LAST EDITED ON Oct-20-11 AT 12:34 PM (EDT)
[Forgot to credit wedge! The voice mail thing was his idea, which led directly to one of my favorite lines in this piece. Sorry, dude! --G.]
Monday, January 11, 2410
High-Energy Phenomena Laboratory
Sublevel G, International Police Headquarters
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni
Caitlin Fairchild normally liked going to work. She enjoyed her job, and she knew she was making a difference as one of the IPO's key researchers into high-energy phenomena. The principles they explored in the HEP Lab helped the IPO's engineers devise defenses and countermeasures for a wide range of weapons and other dangerous things the many and varied adversaries of the organization's galactic peacekeeping mission came up with, keeping both IPO personnel and regular people safe from all manner of harm. The work was interesting and meaningful, rarely a day went by when there wasn't something new, and her co-workers were a first-rate group. The laboratory's director was the galaxy's acknowledged authority on Getter rays, which she had made her own personal field of specialization, so she couldn't really envision working anywhere else.
There were days, though, when it all seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Lately, there had been a lot more of them than usual.
She arrived on the express elevator to Sublevel G this particular Monday morning to find Barney Calhoun, the HEP Lab's security chief, sitting at the reception desk looking like a dog someone had kicked. Her heart sank within her. She knew that look. It meant this was going to be one of the bad days.
"Morning, Barney," she said.
Calhoun looked up and half-heartedly smiled. He liked Fairchild; she was a first-rate scientist, like all of them down here, but she didn't put on airs or act like she was better than the security people just because she was (on some level) smarter. The boss was like that, too.. on his good days... but mousy little Caitlin Fairchild was even milder-mannered than the boss at his best, and the boss hadn't been at his best in... some time.
"Hey, Dr. Fairchild," he said. "I had a bunch of messages for you, but we had a system crash about 20 minutes ago and I'm still tryin' to find my files. Just one of those days, I guess." He hesitated, as if reluctant to say what he had to say next, then went on in an apologetic tone, "The Director wanted to see you when you got in."
Fairchild sighed. "Is that bad," she asked, collecting her mail from its pigeonhole on the lobby's back wall, "or really bad?"
"He's been worse," said Calhoun doggedly, then muttered almost inaudibly, "At least a little worse."
"I guess I'd better get it over with, then," said Fairchild. She badged her way through the inner door and went down the hall toward the laboratory director's office at the end. Before she was halfway there she could hear the yelling through the closed door; when she was twenty feet or so away, it opened and Mark Irving, the lab's administrative assistant, emerged, clutching a disorganized sheaf of files and, Fairchild was shocked to see, weeping bitterly.
"What happened?" she asked, stopping to help Mark organize his files a little better and keep him from dropping them again.
"I don't know how you people can put up with it," Mark replied, "but I'm not going to, not any more. They couldn't pay me enough to keep working for that horrible man." Then he broke away and rushed off down the hall, trailing muffled sobs and scattered sheets of paper in his wake.
Fairchild watched him go, then turned back toward the director's office with a sinking feeling. She was grappling with the idea that it might be better to just follow him out and find another job. She'd heard the Alternate Technologies Division at Roxxon Energy was hiring...
Before she could make up her mind, the door opened again and the laboratory's director put his head out into the hall. Disheveled, unshaven, his lab coat crumpled, he looked like he'd just woken up under a bridge on the afternoon after a kinghell bender, and his red-rimmed eyes did nothing to dispel the image. Fairchild was taken aback once more, this time by his appearance. He hadn't looked his best lately, but she had never seen him even half so poorly off as this. Pasty and sallow, his stubbly cheeks gaunt, he looked ill, not just tired or angry.
"Irving!" R. Bruce Banner roared in a voice that seemed as if it could hardly have come from such a narrow chest. "Get back here with those - " He trailed off, recognizing that his quarry wasn't within sight, then rounded on Fairchild. "What are you staring at?" he demanded.
"Dr. Banner, are you - " Fairchild paused, realizing that she wasn't sure if she'd been about to ask him, " - all right?" or " - drunk?"
"Yes!" the haggard figure in the director's doorway replied with acid sarcasm. "Dr. Banner am I! I congratulate you on your perspicacity, Dr. Fairchild! Is there something I can do for you, or were you just standing in the hallway for lack of any better ideas?"
Fairchild firmly suppressed a sharp reply of her own, pressed her lips into a flat line, and replied coldly, "You told Agent Calhoun you wanted to see me when I got in."
"Oh! Did I?" Banner replied. Glancing theatrically at his wristwatch, he went on, "It was so long ago that I had quite forgotten! Perhaps in future you can come to the laboratory when your shift is actually scheduled to begin, and we can avoid all these unpleasant brushes with the linear human perception of spacetime. Did you see where Irving went? In the process of scattering files all over my office, he managed to make off with one I actually needed."
Without bothering to mention that she hadn't been late for work, Fairchild replied flatly, "He's gone up to HR. To tender his resignation."
Banner blinked at her, appearing genuinely puzzled. "What the hell for?" he asked.
Before she could stop herself, Fairchild replied, "I would imagine to get away from you."
For a moment Banner seemed to expand slightly, as if inflating in a precursor to another burst of wrath; but then, instead of erupting again, he sagged, his shoulders rounding off, and he looked - if possible - even sicklier than before.
"Oh, God," he muttered, rubbing both hands down his face. "I've done it again, haven't I?"
When she registered the look of utter horror and exhaustion on her colleague's drawn face, Fairchild felt her annoyance almost instantly replaced with concern. Taking a half-step toward him, she asked, "What's the matter, Dr. Banner?"
"I... " Banner looked for a moment like he might try to tell her; but then his face shut down and he looked away, covering his eyes with his hand. "... oh God, my head," he mumbled, then turned and plunged back into his office with a sort of desperate energy.
"Dr. Banner - " Fairchild tried again, but Banner only shouted through the closing door,
"Leave me alone!"
Fairchild stood looking at his closed door for a moment, then turned and hurried to her own, rather smaller, office a few doors down. Slipping behind her desk, she picked up the phone, pressed the green button in the lower right corner, and said, "This is Caitlin Fairchild in HEP," pronouncing the letters individually. "I need to speak to Agent Durgo. Urgently."
Bruce Banner was sitting at his desk, staring disconsolately into the lambent green glow of his Lens, when his office door beeped an override and his boss slipped inside. He looked up at her, red-eyed and miserable, and said nothing.
Skuld Ravenhair regarded him for a few seconds, then said, "So. I hear you're not feeling so well lately."
