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sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2013-06-17 06:08 pm
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Exclusive 2/3

Title: Exclusive
Rating: PG
Summary: Heroes In Manhattan: From Captain America's Hidden Talents To The Truth About The Hulk, We Debunk The Myths And Expose The Daily Lives Of The Avengers.

Chapter One

***

BY MONDAY morning I've attended a press conference with Tony Stark, watched Steve Rogers make roasted chicken with stuffing, learned from Natasha Romanov how to clean and load a .38, and witnessed Clint Barton killing seagulls on top of Stark Tower with a bow and arrow. There is, apparently, good eating on a seagull if you can't get duck or squab, but he unapologetically hunts them for sport.

I still haven't seen the Avengers drilling as a team, however, nor have I spoken to Dr. Banner alone. If Stark isn't nearby, interrupting whenever I attempt it, then Captain Rogers is dragging me off to speak to someone else or Clint-and-Natasha are politely and firmly deflecting any attempts to get near. Dr. Banner himself seems equal parts amused by their defensive behavior and glad of it; he clearly doesn't want to talk to me.

Jarvis is the closest thing I have to an ally, perhaps because he's capable of being objective -- in some ways, compelled to be.

"So can you tell me," I ask him, Monday afternoon -- my afternoons during the week will clearly be the time to write up my notes -- "Why Dr. Banner doesn't want to speak with me?"

"I cannot state Dr. Banner's direct motivations, as he has not informed me of them," Jarvis replies.

"Can you guess?"

"Judging by interactions prior to your arrival and in some subsequent cases, I am not entirely sure the decision is his," Jarvis tells me. "Certainly his fellow Avengers have taken it upon themselves to protect him."

"Why? He can't be all that fragile, if he's the Hulk's handler. I can only imagine that takes balls of steel."

"Dr. Banner is decidedly not fragile," Jarvis says.

"Okay, let's try it this way. Can you tell me where he's been since he disappeared? Is that information you can access?"

"Dr. Banner is very well-traveled. Not all of his travels were of his own devising."

"Was he hunting the Hulk?" The Hulk's first appearance was around the time Banner vanished. It would make sense.

"No. We do not refer to the Hulk as something to be hunted," Jarvis says, sounding almost angry.

"Would you ask Dr. Banner if I can speak with him privately, then?"

"I will ask," Jarvis agrees, and there's a brief pause. "Dr. Banner is unavailable at present. He does, however, indicate that you may attend tomorrow's fight training."

"Is he sure? Does he have everyone's permission?"

"Tomorrow's fight training will not be at Stark Tower," Jarvis tells me. "Please pack a small overnight bag. Your flight will leave from the Stark Tower helipad at six-thirty tomorrow morning."

"Come again?"

"The Hulk is not generally allowed to train in enclosed spaces," Jarvis says, which is clearly all the information I'm going to receive.




TUESDAY MORNING I am standing on the Stark Tower helipad, much higher off the ground than I generally prefer to be. Along one edge is the "loading" platform for Stark's armor. When he lands on the helipad as Iron Man, he touches down on a walkway stretching out over nothing, barely three feet wide. I look away, to where the Avengers are emerging, some more awake than others. Romanov has a cheerful overnight bag covered in yellow tulips and a large rifle case over one shoulder. Barton has a similar case, as well as a quiver and a second case for his bow. Thor has a hammer and a smile. A small designer-brand rolling suitcase, probably Stark's, sits nearby.

Our transport is not a helicopter, as I had expected, but one of the sleek S.H.I.E.L.D. "Quinjets". Its gleaming design is slightly marred by how delicate it looks. Barton stomps into the rear hatch, stowing his equipment efficiently before taking the pilot's seat. Romanov, a step behind him, takes co-pilot.

"Well," Captain Rogers says, emerging with a military duffel bag under one arm. Dr. Banner trails behind him; for some reason he's wearing scrubs. "Everyone here?"

"Clint and Natasha are doing preflight," Stark says, dropping out of the sky in the Iron Man armor. "Don't forget my stuff."

Even with Stark's penchant for showboating, very few people have seen the armor this closely for any length of time. Minute adjustments ripple around his legs, keeping him hovering. The white light blasting out of his boots puts off no heat. The Iron Man armor was famously described as "a work of mayhem, science, and genius" by Christine Everhart, but the brutal grandiosity of it isn't really evident until you see it closely.

The others are used to it. Rogers just rolls his eyes and grabs the handle of Stark's bag, lifting it up as if to say, Happy now?

Stark nods and flips down his faceplate, and a few seconds later he's out of reach, drifting over empty space and waiting for the Quinjet to lift off.

"Where are we going?" I ask Captain Rogers, as we climb into the jet and begin locking down our bags.

"Middle of Nowhere, Ohio," Rogers replies.

"Why?"

"Room to stretch," says Dr. Banner, stepping in behind me.

For a moment there's a strange dance: Banner turns to sit in the seat next to mine, Rogers tries to get inbetween us to take the seat instead, and I go to sit down as Banner gives Rogers a distinct nothin' doin' face.

We end up with me behind the co-pilot's seat, Banner next to me, and Rogers and Thor across from us, behind Barton. Liftoff is so smooth I almost don't realize we're in the air, until I see Iron Man flying along next to us. He shoots me a very clear set of rock'n'roll horns through the window.

"Being fair to them," Banner says to me in an undertone, "I can be a little nervous sometimes. And I'm not very fond of public exposure."

"Did Captain Rogers tell you what I said?" I ask. "About the Hulk?"

"He did," Banner replies. "This is slightly more complicated than whether the Hulk is a force for good or evil, however."

"Is this place we're going...where he's kept?" I ask.

"No. More where he's let loose," he says with a dry smile. "You'll understand. Tony scouted you a perfect seat for the event. The important thing to remember," he adds, "is that the Hulk doesn't kill you if you don't piss him off."

"So noted," I tell him.

Rogers settles in with a book, once we're outside the New York limits, and Thor wanders up to the front to speak with Barton and Romanov. Stark keeps pace outside the window, apparently enjoying himself.

"I've been researching your disappearance," I tell Banner.

"Found anything scandalous?" he asks with a smile.

"There's surprisingly little hard evidence," I tell him. "Nearly everyone still thinks you're dead."

"That's been preferable, until now," he says. "Until we were sure -- "

He breaks off, and Rogers looks up.

"Bruce?" he asks, clearly checking in.

"I'm fine, Steve," Banner replies. "Go back to your book."

Rogers is reading The Catcher In The Rye. It's a worn, well-thumbed copy with a library label on the spine.

"What did you need to be sure of?" I ask.

"Many things," Banner answers. "I'm sorry to be cryptic. We've found it's best for people to meet Hulk before asking a lot of questions."

"Why?"

"Most people who meet him don't understand him well enough to accept the answers they're given."

"And you think I'm one of them?"

"I think there's a chance you're not. I've found compassion shows its face in unlikely places," he says.

"Does the Hulk need compassion?"

"Doesn't everyone?" he says.

"The other Avengers, they understand?"

"It's unlikely to find half a dozen people, randomly chosen, who will," he says, considering this. "But the others are unique. They understand the weight that comes with their gifts. Tony calls it a terrible privilege."

"Hulk saved his life during the battle."

"Hulk owes him."

"How so?"

