DISCLAIMER: Iron Man 3, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers are the properties of Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Studios, and Marvel Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended.
RATING: T (for language, violence, disturbing imagery)
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Just a warning for the rest of the story that some of Bruce's past (and Steve's past) I'll be making up based off of what's in the comics and what's in the movies. Enjoy and thanks for reading!
Bruce was downright confused. Totally at a loss. It took a lot to stump him, to leave him completely bereft of a plausible explanation. But this… This had rather effectively managed it.
"I'm okay," Steve said yet again as the nurses and doctors surrounded him. They were swarming him, and they had been since the Avengers been rescued from the lab and taken to the SHIELD office just outside of Times Square a few hours ago. He sat clad only in his underwear, more exposed and vulnerable than Bruce thought would be comfortable for him after what happened, and he was willingly subjecting himself to countless tests. The doctors were running them in rapid succession, blood work and x-rays and MRIs and PET scans. They had hooked Steve up to an EEG and EKG. They had run every analysis available multiple times to double check and triple check, extracting vial after vial of blood from the soldier, performing muscle and skin and bone biopsies, searching for clues. As he always was, however, Steve was true to his word: he was okay. There didn't seem to be anything wrong with him. He looked a tad pale, and there were two pink spots on each temple and a dozen or more along his spine where he'd been injected in the chamber. A few bruises lined his wrists and ankles where he'd struggled against the restraints of that horrible table in the lab. But other than that he seemed perfectly healthy. His vital signs were all completely normal. There was no evidence of stress on his body, his heart and lungs and other organs functioning well within ordinary limits (which were extraordinary limits compared to everyone else). There were no obvious changes to his physiology; it would take more time for genetic results to come back, but the infirmary's biomedical sensors hadn't detected anything aberrant or worrisome or even different from his last physical a few months ago. Nobody seemed to know what to make of it.
For a man who'd died of radiation exposure and cardiac arrest, he seemed remarkably well.
Maybe it was a miracle. Bruce didn't find that terribly comforting. Neither did Barton apparently, for the archer had stayed close to Steve the entire time the doctors had run their gamut of tests. His own arm had been tended, stitched and bandaged and put into a sling, and a few nurses had wrapped his bruised ribs. He looked worn and white and exhausted, pained if the tight lines about his eyes and mouth were any indication, but he'd silently refused to move away or even sit. He was a stalwart sentinel standing guard over a close friend he'd nearly lost. He was out of the way, watching from behind the physicians as they worked, but his presence was determined and unwavering.
Steve had been quiet and compliant through all this, but Bruce could see now that his patience was starting to wear thin. He'd allowed them to examine him thoroughly, sat still as they'd veritably drained the blood out of his body, reacted with outstanding and mind-numbing composure considering the trauma he'd just endured. He'd even suffered through a spinal tap, which seemed warranted considering Lahey's drug had been introduced into the CSF, and the procedure hadn't been pleasant given his immunity to all forms of anesthesia and analgesics. Still, when a nurse came with another series of vials in her hands and an apologetic look plastered all over her young face, he just shook his head and pulled his arm away. "I'm fine," he insisted, his tone tense. "This is getting a little ridiculous. There's nothing wrong. I feel fine."
Clint shook his head, sharing a glance with Bruce. His eyes shone in unmasked worry. "Steve, you died."
The enormity of that simple statement was painful, and Steve winced. He opened his mouth to protest or refute it, but he couldn't. He'd said earlier that he remembered everything that had happened in the chamber, down to the excruciating pain of the Gamma radiation exposure, but after that things had gotten blurry and indistinct. He'd "blacked out", as he'd put it, before awakening in Clint's arms, apparently unaware of what had happened, of how very serious the situation had gotten. His lungs had stopped. His heart had stopped. The radiation destroyed his organs, the damage caused by Dan's drug aside. He had been dead, dead beyond the point of resuscitation, and he had been that way for more than just a few seconds. For minutes. That was unbelievable and distressing to say the least.
Bruce knew more about the super soldier serum than most, probably more than anyone else alive. There were a lot of mysteries about it: how to recreate it, how it truly functioned, how far it could be pushed. This had gone some ways to answer that last question, but even still, Bruce didn't think the serum could have repaired that magnitude of systemic damage, that amount of widespread cellular destruction, let alone so quickly. And he knew Steve was strong, the strongest human on earth, but he didn't think Rogers could normally stand against the Hulk like he had. He was loathed to admit it, but he believed Dan had been right: if anyone could have survived that procedure, surely it was Captain America. The serum afforded Steve amazing resilience and regeneration, and that had been the exact thought process that had driven Bruce to apply more radiation earlier in the experiment. Maybe that had kickstarted whatever reaction Dan had wanted to see. Maybe it had worked. And maybe Steve's innate healing and strength had been amplified by some combination of the radiation and adrenaline. He would never know unless he looked at Steve's test results.
No. He wasn't going to do that. He wasn't going to look at any more data associated with this nightmare. To hell with figuring it out.
But even as his heart yelled no, his mind kept crunching at it. Whatever Dan's drug had been meant to do, there was no sign of it in Steve's system now. So either it had done nothing and his body had flushed it or the effects had been transient. Or they haven't happened yet. Acknowledging that was even more distressing than acknowledging that Steve had died.
Steve sighed, apparently unwilling to acknowledge much of anything. "I'm a little tired," he said, as though he thought that admitting he wasn't totally one hundred percent would allay their anxiety. He forced some measure of bravado into his voice. "And sore. But it's nothing. I'm fine. Aren't I?" He looked at Bruce for confirmation and clearly expected it without reservation.
