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After the Battle of Manhattan, after shawarma, after Loki has been taken back to Asgard, handcuffed and muzzled, Tony Stark and Brooke Banner jump into his convertible and drive off into the sunset—into the mid-afternoon sun, anyway, because the solar system has no sense of proper dramatic timing. Entertainment blogs waste no time in posting pictures—pictures that were somehow taken from the perfect angle to look down Brooke’s blouse, achieving nothing so much as to make her seem a lot more busty and the pictures seem a lot more scandalous: STARK’S NEW SIDEKICK? asks one headline, and another demands, WHO IS STARK’S MYSTERY GIRL?

Mostly, Brooke’s offended at being called a girl. She’s on the wrong side of forty; her girlhood passed a long time ago. But she asks Tony, “Will Pepper care?” She’s only met Pepper once but likes her immensely. It would be a shame to ruin things so soon.

“Nah, Pep’s used to it. Just wait, if they ever get a picture of me and Natasha, Pepper’ll laugh her ass off.” Tony pauses. “And Natasha might kill me. So how about you stick with me to make sure I am never, ever photographed with her alone?”

Evidently Natasha once stabbed him in the neck with a syringe. She claims to have been in the process of saving his life (something that Tony only grudgingly admits is true), but it has left Tony with a healthy sense of self-preservation where Natasha’s concerned.

A lot of people are afraid of Natasha, Brooke thinks, but she isn’t. Mostly she’s afraid of what she could do to Natasha. Of what she’s already done and almost did, on the Helicarrier.

“I’m sure Agent Romanoff wouldn’t want to be photographed with you, anyway,” she tells Tony comfortingly, and he laughs.

Brooke purposefully tries to make herself think of Natasha as Agent Romanoff; Romanoff always gives her the courtesy of being Dr. Banner, always keeps her at arm’s length, and Brooke appreciates that they’re not bothering with feigned informality. She doubts they’ll ever be friends, though they might make it to friendly if given enough time. What matters is that they can work together.

And if Romanoff still flinches minutely whenever Brooke moves too suddenly, well, she pretends not to notice.

--

The apartment Tony gives her in Stark Tower might be the largest space Brooke’s ever lived in. It’s certainly the nicest. “I could build you a panic room,” he says as he’s showing her around, “for, you know, when you’re feeling green, but that makes it seem like I don’t trust you, and I do.”

Brooke looks around at the granite countertops of the kitchen, the plush sofa, the walls lined with bookcases—Jesus Christ, those are her books, ones she’d had to leave behind, some that had never even made it out of storage, she recognizes the cracked spines and the old library bindings, how the hell did Tony do that?—and thinks of how She would use everything as a weapon. She would tear it apart and leave nothing standing. “Build a panic room,” she says, clearing her throat. “Not everyone trusts me as much as you do.” She refuses to move in until it’s finished.

--

The walls of the apartment are painted in warm creams and golds, the hardwood floors covered with oriental carpets. The wood furniture, Tony tells her, is all handcrafted, imported fair-trade from India or Indonesia or Bangladesh, he can’t remember, somewhere in that hemisphere. It’s almost too rich, too luxe; she feels the urge to repaint everything white, to pull up the carpets and mess it all up until it’s just like every other sparse, lonely apartment she’s ever lived in. But it’s almost exactly what Brooke would have done herself, if by some infinitesimal chance she’d been born a billionaire. It’s the kind of apartment that says, I live here, and I’ll be here a long time before I have to leave. “Did you talk with Betty?” she asks Tony impulsively; he’s ostensibly helping move her handful of belongings into the apartment, but he’s mostly getting in the way. “You can’t—I mean, you’re brilliant, but this is exactly what I would have done. You can’t possibly be that intuitive.”

“I might have—asked a few questions,” he says evasively. “Saw some photos of your place from before you started traveling. And checked out where you were living in India, you know, just to get some ideas.”

Betty should be glad to have Brooke out of her life. She certainly doesn’t owe Brooke anything, let alone this sort of gift, however little effort it may have taken on her part. No, Betty did it all out of kindness. “I think,” Brooke says, choosing her words carefully. “I think I’d like some time to myself. It’s been a busy day.”

“Sure,” Tony responds easily. “Come have dinner with me and Pepper later if you’re feeling up to it, eight o’clock, you know where I live. And if you’re not feeling up to it, the fridge is stocked. Let JARVIS know if you need help finding anything.”

“I will,” she says. “I’ll see you later. Thanks, Tony.”

There’s a brand new laptop set up in what she supposes is her office, a low-lit room with an old-fashioned desk and a rich leather pull-out couch. There’s a gas fireplace installed against one wall, because of course there is. (In truth, the room wouldn’t feel complete without it.) It’s not the kind of room that would encourage long-term visitors, but then again, it isn’t as if she’ll ever have any guests. She opens up the laptop (the password Tony’s chosen for her is HULKSMASH, which she immediately changes), then logs into her long-disused email account.

Betty,

The apartment is perfect. Thank you.

Hope you are well,
- B.

Afterwards, in the shower, she sobs once, but only once. She won’t risk anything more.

--

Brooke expects dinner with Tony and Pepper to be, well, dinner with Tony and Pepper, but when she arrives in the penthouse the first person she sees is Agent Romanoff. “Uh. Hi,” Brooke says. “I didn’t realize—”

“I hear you moved into the tower,” Romanoff interrupts.

“I— Yeah,” she says. “Just today. Uh, Tony built a—a Hulk-proof room, so you don’t need to worry about—not that you were worried, but—I think there are failsafes built in to the rest of the tower, too, just in case. Not that you were worried,” she says again, wishing there was a convenient rock to hide behind.

Agent Romanoff looks amused. “I wasn’t worried,” she says. Brooke can’t tell if she’s lying. “Do you want a drink? Stark’s got this place well-stocked.”

“Just water,” says Brooke. “Thanks.”

It’s not just Romanoff; Barton is there, too, and Captain America. “Let me guess,” she says to Tony. “You didn’t want to overwhelm me by telling me it was a team dinner.”

“Was I wrong?”

“I don’t do especially well with surprises,” she says dryly. “You might want to keep that in mind.”

--

Pepper insists on taking Brooke shopping that weekend, and also insists on paying for everything (“Think of it as an advance on your paycheck,” she says, as if there’s no doubt in her mind whatsoever about Brooke joining Stark Industries), but doesn’t seem to mind that Brooke would rather shop at thrift stores than Fifth Avenue boutiques. (Brooke does agree to splurge on new shoes and underwear. There’s some things you really don’t want to buy second-hand.) The fact is, Brooke can’t recall the last time she bought new clothes, and would avoid this trip altogether if most of her clothes weren’t falling apart. All she really needs is jeans and shirts, anyway, maybe a pair or two of dress pants. A blazer. If she ever needs a dress or a pair of heels, she’ll let Pepper take her shopping again.