"Tony doesn't see the monster," Banner says. "Tony is perfectly capable of identifying threats, sometimes before anyone else does. If he ever saw the Hulk as a threat, which is likely, he chose to ignore it in favor of less evident qualities. Cap too -- he sees the best in everyone he meets, takes us all at face value until we give him a reason to think otherwise."

Rogers is engrossed in his book, eyes moving quickly, reading fast enough to remind me he isn't an ordinary person. Outside, Iron Man does a barrel roll to entertain himself.

"And what face value does the Hulk have?" I ask.

"Well," Banner says, "he's awfully good at smashing things. But we are discovering he's also loyal, and capable of telling right from wrong. He's like a child."

"A violent, indestructible child."

"Children are violent when they've been hurt," Banner says.

"What changed?"

"Between Harlem and the Chitauri?" he asks knowingly. I nod. "Nothing. Well, not much. Public perception, I think. There was no way to see him as the aggressive party, with the Chitauri. Five other people were there doing the exact same thing, and there was no covering up that the Chitauri were there."

"Are you saying there was a cover-up in the Harlem incident?"

"I wasn't there, so I can't say," he replies. "Anyway, this is better. With the Avengers, Hulk's playing in his own league, with people who aren't afraid of him because they're on his level. He knows they're not afraid, so he trusts them, because traditionally the only reaction he's had from fearful people is violence."

"He likes the Avengers?"

"As well as he likes anyone."

"What about you?"

Banner sighs. "We have an understanding."




WE ARRIVE in what truly is the middle of nowhere with little fanfare, Stark touching down at the same time as the Quinjet. The air smells like wet grass, and the little bowl-shaped valley below us is visibly scarred from previous encounters here.

"Stark Industries land," Stark says, standing at the edge of a jagged overlook. "Borders on a national park. Don't know why I bought it. Probably drunk at the time. Still, it's useful now," he adds. "Your job is to stay here and not get killed."

"The odds of you being killed are really very low," Romanov puts in.

"No sudden moves," Barton says, already slip-sliding down the hill towards the flatter part of the landscape.

"You'll be fine," Rogers insists, clapping me on the shoulder. "Here's an earpiece. You can listen to us through it," he continues, handing me a little plug for one ear. "And I brought some field glasses for you."

"Stay put," Stark says. Thor is already at the base of the overlook. Romanov and Rogers follow Barton down. Banner wraps an arm around Stark's shoulders, and the armor lifts off, carrying him to the valley floor.

Within five minutes, everyone is down on the grassy flatland. I lift the field glasses to my eyes, to see if I can spot Banner indicating that the Hulk is arriving. Instead, I see him taking off his scrub shirt, folding it neatly and setting it aside. Next he strips out of the simple shoes he's wearing, and then out of his pants. Underneath he's wearing shiny spandex bicycle shorts in a bright purple. They look about a size too big. A quick check without the glasses shows the Avengers have formed a loose, wide circle around him.

I am not expecting what comes next.

Banner glances at Stark, who gives him a nod, and then closes his eyes. His fists clench, and then he seems to unfurl. His thighs and biceps swell, chest expanding impossibly wide, skin flushing deep green as his body twists outward. It's over before I register what I'm seeing, before the realization sets in.

Dr. Bruce Banner is not Hulk's keeper, except in the most basic sense of the word. He is Hulk.

I barely have time to think ah, the disappearance makes sense now before Hulk glances around and roars one word, easily audible even at this distance. A great, basso profundo declaration of intent:

"GAME!"

He brings his massive arms around, shoulders bunching, and slams both fists into the ground. The Avengers fall back, Thor and Iron Man leaping into the air.

At first, I don't understand what's happening; it looks like the Avengers have suddenly and completely lost control of this massive force of nature. He lunges for them, one after another, grunting and roaring as they dodge around him. He swats away arrows armed with impact-explosive heads and almost manages to grab Black Widow before she flips up and over his low-bent shoulders, rolling in the grass on the far side of him. Captain America draws his attention away while Iron Man drops low to scoop her up. He flies her to the edge of the commotion and is darting upward again when Hulk executes a magnificent standing vertical leap, easily fifty feet --

And swats gently at one of Iron Man's legs.

He could grab him -- he could easily crush him -- but instead he just taps him hard enough to send him into a spin, which he recovers before he hits the ground.

"All right," I hear Stark say, as I shove the nearly-forgotten earbud into my ear. "I'm It."

It is a game, I realize, trying to make sense of the lack of follow-through from Hulk. They're playing tag. And the occasional roars I hear, as Hulk dodges blasts of light from Iron Man's palms, are laughter.

The tactical advantages of the game are evident. The Avengers are trading off being the bad guy, whoever the bad guy may be, working as a team against someone who already knows their weaknesses. Hulk -- surely a stress on Dr. Banner -- gets to come out and play. Everyone gets some time to work with him, to train him. Sometimes they stop, reassemble, and repeat certain patterns over and over until Hulk is agreeably confident of re-creating them in battle. Mostly, at least over the radio system, they crack wise with each other.

Hulk doesn't often speak in words, though after about an hour he says, "Wrestle!" and the others cheer excitedly. Thor lands and sets his hammer aside, while the team settles on the grass -- Rogers leaning back on his arms like a kid watching fireworks, Stark with his faceplate flipped up, Barton and Romanov cross-legged and sharing a thermos of something.

There's the briefest of pauses and then, without warning, Thor and Hulk dive for one another.

Watching Thor handle Hulk, all on his own, reminds me that neither of them are simply large people. Seeing them fight is like witnessing titans in battle: a raw display of incredible power.

Stark is eating pretzel sticks.

Captain Rogers peels an apple with a knife, eating the peel as he goes before eating the apple itself. Barton briefly wanders off to hunt for lizards, or at least a lizard is what he wanders back with, letting it run over his hand and up his arm. Romanov just watches the fight intently.

Thor and Hulk go for two throws each before Hulk settles the matter, pinning Thor to the ground, and Stark gets up to try his luck against the giant. Unlike Thor, who stayed earthbound, Iron Man brings a vertical dimension to the fight. He occasionally tries to get away by going up, and Hulk leaps after him each time. They seem to have set an agreed-upon ceiling of about twenty feet.

I miss some of this match, because I'm working my way slowly down from my vantage point. I want to see Hulk closer-to, and I worry he'll change back before I get my chance. Captain Rogers sees me coming and doesn't wave me off, so I eventually get to within ten feet of the clashing bodies.

Hulk manages to pin Iron Man, thick knees resting on (and somehow not crushing) the elbow-joints of the armor. Stark pops his faceplate up and says "Good game, Big Green," and Hulk eases off him. He turns as Stark gets to his feet, and I can tell the moment he scents me before he even sees me. Suddenly all the attention of what must be eight hundred pounds of angry Hulk is on me.

He comes forward, and I can see Rogers casually standing up, hopefully ready to defend me if necessary.

Hulk towers over me, looking down. There's a long, considering silence.

"Hey, Mop Top," Stark says. Hulk grunts. "We brought a friend."

I am possibly more terrified than I have ever been in my entire life. My voice is a high, thin sound as I say, "Hulk, I -- "

"Yes," he interrupts. It's a clear, impatient I know why you're here. I glance at Stark, who is looking faintly surprised. Hulk's mouth opens on thick, blunt white teeth before he says, "Now you?"

