Special thanks goes to beta readers Renee, Rick and Neila and to those people who compiled The Incredible Hulk FAQ, Version 2.1.

Disclaimers: American Gothic characters and canon belong to Shaun Cassidy and Sam Raimi; The Incredible Hulk characters belong to Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, although I am using the canon of the CBS television series as the basis in my story. Plot and any original characters belong to me. No copyright infringement intended.

"Within each of us, ofttimes, there dwells a mighty and raging fury."

- The Incredible Hulk - Pilot Episode

"How much more of this do you think I'm goin' to take?"

Lucas Buck's voice boomed through Loris Holt's boardinghouse and traveled up the stairs. The growing loudness of the argument had already propelled David Baxter, a.k.a. Dr. David Banner, to the door of his room. Now he frowned and, opening the door slightly, barely heard Loris Holt's reply:

"That's up to you, Sheriff. I'm Caleb's guardian, not you. He's my responsibility. You want to see him, you go through me."

There was a long pause and David quietly opened his door wider. "Why, I believe I might just do that," the sheriff drawled.

Boots crunched through the front hall, then the door slammed.

David Baxter sighed in relief and shut the door of his room. He'd been afraid he might have to come to Miss Holt's assistance if the argument had escalated, and then he might have become...angry. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. God, he hadn't gotten angry in so long...

Lucas Buck sat in the Crown Victoria, one arm resting on the steering wheel. He scowled at the boardinghouse across the street from where he parked. "Yep, that's a right good idea you had there, Miss Holt," he said with a nod. "I think I will go right through you." He closed his eyes and slowly made a fist.

Loris Holt staggered on her way into the kitchen and clutched at her throat. Gasping for air, she tried to call out, but only garbled sounds escaped her lips.

David Baxter opened his eyes. It hadn't happened in weeks. He'd found a nice little southern town to stay in and gotten himself a job at the Trinity Tavern. There was no reason to think it couldn't last a while longer. Please God, let it last a while longer.

The muscles in Lucas's hand tensed as he tightened his fist.

As darkness floated into the edges of Loris's vision, she stumbled desperately toward the phone in the kitchen.

David shook himself out of his reverie and slipped his wallet into his pants pocket. Maybe he'd grab an early dinner before heading toward the tavern.

"See you later, Boone."

Lucas opened his eyes at the sound of his son's voice. Caleb Temple waved at his friend, then ran up the walk to the boardinghouse.

Loris lunged at the phone on the counter and missed, collapsing on the linoleum floor. It was so far away...Can't breathe...

David flipped the light switch off and stepped into the hall.

The boardinghouse door fell shut behind Caleb. "Hey, Miss Holt," he yelled, making a beeline toward the kitchen. "Got any cookies and... Miss Holt!" The boy's bookbag tumbled from his shoulder, its contents spilling out onto the floor, as Caleb rushed to her side.

Lucas grinned and headed back to the sheriff's station to await the inevitable phone call.

"What the...?" David's shoe crunched down on one of Caleb's pencils, neatly snapping it in half.

Caleb looked up from cradling Loris's head. "She can't breathe. You gotta do somethin', Mr. Baxter."

"What happened?" David asked, stepping over a juice box and nearly slipping on a sheaf of notebook paper. He knelt beside Loris, her breath coming out in strangled gasps. "What's she choking on?"

"I don't know," said Caleb, sliding back slightly to make room for David. "She was just lyin' there when I came in. Oh, God, Miss Holt, don't you die on me too."

Loris's eyes were rolling into the back of her head. "Call 911, Caleb," David commanded, as he pulled the woman into a sitting position, his arms around her stomach. He performed the Heimlech maneuver, pressing his clenched hands into her abdomen in an effort to expel whatever was lodged in her throat.

Caleb held the phone away from his face. "They said to try the Hemlock, Hemlick..."

"That's Heimlech and I am," David snapped, continuing to thrust his hands into Loris's abdomen. "It's not working. Tell them we need an ambulance - now!"