“Makeup?” Pepper asks, and when Brooke declines, Pepper buys her fancy shampoo and conditioner instead.

--

When she gets back to the apartment, there’s an email waiting for her from Betty.

Dear Brooke,

You know all I want is for you to have a home. Take care of yourself. Don’t be a stranger.

Love,
Betty

--

Betty can do that, Brooke thinks. Betty can sign emails with “love” and think nothing of it, doesn’t mean anything by it, only a sign of affection between best friends and former lovers.

Brooke calmly deletes the email and closes her laptop. And then, equally calmly, she takes off her clothes, folds them neatly and sets them on her bed, lays out a towel for the shower she’ll inevitably want later, and locks herself in the panic room.

She isn’t very calm, after that.

--

Tony is sprawled on her couch, playing Candy Crush on his StarkPad, when she reemerges, freshly showered and dressed and herself again. “Did you break into my apartment?” she asks.

“Technically,” he says, “it’s my tower, and therefore my apartment.”

“Tony.”

“What?”

“Why are you here?”

He straightens up, turns to fully face her. “I get an alert every time the panic room is in use,” he says. “I wanted to make sure you...didn’t need any changes made. Adamantium reinforcing hold up okay? Anything need replacing? I bet I could add some more padding to the floor.”

“You’ll need to add all the padding to the floor,” Brooke tells him, shuffling into the kitchen and looking in the cabinets for something to eat. “It’s pretty much all torn up. And everything that could be broken is, I think.” She should probably have protein, but she wants carbs, a fast boost of energy to keep her going until she isn’t shaking anymore. People think the transformation is bad, and it is, but the exhaustion afterward is worse. It lasts longer.

“Extra-reinforced floor padding, gotcha,” says Tony, coming up behind her and grabbing a box of cereal off the shelf. He directs her to the kitchen table, where she sits, bone-weary, as he pours half the box into a bowl and tops it off with enough milk that it’s almost overflowing.

“You don’t need to take care of me,” she says as he places the bowl and a spoon in front of her.

“See, everyone keeps telling me that friends look after each other,” he remarks. “Mostly I’ve always had people looking after me and helping me out when I make dumb-ass mistakes, but I thought I’d try it the other way around for a change. So eat your cereal before you pass out.”

Brooke complies. When she’s done eating, Tony asks, “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really,” she says. “I got an email from Betty. It probably won’t upset me as much next time. If there is a next time.”

“Better not check your email again until the end of the week, I don’t think I can get the room fixed up until then,” he says with a grin. “Hey, listen, you want to see your lab tomorrow? You’re gonna love it.”

“Yeah, okay,” Brooke says. “I guess it’ll be worth a look.”

--

It’s worth more than that. Everything in it is brand new, state-of-the-art, and she suspects some of it is Tony’s own design and not even on the market yet. And it’s all hers, if she wants it.

And—yeah. She wants it.

“Do you give all your scientists personal labs like this?”

“Most of them,” Tony says with a shrug. “The last thing we need is fights breaking out in R&D because someone’s hogging the spectroscope.” He sees the expression on her face and laughs. “Hey, you can have special treatment if you want, but given that I already built you an apartment and a panic room, I’m not sure how much more special it can get.”

“I don’t want special treatment,” she says. “This is great, Tony. Thank you.”

“It’s my pleasure, Dr. Banner,” he replies, presenting a contract for her to sign. “And welcome to Stark Industries.”

--

“I never thought I’d actually get to see R.O.U.S.’s in the flesh,” Agent Barton says over the comm. “And now I wish I hadn’t.”

At least he’s looking at them from the top of a building and not at ground level, whereas Brooke has the dubious privilege of staring at them from just outside the SHIELD command van. The sight of rabid, three-foot-long sewer rats roaming the streets of New York has sent more than one SHIELD agent and New York cop into hysterics, and Brooke isn’t doing all that well herself. “I’m just, uh, gonna go start smashing, if that won’t disrupt the plan.”

“That is the plan,” Captain America says grimly. “At least until we find where they’re coming from.”

But by that point, Brooke’s stopped listening.

--

She comes back to herself after the smashing is over but before she’s made it all the way back to the van, which means she’s mostly naked with nothing to hide behind and nothing to do but keep walking. She’s been in similar situations before. It never gets any easier.

She hears Agent Hill on the com ordering someone to bring her a blanket. There’s police tape all around the scene, a crowd gathered on the other side of it to gawk and gape at the chaos. One of them wolf-whistles at her: she whips around and snarls, starting towards him, muscles bulging and stretching and growing and who does he think he is, talking to her like that, talking to Her like that

puny man stupid man teach him a lesson make him sorry

“Hulk!”

shiny red man protecting puny stupid man in the way get out of the way

“Brooke! He’s a civilian, you don’t want to—you obviously do want to, fine, but you shouldn’t hurt civilians, it’s bad for the image.”

why shiny red man care no image no

“I don’t have a fucking image, Tony,” Brooke says, “I’m a monster, there’s not any damage to my reputation that I didn’t do myself.” The blanket finally arrives and she drapes it around herself, stepping past Iron Man to face the asshole behind the police tape. “Listen to me, you worthless piece of shit. If you ever even think about disrespecting another woman again, I will hunt you down and force-feed you your own testicles.”

She feels no remorse when she sees the man has pissed his pants.

--

Brooke passes out as soon as she makes it to the van, two transformations in as many minutes taking their toll. She wakes up back at the Tower, on her bed but not in it, covered by the SHIELD-issued blanket. Agent Romanoff is sitting on her window seat, reading a book. It’s the farthest away she can be and still be in the room.

“What are you doing here?” she rasps, sitting up. Modesty demands that she pull the blanket up to cover her breasts, but the privacy of her own bedroom would beg to differ.

“There’s a protein shake on your night table,” Romanoff says. “Drink it.” After Brooke obeys, Romanoff continues: “We didn’t think you’d appreciate having one of the guys keep watch.” Brooke must look confused, because she adds, “Not today, at least,” and Brooke remembers.

“Did I hurt him?” she asks, and she doesn’t think she did, but she can’t be sure; she only knows how desperately she wanted to tear him to pieces.

“No, but you scared the hell out of him. Do you remember threatening him?”

“Of course I do,” Brooke says shortly. “That part was all me.” She turns away before she can see Romanoff’s reaction. “I’m going to take a shower.”

“Okay,” she replies. “I’m going to stay here and make sure you don’t fall over. Unless you want me to leave, but then I’ll have to send Pepper to supervise instead—or Stark, if she’s not here.”

Brooke considers this. “Why does she get to be Pepper, but he’s Stark?”

“Because I don’t like him enough to use his first name,” Romanoff says calmly. Brooke supposes that makes sense.