Bruce didn't know what to say. He didn't want to be doubtful, to cast some measure of reality on this seeming fantasy of everyone emerging alive and unscathed, but he had to be honest with himself. He wasn't sure if Steve was okay or if he would be. He wasn't sure of anything. Still, Rogers was trusting him to deliver some sort of answer, so he said what he could. "Everything's coming back normal." It was almost as if Steve was betrayed by his placating words. At that, the guilt that had been plaguing him since coming back from the suffocating grip of the Hulk grew sharper and more intense. The logical part of his mind told him he'd been helpless, a pawn, a goddamn tool in Dan's schemes. The rational part of him knew there'd been no choice, not with Tony so seriously injured and Clint bound and threatened as he had been. But guilt wasn't rational by any means. It didn't abide by facts or truths or reason. And he felt so miserably ashamed that he almost hadn't come back here after slipping out sometime ago to check on Tony. Dan was his colleague, his friend, and he'd suspected something had been wrong but he hadn't stopped it. It had been his faulty calculations, his flawed science, that had exposed Steve to a fatal amount of Gamma radiation (and seemingly for nothing, which was more aggravating and disgusting). He'd hurt Steve and helped a madman experiment on another person, on a living, breathing human being. He'd been unwilling, yes, but he'd still done it. And if Steve hadn't miraculously come back to them, Bruce would have been responsible for his death.
A simple "it's not your fault" really wasn't going to absolve him. As a scientist, what he'd done was morally detestable. Even if nobody held him responsible, even if Steve, as good-natured and self-sacrificing as he was, didn't blame him, Bruce blamed himself. This was going to become another scar on his psyche, another thing he carried around with him. Another wound that bled anger like poison. The thing was he'd become so efficient at seeming calm and in control that he could fool everyone, even himself. So he swallowed down the poison of his shame like it was nothing and donned the visage of a caring friend. "You took a huge shock to your system, Steve," he said. "It needs to be checked out."
Steve's face abruptly turned unreadable, stony and rigid, and Bruce couldn't help but feel waves of guilt break against his heart. It was hard to stand still, to not waver or retreat or hide. He shied away from confrontation; that was the way he'd learned to control and protect himself. Was he imagining the anger shining in Steve's eyes? Was the pain and hatred real or just a product of his own conscience? In a blink that hard look was gone, and Steve sagged wearily in submission. He held his arm out to the nurse, who'd been watching the exchange with a wide, frightened gaze. She hesitated a moment more until Steve gave her a small nod. She set her supplies to the hospital bed beside her patient and snapped blue nitrile gloves on her hands before preparing to draw Steve's blood again. Clint came a little closer at seeing Steve's slumped shoulders and downcast expression. Maybe Steve had known that these efforts he'd made to brush this ordeal aside like it was nothing were silly and futile, but having that thrown in his face was obviously dismaying. Clint set his unhurt hand to Steve's broad shoulder and tugged him just a little closer for comfort. Bruce hadn't thought the hardened sharpshooter capable of such unimposing tenderness. "You're okay," Clint promised with half an encouraging grin.
Steve nodded and drew a deep breath. He hardly reacted as the nurse stuck the needle in his vein. "How's Stark?"
Bruce was grateful the subject of the conversation had turned from Steve and what had been done to him. He released a slow breath. "He'll be alright. The bullet wasn't as close to his spinal cord as I feared. They got it out during surgery. He's in recovery." It was remarkable, really, considering how close Tony had come to dying. It was downright flabbergasting that the four of them had walked away from their hellish experience alive and relatively unscathed. He'd been a little reticent to leave Tony alone in the intensive care ward. It was difficult to see him so pale and so weak and so quiet. Stark was loud and rambled a mile a minute and never sat still, so watching the motionless, silent body lying in a hospital bed hooked up to a wall of medical machinery and plugged into numerous IVs was disturbing. And even though Bruce knew he'd be okay, he couldn't shake the fear that he wouldn't be. At least Pepper had been there, having come immediately once SHIELD had contacted her about Tony's condition. Bruce didn't know how much she knew of what had happened, but she hadn't asked him about it. She'd been scared and worried but so wonderfully calm and tender as she'd taken up vigil in a chair beside Tony's bed, so he hadn't fretted about leaving Stark in her hands. "He'll be off his feet for a while, but there won't be any long term damage."
"That's good," Steve said. He offered Bruce a faint smile. "You saved his life."
Coming from anyone else, he would have argued. He was in no mood to be coddled or to have the obvious burden of shame lifted away from his shoulders. Steve was sincere, so much so that it was almost difficult for Bruce to stay still under his open and grateful gaze. Things were a bit hazy from the panic and terror and the Hulk's consuming rage banging constantly against his mind, but Steve's calm words and strong hands and soothing presence he remembered very clearly. Rogers had been a rock during it all, steady and sure, and he'd offered up his strength and encouragement to Bruce as easily as he'd offered up his body to Dan. Of them all, Steve had the most reason to be angry, but he wasn't, at least not so much that it was noticeable. He had never let his emotions get the better of him, never faltered in the face of his fear or succumbed to the fires of his rage. Bruce couldn't fathom so much restraint and control. Steve had been so calm, so focused on the logical choices, acting as a shield between Bruce and the Hulk as much as he had been one between Lahey's threats and Clint and Tony. He'd sacrificed himself without a moment of doubt. That was intimidating. Everything about him was intimidating. And this whole incident had only caused all of Bruce's insecurities to resurface.
Bruce managed to push them all back down. "You did, too," he answered, feeling uncomfortable and so damn raw that it was hard not to run from this. It was hard to say what needed to be said, what a good friend would say to someone who'd saved him. "Thanks for what you did back there for him. And for me."
Steve smiled again. "You're welcome." He wasn't dismissive, but to him what he'd done wasn't a big deal. It was never a big deal. He was Captain America, and saving people was what Captain America did. Perfection. Physical, mental, and emotional perfection. Some part of Bruce wanted to cry.
