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A New Home

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After HYDRA had broken into the tower and hurt innocent civilians that worked there, hurt their friends, it hadn't taken long at all for a decision to be made to move to the new facility that had been discussed only in vague terms before. Pepper had drawn up possible plans for converting the abandoned building into a training and operating location for SHIELD. She'd also included plans for a floor dedicated entirely to her family. Everyone was in such a hurry to move so that their friends and employees wouldn't be at risk anymore, they accepted the rough draft as is. As Tony liked to say...if the floor plan ended up being disagreeable, it wouldn't be beyond scope of possibility to design a new and different floor that met expectations and build it once they were already there.

 

Within a week of the attack, construction was begun. Within three weeks, enough had been finished that they could all pack up and move into the not yet completed remodel; the work had focused on family area first so that they could move as quickly as possible, though and the few things that hadn't been completed were items that were cosmetic. The family could work on that themselves.

 

Grant stepped off the elevator and looked around at the bland walls in need of paint, bare concrete floors and functional but not terribly exciting electrical fixtures. "Looks like we've got our work cut out for us..." He snorted, then glanced toward the parents. "Our stuff was moved here ahead of us...do we just go through rooms till we find it, or did someone have room assignments given to them so we can be directed the right way?" He smiled.

 

"We have a whole floor plan here." Steve checked it and then began directing everyone to where they would be staying.

 

Once the room assignments had been given out, Coulson and Fury began checking to see what needed to be taken care of that day. Once the family had had a chance to settle in, they could focus on what needed to be done.

 

May walked up to the two men. "I've checked the kitchen area out. I'm thinking that should be our first priority; there isn't a dining room table or chairs yet and I'd rather not eat standing up. Plus, we need to get groceries so we can cook instead of constantly doing take-out or delivery...."

 

Coulson nodded. "We should organise a group to go and buy groceries and take care of ordering a dining table and chairs to have delivered here, while the rest of us sort out a chore roster."

 

Pepper walked over. She'd taken the day off from work so she could move with everyone else. "I'm willing to go with someone to the furniture warehouse to order the dining tables and chairs. If we pay extra we might be able to convince them to do same day delivery...." She glanced around at the utilitarian fixtures. "The floors...we can likely buy some throw rugs to cover the concrete until we make a final decision on if we want carpeting or some type of parquet. Give us time to decide on how we want to decorate...."

 

May nodded. "I'd suggest you go with Thor. That way he can test the chairs out and make certain they will work for him and the other bigger guys...." She glanced at Coulson. "I'll go for the groceries if you want to assign a few of the kids to go with me...."

 

"That sounds good," Coulson replied. "I'll figure out a list of necessities... obviously, if there's anything else you can think of, the list can be added to."

 

"We might want paint as well," Fury added. "Even if we don't take care of it right away, it'll be good to have it ready for when we decide to."

 

Bucky had arrived by that point. "I did odd jobs on houses before joining the army... I can take care of paint and any other extras we might want to make the floor feel homier...."

 

Coulson nodded. "Then Bucky, Melinda, Pepper... if you take charge of buying those supplies, the rest of us will figure out how much work we need to do and get in contact if there's anything else we can think of." He began assigning 'kids' to each of the parents heading out.

 

Soon, the various groups were on their way to complete the assignments. Tony had gone to the other floors to be certain that work was being done correctly on the training and SHIELD office portions.

 

***

 

Later, everyone was sitting round a new dining table, talking good-naturedly and passing each other food items. Lance, who had gone on an excursion with his father and brother for paint, angled his chair towards Bobbi. "What did you all manage to figure out so far?"

 

"In regards to what?" Bobbi blinked. She had so many things she needed to get information about, she was lost as to which item Lance was asking about.

 

"Any of it," Lance replied. "Do we have a particular plan for tomorrow? What does your dad and uncle Nick think we should take care of first?"

 

"Your guess is as good as mine...maybe we should ask them?" Bobbi bit her lip. "Have...have you given any thought to what you want to do about us still being married?" This question was whispered, almost hesitant.

 

Lance hesitated. "You know, I'm not completely sure I want to dissolve it," he admitted quietly. "I know it didn't work out for us the first time, but things were a lot different back then."

 

"They were..." Bobbi agreed. "I... I think I've grown a lot in the last year and I know you have. I know a lot of the problems we had were because I felt I had to control everything...." She gave a chagrined smile. "I don't feel that way anymore and...and I don't think I want to dissolve things either...."

 

Lance grinned and nudged her gently. "It's not like we don't still have feelings for each other. And I know I contributed a lot to our problems too... but that was before I got a dad and a brother and sister. Before we gained a whole family."

 

"True." Bobbi's smile grew. "Wonder what they think of this..." She softly bumped her shoulder against him.

 

"I don't think anyone will be surprised," Lance admitted, laughing.

 

Bobbi laughed softly. "I'd be surprised if they were," she admitted.

 

Lance grinned at her and stole a bit of food from her plate.

 

Bucky leaned over as he was walking by. "You two better not be up to anything!" he teased.

 

"Who, us?" Lance gave his father an innocent look.

 

Next to him, his brother choked on a laugh.

 

"I'm a good girl, Uncle Bucky. I couldn't possibly be up to anything..." Bobbi's look was as innocent as she could make it.

 

Natasha snorted in disbelief. "You're too like the rest of us for anyone to believe that."

 

Bobbi laughed loudly at that.

 

Bucky smirked at his son and niece...or should he start looking at her as his daughter? It didn't look like they wanted to end the marriage, if what he'd overheard was any indication. It worried him a little; but not because he didn't like Lance with Bobbi. No. It worried him because he knew if it didn't work this time, both of them would hurt a lot more and the guilt would be stronger because the family would be hurting for them. He glanced toward Coulson. At the risk of being viewed as an interfering parent, he thought maybe he and the other man should talk and plan how to help their children if the two of them decided not to divorce again.

 

Coulson had also overheard his daughter and nephew speaking. He'd already considered the possibility that they would stay married, though he planned to support them as much as he could. He made eye contact with Bucky, aware of what the other man was probably thinking, and nodded.

 

Bucky smiled at Coulson before looking towards his own daughter to make certain she was eating enough. "You need a little more than that, sweetie...do you feel alright?"

 

Patsy nodded and gave a small smile. "I just haven't had much of an appetite recently." She left unsaid it was because she was still worried about what had happened and reached out to obediently put more food on her plate.

 

"Because of HYDRA?" Bucky asked quietly.

 

"It's... hard to relax and feel safe," Patsy admitted.

 

"I know...but we're even more secure now than we were before...they can't use innocent, untrained people to get to us either..." Bucky wrapped an arm around her and hugged.

 

Tony heard his uncle. "I've installed both Friday and Veronica in the building. Anyone trying to get in would have to take them both down at the same time- not easy to accomplish- because they have the ability to take intruders out and warn us."

 

Patsy nodded and leaned into her father, sighing quietly.

 

Steve gently squeezed Tony's shoulder. "We were prepared before, but we're even better prepared now," he said, his voice carrying to everyone round the table at large.

 

Pepper noticed how everyone visibly relaxed at the news. Even those who really didn't need to worry so much, such as Lorelei.

 

"I am glad..." Lorelei stated in visible relief. While she knew she could do her part to protect those who had become her family, she also knew that she was trying to turn over a new leaf and it was easier not to use her abilities than to fight herself on the right and wrong time to use them.

 

Odin smiled at his daughter, able to guess something of what was on her mind, and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "Everyone will be safe here," he stated, a note of relief in his voice. Most of his family were human and, while strong for Midgardians, he knew they were much frailer than he, Lorelei, Loki and Thor. To know everyone was as well protected as possible was a tremendous relief.

 

Loki nodded, an odd look on his face; not exactly worried, since he knew they'd done everything possible to protect their family while making it safer for those humans who weren't family but were employed by them, but still a little sad...almost haunted. "We are safe and the employees of Stark Industries are safer now that we no longer live above their workplace. It is the best we could hope for...."

 

"We're unlikely to have anything else happen, but I'm sure there are other safeguards in place," Fury added.

 

"I'm not scared..." Kara asserted strongly. The fact she snuggled closer to her father was an indication she was a little nervous, though.

 

Fury wrapped his arm around his daughter. "You don't need to be," he promised, though he had no problem providing the comfort.

 

"I like it better here," Wanda said. "It's better to be closer together I think."

 

"Closer together with a lot more space outside to enjoy...I always liked the mansion. The grounds here are just as vast and relaxing...." Grant smiled.

 

"Plenty of space to run." Pietro grinned.

 

"It will be different, sharing labs with SHIELD instead of having private labs...but not necessarily bad." Raina's voice was thoughtful.

 

"It will probably be helpful," Coulson commented.

 

"I for one think it will be very helpful." Bruce grinned.

 

Jemma nodded. "Less chance of family members losing track of time and staying locked in a lab for days at a time."

 

Peter grinned and nudged his brother. "Do you think that's aimed at us in particular?"

 

"Probably at any one of us who likes conducting experiments." Leo smiled.

 

Tony was eyeing his niece sideways. "It's been known to happen a few times..." he admitted sheepishly.

 

Steve smiled at his son. "Now we can make sure it happens less."

 

Matt wrinkled his nose. "I have to admit...I'm anxious to begin the decorating, if only to make it feel less like a concrete box and more like a home... but it's probably too late to start anything like painting now. And I've still got to memorize the floor plan so I can find everyone and everything...."

 

"I'll help you," Sam said to his son. "It probably won't take very long. There are considerably less floors to get used to than in the tower."

 

"I'll help too!" Karen told her brother cheerfully. "And it's not like you take forever to learn things. You'll probably remember better than me come tomorrow night...."

 

Matt laughed softly. "You aren't that forgetful, but thanks...."

 

Clint glanced around. "Now that there is just one big common family room instead of individual apartments, if either of you need some one on one parent time..." he looked at Pietro and Wanda, "my room is large enough that it has a tiny sitting area that we can retreat to...." He left unsaid that all the parents had slightly larger rooms with the tiny sitting areas. "Otherwise, I think we all have our own offices on the 'business' floors.

 

Coulson smiled at his children and grandchildren, but also included the rest of the family in his comment. "It probably goes without saying, but if anyone needs me for anything, even if I'm in my office, don't hesitate to come and disturb me. I'm sure I'd welcome any interruptions." While the words were joking, the tone was serious.

 

"Well...part of me wants to stay up late with everyone and play games and talk, but I unfortunately have an early morning meeting back at SI tower and since it will take me at least thirty minutes to get there using the nifty suit Tony is loaning me...I probably should go get some sleep now..." Pepper smiled and sighed, reluctantly standing to clean up her plate so she could go get ready for bed. The compound was at least three hours north of the tower, putting it closer to Xavier's school than to where they'd lived before. Using one of the suits would enable her to get to work much quicker than she would be able to by helicopter.

 

"Remind me to make you your own suit..." Tony said, as he kissed Pepper on the cheek. "Not that I don't want you using mine, but if it's specifically made for you, it will be more comfortable; and I can add in features unique to what you might want or need...."

 

"Let's get our home finished first...then you can make me transportation..." Pepper grinned impishly before kissing him back. She gave Harry a lingering hug and then hugged her father before waving at the rest of the family. "Night all...."

 

Steve hugged his daughter. "If you need me... if you need any of us... all you've got to do is call." He kissed her cheek before releasing her.

 

Drax moved a little closer to his son. "Is there anything you would like to do?" he asked, not sure if Peter would prefer to join the whole family or not. Left up to him, he would prefer it less crowded, but he would do whatever his son wanted.

 

Peter looked up at Drax and gave a crooked smile. "To be honest, I think I'd like to just get used to the new rooms...maybe plan on how I want to decorate." He didn't say that he was feeling the need for a little solitude; while Peter was normally very gregarious and loved to be in the middle of things... sometimes it was nice to just be alone, or just be with his father, since he often felt out of his depth with the other Terrans. He hadn't been on earth in a very long time, after all, and sometimes relearning how to live on Earth was overwhelming.

 

Drax nodded. "Perhaps we could decide on decorating the rooms together?" he suggested, a very faint note of relief in his voice that his son was currently preferring to be around less people.

 

"Make sure they complement each other?" Peter asked curiously. "I'm good with that...do you want to confer in your room or mine?"

 

"Where would you feel most comfortable?" Drax asked.

 

"Your room is bigger..." Peter wheedled. He didn't say Drax's bed was also bigger and as much as it pained him to admit it, he thought he'd rather stay with his father until things were more settled. He never had done very well sleeping in new places alone. It was one of the reason's he'd developed the reputation he had (and after catching that virus, he had no doubt he wasn't going to be allowed to deal with his nerves in his typical way).

 

"Is that where you would prefer?" Drax was fairly certain that was what his son meant, but he wanted to be certain.

 

Peter looked down at his feet and whispered almost bashfully, like an overgrown child, "Yessir...."

 

Drax nodded. "Then that is what we will do."

 

"Great!" Peter began bounding around Drax like an eager puppy, as he waited for the older man to lead the way.

 

Drax smiled and placed his hand on Peter's shoulder so he could lead his son to his room.

 

"So...big guy...what do you think about navy blue and stars on the ceiling?" Peter could be heard asking, as they walked away.

 

Trip huffed in amusement. "I think Peter might be missing space...as much as he is glad to be back on earth and able to learn about his home. Have they had any luck repairing their ship or making communication with their friends?"

 

"Not to the best of my knowledge," Fury answered. "We're not sure what it is they need for that kind of long-distance communication, though it's hoped their friends will be able to track them here."

 

"I guess it depends on how they ended up in this galaxy to begin with. The one they were in is not close to here; and from the sounds of it, they were in a battle, which is why they crashed. Since I know there was not a space battle over earth at the time of their crashing, their ship had to have travelled through a portal just before crashing. By the time their friends realized they needed to be tracked, the ability to do so may have been destroyed already..." Loki mused. "Perhaps father would be able to send a message somehow?" He glanced at Odin. "While we do not often deal with that galaxy- tend to avoid it- we do know some people there and are known ourselves...."

 

Odin nodded. "I will look into whether it is possible or not," he replied, aware of how difficult it was to be separated from family and close friends.

 

"Well, if it isn't possible to reach their family and friends from Andromeda Galaxy... they're always welcome to stay here. I'll see if I can't use some of my contacts and find out something for Peter about his earth family...." Ben said sagely.

 

"I'm sure that would be a big help," Coulson said with a smile.

 

"He only mentioned his grandfather when talking about his family here," Blake commented. "It could be that was the only family member he actually had. Or knew he had here on Earth."

 

"True. But if we have his mother's name and date of birth and death, maybe I can do some research for a family tree...find out his grandfather's name and other possible relatives." Ben seemed sure he could at least find out if there were any, instead of it remaining a question.

 

"I can help him remember if he doesn't," Wanda offered.

 

"Assuming he ever knew the information to remember..." Clint said quietly. "...Not everyone knows their extended family. If he thinks he might have known it at one time, though, I'm sure he would welcome your help in remembering." He reached over and hugged his daughter close.

 

"I'll ask him." Wanda nestled against her father, snuggling in close.

 

"Well...I guess the rest of us need to decide if we are going to congregate in the family foyer or retreat to our individual bedrooms...." Bucky glanced around to see what everyone else's preference seemed to be. As long as he was with his kids, or knew where his kids were at any rate, he was happy either way.

 

Coulson glanced at his children and grandchildren, not sure what they'd prefer to do and waiting for one or more of them to speak up, as he was happy to go either way.

 

"It's been quite a long day," Fury commented. "For tonight, it might be a good idea to retreat in our smaller family groups. Perhaps spend the evening all together tomorrow."

 

May nodded. "I agree with Nick. I still have quite a lot of unpacking to do and I know Hope and Skye do as well. I figure we can help each other unpack and then retreat to my room and watch some tv or read or something. Meet up with everyone else tomorrow...."

 

"We might want to make sure we get up early, too, so we can make a start on some of what needs to be done here," Steve commented.

 

"That goes without saying..." May gave a tiny grin.

 

"So...unpacking and then congregating in the 'rents' rooms?" Grant asked, glancing around.

 

Coulson smiled. "I think that's the plan."

 

"Let's go, then! There's a show on that I wanna watch in two hours..." Kara grinned impishly, grabbing her father's hand and tugging him in the direction of the main hall that would lead to the hall her family's rooms were in.

 

Fury smiled and allowed himself to be dragged along by his daughter, glancing at his sons to check if they were joining or not.

 

"Guess we have our orders..." Brock chuckled. "...See you all tomorrow!" He grinned as Trip waved at the family and then turned with him to follow their father and sibling.

 

Everyone else began to disperse, heading back to their respective family rooms.

 

***

 

Kara really didn't have much to unpack. Like most SHIELD agents who spent a large part of their life under cover and away from home, she'd never gathered any things. After she'd been taken and brainwashed, she had only what was needed for her to meet whatever objective she'd been given by Whitehall. She'd collected more possessions since Fury had adopted her, but only enough to fill a few small boxes. She'd finished unpacking within thirty minutes of starting and went looking for her father. She knocked on his door before pushing it open and peering around it hesitantly. "Daddy? My room looks like a barracks. Boring!" She frowned. "I don't know what to do to make it better, though."

 

Fury immediately waved her inside, patting the bed next to him to indicate she should sit down. "Would you like to decorate it in a particular way, perhaps?" he suggested.

 

"I don't know..." She sounded lost. "In the tower, everything was decorated when I got there and I never thought much about it. I don't even know my favorite color. I wouldn't know where to start," she said with a sigh.

 

Fury wrapped his arm around her shoulders. "You can take a look at the different paint that was bought and see if any of the colours speak to you. If not, we can go shopping."

 

Kara looked up at her father and gave a crooked, tiny smile. "Thanks, daddy...."

 

"You're welcome. I want you to be happy," Fury said seriously.

 

"So long as I can be near you, I'll be fine..." Kara's smile widened and she wrapped her own arms around her father and held tight. "I know my room's not far from you, but can I stay with you tonight anyway?" she whispered.

 

"Of course." Fury kissed the top of her head.

 

Kara snuggled closer, letting out a contented sigh. "Can I help you? I finished unpacking all my stuff already..." She didn't say that she didn't really have that much to unpack. Fury had always told her that if she wanted or needed anything to just let him know; she didn't want him to feel bad or think she'd been ignoring his wishes if he realized how little she actually had. For some reason, in the tower, it hadn't seemed like a little bit; but then once she'd returned all the items she'd borrowed from various people while packing, she realized she really didn't own that much at all.

 

"If you're sure there's nothing else you'd rather do, I'd welcome the help," Fury replied honestly; though, in actual fact, it was her company he'd welcome, rather than just the help.

 

"I'll help and then we can do something later!" Kara beamed. All she really wanted was to be with her father. If she could be helpful to him at the same time, that was all the better.

 

Fury smiled and nodded. "That sounds good to me," he agreed.

 

***

 

When Trip finally finished unpacking his things and putting them away, his room looked much more homey and personal. "All's I really need now is a throw-rug for the floor to keep the chill away..." he muttered to himself, before heading to check on his brother and sister. A quick knock on the door and glance in showed that Kara was not in her room, though it appeared she'd finished unpacking. He frowned at the lack of personal touch, realizing that all the things he'd seen in his sister's room before hadn't belonged to her like he'd assumed. He made a note to keep an eye on her and if she showed any interest in anything, he could get it for her. Next, he went to Brock's room and knocked on the door.

 

"Come in!" Brock called out.

 

Poking his head into his brother's room, Trip grinned. "Looks like you need a hand unpacking; you are apparently more of a pack-rat than our sister...." He laughed.

 

Brock gave his brother a curious look at the comment, but smiled. "Most of this stuff was in my apartment. Dad stored it when I went missing and showed up working for HYDRA. He retrieved it for me once he realized I had been brainwashed and adopted me... I really should pare down some of it....."

 

"Nah. Unless it's something that has no meaning for you any longer and you don't need it, may as well keep it. Helps the place seem less institutional...." Trip chuckled. "I was gonna go see if Dad needs any help- and I think Kara is already there. Want me to help you first and then we can go together?"

 

"Sure...I only have two boxes left, really, so it shouldn't take long." Brock smiled.

 

True to his word, the two brothers finished unpacking Brock's items within twenty minutes and walked over to their dad's room, knocking on the door.

 

"Come in." Fury had nearly finished his unpacking, with Kara's help, and had allowed his daughter a lot of input into where things could go. He'd also watched her closely, to see if she showed an interest in anything he had that he could then buy for her. Or take her shopping to get.

 

Brock opened the door and stepped into the room, closely followed by Trip. "Hey, dad. You two almost done? I thought maybe we could all watch a movie...."

 

Kara grinned at her brother's. "Almost done!" She then turned toward her father. "This is really cool...where'd you get it?" She stopped to stare at a tiny carving of a wolf that she'd unwrapped.

 

"Oh." Fury seemed almost hesitant, before saying, "I carved it while playing the long game of waiting while on an undercover mission." It had been quite long ago, before he'd lost his eye.

 

Kara's eyes widened and she perked up noticeably, her smile excited. "You carved it? Can you teach me?"

 

Fury couldn't help but smile at his daughter's enthusiasm. "I'm sure I can. Tomorrow, we'll go shopping for what we need."

 

"Thank you!" Kara couldn't help but wiggle in excitement and threw her arms around her father in a tight hug.

 

Trip chuckled. "I didn't know you were so interested in carving things, Kar-bear...."

 

"I love wooden carvings..." Kara admitted, then slanted her head. "I just remembered something I like!" She grinned.

 

"That's a good sign," Fury commented, hugging her tight in return. "If you'd like to, you can keep the carving," he offered.

 

"Thank you, daddy..." Kara's smile was grateful and wistful at the same time. "I know just where to put it!" She ran out of the room to her own room.

 

Trip blinked, then snorted quietly. "I know what we're getting for Christmas..." he teased impishly, his look fond as he stared at the door where his baby sister had disappeared.

 

Fury smiled at his sons, but looked a bit thoughtful. "I'm hoping she'll think of a way she'd like to decorate her room."

 

"Is it causing problems for her?" Brock asked worriedly.

 

"I think she's a little troubled about not having things for her," Fury replied. "Maybe we could all go shopping tomorrow and see if there are things either of you would like as well as her."

 

"It makes sense...she'd want to have a few possessions to feel like her room is really hers." Trip nodded. "I don't mind shopping."

 

"I don't mind either," Brock said.

 

"I imagine a lot of the morning is going to be taken up with painting and other jobs, but we could always go after lunch," Fury said.

 

"I'm good with that," Trip agreed, noting that Brock was nodding his own head in agreement.

 

Fury smiled. "Good. I can't imagine Kara would have a problem with it either."

 

By this time Kara was walking back into the room. "Problem with what?" She grinned brightly.

 

"Shopping tomorrow afternoon." Brock grinned back.

 

Kara bounced in place. "Yes! I mean...no! I don't have a problem with it."

 

Fury's own smile widened. "Then we'll go straight after lunch, unless any of you want to do something beforehand."

 

"I think getting the shopping done before we do anything else is probably better. Between painting, putting down rugs and or carpeting and possibly rearranging furniture...if we wait, we may end up feeling too tired to go out later." Trip laughed.

 

Fury nodded. "We'll do it that way."

 

"So...are we ready to watch TV now?" Kara asked curiously. "Should I change for bed first?"

 

Trip didn't even blink at the question, realizing that being in a new building that wasn't completely finished yet, on top of all the other upheaval of the last few weeks, had probably made his little sister need to be with their father more. "I'll go change...just in case I fall asleep...you probably should too, Kar-bear...."

 

"Yeah. I'll go get ready too. Be back here in five minutes?" Brock glanced toward his father, looking for confirmation.

 

Fury nodded. "I can get us some drinks and snacks too," he said.

 

"Can I have a soda?" Kara bounced some more, causing Trip to wonder if she was in one of her more 'immature' mindsets. Or maybe she'd already had one too many sodas.

 

Laughing softly, he shook his head and head out the door. "See you in five minutes." Brock had already gone back to his room to change.

 

Kara was still all frantic nervous energy. It wasn't that she was feeling particularly immature or needy, but until everything was more settled, she didn't know if she'd ever be able to relax. The thought of how close HYDRA had come to hurting her family had upset her more than she'd admitted to anyone, even her father. Although he likely already knew.

 

Fury wrapped his arm around his daughter's shoulders. "Why don't we stick with juice for now?" he suggested.

 

Kara slanted her head. "Okay, daddy. I'm gonna go get changed now..." She grinned, stood up on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek and then ran out of the room to go find her night-clothes.

 

Fury didn't take long to get changed and then he headed to the kitchen to collect drinks and snacks that he then took back to his room.

 

***

 

Bobbi glanced around her room. She'd unpacked everything and put it away. The room still looked rather plain. Not that she'd had much of anything but a plain room for a very long time, but still. She began making a mental checklist of what she'd like to do in the room as she went looking to see where the rest of her family was situated. Bobbi wasn't sure how she felt about the room assignments. Everyone was scattered around the family floor in what seemed a haphazard manner. She kind of liked being right next to her father. Then again, it was nice to have a little space between herself and her parent. She didn't like the conflicting feelings that she had, so decided to focus on something else. Knocking on her father's door, she waited for him to answer.

 

Coulson hadn't taken too long to unpack, although he did have a lot of personal items. A lot of what he had to put up were family photos and other personal items connected to his children and grandchildren. "Come in," he replied, hearing the knock.

 

Bobbi poked her head into the room before coming the rest of the way in and closing the door. She looked around at all the pictures and couldn't help but smile at the evidence of how much the family meant to her father. "It looks great, daddy..." she said quietly.

 

Coulson smiled warmly at his daughter. "I have other pictures, if you want any for your room as well." He wrapped his arm around her.

 

"I think I would..." She snuggled closer. "I never put pictures up before...but now that I'm actually decorating...I think I'd like to have them up."

 

Coulson kissed her cheek. "There are a few, in case any of the other family members want some as well."

 

"I'm sure we could make copies if needed, too..." Bobbi smiled, snuggling closer yet. "Was it your idea to put me next to Lance?" she asked out of nowhere.

 

Coulson wrapped both arms around her. "Are you not happy with where your room is?"

 

"I...I'm not sure?" Bobbi bit her lip. "I mean, I like being next to Lance...and across from Kara...I just...I kinda like being near you too...and the rest of the family" she admitted hesitantly. "It's not like I have to be right next to you to spend time with you...it's silly..." She sighed and blushed.

 

"I like being with you... all of you," Coulson replied seriously. "But we've tried to put everyone where they'll be as comfortable as possible. You and Lance are close. And there's nothing to stop you coming into my room whenever you want."

 

"I know, daddy....Like I said...I'm just being silly...a baby." Bobbi sighed again with a frown. "I guess...having HYDRA break in like they did...it unsettled us all a lot. Most of the time, I'm fine, but even though I actually like where you put me- am comfortable there- a tiny part of me got nervous when I realized there were five rooms between us." She gave him a chagrined smile. "Thing is, I probably would feel the same way if I was right next to you too, so...I'll just have suck it up. Be the adult I am...." She sounded like she wanted to be anything but adult at the moment.

 

"Why don't you stay in my room tonight?" Coulson suggested. "I know you're unsettled. I'd like to keep you close."

 

Bobbi bit her lip again. It was obvious she really wanted to. It was also obvious she felt like she should be able to handle things better than she was. "I...I'll be ok, Daddy.... I was just being a silly little girl..." she mumbled, blushing even more darkly.

 

Coulson kissed her cheek. "Don't ever force yourself to react any other way than how you need to," he whispered in her ear. "I love you."

 

"I love you too, daddy..." Bobbi snuggled closer. "...Just...what my heart wants and what my head says I should want are fighting with each other..." she huffed in amusement.

 

"Do whatever makes you feel better," Coulson said gently, tightening his embrace.

 

"I...so go with my heart?" she asked hesitantly. She wasn't certain that would make her feel better, to be honest. She'd be feeling like a failure because of giving in to her more childish need instead of acting like the grown-up she was supposed to be. But if she went with what she thought she should do, she knew she wouldn't get any sleep because she wanted to be with her daddy. She wrinkled her nose and fidgeted, beginning to get frustrated with herself.

 

"What do you want the most?" Coulson asked gently. "What do you need the most? There's nothing wrong with you, sweetie. There's nothing wrong with what you need. Don't force yourself to feel differently."

 

Bobbi bit her lip again, harder this time. It was so hard sometimes to know if what she wanted was what she needed...or vice-versa. Add in the fact that she wanted to appear like a competent adult agent and she didn't think she could be that if she was constantly running to her daddy...she didn't know what the answer to his question was. She faintly stomped her foot, bouncing slightly in place and let out an irritated little whine. "I dunno!" she finally said, unable to look her father in the eye.

 

"Come on." Coulson guided his daughter over to the bed and sat down, gently tugging her to sit on his lap so he could wrap his arms around her.

 

Bobbi wriggled a little before sighing and letting her head fall onto her father's shoulder. "Why do I always have to make things so complicated?" she complained in a whisper.

 

Coulson kissed her head. "You shouldn't feel ashamed of needing to be close to me."

 

"I'm..." She paused and thought about it. Was she ashamed at needing to be with her father? She thought she was only ashamed at not being able to handle things like an 'adult', but since the reason she thought she wasn't being adult was because she needed her father...maybe it was the same thing. She didn't want Coulson to think she was ashamed of needing him. Turning, she hid her face against Coulson's neck and sniffled, embarrassed to find herself crying. "I don't think I am..." she said hesitantly because now that he'd said that, she wasn't entirely sure why she was so against it.

 

"You feel like you shouldn't need it." Coulson stroked her hair gently. "You don't need to worry, sweetie. It doesn't mean you're weak to need your father in the way you do. Kara needs your uncle Nick in a very similar way. Is that bad?"

 

"No..." Bobbi said in a tiny voice. "...But she's been through a lot more than I have...." And there was her biggest problem. She did need her father, exactly the way Kara needed Fury; but she'd had a fairly stable life. Yeah, maybe she hadn't had parents for most of it, but the foster homes she'd been in had treated her well and she couldn't say she'd been in an abusive environment like so many of her cousins had been. She hadn't been neglected like so many of the others. So why she was so dependent on her own father instead of being able to stand on her own two feet, she didn't know. It was confusing. She shouldn't need him that way. Should she?

 

"It doesn't matter how much or how little you've been through," Coulson pointed out gently. "You didn't have me for a lot of your life. It's okay to need. I promise you're not the only one."

 

Bobbi sniffled again, hugging onto her father more tightly. "I do need you daddy..." she admitted softly. "I need to stay with you tonight...."

 

Coulson kissed her head and tightened his embrace. "Then that's exactly where you'll be," he promised.

 

"Sorry I'm so confused..." Bobbi whispered.

 

"You don't need to apologise, sweetie," Coulson said gently. "I'll be right here to help you figure everything out. I promise."

 

"Thank you, daddy..." Bobbi snuggled closer, going quiet.

 

Coulson tightened his embrace, stroking her hair gently.

 

***

 

Grant hadn't taken long to unpack. While he'd accumulated more possessions since returning back to his father, habits that had been drilled into him through pain and other means were hard to break. Getting attached to people and things was dangerous when a spy.

 

Still, he had enough to make his room look like his room. His and Copper's room. The dog had his own bed at the foot of Grant's bed for those rare times he didn't sleep on Grant's bed. He'd already given the animal food and water in the kitchen area.

 

"C'mon, boy!" He whistled for the animal to follow him and left the room, heading to and knocking on his father's door.

 

"Come in," Coulson replied, still cuddling Bobbi on his lap and not showing any inclination to let go of her.

 

Grant walked in slowly, noting Bobbi's position and demeanour. "You want a sleepover tonight, or do you need some one on one, Bobbi-sox?" he asked his sister in a friendly tone. He was feeling more stable than he had in a while and could manage being on his own tonight if Bobbi needed to be alone with their dad. At the same time, he was still getting used to Lorelei's presence in the family and felt safer near his father.

 

"A sleepover sounds good..." Bobbi said hesitantly, while looking at her father to gage his preference.

 

Coulson smiled at his son and daughter. "I'm perfectly happy to do a sleepover," he said, knowing his children knew how much he wanted to keep them close.

 

"Great! I know Clint has Wanda and Pietro with him and Nat's still getting to know Lincoln. Do you think Raina will want to join us?" Grant asked.

 

"We can ask her. I'm sure she'd like to be invited," Coulson said, leaving unsaid, 'even if she declines'.

 

"I'll go ask..." Grant smiled, quickly leaving to do that, leaving his baby sister still sitting on their father's lap.

 

Coulson tightened his arms around his daughter's waist and kissed the back of her head. "I love you."

 

"I love you too, daddy..." Bobbi whispered and snuggled back against Coulson.

 

Five minutes later, Grant was sticking his head back into the door. "Raina says she'll join us as soon as she changes into pyjamas. I'm going to go change into mine as well."

 

Bobbi blinked. "I guess I should too...."

 

Coulson nodded to acknowledge Grant's words and then addressed Bobbi. "You'll probably feel more comfortable that way."

 

Bobbi nodded, then reluctantly stood up from her father's lap. "I'll be right back, daddy..." She smiled, before heading back to her room to change.

 

Coulson took a few moments to change as well and then took out some of the photos he had left, so Bobbi could pick some; and Grant and Raina, if either of them wanted some family pictures.

 

Raina was the first to arrive back. "Good evening, Baba..." She smiled serenely, one of the few in the family apparently not phased by the events of the last several weeks.

 

Grant was the next to arrive and he gently pushed his middle sister further into the room, close enough for Coulson to hug if he wanted. He'd noticed Raina had a tendency to remain aloof. She'd accept hugs if the other person initiated them, though, and he had noticed her eyes while being hugged. They'd get a surprised, happy sheen to them.

 

Coulson smiled and stepped forward to hug his middle daughter tight. He knew Raina tended to hold herself aloof, but he had no intention of holding back with any of them. He wasn't ashamed of his children or how much he loved them.

 

There was barely a second's pause as Raina wrapped her own arms around Coulson and hugged back. While she may not have been accustomed to hugs when first being taken in, she'd quickly adjusted and, while not brave enough to initiate a hug herself, she loved to receive them. "Love you, Baba..." she whispered in his ear.

 

Coulson smiled and tightened his embrace, kissing her cheek. "I love you too. I'm glad you came for the sleepover," he whispered back.

 

"I am too." Raina smiled, before glancing at the door.

 

Bobbi had finally returned, wearing a pair of comfortable work-out pants and one of Coulson's old t-shirts that she had confiscated at one point. She grinned at her family. "What should we do first?" she asked quietly.

 

Coulson smiled at his children. "Why don't we play some cards?" he suggested, moving over to hug Grant... the only one of them in the room he hadn't hugged yet.

 

"That sounds great, dad." Grant smiled and hugged him back.

 

"I can get us some drinks and snacks," Coulson offered, smiling at each of them in turn.

 

"Would you like some help with that?" Bobbi asked, a small part of her reluctant to let her father out of her sight again.

 

"I'll get the cards..." Raina smiled.

 

Coulson nodded. "I'm sure I could use some help." He looked at Raina in acknowledgement, then headed to the kitchen to get the drinks and snacks, including food for Copper.

 

***

 

Peter linked arms with Harry. "Any ideas on what to do before bed?" he asked the family group as a whole.

 

Bruce smiled at his son and nephew then turned to look at his other son and his daughter. "I'm good with anything, you have ideas?"

 

Jemma smiled at her father then turned to look at her uncle, aunts, and grandfather. "Maybe we could meet in grandpa's room for a bit and tell stories. Get Aunt Jess caught up on family things...."

 

Steve smiled. "I like that idea, if everyone else is in agreement?" He glanced around at the others.

 

"Me too." Leo was quick to agree with his grandfather.

 

"Maybe we could get in a couple of rounds of twenty questions, too," Peter suggested. "That's always a fun game and we could change it to involve family events."

 

Jessica grinned crookedly. "Knowing more about my family sounds good..." she admitted, still surprised at how everyone had rallied around and welcomed her with open arms. "We could always do a kind of hybrid twenty questions. Someone asks a question and if anyone has to answer yes to it, they have to tell their story about it. If everyone answers no, then the next person asks...."

 

Peter grinned. "That sounds good to me. We can grab some drinks and snacks." He indicated himself and Harry.

 

"I'll help," Leo offered.

 

Tony grinned. "Is your room big enough for all this brood, dad? Should we bring sleeping bags in case some of us start to nod off before the nights done?"

 

Steve smiled. "It might be a bit of a tight fit, but I'm sure we'll manage. But sleeping bags will help."

 

"I'll go get ours and Harry's..." Pepper smiled.

 

"I'll go get mine and my brood's..." Bruce said.

 

"Jess can share the bed with you, unless she wants on the floor with the rest of us..." Tony grinned at his sister.

 

"No thank you...bed sounds much better than concrete..." Jessica laughed.

 

Steve headed into his room, collecting some of the spare blankets he had while everyone else was collecting snacks and drinks and their sleeping bags.

 

It hadn't taken long before all eight of Steve's children and grandchildren had returned with all the items and joined him in his room. They had all changed for bed at this point as well and it didn't take long for everything to be set up, everyone in place and ready for their question and story time.

 

"You go first, dad...ask a yes or no question and anyone who answers yes has to tell the story associated with that question and answer." Tony grinned.

 

Steve settled back comfortably, glancing around to make sure everyone else was situated comfortably as he considered his question. "Has anyone had to hide in a large body of water?"

 

The group looked around curiously. Jemma hesitantly cleared her throat as a majority began shaking their head no. "We weren't hiding, but we were at the bottom of the ocean and hidden. Not sure if that's what you meant, though. We didn't deliberately hide...."

 

"I did." Tony shrugged. "I hid at the bottom of the ocean when my Malibu house was blow up in the hopes they'd assume I was dead and not look for me. It gave me a little time to hunt them down."

 

"I remember hearing about that," Peter said, though he didn't add anything about the fact his uncle had outright dared the bad guys to come after him. Even outright giving his address.

 

"It was horrible..." Pepper shuddered, remembering the way she'd felt when she'd thought she'd lost Tony. They'd been having difficulties in their relationship at the time- she'd even planned to leave, though she hadn't told Tony that- and then he'd dared that terrorist to come get him and the house was blown up; and Tony had rescued her and Maya and she'd thought he'd died. She couldn't help sniffling at the memory, drawing an apologetically sad look from her fiancé.

 

"I...it was a spur of the moment decision. Like so many of my decisions at that time; didn't really think about what it would do to the people who loved me; only thought about how it would fool the people who had gone after Happy and let me get them.... It wasn't the best decision I've ever made, even if it turned out alright in the end..." Tony admitted quietly.

 

Steve reached over and gently squeezed Tony's knee. "I'd hope that, if there's a next time, you'd make a better decision." His voice wasn't scolding; only affectionate and loving.

 

"I'd hope I would as well. Pepper almost died because I just reacted to what happened to Happy without thinking things through...I have even more people I care about that I can lose now...if I did the same thing..." He shuddered.

 

"It doesn't seem like you would now, though," Leo said. "Not since Grandfather adopted you, I mean." He left unsaid how Steve would react to a repeat of that, even though everyone in the room knew how the family dealt with things.

 

"I don't think I would. But sometimes, even when I know better and want to do better...when my emotions get too volatile, I tend to react without thinking, unless I have someone with me to calm me down first...I'm a lot better at controlling my emotions than I used to be, though..." Tony's grin was crooked. "Knowing how your granddad would be disappointed if I didn't control myself better helps a lot too...."

 

Steve smiled at his son. "While that's good to know, it's true that you have come a long way compared to how you were when we first met. Even if there were conflicts at first, I can't imagine my life without you in it now." His eyes lingered on each of them in turn as he added, "Without any of you in it."

 

Jessica had been listening intently, a tiny frown on her face. "I...I remember watching the news when everyone thought you'd been blown up. I couldn't help thinking how brave, if stupid, you were for daring them to come at you head on, instead of going after the people you cared about. I didn't think about the people you cared about caring about you too and being upset though...." She gave Pepper, then her father, a sheepish smile.

 

Bruce grunted at that. "There were a lot of people who cared, that my brother likely didn't even realize would care. I lost three days and woke up in the middle of the Amazon after I saw the news report...." he admitted gruffly.

 

Tony's eyes widened at that. "Brucie...." His voice caught and he winced. "...Yeah. I...I didn't really believe a lot of people really cared that much at the time, even if I should have known.... It was pointed out to me afterwards, but even then...." He sighed.

 

"It was devastating," Steve commented quietly. "I only got word that you'd been blown up. I might not have officially been your father at that point, but it didn't stop me from caring about you." Of course, the sense of relief when he'd discovered Tony was alive had been overpowering; but not so much so that he hadn't followed through with what had become the family's official way of dealing with things.

 

"Yeah..." Tony swallowed. "...I remembered how you looked when you first saw me after everything went down and I was able to let everyone know I was still alive...."

 

***

 

Pepper was still in the hospital recuperating from having Extremis injected into her. Tony already had plans on how to improve on the serum, hopefully enabling him to be able to remove the shrapnel in his chest and eliminate the need for his own portable arc-reactor. If what had gone down had convinced him of one thing, it was that he needed to remove any vulnerabilities possible from his person so he was better able to protect those he loved and cared about. That was something to think about in another day or so, though, after he'd rested.

 

Pepper had sent him home, his cuts and bruises not bad enough to stay in the hospital, but bad enough to make him need antibiotics and other pain relieving drugs that made him tired. She'd been adamant he not stay, to be honest. Said that seeing him sleep in an uncomfortable hospital chair was doing nothing for her own nerves and she couldn't sleep unless she knew he was getting good rest. Luckily, since the last part of their ordeal had taken place on the east coast, Tony had one of his numerous apartments to retreat to... since he no longer had his home in Malibu. It was late at night- he'd stayed with Pepper until the last possible second- and he hadn't really been expecting to see someone sitting on the floor in front of the apartment door. He felt a second's panic before recognition kicked in and he stopped about ten feet away from the man. "Steve?" His voice caught in his throat; a mixture of surprise, gratitude (the man cared enough to come check on him?) and guilt (he'd obviously worried more than just Pepper if Steve was sitting in front of his apartment).

 

Steve stood as soon as he saw Tony approaching. The expression on his face was mostly relief, with a tiny hint of the anguish that he'd felt on hearing of Tony's 'death' showing through. He took a couple of steps closer to Tony, wanting to hug the other man, but not sure how it would be taken. "How badly are you hurt?" His eyes moved over Tony's body, trying to see for himself.

 

"I didn't break anything, although the doctor said I have a concussion. Mostly I have bruises, abrasions and cuts...a few burns...." Tony didn't attempt to hide any of his injuries. While he may have been tempted to, the look on the Captain's face had squashed any feelings he might have felt at trying to hide anything. The man deserved better than lies and he'd likely know if Tony didn't tell the truth anyway. As much as he didn't want to add to Steve's obvious worry, he wanted to add to the anguish he saw even less and lying would do that. "They have me on so many drugs, I was falling asleep so Pepper told me to come home and rest...." he said lamely, suddenly unable to face the other man and finding his feet very interesting. He shifted closer, unable to stop himself.

 

Steve reached out to wrap his arm around Tony's shoulders, drawing him in so he could hug him. He didn't start scolding, knowing Tony needed rest... likely food, too. "When was the last time you ate?" he asked softly.

 

"I ate a candy bar from the hospital vending machine about three hours ago. I know one of the nurses brought me a lunch about four hours before that..." Tony frowned. "I didn't have much of an appetite and haven't really thought of eating, to be honest...." He snuggled closer to the super-soldier, letting his head fall onto Steve's shoulder. He'd likely be embarrassed about it later, but at this moment? He needed to be held. He needed comfort from someone who hadn't almost died in front of his eyes and who he didn't have to be strong in front of. He blinked when he realized that his entire body was shaking, his frayed nerves finally making themselves known.

 

Steve tightened his embrace, able to feel the way Tony's body was shaking. It sent his worry rocketing even higher, but he stayed calm and in control as he said, "Okay, Tony. You're going to give me the key and I'm going to take you into the apartment, where you can sleep. And then, when you wake up, you'll eat. And then we'll be having a conversation."

 

Tony couldn't help the surprised jerk at Steve's last words, but he noticeably didn't pull away and obediently pulled his key out of his pocket and handed it to Steve. "Are you angry?" he couldn't help but ask uncertainly. After allowing everyone to think he was dead for several days, he wouldn't be surprised if everyone was angry at him.

 

"I'm relieved you're safe. It hurt when I thought you were dead." That was an understatement, but Steve didn't voice that, keeping in contact with Tony as he took the key and unlocked the door, guiding the other man inside.

 

"I'm sorry..." Tony swallowed. "...I never meant..." He didn't finish the words. Of course he never meant to hurt Steve. He never did mean to hurt anyone. It was just a common side effect of his tendency to act without thinking things through fully. He didn't fight, letting Steve lead him wherever the other man wanted. Even if he was inclined to argue- and he wasn't...Steve's obvious hurt at the situation and his own guilt wouldn't allow it; he was too tired to argue. So he followed obediently, going where Steve indicated he should.

 

"I know." Steve made sure the door was closed and then guided Tony through to the bedroom. "But we're not going to have this discussion right now. You're going to sleep. I won't leave," he promised. "I'll stay right by your side."

 

Tony swallowed hard at the firmness in Steve's tone, but nodded obediently. "Yes, sir..." he said, reassured by the Steve's promise to remain by him. Tony didn't even need to be told what to do. He immediately went to where he kept extra clothes and pulled out some pyjamas, beginning to change. He didn't even wait for Steve to leave the room, feeling safer with the man there, even if his presence while Tony changed meant that he'd see all the wounds Tony had received and would likely become even more upset. As soon as he'd changed, he'd turned toward Steve. "I have extra pyjamas if you want them... the shirt might be a bit snug, but the shorts are baggy on me, so they should still be comfortable for you..." he whispered, his eyes looking to the left and at the floor, unable to face the Captain because he was afraid he'd see nothing but disappointment in the man's gaze.

 

Steve didn't fail to notice the wounds covering Tony's body, but he didn't scold the other man, holding to his promise of not discussing it until Tony felt better. "Thanks, Tony. I appreciate it," he said, moving a bit closer.

 

"I...uh...the couch is really too short for you, but I've slept on it before and it's comfortable enough...so uh...you can have the bed. Just let me grab my pillow and a blanket..." Tony swallowed again, not really sure what to say.

 

"I'm not going to kick you out of the bed, Tony," Steve replied, grabbing the indicated pyjamas so he could change. "I'll stay close to you."

 

"Well...you won't fit on the couch and there isn't one in the bedroom anyway...and I wouldn't feel right for you to sleep on the floor..." Tony argued.

 

Steve nodded. "We can both use the bed," he suggested. It wasn't awkward or embarrassing for him. Even as an adult, he'd slept close to his brother, to Bucky, when there was a need to. And there was a need right now.

 

Tony thought he should protest...should insist Steve take the bed and go sleep on the couch after all...but he was too tired to fight. Too tired and filled with guilt and he wanted Steve to be happy. If keeping him close made Steve happy, sharing a bed it would be. "Yeah," he whispered. "Ok."

 

Steve placed his hand gently on Tony's shoulder to guide him over to the bed, second nature to help the other man to lie down and get comfortable.

 

For the first time in weeks, Tony fell asleep immediately...and didn't wake up. The feeling of safety he always felt with the captain warded off nightmares and worry that would usually keep him awake. He slept peacefully through the night.

 

****

 

When he woke the next morning, it was later than he'd expected. Steve had already made breakfast and they were able to eat as soon as he was dressed. He looked down at his empty plate with some surprise. "That's more than I've eaten in a long time..." he admitted softly.

 

"I think you needed it," Steve commented. "Let's go into the living room and talk." A more serious note crept into his voice.

 

Tony bit his lip, giving Steve a hesitant look. "Just talk, right?" he asked nervously. Steve had looked worried when he finally saw Tony the evening before- more than worried. The last time he'd had that look on his face, he'd stepped in in an unexpected way to take care of Tony and put him on a better path. Better footing. In the end, Tony had to admit he'd needed Steve taking care of him and giving him a new direction, but it hadn't been easy or painless. It definitely hadn't been painless. Tony swallowed hard.

 

"No, Tony." Steve moved over to wrap his arm around Tony's shoulders, remembering how the other man had run the last time and not wanting a repeat of that. "I'm going to spank you."

 

Tony wasn't sure what it said about him that he didn't argue. Once Steve's arm was around him, he'd immediately realized he wasn't going to be getting away. He didn't want to fight the captain, though; and some small part of him that he didn't want to acknowledge was telling him he really deserved what Steve was about to do; some large part of him that he didn't want to acknowledge. He swallowed again and looked at his feet, relaxing enough that Steve could guide him where he needed. "Sorry's not enough this time, huh?" he asked in a whisper.

 

Steve didn't speak until they were in the living room and he'd sat down, settling Tony next to him while still keeping in close physical contact with the other man. "Tony... you put yourself in serious danger. You dared a terrorist group to come after you. Then, when they did, you let everyone believe you were dead." A pained, haunted note slipped into his voice. He knew it was wrong to think of Tony as his; Tony was a full-grown man and hadn't indicated he wanted Steve to take on a parental role, but Steve couldn't help how he felt.

 

"My being dead was the only way they wouldn't target everyone I cared about..." Tony winced when his voice came out as a whine. He continued, though. "...I'd already put a target on Pepper by daring them like I had. If...If I hadn't been so upset about Happy and had actually stopped to think, she wouldn't have been in danger like that...I had to fix what I messed up..." he said, his voice catching as he looked up at Steve uncertainly. He'd been so sure he was doing the right thing when he was doing it; but after seeing how it had affected Steve and Pepper and pretty much everyone else, he wasn't so sure. It was all he could do to look the captain in the eye, his guilt was so strong by this point.

 

"You shouldn't have dared them to come after you in the first place," Steve said. "That was the first major wrong decision you made. Choosing to let everyone believe you were dead was the second. I can't fully explain to you how I felt when I thought you were dead, but I hope it's nothing you ever experience."

 

"I...I'm sorry I did that to you..." Tony said faintly. It still surprised him that there was someone other than Pepper, Happy or Rhodey that actually cared about him. Someone that would be hurt if something happened. "I...I didn't think about how it would affect everyone else. I didn't think at all..." he whispered. "...And I'm sorry...."

 

"I know," Steve replied. "I know you didn't think and I know you feel guilty now. But I'm afraid you're still due a spanking." He took a deep breath. "And I'm afraid it's going to be more severe this time."

 

Tony paled, stiffening slightly. It was a sign of how much he trusted Steve that he didn't begin fighting to get loose immediately, instead giving the man a chance to explain before reacting. "Wh..." He paused to swallow and blushed faintly at the fact his voice had come out high-pitched and cracking. Clearing his throat, he tried again. "What are you going to do?" he asked nervously.

 

Steve held Tony tight; not to try and keep him prisoner, but to try to offer at least some small measure of comfort. "I'm going to use my belt. There can't be a repeat of this. I know there was more than just me, Pepper, Happy, Rhodey affected... there are a lot of people who care deeply about you, even though I know you struggle to see that."

 

Tony couldn't stop himself from stiffening up further and he didn't even attempt to keep from whimpering at the words. "I...please, Cap...I'll be good! I'll think next time! I won't dare or antagonize terrorists into acting against me! Honest!" Tony was too worried about the punishment he was about to receive to be embarrassed about the fact his voice warbled and he sounded like a scared child.

 

"You acted without any thought for your own safety," Steve said seriously. "And then you acted without any thought to how much your loss would hurt... how damaged we all would be. I don't ever want to risk losing you, Tony." Try as he might not to make this about his feelings for the other man, Steve couldn't help but voice how important Tony was to him.

 

Tony couldn't say that he wasn't scared. He just didn't know why he was scared. As he'd mentioned to Steve the first time the captain had stepped in and corrected him, Howard's method of dealing with him had been to either yell or withdraw time spent. He'd not been spanked by anyone until Steve had spanked him for the pool incident. And he knew Steve would never harm him, no matter how much a spanking might hurt. So he didn't know why it frightened him so badly. It just did. He didn't tell Steve that he was frightened, though. Instead, he clamped his teeth together and tried to cooperate without argument. He'd scared the other man with his actions. He'd hurt him with his bad decisions. If Steve felt he deserved to be belted, then he did- plain and simple. Swallowing hard, he just nodded at Steve to show he understood and tried not to resist in any fashion.

 

Steve was worried and couldn't help wondering if he was doing the right thing. But now that he'd voiced what he was going to do, he didn't think he could go back on it. He held Tony close for a few more moments and then gently moved the other man across his lap.

 

Tony did his best to hold still and not pull away, letting Steve guide him where he wanted. He couldn't help but swallow again and take a quivery breath once he was facing the floor.

 

Steve rubbed his back gently and then proceeded to bare him.

 

This time, Tony knew he was whimpering, but he didn't care. He could only imagine how much worse a belt was going to feel on bare skin.

 

Steve rubbed Tony's back gently a few more moments, knowing how distressed he was, and then lifted his hand, bringing it down in the first firm swat.

 

Tony let out a very tiny yelp, but found himself relaxing minutely as he realized that Steve was beginning by using his hand. That wasn't too bad. It wasn't frightening to him at any rate. "I'm sorry..." he whispered again, his voice full of contrition.

 

"I know." Steve continued swatting as he spoke, going down to Tony's thighs before starting over from the top. "But you need to remember that you're not expendable; that no one wants to lose you."

 

"I'm trying to remember that...I am!" Tony couldn't help but begin to squirm. Even if Steve was just using his hand at the moment, it still hurt; and it didn't bode well for Tony's ability to hold still when he began to use the belt either.

 

Steve wrapped his arm around Tony's waist to hold him still and began a third circuit of swats, going a fraction harder and faster.

 

Tony's whimpers turned into full fledged crying and only Steve's tight grip prevented Tony from squirming right off his lap. By this time, Tony had given up trying to convince Steve he would be good and was just focusing on not completely falling apart and bawling like a baby. Steve was still using his hand, Tony knew he deserved every swat, and he didn't want to make the situation harder than it already was; he could be brave.

 

Steve stopped and moved his hand to begin gently rubbing Tony's lower back. He wasn't immune to the tears and again, he considered stopping the spanking there. But he'd said what he was going to do and, taking a deep breath, he began to remove his belt.

 

Tony had relaxed minutely when Steve began rubbing his back, but the minute he felt Steve moving to remove the belt, he was twice as tense as before. "Please..." He winced at the scared tone in his begging. He wasn't entirely sure why even the thought of the belt scared him so badly...he just knew it felt wrong; like Steve withdrawing from him. As much trouble as he gave the man, he wouldn't blame him if he withdrew, but the thought of it happening physically hurt.

 

Steve couldn't help his own wince at the scared note in Tony's voice. It felt wrong. He hadn't been sure of this, but now he was. Sure that using his belt wasn't the right move. So he didn't. Instead, he let it fall and moved Tony so he could hug the other man.

 

Tony shivered as he realized Steve had changed his mind, had heard him...and not just his words, but what he wasn't able to say. Letting out a tiny sob, Tony wrapped his arms around Steve as tightly as he was able and hid his face against the other man's chest. "..Sorry...sorry...be good...never do it 'gain..." he repeated over and over, making a promise to himself and his guardian that he would never let his family believe him dead when he wasn't ever again. He didn't promise not to ever take chances or act before thinking ever again; he knew himself well enough to know that would be a promise broken, but he did promise, "...Try to do better...." Through all his promises and apologies, he hugged Steve tightly, not able to shake the fear that there was now a distance between them; though that fear had lessened with the dropping of the belt and Steve pulling him into his arms.

 

Steve tightened his embrace around Tony, hugging him as close as it was possible to. "I know," he soothed. "I've got you." He stroked Tony's hair and back, not so much as loosening his hold.

 

"You aren't leaving?" Tony's voice was smaller and needier than he would have liked, but since that had been his greatest fear- being separated...disconnected... from the man who had come to be family to him, Tony didn't try and mask or put on any affectations. It would be obvious to Steve why he'd been scared, but Tony couldn't hide the fact.

 

Steve tightened his embrace. "I'm not going to leave you, Tony," he promised. "I'm always going to be here. I want to be with you."

 

"Promise?" Tony pressed closer, his voice needy and shaky. "Even when I'm hard to handle?"

 

"Even then," Steve promised. "No matter what. I still want you."

 

Tony shivered a few more moments, pressing close and holding tight, but it was obvious Steve's words and affection were calming him. Soon, he was just quietly sitting on his guardian's lap, snuggling and only wincing and letting out an occasional sniffle when he shifted onto a particularly sore spot on his bottom. He didn't even bother to fix his clothing. Soon, his injuries (minor as they were) and the stress he'd been under caught up with him and he fell asleep in Steve's arms.

 

Steve held tight to Tony, a feeling of warm affection coming over him. Not only was he relieved Tony was safe... it was good, it felt good, to hold onto the other man. Maybe Tony wouldn't mind that Steve desperately wanted to be the father figure to him he could tell was desperately needed.

 

***

 

"Was that when you first knew you wanted to adopt Uncle Tony?" Jemma asked softly, her eyes wide and still a little shock in them. The family didn't tend to talk about punishments all that often and when they did, it was usually the more tame ones; where they'd got into trouble, but it wasn't really traumatic. The fact Tony had told one of the times where he'd been scared of what Steve was going to do? Was unusual. Of course, it had ended up turning out well, if it helped Uncle Tony realize that Grandpa knew him and knew what he needed without having to be told. Still...it had been a bit of a shock to hear.

 

Steve smiled. "I'd faced the very real reality without him in it. I knew I didn't want to experience that again, for real. I think that was when I realised just how deep my emotions ran, though."

 

"That was when I first realized that Dad...he didn't just care about my actions and teaching me to be better. He cared about me...loved me. I hadn't really been able to believe that deep down until I realized he was watching me, listening to me, paying attention...and he'd changed how he'd planned to discipline me because I was scared...." Tony's smile was crooked. "He never even asked me to explain why I was scared. Which...considering what I went through in Afghanistan, a belting seems a bit odd to be afraid of. But he didn't make me explain. He just knew I was scared and he changed his mind, because he cared more about me than he cared about how he would address my behavior."

 

"I didn't need to know why," Steve said honestly. "It was enough that you were scared and I wasn't going to push you when I could see that."

 

"I can understand why you would be..." Jessica shrugged faintly and gave a tiny smile.

 

"Would that ever be an option?" Harry asked quietly, clearly nervous at the prospect.

 

"I'm not inclined to think you'd ever be as thoughtless as I was to need something more...strict...but even if you did make as poor a decision as I did...I wouldn't do anything that frightened you. I couldn't, especially not after the example your grandpa gave to me...changing his plans when he saw how scared I was." Tony reached over and squeezed his son's shoulder gently.

 

"Okay." Harry visibly relaxed and slanted a little towards his father.

 

"Hey, even I've managed to curb my tendency to go off on my own... mostly... and you've never been as bad as me," Peter teased his cousin.

 

"Let's face it...the only one of us likely to do anything bad enough to deserve a belt would be me..." Jessica's smirk was sheepish. "...Sadly, while it wouldn't scare me..." Her eyes darted suspiciously as she deliberately left unsaid that she'd deliberately sought out people to 'punish' her with belts, whips and other items in her spiral downward after she escaped Kilgrave. "...I doubt it would have the intended effect either. If I'm right, the reason it scared Tony was because of how impersonal it was and it felt like a form of withdrawal or abandonment..." At Tony's nod, she continued, "...The fact a belt would seem impersonal and like a form of withdrawal would enable me to ignore it. Only reason spanking has worked at all is because of the fact it is personal and I can't ignore it. Pain...I actually...I tend to seek it out." She frowned as she realized just how much and what she'd just admitted to her family. If the worried and slightly horrified looks on a few of the more 'innocent' siblings' and cousins' faces were anything to go by, she'd probably be getting a request to start seeing a therapist like Tony and Grant did.

 

Steve moved closer to Jessica, so their sides were pressed together and he could wrap his arm around her shoulders. "That's actually not an unusual thing for someone to experience," he commented. "People tend to deal with emotional trauma in different ways. After Tony's reaction, though, I made the decision never to use an implement again. So any time one of you has to answer to me, it's not going to be anything less than personal," he promised.

 

Jemma wasn't as shocked as some of the younger members of the family, at her aunt's admission. She bit her lip and glanced at her grandfather. "I'm glad to hear that..." she said softly. Not that she expected to ever have her grandfather need to punish her, but it was a relief all the same. She knew her father would never use an implement either if only because of his own past. She looked back at Jessica again, "...and I'm glad Grandpa got you. So you don't have to go seeking out people to hurt you. That's just dangerous..." she winced. She hadn't meant to sound so 'naggy', but the thought of any of her family actively seeking out pain so that they could feel like they'd paid for whatever 'crimes' they thought they'd committed- it didn't sit well with her. She wasn't a child. She knew that some people viewed pain as a turn-on. But that hadn't been what Jessica described.

 

Jessica winced as well. "I know it's dangerous..." she admitted softly. "...That was pointed out to me by a friend not long before Dad got me...." She bit her lip. "...I haven't...you know...since...."

 

Steve tightened his arm around Jessica's shoulders and looked around at the other members of his family, including each of them in a reassuring gaze. "I know none of you think you need to hear it voiced, but you don't need to ever worry about coming to me, or one of the other parents, if you ever start feeling guilty or any other emotion you need help with. It doesn't matter how ashamed you feel, I can promise no one will judge you or think anything less of you."

 

"We don't need it voiced...but it's good to be reminded all the same..." Pepper smiled gently at her father before shifting closer to Harry and wrapping an arm around him, leaning over and kissing the top of his head. She cleared her throat. "So...who gets the next question?"

 

"Judging by the rules, I think it might be Tony's turn." Steve smiled at his son.

 

Tony smiled back, slanting his head thoughtfully. "Alright, who here has played a prank on someone that was 'in charge' and did you get away with it?"

 

Peter snorted softly and gave his father a chagrined look. "I didn't exactly get away with it..."

 

Bruce raised an eyebrow, but was smiling all the same.

 

Jemma wrinkled her nose. "How can you 'not exactly' get away with it? You either did or didn't..." She giggled.

 

"It didn't exactly go according to plan..." Peter admitted sheepishly.

 

***

 

Peter checked the mixture for the third time, feeling a mix of apprehension and excitement. He'd made sure the measurements were exact; enough to show the effect he wanted to his father without causing the power to cut, his dad to Hulk out, or anything else out of the hundred and one things that could possibly go wrong.

 

Bruce had been working in his own lab for most of the afternoon and, glancing at his watch, realized it was almost time for dinner. "Time to clean-up, then..." he said quietly to himself, before he went in search of his children to tell them to get cleaned up for dinner. He'd found Leo and Jemma quickly, sending them up to the apartment to change. It took a little longer to find Peter. When he walked in, Peter was intent on checking something out. He made certain to make enough noise not to startle his son, then said, "Peter? It's almost time for dinner. Find a good spot to stop so you can get cleaned up...."

 

"Hey, Dad." Peter raised his head from his experiment to wave him over. "Come and have a look at this." His eyes were wide and there was an innocent look on his face.

 

Bruce slanted his head curiously, but walked over to look at what Peter was doing. "What is it?" he asked, as he got closer.

 

Every other test he'd done, Peter had carefully measured it out to make sure the 'explosion' was little more than a flare of light. This time, his attention was on his father as he added the drop of blood that ended up being two drops. He realised his mistake half a second too late when the beaker he was using burst and thick liquid was sent flying everywhere.

 

Bruce's eyes widened and he rushed over to help his son...a green tinge to his skin that wasn't there before. "Peter! Are you all right?!"

 

Peter winced. "Uh, yeah... that wasn't supposed to happen."

 

Bruce busied himself making sure Peter wasn't hurt before he finally asked, "What was supposed to happen?"

 

"It was just supposed to flare up," Peter replied. "Like a light show. Not actually explode." He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "I put in one too many drops."

 

Bruce eyed Peter skeptically. "You lose concentration? I know you know to pay attention to what you are doing. Lack of focus leads to accidents...."

 

"Every test run went smoothly," Peter said. "But it's so volatile... obviously, I needed to concentrate more."

 

Bruce huffed slightly, not making the comment of 'obviously', even if he thought it. His smile was stern. "I don't know if that should make me happy- that at least you were being careful before I arrived- or upset that you were doing something volatile without a partner to help if something went wrong...."

 

"I knew what I was doing..." Peter protested, even if the protest was somewhat weak, as he knew his father had a point. Still... "Barring just now, I don't normally have a problem with focus."

 

"I knew what I was doing too, son..." Bruce said softly. While the accident that turned him into the hulk had been because Ross had screwed around with his experiment, part of him wondered if it could have been avoided if they'd had a few more people as back up to prevent accidents.

 

Peter winced at the reminder. "I'm sorry."

 

"I know...still...you know better. I don't want this to happen again." Bruce's voice was stern.

 

"I'll be more careful next time," Peter promised.

 

"You will be. You will also make sure you have a lab partner that will help make certain if something happens you have help close by... or better yet, is a second set of eyes to make certain nothing does happen." Bruce's voice was calm and conversational, but it was obviously an order.

 

Peter nodded sheepishly. "Yes sir."

 

"Good...now explain what this prank was supposed to do...and do you think we could play it on your grandpa?" Bruce's smile was mischievous as he grinned at his son.

 

***

 

"Dad!" Jemma blurted out in surprised amusement.

 

Steve laughed outright. "At least I now know where the origin of that particular prank came from," he said, with an amused smile at his son and grandson.

 

"Well color me impressed! I never would have suspected my straight laced brother!" Tony teased.

 

Bruce shrugged faintly. "It was a good prank.... why don't you ask the next question, Peter?"

 

"Okay." Peter glanced around, thinking. "Has anyone done the right thing, no matter what, even knowing they'd get in trouble for it?"

 

Tony wrinkled his nose. "I've gotten in trouble for the wrong thing often enough, but can't say I've ever had to worry about the opposite...."

 

"Me either." Jessica nodded.

 

Pepper and Bruce just shook their heads.

 

"I have," Steve admitted. "It was actually shortly after Bucky and me found a father..."

 

***

 

For a teenager who was normally as honest as it was possible to be, Steve was fairly certain his family wouldn't recognise him as he crossed the street, hiding the loaf of bread he'd taken under his jacket. He'd return with the money for the loaf the next day... but he couldn't do anything about the missing school day.

 

Logan walked down the street toward where his adopted 'family' was. He had a bag with food in it; he'd somehow convince Steve's mother and Bucky's parents to accept it in exchange for them teaching him to cook or some other item he wasn't terribly adept at. He blinked when he saw Steve coming from the other direction and looked at his watch...the kid was supposed to be in school, something he knew Mrs. Rogers was adamant about. He frowned and slowed down so that they'd arrive at the front stoop together.

 

Steve hadn't been planning to go home, but he hesitated when he spotted Logan in the opposite direction. Could he turn round and run before his dad noticed? Somehow, he didn't think so.

 

Logan watched Steve. For a moment, it looked like the kid was going to turn around and bolt. Logan frowned, hoping that wouldn't happen.

 

Steve's shoulders slumped and his steps slowed, but he didn't turn tail and run.

 

Logan noted the slump, but didn't do more than smile faintly at the younger man. He'd wait to hear what Steve was doing before getting on him about missing school.

 

Steve stopped in front of him. "What are you doing here?" he asked, not sure what else he could say.

 

"Figured I'd make a trade with your mom and Bucky's parents," Logan said, holding up the bag of food.

 

Steve blinked. "For what?" He adjusted the bread slightly, but was fairly certain it was still obvious.

 

"Have your mom teach me to cook better...Bucky's mom show me how she mends clothes so well, you'd never know they'd been torn..." Logan's voice was amused. They all knew what his cooking tasted like and he frequently wore obviously mended clothing. His voice was amused, but the look in his eyes was all seriousness. He'd seen the bread and unless Steve had got a job this morning without saying anything, he knew how he'd got it. Even if he had got a job, him skipping school would hurt his mother. She was determined her son would become something more than an illiterate dock worker at the mercy of the whims of the big cats in charge.

 

Steve swallowed. "I need to be somewhere." His voice was quiet, even though the words were certain, and he couldn't hold eye contact with his father.

 

"Other than school, just where would you need to be?" Logan asked quietly, but in an unyielding tone of voice.

 

Steve slowly held up the loaf of bread. "I need to give this to someone. I'm going... I'm going to pay for it. Tomorrow," he faltered.

 

"How do you plan to come up with money to pay tomorrow when you didn't have any today?" Logan asked reasonably. "Are you planning to skip school again?" He glanced at the bread. "And who do you need to give it to?" There was a hint of worry in his tone.

 

"I think they'll run away if I take an adult there," Steve admitted. "I... they're two children. Younger than me and Bucky. I'm trying to get them to trust me so I can help them..."

 

Logan sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose before nodding. "Okay. First thing we're going to do is return to where you got the bread. You'll apologize and promise never to steal again, then you'll get a few more items so they'll have a decent meal. I'll pay." Logan glanced at Steve to make sure he was listening. "After that, you'll deliver the food. Work on gaining their trust. See if you can convince them to give me a chance." He sighed. "After the kids are taken care of, you and I are having a discussion."

 

Steve took a deep breath and nodded. "Yes, sir," he said in a very quiet voice. He still felt guilty, but there was a sense of relief, too, that he didn't need to continue shouldering that responsibility alone.

 

Logan nodded, then put a hand on Steve's shoulder and squeezed gently. "Lets go, then..." he said gently.

 

Steve slanted a bit towards his father, obediently going along with him.

 

It didn't take long for Steve to lead him back to the shop where he'd got the bread. "Ok. Let's find the owner so you can fess up...then we'll get some more supplies and pay for everything."

 

Steve didn't hesitate or waste any time in finding the shop owner and apologising for the theft of the bread. The stealing had sat wrong with him since doing it and even though he'd had every intention of returning and paying for the bread the next day (somehow), he was very relieved his father had effectively caught him.

 

Logan was good to his word. As soon as Steve had gotten a few more items for the children to eat, he paid for everything- thanking the shop owner for his understanding- and then carried the bag while telling Steve to lead the way.

 

Steve was quick to head to the abandoned house he'd found the children living in. While he walked, he talked to his father, telling Logan about the children, who he thought had been alone for quite a long time. It had taken him several weeks to get the oldest to talk to him.

 

"I'm proud of you for wanting to help, son...but there are better ways to do it..." Logan said quietly. "I know the system isn't the best...but them living alone in an abandoned house isn't good either...."

 

"I know," Steve replied. "But I was worried they'd run if I told anyone about them and people came to the house." He pressed a bit closer to his father. "I'm sorry..."

 

"I know..." Logan sighed and wrapped an arm around Steve's shoulder. "If you can get them to trust you enough to listen to you, maybe you can convince them to get help. The structure of this house isn't very sound...." Logan finally stopped, allowing Steve to move forward, without him, to meet the children.

 

Steve pressed a bit nearer to his father, almost like he was afraid Logan would disappear, and then took the food, heading into the house with it.

 

Logan didn't follow, respecting his son's knowledge of the children enough to not want to frighten them. He didn't move from his position, though, waiting and listening for his son.

 

Steve came out after a few minutes, looking a bit happier. "I told them you're my dad and I don't think they'll run from you..."

 

"Good. Think they'll talk to me now? Or should we come back tomorrow after school?" he asked pointedly.

 

Steve flushed, but responded, "Maybe tomorrow would be better. They're quite... wild."

 

Logan just raised an eyebrow at that comment, then nodded. "Let's go, then. I think I have an idea, if they are willing to trust me. I'll have to run it by the people I'm thinking of, though." Without another word, he wrapped his arm around Steve's shoulder again and began to lead the young man back toward his own home. He suspected Steve wouldn't want his mother to hear the discussion they were about to have, even if Logan would insist on Steve telling her what had occurred. The walls in the tiny apartment were too thin for anyone not to hear and the small house Logan lived in would at least provide a little more privacy.

 

Even knowing he was in trouble, Steve didn't pull away and instead leaned into his father once more. "I'm sorry," he said, very quietly, his sense of guilt obvious.

 

"I know, kid. I could tell you felt guilty before you even got to me. How else do you think I realized how you got the bread?" Logan smiled crookedly, rubbing a hand through Steve's hair. "We'll take care of it and everything will be alright."

 

Steve nodded. "I'm glad you found out, even though I'm in trouble," he admitted quietly.

 

Logan couldn't help but hug the kid at that. "We'll help those kids, Steve. It'll work out."

 

"I know," Steve replied, completely trusting his father.

 

They walked together quietly, talking about small things, Logan trying to make certain that Steve wasn't too nervous about what was coming his way. Eventually, they made it to Logan's house and he had to lead the younger man in. Guiding Steve to the living room, Logan decided it was better to get everything out of the way quickly. He went and sat on the sofa, gently pulling Steve with him, placing the boy over his lap as soon as he was situated. Resting his hand on Steve's lower back, he asked, "Why are you in this position, son?"

 

Steve let out his breath in a tiny whimper, reaching down to grasp his father's ankle as he answered, "I stole bread...I skipped school..." He wasn't sure if keeping the children from his father counted, so there was a slight questioning note in his voice.

 

"And why are you in trouble for those two things?" Logan asked, wanting to make sure Steve knew exactly why what he'd done wasn't being accepted when his reasons for doing it were good and he might have not got into trouble under other circumstances.

 

"Because I kept it all a secret and didn't try to ask for help?" Steve wasn't sure that was the answer his father was looking for, but it was the only thing he could think of that, next time, he would do differently.

 

"That would be it, kid. I never want you to think rules are so important that you have to let someone suffer or possibly die to keep them. At the same time, when you feel it is necessary to do something that is breaking a rule, or even possibly the law, you need to try and get help first, in case there is an option available that you didn't know of. I'm always willing to help you as much as I'm able. If you'd talked to me right away, you never would have stolen that bread because you'd have known that I could buy it for the kids. You also would never have skipped school, because you'd have known that I'd take care of things for you while you were in school and we could deliver everything after you got out...." Logan kept his voice calm but firm. "Do you have any questions before we continue?" he asked gently.

 

"No, sir." Steve took a deep breath. "But... I'm sorry."

 

"I know. We'll take care of it and then it will be over...a fresh start," Logan said quietly, before moving his hand off Steve's back and baring him. "I love you, kid and will help you in whatever way I can...remember that." Not saying anything else, he raised his hand and let it fall in the first hard swat. He continued on with the same strength, quickly falling into a pattern that covered Steve's entire backside.

 

Steve did his best to stay still, but couldn't stop the tears that began to slip out of his eyes. He held back his sobs, but his vision very quickly became blurred with the tears.

 

Logan didn't pause once he'd finished one circuit. Instead, he moved quickly into the second, the swats still the same strength and speed as before, although he began to smack random spots instead of in a pattern. He wanted to get Steve to the needed point as soon as possible so he could hold the boy.

 

Steve wasn't struggling or trying to get away, but he couldn't stop twisting and writhing in reaction to the smacks. His crying very quickly became audible and he had to fight not to throw his hand back.

 

Logan tightened his grip on the younger man, making certain he didn't fall, and shifted Steve slightly so that he could focus more attention to the crease between thigh and bottom. He continued in the same relentless pace. "From now on, you come to me before you put your own future in jeopardy," was all he said, his tone gruff and full of fondness and love.

 

Steve had to close his eyes, the tears falling so fast now, they threatened to blind him. "Yes sir..." he managed to gasp out, before he went limp over his father's lap, crying steadily.

 

Logan immediately pulled Steve up into his arms as soon as the younger man went limp, holding him tight. "It's over now, kid...I've got you. Everything will be okay."

 

Steve immediately wrapped his arms around his father and clung on tight as he tried to stop crying. "I'm sorry..." he whispered.

 

"Shhh...I know. You're forgiven. I love you so much, kid..." Logan said gruffly.

 

"I love you too." Steve's crying had quietened down to soft sniffles, but he still held onto his father.

 

Logan held him for a bit longer before shifting him enough to fix his clothes. "C'mon, kid. Your mom should be home now and if I'm not wrong, Bucky will be looking for you to find out why you weren't in class. Let's go meet them."

 

Steve nodded and carefully extricated himself from his father.

 

Logan smiled. "Lets go..."

 

****

 

"So did you tell Grandma what you had done?" Tony asked curiously.

 

"I did," Steve replied. "But it had already been addressed, so she moved on fairly quickly to how we could help the children."

 

"What did Uncle Bucky have to say? I didn't think you two tended to do things like that without each other..." Jessica grinned.

 

Steve smiled. "He wasn't happy with me for keeping them from him, but I took him to meet them and he got to be a big brother to them too."

 

"You kept in touch with the kids? The way you described Great Grandpa's reaction, I figured he knew of a home with an adult to take them to. And he didn't mention adopting two other kids when he was here...." Jemma sounded confused, wondering if there were two elderly relatives she hadn't met yet.

 

"We kept in contact with them right up until the war began," Steve answered, a little sadly because there'd been a lot they'd lost... including when his own father had left. "There was a couple who took them in and adopted them, though."

 

"Oh..." Jemma sounded sad, since she knew what had happened in the war and knew the likelihood of ever meeting the two kids her grandfather had helped was pretty slim.

 

Bruce cleared his throat. "Well...as fun as this question and story time has been, we have a very busy day tomorrow, so I'm going to get some sleep. I suggest the rest of you think about doing so as well..." He smiled crookedly, hoping his sudden change of topic wasn't too obvious. He didn't like seeing his father sad because of all he'd lost.

 

Steve noticed the change in topic, but didn't comment on it, instead saying, "After breakfast, we can figure out how we want to spend the day."

 

"Maybe we could do some painting?" Leo suggested sleepily through a yawn.

 

Jessica laughed softly. "I happen to know for a fact a few of the other family will be painting..." she said with a grin, thinking of the buckets of hot pink paint she'd seen being carried to Kara’s room by Uncle Nick and his brood. "Wouldn't hurt for us to personalize our rooms a bit more with color...even if it isn't with paint. Help to get rid of the 'industrial' feel that living underneath a high security spy-training facility brings."

 

Steve smiled at her. "Are there any particular colours you'd like?" While his voice wasn't loud, it did carry to the other family members, so they could answer as well if they wanted.

 

"I'm pretty basic when it comes to decorating. I'll stick with white. Although, if you could help me find a colorful throw rug, maybe something Moroccan or Indian, or anything really that has a bunch of colors to brighten things up...?" Jessica grinned. "...Since we're underground and have no windows, the brighter the better...."

 

Pepper chuckled. "I like that idea. I know Tony's partial to gold and red," she gave her fiancé a long-suffering look, "but I'm thinking bright yellows and light blues or greens for our room...."

 

"I like the idea of bright...or muted bright if that makes any sense." Jemma nodded.

 

"I'm thinking red and black." Peter nudged Harry. "What about you?"

 

Harry shook his head, but answered in an almost wistful tone, "Maybe painted to look like a forest? Or a lake..."

 

"Nature scenes." Leo smiled. "I like that idea."

 

"Well...there are wall murals that can be bought and put onto walls if that's what you'd really like..." Pepper said thoughtfully. "...Given how technologically advanced the people in this family are, we could possibly even set up a wall covered entirely by a screen that would enable Veronica...or another AI... to show what is outside the building. Pick your favorite spot on the compound, set up a camera to take continuous feed...and just have it show on your wall?"

 

"Another AI?" Jessica asked curiously.

 

Tony had a look of fond exasperation on his face as he answered, "...I wasn't ready to unveil Friday yet, Pep!"

 

"Oops!" Pepper blushed and gave an embarrassed smile.

 

Shaking his head, Tony sighed. "...I've spawned another AI to help Veronica out. I figure Veronica will continue to be in charge of security and relaying information between the family when we are on missions and such. Friday...will be the household butler, if you will...taking care of day to day items that aren't security related. Although they will both be able to do the other's job if necessary. They are on two separate servers housed in different parts of the compound. I'm hoping this will prevent intruders from being able to completely disable our protections like they did in the tower when they took Veronica offline that time...."

 

Harry looked immediately interested in his mother's idea, relaxing as it became clear no one was going to think it was strange for him to want to have something to do with nature in his room.

 

Peter nudged his cousin. "Maybe we could set it to rolling images, so you can have different scenes at different times?" he suggested.

 

Steve smiled at Tony. "Maybe, when you're ready, you can introduce Friday properly to the whole family at dinner?" he suggested.

 

"I'm sure if everyone wants one wall dedicated to a big screen that shows whatever they ask Friday to project, we can arrange for it to be something that can be changed whenever they want a different view..." Tony chuckled. He glanced at Steve. "And yeah. I actually wanted to tell everyone at breakfast tomorrow, since tomorrow will be Friday's official 'birthday'."

 

Steve nodded. "I'm sure everyone here can avoid saying anything until breakfast tomorrow, at least," he joked.

 

"Considering the fact we're all going to bed and breakfast tomorrow will be the first chance they have to spill the beans, I should hope so!" Tony huffed in amusement.

 

"We won't say anything, Uncle Tony," Peter promised, with a wide-eyed innocent look.

 

"Good...so...let's get to sleep!" Tony clapped his hands and soon, after a bit of scurrying around, everyone was in sleeping bags all over Steve's bedroom floor; kids close to their parents, Jessica in the bed next to her dad.

 

****

 

Peter yawned again for what had to be the twentieth time, giving Drax a sheepish look.

 

"I believe it is time to sleep," Drax said firmly.

