The first time it happens, it's almost like a sucker punch straight to the gut.
They've been in the tower for months now, all of them somehow coming together to live in an environment that was surprisingly more good than bad, more peaceable than chaotic; there are moments, of course, where Bruce thinks everything might come tumbling down around him again. He hasn't spent such a length of time in one place for – well, years if he's being honest with himself (he's trying to be honest with himself lately). He was the last to venture to the tower, and perhaps that's the least surprising thing about it. He remembers the warm smiles and hopeful gazes that met him when he first arrived, not something he's willing to forget in a hurry, and it's always that which reminds him why he stayed.
Still. Shoving a group of people as eclectic and volatile as the Avengers together for a prolonged period of time was never going to be without its difficulties. Sometimes they're falling over one another to find some space for themselves, even with the ridiculous amount of floors the building holds (95 last time he checked).
It's just one of those days.
He can feel the tense atmosphere as soon as he walks into the most communal kitchen they have, brow furrowing as dark eyes sweep the room to try to find the source of the emotion. They widen in surprise when they fall only on Natasha, sat at the breakfast island and half curled around a bowl of cereal.
They say she's stony, cold, hard – Bruce doesn't see that. He sees a strong woman who has been through a lot but is, at the end of the day, just as human as the rest of them. Excluding Thor, who actually isn't human at all, but – well, the general idea was there.
She's usually better at hiding her emotion, that much is true, but everybody has those days. He doesn't say anything as he pads gently into the room, humming below his breath although he's all too aware that she knows he's there. She isn't a brilliant super spy for nothing, after all.
He busies himself with boiling water and making tea, slides a hot, full mug across the counter-top and towards Natasha without so much as a word. When she raises her head, finally, her face looks pinched at the edges and older than it should – but she smiles, a tight little thing that says more than anything else could, and it fills him with a rushing sense of warmth so powerful that he almost falters in his step.
It's – strange. It's not something he's accustomed to. It's just a smile, but the sensation it draws from within his core is something so much more than that, and he swallows around the sudden lump in his throat, takes that information and files it away for another day.
He thinks it's going to be important.
Steve's careless with his words, but not in the way most people are. He doesn't throw out malicious comments or insults, barely even knows how to use sarcasm (unless it's directed at Tony, and even that now seems to have less of an edge to it than it had before).
No, Steve compliments. He tells them day in, day out how well they're doing, always does his best to boost team morale. Maybe it's all those days he spent parading around on stages as Captain America, before he actually got to become the hero he had always wanted to be. Maybe it's something else – a burning hope that's never quite been extinguished, even with everything they've been through. Bruce isn't sure why Steve does it, but he knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a Captain America certified 'well done'.
It's been a tough one. They're all exhausted, perhaps him more so than anyone given the energy expenditure that seems to occur whenever he hulks out. He still hates it. It still leaves a restlessness humming beneath the surface of his skin; he still can't shake the anxiety when he wakes up wild-eyed and heaving, terrified that he's hurt people again, good people, not the bad guys he knows need to be taken care of.
He hasn't hurt anyone in a while. They tell him that every time. It doesn't make it easier.
Clint's half propping Natasha up against the side of the quinjet, head close to her ear as he whispers things that are indecipherable to the rest of them. Whatever he says, it must work; her weary expression lightens a little, even as the tiredness shines through. It's something they all feel – even Thor's slumped into one of the seats, although looking miles better than the rest of them (it isn't fair, not really, but it's pretty much a thing now).
And Steve – Steve's eyeing Bruce carefully. It's not the kind of expression he's used to – the one people usually give, eyes full of fear and a lack of understanding, a doubt that perhaps isn't as misplaced as he would like. Instead, there's open concern in the bright, steely gaze, and Bruce does his best to muster up some semblance of a smile, though his body is bruised and aching and he's not sure what the hell any of them would do if an emergency state was called right now.
Steve knows. He always has a way of reading them; they're his team. He needs to know these things. Bruce is thankful that he doesn't bring it up.
Instead, Steve reaches across and slides his hand gently through Bruce's curls, and the scientist can't help but push up into the grasp a little. “Sleep, Bruce. You did a really good job out there today, okay?”
That feeling again, filling him from the inside out, so bright and warm and hot that he thinks he should be glowing for them all to see – he can't help it; he practically preens under the praise, smile slow and a little clumsy before he catches himself; stepping away and clearing his throat in a hurry.
“Uh, yeah – thanks. Yeah, we did – it was a good job all round.”
He spends the remainder of the flight home staring at his feet and trying to come to terms with himself.
Sometimes it's easy for them all to forget that Thor has a home – an entire realm, actually – and that being here is more an option for him than it is for any of the rest of them. Bruce, Natasha, Clint; none of them have ever truly had that stability of coming back to a place time and time again, a place they where they want to stay, where they feel secure. For them, there's not really a choice about where they go – they have safety and each other, or they have another life flitting from city to city and never truly laying their heads down to rest.
That's how Bruce sees it, anyway. He thinks it's the same for them, judging by the changes in both of their demeanour during the months that they've all spent together. They arrived before him, but the similarities were there in their fixed shoulders and uncertain gazes. Now? Now, none of them really want to be anywhere else, even if they say so sometimes, when they're grouchy or irritated or just want to hurt the others.
