Wow. So, so sorry for the long wait between chapters. I was buying a house, selling a house, and moving, so my muse took a vacation because she was too tired to think. I had maybe half of this chapter written, and then I saw Iron Man 3 and I scrapped almost the whole chapter and rewrote it in a few days. Go see the movie. Just for the extra scene. You'll laugh. Honest.
FYI – this chapter contains very vague spoilers for the Iron Man 3 movie
Thanks for sticking with me, everyone!
There was either a leak in S.H.I.E.L.D , or a civilian had been lucky enough to film the robot bug battle and its aftermath without being caught by S.H.I.E.L.D. Darcy was still trying to process that as she watched the shaky footage of her sitting with Hulk, calming him. It had been on YouTube before S.H.I.E.L.D found it and shut it down.
"Bound to happen, right?" she asked Coulson nervously. Seeing herself on a video that had been available to the whole world was a little disconcerting. She had wondered why Coulson wanted to debrief her after Big Green's 'play' session. It turned out that he actually wanted to show her this video, without involving Bruce.
"Unfortunate," the agent replied. "We were hoping to avoid your public involvement."
Coulson frowned a little. "This makes you a target of anyone who has an interest in the Hulk because you are able to control him. Someone will identify who you are from this video, and from there, they'll find out where you are." His weary countenance made Darcy want to tell him to go home and rest, but she also wanted to hear what he had to say.
"So this means what?" She nervously twirled a pen between her fingers as her eyes stayed glued to the shaky video. Big Green was completely besotted, that was easy to see. He looked at her the same way Bruce did.
"This means that whenever you go out, you have an escort. If you're with Dr. Banner, I'll keep the escort limited to one S.H.I.E.L.D agent who will shadow you. If you are not with Dr. Banner, you will have at least two agents with you, one visible. I want people to pause before they try to snatch you. I'll also have Barton and Romanoff give you some lessons. I want you to be able to get away from someone if they grab you. Some rudimentary self-defense also, perhaps." He tapped his chin thoughtfully.
He was dead serious, and that made Darcy a little afraid. Coulson wouldn't waste resources on a threat he didn't take seriously. People could actually be out to get her. Just because she was awesome at calming the Hulk.
Bruce had warned her, several times. But seeing the video of her that had been posted on the internet…that kind of drove it home for her. This wasn't just something she could blow off and not worry about, like she had with Thor. She'd casually thrown out at Bruce that being present at Thor's first arrival had made her a target, but that was only because of her proximity to Jane. This was being targeted because of what she could do.
"I don't intend for you to fall into unfriendly hands, Miss Lewis," Coulson reassured, seeing her expression. "I may have been out of commission for quite some time, but I'm very good at what I do."
She nodded a little jerkily. "I know. It's just weird, you know? Before, it was people that might want Jane and her research. Now it's me? That's just a little scary."
"Fear is not necessarily a bad thing, Miss Lewis. It will make you more alert." Coulson nodded his head. "It may save your life."
Over the next few months, Darcy didn't exactly forget that she was now a target of bad guys. It was always in the back of her head. But since she was always in safe company, with Bruce or the others, and they didn't leave the Tower that much, the immediacy of the threat faded from her mind. She had a new relationship with an awesome guy who also happened to be a superhero, and that occupied most of her thinking time.
It was a balancing act though. Big Green completely adored her, and had displayed some signs of jealousy after being bottled up for several weeks. He wanted to spend time with his 'Pretty', and he wasn't happy that he wasn't being allowed to. When he tried to bust out at a very awkward time, Darcy urged Bruce to allow Hulk more 'playtime'.
Bruce wasn't thrilled with the idea. "I've spent years trying to reduce the number of incidents, Darcy."
She frowned at him. "He's just another part of you, Bruce, and the more you try to repress him, the more he'll try to break free." She bit her lip and pulled out her best cute face. "Besides, can you blame him for wanting to spend more time with me?"
Bruce couldn't argue that. "I see your point," he conceded.
Darcy patted his arm reassuringly. "Better to keep him happy now, than to risk some type of temper tantrum during a battle." Then she just had to grin at him. "Besides, I like Big Green."
She didn't really understand why Bruce couldn't stand his alter ego, but then again, she'd never seen him when he was truly out of control. He'd told her stories, as they spent more time together, of Hulk's beserker rages, destroying everything in his path. On one hand, Darcy could understand why. All Hulk knew was anger and rage. Whenever he appeared, people were trying to hurt him or Bruce. In his head, Bruce knew that. But he still felt that Hulk was an out of control monster bent on nothing more than destruction and killing. On the other hand, Darcy suspected that Bruce's inability to release his rage had helped lead to the creation of Hulk, and his continued suppression of it only perpetuated Hulk's rampages.
