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Title: Things That Shine
Author: [info]coffeebuddha
Rating: PG-13/FRT
Characters/Pairings: Darcy Lewis/Bruce Banner, background Jane Foster/Thor, background Tony Stark/Steve Rogers, background Clint Barton/Phil Coulson, past Betty Ross/Bruce Banner, Natasha Romanov, Betty Ross, Hulk
Word Count: 26,585 overall
Disclaimer: Nothing belongs to me.
Summary: Darcy was seven the first time she fell in love. The second time it happens, she's twenty-five, hung over as all get out, and has a real chance of getting shot, which is actually more alarming than the giant green guy who's holding her hostage.
Notes: Sequel to Living a Bangles Song. I kept forgetting to post new parts of this to LJ, so I'm bundling the last eleven chapters into three posts to keep the flist spamming to a minimum. :)
Part One / Part Two / Part Three / Part Four

The lab is quiet, or at least as quiet as it ever gets. There’s the ever present hum and click of computers working in the background, but the compound is mostly deserted and a hushed stillness has settled over the usual chaos that SHIELD seems to thrive on during the day.

Darcy kicks off her heels and curls her feet up underneath her. It should be easy enough to hide her yawn behind her mug, which is about the size of a child’s head, but it doesn’t work, and Bruce looks up from his computer to frown at her.

“I know this isn’t exactly interesting for you,” he says, slipping off his glasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. “A lot of this is even boring to me. I’m only staying because it has to be monitored. You don’t have to keep me company.”

He looks tired, sleeves rolled up to his elbows to reveal tanned forearms and a way-past-five-o’clock shadow darkening his jaw line. He looks tired, but he looks good, and Darcy’s fingers itch to comb Bruce’s hair back into some kind of order. Instead, she cups them around her mug to curtail the urge.

“It’s not so bad,” she says. Her eyes dip closed as she inhales the steam from her coffee. “When I was Jane’s assistant, my entire job description basically boiled down to ‘keep her company and sane’ if it was examined with any kind of scrutiny. Trust me, this is my happy nostalgia time, where I can sit back and remember what my life was like back when my biggest concern was whether the corner store would remember to order Jane’s favorite flavor of poptarts.”

There’s a hum from Bruce, and when she opens her eyes, he’s watching her with a small, thoughtful smile. Darcy lets herself have a moment and brushes a wayward curl off of his forehead under the pretense of giving it a tug, then leans over to rip a piece off a churro on the plate next to his elbow. “What’s that look for?”

Bruce shakes his head, says, “You’re an enigma, Darcy Lewis.”

“Nah.” Darcy grins and says, “I’m an Aquarius, actually.” She dunks the churro in her coffee and swirls it around a little bit.

That gets a laugh out of Bruce, who pauses to check something when his computer bleats at him before turning back toward her. He slips her mug out of her hands so deftly that she barely even notices him doing it until he’s pouring half her coffee into his empty cup. “Darcy,” he says in that tone that used to mean she was about to get detention--and honestly, she has no idea how that cherry jello got into the school’s water pipes--but he looks more amused than annoyed, so she’s still in the clear.

She closes her eyes again when she pops the churro into her mouth and licks a few drops of coffee and sugar from her fingertips. Mmm, say what you will about Tony Stark, but the man can modify the hell out of a coffee maker. Bruce makes a quiet choked noise, and when she opens her eyes this time, he's staring intently at their drinks.

“I know, I know,” she says and makes grabby hands at her mug. Bruce considers both the mugs, pours a little bit of coffee back into hers to even them out, and hands it back. “Everyone always seems to think I should be a fire sign, but it’s water all the way. Anyone who’s ever seen me dance knows how very fluid I can be.”

And Bruce must be tired, because he just grins down at his notes and says, “I can imagine,” into his coffee cup.

“Dr. Banner,” Darcy exclaims, absolutely delighted. “That was practically scandalous. Do you think about dancing often? Do you break out in a highly choreographed routine in abandoned factories? Do you stir up rebellion in small towns so that all the local youth will rally behind their right to dance?” She cradles her chin in her palm and grins. “Come on, Bruce, tell me the truth. Do you like to put on your boogie shoes and get down with your bad self?”

Bruce’s laugh isn’t audible, but it’s almost better than if it was. His entire body’s shaking, the slightest beading of dampness at the corner of his tightly closed eyes, and Darcy unfolds her legs so that she can poke his knee with her big toe.

“Come on, spill. No one will know but me and the test tubes.”

Bruce sucks in a shaky breath, then another, steadier one. Heat creeps up the back of Darcy’s neck when he turns his grin on her. She swallows hard and scrapes her hair back into a sloppy ponytail--she's sitting right under the air conditioning vent and is suddenly really grateful for the draft that stirs the short hairs at the edge of her hairline against her neck--but slides her foot up to rest on his leg. Bruce doesn’t seem to mind, just keeps smiling and circles her ankle with his thumb and index finger.

“Well,” he hedges, “It’s not like I’m Kevin Bacon or anything.” And he has to pause there to wait until Darcy’s done crowing with laughter.

She waves her hands and shakes her head at him when he mock glares. “No, no, I’m just so happy that you got that. I spent most of my day with Steve. He’s a great guy and all, especially when it comes to standing around and being eye candy--" Darcy winks at Bruce and enjoys the little thrill that zips up her spine when his fingers tighten around her ankle. “--but he never gets any of my best material. It’s like trying to talk to someone who doesn’t even speak the same language. But then there’s you, and you not only get my jokes, you think they’re funny most of the time, and I love that.”

It’s hard to tell if the color in Bruce’s cheeks is a blush or from the glow of his computer screen, but his fingers stroke over her insole, which is a total win in her book. She bends her knee, pulling her rolling chair closer to his, and hooks her other leg around his calf.

“So,” she says with a small, teasing smile. “You were telling me all about your dancing?”

