Tony should have known something had gone totally wrong when he couldn’t hear the Hulk roaring anymore.
Okay, granted, the lack of the Hulk roaring usually meant a lack of conscious enemies or the return of Bruce Banner—not bad things, in and of themselves. But in the middle of a battle with a freshly escaped Loki intent on world domination?
Definitely a bad thing.
Thor swings his hammer, laying Loki flat out and using Loki’s chest as a resting place for Mjolnir. “Where is our green friend?” Thor asks, looking just a little concerned.
Now, that’s a good question, and Tony’s beginning to wonder that himself, when Loki begins to laugh. “You won’t soon find your green friend as he was!”
Tony doesn’t much like Loki, Thor’s brother or not, but he suspects that Loki might know something they don’t. He strains his ears for anything that might give the Hulk’s location away.
“Stark!” Captain America shouts as he closes in on their position. “Where’s Banner?”
Tony appreciates the fact that Steve rarely calls the other guy “Hulk,” and more often refers to him as “Banner.”
“I don’t know,” Tony says irritably. “I can’t hear him, which is probably a good indicator that something is wrong.”
“Tony?” Natasha has joined them, and she points towards a disturbance to the north. “There.”
“I think you’re right,” Tony says. “If you’ll excuse me.”
“And what will you do with him when you find him?” Loki calls as Tony flies off, staying low to the ground. “I have reduced him to nothing!”
It’s not nothing, not exactly, but it’s not what Tony expects either as he lands in a nearby parking lot.
He stops and stares, and from just behind him, Natasha says, “Oh! He’s adorable.”
That’s not a word Tony uses with any regularity, but he can’t disagree. The small, green-tinted figure is nothing like the Hulk.
Okay, so he’s green, and clearly angry, and he’s obviously trying to smash whatever he can get his small fists on, but he’s also four feet tall, skinny, and the roars he emits are a little like what a newborn lion cub would.
Not only is it unimpressive; it’s—well, it’s adorable.
Mini-Hulk glances over at them and tries to roar, which just causes Natasha to cover her mouth to hide her smile.
“I’m pretty sure he hates being laughed at,” Tony says in an undertone.
“I’ll go see if I can’t get some answers out of Loki,” she says, leaving Tony to brave the wrath of mini-Hulk.
Meanwhile, mini-Hulk is trying to move a parked car. He gets it about two inches, which is pretty impressive for someone his size, although his expression is irritated and maybe a little bewildered, as though he wants to do more damage and doesn’t understand why he can’t.
“Hey, Jolly Green,” Tony says, deciding to use the same tone he reserves for the Hulk at the end of a battle, when he’s talking him into giving way to Bruce Banner again. “You know, I’m not sure how helpful Loki is going to be, so it would help to be able to talk to Bruce about what he did to you.”
“Puny god,” mini-Hulk mutters, although the effect is rather lost, since his small chest won’t support the growl the regular sized version could manage.
“Yeah, Thor has him pinned down pretty good,” Tony agrees. “So, Bruce?”
Mini-Hulk gives him a deeply disgruntled look, and then heaves a deep sigh. Tony has seen the transformation a couple of times, but it’s harder to watch now, as green skin ripples and limbs contort, revealing a small child.
Tony’s no expert, but the kid looks maybe five, his skin milk-white, his form thin and frail, but he has Bruce’s dark, unruly curls.
“Tony!” Steve says, skidding to a halt next to him, glancing down at the kid—Bruce. “Oh. Wow. Huh. Natasha told me, but—”
He’s at least brought a blanket, and he covers Bruce with a tenderness that Tony finds fascinating.
“What are we going to do with him?” Steve asks, pulling his mask off and picking Bruce up, wrapped securely in the blanket.
Tony puts his faceplate up and frowns. “We take him home. He’s been living with me—sort of. Mostly. On and off. More on than off, really.”
Steve looks uncertain. “This is a child we’re talking about.”
“I can see that, Steve,” Tony replies. He doesn’t want to admit that Bruce is his, whether a child or full grown, it doesn’t matter. “But Bruce is mostly living at the Tower, and that’s where he’s going to stay until he’s back to his old self.”
“He’s part of the team,” Steve insists. “We should all help.” He glances down at Bruce’s small form and says, “We have no idea how long it’s going to be until he’s back to normal.”
Tony shrugs. “Well, I suppose I do have a company to run. If he doesn’t snap back to normal immediately, I promise I’ll let you help.
