Bruce's bones were fire. Cracking, groaning, snapping under the pressure of the machine. Screams ripped from his throat and he thrashed against his restraints. Pain roared through his body. The Other Guy raged in frustration, pounding against the barriers of Bruce's body but trapped in crushing, agonizing flame.
No one was coming for him. He could hear Ross cackling somewhere above him.
“Help me,” Bruce gasped, choking out the words.
Bruce's spine cracked and reknit itself, reformed over and over and over...
Bruce startled awake to the sound of JARVIS calling his name.
“Dr. Banner, you are safe. You are in your quarters. It is 2:37am on November the 3rd.”
Bruce was drenched in sweat, his body tense and achy. His hands shook.
“Thanks, JARVIS.” Slowly, he breathed through in his nose, out through his mouth until his heart calmed.
“Is anyone else awake?”
“Sir is awake in his workshop.”
Bruce stumbled to his feet and into the bathroom. He splashed water on his face, trying to avoid the reflection of his bloodshot eyes, the gray shadows under his eyes, his grey-black curls sticking out in every direction. He threw off his sweaty t-shirt and grabbed a new soft t-shirt from his dresser. He found slippers and a hoodie and headed to the elevator.
“JARVIS, take me down to the workshop.”
“Certainly, Dr. Banner.”
The elevator descended and the doors slid open to blaring music.
“The Clampdown” blasted through the workshop as Tony hummed along, focused on the gauntlet in front of him. Screwdrivers, wrenches, hammers, and drills surrounded him, scattered across the table. JARVIS turned down the music and Tony's attention strayed to Bruce.
“Why, hello there Jelly Bean! What brings you to my humble workshop in these late hours?”
Bruce snorted. “The usual.”
“Ahh, an overwhelming desire to bask in my genius, gotcha.” Tony gestured with a screwdriver.
“You got me.” Bruce murmured and wandered over to claim a chair near Tony.
“What are you working on now?”
“Just tweaking the repulsor. I want to be able to shoot fire too.” A dreamy look crossed Tony's face.
“Just because you can doesn't mean you should.”
“A guy can dream. And I mostly took this apart to clean out the alien gunk from that fight the other day. Next time, I am going to send the cleaning bill to those assholes.”
Tony set the gauntlet down.
“So what will it be, Banner? Mechanics or Physics?”
Three hours went by helping Tony upgrade the power on his repulsors and then “testing” them by blowing up anything sitting around unused.
Bruce lost himself in work and Tony's contagious enthusiasm.
When they finally surfaced for food and coffee (or tea in Bruce's case), it was almost 6am.
Bruce sipped at his cup of earl grey, watching the sun come up over the New York” City horizon. They'd relocated to Tony's penthouse for breakfast since Darcy had stolen and hidden the lab coffee maker in an effort to lure Jane out of the lab more often.
Tony sat down his mug of coffee and flopped down into the chair next to Bruce.
“City almost looks inviting from up here, doesn't it?”
“Yeah, no one would guess a man with a monument to his dick and a green rage toddler live here.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “I do not need to build a monument to my dick. It speaks for itself. Just ask Pepper.”
Bruce rolled his eyes.
“I guess that's why I found you in the lab?”
Tony sighed. “She's back in two days. I'd rather get something productive done than let my mind imagine a hundred terrible things that could happen.”
He paused and glanced over at Bruce.
“So they're getting worse, I take it?”
“Hey grumpy, I didn't ask JARVIS! Believe it or not, I can tell when someone is barely sleeping, especially when that someone is practically my brother and went through a really fucking traumatic experience less than three months ago!”
Bruce sipped some tea. “They'll go away eventually.”
“No fucking way, Banner! You don't get to scold me all the time for avoiding my problems when you've been in my lab almost every night for a month.”
Tony's face softened. “They understand, Bruce.”
Bruce stood up. “Well, that was a good talk, Tony.”
“Sit down, Jelly Bean, and listen for a minute!”
“I'll stand, thanks.”
Tony rolled his eyes but continued. “Stop playing hide and seek in my tower. They miss you and I know you miss them too.”
Bruce didn't reply, just stared out of the window.
“I have to at least pretend to sleep or Pepper will know. She's psychic or something. I'll see you later, Big Green. Get some rest.”