--

Brooke has spent years showering only with a bathtub and a bucket, or ice-cold water, or not at all. To be able to shower at her leisure—whenever she wants for as long as she wants with water as hot as she can bear—is almost pure luxury, and so it’s close to an hour later that Brooke finally reemerges. In the interim, Romanoff’s migrated from her bedroom to the kitchen table. “Sorry,” she mumbles. “You probably have better things to do with your time.”

“This might surprise you,” Romanoff says, “but I don’t actually get a lot of chances to just sit and read when I’m not undercover or in transit. Tonight, sitting and reading and waiting for you is what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t mind.”

“Oh,” she says. “Okay. Is that pizza?”

“Plain, extra cheese,” Romanoff confirms. “I didn’t know if you’d want other toppings.”

“No, that’s fine, that’s great. You didn’t have to—”

“Doc,” she says, cutting her off. “It’s nine o’clock. I’m hungry. The pizza isn’t just for you.”

Oh. “You can call me Brooke, if you want,” she says impulsively. “If you don’t want, it’s okay, but—it makes me feel like I’m back in a classroom every time you call me Dr. Banner. You’re not much older than some of my students.” It’s true: Romanoff looks like she should be a grad student, not a superspy assassin.

“I’d prefer not to,” she says.

“Of course,” says Brooke, and that’s the end of that. She probably should have know better than to ask.

--

The next day she debriefs with Captain America and Agent Hill. After they discuss the actual mission, they have an awkward and uncomfortable discussion about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and her experiences in regard to the aforementioned.

She’s never been raped, she tells them, and it’s true. What she doesn’t tell them is this: that men have tried, that men have failed, and that most of those men aren’t alive anymore. The Hulk doesn’t take kindly to being assaulted.

Agent Hill suggests she see a counselor. Apparently, even though the guy was manifestly an asshole, her response to his catcall was “an extreme overreaction” and speaks to some deep-seated emotional issues.

But since Brooke doesn’t technically work for SHIELD, Hill can’t mandate her actions, and so Brooke ignores her suggestion. She knows she has anger management problems, has self-esteem problems—she doesn’t need to pay money to have someone else to tell her that.

--

“You called yourself a monster,” Tony says to her that night. He’s drinking 20-year-old scotch; she’s drinking fancy French mineral water, because Tony doesn’t believe in drinking anything unless it’s been in a bottle first.

She shrugs. “You’ve called me a monster too.”

“Not the way you meant it.”

“It’s true, though,” she says. “What I turn into. The things I’ve done. The things I’m capable of doing.”

“The things that you’d go miles out of your way to avoid doing,” he counters. “You don’t actually like hurting people.”

She smiles thinly. “You haven’t known me that long.”

--

Betty emails her again, subject line Are you ok? She deletes it without reading.

--

Captain America moves into Stark Tower and shortly thereafter Brooke starts calling him Steve. Steve’s apartment is—initially—as large as Brooke’s, but Steve is drowning in the space. He’s never lived alone, he admits to her, and now he’s got a place that would’ve housed three or four families when he was a kid.

So Tony calls the contractors (well, one of Tony’s bevy of assistants calls the contractors), has them add a new entrance and a few walls, and now Steve’s got a one bed/one bath connected to a communal kitchen, dining area, and a truly gigantic den. (And it truly is a den: it’s not nearly fancy enough to be called a living room.) Steve doesn’t mind sharing his space; he likes being around people.

Late one night after fighting an honest-to-god dragon, he, Tony, and Brooke christen the new kitchen with orange juice instead of champagne, making scrambled eggs and french toast for dinner because it’s all they can remember how to cook. By the end of the night, they’ve gone through two loaves of bread, three dozen eggs, and a gallon of milk. It’s quite the experience.

--

Agent Barton joins them for pancakes and bacon after the next time the Avengers are out in the field, but Brooke mostly sleeps through it. The brown plaid couch in the den is one of the ugliest pieces of furniture she’s ever encountered, but it’s one of the most comfortable, too. “Rise and shine,” Barton sing-songs, laughing when she grumbles. “You don’t wake up, you don’t get pancakes,” he says. “I set some aside for you, made sure Tony didn’t eat them.”

“Steve has the bigger appetite,” Brooke yawns, getting slowly to her feet. Her shoulder hurts. “Bacon?”

“Saved some of that too,” he confirms. “And there’s a whole pot of coffee.”

Brooke cracks her neck and stretches. “You should have started with that,” she informs him. Clearly the man doesn’t spend much time around scientists.

--

As soon as Agent Barton starts hanging around on a regular basis, Tony has an apartment ready for him, because of course he does. It takes Barton a few weeks to decide if he wants to move in or not, but when he does, he shows up for the housewarming party with Romanoff—and she wants to stay.

Tony is unprepared, which frankly is more worrying than the thought of living in the same building as Romanoff. There are guest rooms—guest suites, guest floors!—but not, as yet, any apartment set aside specifically for the use and whims of one Agent Natasha Romanoff. He starts to stammer out an excuse but Romanoff cuts him off. “So give me an empty guest suite and your credit card,” she says. “I’ll decorate it myself. It’ll save me the trouble of having to mock all your interior design choices.”

Brooke asks Tony, quietly, if he’ll make sure Romanoff’s rooms are as far as possible from her own: “She’ll sleep better that way,” she adds self-deprecatingly.

“I’ll do my best,” Tony says with a shrug. “For some reason she doesn’t trust my judgement.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Romanoff says, appearing behind him from out of nowhere, and Brooke is horrified, stumbling over her words as she tries to apologize, and Jesus, why does she even bother trying to socialize anyway, she always ends up making a fool of herself, as clumsy with her words as she is with her body, it’s a wonder she hasn’t broken some priceless piece of art yet, and—

“Hey, hey,” Tony’s saying, alarmed, reaching out to steady her as she lurches backwards. “Brooke, it’s okay, you’re safe!”

She sees Steve reaching for a tranq gun at the same time as she realizes she’s a split-second from losing control, and wouldn’t it feel good, wouldn’t it feel good to let go to break free to not care and

No.

Brooke takes a deep breath, steps back, and attempts a smile. “If you’ll excuse me,” she says politely. “I think I should go before I crash the party, so to speak.”

No one stops her from leaving. She didn’t expect them to.

--

She doesn’t go to the panic room, although she considers it. Instead, she takes a shower, turning the water as hot as it will go, and hits the tiled wall until her fists are bruised, but still human.

That’s the important part. The bruises won’t last long; they never do.

--

Romanoff moves into the farthest available apartment from Brooke’s. Brooke is the only one who isn’t surprised.

--

The two of them establish an unofficial policy of mutual avoidance, so when Romanoff catches her in the kitchen a few days later, Brooke knows that it isn’t by chance. "Dr. Banner," she says. "I've been shaken before. I've always gotten over it. This won't be an exception."

