Author’s Note: This was written as a RPG (roll playing game) between co-authors Hope1iz and BlackFox12. Set after the season one finale. Twenty-third in the Redeeming Grant series.
Disclaimer: We don’t own anything from Marvel: Agents of SHIELD or the Avengers and we’re not making any money from this fic.
Summary: Seven of the team members run into problems working on an artifact. Chaos ensues.
Warning(s): Spanking; spoliers for Agents of SHIELD and Avengers Assemble; some mentions of abusive/neglectful childhoods.
Co-Author’s Website: BlackFox12's fanfiction.net page


STRANGE HAPPENINGS


Things had been decidedly uneventful of late, Grant thought to himself, then yawned. Not that that was a bad thing. It had given him and his father and brother and sister time to bond even more closely than they already had in more calm and enjoyable surroundings. But Grant was itching for a mission. He snagged his brother's arm as the archer was walking by to go to the kitchen. "Let's go see what they brought in?" he asked.

Clint snorted. "I'm all for it, if Tin-head hasn't locked his lab so that no one else can get in to bother him."

Grant grinned. "I don't think he could have... I distinctly remember Leo coming by to get Loki earlier so that they could help him with it. And Skye is already down there and you know if there was something interesting, the only ones who would get her out are Coulson or May."

Bucky wandered up at that moment. "What are you two up to?" he asked suspiciously.

"Nothing," was said in tandem.

"We're thinking of going down to see that artifact Tony is studying..." Grant elaborated.

"Huh. Sounds like fun. Let's go, then." Bucky grinned wolfishly and turned to head for the elevator.

Looking at each other, Clint and Grant quickly caught up just as the elevator door was closing.

***

Less than five minutes later, Grant was walking into Tony Stark's laboratory, Clint and Bucky trailing behind him. Tony was standing near a platform, holding his repulsors, while Loki was holding his arm back so that he couldn't use the repulsors on said artifact.
 
"C'mon, Loks! We already know it withstands high heat; it survived that explosion and fire that uncovered it, after all. I just want to see if directed heat will give us any clues as to what it is!" Tony complained.
 
Loki frowned and shook his head at Tony. "And I tell you that I recognize this as of Asgardian origins, but that I do not know what it is myself...which means it may very well be deadly if handled incorrectly!" The demi-god huffed. "Can you not wait until we receive missive from my father on if he knows its identity?"
 
Tony pouted and reluctantly pulled the repulsors away.
 
Bucky raised an eyebrow at the billionaire and Tony's pout cleared up instantly with an innocent smile. Bucky glanced toward Leo and Skye, who were also standing and looking at the artifact. "What's been done so far?"
 
"I've scanned it to check what it's made of," Leo said. "It seems to contain a lot of organic material as well as artificial... which means it might have been used as a helmet, or possibly been fused with whoever was using it last."
 
"Can I just say eww?" Skye put in, before adding, "I've been checking online. No mention of anything similar. And that's unofficially as well as officially."
 
"And have you found anything, J?" Tony asked his AI.
 
"No, sir. Ms. Skye is correct that there is no mention of this item...however...." the AI intoned and waited a few seconds till everyone in the room was looking at the ceiling in anticipation. "There is one blurb in a very old book regarding a myth...I have forwarded the blurb to Ms. Skye's computer now." If an artificial intelligence could sound smug, JARVIS was smug.
 
Grant moved closer to the item and leaned over it, staring at it closely, until Clint pulled him back and gave him a 'what the hell?' look. "What?" he asked with a huff.
 
"You don't get that close to unknown objects of alien origin without a face mask at least. Haven't you seen any of the Alien movies? Or Species? Or any of those body-snatcher type deals?" Clint objected in mock horror, though his eyes were laughing.
 
Bucky moved to stand closer to Tony. "Right. So how long have you all been at this?" He turned to ask Loki.
 
While Loki was distracted listening to Clint and Grant and then by Bucky's question, Tony had turned the repulsors on again, holding them in front of the artifact. He was positive there would be a secret message hidden on it that would be released with the right type of heat applied.
 
Loki turned, his eyes going wide. "No! Stark, I told...."
 
The huge explosion of white light shook the building.

***

Coulson had been finishing glancing through some reports just as the explosion occurred. Even before it was over, he was on his feet and heading to the elevator (at least that didn't seem to be affected...)

"JARVIS? What was the cause of the explosion?" Coulson asked.

"Mister Stark was applying heat to the Asgardian artifact to see if it revealed any information," the AI quickly answered. "Dr. Banner, Agent Simmons and Captain Rogers are also on their way. Should I inform Agents May, Trip and Romanov?" the AI questioned.

"That would be a good idea," Coulson replied, stepping into the elevator to go the lab. He was worried... and scared... but trying really hard to stay calm. Still, he had all sorts of horrible ideas about what might have just happened.

"I have informed them, sir. I have also informed Thor. He is on his way back from Dr. Foster's and should be here within the next ten minutes. The others are on route as we speak and will likely arrive within ten to fifteen minutes," the AI intoned.

"Thank you," Coulson replied, pacing the elevator frantically. When the doors finally opened to let him out, he quickly headed to the lab, relieved to find that the door was unlocked.

Bruce and Jemma were reaching the lab at about the same time Coulson was. "Phil! Did JARVIS give you any information? This whole floor seems to have been knocked off of his sensors and it took us forever to get our door to unlock and let us out because the emergency protocol turned on when the explosion hit..." Bruce said quickly, but only somewhat calmly. Jemma had her hand on his arm and was rubbing gently, as if to keep him from getting more upset.

Coulson shook his head. "He told me Tony was applying heat to the artifact. I assume that must have set off the explosion." He'd reached for the door handle before common sense had prevailed long enough to stop him just charging in.

Jemma glanced around. "Just out of curiosity...where are the others?" She bit her lip. "I mean, I know some of them were on a grocery run...but not everyone went shopping...."

"I'm not sure." But Coulson had the awful feeling that more of them were in the lab. Deciding that he had to see if any of them needed medical attention, he reached out to open the door of the lab... though made sure he was careful doing so.

Jemma bit her lip and followed, Bruce following behind her as a sort of rear guard. It was ominously quiet in the lab, all the electronic devices either blue-screened or beeping and giving other error messages. The artifact could be easily seen, still on its pedestal, but Tony or anyone who had been in the lab with him was not visible...various cabinets having become disarrayed and blocking the view of the floor closest to the artifact.

The quiet was suddenly broken by a tiny whimper.

Coulson's worry increased a lot on hearing that whimper and he moved forward quickly, towards the source of the sound.

Bruce wasn't far behind, gently pushing past Jemma, who had stopped with a scared look on her face.

"Who...?" she finally asked faintly, as Bruce finally rounded the cabinets and stared at the floor, his eyes widening in shock.

Coulson stopped, staring at the forms of children... kids... on the floor. It took only a moment or two for him to realise who they probably were.

One of the small forms began stirring, sitting up and rubbing his eyes as if the light hurt them before looking around. "I don't know this lab..." a voice with a Scottish brogue said.

A girl (the only one in the group) also opened her eyes, looking around with a wary yet resigned look on her face. She focused on the adults, but waited, seemingly for them to say something first.

Two dark haired children were slowly sitting up, eyes going wide. "It wasn't my fault!" they both said at the same time, before turning to look at each other in confusion. "Who're you?" the smallest brunette asked demandingly.

Finally, a mound of clothing opposite the other three began to move. "Ow! Git off me!" came from the middle of the pile. The voice seemed familiar.

"Just hold yer horses!" growled the body on top...before it screamed. "My arm! Where'd my arm go!?"

The final body, at the bottom of the heap, didn't say anything. He sat up and glanced around, eyes wide, serious and frightened.

The girl looked around, taking in the other kids and then the boy who'd woken up first, before turning to the adults and looking at them. "How many other foster kids did you take in?"

"I'm not a foster kid!" the Scottish boy said indignantly.

Coulson took a deep breath and then looked at Bruce. "I think we have a problem," he said quietly.

Bruce was doing his best not to turn big, green and mean... this situation was so far out his comfort zone that it was not easy.

Jemma saw the difficulty her mentor was having and moved closer to give him a hug. She turned to face Coulson. "JARVIS is out on this floor, sir. Should we move them to a floor where he can do scans and make sure they are alright? Most of the equipment on this floor has been shorted out as well...."

Coulson nodded. "That sounds like a good idea." He hesitated, then lowered his voice even further. "I'll tell them that there's been an accident... which isn't far from the truth." He looked over the children. It was fairly easy to figure out who was who... the worst part was the look on Grant's face.

"There's been an accident," Coulson said a bit louder. "If you can all come with me... we just need to get you checked out. You're probably all feeling a bit confused right now." He gave a reassuring smile.

"What kind of an accident?" Skye asked.

Bucky, normally so calm and controlled when an adult, had tears streaming down his face and was close to going into hysterics...he kept repeating, "My arm..." over and over again.

Clint, uncertain exactly what had happened, assumed that the accident had hurt the other child and moved closer to him, gently taking the arm that wasn't missing. "C'mon. Maybe they can figure out what happened and help you?" he whispered softly. He glanced around, wondering where Barney was, but as he didn't see his older brother, assumed that he hadn't been caught in the accident. That was good. He didn't know what he'd do if something happened to Barney. It was hard enough not having his mom around any longer.

Loki frowned and glanced around as well. "This is not Asgard...how did I end up on.... Midgard?" He sighed softly and slumped. "Thor will never let me live this down and Father will be most vexed. I hope he does not forbid me from practicing my magics as punishment..." he muttered under his breath.

He hadn't muttered nearly low enough, though, as Tony glanced at him, eyebrows raising and an incredulous look on his face. "Magic doesn't exist! Just Science that hasn't been figured out yet! And I'm sure my dad will be able to figure out what happened. If he has time and actually notices that something happened...." His voice trailed off as he slumped. He obviously didn't believe that his father would realize that something had happened and that Tony might need his help.

Grant... didn't do anything. Except draw deeper into himself, if that were possible, and look like the world was about to end for him.

Bruce shook his head, managing to find his 'Zen place', as Tony liked to put it (adult Tony, at any rate) and straightened up. "Ok, kids... I need all of you to form a line so that we can get off of this floor. You will follow Miss Jemma while I and Director Coulson will follow behind you. Please be careful not to touch anything; until we are able to find out what happened, we can't be certain what is safe and what is dangerous. Can you do that for me?"

Various shades of hair were suddenly nodding and Bruce had to blink to focus again. It was so strange seeing all his friends so much shorter- and younger. He estimated their ages to be around eleven or twelve.

Jemma glanced at Bruce and Coulson, then motioned for the children- who had lined up- to follow her. She carefully began making her way out of the laboratory and to the stairwell, not wanting to risk putting seven children into a small, enclosed space with her already stressed out mentor.

Coulson followed along behind the children, but a little slower, keeping his steps level with Bruce's. "Do you need to take a bit of time out?" he asked quietly. "I know this is quite a shock." He was doing his best not to panic, instead focusing on the different cover stories he could use to explain the situation to the children. He had the feeling Loki might be the only one who could realistically be told the truth, since it was likely he'd recognise Thor and wonder why his brother was so much more older than he was.

Bucky would probably be the most difficult. Not only had he woken up with an arm missing, but this wasn't his time. And as soon as he'd calmed down, he was going to notice that this wasn't his time.

Grant...

Well, Coulson could probably tell him most of the truth. That he was his biological father. As to how his son would take it... That, Coulson couldn't anticipate.

Bruce glanced at Coulson and smiled weakly. "No...I think I've managed to contain him," he answered with a grimace. "But if I start feeling like that's about to change, I'll head to the special room made for me on my floor...." he said, grateful that Coulson was at least ready to take over if necessary. "I think the sooner we find out if there are any other health issues, the better...." he finally finished.

Jemma was never so thankful that Tony had designed the building so that the laboratories and the medical floor were not directly next to each other. If whatever surge that had knocked out JARVIS and all the science equipment had gone to the floor above or below, it would have been disastrous. But...since Tony had put the medical floor closer to the roof (in case of emergencies where they were flying in on the Quinjet- or via Iron Man or Thor), all the equipment was working and JARVIS was online and ready to help. Opening the door to the medical floor, she immediately directed the children each to their own bed. "Hop up here, please. JARVIS will be doing a scan of you to make certain you are all...healthy." She glanced at poor Bucky and hoped that Steve got there soon. She had no clue what to tell the distraught child and wondered if maybe they shouldn't give him a sedative.

Swallowing hard, she asked, "JARVIS? How far away are the others? And if you would please begin a scan of the children as soon as they are in place?"

She looked at Leo- her best friend- and bit her lip. This situation was just so odd....

***

Steve had been out having a coffee with Natasha when the call from JARVIS came through on the comms. Knowing that the AI wouldn't contact them unless there was a real problem, Steve paid and then left the coffee shop, silently followed by Natasha.

Reaching the tower, Steve asked JARVIS where everyone was and, upon being told they were on the medical floor, he and Natasha headed to the elevator up to the medical floor.

Both of them had seen some pretty strange sights in their time, but seeing their suddenly much younger teammates (and Steve recognised his best friend...) was something of a shock.

Coulson moved to take his daughter and friend aside, explaining the situation as quickly and quietly as he could.

Midway through that explanation was when Thor arrived on the floor. He stared at the children, immediately zeroing in on his brother. "Loki?" He turned to the team members who were still adults. "What happened?"

Bruce, who was working with Jemma in trying to calm Bucky down and keep the boy from going into shock, glanced over at Thor's question then looked at Jemma. "I hate to do it, but give him the smallest dose of alprazolam and then wrap him in a blanket. I'll be back as soon as I can, hopefully with help." He then quickly walked over to where Thor, Steve and Natasha stood.

By this point, May and Trip had also returned to the building and were walking out of the elevator. May's response was one raised eyebrow, while Trip's was a long drawn out, "Daaaayum!"

Jemma quickly did as Bruce directed, giving Bucky the sedative in shot form as she was afraid he'd choke on oral medication, then wrapped him up snugly in the blankets they kept for such a purpose and held him close. The other children looked as if they needed a hug, too and she found herself wishing she could hold them all.

Bruce looked at the gathered adults, then explained the situation as he knew it...which unfortunately wasn't much. Finally, he sighed and asked, "JARVIS, are the scans complete?"

"Yes, Doctor Banner. All the children are in perfect health, other than having their bodies revert back to the age of eleven. They are not in any physical health danger," the AI reported.

"Doesn't mean they aren't in any mental health danger..." May muttered then glanced at Coulson to see what the plan was.

Coulson looked over at the children and then took a deep breath as he returned his attention to his teammates. "With maybe one exception, we aren't going to be able to tell them what really happened. Skye believes she's in a foster home. I think we should continue to let her believe that." He didn't like the thought of doing that, but there wasn't much else they could do.

"Tony, Clint and Leo... I think we might be able to convince them that their family have had to go away and left them with us to look after. I'm going to tell Grant as much of the truth as I can. I'll tell him that I'm his father and that I brought him back here." It was a bit difficult; Coulson had spent years trying to find his son. It still hurt that he hadn't got Grant back until his boy was an adult and damaged in so many ways that Coulson, even now, wanted to hunt down those who'd hurt him and make them pay.

"Bucky isn't going to be easy to convince," Steve said. "I think you'd better let me talk to him."

Coulson nodded. "That would probably be best," he agreed. He turned to Thor. "Thor... I think you could realistically tell Loki at least part of what happened. Do you think he'll listen to you?"

"We were close as children," Thor replied. "He'll know I'm telling the truth."

Trip nodded. "Alright... So Cap here will talk to Bucky; Coulson will talk to Grant; Thor will talk to Loki; if you would like to talk to Skye, May... Maybe I can tell Clint, Tony and Leo the agreed upon story." Trip slanted his head thoughtfully. "What do we do with them afterwards, though? I mean...I know that Grant and Clint will likely go with Coulson; and Tony and Bucky with Cap; and Loki with Thor, but who gets Leo and Skye?"

Bruce looked up at that. "I can take Leo..."

May nodded. "I'll take Skye."

Trip nodded again. "So that leaves Jemma, Nat and I to pick up any slack and help out where needed?" He glanced at Natasha to see if she agreed with his comment, then glanced at Coulson to see if that's what his orders actually were.

Natasha nodded. "I'll help out wherever I'm needed." She didn't show any obvious emotions about her brothers now being so much younger and having no memories about their family life. Her face was as calm as always.

Coulson nodded as well. "I think that sounds about right," he agreed.

"Great," Trip muttered, then took a deep breath and started walking toward the beds, gathering Tony, Leo and Clint together and taking them to a small corner of the room, beginning the agreed upon explanation.

May, knowing that Skye was going to be staying with her after she told her agreed upon story, decided to take the younger girl up to her floor.

Bruce went and drew Jemma aside so that he could tell her what had been decided and give the other three men a chance to tell their charges what they needed to be told.

Before Coulson and Cap could go give their 'explanations', JARVIS interrupted with a softly stated announcement. "I have informed Ms. Potts of events, sirs. I have given her the sizes for the children that I scanned and she has gone out with Mr. Hogan to buy clothing for all the kids. She will send the clothing back with Mr. Hogan, as she has a business meeting in Tokyo that she must attend and she will need to leave tonight. She...she says she apologizes, but the thought of seeing her fiancé in this condition and pretending that she is just a mere secretary and means nothing to him will be too difficult."

"Thank you, JARVIS," Steve said. "Can you tell Pepper that we'll take care of them and will make sure to keep her updated on the situation, please?"

JARVIS responded quickly. "I have already done so, sir. Ms. Potts thanks you profusely and says that if there is anything needed, at all, to have me call her and she will take care of it."

"Thank you." Steve then walked over to Bucky, taking a seat on the bed next to his best friend and placing a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sure you must be very confused and distressed right now, Bucky," he said, quietly and compassionately.

Bucky looked up at Steve, his eyes wide and frightened. "Where am I? What happened?" He motioned toward his missing arm then looked around the medical lab in confusion. "This...is this a hospital? It...It has a lot of strange things..." He noted the equipment uncertainly then eyed Steve again. "I want my ma and pa...."

"I know you do," Steve replied. "I'm afraid we have no way of contacting them right now." He put a hand on Bucky's shoulder. "Things are going to be really confusing for a while and I'm not sure you'll understand any explanation I can give you. You're safe here, though."

Bucky nodded slowly, biting his lip even harder, but trying to be brave. "Wh...what about..." He glanced where his arm should be and bit his lip again.

"You lost your arm in an accident," Steve replied. "I know that's hard to deal with. If you like, we can see about getting a prosthetic fitted."

"I...I don't know..." Bucky gave Steve a lost and confused look. "What do you want me to do?" he finally asked, straightening up even further and swallowing the remainder of his tears.

"For now, you'll be coming and staying on my floor along with Tony," Steve replied. "You can have a look around and see what this place is like." He smiled slightly. "Just pay attention if JARVIS tells you not to go somewhere."

"Tony?" Bucky glanced around curiously, trying to figure out who this 'Tony' was. "This is a really fancy place...is Jarvis the guard?"

"Tony is over there." Steve nodded towards the three boys with Trip. "And JARVIS is... well, he's more like a scientist." Steve wasn't really sure how to explain it so that Bucky would understand, but he tried anyway. "You won't see him... he tends to use... radios to communicate."

Bucky glanced over to where Steve had nodded, not sure which of the three was Tony, but figuring he'd find out soon enough. "O...ok. I'll listen to Jarvis, then."

Steve nodded. "Good." He looked over at Trip and then stood up, patting Bucky's shoulder gently before walking over to the other man.

While Steve was talking to JARVIS, Coulson had walked slowly over to Grant, where his son was sitting on the bed. Instead of sitting next to Grant, he crouched down in front of the child, hoping that coming down to his son's level would help him feel a bit better. "Hello, Grant. My name is Phil Coulson," he said softly.

Grant looked up hesitantly, distrust and fear heavy in his eyes. "Hello, sir," he said respectfully. "How do you know my name?" He couldn't help the curious tone, although he bit his lip after the question, as if expecting some form of punishment or verbal admonishment for daring to ask.

Coulson forced away the deeper part of him that wanted to hunt down the people who had hurt his son so much and make them pay. He wanted to put his hand on Grant's shoulder, if not hug him outright... but he didn't want to spook the boy. "I know there's a lot of confusion for you right now. The people who you were with weren't your real family. You were... adopted by them." Illegally, but Coulson didn't say that. "I'm your real father."

Grant's eyes grew larger in disbelief, but also with a tiny bit of hope. "Are...are you keeping me, sir?" He supposed he should question Coulson's claim, but to be honest, he thought that it would be better to be with anyone other than his family. Even if the man in front of him was lying, if he was willing to take Grant away from the hell he lived every day, he didn't care.

Coulson nodded. "I am keeping you, son." He slipped the name in, hoping it would dispel some of that fear he knew Grant was feeling.

Grant relaxed fractionally. Coulson seemed to really want him and he was already a lot more calm and understanding than his family was. He really hoped it wasn't a lie....chose to act as if it wasn't. "Ok...good," he whispered softly then looked down.

Coulson gave into temptation and carefully rested his hand on Grant's shoulder, giving it a very gentle squeeze. "I have my own floor I stay on here," he said. "One of the other children will be staying with us... We'll figure out who's sleeping where when we head there." He did have a guest room on his floor, but there'd be three of them... and although adult Clint and Grant were comfortable sharing a bed with him, he figured they'd be much less comfortable as children.

Grant tensed up visibly, before relaxing under Coulson's hand. "Ok." The answer was short and sadly lacked any curiosity.

Coulson swallowed back a sigh. "We'll gather Clint and then get something to eat," he said mildly.

"O...ok..." Grant looked up at Coulson worriedly. His tone was mild, but Grant could tell something was bothering him. He only hoped that he hadn't already ruined his chance at getting away from his older brother. Although... "My little sister!" he suddenly blurted, then looked frightened that he'd blurted. He forced himself to continue, though; after all... his parents and older brother had mostly left her alone, but that was only because they had Grant and his younger brother to focus on. With his little brother dead, if he disappeared, it would leave her vulnerable. "I...I'm sorry, sir...I can't stay with you. She needs me," he forced himself to say and hoped that Coulson wouldn't be angry enough to punish him.

Coulson winced, but tried to hide it. He wasn't sure what had happened to Grant's younger sister, but it was probably a safe bet that she'd gone through a similar thing to his son. He kept his hand resting on Grant's shoulder as he spoke quietly. "Unfortunately, the family who had you moved shortly after I found you and got you back. I have people looking for them, but I believe they've gone into hiding." That wasn't far off the truth. If Coulson had found them, he would have gone after them.

Grant's eyes went from frightened to terrified in seconds. "They...You can't find them? But she needs me! I'm the only one keeping her safe!" He began to cry, positive that she would die and it would be his fault. Just like his younger brother's death was his fault.

Coulson couldn't help it. His first instinct whenever Grant was upset was to hug him and that was what he did, wrapping his arms around the boy and drawing him in close. He was careful not to hug too tightly, so that Grant could still pull away if he wanted to. "I'm in charge of an agency," he explained. "There are a lot of teams on the lookout for them. We'll find them."

Grant stiffened slightly, but then, once he realized that Coulson wasn't hurting him, he relaxed into the embrace. "Promise?" he finally asked in a small voice.

Coulson tightened his embrace a fraction when Grant relaxed into it. "I promise," he replied. "We will do everything within our power to get your sister away from them and safe."

"Ok," Grant said softly, giving Coulson a hopeful smile. "Are you really my real father? And you really want me? And I'll never have to go back to them ever again?" he whispered; as if it was hard for him to believe, but he really, really wanted to believe.

"I'm really your real father," Coulson confirmed. "And I want you. I've been searching for you for a very long time. And you will never have to go back to them."

Grant gave Coulson a tiny smile, reaching out tentatively to take his hand. "Where will I be living?" he asked quietly.

Coulson immediately grasped Grant's hand, squeezing it gently. "You'll be staying with me on my floor," he replied gently. Noticing the questions arising from the group, he straightened up and gently helped his son off the bed. "Along with Clint... let's go over so you two can meet properly," he said gently.

***

Thor moved over to Loki's side. "I know this must be very confusing for you," he began. "Do you know who I am?"

Loki looked at Thor, his eyes widening. His brother looked so different, but there was no doubt in Loki's mind that it was Thor...the man looked like father; but without the graying hair and he had both eyes. "Thor?" he asked breathlessly.... "What did you do? And why did you not include me!?" Loki sounded hurt that his brother had left him out of the fun of 'growing up' more quickly.

"I have not done anything, Loki," Thor said. "I believe Coulson told you there was an accident... during the course of the accident, you and six other team members were aged backwards, to become children again."

Loki swallowed and looked down. "I...I didn't do it...did I?" He looked up at his brother through lowered lashes, biting his lip hesitantly. Father would be so upset with him if he had caused an accident of that caliber.

"I'm not sure exactly what happened," Thor replied. "But I can't imagine you would have knowingly done something that dangerous."

"You'll tell Father that, won't you? He won't be angry if you tell him it wasn't my fault..." Loki begged his brother; he'd been de-aged to the point right before Loki (as a teen) had decided that Thor couldn't be relied on for help and had stopped looking for his brother's protection.

"You don't have to worry about Father," Thor replied. "This is where you've been staying anyway."

"We have been staying on Midgard together? Just the two of us? What of your friends?" Loki sounded exited at the prospect of time with his brother which did not involve Thor's friends.

"The people here are our friends," Thor replied. "We have somewhere to stay here... we have been sharing a floor. No one else from Asgard is here."

"These people are our friends?" Loki looked skeptical for a moment, but then smiled so brightly he looked like a different person. The child version of Loki didn't have the shadows of guilt and fear in his eyes that had become a constant in the adult version. Even once he believed that his brother wasn't sending him back to his father to face punishment, Loki had still felt out of place and not entirely wanted. This child had no such feelings of fear or guilt.

Thor nodded. "I know you don't remember them, but you can trust them," he said reassuringly.

"If you trust them, I will trust them!" Loki declared then glanced around, noting the almost belligerent looks on the faces of the three boys who were talking to the darker skinned man and the over-wrought boy talking to the older man. The only one who didn't appear to be all that upset was the boy who was missing an arm; whatever the man speaking with him had said seemed to have calmed him down considerably.

Thor smiled and wrapped his arm around Loki's shoulders. "Thank you, brother."

Loki blinked at his brother's thanks, but grinned and wrapped his own arm around Thor's waist. "Are the others to know the truth?" he finally asked in a whisper.

"I don't think they'd believe it," Thor replied, keeping his voice just as low... volume control had been one thing that he'd learned since his banishment. "I believe it's easier to tell them something they will understand, rather than try and explain why they've woken with complete strangers around."

Loki glanced in the direction of where four of the boys were and nodded. "Very well," he said softly again. "I will not tell them anything...but maybe we should find out what they have been told, so we do not contradict that accidentally?" He looked to his brother for approval.

Thor nodded, smiling at Loki. "That's a very good idea," he praised, squeezing his brother gently. It had been a long time since Thor had seen his brother this open and no longer haunted or filled with rage... It was nice to see him like this.

Loki found himself moving closer to the larger group of kids, making sure to listen closely when they introduced themselves or were introduced.

Thor automatically went with Loki... not that he didn't trust his brother; he just wanted to be there and be Loki's source of support.

***

Trip stared at the three young boys in front of him then sighed. "I know you are all wondering where your families are..." he began, only to be interrupted by Tony.

"I know where my father is. He's off hunting for Captain America again and won't be home for at least another two months." The younger version of the inventor sounded resigned, as if it was a common occurrence for his father to be gone. "My mom wouldn't have left me all alone, though...she loves me. Where is she?" he asked in suspicion. "If you all are kidnappers, I have to warn you that my father doesn't negotiate with kidnappers."

Clint frowned at the darker haired child then looked at Trip. "Only family I have is Barney and he is lucky to keep us fed most the time. If you're looking for a ransom from him, you're nuts!"

Trip's mouth hung open at the two children who had spoken, then glanced at Leo. "We aren't kidnappers!" he finally spluttered. "Your brother...and mothers..." He glanced at Fitz again- he remembered that the younger man had been raised by his single mother- then looked at Clint and Tony. "...Your families had to take care of various items that would take them away from home over night for several days and they asked us to look after you." He hoped, hoped, hoped that none of them would ask the obvious question about how all three of their families knew the same group and were all gone at the same exact time. He figured his luck wouldn't be that good, given the IQ of the boys staring at him right now.

Trip pressed his lips together tightly, wincing internally, and tried to come up with a logical reason for why two mothers and a brother- who didn't know each other- would all leave the children in the care of complete strangers. As he looked at the suspicious faces, Tony's and Clint's especially becoming mutinous, his stomach plummeted as he realized he likely wouldn't succeed. He glanced toward Steve and Coulson, hoping that one of them might be able to rescue the situation. Or maybe JARVIS? He glanced up at the ceiling, pleadingly.

"I think you'd better tell them about the virus." Steve interjected.

"What virus?" Leo asked.

Steve turned to Leo to explain, "There have been a number of outbreaks of a virus in the city. Your parents are in quarantine... They're all right at the moment, but they've been around people who have been sick. And they obviously don't want any of you to catch the virus."

Bucky followed Steve over to where the others were, his eyes widening at the words Steve told them. Why hadn't the man mentioned a virus to him? "Is that why you can't contact my ma and pa? Because they are quarantined?" His voice was small and worried.

Clint swallowed, a frightened look on his face. "Is Barney sick? He isn't going to die, is he?" Clint didn't know what he'd do if his older brother died. He was all he had left in the world.

Tony frowned, staring at Steve. His mother shouldn't have been exposed to any virus that would cause her to be quarantined with poor people...although she did do all that charity work and it was possible she had been exposed because of it...but that didn't explain why he was being sent to live with complete strangers instead of just having Mr. Jarvis watch over him like usually happened when both of his parents were away.

And then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, it clicked. "You're Captain America!" he exclaimed, his eyes going wide. "My dad found you!" He blinked as his own words registered and he bit his lip. "If my dad found you, then he should be back home, right? My dad is with my mom, quarantined too, isn't he? Why can't I stay with Mr. Jarvis until they get better? Usually he watches me when they are both gone...heck...he watches me when they are both here...how come he isn't here now?" Tony sounded more upset about the fact that Mr. Jarvis wasn't nearby than the fact that his parents would be quarantined and kept from him for an indefinite period of time, even though his worry for his mother was obvious.

Trip was grateful that Steve had come up with a viable reason for everyone to be staying with them...but the kids' words at hearing the reason nearly broke his heart. He knew his friends hadn't had the easiest of childhoods, but it hadn't registered how lonely it had been for some of them; or how rough in some cases.

Steve touched Bucky's shoulder gently and then smiled at Tony. "It's not certain that anyone is sick, but they have been exposed... including Mr. Jarvis," he said, silently apologising to the adult versions of his boy and his brother for having to lie like this. "We're part of an agency that's working on finding a cure for the virus. That's why we're the ones taking care of you right now."

Leo swallowed, looking scared and very young. "Is it fatal?" he asked in a small voice.

Steve shook his head. "No, but it's not pleasant... and it's really easy to catch."

"So... we'll be able to see them again?" Clint was hopeful as well, although not quite as trusting. He'd been hurt too many times and had learned early on that the only ones you could really count on were family.

Tony bit his lip, suddenly looking uncertain, but like he believed Steve. "Ok. You're with my dad's organization, aren't you? SHIELD? The one I'm not supposed to know about...?" He blinked at his admission and quickly covered his mouth with his hand, looking horrified that he'd managed to tell on himself to Captain America, of all people.

Bucky blinked at Tony and couldn't help but giggle.

Steve nodded to Clint. "You'll see them again," he promised, then looked at Tony and raised his eyebrows. But he spoke mildly. "Yes. All the adults here... we're all a part of SHIELD, in one way or another. The good guys."

Tony looked sheepish and scratched his ear as he looked up at Steve. "Um...you won't tell my dad I know, will you? Cuz he's always really careful to make sure I'm not in the room when he does his agent work...and the only way I could know is if I was eavesdropping or snooping and both of those will get me into really big trouble...." He stopped talking, his face falling. He wasn't very hopeful that Captain America wouldn't tell his father. His father had found the man, after all; and everyone knew Cap was the paragon of honesty and wouldn't hide something from a guy's parents if it was something dangerous and he thought they needed to know. Tony sighed, resigning himself to the fact that he was going to be grounded for the next three months (once his parents' quarantine was over) and any chance he had of doing something fun with either of his parents in that time frame was done for. Maybe if he could stay out of trouble long enough, they'd do something with him at Christmas....

Bucky chose that moment to introduce himself. "I'm Bucky. Steve says that I'm going to be staying with him, along with a Tony? Which one of you is Tony?"

Tony blinked and held up his hand. "Me...." He looked uncertainly at Steve. Why would Captain America want to waste time on him? Half the time, his own mother and father couldn't be bothered spending time with him.

Clint frowned. "Well, I'm Clint. If you two are staying with him..." he pointed at Steve, "...where am I staying?"

Steve smiled at Tony. "I'm not sure it's necessary to talk to your parents about that," he said mildly, before addressing Clint. "You'll be staying with Phil Coulson. He's coming over here now, I believe."

Loki smiled at all the boys. "I'm Loki and I will be staying with my brother, Thor!" he said proudly.

Tony raised a skeptical eyebrow; he read mythology (not that anyone else knew that; it wasn't Science, after all) and he knew who Loki and Thor were supposed to be. He thought these two's parents must have been high when they named their children, but he kept that opinion to himself. He didn't think the Captain would approve and he really wanted the Captain to approve of him. Instead, he asked, "What about the girl that was with us before? What's her name and where did she go?"

Jemma chose that moment to walk over and bite her lip. "I'm going to go to the common floor and begin dinner... does everyone here like macaroni?"

"Her name's Skye and the person she'll be staying with took her to her floor to explain things to her," Steve replied. "I'm sure she'll be joining us for food in a short while." He smiled at Jemma.

Jemma smiled back then turned to go to the common floor and begin dinner. She motioned to Natasha, who had remained quietly out of the way the entire time explanations had been going on, and asked her if she could help with dinner.

Natasha followed Jemma silently from the room, her face still not revealing anything.

"What about me?" Leo asked quietly.

Bruce had been hovering in the background, waiting for the 'story' to be told. As soon as they began introductions and telling each child who they were staying with, however, he stepped forward. "You will be staying with me, Leo." His voice was gentle and he smiled at the young boy.

Leo blinked, turning to Bruce, but didn't look worried or concerned. "Okay," he said. "Do you live here? Or somewhere else?"

Bruce nodded. "I live in this building. All of the adults you've seen live in this building on various different floors."

Clint moved over to Coulson's side and slanted his head as if he was measuring the other man. "You're willing to let me stay with you? Even though you don't know me?" He narrowed his eyes. "What's your view on 'liberating' items from people and giving them to other people who might need it more?" It would be better to find out right away if Coulson would be the patient sort if Clint got caught doing something illicit, or if he was the type to fly off the handle and get violent. He figured asking straight out and surprising the other man would get him a more honest response.

"I would much prefer it if no stealing occurred while you're here," Coulson replied, seriously but not unkindly. "You'll have everything you need or want here." He was still holding onto Grant's hand and he held his free hand out to Clint. "I'm Phil Coulson. And this is my son, Grant."

Clint nodded. "Ok. I'll be good..." He slanted his head. "I'm Clint." He glanced around the medical lab. "Can we go to your place now? I kinda don't like hospitals and..." Now that his questions had been answered, he was finally able to focus on where he was; and the similarities to the place where his mother had died were too difficult to take.

Tony, noting how uncomfortable Clint suddenly was, nodded and looked at Steve. "Yeah! Where will we be staying? Can you show us?"

"Of course," Coulson replied. He rested his hand on Clint's shoulder, guiding his two sons from the room and towards the elevator.

Steve nodded. "Come with me." He began walking from the room, moving slowly so that he could walk between Bucky and Tony.

Leo waited, not certain what he was supposed to be doing.

Bruce smiled at Leo. "Come on, then..." He carefully put a hand on the younger boy's shoulder, uncertain if he would be irritated at any show of affection. "Do you like Science?" he asked Leo quietly. He figured if he could get the boy talking about one of the interests they held in common, it could help ease the situation.

Leo nodded, relaxing a bit at the touch, and let Bruce guide him from the room. "I have my own lab at home... it's much smaller than the one here, though," he said.

Watching the last of the kids leave the room, Loki looked between Thor and Trip. "Now what?"

"Would you like to come to my floor now?" Thor asked his brother.

Loki nodded and began bouncing up and down in excitement. "Yes! Do show me where you live!"
Trip watched as the two brothers left, then glanced around the medical lab and sighed. "I guess I'll go and inform Fury of what happened, then...." he muttered and left himself.

***

May had led Skye to her floor and into her living room, indicating that the girl should sit on the sofa. She then sat down in the nearest chair facing the girl. "I'm sure you have a lot of questions. The short of it is, I will be keeping care of you for the next few days at the least...but...if I'm able to arrange it and if you are willing, I would like for you to stay with me indefinitely." She knew that once Skye was an adult again, the girl would move back onto her own floor; but May had told Skye once before that they were family...that Skye was hers and would always be hers. She'd meant it when she said it, so it was easy to alter those words to make the child in front of her know that she had every intention of keeping her.

Skye sat down slowly on the sofa, looking at May a bit warily. "No one wants me to stay with them indefinitely," she said finally, speaking quietly. "Every foster home I've been to always sends me back... you'll do the same."

May sighed softly, deciding honesty was the best policy in this case. "It wasn't that they didn't want you, sweetie...it was that they were afraid; for you and for themselves. There are some bad people who wanted to get hold of you and the families before weren't equipped to protect you. I am." She waited for her words to sink in for a moment, before continuing, "Of course, if you aren't happy with me, then I would not stand in your way if you wanted to go with someone else...but- my job as an agent has allowed me to observe you for a while now and I already know I want you to be my girl...."

Skye blinked, a tiny sliver of hope showing through the wariness. "You do? Really?" She'd been taught not to get her hopes up, but... the calm way the woman in front of her spoke resonated. And Skye wanted to believe. She wanted somewhere to belong. But each time she lost it, it hurt.

"I do." May nodded and moved to sit next to the girl on the couch, putting her arm around her. "And I am uniquely qualified to be able to protect you as well, so unless you decide you don't want to stay, there will be no reason for you to need to leave."

"I want to stay..." Skye said in a very small voice, leaning into May. She then looked up at her. "What... do I call you?"

"Well, my team calls me May...but I think you can call me Mel; that's what close friends and family call me sometimes...and if you want to- if you feel comfortable, eventually you could call me mom...but only if and when you felt comfortable." May smiled, hugging Skye closer.

"Okay," Skye said, a bit shyly. "I'll call you Mel... for now." She was a bit hesitant about using, 'Mom'. She'd only done that once with a foster mother... and even if she hadn't had to leave because of that, that was what it had felt like to do.

"Good. How about we go look at your room? You can let me know how you'd like to decorate it." May hugged the younger girl again.

Skye nodded. "Okay." She smiled, staying close for a few more moments before getting up.

May got up and led her to the guest room; the room that would be Skye's until she was aged up again.

***

When the elevator reached his floor, Coulson guided his two sons (only one of whom knew that he was his father) out and headed to the living room. "Why don't you both have a seat?" he suggested, figuring they'd do what they were comfortable with... even though he would normally sit on the sofa with one on either side of him.

Clint sat on one of the chairs, still uncertain around the older man.

Grant sat on the couch, not very certain himself, but grateful that he wouldn't be going back to his family and feeling the need to be close to the man who had saved him.

Coulson sat down on the couch next to Grant, sitting opposite Clint. "I will show you both to the bedrooms in a moment, but for now, if you have any questions, I'll do my best to answer them."

Grant bit his lip, sure that he should have had questions but unable to think of any.

Clint slanted his head then asked, "Will we be sharing a room?"

"You can each have a room of your own," Coulson replied, having already decided he could just get a sleeping bag in the living room... or sleep on the couch. He'd slept in far worse places, after all.

Grant blinked. "Really? I don't mind sharing...I shared with..." He swallowed, not able to say his dead brother's name.

"I don't mind sharing either..." Clint said. He didn't want to say anything, but he shared with Barney; they couldn't afford a large apartment and being alone in a strange room in a strange house didn't sound that good to him. Besides...it would be better not to get used to having his own space when he'd be returning to sharing as soon as this quarantine thing was over.

"If you'd like to share, that isn't a problem, of course," Coulson said. "The room's big enough for two beds easily." He paused, briefly, before continuing, "If anything does happen at night, even if it's a bad dream, there's no problem with waking me up."

Grant looked relieved at that, although he didn't say anything.

Clint nodded. "Ok. Good to know, just in case." He turned toward Grant. "You don't talk much...." he commented curiously.

Grant shrugged and blushed. "Usually, talking gets me in trouble," he admitted softly.

"It's not going to here," Coulson said reassuringly. "Whatever you say... you're not going to get into trouble. Even if something does happen, I'm not going to shout at either of you. Or hit you. Even if something happens that makes me angry, I will always take the time to calm down before I say anything." He felt it was important to make that clear straight away.

Clint slanted his head and nodded. "Ok...what do you count as hitting, though? Cuz Barney, he doesn't beat on me like some guys' brothers do, but he still whaps me upside the head when I get too annoying sometimes...he says that's not the same thing...." He grinned impishly.

Grant looked very interested in what the answer to that question would be.

Clint's eyes widened and he hurriedly continued, "...Oh! And if we do make you angry enough to say something...is talking all you're gonna do? I mean...what happens if we do something we're not s'posed to?"

Although Coulson had used spanking with his adult sons (and teenaged in Clint's case), he couldn't imagine that using that form of punishment on them when they were this young would be a good idea... particularly in Grant's case. He could imagine his youngest had suffered a lot of abuse and hadn't got to the point yet where he could deal with it.

"A lot of it depends on what happens," Coulson replied. "You might end up being grounded... or there might be corner time. I won't ignore you, either," he added.