“Oh, I’ve picked up a thing or two,” he says. One side of his mouth hooks upward, and Darcy bounces a little bit, because there has to be a story there. She has a sixth sense about these things.

“Tell me,” she whines. When he doesn’t answer right away, she snags his coffee. “I have a hostage! You should tell me if you want it returned safely.” She waggles her eyebrows and Bruce gives an exaggerated sigh that can’t cover the laugh in his eyes.

“Well, if you’re going to get violent about it, I guess I’ll have to tell you.” He rakes his fingers through his hair, messing it up even more until his curls are sticking up in every direction like he got caught in a wind storm, and there’s the barest trace of trepidation in his expression before he continues. “I lived in Egypt for a while, and there was a woman in one of the poorer villages there whose husband was sick. She couldn’t pay me for his treatment, so she taught me to dance.” He pauses, then exhales with a sigh that’s half laugh, half self-depreciating huff. “She taught me how to belly dance.”

No.” Darcy nearly falls out of her chair, she leans forward to grab his arm so quickly. “Are you serious? You can’t be serious. Please tell me you’re serious?”

Bruce laughs and twists his arm so that her hand slides down to meet his. “I’m serious so long as you never tell the team.”

“Cross my heart,” Darcy says and sketches an X over her chest. “But you have to show me.”

Bruce glances up at the discreet bump in the far corner that could be just a slight bulge in the ceiling, but is actually a camera. He looks back at Darcy, expression torn for a moment, then shrugs. It’s not a smooth movement, too hesitant to be anything but jumpy, but the nod that follows it is firm enough. “Okay, but not here.”

“Deal,” Darcy says. She sticks out her free hand for Bruce to shake, and can’t stop herself from leaning forward to peck his nose when he does.

Bruce blinks and flushes, but he seems to be getting better about rolling with things like that. Darcy doesn't know if that disappoints her or not. "So what about you?"

"What about me," Darcy asks, sinking back into her chair. She keeps her fingers tangled with Bruce's, though, their arms stretched out between them.

"You know my deepest, darkest secret now." Bruce taps at his computer when it beeps, but doesn't quite take his eyes off her. "Doesn't that entitle me to one of yours?"

"I'm kind of an open book," Darcy says, which isn't exactly true, but isn't exactly a lie either. Bruce just arches an eyebrow at her, and Darcy frowns as she tries to think of something, anything, she can tell him. That thing in Florida with half a fraternity is out. The fiasco with a Ronald McDonald statue and the fountain at the public park is a possibility, but she probably shouldn't say anything about that in a government facility when she's still technically protesting the charges.

"There was this boy when I was growing up," she finally says. Bruce makes an encouraging noise, and Darcy looks at their hands, because that's easier than meeting his eyes. "He lived down the road from me. I, I didn't have all that many friends when I was a kid. Shocking, right? But it was okay, because I had this dog." Her gaze stutters up toward Bruce's without actually meeting it, and she doesn't know exactly what expression is on her face, but it doesn't feel right and it probably doesn't look all that good either if the way Bruce's grip tightens is anything to go by.

"He was just. He was a great dog. He was my dog, even though I wasn't allowed to even bring him in the yard, you know?" Darcy drums her fingers against Bruce's palm and eats another bite of churro to stall. She hasn't let herself think about this in forever, and the pain of it isn't as sharp as it used to be, but it still feels like a knife stuck between her ribs, hard and unyielding and unable to close up. "But then this boy, Tommy, moves in down the road, and he starts causing all this trouble with my dog."

She has to pause again. Her nose has to be bright red right now, her face more than a little blotchy, and she can feel the first humiliating pinpricks of tears behind her eyes. She swallows them down hard and glosses over the rest. "Long story short, McScruff bit the bastard, which he totally deserved, and Tommy's parents made animal control put him down." Darcy exhales, and it's shaky, but it's not a sob.

When she looks up at Bruce, he looks stricken. It's kind of ridiculous what a sweet guy he is, because she's read his file and knows all the shit that's happened to him in his life, but he still manages to look like that just because she's told him a story about her old dog. She forces another smile, this one more successful than the last, and when Bruce hesitantly touches her cheek, she tilts into it.

"It's okay," she says when he tries to say something, then shakes her head, because that's not quite right. "Well, no, it's not okay, but it's not like I let him get away with it. It took me years, but I got him pretty good."

"Tell me?"

She smirks; it almost feels natural again. "So my dad's a doctor, right?" There's no reason for Bruce to know that, but he nods anyway. "I spent a lot of time at the hospital when I was in high school--candy striping and all that shit--and when I was a sophomore and he was a junior, I sent a letter to his house about his syphilis results while he was out of town for a class trip. His parents read it. I'd filed all the right paperwork and everything. They got billed, even." Darcy's smirk widens a fraction. She can still remember sitting out on the back porch and listening to that fight. Ah, memories. "They sent him off to work on his uncle's farm for the rest of high school."

"Not exactly ethical," Bruce points out.

"Yeah, I didn't exactly care." Darcy finally looks at him again, and there's something so open and fond in his expression that she gives in to the urge to tip forward until her forehead's on his shoulder. He smooths his hand over her hair, and for several long moments they stay that way.

Then one of the machines that's been quietly whirling all night gives a loud, pained shriek.

Bruce jumps away to take care of it with an apologetic backwards glance, and Darcy flashes him a smile that only barely hurts. It doesn't take too long to get whatever the problem is under control, but they spend most of the rest of the night in comfortable, fond silence that reminds Darcy more than a little of long summer nights spent out in the woods with a warm, fuzzy weight stretched out against her side.

“How often do you think he goes commando under those pants Stark designed for him,” Darcy wonders out loud. She manages to duck fast enough to dodge the punch Natasha throws at her face, but she goes down hard when Natasha’s leg slices out and cuts her legs out from underneath her.