Bruce stirs in Steve’s arms, and he opens his eyes. His dark eyes immediately fill with tears, and he curls up as much as he can, putting one arm over his head.
“Oh, hey,” Steve says helplessly. “Bruce, it’s okay. We’re friends.”
Bruce doesn’t move.
“Bruce,” Tony says gently, insistently. “You’re safe. No one’s going to hurt you. What do you remember? We need to know.”
Bruce still doesn’t move.
Tony decides to try appealing to the child. “Want to see something cool?” he asks. “Because this is seriously cool.”
Bruce pulls his arm down to look at Tony, although he doesn’t say anything.
Tony fires his repulsors and levitates a few inches off the ground, taking the chance that Bruce doesn’t remember much—if anything—of what the adult Bruce had known.
The kid’s eyes go wide with sheer delight. “Cool.”
Tony grins. “That’s my middle name.”
Tony has to get his suit off, and get a car to take him and Bruce back to Stark Tower, so someone else—possibly Coulson, although Tony doesn’t ask—is tasked with getting Bruce clothing. The police have cordoned off a three-block radius in Manhattan, not too far from Stark Tower, and that’s where the Avengers remain, hopefully out of the public eye.
When Tony returns, Bruce is wearing jeans and a green t-shirt, which are a bit too big—so someone has a sense of humor—and Clint and Natasha are entertaining Bruce by holding a knife throwing contest, with Steve looking on wistfully.
Thor, Tony assumes, is dealing with Loki, and that accounts for the entire team.
But if they’re going to take turns babysitting Bruce, it’s probably a good thing that he’s getting acquainted with the rest of them, although Tony can tell that Steve is a little hurt that Bruce is ignoring him in favor of the two SHIELD agents.
“All right,” Tony calls out. “Team fun is over, everybody go home. Even mini-Hulks need to refuel.”
Bruce looks at him and manages an uncertain smile.
Clint and Natasha shrug and go do whatever it is they do after defeating Loki, and Steve nods. “Let me know if you need anything,” he says, and heads for the SHIELD car.
Luckily, or unluckily, depending on your point of view, Loki has come to Manhattan again. Bad news for the city, but good news as far as Tony’s trip home goes, especially with a kid in tow.
Tony lets Bruce scramble into the backseat first, and he curls up in a corner, folding in on himself, as though afraid to take up too much space, much like his adult counterpart.
“Hey,” Tony says. “Mi casa es su casa. What’s mine is yours. I’d offer you a drink, but I’m pretty sure I don’t have anything non-alcoholic in here.”
Bruce frowns. “I’m not supposed to drink that stuff.”
“Exactly,” Tony replies. “But I’ve got juice and that sort of thing at home.”
Bruce perks up a bit at that. “I like juice.”
“Good,” Tony replies. “Are you hungry? Do you want to stop somewhere?”
Bruce curls up a bit. “I don’t want to be a bother.”
“You’re not a bother,” Tony insists. “Now, are you hungry? You usually are afterward.”
Bruce nods hesitantly. “I’m hungry.” It’s more of a question than a statement, but Tony lets that go.
“Happy? What’s the best place to go for food?” Tony asks.
“I’ll call for delivery, boss,” Happy says. “That’s going to be easiest. What do you want?”
“Bruce?” Tony prompts.
Bruce shrugs, clearly unwilling to make a decision.
“You like Italian?” Tony asks. “Spaghetti?”
Bruce looks cautiously optimistic. “Meatballs?”
“Oh, I think we can do meatballs,” Tony promises.
They’re both pigging out when Pepper comes home, leaving her obscenely high heels by the door. She pauses when she sees Bruce, and Bruce ducks his head, as though waiting for a rebuke.
And seriously, this explains so much.
“Hi,” Pepper says. “I heard on the news that you had a little excitement.”
“Very minor,” Tony replies, getting up to greet her with a kiss, and taking the opportunity to whisper in her ear, “That’s Bruce, and it’s Loki’s fault. I’ll explain the rest later.”
Pepper does that thing with her face where she takes in the most surprising sort of information and manages to smile anyway, as though it doesn’t even matter. “Bruce! I’m glad you’re here.”
Bruce’s expression clearly says, “You are?” but he manages a small wave.
In retrospect, it’s not all that different from how Bruce normally responds to Pepper.
“Please tell me you’ve got enough for me,” she says when she catches sight of what they’re eating. “I’m starving.”
Bruce wordlessly slides one of the aluminum trays towards an empty seat, and Pepper sits down next to him. “So, how was your day?” she asks casually.