Tony turned to leave, taking his coffee with him.
Bruce spent the next hour lost in his thoughts until he finally felt tired enough to return to his suite and attempt to sleep.
Bruce managed about four hours of sleep before his nightmares reared their ugly heads.
He gave up on trying to rest and went to make a cup of tea.
He opened his cabinet, full of Rooibos infusions and a couple of boxes of chai. He forced himself not to look at the box of mint tea that Phil loved.
God, he knew he was being an idiot. He thought giving Clint and Phil some space would ease some of his guilt over waking them up with his screams, flinching when they touched him, sleeping on the couch instead of with them in the bed. Being unable to return any of the affection and comfort they so freely offered him.
Of course, it only increased his guilt and added a giant heap of self-loathing on top of the 'Bruce-Banner-you-are-an-idiot' sundae.'
Four weeks, he'd avoided them and his sleeping, eating, and mental health were no closer to getting better. He'd fucked up his relationship with his best support system and he was too ashamed to approach them again. They probably hated him at this point, figured out he wasn't worth the trouble.
Tears blurred his vision and Bruce wiped them away with his sleeve.
“Idiot.” He muttered and the kettle whistled. He poured the hot water into his cup and situated himself in his favorite chair with a book.
Unsurprisingly, Natasha emerged in Bruce's kitchen while he was making his famous curry.
He was putting the rice on a low heat and squeezing the last of the water out of the block of tofu when he noticed her sitting cross legged on his couch out of the corner of his eye.
He left her to her reading and finished cooking. He'd gotten used to Natasha just randomly showing up in his suite when she wanted quiet company. When the curry was ready, he made them both a plate and sat down next to her on the couch.
Natasha set her book aside.
“How'd the mission go?” He asked.
“Peachy.” She replied.
Bruce raised an eyebrow.
“Let me enjoy your cooking.”
After they finished eating, Natasha started doing the dishes. Bruce protested but she silenced him with a glare.
“So what is this, an intervention?”
“I can't just visit you because you're my friend.”
Bruce crossed his arms.
“Call it a reminder that you don't have to keep doing this to yourself. Also, I was hoping you were cooking.” Natasha smirked.
“I made rice pudding the other day.”
“What are we waiting for?”
Spending time with Natasha was a nice change of pace from the last few weeks. They talked for awhile and played a couple rounds of go fish.
She left his apartment around midnight, patting Bruce on the back.
“You should talk to them. They miss you a lot.”
Bruce nodded. “I miss them too.”
“You didn't break anything, Bruce. Isolating yourself won't help any of you. Take it from an expert.”
Bruce smiled. “I'll try.”
When Bruce awoke three hours later from yet another nightmare, he put on his sweatshirt and slippers, grabbed his book, and went down to the common room.
He made himself a mug of tea and wrapped up in a blanket on the couch. At some point he fell asleep because he awoke disoriented a few hours later to the sun creeping up over the city and a large blanket covered lump next to him on the couch.
Bruce carefully extracted himself and went to put the kettle on. He grabbed two mugs and two teabags. When the water was ready, he poured water into the two cups and set one of the mugs on the coffee table near the head shaped part of the lump. Bruce lowered himself back down onto the couch and re-wrapped in the blanket, opening his book.
About 20 minutes later, a hand snaked out from the under the blanket and reached out to grab the mug with surprising accuracy. It grasped the handle and slowly drew the mug under the folds of the blanket. Then, muffled curses and the blanket was flung back to reveal
a rumpled, cranky Clint.
“Need napkins.” He grumbled and Bruce gently took the mug from him while Clint untangled and shuffled to the kitchen.
Once they were both settled again on the couch, the hot tea spill tended to, Bruce sheepishly caught Clint’s gaze.
“Hi” Bruce’s voice seemed loud in their couch bubble.
“Hi” Clint replied, huddled in his blanket.
“Can’t sleep?” Bruce asked.
“Nightmares,” Clint mumbled. “Phil’s away.”
A rush of guilt rolled through Bruce.
“Are you ok?” stupid question Bruce berated himself.
“are you ok?” he returned the question and Bruce wanted to crawl under the couch and hide.
“No.” slipped out before he could censor himself.
The silence grew between them until Bruce’s entire body throbbed with pain and hurt. He couldn’t take this anymore.
