puny. Banner is a weak, puny, worm.

Banner is always scared. Hulk knows the taste of Banner's fear, and Banner was scared. Always Banner scared of Hulk! Banner runs like a mouse, runs and runs. Runs away from Hulk. Just like always.

Banner lies. Banner lies and lies again, lies like his words are air and not real, like Hulk knows they are. Words stay. Lies stay.

Banner keeps Hulk locked up. Inside Banner's head, now inside stupid grey room. No smash in stupid room. No smash ever, Banner running away, locking Hulk away. Hulk wants so much to be free.

Banner hates Hulk. Hulk knows that feeling, of Banner's hate all mixed up with his fear. Hulk did not take Banner's life. Banner ran away from it. Stupid stupid Banner, always running!

Banner is wrong. Hulk did not take Banner's life - Hulk was always there. Banner tried to take Hulk's life. Metal in Hulk's mouth, and the taste of despair. Hulk wants to live. Banner had no right.

Banner is annoying. Little insect voice at the back of Hulk's mind, always buzzing and buzzing, always so scared. Don't smash this, don't smash that, run away now, don't smash him – oh, but Hulk can smash when Banner says smash! Not when Hulk says smash! Banner is bossy!

Hulk just wants to be left alone!

But... Banner is lonely. Banner is always lonely. And they are both empty now.

No. Hulk does not miss Banner.

Hulk hates Banner.

Hulk does not miss Banner.

Hulk doesn't.

Chapter Text


Bruce waited in the lounge long after the battle had finished and the coverage had ended, the fingers of his good hand twisting in the material of his trousers over and over. He stared through the television blankly, stupidly, even as Pepper sighed, stood and left with a soft pat on his shoulder. Ads and programs danced across it, men and women smiling glossily and enticing him to buy now, now NOW - and he just sat there, like a lump.

He knew, consciously, that he was worried. He was certainly acting out the physical actions of a man who was worried. And yet it felt like only living through the motions. Once more the numbness had stolen any feeling he should have had. Empty again.

Shut up, Hulk.

A metallic clatter jolted him out of his stupor, and he jerked his eyes away from the dull-blurred screen.

"Well, that's it. That is the definitive It. Screw it all. Damn!"

Tony was stalking along the landing strip leading into the large lounge area on the top floor, robotic arms flying around him and tugging away his poor, beautiful, crushed-beyond-repair Mark IX. His face was a thundercloud as the helmet came off in two broken, charred pieces. He was obviously in a completely filthy mood; the kind in which he drank an ocean of scotch, smashed down walls and blew up half the lab. "Ow. Jesus, ow, ow, stop that, that is the opposite of help – ow! Fuck! Fucking Doom!"

"Are you okay?" Bruce asked, standing and taking a few steps towards the open glass doors to the balcony. "Did anyone get hurt?"

Tony glanced up. "Oh, not so you'd notice," he snapped. "Only another three fucking days of work and approximately eighty million dollars worth of high-tech prosthesis got trashed. Mark IX's a total write-off - this is the second suit in as many weeks! I'm sending Latveria a bill."

"But is anyone hurt?" Bruce waited for the low pang of guilt that should have accompanied that question – the question he had asked so many times while wondering how many he had killed this time. But the guilt didn't come. He was a shell.

"Birdbrain got burned a bit, but he'll be fine, didn't even faze him. Widow's got a broken toe or two, not that you'd notice. Rhodey and his adulterated antique got off scott-free. Thor's pissed off that he had to cover War Machine in the air and so he didn't get much of a fight - because he is in actual fact a raving lunatic, a truth that has been covered up by SHIELD and Dr Tiny Foster in a vast conspiracy aimed at trashing all my suits and giving me ulcers. And I think Cap got strafed by one of their brand new fucking lasers. You know, the ones that trashed my incredibly expensive and glorious suit, which is the fucking point here?"

Bruce relaxed a little. Minor or no wounds, mostly. Clint knew his field medicine, Natasha could operate with only her pinky-finger, and Steve healed ridiculously fast. He'd be fine. "Easier to build a new suit than a new person."

"And yet totally unskilled and unqualified people pop out new ones every day," Tony said sourly as he helped the robotic arms tug off the last section of crushed and scorched armour and headed straight for his bar. "I'm having a drink. God, I'm having ten drinks. Fucking Doom."

"Are the others on their way home yet?"

"On-scene cleanup liaising is happening with the Turkish authorities. I came ahead. I only do sexy liaising, and the Turkish authority didn't qualify." Tony splashed scotch from a decanter into a glass, and then swigged half of it in one go. "God damn it."

Bruce sat, adjusting his sling. "Um. Did you at least get your hands on a doombot or two?" he asked, trying to cheer the engineer up. There was nothing Tony liked better than new toys.

Tony scowled into his scotch. "Nope. Auto-destruct at the end of the fight. I don't even get to nick Vickie's latest ideas. Total clusterfuck of an operation."

He splashed yet more scotch into the glass, and then paced around the counter, arm waving wildly as he began to rant. "And Rhodey's frikkin' HammerTech, man. I mean, when is he going to let me replace some of that shit with something that works? I get that he wants to look badass and all, with all his - frankly overcompensating - guns, but Jesus, at least when I shoot something, it stays shot. He might as well have thrown confetti on those things. Thor had to cover his back instead of ripping them apart, and he's the only super-bruiser on the team now. We needed him to concentrate on hammering the fuckers, but he's bailing out honeybear instead!"

Ducking his head, Bruce sighed. "Sorry I wasn't there. Or, well..."

Swallowing scotch once more, Tony snorted, an ugly sound. "Oh sure. Bet you are. You're just so happy you're free of the big green monkey on your back that you're losing sight of what this team is for. What he does. You know, smashing bad guys, saving the world, all that jazz?"

Bruce jerked back. Tony wasn't usually cruel. "Tony. That's not fair."

"Yeah, you know, you're right. It's not fair that we got our asses handed to us because you're too fucked-up to reach out to him, you bastard," Tony snapped, and swigged at his drink again.

A tiny flicker of anger ignited in the pit of Bruce's stomach. He could have cried in relief at the feeling. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"He could have taken out all that noise in two minutes. One, if I dared him," Tony exclaimed, waving his glass around in annoyance. "We need him, Bruce!"

Bruce shook his head. "He's a monster, Tony. You can't know what he'd do. I tried to talk to him..."

"Yeah, Katniss told me," Tony rolled his eyes sardonically. "Mutual declarations of hatred are so touchingly heartwarming. You sure tried to reach out to the guy, didn't you? Do you even know if he's stopped roaring yet?"

Bruce realised he hadn't the faintest idea. He hadn't gone down to the adamantium cage since before the mission. "I..." he said, and stopped.

"I mean, what is he, really? Think about it," Tony said, whirling around to face Bruce. "Is he your brother? Your son? Part of you? And the first thing you do is tell him you hate him and leave him alone for hours on end... has he even eaten? Has he slept?"

"I don't know," Bruce said, feeling the muscles in his jaw clench.

"Fuck, Banner, I've got a heart made of metal and even I think that's cold."

"Tony, you know what he did to my life," Bruce said, the little flicker of anger building, familiar and welcome against the emptiness. "The first thing he did when he saw me was to beat me into a pulp! You think I should be kind? You think I want to be kind to that?"

Tony glared. "Yeah, I get that, Banner, I really do. But when you went down and saw him, did you really look?"

Bruce glared at Tony in return. "Can't you get the message? Back off on this, Tony. Now."

"Or what, you'll hulk out?" Tony grinned.

"I told you before, this is none of your business," Bruce grated, and Tony laughed out loud.

"None of my...! Okay, putting aside the whole you-are-my-science-bro and he-is-my-Avenger-teammate and you're-both-sort-of-my-friends... issues, all of which are new-ish and therefore exciting to me, do you really want to know how much adamantium costs?"

"Right," Bruce said stiffly. "Well, maybe I can cut down on your expenditure a bit. I'll be out of here tomorrow."

Tony ran his hand through his sweaty hair. "Oh for fuck's sake! I'm not saying that, I'm just trying to point out that it is our business! All of ours! Especially yours, but you just keep slipping away from it!"

Bruce gritted his teeth and began to stalk towards the door.

"Fine! Go on, run," Tony growled. "It's what you're good at, right, Banner?"

Bruce turned back towards him a little, eyes cold and hard. "Yes. Very."


Hulk is still smashing, but Hulk is bored, bored, bored.

Hulk never knew that Hulk could get bored with smashing.

Hulk's arms feel funny. Heavy. Slow. Hulk's arms have never felt like this before. They do not smash at the grey shiny walls and floor like they did before. Not as strong. Not as strong.

But... Hulk is strongest! What has happened to Hulk's arms?

Hulk roars and smashes as hard as he can. Angry, angry is good. Angry at stupid cage, at stupid Banner...

At stupid Hulk.

"Hey, buddy."

Hulk looks up, a snarl on his lips. His fists clench. He may be slow and heavy, but he can still smash puny little people like Banner. Hulk slams his fists either side of the annoying little gap where the eyes are. Brown eyes.

Hulk knows them.

Metal Man? Hulk thinks.

"Metal Man?" Hulk asks, because Hulk is not very good at keeping thoughts inside Hulk's head.

"Bingo, big guy. Came to see you." Metal Man sounds... slow. And heavy. Like Hulk's arms.

Metal Man also sounds angry. Hulk knows something about being angry.

"So, how's things?"

"Metal Man," Hulk growls. "Let Hulk out!"

Metal Man sighs, and it is even slower and heavier than before. "I'm going to, big guy. I'm going to. I just gotta convince some idiots that it'll be safe to let you out."

Hulk snorts. "Hulk is Hulk. Hulk not meant to be safe."

Metal Man laughs aloud, short and dry. It sounds like desert sands feel.


"Who what?"

"Who needs Hulk... safe?" Hulk says the last word like it is dirty. Stupid puny humans, thinking that safe is most important. Danger is where things grow. Safe is where they rot.

Metal Man blows air between his teeth. "Some people who help with the team," he said. "And the team as well, I guess. And Banner."

Hulk growls. It is a loud, deep, good growl. Hulk hates Banner.

(Hulk does NOT miss Banner. Annoying little voice so scared in his head, always bleating, always sad. Hulk doesn't doesn't doesn't...)

"Hey... whoa, hey now!" Metal Man puts his eyes right up to the little slot, his fingers curled over the shiny metal. "What brought all this on? What the fuck? Hulk, buddy, calm down a bit and tell me what the hell..."

"Hulk hates Banner!" Hulk howls, and brings his arms down to smash against the shiny floor as hard as he can. The noise, like bells and bells and bells, rings out again.

"Whoa," says Metal Man, and his eyes are wide. Hulk can see the white.

Hulk pants, and then his head slumps. Metal Man is a friend. "Banner always tries to trap Hulk," Hulk says through teeth that grit and grind. "Banner is still trapping Hulk!"

Metal Man begins, "Big Guy, it's not like that – okay, well, maybe it is like that – but we can get around that if you prove..."

Hulk interrupts. "No! Hulk always trapped, Hulk always prisoner! Banner always locks Hulk away!" Hulk brings his fists down onto the shiny once more. His arms are heavy and slow, so slow.

"Hulk!" Stop! Buddy, please, please stop, and listen, hey? Please?" says Metal Man, and he sounds both sad and angry. Hulk does not know the name for how he sounds. Hulk stops, panting.

"We gotta convince everyone that you won't hurt them if I let you out, yeah?" says Metal Man. Hulk can still see his hands over the lip of the little slot, his brown eyes sad and angry.

"Hulk want to be free! Hulk want to be left alone!"

"Yeah, I know, big guy," Metal Man says. "I know."

Hulk slumps onto the ground. So, so heavy. "Metal Man?" he says. Even Hulk's voice is slow and heavy.

"Tony. Friends get to call me Tony."

Hulk looks up. Metal Man's eyes are soft.

"Is Hulk friend of Metal Man? Can Hulk call... Tony?"

Hulk can see the smile, all white shiny teeth. Hulk used to think it was a threat, but Hulk knows better now. "Sure thing. You're my friend. You're both my friends."

Hulk frowns. "Both."

"You and Bruce."

Hulk growls again, but Metal Man is brave. "Ah-ah. Nope. I know you hate each other, but you're both my friends and you have to deal with that. No way around it."

Hulk shifts impatiently, annoyed. Hulk doesn't much like it, but if Metal Man is Hulk's friend... "Tony."

A smile again. "That's it!"

Hulk lets his fingers open for the first time in days, unclenches them from their fist. "Tony. Hulk's arms... are slow. Heavy. Why?"

Tony frowns, and Hulk doesn't like that expression. He huffs, while Tony thinks. "Welllllll..." says Tony, "Maybe you're tired?"

"Hulk not get tired!"

"Everyone gets tired, big guy. Have you slept?" Tony cocks his head.

Hulk copies him, tipping his great head. "What is slept?"

Tony seems to get even angrier at that. "I'm gonna fucking kill you, Banner," he mutters.

Hulk brightens. "Good! Hulk help!"

"No!" Tony says, alarmed. Hulk hates that smell, the stink of fear. It follows him everywhere, fills his nostrils every time he opens his eyes. "I wasn't serious, Hulk. I'm mad at Banner, but I'm not going to kill him."

Hulk slumps, disappointed.

Tony takes a deep breath, and then lets it out slowly. "Sleep is like... well, it's like what happens when you go back inside and Bruce takes over. You rest. You recharge."

Hulk tips his head. "Hulk not rest ever. Hulk always here."

"And I thought I had insomnia," Tony says, and Hulk can see his head move side to side. "Jesus."

Hulk frowns, shifts. "Hulk needs sleep?"

Tony nods his head firmly. "And food."

"Food!" Hulk has been smashing so long, Hulk forgot all about food!

"Bet you're hungry," Tony says.

"Hulk VERY hungry!"

"See, everyone, even Hulks, need food," Tony says, and he is pressing things on a little thing that glows in his hand. "How does pizza sound?"

Hulk wrinkles his nose, bares his teeth. He's not sure what that means.

"Well, we'll find out. JARVIS, order fifteen... no, make that twenty pizzas. Large. Whatever toppings, surprise us, mix it up." Tony smiles grimly and puts the glowy thing away. "And package up our conversation when we're done here and send it to Banner, would you? He needs to see what he's doing to our green pal here."

Hulk growls low, warningly, drowning out the ghost-voice's answer. Hulk hates Banner.

"Hey, hey now!" Tony lifts his hands, empty again, fingers spread. "It's okay, big guy! He's not coming down here right now. But you're going to have to learn to get that reaction under control, or they'll never let you out."

"Smash them!"

"See, that's the kind of reaction I'm talking about," Tony sighs.

"Hulk want OUT!"

"Yeah, we've all gathered that," Tony says, and pinches his nose. "Look, Hulk. I know it doesn't make much sense to you... but people get scared. What does Hulk do when he gets scared?"


Tony winces. "Apart from smash?"

A memory, distant and faded, struggles into Hulk's tired mind. A cave, and lightning, and a pale face in the darkness. "H... hide," Hulk says slowly. "Hulk run. Hulk hide, to be left alone."

"That's right," Tony said. "And people get scared of you. Because of the smashing. Some people run and hide, sure, like you and Brucey. But not everyone runs and hides. So those people trap you where you can't touch them. Where you can't hurt them."

Tony's voice is flat, pained.

It takes a moment to sink in, and then Hulk slams his fists against the floor. "Not fair!"

"Shit, you really are a three-year-old, aren't you," Tony murmurs. "I know. The world isn't very fair, buddy, but we're working on fixing that."

Hulk stops, and thinks. Betty wasn't scared. Tony isn't scared. Bruce...

"Banner scared," Hulk rumbles, and meets Tony's eyes. "Banner always scared."

"Yep," Tony says, and folds his arms. His face is annoyed. "He's a fucking coward, is what he is."

Hulk feels strange then, like he wants to snarl at Tony. But Tony is Hulk's friend! And Banner... no. Hulk does not defend Banner any more.

"Well, to be fair to the guy," Tony says, sighing, his hand running through his hair, "you did smash him pretty good when you two did your whole amoeba-trick."

Hulk ignores the shiny words, and zeroes in on the important one. "Hulk smashed Banner," he says, and thinks, and thinks, and thinks. It is hard to think without Banner in his head. Empty.

"Yeah," Tony says.

"Banner... scared of Hulk."

"Nail on the head, big guy."

"Hulk... always smash Banner," Hulk says slowly, and then sits back on his haunches again, his hands heavy and tired in his lap. "Hulk... smash everything that was Banner's."

Tony is silent. Hulk takes that as agreement. He thinks, and thinks, and thinks. About running, and about traps. About being scared.

"Banner told truth," Hulk says finally, and it is a heavy, strange feeling. His hands are dead weights, his legs aching. His shoulders slump. He is so empty.

"Hulk," Tony says, and then stops. Like he can't think of the thing to say to Hulk.

"Hulk runs too," Hulk says, and rumbles unhappily. "Hulk and Banner run away. Banner scared, runs away. Hides. Banner hides Hulk away."

This is why. This is why Banner keeps Hulk locked inside his head, inside the stupid metal room. This is why Banner runs. Hulk understands. Because Hulk runs too. Hulk hides too. Hulk knows about scared.

"Hulk trapped because Hulk smash," Hulk says eventually.

Why does Banner not think properly? He thinks in shiny words, shiny and fast like birds, and Hulk does not understand. Tony makes Hulk understand. Banner thinks too fast!

(Hulk does NOT miss Banner.)

Tony is silent again. Then he clears his throat.

"Not always," Tony says, and smiles, teeth white in the darkness. "You caught me. You saved me."

True. Hulk saved Metal Man. Caught him falling from the dark hole in the sky.

"If you don't smash, if you can prove that you won't... we can get you out of there."

Hulk's head jerks up. "Hulk want out!"

"We gotta make sure you don't get those other people scared, Hulk," Tony says, very serious. His eyes are dark and looking right into Hulk's. "They'll want to trap you all over again. You have to show people that you can do it."

"Not smash."


"Hulk not scare."

"Now you got it."

Hulk scowls. He doesn't like this. "But Hulk always angry."

"And you say you're not the same person," Tony says, rolling his eyes. "Look, fine, be angry. Just don't smash, or scare. Yeah?"

Hulk shifts again, and huffs through his nose.

"Tell you what, if you get really steamed, tell me," Tony says. "I can take you to a place where you can smash and not scare people."

"But Hulk always hunted! People always try hurt Hulk!"

"No," Tony says, and his voice is flat and dark again. "Not this time. I got your back, buddy. Anyone tries to hurt you has to get through me."

Hulk looks dubiously down at him. "Tony not very big."

"Man, are you good for the ego," Tony says, grinning. "Remember, the suit? Metal Man? Zapping the bug-men? Oh, I got it where it counts, baby."

"Hulk not baby!"

"No, it's a... never mind."

Hulk clenches his fists. "Hulk show people that Hulk can NOT smash. How?"

"Unless it's a bad guy," Tony corrects, and then smiles at Hulk's look of irritation and confusion. "Star Man? Y'know, Cap? He'll tell us."

Hulk grunts. Star Man is bossy. "Bad men. But they? Others?"

"Just be calm when people come to talk to you, yeah? I know that's not really in your whole job description as a giant green rage monster, but remember that everyone is a lot smaller and a lot squishier and a lot more scared of you than they want to let on. I'll ask some people to come visit you, and if you can talk to them like you're talking to me, they'll agree to let you out," says Tony, and then adds in a mutter, "if they don't want their eyepatch set on fire."

Hulk thinks and thinks. It is so hard to think without Banner piping in the back of his mind. But Hulk thinks. "Hulk try."

"That's all I ask, pal." Tony looks down at the little glowy thing again. "Now, I'll be back with your pizza soon, but first I gotta see some people. There's a certain fluffy scientist who needs..."


Bruce sighed and dropped his bag on his bed. "A what?"

"An intervention," said Clint cheerfully. "Go team."

Bruce narrowed his eyes. "Is that popcorn?"

Clint shrugged and ate another piece.

"You are not leaving until this is sorted," said Steve sternly.

"You are not leaving, period," said Natasha, and crossed her arms. Bruce weighed the likelihood of getting past her, and then considered climbing Everest instead.

"And this necessitated you all barging into my bedroom and delivering ultimatums?" he said bitingly, and sat down. His body twinged and ached, and oh, he never thought he'd miss the quick healing that the gamma had given him.

"Well, yeah," Clint said. "Haven't you figured out the whole 'intervention' thing yet?"

Bruce just looked at him.

Clint huffed. "Well. We clearly need to revise your televisual habits."

"Bruce, you are not yourself," Thor said, his voice deep and concerned. "We have all perceived this. You no longer have the rage that brings with it your green warrior-self, but neither do you react with joy nor fear nor any other true feeling. You are drifting, my friend."

Bruce scowled at the god. "Well, I've recently been through a bit of a life change..."

"Bruce," Tony said from behind Clint, his eyes like a thundercloud. "Stop it. Stop talking bullshit. There's something you need to see."

Bruce's hands clenched, and he consciously smoothed them back out, rubbing his good one against his thigh. "Yeah, I'm sort of wary of anything you've got to say at this point, Stark," he snarled.

"Good," Natasha said clinically. "That was a true emotion. Not very intense, but there."

Bruce's eyes flickered to her, and then snapped back to Tony, glowering. "You're getting Natasha to parse my reactions?"

"Shit, you think I needed to ask?" Tony said. "JARVIS, play it."

The television (huge and glossy and ludicrous) flickered into life. Bruce rolled his eyes as the adamantium cage snapped onto the screen. "Oh, please, this again? Did you teach him a trick?"

"In a manner of speaking," said Tony grimly.

Bruce snorted and turned to the screen. "There is nothing, nothing he could say that will convince me."

Tony laughed. "Oh, Banner. They told me you were smart."

The beast's voice, even though it was dulled by the smaller speakers, still chilled Bruce right to the bone. He tried to cling to the embers of anger and scepticism as the conversation played out, but he could feel them sliding away. Not because of the Hulk's words, no. Because Bruce was now empty, a husk.

And then the Hulk said Banner told truth.

"He understands," Bruce said, and his own voice was unfocused and distant.

"Yeah," Tony said, and sat down beside him. "He's full of pizza right now, and fast asleep. But we're going to try. He's going to try. The giant with the three-year-old mentality can get this, Bruce. How come you can't?"

"Give me some of that," Bruce said absently to Clint, and the popcorn tub was held out. He shovelled a handful into his mouth and chewed. At least that way he didn't have to talk.

"Okay, I acted badly. I'm sorry, all right? I was in a shitty mood, Doom trashed my suit, and then you were there with that blank face you've got now and the dull..." Tony waved his hands over his eyes. "It's like no-one's home."

Bruce's mouth was abruptly too dry to swallow the popcorn properly.

"It's not right," Tony said, frustration leaking out of him. "You can't even think properly. You used to run rings around me in half the stuff we do, and suddenly I'm ahead of you in synthesizing applications for the new polymer. Hell, I mapped the radiation signature of that Kree shit - that's your favourite fucking field! We got slammed by Doom and you couldn't even muster the energy to grab the first-aid kit like you normally do. Whatever's going on in there isn't Bruce Banner. I don't know what it is, but it isn't you."

Bruce sat very still, and then he nodded his head. "I know."

"Fellas," Steve said, and gave them his best fond-but-long-suffering-leader look. "Okay. We got a situation."

"This is why they pay him the big bucks," Clint said.

"Is this funny to you?" Bruce demanded. Clint just smirked a bit.

"Doc, when you've been in some of the situations I have, this is better than Frasier."

"How old are you?" asked Tony. "At least say Arrested Development, come on."

"Oh for the love of Pete," Steve muttered. "Look. Fighting between us isn't helping. Doctor Banner, we don't want you to leave."

"Really," said Bruce.

"Yes, so stop with the flouncing away," Tony said. "It's like living with an angry genius sorority princess."

Bruce ignored that. "What about him?" he asked, nodding to where Hulk crouched on the screen, huge and tired.

"We don't want Hulk to leave either," Steve said. "As far as we're concerned, you're both Avengers. You're not going, and neither is he."

Bruce glanced at Tony, and then shrugged. "He wants to kill me."

"He doesn't," Tony corrected. "He really doesn't. He's angry, yeah, cos' that's sort of his thing, but he's also confused and hurt. You gotta start looking at this from his perspective. C'mon Banner, get that big brain into gear already..."

"Stark, stop pushing so hard," Steve said, and regretted it immediately when Tony smirked knowingly. "I mean, stop forcing the issue. Give Doctor Banner some space. This has to be hard for him." And then he realised what he'd just said and groaned.

Tony looked like it was Christmas, New Years and his birthday all at once. His face was gleeful as he opened his mouth.

"Don't," Natasha said. Tony deflated.

"Damn, I wanted to see him expire of an innuendo overdose," Clint said.

Steve rubbed at his eyes. "Give me strength," he mumbled.

"Someone did," Thor pointed out. "Was it not your Midgard science?"

"This is going nowhere," Bruce said. It was funny, he knew. But he didn't feel it. He should be laughing. He usually did. He took some more popcorn and tried not to think.

"I meant this can't be easy for Doctor Banner," Steve grated. "Stark, be serious, and stop it."

Tony waved a hand. "Yeah, sure, when you remove the stick up your ass, we'll talk about that."

"Bruce," Natasha said.

Bruce looked up warily, his mouth full.

"I have been where you are now, feeling nothing," she said, and her eyes were cold. "It is not a good place to remain. You need him, no matter what you say. You can't stay like this."

He swallowed. "But I'm free," he said plaintively.

She regarded him for a moment, and then shook her head. "No you're not. You're just building a cage you can't see."

Thor's hand landed on Bruce's good shoulder. "Bruce, you need to reach to your warrior-self," he said.

He shrugged it off. "I tried. You all saw how well that went."

"Not the best first step, no," Clint said.

"First meetings aren't everything, Doc," said Natasha. "You and I both know that."

Bruce glanced up at her, and then looked down at his hands. They were twisting around each other as they normally did when he was under stress, patting the back of the other; soft, self-soothing touches learned from a nervous childhood. But he didn't really feel stressed. He didn't know what he was feeling. There was something under the numbness, but he couldn't reach for it. He tried again.

"Look, you just watched what we did, didn't you?" Tony said, exasperated. "You're his only frame of reference – for everything, ever! He didn't even know about sleeping, for fuck's sake..."

"Tony," Steve said warningly. Tony blinked at the use of his first name, and then waved a hand in defeat.

"Fine," he said. "Just, Bruce, try again. Hulk's getting on this page a lot faster than you are."

"Hulk doesn't have to deal with his own messes," Bruce snapped.

"Not this time," Tony retorted. "This time, he's facing it. Not graciously, but he is. It's your turn. You need to face what you do to him."

"What?" Bruce exploded.

Tony held up his hands. "You had – have – reasons, we all know that! He hurts things, people. He's dangerous. We KNOW, Bruce! But see - he didn't understand. He's getting it now, but he didn't. You do."

"He's like a big angry kid," said Clint.

"Which would make you the adult in this situation," said Natasha, and wow, now Bruce felt like a bully.

But the victim in these circumstances was the HULK, for god's sake! This was ludicrous! Couldn't they all see this?

"He kills people," Bruce said.

"So do I," said Natasha calmly.

"Guilty," Clint said, rather breezily, but there was a lingering echo of guilt in his blue-grey eyes.

"I've probably killed more people than any of you," Steve said, and his back was stiff. "It was a war, not a tea party."

"Merchant of Death," Tony said, and gave a mocking little bow.

Thor smiled. "Let us simply say that the dökkálfar do not bless my name, and your people never remembered me to be a kindly god."

Bruce threw up his hands. "So that makes it better, what he does?"

"No, of course n-" Steve started.

"You mean protect himself?" Tony challenged. "Run? Hide?"

"I was there, Bruce," Natasha said, her voice still calmly composed. "At Culver. Fury had me undercover. I saw what happened. He came out after they trapped you, and then they threw weapon after weapon at him. He only attacked the weapons and soldiers, not the buildings or the bystanders. He still protected Doctor Ross."

"I..." Bruce said helplessly. "But... all I wanted...I'm... he's... I'm a physicist."

"An angry one," supplied Clint. Natasha elbowed him.

"Okay, so I'm not a picture of emotional health right now," Bruce said, and then lifted his sling. "Or of physical... but he's been the source of everything. He ruined everything."

There was a short silence, and then Natasha said, "Bruce. We've all read each other's files and dossiers. We all know it didn't start with him."

"Hulk always there," Tony quoted. "Hulk always exists."

"I don't want it," Bruce said, and his shoulders bunched. "I never wanted it. I was making a bomb..."

"Congratulations, it's a boy," Clint said dryly.

"If you don't hate each other so much, there might be some peace in all this," Steve suggested as gently as he could.

"Mayhap we can build a bridge between you," Thor said.

"It's all about bridges with you, isn't it," Clint said to him.

Bruce glanced at his bag, and then at his sling. Tony nudged his knee with his own. "Come on, Banner. The big guy thinks you're a fraidy-cat. Prove him wrong."

"You think I'm a coward," Bruce returned, and Tony winced.

"Only because you were running away from him – from yourself," he corrected.

"He isn't me," Bruce said wearily.

"He is," Natasha said, and gave him a half-smile. "You're him. He's another you. And you're both incomplete this way. You're both fading."

Bruce scowled. "You're wrong."

Her smile grew a little broader.

"Give him time," said Thor, and he gave Bruce a sad, tight smile. "It is the thing any hurt, angry child needs - time and patience."

"He'll prove to you that he's about more than anger," said Steve, "and you'll prove to him that you're about more than fear."

More than fear. Bruce sighed. "I'm not so sure about that."

"Oh god, shut him up, please," Tony groaned.

"Seriously? Mr IQ-Off-The-Charts is saying this?" Clint said incredulously.

"He does not know what he is saying," said Thor, giving the rest of them a pleading sort of look. "That is all."

"Worse than I thought," Natasha muttered.

"We are not going into your self-esteem issues right now," said Steve in a very controlled tone. "But what I will say is that there are six heroes in this room, and not one of them is a coward."

Tony's head jerked up, and then he grinned. "Nice, Cap. Thanks for the compliment."

"You all don't get it," Bruce began, but Tony cut him off.

"Bruce. Do you trust us?"

He paused, turning it over. Underneath the numbness, a certain panic was settling in.


"I'm going to ignore that frankly hurtful pause and pretend the answer is a resounding yes," Clint announced, and then tossed some popcorn into his mouth. Naturally, his aim was immaculate.

"This will help you," Natasha told him. "It will not be easy, but it will help. But you can't pretend. You can't hide from this. Believe me, I know."

"What will help?" Bruce looked up at their faces. All of them looked uncomfortable, but determined.

"You've got to face up to him," said Steve.

"He is not so bad," Thor shrugged. "He is a challenging opponent."

"Not so bad? What? What are you all talking about?" Bruce said, and treasured the flicker of exasperation.

Tony grinned. "You and me, Bruceykins? We're going to train the Hulk."

Chapter Text


Nick Fury was a pretty intimidating guy, all told.

"Stark, have you lost your goddamned mind?" he barked. Tony could almost feel the waves of irritation pouring out of the vidscreen.

"No, wait up Long John, hear me out here," Tony said in his most persuasive voice, the one he'd always used to wheedle Pepper into doing his paperwork for him – once upon a time. And that was a bad thought to be having at this point and he should get back to the task at hand. Right. Hulk. Yeah.

"The Hulk is a danger to each and every person in this city," Fury continued, his good eye steely. "That cell's the only thing protecting New York City, eight million people, and you want to let him out?"

"He'll get out eventually, if he gets mad enough," Tony shrugged.

"Stark, that thing is pure adamantium, the strongest alloy on earth," said Hill. She was peering over Fury's shoulder, her face unimpressed.

"And 'the madder he gets', yadda yadda boom smash," Tony replied. "Look, we're gonna do this anyway. Just giving you the heads-up because I am a sharing and altruistic soul and a team player."

"Stark," Fury said repressively.

Tony heaved a sigh and turned back to the Director on the vidscreen. "Look, okay. He's proven that he can learn," he said patiently. "You watched the footage, right? He showed actual empathy. That's totally new. He put himself in Br-Doctor Banner's shoes - and for once it wasn't just a literal bodyswap. He showed that he can understand how another person... uh, being... feels."

"He's been sharing headspace with Banner for six years," said Hill in an inflexible voice. "Banner's a special case. That's not proof that he'll understand how anyone else feels."

Tony scowled and ran a hand through his hair, thinking furiously. "Well, how about Culver? He protected Doctor Ross. Hell, he saved me."

"Right after knocking Thor through a wall," said Fury evenly.

Tony's grimace was fleeting. He schooled his face as hurriedly as possible. "Yeah, but Thor put a hammer-dent on Big Green's chin. He's like a little kid. Can't you remember what it was like to be a kid? I know I would have tried to get even."

"Stark, I shudder to think what you were like as a kid," Fury drawled.

He ignored that. "Look, kids like things to be fair, yeah? They're totally obsessed with 'fair' and 'not fair'. Hulk even used those exact words. You're not giving him a chance, and he helped save the goddamned world. Come on over and talk to him before you decide to throw away the key."

"Would the Hulk even consent to talking to SHIELD agents?" Hill said. "He's shown that we're not exactly his favourite people."

"Actually, it's more individuals he's not a fan of," Tony mused. "I don't think he really cares who you work for or what you do – you could be a crossdressing unicyclist scientologist mass-murderer and he wouldn't give a giant green rat's ass, as long as you were nice to him. And to Bruce," he added.

"Right," Fury said. He still seemed sceptical.

"Sir, the Council will-" Hill began.

Fury's back stiffened. "Oh, I know what those jackasses will say. In fact, their attitude sorta encourages me to give this maniac what he wants."

Tony gave Fury his most winning smile. "Pretty please? I'll build you a new helicarrier."

"We haven't finished repairing the old one yet," said Hill, and gave Fury a sidelong glance. "Because of all the damage done by, oh wait, the Hulk."

"I'll fix it, how much do you need," Tony said as fast as he could. Fury rolled his eye.

"Stark, it ain't just the Hulk damage. Hill, stand down."

Hill sat back a little, scowling. "Yes Sir."

Fury crossed his arms. "How is Doctor Banner going to be involved in this little school project?"

"He'll be training him, of course," Tony waved a hand dismissively.

"And has he been informed?"

Placing a hand over his arc reactor, Tony affected a wounded expression. "Oh, Nicky, now you're getting personal. Of course he has."

"And how does Doctor Banner feel about that?" Fury was far too perceptive , Tony decided. Spies were creepy.

"How should I know, I'm not his therapist," Tony said, as breezily as possible. "There was a bit of a tiff earlier, but it's all sorted. He's on board."

Fury glared at him. "A tiff."

"It's sorted," Tony insisted.

Hill rubbed at her eyes. "Sir."

"I said, leave it, Agent Hill," Fury said and didn't take his eye away from Tony. That was the problem with one eye, Tony thought. It had all the penetrative effect of two compressed into just the one. That was why it felt like a laser.

"There is no way in hell I will ratify this if the only person who has proven able to control the Hulk is not on board," Fury continued.

"But he is," Tony said. "So... it's good, yeah?"

Fury paused.

"He is," Tony insisted.

"All right, Stark, you got a week. Get the Hulk to understand how to act around other people, and then we'll come over and evaluate the situation."

Tony wrinkled his nose. "How are we supposed to train him if we don't let him out of that testing cell?"

"You're so resourceful, you figure it out," Fury said, and the connection flickered to black.

"I'm not so sure about this, Stark," Steve said as Tony gave him a little shove towards the cell.

"Come on, Cap, for me? For the team? For Bruce? For strictly adhering to prisoner's rights under the Geneva Conventions?"

Yeah, he thought that might do the trick. Steve straightened his shoulders and reset his jaw, and then peered into the cell. "Hulk?"

There was a grunt, and then a massive green fist slammed against the peephole. The fingers covered it completely, knuckles lined and whorled.

"Well," Tony said after a moment, "that went well."

"Yeah, sure," Clint said. "Hang on, I gotta get my bow."

"No weapons," Tony said. "He'll flatten you if you're armed."

Clint looked up. "So let me get this straight. You want me to go down to the Hulk cage."


"Try to talk to the Hulk again."


"Maybe go inside."

"Well, if he looks okay with that. He likes you."

"Go inside the Hulk cage... unarmed."

"You know, when you put it that way..."

"See ya, Stark."

"Shit. Legolas, wait...!"

"Keep walking," said Natasha.

He did.

"Of course!" Thor slapped him on the back. "Let me go and get Mjolnir..."

Tony pulled a face. "This is going to be Clint all over again, isn't it?"

Bruce gingerly stepped up to the peephole, and inside, Hulk went utterly wild. He roared and smashed against the walls, making the very air shudder around them. The noise was indescribable.

Bruce's mouth quirked. "Yeah, no," he said, and turned away. "This isn't going to work, Tony."

"Come on, Bruce!" There had been a spark of life in Bruce's dark brown eyes, and Tony knew it, he just knew it.

"He'll never listen," Bruce said, and the elevator opened. "All he does is smash."

"You didn't even try!" Tony yelled after him. Bruce didn't stop. The doors closed behind him.

Well. That just fucking sucked. Tony stomped back to his workshop and downed two beers in rapid succession.


Bruce drifted into his lab and sat behind the computer, his mind a numb fog. He stared at the blank screen for a moment or two, before turning it on and sighing. He scratched under the sling as he waited for it to boot up. His arm and collarbone were healing, but the cast made everything itchy.

No doubt Natasha or Clint was surreptitiously watching him from somewhere, just in case he tried to leave again. As though anything in the building could escape JARVIS' attention.

He flicked through the files absently, and corrected an equation here and there. Tony was right, though; his heart wasn't in it. Even the murky, intricate world of science, where he had always found his delight in minutiae and fine details, couldn't hold his attention. His one haven, gone. He closed the files and sighed again.

So he was drifting. So what? It was still preferable to...

But he wasn't himself. He really wasn't.

On a whim he pulled up the feed to the adamantium cell, and watched the Hulk sleep for a moment. The great creature was sprawled out on his belly, his huge arms and legs akimbo. His face, so like Bruce's own, was scrunched up in anger or fear even as he slept.

He hadn't known about sleep.

For the first time in years, Bruce wondered about the motives behind the rage. He thought about why the Hulk had smashed him when he had realised that they had been separated. Perhaps Hulk had simply taken the opportunity for revenge after so many instances of being locked away in their head? But then, Hulk had also seemed ready to pound Clint into mush simply for jarring Bruce's injured shoulder.

He'd also seemed genuinely upset at being left alone.

He studied the Hulk for a few seconds longer. The green face twitched, frowning, before smoothing out a little. He looked... less angry. More sad. The lines in that huge face were deep and carved, just like Bruce's, and they pulled his mouth down into a configuration that Bruce could have drawn from memory. He saw it almost every day in his own mirror. The Hulk nearly looked... human.

Bruce rubbed his face roughly, and then switched off the feed.


"Okay, Big Fella."

Hulk blinks, and suddenly the dark place full of shapes and colours is gone. He is back in the shiny metal room.

"Here's the story," Tony is saying, and Hulk grunts a bit as he pushes himself up. He feels strange.

"Where shapes and colours go?" he mumbled.

"Oh, you're not quite awake yet, huh? I know how that goes, I'm not human until I've mainlined at least three coffees," Tony laughs, and Hulk scowls at him as he rubs at his face and hair. Hulk's face feels funny. His palms rasp against his skin. "Don't think it's such a spectacular idea to get you a coffee..."

"Hnnnh," Hulk humphs, and rolls to his feet. He plods to the door with its tiny little slot and peers through. Metal Man is smiling.

"I talked to those people I mentioned. The ones we need to convince to let you out."

Hulk is suddenly very aware. He doesn't feel funny anymore. Hulk looks at Tony and presses his hands either side of the door.

"We've got a week to show that you can do it," Tony says.

"Week?" Hulk's eyebrows lower.

"Seven days," Tony says and his smile gets a little sadder. "That's seven days, buddy."

Hulk huffs and gives Tony a confused look.

"It's... okay, wow." Tony rocks back on his heels. His face is surprised. "You know about the weirdest things sometimes, but you can't count? Well. Um, hold up your hands?"

Hulk holds up his hands.

"Damn, you know what they say about a guy with big hands. Now, try making this sign? Peace!" Tony holds up one of his own hands and folds down some of his fingers. Little, puny fingers, pink and smashable. Hulk must not smash. "That, plus the fingers of the other hand? That's seven."

"Seven," Hulk echoes, and folds down the fingers on both hands.

"That's right – ah, but only one hand does that. Look, watch me." Tony holds up both hands. One is different, making the sign, and the other is stretched out. So little. So puny. "That's the number of days."

Hulk studies Tony's hands for a moment, and then arranges his own hands. His are better. Bigger.

"That's it, now you got it."

Hulk looks at his hands some more, and then growls. "Too many!"

"I know," Tony sighs. "I want to teach you out here, but they won't have it. But hey, the time'll fly by, Big Guy. You're going to be learning so much, you won't have a moment to think about all that."

Hulk scowls some more. As if Hulk ever stops thinking about being free.

"Besides, what they don't know won't hurt 'em, right?" Tony winks. "We'll get you out on the sly, provided you don't smash anything. We'll set some rules down, all of us together. You, me and the team."

"Rules," Hulk sneers.

"Gotta be rules, pal. Otherwise there's just, well, chaos." Tony makes a face. "I'm not the biggest fan either, but I can at least get behind rules like 'Do not attempt to eat this building,' or 'World Domination is strictly prohibited.' We'll make the rules together. You get a say in them. It wouldn't be fair otherwise."

Hulk grunts. "Hulk, Tony and team. Metal Man, Star Man, Shooty Bird, Shouty Longhair, Red-Black Woman, Hulk."

"That's right."

Hulk gets a say. Team gets a say. That is fair.

"And, uh..." Tony says, and he sounds a little bit like fear. "Well. Banner's going to help."

Hulk's eyes widen, and then he snarls. It is good. Loud. "Hulk hates Banner!"

"Message received loud and clear," Tony says and rubs at his ears. "But he's part of the team as well, you know, and you two need to learn to get along. You're both... weird without the other. You've got totally no direction, and Banner's a ghost."

"Banner... ghost? Banner dead?" Hulk doesn't know what to call the sensation in his chest. It hurts. He hates it. He beats at his chest and roars, but it doesn't stop.

"No! He's okay! He's okay!" Tony shouts, shrill. The smell of fear is back in the air.

Hulk breaks off, panting. He glowers at Tony. Stupid puny Tony, making Hulk's chest hurt.

Tony talks very fast. "He's fine, I absolutely promise, Big Guy. He's totally fine, he's upstairs, he's just... weird. He's drifting. It's like he got all the thoughts and you got all the emotions."

Hulk narrows his eyes at Tony. Hasn't forgiven him yet.

"So, we're going to show you how to get by in the world without scaring everyone, and without getting scared," Tony says, and he sounds like he is pleading. "Bruce is going to help, because no matter how much you two hate each other, you belong together."

Hulk grunts, and then offers, "Hulk not finished."

"Not finished what, the Kong impression? Roari-oh, you mean..." Tony's eyes get bigger and he looks shocked. "You're not finished. You're unfinished. You're incomplete. Oh. Wow."

Hulk nods.

"Shit. You are smart. Hope Bruce likes the taste of crow; he is going to have to eat humble pie for years."


"You're hungry?" Tony smiles, and he looks very excited. Hulk nods again. "I'll get you some food. And jeez, you might have to stay in there for a bit, but let's liven it up a bit for you at least. Whaddaya like, smash-wise? Bricks, rocks, metal?"

"Hulk smash!"

"Yep, we're all big fans. But do you have a preference in smashing materials?"

Hulk is confused again. "Hulk smash," he shrugs.

"No preference, just smash," Tony grins. "Gotcha."

Hulk rumbles, not pleased, but he accepts it. He must stay. He must not smash the people. He must not smash the team. He will get things to smash, and food. Banner will come, with Tony and team. They will teach him. He will make rules. That is fair.

"When?" he asks abruptly.

"When do you get to smash?" Tony raises his eyebrows.

"No." Tony is being stupid. "When Banner and Tony come to Hulk? Make," he sneers the next word, "rules."

"Ah," Tony says, and then he sighs. "Gotta get an answer from Brucey-babes myself on that one."

Hulk said to Banner that Banner leaves Hulk alone for always. For always.

Hulk hates Banner. Banner came, Hulk scared him away.

Banner will leave Hulk alone for always.

(No! Hulk does NOT miss Banner! )

"Soon," Hulk says, and then smashes once or twice on the shiny floor. He is confused. He hates it. Hulk is angry! Banner makes Hulk confused! "Now!"

Tony needs to explain again. It is hard to think without Banner in their head. Banner thinks too fast, but Banner knows. Banner always knows.

"I'll let him know," Tony says, and the fear-stink is back and Hulk hates, hates, hates. "Hulk... you can't smash every time you don't get it. No-one can do that, not even you. It scares people."

Hulk sorry. "Hulk scare Tony?"

"I just want to see you outta there, Hulk. And you can't if you don't quit with the smashing everything."

"But Hulk love smash."

"Sorry, pal."

Hulk thinks again. So hard. "Hulk not scare. Not smash. Hulk not get locked up."

"Maybe that can be Rule One?"

Hulk lets out a great breath and it whooshes around the shiny room. "Hulk hates rules."

"Aw, knock it off with that face! I'm gonna start calling you the Incredible Sulk."

Hulk looks up. "No smash?"

"Not unless Star Man says, or it's something you're allowed to smash," Tony corrects, and it isn't fear-stink at all. It's worry.

Tony should not worry.

Hulk hunkers down and carefully places his hands in his lap. "Hulk no smash. Rule One."

"You're the best, Hulkster," Tony says, and smiles.

Hulk hesitates, and then he smiles back.


It took two straight hours of wheedling, whining and downright pestering until Bruce finally agreed to come back down to the testing cell.

"For the record," Bruce said, "I think this is a bad idea."

"It's a fantastic idea; it was one of mine," Tony said, and tugged him onwards by his good arm. "C'mon, blankface, you've gotta reconnect. It's like talking to fog."


"Just talk to him. He wants you to."

"Yes, I saw how much he wanted to talk last time."

Tony airily ignored that. "Once you're on his wavelength, we can get the others involved down here."

"I'm sure Natasha's simply falling over herself to renew their acquaintance," said Bruce.

"She's fine, it's all fine. She's more about pushing you out of this weird-ass drifting you're doing."

"Why are you pushing this so hard?"

Tony's mouth was set in a thin, hard line. "Because no-one should be locked up when they don't deserve it."

Bruce sighed. "That's not the whole reason, is it?"

That was also ignored with practiced nonchalance. "He wants you to come see him this time," Tony insisted as he palmed on the lights in the outside room. The huge metal sides of the testing cell rose before them. "He asked for you. He's bored, and lonely. I gave him a few smash-toys, but he tore through them in minutes. He likes music, did you know?"

Bruce gave him a confused look. He had absolutely no memories of himself-as-Hulk and music. "No?"

"Simple stuff, with a good heavy rhythm. I'm thinking of getting him into Taiko drumming."

"That's a spectacularly bad idea."

"You are always so negative." Tony complained, and turned to the cell. "Hey, Big Guy? Got you a visitor."

Bruce held his breath.

There was no answer from the adamantium room, and Tony frowned. "Big Guy?"

There was a snuffle, and Bruce's shoulder twinged. He swallowed. "Tony, I don't..."

Brown eyes regarded him sharply. "Not so numb now, I see."

"I'm going back," Bruce hissed.

"Nope," Tony said. "No way, you agreed. Keep your word, Brucey, that's what a man is worth, etcetera, etcetera. He's probably asleep. I'm gonna go look."

As Tony made his way towards the cell, Bruce pressed his good hand against the side of his thigh. His palms were sweating. He was trembling slightly, and his heart was in his throat. No, not so numb anymore.

Three times now.

Proximity, perhaps?

But that hypothesis suggested that close contact with Hulk was necessary in order for Bruce to function emotionally. That wasn't a solution Bruce found particularly appealing.

It also suggested that... no. No. The whole notion made him feel ill. Still, it was at least feeling something.

"Yeah, he's asleep again," Tony whispered. "Come on, come and look."

Bruce shook his head. "I'm good here."

"Banner, get your pretty little ass over here before I kick it," Tony snapped sotto-voce. "I think something's wrong with him."

"Nice to see that reality isn't totally lost on you," Bruce said. "My practicality's having some effect."

"Pessimism," Tony muttered. "It's called pessimism, you are a pessimist, get over here now."

The snuffle had turned into a subterranean rumble, and Bruce's heart was now galloping. Well over 200 beats per minute, definitely. "No."

Tony shot him a filthy look, and then turned back to the viewing slit. "Hulk? Hulk, it's Tony. It's okay, buddy..."

Bruce frowned. "But he's asleep, you said."

"For fuck's sake, Banner, this separation has turned you into a... a normal person," Tony said in disgust. "What happens when we sleep? What might cause someone to moan and toss in their sleep?"

For a moment Bruce stood there. And then he was stumbling towards the cell, his pulse thudding in his ears and stomach like a Taiko drum. "Oh, god..." he gasped. "Is he..."

"Fuck, we need to stop this," Tony said, and stepped aside so that Bruce could see.

In the shadowed cell, there was rubble and twisted metal struts all around a furled, hunched figure that had to be, must be the Hulk. The rumble was now a snarl, and Hulk's face was contorted in hate and fear. The huge muscles of his shoulders were bunching, and worst of all, the fingers of his hands were leaving giant dents in the adamantium floor.

"He's worked up enough to rip that floor up," Tony muttered. "We've gotta wake him up, gotta stop this..."

"No," Bruce said, and couldn't believe he was about to say this. "Get me in there."

Tony stopped and his mouth dropped open.

"I know what to do," Bruce said, and fear and pity and rage and sorrow flickered, no, blazed through him, and he'd missed having emotions, he really had. This was real, this was how it felt to be alive. "He sometimes pushes at my control during my nightmares. I know what to do."

There must have been something new in his face, because Tony turned back to the door, uncovered a panel and punched in a long code. Bruce's eyes followed it, memorised it, and there were his skills, thoughts bright and sparkling; there was his intelligence working once again.

But only with the Hulk. Only when they were close.

The adamantium door, at least a foot thick, swung open with a ponderous creak. "Close it behind me," Bruce muttered.

"You know, you're sort of leaping over a few million behavioural development steps here," Tony said in a strangled voice.

"I don't think the Hulk comes with a manual," Bruce replied.

"You'd better hope he does, otherwise you're fucked, Big B," Tony said, and swung the door shut behind him. "I'm calling Thor. JARVIS, get him down here, god, five minutes ago."

"Yes, Sir. Mister Odinson has replied that he will be there in two minutes."

"He hates Thor, he'll see him as a threat. Don't you dare send him in without..."

"You got the stage, Bruce. Still, Thor's the only one who can take the green guy if it gets out of hand. I'm not letting you get smashed again. It's a contingency, I'm good at contingencies. But you might want to hurry," Tony added as Hulk's fingers wrinkled the adamantium even further, like a normal man crumpling a bedsheet.

Bruce turned back to where his worst mistake lay, tossing and snarling and whimpering in what appeared to be a nightmare. "Oh god," he whispered. The door closed shut behind him with a solid, final noise. Frankenstein was locked in the cell with the monster.

"Bruce, move!"

And of course Hulk was his worst, greatest mistake. Hulk had been the accident that tore apart his life. But that wasn't Hulk's fault. He hadn't asked to be born.

If he were to be believed, he'd been part of Bruce forever. All the accident had done was grant him face and form. Bruce took a few hesitant, shaky steps forward and knelt down as close to the giant green body as he dared.

God, he's huge.

No wonder people were terrified of Bruce.

He could recognise the signs of the nightmare worsening, and worse still, could even guess which one it was. Blonsky, Harlem, Betty. Only in Bruce's dreams he was too late to thunderclap the fire from the helicopter. He was too late to stop the Abomination from levelling the city. The scaled foot would crush his head, and Bruce would watch green slime, like virulent thick blood, pouring out of him in a gushing fountain.

Then Hulk's snarls escalated, and he roared aloud, "Metal Man!" and Bruce revised his guess. Oh. That one.

The one where Tony splattered onto the concrete like a dropped melon.

"Shh," he said quietly. "It's me. Tony's okay."

Hulk roared again, and this close it wasn't hard to hear an angry child howling within the savage, ferocious noise. Bruce began to hum. It was an old, low, lilting tune, the same one his mother had calmed him with when he was very small.

"Are you high, Bruce? Humming? Talk to him, for Christ's sake!" Tony's voice hissed from the doorway.

"Do you want to do this?" Bruce hissed back. "Be ready to show him that you're okay. It's the falling nightmare again. I've always got to find you after that one." He barely heard Tony's short intake of breath as he turned back to the tossing behemoth and resumed humming.

"No, Metal Man, Hulk... Hulk..." Hulk managed, and his eyes flickered beneath his closed lids. REM sleep, Bruce noted, humming as comfortingly as he could. Dreams usually coincided with the end of that cycle. He'd be waking up soon.

The huge hands, each finger the width of Bruce's forearm, began to uncurl. His breath hitching around the little tune, Bruce carefully reached out with his good hand and placed it on top of Hulk's.

Same shape. Bigger, of course. But same shape.

Hulk was wincing and snarling in his sleep, but he was definitely responding to the humming. With sweat prickling the back of his neck, Bruce tentatively rubbed his thumb along the back of Hulk's mammoth hand. Those old, same, self-soothing touches. The skin was rough and unbelievably thick.

"Hnnnh," Hulk mumbled, and the snarls turned into whimpers. Bruce looked back up at the green face. The eyes were blinking open.

Bruce froze.

"Well, fuck," Tony said.

"Metal Man," Hulk rumbled urgently, and immediately charged the door, pushing Bruce over in his haste and not even noticing. He rebounded from the adamantium with a crash, and then scrabbled at the viewing peephole with those massive fingers. "Metal Man! Tony! Tony!"

"Hey, it's okay," Tony said soothingly. "It was a dream, Big Guy. Just a dream."

"Tony," Hulk said forcefully, and gave a short roar in his anxiety. "Tony fell."

"And you caught me," Tony said, and actually (because he had all the self-preservation instincts of a lemming) put his hand inside the peephole to grasp Hulk's finger. "You caught me, remember?"

Hulk grunted, and his chest began to slow its heaving as his breath came more naturally. "Hulk caught Metal Man."

"It's just a dream, pal. Just a dream."

"Hulk see shapes and colours," Hulk said, and watched Tony's fingers around his. "Metal Man falls, Metal Man smashes all over. Mummy stopped it."

Bruce almost choked, crouched on the floor amongst the rubble. The tune.

"Nope, that was someone else," Tony said, and patted Hulk's hand awkwardly through the peephole. "Now, remember Rule One?"

Hulk looked confused, but obediently said, "no scare, no smash."

"Good thing. See, it wasn't your mum who stopped it, Hulk."

No, nononono, Tony, NO.

"It was Bruce."


Hulk huffed, then snarled and span on the spot to glare at where the man crouched on the buckled adamantium floor. Bruce flinched back and raised both his arms before his face as the monster converged on him (so fast! Nothing that big should be that fast!) and then he muffled a cry as his injuries spasmed and screamed. His whole shoulder was on fire from the wrench he'd given it.

"Smash," Hulk rumbled darkly, and shifted from one foot to the other. One fist was raised high in the air.

Bruce closed his eyes tightly, and sucked in a sharp breath that ended in a high whine of pain. That blow would smear his brains across the floor.

"Banner, smash!"

Well, he wasn't a coward, no matter what Tony might say. He was stronger than this. He was stronger than Hulk. He'd kept him down for years; he'd flouted Ross and the US Army, even SHIELD, all without the monster. Bruce raised his head, and fixed the beast with a defiant stare.

"Do it," he grated.

Hulk shifted between his feet again, and the great green face twisted. "Banner," he said again, and he sounded horribly confused.

"Thor, thank god -well, thank you - uh, now might be a really good time..." Tony gabbled.

"Hush," Bruce heard the Thunderer say. "Observe. There is something..."

Bruce gingerly lowered his arms. Hulk was looking at him, and his eyebrows were lowered in a dark scowl. His fist was still raised high, but the crushing blow never came. Hulk's arm was frozen, his feet shuffling, his weight shifting, uncertain and conflicted.

Bruce's eyes widened.

"Banner," Hulk said yet again, and a roar built in his throat, growing and growing to make the whole cell ring like a vast bell. He then whirled to bring his fist down on the pile of rubble beside him. Bruce flinched and covered his face once more as woodchips and shards of metal flew through the air. Hulk roared and roared, smashing the rubble over and over. Finally he subsided, his barrel chest rising and falling.

Bruce clambered unsteadily to his feet, crouching low. He felt like he was going to be sick. He felt like he was going to faint. He felt so damn alive.

"What..." Tony said, a million miles away.

Hulk turned to Bruce and huffed. "Rule One."

Then he shambled away to crouch in a corner, his face a thundercloud.

Bruce swallowed, and glanced at the closed door. Tony's hand beckoned urgently, and his dark eyes were wild, the whites showing. Then he looked back at the hunched monster, the green eyes fixed stubbornly on the ground. Bizarrely, the image that came to mind was of himself, a child, angry and alone and hurt.

Maybe not so bizarre, come to think of it.

He couldn't believe he was going to do this... but he'd faced the Hulk once more and he had come out unscathed. Perhaps third time paid for all. Statistically, that was rubbish, of course, but then luck and people weren't always a matter of statistics.

He turned towards the Hulk and began to pick his way over the rubble.

"Bruce, what are you doing?" Tony choked. Bruce ignored it, and kept moving towards where his alter sat, glowering.

"Is this not what you wished for?" Thor sounded perplexed. "He is reaching out to his warrior-self. Was this not the purpose of the intervention?"

"That was to stop the moron leaving," Tony snapped, and the bolts of the door began to slide away. "Not to get himself killed!"

"Tony, keep it shut," Bruce commanded. "We're good here."

Tony stared at him, his open mouth a black circle in the gloom. "He's lost his mind."

Bruce smiled. "The opposite, actually."

"Ah," Thor said, and his smile was abundantly clear in his voice. "I see. Man of Iron, you should harken unto the Doctor's words."

Bruce nodded to the god, and then turned back to Hulk. His eyes had flickered over to them curiously as they talked, but when he noticed Bruce's renewed attention, they snapped back to glowering at the ground. Bruce had to restrain another smile. A toddler, all right.

He resumed his awkward way over the rubble, the shards and rocks sliding under his feet. Hulk rumbled warningly as he came closer, and Bruce paused. Then he began to hum again.

Hulk's eyelids immediately lowered slightly, and his head dipped.

"You know that tune," Bruce said softly, interrupting his own humming.

Hulk grunted through his nose. "Hulk knows."

"You were there, then?"


Bruce's whole soul cried out at that word, but he steeled his jaw. "Yes."

Hulk had been there. Hulk had seen that. Seen him. Seen his mother – and his father. Hulk had always existed.

"I didn't know," Bruce said sincerely, and took another step. "I didn't understand."

Hulk grunted again and turned his shoulders away a little bit, towards the wall. "Banner think too fast."

Behind them, Tony muffled a snort.

"You didn't hurt me," Bruce said, still speaking slowly and softly.

Hulk threw a scornful look over one giant corded shoulder. "Rule One," he rumbled, and gave him such a look that Bruce could almost hear him saying, you idiot.

"I heard," Bruce murmured, and took yet another step. "No scare, no smash."

"No scare, no smash. Hulk smash bad men, and Hulk smash things that Metal Man or Star Man says. Then Hulk free." Hulk looked down at his fingers, and then held up a peace sign. "Seven."

"Ah," Bruce darted a look back at Tony, who was giving him an apologetic little shrug. "Almost. But that's good. That's great."

Hulk looked at him suspiciously. "Banner never pleased with Hulk."

"I am now," Bruce said truthfully, and took another step. The rock under his heel rolled, and he stopped himself from falling by stumbling ungracefully. His ribs and shoulder screamed at him, and he bit down hard on his lip.

Hulk was standing faster than thought. "Banner hurt!"

"I'm fine!" he croaked. "I'm okay!"

Hulk frowned, his eyes narrowing. He lowered his head until it was almost level with Bruce's. "Lies," he rumbled.

Bruce took a shuddering breath and braced his shoulder with his good hand. "Yes, I'm hurt. But it's okay. It's getting better."

Hulk actually sniffed at him. "Hurt." Then his huge fists bunched. "Shooty Bird?"

Bruce actually laughed. Tony had been right – right about fucking everything. Hulk was here to protect him. To save him. "No, he didn't do it. He just nudged it. It's sore, and moving makes it hurt more."

Hulk's hands unclenched very, very slowly, and he stared for a moment into Bruce's eyes.

"It's like The Iron Giant written for HBO," Tony muttered.

"I should have known that was your favourite animated movie," Bruce shot back, and the laugh Tony produced was shocky but delighted.

"He's back. Gimme five, Point Break."

Hulk frowned, and his finger lifted to prod Bruce's good shoulder. "Not here."

"Nope, not hurt there," Bruce agreed. "This," and he lifted the cast, and flicked the sling's strap. "It's helping the hurt get better."

Hulk looked lost – and when Hulk looked lost, angry wasn't far behind. "But Banner heals," he snarled. "Hulk... Banner not get hurt."

"Oh," Bruce blinked, and then he sighed. "It's because we're apart now. You heal – well, you don't really need to. You never get hurt. But remember when we fell off the bike? We were ten."

Hulk frowned. Impending violence was still lurking in his eyes, but his lips pursed in thought. "Hulk thinks better with Banner," he remarked. "Wheels. Leg."

Bruce gaped.

"Bruce?" Tony said, a bit tentatively. "You okay there?"

"We both think better," he said, and he could feel the incredulous expression begin to spread across his face. "We think better together."

His mind worked. He could think, remember, feel. And it wasn't just him. Hulk's mind – the rage monster could actually remember things, think things, process things. Hulk's motivations... the rage... they were all. All his. And all the emotions, the swirling whirlpool of feelings that was Hulk. That was him. That was him...

...with the brake line cut.

He was going to kill Tony for being so fucking right. He was going to...

This was huge. This was incredible. This was...

Awful. It meant that Bruce was a murderer.

(And a hero.)

Hulk canted his head. "Wheels. Falling. Leg in white."

"That's right, broke our leg. They put a cast on it. Like this one," Bruce agreed, deciding once and for all that it was we, our, us. The evidence to support the hypothesis was overwhelming.

Still, proof was not incontrovertible fact.

Hulk made a purling sort of noise deep in his throat, and reached out to touch the sling. Even at his most gentle, it still made tears rise in Bruce's eyes. "Ah! Oh, fu- I mean, uh. Darn. I... Hulk, no, it hurts. Like our leg. I don't heal without you."

Hulk's lip peeled back in a puzzled snarl. "Hulk here."

"But not here," Bruce tapped his head.

Hulk blinked, and then his own hand slowly rose to tap against his own green temple. "Here."

"That's it," Bruce said as encouragingly as he could. Bile was rising in the pit of his stomach.

Hulk suddenly threw his head back and gave a savage growl. "Hulk trapped when in Banner's head!"

"I don't like to say I told you so..." Tony's voice lilted out of the darkness, and Bruce rolled his eyes.

"Yes you do," he retorted.

"Damn, is it good to have you back, snarky kitten," Tony said gleefully.

"Shut up or I'll recalibrate every door in the Tower to say "'Bend over, big boy,' instead of 'Welcome, Mr. Stark'," Bruce shot at him. "I'm having a moment with my childhood id here."

Thor began to laugh.

Bruce turned back to Hulk, who was once again scowling furiously. Absolute hurt in his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said, and then cleared his throat.

Hulk's eyes widened. "No. Banner lies."

"I mean it. I'm telling the truth."

"Banner never sorry for Hulk," Hulk rumbled sceptically, and began to straighten.

"Hulk," Bruce blurted, and then reached out and put a hand on that gigantic chest. And froze.

The huge heart under his hand was steady, reassuring but fast. It beat in absolutely perfect time with his own.

"I really am sorry, Hulk," Bruce managed, and shifted his hand until he could feel that radioactive blood pumping under his palm, almost as though it was still washing through his own body. "I'm so sorry I kept you locked up. I'm so sorry."

Hulk simply looked at him.

"Hulk?" Bruce ventured uncertainly.

"Why," Hulk said flatly. "Why sorry, Banner? Why now?"

"Well, uh," Bruce cast about for an example. "You know how you didn't understand why people run? Why they shoot? Why they lock people up?"

"Scared," Hulk said, and slowly began to sink down again onto his haunches.

"I didn't understand what you wanted," Bruce said, and his eyes slid to the side as shame, actual shame closed his throat. "I didn't get it. I do now."

He really was a monster. A monster with two bodies, two faces. A murderer.

"Hulk wants to be free," Hulk said, a trifle wistfully. "Hulk wants to be left alone, no scream, no shoot. Team. Friends."

"We will," Bruce promised. "We'll make it happen."

Hulk looked down at where Bruce's hand pressed against his chest, and harrumphed a little, a whuffling noise that was ever so slightly happier. Then that giant hand reached out, and he pressed it against Bruce.

Tears sprang to Bruce's eyes as his ribs yet again protested, and Hulk snatched his hand away. "Hurt," he rasped.

"Hurt," Hulk said, and looked down to his feet. "Hulk sorry too. Hulk hurt Banner."

"Hey," Bruce said through the zing and zip of pain through his ribs. "It's okay. We've hurt each other enough now, though. Don't you agree?"

"Enough," Hulk nodded.

Bruce patted the rough green chest, absently noting that Hulk had hair just like his own there. A bit greener, maybe. "You need a bath. Four days without one, you're getting a bit on the ripe side."

Hulk shook his head, and sniffed. Then he rumbled unhappily. "What were colours and shapes?"

"Colours and shapes?"

"Tony falls. Smash on ground. Then Mummy."

"Oh," Bruce said, and squashed the little pang of sadness and anger that was warring with the sick feeling deep in the pit of his stomach. "It was just a dream, Hulk. We have them all the time. Bad dreams. They aren't real. They happen when we sleep."

"Sleep," Hulk said, and screwed his face up.

"That's right."

"Hulk no sleep. Dreams bad."

"Not always," Bruce said, and patted his chest again. Amazingly, Hulk bent his head and leaned in towards it slightly. It was like some hallucination made real, Bruce thought, watching his hand in a strange, sick daze. "And everyone needs to sleep. You can't avoid it. If you don't, you'll get tired. Too tired to smash properly."


Bruce laughed. "Yes. So sleep is good."

"Sleep good."

"I'll be here, okay? I can hum to you when the dreams get bad. Then they'll be good again."

Hulk grunted, and then nudged at the rubble with a knuckle. "All smashed. Need more."

"I'll see that you get some more, buddy," Tony promised. "That can happen right now."

"I'm going to go upstairs for a little while. You have fun," Bruce said, and swallowed hard as Hulk's eyes lifted to his, ever so slightly wounded. "I'll be back when you eat, okay? I can help you. Let me help you."

Hulk gazed at him, and then the great head nodded. Once.

"Banner back when Hulk eat. Banner helps Hulk. Rules. Sleep."

"Very good," Bruce praised him softly. "Very smart."

The corner of Hulk's mouth lifted slightly, and then he shuffled back, sinking further into his hunched squat. "Banner promises."

"I promise."

"Hulk promise too," he said, taking Bruce by surprise. "Hulk smash now."

Bruce reached out a little to his other, his alter, and then let his good hand drop to his side and turned to pick his way back through the debris. The adamantium door swung open, and he looked back for a half-second at the monster tearing metal beams into shreds.

The door shut behind him with a final sort of clang, and he stood there for a moment, breathing very deeply. The numbness began to settle over him once more.

"Are you well, Bruce?" Thor asked, worry in his deep voice. The god was clutching Mjolnir as he hovered, clad only in track pants and a shirt. Apparently the summons had not been very convenient.

"Told you so," Tony said triumphantly, and nudged him. "Oh, that felt good. I'm saying it again. Told you so."

Bruce slowly blinked, and then smiled vaguely. "Yes, you did."

Then he threw up.

Chapter Text


Banner keeps his promise.

He is there when Hulk eats. The food-things are better than before. Banner calls them 'hamburgers,' and shows Hulk how to eat them with his mouth closed. Banner even eats one of the food-things himself. Hulk makes him. Banner is too puny. Banner is hurt.

Hulk hurt Banner, made him weak. His face is covered in purple-brown-yellow-green, his eye black as black, and he makes faces when he thinks Hulk cannot see. Puny Banner does not heal. Like the white, and the leg. Hulk remembers that. Remembers the pain, and the people who flitted around them, lying sympathetic faces that cooed and smiled and never looked hard enough to see where their real hurt was - where their rage festered.

It makes Hulk feel strange, to know that Hulk hurt Banner – and the hurt will stay.

He growls when Banner moves too quickly. He snarls loudly when Banner reaches to him. He will not be touched again, not while Banner is still making Hulk feel so strange. There is a heavy, hot feeling in Hulk's stomach. Banner is hurt, and Hulk hurt him. Hulk should not touch Banner.

Banner does not seem angry that Hulk will not let him touch again. He sits back on the chair that he dragged into Hulk's shiny room. His shoulder hunches in pain but he does not wince, and he watches peacefully as Hulk smashes. There is a strange, haunted look in Banner's eyes.

They talk. Banner tells Hulk stories about people. Stories are like lies, but for fun. Hulk likes the stories. He likes the one about the giant, but the giant is stupid. Should smash puny Jack.

Hulk tells Banner about the small places. The words come easier when Banner is there. The small places are dark and Banner is small too, and Hulk is angry. The man is cruel, and Mummy cries. Hulk remembers and remembers until he roars with the remembering - and he smashes at the walls and the floor and breaks Banner's chair, but Banner is not angry that his chair is smashed. Banner just seems sad.

Banner tells Hulk about more numbers, even more numbers than seven. Hulk doesn't like the numbers very much. He knows that Banner loves them, loves all the numbers. But they make Hulk annoyed. Banner doesn't smell upset that Hulk does not like numbers. He reaches out again to pat Hulk's arm, but Hulk jerks it away and growls once more and shambles into a corner. No. Hulk hurt Banner. Banner should not touch Hulk.

Hulk smashes a place for Hulk to sleep. Banner laughs at it. His laugh is dull, and sour, and dusty. Hulk scowls, and Banner explains that people usually sleep on beds and not on a nest made of metal and rocks and smash.

People stupid. Hulk has already smashed the sleep, and so he will have no bad dreams.

He roars and throws a chunk of hard-grey-crumble-rock into the shiny walls when Banner gently suggests that he take a bath. He offers to help.

Hulk will not take a bath! Hulk is Hulk, the strongest one there is! Banner should show respect!

Banner does not flinch. "When you've quite finished throwing the concrete, stinky..." he says, and the words lilt with impatience.


Banner is braver than Hulk thought.

Banner raises his puny hands. His voice is very soft.

Hulk growls some more. He will NOT take stupid bath.

Banner sighs. Hulk ignores how the sigh makes Hulk's insides turn strangely. Banner always confuses Hulk; why should this be different? Banner does not insist on the bath. He does, however, insist that Hulk rub at his teeth with a stick. The stick is scratchy on one end, and it tastes like sharp cold mornings. Banner rubs a little stick over his own teeth, showing Hulk how.

Hulk's tongue feels funny afterwards.

He sleeps. Banner stays. There are no shapes and colours. He does not dream.

When he wakes, Banner is gone, but there is a soft warm thing covering Hulk's shoulders, and the ghost-voice says that he will be back.

Hulk grunts, and waits.


"Are you okay?" Tony asked as Bruce sank into the welcome embrace of Tony's appallingly expensive leather armchair in the large communal kitchen-lounge. His hands were shaking slightly.

Bruce hesitated, and then pinched his nose. A headache was forming behind his eyes. "Yes. Give me a moment."

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Tony exchange a look with Steve. It irritated him, and he cleared his throat, dropping his hand and giving them a pointed look. "What?"

"Doctor Banner," Steve began.

"Leave it," he said sharply.

"Big guy, we need to know what's going on in that freaky head of yours," Tony said, his arms folding. He looked like he wasn't about to take no for an answer, and so Bruce rolled his eyes upwards and answered the unspoken questions.

"I can feel things when I'm near him. He's getting the hang of understanding me. He won't take a damn bath, and I have a headache. Now leave it."

"Nope," Tony said, and leaned against the counter with his hip, his fingers tapping his forearm. "That's not what we're asking."

Bruce glanced up at where the two of them stood with expectant looks on their faces, and tried to restrain another surge of irritation. Apparently too much time with Hulk had a rather deleterious effect on his mood. "Oh?"

"What was all that about? Earlier?"

"Which bit?"

"Stark, maybe we should give him a little space..." Steve murmured.

"Yeah, Stark, give me some space," Bruce echoed mockingly.

"That attitude of yours has gone from zero to a hundred and ten in five seconds, pookie," Tony said, and his mouth crooked into a half-smile. "Let's talk about that."

"I told you, I can feel things when I'm near him. I'm not..." Bruce swallowed, "empty."

"Gathered that, but what was with the whole throwing up? And you said us. So what's the deal with that, exactly? Not that I don't have my brilliant theories, but hey, we all know your opinions on brilliant Hulk theories. Even when they've been proved incontrovertibly and awesomely right, not that there was ever any doubt, hello, genius here. But still, it'd be better to go into this with as much data as possible. So, you two. Aaaaand, go."

Bruce's fist clenched reflexively. "I'm still working on it."

"We need to know, Bruce, we're your team, we've got to help you both."

"No-one asked you to," Bruce snapped.

Tony raised an eyebrow.

"Sorry," Bruce said, and pinched his nose again. "I'm sorry. Fuck."

"What's going on, Doctor Banner?" Steve asked. He sat down in the chair opposite Bruce and leaned forward in concern, his elbows resting on his knees.

Bruce closed his eyes, hiding his face for a moment behind his raised hand. Oh, I've discovered that Tony was right about everything, from the very first day we met, he debated saying. My abused and angry childhood id is asleep in a cell downstairs, and now I have to take on his every action as mine because we are in fact the same fucking person split in two. One hundred and forty eight people, all dead at my- our - hands. He won't let me touch him anymore because he feels guilty. I can barely breathe because of my own guilt. I'm a murderer, and a jailer. He's like a child, and I locked him up. I'm still locking him up. He smashes without thinking, and he smashes when he does think. Everything confuses him, and confusion makes him angry. I don't feel alive when I'm apart from him. I'm getting more and more numb as we speak.

And he won't take a goddamned bath.

"It's complicated," he mumbled.

"I'm good at complicated," said Tony in what had to be the understatement of the century.

Steve smiled. "We'll listen. What happened tonight?"

"He ate, he smashed, he cleaned his teeth," Bruce said, and his hand dropped into his lap as his head thudded back against the headrest. There was a dull throbbing feeling growing just over his left eyebrow. "I talked to him some more."

"Why'd you throw up?" asked Tony bluntly.

Because I'm a murderer. My gamma-powered survival instinct kills people. "Never mind."

"Doctor Banner," Steve said, gentle and understanding.

"Would it kill you to call me Bruce?" he snapped, and immediately regretted it. His emotional reactions were increasing exponentially the more time he spent in the adamantium cell. They even lasted longer after his departure, and the numbness took more time to take root after each exposure. He'd have to run some tests.

"Whoa there, grumpy," Tony said, raising his hands and smirking. "Defensive, much?"

Bruce glowered at him.

"By the way, told you so," Tony sing-songed. "Oh, still feels good. That's never getting old. Told you so. Told you so. Hey, Brucey-babes, isn't your IQ actually higher than mine? Well guess what, I told you-"

"Shut up," Bruce said, and that was actually sort of nice. Telling Tony to shut up was becoming a comfortable kind of reflex.

Still smirking, Tony subsided.

"Do I need to know?" Steve said, looking from one man to the other.

"Uh," Bruce managed, and his eyes slid over to his triumphantly grinning friend. "Probably not."

"What Bruce is trying to say – badly - is that I am a very great genius who wins at life," Tony declared. "But of course this is not news to anyone."

"Oh god, does he have an off-switch?" Bruce moaned. Tony's smirk suddenly turned lascivious.

"Yes," he said, and winked.

"Oh god," Bruce said again.

"I don't actually want to know what that means, do I?" Steve sighed.

"No," Bruce said as hurriedly as he could.

"Such a filthy mind, Doctor," Tony said, and slung himself over the arm of the chair. "So. Spill. Jackson Pollock impression all over the floor. Why?"

"Delayed reaction, maybe, physical response to stress and fear," Bruce lied, and changed the subject as swiftly as possible. "You know, I think Hulk might be ready to start talking to others. I mean apart from me and Tony. Because he talks to you, doesn't he?"

The look Tony gave him was openly suspicious at the change of topic, but he ran with it. "He's been talking to me for days. He likes me."

"Yes, I know," Bruce said, and deliberately refused to consider what that suggested about his own feelings for the billionaire. "He quotes Rule One a lot."

"Rule One?"

"No scare, no smash," Tony told Steve.

