So this was a stray thought the came to me... it might be a teensy bit OOC, if only because Steve showed absolutely no sign of somehow feeling guilty or responsible for what happened to Bruce, but I kind of feel like this conversation might have happened at some point off-screen. I just like the dichotomy of these two guys whose lives were both changed drastically in totally different ways by Erskine's serum and the research that followed.
As per usual, I don't own anything Avengers or Marvel-related mentioned.
Bruce looked up sharply as Steve Rogers walked in, looking around the room curiously. Bruce wasn't entirely sure how he had found his way to the lab without help (Stark Tower's R&D floors were a virtual maze, and Bruce still got lost occasionally), and he wasn't in uniform, so he doubted this visit was SHIELD-related. Which only begged the question of why Steve was bothering, because Bruce was fully aware that he had made it a general rule, for the sake of everyone's sanity, to stay as far away from Tony Stark as he could, unless a mission called them together.
"Uh, yeah," Bruce shrugged, putting his pencil down on top of the notebook he had been scribbling formulas in, "By the grace of Tony Stark, right?"
"By the grace of Tony Stark…" Steve repeated with a wry smile, "I still don't get how you can stand to be around him so much."
Bruce shrugged again. He didn't know himself. He hadn't actually intended to stay in New York, of course; he had planned to head back to Calcutta, or someplace else equally remote as soon as he felt he could endure twenty-or-more hours in an airplane. Tony had alternatively bribed and begged him into sticking around, hence the apartment in the newly-renovated Stark Tower, and his own lab on one of the upper R&D floors. He'd even had two large rooms (one on Bruce's lab floor and one right next to his apartment, complete with connecting steel door) retro-fitted and reinforced. He called these the "Hulk-out rooms". Bruce was unsure just how effective they were, but he understood that Tony had put them in mostly for his peace of mind, and he appreciated the sentiment. The guy was lonely, that much was painfully obvious, despite his insistence that he didn't play well with others. And he probably wasn't used to having someone around who could keep up with him intellectually. Bruce could relate to both issues. Pepper coming into his lab one afternoon shortly after Bruce had made his intentions to leave known, and quietly, earnestly requesting he stick around to help her babysit her billionaire boyfriend had been the final nail in the coffin Tony had constructed for Bruce's carefully-laid plans. He knew she hadn't been too keen on having a man who could destroy a city block single-handedly, if he got angry enough, living a few floors down to start with. He considered it an honor that she had learned to trust him enough to even ask.
"So…" Bruce looked up at Steve, who was still lingering in the doorway, "Was there something you needed, or…?"
The taller man hesitated, "I guess I… I wanted to apologize."
Bruce looked bewildered, "For what?"
Rogers had drifted over to a magnetic bulletin board that hung on one wall of the lab near the door. Bruce had been using it to display a collection of newspaper clippings, letters, old photographs, and even a few creased drawings made in crayon. Tucked behind one of the clippings, there was a slip of paper covered in Bruce's precise cursive; it was a list of names. Rogers had seen it before, but he'd never asked who those people were. He had a feeling he knew, and if he was right, he understood completely why Bruce wouldn't want to talk about it. It told a bizarre story, his display; the story of a scientist who had become a monster, and a monster who had become a hero. Rogers pointed to a newspaper clipping, with a photo of the Hulk rampaging through New York four years before. The headline read "Not-So-Jolly-Green-Giant Menaces Harlem".
"I'm sorry for that."
Again, Bruce was unsure what he meant, "For the Other Guy wrecking the city? That's your fault how, exactly?"
"You're… the Other Guy is there because of me. Because someone wanted another Captain America, because I couldn't save Dr. Erskine seventy years ago. All of your problems, all of the bad things that have happened to you, that's all on me."
Bruce took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, "Look, Steve… I don't blame you. Really, I don't."
"You and I have hardly had a conversation in the entire time we've known each other," Steve pointed out, "You have to be at least a little angry with me."