Banner laughed hollowly. "That's a polite way of putting it." He slumped in his chair, his hands slack on his desk blotter, and said hopelessly, "I think I'm losing my mind."
"Hmm. Well, we can't have that," said Skuld. "Also, I'm told that if something isn't done soon, your whole science team is going to quit en masse and go work for Roxxon. That'd be bad on a number of levels." She rounded his desk and said, "Let me see your Lens."
Banner held up his left hand and sat passively while Skuld examined the gem strapped to his wrist, making occasional "hmm" noises. Then she said, "OK. I'm going to level with you. I think I may have screwed up."
He raised an eyebrow. "You? Screw up?"
"Yep. That's your cosmic lesson for the day: Even the gods screw up. In fact," Skuld added wryly, "if you've read any Norse mythology, it shows we screw up on a pretty regular basis. However!" she went briskly on. "I'm pretty sure I know what I did and how to fix it. It'll probably be hard work, harder now than it would've if I'd caught my mistake when I made it, but... " She shrugged. "Still fixable. The question is, do you want me to try again? It's totally up to you. It's your dharma we're talking about, after all."
Banner regarded her for a few long moments, his face unmoving; then he said, "My answer's the same as it was the first time. If you think you can help, then do it." With a wan half-smile, he added, "I'm not really in a position to hold anyone's initial miscalculations against them... "
Skuld chuckled. "That's the spirit," she said. Without relinquishing his left wrist, she reached to his desk phone, punched the blue button, and said, "Barney, Dr. Banner's leaving the office for a while. Just log him on special assignment, s'il vous plait."
"Roger that, ma'am," Barney replied.
"OK, lock your terminal, Dr. Banner," said Skuld as she switched off the intercom. "You're going to Valhalla!" Then, realizing how her remark might be interpreted, she went a little red and added, "Not in that way. Hang on!"
"OK, here's the deal," Skuld said, raising her voice slightly to be heard over the icy wind that was howling across the snow-swept, night-bathed plateau on which they now stood. "Your problem? Is this."
So saying, she did something with the hand that still held Banner's wrist, and with a metallic click, he felt her hold release. His hand fell slack to his side. Next to him, Skuld held up his Lens, now dark, twisting gently in the wind on its unlatched band.
Already beginning to shiver, Banner blinked at her in horrified astonishment. "But - I need that to - "
"No, see, that's the problem. You don't need it to. In fact, making you think you needed it to was just about the worst thing we could have done at the time."
Banner began shivering in the cold. With his right hand, he drew his lab coat tighter around his shoulders, while his left reached vaguely for the Lens. "But - "
"But nothing, Bruce." She regarded the dark Lens for a moment, then glanced at Banner, who was beginning to go slightly blue. He was staring at the gem the way an addict looks at a fix that's being held just out of his reach, and she knew that if she held it there in his sight any longer, he'd forget himself entirely and try to take it from her soon.
So, and since neither of them was going to need it any longer, she dismissed it, letting it dissolve in a spray of bright green sparks that scattered in the wind and were gone.
"No - !" Banner cried, lunging toward where the sparks had vanished. Then he turned back to Skuld and said, "Do you have any idea what you just did?!"
"Of course I do. I told you, it's going to take hard work to fix this mess. This is how it starts. You probably ought to just take your lab coat off," she added. "If you don't, it's just going to get ruined."
"You - you want me to change?!" Banner blurted.
"I need you to change," Skuld replied imperturbably.
Already going numb with the cold, feeling the rising panic about to overwhelm him, Banner had just enough time to choke out, "Well, you're about to get your wish," and then his eyes went bright green and the transformation began.
Skuld stood and watched, as fascinated as she'd been the first time she had seen it happen, while Bruce Banner's frail body grew and changed. It was almost like a time-lapse image of a plant growing, the physicist's form bursting upward and outward into a massively muscled, green-skinned creature that still bore the shape of a person, but one distorted to almost comical extremes of breadth and power - more like an ogre, to Skuld's Asgardian sensibilities, or a particularly brawny troll, than a man. No ogre had ever had that emerald skin tone, though, nor so human a face - for even distorted by its enormous growth and twisted with fury, the face of this creature was still plainly human.
Freed from his confinement in the depths of Banner's mind for the first time since the Zeltos Incident the previous spring and only the second time in several years, the Incredible Hulk threw back his huge head and roared into the icy, star-spangled sky for near-on a minute. Then he spotted Skuld and got really angry.
"You!" he bellowed, his voice deep and hoarse. "Hulk know you! You help Banner. Help him trap Hulk! Say you tame Hulk!" He clenched his enormous fists, looming over her. "Put Hulk in dark!"
Skuld stood her ground, looking him straight in the eye. "I did. I'm sorry. I didn't know any better at the time. I brought you here to put things right."
"You help Banner send Hulk away once before. Now you try to trick Hulk! Hulk not listen to you!"
And so saying, the Hulk turned and leaped away into the night, despite his complete lack of any idea where he was or where he was going.
General, we have him, came the mental voice of her adjutant, Colonel Brynhildr Silverspear, through her Lens. The tracking instruments you provided work perfectly. Should we intercept?
Negative, Skuld replied. Just make sure he stays within the proving ground and let him do his thing. I'm pretty sure he'll stay; there's plenty to smash. Hulk likes smashing things. It helps him think.
I can tell when you're being sarcastic, Brynhildr reminded her.
Just let him vent, Skuld said. I have to prepare Phase 2.
She stood alone in the snowy waste for a moment, listening to the distant roars and crashes as the Hulk managed his anger; then she turned and walked away.
Dawn, and the Hulk sat amid the ruins of what had been a simulated Jotun village - part of the Valkyrie training ground in the highlands north of the Golden City. Having spent the evening destroying same, the Hulk was as content as the Hulk ever got.
At least until the tall, red-skinned woman in the black uniform showed up.
"Hey there, big guy," she said, leaning jauntily against a still-upright fragment of a shattered wall. "Taking a break?"
The Hulk glanced up at her, frowning. "Leave Hulk alone," he said.
"OK," the woman replied affably. "Before I go, though, I just want to say I'm impressed. You are seriously good at smashing stuff." She gestured to the remains of the training compound. "If this was an actual Jotun village, they'd be flattered by the job you've done. They'd rename it in your honor when they put it back up. It'd be worth bragging points to live in Hulkheim. I mean it, dude, you are an artist." She grinned and socked a fist into the opposite palm. "An artist of SMASH."
The Hulk grunted. "Hulk not hear that much."
