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Two months ago:

The man who had dubbed himself Kang the Conqueror strode the halls of the White House with an air of belonging. While others might have been impressed with the structure that played home to the most powerful man in the most powerful country in the world, it meant little to one who had traveled the ages of time. Besides, thanks to Kang's machinations, he actually was not as out of place as a time-traveler might be, in a fashion.

Someone passed Kang in the hallway and greeted him. "Hello, Senator."

Kang grunted as he tucked the folder he had brought with him under his arm. He barely registered the man as some faceless lawyer lobbyist. But the lobbyist's recognition of Kang's outward appearance meant his holographic projector was working. As far as the world was concerned, Senator Victor Timely from Wisconsin was walking past instead of the supreme ruler of Time itself.

While there had been a real Senator Timely, Kang had him quietly killed and disintegrated his remains, replacing him with a robotic duplicate. The man had been a reclusive bachelor with no family, so having the robot behave as though he were the real thing, using the same itinerary the senator had and mirroring every official decision the original had made meant no one picked up on any discrepancies between the two. Besides, the public tended to see politicians as caricatures rather than individuals anyway, and people usually saw what they wanted to.

However, there were times when Kang needed to add some adjustments to the timeline. Changes to avert catastrophe. To ensure success by making on-site decisions, Kang took personal charge of the situation with a holographic projector and voice scrambler. Some things could not be left to chance.

Kang finally arrived at his destination: the Oval Office. The secretary greeted him in a far more sincere manner than the lobbyist had, informing him the president was eager to see him. Kang thanked the woman and was ushered into the office.

He entered, seeing the familiar face of the president standing next to his desk. The only other occupant in the room was a man sitting on a couch, someone Kang wasn't familiar with. He was a handsome sort with blond hair and ice blue eyes. Even seated, Kang could tell he was tall, and under his expensive suit was an impressive physique, something uncommon in the rather flabby, donut-permeated political circles of Washington D.C. There was an air about the stranger that spoke of someone used to wielding power and giving orders rather than the usual type that curried favor from the president.

Kang had no more time to ponder the newcomer as the president greeted him. "Hello, Victor, wonderful to see you, as always."

The president moved forward. Kang met him halfway, returning the greeting with a handshake. "It's always an honor and a pleasure, sir."

"I don't think you've had the honor of meeting my new personal aide, Jonathon Smith." The president indicated the man sitting at the couch.

"I prefer John." The man remained seated, nodding his head in the senator's direction. "A pleasure, sir."

Now the man's presence made sense. Kang returned his attention to the president, "I was sorry to hear about Alex." Alex Jacoby had been the original personal aide to the president, dying only last week from a sudden heart attack. It had taken everyone by surprise, since he had seemed to be in perfect health.

"It was a tragedy, but we move on. John's quietly been at my side since the beginning, though. Alex would have approved of him as his successor."

Kang decided to cut through the casual conversation. Even a master of time could grow anxious. "Thanks for seeing me on such short notice."

"Anything for the one of the men who helped save the election," the president said.

Kang wondered if the man had any idea of what an understatement it was. Kang was the man responsible for the president being elected, which was the original reason to do away with Senator Timely. It was all an attempt at changing 'The Tragedy'. In Kang's timeline, the American government had been indirectly responsible for the events that led up to it (as opposed to the Avengers, who were directly responsible), and there was a chance changing things in the U.S. might prevent the incident without making it so Kang never met her. It was ironic that killing the head of Kunou Industries before his children were born (and preventing the creation of the Iron Rose armor) changed everything so horribly he and his love would never meet (and prevent him from meeting her even as Kang in this timeline), but changing the leadership of the most powerful country on the planet had less of an effect on the event. Of course, the circumstances around Kang and his love had been somewhat insulated, and outside influences were limited, but it was such a fine line to tread that it was frightening.

It had been a simple enough matter to shift the election in the favor of the current president. The election had been decided by such a small percentage that all it took was gaining a few thousand votes in one state to shift it. With a man of Senator Timely's influence whispering in a candidate's ear about concentrating more attention on the state, the man had gained the necessary votes to win. There was one curious thing, though. By Kang's estimation, with the additional campaigning the president had done, he should only have won by five thousand votes. Instead he had won a clear cut margin of twenty-thousand. Kang didn't like his estimations being off. The stakes were too high to allow mistakes of any kind.

However, Kang's fervent hope in doing an end run around The Tragedy had the exact opposite effect, and only served to reinforce the timeline. He wasn't certain of why that should be, his knowledge of time was not yet so vast that he could anticipate the tertiary results of his changes, but it had happened. But what had at first appeared to be a loss ended up netting him a positive gain, one that could make the difference in the elimination of the direct threat posed by the Avengers. Now Kang was Senator Timely, the man the president was beholden to. He had influence and power, and meant to use it, which was why he was in the Oval Office today.

The president's comment had caught Jonathon's attention. "He's the one that tipped us off about the need for additional campaigning?"

The president nodded amicably. "Yep."

The aide turned to Kang. "You have good instincts. I doubt I would have been able to conjure up the necessary number of votes if we had started even a week later."

The president cleared his throat.

"It was an excellent bit of campaigning," Jonathon clarified.

The president turned his attention to Kang once again. "Now, what did you need to see me about?"

At last. It was time to set the wheels of his latest plan into motion. "You read the file I sent you regarding the Hulk?"

The president turned less jovial. "Yes, terrible business, that. I'm outraged over the misuse of government funds over the whole Gamma Bomb program. The last thing the world needs is another kind of bomb. I'm thinking of having an inquiry on the matter."

Jonathon straightened up a bit. "That would be a bad idea, sir. It was green-lighted by your predecessor, when you were vice-president. It would look bad for you to say things like this slipped by under your nose. Besides, it was Shaw Industries that won the contract for it, and he's also one of those enlightened about your potential as president and contributed heavily to you."

The president considered that. "Of course, an inquiry would be pointless now. The program was discontinued anyway. It's probably best to let the matter lie."

"And you read my recommendation?" Kang prodded. "The gamma readings on site match the ones taken by SHIELD. They clearly indicate this rampaging behemoth called the Hulk is that mutated pig. That means we're responsible for its creation."

"Yes," the president said dubiously. "Well, I think you might be overstating the dangers a bit. The formation of a hunt team to destroy him sounds like sending good money after bad, especially since I'm planning on trimming the military's bloated budget. Your suggestion would be counterproductive. Besides, he's spending his time in Japan. He's hardly our problem."

"Perhaps you should see this latest file from SHIELD, sir." Kang handed the president the folder he had been carrying.

The president leafed through the folder, his eyes poring over the contents. Slowly his face took on a horrified expression.

Kang took it he had finally read the 'good part' of the documents. "As you can see, sir, the Hulk completely destroyed that large hill and razed the surrounding terrain."

The president paled. "My god, the damage to the environment, it's like ground zero of an extinction-level event. It'll take hundreds of years for that forest to grow back, and that hill will never return."

At that point Jonathon stood up and held a hand out, silently seeking the documents. The president handed them to him absent-mindedly, his eyes distant.

Kang moved things along. "It took him less than half an hour to do all of that damage. It's estimated he could annihilate an area the size of Yellowstone Park in less than forty-eight hours."

Jonathon peered closely at one of the photos. "Weird, I'd swear that hill has eyes and a mouth."

The president scoffed. "Those are two odd rock formations and a cave, though I will agree they might very well be that poor hill's eyes and mouth in a metaphorical sense." He pondered the matter for another few seconds before deciding. "Gentlemen, it is clear to me that this monster represents a clear and present danger to the world's environment, and must be dealt with quickly and severely."

Jonathon added, "Worse, if this creature ends up causing some disaster, and its origins are traced back to us, it would be incredibly damaging to our reputation. And the press is always trying to dig up the next big scandal. I have no desire for this administration to be in the next one."

"It's a miracle something worse than this hasn't happened already," the president concluded. "Victor, you'll get a green light on this 'Hulkbusters' unit you're clamoring for."

"Thank you, sir." It was nice to see hard work pay off. Banner and Ross were sure to have something that could eradicate the Hulk. "There is a minor problem, though. We'll need permission to operate on Japanese soil."

The president considered that. "We'll need to give them something in return, especially since I have no desire to explain how we created this monster."

"How about that worldwide ban on whaling you've been trying to push through in the U.N.?" Jonathon suggested. "They've been complaining about that for a while now. If we agree to bury it, that might be the favor we need."

The president nodded. "Yes, that might work. And after the Hulk matter is taken care of, we'll bring it up again at a later time. Good plan. I actually have a close friend high up in the Diet, too. She can probably help grease the wheels as well, since she's of a like mind when it comes to environmental dangers like this creature. We'll have Gyrich as the liaison. He's been to Japan before, and he has the right sort of enthusiasm when it comes to situations with powered beings."

