This one is 100% entirely becs' fault. I would never have even thought of it otherwise. Never. Engineer's honor.

Standard legalese BS disclaimer.

It's really a shame that Smallville and the X-Men movies became so popular at the same time, because they don't really match up. (Clark would smack Wolverine once, and that would be it.) So I feel like a hypocrite dragging in another Marvel character. Again, it's all becs' fault.

And if you've already waded your way through all 40,000 words of "Lessons," my apologies for repeating some things. The Special Operations folks have been my own personal curse for three decades now, and they've taken on a life of their own. Be afraid.


The librarian looked a little warily at the man heading over to the public computer terminals. She had assumed that he was just another of the bums who came in to use the restroom -- his shirt came nowhere near fitting, his pants would have been thrown out by a homeless shelter, and his shoes had obviously come out of a dumpster -- but after he cleaned up, he came on inside, moving with a deliberation that spoke to her experienced librarian's eye of purposefulness and mental acuity.

Maybe he was just one of the millions of unemployed in this rotten economy. Lord knew she had no room to criticize. The library salary barely paid the electric bill. Only her parent's inheritance and brother's help kept a roof over her head and vegetables in the food bin. Judge not, she told herself.

"May I help you, sir?"

The smile he flashed her was tired, but startling. Maybe he couldn't afford clothes, but those teeth showed no sign of decay. "No thanks, ma'am. I just need to do some research. I can yield if anyone else needs the terminal."

Not a bum, from his style of speech. "Take your time. Most of the users are kids wanting to play video games. Them, I don't mind telling to wait and go read a book for awhile." She went back to the endless paperwork of cataloging with a sigh. Whatever happened to the paperless society? She swore the computer tracking log increased the paper trail rather than cutting it down.

Bruce Banner eased himself onto the uncomfortable stool and ran a hand over his face. He understood the reason for not making the public seat too inviting, but every time he made the change, his own muscles and joints and bones took the strain too. And despite the fast healing and perfect health even in his normal form, it was getting, not to put too fine a point on it, old.

He logged in and worked his way through the maze to Virgil Swann's private e-mail. Swann had good reason for wanting to block 99.85% of the world from bothering him.

Banner had a far better reason to want to keep from being tracked. It had taken them awhile to work out the codes and computer handshakes for secure communications, and then the protocols to erase their records. Anyone with less than their combined IQ couldn't have done it at all.

The librarian glanced over at the ragged man every once in awhile. He was a fast if four-fingered typist, and the intent and worried, even resigned expression on his face convinced her of one thing: she was going to wipe this log before the government snoops came around for their monthly harassment.

-- Hi, Virge. Any news on the third front? --

Gamma was the third letter in the Greek alphabet. The third "front" was gamma radiation, the mutagenic blast that had activated some bizarre gene in his makeup that stored adrenalin until it went into overload and swole every cell in his body nearly to near bursting.

-- Afraid not, B. I've still got some tracers out, but it looks like you need a bio boy when it comes to the interaction. --

Bruce suppressed a snort. It would be just his luck that two of the world's experts on chemistry and radiation knew less about cellular mutation than they did about making dinner. He'd asked Charles Xavier once, and gotten a five hour lecture on the permutations and results. No duh, Chuck. I want to know how to reverse it, not cause it.

-- Got a lead for you, though. Interesting character. Got your pencil handy? --

That was code for "get ready to memorize something, because I'm sending it flash and deleting it immediately." Bruce's attention spiked. A flash code meant top-secret, burn-practically-before-reading.

The e-dress and access code snapped across the screen and disappeared. Bruce closed his eyes and worked on committing it to memory, grateful for the years at MIT he'd spent honing his mnemonic techniques in order to keep up with the kids who had been born with eidetic minds.

-- Gotcha. How's the wife and kids? --

Standard closing. Virgil's "kids" were whatever oddity he'd run across lately, a new star or an old galaxy, or some subatomic particle that didn't fit into the current math. Bruce could have cheerfully spent hours discussing Swann's "kids," if either of them ever dared risk getting together.

Even aside from the potential for disastrous publicity, Bruce hoped he would have sense enough to kill himself before putting Swann into the physical danger of an accidental transformation.

Virgil shocked him more than he'd ever been shocked by any of their exchanges by sending a smiley-face icon with a wink.

-- They're good. Have fun. Same bat time? --

-- Same bat channel. -- Bruce signed off and stared at the prompt screen in something close to complete disbelief, even for a man who sometimes changed size and shape and color and went on fury-driven rampages.

THEY'RE good? Have FUN?

He wanted to do some researching of his own, the usual web-browsing that rarely found anything useful but at least made him feel like he wasn't wasting his time, but he didn't dare risk forgetting any of the odd code that Swann had given him. He punched back in, navigating a surprisingly simplistic prompt menu that turned around and dropped him cold when he accidentally mistyped a letter. Cursing under his breath, he started over.

What the hell kind of codename was "Wynter," anyway?

"Dear Sir," he started carefully, "I have been referred to you by a friend...."

Wynter was, in fact, one of the hundreds of odd secret agents collected by the centuries-old Baron John for his last-ditch-when-it-all-goes-to-hell Special Operations team, a young teenager (Swann didn't know that) with an IQ in the four figures range (Swann did suspect that) who had helped Swann, among other things, decode the transmission that led to the discovery that a farmboy living in a small town in Kansas was, in actuality, the last survivor of a giant planet that had been blown to deadly radioactive bits (Swann knew all about that).

Wynter looked entirely like the mutant that he was, since the last time he'd had a haircut was two years previous, when he'd lost a bet with Nicole, their resident laboratory monster. (It had taken Wynter almost four minutes to figure out that Nikki had secretly enlisted the help of Jacques, to whom probabilities and statistics were a coloring book, but by that time he was already under the scissors.)