“I’m sorry.” he blurted out.
Clint blinked in confusion.
“I ruined us. I ruined everything. Just like I always do.” and Bruce buried his face in his hands.
He felt something warm and soft touch his back and he realized Clint was wrapping the blanket around him. He raised his head to protest about stealing clint’ s blanket but Clint proceeded to arrange the blanket around both of their shoulders and wrapped the sides around to make a cocoon for them. He propped himself against the arm of the chair and gently maneuvered Bruce to a reclining position between his legs. He adjusted the blanket so it was still covering them and put his arms around Bruce, holding him close.
“you haven’t ruined anything.” clint kissed the top of Bruce's head.
“we love you and we miss you a lot.” He gently carded his fingers through Bruce’s curls as he quietly cried onto Clint’s shirt. Gradually, Bruce began to relax; the warmth of Clint’s body and the comforting touches calmed him. He snuggled closer, pressing as much of his body as he could against Clint.
Clint chuckled. “Cuddle slut.”
“Damn right.” Bruce murmured.
“Hey JARVIS, can you put on something chill?”
The TV flickered on and Bob’s Burgers started on a low volume.
Bruce made it through one and a half episodes before he was lulled to sleep.
Some time later, Bruce was awakened by the sound of gasping and choking. It took him a few seconds to realize the sounds were coming from the body against him.
Bruce immediately sat up and slid off of Clint.
Clint was still asleep but had started thrashing and crying out like he was trying to fight someone off.
Clint’s eyes finally opened, wide and startled. He locked on Bruce and seemed to calm a little. It took him a few minutes to stop coughing and for the tears rolling silently down his face to slow.
Bruce stayed within easy reach but didn’t try to touch Clint.
“What do you need?” Bruce whispered.
“OK, let me get my phone and you can call him.” Bruce stood up to leave and Clint’s arm shot out and grabbed his wrist. “Don’t…please stay.”
Bruce sat back down on the floor next to the couch. Clint’s hand entwined with Bruce’s and held on tight. Bruce gently squeezed back and addressed JARVIS.
“JARVIS, could you call Agent Coulson for us?”
“Certainly, Dr. Banner.”
The TV, which had been cycling through a netflix screensaver, switched to skype with Phil looking very concerned. He was still dressed but had removed his suit jacket and tie.
“Hello? Are you alright?”
Bruce waited to see if Clint could answer but he was still recovering so Bruce nervously met Phil’s eyes.
“Clint had a really bad nightmare. He...uh..asked for you.”
“Clint,” Phil said gently.
Clint raised his head.
“I’m here, Clint. Bruce is here. We’re both OK.”
Bruce glanced at Clint, who was laser focused on Phil’s face.
“I know the nightmares feel real but it’s just your brain fucking with you.”
“I’m not...I didn’t...hurt…”
Phil shook his head. “A nightmare. An awful nightmare but not real. I promise.”
Clint relaxed a little. “When are you back?”
“Two days. Just a milk run, no engaging.”
“Miss you.” Clint murmured.
“Miss you too.”
Bruce tried to sink into the background, attempting to give them privacy, even with Clint’s hand gripping his tightly.
“Bruce, are you ok?” Phil directed his attention to Bruce’s face and he felt like Phil could tell how the last few weeks had been without asking.
Bruce nodded and cleared his throat to answer out loud. “I’m OK. you?”
Phil smiled the soft smile he saved for Clint, Bruce, and Natasha. Something tight in Bruce’s chest loosened a little at the sight.
“Hanging in there. Better when I get back to you.”
Bruce blushed. “Miss you.”
“I’ve missed you too. We’ll all talk when I get back.” Phil raised a hand to the screen and Clint darted off of the couch, dragging Bruce with him. He pressed their still clasped hands to Phil’s against the screen.
They stayed like that for awhile until Phil quietly, reluctantly signed off.
Bruce insisted they spend the night in one of their beds, not cramped on the couch, so Clint relocated them to the big bed in his suite that Bruce, Clint, and Phil had shared until Bruce’s meltdown.
Clint shimmied under the covers, burying his face in Phil’s pillow, which still mostly smelled like Phil. Bruce climbed slowly into the bed and Clint immediately snuggled against him.
Nightmares still came but the terror faded a little faster when they woke up in each other’s arms.