"Thank you, sir. I'll get right on this." Kang started to head for the door when the intercom buzzed.

The secretary's voice said, "Mr. President, the Steve Rogers meeting is coming up. You told me to remind you."

The president hit the reply button. "Thank you, Jules."

That had caught Kang's attention. Steve Rogers was an elderly gentleman that had been in the public's eye since shortly after the end of World War II. Despite his sickly nature, he had become one of the most outstanding orators of his time. He was extremely outspoken about the state of the country, the military, and a thousand other topics. It was his sincerity that won people over, and even his most vehement critics never cast aspersions on his integrity. It would be the equivalent of accusing the Pope of being an atheist.

The only negative point in Roger's career was his son, Steven Rogers the Second, though becoming the one-time head of the racist Sons of the Serpent was a black mark indeed. Although even that was starting to be forgotten as his grandson, Steven Rogers the Third, was coming of age. Not only had the young man inherited his grandfather's character, but he had sculpted his body so perfectly that he had won a dozen Olympic gold medals, and possessed looks that had crowned him one of the most eligible bachelors in America.

"He has a meeting with you?" Kang asked.

"Sort of the reverse, actually. I'm having him come by. There's a nasty rumor he's considering running for office in the next election."

That would be cause for concern. People had been trying to get Rogers to run as a third party candidate for decades, but he had always balked. "What's caused the change in attitude?"

The president and Jonathon exchanged a meaningful look. "Let's just say his ideas of what constitutes freedom are antiquated. He's the sort that's mired in the past, and would have this country turn back into the fifties. Hardly the 'Golden Age' of America."

"He also has an unhealthy obsession with the military," Jonathon added. "Probably because he was 4-F'd when he tried to volunteer. It's sad, really, slavishly seeking approval from an organization that rejected him, even if it means ruining everything else in the process. It's like watching a Shakespearean tragedy in action. And he's so old, he could keel over at any time."

"Indeed," the president seconded. "It's time for this nation to move forward. Rogers is a relic of a bygone era that was appropriately abandoned. Still, he's the kind whose talk appeals to a certain segment of the population, and he might split the vote. The fate of this nation relies upon my winning, and we can't take a chance on Rogers muddying things up and letting someone else win. So I'm going to meet with him and reassure him that we share a good bit of common ground. I'm thinking of increasing veterans benefits. That might do it."

"I thought you were talking about slashing the military budget," Kang mentioned.

Jonathon said, "We'll just cut an additional one hundred million and then give it back as an increase in the benefits program."

"Just because we're slashing the military budget doesn't mean we don't care about our soldiers. We're just making them more efficient. Cutting the fat, so to speak," the president confirmed.

"Good luck, sir." Privately, Kang doubted it would work. Rogers was shrewd despite his age, but it mattered little. The time of The Tragedy would occur before the next election, and would be averted by then. After that, plans could be made regarding other things. For now, all of Kang's resources were committed to changing that one event.

The Hulkbusters would succeed. They would kill the Hulk and then everything would be right with the world. A couple of months and it would all be over.

Act II, Scene 3: Guess What's For Dinner

A Ranma ½ / Avengers (the superhero group) fusion
by DB Sommer

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ owned by Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video. The Avengers are owned by Marvel Comics. Yes, the superheroes, not the British TV Series.

Any and all C+C is appreciated. You can contact me at [sommert@connecttime.net]

It was the dead of night as Kaori Makimura stared up at the cloudy skies, watching in anticipation as the helicopter with U.S. military markings landed on the abandoned school field in front of her. She waited anxiously as the helicopter touched down, and disgorged three passengers from its interior, ones that reeked of 'government agent'. The first two wore identical black suits and sunglasses, despite the fact it was ten o'clock at night. Each had an earpiece and wire leading to something inside the pockets of their suit jackets.

The third occupant's dark suit differed from the others, and his sunglasses had a greenish tint to them, evident even in the darkness. He held an air of authority as he approached Kaori with a purposeful stride. Eventually he stood before her.

"Uncle Peter!" Kaori cried out, and hugged the man.

"It's nice to see you, Kaori-chan," Henry Peter Gyrich said in lightly accented Japanese. "My, you've grown up. Let me look at you." He held her out at arm's length, staring at her a moment as a look of consternation crossed his features. It disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived. "Kaori, I want you to know that you'll always be my goddaughter, no matter what your sexual orientation is."

A fist met his face. "I am not a lesbian!"

The two men standing guard a discreet distance behind Gyrich turned to one another. The first one said, "Told you so." The second one handed him several bills of money in response.

Kaori took a closer look at the men and realized they were identical twins. That put her on edge. She had bad luck with twins. "And who are you two gentleman?"

As one they twisted their necks, causing a cracking sound. "Our name is Mr. Smith, Miss Anderson."

"My name isn't Anderson," Kaori said, bewildered.

Through gritted teeth Gyrich spat out, "Their name is Jamie Madrox. All of them are, including the pilot. He's a mutant that likes making bad Matrix jokes and can create an exact duplicate of himself with a kinetic impact."

Jamie One said, "You da' man," to his partner.

Jamie Two said, "No, you da' man."

The two high-fived one another. A third one suddenly appeared between them. He said, "I'm da' man."

"Wow," was all Kaori could manage.

Gyrich continued. "He literally does the work of a hundred men."

"Yeah, but I only get paid like one," Jamie Two grumbled.

Jamie One walked up to Kaori. "Since you're not lesbian, like I said from the start," he shot a glare toward Jamie Two. "How about we go out dancing later? I can do a mean conga line."

"You will date my goddaughter over your dead bodies. All of them," Gyrich said in a tone that could chill ice. He returned his attention to Kaori. "All of the equipment was sent ahead of me and should be enroute to the rendezvous point. There isn't all that much. We only have one specialized squad for the actual field operation, some support personnel for the equipment, and a platoon of normal grunts to help with any manual tasks. How about things on your end?"

Kaori began leading him to a large structure next to field. "This whole school will be our base of operations. Space has been made in that gym over there. I'm actually just a liaison for the local police, though. I'm to keep our people out of the way of your people and the ministry's."


Kaori tensed up. "Yes, the overseers on our side aren't JSDF, like it was supposed to be. At the last minute they got pulled off and some outfit connected with the Ministry of Health and Welfare stepped in and took over everything."

"What the hell is the Ministry of Health and Welfare and how does it relate to a situation like the Hulk's?"

Kaori spoke in a low voice, "I didn't even know it existed until it was announced they were taking control of the situation. What I do know is they stink. They have some sort of pseudo-military unit called 'Hound', and believe me, they're good. They also operate real well together, like they've been under fire. Their boss is a creep named Irie Soyozoh. He's always smiling. He'd probably have the same smile on while sinking a knife in your back, and he's always got a half-dozen mean-looking bodyguards nearby at all times. Hulking brutes that could probably blow away little kids without blinking."

"I see," Gyrich said. "Smells like your government is up to something, too. But the job takes priority. Capture of the Hulk is our concern, not whatever it is your government wants out of the situation. Still, we'll keep our eyes open, just in case."

Kaori nodded in exasperation, opting to follow her more experienced godfather's lead. Also she tried eradicating the horrifying thought of the Saeba twins being able to replicate themselves like Madrox could. One Saeba was bad enough; two pushed her to the edge. One more and she'd lose it completely.

It was an hour later when all of the Hulkbusters and their equipment arrived. Kaori watched as the men and materials were offloaded from the military trucks that had arrived from the nearby American base. As the material was set up, the heads of the American part of the operation met with their liaisons and Irie. Unlike Gyrich and Madrox, none of them could speak Japanese, so Kaori and the men with the ministry spoke English for their benefit.

The four top Americans walked up and formally introduced themselves.

"I'm General Thaddeus Ross." The white-haired man with the lit cigar in his mouth spoke with an aura of command that could only have been gained from decades of being in authority. He introduced the other three men with him. "This is the leader of the attack squad, Major Glenn Talbot." A man in his late twenties with brown hair and thin mustache bowed formally. "This is the leader of the platoon that will help locate the Hulk on the ground, Sergeant John Walker." A large blond-haired, blue-eyed man gave a cursory bow. "And this man in the civilian clothing is Dr. Banner. He's our resident expert on gamma rays and designed the portable tracking units we'll be using to locate the Hulk."

Kaori and Gyrich introduced themselves in turn. Once they were finished, Irie came to the forefront, smiling the entire time. "It's an honor to meet you, General Ross. I have heard much about you. While I have no doubt of your command abilities, I'm obligated to remind you that I'm in charge of the operation, since it's taking place on our country's soil, and my government would like to keep things quiet regarding this matter. But don't worry, I'll stay out of the way and leave this to the professionals. I know my limits, so have no fears on that regard."

