Bruce Banner was a coward.
Sure, he was willing to turn himself into a giant destructive monster in order to fight aliens and super villains and enormous fire-breathing robots. And, yes, he’d spent years living in some of the most dangerous cities on Earth in an attempt to elude the (also dangerous) enemies who were chasing him, literally out for his blood. But he was still a coward.
Bruce Banner had dealt with the United States military and a crazy god, but he didn’t have the guts to ask Darcy Lewis on a date.
Darcy had somehow been assigned to him as his lab assistant despite the fact that there were quite a few far more qualified people at SHIELD practically foaming at the mouth to work side-by-side in a lab with him. Bruce thought it was either because Darcy was one of the few people who didn’t look at him as though the Other Guy might burst out of him and thump them on the head if they sneezed too loudly (which was good for her, because Darcy sneezed loud enough to wake the dead), or because Tony had found out about Bruce’s not-so-secret weakness for spunky blue-eyed brunettes and had pulled strings to get Darcy placed there. Bruce was slightly more inclined to believe the latter, because one of Tony’s favorite activities was seeing just how many of Bruce’s buttons he could push at the same time before the Other Guy started to come out.
Whatever the case, Darcy had fascinated Bruce from the first moment she’d walked through his doors.
She was intelligent enough that, while she couldn’t exactly work alongside him, most of the time she at least caught the gist of what he was doing and would occasionally ask questions that proved she wasn’t entirely unqualified to be his assistant.
She was also beautiful, charming, witty, and wildly unorthodox. The story around SHIELD went that the first time she’d met the Other Guy, she’d screwed up her courage and shakily held out a taser, threatening to zap him like she’d zapped Thor; the Other Guy had apparently found this amusing and had left her alone after a migraine-inducing pat to her head.
Unlike many of his past assistants, she didn’t mind that he liked to stay in his lab until the wee hours of the morning and would normally stay with him until nine or ten at night, bringing dinner down to the lab for him and making sure his tea was always hot. She would often sit on the stool next to him, chattering about her life and her friends, and Bruce would listen with half an ear, letting the sound of her voice wash over him, soothing the ragged edges of his mind. In the hours after she'd gone home for the night, the silence in the room would gnaw at him until he couldn't handle it anymore; he would finally give up on getting any work done and head back to Stark Tower for a few hours of sleep.
Any time he thought about telling her any of this, though, his tongue would freeze in his mouth, paralyzed by the idea that she’d laugh at him; that she would tell him he was too old for her or that she only thought of him as a friend or she liked her men to not have anger management issues, thanks, anyway.
So he maintained his silence and contented himself with treasuring every smile, every laugh, and every brush of her lips against his cheek and touch of her fingers against the back of his hand.
Tonight, however, Darcy began gathering her things at about six-thirty, doing her best to be quiet about it; but she dropped her keys, and Bruce was startled out of his reverie by the noise.
“Are you leaving already?” he asked, glancing up at the clock on the wall.
“Sorry,” said Darcy apologetically. “I know I don’t usually take off until after nine, but I need to leave early tonight.”
“Oh.” Bruce paused. “Have plans?”
Darcy nodded. “Danny’s in town; so we’re going out to dinner and then maybe to a movie or something.”
Bruce felt a pang, but tried not to let it show. “That should be fun.”
Darcy smiled fondly. “Yeah, we haven’t really had a chance to see each other since we graduated, so it’ll be nice to see him.”
Bruce hoped his answering smile didn’t look as sad as he felt. “Have a good time.”
“Thanks,” Darcy replied. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”
Bruce nodded. “I’ll be here.”
She leaned in and kissed his cheek and he was fairly sure that it was medically impossible for the feel of it to zip straight from his cheek to his heart, but it did anyway.
“Of course you will be,” she said, and he could hear the warm smile in her voice. “Three things you can always depend on. Death, taxes, and Bruce Banner spending his days in his lab.”
He frowned slightly. “I don’t spend every day in here.”
“I didn’t say it was a bad thing,” she soothed, pulling back to look him in the eye.