Wynter barged into John's office without knocking, waving his laptop. Actually, it was not unusual for any of John's agents to barge into his office without knocking. If they had something important to say, the Baron didn't want them stopping to wonder if they should interrupt him to say it. He hadn't prevented two nuclear wars by keeping his door closed.

"Guess who I've got on the line!"

John regarded his teenage intellectual adviser with a mildly raised eyebrow. "The Ambassador from Alpha Centauri?"

Wynter made a disgusted sound. "John, you know perfectly well that the Centauri suns don't have any planets capable of supporting -- oh. Sorry about that. Am I still going to be this stupid when I'm old enough to vote? Of course you wouldn't be able to guess. But this is just so great, I kind of got carried away. Virgil Swann referred him. It's Bruce Banner. David Bruce Banner."

"Banner." John's eyes went distant for a second. There was so damn much to keep up with.... "Ah. The one who transforms into what they call the Hulk?"

"Yes! He wants to check on my research. Can we bring him here? Please?"

John gave his undersized head of research an amused look. "Of course. Is Nikki available to keep tabs on him? Or Kal-El? Just in case."

"Um. I checked with Nicole in Pakistan, and she said it would be a week at least. As for Kal, well, the transformation is triggered by something in the gamma-ray series. Without running a scan, I'm not sure that Clark should even be in the same room with him."

"Mm. Good thought. The Hulk does have that green tint, after all." John flicked through some screens on his own com console. "Send Jacques and Sky and whoever else you think would be appropriate. Misty or Bette, depending on how much persuasion he'll need. Kyle would probably just piss him off, besides, he's busy. Cyrus -- no, he doesn't know enough about radiation mutagenics yet. The armored Lear will be ready in two hours. Have Nikki's quarters set up for him. Any indication of phobias?"

"Not that I can find. Can I go with them? Please?"

John laughed. There were times when the super-brained boy was all too much a child. "Absolutely not. Banner would have a heart attack when he saw you. Roust your biology and Washington teams and get back to work. You're going to have to get the government DNA project up to speed and hinting at some of our work on metagenes in order to get the pharmaceutical labs' attention, not to mention the political manipulations we're going to need to get it accepted. And get rid of that damn poster!"

Wynter all but danced out. Mental "work" to him was a high no drug could match, the harder the better. Keeping his massive untrained intelligence occupied had driven him into frothing near catatonia before he was three until John found him and put him to "work."

John frowned after him. Wynter and Banner would probably get their heads stuck so close together they'd forget to go to the bathroom. Wynter and Hulk --

John had seen firsthand how easily the frustrated scientist lost his temper. He was not going to risk Wynter, still too young to be aware of his own mortality, to that possibility.

He couldn't pull Nicole out of Pakistan. Even Wynter and Banner together were not worth a nuclear war that was likely to go global with one wrong target. Even Kal-El, the last survivor of his whole species, his whole planet, was not worth risking the destruction of Earth.

The ancient Baron sighed and made yet another of the hundreds of millions of impossible decisions he'd been forced to make since the first time he'd been impaled and didn't die. Five centuries? Ten? He'd lost track.

He would warn Clark. He would hope for the best. But he would have to ask. And he knew the Kent's adopted son. The boy had had such a sense of responsibility drilled into him (thank all the gods who had any interest in mankind for the Kents; if that incomparably powerful child had been raised by damn near anyone else on the planet, nuclear war would be the least of their worries) that he considered every request an obligation.

Kal-El would do whatever he was asked to do (including slitting his own wrist with kryptonite, and Morgan Edge had better hope that he stayed dead, because if John thought about that one more time, he was going to tell Lake when she got back, and for that matter, he wasn't sure Lake couldn't resurrect the bastard's ghost and torture THAT), when other people's lives were in the balance.

John regularly bench-pressed five hundred pounds, just on a whim. The phone seemed to weigh a ton. "Hello, Martha?"

Bruce Banner waited nervously on the outskirts of the local airfield, wondering just what he'd gotten himself into. The response from Swann's "interesting character" had been that, and then some. His immediate impression, from the ease of code and misdirection that his contact set up, was CIA or FBI, and his immediate response was to run. An hour later, he'd realized that it was unlikely that anyone in the alphabet agencies would have used Cthulhu as a password.

The graceful little jet with the codename on its tail (WHLK, good lord), gave the simple joyous cry of good engines as it slipped down onto the runway, and Bruce fought back a lump in his throat. It had been a long time since he had been around that kind of just plain nice pieces of machinery.

Now for the other question: How was he supposed to get to it?

A small slim man and two women descended from the jet, calling good-natured words back to the pilot as he was stuck with the turnaround procedures. All three glanced at him through the fence around the loading area, made some kind of exchange with each other, and split up.

The woman who came out of the restricted area towards him made him gulp and pray that the adrenalin transformation wasn't also triggered by arousal. She was a walking advertisement for sex: tall and willowy, with long dark hair and eyes that could set fire to a rain forest accentuating a blend of Polynesian-Asian features, and a walk that any dancer from classical to nude would envy. Bruce exercised all the biofeedback control he'd ever learned to keep some of his blood in his brain.

"Hello, Dr. Banner," she said, extending a hand with a languid grace too surreal to have been anything but natural. "I'm Little Sky. Sometimes the others call me Skylark. Kind of a silly pet name. Do you have any luggage to collect, or are you ready to go?"

"I'm, uh, good to, um, go." Geez, Banner, use the English language much? "Uh, um, I'm not exactly dressed to get through the, you know, checkpoints."