"Although he's not so hot at the 'no scare' part," Bruce murmured.

"He's nine feet tall, he's working with a disadvantage," Tony shrugged.

"He still smashes when he gets confused."

"Not people, though. He likes the stuff I got for him. Did you see what he did with the I-beams? We could sell that; call it 'Hulk Hates Mondays' and put it in a gallery."

"Doc- er, Bruce, do you think he's ready to start working with the whole team?" Steve asked.

Bruce's head hurt. "No, not just yet. Look, we need a plan here."

"Oh, now he wants to talk."

"Shut up Tony." Yes, that definitely felt good. "He likes Tony, and he... well, he's not exactly comfortable with me, but he listens. The problem is still the smashing. When he gets confused he gets angry, and other people confuse him. We need to work out how to get the rest of the team involved without overloading him." He twisted his hands absently as he thought. "I think he'd be all right with one other person, but not two."

"How about you and me?" Tony suggested.

"Sorry?" Bruce blinked, and then tried to stifle the blush that came roaring up the column of his neck. "Oh, right. You and I with... yes. I think if he got used to the two of us, he might get the hang of small groups. If we introduce the variable team members one at a time..."

"Then he'll get the chance to interact with everyone individually, but with..."

"...a safety net, an emotional buffer. Us. The people..."

"...that he's most comfortable with," Tony finished. Then he gave Bruce a blinding grin. "Damn, nice to have you firing on all cylinders again, Jolly Green."

"But there needs to be a purpose behind all this," Steve interjected. "We can't just go in and sit with him."

"Don't see why not," Tony said, cocking his head.

"See the previously mentioned confusion equals smash equation," said Bruce.


"Would he be all right with me?" Steve offered, and drew himself up when the two dark heads turned to him. "I mean, he follows my orders in the field. He knows me. And he doesn't have the problems with me that he does with Thor and Natasha."

"," Bruce said slowly.

"Not bad, Cap," Tony said, giving him an appraising look. "Me, then you. Then Birdbrain?"

"That's probably best," Bruce sighed.

"What can we do?" Steve leaned forward, his brow furrowing. "How can we help train him?"

"JARVIS, let's get something together here," Tony said as he moved towards the fridge, pulling out some fancy microbrew and cracking it open. "Some sort of list. Behavioural development steps. Cross-reference to the signposts for a..." Tony took a sip, and then squinted at Bruce, "three year old?"

"About right."

"A three year old. A super-strong three year old."

"Yes Sir. May I suggest that the physical development milestones for gross motor movement be overlooked in this case?"

"Good call, JARVIS, not like the green guy needs any help there."

"There are however some fine motor skills I feel would be beneficial towards Mr. Hulk's further education, in addition to speech, understanding, intellectual and social instruction."

"Okay, lay it on us."

Bruce let out a minute sigh of relief. Both Tony and Steve immediately began arguing over the new information, firing out ideas for exercises and activities for Hulk to try. Neither one called him out on his clumsy evasion from before.

"Got the balloons?"

"Yes. Hey, d'you like the colours?"

"I hate you, Tony."

"Aw, kitten. You say the sweetest things."

Bruce stepped into what was beginning to be known as the Hulk-cage, and peered into the murk. Hulk rumbled, "Banner back."

"Hello, Hulk." It was bizarre, essentially saying hello to yourself, Bruce mused. "Brought you a visitor."

Hulk shifted and moved forward into the light. He was holding a rock in one hand, and his fingers flexed around it absently, causing flakes and pebbles to scatter onto the debris-covered floor. "Hulk busy."

"What are you doing?" Bruce sat down on a twisted metal sheet that clearly bore the imprint of huge knuckles.


"Making what?"

"Numbers." Hulk held out his rock and shuffled backwards. "Hulk does Banner numbers. Work."

Bruce's eyebrows shot up. "Sorry, what? You're doing... like I do? An experiment?"

"Experiment," Hulk said slowly as though tasting the word, and then he nodded his great head. "Hulk makes experiment with numbers. Like Banner."

Bruce peered around the huge green bulk to where an assortment of rocks and bits of concrete or torn metal sat in a row. "Can I help?"

Hulk scowled. "Hulk's experiment!"

"Easy," Bruce said and held up his hands. "We're not going to take it away. But Tony is good at experiments too, remember? Do you remember the lab, the white room where the, um, computers and screens and things are? Where Tony and I work?"

Hulk dropped his rock at the end of the row and gave his 'experiment' a hard, calculating look. Then he huffed. "Easier to think with Banner. Words are easier. Hulk remembers white place. Banner thinks too fast in white place. Tony talks too fast in white place. Not in white place now."

"Fuck me drunk, he's twice as with it when you're around, isn't he?" came Tony's voice from the doorway.

"Tony, get back," Bruce hissed as Hulk stood with purposeful menace, his body unfolding and his shoulders looming large as his head turned to glare at the engineer.

"Nah, Hulk and I are buds. We're good," Tony said breezily, and sauntered into the mess-strewn room. "Hey, Hulkster."

Hulk's eyes narrowed at Tony for a long moment, and then he grunted again. "Metal Man. Tony."

"Yep. Good to see you too."

"Metal Man is okay," Hulk said, and an imperceptible tension bled away from those gigantic shoulders. "Not smashed."

"All present and correct," Tony agreed. "Whatcha doing?"


Tony gave Bruce a sly sidelong look. "Well, well, well. Chip off the old block, aren't you? Come on, show us what you got so far."

Bruce watched dry mouthed and disbelieving as Hulk shuffled aside to show Tony his row of rocks and rubbish. "Numbers. Banner told Hulk numbers. Hulk counts them."

"Oh, hey, that's awesome!" Tony hunkered down into a crouch and smiled at one of the metal pieces, twisted into a strange pair of rabbit ears. "Is that seven?"

Hulk nodded, and made the peace sign again. "Seven."

"That's not actually..." Bruce began helplessly.

"Shut it, Bruciekins, you're contaminating the results. No faffing with the data," Tony said, and grinned. "What are the others?"

Hulk pointed at each one. "One. Two. Two-one. Four. Fire. Team. Seven. Food. Smash. Ten."

"What," stated Bruce, toneless with disbelief.

Tony bit down on his lip, hard. "Awesome experiment, buddy."

Hulk looked immensely pleased with himself. His eyes glittered. "Hulk does experiment. Like Banner."

"Actually, he got some of that right," Tony said in a more conversational tone. "There's six in the team, after all. I bet 'food' is a reference to eating; 'ate' instead of 'eight'. Teaching him about homonyms is gonna be fun. Why is smash nine?"

"Do I look like I know?" Bruce said.

"Well, that's your Wonder Twin doing the counting, I thought maybe you'd have some sort of insight," Tony straightened and grinned up at Hulk. He gave the brawny upper arm a congratulatory smack with the back of his hand. "Nice work. We'll have to get you a labcoat. Do they make them in Giga-X-L?"

With a triumphant flash of pebble-like teeth, Hulk copied the smack - and Tony skidded across several feet of rubble to slump against Bruce.

"Ah!" Bruce choked as his injuries howled at him. Tony was heavier than he looked. Gavin was going to be unimpressed at how Bruce was managing to botch his recovery.

"Metal Man!"

"Wait," Bruce croaked. "I've got him. Hold on."

Hulk rumbled low in his throat, his worried eyes fixed on the two men. "Banner hurt."

"Banner's very hurt, but Banner's got this," he answered, fighting the dampness pricking at his eyes. "Ah, jeez. Tony?"

"Hnngh," said Tony, and for some unknown reason he giggled.

Bruce hauled at his dazed friend with his good arm, trying to keep him upright. Tony was as unmanageable dazed as he was lucid, and slid downwards on wobbly legs. Bruce hoisted Tony's arm over his shoulder and ignored the twinge from his collarbone as he whispered into the closest ear, "Um. Maybe not so much with the affectionate violence?"

"Didja get the number of that helicarrier?" Tony mumbled. Bruce relaxed as Tony focused on him and smiled vaguely. He'd be fine, he was just a bit winded. "Oh, hey there Brucey. Anyone ever tell you that your hair is really... really... really spaniely? It is. It's totally like a spaniel curled up on your head."

"Ah, not to my knowledge," Bruce said dryly. "The whole rage monster thing, you understand."

"Well it is. S'like a spaniel," Tony said, and a hand reached up to tug down one of his curls and release it, making it bounce upwards like a spring. "Fun, too. Hair with torque."

"He's all right," Bruce told Hulk, who was shifting on his feet again, his massive green face worried. "But let's not do that again, okay? You're a lot bigger and stronger than everyone else. You have to be careful with us puny people, remember?"

"Rule One," Hulk said mournfully.

"Uh-uh, nope," Tony said, and struggled upwards. His eyes were rapidly refocusing. "Time for a new rule. Rule Two: making mistakes is okay. That's how we learn things."

Hulk took a short step forward, and then stepped back, eyes bewildered. Then he let out a gruff breath. "Rule Two."

Tony staggered to his feet. "Ow. Yeah, two. See your experiment?"

Hulk's head gradually turned. Then his finger reached out, ever so slowly, and he touched the crumpled piece of corrugated iron that was his second 'number'. "Two."

"Mistakes are okay," Tony repeated. Then he rubbed at his arm. "Ow. You all right there, Punky Brucester?"

"Punky Brucester?" Bruce said incredulously.

"Not one of my better ones, I'll admit, but I just got Hulk-swatted. Sue me."

"I can't afford to go up against your battalions of lawyers and Pepper," Bruce returned, relieved that Tony was bantering again. He was definitely fine.

"Hells to the yes, Pepper is scary," Tony said proudly – a little too proudly. The sadness threading through the words wasn't very well hidden. Hulk made a soft rumbling noise, leaning down to peer at them. "Heya, Green Bean, I'm okay. You made a mistake, but I sort of asked for it. I made a mistake as well, see?"

Hulk wrinkled his nose. "Tony needs Rules. Like Hulk."

Bruce stifled a laugh.

"You would not believe how many people agree with you," Tony said, shaking himself a little and pushing his weight off Bruce. "Thanks for the save, Big B."

"Rule Two," Hulk grunted. "Mistakes okay."

"Very good," Bruce said softly, and the Hulk's face lit up at the praise, baring his teeth in that fearsome smile once more. He thought of reaching out to touch that lowered face again, and decided against it. Hulk would draw away, and Bruce didn't feel like facing up to a whole new round of Tony Stark-brand questioning (also known as 'badgering', 'pestering' and 'being unwholesomely perceptive').

"Tony hit Hulk," Hulk said, and tipped his head. "Hulk not upset. Mistakes okay."

"He didn't mean it as a bad thing," Bruce told him. "It was to congratulate you on your... your experiment."

Hulk's chest puffed up. "Hulk's experiment."

"But yes, he made a mistake by hitting you," Bruce said, giving Tony a very loaded glance. "He won't do it again."

"Hulk sorry," Hulk offered. Bruce's breath caught. He never, ever thought he'd hear... and now he'd heard it twice. Hulk could be sorry. This massive being composed of pure rage could actually feel remorse.

His hand rose slowly, drifting through the air towards his other face. He couldn't have stopped it if he tried.

Hulk gave it a startled look and immediately shuffled backwards on his mammoth feet, his brows beetling. "No. Banner no touch Hulk."

Bruce's hand dropped. "Right."

Tony looked from one of them to the other, his face growing concerned. "What's this?"

"I'll tell you later," Bruce lied.

Hulk snorted and gave Bruce a sardonic sort of look. Too late Bruce remembered that Hulk had a kind of sixth sense about lies. He gave his other self a pleading look, shaking his head infinitesimally. Hulk snorted again, before giving a grunt of assent.

"If he won't touch, maybe we should try something else," Tony whispered, and Bruce, too overcome by nerves to hold it back, chuckled.

"No, he'll go near you. I'll... watch, I'll be here in case... Hulk? Do you want to try another experiment?"

Hulk sank into his normal squat, his expression clearing. "Experiment?"

"Yeah," Tony said, not taking his eyes from Bruce. Suspicion was written all over his face. "It's an experiment we think you can help us with."

"Hulk's experiment?"

"Like that, yes," Bruce said. "But instead of numbers, it's touch."

Hulk immediately scowled. "No. Hulk no touch."

"No, not me," Bruce said, and gave him(self) a smile. "You and Tony can do the experiment."


"You, me and science," Tony said, and smirked at Bruce. "I'm so getting him a labcoat. You've been replaced, Brucey-babes."

"Ah, woe, rejected by the cool kids, how shall I ever survive, I'll write angsty poetry in my diary and paint my nails black," Bruce deadpanned, and turned to go and get the balloons.

"The only one who gets to paint your nails is me, remember!" Tony called after him. "It's in the contractual arrangement of super secret science club!"

"I don't recall ever signing anything."

"Unwritten contractual arrangement, you agreed when you drooled all over my iongenic microscope prototype."

"But you've already found my replacement. I'm a free agent."

"Binding contractual agreement," Tony stressed.

"Talks too fast," Hulk grumbled. "Hulk not understand."

"It's not worth it, believe me," Bruce muttered, and slipped out the door.

He paused for a moment, leaning against the outside of the adamantium cell and allowing the numbness to settle a little. His breath was coming a little fast and he could use the break that distance from Hulk allowed him. Well. That could have gone better. Tony now knew that Hulk wouldn't touch him anymore, which... not great. The questioning was no doubt going to intensify. He'd be expected to give some answers sooner or later.

He'd better start thinking of some.

Bruce grabbed the bunch of balloons by their trailing ties and took a last deep breath as the murmur of Tony's voice and the gravelly rumble that was Hulk drifted out into the antechamber. He fixed a more neutral expression on his face as he entered.

"... so let's let him make it up to – oh, hey again, grumpy. See? Do you like 'em?" Tony whirled around to grin again at Hulk, who was looking distinctly obstinate.

"No, Hulk won't," Hulk told Tony with some finality. He then squinted over at the bunch of balloons in Bruce's hand. "Metal Man colours!"

"I know, right? I knew you'd like the colours." Tony gave Bruce a very smug look, and then gently - and carefully - patted Hulk's hand. "These are for our experiment."

Hulk reached out and tapped a balloon and it bounced from his huge forefinger, swaying back and forth.

"I'm beginning to feel like an amusement park attendant," Bruce commented while his brain raced over the snippet of conversation he'd just heard. What was Tony playing at? Bruce would wager the entirety of his meagre possessions that he'd just walked in on Tony trying to convince Hulk to let Bruce touch him again. Meddler. "Do you want to take these?"

"You're doing such a good job, you can keep 'em," Tony said. "Besides, you look so good in my colours, baby doll."


"Hey, it's a real burden to be this charming and witty," Tony said with an airy wave of a hand. "So, Hulk, buddy. Here's the idea. We've got these because although we've got some idea of your strength, we haven't got a clue about how gentle you can be. Can you take one of these without popping it?"

With an affronted scowl Hulk said, "Hulk can take floaty round thing!"

"Without popping it?"


"Can we see?" Bruce asked, holding out the bunch of balloons at arm's length. Hulk's face grew a little apprehensive as he regarded his other half, but he knuckled forward and reached for one, the closest, a large yellow balloon that bobbed about in front of his nose.

The minute Hulk's giant fingers closed around it, it burst with an almighty bang! Tony burst out laughing at the look of shock on Hulk's face. The giant was frozen, eyes wide.

Then those eyes clouded over in remembered rage and pain.

Bruce's mouth dropped open. "Um, Tony?"

A growl began to build in Hulk's chest.

"Remember what I told you about Hulk and thunder and lightning?"

Tony's face drained to white. "Maybe we didn't totally think this through."

"No, really?"

Hulk's growl was rapidly becoming a roar, and his eyes were starting out of his head in rage and fear. "Hulk!"

With an echoing snarl, Hulk moved. Huge green arms immediately wrapped themselves around Bruce, and he choked as he was pressed against Hulk's chest. Next to him Tony was making little gasping sounds, tucked under Hulk's other arm.

"Hulk, it's okay, it's not a gun!" Bruce wheezed.

"Ross!" Hulk said viciously, and wrapped himself even further around the two men. "ROSS! Hurts, always hurts! Run, run to the green places!"

"No!" Tony managed, and then coughed. "Man, you are ponging. It was just the balloon popping, Hulkster. Everything's fine. It's okay."


"There's no Ross! It's not him! It's not a gun!" Bruce gabbled, and pushed himself away from Hulk as much as he could to crane up at the frantic green face above them. Hulk was sheltering them with his body as his head swang back and forth, his lip curling. "There aren't any guns, Hulk, there's no-one to fight."

"Smash Ross," Hulk snarled savagely. Then he blinked and his angry, frightened eyes seemed to focus on the room again. "Where...?"

"No guns," Bruce repeated. "It was just the balloon popping, just the balloon. It's okay, it's all okay."

"Well, we got him to touch you again," Tony whispered.

"No Ross," Hulk said, and he sounded so lost.

"You mean you did this deliberately?" Bruce hissed to Tony, before concentrating on Hulk again. "No, he's not here. It's like the thunder, remember that? It sounds like a gun, but it's not. The balloon popped."

Hulk's arms tightened fractionally.

"He's not letting go," Tony said clinically. "He smells like feet and old sweat. Gross."

"I am so fucking angry with you," Bruce muttered to him. "We'll talk about this later."

"Yeah, we've got a lot to cover," Tony said with a hard and knowing glint in his eye.


"Green places," Hulk finally said. "Betty."

"Right," Bruce said, almost boneless in relief.

"Not Ross."

"The balloon popped. It makes a bang. It's not a gun."

"No smashing?" Hulk said, sounding just a little disappointed.

"Sorry, Big Green," Tony said, and patted Hulk's chest comfortingly. Then he wiped his hand on his jeans.

With another blink of his eyes Hulk seemed to realise that he was still cradling them. He jerked his arms outwards with shocking suddenness and hunched back in on himself. Tony and Bruce both sprawled onto the rubble, and Bruce groaned. "Ah god. Ouch. Oh, fuck, my ribs, ah... This is not helping with the whole recuperation thing."

"Like you were ever going to actually follow Nurse Stupidface's orders," Tony rolled his eyes upwards, before groaning himself. "There's. A something. In the middle of my back. Ow."

"Hulk thought..." Hulk mumbled, and Bruce sat up as quickly as he dared with every nerve ending singing in pain. "Hulk make bang?"

"Yes. Look, watch me?" Bruce clambered awkwardly to his feet, pushing off the floor with his one good hand and lurching to one side as he found his balance. "Urgh. Right." He snagged a balloon by the tie, and pulled it down. It was red, and the surge of irritation that rushed through his chest was tinged with fondness. He decided not to examine that too closely. "Now, if I hold the balloon gently..." His fingers closed around it. "See? It doesn't pop. It doesn't make the bang."

"Bang," Hulk repeated owlishly. "Like gun, but not."

"Right," Bruce said. "Here. You give it a try? Remember, if it goes bang..."

"Not gun." Hulk nodded. He reached out to the red balloon that Bruce had used to demonstrate, and then drew his hand back a fraction. "No. Not Banner. Hulk not touch Banner. Tony."

"You just smothered him in your stink, grizzly bear," Tony pointed out, and Hulk's face screwed up.

"No," he said, and his other hand thudded against the floor. "Tony. Take bloons."

"Bal-loons," Tony corrected as he pushed back onto his knees and dusted his hands on his jeans, before brushing vigorously at his hair to get the cement dust out of it. "Fine, give 'em here. You guys love to ignore it when I'm right, don't you?"

"It's a gift," Bruce said, handing over the balloons. His hands fell to twisting together, the fingers linking and unlinking. "Hulk?"

"Experiment," Hulk said, and reached out to grasp that same red balloon again. His fingers closed around it with a peculiar tenderness, and he rocked back on his haunches as he lifted it to his face to peer at it.

"No bang," he said, pleased as punch. "No bang!"

"That's fantastic, big fella!" Tony congratulated him, and without turning his head he slapped Bruce rather hard on the back.

"That's really great, Hulk," Bruce added, before muttering, "oh, you are just asking for it now."

"Bring it, spaniel boy," Tony muttered back, before giving Hulk two thumbs up. "You totally got it!"

"Well done," Bruce said. "I'm proud of you."

Hulk beamed, proud and puzzled. Then he frowned. "Hulk made mistake. Bloon. Not gun. Rule Two?"

"Totally fine, Hulkster," Tony soothed. "It happens. Mistakes are good; mistakes are how we learn."

"You're allowed to make mistakes," Bruce confirmed when Hulk turned to him, the question in his eyes. The balloon stayed whole in his massive fingers, and Bruce had the random thought that he rather looked like Christmas.

"And hey, this whole thing started with a mistake, didn't it?" Tony gave Bruce a loaded look. "That's how you began in the first place."

Bruce shot him a deadly glare. "Watch your back, Stark."

"My head doesn't twist around that far."


"Oooh, classic bitchy Banner. Love it."

"Hulk pick up more bloons," Hulk said, evidently tiring of their bickering. He reached out with his other hand to the bunch floating above his head.

"He likes 'em," Tony commented neutrally as they watched him. Two more popped in his face, but unlike the first time they didn't trigger a flashback to gunfire. Hulk simply sneered at the shreds on his fingers and tried again.

"He's essentially a child, I think," Bruce answered.

"He's you."

Bruce's heart faltered a little, but he set his jaw and continued to watch Hulk carefully grasp balloons. "Yeah."

"You were one hell of an angry kid."

He smiled mirthlessly. "Tony, you have no idea."

"You're not getting out of talking about this, Bruce."

"Would you care to rephrase that in the form of a wager?"

"You can't afford the kind of bets I make. Anyway, when it comes to being right about Hulk, I'm the clear favourite in the race."

"In more than one way," Bruce sighed. "Look, did you mean for that to happen with the balloons? Get him to grab us like that?"

"Nah. But I wasn't upset that it happened. Were you?"

"He's too dangerous for that sort of mistake to happen."

"And you'd know."

Bruce didn't answer.

Eventually Hulk began to tire of the game. "Boring," he announced. "Hulk can take bloons, no more bang."

"Maybe..." Bruce stepped forward and noted with a sinking feeling that Hulk took one corresponding step backwards. "We could try this?" He grabbed a yellow balloon that was now decorated with a giant grubby handprint, and batted it gently through the air towards Hulk.

Hulk's eyebrows rose. "Moves."

"But gently," Bruce said. "If you tap it too hard..."


"Bang," Bruce said, nodding.

Hulk drew himself up, his teeth baring. "Hulk can do that," he boasted, and swiped at a balloon. It exploded immediately, and Hulk jerked back with his mouth open. Then he let out a short roar of annoyance – almost a bark.

"Gotta do it even more gently than that, big guy," Tony told him. "Look." He pushed a balloon towards Bruce, who sent it gliding back to the engineer. "If you're gentle, you can make it move between people. See?"

Hulk watched it drift between them a few more times, frowning in fascination. Then he awkwardly hopped forward on the knuckles of one hand and the balls of his feet, and slowly lifted his free hand. "Hulk tries?"

"Here," Bruce said, and sent the balloon floating towards him.


"Whoops," Tony said cheerfully.

"Rule Two," Hulk said, scowling down at his hand.

"Rule Two. Try again," Tony suggested. "Red one this time. Red's a good colour."

"Red," Hulk rumbled, and then nodded. "Like Metal Man."

"Which makes it awesome. Here we are," Tony said, and another balloon went soaring through the air.

Two more balloons popped before Hulk got the hang of it. Then he insisted that he recreate the passing game with all of them. The balloon drifted between them in an oddly peaceful silence, and Bruce found himself relaxing as it described a serene circle. Hulk's face was contorted in concentration as he pushed the balloon with utter delicacy towards Bruce, who passed it on to Tony. The only sound was the soft thud of hands hitting the red balloon. Watching it, Bruce could feel the tension inside him begin to uncurl.

It was... strangely nice. Bruce wasn't very used to nice. It was certainly the last situation he'd ever expected to find it.

At last Hulk sat down on his debris-strewn floor with a loud boom, the pebbles and gravel rattling. He scratched at his side while he yawned. "Hulk hungry."

"I think they've got a ton of chicken and salad sandwiches for you today," Tony said, and sprawled carelessly beside him. Bruce shuffled his feet, uncertain of his welcome should he attempt to sit as well.

"Like hamburger?"

"A bit like them," Bruce said. "Something new. I like them, so you probably will too."

Hulk made a purling, satisfied noise deep in his chest and absently batted at a balloon like some giant radioactive kitten. "Hulk experiment."

"You're really good at it," Bruce said, and Hulk's eyes lifted to meet his and oh. Oh.

Of course. Why didn't he realise? Of course that little boy in there wants approval from some sort of male authority figure. All the approval that you never got.

"Hulk experiment like Banner," he said, and Bruce nodded, too dumbstruck to speak.

"I'm getting you a lab coat," Tony said, and nudged Hulk's knee very softly. "Professor Hulk."

Hulk simply frowned at that, obviously not understanding.

"I'm getting some new pants for you as well, because buddy, you are starting to make me feel lightheaded. Gotta wash up and get clean before you start growing moss."

Hulk definitely understood that. "No bath!"

"Okay," Bruce managed. "Not a bath. But you liked the rain, yes?"

Hulk growled under his breath, clearly confused as to where this line of questioning was leading.

"Well, Tony has special things which are like rain," Bruce explained. "Showers. That could help. You can't be comfortable like that."

With a puzzled glance down at his legs, Hulk pulled a little at the frayed knees of the dirty grey pants. "Rain."

"I can help," Bruce offered, and wasn't the least bit surprised at the loud response of "No! Banner not touch Hulk!" that eventuated.

"No probs, I got this," Tony said confidently. "Hey Mean Green?"

Hulk gave a last glare at Bruce before dropping his eyes to Tony. "Tony."

"How do you feel about Star Man coming with us for our rain experiment?"

"Star Man," Hulk repeated, and something strange passed through his eyes. Bruce couldn't place nor parse it. "Star Man, not Banner."

"He knows lots about rain," Tony said. "And he's a goddamned authority on being squeaky clean."

"Banner still there?" Hulk asked, and Tony turned to Bruce with an exasperated look.

"Not sure what he wants," he said.

"I don't think he knows what he wants either," Bruce sighed, before pasting on a smile for the sake of that little boy. "Yes, Hulk. I'll be there if you want. I won't help, but I'll be there."

After a short pause, Hulk jerked his head in a decisive nod. "Rain. Hulk does rain experiment. Star Man, Tony, Banner, Hulk."

"Oh, thank god," said Bruce fervently.

"Testify," agreed Tony, just as fervently.


Tony froze. "Please don't have changed your mind already."

Hulk's face was set in a petulant sulk. "Food first?"

Chapter Text


It was like something out of the horror movies that Bucky had loved so much, Steve thought in awed fascination, as he watched Tony gently coaxing the Hulk to where one of his robots whirred. The robot's little noises actually sounded nervous. It raised its mechanical arm as high as it would go, a shower head clutched between its prongs.

The Hulk wasn't very pleased about any of this, it was plain to see. His rough green face was set in lines of extreme annoyance – and when Hulk was annoyed, he tended to spread it around with a big shovel. Steve hadn't brought in his shield, and he was definitely feeling its absence. But Bruce and Tony both had insisted that he leave it behind. "He knows there's no battle, and so he'll only see it as a threat and get... uh, defensive," Bruce had said, looking at his feet. "He's on edge already. Escalating the situation could get... well. He's learning, but he's still the Hulk."

"Pffft. He's a marshmallow," Tony had said dismissively.

Bruce only twisted his hands together in that worried, rumpled way that he had, and scurried back to the Hulk Cage.

Steve had given Tony a questioning look, and the engineer had given him a significant nod. The changes in their friend were becoming more and more pronounced. The listlessness that characterised his first week of separation from the Hulk had nearly vanished, and his eyes were no longer blank and dull. He spoke with his usual rather diffident and quiet authority instead of that hollow monotone. He even moved with more purpose.

However, he was still hiding from them. The more time he spent with the Hulk, the more apparent it became. He would change the subject, twist the question, or even flat-out refuse to answer should anyone probe too deeply into the nature of the connection between the two of them. And Steve had caught him in an unguarded moment, his face twisted in some sort of conflicted sorrow.

What he found particularly interesting was watching Tony through all this. Stark was well-schooled at hiding his reactions behind a carefully carefree mask, but his eyes darkened with emotion and sympathy and something indefinable every time Bruce deflected them or ran away. Something was going on there, and Steve was determined to discover what.

The team was all Steve had. It was the most important thing in his life, and he was devoted to making it work and to being the best team leader he could be. That included being involved in the welfare and happiness of his – well, not troops, as Stark had so vehemently pointed out. His team. His friends and family in this frenetic, glittering, cynical new world.

Hulk rumbled a little as Bruce stepped into the Hulk Cage, his hair ruffled from running his hands through it. He did that a lot when he was agitated, Steve had observed. Bruce was usually a calm presence, a stabilising force on the team. This situation had brought out all of his nervous tics in full force.

"It's okay," Bruce said, his voice low and soft. "I'm here, like I promised."

"Banner no touch," Hulk said. That was a surprise – Steve hadn't thought that the Hulk could speak nearly so much.

"I won't help," Bruce nodded. "Tony and Star Man will help you with this experiment."

"Hi Hulk," Steve said, stepping forward and giving the gargantuan creature a shaky smile.

"Star Man," the Hulk grunted. He looked over at Steve again, his face openly suspicious. "Star Man not have his star."

Steve was only wearing trunks, as Tony had warned that this was likely to be very, very wet. "No, not today, Hulk."

Hulk grunted again.

"Okay big guy," Tony coaxed, leading Hulk on a little more. The robot's whirring rose in tone, and Steve fought the strange urge to comfort the thing. "See Dummy over there? He's holding the shower head. You can just stand under it, and he'll turn it off and on." He levelled a dark look at the robot. "That is, if he doesn't want to end up as a coffee table."

The robot gave a mechanical squeak, and waggled the shower head slightly.

"How do we do this?" Steve asked, looking over the huge green (and rather grubby) body.

"Hulk does rain experiment," Hulk said in his deep bass, and lumbered over to the robot. He squinted at it, and then ordered, "make rain."

"Experiment?" Steve echoed, looking between Tony and Bruce, who was biting his lip in embarrassment.

"He's big on being just like Daddy right now," Tony murmured, and yanked off his shirt to stand barefoot in his jeans. "All right. Hulk, we're going to start the experiment now. Ready?"

Hulk glared down at Dummy. "Make rain!" He punctuated this with a booming thud of one knuckled fist against the adamantium floor.

The water immediately spurted from the showerhead, hitting full in that great green face and drenching the Hulk's curly hair. He gave a short roar of shock. "You stupid overgrown paperweight, I told you to turn it on slowly!" Tony hissed, and to Steve's shock he actually stepped between the Hulk and the robot. He gently put a hand on the Hulk's mammoth forearm as water spattered onto his back. "It's okay. It's okay. I'm right here."

"Hulk not see!" Hulk roared, and swiped at his eyes, water rolling away from his shoulders. "Where...? Hulk NOT SEE!"

"Well, that's done it," Tony said as Hulk swiped at his eyes once more, before bringing his fists down onto the floor, water spraying everywhere.

"Now what?" Steve asked. Hulk snarled with fury and reached blindly for his robotic tormentor.

"It's all right," came Bruce's voice from his place in the corner. At the sound of that warm, dusty voice the tension immediately drained from Hulk's huge shoulders and his arms dropped to his sides. "Hulk. It's okay."

"Take a step back, big guy," Tony said in the most soothing tone Steve had ever heard him use. He hadn't even known Tony could speak like that.

Hulk hesitated, and then with slow, deliberate movements he moved one giant foot backwards, then the other. The water spattered against his chest rather than his face. He gingerly opened his eyes. "Okay?"

"It's okay," Bruce repeated.

Steve stepped forward cautiously, making sure that Hulk could see him at all times. "Well, he's wet."

"Is he ever," Tony said flippantly, but it was apparent that he was vastly relieved that his robot had been spared a smashing. He patted the thing's side once, before turning back to Hulk, all business. "Shit, this is gonna be a big job. I've got some sponges and some liquid soap."

Up close, Hulk smelled... really bad. Worse, now that he was wet. "We're gonna need a lot of soap."

The Hulk held out one huge hand and watched the droplets bouncing from his palm. "Rain," he commented to no-one in particular.

"That's right," Bruce said. "Now, we can go to the next stage of the experiment."

Hulk looked up, his eyes meeting the brown ones in the corner. "Next?"

"We can use the rain to get clean," Bruce explained. "Star Man and Tony can show you how."

Hulk's brows began to draw together. "Star Man."

"Here," Steve said and nervously stepped into Hulk's direct line of vision. "Uh, Stark?"

Tony squirted some liquid onto a sponge and tossed it to Steve, who held it up in front of the narrowing green eyes. "See this?" Telegraphing his moves, he ran the sponge up and down his own arms, then along his sides and over his own shoulders. Suds followed in its wake.

"Okay, let's talk about how much you are going to owe me for not putting this on Youtube," Tony snickered. "You look like an 80's shower gel commercial." Steve blushed, but shot a quelling glare at Stark regardless.

"Bubbles," Hulk said, and hunched down to squint at the suds on Steve's arms.

"That's right," he said, encouraged by the Hulk's interest. Although having something that size so close was... unnerving. "You wanna give it a go?"

Hulk frowned, and then, faster than even Steve could react, he ran a huge green finger through the suds on his arm. He studied the bubbles thoughtfully, and then gave a rather dignified nod.

"Rain and bubbles," Hulk pronounced. "Hulk will experiment."

"Catch, Jolly Green," said Tony, sending another loaded sponge towards them with a gentle underhanded toss. Hulk's arm shot out like lightning, his fist snapping around it.

"Son of a gun," Steve blurted. It was so easy to forget how fast Hulk moved.

"Smashed," Hulk said mournfully when he opened his hand. He'd definitely done a number on it. It looked like a lumpy piece of rope instead of a great big sponge.

"It's okay," Bruce said. "Put it under the water."

Hulk tilted his head, and then shambled closer to the spray. The sponge swelled as the water hit it, unravelling and resuming its former shape. Hulk jerked back, his eyebrows shooting up. "Not smashed!"

"It fills with water," Bruce explained.

Hulk actually smiled. "Not smashed," he repeated with satisfaction. That smile was certainly not one that looked terribly reassuring, Steve thought, his heartbeat returning to something resembling normal. There was so much savagery in it.

With several looks over to where Bruce stood, Hulk carefully closed his fingers around the sponge again. It looked to be a rather rehearsed action. "No bang, no smash," he said proudly.

"You are a total expert at that now," Tony congratulated him.

That savage smile again – but there was something very childlike in the way Hulk preened at the compliment. There was more to the team's powerhouse than Steve had ever realised.

"Experiment," Hulk said abruptly and before Steve could open his mouth, the sponge was rubbing roughly all over his face.

"Gllngh!" he said as he choked on soap and water.

Tony immediately cracked up in hysterical laughter.

"Ah," Bruce said, and he was holding back his own amusement, Steve could just tell. "I think the idea behind the experiment is that you make the rain and bubbles on you, not on Star Man."

"But Star Man had bubbles."

"He put them on himself. So Hulk can put bubbles on himself."

The sponge was taken away, and Steve gasped, spluttering. "Oh, and try not to get it in your eyes or mouth," Bruce added. Through stinging, blurred vision Steve could make out Bruce's wry quirked grin.

Tony wheezed, clutching at his stomach.

"Rule Two?" Hulk said plaintively. Steve ran his face under the water and rubbed furiously at his eyes.

"It's fine," Bruce said. "Mistakes are okay. Just... you should probably apologise to Star Man. It's not nice to experiment with other people without their permission."

Hulk scowled a little, but turned to Steve. "Hulk sorry," he muttered.

"It's okay," Steve managed, and coughed up a few bubbles. Tony made a small sound of glee.

"Like this?" Hulk asked him, and rubbed the sponge awkwardly onto his chest.

"That's it," Steve croaked. His mouth tasted like whatever that soap stuff was.

Hulk gave a huff of satisfaction, and concentrated for some time on making the bubbles cover as much of his torso as possible. Sudsy water pooled around his feet and washed away to the drain in the centre on the floor, carrying bits and pieces of rubble and dirt with it.

"We should wash his hair," Steve said as Hulk squeezed the sponge flat and watched in fascination as it filled with water again.

"Let's leave his head til last," Bruce said. "He might end up with it in his eyes, and..." he trailed off. He didn't really need to finish that sentence.

"So that means..." Steve stopped.

"Pants off," Bruce sighed.

"Hey, if you insist," Tony said, and gave him a rakish smirk.

"I meant him."

"I have nothing to hide," Tony grinned. Steve stifled a sigh.

"Look, I can understand if you want to leave now," Bruce said. "I'll... I'll call you back when he needs his hair washed. Can you wait outside in the antechamber?"

"If you're sure..." Steve said dubiously.

Bruce gave him a small smile. "It's fine."

"What if you need help?" Tony crossed his arms. "He won't let you touch him. So what happens if he needs his back scrubbed, huh? Nope. I'm staying."

Well, that effectively nailed his foot to the floor. "I guess we both are," Steve sighed. "Now what?"

"Follow my lead," Bruce murmured. "And, well. Sorry about this."

"Are you high? I could write three papers on what we've achieved so far, and that's not even going into the science of it."

Bruce smiled again, before turning to the green giant. "Hulk?"

Hulk looked up.

"I think I need to get clean too. Can I join in the experiment?"

"Oh, yeah," Tony nodded enthusiastically. "Bruce so needs to be in on this. He is a dirty, dirty boy."

Steve shot Tony a threatening look.

Hulk bared his teeth for a long moment, his breath rumbling in his chest as he thought. The sponge filled with water again in his careless fingers. "No touch," he said eventually.

"Not unless you want," Bruce promised and with surprising deftness he stripped his shirt off, carefully pulling it over his head and cast with his good arm. Underneath he looked like some sort of expressionist artwork, all yellows, blues and browns. The bruises were still very painful-looking, and Steve's wasn't the only sharp intake of breath.

Bruce didn't stop with the T-shirt, though. He pulled at his belt and with nimble fingers managed to undo his trousers one-handed. They fell to his feet and he stepped out of them, kicking them against the wall. "Right," he said, and then matter-of-factly tugged down his boxer-briefs and stood unselfconsciously naked in the middle of a rubble-filled adamantium cell with two other men, a robot, and a rage monster.

"Shit, Banner, why don't you ever wear clothes that fit?" Tony said admiringly. "Give us a spin, go on."

Bruce rolled his eyes. "Oh, get lost. The mystery was lost after the very first battle. The whole team's seen me naked by now."

But Steve knew what Tony meant. Somehow this was different, somehow in this room, with Bruce so obviously vulnerable – this was very different. He seemed younger and older at the same time, and it suited him.

"Banner hurt," Hulk said, and growled. "Hurt, hurt, hurt."

"Yes," Bruce said, his eyes softening a bit. "I'm getting better though. We should get back to our experiment."

Hulk looked at him a moment longer, the green eyes lingering over the bruising. Then he shook himself and nodded. "Experiment."

"Can I have a sponge, Steve?"

Steve handed Bruce the one he had been using, and fell back as Bruce sat down on the ground in an easy cross-legged position. Reaching over to the shower, Bruce wet it and then began to scrub at his legs, feet and lower torso. "Actually, that water's a nice temperature," he commented.

"Of course it is," Tony said, a little taken aback at how cavalier Bruce was being. "I was in charge of it."

Hulk huffed and snorted and watched Bruce with puzzled, haunted eyes. Then he sat down on the floor as well with a boom that made the entire room rattle and Dummy rock slightly on his base. He prodded at his grey trousers a little, his growls intensifying.

"I can't believe I'm about to say this," Steve muttered, before raising his voice. "Hulk? Take off your pants."

"Give him a moment," Bruce murmured. "He'll work it out."

Hulk looked between Bruce and himself for a moment, and then arranged his legs so that he was mimicking the other exactly. He changed the sponge to his other hand, before frowning at it. "No more bubbles."

"Hang on," Tony said, and squeezed a dollop of soap onto the sponge. After slowly compressing it with precise and careful concentration a few times, Hulk nodded in satisfaction at the suds that came spilling between his fingers.

And then he reached for his grey pants with his free hand and tore them off with one loud ri-i-ip!

"What has been seen," Steve heard Tony moan. Hulk was extremely grubby. Also, big – but that had been expected. The dirt and rubble that showered down amidst the strips of grey material had not been. Steve let out a rueful laugh and rubbed at his soap-stinging eyes.

"Well, you were right, Bruce, he worked it out," he said.

"What did I tell you," Bruce said serenely as the Hulk began to mimic him in pushing the sponge over his body.

It was a strange sight. Bruce sat before Hulk as though leading him in a meditation. Hulk followed Bruce's movements exactly, and so it resembled a bizarre, choreographed dance. Their faces, so astoundingly similar and so very different, were both relaxed in repose and both sets of eyes were closed against the spray of the water. The steam rose up around them, the suds sliding down their skin. Steve's fingers itched for his sketchbook.

Then he caught Tony's expression. The billionaire was watching the scene with a half-yearning, half-frowning look on his face. Just as he was about to say something, Tony noticed Steve's attention and his expression slid into something closer to his normal cocksure arrogance.

"You watch the show, I'll go get the new pants," he whispered to Steve, and he slipped out of the door before he could answer.

What the heck is going on with my team? Steve thought helplessly.

Bruce's eyes opened slowly, blinking, and he smiled in an absent sort of way at the calm, tranquil look on the Hulk's face. "Hulk," he said softly.

Hulk's eyelids fluttered open. "Nice," he rumbled, and was that a note of wonder in that rough voice? Steve was now thoroughly gobsmacked. Hulk was so much more than he had been led to believe. He was slightly ashamed that he'd considered the behemoth to be little other than a mindless battering ram of rage.

"Getting clean can be nice," Bruce agreed.

The giant stretched his arms out a little, inspecting them, before resting his knuckles on the floor. "Clean."

"You're nearly done. The experiment is almost complete," Bruce told him.

"Experiment good?"

"A very successful result," Bruce said gently. Hulk smiled yet again. Savage and childlike, Steve thought, stunned.

"We've got to wash your hair next, big guy," Tony said, startling Steve out of his bemusement. He'd slipped back in when he hadn't been looking. Folded over his arm was a huge pair of deep purple pants. "And behind your ears, and your face and all that."

Hulk's hand rose, and he touched the flattened curls on his head with a thoughtful frown. "Hair," he repeated, before turning to Bruce. "Banner does experiment?"

"Ah..." Bruce hedged, before faltering at the look in those dark green eyes. Steve's own eyes widened. Hulk was counting on Bruce to show him what to do. Steve had tried, but Bruce was always going to be where Hulk found his direction.

"How about one of us," he stepped in, jerking his thumb between himself and Tony, "washes your hair? One each? Sound good, fellas?"

"I'm opening a salon," Tony remarked.

"Um," Bruce turned back to Hulk. "Sure. I'll finish the experiment with you."

Hulk grunted in approval. "Wash hair."

Bruce jerked back, hope rising in his face. "You want me to wash...?"

"NO!" Hulk barked, and his lip curled. "Hulk not touch Banner. Banner not touch Hulk. No."

"Okay, okay," Bruce said, and his eyes dropped to his feet. "I won't."

Hulk gave a violent snort through his nostrils. "Star Man, Metal Man. Hair?"

"Please," Bruce stressed, although his gaze didn't rise.

Hulk rolled his eyes, the meaning emphatically clear despite not having the vocabulary to express 'oh come ON' - and honestly Steve didn't understand why he was still shocked at how much he could communicate. "Please," he said, rather ungraciously.

"I bags Bruceykins," Tony said quickly.

"You what...?" Steve blinked.

"Well, this was supposed to be a bonding moment for you and the Hulk, right? Well, there he is. Go on, bond or pal it up or whatever you crazy kids called it back in ye olde times."


"Lalala, can't hear you," Tony said, and deftly swiped the bottle of soap as he knelt behind Bruce. "Hey there, spaniel boy."

Bruce turned his head to give Tony a tolerant sort of smile. "No pulling. And don't use that stuff, I'll become a walking static electricity factory."

"Well, what then?"

"In my pants," Bruce nodded over to them. "I brought my shampoo."

"Didn't know you were so fashion conscious, Doc."

"Less talk, more experiment," Hulk said crossly.

"Sorry, Green Bean. Hey Cap, can you get that for us?"

Steve fished around in the pockets and drew out a plain, plastic bottle that had clearly once been used for bottled water. "This?"

"That's it," Bruce nodded. Steve tossed it to Tony, and moved closer to watch Hulk's reactions. It had nothing to do with trying to get to the bottom of Tony's peculiar behaviour, or Bruce's terrible reticence, no Sir.

"Did you make this?" Tony asked as he poured in out and began to rub at Bruce's curls. Bruce let out a soft groan and let his head drop back slightly.

"Yes. I hated... the things available for curly... and so I made it. Didn't take... long. Only cheap... oh that's nice."

"Fuck, I really am opening a salon. If the whole science thing gets boring, I'll hook you up."

"Ha ha. Keep doing that."

"Pushy, Banner."

"I'm naked on the floor of a cell next to the Hulk and Captain America. I'm beyond your petty shame tactics."

"What do you think?" Steve tentatively asked the Hulk, who was shifting slightly as he watched the two banter.

Hulk sniffed at the lather on Bruce's head. "Smells like hot place, noisy hot place. People," he said, frowning.

Bruce made an inarticulate sound in his throat, eyes sliding shut once more as Tony's fingers massaged at his scalp. "India. I made it in India."

Steve looked back at the Hulk. How much did he see of Bruce's life? How intertwined were they, really? "He remembers that?"

"He remembers that," Bruce said shortly, his eyes remaining shut.

Tony shook his head, indicating that Steve should leave that line of questioning alone.

"Hulk can try," Hulk said, and shrugged. Then he looked at Steve with a slightly guarded expression. "Star Man to do experiment?"

"Sure thing," Steve said, and gave the Hulk his most reassuring, Captain-America-is-here smile. "I'll get some of that stuff, and we can get started."

Hulk sniffed at Bruce's head once more, and then settled back.

With a handful of the homemade shampoo, Steve approached the head of green, black and silver-ish hair with some trepidation. It was nearly at his shoulder-height, despite the fact that the Hulk was still sitting cross-legged on the floor. He picked up a strand or two of hair, and Hulk immediately twitched. Steeling himself, Steve smoothed the stuff over the hair and began to work it through in earnest.

The Hulk's hair was unbelievably coarse. Steve couldn't believe how much effort it took to get the Hulk's hair to lather at all. His arms and shoulders bunched as he massaged with practically all his enhanced strength at that overlarge head, and he still felt like he was making as much impression as a - a mosquito hammering at Tony's armour.

"All right?" Tony asked, grinning.

"If you're ever after change of upper body workout, you could give this a shot," Steve puffed.

"Hmmm," Hulk rumbled.

"Does it feel nice?" Bruce asked him, his eye cracking open lazily.

"Nice," Hulk said, and then hummed a little, causing the bones to judder in Steve's hands. It was like trying to wash a volcano, he thought a little hysterically.

"Okay," Bruce said eventually. "We done?"

Steve shook out his cramping fingers. "Clean as a whistle."

"Say thank you," Bruce prompted.

Hulk wrinkled up his nose, but turned to Steve anyway. "Thank you," he said, and patted his head with one huge hand. It nearly drove Steve to his knees.

Bruce leaned forward to rinse the shampoo from his hair, and as before, Hulk copied him. It was a much cleaner and better smelling rage monster that dried himself, pulled on the new purple pants and brushed his teeth. He opened his massive mouth for Bruce's inspection, before shuffling back and pulling a little at the new pants. "Feels funny."

"Probably because you're clean," Bruce said dryly. Turning to Tony he asked, "purple? Seriously?"

"You look good in purple," Tony said, unrepentant.

"Hang on, he's got a bit..." Steve said, and pointed out a smear of toothpaste on Hulk's chin.

"Oh, wait up," Tony bent down for the gigantic towel. In the background, Dummy swept rubble and dust away. Water trickled down the drain in the centre of the room with a musical little gurgle.

"Hulk not clean?" Hulk looked rather alarmed.

"No, it's just a bit of toothpaste on your chin. Here," Bruce said, and his hand rose and wiped off the toothpaste with a thumb. Then they froze, staring at each other.

"Oh fucksticks," Tony whispered.

"Rule Two," Bruce blurted just as the Hulk's face began to cloud over. He paused.

Steve held his breath.

Hulk growled, reluctance in every line of his great body. Then with a grudging nod he stomped over to where a new load of rocks had been unloaded into the 'smash-corner'.

"What the heck is going on, Stark?" Steve whispered. They'd been so peaceful, and then Bruce had touched him. A gentle touch, a fond one... but now the air was charged. You could cut the tension with a knife.

"I've gotta get the whole story on that myself, Cap," Tony whispered back. "Bruce is being stubborn as hell. He's no pushover in the strong-willed department, I'll give him that much, but my name is Anthony Stubborn Bastard Stark."

Steve turned. Bruce was watching a shining-clean and very resentful Hulk break apart a rock with his hands. There was a smear of toothpaste on his thumb and sadness in his eyes.


Flopping back onto his bed, the numbness stole back into Bruce's mind. He rubbed absently at the bruises on his bare chest, his cracked ribs twanging underneath his hands.

Banner not touch Hulk. And I broke my promise. I broke my promise to him without even thinking.

"That could have gone better," he murmured to his empty room.

"Talking to yourself, Doctor?"

He sat up quickly, and then winced as his collarbone screamed at him. "Who... ah. Hi Natasha."

She moved into the light, elegant and deadly, and sat down on the end of the bed beside him. "You're drenched."

"We gave him a bath."

"I heard. I think half of Manhattan heard. He's not exactly low-profile."

"And he hasn't quite worked out the whole 'inside voice' concept, I know, I know," Bruce said, gingerly touching his collarbone. "Is there something?"

She looked at him with that cool, level stare for a moment, before turning to her hands clasped between her knees. "I wanted to see if you were all right."

"I'm okay," he said, bemused. "You regularly stalk people and wait in their bedrooms to see if they're all right?"

One side of her mouth lifted the barest amount. "Yes."

Belatedly, Bruce recalled the very little he knew of Natasha – the very little that there was to know. "Right."

Her chin lifted a touch, her eyes gazing across a limitless horizon that only she could see. "I..." she said, and stopped.

"Are you okay?" he asked, concern beginning to break through that numb shell.

To his amazement, she smiled. "Something you need to understand about me, Doctor," she said softly. "I do not trust. I do not ever, ever let my guard down. I have spent years perfecting my craft, and I am damned good at it. I can slip into the skin or under the radar of anyone, anywhere."

Sensing that his words would not be welcome, Bruce kept his mouth shut.

The smile on her face became a little twisted. "So it is something I cannot have, this whole... situation. This isn't something I can deal with. I don't have the... the tools to deal with this."

"With what?" he prompted after she had sat in some silence, her eyebrows lowered.

She turned to him. "I care for you," she said bluntly.

His mouth parted on a soft inhalation of surprise.

"All of you. Us. The Avengers," she clarified, and turned away. Her mouth was set in a grim line. "It isn't something I deal with very well – well, you've seen that, when Loki took Clint. This is a weakness in me. It is a complication. I'm compromised."

"Natasha, we care for you too," he said, feeling woefully inadequate. Surely Steve was the one who should be having this conversation – or Clint. Not him. Not the emotionally crippled scientist with awe-inspiring anger management problems and the most bizarre case of multiple identity disorder the world had ever seen.

"I know," she said, and delicately laid her fiery head on his shoulder. "You don't make me face Medical. You've never asked why. You always get the first aid kit, treat me without saying a word, and never ask me to explain."

Bruce blinked at her, nestled tentatively against him. "Well, you wouldn't anyway," he said lamely.

"You make allowances for me."

"We all do that for each other. That's what being a team is, I guess."

"You guess." She laughed quietly. "That is not my previous experience of teamwork, believe me."

"I'm sorry," he offered as gently as he could. It felt so inadequate. She didn't betray a flicker of how it may have affected her, but somehow Bruce knew.

"That's why I can't stand seeing this, Doc," she said, and rested more of the weight of her head against him. It was a telling gesture of trust, of comfort, especially coming from Natasha; a woman who had her every movement under constant control. He frowned.

"Seeing what?"

"You're tearing yourself apart."

"Someone already did that," he retorted, his walls slamming back up.

"That's just what I'm talking about," she murmured. "You here, and you there. I'm right, aren't I?"

He sat and glowered at the wall.

"Thought so."

"So, you and Tony know, so what?" he snapped. "Okay, so the Hulk is part of me. He's the part that is still angry, the part that didn't... didn't. Look, never-"

"The part that rages and rages against all the things that have happened to you," Natasha whispered. "The part that cries for your mother and screams at your father. The part that wishes he could smash all the walls between yourself and what you want. The part that was thrashed and cut open and reshaped and lived and breathed the word 'monster'. The part that thought, 'if only I was good enough, I'd be loved. He'd love me.' The part that watched the only person who was ever kind to you beaten to death before your eyes."

Bruce's hands knuckled into fists. "Shut up. Shut the fuck up."

"You think I don't understand?" she breathed. "Doc. Me too. Me too."

He swallowed hard around the boulder in his throat.

"I can't watch you. I can't look at you. You remind me of me," she said, and her hand crept over to gently rest upon his trembling fist. "So empty and so angry."

"Not so empty any more," he managed.

"No," she said, contemplative. "I suppose not. But you're drowning, aren't you? Drowning, and you won't reach up and grab hold of a hand. So I'm coming down to get you. And it's a complication. This is a complication. But I can make it for you. I'd make it for all of you."

"What's a complication?"

She stilled, and drew away from him. "My file is very blank for a reason, Bruce," she said in a distant voice. "I'm the product of experimentation and training. I was created to be a weapon. Weapons don't get to experience the luxury of friendship."

"It's not a luxury," he said, frowning. "It's a fact of human existence."

"Then why are you denying it to yourself?"

He opened his mouth again, and then closed it with a snap.

"I'm trying, even though my every instinct tells me that it's wrong, sentimental, unnecessary," she stressed. "You have to try as well. Open up. Trust us. Stop running away from us."

"You don't understand," he grated, and rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand. She snagged that hand and brought it down to clasp it loosely between her own.

"No," she said flatly. "No, I don't understand, no more than you can fully understand how hard this is for me. But I do understand that you've been running your whole life, one way or another. Just... if you won't talk to me about this, at least talk to someone. Tony, or Steve. Thor. Just. Bruce, I can't watch you drowning a single day longer."

His hand felt weird clasped in hers, like it was no longer a part of his body. "Natasha, I..." he said in a strangled voice. "I can't."

She laid her head back on his shoulder, her neck arching with utter poise. "Yes. You can."


Banner touched Hulk.

Banner touched Hulk.

Banner should not touch Hulk!

Hulk smells strange. It is not bad. He smashes, and the new pants feel good and his hair feels soft. It smells like Banner. It is... good.

Hulk could get used to good.

Lots of things are good. Food is good. Smash is good. Tony and Star Man are good. Experiments are good. Hulk can be good.

Hulk can be good. This is new. Hulk has never been good before. But Banner and Tony and Star Man are pleased with Hulk. They show their teeth in smiles that mean they are happy with Hulk. They tell him he is good. They tell Hulk 'well done', and give him food and smash and make the nightmares stop.

Hulk can be good. Hulk can be good. Hulk can be good.

Hulk will be the goodest there is!


It is Tony. Hulk sits up as he comes into Hulk's shiny room. He is not wearing his metal. He has changed pants too, like Hulk. He is not wet anymore. He looks like he is thinking very hard. His face is all scrunched in around the eyebrows. Hulk dislikes that face. It needs to smile, to tell Hulk he is good.

"Changed," Hulk says, pointing to the new pants, "like Hulk."

Tony blinks, and then looks down. "Yeah, just like you, buddy," he says, and there is the smile! Good. Hulk likes that. Much better.

"Tony good?" Hulk asks, and stands. Hulk is much, much bigger than Tony, so he crouches down to peer into Tony's face. Tony looks a little nervous, but he does not smell like fear. To Hulk's surprise, Tony pats Hulk's hair once, twice.

"I'm okay, big guy," he says. "I'm a bit worried, though."

So that is what that face means. Worry. Like the worry-smell. That face is worry, not anger.

"Tony good," Hulk confirms.

"From your mouth to Brucey's ears," Tony mutters. Hulk does not understand.

He says so. "Hulk not understand."

Tony pauses, and then he pats Hulk's hair again. It is good. Feels good. Not like Star Man and the bubbles, but still. "I don't want to make you angry, big guy."

Hulk frowns. "Hulk always angry."

"Well, angrier. Can I... can I ask a question?"


"I think it might make you really upset."

Hulk doesn't like that. "Then why ask stupid question?"

"Because I'm worried," Tony sighs. He pats Hulk's hair one last time, and then shoves his hands into his pockets. "I suck at being worried. Ask anyone. I usually throw money at it until it stops worrying me, or I find something else to work on. But this... you two. You're not a machine. I can't pull you guys apart to see how you work, and put you together afterwards. Shit, this is why I employ people to deal with other people for me."

"Worried question."


Hulk shifts, and then he touches the shiny light in Tony's chest. He remembers it being dark. It frightened Hulk (and Banner. Oh, how it frightened Banner). "Hulk ask question too, after!"

"That's fair."

"Fair is good."

Tony smiles. "Sure is."


Tony takes a big breath, making the shiny light press against Hulk's finger. "How much do you remember about being Bruce?" Tony asks in a very quiet voice.

Hulk's eyes widen, and he can feel the rage begin, feel his lip begin to curl, feel the snarl building in his chest. But no. No. No. "Some," he grunts, and tries to force the rage away, the way Banner always does.

"Do you know why he's doing this?" Tony bursts out, turning to look up at Hulk. His eyes are saying 'pleasepleaseplease' and he smells like worry again.

"Banner doing what?" Hulk growls, and pulls his hand away. The urge to smash is rising, but Hulk can be good. He will not smash Tony. Tony is special.

"Hiding," Tony snaps. "Running the fuck away! He drops a – a bombshell, confirms something really huge that could change everything... only to slink away and not answer anything. He gives us just enough to help you, but when it comes to himself he clams up tighter than a duck's asshole. It's fucking one step forward, two steps back with that guy. He won't talk to me. He won't talk to anyone!"

Hulk is confused now. "Banner talks to Hulk. Banner talks to Tony. Banner talks to Star Man. Hulk saw it."

"Not... no, he's not saying anything important," Tony says, and runs his hands through his hair. "He's hiding."

Hulk shrugs. It is a stupid question. "Banner always hides."

Tony gives him a sharp look. "Yeah? I mean, thanks Green Bean, that's great! Can you tell me how he hides?"

Not how. "Not how," Hulk says, because he is still not good at keeping thoughts inside.

"He hid you, didn't he?"

Hulk nods, snarling. "Trapped."

"Soon, buddy." Tony gives him a little smile. "Five days, and then you're out."

"Fire days."

"Uh, yeah. Fire days. But back to Bruce?"

"Banner touched Hulk," Hulk complains. "Not supposed to."

"Man, we really need to deal with your guilt issues." Tony raises an eyebrow. "Both of you. You're going to have to learn to trust each other eventually."

"Banner not trust Hulk," says Hulk petulantly. "Banner not trust anyone. The woman cries, and the man is cruel."

Tony blinks.

Hulk warms to the subject. "The man hurts and hurts and hurts Banner. Hulk is in the small places, and Banner is puny. Then Banner not puny, but they do not see. No-one sees, so Banner hides. Banner hides to be like them. Then Hulk is out of small places, and Banner hides from Hulk. Banner hides inside Hulk. Banner hides Hulk. Banner hides from everyone."

"Shit," Tony breathes. "You really are him, aren't you?"

"Hulk's question," Hulk reminds Tony.


"Hulk's question!"

"Sorry. Sorry, fine, okay. Ask away, that's fair."

"Fair," Hulk says, satisfied. Then he cocks his head, narrowing his eyes. "Why worried about puny weak Banner?"

Tony actually scowls. "He isn't weak, and he isn't puny. The guy's made of fucking willpower, and believe me when I say that it is actually a really annoying trait of his at this point in time."

Hulk gives a half-shrug. Banner is puny. "Puny."

"Everyone's puny compared to you, Shrekzilla," Tony snaps. Then he takes another deep breath and speaks in a much calmer voice. "I'm worried because I know what it's like to be totally fucked-up, a wreck, completely unhappy and full of guilt, but still putting up a big front so that no-one can see it. At least I wasn't alone – I had Pep and Rhodey, and they taught me that you can't always do it all on your own. You don't have to. No-one's ever stuck with Bruce long enough to teach him that lesson, and so he's bottled all this shit up inside and it's poisoning him. Can't you see it in his eyes?"

Hulk doesn't remember that. "Banner's eyes brown," he offers.

"And sad," Tony adds. "Bruce's eyes are always, always sad."

True. "Banner is sad," Hulk says, and feels strange.

"I want Bruce to not be sad anymore," Tony says. "I want him to be happy. I want you both to be happy. He won't talk to me, so I'm asking you."

This is why. "Questions."


Hulk snorts and turns to his new rocks. They are harder than the other ones. "Good," he says, holding one up to Tony.

"Oh, you like them? Okay, that's what we get you from now on," Tony says, and smiles once more. But the smile is tinged with sadness. His eyes are brown too. Like Banner's. Sad brown eyes.

Hulk doesn't like it. He smashes his rock onto the floor, pebbles and shards scattering everywhere.


Hulk snorts again, and sends a resentful glance over his shoulder at Tony.

"I know this isn't easy," Tony says softly. "I know it's confusing. But please – let Bruce touch you. Let him make it up to you. Show him that he doesn't have to be alone and sad anymore. You two... you're two halves of a whole. I know you feel guilty that you hurt him. But he's totally forgiven you, hasn't he?"

Hulk growls. "Hulk say sorry."

"And Bruce said it was okay, didn't he?"

Hulk has to nod at that. "Yes."

"But not letting him touch you means he thinks you're still angry. Bruce feels guilty too, you know."

"Banner say sorry," he remembers. "Banner say sorry for locking Hulk away. Banner pleased with Hulk."

"He was," Tony confirms. "He is."

Hulk is still making Banner feel bad. Hulk is not being good.

"Banner can touch Hulk," he grunts. "Hulk forgive."

Tony sighs in relief. The worry-smell fades a little.

Hulk is tired of talking about stupid, scared, puny Banner. "Enough now," he snarls, and stomps towards his pile of smashed sleep. "Hulk sleep now."

"Sure thing," Tony says, and smiles. A proper smile! Good! "Proud of you, big guy. That's a really great thing you just said. You're being the bigger man here - pun totally inadvertent."

"Tony proud of Hulk?"

"You bet."

Banner says he is proud. Tony is proud. Hulk can be proud of Hulk.

Hulk is being good.

It feels good.

"Sleep," Hulk says, and there is a strange feeling that warms something in Hulk's chest. It pops and fizzes like bubbles. Feels floaty, like balloons.

"Night, Jolly Green," Tony says. "See you tomorrow."


"What, more stuff tomorrow? Yep." Tony makes the 'p' sound pop like bubbles too. "You, me, Bruce and Shooty Bird. Whaddaya say?"

Shooty Bird! He hurt Banner! No. It wasn't Shooty Bird who hurt Banner. It was Hulk.

"Star Man?" he asks. "Tony, Hulk, Star Man, Banner, Shooty Bird?"

"Uh, if you think that won't be too many people," Tony says, eyebrows getting high.

"Star Man," Hulk says firmly. More people. Hulk is thinking of a plan. Hulk will make the best good experiment, a secret experiment. Hulk will show Banner.

They will not be alone.

Chapter Text


"And Stark?"

Tony looked up from where he had been rubbing at his mouth.

"Do you think we should let Banner know about this?" On the vidscreen, Fury folded his arms. Obviously uncomfortable with asking Tony for advice. But hell, no-one knew Bruce like Tony did, not anymore. Only one other person could claim that, and she was long gone, disappeared from Bruce's life... just like everyone else.

Tony was many things, but he was determined that he was never going to be That Guy.

"Yes," Tony said harshly, his breath gusting. "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Fuck, you think we should try and keep it from him? He's had enough of secrets, Director Eyepatch."

Fury huffed, and then he shrugged. "Had to be asked. This is a delicate operation. This individual is dangerous. We'll be calling in Hawkeye and the Widow."

"Thought you probably would." They were the best, after all.

"And we're going to need your tech on this, too."

"You're finally formally inviting me to superhero prom? Is this a hand-written invitation, Fury? Does it have little hearts drawn all over it?"

"You tell me. Stark, I would personally write you a fucking sonnet in iambic pentameter if it meant getting this motherfucker back in custody. He's a major threat to every nation on this dirtball, and worse, he is dangerously obsessed with Doctor Banner."

"I've heard the story."

"No, I don't think you have," Fury said darkly. "The whole time he was convalescing, he said nothing but two words. Two words."

"I'm probably going to regret asking this, but out of morbid curiosity, those two words were...?"

"Banner." Fury paused. "And... godlike."


"Shit indeed."

Tony told JARVIS to hold his calls, and poured himself two fingers of whiskey.

Damn it.

It had only been through some well-timed and well-chosen taunting that Hawkeye had agreed to accompany them back down to the testing cell without his bow. Tony had to imply a sexual relationship between archer and weapon before Clint would even consider it. Well, strictly speaking, that was usually the first place Tony's taunting went anyway, but still. The guy was unnaturally attached to that bow.

Tony steadfastly ignored any and all attempts at comparisons between that and his own (obsessive love) scientific diligence when it came to the Suit.

Hulk was eager to see them. His hair was fluffier and lighter when it was clean, and he smelled whole worlds better than he had. He huffed in greeting when the ever-growing group walked into the adamantium cell, grunted at Clint, and then locked eyes with Tony. He was obviously remembering the conversation they had shared the previous night.

Bruce made a beeline for the corner and awkwardly sat on Hulk's rubble-and-blanket bed. He was evidently preparing to sit there the whole time. Tony raised an eyebrow at Hulk, and then jerked his head to where the physicist was sitting and scratching underneath his cast.

Hulk made a low, rumbling noise – terrifying if you couldn't hear the note of exasperated agreement - and then rolled his eyes. The words "I GET IT, NOW SHUT UP METAL MAN" were practically floating in neon above his head.

Tony grinned. Hulk was the best.

The rumble unnerved the heck out of Katniss, though. He took a step back, his sharp gaze mapping the stance of the great green body with professional caution. When no attack was forthcoming, his brows knitted in puzzlement. "Huh."

"Got another experiment idea for you, buddy," Tony said breezily, and shot an amused look at the still-wary Hawkeye. "We brought Shooty Bird, just like you asked."

"Shooty Bird," Hulk said in that mega-bass growl, and tilted his head at Clint, eyes narrowing. "Not Shooty Bird. It was Hulk. Not Shooty Bird."

"Uh, what?" Clint looked a bit flummoxed, though Tony had an inkling of what their big green crankypants was talking about. It wasn't too nice – and damn if it wasn't exactly the sort of thing Bruce would hate to have splashed about in front of the rest of the team.

Welp. Suck it up, Banner.

"That's right," he said, brazening through the moment (well, if it works...), and Bruce's glance was sharp and suspicious. "But remember? Everyone was sorry, and it was all okay. Bruce forgave you."

Bruce's adam's apple bobbed visibly, but he maintained the calm facade. Of course. God, Tony hated the calm facade. "That's right," he said in a voice that was only slightly hoarse. "It's all right, Hulk. You were sorry for hurting me, and I was sorry for hurting you."

"Maybe... Rule Three?" Steve suggested delicately.

Hulk frowned like a thunderstorm. "Rule Tree?"

"TH-ree," Bruce said, and nodded to the counting experiment. "One, two, three."

Hulk blinked, and then studied his row of smashed objects carefully for a moment. "One, two, two-one... tree?" he said, and looked up. Bruce gave him a soft, crinkled smile.

"Close enough. Rule Tree it is."

"What is?" Clint asked, looking around at everyone with a completely bemused expression on his face. "Rules? Hulk gets rules now?"

"Rule One," Hulk said, giving Clint a rather contemptuous and superior look. "No scare, no smash. Rule Two, mistakes okay. Now Rule Tree."

Clint blinked. "Which will be...?"

"Once we say sorry, it's in the past?" Steve offered.

"Sorry is usually just the start," Bruce muttered. Tony shot him an exasperated look. Walking sad factory, the man was a fucking walking sad factory.

"Sorry, forgive, all over," Tony suggested.

Hulk made a low rumble of agreement. "Rule Tree. Sorry, all over."

"That's... I didn't know he could do this," Clint said in awe. "Why the hell didn't we know this about him? He's been catching us and fighting with us for two freaking years; how did we NOT know that he could reason?"

"Because we never bothered to find out," Tony said, hating that he'd never acted on his suspicions, and as usual when he was irritated with himself, his mouth decided to take independent action. "Because somebody was so convinced that talking to Jolly Green was a bad move and that he was just too dangerous to approach outside a smashy situation and that it was a total waste of time to try and that he was a ticking bomb with..."

"Shut up, Tony," Bruce grated, and his eyes flashed. "Now."

"So, the experiment for today?" Steve said with rather enforced jollity into the ensuing – and uncomfortable - silence.

"Experiment," Hulk echoed, and a crafty look briefly passed over his face so fleetingly that Tony couldn't have sworn it was there at all. "Star Man, Metal Man, Banner, Shooty Bird." And he nodded at Clint. "Shooty Bird here."

"Hey there, Jade Jaws," Clint said in a steady voice – not warm, not cool. Neutral. "Good to see you."

"Shooty Bird always up too high." Hulk made his snarling approximation of a smile, and the archer started a little, before his eyes widened.

"That's a smile, and he's not about to smash?" he spluttered. "He can smile?"

"And laugh," Steve added.

"And hear you," Bruce said irritably.

"Right, right. Um, yeah. Up high is where I like it, big fella. I see better from a distance."

Hulk knuckled forward in that unnervingly fast manner of his, and sniffed at Clint absently, before rocking back on his haunches. He tilted his great head. "Who catch Shooty Bird now?"

"Wait, what is this, what the hell?" Clint looked back at Steve and Tony with confusion. Tony covered his mouth to hide his grin. Confused was a good look on Clint.

"I caught him, Hulkster," he said. "Sorry you couldn't see it. I know it's usually your job, but I did you a solid and covered for you. It's just until you get out of here."

Hulk blinked slowly as he parsed that, and then nodded. "Four."

"Very good," said Bruce softly. "That's right. Four days left."

Hulk drew himself up, and gave Clint a hard look – and when the Hulk drew himself up and gave hard looks, there was a lot more up to draw and hardness to the look than there would be for anyone else. "Shooty Bird careful," he growled. "No Hulk to catch you. Four days no Hulk."

Clint gaped.

"Say you'll be careful," Tony hissed. "You'll make him worried."

"He fucking what, the what?"

"Yes, he worries too," Tony snapped. "Tell him."

"It's fine," Steve said in his most reassuring voice – and damn could Captain Nostalgia nail a reassuring voice. "I'm looking out for them."

Hulk's mouth tightened. "Good. Good. Good."

Clint looked somewhere between amazed and annoyed. "Uh. Shit, Jade Jaws, you know I can take care of myself. But fine, fine!" he blurted when Hulk's head swung back to him, a ferocious frown on that face. "I'll be careful, and no jumping off stuff. Promise."

"That'll be the day," Tony murmured. Clint shot him a glare.

Hulk straightened, and then hunched down into his favourite waiting pose – on his haunches, with one mammoth hand knuckled against the ground. He looked much more satisfied with Clint's answer now that he had scared a promise out of him.

"Experiment?" he said, and darted a look over at where Bruce sat neatly. Then that fast-as-lightning, blink-and-you'll-miss-it craftiness passed over his face again. "Hulk's experiment," he said with vast satisfaction, and thumped one fist against his chest proudly.

"Your experiment," Bruce confirmed, and Hulk's vast shoulders lifted a little out of their habitual stoop.

"I think you'll like it," Tony said, and grinned when Hulk gorilla-hopped towards him, curiosity firing in those green eyes. Damn if he didn't look like Banner right at that moment – that look of excitement was just the same. "Wanna go get the gear, Shooty Bird?"

"Watch your back, 'Metal Man'," Clint hissed, before slipping out of the door.

"I'll give him a hand," Steve said, watching him go. Then he gave Tony a stern look. "Quit it, Stark. We're meant to be setting a good example here."

Bruce made an indecipherable noise that was quickly choked off.

Tony's grin felt like it was threatening to take his head off. "Yes, O Captain, My Captain."

Steve sighed loudly and stalked after Clint, muttering to himself.

They returned after only a few moments, hauling a ton of cans and a huge roll of butcher's paper. "We're probably going to need to give him another shower after this, you know," Steve said as he placed his armful down.

"He'll be an expert, then," Tony said dismissively. "C'mon, experiment time. I wanna see what he'll come up with."

"You want to give me a hand here, Stark?" Clint's voice came acidly from behind a stack of cans.

"Not particularly."

"You know, I've mapped your entire ventilation system. You won't know I'm there until it's too late."

"Really? The entire thing? I hope you enjoy the booby traps."

"Booby traps? What boo- you bastard."

"Stop it, the pair of you," Bruce said, and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "Please. I'm not too proud to beg."

Tony perked up. "Promise?"

"Stark, give it a rest," Steve said repressively, because he was a spoilsport who hated fun. There was a glimmer of suspicion in their Glorious Leader's eyes, however, that Tony didn't want to look too closely at for fear he'd have to admit a few things to himself.

"Fine," he waved them all away – Steve and thoughts alike. "Killjoy."

"So what's the idea here?" Clint scratched at his head as Steve spread out the huge sheets of butcher's paper and put his hands on his hips, nodding in satisfaction.

"Got the idea from some behavioural development markers for young kids," Bruce explained. "And with Steve here... well. He's an artist, right? And it seemed to be the sort of thing you're supposed to do with children, I guess. I've never really spent all that much time with them outside of a medical capacity."

"Fingerpainting," Steve clarified when Clint continued to look confused.

"Oh." Clint's face went carefully blank again, and Tony was once more reminded that Bruce's wasn't the only nightmarish childhood in the room. "And you need me why?"

"Hulk wanted you here," Tony shrugged. Clint looked up at their green teammate, who was trying (and failing) to look innocent. He had certain disadvantages in that area.

"What are you up to, hmm?" Tony mused.

Hulk gave a truly thunderous scowl. "Not up. No up here. Hulk is down. Hulk underground."

"Uh." Well, he wasn't wrong there. But... "No, it's a figure of... nevermind. So Bob Ross, wanna show us how it's done?"

Steve very obviously stifled another sigh. Tony rather enjoyed getting them out of Steve. It was like having an extremely patriotic annoyance-barometer. "Well, I'll start us off, but there aren't any rules to fingerpainting, Tony. Hulk? Want to watch me?"

Hulk sent a final snort at Tony, before pointedly turning his back to watch Steve dip the tips of his fingers in the green paint and send them sweeping across the paper. He started in surprise, grunting and jerking, before letting out a short roar of astonishment. "Green! Like Hulk!"

"Yep." Steve sat back and then grabbed a cloth, wiping off his fingers. "Gotta clean your hands," he explained. "Otherwise the colours get mixed up."

Hulk snarled in confusion, muscles bunching. He obviously didn't understand.

"Better hurry up with that demo, Cap," Clint said, shifting into a ready pose on the balls of his feet, eyes wary and locked on the Hulk.

"Stop it," Tony hissed. "He's fine, jeez."

"I'm not the type to take chances, Stark," Clint said, eyes still trained on the Hulk.

"Excuse me, do my dainty ears deceive me? Yes, you are. You are exactly the type to take chances, Shooty Bird," Tony snapped. "Thrown yourself off any buildings recently? Oh wait, yes. And I'm the one that caught you! Christ on a crutch, the fucking Hulk made you promise to be careful!"

Clint shot him a poisonous look, but couldn't really say anything to refute that.

Steve was ignoring their bickering with lofty disdain as he dipped his fingers into the purple paint and swept over the paper again. Slowly the shape took form.

"It's you, see?" Steve said, and wiped off his fingers once more in order to load up with black. A smudge of curly hair, two deep-set eyes and a half-smiling, half-snarling mouth completed the rough portrait. "Do you like it?"

Hulk's face twitched. His expressions flickered and died before they reached maturity as he studied the butcher's paper with the rough sketch on it. "Hulk? Hulk on paper?"

"You can have it, if you like," Steve said.

"But Hulk here!" Hulk roared with sudden vehemence, and Bruce swore under his breath, before standing and moving slowly towards the giant, his good hand held up in a calming gesture.

"Shh, it's fine. Hulk? Hulk? Rule One!"

Hulk took in another breath, before subsiding with his fists tightly clenched. "Hulk is not in paper. Hulk is Hulk. Hulk not in paper."

"It's a picture," Bruce said gently. "A picture. It's not the real thing. I can draw a picture of anything, but it doesn't mean it is the real thing. That stays. This picture is a picture of Hulk that Steve – uh, Star Man drew. But the real Hulk is here. See?"

Hulk gave Bruce a mulish look. "Hulk not in puny paper."