“You lumped me in with death and taxes.”
“True. Should I have said, ‘rainbows at the end of the thunderstorm’ and ‘kittens being adorably fluffy’?”
Bruce snorted. “Better.”
She smiled. “It even fits better. You’re adorably fluffy, too.”
He reached a self-conscious hand up to touch his hair. “I’m not fluffy.”
“Yes, you are. It’s okay, though. Don’t be ashamed of it. Flaunt the fluff, Bruce.” She looked at her watch. “Damn, I really have to get going; he’s waiting for me in the lobby.”
“I’m sorry I kept you,” he said.
“I’m not,” she replied. “Hey, do you want to meet him?”
Bruce hesitated, seeing her hopeful expression, but then shook his head. “Maybe next time.”
“Okay, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She smiled at him and tossed him a wink before sweeping out the door.
Before he even realized what he was doing, Bruce had pulled up the surveillance stream of the lobby. He saw Darcy approach a tall young man, about her own age with wavy dark hair and a wide smile, and throw her arms around him; the young man twirled her around and said something that made her laugh.
Firmly quashing the regret that welled up in his heart, Bruce closed out of the stream and tried to focus on his work rather than the fact that Darcy was going out on a date with someone and it wasn’t him. Because he was a coward and this Danny was not.
“That is really cool,” said Danny. “I think it’s great that you get to rub elbows with them.”
“Mostly Bruce,” said Darcy, shrugging. “Tony Stark flits in sometimes, but he gets kicked out after about five minutes because he screws around with Bruce’s stuff and Bruce hates it when people fuck with his stuff.”
“Still,” said Danny. “You’re on a first name basis with a fucking Avenger. That’s awesome.”
“Yeah, I guess,” said Darcy. “I think it helps that Bruce himself isn’t the Avenger, if you know what I mean. Most of the time, it’s easy to forget that I almost spilled Diet Coke all over Hulk’s important research or whatever, because it’s not the big green guy sitting on the stool next to me.”
“So does this mean you’re breaking up with me? I’m no longer going to be the most important man in your life?”
“You’re a jackass,” said Darcy, throwing a potato wedge at him. “It’s not like that, we’re just friends.”
“Uh-huh,” said Danny skeptically as he reached over with his fork and nabbed Darcy’s last meatball.
“Danny,” Darcy chastised.
Danny grinned unrepentantly. “You can have the rest of my tortellini if you want.”
“Thanks,” Darcy said as she poked the pasta with her fork. “This is really good.”
“It is,” said Danny. “Glad you suggested we go here.”
Suddenly, Darcy’s phone rang and she reached in and pulled it out of her purse. Her eyebrows shot up when she saw the number, and, casting an apologetic glance at Danny, she pressed her phone to her ear. “Agent Hill, what’s up?”
“Miss Lewis, we need you to report back to SHIELD now.”
“What’s going on?”
“We have no idea why it happened, but the Hulk is out and he’s growling something about you and nobody seems to be able to talk him down.”
“Oh, God. We’ll be right there.” Darcy hung up her phone and turned to Danny, who was watching her with avid interest. “So, you know how you wanted to meet the Avengers? Well, it’s your lucky day, Danny boy. Just…don’t freak out.”
They exited the restaurant to see a nondescript black car pulling up to the curb. “Come on,” Darcy said, grabbing Danny’s arm and dragging him into the car.
“Where exactly are we going?” Danny asked.
“SHIELD headquarters,” the agent driving the car responded. “The Hulk is currently contained in the area near Doctor Banner’s lab.”
“Oh, God,” said Darcy. “I really hope he didn’t fuck with any of his experiments; Bruce will not be happy if his mass spectrometer gets smashed.”
The agent shook his head. “Doctor Banner was out of the lab before his transformation,” he said. “He busted up an empty lab nearby, but nothing of consequence to his own work.”
“Good,” said Darcy.
“Wait,” said Danny. “We’re going to see the Hulk?”
“Yes,” said Darcy. “And you know how on TV he looks all huge and scary and like he can squash you like a bug?”