The doors to the infirmary swished open. Natasha Romanoff and Maria Hill entered. They both looked stoic, though Romanoff darted a questioning glance toward Barton that Steve didn't notice. Bruce watched Clint give a little nod, dropping his hand from Steve's shoulder and gingerly trading his weight to his other leg. The two women came to stand in front of Steve's bed, Hill bearing a tablet computer. She finished tapping her fingers to it and looked up at Rogers. "Fury's on his way down," she announced. Steve didn't look pleased, and Hill shook her head. "You can't expect him to not be concerned. Four of the Avengers were held hostage by a relative nobody. That tends to put up red flags around here. How are you feeling?"
"Fine. I assume you took Doctor Lahey into custody?"
Hill seemed slightly surprised at how easily Steve was talking about all of this. Defense mechanisms came in many forms, but Bruce thought denial and detachment were among the most effective. "He's down in interrogation. We've got agents crawling through Lahey's lab and the rest of his so-called research institute. The analysts at the Hub are running everything they can through the computers to try and get a better picture of what actually went on before you guys stumbled into his world. We also ran identity checks on the men who helped him do this. They were mostly mercenaries from the Balkans and Turkey. No shortage of guns for hire over there."
Bruce shook his head. "How the hell would Dan know how to get in contact with people like that?" The SHIELD agents looked at him like he was crazy, and maybe he was because some part of him still couldn't quite believe that Dan Lahey, the self-proclaimed pacifist who had never stood up for himself while the other post-docs and even his students at Culver ridiculed him, could have orchestrated something like this. He couldn't fathom how someone who'd hardly been able to make eye contact with anyone he found even the slightest bit intimidating could shoot a man, take another hostage, and experiment on a third. Not to mention all of the people who'd been his prior test subjects who he'd murdered. And it wasn't just that Lahey had done these things. The moral consequences had been completely nonexistent to him. Bruce's mind raced, going back over those long and difficult minutes, trying to understand. "He said he was experimenting on himself. Said he'd transformed himself into this new Dan Lahey."
That didn't sit well with any of them. "I've tried talking to him," Natasha said, folding her arms across her chest. Bruce wondered with a grimace what Black Widow meant by "talking". "But he's not cooperating. I'm not sure he's doing it intentionally. He's out of his mind hysterical. It could all be an act, but he's refused to say anything until he can talk to you, Bruce."
Bruce felt something inside him shrivel. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."
"It might be our only chance to get through to him." The new voice from the entrance of the infirmary drew their attention, and Nick Fury, as tall, dark, and imposing as ever, strolled through the main doors. He was dressed in black leather, and his one eye was narrowed with disdain. Obviously this entire mess had frustrated him, but his glare softened as he approached their small group. He appraised his top agents sadly, one more sadly than the others. "You alright, Cap?"
Steve nodded. If he was at all irritated at being asked yet again how he was doing, he didn't show it in front of Fury. "What does it matter what Lahey has to say?" Clint asked, glancing between Bruce and Fury. "The evidence is pretty compelling that the guy is crazy. He belongs in a box. A really goddamn small one."
"Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Doctor Banner is right. By all accounts, he should not have had the means, financial or otherwise, to build a project like this," Hill explained. "As you know we have hints that his resources link back to AIM, and that makes sense given his hiring of the mercs involved in what happened, but we have no idea who or what is really behind this."
"Unless you think this drug he used on himself could have empowered him enough to do something like this on his own," Fury said.
That statement was directed at Bruce. Honestly, he wasn't even sure what Dan's drug did. Steve had had a hell of a dose of it, and it hadn't seemed to affect him. And this concept of molding emotions to build a different man? One didn't need drugs to do that. Chemicals could indeed affect the brain; they acted as mood stabilizers, altered a man's perceptions of reality and himself, relaxed the body and mind or heightened sensations. The entirety of brain function was based upon tiny packets of chemical compounds flying between cells, neurons firing in an immeasurably complex and delicate balance. That balance was susceptible to interference, interference that produced widespread and sometimes unpredictable results. But fundamentally changing a man's personality from a shy, reticent, socially inept whipping boy to a bold, callous, psychotic madman? Drugs could certainly do that, but were they necessary? This was why Bruce (and many of Lahey's detractors over the years) had thought so lowly of his science. The boundary between emotions and personality and spirit (for a lack of a better term) and biology were so poorly defined, which in turn made quantitatively measuring the effects of this drug or that medication extraordinarily difficult (and, to make it even worse, subjective since emotions were inherently bound to a person).
But all that was neither here nor there. "No, I don't think he did this alone."
"Which leads us back to AIM, or whatever is left of it. This is twice in six months they created a scientist insane and capable enough to cause something dangerous to happen. We got lucky that this ended alright." Fury looked displeased. "Obviously these guys are out there, hiding in the shadows. Stark shutting down Aldrich Killian just knocked a cog out of a machine. I want to know who built the machine and who's pouring fuel into it."
"Lahey didn't seem interested in doing someone else's dirty work," Barton said. "He was obsessed with his own craziness."
"Obsession can be a useful tool," Fury returned, "something we can turn against him, which is why I'd like for you to speak with him, Doctor Banner." Bruce couldn't help but stiffen slightly. Fury eyed him calmly, forlornly even. Apologetically. "He seems to have it in his head that you care about his science. That you were in it with him."
Bruce shook his head emphatically. Maybe he didn't need to defend himself, but he couldn't stop the words from leaving his mouth. "I don't. I wasn't." His eyes flew to Steve, expecting to find the soldier glaring at him questioningly, but Steve was sitting quietly with his eyes blankly focused on the needle drawing the blood from his arm. He seemed deflated, not upset exactly, but not entirely committed to what was going on around him, either. A million miles away. He might have been trying to hide behind a brave front, but he was shaken. Deeply so.
"Of course you weren't," Fury quietly answered instead, "and nobody believes you were except him. It's a way in and that's all. If you can get him talking about the science, maybe we can learn something about what it was he was trying to do. And if not that, something about who hired him to do it." Bruce didn't know what to think or feel at this point. He was exhausted, and he'd foolishly hoped his involvement in this nightmare had already ended. He didn't want to go any further, participate anymore. He didn't want to consult or offer his opinions or help with any analysis. He just wanted to go back to the relative safety of Stark Tower and tinker and putter around with his plants and hide. Denial and detachment. Pretty effective.
