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"Cupcake?"

Tony looks up as Steve hovers by the door, plate of cupcakes in hand and... Tony wants to say bashful grin on his face. He and Bruce share a quick glance.

"Jarivs, what happened to not letting anyone in the lab?"

"Considering that it has been been nearly five hours since you last ate--"

"I'd love a cupcake, Steve. Thank you," Bruce interrupts, and instantly the slightly slumping shoulders go right back up and Steve all but lights up.

Huh.

Steve looks so damned pleased that Bruce wants a cupcake, talking excitedly about chocolate and cherry filling (there's a joke there, but it's far too easy to be worthwhile) and buttercream frosting the way some people talk about cars and particle physics and chemistry (or just him. Tony can never be sure).

"Cupcake, Tony?" Steve asks, only after Bruce has taken his pick of the batch.

"Sure," Tony says.

Steve grins, still pleased. Which, okay, Steve's always happy to share things with them, especially food (Tony has no idea who pointed him to the kitchen, but the entire team is glad for it), so there's nothing at all unusual about Steve being glad they actually want the baking experiment.

Other than his smile not being quite as delighted when Tony takes a cupcake.

"I think he likes you," Tony tells Bruce after Steve leaves.

"He just likes sharing food, Tony, stop reading into it."

XXXXXX

"Did you tell him?"

"There's not anything to tell him, Clint."

"You are the worst liar in the history of liars. You were going to tell him. We talked about this."

"I know. I know. I just. Well. Tony was there."

Clint huffs and refrains from throwing his hands up in the air.

XXXXXX

"Bruce, do you have a moment?"

Bruce looks up from his book, offering Pepper an awkward smile.

"Tony is insisting on an anniversary party for when everyone moved into the tower, and since we both know he isn't allowed to plan parties, I'm doing the--oh, Steve, hi."

"Hi, Pepper," Steve says. "Bruce. I, um, well, I just made some cake, but if you're busy--"

"Cake sounds fantastic," Pepper announces.

"I wouldn't mind some," Bruce agrees, and they follow Steve back to the kitchen.

Pepper does not fail to notice how pleased Steve is that Bruce would like some. Or that Steve's smile on seeing her was more than a little faked, the split-second disappointment that had slumped his shoulders and made the Avengers poster boy a little less radiant.

"It's red velvet cake," Steve explains happily. "You redden the chocolate and then use red wine, too."

Steve explains to Bruce, at any rate, and Bruce smiles and nods.

"It's very good," Bruce says and Steve practically glows.

"I'm going to see if Clint wants any," Steve tells them before he leaves.

Pepper takes another bite of cake. It is very good.

"He likes you," Pepper tells Bruce.

"Steve likes everyone," Bruce says, placid. "Now what were you saying about this party Tony wants?"

XXXXXX

"Oh my god. Oh my god. You. I looked there wasn't anyone there, how did you not tell him?"

"Pepper was there! I'm not going to just tell him in front of Pepper!"

"You are hopeless. H-O-P-E-L-E-S-S. I can't believe you. How do you exist? Oh my god. You boss everyone around all the time in the field and you can't even. I can't with you, Steve."

Steve makes a frustrated noise as he paces.

"Okay. Okay. We've got this. Well, I've got this, you apparently only have baked goods."

"Clint--"

"It's cool, Cap, you're from the forties. Don't worry, we'll get you laid."

Clint grins at the scandalized noise Steve makes and how his entire face goes red, waving on his way out.

XXXXXX

It's not that Steve is afraid of telling Bruce that he, well, likes him in front of someone else. Not at all. And even he was, he's done lots of things that scared him.

He just. Well. It's complicated.

Steve never got a chance to actually tell Peggy what he thought of her, to really explain what he felt--all fire and spark and cool blue confidence. Not while it counted, when it mattered. He's just not good at telling people he likes he likes them; part of his mind knows he's just going to get turned down anyway, because, hello, he's just Steve Rogers here, ninety pounds wet and some kid from Brooklyn. People aren’t exactly lining up to dance.

(Then he remembers what he looks like now, at least on the outside, and it's not being turned down so much as taken advantage of.)

But Peggy would have been good and alright, he thinks. Peggy was solid and sensible and wonderful, and Steve wouldn't have minded following her lead on what to do and how to do it. Peggy would have been safe, and not safe for safety's sake, but safe in a way that could feel a bit like home--rich and dark velvet colours.

(And he's spoken to her now, and she's happy, of course she is, and he's glad she moved on, even if part of him aches, because, well. Not for any pretty reasons, that's for sure.)

So he will tell Bruce--because he doesn't want all that happening again, thank you--but, well. There keep being people, and Steve might be okay breaking rules when he needs to and leading the Avengers as the public face, but the fact is this is so selfishly Steve Rogers and what he wants, and he just knows Captain America wouldn't want or need any of this.

('This' being some nebulous, undefined concept in Steve's head, that he doesn't have a name for but which feels kind of-sort of like white heat in his gut at the idea of not being the one in charge of telling other people what to do, but maybe, instead, maybe being told what to do, and trusting the person to not take advantage and--)

Until then, he has food.

(Cupcakes and brownies, pull aparts and cinnamon rolls, pastries and braided breads, each it's own little 'hello, I care about you,' a little bit of, well, love.)

XXXXXX

"Bruce! Exactly who I wanted to see!"

Clint is not going to tell Bruce that Steve likes him for Steve. No. Nope nope nope. Actually, he'd be really surprised if Bruce hasn't figured it out yet because, Jesus Christ, Steve is so far from subtle it's not even funny. Sure, Clint picked up on it first, but that's what Clint does, watch things, and besides that, he and Steve are pretty buddy buddy, if he says so himself.

Steve, as far as Clint is concerned, deserves someone good for him. Clint doesn't quite see what it is that Steve sees in Bruce, but hey, Clint's not the one pining over the ruffled doctor, now is he?

"Is this about the party?" Bruce asks, pushing his glasses back up his nose as he examines some science thing.

"No."

"Ah. You aren't buying what Tony's said about me being team therapist, have you? I'm not that kind of doctor."

"Nope." Clint hops up on the table and gets comfortable.

Bruce actually looks over at him.

"What, can a guy not just come say hi?"

"Clint, I can count on one hand how many times you've come into my lab. Sorry," Bruce says, and hell, he even looks a bit apologetic.

"Fine, fine." Clint is not going to tell him Steve likes him. "So what do you think about Steve?"

See? Totally not.

Bruce blinks at him, opens his mouth to answer, closes it, then takes his glasses off. Clint doesn't think the way Bruce likes to fiddle with things with his hands when he's thinking or nervous is why Steve likes him, but who knows. Steve sure hasn't said.

"Steve as in Captain America Steve?" Bruce asks.

"That's the one."

Bruce doesn't say anything, then Clint notes the subtle rise and fall of his shoulders as he takes a breath.

"Look, I have no idea if Tony and Pepper have put you up to this, but Steve doesn't like me. He gives everyone food, he's nice to everyone, and he smiles at everyone. I'm not anything special." Bruce even smiles like he's trying to take the edge off what he's saying.

"That is the list of a man who likes Steve," Clint says, trying not to cackle and mostly succeeding.

Bruce shakes his head, even as Clint keeps trying to needle him for details.

Okay, so Bruce's patience is probably way high on Steve's list of why he likes Bruce. Steve likes patient people in general, and people who look patient, and Bruce is definitely the poster boy for patience.

"Who isn’t in love with him?" Bruce finally asks, first note of exasperation hitting his shoulders.

"Me," Clint answers, flippant, because they both know Bruce is nowhere near snapping.

Bruce just shakes his head.

XXXXXX

Bruce is absolutely certain the team is setting him up for some kind of mean-spirited joke. Probably at Tony's request, because Tony doesn't quite get the idea of boundaries yet.

Even Thor is in on it at this point. How does that happen?

"But he does," Thor insists, looking confused. Thor isn't a good liar, so someone has gone to the trouble of convincing Thor that Steve likes him, and that, Bruce thinks, just isn't nice.

(It's actually deeply irritating in a way that rubs like sandpaper and salt on an open wound.)

"Thor, look, Steve does this for everyone," Bruce says. "I know you haven't been by in awhile, but he does, I promise. I don't know who told you that he likes me, but he really isn't treating me any different than anyone else."

Thor frowns at him, picking at the slice of dulce de leche Steve gave him.

"If you say so," Thor finally says. "I still believe you are mistaken."

Bruce sighs, but he doesn't try to change Thor's mind any further. He's just going to need to have a talk with Tony about the appropriateness of his jokes.

It's not that Bruce doesn’t want Steve to like him. Really quite the opposite, because Clint is right--he does like Steve. A lot. There's this base kindness to him, and once Steve realized that Bruce isn't made of glass, it was like meeting... a still very polite but different person, whose humor is sarcastic and sometimes a little dark, smart and quick and entirely willing (and desiring!) to learn anything and everything. And that’s just at the surface.

“Did you and Jane get a chance to look at those results?” Bruce asks.

(Because he absolutely doesn’t want to dwell on the fact the reason that even if Steve does like him is that Bruce knows, without a doubt, that he needs to be in control, because even before everything else, he liked having that control. And Steve is many things, but submissive isn’t one of them. Bruce isn’t going to ask anyone to try and change who they are.)

“Yes,” Thor says with a rumble, shaking his head. “We did. I believe it should be possible, at the least, and so does she.”

XXXXXX

“Okay, is this everyone?”

Tony glances around the assembled group--hiding in his lab, because Pepper apparently decided that was the best place to hide everyone. Right.

(He only agreed because it’s in the name of getting Steve and Bruce laid. Take one for the team and all that.)