The red woman sat down on a chunk of rubble a few yards away. "I know, right?" she said companionably. "Usually it's 'look at the mess you've made' or 'what kind of monster are you' or 'my God, it's heading this way.' A lot of the time they don't even engage with you, and when they do it's just to yell at you or talk down to you." She blew out a sigh, puffing her cheeks. "I been there, man. About a million times, growing up. It ain't fun."
The Hulk regarded her for a moment, saying nothing.
"Sorry, I said I'd leave you alone, didn't I?" The woman started to get up, but the Hulk gave another noncommittal grunt.
"Red lady can stay," he said. "Hulk not care."
She sat back down again; for a minute or two they just sat there looking at each other in silence.
Then the Hulk said, "Hulk bored."
The black-clad woman looked around. "Yeah, you've kinda run out of stuff to smash here, huh." She got up. "Tell you what! I know where there's a whole bunch of stuff you can smash, and nobody'll yell at you about it. You'll be doing people a favor." She grinned again. "Whaddaya say? Let's give it a try."
The Hulk clambered to his feet, looking intrigued. "No one yell at Hulk?"
"Nope. And if you do a good job, there's mead after!"
"Hulk not know what that is."
"You'll like it. Trust me."
Bruce Banner was accustomed to waking up without any idea where he was, with a worn and aching body, with a looming sense of dread over what may have happened during the recent blank space in his memory, and without any pants on. As such, what happened to him the next morning was not, in general terms, really all that weird.
Waking up in a bed with such preconditions, on the other hand, that was new. It usually happened in a cave somewhere, or out in the desert, or deep in the woods, not in a well-turned-out bedroom in some kind of heavy-timbered, high-ceilinged ski lodge type of place. There was even a window on the far wall with a spectacular view of some snowy peaks off in the distance, assuming it wasn't a holo or something.
As such, it was an even more deeply disoriented Bruce Banner than usual who sat up and looked around the room, trying in vain to piece together what in the world had happened to him in the previous 24 to 48 hours. He was, in fact, so disoriented that it did not immediately occur to him to be surprised that there was a woman in bed with him.
When it did occur to him, he recoiled in surprise, nearly falling off the side of the bed. In response, she blinked awake, yawned, and gave him a lazy smile.
"Good morning, Dr. Banner," she said. "I trust you slept well."
Banner sat with the covers bunched around his waist and stared at her, dumbfounded, as she got out of bed, picked a black uniform off the back of a nearby chair, and climbed into it. There was, he noticed now that she was standing, an awful lot of her. She had to be seven feet tall and proportioned accordingly, like a somewhat oversized statue of some ancient, athletic divinity or other.
Oh, and she was red. Bright red, with slightly glowing yellow eyes.
"What the hell," Banner muttered.
The red woman finished buckling on a pair of biker-ish boots, straightened, made sure all her long black hair was clear of her collar, and smiled at him again. "You don't remember me at all, do you? Hmm. That's interesting. Well, all will be revealed soon enough... so to speak," she added with a grinning wink. Banner felt his face go hot and said nothing. "In the meantime, I've got to go to work, but you make yourself at home, sweetie. The shower's through there, there are pants in the wardrobe, coffee's downstairs, and Dr. J will be here to see you in half an hour." She went briskly to the door, then paused and blew him a kiss. "See you around, hon."
Banner sat alone in the comfortable, homey room for a few moments, utterly at a loss.
Then he said, "'Hon'?!" and went to have a shower.
Outside the chalet, the red woman met Skuld with a grin and a salute.
"Phase 2 complete, General!" she reported cheerfully.
Skuld tried and mostly failed to give her a stern look. "I think you may have exceeded your instructions, Betty."
Betty snorted. "Yeah, well, you're not gonna hear him complaining," she said, angling a thumb back toward the chalet.
Back inside, Banner finished showering, got dressed in the unfamiliar but well-fitting clothes he found in the wardrobe, went downstairs, and had some coffee in the startlingly modern, Bauhaus-esque kitchen, wondering whether what was happening to him was still part of Skuld's plan.
It would have helped him in that analysis if he had known what Skuld's plan even was. He knew it was supposed to help him out with his Hulk problem, though how destroying his Lens and stranding him in Valhalla was supposed to help (if that's where he even was), he wasn't sure about. He felt pretty relaxed right now, even considering his absurd situation, but all it would take was another panic attack, or a flash of temper, or a spike of particularly intense frustration, to trigger another transformation... and another rampage.
He sighed. He knew Skuld well enough by now to know that even if she were here for him to ask, she wouldn't give him a straight answer. She didn't work that way. Maybe couldn't work that way when dealing in the high metaphysics involved in the making and maintenance of Lensmen. Banner didn't really know - magic was a long way from his field - but it seemed not entirely unreasonable that that might be the case. And in any event, the notion was comforting, because it would mean that she wasn't just messing with him.
As he had that thought, he heard the chalet's front door open and close, then the sound of footsteps in the hallway. There was a brief pause - sound of the coat closet by the entrance being opened and shut - and then a man walked into the kitchen from the foyer and smiled at Banner. He was of average height and slim, and would have been unremarkable in appearance if not for the way he was dressed. In his high-collared shirt, neatly knotted cravat, waistcoat and black frock coat, he looked like pictures Banner had seen of Victorian physicians making their rounds.
This impression was not in any way dispelled by his voice when he spoke: "Aha. Dr. Banner, I presume! No, don't get up, dear fellow." He sat down on the chrome stool opposite Banner's at the kitchen island. "I imagine you must have many questions."
"Only three of any real importance," Banner replied. "Where am I? How did I get here? And who are you?"
"You are in the home of Bèthildr Forgeheart, one of Lady Skuld's Valkyrie. You came here under your own power and of your own free will, or rather your alter ego did. And I," he continued, rising and making his way to the Keurig, "am a doctor." While he set up the machine to make him his own cup of coffee, he went on, "One whose area of expertise happens uniquely to suit him for undertaking the task of helping you with your problem." Turning to face Banner, he smiled again and gave a short but courteous bow. "My name is Jekyll, my dear sir. Henry Jekyll, MD, at your service."
Banner blinked at him.
"I thought you were a myth," he said. "And dead."
Jekyll laughed gaily. "You're drinking coffee in the mountain retreat of a Valkyrie fire giantess, Doctor. Is either consideration really an obstacle to my presence under those conditions?"
Banner had to concede that he had a point.
"In any event, you've heard of me, so that simplifies matters," Jekyll went on, collecting his coffee. "Come, let's adjourn to Miss Forgeheart's excellent sitting room and get started. We have a lot of work to do, you and I."