(Darcy knows that Natasha slows down and telegraphs her moves when she’s training her, because Natasha told her she does, but she still moves so quickly that Darcy can’t help but wonder if she’s secretly related to the Flash. Somehow she doesn’t think even the whole ‘he’s a fictional comic book character’ thing would put it outside of the realm of possibility when it comes to Natasha.)

Natasha stands over Darcy with an eyebrow cocked and her hands on her hips, every inch of her radiating how completely unimpressed she is, and says, “I think you need to focus on the task at hand. Someone who’s really out to do you harm won’t go as easy on you as I am.”

“Oh please,” Darcy says. She gingerly rubs at a spot on her thigh that she knows is going to be colored dark with a bruise by the time she hits the showers. “Someone who seriously wants to hurt me is still going to be a cakewalk compared to you.”

Her actual expression doesn’t visibly change at all, but something subtly shifts and Natasha looks more self satisfied than disapproving now. Darcy feels pleased with herself for as long as it takes her to get up on her feet, and then Natasha darts forward again, quick as a snake. She does something that Darcy can’t even track, but that has her flying through the air and landing flat on her back with a loud ‘Oof!’

When she finally remembers how to breathe again and blinks her eyes open, Natasha’s smirking down at her. “All I can tell you is that I’ve never seen him washing underwear any of the times I’ve seen him doing his laundry,” she offers along with a hand up.

“You’re good people,” Darcy says solemnly and takes her hand.

“That’s something I don’t hear every day.” Natasha’s smirk grows into a toothy grin as she slides easily into a fighting pose. “Now do it again and try not sucking so much this time.”

Darcy’s enjoying a quiet Saturday morning of shopping for goat cheese, blood oranges, and Pop Rocks when Dr. Doom attacks Manhattan.

“Oh you have got to be kidding me,” Darcy says as the crowd around her starts screaming and running for cover. She presses the panic button built into her watch and slings the strap of her bag across her chest so she has less of a chance of losing it. “Are those robot squirrels?”

They are. It almost makes her feel a little bad about bashing one in the head with her oranges--and there goes a splurge that she’s going to feel sad about for a while--and jumps over a bristly, spiky tail. There’s an alley with a fire escape climbing up the side of it about a dozen feet away from her, and Darcy starts fighting her way through the crowd and the robots to try and reach it. Nothing’s flying and Doom always seems to like focusing on a crowd, so up and out of the way should be a pretty good bet right now. Or at least it would be if she could get there, which is proving to be a hell of a lot harder than it should be. She’s moving against the crush that’s trying to run away, and she ends up getting an elbow in the face from somebody’s grandma and nearly tripped by a priest before she cuts her way to the side so that she can hug the face of the building and inch forward that way.

There’s a shift in the atmosphere when the Avengers show up, an almost audible sigh of relief that goes up even as people take shelter wherever they can. At least four people in Darcy’s line of sight pull out their phones to take pictures--And doesn’t that just sum up the average New York City tourist, right there?--but she keeps her head down and her eyes forward. Fun as it can sometimes be to watch the team kicking ass on the television in the break room, especially if Gary the Galaga guy is there to turn it into a drinking game with her--take one shot if something explodes, two if the camera zooms in on someone’s ass, three if the villain of the week is using magic, etc.--it's not nearly as much fun to actually be caught up in it.

She’s maybe doing a little too good of a job keeping her head down though, because the next time she looks up, there’s a robo-squirrel right in front of her. Darcy swallows down a scream and throws her Pop Rocks in its face. It doesn’t seem terribly impressed, and maybe Darcy should have chosen a different day to wear her Mr. Peanut shirt, because it does seem more than a little too taken with her.

You know what? Screw it. If there’s ever a time to scream, it’s when a giant robot squirrel is chittering at you like you’re a particularly tasty treat.

Darcy screams. The squirrel chirps loudly, a strangely alarmed metallic sound, and swings its tail around. She jumps backward enough to get away from the full brunt of it, but a couple of spikes still snag across her stomach, tearing her shirt and the soft skin beneath her belly button.

There’s a low, ominous rumbling from off to the side, and it’s not until a huge, green hand closes around the squirrel’s head and rips it clean off its body that she realizes it’s the Hulk growling. He rounds on her, lips peeled back from his teeth in a snarl, and Darcy presses her palm to the jagged scrapes on her stomach to help stem the bleeding and keep from fainting. It’s a legitimate concern; she once passed out from a paper cut.

“If you’re going to smash me, this would actually be a really good time,” Darcy says, her voice unsteady even to her own ears. “Because this hurts like a total bitch and little unconsciousness sounds like a nice vacation.”

He doesn’t smash her, though. Instead, he drops to his knees and ever so carefully covers her hand with one of his. Hulk looks up at her, his thick brows drawn together, and asks, “Hurt?”

It shouldn’t be possible for someone who’s that big, that fierce, to sound so completely lost and pained. Darcy tries to wipe a smudge of dark soot from his cheek, which only succeeds in smearing it more.

“Yes, it hurts,” Darcy says. It’s honestly not as serious as it could be, but Darcy’s never been all that good when it comes to dealing with her own blood, and fuck but her gut burns like fire. “I’m going to be okay, though,” she adds quickly when the Hulk gives her a look like he’s going to cry. There are so many reasons why that needs to never happen, and it’s not just because she doesn’t want to have to explain it to Fury. “A few stitches and I’ll be fine. I promise.”

The Hulk’s free hand darts out, grabs a squirrel that’s ventured just that much too close by the neck, and slams it into the ground until it twitches, spurts some impressive sparks, and stops moving. His eyes don’t leave Darcy’s.

“You need to let me go so that I can get out of here,” Darcy says gently. She tries to pull back, but her knees nearly buckle underneath her, and Hulk puts a hand to her back to brace her up. His expression hardens into something like resolve, and he scoops her carefully into his arms. “Not what I meant,” Darcy yelps and wraps her arms around his neck. “Not what I meant at all!”