Fury sighed before stepping closer to Bruce. "Look, doc, I can't force you to talk to him. After what he did, I appreciate that you want to walk away. But I suspect you might want answers as badly as I do. And if…" He dropped his tone, although why he bothered Bruce couldn't say. Steve could surely hear him. His senses went far beyond those of a normal man. "If there's something to be learned about what he did, we need to learn it sooner rather than later."
Bruce wanted to deny that. He really, really did. He was scared of what he might discover. He was even more scared of losing control again. However, Fury was right and he knew it. And he was nothing if not a pragmatist. If Dan was asking for him, he needed to go. He needed to do what he could to make this right. "Alright," he agreed.
Fury nodded. He tried to hide his relief, but Bruce was too perceptive to miss it. "Agent Romanoff will go with you. You won't be alone with him just in case." Just in case of what? I lose it? Or he does?
"If you don't mind, sir," Clint said, stepping away from Steve's bed. "I'd like to go as well."
Fury appraised Barton sternly for a second, but the archer was tall and steadfast in his request. A moment passed before Fury nodded. "Permission granted. Kid gloves, Agent Barton."
"Yes, sir," Clint responded. If he was at all bothered by the reminder, he didn't show it. A black jacket with the SHIELD emblem on its shoulder was laid across the bed beside Steve's, and Barton turned to it, slipping his uninjured arm into one sleeve and shrugging into the garment without so much as a wince.
While Clint did that, Steve pressed a piece of gauze over the small, bleeding hole in his arm as the nurse moved away with her samples. "I'll watch from outside," he said.
Now Fury did look doubtful. "I can't let you do that."
"He won't be able to see me." That was probably the case, and it was a sensible precaution since Steve's presence could incite Lahey like a vampire smelling fresh blood. It sounded like a reprehensibly bad idea to allow Dan any access to Rogers. And he might have been acting completely calm and controlled, but there was no telling how Steve might behave faced with the man who'd experimented on him like he'd been nothing more than a convenient test subject and then killed him. Even Captain America had limits. He had to.
The Director actually looked uncomfortable for a second, as if he was being forced to admit something he didn't want to admit. "It's not that. You need to stay here until they clear you."
Steve's brow creased in frustration. "They're done, aren't they?" He turned a hard, expectant look toward the doctor in charge of his care, challenging him to disagree. "Aren't you?"
The doctor, a middle-aged man named Wright, was flustered at being put on the spot by his patient. He glanced among his colleagues and assistants and touched the pad in his hand a few times. He pushed his glasses up on his nose nervously. "We've run through every test we could, Director. Captain Rogers seems completely healthy, although I'd honestly like someone with more knowledge of the serum to take a look at these figures. To me they seem well within normal parameters, but I might have missed something more subtle." Wright winced in embarrassment. "This is honestly the first time I've performed some of these analyses on serum-enhanced tissue and fluids. And the genetic results aren't back yet and won't be for a day or two. An expert should take a look at that as well."
Steve apparently hadn't heard any part of that other than "completely healthy". "See? They're finished." He stood, his bare feet stepping to the gleaming tiled floor. He reached for a pile of SHIELD issue sweats that rested on the chair beside his bed and started getting dressed. "This is my mission, and I'd like to see it through."
Fury clenched his jaw. "You can't. I need to relieve you of duty, Cap."
Steve stiffened, halting for a brief moment with his arms half in the sleeves of his undershirt and his head partway through as well. The muscles of his back and chest tightened. Bruce watched as Barton and Romanoff shared another look, this one beset with frustrated helplessness, and Hill made a point of returning her attention to her tablet. Steve pulled the shirt down over his torso. He stuffed his legs into the gray pants and then stood to his full, impressive height. "You don't need to do that. I'm fit for duty," he calmly answered, but his eyes were teeming with hurt and anger and betrayal. "I am, Nick. I swear to you that there's nothing wrong with me."
"You're probably right," Fury conceded. "But until we know what really happened, I need you to sit things out. Once we're sure everything is fine, you're back in." Bruce had to imagine that Captain America was among SHIELD's greatest assets, and he got the impression that Steve working for SHIELD was more an agreement than employment, so upsetting Rogers wasn't in their best interest. But it would be worse to let Steve out into another dangerous situation ignorant of the true nature of his condition. If there was a condition at all, and right then all signs indicated there wasn't one.
Steve was still. He stared obstinately at Fury for a tense a moment, every hard line of his body radiating his displeasure with this situation. It was like a battle of wills between the SHIELD Director and the super soldier, and it went on for what felt like forever. Eventually Steve released a long sigh and looked down. He was a soldier, through and through, and as long as Fury was above him in the chain of command, he'd follow orders. "Yes, sir."
Fury nodded in appreciation. His face immediately softened in relief. "Don't worry. We'll get this figured out as soon as possible."
Steve didn't look appeased. He reached a hand to his ear and wiped at the dried blood that was still crusted there in disgust. After being poked and prodded and thoroughly assessed for hours, he couldn't bear to be still any longer. He reached down to the other side of the bed and grabbed his shield. One of the STRIKE agents had recovered it from the lab and brought it to him a few hours ago. "Is it okay if I leave? I'd like to get cleaned up. Maybe get some sleep." Somehow Bruce doubted he would be able to sleep. But there was really no reason he needed to stay in the infirmary. Bruce didn't think Fury could keep Steve there – especially not in light of what had happened to him – and he really didn't want to see the SHIELD Director try. He hoped for Steve's sake Fury would recognize all of that.
He did. "Sure. Get some rest."
