“May I have this dance?”
Dahlia Griffiths paused at the unexpected voice, before a small smile crossed her face. She turned to the right and met the gaze of Agent Phil Coulson; someone she never expected would grow into a dear friend to her. He stood there as professional as ever, suit looking immaculate as it usual was, with a steady hand raised in offering towards her.
She arched an eyebrow. “This is an invitation only event, Coulson. How’d you get in here?”
“We have our ways,” he replied without missing a beat – the same answer she’d had to many questions over the years. It was familiar and never failed in making her smile.
“Of course you do,” she mumbled, placing her hand in his and allowed him to lead her onto the fairly empty dance floor that had been cleared for the newly wedded couple’s first dance, and had only just started to be joined by other guests.
She fell easily into the dance, remembering the lessons her mother had forced upon her as a child, and was suitably impressed that the American across from her could keep up with the moves. The thought had never occurred to her – she’d always just assumed he had two left feet. Though, by this point, she doubted she could be surprised.
The questions burned on the tip of her tongue, but she stayed silent, instead wanting a few more moments of simple, fluid movement before she had to face the harsh reality of the reason why the man was here. After all, a personal visit could only mean bad news. Unfortunately, Phil wasn’t the kind of person to put stuff off until the last moment.
“Fury sent me,” he started.
Dahlia sighed slightly. “I guessed that. Only Nick Fury would believe my sister’s wedding reception was a good place to discuss top secret information.”
“In his defence, this is of global importance.”
“It’s always of global importance…” she muttered, “And I don’t usually mind – I like being helpful – but really, it is impossible for me to have one bloody night off?”
For a moment, Coulson looked genuinely sorry. “This is more important, Dahlia. It’s time.”
The Englishwoman looked surprised, shocked even at the sudden announcement before a look of reluctant acceptance crossed her face. “Already?” she whispered softly.
“Unfortunately,” Phil nodded, “We had an issue at the base last night. Agent Barton and Dr. Eric Selvig were taken, along with the Tesseract, by a hostile. Fury called for the Avengers Initiative to assemble, you know how important that cube is to him as well as the world balance.”
“You don’t have to sell me Phil,” Dahlia forced a smile through her worry, “You already know I’m on board…when do I have to leave?”
“As soon as possible,” he answered a tad apologetic.
The woman sighed and nodded, understandingly. “Alright; just let me say goodbye to my sister.”
“Of course,” he conceded easily.
The dance slowly came to an end with a twirl of cloth and a few more steps of shoes. The music faded out and the two relaxed their stance. Coulson glanced to out onto the dance floor briefly before announcing he would “meet you outside” and scurried away. Dahlia watched him go with some confusion, until she felt her sister touch her arm. Oh, that explains it. Calista wasn’t exactly fond of Coulson, especially since he only seemed to show up just before her baby sister was put in some kind of life threatening situation.
The taller woman glared daggers at the retreating back before turning her concerned gaze towards her sister. “Lia, what’s happening? Why is he here?”
“You look beautiful today Callie,” Dahlia smiled warmly.
“Sweetie, I know I do – don’t try and change the subject,” Calista warned her gently, eyes narrowing slightly.
The younger girl’s smiled faltered. “…It’s time Calista; they need me to come in.”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?” she questioned frantically, “I mean, it’s late – they can’t really expect you to do anything at this time of night. Besides, it’s my wedding, and the bride always gets what she wants.” She finished stubbornly.
“Sorry, sis, but I have to. You know I do,” Dahlia tilted her head slightly; “This is what I’ve been waiting for, why I was recruited in the first place. I need to do this.”
“No you don’t,” Calista answered lowly, “But you’re going to anyway.” She sighed sadly and wrapped her sister into a tight hug which was automatically returned. “Just…stay alive, yeah? And come back to me in one piece. You’re all I’ve got.”
Dahlia shook her head as she pulled away. She smiled woefully. “Not anymore. You have Tommy and a baby on the way. You have what we always wanted. But I will promise this, I’m going to be home to spoil my niece absolutely senseless. It’s my right as an auntie.”
“And I will complain that she doesn’t need that toy, or that she shouldn’t eat so much chocolate, but secretly be glad she has someone who will always be there for her,” Calista quoted her usual response. The ritualistic talking about the future of the newest member of their family had taken up a lot of their time recently and it made the whole goodbye seem bittersweet.
“Now why would I want to miss out on that?” she grinned widely. She rose up on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to her sister’s cheek, “I’ll call you tomorrow. I want to know every detail of your wedding night.” She wriggled her eyebrows suggestively in an attempt to relieve the tension.
“You better,” Calista smiled weakly, waving half-heartedly. She watched her sister go and bit her bottom lip in worry. She couldn’t help herself. Even though Lia was 23 years old, and had aged in maturity long before she should of, she constantly worried about what would happen to her baby sister.
They only had each other growing up. Their father was a scientist, too consumed with his work to actually worry about his children. Their mother too obsessed with her social standing and how a perfect family should be to notice what was falling apart around her. And then the Incident happened. It had nearly tore their family apart, the arguments between her parents about what to do and the unexpected consequences on her sister’s wellbeing putting strain on their relationships. But Calista had always been there to protect her sister through it all, as a good big sister should. But now…Dahlia had to do this alone, and all Calista could do was watch desperately from the sidelines, wishing that she would be alright.
She felt familiar arms wrap around her waist and lend back into the touch. She closed her eyes and sort the strength to let her sister go in their hold.
“Where’s you’re sister going?” Tommy asked curiously.
“Um, she was called into work,” Calista told a half-lie, “It’s important and, well she couldn’t get out of it.”
“You’d think she’d take a day off for her sister’s wedding,” her new husband frowned slightly.
She smiled softly and reached up to cup his cheek. “It’s fine. It’s not as if she can help it. Her job is demanding and the times are erratic. She would have stayed if she could.”
Tommy rolled his eyes. “You’ve told me that so many times, I can probably quote you word for word by now.” he grinned mischievously, “Now come on, I’m sure you’ll spend the whole of tomorrow night talking to her, but for now I want to spend some time with my beautiful wife.”
Calista smiled at him and allowed her self to be lead back into the centre of the dance floor. She glanced once more to the arched doorway of the hall.
Stay safe Dahlia.
Dahlia hung her dress carefully on the thick coat hanger, not wanting the expensive fabric of her maid of honour dress to get creased, and placed it inside the back of her wardrobe. She caressed the fabric almost fondly, taking the time to breath.
She knew this had been coming – Fury himself had warned her that at some point, sooner than either of them wanted, she could be called upon to join a group of people with gifts such as hers. Well, he had called them “superior beings”, but well, she thought that was a tad big headed. She had even met a few of her soon to be team-mate, and had befriended them (at least, she believed she had, she couldn’t say the same for Steve, Natasha and Clint) but still, it just didn’t seem real.
It had always seemed so far in the future, something that wouldn’t happen for a long time so she had nothing to worry about, but now it was here. She was going to be a superhero. She almost laughed at the thought. The last thing she, Dahlia Griffiths from London, England was was a superhero.
Superheroes were supposed to be these strong, attractive people who were dedicated to the protection of Earth and all of humanity. Steve was a prime example of what a superhero should be like, from his looks down to his morals. She was someone that was tainted; all the abilities she had were forced upon her in one failed explosion. She had been a child, unable to protect her self or really understand what had happened, and it had affected the whole of her life. Her abilities were uncontrollable; only seemed to bring death and destruction which weighed heavily on her conscience.
Now, maybe you can do some good, Dahlia mused slightly bitterly to herself.
With a sigh, she pulled away from the dress, reluctantly stepping back and making her way into her living room where Coulson was sitting awkwardly on the edge of her old, ratty sofa. He stood up instantly as she entered the room.
“Are you ready?” he questioned.
She reached up to tie her light brown curls into a ponytail. “As I’ll ever be,” she answered. She grabbed the bag she had prepared months ago, ready for when the call finally came. “So where are we going?”
“You’ll find out,” Phil answered mysteriously, leaving the apartment first.
Dahlia rolled her eyes and followed, mumbling something about annoyingly unhelpful bureaucrats. She paused in the doorway to peer into her small apartment. It wasn’t much, but it was the first place she had brought for herself. And now, this may be the last time she saw it.
Sighing with acquiescent resentfulness, she turned off the light.
Dahlia leant back against the far wall of the gym that was hidden beneath S.H.E.L.D headquarters and just watched. The man – apparently Steve Rogers, Captain America, who had been preserved in ice for the last seventy years, but she was yet to believe that – seemed unaware of her presence, completely focused on the steady stream of punches he was administering to a punching bag that hung on the right side of the room. A line of similar looking training equipment was set out to his right.
The punches were well placed and firm, his fists clenched tightly. She was sure if the punching bag was actually a human being, they would be whimpering, curled up into a protective ball, by now. The attacks increased in force, in speed, in numbers as if he were working out all the issues he had in one fail swoop. He hit the bag with more force that should have been possible for a human to build up, sending the bag flying off its hanger and sliding across the floor heavily. The small beads that tightly packed the punching bag leaked from the fist shaped wound. Dahlia arched an eyebrow – okay, so maybe this whole super serum story was true after all. The blond relaxed his arms to his side but still remained tense. He wiped the sweat from his forehead before reaching for another bag.
It was then that Dahlia decided to speak up.
“You know, they work better if you don’t, you know, break them,” she advised.
The blond turned around quickly, body crouching in a defensive position instinctively. His eyes narrowed at her slightly. “Who are you?”
“I’m Dahlia Griffiths, and you’re Steve Rogers right?” she took a step forward.
“Yes, that would be me ma’am,” he answered, eying her closely, “You work for Nick Fury?”
“I wouldn’t say I work for him, no, but close enough I guess,” Dahlia shrugged, “Either way, he asked for me to come down and see you; must have thought I’d be able to help you.”
“Help me with that?” he snorted.
“Well, according to what Fury told me, it’s been nearly two months since you were found and thawed out, and you’ve spent the whole time either working out here, or locked in your room,” Dahlia started, “I don’t have to be a psychologist to know that isn’t normal behaviour.”
“Maybe I like working out,” Steve suggested shortly.
“Well, I like cookies and cream ice cream but I know too much of it isn’t good for me,” Dahlia retorted. She sighed slightly, “Look, I don’t want to be rude. I can’t begin to understand what it would be like to one minute be in the 1940s and then the next, be in a completely different world and told it’s 2011. Anyone would have a hard time adjusting to that kind of change. But the fact is, you’re stuck here and you’re going to have to get used to the changes in the world one way or another.”
“I don’t want to get back out into the world,” Steve replied sharply. He continued in a low voice, “I can’t…”
Dahlia raised her hands in surrender. “Alright, I’m not going to force you.”
He looked surprised. “Really?”
“Yup, it’s your decision, I can’t force you to do anything – I mean, look at you,” she gestured at his physique. “But I still don’t think it’s healthy to be stuck down here all the time, especially not by yourself. It must get lonely.”
Steve shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s fine, really.”
“Nope, I’ve decided. I’m going to visit you,” Dahlia announced with a bright smile.
Steve blinked. “Um, what?”
“I’m going to visit you,” she repeated slowly, “I don’t have much to do these days anyway and I’ve been asked to spend some time with you anyway. I’ll having Fury off my back and you’ll have something better to do than punching massive hand shaped holes into unsuspecting punching bags.” She hesitated, her confident demeanour dropping as fast as it appeared, “I mean, as long as that’s okay with you. I don’t want to intrude or anything.”
“No,” Steve spoke quickly, taking a step closer to her, “I mean, no, its fine. I, um, well; I would appreciate someone other than Fury to talk to. The man’s not one for conversation.”