"It's… strange, I suppose," Bruce shrugged, "I mean, it's kind of like looking into a broken mirror, isn't it? You're the ideal product of the experiment. And I'm the horrible side effects taken to the extreme. Light and dark, all of that. But it's not your fault. If it's anyone's fault, it's mine."
"I don't think that's-"
"Fair?" Bruce looked at him with his eyebrows raised, "Why not? The General didn't order me to test the serum on myself. He didn't hold a gun to my head and force me to go through with it. Betty tried to talk me out of it. I chose not to listen to her. I chose to go forward with the experiment. I miscalculated. Maybe the General shouldn't have let me, and maybe someone should have been keeping an eye on him, and maybe Betty should have tried harder to stop me, but in the end, it was my decision. Ergo, it's my fault. End of story."
He sat back down and opened his notebook again, sliding his glasses back on as he started flipping idly through pages of complicated formulas and handwritten notes that made Steve dizzy to look at. That was it; no self-pity, no palming off the blame on anyone else. Bruce didn't want anyone's sympathetic words, telling him how sorry they were, how it wasn't his fault, how it was all some horrible accident, because the simple truth of the matter was that it hadn't been an accident. Having tried every form of escape he could think of, he had done what he considered to be the only sensible thing: he moved on. He turned his efforts to trying to help people, trying to somehow make up for all the pain he had inadvertently caused. Suddenly, Steve didn't see Bruce Banner; he saw another mild-tempered scientist who had no time for self-pity, whose blunt honesty, crooked smiles and self-deprecating humor never failed to earn him startled looks and unlikely friends. The super-soldier smiled a little and took a seat on a nearby stool.
"You know, the night before they did this to me," he gestured up and down his torso at Bruce's perplexed look, "I asked Dr. Erskine why he picked me. He told me about Johann Schmidt, about the first attempt, how the serum failed then. He said it wasn't just the serum though."
"What do you mean?" Bruce asked. Information, he had discovered, was just one perk of playing nice with SHIELD, and he had been a bit surprised when an offhand comment to Director Fury about how seeing the original serum research might help him with his own had resulted in them handing over copies of Dr. Erskine's notebooks without any fuss at all. He'd been pouring over pages upon pages of it, but he hadn't gained much insight into his "condition". It hadn't occurred to him until now that being able to talk with someone who had actually known the good doctor might be invaluable.
"He said that the point of the serum was to amplify what's already in a person," Steve continued, "So good becomes great. But bad becomes worse. That's why Schmidt had the… reaction he did to it. He said…"
Steve trailed off for a moment, lost in thought as he tried to recall just what bit of wisdom Erskine had been trying to impart to him all those years ago, "He said that a weak man knows the value of strength, and compassion. He could have chosen a lot of other guys, ones who were better soldiers than I could ever be, but he didn't, because he wasn't looking for the perfect soldier. That's not who he wanted me to be."
"Who did he want you to be?"
"He wanted me to stay who I was," Steve said after a long, pregnant pause, "A good man. Like you."
Bruce shook his head, "I'm not-"
"Yes, you are. And I know you won't believe me, but so is the Other Guy."
"You're right," he put his glasses back on and looked down at his notebook again, "I don't believe you."
Steve understood that Bruce didn't want pity, but he wished the man would accept a little sympathy; and he wished even more he would let go, just a little, of the dead horse he was dragging around with him. Guilt could crush a man, Steve knew, and even though his burdens were relatively-miniscule compared to his friend's, he thought that he could maybe relate a little. Bruce was too good a man to lose to something that had such a simple solution. Suddenly, Steve wished Dr. Erskine were here; he'd have been able to talk some sense into Bruce. And if he was still being obstinate about it, he would have tried getting him drunk, or maybe a good slap upside the head... on the other hand, maybe it was a good thing he wasn't there.
"You know, I wish you could have met him," Steve stood up and crossed to the doorway, "Dr. Erskine, I mean. He was a good man too. And for what it's worth, he would have really liked you."
Review if you feel like it... constructive criticism is always welcome, unnecessary meanness is not, but I hope y'all enjoyed it.