Feeling a strange mixture of hope and extreme skepticism, Banner carried his coffee through a soaring polished-pine arch and into a living room that was, as Jekyll had said, excellent - a great open space with a high timbered ceiling, oversized and overstuffed furniture, and an enormous sweep of full-length windows which revealed that the whole room was cantilevered out into a majestic canyon dividing the mountains he'd glimpsed from upstairs before. It was gorgeous and ever-so-slightly vertigo-inducing, so Banner was glad of the presence of the vast and fluffy sofa as he sank into one end of it, holding his coffee cup carefully upright.
Jekyll took a seat in a matching armchair opposite, crossing his legs elegantly at the knee, sipped his coffee, and then asked without preamble, "Dr. Banner, what do you think the Hulk is?"
Banner blinked at him. "What do I think he is?" he said.
"I... he's... " Banner stared into his coffee for a moment, then looked up at his improbable interlocutor and said firmly, "He's a monster. He's.. the dark parts of me, set loose to plague the world. Destruction and hatred. Mindless rage."
Jekyll nodded. "You hate him."
"Of course I hate him!" Banner snapped. "He's everything I've spent my life trying not to be. When he's set free, he leaves my life in ruins. He's me, reduced to a mindless animal, but given almost limitless power."
"That's the second time you've used that word," Jekyll observed. "Mindless. Do you really think the Hulk has no mind?"
"Of course he doesn't. I am the Hulk, and yet my time as him is just a white-hot blankness in my memory. Everything that makes me human blotted out by rage."
"And so he makes you angry. Bit of a vicious circle, that."
"I've learned to control it. It's not likely these days that I can make myself angry enough to change. Some outside stimulus is required for that. Although... " Banner hesitated. "Since I got my Lens, keeping him at bay without it is... harder. I guess because I've gotten so used to relying on it that I'm out of practice."
"Your original Lens enabled you to be the Hulk, but keep your own mind. That must have been extraordinary."
"I thought it would be, but it was actually disappointing," Banner admitted. "I always felt self-conscious as the Hulk. As if someone was watching me and... " He shrugged. "Finding my performance wanting, maybe? I'm not sure how to describe it. There was always a sense of frustration, like I could never really reach my potential that way."
"What would you say if I told you there was someone watching?" Jekyll asked. "Someone for whom your Lens was a constant torment, whose every day while you wore it was filled with pain, and cold, and darkness?"
Banner raised an eyebrow. "What the hell are you talking about?" he asked.
"I'm talking, Dr. Banner, about the Hulk."
Banner stared at him. It took him a few moments to find his voice again. When he did, what he said was, "That's ridiculous."
"Is it? Your Lens enabled you to hijack the Hulk's body and use it as if it were your own. Hence your constant sense of dissociation while in his stolen form."
"You're talking like the Hulk is a separate person," Banner objected.
"He is," Jekyll replied calmly. "That's what Skuld failed to understand when she made your first Lens. Do you remember her telling you that she thought she had blundered? That's what she was talking about. She assumed, as you did, that the Hulk's mind was simply your own with most of your... let's call them your more cerebral qualities... blotted out by anger. It's not. It is a separate consciousness all its own. One built from elements of your personality, surely, but not your personality."
"That's absurd," Banner said. "You're telling me that on top of all my other problems, I have a split personality?"
Jekyll shook his head. "You aren't listening, Doctor. The Hulk is not an alternate personality. If that were the case, he would still be you... but the problem is, he isn't. He shares your body, but not your mind." He held up his hands, palms up and outward. "Two souls... " He closed his hands into a double fist. "... one body. Two people; one physical being."
"I don't believe in that kind of mysticism," Banner protested.
"You're sitting in a Valkyrie's living room and still you bleat about mysticism!" Jekyll said. "You're a scientist, Dr. Banner. Use your scientific mind. You know the Spengler phenomenon is real; you may not be a paraphysicist, but you must have covered the subject at least lightly in undergraduate general physics." He sighed faintly. "In a way, this would actually be simpler if you were dead."
Banner gave him a skeptical look. "I beg your pardon?"
"By that I mean the explanation would take care of itself," Jekyll said. "If you had come to Valhalla the usual way, as I did, it'd be as plain as day. I'd be talking to you both at once. When I perished, many years ago, my 'other' and I arrived here separately. It was the first time we'd ever seen each other face to face." He chuckled. "Quite a revelation, I assure you."
When Banner didn't reply, Jekyll went on, "At any rate, Dr. Banner, what you were doing didn't work. You've tried suppressing the Hulk; it didn't work. All it did was torture him and make you deeply unpleasant to be around. And threaten your life, by the way. If you had kept on trying to ignore the discomfort you were feeling and focus through it, in all likelihood you would eventually have suffered a fatal stroke."
Banner frowned. "So my options are to suppress the Hulk, which will kill me, or let him keep destroying my life?"
"Not at all. What you and your 'other' must do is learn to live with each other. You need to see each other not as enemies to be loathed, feared, and avoided, but as what you are. You're brothers, Dr. Banner. Complementary beings. At the risk of sounding a bit new-age about it, you must learn to accept the Hulk... and teach him to accept you, which may be the harder of the two tasks now that you've spent several years subjecting him to the torture of wearing another man's Lens."
Banner blinked. "Another - "
"Exactly. Your Lens was made for you, not him. All the time you wore it, it tore at him. Tried to snuff him out. It only failed because his soul is apparently as invincible as the rest of him... but it can't have been any fun."
Banner took a few silent moments to take all that on board. He wasn't sure he believed Jekyll's thesis that the Hulk was an independent being with his own soul and feelings - beyond believing it, he wasn't sure whether he could accept it - but if it was true...
"Where would I even start?" he asked.
"You already have," Jekyll replied mildly, sipping his coffee. "Our next step, though, needs to be creating a channel of communication between the two of you. Unless you can communicate, you're never going to reach any kind of balance."
"How are we going to do that?"
"Well... I suppose we ought to start with the simplest method first," Jekyll said. He reached into his inside pocket and removed a small device, then leaned forward and placed it on the coffee table between them. "Do you have anything you'd like to say to the Hulk, Dr. Banner?"
For the first week they worked on some simple talk therapy, getting Banner used to the idea of thinking of the Hulk as a person. He made recordings of his thoughts, first cathartic, then more rational, until the exercise came to seem more like making an audio journal for a friend or distant relative's later perusal than an act of psychoanalytic outreach (or inreach, he supposed). In between, there were methods of meditation to study, calming techniques Jekyll had picked up in the mysterious East during his first life. Banner didn't see the woman whose house he inhabited again during all that time.