 

"Okay, dad..." Peter agreed quickly, crawling onto Drax's bed in the spot he normally had when he stayed with Drax. He was too tired to give his usual arguments and things were different enough he'd rather just be held by his father than be his normal ornery self. Since he'd changed for bed the minute they'd got to the room, it was easy.

 

Drax settled on the bed next to his son, not wasting any time in reaching out and drawing Peter into his arms.

 

Peter snuggled close- he never was one shy for showing and accepting affection- and was soon sound asleep.

 

***

 

Bucky led his three children to their rooms. "Why don't you all change for bed and then come back to my room? We can discuss decorating ideas a bit before sleeping. I plan to get up early to begin working on the painting, if you all want to help...."

 

Bakshi smiled. "I'll get up early to join you..." He headed into his own room.

 

"Sounds like a plan," Lance agreed, before ducking inside his room so he could get changed.

 

"See you in a minute, Daddy." Patsy went into her room so she could get changed.

 

Bucky smiled and went to change himself, making certain that there were enough pillows on the bed for his entire brood when they returned.

 

***

 

Lincoln looked around the room he'd been given and wrinkled his nose. "Guess I'll need to figure out what I want it to look like. I've spent so much time the last several years focusing on my medical degree, I haven't really accumulated enough things to make this feel like a home..." he said out loud, not seeing his mother but feeling that she was close by and deciding to talk to her anyway.

 

Natasha stepped over to him, making enough noise that her appearance wouldn't startle him. "You can start off simple," she suggested. "Maybe have a few pictures to place while you figure out how you want it painted."

 

"A few pictures would be all I could put out..." He chuckled. "Most of my photographs are all digital...although I suppose I could ask Veronica to print out a few copies for me...."

 

"Why don't we go shopping tomorrow?" Natasha suggested.

 

"Uh...." Lincoln bit his lip indecisively. He hated shopping. At the same time, it would give him and Natasha time to get some one-on-one bonding and learn more about each other. There hadn't been a lot of private time where they weren't surrounded by other family members since he'd moved in and he wanted to get to know her better. Taking a deep breath, he decided some time with his mother was worth the headache of shopping. "...Yeah. Ok. That would be good. I have rotations tomorrow evening, but I have the morning and afternoon free; and after tonight, I'll be looking for a residency. Either that, or looking for a building to start my own private practice.... Since I will be one hundred percent finished all my requirements to becoming a doctor...."

 

Natasha moved a bit closer to him, so she could brush shoulders with him affectionately. "A lot of us here have contacts all over the place, including in the medical profession, if you need help getting your foot in somewhere in particular," she said.

 

"I actually got offered spots in a few different hospitals..." Lincoln admitted softly. "...But it was before I met all of you and discovered I wanted to stay near here...all of the offers are in different states or are in the city...which is now three hours away." He paused. "Plus...part of me...part of me wants to help people like all the Avengers and I wonder if maybe it wouldn't be better for me to open a practice in a poorer part of town. See people who can't afford to go to doctors normally...." He bit his lip. "If I did that, I could locate anywhere; there are always poor people around that need help no matter where I am...."

 

Natasha wrapped her arm around his shoulders. "Whatever you want to do, I will support you. And the whole family will support you," she promised.

 

"I...I did some research about this area and I know a spot that could really use a doctor nearby. Most of the doctors aren't close enough for the people to be able to walk to them- they have to catch a bus- and sometimes that isn't feasible...if I open a practice up there, I'll be within walking distance of those who need help and I'll still be close to home...." Lincoln smiled crookedly, watching Natasha closely to see what her opinion would be.

 

Natasha smiled. "I'm glad to hear you'd be closer to home, but I'd like to take a look at the spot you've found and make sure it's as secure as possible."

 

"Of course..." Lincoln quickly agreed. Even if he didn't worry about his own health and safety - he'd been practicing self-defense pretty much from the moment Natasha had taken him in - he'd worry about his patients if it wasn't secure.

 

Natasha's smile widened. "I can't see it being a problem. Especially not when it'll be close by."

 

Lincoln smiled back. "I'm glad...it will mean I'm available to help the family too if needed...."

 

"I'm sure that would be a big help," Natasha said sincerely. "Not to mention that we have other people working here who you might find yourself helping, too."

 

"That's true..." Lincoln nodded. "So...maybe I can show you the office I was considering tomorrow? You can let me know what you think?" His tone was hopeful.

 

Natasha smiled. "I'd like that."

 

"I would too..." Lincoln admitted. "I guess I should finish getting ready for bed. It'll be a busy day tomorrow...." He hesitated.

 

"Would you like to stay with me tonight?" Natasha offered.

 

"You don't mind?" Lincoln asked. He obviously wanted to say yes.

 

Natasha smiled. "I'd like to keep you close," she said honestly.

 

"I'd like to be close..." he admitted bashfully.

 

"Then why don't you get changed and come and meet me in my room?" Natasha suggested. "I'll get us some drinks and snacks."

 

"Ok...mom..." Lincoln smiled and disappeared into his room to change. Five minutes later, he was knocking on his mom's door.

 

*****

 

Lorelei looked into the room she'd been assigned and bit her lip. She'd been staying with Odin since her capture and hadn't yet stayed on her own. She wasn't sure she was ready to stay on her own either.

 

Odin had checked in on each of his children and was now headed to check on Lorelei. He knocked gently on her door to announce his presence.

 

"Come in..." Lorelei called out quietly. To her chagrin, her nervousness came through clearly in her voice.

 

Odin opened the door and stepped into the room, closing the door behind him. "How are you feeling?" he asked gently.

 

Lorelei planned to say fine...she really did. When she opened her mouth, however, what came out was, "Unsettled. I feel very uneasy...unsettled...." She blushed at the almost childish tone of her voice; as if she were asking her daddy to take care of a monster under the bed. Although...she quickly bent over to check under the bed. Who knew what Midgardian creatures could have snuck in when she wasn't looking?

 

Odin didn't know for sure what Lorelei was looking for, but he took it as further evidence she was unsettled and he stepped closer to her, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. "You're safe here," he promised.

 

"With you...I know I'm safe...I don't know what is wrong with me." Lorelei sighed.

 

Odin wrapped his other arm around her so he could hug her fully. "What happened was unsettling," he said gently. "Even for those emotionally secure in their place in the family."

 

"I've been alone most my life, though...I didn't think I could become so unsettled at...at..." She looked down. "At the thought people could get to my family....I love you all so much, I'm afraid to lose you...." The admittance was quiet and almost shy.

 

"That is why we are here," Odin said gently. "This is a place where the family can be better protected and kept safe."

 

"I know...that's why I don't understand why I'm still scared. I don't want to leave you..." Lorelei whispered.

 

"You won't," Odin promised, tightening his embrace.

 

"Might I stay with you tonight, Daddy?" Lorelei's voice was small and childlike. She'd taken to referring to Odin the same way a majority of the women in the family referred to their fathers and the more childish term of address affected her response to her father...allowing her to react and be around him the way she needed emotionally; mentally, she balked at needing him so much. Mentally, she thought she should be able to handle herself better.

 

"Of course," Odin replied, without hesitation, happy she felt able to voice her needs. He kissed her head.

 

Lorelei couldn't prevent herself from wrapping her arms around Odin and holding on tightly. "Thank you," she said in a subdued voice. "That makes me feel better."

 

"I'm glad," Odin replied gently. "Why don't we see if any of your siblings would like to join us for a bit before bed?" he suggested.

 

"Very well." Lorelei smiled. "I believe I saw Darcy teasing Loki mercilessly with threats of painting his room bright orange and decorating it with rainbows and unicorns. Why she thought that would be a threat, I am not certain..." She chuckled.

 

Odin smiled. "I believe there will be a lot of that kind of teasing. Would you rather get changed for bed and then join me?" he asked, not sure if she would be uncomfortable being on her own even for that small amount of time.

 

Lorelei was reluctant to leave her father's side, even to change, but she was nervous he'd think her ridiculous if she needed him with her when changing. Even if she didn't care about privacy or modesty...she thought maybe she should. She didn't want her father disappointed in her. But she really didn't want to leave his side either.

 

Odin gently stroked her hair. "You don't need to worry or feel nervous. Tell me what you'd prefer," he directed.

 

"I don't want to leave you..." she said in a whisper, unable to look him in the eye.

 

"Then you don't need to," Odin said seriously.

 

Snuggling closer, Lorelei smiled. "Thank you, daddy...."

 

Odin kissed the top of her head. "Do you want to get changed in here or in my room?"

 

"I can change here..." Lorelei smiled again, then grabbed her night clothes and quickly began to change, checking every so often as if afraid her father would disappear.

 

Odin didn't move, keeping watch over his daughter.

 

As soon as she was ready, Lorelei quickly moved back into her father's arms. "I'm ready...."

 

Odin didn't waste any time wrapping his arms around his daughter and guiding her out of the room and into his own, though he took a few moments to invite each of his other children into the room with them for a while.

 

Lorelei didn't move from Odin's arms, although she did make room for Darcy when her sister came in. She grinned when Loki got on her other side and snuggled. Mack looked like he wasn't sure who he should get in beside.

 

Odin moved so he could touch each of the children now nestled on the bed, smiling at his other two sons. "Make yourselves comfortable too," he said.

 

Thor smiled at Mack, waiting to see where his younger brother would prefer to settle.

 

Mack grinned, moving to the other side of Darcy, leaving it to Thor if he'd rather be next to him or next to Loki.

 

Thor moved to settle on the bed next to Mack, grinning. "It is good the room is big enough for the size of this bed," he commented, in what was for him a quiet voice.

 

"Was it made special?" Lorelei asked curiously.

 

"I think all the furniture was made special with superheroes and large framed Asgardians in mind," Darcy laughed. "That and large sized families that like to snuggle with each other at night...."

 

"And that is the most likely reason." Loki's voice was amused.

 

Odin smiled. "Many of the families seem to prefer to be close to each other. It is better this way." He didn't need to add 'better than before'; he was just relieved that, not only had he gained a son and two daughters, his relationship with Loki in particular was far better than it had been.

 

"I agree. It is much better this way..." Loki said fondly, snuggling his sister and reaching over to squeeze his father's arm.

 

Odin smiled, reaching to touch each of his children in turn, clearly relaxed and happy with each of them there.

 

****

 

It was well past midnight and the last family group had gone to bed hours before. Jessica couldn't sleep, though, her confessions sitting on her shoulders like lead weights. She couldn't believe all that she had admitted to her family...some of it unintentionally...and she couldn't help be afraid that it would change things. At the same time, she knew she hadn't confessed nearly enough...at least not to her father. Not if she was going to allow him to care for and take care of her like she'd said she would. Not if she didn't want to feel like she was tricking him into keeping her because he didn't have all the information.

 

Finally, unable to lay still any longer and not wanting to wake the rest of her family, she slipped out of bed and quietly made her way out of the room and walked toward the kitchen. Maybe water or warm milk...or a fifth of Jack...would help her sleep.

 

Steve was quite a light sleeper, so he woke up when Jessica got out of the bed. He didn't waste any time in going after her.

 

Jessica was standing in the kitchen, drinking glass in hand, looking longingly toward the liquor cabinet when Steve walked in. "It's after five..." she said in a hesitantly teasing and slightly hopeful tone. Very slightly hopeful, as she didn't think Steve would agree to her knocking herself out with booze.

 

"It's also bedtime," Steve pointed out gently, moving closer to her and wrapping his arm around her shoulders. "Can't sleep?"

 

"No, sir....can't stop...thinking..." Jessica admitted softly.

 

"About what?" Steve pressed gently, tightening his arm.

 

"About everything I told you...what I didn't tell you...." Jessica whispered.

 

Steve kissed her head. "Tell me now," he suggested.

 

"I...I never told anyone out loud...directly...what I did...when I felt so guilty. That wasn't even the worst of it. You probably think I'm pathetic..." Jessica looked at the floor.

 

"Not at all," Steve promised. "I think you've had to be too strong for so long. Emotionally as well as physically." He hugged her close. "I love you."

 

"You love me...but I don't think you were happy to find out what I've done...." Jessica snuggled closer.

 

"Only because I know there are better ways to deal with your pain and I wish I'd been there earlier to help you," Steve said gently.

 

"Pain for pain...it evens out. I don't know how to handle it another way..." Jessica sighed and held on more tightly.

 

Steve kissed her head, tightening his embrace. "You aren't alone anymore," he promised her. "And if you feel like that again... I want you to promise to try to come to me before you do anything."

 

Jessica bit her lip. She didn't like making promises- that meant she'd need to keep them- but something wouldn't let her refuse her father's request and she found herself nodding. "I promise to tell you if I feel the need to let myself be hurt. I haven't felt that way as much since you adopted me, but I know part of that is because I've been focusing on the future and adjusting to everything instead of thinking about the past. When the guilt gets too strong is when I look for trouble...the more I hurt, the more it feels like I am still here and haven't been completely destroyed. And like, maybe if I am hurting, really bad things will stop happening to everyone else because of me. I don't know...it sounds stupid to say it out loud."

 

"How you feel isn't stupid," Steve replied reassuringly. "But you have me now. Not just me, but the whole family around you. When you hurt, you don't have to suffer alone." He stroked her hair, his voice filled with nothing but loving concern.

 

"I'm sorry I'm such a mess." Jessica sighed and snuggled closer.

 

"I promise you aren't," Steve said, gentle and reassuring.

 

"I deliberately go out and attempt to get hurt because it's easier than dealing with my guilt...even I can't claim that's normal or productive behavior..." Jessica snorted, even as she snuggled closer.

 

"But you aren't the only one to handle negative emotions in ways that aren't best," Steve said.

 

"No...I guess I'm not," Jessica admitted. "Are you sure I can't have a drink?" She looked toward the liquor cabinet again.

 

"You can have a drink. Just not anything alcoholic," Steve answered.

 

"Tough love, huh?" Jessica's lips quirked upward. She knew that she was borderline, if not an outright alcoholic, and it didn't surprise her that her father would be firm on the matter. As difficult as it was not to argue- she craved a drink- she didn't really want to argue and managed to refrain...at least as long as Steve was watching, she wouldn't drink anything requiring an ID to purchase. She knew her drinking was another bad way of dealing (or avoiding dealing) with emotional pain and guilt.

 

She wondered if she shouldn't admit to her father that she was beginning to feel the stirrings of past emotional hurts and guilt returning. The attack and subsequent move had been unsettling enough to cause the negativity to resurface. At the moment, it was faint enough to resist, but she knew if it wasn't dealt with soon, she'd be picking fights, getting drunk and looking for meaningless encounters with men in bars again and she didn't want to disappoint Steve. She was already ashamed at the fact he knew she'd done such things in the past.

 

Steve ran his fingers through her hair. "You aren't the only family member to turn to alcohol to dull those negative emotions either. In the long run, it doesn't help you and only causes more harm. I'm sure Tony could talk to you about his experiences in that area." His voice wasn't judgemental or angry, only caring, loving and concerned.

 

"I saw what it did to him on those celebrity news shows often enough...and it isn't like I haven't been affected by it badly myself, even if it wasn't in the public eye..." Jessica sighed, then bit her lip uncertainly. The craving was still there, which meant the unsettled feelings she'd been having since the attack on the tower and the constant battle she had with her own guilt, self-worth and everything else she never dealt with but pushed down deep must be stronger than she'd thought. Was it bad enough that Steve would consider it breaking her promise if she didn't tell him, though?

 

"Why don't we sit in one of the other rooms and talk about how you're feeling right now that makes you feel the need to drink?" Steve suggested. Of course, the primary reason for making that suggestion was so he could cuddle his daughter on his lap.

 

"Okay, daddy..." Jessica whispered. The fact that she nearly immediately agreed along with using the more childish term of address would have made it clear she was unsettled, even if Steve hadn't already picked up on that fact.

 

Steve kept hold of his daughter as he guided her from the kitchen and to one of the smaller rooms he knew would be empty. Inside, he sat on the bed and guided her onto his lap.

 

Jessica didn't protest being pulled onto her father's lap and settled quickly, letting her head fall onto his shoulder. "I'm embarrassed..." she admitted softly. "...Embarrassed and ashamed that I just blurted out what I'd done in front of the younger kids. I probably scarred them for life...." she muttered unhappily.

 

"I doubt you've affected them nearly as much as you think," Steve replied gently. "And you shouldn't feel embarrassed or ashamed."

 

"I admitted to deliberately seeking out pain and ways to be hurt...you saw how horrified they were...." Jessica sniffled softly. "And the worst of it? For a little while, I didn't want it...I thought finding a family where I belonged had got rid of the need... but it's like an itch and I feel like if I don't do it again soon, something will go wrong...."

 

Steve tightened his embrace and kissed the top of her head. "When you're so used to one way of life, it can be difficult to force yourself to change so drastically straight away. But there are better ways than alcohol or getting yourself hurt. Sparring is something we could do. I go running, too, and often with other members of the family."

 

"Those things are...different. The things I was doing...weren't safe. They could have been if I went to the right places, but I didn't. I'd never pick anyone safe. I'd either find amateurs who were easily convinced to do what I'd say, or 'professionals' who didn't care...." Jessica grimaced. "The thing was, it never worked for long. The last few months with you has been the longest the itch has been away and I don't understand why all the harshness never worked as well as...as...." She swallowed and looked down, embarrassed. "...Never worked as well as you spanking me. I didn't want the spanking...so why would it work better than the things I sought out? Especially when it was painless compared to what I usually demanded? It confuses me...."

 

Steve gently stroked her hair. "I care about you. I love you. I suspect that plays a big part in the difference."

 

"But...you'd never hurt me the way I told those others to hurt me...I don't think I could even ask you to, even though I need to be hurt to make up for everything...it's supposed to hurt a lot worse than you spanking me did! So why did you spanking me work better? I don't understand it...." Jessica fretted, her thoughts skittering around the fact that the spanking bothered her more than searching out pain had also; she'd been honest when she said she hadn't wanted it.

 

"I suspect because it isn't really pain you need," Steve replied. "That's why it only works for a little while, because it isn't really about pain."

 

"What would it be about then?" Jessica's question was sincere. She'd thought she was doing the only thing she could to pay for all the pain and problems she'd caused other people, searching out ways to hurt herself. The fact that it never worked for very long only proved to her that she was guilty of too much to ever make up for and would spend her whole life paying for her 'crimes'. And then Steve had come along and taken over...basically told her what she was going to do and spanked her when she disobeyed. She hadn't wanted that. Hadn't wanted to give up her tightly held control over herself. Hadn't wanted to feel vulnerable and childish and out of control. That wouldn't help her make up for her wrongs. But she couldn't deny that she hadn't felt the need to hurt herself for the last several months she'd been with her new family. "It's not fair!" she pouted. "I'm supposed to pay for what I did...I can't do that if I'm not in control of myself...." She muttered the last.

 

Steve kissed the top of her head. "And maybe that's what it is," he said gently. "Not having that control is for the best. Even when someone else was hurting you, you were still in control because you could make it stop whenever you wanted it to. But that isn't what you need."

 

"But...but I have to be in control..." Jessica said in a tiny voice. "...I have to be responsible for everything bad that's happened...if I'm not in control..." She swallowed hard. "I'm afraid to not be in control...."

 

"You don't have to be afraid," Steve promised. "I'm here with you. You aren't alone to deal with it."

 

"I can't help it..." Jessica mumbled, even as she snuggled close again.

 

"I know. It takes time," Steve replied gently, stroking her hair.

 

"Yeah....I just hope you don't get tired waiting for me," she whispered. Snuggling closer yet, Jessica closed her eyes and allowed herself to relax against her father.

 

"Never," Steve promised, continuing the gentle, comforting touch.

 

Jessica wouldn't have believed it possible, since she hadn't had any alcohol to drink, but she soon fell asleep in her father's arms.

 

Steve waited long enough to be sure she wouldn't wake and then lifted her into his arms, carrying her back through to his bedroom and settling them both comfortably on the bed.

 

***

 

Loki wandered into the common room and glanced around. They'd been in the compound for almost two weeks by this point and everyone had decorated their rooms and settled in. Sometimes, one of them would mention something about the convenience of the tower being in the city and missing that aspect, but nearly everyone agreed that the compound was not only safer, but had elements that they hadn't even realized they wanted or needed...such as spacious grounds to enjoy the outdoors. Loki could only guess that's where everyone not currently working was at...since no one was in the family room.

 

"Friday?" Tony had introduced the new AI their second day in the compound. "Is anyone inside on the family floor?"

 

"Your brothers and some of your cousins are currently sparring," the AI replied. "Your sisters are watching a movie in Miss Lorelei's room."

 

"Thank you, Friday," Loki murmured and went in search of his sisters. It didn't take long to find them.

 

Darcy noticed immediately something was wrong. "What's the matter, big brother?" she asked curiously.

 

"Nothing truly bad," Loki began. "Just feel the need to do something. How would the two of you feel about a short visit to Asgard? I made a promise a while back to get some Asgardian artifacts for our cousin Tony to examine and think now would be a perfect time to retrieve them."

 

"A trip to Asgard? Count me in!" Darcy enthused.

 

Lorelei looked less enthused, but she nodded anyway. "Will you call Heimdall for transport, or use one of the back ways?" The back ways were more dangerous, but would enable Darcy to see places she would never be able to otherwise. With both Loki and Lorelei for protection, it wouldn't be as hazardous.

 

"I think back ways..." Loki said, quietly but decisively.

 

Having made the decision, the three each quickly packed a small bag of provisions- just in case- and, leaving a message for their family for Friday to deliver, took off.

 

***

 

Wanda couldn't deny that she was a little nervous about meeting Professor Xavier. While she didn't think the man would distrust her like so many others had, she couldn't quite shake the fear of being forced to leave her family. Which was probably why Pietro was moving at a blur, trying to distract her by acting a bit more immaturely.

 

Clint walked over and put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. "Hey...you know I would never have brought you here if I didn't think it was a good idea. And your great grandpapa Logan wouldn't have set up the meeting. Try and relax, sweetie...." He glanced around the office, noting the pictures and various knickknacks adorning the area. He heard voices approaching, one of them sounding familiar.

 

"I tell ya, Dad...she helped me remember...all the times you and Jean tried to help and ran against my block and she got in and unraveled it! She's powerful and needs help. I'm sure when you meet her, you'll agree it's worth the time and effort...even if it stretches your already stretched schedule..." Logan opened the office door, allowing Charles Xavier to precede him before walking in himself. "Clint...Pietro...Wanda." He smiled at the three visitors.

 

Wanda nodded, though she remained tense even as she stood next to her father. Pietro was quick to move to her other side, letting his shoulder rest against hers, but almost taking a protective stance in front of her.

 

Charles smiled warmly at the three of them as he wheeled into the office. "I've heard a lot about all of you. It's good to meet you," he said.

 

"It's good to meet you, sir. I appreciate you seeing us...I hope you will be able to help continue my daughter's training..." Clint smiled.

 

"Of course," Charles agreed, his eyes on Wanda, who blinked suddenly and then looked down.

 

Logan looked between Charles and Wanda, his eyebrow going up when he noticed how shy the girl was suddenly being. He wasn't certain, but if Charles was asking permission to enter her mind the way he normally did, she might be feeling unsettled. "Wanda...do you want your papa and brother to stay in here with you or would you like to speak to the Professor alone?" he asked solicitously.

 

Wanda glanced gratefully at Logan and then at her father and brother. "Will you...stay?" she asked softly.

 

Pietro grinned. "Nothing could drag me away."

 

"Whatever you need, sweetie..." Clint reassured his daughter. He smiled at the professor. "I hope you don't mind, sir."

 

"Of course not," Charles replied. "It will be a help to have you here too, as I suspect we will need to discuss how often I should meet with your daughter and where it would be best for these meetings to take place."

 

"Of course," Clint agreed. "If it is easier for you, we can come here for the meetings...although I know for a fact there is a room for Logan when he comes to visit; and several empty guestrooms that I'm sure we can make one of them yours....If you think keeping the meetings back at our compound is best."

 

Logan blinked. "You all made me my own room?" He couldn't help but sound pleased by the fact, even if he was a little bit surprised. The new dwelling of the Avengers and SHIELD agents was only a little over an hour away, after all, so he could always come home again after visiting.

 

"Did you honestly think Steve and Bucky wouldn't give their father his own room in their home? I'm fairly certain they'll be just as eager to give their grandfather a room as well...." His grin as he looked between Logan and Charles was impish as he made it clear he'd overheard Logan's words to the other man before they'd come in.

 

Logan's grin back was sheepish. "Eavesdropping, kid?" he teased good-naturedly.

 

"Wasn't like you were trying to be quiet..." Clint retorted with a chuckle.

 

Charles smiled. "I've yet to meet my grandsons, though I have wanted to ever since Logan told me he remembered them." His smile at his son was fond. "If there is enough space, I would of course be happy to conduct our meetings there. And I suspect you might be more comfortable in your home, too," he added to Wanda.

 

Wanda nodded, looking relieved.

 

Logan slanted his head. "Do you think it would be better to have set days when we go to your compound and dad has lessons with you; on a weekly basis maybe? We teach here during the week, but we could always arrange schedules in such a way that one or two days we aren't teaching here and we could be there...." He looked toward Wanda and his father to see what both of them felt. He got the idea Clint would go along with whatever Wanda felt most comfortable with.

 

Charles didn't immediately answer, instead glancing at Wanda to see what her response would be.

 

Wanda thought about that and then nodded. "Yes. I...would like that," she said, quietly but with certainty.

 

Clint nodded, before asking, "What days do you think would be best for you?"

 

Logan looked at his father. "I don't arrange the schedules....and currently, I only teach Monday through Wednesday. Dad?"

 

"I can arrange my schedule to teach those same days and leave Thursday and Friday free for the meetings," Charles replied.

 

"Except when emergencies occur, I'm sure we can schedule missions around those days..." Clint nodded.

 

"Excellent." Charles smiled. "You are, of course, all welcome to come here whenever you'd like to, especially if either of you feel it would be helpful to sit in with some of the other students," he added to Wanda and Pietro.

 

"We might take you up on that..." Clint smiled. "I think it would be good for both my kids to be around other powered people."

 

"Yeah, it's not like there's not enough at home, Pop," Pietro teased.

 

Clint huffed. "You know what I meant, Junior..." he said with amusement.

 

Pietro grinned at his brother and then nudged his sister's shoulder. "Just imagine what else you might be able to do," he joked.

 

"One thing about Dad and I coming to your compound...anyone else with abilities that might need training can be helped too..." Logan shrugged. "But unless you want to start training right this instant, why don't we show you around and then go to lunch? If that's agreeable to everyone?"

 

Wanda nodded, but glanced at her father in case he had a different idea.

 

"Works for me." Clint shrugged. "Lead on...."

 

Charles nodded, smiled and began moving out of the office so he could show them around.

 

****

 

Matt wrinkled his nose and scratched his head. While he and Foggy had decided to keep their city office open long enough to finish the cases they'd had before the move and open their new office in the town nearby the compound to generate some new cases...the logistics of doing so had turned out much different than they'd planned. The fact Karen had decided she wanted to he a reporter and had taken a job with the nearby city paper was only part of it, since Darcy had agreed to help them set up and get started, along with her unofficial title of 'scientist wrangler'.

 

No, the problem was that, in a small town, it was taking them a while for people to get over their initial distrust and go to them with cases. Which meant he wasn't as busy as he'd expected. He was bored.

 

Blake had ended up walking to the new offices Matt and Foggy had, after checking in with his dad. He knocked on Matt's door to announce his presence, not sure if his cousin would be busy or not.

 

Foggy answered the door and led him into the greeting area. "Hey, Blake. Cone to see our new gigs?" He grinned.

 

Blake smiled, following the other man. "Partly, but I'm also compiling evidence in a case." Many of his colleagues on the police force understood why Blake had turned dirty... but he was still driven to make up for everything.

 

Matt had walked over by this point. "Evidence?" he asked curiously.

 

"Yeah," Blake answered. "I thought it might be a long shot, but I've been looking into other people who attended the same academy as me and Bakshi. I've uncovered a couple of other suspicious disappearances."

 

"That's big," Foggy said, with a hint of concern. "Have you told your family?"

 

"Not yet," Blake admitted. "I wanted to compile all the evidence I can before I talk to the others. I could still be wrong about where the connection is."

 

"So what do you need us to do?" Matt asked pointedly. He knew Blake wouldn't have made Foggy and him the only family told if they weren't needed to help with something.

 

"I have witnesses I need to talk to and some leads I can't get to. I was hoping you might be able to help," Blake said, aware Foggy and Matt could get places he couldn't.

 

"Got names of locations so we know where to check?" Foggy asked. It was clear by the look on Matt's face he was going to help.

 

"Yeah." Blake handed over the files. "Some of the people still missing... I want to see if looking at photos of them might jog Bakshi's memories."

 

"You haven't shown them to him yet?" Matt asked, leaving the photographs for Foggy to peruse.

 

"Not yet," Blake admitted. "I think I might need to do that in a more controlled environment, considering I can't anticipate how he might react."

 

Foggy nodded. "Would probably be a good idea to have his dad there...." He noticed the odd look on Matt's face and couldn't help but ask, "You are planning to tell your parents that you're working on this, right?" He couldn't keep the 'big brother' 'worried' tone out of his voice.

 

"As soon as I have something to actually tell him," Blake replied. "All I've got right now are tangled threads."

 

Foggy didn't look too convinced that was the best course of action, but didn't say anything.

 

Matt nodded. "I'll wait till you're ready to say anything myself."

 

"Thanks," Blake replied. "I just don't want to bring anything to the others when I don't have anything."

 

"Cuz that's never gone wrong before..." Foggy muttered to himself. He didn't say anything else, however...Matt's sharp look of irritation stilling his tongue.

 

"Well... thanks anyway for agreeing to help," Blake said, trying not to think about the fact Foggy probably had a point.

 

"No problem. That's what family is for, right?" Matt said quickly, not certain Foggy wouldn't have more to say on the subject, even if the other man seemed to be going along with the plan, albeit reluctantly.

 

Foggy smiled crookedly, his dissatisfaction at the fact that the two men were keeping secrets from everyone else clear. But he didn't say anything else against it. "We'll try and help as much as possible. Finding out this information is important."

 

Blake nodded. "I've looked into the background of the people I've given you the information on. While I know you can take care of yourselves, you shouldn't need any backup."

 

"Ok, then. Hopefully, you're right..." Foggy chuckled, taking a closer look at the names. "Think the first order of business is to contact the admissions office of the academy. See if anyone there knows anything...."

 

"Unfortunately, that's one of the places I can't reach," Blake admitted. "Word got around there that I was a dirty cop. And the reasons why don't tend to be important." He shrugged, unable to help his own feelings of guilt.

 

"Well, I'll take care of that part. Hopefully, my name isn't too well known, so if any of Fisk's cronies are still in positions of power there, they won't get suspicious..." Foggy nodded. "...Actually, I'll begin on that right now. If you'll excuse me."

 

"Is there anything I can do to help you?" Blake asked Matt. "I notice you aren't very busy here yet."

 

"We're waiting for the people in town to realize there is a new law office that is willing to help low-income families..." Matt smiled. "...Maybe you can help me come up with some ideas for advertising that will actually reach that group of people...."

 

Blake grinned. "I'm sure I could help you come up with something. I'll also let people know down at the precinct, when I see anyone who would be able to make use of your services." Pausing, he added, "It might help if a connection to the Avengers is made known. People might be more likely to trust a law office that has a connection to the superheroes."

 

"You could be right about that..." Matt mused. "So...how would you go about advertising that fact?" Matt motioned Blake over to the desk, where they could collaborate together.

 

***

 

May took a look around her completed room and wrinkled her nose. It was fully decorated now, with a mix of things to her taste and a few things that her daughters had liked...since she wanted them to feel comfortable in it as well. She couldn't believe all the stuff she had, though; she hadn't realized how many knick-knacks and mementos she'd accumulated over the years. "I'm a pack-rat..." she muttered to herself in some vaguely shocked tone.

 

Skye spotted her sister lingering outside their mother's door and was quick to go over and join Hope. "Why don't we go and see if Mom wants to do something with us?" she suggested, reaching out and knocking on their mother's door.

 

Hope looked a bit anxious, but nevertheless relieved Skye had taken charge.

 

"Come in!" May quickly called, turning toward the door and trying to ignore the knowledge that she had a collection of items she didn't even remember buying. She thought at some point she should look at everything and try and remember why she'd bought it. If there were good memories attached, she could share them with the girls.

 

Skye pulled open the door and stepped into the room, waving Hope in to join her. "Hey, Mom. What'cha doing?" she asked.

 

"Wondering how in the world I ended up with so many.... things..." Melinda's voice was befuddled. "I don't remember buying half of this stuff, but I do recognize it, so I must have done...."

 

"Are any of them from missions?" Hope asked curiously.

 

"A few. Several are from trips I took with your grandparents when I was a child..."May admitted.

 

"Oh, which ones?" Skye asked, interested.

 

"Well, this one here for example..." May picked up a tiny figurine, motioning her daughters closer, then began to explain its origins. After that, she pointed out another and another.

 

Soon, they had lost track of time as May shared more of her history than she had in a very long time, growing closer to her children as she did so.

 

***

 

Hope finished up the conference call and then put her laptop away, going to seek out Scott now that she'd finished her work for the day.

 

Scott was in what had been deemed 'Cassie's room', as that was where his daughter would stay when she visited him. He had a slightly mopey look on his face. Cassie had returned home the evening before because she had school and he was obviously missing her, especially since Hope had been busy with work and Hank was helping organize the SHIELD labs and the office he'd been given on that floor. He was staring at a blank wall, eyes narrowed in thought.

 

After asking Friday, Hope tracked Scott down to Cassie's room. She knocked lightly on the door and waited for a response, guessing Scott might be feeling a bit down and wanting to help him feel better.

 

"C'min," Scott called out quietly, his shoulders slumping a slight bit more.

 

Hope entered the room and closed the door before moving over to Scott's side. She wrapped her arms around him and just hugged.

 

Scott turned and wrapped his own arms around his girlfriend, holding on tight. "It's silly. I miss her so much but it isn't like I won't get to see her again next week...she has permission to spend Saturday with me..." he mumbled with a sigh.

 

"How you feel isn't silly," Hope said. "And it's understandable you miss her. She's still your daughter."

 

"She overheard one of the younger boys talking about the 'big changing picture' on their wall and now she wants one too. I was looking at the wall just now to see if it could be added and it looks like it already has been." Scott wrinkled his nose. "Do we have a big changing picture on our wall too? I hadn't paid attention, but if we do, that's really cool...." He changed the subject, still embarrassed at how mopey he was being, despite Hope's assurance that it was understandable.

 

Hope nodded. "We do. We can always see about adding more images to it, though, if you'd like."

 

Scott blinked. "What image is there now?" he asked in confusion. "I don't remember seeing any images...."

 

"I only just activated it," Hope replied. "I thought it might be nice to see when we go back to the room later."

 

"Oh!" Scott grinned crookedly. "What picture did you choose? You're right...it will be nice to have in the room since there aren't any windows...."

 

"There's a forest landscape at the moment," Hope answered. "But I was hoping to get some personal photos added into the mix."

 

"Photos of San Francisco?" Scott asked curiously. "Because I love dad...but I don't think I'd want a huge blow-up of his face across from our bed...." His eyes were glittering in amusement, even if his tone was completely serious.

 

Hope smiled. "Those were the kind of photos I was thinking of. The ones of family members could be very awkward."

 

"Phew! I am so glad to hear you say that!" Scott said exaggeratedly, still teasing slightly. "...I don't want any pictures of Luis or the guys up there either!"

 

"Are you sure?" Hope teased gently. "Those pictures could add something extra..."

 

The horrified look on Scott's face made it quite clear what he thought of that idea...even if the slight choking sounds hadn't. "Yeah...no. Let's not ever go there...." he finally said, clearing his throat. "But pictures of San Francisco would be nice. And I think we could get live stream pictures of the grounds outside if we wanted. If we found a particular spot on the grounds we like. It would be like looking out a window, especially if birds and deer and such strolled by."

 

Hope nodded. "We could look at that while Dad's finishing up on his lab work," she suggested. "And then join him for lunch."

 

"Great!" Scott looked happier at the thought of having something to keep him occupied, especially if it included his girlfriend.

 

"Let's go." Hope kissed him and then stood up to lead him from the room.

 

***

 

Raina glanced around the tiny lab she'd been designated and smiled. While she also worked in the larger lab with all the other SHIELD scientists, it was nice to have her own space where she could run her own experiments and research. And she knew just where to begin.... Soon, she was lost in her work, time slipping by unnoticed.

 

***

 

Bobbi wrinkled her nose and sighed. She'd spent pretty much every night in her father's room...even though her own room was fully decorated now, the calming colors of a tropical Moroccan theme easing stress and the wall encompassing screen transmitting a picture of a secluded tropical beach that she and Lance had visited once when their friendship was new and they hadn't yet become romantic for the first time. Actually, this particular beach was the first time she'd even considered Lance Hunter as a potential paramour. She grinned crookedly. Despite the calming influence of the room, she'd still spent every night with her father, some anxiety she couldn't find the cause of making her clingy and needy. And agitated.

 

So far, she hadn't done anything to get into trouble because of the unease she was feeling. But a lack of missions wasn't making it easy. BC (before Coulson), she would have taken care of the unease by throwing herself into work - and usually in an unhealthy way. Her father wouldn't allow that now, so she really needed to find a way to ease anxiety that wouldn't upset him. The urge to get his attention by doing something he wouldn't like was a new aspect to the anxiety that she'd never felt before joining the family, but she was self-aware enough to realize that that was more to test her boundaries and to make sure she was still important, not because it actually would help with her nerves.

 

Grant popped his head through the open door of her room and glanced around. "It looks really great, sis. Mine still looks very institutional...maybe you can help me decorate?"

 

"Yeah...sure." Bobbi's smile grew warmer as she looked at her 'older' brother. "I'm sure we can figure out a 'theme' that we can decorate around that will make it more comfortable for you."

 

Grant narrowed his eyes, then nodded. "Great. Thanks. Until then, though, why don't we go on a walk? You look like you could do with getting out of the building for a bit."

 

"Can't say you're wrong." Bobbi sighed, moving to Grant's side. "Let's go, then...." Soon, the two had left the building and were exploring the grounds around the compound. They didn't bother telling anyone what they were doing, because they figured they were on the grounds and Friday or Veronica were keeping watch, so they could be easily located if needed.

 

***

 

Natasha returned home, having got her son and some of the younger members of the family (Peter and Harry, to be more exact) to help her out with picking up groceries for dinner. It wasn't long after she headed into the kitchen that her father joined her and she grinned at him. "Where are the kids?"

 

"Your brother's still not back from the school and I believe Grant and Bobbi are exploring outside," Coulson replied. "Raina's in her lab. I was about to go and bring her out. Do you need a hand with dinner?"

 

"Nah, I think I'm good." Natasha grinned at her father and indicated her son and younger cousins. "I have help."

 

"Yeah, remind me never to grumble that I'm bored around you again," Peter joked, in the process of chopping vegetables.

 

Lincoln grinned at Peter. "Grumbling about that around anyone is always bad news..." he teased. He was in the process of making homemade dough for flatbread.

 

"You know how to get hold of me if you need me." Smiling, Coulson gave his daughter and grandson a hug and kiss on the forehead, then an affectionate hug each to the teenage boys, before heading in search of Raina.

 

"Sure thing, Gramps!" Lincoln called after Coulson, an impish tone in his voice.

 

Coulson chuckled and waved back over his shoulder before heading to Raina's lab, asking Friday to announce his presence to his daughter.

 

"Thanks, Friday!" Raina responded to the AI when she was informed of her father's impending arrival. She quickly cleaned up her experiment so that anyone looking at the area wouldn't be able to figure out what she was doing, an old habit from when she worked with HYDRA and needed to worry about someone stealing her work or sabotaging her. A small part of her had to admit she was also hiding things so that her father wouldn't be able to figure out what she was doing- if he recognized anything- because she was fairly certain he would put the kibosh on her experimental plans if he knew. Soon, she had a simple beaker that she was heating so that she could look at the contents under a microscope...nothing to do with what she'd been working on before she was told her father was coming to see her.

 

Coulson knocked lightly on the door, so as not to startle her, and then entered the lab. "Hey, sweetie. Your sister's preparing dinner. I figured maybe it's time you take a break." His voice was gentle, but still very firm.

 

"Ok, Baba..." Raina answered agreeably, removing the beaker from the flame and putting it safely in refrigerated storage, then making a note of the temperature she'd heated it to and for how long before she cooled it again. "I'm ready to go now." She smiled, after cleaning up the minimal mess left after she'd stored the vial.

 

Coulson wrapped his arms around his daughter in a tight hug, guiding her from the lab while still keeping her in his arms.

 

Raina snuggled closely, giggling slightly. "Would it be easier for you to walk if I just let you carry me?" she gently teased her father. "Or if you gave me piggy-back?" Walking while he had both arms around her wasn't easy, although she liked the feeling too much to pull away.

 

Coulson kissed the top of her head. "I can walk just fine holding you like this," he replied.

 

Raina gave a skeptical look but didn't say anything else, instead shifting so that she could follow his lead- much like dancing- and snuggled closer. "What do you wish to do?" she asked, with a smile.

 

"I thought perhaps we could go for a walk on the grounds," Coulson suggested.

 

"I'd like that..." Raina's smiled grew. "I should probably change my shoes..."

 

Coulson nodded. "Would you like me to wait outside your room while you change your shoes?" he asked, unwilling to invade her privacy if she wasn't comfortable.

 

"You can come in, daddy...I have a little nook with comfy chairs." Raina grinned.

 

Coulson smiled and kissed her cheek. "I'd like that," he said, though he allowed her to enter her room first.

 

Raina walked into her room, leading her father to the little nook she'd set up. "I won't be long..."

 

Coulson sat down, looking curiously around his daughter's room.

 

Raina had gone for a more subdued look than her sister Bobbi; it almost looked like a farmhouse room with 'wooden' floor, rag rug and colorful quilt on the bed. Overall, it was a comfortable and inviting room. The wall screen that they'd all ended up getting was displaying a flower garden in full bloom from some part of the world, though it wasn't clear where. She ducked into her closet long enough to grab her walking shoes, then sat on the chair across from her father to put them on. "I guess it is a bit plain compared to some of the other rooms. I didn't have many personal things to add...."

 

Coulson smiled warmly. "That doesn't matter, sweetie," he said. "It's still a really lovely room. And you might find yourself getting more personal things in the future."

 

"Maybe..." Raina gave her father a bashful look. "I never really had a place to keep many possessions...I'm used to not keeping things...."

 

Coulson leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "You have time to get used to it now," he said gently.

 

"Thanks to you..." Raina said softly. "...Are you ready to walk?"

 

Nodding, Coulson stood and offered his hand to his daughter to help her up.

 

Raina took her father's hand and stood, not letting go once they were both up. She continued to hold his hand and let him lead her outside for their walk.

 

Coulson walked alongside his daughter, holding onto her hand and talking quietly to her, clearly enjoying their time together.

 

Raina opened up more than she'd expected, the quiet of the grounds and one on one attention helping her relax her natural guard.

 

Coulson gave her his full and complete attention, keeping in constant contact with her.

 

Raina was unused to spending one on one time with anyone where she wasn't working and bit her lip as she tried to think of a topic of conversation. "I'm thinking of starting an experiment to see if I can make a solution that will increase the effect of another action. Like if cold medicine clears up symptoms in four hours, it would speed the time up to two hours or less....". Of course, she'd already started the experiment- on her own- but it was just semantics.

 

Coulson smiled gently at her and squeezed her shoulders. "Where are you planning to start with that?" he asked.

 

Raina blinked owlishly, not certain she understood the question right. "They gave me my own private lab area in the science section of the SHIELD building...I guess there..." she said cautiously.

 

"The experiment," Coulson clarified. "Do you have a specific starting point in mind?"

 

"Oh!" Raina blushed, but her smile grew. "Well, I've decided to work with an enzyme that encourages bacterial growth to form yogurt...see if it is applied in different ways if it will encourage growth or any other change in formation speed..." She slanted her head, watching for his reaction.

 

Coulson smiled encouragingly. "I think that's a very good place to start. You don't have to work alone... you know that, right?" he asked gently.

 

Raina blinked, feeling slightly guilty that she'd hidden the fact she'd already started working alone. She hadn't been entirely sure she was allowed to, even if she had been given a private lab. "I know, daddy...sometimes it's easier to think if I'm alone though...." she hedged, still not certain if she was required to get a partner.

 

"I know," Coulson replied gently. "But I'm just telling you that you don't need to work alone. I know things might have been more cutthroat before, but you're part of the family... part of my family. I'm not going to tell you not to work on your own anymore, but I've seen how easy it is for members of the family to get caught up in their work. Having an extra pair of eyes not only allows another person to see what you might have missed, it also allows two of you to remind each other to take a break."

 

"I...I will try to remember that. I would never have trusted anyone before to care about or help me that way..." she admitted.

 

Coulson kissed her head. "It takes time to get used to those kinds of changes. You aren't the only one who's had to make that kind of adjustment."

 

"It doesn't bother you?" she asked hesitantly.

 

"Not at all," Coulson replied reassuringly.

 

Biting her lip and leaning toward her father hesitantly, Raina asked in a whisper, "Would you be upset if I told you I already started working on the project?" She swallowed hard, realizing that she'd basically just admitted to almost hiding things from him.

 

Coulson tightened his arms around her. "I would have preferred it if you'd told me," he said mildly.

 

"Uh...huh..." Raina mumbled softly, an almost embarrassed tone in her voice. Swallowing, she snuggled closer. "Am I in trouble for not telling you?" She wasn't certain what she hoped the answer would be. Part of her wanted to hear him say yes, because he cared enough about her to not want her to hide things...even if the things she was hiding wasn't something he'd specifically told her he wanted her to tell him. The other part hoped not, because he hadn't actually told her she had to tell him about every experiment she ever did...not directly anyway. Although she wasn't entirely sure she shouldn't have taken a request like that as a given, even if he never actually voice it. It was a bit confusing to her, really...as independent and self-reliant as she had always been, there was still a tiny part of her that wanted someone able and willing to step in; the young girl who wanted a family 'tiny' part of her. She nestled close as she waited to hear his answer.

 

"A little bit," Coulson replied, after a moment's thought. "I did, after all, tell you not to do any experiments on your own before." He had been considering changing that rule, but the fact was, he hadn't told her he was going to.

 

Raina blinked, glancing up at him with a wince. He had told her that. She'd just assumed that he meant until things settled and she'd been in the family long enough to adjust. But he hadn't actually rescinded that rule, so to assume he had was poor form on her part. Even if she ignored the fact that she was still adjusting, so her assumption was faulty in the first place. Swallowing yet again, she asked, in a tiny voice, "A little bit, as in I'm grounded and can't do experiments again? Or a little bit as in you'll spank me but I can still do experiments if I tell you about them? Or..." Her voice trailed off as she realized she might be giving him ideas he hadn't thought of (as unlikely as that was) and she didn't want to accidently hand him a form of punishment that she thoroughly disliked (not that she liked the two she mentioned, but there were worse things that could be done, even in a 'mild' punishment).

 

"A little bit in that I'm going to give you a spanking... though it'll just be a reminder... and we'll discuss any experiments you want to do alone," Coulson replied, his voice mild and calm.

 

Raina slumped and let out a tiny sigh, but she didn't argue. "Yessir...I...I deserve it," she admitted quietly, before snuggling closer to her father again. She glanced around the wooded area they had walked to. She knew that the cameras didn't see this far and it was doubtful they'd be disturbed, but they were still outside. "Are you going to spank me now? Or later?" she asked, in an even quieter voice.

 

"We'll take care of it after we've eaten... unless you'd rather get it out of the way now," Coulson replied gently.

 

Raina looked down before glancing back up at her father with a regretful look. "I don't want it between us, Baba..." she said softly.

 

In answer, Coulson kissed her forehead. Still holding her hand, he began leading her back home.

 

Raina was disappointed in herself; if she hadn't made assumptions about what she was and wasn't allowed to do, she wouldn't have done something that disappointed her father. And their walk would have continued to be peaceful and fun. But instead, she had assumed her prior requirements of working alone and letting her father know at all times what she was doing had ended, even though he hadn't said she could work alone or work without telling him her plans. She sighed softly and pressed close to Coulson. "I should have told you what I wanted to do before doing it...and asked if I could work alone..." she admitted forlornly. "...I'm sorry I assumed I could do whatever I wanted without any input from you...I have no good reason for doing so. Just that I never had to tell anyone or get permission from anyone before you saved me.... It's hard to remember I'm accountable to others now...."

 

"I know." Coulson hugged her tight against his side. "It isn't the end of the world if you forget. We deal with it and then move on," he promised.

 

"I love you, Baba..." Raina said softly. "I don't like disappointing you...."

 

"I love you too," Coulson replied. "And I'm very rarely disappointed. Things have been moving quickly recently and I suspect everyone's still a bit shaken up."

 

"Things have been moving rapidly..." Raina agreed softly. "...That doesn't mean I should make assumptions and act on them without talking to you first." Her voice was regretful and had a hint of the frustration she felt at herself.

 

"We'll deal with it and then move on," Coulson promised, leading her inside with an arm wrapped around her waist.

 

"Yes, Baba..." Raina agreed, following meekly. It didn't take long for them to reach the elevator down to the family floor and soon, they were heading down the hallway that their rooms were on. Raina didn't know if her father would take her to his room or her own to deal with her conduct and looked up at him, a question in her eyes.

 

"We'll go to my room," Coulson decided, guiding his daughter in that direction, his arm still around her waist.

 

Raina continued to follow Coulson. She was relieved that they didn't run into any of the rest of the family on the way to her father's room. "I'm going to have the dubious honor of being the first to be spanked in our new home...." She sighed.

 

"I'm sure it won't be long before someone else follows," Coulson replied, guiding her into his bedroom. He took a seat and gently tugged his daughter over his lap.

 

Raina gave her father a wry if slightly amused glance. "This wasn't a contest I ever planned on entering..." she huffed, with a tiny laugh. The laughter stopped when he closed the door, though and by the time she found herself over his lap, she was completely quiet, almost somber. She reached down and gripped her father's ankle hesitantly.

 

Coulson adjusted her gently, rubbing her back a moment or two before he bared her and wrapped an arm around her waist, drawing her in close.

 

Raina's breath hitched slightly, the only indication that she was already being affected by what was about to occur. She didn't fight, or whine, or even squirm, however. She knew she'd done something she shouldn't have and deserved what was coming.

 

Coulson brought his hand down in the first fairly mild swat, more like a pat, and then repeated it.

 

Raina sniffled, the position and knowledge that she'd disappointed her father affecting her more than the swats. "I'm sorry, Baba..." she whispered.

 

"I know, sweetie," Coulson replied, his voice gentle, as he completed one circuit and began a second, not going any harder or faster.

 

Raina shivered and sniffled again, a tiny choking cry gurgling from her throat. "I shouldn't have assumed..." Her whisper was contrite and strained this time, as she attempted not to cry. Her father wasn't smacking hard enough to warrant crying and she felt ashamed that she was already doing so.

 

"I'm not trying to control you, sweetie," Coulson said, his hand not stopping. "But there were good reasons for putting that rule in place."

 

"I know...because of what I did before...that was d..dangerous for me and others...be...because I don't always know the difference between what is right or wrong to do..." Raina couldn't stop the tears this time and they were clear in her voice.

 

"I'll help you." Coulson's voice was gentle, though his hand didn't let up. "I will always help you. But you have to be honest with me."

 

"I...I want to, Baba....I don't thi...think I kn...know how!" Raina let out a tiny sob, before going boneless and just feeling what was occurring; not trying to stop it at all (though she hadn't really been fighting it before).

 

Coulson brought the spanking to a stop and wasted no time in gathering his daughter into his arms, settling her on his lap and hugging her tight to himself.

 

Raina snuggled closer to her father, sniffling forlornly. "What if I never learn?" she asked, in a whisper.

 

"You will," Coulson promised. "You aren't the only one to struggle with having to change how you've grown up."

 

"Thank you, Baba..." Raina whispered, leaning up to kiss him on the cheek. Giving a tiny sigh, she reluctantly stood and adjusted her clothing.

 

Standing as well, Coulson reached out to wrap his arm around her shoulders once she was done. "Shall we go and see how dinner's going?" he suggested.

 

"Yes, sir..." Raina answered with a tiny smile, letting her father lead her back out of his room and toward the kitchen area.

 

Coulson kissed her cheek as they headed into the kitchen and he smiled at the family members who had gathered there.

 

"Hello, Uncle Agent..." Tony grinned impishly at Phil before nodding at Raina. "Hey, cuz...did you find the lab that was made for you, to your liking? If there is anything in particular you need, just let Friday or Veronica know to put it on the supply list...."

 

"I will do so, Tony. Thank you..." Raina smiled.

 

Coulson walked over to begin carrying food into the dining room, as other family members began to filter in and out to help.

 

Mack walked in and glanced around, looking for his family. He'd not seen Loki, Lorelei or Darcy all day and was curious as to what everyone had been up to. He'd spent the morning fixing his motorcycle in the huge garage that had been built for SHIELD, Avenger and personal vehicles.

 

Thor had spent a lot of the day with Jane, who was going to be away at a conference for the next few days. He walked into the kitchen and grinned when he saw his youngest brother. "Mack! Have you seen our brother or sisters?" he asked.

 

"No...I haven't. Maybe they were with dad." Mack smiled. "Is Jane joining us for lunch? And how did she feel about you and Darcie moving her in with the rest of the family while she was away?" He grinned.

 

Thor laughed. "She does not seem to find it such a hardship," he replied. "She's just gone to wash for lunch." A perplexed look came over his face.

 

"What's wrong, bro?" Mack asked curiously, noting the perplexed look.

 

"I still do not really understand why it is necessary to wash up when you have not been doing anything to make you dirty," Thor admitted.

 

"Uh..." Mack began ineloquently. "...There are hidden germs and bacteria that can be transferred that, even if we aren't 'dirty' exactly, can make normal Midgardians sick..." he finally said. "As a scientist, she is likely aware of a lot of them and doesn't want to take any chances...." He wrinkled his nose. "...Now that I'm thinking about them, I think I'm going to go wash up really quick myself...." He turned to head toward the washroom that was just off the family room, as that was closer than his own.

 

Thor nodded, accepting that explanation, and turned to help carry some more plates and bowls to the table.

 

Soon, all the food was on the table and almost all the family was gathered to eat. Those who weren't there were noticeable in their absence. Mack sat between Thor and Odin, smiling at Jane, who sat on Thor's other side.

 

Odin's expression was concerned, seeing that three of his children were absent, but not quite into worry yet. He ate sparingly, not quite able to relax until he could see them.

 

***

 

Darcy looked at her watch again nervously before glancing at her brother and sister. Lorelei and Loki didn't seem any calmer than she felt. She had to press closer to hear Loki's words.

 

"We stayed longer than I intended. We will miss lunch entirely and it will be dinner before we get back home. Father will be suspicious...." He sounded resigned.

 

Lorelei winced. "He can't know we took...."

 

"We weren't supposed to take them?" Darcy interrupted in a high-pitched voice.

 

"You said you knew what they were!" Loki retorted back defensively. "If you knew what they were, you had to be aware they aren't meant to ever leave Asgard!"

 

"I thought that was just another myth! Like you and the horse!" Her eyes widened at his wince. "The horse is true?!"

 

"What?! No!" Loki spluttered. "I just am really disturbed by some of those myths that have developed about me! But to answer your non-question...." he held up a golden apple, "...the story about these is actually correct...."

 

Darcy sighed. "Great. So we have to hide what we did from dad...."

 

"Unfortunately...." Lorelei was the one to answer this time, her voice reluctant.

 

Loki just sighed and nodded, before continuing to lead them through the darkened tunnel toward Midgard and home.

 

****

 

By the time lunch had finished, Odin's concern was rapidly becoming worry. Thor quietly took his father's plate and cutlery to wash, freeing Odin to go and watch for the return of his other children.

 

Mack gave his father a concerned look and quickly helped his brother. "Do you think we need to form a search party?" he whispered to Thor uncertainly.

 

Ben had noticed Odin's missing children (pretty much everyone had) and he walked over to stand next to the worried Asgardian. "I'm pretty confident they will show up with an interesting- if not accurate- explanation of why they'd miss a standing family appointment without calling to let anyone know..." he said gently. "If they were in trouble, Loki at the least would have sent one of his clones to you to let you know...wouldn't he?" This time, his voice wasn't as certain, since he wasn't entirely sure how Loki's abilities worked and it was possible the young Asgardian wouldn't have been able to send a message that way.

 

Thor's frown was worried. "If we knew where they were roughly, we could look. But we know very little. I do not like not knowing. I wish to find them...."

 

"In normal circumstances, he would be able to," Odin replied. "But not if he's prevented from using his abilities."

 

Ben nodded. "If they took their phones with them, Veronica or Friday might be able to determine their location...."

 

"I will ask them." Odin addressed his question to the AIs.

 

Veronica was the one to answer the All-father. "I am sorry, sir...but I am not able to locate a signal on any of the phones in question. They have either been turned off or are malfunctioning in some other manner...." the AI responded. It did not occur to the AI that the reason she could not locate the signal on the phones was because they were not on Earth.

 

Odin took a deep breath, trying to calm his sense of panic. "I'll return to Asgard and ask Heimdall if he can see them," he decided quickly.

 

Ben nodded, reaching up and squeezing Odin on the shoulder. It was troubling that three family members were unaccounted for and the usual means of finding them weren't available. "Can I do anything to help?" he asked. He carefully glanced around the room, catching the eye of some of the other parents so that they could come help too if needed.

 

Coulson, Fury and Steve were quick to head over, having noticed the disappearance of the family members as well.

 

"Perhaps some of us should go with you to Asgard, while the rest of us direct the search from here," Steve suggested.

 

Mack looked at his father. "Just tell us what to do, dad..." he said, the worry clear in his voice.

 

Kara bit her lip and moved closer to her uncle. "We all want to help..." she added. She'd become quite close to Loki since he'd kept her from drowning in the island cave. She couldn't help but worry.

 

"Maybe some of us should go into town...in case they went there for some reason and turned their phones off?" Jessica added.

 

Coulson and Steve were quick to start organising where everyone was going to go. Odin was growing rapidly more worried and as soon as the parents who were going with him had been decided, he was taking them to Asgard with him.

 

***

 

Loki glanced at his sisters. "Are we all clear on what our story is when we finally get back home?" he asked seriously, a hint of nervousness in his tone. "We can't have any details different, or they will know immediately it is a story and push for the truth...." He didn't really like the idea of lying to his family- to his father- but taking the apples was forbidden and he needed to be certain they were eaten by his Midgardian relatives, not sent back to Asgard, or it would have been a fruitless trip.

 

Darcy wrinkled her nose. "Relax, Loke's. Lori and I were the ones who came up with the story. We won't forget." Darcy wasn't all that keen on lying either, but she was pragmatic. She knew that giving the family the apples that would lengthen their lives was important to Loki and Lorelei... she would have felt the same way if she were in their shoes... so she would do everything in her power to make certain their 'mission' was a success.

 

Lorelei smiled. "She is correct, Loki. We know what the story we are to tell is. We won't forget." She paused. "I understand what the apples are for, but why did you bring those two old dusty rocks?" she asked curiously.

 

"These?" Loki held up the rocks in question. "These are artefacts that the scholars won't miss. I promised our cousin Tony to bring him more Asgardian artefacts to study. These are tame and should prove harmless enough for him to do research on without causing a calamity." He chuckled ruefully, remembering the artefact that hadn't been so harmless and that had de-aged them. Putting the two rocks into one of his deeper pockets, he straightened. "We are almost through the pathway and will reach the exit into Midgard...just outside the tiny town. When we step out, we need to hurry to the theatre and make certain we are seen, so that if anyone asks, we'll have strangers that can corroborate our story...."

 

"Of course...Sure..." Lorelei and Darcy both quickly answered.

 

***

 

Odin didn't waste any time in transporting himself to Asgard, only pausing long enough to make sure his siblings were prepared for the trip. As soon as they were on the rainbow bridge, he approached Heimdall and quickly started questioning the huge guardian.

 

Ben had come with Odin as support; and also because, with his reporter's instinct, he felt he might be able to tell if someone was hiding something, either intentionally or unintentionally, that might help lead to Odin's children. Heimdall hadn't been able to shed any light on the location of the three missing family members. That didn't mean his answers weren't informative.

 

"So...no one has come through the gate recently except the All-father?" He slanted his head. "Does that mean that the children can't be here in Asgard?" He looked between Heimdall and Odin uncertainly, not knowing if there were other means of traveling between the worlds.

 

"There are other ways in and out of Asgard and the rest of the nine realms," Heimdall replied. "Loki has made use of those before."

 

Odin nodded slowly. "Having used them once, he could well use them again. And take Lorelei with him. But Darcy is Midgardian. And those other ways are dangerous."

 

"Has Loki been told not to use those ways?" Ben asked, with a hint of curiosity. "If not, we can't discount the possibility they used them. If past experience has taught me one thing, it's that children will attempt to get away with whatever you haven't expressly forbidden, if they think they won't get caught. Sometimes they'll try and get away with it, if it has been forbidden!" His tone was dry and, as he suspected Odin had experienced the exact same thing, sounded more commiserating than 'informing'.

 

"I never expressly forbade it," Odin admitted. "I thought there was no longer a need for him to use the dangerous ways." His voice was self-deprecating, as he realised he shouldn't have discounted it as a possibility.

 

Ben frowned slightly, then tried to make Odin feel better. "Maybe they didn't use them; you did say they were dangerous. None of those children are stupid, so maybe...."

 

"I can't assume that," Odin replied. "There are very few reasons why Heimdall would not be able to see someone."

 

Steve, who had accompanied them, moved a bit closer. "Perhaps we should return home and check if any other members of the family have heard anything back from them?" he suggested.

 

Ben nodded. "Yes...I'm sure you will be informed if they are seen here after we leave..." He glanced at Heimdall for confirmation.

 

Heimdall nodded. "Of course," he agreed without hesitation.

 

Ben prepared himself for the trip back to Midgard, standing between Odin and Steve so that, if he stumbled, he could grab one of them for balance.

 

Odin returned them to Midgard quickly and then went to meet up with the others to ask if they'd heard anything from his wayward children.

 

Mack was officially worried. They'd looked through the entire town without finding sign of his siblings. Veronica had searched the entire grounds around the compound and hadn't found any heat signatures beyond the squirrel, deer and other wildlife that lived in the area. Either his family was nowhere near home, or Loki was masking their presence for some reason. Either way, it wasn't good. He quickly went to meet up with his father when he was contacted about Odin's return. "Did you find them, dad?" he asked, his anxiousness clear.

 

Odin shook his head, clearly anxious and worried. "There's nothing from them here?" He already guessed the answer, but needed to voice the question.

 

"Nothing..." Mack said softly, moving closer and wrapping his arms around his father. "...We'll find them, though. I'm sure...." His voice wasn't as confident as he wanted, but he was trying his hardest to bolster his father.

 

***

 

Loki and his sisters had reached the exit of the pathway and were about to set foot onto Midgard again. Before they could, he looked at the two women. "Alright. As much as I hate to do it, we need to turn our phones off. That way, if someone says they've been trying to reach us and asks why we didn't answer, we can act like our phones being off is the reason we didn't know about it...instead of the fact we were nowhere with a phone signal..." He proceeded to follow his own directions, wrinkling his nose, not really liking that they might have to lie, but not wanting their actions to be discovered either. "...Hopefully, no one has been trying to reach us and it won't even come up...."

 

Darcy snorted. "We missed lunch. You know it will come up. I don't like lying either, big brother...but if you want your plan to work, we can't let them find out about the apples and the only way to do that is to hide what we were really doing. So..." She sighed. "...Really a shame that law is in place, though. It'd be a heck of a sight easier if you were allowed to share the apples with whoever you wanted and could just tell everyone what we were doing." She pouted, pulling her phone out and turning it off.

 

"I wish it was allowed. I don't understand why it isn't," Lorelei added her own two-cents into the conversation, even as she pulled out her phone and turned it off. "If I didn't know it would draw suspicion, I'd ask daddy why sharing isn't allowed."

 

Nodding as his sisters did as he'd directed, Loki finally stepped onto Midgardian soil, quickly leading his sisters around to the back of the movie theatre so they could 'exit' the building from the front and claim they'd been inside watching movies all afternoon. He cloaked his siblings and himself long enough to get into the building and into a darkened corner, then let the cloaking go. "Alright. Time to head home..." he whispered, before straightening up and walking back to the lobby again, making certain enough people saw him that, if anyone asked, they'd believe he'd been inside the theatre. Lorelei and Darcy followed closely behind. Soon, they were stepping back out of the theatre again, and walking back toward home.

 

Darcy glanced around as they walked. "Loke's? Is it just me or are we being stared at?" she whispered nervously, having noticed several people looking at them and then pulling out phones.

 

***

 

Odin couldn't settle down. As soon as he'd returned from Asgard, he was out with the search parties, periodically asking one or the other of the AIs if his children had come into range. It was a struggle not to keep transporting himself to Asgard to keep asking Heimdall the same.

 

Mack was staying as close to his father as possible, so he was there when Thor's phone rang. He glanced toward his older brother hopefully.

 

Thor was quick to answer his phone. "This is Thor speaking."

 

***

 

Loki, Lorelei and Darcy had made fairly quick time from the movie theatre to the edge of town, walking up the road that would eventually lead to the compound where they now lived. "What's with all these people looking at us strange?" Darcy muttered to her siblings, noting yet a third person who took a second glance as they walked by and then pulled their phone out. "I'm about ready to go grab some phones outta people's hands...."

 

Loki frowned. "I am not certain.... Let us walk faster." Taking both sisters' arms, he quickened his own pace as they walked home.

 

***

 

Thor listened and responded, then looked at the other family members. "They have been seen leaving the movie theatre," he reported.

 

"They were at the movies for five hours? Was there a double feature or something?" Mack's voice was incredulous, although what he really wanted to know was why they hadn't called between movies to inform the family what they were doing.

 

Odin frowned. "Heimdall would have seen them." He still wasn't relaxed... and wouldn't be until he could see his children were safe with his own eye.

 

"Maybe Loki cloaked them for some reason?" Mack asked hesitantly. Before Odin could answer, however, he looked down the road and saw his siblings approaching. "There they are!" He sounded relieved.

 

Odin extricated himself from the sons he knew were safe and quickly walked over to meet his other children. "Are you all safe?" he demanded, as soon as he was close enough.

 

Loki blinked, consternation filling his face as he saw nearly the entire family- all looking very worried- in the midst of what was obviously a search. "Y...yes, sir..." He swallowed and asked, even though he was fairly certain he knew the answer, "Wh..what happened?"

 

Darcy and Lorelei shifted closer, their eyes wide and nervous. He knew Darcy had to have been nervous...usually, she'd be jabbering away by now.

 

Odin took a deep breath and looked at each of them in turn. "Where were you?" he asked outright.

 

"At the movies!" Darcy squeaked out, then blushed at the high-pitched tone of her voice. She swallowed and cleared her throat and didn't say anything else, afraid her voice wouldn't work.

 

Lorelei licked her lips, then nodded at her sister’s words. "We have just left the theatre..." she added to the comment.

 

Loki glanced around at everyone and took a deep breath. "You were looking for us...?" he asked, although it wasn't really a question, as it was obvious that everyone had been searching.

 

"Heimdall couldn't see you." Odin paused and waited, knowing Loki, at least, would understand the implications of that sentence.

 

Lorelei and Darcy blinked uncertainly while Loki's eyes widened. "I....I might have hidden our presence from him without thinking about it.... I was cloaking us so that no one in the theater would pay heed to us...." Loki said uncertainly. Odin likely thought that Loki was worried about having cloaked himself and being in trouble for that, but in reality, the young Asgardian Prince was beginning to feel the first twinges of guilt about lying to his father. Even if his reasons were good- or at least he and Darcy and Lorelei had all three agreed it was necessary- it didn't sit well with him being dishonest with his father. He might have got the title of Lie Smith in the various Midgardian myths, but in actuality, he normally attempted to tell the truth.

 

Odin frowned, torn between relief that his children were safe and worry that his son felt the need to hide. "Why didn't you want them to see you?" he asked, his voice softened slightly.

 

In the meantime, Thor was sending messages to those of the family members who weren't with them, letting them know his missing siblings were back and safe.

 

"I...we are not yet familiar with the town...I know the agents that work in the compound have been vetted and can be trusted, but until we have been here long enough to recognize the town residents....After what happened at the tower....I just felt it prudent to take precaution. I did not mean to cause worry...especially when there was nothing truly wrong...." Loki's voice was hesitant and he spoke very softly.

 

Odin was still obviously very worried, but he sighed and nodded. "As long as none of you are hurt. Next time, I would prefer it if you let me know you were going to be longer than expected."

 

"Yes, daddy..." Lorelei quickly answered, her voice contrite.

 

Darcy nodded. "We should have let you know we'd be late...."

 

"Yes. sir," Loki answered readily, if a bit more subdued than he normally would be.

 

Odin wasn't sure he was getting the full story, but he was too relieved they were safe to continue questioning them. He moved forward to hug each of them in turn.

 

Loki watched as first Darcy, then Lorelei was hugged by their father, noting that both girls seemed reluctant to let go of the embrace. He couldn't blame them. As soon as he was in Odin's arms, he held on as tightly as possible, reluctant to let go of the older man himself. He hoped this wasn't a sign that the three of them were making a mistake...this clinginess bordering on fear to let go. And if it wasn't a mistake, he hoped the unusually affectionate behavior didn't give their secret away, since it made them seem guilty.

 

Odin couldn't complain at the overabundance of affection, though he couldn't help feeling somewhat suspicious. Still, he didn't want to accuse them of lying. Especially when there was no evidence of that but a gut feeling.

 

"The others will meet us back at the compound, if we're ready..." Mack interrupted the reunion gently. "Pepper is ordering pizza for dinner." He waited till everyone acknowledged his words before turning and leading the way back up the road toward the building.

 

Everyone else began following Mack. Odin moved so he could see all of his children and further satisfy himself they were safe.

 

Once back in the compound and on the private level, Loki turned toward his father. "I am going to clean up and change, if I may be excused?"

 

"Me too, daddy!" Darcy piped in.

 

Lorelei nodded in agreement with her siblings, though she didn't say anything.

 

"I think that sounds like a good idea..." Mack mumbled, but waited for Odin's dismissal.

 

Odin nodded. "I want the three of you to stay close for the next several days." Not exactly grounding them... but close to it.

 

Darcy opened her mouth as if to protest, but glancing at her brother and sister, she swallowed and instead agreed. "Yes, daddy...."

 

Loki swallowed a sigh and nodded in acceptance. It meant he'd have to wait for a few days before he could implement his plan, but the apples wouldn't spoil, so that wasn't a problem. "Yes, sir," he said quickly, before heading into his room to store the apples and the artifacts.

 

"Ok, daddy..." Lorelei smiled. She actually liked when Odin got over protective of her and wouldn't let her out of his sight. She'd always longed for someone to care that deeply for her, so she wasn't about to complain now that she had it.

 

Odin paused to wait for Loki, looking at his daughters. "Do either of you need to do anything before dinner?" he asked.

 

"Just change clothes and wash my hands..." Darcy smiled. "I'll be really quick!" Hugging him again, she ran into her room, leaving Lorelei standing next to her father.

 

Lorelei bit her lip. "I should clean up as well," she said reluctantly, not wanting to leave her father's side.

 

"Would you like me to accompany you?" Odin asked gently.

 

Lorelei's face lit up like she'd discovered Christmas. "Yes, daddy..." she said, almost shyly.

 

Odin wrapped an arm around his daughter's shoulders and gently guided her into her bedroom.

 

Mack glanced at Thor once the rest of their family had disappeared. "Is it just me, or does it seem like they're hiding something?" he asked quietly.

 

Thor nodded. "It seems that way to me, too," he admitted. "Despite what he is painted as in myths, Loki does not normally lie without a very good reason."

 

"Which is...worrying. What could have happened that they feel the need to hide it?" Mack wondered softly.

 

"I am not certain," Thor admitted. "But at least none of them appear to have been harmed."

 

"Thankfully. I don't know what dad would have done if they had been." Mack sighed.

 

"We will have to watch them closely to find out if they have done anything that may come to affect us," Thor said.

 

Mack blinked in surprise. "Do you think they have?" he asked sceptically.

 

"I do not know," Thor admitted. "But I believe we should be prepared for any possibility."

 

"And if we learn they've done something?" Mack asked.

 

"We will have to consider our actions based on what it is," Thor answered.

 

"If they did something and we aren't just being paranoid..." Mack muttered, although it was clear he didn't think they were being paranoid.

 

"We can hope," Thor replied dryly.

 

Mack just chuckled. "Let's go help get things set up for when dinner arrives," he sighed. "Dad's got them now. He'll handle it." Giving his brother a wry smile, he turned and headed toward the dining area, nodding at other family members that were doing the same.

 

It didn't take long before everyone was settled in the dining room. No one was absent, but Odin was still keeping an obvious eye on his wayward children.

 

Ben glanced at Blake. "Have you found out any more information on what you were looking for?" he asked his son.

 

Blake shook his head. "Not yet," he admitted. "I'm still working on it."

 

"Well, if you find out anything, let me know. I'd like to help you..." Ben said assuredly.

 

Kara was pressed up against Fury, but she kept glancing at Loki as if to reassure herself that he was back.

 

Loki smiled at his cousin. "I am alright, Kar-bear. I am sorry I frightened you..." he whispered to her during one of the moments she'd moved close enough that he could apologize without drawing attention to her, since she seemed reluctant to let anyone see her upset.

 

Fury had his arm wrapped around his daughter's shoulders, knowing she was upset even though he wouldn't draw attention to it. He did give her a gentle, reassuring squeeze to hopefully make it clear he was there for her.

 

At Loki's apology and her father's affectionate support, Kara relaxed- finally- and smiled at her cousin before wrapping her arms around her father in a snuggly hug.

 

Loki sighed softly and moved closer to his own father, though both Darcy and Lorelei were hanging off the older man like limpets, and gave a crooked smile to Odin. "I did not realize how badly we would frighten everyone. I am sorry, father. We should have left our phones on...." He winced. He hadn't intended to offer that excuse unless someone brought up the fact that they hadn't answered their phones. No one had asked that question though and the answers they had given had put them in the clear of any other questions.

 

He found that unsettling. They'd lied and had got away with the lie and while he didn't want the truth to be found out, he also felt very guilty and didn't like that he hadn't even got a chiding for not checking his phone in between the non-existent double feature. He could tell Lorelei and Darcy felt the same way. It was why he'd mentioned the phones being turned off. Even though that wasn't what had happened, it would at least open up an opportunity for Odin to correct them for being out of contact with no way to reach them, while still keeping the true circumstances hidden. He wanted to be scolded. He wanted to have some type of repercussion, even if it was just to be told that 'staying close' to father for a few days had turned into a full-fledged grounding.

 

Lorelei nodded in agreement to his confession, while Darcy said, "We really should have left our phones on..." in a subdued voice, confirming the fact they were feeling just as guilty as Loki.

 

Thor heard Loki's comment and noticed the reactions of his sisters, too. He didn't say anything, but he glanced at Mack.

 

Odin hadn't failed to notice his daughters and Loki's clingy behaviour. It was one of the reasons for keeping them close, along with being a response to what had happened. "You should have left your phones on," he replied. "We were all very worried about you. I thought something might have happened."

 

Mack looked back at Thor, his eyebrow going up faintly. This behavior was just more evidence that his siblings were hiding something. He just hoped that whatever it was wouldn't hurt them later.

 

"I did not mean to cause worry or concern..." Loki's voice was soft and subdued.

 

"I know," Odin replied. "But perhaps this conversation would be better continued after we've eaten." While how things were handled in the family was far from a secret, he didn't think having an audience would help any of them.

 

"Yes, sir...Of course..." Loki sighed softly, his eyes falling toward the ground. It was telling that he didn't argue or try to defend himself.

 

It was even more telling that neither of the girls argued or tried to defend themselves either. They obviously all felt guilty.

 

Once dinner was over, Thor stood and cleared his father's and younger siblings' plates and cutlery, freeing up Odin to take Loki, Lorelei and Darcy privately to his room.

 

Mack helped his brother, noting that the rest of the family was cleaning up and then heading to their own rooms or into the entertainment area to watch a movie.

 

Odin gestured for Loki, Lorelei and Darcy to accompany him to his room, then headed in that direction.

 

Giving his sisters a resigned and almost apologetic look, since it was his words that started them down this particular road, Loki followed Odin.

 

Sighing, Darcy followed close on Loki's heels. It wasn't as if she wasn't about to say something equally incriminating herself, so she wasn't upset at her brother.

 

Lorelei didn't even sigh. She straightened her shoulders and regally followed; every bit an Asgardian princess, even if she hadn't been raised one.

 

Odin opened the door to his room and stepped inside, waving his children in behind him. Once they were all standing inside, he closed the door and then turned to face them, a serious look on his face.

 

Loki blushed at the urge he had to confess everything, barely managing to hold his tongue.

 

Darcy was unsurprisingly not able to do so. "I'm sorry, daddy! I didn't think about how everyone would worry!" she fretted.

 

"It wouldn't have taken much to let us know where you'd gone." Odin looked at each of them in turn. "We've faced a lot of dangers. I didn't know if something had happened to any of you...."

 

"You're right, daddy..." Lorelei looked down, unable to face her father. "We didn't think of that...." While all three of them had decided taking the apples was a good idea and that the fact they had taken them needed to be kept hidden, the fact was they could have found some way to keep their family from worrying about them. They could have told them they were taking a quick trip to Asgard to pick up the artifacts that Loki ended up bringing back- and to show Darcy around (which they had done). They could have called before leaving and then again once they returned. And telling their family would have enabled them to use the bifrost instead of the dangerous paths that she knew Odin would not have approved of. Somehow, lying about their true intentions for going to Asgard had translated into hiding the fact that they had gone to Asgard in the first place; and it really hadn't needed to be that way.

 

Loki nodded at his sister's words. "She is right. We did not think. It was never our intention to worry you or anyone else. I am sorry..." He barely refrained from calling Odin 'daddy' himself, though he was close to doing so. He was feeling guiltier about his actions than he'd expected to feel.

 

Darcy just slumped and stared at the ground.

 

"While I know you didn't intend to cause any worry, the fact remains you did," Odin said. "And those actions cannot go unanswered, which means that, in addition to this grounding, each of you will be spanked."

 

Loki winced, but didn't argue. He knew what was expected and had actually felt unsettled when he thought he was going to get away with what he'd done; having his father confirm the family rules and respond consistently helped ease that unease.

 

"Where do you want us to go or what should we do, daddy?" Lorelei whispered.

 

Darcy bit her lip.

 

Odin looked around his room and came to a quick decision. Without saying a word, he took a gentle hold of Loki's arm and guided his son to one of the corners of the room. Then he did the same to Lorelei.

 

Loki obediently went where his father led him, facing the corner and not leaving as soon as he was placed.

 

Lorelei did the same, although she couldn't stop herself from throwing her arms around her father in a quick hug before she turned back to face her own corner.

 

Darcy stood in the center of the room where Odin had left her, shifting from foot to foot and biting her lip nervously. She didn't attempt to leave the room, though, running not even entering her mind.

 

Odin reciprocated Lorelei's hug and then gently squeezed Loki's shoulder before he moved over to Darcy. Giving her a reassuring smile, he took her hand and led her over to the bed, sitting down and gently guiding her over his lap.

 

Darcy wasn't sure how she felt about the fact she was about to be punished with her siblings in the room where they could hear. The only consolation was that they would be going through the same thing and since she was first, they'd soon forget her reactions as they dealt with their own. Still, she didn't fight or argue. Once in position, she reached down and held onto Odin's leg, saying in a quivery voice, "I'm sorry I scared you, daddy..."

 

"I know." Odin rubbed her back gently and then bared her. Wrapping an arm around her waist to draw her in close against his stomach, he lifted his hand and brought it down in the first stinging rather than hard swat.

 

Darcy whimpered softly, then sniffled. She was embarrassed at how quickly she began to cry, but between feeling so badly at having scared her family and the position she now found herself in, it was impossible to remain calm and collected. She held as still as she was able, but still couldn't help but shift slightly at the swat.

 

Odin kept his strength carefully controlled as he completed one circuit of swats, going down to Darcy's thighs, then started again from the top.

 

Darcy began to squirm more frantically the longer the spanking continued; her sniffs turned into sniffles and then tiny whimpers and whines; the slight amount of tears she'd had before the spanking even began turned into a stream of tears trailing down her cheeks; and soon, even that small amount of control was beyond her and she began to choke back tiny sobs. "I'm sorry, daddy! I'm sorry!"

 

"I know," Odin replied gently, even as he continued the spanking, only using a tiny bit of his strength. Apart from the spanking serving more as a reminder, he was aware Darcy was human and didn't want to use too much force. "You are too important to risk," he continued. "Not telling us where you were meant we didn't have any kind of idea of where to start looking if you had been in any kind of danger."

 

Darcy couldn't rightly say the spanking was unbearable; even if it stung, it was a manageable pain. It was her father's words that did her in. She already felt guilty for lying...as much as they had agreed it was necessary. Adding worrying her father onto her list of crimes and knowing how much her actions had hurt him? She slumped bonelessly over Odin's knee and sobbed.

 

Odin brought the spanking to a stop and then gathered his daughter into his arms, hugging her tight.