Dahlia laughed. “Now that’s an understatement.” She sat down on the edge of a wooden bench. Her hands clasped the seat and she leant forward on them eagerly. “So, tell me about America in the 40s.”
Dahlia dozed in the helicarrier, only managing to catch winks here and there. It was a relatively smooth ride but being strapped upright in a seat wasn’t exactly the most comfortable of positions to try and sleep in. Either way, she was grateful to the agents onboard for keeping the noise down to a minimum, although she was sure that was probably to do with Coulson rather than a goodwill gesture. It wasn’t much but it helped.
One time, as she faded from sleep, she found a cover wrapped around her shoulders. She made a confused noise at the back of her throat, too tired to form coherent sentences. She lifted her arms, which felt like lead, to examine the soft fabric that surrounded her. A hand rested on her crown, a thumb brushing comfortingly across her forehead, and she smiled sleepily at the familiar feeling.
“Go back to sleep, Dahlia,” the voice whispered soothingly, “You look like you need it.”
She made another noise, this time of agreement, before the darkness of the dream world claimed her once more.
Dahlia smiled softly, eyes drooped, as she remained curled up on the sofa in S.H.E.L.D’s rec room and watched Steve’s reactions. Despite his reluctance at first to experience the 21st century, he had been amazed and eager to learn more about the future. She was starting small and building up slowly, as to not overload him with more information than he could handle, which was why she had decided a Disney movie day was a good place to start.
It was something light hearted, nothing too shocking in any of those stories, and was a right of passage for every child in the modern era – at least in Dahlia’s opinion. And she had enjoyed watching them with him, enjoyed that she was showing him something new. She liked reminiscing about the times when she had watched these for the first time, with his sister, and Steve seemed just as interested in those memories as he did the actual movies.
But still, she was knackered. She felt like she hadn’t slept in days and she could feel her eyes beginning to flutter closed during Aladdin and Jasmine’s big duet number. She tried to stay awake, she really did, but the combination of the soft pillow beneath her head and warmth of the cover she had wrapped around herself (because apparently S.H.E.L.D couldn’t afford to keep the central heating on all night) was too much for her. Her breathing evened out and her body relaxed as she fell into a slumber.
Steve glanced away from the television screen, intending to ask by Jasmine doesn’t seem so surprised about ending up in China (because, as far as he remembers, the distance between the Arabian Desert and China seemed pretty far to him, even if you were riding on a magic carpet), but stopped himself as soon as he realised his friend had fallen asleep.
Because that’s what she was, his friend. He hadn’t intended for that to happen. In fact, since he’d woken up in the 21st century, he’d pretty much resigned himself to the knowledge that everyone he knew was long gone and he would spend the rest of his life in S.H.E.L.D’s custody, but of course, Fury couldn’t let him suffer alone. He had to send someone to try and coax him out of his “man-cave”, as Dahlia called.
He was grateful to her, because she seemed to be the first one that was more interested in what he wanted, about how much he wanted to know about the world now. He was glad she had convinced him out of the gym and into the rec room; glad that she showed him history books about the war he had been fighting in, and brought him new gadgets to try and work out (he especially liked the Xbox 360 she had shown him a few weeks ago).
Dahlia snuffled in her sleep, and tried to close the distance between her body and the back of the sofa. Smiling fondly, he reached out to place a hand on the top of her head – like he remembered Bucky doing to him all those years ago – and brushed a strand of her fringe out of her closed eyes. She made a strange noise at the feeling, her face screwing up slightly with confusion.
“Sleep Dahlia,” he mumbled as soothingly as he could manage, “You look like you need it.”
Dahlia awoke not long before the helicarrier was due to land. She made a small noise at the back of throat which transformed into a wince when she moved her neck too quickly. Stilling, she blinked her eyes open slowly, staring through a narrowed gaze at the empty seats across from her. For a moment, she was confused, lost as to wear she was, but her memories caught up with her soon enough and she found herself more alert than before, sitting up straighter.
She yawned tiredly and peered across her with more interest. Steve was a few seats down from her and he looked up from the history book – probably about events during the war – when she turned towards him. He smiled in greeting.
“Good to see you up,” he inclined his head to the front of the carrier, “Coulson says we’ll be arriving soon.”
“Arriving where?” she wondered.
Steve shook his head. “He hasn’t said.”
“Of course not,” Dahlia commented. She pushed the covers that surrounded her away enough that she could undo the seat belt across her to stretch. She sighed, pleasured by the click her back realised. She paused, catching Steve staring at her in amusement from the corner of her eye. Her arms lowered slowly. “What?”
“While we’ve still got time, you should probably freshen up,” Steve gestured towards a single door, leading to where Dahlia assumed was a bathroom, “You, um, sort of look like a panda…”
She flushed slightly, aware she hadn’t removed her make-up the night before, and quickly scrambled – as elegantly as she could, of course – into the small room. The bathroom was small and contained only a toilet and a sink, that a mirror had been hung over. Even something as high-tech as a helicarrier, the toilets were always terrible.
Dahlia stood in front of the mirror and realised how ridiculous she looked with large black patches under her olive eyes. She used a damp tissue to remove the smudged eyeliner and mascara, leaving a very thin line along her eyelid making a small note to borrow a black make-up pencil from Natasha when they landed.
She removed her brown hair from the ponytail and brushed it down as much as she could with her fingers, flinching when they caught a knot. Although the attempt left her hair frizzier than it had been before, she accepted it was the best she could do and returned the mass to its original style.
She then checked her clothes – just a grey t-shirt with the words ‘Frag You’ printed on the front, and a pair of leather trousers, along with her favourite combat boots (it was something she had gotten into the habit of wearing whenever she went to S.H.E.L.D, since she refused to wear one of the jumpsuits on her first appearance there). Satisfied nothing was creased or out of place, she conceded that she was ready.
She hesitated for a moment, debating the pros and cons about hiding in the small bathroom until everything was over, before forcing herself to exit the room. She kept her head forward and stayed silent, reattaching herself to her seat just as a disembodied voice announced they were about to begin the descent.
Landing was relatively smooth, a rare occasion, and Dahlia released herself as soon as the aircraft creaked to a halt. She waited as patiently as she could, curious as to where they had landed, for Steve and Phil to join her, and for the back of the helicarrier to lower. It did so with the usual mechanical slowness, revealing…not what was expected.
For some reason, she was expecting some massive building – a mansion even – in the middle of nowhere, where she and her fellow ‘talented’ people would hide underground until they were called by a special phone that is only ever called in an emergency.
Instead, they were on a platform, something similar to a naval ship, surrounded by the harsh waves of the ocean surface. S.H.E.L.D agents in jumpsuits moved across the asphalt, checking that planes were securely fastened to the deck and were filled for capacity in case the need arises. Orders were shouted from all corners, blurring into one noise in such a way Dahlia wondered how anyone could hear what they were supposed to be doing.
Phil exited first and Steve and Dahlia took his lead. He moved forward with a purpose, leading them towards the opposite end of the platform. Vaguely, Dahlia could recognise the curl mop of red hair that could not be anyone by Natasha; her eyes darted to the man beside her. He stood awkwardly, almost as if he didn’t want to be there – which was probably the case.
As they got closer, she was given the chance to examine him a little more closely. He was older than her, she guessed by the slight greying of the dark hair around his face. His skin was tanned, as if he’d been somewhere on holiday recently. His suit was too big for him and his glasses sat awkwardly on his nose.
But when he looked up from the ground as they approached, when she really got a good look at him, she couldn’t stop herself from feeling a little awed, a little flustered by his presence to say the least. She barely suppressed a groan. Of course, there had be someone on this damn ship, she cursed. Dahlia had no probably admitting she’d had a thing for the geeky, awkward type but really, he was too adorable.
And he has beautiful eyes, the interested voice at the back of her head pointed out. She tried to ignore it.
“Captain Rogers, Miss. Griffiths, this is Dr. Bruce Banner,” Coulson introduced, gesturing between them. “Dr. Banner, these are Captain Steve Rogers and Miss. Dahlia Griffiths.”
Steve held out his hand, which Bruce took nervously, smiling slightly in greeting. Dahlia held out her hand and he seemed to hesitate briefly, dragging a critique eye over her, before finally accepting it. She noted how much bigger his hands were compared to her own and her cheeks blotched red at her train of throat.
“It’s nice to meet you,” she muttered out, dropping her hand in embarrassment and reaching up to brush her bangs behind her ears, using it as an excuse to avert her gaze to the ground. She could practically feel the eyes burning into her crown.
“One minute, Griffiths…” Bruce started thoughtfully, “Are you related to Dr. Milton Griffiths, by any chance?”
Dahlia forced a smile at her father’s name, ignoring the squirming of discomforting in her stomach his memory always induced. “Yes, Dr. Griffiths is my father. I didn’t realise he was that well known over in the States.”
Or I hoped, at least…
“Dahlia was educated in her father’s work from a young age, and we believe between the both of you, you will be able to track down the location of the Tesseract,” Natasha explained.
“I look forward to working with you then,” Bruce offered her a smile, which she found herself returning too easily.
Natasha took a step back. “Now introduction are over; if you don’t mind gentleman, Lia, I think its best we head inside.” She didn’t wait for a response before she turned on her heels and continued along the deck.
“Why does she always do that?” Dahlia wondered to herself, shaking her head slightly. She inclined her head towards the two hesitant looking men, “Come on, we should do what she says. If we don’t catch up to her now, we’ll just get lost in this place.”
“Does anyone actually know what this place is?” Steve wondered.
“Not the foggiest, my friend, not the foggiest,” Dahlia shook her head.
“It can be safe to assume it does something cool though, right?” Bruce offered, glancing around them as the deck began to clear of agents.
Phil’s lip twitched with amusement. “Yes, Dr. Banner, it does something cool.”
Natasha led them through identical looking corridors until they reached what appeared to be the front of the aircraft. Lines and lines of computers were evenly spaced out, each machine with an S.H.I.E.L.D agent sitting comfortably behind it. They were completely engrossed in whatever they were working on, not even raising their heads to acknowledge the new arrivals. The platform they stood upon looked over their heads, and it had a direct view of the ocean the aircraft was taking off from. Nick Fury stood at the far edge of the platform, turned towards them.
“Gentleman, Miss. Griffiths,” he nodded in greeting, “I’m pleased you could join us. As I’m sure you’ve been told, we’ve got a situation on our hands.” He turned to the screen beside him, clicking and enlarging an image of a small blue cube that appeared to be glowing. “This is the Tesseract. We were investigating the energy it contains and how it could be harnessed, when it was taken from us.”
“How it could be harnessed?” Bruce repeated curiously.
“Yes, it was believed it could be used as an infinite source of clean energy,” Nick explained simply, “However, it is not of this world and in the wrong hands…it could be used to bring about the end of the world.”
“Why does it always bring about the end of the world?” Dahlia wondered, mostly to herself, raising her head slightly to peer into the ceiling as if she was talking to a higher being.
“You mentioned before we lost some men during the attack,” Steve pushed.
“Yes, Agent Barton and Dr. Eric Selvig,” Nick stated. The image of the Cosmic Cube was brushed away and a film clip appeared. There was no sound, just a cracking noise in the background, and the images were in high definition – clearly S.H.I.E.L.D’s high-tech CCTV system.
In silence, she watched as the agents rushed around the cube, as scientists took notes on the changes. She watched Nick being called in, demanding to know what was happening and what was causing it, and Barton landing from his nest in the rafters. She watched the cube spark and brighten before a figure appeared – a familiar face, dressed in green and cold leather, a spear in hand.
