Tony doesn’t sleep.
This is something Bruce finds out first hand, as Tony’s lab partner. The man can go days and days, seemingly without any sleep or even any food at all. Bruce is used to erratic sleep schedules, yes, while being on the run. But even then, he still took the opportunity to take a nap and catch up on his sleep whenever possible.
But Tony? No. He just keeps going and going until he runs himself ragged, and then he’ll find a quiet spot somewhere - more often than not curling up against Pepper on the couch - and pass out for a while. From what Bruce has seen, Pepper usually just smiles indulgently, shifts so that both of them are more comfortable, and continues doing whatever she was doing before, which is more paperwork - well, not actual paper, but still - than should be possible for one person to manage.
It’s a scene he’s walked in on quite a number of times since he first came to the tower. The first time it happened, Bruce found it a bit awkward, sensing that he’s intruding into an intimate moment, but neither of them seemed to mind his presence.
Pepper only smiled warmly, gesturing for him to stay. He did, albeit a bit reluctantly, and to his surprise, he found that the silence that enveloped them wasn't the tense, uncomfortable silence that people usually develop around him. Instead, it was a companionable quietness, the kind that only happens with people who are at ease with each other.
It was something that Bruce hadn’t experienced in a while, something he didn't even realise he was missing, until right then. These are the only times Bruce has seen Tony being that quiet, really, when usually he’s all manic energy and unstoppable force. He finds that he works better there, with Tony's quiet breathing and Pepper's solid presence accompanying him as he traces out equations and sketches out plans on the transparent piece of Stark-tablet Tony supplied him with.
Tony didn’t seem to be bothered either. When he woke up, still bleary-eyed and not fully functional yet, he rested his head on Pepper’s shoulder and gave Bruce an easy grin. And that was that. Now, it has become something of a routine, for all three of them. Tony will seek Pepper out, or occasionally Pepper will coax Tony out of his workshop, and they’ll get settled on the couch. Then Bruce will unerringly find his way there, too, and there they stay, in a space that says safe and content, however brief it may be.
So Bruce really isn’t expecting it when one day, Tony drops down next to him and – there is really no other word to describe it - cuddles into him, burying his face in Bruce’s shoulder. Bruce goes stiff for a moment, still not used to being touched so casually by another person. He’s getting better at it; he has to. Tony is apparently a very tactile person, but only around a select few people that for some reason, includes Bruce himself. Still, years of self-imposed isolation is a hard habit to break, and Bruce finds himself staring at Tony’s head, nonplussed, for longer than he cares to admit.
“Uh, Tony? What are you doing?” he asks carefully.
“Shh, ’m sleeping,” Tony mumbles, shifting restlessly against Bruce. “Stop moving, I’m trying to use you as a pillow.”
Huh. Okay then. Bruce alters his position slightly so that his arm isn’t pinned down and drapes it along the back of the couch, allowing Tony to lean against it. He still doesn’t know what to make of this, but heck, they might as well be comfortable while doing it. Soon, Tony’s breathing evens out and his whole body goes loose, more relaxed than Bruce has ever seen him awake.
When Pepper gets back and sees them sprawled on the couch, Tony still asleep and Bruce halfway there himself, she gets a strange little smile on her face, a mixture of cheeky amusement and genuine happiness. Bruce has a feeling that she’s stopping herself from going ‘aww’, but whether it is to tease him or out of real fondness he can’t tell. So he grins at her and shrugs as best he could with his arm still around Tony.
They don’t talk about it, but soon that becomes a routine too. Whenever Pepper’s not around, Bruce is, in Tony’s mind, apparently an acceptable substitute to burrow into for a nap. Bruce still thinks he’s nuts for even wanting him to stay in the Stark Tower, never mind to use him as a pillow.
But Tony is the exception to pretty much every rule in existence, and he projects this kind of persona that says that he’s more eccentric than everyone in the room combined, and that’s without even trying. Strangely, Bruce finds this comforting. He’s sure that that says something about him, and possibly Tony too, but he doesn’t want to examine it too closely just now.
However, just because Tony’s not talking about it, doesn’t mean that Bruce gets to avoid a discussion about it. He’s been it expecting for a while, so when Pepper joins him when he’s having his morning tea, Bruce isn’t that surprised. Thinking about it, that’s the perfect time to have a conversation without Tony, since he normally doesn’t emerge to the general public until the sun is way up in the sky.