 

Darcy snuggled as close as she was physically able to. She still felt guilty, the lies she and her siblings had told still standing between her and her father. She couldn't confess, though. Not until she'd spoken with the others and they'd all agreed to come clean. Not when it would ruin Loki's plans. She hated having the lies between her and Odin, though. It physically hurt. Her sobs slowly calmed until she was sniffling, but her grip on Odin didn't ease at all.

 

Odin tightened his own embrace and stroked her hair gently, murmuring soft, soothing words of comfort and forgiveness.

 

Darcy didn't want to let go, but eventually, she forced herself to release her father and fix her clothing, giving him a woebegone look. "Where do you want me, daddy?" she finally whispered, knowing that he still had her siblings to take care of.

 

Odin leaned forward and kissed her forehead, then stood and took her hand to lead her over to the same corner Lorelei stood in. He drew Lorelei out and then gently guided Darcy into the corner.

 

Darcy sniffled as she was put into the corner, immediately facing the wall. "I love you, daddy..." she said quietly, even as she attempted to get her emotions fully under control. It wasn't easy, not knowing that she was about to hear her sister receive what she'd just got.

 

Lorelei was already crying when Odin pulled her from the corner. Hearing Darcy punished had been difficult. Knowing that the reason for the punishment was because they'd worried and hurt their family- scared their father- had made it unbearable. So she was already crying, though she managed, barely, to keep the tears silent. The look she gave Odin as he led her out of the corner was sorrowful and contrite- and full of guilt. It was very difficult not to confess everything. But she wouldn't say anything unless her brother and sister agreed to confessing as well. She wouldn't force them into a confession. Not when they'd all agreed to keep their secret together.

 

"I love you too...all of you," Odin added, including Lorelei and Loki in his response to Darcy. Gently squeezing his other daughter, he led her to the bed and, within seconds, had her in the same position over his knee as he'd had Darcy.

 

Lorelei let out a choked sob as she was upended over her father's knee. She didn't fight the position, though and instead went limp so that he could thoroughly punish her as quickly as possible.

 

Odin wrapped his arm around Lorelei's waist, drawing her close against his stomach, and then proceeded to bare her. Lifting his hand, he brought it down in a swat the same force he'd used on Darcy and then repeated it.

 

Lorelei was already crying hard, so the swat didn't alter her response at all other than to cause her to squirm minutely. She was ashamed at how quickly she'd lost control over herself and could only hope Odin understood why she'd started crying immediately. If he thought she was attempting to receive an easier punishment by using her tears, she would feel even worse about herself.

 

Odin completed one circuit of swats and then began a second, tightening his hold on his daughter.

 

Lorelei continued to cry steadily, not begging for the punishment to stop. Instead, she sobbed out, "I'm sorry, daddy...I'm sorry..." the words becoming a mantra.

 

"I know," Odin replied gently. "I love you. You and your siblings. I was scared I'd lost you...and I can't lose any of you."

 

Lorelei heard the words and it hurt, knowing how she'd scared her father. Unable to say anything that would justify or defend herself, she slumped, going boneless over her father's knee. She hadn't been fighting before, but now she wasn't even moving, just accepting the stinging swats with tiny whimpering cries.

 

Odin brought the spanking to a stop and was quick to gather his daughter into his arms and on his lap, hugging her close and tight.

 

As soon as she was right-side up and in Odin's arms, Lorelei wrapped her own arms around the older man, clinging to him tightly and hiding her face against his chest. "I'm sorry, daddy...I didn't mean to scare you. I didn't want to worry you..." she whispered forlornly.

 

Odin kissed the top of her head and hugged her tighter. "I know," he said gently. "I forgive you. I love you."

 

Lorelei snuggled close and tight. The love, affection and forgiveness enabled her to calm down quickly, though and soon she was gently pulling back and wiping her eyes. Glancing toward her brother, she could tell the wait and hearing both her and Darcy had already broken the young prince. His body was stiff and ramrod straight from his effort to hold himself together, but his form was quaking from the effort. She would not be surprised if his face was bathed in tears already. Sniffling, she hugged Odin again before standing and fixing her clothing. "Where do you want me, daddy?" Her voice was rough from crying.

 

Odin kissed her forehead and then stood up. Taking her by the hand, he led her over to Loki's corner, gently drawing his son out before placing his daughter back in.

 

Lorelei quickly gave her father one more fierce hug before giving her brother a teary smile and turning to face the corner she'd been placed into.

 

Loki swallowed in an attempt to stop his tears. He hadn't been crying out loud- no noise had escaped him at all- but his face was wet, his eyes were red and his nose was runny. He didn't feel much like an adult at the moment, but was trying very hard to behave in a mature way. When Odin had drawn him out of the corner, he'd caught his breath- the guilt at the secret they were keeping weighing him down more than he had expected. Part of him wondered if they shouldn't just confess all, but if they did, he was afraid his father would take the apples and then he couldn't do what he had planned. He wouldn't be able to give all his mortal family the extra time he wanted to give them. His fear at losing them too soon overrode his guilt and he kept quiet and waited for his father to take him.

 

Odin gently squeezed Loki's shoulder and then guided his son towards the bed. Taking a seat, he gently guided Loki across his lap, securing him with an arm wrapped around his waist before baring him.

 

Loki's deeper inhalation of breath was the only outward sign he gave that the position was affecting him. He hadn't stopped crying, but he was doing his best not to react, because he knew any reactions he had would be very childish.

 

Odin gently rubbed his back, then lifted his hand and brought it down in the first stinging swat that he then repeated.

 

Another sharp inhalation of breath at the first swat and then Loki couldn't stifle the tiny whimper he exhaled with the second swat. Closing his eyes tightly, he tried to regain control over his heightened emotion.

 

Odin swatted down to Loki's thighs and then started a new circuit, keeping the swats at the same force and speed.

 

Loki was only able to hold out for the first circuit. When his father began a second round of the stinging admonishment, he couldn't prevent himself from beginning to squirm. About halfway through the second circuit, he also began to whimper and whine despite his best efforts. He hadn't stopped crying from the moment he'd been in the corner, so by this point, he had to breathe out of his mouth- his nose was too clogged- and his eyes burned from all the tears. Choking back a sob, Loki threw his hand back to cover his bottom.

 

Odin paused to take hold of his son's hand, moving it to the small of Loki's back and holding it there before he resumed the stinging swats. "I was scared I might have lost you...lost all of you," he said, pitching his voice to be heard by his son.

 

"I....I know, daddy..." Loki said in the tiniest voice he'd ever used. He hadn't meant to worry or frighten his father. While his end goal was admirable, the questionable way he'd gone about reaching that goal was proving to have side consequences he hadn't counted on- his father being scared one of them. "I'm so sorry..." he whispered, in between quivery breaths.

 

"I know. And I forgive you. I still love you," Odin promised, gently squeezing his son's hand with the one he wasn't using to spank Loki.

 

The words of forgiveness and love broke what little resistance Loki had left. He'd been trying to keep his reactions to a minimum, not wanting to be a baby and over-react to what wasn't really that harsh a punishment. Listening to his sisters being punished had been hard, though. Knowing they were all being punished because of how badly they'd frightened and worried their father had been harder. Hearing that none of that mattered and he was still loved and he was forgiven? When he knew that there was a more serious offense that he hadn't confessed and it was one that would be disapproved of heavily by his father? He couldn't not react any longer. Stiffening up slightly in one last bid to retain control over himself, at the squeezing of his hand Loki went limp and began to sob. It was still silent; but mostly because he'd been crying so long, his voice wasn't able to reach above a whisper, not because he was trying to stay in control. He had no control and his father would be able to feel it in the way he lay limply accepting punishment, no longer squirming, whimpers of pain and remorse that, while not loud, could still be heard by the one disciplining Loki.

 

Odin immediately brought the spanking to a stop, his heart aching, and wasted no time in gathering his son into his arms and on his lap, hugging Loki tight and stroking his hair and back gently.

 

"I'm sorry, daddy...so sorry...didn't mean to hurt you...didn't mean to scare and worry..." Loki whispered against Odin's neck, before taking in a shuddering breath and continuing to cry. He grasped onto his father tightly, as if afraid Odin would change his mind and let him go.

 

Odin kissed his head and tightened his embrace. "I know," he murmured. "I forgive you. I love you," he reiterated, not so much as loosening his hold on his son.

 

"Love you, daddy..." Loki's voice was hoarse, faint and sounded very, very, young. Taking another shivery breath, he reluctantly stood and fixed his clothing with a tiny hiss before giving his father a needy look. If it weren't for the fact his sisters needed their father as well, he'd have been content to crawl onto Odin's lap and snuggle for as long as the older man would allow.

 

Odin stood up and wrapped his arm around Loki's shoulders, taking his son with him to lead his daughters out of their corners, doing his level best to keep physical contact with all three of them.

 

"Can we stay with you tonight, daddy?" Lorelei asked quietly. While she knew they were grounded, she wasn't certain if sharing a bed would be allowed. Not when they'd so seriously messed up.

 

"Of course," Odin replied, without any hesitation.

 

"May...may we stay here now? I do not believe I feel up to facing everyone after my actions..." Loki whispered still, his throat rough and achy from crying so long.

 

Odin nodded. "We can stay here," he agreed.

 

"Thank you, daddy..." Darcy answered for her brother. "May I go see Bruce and get Loki something for his throat?"

 

Odin nodded again. "If you'd like, you can get drinks and something to eat, too," he suggested.

 

"I can help her..." Lorelei offered hesitantly.

 

"If you'd like to," Odin replied, smiling at them both. While he felt the need to keep all three of them close, he was content to let his daughters leave for a few minutes.

 

Lorelei smiled at the show of trust and quickly took Darcy's arm so they could go get the items. "Come, sister...let us hurry..." she said softly.

 

"Yeah...ok. We'll be back soon with something for your throat, bro..." Darcy smiled at Loki before being pulled out of the room by Lorelei.

 

Loki swallowed and, as soon as the door had closed behind his siblings, he'd moved back to his father and wrapped his arms around him in a desperately tight hug.

 

Odin wrapped his own arms tight around his son, holding Loki close and kissing his head. "I love you," he reiterated, knowing how emotional Loki was right now and only wanting to help him.

 

Loki shivered and just held onto his father. Normally, a spanking would help him feel better after having done something wrong. This time, because he knew he was hiding something and told lies to do it, he didn't feel like he'd been punished enough. He couldn't say anything, though. All he could for was hold his father and trust that Odin would be able to forgive him if he found out the truth.

 

It didn't take his sisters long to return with various items to snack on and to help his throat. Mack and Thor were helping to carry the items.

 

"Can two more join this party?" Mack asked, with a crooked grin.

 

Odin smiled at his other two sons. "Of course."

 

Thor placed his items down and smiled at his siblings and father. "Do we have any plans?" he asked.

 

"Just be together..." Lorelei said shyly. "We had not really planned far beyond that...."

 

Darcy grinned impishly. "I'm sure we could find a movie that everyone likes, though...."

 

"Perhaps we could each make a suggestion and then vote?" Thor suggested.

 

"That works. Or we could let daddy make the decision...since he's arguably watched less movies than us...." Darcy grinned impishly.

 

Odin smiled. "I would be happy watching whatever you picked out," he said to all of them.

 

****

 

A little over a week had passed since Loki and his sisters had been grounded. Odin, assured that they had not been physically hurt in any way and that they would remember (at least for a while) that they were never to go anywhere without leaving a way for their family to reach them, had finally begun to allow them freedom of movement outside of his view. Loki had seen this as the moment to make his apple pies.

 

****

 

Meanwhile, during the week of grounding, the other family members had been adapting to the changes in living situation. Raina, despite her father's warning that she was not allowed to experiment without having another person present and without his prior approval, had gone back to her private lab as soon as she was able to do so unnoticed and begun working on her experiment of finding a 'natural' element that would help speed up processes.

 

****

 

Three of the 'kids' had come down with bad colds. Harry, Peter and Kara had decided to go on a walk earlier in the week and got caught out in a bad thunder storm. They'd returned back to their quarters soaked to the skin and shivering from cold. Despite their parents' quick intervention to warm them up, they'd all got chilled badly enough that they'd got sick and now were all taking cold medicine.

 

The remaining kids? May didn't know what the problem was, to be honest. All she knew was that pretty much every 'child' in the compound was in an irritable mood and testing the patience of their respective parents. Considering the fact that some of the parents were also testing the patience of their parent...or sibling, if a parent wasn't nearby...she shouldn't have been surprised. She'd blame it on the weather, but suspected it was likely a delayed reaction to having their home invaded and then having to move so quickly. To that end, she'd gone to Phil, Steve and Fury. "I'm thinking of inviting mom down to meet everyone finally. She has a room ready for her, she's been asking nearly every day for the last month, and maybe if we have some company that isn't someone everyone sees every day, it will cheer everyone up...." She looked at the men. "Maybe you'd like to invite Logan? And I know I'd like to see your family again, Phil...Nick...It's been too long...."

 

Coulson smiled at the idea and nodded, glancing towards his brothers, in particular Fury, to see what they thought. "My dad hasn't had a chance to meet Raina in person yet... I think I'd like to arrange a visit," he agreed with May.

 

Fury nodded. "It's about time they came for a visit, especially since they never had a chance to see the tower before."

 

"I'll give Dad a call. See if he can get some time off teaching to come," Steve said, also smiling at the thought of being able to see his dad.

 

"Good! I'm glad you all agree. I'll go call my mom now. Invite her for the weekend. That will give her tomorrow to pack and drive down...and your family time to pack and catch one of Tony's planes..." She smiled at Phil. Turning toward Steve, she grinned "Make sure your dad knows he can bring your grandad and this 'uncle' he's been mentioning...."

 

Steve's smile was amused and fond. "I'll make sure to tell him," he promised.

 

Tony returned from a board meeting at that point and caught the tail end of the conversation. "Tell who, what?" he asked curiously.

 

Steve smiled affectionately at his son. "Your grandfather, that he's welcome to bring his dad and uncle," he replied.

 

"We've been discussing inviting some of the other family members to visit," Fury added.

 

"That's great!" Tony was enthusiastic. "Who is coming? Do you need the jet?"

 

Coulson nodded. "My dad... brother and sister... they'll probably need the jet." He glanced at Steve. "The school's close enough for your dad to drive here, isn't it?" he asked, remembering that Clint had taken Wanda and Pietro there.

 

Steve nodded in confirmation. "I'm sure they'll be all right driving."

 

"My mom will need to catch a flight as well. Turns out she was visiting my father's grave in Hawaii." May gave a sheepish smile.

 

Steve smiled at her. "I'm sure we can work something out."

 

"Easy peasy, lemon squeeze..." Tony teased impishly. "The jet has to fly west to get Grandpa Coulson and Aunt Cath and Uncle Paul anyway. I'll just ask them to leave earlier so they can go to Hawaii first for Grandma May, then pick up the Coulson's on their way back."

 

May blinked then shook her head. "That's a lotta grandparents gonna be here..." She sounded slightly worried, even if she was still happy.

 

Coulson smiled. "I think we'll manage, given how many of us there are here anyway."

 

"Your dad isn't like my mom, is he?" May asked hesitantly. "I have to warn you...she's still trying to play matchmaker..." Her tone was sheepish.

 

"He isn't right now." Coulson's voice was faintly amused, as he considered it was possible May's mother might get his father on her side.

 

"Right now?" May's voice went up an octave as she thought about the fact that her mother could very well try to recruit Phil's family into playing matchmaker with her.

 

"I'm sure it'll be fine," Coulson replied with a reassuring smile.

 

"It'll be amusing to watch, at least," Steve murmured to his son.

 

"I'm getting really naughty ideas..." Tony admitted with a smirk, thinking about all the ways he could 'encourage' Mrs. May's matchmaking tendencies.

 

"Be good." Steve placed a gentle hand on Tony's shoulder, squeezing lightly.

 

"Oh...I could be really good at it, trust me..." Tony mumbled, knowing full well what his father meant, but having too much fun to stop teasing. He gave Coulson and May an innocent smile when they looked in his direction suspiciously.

 

"And also good at getting yourself into trouble." There was the faintest hint of a warning in Steve's tone.

 

Tony gave his father an abashed look, but didn't press the matter, instead looking at his feet sheepishly. "So...If you want to tell everyone to be ready to go by tomorrow, I'll have my jet begin the flight out tonight. They can all be here by tomorrow night...if that's alright with everyone."

 

"I'm sure it will be. Thank you, Tony." Coulson smiled at his nephew.

 

"Anytime, Uncle Agent..." Tony's grin was impish and infectious. "...If you all will excuse me, I'm going to go tell Pepper what's happening. She might want to see if her parents can come and meet everyone too, so that they won't feel like everyone is a stranger when it is time for the wedding."

 

"And I'd better call my dad and finalise the arrangements," Steve added.

 

Coulson nodded. "I'll call mine too..."

 

Soon, they had all disappeared to make their respective calls. That was why, when Raina walked in a few moments later, holding an unmarked container of powder (her experimental enhancer), she thought nothing about the risk of someone finding the bottle. All she was thinking about was that she wanted to test how extreme cold would affect it and she didn't have a freezer in her lab. So she put the bottle in the corner of one of the side shelves in the door of the family freezer. Surely no one would eat an unlabelled powder. After situating her experiment, she went back to her room to read.

 

Loki, Darcy and Lorelei were in the kitchen thirty minutes later, making pies from Idunn's apples. "Could you get me the cinnamon, please?" Loki asked.

 

Unable to find cinnamon in the spice rack (Trip had used the last of it on his toast that morning and put it on the shopping list, but no one else bothered to look at the list), Darcy opened the freezer, just in case. "Huh...that's weird. Wonder why they put it in here..." she said, as she pulled out an unlabelled bottle that looked like cinnamon.

 

"I don't know, but I need a tablespoon of it..." Loki nodded and smiled as Lorelei measured the powder onto the pie filling.

 

By the time all the pies were in the oven, half the bottle of powder had been used. The jar had been pushed to the back of the counter as the three siblings cleaned their mess and began to make dinner.

 

***

 

It didn't take long for the respective family members to be contacted and arrangements to have been made for those members to either be picked up or drive to the base. By the time dinner came around, Coulson had let his children know their grandfather was going to visit with their aunt and uncle and Steve had done the same with Bucky and his children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

 

Loki looked around the table and smiled. It appeared everyone was enjoying their dinner and dessert. Even the three members of the family who were sick seemed to be enjoying them, if the way Harry and Peter went back for seconds before starting on their pie and Kara was quickly eating hers instead of refusing the sugar like she normally would have done when not feeling well was any indication. Of course, the medicine their fathers had insisted they take before the meal might have helped immensely in aiding their appetite as well.

 

Raina was the first to finish her pie and went to take a drink of water, only to realize her glass was empty. "Please excuse me for a minute while I retrieve the water pitcher from the kitchen?" She looked toward her father.

 

Coulson nodded and smiled at his daughter. "Of course," he replied.

 

Raina had quickly gone in and opened the refrigerator to pull the pitcher out. While getting some ice from the freezer, she glanced casually toward where her experiment should have been sitting. She stopped short when she didn't see the bottle where she'd left it. "Wha...?" Swallowing hard, she frantically looked through the freezer and around it on the floor (in case the bottle had somehow fallen out and rolled away unnoticed). It wasn't anywhere to be seen. Quickly closing the appliance door, she glanced around the entire kitchen, her eyes raking over every available surface. Her relief at seeing the bottle on the back of the counter near where Loki and his sisters had been working was short-lived as she noticed that the bottle was missing half its previous contents. "Shit!" She turned and ran back into the dining room. "Stop eating the pie!" she yelled out in a panic.

 

Loki blinked at the command and looked down at his empty desert plate, then glanced around the table to see if there had been anyone left who hadn't finished eating it yet.

 

Grant gave his sister a puzzled look and looked like he wanted to ask why, but wasn't sure he wanted to know.

 

A few of the family members still had some pie remaining, but everyone wore identical looks of confusion, looking towards Raina and then at the remnants of the pie.

 

Coulson was the first to break the silence. "What's wrong with the pie, sweetie?" he asked, looking straight at his daughter.

 

"The bottle on the counter..." Raina turned toward Loki. "Did you put it in the pie?!"

 

Darcy answered for her brother. "Well, yeah...we needed cinnamon...."

 

Raina winced. "That bottle... wasn't... cinnamon." Reaching up, she rubbed between her eyes before looking at her father, face filled with guilt. "It was my experiment. I needed to cool it down to freezing and the fridge in my lab wasn’t cold enough..." she said, in a whisper that everyone heard because the room was silent.

 

"Well...crap." Darcy's response was tame compared to what Loki wanted to say.

 

"There weren't any chemicals or anything toxic in the experiment..." Raina tried to reason and calm. "There were only natural non-toxic ingredients...just certain elements were boosted...."

 

"What kind of elements?" Leo was quick to ask, even as he began to gather the remnants of the pie so he and the other scientists could run any tests they needed. "Is there anything it might be likely to react to?"

 

Peter moved to help his brother, the curious look on his face indicating he too wanted to know the answers.

 

"The enzymes that normally help regulate the speed of growth..." Raina looked at her cousin. "I was using the elements found in yeast, since that encourages growth.... There really shouldn't be anything in it that would do more than cause an upset stomach. It really was all natural and non-toxic, so it shouldn't react badly to anything...."

 

"Except the apples..." Loki said with a sigh.

 

"Was there anything in particular about the apples?" Odin asked.

 

"Nothing, except they were Asgardian apples," Lorelei spoke up hesitantly.

 

"Iduun's apples, to be precise..." Loki swallowed.

 

Darcy piped in, "Yeah...we kinda went apple picking the other day when we said we were at the movie..." she admitted reluctantly.

 

Thor frowned and then focused a little more closely on his brother. He knew what effect the apples had, but was unsure if he should put voice to that.

 

Coulson looked at his daughter and at the Asgardians. "What might we expect to happen?" he asked, not addressing anyone in particular.

 

Raina swallowed, giving her cousin a nervous look. "I....I don't know," she reluctantly admitted. "The experiment was to see if I could make a natural substance that would help speed up certain processes...I hadn't even had a chance to test this version yet. The other versions did nothing and I was trying to see if a colder temperature would affect it...."

 

Loki winced. "I do not know either. Iduun's apples are meant to...prolong lifespan. They would have done nothing to you except add years to your life...at least that was my intent..." He looked down, not wanting them to see the fear in his eyes whenever he thought about any of them dying, if only from old age. Swallowing, he continued, "I do not know what might happen if mixed with Raina's work, but as she has stated it is all natural and not chemical...hopefully nothing."

 

Darcy grimaced. "Unless this was the version of the experiment that actually works and mixing it with the apples then baking it does something...."

 

"There....is that." Loki sighed.

 

Raina sighed too and tugged at her hair. "Fuck me..." she muttered under her breath, not intending anyone to hear, but feeling like she'd royally screwed up this time and unable to voice that feeling any other way.

 

"...All four of us..." Lorelei agreed with her cousin, morosely.

 

Steve was quick to take charge, looking at Bruce and the rest of the scientists. "I think maybe the first order of business is to run some tests." He paused, though, willing to defer to his son's expertise as a scientist.

 

Thor moved nearer to Loki, his eyes filled with concern and compassion as he placed a hand on his brother's shoulder and squeezed in understanding.

 

"We'll also need any of the notes you already have..." Leo addressed his comment to Raina, but glanced at his father to check.

 

"We will need all of your notes, Raina... as well as a list of the exact ingredients you put into the pie, what amount, what order and finally the temperature baked and for how long. Any number of things could affect what occurs. We already have blood samples from everyone- I'm very glad that Helen Cho recommended it and that Dad insisted we follow her recommendation- because I'm going to need to get a sample of blood from everyone that ate any of the pie at all so that we can compare before and after. Also, I want everyone who ate even a little of the pie to write down how much of the pie they ate. If you have to guess at amount, that's fine- most of you should be able to guess mostly accurately...." Bruce's directions were brief and to the point and soon everyone was writing down the information so it could be studied.

 

May watched as everyone scrambled to take care of things- just in case- and slanted her head. "Perhaps calling Helen Cho back to help us out wouldn't be a bad idea. And if Bryce is available?" She glanced toward Odin. "And your nurse friend...Claire?" This time, she looked toward Matt.

 

"I would suggest cancelling having our families come visit, in case we all end up sick, but it's really too late for those flying by jet. They picked up the Coulsons an hour ago and they'll be arriving in a few hours. And we can't easily cancel on just one or two families when the rest are coming. We'll never hear the end of 'I could have helped too' if we did that." Tony tried to add some levity into his message.

 

Odin nodded. "I'll travel to Asgard and retrieve Bryce, if the rest of you would like to contact the others." While he planned to deal with his children's actions, it was important to get all the help they could first...before responding to those actions.

 

"Well, I hope it won't be contagious but I expect that's easy to test out, too," Coulson said.

 

Raina's eyes widened at Coulson's words. "I wasn't making a virus this time, daddy...I swear!" The look she gave him was equal parts hurt that he might think that and horrified realization that she hadn't given him any reason to trust her.

 

"I'll call Helen," Pepper said quietly and walked to a quiet corner to do so.

 

"I'll call Claire...we wanted to see about hiring her to help with Mrs. Urich anyway..." Karen commented, before heading to a different corner.

 

Loki swallowed and opened his mouth as if to say something, but not able to voice it. He looked at the ground again.

 

"Should I list the medicine I took before dinner? Or just dinner?" Kara asked innocently.

 

Bruce's eyes widened fractionally. "New request!" he said loudly to the room at large. "If you are on any type of medication or have taken anything prescription or over the counter in the last 72 hours, write it down as well as dosage and how often you took it...."

 

"I know, I believe you," Coulson was quick to reassure his daughter. "But it's impossible to predict how anything might react with an unknown element. Even something harmless could turn another person into a carrier of its effects."

 

"We just took the cold medicine..." Peter glanced at Harry for confirmation; not that he needed to. "Dad, you have the medication there I took. If you pass it over, I can make a note of the exact properties."

 

Raina nodded, slightly mollified at her father's reassurance that he believed her but still upset at the fact she really hadn't given him reason to. She couldn't understand how he could believe her, given how she'd broken his rules again... and the result was a potential calamity.

 

"I took the same medicine..." Kara nodded at Peter and Harry.

 

Soon, Bruce had several pages for every family member listing exactly what they had ingested in the previous 72 hours, as well as medications and how much of the pie they had eaten. He had Veronica scan it into the system so the AI could add it to the information already known about each individual (such as age, weight, height, medical conditions) and have it at hand to compare if anything negative began to occur. He hoped all the preparation wasn't necessary, but if it was one thing he'd learned in the years since becoming Hulk- you didn't take chances with unknown elements, no matter how innocent they might seem.

 

While everyone was concerned, no one was really worried at the moment, as it didn't seem like there were any immediate adverse effects. Coulson, satisfied his family wasn't in any immediate danger, moved to approach Raina, knowing they had to discuss this and that neither of them would rest easy if they postponed it.

 

Raina's shoulders slumped as she saw Coulson approaching. She knew she'd messed up...badly. She knew she deserved whatever he decided to punish her with. She felt horrible that something like this had happened. All the times she'd snuck into her lab to work alone, knowing her father wouldn't approve, she'd assumed that the greater danger was to herself. She'd never expected to put the rest of the family in potential harm’s way.

 

Coulson's eyes were soft and gentle as he reached out to gently wrap his arm around Raina's shoulders. "Come on, sweetie. Let's go and talk," he said softly.

 

"Ok, daddy..." Raina whispered. She didn't argue at all, evidence that she knew she'd done the wrong thing and felt guilty about it.

 

Coulson kissed her cheek and began leading her to his bedroom, keeping his arm wrapped around her shoulders.

 

"I know what I did wrong, Baba..." Raina admitted once in his room. "I knew when I decided to do it. I just...I thought it was a silly rule. I promised myself not to experiment on other people anymore, so didn't see why it would matter if I worked alone. I never thought an accident like this would happen..." Her voice caught and she swallowed hard.

 

"I know, but that's one of the reasons why that rule was in place," Coulson pointed out gently. "And we did have a discussion about these experiments before."

 

"I know we did..." Raina whispered. "I was bad...ignoring your wishes...deliberately disobeying...."

 

"No, not bad," Coulson corrected, his voice still gentle. "But you shouldn't have disobeyed." Taking her hand, he began leading her to the bed.

 

"I feel like I was bad..." Raina admitted, even as she let her father lead her where he wanted her.

 

"You made a mistake. You weren't bad," Coulson replied, taking a seat on the bed and gently guiding his daughter across his lap.

 

"I don't know how I can claim it was a mistake when I deliberately did it even though I knew better. You're very patient and forgiving, Baba..." Raina whispered, as she reached down and grasped her father's ankle with one hand, reaching back with the other, as if needing reassurance that she actually was forgiven.

 

She didn't just feel as if she was bad...she felt like she deserved to not be forgiven and she wouldn't have blamed her father in the least if he sent her away. She could have seriously hurt her family because she was too proud to accept that she shouldn't work alone. If she hadn't been trying to hide the fact she was disobeying, she would have been able to let everyone know she'd put an experiment in the freezer, or -better yet- used the very large one in the compound lab that no one would have confused with food. And the fact she even thought that putting her experiment in an appliance meant to hold food was a good idea- what about cross contamination?- only proved she wasn't thinking clearly and her father had been right to tell her not to work alone.

 

Coulson gently stroked her back a few moments before he bared her. "I love you," he said, as it was that simple to him. Lifting his hand, he brought it down in the first firm swat that he then repeated.

 

"Oh..." Raina couldn't help the tiny yelp as the first swat landed. The repeat wasn't any easier to take quietly and she whimpered. The truth was, she wasn't going to be able to stay quiet, no matter how much she wanted to take what she had coming like an adult. She felt too guilty about what she'd done that could have had tragic consequences. And while she didn't want to make things difficult for her father, he deserved to hear and see her response to his correction. He deserved to know she was listening to him. His words of love only served to encourage her to more honesty. Sniffling, she whimpered, "I'm a complete screw-up...how can you love me?"

 

"You aren't a screw-up," Coulson replied. "You made a mistake. You aren't the only one to do that. I'm not going to stop loving you or wanting you just because you make a mistake," he promised.

 

"Even deliberate ones?" Raina asked pathetically, her voice tiny and uncertain. She could understand forgiveness if she hadn't meant to do what she did. But she'd deliberately done it, knowing her father wouldn't approve. She didn't understand how he could forgive that or still want her.

 

"It doesn't matter," Coulson promised, the gentleness of his tone in stark contrast to the firm swats he was landing in a repetitive manner.

 

A tiny sob escaped at his answer and Raina quivered slightly before slumping over his knee and accepting her punishment, crying softly and holding onto his leg tightly. "...Sorry, Baba....I didn't mean...I didn't think...I...I was so wrong and I knew that, but I didn't mean..." She gulped and didn't try to make any other excuses, just crying and focusing on the repetitive swats.

 

"I know," Coulson replied soothingly, even as he began another circuit of swats, going a bit harder and faster.

 

Raina didn't say anything more...what could she say? She knew she'd been wrong. Had known it while she was doing it. The swats were painful and she responded as such, allowing herself to cry, but she didn't beg for her father to stop. She didn't want him to stop. Her imagination was throwing all types of images at her in recrimination of her actions: images of ways her family could be hurt or worse because of her actions. As much as the spanking hurt, she was afraid if she wasn't thoroughly punished, she'd do the same ill-conceived thing again. Even so, the faster speed and harder strength soon had her squirming uncontrollably, despite her desire to pay for her misdeed.

 

Completing a third circuit, Coulson delivered a final few to his daughter's sit spots and thighs and then stopped, gathering her into his arms so he could hug her tight to himself.

 

By the end of the spanking, Raina's squirming was little more than spasmatic wiggles. She'd finally reached a point where all she could do was lie there and accept, so when her father finally stopped and pulled her up into his arms, it took her a few seconds to realize she was being held and comforted instead of restrained and punished. As soon as she realized, she quickly wrapped her arms around Coulson and hid her face against his chest, snuggling like a baby animal trying to hide. She didn't stop crying, but her tears weren't loud and there was an element of relief and peace in them that hadn't been there in the beginning. The soreness of her bottom helped her feel like she'd paid for her actions. Now she could only hope that nothing bad happened because of them. "...What...what if something happens, Baba?" she asked in a whisper, pressing closer still.

 

Coulson kissed the top of her head. "We'll deal with it if it does happen," he replied. "Bruce has started working on it already...if something does happen, we'll have a head start in figuring it out."

 

Raina sniffled. "... How long am I grounded for, Baba?" she asked hesitantly, there being no doubt in her mind that she deserved to be grounded and if she was lucky, her ban from working on any projects or experiments wouldn't be longer than a month.

 

"Two weeks," Coulson answered. "If you want to do any experiments, you'll need to do that with supervision."

 

"Yes sir..." she whispered and snuggled close again. Her desire to do experiments had waned at the knowledge that she'd been so careless, she could have endangered her family.

 

Coulson tightened his embrace and kissed her forehead. "I love you," he reiterated.

 

"I love you too, Baba..." Raina's voice caught and she sniffed back more tears, snuggling as close as humanly possible.

 

***

 

Odin, after returning to Asgard to retrieve Bryce, checked with the AIs and then went to track down his three wayward children.

 

Lorelei and Darcy were in Darcy's room, sitting on the bed and leaning against each other forlornly and offering each other what comfort they could. They knew they'd made several mistakes, not the least of which was lying to their father. In fact, they suspected lying to Odin would be more damning than the fact they'd taken the apples; even if taking the apples was against Asgardian law. They'd attempted to get Loki to join in their 'comfort' huddle, but their brother didn't believe he deserved comfort and had retreated to his own room to lick his emotional wounds and mentally beat himself for his actions. At least that's what Darcy assumed he was doing. He hadn't really said anything to them, but the look on his face was one of guilt, regret and resignation.

 

"We're going to be in big trouble, aren't we?" she whispered to Lorelei.

 

Odin headed to Darcy's room first. Standing outside, he knocked lightly on the door.

 

"Come in..." Darcy called out softly, not entirely sure if it was her daddy or one of the other family members...but hoping it was her father.

 

Odin opened the door and stepped into the room, closing the door behind him and looking over his daughters. "I'd like you both to tell me what really happened. One at a time," he clarified.

 

Darcy bit her lip and gave Lorelei a look that only a 'baby sister' could manage.

 

Swallowing hard, Lorelei grimaced, then faced her father. "What really happened is that we did not go to the movies like we told you. We snuck up to Asgard, where we picked a bushel of Iduun's apples. Loki cloaked us so that Heimdall would not see...we did not want to be stopped and knew if we were seen, we would be in very big trouble from the guards. Because we were on Asgard, our phones did not work. They did not work in the pathways either; we did not have reception until we had stepped out of the pathways back onto Midgard. We turned our phones off at that point because all three of us agreed that we could not let you know what we'd really been doing- and we made up the story about being at the movies and cloaking ourselves because we did not know the area well...." By the end of her explanation, Lorelei's voice was high pitched and tight from holding back unshed tears. Their decision to lie sounded horrible now that she'd voiced it out loud.

 

Darcy swallowed hard this time. "We all three agreed to go after the apples, daddy... Loki and Lorelei were so worried about all their Midgardian family dying too quickly...and I didn't like them worrying so much. We also all three agreed to keep it hidden because of...because of it being against the rules to take Iduun's apples and give them to non-Asgardians.... It..it was actually my idea to go the pathways..." she said quietly.

 

Odin moved closer to his daughters, reaching out to place a hand on each of their shoulders. "I believe you don't need me to voice exactly what you have done wrong," he said quietly. "I will not say you were wrong to worry about your family here dying quickly, but you should not have kept your actions a secret and lied. Not just to me, but to the whole family."

 

"No, daddy..." Lorelei looked down in shame.

 

Darcy also looked ashamed of herself, but forced herself to look her father in the eye, even if it let him see how ashamed she was and let him see her cry. "No, daddy...we shouldn't have done any of that..." she whispered in a tiny voice.

 

Odin gently squeezed their shoulders. "You both will answer for your actions, but then that will be an end to it," he promised. "You'll be forgiven. I understand, and so does everyone else, that this was an accident and that you had good intentions."

 

"We did!" Lorelei quickly agreed, grateful he understood. "...We should have talked to you about it, though..." She sighed softly. "...Maybe the accident wouldn't have happened then...."

 

"...Or if it did, at least you wouldn't have had to find out what sneaks and liars we were..." Darcy added sadly. "...I'm sorry, daddy..." she whispered.

 

"Me too..." Lorelei swallowed.

 

"I know," Odin replied. "We'll deal with it and then we'll put it behind us," he promised.

 

Both girls looked down, ashamed that they had lied and snuck around; even if their intentions had been good, they knew it was not the right thing to do. "What do you want us to do?" Lorelei finally asked in a whisper.

 

"I'll take care of you both the same way I did last time," Odin replied. "But I'll let you decide who goes first." He knew that, either way, it would be hard on them.

 

"I'll let Darcy go first..." Lorelei said softly, knowing how hard it was to have to wait when you knew you'd done wrong and were going to be punished.

 

Swallowing hard, Darcy shifted closer to her father, even as Lorelei stood up and moved to the nearest available empty corner.

 

Odin sat down on the bed next to Darcy and reached out to gently draw his daughter across his lap, securing her with an arm wrapped around her waist.

 

Darcy swallowed back a whimper, reaching down and holding onto her father's leg. She wiggled slightly until Odin's arm held her in place and then she relaxed. As long as her father had her, she felt safe; even if she knew the next few minutes weren't going to be pleasant.

 

Odin rubbed her back gently a moment or two and then bared her, before bringing his hand down in the first hard swat, careful once again to only use a fraction of his strength.

 

Darcy let out a tiny yelp. Odin may not have been using full strength- always careful of her and the fact he didn't want to injure- but the swat was still hard. And painful. Given the fact that they'd not only snuck to someplace they shouldn't have, via a way they shouldn't have, but they'd also lied about it...she knew she deserved it to be as hard as Odin allowed himself to make it. Still....

 

Odin settled quickly into a pattern of swats, going down to Darcy's thighs before beginning a second circuit, keeping a tight hold on his daughter.

 

It didn't take long for Darcy to begin squirming helplessly over Odin's knee. She didn't even attempt not to whimper or whine when the urge hit. Only Odin's grip kept her safely in place.

 

Odin completed the second circuit and began a third, swatting a bit harder and faster, still keeping a tight hold of his daughter.

 

By the middle of the third circuit, Darcy's whimpers had become full-fledged crying. Squirming and wriggling in a futile effort to ease the sting, she finally gave up, realizing that her father was completely in control. She wouldn't be getting up till he had determined she'd learned her lesson. The realization gave her a sense of peace and security she hadn't expected and it allowed her to let go. She went limp over her father's lap and just cried. "Sorry, daddy...sorry..."

 

Odin brought the spanking to a stop and moved Darcy into his arms, on his lap instead of over it, and hugged her tight.

 

Darcy immediately wrapped her arms around her father, hiding her face against his chest and snuggling while she continued to cry. She was too relieved and at peace to sound heartbroken, but she was still crying hard. Even so, Odin would be able to tell that the punishment hadn't just imparted a lesson and that the unease that had been emanating from his youngest daughter was gone. "I love you, daddy..." Darcy finally calmed enough to say, her tone grateful.

 

Lorelei remained quiet, but she could tell her sister was less distraught and more at ease. She could only hope she was affected the same way. She'd felt nothing but fear of discovery and failure since they'd embarked on the ill-advised venture. Tears streamed down her face, but she kept quiet and waited her turn.

 

Odin kissed the top of her head. "I love you too," he replied honestly, tightening his embrace around her.

 

Darcy sniffled and let out an embarrassed chuff. "I shoulda known better than to try and hide things and lie to you..." she admitted quietly. "I've not felt right ever since we returned...feel much better now that you know...."

 

Lorelei winced. "We all should have known..." she whispered, still facing the corner and hunching in on herself.

 

Darcy glanced at her sister sympathetically, before giving her father another tight squeeze. "Do you want me to stand where Lori is, daddy?" she asked quietly, somehow managing to fix her clothing without disrupting the hug at all.

 

Odin nodded, kissing Darcy's forehead before carefully standing her up and then standing himself. Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, he led her over to Lorelei's corner, reaching out to draw his other daughter out.

 

Lorelei stepped out of the corner and into Odin's arms at the same time Darcy stepped into the corner. The look she gave him was filled with guilt and tears were streaming down her face, even if she wasn't crying loudly. "I'm sorry..." she whispered to her father as she gave him a tight hug.

 

Odin kissed her forehead. "I know," he said gently, before guiding her towards the bed and taking a seat, gently tugging her across his lap.

 

Lorelei let out a tiny sob, but it wasn't distressed. She relaxed over her father's lap and reached down to grasp hold of his leg, closing her eyes and waiting for him to address her behavior...needing him to address it with word and action. She'd lived most her life without boundaries or consequences and she was more scared that he wouldn't make it clear that she had them now than she was scared about how he would make it clear.

 

Odin rubbed her back gently for a few moments and then bared her, before securing her more fully and delivering a hard swat that he then repeated, adjusting the force enough that, to an Asgardian, it would be at the same level he used on his human children.

 

Lorelei whimpered softly, but didn't try and get away. The swats stung and she didn't try and hide the fact that they did, wriggling almost immediately. But she wasn't attempting to get away; the fact that she'd slumped over her father's lap and shifted her grip so that she could squeeze his ankle made it clear that, as much as it hurt, she accepted what was happening.

 

As he had with Darcy, Odin completed two circuits before beginning a third, going a fraction harder and faster.

 

The harder, faster swats were impossible for Lorelei to handle without losing her tenuous control. As much as she believed she deserved what she was receiving, she couldn't stop herself from throwing her hand back to cover her bottom at the same time she kicked her legs out and began to cry more brokenly...not sobbing exactly, but obviously upset.

 

Odin paused to move her hand out of the way, holding it against her back, before resuming the swats.

 

Lorelei twisted her hand around, blindly grasping at her father's hand, some part of her afraid that if she didn't hold on, he'd lose her...she'd be lost and alone and... "I'm sorry, daddy..." she choked out. "I'm sorry was bad...sorry was liar....sorry was a sneak...."

 

"I know," Odin replied gently, squeezing her hand. "I forgive you. I love you. You had good intentions...all of you did."

 

"I...we did..." Lorelei was able to calm enough to speak once her father had her hand. "...Should have been honest, though..." Her voice quivered and then she just slumped over her father's knee, dejected. She wasn't afraid anymore...just filled with remorse and guilt. She submitted completely, focusing on the punishment and feeling like she'd never pay enough.

 

Odin brought the spanking to a stop, wasting no time in gathering his daughter into his arms and hugging her tight.

 

Lorelei cuddled as close as possible, her crying soft but steady. She put her head on her father's shoulder. "Am I forgiven, daddy?" she asked quietly.

 

"Of course," Odin answered, with no hesitation, kissing her forehead.

 

"How long am I grounded for?" Her voice was small and contrite by this point.

 

"The three of you are going to be grounded for three weeks," Odin answered. "Once I've spoken to your brother, I want to keep the three of you close to me."

 

"Ok, daddy..." Lorelei quickly agreed, needing to stay close to her father, her childhood fear of abandonment plaguing her still. Reluctantly she stood and fixed her clothing. "Do we need to stay in the corner while you speak with Loki?" she asked.

 

Odin stood as well. "That won't be necessary," he replied. "I will bring Loki here once we have talked."

 

"Ok, daddy..." both girls answered in tandem.

 

Odin gave them both a tight hug and then left the room, heading to Loki's and knocking lightly on the door.

 

Loki had withdrawn into himself, realizing a bit more clearly what danger the family had been put into and blaming himself entirely. When his father knocked, he waved his hand to open the door, but did not move from his position sitting in the dark, nor did he answer verbally.

 

Odin wasted no time stepping into the room and closing the door behind him. He quickly moved to his son's side and wrapped his arms tight around Loki.

 

Loki barely swallowed and held himself stiff; not because he was refusing his father, but because he was too far into his own mind- and the self-blame and hate- to do more to acknowledge Odin. He was positive he had gone too far. He did not deserve love, acceptance, or forgiveness, even if his father did not see it and would continue to bestow all three upon him.

 

Loki had to hold himself stiff because if he did not, he would break immediately. He tried to tell himself that nothing untoward had occurred due to the 'mistake', but he knew it could have just as easily been an experiment that was dangerous to mortals on its own, let alone mixed with Asgardian 'magic'. His actions had the chance of doing the exact opposite of his intentions and having realized the close call they had just had, Loki knew that the chances of failure and disaster had always been higher than the chance of success. Had he not snuck and hid and lied...had he just spoken with his father...Odin would have been able to point that out to him and he would not have possibly murdered his entire family.

 

So he held himself stiff and unresponsive, save for opening his door and swallowing, and attempted not to wail, sob and beg for his father to hurt him like he deserved to be hurt. He knew begging for such would grieve the older man.

 

Odin could feel the stiffness in his son and sat down on the bed next to Loki, pulling him into his lap so he could cuddle him more extensively, stroking his hair and pressing a kiss to the top of his head.

 

Loki shivered slightly at the affection and gave his father a bleak look. "I do not deserve your affection or love...I could have killed everyone..." His whisper was hoarse.

 

"You made a mistake. An error in judgement." Odin gently stroked his hair. "I know you had good intentions."

 

"I could have killed them!" Loki choked out, tears beginning to run down his cheeks.

 

"You didn't," Odin replied. "I know you feel guilty, but the worst didn't happen. And if something does go wrong, we can help to figure it out."

 

"Promise?" Loki winced at the needy, childish request. "I feel so guilty..." he admitted, giving his father a hesitant look, not certain if he should admit how much he wanted to hurt to make up for his mistake.

 

"I know." Odin gently stroked his hair. "But you aren't the only one to make a mistake. You had good intentions and I know something's been troubling you for a while. You've been worrying about the Midgardian members of the family, haven't you?"

 

"Yes, daddy..." Loki swallowed hard. "I can't imagine life without them, but their time goes by so quickly...." He looked down. "I was afraid for them, but I handled it wrong...."

 

"And you will be punished for it...but you do not need to hold onto the guilt," Odin said firmly. "You made a mistake, but nothing bad has come from it. Even if something does happen, we will handle it as a family."

 

Loki finally loosened his stiff control over himself with a tiny sob. "I do not think I can let go..." he admitted, the same self-loathing he had carried when first reuniting with his father back in his tone. He could have hurt his family just like he had hurt his mother!

 

Odin kissed his forehead. "You won't be alone, son," he murmured.

 

Loki turned toward his father, pressing closer into his embrace. "I'm so sorry..." he whispered, unable to mask the worry he still felt, even though nothing had happened. He couldn't shake the feeling that something had happened and they just didn't know what yet; and he was positive it would be horrible and that it was entirely his fault.

 

Odin tightened his embrace. "I know. I love you. And I forgive you. I know the rest of the family does as well."

 

"I do not deserve it..." Loki cringed and closed his eyes tightly, even as he slumped in his father's arms. "I should have known better...I should not have done any of what I did...."

 

"You were worried and scared," Odin said. "You shouldn't have hidden your actions and you shouldn't have lied, but I understand your fear."

 

Loki relaxed further at his father's words of understanding. "If...if something happens...I do not know what I will do..." he admitted softly.

 

"If something happens, we will handle it together as a family," Odin replied. "All of the information that is needed has been collected and there are many people here who will be able to work on anything that does occur."

 

Loki nodded, letting his head fall onto Odin's shoulder. He wanted...needed...to feel like he would pay for his reckless actions; because good intentions aside, he had behaved recklessly and knew it. He just couldn't bring himself to voice that he wanted to pay. Not when he knew it would upset his father to hear that he thought he deserved to be hurt. He couldn't get over feeling like he might have lost members of his family- just like he'd lost his mother- due to actions he'd taken without thinking things through completely.

 

Odin held his son close for a few more moments and then spoke gently. "As soon as you're ready, we will take care of your actions...and then we will be able to spend the rest of the evening together as a family."

 

"Okay, daddy..." Loki swallowed, reaching up and wiping tears from his eyes. "I'm ready...."

 

Odin pressed a kiss to his forehead and then gently moved his son over his lap, securing Loki with an arm wrapped around his waist before he then bared his son.

 

Loki didn't even whimper as he was positioned, reaching down and grasping onto his father's ankle; he just lay quiet and limp. He felt he deserved so much worse than what he was about to get, he couldn't fight in the least.

 

Odin rubbed his back gently for a few moments before lifting his hand, bringing it down in the first firm swat that he then repeated.

 

Loki closed his eyes at the first swat and tried to focus on what was happening. Unfortunately, all he could continually think on was the fact that he'd nearly poisoned his family- unintentionally, yes...but intentions would not have mattered if they had been harmed or, worse, killed.

 

Odin completed one full circuit of swats and then began a second, speaking as he did. "I know how guilty you feel, son. I know you think you deserve to suffer worse than a spanking."

 

Loki inhaled quickly, shivering as he heard his father's words. Odin knew how he felt without him saying anything. "I do!" he admitted, his voice catching. "I deserve so much worse...." He shivered again and swallowed in an attempt not to begin sobbing.

 

Odin gently stroked his back, even while his other hand continued swatting. "What about your sisters?" he gently pushed.

 

"Wh...what?" Loki stuttered, uncertain what his father was asking, confusion over-powering his guilt for a moment. The confusion broke him out of his head long enough for his body to register the swats and he began squirming despite his belief he deserved them.

 

"Do you think they deserve the same?" Odin pressed, tightening his hold on his son.

 

"N...no! They wouldn't have done any of this if it weren't for me! It wasn't their fault!" Loki protested indignantly on his sisters' behalf.

 

"They both felt the same as you," Odin pointed out. "Especially Lorelei."

 

"B...but they only joined because of me...they couldn't control what happened...why...?" Loki was squirming more vigorously, blinking rapidly to clear his eyes of tears.

 

"All of you were worried and scared about the same thing," Odin replied. "If they don't deserve a worse punishment, why do you?"

 

"Because I should have known better! I should have known anything that...that I needed to hide from you and lie about...was not a good idea. It was my honeyed words that convinced them...." Loki argued, not wanting to give up his belief that he deserved worse, but not wanting to say his sisters did. He stubbornly refused to admit what he was beginning to understand.

 

Odin was still swatting as he spoke, but he lessened the force a little to make sure he was heard. "I doubt you needed to do much talking to convince them."

 

"I..." Loki stopped, not willing to lie anymore, even if the truth went against what he thought was correct. "...No, sir..." he finally admitted in a tight voice before quivering. His father may have lessened the force behind the swats, but by this time, his bottom just hurt, no matter the force used and Loki was beyond being able to control his physical response, his legs kicking in tiny jerking motions and wriggling as he tried to move his bottom to 'safety', despite his claims of wanting to hurt worse. If he couldn't control his body, he'd control his vocal response. Or try to. What his father was saying was starting to break through and he wasn't sure if he'd be able to stay quiet much longer if Odin kept talking in such a calm, forgiving and caring manner.

 

"Then if you accept the three of you made the decision and are equally as responsible, you must also accept that you do not deserve a worse punishment than your sisters," Odin said. "What you did was not evil and was not done with malicious intent. You were trying to do something good because you were scared of losing your family members too soon."

 

"I did not mean for anything bad to happen! I was...am...afraid of losing them!" Loki said fervently, grateful Odin understood. "I...I messed up, daddy...I am sorry...I should not have lied or hid...I should have been honest and come to you to help me. Nothing bad would have happened then..." His voice trailed off helplessly and a tiny sob escaped. He tensed in an effort not to lose control.

 

"You shouldn't have lied. You should have come to me in the first place," Odin agreed. "But it's been troubling you for a long time."

 

"...Too long..." Loki bit his lip as another sob escaped. "...I am sorry, daddy...I should have come to you...it hurt...it hurt and I hid it instea...instead of letting you help...and I messed up. I am sorry...." The third choked back sob was too much and he couldn't fight it any longer, going limp over his father's knee and crying hard, the hurt and fear draining out of him with the tears.

 

Odin wasted no time in gathering his son into his arms, hugging him close and tight and pressing a kiss to the top of his head. "I love you," he murmured.

 

Loki just turned into his father and held tightly, unable to voice anything through his tears, but needing Odin to know he'd heard him and felt the same.

 

Odin just hugged his son tight, kissing the top of his head and gently stroking his hair and back.

 

It took several minutes of being held and comforted, but Loki was finally able to calm himself enough to speak. "I love you, daddy...and I do not wish to hide things from you ever again...it...does not help. And I felt wretched the whole time I was doing it..." he admitted in a whisper, nuzzling closer to his father.

 

Odin tightened his embrace. "I'm certain you will think next time," he replied gently.

 

"If I do not, I hope someone tells on me..." Loki muttered, still nuzzling against his father and tightening his own grip.

 

Odin gently stroked the back of his head. "The important thing is if you're starting to feel better," he said softly.

 

Loki stopped to think about it, then leaned back to smile at his father. "I do feel better..." he admitted softly, before fixing his clothing with a hiss and then snuggling close again. "Thank you, daddy. I love you...."

 

Odin kissed his head. "I love you. With all my heart," he promised, hugging his son tight once more.

 

Loki snuggled a few more moments before sighing. "What now, sir?"

 

"When you feel up to it, we'll go and join your sisters," Odin replied.

 

Loki just nodded and snuggled closer. Still, ten minutes later he was carefully standing up. "I am ready now, daddy...."

 

Odin stood up and wrapped his arm around Loki's shoulders, guiding him from the room to Darcy's room.

 

***

 

It was several hours later and the family was gathering in the family room, waiting for their visitors to arrive so they could show them the guest rooms made specially for them.

 

Despite his eagerness to see his father, brother and sister, Coulson couldn't help but look with concern over his children and grandchildren. He could see many of the other parents doing the same, even though so far, there had been no sign of negative effects from the apples. He still couldn't quite shake the feeling that there might be a delayed reaction.

 

Raina was subdued, knowing that her own part in the worry wasn't negligible by any means. She kept glancing at Loki, Lorelei and Darcy apologetically. Their plan had been due to worry about family, so no one could fault that. She hated that her own secrecy had ruined their plan.

 

Kara sniffled and snuggled closer to her father, not feeling up to doing much; the cold she had taking its toll more than she would have expected. She wasn't worried about the effect the apples or the experiment might have on her, though. As long as Fury had her, she didn't tend to worry or be afraid about anything.

 

Fury wrapped his arm around his daughter's waist, glancing at Steve as his brother took out his cell phone and checked the display. "Dad's just arriving now," he announced to the family at large. He didn't need to add that Logan was bringing others with him; they'd already been informed about Logan's new daughter.

 

***

 

"And...this is a hella site bigger'n I thought it'd be..." Logan chuckled as he pulled the station wagon into the garage. It didn't take long before they were all unloaded and Logan had grabbed his and his daughter's bags, leaving the other two to decide who'd be carrying what. "Follow me, Munchkin..." he said to the young girl hovering at his side. "Your big brothers are anxious to meet you."

 

Laura had been quiet for most of the journey. Even now she was 'safe', she'd spoken very rarely outside of when she needed to. Uncertain, she pressed a little bit closer to her father, though only barely touching...still not sure she wouldn't be cast away.

 

"You'll like it here, Laura," Charles said, moving his chair closer to her with what he could carry settled on his lap. "And everyone is looking forward to meeting you."

 

Just then, Veronica spoke up. "Welcome, Sirs and Miss. If you will please follow the red and gold lights along this path to the elevators, I will deliver you to the family floor."

 

Remy gestured in front of them and looked at Logan. "Lead the way. It's your other kids we're here to see."

 

"Well, alright then..." Logan smirked, then wrapped an arm around Laura and began leading them through the maze. Every so often, they'd have to stop in a tiny room, one door closing behind them, and a scan was run before another would open in front of them. As paranoid as it seemed, Logan was proud of the way security was bring taken so seriously. Finally, they reached the elevator that would take them down.

 

When they stepped off the elevator, Bucky was waiting for them. "Leave your bags here...we can put them in your rooms later. We just received word that Aunt May will arrive soon with Happy and the jet with everyone else has landed and the Quinjet sent to bring them the rest of the way here will arrive in about thirty minutes. Everyone has gathered in the entertainment area...." He grinned, quickly hugging Logan and Charles, ruffling Laura's hair and nodding at Remy. Not losing the grin, he quickly led them down the hall and into the large area set up with seating.

 

Pepper stood as the smaller group arrived. She watched as Steve and the rest of the family converged on their visiting relatives and hoped that no one had noticed the shock on her face when she first laid eyes on the newcomers. She supposed it really shouldn't have been a surprise, given her family now...but she'd never thought she'd see him again.

 

Laura very quickly seemed like she was getting overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people there were.

 

Steve was quick to notice his little sister's discomfort and turned to address his father. "Dad, why don't I help you carry the bags to your room and then maybe we can sort out some snacks and drinks?" He smiled at the small girl.

 

Kara's sickness had led her to become clingy again and more childlike in her dealings with the family, so she didn't move very far from her position of being plastered to Fury's side. She'd noticed the younger girl when Laura entered, however, and could tell all the people were becoming a bit much to handle. Gently and slowly extricating herself from her father's arms, she carefully stepped over to stand in front of Laura and slanted her head. "Do you like kittens?" she asked softly, a tiny smile on her face. "My kitten Whisper is hiding in my room- he doesn't like being around so many people- but maybe he wouldn't mind meeting you if it is just you and me...."

 

A hesitant smile came across Laura's face, but she glanced uncertainly at her father, not sure if he would tell her she couldn't. She hadn't been able to see any animals while cooped up in the lab...and since escaping, she'd had very little opportunity to see anything like that.

 

Logan smiled at his daughter, nodding at Kara. "That sounds like a fun idea. If you want to go, I'll take your bag to the room and you can settle in later..." he said to Laura gently.

 

Kara's own smile grew as she noted that the child seemed happy with her suggestion and she held out her hand so she could lead Laura to her own room where the kitten was playing.

 

Watching the two head off, Logan turned toward his sons. "Okay. What's up? There's an undercurrent of nervousness that I'm not used to feeling here."

 

"It might not be anything to worry about, but there was a little mishap at dinner," Steve admitted. "One family member was conducting an experiment and the ingredient of that was mixed in with...well, with apples from Asgard."

 

"The apples that give long life?" Logan asked, curious if the myth was true. "Everyone seems okay at the moment...."

 

Steve nodded. "Still, Bruce and the others have taken blood samples, so if anything does happen, we're as prepared as we can be."

 

"Well, hopefully nothing happens, but we're here for you all of it does..." Logan asserted.

 

Just then, Veronica interrupted. "Excuse me, but Mister Hogan has arrived with Aunt May. And the Quinjet carrying Mrs. May, the Coulsons, and the Potts has landed on the landing pad. I am directing all the parties to you now."

 

"Thank you, Veronica," Coulson responded to the AI.

 

Fifteen minutes later, Melinda could hear her mother leading the brigade. "So I said to her...Melinda. You are living with these people like they're your long- lost relatives. Should I not have a chance to meet them? She finally agreed....". Closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose, Melinda fervently hoped she made it through the visit without throttling her older counterpart.

 

Coulson moved a bit closer to her. "It'll be fine," he murmured, smiling, before turning his attention to the new group and stepping forward to greet the rest of his family, gently drawing Raina with him so she could meet her grandfather, aunt and uncle.

 

May gave Coulson a grateful smile, noting Pepper moving toward an older couple before she turned toward her own mother and moved forward to hug the older woman, only to receive a very quick side hug as Lian moved past her toward Skye and Hope. "Is this my new granddaughter? Come here, girl, so I can get a better look at you!" May's mother gushed. May took a slow deep breath and forced herself to smile as she turned and followed the older woman like a well-trained puppy.

 

"Mother, I'd like to introduce you to your granddaughter Hope. Hope, this is your grandmother Lian." May introduced her family.

 

Hope gave a hesitant smile. "I'm glad to meet you." She couldn't help but feel somewhat nervous...but that was more because of worry something would go wrong with this family. Not so much the apples, but that she'd mess up and things would go wrong because of her.

 

"You are? Then your mother must have been quiet about me...I can't imagine she had too much good to say..." Lian said. May would have retorted, but it was obvious the older woman was teasing...something May hadn't seen in years and so she was too surprised to react beyond blinking with her mouth hanging open. "And what about my other granddaughter?" Lian asked, turning toward Skye. "Have you run off anymore to try and gather information and giving your mother a heart attack?" She smirked.

 

Skye twitched, glancing sheepishly at her mother. "Not so much...." The last time had, after all, been when Kilgrave had been on the scene and Steve and Tony had been on the outs.

 

"That's good!" Lian nodded emphatically. "You should be safe and not take unnecessary risk."

 

"She knows that, mom," May said patiently.

 

Skye gave a slightly self-deprecating smile. "Probably can't hurt to be reminded...." She gave her sister a grin.

 

Hope hesitantly smiled back. "At least this place is safe."

 

***

 

Raina pressed closer to her father as he pulled her forward to meet the rest of the family. She gave a tentative smile toward her aunt and uncle, but her focus was on her grandfather. Would the older man be upset his son had adopted her, after everything she'd done to hurt him? She'd accepted her father had forgiven her, but sometimes when she thought of all she'd done, she couldn't help but wonder how he could. Would her grandfather wonder the same?

 

Ben smiled warmly at Raina and didn't waste any time in stepping forward to give her a hug in greeting. "Your father's told me a lot about you," he said. "I'm glad we can meet."

 

Raina smiled back. "I'm happy too..." she finally said, as she began to relax at the warm welcome.

 

Natasha wrapped an arm around Lincoln's shoulders, bringing him over to meet the rest of the family as well.

 

Lincoln swallowed, suddenly nervous. "Hello, sir...." He smiled hesitantly at Ben.

 

Ben let go of Raina, letting his son and daughter greet her, and moved over to hug Lincoln as well. "I'm glad to finally meet you too," he said warmly.

 

***

 

After all the newest members of the family had been introduced, everyone moved to sit on the various couches so they could carry on conversations, minus Pepper and her parents. The trip had tired the older couple out considerably and they had gone on to the room they'd been given. Pepper had gone with them to make sure they settled in comfortably.

 

Even though there was quite a bit of worry affecting everyone, they were all happy to have their extended family members and there was a lot of talking and laughing going on, as well as snacks and drinks brought through; though most made sure to note what they were eating and drinking. Just in case.

 

Pepper returned with a funny look on her face, but it wasn't clear what she was thinking. She immediately moved to stand next to her family, though. "Your Grandma and Grandpa want to meet you first thing in the morning; they're sorry they couldn't stay up long enough to meet you tonight, but they're both on medicine that makes them unable to stay up." She sounded sad.

 

Steve gave his daughter a sympathetic smile and reached out to wrap his arm around her waist. "I know we're all looking forward to meeting them."

 

Harry shuffled a bit closer to his mother, able to hear the sadness and worrying.

 

Pepper snuggled closer to Steve but put her own arm around Harry and drew him close. "I love you so much. All of you..." She smiled at Tony, who had moved to Harry's other side.

 

Harry leaned against his mother, but still looked worried, even as he glanced towards his father. "I love you...." he replied quietly.

 

"I love all of you." Steve kissed her cheek and smiled round at the rest of his children and grandchildren.

 

Logan grinned at his sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. "I'll need to come more frequently. Your sister would benefit from more family contact...and I think I would too. What do you think, Dad?" He glanced at Charles, letting anyone-who hadn't already realized- know of the relationship he held with the older mutant.

 

Charles smiled. "I'm certain that would be beneficial for all involved, son," he replied, making it just as clear with his own words and the affectionate smile he directed at Logan.

 

Tony's eyes widened. "Great-grandpa?" he asked hesitantly, but with a big grin.

 

Pepper blinked and turned curious eyes onto the visiting family members, then gave Charles a curious look, obviously wondering what his position in the family was.

 

Steve smiled at them both, though even though he was trying to lighten the mood a little, he was still clearly concerned about Pepper and how she was feeling. "It certainly seems that way," he replied to Tony, having already noticed the relationship between his father and the older man.

 

"That's great..." Bruce smiled, happy for his father and uncle; that they had more family to rely on other than children.

 

Charles smiled. "I have my kids in the school, but it's good to have a whole other family here as well," he commented. Glancing at his son, he added, "You're right. It's good for Laura, too. She needs to be around family. She needs a chance to be a child."

 

"You're right as always, dad..." was Logan's semi-sheepish reply, as he clearly remembered arguing with his father about the young girl and what place he should have in her life.

 

Charles smiled fondly at Logan. "I think it is a much better situation now," he commented.

 

Logan's smile was wry. "It is. Thanks to you and your persistence." He glanced at his family, before glancing at the other visitors. "So...how long are all of you staying for?" he asked curiously.

 

Pepper gave an impishly hopeful look toward Coulson's family and Lian. "Hopefully until after the wedding..." she said, breaking the news that she and Tony had set a date and that it would be soon... since she was hoping everyone would stay long enough to attend.

 

Tony chuckled at his fiancé's antics, since they hadn't actually told anyone they'd set a date yet and he expected to see a few shocked faces.

 

Coulson immediately looked over, surprised but pleased at the news. "What's the date?" he asked, smiling at his niece and nephew.

 

Skye, overhearing, was quick to ask, "Does anyone else need to be invited?"

 

"We want to have the wedding on the grounds two weeks from now. Pretty much everyone we want at our wedding lives here or is currently visiting us... and I called the few who aren't here right now and asked them to leave that week free because we wanted them to join us for a special occasion." Pepper's impish grin grew. "We want it to be family and close family friends only."

 

"Pepper has a book where she's keeping all information and plans, though; and now that she's let the cat out of the bag, I'm sure she wouldn't be against any help offered..." Tony put in, not wanting to step on Pepper's toes, but also not wanting his fiancé overworking herself planning and coordinating the wedding while also trying to run the multi-billion dollar company. And as much as he was willing to help, there were some things he knew were beyond his skill-set.

 

Hope, sitting next to her sister, was quick to light up at the idea. "I like organising things." Her voice was soft, but still certain and sure. "I'd like to help...so you're not stressed and can enjoy the better part of a wedding."

 

Skye smiled. "I can create databases...spreadsheets...so we know what's been done and what hasn't."

 

Pepper's grin became more personal as she nodded at her cousins. "I'd appreciate that so much! I'll get my book so we can go over things tomorrow morning?"

 

"I hope you are planning on delegating to a lot of people, because I for one don't want to be left out of the fun; and I'm pretty sure none of the other ladies do either!" Darcy chimed in, grinning when every one of Pepper's female cousins nodded in agreement.

 

"Great! See! I told you, Hot-pepper! You'll have so much help, the only thing you'll need to do is decide what you want." Tony pulled Pepper in for a tight hug and a quick- if chaste because of all the witnesses- kiss.

 

May chuckled. "That's great news, both of you. And since the big planning blitz is beginning in the morning, might I suggest we all retire for the night and get some rest?"

 

Logan snorted faintly. "I think retiring for the night sounds like a good idea. I just need to go collect my youngest so I can show her where we are staying. If you wouldn't mind leading me to where your daughter absconded with her, Nick?" He smirked good-naturedly at Fury.

 

Fury nodded and smiled. "Of course." He stood up, pausing to wait until Logan was ready before he led the way out of the main room and headed towards his daughter's room.

 

In the meantime, everyone else began to filter out of the family room and retire to their individual rooms.

 

Kara had enjoyed entertaining the younger girl and playing with Whisper...even with her cold making her head hurt. It had been nice having someone who was younger who was relying on her to look out for them. In her family, she was younger than most of the family members and of those she wasn't younger than, she was emotionally more fragile, so even the younger members tended to look out for her instead of the other way around. "Maybe we can do something tomorrow..." she said to Laura with a fond smile, before turning hopeful eyes onto Logan and Nick.

 

Logan glanced at his daughter to see what she thought of the idea. "If Laura wants to, I don't have a problem with it..." he said gruffly.

 

Laura's answering smile was faint and hesitant, but still hopeful.

 

Nick nodded. "That won't be a problem," he said, deciding it might be good to talk to Logan about possibly bringing his daughter more often. Kara was emotionally younger and fragile than most of the family members and he thought perhaps it would help her to continue having someone to look out for.

 

"Yay!" Kara couldn't help herself and bounced in place, her grin covering her entire face. "I will see you in the morning then, Laura!" She beamed at the younger girl.

 

Logan smiled at the young woman's enthusiasm, wrapping an arm around his daughter's shoulders. "And on that note, I believe it is time for bed, young lady. You were given your own room if you want, but my room is large enough if you'd rather stay with me..." he could be heard saying to Laura, as he led her down the hallway and toward where his own room was at.

 

Kara turned to Nick and threw her arms around him in a tight hug. "I love you, daddy. Goodnight!" She was in a good place- and had been for several days despite her cold- so she didn't feel like she needed to stay in her father's room with him. She actually thought she should stay in her own room so she could avoid spreading her germs any more than she likely already had. Leaning up and kissing Nick on the cheek, she gave him another quick hug before picking up Whisper- who had followed them out of her room and was winding his way around her ankles- and preparing to head back into her room to change and go to sleep, waiting long enough for her father to respond before disappearing completely.

 

Nick reciprocated the hug and smiled, not asking his daughter if she was sure she wanted to be in her own room. Instead, he merely said, "I love you too. You know where I am if you need me. Goodnight," and kissed her forehead.

 

Kara smiled again before disappearing into her room.

 

Pretty soon, the entire family was ensconced in their rooms, everyone so excited and happy that no one needed to be with their parent, despite the slight scare they'd received that day. As a result, the only ones staying in their parents' room were the four children who had gotten into trouble.

 

***

 

Coulson said good night to his children, grandchildren and the rest of his family, apart from Raina. He waited for her to retrieve anything she needed from her room before he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and guided her to his room.

 

Raina gave her father a chagrined look, but easily went along with what he'd decreed, gathering the clothes she'd need for the next day as well as pajamas and then moving into his embrace so he could lead her to his room. "Grandpa knows I was bad?" she whispered, so her voice wouldn't carry to the other rooms but her father would still hear her.

 

"I haven't gone into any details," Coulson replied, guiding his daughter into his bedroom. "Our visitors know what it was - an accident. An experiment that went wrong. But we dealt with what happened and I don't discuss punishment or behaviour unless it's necessary."

 

"I love you, Baba..." Raina whispered, before throwing her arms around Coulson's waist and holding on tightly. "I don't deserve you at all...."

 

Coulson kissed her head. "Yes, you do," he murmured. "I love you too. And you definitely deserve me."

 

It didn't take long for Raina to change for bed and soon she was snuggled under the covers waiting for her father, shifting immediately into his arms as soon as he was in the bed. "Good night, Baba..." she whispered, before quickly falling asleep.

 

Coulson didn't waste any time in wrapping his arms tight around his daughter, drawing her in close and kissing her head before his eyes closed and he slipped into sleep.

 

***

 

Odin gently led his three wayward children to his room, pausing long enough for each of them to collect anything they needed.

 

Loki had changed in his room, but hadn't taken long to gather his items. He noted that Darcy and Lorelei had done the same and soon all three were following their father to his room like baby ducks. "Where do you want me, sir?" he asked quietly, assuming Odin would want Darcy and Lorelei on either side of him, but wanting to be told in case he was wrong.

 

"Wherever the three of you feel you'd rather be," Odin answered. He just wanted all of them to be where he could touch them, reassure them, hug them...comfort them if they suffered through any bad dreams.

 

"I will sleep on an edge, then." Loki smiled. As long as he was within touching distance of his father, he would be happy.

 

Lorelei bit her lip. "Can I be between you and Loki, daddy?" she asked hesitantly.

 

"That's fine with me!" Darcy quickly injected. "I can sleep on the other side, next to you, Pop."

 

Odin nodded and smiled. "Of course," he replied. He settled onto the bed and waited for his children to arrange themselves around him.

 

Loki lay still and listened to his siblings' even breathing. The feeling of safety and love enabled him to quickly fall asleep soon after his sisters and just before Odin allowed himself to rest.

Chapter Text

When she woke, Kara was confused and disoriented. Something felt wrong, but she didn't know exactly what it was giving her that feeling. What she did know was that she was scared and wanted her daddy. Planning to go in to him, she moved to get out of bed; only to discover the floor was a lot further away than she remembered. She landed on her bottom with a thump, banging her elbow against the end table with a painful thud. It was too much to process.

 

"Daaaaaaaddyyyyy!" The heart-rending wail of a very young child carried through the entire family floor, the screech enough to wake even the heaviest sleeper.

 

While it was nearly impossible to tell whose child was calling out, pretty much all of the fathers (and mothers) were awakened by the scream and there was a crowd of concerned adults...and some much younger than they should have been...heading towards the source of the scream.

 

"What's wrong?" Bobbi gasped out, still half-asleep, even as she was moving toward her cousin's room, following her father.

 

Grant was rubbing his eyes. "I don't know, but it sounded horrible..." He stumbled slightly in surprise as his voice cracked and shot up an octave in the middle of a sentence. He hadn't had problems with his voice doing that since he'd finally finished growing toward the end of his teen years. He kept moving, though. That cry had scared ten years off him, he'd swear! It was no wonder his voice was acting up.

 

Trip was the second to Kara's room and Brock the third, directly behind their father. "What's wrong with her, dad?"

 

Fury wasn't given time to answer, though, as another tear-filled and terrified, "Daaaaaddy!" was sobbed out, carrying just as far as the first one and waking anyone who hadn't already woken fully the rest of the way.

 

"Ginny! I know you didn't go out and get plastic surgery at two o'clock in the morning, so how on earth...!" could be heard down the hall as Pepper went to help her elderly parents since they'd come to see what the commotion was about.

 

By this point, Fury had reached his daughter's room...but even he was stopped short by the sight of what could only be his daughter, aged about two, sitting on the floor bawling.

 

No matter the age, Fury couldn't do anything other than respond to the terror. He was quick to head to his daughter's side, crouching to wrap his arms around her even as he turned. "I think we need to...." He paused, his voice breaking off as he finally took in the appearance of his other family members. "We need Bruce...." he finally said, trying not to show any hint of shock.

 

Kara, at any age, trusted her father completely. As soon as he crouched down to wrap his arms around her, she was throwing herself at him and gripping onto him as tightly as her tiny two-year-old hands would allow. Burying her head under his chin, she continued to wail out her fear, liberally sharing with him her tears and snot.

 

Trip had stopped just inside the doorway, Brock next to him, and the rest of the family crowding in behind. He wasn't as adept at hiding his own shock. "Kara?" he breathed out nervously.

 

"What happened to her?" Grant had ducked under a few arms and come to stand beside his cousin. He winced as his voice cracked again; and then he noticed that he was shorter than Trip. "What the hell?" He stumbled backwards into his own father.

 

Coulson automatically reached out to grab his now much younger appearing son and steady Grant. His eyes swept over the family members, taking in the younger appearances of all of them... including Fury. It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine he himself had deaged, though he wasn't going to waste any time checking his reflection. His voice came out much calmer than he really felt. "Veronica. Please inform Bruce what has happened, if he's not already aware, and ask everyone else to join us for an emergency meeting in the family room."

 

"He's already aware..." came a harried voice from the back of the group. "Please have Uncle Nick bring Kara to the first-aid room... it's a bit calmer than the family room will be and I need to check her, Peter and Harry out to make certain there aren't any complications...since they appear to have de-aged beyond teenage status. The rest of you will be checked out as well, but it can wait till the smallest ones are dealt with. I'll have Veronica keep me informed on what is going on in the family room, if the rest of you want to convene there and start brainstorming...." Bruce finished his own orders, knowing that as the resident 'doctor', he would be listened to. Pausing, he called back while on his way to the room in question. "Oh...and if someone could please call Helen Cho and possibly ask Bryce to return?" He directed the last toward Odin.

 

Coulson was quick to relay that information to Fury, who wasted no time in standing with Kara in his arms and heading through the group crowding around in the direction Bruce had indicated.

 

Coulson still had his hand on Grant's arm and was looking around for the rest of his children and grandchildren, so he could provide them with reassurance and get them to the family room without any mishaps. He reached out with his other hand and gently squeezed Bobbi's shoulder.

 

Bobbi automatically moved closer to her father. She hadn't changed height at all, but she was much more slender and girlish in physique. She looked down her body and sighed. "Damn it. I was finally happy with my curves and now they're gone!"

 

Raina huddled as close as she could, given that her brother and sister were currently crowding their father. She nodded at Bobbi's words, however.

 

Clint wrapped his arms around his own children and gave his father a quirky grin. "You and I seem to be the same age now, dad..." He chuckled. Aren't you glad I stopped de-aging in the early twenty range instead of making you relive my teen years?" he teased.

 

Pietro had a thoughtful, slightly mischievous look on his face as he glanced at his father and grandfather. "I wonder if we still have our abilities...." he mused out loud, nudging his sister.

 

Coulson smiled at Clint. "Even if you had gone that far down, it wouldn't change anything. And this time is easier...." he added, looking around at the others. "Compared to the previous time, at least no one seems to have lost their memories...." he continued.

 

Natasha had made her way over with Lincoln, arm wrapped around his shoulders.

 

Odin moved over with his children. "Bryce was arriving today anyway. I will go and fetch him earlier," he said. "Perhaps we could hold off on the meeting until everyone who needs to be here is?"

 

"And when it is actually time to wake up and not 2 a.m," May interjected.

 

"That sounds like a good plan," Logan interjected, even as he picked Laura up and held her close, worried that the sight of the young woman who had befriended her suddenly being so young and frightened would affect her badly.

 

Bruce had gathered his bag by this point and, motioning to Harry and Peter- who were huddled together behind Tony- he started to walk toward the first-aid room where he'd sent Fury with Kara. "I'll check the kids out and then, depending on what I find, I'll send Harry back to you..." he said to Tony, giving Pepper a tiny smile. "Until then, I'd suggest everyone try and get a bit more sleep, even if you all gather in the family room to do it...."

 

It didn't take long for everyone to get settled back into their rooms, though Odin left Loki, Lorelei and Darcy in the care of Thor and Mack while he made the trip to Asgard to retrieve Bryce.

 

Mack glanced at Thor and raised his eyebrow slightly, then looked at his other siblings. "So...why d'ya think it affected us all differently?" he asked curiously. "Some of us only look like we're in our early twenties...but a lot of us look like young to mid-teens. What was the deciding factor?" He slanted his head. "It can’t be hormones- since just as many of the boys are affected as the girls...."

 

Thor frowned. "I do not know," he replied. "Kara, Harry and Peter have all become much younger and perhaps that is something caused by one thing in particular."

 

"Well...all three of them were on medicine for a cold or flu...but I'm sure Bruce will take that into consideration..." Darcy sighed. "I think we might should try and sleep before dad returns, though. In case we're needed to answer questions and need to be rested to think clearly...."

 

"Of course..." Mack smiled apologetically, motioning his siblings toward the bed.

 

"I am certain nothing else will happen tonight," Thor stated. He waited for his siblings to settle in the bed before he joined them, wanting to be certain they were all comfortable.

 

Once Thor was situated, it didn't take long to fall asleep, despite the earlier adrenaline rush. Soon, they were all sleeping so soundly, they didn't even hear Odin return and crawl in next to them.

 

***

 

Kara clung to her father as tightly as her newly child sized hands could grasp. She wasn't certain why- she knew Bruce and wasn't afraid of him- but the knowledge she was going to get an examination filled her with anxiety and she couldn't figure out why. Maybe it was this form she now wore. Even though she could think clearly and believed she knew what was happening, she found herself behaving as an actual two- year old would. She couldn't even speak except for basic or simple words. Her mouth just wouldn't cooperate. It was as if her mind was too adult for a child's mouth to keep up with. And having a child's mouth didn't seem to be the only issue.

 

Widening her eyes, she began to squirm frantically as a basic human need made itself known and immediately became urgent. Of course, her father wouldn't just put her down in her current condition and had just tightened his grip so she wouldn't fall. She tried to tell him what the problem was, but only whines escaped until, "...Potty!" she blurted out, desperate to be put down so she could find the restroom. Of course, no sooner had she finally got the word out, then it was too late; childish muscles, that had not yet been trained to control, lost control.

 

She began to sob again as not only did she soak herself completely-since she hadn't been dressed for potential accidents-she also soaked her father. She was mortified and hid her face under his chin again.

 

"I'm going to need you boys to undress and put on these gowns," Bruce was saying. "...If you could get Kara undressed, Nick; I don't have a gown small enough for her, but you can use this sheet to wrap her in till the exam."

 

Fury stroked his daughter's hair reassuringly. "I'll need to clean her up before the examination," he said to Bruce. "It seems like it isn't just a physical change...." He adjusted his grip slightly so he could find what he needed while still ensuring his daughter didn't fall.

 

Harry hung back a bit and had to be coaxed into getting undressed and into the gown by his cousin.

 

"Of course..." Bruce nodded sympathetically at his uncle, helping as much as he was able by finding a plastic bag to put the sheet into so he could hang it off his uncle's wrist. "...Would you like me to call Jemma to help you?" He gave Kara a concerned glance, not sure exactly what his younger cousin would be thinking about the situation.

 

Kara heard her cousin and looked up with wide eyes, a spike of fear racing through her at the thought that her daddy might hand her over to someone else. It scared her, even if the other person would be a family member. "NO!" she blurted out in a high-pitched, childishly defiant tone, before hiding her face again and gripping onto her father even more tightly than before.

 

Bruce smiled crookedly at that response, deciding he'd let Nick handle Kara for the moment, and turned toward Harry. "Would you like your dad to come in?"