“In real life, it’s about five times scarier than that.”
The car pulled up in front of SHIELD headquarters, and Darcy had already opened the door before the agent finished parking the car.
“Be careful, Miss Lewis,” said the agent. “He’s mentioning you, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be happy to see you.”
“We’ll be careful,” Darcy said, grabbing Danny’s arm and dragging him behind her, following the sound of the roars echoing down the hall.
They reached the hallway where Hulk was staked out, yelling at anyone who came near him, and Darcy let go of Danny’s arm and slipped past the SHIELD agents who had created a perimeter around Hulk and placed herself within Hulk’s eyesight.
“I hear you’ve been talking about me,” Darcy said, slipping her hands in her pockets to hide their trembling. “What’s up?”
“Who puny little man?” Hulk asked, pointing derisively behind her.
Darcy followed his finger. “Oh, that’s just Danny,” she said, pulling one hand out of her pocket and waving it dismissively.
Hulk’s lip curled. “Darcy like Danny more than Hulk?”
“No,” she answered. “Of course not. I barely tolerate him most days.”
“Hey,” Danny objected, but Darcy turned and glared at him, shushing him harshly before turning back to face Hulk.
“Darcy like Danny more than Banner?”
“Where on earth would either of you get that idea?”
“Darcy leave Banner. Want go eat with Danny,” Hulk sneered.
“Oh, for the love of…” Darcy closed her eyes and breathed in slowly through her nose. “You two really need to work on that inferiority complex,” she said, opening her eyes and looking back up at Hulk. “Danny is my twin brother. I could’ve sworn I told Bruce about him at least once.”
Hulk blinked at that. “Darcy not want be with Danny instead of Banner?”
“Ew, gross,” she said. “What part of ‘Danny is my brother’ is not sinking into your thick green skull right now?” Before Hulk could answer she continued, “And anyway, it’s not like Bruce has ever made a move on me, and neither have you for that matter, and I’m totally going to yell at him for this, too, once he’s back, because he never remembers the shit that goes down when you’re around.”
Hulk huffed, but didn’t contradict her.
Darcy put her hands on her hips and cocked an eyebrow at Hulk, who was looking increasingly sheepish, which was an odd look for Hulk, but it really drove home the knowledge that Bruce was in there somewhere. “Are you seriously telling me this entire freak out was because Bruce thought I was out on a date and got jealous?”
“Banner angry at self. Banner want to go eat with Darcy but scared to ask. Now thinks Darcy will leave him.”
“I’m not going to leave, you big idiot. So just calm the fuck down and stop breaking all the labs at SHIELD before the scientists get pissed off at you.”
“Darcy?” Danny’s voice was quavering slightly, and Hulk’s eyes narrowed as his gaze swept from Darcy to her brother. Danny let out a very unmanly “eep!” and ducked behind a nearby SHIELD agent, which, sadly for Danny, was not a very effective strategy for avoiding Hulk’s eyes since said SHIELD agent was about six inches shorter than he was.
Darcy tucked that away for future blackmail material before returning her attention to Hulk.
“Stop scaring him,” Darcy said sternly. “He’s no threat to you.”
“Danny not brave like Darcy,” observed Hulk.
“Cut him a little slack,” said Darcy. “He’s just not used to you. I was pretty freaked when I first met you, too, if you remember. You’re very imposing.”
Hulk grunted, but it seemed more like a pleased grunt than an angry one.
“Will you calm down and let Bruce come back out if I tell you I’ve been waiting for ages for him to ask me out to dinner?”
“I knew you liked him!” Danny called from where he was still cowering behind the SHIELD agent.
“Shut up, Danny,” Darcy yelled, her eyes still on Hulk. “Well?”
Hulk grunted again, and the muscles in his shoulders seemed to lose some of their tension; Darcy watched as he slowly shrank, his skin fading back to Bruce’s normal tone.
“Good,” said Darcy. She turned to the agents behind her and said, “Can somebody go get some clothes for Bruce, please?”
By the time she’d turned back around, he was fully Bruce again. He was sitting on the floor, curling up his legs to preserve his modesty.