It helped to have Tony on her side. He constantly tested Bruce's boundaries. Tony was a firm supporter of using whatever talents a person possessed, and he pushed Bruce constantly to work on control of Hulk.
Darcy and Bruce were sleeping peacefully, after a wonderful date night where they'd walked hand in hand through the city. It had been peaceful and awesome, even with the S.H.I.E.L.D agent tagalong.
Darcy was curled into Bruce's side, enjoying his heat. As it got colder outside, she migrated closer and closer to him at any given time, since he kept her warm. "My own personal heater," she whispered quietly to him, running a hand through the hair on his chest.
He tucked his chin against the top of her head. "I'm good for something then."
She pinched his shoulder, with a grin. "Several things, as I remember it." She loved the little blush that colored his cheeks.
"Dr. Banner. Ms. Lewis."
Darcy blinked in surprise. "Yes Jarvis?"
"Mr. Stark requires assistance. He is in his workroom."
Darcy promised herself that she wouldn't be jealous of how quickly Bruce rolled out of bed. It was fast enough that her head bounced off the mattress before her own body reacted. The fact that Jarvis was asking for assistance and he sounded worried was…slightly terrifying. She rolled and hit the floor, reaching for her clothes which had been tossed haphazardly. Bruce, normally so deliberate in everything he did, was pulling on his own clothes hastily.
The workroom was several floors down, and the elevator was definitely traveling faster than normal. Darcy shared a worried look with Bruce, and noted the slightly guilty expression He had an idea of what was going on, she could see.
"Bruce?" she asked, with an eyebrow raise. "What's going on?"
He looked away, down at the floor. "Tony's been having some issues lately. Just some leftover things from the Chitauri battle. It was…he flew through a portal into an alien dimension. Even Tony Stark can't roll with just everything."
Darcy folded her arms across her chest and tapped a foot. "What's been going on, Bruce?"
He sighed. "He hasn't been sleeping, worse than usual. When he does sleep, he's having nightmares. I'm just guessing at that part right now, because Tony would never admit to that. He's…he's having trouble even talking about anything related to flying through the portal."
Darcy winced. "How did any of that happen without anyone noticing?" Then she thought about it. Tony was Tony, and it was hard to tell if he was having issues, or if he was just being Tony. "You know what? Never mind."
Finding Tony Stark on the floor in the corner of his work shop, knees drawn up to his chest, eyes wide and practically hyperventilating, was absolutely frightening. Since Bruce appeared to be a little freaked out by it, Darcy took charge. She approached the billionaire slowly, using the same soothing tone on him that she used to keep Bruce from Hulking out, and knelt down in front of him.
"Hey Tony. I think maybe it's time for you to get some sleep, don't you think?"
He blinked at her rapidly, rocking back and forth a little. "Can't sleep right now. Other things going on. Don't need to sleep." He kept blinking, eyes sliding away from hers to focus on nothing.
Bruce knelt down beside him, fingers snapping in front of his face. "Everyone needs sleep, Tony. Even you. This isn't healthy."
The billionaire's blinking eyes swiveled to focus on him. "Hey Brucie. You have bed head. Were you showing Kick-Ass your little Hulk?"
Darcy choked a little. "Oh my God Tony. That's ridiculous."
The corner of Stark's mouth quirked up into a grin. "He was, wasn't he? I'm sorry. I should keep my panic attacks limited to working hours from now on. Poor little Hulk was deprived for so many years, he has tons of time to make up for. Did you have to relearn how to use him, Brucie?"
Tony being obnoxious and intrusive was better than being in the middle of a full blown panic attack, Darcy decided. "We are not discussing this with you, Tony. Why don't we get you to bed?"
"Oooo…a threesome," the billionaire cooed, eyes a little glassy. "Do you cuddle afterward, Bruce? I bet you do. Hulk is a cuddler, I've seen him with Kick-Ass. Pepper will be jealous though. She doesn't want to share me. I guess it's not really a good idea. I don't want to upset Pepper."
Bruce slid one hand under Tony's elbow. "C'mon Tony. I have some nice, calming stuff that I can give you that should ensure you don't have any dreams. You need to sleep."
The billionaire rose unsteadily to his feet, swaying. He was filthy, Darcy saw, and probably hadn't showered in days. She moved in to support his other side and wrinkled her nose. Yep, hadn't showered recently.
"Tony – you reek," she told him as Bruce guided them toward the elevator.