 

"It's all right. I'm not going to leave you or let someone else take care of you," Fury promised his daughter, even as he began to carefully clean her up.

 

Harry fidgeted, his eyes wide and worried, but finally nodded.

 

Bruce nodded before addressing the AI's. "Friday, could you please have Tony come to be with Harry?"

 

"Of course, Dr. Banner," Friday answered calmly, before relaying the message to Harry's father.

 

Within moments, Tony was walking into the room. "Hey, Har... This is really weird, I know, and probably scary, but I went through the same thing a year or so ago and your Uncle Bruce found a cure for me and made me all better, so I'm positive he can help you and Petey and Kar-bear...." He pitched his voice in a soothing manner, but loud enough that the now two-year-old could hear in hopes that it would calm her enough to make things easier on his uncle. He moved over and gave Harry a gentle hug. "Why don't we let your uncle Bruce check out Petey first and you can see what all he is doing before it is your turn?"

 

Kara was listening to what was being said and it helped...a little...to know that something similar had happened in the past and it had been 'fixed'. Of course, what helped the most was her father's promise that he wouldn't leave her and that he'd be the one to take care of her. She wanted to say thank you. She wanted to say she'd cooperate, but she was scared. What she ended up saying was, "Daddy...." and reaching up and patting his face with her hand even as he was cleaning her.

 

Harry relaxed, visibly, with his father's presence and hug and leaned in, hugging his father back tightly, or as tightly as he could, even as he nodded.

 

Even younger, Peter had always been more outgoing and confident than his best friend. Catching Harry's eye, he gave him a huge grin even as he moved to make it easier for his father to examine him.

 

Fury stroked her hair reassuringly, wasting no time in getting his daughter clean and dry and then wrapping her in the sheet so she'd be warm. "Everything's going to be all right," he said soothingly.

 

Bruce examined his son as quickly but carefully as possible, having Veronica do all the scans necessary, as well as drawing blood. He was glad that they had thought ahead to having everyone answer questions about medicines and activities that they had done or been doing prior to eating the pie. While his own memory hadn't been affected by his own de-aging, it was hard to tell if the fact Peter, Harry and Kara had de-aged back into childhood would affect their own memory and the information gathered could be crucial to finding a way to cure them and get them back to normal. Soon, he'd got all the information he needed and was reassured that his son was healthy and uninjured, even if he was in the body of a seven-year-old. "Okay, son. We're all done. I know Harry would appreciate you staying close, though, so if you want to go sit over there, I'll finish with your cousin as quickly as possible and then you can go join your brother or your sister to go back to sleep...." He smiled at Peter. He didn't say that he planned to begin working immediately on finding a cure for them.

 

Tony eyed his brother suspiciously, but didn't comment on the fact that it was obvious Bruce didn't intend to return to sleep after checking out the youngest members of the family. He'd leave arguing about it to his father...or his uncle, since Nick was there to hear Bruce and realize what he was planning just as easily as Tony was. "C'mon, Har... let's get you checked out and then we'll go join your mom and catch a few more zzz's. That sound okay to you?"

 

Kara, once clean and dry and safely in her father's arms with him comforting her, found it impossible to keep her eyes open. The body she now had seemed to have spurts of energy, followed by moments of complete drain. Soon, she was drooling on her father's shoulder, sound asleep, her tiny hands still gripping him tightly, though they had loosened slightly in sleep.

 

Peter was quick to join Harry, nudging his cousin in the ribs and giving him another huge grin. "See? It's not that bad! And you'll have to do it to animals, too," he added, remembering his cousin wanted to study to be a vet.

 

Fury carefully lifted Kara into his arms and carried her over to Bruce, though he waited patiently until his nephew was finished with Harry. He'd also heard what Bruce didn't say and planned to insist his nephew slept. Freeing one hand from his tiny daughter, he tapped out a quick message to Steve...since Bruce might be more likely to listen to his father.

 

Bruce had finished with Harry as quickly as he had Peter and nodded at Tony. "Ok, squirt..." he said to Peter. "...Go with your uncle and cousin and they'll drop you off with your brother or sister, depending on which one you'd rather stay with." He smiled and ruffled a hand through Peter's hair affectionately before turning to focus on the smallest member of the family.

 

Tony sighed silently, but didn't argue with his brother. "C'mon, kids. Let's go finish out the night in our beds..." He smiled, putting an arm around Harry and then drawing Peter close with the other arm. "Whatever you need to have ordered, just give the list to Friday. It can be here as soon as stores are open to deliver..." he said quietly to his Uncle as he walked by.

 

Bruce was also quiet as he carefully but gently began to examine the smallest member of the family, not wanting to wake her up. "There don't appear to be any external injuries due to her age reversal. Veronica? Are there any internal issues we need to be aware of?" he asked the AI softly.

 

"There do not appear to be any issues, doctor. All scans indicate a healthy two-year-old. There may be some emotional issues, if she has retained her adult memories...." the AI hesitantly put out.

 

Fury sighed. "It's impossible to tell if she might retain them or not. If she has, then she hasn't been able to communicate that fact. She knows I'm her father.... When she next wakes up, I'll see who else she recognises." Maybe he'd even see if Laura brought a reaction, depending on if Logan was happy for his daughter to see Kara or not.

 

"Once we know who she recognizes, we can introduce different things and objects she should know. It's a starting place, at least," Bruce agreed.

 

"I know I'm going to need diapers...." Fury began compiling a mental list of what he was going to need for his suddenly two-year-old daughter.

 

***

 

Even though Steve headed back to the room with those of his family not involved with other situations, he didn't sleep. He himself had seemed unaffected by the aging and so had Bucky...but he assumed that was because of the differences in their physiology, given what had been done to them.

 

Bucky had got his children situated, but hadn't returned to his own room. He supposed this could count as one of those times he could be grateful for what had been done to him...since he didn't change like everyone else. It gave a sense of security to those who had suddenly found themselves changed. He stood outside his bedroom door and just listened in case he was needed.

 

Steve received the message from Fury and quickly headed over to Bucky. "I'm going to get Bruce from the lab," he said to his brother. "Can you keep watch in case any of my kids need me before I get back, please?"

 

Bucky nodded and headed toward Steve's hall. "Sure thing, Stevie..." He grinned at his brother as he disappeared.

 

Steve quickly made his way to the labs, double checking with Veronica about which one his brother, son and niece were in.

 

"They are still located in the first-aid room..." the AI directed.

 

Bruce cleaned up, putting items back in his bag and in their proper place in the room and making sure everything was the way it had been before he did his examination.

 

"Thank you," Steve responded, heading into the office and moving over to his son. "Bruce, you need to go to bed," he said seriously.

 

"Dad..." Bruce glanced up, obviously reluctant. "...I need to go up to the labs...start the blood work...or at least get the samples in the fridge so they aren't rendered useless."

 

"I'll help you get the samples in the fridge, but after that, I insist you do go to bed," Steve said. "You're more likely to make mistakes if you're tired and don't get enough sleep."

 

Sighing, Bruce was about to argue, but gave his father a crooked grin instead. "I can't say you're wrong," he said. "Alright. As soon as the samples are stored properly, I'll go to bed. Is Odin back yet?" he asked, as he put the vials in a sturdy container to carry to the floor above.

 

"I don't believe he is yet, but I'm sure Veronica or Friday will be able to tell us for certain," Steve answered.

 

"Yeah...okay..." Bruce got on the elevator and waited for Steve to join him before pushing the button to go to the floor with the labs. "I know that no one else aged under their teens...but did anyone age far enough down where they may need help?" he asked, more in an effort to stay awake than to get information. He could always get information in the morning, after all.

 

"As far as I'm aware, the only real issue seems to be your uncle Nick with Kara," Steve answered. "I think everyone's coping. It helps we had some forewarning."

 

"Yeah...I somehow doubt anyone envisioned this as the possible outcome when we worried about negative consequences from the pie..." Bruce chuckled.

 

Steve smiled. "No, but at least some of us have dealt with a similar situation before."

 

"How our family originally formed..." Bruce smiled.

 

"Exactly," Steve replied. "We got through it that time. We will again," he promised.

 

"It might not be as easy...most of those affected most strongly will have the hormones of a teen...." Bruce warned. "Given that those of us not affected as strongly are still going to have the reactions of an early twenty-something, there is likely to be a lot of head-butting...."

 

"Oh, I know it won't be easy," Steve said ruefully. "Considering how stubborn some of you are as full-grown adults...." The look he directed at Bruce was fond.

 

Bruce's smile was sheepish. "Yeah... well... you're more stubborn. Have to be, to keep us other stubborn idiots in check."

 

Steve couldn't put his arm around his son, carrying the vials as he was, but he did press close against Bruce's side for a second or two before the elevator stopped and he was stepping off.

 

It didn't take long for Bruce to store the vials he carried and then the ones his father carried in the proper place. He then stood with an indecisive, hesitant look on his face. It wasn't that he wanted to argue with his father or disobey him. It was that he was so worried about those in his family that had been affected so much more strongly and he was feeling the urgency to find out why they had been affected differently and to do something to help them. If everyone had just been deaged to the early twenties, he wouldn't have felt so pressed. Heck. He'd probably just tell everyone that unless negative health affects started cropping up, they should just let themselves reage naturally. Having a younger body certainly wouldn't hurt anyone in the line of work they were in.

 

But they hadn't just deaged to early twenties. Some had deaged further and while those who were now teenagers would likely adapt to their new hormone levels and would be fine growing up naturally- Peter, Harry and Kara had a bit further to go. A lot further in Kara's case. Asking them to go through their child-hood with adult memories? He didn't think that that would be the best thing for them, let alone fair to ask. He glanced at Steve, then sighed. "No chance of my changing your mind?" he asked, almost rhetorically.

 

"I'm afraid not, son." Steve reached out and wrapped his arm around Bruce's shoulders, squeezing him gently. "Come on. Let's get back to bed. You can stay in my room," he offered, partly to keep his son close...partly to make sure Bruce didn't try sneaking away when he thought his father was asleep.

 

Bruce blinked, looking at his father to see if he was upset. He normally didn't suggest Bruce stay in his room with him. He didn't see any irritation, however. Just worry. "Ok, dad," he found himself saying.

 

Steve gave him a reassuring smile and guided his son back to the elevator so they could return to their floor.

 

Bruce realized he must be more tired than he'd realized when the next thing he knew, Steve was helping him into bed. He'd completely zoned out the return to the family floor and walking to his father's room. "Peter...?" he asked, blinking and looking around.

 

"Master Peter is asleep in his brother's room. He is fine, doctor..." Friday's calming voice whispered into Steve's room, so as not to startle them, but to let them know if anything occurred, she'd wake them.

 

"Everyone will be fine until the morning," Steve said soothingly, helping Bruce to settle into bed and reaching out to stroke his son's hair.

 

"Yeah...Ok, dad..." Bruce said wearily, snuggling close as soon as his father was also in bed, not even realizing that's what he was doing, since he was already asleep within seconds of his head hitting the pillow.

 

Steve wrapped his arms around Bruce, hugging his son close as he closed his eyes and fell asleep.

 

***

 

It had been a rough night, to say the least. Kara couldn't adjust to her new size or inability to vocalize what she was thinking. It was almost worse than being brainwashed, she decided. At least when she was under Whitehall's control, she was still able to function for the most part- and she didn't realize she was broken. Now? Now she knew in excruciating detail how broken she was, but she couldn't tell anyone. She couldn't get her mouth to form the words correctly and even if she could, she found herself confused on which words to use...as if her brain was wanting to revert to childhood as well, but couldn't and was punishing her for the fact by confounding every attempt she made to show she was still an adult in her mind, if nothing else.

 

The frustration and confusion played havoc on her ability to rest, let alone sleep, but her toddler body needed rest and because it didn't get what it needed, she found herself reacting like an over-tired toddler. Her father had bathed and changed her again after she'd had an 'accident' and wet the bed and so far, she'd not had another one. She'd heard Fury requesting Friday to order diapers and other paraphernalia that a toddler would need, however, and it upset her more than it probably should have. Fury was carrying her toward the dining room where everyone was meeting for breakfast and she was doing her damnedest to get out of his arms so she could run and hide; she didn't want everyone to see her like this again! When getting away proved impossible, she began screaming at the top of her lungs in a tantrum.

 

Bobbi had been coming from across the 'main' hall and met her uncle in front of the elevator, wincing when she heard the shrill anger in her cousin's voice. Biting her lip, she offered hesitantly, "Do you want me to hold her for a minute while you get your food together, Uncle Nick?" She wasn't entirely sure if Kara would allow her to hold her if she was giving her father such a rough time. As close as Kara and Bobbi were, Kara adored Nick and the fact she was giving him such grief did not bode well for anyone else being able to placate her.

 

Fury adjusted his grip on his daughter so he could hold her more easily, stroking Kara's hair as gently as he could. "I think I'd better keep hold of her," he replied, though he smiled at Bobbi to show he was grateful for the offer of help. "But if you can get us some food together...." He did, however, look down at his daughter, wondering if Kara would show, in some way, she knew Bobbi and would indicate she'd understood her cousin's words.

 

Kara, amidst her screaming and squirming, had heard her cousin. She'd glanced in Bobbi's direction and widened her eyes slightly as she saw that Bobbi had deaged a bit further than the early twenties of all the others she'd seen the night before. It caused her to pause in her screaming for a few bare seconds as she gripped her father's shirt and stopped trying to get away, instead holding onto him as if afraid that he might actually hand her over. But she obviously wasn't scared of Bobbi. She just didn't want anyone but her father to handle her when she was incapable of taking care of herself. Sniffling, she hid her face against Nick's chest and bit her lip, letting out a quivery, " 'Obbi...."

 

Bobbi blinked, smiling a little more brightly at the fact Kara seemed to know who she was, even if her cousin also seemed to be reluctant to come to her. "Okay, Uncle Nick. I'll get your plate fixed up. Will you want a separate plate for Kara, or do you just want to feed her off of yours?" she asked curiously, figuring if he was going to share, she'd give him extra food.

 

"I think maybe a separate plate." It was obvious Kara knew not only him, but Bobbi as well and Fury was troubled by the possibility that his daughter, for all she was acting like a toddler, still had the mindset of an adult. If that was the case, then treating her as a child when it wasn't necessary could cause emotional damage additional to what she'd already suffered. He couldn't do anything about having to change her and wasn't sure he could just put her down, though he considered maybe he could let her walk next to him, holding his hand, until her younger form tired. "Kara, would you like me to put you down so you can walk holding my hand?" he asked, deciding to try with the possibility that she still had her adult memories.

 

Kara blinked at being given the option, having just about given up on her father ever putting her down. Giving her father a big grin, she nodded her head rapidly and pointed at the floor imperiously. "Down!" She sounded happy and excited though.

 

Bobbi blinked at the response, giving her uncle a worried look. She suspected her cousin had her adult memories as well, so the position Kara now found herself in couldn't be easy. "Two plates of breakfast, coming up!" she said, keeping her tone happy and unsuspicious, not wanting Kara to realize she was worried about her. That might make her cousin even more defensive.

 

Fury placed his daughter on the ground and then held his hand out to her, leaving it up to Kara to take. His next words were chosen on the assumption that he was correct in her still having her adult memories and he was careful to keep his own worry out of his tone. "You're much younger, so don't feel upset if you get tired fast. Or if you need help with something."

 

The look of gratitude on Kara's face would have been endearing if it weren't so heart-breaking, Bobbi thought. She smiled as the much younger girl put her hand into her father's, content to accept his help now that she knew he understood she was only a child in body. And then an impish gleam sparked in her cousin's eyes and the 'toddler' was pulling her father toward the dining room...as much as one her size was able. Bobbi bit back a chuckle and followed, immediately beginning to plate up food for her uncle and cousin.

 

Grant glanced over as the three entered the dining area, a sullen look on his face. He might be an adult and understand theoretically what had happened, but it wasn't making it any easier to deal with his sudden mood swings. He didn't remember finding it so difficult to keep his emotions in check the first time he was a teen. Of course, at least half of his teen years were spent in isolation with only a dog for company, so it was possible his ability to control himself hinged completely on the fact he hadn't had to deal with other people.

 

Fury smiled, allowing himself to be pulled along by his daughter, happy that Kara was much calmer now. As Bobbi plated up the food, he headed over to his sons with Kara.

 

Coulson couldn't fail to notice the sullen look on Grant's face and sat next to his son, placing a hand gently on Grant's shoulder as he noticed Copper at his master's feet.

 

Grant glanced at his father and gave a crooked, if disgruntled smile. It wasn't his father's fault he was out of sorts. Reaching down, he pet Copper, allowing the dog to help calm him.

 

"I can't believe this! It took forever for me to get big enough that the Ravagers left me alone and now I'm friggin scrawny again!" carried plainly and peevishly down the hall. Grant snorted, an empathetic look on his face. He knew how Quill felt. He wasn't happy with his diminished size either.

 

Drax stood at his son's back, looking down at Quill. "I understand your frustration, but you will soon grow again," he stated. "That will be easier if you eat properly."

 

"We'll figure this out," Coulson promised quietly.

 

"Aaaaw, man! You're going to make me eat vegetables and stuff, aren't you?" Quill moaned, but went and sat down next to Grant, since Grant appeared to at least be sympathetic to his complaint.

 

Grant snorted at the comment. "Vegetables and fruits and probably not very much candy and stuff..." he muttered under his breath, figuring his father would be doing something similar with him. He glanced toward Kara and tried to push the irritation away. At least he wasn't a toddler.

 

Peter glanced toward Kara as well and straightened up, stopping his complaining. At least he didn't need Drax to change him and bathe him because he was too small to take care of himself. It could always be worse. "Well..." he finally said. "...On the bright side. I'll fit in with the younger group on this planet now and might be able to learn some new dance moves from them without looking like a perv!" He grinned brightly.

 

Bobbi choked on the sip of juice she'd just taken.

 

Coulson heard his son's muttered comment, but rather than respond to that, he placed a hand on Grant's shoulder and leaned in close to whisper in his ear. "I missed out on all of your childhood and teenage years, barring the short period of time when you were deaged before. I know you're frustrated, but I never had the chance to see you at this age."

 

Drax frowned. "I do not believe you should just worry about learning dance moves," he stated, aware there were still enemies, even if their home now was as safe as it could be.

 

Grant paused at that, glancing up at his father. "I...wasn't a very nice teenager..." he admitted with a crooked smile. "Prolly a good thing I wasn't able to subject myself onto people the first time. I have a feeling I'm going to be getting in a lot of trouble..." He sighed, but leaned into his father.

 

Peter's eyes widened. "Of course not! I plan to learn a few other 'moves' as well!" He grinned impishly. The first time he went through his teen years, he'd been on a ship full of mostly male aliens...and while that hadn't stopped him from becoming a 'ladies' man- or at least a man who attracted females from all sentient races- he hadn't had much opportunity to do typical teenage stuff. Yondu wouldn't have cared (or at least Peter didn't think he would have), but there just hadn't been a lot of opportunity. He'd gone straight from kid to adult and missed a lot of the fun things in between. Some might say that's why his maturity level wasn't much beyond that of a teenager, but that was their opinion. Peter had plans. Turning to Grant, he grinned. "Maybe you and I can do something later? Since we seem to be in the same situation?"

 

Grant eyed his cousin, then grinned back wolfishly. "Yeah. That might be fun."

 

Bobbi looked between both boys and frowned. "I want to come with!" she interjected.

 

Peter glanced at his other cousin that had been affected and nodded. "Sure...the more the merrier." He grinned.

 

Kara flung a bite of her eggs in the direction of her three cousins, irritated that she was too small to join them. She was positive whatever they had planned, they wouldn't want a toddler with them, even if it was only a toddler in body. She giggled when the egg hit Quill smack in the middle of his forehead. She may not have her normal body, but her aim was still very good.

 

Coulson wrapped his arm around Grant, addressing the group as a whole. "Just make sure you check in before you go." His voice was mild, but still made it clear they were expected to follow the rules.

 

Lance grinned and nudged Bobbi. "Maybe I'd better come too. Keep an eye on you...." he teased.

 

Peter Parker was sitting next to Harry, as was his normal thing to do and had somehow wound up across from Laura. Having noticed the previous day that the girl was shy, and reacting as a child who wanted to reach out to someone 'on the outside', he noticed Kara's actions...and decided it would be a great idea to copy them.

 

Laura's eyes were on her plate and she jerked back in surprise when a piece of bacon landed right in the middle, having been catapulted by Peter.

 

Kara had noticed what Peter did and giggled again. The fact that no-one had said or done anything to stop her the first time was all the encouragement she needed. She flung another piece of egg and hit Bobbi on the nose just as the other young woman was about to answer Lance.

 

"I'd li...what the...?" Bobbi blinked and looked down, tugging her shirt out far enough that she could reach in and try and get the bit of egg that had landed in her bra, back out again. "...Not funny, Kar-bear!" she said without any heat, smiling crookedly at the peals of full-out laughter from her cousin's tiny body.

 

Fury couldn't help but smile at his daughter's antics, though he couldn't help wondering if her childish behaviour might be a bad sign; if the child mind was overpowering her emotionally. Of course, there was no way to know for sure....

 

Peter grinned widely across the table at Laura, who darted a look of pure confusion at her father. Her initial response to feeling threatened was to lash out, but...food landing on her plate wasn't a threat. Was it? More and more, she was studying the adults around her, trying to adapt her behaviour based on what she could see.

 

Logan raised an eyebrow at Peter, but didn't scold him. There had been a lot of stress in the last day and as long as no one was hurt- and the kids helped clean up any mess they made- he saw no reason to put a stop to their innocent fun, even if normally he would have scolded them about proper table etiquette. He leaned over and whispered to his daughter, "I think he wants to play with you. Have a 'food fight'. If you want to throw a bit of egg at him..." he encouraged gently. Laura had had very few opportunities to behave like a child. Maybe having some of the other 'kids' deaged to younger would be good for her.

 

Kara saw her father's smile and it made her happy. Throwing her tiny arms around his neck, she hugged him tightly, unmindful of the fact she had sticky, egg covered hands that were now transferring the stickiness and egg to her father.

 

Laura looked at her father, a little surprised he would suggest doing that. Very hesitantly, as if worried he might disapprove, she did as he suggested and threw a small bit of egg at the other child.

 

Peter's grin was so wide, it almost reached his ears, as he threw another bit of bacon at her...then one at Harry, trying to get his cousin to join in.

 

Logan just smiled indulgently at the three kids. Winking at Laura, he picked up a tiny bit of egg on his own fork and flicked it toward Steve.

 

It didn't take long for breakfast to degenerate into a food fight; primarily involving the children, but the adults also got a few hits in, too.

 

***

 

Yondu didn't really need to do much. Flying the ship helped him to relax and clear his mind and he could always switch to autopilot. Manual flying helped him not to think, though. Not to think apart from finding his other kid. Quill might not have seen him as a father, but Yondu had cared deeply about him. And now with only Kraglin left and him no longer a part of the Ravagers...well, Yondu didn't have much left now.

 

Kraglin sat beside his captain, taking care of everything in the ship that Yondu couldn't take care of while piloting. He didn't say much. They'd lost a lot of friends in the mutiny...a mutiny that he had helped spur, even if he hadn't meant to. He was thankful he'd at least managed to do the right thing by his captain and get Yondu his crest and arrow back. If Yondu had been jettisoned out into the cold depths of space to die like the rest of those who hadn't wanted to betray their captain, Kraglin didn't know what he'd have done.

 

Yondu broke the silence, primarily because he could see Kraglin was withdrawn. He knew sometimes it was important to have something to do when you'd lost nearly everything important. "The last sightings were of his ship spiralling out of control. We'll need to be careful in this part of the galaxy. Just in case the ship was attacked by something we haven't seen before."

 

"'Cordin to the talking twig...his ship just disappeared...Left him and that Rocket fella behind on this ship and left his girlfriend fighting with her sister back on that planet..." Kraglin's voice was quiet, almost hesitant. As if he didn't feel he had a right to say anything.

 

Yondu glanced sideways at him. "I know what it's like to regret actions you've taken, kid," he said bluntly. "You wouldn't be here with me if I didn't want you here."

 

"Dunno how you can trust me again after how I messed everything up..." Kraglin swallowed. "If'n I hadn't questioned you in front of everyone...the mutiny wouldn't ‘ave happened. My friends wouldn' be dead 'cuz of me. You wouldn' ‘ave almost died...." Kraglin swallowed again and glanced down, not able to face his captain.

 

Yondu grunted and switched the ship to autopilot so he could give his full attention to Kraglin. "You listen to me, kid. The mutiny might've happened anyway, even if you hadn't spoken up. A lot of the crew was unhappy with the way I run things. You might've been the catalyst, but you weren't the cause."

 

"It don't feel that way!" Kraglin argued. "Mebbe it woulda happened, but mebbe if it did? It woulda happened somewhere that she couldn’ta taken your arrow away and you'd a stopped it...."

 

Youndu clasped Kraglin's shoulder. "I don't blame you, kid. But feeling guilty is going to get you making mistakes that could get you killed. So I'm gonna punish you," he stated, plain and simple.

 

Kraglin swallowed hard. "Yessir...I...I'll try not to fight..." he said. It wasn't clear exactly what he expected the punishment to be, but it was very clear that he thought he might die from it. Yondu wasn't known for his mercy when crew messed up as badly as Kraglin had.

 

Yondu didn't fail to notice the look on Kraglin's face and he lightly squeezed the younger man's shoulder. "I ain't gonna hurt you permanently or fatal," he said gruffly.

 

Kraglin relaxed at those words. If Yondu didn't usually have mercy, he also didn't usually sugar-coat what he planned to do. If he said Kraglin wasn't gonna die, Kraglin knew he could believe it. Yondu wouldn't have hesitated to tell him if he was going to die. "Wh...what do you want me to do, Cap'n?" he asked uncertainly.

 

"I'm gonna tan you," Yondu replied. "So you will go over my knee."

 

Kraglin blinked. "You usta do that to Quill when he messed up bad..." he said, eyes widening. Everyone knew how Yondu felt about the Terran whelp...if Yondu was treatin him the same way....

 

"I care about you too. Just as much," Yondu said gruffly.

 

Kraglin swallowed hard. "I care bout you too, sir...Mor'n anyun else. I'm glad you gots yer ship back..." he said quietly, before moving to stand next to Yondu's knee.

 

Yondu didn't waste any time, guiding Kraglin across his lap and settling him in position before he bared the younger man. Lifting his hand, he brought it down firmly at the crest of Kraglin's bottom and then repeated the swat.

 

Kraglin wasn't ashamed to admit he whimpered at the swats. Yondu never did anything by halves and that included correcting those under his charge. He managed not to try and squirm away, though. Barely.

 

Yondu continued the swats down to Kraglin's thighs and then started over from the top. Partway through the second circuit, he began to speak. "It wasn't you that killed your friends. You don't need to hold that guilt."

 

"I shoulda stopped it..." Kraglin said...gasped, really. "Shoulda done something..." A tiny sob escaped.

 

"And if you'd tried, you likely woulda been killed too," Yondu replied, completing the second circuit and beginning a third, going a bit harder and faster. "You did the right thing waiting."

 

"I did?" Kraglin's voice was pathetic with his need to be told he hadn't done the wrong thing...the need to feel Yondu's approval. He began to squirm helplessly as the swats became harder and faster, unable to stop himself.

 

"It let you come and help me when it was safe to do so. And it saved your life," Yondu said. "I didn't lose you."

 

"That...that's good?" Kraglin felt stupid for having to ask, but he'd never thought Yondu cared that much about him and now he was being told and shown that maybe he'd been wrong about that. He choked back a tiny sob, the pain and new revelations beginning to overcome him.

 

"Very good," Yondu confirmed. "If they'd killed you...well, I don't know I'd come back from that," he admitted.

 

At those words Kraglin went boneless over his captain's knee, just crying out the guilt, remorse and grief. "...Same...can't lose you..." he said, between tears and apologies.

 

Yondu brought the spanking to a stop and, like he had done each time with Quill, wasted no time in moving Kraglin into his arms, onto his lap instead of over it.

 

Kraglin and the crew had known how Quill was disciplined- it was impossible to live on a ship the way they had and not known what was occurring, given Quill's typical response when he was corrected- but he hadn't realized how Quill was comforted after. He tensed up fractionally until he realized what was happening, then slowly let himself relax against Yondu, accepting the comfort. "You're gonna wanna go after your boy, right?" he asked quietly but clearly, his intent to help Yondu in whatever way Yondu needed obvious. "I been runnin a trace on the area where they disappeared and got faint signs of a portal being opened. If'n we ask around, we might hear tale of portals opening elsewhere that we can trace and see if the ships signature is there...."

 

Yondu nodded, hand cupping the back of Kraglin's head. "We'd have heard rumours if any of his multiple enemies picked him up." It was still possible Quill was in danger, though, and Yondu wasn't sure that would be much better. An enemy he knew was an enemy he could fight or bargain with.

 

"We'll find 'im, Cap'n. I fig'r we can talk to the Collector...he hears stuff. If'n we got somethin' he finds worthwhile for the info...." Kraglin gave Yondu a crooked grin. "I got that little trinket from two jobs ago...might catch 'is eye. Get 'im to talk...."

 

Yondu nodded. "As long as it isn't something you'd be reluctant to part with," he said gruffly.

 

"Way I figure...I was gonna sell it to the highest bidder next port we arrived at. Selling it to the Collector for info on my brother's location is worth more." Kraglin shrugged, giving Yondu a sideways glance to see how the older man reacted to Kraglin's inserting himself into 'the family'.

 

Yondu's smile was sincere...happy. "At least then both my boys will be where I can see them."

 

Kraglin smiled back, relaxing at the response. He hadn't been imagining it, then; Yondu considered him just as much his as he'd always considered Quill. It felt good to belong...to have family. "What first, then, Cap'n?"

 

"We'll go see the Collector first," Yondu replied, making it clear he valued Kraglin's suggestions.

 

"Coordinates have been set, Cap'n. Soon as you're ready..." Kraglin grinned and prepared himself for the ship to increase speed.

 

Yondu didn't waste any time getting them set on course.

 

****

 

Pepper was all kinds of out of sorts, finding herself younger than her son; well, younger than he would be if he hadn't also deaged. It didn't help that her parents weren't exactly sure how to handle it, alternating between letting her continue as if nothing had happened and treating her like they had when she'd been a teenager the first time. Huffing, she rubbed her forehead and reread the email she'd sent the office about catching a highly contagious virus and that she'd need to reschedule all important meetings and her assistant would need to take care of those that weren't able to be rescheduled. It was going to cause no end of headache when she finally got back to the office.

 

Steve and a few of the other parents had supervised and helped with the cleanup after the food fight had finally finished. Steve had checked in with his kids and grandkids...and Pepper was the only one he hadn't yet found. Checking with Friday about her whereabouts, he headed in search of his daughter.

 

Pepper grimaced as she sent the very last email before turning toward her mother and father, who hadn't left her side since the deaging had become known. "We should go meet up with the others. I want you to meet Steve...."

 

Steve paused outside the room and knocked politely.

 

Pepper looked toward the door and then at the clock and winced. "Damnit...we missed breakfast...I'm gonna be in trouble now..." she muttered under her breath, before calling out, "Come in!"

 

Even though it was muttered, her parents still heard. "In trouble with who?" her mother asked.

 

Steve opened the door in time to hear the question. "We missed you at breakfast," he said mildly to Pepper.

 

Pepper's eyes widened. She hadn't realized she'd spoken loudly enough for her parents, who normally you had to speak loudly to get them to hear anything, to hear her. She grinned in relief as Steve popped his head in. "Dad! I haven't gotten to introduce you to Mom and Dad yet!" She blinked at how odd that sounded, but didn't make any other comment...trying to ignore her mother's question and hoping the older woman wouldn't repeat herself.

 

Steve stepped fully into the room, smiling warmly at Pepper's parents and extending his hand to shake theirs. "Steve Rogers. It's good to meet you," he said sincerely.

 

The sentiment was echoed by the two older.

 

"Sorry I missed breakfast..." Pepper sighed softly, giving Steve a tiny, chagrined smile. "...I'd actually wanted to introduce Mom and Dad to everyone, but I needed to get work squared away, since I obviously can't go into the office looking like this..." She looked down at her more slender, girlish figure. "The rumor mill would go crazy wondering how I'd hidden a daughter all these years if I showed up looking like this...."

 

Steve nodded. "There's some food left, if you'd all like to come and join me." He glanced at Pepper's parents.

 

Pepper's father smiled. "That would be nice. And perhaps we can properly meet our grandson," he added meaningfully.

 

"Of course!" Pepper blinked, giving Steve a worried look. "Harry was at breakfast, wasn't he? I thought I'd seen him going with Tony, so thought it was safe to come and take care of the office issue before...."

 

Steve nodded. "You missed the food fight," he commented wryly.

 

Pepper's mouth fell open and she slumped, actually looking dejected at the news. "There was a food fight? And I missed it?" Had she been her normal adult self, she might have been amused at the idea of a food fight, but she wouldn't have been upset at actually missing it. It was just one tiny bit of evidence that the deaging was in more than just body.

 

Steve raised his eyebrows, but merely said, "I'm sure there'll be other things happening that you won't miss. Shall we go and have some breakfast? I'm sure Tony can bring Harry back in."

 

"Yes...I'd like to have Harry come back in for at least a little while, if he isn't in the middle of something. He needs to meet his other grandparents...and I miss him...." Pepper gave a tiny smile to everyone, but she had a moody look in her eyes. She looked down, not understanding why she was so upset about something so silly as missing a food fight of all things. She'd attribute it to hormones, but she hadn't been this moody the first time she'd been a teenager...at least she didn't remember feeling this moody.

 

"I'm sure that will be fine." Steve smiled, but it was tinged with worry, as he noticed the look on her face. He quickly tapped out a message to Tony, asking his son to bring Harry back to the dining room, and then looked at Pepper and her parents. "If you'd like to follow me...."

 

Pepper's mother gave her daughter a gentle hug. "We're looking forward to meeting him. And the rest of the family."

 

Pepper smiled and took her mother and father's arms to help lead the to the dining room. "I think everyone else is anxious to meet you too..." she said, her mood seeming to improve somewhat at her mother's hug.

 

"You can say that again!" Jessica bounced into view. "Hi! I'm Jessica. Pepper's sister..." She grinned and took Pepper's father's arm to help him so that Pepper wasn't struggling to help two unsteady people.

 

Pepper's eyes widened at the visible evidence that she wasn't the only one deaged to a teenager, then glanced at Steve. How did he feel at suddenly having two teenage girls when he'd had two adult daughters not more than a day before?

 

Steve smiled at both his daughters, turning a more reassuring smile to Pepper. Even if he wasn't quite sure what had caused the worried look, he knew most of the family members were going to need reassurance of some kind. "I'll go and get some plates," he suggested, while Pepper's parents greeted Jessica.

 

"It's really great that you can visit," Jessica continued, talking to Pepper's parents, "although things are a bit in upheaval at the moment.

 

"Yes, we can see that." Pepper's mother smiled. "What exactly happened?"

 

"An experiment accidentally mixed with an alien fruit in a pie we all ate before the mistake was discovered..." Jessica was still grinning. For some reason, being dragged didn't seem to bother her at all, although she could have just been really good at hiding it.

 

Steve returned with the plates of food that he set in front of Pepper and her parents. "We'll figure this out," he promised. "We have some of the best minds working on a cure."

 

"Eh...I'm not worried...." Jessica smirked, reaching over and stealing a piece of bacon off Pepper's plate before getting up and going into the kitchen to get herself a snack.

 

Pepper snorted. "You don't have a multi-billion dollar company to run," she muttered in amusement.

 

"We'll get through it," Steve reiterated, gently squeezing Pepper's shoulder. "You have people you can trust."

 

"Yeah...luckily." She glanced up as the rest of the family traipsed back in to meet her parents, since they had gone straight to sleep the night before. She couldn't help but feel again that she knew her grandpa Logan's friend, even though she hadn't spoken to him yet.

 

Remy had quickly seen that the family members had changed ages, but he only looked surprised for a moment before he was grinning and heading over to Pepper. "I thought I recognised you before...."

 

"Then...it is you!" Pepper breathed, before squeaking and throwing her arms around Remy in a tight hug.

 

Tony blinked and gave a crooked smile. "Uh...Sweet-Pepper, have you met grandpa's brother before?" he asked, sounding confused.

 

"This is the guy who saved me...from my story!" Pepper beamed.

 

"In that case, I am more than happy to meet- and thank- you!" Tony quickly reached over to shake Remy's hand, even though Pepper hadn't let go of him.

 

Remy freed one arm from Pepper so he could shake Tony's hand, raising his eyebrows at the teenager. "I didn't think you'd want to talk about what happened."

 

"What happened?" Pepper's mother asked. "And who is this?" She smiled at Remy.

 

"I never did talk about what happened. Until a few months ago on a family vacation. Everyone was telling stories and...it just felt like time..." Pepper flushed, then glanced at her mother. "This is Remy, momma. He helped me out when I was in college years ago. I almost got into a bad situation but he got me out of it before it could get bad. Helped me a lot..." She didn't go into detail, not certain how her parents would feel finding out about what had happened at this late date and not sure how to proceed even if she should tell them the whole story.

 

Logan raised an eyebrow at finding out his brother had a connection to one of the family members and hadn't mentioned it. Although knowing Remy, the Cajun hadn't even realized there was a connection until arriving last night. And this story of Pepper's had him curious, but he refrained from asking about it in front of everyone. It was in her past and if she needed everyone to know, she'd tell everyone. Otherwise, he'd wait till they were alone to give her the third degree. He already felt very protective of Steve and Bucky's families, viewing them as his family now. The thought of one of his grandkids having been in the type of trouble that needed help to get out of worried him.

 

"You didn't tell us anything about that," Pepper's father commented, looking a bit curiously at Remy.

 

Remy smiled. "Well, it was a long time ago. We've all done things in the past we regret, I'll wager."

 

"I'll drink to that!" Jessica piped in with a smirk, as she headed toward the bar. She'd done pretty well not drinking as heavily once Steve adopted her, but finding herself back to age fifteen had her itching to drink again.

 

Steve was quick to wrap his arm around Jessica's shoulders and steer her away from the bar. "We'll just stick with juice and water for the time being," he said.

 

"Aw, c'mon, Dad! I'm not really fifteen!" Jessica protested, but didn't try and get away or head back that direction again. She knew when to pick her battles.

 

Steve didn't point out to his daughter that it wasn't the age so much as the drinking alcohol for wrong reasons in general that was the problem. Instead, he merely squeezed her gently to himself and settled her on one of the chairs, looking around with a smile at the rest of the family members who had gathered.

 

Logan chuckled slightly at his son's response to his granddaughter's attempts to get intoxicated, but didn't say anything. He glanced at Bruce as her brother did say something.

 

"You may not really be fifteen, but your body is; and knowing how you used to drink in the past, I'd be afraid you'd poison yourself by overdoing because you thought you could handle the same amount as you used to," Bruce said calmly, as if he was discussing the weather.

 

"You don't think my tolerance level is the same?" Jessica blinked.

 

Tony patted his sister on the back. "Would you want to take the chance? I know damn well, as much as I drank when a teen, I couldn't handle near the amount of alcohol when I was fifteen as I could by the time I was 21 and legal."

 

"I would suggest listening to Bruce," Steve said softly. "He knows what he's talking about." He gently squeezed her shoulder.

 

Jessica sighed, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Despite everything that had occurred the last few days, the morning was starting out pleasant, on the verge of nice, and she didn't want to be the one to ruin the mood.

 

"What I don't understand is how some of us only went back to our early twenties, while others went further...sometimes much further...back." Darcy frowned. "Is that normal? For, you know...abnormal stuff?" She glanced at Pepper's parents. "Hi! I'm Darcy by the way."

 

Pepper's parents smiled and introduced themselves, the other family members following suit.

 

"I think Dad's working on that," Leo said. "There are a few tests that we're still waiting on the results for."

 

At that moment, Helen Cho arrived. "Hopefully, we can have some information for you soon..." she said, having overheard Leo. "This is definitely different than the Tower. Do you not have labs on your floor?" She glanced around curiously.

 

"No...all labs and working areas are on the public floors above. The family floor is just living space with a few small offices for personal business..." Tony smiled, moving forward to take Dr. Cho by the elbow. "I'll show you where the labs are. Uncle Odin was going to retrieve Healer Bryce and hopefully, they should be back soon if they aren't already."

 

Bucky glanced around at the re-gathered family, then looked at his children. "I don't know about everyone else, but I think it might be a good idea to take today easy. Just so we can make sure that there aren't any side-effects that just haven't had a chance to manifest yet."

 

Leo smiled at his father. "You might want someone to keep an eye on Petey and Harry, then," he commented. "I already had to divert baby brother away from the labs once."

 

Bruce blinked, then glanced around the room, trying to locate Peter and Harry. "They're too small to be in the lab unsupervised, even if they remember everything..." he muttered under his breath, where only those with enhanced hearing would be able to hear him.

 

Logan snorted. When had being too small ever stopped anyone from doing what they wanted if they believed they 'knew' enough to handle the obstacles? Especially when in possession of abilities like this family had? "Maybe everyone can congregate in their parents' or grandparents' rooms to watch movies... That way, if something occurs, there will be several other people around to be able to notice immediately, but we aren't all just hanging around like a school group that lost its tour guide."

 

Jessica had grabbed hold of her nephew by this point, giving Harry a crooked smile. "Sounds good to me..." she said, even as she managed to grab hold of Pete in her other arm.

 

Peter just blinked innocently at his aunt, then turned a pout onto his father. "I can help." Deaged or not, he still had his abilities. And he knew what was wrong, even if, very much like Kara, his child form and mind kept taking over.

 

"Help being the operative word, young Padawan!" Jessica answered for Bruce, hoping to derail any argument on her nephews' part by drawing his attention onto herself. "I'm sure when they reach a point where your expertise is needed, they'll call you in to work with them. Until then, though, better not to take chances on making things worse...." She didn't say 'like Kara'. She didn't even look in her cousin's direction. It was fairly obvious that was what she meant, though.

 

Kara agreed with her cousin mentally. Emotionally was a different matter and her frustration at the situation translated into a loud wail because everyone was suddenly avoiding looking at her.

 

Peter frowned, a mutinous look passing over his face. Harry didn't really seem that interested in the conversation. While he still retained his own adult memories, he was feeling 'carried along' by his own child mind and was too busy trying to control those urges so he didn't act too much like a child and cause problems.

 

Fury didn't hesitate in wrapping his arm around his daughter's shoulders, though he didn't draw her into his lap, figuring that a more childish form of comfort might make her feel worse.

 

The look of abject horror on Jessica's face at realizing she'd upset her cousin might have been funny if the situation wasn't so stressful. Of course, stressful usually resulted in Star Lord saying the wrong things at the wrong time. "I know, Kar...the only girls gonna be interested in 'dancing' with me now are gonna be 'jail-bait'. It SUCKS!" He made a disgruntled face at his cousin that truly looked ridiculous.

 

Kara blinked and stopped wailing as everyone stopped looking at her and turned to look at her oblivious cousin who was 'practicing' his dance moves, eyes closed and mouthing the words to a song only he could hear. She began to giggle, childish peals of laughter carrying through the room and reminding everyone who'd got deaged how much further they could have gone.

 

"Your aunt is right." Tony finally sighed. "You can help when your knowledge is needed. Until then I'd rather you stay out of the lab and potential mishap and enjoy being a kid. It isn't that bad. Believe me." He smiled, giving Steve a fond look as he remembered his own 'relived' childhood.

 

Steve smiled. "I might have wanted to change the exact circumstances of you being deaged, but not the experience itself." His own look was fond, remembering that as the first time he'd felt Tony considered their relationship the same way he did; that he saw Steve as his dad.

 

"One of the best experiences ever..." Tony agreed.

 

Grant smiled. "Can't really argue against that..." he said.

 

"So...everyone is splitting up and going to watch movies with the 'rents?" Jessica asked curiously.

 

Steve smiled. "I think that's the plan." He looked at each of his children, indicating he wanted them to join him.

 

"I'm sure we can do the same," Fury addressed Kara.

 

"Is Grandpa and Great-Grandpa joining us? And Aunt Laura and Great-Uncle Remy?" Jessica asked, with a glint of mischief in her eye.

 

Kara began to bounce up and down in place at Fury's words, then reached up toward him imperiously. "Up!" she demanded, the thought of spending time with her father and brothers watching a movie causing her more childish emotions to take over, despite her adult memories. She didn't try and fight it. She remembered her father saying she could be his little girl for as long as she needed. She somehow didn't think he'd realized how literal that would turn out to be, but if she didn't mind being dependent on him and letting herself act more immaturely when she was still in her adult form, then maybe it was time to stop fighting it in child form. It was entirely too tiring. Those thoughts only took a few seconds to race through her mind, however, her attention soon completely on Fury and the fact that he wasn't picking her up fast enough for her liking. "UP!" She stomped one tiny foot.

 

"Hey, less of the 'Great'," Remy said with mock annoyance. "But that aside, I'm sure we'd be willing to join you...though maybe Laura might prefer to play with the other kids?" He glanced at Logan.

 

Laura glanced up in confusion, not sure of the title she'd been given. There was still a lot she had to learn.

 

Fury reached down to pick up his daughter, glancing around for Trip and Brock.

 

"Well...all of the kiddies except Kar-bear will be with us anyway...so if she wants to hang out with Harry and Peter, she'll have every chance..." Tony smiled at his aunt. "What do you think, Laura? Do you want to watch movies with Peter and Harry? I'm sure you'll have a chance to hang out with Kara again later."

 

Laura considered that and then nodded, slowly and gravely. There was more of a hopeful look on her face now. It had taken a long time for her father to accept her. She wasn't sure she could trust this apparently easy acceptance from everyone else, but she desperately wanted to.

 

Logan noticed the reticence and slumped slightly. He wasn't foolish enough to blame all his daughter's hang ups on himself- she'd gone through hell before ever meeting him- but maybe if he'd been more willing to accept her in the beginning, she'd have an easier time believing when others immediately accepted her. He gave Charles a regretful look. The older man had every right to say 'I told you so'.

 

Trip and Brock had returned to Fury's side by that point with soda and a big bucket of popcorn. "Know what movie you want, Sis?" Brock asked amiably.

 

Kara gave Brock a look that could only be described as disbelieving frustration which she then voiced by babbling out several words that only a few could be recognized, reminding everyone that, while she might still have an adult mind, her childish body wasn't quite able to keep up with it.

 

Brock winced. "Sorry..." he said sheepishly, before giving his father a worried look. He hoped that Kara's mental abilities wouldn't regress too much because of her inability to interact.

 

Charles' look towards Logan was one of reassuring understanding and he simply reached out a hand to gently pat his son's knee. He knew and understood why Logan had taken a while to accept Laura and he didn't blame him. "I know you haven't had a chance to watch too many movies." He smiled at Laura and then looked around at the others. "Perhaps you could let her see one of your favourites?" he addressed the smaller family as a whole.

 

Fury gently squeezed Kara and then reached out a hand to touch his sons' shoulders reassuringly. "We'll find a way for you to get what you want across," he promised his daughter, keeping any hint of worry out of his own face and voice.

 

"I'm not sure how appropriate some of the favorites are for a young girl." Bruce wrinkled his nose.

 

"Not really a problem, Green Bean..." Tony teased. "Since the one favorite everyone agrees on is Star Wars...."

 

Steve smiled. "Shall we go and get snacks and drinks, then? Settle into the room?" he suggested.

 

"Sounds good to me!" Jemma grinned, grabbing Leo and Peter's hand and motioning with her head for Harry and Laura to follow her. "C'mon! We can go get the snacks while Grandpa gets his room arranged for the group to converge...."

 

The family was quick to start moving from the room, Steve headed to his to ensure there was enough space for all of them.

 

***

 

Kara nodded at her father, cuddling close.

 

"Dad's right, sis. We'll do everything possible to help you communicate," Trip said. Brock just nodded, still feeling slightly guilty at having forgotten Kara was having trouble talking.

 

"Are you ready to go to my room?" Fury addressed the three of them.

 

Kara just nodded her head rapidly, snuggling closer yet.

 

"Yeah, we're ready, dad." Trip smiled.

 

Fury gave his sons a reassuring smile, reaching out to gently squeeze each of their shoulders and then beginning to carry Kara to his room.

 

***

 

Logan found himself observing his sons' families- his family- closely as they went to Steve's room. He'd noted Bucky was coming with his brother, even though his room was apparently not far from Steve’s. He had no doubt that, if it wouldn't have been too difficult- and some of the kids obviously needed alone time with their parents- that nearly everyone in this large and extended family group would have congregated in one room. Breaking into the smaller family groups was comforting to those who had been strongly affected.

 

He was also noting how the various 'children' were handling the situation. For the most part, everyone was staying calm and unworried, although it was obvious they were a bit more worried about those who had de-aged further than very young adult-hood. Some, though, were beginning to show signs of stress. The two boys who had regressed to the age of children seemed less worried than their parents, which was understandable. It was typical to worry more about one's child than the child might worry about themselves. Tony also seemed to be a bit worried about Pepper; even though she was a teenager and not a child, she'd still regressed further than him and Logan could tell the fact was bothering the genius. Jessica seemed to be happy enough with the situation, although if the look in her eye was any indication, Steve would need to keep an eye out for her to do something later. He glanced toward Bucky's kids, taking note of who had been affected in his tiny group.

 

Lance, now a teenager of about the same age as Bobbi, was walking alongside Bakshi, who was also a teenager, talking animatedly to him. Their sister hadn't deaged as much as them and actually now appeared a little older than Jessica, who she kept casting worried looks towards.

 

Jessica literally bounced over to Lance, Bakshi and Patsy, throwing her arms around the now young men and giving Patsy an impish look. "I've got soooo many ideas of things we can do now..." she whispered conspiratorially, including Patsy in the comment, even though Patsy hadn't deaged as far.

 

Lance gave his cousin a big grin. "What sort of ideas?" he asked.

 

Even though his daughter was whispering, Steve's advanced hearing allowed him to hear what she was saying, but he didn't give any sign of it.

 

Patsy didn't glance at her father or uncle, but although she looked at Jessica, she was slightly nervous about what her now teenaged cousin was planning.

 

"Well...I'm thinking I'm in the mood to go clubbing and see how many clubs I can sneak into...It's been a while where sneaking in would be necessary..." Jessica giggled softly, glancing around to make certain no one who might object was listening in. "I want to see if I've still got it..." she said, meaning her ability to talk bouncers and door security into letting her by, even though she wasn't (at least physically) old enough. Jessica glanced at Patsy. "You remember when we snuck into that seedy little hole in the wall on 4th and Main?"

 

"I remember we both agreed it was a bad idea." Patsy glanced surreptitiously towards her father and uncle, hoping one or both of them had overheard Jessica's comments. She didn't want to be the one to tell her cousin no.

 

"Well...yeah. Afterwards, we pretty much had to agree that it was, given that we both ended up being carted in to the police precinct and had to wait for your mom to come pick us up..." Jessica frowned at that memory. "But before the whole bar fight that got the cops called in, in the first place, it was fun. Wasn't it?" Jessica bit her lip, noticing that Patsy seemed reluctant to agree with her idea. "Aw, c'mon, Patsy. It's not like we're really fifteen-years-old..." Jessica whispered, frustrated that her best friend in the world wasn't on the same page as she was.

 

Patsy glanced towards the older members of their family, at least older in maturity. "I don't know...neither of our dads are likely to go for it," she pointed out.

 

Lance shrugged. "There's no harm in going out and letting off some steam. It's not like we have to tell them exactly where we're going."

 

Jessica nodded enthusiastically and grinned broadly at Lance. "Exactly. It isn't like we'd be going somewhere dangerous..." she continued to whisper, hoping to convince Patsy to join in.

 

Bucky had been listening in to the conversation as well and was torn between wanting to step in and nip the idea in the bud, vetoing it firmly so there would be no doubt they weren't to do it. At the same time, he wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt and not assume they'd actually go through with the idea, especially if Patsy was able to talk to their better sense. He looked at Steve to see which action he was leaning toward.

 

Steve, also overhearing his daughter, sidled nearer to Bucky, speaking in a low enough voice that it would only carry to his brother's ears...though it was possible their father would hear as well. "I think we should keep an eye on them," he said quietly.

 

"Yeah..." Bucky whispered back at the same level as his brother. "Think we need to warn Coulson? Since if they do anything, Bobbi will likely be involved?"

 

Logan could hear just as well as his two sons and sent both of them a slight nod that he thought they should. It would probably confuse anyone who saw it, since they wouldn't know why he was nodding.

 

Steve noticed his father's nod and gave a slight nod to indicate he knew what Logan was saying before addressing Bucky. "I agree with Dad. We should let Coulson know."

 

Bucky pulled out his phone and sent a quick text doing exactly that. "Done..." He smiled at his father and brother, before clearing his throat. "Jemma, Leo and the kids will be back soon. Has a movie been chosen?"

 

"I thought Star Wars was being settled on." Steve glanced around at the rest of the family members.

 

Even though she was gradually learning the correct forms of behaviour, Laura was still prone to moments of being startled. There hadn't been a picture on the wall in her room and she stared at the one on Steve's in fascination, before jumping and hissing when the image changed.

 

"Whoa, calm down, sweetie...it's meant to do that!" Logan quickly moved to calm his daughter. "That's where the movie will be shown..." He glanced toward Steve, as if asking for confirmation.

 

Steve nodded and addressed Laura. "Most of the rooms have pictures that change," he said, smiling at her.

 

Laura glanced at her father, still a bit wary, but relaxing a fraction.

 

At that moment, Jemma led her group back into the room. They had several bowls of popcorn and cases of soda. "Are we ready?" she asked brightly.

 

Steve smiled warmly at his grandchildren. "I think we were just confirming which movie to watch."

 

"Well, I for one like the idea of Star Wars, so if there are no objections we can just have Veronica start showing it..." Jemma grinned as she began to pass around the popcorn and drinks.

 

There were no arguments and pretty soon, everyone was settled in to watch the movie. Peter had planted himself between Harry and Laura, appointing himself as the one to make sure she was all right.

 

***

 

Sam wrapped an arm around his son and daughter each, guiding them from the dining area to his room.

 

Karen snorted in amusement, giving her father a cheeky grin. "Foggy's not going to believe this until he sees it. He plans to come by this afternoon after work..."

 

Matt winced. "He just wants to tease me..." he muttered morosely. He hadn't been fond of his teen years and while he still retained his adult mind, the fact that his body had returned to the way it was during one of the most rough periods of his life had seriously affected his mood.

 

Sam squeezed them both gently. "I know you might not be happy with the situation as it stands right now, but we'll find a way to deal with this," he promised.

 

"It's not that bad, Matt... I mean, you're still all super-ninja...the only thing that's really different is your size..." Karen tried to encourage her brother.

 

"Size and hormones..." Matt muttered, then sighed. "I know you're right. It could have been worse..." he said, thinking of Kara and how much more difficult things had to be for her.

 

Sam kissed each of their cheeks. "We'll deal with this," he promised. "The whole family is here to support each other."

 

Matt just hunched in on himself, crossing his arms over his chest and coming very close to pouting. He didn't disagree with his father, but it was obvious the words weren't bringing the comfort that Sam meant them to.

 

Karen sighed and leaned against Sam. "Are we going to watch movies too? Or maybe play cards?"

 

"Whatever both of you would like to do," Sam promised, squeezing them both gently. Even if his words weren't working to comfort his son, he hoped the constant affection would help at least a little.

 

"I think I'd like cards..." Matt finally said, with a tiny smile. His voice still sounded morose, but at least he seemed a bit calmer.

 

Karen and Matt followed their father into his room and while Karen went to find the cards, Matt sat down, not entirely comfortable in his new (old?) form yet.

 

"Would either of you like snacks? Or drinks?" Sam asked them.

 

"Do we have chips and cheese that we could make nachos?" Karen asked curiously. "If not, then regular chips will work."

 

Matt nodded. "That and a soda?"

 

Sam smiled. "I'm sure we can manage nachos and soda," he replied. "I'll start on the food, if you two want to figure out what game we'll play first."

 

"Alright, daddy..." Karen smiled brightly and went to get out the different games to bring to the table. Matt was still pouting- there wasn't any other word she'd associate with the look on his face- so she didn't bother asking him to help. It didn't take long, anyway and soon she was going through a list of options for her brother to choose from.

 

It wasn't long before Sam returned with the tray of nachos and drinks, sitting down to join his children in the game.

 

Matt eased up slightly as the night progressed, but he was obviously thinking of something; and the way he kept darting furtive glances at Sam every few minutes made it just as obvious he was trying to keep Sam from finding out about it.

 

Sam could hardly fail to notice the way his son kept looking at him and partway through another game, he reached out to gently squeeze Matt's shoulder. "Is something worrying you, son?" he asked softly.

 

"How am I supposed to stop bad guys now!?" Matt blurted. "I can't even do my lawyer job because no one will want to hire a kid!"

 

Sam wrapped his arm gently around his son's shoulders, drawing him close. "Until we figure out how to put everyone back to normal, there's nothing to stop you from researching cases and seeing how you can help Foggy in the caseload there is currently."

 

"Research?" Matt's voice sounded like every whiny teenager being told they had to write a research paper, ever.

 

Karen laughed. "Wow. We'll have to tell Bruce. Usually you don't mind the research."

 

Sam smiled slightly, but was still obviously concerned. "Well, you don't have to do research. It was just a thought," he commented, wondering what other parts of his son might have changed.

 

"Ok..." Matt nodded, slightly mollified. There was a worried look in his eyes, though. He knew he usually didn't mind researching things, since his only dislike of it was that sometimes materials weren't available in Braille. He knew his reaction wasn't normal for him.

 

Sam hugged him close. "We'll figure out how to get things back to normal," he promised. "But remember, even if you're not a teenager in your mind, your body is...which might be why you're having different reactions to things that you would normally be fine with."

 

"I hope that's all it is..." Matt murmured into his father's shoulder, before wrapping his own arms around Sam and holding on tight. "...Didn't like being a teenager the first time I went through it..." he admitted with a disgruntled sigh.

 

"Maybe it can be better this time..." Karen offered hesitantly.

 

"What didn't you like about it?" Sam probed gently.

 

"I had just gotten used to my senses...how to use them really...I mean I was learning before Dad died, but he tried to protect me as much as possible, so I didn't have to deal with too many sounds or smells or anything...I had to start dealing with that after he died. I had just started getting used to things when my body decided to betray me by getting taller and I started tripping over everything! And...and certain smells affected me like they hadn't before..." He blushed and refused to say anything else, leaving it to Sam and Karen to figure out what he meant.

 

Sam pressed a kiss to the side of his head. "It might be that you have to deal with those kinds of things again, but you have the whole family around you to help and support. You have me and Karen. And you have Foggy. You've also learned how to utilise your abilities already, so it'll be easier this time around."

 

"I...I hope so..." Matt sighed. "...But that helps. Remembering I'm not alone this time. I mean. I had Stick last time, but he's not terribly nurturing...." Matt wrinkled his nose in amusement.

 

"You aren't alone," Sam promised. "I'll always be here for you, son. Even if it's just a case of needing the company, but not feeling able to talk."

 

Matt didn't say anything, just holding on more tightly. He didn't think admitting his hormones were making him moody was necessary; Sam could most likely tell.

 

While he didn't want to embarrass his son, it was only them and Karen in the room and deciding he wanted to make sure Matt was comforted properly, Sam gently pulled him onto his lap.

 

"Daaaad!" Matt groaned, but notably didn't try to get away and actually snuggled down.

 

Karen didn't say anything, but she was grinning widely.

 

Sam wrapped an arm snugly around Matt's torso, pulling him close without hurting him. He wrapped his other arm around Karen's shoulders, so he could hug both his children.

 

"Maybe we can just relax and you read to us, Daddy..." Karen said softly, not wanting to move from the affection and fairly certain Matt didn't want to either.

 

Sam smiled, pressing a kiss to each of their heads. "That's fine with me," he said softly. His bookcase was within easy reach, so he merely asked, "Any preference on what you'd like me to read?"

 

"A mystery!" Matt quickly requested.

 

Karen just smiled and nodded at her father to let him know she didn't mind the choice.

 

Soon, both kids were snuggled up to their father, intently listening to him.

 

***

 

Ben looked at his son and gave him a small smile. "Would you like me to call Deacon? Have him visit for the summer?"

 

Blake was still trying to get used to suddenly being deaged back down to a teenager, not feeling quite at home in his old skin. At his father's suggestion, though, he quickly nodded. "I'd like that," he admitted.

 

Ben pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed. It didn't take long at all to arrange for Deacon to drive up from the college, his last class having ended three days before. Ben then turned toward his son. "He'll be here in the morning..." he announced. "He said something about bringing a friend with him."

 

Blake smiled, happy at the thought of seeing his little brother, then blinked and asked, "Did he say which friend?" He trusted Deacon, but wasn't sure what friend Deacon might be choosing to bring with him.

 

Ben frowned. "No. He wouldn't tell me." He didn't say it seemed suspicious.

 

Blake did think it sounded suspicious. But he was also happy at the thought of having his brother visiting for a while. "I trust Deacon... and it's not like there isn't room," he commented.

 

"There's an empty room not far from the one we set aside for Deacon, so it isn't a problem," Ben agreed. "Your mom is actually lucid today and asked to see you. Feel like going in to her room and playing cards?"

 

Blake's smile was instant and bright. "I'd like that," he admitted. He knew it was difficult on his dad when his mom was having a bad day, so it made him even more glad when she was having a lucid day.

 

Ben smiled and wrapped his arm around Blake. "We'll just make the most of this situation," he said. "Enjoy it, even if it seems like we shouldn't."

 

Blake leaned into his father and nodded, giving a slight sigh. "Deacon will probably find this funny."

 

"He might. Or he might just be worried..." Ben paused. "...Most likely both." He smiled, gently directing his son into the room before following him in. "Sweetheart...I brought our boy in to see you." His voice carried to the woman in the bed. At her motioning, he gently nudged Blake to go hug his mother while he got the card table set up on the other side of the bed and got out a deck of cards. Soon, the three were having a lively game and talking like they normally couldn't do when his wife wasn't so lucid.

 

***

 

May looked at her daughters and made a split second decision. "We're going to the pool. No one is scheduled to use it, so it is free. Since we can't go out to a spa, it's the closest thing I can think of. I need to relax." She grinned at the two girls, hoping that they liked the idea. She was trying to help them relax just as much as herself.

 

Skye looked down at her teenaged form and sighed. "Great. Now I have to get used to this again." She wrinkled her nose, remembering she hadn't exactly been graceful the first time she'd been this age, then looked at Hope. "At least you're still close to your normal age."

 

Hope nodded, but she was still unsettled by the whole situation. "I'd like to go to the pool," she admitted quietly.

 

"It won't be that bad. And look at it this way...now I've been your mom when a child and a teen. You'll get to experience all the parental interference you missed the first time through..." May teased.

 

"I heard that, Melinda!" Lian walked up at that moment. "And if a certain someone wasn't constantly trying to skirt the rules, I would not have 'interfered'!" May's mother was smiling, so it was obvious she was teasing as well.

 

Skye's eyes lit up and she turned to look at her grandmother. "Do you have any stories to share?" she asked eagerly.

 

"Oh...I have more than a few..." Lian chuckled, ignoring her daughters disgruntled look.

 

"Maybe you can tell us some while we're at the pool?" Skye suggested innocently.

 

"I would love to," Liam said, before wrapping one arm around each of her granddaughters. "Hurry and change and I can start as we walk up to the pool!"

 

May groaned softly and rolled her eyes, but her smile was fondly amused, so it was obvious she didn't mind and was just putting on an act.

 

Hope looked a little unsure, but Skye's enthusiasm was infectious and eventually, she was chiming in with her own questions.

 

***

 

Hank counted himself lucky that his son and daughter weren't affected by the deaging as strongly as some members of the family. Still, that made him all the more determined to figure out how to help the family members who were affected.

 

Hank focused on his son, smiling at Scott. "Is everything set for Cassie's visit?" he asked.

 

Scott was grinning so wide, his face was beginning to hurt. "Yes...her room is set up exactly right and I've got her for two whole weeks! I'm just so thankful I wasn't hit as hard by the deaging as some of the others. I would have hated for her to not be able to come and I'm pretty sure Maggie would have thought I wouldn't be able to take care of her if I was a teenager...never mind the fact that there are soooo many other people that would help step in." He sighed. While his ex-wife was more understanding and accepting of him and what he did now-a-days, she still had a tendency to worry about him being able to take care of Cassie as a father instead of as a 'friend'. He had to admit sometimes she was right to worry, but he'd got so much better. Especially since Hank had stepped into his life.

 

Hank smiled. "I'm sure we can figure out something we can all do together, even if we might not want to leave home while so many of our family members are vulnerable." He looked at his daughter. "Did you need to rearrange any of your meetings?"

 

"Only a couple of Skype ones," Hope answered. "Nothing that would cause any problems, considering most of my contacts know something of the type of lab work you and the rest of the family do."

 

"It seems like poor Pepper is the only one who has to worry about her business associates finding out what happened..." Scott wrinkled his nose. "I'm glad you won't have problems," he said to Hope.

 

"It could have been worse," Hope agreed, remembering that, for certain members of the family, it was a lot worse.

 

"She doesn't arrive until the weekend, unfortunately- I'm a few days ahead of her arrival being ready- so that gives me time to check and double check. And also gives time for us to maybe call in reinforcements to help the others...since they are so busy trying to hold down the fort, I'm not sure they've thought of calling in reinforcements...." Scott looked pensive. "Wondering if I should call the guys...or at least Luis...to help out with basic stuff. He's not a bad chef and if he cooks for everyone, it would keep the others who are researching or protecting from having to take time to do it; or risk having take-out since we don't know what caused this and it would probably be a good idea to know exactly who is eating what and when until it gets fixed...." Scott bit his lip, not sure if his suggestion was valid or not, but he knew if Cassie had been affected by something she ate that reacted poorly to who knew what, he'd be leery of letting her eat anything he didn't know exactly what it was.

 

Hank nodded. "I think that's a good idea and would be worth bringing up during a family meeting. I'm not sure only one person would be up to the task, though, so perhaps we should look at a group of people we know we can trust. Or at least who we can do background checks on."

 

Scott nodded. "I'm sure everyone in the family knows of at least one person that might be able to help..." he agreed.

 

"Friday, would you pass Scott's suggestion on to the rest of the family members and ask them to think about anyone they know who we could bring in?" Hank addressed the AI.

 

"Of course, Doctor Pym. I will do so now," Friday replied.

 

Scott smiled. "So… you two want to watch a movie?" he asked.

 

Hope smiled. "That would be nice."

 

Hank nodded. "If you can both agree on one to watch, I'm fine with anything...."

 

"I know just the one..." Scott said. Rummaging around in the pile of DVDs he had, he pulled out one of Hope's favorite movies.

 

***

 

Loki was pacing in front of his father's door while Lorelei watched quietly. Darcy was sat to the side of the door on the floor, her chin propped on her hands. Mack shook his head. "He'll be back soon, I'm sure...."

 

Retrieving Bryce had taken longer than Odin had anticipated. Not because the healer had been reluctant to come, but because there had been a spate of injuries when a patrol had found themselves attacked by a group of beings. Odin had had to arrange for a group of soldiers to arrest the attackers and make sure no one else was in danger before he could return to Midgard with Bryce. Thankfully, no one had been killed and the injuries had been easily treated. Still, Odin was relieved to be returning home with his children, Bryce in tow.

 

Darcy glanced up when Friday announced Odin had returned with the Asgardian healer. "Thank goodness..." She sighed. Loki and Lorelei's nervousness was getting to her.

 

"Did something happen, Father?" Thor asked, worried.

 

"A minor skirmish," Odin answered. "I am sorry for worrying you." He smiled reassuringly at his children.

 

Loki frowned. "Skirmish? Asgard's enemies are not taking advantage of you remaining on Midgard with us, are they?" His voice sounded a mixture of worried guilt.

 

Darcy frowned as well. "Do you need to return to take care of things, daddy? Cuz, we could come with you. Or if that's not okay,, we'll be fine staying here with the rest of the family till you can return. As much as we'd miss you, you are the king...."

 

Odin moved closer to his children. "It was a group of rogue soldiers who have been captured and there are no traces of any other enemies," he answered. "I do not need to leave...though when things have returned to normal here, I would like to take you all to Asgard with me to visit."

 

"I'd like that!" Darcy grinned. "Won't that be cool, Jane? Visiting when you aren't being taken over by an alien infinity stone?"

 

Jane smiled at the idea. "There's so much I want to learn about..." she said, remembering everything she'd seen. Even if she wished the circumstances had been better, she couldn't deny that her curiosity had been awakened.

 

"Where are the labs?" Bryce asked. "There is still a little bit of the day left and I would like to familiarise myself with what has already been learned."

 

Loki straightened. "If it is acceptable to my father, I will take you to them. They are in the SHIELD portion of the building, as Tony wanted the family dwelling to be family only and no business. I believe there has been a room set aside for your use also that I can show you to first, so that you may know where you can return to rest when you are ready...."

 

Bryce nodded. "Thank you."

 

"Come back here once you have shown Bryce where he can work," Odin said. "I would like to spend some time with all my children."

 

"Yes, dad..." Loki smiled at his father, then nodded at Bryce. "If you would come with me..." He led Bryce toward the guest rooms to show him where he would be staying.

 

Darcy watched her brother leave. "Friday made an announcement while you were gone...well, more like a request...."

 

"What was the request?" Odin turned to give his children his full attention.

 

Lorelei answered. "Because of the fact that so many of the family have been deaged to an age where they are more in danger than they normally would be, Uncle Hank has suggested that if we know of anyone outside the immediate family who might be able to come and help in case of emergency- be on call as it were- it might be a good idea."

 

Mack nodded. "I was planning to call a woman that I became good friends with before I joined the family. She was a freelancer that sometimes helped me when direct SHIELD channels wouldn't work, so she's familiar with what we do."

 

Darcy grinned impishly. "Are you certain she is only a 'good friend'?" she teased.

 

Mack blushed, but didn't say anything.

 

Odin smiled at his son. "There is certainly enough room for more people to stay here," he commented. "I am afraid the only people I know here on Asgard are those who are already here."

 

"Eric might come, if I ask him to," Jane said, thinking. "He's a scientist, so he can help out with that." She smiled. "And possibly babysitting." Though she couldn't imagine any of the deaged kids being too impressed with that.

 

Lorelei wrinkled her nose at the term, but didn't say anything.

 

Darcy outright laughed. "They'll likely look on it as more like a Warden...."

 

"I doubt it will be that bad..." Mack interjected, though the tone of his voice didn't sound as certain as his words.

 

"It may not be necessary," Odin said. "If there are other people who can step in with what's needed to be done, it means my siblings can devote their time fully to your cousins." As could he himself to his own children.

 

"That would be preferable..." Lorelei sighed, looking a bit relieved that if anyone was going to be watching her like a hawk, it would be her father. As much as she loved her uncles and aunt, the situation was unsettling enough that she didn't want anyone but her father.

 

Odin smiled at her. "That is how I would prefer it, too."

 

"What will we do tonight?" Mack asked curiously, leaning against the wall, since it appeared they would be waiting for Loki to return before going into their rooms or joining their father in his.

 

"Whatever you would all wish to do," Odin replied. After the upset in Asgard, all he wanted right now was to be close to his children. He didn't care what they did.

 

"Maybe..." Darcy eyed her father sideways, a coy look on her face. "...Maybe you could tell us some stories about when you were younger? Did anything like this ever happen to you?"

 

Mack straightened up, a grin lighting his face. "I think I'd like to hear some stories..." he agreed.

 

"Nothing exactly like this, but there were things that happened," Odin answered with a smile. "Once your brother rejoins us, I will share some."

 

"Until then, perhaps we could gather together some snacks and something to drink?" Thor suggested.

 

"I'll get it!" Darcy jumped up quickly and ran down the hall toward the kitchen area.

 

"I'll just go help her..." Mack grinned and quickly followed his sister, though he didn't run.

 

It didn't take long before they had returned, their arms filled with the snacks. Loki arrived back from showing Bryce where to go at nearly the same time and everyone followed Odin into his room.

 

Odin waited for his children to be settled comfortably and then began regaling them with times of his own childhood and teenaged years.

 

***

 

Drax walked close to Peter, able to tell his son wasn't happy with the way things had turned out. "Is there anything you would like to do?" he asked.

 

"I dunno...everything just feels really weird..." Peter sighed. "Maybe we can go for a walk outside? Do you think that would be alright?" He gave Drax a hopeful look.

 

Drax nodded. "I am certain that will be fine," he agreed, before asking the AIs to pass on to the other family members that they were doing that. Just to be on the safe side.

 

Peter was in a bit of a better mood by the time they'd gone up to the outside. The fresh air helped calm his nerves and made him feel a little bit more optimistic. Only a little bit, though. "What if they can't find a cure? What if I have to grow up all over again?" he asked out of nowhere, obviously worried about the possibility.

 

Drax looked at his son. "You have grown up once already. You will be able to go through it again if necessary." About to say something more, he was cut off as a vessel came into view, high in the sky above them, and began to descend.

 

"That's not the point..." Peter interrupted, before his attention was also caught by the vessel descending toward the compound. "...Uh...Veronica? Could you let the others know we have company? That ship looks familiar..." he said, with a hint of nervousness. The last time he saw that ship while he was on earth was when he was being kidnapped after running from his mother's death-bed. He liked it here and he liked the family he had built up, but he had no clue what to expect from their visitor. What if the man made Peter leave?

 

Getting the information about where Peter's ship had gone had cost a fair bit. It was a price Yondu didn't mind paying, so long as it got him and his other son to his boy. When the ship landed and the hatch opened, he was relieved by the shape he saw...but that relief became confusion and then worry, as he realised Peter now looked like a teenager.

 

Peter blinked nervously as Yondu exited the craft. He wasn't entirely certain what to expect of the space pirate. The man had berated and tormented him as often as he'd protected him, although Peter could see now that the older man was just attempting to toughen him up so that he'd be able to survive the harsh conditions of living on a spaceship among aliens who would kill you soon as look at you. It was all he could do to not hide behind Drax like a naughty school-boy when he suddenly felt guilty for causing his childhood guardian to have to come look for him. As it was, he couldn't stop himself from hunching over and looking at his feet sullenly, a look Yondu had become all too familiar with when Peter was a teenager the first time.

 

Yondu wasted very little time in heading down the ramp towards Peter, waving for Kraglin to follow him. He wasn't unaware of the various trained family members who had arrayed outside the building, but his focus was on Peter...at least until any of the others proved themselves a threat. Reaching the teenager who'd once been his charge, but as important as his son, Yondu placed a hand on his shoulder. "What happened to you?" He didn't even try to hide his concern.

 

Drax took a step nearer to Peter, quite obviously protectively. He didn't do subtle well.

 

"Uh..." Peter answered ineloquently, caught by surprise at the concern Yondu felt not being hidden. Even when Yondu had been concerned in the past, he certainly had never allowed anyone else to see that concern. Especially not total strangers who might use that concern against him. And yet here he was, acting concerned in front of all of Peter's family, who were all strangers to him.

 

"He ate a piece of pie that didn't agree with him..." Jessica piped up from Peter's left. He hadn't even noticed her moving closer. "Actually...it disagreed with a lot of us...Are you here to help find a cure?" Jessica shifted in an attempt to move out of range of Steve's grip, realizing that not only had she drawn the attention of a potentially hostile alien to her, she'd moved a lot closer to said alien than her father was comfortable with, if the look he was giving her was any indication.

 

Steve was quick to move to his daughter's side, wrapping an arm around her shoulders to draw her to him and away from the alien. "Are you here for a particular reason?" His voice was a lot less confrontational than it could have been, since he hadn't failed to notice Yondu's reaction to Peter.

 

Yondu turned to the man who seemed to be one of those in charge. "I was searching for...Peter here, as his ship fell through a wormhole." He'd nearly called Peter his boy, but had switched at the last moment, not entirely sure his kid would respond well to that. Even if Yondu wasn't prepared to hide how he felt.

 

Drax grunted, glancing at the ship and then at Yondu. "How many are in your ship?"

 

Yondu's smile was humourless. "Just me and Kraglin."

 

Peter blinked at that. "Where's the rest 'o the crew?" he asked curiously and with a bit of worry bleeding through in his tone. As much as he liked to complain about how Yondu had raised him...the man had taken care of him and taught him and cared in his own way and Peter cared about Yondu too. For there to only be Yondu and Kraglin left, something bad must have happened.

 

Jessica didn't fight Steve's grip or the arm around her, but she did attempt to stay close to Peter, curiosity and her own natural protective streak encouraging her not to leave.

 

The flash of sadness that came over Yondu's face was gone as quickly as it had appeared. Drax was more observant than he appeared, but still lacked the subtlety that would have had most of the family steering the conversation in a different direction. Plus... "What took out a whole crew of Ravagers?" he asked outright. "Are you escaping from something?"

 

Yondu didn't try to deny it, though he did say, "There's no threat coming after us."

 

Peter wasn't oblivious and he caught the look on Yondu's face as well. Unlike Drax, he wasn't quite as blunt, but it had more to do with the fact he was afraid to hear the truth than because of a desire to direct the conversation onto a less dangerous topic. If he didn't hear what actually happened, he could pretend it hadn't occurred. Swallowing, he looked at the ground and wrapped his arms around himself, fighting off a sense of loss that he didn't understand. "So you're safe...?" he managed to squeak out, his voice cracking embarrassingly.

 

"Yeah, kid." There was no disguising the fond gruffness in his voice as Yondu looked at Peter. He didn't put voice to what had happened. He'd continue to try and protect his boy as much as he could. "There's no danger following us...."

 

Steve had relaxed his guard the more it seemed like Yondu was there because he cared about Peter than because they were going to be facing any more danger. Shaking his head, he glanced at Peter and Drax, then at the two newcomers. "You'll probably have more privacy to talk inside...." He left it at that, figuring Peter would let them know somehow if he didn't want the two strangers there.

 

Peter looked up at that, glancing at Steve. "Thanks, Uncle Steve..." he said softly if clearly, his voice carrying to all nearby and giving away through his tone- despite his efforts to keep his emotions in check- that he was worried, scared and upset...though it was just as clear that the feelings weren't because of Yondu. "C'mon back to..." He paused and looked at Drax, almost pleadingly. He didn't want to find out whatever had happened to send Yondu and Kraglin off in the ship alone by himself.

 

Kraglin swallowed and gave a tentative smile toward Drax, realizing that the big man was the one they most likely had to convince if the way Peter was looking toward him was any indication. "You're one of Peter's Guardians...aren't you?" he asked curiously, not realizing that the words had become true in more than just one way. He began to wonder, however, when he noticed Peter's face turn bright red at the words.

 

Yondu heard the form of address and began to worry less about what Peter might do once he found out the true identity of his biological father. If the kid had a family here, he was unlikely to want to leave them... even though the thought of not being a part of Peter's life brought a stab of pain to his heart.

 

Drax gave a nod, since the term was true insofar as his relationship with Peter now. "Perhaps we could go to my room," he suggested to his son, making it clear he wasn't going to let Peter out of his sight.

 

Peter nodded rapidly. "Come with us..." He motioned to Yondu and Kraglin. "We can talk in Drax's room. Veronica will likely want to do a scan on you when we enter the building, but it won't hurt and it helps with security..." he added, as an after-thought. He was a bit surprised at how excited he was to show off his new home to Yondu. As if he was looking for the other man's approval. He wiped the grin off his face quickly. Yondu was here to deliver news of some sort; why else would he have come? There were more important things to worry about than if the Captain approved of his new life.

 

He led the two newcomers to Drax's room, but waited for Drax to lead the three of them in. Meanwhile, the rest of the family had returned to wherever they had been before Veronica announced the arrival. If he could, he'd share the story with everyone else later.

 

Drax led them into his room, then turned to the newcomers and waited.

 

Yondu cleared his throat and spoke in a gruff voice. "I'm glad to see you're safe here, barring the 'mishap' that's made you a teenager." Glancing at Drax, he took a deep breath and admitted what, to this point, only Kraglin knew. "I was worried about you. You disappeared. None of your friends knew where you were...."

 

"Are they safe?" Drax interrupted.

 

Yondu nodded. "They are now."

 

Peter slumped in relief, a weight that he hadn't realized was so heavy on him lifting at the news. "That's great...we weren't sure...we got thrown through that wormhole before we could check on anyone else. The Sovereign really wanted all of us dead. Kinda surprised they didn't put a bounty out on us...."

 

Kraglin winced and cleared his throat. "They did....We took it 'fore Yondu saw what they were really like and decided he rather liked that you got one over on them. Decided not to finish the job, even though it cost lots a coin...."

 

It had ultimately cost him his crew, too, but Yondu couldn't rightly say Peter wasn't worth it to him. After all, he'd had no intention of bringing Peter back to the Sovereign. "They might still hold a grudge, but I don't think they'll think to follow you out here," he said. "The rest of your Guardians are laying low." He hesitated, but Peter needed to know the truth. "But there's someone else who still wants to get hold of you."

 

Peter was still stuck on the fact Yondu gave up lots of coin instead of catching him for the bounty. "You gave up a high paying job so I could get away?" he squeaked. "Is that why the rest of the crew aren't here? They looking for another high paying job?"

