In his travels, Bruce had heard a story about Muhammad and a cat. At one point the cat fell asleep on Muhammad's arm and rather than wake the beloved feline, Muhammad had cut off his sleeve. The story did not suggest what would have happened had Muhammad not been wearing long sleeves at the time.
Both of Bruce’s arms had gone numb. At some point in the night, Tony had rolled over in his sleep, pinning most of Bruce’s left side under his heavy frame. Normally, sleeping as he did on the right side of the bed Bruce could slip out with a tuck and roll maneuver that would leave Tony comfortable and still asleep. Of course, it left Bruce with very little dignity, but it wasn't as if he had an overabundance of that left anyway.
No, the real issue was Pepper. After a frankly mind blowing and surprisingly tender night with Tony, they had given up on her ever coming home and fallen asleep where they lay. Pepper must have crawled into bed very late, taking up her usual post on the left, not realizing that her more restless lover had migrated to the middle of the bed. She was sleeping spooned up to his side as she usually did to Tony, her head resting on his shoulder. It was sweet and warm and Bruce had no idea how Tony didn’t roll her off every night in favor of being able to feel his fingers.
“Magnify sixty degrees.” Tony mumbled into Bruce’s chest.
“You’re not helping.” Bruce sighed. He supposed he could just roll them both off, but neither of them were heavy sleepers. It was early yet. Tony could always use more sleep and Pepper had probably only come to bed an hour or two ago.
What would Muhammad do?
Probably not have two lovers for one. So. That’s a closed line of questioning.
What would Pepper do?
Probably shove them both off. She was straightforward like that. And used to Tony taking more than he needed as if he were going into some kind of love hibernation and had to stock up on affection.
He shifted experimentally. A furrow gathered between Pepper’s eyes. Bruce froze. The furrow smoothed out.
Bruce played dead. Falling back to sleep was doomed to failure. Years of living on the run had geared him to an unprecedented level of sensitivity to noise and motion. He no longer woke up peacefully. When he came to it was always immediate, adrenaline coursing through him. Just minutes ago, he’d woken frantic by the press of weight against him, only relaxing when he determined his predicament to be beloved bodies and not chains.
Really, there wasn’t anything wrong per se about having a little bit of a lie in. Meticulously, he relaxed every muscle in his body one by one. Except for his arms which had long ago passed relaxed into possible amputation. With careful counting, he evened out his breathing and sunk into the null space that meditation provided.
He thought of nothing.
He was one with the universe.
No one and nothing mattered. There was only the breath.
He had to piss.
No. No. No thoughts. The body was an obedient vessel. He floated away from the pressures of demanding flesh.
“I used to be better at this.” He whispered to Tony, who grunted in agreement. Tony could attend board meetings effectively while asleep.
He lay still a while longer, staring up at the smooth cream of the ceiling. Not a single crack or dent. He’d never lived anywhere else with a perfect ceiling. Everything about living with Tony and Pepper was new. It threw him off center all the time, even all these months later. He still wondered if he should leave.
Not for Pepper and Tony’s stake. He had enough self-esteem to accept that they cared about him and that going would hurt them worse than staying. No, it came from a purely selfish space where running and hiding were easier than standing still and dealing. They wanted things from him. Commitment, affection, honesty...all things he had once willingly given without thought. Now he trembled at the permanence. What it meant about the things he would have to forgive in himself and the type of person he’d become.
He shifted minutely, this time to pull Pepper closer. The previously annoying pressure of her on his arm turned comforting. Pepper understood him. She knew impotent rage all too well, hidden neatly behind pressed suits and dangerously high heels. People underestimated her because she was a woman, because she slept with Tony Stark. And there was some joy in proving them wrong, but it wore on her day after day. Sometimes she would sit in the dark of her home office, listening to whale song and throwing a tennis ball against the wall until Tony dared to breach the perimeter to make her laugh or bring her a drink.
Tony didn’t understand as well as he thought he did. There was a canyon of difference between self-destruction and massive destruction. Tony turned his anger inward, tearing at the roots of himself until he bled. It was ugly to watch and difficult to stop. Even Pepper hadn’t quite mastered it, resorting to a sort of nagging robot leaving him gifts of food and data.
Bruce had watched them together for weeks before being invited into their bed. They orbited around each other, synchronized and bantering until their patter made up the background noise of Bruce's life. It wasn’t until he was inside their relationship that he realized how intertwined they really were. The intensity of their co-dependency scared him. It wasn’t as if he could match it. It took too many years and terrible things to bind people together like that.
“Full screen.” Tony mumbled against his collarbone. “Install delay.”
Bruce couldn’t ever be a part of what Tony and Pepper were to each other. It was too private, too sensitive and too threatening. It was a room full of sudden noises and sharp things. Only recently had he begun to think that they didn’t want him to be. That they liked him more neutral and softer. A quiet harbor when they’re shared intensity imploded in on itself.
He couldn’t afford to love anyone the way they loved each other. But he could make his own way and show it in his fashion and that seemed to be enough. Which was a great revelation to have and maybe it was worth losing both his arms to gain it. Or maybe not.
“Blow on her forehead,” said Tony, “works everytime.”
“Are you actually awake?” Bruce asked, but Tony offered nothing back. Not even a twinge of a repressed smile.