As Caleb relayed this message, David frantically glanced around on the floor. If they hadn't sent an ambulance yet, she wasn't going to make it. He snatched the juice box from off the floor. Desperate times called for desperate measures. David resisted a sudden urge to laugh. He was certainly all too familiar with unconventional methods.

"What're you doin'?" Caleb asked, watching David tear the small straw from off the juice box. "This ain't no time for a snack break."

"Get me a knife." David laid Loris back down onto the floor. He glanced up at Caleb. "Do it! If you don't, she's not going to make it."

The boy grabbed one of the kitchen knives out of a drawer and handed it to David. There was no time to heat the blade and David was willing to risk possible infection to save her life. "I sure hope she uses good dishwashing liquid," he muttered as he prepared to make an incision in her throat with the unsterilized knife.

"Hey, what the hell are you doin'?" Caleb demanded. "You gonna cut her throat?!"

"In a manner of speaking." David carefully sliced into Loris's windpipe. Blood welled up from the cut. "Since I can't find the obstruction, I'm opening up an airway in her throat, so she can breathe." He flung the knife aside and inserted the small straw into the incision. As he held the straw in place, David noticed Loris's breathing had become less labored. "I think it's working." He glanced up at Caleb. "It's called a tracheotomy, but this isn't exactly the best way to do it. Aside from it being unsanitary, I don't have anything to hold the straw in place."

"Well, but you said it's workin', though, right?" Caleb was back on his knees next to Loris now. "She ain't gonna die?"

"I hope not." David watched her chest rise and fall, then realized he'd been holding his own breath since he made the incision. He slowly exhaled as he heard the distant scream of a siren. "Ambulance is coming, Caleb. Why don't you wait at the door for them? We'll ride with her to the hospital."

Billy Peale removed his surgical mask and stripped off his gloves as he left the emergency room of Fulton County Hospital.

Caleb immediately appeared in front of him. "How is she, Doc? Is she gonna be alright?"

Billy glanced down at Caleb as he discarded the items. "She'll be fine, Caleb," he said, clapping a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Her breathing's back to normal and there's no sign of infection yet, but we've got her on antibiotics just in case. The incision in her throat'll keep her from talking for awhile, though."

"Did you ever find what she was choking on?"

Billy looked over at David standing off to the side. "No, we didn't find anything."

"Don't you find that a little strange? A woman almost chokes to death on nothing?"

Billy gave a short laugh. "You're not from around here, are you?"

"Can I see her, Doc?" Caleb asked.

"Not yet, Caleb. She's in recovery right now, then she'll be moved to a room." Billy looked at the fidgety boy. "And then you can see her. For now, just relax."

Caleb sighed loudly. "Alright." His eyes scanned the corridor and came to a stop when he spotted a vending machine. "I'm gonna go get some candy then."

The two men watched Caleb run off, then Billy said, "That was a pretty good tracheotomy you put together there. Now if you'd heated the knife with a cigarette lighter and used some chewing gum to fix the straw in place, I would've been really impressed." He grinned and held out his hand. "Billy Peale."

"David, uh, Baxter." Oops. He'd nearly forgotten the last name he'd chosen this time. So many last names beginning with B over so many years caused him to lose track sometimes.

"You a doctor?" Billy asked.

"I don't practice medicine," David replied, choosing his words with care.

"Really?" Billy raised his eyebrows. "Could've fooled me. You ought to think about it."

David shook his head. "I must've seen that procedure done on television or something."

Billy nodded. "And people say no good comes from television."

"Dr. Peale. Dr. Peale."

The men turned to see several people, some holding microphones and carrying cameras, hurrying toward them.

"What's going on?" David asked, backing away from the approaching crowd.

"My guess? I'd say folks heard about your great surgical skills and want to interview you. You're a hero, man." Billy glanced around. "Hey!" he shouted to David's back as the man fled down the hospital corridor away from the media. "Hey, where are you going?"

"A hero?" Lucas slammed his desk drawer shut. "What do you mean, a hero?"