“This is everyone,” Thor says, and Tony tries not to wince as he pokes his way around the lab. He knows Thor actually is getting better with this stuff, and that he does have a fair bit in his head, but it’s hard to shake first impressions and all that.

“Great,” Clint says. “Wake me up when Steve actually talks to him.”

XXXXXX

He is absolutely not nervous at all, which is why he’s only made three batches of muffins instead of, say, five. With Thor back and all, that means they’re going to go through food that much faster anyway; it’s important to have extra.

Okay. So he is nervous.

But backing down from telling people his thoughts about them has done him absolutely no favours to this point in his life, so he’s just going to suck it up.

(And he’s only a little surprised that Bruce is actually still alone in the living room.)

“Hi, Bruce,” he says, glad he’s too old for his voice to crack, “would you like a muffin?”

Bruce looks up, eyes taking a second to focus before he smiles his slight, lop-sided smile.

“Oh, Steve. Sure.”

Steve sits down before he can shift on his feet too much, then belatedly realizes that he should have asked if he could join Bruce, and then decides it probably isn’t going to matter. He just needs to speak his mind and get it over with.

As Tony would say, he has a plan--attack. Well. Less attacking, more just spitting out what he thinks.

“It’s cranberry-lemon. With buttermilk,” he says instead.

“It’s very good,” Bruce says, returning to his book.

“I. Well. Do you have a minute. To talk?”

Bruce looks over at him again and Steve tries smiling, because that what he does, he smiles. That gets another lopsided half-thing out of Bruce as he closes his book, setting it down on the arm of the couch.

“Everyone seems to think I’m their therapist now,” Bruce says with a chuckle. “What is it?”

That stops Steve short for a second, because he hasn’t heard that Bruce is supposedly team therapist (Bruce isn’t that kind of doctor, why would he be team therapist?). A second long enough that the aching tension in his shoulders relaxes and instead of something about muffins and food what comes out of his mouth is:

“I like you.”

Then he stares, realizing what he just said (which, well, that was the point of this), and thinks his face might actually melt if it gets any warmer. Especially with the odd look Bruce is giving him, like he can’t decide if Steve is being serious or not, which, well, Steve can’t really blame him for that.

“I like you, too,” Bruce finally says with a chuckle, taking his glasses off and nervously running his fingers over them.

Steve’s face can apparently get redder, but if there’s one thing he hates, it’s not being taken seriously.

“No,” Steve says, keeping his voice even even if he’s seven shades of scarlet, “I mean I like you. As in I like talking to you, and doing things with you. I like when you show me how to do calculations, and how they work, and I like to listen to you explain things. I like that you listen to me ramble about food, even though that’s not really what I want to say. I like you as in I would like to be with you. That’s what I mean. It just... came out wrong.”

There. That wasn’t so hard.

“I. I think I’m going to go now. I mean. Since you probably don’t--I mean--I just wanted to tell you, that’s all.”

“Sit down,” Bruce says as Steve starts to get up. “Please.” He’s rubbing the bridge of his nose the way he’s does when he’s frustrated, and Steve swallows the wet and yellow-grey feeling feeling that’s trying to crawl from his gut to his throat.

XXXXXX

“Steve,” Bruce starts, and takes another breath. “I am going to ask you a question.”

(He is absolutely furious, because Steve can’t like him, which means Steve has been put up to this, but Steve also wouldn’t be pulled into whatever joke Tony or Clint or someone not Steve is pulling because for all his occasionally sarcastic and sometimes dark humour, Steve is kind.)

“Okay.”

“I need you to leave if the answer isn’t yes. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Steve says, this sinking expression on his face. Bruce doesn’t know if he’s ever seen Steve less than radiant and smiles excepting the occasional debriefing. It doesn’t suit him.

(Good part of him thinks, because he wants to make it clear that--)

He cuts that thought off.

“Are you telling the truth?”

“Yes,” Steve says; even if his blush gets a little deeper, there’s absolutely no hesitation.

The anger is still there, Bruce can’t just turn it off, but it... eases. It hurts less. It still hurts, of course it does, because Steve does like him but... Bruce can’t. Can’t be whatever it is Steve wants, because. Because. Bruce needs to be in control, and that’s what Steve is in some ways--control, leader, pinnacle of mostly good, the person who plays Pied Piper to the bunch of rats they are and actually gets them to work.

“Oh,” he says as he tries to look for what else to say. “Oh.” He rubs his face with one hand. This is not what he was expecting out of this muffin.

“It’s okay if you don’t feel the same,” Steve says. “I just wanted to tell you. That’s all.”

Steve is still watching him, and he offers a weak grin as Bruce looks up.

"Thank you for telling me," Bruce finally says. "Really. I'm... Glad you think you can, and honoured you feel that way about me." Doesn't that sound ridiculous. "No, don't say anything just yet--"

Steve's mouth closes.

"I need to think about this," Bruce says. "I'm sorry. I don't know what to say right now. I need to think about it, and then get back to you. Okay?"

"Of course," Steve says with a smile, eyes soft and kind (and a bit heartbroken, but Bruce can't let himself think about that right now). "Take all the time you need. I think I'm going to go now, though, unless there's anything else...?"

"No, no, that's fine. I'm sorry."

"Don't be."

Steve leaves, and Bruce looks around the empty room for a few minutes, then grabs both muffin and book and... retreats, there's no reason to lie. Retreats back to the safety of his floor, where no one else will come.

XXXXXX

"Tony, he broke Steve."

Tony sighs and wishes he was under the car instead of beside it. Then Clint might not see him and he could successfully continuing avoid everything (because he didn't actually cause this, and wow, who knew drama he didn't cause was this annoying? How about that).

"It's more like Steve broke Bruce," Tony says, not looking up. "Bruce hasn't been off his floor all week."

Clint snorts.

"That's just because you don't hang out with Steve as much as me," Clint says. "Steve's broken. He hasn't made anything all week."

That pulls Tony up short.

"What do you mean he hasn't made anything?" Tony tries to remember what he's eaten over the past few days, but what he can remember definitely doesn't include any of the many (rather sweet) things he associates with Steve.

"Oh come on, even you aren't that oblivious."

Tony finally gets out from under the hood of the car, looking over at Clint.

"You're worried. That was almost charitable."

"And you aren't?"

"Bruce just had the hottest man in America--not my idea, by the way, I still think I should have won that--tell him that he wants to exclusively bang him," Tony points out.

(Still, no baking? Really? This is a problem. Steve's baking experiments are practically a national resource.)

"We should vote for someone to go talk to Steve. If Natasha gets back and there aren't baked goods..."

XXXXXX

Bruce emerges from his floor to find Clint, Thor, and Tony in what looks to be a serious discussion about... baked goods?

"Bruce!" they exclaim almost in unison.

"Hello," Bruce says, watching the three of them before giving a quick look around the kitchen. It feels a bit like something's off about it, though he can't quite put his finger on what. "Is Steve around?"

"Oh thank god," Clint says.

"He is in the gym," Thor adds helpfully.

(Thor saw it before Bruce; that stings a little, no matter how smart Bruce knows Thor is.)

"Okay. Thanks." He gives one last quick look around the kitchen, still unable place what's wrong about it (like it's missing a bit of warmth), then leaves.

Steve is in the gym, working over a punching bag--one of the one’s Tony’s been trying to get rid of in favour of a new design and that Steve has very firmly insisted stay because Steve says none of Tony’s materials quite match the feel of canvas over sand. His form is great, but that’s hardly anything new. Bruce is quiet as he comes near, and it’s why he gets a glimpse of Steve’s face: not angry, just... absent.

Maybe...

(No. He’s not going to get his hopes up. That’s not why he’s here. He’s going to explain, set things as right as he can, and then he’s going to stop thinking about whatever this could be, or have been, and tuck it away into the low level anger that there’s always one more thing he can’t have.)

Bruce coughs lightly.

Steve actually startles, tension thrumming through him as he twists on his feet, and Bruce takes a cautionary step back.

“Oh. Bruce,” Steve says, mind back from where it wanders. “Hi.” He offers a smile--it’s strained at the edges, and there’s still a little hurt in eyes that a person would need to be heartless not to ache at, but he’s trying. Of course he is. Steve is kind.

“Sorry,” Bruce says. “Do you have a minute? Is this a bad time?”

“Sure.” Steve glances down, then chuckles a bit. “I mean, if you don’t mind me looking like I’ve crossed a desert.”

“If you would rather get cleaned up or--”

“No, no, now’s fine.” Steve smiles again, this one a little softer, a little more honest.

(Hopeful.)

“I’m going to be direct with you, or as direct as I can be, okay? I like you, too. A lot. I just don’t think that it would work. There are things I want that I don’t think you would be willing to do, or even able--and no, I know that sounds like a challenge, but please don’t take it as one.” Bruce takes his glasses off, running his fingers over the frames in his hands, but he keeps looking at Steve as much as he’d prefer to look away.

Steve listens as he moves to pick up a towel, brow furrowed a bit.

“Can I ask why?”

“It’s only fair.”

“Would you tell me?”

Bruce laughs a little, risking a glance up to Steve’s face.

“I thought you might want to know.” Bruce pauses--no matter how many times he’s done this in his head, it’s still awkward explaining it to Steve. “I like being in control. Wait, no, that’s wrong. I need to be in control. I liked it before the Other Guy, and I still do, it just is a bit tangled up in need now, too. We could do this for however long, but I promise you I would get bored--if not frustrated--if I couldn’t have that.”

“Control how?” Steve says, voice neutral. Non-judgemental.

“I get off on telling someone to do something, and knowing they’ll do it,” Bruce says. “No questions asked. Unless they’ve been told to ask a question.”

Steve’s cheeks stain red.