Dahlia sucked in a breath, and glanced up towards the agent, her handler. “Phil is he…”
Coulson nodded once sharply. “New Mexico,” he confirmed simply.
She returned her gaze to the screen and was almost unsurprised when scientists and agents were attacked – she remembered well the destruction of that one small town, after all. She was surprised however to see how easily he managed to pull Clint and Eric under his influence – the end of the spear touched their chests and suddenly, they weren’t fighting anymore, they were helping.
Out of the corner of her eye, she couldn’t resist catching a glance of Natasha. The redhead stood behind them silently, arms folded across her chest. Her face was expressionless, as it usual was when it came to S.H.I.E.L.D business. Even though she was used to it, Dahlia wondered how she was really feeling. She’d always assumed there was something more than just a work colleague relationship between Natasha and Clint, but maybe she was mistaken…
Natasha caught her gaze and offered a small smile. For a moment, her façade cracked, revealing the pure worry she was truly feeling and the tight control she had on the feeling. She almost smirked triumphantly – well, she wasn’t mistaken at least. Silently, she hoped the other man was alright, for Natasha’s sake if not her own.
“What is that, a sceptre?” Bruce wondered, leaning forward for a closer look.
“It appears to be, yes,” Nick clicked off the footage, leaving only a blank screen, “As you can see, this is an urgent matter. The Tesseract needs to return to S.H.E.L.D, as well as the taken agents, and Loki – the perpetrator - needs to be put in custody.”
“What do we need to do?” Steve questioned.
“For now, we were hoping Dr. Banner would be able to trace the Tesseract’s location,” Nick turned his gaze to the good doctor, “We have a lab set up for you to work from. Miss. Griffiths will assist you where needed.”
“I’ll take you there now,” Natasha inclined her head.
As Dahlia went to follow, she paused with enough time to whisper darkly, “You could have told me it was like New Mexico.”
“You might not have come if I told you,” Phil rationalised, with a small smile.
The lab was towards the back of the aircraft, with one glass wall that over looked the platform they had been originally led to. It housed all types of tracking and other high-tech software that, honestly, Dahlia wouldn’t even know what they did, let along what they were called. There were glass computer screens, large and two sided, where a login box could be seen, the cursor blinking periodically. It was impressive, although she hadn’t expected S.H.E.I.L.D to offer anything but the best, especially when it came to something as important as finding the Tesseract.
Bruce seemed to make himself at home as soon as Natasha had disappeared around a corner, the door sliding closed behind them. He removed his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves to just above his elbows, claiming one of the chairs at the far end of the room. Dahlia watched through the transparent screen as he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his noses and nosily typed his name – a clear ‘DOCTOR BRUCE BANNER’ into the slot provided. She paid little attending to the information that appeared – obviously prepared reports on what S.H.I.E.L.D had discovered about the Tesseract – and instead found herself completely distracted by the way his eyes narrowed slightly, the skin wrinkling around his eyes, as he read the small print on the page; by the way he absentmindedly licked his lips in thought. Her mouth felt suitably dry and she mimicked the gesture nervously.
Bruce looked away from the information; raising his eyes to meet her gaze through the glass. She flushed and shifted awkwardly. Clearing her throat, she stammered out the question of, “so, um, h-how are we s-suppose to track this, uh, c-cosmic cube?”
He continued to stare at her for a moment, a thoughtfully look in his gaze. She wondered what he was thinking about so intently. Before she could ask, he shook his head firmly and cleared his throat loudly, a pink flush seeming to make its way up his neck from behind his collar. “Track it? Oh, um, according to these, ah, files Fury left me, it seems the Tesseract is just like a cube of pure energy, pure radiation.”
“Gamma rays,” Dahlia nodded in acceptance. She took a half a step forward, “So um, we ask every laboratory on the face of the earth to start their detectors, to look for this massive concentration of raw energy…”
“And it can be fed back here, so we can pinpoint an exact location,” Bruce grinned crookedly, tapping the top of the computer screen, “We find the Tesseract…”
“We find Loki,” Dahlia finished, “That sounds oddly easy.”
“Hmm, probably, but it’s hard to hide something that powerful without anyone finding out about it,” Bruce stated, “And to even harness that much power, you need to find a reactor that could sustain that much energy without collapsing in on itself – and there’s not that many. And it would take a genius to create a reactor from scratch. I don’t think this Loki guys that clever.”
Her lips twitched upwards. “Maybe not,” she conceded, “But he did manage to take control of Dr. Selvig – he may not be a genius, but he’s bloody close, especially when it concerns the working of that cube. He’s been the top scientist on that mission since it was first placed in S.H.E.L.D’s possession. If there’s anyone who could find a way to create a reactor specifically for the Tesseract, it would be him.”
“You have a lot of confidence in this guy,” Bruce commented, returning his gaze to the screen.
“Eric Selvig is…an old friend I guess,” Dahlia paused as she tried to figure out how to explain her relationship, “There was an situation, a few years ago, that Loki was involved in – S.H.I.E.L.D had showed up because of some weapon that had fallen from the sky, set of their radars, and Clint and I, we joined Coulson in trying to figure out what it was – and that was from another world apparently. Selvig was there, along with this scientist, Jane Foster and her assistant Darcy, and they were investigating the same energy the Tesseract possesses, only in a different medium. In fact, they’re probably the ones that conduct most of the research Fury has given you.”
“Ah, New Mexico,” Bruce echoed the two words with a small smile.
Dahlia returned the grin, moving around to take a seat at one of the other desks. She typed in her name as required and saw the same information arise on her screen. She emailed over the request to Coulson to do his magic and get the detectors online, and to let them know when it was done.
“Coulson said he’d work on getting the radiation detectors working for us,” she said after a moment of silence. Bruce nodded in acceptance, too engrossed in his reading to really pay attention to her.
Seeing this as good opportunity, she examined him closely, wondering exactly what it was that would make Fury want to enlist Banner in his creation of the super team. He’s smart, a doctor would have to be, right? So maybe it was something mental, like mind control, or telepathy? Hmm, she pressed her lips together, not sure this place could handle two of those. Maybe he had Mr. Fantastic’s stretching ability, or could set himself on fire, like Johnny Storm, or turn invisible? All very possible options, but still, it just didn’t sound right…
She bit her bottom lip, briefly wondering whether it would be too much of a personal question to ask, before pushing forward anyway. She spun her chair to the side, so she was facing him, and leant forward slightly. “Bruce…” she waited until he looked at her questioningly before continuing, “…can I ask what your ‘talent’ is?”
“My talent?” he repeated dumbly, as if he wasn’t sure what she meant.
“You know, that one thing that makes you different from everyone else,” Dahlia elaborated, “Fury said he only wanted human 2.0 to come in for this…”
“You don’t know?” Bruce appeared surprised.
Her face drew into an expression of confusion. “Know what?”
“Ah, um, d-didn’t you read my file?”
“I haven’t read anyone’s file. I’d rather hear it in person – it doesn’t feel like an invasion of privacy.” Dahlia stated wisely, “So, what does your file say about you?”
“…Um, I guess it says I have…anger management issues,” he explained slowly, nervously even, with an uneasy smile on his face, “It’s like I become…a whole different person…”
“Hmm, I can understand that,” she commented dryly, her lips pulled into a thin line, “Sometimes I feel like a different person too.”
They shared a smile, a slightly vulnerable expression; neither really revealing their secrets, but forming a connection through the vague empathy shared. Dahlia slid her bangs back behind her ear shyly and spun slightly in her chair.
“So, um, do you control it?” she questioned curiously.
“Hmm, kind of, I guess,” Bruce shrugged, “I’ve been working on my control for a while but, really, I haven’t had enough contact with people for...a few years now actually, to test that theory. That’s why I’m not getting involved in the fight – I’m going to help S.H.I.E.L.D get there precious cube back and then I’m going to go back to helping people, like I was doing before.” His voice lowered, in a way that showed he didn’t really want her to hear although she did, “It’s safer that way…”
“…Well, I’m glad you agreed to join S.H.I.E.L.D, even if it’s just temporary,” Dahlia found herself saying nervously. She turned her eyes onto the screen in front of her, pretending to focus on the words on the screen and not the embarrassed pounding of her heart, or the colour in her cheeks.
She hadn’t really expected an answer – honestly, it was possible she had imagined it, but the whisper seemed to carry around the large room, in an almost echoing sort of way.
“I’m glad too…”
Dahlia shivered and wrapped her cardigan around her body even tighter. She had been left in the empty room for what seemed to be hours, to the point her legs had gone numb and she was almost certain that they would buckle beneath her weight if she tried to stand up. A few people had come through the wide double doors at the opposite end of the hallway, but she had kept her head down, her face curtained by her hair, making sure they couldn’t see her.
Behind her eyes, her mind raced with the images of what had happened; what she had caused; of what she was unable to change. Her hands trembled, and she watched the nervous interlocking as if she couldn’t quite believe it was them – her small pink blotched hands – that had done so much damage. She clenched her eyes shut, feeling tears of self-pity and frustration burn, and bit her bottom lip to hold back a pathetic sob.
Dahlia looked up at the voice that broke through her swirling thoughts that had consumed the silence. The man stood with his hands clasped in front of him, well dressed in a perfectly tailored suit. Although he held a neutral expression, giving nothing away, his eyes held disbelief and, maybe, pity when her broken expression peered up at him.
“I’m Agent Coulson,” he introduced himself, “If you would follow me…”
She stood shakily, unstable, and it was only the sudden grip of strong hands on her arm that kept her elevated. Her weak smile must have conveyed some kind of gratitude because he returned it almost encouragingly. She didn’t pay attention to where she was going, just allowed herself to get led through the many identical corridors, past what had to be members of the facility because they were all wearing the same dark navy jumpsuit – and they all looked at her with the same contempt and unwillingness to believe.
She refused to meet anyone’s gaze and instead focused on her battered converses padding along the speckled flooring.
Coulson pulled her to a stop outside a door, and forced her forward. She had never felt more grateful when she was finally seated, her body going lax with relief. Nervously, she raised her eyes to stare through her fringe at the three unknown people, who Coulson had joined on the opposite side of the table. There were two men, one with an eye patch and this intense look that made her swallow noticeably; the other sitting comfortably, one leg drawn up onto the chair, dressed all in black, this look that seemed like a mixture of boredom and pure annoyance at being there in the first place. The one woman in the room stared at her curiously with wide eyes, her hand tapping out a silent tune of the glass surface of the large, circular desk.
“Miss. Griffiths, this is Agent Barton, Agent Romanov and Director Nick Fury,” Coulson introduced with a wave of his hand, before claiming a seat for himself. She nodded in acceptance of the names before her gaze returned to her lap.
Agent Barton sighed heavily. “Come on, this is a waste of time. You can’t seriously expect us to believe that this girl caused that much damage.”
“You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” Agent Romanov stated wisely.
“And it doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not, because it happened,” Nick Fury added, leaning forward in his seat. He watched the girl across from him with a critical eye. Clint was right, she didn’t look like much, but still, that didn’t mean she wasn’t capable, “Miss. Griffiths, answer me honestly: how did you…?”
Dahlia clenched her fists before realising the grip. “…I…I was just so angry…”
Today is gonna be the day
That they're gonna throw it back to you
By now you should've somehow
Realized what you gotta do
I don't believe that anybody
Feels the way I do, about you now
Natasha paused, lowering her gun slightly. She eyed Dahlia closely, who continued to reload the handgun as if she couldn’t hear the song that blaring from her back pocket.
She tilted her head questioningly. “Aren’t you going to answer that?”
Dahlia sighed. “It’s my sister, so no.”
“Um, is there a reason for that?”