Steve moved away without so much as a glance at Bruce. Bruce knew he shouldn't but he took that personally, took it as a sign that Steve did blame him, if not for what had happened then for being stripped of his competence. Stripped yet again of his control over what happened to him. Clint stepped closer to Rogers for a moment, murmuring something softly to his friend. Steve nodded and grasped the archer's shoulder affectionately. "It'll be alright, Cap. Just take it easy. We have this," Romanoff promised, her face stern and confident but her eyes shining in compassion.
He was gone a breath after that. Bruce watched him leave, feeling increasingly ashamed and angry again. This wasn't fair. Nothing about this was fair. Nothing about this was right.
Natasha was in front of him, drawing his attention. "You ready to do this, doc?"
"No, but let's get it over with before I change my mind."
"Just stay cool."
Easier said than done.
Dan slouched in a gray, metal chair inside a large interrogation room. The walls were a smooth, dark gray devoid of textures, seams, and weaknesses. The ceiling was the same aside from a few recessed light fixtures spreading bright, blaring illumination over the prisoner and the table at which he sat. There was a large window next to the solitary entrance, the gleaming glass a one-way view inside the cell. It was a steel box, impenetrable and inescapable. The sort of place SHIELD held its most violent offenders: terrorists, dictators, mass murderers. Evil men who caused maximum destruction and casualties simply because they enjoyed it. Seeing his old friend there, flanked by two armed agents, was alarming to say the least.
"It goes without saying," Natasha said as they watched through the window in the small antechamber outside the room, "but let's keep any sensitive information about Rogers to a minimum." Bruce stared numbly, distantly, trying to summon up the calm strength that these SHIELD agents and Steve brandished so easily. "Okay, Bruce?"
"Okay." Clint opened the door. Natasha strolled nonchalantly inside and Bruce followed, adrenaline surging through him. Clint shut the door behind him and rested his good hand against the handle of the gun in the holster about his thigh.
Dan didn't turn, tapping his fingers on the gleaming, metallic table. "Doctor Lahey," Natasha called. She stepped around the table to look at Lahey's face. Hers was damn near unreadable, calm but there was just a hint of power and anger in her stoic, blue eyes. After all, this man had kidnapped two SHIELD agents, two of their own, and hurt them both. Barton just looked flat-out disgusted, like he'd be more than willing to save everyone the money, time, and effort required to try and imprison this lunatic. But he only moved to the other side of the table, a dark wraith glaring malevolently. Natasha folded her arms across her chest. "Doctor Banner is here."
Dan immediately wrenched around. His face was badly bruised from his run-in with the Hulk and Iron Man's fist. His nose had clearly been broken, and he sported a nasty-looking black eye. His hair was mussed, and his fine clothes were rumpled. But at seeing Bruce his bloodied lips pulled into a huge, relieved smile. He was missing a couple of teeth. "Bruce! Oh, great. Great. Now we can talk."
Maybe it was stupid, but Bruce's feet wouldn't move him any further into the room. They felt like they were utterly glued to the floor. He worked his hands nervously together, battered by such a storm of emotion that he didn't know how to feel. All he knew was he needed to keep calm. The two guards eyed him warily. "What do you want to talk about?"
"Everything," Dan said excitedly. Lahey cut right to the chase. "Is he still alive?"
Right away this had veered into territory Bruce didn't like. He glanced at Natasha on the other side of the table, but she offered a slight nod. "Yes."
Dan's face broke in such an expression of euphoria and pride that Bruce thought he was going to be sick just looking at it. "I knew it," he murmured, his eyes glazed in absolute joy. He slammed his hand to the table in excitement, a loud bang echoing through the vacuous room that made Bruce flinch. "I knew it!" He laughed loudly. "I knew he would survive! I knew I was right!"
Clint beside Dan in a blink. Bruce wasn't even sure he saw him move. The archer was leaning down over the scientist with a stare that would have made anyone shrivel in terror. "Let's get something straight, you sick piece of shit," he hissed. "What you did today? It wasn't science. It was torture." Dan's eyes widened in fear, and he stilled his celebrations like ice had frozen over him. Clint positioned himself over Dan's shoulder. "You strapped my friend down on a table and experimented on him. There aren't words to describe how much that pisses me off. You're going away for a long, long time. And you are never, ever going to so much as look at Captain Rogers again."
Dan didn't blink or even twitch as Clint threatened him, but Bruce could see he was scared witless. This was the first time since this had started that Dan seemed afraid. Regretful of what he had done, but not because he thought it was wrong. Because he was scared of what would happen to him. The silence that followed was rife with the threat of violence. "Clint," Natasha called softly. Clint leaned back up and looked at her. She shook her head slightly, and he backed away. "We're not here to talk about what you did to Captain Rogers, Doctor," she reminded.
"Just tell me if it worked," Dan softly implored. "I just need to know that."
"No way in hell," Clint answered tersely. "You don't deserve to know anything."
Natasha braced her hands on the table. "We want you to tell us who you're working for. We're certain your grant didn't come from NIH. And we know that somebody had to put you in contact with the mercenaries you hired. How did you know Captain Rogers and Agent Barton were coming to your lab today?"
"I didn't," Dan said. "I wasn't lying about that."
Clearly Natasha didn't know if that was the truth. Clint obviously thought it wasn't. "You seemed awfully prepared to deal with two SHIELD agents. There's no way you did this by yourself, so you might as well cooperate. It's the only thing you've got left at this point to earn you some leniency," Natasha continued. "AIM is involved. You need to tell us who specifically and where."
"There wasn't anyone specifically," Dan answered. He was getting more and more agitated, but Bruce had a sinking suspicion it wasn't because he didn't know the answers to their questions. It was because he wanted to ask his own.
Natasha came closer. "Talk to us. Now."