“It’s consensual, of course, but that means you actually need to like that, be able to deal with that. I need to know that I have everything how I want it. I might not show it much, but I like things in their place. It’s comforting.”

“Oh,” Steve says, a quiet, breathy sound that makes Bruce look up at him, just in time to catch a quick swipe of tongue over lips. “That’s... That sounds alright.”

Bruce stares at Steve.

“What?”

Steve coughs, blush deepening as he looks away.

“Um. Well. It doesn’t sound bad?” Steve tries again. “Swell?”

Bruce runs back through the look that had been on Steve’s face for a split second, so close to lust and the soft flush on his face before he’d been... caught? No. Wait.

Wait.

This is Steve.

“What sounds alright?” Bruce asks instead of assuming, and his chest aches with something other than bottled rage--hope, bright and sharp and an order of magnitude worse because he’s nearly forgotten what it feels like.

Steve shifts on his feet, face getting redder by the second and not quite looking up.

(He can’t--no, it’s Steve, but maybe-what-if, what if--)

“Steve,” Bruce repeats, “what sounds alright?”

“Well. The. The control thing. That sounds... you know. Alright. If that’s all you’re worried about.”

Bruce takes in Steve’s posture--head down, looking a bit away (exposing his neck), hands tangled in the towel he’d been using to wipe sweat off with. Deferential slouch of shoulders--deferential, Bruce has to be reading into this, this can’t be real. He’s dreaming or dead because his life has definitely not been good enough to have this happen.

“Steve, I need you to be more clear on what you mean,” Bruce says, voice sounding faint even to him, enough so that it gets Steve to look up at him with a bit concern. “I need you to be as blunt as possible because I--” want to ruin you “--I do not want to. We are going to need to have a much longer talk if you mean what I think you mean, but it’s very important that I know what you mean.

Steve shifts on his feet, looking away again, face burning when he speaks.

“I like... not. Being in control. Well, not always, because it’s important to be in control in the middle of a fight, so I just mean in the down time. To have someone else be able to make choices, and to be able to trust them, and. I’d be lying if I said that your self-control wasn’t some of what attracts me to you, so I’m not going to say that.” Steve glances up, blue eyes meeting Bruce’s for a second. “To let go, for a little while. Like when I come here,” and a quick nod at the rest of the gym.

(He’s dead. He’s definitely dead. Someone has figured out a way to kill him.)

(Bruce isn’t sure he minds.)

“Okay.” Bruce takes a breath, jittery a way he hasn’t been in ages--but not in a bad way, not a way that will end up with the Hulk coming out. Just... nervous. “Okay.” He swallows. “I’m going to go out on a limb and say you have no idea that there’s an entire vocabulary for the things we’re talking about?”

Steve shakes his head, though at least he doesn’t look surprised. It makes Bruce smile a bit, which gets Steve to smile even if he is still blushing to the roots of his hair. 

(Idly, he wonders how far down Steve's chest it goes.)

“Then I’m going to give you some things to read--and I’ll mark what to read, there’s other stuff, but I really don’t want to just toss you in the deep end. That’s not a challenge, you don’t have anything to prove. I want you to read them, and I want you to note anything you have a question about. Okay? Anything at all. Then we’ll talk about them.”

“Okay,” Steve says, grin getting a little wider.

Bruce can’t help smiling back.

XXXXXX

“He is baking once more,” Thor reports as Tony comes in to get some coffee.

The other man pauses, eyeing the cake, brownies, and croissants piled on the counter.

“You don’t say?”

Thor shrugs. It seems prudent to inform everyone of the obvious--much as he loves them, these mortals have proven more than once they do not readily grasp it.

XXXXXX

Steve is aware that what he has is at best a tentative yes. He knows he doesn’t know what the yes is dependant upon other than Bruce wanting to be in control, and how he’d explained it (and that still gets him a bit hot under the collar, so he shies away from the thought for now).

That’s okay, though. He has a yes, and he has things to read with odd titles and tables of contents that make him blush a bit at the sorts of things that are widely published these days, and he has a (small) set of questions to ask. They aren’t really complicated questions, but they seem important, and Bruce had said any questions.

(If he thinks about it, it’s not so unlike when Bruce was running him through physics and chemistry and all the things that had changed since Steve was in school.)

Once he thinks he has a grasp on things--or as much as he can on his own--he finds Bruce in his lab (it's not like Bruce really said anything about a deadline or where to talk or even when or if Steve should go to Bruce or--)

Maybe he's still a bit nervous, but it's a good nervous, a shiver of eletric purple in his spine.

Bruce and Thor are talking when Steve comes in, Bruce gesturing and Thor nodding along. Belatedly, Steve wonders if maybe he should have brought something with so he'd have a good excuse to duck back out, but then Bruce sees him and smiles.

(It doesn't feel like anything has changed.)

"Steve, hello," Bruce says--Bruce seems to like saying his name (not that Steve minds).

"Hi, guys. I can leave if you're busy--"

"Not at all!" Thor says, and Steve wonders how much the rest of the team knows about what they talked about, or if Bruce had told anyone (Steve hasn't, not even Clint. It all seems so fragile, like spun sugar). "Myself and the doctor can continue our discussion another time."

"Well, if--"

"It's fine," Bruce says, smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. "Thanks, Thor."

Steve waits until Thor has left before risking talking, and then realizes he's not even sure how to bring this up. He really should have brought something--he did just finish a batch of meringues this morning, that would have worked.

"I'm a little surprised you came to talk to me first," Bruce says. "Not that that's bad. Why don't you sit down," and a quick gesture to one of the chairs around the lab.

Bruce stays standing even as Steve sits down; it's a bit of an odd perspective--Steve is rarely shorter than Bruce (truth, he's rarely shorter than most people these days). Bruce leans back against his worktable, posture mostly relaxed.

“Did you have a chance to read, then?”

“Yes,” Steve says. “Yes, I did. And I do have some questions.”

“Okay.”

Steve hesitates, looking down at his empty hands. (He suspects, not for the first time, this isn’t typically how a relationship starts, but, well, it’s not like he has much to compare it to.)

“Steve,” Bruce says gently, “you have to actually ask. I’m not psychic.”

“I could hope,” Steve says, forcing a chuckle. “Well, no. I’d rather not. Okay. So. This sounds stupid. I’m sorry--”

“Don’t apologize.”

“Right. Just. Does this have to be sexual?” Steve is pretty sure he’s going to end up getting sunburned with how much he’s been blushing lately (embarrassment burn?). “Not that I’m opposed to that, just, well, I haven’t ever done anything and it seems a bit much and forward, all at once, and I don’t know if that’s what I want just yet, I mostly just wanted to maybe try dating, or I’m not really sure, it’s not like--”

“Steve.”

Steve catches his tongue and bites down on it.

Bruce isn’t laughing. He’s smiling still, but he looks like he’s actually taking Steve seriously, and a little tension caught tight between Steve’s shoulders eases.

“No, it doesn’t need to be sexual. I know a lot of things talk about it in terms of that, and there are a number of people that it’s only that. But we don’t need to be, not before we both actually want to. If or when we get there, we’ll talk about it, and we’ll figure out what we both want.”

“Right. But I thought you said that you like to be in control?”

“I do, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have wants or opinions or thoughts,” Bruce says. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to make you do something you don’t want. Unless you actually would like to do something you don’t want. Do you understand?”

“Which is why safe words.”

“Exactly,” Bruce says with a grin.

“Do we need them?”

“Do you know what you want? Do you know how to tell me what you want so I don’t misunderstand? Do you know how to make it perfectly clear at all times whether something is making you feel alright? Do you--”

“Alright, I get it,” Steve says, looking away.

“Don’t interrupt me,” Bruce says. His tone is mild, but there’s a different pitch to his voice, low and sharp. It draws Steve’s gaze back, surprised; Bruce isn't smiling, though he doesn't look angry either. Just... blank.

"I--I'm sorry."

"Don't let it happen again," Bruce says, and then a slight curve of his lips. "You are going to ruin me, Steve."

Steve blinks, not sure what to say.

"All that aside, even if you could do all of that, even if I could do all that, we'd still have a safe word because they're important, sex or no sex, something mild or more." Bruce takes his glasses off, waving his other hand. "I want you to have some way to tell me if you're distressed, that whatever rules we end up with don't apply to. I want a way to tell you if I need to take a few steps back. Does that make sense?"

"Yes," Steve says, but only after waiting a few seconds--not long, but just enough to be sure Bruce is done talking.

"Good." Bruce starts to run his hands over his glasses, look of idle concentration on his face Steve loves. "How do you want to do this?"

"I--what?"

"What did you want? Before you asked? Don't tell me you liked me and didn't actually think of things you'd like to do."

Steve swallows, glancing away, because, yes, he had thought of things, but he didn't think that he would tell Bruce any of them--he isn't sure at all why he thought that, but there it is.

"Steve," Bruce says, closer (Steve has no idea how he doesn't notice Bruce moving), and Steve has to tilt his head back to look at him. "I asked you a question."

"I--" Steve pauses, mouth suddenly dry and hardly a thought in his head. Bruce's eyes are clear grey, like a banked storm cloud, the lines of his face gentle.

"Steve, don't make me ask again."

"Dinner. Maybe a movie, because you mentioned you haven't seen many new ones and I know I haven't, or go to a museum. Something quiet." Steve knows he's blushing--it's nothing fancy, probably even traditional for a date, but he'd still like to. It's what he knows, and he thinks Bruce would like it.

"Would you have made dinner?"

"There's a little place, not far from here." Steve swallows, licking his lips.

"And if I asked you to cook?"

"I could. I haven't done much except bake since--lately, but I could cook."

