It began with a bookstore.
Bruce did not leave the Avengers' Tower and venture out by himself often (the city was so noisy and disturbing for a Hulk) but he had to leave occasionally just to find his peace of mind. On that day, he left because Tony, Steve and Natasha were having another yelling match and he didn't like that kind of stress. Also, of course, because he liked a breath of fresh air and this August air was very fresh. Well. For New York.
He went to his usual bookstore, a fairly large one with a café in it and a cozy, peaceful atmosphere. He almost stopped at the café first to get a mocha, but he stopped himself. He wasn't really hungry; lunch had been only an hour ago. Instead, he headed towards the science section. There was a book there he wanted to buy. He had seen it the last time he was there, but at the time he had no money with him. Now, courtesy of Tony Honestly-It's-No-Big-Deal-I'm-A-Billionaire-Just-Take-It Stark, he had about two hundred dollars just in his pocket (which after all his years in rundown shacks just felt wrong) and it would probably be a good idea to buy it now.
Usually, no one was in the science section. Bruce didn't expect anyone to be there that day either. But this time, there was.
Said person in the science section was a young man, probably college age. He was of average height, he wore casual clothes, and his hair was an inconspicuous brown. He was unremarkable in nearly every way. He was looking at the very small section on radiation, though, and in his hand was Bruce's book.
Well. The book Bruce had planned to buy.
"Excuse me," said Bruce. "Are you going to buy that?"
"Huh?" said the thoroughly average college age male. He glanced up at Bruce and raised an eyebrow.
"That book," Bruce clarified, gesturing at the one in the man's hand. "Are you going to buy it?"
The man seemed to shake himself out of a daze. He smiled wanly at Bruce. "Oh, no. Too much money."
Bruce knew the feeling. If not for Tony Money-Is-My-Middle-Name Stark, he would not have been able to afford the book either. He smiled nervously and took the book when the man handed it to him.
"It wasn't the book I wanted anyways," the young man continued.
"Oh?" Bruce said, wishing he could come up with a better response. Socializing was not his forte.
"Yeah," the man said. He idly turned back to the radiation section. "It talks about how radiation can weaken or kill someone. I wanted to know how it could make someone stronger."
No no no no no...
"Um, excuse me," Bruce said.
The man looked back at him, quirking an eyebrow up.
"That sounds like a terrible idea," Bruce said in his most sincere voice. "How about we...um...get some coffee and talk about it?"
For some reason, the man agreed to the coffee. And to the talk. Bruce found that a little strange (although the coffee was good) but he did want to talk to the man, so he wasn't about to complain.
"Look," Bruce stated. "You're probably a science student, right?"
The man nodded. "I'm majoring in chemistry."
"Well," Bruce said. "Um. Curiosity is good, you know. There's nothing wrong with wanting to research and, uh, learn things. But some subjects should stay untouched."
Bruce sighed. He wasn't usually one to lecture. "Not exactly. More like messing with human nature."
The young man sipped his coffee and said nothing. Bruce felt kind of stupid.
"This is good coffee," the young man commented. "Am I costing you much?" Bruce had agreed to pay for the coffee.
Bruce shook his head. "Look, the thing is, people keep messing with the human body, trying to make it stronger. And it doesn't usually work out well." Even Steve would have agreed with that. The influx of supervillains lately...
"What about the development of antibiotics?" the young man objected. "What about vaccinations?"
"Okay, those are not what I'm talking about. I mean the people out there who do strange things to people's bodies, hoping to create some kind of super soldier. It's unnatural, and even when it works and some kind of superhuman is created, they usually can't be trusted with that amount of power."
"With great power comes great responsibility," the man said. He sounded like he was quoting something.
"Exactly." Bruce nodded. "Most people can't handle that kind of responsibility, so if you trust them with that much power, boom. Another supervillain is made."
"Or," said the young man with a strange, distant smile. "Another idiot with nothing on his mind but getting attention. Or occasionally a superhero."