"No," Bruce agreed. "Look, I'll have a go. We'll all have a go. Why don't you draw something?"

"Not real," Hulk said in an almost plaintive tone. "Not Hulk. Why?"

"For fun," Bruce explained.

"And to measure and stimulate creative and intellectual development," Tony muttered under his breath as his sphincter slowly unclenched. Fuck him drunk, but Hulk's moods were rough on a guy with a heart condition.

Hulk hunkered down before a new sheet of paper. "Team all make... pictures?" Hulk said, awkwardly testing out the new word.

"Why the hell not?" Tony said, blowing out the last of his nerves. He sat down, grabbing the red paint immediately. Steve gave him a sour look.

Bruce gingerly lowered himself down, not quite hiding his wince as his shoulder pulled again. He'd done some damage to his healing, Tony thought grimly, and then tried to shake the worry from his mind.

"This is a waste of my time," Clint said flatly. "I could be at the range, instead of here in Hulk kindergarten."

"Clint," Tony began.

Hulk frowned. "Shooty Bird make pictures."

Clint snorted. "Yeah, don't think so. See ya, Jade Jaws. I'm gonna..."

"Hawkeye," came the very quiet, very stern voice of Captain America – a field voice, a battle voice; commanding, confident and utterly incapable of being disobeyed. "Sit down and fingerpaint with your teammates. Now."

Clint gave him a startled look, before his legs folded without apparent conscious direction and he mutely grasped the purple paint to his chest.

"Thank you," Steve said more normally. Hulk gave Clint a victorious, savage smile.

"Shooty Bird paint too," he said with smug satisfaction.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Clint muttered, and dipped his finger into the paint to begin working.

Hulk seemed to really like the black paint, though he was using the green and the red a lot as well. He wasn't the greatest at remembering to wipe off his index finger (he definitely couldn't fit his whole hand into the tin like Steve had) but he did, on occasion, rub the cloth over his hands. It was interesting to note that he was left-handed, just like Bruce. There was a streak of blue paint in the rough curls above his brow, and Steve eyed it with a slightly rueful expression.

"I am not washing his hair again," he muttered.

"Hey, it's my salon, you follow my rules or you're out on your keister, lowly apprentice," Tony said peaceably, and dabbed a bright yellow sun above the picture of himself in the suit riding a dinosaur and playing a guitar. And holding a lance. Surrounded by lightning and robot unicorns, because fuck yeah robot unicorns.

Okay, perhaps the lance was overkill.

"I thought it was my salon?" Bruce said, quirking an eyebrow and reaching for the green.

"I'm the financial backer, what I say goes," Tony said, and swiped yellow down Bruce's nose. He gave Tony a sardonic, long-suffering look. "You're just the brains of the outfit."

"Glad someone is," Clint muttered.

"Blue," Hulk said, and then cleared his throat with a sound like someone bashing two rocks together. "Please."

"Uh, sure..." Clint carefully placed the blue tin onto the Hulk's broad palm, and then watched bemusedly as he dipped a red-smeared finger into it and spattered the blue all over the paper.

"Very nice manners," Bruce praised him.

"Um. Yeah," Clint echoed. "Very nice."

Hulk didn't answer, but his back straightened ever so slightly.

Steve's nose was almost touching his piece of paper, and his tongue was wedged between his teeth in total concentration.

"Man, I am crap at this," Clint said, sitting back and wiping off his hand. "Seriously, I think I'll stick to shooting stuff. Art is not for me."

Tony peered over at the riotous, colourful mess on Hawkeye's page. His usual instinct would have been to tease the hell out of Clint for such a pisspoor painting, but some hitherto unknown sense of tact (Pepper would be fucking amazed, and so would Rhodey, for that matter) informed him that this wasn't the best move. Instead he put his hand on Clint's muscled shoulder, solid as concrete from years of drawing that bow. "What is it?"

Clint's sideways glance was a little surprised. "Uh, it's a circus. See, there's the audience, and that's the clowns, and that's the. The trapeze."

"Nice. I like the elephant."

"That's the clown car."

"Whatever, I like it."

"Well, I like yours. Cool lightsaber."



"Are you finished?" Bruce asked Hulk, yellow still dabbed on his nose. Tony smirked to himself.

Hulk sat back and grunted. "Team."

"Seriously?" Tony practically lunged over the Hulk's brawny green arm to peer down at the paper. What greeted him looked exactly like every child's drawing he'd ever seen – totally incomprehensible. "Where's me?"

Hulk pointed at a blob of red that had been copiously mixed with green and blue. "Metal Man."

"That. Is fantastic. Seriously. I may expire," Tony announced, and grinned at the blob a bit giddily. "I've been immortalised by the Hulk."

"I think we need to get a bucket for him to wash his fingers in," Clint said dryly. "He's mixed everything together. We've got six tins of brown coming up."

"System failure," Tony agreed.

"That must be me," Steve said, smiling and pointing at a smear of blue that had interacted with the black beside it to form a blackish-blue mess.

Hulk beamed. "Yes! Star Man!"

"Me?" Clint asked, and Hulk pointed to the top of the painting at a purple and yellow... thing. Tony sniggered.

"You're up high again, Robin of Loxley."

"Which means that that's Hulk there," Steve smiled and indicated a green handprint below the 'Clint'... thing. "He's ready to catch you."

Hulk gave them his savage smile. "Hulk."

"That's Natasha, then," Clint said, tilting his head and nodding to the black that had smeared into the blue of Captain America. "And I'll bet that's Thor. Jeez. Poor Thor. No-one tell him."

The blobby mess in question had been smashed a few times. Enthusiastically.

"It's great," Bruce said, and smiled up at his alter ego. "It's really great. You could be really good at this."

"Good?" Hulk seemed to be very insistent about that word. "Hulk good?"

Bruce's smile turned sad again, and Tony bit down on a hundred swear words. "Yes," he said. "Hulk is good."

Hulk threw out his chest and gave a short roar of triumph. "Hulk good!"

"Where's Bruce?" Tony asked, and looked up at Hulk. The triumph dimmed a little, and the green eyes slid away.

"I'm on there, Tony," Bruce said quietly. "Look at Hulk's handprint."

It was surrounded by blobby swirls of black and brown.

"Oh." He sat back. "You're all around him."

"That's what I'm for, what we do," Bruce said wryly, and looked up at his alter ego. "Right?"

Hulk nodded. "Banner." Bruce huffed a quiet laugh, and then held up his own sheet of butcher's paper.

"Great minds," he said rather obliquely. "Or, well. Great mind, anyway."

Bruce's painting was somewhat more coherent, with the attention to detail in places that marked someone of a rather meticulous bent. The team was clearly recognisable, with Clint up in the air and Thor flying with his hammer off to one side, just as in Hulk's drawing. But most telling was that instead of a depiction of Hulk and of Bruce as separate people, he'd drawn himself; a middle-height man with curly hair in swirls of black, wearing a brown shirt. Encapsulating him was the larger form of Hulk, like a pair of Russian nesting dolls.

Tony shook his head once or twice, so far beyond being surprised at this point that he was kind of numb with it all, before meeting Bruce's eyes.

Bruce looked back at him, steadfast, inflexible and with a side-order of self-hatred. Fuck.

"I think we should put these on the fridge," Clint said, peering over at Steve's. "Except Cap's, we sell Cap's."

"It's not finished," Steve mumbled, and reached for a tin, but Tony pulled it out of reach, not breaking eye contact with Bruce. There was too much to talk about. He couldn't slither away this time, and Tony was going to make sure of it.

"Come on, you starving artist you. Finish the masterwork upstairs. If you're not gonna wash Hulk's hair then take a hike."

Steve's eyes darted up, and he grabbed his work protectively. "All that water, it'll..." he said, and then seemed to pull himself out of whatever painting haze had captured him. "You sure?"

"Scoot," Tony said, jerking his head, and then nudged Clint. "You too, Tweety Bird."

"Shooty Bird," Clint said, looking injured.

"Beat it, and take the paint with you," Tony said, and carefully handed his own painting to Steve (he was thinking of calling it IRON GLORY).

"Red-Black," Hulk said abruptly. "Next experiment. Red-Black."

"Does he mean the paint?" Clint wondered, but Bruce had stiffened.

"He means Natasha," he said in a tense voice.

Clint's jaw dropped open, before he remembered himself. "I'll tell her," he said diplomatically, before grabbing tins upon tins. "See you next time, Jade Jaws, yeah?"

"Shooty Bird," Hulk said, and gave a strange rumble that Tony was beginning to realise meant affection. "Next time. Next experiment."

"What, all of us?" Clint's eyebrows flew upwards. "Seriously?"

"Except Thor," Bruce said in a tone that brooked no opposition. "Seriously, no Thor, not yet."

Clint threw an amused look at Hulk's painting. "Poor guy." Then he hefted the tins and made his way out of the door.

"Not getting away this time, Brucey-babes," Tony said in a low voice, before he noticed the man still working feverishly at his feet. "Oh, for fuck's sake, Cap – it's a finger painting, not the Sistine Chapel!"

"Sorry, sorry," Steve said, still scribbling with the excess paint on his fingertips.

"Out, soldier!"

"Going, Sir!" Steve grabbed his work and marched towards the door, before pausing. "Hang on, you don't get to order m-"


Steve gave him a suspiciously knowing look and one last sigh before exiting the adamantium cell.

The minute Steve had walked his star-spangled ass out of the door, Tony grabbed Hulk's giant finger. "Come on now," he said. "Quick, before they come back." And he tugged a couple of times.

"Tony!" Bruce stood in shock, his face draining. "Tony, stop it!"

"I'm fine, he's fine," Tony puffed. Damn, the Hulk was the proverbial fucking immovable object. He felt like a toddler hauling on Dad's hand – and not a good thought, steer away from that thought. He chanced a look up at his face only to be greeted by some serious uncertainty in those eyes. Hulk's mouth was a flat line, and his jaw was jutting ominously. "Come on, Green Bean. We talked about this!"

Hulk grunted, and then lifted his arm. Tony was caught by surprise, and the finger he had been holding slipped out of his hands and he stumbled a little. "Jeez, warn a guy..." he grumbled.

With a snort that was half a laugh, Hulk prodded Tony's shoulder. "Tony pushy."

"Damn right," Bruce muttered.

"Bitch Banner."

"Tony Snark."

"Oh, like I haven't heard that one before. Hulk, you're killing me here. We got the blond brigade out of the room, go kiss and make up already, yeah?"

"You'd know it if he was killing you," Bruce said darkly, and Tony felt a hot rush of anger trickle down his spine.

"Okay, fuck you. He'd never hurt me; Hulk's my friend. I believe in him – in you – in all of you. And I am fucking sick of being the only one, so for fuck's sake put on your big boy trousers, Banner, and start trusting yourself for once."

There was a silence in which the only movement was Hulk shifting to look at first one man, then the other. Those green eyes were filled with rising alarm and anger at the tension in the room – and they probably only had a few seconds left before he began to smash shit out of sheer confusion and unhappiness. But Tony didn't care, right at that moment. Tony wasn't going to let Bruce talk about Hulk – about himself – that way, not anymore. His blood was up and he waited, daring Bruce to say his usual goddamned negative, self-hating shit. The stupid, brilliant, guilty, fascinating, fucked-up asshole.

Bruce's mouth snapped shut. Then his eyes dropped as a small smile crossed his lips. "You've been waiting to say that, haven't you?"

"It was fucking glorious," Tony confessed.

"Feel better?"

"Yeah. Wait, nope, I have a lot more stored up."

"I can imagine."

"No, no you really can't. But it can wait, because Hulk has dibs." Tony looked back up at Hulk, whose shoulders were relaxing slightly as the expected fight failed to materialise. "Go on, big guy. Show him."

Hulk made a confused sound, but didn't start smashing. Gods bless Rule One. "Banner," he rumbled.

Bruce's eyes immediately clouded over with that now-familiar terrible sadness and guilt, and Tony wanted to claw them out. Damn him. "Yes, Hulk?"

Hulk's hand reached forward slowly, slowly. Bruce's mouth went slack with shock as it brushed against his hair, before it nudged a finger against Bruce's unbruised cheek. "Touch," Hulk said. Then he made an unhappy little noise in the back of his throat. "Hulk sorry. Touch. Rule Tree?"

With a hand that visibly shook, Bruce tentatively wrapped his fingers around the mammoth wrist. "But..." he said, looking a little lost.

"We had a chat," Tony said, feeling smug. He was hot shit. He was three for three when it came to being right about Hulk. Yeah. It was soooooo good. In your face, Richards, Tony 'Hulk-Whisperer' Stark was so smart he could analyse and give emotional counsel to a force of fucking nature. "It was about you, and about guilt, and about letting you two connect."

"Ah," Bruce said faintly.

"Banner," Hulk said again, and his mammoth head lowered. "Rule Tree? Hulk good?"

"Yes," Bruce said, still faint, still lost and shocky. "Yes, that's good. Very good."

"Good." Hulk's hand pushed a little at Bruce's face – and Tony recognised in that touch the control they'd worked on, the level of dexterity Hulk had reached while practising with red and yellow balloons. Bruce's face turned this way and then that as Hulk nudged his chin from side to side, studying him with a sort of absent, pleased fascination. "Banner good?"

Bruce's expression twisted a little.

"He is," Tony interrupted before Bruce could drag the whole conversation down into the dumps. God, the man was a walking gloom factory sometimes. "You know he is. Banner's a freaking saint. You remember. What does he do when you run?"

Hulk's hand moved to cradle Bruce's whole skull. Puzzled green eyes cleared as the memories trickled into place. It was incredible to watch Hulk grow more accustomed to drawing on them, to place them into context and fit the pieces of their life together. "Fix." He looked down at Bruce, who was trembling a little. His whole head fit into Hulk's palm, cupped there in a strangely protective gesture. "Banner fix. Hot places. Small ones. Twenty-milligrubs-first-day-ten-milligrubs-after-days."

"Milligrams," Bruce whispered, and then his eyes slammed shut. "Quinine. Twenty milligrams per kilo on the first day, ten milligrams per kilo every day afterwards. Standard anti-malarial procedure. He remembers the dosage. The dosage. Oh my god."

"Bruciekins?" Tony said, suddenly worried. "Too much?"

"Damn it, Tony," Bruce said hoarsely.

"Banner," Hulk rumbled, and one giant thumb pushed absently at the curls on Bruce's head. He paused, and then said, "Bruce."

Bruce's whole face crumpled.

"Shit," Tony swore. Well, he hadn't meant to make the guy finally snap. So much for feeling smug – he'd wanted to bring the two of them together, not turn Bruce's repressed mess into a deluge.

"Bruce," the Hulk said again, and a muffled noise emerged from the man's chest, like a tiny animal calling from the depths of a dark well.

"Hey," Tony said, and stepped forward – to do what, he had no idea. Comfort the guy? Maybe. They still needed to talk about this shit, but if he needed...

"No, no don't," Bruce gasped, and he seemed to draw in on himself. Tony halted, uncertain. This was. No, this didn't happen. Bruce never broke down. Bruce was the epitome of control.

He was a dam made of rage and self-hatred – and it was finally, finally crumbling.

"Bruce," Hulk said yet again, and cradled Bruce's head with the gentleness he'd shown in cradling the balloons. Paint smeared over his hair. "Not alone. Good now. Good."

Bruce sucked in a huge, shuddering breath, before his face twisted in a truly shocking grimace. His teeth were gritted against whatever it was he was feeling, his lips skinned back and bloodless and his eyes screwed so very shut that the lines around them had become deep ravines.

Tony hovered, useless.

"I can't," Bruce managed through those fiercely clenched teeth. "No, I can't..."

"Can't what?" Tony said as softly as he could when Bruce stopped. His head pulled away from Hulk's careful touch and his breath came frighteningly fast as he pressed his chin against his chest, hiding his face.

"He's me, Tony," Bruce whispered.


"He's me."

"I know."

"But... if he's me, then I killed all those people. I killed them. Me. I killed them, and I wanted to, because I was stronger than them and I could. I killed them. And I locked him away – I locked me away, a little boy, he's just a sad angry little boy, oh god, oh god. I'm a monster, he was right, he was right." Bruce's voice was becoming higher and faster, though it was curiously devoid of inflection. Tony belatedly recognised the signs of a total meltdown.

"Shit," he said, and stepped forward again to rest a hand against Bruce's shoulder, give him something real to anchor to. The shoulder was shivering spasmodically under his hands. "Bruce, breathe. Breathe."

"Banner," Hulk said, concern beginning to creep into his voice. "Banner hurt."

"No!" Bruce threw his chin up to meet Hulk's worried eyes. Tony was gobsmacked to see actual tears standing in Bruce's. "No, I'm the one who hurts! Oh god, oh my god..." he broke off and rubbed at his mouth, pushing Tony's hand away.

This was insane, this was wrong. Banner didn't do this. He was stoic to a fucking fault. He never, ever let you see how much he hurt. He moved on with single-minded determination and ruthless control. This wasn't the plan. This wasn't how it was meant to go.

"I thought it was right, you know?" Bruce's laugh was possibly the most painful thing Tony had ever, ever heard. "If he wasn't me. He was a mistake, and everything was his fault, and I was right, so right, to do what I was doing. If there was any evidence to suggest otherwise, well, it was circumstantial, wasn't it?" Bruce gazed up at Hulk, his face blotchy and still twisted with hatred and guilt and sorrow and love and emotions that Tony couldn't even name, eyes glimmering through tears that were stubbornly forced not to fall. "The fucking arrogance of me," he spat at himself. "You're right, Tony – I manipulate data to suit my own ends. Not even a fucking scientist anymore; a worldwide laughing stock, a joke who ignores the evidence of his own eyes. Just a monster. Look at me! At us! We're not even whole people!"

Hulk made a crooning noise, like whalesong, and reached out to Bruce but his huge hand was batted away. "No, don't... don't touch me," he gasped and wrapped his good arm around himself so tightly that Tony could practically hear those broken ribs grating against each other.

"Bruce," he said wretchedly. "Bruce, please."

"I hate how right you are," Bruce hissed. "I hate that you were right about everything. I hate that I'm... this. I turned us into this! Well, dear old dad always did say I was a freak! Isn't it fucking lovely? Everyone's right!"

Hulk's sudden growl was terrifying and full of old, old anger.

"You're not..." Tony stopped and tried to think, but in the face of Hurricane Bruce's Emotional Breakdown it was sort of impossible to get past the internal chant of oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck. "Bruce, you're not a freak. Not a monster. You're a genius. You're smarter than me for god's sake, you think up shit I can't begin to – that Bannertech energy shield, have I told you how much that makes me want to drool? Holy crap, you made a teleporter! You made Star Trek real! And then you go around with your little bag and your spaniel hair and your crappy suits and fix everyone up, the AIDS research, the portable MRI, that water purifier, all the developing nations technology... and you're always haring off to one disaster or the next to volunteer to be up to your elbows in blood and puke and piss! Fuck, Banner, you're a goddamn..."

"Saint?" Bruce muttered, and Tony could hear hysteria creeping into his voice. "Me? You're a riot, Tony Stark. You're a fucking riot, you know that?"

"Bruce good," Hulk snarled, fear beginning to rise in his expression. Bruce's laugh was a touch wild.

"Well, you'd have to say that. You're me! But then, I locked you up for years and years. I was your fucking warden; you were my prisoner! Does that make me a good man? Locking up an abused child who can't count, doesn't understand sleep, has never eaten, doesn't understand freedom or his own agency or anything at all..."

Hulk's lips curled back from his teeth, and Tony's breath caught. "Scared," Hulk said, and lowered his head. "Because scared."

"Yes, you remember that. You remember everything, don't you?" Bruce's hand fisted in his hair. "But I lie, you always know I lie. Oh, it wasn't just because of what you do that was I scared. It wasn't just because you kill. I was scared of what it meant to be you... because that meant that I was the one who was the killer. And I ran, because puny Banner runs, oh yes, he runs and runs. Runs from everything, including the truth! I couldn't be you, because you were the monster, and only monsters do bad things. Only monsters kill. Only monsters lock children away. I couldn't be you. But would you look at that," and he smiled with hopeless despair. "I am."

"Bruce good," Hulk snarled, and reached out again. "Hulk knows."

"Don't," Bruce whispered, and Tony wished himself away, anywhere, anywhere but here watching a strong man torn to pieces by his demons. "No, no... Just don't. Don't. Please."

"Hulk knows," he said again, and his huge green hand carefully scooped up that clenched and trembling figure. "Hulk was there."

"No," Bruce managed as he was gently brought close to that broad green chest struggling with all his wounded strength, as useless as it might be against the might of Hulk. And for god's sake how had he not shed a single tear?

"Banner is good. Banner is good. Rule Tree. Banner is good, and Hulk is here. Hulk will save Banner, always, always. Banner is good. Shhh," Hulk said quietly and began to hum under his breath – rumbling and gravelly, but still a hum.

Bruce froze and then began to fold away on himself like a broken deckchair – in increments, jerkily and inelegantly. Hulk brought him close and tucked the other's curly head under his chin, and a barely-there muffled sob drifted to Tony's ears. Hulk continued to hum, his great body curving around the other. As Bruce began to shake in earnest, he carefully wrapped his giant hand around Bruce's head again, shielding him. Protecting him. He kept humming. It was a simple tune, a lullaby.

Hulk's eyes met Tony's, and he nodded.

Tony slunk out of the door, mouth dry and eyes prickling. When he made it to the familiar comfort and warmth of his workshop, he sat for almost an hour in total silence beside Butterfingers, staring into the distance and feeling the thrum of the arc reactor under his nerveless fingers.

Natasha found him.

"What happened?" she asked in her low, businesslike way, sitting beside him with her eyes trained on the floor.

"The dam burst," Tony said after a long silence. Natasha digested that.

"Let's hope he didn't drown," she said softly.

"I think... I think Hulk caught him."

The corners of her lips turned up the tiniest amount, and her eyes flickered to his. "Well. Hulk's known for doing that."

"You know about the mission?"

She nodded.

"We have to tell him." Tony smoothed his fingers over the cool glass, his terrible privilege, his Hulk, his one great mistake that led to something more, something greater. The thing that saved him and nearly killed him and irrevocably placed him outside humanity. "He deserves to know."

"I agree."

"He might not be in a state to hear it." Tony looked down at his feet, at hers. "You didn't see him."

"He might be the strongest he's ever been," Natasha turned to face him, and then deliberately put a comforting hand on his forearm. "That's sort of one of the side effects."


"Being taken apart. You can put yourself back together again, stronger than before." She raised an eyebrow. "Why am I telling you this? You know this. You did it yourself. Look. You've believed in him all this time. Don't stop now, not when he needs it the most."

Tony stared at his shoes. "Natasha, I think I meddled enough, don't you? Why the hell would he need me around?"

She looked genuinely surprised. "You haven't figured it out?" A true smile crossed her lips, and she leaned back a bit. "Oh, Stark. Still?"

Standing, she began to walk soundlessly to the door, "Dinner's on the table if you're hungry. However, Thor cooked, so you may wish to consider getting takeout instead. And Stark?"

He looked up.

"Ask yourself why Banner is still in the city after two whole years, let alone after two minutes."

Tony was left with more questions than he started with as she passed through the door like a ghost.

Chapter Text


Hulk is still holding Banner when he wakes. The song – Mummy's song – is still caught in Hulk's throat.

Banner is asleep. His face is all soft and slack, and he looks old and tired and puny. He sags in Hulk's arms, like a doll. Banner's hair is all places, and his face has the colours on it still. Not so purple, not anymore. Yellow and green and blue. Where Hulk last touched him, where Hulk hurt him and made him weak.

He is very light. Of course, all things are light to Hulk: Hulk is the strongest there is. But Banner has always been so large in Hulk's mind that it seems wrong that he should be so light in his arms.

Hulk shifts a little and pulls Banner around so that he is cradled against Hulk, rather than sprawled over his chest. That is better. That is good.

It is good. Good. Good.

Banner's heart is same like Hulk's. The thump-thump is the same, and they happen at the same time. The double thumps make a tune. They fit perfectly behind Mummy's song, like they belong to each other.

Hulk begins to hum again.

Banner mumbles under his breath, and turns. Then he hisses as something in his arm is made to hurt (because Banner is hurt, and Hulk hurt him) and Hulk rumbles. He does not know what to do. He does not know.

Banner's eyes open. Brown and sad. Tony was right; Banner's eyes are always brown and sad. Hulk hates that they are brown and sad.

"Hulk," Banner says, breathy and raspy like sand and rocks. Hulk nods and hums some more. His arms tighten around Banner.

He will not leave.

"Hulk, my shoulder," Banner says, and he is Bruce now. Hulk remembers.

"Bruce," Hulk rumbles. He is loud, and he should be quieter. Hulk needs to learn.

Bruce sucks in air sharply, and sad-brown eyes turn to gaze at the floor. There is still yellow paint on his nose. "I need to move," he says, and he will not look at Hulk. "My shoulder... you've got it all wrenched, and I think I've done something to stop it healing properly."

Hulk carefully moves his arms. Banner is hurt. Banner is weak. Banner is puny.

(Bruce has always been puny. The man is cruel, and Mummy cries and Bruce is too puny to make it stop. Behind his eyes, the rage howls and howls until it howls itself into Hulk.)

Banner relaxes as Hulk turns him, and then rests his hand on Hulk's forearm. Banner's hands are big for a human's, but they are silly compared to Hulk's. He is not as brown as he was when they were in the hot places, where busy-loud-hot people scurried and worked and Banner fixed them when they broke. He was browner there. He is pale now, and thinner than he was. Hulk doesn't like it.

"Are you all right?" Bann- Bruce asks. He will not look at Hulk.

Hulk frowns. "Hulk always all right!"

Bruce smiles, and it doesn't touch his eyes. "I know that's not true," he says, sour as lemons. "You can't fool yourself, you know."

Hulk can too! "Hulk is Hulk," he says, cross. "Bruce not all right. Bruce stays with Hulk?"

"I'm here," Bruce says, and sighs. His hair is all places, and he pats Hulk's arm, once, twice. "I'm here."

"Bruce sad," Hulk offers. "Hulk sing Mummy's song again."

Bruce's eyes close like doors. "No," he says faintly. "No, that's all right. I'm okay."

Lies. "Lies," Hulk growls.

"Hah," Bruce says, and his next smile is real. That is better. That is good.

"Bruce not okay." Hulk makes the sad-brown look up into his own eyes. Bruce looks like Hulk looks like Bruce. They are the same. "Hulk is not okay. Hulk trapped. Hulk always trapped. Bruce and Hulk apart. Not finished."

Bruce pauses, and then nods. "No. We're not finished," he says, very quietly. "We're not whole people. We need the other one to be complete. I'm a shell without you, and you don't know anything at all. But you're learning. I'm learning. We'll get better at it."

"Banner told truth," Hulk says, and hates, hates, hates. "Hulk smash and Bruce is sad. Hulk smash people. Hulk smash Bruce's everything. Hulk not good. Not good." Hulk can feel the rage in his teeth, in his tongue and fingertips. Familiar and hot. Hulk wants to smash! But not now, no. Hulk must learn. Hulk must be good.

"Shhh," Bruce says, and touches Hulk's face with a gentle hand. Hulk breathes. "You're good. You're good, Hulk. You didn't know. You're so young, Hulk. All young people make mistakes. Rule two."

Hulk nods, hating how Bruce must put away his rage, hating how Hulk must put away his rage. They are hurt. They are hurt, hurt, hurt. "Rule two."

"It's strange – you're as old as I am, in a way, but you're hardly more than a child in others." Bruce leans back, looks at Hulk thoughtfully. "I locked you up and I couldn't admit it, even to myself. But look at you – I'm here, and you're here, and you're holding me and I'm safe, because your hands are my hands, after all. Your anger is my anger. And your crimes are mine. I'm the adult here. I should have tried harder. I should have done something. You didn't know. I did."

"Banner is good," Hulk says, and scowls. "Banner is good. Hulk is not good. Hulk hurt Banner!"

"Shhh," Bruce says again, and touches Hulk's face once more. His little fingers dance like insects on Hulk's cheek, tracing lines they both wear and the scar their father gave them on their chin. "Rule two. Rule two. You're good. You're learning so fast. You're so good, and I'm so proud of you."

Hulk likes that. Bruce is proud of Hulk! "Then Hulk and Bruce both good," Hulk declares, and snorts through his nose at Bruce's surprised expression. "If Hulk and Bruce same, then both good, or both bad. Not different. Same."

"Ah," Bruce says, and rubs at the back of his neck. Surprised, but still sad. Still lies. Bruce is sorry for Hulk, but angry at Banner. Bruce is always angry, just like Hulk. "I'm not sure..."

"Stop lies!"

Bruce closes his eyes, tilts his head, smiles. "All right, fine, so we're both good. Should have known I couldn't fool myself either."

"Banner stupid," Hulk agrees, and Bruce throws back his head and laughs.

Hulk grins.

"So," Bruce says when he has finished laughing, "this is us, now, huh?"

Hulk quirks an eyebrow, not understanding. "Hulk no understand," he says, because Hulk is still not good at keeping thoughts inside.

(Except Hulk's best good experiment. That is a secret. That is Hulk's special secret. They will not be alone, and Red-Black will be there today. She will help, like Star Man and Tony and Shooty Bird help; Bruce and Hulk will not be alone.)

Bruce leans back in Hulk's arms, and he is so light. But Bruce is smart, smart, smart. Hulk can feel the spark and fizz of Banner's thoughts when they are so close. Banner always thinks too fast.

"You and me," Bruce explains, and pats Hulk's arm again. "We have to deal with what you are, what we are. And I've been doing a lousy job, I know, but I didn't want everyone to see the truth... including me." He sighs again- he sounds old, old and tired. "Well, that sure worked, didn't it? Everything's out in the open now."

Hulk pulls a face. It is good that Bruce knows, and he will stop his lies. Stop the lies to Hulk and to himself. But Hulk knows why Bruce does not like it. People should not see how they feel. It makes them weak.

"Only Tony see," he offers, and Bruce rubs his eyes.

"I know," he says. "But we never let people see. Not even Betty got to see. I move on; I stick to the practical, deal with what is and keep moving, that's what I've always done. This..."

"Weak," Hulk rumbles, and nods. He knows. Hulk knows.

Bruce's mouth goes flat and hard. "I never wanted to be weak in front of anyone else, ever again."

Hulk growls. The man is cruel. "Hulk knows."

"I know you do," Bruce says. Anger, all the anger. They know anger, Bruce and Hulk. They sleep and breathe and eat anger, year after year after year. "We've never stayed in one place long enough for our situation to catch up with us, not until now."

"Only Tony see," Hulk repeats, but Hulk understands this. Bruce does not let people see. Bruce moves on, Bruce works and runs and his thoughts flash and sizzle, always moving on, always work work work on the things he can change. Hulk told Tony; Puny Banner runs, puny Banner hides. And so does Hulk.

But now they stand still, and Team keeps them in one place. Bruce and Hulk are all in pieces, and Tony saw.

"Tony good," Hulk says, and studies Bruce's face. "Tony not hurt Bruce. Team not hurt Bruce."

Bruce shrugs. "Yeah, I know. But it's more than that. And we're not just dealing with the team, either – there's SHIELD, and the army, god, I hope they don't get wind of this."

Hulk snarls. Ross.

Bruce looks at Hulk, serious. "I will protect you," he says, little puny Banner in Hulk's arms.

"Hulk protect Bruce!" That is what Hulk does! That is what he is for!

"I know," says Bruce, and his lip twists. He is mocking himself. "I know you do. But we're more vulnerable this way, don't you see?"

"No. Bruce fix," Hulk says. "Not weak! Not weak! Bruce and Hulk will be strongest!" Hulk roars in outrage, and Hulk's noise is huge and hurt and angry. "Fix!"

"Hulk," Bruce sighs, and the sad is back in his brown eyes and Hulk is sad too. They are both sad, and they are both angry. It is not good. Not good. "I deal with practicalities, not abstracts. Physics, mechanics, even medicine – that's all subject to real-world laws and rules that I can work within. I like that, it's... comforting. All this stuff, it's all abstracts. My anger, your anger, our life, our bodies, our minds. Where we go from here. If we can ever be put back together – if we even should. How people will react now that they know what we are. What they plan to do with us. God. I hate uncertainties."

Hulk thinks and thinks. It is easier with Bruce. Hulk can feel the zip and zing of his thoughts, so very near that they buzz, wrapped safe and fizzing in his arms. Hulk pretends that those sharp and sparkling thoughts are Hulk's. They can be Hulk's. Hulk can think like Bruce, because Hulk is Bruce is Hulk, and Bruce is right there in Hulk's arms. Hulk holds their thoughts in his hands.

And then Hulk has it. "Team," Hulk says. Bruce raises an eyebrow.


"Team," Hulk insists, and growls a little. Hulk doesn't like it, but the Team should see. Bruce needs to make them see. Team is strong. Team is strongest when all together, and they will be together with Hulk and Bruce and they will not be weak. And Tony... Tony will fix it. Bruce and Tony will fix it, in the white place, where the words are fast and the thoughts are even faster.

"If you're sure," Bruce says gently, and then his face twists. He hates it. Hulk knows. "If you're sure, then I'll tell them. What we are."

Bruce is brave. Huh.

Hulk forgot that Bruce is brave.

"Hulk..." Hulk stops and growls some more. Then Hulk shakes himself. Hulk can be brave too. They will see, and Team will not hurt them. Team is strong. "Tell Team. They fix."

"All right." Bruce takes in a long breath, and lets it out. "All right."

Hulk shifts, unsure. Bruce pats his face once more, and then reaches up to touch Hulk's hair. His hand comes away with blue flakes on it and Hulk huffs loudly, surprised. "Blue!"

"You have paint in your hair," Bruce smiles. Hulk huffs again, and touches one finger to Bruce's nose.


"Yell—oh, fucking Tony, should have remembered. You mean the whole time I was making a scene I had yellow paint on my nose?"

Hulk nods solemnly, and then they are both laughing and it is good. Good.

"Oh my god, I'm an idiot," Bruce gasps, and laughs again before hiding his face in Hulk's shoulder.

Hulk chuckles. "Hulk told you. Bruce stupid."

"You're obviously the brains of this operation," Bruce mumbles.

Hulk puffs out his chest. Banner thinks Hulk is smart. Banner, whose thoughts fizz and sparkle. Banner thinks Hulk has brains. Banner is proud of Hulk.

"We'll need to do the shower experiment again," Bruce says against Hulk's shoulder. Hulk sighs.

"Hulk rain experiment again?" he says mournfully.

"Yes. Sorry."

Hulk grunts. "Bruce shower. Bruce do it. Wash Hulk's hair."

Bruce pulls back to look up at Hulk. "You're sure? How about Star Man?"

Hulk shrugs and lifts Bruce up so that their faces are level. "Bruce," he insists. "Star Man later. Experiment. Red-Black."

Bruce's eyebrows shoot up. "You're up to something, aren't you?"

Hulk tries to make his face blank, just like Red-Black does. She has the best of blank faces, she is even better at hiding than Banner. Maybe Red-Black teaches Hulk how. "Hulk rain experiment. With Banner. Touch now, see?" And Hulk touches a fingertip to Bruce's hair, soft as soft. Like with the bloons. Careful.

Bruce shakes his head. "I'll figure it out, you know. You can't hide it from me."


But Hulk is stubborn – as stubborn as Bruce. Hulk can do his best good experiment, and Bruce will not know until the experiment is all over. Hulk will bring Team all together and show Bruce that they will not be alone. Red-Black and Star Man and Shooty Bird and Tony and Hulk and Bruce.

Even... ugh. Even Shouty Long-Hair and his stupid hammer.

Hulk smiles and holds Bruce tighter. He will not be alone, and Hulk will protect him and it will be good.

It will be good.


It's sort of miraculous that Tony isn't hungover when he staggers into the kitchen for breakfast, but then, he hadn't touched a single drink last night, even though he really, really wanted one. He'd been shaken by what he saw, but he somehow just couldn't muster up the energy to go and fetch the bottle of Islay single malt (a reaaaaally nice Islay single malt, too – twenty-five years old, matured in French oak barrels, strong and smooth with a hint of peat) that lurked under his workbench. He'd gone to bed instead.

So it's miraculous that he isn't hungover. Miraculous that he didn't drink. Normally he would have after witnessing something like that. The old Tony would have, no question. Bruce "Doctor Stoicism" Banner falling to pieces and the Hulk putting him back together? Fuck yeah, hand over the booze.

The new Tony went to bed with his hand pressed to the arc reactor, and had unsettling dreams that he couldn't quite remember.

He yawned as he opened the fridge and stared groggily at the contents. There was milk. Good.

Grabbing it, he started up the coffeemaker and waited for the thing to finish. Too slow. He tossed around a few ideas to make the stupid fucking thing go faster, but by the time he'd figured out the most efficient modifications the coffee was ready, so obviously that was now second priority. Coffee. Coffee came first.

He slumped down at the table with his mug ("ENGINEERS DO IT WITHOUT LOOKING AT THE MANUAL") and grunted at Clint and Natasha as they slipped into the room, making a beeline for the fridge. Natasha pulled out her weird bran-muesli-fruity-hippie cereal, and then said, "oh good, there's milk."

Tony mumbled an affirmative.

"Stark, you with us?" Clint looked back at the man at the table while he threw a couple of pieces of bread into the toaster. "Big night, huh?"

"Didn't drink, had shit dreams," Tony said, and clutched his coffee closer. Coffee. Coffee was good.

"Sucks," Clint said, his eyes dancing. Bastard.

"Hey, guys. Oh, hi Tony, you're never up this early," Steve entered the room, looking disgustingly healthy as he wiped down his face with a towel. He'd obviously gone for a run, because he was all sweaty and red-faced and secretly insane.

"Do tell," Tony muttered, and brought his coffee up like a shield, in case the insanity was catching.

Steve gave Tony a long, appraising look, before abandoning that conversation until the caffeine kicked in. "So, where are you two off to today?" he asked the two assassins.

Tony looked up. Yes, they were in carefully nondescript clothing that practically screamed 'mission'. Clint generally wore the slobbiest of sweats when he was relaxing around the tower, and Natasha would wear either loose workout clothes, jeans and a tank top, or old comfortable sweaters over tights. The smart business suits they wore were as significant as their 'work' suits. Underneath would be layers of Kevlar and hidden weapons.

"SHIELD business," Natasha said, and sat down with her cereal across from Tony.

"What about Hulk? He wants to see you today," Tony said, and frowned up at Clint. Clint gave him a 'what can you do?' shrug.

"I know," Natasha said, and took a bite before pushing her spoon through the cereal absently. "Clint told me. But this mission, Tony. You know."

He did know, and goddamn it, he didn't want to remember. "But..."

"It's recon only," Clint offered, and Steve subtly relaxed. Reconnaissance was not a totally safe option, but better that they were going undercover for intelligence-gathering purposes rather than walking in as Hawkeye and the Black Widow and making targets of themselves. Steve didn't like it when his team put themselves in danger, and furthermore he liked to be there to help them out of it.

Natasha gave Tony a brief glance before she placed her spoon beside her bowl with a neat click. "Actually, this mission directly affects the team. I was going to wait until everyone turned up for breakfast before briefing you..."

She trailed off as Bruce shuffled in. He looked exhausted, and his hair was a truly spectacular riotous mess. There was still yellow paint on his nose.

"Just tell me there's coffee," he said in a raspy voice, and Tony wordlessly pointed to the machine.

"You've gotten a taste for it since Jade Jaws moved out of home, hey Doc?" Clint said into the uncomfortable silence.

"Nnnngh," Bruce said, and glared muzzily as the coffeemaker bubbled at him. "This thing needs to be faster."

"I knew it," Tony muttered.

"Bruce, are you..." Steve began, worry in his eyes. "You look terrible."

Bruce snorted. "And I've always tried to stay pretty for you, Cap."

"Brucey," Tony tried. Bruce sighed and grabbed his mug ("FRANKIE SAYS RELAX"), before straightening his shoulders and turning around to meet Tony's eyes.

"I'm all right," he said quietly. "But I need to come clean about a few things. Where's Thor?"

"In the gym," Steve said. "I saw him before. Clint and Natasha have something to share as well, so maybe it's time to have a meeting. JARVIS, would you inform Thor that we need him in the kitchen?"

"Of course, Captain Rogers."

"Meeting?" Tony whined. "Like a house-meeting? Can it wait until after coffee? Seriously, there is too much blood in my caffeine system right now."

Bruce slid into the chair beside him, and nudged his elbow. "Drink up then, wuss."

"Steve, Bruce is picking on me," Tony complained, secretly overjoyed that Bruce was teasing him. After what he had seen, he hadn't known what to expect. To have their quietly sarcastic teammate back was more than he could have hoped. There was life in Bruce's eyes; life, and something else. Something warm and steely and angry, something indefinably Bruce that had been missing ever since Stingray had zapped him and broken him in two.

"I've had paint on my nose for the last fourteen hours thanks to you. You're lucky it's only teasing," Bruce retorted dryly, before taking another sip of his coffee.

"You're really okay?" Tony whispered to him. Bruce's hands tightened around his mug.

"I will be," he said in a low, tense voice. "Both of me. But I have some decisions to make."

Great, that wasn't the least bit cryptic at all.

Thor arrived in a blur of muscular blond enthusiasm as always. To Tony, the God of Thunder always gave the impression of being too... everything. Too loud, too big, too Thor. He was painfully obvious with his emotions, and gods knew he wasn't the biggest fan of moderation. His joys were wholehearted, his loves all-encompassing, his pain and hate just as much so, if not more. Tony sank down in his seat as Thor swept in with all the subtlety of a thunderstorm, the very personification of the word 'hearty'. He slapped Steve's back, inclined his head politely to Natasha and blocked two rapid jabs from Clint with his loud and delighted laughter ringing in Tony's ears. "Ah, my archer friend, you shall not yet get the better of me!" he declared, grinning. "But still, a valiant effort!"

It was fucking annoying how Thor was so damn noble all the time. Still, he was fun to drink with.

And that once more reminded him once more that he was, for once, not hungover. Tony gulped down the last of his coffee as Bruce said, "Okay. We're all here."

"Nothing gets by you, Doc," Clint said, snagging his toast and taking a huge bite. Bruce blinked at the archer, registering the clothes.

"You're going out?"

"Mission," Clint said with his mouth full. "Natasha'll tell you."

"In a moment," Natasha said, studying Bruce carefully. "Doctor Banner has something to tell us."

Bruce took a sip of his coffee, and then took a few long, long breaths. He glanced once at Tony, before swallowing. Then he said, "Some of you have figured out about... me and Hulk. Well, I'm letting you know it for certain. Hulk and I."

He closed his eyes as he took another breath. Then they opened, and they were steel. "We're the same person."

Thor's eyes widened. "Your warrior self..."

"Is in fact my childhood rage, given an independent existence," Bruce smiled uncomfortably and shifted in his seat. He scratched at the paint on his nose and then gave one of those tired, dusty little sighs. "Sort of. It's complicated. Anyway, I need to fill you in, because I need to know what to do next."

"What about?" Steve said, sitting down opposite Bruce and giving him such a look of open, honest concern that Tony sort of wanted to punch him. Except not really, because he didn't want to break his hand on that steel jaw.

"Us. Me," Bruce said heavily. "We're not complete as we are. We're not whole people as we are. He's half of me, and vice versa."

Tony just sat there, numb and voiceless, as Bruce did just about the bravest thing he could think of and gave these people the key to all his doors.

No-one had ever learned all the secrets behind the Iron Man suit, not Obie, not even Rhodey's Army goons. Tony couldn't even entertain the prospect of allowing another person to see the arc reactor specs. And this was worse than that... this was Bruce's fucking psyche, his very soul. This was so, soooo invasive.

And screw it, he wanted to know more.

"Bruce," Natasha said, shock lighting her eyes, though her face never betrayed a thing.

"I know, I know," he said, and gave her a tight little smile. "How about that. You were right, you and Tony. Right all along. I gotta tell you, that kind of pisses me off."

I hate how right you are. The words echoed once more through Tony's mind, and he gripped his mug tighter.

"What do you mean, what to do next about you? Uh, him? Both of you?" Steve asked, stumbling over the idea.

Bruce took a sip of coffee, and then put his mug down. Grim determination flooded that tired face, as though he was preparing to put his hand in a fire. "I don't want this to be used as a weapon against us," he said, his gaze trained on his hands. "There are people, groups out there who would love to get a hold of either one of us, and we - we're weaker this way. Both of us. Hulk doesn't have my reasoning capacity, and he's... well, he's Hulk. He's getting better at drawing on our experience, but the first and preferred method is still to smash until it's no longer a problem. I can be hurt without him in my body. I could be threatened to get Hulk to do what others want. If they separate us for too long, I'll lose all capacity to feel and Hulk will lose all capacity to reason. I could become a soulless automaton, and Hulk could become a mindless smashing machine. I don't want to know what either of us is capable of in those states. Hulk needs me, and I need him."

There was a pause full of awkward, awkward awkwardness. Oh jeez, so, soooo awkward. Tony's eyes raced around the table, trying to find an out, begging someone to say something.

"But hang on, you always said you weren't him," said Clint, like a stupid STUPID idiot.

That wasn't at all what he had ordered. Damn, even the awkwardness was better that that! Tony winced. Yes, remind the guy of why he denied it, that's a great idea, featherhead. You insensitive massive-armed DICKWAD.

Bruce rolled his eyes. "And now I'm telling you that I was full of shit."

O... Kay. So maybe Bruce was like some sort of angst-sponge? Wring him out once, and he's done?


Shut up, Birdbrain! Tony howled internally, and tried to will himself into saying something to shut this idiot up. But amazingly, Bruce didn't snap back. He chuckled instead.

"Because I was afraid, wouldn't you be?" he said, and the corner of his mouth quirked. "I was afraid of taking responsibility for Hulk's actions. And for mine. But there's no doubt about it; he's me, and I'm another him." He glanced up at Natasha. "Or whatever."

Her mouth twitched just the tiniest amount, and her eyes glittered in pride and approval. "You're a good man, Bruce," she said simply. "And a brave one."

"So I keep telling myself," Bruce said, and chuckled again, apparently finding something in that statement vastly amusing.

Tony gawked, and the image of this man shaking and trembling in Hulk's massive arms flew through his mind. How could a guy go from there... to here? So fucking quickly? What the hell kind of alloy was Bruce made of?

"But if you're him..." Steve said slowly, "doesn't that mean that you here... and you there..."

"That's right," Bruce said calmly, and took another sip of his coffee. "I'm half a person, Cap. The rest of me is downstairs in a cell, nine feet tall and green, and needs another shower."

He might be stronger than ever.

Wow. Bruce was... wow. Tony gaped, and his insides gave a little lurch just beneath the arc reactor.

"With your strengths separate, you are correct that you may be exposed to other dangers," Thor said, his brow furrowing. "The green beast may be indestructible, but you, Doctor Banner, are not." Once again Tony remembered that Thor had in fact studied tactics.

"You're really vulnerable like this," Steve realised.

Bruce's head bobbed. "Yes."

"You want to try to put you guys back together?" Tony guessed, his mouth dry.

Then he restrained the urge to whack his head repeatedly against the table. What an opening line. He flays himself in front of you and what's your first response? Wow, stellar work there, Stark – instead of saying, "Can I have your autograph" or "you deserve ALL the blowjobs", instead why not suggest that you stick the rage monster back in his head? YOU GENIUS.

"I don't know if this particular Humpty can ever be put back together again," Bruce said, and his fingers rubbed over each other. That little habit of his, with the wringing hands. Tony wanted to know about that, too. "But maybe we should try. I'll talk to him about it. There are definite disadvantages – we won't be able to talk anymore, for example – but we'd be whole again."

"You want the Hulk back in your head?" Clint said incredulously.

Bruce's mouth went taut. "It's not a question of want, Clint. It's a question of need. You've had part of your mind taken away before; you of all people would probably understand this."

Clint's eyes went blank with absolute horror. "Fuck."

"It may not be possible," Bruce said, and his expression turned distant. "We might be stuck like this for good. That brings up the question of Hulk's aging as opposed to mine, and what would happen if I died. At the very least I need to investigate the possibility of recombining us."

"I'll help," Tony said, finding his voice. He sounded thick and shaky. God damn it... he sounded stunned.

Stunned was only the start.

Bruce smiled, and Tony's insides lurched again. "I thought you would. Thanks."

"You need to hear this," Natasha interrupted in a low voice, before giving everyone in the kitchen a long, hard look. "Nothing of this conversation travels further than the six of us, understand? That includes what Bruce just told us."

A threat from the Widow was no joke. "Gotcha," Tony said quickly as everyone chimed in with various sounds of agreement.

She lifted her chin. "Yesterday at fourteen-hundred approximately, the individual variously known as Mister Blue, Samuel Sterns or the Leader escaped SHIELD custody through some sort of psionic manipulation. He overpowered the guards, hacked into SHIELD files and fled towards Chicago."

Bruce paled and swayed on his chair. Tony instinctively wrapped an arm around him to steady him, and felt the utter rigidity of the muscles along his back.

"Bruce, breathe," he muttered.

"You knew," Bruce managed, and wiped at his mouth.

Well, he couldn't really refute that. He nodded.

"Why didn't you say?"

"I was going to, but then there was Hulk and the whole..." Tony tried to make a gesture that would sufficiently describe Hurricane Bruce's Emotional Breakdown.

"Right," Bruce mumbled. "Sterns is alive?"

"He's mutated," Clint put in. "I saw him a few times during briefings, back when they were using the Cube and not the Helicarrier for agent prep and training. He's a gamma mutant, like you and..."

"Blonsky," Bruce spat, and then covered his face with his hands. Tony wrapped his arm around the guy just that little more, trying to imbue his care and worry through his touch.

"What, he gets all big and green when he gets angry?" Steve asked.

"No, he's green all the time actually," Clint shrugged. "He's an ugly mother. Seriously giant head, but normal sized everywhere else. From what I hear he's gone off the deep end since he got gamma'd up; calls himself the 'Leader' and wants to do all sorts of crazy shit to humanity to make them just like him and the Doc. He wasn't any slouch in the brains department before, from what his file says, but the gamma really kicked that up a notch or twelve."

"He wants to make more of us," Bruce said, muffled behind his hands. "Oh my god, why is that always the reason?"

"Not always, Doctor Banner," Thor said gently. "That is not why we wish for you to be here."

Bruce jerked his head up to stare over his fingers at the god.

Stupid noble Thor. I should have thought to say that first.

"So he's in Chicago?" prompted Steve.

"We think so," Natasha picked up the conversation smoothly. "He's obsessed with Doctor Banner. Because he's green, we think that it was Bruce's blood which infected him, not Blonsky's."

"He would have had plenty of opportunity to experiment," Bruce said dully. "He had my blood and was running animal trials for months and months."

"Well, he doesn't have it any more," Clint told him. "All that research got destroyed at Culver. Tasha saw to that."

Bruce shot Natasha a piercing look, and she nodded slowly. He sat back, blowing out a long breath. "Thank you."

She inclined her head. "You're welcome."

"It wouldn't work with my blood any more, anyway," Bruce said, his brow creasing thoughtfully. His fingers rose to describe a little circle on his forehead as he thought. "My blood registers as baseline human now, regular old homo sapiens. Hulk would be the one with the stable gamma mutation."

"But would your blood sustain the mutation again?" Tony asked, leaning forward. "I mean, your blood now. We know that it did, but does that song play twice?"

Bruce frowned. "It might. It might."

"With what Bruce just told us," Natasha continued implacably, "it's imperative that we keep him and Hulk away from this madman. He believes that in their current state they are vulnerable to attack, and I have to agree. None of this gets out, understand?"

"It wouldn't work the same way for others, anyway," Bruce mused, and rubbed his good hand through his hair. "It was a fluke, the accident that created us. It just wouldn't work with other people – you'd end up with a Blonsky, not me. My – our accident... our circumstances are totally dependent on the things that we are, the life we've lived... and that's something gamma radiation just can't induce in others."

"Yuck, emotions in science. Messy," Tony said, wrinkling his nose.

Bruce gave him a small smile. "Unbelievably."

That smile gave him another little lurch inside. Tony decided that it was hope. Bruce was going to be all right.

In fact, he seemed to be more determined, more focused, more Bruce than he'd ever been before, and Tony sort of wanted to know why.

Yeah. So? He was an engineer at heart. He liked to know how things worked. That was his JOB. And Bruce – Bruce wasn't making sense.

"Can you see Hulk before you leave, at least?" Bruce asked Natasha. "He's pretty insistent about seeing you. I'm sure he's up to something."

"Hulk. Up to something," Clint said, and pulled a face. "Oh, that's reassuring."

She frowned. "We're leaving in an hour. We won't have time to..."

"Please, Natasha."

(Hey Brucesteel, ask me too. I'll go see Hulk. And have I mentioned that you've been sitting there like a colossus of bravery, power and majesty with MY yellow paint on your nose? And I like it? Also, would you mind if I went swimming in your brain because holy crap I need to know how you work.)

She sighed. "Fine. I'll come now."

Bruce smiled once more. "Thanks."

Tony was going to get tired of that little lurch eventually.


Bruce absently touched two fingers to the pulse point on his wrist as the elevator took them down. It was a movement made out of long habit. No reason to, of course, not for years, just habit. His heartrate was up, but considering that he'd just spilled his closest, darkest secret to five of the most dangerous individuals in the world, he thought that was only right and sensible.

God. That was the hardest thing he'd ever done.

Still, Hulk had asked. So Bruce had delivered. He couldn't disappoint the little boy that lived at the heart of the hulking monster, he just couldn't. Too many other people already had, Bruce among them. He wasn't going to do it again, not ever.

He was still slightly off-centre from Clint and Natasha's revelation, let alone the giant catharsis of the night before. That wasn't like him at all, and he was just a little amazed at himself for breaking down like that. Bruce wasn't the best at emotional introspection; he preferred to deal with the problem in front of him, rather than the ones he left behind. "Buttoned down" was a phrase that got used around him a lot. Evidently, if he'd dealt with his poisons years ago, he might have found some sort of equilibrium a lot sooner.

Well, better later than never, and perhaps he could be a happier man for it. Well, happier men.

Happier. Now there was an ambition he hadn't aspired to since fleeing America the first time. Idly he wondered how Betty was doing, and then forcefully threw the idea out of his head. She'd written to him via Tony Stark following the Battle of Manhattan after seeing him on TV. She'd been fine. She'd been chatty and cheerful and seemingly content. She'd married Leonard.

Leonard. A decent enough man. A shrink. Bruce had a lot more respect for that profession, considering recent developments. It had hurt at the time, receiving that news, but then, everything was fuel for the anger anyway and so it had been... useful.

Hulk was playing in the smash-corner when they approached the door. It was tremendously noisy, and Natasha deliberately fell back in order for Bruce to enter first. Her eyes were very, very wary. Behind her, Clint shifted impatiently.

"We should go," he hissed.

"This is important," she hissed back, though she made no move to enter the adamantium door when Bruce punched in the keycode.

Bruce slipped through and smiled up at where Hulk was taking apart great slabs of rock. He would hold them close to his eyes to see where they were likely to shatter, and then smash them to confirm his findings. That was analytical of him.

"Hi," he said.

"Bruce!" Hulk said, and lumbered towards him, dropping his rock. "Bruce went," he complained. "Hulk not want Bruce to go. But Bruce went. 'Not long.' Too long!"

"Sorry," Bruce said, and held up his hand. "But I brought some visitors."

Hulk perked up. "Team?"

"No, not the whole team," Bruce said, and began to lower himself down. Abruptly a huge green hand was before his face, and he gratefully allowed Hulk to support his weight. Fuck, but he was tired of his stupid shoulder.

"Bruce still hurt," Hulk said petulantly.

"Yes, we're all aware," Bruce puffed, and probed at his shoulder with a thumb. Yeah, inflamed tissue; he'd done some damage. Gavin was going to be unbearable. He'd most likely be forced to hear all about the last motocross derby in painful, boring detail.

"Tell Team?"

"Yes, I did," Bruce said, and squeezed Hulk's finger as much as he could. "They'll help, of course."

Hulk gave him a huge, smug grin. "Hulk said so."

"You and Tony, I swear," Bruce said, and smiled up at his greener self. "You're as bad as each other with the 'I told you so's, honestly."

Hulk sniffed, and then paused as a silent shadow ghosted into the room. His eyes narrowed. "Red-Black?"

Natasha raised her head, and looked directly into Hulk's eyes. Bruce was impressed. She'd never come near them on the field, and had generally given Bruce himself a wide berth. It seemed that recognising their similarities the other day had begun some sort of change in her way of thinking. Perhaps when Bruce had confirmed the nature of his and Hulk's interdependence, she had found it in herself to actually approach the monster that had once nearly ripped her apart.

Huh, all conjecture. Knowing Natasha, likely to be way off the mark. Furthermore she wasn't about to give anything away, that at least Bruce was very sure of.

"Hulk," she said, her voice utterly composed. Bruce frowned. Well, everyone slipped now and then. He could tell that her composure was a lie.

Apparently, so could Hulk. He dropped to a crouch, his back hunching as he made himself as small as he could (which really, really wasn't small at all). He ducked his head, his massive hands uncurling to lie flat and harmless on the buckled adamantium floor. "Red-Black," he said again, and made a snuffling, rumbling noise. The noise that meant affection.

Her eyes flickered to where Bruce sat, before fixing once again on the green behemoth who was trying so hard to make himself look smaller for her benefit. "You can stand," she said, and tilted her head, her curls slipping to one side. "If you want," she added.

Hulk looked up, suspicious. Bruce put his hand on Hulk's wrist, feeling those huge hawser-like tendons shifting underneath his palm like the cables on a ship. "I think Natasha would like it if you apologised," he murmured.

Hulk immediately scowled. "Bruce apologise too!"

"I did," he said, shrugging one shoulder. "Well, I apologised for the both of us, I suppose."

"If Bruce say sorry, Hulk not need to," Hulk said dismissively, and then his mouth dropped open in a soundless laugh, his pebble-like teeth glinting.

"Your logic is impeccable," Bruce muttered. Then he looked up at Natasha. "Sorry, he's being a bit..."

"Red-Black stay?" Hulk leaned forward on one hand eagerly, his eyes glinting. "Stay for Hulk's experiment?"

"I can't, I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head. "I have to go."

Hulk's eyebrows slowly lowered, and then he abruptly let out a huge bellow of fury. "No! Red-Black stays! RED-BLACK STAYS! HULK WANT RED-BLACK TO STAY!"

Bruce clamped his hands over his ears, and met Natasha's eyes. The blood had drained from her face, but her expression had not changed one iota. "I can't," she repeated evenly. "I have a mission. I'm working to keep you and Bruce safe."

Hulk's roars broke off, though he smashed one hand angrily against the floor. "Hulk keeps Bruce safe! No need Red-Black stupid mission. Stay. Stay!"

"I can't," she repeated, and Hulk broke off into another set of roars and howls. His fists smacked against the ground over and over, but he made no motions towards her.

He – didn't move an inch.

Amazingly, he didn't even break any more of his rocks. Hulk raged and raged, no less ferocious or furious than before, but it was as though his mighty feet were locked in one place. Rules, Bruce thought, and fought the urge to shout in triumph. The Rules. Hulk was following them - without prompting.

That was incredible.

Was this how it felt to be a proud parent? He felt like he was about to burst.

Bruce glanced over at Natasha. Her expression was still frozen, but there was a calculating glint in her eye and he knew that she had noticed Hulk's lack of momentum and the total absence of an attack. There would be no heart-stopping chases this day. He silently blessed Tony for the existence of Rule One, and then pulled himself up laboriously. "Hulk," he said softly, trying to break through that tantrum-induced deafness to where Hulk's mind worked in tandem with his own. "Hulk, calm down. She'll be back, promise."

"But Hulk's experiment! Hulk's experiment!"

"I know," she said. "And I'm sorry, Hulk. But Clint and I have to go. We really will be keeping you safe."

Hulk growled, echoes lingering in the metal walls. "Hulk no want Red-Black to go! Hulk's experiment! HULK WANT RED-BLACK AND SHOOTY BIRD TO STAY!"

"Well," Natasha said, and the faintest of smiles crossed her lips. "I have it on good authority that you don't every time get what you want."

Bruce clamped his mouth shut and glared at her. Cheeky fucking assassin.

"We'll be back, Hulk. I promise," she said earnestly, and took a short step towards him. "And then we can do as many experiments as you like. As many as you want. We'll be back."

Hulk gave her a sullen look, and then shuffled around so that his back faced her.

"Oh well, you tried," Bruce sighed. She regarded the broad green back with amusement dancing in her eyes.

"You've got your hands full, don't you?"

"Tell me about it," he grumbled. How could Hulk be so perceptive one minute and then revert to a toddler the next?

"Red-Black and Shooty Bird just go. Just leave Hulk and not come back," snapped Hulk with a tremendously wounded air. Natasha covered her mouth to stop her laughter escaping, and Bruce had to restrain the urge to hide his face in embarrassment. Natasha knew that this massive lump of sulkiness was him.

How humiliating.

"As dummy-spitting goes, that's impressive," Clint's voice lilted from the doorway. Hulk grunted, and Bruce looked up to see the archer leaning against the huge doorjamb, his heavy arms folded and a look of utter glee on his face.

"Oh, shut up," Bruce muttered, before patting Hulk's arm gently. Hulk growled and turned soulful, martyred eyes to Bruce.

"But Hulk's experiment," he said plaintively. Bruce sighed again and patted that massive arm once more. Hulk's lower lip was jutting out comically. He looked preposterous.

"God, I hope I wasn't like this as a kid," he muttered.

"It's okay, Jade Jaws," Clint said cheerfully. "Nothing's gonna stop Tasha from coming back to see you. And we've got more painting to do, yeah?"

Hulk grunted again.

"We'll be back before you know it," Natasha said. "We just wanted to come and say goodbye to you and Bruce."

"Hulk protect Bruce."

"We know you will, buddy," Clint agreed. "We know."

Hulk sighed like a rusty bellows and lowered his head in (very, VERY) grudging acceptance. "Bye-bye," he grumbled.

"See you soon," Clint corrected. They turned to go, and Bruce eyed his other half with exasperation. Finally accept the violent and childlike part of your psyche, and what's the first thing that occurs? A tantrum. Of course. He was so lucky.

"Tasha," Hulk said suddenly, and Bruce blinked. What...?

She halted at the door, her body elegant and poised. Somehow, though, Bruce could tell that the use of her name (or nickname) had rocked her equilibrium. Second time. Maybe Hulk's perceptions were bleeding through to him? Or maybe he was just getting to know her better? "Yes, Hulk?" she said.

"Hulk sorry. Rule Two. Sorry."

Her face, normally so very controlled, dropped a little in shock. Bruce glanced up, and Hulk looked down at him. A mammoth hand slowly reached over to place itself on top of his, resting on Hulk's forearm.

"Well done," Bruce whispered, and squeezed. Hulk gave him a small smile.

"Be safe," Hulk added.

Natasha shook her head dumbly, before pulling together her professional, glossy demeanour once again. "Thank you, Hulk," she said softly, and disappeared out of the door as silently as she had entered.

"Well that was, uh, illuminating," Clint commented dryly. "See ya, Jade Jaws. Don't have too much fun without me!"

"Shooty Bird be good," Hulk growled. "Remember promise. No going high. No Hulk to catch you."

"Damn, you really are Banner. He's a total killjoy as well," Clint said, and saluted jauntily before following his partner.

Cheeky bloody assassins!

Bruce pinched the bridge of his nose and waited for the world to make sense. Then he remembered that this was unlikely to happen, considering that his name was still Bruce Banner and this was his goddamned life.

"What was that all about?" he asked Hulk, who picked up Bruce's hand from atop his forearm and studied the palm with a dark frown. Bruce's fingers were prodded and his hand turned over as Hulk pretended not to hear.

"Why Tasha and Shooty Bird going?" Hulk asked innocently.

"Didn't you hear me?"

Hulk shrugged and poked at Bruce's thumb. "Not important. Why Tasha and Shooty Bird going? Keep Bruce safe. Why? Who tries hurt Bruce?" A dangerous fire leapt into the green eyes.

Shit. It was fruitless trying to lie to Hulk. He'd at least learned that lesson. "Someone from the past," Bruce said, and the dreadful lump in his stomach from breakfast was back. "Not Ross, though. It's someone else. I don't know if you remember Sterns. The scientist who talks too much?"

Hulk made a 'pah' sound with his lips, eyes rolling. "Talky small man. Machines. Hulk comes out, and the talky small man puts Hulk back into the small places."

"Well, you sure remember him at least," Bruce said, and watched his hand get toyed with some more. Hulk seemed fascinated with comparing their hands. They were certainly similar – the same lines, the same whorls and patterns, even the same old scar on the heel of the palm from a broken beer bottle. "He's done something with his blood to make it like ours. He's sort of like us now."

"Like scaly big man?" Hulk's eyes blazed in utter fury, and Bruce hurried to reassure him.

"No, no! Not like that. He's like us, but different. Not big. Just very, very smart. And his head has gone all big, and he's turned himself green, like Hulk."

"Green like Hulk." Hulk subsided, frowning thunderously. "Hnnnnmmph. Smart talky small man. But Bruce is smart, smart, smart. Bruce is smartest there is."

"Aren't you surprisingly good for the ego," Bruce said, smiling. "Apparently he's done something with our blood to make himself as smart as he possibly can. I don't know if we're a match for him anymore."

Hulk rolled his eyes. "Bruce smarter than talky small man. Bruce still stupid, though. Hulk knows Bruce smarter than talky small man, even if talky small man has a big head."

"Well, thank you for the compliment," Bruce said wryly, thinking that once upon a time his 'smarts' had not exactly been cause for celebration – and thus Hulk was born. "Anyway, that's where Natasha and Clint are going. They're going to find the green man with the big head, and they'll make sure he can't hurt either one of us."

"No-one hurts Hulk," he snorted contemptuously. Then he looked down at Bruce far more seriously. "Hulk protects Bruce. Always, always."

"I know." Bruce sighed, and looked down at their hands, huge and small, green and pink, twining and intertwining in those soft self-soothing touches. It was a pattern of behaviour as old as his earliest memory. It was the desperate attempt at comfort of a small boy swept up in the drunken rages of Brian Banner; it had been perfected during anxious, sleepless nights curled in a cold and foreign bed. They both had it. Not that any more proof of their sameness was needed. "I know you will."

"Bruce worried."


"Hulk here."

"I know. You always are." Bruce leaned his head against Hulk's rock-solid bicep. "Hulk?"


"If we could, would you want to be put back together?"

Hulk started violently, nearly dislodging Bruce. Then he snarled, his lips peeling back from his teeth dangerously. "No trapping Hulk!"

Bruce shook his head, feeling so, so tired. And so old. "No. We'd share. And we'd work something out so that we could still talk, somehow – video or something. But would you want to?"

Hulk turned his head to face Bruce fully, his brows tightly pulled together and a look of indecision flickering over his brutal face. "Don't know."

"Me neither," Bruce mumbled, and buried his face in warm, familiar green skin. "Me neither."

Chapter Text


Something was definitely up. Steve could almost taste it.

He took a very hot shower after the bombshell that was breakfast. He spent some time scrubbing at his skin until it was pink, washing the residue of New York's morning traffic off his skin and the tension from their impromptu meeting from his mind. Clint and Natasha would be fine, he was sure. Of course they would be fine. They would. They were the very best, after all. Still, Steve hadn't ever liked sending his men where he wasn't willing to go; there was a reason he had always been the first wave of attack or infiltration when it came to those damned Hydra bases.

And Bruce. What the heck was going on there? He was still pretty confused about the whole thing. Who on earth was this Samuel Sterns 'Leader' fella? And Hulk... Two people were actually one person? So how did that work?

As he was towelling off his hair, there was a knock at his door. He pulled on yesterday's jeans and opened it to find Tony there, gently buzzing with anxiety.

Oh yeah. And there was still something going on with Tony, too. He was acting twitchier than usual, and he'd developed a tendency to stare – but only around Doctor Banner. Steve had been watching his face during breakfast, and it had been nearly as confusing as the conversation. Was it the whole Hulk thing?

Jeez Louise. Was Thor really the only one he didn't have to worry about right now?

Great, he'd probably jinxed it by thinking that. Now Thor was going to fall down a manhole or something.

"Come on, Cap," Tony said the second the door opened, shifting impatiently from one foot to the next. "Let's go already."

"Where are we going?"

"Down to the Hulk cage, where else?" Tony rolled his eyes. "Put the gun show away and let's go see Banner and the green guy. I want to know more, don't you?"

"About... Tony, maybe we should respect their..."

"Well, don't you?" Tony folded his arms and lifted his chin challengingly. "Course you do. You're as worried as I am, aren't you? You know something's up."

Can Stark read minds now? "Doctor Banner told us what was happening with him," Steve said, dragging on a shirt. "Shouldn't that be the end of it?"

Tony blew air between his lips derisively. "Same person, shared psyche, yadda yadda. I knew all that. Fuck, I've been saying it for half of fucking forever. No, something's going on with the Banner half of the equation."

"It could just be that he's come to peace with it," Steve said, though a little voice inside him told him that this wasn't quite the answer.

"Banner? Peace? You've met the guy, right? He doesn't do inner peace, Cap, his whole schtick is the exact opposite of peace. Nah, this is something else. Didn't you see him? I've never, never seen anything like that. No stammering. No turning his eyes away. No deflecting the questions. He sat there and basically told us how to take him apart, and he was cool as a cucumber. That's just gotta be a front, and this fucking Leader thing can't be helping. We should be there for him. This is team stuff, c'mon, you're always into team stuff."

Steve took a deep breath. "I'll get my shoes."

"Thanks, Pops."

"I'll be ramming them somewhere uncomfortable if you don't quit calling me that."

"Oh, Spangles, you are so Team Dad. Last month you told Clint that he 'should have thought to go before we left' and everything."

Steve ignored that and followed the nervously babbling billionaire towards the elevator.

The Hulk was also taking a shower when they arrived at the Hulk Cage. It was very, very different this time around. For a start, Steve wasn't required to demonstrate. Instead, it was a dark haired physicist that stood with the monster beneath Dummy's showerhead. Bruce was stripped to his underwear with a plastic bag wrapped half-heartedly around his cast, and his face was surprisingly serene.

Hulk's eyes never strayed far from Bruce. He reached out every now and then to touch him as the water cascaded over them, and his hard green eyes closed when Bruce's hand sank into his hair and scrubbed at the flaky blue paint. He grinned that savage, satisfied grin when Bruce washed the yellow paint off his own nose.

"Yellow," Hulk snickered.

"Is it gone?" Bruce tilted his face up so that Hulk could check.

"Gone now," Hulk rumbled.

"More's the pity," Tony said as they entered.

"You're a laugh riot," Bruce muttered, and rubbed at his nose again.

Hulk was visibly happy to see "Star Man" and "Tony", whirling around and spraying water everywhere as it bounced off his giant body. His naked giant body.

"Hey Brucester, I hope you appreciate the fact that I have a million things I could say right now and I am very selflessly not saying them because I am a good friend," Tony said, a massive smile on his face.

Bruce sighed. "Yes, I appreciate it, Tony."

"Metal Man! Tony here, look Bruce!"

"Hey there, big guy. Very big guy. Very, very, very... Um. He's you, huh? How about that, that is ever such a shock, I may faint in awe and surprise. So what do I win, Bruciekins? Bragging rights for a year? The title of 'Sexiest Scientist Avenger?' Will you give me a lap dance?"

"Suddenly I am appreciating you a lot less."

"That's enough," Steve said in as repressive a tone as he could.

Tony sat down on a broken boulder, grinning merrily. "Team Dad."

Steve repressed a huge sigh.

"Star Man help Hulk? Rain experiment again!" Hulk flicked water in Steve's direction, and he smiled up at the grinning monster.

"I think you're good, Hulk. Bruce has got it under control."

"Bruce," Hulk said, his gravelly voice softer, and turned to where the smaller man stood waiting.

"Come on you, back to work," Bruce said, and absently patted Hulk's arm.

They waited as Bruce helped the Hulk shower. It was one of the more peculiar things Steve had seen – and after the Chitauri and Schmidt and mutated sewer monsters and flying lizard-dogs and 21st Century Soho, that was saying something.

They handed the sponges to each other without speaking a single word as though some strange telepathic communication were passing between them, trading touches carelessly. Hulk washed Bruce's bruised back with total concentration, his eyes squinting and his tongue poking from between his teeth. Bruce told Hulk to close his eyes, and gently ran a cloth over the crags and valleys of that huge and brutish face. Hulk took Bruce in one hand and lifted him effortlessly so that he could reach behind Hulk's ears.

"Are you seeing this?" Tony hissed. Steve didn't trust himself to answer.

"Down now," Bruce told the giant, and the hand lowered him gently to the floor, steadying him. Then Bruce rinsed his own mop of curls and shook himself out like a dog. Hulk harrumphed in protest.

"In Hulk's eyes!" he grumbled.

"Not just yours," Tony muttered, wiping at his face. "Totally part-spaniel."

"I thought I was a hedgehog." Bruce bent to strip water from his legs and stopped, his face rueful. Then he reached for a towel. "You get used to bathing without a towel, some of the places I've been. Thank you, Dummy. You were very helpful."

"Get lost, bucket of bolts," Tony said reflexively, the urge to insult his robot a seemingly Pavlovian reaction. Then he waved a hand in airy dismissal. "You can be both. You're a man of many parts."

"Two that I can name. Very witty."

"I try."

"Yes, you're very trying as well."

"Thank you, Sassypants. By the way, tighty whities are so 90's."

Bruce laughed quietly under his breath as he rubbed the towel through the hair over his bruised chest carefully, cautious of his healing ribs. "And here I've been so careful to stay fashionable. Hulk, would you say thank you to Dummy?"

"Thank you, Metal dummy," Hulk told the bot, and Dummy whirred at a much higher pitch, before turning the shower off. Hulk took a quick step backwards, and his massive brows furrowed. "Gone!"

"Experiment's over," Bruce said, and handed Hulk his bedsheet of a towel. "You're clean, I'm clean. Successful result all around."

"Metal dummy go," Hulk said, watching Dummy potter around the cell on his treads.

"Yes, but he'll be back eventually, knowing you," Bruce said wryly. "You don't stay clean for long."

Steve sat back and watched, a frown tugging at his lips. Bruce barely needed to prompt Hulk at all to bend down so that he could wipe the green face and hair free of excess water. Tony was right. Something was... odd. Not bad-odd. Just... odd.

"Something wrong?" Bruce finally said as Hulk clumsily pulled on the new pants – brown this time.

"Why would anything be wrong?" Tony asked innocently.

"Well, you're both here, and neither Hulk nor I are really much to look at in the shower," came the rather self-deprecating answer.

"You take that back," Tony scowled, and then his eyes slid to the side and he cleared his throat. "Hulk's definitely an eyeful. Hell, Hulk's two eyefuls."

"We came to see if you were all right after breakfast," Steve said truthfully, and got a dig in the ribs courtesy of Tony's elbow.

"Fine," Bruce said automatically, and then Hulk poked his back. "Ow!"

"Your better half doesn't think so, apparently," Tony said, his eyes narrowing speculatively.

Bruce glared up at Hulk, who glared back. Hulk's glare was better.

"All right, not fine," Bruce said, and his hand began to reach out, searching blindly. Hulk's fingers caught it and then began those little pats, those twisting fingers – Hulk performed the other half of Bruce's nervous tic as though it was a rehearsed act. Steve's eyebrows shot up towards his hairline.

"The Leader, Sterns," Bruce said, and Hulk rumbled ominously, his muscles swelling.

"Talky big head small man," he growled.

"I see you two have talked," Tony leaned forward on his boulder, his elbows leaning on his knees as he peered at Bruce.

"He deserves to know," Bruce said stiffly. Hulk glanced down at where his hand wrapped around Bruce's, engulfing it.

"Hulk protect Bruce, keep Bruce safe," he said.

"We know," Steve soothed. "We know."

"This isn't exactly coming at a good time for you," Tony said. "Just wanted to see if you were all right."

"Yes, I suppose we're all right," Bruce sighed. "It's... well. It's easier now that I've accepted what I am, I guess. I can lean on him. Reassuring him... helps me to deal with it as well. But this is really not a good time for us to be vulnerable with Sterns out there."

"You've really accepted it?" asked Tony, his eyes flickering with worry. He threw Steve a guarded look. "I mean, what I saw, last night..."

"Tony... I don't mind if Steve knows," Bruce said, but clearly he did mind. His back had stiffened.

"Knows what?" Steve asked.

"I, uh." Bruce untangled his hand from Hulk's and rubbed the back of his neck, his hair scattering random droplets of water onto his shoulders.

"Bruce not good," Hulk stepped in, scowling. "Hurt. Hulk made good. All better."

"I'm not quite following this," Steve confessed.

Bruce sighed again, and turned so he wasn't looking at the other two men, ducking away to face the floor. With no apparent self-consciousness he stripped off the wet pants and winced as it pulled at his injuries. Tony made a strangled noise in his throat. "I fell to pieces, basically. I've been struggling with what it meant to be Hulk, what it meant that he was me. Hulk put me back together."

"Oh." Steve dipped his head and thought about that. "Bruce..."