Grant glanced at Clint to see his reaction to this.

Clint slanted his head then grinned. "Ok. That's not bad..." He looked at the other boy, noticing that he had relaxed noticeably as soon as Clint had indicated he trusted Coulson's words.

Grant bit his lip, then smiled hesitantly. "I'll be good...." he said softly. He didn't want to do anything that would make his real father change his mind and take him back to the family.

Coulson gently squeezed Grant's shoulder. "It doesn't matter even if you're not as good as you hope to be," he said sincerely. "Either of you. I'm not going to abandon you. Or send you away. Or change my mind."

Grant smiled crookedly. He wanted to believe Coulson, he seemed like he would be trustworthy... But he knew he needed to play it safe until he figured out how things would work. His family came across as loving and perfect to outsiders, after all.

Clint nodded. "Ok. When Barney isn't quarantined anymore...." He shrugged. He didn't want to leave his brother, but Barney had been making comments about Clint being left alone too much for his age, so...

"When your brother isn't quarantined anymore, we'll sit down and talk to him about the situation," Coulson said. "For now, you're my responsibility along with Grant."

Grant nodded seriously then looked almost shy as he asked, "Where will we be sleeping?"

Clint perked up at that. "Yeah! I want to see the room!" If it was anything like what he'd seen of the building so far, it was going to be awesome; and difficult to leave when it was time.

Coulson smiled and stood up. "You can talk about how to decorate it," he suggested. "I can take you to have a look now."

Clint grinned brightly and jumped up to follow. "Great!"

Grant just smiled and stood up as well, following his father to their room.

***

Bruce had led Leo to his floor and immediately showed him the guest room that was to become his room. "Let me know how you'd like to decorate and I'll arrange for whatever you need," he said softly with a smile.

Leo looked around the room and then up at Bruce. "I think it's good the way it is," he said. "Um... Can I ask? Would it be all right to use the lab while I'm here?" He looked a bit nervous about asking, but also hopeful.

Bruce's smile widened. "As long as I or Agent Simmons are with you when you do so, I don't see a problem with it." He hesitantly reached out and put his arm around Fitz's shoulders.

Leo smiled and relaxed into Bruce's hold. "Do you all live here, then?" he asked curiously. "It's very big..."

Bruce smiled at the question. "We do. We are all part of a team that protects the world from various threats.... One of the team members, who unfortunately is unable to meet all of you as he is away for an unknown period of time, owns this building and converted the top half of it into living quarters for the team. We are all almost like family." He squeezed Leo gently to him and then asked curiously, "I know Ms. Potts was bringing clothing for all of you to wear; we couldn't risk going to your homes to get your own clothing... Are there any books or toys or anything that you might want to help keep you occupied when you aren't in the lab or doing your classwork?"

Bruce slipped the last comment in as he began thinking on his feet. Children of their age should be in school, but sending them to an actual school was out of the question. He would need to ask Coulson if there were any SHIELD agents who could be trusted that could pose as a teacher and not only keep watch over them during the day while everyone else was 'working', but could also keep their minds occupied with age appropriate learning. Even if they wouldn't need it when they aged up again; if they weren't able to find a cure, the children would need to learn. "In fact, allow me to send a message now and remind the others to give a list as well..." he said, as he shot off a message to Cap and Coulson, asking about books and toys and also getting a teacher for the kids.

"I don't need any toys," Leo said, with the air of a child who felt he was 'too old' for toys. "But books..." He began listing off a selection of science-based book and authors. He didn't seem to be that worried about classwork... but then again, he'd always worked hard at it.

"You sure you don't want any toys? Games? Puzzles?" Bruce asked after taking the list of books. "There are all kinds of computer gadgets and things you might be interested in...." He smiled at Leo, hoping to encourage him to pick some fun things that didn't involve reading.

Leo nodded. "All right." He smiled at Bruce. "What kind of computer gadgets and things are you interested in?" he asked, figuring he could decide what he'd like then.

Bruce blinked, realizing that he hadn't actually played in a long time. He wasn't certain what type of age-appropriate computer gadgets were available and the person he might have asked for suggestions, Tony, was in the same predicament that Leo was. "Well," he finally said thoughtfully. "To be honest, I'm not up on the latest computer games, although I'm sure if we looked online at what is for sale, you could find something you'd like; but maybe we could get some models- rockets or something- that can be built when you aren't reading or working in the lab. Or we could build a computer...." Fitz was an engineer as an adult after all. It always kind of surprised Bruce that Leo hadn't gravitated more towards Tony, due to the fact that they had that in common.

Leo immediately looked interested. "I'd like to build a computer... models are fun, but they're too easy," he said. "Maybe you could get models for some of the others, though? They might enjoy them."

Bruce grinned. "That's what we'll do, then. We can go online and order all the parts that will be needed and we can build you a computer." Bruce was happy that he'd come up with something to interest the boy...although he suspected that Leo was a very likeable child and easy to get along with.

Leo smiled and nodded. "Can we look online after we've eaten?" he asked hopefully.

"Yes. I think that can be arranged." Bruce smiled back. "Are you ready to go to the common floor and meet up with everyone again?"

Leo nodded again. "I don't remember when I last ate something..." He frowned.

Bruce's eyebrow went up and he gave Leo a stern look. "Well, a lot has happened, so it is understandable that eating may have slipped your mind; however, that won't be a common occurrence. I won't allow it to be. Am I clear?" His tone was calm, but serious. "I have few rules that I expect you to follow, but one of the most important is that you take care of yourself. Eating healthy and regular meals is considered part of that. So is a decent bed time so that you get enough sleep for your growing body."

Leo looked surprised... and maybe a little guilty. "I don't skip meals... that much. Normally just when I'm caught up in a project." He deliberately didn't mention just how many times he got caught up in said projects.

Bruce nodded, his look still stern. "Well...you won't be getting caught up in projects that make you forget to eat while you are with me. I've had practice at reminding self-neglecting scientists that it is time for them to eat or sleep." He smiled at Leo, making a note to himself to keep an eye on the boy once everyone was back to their correct ages. He was used to keeping tabs on Tony; with JARVIS', Pepper's and Steve's help... and with Steve taking an active interest in Tony's activities and health, his genius friend hadn't skipped meals in quite a long time. Skipping rest, unfortunately, he still managed to do; but usually because he snuck out of bed when everyone else was asleep. He hadn't noticed Leo with the same bad habits, but then, he hadn't really been looking. He felt kind of bad about that...other than Jemma, Leo spent the largest portion of his time with Bruce. If Bruce didn't notice things like that, it wasn't likely anyone else would either. So...Bruce would start looking out for the younger man. Maybe enlist Bucky's help, since he had taken an interest in the boy once before.

Of course, that was in the future once everything was back to normal. Right now, he had a child to get fed. "C'mon, kid. Food should be ready now and I don't know about you, but I could eat a Hulk...." he teased gently, using the arm around Leo's shoulder's to guide the young man to the elevator so they could go to the common floor and meet everyone else for the meal.

"I am pretty hungry," Leo admitted, a sheepish note creeping into his voice. He leaned a bit into Bruce as they walked.

***

Tony looked around Steve's apartment, taking in the simplicity of it. It had a warmth to it that Tony's home never did and he sighed. He wasn't sure he believed the whole 'quarantine' thing that they'd been told, but if his dad's big secret organization wanted to keep the truth hidden, there wasn't much Tony could do about it. Yet. Let him get a moment alone where he wasn't in the presence of Captain America and maybe he'd be able to figure something out.

That was the other thing he had a hard time believing, even with the evidence standing right next to him. He glanced up at the man beside him, feeling small and helpless. Tony had always been a small child; add that in with the fact that he was grades ahead of his age-group and he'd always been the smallest one in whatever situation he'd been in. Except this time. This time, there was another kid his age who was just as small and helpless as him....maybe more so, since the kid was missing his arm. Using manners that his mother had drilled into him from the moment he was able to talk, Tony refrained from asking about the arm. It wasn't easy, though.

Bucky looked around the room. He wasn't certain what was happening, but he knew he didn't like it. Last thing he remembered, he'd gone to bed, his best friend Steve curled up next to him for warmth (his parents worked hard, but the money had to go for food and rent and there wasn't always a lot left for extra clothing. And since they'd taken Steve in after his mom's death, there was even less money available). Next thing he knew, he was surrounded by strangers and missing his arm. Things like that weren't supposed to happen. Were they? On top of that, the man standing next to him looked so familiar, it was scary. But what he was thinking was impossible, wasn't it? How could little Steve- his Steve- have grown up into this huge, healthy soldier? While he stayed a kid? Something wasn't right, but he couldn't focus on it. Not yet.

Steve turned and smiled reassuringly at the two boys. It was strange to see two of the people he cared most about in the world so much younger than normal. And to know they didn't recognise him...

Well, that was hard. Earning Tony's trust the first time hadn't been easy. Steve doubted that would change this time.

"There are two bedrooms here," Steve said to the boys. "But if you'd prefer to have rooms of your own, I can convert one of the other rooms."

Tony glanced at Steve and managed a small, if distrustful, smile back. When he'd been younger, Captain America had been his hero. (Ok, he still admired the man a bit; it was only his father's constant absence due to looking for the man that made Tony a bit resentful). Now, he was standing here and...his father and mother were nowhere to be found. It didn't seem fair somehow. His father would probably be furious at him, even though it wasn't his fault. Sighing softly, Tony shrugged at Steve's question. "We aren't going to be here that long...this 'quarantine' wasn't in any of the news, which means that we're actually here for another reason, but you couldn't think of a good excuse and don't want to tell us the truth," he muttered to himself. "I'll stay wherever you put me..." he finished, biting his lip as he glanced around again.

Bucky frowned at Tony's words. It was very rude to accuse someone of lying...but then, the other boy seemed to know some things that Bucky was unaware of, so perhaps they had been told a lie. He glanced up at Steve, curious suspicion on his face. "I'm used to sharing a room.... What's your name?" he asked finally.

Steve sighed and wondered if he should tell them the truth... though he wasn't sure how they would react to that. The alternative to that, of course, was to admit that the quarantine story wasn't real, but that he couldn't tell them anymore than that. To be honest, lying had never really sat well with Steve. Especially when it came to children... even if said children were deaged members of his family.

"My name's Steve," he answered to Bucky, while trying to make his decision about whether or not to tell them the truth... or at least part of it.

Bucky gave a tiny smile that was almost a grimace. "My best pal's name is Steve...." Bucky's comment sounded anything but innocent.

"Steve what?" Tony looked at Bucky curiously.

Bucky glanced at the other boy. "Steve Rogers...." he answered. He looked back at Steve. "You look a lot like him."

Tony's eyes widened and he couldn't help but stare at the Captain. He managed not to blurt out the first thing he thought, but only just barely. Cap's name was Steve Rogers. His father had talked about Cap enough times that Tony felt like the man was a member of the family, almost. But his dad had never said anything about Cap having kids. Sure, Rogers was a fairly common surname. And Steve was almost as common a first name...but the fact that his friend looked like Cap suggested.... "Huh. Dad was wrong. No way you could have died a virgin if...." He closed his mouth with a click and looked down really quick, face turning red.

Bucky's eyebrows shot up into his hairline at Tony's words then looked at Steve, wondering if the other man would do anything about the other kids choice of conversation topic. That was a very familiar and bordering on disrespectful thing to say to an adult.

It wasn't a surprise that the two boys had started questioning. What was more of a surprise was that it had taken them so long to start asking. Bucky might not be a genius like Tony, but he'd always been smart.

Steve sighed and made his decision. The whole double standards thing felt wrong to him. Lying was wrong. Didn't matter that they were aged down to children. They were still part of the team... part of the family.

After tapping out a quick message to the other adults in the tower, letting them know he was going to admit to Bucky and Tony the truth, Steve turned back to the two boys. "You're right that the quarantine isn't real," he said simply. "I'm not sure either of you will believe the truth, but I'm not going to keep on lying to you."

Tony relaxed noticeably. He knew there was no way Captain America had been found and his father not come home to tell him about it. Although the fact they'd felt the need to tell the lie to begin with wasn't very encouraging. Glancing around himself, Tony began to get a very bad feeling and tensed up again. "They're not coming home, are they?" he finally asked in a small voice.

Bucky swallowed, hearing the uncertainty in the other child's voice and realized that whatever Tony had figured out, it probably held true for him as well. He bit his lip and looked at Steve. "What really happened?" he finally asked.

Steve rested a hand gently on each of their shoulders. "I understand this is going to be difficult for you to hear," he began. "We're in the year 2014. Both of you... and the other five children... were working on something. An artifact. I'm not sure exactly what happened, but there was an accident and it caused the seven of you to become children once more. Apparently, it also removed all the memories you'd made up until that point." He spoke seriously and quietly.

Tony slumped. "Yeah..ok. That...that's..." He swallowed then bit his lip. "Dad and Momma are probably too old to take care of me...Dad was already a lot older when I was born; I heard people talking...." Tony didn't want to admit what he already knew in his heart to be true.

Bucky was under no illusions at all about his own folks. If what Steve said was true, then by rights, he should be in his nineties. There was no way his ma and pa would still be alive. It probably also explained his arm. "The adult me lost his arm and that's why I don't have one now..." he said calmly.

Neither of the children thought to question the explanation. Something about the way Steve told them screamed truth. They may not understand it- and Tony was going to do everything he could to figure it out once things had settled a little- but they both knew instinctively that Steve wouldn't lie about something like that.

Bucky slanted his head, then gave a crooked little grin. "You're my Steve, ain't ya?"

Steve nodded, squeezing both of them gently. "I am," he confirmed. He then spoke to Tony. "I've been... responsible for you for a little while," he said. "Even if you don't remember it. I've explained to the others that I told you both the truth, but it'll be up to them how much they tell the others... though Loki was told by his brother, I believe," he added. "Bucky, you do normally have a prosthetic arm, but it obviously didn't shrink down with you. The offer to get a new one made, however temporarily, still stands."

Tony wrinkled his nose, slanting his head and thinking. "'cording to my math...I should be almost fifty by now. How are you responsible for me?" He got a horrified look on his face. "I didn't lose my mind or something, did I?"

Bucky snorted at Tony's question then shook his head at Steve. "No thanks. Unless it looks like we can't be put back right, there's no need for it. Just...how do you look so young? MY math says you 'n me should be in our nineties."

"I was frozen and didn't get thawed out until fairly recently," Steve answered. "The same thing happened to you... although I was frozen accidentally, while you were frozen deliberately." He then looked at Tony. "You didn't lose your mind, but you're not always the best at taking care of yourself and there aren't many people who could step in. I like you and I care about you. So I made your safety, happiness and wellbeing my responsibility."

Bucky blinked at that. "That's..." He wasn't sure what to say, so he just gave Steve a wide-eyed stare and then shrugged slightly.

Tony, on the other hand, looked thoughtful. "So...you started doing for me what Mr. Jarvis does?" he asked softly. "Except he does it cuz Momma and Dad are too busy to watch me... you do it just cuz you want to? Didn't I learn how to keep care of myself?" He gave Steve an uncertain look.

"You did in many ways," Steve replied. "I won't go into details, but your life hasn't always been an easy one. And there are a lot of holdovers from that which mean that sometimes you still do things you shouldn't." He looked at Tony compassionately. "You're not used to people caring... are you?"

Tony got an affronted look on his face, but underneath was a scared little boy who knew his life wasn't normal and knew there was something wrong about it, but thought it was his own fault. "Mr. Jarvis cares about me!" he was quick to protest. "And Momma! Momma cares, she just...she's..." He swallowed and looked away, not entirely certain why his mother was gone so much. When she was home, she spent every moment possible with him and made it clear she loved him; but she just wasn't home that much. "Howard...I mean Dad, must care. Mr. Jarvis says he does. He just has to work a lot and when he isn't working, he's trying to find you so he can bring you home, but you're here now so he must have found you, which means things will get better! Won't they?" He looked at Steve hesitantly; hopefully. Even if they were supposed to be grownups now, Steve would know if things had gotten better after he was found because he was probably around a lot too. Why else would he have bothered to take care of Tony now? Or when Tony was an adult?

Steve could see past the look on Tony's face; just like he always could. At least his boy was still easy for him to read. Steve squeezed Tony's shoulder gently and spoke in a quiet voice. "Things are better. You're surrounded by a whole family who love and care about you." Maybe they weren't family by blood (at least most of them), but they were still family.

Tony stared into Steve's face then grinned an innocent, trusting smile that no one had ever seen on the adult Tony's face, except for maybe Pepper. It was the smile of a child who hadn't yet had every bit of his belief in people tarnished or destroyed. "Ok. I knew he had to love me a little bit, at least...." he whispered to himself, before spontaneously throwing his arms around Steve in a tight hug, not sure how, but positive the older man had played a large part in his being happy as an adult.

Bucky watched the interaction quietly, his grin crooked. "Are we going to go eat?" he finally asked, as his stomach growled.

Steve nodded, hugging Tony tightly in return before speaking. "While we have food, you could decide how you want to decorate your room," he suggested to the two boys.

"Oooooh! Red and gold robots!" Tony blurted out in excitement. "That would be soooo cool! Is that ok with you, Bucky?" he asked the other boy.

Steve smiled and, putting a hand on each of the boys' shoulders, began steering them back to the elevator. "You don't have to make any decisions immediately," he commented.

"Ok," Tony agreed. "We can come up with something later." He followed Steve quietly, hesitantly taking the super soldier's hand, even though he thought an adult like he was supposed to be wouldn't do that. Heck, a child of his current age wouldn't do it either, but he couldn't seem to help it.

Bucky didn't remark on Tony holding Steve's hand... instead taking his brother's other hand.

Steve gently squeezed their hands as the three of them entered the elevator and he directed it to the common floor.

"Captain, Director Fury is on his way up with Ms. Potts and Mr. Hogan and what appears to be the entire children's department of Macy's." JARVIS' dry tones could be heard in the elevator. "I have taken the liberty of inviting him to lunch."

"Thank you," Steve replied, smiling a little. At least the children would have plenty of clothes to wear.

***

Grant moved closer to his father. It seemed too good to be true that he wouldn't have to return to the ones he had thought were his family. He was afraid that if Coulson left his sight, he'd suddenly find himself back in that house...trying to keep out of sight.

Clint's worry was slightly different. "This illness...it won't kill Barney, will it?" he finally had the nerve to ask...his voice quivering at the possibility his brother might die like his mom had.

Coulson saw the message from Steve on his comm and held back a sigh. He couldn't keep the truth from his sons... to be honest, he was glad that Steve had caved and told the truth. He wrapped an arm around each of the boys' shoulders as he spoke quietly. "Clint... I'm afraid we weren't honest with you. There isn't a virus. Both of you, along with the five other children, were caught up in an accident that caused you to age backwards... and to lose all of your memories after the age of eleven."

Knowing how his youngest was an adult and concerned that Grant might get the wrong idea, Coulson addressed him next. "You are my son, Grant. That was the truth. In fact, both of you are."

Clint frowned. "So, you adopted me? Did Barney die?" He sounded sad. It said something about the level of trust Coulson managed to inspire that he didn't question the older man's explanation.

Grant bit his lip. "Have I lived with you long?" he finally asked. If it was true, what Coulson said then it looked like his life had gone better than he had expected it would.

"Barney left, I believe to protect you," Coulson answered. "I adopted you after you broke into my house." He took a deep breath and then spoke gently to Grant. "We only found each other after you'd grown up. It took us a while to realise you were mine by blood... but even before that, I adopted you."

Clint blinked. "You adopted me after I broke into your house?" He wrinkled his nose. "You must have really liked me, then..." He grinned and moved closer to his dad. He wasn't worried about Barney so much anymore. Coulson's explanation sounded exactly like something Barney would do.

"You adopted me when I was a grown up? Before knowing I was really your son?" Grant sounded surprised at that. He couldn't imagine anyone caring about him so much, they'd want him even when he was big.

Coulson squeezed them both gently. "I care about you both and love you very much," he said honestly. "I know neither of you remember, but you are both mine... along with your sister, who's currently older than both of you."

Clint's eyes widened. "Is she here in the building?" he asked, excited to meet her.

Grant smiled crookedly. "Is she always older? Or just now?" he asked quietly.

Coulson smiled. "Normally, Grant, you're the youngest, Clint is the oldest and Natasha is in the middle. And, yes, she is here," he said to Clint. "She was the woman with red hair."

Grant nodded, snuggling closer to Coulson. He knew there was a chance that he was being lied to...but he found that he didn't much care. If it was a lie, it was something he wanted so badly that he was willing to take that chance. The fact that the older man was affectionate without bring creepy...and wasn't pushing him away...was a point in his favor all by itself.

Clint grinned crookedly. His instincts were saying that Coulson was telling the truth; and if he was telling the truth, that was an awesome story that Clint didn't want to miss being a part of.

Both boys let Coulson lead them to the common area.

***

As the meal came to an end, Skye found herself beginning to blink sleepily. She was uncertain about whether or not she really wanted to go to bed, but today had been confusing and awoken more feelings than she was used to. With May's encouragement, she trailed after the woman to the elevator to go to May's floor, yawning widely.

May stayed with Skye until the younger girl was in the room that would be hers for the unforeseeable future. She'd carried the bags that Pepper had handed her for Skye and set them on the dresser before smiling at Skye. "There should be pajamas in one of these bags if you would like to get ready for bed. It's been a very eventful day and I think we could both use an early night." Her voice was easy and calm and affectionate. "If you need me, I'm right across the hall from you and I want you to come find me if there are any problems at all. Ok?"

Skye nodded. "Okay," she agreed sleepily. She started to reach for one of the bags and then paused, looking up at May. "You'll tell us if you find anything?" Her mind was working already, though. Her biggest interest was computers... and hacking. Maybe she could have a root around in case there was other information they weren't being told.

"Yes. You may not be able to act on it, depending on what we find out, but you will be informed if we find out anything," May stated. Children or not, the affected individuals were her team...her family... and she wouldn't shut them out of the process just because they were now kids and 'needed protecting'.

May made a mental note to herself to keep an eye on the kids, though. Knowing what was going on and actively trying to solve the problem were two different things, especially when their new age put limitations on their abilities that weren't there before and caused physical and emotional limits that weren't there before. And Skye was the sort that she would ignore all of that in her quest to find answers; she did so as an adult frequently enough, after all. Most of the affected kids were that sort- if they weren't, they likely wouldn't have been put in the position they were in now in the first place.

Skye nodded again. "Good." She'd made the decision to trust May, even though she had no memories of anyone who lived in the tower, whether adult or child. She began rooting through the bags to find a pair of pajamas.

"I'll let you get to sleep, then." May smiled and turned to leave, pausing in the doorway. "Remember- if you need me, I'm just across the hall. Maybe tomorrow, we can go out and find some things for you to decorate the room; make it more yours."

May smiled again then went to her own room. She felt pretty confident that, until Jemma and Bruce were able to figure out what went wrong and find a way to reverse it (or discovered that there was no way to reverse it- in which case there would be a whole other set of problems), the teams would not be going on any large missions that took more than one or two of the adults who were left away from the tower at a time. There shouldn't be any reason she and Skye couldn't do a little shopping for 'home decor' and bond a little more. She was making a mental list of various shops they could visit as she fell asleep.

***

Bruce hadn't taken much time at all to explain the facts to Leo. He couldn't help but feel he had it somewhat easier than Phil or Steve; the child he was taking care of didn't have to be told that his mother had died years ago and that was why she wasn't here. Jemma, Leo and he had held several conversations while working on experiments and research together; and he knew Leo's mother was still alive. Leo had taken the news well. At least, Bruce thought he had. He'd remained calm, at any rate.

They'd finished eating in the common area and the adults had formed a plan to meet up in the morning to decide how they were going to handle things. Until that point, all the kids were being taken back to their designated guardian's floor. Bruce was carrying several bags of clothing that Pepper had handed over and as he walked into Leo's room, he set them on the floor. "I don't know about you, but today has been very...tiring. I think we should make an early night of it and then tomorrow- after I meet up with the other adults- you and I can spend some time in the lab. I'm pretty sure Pepper got you some pajamas in here if you want to change."

"I know that, no matter how weird it seems, this is real, otherwise it would be everyone believing something that wasn't real," Leo said. "Does this kind of thing happen very often?" he asked curiously.

Bruce slanted his head, thinking about it then gave a rueful grin. "This exact scenario? Not so much...however, weird seems to just find this group, no matter how careful we are. And given my own history, this isn't even the weirdest or worst thing that has happened." Bruce sighed slightly. "I need to tell you something about myself and I'm hoping that it doesn't frighten you, but it is something you should be aware of...." Bruce gave Leo a hesitant, almost nervous smile.

"I wouldn't be frightened of you," Leo said, with all the open honesty of a child... honesty he still had as an adult, even if it had lost its bluntness as he'd become an adult.

Bruce smile became less nervous and more fond at the boy's words. "No, I don't imagine you would be. You aren't as an adult, either." He then took a deep breath and told Leo about the Hulk.

Leo listened gravely, then reached out and put his hand in Bruce's, looking up at him trustingly. "So... you'll tell me if you think I'm doing something that might make you lose control?"

Bruce blinked then gently squeezed Leo's hand. "I'll tell you...but I doubt you would ever do anything that would cause me to lose control. When I lose control, it is because something really bad has happened; or I've been hurt and Hulk is trying to protect me. If I ever start to lose control, it will be because we are in danger...but I don't want you to be afraid of me if that happens. I've learned over the years that Hulk is very protective of those that he views as a friend."

Leo nodded. "So... I don't need to be scared of him?" He tilted his head slightly to one side. He was curious and not anything close to nervous.

"No." Bruce's smile was less nervous and more sure at this. "You are important to me. Hulk will know this and because of it, you will be important to him. He won't hurt you." Once upon a time, Bruce wouldn't have been able to say that with such assurance, but living with the Avengers and working with them in such close proximity...he believed that Hulk wouldn't hurt any of his family; and especially not the young boy that Bruce was caring for.

Leo smiled. "Okay. I trust you," he said simply. He assumed that he trusted Bruce as an adult as well, but there was something really comforting about the man who was his temporary guardian.

"Good. I'm glad." Bruce smiled again, then nodded toward the bags of clothing. "Why don't you get ready for bed...get some sleep? When we get up tomorrow, as soon as I'm done with my meeting, I'll take you to my lab where we can do some things together." He reached up and squeezed Leo's shoulder gently, then turned to head to his own room. "If you need me, I'm right across the hall from you..." he added, just in case. "Good night, Leo." He gave a tiny wave then went to his own room.

***

Just before sitting down for a meal, Coulson had ordered a second bed for delivery to the room on his floor that Clint and Grant would be sharing. He'd kept a careful eye on his sons to make sure they ate enough and then, once the meal was over and it became clear that the children were getting tired, he guided his two sons to the elevator and to their floor, after retrieving the bags of clothing from Pepper.

"Remember what I said about if you have bad dreams," Coulson said as he guided his sons to the bedroom. "You both can come in to me at any time of the night. Don't worry about waking me up."

"Ok, dad," Clint said confidently. He didn't think he'd have dreams...well, except for maybe his mother dying, but that usually didn't make him scared, so he doubted he'd need to go get the older man who claimed them as his children.

Grant bit his lip, then nodded. "Alright," he finally said in a whisper. He knew he would have bad dreams- it was hard not to with a brother like his- but he didn't plan to run get his father the moment it happened. He wasn't a baby or weak, no matter what his family had said.

"I'll leave a comm on in the room anyway, just in case something happens that I'm not aware of immediately." Coulson could have just done that without telling his sons, but he preferred they know about it. "Tomorrow, we can talk about how you'd like to decorate the room," he continued, carefully setting the bags down. "There'll be pajamas in here for you both."

"Groovy!" Clint exclaimed, as he began to rummage through the bags for a pair of pajamas.

"Ok, sir..." Grant gave a tiny, uncertain smile and waited for Clint to finish getting his own pajamas before looking into the bag himself. He wasn't sure how to feel about the fact that his father was leaving what amounted to a baby monitor on in their room; if he should feel pleased that the man seemed to care so much, or worried about the fact that he might accidently wake him up because of said monitor being on in the room.

Coulson placed a hand on each of his sons' shoulders and squeezed gently. "I won't be far. Don't worry about waking me up." He was really saying that for Grant's benefit, but didn't want his youngest to feel singled out. He hesitated, but withholding the affection he was used to giving them felt wrong... even if neither of them remembered that. He brushed a soft kiss against each of their heads before adding, "If you think of anything you'd like, whether it's games or books, let me know in the morning and we'll get them."

Clint, remembering his mother's affection for him when she was alive, didn't think anything of the fact that the man who said he had adopted him was also affectionate. He gave Coulson a grin and a quick hug. "Night, dad." He may not remember everything that happened- only remembering things that had occurred before the age he was currently- but he just knew somehow that Coulson had told the truth and that the man loved his children. And that allowed Clint to relax and treat Coulson like his dad.

Grant bit his lip, then, after watching how Clint reacted to Coulson, hesitantly wrapped his own arms around the man and hugged. Part of him felt safe and comfortable when in the man's presence, so he thought maybe everything that had been said was the truth and he didn't need to be scared. But all his memories told him the exact opposite and the conflicting messages were confusing him. "Night, sir..." he said softly.

"Good night." Coulson hugged them both then spoke quietly to Grant. "You don't have to call me sir, Grant. Even if you don't yet feel comfortable enough to call me dad, you can always call me Phil," he suggested.

Grant blinked, then nodded hesitantly. "O...ok." He bit his lip, afraid that he'd disappointed Coulson, but still feeling too unsettled and uncertain about everything to do much about it. He grabbed his pajamas and quickly disappeared into the bathroom.

Clint watched the other boy go then gave Coulson a crooked smile. "He doesn't seem very happy...Guess I was lucky. Even if I am or at least was an orphan...I knew I had been loved and Barney did his best to keep care of me. He..." Clint shook his head, not able to voice the bad feeling he got off of Grant. He'd had friends like Grant. Most of them weren't in very good situations. "Maybe some of our memories from when we grew up will come back and he'll be able to be happier...." He shrugged faintly then began to change into his pajamas, not caring in the least that Coulson hadn't left yet.

"Even if they don't come back, it won't be the end of the world," Coulson said. "It'll take time, but it doesn't matter to me." He squeezed Clint's shoulder gently then raised his voice enough to be heard by Grant in the bathroom as well. "I love you both... Good night."

A faint 'good night' could be heard from the bathroom and Clint grinned, giving Coulson a tiny wave. Waiting until the older man had left, Clint jumped into the bed that he had chosen as his own and was soon out like a light.

When Grant came in a few moments later, his brother was already snoring. Snorting softly, he crawled into his own bed. It took him a little longer to fall asleep.

***

Loki had to say that he greatly enjoyed the 'family dinner' that everyone had partaken of. Even if the individuals in this tower were not blood family, it was obvious they all cared about each other a great deal; and cared about the members of their team that had been turned into children. And they included him in the group of individuals they cared about. It was hard for Loki to understand. Usually, everyone loved Thor and tolerated Loki... the only ones who seemed to truly care being his brother and his mother and father. But this group that his brother had joined...they cared about him. He looked up at his big brother, eyes wide with wonder, and asked quietly, "May I stay here? Even when we are returned to our natural ages and have our memories back, may I stay? Your friends are...." He swallowed then grinned crookedly. "They seem to like me."

Thor smiled. "You live here anyway, Loki," he said. "We both do." Since having his brother back, Thor had spent a lot more time in the tower and it had been nice to see the group accept Loki as they had done with everyone else.

"Oh...ok." Loki grinned at his brother, moving closer. "I like being with you, Thor...I am glad we can spend more time together now." It had seemed, for a long time, that Thor preferred the company of his friends to that of his 'odd' younger brother. But the grown-up Thor did not seem to feel that way. Loki could not help but feel happy at that fact.

Thor wrapped his arm around Loki's shoulders, hugging him close. "I like being with you as well, Loki," he said honestly. He regretted that they hadn't been as close as children, but at least they had a second chance now.

Loki stood next to Thor, even after they had reached the floor where their quarters were. He did not remember anything past the age he currently was, so was unable to remember which room was his. Although he hoped Thor would show him soon. He tried to stifle a yawn, but was unable to contain it. "Sorry, Thor. I wish to stay up with you and learn everything that I can not remember, but I am suddenly so very tired," Loki admitted, almost crestfallen.

"We will have time to spend together tomorrow," Thor answered, stepping out onto the floor and guiding Loki towards his room, carrying the bags for his brother in his other hand. "I won't be going anywhere," he promised.

"Good!" Loki beamed at his brother before throwing his arms around him in a tight hug. He truly had missed Thor. It didn't take long before they were in Loki's room and the boy was looking through the bags Thor had been carrying. He pulled out a pair of pants and a matching shirt made of very soft material. "I am to sleep in this?" he asked curiously.

Thor nodded. "Midgardian clothes are quite different to the ones we're used to," he said. "You know where I'm sleeping... if you need anything at all, you can wake me up."

"Ok..." Loki gave Thor a hesitant smile, nodding, then began to ready himself for bed. It did not take him long to fall asleep once he was in his bed.

***

Steve guided Tony and Bucky from the common floor, heading to his floor and leading the two boys to their room, which now had two beds in it. He placed the bags on the floor and then spoke to them. "There should be some pajamas in the bags. I'd suggest getting an early night. It's been a long day." For all of them.

Tony frowned slightly. As tired as he was, he'd never admit to it; and he had been hoping to explore the tower and investigate all the cool high-tech gadgets that he'd seen. But Captain America had just told him to go to bed and he didn't want to disappoint the man. He didn't want to get the same look from him that he often got from his father. A slight hint of disappointment threaded in his voice when he answered, "Yes, sir." He sighed and began to look through the bag to see what he'd been bought.

Bucky watched the other boy then shrugged. "Ok, Steve. See ya in the morning." With that, Bucky grabbed the nearest pajamas he could get his hands on that were in his size and went to the bathroom to get ready for bed.

Steve watched Bucky and then turned to Tony. "I can show you around tomorrow and you can explore then," he said. "But I think everyone will be getting ready to go to bed now."

Tony bit his lip, holding the pajamas he'd found up against his chest, then nodded. His face turned pink in embarrassment, though. He'd thought he'd done a better job at not sounding disappointed, but Steve had clearly seen right through him and knew what he wanted to do. His voice was a lot less disappointed when he answered this time, "Yes, sir. Goodnight...." He gave a tiny smile.

"Goodnight." Steve squeezed Tony's shoulder gently. "Remember, I'm just down the hall if you need me." He headed out of the room to go to his own bedroom.

***

The night started out calmly enough. Started being the operative word. Sometime around midnight, Clint woke up to a noise in the room; and it wasn't until he'd listened for a few moments that he realized the noise was his brother whimpering and crying softly in his sleep. Frowning, he sat up in bed and looked toward where Grant was still fitfully sleeping. "Grant?" he finally whispered, hoping he didn't wake their father; yet at the same time, hoping he did wake. Clint didn't know what to do.

Coulson had never been a particularly deep sleeper and he stirred at the sound of the whimpering and crying, waking properly as he heard Clint's voice on the comm. He quickly got out of the bed and headed down the hall to his sons' room, carefully opening the door and stepping inside.

By this point, Grant had begun to toss and turn in his bed, tangling up in the sheets, his whimpers turning into moans and his cries turning into choked sobs. He was speaking, but it wasn't clear exactly what he was saying... except for the, "Sorry," that he kept repeating over and over again.

Coulson immediately moved over to Grant's bedside. Without any kind of hesitation, he wrapped his arms around his youngest, stroking his hair in the same way he had when he'd seen Grant in a nightmare the first time.

Grant didn't wake up, but he instinctively huddled against his father, gripping the front of Coulson's pajama shirt and hiding his face against the older man's chest. He was shaking uncontrollably, no words being said now; just deep, body shaking sobs.

Clint swallowed hard and got out of his own bed, moving to sit next to his father and brother, but not touching; uncertain what to do, but wanting to help if possible.

Coulson continued to hold Grant tightly, still stroking his hair and back. He was used to Grant having nightmares, but that didn't mean seeing his youngest hurting got any easier. He moved one arm so that he could squeeze Clint's arm, trying to reassure his oldest.

It took a good twenty minutes, but Grant finally calmed. His breathing was still jagged- he kept taking little hiccupping breaths every other third breath- and he was laying weakly against his father, nearly boneless from weariness. Crying had taken a lot out of him. He didn't attempt to move out of his father's arms, though, feeling safety there and caring. The adult version of him would not have been surprised at this, but the child version was still trying to come to grips with everything he had learned... being held by Coulson was convincing him more than any other words that his father had been telling the truth.

Clint bit his lip, looking at Coulson in worry. "Should I get him some water?" he finally asked hesitantly, wanting to help but not able to do anything.

Coulson nodded, still gently threading his fingers through Grant's hair. "That might be a good idea," he agreed, rubbing Clint's arm gently before pressing a gentle kiss to Grant's head. He was worried, but not that surprised his son had had a nightmare.

Clint quickly jumped up and ran out to the kitchen to get a bottle of water from the refrigerator. It didn't take him long to bring it back to his father and hand it over, worry in his eyes. Biting his lip, he went and sat on his own bed again, not willing to try and sleep as long as his brother was upset like this.

Grant sniffled, shaking slightly, and finally released his father's shirt, only to wrap his arms around the older man as tightly as he could. "I'm sorry..." he finally said in a tiny voice.

Coulson hugged Grant tightly, continuing to stroke his hair. "Don't apologise," he said softly. "I love you." And Grant as an adult knew and believed in Coulson's love... his son as a child needed that reassurance. He wondered if maybe Grant (and Clint too) would feel better in his room.

Grant just tightened his embrace, as if he was afraid Coulson would leave if he let go even a little bit. He didn't have much experience with someone saying they loved him, let alone meaning it. Not since his Grammy, anyway. He didn't want to lose it, although a small part of him didn't think he deserved the love or comfort and expected it to disappear soon.

Clint bit his lip again, not certain what to say or do.

Cuddling Grant close to himself with one arm, Coulson held the other out to Clint. He pushed back the anger at the family who had taken his son from him, focusing his entire attention on his children and the love he felt for them.

Clint didn't need a second invitation, moving so that he was secured underneath Coulson's other arm and snuggling. He reached a tentative hand over and took Grant's hand, giving it a squeeze.

Grant slowly relaxed as his father's love calmed him and he found himself yawning, but fighting sleep...afraid that he would dream about his little brother's death again.

Coulson held both of his sons close and tight, pressing a soft kiss to each of their foreheads. "Why don't you both come in my room tonight?" he suggested. The bed was plenty big enough and it would probably be a bit more comfortable to cuddle them.

"I'notta baby..." Grant muttered against his father's chest. He didn't pull away from Coulson, though, and in fact pressed even closer and held on tighter, obviously not wanting to be separated from the other man.

"I dunno... being able to sleep in a bigger bed might be nice..." Clint said off-handedly, realizing that Grant would never agree to the arrangement unless he was convinced.

Grant turned his head slightly to peer at Clint, his face still smooshed against his father.

Clint couldn't help but giggle at the sight. "You got one of dad's buttons indented on your face..." he said, then giggled again.

Grant huffed slightly then finally pulled back from Coulson enough to look up into his face, trying to determine how serious the older man was with his suggestion.

Coulson still kept his arms around both of them. "Being comforted doesn't make you a baby," he said gently. "And you've both been known to come into the bed as adults anyway." He carefully uncapped the bottle of water and passed it to Grant. "It might help you feel better to have some water," he said gently.

Clint blinked at that knowledge. "We do?" he asked curiously. He wasn't sure why his older self would feel the need to do so, but who knew what had happened between his age now and when he was an adult? He believed his father was telling the truth, though. "If we do that as an adult, then there's no reason not to now, right, Grant?" he asked his brother, knowing the other boy was trying to come up with an excuse that would let him accept the comfort their dad was offering.

Grant sniffled, then bit his lip. "No...not if we do it as adults, too...." he finally said in a whisper. "If...if you really don't mind?" He winced at the hopeful tone that even he could hear in his voice.

"I don't mind at all," Coulson replied. "You're my sons. I would do anything for you. I won't tease you or make fun of you about it. Or get angry." He smiled reassuringly at them. "It's a comfort for me as well," he said honestly.

Grant gave a tentative smile back. "Ok...I...If you don't mind, I'd like to sleep in your bed..." he whispered, before finally taking a couple of sips of the water that had been offered.

"Me too!" Clint chimed in. He may not have had a nightmare, but the idea of being left in the strange room by himself wasn't all that appealing either.

Coulson nodded. "Let me know as soon as you're both ready to go through." He kept his arms around his sons, squeezing them gently. "I love you both," he reiterated. It was strange to be holding onto his sons as children... but it was a good strange. Coulson had missed out on both of them at this age.

Clint snuggled a little; he still missed his mom, even if he didn't talk about her that much, and she had always been affectionate. The fact Coulson was as well was comforting to the child. Finally, he pulled back. "I'm ready..." He tried, but failed, to stifle a yawn.

Grant smiled crookedly at his brother and pulled back as well, if a bit reluctantly. "I'm ready, too," he said softly.

Smiling, Coulson stood up and helped them both off the bed, wrapping an arm around each of their shoulders to guide them through to his bedroom.

Clint followed easily. Once he'd decided on something, he wasn't one to second guess himself; not too often, anyway.

Grant followed; not easily, but willingly. He was more prone to questioning his decisions, at least when it came to his own person. But he wanted to be with his father and so he pushed his reservations down. They weren't anything to do with trusting his father, anyway; and had everything to do with questioning if he deserved to be happy and receive comfort when he'd failed his little brother so horribly.

Inside the bedroom, Coulson helped his sons to settle on the bed, putting himself in the middle and wrapping an arm around each of them to draw them in close. "Don't be afraid to wake me up if you need me," he said softly.

"Ok, daddy...." Grant said softly, not realizing just what he'd called the older man- by instinct- due to his being so tired. He was quickly asleep, his fingers clutching Coulson's pajama top tightly, as if he was afraid the older man would disappear if he let go.