“Of course,” she replies. “You don’t have to prove anything to me, Agent Romanoff.”

“It’s not you I need to prove it to, Doc,” she says, already on her way out the door. She doesn’t bother turning to look at Brooke when she says it.

--

In the mornings, Brooke does yoga in the panic room—less because of what might happen and more because the padded floor negates the need for a yoga mat. In the past, she liked to do yoga and watch the sunrise, but watching the sun rise over the New York skyline, while lovely in its own way, isn’t quite the same. Sometimes she has JARVIS project sunrises on the wall, but most of the time she just lowers the lights, settles into lotus position, and breathes.

She doesn’t know how much time has passed when she’s startled out of tree pose by Steve crashing into the room, clad only in pajama pants and carrying his shield. She’s not sure if the noise is more startling or the sight of his abs, which are distracting even to her. “Brooke!” he shouts.

“Steve!” she shouts back, trying to control her heart rate. “What’s going on?”

“You’re, oh,” he says. “You’re ok?”

She sighs, inhaling deeply through her nose and then breathing out through her mouth. “For the moment, yes.”

“I saw you were in the panic room,” he says, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. “I guess I panicked.”

“Appropriate,” she says, amused. “You know JARVIS has cameras in here, right?”

“My feet went faster than my common sense,” Steve admits. “I have that problem sometimes. I didn’t mean to interrupt your...exercising?”

“Yoga,” she says. “Calling it exercise isn’t all wrong, but it’s mostly meditation and stretching. Good for balance and self-control.”

“Literal balance or figurative balance?” he asks

She considers the question. “Both,” she says. “Here, I’ll show you.”

And that’s how Brooke ends up teaching Captain America how to do yoga.

--

There’s a gala at the Cloisters at the end of the month, sponsored by Stark Industries, meticulously planned by Pepper Potts, all proceeds to the Maria Stark Foundation, et cetera et cetera. Brooke is well aware of its existence. But in typical Tony fashion, he doesn’t tell her she needs to be there until two days beforehand.

“You’re a Stark Industries employee!” he says. “And an Avenger! But you’ll be representing the company on this one, I don’t think your other half needs to make an appearance at this particular event.”

“What, you don’t trust Her around priceless works of art?” she asks wryly, using sarcasm to distract from the sudden spike of anxiety.

“I don’t care, but She might make the stockholders nervous. Maybe we can arrange a private viewing sometime.”

“Better not,” says Brooke. “I like the Unicorn Tapestries too much to risk it.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Dr. Banner, is that symbolism?”

She laughs. “Don’t strain yourself, Tony. I just think they’re pretty. Not that it matters, because I’m not going.”

“Nothing to wear?”

“Exactly,” Brooke says.

“Yeah, Pepper thought you might say that.” He tosses her a Stark Industries credit card. It’s intimidatingly red and gold and shiny. “Go shopping. Write it off as a business expense.”

“I’d really rather not—”

“Me neither, but schmoozing with bigwigs is part of the job. No, really,” he adds at her skeptical look. “It’s in your contract.” (It is; she looks it up later. Section 9.a.2: “Attendance at and participation in SI events, though neither mandatory nor required, is highly encouraged. In the case of paid or ticketed events, SI will make a donation in the same amount to the charity of Employee’s choice.”)

He finally secures her agreement with the promise that Steve will be present and armed with tranq darts (in case She tries to make an appearance) and that she’ll have a getaway car, engine running and chauffeur present (in case she needs to make a quick exit). All that’s left is for her to go shopping.

Except then it turns out that Pepper, being a CEO and understandably busy, isn’t available to go with her, so Brooke’s on her own. It’s...daunting. But Brooke has faced down an army general and an Abomination and a hostile thesis committee and survived all three. It’ll take more than this to overwhelm her.

Probably.

--

Brooke has always been aware, in some deep dark corner of her mind, that there are dresses that have four-figure price tags. She’s watched the Academy Awards (once, in 1986) and is vaguely aware that Fashion Week is a thing. Even with all that in mind, she’s never expected to actually be confronted with a dress that costs more than a week’s salary, more than a month’s rent, more than the per capita income of India. She’s seen museums with security systems less serious than the mean-looking device that’s locking the dress to the hanger. Brooke backs slowly away and hopes none of the saleswomen try to talk to her.

“You don’t need to dress like Pepper,” Romanoff says, not that Brooke knew Romanoff was there, but that’s one of those things she’s good at, is sneaking up on people. It probably comes with the superspy-assassin territory.

“You probably shouldn’t sneak up on me,” Brooke says wearily.

Romanoff is unapologetic. “I thought you knew I was here,” she says. “I’ve been following you for the last three stores.” Each of them has been increasingly terrifying.

“If I knew you were here, why would I be ignoring you?”

She shrugs. “Maybe you didn’t want company.”

“I don’t really want company,” Brooke admits. “But I could probably use some help. If you’re not doing anything else, I mean.”

“I wouldn’t be here if I were supposed to be somewhere else,” she says. “Come on. This store isn’t your style.”

“I don’t think my style would be appropriate for Tony’s gala,” says Brooke.

“Probably not,” Romanoff agrees. “But we can find something closer.”

First they go buy shoes, because Romanoff insists that the dress needs to be matched to the shoes and not the other way around. Brooke doesn’t even remember the last time she wore heels, but that’s another thing Romanoff insists on. She ends up with something that Romanoff calls a kitten heel, and they’re silver and glittery and almost three times as expensive as the dress she eventually buys. “No one is going to see them!” Brooke protests.

“No one’s going to see your bra, either, but that doesn’t mean you should wear the same one that you wear to the gym,” she says in reply. In the end, as always, it’s easier to agree with her than to try and fight it.

The one thing Brooke refuses to change her mind about is sleeves: the dress has to have them. “That’s not going to be easy,” Romanoff says, but if it’s really that difficult, she doesn’t show it. Brooke tries on six different gowns before she finds one that she likes; it’s indigo blue, with a boat neck and elbow-length sleeves and more ruching than Brooke would prefer, but she has to admit that it looks good.

“It’s something a scientist would wear,” Romanoff says approvingly.

“Is that a compliment?”

“It’s supposed to be,” she says. “The dresses you were looking at before—they’re perfectly fine, in themselves, but they’re clothes that Pepper would wear.” It must be clear that Brooke doesn’t understand and Romanoff sighs. “They’re millionaire clothes,” she says. “I know Stark gave you his credit card and so money is no object, but—”

“—I’d look like I was playing dress-up,” Brooke finishes.

“A little bit,” she agrees, nodding. “It’s a gala, but it’s a gala where you’ll be interacting with your peers in addition to all of New York’s biggest wallets. You need to fit in with the first group, not the second.”

It makes sense, but— “How did you know that?”

“I’m an expert at knowing how to play the part,” Romanoff says. “I have to go. Don’t forget about jewelry and a purse.”