The woman laughed, and Bruce lost the battle with the direction his blood wanted to go. "You think anyone is going to look at YOU? My, my."

And she had a point there, Bruce admitted, as he followed her dazedly through the building and out onto the runway. At some point, the other woman -- middle-aged, heavy-set, and a look about her that dared anyone to give her a hard time -- and the man, who only needed a pencil-thin mustache to complete the picture, despite eyes as orange as a Cheshire cat's -- joined them, both toting backpacks of supplies and chatting about the miserable condition of the transportation infrastructure.

Bruce was immediately encouraged. Whatever he'd gotten himself into, it had to be an improvement over flop houses and hoboing if casual technical contempt for overburdened organization were the normal mode of conversation.

The interior of the Lear was another surprise. It was comfortable -- seats that could actually recline and had leg room! -- but by no means luxurious. And it looked -- reinforced? That was the thickest window Bruce had ever seen outside of a lab. And he was very definitely not going to ask about what looked for all the world like recessed gun turrets on the ends of the wings.

(His insanely good vision and perfect teeth were another side benefit of the transformation. All things considered, he'd rather have glasses and cavities.)

"How's the weather?" The pilot was asking. The radio didn't respond. Bruce blinked and clenched his jaw shut to keep it from falling off when Little Sky did.

"That mess on the gulf coast should be staying there awhile, but I'll keep an eye on it. Otherwise we're clear for the usual route. Assuming we don't run into an amateur air show. Ping me if you get a blip and I'll ground them."

"Of course." The pilot turned his attention back to air traffic control and Sky returned to the passenger area.

Okay, he was the Hulk. He shouldn't be so easily surprised. "You're a, you can control the weather?"

"Among other things." Sky smiled at him, and Bruce's blood headed south again. "I am the daughter of Gaia, attuned to the pulse of a living planet. The Mother speaks to me, sometimes in gentle caresses, sometimes in raging horrors, but always of life and creation, of defiance against entropy. In the end, entropy may well win -- but life and all its glory will never cease to oppose it."

And that, Bruce reflected with something very like hope, was something he could hold onto. The almost-poetry had flowed easily in her soft song voice, not studied, not as if it were something she had ever thought about, but simply believed. She made being a freak seem almost -- magical.

He turned to the man as the plane's engines went happily to full power, feeling much better. "So. Are you my mysterious contact?"

Jacques laughed. "Not on a bet, my friend. I'm Jacques, the resident card sharp. Bette over there is the only one who ever won a game of strip poker against me." The plump woman snorted. "Wynter usually stays at home base. If he's out of contact with more than twenty computers for five minutes, he gets itchy."

"Winter? That's actually his name? I thought it was a code word."

"Well, he did pick it himself, and no one is really interested in the lecture that explains which language he semi-translated it from and why. Don't call him Wynt, though. He'll put mechanical creepy-crawlies in your bed. Nicole called him Wart once. Since the nasty little robots can't bother her, he made a digipic of her with her finger up her nose and posted it on all the com cams."

Bruce laughed, for the first time in a long while. It felt good. "And here I thought I was being kidnapped by the government. Home base? What is this, some kind of mutant underground?"

"Not all of us are mutants," Jacques said easily. Some of John's Specials were, in fact, former government agents themselves, who had gotten sick of the Peter Principle and defected to where real work could be done. "But underground? Hm. None of us will ever lie to you. But there are many things that you will simply have to figure out for yourself."

"I can live with that." They knew who he was, they must know he wasn't stupid. Usually.

The plane leveled out, and the older woman got up and handed him one of the backpacks, two blankets, and two pillows. "Change of clothes, personal items, and some snacks, doctor. Though you may want to get some rest first. It's a long flight, and Wynter will start pestering you the minute you walk in the door."

Bruce peered into the backpack, and decided that none of the fruit and food concentrates looked as good right now as the pillows. "You a mutant too?" he asked sleepily, settling himself.

"I suppose. Mostly I'm a grandmother." She changed the position of one of the blankets to cover his feet. "Ask me about my grandchildren sometime."

Bruce chuckled at that and surrendered to the warm darkness.

Jacques applauded lightly. "Well done, Bette. Your control of brain impulse cycles is nearly as good as Lake's."

"If you ever compare me to that psychopath again, I will lose to you at strip poker, and strip right in front of you."

"Promises, promises."

Little Sky rolled her eyes and went back to the cockpit to watch the weather.

* * * * *

Clark sat on the floor in front of his window in the barn, eyes closed, trying to think.

His parents knew about the Specials. They'd met Lake and Nicole. They knew nothing near the full story. He was pretty sure -- no, he knew for a fact -- that HE didn't know anything like the full story, and that he probably didn't want to.

His parents were always telling him that revealing his abilities was dangerous. Hah! To the Specials, he was a fairly average kid who was behind on his training. Being locked up and studied in their labs meant getting five double-cheese pizzas with all the extras for beating his best previous time on a 1000-klick race course, and being assigned to read the complete works of Poul Anderson for screwing up on a comprehension test.

"Dangerous" was Nicole carefully and secretively disarming atomic bombs. Even though practically nothing could hurt her, and even with x-ray vision better than his own, if she'd been caught, there were still too many megatons that could be launched before Lake's barely controlled psycho-telekinesis could stop them.

God help the whole planet if Lake went to full power.

"Dangerous" was Little Sky kneeling at the base of a volcano, pouring out her own life force into the Earth to hold back the pyroclastic flow long enough for those in its path to run. For all her power of communing with Mother Nature, Skylark was mostly physically human, and the boiling poisonous gases from the explosive dome eruption might have killed even him.