He raises his arms, hands clenched into fists, a boxing stance.

I realize something profound: Hulk is screwing with me.

Just like that, the tension dissipates, though the Avengers are still watchful. Hulk leans down and pokes me gently in the shoulder with a finger as thick around as my wrist. He seems curious, like a dog inspecting someone new.

"Can I ask you a few questions?" I say, as he sniffs me. He huffs and nods.

"I guess you don't always get to make the decisions around here," I say, and he seems to be waiting for a question mark. "Do you like being on the Avengers?"

He huffs again, like this is a stupid question even for him. "Yes," he growls.

"Who's your favorite?"

That throws him. He looks around, thoughtfully. When he narrows his eyes at Thor, everyone else laughs, some in-joke I'm not in on. Finally he looks back at me and says, "Tony."

Stark looks genuinely thrilled. The others seem fascinated. Normally, Hulk's face is somewhere between "rictus of rage" and "scowl of annoyance", but I can see also that he's concentrating extremely hard. It's not that he's not processing information, but talking seems like a challenge.

"What do you think of Captain America's leadership of the team?" I ask, going for something a little more complex. Hulk screws up his face. He looks at Captain Rogers, almost pleadingly.

Finally he points at him and says, "Smash!", then looks expectant. I look at Captain Rogers, who is studying the Hulk with something almost like awe in his face.

"I don't presume to speak for him most of the time," Rogers says, not taking his eyes off Hulk. "But I think I get it. The first order I ever gave him, I just told him to smash. He knew what to do from there. I trusted him to work out who were his enemies." He glances at me. "I think -- well, I hope, I suppose -- that he's saying I understand him."

Hulk nods vigorously. "Right!" he bellows, laughing, clearly pleased. "Right!"

I have one question I really have to ask, and I can tell that soon this interview will be over. It's a risk, of course, but I've come this far. While Hulk is a ball of rage, he doesn't seem to have quite as much of a hair-trigger as people have claimed.

"What happened in Harlem?" I ask.

Stark sucks in a breath. Barton glances at Romanov, some kind of tell. Hulk is concentrating so hard I'm actually worried he'll blow a vein somewhere.

Finally he says three words to me.

"Abo...mination," he says, and then, "Ross. Sterrrrrns."

I look to the others. Romanov doesn't acknowledge me. Captain Rogers gives me a shrug. Hulk has clearly exhausted his vocabulary for the day. I'm a journalist, after all; I can take it from there.

"One last question?" I ask.

He growls, but he doesn't shake his head.

"Is there anything you want to say to the people who will read about this?" I ask. "To the public?"

He looks, curiously, to Stark.

"Up to you, Big Green," Stark says. Hulk seems bothered by this. Perhaps he's just not ready for the question.

Then he swings back to me, his big body surprisingly graceful despite the massive size of it.

"Be nice," he says, clearly struggling. "Hulk fights too."

It's a startling, almost desperate plea for compassion. I nod.

"Thank you," I say. "It's been a pleasure to meet you."

That gets me an eyeroll and a grin. He rears back, roaring, and the amazing body before me begins to shrink, to pink up, folding in on itself until Bruce Banner is standing there instead, looking dazed.

He sways on his feet and staggers a little. Romanov darts forward to catch him, slinging his arm around her shoulders, a hand pressed to his stomach to support him.

"How'd he do?" Dr. Banner asks.

"He did fine," Captain Rogers answers.

"Hey, you're still alive," Dr. Banner says, noticing me. "Awesome."

"He's a little loopy after, usually," Barton tells me, as Stark cracks a bottle of water and puts it in Banner's free hand. The Avengers close ranks around him for the moment, Stark speaking quietly in Banner's ear as Thor ruffles his hair. Captain Rogers takes over for Romanov, supporting him until he seems a little steadier on his feet. Rogers takes some kind of snack bar out of a pocket on his uniform belt and unwraps it. Banner eats it in about two bites, ravenously.

He doesn't look like he can make the walk back up to where the Quinjet is waiting, but Thor solves the problem -- once the water is drained and the food is gone, they help him back into his clothing and Thor wraps a massive arm around Dr. Banner's waist. With a nod from Banner he leaps, a soaring bound that takes them back towards the jet. Stark follows in the armor.

I guess the rest of us walk.

"I think you have some different questions now," Romanov says to me. It's the first time I think she's really voluntarily spoken with me. "From the ones you had before."

"A few," I admit. "Is this something I can publish?"

"We wouldn't have shown it to you if you couldn't."

"This will be a nightmare for him."

"Trust me," she replies, "he's had worse."

"It's amazing," I tell her.

"You don't know the half of it," Captain Rogers says.

"How do you mean?"

"That's the longest I've ever heard him talk," he replies. "I've never seen him hold a conversation like that."

"Tony's been working with Hulk on vocalization, but he hasn't been able to get more than two words out of him at a time," Romanov says.

"Bruce'll be pleased," Barton says to Romanov. "I hope Tony got film of it."

"Tony's got film of everything," she says dismissively.

We continue towards the Quinjet, quieter now; the Avengers are tired. Seeing Hulk among them, working with them or deliberately against them in a game, gives dual impressions. He seems like a wild animal from a nature park, some kind of jungle cat or wolf: trained, perhaps, but not tamed, and certainly not domesticated. Wild animals are dangerous to strangers, to people who don't know how to interact with them. Even their trainers can never let their guard down.

But speaking with him makes it clear he's not a wild animal. The very first thing he did was crack a joke at me. He also knew me and knew why I was there, which makes me wonder if he watches through Banner's eyes, or if they somehow communicate. I wonder how much of Banner was restraining him when we spoke. Watching him speak was like watching someone with neurological difficulties struggle to communicate -- the brains were clearly there, it was just getting past the barrier of speech that was an issue. When he couldn't get the words out, he found workarounds, getting others to speak for him.

Stark will confirm this, eventually. His work getting Hulk to speak is based in techniques used by special-education teachers to help children with severe autism communicate. It's hard to imagine the sharp-witted, strutting billionaire trying to patiently gentle a few words out of someone easily twice his size in every direction, but there is a deeper connection between Stark and Hulk than between the others. "Tony" is, after all, Hulk's favorite.

When we reach the Quinjet, Banner has changed from the scrubs into jeans and a warm-looking sweater; he's slouched in one of the seats in the jet, already half-asleep. Captain Rogers steps into the Quinjet and begins taking off his uniform gloves and boots. The others congregate nearby, politely avoiding looking as Captain America, for some unknown reason, strips down in the jet.

"What's going on?" I ask.

"Steve's got a costume change," Stark says. "He's not coming with us."

"Why? Where are we going?"

"There's a little town west of here," Barton tells me.

"Glorious R----, Ohio!" Thor says enthusiastically. I look questioningly at the others.

"We're headed to R---- to get a big lunch and let Bruce sleep the Hulk off," Stark continues, rolling his eyes at Thor. "We'll stay there tonight. Cap'll catch up with us tomorrow morning."

"What, he's walking?"

"Hiking the park," Barton says.

"How far away is R----?"

"Bout forty miles," Stark replies.

"In two days?"

"He'll make thirty of them before sundown." Stark shugs. "He likes to camp, I don't pretend to get it. The rest of us are sleeping in very nice beds in a hotel tonight."

"Wait till you see the wallpaper," Barton tells me.