--

The next day, Brooke’s staring at the mirror, trying to figure out what to do with her hair—not that there’s much she could do with it, really. Her hair’s even shorter than Romanoff’s, so the best she can manage is to try and get it to curl in an orderly fashion instead of a haphazard one.

“I thought you might want to borrow this,” Romanoff says, appearing as if summoned, and Brooke briefly wonders if she’s fallen into an alternate universe. It’s not outside the realm of possibility.

“Borrow what?” Brooke says, because asking how Romanoff got into her apartment seems like a futile gesture.

“A bracelet,” she says, handing to to Brooke, although really it’s three, a set of interlocking gold bangles. The center one is engraved: Don’t panic.

“You’ve read Hitchhiker’s Guide?” Brooke asks, surprised, and a little more sharply than she intends to.

“It was one of the first books I read after I defected,” she says. “I had never read anything like it before. Clint and Coulson got me the bracelets for my year anniversary at SHIELD.”

“I wouldn’t have thought you were a jewelry kind of girl,” Brooke says before she can stop herself. “I mean, uh—”

“They got me a new set of knives, too,” says Romanoff, cutting her off with a half-smile. “But they wanted to make sure I had something I could show off in public. I have a lot of things that I can use to kill people with that are also pretty. Coulson always said it was important to have some things that were pretty that I can also use to kill people.”

“Uh,” she says, looking at the bracelet nervously.

Romanoff laughs. “That I can use to kill people, Doc. For you, it’s just jewelry. And I thought you could use the encouragement tonight. I know it’s not your comfort zone.”

“Thank you,” Brooke says. “I don’t suppose you have any encouraging earrings as well?”

“Afraid not,” says Romanoff. “But point me towards your jewelry box and I’ll see what I can do.”

“There’s a cardboard box in the closet,” she says. “Not much in it, though.” Tony had retrieved her jewelry along with her books, but she’d never bothered unpacking it. She’s gotten out of the habit of wearing jewelry.

Brooke finishes putting on her minimal makeup just as Romanoff comes back with a pair of gold and silver studs in the shape of Celtic knots. “They’ll match the bracelets and your shoes.”

“Betty gave those to me,” she says, setting her lipstick down carefully. “I didn’t know I still had them.”

“Wear them and remember who you were when she gave them to you,” Romanoff says with a shrug. “Brilliant scientist, well-respected in the field... It’s not much different from who you are now. Just a little less green.”

Brooke takes a deep breath, clenching her fingers around the edge of the sink. “Thank you,” she says. “Do you mean it, or are you just playing the part?”

Romanoff puts the earrings on the countertop and takes a step back. “What part am I playing, Dr. Banner?”

“The one where you pretend to be my friend so you can get over how much I scare you.”

“Just because I might be playing a part doesn’t mean that what I said isn’t true,” she says after a pause. “You’re not going out there to face enemies. Don’t treat it like you are.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” says Brooke. “I’d like to finish getting dressed now. Do you want the bracelet back?”

“Of course not,” she says, and if she sounds hurt, it might just be Brooke’s imagination. “Don’t forget your towel.”

--

Steve looks almost as astounded to see Brooke in a gown as she looks to see him in a tuxedo. “Dr. Banner,” he stammers, as if the sight of her in a dress has shocked him back to formality.

“Captain America,” she replies, amused. His tuxedo is tailored within an inch of its life and she’s halfway surprised he hasn’t been signed to a modeling contract by now. “Well, with you on my arm, I’m going to be the envy of all the girls tonight, aren’t I?”

“I live to serve, ma’am,” he says with a grin.

“Steve, stop flirting,” Tony orders, barging into the den with Pepper following resignedly behind him, resplendent in a cap-sleeved gown that’s all teal lace and chiffon. Tony’s tux is wrinkled. “Don’t you know the tabloids say that Brooke’s my girl? Hands off, pal.”

“We’re going to be late, Tony, stop antagonizing him,” Pepper sighs. “Brooke, you look wonderful. Are those Jimmy Choos?”

Brooke looks at her feet. “Maybe?”

“They are,” she says decidedly. “Good choice. They’ll last you forever. Tony, come on, let’s go.”

Between Steve’s shoulders and Tony’s ego it feels like they barely all fit in the limousine, but there’s certainly leg room to spare. “I don’t know how you walk in those,” Brooke says, looking at Pepper’s sparkling four-inch heels. “They’re like an art piece.”

“It takes practice,” Pepper says. “Believe it or not, I wasn’t born in heels. I worked up to it. And it annoys Tony when I’m taller than he is.”

“I can hear you!”

“I know, Tony,” she says placidly. “Not that it matters, I’m always taller than he is, shoes or not. Now, Brooke,” Pepper says, as they pull up to the Cloisters. “Let’s look like best friends as we get out of the limo—the paparazzi's going to be out there and I feel like giving them an aneurysm, all right?”

“Arm-in-arm, giggling, and all that?”

“Exactly,” Pepper says. “You in?”

“Oh, I’m in,” Brooke grins, and they slide out of the limo and saunter into the museum, arms linked and heads tossed back, a united front against the confused-looking men exiting the limo behind them. It makes headlines within the hour (“PEPPER POTTS PLUS TONY’S NEW PARAMOUR!”).

She and Steve aren’t seated with Tony and Pepper but with a group of Stark Industries R&D scientists, all of whom have worked with Brooke, all of whom know she’s a lesbian, and none of whom know about her alter-ego. She explains Steve as a friend from yoga class.

“Couldn’t get a real date?” asks Alex, whose lack of regard for social niceties is, in Brooke’s opinion, more than made up for by being a fucking amazing bioengineer.

Brooke shrugs. “You know my last breakup was a bad one,” she says. “I’m not ready to get back out there. I’d rather have fun with a friend than have to try and show off in front of a date, especially at one of these things.”

It’s the right thing to say, setting the rest of the table off talking about previous SI events—that time a senator puked on Alex’s shoes, that time Mayor Bloomberg wouldn’t stop hitting on Jan—but Brooke’s still unsettled, uncomfortable sharing even that small amount of her personal life. She looks down at her lap, happens to glance at her wrist, sees the words Don’t panic—and relaxes. It will be okay. She doesn’t have her towel, but she has Steve, and that’s almost as good, for tonight.

There’s dancing, of course, which Brooke determinedly avoids except for once, when Tony somehow convinces the band to play the cha cha slide; and then again at the end of the night she lets Steve swing her around the dance floor when they play “Blue Skies.” They’re both of them surprised at how well the other can dance, but given that “Blue Skies” was written in 1926 she supposes that she, at least, shouldn’t be.

