Brooding 28

All of the lights in the gym were turned off when Steve entered, so he turned on just the lights he needed, helped himself to a few sandbags, and hooked up the first one. He was well into his routine of quick jabs and powerful hits when a shadow in the far corner of the room caught his eye. Although it hadn’t moved, he suddenly realized that the shadow was in the shape of a man sitting cross-legged on a mat. He paused and squinted, confirming that the shadow not only looked like a man but was a man.

“Um… Hello?”

When the man turned toward Steve, he recognized Bruce.

“Hello,” Bruce responded, sounding neither upset nor inviting.

“Dr. Banner! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there…”

“That’s all right. That was… sort of the point.”

Steve had taken a few steps closer to him but stopped short. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude. Sorry for all the noise I was making.”

“Oh, I don’t mind. It’s actually… rather soothing. Just pretend I’m not here.”

“Uh… Okay…” Steve glanced around the room as though looking for other men to be hiding in the darkness. “Um… May I ask what you’re doing?”

“Meditating. It helps to decompress at the end of the day… relieve some pressure, try to regain my balance. Really, you’re not bothering me at all, so don’t worry.”

“Okay… Thanks.”

Steve returned to punching the sandbag, although his thoughts were on Bruce and the effort the man must constantly exert to maintain his self-control. Steve wondered how meditation worked; it sounded mystical and foreign to him, but if it helped Bruce “regain his balance,” it must be effective. He was glad the mild-mannered scientist had found some tools to help keep “the other guy” in check. Not only did Steve not want to see people injured by The Hulk, he also did not want to see Bruce struggling with the guilt that ensued.

After a few more passes of quick, feather-light jabs, Steve worked up a sheen of sweat on his skin. When some of it flew off his bare arms in a flurry of movement, he wondered what his pheromones were saying now. Frustrated? Unsettled? Lonely? But he realized that if he was feeling all of those things, having been ripped out of his time and brought into the future, Bruce must feel them far more, being cut off from society by the very nature of what he had become. Frigga’s visual representation of their pheromones came back to his mind – Bruce’s cloud had been so dense as to almost obscure him. It wasn’t just about sex, Steve thought, but about all aspects of human interaction; Bruce would be regarded with fear and suspicion everywhere he went unless he could keep his identity secret. Which also meant that he would probably never find a woman to share his life with. After all, who would be brave enough to risk encountering the Mr. Hyde to Bruce’s Dr. Jekyll? And Bruce would never deceive someone he was that close to about his alter ego.

Steve hit the sandbag hard, then grabbed it as it swung back to him with force. A crazy thought had occurred to him and he wasn’t sure how it would be received. In fact, Tony Stark had first suggested it, which in itself nearly made him reject the idea, but he was also aware of his own limits of endurance and, by extrapolation, thought he understood where Bruce might be on the spectrum. He rested his forehead on the sandbag for a moment, debating with himself as to the wisdom of voicing the concept, but in the end his decision was based on a simple question: “What have I got to lose?”

He walked slowly over to the dark corner, giving Bruce the chance to stop his approach if he wanted to. The scientist only opened his eyes and looked up at him.

“May I talk to you for a minute?”

“Of course. What’s on your mind?”

Steve sat down on the bare floor in front of Bruce, cross-legged as well. “I have a… proposal.”

“Oh?”

“I was just thinking… we’re both rather… at odds, with society in general… isolated in a sense.” Steve chose his words carefully, not wanting to sound condescending. “I know if it’s not easy for me, it can’t be any easier for you. So I was wondering if you’d be interested in a… an experiment.”

“W-What kind of experiment?” Bruce asked, one eyebrow rising in a guarded look.

“When Queen Frigga showed us our pheromones, she also mentioned some… other things, but they were true – at least for me. Then Stark had the idea that… we might be able to help each other… since we’re both in the same boat.”

Bruce’s mouth fell open. “Are you saying… what I think you’re saying?”

Steve felt his face turn red and mentally kicked himself for even opening his mouth, but there was no turning back now.

“I believe you know exactly what I’m talking about… especially after… what we saw today…” Steve cleared his throat before adding, “An experiment, of sorts, for… our mutual benefit.”

“Wow…” Bruce murmured, looking shocked even in the dim light. “You’re serious?”

“I wouldn’t joke about something like this, Doctor. But if you’re not interested, I understand,” Steve said, moving to leave the other man alone to his peace and quiet. “I realize it’s not what you’re looking for—”

“No, wait!” Bruce called, making Steve stop in the middle of standing up. “That’s… That’s very generous of you, Captain. Because I know damn well we aren’t in the same boat – you’re not at all the social pariah I am.” When Steve sat back down and attempted to contradict him, Bruce prevented it with a wave of his hand. “No, no, it’s true; there’s no use denying it. You could go out there and… sweep any woman off her feet. Any girl would be lucky to have a man like you… whereas I can barely trust myself to be around other people, let alone get close to anyone.”