Bruce's smile is gentle, eyes soft, and he curls a hand around the back of Steve's neck, thumb brushing against the edge of his hair. Bruce's hands are calloused, warm, heavy and grounding, and without thinking Steve leans a little into the touch.

"Is this okay?" Bruce asks.

"Yes," Steve says.

"Do you have a word picked out for when we need to take a step back?"

"Baseball."

Bruce raises an eyebrow.

"I don't think I'd ever talk about baseball with you," Steve explains hurriedly. "It supposed to be something we wouldn't usually bring up, right?" It seems so important to get this right.

Bruce laughs, shaking his head.

"No, no, that's good. That's fine. Baseball." He chuckles, corners of his eyes crinkling, smile lop-sided, and electric purple nervousness in his chest fizzles out. Bruce's thumb rubs against Steve's neck, soothing. "Nothing sexual, just dinner, museum. Tomorrow night at seven." Then, "Are you sure about this, Steve?"

"Yes." Steve doesn't even need to pause--this, looking up at Bruce, a hand at the back of his neck, and not a thought in his head, is the most relaxed he's felt in... he can't remember.

Bruce purses his lips.

"Why?"

"It's nice not..." He casts about for the right words. "Not to be Captain America."

"Okay. If you feel differently, or change your mind, I want you to tell me."

Steve nods.

“Do you have any other questions?”

“I--no. No, not right now.”

“If you think of any more, I want you to ask. Okay?”

“I can do that.”

Bruce just looks at him for a few minutes, and Steve looks back, idly wondering what it is that he’s thinking, what it is he sees.

“You actually trust me.”

He sounds so surprised; Steve’s surprised by how much that fact distresses him.

“Yes,” Steve says. “I do. I don’t think I’d like you if I didn’t.”

“You don’t trust Tony.”

“Tony doesn’t even trust Tony,” Steve points out with a grin. “Besides, I do when it counts.”

“But not like this.”

“No,” Steve agrees.

“And Clint?”

Steve makes a face; he can’t help it. Clint’s his friend, and a great friend, but...

Bruce laughs.

“Okay. Okay. Well, I do actually need to get back to work on what I was talking to Thor about. Tell him to stop back by.” 

“Sure thing,” Steve says. “I didn’t--”

“No,” Bruce says. “If I don’t have time, I’ll tell you. This was--is more important. Don’t get flustered or start apologizing. I’ll tell you. I promise.”

Steve smiles, relaxing again.

“I’ll tell him you need to speak to him.”

Bruce smiles back.

XXXXXX

Clint would be a dirty liar if he didn’t admit that he’s dying of curiosity about the situation between Bruce and Steve.

He asks Tony, shameless gossip that he is (because Steve just smilies and demures (demures who even demures anymore), Steve who might as well be useless for how dazed and happy he’s looked since the day before).

“They’re going to dinner,” Tony tells him. “I don’t know, I’m not prying, Bruce is actually even more zen than usual. Something’s up. Did you know Bruce likes Steve? How did he not tell me this?”

“At least Steve’s baking again.”

“That’s not the--Dum-e, no, don’t--”

Clint takes the opportunity to duck out before he can get questioned more on Bruce liking Steve, because, yeah, he totally knew that.

Maybe Thor will know something.

XXXXXX

Steve’s restaurant is a family-owned bistro that is, in fact, very close to the tower. Bruce is fairly certain from a detailed questioning before they left that he could reasonably pick something Steve would enjoy.

“It’s been around forever,” Steve tells him. “Well, maybe not, but I remember it.”

Bruce wonders if Steve will be recognized as Captain America. As it turns out, it’s a moot point--the hostess’ recognition is only in seeing someone she sees often, and if anyone here knows Steve as more than Steve, they don’t act like it.

“It looks nice,” Bruce says after they’ve been seated in a quieter corner and ordered drinks, noting the... not nervous, but tentative way Steve keeps glancing at him. The unspoken seeking of approval, of ‘I love this place, but what do you think?’

“It is nice,” Steve says. He’s fidgeting, so maybe Bruce is wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time; he has so many assumptions about Steve he’s needing to readjust, new data to take into account that he hasn’t had access to before.

(It’s thrilling.)

“What’s on your mind?” Bruce asks.

“The museum. I forgot about it being so late, and I had meant to do this on a night there was a show or opening but...”

“Don’t worry about it,” Bruce tells him. “I already took care of the details.”

And underneath, though Bruce doesn’t say it, won’t say it, not just yet (not this early) is I’ll take care of you.

Steve looks a little startled and uncertain, and Bruce can see him debating asking what it is Bruce has done, or what they will be doing.

“What were you showing Clint this morning?” Bruce asks before Steve can say anything.

It’s enough. Steve starts to tell Bruce about blintz--Clint had asked him how to make them, because Natasha likes them. He warms to his topic, relaxing back in his chair. Steve doesn’t use his hands to talk, no gestures at all unless it’s particularly difficult to describe. He does occasionally reach, like his hands are searching for a pencil to sketch out concepts with; Bruce files it away for future conversations, a little detail to make things more relaxing.

Bruce asks the occasional question, but mostly he keeps Steve talking, soaking up and admiring how clever-quick Steve is, how instinctively he grasps the base chemistry of cooking that Bruce has never bothered to really learn himself.

(Seeing Steve like this, unconcerned smiles and the occasional self-deprecating chuckle when he realizes he's rambling... Bruce likes it. How easily Steve falls to it when it's just the two of them, and an openness he hasn't seen prior. Not that Steve wasn't open before, but this is... different. Pleasantly different, but different, and it makes his chest ache with pleasure that he has had a hand in its happening here.)

It's not until the server stops by to ask what they want that Steve realizes he hasn't decided.

"Oh. I'm sorry, I don't know what--"

"He's having the lobster ravioli," Bruce says, "and I'll have the ricotta gnocchi."

"I am?" Steve asks, looking at Bruce.

"Details," Bruce says, admiring the pale rose on Steve's cheekbones. It's a little unfair, how much he likes Steve's blush--mostly to Steve. "What did I say about details?"

"You said, well, you'll take care of them."

"Exactly. Don't worry about it, Steve." He smiles.

(He loves how Steve's name tastes on his tongue, the rich weight of it, soft buzz after the sharp flick of tongue to teeth. He loves how Steve relaxes on hearing it, shoulders slouching infinitesimally and weight he always carries put aside for just a moment. To not be Captain America--a foreign idea to Bruce, but he supposes for Steve Captain America is no more than a mask he wears near all the time. No wonder he never realized that Steve wanted to let go; Steve makes wearing that mask look easy. He certainly has never let on that it's not actually him.)

"Okay," Steve says, eyes soft. "Is there anything you want to talk about? I've just been talking about nothing really, I just--"

"What else do you think people do on dates?"

"Well. I--I mean. Get to know each other, but we already know each other? At least some. And I'm really only talking about myself." Steve looks away, around the restaurant, rubbing the edge of the table cloth between thumb and forefinger. "I'm sorry. I don't know--"

"Don't apologize. Is there something you want to know about me?"

"Why do you get to interrupt me and not the other way?" Steve asks with a grin.

"Because I said so." Bruce smiles some. "Does it bother you overly much?"

Steve pauses to think about it--Bruce is not really surprised how much this pleases him, Steve contemplating, but then he's always liked that Steve has a mind underneath his looks (even if other people like to forget it). This though, this is different, pleasure like a particularly sinful glide of dark chocolate on the tongue, pleasure that Steve is thinking in terms of what he likes and doesn't like--offering up another detail for Bruce to pin down. It might be a bit like trying to sketch every crevice and dip in a coastline, but Bruce doesn't care if he can never finish this map.

Better yet, a detail that is only his.

(He'd forgotten this: possessiveness a white hot heat to tend and keep tame.)

"No," Steve says finally, and that faint blush is back, enough to make Bruce want to reach out and touch him, feel Steve shiver and lean into his hand.

"You ramble," Bruce says instead, taking a sip of his wine--white and sweeter than he likes himself (but this is less him and more Steve, and Steve loves sweet things). "You get flustered and start apologizing, then you get tense. You don't need to apologize for not knowing things, Steve. We've talked about this before. I want you to be relaxed--I'm not going to hold your lack of experience against you."

Steve nods again.

"Tell me where you and Clint go on Thursdays," Bruce says, changing the subject.

"Oh, you wouldn't be interested in that," Steve says with a chuckle. "It's noth--"

"I didn't ask," Bruce says flatly.

There's no need to raise his voice; Steve responds immediately, startled and wide-eyed and a touch of shame (oh, Steve's shame, simultaneously sitting up straighter even as he tries to curl inward, avoiding eye contact as he steals glances at Bruce's face for cues).

"Don't assume what I am and am not interested in."

"Yes, sir."

Bruce's indifference cracks at the word, blinking at Steve.

"Did I say something wrong?" Steve asks, chewing his bottom lip and watching Bruce.

"No. No, just... caught me off-guard." Bruce shakes his head. "You don't need to call me sir."

"Do you not like it?"

"I..." Bruce pauses, because he doesn't actually care one way or the other. "Do you like it?"

Steve cycles through a few different shades of scarlet, looking away, and he's only saved answering by the arrival of their food. Bruce might be many things, but he's not going to make Steve answer him while there's someone at the table with them.

(After all, he hasn’t spoken to Steve about whether he wants these things overheard. Bruce doesn’t; these moments and mappings of Steve, they're his, and he doesn't want to share them, however jealous that may be.)

"You were going to say about you and Clint?" Bruce pauses, gnocchi half to his mouth. "If you don't want to tell me, you know you don't have to."

"I didn't say anything about sports," Steve says reproachfully.

Of course. Of course Steve would remember.

(The phrasing so he doesn’t even explicitly mention the word baseball, that’s something else. Not taking a chance; it makes Bruce a little dizzy with affection, like the pleasant buzz of intoxication.)