"It was amazin', Lucas," Deputy Ben Healy said. "Rita over at the hospital said that this fella cut a hole into Miss Holt's neck and stuck a straw in it so she could breathe. A straw. Can you beat that?"

"No, that ain't what I'd like to beat right now." Lucas stood up and walked around his desk. "So who is this amazin', life-savin' hero?"

"Well, I don't know exactly."

Lucas frowned at his deputy. "What do you mean, you don't know exactly? I thought you said you got the whole entire story from your nurse friend. I guess if you don't have the man's name, then you don't have the whole entire story, now do you?"

"What are you so sore about, Lucas? I mean, this doesn't have anything to do with you." Ben looked suspiciously at the sheriff. "Does it?"

Lucas brushed the comment aside with his hand. "Forget it, Ben. Don't go lookin' for something you wouldn't be able to find. Like that fella's name," he added.

"Well, it ain't like I'm the only one," Ben retorted. "Some of our news folks went down to the hospital to interview him and I guess he took off."

"Took off?" Lucas repeated, narrowing his eyes. "Doesn't care for the press?"

Ben shrugged. "Must be camera shy."

Lucas clapped Ben on the shoulder. "Ben, it's always been my opinion that folks who are camera shy are the ones who've got something to hide." He escorted his deputy out of his office. "Now I want you to find out who this hero is, then run a full computer check on him. Think you can handle that?"

"Well, of course I can, Lucas, but..."

"Good." Lucas shut his office door on Ben. He walked over to his desk, sat down and tilted his chair back. "Alright, Mr. Hero. Exactly what are you hidin'?"

"So you're the big hero, hmm?"

David stopped in the middle of wiping off a table in the Trinity Tavern and glanced up. A beautiful woman wearing a short skirt and a very low-cut blouse stood beside him, smiling.

"What do you mean, hero?" he asked, turning his back to continue cleaning the table.

"Why, you, honey," the woman drawled. "It's all over town how you saved that poor woman's life today." She ran her brightly painted fingernails lightly down his back.

David whirled around and grabbed her hand. "I'm sorry, you, uh, must have me confused with someone else."

"Oh no, honey," she fairly purred. "I think I know a hero when I see one."

A smile played at the lips of an observer at a lone table in the darkest corner. My, my, my. She does enjoy her work.

Her finger stroked David's hand. He tried to pull away, but her grip tightened. "My name's Selena." She leaned closer, allowing him a fleeting glimpse of her breasts. "And you're David,


David froze. "How did you know my name?"

Selena Coombs laughed, a low and thrilling sound. "I just told you. This is a small town, honey. Hard to keep secrets here." She whispered in his ear, "Got any deep, dark secrets you want to tell me?"

"Not really," David said, backing up into the table he'd been cleaning.

"Shame," Selena murmured, looking him over. "You know, Trinity doesn't get many heroes." She ground him against the table with her body. "It's just so...rare." Selena ran a tongue over her lips.

David stared into her eyes, captivated by the promise they held. Then he blinked several times and shook his head. He slipped out of her reach. "Look, miss, uh, Selena, I..." Suddenly, a heavy hand fell upon David's shoulder and he was spun around.

A man towered over David. "What the hell do you think you're doin' with my date?" he demanded, hoisting David up by the front of his shirt and staring him straight in the face.

"Hey!" David squirmed in the man's grasp and finally hung there limply, foolishly. He looked at the giant. Indeed, there was nothing else he could look at - the man held him so close David thought he could count the number of whiskers on his face.

"I'm not doing..." David began.

"Now, Joe-Bob, you stop it right this instant," Selena said, hands on her hips.

Joe-Bob's eyes narrowed to slits as he looked past David to the woman. "He was all over you," the man said. "And right in my face too. You think I'm gonna take that?"

"I think you're goin' to take whatever I dish out. We were just talkin'. You think you're goin' to stop me from talkin' to other men?" She waved a finger at him. "Put him down."