Dan opened his hands helplessly on the table. "Hansen contacted me last year, said she had a way to get funding for unorthodox projects. They'd helped her finish something she'd been working on for a long time. Before you ask, she never mentioned anything about Extremis, just that she couldn't get a grant or help from anybody else. We met at a conference on microbiology in Seattle a couple of years before that. She told me I just needed to move to the Hopkins Institute, which I did, and everything would be taken care of, which it was. That's it. They got me the equipment, the lab space, the reactor, the assistants… The only thing I had to give up was the rights to anything I developed."
Perhaps that could be true, but that still didn't explain the firepower. "How did you find the mercs?" Natasha asked.
"I didn't. Somebody else called about a week ago. A woman."
"Did you know her?" Clint asked.
"No. She had an accent of some sort. I don't know. I'm not good with that stuff." He sighed. "She said she knew about the troubles I was having with the Gamma exposure and that she could make sure I got Bruce Banner's help. When I asked how, she just told me not to worry about it. Just to contact Bruce and invite him. Last night the soldiers just showed up at the institute. They told me if I wanted to get my experiment to run, it might require some sacrifices. It was pretty obvious what they meant."
"And you didn't stop to think that it was wrong. You just figured you needed to use Tony against me," Bruce supplied angrily.
"I didn't want to shoot him," Dan claimed. "Just threaten him. That was the plan. But there was no other way I could keep the Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man under control. I needed to remove Stark out of the equation." Maybe that lent credence to Dan's claim that he really hadn't known that SHIELD had sent Steve and Clint. Had someone else, though? "That's it. I don't have anything else to tell you."
"That's not good enough," Clint said. "I find it hard to believe a man of your intellect could be so monumentally stupid as to think you could do something like this and get away with it. What was your plan after your experiment failed, huh? Where the hell did you think you could go where we wouldn't find you? You shot the world's most recognizable man and nearly killed a national hero."
"I didn't care about getting away with it," Lahey hotly responded. "I only cared about making it work. And it did work. Didn't it?" He turned again to look at Bruce, who still hadn't moved from the door. Bruce drew a deep breath and stood a little taller. This whole thing repulsed him, and the desperate shine in Dan's eyes only made it worse. "Did it work?"
"Eyes here, asshole," Clint snarled. "We're not finished."
But Dan refused to be dissuaded. "Bruce, come on. Did it work?"
He succeeded in goading him into an answer. "I don't know," Bruce finally admitted. He pushed himself away from the wall and came a tad closer. "What was it supposed to do?"
"I told you. It expanded his mind."
Anger coursed over Bruce, hot and demanding, and he felt the Hulk pushing and pushing and pushing. "Don't play games with me, Dan! You wanted my help. You made me do something terrible to a man that I consider a friend, and I don't even know why!"
"A friend, huh," Dan said. He leveled cruel eyes on Bruce. "Not just the answer to a question you're too scared to make yourself ask."
Bruce blanched. His heart felt cold and heavy in his chest, like he'd been caught doing something wrong. Dread and shame stabbed ice into his heart. These weak, debilitating feelings didn't last long against his anger. Nothing ever did. "Who the hell are you to judge me?" he asked. Dan didn't answer. "I have questions, sure. I have a lot of questions. But I don't hurt people to answer them!" Lahey's eyes filled with regret for a moment, and he looked away. "I don't kill people to prove that I'm right!"
"It wasn't about me being right," Dan insisted. "It was about the science being right."
Clint looked confused. "There's a difference?"
"Yes! Man evolving from apes. The earth orbiting the sun. Ramming two tiny atoms together and producing enough energy to destroy a city. These things were correct, but at the time they seemed crazy. It doesn't matter what you think of me. I'll gladly be labeled as a lunatic if it gets my point across. All that matters is that what I think is real."
"That emotions can alter the world around us?" Clint laughed condescendingly. "Sorry, Doctor, but I call bullshit on that one."
"You have no vision," Lahey countered, shaking his head in self-defense and disgust. "You don't understand what I tried to do."
"Oh, I think I understand," Clint returned icily. "I think you held Captain America down and pumped your poison into his body and flooded him with so much radiation that his lungs bled and his heart stopped beating."
Bruce swallowed through a tight throat, trying not to think about that and the part he'd played in it. Thankfully, Natasha was calm and in control. "You're right, Doctor Lahey," she said, glancing warily at Clint and silently imploring him to back down. "We don't understand. Tell us what you were trying to do."
Lahey sighed, rubbing his fingers together worriedly again. It was as if the enormity of the situation was finally getting through to him, that he'd done something horrendous and unforgivable. "The drug's supposed to augment cerebral capacity. Hugely increase synaptic efficiency. Rewire the brain. I guess that's a good term for it. Rewire it to achieve maximum neurologic output on a cellular level. Like steroids for thought. Like a super serum for the mind."
"Well, it didn't do that," Bruce responded. "And you're damn lucky he didn't die."
At that Dan looked positively crushed, though it wasn't because he'd damaged another person. It was because his experiment hadn't worked. He was smart and perceptive and realized right away what Bruce and the SHIELD agents weren't telling him: Steve was alive and unaffected by his drug. "I don't understand it," he whispered. A fat tear escaped his left eye to roll down his battered face. "How… I mean, if he survived, the reaction should have been instantaneous. The infusion into his cells happened, and the Gamma should have… I don't understand." Suddenly his blank gaze sharpened, and he looked wildly at Bruce. "You need to get me the data. I need to look at it."
"This is unbelievable," Clint said disparagingly.
Dan went on, uncaring, driven. Obsessed. "Blood results. We need DNA evidence. We should be able to see it in his DNA. It had to work! It had to!"
"It didn't," Bruce argued.
"God damn it, Bruce!" Lahey was up and out of his chair. Clint immediately grabbed his shoulder and shoved him back down roughly, and the two guards had their rifles securely aimed at Dan's chest. Natasha had drawn her gun as well. "This is our opportunity to pioneer something extraordinary! Try to envision what we could learn about the brain and the body and the relationship between them! The connection between the mind and its underlying biology is the greatest frontier of science! Imagine if we could fundamentally explain the chemical and physical underpinnings of thought and reason and emotion. Of a soul."
