The small child slid past him, back to the wall, eyeing him warily. Tony forced himself to be still, hands open on his lap as the child kept the first aid box like some kind of shield inbetween him and Tony.
Tony wasn't exactly sure why- he was the least frightening out of all of the men (he could remember the sheer terror on Bruce's face when first faced with Thor, and Thor had been so heartbroken when he left in order not to scare him that it rained for two hours straight) and it wasn't like Natasha couldn't handle herself.
But Bruce being Bruce was a bundle of contradictions and had instantly attached himself to the single female of the group when he'd first woken up. Natasha cooed over him- Clint glared bloody murder for the first ten minutes, until he noticed how Bruce hunkered down at the glare, keeping himself between the archer and the spy.
It was a little sweet if it weren't so heartbreaking really.
Natasha watched as Bruce climbed up to her side, balancing the first aid kit in his hands, before smiling at him. "Going to fix me up?" She was remarkably indulgent with the de-aged child.
Bruce silently nodded- not even Natasha had been able to coax so much as a word from out of him yet.
She lifted her arm, with its sluggishly bleeding scratch. Normally Clint took care of it, but when Bruce had eyed the first aid kit, making a little motion to it, Clint had handed it over. Quietly, and out of ear range, he vowed to fix up whatever Bruce got wrong later.
Bruce popped open the lid, and rummaged around for a minute, before pulling out the balm. Carefully he disinfected the wound, regarding it critically. Natasha's eyes met with Tony's over the bowed head, perfect understanding flashing between them.
Bruce was far too good at this. He was only twelve- maybe a little older. He should not be this used to caring for wounds unless-
"You're really good at this, where did you learn?"
Cautious eyes flickered to Tony, and Tony willed himself to look as harmless as possible. At last dark eyes turned to the woman. "Momma got hurt a lot. So I helped her out." His voice is soft, quiet, hesitant.
"Did your dad make her hurt?" Not a single emotion entered those dark eyes as he solemnly shook his head- his hands trembled slightly as he put the band-aid on perfectly, just barely big enough to cover the wound.
"Tony." He looked to her, and her head jerked, "Out."
Tony whined, because that was the sort of person he was, little-Bruce terrified of him or not. "What? C'mon Natasha, you can't just hog him! I wanna take him down to the science lab and see how much he knows!"
Bruce flinched slightly. Natasha wrapped an arm around him, and glared at him. "Out."
He dramatically walked out.
It took Bruce an hour to stop shaking long enough to confess to Natasha that yes, sometimes daddy did get mad, and please don't tell anyone.
She solemnly promised, while thinking of horrible things to do with the father as soon as Tony had tracked down the man. He had Jarvis working on that, because Shield records were remarkably narrow on the fact they focused merely on Bruce Banner and not on his family. Or if they did, then they were hidden from Natasha's view. Her eyes narrowed slightly at the thought, arms wrapped around Bruce, in an expression of care she didn't realize she had within herself. She would have to go hunting.
Bruce did not keep a normal eating schedule. Thor bore witness to that when he went wandering past the kitchen at two in the morning to find Bruce carefully balanced on a chair scooted up to the counter-top, a delicate balancing act that enabled him to reach the top shelves where Thor had stashed his pop tarts.
The demi-god blinked, staring at the child. Midgardian cubs were tiny, thin, and weak. They needed all the substance they could afford.
So he did what any warrior should do- he strode over and plucked a box of his favorite kind, the strawberry kind, off the top shelf and handed it down to the child.
Bruce jumped, eyes going wide, but Thor was quite determined not to flee this time. He was a big brother, and determined to act like one for once. "You are hungry, yes? Eat and be hearty!"
A slight furrow appeared between his eyes, a tiny little crease. "Is it okay?" His voice was soft, nearly swallowed by the cold room, but he clutched at it like a lifeline.
Thor lifted Bruce easily, carrying him to the table. "I would not offer if I did not mean it! Come, we will share it and make a feast of it!"
Bruce giggled self consciously, before stuffing a hand in his mouth to stop. Thor cocked his head inquisitively- many Midgardian mothers encouraged laughter, did they not? "Come my friend, laugh if you wish! I will eat it all."
Bruce instantly handed over the box, not even contesting for it. That wasn't right either. He was absolutely certain form the moving picture things that midgaridian cubs fought each other for food all the time. Well, he was a little big for fighting…
"I'm a good man, I will still share if you will not contest me."
Thor handed over a silvery package of pop tarts, which Bruce solemnly took. Then, solemnly, the blond haired man lifted the poptart into the air, "May Odin's blessings fall upon us who are about to break our fast here."