Stark tittered. "It's honest, though. Honest human sweat and blood and tears. The Chitauri smelled wrong." He tittered again. "Well of course they did. They were freaking aliens. But they smelled like they weren't from here. Sometimes, I can still smell them, and it's…foreign. I mean, you know how people from different places smell differently, right? They always do, but they still smell human. There's something so fundamentally wrong with the way the Chitauri smelled. It just chokes you and you can taste it."
Darcy rubbed comforting circles on Tony's lower back as the memory choked him in reality. She shared a look with Bruce over Tony's hunched shoulders. His lips were pressed tightly together. Tony had been his constant since they met. The stabilizing (highly irritating) influence that helped Bruce begin to accept the other part of himself and allow him to live again. Always somewhat erratic, but fearless in his prodding, Tony was the main reason why Bruce was no longer running. To see him like this….
While Bruce went to get some 'calming stuff', Darcy bullied Tony into the bathroom in his penthouse rooms with strict orders to strip and shower. As she waited, wandering around the room where Hulk had used Loki as a rag doll, Jarvis assured her that the billionaire was indeed showering.
"Thank you for your assistance, Ms. Lewis," the AI told her. "Miss Potts has been at the Malibu home for quite some time, and Mr. Stark has deteriorated without her presence to steady him."
"I noticed, Jarvis. Maybe Tony should go to her. The others can handle things here. He needs some downtime."
"Agreed, Ms. Lewis."
She wandered around, appreciating the Loki holes in the floor, and just looking around at this place where her Big Green defeated a mad god. It was intoxicating just to think about, that Hulk had that much power. Yet he was a total cupcake around her.
There was a quiet displacement of air as Bruce joined her. He was staring at the floor in amazement. "He told me that he hadn't had those holes repaired. I thought he was joking." He appeared so young in that moment, in total disbelief that Tony was sort of paying homage to Hulk's badass skills by leaving the holes as they were.
Darcy wrapped an arm around his arm, leaning in to his warmth. "It reminds him of your decision to stop running. That's very important to him. Kind of like you're his adult child, or something."
Bruce's laugh was a gentle snort. "You got him to shower?"
"Yep," Darcy assured. "I told him that he didn't really want to get in his bed smelling like he did. Jarvis backed me up."
"Indeed Ms. Lewis," the AI agreed. "I simply reminded Mr. Stark that Miss Potts would not appreciate a less than fresh smell in the bedroom, when she returns to this place. I have submitted a flight plan to Malibu, ready to initiate when Mr. Stark wakes. His pilot is on standby."
Bruce nodded thoughtfully. "You're sending him to Pepper, Jarvis?"
"Yes, Dr. Banner. Miss Potts is a stabilizing influence. I believe she will be able to help calm Mr. Stark."
Darcy wasn't prepared for Tony Stark staggering out of his bathroom completely naked, and averted her eyes with a yelp. That brought Bruce's head whipping around, and he let out an almost pained sigh when he saw the billionaire trainwreck.
"I…uh…just let me help him into bed, okay?"
Darcy's hands were plastered over her eyes. "Please. Omigod. I did not want to see Tony's junk. I think my eyes are scarred for life."
"Brucie…" Tony cooed, voice edged with complete exhaustion. "Are you going to tuck me in?"
Bruce's half choked laugh made Darcy smile. "Uh…um…I'm gonna make sure you get to bed, Tony. No tucking. No touching. Not doing anything to upset Pepper, remember?"
Darcy's very evil mind supplied images from a naughty fangirl's dream. "Oh please you guys. Get this over with so Bruce and I can get out of here, okay? Tony…wow. Just…get some sleep, okay?"
"She's so nice," she overheard. "Why is she so nice? She scares me. She's a Hulk tamer. Brucie…don't let her go."
"Not planning on it, Tony. Here – take these. They'll help you relax, and keep the dreams away. Trust me."
"Are they legal?"
"Um…just take them, okay? They won't hurt you." She heard water sloshing.
"Brucie…you're such a rebel. S'kinda hot…"
Darcy waited a few seconds, and then cautiously lowered her hands to peek over them. Tony was out, arm flung over his eyes, collapsed on his bed. Bruce was pulling a blanket over him, with the same care he'd show a child, she imagined.
"He's right, you know," she called to Bruce.
He turned slowly, mouth quirking up adorably. "About what?"
Darcy curled her finger in a come on gesture. "You're hot, Bruce."
He rolled his eyes at her, but followed her from Tony's bedroom with one last, worried, look over his shoulder. Darcy was worried too, but Bruce had rather absently told Tony something, and she wasn't going to let him forget it.
"Not planning on letting me go?" she asked quietly as they entered the elevator.