"We can't," Bruce returned. "There are some questions that have no answers."
Dan grew more and more frustrated. "What the hell is that? What happened to you? You used to have ambition and ideas. You used to think. The science used to matter to you!"
Bruce shook his head. "It doesn't. Not like this."
Any shred of sanity Lahey might have still had all but disappeared. He choked on a sob, a frustrated, helpless sob. Despite everything, something inside Bruce ached at seeing his friend reduced to this. He knew about obsession. He knew its perversities, its pain and its pleasures, more than most. And he knew how failure hurt, how much low you felt when everything you worked for turned out to be a lie. Turned out to be wrong. When the consequences were vast and awful. In this small way, at least, he commiserated. He sympathized. He pitied the other man for enslaving himself to his theories. Without them, Dan's world had tilted and turned upside down. "You do care, Bruce. I know you do. You want to know what makes one soul good and another bad. You want to know if it can be fixed. It drives you mad, not knowing. You've convinced yourself that things just happen and there doesn't have to be a reason, but there is a reason and you need to understand it. You need to know how who we are turns us into what we are. You're fooling yourself if you think there isn't an answer! Together you and I can find it!"
That went deep into his heart. It cut through all of his lies and doubts and the promises that he'd made to himself. It went straight to the monster and filled it with power. Bruce held on. He held on.
Thankfully, Barton had had enough and put a stop to it. "This is a waste of time. He's crazy. He doesn't know anything," he declared to Natasha. "Let them lock him up."
Natasha smoothly cocked an eyebrow, regarding Lahey's shivering form dispassionately, before holstering her gun again and nodding. "Maybe there is an answer, doctor. But you don't have it." She looked to the guards. "Put this monster back in his cage."
Bruce was out the door before the guards could move to escort Lahey back to the detention block. He winced, trying not to hear and trying not to think and trying his damnedest not to feel as Dan's desperate cries echoed through the room. "You can't do this to me! I came so close! So close! Oh, please God… Please… don't take me away! Don't! Bruce! Bruce!"
Out in the hallway, Dan's begging was muffled. A breath later, he was silent. Bruce leaned against the wall, closing his eyes and breathing deeply and struggling to rise above it all. The guilt and anger and grief. The sad, sad fact that Dan, as crazy as he was, was right about him.
"Sorry," Natasha said softly. She shared a frustrated, irritated look with Clint. "I really hoped we could get something useful out of him."
"Just make sure he never hurts anyone ever again," Bruce coolly ordered.
He was already walking away.
Bruce couldn't stop thinking about what Dan had said. He was someone who tended to dwell. He knew it and hated it but he really couldn't stop himself. He'd never been able to stop himself. Inevitably his thoughts went to his mistakes, his failings. His shortcomings. He poured over them until even the smallest foible seemed monumental and undefeatable. This bad habit went back to his youth. He'd always been a quiet and reserved child, but since he'd known so much and so many things came easily to him, he expected perfection out of himself. And his father's less than stellar treatment of him had only heightened his own intolerance of himself. Bruce had always needed to know, needed to be the smartest and wisest and the best. He hadn't been lying when he'd told Dan that he had a lot of questions. There were many things he didn't understand. Like how Brian Banner had spent so much of his life trying not to become a monster but, as things often happened, met his fate on the path he'd taken to avoid it. Bruce had spent his life prizing his intelligence, and his intelligence had turned him into a monster, too. Had that been his fate? He didn't believe in things like God or destiny or that everyone got his just desserts; those things were crutches the weak used to justify the things they did or the things that were done to them. But that meant there had to be an explanation. Some scientifically verifiable reason why Steve Rogers had become Captain America, the embodiment of valor, and why Bruce Banner had become the Hulk, the embodiment of rage.
After everything that had happened that day, he didn't want to spend any more time thinking about his mistakes.
He went back to the ICU only to find that Tony had been moved to a private room. His feet directed him there of his own accord because his mind had frankly checked out. He was so damn tired. He finally found Tony's room, and he rapped on the door with a knuckle.
Pepper stood from the chair beside the bed, and her beautiful face broke in a relieved smile. "Bruce," she said softly.
Bruce grinned lopsidedly at seeing Tony's glazed eyes settle on him. "Hey, look who's awake," he said, summoning all that remained of his composure. He needed to put that mask on, the one he wore when he needed to pretend that he was alright.
Stark grunted. "You're a sight for sore eyes? Something like that," he mumbled. His face was white and drawn, his eyes ringed in lavender. He was propped up a bit in the bed with a rolling table pulled closer, one that had a plastic pitcher of ice water and a cup full of it with a straw. A light blanket covered him to his waist, and a nasal cannula ran under his nose. There was a StarkPad on the foot of the bed and another under his arm, but he looked like he had given up using it.
Pepper offered that same sweet, disarming smile. "I don't think I said it before, and I doubt Tony will–"
"–but thank you." She took Bruce's hands and squeezed them gently. Her eyes shone in teary relief. She hugged him tightly, tucking his head to her shoulder. "You saved his life."
He felt better at that, and he couldn't help but smile, too. Genuinely. He felt warm wetness bleed through the shoulder of his shirt, and Pepper trembled in his arms. "Enough of that," Tony chastised. "You're making Banner nervous. He hates touchy-feely stuff."
Pepper pulled away, wiping at her eyes. She laughed a little. "Sorry."
"No, no," Bruce said, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment. He wasn't used to people thanking him for saving their loved ones. It was extremely rewarding, like a soothing balm to his tormented spirit. He wasn't really used to getting hugged, either. And Tony was right: he didn't much care for personal contact (for obvious reasons), but with Pepper it seemed fairly okay. "Don't worry about it. Been a rough day."
"Yes. You two need to talk. I'll, uh, just go grab something to eat," Pepper said. She gathered her coat from the end of Tony's bed, leaned over, kissed him gently, and left.