Bruce giggled softly again, and Thor smiled back- He didn't miss when Bruce quietly slipped the poptarts into his pocket, nor how Bruce only managed to eat half of a single slice before pronouncing himself full. This wane appetite was common for the older Banner as well-
It didn't exactly explain why when he told Natasha, as caretaker of Bruce, what went on last night, she became quiet and thoughtful before making him promise that if he ever saw Bruce finding his own food to make it for the child.
Midnight explosions became a regular occurrence as Thor and Bruce attempted to learn how to cook. Though Bruce proved to have a fair grasp on how to cook already, and when Thor asked, he simply said he had too- his dad wasn't going to cook for him, and he would get hungry.
Thor didn't understand, but didn't ask any further- he knew a sore spot when he touched upon it. Instead, he sang odes of old, his deep voice filling the kitchen, making up for Bruce's silence.
Clint was pretty certain that he managed to piss the kid off. It was obvious by the suddenly dark, dangerous edge to the child's eyes, scarily reminiscent of the Hulk. But it was impossible; because it was quite obvious that Bruce wasn't changing. Anyways, anger-management issues came later in life.
He had, in all honesty, forgotten that just because Bruce was younger, he wasn't any less of a genius.
So when he sipped his coffee one-day only to have his mouth start burning like crazy, he was ninety-percent certain who had done it.
Bruce smiled from his very, very safe vantage point of right next to Natasha, a wide, almost creepy smile that just dared Clint to get any closer.
Clint leveled a finger. "I will get you back. You better watch your back kiddo."
Some emotion drifted across the kids face, almost like fear, before Bruce nodded, back squaring his shoulders beneath those eyes. Clint had an idea about shooting him full of nerf arrows- he had forgotten that Bruce's idea of getting back would quite probably include explosions.
That was why when Tony Stark screamed at him to toss the strange concoction out the window, he had just stared stupidly- before it exploded in his hands and the only thing he could think was that oh crap I'm going to die and nobody ever told me that even when he was twelve Bruce had anger management issues that blew up on you-
Then all went dark.
He woke up to babbling voices, "Don't ever, ever do that again, got it? He could've died!"
"No he wouldn't of." The petulant, soft voice was the first time Bruce had spoken within his hearing range, "I was careful. He just fainted from shock."
"How did you know how to mix it anyways, I swear if Tony left that recipe lying around for you to find-" Natasha was angry; Clint was smug in the fact that Tony was going to be quaking in fear in his own little corner soon enough.
"No. I haven't gone near Mister Stark." Bruce murmured, "Dad taught me. And he tested it out on me." The bitter tones were so soft that Clint almost lost it among the white noise of the room.
He tried to imagine it, a little kid being experimented on, and thought of how badly Bruce reacted when he was older when people made motions of getting him to a lab. Suddenly it made sense- too much sense.
Clint laughed from the bed, as he let his eyes open, hand stretching out to tousle Bruce's hair. "You got me good there."
Then he paused as he realized he was bright purple. "Please tell me this can be washed out." Bruce's silence was the only answer he needed. Dramatically he groaned, flopping into Natasha's lap. "'Tasha! I'm purple! Will you lend me your tutu?"
"I don't have one Clint. Now then- congratulations, you're off all missions until it wears off. Come on Bruce, let's go find something to eat."
"What? Wait, you can't be serious! Natasha? 'Tasha!"
The last thing he heard was Bruce's heartwarming giggles as Natasha walked out with him.
Steve kept both his eyes on the pad before him, deliberately concentrating on the smooth strokes of the pencil as it traveled across paper. Behind him he could hear a small rustle of a child curious- but Bruce didn't approach any closer then where he was.
Steve willed himself to look calm. Most children didn't fear Captain America, but then again, few children were Bruce. Bruce had dodged each of the adults except for Natasha until Bruce himself had made the first step after cautiously observing them for awhile.
But Steve had to admit that it stung a little- Even Clint had gotten the chance to laugh and joke with Bruce before he had, and usually the kids dashed for him before anyone else. Well, that wasn't fair to Clint- but Bruce was slowly getting used to each adult, bit by bit, step by step. Thor and Clint seemed to be the two males Bruce trusted, and Tony... Well, Tony had handed over his stash of alcohol to Steve with a solemn face. (Steve could still remember the fourteen hour search after Bruce had stumbled on the drunken man, how it was eventually Natasha that coaxed him out from his safe vantage point of being curled up in a park tube slide and willing to spend the night if he had too)
There was a quiet thud from behind him, and he half turned from his sitting position on the floor, to smile at Bruce. Bruce on his part looked like a frozen deer, from where he had fallen in his attempt to climb on the couch to see what was going on.
"Would you like to come see?"