"So he's just going to...camp his way home?"

"More or less. I think it clears his head," Romanov says. Captain Rogers emerges from the jet in a flannel shirt and jeans, with his duffle on his back.

"Phone check," Stark says. Captain Rogers holds up his phone. "What time you think you'll make town?"

"Ten o'clock? Definitely by ten. Probably more like eight," he says. He looks excited, a reminder that he might have his roots in another era and he might lead the Avengers, but at the end of the day, Captain Rogers is the same age as most new college graduates. For the first time, I consider what a weight he must carry.

"Don't eat any poison ivy," Barton says, and they all troop past him towards the jet.

"Enjoy your hike," I offer.

"Thanks. I usually do. You'll have fun though. Town's got a decent bar, nice pool hall. Get Clint and Bruce to show you their game."

"Why don't you go with them?" I ask.

"I do, sometimes. Don't get many opportunities to rough it, though, and I like getting out of the city. Never got to go camping as a kid, always wanted to."

"The Boy Scouts don't take asthmatics?" I ask. He gives me a sharp look, then laughs.

"Well, they sure don't take them camping. But I washed out of the Boy Scouts over a matter of personal honor," he says.

"Personal honor?"

"Yeah, I punched a fellow scout."

"You what?"

"He was being a jerk."

"Hey, are you coming or do you want Cap to shove you in his backpack and take you along?" Stark calls from the jet.

"You better get going," Captain Rogers says. "I'll see you tomorrow morning."

He stays at the edge of the overlook, grass flattening around him as the Quinjet lifts off, and waves until we can't see him anymore.




DR. BANNER is asleep in the jet, propped on Thor's shoulder. At some point while I was speaking with Rogers, Stark shed his armor; it's sitting in the corner, folded into a case, and he's pulling on a pair of impeccably-pressed khaki pants over a black bodysuit that looks like it might be neoprene. As Barton stands to stow his quiver and bow, Stark sits next to Banner and begins taking his pulse, scanning him with various devices.

"We have a protocol for Hulk," he says without looking at me. "Steve developed it. He really likes protocols. Doesn't always listen to them, but he likes making them. And he always obeys this one."

"What kind of protocol?"

"Well, during a fight, as soon as we're done or look like we will be, first priority is to make sure one of us has eyes on the Hulk, or to find Bruce," Stark says, studying a readout on a StarkPad. "Get him somewhere safe and private, and get him fed."

"One time -- out here, not anywhere in-city -- he came back and he was so fucking hungry he just Hulked the hell out again," Barton puts in from the pilot's seat.

"That was difficult," Romanov adds.

"Yeah, we caught up to him again chasing cows on some farm," Stark adds. "Took us an hour to get him to calm down. So, now we put food in his face as soon as we can. We triage any immediate medical needs and get him to transport."

"If Stark's not there at that point, we call him," Romanov says.

"I'm trying to get a medical baseline for his biometrics after the Hulk," Stark continues. "His vitals are usually all over the place, but some patterns are emerging."

"Is that useful?"

"Not yet. Could be someday," Stark says, cleaning the crook of Banner's elbow with a swab. He pulls on a pair of surgical gloves. "Hey. Bruce."

Banner stirs, eyes opening.

"Bruce, make a fist for me."

There's a groan, but he does as Stark asks, and gives up two vials of blood with barely a murmur when the needle goes in. His blood looks perfectly ordinary. The vials go into a box which is locked with a scan of Banner's thumb.

"Of course, I'd love to get a brain scan," Stark continues, stowing the box. "Actually I'd kill to get a few scans of Hulk's brain, but I doubt that's going to happen. Not for a while, anyway."

"He's smarter than I thought," I offer.

"Sure. Today was an exceptionally good day."

"How smart do you think he is?"

"Smart's a bad word for it," Stark replies. "It's more cognition. He doesn't process on an adult level, and we're not sure how much he understands of cause and effect if effect doesn't follow immediately. He's smarter than your average toddler, certainly. Probably somewhere between five and fifteen, developmentally? Before today I'd have said ten at the oldest but he is always surprising us," he adds, almost absently.

"Why do you think he has trouble talking?"

Stark glances at Banner, then at Thor. The two men seem to communicate silently for a minute before Stark sets the pad aside and leans back.

There have been plenty of photographs of Tony Stark since his return from captivity in 2008, but very few of the "reactor", the glowing blue device in his chest which serves a medical purpose Stark's been cagey about revealing. He seems to treat it like something it would be indecent to show in public. A well-known portrait of him for GQ, two years ago, showed him in a pair of black boxer-briefs, body intentionally on display, with a black bandage wrapped tightly around his chest. Only the blue up-glow against his chest was visible.

When he leans back now, however, the reactor is clearly visible -- the body suit he wears has a cutout for it. A perfect circle of metal encases what looks like a plain plastic night light, with a metal triangle inset into the circle. Its light is dim but constant.

It's a fascination -- a distraction. For a second it works well. He can see me looking at it, and he gives me a humorless smile when I look back up at his face.

He rises, going to a compartment and taking out a thick sweater, pulling it on to hide the light. "I think it's a developmental issue," he says, answering my half-forgotten question. "Hulk's first few stabs at existence were traumatic, to say the least. Neglected and abused children sometimes fail to develop certain neural pathways, or if they do, they fail to use them. Mutism, whether it's neurological or psychological, is a documented reaction to intense childhood stress."

"You think he's a traumatized child?"

"It's just a theory. I have a few others. It sort of misses the point, though."

"What's that?" I ask. Stark sits down next to Dr. Banner again.

"The point is twofold: first, he's not stupid, and second, he's capable of discerning bullshit when he's shown it. If he can't tell you or me or anyone else what he's thinking, well, that's an issue, but it's just a symptom, and frankly for me it's not a problem. He gets it. He knows when to step the hell up. That was Bruce's problem, when we first met."

"He didn't know when to step up?"

"He didn't believe he had the right," Thor says, startling me a little. "Sometimes the greatest warriors are those who are the most reluctant to do battle."

"I told him he needed to strut a little more," Stark adds. It's clear that of the Avengers, Dr. Banner is his favorite too. "Now he's strutting, and Hulk's talking more. It's not a miracle cure, but we all take what we can get."

I keep thinking about what I know of Dr. Banner's past -- specifically, the fact that he disappeared around the time the Hulk made his entrance on the "giant destructive creature" scene. Certain things make more sense, and certain things make less.

"How did this happen?" I ask. "Clearly he wasn't born this way. You know, don't you? What happened?"

Stark nods. "I do know. But I'm not telling you."

"Classified?"

"Not my place to tell," Stark replies. "You want to know what happened to him, you'll have to ask him. If he wants to tell you, he will."




THE TOWN we eventually reach is small, clustered around one long main street. There's a factory at one end of town which more or less provides all the jobs there are; it's perhaps not surprising to find the swooping Stark logo adorning the front of the building. There's a Catholic church and a Baptist church, a couple of bars, two restaurants, a supermarket, and a school. We land in someone's backyard.

A woman emerges onto the porch of the largish house we've landed behind, waving as she wipes her hands on a rag.

"Hotel R-----," Stark says in an undertone to me. "Eight rooms. Best eggs benedict on the planet."

Dr. Banner is awake and looking less peaky than he did before; he staggers out with the rest of us as the apparent proprietor comes to meet us.