Ross was taken off-guard. "Thanks. You're a refreshing man. In my government cutting through bureaucratic nonsense means only having to wait five months instead of eight to get a paper clip for your base."

"You are our guest, and this Hulk matter is of serious concern to us," Irie assured him. "Of course, we want it low profile as well. We wouldn't want a major battle on Japanese soil. The Hulk has been in the center of several of those already."

Banner spoke up. "I think I can resolve the matter quietly, sir."

"Shut up, Banner!" Ross snapped.

"Oh? I'm eager to hear what our resident expert has to say on the matter," Irie said. "Please, speak. I'm listening."

Banner began. "I have a portable device that I'm convinced can destroy the Hulk without any real risk to our men or the public. It's a portable Gamma Imploder I designed. In layman's terms, it'll bathe the Hulk in additional gamma rays, causing his cells to super-saturate and basically implode."

"It's untested and even you admitted it might not work," Ross snarled.

"But I'm convinced it will," Banner insisted.

"I'm not putting my men at risk with your crackpot scheme," Ross said.

Talbot interrupted. "Sir, we can resolve the matter using standard military tactics. The Mandroid Armor Stark built for us will be more than sufficient to destroy the Hulk, and given its tactical nature, will cause only very limited collateral damage."

Ross smiled satisfactorily at Talbot's suggestion.

Kaori watched the interplay between the three men. Ross seemed like a doting father over Talbot, while Talbot seemed to take great personal satisfaction in arguing with Banner, even going so far as to shoot the wan scientist a triumphant glare. Banner seemed cowed and said nothing further.

Irie spoke up. "I think we'll go with standard tactics, like the operation calls for. I do appreciate your input, Dr. Banner. If you come up with any other ideas, feel free to mention them. I'll keep an open mind."

"Thank you, sir." Banner looked like a puppy that had just been kicked by its owner.

It was at that moment that a technician at a recently set up computer shouted, "Sir, we have a gamma contact!" All eyes turned to him.

"Already?" Ross asked. "I knew Hulk had popped up in Nerima several times, but I didn't think he'd show himself so soon. From what direction did he enter the area?"

The technician said, "Well, that's the funny thing, sir. He appeared in the middle of the area, like he suddenly winked into existence. I don't have any explanation, sir."

Ross turned to Banner. "Make sure the equipment is functioning correctly. Talbot, get those Mandroids off-loaded and suit up. We might be able to end this tonight and be on our way home with the Hulk in tow by morning."

"Where is Hulk?" the Hulk bellowed.

It had not been a good week for him. After destroying Spragg, the Living Hill, he had wandered the countryside, trying to figure out how to meet his friends, the Avengers. During the third day of his musings, he had been attacked by robots. He had proceeded to smash them into pieces when a grey armored figure with a green cloak and hood flew in and destroyed the remaining ones. The newcomer introduced himself as Dr. Doom, and said he wanted the Hulk's help in overthrowing a power-mad robot that was bent on world domination. The Hulk had felt inclined to help, since everyone knew robots were bad. Every single one the Hulk had ever met had attacked him for no reason. There was also the fact that doctors were good, like Dr. Strange. Also, Doom had said he would teleport the Hulk to his friends afterwards. So the Hulk had agreed and allowed Dr. Doom to teleport him to some castle in the middle of the countryside. It was there that the evil robot named 'Chi' resided, and the Hulk was to destroy it and save humanity.

However, after smashing his way through the castle's defenses, the Hulk discovered Chi was not a robot at all, but a pretty girl (though not as pretty as the Hammer Girl). When the tiny girl on Chi's shoulder asked the Hulk what he was doing, and he explained he was there to destroy the evil robot, Chi, the pretty girl began crying. She said Dr. Doom was a bad person that wanted to do bad things to Chi, who was a poor helpless girl that was trying to help the world.

That was enough for the Hulk. He went back outside, intent on destroying Dr. Doom's armor. Doom tried to trick him again by claiming Chi was the bad person, but the Hulk knew better. Bad guys were never cute little girls who cried when you threatened them.

Before the Hulk could beat Dr. Doom up, he was teleported away. That had brought him to his current state, standing in a back alley that didn't smell good.

The Hulk looked down and saw an old newspaper. He recognized the writing, if not the words it formed. That meant he was back in Japan. Home.

While a part of the Hulk wanted to find the Avengers, it had been a long day, and he was tired and hungry. He decided to sit down, and rest against a wall for a while, promising to shut his eyes only for a moment. Within seconds he was sleeping. And because he was sleeping, he missed the large figure that was concealed in the shadows nearby.

The one that moved toward him.

"We lost the signal, sir," Banner informed the men clustered around the screen.

"Damn! The boys were almost ready to go out, too," Ross grumbled.

"It could have been a glitch," Banner reluctantly admitted. "That would explain why the initial reading spontaneously appeared in the first place."

"Probably, but we'll double check. Sergeant Walker!"

Walker approached and saluted. "sir."

"Take a portable tracking device and check things out firsthand. If you spot the target, whatever you do, don't try to take him on. Just alert us. I don't want any dead would-be heroes."

"You can count on me, sir."

Irie said, "You'll need a guide that can speak the language. Corporal Narusawa." Irie didn't yell, but his voice carried just as far as Ross' bellows. An attractive woman, about the same age as Walker, appeared. "Escort Sergeant Walker to the area the reading was taken and do a visual inspection of the scene. Report anything odd immediately."

It was at that moment something came together for Kaori. "That's the area where all those people have gone missing."

All eyes turned to her. "What's that?" Gyrich asked.

Kaori explained, "We've recently become aware of a number of disappearances in the area. Mostly homeless people."

"The homeless population in Japan is so insignificant as to be almost non-existent," Irie said with a hint of mockery.

"It's going from 'almost' to just plain 'non-existent'. There are some other people that have gone missing, too. Now that we've been investigating, it seems a lot of people aren't where they used to be anymore in the lower income sections of this area."

"Maybe the Hulk has something to do with it," Ross suggested.

"We'll be doubly aware then," Irie said. "Corporal, be advised as you go out."

"Sir." Narusawa saluted just as crisply as Walker had. "This way," she said to the American she escorted. He followed close behind.

The pair rode a motorcycle to the scene, leaving all of their weapons, save a concealed pistol for each, behind. Walker seemed uncomfortable on the vehicle, and that he was being driven by a girl. He was relieved when they arrived in the area the signal had originated. They parked the motorcycle, and Walker removed the portable tracking device and set it up. While not having anywhere near the range of the master unit at the temporary headquarters, it could detect gamma ray levels within a thirty meter radius. He ran a check on it, radioed back to headquarters, then led the way down the alley.

"So your name is Johnny Walker?" Narusawa said in surprisingly good English.

"Yeah," Walker said idly.


"I ain't no commie!" Walker shouted.

"Was just joke," Narusawa assured him.

"I know. I just hear it all the time," Walker said.

"You seem tense," Narusawa mentioned.

"I ain't used to working with girls."

"I am not used to working with Americans," Narusawa countered.

"I don't mean anything by it, it's just my Ma and Pa were real traditional. Guys earned the money and women kept home and made babies. They didn't go around in combat boots and rifles."

"Ah, you would fit in well with Japan. That is 'traditional' here as well." There was a touch of bitterness in her voice.

Walker seemed to pick up on it. "You know what you're doing, though. I can tell by the way you move. They said you ain't regular military, though. What do you Hounds do?"

"Chase cats."

"Cats are so dangerous in Japan you need an automatic rifle to take them out?"

"Some breeds."

The thing about the response was that, to Walker's ears, it sounded like she was being serious. He supposed he lost something in the translation and distracted himself by looking down at the monitor. "I'm getting something odd here. While there's nothing strong enough to be the Hulk himself, I am picking up unusually high gamma readings. Not dangerous levels, but ten times greater than normal. I think they go off in a direction."

"We'll report back." Narusawa radioed back to their headquarters. The response was immediate. "We keep following the trail."

"Got it."

The two continued on past the alleyway.

Awareness returned to Ryouga as he felt himself being jostled in an up and down motion. Memories of his childhood marked it as the same movement he had felt when being carried by either of his parents, during those infrequent times when he saw them. Rather than being curled up in someone's arms, however, he found his face pointed toward the ground. He was slung over someone's shoulder, and Ryouga was no child, but a young man on a quest for vengeance.

Instinctively Ryouga used his arms to brace himself on the massive back of the person carrying him, and kicked off, wiggling out of the grasp around his legs. He used his arms to flip himself over the shoulder and to land on his feet with his back to his carrier's. He spun around more quickly than the other and caught a view of a massive hunchbacked form hidden beneath a tattered outfit of rags. The being had to be nearly three meters tall and weighed a quarter ton. As the figure turned, it wore a hood that hid its features deep within a veil of darkness.