"Night, dad..." Clint smiled at his father before snuggling a little closer and closing his own eyes. He was shortly asleep as well.

Coulson held his sons close, just watching them for a few moments before kissing each of their foreheads and closing his own eyes. He was asleep much faster, now that he had his sons close and in his arms.

***

Loki had gotten ready for bed and then laid down. At first, he hadn't been able to sleep, his mind racing in a million different directions as he tried to come up with possibilities of why he and his friends (he assumed they were friends. Why else would he have been with them?) had been de-aged. But eventually, his day had caught up with him and he'd fallen asleep, snoring softly.

Thor had also gone to bed shortly after his brother had. He was worried, but at least Loki had taken the whole thing fairly well. And everyone else had been told the truth, too, which meant that neither of them had to worry about accidentally revealing something they weren't supposed to.

Loki had not slept for long when he began to dream. The images he was dreaming had nothing to do with anything the child had ever seen, however. The sensation of falling, falling, falling could have lasted for minutes- or hours- and Loki would not have known which, because in the throes of the dream, time was irrelevant. Eventually, the falling came to a painful, screeching halt, however and he was surrounded by loathsome creatures that enjoyed hurting him. It had been hard enough for the adult to endure...the child had no protections against what the Chitauri were doing, even if it only was in a dream. He began to toss and turn, whimpering with each abuse that was dealt him.

Soon, Loki was crying in his sleep; sobbing and begging for the tortures to stop. It was not until Thanos entered his dreams and told him what he must do to escape the punishment being inflicted that Loki screamed.

"No! I will not! I can not!" the child cried, feeling a loyalty and kinship to the Midgardians that the adult Loki had not felt when the events of the dream had actually occurred. "No! No!" He sobbed in fear and pain.

Thor had never been a deep sleeper and the sounds of his little brother crying out had him up and out of bed even before he'd properly woken up. Grabbing his hammer, he was out of his room and down the corridor to his brother's without any conscious thought.

There was no obvious sign of attack, but that didn't work to calm Thor down. Responding to the fear and pain in his brother's voice, he dropped the hammer and quickly went to his brother's side, wrapping his arms around Loki and hugging him close. "You're dreaming, brother," he whispered. "Wake up."

"No...don't make me...I don't want to hurt them..." Loki continued to cry softly, before his brother's whispers and the warmth from his arms broke through the hold the dream had on him. He blinked, slowly coming awake. As soon as he was awake, he threw his own arms around his brother and held on tightly as if his life depended on it, sobbing softly.

Worried, Thor hugged Loki tightly, holding him close. He hadn't asked his brother about the allies that had attacked Midgard. For him, it had been enough to have his brother back by his side. Now, he wondered even more about what had happened during that year he'd lost Loki.

Thor stroked his brother's hair and spoke softly to him. "You're here. You're safe."

Loki shivered slightly, pressing ever closer to his brother. He knew he should be ashamed at his weakness...if Father had seen him behaving in such a juvenile manner, he would have been sorely disappointed and vexed. Even so, Loki craved his brother's affection and protection and could not help himself as he gave into his need, holding onto Thor as tightly as he was able; as if afraid that if he let go, he would begin to fall for real instead of in a dream.

Thor didn't so much as loosen his hold on Loki, continuing the gentle stroking of his hair and back. "You're safe," he repeated. "I'm here, brother." He hadn't been in the way he should have before, but Thor now made a point of being around and available for his brother.

"Do not leave me, Thor...please?" Loki's sobs had ebbed to weak crying, but his grip had not loosened at all. "And do not let me leave you..." he begged softly. The one element in his dream that he had recognized was that the falling had begun with a fight between his brother and himself and he had let go, even as his brother had screamed at him to hold onto him. He did not want to make that mistake for real. It had not yet occurred to him that his dream was actually a memory.

Thor tightened his embrace around Loki. "I'm not leaving you and you're not leaving me," he promised. He could guess at what had prompted that plea, but he meant his words. Sitting on the bed, he gently pulled Loki into his lap.

"I love you, Thor," Loki said in a tiny voice. "I am glad you are my brother." He bit his lip, then hesitantly asked, as if ashamed of the request, "May I stay with you tonight? Like we did when we were younger and I had a dream?"

"I love you too, Loki, and of course," Thor replied. "You're my brother. And I'll do anything for you." He stood up, lifting his brother into his arms as if Loki weighed nothing.

Loki wrapped his arms around his brother's neck and held on. He supposed he could have protested being carried- he was capable of walking- but at the moment, he needed the comfort and security of his brother holding onto him too much to argue something so trivial as if he should walk or be carried. Snuggling closer to Thor, he whispered, "Thank you, brother."

Thor carried Loki through to his bedroom. "If you want to... if you feel able to... you can tell me about your dream," he said softly. "Either now or in the morning. I'll listen to you, brother."

Loki nodded. "I...it began with us fighting..." he started out quietly. He then began to explain the events that had occurred several years before in Asgard, when he had fallen from the Bifrost and what happened after; the events that the adult Loki had never shared with anyone, too ashamed at being so weak and being made to be another's 'weapon of choice'.

Taking a seat on the bed, Thor cuddled his brother on his lap as he listened to Loki's explanation without interruptin, still gently stroking over his hair and back. "Loki... I believe you might be experiencing a memory," he said gently.

Loki leaned back and looked into his brother's face, his eyes wide and horrified. "I...if that is a memory, then I...I am a horrible monster and wronged you and everyone in this home greatly..." he whispered, tears sliding down his cheeks again. "I am sorry! I am sorry! Please forgive me! I do not want to be bad! I do not!" He began to cry again and grabbed onto Thor again, as if afraid that his unwitting confession to everything that had occurred would make his brother hate him.

Thor shook his head, arms tightening around his brother. "No. You were separated from me and deeply hurt. You are not bad, brother. I love you. There is no force in any of the nine realms that could make me hate you."

Loki burrowed against Thor, hiding his face against his chest, and tried to regain control over himself. It had been difficult enough when he had thought his dream a figment of his imagination. To realize that the events were real saddened him and made him afraid. How was it that he had become friends with everyone in this building if he had behaved so atrociously toward them and their home world? He could not understand it.

He could not stop crying. Soon, though, his sorrow had tired him out and he fell asleep in his brother's arms; the only place he currently felt safe.

***

Bucky was sound asleep, sprawled out on his bed, covers tangled around his legs.

Tony envied that. He lay in his own bed, forcing himself to breathe calmly. It wasn't easy; his heart was hammering away in his chest and every little noise had him twitching, as if expecting an attack. Tony hadn't been able to sleep long at all before he'd jerked awake and barely bit back a scream of fear. He didn't know what he was dreaming of- he certainly hadn't watched any movies that would fit a description of what had been in his dreams- but it was terrifying to the young boy and his fear made it impossible for him to go back to sleep. He finally decided to quit trying and carefully got out of bed and tiptoed out of the room.

Of course, now that he was no longer in his bed or in his bedroom, he had no clue where to go. He just knew he was too afraid to sleep. Biting his lip and sighing softly, he slowly made his way toward the elevator. Maybe he could go into one of the labs and make a robot...he'd been wanting to try his hand at making one of those. Of course, knowing what he did now about their situation, he supposed that he likely already had made a robot; but he wanted to make one now, so that he could actually remember it. And working on it would keep him awake and help him to avoid more bad dreams. He brushed at his face, wiping away the tears that had begun the minute he woke up gasping and that refused to stop dripping out of his eyes now.

Steve had already asked JARVIS to wake him if something happened with either of the boys he was taking care of, so he wasn't too surprised when the AI woke him to inform him that Tony was awake and heading to the elevator.

Getting out of bed, Steve quickly left his bedroom and, spotting Tony ahead of him, quickly walked over to the boy, stopping next to him and wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "Did you have a bad dream?" he asked softly.

Tony hadn't really been paying attention to his surroundings, still attempting to get his crying under control, so when Steve put his arm around him and stopped his forward momentum, he couldn't help but jump and let out a tiny squeak of fear...he supposed he should be lucky he hadn't screamed or yelled. Swallowing hard, he forced himself to look up at Steve, knowing the man would be able to see that he had been- and still was- crying. It was embarrassing, but he didn't know what else could be done about it. Swallowing again, he whispered, "Yessir..."

Steve nodded, not that surprised, and guided Tony into his bedroom, sitting down and gently tugging Tony down next to him. "What happened in the dream?" he asked gently, wrapping his arm around Tony's shoulders and squeezing him gently.

"I...I'm not sure..." He absently began to rub his chest. "I was in a Humvee with some soldiers...and then there was a lot of...gunfire... and the soldiers were all falling down and I think they were dying and..." Tony began to cry more noisily. "...And then all of a sudden, I'm in this dark cave and these men are telling me that I have to build something for them and I don't want to. I don't want to because I know it will do really bad things and I don't want to do really bad things...and they're hurting me and...and...I can't breathee cuz of water...but then there isn't and they're still hurting me and telling me to build this...I think it was a bomb.... and there's something in my chest that hurts, but I can't take it out cuz I'll die. The nice doctor said so...." Tony sniffled and rubbed his chest again, as if remembering how much it hurt. "It...it wasn't a dream, was it?" he asked softly, before starting to cry again. "I don't want to hurt people. I don't want them to die because of me...." He sobbed.

It was second nature for Steve to pull Tony into his arms, hugging him close and tight. "I think you dreamed about what happened to you," he said gently. "You haven't had an easy life, but there's no one who can hurt you now. You have your family around you... myself included... and you built yourself suits to protect you." He stroked Tony's back gently. "You protect people."

"I don't hurt people? I help them?" Tony's voice was lost and forlorn and hopeful. If it was second nature for Steve to pull Tony into his arms, it was second nature for Tony to cuddle as close as he could humanly get, craving the affection and security Steve offered. As an adult, he didn't feel as free to accept comfort and affection, except maybe from Pepper, although he had been loosening up around Steve and allowing more and more of a connection to form between the two of them. As a child, he didn't have such inhibitions; he wanted to be loved and cared about...needed it...and he wasn't about to pull away when the man he'd admired for as long as he could remember was offering him protection.

"Do I have to go back to sleep?" he finally asked, a tiny hint of fear in his voice. He knew it would be very difficult to sleep. If he had another dream....

Steve held Tony close. "You help them. You're a hero," he said softly, reassuringly, before adding, "You don't have to go back to your room. You can always try going back to sleep in here with me."

"Howard....dad would never allow that. Stark men are 'sposed to be brave and face their fears...." Tony said woodenly, almost as if he was repeating something he'd heard numerous times. His grip on Steve tightened, however and it was obvious he wanted to stay with his hero.

"I don't know if your dad ever had someone to help him," Steve said softly. "You do. You have me. And I'm not going to abandon you. No matter what." He was reasonably certain that Tony as an adult still had trouble believing that... but Steve always made a point of reassuring him anyway.

Tony snuggled closer, fighting his tiredness, but finally had to yawn. "You won't leave me?" he finally asked childishly, as if he didn't fully believe it.

"I won't leave you," Steve promised. "I'll be right here." He continued gently stroking Tony's hair and back, hoping to soothe him to sleep.

"'K," Tony answered drowsily. "...g'night..." he finally mumbled in a whisper, before falling asleep in Steve's arms. Even in his sleep, he snuggled close and held on tight; as if he was afraid Steve would disappear.

At that moment, Bucky wandered in, rubbing his eyes and looking for Tony. As soon as he saw Steve, he gave a crooked grin, went to the side of the bed Steve wasn't at, crawled under the covers and was soon fast asleep again, as if crawling into bed next to his best friend/brother was the most natural thing in the world.

Steve smiled and kept one arm wrapped around Tony as he slid his other arm around Bucky, settling down between the two boys and drawing them in close as he closed his eyes and let himself fall asleep.

***

Bruce looked at the seven expectant faces that were sat around the kitchen table of the common area staring at him.

Earlier that morning, breakfast had been eaten and all the dishes cleaned and put away under Steve's supervision. The kids had then been sat down in the media room to watch an educational video while the adult members of the tower had met up to plan schedules and responsibilities. Bruce and Jemma were needed to research and try to find a cure for what had happened to their de-aged colleagues...but there was a chance that they might never find a cure. If that ended up being the case, the children needed schooling. To that end, each adult had taken a subject that they would 'teach' to the younger members.

Bruce, of course, was going to teach science- with help from Jemma- and it had been decided that they would teach their class first thing in the morning, so that they could then go directly to the labs and work on finding the cure and not have to be interrupted during the day until it was actually time to quit for the evening. He suspected he would have it easier than some of the others, since at least two of the children were extremely interested in the sciences, so it would be easier to keep their attention.

A request had been made to Fury for appropriate learning materials (including items for those 'gifted' students). The items would be delivered by the end of the day, but until then, he needed to find a way to teach the children without materials. Taking a deep breath, he began, "Ok. The first thing we're going to do is an activity, so that I can see exactly what level you all are at, so that I know where to begin my teaching...."

Leo and Skye, at least, looked somewhat interested... even if Skye would have preferred doing something with computers. Leo cast another glance around at the fellow students, wondering how they all got on as adults, before looking back at Bruce, head tilted slightly to the side.

Tony was interested...unfortunately, his interest lasted only as long as it took him to complete the activity, which wasn't long at all. There was a reason he had been in high-school by the time he was ten and in college by the time he was fourteen.

Bucky couldn't say he was terribly interested, but he knew that it would be important for him to understand the world he was now living in and so he did his best on the activity and hoped that it helped him figure out this new era he found himself in. All his memories pretty much stopped with the depression.

Grant bit his lip and glanced at his brother, then at the other children. He enjoyed learning, but he had to admit as much as he enjoyed learning, science was not his best subject. Taking a deep breath, he began working on the activity.

Clint glanced at the activity, wrinkled his nose, answered a few of the questions that were easy and then began to draw doodles on the rest of the paper. He didn't remember or know most of the stuff on this sheet, hazards of missing a large amount of school after his mom died. He wasn't terribly interested in rectifying the situation, either.

Loki narrowed his eyes and tried to figure out the answers to the questions, but none of the words on the sheet brought any recollection of knowledge...although some of the pictures looked familiar, he didn't know what Midgardians called them. He ended up putting in the Asgardian terms and answers for the few things he thought he recognized.

Leo worked on the activity, finishing fairly quickly, though not anywhere near as fast as Tony did. He then started checking back through his work, frowning in concentration.

Despite her best intentions, Skye grew bored really quickly and began fidgeting, thinking about whether she could sneak away... or ask to use the restroom and conveniently 'disappear' for the rest of the lesson. School hadn't featured too highly in her list of priorities. Computers were the only thing that really interested her.

Bruce had been keeping close watch on the kids, noting how quickly some of them finished, which ones had pretty much blown the activity off (and made a mental note to talk their 'parent' about it) and which ones were trying to do the work but were struggling for one reason or another. Finally, when he'd figured enough time had passed that he should be able to get some idea of what each child needed to learn, he told them to turn the activity in.

"For the remainder of my time with you," Bruce said, "we will be doing a hands on project. If you will follow me into the kitchen...." He smiled as the kids followed behind him like ducklings. Every child- as far as he was aware- liked hands on activities. Hopefully, they would enjoy this experiment.

***

Clint couldn't help it. Science just wasn't his thing. He'd learn what he had to, but for a whole hour? That was really way too much to expect of any eleven year old. So he did what any self-respecting eleven year old boy would do. He made the perfect spitball and then aimed and fired it at the only girl in the class.

Skye had found her attention wandering anyway and she just happened to be sitting close enough to Clint that the spitball hit her in the side of her head. Without really thinking about it, she made a paper aeroplane and sent it flying towards Clint.

Clint blinked in surprise, then grinned, quickly repurposing the plane and sending it back at the girl with a few modifications that made it go faster.

After taking a quick glance around to make sure she wasn't being watched, Skye crumpled up some of her paper into a ball that she then tossed at Clint.

Clint quickly batted it away, accidentally hitting Leo on the side of the head.

By this time, Tony had noticed the proceedings and was smirking, taking his own paper and beginning to make something with it, although it wasn't clear what it was yet.

Leo turned around, but then quickly turned his attention away and tried to pay attention to the lesson. He wasn't going to tell on them, but he did want to learn.

Skye idly picked up the paper aeroplane again, considering throwing it once more.

Tony, finally satisfied that his paper airplane was perfect, let it fly. Of course, it went right past Skye...and Clint... and hit Bruce square on the chest.

Bruce calmly picked the plane up off the floor, put it on the table, paused in his explanations of what they were supposed to be learning and said firmly, "Clint, Skye and Tony. No more spit-balls. No more paper planes. Or I will be talking to your 'parents'." His voice was calm, clear and not angry in the least, but was stern.

Tony swallowed audibly. Calm, clear and not angry was somehow scarier than blustery anger. And he somehow knew Steve would be disappointed if he heard about this. "Yes, sir," he said, subdued.

"Yes, sir." Clint quickly followed suit, stuffing the other airplane he'd been in the process of making under his book.

Skye quickly put her own aeroplane away, uttering a quiet, "Yes, sir," along with the two boys. She ducked her head over the book, trying to concentrate on the lesson... and not on how much she'd rather do something else.

Bruce only just managed to keep from smiling at the reactions of the three children. They were good kids and he was honestly impressed any of them had paid attention as long as they had. He hadn't trained to teach children, after all. Hopefully, he'd be more interesting once he had some idea of what level they were actually at and could customize their lessons. Until then, though. "Ok, kids. That's it for today. Tomorrow, we'll get more individualized assignments. Next, you'll be getting a history lesson from Steve."

He finally allowed himself to smile. "You have five minutes to get a drink and go to the restroom. If you have any questions, I'll be in the lab...." He gave them a small wave of dismissal before taking up the placement sheets and heading for the elevator. "Keep an eye on them, JARVIS?"

"Of course, Doctor Banner," the AI agreed.

Skye quickly wandered off to go and get herself a drink. She had thought about disappearing for a bit longer, but the adults here seemed much more observant than her foster families. And she wasn't sure she wanted to push... at least not yet.

Leo stayed where he was, taking out one of his books so he could get some reading in.

Loki had gone to get a drink as well, but Bucky and Tony wandered over to Clint.

Clint looked at Bucky. "What kind of history do you think we'll be learning?"

Bucky shrugged. "Not sure," he said quietly.

Tony grinned. "Do you think he'll tell us about when he fought HYDRA?"

Steve headed in just as Skye was returning and she went to her seat as Steve took his place in the classroom. He waited for everyone to return to their seats before beginning their lesson.

Tony decided to be on his best behavior for this class. It wasn't that he didn't think he could do something and not be seen...well...ok, that was a lot of it. He'd been surprised that Bruce had caught him before he'd even done anything big, so he wasn't entirely certain Steve wouldn't be the same way. And since he was living with Steve and Steve had control over when he had to go to bed.... It wasn't like it would be that difficult to listen. For being a futurist, Tony did like history.

Clint was still a bit bored. He never had been very good at sitting still and listening. He was much more a hands-on action type. But he didn't want to have his 'teacher' get onto him for a second time. He had a feeling they would be comparing notes at the end of the day and he didn't want to disappoint his dad on the first day.

Grant had always loved school, as it had been an escape from his home. It was easy for him to sit quietly and listen.

Loki was fascinated and curious as to what the subject matter would be; he wanted to try and find the similarities between what the Midgardians were learning and what he had learned on Asgard.

Bucky wasn't sure what to think, having his brother teaching history. He decided to wait and see.

Steve was fairly used to talking to young people and it wasn't hard to make sure he talked to them using age-appropriate language. He was aware of the confusion that at least some of them would be experiencing and did his best to make the subject matter sound interesting.

Still, Skye found herself in danger of drifting off into her own world. She stayed focused as much as she could, but to be honest, it was far too easy for her to get bored.

Leo listened intently, always eager to learn new things. Besides, how many kids could say they'd been taught by Captain America?

Tony listened. Well, he tried to listen. He really did. History had never really been his thing at any point in his life and being de-aged hadn't changed that. He would much rather think about making things that had never been made before than focus on things that had been made in the past. But it was Steve- Captain America- his hero for as long as he could remember (which, granted, wasn't that long; he was only eleven, for Pete's sake) and he wanted to listen, if only to make the man happy with him. So he tried his best; and amazingly enough, he wasn't bored. Not exactly. He still couldn't help but fidget, though. He really had a hard time staying still; and not talking, although that was a different problem all together.

Clint sat straight and listened and didn't make spit-balls or paper airplanes or do anything that would get him Steve's attention. It was bad enough Bruce had caught him. He didn't want his father getting an earful from the other teachers at the end of the day. He wasn't sure exactly what would happen if he did.

Loki sat and listened, a perplexed look on his face. The Midgardians were a lot more advanced than his schooling on Asgard would have suggested. And the information he was learning about now was something they had figured out years ago. It only stood to reason that they were even further along in advancement than this class would suggest.

Grant loved history. Listening was no problem at all for him.

Steve found the seven of them to be fairly well-behaved, though he suspected that a few of them were becoming bored, if the glazed-over eyes were any indication. Still, for a group of eleven-year-olds, they were doing very well.

"That's all for now," Steve said. "It'll be physical education next... some of you might prefer that." He smiled as he joked a little. "You have about five minutes' break and then Thor will be coming in."

Grant hesitantly raised his hand. "Do we need to change for that?"

Clint nodded eagerly at the question.

So did Tony and Loki.

Skye didn't look too thrilled by the fact that they'd be doing physical education. Although she was fairly healthy, she much preferred technology to sports. Leo looked interested, though uncertain about how good he'd be.

"That would probably be better," Steve agreed. "You should find suitable clothes in the items that were bought."

"Bet I can finish changing faster than any of you slow lot..." Clint drawled out in a teasing brag.

"Like hel..eck!" Tony shot Steve a look from the corner of his eye and got a sheepish look on his face. He wasn't entirely certain what the older man would say about his language.

Loki just rolled his eyes.

So did Grant.

Skye rolled her eyes and grabbed her things from her desk, quickly exiting the room and heading to the floor she was sharing with May.

Leo followed after Skye.

Steve just gave Tony a look, but didn't comment on the near-miss.

***

Despite Tony's protests to the contrary, Clint was the first one back to the make-shift school room. He did a self-congratulatory fist into the sky then went to his designated seat.

When Tony came in a few seconds later, he let out a sigh, then went and sat down as well. "How'd you move so fast? I practically ran the whole way there and back!"

Grant came in a few moments behind Tony and smirked. "He ran upstairs, grabbed his clothes and changed as he was running back, is what." He shoved a handful of clothing at his brother. "You left a trail of clothes behind you."

Loki had come in with Grant and handed over a pair of shoes with a grin. "Maybe next time you should just bring your clothes with you and change in the classroom?"

Thor had come to the classroom while the children were getting changed. Skye and Leo trailed in after the others.

Once all the kids were there and ready, Thor directed them to follow him to the rec area. On Asgard, he was used to pushing warriors in training. He was already considering how best to do this lesson.

Tony looked up at Thor, almost nervously, although he tried to hide the nerves with sarcasm. "Ya know...never noticed how big he is...." His voice trailed off and he glanced at Loki. "If he needs any volunteers, not it!"

"Not it!" Grant and Clint both blurted out together, glancing at Loki, who appeared confused.

Thor glanced at the children, but didn't comment. Reaching the rec room, he organised them into teams, deciding to start off with a game.

Grant found himself on a team with Leo and Skye.

Clint, Tony and Bucky had quickly formed a team, which left Loki.

Loki had been positive that they would not want him on their team and was prepared to hear arguments from each team trying to pawn him off on the other team...but to his surprise, they began arguing who should be allowed to have him on their team. He glanced at his brother...a mixture of confusion and relief on his face.

"He should be on our team because you already have more bigger and taller players than us!" Grant argued...trying to find the most diplomatic way of stating his case without coming out and saying that Skye and Leo were the shortest ones in the group and they were both on his team.

***

The last lesson had been tiring, but fairly fun. Skye had gone to get washed and changed before heading to the common room area to eat lunch.

Leo also got changed and took a seat at the table with a drink.

Grant was the third one to arrive, sitting down between his team-mates. "We did good..." he remarked with a tired smile. Sighing softly, he reached out and took his glass of water and drained it, then put his arms on the table and his head on his arms while he waited for his brother and the others to arrive.

Clint came trudging in five minutes after Grant and flopped down into a chair, then yawned.

Loki came in directly behind him, chatting amiably with Bucky, while Tony brought up the rear, looking like he wanted nothing more than to go find a corner to take a nap in.

"Wuzforlung?" the pint-sized billionaire muttered, as he slouched into the nearest seat.

Coulson had ended up volunteering to make lunch... partly because he wanted to make sure the children ate healthily and well; but also because he wanted to check on his sons. "Sandwiches," he answered, deciphering Tony's question as he set a plate in the middle of the table.

Leo, who had more or less flopped, raised his head to look at the plate of sandwiches. "I don't think I have the energy to eat..."

Tony didn't even say that much... a snore making its way around the kitchen. He'd fallen asleep with his eyes open and was in danger of sliding onto the floor.

Grant startled at the sudden loud noise, jumping and bumping the table with his elbow. "Ow..." he muttered then tiredly reached for a sandwich, knowing that his father would not accept being too tired to eat as an excuse not to eat.

Clint snorted at Tony, gave his brother a sympathetic smile and took his own sandwich, the workout they'd received in class making him very hungry. He could take a nap in whatever class they had next, he figured. Unless his father was teaching it, that was. "Who’s got us next?" he asked as innocently as he could manage.

Loki stared at Tony, then looked at Bucky and shrugged. "I did not think the class was that rigorous. By Asgardian standards, it was very mild."

Bucky laughed. "It wasn't the hardest class it could have been, but by Midgardian standards, it wasn't easy either. And if you aren't used to getting much activity in...."

Coulson moved to position Tony, so that he wouldn't fall onto the floor. "Fury is going to be teaching you next," he said mildly, gently squeezing his sons' shoulders before getting each of the children another drink.

Skye grabbed a sandwich and started eating hungrily.

Leo finally mustered the energy to grab his own sandwich, eating with his eyes closed.

Bucky leaned over and poked Tony awake. "You might want to eat something. We got the Pirate dude teaching us next...." he whispered, a bit louder than he'd intended.

Tony blinked and shook his head before taking a sip of his drink. "Cool. I like him." He reached over and grabbed a sandwich, beginning to eat as if he hadn't almost fallen on the floor.

Grant smiled at his father, before taking a big bite of his sandwich and grinning at his brother.

Clint grinned back, showing a big mouthful of half-chewed food.

"Nice," Loki muttered, as he had caught a view of Clint's food as well.

Coulson turned to his own food to hide his smile at the reference to Fury. He was certain his best friend was probably aware of the nickname. He'd already plated up food for the other adults, intending to take lunch to Bruce and Jemma in the lab, but pretty sure most of the others would filter in at some point.

Bruce ended up coming into the kitchen approximately ten minutes later, dragging Jemma behind him. "We had planned to eat in the lab," he said. "But then I thought it would probably be a good idea for Jemma to actually get out of the lab and have a bit of personal interaction that didn't involve slides of microbes and other things..." He smiled at Coulson as he handed Jemma a plate.

Jemma blushed slightly. "It's entirely my fault. I made the mistake of admitting I had gotten to the lab at 3am this morning and hadn't left it once since then..." She gave her supervisor and mentor a sheepish look. "I count myself lucky that I didn't receive a lecture..." she muttered under her breath.

Grant, who had heard her, giggle-snorted, then covered his mouth in mortification that he'd made such a noise.

Coulson handed both Bruce and Jemma a plate of food, smiling then placed his hand on Grant's shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly. "No one here is going to get angry with you for laughing," he said softly.

Thor came in at that moment, having just finished showering himself and then talking to Jane. He smiled warmly at his brother and the other children, before nodding to the other adults and then addressing Bruce. "Might I speak with you before you return to the lab?" he asked.

Grant relaxed immediately at his father's touch and gave Coulson a relieved smile, going back to eating.

Bruce raised an eyebrow in curiosity. "Yes, of course. Is it private?" He glanced around the kitchen at the children and Coulson, knowing that Steve, Natasha, May and Trip would also be arriving soon. "If so, I will wait for you to finish and you can walk with me to the lab...."

Coulson dropped a gentle kiss to the top of Grant's head then did the same to Clint. "I'd like to hear about both of your days later," he said softly.

Thor nodded. "That might be best," he agreed, beginning to eat his own food after taking a seat next to his brother.

Steve and Natasha came in at that point, both helping themselves to food.

"Sure thing, dad..." Clint answered for himself as well as Grant, grinning.

May and Trip were the last of Coulson's team to arrive.

Trip looked around the nearly full kitchen and grinned. "Reminds me of Thanksgiving back when Granddaddy and Grandma were alive...." he said with a shake of his head. He handed May a plate, then took one for himself, waiting until she was seated before taking his own seat. Remembering his Grandfather had caused him to remember all the old-fashioned manners that his Grandpa had taught him as well.

Natasha sat down to eat, while Steve stepped over to Coulson to talk quietly to him about his thoughts on potential lesson plans over the next few days.

Food managed to perk Leo up a bit, even if he was eating between yawns.

Fury might not be director of SHIELD anymore, but he still had quite a lot to do and was the last to arrive to eat.

Tony perked up when he saw Fury come in, not wanting the man to notice how tired he was. "Hello, sir. Are you going to be teaching us too? What are you going to be teaching? Are you going to be living here until we get back to normal? I don't remember what normal is." Tony frowned slightly at that, not liking the idea of not remembering something, even if he wouldn't have even known about it at the age he currently was at now. "Oh! I have an idea for a robot. Can we make one?"

Clint stared at Tony, his mouth dropping open at the way his friend seemed to have lost all control over his mouth. Glancing around at all the other adults, he tried to sneak a peek into Tony's drinking glass...noting that the drink wasn't the water or juice that the rest of them were drinking. "Hey! Where'd you get Mountain Dew?! Are we even allowed to have that?" He wrinkled his nose and looked toward Coulson, hoping his father would say yes.

Tony's eyes widened and his mouth shut with a click. "I don't know what you're talking about, Clint..." he said in what he thought was a very calm voice. It made him look guilty.

Steve glanced over at Tony and raised his eyebrows. He then reached over to take the glass. "I don't know where you got that from, but you're not drinking anymore," he said firmly. He rinsed the glass out and refilled it with water.

"I'll be here for a while," Fury said in answer to Tony's question. "And I'm going to be teaching you Math."

Tony sighed as Steve took the glass away from him then shot Clint an irritated look.

Clint stuck his tongue out at Tony.

It nearly resulted in a food fight, except that Trip had caught the action and managed to put a hand on Tony's arm before the pint-sized holy-terror could retaliate by throwing grapes at the other pint-sized menace. "Boys..." he said, calmly and quietly, but it was enough to get them to settle down. He glanced at his own mentor and shook his head slightly, giving Fury a tiny grin.

"I like Math. Are you going to give me hard problems?" Tony glanced at Fury curiously. Oddly enough, he didn't seem worried about the prospect of difficulty; in fact, he actually looked hopeful.

"I wouldn't give you easy ones." Fury knew Tony. He knew that, even as a child, the billionaire was a genius... and giving him work at the same level as the others would result in a very bored eleven-year-old who would be getting into mischief. He smiled at Trip, an expression that softened his face in a way that wasn't seen very often.

Coulson shook his head, hiding his amusement, and placed an arm around each of his sons' shoulders, squeezing gently. Apart from showing them affection, he also wanted to help Grant get used to being hugged by his father, since the child version of his youngest didn't remember how physically affectionate his father was.

"Cool!" Tony's smile grew bigger and he straightened up considerably as he finished his lunch. So far, classes today had been better than he'd expected, all the 'teachers' either testing them to discover what level they were at or teaching something that he wasn't yet an expert in. And Fury had promised not to go easy on him. "I wish I could take classes like this all the time, instead of having to go off to boarding school," Tony said, a little wistfully, forgetting for a moment that technically, he should be an adult and not in school at all.

Grant nodded. "I hope we can..." he said, also forgetting that he should be an adult and instead thinking about how much he wanted to stay wherever his father was and not have to leave him for any reason.

Jemma, noting the 'forgetfulness', gave Bruce a worried look. What would happen if the 'children' decided they liked the way things were and didn't want to be returned to their natural ages?

Coulson tightened his embrace a little around his sons, hearing the comments made by both Tony and Grant, and spoke gently. "For the time being, the classes will be the same, or similar, to how you've experienced them so far. But when we figure out how to reverse what happened, you won't need to take classes... but this will still be your home."

Grant nodded, fully believing his father, because he wanted to believe him.

"Yeah," Tony said hesitantly, not seeming quite as sure about what was said. Right now, all the 'adults in his life were actually paying attention to him...something he rarely got from his own family. How could he be sure that he wouldn't be ignored again once he was past needing their care?

Steve heard the hesitation in Tony's voice and placed a hand gently on his shoulder. "I didn't lie to you when I said you have a whole family who care about you." He indicated the whole group of them. "We're all here because we're all a family."

Tony bit his lip, but nodded. If you couldn't believe Captain America, who could you believe? Giving Steve a tentative smile, he finished his lunch.

Thor looked at his brother. "How have your other classes been so far?" he asked.

Loki smiled at Thor. "Most enlightening. I am enjoying them!"

Thor smiled and gently squeezed Loki's shoulder. "I'm glad to hear that. They are different to what you're used to."

"It is different, but not in a bad way..." Loki agreed. "Midgardians are very smart," he finally declared.

Bruce couldn't help but share a 'look' with the other adults. Loki's reaction now was a far cry from how he viewed their world when they first met him. It was encouraging; Thor had made great headway with his brother since he'd come to live with them. Loki's time as a child was enabling even more growth.

Thor squeezed Loki gently. "They are, yes," he agreed. "There are differences... but also a lot of things that are similar, too."

Bucky had finished before anyone else and had sat, quietly observing. When he noticed Tony was finished, he asked, "Do we have enough time to go outside for a little while before class? We can go up on the roof so no one sees us..." he said hopefully. He could see through the window that it was a gorgeous day.

"That is up to your teacher..." May said with a quirk of her eyebrow as she glanced at Fury.

"I could do with another coffee," Fury commented. "You have fifteen minutes." He would never admit that he had a soft spot to anyone, even if the people closest to him could see it.

Coulson let go of his sons after one last squeeze, not wanting to hold them back from going outside.

It didn't take any of the children long to put their plates and cups into the sink and then run for the elevator so they could get fresh air.

Jemma watched with an almost wistful look on her face.

Bruce smiled. "Go on. You can have fifteen minutes as well," he finally told her, unable to stop his chuckle when she grabbed Trip and ran for the elevator herself.

"Hey now! My cookie!" Trip protested good naturedly, grabbing his dessert as he was dragged out of the kitchen."

May just shook her head. "I'd like some of that coffee." She smiled. "Oh...and that Mountain Dew is in the bottom of the bar, in the entertainment room. I remember when it was put there a couple of months ago. If you want to remove temptation..." She smiled at Steve and Coulson.

Fury poured out some coffee for both him and May.

Steve stood up. "I'll go and remove temptation," he said.

Thor looked after the children, almost a little sadly. It had been a long time since Loki had been this relaxed and happy...

May looked at Thor and slanted her head. "He's doing really well..." she finally said, trying to draw the Asgardian into conversation.

Bruce nodded. "He's adjusted remarkably well, considering that he had to get used to being in a new world - according to his memory, anyway- and also to the fact that he was de-aged. You're doing well with him."

Thor focused on the other adults and nodded. "He... seems happy now." He hesitated. "But he woke up during the night... having experienced a nightmare. I believe it was a memory. From after he fell."

Coulson looked concerned, remembering the nightmare that Grant had had, but he'd assumed it was likely due to his youngest's past. If Loki was also having nightmares, though, perhaps there was a more sinister reason behind it.

May frowned at that...having not heard the full story of what had happened to Loki before he'd come to Midgard with the Chitauri. "After he fell?" she finally asked quietly.

Bruce frowned as well, slanting his head as he waited for Thor's answer.

"In Asgard... when we fought... Loki fell from the rainbow bridge," Thor answered. "I grabbed him, but I wasn't able to hold him. He let go. I don't know what happened during that year, but judging from what he told me of his nightmare... it sounds as if he was badly treated... tortured, perhaps." There was an element of personal blame in his voice. As far as he was concerned, he hadn't searched hard enough for his brother. Maybe if he'd tried harder, Loki wouldn't have had to go through what he did.

Bruce sighed softly. "That would explain...a lot, actually." He wrinkled his nose and looked at the other adults who were caring for the children at night. "Did any of your kids have nightmares? Leo didn't...but I think he had a more normal childhood and was better adjusted than most of the rest of them...." He watched the others to see what they would say.

"Grant did have a nightmare," Coulson said. "But I don't think it was memories of his time as an adult... I think it was a traumatic event that, for him, only happened a short while ago. Clint didn't... but then again, he didn't really have much that was traumatic in the same way." He glanced at the door, where Steve had gone to retrieve the Mountain Dew, wondering if the other man's charges had had any nightmares.

Bruce nodded. "What little I've learned of Grant's childhood, I get the idea his childhood was more traumatic than his adulthood, even with all the stuff that went down because of Garrett...." He looked toward the door as well, wondering if Steve had anything to add to the conversation, even as he asked May, "What about Skye?"

May shook her head. "Skye slept through the night without any problems at all. I suspect, even though her childhood wasn't ideal, there was nothing that she would be able to remember that was traumatic...."

Steve came in during May's comments, raising his eyebrows. "Some of the others have been having nightmares as well? Bucky slept through the night fine... JARVIS woke me when Tony got up due to a nightmare." A worried look came over his face. "He was dreaming about being in Afghanistan..."

Coulson nodded and sighed. "Every time I learn more of his home life..." His voice trailed off. How could he explain that he still felt like he'd failed his son? He should have tried harder. His boy had been out there... he shouldn't have rested until he had Grant back with him.

"That wasn't your doing... and you have him back," Fury said. "Even if it's a long road, he's healing gradually."

May nodded at Fury's words. "As much as this de-aging thing is worrisome, in a way, maybe it's good for them. I mean, they're getting a chance to have a semi-normal childhood...or at least semi-normal moment of childhood... and if we're lucky, when they are back to their normal ages, they'll remember it. This is a chance for us to help all of them heal. Maybe in a way we wouldn't be able to help them otherwise." She shrugged.

Bruce nodded in agreement.

Coulson nodded slowly, remembering how Grant had expressed a wish to become a child again. Still... "Knowing that Grant's childhood was, more than likely, manufactured by HYDRA, I wonder how many other HYDRA agents went through a similar situation."

"That's a sobering thought," Steve said. "They might be doing it now."

May winced. "How would we be able to tell?"

Bruce shook his head. "Better question is how could we stop them if we found out about it?"

"It might be possible to cross-reference disappearances over the years," Fury said. "Perhaps see if we can track the home lives of known HYDRA agents. Even an illegal adoption should leave a trail it might be possible to uncover."

"They'd probably keep the children at one of the bases before moving them," Natasha said. "I could take a team... see if we could gather intel."

"And if we find where they were- and how they got illegally adopted- or even managed to find the bases where they were and are kept... if we find actual children, what do we do? Not all of them will have parents still alive...." Bruce reminded them.

"If they don't have families, we can look at foster families... couples who might not be able to have children," Coulson said. "And we can monitor them to make sure they're treated properly."

May nodded. "So we're really going to do this..." It wasn't a question.

"We're probably the only ones who can," was Bruce's response.

The elevator down the hall dinged, the sounds of children carrying back to the kitchen.

Coulson would have said more, but he didn't want the children to know about this. They were innocent right now and he didn't want to shatter that innocence.

Fury drained the last of his coffee and then stood up. "I'll go and guide them to the classroom."

Bruce sighed, then picked up his own empty plate and cup and walked to the sink, beginning to wash dishes. "I'm thinking we need to make a household chores chart for the kids..." Bruce said conversationally. "When they're adults, they tend to take care of their own messes; the kids, not so much...." He chuckled, not really irritated or even upset at having to clean up after a pack of children. It was giving him time to think.

When Jemma came in and started helping him by drying what he'd washed, they began to throw ideas off of one another about possibilities they could try or information they could research.

"That's a good idea," Steve agreed. "I can look at making a chore chart..." Glancing at Coulson, he said, "You could help me." Which was less about him actually needing help and more to give Coulson something else to think about.

Fury left the common room area to gather up the kids.

The fresh air had been exactly what Tony needed to wake the rest of the way up...or at least not be so tired he was in danger of falling asleep in his seat. He was determined to not get into any trouble and falling asleep in class would offend Fury and disappoint Steve, neither of which he wanted to do. He actually liked Director Fury.

Clint settled into his chair and straightened out his supplies, glancing around at the other children. School really wasn't his thing, but the others were paying attention, so he figured he probably should too. Besides, if they never got re-aged to what they were supposed to be, then he'd have to learn all this stuff anyway; he wouldn't be remembering it from before.

Loki had settled next to Grant and was talking with him quietly about something; but they weren't talking loudly, so it wasn't clear what exactly they were discussing.

Grant was smiling at Thor's brother, so it couldn't have been too bad.

As soon as Fury stood in the front of the class, the talking ceased and all attention was on him.

***

The lesson passed by fairly uneventfully. The kids were fairly well-behaved and even though Fury had to ask them to settle down once or twice, for a group of eleven-year-olds, they did really well at listening.

"May will be coming in to teach you next," Fury said, after drawing the lesson to a close. "You have a five-minute break."

Tony gave Fury a tentative smile at the end of the lesson. There had been 'placement' tests again, but as soon as that was over, the lesson itself was interesting, even if Tony knew most of the answers without even having to think more than a few seconds. He wasn't sure what caused him to think of the question... the other children had jumped up immediately to run to the restroom or to get drinks, but Tony bit his lip and shifted closer to the older man, a curious look on his face. "Did you know my father and mother?" he finally asked, looking ready to bolt if Fury got upset with the question.