"Boys," she says with a smile. "Natasha. Good to see y'all. Who's your friend?"

Introductions are made all around, as we're shuffled into the house through the back door, past a kitchen and up some stairs. The rooms are generously sized, with televisions so old they need converter boxes to receive digital broadcasts. There are brightly-colored flannel sheets on the beds, and the wallpaper, as Barton warned, is spectacular. Sort of like if William Morris had a violent fight with a My Little Pony.

We settle our belongings and I can hear someone showering, the pipes clanging gently in the walls. I have only a few minutes to get some basic notes down on the morning's events before there's a knock on the door. Barton, in civilian clothes, puts his head in to invite me to lunch.

With everyone freshly washed and out of uniform, we could be tourists on some kind of road trip. If the local residents know who the Avengers are, they don't give any sign, though the waitress at the restaurant greets Stark by name and seems especially happy to see Barton. He flirts casually with her as we're seated, and I'm the only person she asks about a drink. Apparently the others have standing orders.

There's another odd little seating-debate that takes place as Barton and Banner both reach for the chair next to me at the same time. Barton defers the way Rogers did earlier, eventually, and Dr. Banner gives me a smile as he pulls up his chair.

"So?" he asks, faux-casual, as the others study the single-page plastic menu.

"It's an impressive transformation," I reply truthfully.

"Not usually the first reaction I get."

"I can imagine. Have many people encountered it?"

"If I say not many still living, that sounds a lot like a threat," he says drily. "But the truth is, most of the people who've seen it happen were soldiers, and Hulk doesn't like soldiers."

"He likes Captain America."

"Cap's the exception that proves the rule," Banner replies. "You were down with us by the time I came back. Did something happen?"

"You're not aware? Of what he does?"

"Only distantly. Impressions, sometimes."

"Well, I got an exclusive interview with the Hulk."

"Yeah? What'd that consist of? Grunt, roar, wheeze?" he asks, with an odd self-deprecating note in his voice.

"Apparently he was surprisingly vocal, for him," I reply. "I've had meaner people give me less than he did."

Banner's eyes flicker. "You asked about Harlem, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"I thought he felt sad."

"Why does Harlem make him sad?"

Banner shakes his head. "He knows. I don't. Aside from what I've read in the papers, I don't know what happened. Tony thinks there's been a lot of spin. As you do," he adds. "At least if your article on Harlem is any indication."

I want to ask him what the words mean -- Abomination, Ross, Sterns. But he's clearly still a little fragile, and there's time now that I know.

"He cracked a joke," I offer. Banner looks surprised.

"What, like, a knock-knock joke?"

"When I showed up, he'd just finished a couple of wrestling matches," I say. "He looked me up and down and asked if I was next."

Banner blinks at me, clearly shocked by this, and then laughs.

"Well," he says, delighted. "What do you know about that."




THERE'S NOT much to do on a Tuesday afternoon in a town this small. The Avengers have their own personal rituals; Banner, as far as I can tell, is asleep again, Barton was still flirting with the waitress when we left, Romanov has vanished, and Stark tells me Thor knows a rancher nearby who keeps horses. Apparently Thor's fond of horses. Stark is out in the garage next to the hotel, helping our host do something technical and greasy with a car engine.

The town has very little cell reception but the hotel has wifi, so while the Avengers entertain themselves, I settle in to pester some of my contacts in New York about the Harlem incident.

Ben Ulrich is a reporter for the Bugle out of New York, and he's mentored an entire generation of up-and-coming journalists. He's served as a war correspondent, and broken a few political scandals over the years. He also claims to have seen Daredevil, though he killed the story himself when he couldn't get enough corroborating evidence. He spent some time investigating the urban legends about various New York vigilantes and heroes, and he has the largest archive file on the phenomenon of any journalist anywhere. He wasn't on the Harlem story, but he'll know where to start.

"I always thought there was something a little fishy about that," he tells me over email, when I ask him in carefully vague words about Abomination, Ross, Sterns. "All the official statements came from the military. Not a lot of civilians who were in the area would discuss it. At least not by the time the news media got to them, which took several hours. The army had that place locked down tight. You should check Channel Seven. They had a chopper in the area and I think there was some rumor about confiscated film footage."

Why wasn't that followed through?

"For all I know, it was. It's not really my beat. You said the name Ross was mentioned. That might be General Ross. Thaddeus Ross, but if you Google, try Thunderbolt Ross. He's high up somewhere in the DoD clusterfuck. I think there was an incident between him and Stark at one point."

The incident between Ross and Stark was in a little bar in Bethesda. Details are slim, but apparently Stark -- who doesn't seem like the kind of man to visit Bethesda's military dive bars on a whim -- picked a fight with Ross. Ross tried to have him thrown out, and Stark bought the bar on the spot and had Ross ejected instead. No charges filed on either side, and the bar is now a nice mid-range Italian restaurant, Papa Tony's. They do a decent carbonara.

How it all must grind on Ross.

"I bet it does," Ulrich replies, when I make that observation. "I wouldn't try asking him about it."

The name Thaddeus Ross sounds familiar. When I check my notes, I remember why. Some of the wilder conspiracy websites claim Banner may have been murdered for getting a little too close to the general's daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Ross, a scientist working on the same project as Dr. Banner was. Those sites tend not to stay up long.

"There's been a persistent rumor that Hulk wasn't alone in Harlem," Ulrich continues. "The military may have put the blame on him because whoever was with him didn't ping anyone's radar and it made for a simpler story. There's never been an explanation for how Hulk got there or how he even exists. If I were a science-fiction writer, I might suggest the military did something they shouldn't and it got loose, but that's an adventure novel, not a news story. You're doing something with S.H.I.E.L.D. right now, aren't you? Can you ask them about it? And if they spill, can I bid on the Bugle's behalf to run the story?"

I tell him he'll be the first to know if I find anything. Does he think the word Abomination means anything?

"Well, I'm sure a few people have called Hulk that over the years. It might be some kind of military code. Where did you hear it?"

I can't tell him that yet, so I don't, but I thank him for his time and his suggestions. He sends back a few cheerful words of encouragement, and I close my email for the moment.

Searching "abomination harlem" on the web doesn't turn up much: some Harlem Shake videos, a church website I'd rather not revisit, news stories on crime in the area, and a handful of restaurant reviews. Searching "sterns harlem" brings up mostly stuff on Howard Stern.

Searching "sterns hulk" doesn't bring up much either, until the second page, when there's a small item about Samuel Sterns, a biochemist who apparently died during the Harlem incident. His body has never been found.

I came to Stark Tower to do a human-interest piece on the Avengers. I'm not sure now what kind of story I'm writing.




THAT EVENING, the Avengers converge on Mama's Billiards, a bar with a couple of well-kept pool tables and a pretty decent beer selection. They eat bar food and buy rounds. Thor requests a boilermaker. Stark gets what is probably the only martini ever served in that bar. Romanov and Barton drink domestic beer and demolish a basket of fried chicken between them. Banner has a Coke.

"I don't drink that often," he tells me. "Obvious reasons."

"Mean drunk?"

"Not historically, but why take the chance?"

He has a point, but before I can engage him any further, Barton takes down a pool cue and goes to the bar to get a rack of balls.

"That's my signal," Banner says, and slides off the stool, taking his Coke with him. I wander over to watch.