"Dangerous" was Wynter, 80 pounds with his hair dry, sitting next to someone who could become nearly as strong as Clark, and was then driven by sheer unthinking rage. If Bruce's caged monster did in fact prove to be powered by kryptonite, it could be deadly to Clark as well.

Nicole and Skylark and Lake and Wynter were taking those risks.

Clark looked up at the place in the sky where his birthplace had once been, and wondered if he could bring himself to take such a risk.

And wondered if he would ever forgive himself if he didn't.

* * * * *

Bruce yawned and stretched and wondered where he was for a moment. His companions registered: Jacques was sleeping, Bette was reading, Little Sky was picking up all their baggage while the pilot muttered what sounded like curses at the radio. They were on the ground. Where, Bruce had no idea.

He'd woken up once earlier, rummaged through some food, and looked out the window. Contrary to popular belief, cloud-dotted ground gives very little in the way of locational clues from an airplane. Mountains are mountains, cities are cities, and the rest is just plain land. Even the astronauts had remarked on how many pictures they had to take to find something recognizable, except at night, when half the continents were bordered in light and the cities made patterns you could plot out with a census book.

Bette looked up and smiled at Bruce, shook Jacques and called him a lazy something or other, and took herself with dignity down the ugly metal steps to the waiting ugly metal transport that looked like three golf carts welded together. Little Sky laughed and followed, carrying more than what Bruce was pretty sure he could carry himself without turning green.

He was really curious about just what all her connection with Mother Gaia entailed, but he doubted he was going to be able to ask her about it without getting some much sturdier pants to keep certain parties in check.

Jacques was muttering and rubbing his eyes and cursing things in general. Bruce gave up and followed the women.

The buildings they wheeled up to in the tourist cart looked for all the world like an industrial park. It wasn't cold, it wasn't hot, it wasn't raining, and there was a lot of concrete. Other than that, Bruce didn't have a clue where they were. He shook his head ruefully. If you were going to hide a headquarters full of mutants, this was about as inconspicuous as you could get. Xavier's school was practically visible from orbit in comparison. This was outright mind-numbingly boring.

"So where are we? And when do I get to meet my contact? Winter?"

"You're further east than you were," Jacques said smugly. "And Wynter is no doubt jumping out of his skin to meet you. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if he was right," he gestured as Bette opened the plain industrial door that reminded him incongruously of the hidden entrances to Maxwell Smart's secret HQ, "there."

Banner refocused in incomprehension as Little Sky stopped to plant a kiss on the forehead of a bouncing bubbly kid who probably should have been reported for skipping school. He said something excitedly, and she laughed and went on past, leaving the door to the mysterious mutant refuge open.

The youngster -- Bruce had automatically classified him as Skylark's son, or maybe Bette's grandson -- turned to him with another bounce. "Doctor Banner! I've been following your work since that really inspired piece on interstitial quark interchanges. Too bad it turned out to be screwed by the colors, but hey, it was better than I've ever managed. John won't let me have a cyclotron yet. Eleven dimensions, what a pain. Is the universe determined to offend our bilateral souls? Maybe the creators had eleven tentacles. Heh, we can ask Kal. Oops, that's not on the list yet. Come on, come on, the computer room is all set up. We'll have some food sent in." The kid with the slightly misshapen head charged back into the building like a lead sled dog on the last lap of a race.

Bruce tried to take a step and discovered that his legs were still arguing about whether this was reality or he'd slipped into a hallucination. His paper on quark energy relationships had been more than a decade ago. This kid ... this KID, who had just delivered a speech more suited to someone another ten years older, would have been barely old enough to walk at the time. "Win -- you -- you're -- Wynter?"

The kid with the shaggy cat-fine hair stopped and turned to stare at him, then turned to Jacques, narrowing his eyes into a glare that Bruce wondered if the Hulk would back down from. "You didn't tell him? You -- I'm going to play strip poker against you one of these days."

Jacques bowed. "Any time, my friend. But Sky and Bette didn't tell him either." He smirked. Sky and Bette ranked even higher in the power scale than Jacques' ability to change the probabilities on whatever happened around him to his will, making them the responsible parties, and Wynter knew it as well as anyone.

Wynter growled. There was no point in playing strip poker against Little Sky. Even Bette would conspire to make her lose. Then again, there was always the threat of telling Lake. Nah. They needed Jacques and Sky and Bette intact. "Fine." He threw his hands in the air. "Come on, Bruce! Can I call you Bruce? I can stick with Doctor Banner if you want. Everybody here goes by half a dozen names anyway. Oh, right, you probably want to change first. The computer room is on the cool side. You'd think we were still using vacuum tubes or something."

The boy turned and headed back into the building, waving his hands and babbling about heat degradation sources or something that Bruce was pretty sure he hadn't studied at that age. Jacques snickered and followed. Bette and Little Sky were already gone. Bruce shrugged, and having not a lot of better-sounding options, trailed behind. This was nothing at all like Xavier's territory.

Somehow, that was an encouraging thought.

His quarters ("Temporary, until we can fix up something proper for you") looked like a nice hotel suite, or a small efficiency apartment, with one exception: everything except the bed sheets was stainless steel. THICK stainless steel. Tapping on the wall produced not even a hint of an echo. If this wasn't specifically designed to be Hulk-proof, he wondered what it HAD been designed for.

The clothing they'd provided made him snort in secret delight. College-emblemed sweatshirts and sweatpants. Semi-dress running shoes. Damn, he felt like a grad student again.

Which was, he realized with a cold shock, very probably a deliberate piece of psychology. To make him feel comfortable, at home, welcomed.

To make him not feel threatened.