"Who the hell are you?" Ryouga shouted.

Wordlessly the figure reached out with a massive hand, huge fattened fingers poking through what might have at one time been gloves, with clumps of dirt sticking to them. A rancid smell reached Ryouga's nostrils as the hand came near his face, and he resisted the urge to vomit.

Ryouga drew a fist back, but a cracked voice, barely recognizable as female, shouted, "Stop!"

The large figure did so, lowering its hand. Not sensing any impending violence, Ryouga turned to confront the speaker. Crone was the first word that came to mind, like some refugee from a Grimm fairy tale. She was dressed in a frayed purple cloak, old, but not in the state of disrepair that the clothing of the other figure was. Long wisps of thin white hair, many standing up on the top of her head, flowed down her back, and her face was a crag of crinkled lines. Rheumy eyes gazed at him, and as she opened her mouth, only three teeth, two on the top and one on the bottom, were visible.

"Please, please kind sir, don't be trying to beat up my Kenny. He's a good boy, he is. I asked him to grabs you, since them awful soldiers boys was comin'. Kenny found you sleeping it off in an alley. Didn't think it proper to leave a poor defenseless lad like you in theirs hands, so we was takin' you back to our home. No harm. We didn't mean you no harm."

The quiet desperation struck a chord in Ryouga, and he paused to take in his surroundings. From all appearances he had been carried to a warehouse that had been abandoned sometime back in World War II. There was a large empty space that dominated this floor, with every kind of debris imaginable littering the length of it. Many holes could be seen in the flooring, some nearly two meters wide, that led to the level below. Mildew and rot filled the air, and Ryouga's stomach roiled again. This was no decent home, not even for a rat.

"Who are you?" Ryouga asked.

"My name's Yumi, it is. And that's my son, Kenny. Come here, Kenny."

Kenny shuffled over to his mother, waiting at her side like an obedient, mute dog.

It wasn't much of an explanation, but looking this pair over, it might be the best they could manage. Something she said earlier caught his ear. "What were you saying about soldiers?"

"Soldier boys coming. They hunt us all the time, all because my Kenny's different. It ain't his fault he is, Mister. No one would want to be the way he is. But 'cause he's different, we keeps getting hunted. First by the townspeople in our fishing village, then by everyone we meet. People don't like it when other people are different, they don't. They hates what's different and drive it away. But it ain't my Kenny's fault for being different. It ain't."

Ryouga still couldn't make out Kenny's features very well, but what little of his flesh that poked out through the ruins of his clothing looked darkened, almost charred. Maybe he had been horribly burned, or was deformed, or was some kind of mutant. Maybe he was a burned, deformed, mutant. Whatever he was, he was a creature to be pitied, not feared.

Ryouga knew what it was like to be different. He had always been stronger and tougher than the other kids. And there was his terrible sense of direction. And he was shy, especially around pretty girls. Combined, his characteristics had made him a social outcast. And then along came Ranma, who was the epitome of all Ryouga was not. He was even a better fighter who had picked on Ryouga mercilessly, just like people picked on poor, hideous Kenny. Probably the only difference was Ranma hadn't stolen Kenny's bread every day for a month.

Lately Ryouga's sense of isolation had been worse. He was waking up in strange, far off lands with no memory of how he had gotten there. And his clothing kept getting shredded and he ended up in torn purple pants. He felt even more harassed and picked on, even if no one had either harassed or picked on him in a while. He was so out of sorts that he didn't even feel all that angry at life anymore, as though most of his anger was somehow being drained out of him. Hell, he wasn't even that angry at Ranma anymore. Whenever he thought of his mortal enemy, he just couldn't get worked up over it like he used to.

And compared to Kenny, Ryouga had it easy. At least he could walk around in the normal world. But this poor guy couldn't even go out in public. It really put things in perspective.

A sound came from one of the holes. Kenny moved surprisingly nimble for a man his size. He peeked down the hole, and then drew back.

Yumi moved toward the edge quietly and looked down. "Them soldiers is here," she whispered in fear. "They're going to take my Kenny away from me."

It took Ryouga all of two seconds to decide. "I'll take care of them."

"You will?" Yumi asked. Even Kenny cocked his head quizzically in his direction.

"I know how to fight," Ryouga assured her. "You two stay out of the way. This shouldn't take me more than a few seconds."

Ryouga looked through the bottom of the hole, keeping as close to the edge as he could without giving away his position. There were only two people dressed in military uniforms. Surprisingly, one was a gaijin who had some sort of box in his hands. The other was a girl. Ryouga didn't like hitting girls, but sometimes it had to be done. Besides, girls tended to have little reluctance when it came to smacking men around, when they felt there was just cause.

Once they passed by, Ryouga leaped down through the hole. He tried landing quietly, but the weakened flooring groaned under his sudden weight, threatening to break. Both soldiers turned in surprise.

Ryouga was fast, kicking the foreigner hard in the gut. The blow landed solidly, and the soldier dropped the device he had. Ryouga waded in with a hard right to the man's jaw, sending him crashing limply to the floor.

Ryouga turned, hoping to talk the woman into surrendering. Instead he was met with a boot to the face, rattling his jaw. Spinning gracefully, she switched legs and hit him in the stomach with a thrust kick right into his solar plexus, driving the wind out of him. She chopped him in the back of his unprotected neck, but his durability won out, and he managed to lash out with a fist, driving the woman back.

"What are you? A phantom cat?" she asked.

Ryouga was about to deny it, not even knowing what a ghost cat had to do with anything, when he saw a form come swinging down from the hole. Kenny dangled from one long, almost simian-like arm that clung to the edge of the hole, and lashed out with his feet. It was only a glancing blow to the woman's head, but it sent her to the floor. Rendering her just as unconscious as the first man.

"Kenny thought you could use the help," Yumi said from above.

Kenny reached up, cradled the frail woman in his arms, and landed on the floor. Yumi looked the two over. "Good, they're still alive. No harm done, then."

Ryouga said, "I doubt if they were alone. I think they were looking for something. Probably you. You two had better get out of here."

Yumi nodded. "We'll just grab a few things and go. You'd better go now, just to be on the safe side."

"I should help," Ryouga insisted.

"You've done more than enough. Kenny and me don't want you getting mixed up in our business. Bad enough you had to do what you did to these two. We'd never forgive ourselves if you got into trouble."

"If you're sure."

"We are. You run along. Me and Kenny will be going soon."

Ryouga turned to go, then realized something. "How do I get out?"

Yumi said, "We're only on the second floor. There's a stairwell behind that pillar there. You go down one floor, then exit. Any direction you go will lead out. Whatever you do, don't try going down to the basement. Them stairs is crumbling bad and you'll fall through for sure. Go out the first door you come to and you'll be fine."

"Right. Good luck. I hope you find some place where soldiers can't find you." For some reason, that desire struck a chord in Ryouga, even if he had never been chased by soldiers. He waved at them and turned to go.

Ryouga was relieved to find the door to the stairwell on the first try. That it was the only door still on its hinges on the level helped greatly. He entered the stairwell, closing the door behind him, and proceeded to walk downward.

It was as he walked down that an errant thought occurred to him. Yumi had told him to exit through the first door he came to, except the first door he came to was the one he had entered, wasn't it? Did that one count and she meant to go down one floor and out, or was it some kind of complicated way of getting out? She probably meant two doors. So he would count off two doors, and go out that way.

Ryouga had come to that conclusion when he realized he had run out of stairs. He didn't think he had passed a door on the way down, except he had to have passed at least the first door. He just hadn't been paying attention to if he had already passed door number two or not. So was this the door he was supposed to go out or not?

Ryouga shrugged. He would take this door, and if it didn't lead out, he would choose a different one. There could only be so many doors in a building, after all. Course decided, he opened what he hoped was the exit. There were no quick answers, as beyond the doorway was only pitch blackness, not a hint of light anywhere. Part of Ryouga wanted to leave and go back up, but he'd look incredibly stupid if he went up the stairs and ended up right back where he had started. That last thing in the world he wanted was to be lugged around by Kenny again. It was better to move on ahead, and if he couldn't find a way out, go up one level and try again.

Ryouga walked through the darkness, becoming aware of an odd scent in the air. It was even worse than the upper level had been. It took a moment to recall where he had smelled it before: when Kenny had reached out to grab him.

Maybe this was Kenny's living chamber. If so, he needed a bath in the worst possible way. Ryouga continued walking until something snapped under his foot. He cursed both the darkness and his clumsiness. He hoped it wasn't something valuable of Kenny's he had broken. Not that Kenny looked like he had anything valuable. But one never knew.

Crouching down, Ryouga felt around for what he had broken, hoping he could repair or replace it. As his hand played across something round, Ryouga picked it up and began feeling it, trying to figure out what it was by sense of touch alone. The top was rounded, but the bottom uneven. There seemed to be two holes on it on one side, and strands of something sticking to it.