By the time the clock strikes midnight, she’s ready to go; Tony and Pepper won’t leave until the last guest has departed, but she’s under no such compunction, so she and Steve return home in the car that’s been running for her all night. She feels mildly guilty at the waste of fuel but supposes that Stark Tower’s green energy must do at least something to offset it. She’ll probably make a donation to Greenpeace anyway, just to assuage her conscience.

“See you for yoga tomorrow morning?” Steve asks, walking her to her door.

She kisses him on the cheek. “Of course. Thanks for being my date tonight.”

“I’ll expect you to return the favor,” he says. “Especially now that I know how well you can dance.”

“I had a good partner,” she counters. “So if there’s a next time, don’t let me down.”

“I never would,” he says seriously, and she squeezes his hand before she goes inside. The gala was more fun than she expected, but it was like Tony said: an SI event, not an Avengers event. There’s been one or two Avengers events, but she hasn’t had to go to any, and a part of her hopes she never has to. Hulk’s identity isn’t public. If it never is, she won’t complain.

--

So are you dating Tony or Pepper? is the subject line of the email she gets from Betty the next day. The rest of the email reads, I saw the pictures from the gala on Gawker. You looked fantastic. Love, Betty.

Brooke not only reads this email, she actually replies to it:

Neither of them. Steve was my date—the blonde guy next to Tony Stark in the background of the picture. We’re not together, he’s a friend from yoga class. I’m not dating anyone right now. Who has time?

I thought you had given up paying any attention to Gawker Media anymore.

- B.

She gets a reply a few hours later:

I have a Google alert set up for Tony Stark and Iron Man, Betty writes. Sometimes the two of you are at the same place. No one seems to know who the “mysterious brunette” with Pepper is so there’s no point in having an alert set up for you. I hope you don’t mind, but I know I wouldn’t ever hear from you otherwise. I know you don’t believe it, but I still care about you. I don’t want us to be strangers.

Love,
Betty

Brooke writes and rewrites her response three times.

I don’t want us to be strangers either, she types. But I don’t think we can be friends. Take care of yourself.

- B.

--

Brooke returns the bracelet to Natasha—to Romanoff—that afternoon. “Thanks for letting me borrow it,” she says, standing awkwardly outside Romanoff’s apartment. It’s the first time she’s seen even a part of it since Romanoff moved in. The carpet is white. “It helped a lot.”

“I’m glad,” Romanoff says. “If you need to borrow it again, just let me know.”

“What about if I want to borrow it again?” she asks.

“Well,” Romanoff says. “That too.”

That’s taken care of, it’s time for Brooke to go, but— “I was rude to you, last night,” she says. “I’m sorry. Can I buy you a coffee or something to make up for it?”

“Do you still have that ginger assam?” she asks after the slightest hesitation, because of course she knows what kind of tea Brooke has. “You could come over sometime and we could have tea.”

“How’s tomorrow?” Brooke asks before either of them can lose their nerve. “Four o’clock?”

“Four o’clock,” she agrees. “See you then.”

--

Brooke doesn’t go.

It’s only tea. It isn’t even tea the way “getting coffee” has become shorthand for a date, and it’s certainly not a date. But Brooke feels the way she used to feel before getting up in front a lecture hall full of students, palms clammy and stomach tight, desperate to impress even though all she had to do to impress them was teach them something they didn’t already know, and that never took long. She doesn’t even have to impress Romanoff, but—

She wants Romanoff to like her. She doesn’t want her to be afraid of her. And Brooke knows that there probably isn’t anything she can do to achieve either of those, especially not now, not the way she’s feeling, like an electrical current is buzzing underneath her skin, ringing with anxiety.

This isn’t a panic room situation—yet—just a plain old panic situation. Brooke turns off all the lights in her apartment, locks herself in her bedroom and wedges herself into the darkest corner she can find, hugging her knees up to her chest. She’s pulled too taut for meditation right now; it takes all the concentration and focus she can muster to shut her eyes tightly and force herself into an even breathing pattern. She clenches her teeth to keep from screaming. She can hear the Hulk’s fists hammering at the edges of her brain.

She’s able to even out her breathing before she can even out her mind, and it’s at least an hour, maybe two, before she feels calm enough to unclench her body and push herself slowly into a standing position. Her legs and back are stiff and the muscles of her shoulders are knots of pure tension, and yet she still feels less drained than if she’d given in and let Her out. She should probably tell Tony; he can add it to his charts of “horrible experiences that are still better than the Hulk” and “times Brooke successfully did not Hulk Out.” (He thinks she doesn’t know about that charts, which is cute; everyone knows Tony collects data points on everything.)

Brooke shuffles out of her bedroom to the kitchen to get a glass of water, stopping halfway when she realizes that the lights in the living room are on and Natasha Romanoff is sitting on her sofa. “Uh. Hi?”

“Hi,” she says unapologetically. “I let myself in.”

“Yeah, I got that,” she replies. She’d complain to Tony about his security system, but she doesn’t know if there’s a security system in the world that Romanoff couldn’t somehow bypass. “Why?”

“I’m not accustomed to being stood up,” Romanoff says.

“You couldn’t have just asked JARVIS where I was?”

“I did,” she says. “But I know how much you like to avoid things. I know how much you like to avoid me, for that matter.”

“I—”

“No, it’s fine, I know it’s been mutual,” Romanoff continues. “Come on. I’ll make you some tea.”

Brooke follows her into her own kitchen, looks at the box of tea Romanoff sets on the counter, charmingly named Sleepytime Tea. There’s a picture of a pajama-clad teddy bear on it. “Seriously?” she asks, arching an eyebrow.

“Like you really need caffeine right now, I think your adrenal glands got enough exercise today,” she shoots back, then adds as an afterthought: “Clint got it for me. It’s not real tea, but...it helps. After a long day.”

She’s skeptical, but takes down two stoneware mugs from a cabinet while Romanoff sets the kettle to boiling. Honestly, she’s quite happy not to talk until the tea is poured and they’re sitting at her kitchen table, when Romanoff clears her throat ever-so-slightly and says, “I was worried. When you didn’t show up.”

“You didn’t have to be.”

“I didn’t want to be, but I was anyway,” she says, annoyed. “That’s why I brought you tea. Because you’re my...teammate. And I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“Your teammate?” Brooke asks, sipping the tea. It doesn’t taste like much, but Romanoff’s right; something about it is calming. “Not friend?”

“I don’t have friends,” she says. “Everyone knows that.”

“Clint?”

“My partner.”

“Coulson?”

“My handler.”

“Pepper?”

She looks away. “Pepper was friends with Natalie. Not me.”

“Tony?”

“He still hasn’t forgiven me for the time I stabbed him in the neck with a hypodermic needle,” she says wistfully. “Those were good days.”

“Steve?”

“Oh, Steve,” she says. “Steve’s sweet. I think he’s scared of me.”

“Most people are,” Brooke tells her.

You are, anyway,” says Romanoff.