In the second week, Jekyll pronounced him ready to leave the mountains and venture into the Golden City. They went to the great hall of Valhalla and spent what seemed like a few days prowling its nigh-infinite corridors, speaking to ancient masters and sages. Banner had studied these matters a little bit during his time as a fugitive, hoping they could help him keep the raging beast within him in check, but it had never availed him much. Now, though, he didn't have that ultimate (and, if Jekyll was to be believed, ultimately misguided) goal in mind, and it seemed to come more easily, or make more sense, or both.
In the third week, they went back to the rubble-strewn proving ground where the Hulk had first come to Valhalla, and Jekyll said, "So far we've just been concentrating on you. Now it's time to bring the other party into the picture."
Banner blinked at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"Your transformations to date have been involuntary," Jekyll said. "Obviously, that won't do going forward." So saying, he closed his eyes and, with a quiet smile on his face, took a deep breath -
- and changed, with a minimum of fuss, from a slim, calmly handsome, sandy-haired gentleman into a huge, enormously broad-shouldered, beetle-browed man with bristling black hair and side whiskers. His clothes changed with him, in a manner that defied Banner's direct observation, from the slightly dandified gentleman's finery Jekyll favored into a coarser, more workmanlike, but still distinctly anachronistic ensemble whose key features were a bottle-green vest and a pair of big, chunky black boots that looks very suitable for kicking in doors (and possibly heads).
"So 'Enry an' me," said Mr. Edward Hyde in an accent that owed more to Seven Dials than St. George's, "'ave a few tricks to teach."
"That went well," Henry Jekyll remarked from a fragment of reflective metal that jutted from the ground near where Hyde had come to rest.
Hyde, unperturbed, picked himself up and dusted fragments of brick from his sleeves.
"Give 'im time, 'Enry," he replied equably. "Early days yet."
So saying, he set off to follow the Hulk and make sure he didn't leave the proving ground.
Days went by, then weeks, as Banner and the Hulk worked separately along their parallel tracks. Each "woke" to find messages left by the other, at first rebarbative, later more civil, eventually even conciliatory. Banner found himself waking next to the mountain house's owner again on a more or less regular basis, and after the first few times he wasn't even taken aback by it any more, particularly after one morning's voice mail message from his other:
"Uh... right. This Hulk. Listen. Um... Hulk really like Betty. Hulk think him and Betty might have a... uh... thing." (Long pause.) "Puny Banner not screw this up for Hulk, OK?"
At first he felt more than a little odd at the realization that the Hulk was apparently developing a social life during his time at large, but he supposed it beat waking up to find that he'd wrecked a town and had half the army hunting for him. Just so long as he didn't wake one morning to find that his alter ego and the towering red warrior woman had had some kind of falling out while he was "away".
Truth to tell, Banner found that he rather liked Betty himself. Not in that way - his sense of self-preservation, if nothing else, intervened there - but she was fun-loving and unpretentious, easy to talk to, and not at all self-conscious about the fact that she was in the habit of waking up next to a man who, for most of her apparent boyfriend's "life", had been his most hated enemy. She didn't go into any details about what her relationship with the Hulk might entail, for which Banner was grateful, but she was otherwise an excellent source of information about what the other side of Banner's being was like - as was Hyde, with whom the Hulk had apparently become drinking buddies after their initial fight.
This was almost as eye-opening as the voice mails. He would never have thought, for instance, that the Hulk had anything approaching a sense of humor, nor a sense of childlike wonder, but according to Betty and Hyde, he had both. In fact, "childlike" was the adjective that most often emerged when they talked about the Hulk.
One day, over their morning coffee, Betty remarked, "The Hulk has decided that he ought to have a proper name."
Banner nearly choked on his coffee, recovered himself, and said, "I'm sorry?"
"For when you go home again," she clarified. "He's going to need his own identity documents and whatnot, as an agent of the IPO, and he doesn't think 'The Hulk' works as an official name. I mean, it's his Name," she said, somehow contriving to pronounce the capital letter, "but... " She shrugged. "He's funny about that kind of thing. It's like he figures having a Real Grown-Up Name is an important part of his... you know, becoming an actual person, as opposed to some kind of monster people run away from."
Banner stared at her. "That's pretty deep for him," he remarked.
Betty chuckled. "After all you've learned in the last few months, you still underestimate him," she said, shaking her head. "He's not stupid. He's just... " She paused, thinking. "Well, in Midgard it's usually used to mean stupid, but in Jotunheim we would call him a simple soul. You'd probably use a bigger word. 'Uncomplicated', maybe."
Banner nodded. "I understand. It does surprise me - it surprises me every time I'm reminded that he's more than I used to think he was. It takes a lot of getting used to, the idea that he's... not just a monster."
"Well, when you do finally grasp that, on an instinctive as opposed to intellectual level... I think that's how you'll know you're ready."
"You'll miss him when we go, won't you?" Banner asked.
"Of course I'll miss him," Betty replied without hesitation. "I love him."
Banner blinked. "Uh. OK. I didn't realize you were that serious."
Betty smirked. "After all you've learned in the last few months, you still underestimate him," she said again.
While Banner mulled that over, there was a knock at the front door; a moment later keys jingled, and then Mr. Hyde rounded the corner from the foyer, dressed for an outing, complete with a giant top hat perched on his huge, bewhiskered head.
"Mornin', sport," he said. "Big day today!"
"Is it?" Banner asked. "Why?"
"'Er Ladyship," said Hyde, by which Banner now knew he always meant Skuld, "'as decided in 'er infinite wisdom that you should 'ave a day out."
"A day out? Where?"
"Well," said Betty with a smile, "you've seen where I live... I thought I might show you where I came from."
Awakening slowly, Bruce Banner felt at the back of his head to make sure it wasn't spongy and remarked to himself that he'd had pleasanter days.
It had started off promisingly enough; Skitha, a middling-sized walled port city on a broad river near Vanaheim's eastern border with Jotunheim, was a lovely, friendly place with a lot of history and character, like something out of a storybook (or possibly a particularly well-illustrated Dungeons & Dragons sourcebook). The little cafe on the plaza overlooking the river docks had really good sausages. Betty had been in the process of telling him how, back in the bad old days, the city had been the first stop on any Jotun army's road to Asgard's Southwall...
... when one had, improbably enough, shown up.