Bruce took a sip of his coffee and shrugged. "Yeah, sometimes. But nine times out of ten, they become a supervillain. And these days," he added with another swallow. "Can we ever trust the superheroes? Sometimes they do more harm than good." He himself, with only the best of intentions, had leveled many a building in his time.
He looked up from his coffee and found the man looking at him. Of course, they had been looking at each other before, but now the man's eyes were different. They seemed to contain a challenge.
With some difficulty, Bruce averted his own eyes. He couldn't engage in a battle of wills, even a staring contest. They aroused the Hulk in him. "What I mean is, don't mess around with making people stronger, kid. You never know what the results will be."
When he looked back up the man was smiling again and he relaxed. "I'm sorry," he said. "Just...I've seen some experiments go wrong in my time. I'm sure you aren't going to create a monster." Only he didn't know that, not really.
The man shrugged. "It's fine." He grinned. "Hey, I bet a lot of people could use that kind of speech. Maybe we'd have a few less supervillains wandering around if they had listened to advice like that."
Bruce smiled sheepishly. "Oh. Well, good. Glad I didn't offend you."
"Oh, I'm not offended." The man said. "A little surprised at you giving me that talk, though. I don't even know your name."
"Banner," Bruce said. "Bruce Banner."
The young man's eyes widened. "You mean, like, Dr. Bruce Banner? I've seen your work on radiation; it's brilliant."
"Oh," Bruce said awkwardly. "Well, uh. Thanks. What's your name?"
"Parker," said the man. "Peter Parker."
Well, the two of them certainly had some alliteration going. Bruce chuckled. "Nice to meet you, Peter."
"Uh, nice to meet you too, Dr. Banner."
"Bruce is fine."
They sat there staring at each other for a minute before Peter cleared his throat. "Well, this has been fun, but I should probably be going. I have a paper to write."
"You could at least finish your coffee," Bruce pointed out.
Peter shifted a little in his seat before saying, "Well, it is good coffee..."
Bruce bought Peter two refills over the course of their conversation, and got himself a muffin. He wouldn't have been so frivolous with his money usually, but Tony I'm-So-Rich-I-Might-Buy-JARVIS-His-Own-Yacht Stark had made a point of telling him to spend as much as he liked and, well, Bruce liked Peter.
And their conversation was fascinating.
"Yes, Peter, having super strength is definitely a super power. Humans are not built to knock down brick walls with their fists."
"I don't know, Bruce. People can build up their own strength naturally and become able to do things that would be impossible for us," Peter said.
Bruce bit his lip. He refused to smirk, but Peter really had no idea what kind of feats Bruce himself was capable of and it was more than a little amusing.
"Besides, people can also become very strong on drugs such as steroids or even hallucinogens."
"Well, a lot of things we call super powers do come as a result of training and drugs. For example, people call Captain America" -and it was a struggle not to say Steve, but he managed it- "the first superhero, and his powers came from a serum which was technically a drug."
"So it all comes down to what one defines as a super power," Peter said. "And what you call a superhero, I suppose."
"Yeah," Bruce said. "So many words to keep in mind. Superhero, supervillain, vigilante, mutant..." He sighed. "I really hate keeping track. Do we have to discuss this?"
Peter took a meditative sip of coffee.
"Well, someone has to."
"Why? Why can't we just accept that there are lots of people with weird abilities running around?" Bruce had accepted that words meant little long ago. People called him monster just as easily as they called him superhero, and when he was honest with himself, that label was far more accurate. He had done many things in his life that would not be considered heroic. He had lost control too many times, made too many mistakes.
"Because when things like this remain undefined, people take advantage of the confusion," Peter said. "Haven't you noticed it in the newspapers or on the internet? Some people they call superheroes, some people they call vigilantes, some they just call freaks, the whole mutant and villain issue aside. And it's all very arbitrary."
Bruce wondered how it was that, leaving the Avengers' Tower to get out in the normal world and achieve some peace of mind, he ended up debating about superheroes with a teenager.
"Let them call things what they want. The media always does that."
Now Peter was biting his lip, but he didn't look too happy. Bruce wondered why the whole superhero deal was such a sore spot for him. Maybe a superhero had saved his life once? It seemed likely-nearly everyone in New York City had had an encounter with at least one superhero (vigilante, whatever) at this point.
