I. The Avengers
Bruce was shown black-and-white photos of Captain America when SHIELD found him in Calcutta. It hadn't been necessary. Anyone vaguely familiar with his namesake comics (e.g. Bruce) would've had no trouble spotting him. Impeccably muscled, broad-shouldered and towering a head above most people, Cap was as recognizable as a shining lighthouse at night. His handsome face, composed of a strong jaw, golden hair, and blue eyes, was on point with the comics. Bruce felt ancient when Cap reached out to shake his hand, for he couldn't help but notice Cap's skin was as flawless and smooth as a baby's butt.
"Dr. Banner," said Cap, and Bruce irrelevantly made a mental note that Cap's voice didn't sound perfect (not that he knew what a perfect voice sounded like).
"Oh, yeah, hi," said Bruce, awkwardly. "They told me you'd be coming."
"Word is you can find the cube," Cap said.
"Is that the only word on me?" Bruce asked.
"Only word I care about," said Cap.
Bruce wondered if charming honesty was part of Cap's original character or something the serum produced as he felt himself relax a little.
"Must be strange for you, all of this," said Bruce.
"Sometimes I wonder if I'm actually awake," Cap admitted. "Except this. This is kind of familiar."
He waved at the vessel the two of them were standing on, its unnaturally flat surface teeming with aircraft, trailers, and military-looking personnel. Agent Natasha Romanoff joined their conversation at this point and warned them to hold their breath. As though on cue, the ground beneath their feet shook, and the roar of engines and flooding seawater pounded his ears. Both Cap and Bruce approached the edge to get a closer look.
"Is this is a submarine?" said Cap in wonderment, as two enormous turbines broke the ocean's surface.
"Really?" said Bruce, "They wanted me in a submerged pressurized metal container?"
As if to answer his question, their vessel started to lift into the air.
"Oh, no. This is much worse," Bruce declared. Because it was. He figured it was harder to safely fail an aircraft than a submarine. Therefore the chances of the Other Guy escaping without causing too much death and destruction was lower in an aircraft. Can even Captain America keep him down? Bruce mused, half-hysterically, as he glanced at Cap.
Bruce was startled and more than a little incredulous when he noticed Cap's bright blue eyes were full of guileless surprise. In fact, he looked like a kid who had no idea what kind danger he was in but was innocently enjoying sights hitherto unseen.
Then Bruce remembered Captain America's timeline and did the math. The results shocked him.
He's … really young, he realized. Wait, is he even legal?
Before Bruce could pursue the thought any further, a tall, dark and black-clad person wearing an eyepatch interrupted him.
"Gentlemen," said Nick Fury, director of SHIELD.
Fury and Agent Romanoff escorted Bruce and Cap inside the Helicarrier. Captain Rogers assumed a grave military posture during the short trek. For all intents and purposes, he looked very much like the seasoned World War II veteran gearing for battle he was supposed to be.
Bruce, however, couldn't help but notice oddities every time he stole a look. The flawless smooth skin, which previously made Bruce envious, made no sense given Cap's age, race, and history of sun exposure. Captain Rogers was also lacking in facial hair. Given his hair color—dark blond—his chin should've been darker, even when clean-shaven.
Surely the agents of SHIELD, people who were presumably trained to notice things like this, knew this as well? What was he to make of SHIELD if they suspected what Bruce was suspecting, but chose to ignore it? Why did they even bother to look for him anyway?
I knew agreeing was a bad idea, Bruce groaned internally as Fury started talking about the Tesseract. After listening to his spiel, Bruce asked for spectrometers and blathered something about a Cluster Recognition based algorithm to see if anyone would call him on his bullshit. No one did. Clearly, Fury didn't care what Bruce did to find the Tesseract, as long as he found it.
And Bruce would help SHIELD find it. Agent Romanoff presented the situation in a way that made it clear if they didn't find the Tesseract, there wouldn't be an earth worth living in. And it would just be his luck the Other Guy would survive a planetary catastrophe while everyone else didn't.
"Agent Romanoff, would you show Dr. Banner to his laboratory, please," said Fury.
"You're gonna love it, Doc," said Romanoff, "We got all the toys."
Aaaah, nope, Bruce thought as he followed after her.