Clint stuck close to Bruce for the next two days. Bruce didn’t mind. He cooked for both of them and Natasha when she dropped by. They slept in the big bed together, watching over each other. Bruce could tell Clint was feeling a little starved for affection because he remained within touching distance of either Bruce or Natasha at all times. If Bruce reached for Clint’s hand or initiated kisses more often than he usually did, he could blame it on being there for Clint, rather than the way the affection eased the ache in his body.
Two days later, Bruce was almost asleep, the warmth of Clint’s body next to him relaxing him. He heard the door click open and he cracked an eye open. Phil was sliding the dresser drawer open and taking out some pajamas. Bruce watched him change in silence and then Phil turned, meeting Bruce’s eyes.
Phil smiled and approached the bed. “Hello, Bruce,” He whispered, “Mind if I join you?”
Bruce shook his head. “Not at all.”
Phil scooted into the middle of the bed, Bruce on his right, Clint on his left. Clint barely stirred, just snuggled against Phil once he was situated. Bruce shifted so he was sharing Phil’s pillow.
“Missed you.” Bruce murmured.
Phil kissed him gently. “Missed you too.”
A tight knot in Bruce’s chest eased.
“I’m sorry I’ve-"
Phil pressed a finger against Bruce’s lips. “No apologies needed. We can talk in the morning."
Phil kissed him again and draped an arm over his back. They both relaxed and soon Phil drifted off to sleep. Bruce lay awake for awhile, watching him sleep, until exhaustion overwhelmed him.
Bruce awoke the next morning to find only Phil still asleep next to him. Usually, Clint was the last of them awake. He could smell something delicious wafting from the kitchen.
He gently extracted himself from the bed, making sure that Phil was still asleep and tucked in, and wandered towards the kitchen.
Clint was humming to himself, pancakes cooking on the stove top, and containers of fruit and yogurt spread out on the counter.
Bruce smiled. “What’s all this?”
Clint glanced over at him. “Good morning, Bruce. I was just making some breakfast. Mission food is awful.”
“Thank you, this is very sweet of you.”
“I have the two sweetest people in the world to cook for so it’s easy.”
Bruce chuckled. “You’re ridiculous.” He kissed Clint’s cheek and sat down at the breakfast island.
“There’s hot water in the kettle.” Clint gestured to it and Bruce got up to retrieve it and fix himself a cup of tea.
A comfortable silence followed with Clint cooking and humming to himself and Bruce scrolling through the news on a Stark Tablet. Not too time passed before Phil joined them, still in pajamas. He shuffled into the kitchen and smiled sleepily at them.
“I was going to be upset that I woke up alone but I forgive you if there’s food.”
Clint grinned. “I made pancakes and there’s fresh coffee in the pot.”
“Bless you.” Phil murmured, heading for the coffeemaker. He paused to kiss Clint and ruffle Bruce’s curls.
After Phil was situated at the kitchen island with his coffee, leaning against Bruce’s side,
Clint joined them with the pancakes, fruit, and yogurt.
The three of them ate in comfortable silence, occasionally brushing against each other or feeding each other blueberries and strawberries.
When they were finished and the kitchen was cleaned up by Bruce and Phil who insisted, they relocated to the living room and JARVIS put on a movie. It was mostly an excuse for the three of them to snuggle up together. Time passed, broken up by kissing and touching.
In a pause between movies, when they all got up to refresh their coffee or tea, Bruce walked up to Phil, stirring his tea, and wrapped his arms around his waist.
Phil set down his spoon and rested his hands on top of Bruce’s. “You don’t have anything to apologize for, Bruce. Just remember we’re here for you and we want you here with us. We want to help and we don’t think you’re a burden.”
“Yeah, Freckles, I know it’s hard to live up to the perfection of Phil and me,” At this, Phil rolled his eyes, “But we love you for who you are, nightmares, PTSD, Hulk, and all.”
Bruce grinned, reaching one hand out to Cint, who took it, entwining their fingers.
“I love you guys.” Bruce kissed Clint’s hand.
Clint’s wide smirk and Phil’s soft smile sent warmth flooding through Bruce’s body.
“We love you too.” They both replied and there was a long three way hug in the kitchen until Phil had to reheat his tea and Clint’s stomach grumbled.