Dr. Bruce Banner has studied physics, among other things; he knows how force and mass interact. Clint Barton has possibly the best aim on the planet. The game is vicious, take-no-prisoners, full of impossible shots and sneaky tricks. Banner bounces the cue ball over the eight to knock one of his in the corner pocket; Barton knocks one of his own in with no less than five ricochets off other balls. Steve Rogers was right. This is not to be missed.

While Barton lines up to knock in the eight ball for the win, I wonder what Rogers is doing. He didn't take much with him, but it stands to reason he's used to making do. This far from any major urban area, the stars are probably brilliant. The silence must be nearly complete. I wonder what he takes from being quiet and alone in the relative wilderness of rural Ohio.

Barton lands the eight ball for the game, and Banner good-naturedly acknowledges the win. Stark, sitting nearby, yells "Hey! Four-ball, or do you need to knock Clint back on a second game?"

"Nah, you brains have fun," Barton answers, rejoining Romanov at the table. Stark catches the cue when he tosses it, and Banner picks up only a few of the pool balls -- two red ones, a yellow one, and the cue ball. They shift back to a far table, one with no pockets.

"You ever play carom billiards?" Stark asks me, chalking up.

"Leave him alone," Banner warns, sounding amused.

Stark says a word to him that I don't understand, and have to ask Banner how to spell, later: "Yotsudama?"

"Challenger's choice," Banner answers.

"Yotsudama is a Japanese variant on four-ball carom billiards," Stark explains, lining up his cue. "The object is to carom your cue ball off the two red balls without hitting the other cue ball. It's a nice bonus if you set it up so that your adversary has a hell of a time doing likewise. Physics and strategy," he says, taking the shot. He steps back, satisfied when he manages to hit both red balls without too much effort. "My favorite kind of game."

"Yeah, tell us why you won't play with Natasha anymore," Banner teases.

"I maintain she cheated."

"She didn't cheat. You can't cheat physics."

"If anyone could, it'd be Natasha," Stark says. "You know she speaks Latin? Nobody speaks Latin. It's a dead language."

"I can see how that might be appealing," Banner replies tolerantly. "The Pope speaks Latin. I mean, one assumes."

"Only professionally. Are you saying Natasha is prepared for randomly meeting the Pope?"

"Oh, I'm sure if she met the Pope, it would be intentional. And would probably..." Banner pauses to make his shot, "...not go well for His Reverence."

"Does she have something against Catholics?" I ask. They both glance at me.

"She has something against large, wealthy organizations which enjoy dictating moral laws they don't always appear, by their actions, to subscribe to," Banner says tactfully. "She's suspicious of religion in general, it's not limited to Catholicism. I don't think she has, you know, a prejudice against individual Catholic people."

"Steve's Catholic," Stark remarks. "She's fine with him."

"Steve's not Catholic," Banner says.

"He was raised Catholic. He's still got a Christopher medal hung on his dog tags."

"Well, that's apt, I guess. How do you know?"

"I'm observant."

"Nosy."

"I can't combine the two hobbies? Anyway, just because he doesn't go to church, doesn't mean he's not Catholic." Stark catches me looking curious. "He's having some issues with the faith at the moment."

"They're not too happy with him, either," Banner puts in. "Apparently he wrote a very inflammatory letter to some cardinal."

"Still, once Catholic, always Catholic."

"What about excommunication?"

"Believe me, if Steve Rogers gets excommunicated, we're all going to hear about it. Loudly and in detail. I'll bring popcorn."

Banner laughs. "When Steve isn't happy about something, he isn't quiet about it," he tells me. "Which is a nice change from his initial party line."

"What, the whole we're soldiers, we have orders thing?" Stark asks. "Yeah, that lasted exactly as long as it took him to realize his COs now aren't any brighter than his COs were in the forties. Which was, in its own way, endearingly optimistic."

"What about the two of you?" I ask. "You religious men?"

"Atheist," Stark says. "Long line of loud atheists on Dad's side. Mom was Protestant, though, so I can fumble my way through a hymn if for some reason the need arose."

"Agnostic," Banner adds. "Raised Catholic."

"Seriously?" Stark asks. "I didn't know that."

"Yep. Lapsed a long time ago. I've studied Buddhism, some South American forms of animism, Sufi Islam, a little Hinduism. Nothing really stuck on the faith end. Lots of interesting philosophy."

"Before or after Hulk?" I ask. Banner freezes for a moment, then misses a shot.

"After. Before, I suppose you could say I was a Dystopic," he says.

"A what now?" Stark asks. He's standing close to the other man -- Stark has very few personal boundaries much of the time, and physical proximity seems to be the way he comforts people. Banner looks down and to the side, at where Stark's reactor would be if it were visible.

"Sometimes, particularly in the hard sciences, people lose perspective," he says. "They don't question whether what they can do is what they should do. I'm against the restriction of scientific progress, but if what happened to me has taught me anything, it's that mindfulness needs to be a part of what we do. Before, if I thought about it at all, I justified what I did by believing that it would save lives, that the product of my work would be a net gain in the long run. If I had known then what I know now -- not just about Hulk but about philosophy, humanism I suppose -- I would have conducted my research with a greater consciousness of what I was potentially unleashing."

"But you can't always know what the result will be," I point out.

"No, but you don't have to ignore your data, either. Steve is a product of a program designed to develop soldiers in the peak of human condition. Imagine how the war would have gone with entire platoons of men like him. It's not that difficult to predict. And then," he adds, before either of us can talk, "imagine what you'd do with a hundred thousand men like him once the war was done. Men who maybe didn't have the moral code he does. Men who were traumatized by war. And you can't put a genie like that back in the bottle. Imagine what would happen if the next war after the invention of the super-soldier was a genetic war." He exhales. "As a scientist, I got to step one. I never reached step two."

Stark rests a hand on his shoulder, and for a moment they're both quiet. There's an obvious bond to be had between them -- when Tony Stark returned from three months of captivity, he closed down his weapons contracts and manufacturing plants, stating an explicit belief that what he was doing was morally wrong.

Then Stark says, "I'm going to have to ask you to move your pretty but excruciatingly boring philosophical ass so I can take this shot, Dr. Talksalot," and hip-checks him out of the way. Banner goes with a grin.

"I see why you two are friends," I say.

"Hey, that reminds me, Hulk totally said I'm his favorite," Stark tells Banner.

"I could have told you that," Banner answers.




Captain Rogers is back the next morning in time for breakfast in the little dining room of the hotel (I strongly suspect it is a B&B in disguise). He has grass stains on his jeans and a twig that Barton carefully plucks out of his hair. His face is covered in healing scrapes, and along with the steak breakfast our host brings him, he gets an ice pack for his swollen left wrist.

"Did you wrestle a bear?" Stark asks, wrapped around the largest cup of coffee it was possible to procure.

"No, but I did see one," he answers.

"You saw a bear?" Romanov asks.

"Sure. Mama with her cub. This is from the poacher," he adds, gesturing at his face.

"Poacher," Stark says flatly.

"Bear season's not till August. He was aiming for the cub. We had a little difference of opinion."

Thor, who has been inhaling a giant omelette, bursts out laughing. Stark rubs his eyes.

"It's too early for...you," he says. "Am I going to have to call legal?"

