Bruce gets back into the city that night after Natasha does, listening to the steady tone of her voice on the other end of the phone, calmly explaining that there's been some sort of incident, she's handling it for now, but his help would be greatly appreciated. Bruce has listened to the message a dozen times, trying to discern an element of chaos, something that will let him know what's happened.
When he arrives at Stark Tower and is promptly pummeled with no less than thirty Nerf darts he realizes what's happened.
"Ha! I got him! I was the first!" A scruffy kid with dirt smudged across his face and a pair of lab goggles over his eyes is hanging upside down triumphantly from a banister in the ceiling, a small Nerf gun in his hand. Bruce frowns and shakes one that's slipped down his shirt onto the floor and points.
"How'd you get up there?"
"Nunya," the kid says proudly, and flips onto the ground.
"You're here." Natasha looks around the corner from the kitchen and gestures for him to follow. "Clint. I told you what I'd do to you if you didn't lose that gun in the next five seconds!"
"Yes, ma'am," the boy (Clint, apparently, and Bruce does a double take, realizes with a jolt that it is Clint, couldn't be another person at all, and nearly sits down) says, and vanishes into an open air duct.
"We won't see him until dinner," Natasha mutters. "Tony."
"It was boiling. I was trying to help."
"Well you're being a pain in the ass. Get down and go help Steve set the table."
"Please, I'm begging you," Bruce says, wrapping a hand around Natasha's arm. "Tell me what is happening."
"The men have all been deaged, sir." JARVIS's voice sounds from the ceiling, sounding half amused and half...sad, if Bruce thinks about it. "Agent Romanov has been caring for them since it occurred last night. She phoned you immediately and we booked a SHIELD flight straight here."
"Yeah, thanks for that." Bruce looks into the pot of pasta simmering on the stove. "You're cooking for them?"
"I was in meetings all day about this garbage. JARVIS ordered out for them. All of them are actually pretty self-sufficient. Except for Thor." She jerks her head toward the table, where rightful prince is doing what princes always do -- pouting. "He's not adjusting well. 'Tis not a palace," she adds in a quiet, English accent. Bruce smiles. "Can you put the pasta in a bowl and dump the sauce over it? There's meatballs in the oven, too."
"Look at you."
"I've been a nanny several times. This is easy." Another Nerf dart sails into the kitchen, landing in the bowl of sauce. "Clint!"
Dinner puts everyone except Tony and Clint to sleep pretty fast. Bruce suspects Thor's gone to bed out of spite, but Steve's dead to the world, head pillowed in Bruce's lap, lightly snoring. Natasha is cleaning up a few darts that are scattered around the room while Tony and Clint stare mindlessly at the TV.
"Not even possible," Tony says, shooting a dart at the screen.
"It's The Jetsons, okay? It's not supposed to be possible." Clint is clearly a microsecond from throttling Tony like a bug, but Tony just smirks.
"I'm just sayin'."
"And I'm just sayin' that you should shove it before I string you up from the ceiling by your friggin' toes--"
"Boys." Natasha stands over them, rather fearsome looking to two six year olds sitting on the ground, and frowns. "Bed. Now." They open their mouths to argue and Bruce clears his throat, shaking his head when they look at him and lifting Steve from the couch.
"Yes, ma'am," they intone, and follow Bruce from the living room into the makeshift bedroom Natasha's put together down the hall. He sets Steve on one part of the bed, next to Thor, and Tony and Clint climb in after him, settling under the blankets.
"Are you guys married?" Clint asks, looking between them suspiciously. "Because you don't look married."
"Nunya," Bruce says quietly, and pulls the blankets over them. Clint grins at him and turns away from the other boys, closing his eyes and shutting everyone else out. Tony is watching him carefully, with a look Bruce knows well. "Something on your mind?"
"Are we friends? Like...like I get this, in the most literal and direct way, I guess. That we were all a bunch of kick-ass super heroes and stuff and now we're like kids or whatever, but...but I don't understand why you're here. Or her. I don't have friends," Tony says, as if he's trying to enlighten Bruce. "Not real friends. Just...anyway. Whatever. I'm tired."
"We're friends," Bruce assures him.
"Yeah. Night, weird dude."