Tony launches into a description of the battle—although once Pepper does the little headshake thing that promises certain death if he doesn’t comply, he edits it considerably for small ears. “And then we came home,” he says.
Bruce has slowed down at this point, and Tony asks, “Want to see something cool?”
He pulls up a 3-D model of the Stark Tower and shows Bruce how it can be manipulated. Bruce is absorbed almost immediately, which allows Pepper to ask in a low voice, “What happened?”
“All we know is that Loki did it,” Tony replies, keeping his voice down. “Natasha has been working on him, but either he’s being an asshole—”
“Completely possible,” Pepper inserts. Tony knows she still hasn’t gotten over the last alien invasion and his near-death experience.
“Or he doesn’t know what he did. Thor seems to think that it might wear off. Eventually.”
Pepper glances at Bruce, who is turning the model of the tower upside down. “Well, he is awfully cute. I assume we’re keeping him.”
“The others have promised to help,” Tony replies. “But he does live here. Sometimes. Most of the time.”
“Of course you had to bring him home,” Pepper says. “It will be fine. Does he still—you know?”
Tony grins. “Oh, just wait until you see it. He’s adorable. At least, that’s what Natasha said.”
They don’t have to wait long. A few minutes later, Bruce gets frustrated enough with the model that his skin ripples, and suddenly they have a miniature Hulk again.
“Oh.” Pepper smiles, and then when mini-Hulk stomps his foot, causing a faint vibration through the floor, she suggests, “Maybe we can find something for him to smash.”
Mini-Hulk looks at them hopefully. “Hulk smash?”
“I’ve got just the thing,” Tony promises. “Lots of things for you to smash. We just have to get down to the lab. Think you can wait that long?”
“Hulk smash!” he says and growls.
Pepper covers her mouth. “Jarvis, I hope you’re recording this.”
“Of course,” Jarvis says.
Tony motions to mini-Hulk. “Come on, Big Green. Let’s go smash.”
Eventually, Tony has a trip that he can’t put off, and Pepper has an all-day meeting with the board and some very important investors, which means they have to call in help.
Steve had known they would; he’s just grateful that they call him and not any of the others. He feels a certain amount of responsibility for his team, and for Bruce; Loki had done this to him on Steve’s watch.
“Okay, so he’s really pretty quiet,” Tony says, sounding like an anxious father. “He’s pretty happy with the 3-D models, unless he gets frustrated, and then he goes green. But if you can get him to my lab, there’s a pile of scrap metal down there that he can smash to his little heart’s content.”
Steve manages a smile. “We’ll be fine, Tony.”
Tony nods. “Call me if you have any problems, okay? He’s really a good kid.”
“Tony, we’ll be fine.”
Tony nods and kneels down next to Bruce, who’s idly playing with a holographic model of a DNA strand. “I have to go now, but you can call if you need me, and Steve’s going to be with you the whole time.”
When Bruce doesn’t look up at him, Tony adds, “He’s a little stiff, but he really is a good guy.”
Bruce finally glances up with the same hesitant smile that Steve remembers the adult version wearing, and then he goes back to his model without saying anything.
“He’s quiet,” Tony says. “Just—”
“Don’t worry,” Steve insists, and hustles Tony out the door.
When he turns back to Bruce, he’s still playing with the model, and Steve sprawls on the couch, uncertain of how to build a bridge.
Then again, he’s never known quite what to do with Bruce Banner. He’s always been careful to treat Bruce as Bruce, with the Hulk as an unfortunate side effect—or a fortunate one, depending on what’s available to smash. Steve has always been careful not to do anything to bring out the Hulk, but Tony has the opposite view, and it’s Tony that Bruce connects with.
And after the battle with Loki, Tony had shown Bruce how he could fly, and Clint had started throwing knives around, and Steve had been left to watch, because there’s not much he can do to compete with that. He’s not showy, not unless they’re in the middle of the battle and he’s got his shield.
Of course, there are plenty of kids who come up to him and want his autograph, even now; Bruce doesn’t know him, though, and he doesn’t know about Captain America, and so he’s unimpressed.
But Bruce keeps glancing at Steve when he thinks Steve isn’t looking, and Steve’s reminded of the wild birds he used to see in Prospect Park. Not the pigeons that would shamelessly stalk anybody with food, but the finches and wrens that would land a few feet away and sidle closer, hoping for a spare crumb of bread.
If you were patient enough, Steve remembers, the birds would practically eat out of your hand, but it took time to build that trust.