"Not unless you think they can help prosecute," Rogers replies. "I dumped him at the ranger station on the way out this morning. He's fine."

"We can't take you anywhere," Stark complains.

"Sure seems like I find more than my fair share of trouble," Rogers answers, with a smile that says he may enjoy the fact.

"Anything interesting happen? Other than rescuing a baby bear," Banner says.

"Nope. Nice quiet walk in the woods."

After breakfast, we pack up our belongings while Rogers uses a shower to clean himself up a little. By the time he joins us at the Quinjet, the scrapes on his cheek are faded to thin red lines, and his wrist seems fine. He takes the co-pilot seat instead of Romanov; apparently Barton is giving him some off-hours pilot training.

Romanov sits next to me. Stark and Banner are across from us, consulting together on something on a StarkPad, and Thor leans on Barton's seat-back, casually chatting with Barton and Rogers.

"I can tell you about Sterns," Romanov says quietly, once we're airborne. "I would have sooner, but I needed to check with S.H.I.E.L.D. first."

"Does S.H.I.E.L.D. know what happened in Harlem?" I ask.

"We know what happened to Samuel Sterns," she says. "And we apparently know what Abomination means."

"Was it a military operation?"

"No. Well -- as an object, yes. As a name, no."

"What does that mean?"

She turns, tucking one leg up to sit sideways on the seat, studying me. "Cap says he thinks you're trustworthy. Tony's jury is still out. Thor and Clint, I don't think they care -- Thor's got nothing to hide and Clint generally doesn't talk to anyone so he's used to not talking to journalists. Bruce has said from the start we should give you a fair shake."

"What do you think?"

"I think you could be useful to me."

"How?"

"I think, if you wanted, you could tell a story that would redeem him. I think you could put all the pieces together and even Bruce would be surprised at what you'd come up with. But that involves you, whoever publishes your story, and the Avengers all picking a direct fight with the DoD, and I'm not sure it's worth it. Until now, it hasn't been. So," she says, "convince me."

"Tell me what you know, and I will," I answer. "I'll put together everything I can. You like what you see, I'll run it. You don't like it, I'll burn it."

She considers the offer. It's unorthodox, but so is Natasha Romanov.

"Fair," she decides.




IN THE two weeks I spent with the Avengers, Dr. Banner never told me what happened to him to cause the existence of Hulk. I still don't know. That's his story to tell, as Stark said, and he didn't want to. Unlike Captain Rogers, knowing how Banner and Hulk came to be who they are is not necessary to understand how they interact with their team and the world around them.

What I know from public sources is that the Army went after Hulk after his initial appearance. Hulk -- by extension, Banner -- was forced into hiding. There were skirmishes here and there, but never any detailed information. It seems likely that Banner spent the next few years traveling and trying to fix what happened, staying well under the military radar. Romanov confirms that during these years he even evaded S.H.I.E.L.D.'s advanced intelligence network.

Romanov's story about what happened in Harlem is part speculation, but based in fact. Banner at some point consulted with Dr. Samuel Sterns about his condition, and even sent him a blood sample. He was eventually convinced to meet him in person to discuss possible medical treatment for his unique condition. Romanov suspects Sterns was developing either a treatment or a complete cure based on his work with what, in the records she's seen, is called the Banner Sample.

Sterns, however, was not only working on a cure. The unique properties of Banner's blood suggested a lot of possible pharmacological uses. He was able to duplicate the specific composition of Banner's blood, and he began working with the military to develop its uses.

The most significant of these uses was the creation of a new "Super Soldier" program, based on the original program of the 1940s, in which Steve Rogers took part. A soldier -- Romanov knows of his existence but not his name -- was injected with a modified serum created from Banner's blood.

Banner does know his name, and offers it when questioned: Emil Blonsky. There are no public records of any kind associated with this name. Contacts of mine in various news organizations suggest he was a special operations soldier out of Europe somewhere, on loan to the US Army. This is unconfirmed. Nobody is talking.

Hulk tangled with Blonsky once, a few days before the Harlem incident. At the time, he seemed to be much like Captain Rogers: a normal-looking man with enhanced reflexes and strength. Blonsky, so Banner believes, was badly injured in the fight. Hulk escaped, and Banner decided at that point it was time to consult Sterns in person, unaware of what Sterns had done with his blood sample.

In his own words, Dr. Banner was "in and out" after that. He doesn't remember much past meeting Sterns. He did discover that Sterns had replicated his blood, but after that his memories are blurred, essentially useless.

Military press releases have strongly implied that something set Hulk off, and he rampaged through Harlem, destroying buildings and endangering lives. Only four casualties, however, are listed: three US Army soldiers and Dr. Samuel Sterns.

Romanov was in New York when the event took place. She and her handler at the time, Jasper Sitwell, witnessed different portions of the event. Wednesday afternoon, after we returned to New York, Romanov introduced me to Sitwell, a soft-spoken man clearly uncomfortable with the knowledge he was carrying.

Romanov knows what Abomination is, because she saw it briefly. Sitwell tells me that there were two monsters in Harlem, Hulk and Abomination, and New York was caught in the crossfire.

Romanov's description of Abomination outlines a creature about the size of Hulk, but significantly different physically. Hulk is essentially a giant man, though in some ways perhaps proportionately closer to one of the great apes. Having seen him up close, his face is undeniably human. Abomination, Romanov says, was different: covered in spikes and scales, more like something out of Jurassic Park than a human being. She saw him only briefly before she was called away to help rescue refugees from the attack.

Sitwell, who remained onsite after Romanov left, confirms her description. He also heard Abomination speaking in complete sentences. Most of them were either threats or taunts.

This is the truth about what happened in Harlem that night, from eyewitnesses who were there. Abomination, recovering from his first fight with Hulk, was being restrained by the military and broke free. He ran to Harlem. He left a trail of mayhem in his wake to prevent them from following easily. Dr. Banner, meeting with Sterns nearby, was somehow informed of this development, and Hulk intervened. Abomination attacked him, and Hulk fought back in defense of the city.

The collateral damage of two giant, superhuman beings slugging it out on the street was immense. Harlem was still rebuilding from it when the Chitauri came. At the end of their fight, Abomination was left in the street, unconscious or dead. Sitwell claims to have seen soldiers securing the body.

Hulk escaped, disappearing off the Army's radar completely but arriving on S.H.I.E.L.D.'s, where Dr. Banner was declared a protective custody priority. Part of Romanov's job after Harlem was to track his movements and ensure both his safety and the safety of those around him, without being seen. I suspect she was very good at this.

The public outcry over the savage attack on Harlem was immense. It's understandable, if not forgivable, that the military would place the blame on Hulk. It ensured that if he were seen he'd be reported, and it kept the heat off them for creating, and then losing control of, Abomination. Outside of the Army, very few knew what had really gone on.

Until now, Jasper Sitwell has kept silent, informing only the appropriate intelligence analysts at S.H.I.E.L.D. of events. Before the Chitauri, S.H.I.E.L.D. was not a well-known agency and their standing within the defence community was not particularly stable. The only reason this information is coming to light now is that S.H.I.E.L.D. feels secure in its position relative to the military. And, I suspect, because Natasha Romanov has watched Bruce Banner suffer the belief that he destroyed Harlem on a whim for long enough.

Abomination, Ross, Sterns.