“I’m afraid of what I—what She—might do. Not of you.”

“So you’re not afraid of me.” She shrugs. “But you don’t like me.”

“I don’t dislike you!” she protests.

“That’s a ringing endorsement,” Romanoff says dryly. “I’m going to put that on my resume. ‘Not Disliked by Dr. Brooke Banner.’”

“That came out wrong,” she says. “Really wrong.” Brooke runs a hand through her hair, frustrated. “I just—” You are everything I ever wanted to be, she thinks. You are young and thin and brilliant and beautiful and could hold the world in the palm of your hand if you wanted to. You never say the wrong thing or trip over your own feet. You’re so controlled. You never lose it. You have no idea how much I envy you. The words that manage to emerge from that jumble of thoughts are, “You’re so young.”

“Steve’s young, too,” Romanoff reminds her. “If you don’t count the time he was frozen. I don’t see why it should matter.”

“It shouldn’t,” she says. “It doesn’t.”

“Okay,” says Romanoff. “So it doesn’t matter. And I don’t have friends.”

“Everyone knows that,” Brooke echoes.

“Exactly. But—” She hesitates, as if choosing her words carefully. “If I were the kind of person who has friends, I’d want to be yours. Even though I know you’d never want to be mine.” She gets up from the kitchen table, smiles slightly. “Goodnight, Dr. Banner.”

--

Brooke spends all of the next day in the lab so that she doesn’t have to talk to anyone. That night, of course, Tony barges in to her apartment. “You are so lucky I had pants on,” she tells him. She’s not wearing a bra, but he doesn’t need to know that. “Also, why is that door even there, since no one ever seems to knock?”

“I am not responsible for the actions of super-spies,” he says gravely. “I am technically responsible for my own actions, but I prefer to delegate that to one of my employees.”

“What do you want?”

“To know all your darkest and innermost secrets,” he replies immediately.

“Tony.”

“To invite you up to dinner, fine, Steve’s cooking mashed potatoes and meatloaf with a side of apple pie and Americana.” She hesitates and he jumps on it: “C’mon, what were you going to do for dinner instead? You got plans?”

“Yes,” she says. “And my plans involve me, a bag of microwave popcorn, and a Mystery Science Theatre marathon.”

“Can I join you?”

No.” She takes him by the shoulders and starts marching him backwards toward the door. “Have a good dinner, Tony. Send my regrets to Steve.”

“Can I get a raincheck?”

“I make no promises,” she says, and shuts the door behind him.

--

Early in the morning, Brooke wanders up to the communal kitchen, more because she’s out of eggs than because of any desire for early-morning companionship. Clint is standing at the stove, frying bacon. “Hey,” he says. “You’re in luck. Coffee just finished brewing.”

Clint cooks in cheerful silence until she’s swallowed down half of her coffee, and even then it’s only to ask if she wants scrambled eggs. She nods and drinks more coffee; she could probably form words right now if she really put in the effort, but she doesn’t think she’s quite able to form sentences just yet.

He slides a plate of toast, eggs, and bacon in front of her just as she’s sitting back down with her second cup of coffee. She doesn’t even know when he made the toast. “Thanks,” she says.

“As easy to cook for two as it is for one,” he shrugs. “Butter?”

“No, I’m ok,” she says, using her fork to shovel the eggs onto the toast in a messy sort of sandwich. They eat and make smalltalk for a few minutes—Clint is good at keeping a conversation going about nothing in particular—when she blurts, “Natasha said she wanted to be my friend.”

He chews a mouthful of toast. “Nat doesn’t have friends.”

“I know,” she says. “That’s why I’m confused.”

“No, I think you’re misunderstanding me,” he says. “Nat doesn’t have friends. You and me, maybe we’ve got groups of people who we see a lot and we like them, and they’re our friends. Maybe we’ve got people we don’t see a lot, but we miss them, and they’re our friends anyway. Maybe we had shitty childhoods, but we still had friends.” He glances across the table at her. “Thing is, she had a shitty childhood too. But no friends.”

“She get a prize for winning the shitty childhood sweepstakes?” she asks, the words gone out before she can stop them.

Clint snorts. “I dunno. But what I’m saying is that it’s not that she ‘doesn’t have friends’ like she keeps everyone at arms’ length. I’m saying she’s literally never had someone she could call a friend before. Someone she couldn’t compartmentalize with some other label.”

Brooke’s impressed despite herself at his use of five-syllable words this early in the morning. “You sure she’d want you telling me this?”

“I don’t much care what she wants,” he says. “She’s my friend and my partner and I love her like a sister. And sometimes, with siblings, you gotta do what’s best for them.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been what’s best for anyone,” says Brooke.

“Yeah, well,” he answers. “Don’t think too hard about it, it’s still pretty early. Drink more coffee.”

--

The honor of the presence of the Avengers is requested at a white-tie gala in Washington, to receive a presidential award for their heroics in the Battle of Manhattan. Maria Hill warns her about the dinner well in advance, even lets her know that she’s welcome to decline the invitation. Brooke turns over the idea for a long while, and two weeks beforehand she finally decides to go. “If the team is there, I’m there,” she tells Hill, who smiles.

“The team wasn’t going to go if you weren’t,” Hill says.

--

Pepper and Romanoff go shopping with her, this time; they’ve both agreed she can wear the Jimmy Choos that Agent Romanoff picked out for her last time, but she’ll need a different dress. “This time, you can wear millionaire clothes,” Natasha tells her. “Not as fancy as Pepper, though. But close.”

Brooke looks at them with trepidation. “How about the two of you just...pick me out some dresses, and then I’ll try them on.”

“Oh,” Pepper says blissfully. “I was hoping you would say that.”

--

This time, the dress—a deep plum—costs more than the shoes. Her rule about sleeves still stands, although this time the sleeves are lace; the whole dress is lace, overlaying what Pepper calls a mermaid-style dress. It’s open-backed, to start, but Pepper reads Brooke’s hesitance like a book, immediately calling in one of the store tailors to add a panel to the back. The woman tries to argue with her—“But it will ruin the line!”—but Pepper will withstand no opposition. “If you won’t do it, send in someone who will,” she says calmly, and after that things go much more smoothly.

“It’s too much,” Brooke hisses, when the tailor steps out. “Pepper, I can’t—”

“Business expense,” Romanoff interrupts. “It’s an Avengers event; SHIELD will pay for it, or at least subsidize it.”

“I can’t—”

“You can,” she says, reaching out to squeeze Brooke’s hand. “You’ve gone to two events so far, it’s just bad luck they’ve both been formal. Give it another few and you’ll be able to start reusing dresses. You’re not a movie star, it doesn’t have to be new every time.”

“Oh,” says Brooke, as the tailor returns. Romanoff retreats to lean in the corner of the fitting room, standing guard.