Steve had a lot of time when he was a kid.
With that realization, Steve goes over to the bar and pulls out his art supplies—the only thing he could think of bringing that a five-year-old would enjoy. He’d started drawing pretty young, when he’d been sick and stuck inside, and he hopes it’s universal.
After a few minutes, he senses a presence next to him. “Do you want to see?”
Bruce nods, and clambers up onto the stool next to Steve, grinning. “That’s Tony!”
Steve had chosen his subject with care, thinking that someone familiar might draw Bruce in, and he didn’t know Miss Potts well enough yet to try drawing her. “That’s right. Do you want to try?”
“I’m not any good,” Bruce says, looking away, flushing a bit.
“We’re just messing around,” Steve assures him. “There’s no such thing as being bad or good.”
“I’m not as good as you,” Bruce objects.
Steve smiles. “Yeah, but I’ve had a lot more time to practice. But if you practice, you might be even better.”
He has no idea if Bruce has any innate talent, but that doesn’t matter. With a little luck, they’ll have Bruce back to normal before they have to find out.
Bruce appears to think about it for a minute, and then he says, “Okay. I want to try.”
When Tony comes back that evening, he’s surprised to see drawings scattered over the bar, some almost professional, some childish, and Steve and Bruce are eating turkey sandwiches in companionable silence.
Bruce hasn’t changed into the Hulk once, but then maybe that’s not a surprise, since Steve goes out of his way to avoid antagonizing Bruce.
In the end, they all end up watching The Wizard of Oz together, sharing a bowl of popcorn, and when Pepper comes home from her day of meetings halfway through the movie, she curls up next to Tony and lets Bruce slump against her, one hand playing with his dark hair.
And if any of them were asked, they might say it feels like family.
Tony doesn’t comment on the fact that Steve comes over a lot more often after that, or Pepper putting Bruce and Steve’s drawings on the front of the fridge.
It makes the place feel a little more like home, if he’s being honest.
Of course, there comes a day when a scheduling conflict has Steve and Tony scheduled for two different press events, and Pepper has to go along with Tony because Fury still won’t talk about the last press conference Tony had done by himself. Natasha and Clint are out of the country, and it just so happens that Thor is not only on Earth, but in New York City, seeing the sights with Jane.
That means that Thor is the only available Avenger to watch Bruce, and the Hulk has never quite warmed up to him.
Thor knows Bruce Banner likes him well enough; he’s said so on a couple of occasions, but the Hulk still bears a grudge after the Helicarrier, and that’s never quite gone away.
They might fight as allies and equals, but when it’s all said and done, the Hulk is just as likely to punch Thor as let him walk away. To be honest, Thor doesn’t mind; it keeps him on his toes.
Today, however, he had planned on spending time with Jane, and a small Bruce Banner had not figured into those plans.
Still, Thor understands the importance of each member of the team pulling their weight, and while Steve has become a frequent visitor at Stark Tower, Thor has either been on Asgard or visiting Jane while on Earth.
Loki still hasn’t come up with a straight answer as to what he did to the Hulk, although Thor thinks it will eventually wear off.
He hopes so, anyway.
“I’m very sorry about this,” Thor apologizes again as they ride the elevator of Stark Tower up to Tony’s suite.
Jane smiles. “Don’t worry about it. I wanted to meet your friends.”
“I’m not sure that anyone else will be here,” Thor warns her. “And Bruce Banner is not exactly himself.”
Jane looks a little rueful. “Well, I’m not very good with kids, but I’ll do my best.”
Tony greets them at the door, looking a little harried. “So, Bruce was a little upset that—well, anyway, he’s green. He’s tossing things around in the gym right now.” Tony turns his focus on Jane. “Hi there,” he says, his tone appreciative. “I’m Tony Stark,” he says, sticking out his hand.
“Jane Foster,” she replies, shaking his hand.
Tony’s gaze turns speculative. “Doctor Jane Foster?”
“That would be me,” she says with an uncertain smile.
“I hope you got the employment packet I sent you,” he replies. “I know SHIELD wants you, but I have a much better package.” There’s a pause, and Tony glances at Thor. “That actually came out dirtier than I intended.”
Jane lets out a startled giggle. “Um, thank you?”
“Seriously, you should check out the lab while you’re here,” Tony says. “Bruce can show you around when he’s feeling more like himself. He’s got spare clothes in the gym, by the way.” He glances at his watch. “Shit. I’m late. Have fun, call me or Pepper if you have problems, or Steve if we’re not available. Don’t call Fury, whatever you do.”