"It's all right, Cap." Bruce carefully pulled on a fresh pair of trousers – without underwear, apparently, which caused Tony to swallow hard for some reason – and the Hulk hovered over him, protective as a mother bird with one chick. "I think I'm coming to grips with it. I'm a monster, a freak, a killer, and a jailer. So be it. But I'm other things too."

"You're a fucking genius and a hero," Tony snapped.

"A world-renowned scientist, an Avenger, a friend, a teammate," Steve listed.

"Bruce good," the Hulk growled.

"It really is all right," Bruce said, smiling uncomfortably. "You can stop there, I'm not so fragile that my ego needs boosting from you three."

"Your ego needs boosting 24/7, sulky," Tony retorted. "I'm thinking of hiring you an announcer just to recite your awesome every time you enter a room."

"That'd be contrary to the goal of keeping your tower intact."

"And you're a stealth sass master, can't forget that," Tony said, and smirked.

"I know as a team we don't... talk very much," Steve said as delicately as he dared. "But you know you can talk to us, right? We're friends. I'd listen to anything you have to say. We're here for you."

"Good to know," Bruce said, and the smile this time was genuine.

Tony made another little noise in his throat, but this one seemed rather frustrated.

Hulk was grinning as though it was Christmas, just above Bruce's head. He looked immensely pleased with something, and beamed around at them indiscriminately. Abruptly Steve was thoroughly unnerved.

Don't tell me that the Hulk is up to something as well?!

"Team," he boomed, his eyes crinkling happily. "Experiment! Hulk's experiment!"

"Junior's getting restless," Tony said dryly. "We'd better think of something pronto before he goes to Smashville."

"Actually," Bruce said, and glanced up at the beaming Hulk. "We were talking about that just before you came in."


The physicist took a short, steadying breath and then gave a helpless shrug. "Is Thor free today, do you know?"


Nicole Redman smiled politely as she waited for the desk clerk to check her ID. The man behind the counter gave her an appreciative glance, eyes lingering on her legs. Nicole Redman blushed a little, and then her smile turned uncomfortable. Nicole Redman was aware of her attractiveness, but insecure in using it.

Beside her, Curt Barnum snorted.

The desk clerk finally handed over their IDs and told them to enjoy their tour of the facilities. Nicole smiled again, and allowed her eyes to tilt in an awkward attempt at flirtation. The desk clerk grinned openly and mouthed, "I'm off at five," as he slid a business card over the counter towards her.

Nicole nodded shyly, picked it up with charmingly clumsy fingers, and laughed a little self-consciously when it took two tries. Nicole then stepped away with a quick look back over her shoulder at him. He fell back in his chair, looking pleased and a little poleaxed.

"That was a mean thing to do, Tasha," Curt Barnum chuckled in her ear.

Nicole looked up at him, wide-eyed – and Natasha allowed the corners of her mouth to turn up ever so slightly. "I made his day. I did a good thing."

"He's going to be crushed when you don't meet him after work."

"He'll get over it." She looked around the corridor, her eyes busy and professional, cataloguing entry points and possible weapons. "Downstairs."

It had taken next to no time to get to Chicago. Despite the fact that Stark waggled his jet enticingly at them every time they went on a covert operation, loudly citing 'Tax break!' and all the luxurious conveniences it offered, landing at an international airport by Stark's private plane was not exactly the most unobtrusive way to enter a city. But Banner's new teleport tech... now that was a spy's dream. He'd been willing to provide Clint and Natasha with two small prototypes of the gadget – a sort of harness that fitted snugly under their clothes and generated a field over their bodies. They were apparently powered using cosmic rays, some sort of dark matter envelope based on that blue mutant's teleportation gift, and the same gamma-rads wave signature that had emanated from the Tesseract. They had a maximum capacity of three pre-plotted jumps, and a surprisingly long reach. The entire Eastern half of the United States was well within their reach in a matter of seconds.

Natasha considered that to be the essential difference between the scientists, really. Stark hid behind the flash and bombast of his public image, always making a grand and flashy entrance. His tech was just as flashy, a bombastic monument to his apparently enormous ego. And of course it was Banner who invented a machine to help him slide out of sight, out of reach and out of mind instantaneously.

The building they were ostensibly inspecting was one of Osborne's, but he was never around. Chicago wasn't one of his priority stops, and so the scientists and researchers that worked there were left to their own devices much of the time, answering to the New York facility every few months or so. The focus of the research was fairly benign compared to the extreme science-fiction that characterised the other Osborne scientific centres – the main thrust of the work was disease prevention and control in humans, animals and crops. Natasha thought Banner would rather enjoy working in a place like this. His own research and work in assisting developing nations dovetailed rather nicely.

It was too bad that underneath the building a gamma signature was pulsing steadily.

Clint swept the area with his raptor's gaze as she disabled the alarms to the emergency fire-stairs, and together they moved into the stairwell. Clint shrugged his suit jacket off and pulled out his gun, checking the clip.

"This is pretty damn easy, so far," he murmured.

"Sterns knows we're here," Natasha said, sloughing off the vestiges of Nicole Redman as she checked her own gun and charged her Widow's Bite. It whined in an ascending glissando as the power built up against her wrists, a comforting familiar feeling. "He'll have something up his sleeve." She didn't have to warn him to be careful and not get overconfident. Clint was a professional.

With silent footfalls they made their way down the fluorescent-lit stairs.

Reaching the bottom was anticlimactic. There was no sign of another entrance other than the emergency door to the street. She considered it as she clipped her gun back in its holster.

"What do you think?" Clint breathed soundlessly.

"Decoy," she said, and allowed her brows to draw together in a frown. "He's not here."

"You sure?"

"Any other gamma signatures in the area?"

"We're going to have to get Banner to track that," Clint said after a moment. "The only reason we thought he was here was because that stealth bird landed outside the city, and then this trace popped up."

"SHIELD's lab techs can't distinguish between a gamma source and a gamma decoy," she said, and let her head tip back in frustration. "Where are our brains? I can't believe we didn't see through this in minutes."

"To be fair, neither did Fury," Clint said and leaned against the wall.

It swivelled.

Natasha was honestly taken aback for a moment. A swivelling wall? Sterns may be a supergenius, but he obviously had an extremely clichéd sense of style. No-one did swivelling walls outside of the movies. It was almost embarrassing.

"Is this guy for real?" Clint mouthed soundlessly, his eyes incredulous. "Or the world's biggest Nancy Drew fan or something? A fake wall?"

She rolled her eyes at him in agreement, unclipped her gun once more, and held up her fingers to indicate that she would take point.

"Agent Romanov in," she muttered into her Stark-made lapel mic. "Secret tunnel underneath the building. I'm taking the lead. Hawkeye to cover. Over."

"Secret tunnel? Seriously?" came Hill's crackling answer over the earpiece.

"He's ugly and a loser," Clint said sourly. "A fake wall. It's a miracle there wasn't a bookshelf in front of it."

"Actually, I don't think this was Sterns," Natasha said, her eyes drifting over the dripping pipes and crumbling mortar. "This is old."

"Osborne, you think?"

"Must have been. You know as well as I do that the man is paranoid as hell."

"Somehow I can't see Norman Osborne being a fan of Nancy Drew. Scooby Doo is a faint possibility, though."

"Shut up, Clint."

"Here we go," Clint said, his keen eyes spotting something buried in the darkness. "I think this is the droid we're looking for."

Natasha flicked on her flashlight and scanned it over a bleeping device attached to the wall with some sort of bracket. It was glowing a disturbing – and familiar – green. "I don't think we should touch that."

"No shit."

"Agent Romanov," she said tersely into the mic. "Some sort of device here. It's glowing green. I think this is the gamma trace the lab monkeys picked up. Approximately three inches in diameter, circular, wired to an unknown energy source."

"Hold," Hill said. "Can you send visual?"

"On it," Clint said, pulling out his phone. It was a StarkPhone, all sleek lines and flashy gadgets. Natasha gave him a flat stare. "Oh, come on, Tasha, these are awesome, way better than the shit SHIELD gives us. I've even got a signal down here."

"Hawkeye's sending you the visual now," she said with an inaudible sigh, and switched off the mic.

As Clint took the photo, he said, "so what now?"

"We go back to the Tower, I suppose," she said, and stifled the surge of irritation.

"What a waste of time this was."

"You're telling me."

Clint was silent for a moment, and then he asked, "is it just me, or is the Tower sort of turning into the Bruce Banner show at the moment?"

Her eyes flicked over to him. He'd noticed. Of course, he was as highly trained as she was, but his skills lay in slightly different areas. He hadn't been given the brutal training in observation, the ability to read faces and bodies like books. Still, he had certain natural gifts when it came to being observant. "Not just you."

Clint shifted, putting his phone away. "Poor bastard."

She weighed her words carefully as she answered, "he seems to be coping."

Clint snorted again. "Yeah. Fucking amazing, if you ask me."

Natasha shifted her weight, knowing precisely what he was referring to. Neither she nor he were predisposed to opening up to anyone. It was part of the psychological makeup required of being a spy and assassin. To open up to another was to hand that person potential weapons with which to harm you. When she had spoken to Bruce that night, it had been the most she had shown of herself to anyone who wasn't Clint in almost eight years.

And it had been excruciating.

To watch Bruce sit there, small and rumpled and calm with yellow paint flaking on his nose, telling them the deepest and most painful secrets of his soul... it had been like watching a man casually breaking open his ribcage and exposing his still-beating heart.

Clint was no better. He never gave anything of himself away that he didn't mean to, holding his past and his secrets just as close to his chest as she did. They didn't trust easily. Natasha knew that she was the only human being Clint trusted enough to be weak in front of, and she felt much the same way. Their bond was almost a tangible thing, had been forged over years and years. The memory sparked through her; Clint, after Loki, his eyes anguished and so lost, struggling against his bonds, terror-sweat dripping down his brow, soft hair flattened against his head. She had stayed, of course. He would never forgive someone else for witnessing his moment of weakness.

Bruce had invited them to watch.


Oh, and Clint always knew when she was unsettled. No-one else had ever pierced her barriers so far or so thoroughly. No-one else had ever seen under her layers of masks. She knew her expression was unreadable, but Clint could read her, every time. Those far-seeing eyes.

She sometimes wondered what they were to each other. Not love, no. Love was for children, and they had never been lovers. It was more than that. They kept each other's backs and each other's secrets. He had saved her from a world of cold whispers and darkness and death. She owed him everything.

"It's..." she began, and drew on her Black Widow persona to give her the strength to continue. "I gave him something. Of myself."

Clint's eyes widened. "You mean..."

"No, not that." She rolled her eyes. "Idiot."

His mouth twitched. "Right, sorry. So what, then?"

She turned back to look at the stupid gamma macguffin, turmoil rolling around her chest and stomach. She knew that her face betrayed nothing: neutral, professional. She also knew it was of no use when it came to Clint. "I told him... I'm learning to care for them. I'm learning to trust them. The team. Him. He reminded me of... of. How I was. You remember."

Clint's mouth parted slightly, and then he folded his arms, leaning against a pipe in a purposefully casual pose. She knew it was in order to make her more comfortable with the conversation – and knowing that, it didn't work. "You usually avoid Bruce."

"Yes. But..." she trailed off. Even taking into consideration her violent brush with the Hulk and her general avoidance of the man, Bruce had quietly crept underneath her fences. He was so, well. Kind. Patient. Guilty. And so very, very angry. They were alike in many ways.

"You actually opened up to him? Not something you've got a lot of prior with."


"You really told him that?"

She glared at him for a second. "Yes."

"Shit, Tasha."

"I know."

"I don't know if I could... unbend... that much."

Her lips curved into a smile. "But you do care."

He gave a swift, uncomfortable shrug. "I guess. You work with people for two years..."

"... you get to know them pretty well," she finished.

"You know, Stark didn't take advantage," he said, suddenly thoughtful. "I drew... well, in one of Hulk's little kiddy classes. We were painting."

"The yellow paint."

"Right, and I drew... something from my past. Stark saw, and he didn't take the piss. He wasn't even that much of a dick."

"Stark's not that much of a dick."

"He does a very convincing Stark-Is-A-Dick act."

"He's been in deep-cover for years," she smiled. "You've seen what's happening with him and Bruce?"

"Could a blind man miss it?"

"He doesn't even know."

"I know. It's better than watching Steve's face."

"Are we actually gossiping about our coworkers?" She raised an eyebrow at him. Clint grinned.

"Yeah. We need a water-cooler. Wanna buy a water-cooler with me?"

At that moment, Natasha's mic hissed and Hill's voice came to her ears. "Okay, the lab boys tell me that this thing is safe to transport in a lead-lined container."

"We don't have a lead-lined container," Natasha said, and opposite her Clint rolled his eyes dramatically.

"Duh," he said.

"Leave the device where it is," Hill said. "I'll send Morse and Sitwell to collect it. Good work locating it. No other clues?"

"Zip, zilch, nada." Clint pulled a disgusted face. "I've swept the area. Nothing else here except mildew."

Natasha didn't question when or how he'd searched the short tunnel. Clint's vision was legendary. "We'll be porting directly back to the Tower," she told Hill. "Widow over and out."

"Report due tomorrow, Agent Barton," Hill said sternly. "Don't make me get Fury."

Natasha smiled as Clint grunted dismissively. "You'd be more effective if you threatened him with Steve's disappointment."

"Noted," Hill said. "On his file from now on. Have a good trip back, you two."

"Now I'm gonna get Steve's sad face every time I skip out on paperwork. I hate you," Clint muttered as Natasha pulled out the earpiece and thumbed off the mic. She tossed the flashlight to him as she readied the teleport-beacon, and he thrust it into his pocket and did the same.

"Yes, you've said before." She regarded the glowing green thing in the wall. "We should request that this thing get sent to Stark's labs. The obvious person to study this is..."

"Bruce," Clint finished, and sighed. "Back to your regularly scheduled Bruce Banner show."

"He likes things like this. Science puzzles. It relaxes him."

"Better him than me," Clint said sourly, and followed her into the fizzing, buzzing static of the 'port.


"Are you sure?" Bruce asked as Tony bustled about, clearing the gym by variously shouting at JARVIS, shouting at his bots and shouting indiscriminately.

"Sure I'm sure, this is going to be fantastic," he puffed when he finally took a breath. "Thor's on board, he's waiting upstairs. Actually, he seemed sort of eager to blow off a little steam. Looks like the last time we fought Loki struck a nerve, plus he hasn't been to see Doctor Tiny Foster in a month thanks to that astrophysics nerd-orgy in Switzerland and all of his Asgard ceremonial stuff. Guy's tense. I think he'd welcome a bit of fisticuffs, Hulk-style."

"Hulk has three days left of his trial period," Bruce said dubiously. "Fury's not going to like it."

"Fury doesn't need to know."

"Hulk's a little difficult to hide, Tony."

"He's not even going out of the Tower, and if we put Thor and him in the cell we'll end up with the world's most indestructible adamantium lightning chamber. That doesn't exactly sound inconspicuous to me."

"I know, I know," Bruce scrubbed his hand over his face. "Well, I'll go get him, then."

"Then lab?" Tony looked up from directing You towards the walls and grinned. "All this Hulk stuff, you've been letting the important things slide, pookie. You've gotta be excited to get back to work now that your brain's working properly again."

To his surprise, Bruce found that he actually was. His fingers itched for a keyboard. "Sure."

Tony's grin broadened. "Awesome."

Bruce took the elevator down to Hulk, tracing steps that had now become routine. Punching the code into the door's keypad took less than a second, and when it slid open Hulk was waiting, shifting from one foot to the other. "Out?" he rumbled eagerly.

"Yes, we're going out," Bruce confirmed, and lifted his hand to Hulk's face. The rough, unbelievably thick skin with its steel-wool stubble met his palm, and Hulk made a deep sound of contentment. "No rushing, though, and remember your Rules and your experiments. You have to be good."

"Good," Hulk echoed, and nodded against Bruce's hand. "Rule One, no scare no smash. Rule Two, mistakes okay. Rule Tree, say sorry, all over."

Remembering Natasha and the tantrum from that morning, Bruce's mouth twitched a little. "In the interests of keeping the noise down, it might be time to have another Rule."

"More?" Hulk blew out an explosive breath. "More Rule?"

"It looks like it's needed, Hulk. How's this," and he felt an ironic smirk tugging at his lips, "you don't always get what you want."

Hulk scowled, lips peeling back from his teeth. "Rule stupid."

"But true," Bruce said sourly.

"Tasha said."

"That's right."

Hulk glanced back at his counting experiment. "Four. Not always get what Hulk wants." Then he snarled, low and menacing. "Hulk no like dumb rule."

"No-one ever does," Bruce sighed. "But it's one of the important ones." And one that both you and I know deep in our bones.

Hulk's nose wrinkled. "Fine. Rule Four."

"Well done," Bruce praised him. "We can go out now."

"Out!" The Hulk span on one foot, fast and deadly, to eye the open door with enthusiastic delight. "Hulk goes out! Hulk free!"

"We have to come back here, remember," Bruce cautioned him. "But yes, today we're going out."

Hulk frowned. "Run to the safe places, green places?"

Bruce blinked, and then remembered Hulk's tendency to flee into forests and woodlands to hide from the tanks and guns that hounded him every single time he woke. "No, not there. We're going up to see Tony." And Thor, he added in his mind with a wince. Oh god, this was entirely crazy.

Hulk huffed and settled back to follow Bruce to the elevator. He had to bend down to fit through the doors and the metal floor creaked and sagged underneath his feet. When it began to move he let out a bark of alarm, the whites of his eyes showing. It took all of Bruce's powers of persuasion to stop him from punching a hole in the wall and opening the carriage like a sardine tin. Hulk was still extremely unsettled when the doors opened on the gymnasium level, and growled loudly as the elevator closed behind them.

"Shh, gone now," said Bruce, trying to project calm. At least that was something he had a lot of experience with.

"Hulk HATE stupid moving room!"

"It's gone," Bruce said again, before regarding Hulk with a wry smile. "I think we'll take the stairs next time."

"Hey, you two!" Tony said cheerfully, before whirling on You and snapping, "no, the other left. Your left. See the... look, follow where I'm pointing. Where I'm pointing. Can you do that? Fuck, I am so melting you down and making ashtrays out of you."

The bot tilted its 'head' almost mockingly, a pile of punching bags loaded on its back. It whirred and then turned its back on its creator with a slightly huffy air and trundled towards the indicated door. "Smartass," Tony muttered.

"Dissent in the ranks?" Bruce said lightly.

"I didn't program smartassery," Tony held up his hands in innocence. "It's been hanging around you too long, that's gotta be it."

"Oh, blame me, of course," Bruce deadpanned, and turned back to Hulk. "What do you think? Is it good?"

"Good..." Hulk said slowly, looking around the now-empty gym. "Big. Much bigger. Big for Hulk!"

"That's right," Tony said, walking towards them as the bots pulled the doors shut behind them. He bent down to whisper in Bruce's ear, "he's upstairs. I told him to wait."

"Good idea," Bruce whispered back, eyeing Hulk nervously. This was probably the worst decision he'd ever made - and he'd famously decided to irradiate himself.

"Hulk?" he began, and then bit down on his lip. "Remember what we were talking about before the rain experiment?"

Hulk broke off looking around the echoing, empty space, his brutish brow furrowing. "Outside?"

"Yes," Bruce confirmed. "But we were going to meet someone. Remember who?"

"Shooty Bird and Tasha gone," Hulk said, miffed. He took a few steps further into the gym, his hand resting on the floor. "What do now?"

"Agent Scary gets her name as well?" Tony jerked back in surprise.

"Apparently," Bruce answered, frustrated.

Tony huffed. "But I wanted to be the only one!"

"Rule Four," Hulk said smugly.

"Whu..." Tony raised his eyebrows at Bruce, who bit down on his lip again – although this time it was to stop a laugh from escaping. "Rule Four. He got another one?"

"Just before we left the cell. Rule Four. Hulk?"

"Not always get what Hulk wants," Hulk said sulkily, and then he scowled like a thundercloud.

"You...! Cheeky, both of you, fucking cheeky," Tony muttered, and stalked away with a faintly injured air.

"Well, it's not Clint or Natasha," Bruce said, resuming the conversation where they had been interrupted. "Who else is there?"

Hulk looked at Bruce for a long second, and then Tony. His eyes became calculating, classifying. Bruce could almost hear the internal monologue: Bruce, Tony-Metal-Man...not Shooty Bird. Not Tasha-Red-Black. Star Man?

Sure enough, Hulk offered, "Star Man?"

"I'm afraid he had to go to a meeting, big guy," Tony said, ignoring Bruce with aplomb. Bruce smiled to himself.

"So who's left?" he prompted his greener half. And braced himself.

Hulk didn't disappoint. There was the expected moment of cognitive connection as Hulk drew on the memories and placed them into context, and then—


"Rule Four!" Bruce snapped, holding his good hand over his ear. Ow, ow, ow. God, but Hulk was loud.

Hulk panted, glaring at Bruce. Bruce simply held his gaze, not turning or blinking. He was stronger than Hulk in this. He always had been. Hulk was the physical manifestation of strength, but Bruce had held him down with sheer mental dominance for years. When it came to a clash of wills, Bruce was always going to be the stronger.

Eventually Hulk's eyes turned to the floor, and his jaw jutted out in grudging, pugnacious acceptance. "Not want Shouty Long Hair yet. Shouty Long Hair?" he grumbled. "Now?"

"You agreed, Hulk," Bruce said relentlessly. Hulk grunted and sat down with a thunderous boom, his hands clenching.

"Fine. Rule One. Sorry. Rule Tree," he muttered, and then shook his head. "Too many rules!"

"Who's he calling shouty?" Tony said, wiggling a finger in his ear. "JARVIS, can you let Thor know we're in the gym, and the Hulk is with us? Tell him to get his godlike ass down here. Really be clear about the Hulk part, that's important."

"Certainly Sir. Mr Odinson is en-route currently."

Bruce glanced at Tony and a shared moment that consisted of 'this is totally insane' passed between them. Tony's face was excited, a little flushed – and Bruce was incredibly nervous. This was further than they'd gone before.

"All right," he said, and Hulk's eyes snapped back to him. "This is the experiment for today. You agreed to see Thor-"

"Shouty Long Hair."

"—right, and we thought it might be a good opportunity for you to let go a bit, considering you've been locked away in a cell for a week." Bruce looked back at Tony for reassurance, and received a thumbs-up and a 'go on!' in response. "I know you don't get on," Bruce continued, a little more sternly. "But he is good. He's a friend. And he likes to fight just as much as you do."

Hulk sat very still for a few seconds, before his expression slowly cleared. "Fight?" he echoed. Then a vicious smile that spoke eloquently of impending violence spread over his face. "Smash?"

Bruce took a breath. "Yes."

Hulk roared in triumph and delight. "Hulk smash!"

"But!" Bruce held up his hand again. The giant stopped, looking uncertain, and Bruce stepped forward and laid it on Hulk's bunched muscles. "You're not trying to hurt each other. It's just for fun. It's play. Play. Remember? Not trying to hurt each other."

"Not trying to smash puny god to hurt," Hulk said, tilting his head. "Smash. No hurt?"

"Don't hurt him," Bruce said and gently stroked that huge arm, easily as thick as his own torso. "He won't hurt you, not really. It's all in fun."

"Fun," Hulk echoed. "Fun. Fun is good?"

"Yes," Bruce said, and his heart clenched. That little boy, the three-year-old inside that monster didn't know what fun was. Nearly forty years ago, the little boy he had been hadn't known what fun was either. "Fun is good." I promise, I promise it is. You'll find out.

"No hurt. Play. Fun. Fun is good."

"Very good," Bruce stroked Hulk's arm again, and Hulk gave him a satisfied look.

"Hulk smash," he said, grinning broadly.

Tony choked a laugh. "Yeah, Green Machine, you get to smash all right."

At that moment, the doors burst open. "I came as swiftly as I could, my friends. Is it..."

Hulk roared, his eyes glittering with mischief. "Hulk SMASH!"

"Great Odin's ghost," Thor blurted, and ducked smoothly underneath the arm that came whistling through the air at him. He turned and paused, his hammer held at the ready.

"Whoopsie-daisy, bit of premature annihilation there, happens to the best of us," Tony said in a far-too-bright tone. "Hey Hulkster, give us a mo. We need to let Shouty Long Hair catch his breath before you two go have your fun."

Hulk blinked, and then turned accusing eyes on Bruce. "But Bruce say Hulk could..."

"I think Shouty Long Hair needs to be reminded," Tony said. "Uh, Thor?"

"What is this?" Thor asked suspiciously. "Do we not battle now?"

"Um," Bruce said, and smiled helplessly.

"Your artificial mind informed me that the Hulk was here and you required me," Thor said, shrugging, his bright hair ruffled from his brief exertion. "Were we not to spar, the green beast and I?"

"Well, yes," Bruce said. "We're just trying to make sure that everyone here understands the concept of sparring."

"Ah," Thor said thoughtfully, before turning to Hulk. His face betrayed a certain amount of understandable wariness; Hulk had a habit of punching him or throwing him through walls during battles if he got too close. "We are not enemies, you and I," he said to Hulk almost formally. "I would be honoured to spar with you, to test my mettle and strength against your might."

Hulk's expression was thoroughly confused, and he growled under his breath. "What Shouty Long Hair say?"

Thor blinked. "Ah... I am not your enemy?"

"Stupid Shouty Long Hair hit Hulk," Hulk said, his arms swelling and his face darkening. "Stupid Shouty Long Hair's stupid annoying hammer hit Hulk, harder than anyone ever hit Hulk."

Thor bowed slightly. "You flatter me."

"He really doesn't," Bruce said.

"Hulk hates stupid annoying hammer," Hulk grumbled. "Hulk strongest there is. Hulk not pick up stupid annoying hammer. Hate hammer!"

"Probably a good thing he's getting some smash-time," Tony murmured. Bruce looked up at the broad green features twisted in frustration and anger and privately agreed.

"They're going to tear up your gym," he sighed.

"Like I care. This is going to be fucking phenomenal."

Thor was evidently retuning his brain from Radio Asgard to Hulk FM. "We are friends," he said in a far clearer tone of voice. "We will fight each other, but it is not in order to hurt each other. Just a test of each other's strength."

Hulk snorted. "Stupid. Hulk told Shouty Long Hair. Hulk strongest there is."

"And I have this," Thor twisted his wrist, Mjolnir flashing in the light. "We do not fight in order to hurt each other. It is..." he broke off, obviously searching for the words.

"For fun," Hulk offered.

Thor gave Hulk his expansive and brilliant smile. "Aye, for fun."

"Are you two ready?" Tony asked, and then rubbed his hands together. "Oh, man. This is going to be completely sublime, you know what? This is even better than that kickass dream I had when I was eleven about Darth Vader fighting a T-Rex."

"You are a child," Bruce said, shaking his head and smiling, a warm fondness sweeping through him. It seemed that no matter how dangerous the situation or how hard Bruce pushed him away, Tony was always there. Of course, he was generally there saying something off-colour or inappropriate. "Hulk is more mature than you."

"Hey, I resemble that remark."

"Hulk has been good. Hulk want to smash!" Hulk punctuated this with a crash of his fist against the floor.

"When I say we have to stop, you have to stop," Bruce warned him. Hulk rolled his eyes.

"Hulk will stop if Hulk ever start."

"Cheeky," Tony snickered. "Okay, fuck, JARVIS, roll camera or whatever, you'd better be recording this."

Thor raised his hammer and his smile filled with that wild, gleeful fire so familiar from a hundred battles. "Have at thee!" he bellowed, and the hammer went flying at Hulk's head.

Hulk's answering grin was feral. "Hulk SMASH!" he roared, and then it was on.

Hulk ducked the flying hammer and snorted contemptuously at it, before turning back to Thor with a clear challenge in his eyes. With a joyous laugh, Thor leapt through the air to land one, two punches against the Hulk's solid jaw. Hulk shook his head and his teeth bared in a snarl. He whirled with that uncanny speed to backhand the god across the room, and Thor went skidding, his heels dragging long furrows in the floor.

"Now this is a fight," Tony breathed.

"You're actually insane," Bruce groaned.

"That's rich coming from you, Brucey-boy."

Hulk gathered himself and jumped, his bulk flying with deceptive ease to land where Thor had been only a second ago. His knee sank into the wood, buckling it. He grunted, confused, and then Thor was landing devastating hammer-blows on his shoulders and chest.

"Come, friend, show me!" Thor laughed, and sent his hammer hurtling deep into the Hulk's solar plexus.

Hulk shook off the blow with a grunt and stood, his hands opening threateningly. "No thunderclaps!" Bruce called hurriedly. Hulk shot him a resentful glare, but lifted his hands high above his head and brought his fists down onto the gym floor with a resounding crash instead.

"Not that either," Bruce groaned, and hid his face.

The noise was tremendous. A furrow of buckling wood skittered along the floor from the point of impact to upset Thor's balance, and he struggled to stay upright.

And then Hulk punched him solidly into a wall. He was embedded at least a foot into the gyprock and plaster, his face slack and stunned. "What a blow!" he said dazedly.

"Fight!" Hulk smashed his hands against his chest. "Shouty Long Hair say Hulk show. Hulk show Shouty Long Hair!"

"He sure did," Tony murmured admiringly.

"They're going to rip your Tower in half," Bruce grated. "The floor!"

"So not important right now," Tony replied, irritation rising in his eyes. "Watch them. Really watch."

Bruce turned back to see Thor struggling out of the crumbling mess that had been the wall, his hand reaching for Mjolnir and grasping the handle reflexively as it flew to his grasp. Hulk's snarl was pure fury.

Thor wiped at his nose, and inspected the small droplets of blood with a strange half-smile. "Magnificent," he breathed in his deep voice. "Truly. Do we continue?"

Hulk drew himself up to his full height, tipped his head back, and roared at the ceiling. The very air shook with the power in it.

Thor readjusted his grip on Mjolnir, and then the two of them crashed into each other like continents. Bruce's breath caught, his heart somewhere up in his throat. "They're going to kill each other."

"Are you kidding?"


"Bruce. Just. Look at them," Tony whispered.

Like a jolt of static electricity to the brain, Bruce got it. Hulk's face was still contorted in that insane snarl, but he was swinging his mammoth fists with an almost carefree abandon. There was utter freedom in that movement, a frenzied wild happiness that the Hulk could not exist without. Thor was grinning fiercely as he brought his hammer down onto Hulk's elbow. Then he took hold of one giant green arm and sent the Hulk tumbling head over heels in a display of prodigious strength. As he crashed into the (destroyed) floor, Hulk let out a roar that was half a sneer, flipping himself with that deceptive speed and slapping against the floor with open palms as though saying, 'you'll have to do better than that!'

"They're enjoying it," he said faintly.

"Fuck yeah, they're enjoying it," Tony said, pleased as Punch and twice as smug. "Uh, so, this is where I say I told you so? Again? I have a dance routine now, you know."

"I will hurt you," Bruce promised him absently, watching his savage self wrestling the God of Thunder with a strange dizzy feeling. He would not look away. This was part of him too, this unfettered freedom and brutality, this joy in unconfined violence. This was all part of him.

Thor was openly laughing, his face suffused in fierce elation as he wielded the hammer against the Hulk's invulnerable skin. Dimly Bruce realised that Thor probably didn't get the chance to cut loose very often. He was stronger and vastly more powerful than any other being on the planet – except Hulk. He had duties and responsibilities towards two very different realms, travelling between them practically every week. He was often bemused and annoyed by Midgardian culture and traditions, which had led to some spectacular public faux-pas and a reputation for being genial and well-meaning, but slow-witted - it wasn't in the least true, but it had to be aggravating. He hadn't seen his lady for at least a month, due to her scientific obligations and his own princely duties.

No wonder the guy needed to work off some tension.

Hulk pried Thor from around his neck and threw him into another wall with a snarl of satisfaction. Thor didn't allow the setback to daze him this time, having evidently prepared for the impact. He launched from the broken plaster with a bellow of, "for Asgard!" to swing his foot underneath Hulk's legs and topple him before the hammer came down for a blow directly on the Hulk's unprotected face.

Bruce's breath stopped.

Hulk's roars became a scream of outrage and he immediately punched upwards with one boulder-like fist. Thor was sent tumbling through the air yet again, hair and hammer flying wild, to land on his stomach against the broken floor with a heavy thud. He bounced a few times Bruce noted vaguely, trying to breathe against his panic.

Hulk stood slowly and with menacing intent, shards of wood sliding from his shoulders and clattering to the ground. He walked with deadly purpose and booming footsteps to where the god struggled to push himself upright. Thor eventually slumped back onto his stomach, his eyes hazy, as the Hulk loomed threateningly above him with an expression of sheer wrath. Bruce's tongue caught between his teeth and he couldn't find the words, just couldn't. Hulk wasn't going to hurt him. Hulk wasn't going to hurt him. Hulk wasn't going to kill him.

He hates Thor. You're a killer. He's killed before. So have you.

The Hulk looked back at where Bruce stood, and some of the insane fury left his eyes. He grunted.

Then he sat down on Thor's back and crossed his thick legs like a child listening to stories.

Tony squeaked and his hand clapped over his mouth.

Hulk prodded the hammer where it lay with a giant finger, disgust on his face as it refused to move. Then he shifted a little, and Thor's strangled wheeze could be clearly heard.

Hulk glanced down, and then grinned at the two men in the corner. "Hulk wins. Fun. Food now?"

Chapter Text


Letting out a gusty breath of pure delight, Tony collapsed back into the comfy swivel-chair that was the Command Centre of his workshop, and span it around in a circle a couple of times. Watching Hulk and Thor go head-to-head had been better than he'd ever imagined – and he had a pretty darned vivid imagination. The immensity of it, the sheer power of the two titanic beings clashing together had been breathtaking. He felt buoyant, weightless and giddier than he had in a long time, as though the arc reactor had suddenly become a sparkles-and-unicorns bubble of light rather than two pounds of metal lodged in his chest.

Fuck. That was awesome.

Spinning his chair one last time, he stopped before his computer and fired it up with a wave of a hand, pulling up the specs for the Hulkbusters. Damn, he wanted in on that. Sparring with the Hulk? On that level? Shit yeah. He was going to get some of that action, even if it killed him – and thank you, dour little Bruce Banner voice in his head – it wasn't going to kill him. Pessimist.

"Incoming call, Sir. It is Lt. Colonel Rhodes on the line."

"Rhodey, yeah, sure, put him through." Tony peered at the armour's arm joints and quickly scrapped a few linkages that wouldn't stand up to the colossal forces he had just witnessed. The Hulk would tear through them in seconds. Fucking awesome.

"Tony!" Rhodey's face blinked up on another screen, floating in mid-air. "You ever gonna answer your messages? How'd it go after Istanbul?"

"Hey honeybear, was totally going to get back to you, cross my battery," Tony said absently, exploding the diagram and examining the set of the arms, the counterbalance required to lift the weight of them. "Been a bit busy."

"Doing what, exactly?" Good old Rhodey. As unimpressed as ever. His long face was set into an expression of extreme scepticism. "No Stark Industries work, that's for sure; no-one's been ranting about you on Fox for weeks. No battles since, oh, let me think now..."

"Fine, everyone's fine," Tony interrupted. "My suit got junked, but I'm okay. Clint got his ass scorched, which was probably the biggest injury of the day. No thanks to your useless toy pop-guns, man. When are you gonna let me replace that Hammer junk with something that doesn't, let me see, suck?"

"When you manage to fly your lazy can out to Langley again," Rhodey grinned. "I can't always be coming to your place. I have a job, remember?"

"But my place is so much more romantic, sweetie-buns," Tony said, flopping back in his chair and smiling back at his friend.

"Romantic or not, I'm gonna be off-grid for a couple of weeks," Rhodey said. "There's a peacekeeping manoeuvre planned in Syria, and I've been tapped to protect the ground forces and the aid workers. You got anything planned for that part of the world that you've conveniently forgotten to tell me?"

"Like I said, been busy," Tony shrugged. "This one's yours. Have fun. Bring me back a mole rat."

"What the hell have you been so busy doing?"

"There's been an escape from the Cube, and I'm consulting because that's what consultants do," Tony said, waving a hand.

"I heard about that. Some mutant guy?"

"Not a natural mutant, a gamma mutant."

"Like the Hulk?"

"No-one's like the Hulk," Tony said emphatically.

"So that's all you've been doing? What, are your fingers broken, you can't pick up a phone?"

"Psssh," Tony scoffed. "Like I ever pick up a phone. That's what JARVIS is for."

"So what's really been taking up all your time? Don't tell me, you hit the casinos again."

"Hulk stuff," Tony said, and the elation bubbled up through him again. "Shit, Rhodey, you should see it. He's fucking incredible. He's... like a force of nature, and he's science, and he's like a kid, all at once. Well, like a hyperviolent giant angry kid with no context, but hey, no-one's perfect. I was babysitting Hulk until Banner grew some balls and took the lead – and holy crap, did he ever. The shit he's been through, Rhodey, and he gets up in the morning and goes and faces it all over again. He's the bravest son-of-a-bitch I've ever met."

"Must be. I haven't ever seen you so damn impressed with anyone who wasn't you."

"You wound me, candy-apple. You know you're still my favourite."

"Tony," said Rhodey in a much more serious tone of voice, "you know what you're doing with this guy?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Uh, yeah? Science, mostly. And opening a salon. What do you think of the name, 'Stark Scissors'?"

"Sounds like a new invention. I just mean, well, you don't have a great track record with letting the right people get close to you." Rhodey shook his head. "That came out wrong. I mean-"

"Can this be a thinly-veiled reference to that treacherous slimebeast Obie? Why yes, I believe it is," Tony rolled his eyes, clamping down on the sudden lurch in the pit of his stomach. "Bruce isn't Obie. He's an Avenger. He's not gonna run away with the arc reactor and sell it on eBay or use it to power nefarious killer robots of death. Don't know if you've noticed, but the Hulk hasn't got any use for killer robots or a suit of armour, even if it can fly."

"Not the Hulk. Banner," Rhodey said, and sighed. "Look, he doesn't try anything? No damage done; no harm, no foul. I'm not saying get rid of the guy, just that you should be careful. I know he's your friend. But I am too, and I'm just looking out for you. Banner's a scientist, he's gotta be interested. Just... watch yourself, okay?"

"Warning duly noted," Tony snapped. "And totally unnecessary. Seriously, Rhodey? Neither of them is gonna hurt me. Bruce is my friend, and Hulk practically rolls over at my feet to get his belly scratched. And you don't just talk about one of them. It's both or neither. They're a package deal, two for one offer."

"Banner's been on the most-wanted list a long time," Rhodey continued stubbornly. "He's killed a lot of people."

"So have I, and no-one ever stopped me. Hell, I got rewarded." Tony folded his arms and lifted his chin. "Banner's a genius, an Avenger and a candidate for fucking sainthood in his spare time. And the Hulk... well, Hulk is learning. He's actually good when you give him the opportunity to be, and a framework he can understand. He's intensely, profoundly cool. And that's all I have to say on this, so if that's what this call was about..."

"Fine, fine," Rhodey said, frustrated. "I worry about you sometimes, that's all."

"I'm a big boy now, sugar-tits. Tie my own shoes and everything."

"Only because Pepper moved out."

"Ouch. You're not winning any popularity contests today."

"Seriously, you doing all right with that?"

"Hey, it's me,"Tony smirked and spread his arms. "Tony Stark, billionaire superhero frat boy. I am the very definition of all right."

"You're not fooling a god-damned soul, Stark."

"We're still friends, everyone's friends, it's great to be friends, talk soon, bye," Tony said, and closed the screen with a flick of a finger. Sitting in the silence, he brooded for a moment. His good mood had vanished. God, Rhodey was like the kryptonite for fun sometimes.

He stared through the Hulkbuster specs for a moment, toying with the leather on the arm of the chair. This thing. He remembered when Ross had commissioned it. It had never been put into production; other weapons prototypes, like the sonic cannon, had been deemed more suitable against the Hulk's particular style of anarchic destruction. Suddenly angry with himself, he pulled down the exploded diagram and threw the whole design into his virtual basketball-ring trash can.


He looked up. Bruce was standing in the doorway. He was toying with his glasses, looking weary and somehow rumpled even though it was only eleven in the morning and his clothes were clean and pressed. "Everything all right?"

"Yeah." Tony scrubbed at his face. "Just... nah, nothing. Don't worry. How's Thor?"

"Fine. Eating again. Wants a rematch." Bruce slipped his glasses on, ducking his head in that way he had as he did so. "I think Hulk must have K.O'd his common sense or something."

"Rematch is happening. I'm gonna sell tickets," Tony said decisively. Screw Rhodey anyway. He hadn't seen Hulk wrap his massive hand around Bruce's with infinite, delicate care. He hadn't seen that same hand crashing into a Norse god with the sound of tearing air. He just didn't know what the hell he was talking about.

Something of his thoughts must have been showing on his face, because Bruce was giving him an odd look. "O... kay," he said slowly. "Well, if you're not busy or anything, I could really use a second set of eyes on this. I've pulled together the primary evidence to begin investigating whether Hulk and I can be recombined, and..."

"Say no more." Tony stood as though he was spring-loaded and practically raced over to sling an arm over Bruce's shoulders. "Lead on, MacDuff."

The physicist smiled, adjusting Tony's arm so it didn't weigh on his injured shoulder. "Actually, it's really 'Lay on, Macduff,and damned be him who first cries 'Hold! enough!', you know."

"I legitimately did not know that," Tony said as he steered them towards the lab that had rapidly been designated as Bruce's nearly two years ago – a pleasant, airy workspace with plenty of natural light. "That is just so fascinating, how very, very interesting, do tell me more, Doctor Shakespeare Nerdy Guy."

Bruce gave him a sidelong look. "You knew."

"Duh? Genius?"

Bruce laughed quietly, extricated himself smoothly from under Tony's arm and reached for one of the holographic screens floating serenely around his favourite workbench. "Here," he said, pointing out a series of biochemical markers. "This is me before Stingray zapped us. You can see..."

"Jesus, I'm sort of amazed you still have hair, let alone that spaniel on your head or the thicket you call a chest. Actually, it's insane that you can even breathe," Tony said, peering closer. "That's one shitload of gamma."

Bruce's expression was tight. "These were the isolated chemical markers for Hulk." He indicated a set of fluctuating levels – testosterone, adrenaline, opioid peptides. "These constantly mutated or adapted in response to emotional stimuli. If they reached a certain saturation density..."

"You hulked out."

"Right," Bruce scratched under his cast, and then sighed. "Here's the hormone cocktail I created."

Tony scanned it briefly. This was much more Bruce's area than his – Tony preferred the mechanical side of the field rather than the squishy stuff – but he was up-to-date enough to keep up. "Trying to stabilise those fluctuating levels."

"That was the idea," Bruce pulled a face. "The wrong idea, as it turned out. I replicated the initial gamma levels involved in my accident to try and create a sort of anti-Hulk effect, if you will, an effect that was also tied to those hormonal levels that trigger Hulk, but in geared in the opposite direction."

"Triggering you instead."

"Yeah, that's right. Didn't work."

"Of course it didn't," Tony leaned his hip on the bench and cocked his head at his friend. "He's not a biochemical malfunction; he's you."

"Obviously I was working under a false hypothesis," Bruce said dryly. "However, I wasn't really in the mood to listen when you tried to tell me that."

"Y'know, it's a song and dance routine, now-"

"Tony," Bruce said, holding his nose in that familiar long-suffering manner. It made Tony want to ruffle his hair, pinch him, prod his side – anything to see his calm crack around the edges. "You were right. Will you drop it?"

"Never." He grinned again, his mood swinging up once more. Bruce and science, the antidote to Lt. Colonel Kryptonite Rhodes.

Bruce dropped his hand, revealing a twitching smile. "Of course you won't. Silly question."

Tony's laughter threatened to bubble up, and so he cleared his throat and turned back to the screen with a professorial sniff. "Sooo. Before we were discussing my totally legitimate reasons to gloat, we were talking about..."

"Right, right," Bruce flipped through several screens before selecting one. "Here. This is my blood now."

"Huh." To Tony's unpractised eye, it was as normal as blood could get. "Well, that's boring."

Bruce's mouth twitched again. "It took some convincing," he said next, "but I managed to get Hulk to give me a swab from inside his mouth. There were enough cells present on the sample to create a digital model." He flicked his hand to spin another holographic screen to the forefront, and Tony gasped.

"Fuck, it's off the scale in every direction," he murmured breathlessly.

"At first I thought your equipment was malfunctioning," Bruce said.

"Bite your tongue."

"I need to figure out just how much electricity got pumped into us during the change," Bruce said thoughtfully, bringing the last two graphs side-by-side. The comparison was dramatic: plain old vanilla human Bruce, with his utterly normal levels of just about everything (and apparently, a slight iron deficiency, probably due to his injuries) and Hulk, a superhuman in every sense of the word. "I want to run digital simulations before we start having to deal with actual electrical fields or gamma radiation."

"Have you started simulations?" Tony brought Bruce's pre-separation stats closer, studying the flickering dopamine and serotonin levels.

"No, I was hoping you could help me with that. I still need to write the program. You're faster than me at programming and coding. Would you?"

Tony clapped his back. "Of course."

Bruce smiled at him, gratitude flooding his eyes. Then he seemed to check himself, pursing his lips and turning towards the biochem freezers. "We won't have much time for simulation testing before we have to go on to the practical, though. I've got some samples of my blood from before locked in that fancy new graphite fridge – you are so rich it is obscene and a giant showoff, by the way – it'll have begun gamma decay, but there should be enough of the original isotope left in there. I hope. But it won't last long once we thaw it."

Keep talking science at me, Bruce. It's helping.

Tony raised his eyebrows. "Are we talking an all-nighter? Sleepover Science Party, no Caps allowed?"

Bruce's head tilted. "Ah, probably not. Hulk, remember?"

"Oh, yeah, forgot you were a single father now." Tony nudged him, and Bruce gave his soft chuckle again, brown eyes tipping down.

Bruce is the best, the fucking best. God. How can Rhodey think this guy would ever...?

"Tony?" Bruce blinked and his brow began to furrow. "Tony, you're acting a bit... off. Are you sure you're all right?"

He jerked. "Why is everyone asking me that? I am fine. Never better, in fact, I am a dazzling specimen of good health and well-being and all that," Tony grated, before stalking around to the other side of the counter, his shoulders held stiffly. He dragged one of the dark glass tablets towards himself and opened a new coding platform for the simulator, his fingers dancing over the screen.

The tablet was roughly yanked out of his grasp, and he made a noise of protest, his hands following it needily. "Bruuuuce, I was working on that..."

"Talk," Bruce ordered him, putting the tablet behind him and folding his good arm over his sling.

"What? No! Just give me..." Tony tried to reach around the guy to filch the tablet back, but Banner was an immovable little nugget of a man, and apparently as stubborn as a whole shipload of mules. He shifted his weight just a little to block Tony's access, and the tablet might as well have been on the other side of the moon.

Ah, fuck.

"You wouldn't let me hide from it, Tony," Bruce continued, his expression implacable. "I'm returning the favour. Whatever's bugging you, let it out."

"Bruce..." Tony growled, and Bruce shook his head, his curls slipping over his forehead.

"Nope. Talk."

"It's seriously nothing, just Rhodey being an overprotective asshole," he tried to shrug it away.

"Oh?" Bruce took off his glasses, folding the arms neatly, before he leaned back to listen. "What did Rhodes say?"

Tony's breath left him in an explosive rush. "He thinks you're gonna make off with the arc reactor because you have a science boner for it. He doesn't like Hulk. He asked about Pepper. And he still won't get back here with my suit so I can take that embarrassing Hammer shit off it!"

Bruce mulled that over, before his eyes began to sparkle with mirth. "He thinks I'll take the arc reactor?"

And he began to laugh. Actually laugh – a real one, deep and rich and from the belly. Tony hadn't ever heard Bruce laugh like this. Bruce usually just chuckled, a wry sardonic sound that always seemed as though it was half-directed at himself. This was full-throated and free, untouched by his typical cynicism and completely unfettered. It was... breathtaking. It began to diminish as Bruce got himself under control, fading to chuckles and sighs of amusement.

(Tony wanted to hear it again.)

"Uh. It's not really that ah, funny or anything. It's happened before," Tony said, gobsmacked and wondering what the hell kind of reaction this was. Bruce shook his head again, his hand pressed against his ribs to stop them aching as he continued to chuckle.

"Tony, what the fuck do I need with an arc reactor? Hulk would smash it in half a second!"

"Boom," Tony said, and began to snicker.

"Boom," Bruce agreed.

"Hey, maybe you'd like a shiny paperweight?"

"I have one, from when I was in Vietnam. It's not as pretty, but then marble is a lot less expensive than vibranium." Bruce wiped the corner of his left eye with the heel of his hand, and then regarded Tony with amusement. "I'm glad you have friends who worry about you."

"Are you human?" Tony asked suspiciously.


"Because that is way too decent. You should want to punch honeybear's lights out. Or at least spread filthy rumours about his sexual proclivities."

"By-product of anger management training." Bruce shrugged, still smiling. "And to answer the question, yes, right now I'm boringly, disgustingly human."

"Well," Tony grinned. Bruce and science, absolutely the antidote. "Let's see if we can fix that."

Bruce tilted his head. "Hmm. In a bit. Who took it?"

Tony jerked back as though he had been stung. "What?"

"Well, you said it had happened before. Rhodes is worried about someone getting too close to you. Logically this suggests that you once trusted someone who took advantage of you and made off with the reactor specs. Who, if you don't mind me asking?"

"What if I do mind?" Tony's eyes slid away from Bruce's. They were just too... kind. Understanding. He hated it. He looked down at the man's mouth instead.

Bruce did that strange thing where he pulled at his lower lip with his teeth. He had full lips, Tony noticed. "Then I withdraw the question."

"No, no, hang on," Tony said, and sighed, stretching back on his chair. One hand automatically rose to trace the edge of the reactor, the minute vibrations escaping into his fingertips. It felt heavy again – it sometimes did. There was too much scarring, both internally and externally, to feel much sensation beyond its weight, but now and again he imagined he could feel it pulling at the deadly little shards of his own hubris that always, always strove to pierce his heart. "It was... someone I trusted, yeah. The guy who practically raised me. Cos, y'know, Dad was a busy guy and Mum had her charities and her gin, and someone had to keep an eye on the kid. After Afghanistan, well. He didn't steal the reactor specs. Not precisely."

Bruce's eyes widened slowly as he put the meaning of that together. "He stole the reactor straight out of your..."

"Yeah," said Tony shortly, a sharp flat exhalation. "He did. He was the one behind the kidnapping, the torture, the fucking waterboarding, everything. I looked up to him. I believed in him, and the whole time he despised me. He was a cross between a favourite uncle and a mentor, and he called me a golden goose and tried to kill me."

Bruce shook his head. "No wonder Rhodes worries."

"And Pep. Hell, Happy as well. JARVIS. Even Butterfingers worries. Everyone's a mother hen. No need. I mean, I'm Fort Knox these days. Security layers, passwords, ultra-private servers, extra reactors, the works. Fuck, once you've had your heart literally ripped out in front of your eyes while you're totally helpless to prevent it – and that is not a metaphor – you tend to get a bit paranoid."

There was a long silence, and then Bruce said, "I used to have an invisible friend."

Tony was shocked enough at the change of subject to laugh out loud. "What?"

"I had an invisible friend. When I was three," Bruce smiled tightly, though his voice remained matter-of-fact, conversational. So calm. So very angry. "I used to watch my Dad whaling on my Mum and think, my invisible friend will stop that. I told him everything. He was a little boy like me, but strong. Strong enough to save my mother, strong enough to stop... it all. Whack, whack, whack; you freak kid, you monster, too smart, too clever. Good old Dad. My friend didn't care that I was smart, only that I was strong."

Bruce paused. Tony licked at his dry lips and croaked, "Bruce?"

He looked up, and his dark eyes were almost black with fury. The calm in his voice never cracked. "One day Mum decided to make a run for it. She bundled me up and put me in the car. I was confused, and scared, and my invisible friend didn't know what was happening either. Then Dad came home and caught us, and Mum didn't get up again. I couldn't believe that one person could hold so much blood."

Dimly Tony realised that Bruce was offering information for information – that he was giving Tony something in return for telling him about Obie.

"That was the day my friend disappeared – he hadn't been strong enough. Not to stop that."

Everyone knew that Bruce's home life had been a horror show. It was written in businesslike, dispassionate black and white in his file, along with professional psych theories regarding how this had affected the creation and motivation of the Hulk. Alcoholic father; physical and emotional abuse; witness to the murder of his mother; compartmentalised trauma, and other such clinical buzzwords. Tony's own file had its fair share: Coercion, involuntary detainment, physical persuasion methods, instigator Obadiah Stane, Stark Industries.

Sure, they painted a picture. But they didn't tell the whole truth.

"So that was... was that...?"

"I don't know," Bruce said and scratched under his cast again. "I really don't. It could have been Hulk. Or I could intrinsically be a little insane."

"The best people always are."

"Hah. Thanks."

Tony blew out a long breath and looked up. "So. Always angry, huh?"

Bruce chuckled. Tony was expecting a bitter sound, the kind that came with the emotional territory, but Bruce's chuckle was sweet and light and actually sort of rueful. "Pretty much. But I'm learning to be angry and happy at the same time, I think. Hulk is better at this than I am."

"Hulk is basically a reactive guy. If he's doing better, it means that he has reason to."

"I get that, but thanks for the vote of confidence. And if you trust me enough to tell me about what happened to your reactor, it means you're learning to move past the damage this guy did."

Tony pursed his lips pensively. "All right, that's enough fucking feelings, for god's sake. I'm about to either break out into hives or burst into song, and neither prospect is all that appealing."

Bruce laughed again and held out the tablet. "I can't see you as a Disney Princess, somehow. You don't have the hips for it. All right then, programming wunderkind at the age of twelve. Go on, impress me."

For some totally nonsensical reason (and Tony wasn't going to read too much into this, because gross, feelings) he felt lighter again. Steadier. It was as though sharing those horrible dark moments with the other scientist had somehow stripped them of their dreadful, oppressive weight. In a far, far better frame of mind, Tony took the tablet back from Bruce and bent his head over the simulator framework again. Bruce himself began scribbling notes on his pad (dead trees, ugh) and equations on a screen, cross-checking them against the levels on the glowing graphs circling through the air, rotating around him with the serene grace of satellites.

They worked together in silence for a moment, and then Bruce said, "I never would, you know."

Tony paused, his fingers hovering over the screen. Then he resumed work, his mouth tilting upwards for reasons he wasn't even sure of. "I know."


It was some time later when Bruce finally stretched out of his hunched-over pose. His back ached, and so did his ribs. He glanced at the time. "We should take a break."

Tony grunted, and then looked up. "What?"

He nodded to the clock. "Lunch, Tony. You know. The meal that customarily gets eaten between breakfast and dinner, sometime during the day."

"Smartass." Tony stretched lazily, like a satisfied, spoiled cat. "I'm almost finished this thing. You are gonna drool, seriously. It's the sexiest little simulator ever, and you will wish to hump it repeatedly."

Bruce rolled his eyes, and closed down the stats. "I'll practice swooning in advance. Right now, though, I think I should go and see whether Hulk has woken up. He ate before, but he'll be hungry again after such a busy morning."

"Fuck yeah, let's see Hulk," Tony said with surprising enthusiasm. "D'you think we could get him out of his room for lunch?"

Bruce considered it carefully, ignoring the initial knee-jerk reaction of NO. "I suppose. He'll be messy."

"No messier than team dinners after a battle, and I have robots that do cleaning things because hell no," Tony pointed out. "Come on, let's go get Junior's lunch ready."

A grin tried to form in the corners of his mouth, and Bruce schooled his face. "Okay, I'm saving this, wait up."

"J? You got Doctor Banner's work?"

"Your work is up-to-date, Sir."

"Ah, thanks," Bruce said, still occasionally taken aback at just how immediate things could be living in Stark Tower. "All right. Food?"

"You'll like this," Tony grinned. "I got him shawarma."

" Seriously?"

"You liked it, didn't you? I saw you guzzling it down, that first time."

"I'd hulked out twice in one day, Tony - I was completely starving. I could have eaten you if you'd been covered in enough garlic mayonnaise and tabouleh."

"Let's remember that you said that," Tony said, his grin turning devilish.

Bruce groaned. "You never stop, do you?"

"Come on, cranky pants." Tony slung an arm around him again. He seemed to like doing that, even though it pulled on Bruce's healing clavicle and shoulderblade.

To be honest, Bruce didn't mind it either. He shrugged his good shoulder so that Tony's arm rested painlessly over the strap of his sling, and the engineer steered them out of the room, still talking. "So I've been thinking, Moose..."

"What did you just call me?"

"Moose. We are so Moose and Squirrel, think about it. Anyway, I've been thinking about getting Hulk a bit more room to move. He'll be out of Time-Out in three days, and I don't think New York is exactly the kind of habitat he's best suited for..."

"Desert," Bruce said firmly.

"Desert?" Tony's wince was barely noticeable, but Bruce still spotted it. He nudged the engineer's side with his elbow cautiously.

"New Mexico," Bruce said, a little more gently. "Not a white sand desert. Not like that."

"Red rock," Tony said with some relief, before giving him a strange, measuring look. He was visibly uncomfortable, unusual for Tony. Perhaps he was still feeling a little exposed after their rather heavy conversation earlier. "Look at you, picking up on that. From Mister Fogtastic to Sherlock fucking Holmes in less than two weeks."

"New Mexico," Bruce said again, giving Tony an out. He dived on it gratefully.

"I've got an old testing site out there still." Tony frowned. "I think. I might have sold it when we pulled all the weapons contracts. Why New Mexico?"

"That was where he was born," Bruce explained, and then his lip twisted. "Again. Ish. He likes the heat. I remember that, kind of. It's why I usually found hot climates to hide in. It kept him calmer."

"That must be weird," Tony said, punching the elevator button. "Two sets of memories."

"Not really two... it's..." Bruce struggled with how best to explain it. And then he found it. "Hey, can you speed-read?"

"Yeah, of course. Taught myself when I was around nine or so."

"Right, of course you did." Bruce shook his head. "Forgot who I was speaking to. Well, when you were learning, remember how hard it was to stop sub-vocalising everything? Like your brain was reading the story to you at speaking speed inside your head?"

"Hells yes. I had to time myself with a stopwatch to get out of the habit."

"That's sort of what it was like. Hulk and I, I mean. One set of memories, but one of us is reduced to a sub-vocalisation."

"Huh. But not quite?"

Bruce smiled to himself. "No, not quite."

The elevator dinged and they piled in. Tony didn't take his arm from around Bruce's shoulders as he leaned over and punched the button for the communal floor. "And you're okay with going back to that?"

"I... I'm honestly not sure. We're incomplete as we are, but the way we were isn't much better." Bruce looked down at his hands and at the considerable dent in the elevator's brushed metal floor. "Hulk feels the same way about it."

"So you've talked about having him back in your head?"

"Yes. I think I could do better by him this time around. Give him time to drive our body, to do the things he likes to do." Bruce shifted, his feet appearing ludicrously small in the footprints left by Hulk in the metal. "We'd need to figure out a way to communicate..."

"Video," Tony said immediately.

"That's what I suggested," Bruce agreed. "Maybe some of those meditation techniques I picked up could help as well. Not for calming him down, or me... but maybe in order to... talk?"

"Meditation - in science?" Tony said sceptically. "I am starting to wonder about you, Brucey-babes."

"I know, I know," he said, and squeezed his eyes shut. "Don't let it get out, I actually care about what's left of my professional reputation."

"Oh, fishing for compliments now," Tony song-songed. "Besides, you get naked on an alarmingly regular basis, whatever reputation you had has quickly done a swan-dive into the realms of the sordid."

"I'm in good company then," Bruce retorted.

"Oooh snap, Sassybaskets."

"I think you need to eat, your pet names for me are getting weirder." Bruce led the way out of the elevator as it dinged open, and promptly collided with Steve's broad back. "Uh... sorry, sorry!"

Steve, of course, hadn't moved an inch at the collision - because that notorious missing ingredient from Erskine's formula had apparently been Essence of Brick Wall. "Oh, hey Doc... um. Bruce," he said absently. "What were you saying?"

This last was to Natasha, who was seated on the counter with a sandwich in her hand. Clint lounged beside her, his mouth bulging. "A trace. It's a decoy," she said, taking another bite. "The boffins will collect it and take it back to the Helicarrier. I've put in my recommendation that the Doc here gets a look at it."

"A look at what?" Bruce slipped out from under Tony's arm – strange that it had stayed there so very long – and gave the two spies a puzzled look.

"Sterns isn't in Chicago," Clint said through a mouthful of sandwich. "Dunno where he is."

"Oh, that's attractive," Tony muttered.

Clint grinned at him, teeth covered in bread and ham.

"Child," Natasha said under her breath. Then she turned to Bruce again. "Thanks for the teleport."

"No problem. You didn't find him?"

Her flawless face was expressionless as she answered, "Sterns was using an old bolthole of Osborne's to hide a gamma tracer – a decoy."

"You know it's emitting radiation?" Bruce asked immediately.

"The boffins seemed pretty sure," she shrugged. "I can't tell from what we saw – but it was green. Bright green."

Bruce swore. "So where has Sterns got to?"

"Fuck if we know," Clint said cheerily.

"We need you back at the Helicarrier for this, Bruce," Natasha said seriously. "SHIELD needs your expertise. We need you to check out this decoy, and to create another tracking algorithm..."

"To find Sterns," Bruce finished. "He won't emit as much radiation as I did... as Hulk does. He wasn't directly exposed to the gamma bomb. If you're right and he's been affected by my blood, it'll be very diluted. He's likely to give off an even weaker signal than the tesseract did."

She spread her hands. "That's why we need you. Again."

"Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi," Tony murmured in his ear, and sniggered. Bruce ignored him.

"I spoke to Hill this morning," Steve put in, his brow furrowed and his heavy arms folded. "She wanted an update on Hulk's situation. Is this related, do you think?"

"Only peripherally," Tony said after a moment's consideration."Not all gamma mutants are created equal, etcetera."

Bruce stiffened. "What did you say?"

Steve gave him that famous reassuring smile. "Good things. That the Hulk has been following rules, and that the two of you have been working together. He's learning very quickly, but that he gets confused sometimes. That you had a rocky start, but you're on the same page now, more or less. That most of the team has now been in close proximity to Hulk and sustained no damage, and that..."

"Uh, might wanna update that to all of the team, actually," Tony put in.

"Thor?" Steve blinked. Of all the team, he was most aware of Hulk's dislike of the Asgardian as it was Steve's role to strategise their positions and roles accordingly when in the field. "And that went okay?"

"It was awesome," Tony said dreamily.

"They sparred," Bruce said, and cringed.

"Sparred?!" Steve's eyes boggled.

Clint spat a mouthful of crumbs everywhere and stared at them. "Oh my god tell me there is footage because if there is not I will infiltrate your room and shove an arrow-"

"Relax, Merida, I got it." Tony grinned at Clint's worshipful face.

"Is Thor okay?" Steve demanded, worry immediately hardening his tone. "That was so, so irresponsible, Tony! I wasn't here – Clint wasn't here, the tranq arrows, what would have happened if the Hulk had lost himself in one of his berserker rages?"

"I'm not exactly small fry myself, Cap," Tony retorted hotly, "and Bruce was here, which means that Hulk is totally on board and under control. We're gonna go get him for lunch, what do you say? Let him out again?"

"I need to see Thor," Steve grated. "I need to – Hulk has no measurable upper limit of strength, and he hates Thor, Tony, he might be really injured-"

"He's fine, I had both JARVIS and Bruce check him over," Tony said, rolling his eyes. "Thor wants a rematch. They both had the time of their lives."

"Who won?" Natasha asked, a hint of professional curiosity in her voice.

"Hulk," Tony said, and dissolved into laughter.

"This just proves my point," Steve fumed, his hands diving into his hair. "Hulk could have really-"

"Sorry there, hate to stop your worry-warting, Team Dad, but what can hurt Thor?" Tony challenged. "Apart from super duper Asgardian doohickies?"

Steve folded his arms. "Hulk could. How did he win? Thor could be badly hurt..."

"He sat on him," Bruce interrupted.

Natasha actually choked. Clint fell over, howling with laughter.

"Thor needed the workout, he's been tense as a cat lately, what with all the politics at home and the magical mystical thinking with portals shit," Tony added. "Seriously, Cap. Thor's nearly as indestructible as the green guy. He totally held his own. He loved it!"

"Loved it," Steve said, his face and voice flat with anger and worry. "Loved fighting the... Tony, I just know you were behind this, and I can't believe you could be so..."

"It was my idea," Bruce interrupted again.

Steve fell silent, his mouth parted in shock.

"He followed his Rules?" Natasha prompted.

"Yes," Bruce said and rubbed the back of his neck, fighting another grin. "He has a new one I think you'll appreciate."

Her head cocked. "Oh?"

"Hulk doesn't always get what he wants."

She hid a smile behind her hand. "Oh, I'm sure that went over well."

"About as well as you'd expect," Bruce smiled back wryly.

"You wanna get him up here for lunch?" Clint waved with the hand holding the sandwich. "Hells yes, let's get Thor in on this too. We'll make it a team thing."

Steve shook his head in despair. "I wash my hands of you," he said heavily. "You're all completely unhinged."

Bruce shared a look with Tony. "So, Squirrel, do you think he's ready for the whole team at once?"

"Moosey-babes," Tony clapped an arm around his shoulders yet again. "Let's find out."


Hulk is boooooooooored.

Bored, bored, bored.

Hulk sleeps for a little while after the not-smash smashing with Shouty Long Hair. He wakes, and then he smashes at his rocks. He feels good. The rocks are good. Hulk smashes one and it turns into the shape of a kitty.

Hulk will give it to Bruce. That will be good. Hulk has not given presents before, but Hulk knows Bruce likes them.

Hulk is hungry.

And bored.

The door makes the beep-bop-beeps and opens and Bruce enters. Hulk is pleased. Hulk will give Bruce the rock that looks like a kitty.

"Bruce," Hulk says, and leaps for him. Bruce laughs and is lifted into Hulk's arms. He is small. Smashable. Careful, careful.

"Hello, bright eyes," says Tony, walking in behind Bruce. "You're full of beans after your nap, aren't you?"

Hulk frowns. "Hulk not full. Hulk hungry!"

Bruce pats Hulk's face. Hulk's face is scratchy. There is hair, and Hulk cannot scrape it off like Bruce does. "We were just coming to get you. Would you like to go upstairs for lunch?"

Twice? Hulk can be free twice? "Yes!"

"The whole team will be there," Bruce warns. "You'll have to remember your Rules. If I say stop..."

"Hulk stops," Hulk says obediently. Then Hulk grunts. "Hulk always follow Rules!"

"And I'm very, very proud of you," Bruce says softly. He pats Hulk's face again. "All right, we'll try it. I guess you don't feel like trying the elevator again."

No! "No stupid moving room!"

"Stairs it is," Bruce shakes his head and looks back at Tony. "We'll be along in a little bit."

Tony is grinning at them. There is a shiny, soft look in his eyes. Hulk likes that look. He likes that it gets softer when he looks at them. "Talk about your low-tech versus high-tech," he says. "You do realise that part of you is a total Luddite."

"And the other part is me," Bruce says back, and they grin at each other some more. "Go on, help the others get the food set up. I'll try to convince him not to jump straight through your stairs."

"Doesn't matter if he does - free-standing, non-twist enclosed stairwell chamber with separate load-bearing structures, it can withstand a direct blow from an A380," Tony says. Too fast. Hulk does not understand. He growls a little and shifts, and Bruce's hand stills on Hulk's face. His palm is warm and small and comforting. Bruce smells right.

Tony leaves in the rattly stupid moving room (Hulk hates stupid moving room!) and Bruce shows Hulk a new door. It is small, and Hulk smashes the frame when he tries to squeeze through.


"It's okay," Bruce says, and laughs a little under his breath when Hulk tries to fix. He shoves the frame against the wall, but it does not stay. It does not stay. More of the wall comes off in Hulk's hands, and he drops the pieces. He feels not good. It is not good.

"Sorry, sorry," Hulk says, and growls again. Everything is too small, everything is too smashable.

"Hey now, leave it, it's all right," Bruce says. "I said it was okay. Rule Two?"

"Mistake," Hulk says, and nods his head. "Hulk say sorry. Rule Tree. See? Hulk always follow Rules!"

"So you do," Bruce says, and takes Hulk's hand. His little fingers curl around Hulk's finger. "These are the stairs. We need to go up a long way, but we can't jump or we'll smash too much. Can you do that?"

Hulk looks up. It goes up and up and up. "Hulk can do that," he says and puffs his chest out. Hulk can do anything!

Bruce leads Hulk up and up. It goes around in circles and up and around and up and around and up, until Hulk has lots of circles and up in his head and they make him dizzy. Bruce is getting tired, because Bruce is weak and Hulk made him weak. Hulk lifts him into his arms again, and Bruce sighs.

"You make me feel like a little kid or a doll when you do this."

Hulk snorts. "Bruce puny. Needs Hulk to do work."

Hulk keeps going up and around, and the circles and the up fill his head. But his experiment is still there in his head, underneath the up, spinning like the circles, Hulk's special experiment. Bruce does not know – Tony does not know – no one but Hulk knows. The whole team will be there, and Hulk can do his experiment some more.

They will not be alone.

Hulk's feet are too big for stupid stairs. They crumble underneath him in places, and Bruce rubs tiredly at his forehead and says that Tony will love that. Hulk is pleased. Hulk likes making Tony happy.

"Not long now," Bruce says as Hulk makes yet another circle and another up. Hulk is tired of stupid stairs. Maybe the whirring rattly moving room is better?

No! Stupid moving room leaves Hulk's stomach behind! Stupid moving room.

"Here," Bruce says, and slips out of Hulk's arms. That is not good either. Not good. Hulk likes him there. He is small and warm. He smells right. "Just for a moment," Bruce says when Hulk rumbles and reaches for him. "You can have your teddy bear back in a minute, I'm just getting the door."

Hulk reaches out and takes the door.

"Oh," says Bruce, and rubs his eyes. "Well. I suppose that's one way to do it."

Hulk squeezed through the little gap, and puts the door against the wall. "Bruce say take the door," he points out. "Hulk takes the door."

"I did," Bruce says, regarding the damage to the frame from between his fingers. "I need to watch what I say, obviously."



"Tony should watch what Tony say." Hulk shifts and his feet dig into the new floor. It is smooth and shiny. It looks familiar. "Tony use bad words."

Bruce's eyebrows almost meet his hair, they go up so high. "Ah," he says faintly. "Well. You... Oh, of course, I suppose you remember getting in trouble, don't you?"

Hulk nods emphatically. "Aunt angry. Teacher angry. Everyone angry."

"No swearing, got it," Bruce says and laughs even as he shakes his head. "All right. We'll tell Tony to watch his language – actually, you know what? You can tell him. I'm staying out of this one."

Hulk nods. Hulk can do that, too. "Where Team?"

"This way." Bruce points to a long room with lots of doors that go off the sides. Hulk can fit through that with no smash. He picks Bruce up again. Bruce makes a strangled little noise, and then sighs, relaxing back into Hulk's arms. "I wasn't really using my dignity for anything important, I suppose."

Hulk holds him closer as he walks down the long, long room. "Bruce's thoughts," he says, and snarls a little, trying to think of the best good way to say. "Hold Bruce, hold Bruce's thoughts. Fizz and zip and snap and sparkle. Hulk thinks better with Banner."

Bruce twists a little to look up at him. His mouth is open in a dark, round circle – everything is circles, everything is circles today. "You... can hear my thoughts when we touch?"

Hulk shakes his head and his snarl gets louder. Better. It does not echo in the long, long room like it does in Hulk's shiny metal room. "Hulk not see thoughts. Hulk not hear thoughts. Just feel." Hulk's hand presses – gentle, careful, Bruce is smashable – against Bruce's chest. "Zip, zing. Easier with Banner."

Bruce slumps back, his face full of the thinking.

"What was that? Did Hulk just snarl?" says the voice of Star Man, sounding hard and sharp. Like when Bruce lets Hulk out to smash the bad things. Hulk tenses. There are bad things here? Bad men that Hulk needs to smash?

"It's okay, he's fine Steve," says Bruce. "Shh. Calm down. It's okay."

Hulk is disappointed. Hulk wanted to smash the bad things.

The long, long room finishes and there is another room at the end. It has a window which is open, and Hulk can feel the wind on his face. The window is big with a little floor just past it surrounded by fence, and Hulk can see all the buildings, so many of the little puny humans scurrying away like ants far below. The buildings stand like mountains, and the sun shines over them. Hulk missed the sun.

He stands in the sun, and it is warm, and Hulk feels free.

Bruce is small and warm and puts his hand on Hulk's face again. He does that a lot. Hulk likes it. It is good. "Hulk? Are you still hungry?"

"Sun," Hulk says, and rumbles deep in his chest. He closes his eyes. It is so warm.

"Poor thing," says Tony. "I remember feeling the sun after... well, it was nice for the first five minutes. Then it sucked, and I got mega-sunburnt."

"God it feels weird to have him up here," says Shooty Bird. "Is it me, or does everything become background to the Hulk?"

"Not just you," says Star Man, looking up at Hulk with big, wary eyes.

"Isn't he hungry?" says Shooty Bird.

"Give him a moment," says Bruce quietly. "He hasn't seen the sky for a week and a half."

"Aye, no wonder he stands and breathes so," says Shouty Long Hair.

Hulk opens his eyes again and looks out at the sky, blue and blue as far as Hulk can see. The land, the buildings... they are not right. They should be wide open spaces for Hulk to jump and smash and roar. But this is good for now. For now.

Team is all around them. Tony is looking at Hulk, but the rest of the Team looks at Bruce. Bruce is looking at Hulk too.

"Are you all right?" Bruce asks, and his hand strokes through Hulk's hair. Warm, warm and safe. Hulk rumbles again, and cradles Bruce's head gently in his hand. It is the best Hulk can do. Hulk cannot touch Bruce's hair like Bruce touches Hulk's. Hulk's hands are too big. That is not good.

There is a smell. It is very good.

"Food?" Hulk asks, and Bruce looks up at him and smiles.

"Yes, that's right. You can eat with everyone."

"Hulk not eat Team!"

"Well, that's... good to know," says Shooty Bird. Tasha and Star Man both roll their eyes.

"That's not what he meant, Hulk," says Tasha gently.

"With everyone," Bruce stresses.

"Got you shawarma, Big and Tall," says Tony, leaning forward and tugging at Hulk's elbow. Hulk lets himself be led. It feels silly, because Tony is puny, but Tony is special, so Hulk lets him. "You're gonna love this, it's team tradition, I can't believe you've been missing out all this time."

Hulk remembers quiet, tired, Team sitting and eating with heavy limbs and closing eyes and dirty faces. "Hulk remembers."

"Orrrrrr not, as the case may be," Tony says, and pulls at the hair on his face. "Damn, I never know what the fuck he remembers or not."

"Welcome to my world," Bruce says.

"Language," Hulk says.

Tony looks startled. "Did the Hulk just..."

"Apparently he can remember a particular incident which landed me in detention for a week," Bruce says.

"Huh. Hulk just got all Mary Poppins at me."

"And thank you for that mental image, Stark. Hulk floating around with an umbrella." Shooty Bird shakes his head.

"Add the costume and the hat. Then it's a riot," Tony adds.

"We made a spot for you here, Hulk," says Tasha, her face blank as blank, hiding like always, but her eyes glittering like stars. She looks for how Hulk moves, where he puts his feet. She watches and watches. No stink of fear. She is not scared. Good.

Shooty Bird also watches, but he does not watch because he wants to. Shooty Bird watches because that is what he is. Like Bruce is always sad, and Hulk is always angry, Shooty Bird always watches.

Star Man smells like worry, and Hulk doesn't like it. Hulk sniffs at Star Man as Hulk sits in the spot Tasha shows him. Star Man has been in the sky ship. Hulk hates the stupid sky ship.

Hulk puts Bruce down, and he steadies himself using Hulk's shoulder. Shouty Long Hair claps Hulk on the back. "You are most solicitous of our good Doctor, my friend," he says in that deep voice of his. "I am impressed. I would not have believed that the hands that delivered to me such a defeat could be so gentle."

"It wasn't his hands that delivered the defeat," says Bruce, dry as old dust, and Tony immediately begins to laugh. Shouty Long Hair laughs too. He does not have the angry or the shame in his laugh. He laughs loudest and longest, bright and free. He does not seem annoyed that Hulk won.

Huh. Maybe Shouty Long Hair is okay.

Hulk claps Shouty Long Hair on the back too, to show him that Hulk is being friends now. Shouty Long Hair flies out the big, big window.

Whoops again.

"Wait, wait!" Bruce says as Star Man begins to stand, his eyes huge and his mouth open. Shouty Long Hair's (annoying!) hammer shakes and trembles and zips off after him. "Thor can fly, he's fine – he thought he was being friends now. Hulk, I know Thor's almost as strong as you – but you've still got a size advantage and when you do something like that, you're going to have to be gentle."

Hulk is sorry. He says so. "Hulk sorry."

