Bruce is awake. Something is wrong with the world. He's trying to ignore the little errors, the way textures feel wrong and smells come from nowhere. Lights out was three hours ago, but he's still not remotely tired. He knows he could go find the charge nurse and request an Ativan, but he doesn't really want to sleep and he doesn't really want to go out into the hall.
The voices are coming from the hall. Bruce can hear them, hushed whispers and sad, pitying phrases. They don't sound angry, but Bruce knows very well that some people keep their anger inside. It doesn't really matter what they think. What matters is whether or not it's real, whether or not Bruce really murdered all those people.
It isn't so far-fetched. Bruce has thought about killing people before, but no one notices that side of him because he never acts on it, not where they can see, anyhow. He's one of those people who keeps his anger inside.
Well, sort of.
The doctors call Hulk a voice in Bruce's head, but Bruce has always heard Hulk coming from next to him, or across the table. Of course, the doctors always say Bruce 'talks to himself' when they know perfectly well that he's talking to Hulk, so clearly they're not all that concerned with accurate terminology.
Bruce has been ignoring Hulk since the new voices started, the ones that call him a killer, and Hulk's kept pretty quiet. That's what Hulk does when you leave him alone.
Bruce's stomach growls. He had only picked at his dinner and now he's paying for it. There are snacks in the hall, he thinks, there always are. Bruce glares at his abdomen, as if it were deliberately conspiring to force him out into the hallway where he can hear "national tragedy" and "unimaginable civilian costs" louder and clearer.
The minutes creep on and Bruce can feel something hot and sour form in his belly. Maybe it's dread. Maybe it's guilt.
"They think you're not real," says Bruce, "but I know different."
"Don't care what they think," says Hulk. "They're stupid."
"Do you think I killed all those people?"
"That's a stupid question."
"No, it's not."
"You think too much," says Hulk in the voice that means he doesn't feel like talking anymore.
The minutes creep on and Bruce remembers his homework assignment from Dr. Samson: If this is all Bruce's dream, and if every character in his dreams is a manifestation of himself, then how did Steve Rogers get in here?
Bruce looks across the room to Steve's bunk. He decides he has two choices: he can figure out what he has in common with Steve or he can go out into the hallway. The lesser of two evils is obvious.
Creeping across the open space is easy. They're only closely monitored if one patient has attacked another or somebody's on suicide watch.
"Steve," hisses Bruce in a whisper. "Steve, wake up!" As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Bruce is aware that this is not a particularly good plan.
"Muhh," groans Steve, rolling onto his back. "Whuhizzit?" he asks, somehow without ever moving his lips.
Now that the conversation, such as it is, has begun, Bruce has no idea what to say. He wishes Hulk would offer up a suggestion, but Hulk is silent.
Steve squints tiredly. "Do you need something?" There are spaces between the words now, and fully-formed consonants.
"I…I…" Bruce stammers. "I…Why are you in here, anyway? You seem fine."
"Can't this wait until morning?" Steve yawns.
"Yeah…yeah, I mean, um…" Bruce backs up. What the hell was he thinking, waking Steve?
Steve sits up in bed. "You don't look so good. Maybe you're getting the flu or something?"
"That's…nothing like me," says Bruce to himself. He doesn't usually notice if other people are sick, and if he does, he gives a more accurate preliminary diagnosis.
"I need to know why you're here. I need to know what's wrong with you."
Steve looks away. It's the first time Bruce has ever seen Steve look weak or embarrassed.
"You can't be as perfect as you seem. You're in a mental hospital."
"I'm not perfect," says Steve softly. "My mom is…she's really great. She's raised me by herself since my dad died." Steve's brow is furrowed, his is clenched, and he stares determinedly at a spot in the middle of the floor. "And one day, I just- I don't even remember doing it. I just started hitting her. Over and over. I hurt her really badly. I broke bones. One of the fragments went into her eye. They can't fix it. She's going to have a glass eye." Steve looks horrified at his own actions, his mouth hanging slightly open, body arched away from Bruce.
Bruce wrinkles his nose as he considers. "I saw your mom during visiting hours. She didn't have a cast or bruises or anything."
"It happened a few months ago."
"Then why are you in the hospital now?"
Steve looks to the side. "My mom wanted me to come here because I can't stop feeling guilty about it." He glances up at Bruce, then back to the side. "When I was a little kid I had these seizures, not like the ones you see on TV where the person just shakes. They're temporal lobe seizures, and I would sort of do a motion over and over. But I stopped having them when I was six, so the doctors took me off the medication. And then all of a sudden…"
"You beat up your mom," says Bruce, filling in the end of the sentence.