He’s halfway out the door when he turns and points at Jane. “Sign the agreement I sent you so I can hire you, if not for your sake, then for that big lug’s.” And then he’s gone.
“So, that was Tony Stark,” Jane says, sounding a little dazed.
Thor smiles. “You’re not the first person who’s said that. Come, let us find Bruce.”
They find the smaller version of the Hulk in the gym, where Thor has been a couple of times before. Tony has clearly set aside a section for him, with mats on the floor and walls and a pile of scrap metal for Hulk to smash, and when they enter, Jane makes a small noise. “Oh. He’s so cute!”
That seems to be the prevailing opinion among the women of Thor’s acquaintance, and from what he’s seen, most of the people of Earth are inclined to regard small creatures as “cute.”
And since Hulk isn’t making much progress in smashing the scrap metal, he also seems relatively defenseless, particularly in comparison to the rest of the Avengers. He can toss the metal around, and he can stomp on it, but he seems very disappointed in his inability to really do damage.
Thor can remember being a small boy and bursting with energy and the desire to run, to destroy, to prove himself, and the disappointment when it didn’t seem to make a difference.
He’s brought Mjolnir because he’d been concerned that Loki’s spell might wear off, and he’d be dealing with the full sized Hulk, and Thor hefts it now. “Would you like some help?”
Hulk stops and looks at Thor, his forehead furrowed. “Smash?”
Thor strikes a blow on one of the larger pieces of metal with Mjolnir, hearing a satisfying ring.
Hulk grins. “Smash!”
It turns out that Hulk likes watching other people smash almost as much as he likes doing it himself. And at some point, Hulk grabs on to Mjolnir as Thor is swinging it, and is tossed into the wall when he lets go.
Hulk likes that even better.
Thor spends the better part of an hour swinging Hulk around with Mjolnir, sending him crashing into walls, as Hulk roars—or tries to roar—with pure joy.
And when he’s tired out, he transforms back into a small boy, and Thor and Jane wait until he’s dressed again.
Bruce shows Jane around the labs, shy but proud of his space, with Thor trailing behind, and then he watches as she helps Bruce build a working model of a wormhole.
Although Jane had said she isn’t good with children, she seems to connect with Bruce, and they whisper together, giggling as Jane makes an error that Bruce catches.
Thor smiles and wonders if this might be what his future looks like.
He likes the view.
The day comes when the only Avengers available are Clint and Natasha. They were supposed to be overseas, but their ops got cancelled, and everybody else is busy (or on another planet, in the case of Thor), and they’re still Avengers, even if they’re also SHIELD agents.
Clint seems almost cheerful about the prospect; Natasha is a little more cautious. She knows nothing about children, having never really been one herself, and she’s still ambivalent about the Hulk.
Granted, mini-Hulk (as Stark insists on calling him) is adorable, but they have no idea when he’s going to go back to being the regular Hulk.
And that worries her.
Although Natasha isn’t entirely certain about Bruce, either. He’s not like most of the men she deals with. He’s more tightly controlled—except when he isn’t—and he’s not easily manipulated. She likes him, but cautiously, because she hasn’t been able to find his buttons yet, and is never sure what will set him off.
“So, what exactly are we supposed to do?” Natasha asks.
Clint grins at her. “Don’t worry, I brought supplies.”
“What kind of supplies?” she asks suspiciously as they ride the elevator up.
“Nerf weapons,” Clint says smugly. “There isn’t a kid in the world who doesn’t like Nerf weapons.”
“And you would know,” she says, trying for dismissive, but her smile probably undermines that.
Privately, she isn’t sure that Nerf guns are the answer to a young Bruce Banner, who’s just as attached to Stark as a he was as an adult. From what she’d heard, Bruce had enjoyed drawing with Steve, and he’d connected with Dr. Foster over wormhole theory, which seems to indicate that he’s a little more inclined towards intellectual pursuits.
“What else are we going to do with him?” Clint asks.
Natasha shrugs. “We could teach him how to pick locks.”
“I’m sure SHIELD would love that,” Clint replies dryly.
Natasha smiles a secret smile. “Well, if they want to contain the Hulk, picking locks isn’t exactly going to be an issue. And if it’s Bruce…”
She leaves the rest of the sentence hanging, but it’s understood. No one at SHIELD is interested in containing Bruce Banner, not when they can use him when necessary. It’s the Hulk who worries them, and SHIELD wants to use the Hulk, too.