“Yes,” she nodded, “If I answer that phone, she’s going to be mad that I didn’t answer the first time she called three hours ago, and then the other four times she called me since then. And then she’s going to shout at me for dragging myself into yet another fight with Norse Gods from another planet. It will not be pretty, and I’m planning to put it off for as long as possible. Besides, I like my ringtone,” she paused, before diverting the conversation, “Did you that Bruce has no idea about Oasis? I mean, I understand Steve; he’s been on ice for the last seventy years, but Bruce has no excuse. I have my work cut out for me between those two, believe me, but I have to admit, I like the challenge…”
“You know it’ll only be worse by the time you do answer to Calista right?” Natasha arched an eyebrow.
“Yes, I’m well aware.”
“Good, as long as you know,” she shrugged, turning back to the target, raising her gun.
Dahlia moved to stand on her right, raising the weapon with two hands. She widened her stance slightly and twisted her body to the side for better aim, as she had been instructed before. Natasha examined her body language before telling her to lower the gun a little.
“It has to be level with your shoulders,” she reminded her.
Dahlia rolled her eyes, doing as she was told. “Yes, Tasha, you’ve told me about a million times before.”
“And I’ll tell you a million times more until you start lowering your weapon,” Natasha reached out a hand to tap the top of the barrel. “Now, relax your grip slightly and…fire.”
The shots echoed the room, slicing through the air, before hitting the targets at the opposite end of the firing range with an echoing bang.
Dahlia lowered her gun, eying the target. “I got…a neck wound, what did you get?” she scowled when she saw the bulls’ eye, straight in the heart, “Show off.”
Natasha laughed, waving it off good-naturedly. “You’re getting better. You hit the target this time.”
“Yeah, Clint will be happy at least. Remember last time we did a training session together, and I nearly clipped him just a little too close to the family jewels,” Dahlia smiled at the memory.
“And he spent the next two hours bitching about it, and refused to set a foot back in this room until Coulson called him on being afraid of a teenager,” Natasha finished fondly.
There was a moment of silence when they were reminded of their missing friend, smiles faltering. Natasha cleared her throat quietly, and continued unnecessary checks on the weapon.
“Hey,” Dahlia reached out to grasp her hand, stilling her movements, “Don’t worry so much. Clint’s a big boy – he can take care of himself.”
“I know he can. But he saved my life once, and I owe him the same,” Natasha responded, her voice firm and nonchalant.
Dahlia rolled her eyes. “You told me that the last time Hawkeye run into a fight, head first, and got himself stabbed by a very angry Frenchman. You nearly ripped that guys head off – you’d think that would make the debt settled,” she grinned knowingly, “Unless of course, there’s a different reason for your actions…”
“A different reason?” she repeated.
“I mean, really Tasha, I suspected it before and I’m happy for you, really, but it’s not healthy to keep all that emotion bottled up only to let it out in violent bursts when Clint gets himself in trouble,” Dahlia rambled, “You should do something about it, something to let him know how you feel…”
“What exactly do you mean by that?” Natasha asked, sounding a little flustered.
Dahlia sighed and looked her friend directly in the eye. “What I’m saying is, next time you see Clint Barton – and he will come back to us, unharmed, I can promise you that much – you get a hold of his annoying attractive head and kiss him until his eyes cross.”
“I-I don’t...me and Clint, we’re not…” Natasha stammered her eyes wide with surprise as if she was actually scared of what would happen. It only got worse when the other woman smiled knowingly, so she forced herself to stop talking, turning her attention back to target practise.
The door opened widely behind them, causing the two women’s attention to turn, their heads snapping over their shoulders to peer at the flustered scientist that stood awkwardly in the doorway. Bruce fixed his glasses and his clothes appeared dishevelled, probably due to the excitement induced run to reach the two women. He smiled slightly at them, hovering but not entering.
“Um, Fury sent me. We got a hit on the Tesseract’s signal – apparently, Loki’s in Germany, so we’re changing course,” he explained, a little short of breath, “Fury wants to debrief, um, Natasha and the Captain, and I need Dahlia’s help with going through the research, so…”
Dahlia smiled at him. “Thanks Bruce. We’ll be up soon.”
He returned her smile crookedly before disappearing beyond the door. She watched him go before quickly lowering her gaze and began the process of unloading the ammo from the barrels.
Natasha smirked at her. “You should take your own advice,” she said lowly.
Dahlia stood up straighter and stared determining down at the weapon in hand. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve only just met Bruce, how could I possibly…”
“Oh come on, you told me yourself – Dr. Banner is practically your perfect man to the letter,” Natasha pressed.
“That may be, but I never mentioned him specifically,” she argued weakly.
“And you have to admit, you’ve had worse dates,” Natasha added, as if she hadn’t spoken at all.
Dahlia sighed, resigned. “Well, yeah, that’s true.”
“So are you admitting you like Bruce?”
“I’ll admit that, when you accept you have less than platonic feelings for Clint,” Dahlia challenged.
“I guess we’ve reached a stalemate then.”
“It seems we have.”
The two shared a blank look before bursting into a fit of laughter, smothered by the palms of their hands.
“Now, what would you do without me?” Dahlia questioned with an amused sigh, “I’ll tell you what: live a boring and humourless life, that’s what you’d be doing.”
“Well, I won’t deny that,” the red haired confirmed, tucking her weapon back into its holster, “Now, we better go before Fury sends Coulson to drag us out of here.”
“By our hair,” Dahlia added with a laugh.
“He really does take advantage of the words ‘by any means necessary’,” Natasha shook her head, her lips twitching upward.
She walked into the room Dahlia had been assigned to with such confidence that it made Dahlia feel so much smaller than she actually was by comparison. The clothes she had been given – just a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans – were too big for her, shrinking her frame, and she tugged the sleeves over her hands nervously.
Once again, her phone vibrated across the metal table, echoing loudly around the small container that was apparently called a room. Dahlia stared at it blankly, but didn’t move to answer.
Agent Romanov arched an eyebrow questioningly. “Aren’t you going to get that?”
Dahlia shook her head.
“Any reason why?” Romanov pressed.
“It’s my older sister, Calista. She worries, a lot about me, and…how am I suppose to explain all of this,” she gestured around her, “to her? No, I can’t. I won’t answer, until I know what I’m supposed to tell her.”
“Does she know where you are?”
“Well, she knows I’m on the East Coast if that’s what you mean,” she smiled wirily.
“You should probably call her, even if you can’t tell her anything,” Romanov advised, “I doubt you’d want to cause your sister the pain of not knowing where her little sister is.”
“What are you doing here, Agent Romanov? I thought today was my day off – no more experiments,” Dahlia pressed.
“And you are correct, no more experiments. However, I thought maybe you’d want to try something that doesn’t involve being watched by idiots in lab coats through a glass window,” Romanov tilted her head slightly, “Barton and I were going to head down to the firing range – care to join us?”
“Firing range,” she repeated dumbly, “You want me to go with you to a firing range? Where they have guns and other equally dangerous weapons that I don’t know how to use?”
“I’ll teach you. Besides, would you rather sit in here by yourself for the rest of the day?”
Dahlia hesitated, biting her bottom lip. She stood up and shuffled to Agent Romanov’s side as to not trip on the rolled up hems of her jeans. “So, the firing range, Miss. Romanov. Well, that should be a new experience…”
“I imagine it will be,” she mumbled, “And, for as long as you’re involved with S.H.I.E.L.D, call me Natasha.”
The aircraft was hovering over Germany, just a few miles out of Stuttgart where the facial recognition software that S.H.I.E.L.D possessed had found an exact match to Loki, and Fury had instructed that Natasha and Steve go in.
“What about me Nick?” Dahlia had found herself asking.
Fury locked his eye on her and arched an eyebrow. “Considering your aversion to these kinds of confrontations, I thought you’d be happy to sit this one out.”
She wasn’t happy that her friends were going out there without any kind of back-up, but she couldn’t deny that she was relieved she didn’t have to. Despite her reservations about the god of mischief, her experiences of using her abilities had ended badly 90% of the time and with all those civilians down there…no, she couldn’t take the risk.
Dahlia watched, arms folded across her chest and propped up against the entrance to the changing room (she really couldn’t think of a better name for it), as Steve shrugged into the updated Captain America uniform. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye and gestured her forward, turning his back to her.
“Zip me up?”
“You know, this would be a strange thing for my male best friend to say in any other situation than this,” Dahlia muttered, mostly to herself, as she brought the two pieces of fabric together. The edges of the durable fabric met and locked together, leaving no appearance of a seam behind. The wonders of technology…
“You’re worried,” Steve stated confidently.
“Yes, I am. You’re going out there to fight a god, Steve. Worry is a normal reaction for ones friends,” Dahlia retorted.
“I’ll be fine,” he brushed off her concerns.
“Don’t be so flippant,” she snapped, “You’ve forgotten, I’ve met him before. He doesn’t look like much of a fighter, that I’ll give you, but he’s smart and he has this thing…the way he can get into your head, make you see things, you can’t just…” she shook her head firmly.
“Hey,” Steve said softly, offering an encouraging smile, “I’ll be fine…”
“You better be,” Dahlia threatened, maybe too weakly to have the desired affect, “Because I’m telling you, I will bring you back and kill you myself, understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Steve nodded dutifully, his expression mimicking mock seriousness.
“Glad that’s understood solider,” Dahlia nodded, falling into character easily. She reached out to hold onto the infamous shield and held it out in offering, “Good luck.”
He reached out to ruffle her hair. “Have fun with Dr. Banner,” he winked at her, his smile knowing, before turning to make his way towards the helicarrier runway.
Dahlia frowned deeply. “What’s that supposed to me?” she called after him, demanding an answer that she never received.
Today is gonna be the day
That they're gonna throw it back to you
By now you should've somehow
Realized what you gotta do
I don't believe that anybody
Feels the way I do, about you now
She huffed in annoyance, folding her arms across her chest. Natasha curved silently around her, eyebrow arched as she gave her friend a pointed look.
“Answer your sister,” she told her firmly.
Dahlia was stubbornly silent for a moment, but when she realised the S.H.I.E.L.D agent would stand there until she did as she was told, she sighed and reluctantly brought her phone out of her back pocket. She looked at the caller ID hesitantly for a moment before answering. She took a pause, breathing deeply, before holding the phone to her ear.
“…Hello?” she answered unsurely.
“Hello? Hello! That’s all you have to say to me!” Calista’s voice thundered down the phone line, making Dahlia winced and hold the phone a little away from her ear. “I’ve been calling you since nine o’clock this morning – nine o’clock! – with no answer! You’ve had me worried sick! Do you know why you don’t answer your phone? S.H.I.E.L.D is putting my baby sister into another ridiculously dangerous situation because the world is always bloody ending! The last time you did this, you were attacked by a giant flame throwing robot! And you were in hospital for three weeks!”
“I know, Callie, I was there…” she reminded weakly.
Natasha smirked in amusement and Dahlia narrowed her eyes into a glare. She mouthed the words ‘I hope you’re happy’, to which the red head nodded and gave her a little salute before continuing down the rest of the corridor, grabbing the weapon holster on a hanger as she pasted and attaching it to her waist.
“Then you should know better than anyone what not answering your phone means!” Calista argued. She paused to take a deep breath, and Dahlia could practically hear her sister counting to ten.
“I am sorry, I’ve just been…busy…”
“Busy? Busy with what?”
Dahlia breathed out a sigh. “Calista, you know I’m not supposed to tell you anything about S.H.I.E.L.D business.”
“When has that ever stopped you before?” Calista questioned almost nervously.
“Well, since now. This…is different. I don’t want to get you involved,” Dahlia admitted.