"Yeah. They put me back on the antiseizure medicine and I haven't had another seizure since."
Bruce doesn't know what to say. He stands there, awkward, until he finally comes up with, "Don't worry, I won't tell the others."
Steve shakes his head. "It doesn't matter. It doesn't change what happened." He looks up at Bruce. "Why did you wake me up to ask this?"
"I…I…" Bruce backs away. "G'night Steve. Thanks."
Bruce goes into the bathroom, planning to splash his face with water and talk this newest development over with Hulk. Going to the bathroom brings him closer to the hall and he can see things out of the corner of his eyes – body parts and clothes and concrete pylons split down the middle.
Bruce shuts the door behind him before turning the light on. "So Steve is the part of me that…" he whispers, ignoring what he sees.
"Steve didn't mean to. You meant to," answers Hulk.
"I had a reason," argues Bruce, even though he's still not sure exactly what he did or what the reason was.
"Sure," says Hulk, "always a reason." He points with his thumb to the shower stall. There's a body there, largely intact but clearly dead. The abdomen is deformed and the skin is mostly contusion. She's middle-aged, dressed in jeans and a turtleneck, no makeup. She reminds Bruce of his mother, who used to have bruises for very different reasons.
Bruce looks at her. "I'm sorry," he says.
"What for?" asks Hulk. "Thought you had a reason."
"I must've. If it wasn't an accident, I must've had a reason."
Hulk snorts. "Can't be much of a reason."
"How do you know?"
"'Cause if it was good, you wouldn't be locked up in a bathroom in the middle of the night."
Bruce stands. He shuts off the lights and opens the bathroom door before padding softly to the threshold between the sleeping quarters and the hallway. There's no one there, and the hallway stretches on forever. "I know the answer now," calls Bruce, echoing down the corridor. "I was right. Everyone in this dream is me." He breathes deeply before going on. "Steve is the part of me that feels too guilty, the part of me that can't let go."
There's a thud, and a dead body lands at his side. It looks strange and familiar, real and unreal at the same time.
"I'm not sorry," says Bruce as another dead body falls to the ground. "I'm not sorry because I had a reason and I did what had to be done."
It's not a hallway anymore – it's the remains of a building and it's littered with bodies. Bruce steps over them. He's not callous, but he's not deferent. He's trying to get to the other side of the rubble because something is happening, something important is happening and Bruce loves science too much to keep pushing reality away, even if reality is full of bodies and blood and wreckage.
"I'm not sorry!" he shouts, because this seems to be the key. "I'm not sorry!" He clambers over broken blocks of concrete, breathing through his nose to keep out the dust. "I'm not going to say it was him, not me. It doesn't matter. It was both of us and it was the right choice!" Bruce still can't remember exactly what he did or why, but he knows that this is what he has to say and this is what he has to believe.
He skids down the side of a huge slab and he finds himself in front of a door, freestanding among the debris.
He looks back at the Hulk, who says, "You don't have the guts."
Bruce turns the knob.
Tony had fallen asleep in Banner's lab again. He had been sketching plans for a new Avengers jet, narrating his thoughts aloud for Bruce's benefit while tossing around ideas for a polymer that might support the self-sealing skin he had planned.
They had all made an effort to keep Bruce company, but it was a morbid game of hot potato: no one wanted to be the one there with him when he finally woke up (if he finally woke up was a thought no one was willing to entertain). Thor compared Bruce's state to the Odinsleep and failed to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Clint and Tony had made certain to mention their poor interpersonal skills in casual conversation. Natasha casually wondered if Bruce had forgiven her for bringing him to the Helicarrier under (partially) false pretenses. This left Steve, who would of course do whatever duty required, but he admitted to Tony over a late-night pizza that while he had seen a lot of death in the war, he was still struggling to get his head around the scale of what had happened.
Maybe Tony had more faith in Bruce than the others did, or maybe he spent most of his time talking to himself in a lab anyway, but he didn't mind his shifts so much.
Tony stretched and angled his neck from side to side, working out the knots that built up when he slept on piles of equipment.
"What's shakin', eggs-n-bacon?" asked Tony to no one in particular. "G'morning, sleeping beauty." He turned to wink at Bruce.
Bruce, whose eyes were open.
Bruce, who was looking back at Tony.
"Welcome back," said Tony, "it's been a hundred years- nah, I'm just kidding. It's been about a week."
Bruce nodded, his mouth hanging slightly open, before he slowly raised his right arm to peel electrodes from his head.
"I don't know if you…I bet you're hungry. We should order Thai food. You like Thai? Thai good, you like shirt? Maybe there's-"
"It's okay," said Bruce, interrupting Tony's rambling. "I know what I did. And it's okay."