Now Banner came to with a throbbing head to find himself stretched out on the cobbled ground next to what remained of their table. After verifying that his skull was intact, he gingerly raised his head and looked around. While he was out, the attacking force - mostly large but not giant, dull-grey-green, warty creatures in black nylon tactical gear - had secured the square with a military precision that struck Banner as strangely comical in what he guessed, based on war stories he'd heard from Betty, were ogres or trolls. And thinking of Betty -
"Easy, Bruce," she murmured, kneeling alongside him. "Just stay down. It's not you they're after."
Then, rising, she stepped around what the wreckage of the table and demanded in a ringing voice, "Well? What are you waiting for? Let's get this over with!"
The rank of ogres sealing off the side of the square facing the river docks parted in well-drilled order, and up from the rear came a towering figure in what, to Banner's unpracticed eye, looked like an officer's uniform - gold-chased leather armor with an iron-strapped wooden buckler strapped to his left forearm. He must have stood 15 feet tall at least, more than half again as tall as his ogre subordinates. At his side he wore a massive pistol, and opposite it a sabre longer than Betty was tall. He had a bushy black beard drawn into a heavy plait with an iron weight the size of a man's head hanging at the end, and his skin was a dull brick red. His eyes, like Betty's, were yellow and glowed faintly.
"People of Skitha," the giant boomed. "Give my men no reason to make war upon you and they will not. We have no interest in the affairs of Vanaheim this day." Then, pointing at Betty, he added, "But by order of King Elding Grimmuryfirvaraskegg of Eldgard, the outcast must return with us!"
Betty snorted. "Excuse me?" she demanded indignantly. "You guys abandoned me to die as a baby and now I'm supposed to go back with you? I don't THINK - "
She was interrupted by one of the larger ogres, who stepped forward with a speed and fluidity not suggested by his ungainly frame and clobbered her in the back of the head with the butt of his rifle, dropping her to her knees. "Do not speak to Colonel Hargrim, outcast."
Seeing his friend thus abused, and the grins and laughs of the other ogres at the sight of it, sparked a familiar feeling in Banner - that sense of tightened skin and surging blood, of energies too vast for his frail body to contain. His fists knotting, he pushed himself up to hands and knees, then rose to his feet.
"You shouldn't have done that," he said through his teeth. "You've made a friend of mine very angry."
Hargrim made a great show of squinting to see who was addressing him, then laughed. "Hah! What business is it of yours, mortal?" Gesturing to the stunned Valkyrie, he added with a sneer, "Even a runt like Princess Bèthildr is clearly far too much woman for the likes of you."
His whole body quivering with the effort of controlling himself, Banner said in a deceptively calm tone of voice, "As an officer of the International Police Organization, I'm obliged to warn you once. You're making a big mistake."
Hargrim snorted. "Sergeant, dispose of this insect. Its buzzing annoys me."
"Sir," said the ogre who'd hit Betty. He took a step forward, slinging his rifle to free his hands for a more personal touch. Right on schedule came the lightness in Banner's head, as what he now recognized as the Hulk's consciousness lunged forward into his own, furious, undeniable, raging for release.
For the first time in his life, Robert Bruce Banner embraced that sensation with all his heart.
They're all yours, big guy, he thought.
Thank you, Banner, the Hulk's voice replied. Hulk going to enjoy this.
Banner had only a moment to consider how odd it was not to be "puny Banner" to the Hulk before everything went blank for him.
Sergeant Garkk was never entirely sure what happened next. As Garkk approached him, the scrawny human suddenly threw his head back and roared like a wounded animal, and by the time he'd finished roaring, he was... someone else. Someone a lot bigger. Someone whose first punch knocked Sergeant Garkk - no joke, later confirmed by the regimental surveyors - twelve and one-quarter miles back toward Jotunheim.
The other ogres recoiled in horror - what had just happened had a flavor of shape-shifters about it, and while not as hung up about that kind of thing as trolls, they couldn't be said to like it - before their military discipline took over and they rushed in. Whatever the human had become, he was still smaller - or at least shorter - than an ogre. With their numbers and their armor, Garkk's startling fate notwithstanding, they figured he couldn't possibly stand against them all.
They were wrong about that, but at least they didn't get quite as much air as their sergeant.
While Hargrim bellowed for reinforcements, the Hulk burst free of the melee with a roar, scattering ogres in all directions, and sprang to Betty's side. She got to her feet, shaking her head.
"I'm OK," she said; then, with a wry little grin, she added, "I've got a pretty hard head."
"Who your friend?" the Hulk asked as she unslung her shield from her back and then went more or less back-to-back with him.
"He's no friend of mine," Betty told him. "His name's Hargrim." She unclipped her Valkyrie power hammer from her belt and thumbed it on; its gravity concentrator filled the square with a low, ominous hum. "He's my father's right-hand man."
The Hulk grunted, unimpressed. "Not for long," he said.
Betty glanced back over her shoulder at him, met his eye, and grinned; then she went one way, he went the other, and the fight was on.
Some of Hargrim's troops, seeing the fearsome power of the Hulk, mistakenly believed that they were better off taking their chances with Betty. It soon became apparent to those still conscious, though, that the only way to really come out ahead in this battle was just to stay the hell out of it. The Hulk's strength and savage fury were terrifying to behold as he reduced the left flank of Hargrim's army to rubble - but the alternative was a fully trained, no longer surprised Valkyrie. Bèthildr Forgeheart might have been a runt by Eldjotun standards, but she was skilled far beyond the ogreish rabble of Hargrim's mercenaries, and there was more than enough power in her seven-foot scarlet frame to make any of them regret putting himself in her way - particularly with a power hammer in her hand.
Seeing his army crumbling before the twin onslaught, Hargrim knew the time had come to cut his losses. Without hesitation or qualm, he ordered his reserve into the breach, knowing that they could not possibly win. Against just the outcast, they could have prevailed with relative ease. The... green creature... changed things.
Fortunately, Hargrim and his liege lord were the sort who planned for this kind of contingency. He had a backup plan of his own in play. Now, as his reserve bought him time, he set it in motion.
The Hulk saw the giant touch his belt and then vanish in a flash of silvery light; out of the corner of his eye, he saw a similar flash up at the top of the hill that dominated the center of town, within the walls of Skitha Castle. He didn't know why Hargrim had teleported himself to the castle, but he was certain it couldn't possibly be anything good. With a furious roar, he threw off the latest platoon of ogres who had tried to bring him down, turned toward the castle, and gathered himself to leap in pursuit of his main foe.
"Now! Bring the monster down!" an ogre NCO shouted. From the edge of the plaza, one of the reserve squads unlimbered some sort of shoulder-fired anti-armor weapon, drew a bead, and launched a rocket designed to destroy the tanks of Asgard at the Hulk.