Abomination was the creature Hulk battled in Harlem. Ross, presumably General Thaddeus Ross, was the man in charge of both securing Hulk and creating Abomination. It's likely his fight with Stark was to do with his pursuit of Banner. The Avengers are defensive of Banner in the way friends are, but Stark's behavior is decidedly that of an older brother who doesn't mind knocking a few heads in. His humiliation of Ross had to have been satisfying. Ross has since left military service.

So what about Dr. Samuel Sterns?

Romanov arrived in Harlem after the fight was finished. She infiltrated the cleanup crews that were sweeping away evidence of what had taken place. She was too late to gather any of that evidence herself, but she did discover Dr. Sterns, half-buried under a pile of debris. He had obviously come into contact with some of the Hulk serum; she describes a half-lucid man with a distended forehead reminiscent of Abomination's appearance.

"Sterns was taken to S.H.I.E.L.D. medical," she tells me. "As far as I'm aware, he died later that night."




I PROVIDE the previous passage to Romanov on Thursday morning. She disappears with it, while I follow Barton to a shooting range and watch him knock bullseye after bullseye into targets with rifles, handguns, knives, and arrows. We talk about sports, mainly. Hawkeye is an avid Cubs fan. One gets the feeling the Avengers like an underdog.

When we return in the afternoon, Romanov is sitting with Dr. Banner in the common room, Stark on the other side, Rogers pacing by the windows. All of them look ready to commit murder, except Banner, who just looks weary.

"Where's Thor?" Barton asks, clearly sensing the mood of the room. I'm not sure if the anger is directed at me or at the people who withheld this information. I do fear a little for Sitwell's life.

"He went to get food," Stark says. He unfolds from the couch, and Barton immediately takes his place.

Stark is not a large man, comparatively speaking. He's my height, and more wiry than muscular. But he puts himself directly in front of me, and I am genuinely worried he could take me down without much fight. He is a man accustomed to power and to wielding it. His fury is incandescent. In the moment, I am more afraid of him than I was of Hulk.

"Sitwell didn't know Banner hadn't been told," he says.

"I didn't ask," I answer.

"No, I'm telling you. I'm not angry at you and I'm not -- well, I'm a little angry at Sitwell," he says. Rogers has stopped pacing and is watching us warily. "But he didn't know. So this isn't on him. For the most part."

"Mr. Stark, you're awfully close to me for not being angry with me," I reply. He visibly checks himself, leaning back. He does not smile and he does not apologize.

"I want to know who gave the order to cover up Abomination," he says. "I want to know where Ross is. I want to know where Blonsky is, if he's alive. So if you know any of those things, you will tell me."

"Heads gonna roll in New York tonight," Romanov murmurs.

"Fury knew," Rogers says. The others look at him. Banner's head is in his hands. "Fury must have known. And he would have known that Bruce didn't know."

"Wouldn't be the first time he lied to us," Stark replies.

When I ask about this later, nobody will tell me what it means. Nicholas Fury is the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Maria Hill's direct superior; she holds the leash of the Avengers and he commands her, but the Avengers make their own decisions. And clearly they know the kind of man they answer to.

"Do you know where Emil Blonksy is?" Stark asks again.

"I can try to find out," I say. This is not good reporting, and I know this. I've become involved. Can't be helped now.

"I can find Ross," Romanov volunteers.

"Good. I'm pretty sure if he didn't give the order, he knows who did," Stark says.

"Tony," Bruce says quietly, lifting his head. Stark twists around to look at him. "Let it go."

"I'm sorry, I have a personal problem with someone who unleashed a monster on New York and then blamed the hero when his plan backfired," Stark says. "So you don't have to come along, Bruce, but I am going to hang someone by their thumbs before this is over and I think frankly you'd get a lot of catharsis out of that."

"No thumb-hanging," Banner replies. He looks almost amused. "This isn't Gulmira, Tony."

In 2008, a town named Gulmira in Afghanistan was hostage to the Ten Rings, the same militarized gang which had held Stark hostage earlier that year. In what was to become Iron Man's first public appearance, Tony Stark fell on Gulmira like the wrath of a particularly sarcastic god. It took twenty minutes, landing-to-liftoff, to secure Gulmira, destroy the Ten Rings' communications system and their two functioning tanks, and leave the disarmed, badly injured soldiers to the mercy of the townspeople they'd been terrorizing.

Gulmira today is a prosperous, bustling community with a very well-armed police force and a Stark Industries plastics plant. They make brightly colored designer cases and housings for laptops and StarkPads. If you own a Stark computer, you can likely check out the casing and find a MADE WITH PRIDE IN GULMIRA stamp. The plant is unionized. Stark is a very thorough man.

If Tony Stark decides to take down the US Army, or even a portion of it, there could literally be war between the Avengers and the government that oversees them. It's clear that Rogers, while the leader, will back Stark over everyone else except Banner himself. Thor will likely follow Rogers. Romanov wants revenge, and Barton may not be clear on the details yet but he'll follow Romanov. The Avengers have fought armies before and won.

So in this moment, all that stands ahead of armed conflict is Dr. Bruce Banner, self-professed former Dystopian.

"It's his call," Rogers says.

"I want blood for this," Stark snarls.

"What do you think you'll get?" Rogers asks, then holds up a hand when Stark opens his mouth. It is literally the only time I have ever seen someone shut Tony Stark up. "When the article gets published. When this all comes out in the papers. Come on, Tony, you know what'll happen."

And now everyone's looking at me.

"Well, it won't be actual blood," I say. "But it's going to make the figurative knives come out on Capitol Hill."

Romanov has had a hand on Banner the entire time -- hair, shoulders, back, arm, constantly touching him. Banner gently shrugs her off, now, and waves away Barton's hand as well. He has the flashdrive I gave to Romanov, with the story on it.

"I think you should publish this," he says quietly, gently, and Stark shuffles out of the way so he can put it in my hand. "Hulk gets enough of the bloodshed. This is better."

Behind me, the elevator door opens.

"I have food to sustain us," Thor announces. "When do we depart for battle?"

"No battle, Thor," Rogers says, helping him with the food.

"But I thought -- "

"No battle," Banner repeats. He glances at me. "No offense, but I think we need to have a little meeting without you present."

I withdraw to my room. Barton passes me a bag of food on my way.

It's certainly been an interesting first week with the Avengers.

Chapter Three
azurelunatic: A glittery black pin badge with a blue holographic star in the middle. (Default)

[personal profile] azurelunatic 2013-06-18 07:43 am (UTC)(link)
Tony Stark fell on Gulmira like the wrath of a particularly sarcastic god.

:D :D :D
sanura: (Default)

[personal profile] sanura 2013-06-18 01:58 pm (UTC)(link)
I AM SO INVESTED AAAHHH
stabulous: (Default)

[personal profile] stabulous 2013-06-19 12:33 am (UTC)(link)
Damn your eyes; "Hulk fight too," made me burst into tears in a public place.

pedanther: (Default)

[personal profile] pedanther 2013-06-20 02:03 am (UTC)(link)
Since I've already started questioning your word choices... :P

I'm a bit dubious about "offers it when provided" -- 'provided' doesn't seem to be quite the right word for that sentence.

(Okay, I'll stop now.)

(Anonymous) 2015-05-19 06:50 pm (UTC)(link)
Just finished! Not sure why the byline managed to surprise me so much, but WHAM! Ya got me.