Oh yes, these people knew what they were doing.

A pretty woman wearing a name tag was waiting outside his door when he finished with the sheer luxury of a hot shower and all the amenities, made himself some tea, ate a sandwich, and finished exploring. He frowned at that. Escort, or spy? Who would have been so patiently just standing there?

Until she introduced herself, and shyly explained that she was there to show him around until he got used to the place, and he realized that there were other kinds of not-average IQs than Wynter's. He thanked her and bowed to her, lifting her hand for a kiss, which made her giggle.

Nope, not like Xavier's flashy self-important boot camp at all.

Any doubt about that was erased after half an hour in the research section with Wynter. (It was something of a relief to discover that all the rest of the science team were men and women ranging from 25 to 75 -- he'd had a horrifying mental image of a room full of children as hyperactive and unkempt as Wynter.) Absent the cyclotron, there wasn't much else they didn't have, including some pieces he didn't even recognize. And what the hell was what looked for all the world like a hot tub doing under a laser phase guide array?

Bruce was surprised, make that astonished, that they didn't start demanding physical samples first thing. They asked him politely for a full body x-ray and MRI scan, and when he declined the MRI, they shrugged and went back to poking at and adjusting and calibrating and inspecting and cleaning and cursing at their machines.

Wynter led him to the computer room, which must have been twenty Crays and whatever that orange thing mostly behind a wall was, set him up an account, told him to pick a password and have at it. He also gave him a palm link (which included a GPS and a heat sensor, but not having x-ray vision, Bruce was unlikely to figure that out) and told Bruce to give him a buzz whenever he wanted. "I gotta go do some paperwork. Super secret bureaucracies full of mutants and aliens are a pain."

Bruce stared after him. ....Aliens?

Wynter had actually never done any paperwork in his life, though sometimes he felt like dealing with the rest of the world counted for it, in terms of frustration. He wondered idly just how long the rest of the world would have survived if he had gone Hulk every time he got impatient. Nope, best not to go there.

"So far, so good," he reported to the Baron. "Not sure whether he didn't want an MRI out of claustrophobia, or just as a test of our intentions. Wish J'onn was available. Human telepaths are a sneaky bunch. Any word on Kal-El?"

"The Manhunter is just likely to cause an incident, anyway," John considered. "Police mentality and people with anger management problems don't tend to get along. Randal is keeping tabs on Bruce, he says the problem with the MRI was Bruce's fear that it might add enough energy to his system to trigger a transform." Randal was the most powerful and sensitive empath anyone knew of, when it came to emotions, his word was law. "And yes. Kal-El is coming."

Wynter didn't know whether to be relieved at that, or scared senseless.

Either Clark could handle the Hulk, or the gamma radiation in Bruce's mutated form would be too much for him, and a great many of them might die.

* * * * *

Clark's argument with his parents was based on one thing: they couldn't stop him. He would rather have their approval and blessings, but in the end, he was going. The Hulk represented nearly as great a danger to the world as, well, as he did himself. If there was something he could do, then he had to do it. Q.E.D.

Jonathan spent a long time wondering how you put a fine line between responsibility and compulsion. He didn't regret more than about five minutes total of all the years they'd had Clark (well, minus the red rock drugged-out-of-his-mind episodes), but sometimes he wondered if they had raised their alien son to be too compelled to take all the burdens of the world into his own hands.

(It was an assertion that many of Superman's teammates would make over the years, not that many of them had much room to talk.)

Clark reached Special Operations around lunchtime the day after Banner had arrived. Bruce had been too busy, enthralled, and amazed to even think about the Hulk for more than ten or fifteen minutes all put together. He'd slept for nearly two hours straight. The file he'd accumulated inside a day was double his past five years of work, and Wynter's notes were ten times that. He'd hesitantly asked if he could share them with Virgil, and Wynter had snickered and given him the secure line.

(Some hacker at the Pentagon kept trying to break into SpecOps, and Wynter took great pleasure in training an entire team of teenagers, mostly runaways or low-level mutants, to mess with them.)

Wynter's only condition was that he not tell Virgil the whole truth about his e-mail contact. Wynter wanted to see Swann's face for himself some day.

-- Guess what I found, Virge. --

-- Since you're using an encryption that I had to be introduced to myself, I'm guessing you've met Wynter. What's he like? --

-- He doesn't comb his hair. --

The technical discussion was both productive and satisfying. To be able to talk freely was a stress-reliever in itself. Dancing around the subject of Wynter's age and where he had been trained didn't bother him, it only made Bruce chortle to himself. He wanted to be there when Swann met Wynter too.

Bruce signed off and stretched and stuffed a piece of cold pizza in his mouth and considered what to do next, happier than he'd been in years. Maybe decades. He was looking around for some juice to get the pizza off his teeth when Wynter came in with a young man whose bearing immediately intrigued him. Reticent yet solid, a way of holding himself that spoke of shyness and inexperience, but unconsciously self-confident, the way Little Sky was. The casual assumption of power that did not have to be proved.

Bruce liked him immediately, and not just because those hazel eyes and softly curling hair were as sexually magnetic as Little Sky's walk. Whoa, Bruce told himself, let's not go there. We are most certainly not attracted to young boys, no matter how tall and well-built they are.

"Hey, Bruce! I was looking over those initiation energy equations you're running, I think you're onto something there. Problem is the DNA trigger. I'd give three toes for a decent blood-brain barrier input analysis. The only brain samples I've been able to get on myself just tell me that the interface is abnormal, yeah, freaking surprise there. Oh, right, I wanted you to meet someone. Clark, Bruce. You can do your rest-of-the-story routine later. Clark's not a scientist, hell, he's barely memorized the periodic table, but he's handy around the lab."