"I'm sorry," Bruce tells him, and he means it. He reaches out, a brief brush of his fingertips across the back of Steve's knuckles.

"Well, we're both figuring things out, aren't we?" Steve says with a shrug, quick and small grin on his face that make his eyes shine, hand catching Bruce's fingers and squeezing gently. "Anyway. Thursdays. Well, we go around town Thursday's--it's how I find new places, get used to things again."

Bruce keeps listening. A few questions here and there, and it doesn't take much for Steve to slip back to rambling, sweet smile on his lips and laughter in his voice, occasionally glancing up at Bruce as if to see if he's not bored.

Comfortable.

(And this--this Bruce hasn't forgot, but he's missed. Someone happy and warm and at ease because of him. Someone that Bruce is capable of taking care of for the time they have together.)

(Everything in its place.)

XXXXXX

"So how'd it go?" Tony asks Bruce the next time the scientist shows up in his lab.

Tony knows he's told Bruce that he can just order whatever he needs, he just has to tell Jarvis, but Bruce always ends up asking Tony first. In this case, Tony isn't exasperated by it, what with being pretty curious himself about the whole Steve and Bruce situation.

(Really, how did he not notice that Bruce likes Steve? Not that Tony is arguing Steve's likeability, but for Tony it's far more of the 'debauch America's virtue' one-night stand sort of deal.)

"It went well, thanks." Bruce is clearly not going to say anything else about it, and Tony absolutely isn't going to have that.

"Is there any reason you needed that museum in particular? I mean, a museum? Do you two have a fetish for making out among old stuff?"

"No, Tony," Bruce says, smiling crookedly.

(This is how Tony knows it's okay to keep pushing. The rest of the team took way longer to figure out that Bruce isn't going to snap at the slightest thing, but hey, they're not all geniuses here.)

"I don't say thanks much, so remember this--thanks," Tony says. "He finally started to bake again. Could you imagine Natasha if she came back and there weren't any pastries?"

Bruce shakes his head; not ignoring him, but giving the appearance of it. Tony grins.

Maybe Bruce will get Steve to relax some. That wouldn't be so bad.

XXXXXX

Bruce is right--this doesn't have to be sexual at all. Not that Steve is opposed to sex, but, well. He likes this how they’re doing things: slow and steady. It's... comforting.

For the first time since he woke up from the ice, he feels... solid. Grounded, in a way. He should probably be worried about how quickly he's come to view Bruce as a foundation. He still leads missions (that had been interesting, the first time Hulk got involved since he and Bruce started to date, but as far as he can tell things are cleared up with Bruce's more instinctive half), he still makes sure that people who aren't Bruce don't know this about him. There's still large portions of his day where he does need to try and be more Captain America and less Steve Rogers--even Steve's only human, after all, and well, he wants people to like him.

He might not be able to live up to every assumption people have about him (heck, if he's honest, there's some he simply won't), but he does try.

Bruce makes it so there's one person he doesn't need to do that with. One person that he can just be... Steve.

That's nice.

And he likes to think it's nice for Bruce, because he sees it now, the subtle signs that Bruce tucks away when he wants to tell someone to change something and doesn't. Or the way Bruce smiles at him when Steve does something he's asked.

Steve would do near anything for that smile.

Not that Bruce makes that easy.

(Steve doesn't mind, they've talked about these little challenges, rules (stated at the start) and time limits (none). There's a thrill that races down his spine when Bruce comes up with one, because Bruce's somethings always take work--research or time or on one occasion plain dumb luck--things that say he thinks Steve able to navigate the now in a way the others sometimes forget. Because it makes Bruce smile, and he might still be trying to cope with how, well, with how Bruce's praise feels like his insides have turned to deep lavendar and his every thought just sort of stop.)

For instance:

Bruce wants Steve to make him his favourite thing. He also wants Steve to not let anyone else have any.

Steve is pretty sure Bruce hasn't even told Steve what his favourite food is.

(Steve would remember that. Steve hopes he would remember that. He's got a great memory, not just because of the super serum. He would definitely remember Bruce's favourite food.)

(Unless Bruce told him before Steve started to fall for him. It doesn't bear thinking about, no use crying over spilt milk (but it would be such a damned shame).)

Steve isn't quite sure what Bruce will do if he does let anyone else eat said food when Steve figures it out (because he will, Bruce asked; Steve isn't going to let a little thing like not knowing stop him from trying), but he imagines he won't much like it. He hasn't liked any of the other things that Bruce has done when Steve disappoints him (that's what Bruce says, not that Steve failed, that Steve disappointed him. It twists Steve apart to hear that, see the slight frown, the photo negative of when Bruce smiles his pleasure).

Steve has been very slowly--well, it feels slow to him, but Bruce doesn't seem bothered by the past three weeks--working his way through all the different foods he's ever made, because Bruce did tell him that Steve's made it for him before. He's actually pretty glad that he's kept a notebook of the different things he's made since he started cooking regularly, with tiny adjustments and tweaks for next time. It's certainly coming in handy. He's not making them in order of when he did before, just picking and choosing based off what he remembers of Bruce's reactions.

(Like the cheesecake. He distinctly remembers Bruce liking the cheesecake.)

Bruce has also agreed to show when Steve when he gets it right, if it's a guess, but not explicitly tell.

(A guess is understood, between the both of them, to be less good than Steve figuring it out.)

Steve brings the food to Bruce. At first it was because he wasn't sure if Bruce would go get it himself (sure, he could ask, but why pass up a valid excuse to see Bruce's reactions, which have proven more than helpful in narrowing down the field). Now, though, it reminds him of when he first was trying to tell Bruce his feelings--sky blue hope--while a thousand times less nerve racking.

Sometimes Steve ends up feeding Bruce what he brings, and that. That. Steve doesn't quite have any words for how that makes him feel, the languid lassitude that slips through his every nerve, beyond thought to... he doesn't know. He doesn't know. If he had to describe it, he'd say it's purple--rich streaks of purple on black velvet, tinged with dreams and silver and gold. The first time he felt like that, he'd ended up crying without quite understanding why, had been so confused and a bit scared but mostly so content. It was alright (better than alright), because Bruce was there, and maybe the look in Bruce's eyes was possessive, but it'd been protective too. Bruce doesn't often have Steve feed him because of that ("You have no idea the things I want to do to you when you're like that, Steve, and we're taking this at your pace"), though sometimes Bruce takes one look at whatever Steve's brought and tells him to pull a chair over and sit down, feeding Steve instead (that's nearly as good as getting to feed Bruce).

Steve is pretty sure those are the ones that Bruce doesn't like, and he leaves them where everyone else can get to them.

The rest. Well.

(To be honest, Steve had no idea they liked his baking so much; it's a little pleasing, because baking is very Steve Rogers, and if they like that perhaps they'll like more of him down the road.)

Steve's sketching by Bruce in Bruce's lab with today's offering (baklava), trying to decide if Bruce eating slowly is because he's savouring it or because he's distracted, when Tony comes in.

"You," Tony says, pointing at Steve.

"That is generally how you say hello," Steve says with a half-smile, waiting for whatever Tony has decided needs immediate attention and glad that today wasn't a day Bruce asked Steve to feed him.

"You keep hoarding desserts. I know you aren't eating them."

"They're Bruce's," Steve says. Bruce glances over at him, and Steve realizes he can use this to his advantage. "I made them for him, so if you want some, you should ask him."

Tony glances between them. Bruce has a mild look on his face, lips slightly pursed. Thinking, considering, but no real displeasure--just Steve doing something he wasn't expecting.

"You are hoarding Steve's baked goods to yourself," Tony says, looking both surprised and irritated. "I can't believe you, Brucie. I thought we had something special? Science bros before baking?"

"You can have some, Tony," Bruce interrupts before Tony can really get going.

"Excellent."

Then Tony's gone. Steve files away baklava must be Tony's favourite, because he hasn't said a single word about the delay on any of the other things so far. Tony can barely go five minutes without something he wants, let alone three weeks.

"I didn't say you could tell them," Bruce says after Tony's left.

"You didn't say I couldn't," Steve points out.

Bruce shakes his head with a lopsided smile, eyes half-lidded.

"True. Here, pull your chair over. I'm going to explain to you what I'm doing."

Steve does as he's told, moving so Bruce can stand between his legs, tilting his head back so he can watch Bruce's face. Bruce breaks off a piece of the baklava, making a face as some of the phylo sticks to his fingers (definitely not baklava, but Steve's reasonably certain through observation that it's something he can eat with his fingers).

"It has to do with trans-dimensional waves," Bruce starts. Steve opens his mouth obediently as Bruce offers him the piece of baklava, licking the honey and flakes of phylo off his fingers. He listens as Bruce explains, the words a pleasant wash, soothing as listening to the white noise of the city at night, taste of sweet pastry on his tongue and heat of Bruce's other hand cupping the back of his neck. When the rest of the pastry's gone, both hands settle on his neck before giving a gentle tug. Steve closes his eyes, burying his face against Bruce, breathing in his smell and nuzzling into the linen of his shirt, one of Bruce's hands stroking through his hair.

Eventually, it's quiet. He wonders idly if Bruce has talked his way through what he was puzzling over, what Bruce is thinking about now.

"Steve," Bruce finally says.

Steve shivers, leaning harder into Bruce's warmth before pulling away enough to look up.

"I am going to kiss you," Bruce tells him.

Steve's mouth parts, a tiny noise in the back of his throat escaping before he can stop it.

"Yes," Steve says when it's clear Bruce is waiting on an answer.