Bruce was left alone in the lab after Agent Romanoff took him there. Bruce took this as a peace offering from SHIELD and went to work. He first downloaded all the code he needed from an open-source website and then edited the code to suit his purposes. He then let the program run and started shifting images around on a holograph-screen to make it look like he was busy.
Bruce was just starting to relax when the laboratory door opened, and Captain Rogers stepped in.
"Mind if I stay here?" he asked. For someone so large, it was remarkable how well he could imitate the look of a golden retriever puppy pleading for something.
"Uh, no, go ahead," said Bruce. "I'm just waiting for the results."
Cap murmured his thanks, pulled up one of the wheeled stools and sat on it. Bruce returned to his holograph screen and pretended to read lines of code. He inexplicably felt obligated to make small talk, but he had exactly nothing to say. That left Bruce feeling flustered and awkward.
Thankfully, Cap took up the slack:
"How exactly are you doing the search?" he asked.
Bruce rambled at some length, trying his best to describe computers and algorithms to someone who had no context. Cap frowned through the jumbled explanation.
"So it's a Turing Machine?" Cap asked uncertainly.
Bruce's heart leaped. "Yeah … yeah, it's a Turing Machine made real. We call it computers."
Cap nodded. He was smiling happily, perhaps feeling quite proud of himself for making sense of one bewildering thing about the 21st Century.
"So, uh, how do you know about Turing Machines?" Bruce asked. He didn't know much modern American history—and he certainly didn't know anything about the Sci-Fi scene during the thirties and forties—so he wasn't sure where Cap may have learned the concept. Metropolis, perhaps?
"I met Alan Turing," said Cap. "He explained his 1938 dissertation to me over dinner."
Bruce violently suppressed the urge to scream and flail his arms around. Barely.
"You. Met Alan Turing," he squeaked.
"The US Navy invited him so he could help them crack naval Engimas," Cap said. "My squad was stationed at Washington at the time. Howard Stark—Anthony Stark's father— introduced me to him."
"When was this?" Bruce asked.
"Fall of 1942," said Cap.
There was another period of silence, during which Bruce struggled to pick a question he wanted to ask first. Cap just watched him, patient, and perhaps a little amused.
"You were part of a squad?" Bruce eventually asked.
"Like, a squad of Super Soldiers?" Bruce asked.
Cap nodded again. "They called us the Invaders."
"I, uh, thought you were the only successful one," said Bruce.
Cap's smile turned wry.
"Depends on what you mean by successful," he said. "Senator Brandt thought I was a failure. Worse than Willie, even."
Bruce was about to ask who Willie was when Nick Fury's voice echoed through the comms.
"We found Loki," he said. "Stuttgart, Germany. 28, Konigstrasse. Captain, you're up."
"Sorry, gotta go," said Cap apologetically.
Bruce nodded. "Tell me more later?"
Cap smiled. "Sure."
Bruce left the laboratory several minutes after Cap departed. After wandering around a bit, he headed towards the Bridge. There he was confronted with three large holograph screens that showed Cap marching towards Loki, his iconic shield in hand. Cap looked awe-inspiring despite being dressed in WWII style battledress, fire-truck red boots, a stupid helmet that had a large 'A' on it, and a blue Kevlar shirt that had a large white star in the middle (Bruce assumed the khaki jacket was hiding the red and white stripes).
"You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing," said Cap's voice over the speakers.
Loki's response wasn't transmitted, but everyone could see he was talking.
"That's not the uniform we had prepared," Agent Hill noted while Cap slowly closed the distance between him and Loki.
"Cap said he prefers to go to battle with familiar equipment," said Agent Coulson. Though his expression was bland, Bruce thought he detected a droop on his shoulders.
"At least he wore the shirt," said Agent Hill, smiling.
"Only because it doubles as armor," said Agent Coulson with a sigh.
Fury smirked. "Cheer up Coulson. He might be saving it for the finale."
Just then Bruce heard Agent Romanoff's voice ordering Loki to drop his weapon and stand down. Loki looked up, briefly, and his grip around the scepter wavered for a moment.
Abruptly he pointed the scepter at Cap and fired a beam of light. For one heart-stopping moment, Bruce thought Cap was down: he was on the floor and his shield was rolling away.