Stark chooses that moment to buzz by. He does a visible double take when he sees them, then drops down just long enough to clap Hulk on the shoulder and say, “Good idea, big guy. Get her somewhere safe, or Bruce’ll end up taking Valium until you’re nothing but a distant memory,” before flying off to keep a squirrel from burying Steve’s shield.

After that, there’s no choice but to cling to Hulk as tightly as she can while he lopes easily through the crowd. The sounds of explosions and screams seem to die out impossibly quickly, and when Darcy looks up from where she had her face pressed against the Hulk’s shoulder, they’re in the park.

“Okay,” Darcy says when Hulk kneels and lowers her carefully to sit on the ground in front of him. “This is really not how I saw my day going, but I do like the park. So, you know, yay for silver linings?”

The Hulk makes a soft, concerned noise, and he grazes his fingertips over the blood staining her front. When Darcy lifts up her shirt to get a better look at the damage, he makes a sound that’s not completely unlike a whimper. Upon closer inspection, the cuts are ragged and ugly, but they’re shallow and thin, and the bleeding has all but stopped already. Darcy lets her shirt drop and puts a bloody hand on Hulk’s forearm. She has a bizarre moment where she can’t help but think that they look like Christmas, but she shakes her head to get rid of the thought and gives his arm what she hopes is a reassuring squeeze.

“It’s just a flesh wound,” she says with a shaky smile. “I’ve had worse.”

He doesn’t seem convinced, and Darcy takes a second to mourn what has to be the official death of her ability to bullshit convincingly.

“Darcy,” he says in that thick, gravelly voice, and Darcy must reach the end of her adrenalin rush, because she’s suddenly trembling and tired all the way to her bones.

“That’s me,” she says, head bowed and eyes closed. The Hulk just grumbles wordlessly again, which is sort of comforting in a strange way, and leans forward until his cheek is pillowed against her thigh, his big arms forming a loose, protective circle that doesn’t quite touch her around her folded legs.

“Okay.” Darcy combs her fingers back through his hair, rakes them through the coarse strands over and over again until the worst of the debris he must have picked up from smashing robots has fallen out to speckle his bare shoulders with black and silver, then slides her palm down to the side of his neck. She finds the fast, steady jump of his pulse beneath his jaw and lets her fingertips rest over it. “Okay, I can work with this,” she says, and counts the Hulk’s gradually slowing heartbeat until one of SHIELD’s trademark black vans pulls up.

A grainy picture of the two of them that someone obviously snapped with their cell phone ends up on the front page of The Daily Bugle the next morning.

The reporter who writes the article calls her ‘the Hulk whisperer’ and misspells her name ‘Darci Louis’.

Director Fury calls her a ‘motherfucking idiot’ and gives her a raise.

Her mother calls her a terrible example for her impressionable young nephews and overnights a care package with no less than six dozen cookies in it.

Tony Stark calls her while she’s taking a well deserved bubble bath in her tiny tub and leaves a message saying, “If you want to move into Stark Tower, just say the word and I’ll send some movers over. You’d be great for keeping down the collateral damage around here,” in her voice mail, because Stark can’t do anything nice without trying to play it off as a joke.

Darcy calls him back and says, “If they get here any earlier than nine tomorrow morning, I will make your life very unpleasant, Tony,” because she figures using first names is allowed once someone’s basically asked you to move in with them. “I have Coulson, Natasha, and Pepper on speed dial.”

Darcy’s buzzer goes off the next morning exactly as her watch ticks over from 8:59 to 9:00 while she’s in the middle of making the sauce for her bananas foster French toast.

“Cheeky asshole,” she mumbles fondly as she gives the mixture a quick final stir with her whisk, then covers the pan and moves it to a back burner. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” she says to her empty apartment when the buzzer sounds again, and pads over to her door to let the movers in. Darcy opens her door, fully prepared to start giving orders, and says, “Oh, fuck.”

Bruce smiles uncertainly at her and jerks a thumb over his shoulder at the movers behind him. “Tony thought you might want some help getting everything organized, but if you’d rather I left-“

No,” Darcy cuts in quickly. She’s already tugging her hair out of its messy topknot and pulling it back into a slightly more respectable ponytail. There’s nothing she can do about Bruce seeing her in her favorite old ratty Batman pajamas. Oh well, at least Batman’s cool, she thinks as she steps back to let everyone in. “No, you’re great. This is great. Have you had breakfast?”

When Bruce doesn’t answer, Darcy looks away from the mover who’s heading back toward her postage stamp sized bedroom--and boy does she ever hope Tony employs discreet movers, because the whole world does not need to know exactly what she keeps under her bed--and follows Bruce’s gaze down to where it’s riveted on her stomach. The elastic in her sleep pants is already saggy and loose with age, barely clinging to her hips even on her fat days, and with her arms up, her shirt is hiked up enough to reveal her battle wounds. They’re not that bad, honestly. The worst one stretches from just to the left of her navel down to about an inch below her right hipbone, but the next longest is only about the length of her hand from wrist to fingertip and one is as short as her thumb. All of them are scabbed over already, the skin around them pinkened, but not red or puffy. All in all, she’s had worse injuries from an over enthusiastic crowd at a Macy’s sale.

Darcy braces the pad of her index finger against the underside of Bruce’s chin and pushes up until he’s looking at her face, and slowly, deliberately pulls the hem of her shirt back down. “Breakfast,” she says. Bruce just blinks at her, and Darcy prompts, “Have you had any?”

“I had tea?”

Darcy glares and nudges him toward the nook she calls a kitchen. “Yeah, see, that is not a breakfast. There are requirements that have to be met before you can classify something as breakfast, and tea just doesn’t meet the cut. Sit.”

She puts her hands on Bruce’s shoulders and pushes him down into a chair at the table she has wedged in next to her fridge. “What’s with you and categorizing things?”