May had gathered the testing materials she planned to use for the first lesson, but had caught Tony's question just as she was about to walk into the room. Hesitating, she stepped back into the hallway to give Director Fury time to answer if he chose to do so.

Fury turned his attention to Tony, pausing long enough to decide how to answer the child's question. "I did," he replied finally. "I knew your father better than your mother." He paused, waiting to see if Tony had had any particular line of questioning in mind.

"Did you know him well?" Tony bit his lip again, uncertain. "I...I don't really...didn't really..." He frowned. This business of being in the future when he only remembered ever being as old as he seemed to be right now was confusing. Especially when it came to people who should have been alive when he was eleven but weren't now. "Could you tell me about him? Maybe? When you aren't busy..." he hastened to add, not wanting to bother the stern man.

Fury nodded. "Perhaps after dinner," he suggested. That would give him enough time to get his work completed and he could answer Tony's questions without having to worry about his deadlines.

"Ok. Thanks, Mister Fury..." Tony smiled again, a little less hesitantly then ran out to get himself a drink and use the restroom.

May walked in soon after, carrying her supplies. She glanced at Fury, giving him an enigmatic smile of her own. "It's funny; watching how the children react and then remembering how the adults acted... makes me wonder how off we really were on some of our assessments."

"Many of the events that formed them haven't happened for them yet," Fury said. "Even if they are dreaming them... they haven't been hurt in that way yet." He glanced briefly towards the door. "It probably does help at least some of them to heal that bit more... like Grant. And Tony."

May nodded. "Then as much of a headache as this situation could be- maybe it is good it happened in the end." She sighed softly, putting her supplies down. "It's good to see you again sir. We appreciate you coming back to help out...." She smiled at her superior officer, glancing every so often towards the hallway- mentally keeping track of the time and if she'd need to round the kids up again.

"Having seven children around isn't necessarily going to be easy," Fury said. And, of course, he'd tried to make himself more accesible... even if he didn't admit that out loud.

Leo was the first one to come back, taking his seat. Skye wasn't too far behind him, not wanting to give her guardian an excuse to get rid of her.

May smiled at the two children. "Are the rest of the kids on their way back?" she asked calmly.

Loki chose that moment to saunter in and take his seat. He was quickly followed by Clint, Grant, Bucky and Tony.

"We're here, Ma'am..." Tony said very politely. He'd been on his best behavior all day long...to what end was anyone's guess.

Grant smiled brightly at May. He may not remember anything from beyond the age of eleven, but he could tell that she was someone important to his father. He wondered, if he and Skye put their heads together...maybe include Clint too...they could get his father and May to go on a date.

Fury exchanged a polite look with May and then looked over the children, almost checking they were still in one piece, before walking out of the classroom.

Leo turned his attention to May, waiting curiously to see what they would learn. Skye was a little restless, but she also waited, doing her best not to fidget.

Grant gave a tiny wave to Fury and smiled faintly. He knew Fury was his father's best friend and he couldn't help but be curious about the man, even if he was a bit intimidating. Grant hadn't yet reached the point in his life where he reacted to nervousness or fear by being stoic or going on the offensive.

Tony also waved, his smile a little bigger. Tony may have been just as intimidated as Grant, but he'd always compensated for any nervousness or fear he had by bravado and acting as if he wasn't affected.

May smiled at the children, nodding at Skye before giving each of the boys a bit of recognition.

"The first thing you will do for me is what you've done for every other class so far today; you will take a short test so that I can determine exactly what level you are at and what we should focus on. Out of all the classes, mine will likely be the least straight-forward and the least likely to follow a typical school's class; the reason being that I will have each of you focus on what you need the most help with, be it grammar, writing skills, reading comprehension; or, if you are advanced enough in the basics for your age, learning a second language. This test will likely take the whole period, but in the end, it will allow me to know what your abilities are so I can make individualized learning plans for you. Are there any questions?" she finally finished her explanation and asked.

Skye glanced around at the others and then shook her head.

Leo put his hand up. "What if there are really big differences?" he asked.

May nodded at Leo before answering, "I plan to speak with the other 'teachers' tonight after dinner, once we've all had a chance to assess the placement tests. If it turns out that any one person is so far ahead of the others that it would be impossible to teach them in the same class- either due to them needing the full attention of the teacher or needing resources that can't be found in this room- then we will likely utilize the other adults who haven't taken on a specific teaching assignment to tutor that particular child."

Leo nodded, apparently satisfied by that answer, and sat back, looking around at the others before turning back to May, looking ready to learn.

Skye looked fairly focused, if not as interested as she perhaps could have been.

May waited until she had all the children's attention and then passed out the test. Due to the nature of the test, she expected that it would take most of the class period if not all of it, so before she gave them the go ahead to start, she gave them one last instruction. "Those of you who manage to finish the test before the end of the class period should read quietly while everyone else finishes. You may begin."

She sat back and watched, curious to see if any of the children were advanced enough in language arts to do more advanced work.

***

The evening meal had gone fairly well, though Coulson was considering taking his sons out for a meal in the next day or so. He was reasonably sure that neither Clint or Grant had had any kind of treat like that and he wanted to do something like that while he could be with them as children.

On their floor, Coulson looked at his sons. "Would you like to play some cards?" He wasn't sure if either of them were at the age where they enjoyed card games, but since Grant especially did as an adult, he thought it might be a safe bet.

Grant's eyes widened in excitement. "Oh! Can we play War?" he asked eagerly.

Clint looked interested as well. "Yeah. Can we play War?"

Coulson smiled. "We can do that," he agreed, guiding his sons into the living room and retrieving the deck of cards he normally kept there. Sitting on the couch, he settled one of them on either side of him.

Grant quietly put his cards face down in front of him as they began to play. His question was out of the blue: "Do you think you did ok? On the tests?" he asked Clint softly.

Clint paused thoughtfully. "Dunno. I guess, but I don't really like school anyway...."

"The school's a backup in case we can't manage to return you to your normal ages," Coulson said reassuringly. "It's not a case of doing well on the tests... just to find out what level you're at if it's the worst-case scenario. School is also generally a part of normal childhood," he added.

Clint nodded then sighed. "I guess if we never get back to being grown-ups, we need to relearn everything. Still...I only go to school cuz if I don't, they'd take me away from Barney; but now that isn't a problem, so...." He glanced at his father, knowing that he wouldn't be allowed to just quit completely, even if he never grew up again. Coulson seemed to value learning a lot.

Grant smiled slightly. "As long as I don't have to go to military school...." He bit his lip. "I liked it last year cuz it got me away from my family; but I like you and everyone else and don't want to leave you all, so...."

"You weren't too thrilled about having to learn the first time, either," Coulson commented, before adding, "I won't be sending either of you away. You're both my sons and I enjoy having you around."

Clint nodded as if he didn't expect anything else.

Grant looked relieved. "Good..." was all he said, but the happiness in his voice was clear. "And I won!"

"No way!" Clint exclaimed. "We have to play again!"

Coulson smiled. "I'm sure we have enough time for another couple of games," he commented. "I thought we could go out for dinner tomorrow night... is there anywhere in particular either of you would like to try?"

Clint and Grant both looked up at that.

"Someplace that does hamburgers!" Clint decided emphatically.

Grant looked uncertain. "I don't know...I haven't gone too many places...but all of them were really snobby and had food that I didn't like that much..." He shrugged. "I guess someplace with hamburgers is good...." He finally agreed with Clint, figuring if they served hamburgers, then they likely wouldn't be a snobby place and the chances of him liking the food would increase.

Coulson squeezed them both gently. "What kind of other food do you like?" he asked Grant. After all, the tastes of a child were likely to change when they became an adult.

Grant had to think about it, but then he shrugged. "Pizza, macaroni and cheese; and I like fish, although my little brother makes fun..." he winced slightly, "...made fun of me for that. He said he didn't want to eat anything that ate bugs and worms...."

Coulson tightened his embrace a bit. "Grant... if you'd like to talk about what's happened to you so far, I will always listen," he promised. He pressed an affectionate kiss to each of their heads.

Grant glanced at Coulson, almost shyly then nodded. "Ok, dad..." he whispered, but then smiled.

Clint smiled too. "I guess fish would be ok...mom used to make that a lot. Said it was healthy...."

"We'll look at what there is on the menus," Coulson promised. "I'm sure we can find something both of you will like."

Clint agreed readily. "Ok."

"Is it just going to be us three, or will the others be coming too?" Grant asked quietly.

"I thought it might be nice to be just us three, so it would give us a chance to spend some more time together," Coulson said. "But if you'd like the others to come as well, we can do that."

"No!" Grant interjected quickly. "I...I'd like it to just be us." He looked up bashfully.

Coulson smiled, hugging them both. "I'd like that too," he said. "There's something else I think it's important you both know... you can come and talk to me any time, day or night. Even if you think I'm busy. Even if I'm asleep... it doesn't matter. You both are more important."

Grant hugged his father and nodded. "Ok."

Clint also hugged him, but wriggled away soon after, as if afraid that snuggling would make him seem like a baby. "Sure thing, dad." He smiled.

***

After the group had had dinner together and given out the list of chores that Steve had written up (amidst groans from all the eleven year olds), Bruce had decided to follow through on his promise to Leo and took the boy to one of the private labs Bruce used when he was just doing his own experiments and not trying to find an answer to a problem or doing research for the Avengers. It held many of the items needed for proper experimentation, but didn't hold any sensitive or dangerous samples (at the moment, anyway). Leading Leo into the quiet and tiny lab area, Bruce smiled at his charge. "I promised you some lab time...so what do you think you'd like to do? An experiment? Or would you like to build that computer?" He pointed first to the beakers, microscopes and other scientific equipment they could use for an experiment and then pointed to the corner of the lab, where a table was covered in computer components.

Leo walked alongside Bruce, looking around curiously and then going over to look at everything. "I'd like to build the computer first," he said, looking up at his guardian. "Maybe an experiment tomorrow? Or the next time we can come in the lab..."

"Sure..." Bruce smiled at Leo and walked over to where the computer parts were. "Ok...so how much do you know about how computers work?" he began.

"I know a bit." Leo started picking up some of the computer components, naming the parts out loud to refresh his memory of them.

Bruce listened as Leo named parts and described what they did, correcting when necessary; although it wasn't necessary that often. "You know quite a lot about computers." Bruce smiled, thinking that if Leo had been a few years older, he'd likely have been teaching Bruce about building one of the machines. "Do you want to start putting it together now?"

Leo nodded, looking a bit excited. "Can I? I've read about the theory, but I haven't been able to try it out yet." At least that he knew of.

"Well, let's remedy that then. What do you think the first step is?" Bruce smiled. Soon they were both immersed in the guts of a computer, piecing it together bit by bit. Bruce planned to let Leo keep it in his room once it was finished.

***

Thor guided Loki to their floor, looking down at his brother. "How are you feeling? Do you want to stay up for a while?" He was concerned about his brother having more nightmares, but wasn't sure if he should make the suggestion for Loki to sleep in his room again... or wait to see if his brother suggested it first.

Loki nodded quickly, not wanting to admit being afraid to sleep alone- not at his age- but not wanting to sleep alone either. "Yes, please. I would like to stay up later. Perhaps you can tell me a bit more about this realm?" he asked hopefully.

Thor smiled. "I will tell you everything you want to know," he promised, guiding Loki into the living room area. "How have you been getting on with the other children?"

"I truly like them," Loki admitted. "They do not mind that I am not as enthusiastic at fighting or that I enjoy books...and they are friendly to me."

Thor nodded, taking a seat on the couch and gently pulling Loki down next to him. "I'm glad to hear that," he said, wrapping an arm around his brother's shoulders and squeezing him gently.

Loki snuggled closer to Thor, not afraid of being affectionate at this age, even if he didn't want to admit to being afraid to go to sleep. "Have you spoken with your lady Jane?" Loki asked curiously, knowing from overhearing the adults talking that Thor had a Midgardian who he was courting.

"I have," Thor replied. "I told her I was going to be staying in the tower with you... though I will see her during your lesson times when I'm not taking them. If you think you'd be comfortable... I'd like you to meet her soon."

Loki looked bashfully at Thor. "I would like to meet her. Do you think she will like me?" he asked hopefully.

"I'm sure she will," Thor replied. "And she'll want to meet you, too."

"I am glad..." Loki said softly, pulling his legs up so that he could burrow against Thor, placing his head against his brother's chest. "Shall we watch television?" He grinned.

Thor wrapped his arms around Loki, gathering him in close. "If you'd like to," he replied.

Loki made it through one and a half shows before the feeling of safety allowed him to relax and he fell asleep against his brother.

***

May wasn't sure what she and Skye should do. Everyone had decided to stay on their floor and just hang out with 'their' kids...which May was all for. She wanted to spend time with Skye and get to know the girl better, especially as she had every intention of adopting her, should they not be able to change the kids back to their original ages (and possibly do it anyway; Coulson had set a precedent with Grant, after all). The problem was, her idea of relaxing was doing mediation, or yoga, or Tai Chi, or pretty much anything that Skye had hated as an adult; and likely wouldn't like as a child either. Wrinkling her nose, she finally decided to just find out. "What would you like to do tonight, Skye?" she asked curiously.

Skye followed May to the floor, looking up at the woman. "Do you have any games?" she asked, a bit hopefully. She was used to just being sat down in front of the television to be amused... but the few times she'd been able to play games with a family that had fostered her had at least let her pretend she was one of them... even if only for a short while.

May slanted her head. "You know...I don't... BUT I think I know where we can get some, if you would like to go to the toy store with me. I'm sure Mr. Hogan wouldn't mind driving us..." May smiled. "Then we can pick out some things we can play together...."

Skye smiled, looking a bit relieved. "Okay. Cause... I don't mind watching television, but it gets a bit boring after a while." Especially because watching television wasn't exactly challenging.

May nodded. "I'm not much of a fan of watching television myself..." she admitted with a smile. "Why don't you go grab your coat and I'll ask for JARVIS to see if Happy is available? Or at the least if I can borrow a car."

Skye nodded and quickly went to grab her coat, slipping it and her shoes on in record time, a small part of her half-expecting May to change her mind... though she wanted to trust the woman.

May met Skye in the hall in front of the elevator. "Happy is waiting for us in the garage. Let's go, sweetie." She wrapped an arm around Skye's shoulders and led her onto the elevator.

Skye nodded, leaning into May as they walked. Even if she wasn't sure this could last, it was still a nice feeling.

***

Tony felt restless. He wasn't sure why...the 'classes' hadn't been boring, considering he knew a lot of the information already. He enjoyed spending time with the other kids his age. He just felt like the other shoe was about to drop and he didn't want to be there when it did.

Bucky, of course, noticed...the other boy noticed everything and had a protective streak in him to rival any adult's. Tony would have been offended if it hadn't made him feel so good. He thought maybe this was what an older brother might have been like, if he had a brother.

"Hey, Shrimp!" Bucky teased. "What's wrong? You look like you think something bad's about to happen...."

Tony frowned. "Dunno. Just...the last few days have been awesome....so something bad prolly is 'bout to happen. Good things don't happen for me without something bad to make it even...."

Bucky frowned. "C'mon. I was gonna ask Steve to come to the rec room with me and throw a ball. You might have fun...."

Tony shrugged, but turned to follow Bucky in looking for their stand-in father.

Steve had gone to talk to Natasha about the plans she was making for gathering intel on any other children HYDRA might have taken. Even if she and Clint were virtually unstoppable together, on their own, they were still very skilled... the real issue was that he and Natasha were currently butting heads over the fact that Steve wanted her to take in a team and Natasha was insisting she'd be better on her own.

They hadn't come to a mutual resolution and Steve was feeling faintly frustrated as he left... though he'd decided to talk to Coulson. If Natasha was likely to listen to anyone, it would be her father.

"Steve!" Bucky yelled, trying to catch his brother's attention before he disappeared again. "Want to throw a ball around with me and Tony?"

Tony bit his lip and waited for the answer, not wanting to admit how much he was hoping the older man would say yes.

Steve smiled, feeling the traces of frustration dissipate in the appearance of other members of his family, and crossed over to Tony and Bucky. "That would be very good," he agreed. "But we should probably get changed first."

Tony's smile could have lit up a room, it was so wide. "Ok!" He sounded very eager.

Bucky grinned himself, mostly at Tony's reaction. "Last one changed has to do the other's chores tomorrow!" he blurted, beginning to run to get to their room.

"No way!" Tony's eyes widened in horror as he took off running as well, taking a short cut he'd discovered during one of their breaks at school.

Steve followed them to their floor, his smile growing a bit wider as he headed to his room to get changed. In many ways, it was sad to think about how damaged Tony was as an adult. If they were able to return their teammates to their proper ages, he hoped that this time would help his friend, even if it was in some small way.

"I'm done first!" Tony's yell of victory could be heard through all of Steve's floor.

"No you aren't! I was!" Bucky protested. He hadn't expected the shorter boy to move so fast and the thought of doing Tony's chores on top of his own was a complete disappointment.

Steve laughed softly as he left the bedroom, overhearing the boys' comments. "Why don't you call it a draw and both share the chores?" he suggested, trying to keep the peace.

Tony slanted his head thoughtfully. "If we work together, they might be done quicker..." he said to Bucky.

"I like that idea!" Bucky nodded. "Sharing it is, then!"

Steve smiled at that and moved over to the boys, placing an arm around each of their shoulders. "Ready?"

"Yes!" both boys yelled together.

If both of them also shifted closer to Steve so they could snuggle, neither of them would admit it.

Steve guided the two of them back to the elevator, feeling fairly contented... even if there was, at the back of his mind, the worry that something might develop. Hopefully, though, Bruce and Jemma would figure it out before that.

***

It had been nearly two weeks. Grant glanced around the 'classroom' at the other children. Amazingly enough, they had all been on their best behavior. No one had gotten into trouble and they were all learning quickly, the small size of the class combined with the individualized lessons resulting in all of them learning above the typical level for their age. Today, though? Just glancing at the other kids, Grant could tell today was going to be a bad day.

Skye was restless and bored. She wasn't used to staying in one place for so long and although there was a part of her that liked the consistency, she couldn't help waiting for the other shoe to drop. The fact that things were going so well with May was frightening. The more Skye let herself hope, the worse she knew it would feel when things inevitably fell apart. Even if that was simply her returning to her proper age.

Leo had settled into the routine fairly quickly, but although he enjoyed being there in the tower, he did miss his mother. He was used to seeing her every day and although he guessed he didn't see her as often as an adult, he didn't remember that. So although he was less obvious about it than Skye was, he was still restless. And he was thinking about trying to call his mom... even if it was just to hear her voice and not actually speak to her.

Loki would have been fine, had he not been having nightmares for the last two nights. If it had not been for Thor allowing him to seek comfort and shelter in his own room, Loki would not have gotten any sleep. It was not a situation that allowed him to focus well.

Tony was in the same situation as Loki, nightmares leaving him worn out and temperamental.

Bucky was trying to figure out some way to cheer up the irritable billionaire. He glanced at Clint.

Clint had a gleam in his eye that didn't bode well for classes for the day.

Skye only paid some attention to the teacher, instead doodling on her paper and generally ignoring the instructions.

Leo did his best to behave, but he was obviously distracted... and the constant scratching of Skye's pencil when it wasn't supposed to be being used was annoying him.

Clint wrote something down, folded the paper several times then passed it to Bucky.

Bucky read the note then passed it to Loki, who passed it to Tony, who passed it to Grant who passed it to Leo.

Leo quickly scanned over the note, then folded it up and dropped it casually by Skye's foot when he went to get some more paper.

Skye opened the note and read it, then quickly put the note away safely, where it wouldn't attract attention.

Bruce had noticed the note passing, but as none of the children seemed to be doing anything after reading and went right back to listening, he didn't take it away from them. He would regret that.

He continued teaching. At the end of the class, he dismissed them for their five minute break, waving at Steve on his way out the classroom and heading to the lab to work on a cure with Jemma.

Skye headed to the common area kitchen to get a drink, just so that she could make sure she was seen there, before she quickly made her way towards where the group of them were meeting.

Leo wavered, but his feelings of restlessness were too strong for him to ignore and he also headed to the rendezvous point.

Bucky made a quick stop at his room to grab some money and then went to the rendezvous area. Everyone else was there. "Let's take the stairs...we don't want to run into anyone on the elevator."

Tony nodded. "We should go somewhere that we won't be found right away...otherwise we'll have to finish up our classes..." he whispered, even though it was just the other kids with him.

"So... not the park," Skye said. "What about the mall? We could take a cab there..."

"Won't the driver ask questions?" Leo asked, worried.

Skye shrugged. "We can tell them we're meeting our class for a day trip or something."

"We won't all fit into the same cab and it's better if we don't split up..." Clint muttered.

Loki nodded. "Whatever we do, it needs to be within walking distance so that we can all stay together."

"Cafe?" Leo suggested. "There are some within walking distance. As long as we don't pick one that's close enough that we'll be found easily."

"We need to avoid the one that Nat uses..." Grant said. "She'd most definitely drag us back if she saw us...."

"There are others, though..." Skye mused. "But maybe we should talk about where to go once we're out of the tower?" she suggested, not wanting them to get caught even before they'd had a chance to leave. And it wouldn't take the others long to catch up with them.

Tony nodded. "Yeah. Let's get going and figure out where, after were outta here. Steve's gonna realize something is up in one minute..." He glanced at his watch, realizing that was all the time they had left before they were supposed to be back inside the classroom.

Bucky nodded briskly and quickly began moving down the stairs, expecting that everyone else would follow.

Skye quickly began following, glancing behind her just in case any of the adults had started searching them out early.

Leo hesitated, still reluctant, but followed behind, moving slowly but still keeping up with the group.

Tony wasn't reluctant in the least. As much as he respected Steve and didn't want to disappoint the man, he was tired and cranky and wanted a distraction from the dreams that he couldn't stop thinking about, even during the day. And as much as Steve had told him to come to him if he needed to, Stark men didn't go to other people with their problems. It just wasn't done. (Plus he wasn't entirely sure the Captain meant it; even if he did seem like he did mean it).

Bucky was only reluctant in that he knew, if or when they got caught, they'd probably be in big trouble. But he was so tired of being stuck in the building and not able to do anything without one of the adults present that he didn't care.

Clint was excited. He'd been wanting to stretch his wings for a while and now everyone was on board with the idea.

Loki was not sure what to think. He somehow knew that his brother would not be best pleased by their actions...but he wanted to fit in with his new friends. He did not want to do anything that would turn them against him. So he went and did not say anything.

Grant had a feeling that they would be in big trouble when they were caught. And he was sure they would be caught. He was a bit nervous about this; would his father send him away?

***

It hadn't taken Steve very long at all to realise that the children weren't going to come back to class. Frowning, he thought about searching for them the old-fashioned way... and then decided that there was little point in that. "JARVIS? Do you know where the children are?" he asked the AI, fighting not to panic. They would have known if someone had taken them.

The AI was quiet for a few seconds then his voice came through. If an AI could sound sheepish, JARVIS did. "I'm sorry, sir. They are not in the building. According to the security feed I have accessed, they left the building approximately two minutes ago and headed west down the sidewalk. But they are now out of my camera range and they appear to be avoiding the traffic cameras and other security cameras along their route."

Steve sighed, somehow not all that surprised. Even the children who were well-behaved as adults had been showing signs of getting restless. And he knew that some of them had still been having nightmares, even if he did keep having to push Tony to share them with him.

"Can you alert the others about the situation and ask them to meet me?" Steve requested. "Excluding Jemma and Bruce," he added.

"Are you certain you wish me not to tell Dr. Banner, sir? He has become quite fond of Master Leo and would likely wish to know of his participation."

Steve hesitated, torn between not wanting to pull Bruce away from his work and knowing that, if their situations were reversed, he would want to know. Finally, he said, "Yes. Please tell Bruce as well."

"I have informed the others sir. Everyone but Ms. Jemma are on their way to meet you. Shall I start listening to emergency and police scans while you all search?" JARVIS asked.

"Yes, please," Steve replied. As much as he hoped they wouldn't run into any problems, he knew how easy it would be for some of them to get into some kind of mischief.

By that time, Bruce had returned from the lab, May and Trip on his heels.

"We should pair up.... If one pair finds them, they can let the others know through the comms," May said firmly.

Coulson came in just in time to hear May's comment, Natasha coming in with him and Thor following just behind. "That's a good idea," he agreed. He looked at the others, waiting for them to choose who to pair up with.

Bruce nodded. "Thor, if you'd like to come with me. If...something...happens, you're most likely the one able to stop the Big Guy," he said quietly.

May bit her lip. "I can take Natasha if you want to take Trip," she said. "And Steve can go with Fury. That way, there is at least one 'parent' with each group."

Coulson nodded. "JARVIS can contact us through our comms. I think we're all ready to head out," he added. "If each team takes a particular direction... It's unlikely the children will have gone anywhere obvious, but we should still check everywhere. Just in case."

"Agreed," May said. Nodding at Natasha, the two women quickly went down the street in their agreed direction.

Bruce tapped Thor on the shoulder and began heading in their own direction.

Trip waited by Coulson, waiting for his sign to take off, glancing at Steve and Fury. As irritated as he was that the kids had just taken off, he wasn't really surprised. Given who the kids were, he was more surprised it hadn't happened earlier.

***

"Ok. I think we've wandered around and switched directions enough times that they won't be able to find us too quickly...." Bucky said, stopping in front of a coffee shop.

"Can we get drinks and pastries?" Tony asked hopefully. The coffee smelled wonderful; and he distinctly remembered being allowed to drink it whenever he wanted from when he was around age seven. Steve was more strict than his nannies had been, though. Only juice, milk, or water was allowed by Steve; and maybe an occasional non-caffeinated soda. Which, honestly? He was eleven, not a baby.

Clint glanced at Grant's hopeful face and nodded. "I want a drink and something to eat, too."

Loki was glancing around at the rather large crowd that was gathering and not really paying attention to his friends. "Uh, maybe we should find a different shop?" he said nervously, not liking the irritated looks on the faces of the crowd.

Leo looked around, an uncertain look coming over his face. "Maybe you're right..." He flinched at the sound of police sirens. He was fairly certain that their guardians wouldn't have called the police on them, so it was probably to do with the gathering crowd. At the same time, if police found them, they'd notice that there were seven children without any parents with them.

Grant glanced around, his eyes widening. "Guys?" he said, even more nervously than Leo. "I think we better go now."

Clint frowned. "Yeaaah... Let's go."

By this time, the crowd had surrounded them to the point they couldn't see around them, however, and Bucky was afraid if they attempted to get through, they would be separated and get lost from each other. "Hold each other's hands," he commanded firmly, in a voice that none of them would argue with. "Keep Skye in the middle, just in case there are creepers around...." This last was said as softly as possible, in the hope that said creepers wouldn't hear him.

Leo immediately grabbed onto the hands of the two closest to him, making sure to shift so that Skye was in the middle of the group of them.

Under normal circumstances, Skye might have protested that, but the amount of people around was pretty scary.

The crowd was thick and the irritation that had been on the faces of the people had quickly escalated into anger. Pretty soon, the crowd was knocking over anything that could be knocked over, taking whatever was small enough to be carried easily and yelling obscenities and other incomprehensible things. It wasn't easy to tell exactly what they were protesting; it seemed to be the coffee shop owners' refusal to hire more staff and pay higher wages, or maybe it was because they were charging $6.00 for a small latte? Loki couldn't tell. He was beginning to wish he'd stayed back at the tower, however. This was more excitement than he'd bargained for.

***

Despite their best efforts, the seven of them had been so caught up in the crowd that the police had ended up arresting them and taking them to the station as well. They'd been taken to a separate room than the adults, though, and questioned about their parents.

Since none of them were sure what to say, they'd basically been uncooperative and refused to answer.

***

Bruce was getting more and more frustrated by the moment. Anything could happen to the children, wandering around the city. If any of the Avengers or SHIELD enemies saw them and made the connection between the children and who they were or who they belonged with, especially if one of Tony's enemies, or HYDRA, found them... the only thing keeping him from Hulking out was Thor's calm presence.

Just when he was about to give up and ask the others if they had seen anything, at all, that might point to the children, JARVIS' voice came over the coms.

"I would like to inform all of you that I have heard information on the police scanners that there was a protest which turned into a riot downtown. The police found and retrieved seven children that had been caught up in the altercation. The children do not belong to any of the protesters... and the children have refused to tell the police who they are or who they belong to. It is a group of six boys and one girl. They are currently being held in the east precinct." JARVIS then proceeded to give them all the address.

"That...is probably them. If it isn't, it is too great a coincidence..." Bruce muttered, beginning to walk in the direction that JARVIS had supplied.

Thor nodded, walking alongside Bruce as he angled a look of concern at the man. Although Bruce seemed in control, he was only too aware that that control could snap if something else happened. "Is it wise for us all to go there?" he asked out loud. "Perhaps at least one team should continue looking." Though he couldn't think of which team should. After all, they were all desperate to get to the children... and this likely was them.

Bruce bit his lip. "You're right. " He then spoke to the rest of the team. "Thor and I are approximately four blocks from the police station. Are any of you closer?''

"We're around the corner," Coulson replied. "I'll be able to confirm if it is them in a couple of minutes."

May glanced at Natasha. "If it isn't them, we'll keep looking. If it is them, we'll get there as soon as possible. Did everyone remember to bring the paperwork that shows they are in our custody? In case the police don't just hand them over because of recognizing Captain America or something?" she lightly teased Steve.

"I have the paperwork with me," Coulson replied, having grabbed it on his way out. "And we both have ID, too. And if it is them, they should recognise us and be able to tell the police that we are their guardians."

"If they aren't afraid of getting into trouble and keep their mouths shut..." Bruce muttered, hoping that wouldn't be the case- but given the backgrounds of most of the children, suspected that it could very well happen and that they would need the paperwork.

"I have the paperwork, in any case," Coulson said. "We're inside now," he added, as he and Trip entered the police station.

Trip had been scanning his surrounding repeatedly while Coulson was speaking to May and the others, so when they entered into the station, he immediately waved over a police officer so they could ask about the missing kids.

"Yeah." The petite officer smiled up at Trip. She pointed to a little room to the side of the main hall. "They put them in interrogation room five because it had the most comfortable furniture and was quiet and out of the way of the rest of the loud-mouths." She motioned to all the protestors turned rioters, who were yelling while being booked. "They put Officer Ortega in charge of them; let me tell him you're here." Pulling her radio up to her mouth, she said, "Ortega...Roberts here. Two gentlemen have come asking about their missing kids. I'll be bringing them to you." Receiving an affirmative, she motioned the two men to follow her.

The comms were sensitive enough to pick up the policewoman's words, so Bruce motioned to Thor and began heading in the direction of the police station immediately. If his eyes were a little green, giving him more speed than usual, no one but Thor would notice.

May glanced at Natasha. "We're in the completely opposite direction, about sixteen blocks away. Want to grab a taxi?"

Coulson thanked the police officer and followed her, taking the paperwork out and making sure it was all in order.

Thor walked alongside Bruce, glancing at him worriedly periodically.

Natasha nodded. "That would probably be a good idea," she admitted.

It didn't take long for the rest of the adults to reach the police station, May and Natasha's cab pulling up at the same time Bruce and Thor had walked into view of the entrance. Bruce glanced over and noted that Steve and Fury were also getting out of a cab.

"We're almost there," Bruce informed Coulson. "Give us five minutes for the others to pay the cab and we'll be inside."

"We're just going to meet the officer now," Coulson replied. "Let the police know who you're here for."

Fury paid the cab driver and then walked alongside Steve to the others.

May wasted no time in finding an officer to ask about the children. "Excuse me. We are here about our missing children. We were told to speak with Officer Ortega..." May stated quickly.

"Yes....They and one of the fathers are in interrogation room five. Right this way...." The officer quickly led them to where Coulson and Trip had been led not long before.

Grant was sitting in the far corner, biting his lip. Officer Ortega had been very nice. All the police had, to be honest. But Grant was scared. This was the first time since his de-aging he'd done anything remotely so disobedient, but boy had he gone all out. He was sure he would be getting a black eye, if nothing else. It felt like forever before one of the female officers was leading two people into the room. A quick glance showed it to be Trip and his father. Grant quickly looked at the ground.

Tony wasn't scared or even worried. He knew Captain America was too good to ever beat up a kid for making a mistake (although he wasn't entirely certain he wouldn't spank him). Tony was more depressed. He'd gone and proven Howard right. He was nothing but a failure and a problem and Captain America- Steve- was so much better than he ever had any hope of being...there was no way Steve would want to keep taking care of him after this.

Loki wasn't scared or depressed. He and his brother had gotten into numerous scrapes through the years. Granted, this was the first time Thor had been in the position of 'parent' instead of in the position of cohort...but he did not think his brother would be overly harsh. Although he might be disappointed; and if he was disappointed, Loki would owe many apologies and need to make things right somehow. But he never doubted his brother's affection or love.

Clint's only worry was that Coulson might change his mind about keeping him. But he knew himself and he knew that this probably wasn't even the worse thing he had ever done; and Coulson had said that he had adopted him and that he was his son as an adult, so Coulson must be used to this type of behavior from him. The only thing Clint was worried about was what form his punishment might take, since he couldn't remember how Coulson normally handled his discipline.

Bucky was a bit worried. He knew how his parents would have handled him just taking off without warning or permission, especially if he got mixed up in a gang that ended up being arrested. He knew Steve knew how his parents would have handled it. He just wasn't sure if Steve would handle it the same way or not.

Coulson took a deep breath and then walked over to the children. He was calm and not angry. Even though he'd been worried about them, he was only relieved to see that they were all safe and unhurt.

Stepping over to the group, Coulson gave each of them a reassuring smile, the fondness on his face as he looked at his sons umistakeable. "Are you ready to go home?" he asked them all gently.

Leo hesitantly glanced around at the others, unsure of how to answer. He wasn't really scared, but he was a bit nervous about how much trouble he was in.

Skye looked even more hesitant, wondering exactly what the rest of the 'family' would say. Normally, when they decided she was too much trouble, the foster parents returned her.

Grant glanced up at his father with his face still turned toward the floor, and bit his lip. "Yes, sir..." he said quietly, relieved when Coulson didn't seem to be angry and didn't immediately begin yelling. His shoulders relaxed noticeably and he slid off the chair he was sitting on and walked to his dad, looking like he really wanted a hug, but wasn't sure he deserved one.

Clint didn't hesitate to jump up and run to his father. "Dad!" He threw his arms around Coulson in a quick hug, then pulled back and began to excitedly tell him about how they had all got caught in the middle of a protest that had turned a bit violent.

May walked into the room not long after Coulson did. (By the time Coulson had gone through the proper channels, the others had nearly reached the station, so they weren't so far behind being able to go in the room with him.) As soon as she saw Skye, the relief on her face was visible and she held out an arm toward Skye in invitation. "C'mon, kiddo. Let's go home..." was all she said.

Bruce quickly walked over to Leo and pulled him into a relieved hug, not saying anything. The green was finally leaving his eyes.

Bucky moved over closer to Tony, waiting for Steve to get there. Neither of them was sure what to expect, for different reasons, so being next to each other was a comfort.

Loki, seeing Thor behind Bruce, immediately threw himself at his brother- much like Clint had done Coulson. He also began to tell his brother of the 'grand adventure' they had had. Between the two of them, the whole room was able to hear every dangerous detail.

Coulson wrapped his arms around his sons, hugging them both close and tight. "I'm glad you're both safe," he said, gently but sincerely. "That was very dangerous." He was serious, but still relieved they were all right. It could have gone a lot worse.

Skye hesitantly approached May, still a bit uncertain, but quickly wrapped her arms around the woman. Although she'd been safe, the protest had still been somewhat frightening.

Leo quickly hugged Bruce, relieved that he wasn't going to be immediately scolded.

Steve entered the room in time to hear Clint and Loki. He walked over to Tony and Bucky, crouching down to their level and placing an arm around their shoulders, looking into each of their eyes. "I am very glad you're safe, but you shouldn't have sneaked out," he said seriously. "Things could have gone a lot worse."

Thor wrapped his arms around Loki, frowning at the details of their 'adventure'. "Loki... Midgard is not always safe for you to explore with no adults around in case something happens."

Grant snuggled close. "Sorry, daddy..." he said, very quietly, so that only Coulson could hear; and Coulson could barely hear it. The boy was very subdued...being brought to the police station, even if they weren't under arrest, had scared him a lot, even if he'd kept it hidden.

Clint just nodded at Coulson's words. "Yeah...we didn't mean to end up in a bad place. Guess leaving without permission wasn't very good."

May smiled at Skye and just hugged her tighter. "We'll talk about why you felt the need to sneak out when we get home," the woman promised gently.

Bruce didn't say anything, just relieved that Leo hadn't been hurt when the mob mentality took over.

Bucky nodded hesitantly. "I know. Sneaking out wasn't very good of us. We just thought it might be fun..." he admitted softly. He wanted to ask how much trouble they were in, but Tony already looked nervous and ashamed enough and Bucky figured if Steve was going to lecture (or worse), then he wouldn't want it done in front of all the police.

Tony didn't say anything, not able to meet Steve's eyes. He didn't want to see the disappointment in them and he certainly didn't want to hear how he'd failed to meet up to expectations and would never be good enough. Especially not to the man who he'd been compared to most of his childhood. He bit his lip and concentrated on not crying from his own feeling of failure and disappointment.

Loki frowned slightly and looked at Thor in confusion. He had thought Thor would be thrilled that he had gone on an epic 'adventure' and survived. Was that not what warriors were supposed to do? Granted, there had not been any fighting, so maybe it did not count as a grand adventure after all. No wonder his brother was disappointed in him. He sighed and looked down, crestfallen. "I am sorry, Thor. I just wanted to be like the warriors...so you would be proud of me. I did not mean to disappoint you."

Bruce sighed and looked around at the group. "I take it there is no question about our right to take the children home?" he asked, just in case. As soon as he had the all clear, he felt it would be best to get the kids home and then address the issue of them sneaking out.

Coulson straightened up, though he kept his arms around his sons' shoulders, as the officers responded with an affirmative. He squeezed Clint and Grant gently. "We'll talk about it back home, but this changes nothing. I still love you both."

Skye winced, but nodded, not all that surprised. At least it didn't sound like she would be sent away.

When he was released, Leo, a bit uncertainly, put his hand into Bruce's.

Steve also stood, though keeping his arms around Tony and Bucky's shoulders. "We'll talk when we get home," he said. "But I'm very glad you're both safe and unhurt."

Thor shook his head, his arms tightening around Loki. "I feared for your safety," he said frankly. "You do not have to do this for me to be proud of you. I already am."

JARVIS had thought ahead and sent the limo, Happy driving, to pick everyone up. It might have been slightly crowded, but everyone was able to fit; and soon they were back in the tower, heading back up to the common area.

Coulson squeezed Clint and Grant gently, then let them and the other children sit around the table with a drink and a snack while he and the rest of the adults moved into the living room area to discuss how to respond.

Steve made sure to hug Bucky and Tony, aware of how Tony was feeling inside, before he followed Coulson.

Thor gently squeezed Loki's shoulder before going to join the others.

It didn't take long for May to give Skye a hug as well. As unused to showing affection as the older woman was, she knew it was important. "It will be ok," she whispered into Skye's ear. "I still want you."

Bruce put an arm around Leo and squeezed gently. "I'm glad you're ok. I don't have to tell you how frantic I was..." He smiled crookedly.

Both remaining adults left to join the others to decide what to do.

After everyone was gone, Tony sighed then muttered, "It wasn't as much fun as I expected it to be."

Leo nodded in agreement. "I think... we're in a lot of trouble..." he said quietly.

Skye didn't say anything, picking morosely at a spot on the table.

***

Steve sighed and took a seat, looking around at his friends and adopted family. "I think we need to make it clear to them just what kind of danger they could have been in. Not all the details, but that there are powerful organisations who could have taken them away."

May nodded. "None of them remember anything of their lives after their current age- and even for those who had to be careful when they were young, such as Tony, they weren't facing the same dangers as now. They need to realize what could have happened."

"Preferably without terrifying them." Bruce sighed. "A lot of them didn't get a good childhood and it would be better if they didn't have to be afraid in this one. Wary, perhaps and aware, but not afraid."

Coulson nodded his agreement. "It'll have to be handled the same way you would any child. There are bad people who could take them away if we don't know where they are or if they leave." He was, of course, paraphrasing.

"I'm not sure the normal way of handling consequences is appropriate in this situation," Steve said. "I'm also not sure grounding would work very well. Even as adults, they were bored and restless if we had to confine them."

Thor, who had been listening quietly, commented, "Perhaps extra chores...?"

***

"What do you think they'll do?" Grant asked hesitantly.

Leo shrugged. "Scold us?" he suggested. He tended to be fairly well-behaved, so didn't have a lot of experience with punishments.

Skye didn't say what she thought, just kept her head down.

Grant didn't say anything either, although his ideas were probably worse than Skye's, as he withdrew further into himself, as if preparing for something really bad to happen.

Clint frowned as he looked at his brother. "You know he won't hurt us, don't you?" he finally said.

Bucky frowned as well. "I don't think any of them will hurt us. Even if they decided to do something like spank us, which is what my parents would have done if I'd ever gotten taken in to the police because I got mixed up with a bad crowd, they wouldn't hurt, hurt us. Not the way you're thinking...." He addressed his words to Grant, since he seemed to be the one most afraid. It was hard to tell, since he didn't say anything else.

Tony frowned as well. "I just hope they don't decide to ignore us. I liked having an adult around that I could actually talk with...." He sighed, figuring he'd probably just got himself relegated to 'afterthought' again...needing to pretty much take care of himself, because no one else would want to take a chance on caring. He was pretty sure his parents gave up on him because he was too much of a handful and was a disappointment.

Loki frowned as he listened to the other children. It was true that he was never very confident of his father's love and affection, but he knew his mother loved him with her entire being...and Thor had proven that his love had not truly left...even if it had seemed as if his brother had hated him when they were closer to the same age. "I do not think they will do anything beyond what we deserve...and it will be done because of their care and concern. If they did not care about us, they would not have searched for us so quickly and been so frightened for us." Having said his piece, he sat back and waited for his brother to come and retrieve him so that he could learn what his punishment was to be.