 

Kraglin looked close to tears again, not knowing how to tell his little brother that he'd invited a mutiny and anyone loyal to Yondu had been killed...the rest of those who had mutinied being killed when he'd finally braved letting Yondu, the raccoon and the twig free.

 

"No, kid." Yondu's voice was soft and gentle...at least for him. "We're all that's left." He sidled a bit nearer to Kraglin, close enough to bump shoulders with his son in a way to offer comfort and affection without embarrassing him.

 

"It was my fault," Kraglin choked out in a strained voice. He quickly explained what had occurred.

 

"But you got Yondu...and Rocket...and Groot out before it was too late..." Peter's voice was sad but filled with gratitude. Swallowing, he turned toward Yondu, forcing himself not to think of what had occurred...the dead...he couldn't do anything about that anyway. "You said someone is looking for me?" His voice cracked again and he winced with a blush.

 

Yondu nodded. "When I picked you up from Terra the first time, there was a reason for it. I was hired to collect you and then deliver you." He paused. "By your biological father."

 

Drax's eyes narrowed and he took a threatening step closer to Yondu. "You kept Peter from his father?!"

 

Peter's own eyes flashed with irritation, but he was too excited to finally get a lead on the man who'd spawned him to focus on it. "My father's looking for me? Mom always said he was so wonderful! If he's looking for me, then he must have wanted me! Right?" He turned toward Drax. "He didn't just decide we were nothing and leave us alone!" It was clear from his voice that he'd thought exactly that...that his father felt he and his mom weren't worth coming back for and hadn't wanted Peter.

 

Yondu took a step closer to Peter, ignoring the look on Drax's face, and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Kid...it isn't a good reason he's looking for you." He touched Peter's face, encouraging him to look into his eyes. "I didn't take you to him...I kept you on my ship...because you weren't the only child he fathered." A troubled look came over his face. "And your mother wasn't the only one."

 

Peter's face was completely open as he allowed Yondu, Kraglin and Drax to see his confusion and disbelief. "You kept me from him deliberately because I wasn't his only kid? Because he was a bit irresponsible and a playboy? Just...just because he liked the ladies doesn't mean he couldn't have been a father....!" He got an offended look on his face. "...I was a playboy for years...you think I wouldn't be a good dad?!"

 

"No, kid." Yondu's desire to protect his boy warred with the knowledge that Peter needed to know the truth. Still, it was hard. He himself had learned the truth too late. "I kept you from him because, out of all the women he impregnated, your mother was the only one who survived. Because, out of all the children he fathered...all those he hired me to collect...he killed every single one." The site of the mass grave still haunted Yondu. It was why he'd worked so hard to ensure Peter could protect himself.

 

Peter paled at those words, an uncertain, unwilling look crossing his face; although it was obvious he believed Yondu, it was just as clear he didn't want to believe him. "No...he...he didn't.... There must have been some reason none of the other women survived. I mean, Mom got cancer...a sadly common disease on Earth...Terra. Maybe he just had extremely bad luck picking women who were prone to illness..." He didn't mention the children who had died, not wanting to know how Yondu knew they'd been killed or why the older man was positive it had been his father to do so.

 

"You must be aware your father wasn't human, kid," Yondu said. "His name's Ego and the form he used to father children was merely an … extension. His true form is a planet. A whole world. I wasn't able to learn everything about his plans, but I learned there was a reason why he fathered so many children."

 

"And his goal was not reached?" Drax cut in. "Which is why those children are now dead."

 

Kraglin gave Peter a sympathetic look. "I don't think 'is goal was reached yet...it's why 'e's started looking for Peter again. After you all saved the Galaxy from Ronan...'e musta realized you was still alive, Petey.... He thought you was dead before. We heard that 'e was looking for ya."

 

"How....how do you know he's responsible for the kids dying? Maybe whatever killed their moms is what killed them...." Peter protested, although it was obvious his heart wasn't in it and he fully believed what Yondu and Kraglin were saying.

 

Yondu let his other hand rest gently on Peter's shoulder, wanting to hug the boy even if he wasn't sure how it would be taken. He held back, even though he wanted to comfort his boy like he used to. "For a while, I was reuniting children with their father. I started to grow suspicious when I wasn't seeing any signs of them. Before he told me about you, I did some investigating. And I found them. Their remains. Every single one of them."

 

"And that is why you ran with him?" Drax guessed. "You have been protecting Peter since he was a child."

 

Yondu nodded, even though his eyes were still fixed on Peter. "Not like it hasn't always been easy. But I've done my best t' make sure you can protect yourself. Even when you was chafing under my rules."

 

Peter swallowed. "You...you did," Peter agreed. "You always treated me different...I just thought it was cuz eventually you'd find my real dad and get a big payout. Instead, you were protecting me. You were treating me different cuz..." He blinked and swallowed again. "All this time I was looking for my father...why didn't you tell me? Why...why didn't you just drop me off somewhere he'd never look? You didn't have to keep me with you...."

 

"Yeah, I did," Yondu replied. "You were my boy. You still are my boy. I wasn't gonna lose sight of you. I wasn't gonna let anything happen to you." Even if it had cost him, it was a price he'd paid willingly.

 

Peter blinked again, looking away from the others. He was finding it difficult not to start crying. His vision of his birth father had been shattered (not that he'd really believed his father was David Hasselhoff, but still...he'd believed the man was as close to a super-hero as you could get without being a super-hero). To find out that the man who'd fathered him had killed all his siblings- and he believed Yondu's words...the man had no reason to lie about something like that. "I spent so much time wishing for my father to come get me..." He swallowed before finally looking back up at Yondu. "...Looks like he had me all along..." His smile was tiny, hesitant, uncertain of what response he'd get and more than a little sad because of his shattered dream... but there was also a hint of relief and gratitude.

 

Peter's eyes widened as what he'd just said actually settled into his mind. He looked at Drax, then back at Yondu as he suddenly realized. "...I've got two dads..." Then he got a nervous look on his face and whined. "...Aw, man! ...I've got two dads! I ain't ever gonna get away with anything now!" He pouted and gave Kraglin a dirty look as the younger alien started laughing with loud guffaws.

 

The look of relief on Yondu's face was obvious and he finally gave in to his urge to wrap his arms around Peter in a tight hug, happy that his boy was accepting him into his life.

 

Drax looked at Peter and then focused on Kraglin. "And a brother, too," he commented bluntly, having noticed the protective way Yondu acted around the other man.

 

Peter would never admit to snuggling up to Yondu, but he pressed closer and held on tightly, hiding his face against the older man's chest. He eyed Kraglin from his position of not-snuggling and nodded at Drax's words. "...And a brother..." he said, his dirty look turning a bit more mystified as he watched the older alien to see how he viewed the situation. Kraglin had been a teen when Peter was brought on board while still a child and had often been given the responsibility of keeping the Terran alive and out of trouble when Yondu had captain's business to handle. It wasn't such a leap to view the laughing man as family- as a brother- but if Kraglin didn't like that idea....

 

Kraglin heard Drax's words also and stopped laughing long enough to nod vigorously. "I been treating him like a pesky younger sibling for long as I known him. Bout time he realized it..." He chuckled and then started laughing again when Peter stuck his tongue out at him.

 

Yondu's affectionate smile was directed at both of his boys, tightening his arms around his teenaged son, because he could do that now and not worry that Peter wouldn't like it. "I got both of you now," he said, one hand rubbing over Peter's back.

 

Peter let out a soft sigh and gave up the pretense, snuggling close. "You'll stay here, won't you?" he couldn't help but ask, the hope clear in his voice. He looked toward Drax again, an uncertain, worried yet hopeful look in his eyes. Drax had become very important to him and he didn't want the other man to think he was no longer wanted or needed; at the same time, Yondu had always had a very large role in Peter's life and finally being able to recognize and acknowledge that role was important to Peter.

 

"I ain't gonna let you go again," Yondu promised, stroking his hair. Somehow, he couldn't stop giving the affection. Not now that he'd started. Not now he could.

 

Drax noticed the look and took a step closer, giving a smile towards his son. "I am glad you now have your other father," he said, his words making it clear he still considered himself Peter's father along with Yondu.

 

Kraglin stopped laughing at Drax's words and grinned at Peter. "Yep...now you's got two daddies and a big brother watchin yer back. No one gonna get close and hurt ya!"

 

Peter smiled crookedly at Drax and Kraglin. "Guess that's good and all, since I seem to have shrunk!" he groused happily.

 

Yondu gave a soft snort. "Even after you return to your proper age, it ain't gonna change," he vowed. "I'm gonna keep right on protecting you. Be easier now yer not running."

 

"Yeah...not much felt like running for a while now..." Peter admitted. He'd loved being a Ravager...loved the freedom of space and not being held to rules; or at least he thought he had. Since crash landing back on Earth and not being able to leave...since being given rules and a home and a family...he was discovering that he was just as happy not running. Well...as long as he wasn't in trouble and in danger of a butt roasting, at any rate.

 

"Good." Yondu touched his cheek. "You deserve to be safe. With me. With your other dad...your brother. The rest of your family."

 

Peter's smile grew. "You're gonna like the rest of them...." he said, with a hint of excitement. "I can't wait to introduce you both!"

 

"I think I do already," Yondu answered. "Because they want to protect you as well. I am glad," he said honestly.

 

"You are much happier now than when they came out of the ship," Drax commented, remembering Peter had acted like he was feeling guilty about something the moment he'd seen Yondu.

 

"Well yeah! I mean...I'm really sorry to hear about the crew and all..." a brief look of sadness crossed over Peter's face, "...but I thought they were here cuz Yondu wanted his thing back and it got destroyed on the Milano, so I didn't...." He blinked and stiffened as he realized he'd all but admitted stealing from Yondu while Yondu still had hold of him. Biting his lip, Peter attempted to extricate himself and put a little bit of distance between them before he explained...since he knew Yondu would want to know what he'd taken.

 

Yondu tightened his arms around Peter, effectively trapping him. "What did you take, kid?" he asked, a serious, almost stern note slipping into his voice.

 

Peter gulped- there wasn't any other word for it- and fidgeted before mumbling something against Yondu's chest.

 

Kraglin blinked, a confused look on his face as he looked between Peter and Yondu and then looked at Drax, wondering if the other man knew what Peter had just said, since it wasn't intelligible to Kraglin at all.

 

Yondu's hand came to rest on Peter's lower back, patting it lightly, almost in warning. "Care to repeat that, kid?" Although phrased as a request, the tone made it clearly an order.

 

Drax raised his eyebrows, but didn't say anything or attempt to put a stop to the proceedings. After all, if Peter had stolen something from him, there was no question he'd be going over Drax's knee.

 

"I took one of your crests...the gold one tipped in rubies that made it look like your hair was on fire..." he said, reluctantly and sullenly admitting what he'd done. "I kept it on the Milano, but..." He bit his lip and gave up any attempt to get away. While no one in this room would have raised an eyebrow if he'd stolen from someone else <given that they were all thieves of some sort>, stealing from family was an entirely different matter.

 

"Oh, Petey..." Kraglin said softly, in an entirely too sympathetic tone.

 

It hadn't even occurred to Yondu that his boy would have stolen his crest. Or that he would have been running partly because of that. "Okay, kid. I'm going to put you over my knee and I'm going to spank you," he said, bluntly and outright.

 

Peter's eyes widened and he began to squirm in an attempt to get away, even though he had expected this would happen when Yondu found out. "Nooooo!" he whined.

 

Yondu didn't waste any time, guiding the youngster over to the bed and taking a seat before arranging the lanky teenager across his lap, a position that had become familiar while his boy had lived on the ship with him.

 

"No...Yondu! Pleeeease... it was a long time ago! I won't ever do it again!" Peter continued to wriggle and attempt to get away, but as was the case when he truly was a teenager, he wasn't as strong as his father and once Yondu had decided he'd misbehaved badly enough to warrant a punishment, nothing would stay the older man's hand until Peter was a contrite, blubbering mess. Even knowing the futility of fighting- and knowing that fighting would likely make the spanking harder- Peter couldn't stop himself from trying to get away.

 

Yondu pulled his boy against his stomach, wrapping an arm around Peter's waist to make sure his boy's squirming wouldn't catapult him off Yondu's lap. He then proceeded to bare his son and brought his hand down in the first hard smack at the crest of Peter's backside and then repeated it.

 

Witnessing Peter have his bare backside reddened by Yondu wasn't a new experience for Kraglin. The kid had gotten into trouble often enough while still living on the ship with the captain and the rest of the Ravagers that, for a while, it was a common occurrence. He wasn't sure how Drax would handle seeing it done, though and couldn't help but glance at the other man.

 

For his part, Peter continued to squirm and wriggle, though Yondu's tight grip kept him from moving very far at all. He also continued to whine and plead for Yondu to stop. Somewhere around the seventh or eighth smack, though, he seemed to realize that Yondu wasn't going to stop until he felt that Peter had been punished enough and he gave up the begging, instead clenching his teeth tightly in an effort not to begin crying like a baby.

 

Drax wasn't sure he would have spanked Peter in front of other people, but that was more because he'd noticed the way the family handled things. He didn't look away. If his son was going to steal from the family, he needed to accept the consequences that whichever father was bringing him in hand would give him.

 

Yondu delivered the hard, sharp smacks down to Peter's thighs and then started over from the top, speaking partway through the second circuit. "You didn't need to steal it, kid. I would have given it to you if you'd asked. I would give you everything."

 

Peter blinked back the tears that were already streaming from his eyes and reached down, wrapping his fingers into Yondu's pants leg and holding on tightly. "...I...I didn't thin...think you...you'd gi...give me that!" he gasped out as Yondu continued to blister his bottom. It hurt. It hurt so bad. It was all he could do not to begin sobbing. He continued to wriggle and squirm, though it was obvious he was tiring, as the movement wasn't as frantic or rapid as it had been.

 

Yondu completed the second circuit and then began a third, going a bit harder and faster. "You think I consider you less important than my possessions? I would give up everything for you." He didn't voice that he already had, pretty much.

 

"I...I di...didn't think I was that important!" Peter finally admitted in a wail. "I didn't know!" He gave one last frantic attempt to get loose, throwing himself from side to side in an effort to dislodge Yondu's grip, then threw both hands back to cover his bottom.

 

Yondu moved Peter's hands out of the way, pinning them against his back, and increased the force and speed a fraction more. "You ain't gonna doubt that again, kid. You are that important. You have always been."

 

"I won't! I won't doubt it ever, ever, ever again! I won't, daddy! I promise!" Peter sobbed out, before going limp over Yondu's knee and crying brokenly. He hadn't realized that the older man had actually cared about him until that day; finding out how wrong he'd been about how Yondu viewed him and his relationship to the man was an eye-opener. Of course, realizing that the man had actually cared and was protecting him for all these years left him feeling more than a bit guilty at how he had treated Yondu, but now that he knew, he wasn't ever going to abuse the man's trust or affection ever again. He promised himself that.

 

Yondu brought the spanking to a stop and wasted no time in gathering his boy into his arms on his lap, hugging Peter tightly to himself. The last time he'd done this, his boy had pulled away in a fit of temper. Stroking Peter's hair, Yondu hoped he wasn't going to experience that again. "I got you," he whispered.

 

Peter remembered the last time Yondu had spanked him and how he'd pulled away from the comfort. He'd been miserable for days after, feeling like things weren't completely finished because, while Yondu had punished him, the older man hadn't been able to assure Peter that he was forgiven and everything was alright, due to Peter's stroppy attitude. Peter wasn't going to make that mistake again. As soon as Yondu was holding him tight, Peter twisted around and wrapped his own arms around the older man, burrowing against him with his head tucked under Yondu's chin. "I'm sorry...Know better...don't steal from fam'ly..." he whispered in between tears.

 

Yondu tightened his arms around Peter, relieved to be able to hold him, and pressed a kiss to the top of his head. "You don't," he agreed. "But you've been punished. It's over and I forgive you," he promised.

 

Slowly, Peter was able to calm down, his sobbing ebbing into quiet tears that eventually turned into sniffles. He never let go of Yondu the entire time, though, snuggling as close as possible and soaking up the affection. Swallowing, he turned a bleary eyed look to Drax. "...You f'give me too?" he asked, in a tiny voice. He knew Drax had to be disappointed that Peter would steal from a family member. Taking Yondu's crest was a lot different than lying about and keeping the infinity stone from Yondu. Or taking the Milano (since Yondu knew about the Milano and could have easily taken it back if he really didn't want Peter to have it).

 

Drax stepped closer to Peter, reaching out and placing his hand on his son's shoulder, squeezing gently without dislodging Yondu's embrace. "You have been punished. I forgive you too," he promised.

 

Sniffling quietly and giving Drax a teary smile, Peter snuggled against Yondu again. Finding out his sperm donor had been a murderous asshole who had an ulterior motive in wanting him...an ulterior motive that likely wasn't good in the least...had left him feeling bereft. He may not have ever known his father, but the dream of his father was so ingrained in his life and so full of detail that having it destroyed almost felt like a physical blow. He sniffled again and asked wearily, "Do you think he hurt my momma?"

 

Drax really wasn't good at being subtle, but he knew his son well enough to know that answering the question honestly would, more than likely, hurt Peter. He gently squeezed his son's shoulder.

 

Yondu ran his hand over the back of Peter's head. "I'm not sure we can ever be certain of that," he replied. "But he won't get to you. Not with all of us here." Catching his other son's eye and not wanting Kraglin to be left out, he waved him over to join them.

 

Peter knew they were holding back, not wanting to tell him what they really thought, but he was grateful for the avoidance. It was bad enough he felt deep down that Ego had been the reason his mother had died. Having his two fathers confirm it wouldn't help him feel better.

 

Kraglin moved closer to the tiny huddle and reached over, ruffling his little brother's hair. "No ways he getting to you!" he confirmed their father's words.

 

Peter sniffled and shifted so Kraglin could join in the cuddle, only letting go of Yondu long enough to pull his underwear back up. He'd kicked his pants off somewhere during his struggle to get free and counted himself lucky he hadn't lost the under-garment as well.

 

Yondu kept one arm around Peter and wrapped his other arm around Kraglin, though didn't pull his other son down on his lap too. While he was fairly certain he could get them both to fit, Drax was standing close enough that he'd likely get pushed out. And Yondu couldn't help smiling when Drax placed his hand on Kraglin's shoulder, too, giving the younger Ravager a smile. "If we are sharing one son, it only makes sense that we share two," the big alien said, making it clear he was accepting Kraglin as a son as well as Peter's brother.

 

The startled yet pleased look on Kraglin's face caused Peter to begin giggling, which caused him to blush. He was having a very difficult time controlling his emotions in his younger form. "Damn good thing I didn't deage as far as Harry and Peter." He sighed. "Or poor Kara."

 

Kraglin's eyes widened. "Others were shrunk to even younger versions of themselves?"

 

Drax nodded. "Two of the boys have been deaged to about seven years old. One of the girls is now about two years old, but still seems to have her adult mind."

 

Kraglin winced at the last. "That's rough...."

 

Peter nodded. "It's hard on her...."

 

"You have us now." Yondu rubbed Peter's hip gently. "We're here and we can help where it's needed."

 

"Everyone will appreciate that..." Peter smiled, letting his head drop onto Yondu's shoulder before reaching to take Drax's hand. He didn't know if it was stress from so much happening the last few days, or the fact he was emotionally younger, but the affection of the two men felt good and he didn't want it to stop.

 

The bed was big enough that Drax, holding onto Peter's hand, was able to sit down and encourage Kraglin to join them on the bed, holding onto his other son's hand too.

 

Yondu gently stroked Peter's hair, his other arm around Kraglin's waist so he could keep in contact with both his sons.

 

Peter yawned and despite himself, fell asleep in his father's arms.

 

Kraglin pursed his lips. "Is this normal for those deaged so far down? Or is he just tired from stress?" His question was quiet. "How best can we help?"

 

"There has been a lot of stress going on right now," Drax said.

 

"And what he learned today has likely tired him out," Yondu commented.

 

"Yeah. I thought he knew his position in our lives. Every one of the Ravagers knew he was yours..." Kraglin was amazed Peter hadn't realized.

 

"It is not too surprising," Yondu said. "He'd already felt rejected...." He sighed, knowing he should have made it clearer to Peter.

 

"It is easy to look back on what you did in the past and feel you could have done things better," Drax said.

 

Kraglin sighed and nodded. "We'll just hafts make sure he knows better this time 'round..." he finally said. He stood slowly so as not to wake his little brother and reached under the bed, pulling out Peter's jeans. "He'll be wanting these when he wakes up. Maybe. They're a bit rough." He glanced at Peter's bottom. Dark pink skin peeked out from underneath the briefs and Kraglin just knew Yondu hadn't gone easy on the whelp. Not that he could blame his father. Peter had to realize his worth and sometimes the only way the kid would remember such things was with a physical reminder that lasted a few hours.

 

He looked at Drax. "Almost expected you to stop the whoopin...."

 

Peter shifted in his sleep and whimpered as he put pressure on his bottom. Sniffling, he nuzzled against Yondu for a few seconds before settling. Kraglin smiled sadly. "...'e 'andled this spankin' lots better than any of the ones you had to give him on the ship. Course, on the ship, you didn't dare cuddle him after to help ease him. Even though I knows you tried to show him by givin him easier chores after and makin sure the mess was his favorite foods for a few days...somehow think this be better...." He nodded at the way Peter was seeking the physical comfort.

 

"This is not an unusual form of punishment here," Drax replied. "When someone does something they shouldn't, they are spanked. He should not have stolen from you. Even if what he stole had less value than him," he added to Yondu.

 

Even though Peter was asleep, Yondu couldn't help but tighten his embrace, even while nodding to Kraglin's words. "It is better," he agreed with his older son.

 

Kraglin nodded.

 

At that moment, Friday spoke up. "Sirs...two rooms have been assigned to Masters Kraglin and Yondu.... the rest of the family is requesting that everyone meet tomorrow morning for an update and introductions, as the other individuals they are inviting to help out during the crisis will be here by then."

 

Kraglin blinked. "Gives the whelp time to get all his snuggle needs out of the way...." He grinned at the two fathers.

 

"Perhaps we should all stay in one room for tonight?" Drax suggested, fully aware that Peter would likely need both his fathers. And that he wanted the chance to get to know his new son.

 

"Wouldn't be the first time," Yondu replied. Once more, his arm snaked around Kraglin's waist to pull his older son in close. Peter might have needed cuddling after being spanked, but Yondu knew Kraglin was still haunted by guilt. He'd keep them both close, with the help of their other father.

 

"Your bed's plenty big 'nuff for all of us..." Kraglin noted. "Is tha' typical?"

 

"It is normal for parents to have all their children in the room...even in the bed...with them," Drax answered. "The family seems to grow at the same rate animals breed."

 

Kraglin snorted in amusement. "That would explain how large this family is...." He glanced down at his 'baby' brother again. "If we're gonna be meeting the rest of the family tomorrow mornin, I think I wanna get some shut eye too. Peter's prolly gonna wanna be next ta both of you, so I kin sleep onna side...."

 

"The bed's big enough for you to stay close to one of us," Drax said gruffly.

 

"Who do ya want t' sleep next to?" Yondu asked.

 

Kraglin slanted his head and thought. He was still dealing with the guilt of what he'd done to his captain- his father- and while Drax had quickly and easily decided he would be a father to him as well, they hadn't had opportunity to get to know one another. "If'n ya don't think it will disturb Peter...I'll sleep on yer other side, sir." He waited for Yondu to respond. That would put Yondu in the center of the bed instead of on a side; the captain may not like that.

 

"It wouldn't disturb him," Yondu promised. "And it won't disturb me. I want t' keep you both close," he said reassuringly.

 

"K....dad..." Kraglin grinned crookedly at being able to say that out loud after years of feeling it was true but not able to do anything.

 

Yondu grinned at the name and then turned to Drax. "If you get yourself comfortable, I can arrange Peter and then me 'n Kraglin'll settle in."

 

Drax nodded and shifted over to the bed.

 

"Looks like whatever put him back in years done wore him out," Kraglin noted, as Peter barely stirred while Drax got in and Yondu arranged him so the larger alien could hold him while the captain and Kraglin could get into the bed.

 

"Punishment will do that, too." Yondu settled in next to Peter, then held his arm out for Kraglin to join him.

 

"Yeah...think Ida remembered that he was always sleepy after he'd earned himself a trip o'er yer knee...poor kid..." Kraglin got in and pressed up close we to his father. "Night, dad....night, Pop..." he said to Drax, a hint of wonder in his voice that the taciturn man had decided Kraglin was his because he and Yondu were sharing Peter.

 

Drax smiled and reached across so he could gently stroke Kraglin's hair. "Good night, son," he said.

 

****

 

Mike Peterson growled under his breath as he saw the caged human, HYDRA guards tormenting him. Focusing on the mouths of the guards, he used his enhanced sight to lip read and was shocked to realize just who the caged human was. "So von Strucker's son isn't one of HYDRA's elite? Gotta update our file on him then...."

 

He paused. He wasn't here on a rescue mission. In fact, Werner von Strucker was the only non-HYDRA individual, sans Mike, and if even half of what the kid's file said about him was true the kid deserved to be where he was. Of course, the file had been wrong about him being HYDRA elite, so....

 

Sighing, Mike raised his weaponized hand and shot. By the time he was done, the only ones still breathing were him and the kid. He'd gotten the intel he'd come for prior to running across the cage, so it was time to get out. Moving quickly, he wrenched the cafe door from its hinges and then broke the bindings on Werner. "You're coming with me..." he said firmly, if in a bit of a monotone voice. SHIELD might be able to get some useful information from him.

 

Motioning with one hand, he began making his way toward the exit. It was a bit odd and a little worrying that they weren't running across any guards.

 

Werner was too shocked to do anything other than follow his rescuer...if that was what the man was. He wasn't seriously hurt, but was fairly certain he'd wrenched his ankle going down hard when he'd initially been grabbed. It was hard to do anything more than hobble along, but he tried to go as fast as he could, not wanting to be left behind.

 

A figure stood framed in the exit. Humanoid appearing, with a flaming skull for a face. Werner jerked back a step, looking at the stranger who'd rescued him and then at the figure that didn't even look human.

 

For his part, Mike held back, just watching the being blocking their exit. He'd been hearing stories on the street about a flaming skull headed man. Supposedly, he only went after those who had done something 'bad' and weren't sorry for it. At least that's what one little abuela told him. He'd done a lot of bad in his life- although he was sorry for it (most the time). Finally sighing, he asked, "You gonna let us go? Or should I take another exit? I'm assuming we have you to thank for the lack of HYDRA goons swarming us...."

 

The skull changed, morphing back into the normal human face. Shaking his head, Robbie spoke rapidly. "I took them out, but one got a call for reinforcements through. I've gotta car outside. Quick getaway." He motioned with his head. "Follow me."

 

Mike blinked. "Well, okay then. C'mon, kid..." He took Werner's arm and half supported, half dragged him after Robbie.

 

There were bodies all over as they exited into the cold air. Werner allowed himself to be towed after Robbie, jogging towards his car. As they reached it, Werner couldn't help but comment, "Nice ride."

 

Robbie shrugged, giving a tiny smile. "Got some perks." He opened the back door and quickly waved the two other men inside.

 

Mike helped Werner into the back seat before moving around to the front passenger side of the car. "I'll ride shotgun," he said, climbing in.

 

Robbie didn't argue, barely waiting for them to strap in before he was driving, glancing in the mirror to check they weren't being pursued. He didn't want to change while there were people who would get hurt in his car.

 

"Umm..." Werner spoke up, sounding a little bit shell-shocked. The whole day had been crazy. "Thank you. I think," he added, not sure if he'd been rescued or if he was going from a bad situation to a worst one. At least he wasn't tied up or strapped down.

 

"I gotta check in with my handler. You mind?" Mike held up his comm unit so that Robbie wouldn't think he was talking to himself. He didn't respond to Werner; his rescue hadn't been planned, so he didn't feel he really deserved any thanks.

 

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't say anything about me," Robbie replied. "I've got someone to protect."

 

Werner swallowed and spoke in a rather subdued voice, "I didn't realise it at the time, but they mentioned keeping tabs on you. I'm guessing they might have been planning to capture you." His captors had spoken freely in front of Werner, having already told him he was going to die. He'd believed them.

 

Swearing, Robbie wrenched the car off the road. "I've gotta get my brother."

 

Mike had been talking quietly into his comm, but that didn't mean he wasn't listening to the other conversation. "Got it." He turned toward Robbie.

 

"Get your brother and then if you'd be so good to drive to a location I'll tell you- there's been a development where I'm needed. Maria is going to arrange to have my son brought there to meet me, so if you want to bring your brother there, I'm sure it will be safe. There'll be Avengers looking out for him..." he said, a tiny quirk of his lips indicating he wasn't sure how this had become his life.

 

Robbie raised his eyebrows. "Avengers, huh? Probably the safest place he can possibly be," he said, driving towards home. "It's gonna take me a few minutes," he warned.

 

Werner wasn't really sure what they planned to do with him and didn't really have the courage to ask. Noting a pad and pencil tossed on the floor in the car, he picked them up and began quickly writing everything he could remember about what the goons had been talking about. Even the things he didn't understand. He'd picked up on enough to be aware the organisation was planning something big. And even though his father had been a part of HYDRA's elite, Werner had never been close to the man. Or shared his beliefs.

 

Mike nodded to show he'd heard Robbie, staying on alert after the man left in case he needed help. He noted Werner writing in the back seat. "What're you writing?" he asked.

 

"Everything they talked about," Werner replied. "Figure you'll be interrogating me anyway. This way, there's a head start."

 

Robbie didn't waste any time heading into his apartment and finding his brother. "We need to leave. Is there anything you can't leave behind?" he asked, beginning to pack up the chair.

 

"What?" Gabe blinked in confusion. "Why...?" He shook his head, thinking. "Nothing that can't be picked up later, I guess.... Do I have time to pack a suitcase? Are you going to tell me what's going on?" He doubted it. His brother tended not to share information if he thought Gabe was better off not knowing.

 

"I'll come back and grab some clothes later," Robbie replied, not wanting to risk anyone coming while they were still here. He put the chair by the door and then picked up Gabe. "There are two men in the car. We're going to an area where there are Avengers...."

 

"Wait...what?" Gabe blinked, holding onto his brother. "Since when do you know men who know Avengers...?"

 

"Since today, apparently." Even though he was worried and trying to hurry, Robbie was still very careful with his brother as he carried him out of the building and to the car.

 

Mike had been watching carefully and when he saw that Robbie was carrying the younger man, he quickly got out of the car and opened the door for him. "Need me to grab anything?" he asked. He didn't offer to let Gabe sit in the front; he needed to be able to maneuver to fight and help Robbie get away if they suddenly found themselves being pursued, but that didn't mean he wouldn't make the younger man as comfortable as possible.

 

Gabe glanced at Mike his eyes going even bigger. "You know a cyborg?" he whispered faintly.

 

Mike couldn't help but chuckle mirthlessly as he waited for Robbie to answer him.

 

"Not a cyborg. Just happens to have some robotic parts replacing his human ones." Robbie then addressed Mike. "I need to grab Gabe's chair. If anyone comes, just drive. Get him away to safety. I'll catch up." He quickly placed his brother into the car, but left it to Gabe to strap himself in.

 

Mike nodded, then got back into the car, positioning himself so that if he needed to make a quick get-away, he could do so. Luckily, no one did come and soon, Robbie was back with the chair, putting it into the trunk. When Robbie got back into the car, Mike said quietly, "So far, no one has shown up and there is no one looking, but my eyes and ears have reported that there is someone headed our direction about five blocks away. We need to go quick." He shifted, preparing himself to protect the car while Robbie drove, if necessary.

 

Gabe swallowed as he heard Mike. "Who's after us?" he finally asked. He'd noticed the beat up appearance of Werner and connecting the dots wasn't difficult. Whoever his brother was rushing them away from were obviously nasty individuals.

 

Robbie nodded, wasting no time in putting the car in gear and driving, waiting for Mike to tell him where they were headed. "Bad guys," he answered his brother.

 

The frustrated, grumpy look Gabe gave his brother at that answer would have caused Mike to cringe if it had been directed at him. As it was, he couldn't help but chuckle softly under his breath. He'd tell the kid himself, but maybe Robbie had a reason for not wanting to give the kid a direct answer. Calmly, he told Robbie where to drive. Maria had promised to pick up Ace and bring him with her. All he could do now was keep the guys he was with alive and hope that they didn't pick up a tail.

 

***

 

Coloussus shook his head and landed another swat to the man's backside across his knee. While he was considerably stronger than Wade, Coloussus was very careful not to use anything close to a fraction of his true strength. While Wade healed fast, he didn't want to break the other man. And by now, he'd had plenty of practise to hone his technique.

 

"Ooooooow! C'mon, Big Guy! It...it isn't like... Ooow! It isn't like you didn't find out!" Wade wailed. He knew he had messed up badly. He'd taken the message. He should have passed it on. "I didn't want to leave the mansion, though....I wanna stay home and not be responsible and giving him the message would have meant he'd go and be responsible and want me to be responsible too...Is that so wrong of me to try and thwart?" Wade wasn't talking to Colossus and Vanessa had left the room as soon as she'd seen the look on the bigger man's face, grabbing Negasonic Teenage Warhead- or Soni as Wade liked to affectionately annoy her with- and quickly leaving. (She'd seen Wade get his ass blistered by Colossus once and it was enough, thank you very much. It wasn't even arousing in the least; which, given how kinky she and Wade could get, was a surprise.) In any event, Wade wasn't talking to anyone in the room that could be seen, though the words were clear enough for Colossus to hear.

 

By now, Colossus was used to Wade addressing people he couldn't see and had accepted it as just another one of the other man's many quirks. At least this one wasn't likely to get Wade in hot water. "It is wrong," he replied firmly, swatting each of Wade's thighs before beginning a new circuit. "And not wanting to be responsible is not an excuse to hide something from me I should know about."

 

Wade bit his lip and risked a glance over his shoulder at the man currently tenderizing his posterior. "It was wrong?" His lower lip quivered slightly as he tried to determine exactly how mad at him Colossus was. As much trouble and grief as he gave the other man, he actually liked the gentle giant; well, gentle when he wasn't disciplining Wade anyway. If Colossus thought he'd done something wrong, then Colossus would be disappointed in him. Might be angry with him. None of those were things Wade wanted between him and Colossus. He winced and grimaced as the big hand continued to smack his already very sore backside and couldn't help but try and wriggle away so that his butt wasn't such a good target.

 

Colossus tightened his hold, still mindful of his own strength, pulling Wade closer against his stomach. "Hiding the message from me, knowing it was something I needed to see, was wrong," he confirmed. "How can I trust you if you do that?"

 

"You don't trust me anyway!" Wade stuck out his lower lip, but it was more an effort to deflect from the fact he had started crying than because he truly was pouting or believed what he'd just said. He didn't know when it had occurred exactly, but Colossus's opinion of him mattered to him and the thought he wouldn't trust him hurt.

 

"That is not true and you know that," Colossus replied firmly, even as he continued the spanking. "If I didn't trust you, I wouldn't keep you with me. I wouldn't take the time to do this." Or spend time with the other man. Pausing his words but not the spanking, he then added, "And I wouldn't trust you to take with me into a situation that is unknown."

 

"I know it isn't true..." Wade admitted quietly, before shifting again. "...Trust you too..." he added. "I must trust him, since I keep deliberately doing things I know will get me put over his knee...." he muttered at the wall again. "...Can't let him know it's deliberate, though. He'd wanna know why and even I know that wanting to be spanked isn't normal...that it normally doesn't make most people feel safe...." Wincing again and letting out a loud whine, Wade threw his hands back to cover his bottom. Deliberate or otherwise, it hurt and he was damn well going to make certain Colossus knew it hurt.

 

Colossus moved Wade's hands out of the way, holding them against his back. "You know, Wade, that I can still hear you even when it is not me you are talking to," he said, not entirely certain if Wade would listen to a reassurance from him about 'wanting' to be spanked. Colossus was fairly certain it wasn't the spanking Wade was looking for by itself, but it didn't feel right to address something that wasn't exactly meant for his ears.

 

Wade blinked through his tears and huffed, "...And you know it is rude to listen to other people's conversations with invisible people!" he spouted impertinently, giving another hard wriggle to see if Colossus was distracted by his words enough to break free. He'd have been really disappointed in himself if he knew his huff at finding the grip as strong and secure as always actually sounded relieved instead of frustrated. "If you know...then..." His voice trailed off. It changed things. "I can't deliberately get into trouble if Colossus knows it is deliberate. It just would seem too odd.... not that I don't get into trouble without meaning to often enough. I just have that kinda personality..." He stopped his monologue to whimper. His backside really hurt! If it kept going, he'd actually need the big guy to hold and cuddle him after. Maybe he should just stop being stubborn and admit he'd done something he shouldn't and apologize....

 

"Wade...." Colossus increased the force behind the swats a tiny fraction. "Perhaps you should not be so concerned with seeming odd," he suggested. "After all, there are other quirks in your character I have accepted. And if you feel the need to go across my knee, I would rather you find a way of telling me than do something that would get you into even more trouble."

 

"Oomph...I think I should be embarrassed that he heard that- wouldn't embarrassment be a normal reaction?" Wade continued to talk to the wall. "...But I'm not embarrassed at all...actually feel relief that he knows. Still..." Wade broke off his 'conversation' to gasp as the smacking had reached a point his bottom felt like it was against a hot stove. "...Ooooow," he whined again, his focus now fully on Colossus and the never-ending sting of the man's hand. "..Why...why would I ask for this?" It was really a rhetorical question, since he knew he'd pretty much admitted to doing things so he'd be in this exact position. If he didn't know why he wanted it, how could he expect his big steely friend to know?

 

"It doesn't matter 'why'," Colossus replied. "What matters is you need it. I care about you, Wade. And I accept everything about you. Including this."

 

"Really?" Wade sniffled and took a deep breath to keep his voice steady. "You care about me and don't mind that I'm a freak?" His voice was still more quivery than he'd like and sounded incredulous. There were few people who would admit to caring about or even liking him. "...I'm so annoying...."

 

"You are not a freak, Wade," Colossus replied. "Nor are you annoying. While I would wish you wouldn't misbehave yourself over my knee quite so much, it will not change how I feel about you."

 

Wade stilled at those words, hearing the sincerity in Colossus's voice. "You really mean that..." He swallowed. He wriggled again, not even trying to stop the tears as they fell from his eyes this time. "I'm gonna feel this for days..." he said in a tiny voice. He would have liked there to be less relief in his own tone. Of course, now he was feeling twinges of guilt for the hassle he'd caused Colossus. "Sorry I didn't give you the message..." he finally said, his voice clear and sincere. "I'll tell you everything they said...." He wriggled again, wondering if that would be the end of it and he'd be let up now...or if his friend would follow through to the end. He was now saying all the right things, after all....

 

"I believe you." Colossus paused, resting his hand on Wade's backside, before saying, as quietly as he could, "But we are not finished. You did hide the message from me and I can't let you off the rest of the punishment for it." He resumed swatting.

 

Wade couldn't help but kick his legs out and gasp as Colossus resumed smacking his bottom. The brief reprieve made the swats seem that much harder and he let out a tiny moan that turned into a wail before he could help himself. He began thrashing in an attempt to move his bottom out of reach. Considering he barely moved half an inch from his friend’s lap, despite his efforts, he really should have saved his energy.

 

Colossus made sure his grip was firm, but not too tight, as he continued to swat Wade's bottom. "I need you to be honest with me the next time," he said seriously. "What you do won't ever change our friendship, but it will get you spanked. Each and every time it is necessary. Because I know you are a better man than sometimes you act."

 

"I'm not that good, big guy..." Wade protested sorrowfully, positive that if Colossus thought that, then he was doomed to disappoint the other man. He continued to struggle, but the thrashing became weaker and weaker as he tired himself out from the fruitless attempt to get away. Taking a shuddering breath, he soon found himself lying meekly over Colossus knee, accepting what he knew he had earned, tears falling down his cheeks. And then he was crying vocally, tiny hitched sobs escaping.

 

Colossus brought the spanking to a stop and gathered Wade into his arms, hugging the other man close and tight against his chest. "You do not think you are good, but you are," he said seriously.

 

Wade took a deep, quivery breath before wrapping his arms just as tightly around Colossus. "I'ma gonna disappoint you..." he whispered in a sad voice. "I won't wanna, but I will...."

 

Colossus tightened his embrace, always mindful of his strength and careful not to risk hurting Wade. "You will only disappoint me if you stop trying," he replied. "I know you are good."

 

"Thank you..." Wade said softly. "...For...for taking care of me. Not being weirded out by...by this...by me. For believing I can do better...." He slumped against his friend. "So...this was what they told me..." He began to explain the message Charles Xavier had left for Colossus.

 

***

 

Mordo closed the communication and walked to the library to tell Wong of the message he'd received. Together, the two of them headed in search of Strange.

 

Stephen Strange straightened up, stretching. He'd been researching this particular book for three hours and had barely got past the third page. it was time for a break...before one of the two mother-hens who'd decided they were his keepers came and insisted he take a break. He'd probably need to reread the last three pages again anyway. "Ah...just in time," he muttered to himself, turning to face the door. He sensed them both approaching.

 

Mordo didn't bother knocking on the door, instead opening it and heading into the room. "I hope you're prepared to take a break," he announced, without any preamble. "I've just received a message. We're needed."

 

"Well, it is mainly you," Wong said. "But we will both be accompanying you."

 

Strange blinked. "You're so certain that I will just go wherever?" He snorted and shook his head. "Or, for that matter, if I do go that you can choose to accompany me no matter what I say?" Of course, he knew if either of them told him he was going and that they were going with, that would be what occurred. They always managed to talk him around to their way of thinking; and nine times out of ten, it didn't involve any pain to his backside at all. Because they were usually right and he could see that they were right nearly immediately. Of course, the one time out of ten where he didn't see they were right immediately and he wasn't able to convince them they were wrong, he'd ended up wishing that he'd just given in without argument anyway.

 

"You can feel free to try and argue," Mordo said calmly. "About whether you are going and about whether you will be taking us. I will save you time on the first count. The Avengers are in need of your assistance."

 

Stephen straightened at that. "They need my help? Are you certain it was me they asked for? Stark doesn't like me.... I can't believe he'd request me to come for any reason short of the end of the world...."

 

"The request came from Asgard," Mordo answered. "From Odin, through Heimdall the guardian. It seems there was a mishap involving some apples and many of the Avengers have deaged." He frowned. "What is more alarming is that two of their family members have become children and one is now a toddler."

 

Stephen's eyebrows furrowed together as he learned that last part. "That can't be good..." He immediately started heading toward his bed-chamber where he kept his bag. "It was the apples, you say? I've not learned much about them, but from what little I do know, it should not have deaged anyone...." He was so focused on the problem set before him that he didn't even realize he'd given up his protest at being accompanied.

 

"My understanding is that the apples were mixed accidentally with an experiment." Mordo walked after Stephen, waving Wong to follow. It wasn't like he couldn't get to the same place if their charge suddenly decided he was going to try and head there without them, but then it would become necessary for Mordo to take him to task; and even though it had become necessary at times, he actually didn't enjoy that aspect of taking care of the other man.

 

Stephen sighed. "Of course. Science and magic rarely mix well..." he muttered, not commenting on the fact that he was being followed, since it meant he could continue asking questions as he packed. Besides which, he didn't feel that putting his butt on the line in order to try and leave without the other men, would be a wise battle to fight; it wasn't like they didn't know where he'd be going and couldn't follow. They'd been his teachers, after all. Throwing items into a carry-all, he was soon closing the case and turning toward the other two. "I assume you are already packed?"

 

"Naturally, otherwise I'm certain you would try to slip away from us." Mordo smiled, not entirely serious. Stephen was arrogant and stubborn, but tended to pick his battles more carefully. "I have been given coordinates for just outside their base."

 

Stephen nodded. "I'll just let you open the portal, then...." He smiled at his friend and mentor. As irritating as it was to have both the men watch over him so closely, it was also comforting in a way. He'd not had too many close friends before joining the order, his personality tending to drive people away rather than pull them in. The fact they put up with his attitude and still liked him let him overlook a lot of the irritation that came from them deciding they should be in charge.

 

Mordo nodded and didn't waste any time in opening the portal. Nor did he waste any time in heading through first. Just in case there was any danger.

 

Wong motioned for Stephen to follow, having decided to be at the rear. Just in case.

 

Stephen shook his head and stepped through. Once Wong had stepped through and the portal had closed, he remarked, "You both realize I'm a big boy now. You really don't need to protect me so completely..." He sounded amused and the affection in his tone was clear.

 

"Humour us," Mordo replied, nudging shoulders with him. "You know we both think of you as family."

 

"And you are likely to work yourself to the bone if we let you," Wong put in.

 

"I..." Stephen paused and then a sheepish look crossed his face. "...I can't really say you are wrong..." he reluctantly admitted. Sighing, he shrugged faintly. "Very well, I will humor you. Lead the way, 'Dads'..." he teased.

 

Rather than actually 'leading', Mordo walked on one side of Stephen and Wong on the other. Both men were aware that there might be some conflict and tension between their charge and members of the Avengers, but since all accounts were that Tony, in particular, had been adopted by the not-unreasonable Steve Rogers, they hoped there wouldn't be any major problems to deal with.

 

Reaching the entrance to the base, Mordo didn't waste any time in announcing their presence, making sure he indicated they were invited there by Odin.

 

"If you would please follow the lights, gentlemen..." Friday's dulcet tones carried to the men, even as she lit a pathway for them to follow to the elevators that would take them to the family floor.

 

"Stark's outdone himself with this building..." Stephen muttered, impressed despite himself.

 

"Thank you. If you approve, then I know I did it right..." a cheeky voice responded, before Tony moved up to walk beside Wong, glancing around the other man to nod at Strange and Mordo. "Thank you for coming. There's rooms set aside for all of you...the rest of the family is waiting in the family room."

 

Stephen blinked at the friendliness of Tony; usually, they were both aloof to each other. The billionaire seemed to have decided that he was going to try and be civil, though, so Stephen could do no less. "Thank you...I...I can see how you were affected. I've been told there are others that were affected more strongly, though?"

 

Tony frowned, his eyes worried. "Yes...my son is one of those. He was deaged to a seven-year-old, as was my nephew. And my cousin Kara is now two-years-old. They all still retain their memories, though...."

 

Mordo noticed the worry on Tony's face...not to mention the fact the billionaire was also much younger and had clearly been affected...and nodded. "We'll put our bags in the rooms and then come and join you." It was automatic to take charge when it came to Stephen, but at least it seemed the two men were going to be civil to each other.

 

Wong looked around with interest, taking note of anywhere potential threats could come from. He had to admit, it seemed as well protected as it could be.

 

"Thank you." The gratitude in Tony's voice was palpable. "Friday will direct you where to join us when you are ready...." The Iron Man straightened his shoulders, then turned to go join the rest of his family.

 

Stephen waited till it was just him and his mentors before speaking again. By that time, they had reached their rooms. "It's worrisome that they have retained their memories. The discord between body and mind may cause problems later...."

 

Mordo nodded in agreement. "Especially if they can't communicate in the way they're used to." He set his bag in his room and waited for Wong and Stephen to do the same, before checking with the AI about which direction to take.

 

Stephen moved to walk beside his friend, though he stood a scant few inches behind him in deference to Mordo's position as his teacher. Soon, they were in a large room filled with sofas and chairs. It managed to look very cozy and inviting despite the size. "The rumors of you forming a very large family were true, then...." He glanced around at everyone.

 

Steve stood and walked over to shake hands with each of the three men. "That's true, although we have had some new arrivals along with the three of you," he said. He was quick to introduce everyone, although the introductions did take a little longer due to the sheer amount of people there were.

 

Out of everyone there, Werner felt like he was the only one out of place, fairly certain he was in the room because no one had any idea what to do with him. He still had his notes that he'd written and unnoticed by him, Harry had sidled a bit nearer and reached out to pick up the pad from where it rested next to his hand. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the man's chair, Harry began to read what he had written. It was giving him a headache to make out some of the words, but his adult mind was still active and it seemed the notes were important.

 

"So...everyone you've asked to come is either a doctor or scientist meant to try and help find a cure...or muscle to provide protection and do any jobs that come up that can't wait for your teams to be back to normal?" Mike said quietly.

 

"I still think I could handle any jobs that came up, just fine!" Jessica grumbled.

 

Steve sighed and pushed his hand through his hair. "I'm not sure I would phrase it quite like that. The people here are people who we trust, or people who are trusted by those who have proven themselves. The fact is, though, we need help. As it stands, quite a few of the family members have to relearn bodies they left behind. Or they can't actively act against any kind of threat we might face." He smiled faintly. "We're not really sure what's needed right now outside of trying to find a cure. Maybe nothing will happen. But just in case...."

 

Harry's mind was quick to catch up with what he was reading and he frantically nudged Peter, showing his cousin part of the pad. While Peter took it off his cousin, Laura - who'd been 'adopted' by the two boys - glanced at the pad, but although she knew how to read, her mind, while mature, was still very childlike and she didn't understand in the same way the boys did.

 

Werner, finally realising that his pad had wound up in the clutches of the three younger (barring Kara) kids, started, "Uh... maybe you shouldn't be reading that....?"

 

"Dad!" The call, coming from a normal-aged Harry, would normally be questioning, hesitant, uncertain. The child mind, combined with the sense of urgency, meant it actually came out like a child truly of seven would demand his parent.

 

Tony straightened, moving quickly to his son's side. "What's wrong?" he asked worriedly, noting that Pepper had also moved to stand by their son...even though she looked like an older sister at this point.

 

Eyes wide and worried, Harry pointed to the writing on the pad, where Werner had detailed the HYDRA goons talking about testing a virus on people. The conversation between the men had been written down word for word, though it was hard to tell from the written conversation if the men had really been intending to use Werner as a test subject.

 

Robbie, remembering that Werner had been the one to warn him HYDRA had had him on their hit list, leaned over and frowned as his eye caught another written conversation - about a group of children in a holding facility.

 

Danny, who wasn't quite sure what he was doing in the group (even though he'd willingly come along with Claire, dragging Ward with him) leaned forward slightly. "Is that something the rest of us need to know about?"

 

"What are you all doing over there?" Ward Meachum asked suspiciously, giving Danny a curious look.

 

Grant was closest to the younger kids and he quickly leaned over Robbie's shoulder and read quickly before he could be shooed away. He jerked straight, his eyes wide. "We gotta stop them!" His voice cracked and he began to run toward the elevator so he could get equipment together, his perceived urgency of the situation leading him to act.

 

"Wait! What? Grant?!" Bobbi's voice was higher than normal also, so her nervous yelling for her big brother came out as a high-pitched shriek that made anyone close to her wince.

 

Grant was ignoring all the younger family yelling for him and hadn't noticed his father moving in fast to collect him (Phil being wise enough to know he wouldn't listen so saving his breath). He'd just arrived at the elevator when it opened and he had to stop short since there was no room to get on.

 

"Hey...Big Guy? Are we there yet? Vanessa and I can't see..." a smart-ass tone carried through the room.

 

Coulson reached his son's side in time to see the big, hulking metallic man in the elevator. He quickly recovered and placed his hand on Grant's shoulder to draw him back. "Calm down, son," he murmured so only Grant would hear him. "We will stop them, but we need to prepare. No one is arguing against the urgency of the situation." Turning to the elevator, he quickly addressed Colossus. "You must be who Charles asked to come... I'm Phil Coulson, Director of SHIELD."

 

"I am Colossus," the giant rumbled, stepping out of the elevator so his companions could exit and then turning to introduce them all. "This is Wade, Vanessa and Negasonic Teenage Warhead," he said, without any hint of a smile at the last.

 

Wanda had extricated herself from her father and wandered over, just in case she was needed to block the elevator. She heard the names and saw the familiar red suit. "You're here!"

 

Vanessa raised her eyebrows at the recognition in the girl's tone and glanced at Wade. "You know a teenager?"

 

Grant gave his father a reluctant look, but allowed himself to be led back, curiosity over the newcomers derailing his 'go now' attitude of before.

 

Wade's eyes widened at Wanda's words. "I'm here!" he exclaimed back, before wrinkling his nose. "You look familiar, but fuck me if I can figure out why...." he said, ignoring the disapproving parental looks he was getting for cussing in front of children. He turned toward Vanessa with a slightly 'duh' look on his face. "...And you know I know teenagers! We live in a friggin school! Soni is a teenager! And one of the more stereotypical type in attitude, if I may say..." he ended in an aside, facing the elevator which had no one in it.

 

"Which stereotype would that be, Mister DeadPool?" Friday asked primly.

 

Negasonic, or Soni as Wade liked to call her, actually grinned when Wade startled and jumped two feet into the air at having one of his monologues to the 'invisible people' answered by an 'invisible being'. They had been met at the landing pad by Maria Hill and she'd led them to the elevator, giving directions on which floor so Friday and Veronica hadn't spoken in his presence until that moment. "Tell me you heard that..." he said to Colossus and Vanessa.

 

"Ms. Hill will be back in five minutes. She is retrieving healer Bryce so that he can meet all the newcomers...." Friday said to the room at large.

 

"That's Friday, one of Tony's AIs that he made..." Wanda headed back to her father's side, exhibiting all of the signs of an excitable teenager; a far cry from her usual calmer personality. "Papa, Wade's here. Remember we told you about him on the island?"

 

Pietro blinked and stared at his twin. "Uh, where did my calm, responsible sister go?" he asked in mock horror.

 

Colossus frowned, glancing after the teenager, taking note of the other teenager who had silver hair. "Didn't you tell me about twins with abilities when you were cut in half and called me to come and collect you?" he addressed Wade.

 

"Yeah!" Wade's voice became excited. "They helped get me to my hotel room so I didn't have to spend the night fighting off wild critters that would want to eat me!" He slanted his head. I don't remember them being teenagers, though...." He shifted almost uncomfortably. "I'd a never been so...suggestive... like I was if I'd known they were teens..."

 

Clint just eyed the red clad man. He was torn between telling him off for flirting with his children the way he had, or easing his worry by letting him know they weren't normally teenagers and he hadn't been obnoxious to a minor. Finally, he settled on, "I'm Clint. Wanda and Pietro's father."

 

Coulson cleared his throat. "Actually, the age ties into why we've called so many people here. We had a mishap and everyone in the family ate something that was mixed with an experiment. The result is that many of our members are now much younger than they should be. Some extreme cases." He was still standing close to Grant, hand resting on his son's shoulder.

 

Vanessa raised her eyebrows, though really, she wasn't surprised. Turning to Wade, she nudged him. "Might have to tone down the language. At least when we aren't alone," she murmured so only he would hear.

 

Danny had extricated the pad from Harry and was reading through the notes Werner had made. "I'm guessing you know about this virus already...?" He looked up at everyone else.

 

"Known and had experience with." Leo shuddered, remembering how it affected Grant. At least Coulson had insisted on bringing the other man back at that point. Leo was never more glad than when they'd agreed to give Grant a chance.

 

"Fuck...you're right." Wade sighed to Vanessa, before hitting himself upside the head. "Damn it! I don't think I'm going to be able to fu....fudging do it!" He moaned loudly in frustration.

 

Grant winced and withdrew into himself before saying hesitantly, "They gave it to me originally...to see what would happen. After they gave me another serum that was meant to keep me from getting sick...."

 

Strange had listened to all this quietly. "I'm assuming that the serum must have worked, as you are still here...it seems that we should divide the chores up between those of us with scientific and medical backgrounds. Half should work on a cure for those who were deaged. The rest should work on a vaccine or antidote to this potential biological threat."

 

Coulson wrapped his arm around his son's shoulders, pulling Grant tight against him even as he spoke to Strange. "Bruce has all of the paperwork from that time and other information we've been able to find."

 

"Well, those of us without that kind of background should work on getting these kids out," Danny said, eyes fixed on the paper he was reading. He looked at Werner. "Is there anything you might have missed out?"

 

Werner shook his head. "I have near perfect recall...." It helped him a lot when he was partying and getting drunk; the latter of which seemed like a very good idea at the time.

 

Deacon was standing next to his friend, St. John. Neither of them were saying much, though. Deacon had got into a mild disagreement with his brother when Blake had realized Deacon rekindled a friendship with the other boy. Only Blake's trust in Deacon had kept the disagreement from turning into a full-fledged argument.

 

Even so, Pyro knew Deacon's brother disapproved of him and so was staying out of the way as much as possible. Because of that, he was not happy when Deacon piped up and motioned toward both of them. "We can help try to find the kids...."

 

Blake might have been physically close to Deacon's age, but emotionally, he was still Deacon's big brother. "HYDRA has a much larger reach than Fisk. I'm not comfortable with you risking drawing attention to yourself." His gaze moved onto Pyro as he added, "Either of you."

 

"I'll be best placed to help look for the kids," Robbie said. "I recognise a few of the places they were talking about." He leaned closer to Werner, almost bumping shoulders with the other man. "Good job." There was a wealth of gratitude in his voice; and an almost protective note. He'd seen Werner was worried about what was going to happen to him. The other man wasn't bad. If he had been, the Ghost Rider spirit would have killed him too.

 

"I'm just as able to help as anyone..." Deacon protested. "Especially given the fact you're pretty much the same age as me now...."

 

Pyro elbowed his friend slightly, sensing that using that as an argument wasn't going to be viewed favourably. "We can help wherever they put us..." He shrugged. It wasn't that he didn't want to help look for kids, but he felt like he was already on thin ice just because of his past.

 

"I can do research on the internet," Gabe offered.

 

Ward sighed. "I really don't know how much help I'll be. I'm a businessman, for crying out loud. I guess I can make sure their funds are cut off or blocked...make it difficult for them to operate. At least enough to cause confusion and give you a chance to act...."

 

"I'll just go and knock some heads off. That's always fun!" Wade giggled.

 

"Need me to babysit?" Soni was looking at her fingernails with a bored look on her face, but her tone of voice was sincere.

 

Danny shifted so he was sitting next to Ward once more. "Not every battle gets fought with fists," he commented, before adding quietly, "I'm still glad you came."

 

Skye bounced a little in place. "I can organise everyone technical so we can get live feeds into the places they're being held," she suggested. "And work on a strike to hit them just where it'll do the most damage."

 

"I don't know if I'd call it babysitting," Steve said to Soni. "Harry, Peter and Kara still have their memories of their true ages, but Kara doesn't seem able to react outside of being a child and Peter and Harry are finding it difficult, I think."

 

"I'd like to help," Werner said quietly. "But I'm not even sure why I'm here and not just... I don't know... left away from here...."

 

"After everything I put you through, I figure I owe you my support in whatever way I can give it..." Ward shrugged, listing toward the side in Danny's direction.

 

Gabe nodded at Skye. "We can work together!"

 

"So...not babysitting. More just assisting. Like a candy-striper." Soni nodded.

 

Wade looked at his 'little sister' askance. "How do you even know what a candy-striper is?!"

 

"I read!" Soni said in an affronted tone.

 

Mike looked at Werner. "You're here because you were willing to warn us and help. You could have kept quiet. Could have used the information to gain yourself a better position. You didn't. Means there's hope for you."

 

Danny shifted closer so his shoulder was resting against Ward's, in close contact with the other man. "I don't care about that. I care I have my friend here with me...." he said, softly but with complete sincerity.

 

Skye grinned at Gabe. "Do you need to use a computer here? We have plenty that are top of the range..." she teased her billionaire cousin.

 

Steve looked between Soni and Wade, a bit helplessly, before nodding. "That's probably the best way of looking at it," he said to Soni.

 

Werner blinked. "I wouldn't even have thought to do that... I mean... you're the good guys. And you saved me, even though you weren't there for that. No way I'd try and barter what I learned."

 

Gabe nodded at Skye. "Until someone can pick up my things, I'll need to borrow something...."

 

Ward smiled at Danny and relaxed. Their relationship may have been strained at times, mostly due to Ward's jealousy, but it had never broken. He was thankful for that.

 

Soni nodded at Steve before glancing at Logan and Laura. "Hey, Laura...Logan. So who here is your family?" She grinned impishly. Before leaving the school, Charles had explained that they were going to meet up with his grandkids and great grandkids.

 

"And that is why we can trust you and help you..." Mack said. He'd walked over by that point, his arm around Yo-Yo. He'd missed his girlfriend considerably.

 

"I have Healer Bryce and Helen Cho. If everyone working on the various needed cures would like to group up so they can compare notes and assign tasks..." Maria called out through the room. She'd taken charge temporarily so that Fury, Coulson and Steve could focus on their families.

 

"Okay, well I'm sure there's something you'll find useful...more than one...." Skye glanced around at the others, then back at Gabe. "I can grab my laptop and one for you. We can work in here or in one of the other rooms... there are offices on this floor too."

 

Danny grinned at Ward, entirely comfortable with his friend. It wasn't like he was one to hold a grudge. He glanced over at Skye and Gabe, then at Ward. "You want to join the technical side? I'm not sure I'd be much help attacking on that front, but I'll stick with you."

 

Laura glanced at Soni, but it was clear the smaller girl was still a bit confused and overwhelmed by everyone there. In fact, Peter and Harry had become calming presences for her, especially because Peter had appointed himself the one to look after her while her father was busy.

 

Harry, in the meantime, was drawing something on a clean sheet of the pad. Werner, not sure how to respond to Mack's comment, crouched down to look. "What'cha doing there...?"

 

"Harry," the small boy supplied.

 

"Harry." Werner nodded, repeating the name, and stuck his hand out. "I'm Werner."

 

Gravely, the small boy shook Werner's hand before shifting his position slightly. Taking the notes he had been reading, he'd begun drawing a map, working to scale the probable hideouts the HYDRA goons had been referring to.

 

Steve quickly began checking in with Strange and the other newcomers, figuring where they'd be best placed.

 

****

 

It was several hours later and teams had been designated, assignments given, rooms assigned and dinner eaten. Now, everyone was either congregated back in the family room to watch a movie, or had retired to their rooms to read, rest, or relax.

 

Grant had retreated to his room. He was upset, but his father and uncles had been firm in their decision. Those deaged to a teenager or younger would not be part of any ops that took them off the compound. In fact, until a cure was found to put them right, they wouldn't be leaving the compound for any reason. It was frustrating that all his experience and knowledge was relegated to research and helping to make plans that the 'adults' would be following. He wanted to be where the action was! He looked up as there was a knock on his door. "Come in," he said sullenly.

 

Jessica poked her head in the door before slipping in, dragging Lance and Bobbi with her. "Hey. You think it's as unfair as we do, right?" she said in a knowing tone.

 

"Yeah," he responded in a mumble. "But not like we can do anything."

 

Lance frowned and sat down on the bed. "There isn't anything to stop us doing our own little bit of recon," he said. "People are going to be coming and going." Lowering his voice, he added, "Shouldn't be hard to sneak out...."

 

Bobbi nodded eagerly. "He's right. Just because we're younger we shouldn't need to be locked up like untrained children who know nothing. We can do recon easily. Maybe even better than if we were older. No one suspects teenagers...."

 

It didn't take Grant long at all to agree. "Let's do it then. Tomorrow night. We should probably keep our group small to avoid drawing attention so if anyone else wants to do something we shouldn't all go together.

 

Jessica slanted her head. "If you three get a group together, I can get a group as well. There's a club where I think I can get some intel. I'll get some of the girls to go with me for a girl's night. Any guys try and pick us up we can get info. Maybe you three go to a different club? Get a few others with you?"

 

"Sounds good. We can get our groups finalized tomorrow," Bobbi said. "We better do something else now though, before they get suspicious."

 

Lance shrugged. "Movie? Board game?" he suggested. "Or, you know, just sit here commiserating about how we're not allowed out. It's not like our parents would be surprised by that."

 

Grant snorted. "As much fun as commiserating is, I think I'd rather watch a movie. Friday? Can you play the last James Bond film on my view screen please?"

 

"Of course sir," Friday responded. Within seconds, the movie was playing.

 

Lance quickly headed out to get them drinks and snacks, bringing everything in for his family members and sitting close to Bobbi. Almost without thinking, he wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her in close.

 

***

 

Once the meal had been taken, Mordo, not giving Stephen a chance to lock himself away in his room with research, was quick to suggest that they convene in his room. As well as just spending time in their small family unit, Mordo also wanted to lay down some ground rules.

 

Stephen didn't say anything to Mordo's suggestion, although it was obvious he was a bit confused at being pulled aside when there was important research to be done. He stepped into the room Mordo had been assigned and turned to face his two mentors. "Is there something I need to know?" he asked brusquely, his attention not fully on where he was and who he was with because he was already thinking four steps ahead for what he needed to do in his research.

 

"Yes," Mordo replied firmly but calmly. "Your first instinct is going to be to throw yourself entirely into researching this problem. To the extent that it will be detrimental to your health. I'm giving you a warning now. When either of us tell you to take a break, you will take one. You won't neglect yourself to solve this."

 

Stephen's eyes widened. That had caught his full attention. "Wh... Ho... I am an adult! I know when I need to take a break and I don't need either of you to intervene and tell me!" he protested.

 

"Going by every other time you've been caught up in work, you have not taken a break until one of us has forced you to," Wong stated.

 

"Your health, mental and physical, is just as important now as it was when we first met," Mordo added. "When you neglect to take care of yourself; well, that's what we're here for."

 

Steven let out a long drawn out sigh, sounding more like a grumpy teenager than the adult he was. "Fiiine!" he moaned out. "May I go now, Dad 1 and Dad 2?" he snarked.

 

"As long as you understand that you will not be working all through the night and you will stop when I tell you," Mordo replied, his voice carrying a heavy hint of, 'Or else'.

 

Steven's head dropped to his chest in resignation. "Yessir..." he muttered, before looking up to see if he really was dismissed.

 

Mordo reached out, gently squeezing Stephen's shoulder. "We'll see if there's anything we can do while you're doing that...you know how to reach us if you need either of us."

 

"Yes. I do." Steven's voice was clipped, but only because he was feeling in a hurry to go start researching. He didn't say it often, if ever, but he actually appreciated that Mordo and Wong looked out for him.

 

"I'll come and find you when it's time to take a break." Mordo squeezed his shoulder once more and then gently released him.

 

Steven nodded quickly, then almost ran out the door in his haste to get to the labs and begin working.

 

Mordo exchanged a glance with Wong and shrugged. "I'll give him two hours and then I'll go and retrieve him."

 

"You know he won't want to stop," Wong replied dryly.

 

Mordo nodded. "I'll give him one chance not to argue with me...."

 

***

 

After breakfast, Danny approached Ward. "Skye offered to show me around. Do you want to come?" he asked hopefully.

 

Ward was about to say no, but one look at Danny's hopeful smile and he found himself nodding. "Sure. It will be helpful to know where everything is. Especially if I need to have a teleconference. I should know where quiet available offices are...."

 

As they began to walk, he couldn't help but ask, "...Why didn't Colleen come with you? I would have thought she'd be of more use to you than me...."

 

Danny walked next to Ward, heading to where Skye had suggested they meet. "I didn't ask you based on that. I would have brought both of you, but she had engagements she couldn't get out of. And coming here with you...with my friend...is better."

 

Ward glanced at Danny again. "It will be good..." he agreed.

 

Danny grinned at his friend. "Besides, we're meeting the Avengers. Not many people can say that." He spotted Skye and stopped next to her. "I guess it must be quite disconcerting to be at such a different age."

 

"Yeah. But there are still things I can do from here," Skye replied, thinking about the family members who normally went out on the ops. She turned to Ward and held her hand out. "Skye. Just in case you lost my name in the crowd."

 

Ward couldn't help but grin at the younger girl. "Ward. I'm not so great with the electronic or the physical...but if you want advice on their finances, I'm your man." He chuckled.

 

"Honestly, if I can get through their firewalls, we could probably use that," Skye replied. "I can send viruses, but if you think you can cut their funding...hurt them that way, however temporarily..." Sobering, she added, "These are the real bad guys. A lot of the people here have been hurt by HYDRA. That's why emotions are running so high."

 

Fury had left his sleeping daughter with Brock. He loved Kara, but while she didn't actively need him, he figured he might see if there was anything he could do or any of the newcomers he could talk to. He headed over in time to hear the last sentence from his niece. "That's why it's such a big help that you two and the others agreed to come," he said.

 

Skye grinned. "Hey, Uncle Nick. Kara doing okay?" she asked sympathetically.

 

"Sleeping," Fury replied. "This is hard on her."

 

Ward nodded at the other man. "Kara was deaged to a toddler? That can't be easy." He turned toward Skye. "You get me into their systems and there will be numerous children's hospitals that will receive sizeable donations from whichever shell companies they set up." His grin was shark-like.

 

Skye grinned. "Starting tomorrow, you can join my team," she suggested, then turned to her uncle. "Are you joining us for the tour, Uncle Nick?"

 

Fury nodded. "She's sleeping right now." He didn't say he was worried that Kara's mind would slip further and further away. Pushing that down, he turned to Danny and Ward. "You might remember me more easily, due to my eyepatch. I'm Nick Fury, one of those who will need to have anything planned run by. Just as important is keeping everyone here safe."

 

Ward nodded, though he really didn't think he'd be doing anything that needed planning or pre-approval. "Ward Meachum. Hopefully, I can be of some use to you...."

 

At that moment, May walked up. "Taking them on the tour?" she asked her daughter, even as she nodded at the two men.

 

Fury smiled and addressed Ward. "It's good to have you here." He turned to May and nodded to her. "Melinda."

 

Skye smiled at her mother. "Yeah, Mom. Did you want to join?"

 

"Sure. Maybe we can start making some plans..." She said this to Fury. The man had been swamped with caring for his now toddler daughter, so she figured they should take advantage of the time Kara was sleeping as much as possible.

 

"It's probably a good time," Fury said.

 

"Ward's gonna be on my team," Skye quickly informed her mother. "When we get in the system, he's going to lay waste to their finances."

 

Danny couldn't help grinning at the teenager's enthusiasm and looked at Ward, hoping he'd notice it as well. It was still a sad truth that his friend thought in terms of being useful or not....

 

Ward blinked, visibly surprised at Skye's excitement that she'd be working with him. He was used to people being reluctant to work with him unless he could get them what they wanted. "Seems the least I can do..." he murmured, a tiny smile forming despite his efforts to remain serious and aloof.

 

Skye quickly began the tour, moving past the family rooms and showing Danny and Ward the smaller office areas.

 

As they moved to the elevator to see the other floors, Fury said, "And if there's anything you need to be bought and delivered here, you can just give the list to Friday, one of the AIs."

 

"Thanks. I think I brought everything I'll need, but that's good to know." Ward was amazed at everything he'd seen. He'd had money all his life, so the amount of stuff wasn't what amazed him. What amazed him was how many people were living in the compound as family; and how many agents were loyal to an organization that, not that long ago, had been deemed an enemy of the state. There was power here. A lot of power. That was the one thing Ward respected and craved, after having dealt with his father and being powerless against the tyrannical maniac for so long. He had a goal that he wasn't going to let anyone be in charge of him or tell him what to do ever again. Maybe if he became part of this...this whatever it was...that goal would become true much faster.

 

"We also try to eat together most evenings," Fury continued, as they stepped into the elevator to go to the next floor. "The dining table was a little cramped, but I think I overheard Steve placing an order for a new one to be custom-made." He gave a small, slightly rueful smile. "Given how fast we grow, it wouldn't surprise me if we'll need an even bigger one before the year is out."

 

"I think everyone's heard the rumours about this family, but I never imagined it all working out so well," Danny commented, even as he looked around at everything.

 

"My family didn't even work with three all that well..." Ward muttered to himself. He realized most people didn't realize the kind of man his father had been; his own sister had been fooled, after all. It was difficult for him to imagine so many people getting along as a family and not tearing each other's hair out.

 

May smiled at Danny. "There are bumps sometimes, but the one thing we all agree on is that we talk things through and we don't run from the problems. And we care enough about each other that we work through whatever issues occur."

 

Danny moved a bit closer to Ward, bumping shoulders with him. "It seems to work out, however you're doing it. But I noticed some people weren't happy with the decisions being made...." He wasn't fishing for information; he was just naturally curious. His own relationship with his parents had been good, but he'd come to realise just how strained things had been for Ward. It had taken a while for him to discover that.

 

Fury had heard Ward's muttered comment. "A few of the family members have come from home lives that haven't been perfect, but they've all found a place here," he said, not adding that a part of him thought the newcomers might also find a place. He'd also noticed Ward's comments about usefulness. Again, that hadn't been unusual for many of the family members and Fury found himself wanting Ward to feel like he had a place there. But even though he was usually blunt and said what he was thinking, he didn't want to spook the younger man and risk scaring him away.

 

Ward chuckled at Danny's observation. "Think about it, Danny... You're normally an adult, able to handle adult jobs and you're good at your job. Suddenly, you're no longer an adult in body or emotions, only your memories are adult. And just as suddenly, you're relegated to 'safer' jobs that your new size and emotional abilities can handle while other people- strangers really- do the job that normally you would do. Would you be happy with that decision? Honestly?" He gave his friend a crooked but knowing smile. He knew Danny wouldn't want to be held back by anything- he'd refused to return to K’un-Lun, even though everyone he'd trained with for years had insisted that was his place, after all; if he normally did a job, a change in size and temperament wouldn't be reason enough in his eyes to keep him from doing it still.

 

May's smile was weak. "It's hard on them, I know. It's hard on all of us. But...until we know exactly how everyone was affected- completely know, not just guessing- we don't want to risk anyone doing something that might trigger something worse to happen. Or have them hurt because they realize, as they are in the middle of a fight, that their body won't cooperate like it usually does. They don't have to like it, as long as they understand why and follow the rules...."

 

Ward snorted faintly. It was obvious what he felt about having to follow rules. After being under his domineering father's thumb for so long, he didn't want to follow any rules that he didn't set for himself. He certainly didn't want to follow someone else's rules.

 

"And it's like I said earlier," Skye said. "There's a lot of bad feelings towards HYDRA."

 

"A lot of good people lost." And a lot of people who were still badly affected, even if they were healing and, in certain cases, had been given the opportunity to grow into their own person, free of the influences of their pasts. Fury's gaze lingered on Ward. "The rules we have in place are there to help make sure everyone here is safe from whatever threat there might be on the horizon. The safety of everyone here is important, so while you are here...no matter if you feel like an outsider...you will still be expected to follow the rules there are."

 

"But those are just common sense ones, right?" Danny asked, also not failing to notice his friend's response.

 

Ward shifted, not looking at anyone in particular. He knew Fury's last remark was aimed more at him than Danny. He knew he'd been a bit obvious with his distaste with the idea of rules. "Of course," was all he said. He'd never deliberately do anything to put this family in danger. Of course, that didn't mean he was going to just follow along blindly. If he wanted to do something and it wouldn't endanger the others, he was going to do it, rule or not.

 

May didn't say anything, but gave Nick a knowing look. They'd have to keep their eyes on the financial wizard, it looked like.

 

Fury didn't say anything either, although he nodded slightly to May to indicate he'd seen her look. By now, Skye was leading them through the next floor. Not oblivious to the conversation, she was trying to at least diffuse the tension. But she did glance at Fury's face, recognising that he might start reaching out to Ward.

 

"So...other than screwing them over financially, what exactly would I be needed for?" Ward finally asked, in the hopes of easing tension.

 

Fury took a moment or two to answer, trying to figure out just how he wanted to word what he was going to say. "While it's true that we've reached out to all of the newcomers because of the difficulty, no one is here based on what they can do for us. As Steve mentioned in the initial meeting, everyone is here because they're a known and trusted friend, or because they're known and trusted by those people. We aren't going to measure you based on a pre-conceived notion of how 'useful' you think you are."

 

"Good to know," Ward said, almost flippantly. It was obvious that the words had been heard and he was actually hearing and thinking about them.

 

May's smile was tiny and knowing and only there for the briefest of seconds for Fury to see. She turned toward Danny. "So...tell me about your training. I'm curious about what style you learned...."

 

Danny shrugged and smiled. "It was actually several different styles," he answered. "I can demonstrate, if you want." He'd noticed the rooms used for training purposes and added, "I can also help the others who have been deaged keep up with training... teach them some of what I've learned."

 

"Just so long as it doesn't involve getting up at the crack of dawn," Skye said.

 

Ward chuckled at that. "Not a morning person, I take it?" he asked in amusement.

 

"Mornings are for sleeping," Skye replied. "I'm not against training. Just not that early."

 

"That's fine...as long as the morning begins before 11:00 am..." May teased. She looked toward Danny. "But I think it might be good for you to work with everyone. Maybe if they're learning some new techniques, it will help them feel better about the situation. If only a little...."

 

Danny nodded. "I'm good at whatever time," he said.

 

"Maybe I should get some lessons..." Ward teased.

 

Danny heard the teasing note in his friend's voice, still.... "That wouldn't be such a bad idea," he commented.

 

"All of the family members have had training, even those not necessarily going on ops," Fury said.

 

Ward blinked. "I don't know...I'm a bit old to be starting a new fitness routine..." he hedged. It wasn't that he didn't find the idea intriguing, but he wasn't sure how good a pupil he'd be if Danny was the teacher. They were getting along much better now, but that didn't mean Ward wanted the younger man telling him what to do, even if it was to teach him something.

 

"If it's going to be a regular thing, you could always sit in and see what you think," Fury suggested. Ward wasn't his (at least not yet, but it wouldn't be long before Fury knew he'd stop holding back), so he couldn't order the younger man to train. No matter how beneficial it might be.

 

"Yeah. I guess I could do that..." Ward conceded, still not wanting to promise anything, but not wanting to argue about it or risk hurting Danny's feelings. "So...What's the plan now? We all start working on what we came here to do? Have another big group meeting? Eat lunch?"

 

May laughed. "We just had breakfast an hour ago. You can't be hungry already!?"

 

Ward actually blushed. Not a usual occurrence for him. "I didn't eat breakfast. Was too nervous to find out what I'd be doing...." he admitted reluctantly.

 

"There's not a problem with having a late breakfast, though it shouldn't become a habit," Fury said. "Why don't I take you to the kitchen and you can find something? Danny can work with Melinda on a schedule for training."

 

Ward glanced toward Danny to see if he was alright with the suggestion, but his stomach growled loudly enough that he figured his friend would be insisting he go if he didn't. "If it truly isn't a problem..." he said hesitantly, turning to go with Fury.

 

Danny waved his hands at his friend in a shooing motion. "Go. Eat something. I'll come find you in a while."

 

Fury moved a bit nearer to Ward; not touching, but close, and led him back to the elevator to head to the family kitchen.

 

Ward couldn't help but feel as if he was being corralled. Even though Fury had been very careful not to be pushy, it had been obvious he'd insist if Ward said he wasn't interested in eating. It was also just as clear that the man was used to being obeyed. It was all he could do to not tell the older man to mind his own business, but he doubted that would go over very well and since they were going to be living here for the unforeseeable future, he figured he needed to at least try and get along with the people he'd be living next to. It was confusing, though. As much as Fury's concern annoyed him, it made him feel good too. Sighing, he let Nick lead him into the kitchen.

 

"We've got a lot of different options, so if there's anything in particular you'd like, we probably have it," Fury said. "And if there's anything you'd like for the next several days, it can easily be ordered in."

 

"I'll keep that in mind...I normally don't eat much if anything for breakfast, though. I'm a bit surprised I am hungry now. Must be because I was walking around instead of sat at a desk..." He grinned crookedly, running a hand through his hair.

 

"We tend to try to make sure we eat breakfast and dinner together, barring any missions that might crop up," Fury commented as he began to prepare some food for the younger man. "I know you don't really have a connection to anyone here outside of Danny, but I'd like to get to know you," he said, plain and simple.

 

"Why?" Ward winced at how suspicious he sounded, but if it's one thing his father had taught him, it was paranoia.

 

"Because I like you," Fury replied. "And this family hasn't been built holding back or hesitating whenever we've been drawn to someone."

 

"But...you don't know me..." Ward argued back, honestly confused...and a little freaked out by the fact that he wasn't wrong. Fury wanted to step into his life and tell him what to do. He could understand the other man wanted to take charge and be dominant; be the alpha, as it were. His own father had made sure he knew his own place in the pecking order and it hadn't been to be in charge. He hadn't been out from under his father's control for very long, though and he knew he didn't want to put himself back into someone else's control without a very good reason. He took a deep breath, trying to keep from becoming agitated.

 

"I don't have to know everything about you to know that I feel drawn to you," Fury replied. "I know you're chafing under the idea about rules. How I'm feeling right now doesn't have anything to do with the rules you will still be expected to follow. I'm not interested in you for what you can do for me. I'm interested in you because of you."

 

Ward shook his head. "I...I believe you believe that. I guess we'll see...." He didn't say anything about still being expected to follow rules. That was one thing that hadn't been gone over specifically, although hints had been dropped here and there. From what he could gather, 'the rules' were all common sense things, so he supposed it wouldn't be a case of him having a hardship obeying them. Chances were he'd be doing what was expected without even thinking about it. Still...if something came up, he wasn't going to cave to any 'rule' if he thought something needed doing. "Thank you..." He indicated the food he'd been given and began to eat.

 

Fury got him a drink and set that out on the table, too. "I understand you might be reluctant to put your trust in someone you've only just met. If it helps at all, you aren't the only one who has had trouble accepting they have worth. Steve and Tony have butted heads on more than one occasion." His smile was wry.

 

"Steve still adopted him...How has that worked out for them?" Ward's voice was sceptical, but it wasn't as sarcastic as he had intended. Genuine curiosity carried through and it was obvious he wanted to believe Fury. At least as far as the man seemingly liking him anyway. He still wasn't enamoured of the idea that Fury wanted to take care of him like he seemed to be trying to do.

