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The Monsters We Create

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Bruce stumbles into an alleyway, panting heavily. He’s been on the run for three weeks already, but this is the first time his situation has been quite so literal, and he’s well aware that he’s spent the past decade sitting at a lab bench rather than at the gym. To make matters worse, he twisted his ankle a few blocks ago—not broken, but probably sprained. Either way, he can’t go any further without a rest.

He’s not sure how the NID picked up his trail as he made his way north along the coast after the accident. He’d been careful to check into motels under different names, to pay for things with cash or with the credit card Betty had slipped him before he left, the way people in the movies did it. He’s not even entirely sure where he is right now beyond somewhere in Massachusetts. Near a university, judging by the buildings with Greek symbols he just passed.

Actually, he’s pretty impressed at how well he’s been doing; he’s a biophysicist, not a criminal mastermind.

The alley is dark, tall buildings on either side blocking the last few rays of the sun. It reeks of rotting vegetable matter from garbage bags overflowing a dumpster that he can just make out. The far end is blocked off by a tall fence topped with barbed wire, and Bruce finds that all the doors leading into the street are locked. He sinks to the pavement behind the pile of fallen garbage bags, his back to the wall, letting his duffel of clothes swing down beside him.

And He startles when he realizes there’s another man in the shadows. It’s difficult to make out his features, but Bruce can see that he’s wearing glasses and that he’s asleep, hunched protectively around a backpack between his legs, long-ish floppy hair tickling his nose. Strangely, he’s got a piece of paper pinned to his shirt, the whiteness of it glowing in the darkness.

Even more oddly, Bruce feels the angry consciousness at the back of his mind trying to recoil as far away from the paper as it can get. This is the first time it’s reacted to anything with fear. With anything other than rage, actually. The scientist part of Bruce wants to get closer to see what is on the paper, but he’s already halfway to his feet again, backing away, before he becomes consciously aware of his actions.

Bruce is still breathing harshly, and it’s enough to wake the man, who startles to consciousness with a muffled shout. He looks around with wide, panicked eyes, oblivious to Bruce’s entreaties to be quiet, and stuffs the paper into his bag, then continues to fumble with it, digging around for something.

Bruce darts a glance towards the street, and is relieved to find it still deserted. A triumphant “Hah!” draws his attention back to the other man, and he freezes, heart rate speeding up to dangerous levels when he sees a gun in the man’s hands. Bruce raises his own hands carefully, trying to look harmless. He can’t let the man shoot him. If the Other Guy comes out, he’ll raze the entire town to the ground.

“Who are you?” the man demands wildly, because of course Bruce couldn’t pick an empty alley. “What were you doing? Did I…” he doesn’t finish his last question.

Bruce winces at his volume. “Please,” he begs quietly. “I wasn’t going to hurt you. I just needed a place…” he breaks off when he hears shouts and dogs barking in the distance, and sirens rapidly approaching. “Please,” he repeats.

From the fear he can see on the other man’s face when he hears them too, it seems that he’s in no more of a hurry to interact with the local law enforcement than Bruce is. That fact, combined with the gun he now lowers to his side, makes Bruce even more concerned that he has disturbed a dangerous criminal. But Bruce would still rather take his chances here than continue to try to outrun the NID, along with what sounds like half the police and military personnel on the east coast.

Both men press themselves hard against the wall as the sounds of pursuit become deafeningly loud. A flashlight beam sweeps across the alley, blinding them. Bruce closes his eyes and holds his breath, shivering from a combination of cold, fear, and adrenaline. The silly child’s mantra, if I can’t see them, they can’t see me, plays over and over again in his mind.

“Doctor Banner!” a harsh voice calls. Bruce bites his lip and opens his eyes again to make sure he’s well-hidden. “Surrender now, and make things easier on all of us.”

They can’t know for certain that he’s here; they’re just guessing in the hopes that he’ll panic and reveal himself. He has to admit, the idea of giving up, of not having to run anymore, is tempting. But they’re not even bothering to make false guarantees of his safety should he turn himself in. He has spent far too many sleepless nights imagining the kinds of experiments they might perform on him to make surrendering a viable option.

The man he’s hiding with had stiffened at the sound of the voice, and now cuts him a curious, oddly speculative glance. Bruce shivers harder, and focuses all of his energy on slowing his heart rate, keeping himself calm enough that he can stay in control. He’s scared and his ankle hurts, and if he just transformed that would solve both of his problems… but no. Not an option. Not something he should even be thinking about. There’s a green roaring surging up in his head, but he holds it back.

“Doctor Banner!” the agent shouts again, but he doesn’t come into the alley, wrinkling his nose at the smell that, to Bruce’s unending gratitude, seems to be masking his own scent from the dogs as well. One more sweep of the flashlight, and the agent moves on, repeating his message from a block or two away.

Once he can no longer hear shouting or see the lights from the sirens, Bruce sinks back, letting go of some of the tension. His companion does the same. He’s just starting to think that he might get through the night without incident, when the man whispers, “That was Agent Farrow of the NID.”

Bruce jumps a little at the sudden noise. “How?” Bruce asks, wanting to know how he can identify shady government agents by their voices, but the man cuts him off.

“He was looking for a Doctor Banner. That you?” Bruce swallows and nods. No point in denying it.

“Are you an alien?” the man asks.

That was not a question Bruce had been expecting. “What? No!” he exclaims. “Aliens don’t even… I’m…” he can’t quite bring himself to say the word human though. He hunches into himself a little. “Why do you ask?” he says as evenly as possible.

The other man has been studying his reaction carefully, and seems satisfied. “So you’re a monster then,” he says far too matter-of-factly.

Bruce feels like the breath has been knocked out of him. He can’t speak to reply to the accusation, not if he wants to keep himself in check.

The man nods, his suspicions confirmed. If Bruce didn’t know better, he would think there was a hint of sympathy, of shared pain in the gesture, which twists his stomach.

Bruce’s companion reaches for his backpack again, and carefully deposits the gun back inside it. More of Bruce’s tension eases. It seems he won’t be getting shot tonight after all.

With the adrenaline wearing off, though, he’s reminded of how much his ankle hurts. He draws it closer, the shift in position sending red hot daggers all the way up to his knee, and examines it as best he can in the darkness. There’s some swelling, but he thinks he can make it for a few towns at least, although he won’t enjoy it.

His companion leans over to inspect the ankle himself. “That looks pretty nasty,” he says, then offers Bruce his hand to shake. “I’m…” he pauses, eyeing Bruce, clearly deciding whether or not to give his real name. “Daniel,” he says eventually. Bruce can’t read his face well enough in the dark to tell if he’s lying, but it doesn’t really matter.

“Bruce,” he offers in return, because Daniel already heard the agent call him Dr. Banner, and knowing Bruce’s first name isn’t going to make a difference.

“Nice too meet you, Bruce,” Daniel says with a wry grin.

“You too.” Strangely enough, in spite of the way the rest of the evening went, he actually means it. There’s no small amount of comfort in knowing that he’s not the only person on the run from these men.

Bruce tries again to ask about Daniel’s connection to the NID, but realizes that Daniel has stopped paying attention to him. Instead, he is staring at something over Bruce’s shoulder, and has gone rigid, an expression of utter horror on his face. Bruce whirls around, coldly certain that the NID has found him, but there is only an unarmed man in a business suit standing framed in the light of the main street.

There’s something not quite right about him as he peers around, searching for someone or something. His head seems to rotate a full three hundred and sixty degrees—Bruce dismisses it as a trick of the light, but can’t shake the uneasiness he feels. Beside him, Daniel is frozen with dread.

Bruce would swear that neither of them had made a sound to advertise their location, but the man’s head unerringly swings around to fixate directly on them. He sticks his head out, staring into the gloom, and again Bruce gets the impression that his neck is able to move further than it should, extending towards them like a slinky. He sniffs loudly, audible even where Bruce and Daniel are crouched in the shadows, and Daniel shudders. Bruce can’t help his own flinch of revulsion.

“Hey! You!” shouts someone in the street, making both Bruce and Daniel jump. The attention of the man in the business suit is diverted as well, and Bruce feels a weight he wasn’t aware of before lifted from his chest.

The reprieve is short-lived, though, because the shout is followed by the blare of a siren. Headlights from a police car blind them momentarily, and by the time Bruce has blinked the spots out of his eyes, the strange man has disappeared, leaving behind nothing more than a vague sense of anxiety.

Which is quickly replaced by absolute terror again, because the police car is still there, and others are rapidly joining it. Bruce looks around frantically, hoping that he missed another exit to the alleyway, but there is nothing. His breath is coming faster now, and the roaring in his head is surging, about to crest, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.

“Get away from me,” he warns Daniel, his voice rougher and deeper than normal, before the monster takes over and Bruce falls away.

***

Daniel takes a stumbling step back at Bruce’s words, instincts honed by countless offworld missions warning him that something apocalyptic is about to occur, but there is nowhere for him to go.

Bruce is crouching, his face twisted in pain, which only increases when he puts weight on his ankle. As Daniel watches, horrified, Bruce’s whole body contorts and begins to expand, ripping his shirt to pieces as it goes, until finally there is a giant standing next to him. In the moonlight, Bruce’s skin looks green.

The instant Bruce grows tall enough to be seen from the street, bullets begin flying towards them. Daniel drops to the ground, but Bruce just shrugs off the ones that hit him, barely noticing them. He lets out a roar that shakes the ground beneath them, knocking a potted plant off someone’s balcony. It lands with a crash just in front of Daniel. He flinches backwards, arms protecting his face from the shards of clay that fly everywhere when it shatters. A piece still grazes his forehead, though, and he wipes away the blood.

Then he looks up again, and freezes. The creature is staring straight at him. It is almost unrecognizable as the timid man it used to be, except for its eyes. No, not its, his. His eyes, which hold all the same pain and weariness and apprehension and anger that Daniel saw in Bruce. That he knows Bruce saw in him.

Daniel stays very still as the beast looks him over, clearly deciding whether or not to smash him into the ground. After an eternity, during which Daniel hardly dares to breathe, Bruce huffs at him and deliberately turns his back, letting out another roar, this time full of challenge. Then, he tenses his muscles and leaps over the dumpster, landing amongst the blockade of police cars and military vehicles. Still ignoring the bullets whizzing all around him, he picks up the nearest car and swings it at the crowd of people at his feet.

Within minutes, all of Bruce’s opponents are dead, unconscious, or have run away. Daniel wonders if the beast will change back into a man now that the danger is gone, but apparently Bruce does not have that much control over the transformation, because he stays large and green and, with a snarl, takes off running down the street, huge bare feet pounding cracks in the pavement. He takes swipes at things as he goes, seemingly at random, until he turns a corner and Daniel can no longer see him.

There is silence.

A voice in Daniel’s head that sounds suspiciously like Jack screams for him to run, to turn around and get as far away from the giant green…thing… as he can, take advantage of the fact that it’s keeping the soldiers busy to escape himself. They were there for Bruce, not for him. Chances are, if he runs, no one will even know to chase him.

And yet.

The creature is Bruce. They aren’t two separate entities; Daniel could see the man inside of the monster. He watched Bruce make the conscious decision not to hurt him, to lure the soldiers away from Daniel instead.

Which means that all of that capacity to hurt (to bring the world to its knees, governments toppling with the touch of a button, the realization and disappointment and fear in Jack’s eyes), everything that makes the monster what it is, exists in Bruce too.

And if Bruce is a monster who deserves nothing more than to be hunted down, then what is
Daniel?

Daniel thinks about all the times he’s woken up alone in a strange place with no recollection of how he got there other than the fading memory of a beautiful city. All the times he wished his team was there to comfort him, even though he knows he ran away for their own protection.

Besides, when did Daniel ever take Jack’s advice anyway?

He shakes his head and runs after Bruce, following the path of destruction and screams.

***

Daniel catches up to him near the outskirts of town. He hangs back in the darkness, watching Bruce stomp up and down, cracking the pavement with evident enjoyment, illuminated by a single surviving street lamp. Daniel firmly avoids thinking about the trail of bodies lying discarded on the sidewalks that led him here – mainly police and NID, but also more than one young family and elderly couple.

Not giving himself time to change his mind, he moves into the light, arms by his sides but fingers outstretched to show he’s not holding a weapon. The creature immediately ceases his stomping and looms menacingly over Daniel, but makes no move to attack him.

“Scary paper man,” he booms, and Daniel stiffens in shock. He hadn’t thought the beast would be able to talk. And the fact that he reacted to the cuneiform...

“You could feel the words?” he asks.

The giant man shrugs uncomfortably. Daniel is struck by how childlike he seems, but most of his mind is occupied by the fact that the writing is actually doing something. He may yet be crazy, but he can’t stifle the surge of hope rising up that someone has found a cure for either the condition or the delusion.

Deep rumbling snaps his attention back to the current situation. “Smash paper man?”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” says Daniel, and takes a careful step forward, then another when gigantic fists don’t grind him into the pavement. “You look like you’ve been having fun,” he says, gesturing to the destruction surrounding them. His companion grins at him and casually snaps a shattered lamp off its post. “Bruce,” he begins, but the creature snarls at him, his jovial mood vanishing instantly.

“Hulk,” he rumbles. “Not Bruce.”

Well that’s an interesting insight into Bruce’s psychological stability. “Sorry, Hulk,” Daniel corrects himself.

“Why follow?” and Daniel is taken aback again.

“In case you needed help,” he answers truthfully.

Hulk gives a derisive snort. “Puny men. Puny guns.”

“I can see that,” Daniel agrees. “What about now, though? What are you going to do now? The bad men with guns are gone. You’re safe. You don’t need to keep breaking things.”

“You’re wrong about that,” sneers a voice from behind Hulk. Daniel is nearly knocked over as the Hulk spins around, snarling. Peering around one massive leg, he sees NID Agent Farrow bracing a rocket launcher on his shoulder pointed directly at Hulk’s face.

“What a stroke of luck,” the agent breathes. “The mighty Hulk and the elusive Doctor Jackson in one go. You’ll be seeing me in Washington after this.” He checks himself. “Wait, actually no, you won’t. Neither of you will ever see the light of day again.”

With that, he fires. Hulk reacts with blinding speed, knocking the missile away before it reaches him. It impacts a nearby building and explodes, collapsing a whole row of shops. The resulting shockwave sends both Daniel and Farrow to the ground, but Hulk keeps his balance. He plucks the weapon from the agent’s hands and tosses it away casually, then stands over the fallen man, snarling.

“Hulk smash,” he announces gleefully.

Daniel should try to stop him. He should put himself between Hulk and the NID agent, and trust that, at this point, Hulk likes him enough to not hurt him. But he hesitates. Because Farrow has seen him, knows where he is, and even if Daniel escapes now, it won’t take long before the NID catches up to him.

An instant later, he realizes that he’s actually contemplating allowing Hulk (and therefore Bruce), to murder someone in cold blood. He feels sick, but it’s too late.

Hulk has raised his massive fists. As they fall, Daniel tries to fling himself into their path, but he is too far away. All he can do is turn his eyes away at the last second before those fists land on Agent Farrow’s head.

***

Bruce opens his eyes slowly. His head is pounding, the ache made worse by weak light seeping in through a painted-over window, and there’s dust in his mouth. He can feel bloody scrapes along the backs of his legs and rough concrete digging into his back. The air is musty and thick, hard to breathe. But he can hear someone moving around nearby, so he pulls himself upright as fast as he can, clutching at his head with a groan when the change in position makes it feel like it’s going to explode.

Sitting up dislodges a black t-shirt that had been strategically laid on him to preserve his modesty. As he scrambles to replace it, a man comes out of the shadows, and he has a brief moment of panic before he realizes that he’s squinting up at Daniel.

“We’re near the edge of town, in an abandoned store. I dragged you in here after you, ah, shrank down and passed out,” Daniel explains. “Figured you didn’t want to be lying out on the street in case reinforcements showed up. Here.” Daniel hands him a bottle of water, which Bruce accepts gratefully. He can’t help noticing, though, that Daniel doesn’t look past his own hand and isn’t trying to meet Bruce’s eyes.

Well, of course he isn’t, now that he knows what Bruce really is. Bruce’s throat tightens painfully, and he takes a long swallow of the water to get himself under control. Daniel’s explanation was sparse on details like whether or not any of the cops actually survived and how many innocent bystanders were hurt, but Bruce can’t quite bring himself to ask. After another sip he tries to give the bottle back, but Daniel waves him away. “Keep it.”

“Thanks,” he says, grateful.

“I’ve got, uh…” Daniel pulls a pair of jeans out of his bag and tosses them in Bruce’s direction, still not really looking at him. Bruce tugs them on quickly and then pulls the shirt over his head.

Bruce thanks Daniel again, his face red. He stares down at his bare feet, scrunching his toes to feel the scratch of the floor. His ankle is completely healed now.

“I’m sorry,” he says softly. Daniel startles and looks directly at Bruce for the first time since Bruce woke up.

“You’re sorry,” he echoes, incredulous, loud, and Bruce hunches in on himself, old instincts impossible to ignore.