***

The adults had talked it over and finally come up with a solution that was part punishment, part learning and part bonding experience.

Returning to where the children were, Coulson was bothered by the fear he saw on Grant's face, even if he wasn't very surprised, and stepped over to his sons, wrapping an arm around each of their shoulders. "Come on. Let's go and talk," he said gently, pressing an affectionate kiss to the top of their heads.

Steve stopped by Tony and Bucky, resting a hand on each of their shoulders. "Let's go talk on our floor."

Thor moved to Loki's side, gently nudging his brother's arm. "Come with me," was all he needed to say.

Bruce waited until the other children had been gathered, standing to the side. As the others were leaving, he walked over to Leo and put an arm around him. "Let's go to our floor, son..." he said softly.

May leaned against the wall until it was just her and Skye. "Come on, sweetie." She finally motioned with her head, but gave Skye a smile.

Pretty soon, the only people in the common area were those who did not have any children that they were responsible for.

Trip glanced at Fury and Natasha then shrugged slightly. "Since you all won't be teaching anything today, how bout we go to the rec room and work out? I'm feeling lucky, like I might be able to take both of you down!" Trip gave Fury an innocent grin, his eyes gleaming.

Natasha shook her head. "You're welcome to try..." she joked, heading in that direction.

Smiling, Fury gently squeezed Trip's shoulder. "We'll have to see if today's that day," he commented.

***

Bruce led Leo onto their floor and into the living area, sitting down on the couch and indicating that the boy should do the same. Once Leo was sat down next to him, he put an arm around Leo's shoulders and pulled him a bit closer. "Would you like to tell me why you decided to sneak out today, instead of going to your class?" he asked calmly.

Leo automatically leaned into Bruce. "It's... really hard to be cooped up in here most of the time," he admitted. "I think we were all feeling really restless and not really thinking." It might not have been his idea, but he'd still gone along with it.

Bruce nodded. "I suspected it was something like that. It's difficult to not be able to go anywhere or do anything when you are used to more freedom. You do realize the reason we don't take you out often is because of how dangerous it is. It isn't completely safe for a child to wander around alone, or even in a group, in the best of situations; and you should always be aware of your surroundings, so that you can at least try to avoid getting caught up in situations you can't get out of- like that protest. But for you seven, it is more imperative that you don't go out alone without an adult. There are several groups that would like nothing more than to get hold of you and either train and force you to be agents for them, or to use you against the rest of us. I wish it wasn't like that, but it is, so that is why we do not take you out that often and never without letting everyone else know what we are doing and where we are going." Bruce did his best to make his voice calm and non-threatening. He didn't want to scare Leo, but it was imperative the boy understand the danger that he'd put himself in needlessly.

"There was something you could have done that would have been less dangerous and wouldn't have got you into trouble." Bruce smiled crookedly. "Do you know what that was?"

Leo listened quietly, biting his lip. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, looking up at his guardian before saying uncertainly, "No... what was it?"

Bruce smiled faintly. "You could have asked if you could go somewhere..." he said quietly. "I would have worked with one or even all of the adults to give you a chance to get a change of scenery."

"We... didn't think of that," Leo admitted quietly. "I'm sorry we did that," he said. "I guess we weren't really thinking at all." He paused and then added, in a much softer tone, "Grant looked really worried... he's safe with Mr. Coulson, right?"

Bruce's tone was sad as he answered. "He is completely safe with Mr. Coulson. He was scared because the people he lived with before Mr. Coulson found him were not nice and he would not have been safe with them. Grant is still adjusting to having a father who loves him and wants nothing more than to keep him safe and happy. It might take him a while, so he's going to need his friends to be there for him when he forgets and is upset..." Bruce stated.

Leo nodded, relaxing as what he thought was confirmed. "Clint and Bucky were trying to make him feel better," he said softly. "I guess it's not easy to stop being scared..." He hesitated. "Umm... so... what punishment are we getting for leaving and getting caught up in the riot?"

"Well, first of all, you aren't being punished for being caught in the riot. That wasn't your fault, as you didn't know that was going to occur and from what the police said, it escalated and got out of control so quickly, a LOT of people were caught up in it that hadn't planned to be and would have left if they'd known what was happening. I can't fault you for what adults didn't even know," Bruce stated firmly. "But... you did leave without permission, without telling anyone where you were going; and if I'm not wrong, made a concerted effort to keep us from being able to find you quickly. All of which put all of you into considerable danger and caused a lot of worry." Bruce glanced at Leo, even as he hugged the boy closer.

"So... for the next week, you will be given extra chores around the house or the common area when you aren't in school. And you will have an 8:00 bedtime with no TV or computer games. Starting tonight." Bruce's tone left no room for argument.

Leo sighed. "That's going to be really boring..." he complained, even though he was relieved that it wasn't going to be worse. "What about experiments?" he asked shrewdly. "Those are educational."

"Fraid not, Sport. During the day, you'll be too busy with the extra chores and when it is your bedtime...well. If I'm with you, we'll see. But if I have to be somewhere else, you most definitely will be in bed, so experiments will be out," Bruce said gently.

"Okay." Leo looked a bit disappointed, but leaned in close to Bruce. "I'm glad you found us," he admitted quietly. "But don't tell the others I told you that?"

"I'm glad we found you too, Sport..." Bruce said softly. "I was so worried...." He hugged Leo tightly. "How about you and I have dinner on our own tonight? Then we can just hang out until it's time to sleep."

***

Steve guided Tony and Bucky to his living room area and sat down, gently tugging them both down to sit next to him, one on either side, and wrapping an arm around their shoulders. "I think I can guess why you left the tower," he said quietly. "But you can't leave, on your own, without any of us knowing. There are some bad people out there who would take you away if they could."

Bucky frowned slightly in confusion. He knew that he wasn't in the time he remembered...but surely the world wasn't that dangerous? Steve had a serious face, though, which meant that it probably was. Swallowing, he answered, "We didn't mean to worry everyone."

Tony couldn't look at anyone, keeping his gaze on the floor. "I'm sorry...I know there are always people who want to grab me so they can get my dad to do things for them...or pay them. I could have cost everyone a lot of money because I didn't stay where I was supposed to...."

Steve shook his head, tightening his embrace around them. "The money isn't the issue," he said. "Your safety is. There are enemies we have who you also have as adults, which is one of the reasons why you can't go off on your own. None of us here want anything to happen to any of you. We're a family here."

Tony looked up at that and bit his lip, looking first at Steve, then at Bucky, as if finding it difficult to believe that it wasn't the money.

Bucky, noticing Tony's look, said, "Steve never cared about money...just people." He shrugged then looked at his brother. "We messed up bad?"

Tony, deciding to put aside his confusion at being told the money didn't matter, asked, "Are we in big trouble?"

"You shouldn't have left the tower," Steve said seriously. "If you'd been bored, you could have talked to any of us and we would have taken you out for a while... safely. I know getting caught up in the riot was an accident and you aren't in trouble for that."

"But..." Bucky drawled, knowing that just because they weren't in trouble for getting caught in the riot didn't mean they weren't in trouble.

Tony bit his lip, looking very upset. "I'm sorry...I'll do better! You don't have to leave...." he finally blurted.

"I'm not going anywhere," Steve said gently. "I'm not going to leave you. What is going to happen is that, for the next week, when you're not in school, you will be having extra chores to do. Bedtime will be at eight and there won't be any television or computer games."

Bucky shrugged. It could have been worse. He wasn't about to complain and have Steve decide that a spanking would be more effective.

Tony was too relieved at Steve's promise not to leave to be upset at his loss of electronics. Totally against his normal response, he threw his arms around Steve and held on tight, as if afraid the man would change his mind if he let go.

Steve immediately and automatically wrapped his arms tightly around Tony in return. He let one hand rub gently over the boy's back. "I'm going to be right here, Tony. I promise." He knew that Tony as an adult still had problems believing that. Even as a child, he suspected Tony would believe his actions more... but he still made the promise he had no intention of breaking.

Tony, not encumbered by his adult's ideas of what an adult man should and should not need, snuggled as close to Steve as was possible, before asking in a somewhat pitiful tone, "If we aren't allowed television or computer games, what can we do?"

Bucky grinned crookedly and looked at Steve, wondering the same thing, although he was able to come up with a lot of ideas that he liked to do (after all, television and computers weren't a household item when he was originally eleven). He also moved closer to his brother, leaning against him.

Keeping one arm wrapped Tony, Steve wrapped his other arm around Bucky, hugging them both close. "There are plenty of things we could do together," he commented. "Just the three of us."

Tony looked up at Steve and smiled. "I like that idea."

Bucky laughed. "Me too."

***

May led Skye onto their floor and sat the girl down in the living room on the couch, before sitting next to her. "I don't think I have to tell you how dangerous what the seven of you did was. And unnecessary. I took you out shopping; I could have easily arranged for a day for all of you to get out of the building and get fresh air and new scenery. All of us could have." She didn't voice her disappointment that the children would have snuck out and done everything possible to make finding them difficult; she had a feeling it was clear in her tone.

Skye looked down, unable to make eye contact. "I guess... we all jumped on the chance to do something," she admitted in a very quiet voice. "I'm sorry... I didn't think about how dangerous it would be."

"No, I don't suspect any of you did..." May sighed. "Listen. I know you didn't mean anything malicious by it and, had any of you given more than a moment's thought to the risks, none of you would have done it; at least I hope you wouldn't...." May leaned down so she could glance into Skye's eyes. "But the fact is, you took a needless and unnecessary risk with your life...and worried all of us a great deal. And I can't let that slide." May smiled crookedly.

"Since all of you made the decision and went together, all of the guardians have decided that your punishments will be the same. So...starting tonight for the next week, whenever you aren't in school, you will have extra chores to do around the house. You will also be going to bed early, at 8:00 every evening. There will also be no television or computer games during this time." May's voice was firm, so there would be no question about her being able to be convinced to be lenient. She wouldn't be.

Skye held eye contact for maybe a second, before she had to look down, shrinking a little into herself. "O-okay..." She spoke softly and hesitantly, almost as if she was waiting for the other shoe to drop. She wasn't used to being given consequences... unless one counted her being returned a consequence.

May frowned a little at Skye's reaction; she'd expected either relief that the punishment wasn't worse, or typical pre-teen angsty complaining at what punishment had been given, but Skye wasn't doing either. Slanting her head, she hazarded a guess as to what the problem might be. "I figure, since you'll be staying with me for a long time, most of the chores I'll have you do will be chores that I will want you to help with anyway...so it probably won't be as difficult as you might be expecting...."

Skye darted a quick glance up at May before she started picking at a non-existent spot on her trousers. "Normally... when I do something wrong... I get sent away..." she said, very quietly, still not entirely sure that wouldn't happen.

May frowned at that then bumped shoulders with Skye, before wrapping her own arm around the girl. "I told you that you would stay with me as long as you wanted, didn't I?" May smiled crookedly at Skye.

Skye shrugged, but leaned into May, wanting to believe her. "I'm not used to people wanting me around." Maybe she was as an adult, but she couldn't remember that.

May hugged Skye closer then whispered against her hair, "I don't make promises, Skye; when a promise is made, it is something that must be done and not broken...and in my line of work, sometimes keeping the promise just isn't possible; but I will promise you this. I will do everything in my power to keep you with me for as long as you want to be with me. And if it ever becomes impossible and I have to let you go, it will only be because of outside forces beyond my control...not because I do not want you. I will always want you."

Skye closed her eyes, still not sure she could completely believe that... but desperately wanting to. Hesitantly, she wrapped her own arms around May, unsure if the embrace would be welcomed, but desperately needing the contact she'd had so little of in her life.

May quickly wrapped her other arm around the girl in a tight hug, holding her close. "How about we have dinner on our floor tonight...just you and me? Then maybe we can do our nails or something girly that all the boys would scoff at?" May grinned slightly.

Skye smiled, her eyes lighting up a bit. "Really? I'd like that..." she said hopefully.

May's grin widened. "Then, yes, we will definitely do that." She nodded. "Does spaghetti sound alright with you?"

Skye smiled. "That sounds really good..."

***

Coulson guided Grant and Clint to the living room area and sat down, gently pulling his sons to sit either side of him. He wanted to pull them onto his lap, but although they were comfortable with that as adults, he wasn't entirely certain they would be comfortable with it as children. "I'm not angry with either of you," he started off by saying.

Clint smiled crookedly. "Really?"

Grant winced. "You should be....” he whispered. He didn't pull away from his father, but he was very tense...expecting to be hit, or worse, at any moment.

"Well, I'm not," Coulson replied. He looked at both of them. "I'm not going to hit you." This was addressed mainly to Grant, but he was trying to reassure them both. "I was worried about you both. There are some bad people who would take you both away if they could and I don't want to lose either of you."

Grant bit his lip, finally looking up into his father's face. He believed that he wouldn't be hit- he knew Coulson wouldn't lie about that- but he wasn't sure what the man would do and not knowing was almost as scary as expecting to be hit. Maybe more so. "What...what will you do?" he finally asked. "Cuz we worried you." His tone was apologetic, even if he didn't come out and apologize.

Clint sighed. "I'm sorry...we didn't think about it worrying everyone...." he finally said. "Are we in trouble?"

Coulson squeezed them both gently. "For the next week, when you're not in school, you'll be getting extra chores to do. Bedtime will be at eight... and there won't be any television or computer games for that week." He pressed a kiss to each of their heads. "But nothing else will happen. I'm just relieved to have you both back safe..."

Clint groaned softly, slumped against his father, and whined half-heartedly. "Eight? And no television or computer games? It's going to be soooooo boring!"

Grant smiled faintly at his brother's antics. "Not if we can still read or play other kinds of games..." He looked hopefully at Coulson. "And maybe dad will play too?" He would have said 'read to us', but didn't want to seem like a complete toddler.

Coulson smiled. "We'll be able to do things like play games together," he replied. "In fact, I think we could have dinner here together... maybe play a game afterwards." He held them both close.

Grant snuggled closer, before pinching himself hard enough to leave a mark. Wincing, he saw his brother's incredulous look and felt the need to explain. "Just checking to make sure I wasn't dreaming...cuz if this is a dream, I don't wanna wake up."

Coulson gently threaded his fingers through his sons' hair. "You don't have to prove you're not dreaming, Grant. I have you. You are never going to go back to them."

Grant hugged his father tightly, hiding his face against his chest. "I'm sorry I snuck out and worried you...I'm not used to adults worrying about me...least...I don't think I am. I wish I remembered more of when I was older...I think it must be the most wonderful thing to remember, you finding me," he said quietly, not sure if he was explaining himself right or not.

Clint hugged his father from the other side. "I'm sorry, too. It seemed like it would be fun, but now, it doesn't seem like it was a good idea at all." He sighed.

Coulson cuddled them both tightly, pressing a kiss to each of their heads. "There's nothing wrong with one or more of us adults taking you out," he said softly. "And, Grant, I know how you feel... but I'm glad you're with me now."

Grant snuggled a bit more, going quiet and just relishing the fact that he had someone who actually cared about him and wanted him around, who was willing to show it.

Clint snuggled for only a little bit more before leaning back. "Can we have hamburgers for dinner?"

***

Loki followed Thor to their floor, the picture of dejection. He had thought the outing he had gone on with the other children had been a grand adventure; even when the police took them to the station, he had thought it an exciting story to share with his brother. Only...Thor had not been pleased. It was disappointing to know how utterly he had failed to impress his brother. "I am sorry, brother. I just wanted to make you proud..." he finally said in a tiny and contrite voice.

Thor sat down on the couch and drew Loki down to sit next to him, hugging him close. "I worried about you, Loki. There is nothing you need to do to make me proud of you... I already am proud to call you my brother," he said with quiet sincerity.

"Even when I make foolish mistakes that are dangerous?" Loki looked up at Thor, wide-eyed and hopeful. He bit his lip. His brother's opinion meant a great deal to him- Thor had been paying so much attention to him lately and treating him like he was important to him instead of like he was a nuisance and Loki did not want to lose that because he had misjudged and done something he should not have.

"Even then." Thor tightened his embrace. "There is nothing that could ever change how I feel about you." He paused before adding, "There are a lot of bad people on Midgard... enemies that all of us here have. If they realise how important you and the others are, they could try to take you away."

Loki bit his lip. "Our leaving without permission and hiding so you could not find us immediately must have been more than worrisome...." His voice was apologetic and guilt filled. "It is no wonder that we all are in trouble. How am I to be punished for my actions?" he asked hesitantly. "I know Grant was afraid, though I do not believe his father would hurt him the way he was fearing...."

"There are bad people in the past who have hurt him," Thor replied. "Grant's father would never hurt him." He'd seen Coulson with Grant, as an adult and as a child, after all. "As for punishment... for the next week, when you're not in school, you will be doing extra chores and your bedtime will be at 8. There won't be any television or computer games, either."

"I will miss Disney's wondrous tales, but I understand..." Loki sighed. "I...I am still having difficulty sleeping. Will I need to sleep as soon as I am in bed?" Loki turned worried eyes onto his brother.

Thor tightened his embrace around his brother. "There is nothing to stop you from staying in my room," he said honestly. "I know you've still been having bad dreams."

"You are not ashamed of me for my weakness?" Loki asked in a tiny voice, unable to look Thor in the eye.

Thor gently pulled Loki into his lap. "It is not a weakness, brother," he said firmly. "You cannot help having bad dreams... and allowing your family to help you does not make you weak."

Loki snuggled closer to Thor, burrowing against him. "I am lucky you are my brother...and I love you," he admitted softly. "I hope nothing will ever come between us."

"I love you too... and nothing will," Thor promised. Never again. He wouldn't allow it.

***

"Ugh...." Trip groaned from his prone position on the ground as he looked up at Fury. "I don't know whether to be impressed that you could take me down so easily, or completely ashamed that you took me down so easily..." he huffed, only half kidding.

Fury reached out a hand to help him up. "You lasted longer than you did last time," he said approvingly.

Trip winced- not so much because he hurt (although- ow) but because last time he hadn't lasted very long at all. He was still embarrassed at how easily he'd been taken down by his mentor. "Well...there is that..." he finally said with a chagrined smile. "If I didn't know you were just that good...I'd seriously wonder about my own skills...." he sighed.

"You're good. Better than good." Fury spoke with a note of pride in his voice and patted Trip's shoulder gently. "But in comparison... I have been doing this longer," he commented.

Trip's smile was a bit more happy as he looked back up at Fury, pleased that the older man was proud of him. He wondered if he'd ever reach a stage in his life where Fury's opinion, good or bad, wasn't so important to him. "And I get to benefit from the experience. Lucky me!" His tone was genuine and not sarcastic, despite his attempts to make it sound like a joke. He leaned toward his mentor, enjoying the closeness.

Fury smiled and squeezed Trip's shoulder gently. "You can certainly look at it that way," he agreed.

Trip sighed then slanted his head. "I am lucky," he finally said, his tone serious. "I mean...I always felt lucky. First Grand Dad stepped in when my daddy died...and then you stepped in when Grand Dad died...so I was never really without a good role model. But even if neither of you had stepped in, I still had mamma...." He frowned. "Seeing how alone, or seemingly alone, some of the kids were...how much they needed someone to care about them... I guess I don't think I'll ever be able to thank you enough. And as soon as it isn't so late that mamma would have a heart-attack thinking something bad happened, I'm gonna call her and thank her too. So yeah. Thanks for not leaving me alone." Trip gave Fury a tiny grin and shifted slightly.

"They have those people to care for them now," Fury said. "And you're welcome," he added. "It turns out I'm just a little fond of you." Though from the look on his face, it was clearly more than 'a little'.

"Aw...you can admit you love me. I won't tell anyone..." Trip teased impishly. "Feeling's mutual, you know...."

Fury nodded. He didn't really talk about his feelings much, but he was definitely more affectionate with those he considered his family. He wrapped an arm around Trip's shoulders. "What do you think about going to that coffee shop for something to eat?"

"I'd like that." Trip smiled. "I think I overheard Nat muttering about going to drag Jemma out of the lab to get some real food while you were taking me down, so it'll probably just be you and me..." Trip stole a glance at his father figure and pressed closer into him for a few seconds.

In response, Fury tightened his own embrace. "I would prefer that anyway," he commented. It wasn't often he had that time to spend with Trip, so when he could, he tried to make sure they had at least some one-on-one time.

"Me too..." Trip said softly, relaxing into Fury's hold and giving the older man a content smile. "Things have been really hectic lately, even if I'm not in charge of one of the 'kids'. I didn't realize how much work Leo did, or Skye or Grant did... let alone any of the other guys... until the rest of us needed to pick up their responsibilities. I'm sure you realized.... I'm not sure how Coulson does it- how you did it for so many years- being in charge of all of SHIELD. Especially when so many of us agents aren't much more than overgrown children, even when we are adults." He laughed softly as he stepped onto the elevator with his mentor. "Hey...JARVIS?"

"Yes, Agent Triplett?" the AI responded.

"I'm going for some 'we' time with my 'Dad'. I'd rather not be interrupted unless it is a real emergency, so while I'm not turning my phone off...is it possible for you to screen my calls for me and only send the ones through that are necessary for me to get right away?" Trip asked curiously.

"It is more than possible, Agent. Would you also like me to screen your calls, Director Fury?" JARVIS asked politely.

"I would," Fury replied, without any hesitation. Some people had a habit of calling him even when they could deal with something themselves... and he'd prefer not to have anything interrupt his time with Trip, unless it was a serious emergency.

"Very well. I will begin screening now," JARVIS answered primly.

By this time, they had reached ground level. "Want to walk or take one of Tony's cars?" Trip asked curiously. "He gave me permission to drive them before he got pint-sized...."

"We can walk," Fury suggested, thinking they would be able to focus more on the conversation if they walked. He squeezed Trip's shoulder gently as they left the tower and began walking to the coffee shop.

***

It had been a week since the 'children' had gone off on their adventure and Jemma had been left alone in the lab every evening at eight o'clock on the dot. Bruce had not wanted to leave Leo alone on his floor when the boy was grounded and unable to join any of the other children or be in any of the other floors. She could admit to feeling a slight bit of jealousy. She wasn't sure which one she was most jealous of, Leo or Bruce. Her best friend in the whole world was spending all his time with someone that wasn't her...the man that she'd begun to look on as a mentor. To distract herself from the feelings of being left all alone in this mess while everyone else had paired up into 'families', she worked feverishly on trying to figure out exactly what had happened to cause the de-aging. And usually, around one in the morning, when everyone else was asleep and she was needing to get a few hours of rest herself, she'd call her own parents and talk for a bit. That helped somewhat. It was a bit funny that it took her teammates becoming children and forming relationships with their 'foster parents' for her to build a stronger relationship with her own, but that's what had happened.

It was that time now- one in the morning- and she was dialing back home again, knowing that her mother would not have left for work yet and was probably waiting by the phone, since it had become a sort of habit to call in the last few weeks. "Morning, mum." Jemma grinned into the phone tiredly as soon as her mother answered.

"I just don't get it, mom. Every slide I look at, the blood is normal; except nothing about this situation is normal..." Jemma said, frustrated. She hadn't gone into great detail about what had happened or what she was doing...just enough to let her mother know that something weird had happened, but she couldn't find anything in the blood-work to say why it had happened.

"What exactly are you looking at in the blood? I mean...wouldn't a virus show up in the blood?" her mother asked curiously.

"Not necessarily...it depends on where the virus originated. But anti-bodies should be showing up, if nothing else...." Jemma sighed.

"Maybe it's just a really slow virus? And it's taking longer for it to show up in the blood...." her mother mused. "I know a friend of mine was getting sick and at first, her bloodwork showed up as negative for a virus... but she wasn't getting better and they took her blood again two weeks later and it came back positive..." her mother said quietly.

Jemma took a quick breath and then groaned. "How could I have been so stupid?" she muttered. "Thanks, mum...You have just reminded me of something that should have been obvious. My only excuse for not thinking of it is extreme exhaustion..." She sighed.

"Jemma, if you are so tired that it took me to jog your memory to think of something that apparently is simple.... then you need to get to bed, young lady!" her mother scolded, as only mothers can.

Jemma grimaced. "I don't have time..."

"You will take time. Go sleep. Don't think I won't call your director and ask him if you are getting enough rest. And believe me...if you aren't, I am not above flying out there and making sure you do!" Her mother was firm.

"Yes, mum..." Jemma finally said in a tiny voice. "I'll go sleep now. And...and if I solve this problem because of your reminder? I'll be able to ask for some time off...and I'll fly you out here so that we can spend a week together. To say thank you...and also because I miss you. Love you, mum...." she said softly.

"I love you too, sweetie. Now go sleep," her mother demanded.

"Yes, ma'am. Good bye," Jemma said with a tiny smile.

"Good night, dear." Her mother gently hung up the phone.

Not able to continue on her experiments until she'd drawn more blood from the children, Jemma headed back to her own floor to get much needed rest.

***

Coulson was contacted fairly early by Jemma the next morning, as were the rest of the guardians, about drawing more blood from the children. He gently woke his sons, who'd been in his bed most nights, to let them know they needed to have some blood drawn for tests. After doing them some breakfast, he then guided Clint and Grant to the medical floor, aware of everyone else on their way.

Jemma watched as all the kids were brought into the lab, some looking more alert than others. She smiled to try and put them and their 'parents' at ease, before beginning the process of drawing blood.

Bruce quickly began to help her, knowing that the sooner the kids could be taken out of the lab, the better. He glanced at Jemma, a little worried. She didn't look like she was sleeping. He was used to super long nights himself, but since joining his team, there had always been at least one person to drag him out of the lab for a few hours each day to eat and then drag him out again at night for at least five hours of rest. He'd been so busy with Leo, he hadn't bothered to see if she was taking care of herself.

A lot of Coulson's attention was on his sons, but at the same time, he could tell that Jemma was overworking herself. Once the blood was drawn, he gently squeezed his sons' shoulders and then headed over to Jemma. "Now that you've taken the blood, you should get something to eat and then have a nap," he said, his tone calm but still serious. He decided to ask Natasha to make sure Jemma followed those instructions.

Bruce nodded at Coulson. "Yes. In fact, once you've stored the blood, I insist that you take the rest of today off. The kids are healthy and there is no reason for you push yourself so hard that you get sick."

Jemma glanced between the two men, who had 'ganged up' on her, and sighed. "Maybe you're right. I'll get some rest today. It will likely improve my ability to notice things anyway:"

Coulson nodded, patting her shoulder gently. "You need to take care of yourself as much as try and figure out what's going on. More, even. And make sure you have a proper meal," he added. He knew he tended to neglect himself when his children needed him... but knowing it in himself, he could recognise it in others.

"Yes, sirs." Jemma smiled as she carefully began to store the blood samples. "I'll go do that now, actually..."

"Is everyone eating on their own floors?" she asked wistfully, feeling like having company since she was actually leaving the lab for a bit.

"I thought we could all eat together in the common room area," Steve said, stepping over to them, having overheard the conversation. "It'll be nice for the whole family to eat together."

Jemma's smile could have lit up the room.

Bruce felt a little bad. He and Leo had grown very close since this whole debacle started; and maybe Jemma didn't need a 'parent', but that didn't mean she didn't need the support of someone older and more experienced every now and then. She was still very young. "You know what. We'll eat in the common room for breakfast, but tonight at dinner, why don't you join Leo and I on our floor? You two are best friends, so I think he would like it."

Jemma's smile turned a bit more hesitant, as if she didn't want to intrude, but when Bruce's smile became more stern and it looked like he was going to order her, she quickly agreed. "Ok, sir. I’d like that."

Coulson smiled, glad that Jemma was responding well. "Why don't we all make a point of eating breakfast together from now on?" he suggested. "At least those of us who are in the Tower..." They couldn't always spend a lot of time together, but breakfast would probably work well.

Steve nodded. "If we can work out a particular time everyone can make..." he commented.

May nodded. "That's a good idea. It I'll allow us to keep up with each other and form closer bonds as a team. That would be useful for more than one reason."

Grant had been listening quietly, but finally piped up, "If it means I can see Uncle Steve, Thor and Bruce more often, or Mom...I like that idea." He darted a glance toward May, then blushed and looked at his feet, almost shyly.

May blinked, finally realizing it was her that he was calling mom. She gave Coulson a wide eyed look, wondering if it had come from something Phil had said, if it was wishful thinking on Grant's part, or if maybe the child was remembering the op they'd done where she had posed as his and Leo's step-mother.

Coulson looked a bit taken aback, but then smiled, wrapping an arm around Grant's shoulders and squeezing him gently. "Then that's what we'll do... and we can continue even after you're back to your adult ages." He wasn't quite sure what to say about Grant's reference to May. She was important... of course she was... but since adopting Grant, Coulson's entire focus had been on his family.

Clint grinned. "Great!" He may not have been as emotionally needy as Grant, but he still yearned to spend time with family...and he considered all the team- both of them- as family.

Bruce chuckled at the children's enthusiasm... It wasn't just Grant and Clint showing excitement about 'together' time... But especially at May and Coulson's expressions. He caught a glimpse of Grant's face as the boy continued looking at the ground; the boy had a suspicious grin that made Bruce think the child was trying to sneakily play matchmaker. He laughed lightly, turning quickly so Coulson wouldn't catch where he was looking.

Jemma hid a smile behind her hand.

Coulson wrapped an arm around Clint's shoulders as well. "If we're all done here, why don't we go and get breakfast now?" he suggested.

Jemma nodded. "We're all done. Breakfast it is!" she said, loudly enough to alert everyone else that they could head upstairs to the common area.

"Brother? Is Ms. May truly their mother?" suddenly rang though the room as Loki, who had remained quiet through the proceedings, finally voiced the question that had bothered him the moment Grant spoke the words. "It would explain why their sister Nat is so much scarier when their dad isn't scary at all..." His whisper wasn't much quieter than his speaking voice.

Jemma coughed into her hand to try and keep from laughing.

Coulson tried very hard not to wince and decided that he'd let Thor field that one while he tried to decide if he needed to sit his sons down and talk to them. Or maybe let them talk to him...

It was, however, somewhat gratifying to know that the children didn't find him scary. Coulson was sure he could be if the situation called for it... but not with his family.

Thor gently drew Loki to the side to talk quietly to him. "They're not in a relationship, but I think Grant, at least, would like them to be." At least at this age.

Grant gave his father a sheepish and somewhat apologetic look before looking at his feet.

Loki looked a little embarrassed himself as he realized everyone had heard his question. Biting his lip, he moved over to where May and Coulson stood. "I am sorry...I did not mean to offend," he said softly to both of them.

Bruce smiled crookedly and began to shoo everyone out of the lab. "Out. Eat. Match-make later!"

Coulson tightened his embrace around Grant, speaking both to him and to Loki. "It's all right," he said gently, as he guided his sons from the room. "But I think we all need to eat now..."

May waited till all the rest of the children and adults had exited the lab before moving closer to Bruce and asking quietly, "Do you think it is just childish wishing, or do you think he might be remembering? We did pose as a family at one time...." Her eyes were a bit worried. "If they are remembering things...even if they don't realize. Could it cause problems?"

Bruce frowned. "I don't know. We need to keep a closer eye on them. Then compare our observations." He glanced toward Coulson, Steve and the other adults. "Let's discuss it after breakfast while the kids work on the experiment I've arranged for their class today. Trip can supervise."

***

A couple of days later, the group had all joined in the common room area for breakfast. Natasha was cooking as adults and children filtered inside to sit round the table.

Even though the grounding was over, Coulson couldn't help noticing that a few of the children looked tired and were quiet. He could tell that Steve had noticed too and the two of them were gently probing to try and find out what was going on.

Grant couldn't bring himself to look at anyone. He'd been having dreams the last few days that he didn't understand...they made no sense. They weren't exactly scary. Instead, they caused him to feel exceedingly guilty; and he didn't understand why.

Bucky had been unable to sleep due to what had been very scary dreams...scary and guilt inducing.

Tony's dreams hadn't changed. They had just increased.

Loki was in much the same position as Tony. Although his dreams had increased in clarity, which led him to begin feeling guilt.

Clint had dreams. Unlike the others, though, he had gone straight to his father when they began and it had helped him to sleep.

Skye picked morosely at her breakfast, very quiet and subdued. She'd been having dreams that were disturbing and she couldn't stop yawning over her breakfast.

Even Leo was quieter than normal, though he made more of an effort to eat... he just couldn't quite bring himself to perk up.

Coulson knew that Clint had been having dreams, but his oldest had come into the bed with him. However, he couldn't help wondering if maybe that was what was wrong with the others. "Grant... how did you sleep?" he asked quietly.

Thor sat down next to Loki, wrapping an arm around his brother's shoulders and squeezing him gently.

Steve gently squeezed Bucky's and Tony's shoulders before getting them a drink each. "You're both very quiet," he commented.

Grant didn't want to admit he'd had bad dreams, because he didn't want to tell his father what he had dreamed. He couldn't imagine ever turning on his family the way he had in his dream...but even though he didn't think he'd ever do it, something about the dream was so real, he couldn't help feeling guilt. Swallowing, he shrugged. "Not as good as usual," he finally said.

May sat next to Skye and placed a gentle hand against the girl's back. "Are you okay?" she asked softly.

"What's wrong, son?" Bruce asked Leo gently.

Loki snuggled against his brother. "I'm sorry..." he whispered, in an attempt to ease the guilt he didn't know what to do with.

Tony yawned. "Didn't sleep much," he admitted. "Lotsa dreams and Bucky was dreaming too and so..." He yawned a second time.

Bucky just turned his face into Steve's chest and snuggled.

Clint wrinkled his nose. "We all dreamed? At the same time?" His tone was skeptical and curious all at once.

Coulson responded by wrapping his arm around Grant's shoulders and leaning in to kiss his head. "You could have come and woken me," he said softly, wrapping his other arm around Clint's shoulders.

Skye couldn't help but relax against May. "Didn't sleep too well..." she mumbled.

Leo looked up at Bruce. "I guess we all dreamed..." he said, his voice apologetic.

Thor tightened his embrace around Loki. "There is nothing you need to apologise for," he said, worried.

Steve hugged both Bucky and Tony close. "What were the dreams about?" he asked softly.

Tony bit his lip as he looked up at Steve. "More of the same...people trying to get me to make something for them...hurting me when I refused..." He sighed. "Except...I remembered Uncle Obie this time...." He sounded confused and a little heartbroken.

Bucky couldn't meet Steve's eyes. "I was doing bad things to people...." he admitted softly. "Really bad things that would make you ashamed of me."

Loki shook his head, even as he burrowed closer to his brother. "I...I remembered what I did to this realm...to your friends and you. I was a horrid brother and I...I wish I could undo it all!" He shivered, holding onto Thor even more tightly, as if afraid that now he remembered his sins, his brother wouldn't feel obligated to treat him as his brother any longer; failing to remember that they'd already spoken of Loki's crimes and Loki had repented and been punished for them and was as much Thor's brother as an adult as he was as a child.

Bruce frowned slightly and hugged Leo. "Dreams are natural and you shouldn't feel guilty about having them.... Was it the same dream as usual?" he asked softly. "Do you want to talk about it?"

May kissed the top of Skye's head. "Do you want to talk about it?" she asked softly.

Clint looked worriedly at his brother. At their father's show of affection, the other boy seemed to pull even further into himself and cringed at the reminder that he could have woken their father. Clint's dreams the night before had been worse than usual, but he hadn't felt reluctant to go to their dad and it had helped him. He didn't understand Grant's reluctance. Especially when the other boy had been willing to go to their father all the other times.

Grant swallowed. "I don't deserve your help..." he finally whispered. "I know what I did now and I know what a horrible monster I really am...." He tried to pull away, wanting to go hide from the rest of the people that he didn't deserve to be around.

Steve winced, well able to imagine what both of them were going through, even if he wasn't aware of all of the details. It was a split second decision to sit and gather both boys into his lap. "All of us here have bad things in our past... and things we're ashamed of," he said softly. "But here... we're a family. A true family. What happened in the past is only important in how it affects you and doesn't have any bearing on how much we care about you."

Thor wrapped his arms around Loki, as if by holding his brother he could protect him from the pain of those memories. "We found each other again, Loki. No matter what... you have never stopped being my brother. I was not there for you when I should have been, but I'm here now and I always will be."

"I..." Leo darted a quick glance at Bruce, before swallowing and looking down. "I was... trapped... underwater... I couldn't breathe..." His voice trailed off and he swallowed, not wanting to go into more detail... not wanting to admit to the horrible sense of betrayal.

Skye almost seemed to withdraw into herself. "I didn't think I'd be as lonely when I grew up..." There were other things, too, but most of those were just flashes.

Just like Steve, Coulson sat so that he could gather Grant into his lap, wrapping an arm around Clint so that his eldest wasn't left out. "You were treated badly growing up, Grant, and you were loyal to the one person who seemed to care, even slightly, about what happened to you. But you are my son. I found you and I love you. You aren't a monster. You're still healing from the wounds of your past."

Bucky, knowing that Steve never lied about things like that, believed him immediately and pressed as close as he was able, reaching out and fisting his hand into Tony's shirt and dragging the other boy closer as well, the look on Tony's face bringing out his 'protective' nature.

Tony allowed himself to be dragged closer by Bucky, tentatively snuggling closer to Steve. He was still confused and hurting, though. Obie had been one of the few adults - other than JARVIS - who had paid attention to him when he was growing up...often stepping in when Tony's own father couldn't be found. The dream he'd had the night before had pretty much indicated that the man who Tony viewed as an uncle had turned on him to the point of being willing to kill him so that he could get... well, it hadn't been clear to Tony what Obie wanted; only that the man had turned on Tony and viewed the younger man as an annoying and rather worthless obstacle to his plans. If he'd been so wrong about Obie, wasn't it possible he was wrong about Steve...and all the other adults that he'd begun to trust? Closing his eyes tightly against tears, Tony tensed up and began to try and pull away, figuring that he didn't really matter to anyone and he shouldn't burden them with his presence any longer.

Loki just held onto his brother tightly, wanting to believe him even if all he could think about was how he didn't deserve his brother's forgiveness.

Bruce winced, hugging Leo more closely to him. "I have no words that will make it better.... You're safe now and you know it, but that doesn't change what happened to you or how it made you feel.... Still... any time that you begin remembering and it seems like too much, I want you to know that you can come to me.... I may not be able to take the bad memories away, but I can be with you as you remember and maybe that will help...." he said softly against the top of Leo's head.

May frowned slightly and pulled Skye to her, wrapping her in a tight hug. "You've been searching for a long time for a place to belong. Sometimes, even after you've found your place, it takes a while before it can sink in and actually feel like you've found your place. I wish I could have found you sooner and kept you from being so lonely, but we've found you now and you don't have to be lonely anymore. Ever. You'll always have a home with me, for as long as you want it." May's voice was strong and certain. She may not be the type to be all emotional or touchy feely, but when she allowed herself to care - and she did care about Skye- it wasn't halfway by any means.

"I lied to and betrayed you..." Grant's whisper was tormented. "I love you so much and I don't understand why I would do that...but I dreamed it and it must be true, because all our dreams are supposed to be memories from when we're adults...." He swallowed hard. "I hate myself!" he blurted and began to squirm, attempting to get away from the comfort he didn't think he deserved.

Clint frowned, not sure exactly what to do. Glancing around the room, he was a bit surprised to see how upset all the kids were. Was he the only one who had sought out comfort the night before and actually dealt with his dreams? Biting his lip, he glanced toward the door as he heard someone coming down the hall.

Jemma burst into the kitchen, eyes wide. She'd been about to blurt out that she'd figured out what had happened, but at the sight that greeted her, her words died before they left her lips. Swallowing she glanced around then looked toward Natasha, Trip, and Fury; the only adults not comforting children. "Did something happen?" she asked in worry.

Steve had no intention of letting Tony pull away from him and he tightened his embrace around both of them. "I know it might be diffcult to believe, but all of us here are a family. I love you both and you are incredibly important to me. It took us a while, Tony, but we are very close now."

Thor simply cuddled Loki tightly, stroking his back gently. "I love you, brother. No matter what your dreams tell you... that has always been true," he said softly.

"Okay," Leo said quietly, leaning trustingly into Bruce. Compared to the others, his traumatic experiences were few and far between and he didn't have the same issues that many of the others did.

Skye looked hesitantly up at May. "But... what about if we become adults again?"

Coulson gently threaded his fingers through Grant's hair. "You were hurt deeply and didn't have anyone good in your life until you joined my team. It took a while for us to become as close as we are, but what happened ultimately gave us a chance to form that relationship. You mean the world to me," he said softly.

Natasha looked at Jemma. "They've all had dreams of when they were adults... most of them traumatic," she said softly.

Jemma bit her lip harder, wincing at the taste of blood, then shook her head and sighed. "I...I should have expected that really. I woke up early this morning because I'd had an idea and I went and checked my idea out and I was right...and I think I have isolated the... virus, for lack of a better term, in their blood samples. And hopefully, I'll be able to formulate a vaccine to help them combat it. But their bodies are also trying to fight the virus and since this virus is unlike any normal earth viruses... I should have expected something to occur. I'm sorry." She ran a weary hand through her hair. "Anyway...Now that I've isolated the contagion, I'll begin working on something to fight it and hopefully that will let the kids...get back to normal...maybe."

Grant finally gave up trying to get away from his father and slumped into his arms, crying softly.

Clint awkwardly reached over and patted his brother on the shoulder.

May gave Skye a stern look. "Do I look like the sort of person that would change her mind about someone just because they grew up and seemed like they didn't need me anymore? You're stuck with me, kid. Unless you tell me to go away yourself. And even then, I'd only go far enough that you couldn't see me watching out for you." May gave a tiny smile, hugging Skye.

Bruce just held Leo, relieved that the boy was willing to extend his trust to him. Bruce wished he knew a way to help Leo with his feelings of fear and betrayal that had occurred, but that was something only time and patience would help, so he was grateful Leo was at least willing to let him be there for him. He glanced at Jemma, listening to the younger scientist's explanation. "You couldn't have known what would happen. It isn't like we've run into this type of virus before..." he admonished gently, not wanting the young woman to begin feeling guilty for something she couldn't have controlled.