Tony had given worse advice. Gently, Bruce blew a stream of air against Pepper’s forehead, stirring her hair until she wrinkled her nose in annoyance. And rolled over. Praise be to Tesla. Moving Tony after that was relatively simple and Bruce escaped to the bathroom for a long, satisfying piss.
Bladder emptied and the pins and needles feeling finally leaving his fingers, he admired them from the bathroom doorway. Tony had taken the removal of Bruce’s warmth personally, scooting across the bed to soak up whatever remained and tugging Pepper into a death grip. The alarm clock glowed ‘6:05’ in angry red letters from the bedside table.
Early. Early enough to do something special. He slipped into the walk-in closet to pluck a clean shirt and jeans from his handful of hangers. Pepper and Tony both bought him clothes at odd intervals as if he wouldn’t catch on to them if they staggered their efforts. He understood, even appreciated, the attempt, but he liked his comfortable old things. New fabrics scratched his skin and never fit quite right. He tried to avoid irritation when he could. Hulking out over a new pair of khakis was highly unlikely, but being careful was its own reward.
There was a farmer’s market not far from the Tower. Nothing exciting, just a huddle of stalls on a basketball court with enough fresh produce to make him happy. JARVIS could get anything at any time of day, but Bruce liked walking through the early hours of the city before it all became too loud and hot. Most days he spent safely enshrined in the home Tony had built like armor around the Avengers.
“Hi, Dr. Banner!” Lydia, a curvy mess of a girl with brilliant green hair, waved him over. “I was hoping you’d come today. Look, what I’ve got!”
She produced two gorgeous mangos.
“You didn’t grow these.” He held one to his nose and smiled.
“Nope.” She agreed. “I bought them off a friend who got a crate around customs. They’re not quite legal to ship to America. That’s why none of the ones you’ve had here taste the same.”
“You didn’t have to go through the trouble.” He had told her about his mango issue over slices of peach, pressed into his palm when he lingered over her stall. There was something refreshingly young and if not innocent, then at least uncynical about her.
“No trouble. Sticking it to the Man always feels good, right?” She laughed as if it were a joke and he paid her double what the mangos probably cost her. It was good to have money again, something solid he could offer in exchange for her casual kindness.
The rest of his shopping was less personable, but netted him honey, bright strawberries, goat cheese and figs. The sun shone in earnest as he made his way home, sending up all the tangled steamy smells of the city in summer. Somewhere in the distance a horn honked, then another until a chorus rose up around him.
Cold air and silence greeted him with the swift closure of the Tower’s front doors.
“Was your shopping successful?” JARVIS asked as he walked to elevator.
“Yeah, fine thanks. Are Pepper and Tony awake?”
“No, sir. However, Mr. Stark’s breathing patterns indicate that he will not be asleep much longer.”
“How long do I have?”
“An estimated twenty minutes, sir.”
When he reached the kitchen, the first thing he did was take off his shoes. He liked the feel of the tile against his bare feet. Home meant not being worried about stepping on glass or rusty nails. Most of the time. Alien attacks and Tony inspired explosions aside.
He set to slicing the mango as wafer thin as he could manage then doted the slices with goat cheese, rolling and spearing them through with a strawberry laden toothpick. He drizzled the honey over all of it and piled the figs in the middle.
It wasn’t cooking per se, but it was too hot to turn on the oven.
He carried the platter up the stairs with steady hands. JARVIS had been at work in the bedroom, the curtains parted to let in a sliver of sun over the bed. Tony had turned onto his back with Pepper curled up in her usual position, head firmly on the right shoulder. Her breath whistled through her nose.
Bruce set the tray on Tony’s bedside table, shoving aside reading glasses, a half filled glass of green sludge and a tablet with a lock screen picture of Clint wrapped in a fuzzy blanket dotted with sheep looking hungover.
“Ugh.” Tony said, eyes slitting open. “What?”
“Breakfast.” Bruce slid back into bed, leaning into for a kiss. Tony obliged without lifting his head from the pillow. “Sleep well?”
“Until someone wiggled out of bed like it was on fire.”
“Mm.” Tony’s eyes closed again, but his body thrummed with suppressed energy. He wouldn’t be horizontal for much longer.
“...quiet.” Pepper mumbled, pulling the blanket over her head.
“You heard the lady. Keep me quiet, Banner.”
Bruce put a strawberry between Tony’s lips, watching him chew carefully and somehow swallow without choking.
“I’ve had practice.” Tony winked, rubbing idly at Pepper’s back.
Bruce lay back down, the prospect of getting back into bed not as daunting as staying in the first place. It wasn’t as if the food would get cold. Tony wrapped his free arm around him.
“How do you not lose all sensation in your arms?” He asked, rubbing his nose along the strong curve of Tony’s shoulder. He smelled like sweat, machine oil and sex.
“I do. I just don’t care.” He could feel Tony’s shrug. “I like having you close.”
Bruce considered that while Pepper’s nose whistled and Tony seemed to drift back to sleep.
Later, when they were all actually awake, he would feed Pepper the mango and she would lick the honey from his fingers. Maybe they would have sex in the way they’d started to since she’d told him, quietly in a crowded room, that she loved him. Maybe Tony would stay and share it with them. What he could say for sure was that today he would tell them that he was staying. This was home.
Because Bruce wasn’t Muhammad. He was the cat. And there was something glorious about being loved like that.