In response, the Hulk turned to face the oncoming missile head-on and brought his huge hands flat together in front of him. The shockwave slammed out at the speed of sound, flattening everything in a radius of a half-dozen yards or so around him and detonating the rocket's warhead before it had a chance to come anywhere near him. The fireball washed back over the weapon and its crew, sending them scattering in dismay.
The Hulk paid them no mind; taking advantage of the momentary clear space the maneuver had bought him, he turned back toward the castle. It stood perhaps a mile and a half away, not including the vertical distance from the riverbank to the hilltop. The Hulk cleared it easily in a single furious bound, shattering the paving stones of the castle courtyard with the impact of his arrival.
Not that this would really lower the property values of the courtyard significantly; it was already littered with broken equipment, unconscious or dead Skitha city guardsmen, and a roughly equal number of the ogre heavy infantry who had taken the outer castle in spite of their furious resistance. The remains of the attacking force, now massed near the huge and still-sealed great doors, turned in surprise at the crash of the Hulk's landing.
"You're too late, whatever you are," Hargrim boomed from behind his troops. He gestured to a strange, carapaced object about the size of a car, which stood on six black iron legs in front of the castle door. "The Inferno Conduit is set and counting down. In five minutes this whole valley will be a smoking crater."
"Hulk not let you do this!" the Hulk replied.
Hargrim laughed. "It's done, my stupid friend," he replied mockingly. "If you've even the smallest spark in that skull of yours, you'll make your escape while you have the chance and leave Skitha to its fate. As for me, I have no time to waste bandying words with you. I have work to do."
So saying, he touched his belt again and vanished once more in a flash of light.
The Hulk stood gazing at the four dozen or so ogre soldiers standing between him and the Inferno Device. They stared back at him, fingering their weapons. Bigger and tougher than the ones in the square, these were Hargrim's elite shock troops, the ones he entrusted with the really heavy lifting in these operations. They weren't intimidated by one nearly-ogre-sized green human in what appeared to be tight-fitting black cargo shorts, even if he had just arrived in the courtyard from above like a bomb.
Two minutes and forty-four seconds later, the nine remaining ogre elites fled the courtyard, screaming in terror that the monster could not be killed. The Hulk pulled one of their spears from his shoulder with a grunt and cast it aside, then stalked through the scattered forms of their colleagues toward the Inferno Device. The wound had gone by the time he reached the machine.
Contrary to popular assumption back in the days following his first appearances, the Hulk could read; but he couldn't read the digits on what he assumed to be the countdown timer, having no familiarity whatever with Jotun numerals. Nor did the complicated inner workings of the device, once he had torn off its outer carapace, mean even the slighest thing to him.
"This above Hulk's pay grade," he muttered, using a phrase he'd picked up from one of Betty's colleagues...
... and then he did something he had never, ever done before, and willingly relinquished control. This your department, science man, he remarked as his consciousness and Banner's "passed" each other.
Bruce Banner blinked in surprise. He wasn't conscious, properly speaking, when the Hulk was, but that moment of transition had provided enough of a situational update that he wasn't completely confused, as had always been the case upon waking after one of the Hulk's rampages in the past - and, he noted with satisfaction, the new pants worked too. It was a refreshing change not to have to hold up the tattered remains of his dignity with one hand while taking stock of whatever mess the Hulk had left him with...
... and, boy howdy, this was one for the books. If not for Henry Jekyll's training, the situation he now found himself in would have turned Banner right back into the Hulk. He could read a bit of Jotun, having picked up some rudiments from a few books in Betty's house, and he'd learned more than a little about the weapons technology of the Upper Realms from Skuld in his time. Enough to know that he was standing in front of a pickup-sized weapon of giantish mass destruction called an Inferno Conduit wearing nothing but a pair of magic cargo pants, and that in about two minutes it was going to open a temporary gateway to Muspelheim's Canyon of Eternal Fire.
Knowing that, Banner's agile mind sussed out the rest of Hargrim's plan in a few moments. This would not pour forth a demonic army, because there wasn't one to be found down there, but it would be similar to opening a door on the other side of which was the surface of the Sun. The whole Skitha Valley and everyone in it would be incinerated in an instant - everyone, presumably, but Hargrim and Betty, who as fire giants were largely indifferent to heat and flame.
Betty finished with the last of the ogres, then stood in the middle of the courtyard for a moment, catching her breath. She was bleeding from a dozen wounds, none of them really serious, but enough in the aggregate to slow her down considerably. Worse, her left arm had been broken by the same blow that shivered her shield, her power hammer's energy cells were flat, and she thought one of the beasts might have actually bitten her right calf, which now hurt to put weight on. Turning painfully toward the sound of sarcastic applause, she saw Hargrim standing where he'd been at the start of all this, by the river gate.
"Your skill is impressive, runt," he said. "I may have to admit to your august father when I bring you home that he was right and I was wrong. I told him you would be of no use to his kingdom if he called you home now, but he insisted that Lady Skuld and the others would have taught you well, in spite of your heritage." He grinned, yellowish teeth flashing at the junction of his moustache and beard. "They really will teach anyone their secrets in the Golden City, won't they?"
Betty discarded her spent power hammer, reached behind her with her good hand, and drew her backup weapon, an alloy cylinder that sprang out at the touch of a stud to form first a haft, then a double-bitted axe. "Why don't you come over here," she replied with an assurance she did not altogether feel, "and I'll show you what I've learned."
"It'll be a pleasure to teach you some manners," said Hargrim, drawing his sabre.
Though more than twice her height, Hargrim moved with horrifying speed - particularly a problem now that Betty was wounded and near-exhausted - and his strength was shocking. She knew immediately that she could never hope to take him head-on in her present condition, and possibly not even at the peak of her form. Few even among her Valkyrie comrades could have hoped to stand against Colonel Hargrim in a head-on fight. Gudrun Truemace, maybe. She was only half-Jotun, but her giantish parent had been one of the frost giants of the Tindalos, the hardiest and mightiest of all the Jotun, and her strength was enormous, rumored to rival that of Thor Ironhammer himself. Or Kijana Whitestaff, but only in her natural form as one of the dragons of Alfheim.
Under normal circumstances, then, Betty would have concentrated on outmaneuvering Hargrim and chipping away at him, working him into a position where she could launch a single surgical strike that would remove him from the battle. She'd have fought tactically, using every advantage she could find to its fullest advantage, and in the end she was confident she'd have triumphed.