“Hey,” Darcy said, sitting down next to his knees, her eyes roaming over his face.
“Hello, Darcy,” he replied, not looking at her.
She reached out and placed a hand on his bare shoulder. “So, are you going to ask me out now?”
His brow furrowed as he turned to meet her gaze. “What about—“
“You know, I really hate that you and Hulk can’t just confab and share intel during your transformations back and forth; it would make life a lot easier,” Darcy interrupted. “Danny is my brother, you ridiculous man.”
“Oh,” said Bruce, and Darcy could see the blush creeping along his ears and down his neck.
“So,” Darcy prodded. “Dinner?”
Bruce reached up and rubbed one hand along the back of his neck. “Perhaps some night after I recover from the embarrassment of this?”
“Oh, hell, no,” said Darcy. “That’d be never. Tomorrow. You’re taking me to that new Greek place downtown.”
“I like Greek,” said Bruce, a bit faintly as though he was still stunned by this turn of events.
“Fabulous,” said Darcy. “We’ll leave the lab at seven.”
Bruce nodded acceptingly as a throat cleared behind Darcy. She turned to see an agent silently holding out a pile of clothes. Darcy stood and grabbed them, handing them to Bruce, who took them with quiet thanks.
“Now, I don’t want to see you suddenly calling in sick or realizing I don’t have the proper credentials to work with you and shipping me off to be an office grunt at the other end of the building or deciding that you absolutely must work late tomorrow or some lame shit like that,” warned Darcy.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Bruce objected as he began to slip on the clothes. Darcy slid her eyes away from him to afford him what little modesty she could, and she treasured the tiny grateful smile he gave her when she turned her gaze back to him, now standing as he did up the buttons of his shirt.
“Better not,” said Darcy. “I’ve got witnesses, and I will call on each and every one of them if you stand me up.”
“Believe me,” said Bruce, and his smile was warm and relieved, as though a weight had been lifted off his chest, “I think I’ve been waiting for this longer than you have. I’ll be there.”
They stood there, smiling at each other, until Bruce realized what they were doing and cleared his throat.
“Now that the excitement’s over,” said Bruce, fiddling with the buttons of his shirt cuff, “I really should get back to work.”
“Have fun,” Darcy replied. “But not so much that you don’t miss me.”
“I always miss you,” he admitted.
Darcy reached up and gave him a quick peck on the lips. “Good,” she said. “Then we’re even.”
Bruce’s gaze turned to someone behind her, and she turned to see Danny, avidly watching the whole thing.
“’Just friends,’ eh?” said Danny, waggling his eyebrows at Darcy.
“Shut up, stupid.”
“Make me, brat.”
“I’ll have my friend here do it for me,” Darcy replied, quirking an eyebrow, and Danny settled for glaring at her.
“That’s not fair,” he said. He stuck a hand out in Bruce’s direction. “I’m Danny,” he said. “Darcy’s big brother.”
“By like, ten minutes,” Darcy pointed out as Bruce reached out and shook her brother’s hand.
“And I am going to squeeze those ten minutes until they beg for mercy,” Danny replied cheerfully. “It’s great to meet you, Doctor Banner.”
“You, too,” said Bruce. “Um…sorry about…this.”
“Eh, no worries,” said Danny. “You should’ve seen the bitches we ran into during Freshman Orientation at college who thought Darcy and I were a couple. Being yelled at by the Hulk is small potatoes compared to the shit Darcy went through before word finally got around that we were siblings.”
“My car still has issues,” Darcy grumped. She turned to Bruce, whose bemused gaze was darting between her and Danny, as though he didn’t know what to make of them. “You don’t want to know,” she said.
“I don’t think I do,” Bruce replied.
“I’ll let you get back to work now,” Darcy said. “But remember—“
“Seven o’clock,” Bruce interrupted, his lips curling up at the corners. “The new Greek place.”
“You got it.”
“I’ll be there.” And the smile he gave her lit up his face, and as she beamed back at him, Darcy didn’t even give a shit that Danny was laughing at them.