Then on the next blink, there was a flash of movement, and red boots shot up to Loki's neck. The next thing he knew, Cap was upside-down, his legs locking Loki in a chokehold, and the arm holding the scepter in his grip. Cap did a quick full-body twist, and Bruce cringed as he saw Loki elbow break.
"Good to know Cap doesn't f#$ around," said Fury, admiration tinting his growl.
On the screen, Cap rolled backward, the scepter in his grasp. He picked up his shield and got back to his feet in one smooth move. There was a moment of stillness as Cap stood like a warrior king, armed with shield and scepter.
Then Iron Man landed next to Cap in all his red and gold glory.
"Give up, Reindeer Games," said Tony Stark's voice. "I must say, you're pretty spry for an older fellow. What's your thing? Pilates?"
"What?" Cap said, eyes still on Loki.
"It's like calisthenics," said Stark. "You might have missed a couple things, you know, doing time as a Capsicle."
"Cut the chatter, Stark," Fury said before Cap could reply. "Agent Romanoff, you got this?"
Agent Romanoff repeated her previous demands. For encouragement, Iron Man raised a hand and aimed a pulse reactor at Loki, and Cap pointed the scepter he'd just captured. A small SHIELD aircraft hovered overhead, machine gun ready to engage, presumably.
Loki studied his audience for a long-drawn moment. He was in bad shape—his back was hunched, and his left arm was dangling uselessly to his side. Yet Bruce couldn't help but shiver as he studied his eyes. He's a monster. Run. They told him.
At last, Loki put up his unhurt hand up, in a universal gesture of surrender.
"Good move," said Iron Man.
"Mr. Stark," said Cap, now lowering the scepter.
"Captain," Stark returned.
Agent Romanoff came down and joined Iron Man and Captain America. Bruce let out the breath he didn't know he was holding as he watched the three escort Loki to the SHIELD mini-jet, and massaged his chest in an effort to calm his pounding heart.
Holy Sh!t f#& this is too much, Bruce gibbered in his head.
Bruce rather hoped they would have a long break before next fight. Alas, just after Loki was taken inside the mini-jet, his brother Thor appeared and snatched him away. Iron Man and Cap chased after the two, at which point Bruce gave up and sequestered himself in the lab.
Bruce was forced to participate when Cap, Stark, and Thor returned to the Helicarrier, Loki in tow. Cap and Agent Romanoff took Bruce to a conference room, where they found Thor pacing. Romanoff fiddled with the controls, and before long they were all watching Fury Interrogate Loki while the latter was locked in a glass cell. Bruce had no doubts left over Loki's sanity as he listened.
"…He really grows on you, doesn't he?" Bruce said after Fury stormed out.
"Like gangrene," said Cap dryly. "Thor, what's his play?"
Thor told them about the Chitauri, and the bargain Loki must have made with them: they would help him conquer earth in exchange for the Tesseract.
"So the Tesseract is worth an army from outer space," said Cap. "That being the case, why did he let us capture him so easily? He's not leading an army from here."
"I don't think we should be focusing on Loki," said Bruce. "That guy's brain is a bag full of cats, you could smell crazy on him."
Immediately, Thor was on him.
"I do not care how you speak!" he said hotly. "Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard, and he's my brother!"
"He killed eighty people in two days," said Romanoff.
Thor visibly took a mental step back.
"…He's adopted," he muttered.
Tony Stark made his entrance after this. Bruce was thrilled to have someone who could think as quickly as he did as the two of them reasoned: 1) Loki needed a portal to bring the Chitauri, hence his decision to mind-control Eric Selvig, and 2) Agent Barton stole the Iridium in Germany because it was a portal-stabilizing agent; however 3) the portal needed a power source capable of generating hundred and twenty million Kelvins of energy, which meant 4) he would search for a Heavy Ion Fusion Reactor.
"Finally, someone who speaks English," said Stark, after the glorious mind-meld.
"Is that what just happened?" said Cap, looking bemused.
Stark ignored him and shook Bruce's hand.
"It's good to meet you, Dr. Banner. Your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled," he said, positively sparkling with enthusiasm. "And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster."
Bruce felt charmed, almost in spite of himself. "Thanks."
"Dr. Banner is only here to track the cube," Fury said, stepping in. "I was hoping you might join him."