He was still trying to figure out what was in his hands when the room suddenly filled with a dim illumination that came from the stairwell. Ryouga saw that what he had in his hands was a human skull, stray bits of flesh and hair still clinging to it.

"Ah!" Ryouga dropped the skull to the floor, cracking it. He turned to look, and in the dull illumination, he saw bones scattered everywhere. Right next to him was a knee-high pile of skulls, at least three dozen in number, if not more.

"I told you not to come here."

Ryouga turned toward the source of the light. Yumi stood partially revealed in the yellow glow, the wizened crone holding a cracked oil lantern in front of her. Standing several meters away from her was Kenny, both the military people slung over his shoulders like sacks of rice.

"You shouldn't have ought to done that, Mister. I told you not to come down to the basement."

Ryouga's heart began to race. "It was an accident. I have a bad direction sense. Maybe I should leave." He made no motion to head toward the doorway, not with the now sinister pair between him and any sanctuary beyond.

"Now it's too late. We liked you, Mister, really we did. You helped us, and we were real appreciative, but now it's too late. You'll tell others and they'll blame Kenny again, like they always do. It's not his fault, his condition. We was poor, and his father was dead, and fishing was bad. He found it washed up on the shore and thought it was just a fish. He didn't know it was a mermaid, not with its top missing. Wasn't right it made him into what he is, and gave him an appetite for people. It's hard on us, it is. Always having to move before people find out. It's just not right."

Ryouga had heard legends of what happened to people that devoured mermaid's flesh. Some said it gave the eater immortality, while others said it only brought death. He had also heard it changed people into monsters. Since he didn't believe in mermaids, there was no reason to wonder which of the legends were true, though by all appearances it was the last.

"Perhaps if you go to the police they'll help Kenny find a cure," Ryouga suggested, peering into the gloom, praying he could find an alternate exit.

"They'll just lock him up when it ain't his fault. No, it's better this way. Kenny was going to have these two as a meal before we left, but he's got a hearty appetite. Three will keep him happy for a while." She nodded at the misshapen form of her son

Kenny allowed the soldiers to slump to the floor, then charged Ryouga. Even he was startled by the burst of speed from someone so large. The top of the cloak fell away, revealing the face of Kenny. It was hideous, large and lumpy, with scales, large fish eyes, and a hole where his nose should have been. Not a strand of hair was left, on his head, and only hunger existed in his jaundiced-colored eyes.

Ryouga only had a chance to take a half-step back when the cursed-human was upon him. Kenny said nothing, given the shape of his head and neck perhaps he was incapable of creating human sounds. His mouth worked fine, though, as he opened his maw so large it appeared his jaw must have dislocated. Two rows of centimeters long teeth sank deep into Ryouga's shoulder, shooting fires of pain that nearly consumed his consciousness and made him roar in agony.

Yumi watched her son go to work. He had a hearty appetite, her boy did. He'd eat all three of the meddlesome people, and then they could move on to somewhere else. Maybe Kyoto. There were lots of people there. Who would miss a few? One thing Japan didn't suffer from was a shortage of people. She was doing the country a favor, when one thought of it. Kenshiro was a good boy, he was.

Then she saw something peculiar. Kenny had stopped for some reason. By now he should have bitten through the boy's shoulder and worked his way down to the torso. He had wonderful teeth. No need for a dentist, not for him. But instead he ceased chewing for some reason and remained still.

Then he started to rise up. Yumi wondered what was going on when she realized he was rising up until his feet were dangling off the floor. Then she saw it, the huge green hand reach up from under his arm to grab Kenny by his neck. The arm was huge, even bigger than her Kenny's, and the cries from the boy became deeper bellows of rage.

The arm pried Kenny from his perch on the boy, and Yumi saw the huge green beast that now had her son in its powerful grip. Her heart trembled, just like it had when she realized what her son had eaten on that windswept beach so many months ago.

The beast roared, "You try to eat Hulk! You hurt Hulk! You make Hulk bleed! Now Hulk will make you bleed!" He threw Kenny across the length of the room where his body collided with a pillar that buckled under the force of the impact.

"Kenny!" Yumi cried out, not understanding what was going on, other than some terrible monster was trying to kill her child.

The mermaid's curse left Kenny with the stamina and power of a dozen men. He rose back to his feet and charged the Hulk, intent on finishing his meal.

Eyes rimmed in red from pain and rage, the Hulk drew back his fist and struck the incoming mass of flesh hard in the stomach with an uppercut. The blow sent Kenny sailing back where he had originally been tossed, this time slamming into the ceiling. He bounced off and back to the ground where he lay motionless for several seconds. Then he began to rise again.

"Hulk will smash stupid monster!" the emerald behemoth promised.

It was not to be as the combination of the loss of pillar and impact to the ceiling proved too much for the ages-old structure to bear. Three quarters of the ceiling came down upon Kenny, crushing him under tons of rubble since that part of the basement extended to a fallen in part of the warehouse. Metal rods and concrete stuck up from the pile of debris, but there was no movement other than the slow settling of dust.

"Kenny!" Yumi shouted, running over to heap of concrete.

The Hulk watched the pile of rubble intently, wanting to smash the monster that had hurt him so severely. Though only with his good arm, since the wounds the monster had given him were still bleeding. He looked down at the holes still there. Never had he been hurt like this before. He wanted to punch the creature again and again until there was nothing left.

So intent was the Hulk on wanting revenge that he was unaware of the activity on the surface until lights shined down upon him. He looked up and was perplexed by what he saw. Six giant armored figures, each nearly four meters tall, looked down on him from edges of the hole. The figures had oversized forearms and lower legs, and cables led from those parts into a huge hump on their backs, though they remained upright. They weren't robots, however, as each one had a clear faceplate, and behind them were the faces of men.

Major Glenn Talbot had led his five men to the site where they had received the last transmission of Sergeant Walker and his Hound guide. When they had failed to report in, General Ross feared the worst and ordered Talbot to lead the squad of Mandroid Armor out to locate the soldiers, low profile be damned.

That was the way Talbot wanted it. He finally had a chance to be the hero and impress Betty Ross, the general's daughter. It had been love at first sight for Talbot, though he quickly learned she seemed to only have eyes for that wimp Bruce Banner. But that was because she hadn't met a man like Glenn Talbot. Once she saw what a true man of action was capable of, downing that walking disaster called the Hulk, she'd fall for him in an instant. Then he'd show her what real men were capable of and why nerds like Banner weren't worth giving the time of day.

The sound of something collapsing had drawn the squad's attention. They had raced as fast as they could to the source of the noise, only to discover a scene out of some horror movie. It was a pit full of human remains, dozens of them, some of them showing signs of having been eaten, with a huge, roaring monstrosity in the center of the charnel house. The Hulk looked even more dangerous and horrifying in person, especially when surrounded by so many dead bodies.

Talbot made certain that image was being transmitted back to the base. "Can you see this, General?"

"We see it. My god, we see it," Ross said.

Kaori's voice came over in the background. "The Hulk was responsible for all the disappearances. He's a serial killer of some kind! He has to be killed!"

Another voice, much more official in tone, came over. "This is Soyozoh. You have my permission to use lethal force in dealing with the Hulk."

"Thank you, sir," Talbot said. He was about to order the men to open fire on the Hulk when he noticed an elderly woman nearby. It looked like she was trying to dig her way out to escape the Hulk. It was probably his latest intended victim. Well, he had no intention of allowing her to be devoured by that monster.

As Talbot considered how to get the Hulk out, the creature did the job for him. While he had heard stories of the Hulk's prodigious leaps, the major was unprepared for how far and fast the monstrosity could go with barely tensing his legs. He sailed up and out of the pit, landing a good twenty meters away. The behemoth turned, rage evident on his features. Talbot wondered if, after he killed the Hulk, that look would still be on his face. He would love to keep the head and mount it on his wall next to his other trophies. The Hulk was just a mutated pig, after all.

"As we practiced, men," Talbot ordered. The men ran around the Hulk, surrounding him in a circle, yet each was mindful not to stand directly across from one of the others.

Talbot wanted to open fire, but protocol dictated he try to end things peacefully. "Surrender, monster, and submit yourself to United States authority."

The Hulk bellowed, "Stupid metal man with big hands, Hulk not monster. Hulk stop monster."

That sounded like a refusal to Talbot. Everything was recorded for posterity. Now he would have a clear conscience in destroying the Hulk. "Units 2 and 5, maneuver D4."

"Roger!" the men operating the Mandroids shouted. Each of the men raised their metal gauntlets and opened their hands, pointing them in the Hulk's direction. From their index fingers thick cables shot out. Unit 2 snared the Hulk's good arm while the other wrapped itself around the Hulk's left ankle.