And that means that they’ll leave Bruce Banner and the Hulk alone for now.
Clint makes a face as Natasha knocks. “Count me out on that team,” he says. “I kind of like the guy.”
Pepper lets them in. “Thanks for coming. Tony’s already gone, but Bruce seems to be fairly calm. We talked about it, and he’s okay with you guys staying with him.” Pepper smiles at Natasha. “Seriously, thank you.”
“It’s my pleasure,” Natasha replies and means it. Stark might not be her favorite person, but she likes Pepper quite a bit.
Pepper smiles. “Call one of us if you have any problems.”
Bruce is sitting in the living room, playing with a holographic model of something Natasha doesn’t recognize.
Clint isn’t shy; he sits down next Bruce and asks, “What are you working on?”
Bruce launches into an explanation on wormhole physics that goes right over Natasha’s head, but she listens, comparing the child to what she knows of the man, and finding them very similar.
Which just means that Natasha has very little idea what to do with Bruce—as a child or as a man. But then, Natasha was never a child, so what does she know?
“Do you like the other guy better?” Bruce asks, pulling Natasha out of her observations.
She blinks. “No, not necessarily. Why?”
“I think Thor likes him better,” Bruce replies. “Because he’s stronger than me, and he likes what Thor likes.”
Natasha smiles. “And what’s that?”
“Smashing things,” Bruce replies wisely. “But Dr. Jane and Pepper like me better, and Tony likes us both.”
Natasha blinks, a little surprised at the perceptiveness of that observation. “I’ll bet that Dr. Foster and Ms. Potts like both of you, but they have more in common with you.”
Bruce considers that, his head slightly cocked, and he says, “But you don’t like either of us.”
Clint shoots her an accusing look, and Natasha knows she has a little damage control to do. “That’s not true. I don’t know you very well, so how would I know if I like you?”
Bruce nods. “That’s fair. You haven’t come over to play like Steve and Thor and Dr. Jane.”
Natasha hides her wince. “That’s because our jobs mean that we’re out of the country a lot.”
“But you could come over when you are here,” Bruce points out.
“We’re here now, aren’t we?” Clint asks, redirecting the conversation. “What do you think about Nerf guns?”
Bruce shakes his head. “I’m not good at those.”
“That’s the beauty of a Nerf gun,” Clint replies. “It’s not about hitting your target. It’s about having fun.”
Natasha knows full well that Clint will hit whatever target he seeks, no matter what his weapon might be, but she can appreciate his kindness.
And she knows that this sort of thing is supposed to be fun, not taken seriously, and she’s trying to get on board with that.
“I guess we can try,” Bruce agrees after a long pause. “But we can always watch a movie, too. Jarvis has a lot of movies.”
Natasha isn’t surprised that Bruce refers to Jarvis as a person; the AI probably seems like a real person to a child his age, even if he’s invisible.
“We’ll play hide and seek,” Natasha suggests. It’s close enough to a training exercise that she feels comfortable suggesting it. “And we’ll have teams. You and me against Clint. If that proves too much for him, we’ll switch.”
Bruce beams at her. “I’m really good at hide and seek.”
It turns out that he is, and he knows Stark Tower like the back of his hand.
By the end of the afternoon, they’re watching The Wizard of Oz—Bruce’s choice—they’ve beaten Clint three times out of five, and Natasha is feeling greatly satisfied.
She leans against Clint, his arm around her shoulders, and Bruce stretches out on the other half of the couch, his head pillowed on Natasha’s thigh. She plays with his curls, and Clint plays with hers, and she’s as content as she can remember being in a long while.
She puts a hand on his chest to feel him breathing, and she knows that this afternoon is something she’ll never talk about.
It’s too good for that.
An emergency comes that requires all the Avengers—except for Hulk, who is still in miniature. And, given the nature of Murphy’s Law, that moment comes at a time when Pepper and Jane are away on business and can’t immediately return, which leaves just one person who can be entrusted with Bruce.
For the record, Phil isn’t amused, no matter how often he grumbles that his job is basically glorified babysitting.
There had been no chance of leaving Bruce alone in Stark Tower, and all the Avengers had been called to the Helicarrier, so Tony rides along with Bruce and Steve, bringing his suit with him, and Bruce sits in on the briefing, mostly because no one notices him playing on the floor at Tony’s feet with a Stark tablet.
Except Phil, who’s paid to notice everything. He just chooses not to object, because the kid is quiet, and Stark generally is not, so it’s probably not worth it.