"Are you going to anything about the stick?" asked Cap. "It works a lot like a Hydra weapon."
"We know it's powered by the cube," said Fury. "And I want to know how Loki used his stick to turn two of the sharpest men I know into his personal flying monkeys."
"Monkeys? I do not understand," said Thor, confusion writ clearly on his face.
"I do!" said Cap.
Everyone turned to stare at him. At that moment, Bruce swore he caught a glimpse of the child behind Captain America, and heartily wished he didn't see it.
"I understood that reference," Cap went on, grinning like a boy.
Bruce looked down. Tony rolled his eyes.
"C'mon, Banner, let's go do some science."
Bruce guided Tony to the lab while … Steve stayed behind with Agent Coulson (it sounded like he was trying to convince Steve to wear the rest of his SHIELD-issued Captain America uniform; Bruce wished him luck). Soon the two of them were bantering about Gamma Rays and CPU. It was almost as if he was back working at his old research lab.
"You know, you should come by Stark Tower sometime," said Tony. "Top ten floors, all R&D. You'd love it. It's candy land."
Bruce was honestly tempted. "Thanks, but the last time I was in New York I kind of broke … Harlem."
"Well, I promise a stress-free environment," said Tony. "No tension, no surprises …"
Bruce jumped when he felt an electrical shock where Tony prodded him with a thin metal rod.
"Ow!" he exclaimed, more surprised than hurt.
Tony stared at him closely. "Nothing?"
Ohmygod, you have no sense of self-preservation, Bruce thought. "No."
"You've really got a lid on it, haven't you?" said Tony. "What's your secret? Mellow jazz? Bongo drums? Huge bag of weed? Sorry about that, by the way."
"It's all right," said Bruce. "I wouldn't have come aboard if I couldn't handle pointy things."
"So what do you think of Nick Fury?" he asked, out of the blue.
Bruce closed his mouth and just stared.
"It's bugging you, too, isn't it?" said Tony, pressing.
"Uh … I just wanna finish my work here, and…" Bruce stuttered.
"C'mon, you must've thought about it," Tony went on relentlessly. "Why did Fury call us and why now? Why not before? What isn't he telling us? It's almost a given he's hiding something. He's a spy – the spy. His secrets have secrets."
Tony stared down at Bruce until he relented.
"'A warm light for all mankind to share'," Bruce started. "Loki's jab at Fury about the cube. Well, I think that was meant for you."
"Stark Tower," said Tony, nodding, "powered by Stark Reactors, a self-sustaining energy source. Still just a prototype, but it should keep the building running off-grid for at least a year."
"Yeah, I saw that on the news," said Bruce. "So why didn't SHIELD bring you in on the Tesseract project? I mean, what are they doing in the energy business in the first place?"
"Who knows?" said Tony. "I'm kind of the only name in clean energy right now, and that's because it's not all that profitable. Yet. I should probably look into that once my decryption program finishes breaking into all of SHIELD's secure files."
"Since when did you…"
"Jarvis has been running it since I hit the bridge. In a few hours, we'll know every dirty secret SHIELD has ever tried to hide."
Bruce adjusted his glasses and let out a soft chuckle. "You're really something."
"Thank you," said Tony, now taking a step back and offering the bag he was holding. "Blueberry?"
"Nah, I'm good," said Bruce. "Hey, what d'you think of Cap?"
The smile on Tony's face packed up and left at the question. Curious, Bruce thought.
"What about him?" Tony grumbled.
"There's something fishy about him being here," said Bruce. "I mean, he's good, and I'm glad he's on our side, but why was SHIELD looking for him? The most reasonable thing for them to expect was a corpse. I don't think SHIELD is in the business of finding dead war heroes."
"Unless they were hoping to find something buried with his body," said Tony, dark eyes glinting. "The Tesseract was one of the many Hydra things Cap took down with him. The other stuff was probably what SHIELD was after. Finding Captain America alive was just a bonus. So the question is: What did they find? And how long has he been awake?"
Bruce jumped and Tony swirled around. Captain Steve Rogers was standing at parade rest by the door. The sight of his pale and unreadable face made Bruce want to launch himself out of a window.
"Eavesdropping? Really? Shouldn't that be above one of our nation's beloved icons?" Tony shouted.