"Odin's blood, what a blow!" says Shouty Long Hair, laughing some more as he lands with a thud on the little bit of floor that sticks out past the big, big window. He walks back in and puts the (annoying!) hammer down with a boom. "You are indeed a worthy opponent, Hulk. Would that every sparring partner were such a challenge."

"Did you just indirectly diss my armour, Fabio?" Tony says, eyes narrow.

"And that's quite enough of that," Bruce says, pinching his nose. Hulk copies him.

"Enough," he repeats. Tony laughs again, and Shooty Bird's drink comes out of his nose.

The food is good. It is lots of little packages filled with good things. Hulk can eat them in one bite. They are good, and Hulk eats lots and lots of them. Bruce eats two (one and a bit, but he couldn't finish it and so Hulk ate it for him). Star Man and Shouty Long Hair eat lots and lots of them too. Not as many as Hulk. Hulk wins again!

"He's not as messy as I thought he would be," says Tasha, looking at Hulk, her head tilted on the side. Her hair is bright and shiny and Hulk likes it. Red, red, red, red, red, red, red. Red is bright and happy and angry and blood and love and alive. Red is dust against Hulk's green skin. Red is warm.

"He eats these without having to take a bite. It's when chewing is involved that we end up with a mess," Bruce says, and takes a sip of the hot drink he likes. Hulk remembers that, too – there was the drink in the hot places with milk and spices, and then in the other hot places where people lived in shacks that crumbled, and in the other hot places where Bruce worked and worked and worked at pretending to be not-Bruce, and in the other hot places where Hulk woke up in his own skin for the first time. Hulk will not take the hot drink from Bruce – Hulk has milk, and it is better anyway.

"Hey Hulk? Check it out," says Shooty Bird, and he jerks his head over to a place in the room where Hulk's painting is. Hulk jerks.


"Yep, on the fridge, just like I promised." Shooty Bird looks pleased. "They all are, see?"

Hulk sees. Yes. There is Hulk's, and Hulk's painting is best. Tony's is there, all flash and roar and fire. Star Man's is full of tiny little places and people and colours, and Shooty Bird's is like an explosion. Bruce's is there, too. It is the best next to Hulk's.

"Hulk's is best," Hulk says, and thumps his chest. Star Man's head whips up, and he grins.

"Sure is, big fella," he says. Then he looks at Tony and Bruce. "All right. I believe you. I'm sorry."

"It's fine, Cap," Bruce says and his hand creeps over Hulk's arm. Small. But warm, warm, warm. Hulk looks down at it, and they are the same, their hands. Same like Hulk's. "You worry, we know."

"Star Man worry," Hulk says, and frowns down at him. "Star Man should not worry. Hulk protect Bruce. Hulk protect Tony. Hulk protect Team."

"Tell me we got that, JARVIS?" Tony whispers.

"The statement has been recorded." Hulk twitches. The no-body voice always surprises Hulk.

"Send it to Nick Fury pronto." Tony pauses. "Message to read as follows: Hey there, Dread Pirate Roberts, I thought you should get an update on Hulk from the horse's mouth, rather than the horse's ass. Love Tony. Usual signature, but end it with a big kiss."

The no-body voice sighs. "Yes, Sir."

"Horse's ass?" Star Man says darkly, his eyebrow going up. Tony shrugs and grins.

"Apology now accepted, Cap."

Star Man splutters, but Hulk can tell. This is all just fun. Fun, like Hulk smashing with Shouty Long Hair. This is how Star Man and Tony smash. They both like it. It is fun.

"Fun," Hulk says aloud. Bruce looks up at him, and his smile is in his eyes. Tony is right. Bruce always has sad brown eyes. But they are not sad now, and that is better.

"That's right."

"He's more perceptive than we thought," Tasha murmurs.

"He's more of everything than we thought," says Bruce, and this close Hulk can feel the guilty-hot feeling. Bruce should not feel guilty-hot. They have said sorry. Rule Tree.

"All over. Good now," Hulk says, and Bruce nods.

"Good now," he repeats.

Hulk finishes his food-things. The warm light spills over him and the Team. They are all together. Hulk looks around at them, laughing and having... fun.

The experiment is working.

Chapter Text


Sketching with those tablet things was simply too new and unfamiliar for Steve. The programs were impressive, he'd grant, and he'd tried a few, but after humouring Tony's insistence for a couple of months he'd given up. It just wasn't for him.

He sharpened his pencil and glanced up at the two dark heads bent together, their hands darting to shape or tweak something in the glowing lights around them, their eyes glittering with knowledge. He preferred to sketch as he had always done – with paper and his hands, the graphite smearing across his fingertips, rough and shining on the page. It was a way of connecting himself to the past and the man he had been, so very long ago. Steve wasn't tremendously lonely anymore - oh, he sometimes was, but these days his team was everything to him. Still, he worried about forgetting. About losing everything, all over again.

Sketching in pencil and paper had become a way of recording his memories, both the old ones and the new. He liked using his skills and muscle memory in a way that linked his life together, turning it into a seamless whole rather than an icy yawning chasm between two disparate and wildly differing eras. He liked watching the faces of his friends coming to life underneath his busy fingers. It made him simultaneously wistful and proud.

His teammates had become accustomed to having their portraits drawn at irregular intervals. At first it had been the subject of much teasing from Tony and Clint, but it was a normal occurrence now. They barely even glanced at him plonked in his usual corner of the lab, his head stooped and his pencil busy.

Bruce's hair was giving him trouble, but then it always did. And why was drawing hands so difficult? Steve peered at his own free hand, studying the shapes it made, the way it moved. His hand was way too big now to use as a model, and the fingers too long. It didn't have the airy, virtuosic flair of Tony's or the broad, careful precision of Bruce's.

Watching Tony and Bruce work was always like watching some oddly beautiful choreographed dance; each man sliding out of the other's way, handing over materials and tablets and equipment without speaking. The only sound was Guns n' Roses (Steve had become rather fond of the 'Jungle' song and the one about the sweet child, though the rest of Tony's music was pretty inaccessible) piping through the air at half-volume. After long periods of this silent ballet of science, they would abruptly begin to talk very quickly and excitedly in completely unintelligible polysyllables. Steve didn't understand a word, but he enjoyed the enthusiasm that poured out of them. Tony had been rather... unlike himself recently. Steve thought it was likely due to his breakup with Pepper. And Bruce...

Well. Steve felt for the poor fella, he sure did.

The whole team had accompanied the Hulk back to his room after lunch, and the giant seemed fiercely, childishly pleased to have them there. The whole Thor thing had made his whole chest clench as though his heart had suddenly redeveloped its old problems, but it appeared that their resident green perambulatory battering ram was actually warming up to the Asgardian. Thor hadn't made the best of impressions on their first meeting, of course – unless that could be interpreted as the impression Mjolnir made on Hulk's chin. On their way back to the Hulk Cage, Thor had cheerfully challenged Hulk to an arm wrestle as they tromped down the stairs like a well-ordered line of ducklings. Yet instead of thumping the god through the wall, Hulk had simply snorted, wrapped a mammoth hand around Thor's - and picked him up with one arm.

"Stupid puny god," he had rumbled.

"Ah. I concede. Put me down?" Thor had suggested, feet dangling.

Hulk chuckled in that mega-bass voice of his, and put him down. "Hulk wins, Shouty Long Hair. Always," he told him.

"I will best you yet, my friend," Thor said, shaking his bright head and grinning, the light of challenge in his eyes.

Tony had been right about Thor's mood. And Bruce had been right to suggest the spar. Thor was livelier than he had been in weeks. Steve wasn't really sure what it was that kept him flitting between realms so often, but whatever it was it had been making their resident noble optimist rather grim and despondent. With Doctor Foster away, Thor didn't have anyone outside the team to confide in. Steve was slightly ashamed that he hadn't picked up on it himself. The spar with Hulk had lifted his spirits considerably.

"Okay, this sequence..." said Bruce, tapping one screen. "Take a look. I think this is the level we're looking at."

Tony peered over. "Now that's a more promising result."

Steve's pencil glided over the lines of his face, his beard, the way he cocked his head and grinned at Bruce.

"Not a perfect recombination," Bruce said, pulling off his glasses. Underneath his breath, Steve cursed. Bruce never left them alone, and it was irritating when you were trying to sketch the man. His hair was challenge enough. "See, the amino acids? And the gamma doesn't quite reach the levels prior to Stingray..."

"But it's a closer simulation than we've achieved so far," Tony finished.

"Yeah," Bruce said, a deep sigh accompanying the word. "What do you think? Can we move this into the real world yet?"

"I think it behoves us as mature and responsible men of science to play with as much radiation and electricity as possible," Tony said with a manic glint in his eye.

Bruce gave Tony a level look. "Responsible. Yes, that's precisely what this is."

Tony ignored that and draped a careless arm over Bruce's shoulders. The man was standing straighter than he had been two weeks ago, and his chin was held higher. In fact... Steve flipped back through his sketches. Yes. Bruce was standing far taller than he had only a month ago, and his eyes were clearer and younger.

"Cheer up, sourpatch," Tony was wheedling. "This'll work, you know it will. So the amino acid chains don't quite match up. Everything else, though! Look, it's perfect! I think this is our 'Eureka' moment – hang on, we need a bath for that. Wanna get in a bath with me? I have nice towels."

Bruce laughed under his breath. "Just the blood tests, Tony. I'm not about to go throwing myself and Hulk into an electricity chamber until I'm sure."

Tony's eyes narrowed. "And are you sure?"

There was a silence.

"No," said Bruce heavily, and then slipped out from underneath Tony's arm to go and do something rather technical over at another screen. "I'm not. Not yet."

The engineer's now-free arm tapped at his side in an impatient tattoo. "Bruuuuuce."

Bruce looked back over his shoulder. "I know I have to make the decision. I've been thinking it over. We'll go to miniaturised testing before we do the human-slash-rage monster trials. I'll decide when we've got a result from the bloods."

Tony rubbed at his neck a little, and then perched a hip on one of the gleaming benches. "Scared?" he asked quietly.

Bruce paused, and then shifted another graph level. "What do you think?"

"Definitely scared then."

Bruce laughed again, a soft and rueful sound. "Terrified."

"What about Hulkster?"

"I'm not sure. He doesn't seem to hate the idea. He just wants to be free."

"He's getting pretty attached to you. I mean, attached like this, not attached like attached the normal way. Normal for you. Not that you're very normal. I mean, normal for you two in the way you were."

"I know what you mean." Bruce stopped and turned, dragging a hand through his curls. Steve swore internally and erased half the lines he had drawn. Bruce's hair was so difficult! "He keeps holding me like I'm a favourite toy. I'm not sure if he looks at me like a father or like a rather stupid younger brother. Either way, I know he needs me, and I need him. I just have to decide how."

"There are advantages to either state," Tony said in a noncommittal way, obviously trying hard not to be pushy.

"We can communicate." Bruce nodded, scratching at the side of his neck. "Hulk learns faster with me here to interpret for him. He's not... confused, by my inner voice." He smiled. "He thinks I think too fast."

Tony grinned. "Just the way I like 'em. Brainy and dangerous."

"But then, when we're combined..." Bruce looked pensive for a moment, and then sighed. "I really don't know, Tony. Give me a few more days."

"You're half a person, Bruce."

"I know."

Tony's hand rose to grasp Bruce's shoulder gently, his thumb pushing under the physicist's collar to stroke once against the tanned column of his neck. "Whatever you choose, I'm here," he said simply, then released him and turned back to the screen he had been working at.

Steve's eyes widened.

He'd just...

Was Tony...?

No. No, he was imagining things.

But then... he'd stroked his neck, and Bruce had let him... and...

Looking down at his page of half-finished scrawlings, Steve's breath caught in his mouth.

Every one. In every one, Tony was smiling at Bruce. Or touching him. Looking over at where he worked. Holding his gaze. Standing close.

Every. Single. One.

Steve had even spent some time trying to capture the strange glitter in his eyes.

His head whipped up and he gaped, open-mouthed, at Tony. He... but Tony was a notorious lady-killer!

Steve wasn't a total ignoramus. Many of the jerks that had made his life so eventful before the serum had made some accusations about Steve and Bucky's friendship that had cemented in him a dislike for anyone who persecuted or denigrated 'confirmed bachelors', as his mother used to call them. He'd known about the concealed community within the community, always in hiding from the bullies of the world. Well, who hadn't? It had been common knowledge but never spoken of, a life lived in secretive caution surrounded by disapproval. He'd known about the furtive stolen moments between certain men under his command. He'd defend them to the death if he had to, and their relationships too. One of the things he'd liked about this new, shiny world was the parades; bright and flashy and proud. Lives no longer lived in fearful secrecy. Not perfect, not yet, but better than it was, at least.

But...Tony? Brag about his night with the December twins, flirt with anything vaguely female, togged to the bricks* playboy, charming, suave and smooth Tony?

Then Bruce briefly glanced up at the other scientist - and Steve broke his pencil in half.

Bruce too?!

Steve felt like the Hulk had sat on him.

Bruce had barely even looked at Tony for a moment, but the sheer intensity of it... the muffled, strangled want. He had no idea, Steve dimly realised in his shock. Neither of these giant geniuses had any idea.

And people called him out of touch!

Had any of the others noticed this?

Natasha would have, naturally. Probably Clint as well. Thor? Steve slumped back in his designated 'Cap's Scribbling Chair' and rubbed his numb mouth with nerveless fingers. No, Thor probably wouldn't have noticed. Maybe. Actually, there was a distinct possibility that he had... Thor was far more observant than anyone gave him credit for. He simply never commented on anything he felt it was not his right to speak about. Steve might be the last Avenger besides the Hulk to figure this out.

Swell, now he felt really intelligent.

Hulk adored Tony, he remembered, and rubbed at his mouth again. Absolutely adored him, and Bruce and Hulk were the same darned person. Hell, maybe even Hulk had this pegged, and it was only these two titanic minds still left in the dark?

For a pair of smart fellas, they were apparently really, really stupid.

Steve studied his sketches as the shrieking in his mind died away to be replaced with a feeling of inevitability. These two men, their faces – Tony, always looking to Bruce like a sunflower turning to the sun, and Bruce always turned away, turned in on himself.

Now that he had seen this, recognised it, the connections flew together like pieces of a puzzle. Bruce was clearly repressing. It was what he did, what he was good at. He had done so for as long as Steve had known the man, pushing his emotions back into a locked box at the back of his mind. It was painfully obvious that he felt he didn't deserve to have even the friendly affection his teammates showed him. He usually kept strictly to himself – his rooms, his lab, even his chair in the rumpus room sat slightly apart from the others. It had taken this Hulk crisis for Steve to connect with the guy at all.

And if he couldn't even accept two whole years of honest friendship...

Except for Tony's. Bruce and Tony had connected instantly, to Steve's initial bemusement and irritation. He hadn't understood then and he didn't quite understand now. Bruce had fought Tony's belief in him from the get-go – he even fought it now, every step of the way - and yet he needed it like breathing. No matter where in the world he fled to, Bruce had always returned for Tony. That was universally understood.

Steve glanced up at Tony, who was flicking data from his screen to Bruce's and grinning at the other man when they landed. How had he missed Tony's growing fascination with the man? It had been glaringly obvious practically from day one. He'd dismissed it as the appreciation of one genius for another. But then, Tony had never stopped pushing Bruce. He'd never stopped wholeheartedly believing in him even when Bruce pushed him away time and again – he'd never stopped fighting Bruce's self-doubt and solitude.

These two morons were in love, and they didn't even know it. Steve never swore, but several of Clint's favourite expressions were now lining up on his tongue.

He rubbed at his mouth one last time.


Bruce suddenly laughed aloud, and pulled his screen closer. "I can't say I wasn't expecting it."

Tony peered over his shoulder, and smirked. "Well, there won't be any incredibly handsome genius philanthropists on board this time, so I'd say it's a poor remake, two stars."

"JARVIS, could you save my work please?" Bruce asked and jotted down a couple of notes on the legal pad beside him.

"Of course, Doctor Banner."

"Something up, fellas?" Steve put in tentatively. He felt like he was looking at two totally new people, rather than the same guys he had been living with for nearly two years. His eyes were open now, he supposed.

Tony jumped on the spot like a scalded cat, and then pressed his hand over his chest. "Jesus, Cap! I totally forgot you were there, you almost gave me a fucking aneurism!"

"Sorry," he smiled apologetically. "Got caught up in it, I guess."

"Can we see?" Tony craned his neck to see onto Steve's sketchbook. It wasn't unheard of for Steve to show his subjects his scribbling, but in this case... maybe not. It wasn't his place to enlighten these two idiots. Steve closed his book slowly.

"Ah, maybe later," he said, and evasively changed the subject. "Going out?"

"Uh," Bruce said. "Got to go to the helicarrier." His nose wrinkled. "My favourite place."

"Chin up, Bruceykins, forecast is clear blue skies with zero chance of green this time," Tony said, nudging him with his hip.

"That gamma... whatsit?" Steve asked.

"That's right, and trying to find the Leader's signal. Back to the helicarrier to offer them my expertise," Bruce said and rolled his eyes. "Everyone's got to use gamma radiation now. It's the new black."

"Bruce the gamma hipster," Tony sniggered. "Liked it before it was cool."

"I do wear glasses," Bruce countered, and they both collapsed into chuckling.

References. If there was one thing Steve would change about the 21st Century, it was all the incessant references to things he didn't understand. "What's this?"

"Right, grandpa, there's this thing called the internet..." Tony began, and Bruce nudged him in return.

"Quit it, Tony. It's a meme, Steve. "

"Oh, memes. I like the one about the grumpy cat." Steve nodded. That sent Tony into an even louder spate of sniggering.

"I should be back for dinner," Bruce said, folding up one of the tablets with a complicated move and putting it into a black travel bag. "Tony, could I take the chopper?"

"You can fly a helicopter?" Steve blinked.

Bruce shrugged. "After a certain... incident, I thought it might be prudent to learn. Fast getaway, that sort of thing."

"Why not use the teleporter?" Tony asked.

"Because the helicarrier moves. I don't much like the idea of arriving thirty thousand feet over open water."

"Chopper's yours, no dings or no tip," Tony said and waved a hand. "Want me to set up the blood trials?"

Bruce froze. Then, as though he was consciously forcing his limbs, he slowly and carefully relaxed. "I don't know if that's a good idea," he said in a very steady tone. "If you're exposed..."

"Pfft," Tony said, tossing his chin up – and getting right up into Bruce's personal space, Steve couldn't help but notice. "I've got all the gear. We've been over this approximately a zillion times. I won't be doing any allele splicing or irradiating of goo just yet. I'll just get it all set up for you."

Bruce glanced over at the biochem freezers, and then gave Tony a doubtful look. "All right, I trust you," he said in a low voice. "Don't do anything stupid."

"Please," Tony said, and spread his arms in a grandiose manner. "Me? I'm a genius, Moose. When do I do anything stupid?"

"Last week you picked up a Doombot and tried to disassemble it on a battlefield before it exploded," Steve murmured.

"You stay out of this, Pops."


It was still pretty uncomfortable to be surrounded by his former colleagues. Clint shifted his weight, his sunglasses firmly fixed on his nose and his arms folded over his chest. He knew very well that he was giving off some serious 'keep away' signals, but hell, the way everyone looked at him. You'd think SHIELD hadn't ever seen a former meat-puppet before.

His companion wasn't totally at ease on the helicarrier either.

"You really didn't have to come. I could have made my own way," Bruce said without turning to him. His fingers flew over a keyboard, and some technological doodad was making a very grating whining sound. He did pretty well for a guy working with only his left hand. He'd taken off the sling, and the cast was barely visible under his button-down shirt. The bruises on his face had finally faded to faint ghosts of their former glory.

Clint shrugged briefly. "Any excuse to fly."

"Tony lent me the chopper."

Clint wanted to laugh. "A chopper? Chopper's nowhere near as sweet a bird as the quinjet. It's the next best thing to having wings."

"If you say so." Bruce adjusted his glasses. "This won't take too long."

One advantage of hanging with Bruce on the helicarrier? People left you the fuck alone. No-one else was in the lab, and it seemed somehow bigger without its usual busy white coats rushing about. It was a bit boring, but Clint would take boring any day over the suspicion – or worse, the sympathy – he saw in the eyes of the other SHIELD agents.

Screw 'em. He was a SHIELD agent, yeah. A shit-hot good one, mind-fuckery notwithstanding. But he was an Avenger first, and they stuck together. His eyes flicked back to Bruce, raking over the guy and cataloguing in seconds the faint shadow of stubble, the slight blankness of expression that spoke of total absorption in a task, the suggestion of dark rings beneath his eyes. He pursed his lips.

"Hey Banner. What did you find on that decoy thing?"

"It's not actually a decoy, I think," Bruce said, and arched his back. The joints audibly popped. "Ow, god. Been a while since I worked this much, I'm out of practice. It could be some sort of tracer – it emits a gamma signal on a particular wavelength, around 6 picometers or so, and it's inconstant. It's actually increasing in short bursts every few seconds and then decreasing, like it's pulsing or something."

"A beacon?" Clint's professional instincts kicked him hard in the brain. Something was fishy, and he'd spent too long as a trained fisherman not to smell it.

So to speak.

"Could be." Bruce blew out a breath before stooping to hunch over the graph again. "Anyway, I'm working on the assumption that this frequency is somehow significant to Sterns, and I've been calibrating the tracking program to prioritise that wavelength before searching for other sources. What's taking the most time is ensuring that the program excludes all other gamma sources. I need to make sure that it doesn't pick up Hulk, fission cores, nuclear reactors and lightning strikes..." he stopped dead with his hand half-raised to a screen, his eyes stricken.


Bruce was a pale statue. "Oh wow. We totally missed it."

"What? Are you all right?"

Bruce's mouth worked uselessly for a moment, and then he swallowed. "I, uh. I just worked out why Hulk and I were separated."

Clint's arms dropped out of their folded position. "Stingray zapped you. Electricity."

"Not electricity," Bruce licked his lips. "Lightning."

"Isn't lightning just electricity, though?"

"Sort of. Lightning is an electrostatic discharge, sure, but it has also been observed to produce X-Rays and it creates magnetic fields as well. And, well," Bruce scrubbed his hair roughly, "studies made from space-based telescopes have observed the formation of antimatter particles and... radiation. A specific form of high-energy emission. I am an idiot!"

"Ah. What?"

"Lightning strikes are a natural source of gamma rays." Bruce's head landed in his palm. "Oh, I am a class-A moron. How did we miss it?"

"Lightning has radiation in it?" Clint was staying the fuck away from Thor for a while.

"Yes, high-frequency gamma radiation. And I took a bolt of it directly to the head in the middle of the change." Bruce's voice was muffled by his hand, and then he sucked in a deep breath and scrubbed that hand over the top of his head, rubbing slowly at the place where that lightning had struck. "I'm lucky neither of my brains got toasted."

Damn, but it was weird when Banner inadvertently reminded you that he was a guy with two bodies.

"That gamma must have flooded our system," Bruce continued. "Shot down into the neocortex centres, just like Tony thought."

"What, so it was like the straw that broke the camel's back or something?" Clint was at sea with all this science shit.

"Right, and I'd double dosed myself that morning. Hulk already emits gamma radiation; he's a gamma battery. I must have brought us to full capacity. And then..."

"Stingray overloaded you."

"Exactly." Bruce rubbed his hair, turning it from a disaster into a catastrophe. "The real-world trials won't work, not the way we've set them up. It's not about the hormonal triggers at all. I need to tell Tony."

"Need to tell Stark what?" Fury strode into the room, his coat slapping at the backs of his calves and Hill at his heels. "I'm in the mood for good news, Doctor. Don't keep me waiting."

"I, ah..." Bruce managed, startled but recovering beautifully. "It's not just a decoy, Fury – it's some sort of pulse, emitting at 6 to 8 picometers every two point eight three seconds. The technology's not anything I'm familiar with – you'd need Tony or Richards to disassemble it and give you a full report on that angle. The rads aren't at dangerous levels. Agent Barton and Agent Romanov won't have sustained any damage from close proximity. As for its purpose..." Bruce spread his hands helplessly. "I can't see any uniformity to it."

Fury regarded the doctor with his long, cool stare. "And Sterns?"

"Algorithm's all set up and running," Bruce said, nodding to the screen. "Just like old times."

"Without the wholesale property destruction this time, we trust," Hill said dryly.

"As Hulk isn't even in my head right now, I can safely tell you that that comment pissed me off," said Bruce, rather pleasantly.

Clint's lips twitched, and he was suddenly quite glad he was still wearing his sunglasses. It was so much easier to hide behind them.

"We're still paying for the damage," she said, her face businesslike but her eyes flashing.

"Neither Hulk nor I are responsible for how Loki's spear affected us," Bruce said calmly, and his gaze flicked to Clint. "Nor is Agent Barton."

"We aren't here to hash over ancient history, Hill," Fury said. "Banner, you got everything you need?"

"A weekend in the Bahamas would be nice."

"You help us catch Sterns, I will personally pay for the fucking tickets."

"I don't mean to insinuate that I don't trust you, but can I have that in writing?"

Clint strangled a laugh. Man, quiet and nice guy Doctor Banner was actually a bit of a bitch. Who knew?

Fury looked to be somewhat amused himself, in his own sardonic way. "Tell you what, you get that motherfucker's location, and I'll fly you there myself."

"Pics or it didn't happen," Clint murmured, and Bruce shot him a grin.

"When will this tracking algorithm pinpoint his location?" Hill demanded.

Bruce took off his glasses. "Patience, kids, we'll get there when we get there."

She subsided, her eyes hard. "Sir..."

Yep, Fury was definitely amused. "Well, looks like someone grew a new set of balls. How's the Hulk?"

"He's fine," Bruce said, turning back to the screen. "He likes fingerpainting and balloons and violently ripping into anyone who annoys me."

Clint made a squashed-pterodactyl noise.

"Hint received loud and clear," Fury said dryly. "How many times you got him out of his cage so far?"

"Twice, and both times he..." Too late, Bruce realised his mistake and clamped his lips shut. Clint wanted to smack his forehead – but professionalism, y'know. It could be a drag sometimes.

"Twice." Fury drew the word out, relishing it. "That a fact. And he didn't hurt anyone?"

Bruce sighed, pushing the screen away. "No. He ate a meal and sparred with Thor. No demi-gods were harmed in the making of this production."

"Sir, this is in direct violation of your orders," Hill said coolly. "I can have us reroute to New York to pick up the Hulk and get the Cube ready for..."

"Shut up Hill, that is an order," Fury said, still staring at Bruce. "He sparred with Thor."

"I made sure he understood that it was a... a sort of game," Bruce said, and his fingers began to twist around each other. "He was completely clear on the concept. He follows his rules perfectly. He's not a danger when I'm there."

"And yet you and Stark have been screwing around with ways to put you two back together, effectively eliminating that method of control," Fury said, his voice unchanging.

Bruce blinked, and then swallowed hard. "Yes, we have. There are extenuating circumstances that affect both Hulk and myself due to this separation."

"Such as?" Hill asked.

Bruce flicked another glance at Clint, his lips pressed so tightly together that they were turning white. They don't know that Hulk's really a part of Banner. They still think he's a separate being, a separate personality, Clint thought. They haven't got that news bulletin yet. And then his choice was clear.

"Director," Clint said, lifting his chin, keeping his tone clipped and professional and above all, calm. "With Doctor Banner or without him, the Hulk has proved that he can be taught, that he can reason, that he isn't some sort of mindless animal. Given that he has something resembling human intelligence, we have to extend to him the same rights we did to Thor. It's hypocritical in the extreme..."

"I'm aware of the circumstances, Barton," Fury said.

"No Sir, I don't think you are," Clint continued doggedly. Natasha was going to smack him upside the head. Goddamn, but he sort of wanted to do it himself; putting his neck on the line with his bosses to protect Banner and Hulk, what was he thinking? "Look, Hulk's not a bad guy. Angry, yeah, but not bad. He's fucking dangerous, sure, but so am I. So are you. So's this whole damn world we live in. He's not dumb. He's actually pretty bright."

"You can stand down as well, Agent Barton," Fury said. He tsked slowly, still staring at Banner. "Well. You do seem to pick up some champions, don't you? First Cap, now Hawkeye. I'm not gonna do anything to the monster, Barton, even if I could. I just wanna know what the Doc here thinks he's doing."

Bruce ducked his head, a faint smile crossing his lips. "I honestly have no idea, Director."

Fury was silent a moment or two, and then he harrumphed under his breath. "Well, don't be a stranger. Drop me a line when you ladies figure it out."

Spinning on his heel, the director of SHIELD stalked out of the room. Hill gave Clint a very cutting glare, and he grinned broadly.

"Always good to see you too, Maria," he said.

"Barton, don't tempt me," she grated, and strode away after Fury.

Bruce walked up to stand beside him, his glasses still held between fidgeting fingers. "Ah," he said uncertainly, "what the hell was that?"

"That," Clint said, grimacing, "was Fury making sure we know he has tabs on the situation at the Tower. Classic information power play. Should have known. Stark's security might be the best, but SHIELD's getting news out of there somehow."

Bruce raised his eyebrows. "You mean... you and Natasha didn't...?"

"No!" Clint snapped, and then calmed himself. "No. Wasn't me, and it wasn't Tasha. We're Avengers first, now. She wouldn't be reporting on our home life. None of their fucking business. And Hulk's one of us."

Bruce leaned back against the wall. "I... didn't know that. I always thought that – I'm sorry, I'm probably being offensive..."

"Nah, Doc, you're fine." Clint said. "Well, you would have been right a year ago. We were both still reporting in, both still regularly making updates on everyone's personal files. But... I don't know. It started to feel wrong, and so we stopped giving them anything important."

Like the way Thor's eyes turned distant and sad whenever it snowed. Like the way Tony clutched his coffee or his scotch or his tech like it was a shield that could protect him. Like the way Steve sometimes stayed awake all night sketching feverishly, or ripping the living daylights out of a long succession of inoffensive punching bags. Like the way Bruce wandered aimlessly like a ghost through the halls after a nightmare, his eyes bleeding green and his face blank and wrecked.

"None of their fucking business," Clint repeated, folding his arms again.

"Some people might say differently," Bruce said.

"What, that they have a right to know about you... about that? No, they don't. That's you, Doc, the inside of your head - that should be yours to keep to your own goddamned self if you want to. You didn't sign on for this life, you shouldn't have to do the full spy's fucking brain autopsy. You don't need to give them whatever pound of flesh you think you owe 'em. They've got enough already."

"I did sign on, in a way. I chose to come back after all. The contents of my head... hah, they're not precisely mine anymore as it is," Bruce's eyes slid over to the beacon-thingy, "just look at the reason we're back here. Besides, maybe it would have helped convince them to keep him out of the Cube."

"Quit it with the devil's advocacy, Doc. Hulk's not going to the Cube, and I'm not telling 'em about... what you said to us at that breakfast. Now, shut up and science."

Bruce smiled. "Thanks, Clint."

"Yeah, yeah. You owe me sexy, sexy arrows that do cool shit."

"How do adamantium-tips, or metal dissolvers sound?"

"Like a dirty weekend with Miss Universe. Gimme."

Bruce laughed softly. "They're yours the minute I'm done with the Hulk experiment. Don't let me forget."

Clint made a lascivious noise. "Like I would. Mmm, adamantium-tips. Fuck that's hot."

Bruce pushed away from the wall, and shook his head. "I think there actually might be something in Tony's insinuations about you and that bow."

Aaaand of course we're back to talking about Stark. "My bow? Nah. The arrows, well, different story. Phwoar, baby." Clint grinned again, and then a beep interrupted them. "That was quick."

Bruce moved over to a screen, putting on his glasses once more. He frowned. "It's not the tracker," he murmured, pulling a few bars across and glancing over at the little beacon-thing, glowing a malevolent green. "It's that."

"The tracer thingy?" Clint paused. "Wait up, I thought that thing was just pulsing?"

"It's not a tracer, either," Bruce said and scratched at his cast. "I have no idea what this is. It's emitting more radiation now. Not dangerous to us yet, but we should have that lead-lined case handy, just to be on the safe side."

"Hang on, the guy with two good hands has got this," Clint said and pulled the heavy box towards the monitoring equipment where the tracer hung amongst a net of wires.

"Thanks," said Bruce, peering at one of the feedout monitors. "This... doesn't make sense. It's really increasing emissions. Clint, I think you should get out of the room..."

"If I leave, who'll do your heavy lifting?" Clint said with some bravado, but he eyed the evil-looking little thing nervously. It was beeping steadily now, the sound rising in pitch and volume. He couldn't understand why Banner loved this stuff so much. Radiation, an invisible and deadly force... Clint didn't like enemies he couldn't see.

"No heavy lifting required from here on in. I really think you should stand outside, these readings are starting to enter dangerous territory..."

"And how about you, Doc? You're not the gamma battery," Clint said, his eyebrow raising. "He's downstairs in the Tower, full of shawarma."

"I've got a little previous evidence that my body can survive a lot more radiation than this," Bruce said dryly. "Stand back at least – there are suits in the antechamber, maybe you could..."

"Right, sure," Clint said, and backed up until he was leaning against the wall once more. "Should I call the director?"

"No, get Tony." Bruce rubbed his chin for a moment. Then he began busily setting dials and levels, his hand sure and steady. "I've been working with him on gamma all day. Knowing him, he's probably close to my level of expertise by now."

Geniuses. So fucking annoying. "Right," Clint said and pulled out his Starkphone. "Should it be making that noise?"

"It would be great if you held the questions until after the demonstration," Bruce said, his eyes darting. "I'm gloving up, this isn't safe. I'm not sure-"

The sudden silence was utterly shocking; an abrupt vacuum. Clint blinked.

"Doc? Doc?"

Bruce had vanished. He'd been standing there, just there, not ten feet away, and the thing had abruptly glowed green with twice the intensity, and then. Gone.

The tracer-thing had also vanished.

"Doc?!" Clint shouted, and then it hit him.

The fucking tracer-thing. The pulse. The Leader.

"Not a beacon," Clint mumbled, his shock beginning to solidify into rage. "A trap."

He punched in the number for the Tower, his fingers shaking in his fury. Stark picked up on the third ring. "Legolas! No, don't tell me, you need the chopper after all. What'd you do, fly into a tree, start nesti-"

"That thing," Clint spat, staring at the empty air where his teammate had been. "It stole Banner. He's gone."

Tony only paused for a brief moment, and when he spoke again his voice was low and dark. "What what that thing that you just said?"

"It stole Banner. It began spewing out... more shit, more radiation, and the beeps got higher and closer together, and there was a flash..." Clint's free hand balled into a shaking fist. "The Leader, Tone. It was the fucking Leader. That thing was a trap. He knew we'd get Banner in to look at it."

Tony was silent for a long, long moment. When he spoke again, his voice was still dark and flat. "I'm coming up. Be there in five. Get me data."

Clint flipped off the phone and stared at that innocuous patch of empty air.

Someone was going to fucking pay for this.


Numb, panicked and stupid was how Tony felt when he arrived back at the Tower two hours later. He made his way directly into the workshop bypassing the landing platform. He couldn't really face the others right now.

The readings Bruce had taken from the beacon had been deliberate, meticulous and elegant, like everything Bruce did. The beacon had created a targeted portal, from what Tony could piece together from Bruce's scans and the last few seconds of data recordings. It was not unlike Bruce's own teleport system, but instead of shielding the targeted person, this fucking thing would have simply ripped Bruce through the dark matter envelope without any heed to how much pain he would be in.

There was no external signal. The fucking thing had been an enclosed system. It must have been pre-programmed to trip the minute Bruce had begun the gamma scans. Sterns knew that Banner was their expert; he knew what they'd do. Tony tore through the data as his panic began to swell in his throat, and came across dead end after dead end. Sterns had outwitted them. Sterns had outwitted him.

He'd even called Xavier in his desperation. The man had given his apologies with gentle and infuriating sympathy, but he would not be able to find Doctor Banner as he was not a mutant. His equipment, Tony must understand, was calibrated for the purpose of finding mutants and could not be recalibrated without the help of one particular magnetic mutant – who wouldn't be terribly amenable to the idea of lending his assistance. Swearing loudly, Tony had hung up.

Richards had been less than useless, running into the same brick wall Tony was bashing his head against. As the minutes slipped through his fingers, the panic grew and grew until it was almost a living thing; a heavy and spiteful conjoined twin attached to his chest.

And there was nothing else to try. Failure was dust and copper in his mouth. The panic gave way to a strange anesthetized nothingness. His dark workshop was a horrible reminder of moments spent laughing with the man, teasing him, his quiet, authoritative voice, his big hands with their surprising delicacy.

He slammed a repulsor beam of energy straight into the side of his half-renovated Jaguar, but it didn't help.

Turning, he looked around his workshop with dead eyes. Dummy, You and Butterfingers chirruped at him, and he lifted his arms numbly. He stood there as they stripped off the suit, and remained standing for approximately eight point two seconds longer than necessary, a statue, surrounded by metal arms that hovered in polite, mechanical expectation of his next orders.

"Fuck off," he told them. They fucked off.

Tony looked at the gorgeous car he had totally destroyed, and felt nothing.

Time to fill in the others. He turned to the elevator.

Clint had told them already. It was apparent in the way Steve's eyes burned with righteous fury, the way Natasha was already suited up and ready to go, her face marble and her green eyes cold as death. Clint himself was sitting with his head in his hands, expressionless but for two spots of high colour on his cheekbones that spoke of his anger more eloquently than any scowl. And Thor seemed to be restless, champing at the bit to be off and shove Mjolnir straight up Stern's green ass.

Tony drifted through the room to the bar, numb and deadened all over. The others watched him cross the floor like he was a ghost. "Tony?" asked Steve.

He didn't answer, just shook his head and leaned on the counter heavily. He didn't trust himself to speak.

"Where do we start?" It was Natasha, her voice sharp and freezing cold.

"Don't know," Tony mumbled, and poured himself a brandy. Steve took it from his hand firmly, and poured it down the sink.

"No," he said, commanding and powerful – their leader, not their Team Dad. "This is not the time for that."

"Fuck, Steve! I can have a fucking drink if I want, it's my fucking booze - oh wait, would you look at that, it's my fucking tower-" Tony exploded, whirling on the other man. His chest felt strange, pressurised, like the arc reactor was suddenly too big for the cavity hacked into his ribs.

"Stark," Clint said in a voice that grated like gravel on concrete. "We need to find Banner. Get drunk afterwards."

Tony gritted his teeth. "There's nowhere to start! I just spent two fucking hours combing through everything Bruce had on that stupid thing. It was a self-sustaining portal; no external signal, no leads as to coordinates, no nothing! Give me a fucking drink!"

Thor hefted Mjolnir. "And are we defeated so very easily?" he rumbled. "No, we must press on. We must find him."

"How about the tracking algorithm?" asked Clint, his head jerking upwards. "That was meant to find Sterns."

"It's picking up sweet fuck-all. Sterns is cloaking himself." Tony splayed his hands over his face. It felt rubbery under his fingers. "He's outsmarted us. That green cockhead has beaten us!"

"Like hell," said Steve bluntly. That was uncharacteristic enough for Tony to glance up at him again. Steve's nostrils were white, his lips thin. "We're going to get Sterns, and we're going to find Bruce. We're the Avengers; we don't leave our people behind."

"Yeah, nice pep talk, Cap, but there's nowhere to look!" Tony said, dropping heavily on a couch. Thor shifted his weight, clearing his throat.

"Please forgive me if I am wrong, my friends... but did you not find the beacon within one of your scientific facilities?"

Clint and Natasha shared a look. "Yes," said Natasha. "Underneath the building, in a secret passage."

Despite the despair and cold rage welling up through his body, Tony snorted. "Secret fucking passage. God, Osborne is such a tool."

"Could not this... this pathetic mortal," Thor clamped his mouth in a straight, taut line. He now and again struggled with keeping his impressive temper in check – he had a tendency to create flash-thunderstorms when he was riled. He took a breath, his mighty chest rising. "If he has chosen such a place to be his repository once, may we not search for our friend in similar facilities?"

"He's right," Steve said, turning back to the others. "Tony, I know this is bad but we need you to hold it together. Get us a list of Osborne's labs, and any other research facilities that deal with gamma radiation or nuclear physics. Check everything you can for unusual activity. What was Sterns' area of expertise? Where was he, before? Clint, help him. Check your underground networks. Contact international agencies – Interpol, you know the type. Natasha, we'll need to infiltrate these places. I.D., equipment, disguises. Get us what we need. Thor," and Steve paused, and his eyes grew dark and troubled. "We need... we need to deal with Hulk."

Tony's blood froze in his veins.

"He doesn't know yet," Steve continued, his voice trembling only slightly. "We have no idea what he'll do."

"I'll tell you what he'll do," Tony muttered, a hollow chasm opening up in the pit of his stomach. "He'll rip the Tower apart. He'll rip the planet apart to find him."

"I don't see you with any bright ideas here, Stark!" Steve snapped. Then he held up a hand in apology. "Sorry. I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."

"Fuck you, Rogers," Tony snarled. "Tell you what. JARVIS can handle the fucking secretary bullshit; I'm coming with you to see Hulk."

"You'll be wearing your suit." Steve's tone brooked no opposition.

"No, I won't." Tony's jaw clenched. "He won't hurt me."

"This will drive him insane, Stark," Natasha said quietly. "He'll be what he used to be. All his rules will go out the window."

"Not for me," Tony said stubbornly. "He won't."

"For Pete's sake, Tony, I will not lose you too!" Steve bellowed. Then his hand rose to cover his eyes. His huge shoulders were slightly hunched, as though warding off blows.

Tony just stared at him.

"Captain," Thor said gently, his hand moving to cup Steve's elbow and shift his hand from his eyes, "I believe that Tony has a chance in this. Hulk has already saved his life countless times, long before this unnatural division. The green beast truly shall not harm him. No more of your comrades shall be lost this day."

Steve was pinched and white, but his blue eyes were determined. "Damn right they won't," he said in little more than a breath. "You'd better be right about this. Hulk will never forgive himself if he hurts Tony."

And now Tony was totally lost. Steve wasn't just concerned for Tony's safety. He was also thinking of Hulk – of Hulk's feelings should he do something terrible (again) while he was lost in his rage. He'd assumed that Captain Do-Gooder was trying to coddle the poor little rich boy with the heart condition. But it was bigger than that. It was about all of them, about the team, giant green rage monsters included.

Steve... cared.

Suddenly, Tony felt a lot stronger. His resolve hardened, an iron ball in his belly. "I should go in first," he said, meeting Steve's eyes with complete seriousness. "He'll accept things from me that he might not from anyone else."

"We can't just shout the news to him from outside?" Clint asked.

"He almost tore up the floor in a nightmare," Tony retorted. "That floor is ten inches thick, it's made of solid adamantium, and he crumpled it like a piece of paper. Let's think about that for a moment, y'know, just try to picture that in your mind. Got it? Now tell me if it's safer inside the fucking cage or out of it."

"Calm down," Steve said, radiating solidity and steadiness, a rock in all this madness. "All right, Tony, you'll have your chance. You can go in first. But don't tell him until we're in there with you." He looked over at Natasha and Clint. "We'll meet up in an hour. Go."

They went, slipping soundlessly from the room. As she left, Natasha laid a hand on Tony's shoulder and gripped it tightly in a wordless gesture of comfort. Then she was gone.


His entire body was screaming at him. And it was dark.

Bruce blinked his sandy eyes. He was lying face down on some sort of cold, hard surface, his limbs splayed out and trembling in pain. A slight movement sent every muscle into renewed spasms of agony, and a tinkle of crushed glass told him that his glasses had smashed.

Numbness was beginning to settle into his mind – too many hours away from the other half of himself.

He lifted his head, ignoring the howling of his muscles, awkwardly hoisting himself up onto one elbow. So very dark.

It was such a damn cliché, but oh well. "Hello?" he called out into the blackness. "Sterns?"

There was a soft, pleased chuckle.

"Hello there, Mister Green."

Chapter Text


"Hey buddy."

Hulk was stacking some of his rocks on top of others when Tony slipped inside. His feet felt like they were weighted with lead and they dragged across the floor as he crossed to the rage monster.

"Tony!" Hulk boomed happily, and took a few steps towards him. His massive face began to fall as he looked behind him towards the door where Steve and Thor entered. He waited a few moments, rocking between his feet. "Tony?" he rumbled, his deep voice hesitant. "Tony not good?"

"No, Big Green," Tony said, his own voice cracking slightly. "Not good. Something's... something's happened."

Hulk's brow's began to draw together suspiciously. "Tony," he rumbled. "Tell? Hulk will stop it. Tony will be good again."

"I..." Tony dipped his head. Those great green eyes, looking at him with such... compassion. It was just like Bruce. Well, of course it would be, but it was worse, somehow. It was something to do with the strange and savage innocence of Hulk; he would stop it whatever it was, and Tony would be good again. That was what he could comprehend - and that simple sympathy was like a knife.

Hulk didn't even know.

He took a deep breath against the howling in his head. "Big Guy, I need you to stay calm, okay? Remember your rules."

Hulk stood still for a long moment, and then a fire began to build in his eyes. "Bruce," he said, low and dark. "Where Bruce?"

"That's just it," Tony croaked. "Oh, Green Bean, I'm so sorry... I'm so fucking sorry. Bruce is..."

His throat closed around the words, and he choked.

Hulk began to tremble. "Where Bruce?"

"The big head guy," Tony managed, his hands clammy, "he stole Bruce. He stole him."

Hulk's trembling ceased.

"Be ready," Steve murmured.

"Aye," Thor murmured back.

Tony took another step towards the motionless Hulk. It seemed that the news had... broken him. "Hulk. We'll get him back. We will. We won't stop until we find him and you two are together..." he broke off again, his mouth numb and his useless heart pierced with shards.

Hulk's face was crumpling, slowly, so slowly. His eyebrows drew down and his mouth began to open in a soundless wail, his teeth bare and his lips pulled tight in agony. His eyes (oh god, those eyes, no, Tony couldn't even handle looking at them) were great round circles. The whites could be clearly seen, and rising in their depths was utter anguish. A tiny sound, all the more heartbreaking for his immense size, emerged from Hulk's mouth.

"Hulk," Tony said. "We'll get him back..."

"Bruce," said that small voice – a boy's voice, just a child. "Bruce..."

Tony's own eyes clenched shut. "I know."

Hulk's head began to sink, his shoulders hunched against the enormity of whatever it was he was feeling. His curly hair lowered nearly to the ground, face still frozen in that rictus of horror and grief, mouth still gaping wide in a silent scream. A long, low moan began to issue from his open mouth.

Tony reached out one hand blindly, and fumbled until it rested against Hulk's furnace-warm skin. "I know."

Hulk's moan trailed a little and he took a shuddering breath. Under his hands, Tony could feel the giant lungs filling, hitching.

"I'm so sorry," Tony whispered, and bit his lip against the tearing sensation in his ribcage.

Hulk's moans dropped an octave, and he began to rock himself very slightly. Those mammoth hands began a soft, self-soothing motion – wrapping and petting each other, trembling when the expected smaller hand wasn't there to take up the slack. "Bruce," the Hulk mourned, and oh god. Oh Jesus. Oh god, Tony couldn't do this.

What could he say to Hulk? What could anyone say to a guy when the rest of his very self had been ripped away, just as they were beginning to need each other?

Abruptly Tony knew exactly what he would have wanted to hear. He couldn't see through the wet haze and he dashed his eyes roughly, before slipping his own hand between those rough palms. "We're gonna get him back," he hissed, and took a step closer until his face was nearly pressed against Hulk's bicep. "We are gonna get him back. I promise."

Hulk's eyes opened to gaze down at the hand caught between his own. One giant finger lifted Tony's hand, and he regarded it for a long moment. His face was still frozen in that twisted, soundless cry, but as he looked at Tony's hand, preposterously tiny in his own, a poisonous green fire began to blaze behind his eyes.

"Not Bruce," Hulk rumbled, and his teeth clashed together. The fire mounted higher.

Tony gripped his finger. "I promise. We'll get him back. I promise."

Hulk met his eyes, and oh. Oh fuck.

The utter, utter fury in them.

The madness.

With terrifying suddenness, the Hulk threw his head back, and screamed.

"Holy..." Tony vaguely heard Steve say, and Thor let out a soft Asgardian oath as the scream echoed, full of such anger and hurt that Tony could almost believe it was pain made audible.

"Hulk," Tony said urgently, and clambered as close as he could to that giant green body, the heat pouring off it like waves of hate. "Hulk, please-"

Hulk batted him away with a casual backhand, and Tony went sprawling. "Thor. Move in," he heard Steve say through ringing ears, and he blindly held up his own hand.

"No, no wait," he said, and spat out some rubble. He'd grazed his face on the floor, but nothing seemed to be broken, just bruised. "Wait!"

"Friend Tony, we will discuss this afterwards," Thor said tightly, raising Mjolnir in readiness.

Hulk roared. His back was arched, his face turned up to the roof as though his hatred alone could bring it down. He roared and roared, the sound going on and on, cutting straight through Tony's flesh to vibrate in his bones and sinuses. Hulk screamed out his anger and pain and hate. Hulk roared like a maelstrom of rage.

Then, faster than the eye could follow, he moved. His huge hands swiped and grabbed at whatever was close – his rubble and blanket bed, his numbers experiment, the rocks from the smash corner, anything. Tony covered his head as rocks went flying. The air was thick with shards and debris, and through this dirty fog the Hulk loomed like the promise of death.

In seconds, his once- orderly room was a nightmare. The destruction was catastrophic.

Hulk ripped a metal beam to smithereens and sent a rock hurtling into a wall, where it burst into powder. And that roar went on, and on, and on – and it was a small child screaming for his father, a little boy reaching for his only friend, half a mind lost without its twin. Tony clenched his eyes, gritted his teeth. The pain from his tumble was nothing compared to the pain in that roar.

Hulk's hand slammed against the adamantium wall – and it left a perfect indentation of his fist. Tony choked. "Bruce!" Hulk howled, and his other fist joined its fellow against the wall. The indent was even deeper. "BRUCE!"

"Now!" Steve barked, and Mjolnir came crashing through the air to land in Hulk's solar plexus. Hulk roared again, his eyes alight with grief and madness, and threw a boulder in a vicious overhand swing that impacted with Thor's head. The god was thrown back in a tangle of limbs, cape and blond hair against the adamantium wall. His legs trembled as they tried to support him.

"Stop it! All of you!" Tony shouted, trying to haul himself to his feet as showers of rock dust and rubble descended around him, a horrible mockery of rain. "For fuck's sake!"

The star-emblazoned shield bounced off Hulk's head, and he turned with an enraged grunt to glare at Steve, who eyed him back warily. "Hulk," he said, but that was all he had time to say before Hulk was on him.

They always seemed to forget how fast he was.

"No!" Tony screamed as Steve was tossed into the air to crash against the metal roof. He fell to the floor with a sickening thump, his limbs twitching. "Hulk, no!"

Hulk roared again, his fists clenched, his muscles rippling as he fought against his pain. He whirled faster than thought and began to smash once more at the walls that held him. He was practically incandescent with rage, his eyes aglow as Tony had never seen them. He punched against the adamantium in a frenzy, the metal dinting beneath his gargantuan fists.

"Hulk..." Tony said wretchedly. Hulk just bellowed and punched, lost in his rage, lost to them utterly. Tony's eyes were stinging again; rock dust and blood covered his hands and face. No. No, he wouldn't accept it. He was Tony fucking Stark, and he couldn't accept it.

This couldn't be all that was left of Bruce.

Steve coughed and began to push himself onto his knees. His fingers groped for his shield. Mjolnir went skidding back along the ruined ground to Thor, who was definitely more lucid.

"Hulk!" Thor shouted, and Hulk turned only to meet the hammer smashing into his jaw again. He span out of the blow, grunting and growling in anger. His massive hands dug into the floor.

The ten-inch thick, adamantium floor...

... and ripped it.

Tony gawked. Holy... holy fuck.

Hulk actually pulled the adamantium up from housings where it had been poured whilst still liquid hot, his fingers digging deep into the so-called "unbreakable" metal and denting it. He tore a great square of it as though it was merely paper, and shook it out like a maid laying a bedsheet. The clang as it hit Thor was ear-splitting. Thor went careening backwards, and though he tried valiantly to keep his footing, he went staggering back into the wall again.

Hulk brandished his piece of adamantium and held it before him, a shield. He'd done this before, Tony remembered. In Harlem, he'd used cars as boxing gloves. Hulk was reverting.

Thor's hammer went flying back to his hand, but it was clear he couldn't match Hulk's rage-fueled strength. His eyes were unfocused, and the arm lifting the hammer was shaking. He took a slow breath, steeling himself. "Now," he said, and it was his usual voice, proud and determined.

"Not the lightning, Thor!" Tony hollered, even as Hulk snarled in challenge. "You'll kill us all!"

Thor's mouth hardened, and he squared his shoulders. Then he took one or two running steps and leapt into the air. Hulk's eyes followed him as he traced a graceful trajectory to land Mjolnir squarely against Hulk's left cheekbone – or at least, that was the intent.

Instead, Hulk grabbed Thor's leg and smashed him into the ground, over and over, not unlike the way he had treated his brother so long ago.

But instead of smashing him a few times and leaving, Hulk... kept going.

His face was locked in an insane grimace of rage, and his arm worked like a piston as he slammed Thor again and again into the ground. The God of Thunder was as limp as a wet rag as his body whipped through the air over and over. Rubble danced in the air and clattered against the ruined floor, jolting around them in a perverse sort of fountain as the deafening impacts caused it to fly and bounce.

Steve's shield lashed out again, cutting deeply into Hulk's upper arm. He growled in anger and whirled, leaving Thor to crumple on the floor like discarded laundry. He took a step towards Steve and his hands clenched into fists. His expression promised death.

Captain America looked so damned small as Hulk advanced, looming, a spectre of revenge. Each ominous step created a inaudible boom that could be felt in the bones of Tony's jaw and teeth.

Tony could barely see through the mess in his eyes and the haze of rock dust and the tears that made everything sting, but god damn it. Fuck this. Fuck this, he was not going to die like this, and Hulk was not going to be a murderer again!

He laboriously pulled himself to his feet, swaying. The arc reactor was flickering – the impact had shattered the outer casing. He had maybe fifteen minutes. The pain in his heart was fitting, he thought briefly, bitterly. Tony set his jaw.

"Tony, get out," Steve rasped, but seriously? Fuck that, too. Hulk – their Hulk, Bruce's Hulk – was still in there, and hurting, and Tony wasn't fucking leaving.

"Rule One," he grated. "Rule One."

Hulk bellowed at Tony, and then roared like a bull elephant at the walls. He then threw himself against them, once, twice. The metal was buckled and hopelessly twisted. It screeched as it warped. Hulk would be out in seconds.

He'd be lost.

(Just like Bruce... no. NO!)

"HULK!" Tony screamed at the top of his lungs. "Rule ONE!" Spots flew through his vision from the force of it.

Hulk... paused.

"Rule One, big guy," Tony panted, trying to see through the blur. "Tell me what Rule One is."

Hulk panted, his breath deep and rasping. His eyes were still alight with that murderous fury.

"Rule. One," Tony said.

Hulk roared again, and then broke off. His head swayed from side to side, torn between two opposing and overwhelming compulsions. Tony's aching heart battered against the metal of the reactor casing. Hulk had to come back to them. He had to hope that their friendship was stronger than the impulse to tear his way out.

"Tell me!" Tony barked.

Hulk snarled, and jerked his head away – only to have his gaze land on a rock that had somehow escaped his frenzy of smashing.

"Tell..." Tony stopped. There was something. Something there.

Hulk was still looking at the rock. The insane light in his eyes slowly, gradually dimmed.

"Hulk?" Tony said, scarcely daring to breathe. "What is Rule One?"

Green eyes blinked - and the rage dissipated like smoke, to be replaced by a terrible aching sorrow.

"No... scare," Hulk rumbled, his voice faltering. Then he dropped to a crouch, his head drooping, his corded shoulders bowed underneath the weight of his grief and his new guilt. "No smash," he whispered like a gale.

One green finger reached out to touch the lone rock.

"Thor," Tony hissed, and hobbled over to where the god lay, keeping one eye on Hulk as he went. "Thor. Can you answer? Steve? Are you okay?"

"I'm... gonna be fine," Steve said, and wiped at his damp hair, stumbling to Thor as well. "Thor, can you talk?"

Thor was a motionless lump underneath his red cape. It took both Steve and Tony to roll him over – Asgardians were physically denser than humans, and thus a LOT heavier – and Tony winced at the massive bruises across Thor's face. "Hey, Point Break," he murmured. "I'm still not kissing anyone, so wake up, you big noble bastard."

Thor twitched.

"Get up, lazybones, you're missing all the excitement," Steve urged, and clasped Thor's arm.

There was no more movement, and Tony sat back on his heels. "Shit," he said miserably, and looked up at Hulk. The giant was still frozen, gazing at that rock that seemed to hold so much significance.

Then Thor groaned and said, "It is well the good Doctor is not here to hear you offer to kiss another man," he said through thickened, bruised lips, and Tony laughed aloud in overwhelming relief.

Steve blew out a long sigh. "You're all right," he murmured.

"I may..." Thor winced. "I may have some minor inconveniences to deal with over the next few days, but... uhn, I believe no lasting damage has been done. My armour has taken the brunt of the blows, and I heal even as we speak."

"You gave us a fright there, Fabio." Tony ran a hand through his hair, damp with sweat. He laughed a bit shakily. "Can we all try not to do that anymore?"

Thor chuckled painfully, before his hand clasped around Steve's forearm in return. The Captain slowly helped Thor to sit up, and he gasped a moment, his breath coming fast. Then he steadied himself against Steve's solid shoulder. "Forgive me for taking the lead in this, my friend... but despite your vaunted healing gifts I am not so... easily damaged as you."

"No offense taken," Steve said ruefully, and put a hand against his own arm where blood could be seen to seep across the blue fabric. "That was a pretty hairy moment there, pal."

Tony stood again, the relief making him feel liquid and drunk. He glanced back at Hulk, who had shuffled over to that rock that was keeping him so mesmerised. "Okay, Big Green," he said, and tried not to flinch. "Look. We'll call that a Rule Two, okay? Rule Two?"

Hulk didn't answer. He picked up the rock instead. His hands, so recently such terrible weapons, were gentle and delicate as they brought the rock close.

It was vaguely cat-shaped.

"Bruce," he said, and gave a subterranean croon of anguish. "Big head talky small man."

"Yes," Tony said, and inched towards him. He hated himself for the fear that rose and strangled his voice when he said, "Hulk, please don't..."

"Hulk no mean to...," Hulk began. And then his head slumped against his chest again. His great eyes squeezed shut. "Hulk sorry. So sorry. So sorry."

Steve glanced between Hulk and Tony, before snapping his mouth closed. "Hulk. It's all right," he said. God, if Tony could bottle and sell the reassurance in that voice, he'd be... well, richer.

"Not good," Hulk crooned, and turned carefully. He was obviously aware of how much he had frightened them, telegraphing his moves, cautious and deliberate. He still held that cat-shaped rock in his hand, cradling it as though it was the most precious thing in the world. "Hulk smash Team," he moaned, and brought the rock closer to his face. "Not good. Hulk not good, never good. Hulk bad."

"Oh god, no," Tony muttered under his breath. "Not you too."

He took another trembling step towards the giant, and raised his hands. "You're not bad," he said, trying to speak as calmly as possible. "You're our Hulk. You made a mistake. Rule Two. And you said sorry. Rule Three. That's good."

Hulk's fingers stroked the rock absently. "Bruce not be proud. Team not be proud. Hulk wrong. All wrong. So sorry." He keened for a moment, and Tony felt the stupid remnants of his heart thump in sympathetic agony.

"You're not a monster, Bruce," he said softly.

Hulk's eyes snapped open.

"You're not," Tony insisted, and took another step closer. "That's what you both think, isn't it? Well, you're wrong. You're not."

"Look what Hulk do!" Hulk howled, and turned away, sheltering his rock with his back. "No. Go. Hulk not... not..."

"You're our friend," said Steve, and Tony hurriedly gestured at him as if to say, yes, this is good, keep going. "You're our teammate. We need you."

"Hulk is monster," he growled, and shuffled a little on the spot. "No Bruce. No one. Just Hulk for always and always and always. Hulk should be left alone."

"No," said Thor indistinctly. Hulk's eyes flicked to him, widening in shock. "You are a valued comrade, a brother. You are not this monster you fear."

Hulk made a confused sound, and then shook his head. "Hulk... Hulk need Bruce," he said, and moaned, rocking himself again. "Need Bruce. Not understand. Not understand!"

"Confusion equals smash," Steve murmured, and Tony nodded sharply.

"Can you..." Tony licked his lips and took another faltering step. "I know you can sometimes feel Bruce's thoughts, just like he can feel your emotions. Can you feel him now?"

Hulk's face twisted. He huffed once or twice, and his chin rose as his eyelids slid shut again. "No," he said eventually. "Too far. Too long." They opened, and one fist knuckled the ground in frustration. "Need Bruce!"

"We all do," Tony said and steeled himself against the surge of anger and sorrow. "I know."

Hulk held out the rock. "For Bruce," he said wretchedly. "Hulk made. Present for Bruce. Now, no Bruce. Hulk need... Hulk smashed Team. Hulk wrong, Hulk not good, Team never be proud of Hulk again! Bruce never be proud of Hulk again! Bruce never come back for ever and always. Hulk monster, monster, monster – the cruel man is right, the cruel man is right! Why? Why Team no hate Hulk?" His lips peeled back from his teeth and he snarled, his head thrashing as he wrestled with rage and guilt and loss. Tony's eyes filled involuntarily. There was just so much agony in that sound. "Hulk hates Hulk! But Team no... Bruce. Bruce. Hulk need Bruce, Hulk no understand, no understand..."

"This is unbearable," Tony breathed as the Hulk practically tortured himself before them, flaying himself open with his guilt and anguish and confusion. "He has to.."

It hit him.

"He's coming with us," he said flatly.

"Say that again?" Steve said, an unaccustomed sharpness in his tone.

"Hulk. He has to. He'll work himself into a frenzy again if we don't, and he'll end up pulling the Tower down." Tony looked up at the crumpled green face, the anger and horror yet lurking in the corners of his eyes. "He can feel Bruce when they're close. And I have the feeling Bruce will need him just as much."

Not to mention that Hulk was likely to get more and more uncontrollable as time passed... and it might be a good idea to have Thor and Steve, not to mention Clint's tranq arrows, on hand.

"Ah, Friend Tony..." Thor said uncertainly, but Steve's expression was clearing.

"You're right," he said.

Tony blinked. "I am? I mean, of course, but why do you only now admit it?"

"We might need Hulk," Steve said, and helped Thor to stand. "Bruce definitely will. If this is what Hulk is like after only a few hours of separation, I hate to think how Bruce is feeling."

The numbness. That awful, hollow voice – those deadened eyes. Tony shuddered.

"Plus, as you say, he can feel Bruce when they're close. I'm looking forward to seeing how Natasha deals with disguising the Hulk." Steve looped Thor's arm over his shoulders, and grunted. "Holy moly, you are heavy."

"Asgardian," Thor said huffily.

"Hulk..." Hulk began, and then he carefully and deliberately lifted his hand to Thor. "Sorry. Hurt Shouty Long Hair. So sorry," he said, and rumbled softly, leaning forward to offer his outstretched hand, massive and open and harmless. "Hulk help. Make better. Hulk carry heavy As-garden?"

Could Thor forgive that far? Tony held his breath. Hulk had just pounded him through the floor after all, possessed by his grief-stricken madness.

"T'would be beneath my dignity," Thor protested.

"It'd be a heck of a sight easier on me, though," Steve said, and muttered something into Thor's ear.

Tony reached out a hand (that was only shaking the tiniest bit, thank you very much) to rest it on Hulk's upper arm. Hulk jerked the cat-rock away a little, but relaxed immediately. Then his hand reached out and brushed the back of one finger against Tony's gashes. "Hulk so sorry," he rumbled forlornly. "Tony. Tony special. Hulk hurt. Hulk made Tony weak."

"Weak? Me?" Tony snorted. "My name is Iron Man, Jolly Green, and don't you forget it."

"Light go on, light go off," Hulk said, and tapped Tony's chest once.

The reactor! "Oh shit!"

Tony raced out of the room, yelling as he went. "JARVIS, get me a reactor! Now!"

"Sir, the closest spare reactor was located in your garage. I have already sent Dummy with it to you; he is en-route and will reach your current position in-"

"No time for that, I gotta..."

Tony crashed into an arm holding a welcome box, and Dummy whirred worriedly at him, his 'head' rotating as he looked down at his creator.

"...Eight seconds."

"Arrgh," Tony managed, and fumbled for the box. The code entered, it clicked and hello, shiny new lease on life, there you are.

His fingers were clumsy as they ripped off his AC/DC t-shirt and navigated the panes of cracked glass that enclosed his current battery. "Shit!" he swore as a shard sliced into his forefinger, and he stuck it into his mouth.

"Hold still," came an unexpected voice.

Tony's head whipped up and Natasha stood there, her face cool as always but with concern flickering deep in her eyes. "JARVIS informed us when Hulk attacked you," she explained without prompting, her tone matter-of-fact, professional. "Tell me what to do."

Tony stared at her a little, and then the sharp pang in his heart reminded him that yeah, he might actually have to trust the ex-Russian creepy spy assassin person just this once because, y'know, imminent messy death.

"Take it out, it twists," he said, and leaned back.

Her head bent to the task. Her fingers were nimble and sure as she removed the flickering reactor and replaced it with the new one. She followed his directions perfectly, moving smoothly between one stage and the next. She reattached the plate, her small fingers dipping surely into the place Tony was the most vulnerable. She didn't pause, but settled the four points of transference to the new magnet, and carefully pressed down against the pipe grafted to his ribcage in order to secure the replacement reactor with a firm twist. The minute it hissed into place and lit up with that familiar, reassuring blue glow, Tony let out a giant gust of relief and sagged. "Oh thank fuck," he said.

She sat back on her heels and her mouth curved up into a faint smile. "You're welcome."

"No, really," he said, and caught her hand. "Natasha. Thanks."

She regarded their hands for a moment, and then said, "Stark..."

"Tony. You just had your hand up to the wrist in my chest, I think we can do first names now."

"Tony." Her smile twitched, as though she was fighting it. "Like I told Bruce. I care. I do. I'm just... not built to show it."

Damn, had he misjudged her. "I know. And, yeah... so. Me too?"

She squeezed his hand. "I know."

She looked up at the open adamantium door, the twisted, buckled frame of the Hulk Cage. From the outside it looked like a dome blown by a glassblower with the hiccups. The relief imprints of Hulk's knuckles could be clearly seen through the metal. "How is he?"

"Come on in," he said and stood with wobbly legs. Christ, he felt like Bambi. Too many shocks.

"Is he ready for..."

"He thinks we hate him." Tony laughed shakily. "Come on in, help me show him. He reacted... well, yeah. You were right about him reverting, but we got him back. His rules brought him back. I don't know how long it'll last, though."

"The more time it takes to find Bruce..." she said, and her lips tightened.

"Right." Tony felt around the edges of the new reactor, the comforting whirr escaping into the palm of his hand. "He's so confused. It's... god. It's so hard to watch."

"Here," she said, and ducked under his arm to support him as they walked towards the door. "Are the others injured?"

"Fucking gods and super-soldiers," he grumbled.

"I take it that's a no."

"It's a sort of," came Steve's voice as they entered. He was holding the cat-rock. "I've been better, but I've taken harder knocks. I think something in him recognised that he didn't want to hurt us. He just wanted to get out and find Bruce."

"Tasha," said Hulk, shame etched in every deep line of his face. He was holding Thor gently and carefully, and the god was looking a little uncomfortable to be held in those great arms like a princess on her wedding night. Hulk turned his eyes away, guilt settling over him like snow. "Hulk... Hulk not good, Tasha. Tasha should leave."

"I'm not going," she said calmly, looking up at his face. Tony couldn't feel any tension in the arm that supported him - but then, she was far too well-trained to show fear even if she was scared fucking spitless. She simply stood, looking up at Hulk as though he hadn't so nearly become once more the creature who had almost spilled her life out two years ago.

"Tasha," Hulk mourned. "No, no. Hulk not good. Go. Hulk just wants to be left alone!"

"No," she said. "Hulk, Hulk look at me."

He reluctantly raised his eyes. Natasha's hand tightened around Tony's waist, and she lifted her chin and held that utterly confused green gaze. "We are friends. We are Avengers. We don't leave our friends behind."

Steve made a small noise of shock, and Tony coughed into his hand. Well, well, well. Natasha Romanov, super spy with a heart of ice? Tony was calling bullshit on that.

"He's coming with us to find Bruce," Tony said.

She nodded slowly. "That means using the quinjet. He'll have to stay put in there until we need him."

"Hulk stay?" Hulk's eyes dropped to the ground again. "Leave Hulk here."

"No, you're coming with us," Natasha repeated, and shared a significant look with Steve. He winced.

"Quinjet it is."

"We can't really hide you, Tony, so we'll use your fame to our advantage." she said then. "We'll put you out the front as the focus of the group, and the rest of us will be disguised as your security and advisors. Clint and I can remain hidden in crowds, but Steve and Thor are hopeless at it. I hope you're feeling ostentatious."

"Did you want a laser light show? Because that can be arranged," Tony said. He inwardly sighed at being the show pony once more - well, sure, it could be fun. Attention always was. But right now he had bigger things to worry about.

"Do you have any leads?" Steve asked, his hand clamped over his bleeding shoulder.

"Clint's getting the information together," she told them.

Tony and Steve glanced at each other, and Thor struggled to a sitting position in Hulk's arms. "What have you found?" Thor asked.

"We've put together a list of places of interest," she said. "There are two other Osborne facilities that have accounted missing equipment and strange occurrences – one in Miami, the other one here in New York. We think the New York situation might have something to do with that Spider-kid, though. There are three other possible locations here in New York, the most likely being Empire State University. It's a significant location. Sterns was a professor at Grayburn College in the Department of Cell Biology. The building he worked in has been deserted ever since Blonsky trashed it. There have been two police reports regarding lights in the windows within the last two weeks, though any patrols sent to check the area haven't reported anything out of the ordinary."

"Such as a guy with green skin and the ability to do all sorts of weird psionic shit," Tony said, his heart sinking. "Harlem. Bruce is gonna love that."

"We're not yet certain," she said. "It could be another decoy."

"Bruce," Hulk said miserably.

"Let's check it out," Steve said, hefting the cat-rock. "Bruce deserves to see his present."


Sterns was quite a sight.

"I love what you've done with your hair," Bruce said weakly.

The thin green lips tightened in a smile.

"Mockery," he said. "Well, I can't say I wasn't expecting it. But from you, Bruce? You, who know what this power means? You should know better."

"May I ask what precisely you are able to do now?" Bruce struggled to his knees and pushed a hand against his pattering heart. His eyes roved around his surroundings. Banks of computers, a large, ominously familiar glow trapped by wires, the half-shadowed shapes of equipment in the background. A warehouse? Probably.

Sterns laughed softly. "Ah, no. I don't think so. You'll have to try a little harder to get me to spill my secrets, my friend."

"I can see a fusion generator over there," Bruce said, trying to keep the man – man? – civil. "You're building a bomb, yes? Maybe I can help with that. I have some prior..."

"I see your association with that bunch of costumed clowns has muddled your wits," Sterns sighed. "Such a shame. No, I have no intention of allowing you anywhere near my work. Yes, it is a bomb. No, you will not be working on it."

"So why am I here?" Bruce hauled himself to his feet, and looked Sterns in the eyes. And swallowed.

The man had been a slight, mousy fellow – excitable as a rabbit, garrulous and enthusiastic. Now his head towered over his skinny form, a long green column nearly nineteen inches high. His skin was a brighter, paler green than Hulk's, and it looked sickly by comparison. His eyes had darkened to that virulent gamma-green, and his hair and eyebrows were lank and black, the former combed in a pathetic attempt over the giant dome. Bruce wondered how on earth he was able to reach.

"Don't you get terrible neck strain?" he asked aloud.

Stern's face twisted into an ugly expression, and a bolt of something hot and hissing came blasting from his forehead to slam into Bruce's chest. He choked and staggered back until his blindly-searching hand reached a wall. There he rested, panting.

"Mock me once more," Sterns sneered, "and I will stop your heart."

"Telekinesis," Bruce croaked. "A very impressive secret. Thanks for beng so forthcoming."

Sterns smiled. "A necessary revelation. And I have already formulated every possible contingency. There is no harm in allowing you to know just how much you are outclassed here."

"Outclassed," Bruce said to himself, and then faked a laugh he didn't feel. "I'm still the Hulk, Sterns. If I were you, I'd reweigh my options."

"Ah yes, your green friend," Sterns said, and walked over to a table where shiny, wicked-looking implements were set out in rows. Bruce recognised some of it, and his heart skipped a beat. "Interesting that we haven't seen a glimpse of him yet. Your control over your condition has improved manifold."

He doesn't know. Even if he's gotten into SHIELD's files, Clint and Natasha don't report in anymore. Fury and Hill mustn't have written it up – oh, of course, they're protecting me from Ross and from the Council. He really doesn't know about the separation.

"I can let him out," Bruce said between his teeth. "I'll do it."

Sterns turned back, a syringe in his hand. "Then do it. But spare a thought for poor Harlem this time, would you? They've only just finished the repairs from your last visit."

Bruce just glared at him, breathing heavily.

"Did he say Harlem?" Sterns said in faux-shock. "Why yes, he did. It makes little difference that you know where you are, Doctor Banner. You have no way of contacting your friends. You will not unleash the Hulk in this heavily-populated area, you soft-hearted fool. I have set traps and decoys in bases all over the country. I have planned for every possible method of escape. You are stuck here."

"They're not idiots. They'll find me," Bruce said.

"I am surrounded by idiots!" Sterns suddenly raged, and his eyes burned with insanity. "This whole world – idiots, imbeciles, morons everywhere! It is a cavalcade of stupidity! Each of these stupid, pathetic humans – a waste of the air they breathe. They cannot hope to govern themselves when they cannot even think properly. Why is the human disgrace so abominably dense? What they do to the planet, what they do to each other? A foul pack of monkeys, rutting and fighting and howling at each other, my god, they call themselves evolved? I have solved all their petty little problems. I could fix all their woes!"

"They, them, their." Bruce shook his head, even as his mind reeled. "You talk like you're not human, Samuel. You talk like you're not one of them."

"I am better than them!" Sterns hissed. "You know this! You began it! Immune to disease, stronger than any other being on this planet – how can you say that you belong with them, their pettiness, their greed and bickering? They hounded you for years!"

"I am human," Bruce said, and the memory of Tony's voice saying those words to him surfaced. It felt like years, not weeks since he had known the heat of Hulk behind his eyes, Tony's face across a screen, all that time spent working, bickering, snarking, fighting, laughing. You ARE human, Debbie Downer.

I break the Law of Conservation of Mass.

A really weird human.

"No matter what," he continued, and the struggling embers of his emotions fanned briefly, a warm glow in his chest, "I'm still human. A really weird human."

Sterns looked disgusted. "And you seem proud. Pah!"

"It's no bad thing to be human, Sterns. Yes, there are jerks and dickheads everywhere. Yes, there are wars. Yes, we're screwing the planet – and this is interesting rhetoric from a guy building a bomb, can I mention?"

"Hypocritical of you to chastise me for building bombs, don't you think?" Sterns smirked.

"I didn't think I was making the world better by blowing it up," Bruce retorted. "I knew what it was when I built it, and you can be damned sure I knew what that meant about me. I can't say the same about the fucking serum. Where's your ethical responsibilty, Doctor?"

"I have no peers to judge me," he said, and his huge head rose slightly.

"Just the rest of the planet," Bruce retorted. "Just all the people you intend to mutate and kill. I'd give you a slow clap if my hands worked properly."

"Them? The cattle, you mean? Hah! They will thank me!"

"Like you thanked me?" Bruce snorted. "I'm sure you were really over the moon at first. It's great to be a gamma mutant, isn't it? How many years did you run? Two? Three?"

"No one will ever have to run, not in my utopia," he breathed. "We will be celebrated. A new race, Bruce! We will be their titans, their creation myths!"

"Do you know what the odds are in achieving a stable mutation? I was a fluke, you madman. You'll kill half the planet!"

"I will wipe it all clean," Sterns declared, and the syringe glinted in his hand. "I will make it better. With my mind, I could make advances the likes of which you, Doctor Banner, you so-called supergenius, ha, cannot dream of accomplishing! Even your precious Stark with all his gifts cannot even come close to matching my intellect!"

"Maybe not," he replied, dragging himself up the wall. He was going to be on his goddamned feet. "Maybe neither Tony nor I can match you. But we're not the only Avengers, and the rest do just fine without any scientific know-how. They'll find me. They won't stop."

Find me, Tony. Find me, Hulk. Find me.

"Why should they bother?" Sterns laughed, an ugly sound. "You, the monster? You, the uncontrollable force of nature, a terrorist and a fugitive? You do know that General Ross was still petitioning to have you released to the Army not three months ago?"

Bruce hadn't known that. "What does that matter? I'm not his. I'm an Avenger."