“I’m a very organized person,” Darcy says, pointing her whisk at him. “I’ve yet to meet a filing system I couldn’t color code.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Bruce says, and Darcy remembers a fraction too late that his latest lab assistant quit earlier in the week. Not that she’d object to working with him or anything, but she’s only just gotten Coulson broken in, and it would be a shame to waste all that training now that the man finally knows her post-it note system. “And how would you categorize breakfast?”

“First qualification.” Darcy stretches to get a mixing bowl from the shelf over the sink and winces when her cuts pull. Bruce makes a small concerned noise, but Darcy ignores him and keeps talking. “Can you chew it? No? Then it’s not a proper breakfast.”

She makes the mistake of passing a little too close to Bruce when she goes to grab some eggs, and Bruce catches hold of her wrist.

“Darcy,” he says quietly, and pulls her in closer. The space is tight and the only way she can keep from losing her balance is by planting her knee on the chair between Bruce’s slightly spread thighs. It’s not like Darcy’s never thought about straddling his lap before, but this is so not how she pictured it happening. He lets go of her wrist and settles his hands on her hips, his palms twin patches of heat even through the cotton of her pants. His eyes have dropped to her stomach again, but when Darcy makes a questioning sound, he looks back up to meet her eyes and asks, “May I,” as his fingers tentatively start to inch up the bottom of her shirt.

“Yeah, go for it,” Darcy says, her throat suddenly dry.

Bruce’s hands skate upward, pushing her shirt up to the beginning curve of her ribs, and he pins the fabric with one hand while he very carefully traces over the cuts with the other. “I know medical cleared you, but I just need to be certain,” he says, giving her an explanation she never asked for. Darcy threads her fingers into his curls and swallows the whimper that wants to escape when a calloused finger skims along the very top of her waistband. She can see the hint of a shudder in his shoulders when he inhales, feel it against her skin when he breathes back out. “I remember it being worse.”

“Not exactly my finest moment,” Darcy says ruefully, and when she tries to pull away, Bruce lets her go. She manages to get her eggs this time uninterrupted. “I was kind of freaking out, and I feel so stupid now, because it’s totally not a big deal.”

“No,” Bruce says, and his voice is so solidly convicted that Darcy fumbles her egg and drops several large pieces of shell into the beginnings of her custard. He waits until she’s looking at him, then says, “It’s not stupid, Darcy. You’re not a soldier, you’re not an agent, you’re a civilian.”

“Well, yes, but I-“

“You nothing,” says Bruce. “You’re a civilian who was caught up in something she never should have had to even see. That you got hurt,” and Bruce pauses there, his voice suddenly rough and choked, and Darcy’s immediately wiping the egg off her fingers so that she can cross the distance between them to take his face in her hands and press their foreheads together.

“I’m okay. I promise I’m okay,” she says, which isn’t completely true. She’s still shaken, and she had a nightmare that woke her up in a cold sweat last night, but she also has a counseling visit scheduled with a SHIELD shrink and a bar visit scheduled with Jane; she’s as okay as she can be under the circumstances.

“They never should have touched you,” Bruce says, his fingers curling lightly around her waist. She can feel the abbreviated movement when he starts to shake his head, then almost immediately stops himself. “And I never should have moved you. I could have hurt you even worse.”

“You didn’t though,” Darcy points out. She soothingly scratching her nails in little circles through the short hairs at his nape. “You took me somewhere safe, somewhere that you knew I love and that you knew I’d feel safe. Everything worked out fine.”

Bruce’s laugh is a horrible, bitter thing, and Darcy closes her eyes because she can’t close her ears. “Luck is rarely on my side. I shouldn’t have chanced it.”

“And that’s officially enough of that,” Darcy says around the lump in her throat. She kisses his cheek, a firm touch that’s as much about reassurance as it is affection, and turns back toward her neglected breakfast. “There’s no point dwelling on the past, what’s done is done, insert other random platitudes here. We’re going to have breakfast, get all my shit moved, and then spend the evening watching the Hoarders marathon on TLC.” She smiles over her shoulder at Bruce, pleased when his answering smile is only a little brittle around the edges, and says, “Coulson’s responsible for supplying the drinks, but you can help me make the popcorn.”

Bruce shakes his head slowly and says, “My life took a very strange turn somewhere when I wasn’t looking.”

Darcy just throws a slice of banana at his head and whisks her cream and milk into her eggs.

“He’s just so genuinely nice, you know?” Darcy pinches a corner off of Natasha’s cinnamon scone and pops it in her mouth.

“So you’ve said.” Natasha edges her scone a few more inches away from Darcy’s hand, but there’s no knife on the table, so she’s not serious. Darcy pinches off another bite; if she baked it, she’s entitled to pick at it, assassin or not.

“He helped me over a puddle the other day. A puddle! It was all of a foot wide. I could have jumped that in four inch heels, but he gave me his hand and helped me over it.” Darcy flails her hands in the air, nearly overturning Natasha’s glass of milk. It’s only a quick grab that saves it, and at Natasha’s glare, Darcy passes her the last of the scones. Nothing says oops, my bad quite like a scone. “Who even does that? Who, I ask you?”

“Apparently Bruce does,” Natasha says. She delicately bites into her scone. The crumbled remains of Darcy’s breakfast are all over her shirt and place mat, but there isn’t even a hint of a crumb on Natasha. The woman repels crumbs, and that’s just not natural. Darcy mentally takes notes. “I’d say it’s a generational thing, but, well,” she pauses, and they both glance in the direction of the living room, where Tony’s probably either still passed out with his head in a blushing Steve’s lap or trying to figure out how to make the Coyote’s purchases from Acme actually work the way they’re supposed to.

“Enough said,” Darcy says. She reaches out again, but this time she sees a bright flash of silver, there and gone again in the blink of an eye, and she redirects mid movement to grab an apple from the bowl on the table. “Just, can you answer me this?”