"Not until I teach this worm a lesson in respect," Joe-Bob growled, returning his gaze back to David, who turned his head in a vain attempt to avoid inhaling the beer breath. "Strangers comin'

into town thinkin' they can..."

"Listen to her, Joe-Bob," David said, resuming his struggles to free himself. "She's right. All we were doing was talking."

"Shut up." Joe-Bob's muscles flexed beneath the rolled-up plaid shirt sleeves as he shook David. "Ain't nobody asked you."

"I allowed you to escort me here tonight, Joe-Bob," Selena said. "But if you keep this up, that's all I'm goin' to allow you."

The man shot another glance at her. "Oh yeah?" Joe-Bob said. With barely a grunt, he flung David into the tables on the other side of the tavern.

David pushed a chair off himself and rose dizzily from the floor, scarcely noticing Joe-Bob stride across the room. He became very much aware, however, when Joe-Bob's fist connected with his jaw and he again found himself sprawled among a heap of tables and chairs. Stay down, David cautioned himself, hoping Joe-Bob would be satisfied and walk away.

Joe-Bob leaned over him. "Well, looky here," he said, swiping at David's bloody lip with his hand. "Looks like these Yankee boys bleed red like the rest of us."

Again, Joe-Bob lifted David up by the front of his shirt. "Please, don't," David said, his blood salty in his mouth. "You don't know what you're doing."

Joe-Bob regarded him momentarily. "Wimp," he declared and threw him over the bar.

The bartender ducked out of the way as David crashed into the shelves of glasses which lined the wall behind the bar. David tumbled to the floor and cried out as the shards of glass ate into his flesh. "Noooo!"

The silence in the tavern was broken by the sound of tearing cloth, followed by a growl, growing louder in volume.

"What the hell was that?" Joe-Bob took a few steps and leaned over the bar. "What're you doin' back there, boy?"

With an earsplitting roar, a green-skinned giant of a man rose up from behind the bar, tossing aside the torn remnants of his shirt.

The observer arched an eyebrow and leaned forward slightly, but remained seated.

Joe-Bob backed away. "What the..."

Roaring in his face, the green man grabbed Joe-Bob by his shirt and easily tossed him through the nearest window. The sound of shattering glass was overpowered by the green man roaring again

as he clenched his fists and flexed his upper body muscles. He glanced around the crowd of people, then abruptly ran out the door.

Lucas Buck, sheriff of Trinity, touched a finger to his head in salute as the green man passed him.

"...we now go live to Danielle Davenport in Trinity, South Carolina, for more details."

"Thank you, John..."

The middle-aged man stepped out of the hotel bathroom and yawned as he trudged over to the bureau and sifted through some papers. Where was the Hulk? he wondered. He'd last tracked him

to South Carolina, but there'd been no sighting of the creature now for weeks. He ran a hand through his brown hair and stared at the various newspaper articles he'd written, articles which had

impressed some and made him a laughingstock among others. No, he'd lost too much, spent too much time pursuing the Hulk to give up now. He had to keep looking.

"Sheriff, witnesses say the man was so huge, so bizarre looking, could it have been Bigfoot?"

"Well, they didn't say anything about the size of his feet."

The man frowned and turned toward the television set. Lucas Buck, the caption said below the man being interviewed outside of a bar which looked as if it'd hosted one bar fight too many.

"Do you have any leads?"

"Well, I'd have to say my number one suspect in a case like this would have to be... the Jolly Green Giant."

Laughter rippled through the media.

The man's eyes lit up. He leaned forward and turned up the volume.

"Now seriously, folks, there's nothing to get alarmed about," the sheriff said, holding up his hands. "There's no big green man wreakin' havoc on Trinity. This all happened in a bar, remember, where alcohol is consumed - rather heavily by some, I'm afraid. More than likely, some boys just had too much to drink and got into a fight. It's either that or somebody better find out what's makin' the Jolly Green Giant so grouchy."

More laughter.

Trinity, the man scribbled on the complimentary hotel scratch pad. Reporter Jack McGee was back on the trail.