"I love you too, Thor." Loki admitted softly. "Forever...."

Bucky smiled at Tony, pressing closer to Steve. "May as well stop fighting him and let him hug you...he ain't gonna let ya go till he's sure you're ok," he teased gently.

Tony blinked in confusion, looking first at Bucky, then up at Steve, uncertainly. "Why?" He didn't elaborate on the question- the why could have been questioning any number of things in his past relationships or current one with Steve- but it was obvious he wanted to believe Steve. He stopped struggling to pull away, going still and even leaning against Steve hesitantly.

Coulson cuddled Grant tightly, kissing the top of his head. "I love you," he said softly, then, including Clint, added, "I love you both. There are bad things in your past, but you're healing from them. It's a slow process, but we have time and there is nothing that could ever take me away from either of you."

Looking relieved, Skye twisted round slightly so that she could hug May. "Thanks." And then, very quietly, not sure how it would be taken, "...Mom."

Leo looked at Bruce and then at Jemma, trying to catch her eye so that he could smile at her. He might not have the memories of their working relationship, but he remembered from the dreams that they'd been together.

Thor just cuddled his brother tightly, trying to offer some comfort.

"You are important to everyone here," Steve said, addressing both Tony and Bucky. "And so much more than that to me."

Grant didn't say anything, just snuggling as close as he could and letting his father hold him; he felt safe when his father had hold of him and as long as Coulson didn't let go, he thought maybe everything would be ok.

"We love you too, dad..." Clint answered for both of them, putting his head on his father's shoulder and lightly patting his brother's arm in affection.

May blinked at the term, but found that instead of being unnerved by the fact that the younger girl looked on her in that way, she felt almost proud that the girl trusted her that much. "You're very welcome," she said quietly and hugged back tightly.

Jemma saw Leo trying to catch her eye and when he smiled, she gave him her brightest smile back. She missed her best friend, but she couldn't help but think maybe being de-aged had been more of a blessing than they'd originally thought. He and Dr. Banner had formed a relationship that, if she was honest with herself - and she usually was - Leo needed.

Loki finally calmed down, but didn't move out of his brother's arms. "When I am an adult, do I let you hold me like this, or do I think it too childish?" he asked curiously. "Because if I think it too childish, I don't want to grow up again. I like your hugs."

Bucky grinned. "We've been brothers for forever. I know that, Steve," he huffed with a smile on his face. He realized Steve had said that mostly for Tony's benefit, but he also knew the other boy would be hesitant about accepting Steve's words at face value; even if he did seem to trust Steve implicitly.

Tony didn't say anything at first, nervous that if he did say what he was thinking, it would not only be rebuffed, but that he would be scolded for disrespecting Howard in some way. He knew Steve had been Howard's friend. Even so... "...wish you could adopt me..." he finally whispered very very softly to himself.

Coulson held them both close and tight, pressing an affectionate kiss to each of their heads. "No matter what happens... nothing will ever change how I feel about you," he promised them. "We're all very close when you're both adults."

A little embarrassed, Skye nevertheless snuggled close, still half-wondering if this would still happen when she was an adult.

"Are you going to eat?" Leo asked Jemma, looking as worried as an eleven-year-old could look.

"We're much closer than we were before," Thor said. "And we're much better with hugging each other." He smiled. "We're brothers. Neither of us will forget that." Again.

Steve continued to hold Tony close. "I wish that too," he said honestly. It was something he had given a lot of thought to after Coulson had adopted Grant. He just wasn't sure Tony as an adult wanted that.

Grant just snuggled closer, unable to say with words what he was feeling.

Clint smiled. "That's cuz your the best dad ever...."

May smiled, kissing the top of Skye's head gently. She knew she wasn't the most affectionate of people, but if that's what Skye needed, she'd learn to be that way. Although she wasn't certain Skye would welcome her being overly affectionate once she was back to being an adult.

Jemma blinked, then glanced at Bruce and nodded quickly. "Yes..yes. I plan to eat with all of you. Eating breakfast is important...." She began to ramble off all the reasons why breakfast was important, before she trailed off sheepishly.

Bruce chuckled softly. "Go grab your sister and sit down...I think Natasha has the food ready..." he gently directed Leo to go gather Jemma, while he went to gather two plates for his 'kids'.

Loki grinned up at Thor. "Good! I am glad of that."

Tony let himself relax at the words. Even if Steve wasn't able to adopt him...at least the man wanted him. That was something, wasn't it? Feeling wanted was almost a novelty to the boy version of himself.

Bucky got a thoughtful look on his face. He wanted to ask why Steve didn't go ahead and adopt Tony if they both wanted it, but figured there was probably some reason that it wasn't feasible and mentioning it might upset them both. He'd have to ask JARVIS if he knew the reason why they didn't go ahead and do it. The AI seemed to know everything.

Trip had been helping Natasha finish up the food. Noting that Bruce had begun plating breakfast for his charges, he took out several cups and began to pour juice- placing the cups around the table so that each person would have a drink to go with their meal.

"Are both of you ready to eat?" Coulson asked gently. He figured that, if Grant wanted, he could stay sitting on his lap, but he wanted to make sure his sons both ate breakfast. Catching Natasha's eye, he waved her over to join them.

Skye was content to lean into May a few more moments before starting to eat.

Leo nodded, quickly getting off Bruce's lap and heading over to Jemma, reaching to take her hand so he could guide her over to the table.

Thor smiled at Loki. "If you have any more dreams... come and wake me, brother."

Steve squeezed them both gently before saying softly, "Why don't you both eat something? Then maybe we can spend a bit of time together before class."

***

It had been a subdued, if comfortable breakfast. All the kids had eaten enough to satisfy their guardians, but only just enough, the bad dreams of the night before having left most of them tired and lacking an appetite. Jemma had forced herself to eat just so she could set a good example for her miniaturized friends, Bruce's approving glance making her happy that she'd made the effort.

Now, though, the kids were in class and she was back in the lab, examining the 'virus' that she'd discovered in the blood samples. She thought she could easily make a vaccine to help fight it. The problem was, there was no way to test the vaccine to see if it would work or if it would be more dangerous than just letting the children stay children. Biting her lip, she continued to work on the 'vaccine', but she wasn't entirely sure she wanted to tell the others. But was it her place to make such a decision? Shouldn't it be up to the children affected and their caregivers? Would it be more dangerous to give them an untested vaccine, or do nothing and hope that the virus didn't cause more harmful damage?

She sighed softly, not certain what she should do. Bruce was currently teaching his class, or she'd ask him. He would have more insight than she would, being that he was one of the caregivers, and also because he had used an untested experiment on himself and ended up as the Hulk. He more than anyone knew the risks involved. "JARVIS?" she asked hesitantly. "I don't know what to do...." she finally said, not certain even what question she wanted or needed to ask. She wished her mother had top level clearance; she could have called and asked her opinion if she had. Alas, her mother didn't have any clearance and Jemma had already pushed the edges of what was allowed with her last phone call.

Angrily, she brushed at her eyes, frustrated tears leaking out. What the heck was she doing?

Coulson, having spent some time with his sons just after breakfast, had done some work before heading down to the lab to see how Jemma was doing. He came in just in time to hear what she said to JARVIS and stepped over to her. "What's the problem?" Holding eye contact with her, he gave her a reassuring smile.

Jemma blushed darkly, positive that Coulson would be able to see the tear streaks on her cheeks; and she really didn't have a reason to be crying, now did she? Swallowing hard, she took a deep breath and tried to explain. "I...I believe I'm close to having a vaccine ready to combat this alien virus. Only there is no way to be able to test it before giving it to the children and I don't know if giving it to them would be more dangerous than letting the virus continue unchecked in them, or if it would be less dangerous; and that's even assuming that the vaccine would even work...and I want my friends back, but not if they come to harm because I gave them some medicine that hurt them...and there is no way to know until we actually give it to them and it really isn't even my decision to make, but I can't help but feel like if something bad happens because of the vaccine I'm creating, it's my fault; but then it'd be my fault if something bad happens because we didn't try and cure them and....and..." Jemma's voice had gotten progressively higher pitched and came out more and more rapidly as the stress of the situation finally caught up to her.

"Oh, I'm sorry...I don't know what...I can't...." She burst into tears, throwing her hands over her face in a belated attempt to try and calm down.

Since adopting Grant and becoming more open and physically affectionate with him, Coulson was less overwhelmed than he might have been to be faced with a crying team member. Stepping forward, he wrapped his arms around Jemma and hugged her. "We'll have a meeting with the others," he said reassuringly. "We'll all sit down and talk about it. It'll be a group decision, not just a decision for one person to make."

Jemma shivered and nodded, before quickly and gratefully wrapping her arms around her director and holding on tight. "I'm sorry, sir.... Of course we will...." She shivered again, taking in a quivery breath. "I don't know what is wrong with me...." She reluctantly stepped back and began wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand and gave Coulson a trembling smile. "I...it is almost ready. The vaccine...." Her voice trailed off hesitantly. "I..." She sighed softly, shoulders slumping. "I should be finished by tonight...tomorrow night at the latest."

"I want you to come out of the lab for a while." Coulson spoke quietly, but no less firmly. "Your own health is as important as working on this vaccine. So I'd like you to come and spend some time with us... and get some rest." Coulson didn't tell Jemma, but he'd arranged for her mother to fly out. Whether or not they managed to put the children back to normal, Jemma had been working too much. She deserved some time off to spend with her family.

"But, sir, I'm so close to finishing..." Jemma's eyes widened and she waved toward the beakers and slides she was working with, but she swallowed the rest of her objection when she saw the look on Coulson's face. She'd always been one to follow the rules and disobeying an order from her director was not something she felt comfortable doing, even if what he was ordering her to do was to relax. She bit her lip, shoulders slumping slightly. "Yes, sir... th..thank you," she finally said and gave him a tiny smile.

"I have to admit it would be nice to spend some time with everyone....I feel a bit as if I've cut myself off from everyone and it's unsettling....Not that I'm complaining. I know trying to figure out what was wrong was very important and I don't regret it in the least, it's just..." She gave Coulson a wide eyed look. "I just...it will be nice," she finished lamely.

"We'd like you to join us," Coulson said softly. "It isn't good for you to close yourself off alone in here. We're a family. You included. I'm sorry you've been left alone in here... but I want you around. And so does everyone else."

"Really?" Jemma asked softly then blushed at how needy she sounded.

It wasn't that anyone had deliberately excluded her...they hadn't. In fact, Bruce, Coulson and Steve had made efforts to include her as often as possible in what was going on. It was just that they had all formed into family groups... And while Natasha and Trip had blended into their own group (Nat with Coulson and Trip with Fury), Jemma hadn't really been in a family grouping.

It made her so homesick for her mum and dad...but she hadn't wanted to burden anyone else with her loneliness...they had so many other more important things to worry about.

Coulson nodded. "Really," he replied. "I know you have your parents, but you're still a part of the family here. Come and join us now... and then later, why don't you have dinner with us on my floor?"

Jemma bit her lip then impulsively threw her arms around Coulson. "Thank you, sir..." she whispered, only barely managing to keep from crying again. She really must be stressed and tired to be this emotionally wound up, she thought. It probably was best that Coulson had told her to take time off; she didn't want to make a mistake when producing the vaccine, after all.

Coulson hugged her. "We won't talk about the virus for a while," he said. "I think all of us could do with some relaxation... why don't we see about going on a bit of a field trip? We could go and see a movie, or go to the park..."

Jemma nodded, a tiny grin on her face. "I'd like that, sir..." Her grin grew bigger. "I know there was an animated movie that just came out that the kids will probably really enjoy...." She didn't say that she thought she would also enjoy it, although her tone of voice likely gave her away.

Coulson smiled. "I'm sure we can do that. It'll be nice for all of us to relax." And he'd been trying to do things with his sons, knowing neither of them had had much of a childhood.

Jemma carefully stored everything that she was working on, then walked over to stand next to the director. "Maybe...after dinner...we can get everyone together to discuss how I should proceed?" She bit her lip again, moving from one foot to another uncertainly.

"I think that would be a good idea...but until then, we won't bring it up." Coulson wrapped an arm around Jemma's shoulders to steer her from the lab.

***

Trip sat back into the couch with a silent sigh, seven sleeping-bagged bundles spread out on the common room floor in front of him. It had taken nearly an hour, but the seven children he had been charged with watching over for the night had finally fallen asleep...their 'parents' having been called away to take care of urgent SHIELD business. It had been a toss-up between him staying and watching the children, or Thor bringing in Jane and Darcy to watch them; but as the situation had needed immediate attention and could not wait even the thirty minutes it would have taken for Thor to fly to his girlfriend and then fly her and Darcy back, and as Trip was actually not needed for the mission this time, it hadn't taken long for him to be left in charge.

Trip had pretty much decided that he was going to hold off having kids for at least another fifty years. Only sheer willpower had kept his eyes open in a bid to outlast the most stubborn of the children- and wasn't it typical that it was Tony who wouldn't go to sleep? Now, they were all snug, safe and secure. His own eyes dropped closed and within minutes, Trip was sleeping, sitting straight up.

***

Leo managed to sleep peacefully for maybe an hour, before he was thrown violently into a nightmare about the ocean. He began choking in his sleep, the inability to breathe a fairly strong sensation.

Skye, waking up from her own dreams of being alone, quickly realised the trouble Leo was having and crawled over, shaking him to wake him up.

While Skye had woken from her own dreams and then woken Leo up... Tony was on the opposite side, next to Bucky. When his normal dreams of being tortured in Afghanistan began, he didn't make much noise...at first.

For once, Bucky wasn't dreaming about the ops he'd done as the 'Winter Soldier'. No...this time, his dreams went back all the way to when he'd first been captured and experimented on by Zola...the painful procedure that had led to him surviving the fall from the train had been terrifying as an adult; as a child, the memories were too much.

Loki was right next to Bucky and his dreams of being in the 'nothingness' of the 'void' into which he'd fallen when he'd let go of his brother on the rainbow bridge were no better than Tony or Bucky's dreams. Especially not when 'Thanos' took center stage and began to 'convince' Loki to take charge of the Chitauri army and attack Midgard.

Next to Loki was Grant. He'd slept for a little over an hour before his dreaming began; but as it involved the horrible way the people who claimed to be his parents and his older brother treated him- and the way they made him treat his younger siblings- it didn't take long for him to begin whimpering in his sleep.

Trip woke up soon after Skye had woken- her movement registering with him, even in his sleep- and he was sitting up and aware nearly immediately. Skye had been on one end and next to her had been Leo, then Clint, then Grant.... When the tossing and turning began (the only one not apparently dreaming was Clint), he debated waking the children up; but it had taken so long to get them to sleep, he was reluctant to do so unless absolutely necessary. He wished he'd woken up early enough to prevent Skye from waking Leo, but at least the two were being quiet.

It would soon be out of his hands, however, as all four of the boys who were tossing and turning and whimpering suddenly sat straight up and screamed at the top of their lungs.

Leo came awake with a whimper, sitting up and then flinching as the screaming began. He looked around, bleary-eyed and with tears in his eyes.

Skye looked upset, but the fact that the others were in worse shape than her made her able to calm down more and she crawled over to the boys, touching their arms and talking to them quietly.

Fury, who hadn't yet gone to sleep, had heard the screams and quickly entered the common room area.

Trip had quickly moved to the boys as well, squeezing Leo's shoulder gently in an effort to let the boy know he wasn't alone without scaring him. He smiled at Skye as he gently pulled Tony and Loki to him; they seemed in slightly worse shape than Bucky, but not by much. Unfortunately, Trip only had two arms. "Clint..." he began, relieved when the other boy immediately wrapped his arms around his own brother, trying to calm Grant down. "Skye...Leo, could you help Bucky until I can get to him?" he asked gently, before glancing toward Fury when the man rushed in. "Oh thank...am I glad to see you, sir!" Trip would have slumped in relief if he hadn't had two screaming children attached to him; his efforts to calm them weren't working, even if they had latched onto him with a death grip.

Skye was already at Bucky's side and she put her hand hesitantly on his shoulder. Leo, moving behind her, wrapped his own arms around the other boy.

Fury stepped over to help Trip. "I'll ask JARVIS to contact their parents..." he said softly to Trip, before putting action to words.

Bucky stopped screaming, but he couldn't stop whimpering and crying. He grabbed hold of Skye and Leo and attempted to push them behind him, as if trying to protect them from something, even as he held onto them tightly.

Grant had begun calming immediately as his brother's arms had gone around him, but he was sobbing brokenly.

Loki was stiff, eyes wide open but unseeing as he continued to scream. Trip was trying his hardest to get through to the young boy, but the nightmare held him too tightly.

Swallowing hard, Trip carefully transferred Tony to Fury, knowing that the older man cared about the inventor, even if they constantly sniped at each other. He then pulled Loki closer and rubbed his back while squeezing him tightly, in the hopes that the physical contact would get through where the verbal hadn't helped.

Tony, somehow sensing an adult that he had trusted with his life before (and no matter how much he liked Trip, his life hadn't been in Trip's hands before), grabbed onto Fury, his screams quieting just enough that he at least wouldn't deafen the older man.

"The others are on their way, sirs," JARVIS intoned quietly, so as not to frighten the kids any further.

Leo kept his arms around Bucky. "It's all right. You were dreaming. We all were," he said, not used to trying to comfort someone else, but still making the effort.

Skye held Bucky as well, trying to offer the comfort.

Fury immediately held Tony, any hesitation fading in the face of the obvious need the boy had. He acknowledged JARVIS, but kept his entire focus on the boy... at least until Steve could get there.

Somehow, Leo's words managed to get through to Bucky and he finally began to calm down. He didn't let go of the other boy or of Skye, but slowly, he quieted until he was just trembling slightly and crying silently. He wouldn't let go of the other two children, however, still not convinced that they weren't in danger.

Tony finally stopped screaming, but was shaking uncontrollably and sobbing against Fury's chest. Every so often, his hand would go to his chest as if looking for something, even though nothing was there.

Loki had stopped screaming as well, but while Tony was shaking, he had gone stiff and unmoving, tiny whimpers escaping with each hesitant breath he took; as if he was attempting to hide.

Trip continued to rub Loki's back and hoped that the kids' parents would get there soon, because he was doing everything he could think of, but it was obvious it wasn't enough. He had never felt so out of his depth.

Clint just continued to rock Grant back and forth gently. Grant had calmed considerably for his brother, but Clint knew who Grant really needed; their father. To be honest, after being awoken so abruptly and in such a scary way, he needed their father.

The elevator pinged.

Even if the mission hadn't been completed, as soon as JARVIS had contacted them, the adults would have returned immediately. They didn't get back as quickly as they would have liked, but they did get back faster than a lot of people would.

Coulson reached the common room, barely ahead of the others, and didn't need an explanation. He quickly moved to his sons and gathered them both close, holding them on his lap and hugging them tightly. Even if Grant was in a worse state than Clint, he was certain Clint wasn't feeling much better.

Steve didn't hesitate either. Seeing Tony and Bucky, he gently took Tony from Fury, cuddling the boy close, before reaching out to snag Bucky, drawing him close so that he could hold them both.

Thor moved instantly to Trip's side and wrapped his arms around Loki, drawing his brother in close as if his arms could protect Loki.

May had come in quietly and as soon as Steve had Bucky, she'd taken Skye into her own arms, holding the girl close, murmuring how proud she was of her for taking care of her friend.

Bruce had, meanwhile, quietly taken Leo into his own arms and was doing the same.

Grant had burrowed against his father as closely as possible, quieting and calming the rest of the way as soon as he realized who held him. As an adult, he'd mentioned several times how Coulson's scent had a way of putting him at ease, since it reminded him of safety and love. As a child, he took a deep breath and then just slumped. His eyes might have been tightly closed, but his nose and ears told him who had him now.

Clint snorted softly, then sniffled, then pressed himself against his brother's back and wrapped his arms around his dad, sandwiching Grant in between them. Just having his father's arms around him was enough and since he hadn't had a bad dream (was he the only one?), the comfort was more because of being woken so abruptly.

Loki had latched onto Thor, sobbing softly onto his brother's neck.

Bucky immediately snuggled against Steve, hiding his face against his brother and shivering. His voice was raspy from screaming and crying. "I'm sorry..." he said softly, embarrassed at having needed to have Steve called back.

Tony couldn't even talk, his voice raw from his screams and crying. He just shuddered and held onto Steve as if he was a lifeline.

Once all the children were with their own guardian, Trip wearily made his way to stand next to Fury, running a hand over his face and slumping. The adrenaline was wearing off quick. Finally, he took a slow breath and released it, before placing a hand on his mentor's shoulder. "Thank you for coming so quickly, sir. I don't know what I would have done without your help..." he whispered.

Skye had been quite upset at seeing her friends hurting so much and she willingly burrowed into the comfort May offered.

Leo wrapped his own arms around Bruce, trying hard not to remember the sensations of drowning.

Coulson just cuddled both of his sons, his face concerned but also loving and compassionate. "I love you both," he murmured softly to them, gently stroking Grant's hair and reaching round behind his youngest to stroke Clint's.

Thor hugged Loki close, cradling him protectively on his lap, wishing he could do more for his brother.

Steve shook his head, cuddling both Bucky and Tony close. "Don't apologise," he said softly. "I'd rather know when something happens than not. Nightmares aren't something you can easily shake off."

Fury wrapped his arm around Trip, looking at him with concern. "I think you should rest, now that they've quietened down."

Trip let out a self-mocking snort. "After that, I don't think I could rest...I'll probably end up dreaming myself...." He shook his head wearily then gave Fury a tiny smile. "Once everyone has settled down or gone back to their own beds, whichever they decide then I'll see about resting. And the evening had started out so promising, too...."

May glanced at Coulson. As far as she knew, they were through with their mission for the night. Making her decision rapidly, she picked Skye up and walked toward the elevator. "We're going back to our floor and get some sleep there...." she said over her shoulder to whoever might be listening.

Bruce hugged Leo tight then asked softly, "Do you want to go back to our floor?"

Clint smiled up at his father. "I love you too, dad. I think Grant fell asleep, though..." He grinned crookedly when a soft snore confirmed his statement.

"I love you, brother..." Loki whispered into Thor's ear, tightening his arms around his brother's neck.

Bucky nodded at Steve's words, not in the mood or able to argue with him about it. He just pressed close and soaked in the comfort.

Tony finally calmed down enough that he could pull away from Steve slightly and look up into his face. The boy's eyes were red and swollen and when he tried to talk, his voice came out in a rasp that was painful to listen to. "Do you have to go out again?" he croaked out, trying to be brave, but obviously afraid that his 'protector' had to go work and leave him behind.

"Come sleep on my floor," Fury suggested gruffly. "At least then you won't be alone."

Skye yawned, more tired now that it wasn't so stressful, and wrapped her arms around May, nestling in close. She wasn't asleep yet, but it was close.

Leo nodded, still holding onto Bruce.

Coulson continued to cuddle his sons for a few more moments and then spoke softly to Clint, since he was the only one awake. "Are you ready to go to our floor?"

"I love you, Loki," Thor said softly. "Shall we go to our floor?"

"No, I'm here for good now," Steve replied. "And I'd stay even if we hadn't completed the mission," he added, wanting Tony (and Bucky) to know how important they were. "Why don't we get you some water to drink and then go to our floor?" he said softly.

Trip blinked, thinking he should protest; after all, he hadn't had a nightmare (yet) and he wasn't a child...but then he realized he really didn't want to argue with his father-figure and he really didn't want to be alone either. "Thanks, sir." He nodded instead.

May smoothly and quietly took Skye up to their floor and tucked the girl into the large bed in her own room. There was no reason for the girl to have to sleep alone tonight, especially after such a stressful awakening and the fact she'd already had bad dreams. After tucking Skye in, she readied herself for bed and within thirty minutes was laying next to Skye, the girl curled up tight against her as they both fell asleep.

"I'm taking Leo with me...I think maybe the slumber party is over for now anyway." Bruce smiled at Trip before picking Leo up and disappearing to head up to his own floor with his 'son'.

Clint nodded quickly, carefully extricating himself from his brother and father. "Yes, sir..." he whispered, waiting for Coulson to stand and carry his brother to their floor, planning to follow behind.

Loki nodded briskly, but couldn't bring himself to let go of his brother long enough for them to walk to the elevator so they could go to the floor in question.

"Ok..." Tony whispered, the relief he felt that Steve wasn't going anywhere painfully visible.

Bucky smiled crookedly at his brother then gave Tony a quick hug before looking back at Steve. "I'll get him a bottle of water and meet you at the elevator?" he asked.

Fury nodded. "We'll go there now." He squeezed Trip gently before guiding him to the elevator so they could go and sleep.

Coulson stood up with Grant in his arms, but loosened one arm so that he could wrap it around Clint, walking with his sons to the elevator.

Thor carefully straightened, still hugging his brother close. He carried Loki to the elevator.

Steve nodded. "You might want to grab some water for yourself as well." Bucky didn't sound hoarse in the same way that Tony did, but Steve could tell his brother had been crying. Almost absently, Steve was stroking Tony's hair, trying to soothe his boy.

Trip let himself be led.... Soon, he was safely in bed and sound asleep, just knowing his mentor was nearby calming him enough that he wasn't able to keep his eyes open.

Clint followed his dad up to their floor and was soon snuggled up against him as tight as he could get. Grant, who hadn't woken up, was snuggled close on his father's other side. Feeling like everything was how it should be, Clint closed his eyes and was soon joining his brother in slumber.

Loki just held on, not letting his brother go. He held on all the way to their floor and into Thor's room, even when he went to put him into bed.

Bucky grabbed three bottles of water and quickly rejoined Steve, walking beside him as he led him and Tony up to their floor.

When they reached their floor, Tony gave a nervous look to a Steve, as if expecting a negative response. "Can I sleep with you, dad?" he asked hesitantly, not sure if he'd be admonished for his choice of address or not.

Steve smiled, liking that form of address more than he'd ever thought he would. "Of course you can, son," he replied gently, to indicate that he welcomed Tony using that form of address... and did consider Tony his son.

Tony's smile was huge, the relief that he really wasn't alone and that Steve didn't mind him viewing him as his parent evident. He swallowed then winced slightly at the raw feeling of his throat, taking the bottle of water Bucky offered and draining it.

Bucky smiled quietly at the exchange then drank his own water. He then yawned. "Bed?" he asked his brother softly.

Steve guided the two of them through to his bedroom, settling both on the bed, one on either side of him, after drinking some water himself. "Don't be afraid of waking me up if either of you have another bad dream."

***

The next morning, May and Skye were two of the first members of their rather large 'family' to make it to the common room for breakfast. It made sense. Even though Skye had experienced bad dreams, they hadn't really been nightmares and once she'd been snuggled up warm in bed again, without the threat of being woken by any of the other children's nightmares, they both had slept well. Jemma and Natasha were the only two who had got there before her and as they had pretty much been able to sleep undisturbed (as far as May knew, anyway), that made perfect sense. She quickly got Skye settled at the table with a glass of juice and then proceeded to help Natasha and Jemma fix breakfast, as they anticipated the others arriving soon.

Jemma said offhandedly, "I'm very close to getting the vaccine complete, I think...."

May paused thoughtfully, then nodded. "Thank you for letting me know. I...may want to run something by the others during breakfast, keeping that in mind," she said quietly.

Skye settled at the table, sipping her juice and feeling better than she had last night. She was a little tired, but not unbearably so.

Coulson was the next to arrive with his sons, an arm wrapped around each of their shoulders. There hadn't been any more nightmares and the three of them had slept very well. Like May, he settled Clint and Grant at the table with some juice, before going to help.

Thor arrived with Loki only moments later and Steve came with Tony and Bucky shortly afterwards. Both were sticking close to the children they were responsible for, even though the night had passed without incident.

Trip came in with his own 'father', but this time, he sat Fury down at the table and got the older man a mug of coffee, before taking one look at all the people attempting to cook breakfast and gave it up as a bad idea, getting his own mug of coffee and sitting down next to Fury. "I don't even want to get in the middle of ya'll's mess, but if you need me for something, just holler," he said with a grin.

Bruce and Leo were the last to arrive, but it wasn't because they had slept badly. They had woken up early enough that Bruce had decided it might be nice to go up to the roof with Leo and watch the sunrise up over the city. If he also taught the young boy a little bit about meditation and focus himself, Leo hadn't seemed to mind.

Jemma glanced over at everyone and smiled. "Now that you are all here, I'll tell you what I just told May and Nat. I believe I will have finished the vaccine within the next few days. We'll need to discuss how you want to handle it once it is complete. But if it works...well..." She shrugged slightly.

"I was thinking instead of classes today, I'd like to take Skye to the zoo. Anyone object? Or want to join?" May said calmly, not elaborating on why she might want to do 'fun' things instead of classwork.

Tony's eyes widened and he looked at Steve hopefully. He'd never gone to the zoo before.

Grant was giving Coulson the same wide-eyed, hopeful look. He'd never gone to the zoo before either.

Loki looked confused. "What's a zoo?"

"It's a place where we keep animals for people to look at," Coulson explained to Loki, before adding, "I don't see why we couldn't all go... maybe we could do some other things as well." He was able to spend time with his sons as adults, but he wanted to do things with them as children, while they could still be children.

Steve nodded and smiled at Tony. "I think it sounds like a very good idea," he commented, also wanting to spend some father-son time with Tony, since he wasn't sure how his boy would react once the virus was reversed.

Trip glanced around at all the kids looking excited, and the adults looking not much less excited then pouted playfully. "That's so unfair. I wanna go to the zoo!" He winked at Fury then waited to see which of the kids reacted to him; if they would react.

Bucky gave Trip an innocent grin, then turned toward Fury and asked seriously, "Mr. Fury. Can Trip come out and play with us?"

Fury pretended to think about it then clasped Trip gently on the shoulder. "I don't see any reason why not. I might even be able to put off my work for a while to come along."

Trip blinked, then grinned less impishly and a lot more pleased. "Really? That's cool, man! Real cool..."

"Yes!" Tony jumped up as if prepared to go right that second and began babbling to Bucky about lions and tigers.

"And bears... 'oh my!'" Jemma muttered under her breath teasingly where only Steve could hear her. Or so she thought.

Bruce smiled at the excitement of the kids- and of the not so child sized 'kids'- then said to Jemma. "You're coming too. I've looked over your notes and you're right. It won't take you long at all to finish the vaccine. There's no reason it has to be done immediately and you're part of this family too...so you're coming."

Jemma blinked, glancing toward the other adults wondering if they felt the same way. "If you're sure...." she finally said hesitantly.

Steve smiled. "It'll be good to have you along as well... Natasha, too," he added, fairy certain Coulson would invite his daughter, but still wanting to include everyone.

"I think breakfast first... and then we can get a couple of cars to take all of us," Coulson commented, smiling at Jemma and Natasha to indicate they were both more than welcome.

Jemma smiled back and tried not to look too affected by the fact that everyone wanted to include her. She knew they considered her family...but it was hard not to feel left out, even knowing there was really no reason to feel that way, so the fact they were making an effort to make sure she wasn't left out...made her feel happy.

Tony sighed as Bucky pulled him back down into his seat, but he obediently continued eating his breakfast, even as he squirmed in excitement.

Bruce bit down on a chuckle...his friend had always been a bit more hyper than most....but as a child? It was a wonder he managed to focus on anything long enough to learn it, as much as he moved around and fidgeted. He glanced at Leo, who was quietly eating. "Would you like some more?" he asked curiously.

Grant ate obediently. He was excited about the prospective trip as well, but he'd learned a long time ago not to show your excitement; if the adults knew you wanted something so badly, it was the surest way to make sure they didn't let you do it. He knew that Coulson wasn't like that- trusted that he wouldn't say they couldn't go if Grant actually acted like he wanted to go- but by now, the habit of hiding any excitement or overt happiness was ingrained. He was smiling, though; a big smile that he couldn't hide no matter how hard he tried.

Steve sat down between Tony and Bucky, smiling at Tony's enthusiasm... even though he was a bit sad to see just how neglected Tony had been as a child. Reaffirming his promise to himself to always pay attention to Tony, even if it was putting aside some time each day after he became an adult again, Steve squeezed both of his kids gently before starting to eat.

Leo shook his head, finishing his food and picking up the plate and cutlery to carry over to the sink so he could wash them. "I've eaten enough," he replied.

Sitting between his sons, Coulson wrapped an arm around each of their shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze before he began eating his own breakfast.

***

As soon everyone had finished breakfast, it hadn't taken them long to bundle up, load up a minibus and head to the zoo. It was a bit chilly outside- looking like it would snow- and Tony was afraid a lot of the animals would be hiding to stay out of the cold, but it didn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm.

Grant looked around at various buildings that were decorated, eyes wide. It was easy to lose track of time, holed up in the tower like they were. "It's almost Christmas?" he breathed out in surprise.

Trip blinked and glanced out the window. "Yeah...I guess it is," he answered, with a bit of surprise himself. It had been a few months now since the kids had become kids...it was easy to lose track of the time.

Coulson smiled at the children. He and the rest of the parents had already decided that, even as adults, they were going to make sure they had a proper Christmas with the children. He knew it was unlikely many of them had had good memories of Christmas and Coulson especially had ended up storing a whole lot of presents... not just for his children, but the rest of the family as well. "Yes... we'll be celebrating at the Tower," he commented.

Skye hadn't actually been with a foster family for long enough to celebrate Christmas, so she didn't really have very high hopes for the day, even if she was trying to believe she wouldn't be forced to leave.

"Together? Just us?" Tony looked skeptical. "There aren't going to be photographers and reporters interviewing? Or business partners we have to be on our best behavior for?"

"You want to be with us?" Grant was almost as skeptical, but a bit more hopeful.

May smiled, making sure Skye saw her. "We wouldn't want to be anywhere else than with you all; just all of us as family."

"It's going to be just us," Coulson confirmed. He smiled at all of the children, especially his sons. "May is right. There is no place any of us would rather be."

"We're focused on family," Steve commented. "Not on reporters or photographers."

Tony got a funny look in his eyes...just what the tiny inventor was thinking was anyone's guess. He quickly threw his arms around Steve and held on tight, though.

None of the children said anything as Grant did the same thing with his father.

Clint looked at Bucky, wondering if the same 'knowing' look was in his eyes that he could see in the young ex-soldier's.

Loki, squirming slightly, finally asked. "Do they have Bilgesnipes at the zoo?"

***

The trip to the zoo had been fun and the group had also gone to a cafe for drinks and food, as well as taking a trip around the shopping centre and going to the theatre. Instead of going out for dinner, though, the group got a takeaway and went back to the tower to eat all together.

May smiled. The children had had such a good time they couldn't stop talking about it. One minute they'd be talking about the various animals they'd seen, then the different stores they'd like to visit again (to buy Christmas gifts; the children were being furtive with that one and she imagined Happy would be receiving a request to sneak them out shopping in the next few days). Then they'd talk about their favorite scenes in the movie they'd seen. She was glad the day had gone so well.

She glanced at Phil, who was next to her. "We'll probably want them to have an early night if we plan to do Coney Island tomorrow," she whispered. "You want to make the announcement?"

Coulson nodded, a fond smile on his face as he looked around at all of the children. As they all sat round the table to begin eating, he spoke. "We'll be taking a trip to Coney Island tomorrow, so we'll all be having a fairly early night."

Bruce watched in amusement as all the children began to chatter excitedly; even Loki, once Tony had explained what Coney Island was. The fact that none of the kids complained about an early bedtime when they weren't being punished just added to the proof they were excited. Once they were done eating, all of them had jumped up to clean after themselves then headed straight for their floors to get ready for bed.

"Well, that went very well..." he muttered in amusement. "I'm going to go wrap some of the gifts I found today. I'll see you all in the morning." He got up and headed to his floor to do that and assumed the others would be following suit.

***

The next morning, Bruce was up bright and early. After taking his shower, he woke Leo and told him to get ready and then come down to the common kitchen to eat. He then went down and began preparing breakfast.

"Good morning, JARVIS," Bruce said softly as he began scrambling two cartons of eggs.

"Good morning, sir. I believe agents Romanov and Trip will be here shortly to assist you. Possibly others. And young Master Fitz is on his way down as well."

"Thank you JARVIS." Bruce smiled and set out glasses and mugs for children and adults to have juice and/or coffee, then went back to the eggs.

Although he'd been wrapping a lot of presents, Coulson still had an early night and was up early with his sons, meeting Natasha as she was heading to the common kitchen to give Bruce a hand.

Steve arrived shortly after Coulson, having taken the time the previous night to hide the presents. He knew how strong Tony's curiosity was as an adult... he suspected, as a child, that wasn't curbed.

Leo had woken up fairly early, but had stayed in his room so that he could make a list of the presents he wanted to get, which was why he was a bit behind in coming down.

Clint came in not too long after Leo, nodding his head at something Grant was saying.

Grant was trailing Clint closely. "I want to be in the very front car. That's the bestest place to be, because you can see over the edge and it feels like you're gonna fall..." Grant said emphatically.

"Free fall! Yes!" Tony exclaimed as he came in on Grant's heels.

Loki wandered in just behind him, a confused look on his face. "How much does the non-free fall cost? Would it not be more exciting if the free one is such fun?"

Bucky placed an arm around the confused prince. "Different kinda free, buddy. In this case, Tony means you would be plummeting toward the earth with nothing holding you back or slowing you down. Although technically, if you are in a roller coaster, it really isn't a true free fall." Bucky grinned at Tony.

"Bah. Technicality!" Tony sniffed disdainfully then burst out laughing.

Bruce shook his head at the children's antics, motioning for them to sit around the table with Leo. "Sit down and let us know what you'd like to drink. Breakfast is almost ready," he directed softly.

Leo sat down at the table. "Can I have juice, please?" he asked.

Coulson smiled at his sons and the other children then joined Natasha in walking over to Bruce to help him with breakfast. "You could probably all have a turn in going in the front car," he commented.

May, who had walked in by that point, began passing out glasses and pouring juice. "No, you may not have soda for breakfast, Tony...you know better. I believe I've heard Steve tell you the same thing every day for the last several months." She rolled her eyes, but smiled at the boy to show that she really wasn't irritated.

Jemma came scurrying in, looking at some notes she had in her hands, and sat down in a chair near Coulson and Steve, not really paying attention to food, engrossed as she was in what she was looking at.

Trip calmly reached over and took the papers out of her hands and carefully set them aside for her to pick up later. "No work today, Chica!" he scolded playfully.

As breakfast was ready, Coulson and Natasha began plating it up, Coulson sitting between his two sons.

Steve sat between Tony and Bucky, squeezing them both gently and smiling at how excited they both were about going out.

Yawning a little, Skye sat down and drank some juice. Even when it was for something fun, she didn't like getting up early.

May grinned at the younger girl and took a sip of her coffee before sitting down next to her. "Do you know what you'd like to do first, at the park?" she asked curiously.

Bruce sat down next to Leo and patted him gently on the back. "Are you interested in the roller-coaster too?" he asked the boy quizzically.

Tony grinned up at Steve, leaning against him briefly before going back to eating his breakfast and chattering about all the different games they could play.

Bucky chuckled softly at the other boy, giving Steve a happy and contented smile.

Breakfast went fairly quick, as did cleanup. The children were so anxious to head out to the park, they cleaned up immediately without having to be asked or reminded. Soon, everyone was piled into the mini-bus and heading to Coney Island.

***

The day was long and exciting... but also really quite tiring. By the time they were all done and heading back, it was late in the evening and the children were falling asleep in their seats.

Coulson watched his sons with a fond smile. Being able to spend this time with them had gone a long way towards healing the wounds he still suffered from losing Grant as a baby.

Steve was sitting next to Tony, an arm wrapped around the boy's shoulders. Now that they were close to a cure, he was realising that he might not get many chances to do this when Tony became an adult.

Grant was staring out the window, but glanced back at his dad and smiled brightly. The last few months with his real father were the best that he could ever remember in his life...and he was just finally beginning to believe that he wouldn't have to leave the man he'd quickly grown to love and depend on. He was just beginning to believe that he wouldn't be returning to the hell that he had been living in before. Impulsively, he wrapped his arms around Coulson and hugged tightly, snuggling closer to the older man. "Thanks, dad..." he whispered.

Tony was almost asleep; one of the few times during the day when he wasn't hyperactive and talking a mile a minute. Gravitating toward Steve and snuggling against the Captain with a contented sound, he mumbled, "Love you, dad..." into Steve's side, before settling down again and falling the rest of the way into slumber.

Coulson smiled, hugging Grant tightly and pressing a kiss to the top of his head. "I love you, Grant. I'm glad you had a good time," he said softly.

Steve tightened his arm around Tony, smiling down at him. "I love you, Tony," he said softly, hoping that those words would follow his boy in sleep.

***

Tony woke up and stretched, before slowly sitting up and blinking. Huh. He didn't remember even getting home last night, let alone getting back to their floor and walking to his bed.

"Steve carried you..." Bucky piped up from his own bed, where he was sitting and quietly reading a comic book.

Tony didn't know whether to be offended at being treated like a little kid, or feel good that Steve cared about him so much he willingly carted him out of the mini-bus and up to his bed, without waking him. Granted, Steve was really strong and Tony really wasn't all that big, to his consternation. "You think I'll ever get bigger?" he asked abruptly.

Bucky blinked and slowly looked up at his sorta-sibling. "Ergh?" was his eloquent answer.

Tony rolled his eyes and hopped out of bed, heading for the shower. "Never mind. I probably do get bigger. Just compared to everyone else..." He sighed.

Steve had woken up fairly early and stepped out of his bedroom, spotting Tony heading along the floor. He smiled as he saw Tony and stepped over to him. "Hey. How did you sleep?" he asked mildly.

Tony grinned up at Steve and impulsively threw his arms around him in a hug. "Good. I don't even remember getting home, though. Bucky says you carried me." He made a slight face at that, embarrassed that he was small enough to be carried.