Bruce reached out to shake the younger man's hand with a smile. "I take it you're familiar with our resident genius's tendency to cover ten topics at once?"

Clark smiled back, took his hand, and flinched.

Before Bruce could think 'what the hell?', Wynter's eyes sharpened, and he physically broke the contact between them with a fast clean movement that Bruce realized had to be some kind of trained martial art. "Hurts?"

"A little." The boy's voice was mild, a tenor, somehow at odds with his size. "Nothing else, though. No, you know, poisoning."

"Dammit." Wynter resorting to cursing was even more eye-opening than his display of martial arts, and far more disturbing. "Maybe you'd better go. Nikki will be back in a week or so. We can handle things until then."

"No." Clark's voice was as firm as stone. "I'm not going to leave you at that kind of risk. Without me, you'd try. And I don't believe all of you together could succeed. I know you couldn't, against me."

What the @#$%^&!??? Bruce stared from one to the other. Sure, the teenager was in obvious good shape, but he would have bet half the lab techs could have drop-kicked this kid. But Wynter, the same Wynter who did samples on his own brain tissue (ugh!), was taking him seriously.

Was the tall pretty boy (Bruce decided he needed some more sleep, because surely he wasn't putting two and two together and coming up with eleven) talking about going toe to toe with the HULK?

Wynter cursed again, startling both of them, as well as everyone else in the computer lab. "For you, there's always Lab 8." About five hundred kilos of kryptonite, carefully and heavily guarded. "For a human male, all we need is Skylark."

(Ain't THAT the truth, Bruce drooled in the privacy of his brain.)

Clark gave him a level stare that was much too old on someone who couldn't legally buy a beer. "Speaking of Lab 8, I understand that a blood sample to compare mister, I mean doctor, Banner's blood to mine might be useful, what with the gamma rays and all. I'm sure you have someone who can come up with a kryptonite needle. I'd kind of prefer that to sitting around one of the rocks until you can get a regular needle through my skin."

Wynter glared back at Clark. Bruce took advantage of the tense stretched silence to try to figure out whether to think or faint.

He was not really copacetic with the thought of having blood samples taken. But the tall boy did have a point. Comparative blood analysis to someone else who had also been affected by gamma rays would provide all kinds of....

Wait one freaking second. Get a regular needle through his skin? And what the blink-blank was kryptonite?

"Guys." Bruce took a deep breath. "Granted I don't know the whole story here, and I was warned I would have to figure some of it out on my own, but could you turn down the glaring-daggers contest a little? It's making me nervous. And I really don't like nervous."

Wynter's mouth twisted. "Sorry. To you too, Kal." He ran a hand through his hair, proving that a haircut would not really have changed his appearance much. "And Kal, I freely admit that I'd donate a gallon of blood in exchange for one vial of yours. But I am not going to put you through that. And obviously I can't throw you out on your ear. But if just the residual radiation in Doctor Banner's blood hurts you, then what could you possibly do if he turns on the power?"

"I told you," Clark said with a teenage stubbornness that almost made Bruce chuckle, "It hurts, but it doesn't make me weak or sick. It's not exactly kryptonite. I might get a black eye out of it, but I'm still stronger than the Hulk, and no one else here can help you if he loses control. No offense, Doctor Banner."

Bruce forget to snap his jaw shut in time. It almost hit the floor. "That's impossible!"

Wynter threw his hands in the air. It was a habitual gesture for him when dealing with most people, mutants or aliens or whatever. "So much for telling the rest of the story over a nice quiet tea and crumpets. Fine. Go ahead and show him, Kal. Come to the medical section whenever you're ready. But stay the hell away from Lab 8! I swear I'll put a pocket nuke on the door if you try to get in there again." He stalked out, snarling into his handcom in the way that made techs scramble and Specials fall over laughing and John proud.

Bruce eyed Clark. The declaration "I'm still stronger than the Hulk" made him wonder what kind of drugs teenagers were doing these days. Nothing native to Earth could so much as bend Hulk's pinkie, much less some teenager not even through his growth spurt.

Clark shrugged, glanced around the room, spotted a piece of equipment tagged for disposal, and picked it up. "Oh, hey, thanks, Kal," said the woman arguing furiously with the computer screen next to it. "Been waiting for maintenance to throw that thing in the recycle bin for a week. They'd have to disassemble it first, it weighs a ton. Well, eleven thousand six hundred and fifty kilos, to be exact. And the beryllium dust has got three departments arguing. Can you put it on the pickup dock behind building three? You're a doll. Remind me to make you cookies. And you have to stay around until Nikki gets back and Mark makes her lasagna. He's putting in fifty cloves of garlic this time. Kill every vampire for a hundred klicks around." She said a string of words at her computer that nearly made Bruce put his fingers in his ears.

Clark snickered as he navigated the trashed equipment out the door, spinning it idly on one finger, Harlem-Globetrotters style. "I want three pieces."

Bruce decided that it would be undignified to faint, and settled for sitting down hard.

The medical section looked like, well, a medical section. Bruce entered with habitual trepidation. Clark was already there, talking with a nurse, who was shaking his head unhappily. Clark had that stubborn look again.

"We could just use urine and saliva samples, Kal-El."

"You already tried that. You couldn't even *find* any DNA."

"Not precisely. We couldn't find any usable coding links. Your people and Earth's were apparently seeded by the same race, given the parallel evolutionary standards, but the straight-line molecule readings that are all we've been able to get from you indicate that Kryptonians have been using tailored genes for at least a thousand years, which truly queers the branching timetable. To get a mitochondria dating, we'd have to go straight to brain tissue, since the mitochondrial chromosomes are so redundantly protected against mutation even in humans, and if anyone here is willing to stick a kryptonite needle in your brain, I'll strangle them with my bare hands, Hippocratic oath be damned."