"Your father wants you alive," he said, "but he understands that accidents sometimes happen... "
Betty spat in his eye and sank her axe haft-deep in the side of his left boot. Hargrim recoiled, roaring; she tried to get up, but her left arm would do nothing and her right leg wasn't any too cooperative either. She reached to her right boot for her survival knife, reflecting ruefully on Gin Shepard's maxim that any day you lived to go to Plan C was still a good day, and watched with defiant eyes as Hargrim steadied himself, yanked her axe out of his leg, and tossed it contemptuously away.
Before he could make some snide remark and renew the offensive, though, a roaring green something plummeted out of the sky like a meteor and smashed him to the ground.
"Surprised to see Hulk?" the Hulk asked as he lifted the stunned giant and threw him against the courtyard wall.
"Fool!" Hargrim snarled. "Any moment now you'll burn with the rest of this miserable town."
"Hulk not think so," the Hulk replied. He held up the device Banner's careful hands had teased from the inner workings of the Inferno Conduit, made sure Hargrim had recognized it, and then crushed it between his fingers and discarded it.
"Impossible," Hargrim murmured. "Impossible!" He pulled himself upright, his huge fists closing. "I don't know what you are, mortal, but I am still Colonel Fjalar Hargrim of the First Eldgard Legion, and I will crush you with my bare hands!"
The Hulk grunted contemptuously. "Bring it."
Be fair to Hargrim: He brought it. In minutes the whole area, already in extreme disrepair from the small war fought there, was a disaster area - buildings wrecked, walls toppled, dockside cranes destroyed. In the end, Hargrim's armor hung in gold-trimmed tatters, his face bruised, his knuckles torn and bloody - but at last he had the upper hand. He had the Hulk backed against one of the few remaining walls on what had been the esplanade, one massive hand around his neck, crushing the life from him.
"I give you your due, mortal," he said. "You have fought like a Jotun this day. Hargrim will see that you are remembered in song." Tightening his grip still further, he bore down and went on, "Now die."
The Hulk, teeth gritted, said nothing; but the right jab the giant received to his midsection at that instant, delivered with no more room to travel than the length of the Hulk's forearm, would have caved in the glacis plate of a tank, which was a statement all its own. Hargrim grunted, blood gathering at the corner of his mouth, and the Hulk headbutted him full in the forehead, breaking his grip and sending him stumbling back.
The blow slammed Hargrim's jaw shut with enough force to splinter several of the giant's teeth, sending him up and over backward to crash down in a slumping heap amid the rubble of what had been a grain mill.
Standing on the fallen giant's chest, the Hulk waited for Hargrim to regain a measure of consciousness, then leaned close to his battered face and said, "Hulk let Hargrim live so he take message to Betty's father for Hulk. Tell him if he ever bother Betty again... Hulk do worse to him."
Fueled by one last surge of fury, Hargrim shoved the Hulk off his chest and rose from the rubble, brandishing a gleaming dagger drawn from a holster on his back. The Hulk ignored it, sprang forward, seized the the weight plaited into the giant's beard, and used it to fling him bodily across the river, where he completed the demolition of a dock damaged earlier in the day.
The Hulk considered leaping after him, but it was clear as Hargrim slowly, painfully dragged himself upright again that the giant had had enough. Blood streamed down his chest, droplets of it sending up curls of steam as they fell into the river. The Hulk looked down and saw that he was still holding the iron weight - and, indeed, most of Hargrim's beard.
"Hulk keep this," he declared, then added: "Tell your king! He stay away from Betty - or Hulk smash!"
Hargrim stood unsteadily for a few moments, knee-deep in the river, his face a mask of blood, broken teeth, and slightly unfocused, hate-filled eyes.
Then he touched his belt again and was gone.
The Hulk looked back up to the hill, but there was no answering flash. Hargrim had quit the field entirely. Grunting with satisfaction, he turned and went to see if he could help Betty.
"I'll be OK," she told him, using his shoulder as a brace to get gingerly to her feet. "I know people." Looking around at the ruins of the riverfront district as city guard reinforcements began to arrive, she raked her tangled black hair back from her face with her good hand and sighed. "Man. You guys did a number on this place."
"People still alive. Town can be fixed," the Hulk replied philosophically.
Betty chuckled. "Yeah, true that," she said. It took her a few moments to realize what the odd trophy in the Hulk's hand was; then she said incredulously, "Is that Hargrim's beard?"
The Hulk nodded. "Uh-huh."
She burst out laughing, leaning against his shoulder to keep from falling as the laughter wracked her battered form. There were tears, not entirely of pain, in her eyes when she finally wound down with a gasped, "Oh, oh man. Wow. That's all... facial hair is a thing in Jotun culture. You didn't just beat the ever-loving crap out of him, you ritually emasculated him."
Betty wiped at her eyes. "Oh yeah. Aw, man. I said it before and I'll say it again, dude: You are an artist." Then she leaned and kissed him. "My big green sultan of smash."
The Hulk didn't quite seem to know what to say to that, so he said nothing; just smiled a little.
"Seriously, you saved my perky red ass today," she said. "And my hometown, though it got a little beat up."
The Hulk regarded her with that same little smile for a second, then said something she wouldn't have expected from him at the beginning of their friendship:
Caitlin Fairchild was in the HEP Lab lobby, chatting with Calhoun as she emptied her mailbox, when the elevator arrived and Dr. Banner breezed in, looking... well... like he'd had a hell of a good vacation, wherever he'd been.
"Good morning, Agent Calhoun," he said cheerfully. "Great weather we're having, isn't it? Did you have a good weekend?"
"Uh... " Barney blinked for a second at the lab's director, who was dressed casually under his lab coat and seemed to have picked up a tan somewhere. He didn't just look happier than either Barney or Fairchild had ever seen him before, he looked healthier. Like he'd been eating right and getting enough sleep. He wasn't even wearing his glasses.
Then the guard caught himself and said, "Y... yeah, it sure is. Great weather, I mean. My weekend was OK, did a little fishin' up on the Oxbow... "
"I should try that sometime," Banner said. "I hear it's relaxing. Oh, hey, Barney, when you get a minute, can you chase down an address for Mark Irving for me? I have to apologize and beg him to come back to work. Good morning, Dr. Fairchild," he went seamlessly on. "You look different. Did you change your hair?"
Then, without waiting for a response, he went off down the hall, cheerfully humming an old pop song. Fairchild and Barney stared at each other for a couple of seconds, both wondering whether Banner had been being facetious - pretty much unheard-of - or genuinely hadn't registered that his mousy colleague was 18 inches taller and about a hundred pounds more athletic than she'd been when he had last seen her.
"I don't know," Fairchild said; then, after a moment's thought, she added judiciously, "but we should give her a medal."