"The only reason you remain an Avenger," the word was sneered, "is that Ross was offered a deal to stand down by your Director Fury. SHIELD's files, I tell you, laughably easy to hack into. You are only free on the proviso that your muscle-minded alter ego remains under control. Tell me, if you let him out now, how long would it be before you were once more on the run, do you think?"

Hulk. Oh god, Hulk. He would be mad with rage. He would be unstoppable. Bruce closed his eyes and groped for his emotions, but they were beginning to slip away.

No. No, no, no.

"I see you understand me," Sterns said. "Now. Hold still."

Bruce's eyes opened. "What..."

The syringe was less than three inches from his skin. He blurted wordlessly in shock and swiped at it with one hand, and he was abruptly held in an invisible grip stronger than steel. He struggled against it anyway, even as the syringe drew his blood and capped itself before his eyes.

"No need for replication and concentration now, my friend," Sterns breathed and the syringe came floating back to lie docilely on his open palm.

"My blood again?" Bruce snarled. "For all your talk... still the same... old tune, isn't it?"

Sterns practically glowed as he held the syringe up to his eyes. "You cannot provoke me. Last time it was the foolish dreams of a pathetic human – eradicate disease, create cures, win meaningless prizes. I no longer wish to help humanity, oh no. I will fix them."

"You're a total maniac," Bruce said flatly. "You saw what this thing did! You were there! And you want to turn the whole world into things like me and you? Like Blonksy?"

Sterns pursed his lips. "Oh, not like you. You're obviously flawed – you're an early experiment, just a trial run." He tapped his overlarge head. "I will remake the world to be like me. I will be their beloved Leader, and I will usher in a glorious new age."

Holy shit, Tony get your ass here quickly, he's turning crazy into a communicable disease.

"It won't work," Bruce said desperately and strained against the telekinetic hold. "I'm a failed experiment, yes. Guess who the success is? It's not me, and it's not you!"

Sterns paused.

"Steve Rogers," Bruce hissed. "Steve Rogers is the success. And do you know why?"

With a snarl, Sterns stalked back towards the equipment Bruce had noticed before. His blood was quickly added to some bizarre-looking receptacle, and the green glow of the bomb intensified. "It's because of who he is," Bruce called after him, voice cracking. "Because Steve really is Captain America, and he would remain Captain America, even if you took the serum away!"

And he reeled backwards as it struck him...

Pepper's sad face, hollow ice where his heart should be, his friends, his... his family, risking their lives. Without him. "I just wish that what happened to you could happen to him, you know? That the Iron Man could just get zapped out of him, and he'd be normal and safe from now on."

His own reply: "But then he wouldn't really be Tony anymore, would he?"

He'd had the answers for so long. God, but he was a fool, such a fool.

"I'd still be Hulk, and Hulk would still be me," Bruce said hollowly. "Even if there had never been a gamma bomb or a serum, there'd still be two parts to who I am. I've been split in half ever since I was three years old."

"But the gamma radiation made you powerful! Magnificent! A being of such glory, such godlike strength..."

Bruce thought of Hulk; of his unending rage and of his desperate need for approval. Of balloons and paintings and sparring, of showers and a hand that swallowed his own and yet moved like it was still a part of him. Of booming laughter and terrible sadness and great green arms that enfolded him; of an embrace safer than anything in the world; of a terrible fury born of injustice and the need to protect. Of an invisible friend who became a monster and then became a friend again. Of running away from the truth of himself for years, until Tony forced him to look it in the eye.

His laugh was dull and bitter – even to his own ears, he sounded dead. "No. The gamma... it doesn't make you better, Sterns. It doesn't make you greater, or more worthy, or superior to an unenhanced human. It turns you inside out instead. It exposes what you are, deep down inside."

"Very, ah, poetic," Sterns scoffed, and there was a whine from the machinery. "I'm afraid I don't believe a word."

"I was a scared child who wanted to be strong," Bruce said, and raised his eyes to stare at Sterns. "You were pretty quick to leap on to my desperation and need, all those years ago. I must have been a godsend. Tell me, how many times were you passed up for Fellowship? How many times did other colleges and universities and colleagues surpass you? How many times did the game-changing discovery pass you by?" He paused. "How many times did I make you feel stupid?"

Sterns slammed a hand against a metal facing and growled, "you were never enough to intimidate me!"

"Ah. So, quite a bit then." Bruce tipped his head back and tested the telekinetic hold. "Sorry about that. My brain's gotten me into some pretty sticky scrapes over the years."

"You..." Sterns' teeth gritted with a clearly audible sound. "No. You were an altered human. You were clearly more. Not like these pathetic apes and their ridiculous..."

"I was born with my brain, Sterns." Oh god, and yet another memory leapt into his mind's eye – telling Tony. His face, lit by the cool light of the reactor – dark secrets and a bright blue light. Stories about men who should have been fathers who instead betrayed their sons. "I have always been smart. The gamma didn't change that at all."

Sterns jerked backwards, and then he snarled, "you lie."

"I'm not lying. Stop this. It won't get you what you want, Sterns. It won't do anything the way you want."

"Lies!" Sterns barked again, and his machine began to whirr and rattle. "I will not believe it!"

"Somehow I knew that," Bruce said, the frustration enough to choke him even through the tendrils of numbness that were seeping into his mind. "Somehow I thought, will the crazy guy listen to reason? Well, let's examine the innate dichotomy presented by the terms 'crazy guy' and 'reason'..."

"I am above your insults, Mister Green," Sterns said, and his hands flew over dials and knobs. He banged a counter once, hissing between his teeth.

"Let me guess, graduate students?" Bruce said sardonically.

"Shut up!" Sterns snapped, and the machine flickered into beeping electronic life.

"You've got my blood," Bruce said. "You're building some sort of gamma bomb. You want to irradiate the whole world. Really, world domination? Are you serious? For a man with such a vast and powerful intellect, you're acting out the script of some two-bit villain in a Saturday morning kid's show. You've been stripped bare, just like I was. Why can't you see this?"

Keep talking. Tell me more. Don't look too closely at my blood.

"It is for the best," Sterns said, taking a deep breath. Then he turned and gave Bruce a rather beatific smile. "You are simply too unintelligent to see it. I feel pity for you. You will apologise to me, one day. You will see that I was right. The whole world will be like you, like me. You will not have to flee or fear for your freedom, and neither will the world fear or hate you for your strength. You'll see."

"You have no idea what I fear," Bruce said in a low voice, and closed his eyes again. His feelings were a dull, faint echo and he groped for them in vain. He was becoming more dead than alive.

Tony. Hulk.



Hulk misses Bruce.

Hulk misses Bruce.

Hulk misses Bruce.

Hulk misses Bruce.

Hulk misses Bruce.

Hulk misses Bruce.

Hulk misses Bruce.

Hulk needs-needs-NEEDS Bruce!

Hulk's mind does not work.

Hulk misses Bruce. It is all wrong, all wrong, everything is wrong!

There is a fire in Hulk's head.

His arms do not hold their thoughts, and he cannot think. Hulk cannot think. It is all wrong. Hulk is all wrong.

Hulk smashed Team!

Hulk misses Bruce. Bruce could tell Hulk that it is good. Bruce could be proud of Hulk, Bruce could be happy with Hulk. But Hulk smashed Team.

Hulk is not good, not good, not good, and Hulk misses Bruce.

Hulk smashed Team, but they are not scared of Hulk. The experiment is not good; Hulk smashed Team. He cannot bring them all together, cannot make them strong around Bruce and not alone. But Team is smashed and Bruce is alone again, just like Tony said. It did not work.

They tell Hulk it is all okay. It is not okay! There is no Bruce!

They lead him to a big metal bird and Hulk climbs in. He sits and there is fire in his mind and Hulk misses Bruce. He misses Bruce so, so much.

Shouty Long Hair is hurt. Hulk hurt him. Star Man is hurt. Hulk hurt him. Tony...

Tony! Tony, the light that makes Bruce afraid, it was shiny on, shiny off, and Hulk did that!

Tony is hurt and Hulk hurt him! Hulk is not good, and he misses Bruce, and he is not good, and he misses Bruce, and he misses Bruce and he misses Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce

Team touches Hulk. Shouty Long Hair has his hand on Hulk's hand, and his face is all purple-yellow-brown, like Bruce's was. Bruce. When Hulk... when Hulk hurt... Bru-

No. Hulk cannot give into the fire. The anger. It burns, and oh, how Hulk knows it. He knows it wants to eat him until there is no Hulk left. Until everything that is Hulk is gone.

Tasha stands, because she is small. Puny. She drapes over Hulk's back, and her hair, the bright red red red hair that Hulk likes so much, is splashed over her face. Her eyes are chips of green rock. Little black arms around Hulk's arm, holding on tight. It is good. It is like a wall against the fire.

Hulk misses Bruce. He never got to see the kitty. Hulk must give Bruce his present.

Shooty Bird has his legs on Hulk's foot, crossed over. He has his shooty out, and he is making the cord go thwip as he rubs sharp-smelling stuff on it. His face is all dark. He is angry, and Hulk cannot look at him because it makes Hulk's rage burn brighter. And that is not good. Not good.

Hulk is the biggest and strongest, but Hulk doesn't know if even he can control the fire.

Bruce can. Bruce can control the fire. Bruce is stronger than Hulk in their mind. Hulk misses Bruce.

(Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce...)

Star Man is hurt, and his blue is all red on the shoulder. Hulk hurt him. Hulk is not good. Star Man pats Hulk's arm, over and over. He says things like, "we're gonna get him back, pal." Or "it's okay, Hulk. We're here." Hulk knows, but it is not good. Nothing will ever be good again.

Tony holds Hulk tight. He kneels on Hulk's knees and wraps his arms as far as they will go around Hulk's front. Tony smells like Bruce – like the white place, and like thoughts that zip and zing, and like experiments, but Hulk cannot feel them in his arms like he can feel Bruce. It helps. Hulk smells Tony's hair, and it helps. Tony helps against the fire – makes it better.


But it is not Bruce. And Hulk misses Bruce.

The fire is building. It will take Hulk away, and Hulk will hurt Team.

Tony, make it better. Please, please, make it better. Bruce. Bruce. Bruce...

Hulk is afraid.


Chapter Text


Hulk misses Bruce.

The pointy thing... the pointy thing sticks into Hulk's arm, and the world melts. Slow. Everything slow and boomy and Hulk hates it, hates it, hates it.


Fire everywhere, but it burns so slo-o-o-ow...


Hulk's eyes are funny. He feels wrong.

Everything is still so wrong.

Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce

Cannot... remember names. Names for. Team. Things.



Hulk needs Bruce.

All that matters.

Slow slow slow everything. Is slow. The world. Is slow and full of fire and Hulk. Hulk is alone. And.


Hulk... smash kill smash kill KILL run to the green places, the safe places, the man is cruel and Mummy is screaming sobbing bleeding dying and there is fire everywhere and nothing has names anymore. Bruce! Bruce!

Banner left Hulk alone Banner left Hulk alone Banner left Hulk alone

Team. Smells like. Like Bruce.

No, stay. No smash.

Slow. Hands are slow. Tired?

Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce

Bruce Bruce...




Such sorrowful silence.

Thor was not made for such a mission. He was a being of action, of joyous battle, the strength of arms and the deafening clash of warriors. This slow, secretive combing of clues was more Loki's specialty than his – but no. Matters were dark indeed without raising the spectre of the past.

But oh, how he wished Loki was here.

No. Cease these foolish thoughts. You know very well that his hatred is deep-rooted and absolute. Every visit to his cell brings more of his vituperation upon your head. He is lost to you, maudlin fool, and you have not yet lost the good Doctor. Not yet.

Stifling his irritation, the Thunderer folded his arms. The black suit that Tony had provided him with was most uncomfortable compared to his Asgardian finery. Mortal clothes were so restrictive.

Thus far, their search had been unsuccessful. Two of the facilities had delivered no clues as to the whereabouts of their friend. Three more had seemed promising at first, but they had proved to be misleading in the extreme. This Sterns villain was cunning, Thor mused gloomily. Records, equipment, personnel files, accounts – these had been expertly hacked and altered to give the appearance of foul play. Upon further investigation, these flimsy clues were proved to be nothing more than smoke through their fingers.

Worse still were the traps. Two of the facilities had been rigged with poisonous gases and explosives – a cowardly way to wage war. The first time one of these had been triggered, their valiant archer had risked asphyxiation. Quick thinking on the Captain's part had saved his life, and Thor had sent the fouled air rushing from the building with a blast of wind from Mjolnir. That had been a test of his healing wounds, certainly.

Thor gingerly evaluated the pain in his back and side. He was not grievously wounded, and he was mending rapidly. However, he would not be so fortunate should the Hulk deal him another drubbing so soon after the first.

That was a truly bitter pill to swallow. When the Hulk was truly consumed by his rage, not even Mjolnir's might could stand against him. Thor was not the bullying, swaggering pup of his youth any longer, but he still had a reasonable measure of pride in his abilities.

It had been a long and desperate afternoon, and the sun was slipping under the horizon in a truly magnificent display of golds and russets. Thor looked around at the gold-touched faces of his comrades as they clustered around the quinjet. Disappointment, anger, determination, hopelessness.

The silence was palpable.

Hulk sat, swaying slightly, in the centre of the quinjet's main cabin. His glassy green eyes flickered from the depths of anguish to the fiery heights of hate. He had been tranquilised twice at his own request. Each time, Clint had apologised profusely, and each time, Hulk had moaned and roared until the concoction took root in his mighty system.

And each time it wore off just a little faster.

"Where next?" asked Tony wearily. He wore a fine suit, grey to match his tired face. He did not cut his usual confident, flamboyant figure as he sat with his head cradled by one hand, the other stroking the Hulk's hair.

"Bruce," the Hulk moaned, and he reeled unsteadily towards the left as the drug buffeted him beyond his understanding.

"Boston," Natasha said, consulting her device.

"When do we get back to New York?" asked Tony.

"Yeah, we tried the university already," said Clint rather acidly from his place in the cockpit. He had, after all, nearly suffocated there.

"You're okay, quit your bellyaching," said their Captain. "It looks like a research lab... is that right? Natasha, I think I'm reading this right..."

"It's abandoned," confirmed Natasha.

"Nuclear?" Tony asked.

She shrugged.

Hulk rumbled like a dying Frostbeast and lurched even further to his left. His eyes hardened, and then softened, and ever thus they cycled as his rage and sorrow battled with each other and the drug. Tony smoothed back the giant's hair once more. "It's all right," he murmured. Such care, such devotion in his voice. None with ears and eyes could deny what Stark felt for Banner and his beast. "It's okay. We're finding him. We're still moving. I'm here, Big Guy, I'm here."

"Tony," the Hulk mumbled, and his great arm flung outwards without his normal focused co-ordination, denting the floor carelessly and wrapping around Stark's legs with desperation and needy propriety. Thor touched his painful jaw. No doubt Hulk's drugged state was the only thing stopping a rain of destruction upon the cities of mankind.

"Do we need to enter as we have done, then?" he asked his companions.

"Please, please tell me I'm done with the goddamned dog and pony show," Tony grumbled.

"It's deserted," Steve repeated, "we'll go straight in. Get suited up."

"Oh, thank fuck."

It had been necessary for Tony to assume his mantle of celebrated scientist and... what did the television say? Personality? Yes, as a public personality. Tony had led the way, and Thor himself, along with their Captain, wore their uncomfortable human suits and dark glasses and loomed large and silent behind their fast-talking friend. While Tony flirted and quipped and demanded, Clint and Natasha would slip easily into the belly of the building and search for their stolen doctor.

Thor had to admit that he was impressed with Tony's manipulation. Of all the locations they had travelled to, only one had refused him entry. Yet even then he had created a masterful diversion, wheedling and posturing even as Natasha and Clint slunk through the shadows to search the place. They had found much that would be of interest to the authorities – but no sign of Bruce.

"Why's he doing that?" Clint asked.


"Hulk. Leaning that way."

"The tranqs, do you think?" Tony carded his hand through the Hulk's hair once more. "Man, he is out of it. Last time I saw someone this blitzed was in a mirror."

"Ah. Memories," said Natasha dryly. Stark shot her a glare.

"Hulk?" Steve said gently, and lowered himself to his haunches before the green beast's sorrowful eyes. "Are you all right there?"

The Hulk simply growled beneath his breath and his shoulders slumped.

"Mayhap he yet grieves," Thor said, as quietly as he could.

"Hey now," Steve said, and carefully turned the mighty head to meet those unfocused green eyes with his own. "Are you feeling something? Is that why you're leaning?"

"Bruce..." he said, and to Thor's great alarm, he growled – a sound that echoed through the cabin, deep and long and dark.

"Running out of options here, guys," said Clint. "Junior's going to want to play eventually."

"Turn to the left – to port, portside, whatever weird-ass term you use. Go left," said Tony suddenly. "Maybe he's feeling something. Turn back. Go back to New York."

"Tony, he can't feel anything," said Natasha slowly. "He told us he couldn't feel Bruce's location, back when he could still think..."

"He can still think!" Tony flared, and the Hulk growled threateningly at the raised tone. Tony's hand buried once more in Hulk's hair, and he turned the massive head until it was fairly resting on his lap. "Sorry, Green Bean. Sorry. Got a bit carried away." He soothed the Hulk for a few more moments, and then he looked up, his eyes hard. "He can think," he said, stubbornness edging every syllable. "It's just – well, let's see you do half as fucking well with half a brain stolen and a system full of elephant tranquilisers."

"What about that..."

"Just." Tony paused and then looked down at the great head he cradled. "Please. Guys, please. Let's try it. We can't keep this up – Sterns is ahead of us, wherever we go. We need to change the situation to our advantage. I don't like playing games where some asswipe sets the rules."

How Thor missed his lovely Jane. She was so intelligent; this was meat and drink to her. But she was still in Switzerland, and her work was important. Still, so much had happened since her journey's beginning, and Thor desperately wished to see her and tell her of it all. Of Hulk and their team, and how the one had drawn the other together in a bond tighter than he had thought possible.

And he was sad, and enraged, and afraid, and he wished to feel her small arms around him and take comfort in her small and stubborn sweetness.

"Jade Jaws as a sniffer dog?" said Clint sceptically.

"Maybe..." Tony's eyes betrayed his own doubts, but he held firm. "Look, let's be logical here. He's becoming more and more uncontrollable as time passes. He's slipping back, yeah? Back to being a creature of emotion first and foremost. Maybe that... that more elemental Hulk, that reactive Hulk, can sense Bruce more easily, whereas the more rational one can't."

"The more rational one threw me into a roof, and almost used Thor to dig to China," Steve reminded him. Thor scowled.

"I was merely picking my moment," he protested. Tony rolled his eyes.

"Suuuuure. And I never had sex with that woman. Close, Thor, but no cigar."

"I don't get it," Steve said, a trifle peevishly.

"You don't want to," Natasha sighed. "You think this will work?"

"What the fuck do I know? But he does. Look at him."

Thor's eyes dropped to the Hulk once more, and took in the slant of the bulky shoulders. They were indeed leaning back towards the city of their origin, and his blocky chin was pointed away from Tony in an almost yearning manner towards the same direction. "I feel that Tony is right," he said, his eyes snapping back to Steve. "We are being played for fools, and I for one do not wish to dangle at Sterns' puppet strings further. We should trust in the instincts of our friend."

"Does this mean no more tranqs?" said Clint, and he glanced back over his shoulder with poorly-hidden nervousness. "Because I have a violent allergic reaction to being in planes that get ripped to shreds."

"No more tranqs..." Steve said, and his jaw rippled. "No. No way. I'm not condoning that. As long as we can keep him under control, we leave him to sober up, but the minute he's a loose cannon..."

"Right," Clint nodded.

"Last resort," Tony said. "I'll try and keep him calm. He likes having his hair patted."

"Bruce did that a lot," Natasha remembered.

"Clint. The secondhe's out of control," Steve repeated.

"I will assist," Thor said, and with some relief he began to remove the hated and itchy mortal garb. "Let me first attire myself appropriately."

Clint shrugged in acceptance. "Following the Hulk's nose, here we go. Hold on, kids, going for a spin."

"Thanks, Thor," Tony said in some relief as the quinjet began to swerve back to the south. "Thanks, guys."

"We want him back too, Tony," said Natasha. Then, as though embarrassed of her statement, she turned away to clothe herself in her warrior's gear and begin her transition from nondescript technician to the Black Widow.

"You're right about one thing, Tony." Steve began to unbutton his suit jacket, shaking his head. "Sterns has been ahead of us the whole time. We can't keep dancing to his tune."

"I've been sort of known for a couple of good ideas here and there," Tony said, and looked down at Hulk once more. At their change of direction his head had shifted – now his nose was practically buried in Tony's stomach. His vast green hand fell from his lap to land with a clang against the floor, adding yet another dent.

"Might want to call a panel beater after this," Tony said, and he smiled rather sadly.

Thor turned away, tugging off the tie and the white shirt and calling his armour. His friend's smile was such a painful thing to witness.

The silence fell again, thick and cloying, unbroken but for the metallic whirr of the engines and the low crooning moans of the Hulk.

It made him jump when the communications device let out a shrill and strident trilling, and from the startled sounds around him Thor was not the only one taken by surprise.

"Shit!" Tony said under his breath, and carefully edged his hands over the Hulk's ears. He had jolted violently at the sudden noise, and a small barking roar had escaped him. His eyes were still clouded and so the drug yet coursed through his system. At the feel of the hands upon his head he took a deep, rasping breath and looked pleadingly up at Tony.

"Bruce," he said.

"It's all right, Big Guy, just the phone. It's Tony. Remember? Tony. It's all right."

Hulk rumbled miserably and his head lowered again, his eyes closing with a dreadful finality.

"Where the hell have you idiots got to?" came Fury's voice crackling over the speakers.

"Keep it down!" hissed Steve and Natasha in unison as Hulk stirred again.

"What, is it your fucking naptime?" Fury sounded furious. How very appropriate. "Get your asses back here! I've been dealing with assholes left and right ever since you lot decided to turn yourselves into the goddamned Scooby Gang. I've got half the labs in the country in my ear about how Stark waltzed in and talked their ears off while the rest of you heroes sabotaged their life's work. Anyone care to give me a reasonable explanation because at this point? I am highly uncertain there even is one."

"We're looking for Bruce," said Clint.

"Barton, everyone on this damned crate is looking for Banner. You think you're so special? Get that expensive waste of taxpayer's money back here before I do something we all might regret."

"Can't, Sir." Clint looked back at the rest of them. "Got a lead."

"Well, good to hear that all those people were upset for a reason." Fury was exceptional at laying on the heavy sarcasm, Thor believed. Even he himself was slightly cowed. "Care to share this miraculous find?"

"Ah, not really," said Tony, aiming (and failing) to match his usual flippancy. "I don't know how much information you can get out of a drug-fucked Hulk, but you know what? How about you give it the old college try? I'll selflessly volunteer to watch."

Natasha smiled faintly.

"You're following – wait, you've got the Hulk there?"

"He is swift on the uptake," Thor drawled.

"Yes, and that's why we wanted you to keep your voice down!" Steve hissed. Then he added, "uh. Sir."

"Are you insane?"

"Jury's out," Tony said, and shared a brief, bleakly amused look with Steve.

"And lo, the mastermind who is undoubtedly behind this stroke of unfathomable genius speaks. You know what the Hulk is capable of, Stark!"

"With all due respect," Steve said, "we know what Hulk can do a little more intimately than most. And it wasn't just Tony's idea. We all agreed."

"Sort of," Clint muttered.

"Hulk is a team member," said Natasha, her voice even. "He has a right to search for Bruce – more right than any one of us."

"Agent Romanov. I gotta confess that I find myself disappointed. Thought you out of all of this lot might have a bit more sense."

She zipped up her uniform and wrapped her fearsome Widow's Bite around one wrist with a snap."Guess not. Sorry to disappoint."

"Ah, before you go gnawing on your peg leg, Blackbeard," Tony interjected, "it might interest you to know that the Hulk is tranked to the gills right now, and he's been a perfect model of decorum the whole trip."

"That somehow doesn't exactly ease my state of mind," Fury said dryly. "You saying none of you have been injured?"

All eyes turned at that point to Thor, who blinked at the sudden attention. He cleared his throat. "No, Fury. We are all in good health," he finally said.

Tony gave him a drained, relieved smile.

"Yeah, right," Fury said, clearly disbelieving. "And you need lessons on how to lie convincingly."

Thor was abruptly toweringly angry at this man who would halt their mission. "I had them," he said acidly. "For two thousand of your years. I was never an apt pupil, true. Would you care to guess who taught me?"

This man and his people were formidable allies, but the son of Odin would not stand any opposition in this desperate quest. Their small group had a gaping, bleeding wound, and Fury wished to detain them for fear of the Hulk's distress and anger? Hah, he was right to fear. Why, if Thor were in the Hulk's place, he would have torn the world to shards.

There was a slight hesitation from the phone.

"Thor," murmured Natasha. "We're all on edge. Calm down."

"I am calm," he replied, his voice tight and his throat a steel trap. "There is not a single thundercloud yet in the sky."

"It's that yet we're worried about," Steve said, and his hand gripped Thor's shoulder. "Hold it together. We're all in this."

"Well, you can all get out of it," Fury snapped. "You people are certifiable. Going on some damn-fool kamikaze mission with the Hulk on board? You're all out of your mind. Sending you our co-ordinates. Get that quinjet back here before the tranqs wear off him. The cell's set up and waiting. If he's so damn docile, you can just lead him in by his precious little hand and contain the threat. We'll take over from here. Operate a goddamned professional search."

"Not stopping and not coming back, Fury," Tony said absently, and his hand dipped into his pocket to produce one of his phones (Thor had honestly lost count of how many he had). "And if you think a fact-finding mission with La Femme Nikita Barbie and Double-O Ken here isn't professional, then I think you might need to ring a friend, buy a vowel or two, y'know. Because ah, that's bullshit."

"We will find our comrade in arms and we will bring him home, with or without your assistance," Thor agreed, his tone frosty. "I advise you not to stand in our way."

"All for one, one for all, yadda yadda. I'm so D'Artagnan," said Clint. "Whichever the hot one is."

There was a sigh. "Captain?"

"We're following the Hulk," said Steve, softly but extremely firmly. His hand tightened on Thor's shoulder. "He might be a loose cannon right now, but he's a member of this team and an Avenger, and we don't follow your orders. Sir. This is my command. And Sir, I am sorry to inform you that we will continue to follow his lead until this team is whole and we've got Bruce back. We stick together."

"The old wartime spirit," said Fury with a snort of disgust. "Well, you idiots wanna commit suicide in a flying tin can with a – what did you say? Loose cannon?" He laughed. "Rogers, that ain't just a loose cannon, that's a WMD in freefall and you know it."

"We've got a bit of experience with those too," snapped Tony. "Now, have you said everything you were gonna say, or can I hang up rudely and in doing so interrupt your next – frankly very insulting – little spiel on why we shouldn't go look for Bruce?"

Hulk rumbled, causing the entire cabin to freeze momentarily. "Bruce," he said, his face contorting, before it smoothed out again. The echoes faded away.

"Goddamn," Fury breathed. "He really is... you crazy sons of bitches."

"Objection," Clint said. "Natasha's a girl."

"Not helpful, Clint," Natasha muttered.

"For god's sake-" Fury began.

"Get rid of him," said Tony, and he turned back to his phone. "He's boring me to death, and he'll piss Hulk off. Me and Hulk have a no-boring-people policy."

"Sir, this is in no way a resignation move or anything, but I'm hanging up now," Clint said brightly. "Also, say hi to Hill for me, I know she pines."


"Well, that was fun," said Steve sourly.

"Way to take a stand, guys," said Tony, looking up. "Steve, that was masterful, I do declare. I'm all flushed and dampened."

Steve shook his head, and he patted Thor's shoulder. "Thor here was the one who really took the stand. I just followed his lead."

"Are you all right?" Natasha asked him, and Thor took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

"Aye. But I weary of this search, and I cannot calm my uncertainties. Bruce has been missing for thirteen hours, and he is vulnerable without Hulk's power. I fear for him."

Tony's breath faltered, and then he threaded his fingers through Hulk's hair once more. "Me too."

Thor turned to look out of the window at the gathering clouds. "Yes, I know you do."


He felt like Sisyphus, rolling the stone forever uphill. That was how it felt to struggle against the numbing apathy, and actually think.

As it was, Bruce was sure of two things. One: he desperately needed to go to the bathroom. Two: he'd kill for a cup of tea.

God, he wanted a cup of tea.

Well. Maybe a little more than just two things. Despite the vast effort it took, he'd managed to piece together something of the machines before him. Hulk-withdrawal or not, Bruce was no idiot. The thing – the bomb – was a scaled-up version of the one he'd once created, after all, and he could recognise his own damn work.

Great, Sterns was a plagiarist as well as a power-hungry self-aggrandising green lunatic. No peer recommendation for you, Bruce thought wryly to himself.

The blood, though – that was more worrying. From what he was able to discern from his position chained to a steel girder (apparently telekinesis had limits, who knew) the blood was to act as a catalysing agent. The gamma bomb alone wouldn't create the effect Sterns so craved. Bruce's accident really had been a fluke; a one-in-billions kind of chance. The blood was to ensure that the induced mutations fell along those lucky, lucky lines.

He still hadn't examined it too closely. Sterns still believed he was whole. If Bruce could still feel things, he would have been boneless in relief.

Perhaps a nice cup of Oolong – no. Getting off track.

So. Blood to ensure that the gamma did the job and didn't just kill everyone. Yet without that one-in-billions magic spark, the bomb would just be a bomb.

Killing everyone.

So, no real upside to any of this.

He tested the chain yet again. Thanks to Sterns' habit of manipulating him via telekinesis, he hadn't felt nor seen the cast underneath Bruce's long-sleeved button-up. He was vaguely grateful that the bruises on his face had finally healed, or the game would have been up before he could blink. That long-sleeved shirt was baggy enough to conceal the cast – and if he ever saw Tony again, he was going to lord it up for weeks. Baggy clothes = lifesavers. Tony would have to concede it.

God, he missed Tony.

Scratch that. God, he missed being able to miss Tony.

Being intellectually aware of his detachment this time around actually made it worse. Last time he had simply drifted, but now he needed to act and he needed to act fast.And his goddamned brain was spliced in half!

"Yes," Sterns murmured, pleased.

Bruce's eyes flickered over, and he surreptitiously tested the chain once more. It was wrapped around his ankle – no other restraint was necessary, not in this body – and culminated in a heavy, bulky shackle. He hoped he could get a hold of something thin eventually, although if Sterns had read his file then he would know all about Bruce's forays into escapology. Probably also the reason he'd never ventured close enough for Bruce to use his (rusty) martial arts skills.

Jasmine. Green. Sencha. Stop it.

Sterns was visibly smiling as he moved around the machines, his lips drawn into smug, satisfied lines. His forehead flared and a power coupling attached itself to the base of the bomb, and he sighed in appreciation of a job well done. Bruce glanced over the power readings – blurry as heck without his glasses, but needs must.

"That's not enough," he murmured.

Sterns shot him a poisonous glare. "It will build."

"How are you stealing this much power? Actually, scratch that question: where on earth did you get the fission core?"

"People are fools," Sterns said and moved around to flick some gauges and turn some knobs. "They cannot believe that radioactive material can be stolen at all, and so they don't even entertain the possibility."

"And the coolant?"

Sterns merely gave him a superior look, and turned back to his machine. "Beyond your limited capacity to understand."

"You mean that thing has no containment at all?" Bruce was astounded. Even before the bomb's detonation, radiation would be leaking through the available atmosphere. Without a cooling system, it was a conflagration waiting to happen, one which would throw radioisotopes through the air for thousands of miles in every direction. "Huh. I suspected you were nuts, and uhm, ta-dah? Now I have proof. Look, far be it from me to suggest, oh mighty mind, that you haven't considered the extremely flammable nature of the..."

"Shut up." Sterns turned to him fully, and another blast from that bulbous, grotesque forehead caught him straight in the gut. He doubled over, gasping. "You have no concept of the elegance of my work. There is no danger of a reactor fire. My systems are perfection itself."

Bruce could only wheeze.

Sterns smiled again as he regarded him, a slow cruel smile that chilled the blood. "Let that be a demonstration to you. Don't interrupt me again. Some of these levels are extremely volatile, and the measurements are delicate. Who knows what could happen if my hand were to... slip."

Bruce gritted his teeth and tried to straighten around his aching stomach. The blow and the movement had reminded him that, right, yeah, ribs. Shoulderblade. Injuries. It had been so many years since Bruce had had the simple human ability to be injured, really injured. He hadn't missed it much. Allowing for his awkward movements and delayed reactions in such a tense situation was now quite as alien as Asgard. "Right," he croaked. "I'll just be over here then."

Sterns turned away once more. Bruce swallowed against the pain of his ribs and wiped at his blurred eyes.

Escape. He needed to get out of here and warn everyone.

A diversion? Bruce snorted at himself. Great, sure. The bomb itself would make a fantastic diversion, except it would be far too late and Bruce would be far too dead for it to matter. Everyone would.

Perhaps Hulk would be the last one left to howl himself mad, alone forever amongst the rotting, crumbling cities.

Shut up. Think. Think.

Chai, his own homemade masala chai. Plenty of cardamom and ginger, and a hint of oh shut up for the love of—

He couldn't dislocate his joints. He'd tried before, once. He'd been captured in the Middle East by militant forces, recognised (DAMN the internet to the depths of hell) and brought to the border. They intended to air-drop him over the wall; a perfect targeted engine of devastation. Bruce hadn't liked the idea of a career as a weapon any more this time around than he had the first time, and so he had tried to slip the cable ties around his wrists. Unfortunately, they were annoyingly professional and secure.

He hadn't waited until the border to let the Hulk loose.

Numb and stupid, he studied the cuff around his ankle. It was a heavy thing, close-fitting to his skin and bolted tight. Not with any stupid padlock, either – Bruce could have them undone in seconds if he'd had his rakes and picks. No such luck, it was actually bolted together, the nuts and screws tight. The chain that trapped him by the stupid pillar was a giant industrial link chain, red with rust, but sound. He could barely lift it at all.

His mind was a dense fog, and it was so damned hard to think, think, think.

How many years had he wished his intelligence gone? How many years had he prayed to be normal? Like everyone else?

Careful what you wish for, Banner.

Underneath his terrible icy numbness, a sucking, roaring chasm of urgency and fear beckoned. He ignored it and the overwhelming urge to slump against the pillar and sleep.

He looked with bleary eyes down at the chain and the shackle, and made the decision. It would severely limit his chances of making it out, but as it was he had very little choice.

Hulk, I hope you're still in the mood to carry me when you get here.


Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce Bruce...

The fire is getting hotter.



Tony looked up. Steve was holding something out to him. He took it blindly, fumbled, and tucked it beside him.

Sitting down beside him, Steve reached out carefully to Hulk. The big guy was now growling almost constantly, and his eyes were far more alert. But there was still a vague flicker of recognition in his face as he registered Steve, and his growls grew a little softer, a little less vicious. He let Steve pat his shoulder without trying to punt him across the quinjet, so yeah: result positive.

"No change?" Steve said quietly.

"He sat up," Tony pointed out.

"I see not all of him made it away from you." Steve said, nodding down to where the Hulk's huge, clenched fist rested in Tony's lap. "Isn't that heavy?"

Tony snorted. "Unbelievably. But I'm not letting go."

Steve smiled faintly. "Didn't think you would."

Tony looked over at the thing he'd been passed, and with some surprise he recognised Steve's sketchbook. "Thought they weren't ready to be looked at by our virgin eyes?"

"They might not be," Steve said, because he was being cryptic today, it was Cryptic Steve Day, how awesome, "but I think you just might be."

He clasped Tony's forearm for a fleeting moment. "Let us know if anything changes. I'll be looking over sites with Natasha in the cockpit."

"It's a sign of maturity," Tony muttered.

"What is?"

"Not making a cockpit joke right now."

Steve shook his head. "Good to see you're still yourself, soldier."

"I'm always myself, who else would I be? And if you say Skrull, I'm not talking to you for a week."

Across the cabin, Thor gave a grim smile. The sky around them was dark and roiling, and Clint had threatened him twice with Hulk's tranqs if he didn't calm down and let him fly the goddamned plane without the threat of a lightning bolt swatting them from the air. "We have enough troubles on our hands," he murmured.

"Amen," agreed Steve. "I thought... look, I don't know. They cheer me up, looking at these. Drawing them. I thought they might cheer you up too."

"The only thing that will cheer me up right now will be getting Banner back and possibly turning Sterns into a really crappy colourblind Megamind cosplayer."

Steve looked puzzled for a moment, and then gave up with a sigh. "Give us a yell if he moves again."

"Like a yodeller on his wedding night, Mon Capitan."

Steve cocked his head and gave him a level look. "Tony. You don't have to try and make everything into a joke. It's all right to be worried. We are. You don't have to keep the armour on in front of us, you know."

Tony actually glanced down at his rumpled, slightly damp grey suit (Hulk drooled, which was gross, but Tony liked his arms where they were so he wasn't about to complain). Then he rolled his eyes. "Oh, very metaphorical, very poetic."

"Glad you liked it. Hope you like the sketches too. I think I got your beard right."

"You better have, I spend a fucking fortune getting this thing reshaped every month, and Ramón is a bitch when it gets out of line."

Steve's chuckle was sad and faint as he left towards the cabin, but his walk was as purposeful as ever. Tony took some comfort in that. Sure, living with the guy had shown him that Captain Stevie Wonder was as human as the next experimental human test subject (read: Bruce). He put his pants on one leg and then hopped around like a moron until he found the other one, just like every other guy. Still, there was just something about Captain America walking with purpose to make him feel like it would, possibly, end up okay. Maybe he'd mainlined too many comics as a kid or something.

Hulk growled like a territorial tiger, and his clenched fingers tightened as his eyelids slid shut. Tony smoothed a thumb along the huge green forefinger, marvelling at how the massive muscles were dense and hard as steel beneath his comparatively squishy callus. The whorls and lines at his knuckles were so human. His palms were broad and warm, just like Bruce's.

Sixteen hours.

Was Bruce even alive?

Not a useful line of questioning. Tony had been held for three months, and he'd been... all right, fine, so he hadn't been okay. But he was on his way to okay. Soon. He'd be okay soon. One day he would conquer okay and become its shiny metal Emperor.

Besides, he'd come out of his own kidnapping with a cool new headlight and an awesome invention that out-awesomed anything he'd ever done before. Upsides to kidnapping, tell your friends.

Hey, Bruce was a genius too, and he was fucking tough as nails. He'd already been through the kind of wringer that Tony woke up in cold sweats about. Sure, Tony had been dying of palladium poisoning. But at least he hadn't been hunted down by the whole world.

Hadn't Bruce even escaped a few kidnappings before?

Oh right. Hulk, the kidnappee's best friend.

Tony glanced down again at the continually snarling, twitching giant that knelt at his feet. The Hulk, the living embodiment of physical power – kneeling before him and clinging to him. That sort of thing could go to a guy's head.

With a silent sigh he let go of the huge green hand and picked up the sketchbook, flipping through it idly. First page was full of their resident weightlifting shampoo commercial. The bottom right corner was a particularly good one. Thor was depicted in the kitchen with a mug in his hand, his head thrown back, laughing with his usual joyous abandon.

Dang, Steve had some talent.

Seriously, he could sell these.

Next one was Fury. He was bent over a screen, his hands either side of it to brace himself. His expression was set in a scowl, and the light was artfully shaded to show the shadows that lingered everywhere but on his face. Metaphorical, gotcha.

Clint, Clint, Clint – sniggering with his mouth full, his eyes lit with puckish glee; drawing his bow, his face oddly intense; slumped over with Natasha on the couch, fast asleep, his mouth open and his usually action-ready limbs loose and boneless. Tony even knew that snore – the huuuuurk, grrrrngh-gnrrrrgh-huuuuuuUURK! Clint got when he fell asleep on his back.

Hang on, he knew how Clint snored now? When the fuck did he learn that?

Hulk. Pushing paint around, his brutish face aglow with a sort of innocent wonder. Tony couldn't help but glance from the picture to the Hulk at his feet. World of difference. He sighed again and turned the page, only to be confronted with himself.

One of him laughing – and hell, he didn't know he looked like such a geek when he laughed. His eyes got all little and scrunchy. Still devastatingly handsome though. As was the next sketch, of himself making some (naturally, totally relevant and amazing) point. His eyebrows were quirked, as were his lips, and he had one hand circling around in his 'explaining things to peasants' gestures. The last one was of him looking sort of... sad, and soft, and dirty. Right, must have been right after Pep left. He was covered in grease, and his eyes looked... older.

Turn the goddamned page.

Natasha this time, and Tony was surprised at the massive surge of affection he felt just looking at her image. He'd sworn never to trust the creepy and terrifying people who creep and terrify and then stick needles into your neck... But.

She'd changed his arc reactor.

She was definitely in character as someone else in the first one. Her head was held differently, her eyes shuttered and veiled even though the expression was open and innocent and a little ingenuous. It was unnerving how she could just totally become someone else so entirely. The second one was the Natasha he knew. She was all business, all Black Widow, but with a hint of her occasionally surprising humour lurking in the tilt of her mouth, in the corners of her eyes. Her dry wit still caught him off-guard sometimes.

"Bitch," he told the picture affectionately. "I'm on to you now." He grinned a little at her half-hidden smirk, and then turned the page.

And god, his breath was gone, gone, fuck. He was underwater, he was being Hulk-punched, he was. Choking.


Bruce rumpled. Bruce in a suit (looking fucking fine, even if it was one of Tony's out-of-season cast-offs), Bruce in only a ruined pair of trousers, Bruce with his hands in his hair, Bruce with his glasses twiddling between his fingers. Bruce bent over a microscope with science! in his eyes, Bruce in a crappy hoodie and baggy track pants stretching slowly into a yoga position (he'd teased him mercilessly), Bruce with his big, broad hands wrapped around his 'FRANKIE SAYS RELAX' mug. Bruce with his soft hair and his warmth and his daggerlike mind and his self-deprecation and his sarcasm and his bottomless empathy and his nightmares and his generosity and his...

Tony threw the book down and breathed very hard for a few moments.



No, fuck it, he was the fucking Emperor.

He was in... in luh. In L-word.

With. With.

You're the motherfucking Emperor, dammit! Get a grip!

Emperor Tony Stark of Okay put his head in his hands.

He was.

With Bruce.

Doctor Robert Bruce "I am Fundamentally Unlovable and a danger and no-one should get near me" Banner.

Tony squeezed his eyes shut and fisted his hair in his hands.

He concentrated on the air rushing in and out of his lungs for a few moments. He was still breathing pretty damned fast, all told. His lung capacity had been severely reduced thanks to a certain surgical procedure though, so maybe that was just. Uh.

No, wait. Logic. Logic was good, logic had never yet let him down. It was just Tony missing the guy, that was all. He'd been stolen after all. Kidnapped. It was all the leftover feelings from his own holiday to Afghanistan; all the painful emotions from the gaping wound left by Bruce's absence. He was confusing all of that... thatness... with... with something else. That was all. He was just tired and overwrought and thank you very much he was not in luhhh-lalalala! With Bruce bloody Banner. Because that would be weird and awkward as fuck and make working with the guy a real double-scoop of uncomfortable. Tony didn't want to stop working with Bruce, no way, and so logic had proved that there was no love here, nope, move along, the velvet rope is there for a reason.

Logic unassailable, Tony picked up the sketchbook again, nodded briskly at the many renditions of the face of his – his colleague - and flipped to the last page.


Aw, shit.

Et tu, Logic?

The sketches were beautiful and perfectly detailed, like all of Steve's work, because he was the pinnacle of human assholery. They were all of Tony and Bruce together in the lab, and Tony? Looked like a besotted fool. Bruce was smiling softly at him, his weary humour dancing in his eyes – but Tony was draped over the guy like an expensive fur. In another, he was looking over at him like he was the aforesaid double-scoop of icecream. In another, he was bumping the guy's hip. His hip.

Yep. He was in goddamned fucking stupid awful embarrassing painful messy L-word, Emotionsville, Feelings County, Grosstopia.

Bruce's hair was a mess in one of them, and Tony's fingers skimmed over the graphite lines, itching to tousle it further. Bruce's goddamned hair. He had a fucking spaniel on his head, and Tony... L-worded it. A lot.

His eyes. Big, weary, soft and kind. So dark, nearly black. Lips startlingly full. So, L-wording them too? Okay then.

He L-worded his big hands as well, that finicky, delicate precision... so fucking sexy the way he moved Tony's holograms around, like he'd been born to it.


Squinting, Tony regarded the last of the sketches. Himself and Brucey-babes of course. His hand was resting on the column of Bruce's neck, and he could see it now, all tanned and thick and strong, the pulse jumping under his fingertips. All clean lines and stubble and whoa, okay yeah, he was definitely into that. Way more than he'd expected.

He'd seen the guy naked only a few billion times, and so it wasn't hard to recall the image. He had a nuggety but surprisingly spare body, not a muscle factory by any means, but lean. He ate a metric fuckton of food, but you'd never see it on him, the way he looked. God knows how he'd kept himself fed when he was on the lam. Very broad shoulders (something Tony had a bit of a weakness for, to be honest), a nice round ass and good strong runner's legs (insert bitter laugh). And then there was all that dark, dark hair.

He was a fuzzy bastard all right, unlike any of the taut and waxed athletes and models Tony had rolled around with before. It was intriguing, and a bit fascinating. Tony wondered what all that scruff was like. Was it scratchy? Or soft? Or a bit of both?

Oooookay, not about to pop one in front of the Hulk, because that would be horrendously inappropriate.

Jesus, and Hulk was Bruce and Bruce was Hulk.

Yeah, no.

He wondered when the hell he'd fallen in l... L-word with his equally fucked-up teammate and Super Secret Science Club buddy. These last two weeks? A year ago? The minute they met?

Had he ever not been a little in love with Bruce?

Groaning aloud, Tony let his head tilt back to thud against the wall of the quinjet. What a day to have a revelation.

Was Bruce even into guys?

Maybe Tonysexualism could be a Thing.

Why was he thinking all this now? Bruce was still fucking kidnapped. Oh god, no, no, no, no, no. Bruciekins, if you die I am going to kill you so goddamned hard. You are not fucking dying just when I've figured this out, and not before I've finally gotten to know how you tick and how you even exist and how you kiss in the morning when you wake up.

Why had Steve given him this? Did Steve know? Did everyone?

He was the Emperor of stupid.

Emperor Tony Stark of Stupid groaned again, and threw the evil, evil sketchbook on the floor. It landed with a loud slap.

Hulk's eyes opened.


Hulk is a scream.

The scream is the only thing left with a name.




There is nothing left of Hulk, nothing. He is all eaten away to screams and fire.

The fire is green and the fire will burn and burn until the world is smashed and then Hulk will still go on smashing the bits until the bits are smashed and then there will be only Hulk and he will be alone with the fire and the screams forever and always

(no hulk is good hulk is good and Bruce will be proud of hulk)

Hulk is the fire and the fire is strongest there is and HULK will smash SMASH the puny humans because the fire burns bright and hot and angry angry angry

it must be fed and it likes the dead so Hulk will smash and smash and kill KILL until the screaming stops


And it will be good





(tiny little voice inside, do not smash Team do not do not)



Chapter Text


"Guuuuuys! Little help?!"

Stark's – no, Tony now, he was Tony – holler shocked Natasha out of her contemplation of the possible sites in New York they had yet to visit.



"We've got a big green situation here!" And then Tony's voice cut off with an ugly croak.

"Shit!" Clint swore, standing with his normal fluid grace and nocking and drawing an arrow in one smooth movement. He span and faced the cabin, and Natasha's heart leapt into her throat as a primal growl echoed through the air. It locked her muscles for a moment, her pulse pounding in her ears.

That deep and vicious growl had brought back jagged flashes of memory, red-tinged and raw, of her nightmarish flight through the bowels of the helicarrier. No, she had learned to put that away. She trusted Bruce – she trusted Hulk. She had told them as much – and that trust had cost her so much to learn. She would not throw it aside.

She forced herself to remain present and in the moment. An assassin trapped in past fears was a useless tool, a knife without a blade. She would put them behind her.

She was very good at putting her fears behind her.

Still, that horrible sound had brought home to her how much Hulk had changed – how very much he had learned and grown in his short time as an independent being, simply through interacting with the team and with Bruce. This was the growl of an apex killer, not the grumble of a friend. So different. So different to the way Hulk was... or had been, these last weeks.

He'd truly reverted. No. No. Natasha wouldn't accept that.

She was also very good at changing the facts.

All this flashed through her mind in a matter of moments as she whirled to take a ready stance, her Widow's Bite charging at her wrists and her eyes hard, Steve readying his shield beside her. The sight before them was one to take her breath away.

Hulk had gripped Tony by the neck and had slammed him against the wall of the quinjet. He was pinned there, his feet dangling off the ground and his hands clutching desperately at the giant green fingers that were inexorably tightening. The Hulk's eyes were alive with visceral wrath. He seemed to swell with rage as he glared at the man helpless in his grasp.

"Is he..." Clint blurted.

"He's gone," Steve said, his Captain's voice firmly in place. His own eyes were calculating, assessing.

"He's not," she snapped back, though the evidence before them was a little hard to contradict.

Still, Natasha was an expert on cornered animals. She'd been one, once. "Bring him back," she hissed.

"Widow, he's gone! Look at his eyes!" Steve lifted his shield and nodded curtly at Thor, who was ready and waiting across from them. "On my mark, Clint."

"Try to talk to him," Natasha urged Steve.

Clint sighted along his arrow. "Tasha, didn't you hear him? Talking won't help," he said matter-of-factly. "I have the shot, I can put him under."

"Guys!" Tony rasped, pulling at the Hulk's fingers some more and attempting to lengthen his neck to gain some air. "Please... just... talk... to..."

Hulk snarled like a prehistoric predator, his breath washing over Tony and blowing his hair away from his face.

Thor had his hammer raised, eyeing Hulk warily. From the way his arm was lifted, he was still somewhat injured. He wouldn't be able to take Hulk on.

Natasha studied Hulk's furious green eyes as her mind raced, considering angles of attack and discarding plans like a machine. Despite the storm of rage brewing there, his eyes were flat, like a shark's. Empty and dark. There was an abyss in those eyes.

If they tranked the Hulk, they lost Bruce entirely. This whole plan now rested on the strange connection between the two halves, and it was useless with one half of the picture doped to the eyeballs.

Change the facts.

"Open the cargo bay doors," she said suddenly.

"Gnngh!" Tony managed, and his feet scrabbled at the wall.

"Open them," she repeated. "Clint."

"Natasha, that's nuts! That's New York!" Steve said, his eyes bulging.

"Now!" she snapped.

"Tasha, I'm putting him under," Clint said, and she shook her head.

"We lose our line to Bruce if you do," she said, and gave him a hard look. "Open. The cargo bay. Doors."

Steve looked at her as though she was insane. "Let him out? Natasha, Fury's going to skin us alive as it is... we'll be unleashing a berserker Hulk on eight million people!"

"Again," added Clint sourly, his arrow-point unwavering.

She looked back at Hulk who, strangely, hadn't moved. He was simply holding Tony against the wall of the jet and snarling. "We follow him," she said.

"Do... it," Tony croaked.

Steve was shaking his head. "No, this is..."

Fuck it. You want something done, do it yourself. She took two strides and pulled the damned lever above the pilot's seat, and met Steve's eyes as she did so. The doors unfolded outwards, the wind whipping through the cabin and tugging at them with insistent force.

Hulk roared and dropped Tony in a heap, and with one of his insanely huge bounds – he was gone.

"Aw, Hulk," said Clint mournfully.

"We've lost him," said Steve, sounding shocked.

"Fuck!" Clint said, and threw his bow down with a lot more force than necessary (extremely unlike him. He must really be pissed if he was treating his bow that way). He took the controls again, his hands flying as the bay doors swung shut and the quinjet banked, following the Hulk's trajectory.

Steve gave her a deadly look before rushing over to the crumpled Tony and checking him for damage.

The man coughed and spluttered, his hand flying to his abused throat. "M'fine," he rasped. Then, "Ow."

"Are you okay?" Steve asked.

"What, are y' deaf?" Tony said, and coughed some more. "Said... I was fine. Ow. Ow ow ow. Fine - but ow."

"Operate the mechanism. Open the doors once more," Thor commanded, giving Natasha a level look that spoke of his anger more eloquently than any amount of shouting. "I will follow and retrieve him."

"Retrieve him," said Clint disbelievingly. "The Hulk. Retrieve him. Shyeaaaaaah."

"No," Tony wheezed, and then waved Steve away. He pulled himself up the wall. "We follow him. Natasha's right – we dope Hulk, we lose Bruce. He's our only decent lead."

"Fury is going to hit the roof," Steve said, and rubbed his eyes.

"Fury can suck my-"

"Tony," Steve grated.

"I'll handle Fury," she said. "This was my call."

"Been nice knowing you," Clint said.

"Hulk isn't going to kill anyone," she said with a confidence she didn't feel.

"That wasn't just show," Tony said, rubbing his throat. He sounded like a very talented Tom Waits impersonator. "Anything gets in his way..."

"That is the fucking city of New fucking York," Clint said. "And we just dropped the Hulk on them."

"Not the first time it's happened," she said, and raised her chin, daring him.

"We should be out there," Thor said, his hammer twitching in his hand. "We must protect them."

"Hang on," Tony said, and lurched to his suit; it was the Mark V again, and he threw the suitcase to the floor and continued to speak even as it closed around him like a mechanical glove. "Thor, you and me should be out there, sure, and we do the whole protect the people thing – but we also give Hulk a distraction." He broke off and coughed a little, and the mask closed over his face, turning them into mechanical barks. "We give him a direction. We need to get him moving to where his instincts want him to go, with minimum smash and maximum speed."

Steve blinked, and then drew himself up. "Right. Draw his focus every time he looks like he's about to smash something he shouldn't. We'll be behind you. Clint..."

"Natasha should do it, since she's so good at opening doors," Clint muttered as he pulled the lever again. The wind forced them all to shield their faces as Iron Man launched, closely followed by Thor.

"Clint," she said, and knew he could hear her own fears in her voice.

"Okay, right," he sighed, and his hands gripped the stick tighter. "You made the call." He pulled a face. "I hate operating on blind faith. Indiana Jones I am not."

"He's proved he can be trusted," she murmured, and her hand hovered over Clint's short, mussed hair.

"You?" he snorted. "Hang on, you trust someone? You? Wait, wait, I have to concentrate now, there is a high likelihood of airborne bacon..."


"Sorry, I thought you just said that you, Black Widow, trusted someone..."

"I can kill you forty eight ways using only my teeth."

"Fuck, that's hot. Shutting up now."

A thick silence fell as they peered out of the windscreen at the falling night, the city twinkling before them like a glittering field of stars.

"He's Bruce," she said eventually. "I trust Bruce."

Steve's mouth was set pugnaciously, but his eyes were troubled. "He slammed Tony against..."

"He's still Bruce."

"I want to trust him," Steve said, his jaw rippling as he spoke and his breath coming rather fast through his nostrils. "I want to trust them. But Hulk is unstable right now, and..."

"I did what had to be done," she said, her voice hard. "We couldn't contain him, and we need him to find Bruce."

"And so you unleashed him on New York," Clint said dryly. "I'd bow to you, ooh, soooo sarcastically. If I thought you wouldn't kill me."

"Enough," said Steve sternly. "Clint, just follow them."

Clint's face fell into stony lines as he took the quinjet into a steep dive. Natasha could read him better than any language, and knew that his agitation was not a product of her precipitous action; after all, gods knew he could react faster than lightning to any given situation. Rather, it was worry that was edging his tone and sharpening his words. Worry for Bruce, for Hulk, for the city below.

She'd done the right thing. She knew she had. Hulk had no interest in the people of New York, and as long as no idiot tried to stop him, he'd home in on Bruce like a huge angry pigeon.

Wonderful, now she had the strangest mental image. Clint's nervous flippancy was clearly contagious.

She put a hand against his shoulder. The heavy archery muscles were tense and rock-hard. He glanced up at her once, his lips tight and set. She ensured that her face was blank, neutral, and returned the look with steady calm.

He sighed again, his shoulders relaxing a little as he flew on, buildings looming before them. The familiar sound of roaring echoed from the streets below, and a green shape sprang through the darkening sky, moving to the south-east. Two smaller, faster shapes followed.

"Got 'em," Steve breathed. "Stay on him."

"This is the most bizarre game of Follow the Leader ever," Clint muttered.

"Even more than Cairo?" she murmured, and his lips tilted despite himself.

"Yeah. No gamma monsters in Cairo."

"That we know of," she added.

"Don't, you'll jinx us."

Steve gave her a hard, weighted look. "I hope we don't end up regretting this."

She didn't bother turning her head to return it. "I repeat. If nothing gets in his way, he'll lead us straight to Bruce," she said.

"And if something gets in his way?"

"Tony and Thor can make sure that doesn't happen."

"Hang on, Stark is Tony now? How many people are you trusting these days? I suddenly feel less special," Clint interjected, and then he shook his head, refocusing on the three swerving dots bounding and pinballing amongst the buildings below. "Sorry, sorry, back to work. Priorities."

"You'd better hope they can," Steve said under his breath, and pulled down his cowl.


He had to time this carefully.

Bruce sat and dozed for a while, watching through slitted eyes, as Sterns pottered around his developing machine. He'd certainly managed to get hold of some serious equipment. The bomb itself was deceptively small, a cylinder approximately the size of an old-fashioned wine barrel, surrounded by banks and banks of monitoring screens and computers. Currently, Sterns was using his telekinesis to lower a transparent dome of some description over the bomb. It shone in weird ways as it drifted down.

Hmm. Pretty.

He was now almost totally numb. It felt rather like swimming in frigid waters, only it was his mind that had become anaesthetised instead of his limbs.

Think think think think think...

So. Finally a shield of some sort. That implied that the gamma bomb (without a coolant, how fucking insane was that) was indeed throwing out radiation. God only knew how much he'd already soaked up. His body was utterly human now, and pathetic, and puny. He could expect radiation poisoning to set in around five to eight hours from now.

Sterns wasn't as unaffected by the rads as he liked to pretend. There was a noticeable shifting of the veins in his forehead (which was unnecessarily gross in Bruce's opinion). His skin seemed to darken as he hunched over the bomb, staining the sickly green with a colour closer to Hulk's familiar tones.

He missed Hulk, even through the icy numbness. Bruce had never thought it possible, but he missed Hulk, and not just for the sake of the clarity and emotional stability he afforded him. He actually missed Hulk – his big hands, his ultra-bass voice, his childish pride, his occasionally startling insights. Bruce was broken in half without him.

Well, he might be broken, but he was not fucking beaten.

He had to time it carefully.

Radiation levels climbing.

Fuck, he was running out of time.

Head full of cotton wool and tea and bullshit.

He missed Hulk. Missed the team. Steve would have broken this stupid cuff in seconds, and Thor could have zapped Sterns into powder without mussing a single golden hair. Natasha would be dry and deadly, and Clint would quip as he covered them from above. Tony always had something off-colour to say whenever they were put into restraints on a mission, and he'd taken to filling in the remarks himself in the privacy of his mind. Dumb and numb and talking to himself. Spectacular.

He stole a glance at the machine again. The levels were close to optimum.




Bruce bent slowly and pulled his shackled leg close to his chest. His ribs screamed at him as his body bowed over in response, but he ignored it. It was sort of easy to ignore when everything felt like it was coming from underwater. Even the pain was welcome – a sharp knife through the muted pastels of the world.

Sucking in a breath, he rattled the chain once or twice, and then turned his back to Sterns as much as he dared.

"What are you doing?" came the quick question.


Bruce relaxed a little and didn't answer. He turned his head slightly to catch the man in his peripheral vision. Sterns was walking towards him.

His head looks like a – Christ, not now, Tony.

He hunched his shoulders over his knee, as though trying to hide something.

"Banner," Sterns snapped. "If you do not answer, I will be forced to... give you some incentive, yet again. You don't want another taste now, do you?"

God, a taste – lapsang souchong, please. Leave the bag in.

"Stubborn fool," Sterns said, his voice growing louder as he came closer. "Seems I'll have to see to your education once more."

Oh, anything but the briar patch, Brer Fox.

Bruce tensed, waiting for that strange sound that accompanied the bolt blasting from Stern's grotesquely swelled head.


As the hissing energy flew at his unprotected shoulders, Bruce rolled back. He gritted his teeth as his mending collarbone complained, and lifted his bound leg as high as the stupid fucking heavy-ass chain would allow. He'd timed it perfectly, and he'd spotted that Sterns always, always aimed for his centre of mass. Which would have been his trunk, if it weren't now lying on the floor...

The bolt hit the shackle dead on, and the metal contorted and melted with a deafening hiss. He bit down on a scream as it burned straight through his trousers and into his skin. He kept rolling, rolling, and thanked whoever was up there watching that he'd kept up the yoga, at least. Too bad he hadn't kept up the martial arts.

Staggering to his feet, a terrible smell rose to his nostrils and he almost doubled over. His skin was burning, molten metal sinking into his flesh. He couldn't stop the strangled shout escaping this time, and tore off the leg of his pants as fast as his shaking hands allowed. His right arm was fairly useless in its cast, but the left used the bunched material to wipe as much of the molten metal away as possible. His hands blistered, and his whole leg felt like it was on fire. He tried not to look too closely at the scalded flesh. There were pink-white ropes of tendon showing, before they became obscured by a rush of blood.

Sterns was slowly applauding. Bruce straightened, woozy with bile rising in his throat, his limbs still shaking, and met the man's eyes. He was smirking.

"Oh, very ingenious," he drawled. "I do like a good escape plan. Tell me, Doctor, what's the next step? Or haven't you got that far?"

"Oh, I got that far," he said, and closed his eyes.

"Trying to frighten me?" mocked Sterns.

Bruce didn't answer that. In fact, he was dreaming of a pot of chamomile.

"You won't change," Sterns said gleefully. "We're still in Harlem, after all. All those terribly breakable people..." he broke off, tutting. "Be such a shame if someone happened to them. Again."

"We're not in Harlem," Bruce opened his eyes. Then he raised an eyebrow. "Seriously? Did you really think I would fall for that?"


Damn, Hulk could move.

The giant was a green blur that bounced from the side of buildings, rocketed over skyscrapers, barrelled down lanes, and whizzed through the air like Tarzan on steroids. Tony and Thor were being hard-pressed to keep up, and he had almost lost the guy twice. Only JARVIS's tracking system, linked through to the suit, was keeping the Hulk on his dial. He'd read that Hulk could jump over six miles before, but hadn't really believed it.

Yeah, six miles might actually be something of an underestimate.

Hulk-herding duty was pretty ordinary, to be honest. He hadn't had to stop him from smashing anything at all, really – except a weird moment when he stopped to uproot a tree and pulverise it. He'd cleared that street out pretty quickly.

"Just taking the Hulk for a walk, folks, nothing to worry about!" he'd blasted over the suit's speakers. People had eyed him with panicked incredulity as they fled, and screams followed in their wake wherever Hulk landed.

People always screamed at Hulk. Poor guy.

Poor Bruce.

Don't think about it.

With time enough to ponder things, Tony's earlier realisation was coalescing in his gut, solidifying like lead. It was a cold feeling, but he wasn't freezing in despair anymore. Instead, as had happened once before, he could feel his whole being turning to solid steel.

Yeah. When the tough got going, Tony Stark repulsored tough's fugly face in. Fuck Sterns. Fuck this. He was going to find the stupid spaniel he luuuh... L-worded, and then give him an amateur tonsillectomy. With his tongue.

Hulk roared, and Tony blinked out of his thoughts. Whoops, okay. Paying attention to the Hulk now.

Part of Tony continued to wonder if he could suck Bruce's brains out through his dick. Hey, who said he couldn't multitask?

Hulk gathered his brawny legs and leapt once more, rising like a leviathan and soaring into the sky. He used the corner of a building to correct his trajectory, and concrete and masonry fell to the sidewalk in chunks, splattering and crumbling. Tony winced.

"Ah, I'll be making a few donations to city repairs, make a note," he muttered to JARVIS.

Understood, Sir. May I suggest a slightly higher elevation here?

"Yeah, yeah." Tony angled himself into the sky, rising until Hulk was a bounding green dot below. "Where's he headed?"

The current trajectory suggests that he intends to bypass Manhattan entirely. He has not deviated from a south-easterly trajectory...

"So, Brooklyn? Steve's gonna love that."

Ordering a new supply of punching bags now, Sir.

"Hang on. Were there any sites on Natasha and Clint's list in Brooklyn?"

There was a slight pause, and then JARVIS said, No, Sir. But a result from Doctor Banner's tracking algorithm has just been pinpointed in the area.

"Hang on, when did you get into SHIELD's R & D feeds, I didn't tell you to - wait, you're kidding, really? It worked after all? He's gonna be so damned smug, I can't wait to taste how smug he is. Wait, scratch that. I mean..."

Ah. Congratulations, Sir. May I say how pleasant it is that you have finally bought a clue?

"Sassy," Tony murmured.

Well, Sir, it is embarrassing to acknowledge oneself as a creation of a man who can program an AI and build a flying battle suit but cannot figure out that he is a fool for a clever and handsome Doctor.

"Okay, enough sass, when the hell did I program you to be a feisty Jewish grandmother stereotype? Tracking program, now. Where's the source of gamma radiation?"

Brooklyn, Waterfront District. The address is now on your HUD.

"Put me on to the quinjet."

Tony didn't even wait for Clint to speak, but dived into the information immediately. "Okay, JARVIS is still hooked up to SHIELD, I know, I'm so proud, they grow up so fast. Bruce's tracking algorithm got a ping. It looks like that's where Hulk's headed. It's, and damn I am so sorry, Steve..."

A sigh, and Steve's voice sounded so mournful. "Shoot."

"And that's as close to swearing as you'll get from him," Clint said. "Man, it is not Brooklyn's month."

"Really?" Steve said, sounding young and plaintive. Tony could just imagine his expression, and was that sympathy welling up from his battery? Man, he was getting soft with this whole team thing. He cleared his throat.

"Yeah. Waterfront district."

"You may be onto something with the whole loony-factory theory, Clint," Natasha murmured, even as Steve said, "hey!" indignantly.

"JARVIS'll send you the co-ords, see you there. Whoops, Hulk just uprooted a sign, gonna go bail Thor out. Laters." Tony ended the call, and swooped down.

"Big guy!" he yelled, and retracted the face-plate so that Hulk could see him.

Blind with anger and pain, Hulk roared and jerked his head to stare through him. His eyes were practically luminescent now, and every step he took made the ground beneath his feet quake.

"That's it," Tony said encouragingly. "This way, leave the nice council signage alone, let's get out of Central Park so the lycra brigade can continue their one-upmanship in peace, yeah? Come on. That's it..."

Hulk bared his teeth in an almost-soundless snarl that was blood-curling to see, and Tony repressed a swallow that would have really irritated his throat. Nope, not thinking about his poor abused throat, there were better ways to end up sounding hoarse, fuck you very much, that wasn't the way he liked to end up sounding like Bonnie Tyler – and he didn't want to be reminded of that awful moment dangling helplessly as Hulk succumbed to the horrors in his head, please and thank you.

"Let's keep moving," he said as kindly as he could manage. "Come on, buddy. Let's go find Bruce."

Thor landed beside him with a dull thump, and swept his hair out of his eyes. "I feared I had lost you," he said, and then winced a little, his hand pressing at his side.

"Shit, did he get you?"

"It is of no moment," Thor said, but his face was tight with pain. "What news?"

Hulk snarled at the newcomer, gathered himself, and leaped into the sky.

"Ah, damn," Tony sighed.



bruce find bruce find


not bruce



not bruce






bruce find bruce




Jesus, his ankle. Oh god, how it hurt.

Well, he was growing less and less numb by the second, so that was a point in its favour.

Sterns was looking at him as though he was a pet that had learned a new trick. His thin black eyebrows had risen, and he folded his arms. "You worked that out."

Bruce resisted the urge to roll his eyes – they were stinging and watering enough already. His neck and jaw were clenching tight against the pain. "You were rubbing it in just a little too much. Anyone ever tell you that you are a huge ham?"

Sterns rocked back a little on his heels, and then he scowled. "It is of no importance. You still cannot get away. I can hold you here with sheer mental superiority."

"Yes, yes, the uh..." Bruce waved his hand absently, "glowing head powers thing. Very impressive."

Keep him talking.

"You mock me for the last time," Sterns growled, and his forehead lit up. Bruce tensed.

Quickly, quickly, quickly. Running out of time.

The minute the bolt of psionic energy flew from Sterns' brow, Bruce lurched to the left. He practically collapsed onto the discarded teleport device, and palming it in his burned hands, cranked the dial.

"That won't take you anywhere," Sterns said smugly, and he sauntered forwards as he looked down at his prone prisoner. "It has to be calibrated, and..."

"I know," Bruce said distantly, working it with shaking fingers. "You forgot to add a shielding field to the portal, by the way. Have you got a vendetta against shields? There wasn't one on the bomb until fifteen minutes ago, and additionally your head looks like a cantaloupe. Shields are good, look into them. You should have considered adding a zed-neutrino equation to the dark matter envelope, it acts as a..."

"... a protective shield, yes, yes, the point has been somewhat graphically made," Sterns sneered. "If it hasn't escaped your notice, I am working in a warehouse, not Tony Stark's laboratory. My resources have been somewhat... limited to what I am able to steal. Why are you persisting in fiddling with that? You cannot work the teleport mechanism."

Distract him. Distractions.

Shit. Only one thing left.

"My blood," he said abruptly.

Sterns looked a little taken aback at the non-sequitur, but he recovered in seconds. "What about it?"

"You took it."

"Glad to see you are keeping up, Doctor," Sterns said, contempt curling his lip. Bruce smiled.

"I'm not the Hulk."

A blink, and then Sterns laughed. "Ah, you cannot fool the Leader. A pathetic attempt!"

"Am I healing?"


Bruce did roll his eyes this time. "Am. I. Healing? Look at my leg."

Sterns' brow furrowed, and then he sucked in a breath. "You...!"

Bruce ducked his head and fiddled with the teleport some more. "Sorry to disappoint," he said calmly. "Bit of a trial separation, you know. We needed to see other people."

"What... but how is this possible?" Sterns' face mottled in patches of dark green as fury built behind his eyes. Bruce shrugged as he connected a wire on the tracer/teleport beacon with hands shaking, numb and sticky as blisters rose and broke on his palms.

"You're so clever, figure it out," he said, concentrating. "Although I have my doubts about your so-called vast intelligence. You didn't even inspect my blood, and I've been sitting here with my arm in a cast for almost a day."

Sterns made a wordless sound of outrage and disbelief.

Prior coordinates, but strip the portal of any shock absorption. Send him reeling. Gamma signature between 6 and 8 picometers. When the thing began to beep, Bruce smiled at it through lips made rubbery with pain. "So you're intelligent perhaps, but not very observant."

Sterns rallied magnificently. The grandiose ones always did. "So the bomb will not force the mutation to fall along expected lines," he said with a dismissive wave. "You forget, Mister Green, I have that same blood running in my veins."

"Not enough, though. That's why you needed me," Bruce said, and carefully wiped the portal thing free of his blood as the beeps began to speed up.

"Enough of it! Enough for this!" Sterns said, his eyes bulging. "I will replace your blood with my own. The diluted gamma radiation level may cause some subjects to perish rather than sustain their glorious new form..."

"If you say anything about omelettes and eggs, I am going to be sick," Bruce muttered.

"Trite, perhaps," Sterns said, and the fires of fanaticism burned in his expression. "But true! It is a necessary evil, that some must suffer for the good of all. I can calculate the exact amount required, yes! It will be even grander than my original plan! A race of beings with incomparable intelligence, superlative minds, superhuman abilities..."

There was a low glissando, and Bruce glanced up. The levels on the bomb had reached criticality, and it was ready for detonation. Too long, and it would overheat and erupt anyway, because Sterns was a genius who didn't put in a fucking cooling system.

He was out of time.

Sterns turned around, his eyes widening. His mouth parted in a triumphant grin for a brief second, and Bruce leapt onto the momentary distraction.

"Want to bet?" he asked, and slapped down on the button.

Nothing happened for a long moment.

Sterns began to laugh derisively. "How many times must I tell you? I have prepared for-"

Bruce pulled himself to his feet once more. There was a gathering puddle of blood beneath him, and he was beginning to feel rather light-headed.

"—every eventuality. You are nothing but an ape compared to me! I have already calculated-"

Bruce flicked the dial on the teleport beacon, and breathed in as the bomb began to rattle underneath the dome. His leg was screaming at him, his ribs and hands a tinkling counterpoint to that symphony of pain.

"—thousands of possibilities, planned for every contingency! You are-"

"Goddamn it, I just want to go home and possibly drown in a vat of Ceylon, could you shut the hell up for two seconds?" Bruce snapped, and threw the teleport at Sterns.

Even taking into account his new gifts, some things were instinctual. The man's hand rose automatically to catch it.

And he blinked out of existence.

It was slightly petty, but as Bruce was out of his mind with the pain and the dissociation, he allowed himself the last word. "Shield," he grunted. "Should have added a shield."


Hulk was as unerring as a bullet, ripping through walls and buildings in a single straight line headed straight for the source of radiation. Tony swerved and pulled two people out of the way as Hulk barrelled into a building (thankfully it looked like it was targeted for demolition anyway, maybe Hulk could start a small business?) while Thor pulled Hulk's focus enough for him to gather himself once more and jump over all the fragile stuff. Y'know, people, houses, the city of New York...

Sir, incoming call from SHIELD.

"What? Now? Tell Fury..."

"Stark," came Hill's voice, sharp and hard with tension.

"You have reached the life-model decoy of Tony Stark, who is sort of busy right now, please don't leave a message," he snapped, and flew on after the retreating form of Hulk in the night sky.

"Shut up and listen, this is important. Sterns just appeared on the Helicarrier!"

Tony had to stop himself from choking again. "Wait what, you what now?"

"The teleport device, the one that trapped Banner – we think the Doctor must have planted it on him. He's delirious from the jump. We have him in custody in the psi-dampening holding area."

"Hang on, you have a psi-dampening... I don't want to know, do I, this has McCoy's paws all over it, I have allergies."

"That's not all."

"It's a pretty big something. Can you get anything out of him?"

"He's delirious, as I said. He's practically insensate. The response medics think there may be some brain damage."

"See? I keep saying, it's not the size of the head but how you use it. So? What's the rest?"

She paused, and Tony used the moment to flip over and hurtle after Hulk, who landed with a crash in the centre of a busy street. He banked and held out his arms to stop the oncoming traffic even as JARVIS (bless his sneaky circuits, fuck, he loved his AI) flipped whatever in the city's traffic grid to send every light flashing red. Cars skidded to a halt.

"The Council has called in Ross."


"You didn't think that the Hulk rampaging across New York would go unnoticed, did you?" she said, but there was a note of desperation in her voice as well. "It wasn't our call. Fury trusts you to handle this."

"We are handling this! Get Ross off our tail!"

"He's coming in now. We have no jurisdiction over his forces."

"Military fucking chain of command," he practically snarled. Then, "Wait. I'll call you."


He hung up, even as the quinjet came soaring over them, its wings tilting. "Guys!" he hailed them.

"What now?" Steve said, crackling over the comms.

"There is something amiss?" Thor said, and Tony held up a hand even as Hulk tore up an inoffensive strip of tarmac and smashed it into powder.

"General Thunderthighs Ross has been called," he said curtly. "I'm proposing that we rename it World Overreaction Council, who's with me?"

"Bozhe Moi," Natasha said under her breath.

"You want us to run interference?" asked Clint, his tone cool and professional. Tony took a deep breath.

"Steve," he said, trying to keep the panic and the pleading note out of his voice.

"I..." Steve sounded a little overwhelmed for a moment, and then Captain America was speaking. "I've got it. Go save Bruce."

"All the punching bags for you, Steve. Four for you, Steve. You go, Steve," Tony said, boneless and reeling in relief. That lasted for approximately point two of a second, and then Hulk leaped into the air once more. "Gotta go, don't wait up!"

Sir, Lieutenant Hill is...

"Holy... what is this, am I a switchboard now?" he exploded, lifting into the sky. "Come on, Thor!"

"Stark, the radiation in the Brooklyn area..." Hill crackled over his comm, and Tony wanted to scream.

"Busy!" he barked.

"It's entering..."



Steve hadn't actually met General Thaddeus 'Thunderbolt' Ross before.

He wasn't enjoying the experience.

"Stand down," he said, drawing on as much authority in his stance and tone as possible. "The Avengers have this under control, Sir. All you'll accomplish is to force the Hulk to take a defensive stance, and that will get civilians and your command killed."

"That thing is what gets people killed!" He was a bristly, older man with grey hair and a moustache that in other circumstances might have made Steve a little nostalgic. No-one wore moustaches anymore. It was like hats: they'd gone out of fashion. Dum-Dum would have stood out like a sore thumb.