Bruce stands and goes out of the room, closing the door behind him him. Steve is still snoring away and Thor's finally fallen asleep for real. Tony won't be far behind. When he goes into the living room, Natasha's cleaning up the remaining darts and asking JARVIS to shut everything down. "Long day, honey?" he asks, leaning against the wall.
"Oh, you know how it goes."
"I didn't realize you were super nanny."
Natasha smiles. "I didn't realize you were so good at tucking in little punks."
"Well, we all have our strengths." He bends down to pick up a stray dart. When he looks up, Natasha is in front of him, taking it from his hands and depositing it in a bag. "Hi," he murmurs.
"I missed you."
"You didn't call."
She frowns. "I could say the same for you."
"We'll have the same excuses as always, you know," he says quietly. Natasha drops the bag and wraps her arms around his neck. Bruce leans in, taking in the scent of her, pressing his nose deep against her shoulder, kissing her collar bone. "Wanna go to bed?"
"No, with the kids. Yes. With me." Bruce lifts her head by her chin and kisses her, slowly, carefully. "I missed you."
"I know," she says quietly. "Me, too."
They end up falling asleep on the sofa, wary of getting too far from the boys, and not really making it very far after Bruce started kissing every inch of her skin he could reach. He's lucky he's decent looking, after two hours of what they did the night before. He wakes up to the sound of something obnoxiously beeping in his ears, and the distant drone of JARVIS repeating, "You do not have authorization in this area," while a rather underage voice swears violently.
"Morning, love birds. JARVIS won't let Thor into that room over there."
"That's my bedroom," Natasha says gently, extracting herself from Bruce's arms and straightening her clothes. "No one has access to it except for me. And Bruce. So everyone just go into the kitchen. Steve, make them breakfast."
Yes, ma'am." Steve gives a curt nod and then a rather shifty look toward Bruce, who Natasha is pulling behind her into her room, hefting his bag onto her shoulder.
"Hey." Bruce takes it from her once she shuts the door, cut off when she presses her mouth against his. He groans into it, stumbling backward onto the bed. "Hey," he says.
"Yeah, I know. I want it, too. But there's sort of, like, four tiny problems outside and we don't really know anything about it." Natasha sighs and rolls off of him, stripping out of her clothes. "That is really unfair."
"Supposedly it's going to wear off."
"How long is that going to take? Also supposedly? Who the fuck told you that?"
"A lackey. I don't know. Doesn't matter. I didn't want anyone keeping their hands on them too long. Tony's...reversed. Steve's tiny. Thor's whatever, and Clint's still Clint -- but they're still superheroes, Bruce. They're still deadly, still worth something. Can you imagine what someone would do to get their hands on a deaged Tony Stark? To kill him before we can zap him back into his obnoxious, well-intentioned, genius asshole self?"
"God he'd be kissing your feet right now."
"Look." Natasha goes into the bathroom and turns on the shower. "What I'm saying is...is I want to do this on our own. I want us to figure this out. That's...part of why I called you, actually."
"And the other part?" Bruce follows her, leaning against the door while she finishes undressing. She pauses before stepping into the shower.
"Go check on the kids."
She shuts the shower door and Bruce frowns, unsure of what he's done this time. It's taken him months to get her to open up to him, and months to get himself to open up to her. They're still only half-opened doors, still just letting out a little bit at a time. Bruce is always worried he'll press to hard, and she never asks him to come back often enough.
He changes his clothes and goes out into the kitchen, where Steve is trying to stop an all out Fruit Loop war from overtaking the apartment.
"Enough!" Bruce bellows, and everything stops. "What are you doing?" He's trying very hard not to imitate the fathering skills he was subjected to, but good God, this is getting out of hand. "Clean this up. Now." The boys scurry around and pick up all the cereal, and Bruce can't even believe that these are the people he's been taking orders from for almost a year now. Tony looks up over the counter and sticks his tongue out.
Like any mature adult, Bruce sticks his out right back.
Lunch is pizza ordered out and delivered around one. Thor eats one all by himself, Steve hardly manages to pick at his. Pepper comes by in the afternoon, completely avoiding the kitchen. She and Natasha talk in low voices out in the hall and Pepper leaves, nodding curtly to Bruce and heading to the elevator.
"She's working with the genetics department. They've got secure samples of the blood and they've been alerted to the situation, but so far, nill's come out of there."