She ducks her head to look at Natasha over the top edge of her glasses and widens her eyes beseechingly. Natasha sighs, cuts the apple and scone in half with a fluid flip of her wrist, and divides the halves between their plates. “Probably. You do have an exceptional clearance level for a glorified paper sorter.”

Darcy glares, because hey, uncalled for, but doesn’t refute it, because she has delicious sconey goodness and, well, it’s kind of true. “How is he not constantly surrounded by people pinching his cheeks and sproinging his curls?”

Natasha blinks. Darcy’s pretty certain that’s the closest anyone’s ever seen her get to looking surprised. She mentally buffs her nails and preens, physically takes a celebratory bite of Natasha’s half of their scone.  

“I think,” Natasha says slowly, like she thinks the answer should be obvious, “that most people don’t have your particular, spectacular lack of a survival instinct and are somewhat put off by the entire ‘Hulk’ thing.”

“But why?” And Darcy’s not stupid, even if she does have a tendency to surround herself with people who make her feel that way. She knows how someone having the potential to turn into a giant, angry green machine could be intimidating, scary even, but this is Bruce they’re talking about. He chews on pens until the ink bleeds out to stain the corners of his mouth and always has to have the first sip from his drink, though he’ll share after that, and has apparently never grown out of the habit of falling asleep with his glasses on. It’s like being afraid of a labradoodle.

“Even a labradoodle can get rabies,” Natasha points out.

“Rabies aren’t controllable,” Darcy counters. She kicks Natasha’s ankle, because she’s always believed that limits exist to be pushed, and Natasha seems more amused than anything by it. “The Other Guy is. You know the saying. Don’t poke a sleeping bear, and the bear won’t turn green and smash your head into the wall.”

Natasha arches an eyebrow.

“Okay, so maybe that’s not it exactly, but you get the idea.”

“Look, “ Natasha says, and touches her fingers to the back of Darcy’s wrist to keep her hand from waving around anymore. “I’m not saying you’re wrong, exactly, but there’s good reason for people to be cautious of Bruce. The Other Guy isn’t as fond of most of us as he is of you.” She slants a pointed look Darcy’s way, and Darcy feels her cheeks heat with pleasure that she can’t quite shake even as she frowns.

“He shouldn’t be alone,” Darcy says with all the conviction that builds up during a childhood spent more with fantasy books and imagined forest sprites than other children.

“But he isn’t,” Natasha says, her tone slightly puzzled in the way it is when she can’t figure out how no one else sees what she does. “He has us.”

Darcy’s curled up in a rickety chair in the break room discussing this season’s shoes with Gary--who is passionate about exactly two things in life: shoes and classic video games--when Bruce walks in with a small gaggle of other people in white lab coats. None of them look familiar, so Darcy guesses they’re the new consultants Coulson mentioned earlier that morning. While she watches, one bumps the back of his hand against Bruce’s bicep and says something that makes the entire group laugh, and Darcy settles back in her chair and smiles at how relaxed and happy Bruce looks in this moment. He’s talking easily, one hand sketching his ideas out as invisible designs in the air while the other reaches for the coffee pot.

It’s all very easy and nice, which are two things that SHIELD is apparently actively discouraging now, because while Bruce is busy topping off his cup, one of the younger junior agents sidles up to the group and murmurs something Darcy can’t hear to the scientists.

The change is instantaneous. There’s a collective stiffening of spines, an almost simultaneous shuffle backwards, and when Bruce turns back to them, he’s the center island in a little semi-circle of cleared space, whereas before he’d been completely integrated into the whole.

Bruce notices--how could he possibly not?--but he doesn’t even look startled, just resigned. He visibly sighs, his shoulders sagging slightly, and Darcy feels something in her chest crack open.

“Oh, that just tears it,” she spits out from between clenched teeth. Gary, who had been debating the various merits of mules versus pumps, pauses and tracks her gaze to where Bruce is practically radiating quiet, accepting misery.

“Oh,” he says, his smile slanting down unhappily. “Go,” he says, shooing her away even as she’s getting to her feet. “Go and do the valiant rescue thing.”

Darcy flaps a hand at him in thanks and puts her elbows to good use to get to Bruce’s side. “I need you,” she says, hooking her arm through his and all but dragging him along with her.

“I was giving them a tour,” Bruce says, and a small, nasty voice in Darcy’s head wants to tell him to stop being so fucking nice to people who don’t deserve it.

“They’ll manage,” she says instead. She doesn’t take him far, just around the corner, but the important part is that they’re away.

“Darcy,” Bruce says, and his eyes flicker to the bruised hollows beneath her eyes that her concealer just doesn’t quite cover up. She’s still been having nightmares that she’s been trying to keep quiet, though she thinks Steve and Natasha probably know, and Coulson definitely does if the way he keeps leaving deliciously brewed mochas on her desk is any indication. Bruce hadn’t managed to pick up on it, though, and she’d considered that a small blessing, but he’s concerned now, which isn’t what she wanted at all. “What’s wrong?”

There are so many possible answers to that, but she doesn’t list any of them. Instead, she slowly and very obviously reaches out to put her arms around Bruce’s neck, and carefully pulls him in for a tight hug. Bruce tenses in her arms. Sure, they’ve touched before, but never like this. Everything before was casual and just organically happened or done for a specific purpose, but this? This is asking and taking and intent, and she has a brief flicker of panic that makes her cling a little tighter before Bruce relaxes with a faint exhale and wraps one arm around her waist, his other hand tracing up the line of her spine to cup the back of her head.

“There’s nothing wrong with asking for a hug when you need one,” Darcy says against the soft spot behind his ear. Bruce doesn’t answer, but he clutches her even closer.

Yeah, Darcy thinks, she is definitely starting up that Hugs for Heroes program ASAP.