There was a moment of silence. “…Are you going to fight?”
“No,” Dahlia answered quickly, “At least not yet. Not unless it’s absolutely necessary, I promise that. Director Fury wants me to help Bruce in the lab.”
“Who’s Bruce?” Calista wondered.
“He’s a gamma rays expert that S.H.I.E.L.D recruited as a consultant. Fury thought it would be good for us to work together, considering our parentage…”
“Well, if anyone was going to be able to help, it was going to be you,” she responded dryly. “So…is he cute?”
“Calista!” she hissed exasperated.
“What?” Calista answered defensively, “It’s a valid question. Besides, I need some kind of good news from this phone call. Besides, I’m your older sister; it’s my job to pry mercilessly.”
“Well, you do a good job of it.” Dahlia answered sourly.
“…So? Is he?” she pressed the matter after a moments pause.
“Urgh, fine, yes – yes, he’s cute. He’s also unbelievably smart and has this adorable awkwardness about him, are you happy?” she snapped.
“Well, it’ll do,” Calista replied smugly. “Cute, smart and awkward, eh? Sounds like someone you’d like.”
“Why does everyone keep saying that?” Dahlia wondered with a sigh. She reached a hand up to rub her temples. “So, yeah, he’s an attractive guy, but that doesn’t change that this is hardly the time to be discussing this kind of thing, does it? We’re here on business, and it’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future. Besides,” she continued with a sigh, “I don’t think he’s the type of guy to think about me that way…”
“What, he bats for the other team?”
“No, Callie, he doesn’t ‘bat for the other team’,” she rolled her eyes, “I mean, I don’t think he’s the type of person that looks at someone and sees them as thinks of them in any other way than friendly. He’s just…too nice.”
“It’s the nice ones you have to watch out for,” Calista reminded her wisely.
“That may be, but that doesn’t mean every nice guy is plotting a way of getting women out of their knickers,” she stated amused.
Dahlia looked up at the sound of someone clearing their throat and met Bruce’s gaze. He was holding a large amount files unsteadily in the crook of his arm and rocked on the balls of his feet. For a split second, she wondered how much he had heard but judging by the flush that had appeared on his cheeks, she’d say it was long enough. She felt her cheeks heat up and bit her bottom lip.
“Um, Callie, I think I’m going to need to call you back later. I’m, uh, being summoned,” she lied carefully.
“Summoned?” Calista repeated the word ludicrously, “Ooh, do you mean Bruce is there? You don’t need to lie to me sis, I know when to take a hint.”
“Really, it’s not like that…” she tried to explain.
“Just remember don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Calista teased.
Dahlia ended the call abruptly, frustrated. “Bloody sisters…” she grumbled.
“I hear siblings can be nosy,” Bruce offered, as if attempting some kind of empathy.
She couldn’t help smiling slightly. “Yeah, and my sister is the queen,” she retorted, “What’s with the folders?”
“Oh, I uh, found some more files on the Tesseract project…” he shifted the large pile in his arms.
Dahlia took half the pile from him, despite his protests that he could carry them. She shifted and balanced the heavy weight. She smiled reassuringly. “Come on, this is a lot to get through.”
“Uh, right,” Bruce agreed and quickly took the lead.
Dahlia moved to follow but paused. She glanced behind her and watched as a helicarrier, Natasha at the wheel, rolled past the opening. She bit her bottom lip worriedly.
Dahlia closed the file, rubbing the bridge of her nose tiredly. She had no idea there had been so much research into such a small cube; had no idea the energy could be used in so many different ways, for so many different reasons. More importantly, she’d had enough of the road blocks in the pages. Just what the hell was Phase 2, and what was the point in mentioning it, if didn’t possess the clearance for it?
“God, my eyes are starting to burn,” she mumbled, leaning back in the chair, “I can’t read anymore. If I ever see Jane and Eric again, I’m going to tell them they need a holiday…” she eyed the man across from her closely, “So have you found anything?”
Bruce breathed out lowly. “Nothing definite if that’s what you’re looking for. I keep adjusting the calibrations on the spectrometers but so far, I can’t get a lock on anything. The best I can hope for is the Captain and Agent Romanov bringing Loki back…”
Dahlia breathed out slowly before biting her bottom lip. “I hope they’re okay…”
“You…care about them a lot, don’t you?” Bruce commented, almost cautiously.
Dahlia couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, I mean Steve and Tasha – they are some of the first friends I made. I just…worry about what happens to them. I don’t want them to get hurt, you know?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I mean that would, uh, suck…” Bruce agreed. He reached up to scratch the back of his neck; a question pushing past his lips before he could stop himself, “So how did you and Captain Rogers – a-and you and Agent Romanov – become so close?”
“Natasha and Clint – he’s S.H.I.E.L.D’s, uh, missing agent – were the some of the first people I met when I first arrived in S.H.I.E.L.D’s custody. They didn’t have to, but they reached out, offered to train me, and it just kind of grew from there I guess,” Dahlia explained with a shrug. “With Steve, it was kind of an accident really. Fury had asked me to try and introduce Steve into the 21st century, and he of course, was less than happy with that idea. But to keep the boss man off my back, I used to just show up every few days and basically annoy Steve for a couple of hours. And when he’d finally gotten over his stubbornness, we actually started to enjoy each others company. I introduced him to some modern movies and technology, that sort of thing, and he listened to me. He’s like, my big brother…”
“Big brother?” Bruce blinked surprised. He ignored the way his stomach jumped a little at the statement, “So, you and Steve aren’t…”
“What? No,” her nose wrinkled, “That’s just, no, eww – not that Steve isn’t attractive, but seriously, no. Nothing like that has ever happened between me and Steve Rogers. We are just very good friends, that’s all.”
“Oh, that’s good then…” he nodded slowly, averting his gaze to the results purposely.
“Yeah, I guess so too,” Dahlia hummed, eying him closely.
“Anyway, I’m sure they’re fine,” Bruce answered, shooting her a reassuring smile, “They’re training for this kind of thing, right?”
“Yes, I know that. It’s just…New Mexico…” she trailed off with a sigh.
“Are you going to tell me what happened in New Mexico?” he tilted his head curiously.
“Hmm, maybe later. If we’re having a ‘get-to-know-you’ session, we should probably start with the basics before we delve into that particular bag of crazy,” she laughed.
“Fine then,” Bruce shrugged, “What’s your favourite colour?”
“Green,” Dahlia answered automatically. Her eyebrows furrowed when he choked back an almost bitter sounding laugh, ducking his head. “What?”
“Nothing, it’s just…nothing…” he shook his head, and changed the subject, a wry smile now firmly in place, “Another question, what about family? I, uh, heard you talking to your sister, and I know a little about your father’s research but, um…”
Dahlia hesitated. Family was a touchy subject, especially for her. She was prepared to evade the question, an excuse to change the subject once more balanced on the tip of her tongue – but Bruce was staring at her with those damned imploring eyes, much like Steve’s had been when he had asked her the same question a few months before, and once again, she felt her resolve waver.
She sighed and reluctantly begun the explanation for the second time in her life: “First thing you should know, I don’t get along with my parents. My mum is one of those country club upper class women, who grew up getting everything they wanted, with too much money and too much time to spare, and backdated views on how women should act in civilized company. As you know, my father is a radiation expert and has spent most of his life trying to create gamma ray weapons specifically, for the British Military Forces. He was completely obsessed with the possibilities, and it only got worse every time he failed – and he failed a lot. He didn’t even seem to notice he had two daughters at all. My older sister, Calista, practically raised us both singlehandedly…”
“Oh…I’m sorry…” Bruce shifted awkwardly, regretting bringing up the seemingly innocent topic.
Dahlia smiled reassuringly, waving off the apology. “Its fine, I’ve pretty much got over it. I mean, I moved out years ago, and moved to another continent to make sure I could get on with my life. And I’ve done well so far. Besides, if it hadn’t been for my father, I wouldn’t have met most of the people I care about.” She shrugged.
“Oh, um, it was one of my dad’s failed weapon creations that led to the events that brought me to S.H.I.E.L.D’s attention,” she responded vaguely, brushing a light brown bang behind her ear.
“What, are you saying your father caused your special talent,” Bruce summarized, sounding almost ludicrous, like he couldn’t believe it. He crossed his arms across his chest and rested against one of the work tables, “what exactly is it, your, uh, talent?”
Dahlia cleared her throat and began an awkward ramble. “It doesn’t sound as bad as it actually is, but I can’t always control it a-and I’ve tried, I really have, but just when I think I’ve got it handled, something happens and knocks me completely out of wack and, um…” she faltered slightly under Bruce’s intense gaze, “…okay, I don’t call it this – it sounds too sci-fi fantasy for my liking – but it really is the best word to describe it…S.H.I.E.L.D calls it telekinesis?”
“Telekinesis?” Bruce repeated dumbly.
“Well, really, I’m manipulating particles, but yeah, I can, uh, throw things across the room with my mind,” Dahlia said nervously.
“Throw things…across the room…with your mind…”
“Seriously, are you just going to keep repeating the last thing I just said,” she snapped, a spark of irritation flared up within her. She could see it in his face, the disbelief and the humour, and it drove her mad. It was always like this; never believing the damage that could be caused and it always ended badly. She struggled to calm herself, taking calming breaths, clenching and unclenching her hands.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I just…well, I was expecting something much worse than, um, telekinesis,” Bruce chuckled with a forced amusement.
Dahlia’s eyes narrowed. “I told you it’s much worse than it sounds. I don’t like it; I don’t like what I’m capable of when I get angry or sad or hurt or jealous or scared,” she hadn’t realised she had closed the distance between them, until she was using the table to lean upon, closing the height difference between them. From this close proximity, she could see the specks of green in his surprised hazel eyes. “What I could do, what I have done, absolutely terrifies me, and I would appreciate it if you didn’t act like it’s some kind of bloody joke!”
She could see the unusual increase of green in his wide eyes; could feel the heated breath across her flustered skin. She struggled to not react to his presence.
Bruce closed his eyes briefly and tried to regulate his breathing, tried to lower his heart rate, but every intake of air caused his senses to overwhelm, and he could have to begin the process again. She was just too loud, too close, too everything. He licked his bottom lip nervously.
“I’m…” he tried to speak, but his voice came out squeaked and uneasy.
Dahlia was well aware of how close they were, and of how easy it would be to just close the distance between them – to kiss him. Her annoyance had ebbed away, leaving only the loud pounding of her escalated heart beat that was almost deafening in the silence of the lab. She should pull back, should put some distance between them, because now really wasn’t the time and she was obviously making him uncomfortable –
The thought died when her eyes followed the trail of his tongue.
The crackle of the intercom above them interrupted whatever had just happened. Dahlia shuffled backwards, averting her gaze purposely, and Bruce ducked his head to focus on the spectrometer readings, clearing his throat loudly.
A monotone voice filled the tense silence. “Hostile 1 has been apprehended. Hostile 1 has been apprehended.”
Through the glass window, heavily armed S.H.I.E.L.D agents marched in sync, surrounding a tall, armoured figure that Dahlia recognised only too well.
Loki glanced into the lab and a sinister grin crossed his handsome face. It was as if he were amused, as if he knew something was going to happen. Even though he was arrested, cuffed and guarded, totally at the mercy of S.H.I.E.L.D, it worried her immensely. She shivered involuntarily, wrapping her arms almost protectively around herself.
“Dahlia…” Bruce’s voice was low, worried even, as if he feared that if he spoke too loudly, she might break. “Are you okay?”
Dahlia forced a smile to her face, one she hoped was convincing. “Yes, I-I’m fine. Just…let’s go find the others, yeah?”