"With all due respect," Steve said, and made it quite clear that there wasn't in fact a lot of respect involved at all, "that's not true. The Hulk is a thinking creature, and he saves lives. We are currently in the middle of a rescue and retrieval mission, and we are following the Hulk's lead. You would be advised to keep out of our way."

"Saves...? Son, that thing has killed over a hundred people. It's a monster, and it belongs in a cage. We need to find out how to neutralise it and make..."

"More of them?" Natasha interjected, her eyebrow raising sceptically. "Save us the altruistic speech, General. I was at Culver and Harlem. I know what you did. I know what you want."

Ross only paused for a second, before rallying. "And mine is the only arm of the forces dedicated to eradicating that mistake. You've unleashed that freak on New York, for god's sake!"

"He hasn't hurt a soul," said Steve. "Only buildings."

"And trees," added Natasha under her breath.

"If you intend to interfere," Clint said, and grinned as he flicked the fletching on one arrow, "I'll be forced to persuade you not to."

"You?" Ross snorted. "You're one man, and you use a goddamned bow and arrow. Don't make me laugh."

"Do I look like I'm being funny?" Clint demanded, his face like stone.

Ross scoffed. "It's a bow and arrow! What the hell you think you can do to a tank, boy?"

"Yep, that's right. A Stark Industries bow and arrow," Clint corrected, and his grin turned a trifle evil. "And I never, ever miss."

Ross scowled. "You should be shooting at that thing. It's a danger to..."

"You want the Hulk?" Steve stepped forward, his arms bunching and his eyes flashing. "You'll have to get through me. You'll have to take down Captain America. I look forward to how you explain that to your superiors."

"And the media," Natasha added.

"And the world," Clint said.

"Not only that, but if by some fluke you get past me," Steve said, his voice remaining totally steady, almost conversational, "you'll also have to get through Hawkeye and the Black Widow."

Natasha tilted her head, regarding Ross as though he was some sort of new and interesting bug. "And that's only the first line of attack," she said. "I don't think you'd enjoy meeting the second."

"See exhibit A: God of Thunder," Clint said.

"If you aren't toast by that point," Steve said, "Iron Man will finish the job. See, nothing is going to stop him from carrying out this mission. Not you, not Sterns, not SHIELD, not the World Security Council. You do remember what happens when Tony Stark makes up his mind, don't you?"

"Maybe you could present him with his next medal?" Natasha suggested coolly.

"Last but not least," Clint said, sighting down his arrow and allowing some of his anger to surface, "if in the incredibly unlikely scenario that you actually put down all of the Avengers, time turns backwards, clocks stop, the seas boil, hell freezes over, etcetera - there's still the big green lummox in question. Don't think you'll have many men left after that, General."

"Not only Hulk," said Steve. "But Bruce Banner. You know him, don't you? Brown hair, brown eyes, angry fella, fourth smartest man in the world, made you look like a fool..."

Ross glared at them wordlessly.

"Wise decision," Natasha murmured.

Steve glared back, and some of the troops behind Ross automatically took a step away from the utterly furious Captain America. That could go to a guy's head if he wasn't careful. "I won't warn you again," he said darkly. "Stay out of our way."


Stumbling over to the dome, Bruce felt around the edges with nerveless fingers. The blisters and blood made it hard to grip onto the smooth transparent material, and he cursed under his breath, trying to pull the latch for the door. He had to get in there and stop that bomb before it covered the Northern Hemisphere in gamma radiation.

He wasn't a gamma battery any more. He was going to die of radiation poisoning, but he could fucking well save the world one last time before he did.

He could see the levels flickering in the red through the shielding, and he gritted his teeth as his determination began to rise, filling his belly with fire.

Would have been nice to see the Team. Would have been nice to see Hulk.

Before he...


Nope. Work. Concentrate.

Bruce steeled his shaking hands and lurched over to one of the external consoles. Maybe there was a sort of release catch. He was able to decipher some of the banks of computers, and as he worked feverishly at bringing the level down he was able to figure out some more.

No coolant system! A nuclear system without a coolant – not even graphite rods! What kind of moron designs a nuclear system without a kill switch!

Giant intellect, my dying ass.

The consoles did nothing. He couldn't bring the levels down, and the fucking thing was going to blow. He collapsed back to the dome and tried the door yet again – in vain.

"Fuck!" he shouted, and then smashed both fists against the unyielding stuff. "Fuck, fuck, fuck!"

The stabbing, blinding throb of his injuries was growing stronger, and he bit down on his lip in agony as he scrabbled at the stupid dome. Desperation was beginning to mount in the hollow of his ribs, and he could barely see for the anger.


He could. Feel.


But that meant...

Bruce paused, his hand leaving a bloody handprint on the dome as he turned around, half-hoping, half-dreading.

And the wall caved in.

Roaring like a hurricane, Hulk stood there, his mighty arms raised and his whole body aglow with rage. Bruce gasped and almost crumpled in relief. "Hulk!" he practically sobbed, and took a clumsy, dragging step towards the other half of his soul. "Hulk, Hulk..."

Hulk snarled wordlessly, and Bruce couldn't even see a glimmer of the sad little boy in his eyes. It was all vengeance, all the beast. Bruce didn't care; he simply didn't give a fuck. It was all Hulk, and so it was all Bruce. The beast was part of him, too.

Hulk barrelled towards him, huge shoulders lowered. In a heartbeat Bruce was in his arms, and he screamed as his injuries were crushed against Hulk, his blood smearing across Hulk's broad green chest. Hulk roared his triumph, and their voices rang through the rafters together in a strange and painful harmony.

"Hulk..." Bruce panted, and tears were clouding his eyes and he was fucking dying, here.

Hulk's eyes met his, and he bared his teeth. A continual rumble shook his massive frame as he growled over his prize.

His heart sinking, Bruce put his hand on that giant green face, ignoring the acid-tingle of the burns on his palms as he searched the eyes for that sad, hurt, angry little boy. "Can't you speak?" he urged.

Had he howled his mind away?

"Hulk," Bruce said, his heart clenching, and he shook that face gently. "Please."

Hulk's snarl deepened.

"Speak to me," Bruce pleaded, and his hand trailed over the brutish brow and buried itself in the green, black and silver curls. Hulk's eyelids drooped to half mast. "Please."

Then they opened. "H-Hulk... missed Bruce."

Bruce choked back a laugh. "I missed you too."

"Hurt," Hulk said, a touch of that madness yet lingering in his face. Bruce leaned forward until his forehead pressed against Hulk's.

"Yes, it hurt," he whispered. "But it's better now."

"No," Hulk said, and the huge hand that wasn't supporting Bruce lifted to hover over the ruins of his leg. Then it balled into a fist and crashed into the concrete floor. Dust drifted down from the exposed ceiling. "Hurt. Hurt!"

Bruce buried his hand in Hulk's. The rightness of it was absolute – a key fitting into a lock. He tried to swallow around the rock in his throat, but he couldn't lie to Hulk. He'd never been able to lie to Hulk. He felt his face crumple. "Hulk. That's not... Oh god. I'm so sorry – I'm so, so sorry. I-I'm dying, Hulk."

"You're what?" came another voice, shocked and grief-stricken.

Bruce closed his eyes. "Tony, I..."

"No," Hulk growled, the madness igniting once more in his eyes, his chest rising as he inflated with anger. "Fix. Fix! Metal Man, Tony, fix Bruce!"

"He can't," Bruce said with a broken little hitch in his voice, and Jesus he sounded weak. Useless.

"FIX!" Hulk howled, and threw his head back to roar at the ceiling. The air trembled, and Bruce buried his face in that expanse of warm, familiar green skin and tried not to shake with sorrow.

"I'm so sorry," he whispered.

Hulk howled, and howled, and howled. He clutched at Bruce as though the universe would rip him from his arms. Then he pulled Bruce's face away so that he could glare down at him, his jaw jutting forward and his eyes anguished beyond description. "Not fair! NOT FAIR!"

"No, nothing much is ever fair for us, is it?" Bruce asked, his voice uneven, and his lip quirked sadly.

Hulk then curled himself around Bruce. "No, Hulk will save Bruce," he said stubbornly, and there he was. There was that little boy, the angry little boy who wanted to save his mother.

"Not this time," Bruce said against that broad chest, spattered with his blood. "You know it doesn't work that way for us."

Hulk trembled. "Why?" he asked in a small voice.

Bruce smiled, and oh, the anger was warm as well. It burned in the pit of his belly and he had missed it so much. "Just lucky, I guess."

"Look, if it's just the injuries..." Tony said from the ruins of the wall. He stopped, and his mask peeled back to reveal a face utterly white and bloodless with fear. His voice was croaky and hoarse. "I can get you the best doctors money can buy; shit, I can get you all the fucking doctors, you name it..."

"Radiation poisoning," Bruce said, and his lips quirked wryly as he turned in Hulk's arms. Their hands fell to performing that old nervous tic, and Bruce could have cried at the feeling of great fingers twining and intertwining with his own. "Twenty four hours next to that thing, unshielded. Sterns isn't a fan of shields."

"Any shields, it seems," Tony said, sounding shocky and faint. "Hill's got him in SHIELD's psi-null chamber."

"That sounds intriguing. McCoy's work, or Pym?" Bruce said. He couldn't take his eyes away from Tony's. It was almost – it was pretend, it was fake, but he could almost make-believe that it was the two of them, talking science as always, Hulk wrapped around his mind and keeping it warm with his rage. He wanted that to happen, more than anything. He wanted it so much it stole his breath away.

"Radiation poisoning," Tony said, zeroing in on the point. "You're dying of radiation poisoning."

"I am. Close your face-plate," Bruce said quietly, and Tony's face contorted for a brief, ugly moment.

"First things first," he said, and strode over.

And as his lips pressed insistently against Bruce's, he thought oh.



Of course.

Tony kissed the way he lived – with total confidence and a barely-concealed desperation. The scratch of beard was... weird. But okay, Bruce could get used to it –well, if he weren't fucking dying, that is. Then Bruce realised that he wasn't kissing back, and he corrected that hurriedly.

"I didn't..." he mumbled, and Tony caught his lip with his own and opened his mouth. His lips were thinner than Bruce's own, and pushy; needy, just like Tony. Presumptuous, just like Tony. Somehow selfish and generous at the same time. And sweet.

"Yeah, so, I had some time to myself to think recently..." Tony said, and took advantage of Bruce's smile to press his tongue into his mouth and stroke the ridges of his hard palate. Bruce hmmed in appreciation, and licked at Tony's teeth, and the billionaire groaned a little.

"Okay, you're good at this, how did I not know you were good at this? I bet you fuck like an earthquake," Tony said, and Bruce's breath caught.

"We're a cliché," Bruce said, and laughed softly. "Save the damsel, get a kiss."

"You'd saved your own damned self before I got here, fucking shut up," Tony said, and oh, soft, warm. Syrupy.

"Your timing sucks. Wait til I'm dying to kiss me," he murmured against Tony's lips, and Tony growled wetly.

"I said shut up," he said, and dived back in.

Bruce allowed his eyes to slide shut as Hulk rumbled in confusion. Did he? Did they?

Maybe. He was a man. He was a friend. He was Tony Stark, genius billionaire playboy philanthropist. But... maybe.

It wasn't something he was willing to sacrifice, whatever it was.

"Close your face-plate," he repeated in a whisper, and Tony gasped against his mouth for a moment.

"I don't care about some fucking radiation," he bit out. "You're not going to fucking die, Bruce. You're not. You're not. I'll give you anything, just don't... don't..."

"I'm sorry," Bruce said again, and god, he didn't know which one of them he was even speaking to.

"You can't die!" Tony practically growled at him, before kissing him again, his hands gripping Bruce's shoulders hard enough to bruise.

"I'm sorry," he repeated, and he sounded so lost.

"But I..." Tony broke off and stared at him, his eyes very dark and round. "I..."

"I'm sorry," was all Bruce could say, a broken mantra.

"Stop saying that!" Tony snarled, and Hulk moaned in misery.

"I don't want to," Bruce said, and how ironic was that. The man who'd put a bullet in his own head... and now he would do anything, anything to stay.

Hulk keened for a moment, and then he thumped his great hand against the warehouse floor. "No, no, Bruce not go again!" he said and began to rock back and forth with Bruce a little. "Hulk needs Bruce. Hulk missed Bruce. Not fair. Not fair. Not fair."

He moaned like a whale, and then it devolved into a little tune hummed around great, sucking, shuddering breaths. Hulk was trying to sing him Mummy's song, the one that made the bad things go away.

"Hulk," Bruce said and he knew his face was wet, knew it was covered in tears and blood. "You need to get Tony out of here, this bomb is going to..."

"You bastard," Tony cursed him, and his gauntleted hands sank into his hair and pulled. Tony's face was twisted with sorrow and rage. "You bastard, you can't ask him to do that, you can't ask me to..."

"I'm already dying, but I can stop this thing," Bruce said, and lifted his chin. The gauntlets tugged at his curls, but what was that compared to his leg, eaten away by molten chains? "I have to try."

"Bruce, you can live through this, you've done it before!" Tony shook his head slightly, and then smoothed his hand over the hair. "You can. I told you when we met, didn't I, you remember, and I'm always fucking right, it's my job to be right, that he saved you, you can live through this, you can..."

"Tony," Bruce said, and looked up at the Hulk. "It's not that... he's here."

"So let him save you!" Tony demanded.

"How? He's there, I'm here! I'm not a gamma battery anymore!" Bruce retorted angrily.

Then his eyes opened very wide.

"But Hulk is," Tony said, following his train of thought.

"We need Thor," Bruce said, a huge nebulous hope swelling in his chest. "Get him. I'll..."

"Right," Tony said, and the face-plate snapped shut. His repulsors ignited and he headed for the door – before doubling back, his face uncovering and stealing a hard kiss.

"I want to make you bark like a sea-lion," he murmured. "I kinda think you deserve to know that."

Blinking, Bruce gaped as Tony grinned, and then Iron Man was gone.

"Tony," Hulk said, and snuffled into Bruce's hair.

"Don't you start," Bruce said, and his emotions were churning so fast he felt like he was going to be sick. How long had he denied his own feelings?

Jesus fucking Christ.

Tony made him feel things. Tony dug underneath his walls. Tony stretched his horizons. Tony pushed him, prodded him, made him think, made him want to be a better man. Tony listened; Tony laughed; Tony understood. It was Tony he came back for every time he ran away. Tony forced him to listen to the hard truths, and calmed his greener side. Tony had never been afraid of him, Tony reminded him that he was human. He could fight and snark and science and bicker with Tony forever.

Some genius, Banner – you can outwit a supervillain, but still manage remain ignorant of your apparently very intense attraction to your very male, very charming, very out-of-your-league friend.

But Tony had kissed him and – oh god, the pain was obviously turning him into some simpering idiot. Focus.

"Tony?" Hulk said plaintively, and Bruce groaned a little. Evidently neither of them was easily dissuaded.

Oh, of course. Hulk loved Tony. Loved him. And Bruce was a fool, and possibly deaf, dumb and blind, and what was Tony thinking, wanting Bruce? Why would he want poison like him?

Hulk growled, his eyebrows raised as he glared down at him, and Bruce checked his thoughts. Okay, not helpful.

"Bruce is good," Hulk said flatly. "Hulk knows."

"You can feel my thoughts again," Bruce said, and he knew his smile must be very twisted. "Then you know..."

"Not much time," Hulk finished. "Bruce-thoughts, all sparkle and zip and zing." He sighed out, an aching sound. "Better. Better."

"Hulk," Bruce said, and rubbed at his face, no doubt smearing blood and tears and god knows what across it. "We need to get under that dome. You see the dome?"

Hulk turned slowly, Bruce still clutched in his arms like a teddy bear. "Hulk sees."

"We need to be under it. It's the only way to save me, but..." he took a deep breath, "it'll put us back together."

Hulk's brow furrowed. "Like before."

"No," Bruce said, and laid his hand on Hulk's. He'd never be able to do that again, if it worked. "No. Not like before. This time, we share. You have your rules, and I have mine."

"No traps? Hulk can be free?"

"We both can," Bruce said, and squeezed that huge hand. "We'll talk, somehow. We'll work this out. Together, yeah?"

"But..." Hulk's shoulders slumped and his face drew down into forlorn, unhappy lines. Then he raised his hand and touched Bruce's hair, his face. "Hulk needs..."

"I know," Bruce said, and grasped one of those huge fingers. "I know."

Hulk bowed his head and growled for a moment, mulling it over. Then he looked up. There were traces of tears on his huge face as well.

"Hulk will miss Bruce," he said quietly.

Bruce threw his arms around his neck and held on for a long, long time.

"One God of Thunder, as ordered. JARVIS tells me that thing has two minutes before it reaches fusion," Tony's mechanical voice interrupted them, and Bruce swallowed.


Hulk shook his head, but he was able to pull the hatch off the dome anyway. He hunkered down in order to fit through, and then smashed the broken hatch against the doorway once inside. The evil-looking bomb bleeped and whirred, and Bruce could vaguely make out the levels through his useless eyes.

Hulk looked around the dome for a moment, nudging one of the desks of computers absently and knocking it over. Then he placed Bruce on his knee, his huge hands hovering over the raw meat of his leg.

"Gone, after?" he said, and raised his eyes to Bruce's.

"Just like always," Bruce confirmed sadly, and smoothed the wiry hair.

"Bruce first? Or Hulk?"

Bruce smiled. "Does it matter? It's not like we're different people."

Hulk smiled back tentatively. It wasn't his normal savage grin, but a small smile with covered teeth. It made him look more like a child than ever. "Hulk lets Bruce watch from now on," he said.

Bruce's mouth dropped open for a second, and then he nodded. "You too. Unless..." He trailed off and squirmed a little, thinking of what Tony had said. Hulk definitely picked up on how he felt, because he rolled his eyes and laughed, a booming, rattling sound in the cramped space.

"Hulk knows. Hulk will sleep," he said. The beeping of the bomb began to rise in pitch, and damn it, this was it. This was it, and it would either kill them or put them back together, and either way they were never to touch like this ever again.

Bruce met Tony's eyes. The engineer was speaking rapidly to Thor, who had his hammer held out in preparation.

Lightning. A natural source of electricity – and gamma rays.

Tony swallowed hard, and nodded once. Bruce took a deep breath before turning to Hulk again.

"Make sure to follow your Rules," Bruce said, as urgently as he dared, and smoothed his bloody hands over Hulk's face again before giving that grubby green forehead a hard, frantic kiss. "Clean your teeth, and don't argue with Steve and Tony if they say you need a shower," he breathed against that gamma-warm skin. "Don't ever do anything Clint says, ever. If you get angry, go and see Thor – he likes to fight. Be nice to Natasha, she likes you now. Uh, watch where you're going, doors are not optional, and I know it's hard but try to keep damage to a minimum... and..."

In the distance, he heard Tony's voice saying, "Now!" and the crackle of Mjolnir as she called to the skies.

"Hulk knows," he repeated, and great green arms enfolded him, holding him close. "Love Bruce."

Bruce choked.

"Bye-bye," Hulk added softly.

"Love you too, you lonely, angry little boy," Bruce whispered, and the world went white.

Chapter Text

Him that is Them

White. White everywhere. A sound like rushing water in his ears, and they are drowning, drowning

The white swirls and rushes through him (them) and sweeps him (them) away, down into the tunnel and

They are both screaming

They are both undone, both stripped and skinned and laid bare

They are both

Screaming, and

There is a quiet moment between two men late at night in a laboratory and they carefully hand each other the keys to their souls

There is a kitten made of stone and it is a present, the first one he has ever given

There is a nightmare and a song, and it makes the bad things go away

There is a breakfast and a confession that breaks them open, and he hands pieces of himself to these people and hopes they will not lose them

There is guilt and balloons and paint

There is guilt and quantum physics and tea

There is a fight that is not a fight and Thor laughs, loud and bright and joyous, Thor is old but his scars lie close to the surface and his failures are draped proudly around him like a cloak (he wears his hard-won wisdom like a crown - no, Shouty Long-Hair is not so bad)

There is a fight that is not a fight, and Tony drinks and swears and removes the blinkers from his blind, unseeing eyes, shows him the truth and he cannot face it (he hides and runs and buries his head in the sand)

There is a shower, and NOT a stupid bath, because he hates stupid baths, and Steve is a man made of stars who badgers and fusses publicly and worries privately about their happiness because they are his to protect, everything is his to protect (their leader, their Captain, their Team Dad)

There is a man and he is cruel and Mummy cries and then she dies and he is alone with the monsters, both inside and outside his head

There is a woman who understands them so well that it scares her, and Natasha's understanding cuts deep as knives (her words are as heavy as trust and she is red as blood and black as secrets and pale as forgiveness)

There are bubbles and he likes them and hands in his hair and no-one smells like fear and the only one screaming is himself

There are paintings that are mirror images and he falls apart in his own arms and screams at his own hands and rips at his own soul and rails at his own actions and he hates it and he loves it and he can do nothing but accept it

There are experiments and he is happy and he has a secret too, a secret best good experiment, and they will not be alone (they have never been alone)

There is a fight that is a fight, they smash at each other with words and he is numb and he is stupid and they are angry

There is Tony and he is special, and he talks to them both, he tries and tries to see where their ragged and torn edges match up, where they were ripped apart, and Tony was ripped apart too (Tony has been cut open so that the light inside him shines for everyone to see and he is special, Tony is special)

There is a gun that is not a gun, and Banner is hurt, hurt, hurt because he always hurts himself, he has always had such a talent for self-destruction

There is a man who lies for them easily with a fearless grin in his eyes and stubborn loyalty in his words and sarcasm crowding behind his teeth and Clint never misses his target (he knows, too, what it is to be turned inside out, he calls them Jade Doc Jaws Bruce)

There is a Rule for mistakes and a Rule for smash and a Rule for sorry

There is a kiss like a brand on his mouth, greedy and claiming and possessive

There is a kiss like a benediction on his forehead, and he is loved, he is good

There is Robert Bruce Banner; a genius, a failure, a collapsed star, a man

There is the Incredible Hulk; a monster, a mountain, a maelstrom, a child

There is Him that is Them

There is a collision and a supernova

There are two and they are the same

There is a great black darkness rushing to meet them -


The interior of that weird shield thing glowed like a star as ropes of jagged light smashed into it, crackling through the ceiling and bathing the dome. It was too bright to look at, and Tony closed the visor of his suit and tried not to panic.

He'd be fine. Bruce would be fine. Hulk would be...

"Enough," he croaked, "Thor, quit it, that's enough!"

Thor lowered the hammer and ended the flickering lightning, his face grave. He had punched a hole in the roof that was smouldering gently around the edges, and it would no doubt mature into a fully-grown fire if they didn't do something about it and soon.

Tony wasn't really in the mood.

"Do you think we should go and..." Thor began, and there was such uncertainty in his normally assured deep tones that Tony winced involuntarily.

"He'll..." he stopped. "Wait. Can you see anything?"

Thor turned back to the dome, which was still crackling with energy both green and white. Normally Tony thought this sort of thing was awesomely sexy. Fancy and dangerous energy source, on-the-fly science, poke it with a stick stuff? Hummina. This time? Maybe... not. This time, Tony was willing to leave well enough alone.

"Is it leaving?" Thor's brow wrinkled. "Where might the power go?"

"He's absorbing it," Tony said, and his mouth was so damned dry. "He has to. He lost... He figured it out, we had it all wrong. It's the gamma in his blood. He needed to get back to pre-Stingray levels."

"Ah," Thor nodded sagely. Then he paused. "I do not understand."

Tony patted his brawny shoulder. "That's okay," he managed. "I'll understand it for both of us."

The glow was dimming with agonising slowness, and Tony had to force himself to stay put. He couldn't see into the dome thing yet, and what the fuck was that made of? It wasn't a radiation shield because the rads hadn't been halted by it in the slightest. If Hulk and Bruce hadn't been sponging it up the whole damned world could have been subjected to it, thanks to solar winds and atmospheric pressures. Still, rads or no, that stuff had just successfully contained the physical explosion. He had to get a sample of that shit. Impervious crystalline armour, here we come.

Transparent armour might be a bit too daring a fashion choice, though.

Wait. No such thing. Yeah.

Hulk and Bruce. Were they even alive? The absorption levels on his HUD suggested they were, but the anxiety made Tony turn to Thor and demand, "Hey, you've got God-eyes or whatever. Can you see anything?"

"I am no Heimdall," Thor said. "I cannot see what lies within any more than you can."

"Someone needs something looked at?" Clint's voice rang out, and the three other members of their team rushed in. "That's my gig. So what are we – holy fuck is the Doc in there?!"

Tony swallowed, and nodded.

"Both the Doctor and the Hulk are within," Thor said quietly. "Bruce was grievously wounded."

"He could have recovered from that," said Tony from a zillion billion miles away, and his chest was full of fucking metal, that was why it was so damned heavy and why his ribs felt like they were caving in and shredding his lungs. "But not the radiation. Not without Hulk."

"Radiation?" Steve jerked. "Are we safe?"

Tony laughed and wow, he sounded like shit. The levels danced before him on his HUD. "Yeah. He's absorbing it all." He smiled even though no-one except JARVIS could see it. "Hulk's a gamma battery."

Bruce... isn't.

"You've put them back together," Natasha said slowly.

"He made the choice. They both did."

"Fuck me, that's not a choice I ever want to make," said Clint in a low tone, and turned to the glowing dome. "So I'm looking at that?"

"You're looking at that," Tony confirmed. Look hard, Birdbrain. Find him.

Clint took a few steps backwards and his eyes narrowed as they focused on the dome. Then he blew out a breath. "I can make out something."

"I can't see squat in that thing," Steve said, squinting.

Clint raised an eyebrow. "Cap. Hawkeye. Hawk. Eye. Nice to meet you."

Steve sighed. "All right, I get the message. Thor, Tony, the sit rep out there is that Ross refuses to leave without Banner."

"Asshole," Tony muttered. "But he didn't attack."

"We convinced him to sit this one out," Natasha said. "He's cordoning off the street, though. I think he's planning to pick up Bruce once he de-greens."

"Hold it, you got that knee-jerk military discharge to hold back? How'd you manage that?"

"We were very convincing," she said grimly.

"Actually, we delivered a bit of a verbal smackdown," Clint said, still peering at the slowly-dimming light. "You would've enjoyed it. Steve got pissed, and you know how military types react when Steve gets pissed. Flags start spontaneously bursting into flame, bald eagles start crying, everything in a uniform gets an Shame-erection..."

"Clint," Steve growled. "This is serious."

"See? Can't you hear their little tears falling – wait," Clint straightened a little. "I can see something - a head."

Tony's head whipped back to the dome. The light was fading faster now, but the afterimages left him blind and even the suit's sensors were no help. "Can you tell if it's Hulk or Bruce?"

"Just that it has a head."

"Well, is it big or small?" Tony said impatiently.

Clint scowled. "You wanna do this? No? Shut up and let me look."

"The Hulk can take more than this," Steve said reassuringly as he pushed his cowl back and regarded the dome. Despite his words and tone, his face was worried. "They'll be okay."

I hope, I hope, I hope.

"Will Hulk be lucid?" Natasha asked.

Tony gave a half-hearted shrug. "He came back to himself the minute he touched Bruce. It was... he was..."

Angry. Painful. Funny. Heartbreaking. Wonderful. Tragic. Incredible. All those things that belonged to Hulk; that made him Hulk.

Natasha looked at him as though she could see his face under the mask. "Oh," she said, and her usually hard eyes softened slightly. "Oh, Tony. You figured it out."

Fuck. Spies and assassins and living with creepy people who knew everything, goddamn it, he was starting up a petition to have them all shipped out to their own little hyper vigilant colony where they could stab necks with needles and analyse each other to their suspicious little hearts' content.

"No thanks to you," he said, and glared at the dome (and not at Natasha, because he wasn't an idiot).

"Well, you weren't exactly subtle," Clint put in.

"I noticed," said Steve, sounding a little proud of himself even under the circumstances.

Aw, man, Steve too? Well, at least Thor hadn't noticed.

"Is it customary to speak of such things on Earth?" Thor said, his face uncertain. "Your television programs and movies have led me to believe that there would be misunderstandings and ah, shen... shenanigans, and that others with more sense were not encouraged to intervene."

Clint made a strangled noise in his throat. "Um. No. That's just to enhance the drama," he said.

"Oh." Thor scowled. "Your entertainment is highly misleading."

"I hate you all with a deep and deadly loathing," Tony told them, and folded his arms.

He continued to glare at the dome for a few beats, and then Steve's heavy hand dropped onto his armoured shoulder. "It's all right, Tony," he said, and yes, good; Captain Comfort could tell him it was going to be all right 24/7. He felt like he was wound up tighter than Clint's bowstring. He was practically thrumming with tension.

Bruce. Come on, you beautiful bastard, what are you waiting for, an audience?

"Tony," Clint said, and nudged him. "The Doc's a tough guy. He'll be fine."

He ignored that, and took a short, shaky breath. "Can you see anything now?"

Clint turned back to the dome. Then his eyes narrowed a little. "Wait."

At that moment, a massive green fist broke through the barrier with a shattering crack, sending shards of transparent material everywhere. Gotta get me some of that, thought part of Tony's mind.

The rest of him was mesmerised by the sight of the Hulk smashing his way out of the bomb-chamber, light spilling around his bulky, colossal body. He brushed the shards off his arms and stood slowly, unfolding himself to his full, towering height.

"Hulk?" asked Tony, and he unsnapped the mask and took a wobbly step forwards. "Hulk, you all right? Is Bruce..."

The Hulk breathed in deeply, massive chest rising and falling steadily. His eyes closed with a deliberate finality even as a small frown crossed his lips.

"Hulkster?" Tony urged, and something small and spiky scrabbled at the inside of his throat. "Hulk..."

Waiting. He'd never been good with waiting. And there was a pulse in his blood that kept in time with the constant mantra of Bruce Bruce Bruce echoing in his head, and this had been a really long day.

Hulk's eyes opened, and a wistful look briefly passed over his face. Then he met Tony's frantic gaze.

"Is Bruce okay? Is he there?" Wow, desperate much, Stark? "Did it work?"

"Bruce," said the Hulk, and smiled his savage smile.

Then he tapped the side of his head with a great finger.

"He's in there? He's back?" Tony couldn't find his breath, and Hulk's grinning face was blurring in and out of focus. "He's okay?"

Hulk shook out his heavy shoulders, a loose and languid movement. Then he tipped his head back as he closed his eyes again for a moment, breathing slowly.

"Bruce good," he rumbled, and opened his eyes.

"Wait, did he..." Clint blurted.

"He did," Natasha said softly. "They did."

Hulk huffed shortly, before dropping into his normal half-crouch and knuckling towards them. He seemed somehow greener than before. More vibrant. Whole.

"Can you... can you show me?" Tony asked, his chest squeezing tightly, and he took another step forward as Hulk reached them. The giant huffed down at Tony, and touched the armour with a fond, gentle forefinger.

Then his green eyes twinkled with a hint of brown, and he grunted.

"Is Junior's turn to drive. Squirrel should stop worrying about Moose."

A stunned noise burst out of him, rattling his ribs and stealing his breath. He felt like he was deflating as he gabbled, "Moose. You... oh my god. You're okay. You're okay. Thank fuck you're okay. Moose and squirr – Jesus, you're fucking adorable."

Hulk gave him a weary sort of look that was one hundred percent Bruce Banner, and sighed like a bellows. "Language, Tony."

"Whatever you say," Tony said, and his grin was threatening to split his skin, and damn it, he should have kept the mask down because god knows what his face was right now.

"He's fine," said Steve in relief.

Hulk rumbled in agreement. "Nothing hurts Hulk."

"No, I meant-"

"Big head small talky man," Hulk interrupted, and his face set into hard, unyielding lines. "What happen now?"

"He's on the helicarrier," said Tony, still grinning like a lunatic. "You did it. Hill and Fury put him in a null-chamber where he can't hurt anyone."

"Will get out," Hulk predicted darkly, and Steve gaped at him.

"What, wait? Hang on, the Hulk is hearing Bruce?"

"Right..." Clint said, and tapped his thigh absently as he gazed up at the ceiling, his face quizzical. "So, our lives are fucking insane, show of hands?"

All hands rose – even Hulk's. His eyes flashed brown again. "Need both hands up. And feet," he added rather sourly.

"Seconded," said Tony, and gulped. "Evidence is stacking up, you guys. He's awake. They're both awake. What the fuck."

"Aye," Thor said, and rubbed his forehead. "Odin's blood. I despair of ever understanding your Midgardian science."

"Don't knock it til you've tried it, Goldilocks," Tony said, and then he smirked as the relief bubbled up through him like clear cool water. "Oh wait. You're hammering Jane Foster, never mind."

"Be careful, my friend," Thor muttered, and Clint sniggered.

"That madman isn't getting out anytime soon," said Steve, and he rested his hand on Hulk's huge, corded arm. "You stopped him. You saved the world."

Hulk grinned. "Hulk's job."

"So one crisis down, one to go," Clint said, and gave the giant a disbelieving, crooked grin. "Must be a Thursday."

"Right. We need to get him past Ross," Natasha said.

At that name, Hulk growled low and long. Tony patted his hand gingerly. "Calm down big guy, and tell the little guy to quit panicking in there," he muttered, and Hulk shifted a little between his feet as he frowned. It was a Hulk-frown, not a Bruce-frown; his face was drawn down into childish anger rather than the harsh and determined lines of only seconds before. The difference was astounding.

"Not picnicking," he groused petulantly, and Tony stifled a (well, what no doubt would have been a somewhat hysterical) laugh. So they weren't totally integrated. Still, whatever they were now, it was going to be fun.

"People. Ross is still in situ, and he won't wait forever," Natasha said, and held out her hands as if to say, how do you convince a moron?

Hulk bared his teeth soundlessly, and his muscles bunched under Tony's metal-clad hands. "Hulk smash Ross!"

"Actually," Tony said, and tilted his head. "You think you could put Bruce on the line?"

Hulk raised his eyebrows. "Need Bruce? Bruce awake. Bruce watching."

Oooh, interesting. "But Ross wants to shoot at you. Not Bruce. Maybe we could smuggle him past that douchenozzle, but you're just a bit conspicuous, Big Guy."

Hulk shrugged. "No. Ross knows both Bruce and Hulk. Hulk not so easy to shoot."

"Holy fuck, he is razor-sharp now," said Clint, looking up at him in surprise. "Can he access Bruce's memories, do you think?"

Hulk grinned, his blunt teeth glinting. "Yes. No different. All Hulk's now."

Then he straightened and his rough brow creased in thought. His tongue absently wetted his lips in such a perfectly Bruce manner that Tony could only stare at him, dumbfounded. "Bruce has idea."

"Before we go anywhere," Tony said, still staring at him, "there is something that absolutely has to happen."

It only took a second to throw his hands around the thick neck and collapse into those massive, warm, waiting arms. They closed around him and the Hulk (plus one) held him tight.

"Let's not do that again, okay?" Tony muttered against his chest.

Then the Earth's Mightiest Heroes were piling onto their heavy hitter with shouts and exclamations and bellows of relief, because they were selfish and greedy party poopers who wanted in on Tony's awesome Hulk Hug. Clint gently tapped Hulk's fist with his own. Natasha carefully took a platter-sized hand in hers, before looking up at him with shining eyes set in her customary expressionless face. Steve was affectionately scruffing at the green and black curls, and Thor had an arm draped carelessly over mammoth shoulders. Hulk laughed aloud like a contented earthquake.

"Team," he said.


"General Ross, you have been told to stand down!" Maria Hill said, eyeing the man with distaste. Even though SHIELD had worked with this man during the Hulk's early years, he hadn't ever been one to listen to others' advice. Privately, she could admit that she rather disliked him.

"You don't know what you're up against, young lady," Ross said contemptuously, leaning against a truly ugly-looking experimental tank. Behind him, two dozen men were lined up and four hummers in camouflage readied their missiles. "Minute the Hulk comes out of that building, you're gonna be begging me to save your asses. Let's save some time here. Get back onto your pretty little plane and we'll take care of it for you."

Oh yes, she disliked him, and that was why.

"Sir, we know exactly what the Hulk is capable of," she said levelly, and lifted her gun to aim it steadily between the idiot's eyes. "You have your orders."

"I don't take orders from some antique in a unitard," Ross sneered. Some of his men shifted uneasily.


"I'm sorry, did you just call Captain America an antique in a unitard?" she said, sweet as acid.

The men glanced at each other.

"All right, but you know what I mean. That is not a military chain of command, Deputy Hill," he said, leaning on her name and title until it sounded derisive. "No goddamned Captain tells me what to do."

"Then let me confirm that order, Sir," she barked, and nodded to the contingent of agents with her. Morse shouted a couple of words, and every gun was levelled at Ross with an ominous clacking noise. "You are to stand down, I repeat, stand down. This is a SHIELD salvage mission, and you are a known trigger for our specialist consultant."

"Specialist...!" Ross threw his head and laughed. "Does that milksop know that you call him that? Does the beast even comprehend it?" He shook his head slowly as he gave her a wide grin. "Deputy, only thing that monster understands is force. You got a taste of that, didn't you? Had a little... mishap, on that flying rig of yours?"

"That was an isolated incident," she began, but Ross interrupted her.

"Don't be a fool, girl."

"You will address me as Hill or Deputy Director," she said coolly. "It was an isolated incident. The Hulk has been a valuable and indispensable member of the Avengers ever since."

"And how long until the next isolated incident?" Ross spread his arms, indicating the debris from Hulk's rampage through New York. "Oh, how 'bout that then."

"Again, Sir, this is a mission and you are jeopardising it!" she said, frustrated with the pomposity and arrogance of the man. She'd rather deal with Tony Stark than this blinkered, blinded idiot.

"Did the mission statement include wholesale property damage and loss of life?"

"Oh, fuck you, Sir," she said before she could censor herself. "He didn't kill anyone."

"What about next time?" he said, and leaned forward as he gave her a pointed look. "You should get that thing away from the real heroes and experts; put it where it can't be a threat. I can do that for you. Banner's no specialist consultant, damn it, the man's a weakling and a wimp, and the Hulk is a lit fuse just waiting to blow this city sky high. You know I'm right."

"You won't be getting him, green or not," said Maria sternly. "One last time, General. Stand. Down."

"Shame," he said, and lit a cigar. "Was hoping not to have to fight you lot as well. Still, I should've known you wouldn't see sen-"

"Sir!" one of Ross' men yelped, and Maria whirled to see a flash of green in the warehouse doorway. Her agents immediately lifted their weapons out of firing position, holstering them and standing at rest.

"GET THAT THING LOADED!" Ross roared. Maria lifted her hand to her earpiece.

"This is Hill," she said tersely. "General Ross is refusing to follow orders. He is executing offensive action against the Hulk in order to bring it into custody, do you copy?"

The Black Widow's voice crackled over the line. "Don't worry, Deputy. We've got this."

She could hear the grin in Hawkeye's voice as he added, "Hulk is aaaaall over it." A pause, and then Clint said, "Hey, what are you wearing?"

She hung up on him.

Another flash of green at the door brought her gun up once more, and in the corner of her eye she saw Ross' smirk and longed to punch it off his face. She forced her arm to come down and her heartbeat to slow, even as the Hulk ducked his head under the doorway and eased his way onto the street.

Iron Man was limp in his arms.

"Hold your fire!" Ross said, and frustration clanged in every syllable. "Wait til he puts the man down!"

Hulk glanced over at him once, and his face flickered with hatred and resentment. And yet he didn't attack. He walked forward, his footsteps creating dull tremors, until he was standing directly before that experimental tank prototype.

"Human shield?" Maria whispered into her comm.

"Wait for it." Clint said, sounding rather gleeful.

Hulk gazed around at the assembled military might, and his shoulders seemed to slump slightly. Then he reached out with one hand, took hold of the tank's cannon, and wrenched sharply until it was pointing directly at the sky.

Well, that took care of that, she supposed.

The Hulk snorted scornfully at the now-useless tank, and sat heavily in the centre of the road. He hefted the body in his arms once.

Ross' eyes darted to her, and then he waved a hand. His troops began to move in on the quietly sitting giant.

"Hey Maria?" Clint's voice crackled over the comm. "Now might be a really good time to surround those guys."

"Where are you?" she hissed, even as she gave the signal.

"Stealing their jeeps," Natasha said, amusement lilting her voice.


The men were nearly on the Hulk, though he had made no move to attack them. The nearest of Ross' command were trembling violently, the guns in their hands visibly shaking. Hulk ignored them all, holding the Iron Man suit gently.

"Now!" Ross barked, and then Hulk looked up, and grinned.

With a sputtering roar, Iron Man's repulsors lit and he launched faster than the eye could see from the Hulk's arms. He span around the seated green figure in a whirlwind of red and gold, and in his wake the hapless troops shouted and swore, shaking their stinging fingers.

The gleaming battle suit came to a halt above the Hulk's head, and with a clatter, the guns the troops had been holding fell down into Hulk's outstretched hand, where they were casually crushed into a ball of twisted metal. "Don't pick on my friends," came Tony Stark's mechanised voice.

All right, the guy was a pain in the ass but he could occasionally be somewhat impressive.

Ross seethed for half a second, before turning to the hummers. "Missiles, fire when ready!" he growled at them.

"Sir, are you sure you want me to do that?" came a familiar voice. Hill shared a look with Morse, who was laughing aloud even as she trained her gun on the disarmed soldiers.

"Just fire, damn you!" Ross shouted.

"You're the boss," said Hawkeye, appearing from the top of a humvee. His bow sang.

The tank exploded.

Maria lifted a hand to shield her face, only to find that a huge gust of wind was already sucking the air out of the area and stifling the flames. She squinted up into the night sky to see Thor atop a nearby building, his hammer whirling madly.

Clint bowed, grinning like a fool. "And that, right there, is why you shouldn't make fun of my bow and arrows."

Ross' eyes bulged and he looked on the verge of apoplexy.

"I really wouldn't, son," said a quiet voice, and Ross span on his heel at the sound, only to nearly collide with the chest of Captain America. "Wouldn't want to have to fight this antique, after all."

Ross made an inarticulate sound of outrage, and reached for his walkie-talkie.

"Missing something, worm?" Natasha said, holding it by a finger as she lounged behind the wheel of a humvee.

Ross turned, his face stained red with anger. His men were on their knees, their hands behind their heads while SHIELD agents trained their weapons on them. His artillery was out of reach or out of commission. And the Hulk hadn't thrown a single punch.

His furious glare landed on the monster, who was still sitting quite peacefully on the ground. His eyes were tinted brown, and he looked to be somewhat grimly amused.

"Ross," Hulk said, and huffed disdainfully.

"You...!" Ross snarled, and lifted his gun. He fired two rounds at the Hulk and they bounced off harmlessly, though one of his men fell screaming as a bullet passed through his leg.

"General, you will cease fire now!" Maria snapped, and began to move towards the clearly unhinged man, nodding Sitwell towards the injured one.

Ross was close to speechless. "You...!" he raged, and Hulk rolled his eyes.

"Hulk," he affirmed, and the unspoken 'duh' was clearly heard by everyone. Morse actually let out a shocked chuckle.

"Ah-ah-ah, no closer there, Walrus-face," said Iron Man warningly, his hand outstretched. "No more shooting of innocent civilians."

"All Ross ever do is shoot," Hulk muttered.

"You... it... this is... got to be under..." Ross spluttered, and Maria moved into intercept position behind him on silent feet, her gun level with the man's grey head

Hulk met her eyes, and she'd never understood the phrase 'blood running cold' before – but holy crap, the Hulk met her eyes and it froze solid in her veins. Then he winked.


"General Ross," she said, suddenly off-balance and trying to hide it, "you will come with me into SHIELD custody to answer for this fiasco, for the blatant refusal to follow orders, for the endangerment of civilian lives and for the premeditated kidnapping and imprisonment of a SHIELD consultant."

Ross turned to her. "You think that'll stop me?" he spat.

A hand tapped him on the shoulder. The General turned once more, and Bruce Banner punched him squarely in the mouth. He went down like a sack of potatoes.

"Maybe that will," said Banner with some (understandable) satisfaction, and then massaged his hand. "Ow."

"Doctor..." Maria said, before breaking off and shaking her head helplessly. "Good to see you safe."

"Deputy Hill. Nice to be safe," he said politely. Then he looked down at the puddle of fabric at his feet. "Um. Please excuse the pants."

"Excused," she said faintly.

"I like that look on you," said Stark as he landed beside Banner, his faceplate flipping up. "You have a heartbreaking little ass, did you know?"

The Doctor rubbed his forehead, and was it her imagination or did his eyes flicker to green for a second? "I'll break yours in a moment."

"You're welcome to break my ass any time you want." Stark leered. Banner groaned, hiding a twitching smile.

"You're impossible," he muttered.

"You love it."

Banner looked up, and his eyes were hazel. "Yeah," he said heavily. "We do."

Then they wrapped each other in such a swift and tight embrace that Maria could clearly hear the thwack of Banner's hands against the metal of Stark's suit.

A little too much information. Still. Nick would want to know.

Shit, had they even created a fraternisation policy for the Initiative?

She frogmarched the cuffed and woozy General 'Thunderbolt' Ross over to Morse, and she and Sitwell loaded up the bird to take the men to the helicarrier. From there they would be processed, Ross' supply and funding examined, and the prisoners transferred to the appropriate authorities.

She looked back at where Thor was thoughtfully draping his cloak over Banner, and the Black Widow was actually smiling. Clint was saying something, his hands moving quickly and his expression smug, and Rogers was watching the others with such a peaceful look on his face that it hurt.

In the centre, Banner laughed quietly at something Stark said, before moving towards her with the red cloak pulled tightly around him. He looked rather ridiculously small in it, a little boy playing dress-up in his father's clothes. "Deputy, sorry. One thing?"

She turned at the doors of her bird and raised her eyebrows.

"What will happen with them? Sterns and Ross?"

"At this point?" She heaved a sigh. "We have no idea. We're still processing everything that's happened. You've had a busy day, Doctor."

"And I'd like it to be over now," he said, and his tongue darted out to swipe his lips nervously. "Thanks for taking care of them."

"You're welcome." She paused, studying his expression. Mistrust. A little fear. Defiance. Worry. Well, with his history, of course you'd be a little cynical regarding the motives of a military organisation. "You know, you're a SHIELD asset," she said.

His brow creased a little. "I heard."

Hulk had heard that, not Banner. She wasn't sure where that line was drawn anymore. "I won't insult you by telling you to trust us," she said and heard his snort. "But we're not going to use this to blackmail you into anything, or to foster some sort of obligation in you. Fury trusts you. You're one of the Avengers."

His lips quirked. "Sure am."

"SHIELD looks after its own, Doctor," she said, and turned to walk up the ramp into the bird. "I'll expect a report sometime tomorrow. Take your time."

God, the paperwork was going to be hell on this one.

Bruce ( Hulk )

Thor's cape was heavier than it looked, and it wasn't nearly enough to keep out the chill as Tony flew them back to Avengers Tower. The edge of it kept flapping about. Bruce was acutely aware that a random passerby below with decent night vision and binoculars could be treated to a fantastic view of his ass.

Tony set them down on the platform, keeping one hand against his shoulderblades to steady him against the strong winds that buffeted the Tower at that altitude. He clutched at the material around him and scurried into the building as quickly as possible. Tony followed, the suit folding down around him to return to an innocuous-looking briefcase.

It was heavenly to move without pain for the first time in weeks and Bruce couldn't help but stretch out his legs a little and shake his arms. So good.

Food now?

In a minute, Bruce told Hulk. He had to get clean first. He was still covered in random streaks of his own blood, not to mention the grime of a warehouse floor and what felt like an entire bucket of sweat. Shower first, then food.

"Hey," Tony said gently. "All right there?"

Bruce let out a soft, huffing laugh. "Just... getting used to some... new things."

"Your eyes went green."


"Yep." Tony popped the 'p' a little, tilting his head as he stowed the briefcase into a technical-looking chute. "Hulk's went brown too. I think he was listening to you."

"Huh." Bruce glanced over at the mirrored surface behind the bar. What do you want to eat?

Don't care. Hungry.

Sure enough, his eyes flared green. Hmm. That could be inconvenient.

"That is so badass," Tony said, envy dripping in every word.

"Comes with a few drawbacks I could name."

"And looks fucking badass, did I mention badass? I'm sure I mentioned badass."

"So invent yourself some contacts, smart guy," Bruce retorted. Tony gave him a bright, fierce look before taking his chin in one hand and kissing him hard.

"Damn I love it when you're sassy," he murmured, before sauntering towards the bar.

The feeling that welled up within him was rusty and strange from disuse. Romantic affection, his logical side supplied. Tony is special, Hulk added, and Bruce rubbed a hand through his hair as he observed Tony digging in cupboards and pulling out glasses and a bottle.

Yes, he said to Hulk. Yes, he is.

"Soooo," Tony said, and he poured out some scotch into two glasses, handing one to Bruce and plunking himself down on one of his tall stools. "Are you two all right with Humpty being put back together? Sterns didn't really leave you much of a choice, after all."

"I..." Bruce stopped, and took the stool next to him. "I don't know. We haven't worked anything out yet."

Hulk wants food.

"Except that Hulk's hungry," Bruce added and rolled his eyes. "He's getting pretty insistent about it."

"Maybe he can come out for dinner then?"

"If he likes," Bruce said, and took a hesitant sip of the drink. Uncertainty washed through both halves of him. They were entering new territory now. Would every change be negotiated? Would there be set times for Hulk, set times for Bruce? Who would sleep, who would eat, who would bathe?

Bruce can do all the baths.

Oh, thanks.

Bruce welcome. He could practically see Hulk's bestial smile. It even tugged at the corners of his mouth.

"You'll figure it out," Tony said, and his confidence was so bulletproof that Bruce straightened slightly despite himself. "You two are, what, integrated now? Is that the term?"

"No, I don't think so," Bruce said. "We're not sharing everything, after all. He's still Hulk, and I'm still Bruce. We're not a totally merged mental entity, and we're not a physical amalgamation either."

"Wonder what that'd look like? Sort of a pale-green Thor?"

"...I refuse to think about that."

"That'd be so awesome."

"No it wouldn't. Anyway, we're not totally like we were before either. I can change faster, I think. We can share thoughts. And I can hear him perfectly."

Tony nearly spat out his drink. "In your head?"


"Okay," Tony said blankly. "Wow."

Bruce smiled, though he could feel that it was twisted as hell. "I know."

"So when you're both awake..."

"No, there's no both in that now," Bruce said thoughtfully, swirling the glass before taking another sip. Ungh, god, he wasn't a huge fan of scotch. Too many bad memories. "I'm awake, that's all there is to it. Which me is driving doesn't matter. But we can let each other watch. It looks like we can also let each other, uh, comment?"


"Best metaphor I can think of," he said wryly. "Hulk seems to be a bit of a backseat driver."

"Well, he would be. Bet he thinks the same about you. So one's the driver and the other one... what, watches and comments? It's like metaphysical Youtube."

"Except the comments are vastly more intelligent," Bruce said, raising his eyebrows. Tony snickered.

Bruce looked down at his glass and at the cape still clutched around his bloody, dirty body. His skin prickled. "Look, not that I don't like this because I do, but I need a shower."

Tony perked up. "Can I watch too? Because watching's the new thing and all."

Bruce pinched his nose even as Hulk laughed deep within. "Sure, why not," he said eventually. "Nothing you haven't seen, and anyway I just flashed every single rooftop in Manhattan."

"I warn you," Tony said, pointing to him with the glass, "I'm the jealous type."

"No you're not," Bruce said, and grinned at him. "And you're the one who brought up Youtube."

Tony gave a minute shrug and grinned back. "Okay, I'm not, but you're still not getting out of my sight," he said and tugged Bruce's arm until he slid off the stool. His fingers clutched at the crook of his elbow, slipping through the fabric of the cape. "Hey, have I showed off my bathroom to you yet? No? Oh god, it is so bad it's glorious and you're going to hate it because you're Mister Austerity, but you know what? You got kidnapped and tortured and nearly died; you can shut up about it for a day. Seriously, it is decadent with a capital D, like, fall of the Roman Empire type stuff."

"Tony, I'm okay," Bruce said, stopping and putting the half-empty glass down. His fingers laced over Tony's long, nimble ones and squeezed. "I'm here."

Tony's jaw rippled, and his free hand suddenly grasped the back of Bruce's neck. "You nearly died," he grated.

"We do that," Bruce said. "We're the Avengers. We can't go a month without someone coming back from the dead trailing clouds of glory."

"Just..." Tony bit out, and his hand tightened on Bruce's neck before smoothing out the hair at his nape. "No, don't fucking joke about it," he said, voice low and rough. "You nearly fucking died."

Hulk moved behind his eyes, and Bruce lowered his briefly-green gaze. "Yeah. I know."

"Don't," Tony hissed.

Taking in a breath, Bruce lifted his hand and hesitantly traced the sharp edges of Tony's goatee. "I can't promise that," he said quietly, "any more than you can. We do what we do, Tony."

Tony dropped his head onto Bruce's shoulder. They stood still for a moment, and Bruce allowed his hands to move to the small of Tony's back where his spine curved inwards.

"Radiation poisoning," Tony said and his voice wavered and cracked. "How fucking ironic."

Thinking back to the horrible lassitude in his mind, Bruce couldn't help but say, "actually, my leg and the separation from Hulk were far worse than that."

"Shut up," Tony hissed, and pressed his forehead against Bruce's so hard it would leave a red mark on his skin. "Shut up. You stupid, brave, beautiful, masochistic jerk."

"I'm masochistic?" Bruce had to say in disbelief. "Tony, you've been atoning for years. You wear your hair shirts under your goddamned skin!"

Tony shook his head, and kissed him again. "So do you," he murmured.

Warm, so warm and there and real, mouth hungry and insistent and greedy and Tony is special.

"God, aren't we a pair," whispered Bruce against those lips.

"Not like you figured it out either," Tony said a trifle sulkily. He tasted like scotch and fear.


"Everyone knew," Tony said and rested his head against his forehead once more. "We may need to hand in our Genius cards."

"Everyone?" Bruce blurted. Christ, how embarrassing.

"Well, they knew about me. Not sure about you. You hold your cards pretty close, Bruciekins."

"Can we dispense with the pet names?"

Tony smirked. "Never."

"I hate you."

"I luuh," Tony said, and then he sucked in a breath. "I hate you too. I hate you so, so damned much."

Bruce drew back a little, his eyes widening. "You..."



"Shut up, I didn't say anything, shut up, shut up now," he said harshly, and kissed him again as though he would disappear by morning.

Head spinning, Bruce lifted his hand and touched the long line of Tony's throat, the glow of the reactor pulsing under his black shirt. "God," he said faintly.

"I also answer to Tony."

"You're such a dick," he said, and a massive formless happiness was crowding through him, so huge and all-encompassing that he was slightly afraid of it.

Everything was different. Everything was changed, and Bruce didn't do happiness. He wasn't good at being happy.

He'd learn.

Good, Hulk rumbled, pleased.

"Come on," he said. "Show me this pleasure palace you call a bathroom."

Tony muffled a laugh against the cape over Bruce's collarbone, and then he straightened. "Yeah," he said, a little husky. "Yeah. This way."

Chapter Text


"Et voila," Tony said grandly, opening the door to the bathroom. "Ablutionary shrine of sensuous carnality, all yours to use and feel slightly guilty about, knock yourself out."

"Too kind," Bruce said dryly. He unselfconsciously dropped the red cape as he walked past and glanced around the room. "This is... something. I've lived in places smaller than this."

"JARVIS? Shower, nice n' warm, no music, no graphs," Tony said, crossing to where a drawer was sliding open and two towels on a warmed holder were emerging from their compartment. A series of sluices on the brushed stone walls opened, and a gentle waterfall began to pour into the huge recessed marble hollow that doubled as the bath. The plants ringing the small pool began to droop under the steam and condensation. "You want a robe or something? Not that I'm complaining about the view, you understand."

Bruce smiled faintly. "Ah, no, that's okay. Just a towel is good, I've got my own stuff downstairs. I won't be long, don't want to use up too much water."

"Frugality." Tony affected a shudder. "How unnatural."

"To you, maybe." Bruce held a hand underneath the waterfall. "Jesus, that's good," he murmured, and stepped under it. He tipped his head back with a quiet sigh and the curls covering his head and chest began to cling and darken, turning from brown to glossy black.

Tony realised that his hand was hovering over the towels as he watched the guy shower whilst practically salivating. He turned away and picked them up after a fumble.

"Is there soap?"

"Huh?" Tony looked back to where Bruce stood. His skin was tanned all over, and this was becoming incredibly unfair. Bruce was apparently a torturer of extreme skill and finesse.

"Soap," Bruce said, and there was a smile lurking in the corners of his mouth that told him that yep, Banner had figured out exactly what Tony was thinking, and it amused the hell out of him.

Well, if Brucey-babes thought Tony Stark was going to stammer and stutter like a fool, he had another think coming.

"Sure is," he said breezily, and yanked off his shirt. "Let me just get that for you."

Bruce's eyebrows rose. "You can just tell me..."

"I would be remiss in my duties as... a something... if I didn't." Tony shucked his pants and pulled off his underwear and stood as straight as he could, letting Bruce take in the awe-inspiring phenomenon that were his abs. "Anyway, you're always naked, you're like the naked guy from naked land. I'm just respecting the traditions of your people."

"I'm from Ohio."

Tony rolled his eyes. "Move over then, Buckeye Boy."

Bruce took a step to the side and Tony ducked his head as the spray hit his shoulders. He palmed a panel on the wall, and a hidden drawer popped open from behind a stone tile, containing a wire basket filled with bottles and bars and shit.

"There we go," he said, waving a hand. "Pick whatever."

Bruce gave him an exasperated look. "Tony, this is half a store. Which one is soap?"

"They all are. Hard soap at the back for boring types, but I like liquid. It's more fun."

"You're kidding." Bruce looked down at the rack full of bottles. "Do I dare ask about the rest of those tiles?"

Tony gave him a smug smile, and began to point at them one by one. "Shampoo is behind the next tile. Conditioner past that. Then there's foot stuff, sexy stuff, stuff I bought on the internet because it looked cool, face stuff, scrubs and stuff, bubble stuff, wine cooler, minibar, cigars and cigarettes, fridge, a selection of materials for those cough-intimate-cough bathing experiences, that's cool stuff, that's stuff in case I get bored, and then there's a drawer just for stuff stuff."

"Stuff stuff."


"You are so rich it is actually sort of frightening."

Tony shrugged.

Bruce's hand lingered over the bottle with the least left inside it, and then drew it out and popped the cap. He took a sniff, and his eyes flashed green. Goddamn that was hot.

"This one is your favourite," he said thoughtfully.

"Eyes, oh my god," Tony said, and couldn't stop himself from taking a step closer to him.

Bruce's gaze flickered up to meet his, and a slow smile began to grow on those lips and fuck, now Tony wanted to kiss him again. "Hulk said it smells like Tony. That's how I could tell."

"How do you even work," he said breathlessly, and grabbed the guy by those compact, solid hips and dragged him close to kiss him hard.

"Ngggh," Bruce said indistinctly against his mouth, before giving up and returning the kiss for a couple of seconds. Then he pushed the bottle into Tony's stomach, the cap clacking against the arc reactor. "I'm filthy and about to claw my skin off," he said, eyes glinting. "Make yourself useful, you idle rich boy."

"Sir, yes sir," Tony said, using the bottle to salute. Bruce turned and presented his back, and yeah okay, the guy was sort of crusty and bloody still.

That was such a fine ass.

Washing Bruce's back first, he told his libido firmly. Then we feed the guy. Then we screw each other's brains out. Then maybe sleep, and then wash, rinse, repeat. For a week.

Bruce rumbled low in his throat as Tony began to wash his shoulders (very nice shoulders, all broad and brown and rounded with lean muscle and stop it) and his head fell forward onto his chest. "Okay, you need to stop making sounds like that," Tony muttered into his ear.

"Sorry," Bruce said, his voice thick and indistinct. "Just glad to be home. Hell of a day at the office."

That made Tony's breath hitch a bit. "Home?"

"Hmm." Bruce didn't even seem anxious about saying something so... so huge. "Yeah. Tried to deny it, but Hulk's smarter than I am when it comes to this stuff. He clued me in."

"Lift your arms," Tony said, his mind reeling a little. "Does this mean you're sticking around for a while?"

"Yeah." Bruce raised his arms – fuck, the guy was furry. "I might leave for a few weeks here and there, but that won't be for a while. And I'll always come back."

"You'd better." This was a bit much. He smoothed the soap along Bruce's ribs, still a little gaunt from years of subsistence living, and over that compact little butt. Even the very fine ass was no distraction from the absolute bomb that was that statement, and Tony tried to concentrate on washing the guy and not to think too much about that word spilling from the mouth of Bruce 'Vanishing Act' Banner.

Tony was a greedy person. Everyone knew that. He was famous for his insatiability; for sensation, for glory, for affection, for approval. Bruce, though – Bruce wasn't greedy in normal ways. He desperately wanted love and companionship and closeness but avoided them like the plague with steely determination, just in case they broke. He didn't have a home, because he was always ready to run. He didn't belong, and he didn't have belongings.

And here the poster boy for self deprivation was basically declaring that Tony's big shiny monument to his ego was his home. Whilst naked. In Tony's private shit-hot decadent bathroom. While Tony slathered him in his own favourite smell. Damn, this was getting sorta primal and hello, erection that I have been trying to ignore, I know you're there, no need to throb like that.

"If you think you're going anywhere, after almost dying and Hulk and what you just said and how good you look right now," he murmured into Bruce's ear, "I have a bridge I'd like to sell you. Turn around."

Bruce made an inarticulate sound of pleasure and turned to lean against the wall. His eyes were closed and the muck and blood on his forehead had run down his temple. Tony washed it away. Thick, white-peppered stubble rasped under his hands. Bruce's eyes opened as soap was rubbed over his chest and stomach to give him an amused look. "I'm not a dog that needs a wash, there's no need to scrub so hard."

"I've known dogs with less fur," Tony retorted. "Seriously, you could braid this mess."

Bruce smiled. "I might let you try. If it hurts too much, you can be the one to explain to Hulk."


And, well, because he was Tony Stark and Bruce Banner was standing right there and he was wet and clean and naked and he'd just declared Tony's home to be his, he kissed him. Bruce's mouth twitched, and then he opened to the kiss easily, comfortably. His hands rose to palm Tony's hips, and mmm, big broad hands, nice firm grip, no pussyfooting about. Tony cheered internally.

Bruce ended the kiss by pulling back and scrubbing one hand through his mess of curls. "Sorry to cut this short again," he said (because he was a complete asshole) as the water ran down his chest in rivulets. "I promise it's not intentional, just bad timing. Only if I don't eat now things are going to get a lot greener around here."


"Right, yeah," Tony said, moving stiffly (hah) out of the shower to the towels, away from all that goddamned skin and soft raspy hair and warm dark eyes and pretty ass and shut up, brain, you are not helpful. "JARVIS, turn it off, and we want food, lots of food. The others will be here any second, so let's make it..." he looked back to Bruce, his eyebrows raised, "six Thors?"

"Is that how we're measuring meals now?" Bruce took a towel and rubbed it over his face. "In Thors?"

"The guy can eat, is all I'm saying." Tony dragged his eyes away from the guy, only to be greeted by the same sight in the vast mirrored wall opposite the shower.

Oh, now, this was just getting cruel.

"Me, Thor and Steve... yeah, six should do it, I hope," Bruce said, and stripped the water off his legs with his hands because he was weird and had lived in places without benefit of towels and damn, damn, damn his butt was so fucking fine.

You are Tony Stark, he told himself sternly. You have fucked your way through entire netball teams. You got bored with threesomes before you were twenty-five. You have honest-to-god, hand-on-your-arc-reactor, screwed your way through a pinup calendar up to and including the Naughty December Elf Twins. You are not going to lose your poise in front of a middle-aged physicist who needs glasses, no matter how fascinating he is or how much you L-word him or how nice his butt.

Fuck it all sideways, now you're thinking about the stupid sexy glasses...

"Sooo," he said, mostly to distract himself from his thoughts. "Would a continuation of our previous activities be on the table after you've eaten?"

Not a great distraction, come to think about it.

"I don't know if the others will appreciate that sort of after-dinner entertainment."

"You are such a smartass." Tony grinned. "You know what I mean."

Bruce looked up and pursed his lips a little. "I'm not against the idea," he said, "but I might have to clear that with my better half before we do anything too, ah, strenuous."

Tony thought for a moment and then shuddered. "Yeah. That could be... bad."

Wrapping the towel around his hips, Bruce shook out his hair, spattering the mirror with droplets and sending his curls into a mad snarl atop his head. "Right," he said, and then groaned. "All right, I'm going, I'm going, we're going to eat now, okay?"

Green eyes again, holy shit. "Pants," Tony said and steered the guy by his shoulders back towards his rooms. "Closet to the left, pants are on the second rack. Get pants, whichever you want, there's tons of pants, I have all the pants. I know this is a sin against nature and blasphemy against the god of fine asses, but you should go and get some pants. I will be thinking of you, dearest, and the minutes will seem like hours until you return. With pants."

"Maybe I should just..." Bruce fidgeted with his hands, and Tony just knew he was about to suggest going downstairs to get his own clothes just in case Hulk decided to crash this party.

"Eh," he waved it away. "My pants are your pants. We practice pants-socialism in this Tower. We are a pants commune."

"Stop saying pants, it's beginning to sound less and less like a word."


Bruce only raised an eyebrow.

"He can rip as many of them as he likes," Tony added, more seriously. "I mean it."

Brown eyes dropped, and then Bruce looked up again with a bright green gaze and honest-to-god rumbled, "Tony. Thank you."

Swallowing hard, Tony tried to answer without croaking. "You're welcome, big guy."

Bruce's hand rose and lingered over his throat for a minute, and sorrow touched those green eyes. "Hulk sorry. Rule Tree."

"It's okay," he managed. "Forgiven. You weren't all there, Hulkster. You didn't have Bruce. I get it."

Bruce's hand stained green for a moment, the colour racing up his arm like fabric dipped in ink. Even his fingers felt rougher as they gently touched the rising bruises over his Adam's apple. "Hurt," Bruce said, and then he blinked back to brown.

"What the hell," Tony said to him.

"Ah," Bruce said, and looked a bit embarrassed. "So, I think we might be seeing a bit more of that in future."

"Okay," Tony said dumbly. As Bruce disappeared into the closet, Tony let a shiver take him. Ohhhh, that was awesome.

"Any of these?" Bruce called, his voice slightly overwhelmed.

"Yeah, go crazy. Grab yourself a shirt too – eighth rack. Not a band shirt, or Hulk will get all my sugar from now on."

Bruce's laugh drifted out to him, and Tony bit down on another grin before stepping back into the bathroom and tugging on his own discarded clothes. Then he regarded himself in the mirror. Beard a bit shabby, needed a trim. Not due for a shaping yet, though. Hair a crazy mess, but whatever, he was going to be next to Bruce, anyone's hair looked as neat as Steve's next to the Amazing Human Spaniel. He smoothed it back with his hands anyway, on the grounds of Always Maximise Sexiness, a rule that hadn't yet steered him wrong. Then he tilted his head and met his own eyes.

This was going to be weird for a while. Bruce was... effectively like a single parent who couldn't ever put their kid to bed. Was that it? Could they encourage Hulk to have a snooze while adults did adult things? But then, it was technically Hulk's body too, and Hulk was also as old as Bruce in a way. He wasn't really a child, no matter how childish his mind. And this line of enquiry had gotten creepy and disturbing very fast and he should wait and see what Bruce had to say before he came to any conclusions.


It wasn't Bruce's voice that said his name, and his head whipped around to see Hulk in the doorway. He was wearing a pair of Tony's sweats that had ripped severely at the knees, but his dignity had been preserved, if only barely. The elastic around the waist had stretched to a thin cord, and as Hulk ducked his head into the bathroom it gave up the ghost and snapped after what had no doubt been a valiant effort.

"Oh, hey big guy," he said, and tried not to stare a bit because he hadn't heard a damned thing. How fast could Bruce change now? Was it instantaneous?

"So hungry," Hulk boomed apologetically, and oh goddamn it, the Hulk was giving him puppy eyes, this was his life.

Hulk ( Bruce )

There is food, and it is good. Tony shows him where it is. Hulk has nearly finished when Team arrives.

You've eaten most of their share, says Bruce, but he feels like he is laughing inside their head. He is not angry; he thinks it is funny. Hulk finishes the food-thing he is eating and beams at Team.

"Hey Hulk," says Star Man (Steve, says Bruce). "Wasn't expecting to see you again today."

"They're shifting back and forth and all sorts of in-between," says Tony, and he looks up at Hulk and pats his hand.

"Doesn't it hurt?" asks Shooty Bird (Clint).

Hulk snorts. "No. No hurt so much any more. Only lots and lots of hurt when Bruce and Hulk fight each other, try to stop it. No stopping now."

"All the old rules are out the window," says Tony. He sounds like rocks feels, all hard and harsh. Hulk did that. Hulk hurt Tony's neck and now he speaks like rocks. "You should see Bruce's eyes go green. And keep watching Hulk's; they'll flash brown when Banner's talking. Oh! And Hulk talked to me with Bruce's mouth, and he sort of... possessed? Yeah, he took over one arm, kinda. It didn't get bigger, but it went green. I can't wait to see what's next, this is gonna be a complete trip."

Tony looks like his thoughts are like Bruce-thoughts, all zip and glitter and snap. He looks excited. Hulk is too hungry for excited. He wants to eat some more.

You've managed to nearly demolish everyone else's meal already. I think we've had enough.

No! Hulk is still hungry. Bruce was hurt, and Hulk was... very busy. It is no wonder they are hungry.

He lifts his plate – it is a big plate. Big for Hulk. "More?"


Hulk grumbles, and then mutters, "please?"

Well done.

Hulk preens. Tony is doing the proud-smile again. It is good.

"Brown eyes," Star Steve says, his mouth round and shocked. "I saw that."

Tony looks smug. "Toldja. Got more on the way for you, Mean Green. They'll be delivering it any second now."

"Pizza?" says Shooty Clint, looking eager. Tony nods.

Tasha says something and rolls her eyes before moving over to the place where Bruce does the water and plates, makes the hot drink and the hot food from the hot places (the kitchen – and I think you mean tea and curry. Huh, I didn't know you liked it).

"Drinks?" she asks over her shoulder, and Shouty Long Hair nods enthusiastically. He has already begun to eat the food things that are left, and Hulk frowns.

Shouty Long Hair looks up at Hulk and grins with his mouth full. He swallows and says, "I am glad to see you, Hulk. It is good to have you back with us, yourself, whole and hale." Hulk doesn't know some of those words. Thor is happy we're better, says Bruce and Hulk takes one of the last food things.

"Thank you," Hulk says without being told. Bruce smiles at him, and it is warm inside their stomach.

He eats the food thing.

If Hulk is better now, he will not hurt Team again. Hulk is so-so-so sorry he hurt Team. Hulk says so. "Sorry," he says aloud, and Bruce is shocked.

Tony wriggles his fingers, waving. "Nah, we're getting more food, you eat as much as you need to, buddy."

"No," Hulk says, and he frowns. He is not hungry for a moment. "Hulk hurt Team. Hulk hurt Team again."

Hulk keeps hurting Team. It is the most not-good ever.

"Hey," says Star-Steve, and his voice is warm like Mummy's. "You weren't yourself."

Hulk scrunches his face. "Then who was Hulk?"

"Ah..." says Tasha, returning with lots of little glasses and a big one for Hulk. "No, we can't tell him that. We shouldn't lie to him."

Clinty Bird glances at her, and then takes a drink from her as his eyes turn away and he smells like shame shame shame and old fear. "Sort of true, though," he says.

"Not the same situation at all, Clint," she says, sitting down. Shouty Thor Hair grabs a drink and gulps it.

Tasha turns to Hulk, and takes a breath. "Hulk," she says, and she is being very serious. "I know what it's like to have that happen to you. To have yourself ripped away, and yet still be the one in charge of your actions. It was you who did those things. You have to remember, though, that there were reasons for it, and it wasn't your fault."

Hulk growls. "Hulk hurt. Hulk smashed."

"Yes," she agrees calmly. "But you also found Bruce and saved him. You disgraced General Ross. You absorbed all the radiation that would have killed millions of people. I think all that more than balances your ledger."

It's like a... an account, Bruce explains. The good things and the bad things, and how they measure up to each other.

"Eyes again," murmurs Clinty Bird. Tony nods.

Hulk takes a breath and then lets it out on a big, big sigh. He is tired, and he does not feel very good about smashing Team (again, oh, Hulk is very not-good at all!) but Bruce says that Tasha is right and Hulk is good. Hulk did good. Bruce is very-very-very proud of Hulk. Bruce loves Hulk.

"Still sorry," he says.

"I already forgave you," says Tony.

"We do too," says Tasha, and nudges Shouty Thor. Shouty Thor winces.

"Ah," he says, and touches his side carefully. "There is no permanent harm done, my friend. You are truly forgiven."

Hulk shifts his weight. Shouty Thor is still hurt. Is Star Steve still hurt? He looks over to him.

"It's all right," says Star Steve, and smiles. "Rule Two."

Hulk raises his eyebrow. "Not a Rule Two," he says, and sniffs. He needs another Rule for this. Rule Two is not big enough.

Hulk looks down at his hands and begins to move them. Bruce takes one of them and they move them together, old old movements from before the bright green light brought Hulk out of the small places. Movements that a puny, puny Bruce made in the dark, fingers wrapping over and over, to make them stop their shivering at night. Bruce's hand is pink and Hulk's is green, but they move together just like before, even though they are different now.

"Holy..." says Clint.

"Told you," says Tony very quietly.

The no-body ghost voice (JARVIS, says Bruce) talks then, and Hulk grunts in surprise, taking his hand back from Bruce. More food is here. Clinty Bird gets it and brings it to the table and Hulk eats some more.

I'm not going to be able to move, says Bruce, and he is smiling in their head. Hulk rolls his eyes. Stupid. Bruce should know that Hulk will need all the food, as he always does.

Tony laughs and laughs at something Star Steve says, and Thor is grinning. Thor eats lots – almost as much as Hulk. Tasha and Clinty Bird are sitting close together, and talking very quietly.

Hulk thinks of something then. "Hulk goes to shiny room," he says suddenly, and Star Steve is looking up at him. He smells of the worry-smell, and his face is open and soft.

"Do you want me to come with you?"

Hulk shakes his head and stands. "Team keep eating. Hulk back soon." Then he asks Bruce, which way?

That way.

The rattly moving room is better with Bruce in their head. Hulk sits on the floor. It wheezes and moans and Hulk still doesn't like it, but it is better than before. He tries not to leave fingerprints in the shiny metal and wishes for a moment that he hadn't eaten so much as the rattly moving room slips down and down and down. Hulk's stomach has been left behind.

Wow, says Bruce as they get to Hulk's shiny metal room. It is very smashed, and the outside looks bubbly and wrong. Hulk is ashamed. No, it's okay. I knew you were upset, but... wow. Adamantium is supposed to be unbreakable, you know.

Hulk didn't know. Hulk touches the wall where his fist can be seen pushed into metal and sighs again. The floor is smashed, Hulk's bed, Hulk's experiment. There is smash everywhere.

Then he shambles over to the kitty. "For Bruce," he says. "Present."

Hulk's hands are puny and pink when he reaches out for the kitty, and Bruce picks it up. It is too heavy for Bruce, so Hulk helps lift it. They waver and flicker between Hulk and Bruce, and Bruce is happy and sad and full of big, big words that he cannot say.

Thank you.

Hulk grunts, and puts the kitty in his lap. "Welcome."

He looks down at their hands. Then he thinks of something. "What is Hulk and Bruce now? How does Hulk and Bruce work?"

Bruce touches the kitty, and Hulk can feel the soft hot feeling in their chest and throat and mouth. Then Bruce sighs too, and it is dusty and old inside their head. Right. We need to find out how we work now.

"Experiment?" asks Hulk. He can feel Bruce's laugh.

Yes, we should make an experiment. You're obviously much better at them than I am. Your last one was a rousing success.

Hulk grins. Bruce knows about the best secret good experiment now, and it worked even though Hulk smashed Team.

Okay, here's what we have so far. We can hear each other much more clearly, Bruce begins. His thoughts sparkle and crackle. We can watch what the other is doing. We can even share our body, to some extent. We should test that further.

"Share," Hulk says, and looks down at his hands. One is lighter than the other still, and Hulk pats it absently. "Share is good."

Sharing all the time won't always be good for us, Bruce says. His thoughts are quick and dart like little fish through Hulk's mind. We'll get overwhelmed. Everyone needs privacy sometimes.

Hulk doesn't know what privacy is like. "Hulk always with Bruce, Bruce always with Hulk. Now closer. Close enough to share. Share is good."

But maybe there will be things we don't want to share?

Hulk shrugs. "Share is good. Hulk doesn't mind. Bruce not want to share?"

Yes, I do want to. I'm just afraid of... Bruce stops. There is Tony in his mind, and Bruce wants to touch him. Hulk laughs low, and it echoes around his smashed and shiny room.

"Bruce wants to touch Tony."


"Like Betty. Like Monica. Bruce wants to touch Tony."