Darcy spends the rest of the day stuck at her desk, a pile of papers so tall that it looks like they might topple over is she even looks at them wrong stacked in front of her pinning her in place, and it isn’t until Coulson comes out of his office and says, “You’re still here? Good God, woman, go home!” that she realizes how late it’s gotten. She braces one hand against the base of her spine and straightens with a creak and a groan.

“Mmm,” she says. “Home to where my bed is.”

“Tell Bruce I need to see him in the morning,” Coulson says. He flicks the top of her ear and makes a beeline for the exit.

“Tell Clint that he needs to stop eating all my elderberry jam straight from the jar,” she calls after him with a smirk. Clint leans around the corner to flip her off, and Darcy laughs and sticks her tongue out at him.

She and Bruce have fallen into the habit of going home together in the evenings now that they’re both living in Stark Tower, and the fact that she hasn’t seen him since the break room incident means he’s most likely still down in his lab, completely unaware to how much time has passed. That’s an easy enough fix, she thinks, and she grabs the most urgent of her paperwork to finish filling out while she makes the trek to his lab.

Bruce’s lab is on the far side of the building, a full ten minutes walk even if she doesn’t take the stairs, and requires passing through HR. They don’t much care for Darcy in HR-- that one little incident was so not harassment, and Darcy knows from harassment--but she just waves, smiles, and keeps on walking when the grumbling starts up. The door to Bruce’s lab is cracked open, which is unusual, but not alarming, and Darcy can feel a real smile replace her fake one as she pushes it even wider.

She immediately stumbles to a stop, nearly tripping over her own feet, which is a trick she thought she’d outgrown after she finished puberty. Her heartbeat is unnaturally loud in her ears, but it must not actually be any louder than usual.

At the very least, it’s not loud enough to distract Bruce or the tall, pretty brunette in a white lab coat who has her hand on his cheek and her mouth on his.

The kiss ends practically as soon as it starts, and Darcy almost can’t decide whether that’s better or worse than if it’d gone on longer, because at least then she would have had a chance at a clean getaway. As it stands, she only manages to get one foot back out into the hallway before Bruce stops her with a, “Darcy,” that’s too happy by half. Darcy plasters a smile that feels leaden and stiff on her face and turns back around.

“Hey,” she says and nods at the woman who has her hand on Bruce’s forearm, because she’s supposed to be a responsible adult type person and not the Hulk, so she can’t exactly get away with slamming the woman’s head against the corner of Bruce’s work table. She sticks her hands in her back pants pockets to get them safely out of the way in case her self control starts to slip. “I just came down to make certain you remember to eat, but it looks like you have plans.”

Bruce winces at that, though he still manages to look happy while doing it, and isn’t that just a kick in the fucking head. They eat together more often than not, and somewhere along the line it became habit to let the other know if one of them couldn’t make it. He glances at the woman, and Darcy knows it’s impossible, but she has a moment where she would swear on Fury’s eye patch that her heart stops, because something clicks into place in her brain and she suddenly recognizes her from a slightly fuzzy surveillance picture in Bruce’s file.

“I’m Darcy,” she says, holding her hand out to Betty fucking Ross, who even the supposedly impartial records refer to as the love of Bruce’s life often enough that it made Darcy roll her eyes when she was first doing research on the team.

Betty’s hand is cool and slim in Darcy’s, her smile warm and sweet as apple pie. She looks refined and collected in a classy blouse and skirt combo under the lab coat, even though she has to have been here for at least twelve hours already; the latest of the consultants showed up at seven this morning and it’s already half past seven now. Darcy has her hair pulled up with a rubber band and paper clips and there’s a pizza stain on the too tight jeans she’s only getting away with because she bribed Fury with a jelly donut to let her have casual Fridays. Darcy feels bruised and unbearably tired, and she forces her smile just that much wider.

“I’ve heard about you,” Betty says with a little glance at Bruce that Darcy can’t interpret. When she looks back, there’s a teasing tilt to her mouth that makes Darcy think she’d probably like her under different circumstances. “I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m-“

“Betty Ross,” Darcy cuts in, because she doesn’t particularly care to hear how Betty would introduce herself in relation to Bruce. She finally lets go of Betty’s hand and shoves her hand back in her pocket so she won’t do something stupid and obvious like wipe her palm off on the leg of her jeans. Betty’s eyelashes flutter slightly--it figures that even her surprised blinking would look enchanting--and Darcy adds, “I’ve read Bruce’s file.”

Betty tilts her head to the side, examining Darcy with a look that could come straight out of Jane’s wheelhouse when she’s trying to figure out a particularly interesting puzzle, and Darcy tries to keep her expression as pleasantly blank as possible. Maybe it works or maybe it doesn’t, but Betty’s smiling again in a way that makes her look lovely and otherworldly like something out of a Tolkien story.

“I’m afraid there isn’t a file on you for me to read,” Betty says, and there’s that hint of a tease again. Darcy hates herself a little bit, because she would totally hit that under different circumstance.

“I actually have it on good authority that there is, but there’s no way you’d be able to read it.” Darcy tries for a grin. “I think HR is keeping it hostage in case they ever need to use it for evidence.”

“Evidence,” Betty asks with a laugh that absolutely does not make Darcy think clichéd thoughts about silver bells and clinking crystal chimes.

“I’m a troublemaker.” Darcy waggles her eyebrows, which only makes Betty laugh harder.

She reins it in after a few moments and says, “You know, I sense that about you,” in a serious tone that’s completely at odds with the way her lips are still twitching.

Darcy hazards a glance at Bruce, who still hasn’t said a single word other than her name, and there’s something dazed and conflicted in his eyes that makes her physically flinch.

“Case in point,” she says, and even though it feels like she can feel the cut of every jagged letter of every word that she forces out, her voice is still steady and pleasant. Glorified paper sorter, her ass; working for Coulson and SHIELD with all their crazy ass problems is totally teaching her valuable life skills. “I’m interrupting.”