(And not even to think about what Lake would do. The pale-eyed killer had taken rather a liking to Clark. The files on what she did to people she disliked were classified "do not eat anything for at least a day before reading.")

Bruce froze. His first flitting thought was uplifting: it sounded like he had found the biology expert he needed. Crowding that right out of his head on a wave of anticipatory speculation was the offhand reference to "your people."

Nothing on Earth could take on the Hulk.

Clark -- Kal-El? -- wasn't from Earth.


And whatever the hell kryptonite was, it was apparently very bad news to the, the, go ahead, Bruce, say it, you're a scientist, you know the word ... the alien. The nice looking (stop that thought right now), NORMAL looking, young, polite, well, alien.

This was what Swann had meant by "have fun." He was going to give Swann SUCH a ration of grief.

Clark sighed. "It's just a blood sample. I wish you people wouldn't be so freaked out over such little things. You get stuck with needles all the time. Or shot, or poisoned, or bombed, or who knows what Miriam took when she walked into that reactor to stop it from going critical. I get woozy from the green stuff mostly because I'm not used to pain. Drop a safe on me and the roadrunner and coyote would both give up and go home, because I probably wouldn't even notice. You get hurt worse from a stubbed toe or a paper cut. So I'm a wimp. Can we just get it over with?"

The nurse considered him for a moment, and then shifted his attention to Banner. "Do you want to tell him, or should I?"

Bruce cleared his throat. Clark snapped around, eyes wide, somehow not even having realized that he was there. "Clark, or Kal-El, whichever you prefer, and please, just call me Bruce -- pain is subjective, but it's real. It's the body's warning system. Even amoebas will retreat from fire. Cats won't even jump back onto a cold stove after having touched a hot one. When something hurts, that means you shouldn't repeat it."

Clark stared at him, and again Bruce was struck by how old the boy's eyes were, when the rest of him was so clumsily, innocently-looking young. Alien genetics? Camouflage? His eyes narrowed, and for a second, flashed red. "Does it hurt when you change?"

Bruce forced himself to chuckle. "I'm not sure. I don't remember much about it. What's your excuse?"

Clark slumped. Given that Clark might very well be stronger than the Hulk, Bruce felt a weird hollow sensation inside at the helplessness of that gesture. "Sometimes I don't know any more. It's just -- I can't ask you to do something if I won't do it too. I don't know how you, people, humans, feel. I'm only pretending to be one of you. If I can't even do that right, then I can't belong at all."

"Good lord, son." Bruce reached for him, then stopped himself, remembering that Clark had flinched from his touch. "That's not because you're an alien. That's because you're a teenager. I felt exactly the same way at your age. And I didn't become the Hulk until I was twice your age. I'm sure anyone here could tell you the same thing." He looked back at the nurse, who nodded in obvious relief.

"That's truth, Kal. I thought for sure I'd been a changeling until I finished my degree and ran my own DNA." He shook his head ruefully. "Pure north Alabama. And once they saw me get through school, two dozen of my cousins managed it too. Expectations, you know? Nurture versus nature."

"My dad says things like that sometimes," Clark said, low. "My ... human ... dad. That we're not just ... what's in our blood."

"My dad doesn't," Bruce cut in, deliberately redirecting the mood. "He says things like," and Bruce pinched his nose and whined, "Daaa-vid, when are you going to settle down and marry a nice rich girl? Oy!"

Clark's eyes popped wide, not sure whether he was allowed to crack up at such blatant stereotyping or not. The nurse covered his mouth on a rude snort and then cursed lightly, stripping his formerly sterile glove off. Bruce turned to him. "Me first. How much blood do you need? If it's more than a liter, I could use some liquids. The food here is a little richer than I'm used to."

"Nah, two vials is plenty. But you do look a little dehydrated. Kal, could you grab a couple of sports drinks from the commons? And some for yourself, if you're determined to go through with this. You'll need the sugar."

Bruce settled himself in the medic's chair. And blinked. Clark was holding out a bottle of apple-flavored electrolyte solution from the central cafeteria. Which was over a klick away. "How...?"

"The sun in this solar system kind of gives me a little extra energy." Clark made a small smile. "Comes in handy when I miss the school bus."

Banner threw back his head and howled. The nurse had to threaten to sedate him.

* * * * *
Getting a blood sample from Clark wasn't nearly that easy.

Bruce fingered idly at his small bandage as Clark took his place. Wynter had come in while the nurse was taking the second vial from Bruce -- and he was really good, Bruce reflected, he had that pressure-point business down cold, Bruce hadn't even felt the needle -- and muttered some last-minute arguments at Clark.

Which, Bruce had already figured out, would only serve to make Clark more stubborn. However, if Wynter didn't already know that too, Bruce would eat one of his dumpster-diving shoes.

The nurse took a small dark metal case from Wynter with the solemn worried expression of a priest accepting a holy relic from the pope. The nurse swallowed. Wynter's face went controlled and blank. Clark closed his eyes. Bruce stared back and forth between them in raging curiosity and frank bewilderment.

The nurse opened the metal case, exposing a bilious green glow. Clark made a small sound and tightened his lips. Bruce's inborn scientist took over any sense of propriety or rationality, driving him over to watch every detail and wishing desperately for a recording. Preferably through a microscope.

"I can't find a vein," the nurse muttered, running the fingers of his free hand over and over the inside of Clark's elbow, obviously reluctant to bring the pulsing green glow of the needle any closer when Clark's breathing was already getting weak and unsteady.