Bruce's lips are dry as he kisses Steve--slow, careful, just barely any pressure at all and yet still so very sure. Steve feels clumsy, uncertain, wanting to do this right and not knowing how, memory of only two kisses before to go on and both by surprise--he should do better, he--

"Steve," Bruce says, pulling away and breath brushing over Steve's lips, hands tugging his hair gently, and Steve's entire face burns as he realizes the distressed noise is him. "Calm down. This isn't a competition." Bruce is smiling, "Just follow my lead, Steve."

"Details," Steve half-asks, because details are Bruce's, Bruce handles details, he's always telling Steve that.

"Exactly."

It's easier, so much easier, to relax into Bruce after that. Bruce's teeth tease along Steve's lower lip and Steve opens up for him with a whimper, not even sure he can breath, or if ever wants to again, lost in Bruce's heat--so much more heat than just face pressed to Bruce's chest and stomach through clothing. Their teeth clash when Steve tries to press forward; before Steve can pull away (shame black and swirling) Bruce's hands yank in his hair, pain sharp and bright white, keeping Steve still--claiming, and he can't think, can't... anything, limpid against Bruce as Bruce explores and maps and takes.

When Bruce breaks away, everything feels velvet and purple and aroused, shimmering at the edges.

"Oh," Steve breathes.

Bruce's eyes are lovely, grey clouds and storms barely banked and near breaking.

"Can you do that again?" Steve asks.

Bruce grins, all teeth; Steve shudders, mouth dry, purple and velvet feeling darker and all-consuming.

"Yes," Bruce says, and does.

XXXXXX

"Steve?" Pepper asks.

Steve looks up from where he's rolling out scones, and yes, that is in fact a hickey on Steve's neck. Several.

Good for him. Steve deserves something nice; while Pepper's a little jealous that his faster healing means the bruises will likely be gone before tomorrow, she doesn't resent that he's had the chance to get a good make-out session.

Pepper likes Steve--he's sweet and gentle and always respectful. He deserves nice things, and she would never ever put the heckling of the boys in the category 'nice things.'

"Hi, Pepper," he says. "Can I do something for you?"

"I think it's more me doing something for you, unless you want Tony and Clint to spend the day tormenting you. Come with me."

Steve frowns, then rinses his hands off in the sink before following Pepper.

"Pepper, I don't mean this the wrong way, but--"

"You've got a few hickeys," Pepper tells him. "I want to show you how to cover them up."

"Oh." Steve blinks down at her for a few more seconds, then it clicks. If he's going to be blushing more now that he's with Bruce, she might need to send Bruce a thank you basket.

Steve's a fast learner; five minutes later, she's on her way, Happy questioning why she was late and Steve the not-so-proud-but-certainly-grateful owner of some concealer.

XXXXXX

Bruce keeps expecting to wake up.

It's been a little over three months since he and Steve started this. Not everything has been roses (top of the list: Steve's severe aversion to ice that Bruce is still kicking himself for because how did he forget that), but it is still fascinatingly beautiful, like an extremely complicated chemical barely held together.

And surreal, but how could it not be when it feels like a dream?

The carefully monitored addition of more than just the occasional touch--kisses and making out primarily, though every now and then Steve asks to do more--certainly isn't helping him feel less delusional.

At least if he is having a fever dream, it's a good one. When it's just them, Steve is most responsive--blue eyes going soft when Bruce tells him things to do, the subtle determined clench of his jaw when Bruce gives him some not-quite-impossible task, the soft noises that escape when Steve lets go, all that strength and tension melted away and leaning into Bruce's every touch. 

It is at least one aspect of his life Bruce feels like he has total control over. There may be some things that startle him into letting the Other Guy loose, there are experiment that don’t go as planned, and the team will never quite work in a way he feels he can predict. This though--this he can.

(Part of him is tempted to tear Steve apart, find what exactly will make him shatter, but Bruce won't. The temptation makes Steve's trust taste a sweet ambrosia, gives Bruce something else he can control. Two comforts for the price of one.)

"I've figured it out!"

Well. Mostly control. It would be dull otherwise.

Bruce is pleased that despite the unexpected intrusion he doesn't jump. Three months and Steve's never stepped foot on Bruce's floor, though Bruce has told him explicitly if he needs to he can.

Steve is half-hovering by the entrance to the living area, nearly glowing with pleasure; apparently whatever he's figured out is enough to get him to visit, even if he looks like he's rapidly reassessing his own enthusiasm as he looks at Bruce.

"Come sit down," Bruce says, smiling, a quick gesture to the floor by his feet. "You're already here." 

(Steve, he has found, slips down quickest when he has to look up, long line of his neck exposed; Bruce is certainly not adverse to the position and docilie picture Steve paints in contradiction to his size.)

Steve ducks his head and Bruce is willing to bet that Steve scuffs his foot where Bruce can't see.

He does come to sit by Bruce on the floor, facing him and leaning against Bruce's shin, a... muffin in one hand.

(Steve, Bruce has discovered, adores giving him food. Asking Steve why is out of the question, at least for now--so much of his own pleasure comes from quantifying these things himself, and then testing them. (He suspects that for Steve, who would have grown up with lack and hunger, giving food is one of the most sincere affections a person can offer.) 

The first time he ever had Steve hand feed him had been partially because he was in the middle of work that required both his hands, and partially because he was a little curious if Steve would do it. He had not anticipated Steve slipping so deeply and so quickly into subspace; Steve's tears (no matter how happy) had caught him off-guard, and that experiment was lost to taking care of him--not that Bruce minded, only adding food to things that worked for Steve.)

"What's this?" Bruce asks as Steve offers it to him.

"You can't see?" Steve asks with a cheeky grin.

"It's a muffin, Steve."

"It's not just a muffin," Steve says with a touch of reproach. "It's your favourite. I don't know why I didn't think of it before, actually, it's obvious now." He pauses, eyes searching over Bruce's face. "It is, isn't it? Cranberry-lemon buttermilk?"

Bruce lets Steve sit for a few minutes, keeps his face blank as Steve bites his bottom lip.

"Is it?" Bruce asks.

"I... Yes?"

"Are guessing or telling?"

Steve shifts, barely avoiding squirming--Bruce loves it, loves the twisted up knowing against not wanting to disappoint. Steve's uncertainty is beautiful, nearly as beautiful as his shame.

"Telling," Steve finally says. "Your favourite is cranberry-lemon."

"Very good," Bruce says, smiling and letting himself ease back to the obvious. Steve grins, relieved, likely unaware of the sigh he breathes. "What do you want for it?"

Bruce expects Steve has thought about this already; every time before so far he's had an answer immediately. None had been things Bruce would have said refused normally: a life drawing, making Bruce dinner, to give a hand job. The hand job had been unexpected--not because Bruce thinks Steve is the epitome of virtue (virginity most certainly does not mean virtue in his quantifying of the world), or that Steve doesn't want sexual things (they've done enough and talked enough to thoroughly disprove that), but because Bruce frankly never considered Steve would use these rewards to give sexual favours.

He isn't quite sure why--it's not like either had explicitly said they couldn't be, and Steve's shown a knack for using the inexplicit to his own advantage. How clearly Steve makes his own wants known is part of the appeal.

"Steve?" he prompts when Steve still hasn't said anything. He has turned red, the sort of flush that makes Bruce want to drag him half up and map the inside of his mouth and lines of his throat until Steve's a panting mess beneath him, hands twisted into Bruce's shirt and half-kneeling.

Bruce doesn't.

"It's rather hard to give you anything if you don't tell me," Bruce says.

"I want to suck you off." Steve meets his eyes, shoulders back and jaw clenched for all his embarrassment.

Bruce's brain short-circuits.

"What?"

Steve licks his lips (Bruce's eyes follow the movement, mind conjures up the image of Steve on his knees, one hand in a fistful of blond hair--

"I want--"

"No, I heard you, sorry, give me a moment."

Bruce pauses, trying to get his thoughts back together.

"Baseball," Bruce finally says. "I--there's things I need to clear up. We need to talk first."

(They've talked about plenty of things that both would like to do, or try, but somehow blow jobs hadn't really come up despite how base and obvious a start they are. Steve is very good at blind-siding him with the obvious.)

"Okay," Steve says. Bruce takes his glasses off, runs his hands along the frames, then puts them back on. Steve looks relaxed, forearms resting on his thighs, looking up at Bruce.

Bruce does not take it to mean he's not bothered--Steve can be incredibly good at hiding his thoughts.

"I'm not upset," Bruce tells him. "Not at all. Actually, the thought of you on your knees, that's a very good thought. I would love nothing more than to do that. But. Talking, we need to talk. That's all."

(Bruce knows Steve knows that safeword isn't bad, but he feels better reassuring, saying it aloud, and not just for Steve's sake.)

"Okay," Steve repeats. "What specifically is bothering you?"

"If you want sex or foreplay, bases, whatever you want to call it, you don't need to do things for me. Just ask. If that's something you like, to be rewarded with those things, that's okay, but I would like to know now."

"It doesn't need to be a reward. And I don't think it's necessarily better if it is. I just didn't know another way to ask." Steve smiles sheepishly, running a hand through his hair.

"Ask however you want," Bruce tells him firmly. "The point of them is something for you."

"They are for me," Steve says firmly.

Bruce blinks at Steve.

"I like doing things for you. I like getting a chance to do them for you. I, well, I don't know a good way to explain it, but getting to do things like give you handjobs or organize things or make you food or whatever you want really, it--" Steve cuts off, glancing away, swallowing as he recomposes himself. "I like it a lot. I like you telling me what to do, the look you get in your eye; using, that's the word, isn't it? Using me for what you want." He glances at Bruce again. "Sure, it's for you, but it's for me, too."

Bruce turns this over, adds it to what he knows. It makes sense, built on everything prior in their relationship--Steve wanting things to do for Bruce, the rewards he'd asked for so far. 