"Who have you met?" Bruce asked.
"Which superhero have you met? I assume you've met one, or you wouldn't care so much."
Peter scowled at Bruce. "Can't I just have warm feelings towards people who are protecting the city?"
Bruce shrugged. Maybe that was the truth of the matter, but he doubted it. The way Peter was acting, it was probably much more personal.
"Fine," Peter said. "I've met..." He took a deep breath. "The Human Torch, Mr. Fantastic, the Thing, the Invisible Woman, Iron Man...Spider-man...Captain America, Daredevil, Nova, Thor, Hawkeye, the Hulk, the Punisher..." He trailed off. "The others were mutants, so I'm not sure they count."
Bruce was confused. He didn't remember ever having met Peter in Hulk form, although his memories of such occurrences were often fuzzy. Besides, "Wow. That's a lot of superheroes. You either have really good luck or really bad luck" considering that he would have met them during supervillain attacks, most likely "or some weird kind of luck that attracts people with unnatural abilities." Including Bruce himself, now.
"We call it the Parker luck at home," Peter said. He grimaced. "It makes weird things happen around us."
"Well, it sounds like you don't get bored."
"Nope. I have barrels of fun, all day, everyday. That's me," Peter said. His grimace transformed into a grin that still didn't actually look happy.
"So what did you think of them?" Bruce asked. It would be interesting to hear an outsider's thoughts on the superheroes he mostly knew personally. Some better than others, of course. The Avengers the best, the Fantastic Four pretty well (since they didn't have secret identities), Spider-man and other solo vigilantes not very well at all, though they had occasionally talked. And yes, he had heard normal people's thoughts on them before, but mostly through the media, which was always so judgmental.
"The Human Torch is a jerk," Peter said.
Bruce choked on his coffee. Or, well, it went down the wrong way (that wasn't technically called choking, but close enough).
"He makes jokes, but they're always dumb. And he always depends on his super powers too much. I mean yeah, I suppose he has some brains, but he doesn't really show them. He just acts like he's the star of the show, too. Like when he's working together with other superheroes, he always takes the credit while they hide away in the shadows because they have secret identities to protect."
Bruce didn't mention that the Torch usually worked with his own team, and seemed to work fairly well with them. He tried not to think too hard about what kind of experience Peter must have had meeting the Torch. "So you think the papers are right about the Torch? He's too reckless, doesn't care about anyone else, not a team player and all that?"
"What?" Peter said. "No. No, he's okay. He's actually really skilled and clever and saves lots of lives. But he's a jerk."
"All right then..." Bruce said. So, some strong emotions there. "What about the others?"
"Peter thinks you're a jerk," Bruce told Tony when he got home.
Tony, who had been working on his laptop on something or other, asked, "Wait, what? That's ridiculous. No one thinks I'm a jerk."
That was a blatant lie. Half of Tony's friends thought that. Bruce wasn't actually one of them but he wasn't above a little teasing.
"Also, who's Peter?" Tony asked.
"He's a college student who's very interested in radiation and has the weirdest luck ever," Bruce said. "I met him in a bookstore and we had a long talk about superpowers. And superheroes. He said that the Hulk seemed to be pretty chill for someone not in control of his own actions. He said he didn't buy the claim that the Hulk is just a dumb monster. He also said that you do really cool science and save many lives but he hates how much your phones cost. And he thinks you're too snarky."
"Too snarky!" Tony said. "Bruce, I am just snarky enough."
"I'm going to have lunch with him on Saturday," Bruce said. "His Aunt May is making chicken soup with rice. It will be delicious."
Tony blinked. "All right then. I guess you two are buddies now?"
"Well," Bruce said. "Not exactly."
They had only talked for a few hours, that was all. And it was nice having someone to talk to about superheroes and complicated science that wasn't Tony.
"Have I been replaced, Bruce?" Tony said. He let out a deep sigh. "I never would have thought you capable of such treachery."