 

"It's worked out very well," Fury answered. "Steve hasn't attempted to control him, just persuade him to curb his more self-destructive behaviour." He smiled. "He never gave up on Tony. He never decided Tony was too much trouble or effort. That's something you'll find the whole family has in common."

 

"Sounds perfect..." Ward snarked. He had a hard time believing that Steve didn't control Tony. He had a harder time believing that there wasn't ever a time when he'd thought Tony was more trouble than he was worth and the only reason it worked was because Tony didn't give him reason to get angry.

 

Fury shrugged. "It hasn't been perfect. But they've weathered everything and come through stronger. They're not the only ones with that kind of relationship, but they are the ones in the public eye the most. Everyone here is family through choice. Through the bad as well as the good."

 

Ward just nodded. The man knew his family better than Ward did; Ward didn't want to insult him with disbelief. "So...other than financially ruining the bad guys, what expectations are there? You mentioned rules...."

 

"They really are common sense ones," Fury answered. "Not doing anything dangerous. Checking in with me or one of the other authority figures if you plan to leave...depending on the situation, we might require people to leave in pairs or even groups."

 

"Okay...the nothing dangerous makes sense...but the checking in thing..." Ward grimaced. "Not really feeling it...."

 

Fury nodded. "The sad truth is, we have a lot of enemies. And if we don't know where someone is and something does happen, we won't have an idea of a starting point. But it's also respectful to let someone know if you're heading out."

 

"Seems too much like asking for permission..." Ward wrinkled his nose. Fury wouldn't know of how he'd been required to check in with his father nearly every step he took due to the man's paranoia and distrust of his son. It had nothing to do with keeping Ward safe and everything with controlling him.

 

"Not really," Fury replied. "The only reason you might be asked not to leave is if there's a real danger. The rules are to keep everyone safe. Not about forcing you to conform."

 

"Yeah, sure. Okay," Ward agreed flippantly, although he wasn't aware how defiant he sounded. "What if I forget? Do I get sent home? Put in time out? Soundly scolded?" This time, he knew he sounded like a smart-ass, if the smirk on his face was any indication. He didn't see how it could be possible to enforce such a rule; especially since he wasn't family.

 

"You wouldn't be sent away, no matter what," Fury replied honestly. "But as to consequences... in the family, when someone endangers themselves or does something they know they shouldn't, they get spanked." Probably, any of the other parents would have been less blunt about it. But Fury knew he wanted Ward and if he wanted the younger man to respond to him, he had to lay all the cards on the table.

 

"Yeah...that isn't happening..." Ward shook his head mulishly. It was bad enough when his father beat him for failing to live up to expectations. There was no way he'd let someone else beat him for disobeying some childish rule.

 

Fury sat down opposite Ward. "What was your home life like?" He had a few theories, but rather than just assume, he'd rather hear it from the younger man honestly.

 

"My mother died when we were really young. My father treated my sister like a princess. Treated me like a prince in public." Ward spoke perfunctorily, little emotion in his voice. "You know what the news said about him? The third time he died....?"

 

"What did it say?" Fury kept his eyes on Ward, giving him his full attention.

 

"He embezzled a lot of money. Caused a lot of deaths. He would have been in jail if he'd lived." Ward didn't act surprised or shocked or upset at the accusations.

 

Fury nodded. "He treated you badly?" Although phrased as such, it wasn't actually a question. He'd guessed as much already.

 

"I failed to handle a business problem in the manner he expected and he beat me. I was already an adult by then, if that tells you anything." Ward looked away. "Second time he died, I killed him. I was certain, if I didn't, he'd kill me."

 

Fury reached out, placing his hand on Ward's arm. "I can understand why it was necessary," he said. "It doesn't make it any easier, what you had to do, I suspect."

 

Ward looked askance at Fury. "I know...there wasn't a choice really. He wasn't human...hadn't been for a long time. Whatever they did to him, the ones that kept him alive after he got terminal cancer...it stripped what little humanity he had in him out. I think he actually died of the cancer and they reanimated him...can't prove it and I'd be put in a white jacket and locked away if I said as much...." He swallowed. "I stabbed him. He was dead. I threw him in a bog where he'd had me dump the bodies of two men he had killed. For all the good it did me. He came back. Only reason he didn't kill me is that he was proud of the fact I'd attempted to murder him. Said I wasn't as much a waste of space pansy as he'd thought." Ward snorted. "Third time he died, I made sure he was cremated. Can't come back from that. Least I hope to hell not...." He shuddered.

 

"We've seen a lot of strange things here," Fury said. "Even if the worst happens and there is a way he comes back, you'll be safe here. You are safe here," he promised, his voice sincere.

 

"You believe me?" Ward was surprised. He'd only told the truth because he figured it was so unbelievable that Fury would get irritated with him and back off. To have the older man believe him and not bat an eyelash was unexpected. "I just admitted to killing my father...twice...and you not only believe me, you're ready to give forgiveness and assume I had good reason...." He couldn't keep the shock out of his voice.

 

Fury gently squeezed his arm. "After the things I've seen, what you've told me is not unbelievable. I know what it's like to do something other people would view as bad without knowing the full story. It's easy to believe you had a good reason because I can see you're a good man."

 

Ward had nothing he could say to that. He just shook his head incredulously. He knew what he was like and how he'd treated people in his efforts to gain his father's approval and pride. He knew things he'd done just to get ahead himself without anyone else being a factor. He didn't consider himself good in the least, so he wasn't sure what Fury saw in him. Swallowing, he blinked a few times, then continued eating. He was surprised, but having Fury sit next to him while eating, even if they weren't speaking, wasn't uncomfortable in the least. He actually found it more comfortable than he thought he had a right to feel. Finally, he had finished eating though and stood to clean up after himself. He turned toward Fury. "I'll get started on ruining them as soon as I've got the go-ahead," he said softly.

 

Fury nodded and stood as well, gently squeezing Ward's shoulder. "I know Skye's going to be getting set up soon. I don't know how long she might take, but she's good at what she does and she'll want you there as soon as she's broken through. If she's ready, I'll take you to her and whoever else she's gathered."

 

"Thank you, sir..." It was easy to fall into the habit of being respectful to the older man, even if he refused to become deferential. Fury hadn't done anything to deserve disrespect, after all. As soon as he was cleaned up, he followed Fury to wherever Skye was located.

 

***

 

May had finished showing Danny around the compound and then Skye had disappeared to begin working her computer magic, leaving May with the younger man. It was obvious to May that Skye had bonded with Danny. She herself hadn't felt an immediate connection; but that didn't mean one wouldn't form and if Skye had formed an immediate connection, it was worth looking into. "Hey, kid. Want to meet my other daughter and train a bit? She's a bit more of a beginner than a lot of the rest of the family- since she never was a SHIELD agent prior to joining- and if you can help her learn to defend herself better, I'd be very appreciative." She'd also be able to see if Hope formed a quick connection to the younger man as well. And give herself time to get to know him better, because if both her daughters bonded with him? Then maybe it was time she got them a brother.

 

Danny nodded and grinned. "Sure. Where are we headed?" He waited expectantly for May to lead the way. He liked Skye and expected he'd get on with her sister, too.

 

"I believe Hope was going to work out a little bit, so we'll head back down to the family floor and check in the sparring room..." May smiled, gently taking Danny by the elbow and leading him back to the elevators so they could go there. It didn't take long at all and soon, she was pushing the sparring room door open and peering in to see who was there.

 

Lincoln was facing off against Hope, both of them trying to remember the steps from the last lesson they'd been given. Lincoln was finding it more difficult due to his diminished size. "I'm really glad I finished my residency when I did. Forget trying to explain why I'm suddenly a teenager again... I wouldn't have been able to do my job right for tripping over my feet!" He sighed as Hope helped him up off the floor for the third time since they'd started.

 

Hope nodded sympathetically. "It's harder on all of you...." She turned as the door opened and smiled at her mom, before tilting her head slightly at the sight of Danny. "We're having a larger training session?" she asked.

 

Danny smiled warmly at her. "I have quite a bit of training in martial arts, so your mom thought I could work with you a bit." Glancing at Lincoln, he added, "You too, if you'd like to join."

 

May smiled at her daughter and great-nephew. "Maybe working with Danny will be easier; since he wasn't an agent, he'll train you as a non-agent. It might be better for you...."

 

Lincoln smiled at the other man. "Anything that helps me learn this stuff better...I was trained to be a doctor, not a fighter. I find myself pulling back to try and make certain I don't damage my hands...or hurt anyone else."

 

Danny nodded. "You're not wrong to want to protect your hands, but there are ways you can do that without needing to pull back. As for hurting me?" He grinned. "Leave worrying about that to me." He began to teach them some of the easiest moves, figuring it was better to learn from basics. As they became more confident, they'd probably mix fighting styles; make it harder for enemies to anticipate their moves.

 

Lincoln grinned at their newest 'teacher', then glanced at Hope, his grin growing. He had to admit Danny's style was a bit easier to follow than when he was learning from some of the rest of his family. Danny was looking at it from the viewpoint of a non-agent, non-combatant (although it was obvious he was capable of fighting). Because of that, he taught like a non-agent or non-combatant. "I think if you stayed and taught me from here out, I'd love it!" he admitted, with a sheepish look toward May.

 

"That might be possible to arrange," May said quietly, a considering look on her face.

 

Hope was quick to nod her agreement. "It's easier to follow you than the others," she admitted, a bit shyly. Not to say that the SHIELD agents were bad teachers; but Danny seemed to have a knack.

 

Danny grinned. "Well, I'm not sure how long I'll be staying here for, but I can make time for lessons while I am." He glanced at May, not sure what the look on her face meant, but it didn't really bother him.

 

May continued to watch as Danny taught her younger daughter and nephew. She could see why learning from him would be easier for them; he thought more like they did, for one thing. It was also clear that he fit in with both of them and they enjoyed his company. She glanced at Hope to see if she seemed to have the same connection building as Skye seemed to; and watched him to see if he seemed to be feeling the same way. Her daughters being drawn to him was all well and good, but if he didn't feel drawn to their family....

 

Hope responded well to Danny's teaching and while she was still a bit shy, he was able to draw her out of her shell more. Danny was comfortable and confident in what he was doing and just like Skye, Hope was responding and interacting comfortably with him.

 

May watched the lesson till it had gone on for about an hour. The kids didn't show signs of stopping; they were all enjoying themselves a lot, so she finally interjected. "Why don't you all take a break for a bit, take a shower and go relax. You were working out for at least an hour before we showed up, so you don't want to over-do..." she cautioned.

 

Lincoln blinked. "Yipes, you're right. I lost all track of time. I'm supposed to meet mom in fifteen minutes!" He turned toward Danny. "Thanks so much for your help, man! I think this is the first time I've understood everything the first time through in...well...ever." He laughed sheepishly. "Maybe we can meet again tomorrow to practice some more?" he asked hopefully.

 

Danny was quick to nod. "If we arrange for a couple of hours after breakfast? And if anyone else wants to join in, we can let them know about it."

 

Hope smiled, not actually saying that she thought the other family members would benefit, even though she thought the ones who were now teenagers probably could. Lincoln had managed to stop tripping over his feet as much, after all.

 

"Great! I'll let the others know!" Lincoln beamed at Danny before waving at May and Hope. "See you all at lunch, gonna go take a quick shower and find mom before she starts looking for me!" He ran out of the room.

 

May chuckled. "You fit in well..." she commented to Danny, curious to hear what he thought about the family.

 

"It's nice here. It feels good," Danny replied. Thinking for a moment, he added, "I almost thought there wouldn't be room for anyone to make friends... that we'd all remain on the outside. I'm glad to see that isn't the case."

 

"I think you're well on your way to being more than friends..." May smiled gently, having noted the way her daughters reacted to the younger man. She found herself beginning to feel drawn to him as well, simply because she could see how much her daughters enjoyed being around him and trusted him. "...If you wanted to stay here after everyone is back to normal, I expect that it wouldn't be a problem...." She fell short of actually telling him she wanted him to stay and become part of the family, if only because she wanted to avoid scaring him off.

 

Surprised, Danny gave the comment some serious thought. "It feels like...a home here." He didn't say, 'like my home'. It was scary how easily he could imagine himself living there. Still.... "I wouldn't want to stay without Ward." Even if his friend didn't want to stay, Danny couldn't bring himself to stay in a place he thought his friend wouldn't be welcome.

 

May's smile broadened at the show of loyalty. "I have a feeling that he'll be given an invitation to stay as well, if I know Nick very well at all..." she said, with a tiny hint of amusement. "And I'm glad it feels like a home to you. Because I'd like it to become your home. In fact...if you aren't against the idea...I'd like our family to become your family...." She watched him closely to see what his reaction to that would be.

 

Surprised, Danny looked at May, then at Hope, then back at May again. "What...?" He cleared his throat. "How would that work?" he asked, not sure he was reading the situation right.

 

May smiled, making sure she looked at him while talking, her eyes meeting his in an effort to show how sincere she was with the offer. "...I would adopt you. You'd become my son; Skye's and Hope's brother. You'd move into the compound permanently...." She slanted her head. "...If you're worried about your job or potential jobs, you could commute with Pepper. Or you could work for SHIELD and the Avengers. Whatever you want. But you'd live here with us...." She reached out hesitantly, slowly - in case he wanted to pull away- and brushed her hand over his cheek. "You're helping us right now, but if you stayed...if you let me...I would help you as well. I'd protect you...."

 

For a long time, Danny had convinced himself he was okay without his parents. Then finally repairing his friendship with Ward, and the other friends he had, felt like he didn't need anything else. But at May's offer, hope sparked within him. He stepped nearer to her, leaning into the touch. "I'd like that." His voice was quiet, but no less sincere.

 

Hope's smile was huge, though she didn't say anything. She was fairly certain Skye would be happy with the turn of events, too.

 

"Good. Because I very much want you..." May's smile carried through in her voice as she stepped forward and pulled the younger man into a tight hug. She held him for a few minutes before reaching over and pulling Hope into the hug with them. Finally, stepping back far enough to look into his face, she asked, "Are you alright with doing this immediately? Or do you want time to tell your friends first?" She knew that Matt and Foggy now had paperwork ready to go at a moments notice, given how frequently the family grew in size, but if Danny wanted to talk to Ward about it, or anyone else, she wanted him to have that opportunity. It was a big step after all.

 

Danny hadn't hesitated to reciprocate the hug, a little surprised at how quickly this had happened, but still happy. "I would like to talk to Ward first...." he replied. He didn't know if Fury had a similar feeling to May. Maybe if he did, Ward would be happier knowing he wasn't the only one being asked to be part of the family.

 

"Whenever you're ready, then," May agreed easily, not worried, since Danny obviously wanted to be part of the family and had already agreed. "I will get Matt and Foggy to get the paperwork ready and when you are ready to sign, we can sign."

 

Danny smiled happily. "I'd better go and get showered and changed...." He gave his new mom and sister another hug and then left to do just that.

 

***

 

Robbie made sure Gabe was settled in with Skye and Ward and didn't need anything, then turned to Werner, who he'd invited along with him. "Did you want to go check on the youngsters? I noticed you and Harry seemed quite taken with each other."

 

"I'm not really that good with children...."

 

"Yeah, but he's not really a child. And that's probably why he likes you," Robbie mused out loud. "You talk to him like he's on the same level as you."

 

Gabe was busy paying attention to what he, Skye and Ward were doing, but he could still hear his brother. "I talk to them like they are the same level as well... I mean, in reality they are our age. Just because they currently look younger..." He gave his brother a fond look of exasperation. "Of course, you still treat me as if I'm twelve, so maybe I should explain that it isn't anything personal...."

 

Ward found himself chuckling at the interplay between the brothers, but didn't say anything regarding Gabe's observation. Instead, he gave directions. "I think Harry and Peter were planning to watch a movie in the family room. Trip might be with them, depending on if his sister woke up or not. He and Brock were watching over her while their father worked...."

 

Robbie smiled at Ward. "Thanks." He took Werner's arm, turning towards Gabe. "You know you can just text me if you need me...." he began.

 

Skye began making shooing motions. "Can't concentrate if you're stood there distracting my team." While mostly teasing, she still figured they'd get more done if they could just focus. Of course, she'd had to set a timer to remind them to take a break. Left up to her, she'd get so absorbed, she'd forget. And she had two others working with her who would need breaks too.

 

***

 

Kara had woken from her 'nap' one hour exactly from when she'd fallen asleep... and, upon realizing that her father was busy elsewhere and she was in her brothers' care, began to act the part of 'terrible two' with fervor and way too much glee. Currently, she was running around the couch in the family room, just barely eluding Brock catching her, while Trip was rolling on the floor laughing. Apparently, being two again made his sister think running around nude was acceptable and she'd disrobed on her way out of the bedroom, leaving a trail of clothing behind her.

 

"You could help catch her!" Brock griped to his brother, though it was obvious he wasn't really upset. Seeing his brother so amused and hearing his sister's high pitched squeals of happiness had him moving just a slight bit too slow to actually catch her, since catching her would mean the fun would end. It wasn't like the compound wasn't warm enough and she was only two at the moment.

 

Robbie and Werner entered the room in time to see the tiny toddler running around being 'chased' by her brother. Robbie couldn't help chuckling at the sight and then smiled when Harry got up from his place in front of the television and headed over to them, grasping Werner's hand. "Come and watch," he demanded.

 

Robbie chuckled at the bemused look on Werner's face as he allowed himself to be led over to the television to watch with the other children.

 

Trip calmed down enough to motion Robbie over to the couch to sit next to him, still chuckling at his sister's and brother's antics, but calm enough to actually be able to talk. "Never a dull day..." He smiled at the other man.

 

Kara had managed to move to the opposite side of a couch close to the hall holding the stairs and quickly dashed that way, already up three steps by the time Brock realized what was occurring.

 

"Oh crap!" Brock yelped, before trying to jump over the couch in an effort to reach her before she got any further. "Oooow! No, Kar-bear! Come back!" Brock yelled with a groan from his position on the floor, where he'd landed face first.

 

Kara giggled, not realizing her brother's painful landing, and kept going. She was going to find their father!

 

Robbie took a seat next to Trip. "Yeah, I can see that...." He glanced towards the disappearing toddler and quickly scrambled up. "Want me to try heading after her?"

 

Trip's eyes widened as he stood up as well. "Maybe we better all head her off. If she gets upstairs, the agents won't mind so much, but she'll be mortified when she gets back to her regular self...."

 

By this time, Brock was up and limp-running after their sister. "Kar-Bear! Stop right now, young lady!" He interjected a bit of Nick's 'dad' tone into his voice, but when she just looked back and giggled again, he knew he'd not carried it off very well.

 

"It'll probably be hard even if she doesn't...." Robbie glanced back at Werner and, seeing the other man seemed to be looking after (or perhaps being looked after by) the other children, went to help Trip and Brock.

 

"Well, yeah...but it will be hard even without her having a bit of 'toddler' fun..." Trip agreed. "So far, none of the non-family agents have seen her; if they see her, then I'm afraid she won't want to face any of them after the fact. Family is different than non-family...."

 

For her two-year-old size, Kara moved very quickly. But sensing that Brock was almost about to catch up to her, she crawled over the railing, so that she was on the side of the stairs that she'd drop several feet if she lost her grip.

 

Brock stopped immediately about three feet away from her, holding his hands up in a 'stop' gesture so as not to startle her. "Kar-bear. You know that's not safe...Please hold very still and let me get you...." He made certain to keep her attention on him.

 

Robbie didn't waste any time. With Kara's attention on Brock, he quickly but quietly took the remaining stairs towards the toddler, reaching and taking a firm hold, pulling her safely away from the railing in one swift movement.

 

At that moment, Fury, alerted to his daughter's 'escape' by Friday, appeared. He swiftly made his way over to Robbie, giving the younger man a nod of thanks. "I'll take her...."

 

Kara widened her eyes in surprise at suddenly finding herself in the arms of one of the 'new people', but before she could get too upset at the fact that she was being held by someone she didn't know well, her father was there and Robbie was handing her over to him. Wrapping her arms around Nick's neck, Kara pulled herself up and gave him a slobbery kiss on the cheek. "Daaaaaddyyyy!" she squealed happily.

 

Brock, relieved that his little sister had been rescued and was now safe, slumped on the stairs and finally began to assess himself for injury from falling over the back of the couch and onto his face. He figured he would have a rather vivid bruise on his forehead, at the least.

 

Trip patted Robbie on the back and gave him a grateful look. "Good job, man. Thanks!"

 

Fury held his daughter securely with one arm and quickly headed over to Brock, spotting the bruise on his son's face. He rested a hand gently on Brock's shoulder. "It's probably just a bruise, but I'd like Bruce to check you out," he said, his voice firm and worried.

 

Robbie relaxed and smiled at Trip. "Figured we don't want her falling from any height...."

 

"Yessir," Brock easily agreed, knowing that head injuries were nothing to fool around with. Especially not with everything else that had been occurring.

 

"Brock got boo-boo!" Kara said...loudly...and reached out a tiny hand to lightly touch her brother's face. "...Sowwy..." she said in a more subdued voice, realizing that he'd got hurt trying to stop her from going up the stairs.

 

"No. That would not have been good at all," Trip agreed. "You're good with kids," he remarked, as he unobtrusively maneuvered Robbie back to the couch where the other 'children' and Werner were now playing a game on the X-Box.

 

Robbie shrugged and let himself be moved back into the room. "I've been looking after my brother for a long time. But I'm still a bit overprotective of him," he admitted.

 

"I hear that. I haven't had my sister for quite as long; and even though she's an adult- well normally- I am very protective of her. I'd be a lot worse if I'd had her as my sister from the day she was born...." Trip admitted. "I'm glad you were able and willing to come here when Mike got the call. The fact you didn't know any of us and were still willing to pitch in, means a lot."

 

Robbie took a seat on the couch. "The Avengers...the people living here...are the good guys. Everyone is in agreement on that. Besides...." He glanced at Werner and lowered his voice; though he didn't know if any of the kids had super hearing or not. "I wanted to make sure he wasn't treated roughly. You know? If he hadn't warned me HYDRA knew about me, I wouldn't have got back to Gabe in time."

 

Trip glanced at Werner from the side of his eye and nodded. "It was his father that the Avengers fought against. Nothing would be held against him beyond his own actions; and since his actions were to warn you and us as soon as he was able to do so- and it's obvious HYDRA didn't care about his father's position and were hurting him... I'm fairly certain he'll be accepted into the family. He needs someplace safe to call home." His voice was pitched low so that only Robbie could hear it.

 

Robbie gave a slight smile. "I think the younger deaged kids have already adopted him," he commented. "I left my brother with Skye and Ward. She shooed me out..." he said, amused.

 

Trip laughed at that. "Looks like Gabe has been adopted by his own group of 'kids', then. How about you? You found a niche yet?" Trip slanted his head curiously.

 

"Not really," Robbie admitted. "I was just sticking with Gabe and Werner for the moment."

 

"Well...since they've been hijacked by my other family members, how about you and I hang for a bit? If you have any questions about what's going on, I can answer them..." Trip offered with a grin.

 

Robbie shrugged and smiled. "Sure, sounds good to me. You all seem to have taken this deaging thing in stride," he commented.

 

Trip smiled benignly. "It helps that I wasn't deaged further than twenty. I might have handled it alright if I ended up fifteen, but I'm not sure I'd handle it well at all if I'd ended up seven years old or younger..." he admitted.

 

"Yeah, doesn't really seem like there's a rhyme or reason for why some of you ended up deaged further than others," Robbie observed.

 

"I think Bruce has some suspicions, but with things being the way they are, he wasn't really able to investigate it further. Hopefully with healer Bryce here, as well as Dr. Cho, Matt's nurse friend Claire and Stephen Strange, the group of them will be able to confirm or refute his suspicion and maybe..." Trip shrugged.

 

Robbie nodded. "At least you've got a lot of people here to help, even if there are the added problems with HYDRA."

 

"Yeah. We've been very lucky in that. Speaking of which, thank you for being one of them. You really didn't have to involve yourself in our problems; you could have just as easily disappeared with your brother when you found out that they were targeting you. I have no doubt you're able to..." Trip eyed the other man.

 

"Yeah, maybe, but like I said...you're all the good guys. Helping out is the right thing to do. Besides," Robbie couldn't help chuckling, "Gabe would never have let me live it down if I didn't bring him to one of the safest places."

 

Trip laughed. "Yeah. Little brothers are like that..." he agreed in amusement. "Speaking of, you want to go see what yours is up to? It should nearly be time for lunch and if we don't go check on them, they'll work right through...."

 

"Yeah, good idea." Robbie stood up. "And then I can blame you if Gabe accuses me of mother-henning," he teased.

 

"Wouldn't be the first time I've been accused of that!" Trip responded with a laugh. Putting an arm around Robbie's shoulder, he headed toward the elevators so that they could go up to the computer labs and retrieve their family members.

 

As they were walking toward the elevator, Tony passed them with a nod and a smile. He stopped behind the younger boys and Werner, watching them play games for a few minutes before clearing his throat. "You all will be wanting to find a good place to stop so that you can go get cleaned up for lunch," he said, firmly if kindly.

 

Werner, guessing Tony's comment was aimed at the younger kids, still put his controller down. "Maybe we can continue later, if your parents say it's okay."

 

Harry shrugged and put his controller down, standing up. Unlike the previous evening, he was once again busy trying not to act like a child...though he still put his hand in Werner's when the man stood up. His older mind knew that Werner had been hurt and scared by what had happened to him. It translated to the child sticking close to him so he wouldn't feel as bad.

 

Peter shrugged and also put his controller down. "Okay, but I'mma beat you," he informed Harry, reaching his hand out to tug Laura to her feet.

 

Tony smiled at the way the two boys showed protective feelings toward Laura, who was younger mentally if not physically, and Werner, who had been hurt badly. "I think some more play time can be arranged...after you get some fresh air. I was thinking of taking a walk outside and would like the four of you to join me...." He placed a hand on Werner's shoulder, gently directing him toward the restrooms. He knew the other kids would follow wherever the older boy went.

 

The look of surprise on Werner's face at being included was almost comical. Or it would have been, if Harry hadn't been aware of how difficult it was to believe you were being included. Not really knowing what else to do, Werner allowed himself to be steered towards the restrooms.

 

Peter's grin was huge as he led Laura along by the hand. While it was unlikely his uncle would let him practise swinging through the trees in this form, he was fairly certain Tony couldn't watch all of them at the same time.

 

Tony wasn't clueless by any means; and being prone to mischief and doing things he shouldn't himself, he could tell the glint of plans for mischief in his nephew's eyes. "I do trust that when we're outside, there won't be anything done that will require me to notify parents of misdeeds?" he said off-handedly, as he stopped outside the restrooms to wait for them to wash their hands.

 

Peter blinked completely innocently. "Not at all, Uncle Tony," he replied, before heading into the restroom to wash his hands.

 

"Yeah. Why don't I believe that?" Tony huffed quietly to himself, an amused look on his face. He smiled at Werner. "I know you're nearly an adult already, but given the fact you were holding onto that controller, and I know for a fact that germy little hands were holding onto it before you, you'll probably want to wash your hands too." He smiled to take any sting out of what was basically him treating Werner like a kid. Even if the kid was a kid, as far as Tony was concerned.

 

Werner nodded. "Uh, yeah. I'll do that." Harry came out at that point and Werner headed in to wash his hands, while Harry stopped next to his father. He didn't say anything, but leaned against Tony.

 

Tony wrapped an arm around Harry and pulled him in close, kissing the top of his head. "You like Werner, don't you?" he asked quietly, having noted Harry's attachment to the older boy.

 

Harry nodded immediately. "He's like me...." he said, trusting his father would understand what he meant without his more adult mind battling with the child to find the right words.

 

Tony slanted his head. "I could see that," he said. "It would explain why I feel like we should invite him into the family..." He paused. "I'll talk to your mom and get her opinion."

 

Harry nodded and then just wrapped his arms around his father, as tight as a seven-year-old could, and held on. He was unsettled and worried and those feelings translated into a need for comfort that, at his normal age, he'd have a hard time expressing.

 

Tony, remembering his own foray into being a child, could empathize and wrapped his arms tightly around Harry, hugging back just as tightly. That's how the others found them when they exited the restrooms. Tony smiled at them all. "Okay, kiddies. Let's go fill your bellies with lunch so you have energy for our walk."

 

Harry let go of his father, so Tony could walk, but still slipped his hand into Tony's and held his other hand out to Werner.

 

Not wanting to disappoint the boy, Werner hesitantly put his hand into Harry's, though he still seemed very unsure about the whole situation.

 

Peter had taken Laura's hand again and was talking enthusiastically to her. While she didn't say much, she was listening.

 

Logan arrived in time to see Peter talking nonstop to Laura and smiled. "You want to sit near Peter, sweetie? Or near me?"

 

Peter changed topics very quickly. "You could do both. I can sit next to Harry...then you sit next to me...and Great-Grandpa sit on your other side!" He beamed at having come up with a solution.

 

Laura hesitantly nodded, a bit overwhelmed by the chatter, but responding to Peter's attempts to include her.

 

Tony glanced toward the door as more chattering could be heard before Ace and Cassie skipped into the room, Scott and Mike following close behind while Hank and Hope brought up the rear.

 

"You want to sit with the other kids, Sweet Pea?" Scott asked his daughter.

 

Mike glanced at Ace, asking him the same thing without words.

 

"Yeah." Cassie nodded and glanced at Ace, who shrugged and nodded too.

 

Peter glanced over and quickly grinned, then waved them over to him, Harry and Laura while he figured out who was going to sit where. He'd already adopted Werner into the group, despite the age difference, and quickly had Werner sitting next to Harry and the other two arranged as well. He would have included Kara, but it was obvious she would stay with her father.

 

Brock had come into the dining area following his father. Luckily, he had not injured himself beyond a bruise. When he'd had to explain what had happened to Bruce, his baby sister had turned bright red, her adult mind deciding to take issue with her childish actions. He hadn't wanted to tell on her, but he knew their father needed to be aware of what she'd done, so the story about the stairs and Robbie saving her was told as well while Fury got her redressed.

 

Fury hadn't actually swatted his daughter, even though he had taken serious issue with her actions, and had scolded her like he would a child, knowing her adult mind knew better, while redressing her. Carrying her into the dining room, he looked around...not only for Trip, but also Ward; and Robbie, for that matter.

 

Hank had followed Scott, Mike and their children in, watching fondly as his granddaughter sat easily next to Ace and began trying to draw Laura into conversation, though she wasn't anywhere near as pushy as Peter.

 

***

 

Realising it was getting to be lunch time, Blake put the paperwork he was reading to one side and stood up. Heading to his mother's room, he knocked lightly and then put his head round the door to catch his father's eye. "Hey, Dad. Are you coming for lunch, or do you want me to bring food back for you and Mom?"

 

Ben smiled at his son before looking back at his wife. She was having another bad moment and currently had fallen asleep. "I'll come with you, son. Are Deacon and St.John there already?"

 

"I was going to go retrieve them," Blake answered. "I think they might be in Deacon's room, if you want to wait for me to let them know it's lunchtime."

 

"I'll go with you." Ben stood and moved to his son's side.

 

Blake nodded and then moved to Deacon's door. Knocking lightly, he called, "Hey, kids. It's time for lunch."

 

Deacon popped his head out. "Already? Wow, I must have lost track of time reading..." He grinned before stepping out into the hall. "I'll get Pyro..." he said, disappearing toward another set of rooms; not thinking about the fact that his brother and Ben had never heard that particular nickname, or the fact that it generally represented something that might concern them.

 

Blake frowned. "Pyro?" he repeated, wondering if he should be concerned.

 

Deacon didn't hear his brother's question, as he was already knocking on St.John's door. "Time for lunch..." he called in.

 

It didn't take long for Pyro to open the door and join him. He'd been getting very bored, reading not holding as much interest for him as it did for Deacon. "Know what we're having?" he asked curiously.

 

"There's actually a team of people who are in charge of cooking meals now," Blake replied. "Before, it would depend on whose turn it was and if they wanted to actually cook or order takeout. So it could be anything, really. We've got enough in that, if there's anything you don't like or are allergic to, there will be other options."

 

Pyro blinked at that. "So...you've got hired chefs to cook for the family? Given how many people there are, it doesn't surprise me..." He grinned. "Lead the way!"

 

Blake headed in that direction, walking next to his father.

 

***

 

Sam wrapped an arm each around his son and daughter. "Ready to join everyone for lunch?" he asked.

 

"Yeah. I think Foggy was with Jessica, Mack and Yo-Yo. And Claire is with healer Bryce. Do we want to pick them up to go with us, or assume Steve and Odin will be handling that?" Karen grinned.

 

Sam smiled. "I expect Odin will retrieve Healer Bryce and Claire, so why don't we get the others?" he suggested.

 

"Lead the way, then..." Matt grinned, taking hold of his father's arm. He didn't really need to be led around, but he liked to take any opportunity to be close to his father.

 

Sam kept in close contact with both of his children as he checked with Friday and then headed to the area where Foggy was with the others.

 

Foggy glanced up as his girlfriend and her family came into the office where they were talking about possible plans and legality; Foggy wanted to help them do things as much above board as possible, so that there were no chances of the perpetrators getting off on technicalities. "Hey, Babe... What's up?" He smiled.

 

Mack glanced at his watch. "It's lunch time. How did it get to be lunch time already?" He blinked.

 

"Probably because you and Foggy keep arguing over what needs to be done verses what is legal to do..." Yo-Yo snorted gently.

 

Jessica nodded. "HYDRA are bad enough to get themselves legally put away without us doing it secretly. Although...getting them assigned to one of our prisons would be safer than a regular run-of-the-mill joint...."

 

"Be that as it may...it's time for you all to take a break. I hear the new chef made lasagna!" Karen grinned and took Foggy's arm, tugging him toward the door so that they could head to the dining area.

 

"We could always set up a family meeting for later," Sam commented. "But right now, it is lunch time. And I know certain people have parents who won't take no for an answer." His smile at Yo-Yo was friendly, but it was quite clear he was going to insist.

 

"No problems, Papi!" Yo-yo teased Sam. If he wanted to act the part of her parent in making sure she ate, she wasn't going to argue. It was actually rather sweet that he didn't want her to feel left out; even if she was an adult, capable of making a decision on when or when not to eat.

 

Sam smiled at her, deciding he wasn't going to look too closely at how the jokey nickname made him feel, and waved for them all to join him. "There aren't really assigned seats and there is enough space round the table," since a new table had been specially ordered in, "but by now, I suspect a lot of the seats next to each other will be taken."

 

***

 

Mordo wasn't surprised to learn that Stephen was still in the lab. Sending Wong ahead of him, he headed in that direction. After all, the other man's inability to pull himself away from his work was one of the reasons Mordo had warned him about a break in the first place.

 

Stephen was lost in his research. It wasn't that he forgot to keep track of time, though. No, he'd actually looked at the clock to check his progress several times. He knew it was time for a break. He just didn't want to stop in the middle of what he was doing and was taking a chance that Mordo and Wong would be too busy to check on him.

 

It didn't take long to track Stephen's exact whereabouts and Mordo stepped into the lab where the other man was working. "You need to take a break. It's time for lunch," he said firmly.

 

"Can't right now...in the middle of this section and I'll have to start over if I quit..." Stephen answered quickly. Although maybe, he could admit to himself, he shouldn't have said it in such a sing-song voice. That was like a red flag to a bull.

 

Mordo stepped over to him and spoke in a serious, though calm voice. "Our agreement was you take a break when I tell you to." There was a heavy note of warning in his voice as he looked around, spotting a chair he could use close by.

 

"I will!" Stephen griped in irritation. "I just need to get to the end of this chapter...." Said chapter was at least another twenty pages but he didn't admit that.

 

Mordo didn't look at the book. Whether it was one paragraph or several pages, he was well-acquainted with Stephen's tendency to push 'just a bit more'. Taking a firm hold of the other man's shoulder, he pulled him away from the book and began heading towards the chair.

 

"What..? You made me lose my place!" Stephen whined in an aggrieved tone. He didn't notice where he was being led, his focus still completely on the book.

 

Mordo didn't respond. Reaching the chair, he took a seat and gently tugged Stephen across his lap in one fluid movement.

 

Stephen stiffened as he suddenly realized his position. "No! Mordo! Please! I'll go! I'll eat! You don't need to...to...spank me!" The revulsion in his voice when he said the word spank was almost comical.

 

"I warned you," was all Mordo said, proceeding to bare his backside. Just in case his charge began struggling and risking falling, Mordo wrapped his arm around Stephen's waist, drawing him tight against his stomach.

 

"I'm too big and too old for you to...to..." Stephen slumped as he realized this was happening, no matter what he said. "I'd hoped you wouldn't notice...." he admitted quietly, with a hint of embarrassment.

 

Mordo rested his hand gently on his charge's lower back. "You don't give me enough credit. I will notice what you're doing and when you are not taking care of yourself." He rubbed Stephen's back gently, then lifted his hand and brought it down in a firm swat at the crest of the other man's backside.

 

Stephen was stabbed by a frisson of guilt. "I...I don't mean any disrespect," he said softly. And then yelped as Mordo's hand landed hard.

 

"You would work yourself to exhaustion if I allowed you to." Mordo raised his hand and brought it down again. And then another two swats below the first. "To expect me not to notice and, worse, not to care is doing me a great disservice." By now, he settled into a pattern of swats, his hand falling to emphasise each word.

 

"I wasn't even thinking about it affecting you!" Stephen winced, his voice coming out strained as his mentor continued and he tried not to immediately start crying. "I wa...wasn't thinking about it affecting anyone but me and I thought I cou...could handle it!" he continued, his voice shaky.

 

"You are going to run yourself into the ground." Mordo continued down to Stephen's thighs and then started over from the top again. "If I tell you to do something, I expect you not to argue, because when I tell you something, it's because it's important. Because you are important."

 

"But...I...you...we..." He faltered, not entirely sure what he wanted to say. To say that Mordo wasn't in charge of him wasn't entirely true. While he'd progressed in his training considerably and could be considered an equal in some ways, he knew Mordo still viewed himself as his mentor. Stephen still viewed Mordo as his mentor. To say Mordo didn't have the right to take him in hand wasn't really true either. Stephen had given him that right long ago when he first began training under the other man. And he hadn't actually told Mordo that he no longer had the right; he wouldn't tell him that. It felt like it was too final a declaration that would break their connection and Stephen found himself loath to break their connection. "I don't want to be spanked!" he finally said petulantly, his voice sounding like he was very close to frustrated tears.

 

"Which is what makes it effective as a punishment," Mordo responded. "You are not supposed to 'want it'. If talking to you cannot break into your stubbornness, perhaps this will have some effect." He gentled his tone, but increased the force and speed behind the swats a fraction. "And indicate to you just how seriously I take your safety and wellbeing."

 

Another spear of guilt lanced through Stephen, but he stubbornly ignored it. That didn't mean he didn't react, though. He wasn't lying about not wanting a spanking and he was perfectly willing to do whatever necessary to get this whole humiliating and painful event over as soon as possible. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to worry you!" he choked out, big fat tears pooling in his eyes before they slipped down his cheeks.

 

Mordo shook his head and began a new circuit of swats, well aware that Stephen wasn't truly remorseful or surrendering. "No. I do not believe you are sorry," he replied calmly. "Only regretting that I did come to retrieve you."

 

"No! No, I am sorry!" Stephen protested, although he had to admit to himself at least Mordo was correct in his assessment. He wriggled around, his tears falling faster and began to cry more loudly. "I should have not dismissed your concerns...." He tried being conciliatory by admitting the one thing he did feel guilty about. It might not have changed what he chose to do, but he was sorry for dismissing Mordo's feelings in this matter. He hadn't meant to make the other man feel like Stephen didn't give him credit where it was due.

 

Mordo still didn't stop, shifting Stephen forward enough (helped by the other man's wriggling) to begin swatting his sit spots. "You shouldn't dismiss your own health. There was no one to pull you back in your old life, but that is no longer true," he stated.

 

Stephen whined and cried harder, going limp over Mordo's knee in the hopes it would convince the man to stop. There was a reason no one dared pull him back in his old life and it wasn't just because he had no one. It was because he was an arrogant bastard and he wouldn't let anyone pull him back. The fact he hadn't fought Mordo harder would have shocked anyone who knew him before.

 

Mordo still didn't stop, aware that they weren't at the needed point yet. He began swatting Stephen's sit spots and thighs a little harder. "I know you think you should be allowed to push yourself as much as you can, but I won't sit back and watch you hurt yourself. Even if I have to get through to you in this way."

 

"But I'm an adult! I make my own decisions! Even if they are spectacularly bad!" Stephen's crying was slightly more genuine this time, as the sting had built up to actual pain and Mordo's insistence that he wouldn't allow him to work himself into sickness or injury made him feel like the other man might actually care about him.

 

Mordo didn't stop spanking, although he did lessen the force a bit. "And if they are bad, I will step in and save you from yourself when it's necessary."

 

"I believe you!" Stephen ground out, before beginning to kick his feet and squirm in distress. "I'm sorry I didn't heed you!" He threw his hand back over his bottom. He still didn't understand why Mordo was so insistent, but he wouldn't make the mistake of dismissing him ever again!

 

Mordo caught Stephen's hand, moving it to the other man's back, careful not to hurt the damaged hand. "The next time you disregard my directions, this will happen. I won't allow you to overwork yourself for any reason. Even if you think you no longer need me, that doesn't mean I will stop caring about you."

 

Stephen stiffened at the words. "Y...you care about me?" His voice was strained. "That's why you're doing this?"

 

"Yes, Stephen," Mordo replied, in a very gentle tone. "I have cared about you from the very beginning and nothing has caused a change in how I feel. Nothing will change it."

 

At those words, the tiny sliver of guilt Stephen had been fighting off swamped him. He'd already been lying limp, so it was a very slight change, but noticeable all the same when the boneless-ness became genuine instead of put on. The forced tone of the tears became more open and real. "I'm sorry for disregarding your wishes," Stephen whispered, in a shaky, heartfelt breath.

 

Mordo brought the spanking to a halt. Gently rubbing Stephen's back, he replaced the man's clothing and then helped him up off his lap and into a tight embrace.

 

Wiping futilely at his eyes, Stephen gave up and just let himself quietly cry. When Mordo wrapped his arms around him, he shifted closer and let his head fall to the other man's shoulder. "I'm an arrogant ass...you know this won't be the last time I test your patience..." He sighed.

 

"Then it's just as well my patience won't run out when it comes to you," Mordo answered, calmly and without heat. He hugged his charge close and gently stroked his hair.

 

Stephen sniffed once and gave his mentor a teary smile. "I'll try not to be too exasperating...."

 

Mordo just gave him another squeeze before saying, "When you're ready, you can wash your face and then I'll take you to lunch."

 

Stephen nodded, allowing himself to cuddle a bit longer before pulling back and putting back on his 'doctor' persona. The others had enough to worry about without seeing him behaving like a child. Quietly, he walked to a nearby sink and washed his face before turning back to Mordo. "Am I presentable?"

 

"You look fine." Mordo gently squeezed his shoulder and then steered him out of the lab towards the dining area.

Chapter Text

Three days. Everyone had been there for three days and were working really well together like well-oiled machines; like they'd always been together. Ward could tell it upset some of the 'teens' to see how easily someone else could step in and do their job. He was feeling a bit upset himself because he was feeling a bit useless.

 

He'd done everything possible to mess up the finances of the HYDRA cell they had uncovered. There were some things that needed a personal touch, though; and he'd pretty much been told he couldn't do it because it might draw attention to him.

 

That's how he found himself standing in front of the huge window of the viewing deck on the main level of the headquarters. Yes, it was the public area, but the family floors were below ground and he wanted to look outside through a real window instead of a viewing screen (as nice as those were). The rest of the 'adults' had gone on a mission to take out the cell whose finances he had damaged- not ruined, since he couldn't handle the items needing a face to face touch- damaged; it was frustrating.

 

Peter Parker was much more inclined to get into mischief than his younger compatriots and it hadn't taken him long to figure out Ward was not happy with the way things had gone. Besides, his spidey tense was warning him.

 

Even though he wasn't allowed in the labs, Peter had modified his spider web gauntlets to use them in his new form. He just hadn't told any of his family he was doing that. It enabled him to swing above Ward's head as he followed the man who his uncle Fury wanted to adopt. Well, along with Robbie...but Robbie seemed more amenable than Ward.

 

Ward wasn't a trained agent, so he couldn't see Peter following him, though he had a sense that something wasn't quite right. That sense didn't stop him from making the decision that popped into his head.

 

Without any thought at all to danger, he head toward the garage. The only thing he was good at was business and if he was going to do a thorough job, he needed to go in person to close the account he'd transferred the remaining money to. So they couldn't find it again. The fact he'd been told not to didn't matter.

 

He quickly unlocked his car, then walked over to the security booth to let the guards know what time he planned to be back, in case something went wrong. He may not care about following a direct order to not take chances, but there was no reason to be stupid while doing so.

 

Sneaking into the backseat of the car was easy to do. Peter lay flat on floor, which was much easier now that his size was so much smaller. And it wasn't as if he thought Ward would be likely to look behind. Still, he wasn't going to make himself even slightly visible.

 

After letting the guards know what time he planned to be back, Ward got into the car and headed for the bank. With any luck, he'd be through within three hours and home before the mission had finished and the others returned.

 

Peter only raised his head enough to be certain of where they were headed, making sure he kept out of sight of the rear-view mirrors.

 

Ward parked in front of the bank, still having no clue Peter was in the car. It ended up taking him a lot longer to withdraw the money and close the account, even though he had all the needed information and permissions. For one brief, panicked moment, he thought that HYDRA had figured out what he'd done and found a way to reverse it, but finally, he had a briefcase full of money and was returning to his car. He didn't look in the backseat...again.

 

Peter lay flat, but peeked up when he saw Ward exit the bank. He might have been deaged, but his mind still worked and he didn't need to be a genius to figure out what Ward had done. He did, however, spot the men who were approaching from the other side of the road, clearly after someone.

 

Ward may not be an agent, but years of dealing with his father and paranoia being drilled into him meant he saw the men headed his direction. He sped up just enough to reach the car and get in before they reached him without it being obvious he'd seen them. He didn't even buckle his seat belt, just tossing the briefcase on the seat next to him and taking off immediately.

 

Peter sat up enough so he could take note of the men, realising they'd probably observed the licence plate and make of the car. He bit his lip, knowing he was going to have to warn the family members. His cell phone was on him and he took it out, tapping out a quick message to the parents. Yes, he was telling on Ward (and himself), but he knew safety was a high priority. Of course, the message was more in the tone of a seven-year-old than his normal age, but the urgency still translated.

 

Ward drove all around in an effort to lose any tails before heading back to the compound. He could only hope those he'd avoided hadn't gotten his plate numbers; but even if they had, the car was registered to him. With all the news about his father recently, they'd likely think he was acting to steal from them on his own and wouldn't associate him with the Avengers. That could only be good in his eyes, since it meant they wouldn't suspect they'd been found out and the Avengers could finish taking them out. He hoped.

 

As a result of everything, he returned an hour and a half later than he'd planned.

 

By then, the parents had returned home. The only reason Fury and Bruce were the only two standing outside was because Peter had replied with reassurances to every worried message he'd received, including informing them that, 'Cousin Ward's trying to lose the bad guys'.

 

Ward pulled in and parked, getting out of the car slowly, his hands shaking slightly. Taking a deep breath, he turned to enter the building and stopped short at seeing Fury and Bruce there. "Wha....?"

 

Bruce stepped forward. "You can come with me, Peter," he called out softly, ignoring the wide-eyed shock that crossed Ward's face.

 

Peter slowly levered himself out of the backseat, walking over to his father, glancing at Bruce's face to try and guess at how much trouble he was in.

 

Bruce wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders, but Ward's horrified, "I didn't know he was there!" kept him from saying anything. He looked at the man he was fairly certain would be his cousin and nodded. "That's the only reason the other guy isn't going after you right now..." he said calmly. Turning to Peter, he said, "Let's go to my room and you can explain what happened and why."

 

Ward's face was a mix of horrified apology. If he'd known the young boy was in the car, he would have never gone on his 'mission'. "I didn't know..." he turned toward Nick and said weakly.

 

Peter nodded, obediently going with his father.

 

Fury stepped over to Ward and placed a hand gently on the younger man's shoulder. He made certain that the movement couldn't be mistaken for aggression and squeezed gently. "I know," he replied. "I believe you wouldn't have done anything to deliberately endanger anyone here...especially not one of the kids. I find it more concerning that you chose to put your own life in danger."

 

****

 

Bruce had picked Peter up and carried him on his hip as soon as they were inside the building, finding it quicker. Plus, it enabled him to snuggle the boy without it being obvious that's what he was doing. He waited until they were on the elevator toward the family floor before he said anything else, though. "I'm proud of you for contacting us as soon as you realized what Ward was doing. I'm not quite as proud at the fact you chose to sneak into his car in the first place, when you had no clue where he was going or why. Any number of things could have gone wrong beyond what did go wrong."

 

Peter hadn't fought being picked up and carried, even though his more adult mind was still fighting to get a foothold. He was still frustrated, but above that, he was now starting to feel guilty. "Don't like being useless." There was more to it than that, but it was hard to find the words. Peter pressed closer to his father. "He would have done something worse next time," he mumbled against Bruce's shirt.

 

"Maybe he would have done something worse next time..." Bruce agreed. "But that's for his future father to take care of. Not his younger cousin." They finally made it to the family floor and Bruce moved immediately to his room so that they wouldn't have an audience. Once inside with the door securely closed, Bruce set Peter down and gave him a stern look. "And that doesn't explain why you thought it was a good idea to sneak into his car. You could have been badly hurt because he didn't know he needed to take you into consideration when he was escaping."

 

Peter frowned and bit his lip. "I could have spun away...." He'd rolled his sleeves up in case he needed access to his webbing, so the webslingers were in clear view.

 

Bruce sighed and sat down on the bed, pulling Peter to stand in front of him so that he could look into his eyes. "Petey...I have no doubt you have many things you could have done if something went wrong...but there was no guarantee that it would have succeeded. You could have been badly hurt. And if you hadn't have had the foresight to call us and let us know what was happening, you could have been hurt and no one would have been able to help you." He pulled his son in close and just held him tightly, relieved that it hadn't come to that, before gently pushing him back so he could look him in the eye again. "I wouldn't have let you do something like that at your normal age. There's no way I can let it go now...."

 

"I know, daddy," Peter whispered. For once, his 'adult' mind was in agreement with the child's. He knew he shouldn't have sneaked into the backseat of Ward's car, no matter how bored and useless he felt.

 

Bruce gently brushed a finger over Peter's cheek before giving him a sad smile. "You did do one thing very right. You called as soon as you realized what Ward was doing and kept us informed. Because of that, we had people ready to move in if necessary. And you stayed in the car and out of sight instead of trying to take care of the bad guys on your own. I'm proud of you for thinking and not just jumping in. So I think I can afford a little bit of leniency. I won't be spanking you, this time. If you sneak out of the compound again? You will be getting a spanking, no matter what your reason. I won't be spanking you, but you will be grounded. For the rest of this week, there will be no electronics and you will need to check with me before you go anywhere that isn't on the family floor. That includes going outside on the compound grounds. Am I clear?"

 

Peter sighed and nodded, knowing being grounded was going to suck. He stripped off the webslingers and held them out to his father. "You wanna take these." Otherwise the temptation to use them would be too great.

 

"Thank you, son." Bruce smiled. "I'll keep them safe for you to use when we practice later....". He knew how hard it was on those who had been deaged, especially those who'd deaged so far as his son. He wanted to help ease that difficulty as much as possible, so allowing Peter to train with him hopefully would help the younger man realize he wasn't expected to give up everything; just judiciously choose when to use his abilities.

 

Peter hesitated, but knowing that his father would realise anyway, mumbled, "They're new ones. So I can use them now." He quickly added, "But I didn't use the lab."

 

Bruce glanced at the web slingers. "You did this outside the lab? I'm impressed. How did you do it without the equipment you usually use?" He listened closely as Peter explained.

 

****

 

Ward stood awkwardly as Bruce led Peter away before looking back at Fury. "It wasn't meant to be dangerous. I should have been able to flip into the bank, do what was necessary, and leave before they had time to figure out what was occurring. They must have had someone on the inside to warn them when the account I set up became active...." He swallowed again, not able to shake the queasy feeling he had at having taken a child into a dangerous situation, no matter if it was accidentally done.

 

Fury nodded slowly. "HYDRA hasn't got to where they are without reach in a lot of places. That was precisely one of the reasons you were told not to do it. One of the messages Peter sent indicated that they probably caught the licence plate of your car, which puts a target on your back immediately."

 

Ward stiffened at that news, then slumped. "I'm a screwup..." he said softly. "I'm useless here; I don't know why Danny even brought me. The one thing I can do and I manage to screw up and get caught...."

 

Fury shook his head firmly. "Making a mistake...an error in judgement...doesn't make you a screwup. You aren't the first one here to do something without fully thinking it through and I suspect you won't be the last." Gently squeezing Ward's shoulder, he continued, "We'll continue this conversation inside." He began gently leading his son (and he was already thinking of Ward like that) into the compound.

 

Ward didn't fight Fury's grip on him and let the older man lead him inside. After putting one of the children in danger, he fully deserved and expected to be berated. He was grateful Fury planned to do it inside, where only the family could hear, though. The less who knew of what had happened, the less he'd feel the need to recluse himself away in solitude.

 

Fury led Ward to the elevator and stepped inside, setting it to go to the family floor. As he waited for it to reach the destination, he commented, "This doesn't change anything about how I feel about you."

 

"How can it not?" Ward's voice was filled with self-loathing. "My father was right. I'm a complete failure, a disappointing waste of space and resources. And now I'm a danger to your family. I'll get my things and be out of your sight as soon as possible..." His voice was apologetic.

 

"Your father was wrong. Completely wrong." The elevator stopped and Fury guided Ward off it, not speaking again until they were inside his room. "I'm not asking you to leave. I don't want you to leave."

 

"What do you want?" Ward asked suspiciously. In his experience, nothing good ever came out of being wanted.

 

"You. Specifically, to adopt you as my son," Fury answered, honestly and without hesitation.

 

"Why?" Ward couldn't keep the confusion out of his voice. "If you're hoping to get a foothold into Meachum's board, I lost any control I had when the board threw my sister, Danny and I out. I lost everything. I fail to see how I'm any use without that...."

 

"I don't want you for something," Fury replied. "I want you because, just like Trip, Brock and Kara, I like you. I feel drawn to you. I want you. Just for you."

 

"At the risk of sounding stupid...I don't get it..." Ward shook his head in befuddlement.

 

"What are you having trouble with?" Fury asked gently.

 

"No one wants me for just me...you must need me to do something...be something..." Ward sounded honestly confused.

 

"What about Danny?" Fury had seen the two men interacting and was reasonably sure their friendship came with no strings attached.

 

Ward blinked as he honestly thought about the question. For a long time, he'd thought Danny was like his father, only wanting Ward around because Ward was a foothold into the company. Then he thought maybe he wanted him around because he needed someone to help buffer him from the rest of the world until he got his feet under him again after being gone so long. Now? "I don't deserve him..." he said softly. "I have done nothing but give him grief since we were children. I have nothing to offer now, so can't fathom why he wants me around...."

 

"Because he likes you and he cares about you, I imagine, the same way I do," Fury said honestly, wrapping his arm around Ward's shoulders. "You've been here three days now. I didn't even need one to know I want you. Not out of any ulterior motive, but because you're you. I know how to recognise this feeling because I experienced it with your brothers and sister."

 

Ward stiffened at the words, suddenly feeling out of control of the situation. How in the world could this man have decided he cared so much when he barely knew Ward? After all the questionable things Ward had done? And it wasn't just that Fury was thinking of adopting him; it was like he already had in his mind, since he was referring to him in a way that indicated that all that was missing was a signature on a legal document. How could Fury know so quickly and so certainly? The man had barely even reacted when Ward admitted to killing Harold Meachum. Twice. How could he know? "You shouldn't want me...I'm bad news..." he finally forced out, his voice shaky and giving away his obvious panic. "I'm an addict...spent time in a mental facility coming clean, but I still.... And I'm not a nice person. Just ask Danny. He seems able to forgive anything, but I haven't given him reason to. What I did today? It won't be the last time I mess up and it may not even be the worst way I can mess up...." He tried to talk Nick out of what he thought was a mistake on the older man's part.

 

"You aren't bad news." Fury's response was immediate and sincere. "Neither are you the only one to 'mess up', as you put it. A lot of people here have made mistakes. One agent was revealed to be a double agent working for HYDRA. Mistakes have been made, but it changes nothing about how they're felt about. No matter what you do, even if you think it's the worst possible thing, it won't change anything. Because this isn't conditional on you conforming or how you behave. When something happens, you'll get punished. Spanked. And that'll be an end of it. You'll be forgiven. It won't be brought up again. And no one will make fun of you, because everyone's experienced the way the family does things."

 

Ward's eyes darted toward Fury, widening slightly. "I...I can't...I won't..." He swallowed. How could he allow himself to be spanked? He put up with his father beating him for years and promised himself never again; never anyone else. And while he knew what Fury was talking about wasn't like what his father had done, the fact was it was still physical punishment. He didn't know if he could submit to that. No matter how different it was and no matter if the reasons for it were different.

 

Fury touched his son's face, gently stroking his cheek. "I know you told me your biological father beat you. And I know you're intelligent enough to know the difference between a beating and a spanking. The fact is, you took yourself into a dangerous situation where you came close to putting a target on your back. I don't care if they knew you were with us or not. I care about what you did to you. And, yes, I know you didn't realise Peter was there...but he was still able to sneak into your car because you were doing something you knew wasn't acceptable."

 

Ward closed his eyes at the mention of Peter, his guilt at putting the child in harm's way, even if unknowingly, making him reassess his words. If putting a child into the crosshairs of men who'd do worse than kill him wasn't reason to accept a beating, then nothing was. And he knew a spanking was not a beating...not necessarily, unless Fury was angry enough at him to just begin pounding him, but then it wouldn't be a spanking anymore. He swallowed hard and nodded, not able to voice the words, but accepting that he did deserve something for his actions. Not because he had put himself into danger- he didn't think he mattered that much, even if Fury kept saying he did- but because he'd put Peter into danger.

 

Talking to Ward about the differences in what Fury was going to do compared to what had been done to him wouldn't do any good. Fury knew he was going to have to act and hope he could reach his son through his actions. He didn't want Ward to be blindsided by anything, though, so as he led him across to the bed, he said quietly, "I'm going to sit down and put you across my knee. Then I'm going to bare your backside and spank you." His voice was soft and didn't carry any threats, only sounding as reassuring as he could make it. He proceeded to put action to words.

 

It felt like a dream almost, as if he really wasn't in his body; although he wasn't doing anything silly like floating above himself and watching either. It was all just a bit foggy and before he knew it, he was lying across the older man's lap and his backside was bared to the world. He didn't even remember walking to the bed. Shivering slightly, he couldn't help but immediately put his hand back to cover himself, even as he pushed against the floor in an attempt to stand back up. "Noooo..." He blushed at how his voice came out in a frightened whimper instead of in a firm, confident refusal. He believed too strongly that he deserved something for taking Peter into danger. Believing that didn't make it any easier to accept bravely, though.

 

Fury took hold of Ward's hand, holding it and gently pushing down across Ward's back with the same arm. Not to hurt, but to keep his son in place. He lifted his other hand and brought it down in a swat he made sure was nothing like his full strength. While it would sting, it couldn't truly be called hard. For a first-time offence with his skittish son, he could afford to be lenient. He repeated the swat, pulling Ward tighter against his stomach.

 

Ward closed his eyes tightly and tried not to make any noise as the first swat landed, but the realization that it really wasn't a beating caused him to whimper pathetically. Despite Fury's words, he'd expected closed handed fists to pound into his torso. A favorite target of Howard had been his kidneys; the faint traces of blood whenever he had to urinate for however long it took for them to heal an added reminder of not to disappoint the man. Nick's hand was open, though and only struck his backside; the area more cushioned and able to handle a blow. And it wasn't even a blow- Ward could tell that immediately. It stung, to be certain, but it couldn't rightly be called painful. It confused him. Whimpering again, he dared to say, "You aren't hurting me....?"

 

"It's not about hurting you. Not about how much pain you can take. I would never hurt any of my children." Fury's hand continued to fall on every other word, each swat carefully controlled. He couldn't fathom how any parent could hurt their child...damage them as surely as Ward had been damaged, even though he knew there were many family members who had experienced it.

 

Ward swallowed back another whimper, instead focusing on Nick's words and the firm smacks he was delivering. The sting was just enough to keep him from withdrawing into his own head again, the repetition was enough to help him focus...and he was focused. Every word Nick said was being heard. "You don't want to hurt me? I disobeyed you..." he finally whispered. "...I defied you. I thought you'd want me to hurt...." He left the implication that he was Nick's child unremarked on, for the moment. He was beginning to believe that Nick really did view him as his child and he didn't want to examine his own feelings on the matter just yet.

 

"No, son." Fury went down to Ward's thighs and then started over from the top, keeping the swats still at the same force. "There would never be a time I'd want to hurt you or see you hurt." He took a deep breath. "I was scared for your safety when I knew how close you'd come to tangling with HYDRA."

 

Ward winced at the admission and felt guilty about being the cause of that fear. "I didn't mean to draw their attention. I didn't mean to scare you...I didn't think you would be..." he admitted in a tiny voice, his breath hitching toward the end as the sting began to stay past the swat. He wriggled his bottom a tiny bit, but Nick's grip was secure and he couldn't shift very far.

 

"I know," Fury replied. "We had people ready to move if it became necessary. If it hadn't been for your cousin keeping us updated, I would have jumped into one of the cars and come for you straight away." He began a third circuit of swats, still not increasing the force or the speed.

 

Ward didn't understand what it was about the methodical warming of his backside that broke him. Numerous beatings and he'd managed to stand tall and proud after and pretend like he wasn't phased; was expected to, really. Being over Nick's knee receiving what was really a mild smacking had him wanting to cry like a baby. It didn't even really hurt, though he knew that was because Nick was deliberately going easy on him; it could have been much harder, he knew. Sniffling, he slumped slightly. "I'm sorry. It... shouldn't have been necessary. I should have heeded your orders..." he said softly, swallowing again.

 

Fury paused the spanking, his hand resting on Ward's backside and gently rubbing the warmed skin. "I was going to come after you because I was frightened I would lose you. Because you're important to me, no matter what you think about yourself."

 

At those words, Ward slumped the rest of the way, his hand leaving the floor to grasp onto Fury's ankle tightly. It had been confusing enough when the man was gently smacking his backside. To have him offering comfort by rubbing the sting away? Was so completely unexpected, he didn't know how to react. It didn't even feel weird or unsettling, which he had thought it would have. Maybe if it was someone else, it would have. Fury's declarations of wanting Ward for his son and treating him as such may have been making more of an impression than Ward had realized, which was scarier than anything else that had occurred. "I... I'm sorry I frightened you. It was bad of me..." he said quietly, his voice subdued.

 

"It wasn't 'bad'," Fury corrected. "You aren't bad." Deeply hurt by someone who should have protected and loved him...Fury almost regretted not being able to get after Howard Meachem himself. He had a whole new respect for Phil's ability to stay calm when faced with everything Grant had suffered.

 

"I disobeyed...What would you call it if not 'bad'?" Ward tried to sound sarcastically flippant- it didn't work; he sounded genuinely curious and hopeful. He didn't want to be bad.

 

"Being temporarily 'naughty'," Fury responded, still continuing the gentle rubbing. "That's dealt with when you're spanked and forgiven. And always loved." At the beginning, it had been harder to voice words like that. Now, with four children (and he expected Robbie would be a fifth), it was easier to voice.

 

Ward blushed when a tiny giggle of surprise escaped. He didn't think the situation was funny at all, it was just... "...Naughty makes me seem like a kid...a child...." he said hesitantly. "...Then again, I'm over your knee getting my bare butt spanked. Guess the term fits..." He sniffled slightly. "I am sorry about scaring you..." he said hesitantly. "...I really didn't mean to do something dangerous. I know it was, though..." He swallowed and shifted minutely. "...I know I deserve to be punished...." He bit his lip, afraid to ask if he'd really be forgiven.

 

"And forgiven," Fury added gently. "And loved. Looked after. Cared for. No matter what happens, no matter what you do, it won't change anything." He began swatting again, still no harder than he had previously.

 

Ward wasn't sure what it said about his state of mind that he was thankful when Fury began swatting again. The guilt that had begun to blossom in his stomach when he realized just how much he had upset Fury was being met head on by the man in question taking control and punishing him. He was grateful and so he let himself lie over Nick's lap and didn't move, accepting the swats as his due. "I...I believe you..." he finally admitted, a hint of his fear at that fact clear in his voice. "I...I believe you and I'm sorry and... and... " He bit his lip uncertainly. "...Thank you for looking after me...." he finally finished, even though it felt weird to thank the man for spanking him.

 

"I'll always look after you, no matter what form that takes," Fury replied. "I won't ever give up on you." He stayed on Ward's sit spots and thighs for a bit, making sure his son would feel the spanking even though it wasn't anywhere close to a hard one.

 

"I'm afraid..." Ward admitted hoarsely. "...What if I forget...start to doubt...? I know I'll be able to remember the rest of today at least..." He huffed slightly, his eyes beginning to water from the sting that he knew he'd feel for at least a few hours after Nick stopped. "...What about after, though?" What about when the sting was no longer reminding him that Nick wanted him and was willing to step in to make sure he stayed alive and healthy and his?

 

"It won't matter, because if you forget or start to doubt, I'll be right here to remind you. To pull you back to me if it's necessary," Fury promised. "And there won't be just me to remind you, because you'll have the rest of the family too."

 

"You'll pull me back?" Ward didn't mean to sound so hopeful, but his attempts at flippancy, sarcasm and aloofness just weren't working. He wanted a place to belong and he hadn't realized how much until Fury was offering it. He swallowed yet again and shifted slightly, his bottom actually beginning to feel a bit sore.

 

"I will," Fury promised. "And I'll continue to remind you, each and every time you need me to, that you're mine. My son."

 

"Like....like this?" Ward couldn't help but ask with a tiny whine, though again the hopeful tone was there, so what the heck?

 

"If necessary. If you need me to remind you like this," Fury replied honestly. "But also in keeping you close to me. Spending time with you...and you spending time with me and your siblings."

 

"You actually just want to spend time with me? Even if I don't do anything for you?" Ward's voice was low and almost choked.

 

"You don't give yourself enough credit," Fury said. "I want you. I love you. No conditions or strings attached."

 

"I...I want that," Ward whispered, before letting himself go limp over Fury's knee. If he was going to do this, he was going to do it completely. That meant submitting, even if his normal paranoia urged him to fight.

 

Fury brought the spanking to a stop and didn't waste any time in drawing Ward into his arms, settling him on his lap, hugging him tightly.

 

Ward wasn't sure at first what to do...he'd never been comforted after being punished when he'd upset Howard. Being sat on Fury's lap was out of his realm of experience. Finally letting his own emotions guide him, he hesitantly wrapped his arms around Fury's waist and let his head rest on the older man's shoulder. "I might need a lot of reminding..." he said carefully, hating to admit how much he needed the man who would be his father, but knowing he did need him.

 

"It won't matter," Fury promised, tightening his embrace. "I won't stop reminding you. I won't grow tired of you. I won't let you go."

 

Ward relaxed at the words, believing them completely. "Okay...I...I want that," he hesitantly admitted, shifting just enough that he could feel the sting. He smiled crookedly and gave Fury an uncertain look. "It doesn't really hurt...not bad. It...it doesn't feel like I was punished for disobeying...not completely...?" He couldn't bring himself to ask if the punishment was really over, or if that was just the warm up for something a bit harsher.

 

"This was a first time offence," Fury replied. "And as much about proving I will keep my promises as about punishing you." He gently stroked Ward's cheek. "I don't think you need to be punished more."

 

Ward relaxed at those words, pressing his cheek into Nick's hand before letting his head rest on the older man's shoulder again. He wriggled a little more, thinking he should fix his clothing but waiting for permission. Punishment over or not, Nick was in charge now and Ward was reluctant to do anything without being told; at least as long as Nick held him on his lap.

 

"If you're ready to get up, perhaps we could talk to Matt and Foggy about getting the paperwork finalised," Fury suggested, gently stroking the back of Ward's head.

 

"You're going to make me truly yours?" Ward glanced up.

 

"In every way I can," Fury promised.

 

Ward's smile was hesitant but genuine. "I...I'm ready then. If you're certain...."

 

"One hundred per cent certain," Fury replied. "I want you. And it won't change. And I hope that, knowing it's completely official, will make you feel more settled."

 

Ward nodded. "So...we can go now?" He hesitantly got up and fixed his clothing, watching his father to see if he was allowed to get up. It was obvious he was used to being under someone else's thumb, despite his aggressive posturing of not listening to anyone and doing his own thing.

 

"Of course." Fury stood up as well, wrapping his arm around Ward's shoulders. "And once that's done, I'll introduce you properly to your siblings."

 

"Surprise...it's a boy!" Ward joked feebly, not certain he would be welcomed as easily by the rest of the family.

 

Fury squeezed him gently, able to see the underlying uncertainty. "They'll accept you just as readily as I have," he promised, steering his son out of the room and checking with Friday where Foggy and Matt were.

 

Foggy had already got all the paperwork together and was heading toward the office before Fury and Ward were even to their door, thanks to Veronica. Matt followed along to be witness, but he hadn't had to do anything and he was feeling that fact keenly. He felt so useless, he could fully understand why Ward had snuck off to actually do something. Not that he'd do that himself, not knowing how Sam would react, but he could fully understand it.

 

"Better get that self-pitying line of thought out of your head right now, pal," Foggy admonished, "...before you do something that causes you to receive something you don't want."

 

Matt frowned. It wasn't clear, but Foggy's tone indicated it wouldn't be Sam sharing this unwanted item. "Foooooggyyyyy!" he moaned melodramatically, not noticing that Fury and Ward had arrived in time to hear the exchange.

 

Fury raised his eyebrows at the exchange, still keeping his arm wrapped around Ward's shoulders. "Your dad's back from the mission as well," he commented to Matt in a neutral tone. "When we're done here, maybe you can seek him out." His voice was firm and no-nonsense. He had no problem taking one of his nephews, or even a niece, in hand if it was necessary.

 

Matt jumped slightly, having not noticed that his uncle and new cousin were there. He pouted toward Foggy, sensing his brother in all but legalities was biting his lip to keep from laughing at his reaction, and then turned toward Nick. "Yes, sir..." he said respectfully. Even when he wasn't deaged to nearly a child, he respected Nick a great deal and that hadn't changed; even if his hormones made it difficult to keep control of his emotions.

 

Ward smiled crookedly. "Maybe you can help me out after you talk to your dad? You lost your age, not your intelligence. There's a lot of information in that head of yours that could help me do things in a way that, if HYDRA ever tries to undo it, they risk exposing themselves...." Not that Ward didn't already know most of the information to be able to do that, but if it helped Matt feel more useful, it would be a good thing. Plus, it would let him get to know his cousin better.

 

Foggy's smile grew. "See? You can still help out. Here are the papers that need signing, Uncle Nick..." He turned toward Fury, automatically falling into the same form of address as his friend and girlfriend would, even if he wasn't an official part of the family. "I've flagged all the areas you need to fill in or sign; it's pretty much the standard 'family form' that everyone has been signing...Power of Attorney, Medical Proxy, etcetera, etcetera...."

 

Fury nodded with a smile, both at Foggy's form of address and at Ward's suggestion to Matt. He gave his newest son another tight squeeze, trying to show through action that he was proud of him for thinking of Matt... even though he wouldn't voice it out loud and embarrass his nephew. "I don't need to read the form to sign it," he said to Ward. "But you might want to. In case there's anything you feel needs to be amended."

 

Ward shook his head. "If it's what everyone else in the family signed and you think it's good, I don't need to amend anything. I trust you..." He smiled again crookedly. The trust was more a case of he needed to trust Nick. He was afraid if he started going over every little thing with a fine-tooth comb, he'd talk himself out of joining this family; and something in him knew that would be a mistake. In this case, it was better to forge ahead and not stop to look at the details.

 

Fury smiled at his son and picked up the pen, signing the document without hesitation before passing the pen to Ward, still keeping in close physical contact.

 

Ward quickly signed everywhere he was meant to sign, letting out his breath with a soft whoosh as the last signature was entered. "...It's done," he whispered. "I'm yours now...." He leaned into Nick more firmly, suddenly weak-kneed and light-headed at how quickly he'd allowed himself to move. It wasn't like him at all and it was a bit overwhelming. He didn't regret it, but he couldn't help but wonder what made this family so different that they had so quickly overcome his natural paranoia and distrust enough for him to submit so quickly.

 

Fury wrapped both arms around Ward, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. "Danny's been adopted by Melinda, so you aren't the only one to become part of the family so fast," he murmured to his son.

 

Ward glanced up at that, leaning even more firmly into his father. "He has? I haven't talked to him in several days..." he admitted sheepishly. He'd been trying too hard to be useful and not have everyone wonder why he'd been brought along, given his lack of 'abilities'.

 

"You should," Fury said gently. "I'm sure he'd want to know about this."

 

"Yeah...he would..." Ward nodded. If there was one thing he knew about Danny, it was that the kid would be all excited, like an eager puppy, to learn how Ward had become part of the family. He felt the same way about Danny finding someone to bond with. It made him a bit sad that Joy wouldn't be a part of this, but she had distanced herself from both him and Danny and would likely look on his joining Fury as another 'betrayal' of their father. She refused to see what a monster Howard Meachum had been.

 

"Why don't we go and see your siblings and then, before you and Matt sit down and talk, we can find out where Danny is and you two can figure out when's best to catch up?" Fury suggested.

 

"Yes, sir...I...I'd like that..." Ward nodded. "Thank you..."

 

Hugging his son tight, Fury said an affectionate goodbye to his nephews, reminding Matt to see his father, and then checked with Friday about where his other children were, not sure if Kara was with both Trip and Brock or just one or the other.

 

"Masters Trip and Brock are frantically scouring the family quarters, trying to locate Miss Kara, as she decided it was time to play hide-and-seek with her brothers and refuses to answer their calls for her," Friday said calmly, with a hint of what could only be termed exasperated fondness.

 

Ward blinked at this. "Where is she, then?" he asked curiously.

 

"Hiding under your father's bed..." the AI said drolly. "I am just waiting for Masters Trip and Brock to remember I am here and ask me so that I can tell them where she is as well...."

 

Fury couldn't help but laugh as he steered Ward in that direction. "Thank you, Friday," he said to the AI, before adding to his son, "We'll see if we can sneak in and retrieve her without your brothers realising."

 

Ward laughed as well. "This should be fun..." He grinned as he prepared to follow his father.

 

Fury stayed close to Ward as he headed to the family quarters and made his way to his room. Having had plenty of practise, he was able to sneak quickly past his other sons and head to his bedroom, opening the door and then crouching down to peer under his bed. "Kara," he called softly. "Come meet your new brother."

 

Within seconds of Fury's request, a tiny, wide-eyed girl was scrambling out from under his bed. Giving Ward a hesitant, shy look, she popped her thumb into her mouth and held out the other hand for him to take. Would her new brother feel about her the way her other brothers did, or would he just tolerate her?

 

Ward smiled at the show of trust and gently took her hand in his. His smile grew into a full grin when she removed her thumb from her mouth at his acceptance and turned toward him, holding out her other arm. "Up!" she demanded, like a princess. He quickly obliged, giving his father a surprised yet hopeful look. If Kara accepted him this easily, maybe the other two would as well.

 

Fury smiled warmly at both his son and daughter, gently squeezing Ward's shoulder even as he said mildly to his daughter, "Shall we put your other brothers out of their misery and let them know where you are?" He was beginning to grow even more concerned, even though he tried to hide it. While he accepted everything about his daughter...about his children...he was concerned his daughter's toddler mind was overwhelming her.

 

Kara nodded vigorously, snuggling into Ward and pointing toward the door.

 

Ward had caught Fury's worry, even if the man was trying to keep it from Kara at the least. He smiled over his sister's head and mouthed, 'We'll help her.'

 

Fury smiled gratefully at Ward, giving his shoulder another gentle squeeze, and began guiding him (and Kara) out of the room, heading towards where Trip and Brock were.

 

Brock glance over and saw his father walking toward them. "Oh thank... Dad! Kara decided to hide from us and we can't find her any..." He blinked as he finally noticed Ward standing behind Fury, holding his baby sister. "You found her!" His voice was filled with so much relief, it was painful to hear.

 

Trip rushed over upon hearing his brother and began checking over his little sister as much as he was able to without dislodging her from Ward's arms. "Where was she?" he asked, his own worry bleeding out in his voice.

 

"Daddy bed!" Kara beamed proudly at having managed to hide from her brothers so successfully, not picking up on the fact they had been frantic over her.

 

Robbie, who'd been recruited to help find the littlest girl, gave a relieved smile, but hung back to let her brothers fuss over her.

 

Fury could tell how worried and frantic his other sons had been and reached out to gently squeeze each of their shoulders. "When I asked Friday where you were, she informed me that you were looking for Kara...." He left it at that, knowing Brock and Trip had likely been too scared to think of asking one of the AIs for help. He didn't immediately mention what had been done, as he wanted to make sure Trip and Brock felt better emotionally before informing them they had a new brother.

 

"Yeah, Friday asked us why we were running all over the...." Trip's voice trailed off as he realized that, while he'd been commiserating with the AI about not finding his sister, he hadn't once asked the AI where Kara was. "....Oh maaan!" he groaned. "I'm sorry, Friday. I should have asked you..."

 

Brock just put his hand over his face and turned bright red.

 

Kara giggled.

 

"It is alright, Master Trip. If she had been in danger, I would have informed you immediately without you asking." The AI sounded sheepish and a slight bit apologetic.

 

Gabe had been helping his brother help the other men and couldn't help but start to laugh. "Serves us right for taking Friday for granted..." he said, rolling his wheelchair up to be beside Ward and looking up at the giggling toddler. "Hey, Kar-bear. Did you have fun playing hide-and-seek?"

 

"YES!" Kara clapped her hands before throwing her arms around Ward again.

 

Trip noticed how Kara was clinging to someone other than her father. "She likes you, Ward..." he said, with a grin and a hint of question in his tone.

 

Fury smiled. "That's because I told her about her new brother." Clasping Ward gently on the shoulder, he continued, "It's just been made official." He'd already told Trip and Brock how he felt...and he didn't miss that Robbie, and Gabe as well, had been growing close to his sons. When Ward was settled, he wondered if there might be another adoption occurring.

 

"Well let me be the third to welcome you to the family, then..." Brock grinned and patted Ward on the shoulder, winking at his sister.

 

Trip play pouted. "No fair! That means I'm last!"

 

Kara giggled again, snuggling closer to Ward, who reacted by tightening his grip slightly and kissing her on the top of the head.

 

Fury smiled and then turned to Robbie and Gabe. "Would you two like to join us for lunch?" he asked. "I think it's splitting into smaller family groups time...."

 

Robbie glanced at Gabe, content to let his brother make the decision.

 

"I'd like that...thanks..." Gabe smiled at the older man. He'd enjoyed spending time with Trip and Brock and he knew his brother had as well. They all three got along easily; it was almost like having two new older brothers. He was curious to see how Ward fit in with the group; although if Kara's reaction was anything to go by, he'd fit in well.

 

Fury nodded. "Maybe we could eat outside," he suggested. "We have a lot of picnic items in...."

 

***

 

Werner had managed quite well without having a drink, but after waking up from a nightmare in a cold sweat, he really needed a drink. Heading to the common dining area, he walked over to the bar, intending to get himself a beer.

 

"You shouldn't do that," a quiet, childish voice said from behind him.

 

Werner turned, not surprised to see Harry stood behind him. "Shouldn't you be with Peter?"

 

"Peter got in trouble. I asked Friday where you were and she said you were here." Harry stepped closer to him.

 

Tony had heard about Peter being grounded and had decided he'd go look for Harry to make certain he was okay. When he noted Werner with Harry, however, he decided to wait a moment to see what the younger men did before he stepped in. If it looked like Werner was about to do something that would get him into trouble, he'd step in. If it looked like he and Harry were bonding and everything was okay, he'd leave them alone a while longer.

 

Werner blinked, wondering what kind of trouble the admittedly headstrong young boy had got into that left him separated from who seemed to be his best friend. "Did you need something?"

 

Harry didn't respond, but stepped over to him and held his hand out. "I'm hungry. I can't get food myself. I'm too little." Any members of the family who knew him well would likely recognise that Harry was doing more than just asking for help. He knew the dangers of losing control with alcohol and he figured he could draw Werner away from temptation.

 

"I just wanted to get a drink," Werner said, not sure why he was trying to justify himself to the youngster.

 

"No," Harry said, with perhaps surprising insightfulness. "It's just taking the easy way out." He continued to hold his hand out.

 

"He's right, you know..." Tony stepped into view. "It only postpones whatever it is you're trying to avoid or numb and often makes it more difficult. I should know. I used that method of avoidance for years...."

 

Werner blinked, surprised by Tony's sudden appearance. "I wasn't going to...." His voice trailed off and he sighed, deciding not to argue. If he made too much trouble, maybe he'd be forced to leave. And he was surprised to realise he didn't want to.