He gets it. He also gets that Thor is homesick.
It isn't as though Thor can't visit Asgard when he wants to. He's not trapped in the tower like some kind of prisoner. But there's a conflict in his eyes half the time, and Bruce thinks he's the only one that can see it. The God can never seem to decide between staying and going, even if for just a short time, and it's – it's actually kind of heartbreaking.
It must be a beautiful place. But more than that, it has everything Thor misses, including, probably, Loki who maybe still hasn't exactly been forgiven by the rest of them. There is a bond between brothers that can't be broken, though, Bruce is sure about that.
He finds Thor gazing up at the stars one night, and stands with him for a moment, providing some solidarity. They stand together, side by side, in a deep silence – comfortable, never awkward – and Thor never takes his eyes from the skies, though he sometimes points out constellations that Bruce never quite sees but does not doubt exist.
“You know you can go home, right?” he says suddenly, still not looking at the other. “Nobody will hold it against you... this? This is their home,” my home, he wants to say, but he doesn't, “but they all know it's different for you.”
He can feel those piercing blue eyes on him, keeping his profile as steady as he can despite how powerful Thor's gaze can be, sometimes. There's something about it that makes him think he'd do anything he asked and that – well, that's for another time, maybe. Instead, Bruce swallows, turns – matching the blonde's smile with one of his own.
“Thank you, Doctor Banner,” he says in that booming voice, looking far too happy for no particular reason, “You are a good man, Bruce. I think it is time I returned home for a short time.”
The word good resonates with Bruce more than it should; he's accustomed to that feeling now, knows it's not going to go away and maybe doesn't want it too. It still takes him by surprise with the sheer force of it, though, leaving him breathless for a moment as his smile turns strained, a short, nervous chuckle following. “Just, uh – come back, yeah? I can't promise they won't come after you otherwise.”
Thor's absence does make a difference, and he'd known that it would. They're – missing a piece of them. The Avengers are a well oiled machine when working correctly, but this is as difficult as having a cog ripped from the inner parts of the said machine. But it's necessary. Bruce assures them every day that Thor will return. He promised; they don't tend to break those without a real reason.
His words don't help as much as he would hope, and sometimes the atmosphere is too thick and sad for any of them to even try and get some normality into their lives. Even Natasha shows an inkling of missing him upon her features, and Tony spends the first week after Thor's departure locked up in his lab and refusing to come out (when he eventually does, they make him shower first, sleep later, eat after that).
It's frustrating, but it is what it is and they have to learn to adjust because it's not a given that they're ever going to be all together like this all the time. Bruce knows what it is. He knows that codependency is an issue, and never though that he would find himself in such a situation like this; depending on five other people like he's never depended on anyone before. It's with great relief that he knows the feeling is mutual.
He busies himself in his own lab as often as he can, wants to distract himself and use his hands and try not to get too antsy. The Other Guy makes more appearances than Bruce would like, still, especially when he's stressed and worried and anxious (all of which he is right now), and he doesn't want to spring that on the others at the moment. Never wants to. Threats are forever hanging over their heads, and he needs to be ready for that; he's still a ticking time bomb, no matter how hard he tries to control it.
In the end, he does create. It takes time and effort and he hardly knows what he's making until he's halfway through and sees it forming shape, and it's not like he's ever been much of an engineer. Like, at all actually. That's always been Tony's specialism, and Bruce has always been keen to watch and learn and barely understand, but this is different, somehow.
He designs a new serum to dip Clint's arrows in (no euphemism intended), something that will incapacitate long enough for an interrogation if need be, but not enough so as to kill someone. Sometimes, that has to come later.
Bruce has seen Clint happy before, plenty of times – he's more emotive than Nat, at least – but it still kind of knocks him for six, the way his entire face lights up and he claps a strong, heavy hand down onto Bruce's shoulder. “You made this? For me? Aw, man – you're really somethin', you know that? So good.”
And if he notices the shudder that racks through Bruce's body, he's at least graceful enough not to mention it.
He doesn't know how he wound up crashing to his knees on the cold, hard floor of Tony's lab, but he's impossibly glad that he did.
He gazes up at the other with big, brown eyes, hands already frantically working at his belt, tugging impatiently at the others trousers as though there's no time left in the world for them to do this and he's never been this way. The past few weeks its been building up in him, from that first smile from Nat, to the good job's and he wants more, more, more -
His mouth is wet, hot and tight around Tony's cock even before he has a chance to think about it, relishing in the heavy velvet against his tongue, and the sudden pull at his curls as Tony's hands scramble to get a grip of some sorts, and it's nice, it's so nice. He's done this before, sure, but never quite like this, and he's practically choking himself trying to get as much of the other man down his throat as he can, tears pricking at the corner of his eyes.
“Jesus, fuck – Bruce,” Tony's choking out words from above him, in between the groans and moans that leave his throat, and his grip is impossibly tight now, one hand falling to grasp at the side of his jaw. “So fucking good, such a good boy-”
And it's fucking ridiculous because he's a grown man who sometimes climbs to nine foot plus and turns green, but the praise has him moaning around Tony's cock and filling with that impossible warmth, sparks dancing across his eyelids as they flutter to a close.
He's pretty sure he's never been so happy.