"How far do you want to go tonight?" Bruce asks.

"I didn't wait until you came to your rooms all day for a quick kiss, that's for sure." Steve grins, cocksure and charming.

"How far?" Bruce asks again, pitching his voice sharp and low. "Explicitly. Don't make me ask you again."

Steve straightens at the change.

"I want to suck you off, sir, and anything else you want."

"Half-right. You're assuming what I want again."

Steve swallows, tilting his head back some. Bruce considers him, leaning forward to be closer to where Steve is sitting on the floor.

(What he wants is Steve with hair touseled, needy and begging to be used, muscle drawstring tight under his skin, blue eyes glazed and pupils blown wide. Parted lips and come-stained and--)

"Do you know what I want, Steve?" he asks, voice low.

Steve shakes his head; Bruce raises an eyebrow--Steve knows that Bruce wants a verbal response unless stated otherwise--and Steve quickly says:

"No, sir."

"Then how do you know that you want it, Steve?"

This--this feels like something raw buzzed under his skin, but not anger, just pleasure and annoyance and a rush of emotions that need to be tamed, tightly tamed, as Bruce waits on Steve to respond.

"Details," Steve says softly, lips red and damp from his chewing on the bottom. "You take care of details. We've talked over things I'd like to try or that sound good, I trust you to use that. I want what you want, it--it makes me feel like.... I want this, with you, and the rest, Bruce, is all details to me."

Bruce buries a hand in Steve's hair and pulls his head up, their faces inches apart.

"You promise me," Bruce says, voice rough, "you promise me that if you need to stop you will tell me. Promise me."

"I promise."

Bruce tugs Steve's hair sharply, chest aching, half-wanting to smother him in kisses.

"This detail, this is yours and don't you dare let it slip. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Bruce."

Bruce rests his forehead against Steve's for a moment, draws in a shakey breath, then loosens his grip on Steve's hair and strokes. Another breath, then he pulls back, pressing a chaste kiss to Steve's head.

"Strip and get on your knees. I want to look at you." He gets up, turning on his heel and going to his bedroom.

When he comes back, Steve has done as asked, bottom lip caught between his teeth and looking down. His pale skin is flushed pink with the early signs of embarassment from his face partway down his chest, all pleasing lines that Bruce follows to Steve's half-hard erection. Perhaps the only real sign of his nervousness, though, is in his hands--clenched tight and white-knuckled--and the dart of his eyes to Bruce.

(It's mouth-watering, how tight and tense Steve gets just before they do anything, confessed anticipation and anxiety swirled together, because the need to do things right is so twined into Steve, and here's Bruce able to take that tension, wind it up, and then have it release, all because of him.)

Bruce doesn't say anything to make Steve relax, instead circling behind him, running the tips of his fingers across Steve's shoulders, admiring the way the muscles twitch. After circling back around, Bruce begins to rearrange Steve: tilts his head up slightly, pushes his shoulders back, smooths the fists so that Steve's palms are pressed to the tops of his thighs. Steve's cock is hard, head glistening with the slightest bit of precome at the attention, but Bruce takes care to only let his fingertips ghost along the inside of Steve's hips as he crouches down, light presses to get Steve to settle with his legs spread wider.

"Don't move unless I tell you," Bruce tells him, examining Steve. "I want you exactly like this."

With his head tilted back, Steve's swallow is clear, as clear as the shiver that runs through him at the words 'I want.'

Bruce leans forward and drags his teeth into Steve's throat, letting his tongue drag over the skin and feel the vibrations of Steve's whimper, before he withdraws and stands once more.

Retrieving the muffin where he left it on the arm of the couch, Bruce tears off a piece--exactly, he knows, the portion that Steve prefers in a bite.

"You didn't ask to feed me. If you're particularly good, perhaps I'll let you anyway." Bruce grins some at the faint tensing of muscles in Steve's neck, stopped before he actually nods. "No moving, I know you can, Steve." He offers the piece of muffin to Steve. "Eat."

Steve grazes his teeth over his fingers; Bruce only raises an eyebrow, but he doesn't tell Steve to stop. He encourages it, in little ways--lingering slightly, brush of thumb over Steve's bottom lip when he pulls his hand away, soft smiles when Steve gets a little more bold and sucks at his fingertips, low press of arousal in his gut at how willing Steve is to try to please even when he can't move. He watches how the tension Steve had been holding himself with eases, relaxing into the position Bruce has placed him, blue eyes soft and dazed, pupils dark.

Halfway through, Bruce sets the muffin aside and reaches for his water.

This, a little more interesting--he hasn't given Steve anything to drink before, and some of it spills down his chin before they find a balance. Bruce wipes it away, leans down, and kisses an apology, hand cradling the bottom of Steve's jaw.

"Very good, Steve," he murmurs, pleased thrill on his nerves as Steve hums, just barely catching himself before he moves. He considers for a moment, then adds, "You can speak, too."

"Thank you, sir," Steve whispers.

Bruce kneels down in front of Steve, running his hands over the planes of Steve's chest, admiring as he teases one of Steve's nipples. Steve makes a soft noise, head dropping slightly so his eyes can follow Bruce before he freezes, trembling.

Bruce sighs and tilts Steve's head back up with one hand.

(Nevermind that the challenge in this for Steve isn't staying still so much as not seeing, because oh how Steve enjoys to watch. Mirrors, Bruce thinks, another time, when he has more warning.)

"You can do better than that, Steve," he says, disappointment in his voice.

"Yes, sir."

"Then do," he snaps, pinching and twisting Steve's nipple. Steve shudders, cock twitching, more precome leaking from the head, but he doesn't drop his head, doesn't move his hands. "Better." Bruce catches Steve's throat between his teeth again, biting and sucking (marking, because Steve is his, and how Steve wants that) a lazy chain to his collarbone. Steve makes a soft noise, half-whimper, half-lust, but he doesn't move again.

"Much better," Bruce tells him, letting a smile enter his voice.

"Thank you, sir."

"Do you know why I want you still?" Bruce drags his fingers down Steve's stomach, settling his hands at Steve's hips and grazing his nails into the skin.

"Because you said so, sir."

Bruce draws a half moon with his thumb at the top of Steve's hip and watches how Steve's thighs spasm, cock twitching.

"A little because of that. Perhaps I'll tell you the rest." He hums, tracing down the inside of Steve's hips, scratching lightly with his nails as he draws back up.

"I'm going to jerk you off," he tells Steve, matter-of-fact. He reaches up, tilting Steve's head down so he can see (a reward, because this is ultimately about that, isn't it, Steve figuring out his tastes finally), satisfaction electric in his spine at how glassy Steve's eyes are. "You will ask permission to orgasm."

When Steve doesn't answer, he digs his nails in deeper, near painful.

"Yes, sir," Steve whispers, voice hoarse.

"Good boy." Bruce pulls Steve down to kiss him, one hand at the back of his neck--gentle, slow and easy. "Very good," he murmurs against Steve's lips. "I know you won't disappointment me, will you?"

"N--nngh." Steve cuts off; Bruce only smiles, easy and kind, continuing to roll Steve's balls in his hand.

"Steve, I asked you a question," Bruce says, voice mild, reveling in how taut Steve is now, the barely restrained movement with only words to keep him tame.

"N-no," Steve gasps, eyes closed tightly.

"That's what I thought." Bruce removes both his hands, reaching in his pocket for the lube he got from the bedroom. Steve half-sobs, eyes flicking open again. "Not going anywhere, Steve. I'm right here." He kisses Steve, showing him the lube in his hands.

Steve draws a ragged breath, eyes closing again; Bruce smiles wider, seeing how Steve is trying not to lean forward and into him, trying to gather himself back together.

"Do you know what I want?" Bruce asks, rubbing lube on his hand to warm it.

"Me not to move, sir."

Bruce drags his thumb along the vein on the underside of Steve's cock, from base to head, before wrapping his hand around the width, squeezing slightly. Steve lets out a garbled string of swears, eyes opening again and focusing on Bruce's hand as Bruce starts to stroke.

"Watch," Bruce says. "I know you like to watch, don't you, Steve?"

The tendons of Steve's neck stand in sharp relief before he manages not to nod, eyes slipping half-closed but still focused downward.

"Yessir."

"Do you like this? Harder, tighter, looser?" Bruce keeps his voice level, shifting slightly to ease some of the pressure of his own erection.

Steve's eyes flick up to look at his face, then down again, flush spread down his chest.

"Whatever you want," Steve says, voice rough and low. "Please."

Bruce stops, moving his hands to rest on Steve's thighs, digging in with his nails until Steve hisses.

"And if I want that?" Bruce says. "What then, Steve? I'm asking you because what I want--" Steve shudders again at the word "--is to break you apart."

"I'm sorry, sir."

"Don't be. If I ask you a question, I want an answer, and I want you not to assume what I want. You know this. I've told you this before."

"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. Won't forget again, sir."

"Don't disappoint me, Steve," Bruce says softly, smoothing his hands down the marks he's left in Steve's thighs. "You're so very good for me, I know you can do this." He wraps his hand back around Steve's cock, slow strokes again. "Now, like this? Explicilty, Steve, you know I like how you blush even though you want this."

It's a cheap, but Bruce isn't above being cheap, not right now.

"Faster, sir, please, and tighter, yes, yes, sir, like that, sir, please, please--" Steve cuts off, biting his lip as Bruce adjusts, shuddering and trembling, low cry caught in his throat. Bruce thumbs the head of his cock, swiping over the slit, smiling as Steve struggles desperately to stay still, to not buck up, to not curl his hands into fists.

"All that strength," he murmurs, "still because I want it to be."

"Sir," Steve chokes out, "please."