"Making a person an icon never ends well," said Steve dryly. "You two should be focusing on the cube."
"You think I'm not?" snapped Tony.
"I know you're breaking into SHIELD's intelligence network. That's working against an ally," said Steve sternly.
"They shouldn't worry about what I can find if they've got nothing to hide," Tony argued.
"The very fact you're breaking into their system screams hostile," Steve retorted. "Look, I understand you're suspicious. I've been wondering why anyone would bother to wake me up ever since I found myself in a salt bath. Seeing Iron Man and Thor in action only made me wonder even more. But now is not the time. Loki is a man who means to start a war, and if we don't stay focused, he'll succeed."
There was silence for a beat, during which Bruce willed himself to turn invisible.
"Did you come up with that speech on the spot or did you write it down?" Tony drawled.
"Impromptu speeches come with the job," Steve said.
"Clearly," Tony snorted. "Now you mentioned my suit. It obviously bothers you. What's up?"
"Can you make it so it can be piloted remotely?" Steve asked, without missing a beat.
"Of course," said Tony.
"And you can mass-produce them if need be?"
"Sure, why not."
"I bet the DOD tried to get you to sell your suit to them," said Steve.
"They wanted me to hand it over for free," Tony crossed his arms. "I said no."
"I see they haven't changed," Steve remarked.
"Their cheapness is a timeless constant," said Tony. "Right. I see how you put two-and-two together: why take a chance on an old hero when you have the option of mass-producing remotely controlled Iron Man armors instead. Congratulations, you're not dumb. So you acknowledge you're not of much use?"
Steve merely frowned at the cruel jab.
"Just find the cube," he said in a low voice. Then he walked out.
"That went well," said Bruce.
"He started it," said Tony petulantly.
"You know the guy's half our age," said Bruce. "And he's not wrong about Loki. He does have the jump on us."
"What Loki's got is an ACME dynamite kit," Tony scoffed. "It's gonna blow up in his face, and I'm gonna be there when it does."
"And I'll read all about it," said Bruce.
"Uh-huh," said Tony, "Or you'll be suiting up like the rest of us."
"Ah, see, I don't get a suit of armor," said Bruce, "I'm exposed, like a nerve. It's a nightmare."
Tony seemed to study Bruce for a moment.
"You know, I've got a cluster of shrapnel trying every second to crawl its way into my heart," he said, pointing to his chest, where one could see a blue orb of light through the black T-shirt. "This stops it. This little circle of light. It's part of me now, not just armor. It's a terrible privilege."
"But you can control it," Bruce pointed out.
"Because I learned how," Tony countered.
Bruce shook his head. The warm 'oh, you too? I thought I was the only one…' feeling from earlier faded away as disappointment threatened to overtake him.
SHIELD's intention to use the Tesseract to build weapons of mass destruction capable of deterring hostile extraterrestrials came to light not long after the confrontation inside the lab. Steve discovered a weapon designed to use the cube as a power source ("Sorry, the computer was moving a little slow for me"), and Tony's AI uncovered its corresponding weapon plans. Bruce was thoroughly upset by the time Fury 'fessed up but refused to show any form of remorse.
"You forced our hand," said Fury, glaring at Thor. "We had to come up with something."
"A nuclear deterrent, 'cause that always calms everything right down," Tony drawled.
"Remind me again how you made your fortune, Stark?" Fury snapped.
"I quit the weapons manufacturing business years ago, in case you forgot," Tony shot back.
"I thought humans were more evolved than this," said Thor.
"Excuse me, did we come to your planet and blow stuff up?" Fury retorted.
"You speak of control, yet you court chaos," Thor growled.
"It's his M.O.," said Bruce, blood pounding his ears. "I mean, what are we, a team? No, no, no, we're a chemical mixture that makes chaos. We're … we're a time-bomb."
Fury looked at Bruce and turned grim. "You need to step away," he said.
"Why?" said Tony. "Why shouldn't the guy let off a bit of steam?"
"Because that's not the way to treat anger," Steve said. "Let it out a little, and you just keep smashing things until there's nothing left."
Bruce stared at Steve, startled at his insight.
"Oh, you're a therapist in your spare time, Rogers?" said Tony sarcastically.