"Touch the needle to his skin," Wynter said calmly, the deadly controlled calm of someone ordering an execution. "That will make the veins stand out."

Oh god, did it ever. Bruce wanted to throw up. He'd seen massive anaphylactic shock cause less of a convulsive reaction. The tiny whimper that escaped from between Clark's clenched teeth made him want to run out and beat his head against the nearest wall.

The nurse wore an expression of sick horrified sympathy, despite years of medical training and experience. He drew one vial with steady hands and trembling lips. Clark was silent, though sweat flooded down his face and his skin was so pale it was almost the same awful green as the needle.

Then Bruce really did have to leave the room. Because as soon as the nurse took the needle and vial away, Clark sighed and relaxed, and his skin healed back to a perfect golden pink tan. And Wynter put his hand on Clark's shoulder as lightly as a butterfly, or a kitten. "We need two separate samples, Kal-El. Against the possibility of cross-contamination."

Clark sobbed once, dredging up his breath and his courage from the depths of dizziness and pain. "Go ahead."

Banner ran blindly, searching for any place, any shelter, that would get him away from that boy's helpless and determined and forgiving frightened face.

He'd take the curse of the Hulk over that any day of the year.

* * * * *

"Doctor Banner?" The soft tenor sounded worried. "Anything any of us can do to help?"

Bruce looked up, his swollen eyes long dry from the storm of emotion. "How did you find me?" The closet he'd dug himself into had hidden him for at least a couple of hours. Bruce didn't wear a watch any more.

The monitor room had known where he was all along, of course, but had refused to tell Clark. "If he wants to hide, let him hide and get it out of his system," Wynter shrugged. Clark had glared at him, but since his irises didn't flash red, Wynter wasn't particularly worried. Clark, on the other hand, had wondered how people born on this planet could be so damn inhuman.

Clark smiled tiredly. "X-ray sight. Part of that rest-of-the-story thing. Being from a planet like Krypton has its perks. If you want to call it that. Remind me to tell you about how I first found out about setting fire to things by looking at them. Preferably when Little Sky isn't around."

X-ray sight. Bruce scrubbed his hand over his face. Fire vision. Damn. The poor kid. "Let me guess. The girl's locker room? Never mind," he added hastily, as the stronger-than-Hulk boy turned a primary red. "I'm really sorry for running out on you like that. I'm just not used to people doing things like that." Especially for me, he thought.

He must have subvocalized it, because the alien tilted his head. "Why not for you?"

Bruce gave a short, bitter laugh. "I was an arrogant ass as a scientist. I've been a self-pitying jerk since I turned into a -- the Hulk." He'd almost said "freak" in front of the alien. "Not many people go out of their way to do me any favors. Much less go through something like what you did."

Clark smiled and shook his head. Bruce wondered where an alien had learned such an easy human grin. "A couple of minutes of that tiny little bit can't really much hurt me, doctor. I took way worse when some football players pulled a hazing prank on me with a meteorite necklace. And you aren't even in the running on arrogant. You should meet the father of a friend of mine. Or maybe you shouldn't. One sentence from Lionel and you'd be entirely justified in going into Hulk mode."

Bruce found room to be amused at that. It wouldn't have been funny, coming from anyone except Clark. "How do you do it?"

"Do what?" The boy sounded honestly puzzled.

"Be so -- offhand, so casual, about being so ... different. Are you always like that?"

There was that easy sunlight smile again. "No. Mostly I hide who, well, what, I am. Probably a lot like you. But around here," he gestured, "Nobody hides. It's kind of like a vacation. Even if Wynter does make me study Latin and history."

Banner chuckled. "Better Latin than Sanskrit. Son, do me a favor." He glanced at Clark's proffered hand and raised a skeptical eyebrow, shook his head and got to his feet.

Clark tilted his head. "Sir?"

"Don't ever refer to yourself as a "what" again." He edged by Clark, careful not to touch him. "Can that x-ray sight of yours find the cafeteria? I think I'm overdue for a burger."

Clark hesitated. "Um, they don't serve meat here. Some of the Specials are empaths, and some are religious, and most of them are kind of determined on principles. They do make a mean tofu curry stir-fry, though."

A secret organization of mutants who refused to eat meat on principle? Something in Bruce's brain lit up. Something that combined with the kid's offhand comment about nobody hiding here. Something that felt like, for the first time in far too many years, safety.

"Tofu curry! I hope they keep THAT a secret! The locals would be beating down the doors to steal the chef!" Bruce laughed and started to clap his hand against Clark's shoulder, and stopped himself barely in time.

Clark gave him an amused look. "Doctor Banner, it's okay to touch me. I'm not going to, you know, read your mind or look through your clothes or anything."

Banner froze and put an automatic x-rated thought under lock and key. Did this kid have that effect on everyone? God help the whole human race if there were more extra-terrestrials like him out there. "I just didn't want to hurt you. Wynter did say that my system's radiation was like that ... that...."

Clark moved so fast that Bruce didn't have time to blink before the boy was holding his hand between both of his own. Bruce was forced to look into his eyes, because from the unyielding touch of the kid's fingers, if he wasn't stronger than the Hulk, he was at least stronger than a fleet of tanks and a space shuttle transporter-crawler.

There was pain in the lines around his eyes, yes, but Clark was smiling. "You can't really hurt me, doctor. And I won't hurt you. Trust me on this, okay?"

Bruce Banner stared at him for a long second, after making one futile attempt to pull his hands away. The long-buried emotion bloomed in him so hard it hurt.


"Okay," he whispered.


It was the most effective weapon ever used against him.