--

There are safeguards set in place, as always; Steve, Clint, and Romanoff will have tranquilizers with them and tranq-equipped SHIELD agents are spread throughout the security team, and Tony will have Happy waiting for her the whole night if she needs to make an escape. They take Tony’s jet on the brief flight from New York to DC, and though there’s plenty of room on the plane, Brooke chooses to sit next to Steve. She tightens her seatbelt and leans her head against his shoulder. “One day,” she murmurs. “One day I’d like to be able to go somewhere without needing to have a strike team in place.”

“You go out all the time,” he protests.

“Sure,” Brooke says. “But only if I’m with one of you.”

Steve is quiet for a little while. “And if you never find a cure? Or—a treatment?”

“Well,” she says, because she doesn’t like to think of the Hulk as a disease, but it’s as apt a description as any. “Then I keep on going as I’ve been going, I guess. Maybe eventually I’ll get good enough at controlling Her that the strike team won’t be necessary. Mostly I hope that I’ll get to—” She breaks off, gauges his expression. “That I’ll get to stop, if you know what I mean.”

“Don’t want to live forever?” he asks softly. She shakes her head. “I didn’t think so. Me neither.”

--

She meets the others in the hotel lobby, where they’re waiting for the limo, feeling slightly calm and mostly relaxed thanks to the three hours she spent meditating in her hotel room. She’s just a little bit gratified to find Clint looking as uncomfortable in his tux as she is in her ridiculous dress and heels and the gold double-helix earrings Pepper found for her somewhere. (Okay, the earrings she likes.) “Don’t like dressing up?” she asks him.

“Limits my range of motion,” he complains.

“Well, you look good, anyway,” she says consolingly, as Steve, Tony, and Pepper join them. Steve is a sight to behold, as always; and Pepper is radiant in a gown that is strapless and glittering, cream or gold or champagne depending on how the light hits it. Tony is wearing cufflinks in the shape of his helmet, and she’s about to tease him about those, when Natasha appears.

Brooke can hear Pepper saying something, hear Natasha answering, but all she can do is stare: her dress is flowing, off-the-shoulder, black tulle over black lace, belted with sequins or beads or crystals. Natasha takes her breath away.

“How many weapons do you have stashed under there?” Clint says loudly, startling Brooke out of her reverie. She glares at him; he grins back cheekily.

“None that will set off the metal detector,” Romanoff says.

The group takes a moment to process that. “You terrify me,” Tony says.

She gives him a predatory smile. “And don’t forget it.”

--

Somehow they make it to the gala without bloodshed. The Avengers are introduced—Clint and Romanoff by their codenames; Brooke as herself, “appearing on behalf of the Hulk”—and somehow Brooke must have forgotten the part where they get to meet the President and it’s all she can do to keep from hyperventilating.

“Breathe,” Tony whispers to her. “C’mon, you’ve given keynote addresses, haven’t you? This is way easier. You don’t even have to talk!”

She’s never given a keynote address in her life, because Brooke is not good at academic politics, although she did once sub in during a plenary session when the scheduled speaker came down with food poisoning. It’s flattering that Tony thinks she has, though, and she has to admit that it’s a comforting thought that at least the audience is not filled with hundreds of people capable of building nuclear weapons without much effort. In fact—although she doesn’t know the guest list—she and Tony may be the only ones present with that kind of knowledge. It’s a surprisingly cheering thought, and more than that, it gives her an illusory feeling of being in control that sustains her through the rest of the award ceremony.

Between the ceremony and dinner, they field questions from the handful of reporters allowed access. Only a few are for Brooke, mostly to do with the location of the Hulk (“That’s classified, I’m afraid, but I assure you she’s relaxing comfortably”), but one or two are regarding Brooke’s role on the team. “I speak for the Hulk,” she says, and sees a reporter in the front row type THE HULK WHISPERER on his StarkPad. “As a spokesman, or interpreter, if you like. I can go places she can’t—I’m sure you’ve all realized by now that she isn’t much for polite company.”

They laugh. A reporter asks, “Dr. Banner, how did you come into your role as the Hulk’s interpreter? Were you recruited?”

Brooke smiles blandly. “That’s classified, I’m afraid.”

--

It’s a perfect a night as any Brooke’s experienced, until General Ross crashes it. Romanoff spirits her away, deftly leading her out through the kitchen (managing to avoid both waiters and kitchen personnel) and into a waiting car. “Happy,” Romanoff says, and before she can finish the sentence he’s started driving.

“Your wish is my command,” he says. “Think we’re being followed?”

“No,” says Romanoff. “But drive like we are anyway.” She reaches under her dress to pull a gun out of—somewhere, probably a thigh holster, but Brooke is already looking away, flushing.

“I thought you weren’t bringing any weapons in that could set off the metal detector,” she says.

“Sitwell was on the security detail, I had him bring it in for me,” Romanoff replies, then touches a finger to her earpiece. “En route to the airport. Status?” She turns to Brooke. “Steve’s got him contained.”

“Good,” Brooke says, slumping against the seat, but Romanoff doesn’t relax until they’re on the plane, and not even then.

“Get us in the air,” she orders the pilots, standing in the cockpit as Brooke straps herself in. The pilots do as she says and don’t bother telling her to sit down. She looms there, holding the edge of the door for support as they take off, and for a little while afterward. “In the air, outside of DC airspace,” she says into her earpiece, walking back towards Brooke. “Status?” Romanoff sits down across from her and grins. “Good. Tell him not to try anything like this again, and let’s see if we can’t get better eyes on him in the future. I’ll let you know when we land—don’t forget to have someone get our things from the hotel rooms.” She looks at Brooke. “Situation handled.”

“Handled how?”

“He wasn’t invited. Security showed him out.”

“They can do that to an Army General?”

“They can when they’re backed up by Captain America.”

--

Brooke is calm on the plane, calm as she bids Natasha goodnight, calm as she undresses and hangs her gown carefully in its garment bag, calm even as she descends into the panic room. The Hulk Whisperer, she thinks, and freaks the fuck out.

One of the things she allows herself, this time, is not to look at a clock when she emerges, nor ask JARVIS how much time has elapsed, nor worry about the consequences. She gives in to destruction, ripping apart the panic room like she can’t rip apart herself, losing herself in the whirlwind. Afterwards, she will think it looks like a warzone, but that’s all the thought she will give it.

--

In the morning, there’s an email from Betty, no subject line. Sorry my dad’s such a dick. You looked great.

--

That afternoon, she takes the elevator to Natasha’s apartment and knocks on her door. (Somehow she’s become Natasha—like a switch has flipped and she can’t flip it back to the other way.) “I know you don’t have friends,” Brooke says, when Natasha opens the door. “But I want to be yours, even if I can’t think of a single good reason that you’d want to be mine.”

“Well,” Natasha says. “You brought your ginger assam. That’s a good enough reason for me.”