"I'm not a geneticist."
"No. But you know a little bit about DNA alteration. I also...called in a favor. A, uh, a friend." Bruce narrows his eyes. "Well he's not my friend, Fury knows him. Anyway, doesn't really matter. He knows a little bit about DNA alteration as well. He's young but--"
"Agent Romanov, Mr. Parker is here."
"Great." She vanishes, leaving Bruce still lost and working around his words.
"Wait!" he yells after her. "You called Spider-Man?"
Peter Parker is having some sort of fit in Bruce's lab.
"Oh my god. Oh my god, this is so weird."
"Peter." Natasha puts a firm hand on his shoulder. "You said you'd 'be cool.'"
"Yeah, but like, Tony freaking Stark's a first grader. This is wild."
"We know," Bruce says.
"And you! I'm breathing the same air as you! I mean, I'm breathing the same air as all the Avengers. So cool. Are these the blood samples?"
"Yes." Bruce slides a microscope across the table. "I don't see any substantial, genetic changes, so I'm thinking it could--"
"Be effecting the thyroid?"
"Yes, actually." Bruce smiles. "Good call."
"I mean, this is magic though, isn't it?"
"Freaking magic," Peter mutters.
Bruce nods sympathetically. "Tell me about it."
They emerge victoriously from the lab a few hours later, gang of child Avengers in tow. "Well?" Natasha's cooking dinner again, setting an extra place for Peter.
"Good news is, it's going to wear off," Peter says brightly, washing his hands.
Bruce sighs. "Bad news is, we don't know when."
"Well, it's better than nothing." She comes over and wraps her hands around Bruce's, folding them together. "See? Good call, right?"
"Great call. Peter needs to be a permanent fixture here."
"Ha. Yeah, okay. You still need to call my aunt and explain why I'm chilling with superheroes. She doesn't know, man."
"I'll take care of it."
"You better." Peter ushers the boys to the table. "Yo, kidlets, who wants dinner?" He turns to them. "You know, I can watch them. If you two want, like, a break. Or whatever. Bruce worked hard. Plus, I love kids. How many people get to say they've hung out with a Captain America like this?"
Bruce nods before Natasha can protest, pulling her out of the kitchen and into the living room. "What are you doing?" she asks quietly.
"You did not just call me here because all our superhero friends got turned into preschoolers."
"No. But you have to admit, that's a really significant part of it."
Bruce smiles. "Yeah, I agree."
"And I may have had ulterior motives."
"Now, see? That's the honesty I've come to admire and respect you for." Natasha grins and leans forward, whispering carefully in his ear. Bruce groans. "No fair. No fair."
"Come on. You haven't been to your apartment since you got here."
"I don't intend on leaving it ever again," he says wistfully. Natasha turns to him as they get on the elevator.
"Now, Dr. Banner. Don't say things you don't mean."
Bruce wakes up to the sound of screaming.
Actually, it's more like the sound of a grown man throwing a tantrum, and Bruce thinks he knows what's happened.
"It wore off," Natasha says, poking her head around the corner. Bruce is still very much naked and rather disappointed that she is very much not, but he goes with it. :Tony and Steve are having at it. I think they're blaming one another for it. Also, Tony woke up with a hole in his chest--"
"It's fixed, it's fine." Natasha shuts the door behind her and crawls over the bed, shedding clothes as she does. "He fixed himself, like a good boy, and Pepper's doing some media damage control. Apparently it got out that everyone was kiddified, or whatever. I thought it was funny." She hauls herself into his lap, reaching between them where Bruce is hard, almost embarrassingly so. "Good dream?"
"It's the morning."
"Impressive." She kisses him. "So? What'd you think of our combined parenting skills?"
"I think you and I should not procreate. Separately or together."
Natasha smiles against his lips, tongue darting into Bruce's mouth. "See? This is why I like you."
No one can really look Bruce in the eye when he gets there except for Clint -- Thor's already gone, going back to wallow in princehood or something obnoxious like that, Clint informs him -- and Tony and Steve are acting, well, a lot like children from either side of the breakfast table.
"Wow. It's like nothing's changed," Bruce murmurs. "How's your heart?"
"Oh you know, swelling with adoration for your selfless acts of fatherhood for the benefit of us," Tony says. "Also achy? is that a word? It aches. But I'll be fine."