He beckoned slightly, but didn't move. Let Bruce come to him, not the other way around. Bruce cautiously climbed off the couch, approaching the man with wary eyes. Steve flipped the pad up- it was a bit of a risk to draw this, he had to admit, but he wanted to see how little Bruce reacted.
"What is that?" Bruce asked cautiously, his soft voice nearly swallowed by the huge room, hands tucked firmly behind his back. "It looks kind of human, but it's green. And big."
"It's an ally of mine. The man was a very good man, but then an accident happened, and this was created."
"Oh." Bruce stared at the pad, crouching next to Steve to peer at it closer. "So he's a monster like me." He didn't sound like he was aware he had said it out loud.
Steve's heart grew cold. Monster? Who would call Bruce a monster? At such a young age as well? "Who said that?" If it was a Shield agent, he would talk to Fury. See if he wouldn't.
Bruce looked at him cautiously, through long lashes, and Steve tapped the pad. "He isn't a monster. And neither are you."
"But Dad- Dad always said I am. Because… Because I let mommy die."
Bruce bit his bottom lip, suddenly backing for the door. Steve, before he really thought it out, caught the child by the wrist, wrapping both arms in a fierce, tender hug. The small child went completely stiff and still, the slightest tremor of fear vibrating through him. "You're not a monster, and it wasn't your fault." Steve promised blindly, "You're only twelve, what could you possibly do?"
"I should have stopped him, I should've done something. But I only stood there and watched as he pounded her head against the pavement again and again and again." Bruce shook from the force of his sobs, composure breaking down and crumbling like sand, "I didn't do anything."
"It wasn't your fault." Steve promised. "It wasn't your fault."
He held onto him for hours afterwards, allowed Bruce to quietly cry into his shoulder without stop, until at last Bruce fell asleep in his arms.
He explained what he learned to the rest of the Avengers, late at night, after he'd tucked Bruce away in his bed, heart aching for the child.
None of them got much sleep that night.
The low whirl of machinery was his life's song. It permeated every memory he had, filling it with a touch of gentleness he never got anywhere else.
He never noticed when it became lonely- like now. Normally he had his little scientist buddy he could bother for proper English when he got lonely, but… his buddy really was little now, and twice as silent and reluctant then when he was an adult.
The little guy just didn't even know how to speak half the time, watching him with wide eyes as he paced back and forth, ranting and raving about his machines, waiting for something- anything- just one drop of Bruce's genius to show through.
Nothing. Just- nothing. Bruce just looked at him, and said nothing, not even when he purposefully messed up a few of the equations that a ten year old should know. So, he changed tactics, and went for the less obvious one.
He left out his own twelve year old writings for Bruce to find, and a nice pencil that just begged to be written with.
Then he set up a camera, and set up camp around a video feed to see what happened next. Even as a twelve-year-old Bruce had amazing self-control. Seriously; he passed by the notes three times, looked at them without touching for five minutes, and then forced himself to go on.
Fourth time was the charm as Bruce cautiously picked up the first piece of paper, feather light and peered at the second page.
The pencil went untouched.
When a noise came down the hallway, Bruce hurriedly replaced the paper and rushed off. Tony swore at the screen, and stomped off to find his notes and actually give it to Bruce.
The little kid looked absolutely stunned when he handed over the papers. Tony looked back at him.
"Are you sure you won't get mad?" Bruce asked cautiously, eying the doorway, trying to figure out how long it would take to bolt towards it. If he could make it. Tony recognized the look, he'd had it a few times himself. "I don't want to make you mad."
"Who gets mad over pure genius?"
Bruce flinched. Tony's heart sank. His dad may have been a neglectful man, but at the very least he had never been angry over Tony's intelligence, and had in fact encouraged it. But for Bruce… Bruce had everything in reverse from Tony it seemed.
Tony was neglected, Bruce had too much attention. Tony's father was glad that he was intelligent, Bruce's dad was furious over it. Tony became a world-class hero, Bruce became the most feared being in the world.
"I'm not going to be mad if you correct me. If I get mad, then Natasha will kill me. And you know, that women is seriously scary. She won't stop at me being dead, she'll keep on going like some kind of demon from hell and revive me to kill me again."
Bruce nodded seriously, clinging to his twelve year old notes like they were the greatest thing he had ever seen. And for Bruce, they probably were. "So then, want to make something blow up?"
"Miss told me that I can't do that anymore." Bruce repeated dutifully, but Tony could see that hidden spark within his eyes.
"I'll be watching so it'll be perfectly safe!"
That night Bruce spoke up for the first time during a meal to brag about the masterful explosions he had helped create in the lab- Totally worth it, even if Tony was nursing bruises for several days later.