Interlude

I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself.

She stands on the sidewalk at the corner of 110th and Amsterdam and looks up. There is a single light on in the fifth floor corner apartment. The kitchen, she thinks, and tastes again the tiramisu on her lips and the helpless bemusement in her own heart. He made me tiramisu, she'd thought, and something inside her had torn a little. He could have had no idea of what the gesture really meant to her – no one could have; not even the most persistent of the psychs at SHIELD – but as she'd looked up again, at his anxious, nervously smiling eyes and taut, hopeful mouth, she'd had the sudden urge to tell him. To tell him… everything, not because he was not-that-kind-of-doctor, but because he'd bothered, dammit.

When was the last time someone had really bothered, for Agent Maria Hill?

She couldn't remember. Or rather she could, and…

She'd pushed the thought down.

"It looks delicious," she'd said. Lied. "How did you know?'

"I did my research," he'd said, the taut mouth tilting up a little at the corners, before the smile ducked into cautious hiding again. She'd given him a Look. He'd braced himself. "Ichloss told me."

"Did he.'

"Yeah. We spar together sometimes."

"Mentally or physically?" she'd had to ask. The smile snuck out again, looking a little more reassured.

"Emotionally," he'd said. "If you can call it that. He's a nice man. Good to talk to. He…" He'd paused. "He understands. You know. About certain things.'

She hadn't known, and looks curious. He'd looked down at his bare feet, clean and scrubbed, and thankfully pale.

"His partner," he'd said, and she could have kicked herself. Ichloss' life partner – soul mate, really, if you wanted to get sappy, and absolutely accurate – had been killed in the line of duty. In Harlem. The Other Guy hadn't yet arrived on the scene when it had happened, but Bruce Banner, no matter whether he was wearing his scrubs or purple stretch pants, still and obviously took every death that occurred that night personally.

Very, very personally.

"Ah," she'd said, and then, anxiously, in spite of herself… "He doesn't blame you, does he?'

"No," Banner had said, and that was all. She'd looked down at the pan of tiramisu again. It looked… Frankly, it looked disgusting. Everything necessary was there, that was obvious, and quite probably delectable, but that didn't make it any prettier.

"It's a metaphor," he'd said helpfully as he'd watched her examine it.

"Uh?

"I made it like that on purpose."

"You did? Why?'

"Because I'm an unsubtle man with a subtle mind," he'd said. "And I like to remind myself – and other people - of it now and again?'

She'd sat on the stool opposite, placing the DVD on the table between them.

"I'm scared," she'd said bluntly. He'd wrapped his feet around the stool and offered her one of the two her spoons next to the pan.

"Yeah," he'd said. "Me too. You did shred my roses after all."

"They were my roses by then," she'd said. "Mine to do with what I wanted.'

'So you ran them through the industrial SHIELD-approved blender?'

"It wasn't you," she said. "It was them.'

"I'm having an unsubtle moment," he'd said, as she'd not-elaborated. "You're going to have to explain."

"I don't know if I can," she'd said. "I just…" She'd looked down at the tiramisu again. "I don't like roses. I never have.' There was more to it, of course, a lot more, but she wasn't ready to share that yet.

"A rose is a rose," he said after a moment. "And was always a rose.'

"Mm?'

"Robert Frost," he'd said, and at her bemused look, the smile came out of full lurk, and took centre stage, and bowed in a most gentlemanly manner, and Agent Maria Hill had actually put her hand to her mouth as the quiet tousled man sitting on the stool opposite her offered her a spoon to go with the tiramisu and began to recite Robert Frost at her.

The rose is a rose, he'd quoted.
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple's a rose,
And the pear is, and so's
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose -
But were always a rose.

"Roses aren't subtle," she'd managed, barely containing her tears as he'd trailed to a half. "And they're ordinary. Are you calling me ordinary, Banner?'

"No," he'd said. "And for the record, I don't. Think they're ordinary, I mean. Especially when they come in human form. So why did you shred them? Decontamination would have been quite enough to send the pointed message, and that obviously wasn't your aim, bio-protocols aside, since you're sitting here now.'

Agent Hill grimaced.

"I shredded them because I'd expected - hoped for – more," she'd said. "Roses are something Thor would send, or Stark.'

"You have to start somewhere. And the marigolds haven't bloomed yet," he said. "Give them time. Gamma rays give you a boost, but the side-effects sometimes need a little working-around, and the moon's not full yet at any rate."

"Oh my God," she'd said, and buried her face in her hands. He'd reached out and pulled them away.

"Come on," he'd said. "I left it in the baking pan for a reason. Easier to eat while you're watching the movie, and I never feel quite so much the pig if I go through the whole thing, because as long as it is in the one pan, it's still technically one serving.'

She'd had to laugh, and retrieving the DVD, had followed him into the living room. Into the living room, where the half-finished Death Star sat on the coffee table, and he'd put the DVD in and tucked his feet up, and reached for the remote, and she'd settled the pan of tiramisu between them, and reaching out, had nicked a bit with her spoon, and taken a cautious taste…

Her eyes had widened almost comically. Looking sideways, he'd actually grinned at her expression.

"What the fuck," she'd said, and hauled the pan over, and began to shovel. "What the fuck, Banner? You made this?'

"I'm a scientist," he'd said, sliding over and dipping in with his own spoon, licked it clean. "Good in the lab, the kitchen, and any and everywhere else that requires chemistry. And rising agents, incidentally.'

Agent Maria Hill had nearly spit out her dessert. She rescued the mouthful at the very last moment, thankfully; it was far too good to waste on surprise.

"You're supposed to be shy and retiring!" she'd managed, after another six sustaining mouthfuls. "And proper!"