 

Tony's look was knowing and sympathetic, but he didn't call Werner on what could have been a slight untruth. "My reputation as a party animal back in the day might disagree with you," he said drolly. "I was wondering if both of you would like to grab your mother and grandparents and go on a walk?" He included Werner as part of the family naturally and without thought. He already felt like the boy was his.

 

Not sure he was actually being included, Werner really didn't know what to make of Tony including both of them. Harry was quick to grab his hand and nod. "Can we take snacks and drinks?" the small boy asked.

 

"We can pack a picnic...." Tony easily agreed. "How about I go pack the food and drink up, while both of you go bat your baby blues at the rest of the family and get them to come?" Tony grinned.

 

"Okay!" Still holding his big brother's hand (it was official in Harry's mind, even if Werner didn't know), Harry asked, "Friday, where are Momma, Grandaddy and Grandmama?"

 

"They are in the observation area of the SHIELD public area, master Harry. Shall I lead you to them, or have them come to you?" Friday answered.

 

"We'll go to them," Harry decided. "Thank you, Friday." Still holding Werner's hand, he began following Friday's lead.

 

Pepper was trying very hard to be understanding and not a complete brat. Her parents' constant surprise and questions about everything were becoming wearing, though. Especially when they noticed little things that meant she would need to explain the family method of dealing with misbehavior and probably soon. She was grateful when Harry showed up, pulling Werner behind him.

 

"Hi, Momma." Harry let go of Werner's hand to hug Pepper, even though the size and age difference made her look less like his mother and more like his big sister. "Daddy wanted us to ask if you and Grandaddy and Grandmama wanted to come and join us for a picnic."

 

Pepper's eyes brightened and she smiled wide. "I'd love to! Did you hear that, mom and dad? Tony wants to have a picnic!" She turned toward her parents.

 

"And a walk, too," Harry was quick to add, smiling at his mother's enthusiasm. Stepping back, he reached out to grab Werner's hand once more... as the other man had started edging towards the door, assuming he'd only been invited because, for some reason, the young boy had become attached to him.

 

Pepper's mother smiled. "A picnic would be lovely, dear, though I don't expect either of us will be able to walk very fast or far."

 

"That's okay. We don't have to walk very far," Harry was quick to suggest.

 

"There's a spot just outside the building where the agents go to eat their lunch," Pepper added, "with picnic tables and shade. It's really rather pretty." She'd noticed Werner trying to move away by this point and knowing that Tony felt a connection to the younger man- as well as Harry feeling connected- moved to wrap an arm around his shoulder. "This will be the perfect time for the family to get to know each other better!"

 

Surprised, Werner looked between Pepper and Harry. He wondered if he should speak up and point out he wasn't actually part of the family...and then he realised he actually did want to be a part of it, but he shouldn't. Should he? It was so confusing....

 

Pepper could tell Werner was uncertain and squeezed him more tightly. "I know for a fact Tony wants it legal as soon as possible and is only waiting for me to return to my normal age so I can be included in the decision..." she said softly to the younger man.

 

Werner blinked, not sure if he was really understanding Pepper's words and, if he was, how he felt about it. Things would be different once things had calmed down. He was certain of that.

 

Harry still held onto Werner, but held his other hand out to his grandparents. "Will you come?"

 

His grandfather smiled and took the small hand. "We'd love to."

 

***

 

It hadn't taken Tony long to get the food together and he'd let his father know what was going on; hinting that, if things went well, Steve might be getting another grandson.

 

Steve had been happy to hear that and had told Tony to keep him updated about the situation.

 

It wasn't long before Harry, his parents, grandparents and big brother were settled outside.

 

***

 

"Are you certain the information has them going this way?" Gamora asked Rocket, for what felt like the thousandth time. She didn't think Peter would ever come back to this particular galaxy.

 

"Of course," Rocket answered. "They might not have chosen to come this way...but my information is never wrong."

 

"I am Groot," his tiny tree friend replied.

 

"That wasn't the same thing and you know it," Rocket retorted.

 

Nebula just narrowed her eyes, but the 'idiots' was as plain as if she'd actually spoken it out loud.

 

Gamora snorted. "Very well," she said. "Did your information tell where we are to land?"

 

"It's a big planet," Rocket replied. "Luckily, I thought to get a small amount of his DNA and after a few modifications, we should be able to use the ship to scan for his unique signature."

 

"I am Groot."

 

"He would have given his permission if I'd had time to ask," Rocket defended himself.

 

Nebula snorted.

 

"You will tell him you took his DNA when we find him. He will want to know." Gamora's tone was implacable.

 

"Yeah yeah. Did you want me to scan or not?" Rocket asked.

 

Gamora just gave him a look that indicated he'd be missing a few parts if he didn't get started. She was worried and not in the mood for what she considered foolish questions.

 

"I am Groot," the little tree put his own comment in.

 

Rocket snorted and shook his head. "I know that." He began working with the ship's onboard computer, scanning the DNA he'd appropriated and widening the ship's range. "The power won't hold for long, so better get closer to the atmosphere before I start the scanner."

 

Gamora nodded and began her part in manoeuvring the ship close enough to scan without (hopefully) alerting the planet residents. She'd had enough being shot at for a while now, thank you very much.

 

Rocket held off starting the scan until they were close enough to cover as wide an area as possible before the power burned out. Still, it was a close call, as the location only just flashed right before it switched off. "There!" He pointed one paw, sounding inordinately pleased with himself.

 

Gamora let out a tiny relieved breath, surprised when Nebula echoed her reaction. "Great job, Rocket...Let's go get our boys...."

 

"I am Groot," Groot agreed.

 

"Sure, but we'd better come up with a plan," Rocket commented. "According to what I've just found, we're likely to stick out. Even more than usual. At least Peter seems to be somewhere out of the way," he commented, bringing up the feed on the screen of the area. "Out in the middle of nowhere...does that strike anyone else as odd?"

 

"I am Groot."

 

"Yeah, it probably is heavily secured." Rocket nodded. "Good job we've got experience breaking into these kinds of places."

 

"I was not aware that this planet would be capable of holding someone with the Star Lord's experience in escape..." Nebula commented, with a hint of curiosity.

 

Gamora frowned. "Maybe they are not as technologically inferior as Peter believed...he has been gone for a quarter of a century...."

 

Rocket shrugged. "Or maybe he's staying by choice."

 

"I am Groot."

 

"Yeah, you're right," Rocket said. "Could be Yondu caught up to him. The guy didn't say much after we got off the ship, but he seemed worried."

 

"Yondu was worried?" Gamora was surprised. "I thought he was angry at Peter for tricking him into giving up the orb...."

 

Rocket shrugged. "He gave up taking us in and a high-paying job. Whole crew mutinied. By the time we got out...."

 

"I am Groot," Groot said; well, growled, really.

 

"Yeah, yeah. Don't ever talk about it," Rocket replied. "Point is, the whole crew's dead. Apart from Yondu and Kraglin."

 

Gamora's eyes were wide. "He gave up everything to help Peter?"

 

"I am Groot." This time, the tone carried a trace of sadness.

 

"He did raise him," Rocket said. "I didn't get all of the details, but I'd guess taking him from Terra was about more than it appeared."

 

"The way Peter talked, Yondu only kept him around cuz he was good at stealing. You saw something different," Gamora said, almost in a question.

 

"I saw him give up everything to protect him," Rocket replied.

 

"Does Peter know? I think that is something he needs to know," Gamora said softly.

 

"Well, if he doesn't, I'll make sure to tell him," Rocket replied. "You know. Just as soon as we get him and Drax safely back on the ship."

 

"I am Groot."

 

"Of course he's going to want to leave with us," Rocket replied.

 

"Why wouldn't he want to leave with us?!" Gamora added, almost sounding offended.

 

Nebula snorted. "Maybe because this is the planet of his people and he hasn't been around anyone like him since he was a child?" she said, in what she thought was a reasonable tone of voice. The look the others gave her indicated she might be a bit optimistic about her efforts.

 

Grumbling under his breath, Rocket waved at the view screen. "Can't see what kind of security the place might have from this view, but it looks like this is the back."

 

"Let us land, then. We will retrieve him...and Drax as well, if he is there," Gamora demanded.

 

Mantis had remained quiet and out of the way through most of the voyage, to the point they forgot she was there. Because of that, she startled them when she spoke up. "I would like very much to retrieve Drax as well...."

 

"I am Groot."

 

"I know." Rocket addressed Mantis as he moved to copilot. "We forgot you were there."

 

"Is it normal to forget someone is with you?" Mantis asked curiously, not really expecting an answer. She missed Drax.

 

"We should be landing in fifteen minutes. Then we need to get into the building." Gamora didn't answer the question; since it wasn't normal and she was embarrassed to have forgotten the other woman.

 

"I am Groot." The little tree patted Mantis' leg with what was probably meant to be reassurance.

 

"Thank you, Groot. That is very sweet." Mantis smiled.

 

Groot grinned at Mantis and settled next to her as the ship continued its slow descent.

 

Gamora probably should have realized it was too easy: landing in the clearing in the woods, making their way to what was a rather large building...sneaking in. She was too focused on reaching Peter, though and she didn't realize.

 

***

 

"There are intruders in the building," Veronica announced. "I have redirected them to an area where they can do no damage. They cannot hear me. Shall I knock them unconscious?"

 

Coulson, involved in a meeting with Natasha, was quick to respond to the AI. "Please do. Where are they and are they armed?" He waved his daughter to follow him from his office.

 

Veronica was quick to do as instructed. "Sir, the shortest intruder is unconscious; it appears to be a raccoon with some type of modification done to him. The female with antenna is also asleep. The others are not unconscious, but if I give them more of the gas, it may harm the first two. Also, there is a small tree that is...causing a commotion about the raccoon falling asleep...." The AI sounded flummoxed. "They are armed and now they are agitated because of the gas, although they appear sluggish and may be overcome if you are careful. They are in the west wing of the compound. Where the non-weapon supplies are stored."

 

"Thank you." Although he was quite confused regarding the descriptions of the intruders (a modified raccoon and a tree?), Coulson was quick to act. Stopping off so that he and Natasha could retrieve weapons-better to have them and not need them than to find themselves caught short-the two were quick to make their way to the west wing of the compound.

 

Gamora was not happy. Somehow, those holding Peter prisoner must have learned of their presence; how else to explain the way they'd been 'led' to an empty room and locked in while a noxious gas filled the air and incapacitated two of their team and made it difficult for the rest of them to function fully? "I'll kill them..." she mumbled, finding it difficult not to slur her words. "I'll rip their limbs from their body and stuff them down their throats...."

 

"We'll be lucky if we aren't sold back to father..." Nebula murmured sluggishly, pessimistic that they'd get out of this unscathed, considering how easily this gas was taking them down.

 

"I am Groot!" the tiny tree complained, adding in his own two cents.

 

Despite knowing how capable her father was, Natasha insisted on entering the room first. While they'd made their way there, the two had made contact with the other family specialists, ensuring they were on standby in case needed.

 

Gamora, despite being severely compromised by the gas, was aware when one of the doors was unlocked and was already moving toward it before it was fully open, throwing herself at the woman who was walking through and growling like a feral animal in the hopes of startling her and getting the upper hand. Considering how weakened she was, it was her only hope of gaining an advantage.

 

Nebula, meanwhile, was crouched to the left, ready to attack whoever came in from behind, knowing that her sister wouldn't be able to take on more than one at a time and hoping that Gamora would be able to take the woman out and be ready for a third person should one be there, while she dealt with the man she could glimpse just behind the woman.

 

Aware that two of them weren't knocked out by the gas, Natasha had gone in as if she herself was stuck in the room. She wasn't surprised or startled enough by the woman's appearance to do anything other than react and she twisted her body to the side, ducking under Gamora and then coming round, reaching out to grab her in a headlock.

 

Gamora was frustrated that her attempt to catch the person by surprise didn't work. She was more frustrated that the woman appeared to be just as good at fighting as Gamora was. She wondered if the woman would fight dirty; like Gamora had learned to do at a very young age. When you were Thanos' daughter, you quickly learned that you fought to win no matter what. The alternative could easily be death. To that end, she twisted around and threw herself at Natasha. She could not afford to lose this fight.

 

Meanwhile, Nebula had skirted around her fighting sister and honed in on Coulson.

 

Natasha's reaction times, not affected by having breathed in the gas, kept her out of Gamora's reach. When she attacked, it was with the intent to disable, not harm. These people weren't human, even if three of them appeared humanoid.

 

Coulson had begun thinking along the same lines as his daughter, but neither did that thinking affect his own reactions. He waited for the second woman to come to him, but spoke to Veronica. "Can you ask Peter and Drax to come here?" The fact these beings were so obviously alien had him wondering if they were the two's companions.

 

"I am Groot!" The tiny tree heard the names and while he wasn't loud like the adults, he did voice it as loud as he could.

 

Gamora had also heard Coulson's request. The words did not calm her, though. "I KNEW they had taken him!" Her growl was closer to a screech and, while she'd deny it later when Nebula pointed out with a large amount of smug amusement, she lost her focus, swinging and attacking wildly in her upset at what she perceived these Terran's sins against her 'family'.

 

Keeping her own focus, Natasha easily ducked the woman's wild attacks, staying calm and in control. A slight smile on her face indicated she was enjoying herself, though. In a sparring session, she and this woman would be evenly matched.

 

Nebula was a bit more cautious than her sister. While she was equally unhappy about her companions being knocked unconscious and being locked up, she wasn't as upset about the fact they had Peter. She was only part of this group because of wishing to stay close to her sister and she hadn't really had time to forma relationship with any of the others, except perhaps Rocket. Since her emotions were calmer, she was able to focus more of her energy and fight Coulson with a bit more thought, instead of wildly attacking.

 

Coulson had always found it easier to cultivate a more harmless appearance, helped by the fact he was older and left most of the fighting to the younger agents. However, he was in good shape and, as particularly Grant had discovered, he was more than capable of fighting when the situation called for it. Before moving further into the room, he took a deep breath of the clean air and then focused fully on Nebula, though just like Natasha and Gamora, he didn't intend to seriously harm the woman.

 

Nebula couldn't help but smirk. She should be able to take this aging male down with little to no difficulty and then go and help her embattled sister, since Gamora seemed to be stuck in a stale-mate with her opponent. To that end, she quickly moved in, using a move that was designed for quick and easy take-down but telegraphed itself clearly to anyone who had any experience fighting.

 

The move was easy to defend against and Coulson blocked, then quickly eased into one of his own, feinting to draw her in and then switching what appeared to be his dominant side to come at the opposite angle.

 

Nebula was surprised at the fact she was so easily blocked by the 'old man'. Surprised enough that she didn't focus enough on what he was doing and fell for his feint. When she next attacked, upping her game a bit and using one of the moves she used on someone who actually knew how to fight, he wasn't where she expected him to be at all and it caused her to stumble forward.

 

Coulson circled round the woman and used the fact she was off balance to wrap his arms around her torso, pinning her arms to her sides and pulling her against his body. "We're not going to hurt you or your friends," he murmured softly. "Your companions aren't prisoners. They've been trying to find a way to reach you."

 

Nebula stilled at the words, not certain if she should believe him. She quickly went through the events from recent memory; and had to conclude that he wasn't lying...the gas hadn't knocked her, Gamora or Groot out; just the smaller Rocket and the non-enhanced Mantis. They could have easily incapacitated Gamora and herself by exposing them to a stronger gas, if they didn't care about possibly killing Rocket or Mantis. Instead, they had come in person to try and subdue her and her sister. On top of that, he could have easily caused damage to her- it was obvious he was more skilled in fighting than she had given him credit for- but instead, he'd pulled her close and attempted to calm her down. In short, everything done so far indicated a reluctance to harm her and her companions. Therefore, she thought she could believe his words.

 

She stopped struggling to the point she didn't even attempt to withdraw from his arms. (A very small, minute, tiny part of herself that she would never acknowledge actually liked being held this close and firm. Thanos was not affectionate and discouraged affection among his children. Other than Gamora, she'd not indulged in a 'hug' since she'd been ripped from her family just before they were murdered in front of her. Coulson's grip invoked memories of the time 'before' when she was hugged often and loved.)

 

Gamora had noticed her sister being restrained by this point and the fact that Nebula was most decidedly not fighting. "What did you do to her!?" she yelled, suddenly abandoning her fight with Natasha to go rescue the sister she'd finally been reconnected to.

 

"Whoa! Gamora! It's alright! They aren't hurting her! They didn't hurt me or Drax! Everything is alright!" Peter had slipped into the room, just in time to see Gamora launch herself at his Uncle Phil and stepped in front of the older man to catch her mid-attack and hug her close.

 

Gamora struggled like a wild-cat until it registered that it was Peter in front of her. With a tiny sob (that on anyone else would sound like a squeak), she threw her arms around Peter and held on tightly.

 

Coulson noticed that the other woman wasn't fighting to break free and instead of letting go of her, he just held on; not restraining, but hugging. It was a sad truth that he'd come to recognise the signs of a child...of his children...who had been starved for affection for so long.

 

Natasha stepped back, primarily because Drax, who had come with Peter, had spotted the two unconscious figures on the floor. Without hesitation, the large alien rushed to Mantis' side to check her over. He might have checked Rocket, too, but Groot had returned to his friend's side and was anxiously patting Rocket's furry face.

 

Gamora, to her embarrassment, burst out in tears and held onto Peter so tightly, he began to struggle slightly. "Ca...n't breathe...loosen grip...Mora...." he wheezed. She loosed her hold enough that he stopped turning blue and could inhale, but she didn't let go (not that he was trying to get away).

 

Nebula's eyes widened at seeing Gamora crying. Her sister never cried. Not even in the most horrible pain due to Thanos did Gamora cry. "You sorry excuse for Kree excrement!" she growled at Peter. "How dare you make her eyes leak!" She began to struggle again...this time so she could show Peter what exactly she thought about his making her sister upset.

 

Peter's eyes widened at the angry blue woman and he twisted around so that he was still holding Gamora, but she was between him and the upset Nebula. "I didn't do anything!" he croaked out.

 

Meanwhile, enough clean air had come back into the room that Mantis began blinking her eyes and waking up. The first person she saw was Drax and she smiled up at him happily. "We found you!" she said in her lyrical voice, reaching up to touch his face. "You are worried..." Her voice turned slightly concerned and her smile faltered as she slanted her head, but then her smile was there again with a small hint of surprise. "...You were worried for me?"

 

Coulson generally didn't discipline his children (or other members of his family) in front of others, even though spanking wasn't actually a secret and all of the parents and some of the older siblings used the punishment when necessary. He didn't let go of Nebula and instead tightened his grip. The swat he delivered was purely a subconscious reaction to the fact that his heart had already decided what his mind was catching up to. "Settle down," he said firmly. "He isn't hurting her."

 

Drax was quick to cover Mantis' hand with his own. "I have been worried. I am very glad you are safe," he said, firmly and sincerely.

 

Rocket was taking a bit longer to come round, due to having inhaled more gas in proportion to his smaller figure than Mantis'.

 

Nebula struggled for a few more seconds before her mind caught up with the fact that she'd just been swatted like a naughty toddler. Her eyes going even wider, she turned back to face Coulson. "You...you...." She didn't know what to say, though. No one had disciplined her in that manner since she was a toddler. She was too shocked to be angry and wasn't entirely certain what she thought had occurred had actually occurred. She began to struggle again more frantically, though the look on her face indicated she wasn't upset and was actually testing Coulson.

 

Mantis turned her hand so that she was holding Drax's hand instead of her hand being covered by his. Carefully, she sat up, then looked toward Rocket and Groot. "Will he be alright?" she asked nervously.

 

Gamora, by this time, had calmed enough that she was no longer crying and was just holding onto Peter. "You weren't hurt...you were safe all this time...and we were worried about you!" She stepped back and swatted Peter on the shoulder. "Why didn't you send a message?!" She swatted his other shoulder.

 

"Ow! Stop that!" Peter danced around, trying to avoid Gamora's hands. "We couldn't! We tried, but we couldn't get a signal to reach you!" He pouted and began rubbing his shoulders and chest, as she finally stopped swatting at him long enough to listen.

 

Coulson didn't let go of Nebula, instead tightening his arms around her and swatting her a second time. Again, it wasn't that hard...but he was definitely responding to her testing him. Fortunately, the fact it had occurred with all of his children to one extent or another allowed him to recognise that behaviour.

 

Holding Mantis' hand, Drax helped her to sit up, also glancing towards Rocket and Groot. "He is smaller than you and is likely more affected by the gas."

 

As if on cue, Rocket began to properly sit up, waving at Groot as the tiny tree began patting his fur. "I'm fine. But I've got a headache and...." His voice broke off and he stared at Peter in utter bewilderment. "I confess I don't know much about Terran physiology, but you shouldn't be younger."

 

Gamora had been looking toward Rocket in relief when his words registered and she looked back at Peter, suddenly realizing he was a lot shorter than the last time she'd seen him. "What in the world happened to you?!" Her eyes were wide and she shook her head.

 

"Uh...experiment gone wonky?" Peter asked instead of stated, blushing at the fact that everyone was now looking at him and seeing him as a teenager again, acne and all.

 

Nebula bit her lower lip and stared at Coulson for a moment, as if debating pushing him just that much further to see how far he was willing to take 'taking her in hand', but she got distracted by Rocket's words and her sister's shocked voice, looking toward Peter and Gamora once more. "I do not remember you being so short..." she said quizzically. "What experiment would do such a thing?" She slanted her head. "It is not cybernetic..." She flexed her own cybernetic hand gently, not noticing that at some point, she'd somehow wrapped her arms around Coulson in a slight hug, giving him permission (however unthinkingly) to keep holding her.

 

"It is not just physical..." Mantis slanted her head, letting out a tiny giggle. "...His emotions are younger as well...."

 

"Aw c'mon, man! Not cool!" Peter protested, his blush darkening.

 

Gamora straightened up and stepped back quickly, her own face taking on a slightly pink tone under the green. It wasn't appropriate to hang off of someone so much younger, they could be considered a child in some places. No matter if he'd been an adult the last time she'd seen him. She glanced toward Nebula. "Be quiet!" she ordered peevishly, noticing that her sister was fighting the desire to laugh.

 

"It wasn't a cybernetic change," Coulson replied, not actually letting go of Nebula. He could feel his other daughter's eyes on him, but Nat didn't voice whatever was going through her mind. "It was an experiment mixed with a food item that was supposed to extend life."

 

"Instead, it turned many younger," Drax added. "Most only had some years taken off. Several, like Peter, became teenagers once more. And three have become even younger than that."

 

Gamora blinked at that information, then turned toward Peter. "You are lucky you are a teenager and not younger. I would not want to return to the way things were when I was younger..." She visibly shuddered.

 

Peter grimaced. "It isn't so bad now.... It helps that I'm not scared all the time, though...."

 

Nebula shuddered as well, despite her attempts to keep herself under control. She didn't want the man holding her to realize how the thought of returning to such a vulnerable age scared her. Even if she was no longer under Thanos' control.

 

Mantis frowned slightly, looking from Gamora to Peter to Nebula and back again. "There is no reason for any of you to be afraid..." she said, inadvertently letting anyone who didn't already realize know that the three of them were afraid.

 

"I know that!" Peter protested, giving Drax a sheepish look. "Drax has my back...and Yondu and Kraglin...and Uncle Phil and Nat and everyone else here...."

 

Mantis nodded. "You are still scared, though...not as much as Gamora and Nebula, but still scared!" She glanced at Gamora. "And now you are irritated...."

 

"This is a safe place," Coulson said. "None of you are in any danger here." While he was speaking primarily to Nebula and Gamora, he was also including the other newcomers in that.

 

Rocket was standing now, grimacing. "That gas gave me a headache...but it could be very useful. I wonder if I can get some samples of it to add to one of my guns...." he mused out loud.

 

"I am Groot!" the tiny tree said insistently, tugging on Rocket's leg.

 

Rocket gave a long-suffering sigh and complained, "I don't think she meant tell him now...."

 

Nat sidled up to her father, making sure she didn't take Nebula by surprise. While she'd only glimpsed the blue woman out of the corner of her eye while Nebula had been fighting Phil, she was fairly sure both women had had similar training in battle to her. "Dad, might I suggest we get everyone settled so they're comfortable and then perhaps update everyone?"

 

Nebula glanced at Natasha, seeing a fellow warrior. When Natasha referred to Coulson as her father, however, she gave him a considering look. He'd already proven he was more ready for battle than she'd originally assumed, but if he'd raised a daughter that could face Gamora and come out on top (even if Gamora had been drugged), then there was even more to him than she'd realized.

 

"Tell him-who? And tell him what?" Peter blinked, confused, at Rocket.

 

Coulson nodded. "There's certainly more than enough rooms." He looked at Nebula, addressing her. "Drax experienced a period of adjustment when he first arrived here, especially in regards to food. Peter did as well, but for a shorter time. I think we have some suitable food, but I'll make sure to order in more." Especially if they might need specialised food for the little tree.

 

"Tell you that I took some of your DNA, which I didn't get a chance to ask for permission, but it helped us track you here," Rocket replied. "Oh and that Yondu gave up pretty much everything just to make sure you were safe. But maybe you already knew that."

 

Nebula blinked. "You will feed me? After I attacked you? Without my having to work for the food?" She sounded confused.

 

Gamora smiled at her sister. "Not everyone is like Thanos, Nebula." She smiled at Peter. "If most Terrans are like Peter, they would not think of starving you for an honest mistake."

 

Peter looked at Rocket and smiled. "It helped you find us, so it's alright. And yeah. Yondu found me. He and Drax came to an understanding...."

 

Mantis wrinkled her nose, turning toward Drax. "You love him...."

 

"What..?" Gamora gave the two men a confused look.

 

"Feed you and give you somewhere to stay," Coulson replied. His smile was gentle. "As your sister said, we would not see any harm come to you when you didn't know it was safe." While not completely certain the two women were sisters, he'd come to the conclusion they were similar enough in temperament and fighting styles that it was more likely than not.

 

Drax rested his hand on Peter's shoulder, smiling. "He is my son. Mine and Yondu's." The words were simply said and completely honest and sincere.

 

Nebula swallowed then nodded. "I thank you, then."

 

Mantis' look was one of complete confusion. "I thought he was Terran. And I did not realize men were able to bear children. It would explain why he constantly argued with you, though. Ego said children and parents often argued." She nodded.

 

Peter's mouth fell open and he looked a bit squeamish. "No! No no no. Terran men do not get pregnant, no matter what weird stories you might read! Ow!" He shivered melodramatically.

 

Gamora rolled her eyes. "Idiot..." she said fondly.

 

"I am Groot," the little tree said.

 

"Yeah, I'm thinking adoption, too," Rocket replied. Then he added, "But what kind of an understanding gets Drax and Yondu as his dads?"

 

Drax overheard the raccoon. "It is simple. He has two fathers. His brother has two fathers."

 

"It's not so unusual for us here," Natasha commented. "Everyone here is family of some kind or other. It's just that some of them haven't realised it yet." She wasn't looking at Nebula when she said that, but her father didn't need to be a genius to know who she was currently referring to.

 

"Adoption is not unheard of in our galaxy either..." Gamora said, giving Nebula a 'look'.

 

Nebula nodded. "It is how Gamora and I became sisters. We had a shared need to excel so that father would not kill us." Her tone was matter-of-fact, as if the idea of their father killing them was an expected outcome for failure.

 

Coulson didn't show any outward reaction to that, but his arms tightened a fraction around Nebula. It wasn't unusual for him to connect quickly to one of his kids. After all, he'd decided fast when it came to Clint. And he wanted Nebula. Gamora, too, if he was honest...but it was Nebula he currently held onto. "This would be very different to what you're used to, then. Everyone spars here, but there's no danger. Whether physical or emotional. Sparring is about being able to protect yourself."

 

"And I would like to spar with you again," Natasha said to Gamora. "Without the effects of the gas. I think we're fairly evenly matched."

 

Gamora nodded. "I would like that myself when I am able to do my best."

 

"I think I would like to do that as well." Nebula gave Coulson a sly look. "When I am not underestimating you...." She still hadn't stepped out of his arms, even though she suspected he'd allow her to, now. If it had been Thanos she'd underestimated, she'd be on the ground bleeding, with at least one broken bone. That she'd escaped with little more than a slight sting on her backside allowed her to feel safe.

 

"So...uh...can we hear back to the family floor?" Peter asked hopefully. "I'm hungry again...." He didn't remember eating so much the first time he was a teenager but Yondu wasn't surprised by his appetite, so maybe he had.

 

Coulson smiled. "When you're more settled, we can arrange a sparring session," he promised, then glanced at Peter. "I think it's about lunchtime in any case. Why don't we sort out room arrangements and then we can eat lunch?" he suggested.

 

Natasha smiled at her father. "I can retrieve Lincoln and the rest of our immediate family...." Including her grandfather. She might also have a quiet word with them about the two additions she was positive they'd get.

 

"Great! I'll go find Yondu and Kraglin! They aren't gonna believe this!" Peter beamed.

 

"Might I stay near you?" Mantis asked Drax.

 

Nebula didn't say anything, but looked agreeable to Coulson's suggestion. She noticed Gamora nodding.

 

"Of course." Drax glanced at Coulson to confirm.

 

Coulson nodded. "When you indicated you had crew members with you, we made sure there were other rooms close by," he said. Looking at the newcomers, he asked, "Is there anything you need to get from your ship?"

 

"Yes!" Rocket was quick to nod. "And I want samples of that gas...."

 

"I am Groot."

 

"I know what I'm doing," the raccoon protested.

 

"If you want to experiment with it, maybe you should talk with Tony and Bruce...they're the family scientist inventors..." Peter said hesitantly.

 

Nebula shrugged. "I have few personal items," she admitted.

 

"I have only a few more than Nebula," Gamora stated. "If you wish to send someone with me and Rocket, we will gather everything for everyone else."

 

"I'll go." Natasha had been tapping out a message on the comms to her son and siblings. "I'm curious to see your ship." And to learn more about one of the two women she was certain her father was going to adopt. "I've let the others know to meet in the family dining room, Dad," she added.

 

Coulson nodded. "Also, please let us know if there is anything special you need to eat," he said to Rocket and Groot. "I'm certain we can find something."

 

"I am Groot."

 

"Anything that's not meat," Rocket translated.

 

Peter nodded at Groot. "Of course, Little Buddy! I'm pretty sure Bruce will have some good vegetarian options for you!"

 

Gamora smiled at Natasha. "I will be happy to show it to you."

 

By this time, Nebula was beginning to feel a bit sheepish, still holding onto Coulson like she was, but now it was a game of wills to see who would let go first and she was determined not to lose.

 

"As soon as you're ready, lead the way," Natasha said.

 

"You coming with us, or staying?" Rocket asked Groot.

 

In answer, the little tree headed over to Peter.

 

Gamora nodded and quickly headed back the way she'd come in, heading toward the ship.

 

Peter picked Groot up and put him on his shoulder, before motioning for Rocket to follow. "Let's get you all something to eat," he grinned.

 

Nebula looked at Coulson and slanted her head, waiting to have him tell her to let go of him; expecting it, really. "Do you often spank those who attack you?" she found herself asking, still finding it hard to believe he hadn't wanted to hurt her.

 

Holding Mantis' hand, Drax followed on after Peter, Groot and Rocket.

 

Coulson transferred his hold so he could wrap an arm around Nebula's shoulders, enabling them to walk while still keeping in contact with her. "Spanking is a family punishment. I use it on my children when required. On people I feel drawn to in the same way as my other children." By putting it in those words, he hoped to make his feelings towards her clear.

 

Nebula blinked. "So...you were punishing me for attacking you? But...I was not injured. Punishments always end in injury..." She looked at her cybernetic arm. "If a body part is not lost, how can it be considered punishing?" She was more inquisitive about how Coulson thought and did things than upset to learn he'd felt the need to punish her behavior. She saw nothing odd in the fact a near stranger had decided to correct her.

 

"A spanking is not about causing you injury or permanent or even lasting harm," Coulson replied gently. "It is about teaching a better way to act. And it's given with care. Affection. Love. I can't imagine you had any of those growing up."

 

"When Thanos took me, any love I'd ever received stopped. All I knew after was fear and hate. Except for Gamora. But even with her, all we knew was pain..." Nebula spoke as if she were talking about the weather for all the emotion she put in her voice. "I wonder if I should have been upset that you decided to correct my behavior when you did not even know me, but I find myself not minding. Perhaps even being glad of it." She wrinkled her nose thoughtfully. "I find myself wanting to receive more of your correction. Is that odd?"

 

"I wouldn't say so," Coulson replied honestly. "I'd like to think you feel drawn to me in the same way I feel drawn to you. And children who have received very little in the way of caring, loving boundaries often need them even when grown."

 

"I am not afraid of you..." Nebula said. It wasn't a boast or an attempt to look brave, either. It was a pure admission, allowing him to see that he'd already begun to affect her and draw her to him.

 

"Good," Coulson replied, gently stroking her shoulder. "I don't want you to be afraid of me."

 

"I...regret attacking you. I am glad you subdued me..." she admitted, rubbing her bottom at the remembered sting that had stalled her attack.

 

Coulson smiled. "You don't need to feel regret about it. I'm glad it gave me the chance to meet you."

 

Nebula' smile back was hesitant but genuine. "You want me...do you not?" Her question was straightforward. She saw no reason to play games.

 

"I do," Coulson replied, instantly and without hesitation, squeezing her closer against his side.

 

Nebula thought about it for a few seconds. "You would not remove parts of me and replace them with mechanics or weapons to make me stronger and more deadly? You would not punish me for failures I have no control over? It would be my choice?" She looked at him, her gaze serious.

 

Coulson nodded. "If it ever became necessary to, I would only punish you by spanking you. That would only occur if you did something that endangered yourself or others. Never for any kind of 'failure'. I wouldn't want to change any part of you." His voice was honest and sincere.

 

"There are no other expectations that might earn punishment if I did not follow them? And all you would do if I earned punishment from you is pull me close and swat my gluteus maximus? That only stung a little; I am not certain how that is a proper punishment..." She couldn't help but sound suspicious. One of Thanos' favorite things to do was lead you to believe something would be a certain way, then pull the rug out from under you and make it so, so much worse.

 

"If it got to the point where a spanking is necessary, I would put you over my knee, bare you and spank you," Coulson said, plainly and simply. "It would be more than just two swats, but the pain isn't unbearable. I think a spanking is more effective because of the emotions the punishment evokes."

 

"I learned to control my emotions long ago," Nebula said, just as plainly. "You will resort to stronger punishments when you realize I'm unaffected." Her tone wasn't challenging, but she honestly did not believe Coulson would be able to refrain from harsher means if she did something deserving of punishment. Harsh would be the only way he could be effective.

 

"It's easy to say you won't be affected when you haven't experienced it," Coulson replied gently. "You're not the first one of my children to keep an iron control over your emotions."

 

"I...I need to know. I need to know if I do something you feel needs punishment that you won't feel that you must resort to stronger measures once you see your normal methods do not work." Nebula swallowed. "I need to know that either you are right and spanking me will affect me enough to take care of my deeds...or that if it doesn't, I won't suddenly find myself missing my other arm...." Nebula didn't mean to be cruel, but her only experience was Thanos and a spanking for her mistakes would never been enough for him. "I can't belong to you unless I can trust that...." She glanced at him. "That is why I ask you to spank me...now. Help me believe you...,"

 

Coulson took a moment or two to respond, his arm still wrapped around her shoulders. "I understand wanting to know what you are getting into," he said gently, "but it doesn't feel right to spank you when you haven't done anything wrong. I wouldn't class attacking me as something you need to be punished for, as you had no way to know we were safe."

 

"Attacking you was a mistake based on ignorance of who you were," Nebula agreed. "I did worse. I worked with Ronan to try and destroy an entire planet. I would have killed my own sister because I felt betrayed.... I shot Yondu Undata's crest from his head and allowed his crew to mutiny, leading to much lost life, nearly including him. I am no innocent; I deserve punishment for many things I did not get it for." She looked back at Coulson. "I want to believe you. I want to believe it is enough. I'm not sure I can."

 

Coulson nodded, glancing at the others ahead of them. "Then we will move to my room and rejoin the others afterwards," he decided, steering his daughter in that direction. He couldn't fault her need to know...and perhaps a spanking now would do more than just let her know what to expect.

 

Nebula easily followed along, relieved that he wasn't going to argue against it further. She wouldn't have begged, but she knew part of her would always be waiting for the kindness to end if she messed up. If he proved to her that his method was punishing without being damaging, it would make it easier for her to accept what she knew he wanted and what she was finding she wanted too.

 

Reaching his room, Coulson guided her inside, having already tapped out a message to let the others know he and Nebula would be a little late. He gave her a gentle squeeze. "Unless there's anything else you need to know or say, I'm going to sit down on the bed and put you over my knee," he said.

 

Nebula shook her head. "I will learn what I need to know shortly. If I confess all my sins, we will be here for hours." Her tone was bland, but the tiny smile on her face indicated she was teasing- slightly.

 

Coulson smiled affectionately at her and gently guided her to the bed. Taking a seat, he helped her across his lap, wrapping an arm around her waist to hold her securely against his stomach, then proceeded to bare her.

 

Nebula reached down and gripped Phil's ankle. There was a moment's hesitation when she realized he'd be able to see more scars and how much Thanos had torn her apart. He wanted to be her father, though. She needed him to see them. See what he was getting with her.

 

The scars were difficult to see. It was always hard to see how much his children had suffered, whether the scars were visible or not. Coulson rubbed her lower back gently. "You're safe here. With me," he murmured, before lifting his hand and bringing it down in the first firm smack that he then repeated.

 

"I want to be..." Nebula admitted softly.

 

Coulson continued the pattern of swats down to her thighs before starting over from the top. The smacks weren't anything like as hard as he could make them, but neither were they the gentle taps he tended to give his children when they needed reminding. He respected the fact that she needed to know this. "I'm not ever going to turn the tables on you," he promised her. "No matter what happens, you won't ever have to worry that I'll change my mind on anything between us."

 

"Even if I do something that needs punishing? And this doesn't work?" Nebula asked quietly. It stung, the swatting, but it didn't hurt enough to make her feel like she was paying for her bad actions.

 

"Even then." Coulson continued swatting, but his other hand gently rubbed over her back. He wasn't sure the spanking itself would have the effects it needed to, but she'd responded and reciprocated when he'd hugged her. Perhaps the combination would work more effectively. "This isn't about damaging you or forcing you to be something you're not."

 

"You don't wish to change me? I'm an assassin. You can't wish for that to stay the same...." Nebula moved slightly; not because of the swats, but because the gentle rubbing of her back was distracting her from her normal laser focus on blocking the pain. As a result, she not only felt every swat, but she could feel the affection accompanying them.

 

Coulson kept up with both the swats and the gentle affection, tugging her closer against his stomach so she wouldn't fall. "Your sister Natasha was trained to be an assassin. That training can come in useful when missions need to be carried out. Many of the family here have had to take lives when it's necessary. I want to keep you safe, but I won't force you to conform into something you are not."

 

Nebula didn't understand the care Coulson was taking with her. Not only was he not causing her excruciating pain- although the sting had begun to turn into a slight throbbing- he was holding her close and providing care that she wasn't used to. Even the affection she shared with Gamora was awkward and uneasy, due to neither of them knowing how to be affectionate. Coulson was touching her like she was important- precious- to him. A funny squirmy warmth filled her tummy and chest as she realized just how careful of her he was being. "You mean that...you don't want to change me or hurt me...."

 

"No, never," Coulson replied. "I want you. For you. I know you've been hurt before, but if you let me, I'll take care of you...love you...and that won't change. No matter what happens," he promised.

 

Nebula was confused. She didn't like being confused. She didn't like that she completely believed him as well, as she never truly believed anyone normally. "Why?" she finally asked, losing her iron clad control over her body as the confusion took over and beginning to squirm from the spanking she still received. Only his hand on the small of her back, still gently caressing, kept her from squirming herself directly onto the floor.

 

Coulson kept her against him, keeping the swats at the same force as he also continued the gentle stroking and rubbing. "Because I know you're mine." His voice was simple but sincere.

 

"But...h..how?" Nebula winced as her voice caught. She'd been so sure she'd be unaffected by a punishment that, compared to what she'd received in the past, amounted to little more than love pats. The problem was, she hadn't counted on them being administered so...lovingly. It was messing up her ability to distance herself. It was ruining her ability not to be affected. And even though it truly wasn't painful compared to being surgically modified, it could still be felt and knowing that sting was because of poor decisions she made (even if she asked for it) and knowing that those decisions would disappoint this man who was being so careful of her if she did them now? Did hurt. Her instinct to get closer to him and trust him had increased, not decreased, and she knew now that he had been right. This punishment of his would work on her, because it was working on her. That was terrifying and Nebula had not been scared in a very long time.

 

Throwing her hand back to cover her bottom and dislodge the hand providing comfort at the same time, she demanded, "Stop. It is not working and I grow weary of the attempt." So what if it was a lie? She was feeling decidedly out of control and she was always in control...well, as long as she wasn't enraged and in a fight. This wasn't that, though, and she wanted her control back.

 

Coulson knew it was a lie. And, yes, he was doing this because Nebula had asked him to; and for her sake, he knew he had to see it through. He took hold of her hand, gently lacing his fingers through hers. "I know it's scary," he murmured. "But you don't have to be scared to lose control. You don't have to be scared to let go, because you aren't alone. Because I'm not leaving you alone."

 

Nebula's eyes widened as she realized he wasn't stopping...wasn't listening to her demand. She knew she could likely get loose if she actually fought, but she didn't want to fight. Didn't want to hurt him. Especially not when he was doing this for her. "Why won't you let me go?! I told you to stop..." Her voice shook as the implications of him not stopping were clear. She'd either have to fight him to assert her right to control what happened, or she'd have to accept that he would decide when to stop and cede him all control over her for this moment; and she wasn't a fool. She knew if she ceded control to him now, he'd keep that control over her from this point on, at least in so far as being the one to decide when she'd stepped over a line and needed to be brought back into line. She hadn't considered that when she'd made her request. She hadn't considered that when she'd thought it wouldn't work. Of course it would work, if she wasn't in control of the situation.

 

Even when Thanos was torturing her for her failures, she'd always had control over herself. She'd fought him all the way, futile as it was, because if she didn't fight him, the results would be so much worse (Thanos only respected strength, after all). Every choice either to allow what was happening to occur or not had been her choice. With one action of taking her hand and moving it out of the way so he could continue spanking, Coulson had ignored her 'choice' and taken her control from her and now the only choice she was left with was to fight to keep her control over the situation (like Thanos would have expected), or submit and let Coulson do what he felt needed doing. She wasn't just scared. She was beyond scared.

 

"You're telling me to let you go, but I don't believe that's what you really want or need," Coulson said gently. "You've responded quickly to my stepping in, even before I put you across my knee. Even before I swatted you to settle you down. I believe you want and need me as much as I do you."

 

Nebula squirmed a little bit harder...not certain if she wanted to free herself or find that his hold was too firm. He was right, though; she had responded to him quickly when he'd stepped in. If she hadn't, his swatting her wouldn't have made a bit of difference and she wouldn't have eagerly listened to his words when he said he wanted her. She wouldn't have pushed for him to prove himself, either; she knew that's what she'd done. And he was right, she didn't want to be let go...she wanted to be able to let go herself, to trust him to catch her and help her be better. "I...I want to be yours...I need you to have me..." she whispered faintly, voicing what she was recognizing herself. "...How do I...? I'm scared..." Her voice was still faint and even tinier when she admitted out loud that she was afraid. She'd maintained an iron control over herself for so long, she didn't know how to let him be in charge. She squirmed harder yet.

 

"I know," Coulson replied gently, still holding her hand...still swatting her. "It's okay to be scared, but I've got you. I'm not going to let you go. Not ever." Before this point, if she'd pulled back, he would have let her. Now? He had no intention of doing so. As far as he was concerned, she was his just as much as her siblings.

 

Nebula blinked at his words, surprised to find her face wet. "My eyes are leaking..." she whispered in a surprised voice, still squirming, but the squirming was becoming less frantic as his words were connecting in her mind. "...Why are my eyes leaking?" she asked, her voice again taking on a tiny, childlike tone. She wasn't good with emotion and Coulson was pulling more emotion from her than she'd felt since before Thanos took her from her home planet. She was teetering on the edge and if he did one more thing to assert his control over her, she knew she'd lose her grasp on her own control, give up- give in. The urge to let him win and be in charge was strong.

 

"It is a normal reaction when you are overwhelmed by emotions," Coulson replied gently. "It doesn't make you weak. It means you are responding in a way you need to."

 

"I need to respond this way?" She was completely confused and didn't understand how crying was a needed emotion.

 

"It's how many of the family respond to the emotions awakened when they're spanked," Coulson said, his voice still gentle. He still kept very careful control of the swats, lessening the force a fraction while continuing to hold her hand.

 

"Oh..." Her voice was still tiny and child-like and she was still squirming, even as she thought about his answer. She'd always felt crying was a weakness to be exploited. It made it difficult to allow herself to do so. But Coulson was saying it wasn't a weakness. Again, she wanted to believe him, but wasn't sure she could.

 

"It doesn't make you weak," Coulson continued. "Being on your own, unable to trust anyone, can make you weak. Can make you choose to do the wrong things, even if you have the right reasons. I won't make fun of you or treat you badly if you let go. I will catch you. Keep you close. Want you. No matter what."

 

Nebula bit her lip as his words caused her eyes to leak even more. And then she sniffled. Coulson was making a lot of promises to her, unspoken or otherwise. It was obvious he believed what he was saying. She squirmed a bit more. He wasn't harming her and it didn't hurt as badly as pains she had gone through in the past, but her bottom still hurt. By now, the throbbing had turned into an ache that she knew would take several minutes, if not longer, to ease. She would need to stand while she ate if she did not want the others to know what had occurred. It would be easier on her if she just gave in, she knew. Some small part of her was still holding back, though; a very, very small part, but still enough to keep her from being able to let go.

 

Coulson gently squeezed her hand. "I don't hesitate when I see someone I want in my family. And I won't give up. Even if it takes a while for you to fully believe that...it won't make a difference," he promised. "I'm not going to decide you're too much trouble. I'm always going to think you're worth it."

 

"I...I think you believe that..." she said hesitantly. Wincing as another smack landed on her sore posterior, she couldn't stop the whimper that escaped or the tiny stomps her feet made as she wiggled her bottom around, trying to direct where his hand landed, even if she couldn't stop him (not if she didn't want to fight him).

 

"I believe it because it's true," Coulson replied, drawing her closer against him. "Your brothers and sisters have experienced the same. No matter their pasts, or even if mistakes have been made since they came into my life, it hasn't changed anything."

 

Nebula huffed slightly under her breath. It really was becoming very difficult not to give in to the man. And it was beginning to seem a bit pointless and foolish to continue to try and do so, if she were honest with herself. She believed him. He believed what he was saying, so chances were it would be true. Her bottom hurt more than she expected, but what was more unexpected was how affected she was feeling by this position and Coulson's words. The longer she lay over his lap, his hand continuing the relentless smacking, the more vulnerable she felt. The more needy she felt. The more she just wanted to give in and...and not control anything. At least for a little while. The more she felt like giving in, the more she felt like she needed to fight her impulse. She was at war with herself and it was very frustrating. By now, her tears were freely falling and she was having to breathe through her mouth. She wouldn't be surprised if Coulson could tell, even if she was refusing to let herself be vocal with it.

 

Coulson let his other hand stroke gently over her back, not halting or even hesitating when he encountered her cybernetic parts. His other hand continued to swat, though he did slow the speed and lessen the force a fraction here. "The people here are family through choice. There is an intense bond that you will be able to see for yourself as you interact with my siblings and yours; your aunt and uncles...your cousins. I choose you. All that's left now is for you to choose me."

 

Nebula blinked at that. The one thing she'd never been in control of through all her childhood after Thanos took her- was being with him or not. He'd made her his 'daughter' because it benefitted him. She'd had no choice in that. Coulson chose her immediately (although his choosing was not as terrifying as Thanos choosing), but he was telling her she had a choice in the matter. If she didn't choose him, would he respect that? She felt he would, even if it hurt him to do so. And why was she even asking herself that question? She'd chosen him the moment he'd wrapped his arms around her and murmured in her ear to calm her. Her choice was cemented with the first gentle smack he'd delivered to focus her attention and help her regain control over herself. She'd chosen him already. Why was she fighting it?

 

Letting out another tiny whimper, that became a longer drawn out whine, she tensed up noticeably before just letting herself relax completely over his lap. She deliberately slid forward just enough that her sit spots were an easier target (after everything she'd admitted to doing wrong, she couldn't believe that the spanking would end as soon as she admitted to choosing him and she didn't want to block him in any way, anymore). She then took several shallow breaths, not able to breathe too deeply because of the tears, and let herself cry vocally. She wasn't sobbing or carrying on like she was distraught, but he'd definitely hear her crying. She didn't know what to make of the fact that the minute she'd let her tears have free reign and offered herself up for complete punishment that her fear eased and she felt relief.

 

Coulson landed only a few more swats and then stopped. She'd reached the point of surrendering to him and he didn't waste any time in gathering her into his arms, on his lap, hugging her close and tight to himself.

 

Nebula stiffened up for a tiny moment and then slumped into him, letting her head fall onto his shoulder and snuggling close. She was still crying and she couldn't help but whimper as her bottom made contact with his lap, but there was a peaceful look in her eyes and she gave him a tiny smile before wrapping her arms around his waist. "Thank you..." she whispered softly.

 

Coulson pressed a kiss to her head. "I love you." It was true. Honest. Heartfelt. Just as he had the first moment he'd brought any of his children to him, how he felt was immediately obvious. Every time, it was the same intense emotion he'd felt the first time he'd held his baby son in his arms.

 

"I believe you..." Nebula's smile grew. While she wasn't ready or able to repeat the words back, her tone was full of feeling. She loved him, even if she couldn't admit it to him or herself.

 

Coulson gently stroked her head. "When you're ready, we can join the rest of our family for lunch," he said. "Your sisters might be back by now."

 

"Alright, sir..." Nebula snuggled a few seconds more, before standing and replacing her clothing, then wiped her eyes. "I'm ready..." She waited for him to move so she could follow. She'd enjoyed the affection, but she wasn't used to it. She glanced at Coulson, hoping he understood. "What should I call you?" Her question was nervous.

 

Coulson moved to walk next to her, his smile gentle. "I've claimed you as my daughter. When you feel comfortable doing so, it would make me very happy if you called me 'Dad'." Or some variant."

 

Gamora, Rocket and Natasha were stepping off the elevator with all the possessions as they passed to the dining area. Gamora took one look at her sister's face and stopped dead. "Your eyes are leaking..." Her voice was a low growl and she tensed up, looking at Coulson suspiciously.

 

Nebula calmly stepped forward in front of him. "Thanos is no longer my father," she said, as if she'd just announced the weather. "This is Dad...." This time, her head had slanted sideways and she sounded a bit bemused, as if she was still having a hard time believing it but was happy.

 

Gamora blinked, taken aback, then looked at Coulson more thoughtfully. "You've made her happy...." Her tone was grateful.

 

Coulson's smile was immediate and he gently squeezed Nebula's shoulder, speaking to Gamora. "I would like to accept you into the family too."

 

Natasha's smile was small but sincere. "Well, sister, you definitely need to meet the rest of our siblings."

 

Gamora nodded at Coulson. If he had been able to accept Nebula, despite her prickly and aloof attitude (Gamora knew she was no social butterfly, but compared to her sister, she was the life of the party and everyone's best friend), she knew he'd have no problem with her own quirks. "You've already taken in my sister. I see no reason not to follow her. Thanos is a bastard and I hated having to introduce myself as his..." Her tone was matter of fact, even if the look in her eyes was fiery.

 

Nebula looked at Natasha and nodded. "You are the one Dad said had a similar background? I would like to get to know you better."

 

Gamora blinked again. "You're already working miracles..." she whispered to Coulson, her voice awed. She ignored Nebula's irritated look in her direction when her sister overheard her.

 

At that moment, Peter bounded up. "C'mon, Mora! I'm huuuungry!" He grabbed Gamora's hand and began to tug her toward the dining area where Groot, Yondu, Drax and Kraglin were. "C'mon, Rocket! Ula!" Other family members were also coming in to see what the commotion was and, since it was lunch, deciding to stay.

 

"Never call me that again!" Nebula's growl sounded more like a groan.

 

Natasha's quickly worded message to her other family members had included an indication they would likely be getting two new sisters. The fact it had just happened and all that remained was how to do it officially wasn't a surprise to her...and it likely wouldn't be to any of the others. Smiling at Nebula, she motioned with her head towards the dining room. "You can sit with me and my son, Lincoln...unless you'd rather sit next to Dad."

 

Nebula nodded, giving a tiny smile back. "I would like to sit with you. If that is alright with Dad...?" She turned to Coulson for confirmation, trying to feel her way around the new family dynamics.

 

Grant had walked up by this point, Bobbi in tow. "So...new sisters? I'm starting to feel a bit outnumbered here!" he teased his father impishly, giving his sisters (including Nebula and Gamora) a grin. "I'm Grant, by the way."

 

"Tell me about it!" Clint grumbled good-naturedly. "We need some more brothers!" He pulled Wanda and Pietro forward and wrapped his arms around their shoulders. "Hey there. I'm your brother Clint and these are my children Wanda and Pietro. Congratulations....you're both aunts!" He winked at Nebula and nodded at Gamora as she was glancing over her shoulder while being dragged to a table by Peter.

 

Bobbi bit her lip and suddenly was acting very shy and unlike herself. "Hi...I'm Bobbi..." she muttered. It was impossible to tell how she felt about the situation by her tone and since she wasn't looking up, staring at the floor like a sullen teenager, it was hard to see her feelings in her face either. It was hard not to be happy for her father- he seemed very happy to have found the two women who were suddenly her sisters- but if she'd been jealous of Raina, at least she'd had some warning that Raina would become a sister. Nebula and Gamora had just arrived, for goodness sake and she hadn't even met them yet and they were already a member of the family! She was insanely jealous that she was going to lose even more of her father's attention (no matter that he always was there when needed and made certain to spend time with all of them every day, so she really wasn't losing anything.) Jealous and confused. The rampant hormones and having to readjust to being a teenager again wasn't helping. She glanced around to see where Lance was.

 

Raina came in, poised as ever. Deaging to fifteen hadn't affected her quite as negatively as the others, or at least it seemingly hadn't. She was very quiet and withdrawn- more so than normal- so it was possible the turmoil was hidden deep, where no one could see it. She stood next to Coulson and waited for him to introduce her to her new sisters.

 

By this time, Gamora had Peter by the hand and was dragging him back toward the group. "I will go sit and eat with you after I have met my new family, Peter. Be patient!" she said sternly, relaxing when Peter stopped fighting and sighed dramatically, but stood beside her quietly so that she could meet everyone. She already knew Yondu, Drax and Kraglin; it wasn't like they needed an introduction and they wouldn't mind waiting a few more minutes to eat. He was the only one that was apparently starving.

 

Coulson rested a hand gently on Nebula's shoulder. "You can sit wherever you'd like." He wasn't clueless and he reached out to place his other hand on Bobbi's shoulder, squeezing gently. He knew she needed him and he gently ran his fingers through her hair, trying to tell her nothing would change without saying it out loud and risking embarrassing her. He smiled at Raina. "Raina, this is Nebula and Gamora..."

 

Lance had entered by now, with his brother, and headed over to Bobbi, nudging her gently. "So. New family members, huh? Cool." He grinned at Bobbi. "You gonna come sit with me, right?"

 

Bobbi had shifted just slightly enough that she was pressing into her father's hand as he ran his fingers through her hair. When Lance arrived, though, she perked up, her eyes brightening and looking like every teenage girl ever, whose crush had come to stand next to her. "Yeah...I'll sit with you!" she blurted, then blushed, giving her father and siblings- including Nebula and Gamora- a sheepish look.

 

Nebula had noted Bobbi's reaction, but didn't comment. Instead, she turned toward Raina and smiled. "Hello, Raina." She nodded at everyone else she'd been introduced to, not even attempting to try and name them all, even if she could remember exactly who they were.

 

Gamora grinned at Bobbi's reaction and elbowed Peter in the ribs. She also didn't say anything, but it was obvious she found the reactions of the deaged members of the family endearing.

 

"Ow! C'mon, Mora! I'm smaller and lost all my hard earned muscle! That hurt!" Peter pouted and rubbed where her elbow had jabbed. "And your elbows are pointy!"

 

Gamora just raised an unimpressed eyebrow; but she did give him a quick hug by way of apology, before moving forward to meet everyone she'd been introduced to.

 

Lincoln had finally gotten to the family floor from wherever he had been and ran up to his mother. "What's up?" he asked, his breath gasping.

 

Bucky walked up beside Phil. "I heard I'm an uncle of new nieces..." he said, reaching up and clasping Phil on the shoulder, before glancing at Lance quickly to make sure he was behaving.

 

Paul came in as well, his arm around Cathy and his father not far behind. "Yes...we didn't hear wrong, did we? Friday was quite excited when she made the announcement to everyone."

 

"I am sorry, Mister Phil. I should have let you tell everyone, but for some reason, I could not contain myself..." If an AI could sound embarrassed and apologetic, Friday did.

 

"It's all right, Friday," Coulson replied. "It helps to have everyone informed." And it was exciting news. Though he wondered if Friday had been programmed with that excitement or if she'd developed it on her own. It was an interesting thing to think about and cemented the fact the AIs were a part of the family too. Smiling at his siblings and father, he added, "You're correct, though it has only just been occurred."

 

Lance grinned, giving his father an innocent look, and then wrapped his arm around Bobbi's shoulders. "Good job we've got cooks who can cater for so many extra mouths to feed...." he teased.

 

Natasha moved over to her son, placing a hand gently on her shoulder. "You've got two new aunts," she said. "Where were you?" she asked, her voice laced with concern.

 

Bucky just raised an eyebrow at the innocent look and then chuckled. "Yeah. I have to admit I'd never know what to cook for this large group..." He snorted.

 

Lincoln gave his mother his own version of an innocent look. "Just upstairs..." he said, giving her a crooked smile. "Skye was showing me something. She was gonna follow me, but decided to find her mom first...."

 

"I think that's why we ordered takeout so much." Smiling, Coulson let his children and other extended family figure out where to sit, stepping over to Paul, Cathy and Ben. "Have you been finding enough to amuse yourselves with?" he asked fondly.

 

Cathy laughed. "I hardly know what to do with myself. It's not anything like as busy as it is on the farm," she commented, giving him a hug.

 

Natasha gently guided Lincoln over to the table, so he could sit next to her and Nebula take the other side. "What was she showing you?" she asked curiously.

 

"Just different videos. I've been so busy with my residency and before that passing all my boards and tests and pretty much everything, that I apparently missed a bunch of really cool stuff. Now I can't work or use any of my skills and she thought it'd be a good time to catch me up..." Lincoln shrugged, smiling at his mother then leaning forward. "Hi! I'm Lincoln," he said to Nebula and then glanced toward Gamora, who had situated herself next to Peter Q.

 

Paul patted Phil on the back as he moved to sit in a seat near to his family, but far enough away that Phil's children could crowd around him if they desired.

 

"'OKI!" A shrill toddler voice drifted into the dining area from down the hall. Indistinct murmuring could be heard and then Loki was walking into the area, Kara perched in his arms with her arms wrapped tightly around his neck, giving him sloppy kisses. The teenaged Asgardian looked like he couldn't decide if he loved the attention the toddler was giving him, or if he was grossed out by all the slobber she was leaving behind on his face.

 

Natasha was quick to take care of the introductions between her son and her two new sisters.

 

Coulson sat down next to Bobbi, situating himself so he was as close as possible to his children and grandchildren, and couldn't help but smile at the sight of Loki and Kara, who were followed closely behind by their siblings and respective fathers.

 

Danny was fairly quick to follow, having attached himself to Ward so he could find out how his best friend had felt able to join the family.

 

Bobbi leaned on her father, letting her head fall on his shoulder briefly before smiling at him and turning to talk to Lance.

 

Trip couldn't help grinning at his baby sister and cousin...and he noted Darcy and Lorelei were grinning as well. He moved over to Mack and Thor. "She's felt drawn to him since the island..." he whispered.

 

Ward looked at Danny. "I know. Hard to believe someone'd want me..." He snorted at his friend.

 

Thor smiled. "I have noticed that too," he answered. "I am certain Loki will enjoy being the centre of her attention, once he has grown used to her affection."

 

Danny was quick to shake his head. "It's not hard to believe at all. I want you," he said, simple and direct.

 

Ward shook his head but smiled. "After everything I did to you...I don't deserve it, but I'm grateful...." He pulled Danny into a hug. Stepping back, he added, "I hear I'm not the only new addition. Think they'll make announcements and introductions?"

 

"Probably. You wanna sit next to your dad and I'll sit on your other side?" Danny grinned and side-stepped out of the way as Skye dragged her sister into the room.

 

"I'll sit on your other side." May smiled as she directed her daughters to a spot.

 

By this time, everyone else in the family had arrived and was settling into various spots at the table. Mike looked around, noting Ace was with Cassie, having hit it off with the girl. Shrugging, he went and sat down next to his son, Hank on his other side.

 

Robbie stood behind Gabe's wheelchair. "Where you wanna sit, bro?" he asked quietly.

 

"There is one more individual upstairs at the SHIELD reception," Friday announced. "...A Mr. Luke Cage. Shall I send him down to you, or does one of you want to retrieve him?"

 

Hank gave Mike a smile when the man sat down next to him. "I noticed you've been moving a bit stiffly," he commented, meaning Mike's cybernetic parts. "Would you like me to take a look and make sure you're not developing any problems?" His voice was calm, though still somewhat concerned.

 

Surprised, Ace glanced at his dad, a worried look coming over his face as he heard Hank's quiet suggestion.

 

"I'll go and retrieve him." Sam made sure Karen and Matt were settled and then quickly headed out of the room, moving to the elevator to take it to the reception area.

 

Yo-Yo ended up sitting next to Karen when it became obvious it was too late for her and Mack to sit next to each other; Kara had grabbed his hand and made him sit next to Loki (whose lap she insisted on sitting on) and grabbed Brock's hand and pulled him on the other side. "She's a cute kid- it's hard to imagine her being an adult normally..." she whispered to Karen.

 

Mike blinked. "I'd appreciate it. It doesn't hurt," he squeezed Ace's shoulder to make sure he heard. "But the parts are sticking a bit. Slows me down and hinders movement."

 

Hank nodded. "You don't need to let things get worse. After we've eaten, we can go to the lab."

 

"Maybe we can watch a movie with the others while that's happening?" Cassie suggested to Ace.

 

The boy nodded. "Yeah, okay."

 

"Thank you..." Mike nodded at Hank gratefully.

 

***

 

Sam stepped out of the elevator and headed over to where he could see Luke. "Hi there," he said, stopping by the other man.

 

Luke was looking around the building wide-eyed. Whistling under his breath, he turned to face Sam. "Sweet Christmas...I thought the tower was big. It took ten minutes to drive from the main gate and this place is just huge!" Holding out his hand, he smiled crookedly. "Luke Cage. Claire Temple called and said you all might need some muscle until you got a situation sorted? I was a bit surprised Jess didn't call me, since she actually lives here, but she's been avoiding my calls the last week. Beginning to think I'm in the doghouse, but not sure what I did...." His tone was sheepish.

 

Sam smiled and shook Luke's hand. "Sam Wilson," he introduced himself. "I suspect she didn't call you because of the precise nature of the situation we're facing...." Glancing around, he continued, "I'd run the situation by you, but we're about to eat lunch, if you'd like to join us. And you'll probably get an eyeful of the situation then."

 

"Yeah, if that's alright with everyone. It was a bit of a drive and I'm hungry...." Luke smiled again, saving his questions of what had happened till they were out of the public area. He followed San to the elevator and it didn't take long for them to reach the floor and walk to the dining room. At first, he didn't realize what the problem was...until his eyes fell on Jessica. "Sweet Christmas...." he breathed out.

 

Jessica looked up at that moment. "Luke!" Eyes wide and horrified that her boyfriend would see her at her awkward teenage stage, Jessica crawled under the table- literally.

 

Steve sighed, smiled at the newcomer and then crouched down to retrieve his daughter. "You can't hide under the table for the whole meal, Jessica," he said reasonably.

 

"As you can see...." Sam commented. "Most of the people here have been affected in some way or another."

 

"Yes I can!" Jessica declared emphatically. "Pepper? Hand me my lunch, please?" Jessica turned pleading eyes to her sister.

 

"Dad's right, Jess...you'll have to come out eventually. Besides. If my fiancé and son can see me as a skinny teen, your boyfriend should be able to see you!" Pepper declared, before turning toward Luke. "Hi! I'm Pepper."

 

Luke blinked. "Pepper Potts? CEO of Stark Industries?" he finally asked.

 

"Yeah, that's me!" Pepper nodded before going back to her lunch.

 

Jessica sighed melodramatically. "Fine. I'll just eat after everyone has left the room!"

 

Luke wasn't sure what to say; he might have reminded her that he wasn't dating her for her looks, but he suspected that would be taken the wrong way. He looked to Steve for some kind of clue on how to proceed.

 

"Thanks for coming, Luke," Claire interjected. "With so many of their agents deaged, they need the extra muscle; just to make sure their enemies don't take advantage."

 

Steve smiled apologetically at Luke. "It's hit everyone hard." Even if that was in different ways. He moved fully under the table. "Come on out, Jessica," he said gently. "We've got some announcements to listen to. And you can't hide from Luke forever. He's here because he wants to help."

 

Sam shook his head and turned to Luke. "You want to sit down? Could be a while talking her out...."

 

Jessica gave her father a pathetic pleading look, but she could tell he wasn't going to budge and staying under the table was just making her situation more obvious. Blinking back tears of embarrassment, she crawled to Steve so he could help her up.

 

"I'm not going anywhere, you know..." Luke's soft voice carried easily through the room. "I'll wait for you to grow up again..." His tone was teasingly affectionate. "I don't need a reputation as a cradle robbing dirty old man; people already look at me strange."

 

Jessica snorted, picking up a grape and throwing it at him. He caught it in his mouth, earning an eye roll from Jessica and a squeal of delight from Kara. "Again!" She clapped her hands.

 

"I don't think we need another food fight," Steve interjected, firmly but not unkindly. "Besides, I believe there are a few announcements to be officially made." Even if Friday had let the news slip.

 

Sam sat down next to Yo-Yo, leaving the chair on his other side for Luke, as there were very few empty chairs left.

 

"Sorry, Daddy," Jessica said sheepishly.

 

"Sowwy, Gunkle Teve." Kara sighed dramatically.

 

Luke gave the super soldier a sheepish smile and nodded. He hadn't thrown the food, but he still had participated somewhat. Sitting down next to Sam, he waited for an explanation; or explanations. It looked like there might be several things that needed discussing.

 

Steve took his seat once more and addressed Luke. "As you can see, we had a little mishap here involving an experiment mixed with a pie that's affected all of us who ate it, albeit in different ways. Most of the newcomers were called in due to changes in body age making it harder for them to carry out missions in the same way."

 

"And to absolutely no one's surprise, there have also been growing families," Sam put in wryly. "I understand we have some celebrating to do."

 

May nodded. "I'm adding Danny to my family," she announced.

 

"I've got a new brother in Ward," Trip said. "I wouldn't be surprised if I gained one more, though."

 

"I got my other Dad back, so now I have two dads!" Peter Q. Piped in, blushing faintly when his voice cracked.

 

"It's a good thing I brought a briefcase full of adoption forms and paperwork..." Foggy laughed softly. "If any of you will be needing them...or any other paperwork...let me know."

 

"I have a second son, too...and Mantis." Drax smiled at her, where she sat next to him.

 

"And I have two new daughters, though I think Friday already let that one slip to most of the people here." Coulson smiled.

 

"Ah....wow..." Luke laughed. "The rumors are right. You spend any amount of time here and you end up with family...."

 

"That's not a bad thing..." Mike chuckled.

 

Tony glanced at Pepper. "Well, we will likely not make it official until Pepper is back to normal...since we don't want there to be any question that she made this decision because she truly wanted it...but we plan to adopt Werner and give Harry a brother."

 

Werner jerked, completely blindsided by that...even despite Pepper's and Tony's comments. He'd somehow convinced himself that he was misunderstanding. Or that things would change. To have it said so clearly in front of everyone, he had no idea how to handle that.

 

Steve smiled reassuringly at his newest grandson. "Your place is here, too," he said simply.

 

Tony reached over and squeezed Werner's shoulder to ease him.

 

"Ace is going to hate leaving when you no longer need us." Mike glanced at his son with Cassie and whispered to Hank.

 

Yo-Yo turned to talk to Sam and Luke, since Mack was too far away to speak to.

 

Hank glanced at Ace and then at Mike. "No one is saying either of you will have to leave, even once things have returned to normal," he whispered back.

 

Sam smiled at Yo-Yo and addressed Luke. "After we've eaten, I can take you on a tour of the compound, if you like. We also have training sessions periodically... I believe you've been joining in with some of those?" He glanced at YoYo.

 

"I might want to stay..." Mike admitted. "It's safe here and I want Ace safe."

 

"I'd like that," Luke agreed.

 

Yo-Yo nodded. "I have been. It's been useful for me."

 

Hank nodded. "You have rooms assigned to you already. If there's anything you need to bring here to stay permanently, we can arrange for someone to pick it up from where you've been staying previously."

 

"I think there are some set training times," Sam said. "Danny, who's recently been adopted by May, has been working with some of the younger family members. Steve has been making regular times for sparring, too."

 

"We don't have much. Ace actually has more than I do. It's at my safe house where Maria picked Ace up." Mike smiled crookedly.

 

Luke nodded. "Maybe I can help with training. I'm not so much into the martial arts, but it takes a lot to hurt me, so I'd make a good training 'dummy'." He grinned.

 

Yo-Yo laughed. "I can always use practice, so I'd be a fool to turn down the chance to spar with an Avenger."

 

"If you give me a list, I'll make sure it's taken care of," Hank promised.

 

Sam smiled. "I imagine that might be good for some of the younger members," he commented to Luke, before adding to both, "Most everyone has times they train, so if there is anyone you want to spar with, just ask when they'll be there."

 

Mike smiled. "I will. Thank you."

 

Yo-Yo grinned. "I'll do that," she said. "Of course, that will have to wait for when we aren't on missions."

 

Luke nodded in agreement.

 

Hank nodded and then glanced at Ace, who seemed to be distracted from his worry about his father by Cassie asking him what game they should play later.

 

"I don't think there are any missions planned for today or tomorrow," Sam commented. "We do have people watching out for anything we can act on, but until we have that, it's a long game of waiting."

 

Mike relaxed and quietly ate, feeling safe and like he didn't need to be on guard for the first time in a long time.

 

"Yeah." Yo-Yo sighed. "Problem with long waits is when people get bored they do stuff that's not very helpful..." She glanced toward where some of the 'teens' were looking bored.

 

Sam nodded. "I know. It's difficult for them. They're not used to having to wait on the sidelines, but at least we have the best minds working on how to reverse the effects of the apples."

 

"Yeah." Yo-yo nodded. "Until then, I'll do whatever is needed to help."

 

"Me too," Luke agreed.

 

***

 

The longer he was here, the more out of place St. John felt. He understood why Deacon had wanted him around. They'd been friends when still young teenagers in high-school (despite Deacon having distanced himself after the whole house-party/being arrested disaster) and when he had seen St.John attempting to live legal and clean, he'd had no problems reigniting the friendship. The thing St.John didn't think Deacon understood was how difficult it was to remain legal and clean. Coming with Deacon to visit his brother had been a welcome retreat from the constant harassing phone-calls and threats he got from his prior 'business' associates. It didn't help so much with the cravings he had; but nothing would ever really help with those. He was determined to stay clean, though, for his friend's sake if no other reason. Deacon had proven himself to be one of the only real friends St.John had. Most people didn't trust him because of his past and the few who were willing to overlook that didn't trust him because of his 'ability'. Something he tried not to use too much, because he didn't want it getting around that he was a mutant. Deacon never asked, but there was a reason why he'd gotten the nickname of Pyro.

 

Deacon glanced at his friend as they walked into the dining room and headed to the table where Black was sitting with his father. "He's not going to give you the third degree, you know..." he teased gently. "He said he'd give you a chance to prove you'd changed."

 

Pyro smiled weakly back. "I know. Still..." He didn't say anything else, though, as they'd reached the table and Deacon was sitting down between Blake and Ben, leaving the empty seat on Blake's other side for him. Biting his lip, he hesitantly sat down as well.

 

Blake glanced at the two youngsters (emotionally if not physically) with an easy, relaxed smile. "I was about to come and retrieve you," he commented, having noticed their absence.

 

"Yeah. Sorry we're late. I got side-tracked looking around. This place is aaahaawsome!" He trilled the last bit in excitement.

 

Pyro snorted, but grinned at his friend. "I think he wants to pick the minds of some of the agents here and figure out a way he can become one..." he said in amusement.

 

Blake's smile widened a bit. "There are worse things you could want to do," he commented to his brother. "I'm sure anyone here would answer your questions." Glancing at Pyro, he asked, "What about you? Do you have any thoughts about what you'd want to do?" He clearly wasn't asking to give the third degree; mainly out of curiosity and with the thought that maybe he could help his brother's friend.

 

"Not really," Pyro hedged. He had no illusions that he'd be trusted enough to become an agent, with his background of working with Kingpin and other crooks and thugs. If they found out what he could do because of being a mutant, he'd be lucky if they didn't put him on a watch list. He'd heard that there was one (although he wasn't certain if it was SHIELD that had it). Even if they overlooked his past and his ability, he didn't know what he wanted to do. He didn't feel heroic. He wasn't certain he'd make a good agent. "I haven't really thought about it much..." he finally ended lamely.

 

Blake watched him for a few moments. "Well, if you want or need to sit down and talk with someone about your options, I've got time."

 

Pyro blinked. "Uh...yeah. Sure. Okay. That'd...uh...be great. Thanks!" He couldn't help the uncertainty in his tone. He didn't think Blake really liked or trusted him all that much, only accepting him because of Deacon. Having the man offer to help him was a surprise.

 

"After lunch, maybe?" Blake suggested, knowing he couldn't do much about his investigating into the academy for the time being. Deacon liked and trusted Pyro. Blake wanted to get to know the same things his brother saw.

 

"Uh...sure..." Pyro gave a hesitant smile, then quickly shoved a forkful of something into his mouth, not sure what else to say. Why was Blake suddenly so interested in him? He hadn't seemed all that interested when Deacon and he had struck up their friendship again. Then again, maybe Deacon hadn't told him. That seemed like something Deacon would forget to mention, he thought of his friend with fond amusement.

 

The rest of the meal passed in a similar way, with smaller individual conversations going on. As clean-up finished, Natasha turned to her son with a smile. "I was going to go shopping and pick up a few things. I know you don't really like shopping, but I thought it might be good to get out of the compound together for a while."

 

Lincoln blinked at the suggestion, then grinned. "I'd like that a lot..." he said quickly, afraid that she might change her mind if he didn't show a quick interest.

 

Natasha's smile grew bigger and she wrapped her arm around his shoulders. "We can take one of the cars..." she suggested, steering him towards the garage.

 

Lincoln grinned widely. "Can I drive?" he asked, with a teasing grin. Since being deaged, his driver's license wouldn't pass muster if they got pulled over for any reason and he didn't look old enough to drive.

 

"I think we'd better save that for when you're back to your normal age," Natasha said gently, heading to one of her 'usual' vehicles.

 

Lincoln sighed loudly, but it was obvious he was just fooling around and didn't really care. "Okay, mom..." He smiled. "...Do we have a list?" he asked curiously, wondering what they needed to get that wouldn't have been ordered through the usual means.

 

Natasha nodded. "One of the things we're going to be looking for is plant food. We're not entirely certain what Groot eats, but we don't want him to starve or not get the nutrients he needs. It can't hurt to find things low on sugar and salt, too... for your new aunts."

 

Lincoln nodded. "It likely wouldn't hurt to have that for some of the others who have a tendency to indulge in sugar when they think no one is looking..." he said vaguely, not giving up any names, but knowing it would get his mother's attention and she'd start watching and likely give the appropriate parent a heads up if necessary. He didn't want to 'tell' on his cousins...but a few of them ate entirely too many 'junk-food' items. The doctor in him worried.

 

"I'll keep that in mind," Natasha promised, giving him a gentle squeeze before letting go so they could get into the car. "How are you doing with all this?" she asked as they buckled themselves in.

 

"With what? Being shrunk into a smaller, younger version of myself that can't practice medicine after years of study and interning? Or having umpteen people show up to help out and having nearly all of them joining the family at such a rapid pace that I'm not sure who's adopting who?" Lincoln snorted, then buckled his seatbelt before slumping back into the seat. "I'm a bit overwhelmed, to be honest..." he admitted, with a quiet sigh.

 

"I know," Natasha replied, understanding. "It's one of the reasons I thought we could take this trip. Give us some time together in surroundings that might be a bit quieter."

 

"I should have known you'd notice and know what to do to help me..." Lincoln gave his mother a crooked grin. "How are you handling it all? I mean- I guess in a way you're used to getting new family...but Grandpa moves so quick to claim those he feels a connection to, it makes my head spin!"

 

Natasha smiled. "It's not so unusual. After all, it took a day for me to act on my connection to you. It might be more noticeable with your Grandpa because of the amount he feels that with." She took a moment or two as they drove out of the compound and then continued, "I think he acts so quickly because of losing Grant when he was just a baby. I came along after he adopted Clint, so the effects of that loss weren't as strong. But even then, I could tell he still carried the memory."

 

"He has Grant back now...but I guess that isn't something you'd ever really get over..." Lincoln bit his lip. "Grandpa has a big heart...All the family do, really. I'm lucky you found me...."

 

Natasha freed one hand from the steering wheel so she could take his. "I'm glad I found you," she said honestly. "It might have been unexpected, but it's made me happy that I have you in my life."

 

"I love you, mom..." Lincoln said, almost bashfully.

 

Natasha's face lit up with her smile. "I love you too," she said affectionately, squeezing his hand.

 

Lincoln squeezed back and didn't retrieve his hand after, content to continue holding his mom's hand for as long as she didn't need it to drive. Soon, they had reached the area where they were going to pick up the supplies, though.

 

Natasha let go of his hand so they could unbuckle the seatbelts and then got out of the car, waiting for her son to get out before locking the door and then walking next to him into the supermarket.

 

Lincoln didn't feel the need to wander off, instead sticking close to his mother while they picked up the various items. They'd made certain to get a wide variety of plant foods so that Groot could pick the one he liked best; and it wasn't as if they couldn't use the items in the gardens if Groot ended up not liking any of them or ate human food (he hadn't noticed the tiny alien eating, so he wasn't sure). Even following his mother and trusting that she was keeping an eye on everything, he still kept his own eyes and ears open.

 

Natasha was on her guard...paying attention. She was too well-trained not to. Even so, as she began to pay, her back was to the shop window. She missed a heavily pregnant woman stumbling and falling to the pavement outside.

 

Lincoln hadn't missed the woman falling and within seconds of seeing it, he was running outside to help her, completely neglecting to tell his mother what had happened or where he was going. He just knew she needed help.

 

The woman hadn't fallen for no reason. As soon as Lincoln appeared outside, a man was there, hauling the woman to her feet. His body was angled so that a glance at him didn't immediately reveal the gun in his hand, but he had it pressed to the woman's side.

 

"Hey! Ma'am...are you alright?" Lincoln hadn't been impressed with the aggressive way that the man had lifted the woman up, so gave the man a suspicious look, even as he moved closer to try and do a quick scan of the woman to see if there were any quickly visible injuries. He never let the man completely out of his sight, having learned enough during his months as Natasha's son to know that might be a bad idea.

 

The woman, hoping that the man would let her go with witnesses, began struggling, her eyes wide and fearful.

 

Natasha had caught movement out of the corner of her eye and turned, her eyes sweeping over her son and the people he was standing too close to. She saw the gun instantly and was running out of the store, even as a van pulled up outside and several heavily armed men jumped out.

 

Lincoln's eyes widened as he realized the man wasn't helping the woman and he'd walked into a kidnapping attempt. He immediately yelled at the man with the gun to try and startle him into moving the gun away from the woman so he could attempt to get her out of the way. He saw his mother coming and knew, as long as she had a clear shot of the attackers and didn't need to worry about the woman, that she'd have a better chance of taking them out...and he had no doubts that she could take them out.

 

Natasha wasted no time in firing on the man with the gun on the woman, helped by the fact her son's shouting had caused the man to find a new target... Lincoln. She took him out as the barrel swung on her son and then quickly turned to fire on the others, keeping her own body protectively between Lincoln and the woman.

 

Lincoln had quickly moved in, grabbing the gun before helping the woman move into a protected alcove and standing in front of her, guarding her and his mother against someone sneaking up from behind. He stayed out of the fight, though, not wanting to get in his mother's way.

 

It didn't take long for Natasha to take out the men. Even alone, she was a formidable opponent. Most of them would likely recover, but by the time she was done, they were all unconscious.

 

Natasha quickly checked her son over for injuries as she called the incident in.

 

Lincoln was immediately checking the pregnant woman over as soon as he saw it was safe to do so, asking her the questions needed to determine if there was an emergency that needed immediate action or if she could wait for the emergency services he knew his mother would have called in. He calmed the woman down and kindly suggested she go with the paramedics to make certain nothing was wrong, but also told her his 'limited' knowledge from his beginners Paramedic course let him think she was alright. It calmed her down, at least.