Bruce examined the woman closely, his uncertain stance showing that maybe he didn’t quite believe it, but he didn’t push the issue and she was grateful for it.
“Of course,” he inclined his head, “lead the way.”
Coulson’s voice spoke directly into her ear. “The hostile has been captured.”
“And was the before or after he took out three dozen agents without breaking a sweat?” Dahlia smirked in amusement.
“Very funny, Griffiths,” he responded dryly, “I want you to conduct the interrogation. He’s in holding cell B.”
“I didn’t even know there was a holding cell A,” she mumbled. “Alright, heading down there now.”
Her boots clicking across the flooring, she made her way through the weaving corridors that had been positioned around what looked like a large metal hammer imbedded in the ground. Agents pretty much avoided her, something she had been glad of since she had arrived, and her journey to the holding cells was pretty much smooth, uninterrupted.
She swiped her card, which beeped her access, and pushed through the door. From the cell in front of her, the figure raised his head to watch her. He was huge, probably around 6”4 if he wasn’t sitting down, which is daunting considering her short stature, with a mass of blond hair on his shoulders and in serious need of a shave. His hands were tied behind his back, and he seemed drowsy from the sedative. She hesitated for a moment, before she entered the cell, probably against accepted S.H.I.E.L.D procedure.
He jerked slightly as she got closer, eyes narrowing up at her. “Who are you, little human?”
“Dahlia Griffiths, I work for the government facility that you just broke into – kudos by the way, it was thoroughly entertaining,” she commented, “So what are you doing here?”
“I want Mjölnir,” the man stated.
“Mjölnir? That’s the hammer right?” Dahlia wondered, “And it belongs to you?”
“Yes, only someone who is worthy has the ability to wield its power,” his eyes lowered slightly, “unfortunately, I am not that person.”
Okay, so he was barking mad. That’s okay, I’ve done this before, she reminded herself. She tilted her head questioningly. “Why not?”
He appeared surprised. “Why am I not that person?”
“Yeah, I mean, if it’s yours, you should be able to ‘wield its power’, right?”
“It was stripped from me by my father, because of my selfish actions,” he explained.
“The best thing about mistakes is that you can always learn from them. The fact that you know what you did was wrong means that you’re on your way to coming worthy,” Dahlia explained softly.
He looked at her, blinking. “Thank you little human.”
“You’re welcome, um…”
“Thor, Son of Odin,” he introduced himself.
“Of course you are,” Dahlia nodded, although she wasn’t entirely sure she believed him, “I’m going to tell my handler that you aren’t a threat, although I doubt that will get you out of here or get you your, uh, hammer.”
He nodded once. “I understand.”
“Good,” she turned to leave and paused, “I’ll see what I can do about the cells though. You don’t seem like the usual crazy that are locked away in these places, maybe they’ll be lenient and you can ah, prove your worth to your father.”
“Maybe,” she said before the cell door slide shut behind her. Her hand rose to her comm. unit, “Coulson? I think we have a Norse God in our midst…”
“It’s an impressive cage. Not built, I think, for me.”
Dahlia kept her eyes firmly trained on the CCTV screen in front of her, absentmindedly chewing the skin around her fingernails. Agent Hill had directed her and Bruce to the conference room, where they had stopped during their initial arrival on the aircraft, and was relieved to see that Natasha and Steve had returned unharmed – and had brought home a stray Norse God.
Thor had patted her head in greeting and murmured something along the lines of, “I’m sorry we had to meet again in such a way, little human.” She would have said more, probably would have had to explain how they had met, but Natasha had pointed out that the cell that Loki was being kept in had been brought up on the screen for them to listen into, and everyone had been too concerned in what was transpiring below them to question it.
Dahlia had slipped into the seat between Steve and Bruce, who stood behind his chair, alternating from pacing or gripping the top of the chair as if he needed the stability – not that she had been playing that much attention to him.
“Built for something much stronger than you,”
“Oh, I’ve heard. A mindless beast; makes play he’s still a man.”
Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. It was obviously a jab at someone in this room, was made clear by the way the God of Mischief’s eyes darted towards the camera pointing directly at him. But who? Through her fringe, she could see Natasha had glanced at Bruce before turning her gaze back to her own screen. Bruce, a mindless beast? One thing she was certain of, is that man could never be considered ‘mindless’.
“Ooh…it burns you, to have come so close,” Loki continued to taunt, “To have the Tesseract; to have power – unlimited power…and for what? A warm light for all mankind to share?” He turned his body completely towards the camera, his grin conveying malice and amusement, before returning his attention to Fury, “…And then to be reminded what real power is.”
“Well let me know if ‘real power’ wants a magazine or something,” Fury shot back as he spun on the heel of his boots and disappeared from camera view. Loki watched him go, looking strangely at ease for a man who was now imprisoned, before dropping gracefully to sit cross legged on the ground. He managed one last glance and grin towards the camera for them all to see, before the screen flickered and went blank. Apparently, they weren’t allowed to see what else would happen.
“He really grows on you, doesn’t he?” Bruce joked weakly, breaking the tense silence that had surrounded them.
Dahlia managed a weak smile in response, her arms moving to wrap around herself as sudden goosebumps broke out across the surface of her skin.
“Loki’s going to drag this out,” Steve stated, assuming his role as commander, “So....Thor, what’s his play?”
“He has an army, called the Chitauri,” the God of Thunder retold, a solemn look on his face, “They’re not of Asgard, nor of any world known. He means to lead them against your people. They will win him the earth…in return, I suspect, for the Tesseract.”
“An army. From out of space,” Steve summarized disbelief in his tone. Absentmindedly, Dahlia reached over to pat his shoulder sympathically.
“If this world is so unknown, they must be amazingly far away from here. How does he plan to move an entire alien fleet from one universe to the other?” she questioned.
“A portal, the Tesseract energy could be used to open a portal,” Bruce answered, sounding more like he was talking to himself than to the rest of the room, “That would explain why he needed Eric Selvig.”
“Selvig?” Thor stood up straighter at the familiar name.
“He’s an astrophysicist,” he explained helpfully.
“He’s a friend,” Thor clarified automatically. He glanced towards Dahlia, “How long ago was Selvig taken?”
“A few weeks, when Loki first landed on Earth and got a hold of the Tesseract,” she replied.
“Loki has him under some kind of spell,” Natasha informed, “Along with one of ours…”
“I want to know why Loki let us take him,” Steve said after a pause, “He’s not exactly able to lead an army from here.”
“I don’t think we should be focusing on Loki. That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats; you can smell crazy on him,” Bruce shook his head. Dahlia snorted her amusement, folding her arms across the table and resting her chin against them.
Thor took a step forward. “Speak carefully. Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard. And he is my brother.”
Despite the situation, and despite the man they were discussing, Dahlia couldn’t help but smile. She understood the strong connection between siblings, and the need to forgive and forget whatever the situation. Vaguely, she mused whether or not she would still want to stand up and protect Calista, in the very unlikely circumstance that she would try and take over the world.
“He killed eighty people in two days,” Natasha reported bluntly, eyebrow arched.
“…He’s adopted,” Thor explained sheepishly. A snicker was smothered by her arms.
“I think Steve may have a point though,” Dahlia finally managed to get out, sitting up straighter. She met Thor’s gaze, “You and I both know Loki well enough and I don’t think he’s ever allowed himself to be captured so easily. He’s the god of mischief with the silver tongue for a reason. He didn’t fight back or try to escape…”
“It was as if he wanted to be taken,” the god finished, nodding in acknowledgment, “But what reason would he have for allowing himself to be captured?”
“I don’t think we should be focusing on Loki,” Bruce repeated, pausing in his steps to rest against a back wall, one hand grasping his jaw was he thought, “He was Stuttgart for a reason – the Iridium. What does he need the Iridium for?”
“It’s a stabilizing agent.”
The new voice seemed to draw the attention of the entire room. A dark haired man in a Black Sabbath shirt and a pair of worn out jeans entered the room with Coulson by his side. Dahlia recognized the man automatically – Tony Stark. The man’s face was everywhere recently, for once about his clean energy project rather than his debauched lifestyle. Not that she was one to pass judgment on a man she hadn’t even met. He muttered something to Phil, her ears picking up the phase ‘cellist in Portland’ which made her smile, before he focused his attention back to the rest of the room, his large presence circling and surrounding the room as he moved.
“With the Iridium, the portal won’t collapse in on itself, like it did at S.H.I.E.L.D.” He explained. “No hard feelings, Point Blank. You have a mean swing.” He patted Thor’s massive bicep as he passed, barely sparing him a glance. “It also means the portal can open as wide, and stay open as long, as Loki wants.”
Tony approached the helm, his hand moving so easily and confidently over the controls. He appeared confused for a moment, jerking his head between one screen and another, before covering one eye and repeating the experiment. “How does Fury see these things?”
“He turns,” Natasha answered dryly, with a lot more fondness than Dahlia had ever heard in her voice before – unless she was talking about Clint, of course.
“He’d need a massive power source to open that kind of portal, right?” Dahlia questioned.
“Yeah, he’d have to heat the cube to 120 million Kelvin just to break through the cooling barrier,” Bruce reminded.
“Unless Selvig has figured out how to stabilize the quantum tunneling effect,” Tony pointed out, turning to rest his back against the computer panels.
“Well, if he could so that, he could achieve heavy ion fusion to any reactor on the planet.”
Stark closed the distance between them with a grin. “Finally! Someone who speaks English!” He held out his hand, “It’s good to meet you, Dr. Banner. Your work on anti-electronic collisions is unparalleled…”
Bruce hesitated before accepting the hand.
“…And I’m also a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster.” Tony finished.
“Thanks,” he responded weakly.
Dahlia arched an eyebrow, her lips twitching. She was not sure whether to feel amused or just plain confused. “A huge…green…rage monster…?”
Bruce smiled weakly at her. “It’s, uh, a long story.”
“Apparently,” She smirked.
Tony rounded towards her, eying her closely, a smirk playing on his lips. “And you must be Miss. Dahlia Griffiths. Daughter of Dr. Milton Griffiths. You should be happy to know, you look nothing like your father.”
Her smile faltered slightly. “Um, thank you…I think.”
“Oh, I know that look,” He paused, cocking his head slightly. “Daddy not all he’s cracked up to be, was he?”
“Hmm, something like that. I take it that it was the same for you too,” she replied easily, “It’s a bugger, isn’t it?”
“If bugger means what I think it means then we’re in agreement,” he paused thoughtfully, “We should start a club…”
“I’m sure it’ll be very popular,” she nodded.
“I’ve also heard about your, uh, temperament issues. I’m sure you and Dr. Banner get along swimmingly,” Tony added thoughtfully, knowingly.
“Miss. Griffiths is here to help Dr. Banner to track the cube,” Director Fury assured, striding towards the head of the table, his coat swinging behind him, “I was hoping you might join them.”
“I’d start with that stick of his,” Steve suggested. “It may be magical, but it works an awful lot like a Hydra weapon.”
“I don’t know about that, but it is powered by the cube,” Fury agreed, “And I’d like to know how Loki used it to turn two of the sharpest men I know into his personal flying monkeys.”
“Monkeys?” Thor repeated, brow furrowed with his confusion. “I do not understand…”
“I do!” Steve cut in, almost jumping up with his excitement. Tony rolled his eyes and Dahlia smiled at her friend. He sunk down, embarrassed. “I-I understood that reference.”
“Good job sweetie,” Dahlia murmured her encouragements, leaning over to hug him from behind, “Next step, Star Wars references.”