Steve immediately returned the hug, smiling gently. "There's nothing wrong with being carried," he said gently. "We're family here. That means we take care of each other."

Tony nodded. "Yeah...ok. Just wish I wasn't so small sometimes. Do I get bigger, or am I always smaller than everyone else?" he asked curiously.

"Well, some of us are bigger than average-sized," Steve replied. "So you're bigger than certain people... but not everyone."

"I...guess that's ok." Tony sounded a little disappointed, though. He wanted to be tall and strong like Steve.

Steve squeezed him gently. "There are many different types of strength, Tony, rather than just physical, he said softly, guessing something of what was going through the boy's mind.

Tony pressed closer to Steve and nodded. "I guess I'll just have to find what I'm strong at and work on that then...." he said determinedly.

Steve smiled. "There are plenty of things you're strong at. One of those being your intelligence."

Tony nodded, and gave a tiny smile, even if he was wishing that he could be more like his 'hero'. Howard had often talked about how great Captain America was and now Tony knew that to be true. He just knew that if he had been as good as Captain America, maybe his father would have wanted to be around him more. He couldn't help but wonder sometimes if Steve would decide he didn't want to be around him, once he knew what he was really like. He looked at the floor and shrugged. "Thanks..." he finally said, not sure what he could say, when he really wanted to disagree.

"Hey." Steve crouched down to be on Tony's level, placing his hands on the boy's shoulders and looking into his eyes. "You've been like my son for a very long time. I meant what I said. I would adopt you in a moment." If he knew that Tony wanted it as an adult as well.

Tony bit his lip hard. He wanted to believe it so much. The problem was, he knew the situation they were in was far from normal and Steve wouldn't do anything that he wasn't sure Tony would still want once everything was back to normal...even if Tony desperately wanted it as a kid. Swallowing, Tony forced himself not to look away from Steve and nodded. "Ok..." he finally said in a tiny voice, before throwing his arms around Steve's neck and holding on tight.

Steve responded by hugging Tony tightly. "Even when you become an adult... it won't change my feelings for you," he promised. "I'm not going to leave you. I'm not going to ignore you. I'm going to be here for you. All the time."

Tony just continued to hold on tight, not saying anything. He didn't know his adult self, but he hoped he wasn't a huge idiot that would give up a chance to have a living and present father just because he thought he was too old to need one.

Bucky came out and smiled crookedly, but didn't say anything, waiting for his brother and 'nephew' to be ready to go eat breakfast.

Noticing Bucky, Steve smiled and carefully straightened, though he kept one arm around Tony's shoulders, and held his arm out to his brother. "Ready to go for breakfast?" he asked.

"Am I ever!" Bucky exclaimed, just as his stomach growled loudly and sent Tony into peals of laughter.

Steve laughed and, keeping his arms around his brother and son, began steering them towards the elevator.

***

Meanwhile, on Coulson's floor, Clint had already got up and had been in the shower for a total of two minutes, before hopping out again. He'd barely been in long enough to get his hair wet, let alone actually clean himself.

"You missed a spot..." Grant teased.

Clint stuck his tongue out. "At least I took a shower," he defended himself.

Coulson knocked lightly on his sons' door before raising his eyebrows as he overheard the comments made by them. He looked at Clint. "How long were you in the shower for?" he asked.

"Um..." Clint hesitated, not actually sure of the answer.

"About a minute and a half..." Grant answered for him with a snicker. "I know it couldn't a been more than that, because I was waiting for my favorite song to stop playing before I went to brush my teeth and it had started when he left and it was just ending when he got back...and the song isn't much longer than four minutes...so giving him time to walk to the shower, get out of his pajamas, shower and then get dressed...." Grant glanced at his brother, who hadn't even bothered drying off from his run through the water.

Clint stuck his tongue out at Grant again, only slightly irritated that his brother had 'told' on him.

Coulson smiled, not actually upset, and put an arm around each of his sons' shoulders. "I think you should take a bit longer in the shower next time," he commented to Clint.

Clint nodded vigorously. "Sure thing, dad."

Grant grinned then grabbed his clothes. "I'm gonna go take a shower now...and brush my teeth," he announced. "Will we be eating with everyone else again?" he asked before heading to the bathroom.

Coulson nodded. "We will be, yes... but I think we'll be having a calmer day today. We can go out somewhere for a while after breakfast if you'd both like, though."

Clint nodded vigorously.

"Yeah...I'd like that!" Grant said with a smile, before heading to clean up.

Coulson smiled and waited with Clint, planning to walk with both his sons to breakfast.

Grant didn't take that much longer than Clint had, to his brother's amusement. He had made an effort to wash his hair, as evidenced by the fact that he'd missed a spot when rinsing and had a bubble over his ear. He flicked it at Clint when Clint made a point of drawing Coulson's attention to it.

Coulson slid an arm around each of his sons' shoulders, guiding them to the elevator.

***

On another floor, Loki was almost literally bouncing around his older brother. "Thor, Thor, Thor," he nearly vibrated. "Will you play the new game I received the other day with me? Will you? Will you? Please?"

Thor smiled at his brother, reflecting, once again, on how much they'd missed out on. "I'm sure we have enough time to play for a while before breakfast," he said.

Loki bounced around even more, quickly going to get the game and return to his brother. "Can we go get gifts for the others later today?" he asked curiously, as he set everything up to play.

Thor nodded, sitting down opposite Loki so that they could play. "Perhaps we could go shopping after breakfast," he said.

"That would be good. I saw several items that I think would be liked by the others, but I did not wish to buy them while it was possible for the item to be seen. I want them to be surprised," Loki said solemnly.

Thor's smile widened a bit. "I understand, brother," he said. "It may be busy... but I'm sure it won't be too bad."

"Thank you!" Loki said with a smile, then handed Thor the dice. "You go first!"

Truly happy to be with his brother like this, Thor rolled the dice.

Loki couldn't have been happier- his brother not only was with him, but was focused solely on him. He smiled at Thor as they began to play.

Thor smiled back at Loki, his entire attention focused on his brother and spending this time with him. He had a second chance to give his brother good memories of childhood and he wasn't going to squander it.

***

Loki rolled the dice one last time on the game. He only needed to fill in one more square on his tally sheet and... "Yahtzee!" he squealed, then blushed because he had squealed. "Um...I think I won, brother..." he said hesitantly. In times past, Thor would not have accepted a loss and would have insisted they continue playing until he had managed a win. His brother had changed a lot, but he was still competitive...and Loki was getting hungry. His stomach growled and he blushed again.

Thor smiled warmly at Loki, not concerned with his brother beating him, and began to pack up the game. "It was a good game, brother. Perhaps next time, I will beat you. For now, though, let's go to breakfast."

***

May had decided to let Skye sleep in a bit. Even if they were all planning to eat in the common area kitchen, no one had made any concrete plans to go anywhere today, so they likely would be congregating around for a long enough time that the girl could sleep in and still get to the room for breakfast. And even if she didn't, it wouldn't hurt for her to miss one group breakfast. Even so, she quietly checked on the younger girl, making sure she was alright, before she went into her own living room and sat down to read the morning paper.

Skye woke up fairly late, since no one had come to wake her up for class or for trips. Getting washed and dressed and brushing her teeth, she tracked May down to the living room and simply curled up quietly next to the woman, gradually allowing herself to believe that May really did want her.

May smiled at Skye, reaching over and ruffling her hair before going back to reading. "Are you hungry? If so, we can head to the common kitchen now. If not, we can sit here a while longer...." she said softly.

"I'd like to stay here a bit longer," Skye said quietly, wanting to make the most of having May to herself for a while.

"Very well, sweetie. When you get hungry, just let me know." May smiled again, putting one arm around the girl and holding her paper with the other hand.

Skye hesitantly snuggled in close, feeling more and more relaxed as the time went on. "How close are we when we're all adults?" she asked curiously.

May slanted her head, giving consideration to the question. "We grew closer in the last few months. But there was always a part of you and a part of me that kept us both acting reserved around each other. But when I began training you, we became a lot more close. I'm... thankful we were given this time together, even if you had to be made a child to do it. It's let us get rid of the remaining barriers we were both keeping up." May smiled faintly, hugging Skye again.

Skye cuddled in close, thinking through what she wanted to say, before turning a worried gaze to May. "What if... when I get older... I don't want to be reserved..."

"I wouldn't want you to be. Not if you really didn't want to be yourself. I've got too used to having you be open and honest with me and I hope that it stays that way when you are back to your adult self," May admitted.

"I don't want things to change," Skye said quietly.

May nodded slightly. "Then don't let them change," she said softly. "and I won't let them change either." She hugged Skye a little more tightly.

"Can we go shopping together after breakfast? Just us?" Skye asked quietly.

May nodded, her smile turning into a grin. "I think that can be arranged. I have a few more things to buy for Christmas and I think one of those special hot-chocolates from Natasha's favorite coffee barista would be wonderful. Maybe with a ginger-bread cookie or two...."

Skye smiled. "It won't spoil my lunch?"

"Naw. If I buy a plate of fruit to go with it, we can count it as lunch; just don't tell Coulson or Steve." May gave her a conspiratorial wink.

Skye's smile grew. "Okay. I won't," she promised. "Do you need to carry on reading? Or can we go and eat breakfast?"

May smiled and carefully put the paper down. "To be honest, I finished reading that thing thirty minutes ago. I was just enjoying hanging out with you. Let's go eat so that we can begin our other plans."

Skye nodded and then stood up, hesitantly reaching to slip her hand into May's.

***

Bruce had been up early in the morning, going down to the lab to check out Jemma's notes. He hadn't been surprised to see the young woman there, finalizing details on the vaccine she planned to make. He'd spent about an hour reading over all her research and going over what she planned to do with her, before telling her to make certain she took a break for breakfast and then went back to his own floor to check on Leo.

Jemma watched as Bruce left to go check on her best friend then smiled crookedly. She had a feeling that when the children were back to their normal adult selves, it was going to take a lot of adjusting on everyone's part. She wouldn't be surprised if some of the adults went through 'empty nest' syndrome. She also wouldn't be surprised if some of the 'children' became clingy and temperamental as they adjusted to being in charge of themselves again. Although.... Shaking her head, she smiled at the random thought that once any of the team decided to 'adopt' another member, it was for life and it wouldn't matter how old the person was.

Leo had woken up fairly early, but after checking with JARVIS, he'd started checking on what presents he could buy and get delivered to the tower. They were a big family, so Leo wasn't sure if all the presents would fit in the car after a shopping trip.

***

Trip walked into the common area kitchen, whistling cheerfully. He'd had a good time yesterday with kids and adults alike. He'd especially appreciated the time he was being given to spend with his own friend/mentor/father-figure. It had been a very long time that they had last been able to spend so much time together. He hoped that wouldn't change once the kids had regrown. He'd gotten used to having Fury around.

Fury woke fairly early, taking care of a few pieces of paperwork before heading to the common room area kitchen, seeing Trip there already. He stepped over to the younger man. "Good morning. How did you sleep?"

Trip grinned at Fury. "Morning, sir. I slept great. I hope you did too?" Trip handed Fury a knife and a tomato, then got his own knife and a green pepper and began to dice it up. "Figured I'd make omelets today. That ok with you?"

Fury nodded. "It's fine." He began cutting the tomato. "I slept fine. It's more comfortable in the tower," he commented.

Trip nodded. "I hear that. As nice as the Bus was... the beds were still hard as bricks and it could begin to feel a little claustrophobic...even with my not being claustrophobic." He grinned at Fury, putting the peppers he'd chopped to one side and beginning to chop an onion.

Fury smiled. "Yes, well, it was Coulson who requested the Bus in the first place..."

Trip nodded. "It was convenient...at the time anyway. Probably still will be when we go on missions that are further away. Even so, I'm glad we have a place here in the tower."

Fury nodded his agreement. "It's comfortable here... especially given how our number's grown."

Trip nodded in agreement. "And the number keeps getting bigger and bigger...."

Fury finished the tomato and began chopping up more food. "It definitely does that."

Trip continued to work beside his father figure, efficient and comfortable... soon everything was ready. As soon as people began arriving to eat, he could make the individual omelets to their preference. "You put in a lot of work sir. I think you should get the first one..." Trip grinned at Fury. "What would you like in your omelet?"

Fury smiled at his 'son'. "Why don't you surprise me?" he suggested.

Trip raised his eyebrow. "Seriously? You're gonna let me decide what you're going to eat without even a little bit of direction? Even Thor doesn't do that and he'll eat anything!" Trip grinned, but began fixing the omelet. He knew what his 'dad' liked and didn't like and he wasn't a half-bad chef...soon the omelet, as perfect as he could make it, was on a plate and being handed to Fury.

Fury took the plate with a warm smile, gently patting Trip's shoulder. "Thank you."

It was at that moment that Coulson guided his sons into the kitchen, smiling at his two friends. "Breakfast smells good," he commented.

"You're welcome...dad." Trip grinned crookedly then turned toward Coulson and the boys. "And what kind of omelet would you three like?" he asked brightly, pointing out the options available.

"I'll have peppers and tomato in mine," Coulson replied with a warm smile. He waited for his sons to put their orders in and then guided them to the table, checking with them what they wanted to drink before pouring them out some each.

Trip began making three omelettes, all with pepper and tomato. He was amused that the boys had copied their father's order...and a bit surprised Grant had. He'd always thought Grant hated tomatoes.

Jemma had gone with Bruce to retrieve Leo, so the three of them came in together. Bruce had made sure Leo and Jemma were both sat down with juice before he poured himself coffee. "Smells really good, Trip..." he said to the younger man quietly.

Coulson smiled and sat down between his sons, giving each of them a tight hug before he began eating... though he glanced at Grant, checking to see if his youngest was all right with the tomato.

Leo took a seat next to Jemma, looking over at Trip where he was cooking. "That does smell good," he said.

Grant took a bite of the omelet- seemingly not phased at all by the tomato. He hadn't yet had the experience which had made him dislike tomatoes so he actually enjoyed the omelet a lot. He noticed Trip and his dad looking at him though and gave them a funny look. "Do I have egg on my face?" he asked cautiously.

Clint was shoveling the food in like it may not be there if he waited.

Trip was about to say something, but by that point he had finished Bruce, Leo, and Jemma's omelet's and was plating them- and all the rest of the 'family' had showed up and he got busy taking other orders- leaving Coulson to field his son's question.

Coulson smiled and wrapped his arm around Grant's shoulders, kissing his head gently. "I think your food tastes must have changed when you grew up," he commented. "It's not a problem."

Steve came in with Bucky and Tony, guiding his brother and son over to the table after the three of them had made their orders.

Thor walked in with his arm around Loki's shoulders, a happy, contented look on his face.

Trip, suddenly remembering one of the stories that Garrett had told his men when he was Trip's SO, realized why the 'older' Grant may not have liked tomatoes. He decided not to bring it up, though. Instead, he grinned at Grant. "I'm just reveling in the fact that everyone seems to like my cooking!" He preened exaggeratedly.

Grant snickered, but went back to eating.

"I'd like tomato, pepper, onion, cheese, mushroom, hot pepper and apple slices, please," Tony said seriously, scooting up to the table and drinking the juice that Steve had got him.

'Apple?" May mouthed in horrified fascination to Steve.

Bucky gave Tony a semi-disgusted look.

Tony glanced up and noticed the looks. "What?" he said somewhat defensively. "Apples taste good with at least three of those things...so they should taste good with all of them all together. Right? I want to find out...." He glanced at Steve hesitantly. "But if you want to just put the apples on the side instead of inside, I guess I can find out that way...."

Jemma coughed into her hand, trying not to laugh.

Bruce smiled gently. "It might be better to leave them on the side...in case your experiment tastes horrible you haven't ruined the entire omelet."

Loki grinned at Tony then looked at Trip. "I would like to try this experiment as well," he proclaimed.

Clint had just finished his omelet and let out a loud belch. "Er...excuse me." His face was a mixture of sheepishness and childish glee at how loud a burp he had produced.

"You call that a burp? That's not a burp, this is a burp!" Trip let out an even louder belch, to the amusement of the children.

Steve nodded in agreement. "There's nothing wrong with experimenting, but Bruce is right. At least if you have them on the side, you can see what a small amount's like."

Coulson shook his head, trying to hide his amusement. "I don't think we should have a burping contest..."

"Sorry, sir." Trip didn't sound or look very apologetic. "Aaaaand, here are your omelets with everything in them, except for the apples on the side." He handed Tony and Loki their plates, then gave Bucky, Steve and Thor theirs. "Yours will be ready very shortly, m'ladies!" He bowed to May and Skye with a grin, then quickly began fixing the last omelets for the group.

Tony stabbed an apple slice, then put it on top of a bite of omelet and stuck his fork into his mouth. He chewed slowly, before swallowing carefully. "Good call...." he finally admitted and began to eat his omelet without the added apple. He'd eat the apple for desert.

"So what's everyone's plans for today?" Trip finally asked, passing Skye her omelet, then giving May hers and finally beginning to make his own.

Skye smiled, starting to eat hers.

"Well, I'll be taking Clint and Grant out after breakfast," Coulson said. He smiled at his sons, having decided to let them choose what they were going to do.

"Loki and I will be going out as well," Thor said, catching his brother's eye and smiling at him.

"I'm not sure we've decided yet," Steve commented, looking at Bucky and Tony in case they had any thoughts.

"I'd like to go out," Bucky admitted. "Maybe we could go to the park and throw a ball around?"

Tony's eyes lit up. "Yeah...and then when we get tired of that, maybe we could go get lunch and see a movie...."

"Seems to be a day for going out, as that is what Skye and I have planned as well," May admitted with slight amusement.

"Leo and I haven't made any definite plans, but if he's interested, I was thinking we would go to a movie and eat lunch out," Bruce said with a smile.

Jemma wrinkled her nose and was about to say that she was going to work in the lab when she decided she didn't really need to do that. Everything for the vaccine was ready. She just needed to talk with the 'parents' and decide if and when they would give it to the children. Shrugging, she glanced at Natasha, Trip and Fury. "Anyone want to go to a spa? Maybe go clubbing when it's late enough for them to be open?" she asked hesitantly.

Steve nodded with a smile. "Those sound like very good ideas," he agreed. "I'll let you both pick the movie, too..."

Leo perked up, smiling. "I'd like that."

"I'll do that with you," Natasha said to Jemma. "Sounds like it'll be fun."

Trip grinned. "Well, it sounds like everyone has plans, then. I suggest everyone finish eating so we can get this place clean and then we can all take off." He glanced at Fury, wondering if the other man had to work or not; and if he did, if he'd like Trip's help.

The children quickly set to eating their breakfasts.

***

After cleanup, Coulson turned his attention to his sons and smiled at them. "What would you like to do?" he asked them, wrapping an arm around each of their shoulders.

Grant bit his lip and looked at his brother, not certain Clint would want to do his suggestion, then looked up at his father. "Can we take Copper to a dog park? He's been so good lately and I thought maybe we could throw balls to him to fetch or something..."

Clint's eyes widened at that. "Hey, yeah! Let's get Copper and go to a dog park!"

Coulson nodded. "That's a very good idea, Grant," he praised gently. "Do you want to get Copper's lead? We could probably go for lunch and take him with us, too..."

"Yes sir!" Grant exclaimed happily and ran to get the dog's lead.

Clint grinned. "I'll go get our coats out of the closet. JARVIS said it might snow!" He was nearly vibrating with excitement.

"Hats, gloves and scarves, too," Coulson said. "It'll be very cold out." He smiled fondly, watching his sons, happy that they were so excited.

Grant returned at about the same time as Clint, quickly moving to help his brother who appeared to be staggering under a mountain of material. "Do you think it might snow enough to make a snowman?" he asked curiously.

"I hope so! I want to make a snow army getting ready to take out Hydra!" Clint exclaimed.

Copper was prancing around the two boys’ legs, their excitement catching.

Coulson went over to help his sons with the clothes as well. "It might do. If it does, we can make some snowmen together." He smiled. "Would one of you like to try putting the lead on Copper?"

"Copper! Come here boy! Sit!" Grant called to the dog, who immediately obeyed. He snapped the lead onto his collar, then handed it to Clint who had finished getting his coat and gloves on so that he could put his own coat and gloves on. He then looked up at his father with a bright smile. "That would be really cool!"

Clint nodded. "Yeah. Maybe we can even have a snowball fight...."

"I'm sure that would be possible, too." Coulson began putting his own coat, gloves and scarf on. He kind of wished it did snow, since he wanted to spend time with his sons just being a normal dad with them.

Finally all bundled up, they got onto the elevator. Grant waved at Skye when she and May also got on and they all rode down together to the garage, where they each got into different vehicles. Clint sat in the front with their father, while Grant sat in back with Copper.

Grant had been staring out the window for a while as they navigated traffic to the dog park. Finally, he turned forward. "Dad?" he asked quietly. "When we go back to being adults, are we going to be able to do things together like this still? Or will we be too big or too busy working or...you know...."

Clint looked at Coulson, clearly wondering the same thing.

Coulson glanced at his sons, while still making sure to keep his attention on the traffic. "While it's true that we all have our jobs to do, we already had a close relationship before you got deaged," he answered. "As busy as we can sometimes be, we still make a point of spending time together. It won't change," he promised.

Grant smiled slightly. "Ok. Cuz...if we didn't...I'm not sure I'd want to grow up again," he whispered, reaching over and petting Copper.

"Me either..." Clint admitted.

Coulson gave them both a reassuring smile. "Our relationship isn't really different to what it was like before you both became children... except that it's given us time together I missed out on with both of you."

Grant nodded again, pacified by the answer.

Clint gave his father a considering look. "Do you think we'll remember the last few months? When we grow up again, I mean?"

"It's difficult to say for certain, but I'd imagine you would," Coulson replied. "There might be some confusion... but it's more likely that there's going to be the aftermath of quite a few changed relationships to deal with."

Grant looked up at that. "What do you mean?" He asked curiously. "You said our relationship is pretty much the same when we are adults," he pointed out quietly.

"Ours is," Coulson replied. "But the others don't have the same relationship with their parents as they do now. When they become adults again, they might feel like they don't need them in the same way."

Clint glanced at Coulson. "What if they do feel the same way?" he asked. "Would their parents still want them? Since they weren't their kids before? Just wondering what we should do...you know...if that happens."

"Steve's always been more like Tony's father, even though I don't think Tony as an adult would admit that," Coulson said. "Any problems there would be if Tony felt like he shouldn't want it. And May and Bruce seem to have bonded quite a lot with Skye and Leo."

Clint didn't say anything more, going back to looking out the window.

"We're almost there!" Grant finally exclaimed fifteen minutes later as the park came into view. He gave his father a huge smile.

Coulson smiled at his sons as he parked the car and got out, opening their doors so that Clint, Grant and Copper could get out as well. Looking around, he could see that it was snowing and there was already a thin layer of white over the ground. "We might be able to make a snowman," he commented.

Hopping out of the car, the dog on his heels, Grant nearly squealed in excitement that it was snowing. He then gave his brother and father a somewhat sheepishly embarrassed look to be acting so 'uncool'. Kneeling down by Copper, he buried his face against the dog's neck, hugging it affectionately, before taking a ball out of his coat pocket and unsnapping the lead. "Here, Copper! Fetch!" He threw the ball a good distance away and watched as the dog bounded after it. Glancing at Coulson, he grinned. "Thanks, dad...for bringing us here...."

Clint grinned. "Yeah! Thanks!" he said joyfully, as he stuck a piece of snow down the neck of his father's coat.

Clint as a child trying to be sneaky wasn't nearly as effective as Clint as an adult trying to be sneaky, but even though Coulson knew what Clint was doing, he didn't stop him... but did make a playful grab for his oldest.

This time, Clint was the one who squealed...and he wasn't embarrassed in the least as he attempted to dodge his father's grab and run.

Grant laughed then had to dodge Copper's enthusiastic return, taking the ball that the dog dropped on the ground. "Good boy!" He gingerly picked the slobbery item up and threw it again.

Coulson could have probably easily grabbed Clint, but he let his oldest son dodge the grab, though he did give chase... even while making sure he knew where Grant was and that his youngest knew he was welcome to join in if he wanted. Knowing Grant's childhood, though, Coulson wanted to let him make the first move.

Clint grinned at his father as he ran around a tree, making sure to keep it between himself and the older man, even as he picked up a handful of the rapidly laying snow and formed a ball; that he tossed at his father's chest.

Grant kept an eye on his father and brother while he continued to play fetch with Copper. When the dog began to take more of an interest in the game of chase than in the ball, however, he quickly stuffed the ball into his pocket, then motioned the dog to him as he began to try and 'sneak up' on his dad and brother. He wasn't sure yet which one he would pounce, but he hoped to surprise at least one of them.

Coulson quickly moved to the side, out of the path of the snowball. As he picked up some snow to make his own snowball to toss back at Clint, he noticed Grant's movements out of the corner of his eye, but chose not to react and looked as if he hadn't noticed his youngest's approach.

Grant quickly gathered up a handful of snow on his own; then, motioning to Copper, he made a dash toward his dad, jumping up on his back like a monkey and trying to stuff the snow down his shirt. Copper, meanwhile, went after Clint, jumping up on the other boy with his two front paws and knocking him off balance so he would fall back into the snow.

Clint yelled out in surprise as the dog 'tackled' him then began to protest through peals of laughter as the dog began to lick his face and nuzzle him with a cold nose.

Laughing, Coulson snagged one of Grant's arms to gently tug his youngest round in front of him, 'trapping' him in an embrace that he was careful not to make too hard. He then began to tickle Grant.

"Noooo!" Grant gasped through his own peals of laughter, unable to get away from his dad and eventually unable to do anymore than laugh and squirm helplessly.

"I'll save you!" Clint hollered and clambered to try and topple Coulson over, while Copper ran around everyone, barking and wagging his tail.

Coulson quickly grabbed Clint and began tickling him too. A part of him, deep inside, reflected that he probably needed this time to just be their dad... and not anything else.

"Shall we build that army of snowmen?" Coulson asked once his boys had been tickled into submission and the snow looked deep enough that they could realistically build at least one snowman.

Grant was flat in his back in the snow, still giggling and gasping for breath. He haphazardly made a snow angel then grinned at his dad. "Yeah! Let's!"

Clint quickly agreed as well, scrambling to his feet and beginning to roll a big snowball for a snowman's base.

Smiling, Coulson leaned over to help Grant to his feet. "Why don't you make the second big snowball?" he suggested. "I'll see if there are a couple of strong twigs I can snap off for arms..."

"Ok!" Grant readily agreed, beginning to roll out a slightly smaller ball for the middle part of the body.

Coulson looked fondly at his sons for a moment or two and then hunted out and snapped off two fairly thick, strong twigs. After a moment's hesitation, he snapped off a third that they could possibly throw for Copper... just in case the dog got a bit too interested in the snowman.

Even with as much snow as was falling, it took a bit of time to get the snow rolled just right. By the time they had assembled the snowman, put in the thick stick arms and added some rocks for eyes...Clint was getting tired, hungry and thirsty. And he was soaked by melted snow that had somehow got trapped between his coat and clothes. He could tell Grant was in much the same situation. "I'm cold," he finally announced to his family, not surprised at Grant's quick nod.

"Me too....and thirsty," Grant added.

Coulson wrapped an arm around each of their shoulders. "Would you like to go a cafe and get some hot chocolate? Or back to the Tower?" he asked gently, hugging them close.

"Maybe we can get hot chocolate at the tower and change clothes and dry Copper off...then go out again for a late lunch?" Grant said hopefully. "I want to get a few more gifts for Christmas," he admitted quietly.

"Me too!" Clint said quickly.

Coulson smiled. "That sounds like a good idea," he agreed. "We might run into some of the others while we're back there." He guided his sons and the dog towards their vehicle.

Grant quickly followed his father, Copper winding around his legs; not quite as frisky as he had been before they played with him.

Clint couldn't help but yawn he was getting into the car. Both kids had worn themselves out.

Coulson ushered his sons into the car and then got into the car himself. "Maybe we should have a bit of a rest before we go out for lunch," he commented, noticing how tired his sons were.

"We'll still be able to go, though?" Grant asked hesitantly.

"Yeah. We'll still be able to go, won't we?" Clint repeated the question.

"Yes, we can still go," Coulson promised. "We'll just have some hot chocolate... we don't necessarily have to have a nap, either; just rest for a little while." He began driving back.

"Ok..." Clint nodded, leaning back into the seat.

It didn't take long to get home and the boys followed their father back to their own floor. They quickly changed and made sure Copper had been dried off and given food and water, before they picked up the hot chocolate that their father had made for them.

"Can we drink it in the living room?" Grant asked curiously.

"Of course," Coulson replied, leaning down to kiss each of their heads before he picked up his own hot chocolate to lead the way into the living room.

Clint followed close to his father and, when the man sat down on their couch, quickly took a spot to his right and curled up next to him, sipping the chocolate carefully.

Grant did the same, taking the spot to his father's left. He remained quiet, noting his brother doing the same. "Tell us a story? A real one?" He finished his chocolate and snuggled up close under his father's arm. The chocolate, the activity and his father's warmth were making him drowsy, so he closed his eyes.

Clint snuggled closer too, trying to keep his eyes open, but failing.

Coulson set his finished mug down and wrapped his arms around his sons, drawing them in close. He began talking softly, telling them about how he and Clint had originally met Natasha... though making sure the story was age-appropriate.

Grant snuggled closer still. "I'm glad you met Tash...she's a good sister..." he whispered.

***

It hadn't taken Tony long to get bundled up to go out...and as he was walking back out into the living room, he noted that Bucky was ready as well. He couldn't help moving from foot to foot in excitement. He loved his family (even though he hadn't allowed himself to act upset about it, since he knew he should actually be older than he was and they had died long ago, the fact that both of his parents were dead had been upsetting for him), but they hadn't ever really been all that involved in his life. The fact that Steve wanted and even encouraged Bucky and him to do things with him as a 'family' was a novelty for Tony and he couldn't help but be excited about it.

When he saw Steve emerging from his room, zipping his coat up, Tony began bouncing up and down. "Can we go to the park first? It looks like it is going to snow and if it does, I want to have a snowball fight!"

Steve smiled at Tony's enthusiasm, noting that the child version of Tony was much more open than the adult version, and nodded. "I don't see why not," he replied, wrapping an arm each around their shoulders and surreptitiously checking to make sure both were wearing appropriate layers.

Tony's grin could have lit up the room and Bucky found himself wondering, not for the first time, how a kid who had so much (they may not have said anything, but it hadn't taken any of the kids long to realize that the building they lived in belonged to Tony) could have been so miserable that the act of throwing a ball around made his day. He watched Tony's antics for a little bit and then smiled at Steve with a tiny shrug. "You know I like throwing the ball around...."

Steve nodded. "I thought we could take one of the cars. That way, if we get tired afterwards, we won't have to worry about walking back." And by 'we', he really meant them. Keeping his arms around their shoulders, he began steering them to the elevator.

"Great!" Tony exclaimed. He pressed closer to Steve and tried to hold still and keep quiet, afraid that if he irritated him, Steve would change his mind. His body vibrated with the effort.

As they went down in the elevator, Steve looked down at Tony and spoke quietly to him. "I know you're excited, Tony. You don't have to hide it."

Tony blushed at Steve having figured it out, but didn't say anything. "I really like you, Steve..." he said instead...unable to put voice to what he really felt, which was a lot different than mere liking.

Steve squeezed Tony gently. "I love you." He wondered if he should make the most of being able to say that now... if Tony would stop accepting it once he became an adult again.

Tony bit his lip then threw his arms around Steve in a tight hug. "Me too..." he said softly.

Bucky kept quiet, secure in Steve's affection and knowing Tony needed a lot more affirmation or confirmation of his worth.

Before they knew it, they were in the car and heading to the park.

Steve drove along carefully, but still making sure they didn't take too long. He parked the car and then got out, opening the doors for Tony and Bucky. "Snowballs first?" he asked, noticing that the snow was falling quite quickly now.

Bucky's reply came in the form of a snowball, perfectly targeting the back of Steve's head.

Tony's eyes widened fractionally at the action then he quickly began forming his own snowballs in case he was the next target.

Steve wasn't really that surprised at being targeted by Bucky and he quickly grabbed up a couple of snowballs, gently tossing one each at the boys.

Bucky had way more practice than Tony when it came to making snowballs, hitting his target dead on nine times out of ten.

Tony wasn't a complete amateur, though. What he lacked in experience, he definitely made up for in enthusiasm.

Pretty soon, both boys were sopping wet from the snow. Looking at each other, then at Steve, they got twin devilish looks in their eyes. Almost as if they had planned it from the beginning, they threw themselves onto the super soldier in an attempt to 'take him down'.

Steve 'allowed' the boys to tackle him, but quickly (and carefully) flipped over so that he gently pinned them to the ground. Since becoming a soldier, there had been very few opportunities for play and he was definitely making the most of this one.

Bucky began laughing as he attempted to crawl out from under Steve. Again, experience worked in his favor as he managed to squirm his way free and run far enough away that the only way Steve could get him was to let go of Tony.

Tony was laughing and squirming and not getting very far at all. "No fair! Daaaad, lemme goooo!" The young inventor finally collapsed, going still except for his laughter. He was having so much fun, he didn't even notice what he'd just said to Steve, let alone have a chance to become embarrassed and act awkward because of it.

Bucky noticed, though. He gave Steve an indecipherable look over Tony's head. He hoped, for both his friends' sakes, that they didn't lose 'this', whatever 'this' was, when they all aged up again. The two obviously needed each other as family...not just as friends.

Steve smiled, an affectionate look coming over his face as he stood, scooping Tony up under his arm with no trouble at all. "Yield and I'll let you go," he suggested... though what remained unspoken was that, even if he let Tony go physically... he wouldn't let go of him emotionally. Ever.

Tony giggled and squirmed a bit more, then finally gave up. "I yield!" he finally gasped, wrapping his arms around Steve's arm. "You win!"

Laughing, Steve gently set Tony on the ground, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and hugging him against his side. "I thought you might see it my way."

Tony grinned up at Steve before shuddering, his teeth beginning to chatter. "Coooold..." he finally admitted.

Bucky snorted as he came and stood next to Steve and Tony. "That's what happens when you get soaked and it's cold outside..." he said smartly. He was smiling though.

Steve tightened his embrace around Tony, wrapping his other arm around Bucky's shoulders. "Do you want to go back home and get warmed up and have some hot chocolate before going back out? Or go straight to a cafe and have some hot chocolate there?"

"I..." Tony looked torn. He was really enjoying their time out; but he was also really cold and wet and kinda wanted to change clothes.

"We can come back out after getting dried off," Steve promised gently.

"I want to do that!" Tony quickly said, his smile growing. He quickly hugged Steve, happy that their day wouldn't be ending.

Smiling, Steve hugged Tony close and tight in return. "Why don't you both decide what you want to do when we come back out again on the way back?" he suggested, guiding them both back to the car.

Bucky agreed and soon he was throwing out all kinds of ideas to Tony as Steve drove.

Tony liked all the ideas, but his favorite was probably the most surprising to Steve; although he wasn't sure Bucky hadn't figured him out with the look the other kid gave him. He wanted to go get dinner at a local mom and pop restaurant and then go see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. Partly because he thought (though he wasn't sure) it would be something Steve and Bucky remembered from before; and partly because he wanted to be seen with his 'family', since they apparently didn't mind being seen with him. It was sort of a novelty not to be pawned off to servants except for photo ops.

Although a little bit surprised by how much Tony liked that idea, Steve quickly agreed to it... because it would be nice to spend that time with his family. Howard might have been his friend, but the more Steve saw of the way Tony had been treated, the more he wished Howard was there so he could give him a piece of his mind.

When they got home, Steve ushered the boys inside so they could all get dried and warmed up.

Bucky quickly headed back to their room to change, dragging Tony behind him. It didn't take either boy long to change and soon they were heading back into the kitchen, looking for food, drink and Steve...not necessarily in that order.

Having got changed fairly quickly, Steve was in the kitchen already, making each of them a mug of hot chocolate.

Tony smiled shyly at Steve, sitting at the table. "Thank you," he said quietly. He took a sip of the chocolate, his smile getting bigger. "This is really good!"

Bucky nodded in agreement. "Thanks..." he said with his own smile.

Steve sat down between them with his own mug. "You're welcome," he replied warmly, before adding, "I've had plenty of practise making good hot chocolate."

"You do?" Tony asked curiously as he took another sip. "How?"

"Well, during the war, there were a lot of shortages, so making anything like hot chocolate or coffee drinkable was always a bit of a challenge," Steve answered. "After I woke up in this time, hot chocolate was easier to make... but the powdered drinks never tasted as nice. So I started making them without the powder."

Tony nodded. "Mom used to make it for me...if Dad had had a really bad day and my pestering got to be too much, she'd make it for me. It'd get me out of his hair...keep me from being yelled at...but I think she liked doing it because it gave us something to do together that was just us; not involving any of the servants or even Jarvis..." He sighed. "She liked being around me....she just had too many responsibilities and couldn't take me with her, so...." He shrugged slightly. "This is really good, though...kinda like what she made." He bit his lip and frowned a little. "Is it bad of me? To miss her so much when I don't miss dad nearly as much?" He looked at the table with troubled eyes, afraid to look up and see disappointment in Steve's.

Steve responded by wrapping his arm around Tony's shoulders, drawing him in close. "You can't help how you feel," he said softly. "It isn't wrong to miss one person more than another one. Or even to miss them in different ways. I'm sure your Dad did care about you... but it sounds like he had a lot of difficulties. How he was wasn't your fault."

"It must have been...at least a little...my fault," Tony said softly. "Other than Jarvis, and my mom when she was home, you're the first person who really wants to be with me..." he finished in a whisper.

Bucky frowned at the words then put an arm around Tony's shoulder. "I like being around you...and Grant, Clint and Coulson do...and all the others...."

Steve gently gathered Tony onto his lap. "There is nothing wrong with you, Tony. And everyone here likes you and wants to spend time with you. Even Fury, for all he can be a bit scary at times, is here because he cares about you."

Tony gave a crooked smile, snuggling just a bit before pulling away. "I hope 'big' me realizes how lucky he is..." He smiled wistfully. "Hey! It will be dark soon. Can we go look at the tree now?" His smile grew larger and he began to get excited again.

"Of course." Steve stood, collecting the mugs and rinsing them, before guiding the boys back out with an arm around each of their shoulders.

It didn't take long for everyone to get buckled up into the car and take the short drive to the Center where the tree was. As Tony walked beside Steve and Bucky, listening to them talking about how different yet the same some things were, he found himself holding back tears. Everything was perfect now...how he'd always wished his family could be; wanting to be with each other and actually doing so.

He didn't know what he'd do if this disappeared when they all grew up again. Maybe he wouldn't care, but chances were, he'd just miss it all that more. Steve had said he was engaged at his adult age. Maybe he was happy then, too. He'd have to ask Steve to make sure he didn't turn into Howard.

Sighing softly, he looked up at the twinkling tree and made a wish that his family would stay whole once Steve no longer needed to play father to them.

***

Although neither of them truly felt the cold, Thor, on the rest of their family's recommendation, made sure both he and Loki were dressed in warm clothes. After all, if they were seen without warm clothes on, it would draw undue attention to them.

Thor had made some headway with learning how to drive Tony's vehicles, but on this occasion, he decided to take advantage of having someone able to drive them. Since his banishment, Thor had become somewhat aware of his own limitations; and he didn't want to risk his brother being injured because he wasn't yet confident driving.

Loki spent much of the car ride pointing out the decorations that were in the buildings and lining the street. Their driver, Happy, had recommended some spots that New York was well known for and Loki had been interested. And so they found themselves heading toward the Statue of Liberty. They would be going to Macy's next for their own hot chocolate and so they could see 'Santa'. Loki was curious to see how close the mortals were on their depiction of the man who they had based their myth off of. But first... "The statue, Thor! It is most impressive, is it not?"

Thor had been paying attention to Loki, looking at everything his brother pointed out and generally indicating how happy he was to be spending time with his brother. At Loki's comment, he smiled. "It definitely is," he agreed.

They had taken the ferry out to the base of the island, going to the plaque with the poem that welcomed immigrants. Loki read the words then looked up at his brother. "The poem reminds me of mother," he said quietly. "I understand father being unhappy with me and punishing me by withholding his presence, but that was never mother's method. Why has she not come to see me when the accident has removed my years from me? Is she angry with me?" His voice was worried.

A sad look came over Thor's face and he wrapped his arm gently around Loki's shoulders, unwilling to lie to his brother but knowing how much the truth would hurt. "A lot has happened," he said softly, tightening his embrace. "Mother would have... come to see you. But she was killed."

Loki stiffened, swallowing hard to keep the sudden tears from falling. He didn't understand how his mother could have been killed...she didn't go out into battle, after all. He was reluctant to ask for details, though. It was bad enough that she had died. "She is in Valhalla?" he finally asked quietly, blinking back more tears.

Thor nodded, wrapping both arms around his brother and holding on tightly. "She is," he said, his voice still soft. "I am sorry I didn't tell you before... you've suffered with the nightmares. I didn't want anything more to hurt you."

Loki buried his face against his brother's chest and held on tightly. "It is ok, Thor. I understand..." he said softly. "It just hurts that I will not be able to see her anymore. I...I wish whatever I did to anger father, he would forgive me. I feel this need to see him now...to make certain he still lives...." Loki swallowed and could not face his brother, embarrassed at the admission. "Thank you for not leaving me alone, brother." Loki quickly buried his face against Thor again and snuggled into him.

Thor hugged Loki tightly, pressing an affectionate kiss to the top of his head. "I will send a message to Father and ask him to come and see you," he said softly. It was impossible to tell what Odin thought about Loki staying on Midgard, but Thor hoped that their father still cared for Loki and would be willing to show that. "There was a lot of distance between us in the past, but we are much closer now and I would never leave you, brother."