'I am," he said. "But there are those side effects to deal with on occasion.'

And he hadn't been able to stop herself; she'd leaned over and kissed him, catching him off guard with it… And for one moment, just one moment….

Then the moment had exploded, and the Death Star along with it, and the metaphor there wasn't subtle at all, was it?

Not subtle at all, after all.

Back in the present, she hesitates, hand raised.

I'm scared, she'd said.

Yeah, he'd said. Me too.

Maria Hill looks down at herself, and then, before she can stop herself, knocks. The door opens quietly, and almost immediately. Banner stands there, the pale gold light from the kitchen – the only light in the apartment that he's turned on – glowing faintly behind him. She says nothing, for a long moment. He leans against the door frame, waiting.

"May I come in," she manages finally.

"Sure," he says, and straightening, stands aside. She steps in, and turns to face him.

"Agent Romanoff is right," she says. "I'm an idiot.'

"Did she call you that?'

"She didn't have to. She implies quite well, and I filled in the rest of the blanks on my own."

"You're not an idiot. You have a healthy sense of self-preservation is all." He shoves his hands in his pockets. "It's a good thing to have, around me.'

"I don't…"

He raises his hand.

"It is," he said. "The Other Guy isn't going anywhere, after all. There are three people in this room right now, Maria, and it does no good to ignore the elephant in the corner besides. He outweighs it."

She examines his face and sits on the arm of the sofa.

"Can I talk to him?' she asks. Bruce blinks at her.

"He's right here,' he says. "He never really goes away. So… Knock yourself out."

She rises off the sofa and comes to stand beside him, reaching out to touch his cheek. Something behind the brown eyes flares. She shakes her head.

"You're allowed to be angry," she says to him. "It's okay, really. I understand anger. You know I do."

The flare brightens a little… hopefully?

"The fact remains though," Agent Hill continues. "That you're a lot bigger than me. And it's really rude to barge in on someone else's date besides." She catches the flare's Look. "Uh uh. I may be a hard-assed bitch with balls of vibranium, but I'm no easy romantic sell. If you want to court me alongside your buddy here, you're going to have to work for it, and through him. Oh, and for the record? I know damned well the roses were your idea. In case you didn't pick it up earlier, here's an unsubtle hint for you. I fucking hate roses. They're obvious, they're pedantic, they stink, and the only man who ever bought them for me…."

She cuts herself off.

"Nice skirt," Banner says. She blinks at him.

"I'm sorry," she says.

"He likes your skirt,' Banner says. 'Says it looks a lot better on you than it does on Agent Romanoff. Also, for the record? He's colorblind.'

"Huh? What does that have to do with anything?'

"He chose the roses, yes, but he sees them as green, not red." He smiles at her, a little lopsidedly. She stares, mouth half open.

"He understands metaphors?' she manages finally. "Really?'

"Agent Hill," Bruce Banner says patiently "He is a metaphor. As am I, to him."

Agent Hill returns to the mortally wounded sofa again, and sinks down. He comes and sits beside her, standing again briefly to retrieve a random chunk of Death Star from under his hip.

"So what's this plan of Steve's?' he asks after a few moments. 'Do you know?'

"No clue," she says, and revives slightly. "Does he like Fury? The Other Guy, I mean?"

'What do you think?' He slides to the floor, in a sitting position, and reaches for the remote. She eyes him, and gets to her feet, and opens the refrigerator, and returns with two spoons and the second pan of tiramisu. He blinks at her.

"How did you know I made two?' he asks.

"You live with Steve,' she says and handed him a spoon. "And your psyche's on the rag 24/7 besides." She slides down beside him. "Did you know that Agent Romanoff said that if Barton ever made her home-made baklava, she'd marry him and have his babies on the spot?'

"Did she?' He digs into the pan. "Did she say that in front of Sif?'

"Actually yes, she did. Why?'

"Think about it." He grins at her. Agent Hill's eyes widen.

"Can Barton cook?' she asks after a moment. "At all?'

"No," Banner says. "But I couldn't either, when I started out. And no matter what he says, he's not the one with commitment issues.' He licks his spoon. "Her birthday's coming up in a couple of months. I have to say that I'm grateful for her loan of the skirt to you, but she does have a little too much self confidence at times, you know?'

"It would be fun to watch her squirm a bit," Hill concedes "Should we get the others in on it, or consider it a private project?'

"I'm a private man." He feeds her a spoon of tiramisu. "And we're not trying to hurt her in any case. We're trying to fix her.'

"You're such a doctor."

"She's an emotional cripple," Bruce says. "And Barton's no better. And she started it besides.'

"This is true," she concedes again, and leans slightly against his shoulder as he reaches for the remote the second time that night. "Bruce?'

"Mm?'

"Thank you for the coffee mug. Or… Should I be thanking him again?'

"No. That much was my idea. He hates coffee, in its unadulterated form, anyway."

"He does?'

"Mm. It makes him jittery."

"Jittery," she repeats. "And I take it this is a state we want to avoid?'

"Mm."

"Oh well." She reaches over – way over, ignoring, with all sensibility, the suddenly heated, ever-so-slightly green-tinged gaze on her ass - and retrieves the still sealed and piping hot coffee mug from under the armchair opposite. "All the more for me." She unseals it, and pauses. "Wait, hates it, hates it? Even second hand?'

Bruce considers that.

"I don't know," he says. "Probably. He's cringing now, just at the thought of the taste."

"How unfortunate," Maria Hill purrs, and takes a hefty, scorching gulp before gathering up her courage and leaning over to run her Nespresso-scented tongue over Banner's startled lips. "What about you? Are you cringing, Doctor Banner?'

The remote falls to the floor.