“I’m sure Captain Rogers’ cinematic lessons can be picked up in the future,” Fury interrupted. He gave the young British woman an incisive look, “Shouldn’t you continue your search for the Tesseract, Miss Griffiths?”
Dahlia straightened up automatically, hands folding in her lap. “Of course Director Fury.”
Tony followed Bruce and Dahlia back to the lab, claiming that he needed to be “where the magic happened”. To be honest, she suspected that Fury would have sent the billionaire to the lab anyway, regardless of what he wanted to do, for the main intention of getting him out of the way. She didn’t need to be a genius to know that Nick Fury and Tony Stark had issues with one another. And she didn’t mind sharing the space with the other man. Despite the image the headlines often painted, Tony was actually easy to get a long with – a little overconfident, yes, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. And it was clear that a friendship had been formed speedily between the two geniuses.
From a third person perspective, Dahlia found it almost adorable how quickly Bruce and Tony fell into sync with each other. They didn’t talk much, but they didn’t need to. They were in their element, their natural habitat, and it was simple to adjust to extra bodies. And, when Bruce passed Tony a screwdriver when he neared, without the man even opening his mouth, Dahlia was beginning to suspect that they could read each other’s minds. It was like a dance, she mused, a very science based and computer orientated dance.
Dahlia wasn’t really apart of the dance. She was seated at her desk, focusing on the data that had gathered on her screen and noting down the readings from the analysis of the sceptre they’d recovered with Loki, which was currently strapped to one of the desk tops under an intense biometric scan. Tony had offered her a bag of blueberries upon arrival – because apparently, he keeps packets of the sweet fruit in his inside jacket pocket – and she chewed steadily. She tried to focus on the information in front of her, she really did, but Bruce could be seen directly through the transparent computer screen and it was such an easy distraction.
It frustrated her how much she was affected by him, a man she barely even knew. She’d never let herself get this enamoured by another person before, let alone someone she was working with and definitely not someone that S.H.I.E.L.D kept on their radar. So what was so special about Bruce Banner?
Realising a heavy sigh, Dahlia tried to focus on the screen once more and chewed harshly on a handful of blueberries, like the strong movements would help her keep her in check.
Professionalism, she reminded herself, keep control. You can do this.
Her eyes slid to the back of the room slowly.
Bruce was busy adjusting the configuration of the gamma radiation detectors, to the same unusual radiation reading that had been picked up from the sceptre. His glasses sat on the bridge of his nose and his torso was practically bent over the desktop as he focused. Or at least, he tried to, but it was hard to give something your full attention when you were aware of a gaze on you.
He could feel her eyes on him, bringing goosebumps to his skin and heat to the back of his neck. He shifted awkwardly under the attention and cleared his throat awkwardly, as if it could relieve the tension that had fallen - well, it had fallen on him. For the life of him, he couldn’t think of a reason why Dahlia would be so interested in him. His first thought was out of self preservation; that she was watching to make sure he didn’t get too angry and call the Other Guy, but she said she hadn’t read his file and he believed her. But what other explanation was there? It couldn’t be that she was…attracted…to him…right?
Automatically, he pulled away from that thought. He mentally reprimanded himself. What was wrong with him? Why would she possibly be attracted to him? She was…she was his complete opposite. She could do much better, he told himself. Besides, he wasn’t that lucky.
And even if she did, it would change completely once she found out about…the other guy. She’d run screaming in the opposite direction – like everyone else did.
Maybe that was why he hadn’t told her about Hulk, because he knew what would happen once she knew and…
‘And you want to keep Dahlia around for as long as possible,’ a small voice in the back of his mind added knowingly. He couldn’t deny it.
Dahlia’s eyes were back on him. His resistance wavering, Bruce allowed his eyes to lift over the rim of his glasses to meet with hers. Her light green orbs widened ever so slightly at being caught and pink dusted her cheeks with her embarrassment, but she didn’t look away.
A smile quirked at his lips and he watched the soft curve of her own when she returned it hesitantly. Nervously, she traced her tongue along her bottom lip and bit down. He found himself following the path before he was entirely aware what he was doing.
Deep inside him, Hulk peeked curiously at the girl and he let out a small growl. Panic surged through him, and he clamped down roughly on the feeling, blocking it out, the effort winding him a little. Bruce forced himself to look away, instead watching his trembling hands holding onto the edge of the desk in support.
Too close, way too close…
Unable to stop it, hurt rose in the centre of her chest when Bruce broke their staring contest, a horrified look on his face. Yeah, well, that says it all doesn’t it? He’s disgusted by you, a little voice told her spitefully, and this is before he knows what you’ve done. Imagine his face if he did…
Dahlia shook the thoughts away firmly. She hadn’t thought like that in so long, she wouldn’t break her streak now. Shoving another handful of blueberries into her mouth in an attempt to break the lump in her throat, she once again tried to continue with her work, making quick and brief notes, but it didn’t last long.
The image of Bruce, staring so intensely back at her, seemed to shoot right to the forefront of her mind. Even the memory could cause her heart to elevate and she cursed herself for that. She shouldn’t have let herself get caught – everything would be awkward now – he was probably laughing at her right now – but his eyes had just been so captivating.
They’d seemed too vulnerable when they’d first locked, as if he wasn’t entirely sure whether he was doing the right thing. Then it had seemed to melt into his contentment, she guessed, something peaceful and warm. She could remember the way they’d darkened, with lust that she had obviously imagined, and the shiver had yet to leave her. And then, for a moment, before he had pulled way from her, she could have sworn – it must have been seeing things – it was only for a split second, she couldn’t be sure – but it was such a bright colour of green, almost unnatural yet primitive, and she was ashamed of how attractive she found it.
But she would deny entirely when Steve suggested it, that it was her pondering over the man that had distracted her – and it was why she hadn’t noticed Tony sneaking up behind Bruce with a screwdriver and jab sharply into his side.
“Ow!” Bruce yelped, jerking away from the tool and shooting Tony a look that clearly said ‘what the hell are you doing?’
“Hey, are you nuts?” Steve’s voice filtered into the room, demanding an answer. Dahlia sat up straighter in her chair, flustered, and wondered how long he had been standing behind her.
Tony ignored him completely, focusing a critical stare on his fellow scientist. “You really do have a lid on it don’t you? What’s your secret? Mellow Jazz? Bongo drums? Huge bag of weed?”
“Is everything a joke to you?” Steve continued, clearly flabbergasted.
“Funny things are.”
“Threatening the safety of everyone on this ship isn’t funny. No offense, Doc,” Steve apologised as an afterthought.
“Yeah, it-it’s alright. I wouldn’t have come aboard if I couldn’t handle…pointy things,” Bruce assured with an almost bitter smile at the end, turning back to his work as if that was the end of the discussion.
Dahlia blinked in confusion. Threatening the life of everyone on this ship? Huge, green rage monster? She was seriously starting to regret not reading that file when Phil had offered it to her.
“You’re tiptoeing, big man,” Tony laughed, “You need to strut.”
“And you need to focus on the problem, Mr. Stark,” Steve told him firmly.
“You think I’m not?” he shot back, “Why did Fury call us in? Why now? Why not before? What isn’t he telling us? I can’t do the equation unless I have all the variables.”
“You think Fury’s hiding something?” Steve questioned his voice a mixture of resentment, disbelief and doubt.
“Steve, Fury always seems to be hiding something,” Dahlia told him gently, “Has ever since I met him.”
“See, Dahlia agrees with me,” Tony stated smugly, “Fury’s a spy. Captain, he’s the spy. His secrets have secrets.” He tossed a handful of berries into his mouth and gestured towards Bruce, “It’s buggin’ him too, isn’t it?”
Bruce looked up, surprised by the sudden converge of eyes towards him. “Uh…I-I just wanna finish my work here, and…”
“Doctor?” Steve interrupted, inquiringly.
Bruce’s eyes scanned the three faces, taking in the expressions – Tony’s encouraging one, Steve’s curious one, and Dahlia’s imploring one – before sighing his defeat, removing his glasses. “…A ‘warm light for all mankind’,” he quoted, “Loki’s jab at Fury about the cube…”
“I heard it.”
“Well, I think it was meant for you,” He pointed at Tony, who offered him the bag of blueberries. He hesitated for a moment before taking a few and continuing, “Even if Barton didn’t tell Loki about the tower, it was still all over the news.”
“The Stark Tower? That big, ugly…”
“Steve!” Dahlia hissed out a warning, as Tony glared darkly at him. Silently, she wondered what had happened to anger her usually polite and respectful friend.
“…building in New York?”
“I remember reading about this,” Dahlia leant back in her chair, thoughtfully, “It’s powered by arc reactor technology right? The first real self-sustaining energy source. I read that companies all over the world were lining up to make a deal for this new development.”
“Only a few hundred at the moment, but it’s just a prototype at the moment. Just wait until the real thing,” Tony smirked at her before turning to Steve, “You see, I’m kind of the only name in clean energy right now – that’s what he’s getting at.”
“So, if S.H.E.I.L.D is supposedly using the Tesseract to develop a new source of ‘clean’ energy…” Dahlia started.
“…Why didn’t they go to Tony first? Exactly,” Bruce finished with a small nod, “And what’s S.H.I.E.L.D doing in the energy business in the first place?”
“I should probably look into that,” Tony stated as he crossed the room to the workstation that he had taken for his own, “Once my decryption program finishes breaking into all of S.H.I.E.L.D’s secure files.”
Steve’s lips pressed into a frown. “I’m sorry, did you say-“
“JARVIS has been running it since I hit the bridge,” Tony interrupted to explain, fingers sliding across the screen to check the progress of the program, “In a few hours, I’ll know every dirty secret SHIELD has ever tried to hide.”
Dahlia got up from her seat and scooted around Steve’s towering form to examine the work of the program. “Very impressive Mr. Stark,” she hummed her approval.
“Lia, don’t encourage him,” Steve ordered, a disappointed expression on his face.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she told him pointedly, “I’ve never met anyone who can crack S.H.I.E.L.D’s firewall, and trust me I’ve been trying to get access to my real life as soon as I was recruited. I’m allowed to be impressed.”
“I like you,” Tony grinned. “Blueberry?” he offered.
Dahlia shot him an amused look and accepted the offer of treats.
“Yet you’re confused as to why they didn’t want you around,” Steve shot at Tony.
“An intelligence agency that fears intelligence?” he started, his expression hardening once more, “Historically: not awesome.”
“I think Loki’s trying to wind us up. This is a man who means to start a war, and if we don’t stay focussed, he’ll succeed,” Steve chided, “We have orders. We should follow them.”
“Following’s not really my style,” Tony shrugged, nonchalant.
“And you’re all about style, aren’t you?” Steve spat back.
Tony took a threatening step closer. “Of the people in this room, which one is a) wearing a spangly outfit and b) not of any use?”
Dahlia frowned deeply. “Alright, enough you two…” she moved to stand between them. Although she was dwarfed by their much taller forms, she was proud that their gazes still turned to her. “We’re all going to be working here, together, whether you like it or not, so you better learn how to get along, all right?”
Tony looked ready to object, so Bruce interfered. “Steve, tell me none of this smells a little funky to you?”
Dahlia could see the conflict on her friends face and would have felt sorry for him if it wasn’t for her frustration at his less than friendly attitude towards Tony. He was a solider, taught to follow orders – it must be hard to believe that the people you were working for, the supposed ‘good guys’ may be just as corrupt as the bad ones.
“Just find the cube,” he finally reminded them, before turning and quickly exiting the lab. Through the lab window, she could see him stop, pause and then turn and head in the opposite direction. Something told her, he was going to do some investigating of his own.
“That’s the guy my dad never shut up about? Wondering if they shouldn’t have kept him on ice,” Tony muttered bitterly.