"I just know how anger works," said Steve.
"Yeah, I suppose you would, seeing as you're all about justice and righteous anger," said Tony mockingly.
Steve grit his teeth. "You don't want me angry at you, Stark. Back off."
"Oh, I'm starting to want you to make me," Tony goaded.
"Is that a challenge?" asked Steve, his voice now simmering with anger. "I should warn you, I don't back off from a fight."
Tony glared back. "Good, neither do I," he said.
"You people are so petty and tiny," he said, and Bruce found his rage boiling higher, if only because Thor was right.
Fury must've sensed this because he said:
"Agent Romanoff, would you escort Dr. Banner back to his…"
"Where?" Bruce snapped. "You're renting my room."
"The cell is just…"
"In case you needed to kill me!" said Bruce, practically shouting. "But you can't! I know, I tried!"
Steve and Tony stared at him. Bruce cast his eyes down when he saw the look on their faces.
"…I got low," Bruce muttered. "I didn't see an end, so I put a bullet in my mouth and the Other Guy spit it out. So I moved on, I focused on helping other people. I was good until you dragged me back into this freak show and put everyone here at risk."
He snapped his glare at Romanoff, against whom he felt disproportionate rage.
"You wanna know my secret, Agent Romanoff?" he shouted. "You wanna know how I stay calm?"
Bruce heard, rather than saw, Fury reach for his side-arm. But before things blew up, Steve said:
"Dr. Banner put down the scepter."
Bruce stilled. He looked down to his left and found Loki's scepter in his hand. He had no recollection of picking it up, and that frightened him.
At that same moment, the computer blared an alarm.
"Sorry, kids," said Bruce, as he put down the scepter. "You don't get to see my party trick after all."
Bruce found his inability to recall what the Other Guy did both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, he didn't want to know the Other Guy's inner workings. On the other hand, he always had to confront the aftermath of the Other Guy's rampage without any idea what drove him there.
This didn't mean he couldn't recall what happened while he transformed. He certainly had hazy memories of when all hell broke loose in the Helicarrier. He'd fallen through the floor, he remembered that, and Steve jumped after him.
"Doctor Banner!" Steve shouted. "Don't give in! You're going to be okay!"
Bruce remembered growling and grunting as his consciousness faded in and out. His veins and muscles felt like they were on fire, and he could hear his clothes tearing.
"I'll get you out of this!" Steve shouted, as though from a distance. "I swear I'll get you out of this, you'll walk away, I promise!"
"You promise?" Bruce heard the Other Guy snarl.
Then everything went black.
Bruce woke up some unaccountable time later, naked and in an abandoned building. An old man told him what happened (no one hurt; fell through the ceiling, big and green and buck ass nude), and kindly gave him trousers to wear.
"Thank you," said Bruce.
"Are you an alien?" the old man asked as Bruce dressed.
Bruce stared at him. "What?"
"From outer space, an alien?" the old man asked again.
"No," said Bruce.
"Well then, son, you've got a condition," the old man deadpanned.
f*^$ yeah, Bruce thought.
Once clothed, Bruce borrowed a motorcycle and drove to Manhattan, where it was very obvious aliens were wreaking havoc. There he found the rest of his team—plus a man with a bow and arrows he later learned was Agent Barton—fighting. Bruce noted Steve was in WWII battledress with the Captain America Kevlar shirt underneath. Just like before. Clearly, he refused to budge on the subject of what was suitable for battle.
"So, this all seems horrible," said Bruce.
"I've seen worse," said Romanoff.
Bruce smiled sheepishly. "Sorry."
"No, we could use a little worse," said Romanoff.
Steve flashed a relieved grin at Bruce before he talked to the skies.
"Stark, we have Banner, just like you said."
Bruce didn't get to hear what Tony said in reply, but soon enough he saw Iron Man flying towards their direction, with a giant alien worm ship chasing after him.
"I don't see how that's a party," Romanoff declared as she stared at the horrible sight.
"Dr. Banner now might be a good time let out your anger," Steve said.
Bruce looked back at Steve as he walked towards the Chituari. The 'Oh, you too? I thought I was the only one…' feeling warmed his chest once more.
"I see you know my secret, Captain," said Bruce. "I'm always angry."
Then everything went black again.