"Now!" Talbot ordered. Thousands of amps shot through the cable and into the Hulk, making his body twitch and hair stand on end. It was proving too easy.

The Hulk stopped twitching long enough to brace his feet and tense up his good arm. Then he jerked the snared arm, whipping the Mandroid around as though he weighed one pound instead of a thousand. The Mandroid went sailing into the air, colliding with the other one that was electrocuting the Hulk. The impact caused the cable around the Hulk's arm to snap and the one around his leg stopped conducting electricity into his body, going slack. The Hulk stepped out of cable and turned to confront his remaining attackers.

"Stupid metal men are just as bad as robots! Everyone attacks Hulk for no reason! Now Hulk will smash!"

Now Talbot felt the first vestige of fear creep along his spine. The Hulk hadn't been affected by the electricity in the slightest. But years of training and cool professionalism took over. "Heat beams! We'll boil the blood in his veins!"

A wide beam emanated from a slit on the top of the heads of the Mandroids, each striking the Hulk. Even one of the fallen units had recovered enough to add his heat beam to the onslaught. Despite the continuous nature of the attack, the Hulk simply stood there, growing madder by the second.

"Stupid metal men think making Hulk sweat will stop him?! Nothing can stop the Hulk!" He began to move toward Talbot.

The major jerked slightly, his beam moving across one of the Hulk's shoulder. The beast stopped moving forward and roared out in pain. It took Talbot a moment to realize why his beam had affected the Hulk when none of the others had. "He's wounded in the shoulder, men. Concentrate energy weapons on that shoulder. Rapid fire!"

They disengaged the heat beams and went with the more powerful energy weapons built into their hands. Every Mandroid opened up with everything they had. Now the Hulk was put on the defensive, trying to protect his injured shoulder from the raging fire. But the wound inflicted by Kenny's mouth was too wide for even the Hulk's large hand to cover, and several of the discharges hit the cuts directly, causing him to become dizzy with pain.

"Close in and finish him off!" Talbot ordered.

The Mandroids started to do so, pouring the fire from their hands at their target.

Then a shield whizzed through the air and hit Unit 2's in the hands, striking one and bouncing off to hit the other, sending his blasts awry.

A flying hammer impacted with Unit 3, sending him sailing through the air, his flight arrested upon crashing into a building.

A pair of repulsor rays struck Unit 4, knocking him off his feet.

Two arrows struck Unit 5 in the hands, each exploding and disrupting his firing capabilities.

Talbot and the remaining Mandroid discontinued their attack and turned to face the new threat. Standing boldly before him on a nearby pile of rubble, the major identified the entire roster of the Avengers, save for one female in a suit of power armor of some kind, one much smaller than the Mandroids. Since the large, bulky armor of the Iron Rose wasn't present, he assumed this was a new version of the armor. Lighter by far than its predecessor and a mix of grey and black instead of jet black, it looked too slender to be very powerful.

Captain Japan caught his returning shield as the Avengers moved apart. He said, "Hey, pal, when you attack one Avenger, you attack us all, and there aren't anywhere near enough of you to keep your asses from getting kicked."

Computers in the Mandroid's armor translated the youth's speech. The joke was on this impudent upstart. He wasn't the hero, here, Talbot was. The major activated his speaker to translate his own words into Japanese. "We are an elite U.S. military unit sanctioned by your government to apprehend the Hulk and remand him into our custody. He's wanted in connection to the serial killing of over two dozen Japanese citizens. Interference with us is the same as breaking the law. Now stand aside."

"Yeah, right," Captain Japan said. "Even if what you said is true, and I doubt it, it looked to me like you were trying to kill our big green buddy instead of capturing him. And while the oversized galoot has a bad temper, he ain't no killer. So why don't you back off and let us handle the situation before things get painful for you?"

This snot-nosed punk's attitude rubbed Talbot wrong in every way imaginable. Where did he get off thumbing his nose at authority, especially when Talbot and his men were armed to the teeth while he was just some glorified acrobat with a shield? A quick look showed the major that his men had recovered from the Avengers' sneak attack. Now the fight would be on even ground, and Talbot had faith in the state-of-the-art technology Tony Stark had provided.

"Disable the Avengers, men!" Talbot ordered.

The Avengers separated, preventing the Mandroids from concentrating their fire on them as a group.

The fight was on.

The man in Unit 2's Mandroid armor smirked as he opened fire on Captain Japan, who was stupid enough to actually charge him. While the youth was fast, there was nothing he could to the armor. It was composed of a titanium-osmium alloy which could take a rocket at point blank range and only have its surface marred. Though try as he might, the soldier couldn't seem to hit the captain, even firing at full automatic.

Darting and weaving through the unrelenting fire, Captain Japan was suddenly standing in front of the Mandroid, bringing his shield up in front of him. Like some hunk of metal that would stop a full power energy blast. The youth was a century too late. Maybe destroying the shield would convince the hero he was totally outclassed.

Unit 2 put his hands up flush with the shield and fired at point blank range. Captain Japan remained where he was, but the back blast from the concussion traveled up the barrels the discharge had come from. It went up the Mandroid's arms, blowing the metal off and causing the suit to shut down from the catastrophic damage it had suffered. It froze up, standing like a statue.

Captain Japan smirked at the man behind the faceplate. "Sorry, pal, I gotta do it." He placed one arm against the armor and pushed.

The Mandroid fell over with an audible thump.

Unit 6 found himself facing off against the Goddess of Thunder. Now this was a chick he'd love to go hand-to-hand with, and do a whole lot of other things to as well. "You'd better give up," he warned. "This unit is designed to withstand lightning strikes. There isn't anything you can do."

"Thou thinkest the tinkerings of man can overcome the full fury of the storm? Think again." Thor tapped her hammer to the ground. A lightning bolt five times greater than any normal one struck the Mandroid in the top of the head. When the flash of light cleared, all could see the now smoldering singed black remains of the giant, inoperable hunk of metal with its pilot now trapped inside.

Unit 3 squared off with the hovering Iron Rose in her new streamlined armor. "Get ready to have your ass kicked, Avenger. You're dealing with a twenty million dollar, top-of-the-line power armor built by America's greatest mechanical genius. There's no way that rice burner you're wearing can stand up to it."

The Iron Rose replied, "While I will concede Stark's inventive genius might rival my employer's own, I'm afraid that what you're wearing is a mass-produced, cost-efficient production model, while my own armor is a unique, highly customized, prohibitively expensive armor. That means I can afford to have the absolute best of every piece of technology there is, all of it lovingly handcrafted by the person who developed it."

Unit 3 suddenly felt very uneasy. He tried to prove the Iron Rose wrong by firing at her, but she proved too fast and nimble, deftly evading his energy blasts in an elaborate aerial ballet. She literally flew circles around him, lashing out everywhere with her repulsor beams and causing warning lights to flash all across his readouts. Then she became creative, using lasers, tasers, and a dozen other exotic weapons, as though she were testing out their capabilities on him. Within minutes his armor was reduced to a useless hunk of metal.

Silently he swore the next time he bought a car, it would be a Honda.

Unit 5 found himself confronted by a red garbed man wearing a devil's mask. He also found himself laughing contemptuously. "I know you. You're Daredevil, the powerless superhero who hides stuff in his pants. You go ahead and throw your billy-clubs, chains, and whatever useless crap you got stuffed in there. I'm going to find me a real superhero."

"How about I try this?" Daredevil reached into his sleeves and pulled out in object.

Unit 5 laughed even harder. "Oh yeah, a water balloon. Now that's dangerous. I guess I'd better surrender before you make me rust solid."

Daredevil lobbed the balloon at Unit 5's faceplate. It exploded against the plastic, blackening the view so the man inside couldn't see anything. "Paint? You think that can stop me? I got heat sensors, you know."

Unit 5 switched them on just in time to make out Daredevil throwing a small metal can at him. Unit 5 tried to block the can, but it slipped past his arms and hit him in the face, where it broke and splattered some wet substance over him.

"You already messed up my windshield," the soldier said.

Daredevil pulled out a book of matches, lit one up, and threw it at the Mandroid. Instantly his sensor unit was covered in flame, turning his view an unrelenting red.

Blinded, Unit 5 was unaware of the archer that had made her way behind him until four blast arrows impacted at his shoulders and knees, disabling all of his limbs, leaving him to collapse on his stomach, unable to move or see.

Unit 4 found himself confronted by twenty feet of human being in the form of Giant Man. While the Mandroid armor made Unit 4 extremely tall, there was something terribly disturbing about seeing someone so proportionately huge.

"I feel extraordinarily Lilliputian," Unit 4 said to himself. He then activated his external speakers. "You know, shooting you isn't going to be a problem. I don't think I could miss if I tried."

"How about shooting me instead?"