Protectiveness surged within Dahlia. “Hey, he may be acting like an arse today but the stupid bugger is my friend, so no bad mouthing yeah? I like you, and I’d hate to have to kick your backside.”
“The guy’s not wrong about Loki though. Neither were you,” Bruce conceded, “He does have the jump on us.”
“Well, he did the last time S.H.I.E.L.D came into contact with him, I wouldn’t expected anything different now,” she shrugged indifferently.
“What he’s got is an Acme dynamite kit,” Tony corrected, circling the computer screens skilfully, “It’s gonna blow up in his face. And I’m going to be there when it does.”
“Yeah, me too,” Dahlia agreed.
“Yeah? I’ll read all about it,” Bruce told them quietly, carefully avoiding Dahlia’s gaze when she turned sharply towards him.
“Uh-huh. Or you’ll be suiting up with the rest of us.”
Bruce’s laugh was humourless. “Nah, you see…I don’t get a suit of armour. I’m exposed. Like a nerve. It’s a nightmare.”
“Hey, none of us are completely protected, not really. Sometimes it’s just better to learn to live with your demons, than to let them fight you. It’s a losing battle,” Dahlia whispered wisely.
“You know, I’ve got a cluster of shrapnel in my chest, trying every second to crawl its way into my heart. This stops it,” Tony told him, tapping the light in the centre of his chest that glowed brightly through the fabric of his Black Sabbath shirt. “This little circle of light is a part of me now. Just like our little flower and her strong will. It’s a…terrible privilege.” He stepped up to the other side of Bruce’s computer, looking at him through the transparent screen.
“But you can control it.”
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn how.”
“It’s different,” Bruce stated, clicking on different files of information in an attempt to end the conversation.
Frustrated, Tony swiped at the screen, clearing it so he had no choice but to pay attention. “Hey. I read all about your ‘accident’. That much gamma exposure should have killed you.”
Dahlia stood up straighter, her head inclining in interest.
“So you’re saying that the Hulk – the other guy saved my life? That’s nice. That’s a nice sentiment. Saved me for…what?”
“I guess we’ll find out,” Stark answered, moving back to his desk.
“You may not enjoy that,”
“And you just might.”
Bruce sighed, already emotionally drained by the conversation. His eyes darted towards Dahlia, who was staring at him curiously, wondering. He gave her an awkward smile, which she returned fleetingly. She arched an eyebrow questioningly and he suppressed a wince. Yes, time was running out. He’d have to tell her soon – it would be unfair to her – if something happened –
“I’m going to get some coffee,” he announced loudly, straightening up, “Does anyone want anything?”
“Black, five sugars, no milk,” Tony responded instantly without raising his head.
“I’ll come with you,” Dahlia stated quickly, already heading for the door.
Bruce stayed back for a moment, breathing in deeply to try and prepare himself for the story ahead, and wanting to stall it for as long as possible.
“Go get her big guy,” Tony winked playfully at him.
He ducked out of the door after Dahlia, humiliation flaring pink on his cheeks. Tony’s chuckle followed him down the hallway.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The coffee maker whirled to life, steam moving in indescribable patterns before Bruce’s eyes. He ran his hands nervously over his trouser clad thighs, and glanced towards the woman beside him. Dahlia was sat on one of the plastic chairs that had been built in the rec room, her hands already nursing her own cup. She just seemed to stare out into space, stare into nothingness, as she chewed steadily on her bottom lip. It was obvious she was just as affected by this ‘days of your life’ style conversation as he was.
The hot brown liquid poured easily into the polystyrene cup and Bruce held onto it like a lifeline, soaking in the heat and trying to draw strength from it. After all, he’d never really had to have this conversation before. He should have told her to read his file, should have just read hers, so they didn’t have to have this awkward encounter, but…for some reason, he wanted to be the one to explain it to her. He’d seen the file on himself, had seen the way they phased things and the events they had documented. She’d be terrified of him, if she read it, but, like this, in a face to face conversation, he could explain it all to her, could tell her truth of what happened rather than the S.H.I.E.L.D version.
So he did. Bruce didn’t look her in the eye, or even give a warning for the beginning of the conversation. He just stared into the cup of coffee, forcing his eyes to follow the swirls and patterns on the surface of the liquid, and just talked.
He talked about his father, a great atomic physicist but a devastating parent, lacking all love and compassion for his only son. He talked about how his mother had been killed by him – of course, he couldn’t remember much of the time, but he relayed what he could because now that the floodgates were open, he was finding it impossible to stop. He talked about how the failed bomb beneath his high school and the expulsion that followed, had led to his recruitment by the US Military, who helped him get his doctorate. He talked about the accident; how they had been trying to recreate Dr. Eskine’s serum, the one that had been used to turn Steve Rogers into Captain America, and how he believed that gamma rays were the answer; how the solution was untested and they were unsure of the effects on human participants; how Bruce had offered himself up for experimenting to ensure that no innocent was put in danger, and how it had backfired. How he had become Hul- the Other Guy.
“But I haven’t had any accidents, not for a year now,” he quickly assured her, “I have a tight lid on it, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t wary about being around me – and vice versa.” He finished with a sigh.
Silence fell over them. For a moment, Bruce thought that she had already left, that she had gone long before he had finished, and didn’t want to look up to check. And then a hand pressed against the back of his neck. His heart lurched uncomfortably, and his head snapped upwards to, finally, meet her gaze.
“Bruce…” she muttered out softly, and he could easily see the empathy and pity reflected in her eyes, “…I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine…” she took in a shuddered breath, “Thank you, for telling me.”
“I wanted you to know,” Bruce admitted lowly. He felt her fingers stroke the hair at the base of his neck, pressing against the knot he hadn’t even realized was there firmly. He felt the tension drain from him and let out a small breath.
“I’m not even going to pretend that I know what you went through, but, um, I know a little bit about fathers who were brilliant scientists but bloody awful fathers,” she offered. She continued when Bruce gave her a questioning look, “I’ve already told you about my parents, and my sister, right? But I didn’t tell you it was my father that caused my accident. Um, I was six when it happened. At that time, my mother still liked to make play that we were this perfect, happy family and insisted that we all eat dinner as a family. This was right at the beginning of my father’s contract with the British Military, so he was pretty much lost to the world, and when I went down to fetch him for dinner, he didn’t even notice I was there. He was testing this new device, some weapon that would be able to cut through anything – human flesh and bone, concrete, the thickest steel doors imaginable – with just a single click. The idea was to mutate the cells of objects to get them to bend to your will, but instead they mutated…me.”
“How? I mean, uh, were you alright?”
Dahlia shrugged. “Third degree burns over 40% of my body, some scarred tissue and a lot of cuts in my arms and stomach but, yeah, for the most part. I didn’t find out that it had done anything to me until I was ten and, um – okay, you see, by this time my dad’s funding had been cut, but he was so desperate in the belief that he could get everything to work that he found other ways of getting money. Betting was one way and that worked for a while, but it was too long and he was losing more than he was winning, so he tried taking a loan out from some very dodgy people. When he couldn’t pay them back, they took me as a warning. Nothing really happened,” she reassured, “but I remember being scared, so scared, and then there was this crashing around me and I didn’t know what was happening – I was told later that the warehouse they had been holding me in had collapsed in on itself, that I was lucky to be so unharmed because two of my kidnappers had died upon impact, and three were in ICU. That was when I first fell onto S.H.I.E.L.D’s radar. Because they’d figured it out. I’d done that; I’d caused that building to fall and to kill those men, me.”
“They’d taken you, tried to hurt you. You shouldn’t blame yourself for-“Bruce started to comfort, but she interrupted.
“That’s not even the worst thing,” Dahlia told him, “When I was 18 – I’d moved to New York by this point – I had my first boyfriend. I loved him, or at least, that’s what I managed to convince myself I did. I thought he would be it, you know, which sounds even more foolish now that I’ve said it out loud,” she laughed almost bitterly, shaking her head, “And I found out he had been cheating on me. I’d needed to drop by his apartment on my way home from work – I’d left my uni notes on his kitchen table and I really needed them for the next day – and he was in bed, with this girl, Lucy, who I worked with. He didn’t even try to deny it or defend himself or anything. He just…carried on, as if I wasn’t even there. And god, it hurt. It hurt so badly, I couldn’t even stand it. I remember running from his apartment and leaving the building – and then there’s just this crash and bang, and all this screaming.” She went silent, as if reliving the moment.
“Dahlia…” Bruce found himself whispering soothingly, reaching out for her hand. He was surprised by the ferocity that she held onto it, her nails slightly imbedding in the skin on the back of his hand.
“I brought the building down,” she admitted quietly. “I didn’t even – I was upset, I didn’t want anyone else to be hurt because of it. There were 75 people in that building when it fell. 30 died instantly, including my ex and his new girlfriend; 20 died in hospital, succumbing to their injuries; and the rest survived, 3 with long lasting effects. There were children in that place Bruce, and I… that’s when S.H.I.E.L.D found me. I thought they were going to lock me up, punish me, anything, but they didn’t. They offered me a way to control it and a job where I could help protect people, and I took it.” Dahlia sniffed and her lips twisted into something akin to self-loathing, “I’m sorry. It’s stupid being this upset about something, especially when you compare it to what happened to you.”
“Then don’t compare it,” Bruce told her, “I haven’t. Our pasts are different but that doesn’t mean one has any more validity over the other. It doesn’t make it stop hurting.”
Dahlia squeezed his hand tightly and nearly smiled when he returned the gesture. She gently released her hold; just enough to remove her nails from his skin and make it more comfortable. The edge of her thumb traced over his knuckles, falling into dips and grooves, and the calloused pads of his fingers on the palm of her hand made her shiver. Just for that moment, it was as if there were just them, silently wallowing in their own memories, embittered at their past and sympathetic to the history of the other.
And then Natasha showed up.
“Stark’s asking for his coffee,” her voice, laced with mirth and smugness, popped the bubble that they had surrounded themselves in. Automatically, they moved apart, withdrawing their hands into their laps, head pivoting to face the redheaded assassin. Natasha arched a questioning eyebrow and Dahlia’s eyes narrowed in return.
Bruce stood up, suddenly flustered, and muttered something about getting Tony his coffee. His hands flittered around the buttons on the machine before it whirled to light once more. Dahlia stood up carefully, offering the man a small smile, and followed her self-satisfied friend from the
“What was it that you said about Dr. Banner?” Natasha teased.
“What was it that you said about Agent Barton?” Dahlia mimicked. The two shared a knowing smile and didn’t need to say anything else. After a few seconds of walking, the English woman frowned slightly, peering around her curiously. “Where are we going?”
“Director Fury has asked me to interrogate the prisoner,” she responded, a professional tone over taking her voice.
“Loki?” Dahlia’s feet stuttered to a stop slightly before picking up speed again. “Um, why?”
“He’s one step ahead of us, and Fury wants me to find out what he knows,” Natasha shrugged, “We can’t be unprepared.”
She nodded understandingly, fighting the urge to raise her hand and nibble the ends of her fingers. She didn’t want to be afraid anymore, she couldn’t afford to be. She hadn’t had the chance to confront him in New Mexico and she’d suffered because of it. She knew what she had to do, even if she would rather do anything else. She swallowed heavily and clenched her hands into fists before relaxing again.
“Can I join you?” she managed to force out.
Natasha gave her a disbelieving look.
Hey readers! I am seeking assistance! Dahlia needs a superhero name, especially for the big battle at the end, but I’m at a loss for ideas, so I was hoping maybe the internet could help me. I’ll make it worth your while: the best name will be featured in this story towards the end :)