This time, the problem is an army of robots built by Doctor Doom, and honestly, Phil would rather be on the ground, rather than outside the action. He suspects that Fury is still acting cautiously after Phil nearly got himself killed by Loki and his magic tricks.
Phil glances at Bruce and feels a certain kinship. They’d both been injured by Loki.
When the briefing ends, Stark pulls Phil and the director aside, and says, “Try to lock him up or hurt Bruce in any way, and I swear, I will hack the SHIELD computers and make them play show tunes at the most inappropriate moments.” He pauses. “And that will just be the beginning.”
Rogers fixes Fury and Phil with a grim stare. “The same goes for me.”
Phil is mildly impressed by their protectiveness, and he doesn’t doubt for a moment that they mean it.
Fury glares at them, and then shakes his head. “All right, go,” Fury replies, and they leave Phil with Bruce, who’s still on the floor, messing around with the tablet.
He decides his best course of action is to treat Bruce less like a small child and more like Dr. Bruce Banner, someone who could turn into an enormous green rage monster at any moment.
(And yes, Stark coined that phrase, but as it’s accurate, Phil is going to use it.)
Besides, he’s received the pictures Pepper sent him of Bruce, and Phil had to agree with her—both the kid and the small Hulk are adorable.
“So,” Phil says after a few minutes of silence. “It looks like we’re stuck together for the duration.”
Bruce glares at him. “I don’t need a babysitter.”
Phil thinks about that for a moment. “No, you probably don’t compared to Stark.”
Bruce stares at him, and then he giggles. “I like Tony.”
“Don’t tell him, but I kind of do, too,” Phil confides. “Do you want to keep me company while I do paperwork?”
Events on the Helicarrier might have gone relatively smoothly, except that Barton gets injured, and Coulson is called to the field.
Phil is almost sorry. Bruce is pretty decent company—he doesn’t mind classical music, and he doesn’t interrupt Phil while he’s working.
Still, duty calls, and that leaves Director Fury.
Fury stares at the small child sitting across from his desk, and he doesn’t care that it’s Bruce Banner.
In fact, he doesn’t give a fuck who the kid is, he just wants his office back.
The problem is that Fury had ordered the Avengers Initiative to go forward, which means the buck stops with him, and that includes one de-aged Bruce Banner.
Bruce’s lip trembles.
“Hill! Get in here!”
She appears in a gratifyingly short period of time. “Sir?”
“Watch him,” Fury orders.
Hill glances at Bruce, who appears even closer to tears, one of them spilling out over his cheek. “Sir?”
She manages to use just enough incredulity to get her point across and not enough to warrant a reprimand.
“I’ve got things to do,” Fury replies, deliberately vague. “Make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.”
Fury leaves immediately, although he would argue to the death that he hadn’t fled; he’d simply determined that there are better uses of his time and skills.
He will never admit that a child made him retreat, of course. That would be ridiculous.
Maria Hill takes one look at Bruce Banner and hands him over to the agent Stark had caught playing Galaga almost a year ago. She figures that video games and children go together like peanut butter and jelly.
She doesn’t take into consideration how frustrated Banner might get when he’s playing video games.
Mini-Hulk goes on a mini-rampage through the ship, doing very little damage but avoiding all pursuers until he disappears, causing a ship-wide search that lasts for hours, ending a few minutes before the rest of the Avengers return to the Helicarrier. They find him by recalibrating the onboard sensors to detect the faint gamma radiation the Hulk still gives off.
Both Hill and Fury are relieved, because neither of them want to know what Stark would have done if Banner had still been missing when they’d had returned from their mission.
Banner sleeps right through the debriefing, and through the trip home, and when he wakes up, he’s nearly four decades older.
Bruce wakes up slowly on a comfortable mattress, between sheets so soft they might be silk, and he groans.
This is one of those situations where he wishes he couldn’t remember anything—not that his memories are clear, but he remembers enough.
There’s a knock on the door, and Bruce grabs the spare pillow and drags it over his head.
“Rise and shine!” Tony says cheerfully. “You never sleep this late.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve never aged almost four decades in the space of twelve hours,” Bruce mutters, his words muffled by the pillow, wondering if he can find a way to get the ground to open up an swallow him. “Go away.”
“Are you kidding?” Tony asks, bouncing on the edge of Bruce’s bed; he can feel it, even if he doesn’t bother opening his eyes. “They want to see you. As soon as they heard you were back to your usual, loveable self, all the Avengers came over.”
Bruce groans into his pillow. “Thor?”
