Author's Note: What is it with me and rare pairings? And taking on more than I can handle, writing-wise?

Ah, well. When life sucks and two other major projects involve angst and torture scenes, out comes the fluff. "Avengers" has got me hook, line and sinker, and for some reason I've managed to fixate on Bruce Banner/Darcy Lewis—a completely noncanon but bizarrely amusing pairing that has so much potential for glorious disaster. It's hooked me so hard, in fact, that I've written a "Five and One" fic involving cuteness and developing relationships. Oy.

Disclaimer: Bruce Banner, Darcy Lewis, and all associated characters and concepts are property of Marvel Comics Inc, and I derive no profit from this. Please accept this in the spirit with which it is offered—as a work of respect and love, not an attempt to claim ownership or earn money from this intellectual property.

The Element of Surprise

by Totenkinder Madchen

The First Surprise: Bruce Banner's life sucks.

She does the reading. She has to do the reading, because Darcy Lewis may be a lowly poli-sci major compared to the big brains of SHIELD, but she knows the value of getting your studying done before a test. And to be honest, "lab assistant to the motherfucking Hulk" is about as big a test as Darcy can imagine.

In retrospect, she probably should've seen it coming. SHIELD and its appropriately-named Polyphemus of a director—not that she'd ever call him Polyphemus to his face, because he'd probably recognize the reference, and nothing's worse than actually having another person get your ultra-intellectual burn—was all for kicking her butt back into school, possibly with a memory wipe to keep things interesting. But they couldn't do without Jane, who was one of the only people on the planet capable of figuring out how to rebuild an Einstein-Rosen-Bifrost-rainbow-whatever-they-were-calling-it-these-days, and Jane didn't want to lose Darcy. Darcy had been touched at first, thinking Jane recognized her as one of the fellow brains, but then she'd realized that her brilliant boss was in dire need of a BFF and was clinging to Darcy like an anchor of normalcy in a sea of hunky gods and rewritten physics. So Jane had declared, rather shrilly, that no Darcy no deal.

SHIELD, understandably, was less than pleased. But somebody in the home office must've had a sense of humor (yeah, Darcy was shocked too) because while Darcy was now employed by SHIELD, there was nothing in her contract that said she was a Jane-exclusive gofer. And so it happened that, after the seventh assistant in the high-tech physics lab one floor down quit, Darcy learned that she was going to be the temporary new science slave of Dr. Bruce Banner. Otherwise known as the Hulk.

Yeah, Darcy does the reading. She's handed a big fat folder full of warnings in red ink, and she reads it all while mainlining espresso and listening to Jane having a breakdown over her friend's impending doom. Like that's comforting at all.

Initially, she's scared. Who wouldn't be? This is the HULK. Smashy smashy. Darcy has only ever been smashed in the conventional sense, and even that hasn't been happening nearly enough lately, thanks to the kind of job that administers random drug tests for fun.

So okay, Hulk is one of the good guys now. Darcy chews on her lower lip, thinking about it. She's seen the footage from the Battle of Manhattan—he didn't hurt civilians, he saved Tony Stark's shiny butt, all that good stuff. It's hard to take "saving the world" and put it in the same category as "that guy everyone in the scientific community has been praying they never turn into, because being a monster that broke Harlem and hunted by the Army really sucks." Thor trusts him, but Thor is in Asgard getting Loki community service or having the guy's lips sewn shut or something, and she isn't exactly in a position to talk to any of the other Avengers. They're . . . you know . . . heroes. And none of them really hang around Jane's lab, anyway.

So she does the reading, even while Jane freaks out and calls every SHIELD higher-up she can think of, because without Thor Jane's Destroyer nightmares come back and she'll never be happy about massive things that can crush her with one hand. And while Jane freaks and makes her calls, Darcy sips her espresso and comes to a conclusion.

No wonder Dr. Bruce Banner is always angry, because Dr. Bruce Banner's life sucks.

It's all there, in black and white and screaming red. Abusive father, cowed mother: SHIELD's intake medical report lists "HULK" under "medical conditions," and maybe that's the one that sticks with people, but even if Darcy is a flake she prepares for her tests and there's more than that. Deep-tissue scarring due to badly-healed juvenile fracture, it says. Broken bones at ages four, six, seven and eight, never properly taken care of, resulting in slightly lopsided shoulders and an occasionally-pinched nerve that he probably doesn't even notice any more.

The reports are sparse and clinical, but Darcy reads every line. Lots of suspicious injuries very young. Parents deceased at the same date and time; either a murder-suicide or an accident, and Darcy is willing to bet her diploma that with this family, it was tough to tell which. Taken in by his grandmother, scholarship student (no way he could afford tuition on his own) and later, triumph over adversity to become a great physicist and an expert in gamma radiation. Things were on the up-and-up, right? It's a Rudy-type story, the scrappy orphan's triumph over adversity. Too bad everyone's already read the ending.

Boom. Screwed over by General Ross and his own certainty that he was right, transformed by a failed experiment into the worst possible type of green power. Years on the run—and the records turn positively arcane at that point, just a mess of names and dates and lists of "Inserted/Recovered", and that second number is always lower than the first for some reason Darcy doesn't like thinking about.

Once she puts the folder down and reassures Jane (via mojitos, because the whole 'smashed' thing is starting to look a lot funnier now that it's after midnight) that she's not going to die, Darcy uses her shiny new SHIELD access to pull up videos of the Battle. Traffic cameras, mostly: it's not like anyone in Manhattan woke up that morning and decided to wire their homes because, y'know, alien battle incoming and that shit would look boss on YouTube. She traces Banner's movements from the outskirts of the city, catches just the very edge of the moment when he Hulks out—and then the camera suffers an acute attack of giant space whale crash-landing and there's nothing more to see.

He never looks happy in any of the footage. Even in the photos from his highest point, at Culver with (unfairly gorgeous) Betty Ross, there always seems to be a strained edge to him. Darcy looks at the reports of the lab incident and thinks about a man who was so determined to be right that he subjected himself to an experiment of that caliber.

Darcy Lewis knows people think she's shallow and stupid. Well, fuck the haters: she knows who she is and where she's going (A, a poli-sci major, B, nowhere in particular, but shut up she's making a damn point here). Ambition has never been one of her driving forces. She can worry about things like suits ganking her iPod because she's never been eaten up inside by the kind of need—to prove yourself, to be right, to make the world work your way—that so many scientists and broken people seem to have.

So what would it be like to have that kind of driving ambition, fueled by the kind of life Bruce Banner had . . . and then see it all fail? Everything you'd ever achieved, crushed by one mistake. All your fault.

Technically, of course, it's Ross's fault. But geniuses never see it that way, Darcy knows. Part of having the world be all about them means that anything that went wrong was because of them, too.

And they say she's self-obsessed.

The first time Bruce Banner surprises Darcy Lewis, she hasn't even met him yet. And somehow, she finds herself worrying about him. Not the rage monster—the man.