Unit 4 couldn't locate the source of the voice, until he saw a small girl with wings out of her back hovering no more than a handful of centimeters in front of his faceplate. She waved at him, smiling pleasantly.

"You've got power blasts, don't you?" Unit 4 asked.

"Yes," Wasp answered.

It now occurred to him that her smile wasn't all the pleasant, at least not as far as he was concerned. He knew enough about the specs of the Mandroid armor to know the faceplate was the weak point, and that at such a close range he couldn't do anything to the Wasp that wouldn't cause him considerable damage as well.

"I have no interest in wasting the taxpayers' money by trashing this armor." He held his hands up in surrender.

While the others had squared off against their opponents, Talbot had decided to continue with his primary directive. The Hulk was wounded, and if he was killed, the Avengers would lose their reason for fighting. He had to finish the Hulk fast on the offhand chance his men were defeated and the entire roster of the Avengers fell upon him. Deciding to risk it all, Talbot disengaged the safety limiters on his Mandroid armor. It would flood all of his systems with a hundred and seventy-five percent of their normal power, but any amount of time over five minutes would overload the armor, rendering it a twenty-million dollar paperweight. But stopping the Hulk was all that mattered, and Talbot knew he could finish him off under the time limit.

The Hulk was only just starting to recover when Talbot hit him with a running tackle, knocking the wind out of the behemoth and carrying him away from the combat zone. An interruption from one of the Avengers was the only thing that could save the Hulk now, and once they were out of sight, they would have their hands full with the other members of the unit. Even if the men failed to defeat the superheroes, it wouldn't matter. They just needed to slow the Avengers down long enough for Talbot to complete his mission.

"Those idiot heroes! The Hulk would be dead now if it wasn't for their meddling!" Kaori shouted at the viewscreen as the battle raged on.

"They do tend to get in the way," Gyrich seconded. "They need to be controlled, if not banished outright. It's why vigilantism cannot be allowed to run rampant. Super-powered beings have a place in the world, but as tools, not rabble-rousing waves of destruction."

"Bah, give me military men any day," General Ross grumbled. "You'll see. Talbot will still be able to stop the Hulk. He's one of the best I have."

A burst of static came over the radio. The communications officer manning the equipment said, "Sir, I think you should hear this. It's from Sergeant Walker and Corporal Narusawa."

"Put it on," Ross ordered.

A loudspeaker burst out in Narusawa's voice. "Sir, I can positively confirm that the Hulk is not responsible for any of the deaths here."

"What's that?" Ross shouted.

"Walker and I discovered the true culprit. It was some sort of cannibalistic mutant. I had confirmation from the mutant's mother, who had no knowledge we could hear her. It would have eaten us if it wasn't for the Hulk, sir."

"Well, that certainly muddies the waters," Irie said. He turned to Ross. "Tell your men to stand down. I suspect the Hulk is the victim here, rather than the victimizer."

Ross reluctantly nodded. "All units, this is General Ross speaking. Stand down. Repeat, stand down."

"I've almost finished off the Hulk," Talbot's voice declared.

"You have your orders, Major."

On screen, the fight between the Hulk and Talbot continued.

"Stand down, Major!" Ross repeated. "Stand down!"

"He seems to be caught up in the heat of battle," Irie said idly.

"Shut down the Mandroid," Ross ordered one of the nearby technicians.

"It can't be shut down when the safety limiters are off, sir," the technician informed him.

"Damn!" Ross pounded his fist into the control panel. "Banner, do you have any ideas?" When there was no response, the general began looking around. "Banner? Damn it! Where did he go? "

The others shrugged.

Talbot turned off his radio. One of the Avengers had obviously hacked into the military's radio frequency and impersonated the general's voice. Most likely it was the Iron Rose. Major Glenn Talbot was not some mindless automaton. He knew what he had seen. The Hulk was a menace that needed to end, and the glory would belong to Talbot.

Now clear of the Avengers, Talbot decided on the best way to end things. While the Hulk was still weakened, he was vulnerable. Still carrying the Hulk, the Mandroid stopped running and locked his arms behind the behemoth's back, pinning the Hulk's arms to his sides. Once the fingers were perfectly aligned, there was a whirring of motors and shifting of metal as the fingers linked up, creating a seamless band of armor. As they locked into place the hydraulic systems in the Mandroid activated. The process was complete, the Mandroid's arms had basically turned into a hydraulic-powered vice capable of bending anything short of adamantium steel. No matter how durable the Hulk was, his spine would break in a matter of seconds.

The Hulk bellowed in pain. "You're hurting Hulk!"

"No, I'm killing you, monster" Talbot corrected.

The veins began to pop along the Hulk's forehead and arms. "Hulk… not… monster!"

Talbot couldn't believe his armor's readings. Even with the hydraulic system in its hyperactive state, the Hulk was threatening to overload it.

"No, you can't be that strong!" Talbot protested.

"Hulk can be that strong, because Hulk is the… strongest… one… there… is!" And with a tearing of metal, the Hulk broke free, every one of the Mandroid's fingers shattering into useless stumps.

The Hulk fell to the ground gasping, the exertion of overcoming the Mandroid taxing even his might, and leaving him more vulnerable than ever.

Something seemed to snap inside Talbot as he stared in disbelief at the ruins of his armor's hands. Nothing could be that powerful. Nothing should be that powerful. It was wrong on some fundamental level. Flesh should not be able to triumph over technology, not like this.

The reptile portions of the Major's brain took over. He saw the blood pouring anew from the Hulk's shoulder, the titanic effort ripping his wounds wider. While the Mandroid's hand weapons were ruined, the same could not be said for the others hidden in its gauntlets. A long blade extended from a recess in the wrist joint. Talbot lunged forward with it, burying it halfway into one of the wounds.

To anyone not in Talbot's animalistic frenzy, the cry of pain loosed by the Hulk would have made them draw back. In the major's state of mind, it had an effect like blood to a shark, and only made him try to drive more of it in. "Die, Hulk! Die!"

"No!" The Hulk cried out, a fist smashing solidly into the armor. Rage and pain fueled the blow, and the blade broke off in the Hulk's skin as the Mandroid was sent sailing through the air like a missile, slamming back first through the wall of one of the many deserted buildings in the area. Mortar and concrete weren't enough to stop his Hulk-issued flight, only to deflect it as the armor shot along the ground, leaving a huge groove in its wake as it peeled off the first six inches of soil before coming to a halt.

Talbot was dazed, something that shouldn't have been possible with the Mandroid's protection. He tried to get up, tried to force the armor to obey his commands, but it refused. He ran a diagnostic and saw that the power unit in the hump on the Mandroid's back had suffered critical structural integrity failure. Then every system on board went out, and the Major could only look through the faceplate.

"Damn you!" Talbot raged, his mind going through a thousand different scenarios on what he would do to the Hulk once he was free. Then he became aware of an increase in the temperature inside the armor. Smoke began to fill the airtight cockpit. He tried using the manual release, but discovered the mechanism had shattered in the crash, rendering it non-functional. Lacking that, the only way to exit the Mandroid was a team of men armed with cutting torches to burn him out, and the nearest ones were nearly a mile away.

"No, I'll die!" Talbot shouted through the armor.

The cries attracted the attention of someone nearby.

The Hulk walked toward the fallen man.

Bruce Banner arrived at the scene just in time to see the Hulk lumbering toward the fallen Mandroid. While Talbot had made his contempt for Banner known from the outset, the doctor had ignored it for the most part. He was used to being picked on since his college days. He didn't get angry. Not anymore. Becoming angry reminded him of his father. Made him like his father. Better to keep the anger bottled up, ignore it until it went away.

Besides, there was always Betty to think about. Beautiful Betty, who, against all reason, was attracted to the wimp Bruce Banner. Her love was so magnificent that he had started to not think of himself in those terms anymore. If someone like Betty could fall for someone like him instead of a walking testament to testosterone like Glenn Talbot, maybe Bruce Banner wasn't so insignificant after all.

He wanted to prove that to himself, so Bruce had stolen away with his Gamma Imploder, intent on ending the situation. After seeing the Mandroids' transmission of all of those bodies in the pit, innocent people the Hulk had killed, Banner knew there was no other way to claim absolution than by personally killing the Hulk. Until he saw that massive, unmarked grave, he had admired the Hulk, in a way. The Hulk took crap from no one and gave even better than he got. There was something liberating in fantasizing about being like the Hulk, of swatting the obnoxious Talbots of the world like flies. But after seeing those bodies, Banner stopped admiring the Hulk. He was a merciless machine of rage, one that Banner had created, and it was only right that he put an end to it as well.

That was how he found himself with the Gamma Imploder's firing device in his hands and the power unit strapped to his back. He had requisitioned a jeep and drive to the battle zone. After driving as far as he could, he left the vehicle, following the sounds of carnage until he came upon the scene before him.