Tony licked his dry lips, drawing a deep breath with a wince. He planted his hands into the hospital bed weakly and tried to push himself up. He got about halfway, his face quickly becoming coated in sweat, before he gave up. "This is crap," he grumbled. He looked irritated and flushed and frustrated. "Remind me never to hang out with your friends again."
Bruce smiled faintly and lowered himself into Pepper's chair. "How are you feeling?"
"Okay. I'm on the good stuff, so I can't complain," Tony said. Even as pale and weak as he was, Stark looked infinitely better than he had a few hours ago. There was light in his eyes again. Bruce knew those horrific moments of Tony bleeding his life into his hands would stay with him for a long time. "How about you? How are you feeling?"
Bruce grunted a little in surprise. He cocked an eyebrow. "You know, you're the first person to ask me that." That hurt more than he let on. He leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his thighs and clasping his hands together in front of him. He sighed. "Shaken. Beyond that, I don't know. You hear about Rogers?"
"Yeah." Tony's expression was unreadable, but his eyes shone in a bit of shame as though he'd been annoyed enough with Steve to actually wish something unfortunate would befall him and now felt immensely guilty about it. "Is he okay?"
"Seems to be."
Tony sagged against the pillows in obvious fatigue. "All's well that ends well, then," he declared. He closed his eyes as though he was drifting off to sleep. Bruce watched him for a moment, wondering if that was all he was going to say. If this really was the end. Maybe it would be, if he could just let it go.
But he couldn't. Letting things go wasn't in his nature, especially when he didn't understand. Dan maybe knew him better than he knew himself.
"Whatever guilty thing it is you're thinking, just stop." Bruce had drifted in his thoughts again, and he forced himself to focus on Stark. Tony's eyes were still closed. It was as if he'd somehow known all of Bruce's dark contemplations, how deeply conflicted and ashamed he felt. "If you hadn't done what you did, I would be dead. Barton, too, probably. And Rogers definitely."
"You didn't see it, Tony," Bruce quietly reminded. "You didn't see what they did to him." What I did to him.
Tony grunted. "Don't need to." He finally cracked his weary eyes open and appraised Bruce evenly. Knowingly. "You're too hard on yourself. I can hear you beating yourself up from all the way over here."
"There's something fundamentally screwed up about the way I think," Bruce softly said. He could hardly keep the hard edge from his voice. "Dan thought I would help him, and he was right. I did. I didn't have a choice. I know that. But I also know myself. I think deep down I wanted to know if his idea would work."
"Sure you did," Tony said sarcastically. Bruce didn't feel particularly absolved or comforted. Offering empty solace wasn't Stark's style. He said things the way they were. He cut through the nonsense. He didn't placate or smooth over riled egos. He said what someone needed to hear, not what someone wanted to hear. He was honest, smartly so. "Coming from one obsessed genius to another, you need to accept that things just go wrong. And just because something didn't work doesn't mean it wouldn't work. This is the second time I've told you this. Listen for once." Tony shook his head slightly. "And denying who you are is never a good idea. That's how you make your own demons. And then your house ends up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean."
Bruce chuckled at that, smiling in exasperation and shaking his head. "Your house ended up at the bottom of the Pacific because you broadcasted your address to the world's worst terrorist over live TV."
"Same difference. Point is: so what if you wanted to know? There's a line between science for science and science for evil, and your buddy crossed it. You didn't. Hell, you can't even ask Rogers for a blood sample because you're too afraid of the temptation." That was true enough. "And temptation for what? Would it be so bad if you found a way to replicate the super soldier serum? Or to fix your broken tomato plants? Or even fix yourself?" Bruce didn't know. It didn't feel good, but Tony was right: the difference between examining a blood sample and forcing a man to participate in an experiment against his will was like the difference between night and day. He was being overly dramatic, and he knew it, but he couldn't shake it. "Look, Bruce, you're thinking too much about this. You did what you had to and that's it. Knowing Captain Perfect, he won't hold it against you. Probably thinks you saved him. And who's to say you didn't."
Bruce sighed at that. "No way of knowing," he said.
That wasn't entirely true, and they both knew it.
"I'm gonna sleep now. You're good?" Tony asked. His eyelids had grown increasingly droopy.
"Yeah. Good enough."
"Alright. You owe me for this, by the way."
Bruce smiled. "I owe you for a lot."
Tony yawned a ridiculously wide yawn. "Damn right."
Bruce sat there for a long while after Tony drifted to sleep. He was wondering about things, calculations and data and variables, questions that had no answers and questions that shouldn't be answered. He knew Stark too well not to see that Tony was enabling him just a little. They were fundamentally alike in their love of problem-solving. Figure it out first and judge the ramifications later. Build it now and decide whether or not it was safe to build after the fact. Run the experiment right away and digest the consequences afterward. They pushed buttons to see what they did, and if they blew up in their faces, well, then they knew not to push them again.
Obsession and genius. Bruce figured it wasn't a good combination. But it was who he was, who they both were.
Pepper came back and he left. His feet carried him elsewhere into the infirmary until he found himself outside the office of Doctor Wright. Then he hesitated because this was right, but it wasn't. It was what he needed to do, but he shouldn't do it. Walk away. Don't let it suck you in. Don't do it, Banner. Don't.
But he did. He justified it, of course. If there were answers to be found, he deserved to know them. Steve deserved to know them, too. He knocked on the door which was slightly ajar. "Doctor Wright?"
The man looked up from his desk, papers and tablets strewn everywhere, a computer terminal bathing his face in light. He looked a bit surprised. "Doctor Banner, how can I help you?"
"Actually I thought I could help you. You said you wanted an expert on the serum to look over Captain Rogers' test results. I can do that for you. And if you have any other blood and tissue samples, I'd appreciate getting a hold of them. I'd like to run my own analyses, if you don't mind…"