Now Bruce is spluttering. It is like bubbles – bubbles made of red white embarrassment. Hulk is satisfied. Bruce is embarrassed. Bruce should remember that Hulk is Bruce too.

All right, I asked for that, he says eventually.

"Bruce stupid," Hulk agrees. "Not want to share?"

Ah. Bruce squirms, wriggling uncomfortably behind Hulk's eyes. Hulk knows. Tony is special, and maybe Bruce wants Tony for Bruce alone. Maybe Hulk is not special enough. Maybe Tony is only for Bruce.

No, Hulk, it's not that. Tony thinks you're amazing. It's that maybe Tony won't want us both. I mean, we're not exactly normal. And well... you're very young, Hulk.

"Hulk not!" Bruce is being annoying. Hulk thinks back to his numbers, and then looks over at the ruins of the experiment. The rock that was ten is broken in half, but the rock that was Team is still whole. He squints at them, and thinks furiously. So much easier with Banner. "Hulk is... four of the tens."

You mean forty?

But. What? That makes no sense, I'm forty-three.

Oh. Ohhhhh, I see. When I was three, that was when you... But Hulk, you've been three years old for forty years; it's a different thing entirely.

Hulk is angry. "Bruce wants Hulk to go? Not share? Not fair!"

Bruce takes his hand and rubs his knuckles. Never. Never again. I'm just concerned, that's all. What Tony... what we want to do, it's an adult thing. I worry for you. His hand looks grey in the dim light, and Hulk snorts, taking it back. It floods green again, and Hulk flexes his fist.



"Hulk not baby!"

I know that, says Bruce patiently. But you're not strictly an adult either. You're a child who has been a child for a very long time. You have my understanding and memories, so you're not totally ignorant of sex. But I have a responsibility towards you, and I feel like I'd be doing something unforgiveable if I subjected you to it.


Maybe there can be things for Hulk alone. Things we don't share. Would that be fair?

Hulk is still angry, but Bruce is making far too much sense. Figures. Bruce is smart smart smart, even when he is annoying.


Maybe... smashing time? We'll find a place that we can go, and you can demolish it. I'll take a nap and leave you entirely alone. Tony could go with you, so you have time together as well.

Hulk shifts. That is a good idea.

I don't want to hurt you. I want this to be fair. Not like before. We're more than that, now.

Bruce's worry is a pink fog in their head, and there is love threading through it like metal wires. Bruce is telling truth.

Hulk puts the kitty down. "Fair. Hulk will not share Bruce's Tony-time. Hulk gets Tony-time too," he offers, and then he clears his throat. "Hulk will sleep."

We need to talk to him first.

"Hulk talk? Or Bruce talk?"

It is strange. Hulk and Bruce. They are so twisted together it is hard to know where they begin and end. Uncertain. Hulk does not like uncertain. He growls a little under his breath, and Bruce lifts his hand to bury it in Hulk's hair. Not the same, but still good. I'll talk to him, if you don't want to.


Both. All right.


Fury looks supremely unimpressed – but then, the man always looks supremely unimpressed. Steve was forcibly reminded of Phillips, and wondered if they ever met.

"Captain," he said evenly, his face filling the screen. "You tell me why I shouldn't pull the plug on you pack of yahoos right now after that stunt."

"Director," Steve said just as evenly, "we retrieved Sterns, removed a rogue element from the armed forces, and saved the world all without a single life lost."

Fury harrumphed. It said that, fine, yes, that had happened, but there was a Council of angry old people glaring down Fury's neck, a city clamouring for an explanation, and a mayor tearing out his hair about even more Hulk-related property damage. It was a harrumph with a lot of subtext.

"Before you get all huffy, Director Depth-Perception," drawled Tony, "remember, Hill had a chat to me while we were out saving the day. It was you who decided to leave us with the field. You trusted us to mop up the mess. Y'know, like always. You muppets came in at the last second to wipe Ross up, but we got Sterns without any SHIELD assistance whatsoever. And in both cases? Hulk and Bruce were the ones who dealt with it."

Fury looked rather sour. Steve was starting to feel a little pity for him. Tony could be pretty overwhelming when he got riled up. "So I've heard."

"Then you know that it was fucking beautiful. I'm making that sucker-punch into a video and releasing it on Tumblr. It'll be around the world in fucking milliseconds."

Behind Fury, Hill's mouth twitched.


"He's right," said Natasha.

Fury scowled at her. "Agent Romanov, you have some explanations to make for your actions. You were the one who released the Hulk instead of following protocol and doping him."

"And a good thing I did," she said calmly, and Fury made an inarticulate noise of annoyance.

"I am not takin' the fall for this fiasco."

"Hold a press conference," said Clint, shrugging.

"Can we do that?" Steve asked, looking back at them.

"Fuck yes, we can do that," Tony said, and his fingers began to fly over his phone. "I'll get that happening right now. As to the rest, I'm gonna donate stuff to the fix-New-York-again effort; shit, I'll even lift heavy things, I've had experience, Pepper can be my reference. Hey, we could get Hulk involved in that, whatcha think? It'd generate some good will towards him."

"You can't be serious," Fury said. Thor gave him a stern look.

"And why should he not make his restitutions? Is that not his choice to make?"

"He's the Hulk! He doesn't build things, he smashes them."

"Actually, he does build things," said Natasha. She smiled. "He made a kitty."

"And paintings," added Clint.

"And experiments," said Thor.

"The guy's a regular renaissance man," said Tony triumphantly.

"Sir, if you've read my report, you'll see that..." Hill murmured. Fury waved her away irritably.

"We'll leave that for the minute. What about the Council? They're asking for the immediate removal of the Hulk from the initiative."

"That will not happen," Thor said, his deep voice hard as iron.

"Yeah, well, they'll find it a bit difficult once Hulk's got the keys to the city," said Clint, picking up a piece of pizza and tearing off a bite. With his mouth full, he continued, "cosh, y'know, shaving the worl' an' all."

"Good," Thor said, his lips tight. "We will not see our comrade treated with such disrespect."

"Thor, chill. Eat the pizza and cool off, it's clouding over again."

"Ah. My apologies."

"Press conference is a go," Tony announced, putting his phone away.

"What press conference?" asked Bruce from behind them. Everyone except Natasha and Clint jumped.

"Fuck me drunk, you need a bell or something, how can a guy with a mountain inside him be so fucking quiet," gasped Tony, hand to his arc reactor as he babbled.

Bruce gave him a small smile, holding a pair of ruined sweats at his waist with one hand. Steve had to take another look at him. He wasn't exactly standing taller than before, or straighter, but there was something different about him, something peaceful and strong. His face was the most relaxed Steve had ever seen it. "Sorry, that was mean," he said, and flicked Natasha a sly look.

She actually chuckled.

"Banner," Fury grated. "I am dealing with an avalanche of bullshit here thanks to you, so..."

"I think you'll find that it was thanks to Sterns." Bruce sat down and picked up another piece of pizza. Steve was dumbfounded.

"How can you eat more?" he asked in horror.

Bruce glanced up and swallowed. "Hulk was hungry, he used it all. Don't worry, I won't need more than two pieces."

Tony looked absolutely fascinated, leaning forward and staring at the man.

"So, what's this press conference all about?" Bruce asked, leaning back. It was strange to see him healthy again for the first time in weeks, without his sling or cast or bruises peppering his body.

"You." Tony nudged him. "Gotta do the dog and pony show. We've got to reassure the weeping populace that Hulk's not out of control and that rebuilding is a thing that can happen. Plus, the World Overreaction Council is yammering to remove you from the team."

"Which isn't going to happen," added Steve as Bruce began to frown.

"All right," he said, "I'll do a conference." He rubbed his forehead. "Hang on a minute..." His eyes flashed green, and Fury bit down on a curse. "Hulk wants to talk to the people too," he finished. "He's very sorry."

"Sorry he hurt us, you mean," said Steve. Bruce looked down.

"Yes, he is. I think he'll be guilty for a while."

"Would fixing up the city help?"

"Hmm." Bruce's eyes flickered once more, and jeez that was unnerving. "Actually, he likes that idea."

"Oh that is just perfect," Fury said with heavy sarcasm.

"Oh come on," said Tony easily, and he slung an arm around Bruce's bare shoulders. "Quit your fussing, Long John. We'll sort it all out, you watch."

"I'm sure I'll find it fascinating," Fury said, dry as a desert. Behind him, Hill covered a smile.

"What's going to happen to Ross and Sterns?" Bruce asked.

"That is a strictly internal matter..."

"Which means it will take JARVIS twenty minutes longer to find it out," Bruce interrupted. "You might as well tell us."

Fury sighed, closing his eye and apparently asking the heavens for patience. "Sterns is going back to the Cube. He'll be under a new detail with a new cell that'll prove a challenge for even him to find a way out of."

"Sorry, how long did you guys end up holding Magneto? One year? One month? A couple of hours?" Tony asked, raising an eyebrow. "The guy will get out again."

"And when he does, I'll deal with him again," said Bruce calmly. "What about Ross?"

Fury hesitated. "Hate to admit this, but my hands are tied. The Council brought him in to deal with a rogue Avenger, and that rogue ended up saving the motherfucking world. He's not under our jurisdiction; the higher-ups brought him in over us."

"Military tribunal?" Bruce asked, tilting his head.

"Possibly," Fury said. "Of course, if any video footage leaks and contaminates the trial, I know where to point my finger."

"Yeah, have fun with proving anything," Tony said, smirking. Steve shook his head.

"Tony, let me take care of this."

Five heads swivelled to him. Steve gave an awkward, one-sided shrug, feeling the weight of their gazes. "Well, I'm probably the best one to make our case. They'll never trust Clint or Natasha, Bruce is a known fugitive, Tony is... well, he's made some powerful enemies in the armed forces, and half of them think Thor should be exorcised."

"Fools," Thor grumbled.

Steve drew himself up. "I've already faced down this guy once," he said, meeting Fury's piercing eye. "I'll do it again. As many times as I have to."

"Steve," said Bruce, almost under his breath.

"You'd do it for me," Steve said, not looking away from Fury's stare. "Sir, I am going to do this without your permission or not."

Fury huffed. "Always forget that you don't exactly have a problem with disobeying orders if you think they're bullshit. Your rep is wrong, Captain. You're no perfect soldier."

Steve allowed a faint smile to touch his lips. "No, Sir," he agreed.

"I'll arrange it," Fury said, and there was a hint of approval in his face.

"I'm guessing you weren't a perfect soldier either, Colonel," Steve said.

"Cap, you never said a truer word," Fury said. "Stark, send me the details of your newshound feeding frenzy. I'm gonna want to see this."

Tony gave him a sloppy salute.

"Stark?" Hill called.


"Good job."

Tony grinned.

"Call me!" Clint yelled as the screen flickered and snapped out of existence.

Steve sagged a little, and then gulped down half the cola in his glass. "Okay. Guess I'm going to Washington soon. Anyone up for a road-trip?"

"You don't have to do this," Bruce said, and looked around at them. "Any of you."

Steve reached over to grip the man's bare shoulder. "You're my team," he said simply.

"Looking after us again, Team Dad?" said Tony slyly. Thor snorted.

"This is more than a comradely gesture. We are more than a mere team. Can you not feel it? We are a family."

"Um," said Clint. "Thor, your family..."

Thor scowled. "You know what I mean."

"Yeah, I do," Clint said, and grinned fiercely. "I like press conferences."

"You like trolling reporters," said Natasha dryly.

"Better than not answering anything at all."

"You told them you had arrows tipped with holy water and silver."

"Vampires and werewolves, man. It could happen!"

"You told them your spirit animal was a wide-mouthed frog."

"Have you ever seen a frog miss a fly?"

"Clint, the question was 'how does it feel to be one of two unenhanced humans on the team?'"

"Well, at least I answered and didn't just glare at them."

"Well? They asked me what underwear I wear."

"I would have dropped my pants and shown them."

"See, things like that are why you can't go to Singapore anymore."

Bruce's mouth was hanging open a little, and his eyes were tinted hazel. He appeared to be hovering between stoic denial and speechlessness.

"We're in this together, Bruce," Steve told him, and Bruce's hands twitched before uncurling on the table.

"Gonna take some getting used to," he said, and one of his hands drifted upwards and rubbed at his wild hair.

"You," Tony told him, shaking his shoulders gently, "have been alone far too long. You're not anymore. So fuck yes, get used to it, smart guy." And kissed him.

Steve blinked. It had been a fast, soft kiss, almost a peck, and not a bit lascivious as he would have expected from a man like Tony. Clint wolf-whistled, only to be kicked soundly by Natasha under the table. Thor clapped his hands exuberantly. "We must toast to our success and to your new understanding!" he exclaimed, pushing back and striding for the kitchen.

Bruce looked up at Tony, his eyes flickering. "Right," he said, and his voice was slightly lower than normal. Then he smiled. "At home with the family, huh?"

Bruce ( Hulk)

Tony pulled him through the corridors, holding onto his wrist. "Tony, what..." he managed, trying to hold up the pants that kept threatening to slip off his hips.

"No time to talk, gotta show you something," Tony said, palming the door to his workshop and barrelling to one of his favourite work areas.

"Sorry, this couldn't wait until I'd found some more pants?"

"That's a moot point," Tony said, frustratingly oblique. "Ta-dah!"

Without his glasses, Bruce could only squint at the graph that began to hover through the air. "Sorry, what am I looking at?"

Tony glanced at him with some surprise, before realisation crossed his face and he said, "JARVIS, blow it up, thirty percent or so. Your eyesight is really terrible, isn't it?"

"It's not great," Bruce admitted. The formula expanded, glowing in the darkness of the workshop, and he took a step back to take it in. "Wait, is this...?"


"You spoke to Richards? When?"

"Ages ago," Tony said, and then shuddered. "I hope you know what a sacrifice I made on your behalf."

Tony couldn't stand Reed Richards. "Oh, I do," he said, marvelling at the elegant simplicity of the formula. "Up to one hundred and forty times?"

"Apparently," Tony said, a sour tilt to his mouth. Of course, he would be pissed that he hadn't thought of the stuff first.

The elasticity would be incomparable, and extremely useful, but... "How unstable is unstable?"

"Not liking the idea of having something that goes boom near your junk?"

"Would you?"

"Depends on the boom."

"It appears that the instability is..."

"...endemic, yeah, but each molecule isn't a closed system, you know."

Bruce rolled his eyes. He wasn't some wet-behind-the-ears grad student. "No, I didn't, thank you so much for enlightening me, Professor Stark."

"Snarky," Tony said and grinned. "So, pants for Hulk."

Hulk gets present?

"I thought you appreciated the ways of my people."

"Oh I do," Tony practically purred. "I just don't appreciate everyone else getting a peep at your native folkways, if you know what I mean."

"Possessive," Bruce said lightly, and turned to him.

Tony looked a little exasperated. "Well, yeah. You've met me, haven't you? I'm a greedy guy."

Bruce laughed under his breath, and took the man into his arms. "No, you're not," he said, and bumped his forehead softly against Tony's and held it there. "You're one of the least selfish people I know. You just have to do your good deeds with a self-centred excuse."

Tony's face was a picture. "That's not..."

Bruce kissed him, and it was strange how quickly he'd become comfortable with this; the scratch of beard over his own stubble, the scent of a man rather than a woman, Tony's corded muscles against his own lean stomach. "Thank you," he said.

"Ah," Tony said, and cleared his throat. "You're welcome."

"Talk to Tony now?" Hulk said, and hang on a minute, he'd said it aloud.

"Hi there again, Green Bean," Tony said on a sharp intake of breath, stepping even closer to Bruce and putting his thumbs against his cheekbones, swiping down along the planes of his face. "Jesus. Your eyes are hazel right now."

"Are they?" said Bruce distantly, and Tony was so close he could see each individual eyelash.

"You two got something to tell me?"

"Mmm," Bruce said, and kissed him again, deepening it. "Got to talk to you about..."

Tony seemed to be drifting a little, his voice thick and slow between soft, lazy kisses. "'Bout... what?"

No, for god's sake, Banner. Where has all your fabled self-control gone?

Hulk was rather pleased, it seemed. Tony good. Makes Bruce happy.

Even so, as nice as this was, it wasn't solving their dilemma.

With a final kiss, Bruce pulled away from those thin and goddamned talented lips. Tony had certainly refined his technique over the years. Bruce cleared his throat. "About Hulk."

"He wants to model them? I gotta make 'em first. Richards only gave me the formula for unstable molecules, not the fabric itself."

Bruce surprised himself with a short laugh. "God, can you imagine the size of the catwalk?"

Tony snickered.

"No, it's about," Bruce paused, and then licked his lips. They felt smooth and polished after all that kissing. "About us. About what this is."

Tony tipped his head and then took a step back, disentangling himself from Bruce's loose hold. "Right," he said, his face shuttered. "You're having second thoughts?"

Oh for fuck's sake. "No," he said firmly. "Fuck no, that was me kissing you, in case you hadn't noticed. Tony, I'm not going anywhere. This is home now, I told you that." He stopped for a half-second, and then the why trickled into his mind. "Tony," he said, far more quietly, "I'm not going to leave you as well."

Tony actually flinched.

"Come here," Bruce ordered him, and to his mild astonishment the engineer actually did, stepping back into Bruce's arms and wrapping his own around Bruce's waist so tightly it felt like he was trying to snap him.

"See? Greedy. Not letting you go," Tony mumbled.

For answer, Bruce smoothed a hand over the planes of Tony's shoulderblades. "Happy to be caught, for once."

"L-word you," Tony muttered.


"You heard. I'm not saying it again."

Bruce blinked, and a slow, stupid smile began to spread over his face. "You... L-word me?"

"Shut up, I also hate you, remember? I hate you with the power of a thousand burning suns."

"Tony," Bruce said gently, and put a hand against his jaw to turn his head. "I won't lie to you. I haven't got the slightest idea of what I'm doing. But it's important. You're important, the most important person in the world to us, and-"

Tony surged upwards, cutting him off and smashing his nose slightly in a bruising kiss, teeth clacking. His hands splayed out over Bruce's bare back, tracing the smooth skin where scars should stand but didn't.

What? Is all purple and hot in here. Bruce? Bruce?

"Can I..." Tony breathed, and then buried his hands in Bruce's hair as he kissed him again. "Oh my god, I have wanted to do that for fucking ages, your hair is ridiculous and fluffy and spaniely and so soft... Can we please...?"

"That's what I needed to talk to you about, and then you went and had a crisis of confidence," Bruce groaned, and his hips pressed forward without his permission. "It's Hulk... he wants to... share."

Hulk sniggered. Finally!

"Share?" Tony pulled back, hands still tangled in Bruce's curls. "Share what?"

"Share you," Bruce admitted.

"Oh," Tony said, and then shrugged. "Um, yes?"

Bruce let out an exasperated breath. "I told him so, but then there are some things... like this, for instance. I'm not okay with him being around for... ah."

"Sex," Tony said, and smirked. "Fucking. Nookie. Beast with two backs. Horizontal mambo. Screwing. Boinking. Making the bald man cry, icing the cake, hiding the sausage. I have all the euphemisms, should I keep going?"

It should be illegal to watch Tony's lips shape around those words, Bruce thought dizzily.

"Yeah," he said hoarsely. "I mean, no to the euphemisms, yes to... uh."

Tony grinned at him. "You are so red right now."

Bruce cleared his throat and tried to look forbidding. "Watch it, or it'll be green."

Tony's grin only broadened. "Fine. Just means that Hulk gets all the hugs and not you."

So there!

"Ah," Bruce said, and shook his head. "I'm being ganged up on by my other personality and my... what are we?"

Tony squinted. "Boyfriends?"

Bruce chuckled. "I'm a little old for that word, and so are you."

"Oh fuck that, I'm never getting old. I'm replacing every bit of me before that happens."

"Don't," Bruce said, and knocked their foreheads together again. "I like you like this, only part-cyborg."

A thought flashed over Tony's face, but it was gone as soon as it had registered. "Okay, but you're the one I blame when our new robotic overlords lump me in with the squishy people. How about partners?"

"Better, but not by much. We're not a legal firm."

Tony laughed.

"We can work that out later," Bruce said, and took the opportunity to thread his fingers through Tony's hair. It was remarkably thick and there was some sort of product in it that made it tacky to the touch, though it smelled very appealing. "Back to the point?"

"Not my fault this time," Tony defended himself.

Bruce ignored that as Hulk prodded him impatiently. "Well, I want things to be fair this time around. We're going to share practically everything. He's awake when I am, and vice versa. But..."

"If you know you're being observed 24-7, you'd go a bit gaga," Tony said, his eyebrows lowering.

Hulk grunted. Oh. So Bruce told truth there too.

"Exactly," Bruce said to both of them, and reached out to Hulk in his mind. "So we'll negotiate private time. And one of the conditions for us both is time spent with you... if you agree."

"If I agree?" Tony squinted at him. "Did you miss the whole L-word conversation thing? Did you hit your head?"

"Well, I couldn't answer for you, could I?"

Tony's hands took a firm hold of Bruce's head and he glared into his eyes. "Hulkster? Kick this guy's hindbrain, would you?"

Hulk was chuckling, and Bruce grabbed Tony's wrists and glared back. "Stop that."

"I want both of you," Tony said forcefully. "Both of you. He's you and you're him, yeah, and I'll take you any way I can get you. If that means super science slumber party or finger-painting or smashing or fucking tea, I will do it. You gorgeous idiot."

Uh-oh. Very-very-very purple and hot now. Hulk should probably sleep?

Bruce surged forward and seized Tony's lips again, and he made a muffled noise of enthusiastic surprise before settling in to return the kiss. "Bed," Bruce growled against his mouth. "Right now."

Tony sucked in a breath, eyes glittering. "Oh goddamn fuck yes."

Hulk should definitely sleep now.

I'll wake you in the morning, Bruce promised absently, and then Tony was yanking him by the wrist back through the corridors, back to his rooms. He was thwarted in this goal a couple of times by Bruce grabbing his hips or his shoulders and attempting to colonise his mouth with his tongue.

"Brown eyes again," Tony said, and Bruce grunted before seizing his mouth again. Tony's hands pulled against his ass, and squeezed hard, and Bruce couldn't help but press against that hard, masculine hip.

"Shit, shit, shit," Tony breathed, and his breath on Bruce's face was like a benediction. "Holy shit, you are an earthquake."

Bruce could only push him against the wall and nip at his neck, his hand tracing the rim of the arc reactor and from there over Tony's abdomen with its oddly high navel and defined ridges.

"Hey," Tony managed, and swallowed hard as Bruce found a spot high on his shoulder that got a delightful full-body shudder. "Hey, hey now, slow down Big B, we've got time."

"Time," Bruce huffed, and licked up the column of that neck, feeling the ends of stubble scraping against his tongue. New feeling, but he could grow to like it. "If you were me..."

"Christ, how long has it been?"

"As long as it's always been." Bruce grinned at him.

Tony gave him an approving nod, dishevelled and kiss-bruised and gorgeous as he lounged against the wall in Bruce's arms. "I have taught you well, grasshopper. Now answer the question."

"You do not," Bruce grated, rolling his hips against Tony's with one long, slow thrust, "want to know."

"Ohmygod bed now," Tony gasped, and pulled his arms until they could move again.

From there it was a rather awkward stumble to the bedroom, and Bruce was pushed backwards onto Tony's preposterously huge bed. Tony put his hands on his hips and gave him a look of utter satisfaction.

"Now that is what I call a perfect setting," he said, and yanked off his shirt before clambering over Bruce's legs to kiss him again, his hands fisting in his hair.

Bruce leaned up, chasing the mouth that kept trying to kiss down his neck and capturing it with his own, over and over. He wasn't done kissing Tony yet – in fact, he sort of thought he might never be done with that.

"Now who's greedy?" he whispered against Tony's cheek, before taking Tony's head in his hands and licking around the curve of his ear with one hard swipe.

"Me, always," gasped Tony, and he ground down onto Bruce, his breath coming in short, hard gusts against his shoulder. So different to feel hardness against his pelvis, and not softness.

It was good, though. Good, and Bruce for once wasn't running away from his own pleasure. He sucked the flesh of Tony's shoulder into his mouth, and flicked a dark pebbled nipple, and it was different to feel hardness there too – the firm muscle of a pectoral rather than the giving softness of a breast.

He liked it, though. Never thought he would. Yet it was in its own way comforting. Tony was hard, and part of him was cold and metal, and he was as determined and unyielding in his own way as Bruce. He wouldn't break easily.

"You are thinking entirely too much, go back to being an earthquake," Tony said on a rushed breath, and he slid back along his legs to tongue Bruce's nipples and pull on them with his teeth. Bruce's eyes rolled back into his head.

"Better," Tony said, grinning up at him. There was stubble-rash around the sharp edges of his goatee, and a red mark high on his neck. He looked obscene and his hair was crazed, the arc reactor spilling light all around him and he was fucking beautiful. Those large, dark eyes with their improbable eyelashes turned wicked, and Bruce groaned.

"Now, what have we got down..." Tony said mischievously as he thumbed the waist of the ruined sweats.

"You've seen it before," Bruce grated.

"Not when it's standing at attention," Tony said, eyes glinting.

"Never say that again."

"You'd better shut me up then, hadn't you?" Tony slipped his hands into the pants, and one of them curved around his ass and began a deliberate massage. The other went directly to his cock and began a long, slow stroke. Bruce muffled a curse with the back of his hand, flopping back onto the bed.

"Not bad, Doctor Banner," Tony murmured, and tugged the pants down to his knees. "Love a grower."

Bruce moaned around his hand, covering it with his own damp breath. "God, oh god," he said, and Tony's chuckle was wet against his hip.

"Okay, so maybe we're both greedy." Tony swiped underneath the head and pushed his thumb against the tip and Bruce made an incomprehensible sound, grinding the palms of his hands against his eyes. He was so sensitised – it had been so, so long...

"Stop, stop," he gasped, and then sat up to pull Tony close again. "Let me... just catch my breath."

Tony looked ridiculously pleased with himself. "If you're going to fall to bits just from a handjob I can't wait to see what you look like when I fuck you."

"Let's..." Bruce shook his head, trying to clear it. "Let's come back to that idea another day, okay? I'm still getting used to the whole 'man' thing, let alone the sex."

"Sure," Tony said, and kissed him with slow, syrupy strokes of his tongue. "Like I said, there's no rush."

Bruce kissed him back for a few moments, before fumbling at Tony's jeans. "Off, off now, off, goddamn it, off," he growled, and Tony grinned against his mouth, his teeth hard against his lips.

"Y'know, for a guy who hasn't ever considered guys before, you're doing a fucking stellar job."

"I'm a genius, I think fast on my feet," Bruce said, and scooted back onto the bed, his legs crossing so that he could attack the jeans more directly. "These need to come off, damn you..."

"So aggressive. I like it," Tony said, and stood to help him pull them off. His underwear came off with the jeans, and Bruce was confronted with a cock. Well, someone else's cock. Not too different from his own, really. Uncut, engorged, balls, hair, all present and correct. Nowhere near as threatening or weird as he would have imagined. It was just a cock.

Well, he'd owned one of those his whole life. He knew how they worked. He pulled Tony forward by his hips, and licked a long stripe up those bumpy stomach muscles, which quivered underneath his tongue. Then he took the taut skin at the join of hip and stomach between his teeth, and rolled it, leaving a dark reddening mark, before moving down.

"Bruce, wait, hang on, Bruce, you don't have to arghgodfuck," Tony said, his knees locking as Bruce carefully wrapped his lips around that cock, and he braced Tony's back with his splayed palms as he sucked experimentally. "Okay, yes, definitely a genius," Tony babbled, and the man kept babbling as Bruce licked and sucked, cataloguing the sounds Tony made and the new sensations as he tried and tested new approaches and angles.

"Are you... are you experimenting?" Tony blurted, and then his head fell back as Bruce traced the vein on the underside with his tongue. Very odd taste, but Bruce had lived practically everywhere and eaten nearly everything, and he hadn't had the luxury of being picky. There were definitely worse things to put in your mouth.

Texture wasn't so very different to the soft, thin skin of a woman's vulva, but the way the hood moved beneath his lips would take some getting used to. He ran his tongue around the underside, and tentatively moved one hand to test the weight of the balls in his palm. Very tight, though nowhere near as furred as his own. Also, Tony was growing harder, the head shrugging away from the foreskin. Odd sensation, to have that happen in your mouth. He tried to take in a little more, and ended up coughing as tears rose in his eyes.

Tony practically deflated as his mouth left him. He slumped like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and then he began to laugh. "I'm beginning to see why they called your experimental procedure reckless and daring," he said.

Bruce wiped at his eyes and mouth, and then leaned back to glare up at him.

"Can I return the favour?" Tony asked, climbing back onto the bed and lying beside him. He took Bruce in hand and gave him a couple of gentle pumps, and he felt his back arch a little.

"Better... not," he said, and wow, he sounded as raspy as Tony did. "Gamma radiation and all."

"Oh yeah," Tony said, and bent to nibble at his chest, threading his free hand through the matting of hair there. "So what's on the table?"

"No more table jokes."


"Mmm," Bruce said, and his hips jerked into Tony's loose grip. "Ah, well... semen's not too bad actually... saliva's no problem, only background levels of radiation. Blood is really, really not good."

"No knifeplay, got it." Tony licked up his sternum, sending his hair into dark little tufts. "So a condom is a must?"

"Right." Bruce made a face. "Not that I've had any chance to test that..."

"So not since..." Tony gaped at him from where his chin rested on his chest, and then shook his head. "Fuck. I am so blowing you. Since the accident, that's fucking criminal."

Bruce raised an eyebrow. "You know, human beings are perfectly capable of surviving without sex."

"Not that," Tony said, and reached over to a drawer to snag a packet from what looked like an entire drawer-full of condoms. "No-one's touched this goddamned work of furry art for six years. That's... I am blowing you right now, this has to be fixed and I know just the guy to do it."

Bruce laughed, low and hoarse. "My hero."

"Fucking shit yes I am." Tony rolled the condom onto him, and then followed it immediately with his mouth and the whole world blurred and narrowed and became entirely focused on that warm, sucking pressure and holy, holy god, Tony was phenomenal at this.

He couldn't stop the strangled shout from escaping any more than he could stop the sun rising, and his whole body tried to push forwards into that heat, and dear, sweet, merciful crap, was Tony drawing equations on the head with his tongue?

"Coefficient of friction," he gasped, and Tony laughed around him, sending echoes and tremors deep into his body.

A long, clever finger, scarred and solder-burned, rose to pinch at his nipple and then tug lightly on his chest hair. Bruce made another sound that would have embarrassed the living daylights out of him had Tony not at that second swallowed him down to the root.

The clamping pressure of Tony's gullet convulsed around him, and before he knew it he was gone, thrown over the brink with his hands fisting in Tony's hair and his eyes full of tears, his hips rising off the bed as he fucked up into Tony's poor, abused throat.

He flopped back down, his mind for once blissfully blank. Then he pushed himself up. "Shit," he said softly. "Sorry, that was..."

Tony knelt back and licked his lips. "Bleargh, latex," he said, wrinkling his nose as he removed the condom and tied it off. Then he registered the look in Bruce's eyes, his face softening and he crawled forward to take Bruce's lips in a plasticky kiss. "Hey, no apologies for fantastic sex. That was awesome, and you should do it again sometime soon. Maybe more than once. Hell, lots. I like it when you forget to be in control."

Bruce shook his head. "But, your throat."

"You didn't hurt me, if that's what you're worried about. I've been able to do that since I was nineteen." Tony grinned. "You have so much to learn, my friend."

"I'm a quick study," he said, boneless in relief and lazy and catlike in the afterglow.

"Always up for a study session," Tony said, and pressed his cock insistently against Bruce's side. "Wanna collect some data, Doctor?"

"You are appalling," Bruce said and turned to him. He pinched the small nipple again and slid his torso against Tony's, and Tony moaned at the rasp and scratch of hair over his own comparatively smooth, sweat-beaded chest. Tony rutted against him, shameless in his pursuit of his pleasure, even as Bruce lifted his head and kissed him. Then Bruce let his fingers drift downwards, wrapping his hand around that cock and pumping a couple of times. It didn't take long for Tony to stiffen and spill, a long, gravelly groan escaping into Bruce's mouth.

"Okay, that was fast and ever so slightly embarrassing," he said, before nuzzling a little at Bruce's hair. "In my defence, you are ridiculously gorgeous and you smell spectacular."

"I smell like you, you mean."

"Like I said. Spectacular."

"Here I thought I was the one with the mainline to the limbic brain."

"Hell no. I build tall things and slap my name on them. If that's not pissing on lampposts, I don't know what is."

"Mmm." Bruce gathered Tony closer and kissed him again, his hands wandering over the arc reactor that washed the room in cool shades of blue and white. "Better clean you up."

"Screw that. You're warm, I'm not moving."

"Hah. I run a couple of degrees hotter thanks to Hulk."

"That's handy, my feet get cold."

"Circulatory problems?"

"Yeah, arc reactor and all."

"Oh." Bruce looked down at his hand, tracing the raised circumference of the steady blue light. "Well, I'm completely fine with being a hot water bottle with a mechanical advantage."

"And what a mechanical advantage."

Bruce smiled against the wild black hair. "Flattery will get you everywhere."

"That's encouraging." Tony's hand slipped over Bruce's chest, his fingers splaying over his calming heart. "Holy... I saw you eat eight goddamned pizzas, where did they... I can even feel your ribs. You're amazing, you know that?"

Bruce turned his head to meet his eyes, and grabbed that hand tightly, holding it against his chest. "You too," he said, and there was so much more he could say.

He could say, you make me human. You gave me myself back. You believed in me, in all of me, when even I couldn't see it. You make me stop running and start building. You push me to stand up and be better to myself and to the world. You force me not to fade into the background or slink into the shadows. You remind me that I'm not just a monster; that I can be a scientist, that I'm a man, that I'm a person. You make me feel good about being smart. You poke and prod until I'm not frightened of my own irritation. You can see how Hulk and I fit together, and you're not intimidated by it. You make me stay, and you make me laugh. You're infuriating and brilliant and wonderful. I need you. I love you.

Instead, he brought Tony's hand up to his mouth for a kiss, and then held it against his chest again until they both fell asleep.

Chapter Text


So he could have given away a bit more of himself than he was comfortable with, these last few weeks. Clint might not have cared, once upon a time, but these people... mattered. And that was part of the problem too. The last time people had mattered...

Well. He was hardly alone in having a shitty family, in this company.

Anyway. He'd let stuff slip, in the heat of the moment (unprofessional, fuck, back to school again Barton) and to protect a friend in a time of vulnerability. Fury and Hill had seen it, and they could tell.

Oh, sure, he wasn't the only one. Steve couldn't hide his concern or affection if his life depended on it, and Stark's heart was a neon sign lighting up the world. Natasha was still the one who shocked him. She normally let things – her true feelings, her weaknesses - slip even less than he did. But she was practically flaunting them these days, her head held high in challenge. Fuck with my team, my friends, my chosen family, any of them, her eyes seemed to say, and they will never find your body. She didn't even seem to care that such a blatant declaration of whom and what she valued was a liability. A challenge. There were people who would take advantage of that. She didn't care.

It fucking sucked. Because he felt the same way. When it came to Tasha – he always had.

How did she do it? How come she could show it? He knew how hard it was for her to admit to this sort of thing. But somehow she'd been reaching out to Bruce, and even Stark, all the way through this. Clint couldn't imagine allowing people to see inside him like that. He never thought Natasha would either. He'd never thought she could drop all her masks at once.

He still couldn't show it, not in words. Certainly not in the way Natasha had begun to, with impenetrable face and painful, wrenching honesty. The way Tony and Bruce showed their affection, all small touches and biting exchanges and fierce looks, that made him want to kind of throw up. So open. So vulnerable.

He could show it in actions, though. And oh, how he had.

He'd let it slip.

He'd protected Bruce. He'd blown up government property to keep him out of Ross' hands. He'd stolen a quinjet and flown the thing around half the eastern seaboard to find him. He'd broken into private property. He'd challenged his own boss to keep Hulk with the team. He'd fingerpainted.

Yeah, okay. Maybe he should look into this whole 'expressing' thing a bit more.

So Clint watched. That was what he did. What he was for.

He watched the small touches that passed between Bruce and Tony in the kitchen, the way Bruce would hold onto a mug slightly longer than necessary when passing it to Tony, just so their fingers would overlap on the heated ceramic.

He watched how Thor held the back of Steve's neck in companionable camaraderie, eyes warm and approving.

He watched how Natasha would smile faintly when Tony stumbled as Bruce absently licked his lips.

He watched Steve gazing over them like a proud parent, clucking over sparring practice, watching them eat, badgering them to sleep.

He watched Thor greet Jane with joyous abandon, swinging her in circles through the room and kissing her soundly, his big fingers threading through her hair.

He watched Tony scribble words and phrases for Steve on the fridge door in whiteboard marker, along with meanings and examples and off-colour jokes and an equation or two for Bruce.

He watched Thor leave the last strawberry poptart for Clint himself, and he ate it with a half-smile on his face.

He watched Bruce drape a blanket over Natasha when she fell asleep during a movie, his expression solemn and full of the knowledge of how rare that trust was, and how precious.

He watched Tony clap Happy on the back when the driver told him, grinning broadly with a hint of worry lurking in his honest eyes, that Pepper had agreed to go out on a date.

He watched himself make a cup of tea and leave it next to Bruce's elbow.

He watched Thor and Natasha, eyes determined and alight with challenge and battle, swerving on the couch with consoles in their hands as they tried to knock either the valiant Princess Peach or tricky Mario out of the race.

He watched Bruce fidget in that way he had, his hands wringing each other, one green, one tanned, and Tony slipped his hand in between them and squeezed.

He watched Steve carefully combing through battle footage, marking moments and strategies and strengths, forever chasing ways to keep them safe.

He watched Natasha tap Tony's shoulder when he drooped into his schematics, before jerking her head towards his quarters.

He watched Tony grip her hand and squeeze it, before actually going to bed.

He watched Steve and Hulk laughing uproariously at an old film, Chaplin scurrying across the screen, both their faces screwed up with laughter.

He watched Natasha watching him watch everyone else, a small smile tugging at her lips. She knew, of course. She had always been able to read him, and she could see the signs as easily as he could.

He watched himself falling in horrible, vulnerable, wonderful love with these fucked-up assholes, gods and monsters all.

He watched himself wondering if, one day, Natasha would look at him with that smile and want to hand him a mug the way Tony did for Bruce, their hands lingering together on warm ceramic glaze.



Thor hoisted the slab into position, and the man in the machine gave him a signal he did not understand. The concrete was lighter than he had been expecting. The mortals were still sufficiently impressed by his Asgardian strength to goggle at the sight of one man lifting that which would have required a crane under normal circumstances.

Dusting off his hands, Thor allowed the workmen to secure the slab in its new vertical aspect and stepped back to view the new wall created thusly. Someone had offered him a helmet due to something he called, 'workplace health and safety laws,' and the thing made his hair sweaty. He wiped at his neck with his discarded shirt. Those same laws also frowned upon the removal of one's garments in the heat, but no-one had suggested that Thor put it back on. A small crowd had gathered outside the site's wire fencing, and the flash of their recording devices nearly blinded him every time he turned around.

The Lady Darcy often told him that he was 'built' and 'insanely ripped', which presumably was a good thing. He supposed it had something to do with all the devices now pointed in his direction. Thor occasionally found it baffling, this human propensity towards the observance of bodies rather than the observance of deeds. Jane simply sighed at him, and kissed him.

He had missed her so, these last few terrible weeks. It was good to have her back home.

"Shouty Thor!" hollered Hulk, grinning at him from across the site as he took great beams of steel from a vehicle. He then drove them into the soft mud that was the first stage of the concrete material the humans were so fond of. Thor couldn't help but notice that no-one had suggested the Hulk wear a helmet. "Is like game, look!"

"I see it, my friend!" he called back, lifting his hand in response. The two of them were the Avengers assigned to this site, the most damaged of all the affected buildings. Hulk in his frenzy had stampeded directly through it and had brought the (thankfully, empty for the night) office building to the ground. It was to be replaced entirely. Their other teammates were scattered at other points around the city, assisting in other reconstructions. The workers directing the Hulk in his efforts had been standoffish and leery, and it had saddened Thor to see his bestial teammate so ostracised, especially after that which he had so recently suffered and the great strides he had made in communicating with others.

And so, the Thunderer had initially stayed close to Hulk, interacting with him in front of their new comrades, trying to gently school them. When they first arrived, the area around them had cleared in seconds and Hulk's shoulders curled a little as he looked to Thor and rumbled rather sadly, "Always not-good, Shouty Thor. Always the humans hate Hulk. Always the smell of scared of Hulk."

"We do not," Thor reminded him gently. "I am no human, but the rest of our teammates are. They do not fear you."

Hulk sniffed. "That different." Then he squinted, his eyes flashing brown. "Bruce says to ignore the humans and do the fixing."

"Aye," Thor said, and nudged his green friend. "We could do that."

Hulk frowned slightly, and it was the good Doctor's frown rather than his own. "Or?"

"Or we could begin the work and show them that you are an ally in their endeavours. What say you?"

Hulk shifted from foot to foot, and then he nodded sharply. "Good. Where does Hulk start?"

"Ask Bruce," Thor suggested.

Hulk rolled his eyes. "Bruce wants plans and papers. Boring."

"Didn't know he could talk," said a handsome black man with grey-touched hair and a weathered, cheerful face. He was standing by a great greasy machine, tipping back his helmet and squinting at them with wariness in his eyes, but no outright terror. He was the only mortal yet standing close to them.

Thor leapt onto the opportunity. "He can follow direction also. Would you give us a task to perform? We are here to assist after all."

"He's not gonna knock anything else down, is he?"

Hulk scowled. "Was stopping stupid big head talky small man. Saved Bruce. Hulk didn't mean to hurt Team or smash stupid building!"

"Peace, my friend," Thor told him, laying a hand on the Hulk's bunched arm. Even with Bruce's new influence, the Hulk retained his legendary anger. "We are healed now, and you carried the day. You saved this city and its people. They will all know this soon. Now we must help rebuild what was broken."

"Hang on, what?" the man said, his voice growing slightly sharper. "You sayin' he saved New York? That it wasn't a rampage like the news said?"

Hulk snarled aloud, and his hands bunched. Thor gave the man a quick warning look. "We will be making a statement soon. In the meantime, we should begin to amend what our rescue cost your people. Put us to a task. I assure you we are more than capable."

The man scratched at his face. "Yeah, yeah, uh. Okay? You can get started on pulling out all that rubble if ya like. What do I call you?" Thor tilted his head and gave him an amused look. "Oh, right."

"Hulk help."

"We will do as you ask," Thor told the man, and bowed his head slightly. "What is your name?"

"I'm Roy Barratt, Site Foreman," he said and held out his hand automatically, before whipping it back. "Ah. Do you..."

Thor extended his own hand, and Roy took it gingerly before giving it two hearty pumps. "It is an honour to meet you," Thor said.

Roy gave his freed hand a bemused look. "Well this is gonna be something to tell the kids."

Then Hulk stretched out his own massive hand, and the man balked at the size of it. He swallowed, his Adam's Apple bobbing, before taking hold of Hulk's finger. The giant shook very, very carefully, and then gave him his vicious-looking smile.

"Roy," he rumbled, and the man let out a gusting breath of pure reaction as their hands parted.

"You boys are a bit much," he said shakily, lifting his helmet to rub at his close-cropped hair. A smile crossed his face. "All right. You come back to me once you done that rubble there. I'll give you something else after that."

"Our thanks," Thor said politely, before leading Hulk to the half-shattered building that was to be replaced.

The rubble had taken no time to clear, and the reactions of the workers to their efforts had been awed and excited. Before long they were put to other tasks, and their new comrades became more confident in interacting with them and in trusting their strength. At first the men and women of the site had brought out their phone devices, clicking repeatedly as they worked (when Hulk lifted a truck aside with one hand, the clicks and flashes became nearly as bright as Mjolnir's skyfire) but by the end of the day these had grown less frequent. Thankfully.

Though it had started up again the minute he removed his shirt, of course.

The wide berth given to himself and Hulk ever so slowly shrank, and eventually men and women were approaching them directly, asking questions and requesting signatures. It pleased Thor. Hulk was bemused by these 'autograph hunters' as Tony called them and grunted at them in dismissal. He did, however, tie an I-beam into a knot for them at their request. He straightened his shoulders at their expressions of awe and delight, his chest puffing proudly. A short roar of triumph caused them to pause momentarily, but the chattering began again almost immediately and Hulk was careful not to do it again.

Thor removed his helmet and took a long draught of the cool water left for them, wiping at his sweaty forehead and slumping into a chair. Roy came to stand beside him, crossing his arms and grinning. "I've never seen a tilt-slab building go up so fast."

Thor grunted, before cupping his palms with water and splashing it onto his hot face. "The work goes well, then?"

"Hells yes, I'm thinking of offering you boys a job. Of course, you got no formal qualifications so you'd be taking home a bit less than all these ticketed riggers and scaffolders..."

Thor glanced at him before realising the man was being humorous. "Naturally," he said dryly. "However, I find I am amply provided for in the way of work, so as kind as your offer is..."

Roy laughed. "Probably for the best. I hear you lot come with a whole heap of insurance issues." Then he gave the God a measuring look. "Didn't peg you as the type to get your hands dirty. Aren't you some sorta prince or something?"

Thor bobbed his head. "Of Asgard, indeed. But I have striven to be a better man since my banishment, and I no longer believe myself to be above anyone, be they mortal or god. I am honoured to be helping here, friend Roy."

"Huh. Well, glad to have you." Roy turned back to where people were sweeping out the dust from the new wall, securing and cleaning.

"Hot!" said Hulk as he lumbered towards them, and he shook his curly head before groaning loudly. "Too hot. Bruce now."

"Are you sure?" Thor asked, and stood to take the Hulk's shoulder in his hand. "There are many of the devices to record your change."

Hulk wrinkled his nose and let out a gusty, irritated breath. "Is already on interwebs. Tony showed us."


"Hulk come back soon," he said, and growled a little uncomfortably. "Too hot." Then he began to deflate, losing mass and colour and form until a man staggered in his place, drenched in sweat.

"Holy..." Roy said, staring with his mouth open.

Thor smiled to himself.

"Didn't think there was this much concrete dust," Bruce said, and coughed a bit before reaching for the bottle in Thor's hand. "Any more of this?"

"Welcome back, Bruce," Thor said, and gave him a flat look. "Do help yourself to my water."

Bruce gave him an absent smile. "Thanks. Sorry. God, I'm boiling."

"In the fridge," Roy said, sounding rather stunned. "Am I goin' crazy, or did the Hulk just turn into a regular guy in bike shorts?"

"I don't know you well enough to make that call," Bruce said, and Thor smothered a laugh.

Roy rubbed his face. "Didn't know you did that, I've never heard about it before. You do it often?"

Bruce's eyes flicked to him, and flashed green momentarily. "Sometimes whole hours go past when it doesn't happen at all, Roy."

"Shit, you know my..." Roy said, and then he laughed suddenly. "You're really him then?"

"Bruce Banner," Bruce said, and held out his hand, shaking Roy's even as he gulped down more water.

"Lemme get you some more of that," Roy said, and shook his head in amazement before ducking into the site office briefly, returning with two bottles in hand.

"Ugh," Bruce said, and collapsed into the chair beside Thor's, dusting himself off a little. "Oh, I wish he wouldn't get stuff in our hair. Feels like I've got half a sandpit in there."

"How's that work then? That shrinking thing?" Roy said, handing them the bottles. Thor cracked his immediately, but Bruce placed the cool plastic against the back of his neck and sighed.

"Complicated and classified, I'm afraid," he mumbled. "Could I have a look at the specs?"

Roy blinked. "Uh, guess so? Don't know how much you'll be able to figure, but you're welcome to take a gander." He indicated a table outside the site office upon which large blue charts could be seen fluttering in the hot afternoon breeze. Bruce's eyes narrowed and he hauled himself to his feet and began to paw through them immediately.

"My new friend," Thor said, and clapped Roy on the shoulder, "there is very little the Doctor does not understand."

"The Hulk's a doctor?" Roy's eyebrows shot up. "Now there's another surprise."

"Is that..." whispered a man behind them, and Thor turned to see many of the other workers staring once more, this time at the mostly unclad Bruce.

Bruce looked up from the plans at Thor's nudge, his eyes refocusing after squinting down at the incomprehensible white lines. "What?"

"You have attracted interest once again," he said, and jerked his head at the new crowd. Bruce glanced over his shoulder.

"Oh." He winced. "I'm getting good at that, it seems."

"You are not tremendously fond of it, I see."

"It wasn't that long ago that Hulk just wanted to be left alone," Bruce said wryly, before turning back to the plans. "These are pretty straightforward, but I want to have a word to Tony about getting some of his materials in here. It looks as though Brooklyn's a bit of a hotspot for villains right now, and I kind of think that some of these buildings should stand a chance."

"Uh, excuse me?" ventured a woman. "I don't mean to be rude, but we saw you... I mean, are you the..."

"Courage, Bruce," Thor murmured as he saw Bruce's shoulders tense. His friend forced his muscles to relax before taking a deep breath and turning around. His eyes met those of the assembled workers, and he set his jaw.

"Yes I am. Doctor Bruce Banner," he said. "Nice to meet you."

"But... you already met me," she said, and then seemed to check herself. "I mean..."

"No, no, hang on," Bruce said and pinched his nose as his eyes closed. Thor knew that underneath his eyelids there would be a flash of green. "Dommy. That's short for Dominique, right?"

"Right," she said, and seemed pleased. "I never knew you were human. I mean, like a person. I mean, oh god, I'm saying everything wrong, I mean that the Hulk was actually a human being and..."

Bruce held up his hand, and the smile that flickered over his face was calm and amused. "It's fine, I know what you mean. Believe me, I'm not all that easily offended any more. Turning into a nine foot tall green guy on a regular basis kind of has that effect."

A quiet ripple of laughter came from the small crowd of workers, and the man Roy and the woman Dominique began talking to Bruce with more animation. It was with a deep and profound pride that Thor folded his arms and watched as, together, Bruce and Hulk took their long-overdue first steps in rejoining their people.


Tapping her fingers on her communicator, Maria looked on in amusement as the throng of reporters backed away from the man who had risen to take the microphone, fiddling with his glasses. He certainly didn't look like much of a threat, but where this man was concerned appearances were vastly misleading.

"Ah, Doctor Banner," said one of them, raising their hand tentatively. "Can you please explain why the Hulk was recently seen rampaging through New York?"

"Rampaging is a very... strong word," he said. On the chairs behind the podium, Stark covered his mouth. Beside him, Captain Rogers gave him a stern look.

"There has been two million dollars in property and municipal damage," shouted another reporter (from the back, Maria couldn't help but notice). "How do you answer claims that you are too dangerous to live in this city?"

Maria felt her back stiffen, and every Avenger visibly tensed in some way with the notable exception of Agent Romanov, whose eyes glittered with repressed anger.

"Uh," said the Doctor. "Well. Hulk was saving the world at the time. I hope that's a reasonable excuse for some broken roads and buildings."

Abruptly the reporters were on their feet, shouting indiscriminately. Banner sent Stark a despairing look, and waved a hand vaguely.

Stark nodded, and an evil smile spread over his face. "Go on," he mouthed. Banner's answering smile was small and self-assured, and for a moment the two men simply held the gaze of the other as something intensely private and powerful passed between them.

Banner turned back and, fast as lightning, where he had stood the Hulk loomed. The change was fluid and smooth and practically instantaneous, and the reporters recoiled violently. One or two screams rang out, and there was the clatter of chairs being knocked over as several made for the exit.

"Hulk has something to say," the giant boomed, his voice easily rolling over the frightened crowd. They froze and fell silent on a fearful intake of breath. Many sank back into their seats, eyes riveted on the behemoth that was inadvertently crumpling the dais beneath his huge feet.

The Hulk was wearing a strange pair of black pants underneath the shreds of the Doctor's suit, and he blinked once before looking over the crowd of terrified reporters with a surprisingly calm, measuring expression. He bent, his massive hand knuckling the floor as he fumbled with the tiny (for him) microphone. "Hulk sorry for smash," he said, and then gave up on the microphone entirely. His eyes blurred brown for a moment. "Hulk sorry for smash," he repeated. "Hulk has been fixing all the smash. There is lots of smash to fix, and Hulk is sorry. But Hulk helps!"

"Why there was so much... ah, smash?" asked a reporter in a very tremulous voice.

Hulk snarled, and they took a step back in concert. "Hulk was stopping big head talky small man. He wants to make lots of Hulk out of all the puny humans. But Hulk smashed. Bruce stopped him."

One reporter, a pretty blonde woman who seemed rather familiar, edged forward. Her eyes were wild with fear, but she lifted her chin and said in a voice that only quavered a little, "Mister... mister Hulk. Can you tell us who the... the big head man was? Who did you stop?"

"Bruce stopped," Hulk corrected. Then his eyes blurred brown again, and he shook his head. "Big head talky small man is in cage now. Talk to one-eye at floating ship. He tells you."

Slowly the reporters seemed to realise that Hulk wasn't going to attack them. They unfroze gradually, asking question after question, trying to parse Hulk's answers. From the glint in his eye, Maria could tell that he was being deliberately obtuse on some issues. Bruce, after all, always tested his interviewers. The Widow could attest to that.

Because it was Banner up there, no matter what shape he wore. She'd once thought that the Hulk was nothing more than a wrecking ball on legs. It had taken a cocky archer to set her straight, though she hadn't really listened at the time. And then she'd looked into those great green eyes without a hint of rage in them in the midst of a hail of bullets - and finally figured it out.

As the conference ended, the reporters began talking amongst themselves in busy whispers. They seemed very pleased with the footage and pictures they had taken, both of Bruce and Hulk. Many were still speaking in excited rapid undertones as they left the foyer of the Tower, their heads bent close together as they discussed ways in which Hulk could assist in the rebuilding efforts. Hulk himself crouched down onto the platform and accepted the slap on the back from Thor with a satisfied huff, lifting one huge fist for Barton to tap with his own. Then he lowered his head for Stark to scratch at his hair, and rumbled, "good?"

"Very good, big guy," Stark said, and grinned at him before bussing his great green cheek.

The Hulk beamed down at him, and Maria smiled to herself.

Her communicator buzzed. Maria glanced down at the screen in her hand, and Nick's face glared up at her. "Well," she said. "The world is still saved and the building's still standing."

He rolled his eye. "Get back here and leave the lovebirds to it."

"You still owe Banner tickets to the Bahamas, Sir."

"You tryin' to be funny?"


"Captain Steven Rogers, you are called to the stand."

Steve smoothed down his dress greens and walked up to the front of the room, feeling the weight of all those stares on him. He placed a hand on the book, swore his oaths, and sat.

The stocky military lawyer fell into parade rest as he levelled a neutral look on the seated Captain America. "Can you describe your relationship with the accused and with the defendant?"

"I'd never met General Ross," Steve said. "Though I'd heard of him. Bruce Banner is a friend and teammate."

"So you were predisposed to dislike General Ross before you'd met him?"

Steve gave him a disapproving look. "That's a leading question, son."

The lawyer had the grace to look abashed.

"To be fair, I didn't have an opinion one way or the other," Steve continued. "Bruce Banner had told us very little of his life before the Avengers Initiative, and it was through Tony Stark that I was made aware of Ross's activities. I don't make a habit of judging people I haven't personally met, and Bruce isn't a vindictive man. So I left it alone."

"Until the events of last month."


"Have you formed an opinion now?"

"I have."

"Can you please describe your attitude towards the accused?"

"I don't think that kind of language is permissible in an open court," Steve said tersely. A small titter ran through the room. The lawyer's mouth twitched.

"Can you describe, in your own words, what happened?"

Steve raised an eyebrow. "We were undertaking a mission. Hulk had a lead. We let him take point."

"Let?" the lawyer pounced. "Even though he caused three million dollars worth of damage?"

"It was that or see the whole of the United States, some of Canada, a good part of South America and god knows where else subject to the kind of radiation that would make Chernobyl look like a birthday candle," Steve snapped back.

The lawyer inclined his head. "And then?"

"Hulk led us to the epicentre and he removed the threat. Once the perp was in custody, Ross arrived with a team of approximately forty paratroopers, three tanks, one of which was an experimental weapon designed specifically for causing harm to the Hulk, and military transports fitted with missile launchers. He was operating under an illegal and unnecessary mandate from the World Security Council to neutralise the Hulk, even though Hulk was acting under the ordinances of the Avengers Initiative."

"Was the Hulk a threat to civilians, being at the forefront of the attack?"

"No," said Steve staunchly. "Hulk wasn't a threat. We had his back."

"So you admit that you were controlling the monster?"

"I said nothing of the sort," Steve growled. "Hulk isn't a monster. He's an Avenger, and he saved the world. And instead of thanking him, some stupid idiots decided to point guns at him. If you ask me you should be throwing him a goddamned victory parade."

"Did General Ross's actions endanger civilian life?"

"Yes," Steve said, and a small murmur rose from the packed stands. "He gave the order to shoot the missiles indiscriminately, regardless of building occupants or even his own troops. He fired on the Hulk and the ricochet wounded one of his own. We're lucky none of those rounds punched through any close walls."

"Was the Hulk threatening him or others in any way, to provoke such a reaction?"

"He was carrying Iron Man. Both his hands were full. He sat down in the middle of the road and didn't move."

"Did he inflict any harm to the opposing forces?"

"He bent the tank's gun," Steve admitted. "But that was it."

"Who was it that neutralised Ross's command?"

"Myself, the other Avengers, and SHIELD agents under the command of Deputy Maria Hill."

"In your opinion, now that you have seen his actions in the field, is General Thaddeus Ross a fit commander?"


"Could you please explain that?"

Steve fixed the bristling General seated in the front row with an icy glare. "He took action against a non-hostile being with no regard towards the lives of the men and women under his command or non-combatants in the area. He refused to withdraw forces or cease fire after he was given specific orders to quit the field, and continued to refuse after he was met with no opposition. He's a man blinded by greed and his own vendetta, and he has no business being in charge of good men and women who wish to serve their country against real threats."

Ross leapt to his feet. "I am serving my country!" he roared. "That monster is a threat, you'll see, just you wait! Banner's got you all fooled, he's a goddamned lit fuse and you're a..."

"General Ross," the tribunal judge said calmly, "please resume your seat."

"Is my testimony over?" Steve asked, glaring right back at the red-faced Ross.

"Thank you, Captain Rogers," the lawyer said. "One last thing."


"Can you describe the... the relationship between Bruce Banner and the Hulk?"

Steve smiled. "Can you describe the relationship your right hand has with your left?"

When Steve got home, his dress greens crumpled and his anger set to 'simmer', there was a little paper packet of boiled candies, the kind he'd loved as a kid that you barely ever saw in these days of brightly packaged mass-produced chocolate, sitting on the foot of his bed with a note.

On one side was an overlarge thumbprint in smudged green paint, and on the other was Bruce's spidery cursive: 'Thanks, Team Dad."


Another day, another madman.

"Always New York," Steve sighed, before squinting at the mess. "All right. Hawkeye, you have the upper levels. Thor, go with him, we need coordinated long-range weapons on these guys. Widow, you're with Hulk. Stark, cover me."

With that, they were scattering. The monsters that had swarmed up from under the ground were being controlled by a dour, dumpy little man who had called himself 'Mole Man' – a singularly uninspiring name for a singularly uninspiring person. The beasts had some sort of venom that could eat through concrete and metal, and they could spit it at a range of approximately eight or so metres. And they smelled repulsive.

"Tasha," Hulk boomed, and she launched into the air, her guns barking, before landing in Hulk's huge arms. He barrelled through the streets, crushing heads beneath his feet as he put his broad green back between himself and the venom. It didn't make a single mark on his dark green skin.

He manoeuvred to a corner, forcing the creatures to attack in small numbers rather than as a horde, and she clambered up onto his shoulders to fire into their yammering, howling midst. Hulk swung his arms to devastating effect, the monsters lying in bubbling piles before him.

Apparently this had caught the notice of their leader, and the Mole Man was sending more and more of the creatures their way. He had evidently decided that of all the Avengers, Hulk posed the biggest threat. Well, it wasn't hard to see how he came to that conclusion. Natasha crouched, steadying herself with one hand on top of his curly head. "Hulk," she muttered. "They're sending more in. We're about to get trapped down here."

Hulk snorted loudly, letting her know exactly what he thought of that possibility.

She glanced up, even as her guns spat at the oncoming waves, to see the Mole Man on his rickety little hovering dais above them. He was gloating (they always gloated, it was becoming boring) as his disgusting little minions swarmed towards them.

"That's it!" he crowed. "Devour them! Reduce them to slag!"

"Who you calling slag?" Hulk growled, and Natasha fought an inappropriate urge to laugh.

"Get me up there," she hissed into his ear, and he grunted again in acknowledgement even as he crushed half a dozen of the things against the ground. He gathered his legs underneath him and raised his hand to her, bracing her against his shoulder as he stampeded through the horde. They mewled and shrieked, dying in droves under his feet.

Once he had cleared a breathing space, he turned his head to her. Brown flickered in the depths of his furious green eyes. "Yes?"

She nodded, and went limp as he took her in one huge palm around her waist. Then she was hurtling through the air like a javelin as he threw her, straight and true, to the Mole Man and his silly little platform.

"No!" he shrieked, as her guns took out the wiring. Clips empty, she let them go as she sailed through the air and flipped to land on the ugly little man's chest, her knees gripping his arms to his sides and her wrists pressed to his throat.

"I can snap your neck as easily as breaking a breadstick from this position," she murmured as they began to fall. His puglike face filled with terror. "Call them off."

"I can't!" he blurted. "I can't!"

A tremendous rattle and thud signalled the Hulk catching the falling dais, and she rolled with it easily, her legs spinning to press the pathetic villain's chest against the ground.

"He can't stop them. We have to kill them all," she told Hulk, who sighed.

"Busy, busy," he complained, and lifted a fist absently for a monster to run into. It collapsed into a heap.

"You go, I'll deal with this one."

He huffed a laugh. "Tasha smash."

She nodded, and smiled back at him. "I will."

He leapt back into the fray, and the sound of his roar, joyous, unfettered and full of such rage, came echoing back to her. She turned to the Mole Man, crushed beneath her bootheels. "Now, Mister Villain," she purred, and pressed her thumbs into his throat, "let's you and I discuss attacking New York, and why that's not such a good idea."

Later, when she was handing over a blubbering Harvey Rupert Elder aka Mole Man to SHIELD's rather awed prison detail, she was able to catch sight of Hulk again. He held still as a hose was aimed at him, washing off the majority of the creatures' venom, and then he slumped to his haunches, wiping at his curly head and shaking off the water. She could see Bruce in that action.

Tony landed, and after depositing Clint on his feet and giving the archer a peace sign, he immediately clanked over to Hulk. Clint himself sidled over to Hill, who looked distinctly unimpressed as he grinned broadly at her. He was no doubt saying something flirty and deeply, ridiculously awful.

She signed the release for Elder and caught sight of Thor holding out his acid-eaten cape and shaking his head mournfully. Steve was giving him a sympathetic look, his mouth moving. He was probably offering to make another one. Honestly, such a Team Dad.

Tony's mask unfolded, and he lifted a hand to Hulk, who took in carefully in his own. They looked over each other, carefully, silently, cataloguing the other with serious faces. Then at some unspoken signal, Tony stepped closer to spread his arms as wide as they would go against Hulk's broad chest. Hulk's hand cradled the metal-clad head, and they stood there, still as stone.

Natasha leaned back, her eyes soft and warm as she regarded them, before meeting Clint's gaze. He looked conflicted about something, his hand tightening around the grip of his bow.

"Thought that'd never happen," he said, and his throat bobbed. "Those two. And out here, too, where any muppet can see. It'll be on Entertainment Weekly by sundown."

"Mmm," she agreed noncommittally. "Suppose we can thank Sterns for one thing, at least. They're not hiding any more."

They stood side by side, watching the pair even as Hulk began to shrink, going from the one supporting to the one being supported. Tony's arms curled around the diminishing chest, holding him securely, gently – even possessively.

"Hey," Bruce mumbled, and dropped his head against Tony's armoured shoulder. "Oh my god, I'm starving. I could eat one of those things."

"That venom doesn't exactly smell like the best sauce," Tony said, raising his eyebrows. Bruce moaned.

"Food," the physicist mumbled, audible even over the SHIELD jet's rumble. "Now."

"Welcome back to you too, let's discuss that very sexy noise you just made and how we can get a repeat performance."

"You can get a repeat performance with food."

"I can think of a few things for you to eat."

"Do they involve food?"

"Uh, well, that's like an optional extra."

"I will smash everything in your lab."

"Okay, okay, let's talk about getting something in you."

"Food now, innuendoes later."

"You are no fun."

"I am too."

"Nope, you are a big party-pooping dour-faced sadsack killjoy. No Fun Banner, that's your new nickname. How does Thai sound?"

"Heavenly. Lay on, MacDuff."

"And damned be him who first cries 'Hold! enough!'"

The two grinned foolishly at each other for a moment, and then Tony draped his arm over Bruce's bare shoulders - that old, familiar, deceptively careless gesture - and the two began to move off. Natasha could have bottled the affection and the closeness that radiated from them.

Beside her, Clint made a rough, wordless noise, his throat working rapidly again. She glanced sidelong at him. It wasn't like him to display a obvious tell like that. "Are you all right?"

"Did you ever want that?" he murmured in her ear.

"Want what?" she asked, and then her eyes went wide.

He looked embarrassed, and a little furious with himself. "I didn't... Look, forget I mentioned it."

She drew back, surprised. "Clint, you never..."

He gave her an enigmatic look, one that even she couldn't read. "I'm not saying. But. Think about it, okay?"

She looked back at the two of them; Bruce walking towards the quinjet with mad, ruffled curls, the black pants clinging to him with water, and Tony's arm looped around his waist as they spoke to each other in quick, soft voices. Their hands moved rapidly as they described their respective battles.

She thought for a moment about two men who also found it hard to trust. She thought about the fading shadows in Bruce's eyes, the drinks that Tony left untouched nowadays. She thought about love and debts, and how in her whole life one had always precluded the possibility of the other. She thought about putting away childish things long before she'd left childhood behind. She thought about Clint, and how she had never known what they were to each other.

"I'll consider it," she said. Clint's mouth didn't move from its hard line, but his eyes smiled at her, warm and secretive.

"But," she added, "you have to stop flirting with Hill."


"I can't believe you got me to do this," Bruce huffed against his neck, his breathing shot to hell. It rasped and puffed in his ears, and by god it was the best music Tony had ever danced to. Better than the stupid band out there, with their crappy Brat Pack rip-offs and their glassy smiles. This was better. This was real.

"I can't believe you actually went along with it," Tony grunted back, and canted his hips closer. Bruce dug his fingers into his thighs and lifted him higher, and Tony's once-pressed trousers fell to pool around his shiny dress shoes. "Oooh, forceful."

"Shut up," Bruce grunted, and pushed harder into him.

"You shut up first."

Bruce laughed into his neck, and then bit down on the jumping vein. "Make me."

Tony's eyes rolled back into his head, and yeah, good. This was good. This was all the good ever. Fuck, he loved being this Tony Stark. This was him now.

Him now was the kind of guy who got a thorough dicking in the lobby bathroom of a fancy hotel from his brilliant, fascinating, gorgeous and dangerous sort-of boyfriend/lover/whatever, instead of flirting with and fucking people who cared only about his fame or notoriety or money or all three. Him now loved the drag of the cock in his ass because it was Bruce's, not because it was a cock (even though it was a nice cock, good and thick and sort of angry, just like its owner). Him now loved the rough edge of Bruce's voice in his ear, all repression on the verge of explosion. Him now loved the feel of those big fingers pushing into his flesh. Him now wanted to watch the moment when Bruce's eyes bled green, when Hulk joined them at the moment of release for what was basically the weirdest, kinkiest and hottest threesome he'd ever been a part of. Him now loved the taste of anger behind Bruce's teeth, the strange possessive thrill of having an earthquake on a leash. Him now was hard as a fucking rock knowing that somewhere back there in the ballroom there was some bullshit award waiting for him, all those people waiting and applauding for the great Tony Stark, who was currently bent over a sink in a lobby bathroom. Him now also fucking loved that no-one would dare enter the bathroom while he was bent over the sink with the fucking Hulk sinking up to his balls in his ass.

"In the mirror," Bruce panted, and thrust again and again, searching for his prostate. "Now."

Tony lifted his eyes to meet Bruce's in the mirror, and let out a moan. There were green flecks dappling the brown of Bruce's irises, and the strength in those hands abruptly went from forceful to inhuman. "Hey there, big guy..." he managed, and arched into the thrusts, pushing back as hard as he could.

"He's so close, Tony," Bruce said, and his voice was deeper, thicker.

"So am I," Tony garbled, and Bruce's laugh was low and wicked.

They'd worked it out, eventually. Hulk wasn't a child, not the way Bruce had thought of him. He was Bruce and vice versa, and even though his understanding was childlike, everything else about him wasn't. The differences between them shrank every day. They woke at the same time, spoke at the same time. They learned to share. And he loved Tony too.

There was something overwhelming and otherworldly in being loved by them.

"Up a bit," he said breathlessly, and Bruce lifted his hips again, pushing into him and then circling around with the tip to find the magic button. "Ungh, there, there... oh god, fuuuuuuuck."

Bruce grinned, eyes glowing in the fluorescent light, and massaged the spot with the head of his cock, hips barely moving. "There?"

"You are an asshole, I swear to god," Tony gasped, and his hands gripped the sink so hard he thought it might crack under his hands.

"I know." Bruce pulled back a little and thrust back in, and Tony bit off a strangled noise. He was angled perfectly now, and holy, Tony actually thought he could come without a single finger being laid on his own dick.

Bruce wasn't that much of an asshole, though. His hand circled around to play with the slit, his thumb pushing into it even as his other fingers slid the foreskin back. Tony bucked into the loose fist, and Bruce's laugh sounded again, echoing through the bathroom. "Oh, I will fucking kill you."

"Can't help you with that, I'm afraid," Bruce said, and gave Tony's cock three or four solid strokes. Holy shit, so close. shi—t!

"Uh-uh-uh, nope," Bruce said, and his free hand rose to grip the hair at Tony's nape, pulling upwards steadily. A perfect little edge of pain, oh god yes. This was the best, Bruce everywhere, Bruce enveloping him. "Eyes on mine, no closing them."

"Bossy," Tony groaned, and met Bruce's eyes again. Hulk was closer, the eyes flickering hazel, and this was as close as Bruce ever got to being truly whole. This was the nearest Hulk could get to human. This right here.

Hulk would touch minds, right at the moment when they were closest. Oh god, oh Jesus fucking god, the hottest thing Tony had ever seen and it was still sort of the saddest. Everything about Bruce – hot and sad and angry and Jesus, Jesus, fuck. Right here, right now, in a bathroom in a hotel, with three hundred people waiting for them.

The hand around his cock tightened, still slightly slippery from the lube used to prepare him, and Tony kept his eyes fixed on the glowing hazel ones in the mirror even as he lengthened, hardened, close, so close...

Bruce jerked his head back even higher, craning his neck backwards, big fingers tightening in his hair. And yep. Gone, fuck it.

With a loud groan he came all over the underside of the fancy porcelain sink, and Bruce's fingers smoothed along the shaft, pumping him for every last drop. He didn't let go of that gaze, and it was a claiming of Bruce just as surely as Bruce claimed him. His hold on those shifting eyes was an acceptance and a demand of everything Bruce was. He could be a rock to Bruce's maelstrom, keeping those eyes still and steady as they lost control.

He owned this man. These men. This monster.

(Yeah, well. Tony was still a greedy guy.)

"Holy crap, you fucking gorgeous son of a bitch," he wheezed as Bruce's thrusts grew more ragged, bottoming out longer and balls slapping against his bare buttocks. He was over-sensitised and his knees felt a little loose and shaky, but he pushed back and clenched around Bruce and panted like a dog. "Come on, Brucey-babes. Come on, you bastard..."

Bruce honest-to-god growled as he came, his eyes still locked onto Tony's. Hell, he couldn't look away if he tried, saliva pooling in his mouth and his ass twitching from his own orgasm. Those eyes flared green, and then brown, and then Bruce was thrusting hard as he rode out the spurts, holding deep inside him on the last one and pushing Tony hard against cold, smeared porcelain. His hand in Tony's hair was stained green, and there was a dark flush against the thick column of his neck. His bared teeth were blunt and square. Tony could see Hulk's face in that snarl.

"How do you even work?" Tony mumbled, and then threaded his fingers with Bruce's come-stained ones.

Bruce's other hand slowly relaxed in his hair, and he bent over to kiss the bones at the top of Tony's spine. "I'm positive you'll figure it out before I will," he said, his voice still rough.

Tony brought up their joined hands, watching the green leech out of Bruce's skin. "You are insane. I can't believe you agreed to that. You're awesome. You're a complete bastard. You're incredible."

"That's what they say," Bruce said, and Tony laughed hoarsely.

"Love you."

Bruce went very still.

"You said it."

Tony smiled at his own face in the mirror. "I did, didn't I?"

Bruce's hands tightened around his, and he could feel the bobbing of Bruce's throat against his back as he swallowed. "Love you too," he said.

"Of course you do. I'm Tony Stark," Tony said, and Bruce laughed against his spine, and fuck yeah. This was who he was now. This was who they were.

And if he went and accepted his bullshit charity award (because, fuck, these things were only held in order for rich people to sit around and congratulate themselves, and frankly other rich people were deathly boring after superheroes and gods and stuff) with a stiff gait and sex hair and bite marks on his neck? Well. Rhodey would give him an unimpressed look, and Pepper and Happy would smirk at Bruce, and Tony himself would sit gingerly when retaking his seat, and Bruce would fidget with his hands and make himself small. Everyone else would think it was just a repeat of the Tony Stark Show.

Everyone would be wrong.

Because okay, the people who mattered knew it was stranger and more wonderful than that, and the Team knew who Bruce really was. But even then, they didn't know everything.

Only Tony got to see him strut.


"Are you happy?"

Bruce smiled, and poured the tea. "Yes. You look great, by the way."

Betty smiled back, and fiddled with her ring. "Thanks. So do you."

"Now that I don't believe."

"No, you look..." she broke off and frowned, searching for the words. He'd always liked how precise she was. "You look more relaxed than you ever have before. Comfortable. And... I hope I'm not being offensive? You're more... confident. And I have never heard you use happy to describe yourself. Ever."

"Ah," he said, taking a sip of his own tea. "That's a new development."

"Well, whatever it is, I'm glad."

That morning, Tony had staggered into Bruce's lab, fired up a screen and flipped a set of specs over to Bruce's own screen. Then Tony yawned, before grinning at him, groping his ass, and then staggering out in search of coffee.

Bruce shook his head, before opening the new files. It was the plans for the arc reactor.

The implicit trust in that action had almost floored him. He'd had to leave his experiment and sit down for a moment, breathing hard, Hulk crooning and crowing in the small places of his mind. Then he'd stormed out of the lab and found his Tony and had done his level best to suck his brains out through his dick.

He patted Betty's hand, smaller and less scarred than Tony's. A dream no longer. A friend, now.

Tony, said Hulk, when once upon a time he had only ever known her name.

"So am I," he said.


The place is big and warm and smells like home. A special place, just for Hulk. Tony made it for them, and they can come here in the flying bird thing and smash and roar and no puny humans will be scared. The red dirt clings to Hulk's skin, just like when he was first out of the small places, and the sun is warm but not hot, not like at the fixing place.

There are no guns.

Bruce is happy now, and so is Hulk. Because Hulk is Bruce is Hulk is Bruce and they are like paint that is too close together, the colours running into each other. When Tony touches them, it is almost like they are fixed.

Bruce still wakes in the night. Hulk still roars in the dark. Bruce still hates, and Hulk is still angry. They are broken, but it is better to be broken together. Their shattered pieces fill the empty gaps. Hulk thinks better with Bruce. Bruce feels better with Hulk.

Hulk has learned a new word. It is 'I'. Tony taught it to him. Hulk likes it.

I, me, mine.

(Us, we, ours)

Hulk leaps into the sky, and Bruce is laughing, laughing. Hulk laughs too, and the sounds meld and melt and they are laughing together and it rings inside their heads like a great bell, like fists striking a shiny room. The sun is warm, and Hulk's arms lift and it is like flying, like Metal Man.

Their heart beats to the rhythm of Mummy's song, and their head pounds to Tony, Tony, Tony, and Mummy laughs and sings and cries and dies and Hulk can remember her and be angry here because no puny humans will be scared. No puny humans will be here at all, not unless Hulk wants.

It is Hulk's place, Hulk and Bruce's. They can fill it with their rage and their joy and their freedom, and nothing will ever stop them. Nothing can ever stop them. They are together.

They are not alone.

Hulk leaps again, and Bruce says, there! Let's see how fast we can run!

Bruce is good at running. Bruce always runs. But Bruce has stopped now.

It could be an experiment?

Hulk is good at experiments. Hulk runs.

Tony flies beside him, and it is good.

They are together, and they are broken, but they are free.

It is good, good, good.