The Hulk had rendered Talbot helpless, his armor certain to be his tomb, if not from the Hulk's fists then from the smoke that was visibly filling the armor through the faceplate. Banner went through the system check on his weapon quickly, hoping to complete it before the Hulk pulverized Talbot into something that resembled road kill. It wouldn't do for Banner to give away his position before the weapon could be fired and have the Hulk kill him like he had all those others. Banner might have felt responsibility for the Hulk's creation, but not a suicidal amount.

As the Hulk hovered over Talbot, Banner cursed the weapon's slow power-up. In designing it, it never occurred to him he would need to fire it quickly. If only he had thought to start the charging process before leaving the base. Then he could have fired it as soon as he laid eyes on the Hulk. Now Talbot would die from bludgeoning force rather than smoke inhalation.

The Hulk pulled the broken blade from his shoulder, keeping it in his good hand as he stood over the prone, screaming Talbot. Banner felt sick. He had never seen a man disemboweled before. Luckily, the Gamma Imploder would be powered up in the next ten seconds. It might not be enough time to save Talbot, but it would be enough to avenge him.

The Hulk brought the hand up high over his head and brought it down into the armor. Banner closed his eyes as he heard the impact. Talbot's screams continued uninterrupted as there was a grind of metal on metal. Not wanting to see it, but unable to keep from mentally visualizing everything, Banner opened his eyes.

Curiously there was no blood, despite the Hulk running the blade the length of the torso. Only smoke rose up from the rent in the armor and, impossibly, Talbot was still alive, his face just visible beyond the smoke inside.

The Gamma Imploder was charged up. All it would take was a pull of the trigger, and the Hulk would die a painful, if near instantaneous, death. Yet Banner hesitated; something was wrong with the Hulk's actions.

The emerald giant tossed the blade away. He placed one mighty foot on side of the rent, and dug his good hand in the opposite side. With a snarl he lifted upward, peeling half the armor off like rind from an orange. Banner watched in fascination as the Hulk did the same thing to the other side. There was now a hole large enough to allow a coughing Talbot to pull himself free from his metal tomb.

The Hulk looked disdainfully at the man, then walked away, holding his wounded shoulder gingerly. Now the Hulk was in the clear, allowing Banner to finish the matter once and for all. A simple pull of the trigger to clear his conscience, but instead of firing, the weapon fell to Banner's side. He wasn't sure of exactly what happened, but anything… no, anyone that could show mercy to a foe like Talbot would not die at the hands of Robert Bruce Banner. Nor would he create any more weapons to capture or kill the Hulk. Upon returning to the base, he would break the Gamma Imploder and destroy the plans to it.

The matter of the Hulk was finished, at least as far as Banner was concerned.

"Hey, Hulk, old buddy. You look like crap."

The Hulk stopped walking randomly in one direction and looked up to see the Avengers surrounding him. The speaker had been Captain Japan. "Does Shield Man want to fight Hulk?"

Captain Japan shook his head, but kept most of his shield between him and the Hulk. "Nah, we're here to help ya'. After all, us Avengers got to stick together."

"You're going to help Hulk?" he asked suspiciously.

Thor spoke. "Indeed, already we have smote those that sought to do thee harm."

Seeing the Pretty Hammer Girl cheered the Hulk up immeasurably. "Hulk tried to find Avengers, but couldn't seem to find them. Hulk gets lost easily. Stupid roads change underneath his feet. All forests look the same. And sometimes hills attack Hulk."

"I… see," Hawkeye said slowly. "Life is pretty hard on you."

Iron Rose considered that. "You do seem to have a problem with locating things. Why don't we plant several global positioning units in your clothing so that we can locate you wherever you go?"

The Hulk looked inquiringly at Thor. "Um, is that good idea?"


"Then Hulk will let you do that."

Iron Rose added, "I might be able to rig up an audio directional unit that you could use. If you have your Avengers card, and say, 'I'… I mean, 'Hulk want to go home' it will start beeping. The closer you get to Avengers mansion, the louder the beeps get. So you won't have to pay attention to where you are walking, just listen for the beeps and walk around until they get louder."

"Hulk is good at listening. When tree fall in forest, Hulk knows he can hear it, even if he is not there to hear it."

"Right," Iron Rose said slowly.

Giant Man, shrunk down to normal size, moved closer to the Hulk. "Why don't we have someone look at that shoulder of yours?"

"Can't Tall Man, who isn't tall now, see it from there?" the Hulk asked.

"I mean let a doctor see it." Giant Man corrected. He examined the wound. "Amazing, it's already healing. If you continue on like this, I think it'll be healed by the end of the day."

"If Hulk gets scab, Hulk won't pick at it," the green giant promised.

"You're a good patient," Giant Man said cheerfully.

Captain Japan spoke once more. "Why don't we head back to the mansion and find out what that supposed deal with the military was? Not that we'll turn the Jolly Green Giant over to them. I just want to know what's going on and if those guys were legit or not."

Iron Rose nodded. "My employer has impressive connections with the government. She can buy us the time we need to ascertain what is happening. The government isn't foolish enough to anger one of its primary munitions suppliers, one that employs over five thousand of its tax-paying citizens."

The Hulk couldn't follow what the metal girl was talking about. Or even who the metal girl was. She sounded like the Stove Person, but she didn't look like her. It was confusing. At least the Hammer Girl was as pretty as always. But as pleasing to his senses as the Hammer Girl was, there was something else the Hulk needed to urgently to take care of. "Hulk is hungry. Are there beans at the mansion? Hulk likes beans."

"All the beans you can eat," Hawkeye said.

"I'll be leaving before that happens," Daredevil assured him.

"Your super nose would be affected by that, wouldn't it?" Captain Japan jibed.

"At least I have a super power!" Daredevil snapped back.

As the two began bickering, the Hulk assessed the situation as his simple, direct mind could. Looking around at the heroes assembled about him, the Hulk felt unnaturally good for the first time in months, as though he had finally come home. That was especially good, since he couldn't think of an actual home he ever had. He wanted a home, though. He was certain of that. He didn't know why, and didn't care. Just wanting it was enough.

And he was going to eat beans. Lots and lots of beans. No matter how bad things might get, beans always made things better.

"Well, we barely managed to avoid quite the incident there. Imagine, mistaking someone who stopped a serial killer for being the serial killer, and after he saved two of our own men. That would have looked exceptionally bad, you must admit. It was a good thing the Avengers prevented us from making a horrible mistake." Though it sounded like Irie was talking to no one in particular, it was obvious he was actually talking to everyone.

"Talbot will be court-martialed as soon as we get back," Ross promised. "I can't believe he nearly started an international incident like that. I thought better of the man."

Irie said, "Yes, well, I believe I've seen enough. You are going to partially get your wish, General."

"I am?" Ross looked around, seeing if anyone else knew what Irie was talking about.

"About returning home by morning," Irie explained. "I'm sending you and your Hulkbusters home."

"Now see here," Ross blustered. "While the Hulk might not have been responsible for this problem, it doesn't mean he's not a problem."

"So long as he's in Japan, he's a Japanese problem, though." Irie held a hand up to keep the general from protesting further. "I'll personally see to it our government guarantees yours that if there is some further complication from the Hulk arises later on, we won't blame you for it. I'll have someone contact your embassy staff with the proper paperwork by morning. So pack up your things, General. This operation is canceled."

Ross grumbled under his breath, but ordered his men to begin dismantling all of the equipment for shipment back to base.

Kaori had mixed feelings about it. While it was good to know that the missing persons cases had been solved, it was a bitter fruit to swallow knowing the truth became known only because of some annoying superheroes. And she had been looking forward to seeing the Hulk taken care of, either being wrapped up and shipped off to the U.S. or destroyed outright. Either outcome would have been acceptable.

Kaori was still fuming when Irie approached her. "Yes?"

His perpetual smile was in place as he spoke. "I just wanted to let you know I've been impressed with your work tonight. You have the sort of enthusiasm that I admire. We're always looking for new members for Hound. I think you'd fit right in, so if you ever feel a desire for a change of scenery, be sure to come by the Ministry of Health and Welfare building and I'll see to it your paperwork gets processed quickly."

"Thank you," Kaori said as warmly as she would if someone had invited her to leap into a shark's open mouth.

"Do consider it, won't you? I'll be looking forward to the day we meet again." Irie turned away, exiting the building with his numerous bodyguards following close behind.

Gyrich moved closer to his goddaughter and said quietly, "Take it from someone in the business, that man's at the top of his game. Make sure you watch your back."

"I will," Kaori shuddered. She'd rather date both Saeba twins then spend one minute longer around Irie Soyozoh. Worse, she had a terrible feeling she'd be meeting him again whether she wanted to or not.


To be continued.

Act 2, Scene 4
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Last revision: May 21, 2007

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