“He’s coming later with the lovely Dr. Foster,” Tony announces cheerfully. “And thank you, by the way. Meeting her was the motivation I needed to make sure Stark Industries hired her. So, come on. We’re comparing notes. And video footage.” Bruce doesn’t move. “And if you don’t get up, it all goes on YouTube.”
That’s not an idle threat, although Bruce suspects that there’s already footage out there somewhere. Even when they don’t see anybody taking pictures, there’s a viral video about fifteen minutes after cleanup has started post-battle.
He wishes now that he hadn’t woken up in the middle of the night because his suddenly too-small shirt had been trying to strangle him, or that he’d resisted the need for a glass of water. If he’d stayed in bed, he wouldn’t have run into Tony in the hall, and Tony wouldn’t have called in the rest of the gang.
Okay, granted, Jarvis probably would have informed Tony about Bruce’s changed state, but he might have gained a few more hours.
Bruce is fairly certain that he could have managed to hide from Tony and Pepper for a few days, until he got over his embarrassment. That’s not a possibility now.
He wallows in self-pity for another minute, and then rolls out of bed with a sigh, grabbing whatever adult-sized clothing comes to hand first, ignoring the small t-shirts and jeans hanging in the closet.
Well, mostly ignoring; he snorts when he sees the Iron Man t-shirt, because of course Tony would do that.
And then, with some trepidation, Bruce pads out to the kitchen.
Pepper is the first to spot him. “Bruce! Good morning.”
Bruce can deal with pleasantries. “Good morning,” he says as everybody looks at him.
“Sit down,” Tony orders, patting the stool next to him. “Have a muffin. They’re delicious.”
“Coffee?” Steve asks.
Bruce settles on the stool and says, “Yes to coffee, no to the muffin.”
He tries not to notice the childish drawings stuck to the front of the fridge, right next to the more professional sketches that Steve had drawn.
“So, how does it feel?” Clint drawls, one arm in a sling, shoving a chunk of muffin into his mouth with his good hand.
“Well, I don’t really feel any different than, you know, before,” Bruce replies slowly, taking the mug Steve holds out to him with a nod of gratitude.
Everyone is still staring at him expectantly.
Bruce sighs. “So, uh. Thanks. And sorry for all the trouble.”
There’s a long pause, and Tony says, “Trouble? Are you kidding me? Mini-Hulk was adorable. Not that I’m not glad to have you back to yourself, but seriously. There was no trouble.”
“It was kind of fun,” Steve adds helpfully.
Bruce makes a noise that adequately expresses his disbelief.
Tony rolls his eyes. “Here, see for yourself.” He holds up a Stark tablet and pulls up a video, and Bruce is a little surprised when everybody else moves so they can see. “Jane sent this to Pepper, who was kind enough to share.”
Bruce glances at Pepper, who offers a shrug that isn’t at all apologetic. “It was too good not to,” she insists.
Bruce stares at the screen, watching a miniature Hulk roar—well, roar is a little too generous—with laughter as Thor flings him into a wall.
“Adorable,” Natasha confirms. “Although you were a really cute kid, too.”
Bruce feels his face heat. “Uh.”
“Did you get that footage?” Clint asks.
“Oh, you mean where Bruce and Natasha actually beat you at hide and seek?” Tony says, pulling it up.
Bruce heartily wishes that the floor would swallow him—or that someone else would do something equally embarrassing so he isn’t the center of attention.
“I’m partial to the picture that Pepper took of us,” Steve says mildly.
Pepper whips out her phone. “This one?” she asks, passing it to Steve.
In spite of his better judgment, Bruce looks at the picture, showing Steve drawing, a dark-haired boy peering over his shoulder. “That one,” Steve agrees, and then flips to the next picture, one of the boy with Tony, sitting on a lab table, watching Tony solder.
Bruce recognizes himself, of course, but his childhood isn’t something he likes to think about, and his memories of the last few months aren’t entirely clear.
But then Steve flips to the next picture, and the next, and something in his chest twists and unfurls as he realizes what they’re trying to show him.
He’s staring at a picture of the miniature Hulk joyfully smashing scrap metal while Tony looks on indulgently when he finally gets it.
These strange, broken people have his back; they’re maybe even family.
“So, I was no trouble at all, huh?” he manages.
Tony grins. “Well, I wouldn’t say that exactly. I hear you nearly gave Fury an embolism.”
And Bruce just has to laugh, because it seems this is his life now.
It’s not a bad life to have.