Bruce ducked his head with a smile. "I didn't think you'd let me, even if I tried. But I don't want to try. You're…unique. You make me happy."
Darcy leaned into him. "Take me back to bed, Dr. Banner."
His eyes lightened toward green, the way they always did when he was aroused. "I can do that."
Tony apparently left without fanfare when he woke up. Darcy was only blearily aware of Bruce softly inquiring of Jarvis, and Jarvis's soft reply that Mr. Stark had departed for Malibu an hour earlier. It was too early to think of waking up completely, so Darcy mumbled a halfhearted protest, wrapped her arms around her shaggy scientist/hero, and went back to sleep.
Bruce was somewhat lost without his billionaire heckler. Darcy and Jane didn't say a word when he migrated to Jane's lab and worked on different things there. He was mostly quiet, but occasionally could be drawn into conversations with Jane about things that Darcy didn't even want to try to think about, because they made her brain hurt.
In their own way, everyone quietly missed Tony. It was mostly quiet on the Avengers front, so Coulson apparently took the opportunity to talk strategies with the remaining team members. Darcy was sometimes included in these sessions because of her unique Hulk taming abilities. She wondered, idly, if Coulson had mentioned anything to the other Avengers about her relatively new status as a target. No one appeared to be acting any different, so she guessed not. They had enough to worry about.
The first assemble called without Iron Man was awkward for everyone. Apple Pie actually forgot and was waiting impatiently for Tony to make an appearance. Clint had to lean over and whisper a reminder to him. Darcy thought the embarrassed blush looked adorable on Captain America.
She was in the covert ops van again, with Sitwell, Coulson, and another agent. Coulson took the opportunity to quietly ask her what she knew about Tony's struggles. Darcy was torn, but answered honestly. Coulson would help if he could. She knew that instinctively.
He also quizzed her about her relationship with Bruce. It was clever. She had to give him that. She answered several relatively personal questions before she started thinking about it. Then she frowned at him. "Not cool, Double Oh."
He offered a small little smile. Months had eased the gauntness in his face, and the dark circles were gone. He appeared healthy once again, although she noticed that the other agents still watched him carefully to make sure he wasn't overexerting. Phil Coulson, she had learned, was a legend in S.H.I.E.L.D. And rightfully so.
The battle was going well, even without Iron Man's presence. Thor and Hulk worked remarkably well together (until after the battle, at least). And Clint, Natasha and Steve had gotten very good at becoming their own fighting unit. Clint was typically always up on a building using his extraordinary eyesight to keep immediate tabs on the battle, and rain down arrows from above. Of course, this also made him an immediate target for any enemies that could fly, but Clint seemed used to this. It wasn't uncommon to see him jumping off of buildings, or between buildings, depending on the location.
Coulson liked what he was seeing. "We should be wrapping this up early," he told Darcy quietly.
Sitwell nodded. "It seems like major overkill to have the Avengers called out for this. It appears that the threat was exaggerated."
Darcy snorted. "Everyone wants the Avengers. The police are getting lazy."
Coulson nodded thoughtfully. "Agreed. This is definitely something that should have been handled by police."
The remainder of the laughable attack force turned to flee, signally the end of the battle. The Avengers did not pursue. Sitwell jumped to his feet and gestured to Darcy. "Hulk calming time," he told her.
Darcy followed him out of the van, heading toward Big Green, who was staring angrily after the fleeing perpetrators. "Hey Big Green," she called.
Hulk turned toward her, and the scene just erupted into gunfire. Darcy shrieked. It was one thing to know he was invulnerable to bullets, but quite another to see him, arm raised to partially shield him from the stinging assault of bullets. There seemed to be armed assailants popping up everywhere, and Hulk was their target.
He roared in fury, spittle flying from his mouth, and grabbed the nearest thing, which turned out to be a car. Darcy watched in amazement as he used the car like a shield, blocking the worst of the bullet storm. He also kept his body between the bullets and his teammates, since Steve, Natasha and Clint were not bullet proof.
Thor threw a different car at a group of gunmen, mowing them down, but there were more appearing. Darcy had to wonder where they had been hidden, and why they had chosen now to emerge. Sitwell was barking orders, and suddenly seemed to realize Darcy was standing there gawking.
"Get down, Lewis!" he ordered. "Something is wrong."
She was moving back toward the van when another wave of assailants appeared and swarmed Sitwell. He went down with a shout, leaving Darcy standing by herself, facing about ten goons wearing ninja-like body suits. With guns.
"Well shit," she murmured in a shaky voice, just before she felt a prick in her arm, and the world went dark.
Sorry! I know it's a cliffhanger, but the next update will be posted before too long, promise!