 

Soon, the authorities and paramedics were there and in control of the situation. Lincoln looked at Natasha for further instruction. He'd never been in one of these situations before; not since Lorelei first showed up and that had been different, as no one but family had got involved.

 

Natasha moved nearer to her son, calmly identifying herself and giving a statement. It was impossible to tell what she might be thinking, but she did suggest that one of the Avengers might like to question the men. She also stayed close to Lincoln when he was questioned, but didn't communicate to him to control any of his answers regarding what had just happened.

 

Lincoln cooperated fully with the authorities telling them exactly what he'd seen, what he'd done in response and what had occurred after. He handed the gun he'd taken off of the fallen thug to the appropriate officer and gave his information so that he could be found. His prints were on file, due to the fact he'd volunteered to work with children while still in school and he'd been required to do a background check; he let them know that. Then he waited while the paramedics asked him questions about what he'd witnessed regarding the woman and what he'd done to help her prior to them arriving. Soon, everyone was satisfied and he was told that they would call if they needed anything else. He looked toward Natasha, as if to ask what they would do now. The groceries were still inside the store; it looked like the cashier had set them aside when she realized what was going on outside. "You already paid?" he asked hesitantly, biting his lip and looking like he wanted to go in and grab an armful of bags so he could avoid answering his mother's questions. She hadn't said anything and to any other observer, she'd look like nothing was wrong; but he could sense she was upset. He just wasn't sure if she was upset from worry about him or angry at him.

 

Natasha nodded, gently brushing her hand over his shoulder. "If you need to take a few minutes to settle, we don't have to grab them straight away," she said. She knew it was scary to have a gun trained on you. She'd managed to act before it had been fired, but seeing it aimed at her son had been terrifying. Very suddenly, she hugged him tight to herself.

 

Lincoln blinked as he found himself pressed against his mother, his face against her shoulder. Hesitantly, he reached around and began to hug her back, but soon he was holding on just as tightly, closing his eyes and forcing himself to breathe deep because, now that the adrenaline was wearing off, he was beginning to realize just how much danger there had been and that he'd been the focal point for a large part of it. "Yeah...ok...I...I'm okay..." he whispered, although it was obvious he was trying to convince himself just as much as Natasha.

 

Natasha just held on tightly to him, taking a deep breath to calm herself as she reminded herself he was safe. He hadn't been shot. "You're safe," she whispered to him.

 

"I'm safe..." he whispered back, "...You have me...." Swallowing, he squeezed just a slight bit more tightly before reluctantly letting go and stepping back, taking another deep breath. "...Uh...Let me grab the bags. We can...we can go home..." he said hesitantly, still a bit shell-shocked after everything that had occurred, but quickly regaining his bearings.

 

Natasha nodded. "I think that would be best." Later, she was going to take a look at those notes his cousin Werner had taken. It seemed too much of a coincidence that men had been attempting to kidnap an obviously pregnant woman, knowing that HYDRA had been taking children and giving them manufactured childhoods. Unwilling to let her son out of her sight, she headed into the store with him to grab the bags.

 

They had quickly loaded the car and then got in, Lincoln buckling his seatbelt and remaining subdued all the way home. If his hand slowly inched its way over the center console until he could hold onto the hem of his mother's t-shirt; well, he didn't even seem to realize that he was acting like the scared teenager he currently was. It didn't take long to get home, but it took longer than he would have liked.

 

It didn't take long at all to get the car unloaded. Natasha wrapped an arm around her son's shoulders as soon as her hands were free, tapping out a message to her father and the rest of the parents about what had just happened and her suspicions.

 

Lincoln pressed closer to his mother, reluctant to leave her side now, even if they were safe at home. He looked up when the other parents started filing into the family room, his face lighting up when he saw his grandfather. "Grandpa!" he called out, with a hint of relief...though he wrapped his arms more tightly around his mother's waist instead of rushing over to the older man to give him a hug. He was just very happy to see all his family safe at home and not out where the 'bad men' could hurt them.

 

Coulson smiled warmly at his grandson, noticing the way Lincoln clung to his mother. "Why don't you both sit down next to me?" he suggested, patting the seat on one side of him on the extra-long sofa. There was plenty of space on his other side for any of his kids or grandkids who wanted to snuggle.

 

Lincoln quickly moved so that he was sat between his mother and grandfather, being bracketed by the two of them easing a bit more of his 'fear' that he wouldn't even admit to himself that he had.

 

Bobbi and Grant came in and saw their older sister and nephew and knew immediately something had happened. Bobbi went to sit on Coulson's other side, while Grant went and sat next to his sister in a bid to make her feel better, since she was obviously worried about something, although most of her focus seemed to be on Lincoln.

 

Trip and Brock followed their father into the room, Ward trailing behind holding Kara. "Since I'm less likely to be needed for whatever is about to happen, do you want me to watch the kids?" he asked Fury softly, cuddling Kara a bit more close and nodding toward Peter, Harry, Cassie and Ace, who had all followed their family members into the room.

 

Darcy shifted so she was close to Ward. "I can help him..." she offered.

 

Natasha still had her arm wrapped around Lincoln's shoulders, holding him close against her side. She gave Grant a small smile as he sat next to her, but didn't say anything.

 

Coulson wrapped one arm around Bobbi's shoulders and the other hand rested gently on Lincoln's shoulder. He could tell that his daughter was upset and his grandson was shaken.

 

Fury smiled at Ward and nodded to Darcy. "That would be a help," he answered. "I can always tell you anything you need to know afterwards."

 

Steve arrived only seconds after, quickly moving to take a seat and looking towards Natasha and Lincoln.

 

Ward nodded and smiled at the younger kids. "C'mon, gang! I think I saw a jar of popcorn kernels in the kitchen cupboard and feel like making actual non-microwave popcorn. Come help me?"

 

Darcy grinned. "I have a better idea. We can pop the corn and then make popcorn balls!"

 

Lincoln waited until the children (and Ward and Darcy) were completely out of the room before blurting, "We stopped a kidnapping and there were bad men with guns and the woman was pregnant and Mom really kicked ass!" he glanced at Steve and blushed. "....Er I mean kicked butt, sir!"

 

Tony pressed his lips tightly together and managed not to laugh. Barely.

 

Steve managed to keep a straight face too, though it was easier, given the seriousness of the situation. "Were you able to see who the men might have worked for?" he asked Natasha.

 

"They didn't wear any team colours," Natasha replied, "but it wouldn't surprise me if they were with HYDRA. They've been taken into custody. I think someone should take a look at those notes Werner made...maybe ask him if he noticed anything that might indicate they've gone from taking children to taking pregnant women."

 

Tony nodded, glancing around the room and motioned Werner forward. "When those who had you captive were talking, do you remember any of them mentioning taking children or pregnant women?" he asked softly, not wanting to upset the younger man, but knowing the information was important.

 

Mike was frowning at what Natasha said, not liking the implications. He thought back to the notes Werner had made that he'd read, trying to recall if any of them mentioned anything such as Natasha described.

 

Werner swallowed, but forced himself to think back...even though he knew he'd written down everything he'd heard. "I have near perfect recall," he answered hesitantly. "They only mentioned some children they already had in safehouses, the ones you already all hit. They didn't say anything about taking pregnant women." He was fairly sure they would have spoken freely in front of him. After all, they'd planned to kill him.

 

"It could be a new development," Coulson said quietly. "Particularly given that we have been raiding the places they've been keeping the children."

 

Mike nodded. "I think you're right. None of the notes you wrote mentioned pregnant women and while I'm sure they weren't quite as open around me as they were you, since I was attacking them at the time, I don't recall running across any files or information that they had where it was mentioned."

 

"So now they're going to kidnap kids before they are even born?" Grant sounded horrified.

 

"We've been hitting them hard where they have the children," Fury said. "I think we'd better see if we can track down any pregnant women who have disappeared. Skye and her team will be able to spot any patterns and pass those onto us."

 

Bucky was nodding. "As soon as we have a pattern, hopefully we can get the information needed to shut them down even further. Is there some way to get a warning out to the public without causing mass hysteria?"

 

"I think we'll have to work on that," Steve said thoughtfully. "Tony, perhaps you and I can work on a slightly more pointed than usual safety message."

 

"Yes, sir. I'll see if we can get some of the PR team from Stark Industries to help with it. Pepper's set up a great PR team to deal with all the questionable problems I get into...I'm sure they'd love the chance to work on something that will help protect innocent women and children." He smiled.

 

Pepper nodded at Tony's words, though the look in her eye was a bit uneasy; normally, she'd be the one contacting SI's personal relations team to come up with a plan to get information out. The fact that Tony was doing so only emphasized the fact that she couldn't do the one thing she was good at: run the company. She glanced around at all the other deaged members of the family and saw the same look of loss and frustration. They were feeling useless too, she could tell.

 

Steve noticed the look on his daughter's face and placed a hand gently on her shoulder, squeezing lightly. "If you think of anything else, let us know...." he said to both Natasha and Lincoln.

 

Natasha nodded. "Of course."

 

Pepper gave Steve a tiny, if crooked, smile that didn't fully meet her eyes, but she didn't pull away and instead pressed closer. "Mom and Dad want to go sight-seeing..." she said softly to no-one in particular, but knew that Steve would hear and listen. "Can I take them? Maybe Great-Grandpa Charles can go with us, if you're worried about us being alone. He can contact someone really quick if something comes up...."

 

Lincoln nodded. "Yessir..." he answered and fought a yawn. The adrenalin had completely worn off by now and he was left sleepy.

 

Steve nodded. "So long as you make sure to keep your phones on, just in case," he directed.

 

Natasha gently stroked Lincoln's shoulder, indicating they could probably get up now.

 

Lincoln looked at his mother, then leaned over and gave Coulson a tight hug before standing up and leaning into her.

 

Pepper nodded vigorously. "Yes, daddy!" Her smile was a bit more genuine this time, as she thought she could at least spend time with her mom and dad and help them have a good time. She glanced toward Charles. "Can you come with us, Great-grandpa?" she asked hopefully.

 

Logan's eyes squinted suspiciously, like he was very amused at Charles being called great-grandpa, since Charles was actually chronologically younger than him and the same age as Steve. He didn't say anything, though; he didn't want Pepper to think he was teasing her and he actually thought it was quite sweet that the 'children' had made connections to him and the rest of his family.

 

Natasha wrapped her arms tight around her son, leading him from the room and heading to the family rooms. Specifically, to hers.

 

Charles smiled at the name and was quick to nod. "I would like that, very much," he replied.

 

Pepper clapped her hands and squealed in excitement, before realizing she'd just behaved like a teenager and blushed darkly. "I'll...just...go get mom and dad..." she stuttered, before running out of the room to go find the older couple.

 

***

 

Lincoln didn't question being led from the family room and to his mother's room, although he did give her a questioning look. After what had occurred, he wasn't exactly ready to leave her side anyway. And he was obviously tired, since he couldn't stop yawning. He figured she just planned to have him nap where she could keep an eye on him.

 

Entering her room, Natasha led him over to the bed and took a seat, gently drawing her son down to sit on the bed next to her. For a few moments, she just held onto him. She'd done a good job of hiding exactly how scared she'd been for his safety right after the fight, but she was fairly certain the other members of their family had seen something of it. And talking about what had occurred had made it necessary to relive that moment. She stroked her son's hair and spoke in a quiet voice. "I've had guns pointed at me before. I've seen guns pointed at people I care about before. This was the first time I've ever felt I could be paralysed with fear at the sight of an enemy poised to shoot. To shoot at my son."

 

Lincoln blinked at her words, snuggling closer and holding more tightly. He felt a tiny spear of guilt that she'd felt that way, because of him, but didn't know what to say to help her feel better. He'd been scared, too, but not for himself. He'd had every confidence that Natasha would protect him. "I knew you'd protect me..." he finally said, with all the confidence a fifteen-year-old could display in a parent that he trusted completely.

 

"Always," Natasha promised, her thumb gently stroking his cheek. "But if I'm not there...if I don't know that you've left my side...I won't know straight away that you need me." She gently touched his chin, encouraging him to look into her eyes. "One split second can make a big difference, no matter how good I am."

 

Lincoln blinked and thought back on the events at the store and realized that Natasha had only arrived after the man had drawn his gun and pointed it at Lincoln. If she'd been there from the moment Lincoln had arrived on the scene, the man likely wouldn't have got so far as to point the gun at him and would have been incapacitated before the men in the van had even had a chance to get out. Biting his lip, he looked up into her eyes. "I just ran to help her; I didn't think beyond that..." he admitted apologetically, realizing he should have at least said 'Mom!' to get her attention before running out.

 

"I know," Natasha replied. "You weren't wrong to want to help her and I would never try to stop you from helping someone in need. But you have to be safe and not take unnecessary chances. Running out without telling me, without letting me know the situation, wasn't safe."

 

Lincoln thought about that and knew she was right. When training to be a doctor, he'd taken a class on emergency first-aid...a class that was open to the general public so that, if they were first on a scene able to respond, they could help someone until more advanced help arrived. (He'd thought it would be a good idea to familiarize himself with what might be done to the patients he would be seeing once they were in the hospital; not to mention, just because he was planning to be a doctor, it didn't mean he wouldn't ever be a first-responder.) One of the first things they taught was when rushing in to help someone in need, you first quickly observed what you were rushing into, so that you didn't accidently become part of the emergency. He'd failed to observe the surroundings before rushing in and he hadn't yelled out for help before doing so (another thing they were trained to do). If he had done both of those things, his mother would have been aware and right with him the whole time, instead of coming into the situation a minute behind him. "...I'm...I'm sorry?" he said hesitantly, not sure if an apology was what she was looking for, but knowing he had to at least acknowledge he'd messed up.

 

"I know," Natasha said again, holding back a sigh. This was going to be the first time she'd ever had to punish her son...step in with anyone, even. She tightened her embrace around him a fraction, not wanting to scare or worry him, and gently stroked his cheek. "Do you remember the conversation we had just before you became officially mine? About rules and consequences?"

 

Lincoln swallowed hard. He remembered. He also remembered that he hadn't been all that concerned about it, because he couldn't see how he would ever be in a position where he would do anything to break the rules and suffer the consequences. And yet, here he was. "...I remember..." he finally said, his voice going high and cracking embarrassingly. He turned pink.

 

Natasha kissed his forehead. "What happened today...you being in that kind of danger...shouldn't have happened." If she'd been a second slower.... "I'm going to put you over my knee. I'm going to spank you. Because you are too important to me and I don't want you doing something again that would risk taking you away from me."

 

Lincoln whimpered softly, but he didn't argue and in fact pressed closer to his mother, as if seeking reassurance that, even if she was punishing his behavior, she wasn't upset or angry at him.

 

Natasha held him tightly for a few more moments. "I love you," she whispered in his ear, before gently moving him over her lap.

 

Lincoln knew if he were taller, this would be more awkward; but he'd shrunk quite a bit due to the de-aging and found he fit perfectly over her knees. Sniffling pathetically because he felt sorry for himself and he felt guilty, he wriggled around a tiny bit to get comfortable, or at least as comfortable as it was possible to be when your bottom was the part of your body that was in the highest position relative to the floor. Hesitantly, he reached down and wrapped his arms around her lower leg and held tightly.

 

Natasha adjusted his position slightly, to be certain he wouldn't fall even if he started squirming, and then proceeded to bare him. She took a few moments to rub his back and then lifted her hand, bringing it down in the first firm smack, nowhere near as hard as she could have made it. She repeated the swat and then landed two more, still at the same force.

 

Lincoln closed his eyes tight and whimpered when he felt his pants being tugged down. He didn't argue, though and as embarrassing as it was to be over his mother's lap, bare bottom in perfect position, it was more embarrassing that he'd done something to deserve being in that position. And then the first smack fell and he gasped, holding his breath through the next three swats before exhaling with a high pitched whine. He didn't know how hard a spanking normally was, or if she was delivering one at full-strength, but it hurt! And between guilt at how he'd scared her so badly and the fact that his fifteen-year-old emotions and hormones had him all kinds of out-of-sorts, it didn't take more than those three swats for him to begin crying. Embarrassing!

 

Natasha could hear him crying, but although she felt bad about causing him that kind of pain, she knew she couldn't stop before they reached the needed point. No matter how hard it was. Steeling herself, she continued the firm smacks down to his thighs and then began from the top again. Partway through the second circuit, she began to speak. "I love you, Lincoln. It didn't take me long to realise I wanted you when we met. I felt drawn to you straight away. But I haven't had you for very long at all. We haven't even had a full year together. There's still so much waiting for us."

 

Lincoln continued to cry, though he tried to control it enough that he could hear what she was saying, the effort causing his body to quiver slightly.

 

Natasha kept her other hand on his lower back, rubbing it gently while she continued to spank him, completing the second circuit and beginning a third - though she didn't go any harder or faster. "I came out the moment I realised you were out there," she said, "but even then, he already had the gun pointed at you. My whole life is about acting and reacting. On the outside, I was fighting to protect you. On the inside... all I wanted was to hold you and feel you were safe."

 

Lincoln tightened his grip on his mother's leg at those words and gasped out a tiny sob. "I'm sorry, Momma...I didn't mean to do anything wrong. Di...didnmean to scare you...." he managed to force out between the sobs that wouldn't stop coming. "I'm sorry, Momma..." he said again, brokenly, letting himself go limp over her lap and just accepting the punishment.

 

Natasha immediately brought the spanking to a stop, wasting no time in gathering her son into her arms, hugging him tightly to herself. "I love you," she reiterated, whispering in his ear, kissing his cheek.

 

Lincoln let out a tiny whimper, squirming until he was curled up in his mother's arms as close and tight as he could get, and snuggled. "I love you too, momma..." he whispered. He didn't know what to feel. The whole day had ended up being a test; between the anxiety of running into HYDRA kidnapping someone and almost being shot...and now getting his bottom warmed by his mother... a bone-deep weariness was overcoming him. Sniffling, he snuggled more. "Hurts..." he admitted in a tiny voice. It had hurt a lot more than he had expected. Although that might be because he was having a hard time controlling his emotions. He didn't know. He stifled a yawn and held onto his mother more tightly.

 

Natasha kissed his head and hugged him tighter. "I know. The pain will fade," she promised. "But you're safe here. You're safe with me. I've got you...."

 

"Forever?" he asked in a tiny voice, letting himself glance up at her...needing to see in her face that he hadn't made her regret adopting him by his thoughtless actions.

 

Natasha stroked his hair. "Forever," she promised. "You're mine. Nothing is going to change that. I love you, no matter what happens."

 

"Love you too, momma..." Lincoln whispered, letting his eyes fall closed. He was just so tired, he couldn't keep them open any longer. Soon, he was sound asleep on her lap.

 

Natasha didn't let him go, only shifting enough to replace his clothing. Holding onto her son felt easy. Right. Natural. And it wasn't like she minded having him fall asleep on her.

 

***

 

It was several hours later and Pepper, her mother and father and Charles returned from sight-seeing. They'd taken all the younger children with them: Laura, Peter, Harry, Cassie, Ace and even Kara, so that the 'adults' could focus on the newest threat from HYDRA. Ward and Darcy had accompanied them as well to help out with the children. They'd ended their sight seeing tour at a playground in town. Of course, now it was almost dinner time, so they were returning back home. Pepper's parents had had a wonderful time with their daughter and all the other children; or at least Pepper hoped they had. They were smiling, so she assumed that they did.

 

While both Pepper's parents had enjoyed themselves, they were both very elderly and the day's events had tired them out somewhat. With a smile at the enthusiastic younger members of the family, Pepper's mother placed a hand on her daughter's shoulder. "I think we might have to retire for the evening, dear," she said.

 

Pepper blinked, the evidence of her parents' age and how much it affected them clear. "Do you want me to bring you something to eat in your room?" she asked quietly, worry obvious in her voice.

 

Her father smiled. "That would be nice. Perhaps we could join you all for breakfast," he suggested.

 

"That'd be nice." She smiled back. "If you want to go get ready for bed, I'll bring your dinner...."

 

Her parents hugged both her and Harry and then went to their room.

 

Pepper quickly made plates for both of them then took them their food and drink. She returned shortly after and sat down next to Steve. "So..,lotsa new family..." she said, before glancing around the table curiously.

 

****

 

Wade gave Colossus an eye roll. "Why do I have to stay in tonight? It isn't like I can actually be hurt by those idiot HYDRA morons..." he griped. "I want to go out and get a few beers."

 

"I will not argue with you about this," Colossus stated. "It is not safe to go out and get a few beers. And I do not believe it will be 'just a few' in any case."

 

"Oh for fuck sake! Nothing will happen to me! You know how fast I heal! Stop being a worry wart! It's such a downer!" Wade moaned and spoke loudly enough pretty much everyone could hear his discontent.

 

"Healing fast does not mean you should take chances," Colossus stated. "And you are not the only one who can be endangered by your actions."

 

"Just drop it, Wade," Vanessa suggested, noticing the look in the giant's eyes. It wasn't really her responsibility to get her fiance's butt out of the fire, but she really didn't want to see him land himself in trouble. Again.

 

"I don't want to drop it!" Wade complained. "I'm not a kid! And no one else is at risk if I go by myself! Just because someone wants to be Bossy McBossypants!"

 

"You may not be a 'kid', but you are my responsibility," Colossus stated, taking a step nearer to him.

 

"Let's go and get something to eat," Vanessa quickly decided, motioning for Soni to exit the room with her.

 

"Whatever..." Soni rolled her eyes, but followed Vanessa out the door.

 

"I didn't ask you to be!" Wade's voice rose in frustration and he stomped his foot much like the kid he protested against being.

 

In the dining room, the various teens and children were giving each other nervous looks. Soni noticed them when she walked in and snorted. "He's always pushing...don't worry bout it."

 

"You need me to be." With that firmly stated, Colossus moved close enough to Wade so he could pick the smaller man up and drape him over his metal knees.

 

"What? Wait! What? What are you doing!? No! Stoooop!" Wade had started out forcefully, but had quickly ended up whining. He didn't bother wasting energy try to fight his way free. He'd been in this position often enough to know it was futile.

 

"I have warned you, Wade. You know what pushing will get you." Colossus bared Wade and then brought his hand down in the first swat, his hand big enough to cover Wade's entire bottom and thighs at once.

 

"Oooooow!" Wade screeched so loudly, he was sure it could be heard in the town. "I...I just wanted to go out!" he wailed. He still didn't try and get away, though and only wriggled enough to encourage Colossus to hold him more securely.

 

"And I told you that you could not." Colossus tightened his hold on Wade and continued to swat him, careful to only use a fraction of his strength.

 

"You never want me to go anywhere," Wade cried. "Ever since I got cut in half, you don't let me do anything fun!" His wriggling was mostly just for show...it was obvious that just the act of taking him in hand was calming him...he'd been antsy all day...full of energy. He wasn't fighting all that hard, even if he was being loud.

 

"Your idea of 'fun' is dangerous," Colossus replied, his hand emphasising what he was saying. "When you were cut in half, you were unable to defend yourself. Even healing eventually does not mean you can defend yourself."

 

"I didn't die, though! And I got better! I always get better!" Wade's voice shook as the pain of the spanking and the knowledge that Colossus was doing this because he genuinely cared caused tears to begin forming in his eyes and throat. Even though he knew he'd deliberately set out to get into trouble because he wanted Colossus' attention. He wriggled some more, his bottom raising slightly as if inviting more attention from his solid, giant friend.

 

"That does not mean you should invite danger," Colossus replied, responding to that 'invitation' by putting just a little bit more force behind the swats. "You can still be hurt even though you heal."

 

"Why d...d...does it ..matter?" Wade didn't even attempt to stop the tears once they started, just letting himself cry.

 

"Because you matter," Colossus said without hesitation. "To me. I do not want you to be hurt. It grieves me to see you suffer."

 

Wade sniffled, whispering so that only Colossus could hear; he may not mind the entire household knowing he was being spanked and why, but he didn't want anyone knowing what he was admitting to his friend. "I...I need to hurt sometimes...."

 

"The way you get yourself hurt is not safe or healthy." In response to Wade whispering, Colossus lowered his own voice as much as he could...not that he'd been any louder than what was, for him, a normal speaking level.

 

"I...I know you're right..." Wade reluctantly admitted, still crying and not ashamed to let Colossus see. He tried to wriggle away again; even if Colossus wasn't using full strength, it hurt. Then again, wasn't that what he'd been wanting all along? He stiffened as he realized his 'need' was being met, then let out a tiny sigh of relief. "Shoulda just asked him to help in the first place..." he said to the floor.

 

He was still squirming, but this time it was to encourage Colossus to continue- not stop- the punishment. Yeah, it made him feel like an out of control child when Colossus took him in hand like this- vulnerable and needy and like a disobedient brat- but it also helped him feel less lost and like he'd be alright in the end.

 

Colossus let his other hand rest on Wade's back, even while his spanking hand continued to methodically smack his friend's bottom. He didn't increase the force any, tugging Wade in closer to himself.

 

Wade calmed slightly at the feeling of his friend's hand on his back, just focusing on Colossus and what he was doing- and why. "I'm sorry I'm so messed up..." he said softly, "...That I do things that worry and frustrate you. That you have to take care of me...." He swallowed. The swatting had hurt before, but after a few minutes of relentless smacking, it was painful even when he wasn't receiving a smack. Wade was fast reaching the point where he'd go beyond having his need to hurt being addressed and fall into that hazy area where he'd promise to be good and obedient and do whatever Colossus said to get the pain to stop; and he didn't like when he reached that point.

 

It scared him because it meant he wasn't in charge of himself anymore. It meant he'd put himself into Colossus's hands. It wasn't that letting Colossus be in charge scared him, either; he trusted the big metal man to not abuse any authority or power he'd been given. He trusted that Colossus would make sure he was okay and, truth be told, would make sure that he was better than when Wade was in charge of himself. No...what scared him was that he wanted to do that and he couldn't figure out why. He certainly never had that urge to behave for anyone else and if anyone other than Colossus had insisted he be a better man and had spanked him into being good, he would have done the exact opposite of what they wanted just to be contrary. But Colossus? "...He's my big brother...want him proud of me..." he whispered again at the floor.

 

"I...I don't need to hurt anymore..." he finally whispered with a pained groan. He didn't tell Colossus to stop. They'd been down this path too many times for him to think he had any chance of telling the bigger man that the punishment was over if the giant didn't think he'd reached the needed point. Of course, the needed point usually involved Wade admitting he had been wrong, apologizing contritely and accepting that his brother was in charge and he had no say in what was happening to his poor mistreated ass.

 

"You do not 'make' me take care of you," Colossus answered. "I choose to. I choose to take care of you because you are my brother and I love you." He didn't bring the spanking to a stop. Even though Wade didn't feel the need to be hurt anymore, Colossus was fairly sure stopping before the needed point would leave his little brother frustrated and antsy. Wade needed to let go. To surrender. "I am proud of you," he continued, addressing Wade's comment to the 'invisible people'. He wanted the other man to realise that; to know how important he was.

 

Wade snorted somewhat unhappily at Colossus' words of pride in him. "Dunno how you can be proud of me. I'm not a good man...do bad things all the time. Been doing them for the right reason more often now, cuz of you, but still bad..." he muttered sadly. He blinked as he realized he'd begun wriggling again, this time without thinking; his body trying to get his backside out of the line of fire, even if he'd resigned himself to being spanked till he couldn't sit the rest of the night- or at least until his healing kicked in and made it stop hurting. Colossus still had a hand on his back, though and Wade knew he was in no danger. He was secure over his brother's knee and wouldn't fall. If he could just get the big guy to target a different spot on his bum, it would be perfect, but to do that, he'd actually have to ask and that was...well hell. It wasn't embarrassing really. He'd pretty much asked for this butt roasting. Why stop at that? "C...could...could you please smack somewhere different?" he whined, almost begged. At this point, he'd be happy if Colossus just smacked his sit spots repeatedly if it got him to focus on a different part of his posterior. Not his thighs, though. "...Oh fuck, I shoulda specified not my thighs..." he moaned under his breath.

 

Colossus wasn't entirely sure he should let Wade dictate how the spanking should go; but then again, this spanking wasn't because Wade had done anything really wrong, but more because Colossus was figuring out how to respond to his little brother's needs. He paid attention to Wade, moving his hand further down so it was no longer landing in exactly the same place.

 

Wade was actually surprised that Colossus had listened to him; usually if he was being punished, his brother gave him no say whatsoever in how the punishment would occur. It was then that Wade realized Colossus wasn't punishing him. Oh, sure, he'd been a right pain in the neck for the last several hours: arguing, demanding and outright defying Colossus' wishes in regards to Wade going out like he'd wanted to do; but his brother wasn't punishing him. He was trying to give him what he needed so that Wade wouldn't go off and try and take care of things on his own where Colossus couldn't help him if needed. Because the big lunk of metal really did care what happened to him...really cared about him.

 

That realization caused Wade to stiffen up as a feeling of guilt so intense (he'd really been giving the bigger man grief) speared through him and he realized he didn't want to hurt Colossus. He didn't want the other man unhappy. And he definitely didn't want him unhappy or hurt because Wade was an idiot who took forever to realize when people actually wanted him around and cared about him and wanted to protect him from himself. "Oh, shit...I'm...I'm sorry, Big Guy..." he whimpered. "...I'm so...sorry. I...I didn't mean...I know...I...." For once, words failed him and he couldn't think of one thing to say that would indicate he'd finally realized what Colossus was doing, or that he regretted making life so difficult for the other man. Words failed him and the only thing he could do was start crying; genuinely this time, instead of the big fat crocodile tears he'd been releasing before. "I didn't mean..." he whispered sadly again, before slumping over Colossus's knee and just choking on his tears.

 

Colossus brought the spanking to a stop, wasting no time in bringing his brother into his arms, hugging him tight and close to himself. "You do not give yourself enough credit. You assume the worst, but I have always wanted to keep you safe. To take care of you, even though you can take care of and protect yourself. You do not need me to allow you to walk all over me," he said firmly.

 

Still crying, Wade twisted around so that he could wrap his arms around his brother and nodded. "...Sh...shouldn' tryin walk over you...not righ..." he gulped out. "...So so sorry..." he sobbed. He didn't often feel guilty for anything he did. But the way he'd been treating Colossus? When all the man wanted was to keep him safe? He felt horribly guilty about it. He just didn't know what to do about it. "...You...you should 'ate me the w..way I t..treat you...." If he thought he'd be able to follow through, he'd promise to obey Colossus from here out, no matter what the older man told him. But he knew he wouldn't keep a promise like that. And he didn't want to make things worse by breaking promises to his brother.

 

Colossus tightened his embrace around his brother. "I do not hate you. I could never hate you. I would never hate you." His voice was as soft as his hulking size would allow him to make it, but rang with sincerity.

 

"Cuz you're good..." Wade mumbled against the giant's chest. Sniffling, he finally managed to calm himself, but he didn't pull away. He just shifted slightly, wincing at the ache in his backside, and took a deep breath. "I...I am sorry for how I treated you...." He swallowed. "...Can't help but feel like I deserve to be punished for that. Wish I could say I'd never be bad again, but I know me and that'd end up being a lie." He sighed. "...You said before that...that you'd rather I come to you when I needed...something...instead of doing dangerous stuff...." He paused uncertainly.

 

"That is still true," Colossus replied, without any hesitation. "Even if it is difficult for you to put voice to, letting me help you is safer than the way you normally handle your feelings."

 

"I...I've been doing stuff you wouldn't like pretty much every night for the last two weeks..." he admitted in shame. "I feel stupid coming and asking you to spank me, but...it works better than those other things...maybe cuz I'm not doing it to myself...I dunno...." Wade swallowed hard. "Would...is it...?" He sighed and muttered to the ground again, "With all the crazy, shameless, idiotic stuff I do where I don't care how it makes me look, you'd think it wouldn't be so hard to ask my brother to spank me every night until this itchiness leaves me alone. It isn't like I'm embarrassed to want that...." Wade knew that, even if he wasn't embarrassed to want or need it, it wasn't something people normally requested of platonic friends, even if they were more family. Colossus might feel uncomfortable from the request and he'd already caused the man enough grief.

 

Concerned with his brother voicing that he had been doing dangerous stunts, Colossus rested his hand on the back of Wade's head. "There is nothing wrong with putting voice to what you need and if you need me to turn you over my knee and spank you until you feel more settled, then I will. I will do what you need," he said seriously.

 

"Thanks, Big Guy..." Wade gave Colossus a crooked smile. "I don't like worrying or upsetting you...maybe this will help me not do so."

 

"And if it can help you to feel more settled, it will be worth doing," Colossus replied seriously, making sure Wade knew he was the priority.

 

"Thank you..." Wade said again, before giving his brother a tight hug. Taking a deep breath, he stood and fixed his clothing, wincing at the sting but smiling happily. "Shall we go get dinner? See how many of the kids I scared with my caterwauling?" His smile turned sheepishly amused.

 

Colossus stood as well, wrapping an arm around Wade's shoulders. "Having spent time with you, I am certain they would not be surprised by what has just happened," he teased his brother.

 

"Ha! You are not wrong..." Wade chuckled. "You don't think I traumatized the toddler, do you?" he asked, with a hint of worry.

 

"I'm sure her family can take care of her," Colossus answered, as he guided his brother from the room.

 

When Wade walked into the dining area and saw all eyes turn toward him with a mixture of worry and curiosity, he couldn't help doing a little jig and grinning. "Yes, I am a screamer!" He gave a lascivious wink toward Vanessa and wiggled his butt before going and sitting down next to Colossus. "And ooooow! I'm gonna feel that for at least thirty more minutes!" He pouted at his brother, his eyes smiling and thankful.

 

Colossus took a seat next to his brother, the chair made of material sturdy enough to hold his weight, and rested a hand gently on his brother's shoulder.

 

Pepper's parents might have retired for the night, but no one could have missed the amount of noise Wade was making and it didn't take long for the elderly couple to appear in the room, twin looks of concern on their faces.

 

Pepper, seeing her parents and knowing the look on their face meant she'd have to explain family dynamics, let her face fall into her hands. "Crap," she muttered, before giving Wade a dirty look.

 

Wade blinked at the 'death glare', then looked toward the elderly couple before looking back at Pepper, his eyes wide and his mouth forming a perfect 'Oh'. 'Sorry' he mouthed.

 

Pepper's mother looked at everyone sitting round the table and then focused on her daughter. "Is everything all right?"

 

"There was a lot of shouting going on," her father added in.

 

Pepper's furtive look toward her parents and dark blush likely didn't ease any of their worry. "Uh..." she began.

 

"I'm sorry. That was my fault. Everyone is fine, though..." Wade interrupted with a big smile, before shifting in his seat and biting down hard to avoid wincing.

 

Her parents were elderly, but they weren't stupid. "Did you get hurt?" her father asked, looking at Wade.

 

"Uh...no." Wade's grin faltered slightly. Glancing toward the wall, he shrugged. "Ah well...in for a penny, in for a pound...." He turned back to face Pepper's parents after talking to his 'invisible people'. Clearing his throat and straightening, he proclaimed, "I was a very naughty boy and got my aaaa..." he glanced around at the children, "...aabutt handed to me by my brother. I won't be naughty again. For at least a day...."

 

Vanessa shook her head. "And now everyone knows how he handles you...." she murmured.

 

For a few moments, the eldery couple looked shocked; and then Pepper's mother, apparently finding her voice, looked at her daughter and then at the other parental figures. "It doesn't seem like that's a surprise."

 

Steve shrugged and glanced at his siblings. Like Wade said... "It's not really," he finally said.

 

Wade shrugged and grinned at Vanessa. "Yeah...they woulda figured it out eventually anyway. Now I don't have to pretend my tookus doesn't ache like a mofo."

 

Pepper watched her parents anxiously, not acting surprised or upset at Wade's announcement at all; indicating she at least knew, if not experienced it. Instead, she looked nervous that her parents be able to accept it.

 

"I think maybe we'd better go back to our room." Her father seemed quite disturbed by the fact, though it was altogether possible that it was just strange to them that adults were willingly putting themselves under someone else's control and authority, to the point of facing physical punishment.

 

Werner had been looking shocked since hearing Wade's reactions. He hadn't been sure of what he was hearing, of course, but it had just been confirmed now. Was that what happened when someone was pulled into the family, like it seemed was being done to him?

 

"Oh boy!" Tony pinched the bridge of his nose, placing a gentle hand on Werner's shoulder. "I had planned to discuss how the family deals with things after dinner tonight so you could ask questions and such, but now...." He looked toward Pepper's parents. "Mom and Dad Potts...I think maybe you should stay for this. I'll explain to everyone who doesn't already know and then we can open the floor to questions. Is that alright?" He looked at Werner worriedly.

 

Werner swallowed, his muscles tense under Tony's hand, but didn't pull away and gave a slightly jerky nod.

 

"It was going to come out sooner or later." Fury glanced around at the official and non-official members of the family. How many of them had already guessed? It wasn't that much of a secret, after all.

 

Pepper gave Tony a grateful smile. Her parents remembered his reputation from before. If he explained and they put two and two together, they'd realize that the family way of dealing with things was the best thing for the family. More so than if she explained.

 

Tony smiled back and then gave the explanation. It didn't take long, though it took slightly longer than normal because he used himself as an example of why it was good for the family, entirely for the Potts' benefit. Finishing the explanation, he looked around. "Questions?"

 

Maria Hill was the first to break the silence. "That does explain a lot. I'm sure I can't be the only one who wondered why you were suddenly a poster boy for good behaviour."

 

Tony blinked, then laughed. "Why Maria...I hadn't thought you'd noticed!" He grinned. He turned toward Werner, but his question was for everyone. "No one has any questions?"

 

Werner bit his lip. "Why...I mean...." He drew in a shaky breath and cast an uncertain glance towards Harry, who'd taken the seat on the other side of him. He had no idea how to ask where that left him and glanced around at the others around the table, wondering if anyone else felt as uncertain and confused as him.

 

Robbie cleared his throat, a curious look on his face. "How did you even decide that would be appropriate?"

 

Skye wrinkled her nose and darted a quick glance towards Coulson and Grant, though didn't say whatever she was thinking.

 

Grant gave his father an uncertain look. He hadn't ever protested being punished in that manner because he'd felt so guilty the first time Coulson had done it, it was the only way the older man would have been able to break through the thick wall Grant had put up between them. And then after, the reason was because he couldn't be 'punished officially' (although Grant had always suspected the true reason was because it was such a personal method of handling things, punishing him that way made certain that Grant wouldn't or couldn't pull away from Coulson emotionally and put those walls up again.) But what had led Coulson to deciding to do that in the first place?

 

It was Paul that answered for the others; which, considering he was a 'visitor', probably surprised some of the group, but he suspected he knew why his brothers had chosen that method and it was likely the same reason Steve had gone that route. "It's probably thought of as very old fashioned now. Most people would think it's not a good way to handle disagreements or disobedience. But Dad always used that method on Phil and I once we became teenagers; despite it being considered a child's punishment, he never spanked us before we became teens and were better able to protest or fight it if we genuinely thought we didn't deserve it. I'm pretty sure all the parents here follow the same policy. I know Nick's parents did the same with him; and I remember a few occasions when Nick's father took care of Phil and I, or Dad took care of Nick.... Anyway... One time when I was around 17, I guess, I complained to Dad about being too old and about how it wasn't appropriate and he should just ground me or some other method and he asked me a question. 'Would any of those other methods work the same way? And if not, why?' He then told me that if they would work the same way, then he'd start using those methods. Had to admit it wouldn't have worked the same way, though." He gave Ben a fond look. "See... It's easier to pretend that what you've done is a small, inconsequential thing that doesn't matter if all that happens is you have to go to bed early for a few nights and aren't able to do 'fun' things you normally do. It's easy to pretend that it won't matter if you do it again some other time, as long as you don't get caught, if the consequences don't really bother you."

 

He eyed the other parents in the room before continuing. "Dad only ever used spanking when we had done something so completely dangerous that we had been at risk of causing injury or even death to ourselves or others. He never used it for minor infractions or typical childish 'rebellion', as long as those infractions or rebellions didn't put as at risk. And I know none of the parents here use it for any other reason either. If their kid is doing something that could result in the kid being killed, or harmed badly, or taken from them in a way that they might not be able to return, that's when they use spanking." He turned to face Robbie, since the younger man was the one who had voiced the question. "And that's why I decided it's appropriate. Because if it is a choice between spanking my loved one and making sure they never repeat the action that put them at risk, or using another method of discipline and hoping it has the same effect? I'm going to go with the punishment that I know will help keep them from repeating the behavior. So that they stay alive."

 

"I don't expect you were born much after I was," Steve said to Pepper's parents. "Corporal punishment wasn't unheard of in the army." He gave Bucky a wry look before continuing, "Being taken in hand by my own brother was what made me choose to use the punishment on my son." He held back from saying it was better than the cold silences and icy withdrawals Howard had punished Tony with. As much as that damage was a sore subject for him, he'd long ago decided he wasn't going to badmouth Tony's biological father, whether in his son's hearing or not.

 

Coulson smiled at his own father and his big brother before saying, "It started out the way it's continued on, as a punishment used in a personal way on family. Even when I didn't put voice to it to begin with, those feelings were there from the start." He didn't say Grant's name, but guessed most of those in the room would realise who he was referring to. He'd told Grant that he'd realised his feelings when having to face losing the younger man to the virus he'd been infected with. The truth was that those feelings had awakened before then, the very first time he'd acted to take Grant in hand.

 

Helen Cho didn't have a particular axe to grind, although she'd been just as surprised by Wade's easy admittance of what had just occurred and finding out it was a 'family thing'. "Hey...as long as I don't have to treat anyone for injuries caused by it and everyone is in full consent mode, you're all adults. Well, normally, anyway...." She glanced at all the child-adults currently in the room. "...I don't see how I have any cause to find fault if the ones submitting to it don't have a problem with it."

 

Luis just gave Scott an indecipherable look, opened his mouth, then looked at Cassie and closed his mouth again. Scott obviously knew what he was thinking of asking, though, because the man had a long-suffering look on his face and shook his head no. "It's not like that, Luis...."

 

Tony smiled at Rhodey, grateful he'd already explained to his oldest friend and brother. He wished he'd explained to Happy, because the protective man looked torn between confusion and wanting to step between him and Steve, as if he needed protecting. "Like Maria said...my behavior has become a lot more stable and less...problematic...since Dad took me in hand. Not being punished for all perceived bad behavior by being ignored for days to months at a time was such a relief, I... I'd much rather not be able to sit straight for a short period of time and actually have my father want to be around me..." he admitted faintly.

 

Happy sighed. "Yeah. I can see that..." he muttered, relaxing at the knowledge that Tony didn't need protecting; from this, at least.

 

Pyro didn't say anything. Just shifted uncomfortably.

 

Gabe gave Robbie a wide-eyed look, as if trying to see if his brother had been convinced that the others were right and might decide to start handling things that way himself.

 

Claire looked toward her boyfriend and snorted in amusement. "Now that I know how Sam's convinced you not to go off fighting every bad-guy in sight so I don't have to use my off-hours cleaning and bandaging you up...I can't say I'm against it. In fact, if it ever comes a time where none of your family is around to take care of things and you do something stupid, I might turn you over my knee myself..." she teased. Chances of there not being any family around to handle Matt if needed were so slim as to be almost non-existent.

 

"Uh...." Matt was at a loss for words.

 

After hearing all her family answering and reacting, Pepper finally found her voice. "Mom...Dad...It's not a bad thing...."

 

Sam rested his hand gently on Matt's shoulder, holding back his own hint of amusement. "Matt isn't the only one whose amount of dangerous actions have gone right down. While it might not be the most conventional way of dealing with things, it's over fast and the pain doesn't tend to linger long. It might be embarrassing, but I'd rather that than risk losing my children."

 

Steve leaned over to gently squeeze Tony's knee. "Even at the worst thing this family faced, I always wanted you," he whispered so only his son could hear, remembering how much they'd all suffered at that time.

 

"It's not such an unusual method of punishment." Wong's aside was primarily to Mordo...but Stephen was likely sitting close enough that he'd overhear; and the enhanced family members would have no trouble hearing his comments.

 

Pepper's mother looked at her daughter, then at Steve, then back at her daughter again. "Has this been something you've experienced?" she asked.

 

Harry leaned lightly against Werner's shoulder, able to tell his brother was feeling unsettled and uncertain. He wanted to tell Werner that it wasn't so bad; that he knew his parents loved him and that was more than his biological father did. But he couldn't articulate it, much to his frustration. Instead, he crawled onto his brother's lap and then reached out to slip a hand into each of his parents'.

 

Tony nodded at Steve, acknowledging the words, before blinking as Harry took his hand. Noticing Werner's unease, he moved closer to his future son, leaning over to whisper in his ear. "It's only done in cases where your actions could have harmed you or others; and it is always done in love. You don't need to fear it or me..." he said softly.

 

Pepper blushed at her mother's question. "Yes..." she admitted quietly. "I've been a recipient and I've been the one admonishing. Both times it was due to actions where life could have been lost."

 

Stephen had heard Wong, but didn't noticeably react. Instead, he turned toward the Potts. "If I may ask...why are you so against it? The recipients, for the most part, are all adults and have accepted if not outright consented to this type of discipline...."

 

Werner swallowed hard. "I've never...no one ever did that to me," he replied quietly.

 

"Me neither," Harry said, his adult mind managing to work around the child's. "I was scared too. But Daddy and Momma didn't do it cause of being..." He frowned as he struggled to find the right word. "They weren't angry. They didn't want to hurt me," he finally finished with.

 

Pepper's father frowned. "Well...I-I suppose we never even considered using that kind of punishment." Glancing at his daughter, he added, "It's difficult to understand what you could have done that warranted that kind of punishment as an adult." Admittedly, Pepper hadn't been an angel; but he'd never felt she'd misbehaved so much to be punished in that way.

 

"I can't help but feel it's a good thing," Aunt May spoke up. Looking at her deaged nephew, she continued, "I was worrying about you for a long time. You didn't tell me what had happened to you, but I didn't miss that you were getting hurt, no matter how fast you healed. This has helped you stop taking those kind of dangerous chances."

 

Peter Parker's grin was slightly rueful and more than a little apologetic.

 

Pepper winced. "I...uh...don't normally do things that get that type of response," she said. "Living with a bunch of super powered, super confident, super talented people... I sometimes forget I'm just plain regular non-super me...." She sounded so dejected and depressed, more than half the room was looking at her in concern by the time she'd finished.

 

Tony's face was openly worried. "Your daughter has only gotten into trouble like that twice in the entire time this family formed. You would never have thought about that type of punishment because she normally is the one who talks the rest of us down from doing stuff that would get us into trouble. The only reason she got into trouble those times was because she was trying to prove to herself that she belonged with us all..." He turned toward Pepper, "...Which you do! I've always believed your super-power was your ability to do what was needed and right...no matter what or who stood in your way. Even when dealing with things that you'd have every right to want to walk away from, or even those things that most people would run from. You are so brave and good and....I don't deserve you. Not really. But I'm so thankful for you being here...." He swallowed and gave a weak smile.

 

Bucky cleared his throat. "Look...I'm sorry you had to find out like this. Normally, we try to tell those who need to know in a more private manner so that they can ask questions and think about things without the added stress of the shock of finding out suddenly with no warning. But the fact is- in our lives...most of us are in danger 90 percent of the time through no fault of our own. So putting ourselves in danger for no good reason the remaining 10 percent is not acceptable. It's so completely not acceptable that the response to it needs to be memorable enough that the miscreant thinks long and hard before behaving in a pointlessly reckless manner again. Some of the kids- like your daughter- are innately responsible and just don't behave in those ways most of the time. But when they do, it'd be more harmful to treat them differently than the rest of the family and discipline them with a milder punishment; even if it would work on them. How do you think that would make them feel? Being treated differently?"

 

"I don't know bout the rest of 'em, but I'd do more of what got me into trouble in the first place in larger amounts and more intensely to either get you to treat me the same way or admit that you aren't treating me the same because I am not really part of the group..." Wade said it loudly enough for the whole floor to hear in a matter of fact way, even if he'd decided to do headstands on the back of one of the chairs to amuse Kara and didn't really appear to be paying attention to the conversation.

 

Eyes narrow with worry, Steve leaned over to place a hand on Pepper's shoulder...but it was Harry who reacted more strongly. Clambering from his brother's lap into his mother's (no matter that she looked more like his older sister), he wrapped his arms around her and hugged her as tightly as a seven-year-old with no special enhanced power could. "You are not plain and simple," he declared, with all the intensity he could muster. "You're my Mom." Kissing her cheek, he added, "'Sides...neither am I. I'm not 'special' or 'changed'. And you still wanted me anyway."

 

Colossus rumbled his agreement with his brother. "If you truly love someone, you would do anything to make them feel a part of the family. A part of your family."

 

Even if Pepper's parents were still unsure, it was quite clear that they were accepting the fact it was a part of the family. Her mother moved round to wrap her arms around her daughter, careful not to squish the small seven-year-old. "They're right," she murmured...which really meant about all of it.

 

Pepper blinked at Harry's words, then squeezed him back just as tightly, although she was careful to make sure she didn't hurt him. "Of course I wanted you. Want you. You're my boy...." She sniffled, fighting back tears, and kissed him on the cheek. The look she gave Werner indicated she felt the same about him, but she wouldn't push.

 

When her mother came and hugged her, agreeing with the rest of her family, she couldn't hold in the tears, though. She gave her mother a grateful smile, face wet and red and blotchy. "Love you, momma..." she whispered.

 

"So!" Hands clapped together and a tiny Asian lady looked around the room. "It's settled? Everyone knows what happens when kids are naughty and there are no more questions? Because I want to ask my daughter why it is taking her so long to ask my future son-in-law on a date!" Lian exclaimed boisterously.

 

"Mother!" Melinda's scandalized voice was nearly as loud, but it was the complete and total red of her face that had most of the group silent. It took a lot to embarrass May.

 

"What?! It's a valid question!" Lian protested. It was clear by the twinkle in her eye she enjoyed riling her daughter up...and that perhaps she'd done so deliberately to take the focus off of Pepper, who had started to look self-conscious about all the attention she was receiving.

 

Steve couldn't help chuckling, noticing the slightly embarrassed look that came over Phil's face. "Perhaps we could leave off talking about anything personal until later?" he suggested. "The food's getting cold."

 

Harry let his head rest on his mother's shoulder and just snuggled, beginning to look a little bit tired. He wanted to ask his parents to put him to bed...or at least to take him into one of their rooms so he could cuddle with them...but yawned instead.

 

Pepper continued to hold and snuggle Harry. "Can you try and eat a little bit, sweetie? Before you sleep? I'll have your daddy or grandpa take you in to bed after..." she whispered into his ear. Looking at Werner, she nodded for him to get some food. "You too, honey...."

 

Lian grinned at Steve, the impish look in her eye not boding well for her daughter not staying red for the unforeseeable future.

 

Harry nodded, nestling back against his mother and reaching out to start eating. He was still holding onto his father's hand with one of his, wanting to be close to both his parents.

 

Still struggling to realise he was being included, Werner began eating as well, a bit surprised to realise he'd subconsciously followed Pepper's directions. Of course, technically she was older than him.

 

The rest of dinner was uneventful and soon everyone was done and retired to their rooms (or their parent's room) for the night.

Chapter Text

It had been a week since the big reveal to the entire family and friends and things had settled into a routine. A very monotonous routine. Jessica wanted to get out...needed to get out. She knew she wasn't the only one; all the other 'teen' girls had responded favorably when she'd suggested an outing. None of them, even Pepper, was against the idea. She'd enlisted Loki's help to get them out of the compound unnoticed and Deacon's friend St. John (who said to call him Pyro) for IDs. Now they just needed opportunity.

 

The family members who hadn't been deaged, or at least not as far, were still hunting down HYDRA bases. Some intel from an agent who had gone undercover gave them a place and time to hit; a base where pregnant women had been taken.

 

Continuing to feel lost and confused about the whole situation, Werner had taken to researching on his laptop. Quite by accident, he'd hit on a connection between what his captors had said and an area not far from where they'd held him. The logical part of him pointed out that the adults in the family needed to know what he'd found out. The rest of him thought that he needed to find a way to be useful. So they'd want to keep him around, because...why would he be wanted now, no matter what they said?

 

"Now is the perfect time..." Jessica whispered to her accomplices. "Almost everyone who would stop us is gone...Darcy and Ward are watching Kara and the younger kids...they won't notice right away and with Loki hiding our presence...."

 

"You're sure Grant or one of the guys won't tell?" Raina asked nervously.

 

"They won't want to get us into trouble...." Patsy sounded a bit uncertain, though. She wasn't sure she wanted to do this, but Jessica had been persuasive.

 

"I uh...I asked Lance to come too..." Bobbi admitted. "And Grant overheard and invited himself and Peter Q....."

 

"Does anyone else know?" Jessica sounded worried. This whole thing wouldn't work if the guys told on them.

 

Patsy shook her head. "I don't think anyone else is aware."

 

"I guess we're ready then...where's Loki?" She looked around at everyone assembled.

 

"She's right here," Lorelei announced, dragging a pretty dark-haired girl behind her. "She couldn't decide on the miniskirt or leather pants...."

 

Grant had arrived by then and blinked at the two Asgardians. "Dang...Lance, Pyro and I will have our hands full keeping the creeps away...." he teased his siblings and cousins.

 

Lance turned up at that point. "Okay, so Ward and Darcy are taking care of the kids," he announced. "We just need to make sure Veronica and Friday don't realise where we're headed." Of course, that was where Loki came in....

 

"They won't realize. I've already cloaked us and made it seem like we're in our rooms..." Loki smiled, her voice amused.

 

Jessica nodded. "Let's go then."

 

For a change, it had been Wanda talking Pietro into going clubbing; not that her twin needed much persuading. The two turned up slightly late, whispering that they'd nearly ended up being caught sneaking out by Drax. Wanda's ability had nearly let them down, due to hormones playing havoc with her powers.

 

"Crap! Drax almost saw you?!" Peter Q. whispered anxiously. "I thought he'd gone with the rest of the group on their mission...who else stayed behind that we might accidentally run into?!"

 

"I think he had to come back to get something," Pietro whispered back. "It was just that he happened to be going in the same direction we were coming from."

 

Patsy shifted nervously, but didn't say anything.

 

"Ok...let's just get out of here before something happens and we get caught..." Jessica muttered, heading for the stairs.

 

Loki quickly followed, making sure the cloaking stayed in place.

 

The others weren't far behind.

 

***

 

The compound had been quiet as Werner snuck out. He wasn't sure what it said about him that he missed the noise that came from having so many people in one building, no matter how big the building was. He'd ended up ducking into one of the rooms to avoid Harry, feeing bad that the boy had been looking for him, but...if he couldn't find a way to be useful, what reason would they have for keeping him there?

 

It didn't take long for him to take one of the cars, following the directions he'd pieced together to another smaller location.

 

***

 

The mission had been a success and, due to the number of highly-trained agents, no one suffered from anything more than a few bruises. The compound was quieter than normal as the vehicles pulled up into the garage.

 

Steve got out and glanced around at the other family members, then frowned and cocked his head as he realised there were more vehicles missing. Looking around to see if anyone else had noticed, he quickly asked Friday to confirm if all the children were safely in the compound.

 

Friday paused for a moment and when she answered, there was a confusion that had never been in her voice before. "Masters Grant, Lance, Loki, St. John, Pietro and Peter Quil and Misses Wanda, Patsy, Pepper, Bobbi, Raina, Lorelei and Jessica are all missing, but I do not recall them leaving.... Master Werner left in a car about two hours ago. The rest of the children are watching a movie with Mistress Darcy and Master Ward."

 

Coulson stepped closer to Steve, eyes narrowing in worry. "Friday, do they have their phones on them? Can you track their whereabouts?" He had his phone out and was trying to call all of them.

 

Steve turned to Tony. "Could something have corrupted her systems?" He was fighting to keep his own sense of panic down. Werner leaving on his own meant that at least he hadn't been taken...but the rest of them could have been.

 

"Friday?! Self-diagnostic, please...and please have everyone who is still here come so we can talk to them. See if they know anything...." Tony didn't try and hide his worry. His son and his future wife were missing. He was just glad Harry wasn't among the missing. While Friday did a self-check, he did his own check on the systems on his phone.

 

It didn't take long for the remaining family to arrive in the foyer.

 

"Oki back?" Kara asked curiously, just as Friday confirmed that all the kids had their phones on them and turned on.

 

Trip blinked. "What do you mean, Kar-bear?" He kept his voice calm and non-threatening, so that she wouldn't worry about getting anyone in trouble...especially since she suddenly had a really guilty look on her face.

 

"I sowwy...I hid under bed and thpied..." she admitted reluctantly, obviously worried she was in trouble; she’d been told to stop hiding under the bed and listening to people when she'd nearly got blasted by Rocket, before he realized she was a 'baby humie' and not someone out to steal from him.

 

Fury gently picked up his daughter, holding her close. "What did they say?" he asked, keeping his voice gentle and calm.

 

Steve stepped away so Kara couldn't hear him. "Friday, are they all together, as near as you can tell?"

 

Werner had left his laptop open. It was password-protected, of course, but Skye was a hacker. She was good at what she did. She was delayed only for as long as it took her to figure out Werner's password and bring up what he'd been searching for. She came into the area in time to hear Steve's question. "I doubt it, unless they all decided to go seek out a HYDRA base too." She immediately handed the laptop over to Tony.

 

"Pepper wouldn't have agreed to going here...and since Friday actually remembers Werner leaving, I'm fairly certain he went alone. I need to get him..." He gave his father a tormented look. It was obvious he was worried about Pepper as well.

 

Kara bit her lip. "Oki was a pwetty girwel. Jeth said dey go dants!"

 

Friday answered Steve just as quietly. "All but Master Werner are in one location. I have marked their location on your phone, sir and have marked Master Werner's location on Master Anthony's phone."

 

"At the risk of over-stepping...if the parents of those at the club go to retrieve them, they are in a very public and mostly safe area. Everyone else can accompany Tony to get Werner and make certain HYDRA does not get hold of him...." Luke suggested.

 

Yo-Yo nodded. "I'm ready to help..." She couldn't help wondering why the teens would choose to sneak out when they knew they'd get into trouble, assuming they would be. Especially after that big reveal a few days before.

 

"I'll stay and continue to watch the kiddies..." Darcy offered.

 

"Thank you, Friday." Steve gently squeezed Tony's shoulder as he nodded to Luke. "It sounds as if they're all safe and that the biggest danger is Werner. I'll go with Phil, Clint and Bucky to collect them from the club, but if you need us, just send a message," he directed Tony.

 

Blake took a step forward. "I'd like to go with you, sir, to collect Pyro," he said to Steve. Even though he was a teenager, he was still worried about St. John; not just because the boy was close to his brother.

 

Tony swallowed and nodded, grateful that his father was able to direct everyone.

 

Mack looked at Odin. "Dad...if you'd like me to go get my siblings while you and Thor help with Werner, I will. Or if you want to go get them...I've been fighting HYDRA, it feels like, my whole life. And if Lorelei got drunk she may not use the best judgement...." His smile was crooked.

 

Kraglin cleared his throat. "On account of us not wanting to cause a panic among people...do you want us to help you fight off HYDRA? Should I go to get my baby brother...since I'm the closest to looking like I'm from earth?"

 

Odin turned to Mack. "We will go and retrieve your siblings while Thor will help rescue Werner from HYDRA," he decided.

 

Yondu clasped Kraglin's shoulder. "Yeah, you go get the kid. Meantime, your other dad and me'll go kick some ass."

 

"I am Groot."

 

"No, I'll go," Rocket said, before muttering under his breath, "Can't have another button mishap."

 

There was a period of dead silence for about ten seconds after Rocket's comment and then everyone was moving to get into the vehicle going to the location they were headed.

 

After everyone was gone again, Ward glanced at Skye. "I'm so glad I am not mixed up in that..." He sighed, before holding his arms open for Kara to jump into.

 

"I could have been. I know they weren't feeling useful and were bored," Skye commented, shaking her head with a sigh. "I can't believe becoming a teenager has made me more responsible."

 

Ward chuckled at Skye's comment, then directed her in front of him to join the others in watching a movie.

 

***

 

Since the kids weren't in any danger, Steve didn't break any speeding limits driving to the club, even if he did go as fast as safe would allow. It might not be dangerous, but they still had a lot of enemies out there. And the kids were potentially vulnerable, as Steve couldn't imagine any of them would have thought even to decide on a designated driver.

 

Pulling up outside the club, Steve...in full Captain America gear...was very quickly striding through the doors, knowing the others would follow.

 

Reflecting that his brother would get their attention, if nothing else, Coulson followed, walking alongside Blake. The policeman might have been deaged to a teenager, but Coulson recognised the look of worry and faint hint of fear on his face.

 

The bartender was shooting dirty looks at the bouncer. Yeah, she shouldn't have served them when she could tell that the IDs were fake, but the strawberry blonde had slipped her a hundred and it was obvious, from the way they were dressed, that they were part of the one percent and were slumming it. She figured they had a driver somewhere who'd be taking them home before things got bad enough for her to do anything. Except when she'd mentioned a driver to one of them, the girl had got a surprised look on her face and shrugged, saying they should have thought of doing that.

 

It was then she'd cut them off- she probably should have done so sooner really- and attempted to get them to sober up. The regular patrons were leaving because they could tell the group was underage and didn't want to get caught up in whatever legal drama was sure to unfold. Every time the bouncer walked over to throw them out, the tiny red head said something that convinced him not to. And the owner of the bar had come in to check on things. She'd be lucky if she wasn't fired; or she'd thought she would be anyway. He walked over to do the bouncer's job and that same tiny red-head said something and next thing she knew, he was buying shots for the room. Considering the only ones still in the room were those blasted kids, she knew it wouldn't completely sink him...but still.

 

And then Captain America was striding into the room.

 

"Thank God someone called you," she muttered, before noting how all the children stopped whatever they were doing; be it dancing, drinking, or throwing darts at each other...she shot a dirty look at those miscreants....and stared with wide almost frightened eyes at the good captain.

 

The room was silent, save for the music blaring from speakers; and the DJ quickly turned that off. And then through the room... "Daddy?!"

 

Steve looked around at each of his children and nieces and nephews, letting the full weight of disappointment sink in before he turned to the bartender. "I'm certain you could tell they were underage." He didn't raise his voice, but his words still carried through to each of the adults in the room. He hadn't missed the flash of money and directed a second disappointed look at Pepper, even though he left off actually scolding for the moment.

 

The other parents (and big brothers, in Blake's and Kraglin's case) were quick to head over to their charges, quietly checking if any of them had driven there and arranging who was going to drive who home.

 

The bartender had the grace to look ashamed of herself under the Captain's gaze. "I was the one who served them...Toby let them in, but he's not so good at spotting fakes..." she admitted. "Not sure about Bob, though...he'd never have let them in, let alone served them normally. Somehow that tiny red-head convinced him."

 

Pepper grinned at her father, as if she'd done nothing wrong. She and the rest of the kids were too far drunk to realize the seriousness of their actions. Luckily, because they hadn't wanted the cars to be tracked, they'd walked to the main road when leaving and called several taxis, so there were no vehicles to retrieve.

 

Steve had a few more quiet words with the bartender, bouncer and owner and then moved to join the rest of the family, who were guiding the drunk kids to the vehicles. "Blake, you and Pyro can ride back with me," he suggested to the teenager.

 

Pyro wasn't a bubbly drunk. He tended to the depressed melancholy. "You're gonna make me leave again..." he muttered. "You're gonna tell Deacon to stay away from me...."

 

Blake winced visibly, but placed a hand gently on Pyro's shoulder. "You're not going anywhere," he stated. "Except for back to the compound with me and everyone else."

 

"Promise?" Pyro looked up at Blake, all the uncertainty, low-self-esteem and neediness showing clearly.

 

Jessica came up to Steve at that moment, an arm slung around Pepper's shoulders. "Heeeeey, Daddio! I didn know you like clubs!"

 

Pepper giggled and listed to one side when Jessica tripped over her own feet.

 

Grant was busy doing a slow dance with a barstool, while Bobbi and Raina provided off-key music in the form of singing a very off-color limerick.

 

Blake squeezed Pyro's shoulder gently. "I promise. You're coming back home. I'm glad you're safe," he added, using his hand on Pyro's shoulder to guide him out of the club.

 

Steve turned to his daughters. "Club time is over. It's time we went back home."

 

Pietro had been one of those throwing darts, while his sister warped them in midair. They'd stopped when Steve and the others put in an appearance, but Pietro had got the bright idea to grab some more alcohol and ran at the bar at superspeed...or tried to. His balance was off and he crashed into the bar.

 

Coulson moved to his children, gently resting a hand each on Bobbi's and Raina's shoulders. "It's time to go home." He looked towards Grant, including his son in the direction.

 

Patsy stumbled over to her father. "Daddy!" she squealed, throwing her arms around him while her brother had the bright idea to juggle his knives.

 

Odin looked around for Loki and Lorelei, quickly heading over to them.

 

Pyro went easily. The same couldn't be said of the others.

 

Jessica and Pepper gave Steve twin pouts and Jessica said, in what could only be termed as a whine, "But we just got here!"

 

Clint about had a heart attack when he'd seen what his children were up to. Quickly, he moved to help Pietro up, making certain he wasn't hurt before taking his arm in a supportive, non-budging grip. "Come, Wanda, it’s time to go home." He motioned his daughter to join him and her brother.

 

Bobbi turned toward her father. "Daddy! Did you know there was a man from Nantucket?" she asked giddily. "Let’s dance!" she blurted, grabbing her father's hand and attempting to waltz with him, while Raina decided she wanted to be a curtain and hang off him and Grant decided now was the perfect time to wrestle with the bar stool.

 

Bucky quickly caught his daughter before barking out at his son to put the knives down. There was an 'or else' tone in his voice.

 

Loki and Lorelei weren't quite as inebriated as the others, so they realized immediately that they were in trouble and looked like they wanted to run and hide.

 

Blake led Pyro out of the club and towards the car, keeping in physical contact with the other teenager.

 

Steve wrapped an arm each around his daughters' shoulders. "I think you've been here for long enough," he replied firmly.

 

"Okay, Papa!" Wanda stumbled over to Clint, nearly tripping over her own feet, and threw her own arms around him. "I love you."

 

Coulson wrapped his arm tighter around his daughters' shoulders. "Grant. It's time to come home, son." he said.

 

Lance jumped and dropped one of his knives before turning an innocent look on his father. "I wasn't doing anything!"

 

Odin and Thor moved to Loki and Lorelei and Odin held an arm out to each of them. "It is time to return home," he said firmly.

 

"Maybe just a little longer?" Pepper cajoled, tugging away from her father.

 

Clint couldn't help but smile at the words, even if the situation was frustrating. "I love you too, princess. You too, speedy..." He looked at Pietro, wrapping an arm around both of his children and leading them out to the car.

 

"Do we hafta! I almost have him beat!" Grant protested, as he held his 'opponent' down.

 

"I know you didn't just try and lie to me, son..." Bucky admonished. "C'mon. Let's go..." He held a hand out expectantly.

 

Loki shuffled her feet awkwardly; then, unable to stop herself, ran into her father's arms. Lorelei was only a second behind her.

 

Kraglin was glancing around in confusion. "Peter? Where are ya, boy?!" he called out.

 

"Kraglin?" A voice came from up high. Kraglin looked to see Peter wedged up on top of a shelf full of liquor.

 

The bartender got a flummoxed look on her face. "How? When...? You don't belong up there!"

 

"Get down!" Twin voices yelled at Peter, one stern and unyielding, the other high pitched and scared.

 

"Okay, okay. Don't get. Your panties in a twist..." Peter grumbled, before rolling off the shelf and dropping ten feet onto the floor.

 

Steve simply snagged Pepper again, super speed and so much practise with Tony making him fairly quick to grab hold of one of his children. "No, now. Tony's worried." About Werner, too, especially since Pepper had only been in the club. Steve was just as worried, knowing Werner might well have been grabbed by HYDRA again. The kid already thought he was worthless.

 

"I think he's had enough," Coulson replied, somehow managing not to react to his son attempting to fight an inanimate object.

 

Lance sighed and stepped over to his father, taking his hand after putting his knives away.

 

Odin wrapped his arms around his...well, both of his daughters. He might not be used to seeing Loki as a female, but he didn't love her any less.

 

Pepper pouted playfully. "Why's Tony worried? I just decided to have a little fun..." She obviously didn't know about Werner.

 

Jessica giggled and snuggled up to her father on the other side. "Yeah...we just came to have a little fun...."

 

"If you say so...he seems to be asleeep!" Grant giggled, before standing slowly and staggering to Coulson's side.

 

Lorelei gave a nervous giggle. They may have been sober enough to realize they were in trouble, but they were drunk enough to not be able to control their tongues. "Isn't Loki pretty, Daddy? She borrowed some of Jess and Bobbi's clothes, so she thought maybe she looked weird..."

 

Loki blushed. "I don't think I look weird! I just can't believe I let you all talk me into this...." She looked down at her female form and blushed. "I haven't worn this form in a long time...." she admitted hesitantly.

 

Kraglin shook his head and helped Peter up, before carefully walking him to the car.

 

Steve tightened his arms around both of them. "Werner took the opportunity to sneak out as well," he replied quietly. "Tony and the others have gone to the HYDRA base he was headed towards."

 

Coulson had an arm each around his daughters, but he reached out and gently squeezed Grant's shoulder. "Let's go home," he said to all of his children.

 

"There is nothing wrong or strange in whatever form you wear," Thor said firmly. "Brother or sister, you are still mine."

 

Odin smiled at his oldest son and nodded his own agreement. "Thor is right."

 

Pepper may have been drunk off her butt, but she understood that clearly. "What?! Why would Werner go to a HYDRA base? That's danrous! Whatze thinkin?!" Her eyes and tone were panicked. Jessica didn't look all that calm herself at hearing her nephew was in danger.

 

"Okay, daddy..." Bobbi slurred and leaned on Coulson more strongly.

 

Raina stayed quiet, but let him lead her while Grant stumbled along behind.

 

Loki sniffled and nodded in response to her brother. He'd always felt that way and she knew she could count on him, no matter what, to believe that. She hadn't been quite as sure about her father and couldn't help giving Odin an anxious, self-conscious look. "You aren't mad?"

 

"He probably wasn't thinking." Steve's comment was muttered under his breath. He could imagine why Werner had taken off. The same reason that had driven so much of Tony's self-destructive behaviour. He began to lead his daughters out of the club. "The others are going after him," he reiterated.

 

Coulson guided his children out to his car and then helped each of them to get in and do their seatbelts up.

 

Odin gently stroked Loki's hair. "I would have preferred you not to leave home when it was dangerous to do so and certainly not to drink when you are aware of the consequences alcohol can have even when you and they are at your usual ages. But changing your form is not something I would ask or want you to stop doing."

 

Pepper nodded, relieved that Tony was going after their son. "Let's go, daddy..." she slurred, somewhat subdued.

 

Loki smiled and snuggled against her father. "Thank you, daddy...."

 

***

 

Pyro didn't fight Blake at all, instead talking about how he didn't want to be alone anymore...was tired of not having anyone. And fighting tears.

 

Truth be told, Blake had thought from the start that what Pyro needed was an authority figure. The amount of trouble the teenager had got into, he'd felt someone needed to step in. If it hadn't been for having to act the part of a dirty officer and knowing anyone he grew close to would be a target, he would have stepped in after the party.

 

Clambering into the backseat of the car with the youngster, Blake responded in exactly the same way he would if it was Deacon in so much emotional pain. He wrapped his arms around Pyro and hugged him tight. "You aren't alone anymore," he whispered, guilt stabbing him for not doing anything before.

 

Pyro would never had done it if the alcohol hadn't loosened his inhibitions. When Blake wrapped his arms around him, he latched on, gripping tightly and pressing as close as possible.

 

"Deacon's going to be worried as well," Blake said softly. "You tell me what you want to happen. Do you want to wait and see him tomorrow? You can stay in my room tonight." It was worded as an offer, but he didn't intend to accept no as an answer.

 

"Wanna stay with you..." Pyro said quietly, snuggling some more.

 

Blake gently stroked his hair, tightening his embrace. "That's where I'm going to keep you," he whispered. "I'm sorry it took me so long to step up, but I promise you aren't going to be alone. I promise I'm not going to change my mind." He wasn't sure how much Pyro was going to remember come the morning, but it didn't matter. He'd put voice to those promises then as well.

 

***

 

It took longer than it should have, possibly due to the inebriation causing them to move slowly, but finally, they were all in cars and heading home.

 

***

 

It hadn't taken long to reach the HYDRA base. It felt like it had taken much too long to Tony. His nerves were such he didn't feel capable of leading the group in. He looked toward his uncle Nick to take charge.

 

Fury was quick to take charge and organise the team into groups. He'd held out a little hope that they'd catch up with Werner before he got inside the base, but there was no sign of the kid. Fury wasn't sure if he'd been captured or if he'd sneaked inside, but either way, he did recon with Mike, Yo-Yo and Luke and then directed the teams into the various entrances they'd found that appeared to be under lighter guard.

 

"Any luck, guys?" Tony asked over comms. He hadn't found his son yet, despite running into several groups. He was worried perhaps Werner had been captured and moved before they even discovered they needed to rescue him.

 

"Nothing yet." Fury sounded as calm as it was possible to, given the situation they were in.

 

Werner had actually, so far, managed to evade capture. The HYDRA soldiers he'd encountered in the base hadn't known him, even if they'd known his father, and he'd been able to bluff his way in using the knowledge he'd gleaned from the ones who'd originally captured him.

 

Pretending maintenance, he'd found his way into one of the computer systems. Trouble was, he wasn't a hacker and he only had a few attempts at guessing the password before the alarm would be raised.

 

Tony could only hope that his son had found someplace safe to hide, because he wasn't finding any evidence of his presence at all. Until Veronica informed him of an out of the way computer room that might contain information. He'd quickly informed his uncle so that he could go there. He wasn't about to head that direction without Nick's go ahead, though. The man might need him somewhere else more and it would do no one any good if he went there, discovered a block to his communication and wasn't able to tell them what had occurred.

 

"Head there and I'll send Trip and Brock to cover you while you look inside," Fury directed over the comms to his nephew, before passing on that instruction to his sons.

 

"Yes, sir..." Tony quickly obeyed, heading toward the room Veronica had located. He could only hope his son was there, since he hadn't been anywhere else they'd looked.

 

It was purely an accident that Werner had managed to hit on the correct password. He'd heard commotion and even though the sounds were far away, he knew he should hurry. He bit his lip and glanced at the door as he waited for the files to copy over. Would he have time to somehow corrupt their systems before he had to leave?

 

Tony reached the room, but waited for Trip and Brock to get there before making a move. As soon as they were there, he was busting the door down, hands raised to fire his re-pulsars if needed. It didn't take him long to glance around the room and realize there was only one individual there and that they weren't a hostile. "Werner!" he said, in a low voice that managed to show all the worry and stress he'd been feeling the last hour or so and his disapproval of his son taking off. "We're going now. Come on..." He wasn't completely oblivious to the fact that what Werner had found might be important, though. Sticking what appeared to be a thumb drive into the computer, he said, "Get everything you can, Veronica and then burn it all...."

 

"As you say, Master Stark..." the AI answered him through his suit.

 

Surprised, Werner moved out of Tony's way. "Did you find the base's location too?" It never even occurred to him that they were there because he was missing. No one had ever worried about him before, so he didn't recognise that. Disapproval, though? He was more than a little used to that and his shoulders slumped. If he'd just stayed away, he wouldn't be in the way.

 

"Did we...." Tony did a double take, noticing the slumped shoulders. "...We only found it because we were looking for you..." Tony admitted, at the risk that Werner would view that as justification for just taking off without word. "I want to get you out of here before something bad happens to you...come...quick..." Tony held out a hand to encourage Werner to follow him. "Veronica will get whatever information you didn't already get and then she'll destroy all the electronics she is connected to and the thumb drive will self-destruct. It's a new prototype I was working on. She's much quicker than most hardware and it removes the risk of them catching you with incriminating evidence..." He was just rambling really by this point, trying to distract Werner so he'd stop looking like he thought he was in the way.

 

The look of confusion on Werner's face overshadowed anything else he might have been feeling as he hesitantly stepped closer to Tony. "I wasn't planning to tell them anything. I just wanted to help." That was the only other reason he could think of that they would have been looking for him. That they thought he'd defect over to HYDRA.

 

"I know that..." Tony popped his face-mask up so he could see Werner without the computerized filter. "...We never thought you were going back to HYDRA. We thought they'd somehow captured you...." Shaking his head, Tony gently took Werner's arm in his hand and began to lead him to the extraction point. "We were worried about you. Worried that HYDRA had decided to finish what they'd started when they took you the first time." He tried to keep his voice calm so that Werner wouldn't assume the worst and worked very hard to keep the hurt out of his voice that Werner would think he was only worried about a possible intelligence leak. He'd thought he'd done a better job of letting the younger man know his intentions.

 

Clearing his throat, he said, "Update, Veronica?"

 

"I have retrieved all data from that computer and all connected systems. I've left a Trojan behind so that if they somehow manage to salvage anything from the system, I will be informed and will be able to infect their new system. I've erased all the data from the system and have self-destructed the thumb drive, which has resulted in the machine catching fire. Soon, there will be alarms through-out the building and drawing the attention of any HYDRA operatives that didn't already know of our presence. I suggest you move more quickly, sir." The AI was precise and quick with the information.

 

"Well, alrighty then. You hear that, boys? We gotta run," Tony said to Trip and Brock, as he pulled Werner past them.

 

Trip didn't even bother to question his cousin, just grabbing Brock and turning around to follow, keeping guard of their six.

 

Brock relayed all the given information to Fury.

 

Werner didn't know how to respond to that. Didn't know how he was expected to respond to that. But Tony was moving fast and he was being pulled along and recovered himself enough to find his feet, so he wasn't being dragged or pulling back on Tony.

 

Fury reacted as soon as his son updated him, quickly getting in contact with the other teams and informing them to get out of the base as quickly as they possibly could.

 

Tony was more focused on getting his son out of the building without incident than on finding out why Werner had run off to gather intel. It wasn't like he couldn't hazard a guess anyway, but he wanted to hear it from the kid's own mouth. His uncle was quick and efficient and it hadn't taken long for everyone to be back in their vehicles and evacuating the now burning building. HYDRA had been dealt another blow. The trip back to the house was quiet.

 

Fury was quick to touch base with Steve as soon as they were back in the compound, relieved to find that all the missing kids were back safe. He quickly updated Steve on what had happened his end, informing his brother in particular of how Tony had handled the situation. His nephew needed to know that they were proud of him.

 

Moving back to Tony's side, Fury clasped his shoulder. "Everyone else is back, but from the sounds of it, they all managed to get drunk and I think they're being put to bed."

 

Tony gave his uncle a confused look at that information. "But....Pepper doesn't get drunk. She always hated it when I would get drunk... is... are... I don't get it..." He sighed and rubbed his eyes wearily. "Are we debriefing?" he asked wearily.

 

"We'll debrief in the morning, once everyone's had a chance to get some sleep," Fury replied. "It's been a long day." He glanced at Werner, who was standing like he wasn't sure where he should be going, looking lost and guilty.

 

"Thanks, Uncle Nick..." Tony said gratefully, reaching up and grasping the older man's hand that was still on his shoulder. Taking a silent sigh, he turned toward Werner. "C'mon, kid. You're going to stay with me tonight...." Tony didn't even think about asking Werner if he was okay with that. It was something the entire family did; stay with each other after something big had happened and one of the kids had been in danger... especially if the kid in question was in trouble and about to be disciplined for their actions. It was so common, Tony didn't even think about asking Werner if he was alright with staying in Tony's room.

 

Werner looked completely confused by that declaration. "With...you...?" He didn't remember the last time he'd stayed in someone's room, at least someone who wasn't a one-night stand. The whole day's events had confused him and he had no frame of reference for how he was supposed to react.

 

"Yeah...I want to make sure you're really okay. Plus, we need to discuss some things and after, I'd just feel better if I had you close enough to protect.... Even if this is the safest building in the world, I just...." Tony shrugged, not certain how to explain that he was feeling very anxious and paranoid about Werner's safety and the easiest way to calm that was to keep him close.

 

Werner didn't know how he should feel about Tony saying they needed to discuss some things. He remembered the big reveal a few days earlier, but figured it didn't really apply to him. He wasn't actually in the family, after all. But they'd let him stay and he'd upset Tony, so he owed him. "O-okay...." he whispered, waiting for directions.

 

"We'll drop by your room in case you want to pick some things up and then head to my room..." Tony smiled fondly at the boy. He could only guess what Werner was thinking...but he could tell the kid was confused. By the time they finished their talk, he hoped any confusion about Werner and the place Tony wanted him to hold in their life was cleared up.

 

Werner nodded slowly and began walking in that direction. It didn't take him long to gather what he needed from his room and then he stood waiting for further instruction, feeling awkward and almost shy.

 

Tony wrapped an arm around the younger man's shoulders and led him to his and Pepper's room. He had a feeling his fiancé would be spending the night with their dad, so there would be a bit more privacy to talk than normal. Due to the discussion he needed to have with Werner, he'd asked Pepper's parents to let Harry stay with them for the night. He figured the young boy would like to get to know his other grandparents better and it would help him feel like he wasn't being forgotten about. