Bruce Banner sits on the upper curve of the reborn "S" on Stark Tower and watches the sun rise. Beside him, Steve sits, working his way through a bag of a dozen Egg McMuffins, the accompanying hash-browns, and a family-sized thermos of milky, fragrant coffee. Banner disdains the food, but another thermos sits beside him, not of coffee, but of eminently civilized Earl Grey tea. Hot, of course, and sugarless as only eminently civilized men prefer it.
"You sure you don't want one?' Steve asks him, around an overflowing mouthful. Banner shakes his head. Steve shrugs, and stuffs. Banner can't help but smile a little as he glances sideways. Some things never change, he reflects, no matter the time or generation, and the wolfish appetite of strong young men is one of them… The smile disappears as he looks out over the city again. Steve pops in the last of his McMuffin and slides back a bit, crossing his legs as he digs in the bag for another hashbrown. He likes to alternate them; it appeals to his sense of the orderly, and he glances sideways too, at his companion as the most unlikely sound of birdsong begins to echo through the still numb and crippled streets of New York.
"This is becoming a habit," he observes. "What gives?'
"You asked me if it hurts," Banner says, still looking over the city. "Do you understand what you were asking?'
Steve Rogers, a.k.a Captain America (though he isn't dressed for the occasion this morning; he's attired instead, in a pair of striped flannel pajama bottoms, a white T-shirt and a black motorcycle jacket that he found in a thrift store) tears open a packet of ketchup with his teeth and squeezes it directly into his mouth, following it with a chaser of hash-brown.
"I don't know," he says. "You tell me."
"I'm a doctor," Banner says. "That means something, you know? It's not my secret identity or anything, it's who I am. And you… You were designed to kill.'
Captain America turns his head and examines him.
"That's not exactly… exact," he says at last. "I mean… One could certainly look at it that way; hell, the first question I was asked when being recruited for the Super Soldier project was whether I wanted to kill some Nazis… But I hesitated, you know?'
"I should hope so," Banner says, and then… "Why?'
"Because it wasn't the right question," Steve says. "And I couldn't give them the right answer.' He is very prompt, as if he's given it a lot of thought. Banner unscrews the top of his thermos and sips. Nothing in the world, he thinks, tastes quite so disgusting as Earl Grey Tea, Hot, first thing in the morning. He sips again, masking his distaste with the ease of far too much practice. Civilization, and civility, be it ever so glorious, does have its necessary price.
"Go on," he says.
"I didn't want to kill Nazis," Steve Rogers says. "I wanted to heal the world. It was wounded and bleeding, sick with gangrene and rot, and I wanted to oust the infection. There was a price to be paid, of course there was… There always is… But what price that, compared to the other?"
"And they told you that you weren't big enough to fight? Or heal, as the case may be?'
'I was young and stupid," Steve says. "What did I know?' He put the bag aside and turned his face up to the sun. "Bruce?'
"Do you believe in God?"
"Huh?' Bruce Banner, . The Incredible Hulk, looks at the young man blankly. "Where the heck did that come from?'
"I wonder, sometimes, what the point is of all this. Whether there is a point, or a plan, or whether it really is all random. Whether we're random.'
Bruce considers that.
"The world is a beautiful place," he says at last. "So beautiful. We're gifted, we mortals, with such wonder and beauty, and what do we do with it, every chance we get? We break it, we destroy it, we contaminate it… And they ask me why I'm pissed all the time. It didn't start, you know, in the lab and with the gamma rays. They only gave me a way to express myself. Much like the army did you.'
Steve Rogers sighs.
"I don't know," he says. "Maybe I wasn't thinking about questions or answers after all. Maybe I just read too many overly dramatic and badly written comic books when I was a kid, and faced with one come to life before me, wanted to be the hero. Maybe I still do."
"We all do," Banner says, and eyes his thermos of tea, with slightly more obvious distaste this time. "But there's that price to be paid. Vaccines, after all, are derived from the original viruses."
"Listen to you." It's affectionate, though, and Steve offers him a bit of a shy grin of his own. It is as pure and beautiful a specimen as any of the worlds Banner has explored in his laboratory and through his microscopes, and the effect is promptly and thoroughly ruined by the third splort of packaged ketchup.
"Seriously though," he says, when the final Egg McMuffin has fulfilled its glorious burden and purpose. "Why do we keep coming up here?"
"It does hurt," Banner says. "To answer your question. But the hurt's not in the growing. It's in the reducing. Once you pass the point… There's just no going back."
There was a pause.
"Is this about my date?' Steve asks suspiciously. "Because you know, I could have sworn you told Tony that you weren't that kind of doctor."
'I'm not," Banner says. "I'm still, though, despite popular belief, a human being, and you asked me a question, and to answer your question, I don't know if I believe in God, but I do believe in vaccines, even if I'm stuck with life as the neo-evolved virus as the price of it all. And sure I'm angry, but how many people do you think go into medicine because they're happy? A well-developed sense of chronic anger, appropriately directed, of course, is one of the real job requirements.'
Steve sets his bag of breakfast aside and pulls his knees up to his chest, resting his forehead on his arms. The breeze ruffles his blond hair softly. Banner reaches into his own inner jacket pocket and pulling out a book, turning to the marked page.
'"One word, Ma'am," he read. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia."
He closes the book, and tucks it away. Captain America scrubs his eyes, not as discreetly as he thinks, but Bruce Banner is a kind man, or tries to be anyway, and politely ignores the both the fact and the ensuing honk into the pristine handkerchief that follows, even as he retrieves his tea.
"'Nother question," Steve says. "Why do you keep drinking that manky shit when you hate as much as you do?'
"They told me it'd put hair on my chest," Banner says, poker-faced. "And help me grow big and tall. Like you."
Steve snorts, and can't help himself, dissolves into fits of most unmanly giggles.