“Oh, not at all,” Betty says right as Bruce chimes in with, “You’re never interrupting,” which would be flattering if it wasn’t also patently untrue. Betty’s looking at Bruce again, all expressive eyebrows and thoughtfully pursed lips.

“Dinner.” It’s a non sequitur, but Betty sounds firm when she says it, and she turns her head toward Darcy without moving her eyes from Bruce, which is such a Bruce thing to do that Darcy’s stomach flips. “You should join us for dinner.” Her eyes finally follow the path of her head, like they were set on a delay, and if her smile before was bright, now it’s practically blinding. “I’d love to get to know you better since you and Bruce are so close.”

Bruce starts to say something, and Darcy really, really doesn’t want to hear his no doubt polite excuses for why she should butt out, so she shakes her head quickly and says, “It’ll have to be another time. Jane’s already claimed me for the evening.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Betty says, her smile faltering into something a little too insightful for Darcy’s taste.

“Yeah, well, what can you do,” she asks, and makes her goodbyes before either of them can try to answer her.

Once she’s safely out in the hallway, Darcy pulls her phone out of her pocket and texts Jane.

Emergency girls’ night. EMERGENCY. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. Meet me at the bar in fifteen minutes.

“You’re my best friend in the entire world,” Darcy says when she gets to the bar and finds Jane in a booth with a full bottle of tequila and all the makings for a metric shit ton of shots.

“It’s what I do,” Jane says with a shrug. She puts her hand over the mouth of the bottle when Darcy makes a grab for it, and gives her a Look. “No, you know the deal. Tell me what’s going on while we’re still sober enough to remember in the morning. Then you can have the alcohol.”

Darcy deflates and lets her head fall forward to connect with the slightly sticky table. “I love him like a Taylor Swift song,” she says sadly. “Nobody should ever have to love someone else like a Taylor Swift song. That’s just cruel.”

Her face is practically buried in her chest in this position, and her voice is definitely muffled, but not muffled enough, because Jane can understand her enough to ask, “One of the happy ones or one of the ones that makes you want to slit your wrists?”

The sound of foil ripping is enough to make Darcy look up. She pouts through Jane filling the first shot glass. “Like the one where she has to watch the guy of her dreams hook up with someone else, except without the cute, happy ending at prom.”

Jane nods slowly and pushes the glass at Darcy. “I think we’re probably going to need a second bottle.”

“Seriously, “ Darcy says. “I’m nominating you for sainthood first thing tomorrow.”

“After you get over your hangover,” Jane says kindly, because she’s considerate like that.

“Oh, of course,” Darcy says, and they high five.

Four Shots

“It’s like she walked straight out of a Cake song,” Darcy says as she slops some more tequila in her glass. “She’s just so smart and age appropriate and sharp, and I could totally rock a short skirt and a long jacket, but not nearly as well as her.”

“Oh, come on, I'm sure you could,” Jane protests. “Remember when you pretended to be me for that one conference?”

“Yes!” Darcy slaps her hand against the table top. “I was a baller! All those scientists were convinced I was the real deal.”

They clink glasses and drink.

Eight Shots

I had hoped you’d see my face and that you’d be reminded that for me, it isn’t over,” Darcy sings.

Never mind, I’ll find someone like you. I wish nothing but the best for you, too,” Jane sings.

Don’t forget me, I begged, I remember you said sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead,” they sing together.

Sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead,” a guy from the next booth over joins in.

Eleven Shots

“They’re probably soul mates or some shit,” Darcy explains earnestly to Shawn, who has dragon tattoo covering his entire right arm that’s the same shade of cobalt blue as his eye shadow.

“You can’t come between soul mates,” Shawn, the guy from the next booth over, says and smoothes her hair back out of her eyes. He’d gotten rid of her paperclips and rubber bands about fifteen minutes ago and has been trying to convince her to let him French braid her hair for the last ten. “Believe me, I’ve tried. That will straight up fuck the shit out of your karma.”

He takes the shot Jane offers him and doesn’t protest when Darcy takes a sip of his Sprite and fruit loop vodka mixer, because they’re friends now, and that’s how Darcy rolls with her friends.

“Where did you get your dress again,” Jane asks.

“This great little thrift store,” Shawn says, and he hands Darcy his drink so that he can get at the napkin underneath it. “Here, let me write down the name and address for you. They have some things that would be darling on the two of you.”

Fourteen Shots

“I’m going to be alone forever,” Darcy sobs against Jane’s shoulder. “I’m going to get old and saggy and even Tony won’t want to hit on me, and Bruce will be off making eyes at his girlfriend the genetically impossible elf!”

Jane says something completely incomprehensible except for the word ‘Thor’ and probably manages to get snot all over Darcy’s shirt, even though she’s dry crying.

Shawn might say something, but he’s not there for them to hear it, because he has work in the morning and had to leave early. He left the rest of his drink for Darcy and let her keep the sparkly feather clip that he’d used to fix her hair with, though, so they’re still cool. Darcy is pretty certain she might have agreed to make his next birthday cake for him.

Sixteen Shots

“We should get nachos,” Darcy says.

“We should definitely get nachos,” Jane says.

??? Shots

“I brought you a present,” Jane says as she dumps Darcy on the couch next to Bruce. The team is in the middle of movie night, but Tony thoughtfully presses pause so that they won’t miss anything while they watch the show unfolding in the living room.

Darcy slowly falls over until she’s on her side with her head in Bruce’s lap. “Hi,” she says brightly.

“You’re…really drunk,” Bruce says. She thinks he’s probably frowning at her, but he also has at least two sets of ears too many, so Darcy doesn’t think his face is particularly trustworthy at the moment.

Darcy knots her fingers in the front of his shirt, says, “I don’t want to be an Adele song,” and promptly passes out with her nose pressed into the fold of his knee.

Parts 11-15

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