“For leading the NID straight to you,” he explains, in case Daniel is waiting to hear his full confession. “And for putting you in danger.”

“You’re sorry?” Daniel repeats. “You’re not the one who should be sorry.”

Bruce is confused. “But…” he starts, before Daniel cuts him off.

“I used you.” Daniel’s voice is low and vicious and intense, full of self-loathing.

“You what?”

“I used you as a weapon,” Daniel bites out.

Bruce frowns, still having no idea what Daniel is talking about. Unless… “The Hulk, you mean?”

Now Daniel is staring at him intently. “You don’t remember?”

“I never do,” he answers. “I just get flashes.”

Daniel looks away again, hiding his face as he admits, “You killed that NID agent. And I didn’t stop you. I wanted you to do it.”

Now that Daniel has said it, Bruce suddenly has a memory of cracking the man’s skull. He fights the urge to retch at the splintering bone and blood.

Pushing back the nausea he reassures Daniel, “You couldn’t have done anything. It’s a miracle the Other Guy didn’t kill you too.” There is dried blood near Daniel’s hairline, which Bruce is pretty sure wasn’t there at the beginning of the evening.

Daniel just shakes his head, not listening. “I shouldn’t have even stayed here. I just…”

Instead of finishing the sentence, Daniel grabs his bag and starts heading for the door. Bruce should let him go. It would be safer for Daniel to get as far away from him as possible. But Bruce can’t leave things like this. He stops Daniel with an outstretched arm and a “No, wait!” “You just what?” he prompts.

“I know what it’s like to wake up in a strange place alone,” Daniel admits, his voice low.

Bruce feels an conflicting surge of both gratitude and guilt. He’s a murderer, even if he doesn’t remember the actual killing. He doesn’t deserve to feel comfortable after a transformation. But it felt so good for a brief moment to know that he wasn’t lying exposed in the open. That Daniel had seen him at his worst and would still share his water and his clothing with Bruce.

“I’m glad you stayed,” he whispers.

Daniel sighs and rests his head against the wall. “Consider it penance,” he says, then adds, “not that it helps” almost too softly for Bruce to hear.

Bruce wonders again what terrible secrets Daniel is hiding, but does him the courtesy of not inquiring further. “So, what now?” Bruce says instead.

“It’s not safe to stay here much longer. If the military hasn’t shown up yet, they’ll be here soon.”

Bruce nods.“Where will you go?” he asks.

“I’d rather not say. Just in case. You know.”

Bruce does. In case one of them is caught and the NID finds out that they have information about the other. It’s difficult to believe that he’s living a life where these sorts of things are a concern.

“The NID doesn’t have jurisdiction abroad,” he suggests, but Daniel shakes his head and pushes himself straight again.

“That won’t stop them. Still, it might be easier. Have you ever been to Egypt? The Middle-East?”

“No. I’m decent enough with languages, though,” he says. “I can pick them up pretty quickly when I need to.”

“If you can get to Cairo, find a Dr. Amr Hamadi. Tell him you know Claire’s son. He’ll help you.”

The thought of a populous city makes him uneasy, knowing the damage he can do. On the other hand, a fresh start is tempting. Maybe he can even do some penance himself, save lives to make up for those he’s taken.

“What about you?” he wants to know.

“There’s something I’m looking for,” Daniel answers. “Something to help with my condition.” He smiles harshly at that last word.

“Anything a biophysicist could help you with?” Bruce offers.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s a bit outside your expertise.”

Bruce remembers are you an alien? and agrees privately that yes, it might be.

Daniel glances at the windows as a noisy car drives by. Heading to an early shift at work, maybe, in spite of the town’s devastated condition. “Will you be okay if I?” he indicates the door with his head.

The answer to that is a resounding no, but Bruce can see how anxious Daniel is to leave. Really, the fact that Daniel stayed with him even this long is more than he deserves. He musters all the confidence he can. “I’ll be fine.”

Daniel looks a little dubious at that, so Bruce adds, “I mean it. Go.”

Daniel’s restlessness wins out. With a nod, and a “good luck,” which Bruce echoes back, he moves towards the exit.

“Hey, Daniel?” Bruce calls to him just as he reaches the doorway. Daniel stops and half-turns back. “I don’t know what you are or what you’ve done. But you’re no monster.”

Daniel smiles a little. “Then neither are you,” he says, and steps out the door.