"Don't be stupid," Bruce said. "You're my best science buddy. Nothing can change that." He had been shy to call Tony even his friend at first, but then there had been that night where Tony had gotten ridiculously drunk and sentimental and baptized them best science buddies, pouring a bottle of whiskey over their heads to make it official. He had given up on being shy since then.
Tony grinned at Bruce. "Aw, stop it. You're making me blush." He slung an arm over Bruce's shoulders. "So, since we're best science buddies, it'll be fine if I come with you on Saturday, right?"
Bruce frowned. "What?"
"To that lunch thing. With the chicken soup and rice and the dude that was into superheroes."
"He was more into science than superheroes, we just..."
"That's even better," Tony said. "I love meeting people who are good at science. It'll be fun."
"Tony," Bruce said. "You can't come."
Honestly, why did Tony want to steal his friend anyways? Well, more acquaintance than friend, but still. Bruce didn't have many acquaintances of his own, since he'd been away from the country for so long, and Tony already had an entire company, not to mention all those random people who showed up at his parties. Surely Bruce could at least have a college student of his own.
"Why not?" Tony asked.
Bruce knew Tony wouldn't appreciate him wanting to keep Peter to himself. Besides, he did have a better reason. "Because you're Tony Stark."
"He doesn't know I'm the Hulk. He thinks I'm just a normal guy. If I show up at his doorstep with a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist superhero in tow, won't that be a little suspicious?"
"So tell him you're the Hulk."
"No! This is a normal, friendly relationship. I'm not going to mess it up."
"Relationships should not be built off lies," Tony said. He had his serious face on. "Even friendships with college students that like science. Besides, you already said he has no problem with the Hulk. Just tell him.
"No! I have a secret identity!"
"Bruce," Tony said. "I want chicken soup with rice."
"So get one of your cooks to make it. You have like twenty."
"It wouldn't be the same."
"I don't care about your chicken soup cravings. I have a secret identity to protect and I'm going to protect it. For all we know Peter is a supervillain." Bruce was pretty sure he wasn't at this point, but who cared? There was no way Tony was tagging along.
Peter's house reminded Bruce of sanity.
It wasn't a huge house, but it was a comfortable size, located in Forest Hills, Queens, a section of New York City he rarely went to. This was the territory of other superheroes (Spiderman in particular), not the Avengers, who were called in for more extreme, global emergencies, the supervillains who struck all over the world rather than just New York. The Hulk hadn't smashed this neighborhood yet (though he had destroyed a few houses in other sections of Queens somewhat nearby).
In any case, the house was very friendly and made it hard for Bruce to believe in the Parker luck. Surely nothing too strange could happen in such an ordinary house.
The door was answered by an older woman, not by Peter, but she confirmed that she was Aunt May.
"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Parker," Bruce said.
"Oh, and it's lovely to meet you too, Dr. Banner. Peter's told me all about you. It's always nice when he makes friends. He's such a shy boy," Mrs. Parker said. "Do call me May. I hope we can be friends as well."
"I'm sure we will be," Bruce said. What a sweet old woman. He wondered what her chicken soup with rice tasted like.
As it turned out, it was quite good.
Peter agreed. But it was pretty clear that he adored everything about his Aunt May anyways.
"This is the best chicken soup with rice in New York. Probably in the country," he said between spoonfuls. "If she opened a restaurant we would become rich and famous."
Aunt May laughed. "Oh, stop it. You're making me blush."
Bruce had tasted a lot of different types of chicken soup over the years, and a lot of different types of rice too. This soup and rice was not particularly special, but it was decent. He kept his mouth closed on that though, not wanting to seem rude. And the company was lovely.
He and Peter ended up talking about radiation while Aunt May sat and listened, occasionally interjecting with comments on how she had never learned so much science and how she thought they were both very smart.
Then the doorbell rang.
"I'll get that," Aunt May said.
Peter said, "No, I can."
"No, no, talk to your friend. I'll only be a moment."
Bruce felt a bit guilty that he was glad Peter was staying in the room with him instead of Aunt May. She was a perfectly lovely lady, after all. He just liked talking to Peter.
"Your aunt is nice," he told Peter.