The battle was long over when Bruce came to for the second time. Tony summarized what had happened while the team ate Shawarma in tired silence.
"So Coulson never got to see Cap in full uniform?" Bruce asked because he was an awkward man who didn't know how to ask the right questions after a lengthy Hulk-out.
"No," said Tony, without meeting his eye.
Agents Barton and Romanoff glanced at Steve, who was dozing next to Thor. It was impossible to divine what either agent was thinking. At length, the two simply return to their meals. Bruce interpreted it as 'sentiment; but if only'.
The six of them crashed in Stark Tower since it the closest habitable building in the vicinity that still had power. Bruce wanted to talk to Steve, ask him how he figured out his secret, but Steve crashed on the living floor and fell fast asleep. Bruce didn't have the heart to wake him up, so he went to the guest suite Tony assigned to him and spend the night thinking:
Steve clearly understood the rage that fueled Bruce's transformations. It followed then Steve's own transformation had some basis on rage. Captain America mythology stated pre-serum Steve Rogers had a fighter's heart, but not a fighter's body, and all the serum had to do was bring his body to the same level as his heart. Bruce didn't think it was a stretch to conclude Steve grew up harboring a lot of anger and frustration due to his chronic health problems if nothing else. So it was possible the Other Guy and Captain America had more things in common than previously thought.
But Bruce had to consider the counter-arguments. For one thing, their transformations had glaringly different results: Steve gained physical perfection post-serum and Bruce … turned big, ugly and green. More importantly, whereas Bruce's transformations were in some sense temporary, Steve's was permanent.
Or was it? Bruce remembered Steve warning Tony to not make him angry in the Helicarrier. Was this him hinting Captain America had a … berserker state? Or was it merely him not wanting to fight someone on the same team? Not for the first time, Bruce mourned the lack of good data on the Serum.
And immediately felt guilty for wanting it. Bruce wasn't proud of his participation in the Project Rebirth: Reboot. Even if he hadn't known the project's purpose was recreating the legendary super-soldier serum, he'd known he was entering immoral ground when General Ross recruited him to the project. He should've turned and run the other way when he understood what it was about. Even now he felt ashamed of what he did.
That said, the project was still the most intellectually satisfying job he'd ever done. It bridged physics, biology, and nanotech together in ways never seen before. He still remembered the wild excitement he shared with Betty Ross as they deciphered the constituents of the human genome that contributed to making a super soldier. The discoveries they made on epigenetics alone was mind-blowing. In the end, Bruce was confident he'd reversed-engineered the famed serum and in fact improved upon it. So, naturally, he tried it on himself.
It was THE stupidest thing he'd ever done in his life. Bruce couldn't imagine ever topping it. He probably would, though, if only because he thought himself incapable of committing greater acts of stupidity.
Bruce stopped his thinking in the wee hours of the morning. His decision was to leave Steve alone and not bring up the subject. If Steve had a berserker state, then it was better SHIELD didn't know. They would treat him like they treated the Other Guy, and Bruce didn't wish that on anyone. Steve had more than enough to deal with, seeing as he was brought to life without his consent. And wasn't that a tragically funny thought: being forced to live because you aren't allowed to die.
"I wonder if he wishes he was dead," Bruce said to the ceiling.
Thor declared his intention to return to Asgard with the Tesseract and Loki the next day. SHIELD didn't argue but sent several agents to guard the designated teleportation site's perimeter. The Avengers (Tony said that was their team name) went with them to say their goodbyes to Thor.
"It was an honor fighting with you all, Midgard's mightiest warriors," Thor pronounced.
"Honor was ours," said Steve. "I hope we keep in touch."
"We shall," said Thor solemnly. "I will keep watch over you, and stand by your side in battle when need be." He grasped Steve's hand. "Farewell."
Thor pointed his hammer to the skies. There was a blinding flash, and on the next blink, both he and Loki were gone. Everyone stared at the stormy skies afterward, speechless.
"Oh, well, that's that," said Tony lightly. "Okay, SHIELD agents, time for you to go."
He made shooing gestures at Barton, Romanoff, and their SHIELD colleagues. They dutifully left the site, and soon it was just Bruce, Steve, and Tony. For a while, no one seemed to know what to do.