Knowing it was useless to candy-coat Bruce’s situation, Steve only said, “It must be incredibly lonely for you. I can’t even imagine how hard it’s been.”

“Thank you,” Bruce replied with a slow nod, acknowledging his years of pain and heartache in that simple gesture. “It’s nice of you to even try. But I’m still not sure… you really meant what you said. Are you sure… this is something you want to do? Because you don’t have to do this just because you feel sorry for me. I would rather not if it’s only a… pity fuck.”

Steve started, stunned by the modern term but understanding its ramifications immediately. “That’s not what I intended at all, Doctor. You know I have nothing but respect for you – for your scientific research as well as your fortitude in the face of so much adversity. A lesser man would have been crushed by the weight of what you have to bear. And as far as meaning what I said, I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t. I’ve been… well, after seeing Clint and Loki… I’m a little curious about… how it all works. So I thought, you being a scientist, if we tried it as a sort of experiment – no emotional strings attached, you know; if it works, great, but if it doesn’t, no hard feelings – we could maybe blow off some steam without the risk of anybody getting hurt.”

Steve felt like he was babbling and turning redder the longer he spoke, but Bruce, observing him, seemed to grow calmer and more satisfied.

“All right, then,” he said, sounding like a professor now, “how do you propose we set up the experiment? What are the parameters, and what are we seeking to learn?”

“Well, ah,” Steve paused, taken aback for a moment. “What I’d like to learn is… is it really as… enjoyable… as Loki and Clint made it look?”

“Okay, we have an example and we want to prove or disprove its accuracy and repeatability. What else?”

“I… I really don’t know much about it… except what I saw today,” Steve admitted. “I guess I’m just curious… about the whole process.”

“Well then, gaining experiential knowledge is the best way to learn about it,” Bruce told him encouragingly. “What about the parameters? Are you comfortable with the whole world finding out about what we’re doing, or only your closest friends, or do you want to keep it a secret from everybody?”

“I think, until we figure out how… successful our experiment will be, we should keep it to ourselves.”

“Excellent! Now we have our framework. And as far as method… are you looking to prove just what we saw Clint and Loki doing today – namely, anal sexual intercourse – or other methods of homosexual intimacy?”

“There… are other ways?” Steve asked, feeling terribly ignorant.

“Of course. Sex isn’t always about penile penetration,” Bruce informed him. “Kissing, for example, is an important part of intimacy in any relationship. Speaking of which, are you comfortable with kissing?”

“I… I’m not sure…”

“Okay, that will be one of the items to be tested,” Bruce said, ticking it off on his finger as though forming a mental checklist. “I’m assuming you would like to test both aspects of anal penetration?”

“Yes,” Steve answered immediately, glad to have a definite answer for at least something.

“Okay then, we’ll try everything at least once, including positions. This might take some time…”

Steve caught on that Bruce’s raised eyebrow indicated a question. “If there’s more than one way… I suppose it will. I’m stationed here for at least the next few months.”

“Good – then I’ll request to be assigned to one of the research projects here. Tony is already working with them on several, so it shouldn’t seem odd for me to ask to assist him. So… that just leaves the equipment.” Bruce studied Steve with a calculating look. “You seem to be the picture of health, and I’m assuming you’ve been put through more than the usual gamut of physical evaluations?”

“Poked and prodded and x-rayed like a guinea pig,” Steve agreed.

“Did they find any STDs in your system? Sexually Transmitted Diseases?”

“Uh… no.” Steve looked down at his hands and feet, flushed so hot he thought his ears must be steaming. “They couldn’t have, since… I… I know this sounds ridiculous, but I… I… haven’t… you know… been with anybody.”

Bruce stared at him for what seemed like an hour before saying, “You mean… you’ve never…? Not even with women?”

Steve only shook his head. He had already noticed that the cultural attitude toward sex had changed vastly over the seven decades he had missed, and he felt even more ignorant than before.

“Wow… okay. So this will be your first.” Bruce flashed him a lopsided grin. “I guess I’d better make it good. No pressure, right?” His chuckle made Steve feel more at ease. “Well, you don’t have to take my word for it, but I’m clean too, according to the physical S.H.I.E.L.D. gave me right after New York. In fact I believe both of our immune systems have been bolstered to withstand most viruses and infections – which means we won’t have to bother with condoms. So all we need is some lubricant, available at the store here. Are you ready to do this? Tonight?”

“Yes,” Steve responded without hesitation.

“All right. So I guess the last question is: your place or mine?”

“Um… it doesn’t matter to me…”

Bruce considered it. “I think, since this is your first time, it should be in your room – where you would feel more relaxed and comfortable.” He uncrossed his legs and stood up, mirrored by Steve. “Why don’t you go on ahead while I stop by the store.”

“Uh… Here’s some cash—” Steve began, but he was cut off by Bruce.

“No, no – lube isn’t that expensive, and even if it was, this is my treat.” Bruce smiled and patted Steve on the back, making his wife-beater stick to his sweaty skin. “Just go on home and get freshened up.”

“I can do that,” Steve replied with a shy smile of his own.

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