"She's the best woman in the world," Peter said. He grinned. "She and my Uncle Ben took care of me for as long as I can remember."
Voices wafted into the room. One of which was Aunt May's pleasant, welcoming voice and the other of which was far, far too familiar. Bruce stiffened. He took a few deep breaths. Couldn't lose control here-He didn't want to wreck Peter's house.
"No, Bruce doesn't know I'm coming. I thought I'd surprise him-Oh hi, Bruce!"
Bruce gritted his teeth as Tony Your-Social-Life-Is-Mine Stark sauntered into the dining room and sat down at an empty place. "What are you doing here, Tony?"
"Well, you were talking about visiting your friend, remember? And you said there was chicken soup with rice, remember? Well, I like chicken soup with rice. So I came." Tony grinned the smile that usually made girls faint into his arms. He wasn't directing it at Bruce, of course, who was immune, but at the Parkers.
Peter blinked back. Of course, he knew who Tony Stark was.
Aunt May cooed, "I'm so glad you did. I'll just get you some chicken soup now...You just sit right here..." And she bustled off to the kitchen.
Bruce was annoyed.
"So," Tony said. "Bruce here tells me you like science?"
"What are you doing here?" Bruce asked.
"I just said, I came for the soup. Also for the company. You don't make many friends."
"I didn't tell you the address," Bruce said. He was pretty sure he hadn't. He wouldn't have. Right?
"I put a tracker on you," Tony said. "Anything that Spider-man can do with technology, Iron Man can do ten times better."
Peter blinked. Then he narrowed his eyes. "So you now have ten times the proportional strength of a spider?"
Now Tony blinked. But he responded, "Who needs it? I have demolition trucks for that stuff. And robots. I'm building mechas, did you know that? Mechas."
"And you have webbing, too?"
"Still working on that. If I could only get a sample of his stuff, I'm sure I could synthesize it and improve upon it."
"Probably not with cheaper materials," Peter spit back.
"I'd be buying the supplies in mass, so yes. And honestly, who knows how much that wall crawler pays for his webbing supplies? And why do you even care?" Tony asked. Which, in Bruce's opinion, was a pretty good question.
"I don't remember inviting you to my house," Peter said. "Only Dr. Banner. Banner, how do you know this guy anyways?"
Bruce chewed on his lip. He couldn't exactly say he was an Avenger, now could he?
"Bruce works for Stark Industries," Tony cut in. "But mostly we're just science buddies. He told me about you, and of course I was curious." He smiled his most winning smile again, this time even harder and directed completely at Peter. "You wouldn't begrudge a man some chicken soup with rice, would you?"
Peter sighed. "I suppose not."
"Dude," Tony said three hours later on the ride back to the Avengers Tower. Because yes, Tony I-Can-Intrude-As-Much-As-I-Want-Because-I-Am-Suave-And-Have-Money Stark had brought his limousine with him to the Parker house. "How did you hold a conversation with that guy without Hulking out?"
"He gave me sass," Tony said. He turned to look Bruce in the eye. "Bruce, college students aren't supposed to give me sass."
"It's not my fault you start arguments," Bruce said. "I'm a little more polite than you."
Tony hummed. "Yeah, I guess. Hey, do you think I could get him to work at Stark Industries when he graduates?"
"What? Wouldn't you like your friend to work with us in the labs? You do deserve a social life."
Bruce sighed. "I'm sure I'll be seeing Peter again. And in the labs, I don't need any more company. I have my best science buddy, remember?"
Tony smiled. "Well, I guess that's true."
Bruce noticed that Tony still hadn't made any promises. Well, it was Peter's choice if he wanted to work for Tony in the end. And while having Peter involved in Stark Industries might bring him closer to Bruce's secrets, the double life he preferred to forget around his few friends, he thought he could still keep the two lives separate.
After all, it wasn't like Peter was a superhero.
AN: I love Avengers-Spiderman crossovers. This is probably the closest I'll ever come to writing one. It's also pretty old-I've been sorting through old documents and this showed up.
Please do review. I will love you. (Heh. That rhymed.)