"Mr. Stark," said Steve, breaking the awkward moment. He held out a hand.
Tony nodded and held out his own hand. "Captain."
They were just about to shake hands when Steve suddenly froze.
"Cap?" said Tony, frowning.
Steve didn't answer. Or rather, couldn't. Tremors seemed to overtake him. Then he hunched over, and slowly sank to his knees as though in pain. Bruce heard himself shout for help as Steve literally shrank before his eyes.
Then, as abruptly as it started, it was all over. Steve shakily straightened himself, and Bruce felt his jaw drop as he took in the changes.
Steve was now an inch shorter than Tony, and maybe half of Bruce's weight. His clothes hung on his thin frame like an oversized pillow case propped on sticks. His cheeks were gaunt and his skin was so pale it was practically translucent. Overall, Steve looked like a tall, sickly twelve-year-old (and Bruce devoutly hoped he was wrong on his age estimate).
"Damn," Steve muttered, whilst holding onto the beltline of his pants to stop them from departing company from his legs. He didn't look at all surprised at his transformation.
"The hell?!" Tony squawked. "What just happened?"
"I shrunk," said Steve.
"I can see that," Tony snapped. "I need elaboration!"
Steve grimaced. Then he sighed.
"'Captain America' to me is who 'Hulk' is to Dr. Banner," said Steve.
The human silence that met this announcement was long and deafening.
"…Captain America is like Hulk?" said Tony slowly, like he was solving an abstruse problem whilst drunk.
"Captain America is like Hulk," Tony repeated, as though trying to convince himself.
"He shows up when I'm in danger, yes," said Steve.
Bruce blinked. "Really."
"Yes, really," said Steve. "I don't have full control over his appearances, but I can shrink back when I really want to. I usually don't let him out for more than three weeks," A pause, "he can stay out longer, but that's dangerous."
"Why?" Bruce asked stupidly.
"You lose your mind," said Steve quietly. "The guys in my old squad … most of them couldn't shift back or chose not to. Willie Burnside went insane. Bradley died of early dementia. Mike and Grant were killed in action, but they showed signs long before that. And James…"
Steve looked away. A painful silence fell upon them. Bruce was frankly too stunned to speak. He didn't know how to take all this.
Then Tony spoke up:
"You, in the car," he said, pointing at Steve.
Steve frowned. "What?"
"Get in the car, Rogers," barked Tony. "There's no way you can drive your bike looking like that. You'll get pulled over."
"I have a helmet."
"Helmet's not going to help you. You look like you stole your grandpa's preppy clothes."
"But I have to – go back to SHIELD," Steve murmured.
Tony's eyes flashed at this comment.
"No, you don't," he said, voice rising. "I read SHIELD's secret file on you. They view you as a weapon. You know that right? If you go back to SHIELD, they're going to give you two options: Either you work for them as an agent or put you back into deep freeze. Either way, they get to keep you and take you out whenever they feel like using you. You can't tell me either one is something you want."
For a while, Bruce didn't know what made him more appalled: SHIELD's plan for Steve or the way the light in Steve's eyes dimmed and faded away. In the end, it didn't matter because Steve said:
"Maybe it is."
… And after that, all Bruce could think was: NO. No, no, no, no, don't do it, don't do it, don't give up, please don't, f#^ SHIELD, I'm going to sic the Other Guy at them…
Impulsively, Bruce reached out and grabbed.
"Listen," he said, babbling. "You … you don't have to decide now. Give yourself a day or two. At least one. Oh, and tell me about your dinner with Alan Turing. The curiosity's killing me."
Steve blinked. Then he blinked again. He looked down at the hand clutching his bony wrist and frowned.
At last, he looked up. Bruce felt like screaming because he could see the life flooding back in those eyes.
Notes: The Internet is dangerous. This fic is the consequence of me not being careful. For reasons only known to Image Search Algorithms, I found an interesting Avengers fan image thing when I was looking up Libraries. That led to me reading up on Captain America and Iron Man, watching the Avengers, Captain America: the winter soldier, researching MCU, and reading MCU/Marvel fanfic non-stop for a whole month (average sleep time: 3 hours). I knew my life was over by the time I found myself writing pages of notes on how the Super Soldier Serum may work in RL.
Crossposted at AO3 under the same username