Loki nodded quietly. It was easy to believe his brother's words and he was finally able to stop his tears, his brother's hold doing much to soothe him. Finally, he stepped back and glanced around. "We best return to the ferry to go back, else you will need to fly us off the island..." He grinned crookedly. "And I do wish to see the decorations at the store belonging to Macy."

Thor nodded, gently releasing his brother but wrapping an arm gently around his shoulders. "Is there anywhere else you'd like to go after that?" he asked, guiding Loki in the direction of the ferry.

Loki shook his head. "I am just happy being with you..." he finally admitted in a whisper. "Where matters not and I am not familiar with what there is to see and do in this realm. Perhaps we can have dinner together? Would you like to join your Lady Jane? We could visit her and the Lady Darcy if you think they would not mind...." Loki said quietly, giving Thor a sideways look.

"I think they would like it." Thor smiled at his brother. "I would as well. I enjoy spending any kind of time with you."

Loki smiled brightly. "Then let us do that!" He gave Thor another enthusiastic hug before taking the larger man's hand and tugging him toward the loading ferry. "Perhaps we can get a small gift for them, from me? I have bought all the gifts I needed for everyone, but was not certain of what would be a worthy gift of your future mate..." Loki began to ramble on, listing possible gifts and their worthiness; or lack thereof.

Walking next to his brother, Thor listened intently to Loki, interjecting with suggestions when he felt they were appropriate.

***

Macy's had been decorated beautifully...but Loki had a hard time seeing why everyone made such a big deal out of it. Yes, it was an old establishment- the architecture was amazing and the mortals had done a wonderful job in making it look festive and enticing- but it was still just a store. Perhaps the novelty was the nostalgia it caused among some of them; and the fact that they had Santa in a prominent place? He was not sure. It had not taken long before he was ready to move on, though. "Do you think we could make hot chocolate with the Ladies Jane and Darcy?" he asked curiously. "I am sure that the chocolate here is very good- the line certainly indicates it is so- but I think I would prefer something...homemade." He gave Thor a hesitant smile.

Thor smiled, happy to let his brother do what he preferred. "I'm sure they won't mind if we go there a bit earlier," he commented. "Would you like to go and visit with them now?"

"Yes! I would, please..." Loki said quickly, his smile becoming less hesitant. He did not remember meeting Thor's interest; he hoped that he had made a good impression on the woman, though. Despite Thor's efforts to shelter him as much as possible, Loki had discovered that he had not been liked on Midgard- and for good reason. He did not admit to his brother that he had discovered what his adult self had done, or that he knew how bad things really had been. Thor was attempting to take care of him and Loki did not want him to think he had failed in that endeavor. He hoped that seeing the Lady Jane in his more innocent and vulnerable form would enable her to see that there was a possibility of him not being all bad; and when he was an adult again, he fully intended on apologizing to her (assuming he had not already done so).

Thor nodded, squeezing his brother gently as they left the store. Going to the car, he got in with Loki, directing Happy on where to go as he gently drew Loki closer to him in the back. He wanted to ask his brother if he continued to have nightmares, but he wanted today to be a good one for Loki. He wanted his brother to have a chance of having some good... without the haunted look that never left his brother as an adult.

Loki watched the scenery as they drove past, every so often commenting on a particularly interesting item. Soon, they were at Jane's apartment and he was following Thor to the door, suddenly nervous and shy (an ailment that had not plagued him often, even as a child). He stood slightly behind Thor, feeling very small and grateful for his brother's presence.

Spending time with Jane and Darcy went better than Thor could have expected. After the initial nervousness on his brother's part, Loki seemed quite relaxed and they had a good time together, making hot chocolate and playing a couple of board games. It was dark by the time they were leaving and Thor was very happy with how the day had gone... and he hoped Loki had enjoyed his time as well.

***

May had dressed as if she were going on a casual but still special date- if a person was willing to dress up for someone they didn't know well in an effort to impress them, or make them feel special, shouldn't they be willing to do the same for someone who they knew was important to them? When she stepped out of her room, she glanced around for Skye, even as she instructed JARVIS to get one of the flashier sports cars ready for her to take out. She thought Skye might enjoy riding in one for their outing. She also called ahead to the Bistro she planned to take Skye, to ensure there was a table available with a good view of the city lights.

Skye dressed fairly quickly and slipped out of her room, walking over to May with much less hesitation than she'd had before. Still a little hesitantly, she reached out to slip her hand into her guardian's.

May gave Skye a bright smile, taking her hand and leading her down to the garage, where a cherry red Audi waited for them. May didn't think she had smiled so much in years...but she knew that Skye had originally felt uncertain about her when the girl had first been deaged and smiling had gone a long way to help with that. It was becoming easier each day she did it. She had a feeling her reputation as a 'badass' was taking a serious hit.

"Where are we going to go?" Skye asked quietly as they entered the garage. She knew generally where they were going... just not exactly.

"We are going to a little bistro that Natasha pointed out to me the other day. I thought we could have a light lunch with cocoa or tea; and of course the pastries they are known for...and then we could do some window shopping. And if you see something that catches your eye while we are walking..." May smiled again, the hint of possible surprises making her excited. She hoped Skye enjoyed this outing.

Skye gave a big smile at that. "I got most of the presents I wanted to... but there's still one or two I couldn't find." She was happy to spend this time with May, even if there was a part of her that still wondered how different things would be if and when she became an adult again.

"Well," May began as she pulled out into traffic, driving fast enough to make driving the Audi worthwhile, but slowly enough that they could enjoy the city's decorations, "there are some shops near there with unique gifts for those hard to shop for people. I'll need to find one or two items myself." She chuckled softly.

Skye looked out of the window, taking in some of the decorations, before glancing over at May. "Who do you need to buy for?" she asked curiously.

"I still have Director Fury and Ms. Potts. Ms. Potts, I think, should be easy enough; but I don't think buying Nick- I mean the director- any old Knick-knack will work." May laughed softly.

She carefully pulled up outside a building, parallel parking with ease, then getting out and feeding the meter enough coins to last a couple of hours. As soon as Skye was out of the car and standing next to her, she locked the car and gently led the girl into the building. The area they entered ended up being a rather homey looking bistro. A waitress immediately came over and led the two to the best table in the place, having reserved it for May and Skye.

Skye walked next to May, looking around curiously. She stayed close to the woman she was almost all the way to considering a mother, but only spoke when they were seated. "Did Mr. Coulson actually adopt Clint and Grant?"

May slanted her head slightly before nodding. "He adopted Clint when he was about fifteen years old, the first time he was a child. He adopted Grant not that long ago, but then discovered Grant was his son by blood; Grant had been taken from him when a baby and Phil had thought he had died. Why do you ask?" May listened closely to hear what wasn't said as much as what was.

Skye played absently with the menu and shrugged, not properly answering the question. "So... he adopted Grant when he was an adult?" She darted a quick, almost nervous glance up at May.

"Yes," May answered firmly with a smile. "He was...."

"Okay..." Skye picked at a non-existent spot on the menu. "Would you do that?" she eventually asked, her voice very quiet.

"If you still want that after you are returned to you natural age...I would do that." May's voice was just as firm, though quiet, certainty in her answer.

Skye frowned. "I can't imagine not wanting it..."

"I can't either, but then, I'd have never imagined you turning into a child again either..." May's smile was still just as certain, but this time with a hint of amusement.

"I wish I knew how I'd feel," Skye said quietly. "But I hope I don't change."

"Well, even if you do change your mind, as far as I'm concerned, you are my kid." May reached over and tucked a lock of Skye's hair behind her ear. "Do you know what you want to eat?"

Skye nodded. "I'd like a jacket potato and some hot chocolate... maybe a gingerbread cookie, too," she said. "What are you going to have?"

"I think I will try the butternut squash soup with their homemade crackers. With tea...and I'll ask for a dozen of their gingerbread. I've heard they are really good."

Skye smiled. "That sounds good." She closed the menu, glancing up as the waitress came over to take their order.

They had ordered their food and received it quickly...it was just as good as May had heard. They spent a relaxing lunch talking about various subjects and just 'being' together...interspersed with people watching.

All too soon they were done, though, and bundling up to head out into the snowy evening. May fed more quarters into the machine and looked at Skye. "Why don't we walk around and look at these shops? I haven't been in them yet and some of them look like they might have some unique items."

Skye nodded, already mentally scanning her list of people left to buy for. "Maybe there'll be some ideas I can find here..."

The shops didn't disappoint. May had even managed to find something for Fury in one tiny antique shop. Before they knew it, night had fallen and the tiny shops were closing up for the evening. May glanced at Skye. "This was a lot of fun. How bout we go home, make some hot chocolate, break out those gingerbread cookies we bought and watch a movie?"

Juggling with her bags, Skye smiled. "Can we watch the movie with some of the others?" she asked, wanting to spend time with all of them... or as many of the extended family as she could.

"I think that can be arranged." May smiled. "Any particular movie you'd like to see?"

Skye frowned in thought. "Something to do with Christmas," she said after a moment or two. She knew there were a lot of Christmas movies around... probably quite a few she hadn't heard of.

"Sounds good." May smiled. "We can have JARVIS compile a list for us to choose from when we get back and make a decision while we're fixing our snack."

Traffic was amazingly light and soon they were back at the tower. After dropping off their packages, May and Skye headed for the common floor to fix the cocoa as well as put together some popcorn and other cookies to supplement the gingerbread they had bought. May had actually bought enough for the whole extended 'family', but knowing the appetites of most of the men on her team...and knowing that they likely wouldn't be much different as children...she had a feeling the cookies wouldn't last the night.

***

Mrs. Simmons stood just outside the laboratory, looking through the viewing glass as her daughter administered the vaccine she had developed for the children. She had grown to care a lot about the people Jemma worked with in the short amount of time she'd had to spend with them. She'd arrived the day before Christmas, just in time for last minute cookie baking and tree trimming, and had arranged to stay until after her daughter had administered the cure she had been working so feverishly on the last few months. Every adult standing next to her, watching through the window, felt mixed emotions, she was certain; they had to- she did and she had only met the children less than a month ago. It was obvious that everyone was anxious to have their adult friends back, but they would miss the children they had grown to care about so much. On top of that was the worry that the cure might not work, or that it would have unforeseen consequences. It was a lot of responsibility that had been placed on her own daughter's shoulders and Jemma's mother was just as worried about the outcome as any of the other 'parents' in the room. If anything but the best result happened, it was her daughter who would carry the guilt of failure (even if it was only Jemma who would blame herself, deserved or not) and she didn't want that for her child.

She was feeling a very nervous on her daughter's behalf...as well as being nervous for all the 'children' involved. Next to her, Pepper Potts shifted slightly, the only show of nerves the business woman was willing to show, although Jemma's mother knew the younger woman was just as nervous, if not more so, than herself. She had got to know Tony Stark's fiancé probably better than any of Jemma's other colleagues; they had all been very busy caring for the children and trying to make Christmas something that they would all remember, even once they were adult again. Pepper had sought her out during one of the movie nights, while all the kids and their caregivers had been sprawled around the recreational room watching one of the older Disney films.

The two women had begun to talk and it was during this time that Pepper had confessed to Jemma's mother how she felt guilty at having stayed away for so long; Tony was her fiancé, after all and if they were going to be married for better or worse, shouldn't she begin living that way now? Further discussion had encouraged Pepper to admit that she couldn't stay when Tony was so young mainly because she didn't want him to look at her as a 'mother' figure or even an 'aunt' or 'older sister' figure, which she was afraid would happen if she stayed around and helped to 'take care' of him. She was positive that it was a selfish reason- hence the guilt- but she couldn't help it. Plus, she was still very much in love with her fiancé and attracted to his adult form and even though she knew it was ridiculous- it wasn't like she was attracted to his child form, after all (she wasn't)- she felt dirty even thinking about the fact she wanted to marry him when he currently wasn't 'old enough'. It had just been too confusing and upsetting for her to deal with. Even with all that, the woman had shown up to spend Christmas with everyone and hadn't let her own confusion or disappointment in the situation show in her behavior at all; she was the best friend who ran Tony's company and she acted like it. The fact was that if the 'cure' didn't work, that's likely what she would remain. Pepper had also admitted that if the vaccine was a failure, she would be returning the ring Tony had given her upon their engagement. What else could she do?

Jemma's mother sighed silently. Yes, Pepper had more to lose than a lot of them did should the cure fail. The children, after all, would grow up again (hopefully...there was no way to know for certain what had caused them to de-age or what the long-term ramifications were. What if they were stuck at their current age forever?) In fact, the only worry the children seemingly expressed was the worry that once they were grown-up again, they would 'lose' their 'family'. The ones most worried about this seemed to be Tony and Skye, but all the children were somewhat worried about it. She knew that wouldn't be the case, however. She had interacted with and watched all the parents who were now standing next to her, watching her daughter give their children the vaccine. Every single one of them had looked at their kids the same way she looked at Jemma. Even when they thought they were alone and no one else was watching, they had that look in their eyes. The chance that they would stop looking at the kids as theirs once they were grown up again was ridiculous. Jemma would always be her 'little girl', no matter how old she was. She knew the other adults would feel the same about their own children (even if their 'children' were physically close to the same age in some cases).

Swallowing, she reached over and held Pepper's hand, giving her a slight show of support, while accepting the same from the other woman in return. Jemma had just administered the last dose to the last child - Tony - and now they just had to wait. She supposed it was a bit foolish for everyone to wait in the viewing area and watch as if the cure would happen immediately. For all they knew, the cure could take several weeks before it kicked in- they had no way of knowing, really- but here they all stood at the window, watching with baited breath. She hoped for Jemma's sake that everything had worked and that nothing bad happened. Her heart ached for her daughter at the worry and stress that Jemma must be going through, even as she worried for the children her daughter had been attempting to help and the parents who now had to wait to see the results of that help.

Fury was concerned in his own way. He might be harsh at times and not always that good at showing his emotions, but he did care about the Avengers and his fellow SHIELD agents. He also knew just how devastating it would be for all concerned if something went wrong with the vaccine.

Out of all the family groups that had been made, Fury felt that Coulson and his sons were probably going to have the least difficult amount of time adjusting. Even before Clint and Grant had been deaged, they had been incredibly close to their father. As long as they kept their memories, Fury had little doubt that they would be fine.

Tony and Steve's relationship was one of those Fury found the most worrying. Although they'd been like father and son before the deaging, it had never been verbally confirmed by either of them. And Fury knew the kind of emotional problems Tony as an adult still suffered from.

The deaging hadn't taken very long, at least as far as they'd been able to tell. There were several moments where Fury found himself questioning if anything was going to happen, or if the vaccine would take weeks to work. And then, on a gradual level, he saw the signs of them aging up. The process seemed to speed up the closer they got to their natural ages.

While the process had started out slow, Jemma observed that it sped up the longer the children aged. Those who didn't have far to age, such as Skye and Leo, didn't have too much discomfort. Grant was more uncomfortable as he was almost ten years older than the younger of the group and his process had been moving fairly quickly by the time he reached the correct age. Clint's reaging was actually painful, as he was older than Grant by a decade. Jemma winced as she realized what her observations meant for Tony, Bucky and Loki...especially Loki. It ended up being that Loki's heritage helped him adjust better than all of the other children and whatever had been done to Bucky to make him who he was had also helped...while their reaging was painful, it was close to Clint's level of discomfort as far as she could tell...so the only one she really needed to worry about was Tony. His re-aging process ended with him crying in the fetal position on the floor.

"JARVIS...please run a complete scan on everyone and let me know if you notice anything wrong that we need to take care of now..." Jemma said, even as she began to gather pain medication and other items that might be needed, while the other adults rushed in to help the newly aged 'children' to the beds that had been set up for their recovery. She smiled at her mother in relieved pride at her accomplishment before smiling at Bruce as he began to help her take care of the others.

Coulson gratefully patted Jemma's shoulder, before reaching his sons' side and carefully helping them up. He guided his boys over to the beds, making sure they were as comfortable as possible.

Steve moved to Tony's side first, wrapping his arms around the other man instead of immediately trying to move him. His face was worried as he gently tried to encourage Tony to stand. He was focused on Bucky, too, but since his brother was in better shape than his kid (and, to him, Tony was still his), he focused on Tony first.

Thor was at Loki's side almost immediately. Even though Loki wasn't in bad shape, he was still worried about him, and helped him towards one of the beds.

Grant moved slowly and stiffly, but wasn't in too much pain. He was more worried about Clint, who was actually shuffling and limping slightly. "It just feels like I exercised a bit too much, dad...I think Clint has it worse..." he said softly to their father, so that Coulson would know it was okay to focus more on his older child.

Loki leaned on Thor more because he was reluctant to let go of the closeness that they had shared while he was a child than because he was in pain. "I am alright, brother. I believe my frost giant biology and my natural ability to shift form allowed me to return to normal without any undue pain. It will be harder on the humans...." he admitted, but he still did not let go of his brother's arm.

May had moved to Skye's side immediately. She noticed that the younger girl seemed to have aged quicker and less painfully than the older men, but she still needed to be sure. "Do you need anything?" she asked quietly.

Bruce was torn. He needed to help Jemma check over everyone, but he had been in charge of Leo for the entirety of the younger man's de-aging and he wanted to check on him first. He began gathering supplies to help the more pained of the group, but as he did so, he also made his way over to Leo to help him, if needed, since it appeared the younger man had fared much the same as Skye. "You feeling ok?" he asked, as he handed Leo a water bottle and pointed him to the bed that he wanted the 'kid' to use until JARVIS had cleared everyone.

Trip had seen the dilemma Steve was in. He had been in charge of two of the individuals who seemingly were most affected by the re-aging process and he was only one person. Immediately, Trip went to Bucky's side and helped him stand and walked next to him in case the older man needed help in walking. He made certain Bucky was in the cot next to Tony's so that Steve wouldn't be torn between the two men. Plus, he had a feeling that, after living with each other for months, Bucky was probably going to be just as worried about Tony as Steve was. "How you doing, man?" he asked the ex-soldier worriedly.

Bucky glanced at Trip and nodded his thanks. "I'm actually not doing as badly as I could be. They did a lot of things to me when they made me..." He glanced at where his prosthetic arm needed to be replaced; now that he was back to original size, it could be returned to him. "It kinda made my pain threshold very high. Plus, whatever variant of the serum they gave to me that's kept me alive this long aided in the process, so I don't think I'm hurting as much as the kid there...." He nodded toward Tony, his eyes worried.

"The 'kid' can still hear you, even if he is a gibbering mess on the floor...." Tony mumbled, loud enough for Bucky (and whoever else was listening) to hear, then forced himself to uncurl with a whimper. "Can I just say... being blown up and then having half my ribcage cut out so I could wear a battery in my chest hurt less than that? Everything grew back normal, right?" He not so surreptitiously glanced downward, groping himself, before nodding. "Yeah...seem to be all there...." He finally was able to stand up with Steve's help, but it took a few moments before he was able to hobble over to the bed, tears streaming from his eyes the entire time despite his efforts to not show discomfort.

"Oh, Tony!" cried Pepper, who had run in the moment the procedure was over, but had stood slightly behind Steve, as she wasn't strong enough to lift Tony if he needed immediate medical help and she didn't want to be in Steve's way if he had to carry him. She gave him an admonishing look, but it was filled with concern, love and a bit of relieved amusement that he was acting like himself.

Jemma's mother smiled softly from her position in the observation room. When she was able to catch her daughter's eye, she gave her an approving smile and a nod. "I'll see you for dinner..." she mouthed, then gave a tiny wave.

Jemma waved back and nodded in assent, before quickly heading to Tony's side with a dose of pain medicine.

Coulson was concerned about both his sons, but he nodded in acknowledgement of Grant's words. He pressed a kiss to his youngest's forehead. "I love you, Grant." He moved over to Clint's side and wrapped his arm around his oldest's shoulders, gently guiding him onto the bed before getting each of them a water bottle.

Thor nodded. "Still, I can't imagine it was easy..." He snagged one of the water bottles with his free arm, offering it to his brother, as reluctant to let go of Loki as his brother was to let go of him.

Skye darted a quick glance at May, but wasn't as embarrassed as she thought she should be as she shook her head. "No... I hope the others are all right, though." She looked around at the rest, partly because she was worried about them... but also because she didn't have the physical discomfort to focus on and therefore had to think about how... needy she'd been only moments before.

Leo nodded, taking the water bottle and uncapping it, before taking a long swig as he walked over to the bed. "I think some of the others are in worse shape than me."

Although Tony was more or less able to walk on his own, Steve kept his arm around his shoulders for support. He guided him carefully over to the bed next to Bucky's and helped him to settle on it, before he moved to grab a water bottle for him... also giving Pepper a chance to check on her fiance.

Fury had stepped into the room as well, but although he stayed close in case he was needed, he didn't try to get in anyone's way.

Grant smiled at Coulson. "Love you too, dad..." he said, before looking at Clint and grinning. "Want a rematch on that snowball fight? Now that we're both bigger?" He wiggled his eyebrows.

Clint laughed then winced. "Maybe once I'm not feeling like I ran a marathon."

Loki took the water bottle and obediently drank it down, leaning against his brother as he watched the others who had been affected by the de-aging. "Did they ever figure out exactly why we were de-aged?" he finally asked his brother. "Because if not, I hope they have that artifact in safe containment..."

May nodded. "I believe they will be alright." She didn't comment on how fidgety Skye was acting. She was happy to see the girl wasn't horribly embarrassed, but could tell that she was acting a bit reserved and wanted to give Skye time to loosen up on her own before doing anything that might make her uncomfortable. She couldn't help but put an arm around Skye's shoulder and give her a slight hug, however.

"Yeah, I think you're right. I'm glad you're doing well, though." Bruce smiled, before continuing on to give medicine to those who needed it.

Bucky smiled at his life-long friend and his 'nephew', giving Pepper a tiny wink before he turned to smile at Trip. "Thanks, kid..." he said, taking the water bottle Trip was offering, then looked at Fury and nodding. "Sir..." He wrinkled his nose as he looked at the spot where his arm should be. "You wouldn't happen to have access to my arm, would you?" he asked Fury hopefully.

Pepper didn't care who was watching. She leaned in and gave her fiancé a deep, lingering kiss, before wrapping her arms around him in a hug that was tight and unbreakable. Tony hugged her back, kissing the top of her head, before glancing up at Steve with a horrified expression when he realized that she was actually crying. "No...no, Pep... sweetie. I'm ok. I am, really! Nothing a couple of Tylenol won't take care of!" he protested frantically. "Please don't cry!"

"Agent Simmons, Doctor Banner.... I have run scans on all affected individuals and compared them to scans that were taken prior to the de-aging incident and from every scan I have compared, they have returned back to exactly as they were before the de-aging. There are varying levels of microfractures in their muscles which is causing the pain. It is as if they had all done varying levels of exercise. Those that had the most time to re-age 'exercised' longer and harder than those who had less time to re-age...hence the pain levels being different. I recommend appropriate pain medication and rest until the musculature has time to recover. Also, they should eat well-balanced meals and drink lots of fluid, as the re-growing phase dehydrated them all quite a bit," JARVIS intoned.

Bruce nodded. "So basically, keep doing what we're doing and eventually they'll feel okay..." he muttered.

"Just so, doctor," the AI answered, even though it hadn't been a question.

"Well then, I guess after Jemma and I draw blood samples, and after they have rested for another half hour, they should be able to head to their own apartments to recuperate. Or to the common area rec room to lounge around. Whichever they prefer...." Bruce said to the room at large, as Jemma got syringes together to gather the blood samples.

Coulson handed each of his sons a water bottle, before gently kissing the tops of their heads. "I love you both," he reiterated, even though neither of them actually needed to hear it. "How are you feeling?"

"It sounds as if it might have been caused by a virus," Thor said. "My understanding is that Coulson and his team had to deal with a virus they weren't used to before as well."

Skye couldn't help it. She'd changed how she saw May after being deaged and those feelings hadn't gone away now that she'd returned to her normal age. She leaned into the slight hug, closing her eyes and expelling her breath in what sounded like an almost contented sigh.

Leo settled on the bed, but his mind was working overtime on what had happened to them. He also wondered how different things were going to be now.

Fury nodded. "As soon as you feel up to it, I'll go and get the prosthetic," he promised.

Steve smiled reassuringly at Tony. "It's been hard on her," he said softly. Maybe harder than any of them. "Crying is a natural response..." He didn't say that it would probably help Pepper to spend time with Tony, so she could be reassured on a subconscious level, but he felt he didn't have to.

Clint answered, knowing that he was the one his father and brother were most worried about, "I'm already feeling much better. The water and pain killers have helped immensely."

Loki nodded. "Well, hopefully the artifact is contained adequately. Perhaps Asgardian healers would be able to shed some light on the matter for them? If they wish a consultation, that is."

May smiled, noting the action of the younger woman, and already making plans to meet with Stark's lawyers to arrange for an adult adoption. She'd bring it up to Skye at dinner, but didn't think the girl had changed her mind.

Bruce had finally passed out all medications and helped with the blood samples and made his way to stand next to Leo. "I don't think things will ever be the same...but not in a bad way." The older man spoke softly, putting his arm around Leo's shoulders. "That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. We've all become closer and more cohesive. Some would say that's a good thing." He watched Leo from the corner of his eye.

Bucky nodded in thanks at Fury, before glancing at his brother and nephew again. "I've been known to cook a mean pasta..." he said with a crooked grin. "How bout I cook the two of you dinner and you have a date night? Reconnect?"

Pepper backed off, turning slightly pink in embarrassment, but not embarrassed enough to let go of Tony.

Tony smiled at Bucky. "That would be great, Buck....thank you." Turning toward Steve with an uncertain, but almost deferential look -as if seeking approval- Tony smiled crookedly. "I guess you put up with my crying often enough the last few months that you would know if I needed to worry or not." He was pulling Pepper closer in a side hug as he said it, though...knowing that Steve had been right about it being hard on her.

Coulson nodded. "Good. I'm glad." Still, he couldn't hide his worry. It was difficult to see any of them in pain and know there wasn't anything he could do about it. "I'd like both of you to stay on my floor tonight, though, in case something does happen." And also because he liked having them close.

Thor nodded. "I think that would be a good idea. Why don't you suggest it tomorrow, when things have settled down a bit more?" he suggested.

Skye stayed leaning against May as she looked around at the others, noticing, with relief, that none of them seemed to have suffered from any lasting harm.

Leo turned so he could look at Bruce, but didn't pull away and, in fact, leaned into the other man's arm. "I didn't ever expect you to have to be responsible for me... but I'm kind of glad you were," he admitted. "I'm not sure it'll be easy to adjust." He wasn't sure he wanted to adjust.

Steve moved over to Tony, gently squeezing his shoulder. "I think it's a good idea," he said. "Take the time so the two of you can reconnect. I'll be here when you need me." 'For anything' hung in the air between them.

"Yes, sir," Grant quickly agreed. He still felt unsettled enough after everything that had happened that staying with his father was a welcome comfort.

Loki smiled at his brother's approval, nodding. "I will," he agreed.

May squeezed Skye's shoulder gently, then gently directed her off the bed. "Why don't you stay with me one more night? We can make plans to meet with Stark's lawyers tomorrow...if you're still interested in our becoming legally family, that is."

"I'm not sure I want to readjust. It was nice...having someone to take care of. I know you don't need me anymore- not the same way anyway- but if you'd like, I wouldn't be against spending at least one night a week doing something together...if you want, that is," Bruce admitted, almost shyly.

Tony stared at Steve for a few seconds before relaxing and nodding with a tiny smile, having heard what wasn't said. He glanced around the room at his family, all of them, and relaxed even more as he could see that they all appeared safe and healthy. He pushed down a small twinge of guilt as he realized things could have turned out so much differently...and it was his fault...but the relief that it had turned out so much better than it could have-should have- was immense. He squeezed Pepper tightly again. "Can we head back to our apartment?" He directed his question to Steve, used to looking to the other man for permission by this point.

"We can go there now, if you both feel up to moving," Coulson suggested. "Maybe even play a couple of card games."

"Would you like to retire to our floor?" Thor asked.

Skye stood up, an almost relieved look coming over her face. "I am still interested," she admitted. "If... you are as well."

Leo smiled, a slightly relieved look coming over his face that he didn't try to hide. "I would like that," he admitted.

Steve smiled at Tony. "I can't see any problem with that if you're up to moving," he said. "Just make sure you do drink plenty of water."

Clint nodded. "I'm ready."

Grant smiled. "I am too."

Loki nodded without saying anything, instead placing a hand on Thor's shoulder and squeezing, leaning into the older Asgardian.

"I never offer to do anything I don't mean to do." May smiled before turning to lead Skye out of the lab.

Bruce nodded, the shy look becoming more confident. "Good...good. I'd like that as well."

"Yes sir," Tony smiled, standing up carefully. "I'm sure I'll have help remembering too."

***

It had been several weeks since they had all regained their prior ages. May had indeed adopted Skye; she'd made use of Tony's lawyers the very same day and drawn up the paper work to make everything legal. Tony really couldn't see that much had changed between the two- they had always seemed close to him- but Skye seemed more secure and happier with everything being official and he couldn't say she was wrong. There was something about having what you felt made official and known to those who were important.

Loki had encouraged his brother to contact Heimdall and request Odin to come retrieve the artifact that had caused all the problems and take it to Asgard where, presumably, it would be safer; and where Asgardian researchers could hopefully discover what it was. Tony couldn't say he was wrong, either, considering that Tony's rather insane 'scientific method' could have quite literally de-aged them out of existence and only luck had prevented that (or something else equally horrendous) from happening.

Things could have gone so much worse and Tony knew it. That was why he had made it a point to apologize to everyone who had been affected by his rash actions (making a special effort to apologize to Loki, since Loki had attempted rather vehemently to convince Tony not to do what he did and Tony had just ignored his concerns). Everyone had accepted his apologies and granted some form of forgiveness. Most of them were so happy with the outcome of what had occurred, in the form of a closer family, that they were very willing to forgive and forget. None of the other 'children' had told the 'adults' what had happened right before the de-aging and so no one knew how guilty Tony really was. Not that he was aware of, anyway; he couldn't imagine that no one would have said something to him by now if they actually knew how culpable he was.

He'd of course smiled and thanked everyone for their understanding and tried to act like he was fine and dandy and nothing was bothering him. He suspected Coulson knew something was off, if the look the man had been giving him at breakfast was any indication, but he hadn't said anything. He was fairly certain Pepper knew, as she had given him a worried look and asked for the third time if he was really okay with her going to the business meeting she had put off due to wanting to be with him as much as possible. He'd of course assured her he was fine and, as she was the one running the company that was keeping them fed and clothed, he'd be a fool to be upset that she actually had to work. If she wasn't handling the business, he would have to and that was too scary to contemplate, he'd joked with a tiny smile, before kissing her and sending her off with a hug.

He was positive Steve knew, but he didn't feel up to facing the man that he quite literally viewed as his father now...which was confusing (for all that he was in his nineties, Steve looked younger than Tony), a bit frustrating (he was a forty year old man; he didn't need a father-figure now) and scary (because maybe he really did need a father-figure) and made him feel like a needy child, because whenever he was near Steve, he felt safe and like he could face anything. So...he was hiding. Which was a bit foolish, he supposed; it wasn't like JARVIS wouldn't tell on him the moment Steve asked- he always told on him nowadays. But he was still hiding, because how could he tell the man that he looked up to and respected and who he wanted to respect him...that the reason the whole mess had occurred was because Tony had acted like a cocky child and didn't want to listen to anyone else's suggestions or warnings? Even if it had turned out good, it might not have and it was Tony's fault.

Tony sighed softly and looked at the drink he held in his hand. He hadn't taken a sip...yet. He knew Pepper and Steve would both be disappointed in him if he did and he hadn't quite reached a point where he was willing to do that. But he held the glass and he stared at the Bourbon that was gently sloshing whenever he moved his hand and he thought about drinking it. Sighing again, he leaned back against the wall from where he sat on the floor and thumped his head against it, closing his eyes. He should just confess so he could see the disappointment and recrimination he deserved and be done with it.

Steve knew Tony well enough, by now, to know when the other man was struggling with something. And it really hadn't taken him long to realize that Tony was avoiding him. Again. Since nothing had happened recently (that Steve was aware of), he was reasonably sure it had something to do with the de-aging that had happened.

After asking JARVIS where Tony was, Steve headed towards his floor, using the elevator and getting off, walking to Tony's living area. He knocked lightly on the door to announce his presence and then opened it, immediately seeing the other man with the glass of Bourbon.

Without any hesitation, Steve walked over and sat down next to Tony. "I know you're hiding out and avoiding me," he said gently. "I'd like you to tell me why."

Tony knew as soon as he heard the knock on the door that the day of reckoning was at hand...although he was more relieved than nervous, so maybe it was more likely the day of his 'saving'. He hadn't said anything or looked up, but his eyes tracked the shadow on the floor as it moved closer and his ears could hear Steve's feet grow louder as he came and sat down next to him.

Swallowing hard and without being asked, Tony wordlessly handed Steve the glass of untouched liquor. "I thought I'd be drunk by now, but I couldn't even take one sip. Kept seeing Pepper's and your face whenever I started to...." He didn't sound upset at the fact; just sad and like he wasn't terribly surprised that the two most important people to him had become his 'conscience'.

He also didn't answer Steve's original question. He'd rather get a lecture about even thinking about drinking, rather than the look he knew he'd see when the truth of what happened came out.

Taking the glass, Steve put it down before wrapping his arm around Tony's shoulders, gently drawing him in close. "Nothing you say to me is going to change how I feel about you," he said honestly.

"It was my fault..." Tony said without elaboration. He tried to explain, but what could he say? He'd either go into greater detail about what he'd done that had led up to the seven of them being infected...and looking back on it, in hindsight, he didn't want to give more detail...or he would make excuses. There were no excuses. He knew that. Swallowing again, he slumped against Steve in much the same way he had when in child form. It was done without thought; as if it were only natural.

"How was it your fault?" Steve's voice remained gentle as he squeezed Tony, wrapping his other arm around him in a tight hug.

"I was the one who triggered the virus," Tony said softly. "I shot a blast of my repulsor at the artifact, even though all the others tried to warn me off...even though Loki argued very loudly against it...I shot a repulsor at the artifact." Tony leaned forward, pulling his knees up so he could hide his face against his legs.

"It could have gone so much worse than it did..." he whispered, the guilt he felt clear in his voice, even if he was speaking so softly it could barely be heard without enhanced hearing.

Steve tightened his embrace around Tony. "It could have been worse, but it wasn't. It resulted in many of us becoming closer and you and the others getting to experience part of a childhood that might have gone some way towards healing wounds I know you still have."

Instead of hiding his face against his legs, Tony turned toward Steve and hid his face against the larger man's chest; no one had asked him about it or said anything about their own experience, but he remembered every second of being a child and of Steve being his father. It was almost ingrained now, to seek comfort from his leader and friend.

"Only because we were very lucky. All I can think about is the fact that if that 'virus' hadn't been geared to stop at a certain molecular age...and had been geared to stop at a certain time frame instead...even if I survived, the youngest ones might not have. And it would have been me that killed them. But because we were lucky, everyone is focused on how good it all was and aren't as mad at me as they should be....I don't deserve to be forgiven that easily. Problem is, my usual methods of making myself pay aren't really working; I mean...I couldn't even take a sip of the drink, so giving myself the hangover from hell isn't possible....if I locked myself in my lab, it would just hurt Pepper." Tony's voice sounded frustrated, guilt filled and uncertain. When he brought up Pepper being hurt by anything he did to himself, there was a tiny hint of question there...as if maybe he wasn't sure she would be hurt and he was over-valuing his ability to impact her in that way.

He swallowed and pulled slightly back from Steve, looking up at his friend, abashed. "Sorry..." he said, his face turning slightly red. "This whole thing wasn't your fault. You shouldn't have to listen to me whine that everyone is being nice to me..." He snorted in self-derision and started to pull away.

Steve didn't let Tony pull away that easily and simply pulled him in closer. "I'm here for you, Tony. Always. Good and bad. Not just when you were a child, but before and after that too." Steve gently rubbed his back as he continued, "What I told you when you were deaged is still true."

"I know..." Tony admitted quietly. "I believe you. I just don't deserve you." He didn't try and break free, though, just slumping in defeat against Steve. "I can't stop thinking of what if...and I just don't understand how everyone else can be so understanding...." He finally did try and break free, intending to head down to his lab and likely over-work...there were several different projects for several of the team members that he thought he might be able to complete in a few days' time as an apology....

Steve sighed, rubbing Tony's back gently still. "I don't want you punishing yourself for this." Mainly because he knew how hard Tony would be on himself. "I'll take care of it... and then that'll be the end of it. You won't need to blame yourself anymore."

Tony stiffened at the words, swallowing hard. Did he want Steve to take care of it? No...He didn't. But he was realistic enough to realize that he needed him to. If he tried to take care of his guilt on his own, he would likely do something that would endanger himself- possibly endanger someone else- and pretty much make things worse. That was what had happened in the past. Slowly, he unstiffened and nodded. "Ok..." he said softly, looking down, finding it hard to meet Steve's eyes.

Nodding, Steve held Tony for a few more moments before he stood, carefully helping Tony up. Without saying anything, he walked over to the couch, one arm still wrapped around Tony's shoulders.

Tony wasn't sure if it said more about his state of mind or more about the closeness of his and Steve's relationship now, but he didn't feel the urge to run that he had so many times in the past. In fact, he felt relieved. Because of this, he easily moved next to Steve until they were next to the couch. He finally looked up at Steve and bit his lip. "I...I just wanna say..." Stopping, he took a deep breath and swallowed. "...Thanks, I guess. I'm all grown up again and you're still taking care of me...." he finally ended, on a sheepish and somewhat embarrassed note, and shoved a hand through his hair nervously.

"I still care about you just as much, Tony," Steve said, squeezing him gently. "Just because you're an adult now doesn't mean that's changed." He sat down on the couch and gently pulled Tony across his lap.

Tony easily went over Steve's lap, clenching his fists for a short few seconds before unclenching them and placing his hands flat on the ground to hold himself in place. He took a deep breath, trying to prepare himself for what he knew was about to occur.

Steve rubbed Tony's back gently a moment or two, before he then pulled his jeans and underwear down, looping an arm around Tony's waist to draw him tight against his stomach before he brought his hand down in the first hard swat.

Tony knew, as soon as Steve began lowering his pants and he couldn't hold back a whimper, that he wasn't going to be able to be as adult and 'brave' as he had hoped he would be. When the first swat fell and he couldn't hold back his gasp, he was positive of the fact. Curling his fingers against the floor, he closed his eyes tightly. That first swat had hurt. He thought he should be more upset at that, but it was in fact reassuring; it meant Steve was taking his concern seriously.

Steve didn't waste any time in repeating the swat and then landing another two, settling quickly into a rhythm, working his way down to Tony's thighs before starting over from the top again. It was on the second circuit that he began speaking, but he didn't scold Tony for what had happened with the deaging. "No one blames you for what happened. Not just because a lot of good has come from it, but because they care deeply about you. I know what happened was a mistake, but you can't close yourself off and avoid us, because not being able to see you is worse than anything."

"I blame me...." Ton admitted helplessly only able to hold still through the first circuit of swats. When Steve started over, he couldn't keep himself from squirming. "I didn't mean to avoid you..." he finally said, his voice shaky and close to tears. "I really didn't...it just happened..."

Steve tightened his hold. "I know," he said, voice gentle rather than scolding. “But I care about you. I love you... no matter what age you are." He'd been uncertain whether Tony would accept hearing that from him after being aged up, but he wanted to be sure that Tony knew. "I know you blame yourself and I know that kind of blame is hard to get rid of. But a lot of good came out of what happened."

Tony gulped in a breath of air before letting out a tiny cry. "L...like Coulson being able to spend time with his kids, when they were kids, or May and Skye becoming c..close enough that May adopted her..." Tony found himself trying to find the good, wanting to see what had happened as a good thing instead of another colossal screw up by him. He left unsaid his own dependence on and resulting closeness to Steve. He had no doubt the man was telling the truth, but that didn't mean he wanted to maintain the same level of relationship now that Tony was able to take care of himself again...no matter how much he loved or cared about him.

"Like that," Steve agreed. "And I had the chance to spend time with you when you were a child. I know you didn't have the best of childhoods, but you were with me and Bucky and we were a family. And we can still be that," he added.

"I...I remember it..." Tony said in a tear filled voice. There was so much more he wanted to say, but couldn't get the words out. The fact that Steve still wanted to be his family, even though he didn't need to, loosened what little control Tony held over his emotions and he began to cry. At first it was quietly, but as he finally let go of the guilt (and the fear that he'd lost the family he had been given for so many wonderful months, although he hadn't even realized that was an issue at first), his cries became more and more vocal, until he was laying over Steve's lap a limp, sobbing mess.

Steve stopped and, without any hesitation, gently gathered Tony into his arms, hugging him close and tight. "I would still adopt you in a heartbeat," he said softly into Tony's ear. "It doesn't matter what age you are."

Tony, not knowing what to say and feeling words couldn't express what he wanted to say anyway, held onto Steve tightly and slowly regained control of his emotions. He felt a bit foolish, reacting the way he had. At the same time, the fact that he had a father figure who actually liked him and wanted to be around him was worth the reaction, as far as he was concerned. "Love you, dad..." he finally whispered, not wanting to express himself too loudly in case it all fell apart...but needing to say it anyway.

Steve's embrace tightened around Tony as he responded immediately. "I love you too, son," he said sincerely. "You're my family. For good now."

Tony held on more tightly for a few more minutes, before finally loosening his grip and stepping back, gingerly fixing his clothing. "Thanks..." he finally said with a rueful smile, while rubbing his backside. "Would you like to join Pepper and I for dinner tonight? You and Bucky?"

Steve smiled, standing up and wrapping his arm around Tony's shoulders. "I'd like that and I'm sure Bucky would too," he said honestly.

"Good...good..." Tony said with his own smile. "We'll look forward to it," he continued quietly as he moved to walk beside Steve, back toward the elevator. He still felt slightly guilty, but now that he felt as if he'd paid for his actions...he'd be able to handle it.


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