"Please what?" Bruce asks, hot and sweating himself despite how little he's needed to do, arousal a bright thing driving anger and hurt and everything else away.

"Please can I, Bruce, sir, please."

Bruce squeezes gently, dipping his other hand to stroke against Steve's perineum.

"Can you what, Steve?" Bruce asks, voice feigning disinterest despite how dry his mouth is.

"Come, sir, may I, please, want to--"

Bruce debates stopping, debates going still and leaving Steve just like this--spasms, shudders, glazed blues eyes heavy-lidded and begging and trying to stay still, perfect, entirely at Bruce's mercy, under his control with only a few words and that oh so heady rush.

(Or to push, to force Steve over an edge without permission, and the particularly delicious hue of Steve's shame--)

"Bruce," Steve begs, tears leaking from the corners of his eyes.

Bruce strokes faster, slides his thumb along the head of Steve's cock to smear precome, moving his other hand up to grab a fistful of Steve's hair and yank his head down, closer, breath rough against Steve's ear, words sharp and pitched low.

"Come on, then, Steve," dragging the name across his tongue, "come for me, right now, but remember to be still," and a sharp tug of hair to emphasize with a twist of wrist has Steve sobbing, broken apart, every ounce of him straining and tensed in Bruce's hands, the warm spill of come on Bruce's skin and across his shirt.

Bruce removes his hand, splays the messy palm against Steve's stomach, feels the muscles flutter, watches how Steve is still shaking and trying so very desperately to stay in the awkward pose on his knees, head twisted where Bruce has caught his hair, eyes so glazed over someone else might think him drugged, rough breath and pant and worldess whine in his throat and thinks mine, thinks I did that, thinks I'm not ever letting you go.

"You can move," Bruce says as he settles back more comfortably on heels, letting go.

And there, the last of Steve's control melts. Bruce braces himself as Steve presses his forehead against Bruce's neck, arms wrapping around Bruce's chest and drawing himself around his smaller form. His nose runs along Bruce's neck, breathing him in, and Bruce can feel Steve's lashes brush against his skin, face and still damp with tears.

He presses a chaste kiss to the side of Steve's shoulder.

"Very good, Steve," he murmurs, running his finger tips along Steve's back and sides, marveling at how loose Steve is now, deliciously pliant in Bruce's arms, all of his tensions drawn out of him. Steve's reply is a slur, speech before speech, and Bruce chuckles a little at the incoherence.

(This--he loves this.)

For a few interminable minutes, they stay this way--Steve pressing into Bruce's warmth, Bruce simply holding him, ignoring the sharp arousal tugging at the base of his spine. When Steve twitches, Bruce runs his hands across his skin and Steve calms, breathing growing even and soft once more.

"I'm going to move to the couch," Bruce says, "and I'm going to guide you where I want." Short shiver at the words 'I want;' Bruce smiles a little.

Bruce begins to untangle himself from Steve's arms, easing himself back towards the couch.

(His mind helpfully conjures up the image of Steve bent over the arm of it, chest pressed to the material and gripping tightly, the press of Steve's hips into his hands, before Bruce pushes it away. They have time, and that doesn't need to be tonight.)

One hand, he keeps on Steve--his arm, shoulder, hair, just some form of contact, little more than brush of his fingertips to guide; Steve doesn't need anything else. He follows, hands and knees without being told, eyes focused on Bruce as Bruce settles onto the couch and spreads his legs.

"Come on," Bruce says, quick tug of hair, and Steve leans up, hands rucking Bruce's shirt up and pressing his face into the skin beneath. Bruce chuckles a little and lets Steve rub his face before pressing down with one hand, bucking his hips up so Steve can feel the press of his erection. Steve's eyes dart up, deep flush staining his cheeks even as he licks his lips, and Bruce gives a lop-sided grin.

"This is what you want, isn't it?" Bruce says. "Don't be shy now, Steve. Go on." Another second, and he thinks Steve might not, or try to back away--and he could, of course he could--but then Steve's hands are at his belt, shakey and undoing his pants, and Bruce breathes-hisses relief at the pressure easing off his erection, keeping one hand in Steve's hair, torn between leaning his head back and watching Steve.

Watching Steve wins. Of course it does.

Because for all his intial hesitation, Steve is eager, unknowing groan slipping from his throat as he runs his nose along Bruce's cock through his boxers, open-mouthed kisses that press heat through Bruce like a bolt, make his arousal a sharp spike driven straight into his spine and brain, and Steve's pupils are blown wide, sliver of ice-blue at the edges as his eyes dart up to take in Bruce's reaction, supplicant and begging and is this good enough and Bruce thinks he's going to come apart, just like this, before Steve even gets his mouth on him.

(He won't. He has control of himself, and he pushes it away, because Steve had requested this, explicitly, and it's a reward and a deal that he won't go back on.)

Steve's hands are calloused as he gets Bruce's cock free of his boxers, the head already slick with precome. Bruce half-opens his mouth to reassure Steve, to say something, because Steve is hesitating again, and then Steve runs his nose along the bottom before wrapping his mouth around the head, sucking and tonguing at his slit, one hand wrapping tight around the base and Steve definitely at least has an idea what Steve wants. Bruce exhales in a harsh rush, hands digging tight into blond hair, trying to keep from bucking up into the heat and wet.

Worse (better)(best) is that Steve learns, rapidly as he does anything else, eyes flicking up to watch Bruce's face, clearly listening for which swipe of his tongue drags a stuttering breath, how much suction gets Bruce to shudder, hands exploring and touching and mapping. Added to his eagerness, his desire to please, Bruce feels like he's coming entirely undone.

"Jesus, Steve, look at you," Bruce cards his other hand through Steve's hair, babbling and rolling his hips up. "You've been aching to do this, I had no idea, why didn't you say anything, do you have any idea what you look like." He tightens his hands as Steve swallows more, eager and sloppy and perfect. "Just like this, you on your knees, mouth on my cock, that's what I want, Steve," and Steve moans around his cock at the word, saliva slipping out his mouth and down Bruce's length, over-eager and trying to swallow more than he can, choking and a half-sob slipping out of his throat as he pulls back.

"No, don't be, not a competition, you're doing fine," Bruce says, running his hands through Steve's hair, "come on Steve, you're beautiful, you don't need to--fuck--"

He shudders, letting his head fall back against the couch as Steve tries to take his entire cock again, letting his eyes close, reveling in the feeling of Steve swallowing around him, eager and desperate noises vibrating through his cock because Steve is noisy and needy and everything Bruce could ever want. He forces his eyes open, watches through slits as Steve sucks and licks, one of his hands white-knuckled in Steve's hair.

"Steve," Bruce manages to rasp, warning at the bloom of white in his spine (because Steve hasn't done this before, might not want to swallow, is strong enough to pull back) even as his hands grip tighter

(beneath his hands, Steve goes still)

until Bruce is slack against the couch, eyes closed, hands relaxing their hold as Steve eases back

(the wet sound of Steve licking his lips)

and rests against Bruce's thigh.

Bruce opens his eyes to look at Steve, brushing through Steve's hair with one hand. There's come at the corner of his mouth, unnoticed, and Bruce wipes it away with his thumb; it gets him a small, embarrassed glow of a smile.

"You are going to ruin me," Bruce tells him, but he smiles as he does it, because there's no better way to be ruined than this. Steve hums, eyes closing and leaning into Bruce's touch. "Get what you want?"

Steve only nods. Bruce lets it slide because he has what he wants, too: Steve, utterly relaxed and unworried, entirely trusting. Purely Steve, not a drop of Captain America's reserve and control left because he doesn't need it.

"Good," Bruce murmurs, closing his eyes. Now that he can think again, he starts to run through what to do next--clean up, order food, rest. Possibly rest. Steve might not need rest. "I'm going to order food."

XXXXXX

Natasha passes by the front door and heads to a side one, snorting as she sees a delivery driver. Tapas, if she doesn't miss her guess (Natasha rarely misses her guess)--Tony, most likely, who has no qualms about being overly indulgent.

"Agent Romanoff," Jarvis greets as she steps into the private elevator, smooth and unobtrusive as ever. "The common floor?"

Natasha thinks for a moment. It’s been four months she was last here, and her mind is still shifting gears from undercover op to normal life.

At the very least she can see what Steve's been baking for Banner before she gets clean and refocuses away from the team.

The common room is deserted at this hour--not because it is late, but because without a movie night, most of them wander to their respective floors. Natasha is in some ways counting on it; until she's had some time to get used to the rustles of the team once more, she'd prefer not trying to kill any of them.

A few minutes later, and the main elevator goes off. She ignores it, unpeeling the muffin.

(Cranberry-lemon--interesting. Steve has a strong sweet tooth, and for all the food Steve has made Banner, much of it she's observed has stuck more to Steve's tastes. Not that she's complaining.)

"You're back."

Natasha takes a bite of the muffin, raising an eyebrow as she looks at Banner, and then reholsters her gun. Banner, to his credit, doesn't look phased by having a gun drawn on him; more curious is that he was apparently the one to have tapas delivered.

Banner is many things, but extravagant is not one of them. She can count on one hand the number of times he's made use of Tony's standing offer to get food delivered no matter where it's from.

"A good trip?" Banner leaves the food at the end of the counter, easing his way around the kitchen to get two glasses, every move telegraphed. His hair is damp.

"Well enough."

"Right then. Have a good night." He smiles, and then there's the soft pad of his feet as he leaves.

Natasha considers what she has observed as she finishes the muffin. Bruce prefers to shower in the morning, but he had clearly taken one now. Food ordered in, extravagant in a way he never is for himself. Two glasses, and how loose his shoulders were.

She eyes the last bite of muffin.

This is very much to Bruce's taste.

How about that.