“I’m glad you stayed,” Pepper says, smiling at him from across the table. “Not just because of Tony, either, even if it is good to see him get a new friend.”
Bruce nods at her, a tad uncertainly, because he’s not quite used to this yet. Having people who genuinely wanting him to stick around – having friends - is something that hasn’t happened to him a lot, and not just after the other guy either.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re the only halfway normal person in the house,” she continues.
That startles a laugh out of Bruce. “I’m the most normal one here? The guy that turns into a giant green creature when he’s angry. Really?”
Pepper raises her eyebrows at him. “We’ve got a super soldier from the 40s, two master assassins, an alien who claims he’s a demi-god, and well…Tony,” she ticks off. “So, yes, really. Compared to them, a charming scientist with anger issues, even an anthropomorphic green one, is basically a calming influence."
“Charming?” Bruce says, after a few seconds' pause. Because mulling all that over, he thinks that it’s too serious a topic for this early in the morning, and decides to lighten up the situation.
It seems to work, because Pepper huffs out a laugh. “Yes, Doctor Banner, you can be very charming, and I’m sure Tony would agree with me on that.” She reaches out and touches his hair, almost ruffling it, but not quite.
And there it is again. Someone touching him casually, as if it’s no big deal. Tony is one thing; he does reckless things all the time. The explosions that happen on a weekly basis in his lab can testify to that. But this is Pepper, the one who grounds them, that keeps them fed when everybody’s too absorbed to leave the lab, or the gym, or in Hawkeye’s case, the ventilation shafts. So if she believes that, maybe he could, too, in time.
“He trusts you, you know,” Pepper says, as if knowing what he’s thinking. Or maybe he's just easier to read than he thinks. “That’s what the ‘sleeping-on-you’ bit was all about.”
“I don’t know why,” Bruce says softly, because he doesn’t, and right here, in the quietness of the kitchen, he feels safe admitting it.
And Pepper…Pepper just looks at him, and her expression is so unbearably gentle and understanding, and Bruce can see now. He catches a glimpse of Pepper seen through Tony’s eyes, and he gets why the man is head over heels for her.
“He doesn’t sleep easy, after…” she pauses, and takes a deep breath. “After Afghanistan. He hated sleeping alone, even before, and it just got worse after it happened.”
Bruce understands a little bit about that, he thinks. He remembers, at the very start, trying his damnest to not to fall asleep, because any slumber he got was filled with dark shadows and terrifying glimpses of green. “Yeah. I can understand that.”
“I know you do, Bruce,” says Pepper. “And that’s part of why he trusts you, maybe. Not the whole reason, not by a long shot, but perhaps it plays a part, yeah?”
And that’s the moment that Tony chooses to burst into the room. He had come straight from the workshop, Bruce thinks, judging by the amount grease smeared on him. Tony makes a beeline for the coffee-pot, and then leans against the counter.
“Is this a thing now? You two in the morning,” Tony says, grinning slightly. “Why wasn’t I invited?”
“Tony, you’re hardly ever awake in any stretch of time that can be called morning,” Pepper answers, sounding amused. “Anyway, you two work together all day. I’d like to spend some time with him, too. It’s nice.”
“Apparently, I’m a calming influence,” Bruce says dryly, mouth twisting up into a smile.
“Hey, you’re my lab-buddy,” Tony announced, stepping forward to throw his arm around Bruce’s shoulders. “Pepper, stop trying to steal my stuff.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Pepper says, just as wry as anything Bruce can come up with.
Tony’s arm is still slung over Bruce’s shoulders, and he starts to talk about the newest thing he’s working on – some kind of innovation to the Iron Man repulsor beams – and he’s really getting into it, his free arm gesturing wildly. Bruce catches Pepper’s eyes, and he doesn’t miss the significant look she directs at him, or the way she tilts her head in Tony’s direction.
He nods at her, just slightly, to show that he understands what she’s trying to say. See what I mean?
So…trust, huh? He can do that. Right here, with these people, he can. Because they, both separately and together, have inexplicably decided that he is worth protecting, worth believing in. He has lost so many things over the years, but this will not be one of them. He won’t let it be. He’s keeping this, whatever this is, because they all fit together somehow, jagged edges and all. He will bleed to keep this.