"No." Pepper rounds the corner, hauling him out of his chair. "You're going downstairs, hooking yourself up to the machine, and making sure everything's alright." Bruce swears there's a silent and then ravaging the ever loving fuck out of my body in there somewhere -- he likes to think he knows the two of them pretty well. Tony throws him a pitiful glance, but clasps him on the shoulder nonetheless on his way out. Steve stands abruptly.
"It's not your fault," he blurts out. Tony turns around. "Sorry. I didn't...I'm sorry. Being that way again. It upset me. I blamed you. I always blame you--"
"Usually it's because it is his fault," Clint points out.
"Right," Steve agrees. "Anyway. I'm sorry, if it matters."
Tony lets go of Pepper's hand and approaches Steve, almost uneasily, smiling as he does. "Yeah, bud. It does. And, you know, if it makes you feel better, it probably is my fault anyway." He winks and lets Pepper drag him out of the room and onto the elevator. "See you kids in hell!"
Bruce shakes his head as they shut the front door and turns back to the table. "You guys feel alright? Any lingering effects?"
"Yeah," Clint mutters. "I'm fucking jealous that kid me got to hang out in the airducts unimpeded by JARVIS." He stares up at the ceiling mutinously. "Traitor."
"I'm only doing what I've been programmed to do, sir."
"Whatever. I've gotta hit the gym. I feel all...boneless. Anyway. Comin' with, Rogers?"
"In a minute." Steve glances at Bruce.
"Suit yourself." Clint leaves silently. Natasha follows him. Apparently everyone gets it except for Bruce.
"Uh. Hi. What's up?"
"I wanted to thank you. Both of you. Officially. Natasha won't...she won't really listen to me much beyond that, and really, I wanted to say this to you." He leans forward. "I know. About the two of you. And you know, I wasn't happy about it, when I found out. I thought...I thought it could warp the team dynamic."
Bruce rolls his eyes. "Please do not preach to me about team dynamics, Steve. You and Tony have the most messed up relationship I've ever seen."
"I know." Steve pinches his nose and shakes his head. "Look, I just...I just want you to be careful."
"Natasha's a big girl, she--"
"Around Natasha." Bruce frowns. "Just...just be cautious. I know you care about her. And it's obvious that she cares about you. But you're both the kind of people who look out for yourselves above anyone else, and I know she wouldn't hesitate to drop you if it meant saving her own skin." Steve sighs. "I care about both of you. A great deal. That's why I'm telling you this." He stands, clasps Bruce on the shoulder, and leaves the room.
Bruce knows these things in theory. Knows that Natasha is a brutal loner, knows that he isn't in love, that he shouldn't be in love -- he's done that before, and he knows where it gets you.
But sometimes, it feels like he is.
Sometimes she smiles at him a certain way, trusts him with a story or an hour of her life, trusts him with her body, with her control. She trusts him, and maybe it's real and maybe it's just something else she's made up, but Bruce knows that he trusts her, perhaps more than he should.
She's in his kitchen now, still in the swing of cooking, humming and singing along with something old JARVIS keeps on Bruce's playlist, stirring something sweet in a bowl.
"Didn't you hear? We ran out of kids." He goes to her, kisses her neck. She leans into it.
"It's for us, goof."
"It's an angel food cake."
"Mmhm." He stays there for a minute, holding her, taking in the smell of her. She relaxes into him, and eventually he lets go. "Do you trust me?" he whispers. Natasha stills. "I'm sorry. I'm just--"
"Yes. Sometimes. When you're here. When I can see you, and I know. You're easy to read. For me. I know when you're hiding things, and I know when you're being completely honest."
"I can't say the same thing about you."
"I know. I've got more practice." She keeps stirring. "Does it bother you?"
"Not really." He kisses her temple. "You want me to mash these strawberries for the cake?" She turns to him and smiles.
They move carefully around one another, not out of any fear, or any caution. Just...carefully. Because they are careful people. Later, when they've eaten and it's late, Bruce makes love to her, kisses her with reverence, lays her out on his sheets and kissing every inch of her, until she's shivering and begging and clutching him to her. He isn't in love, he's not falling in love, he doesn't really know if it is love.
But it isn't off the table, either.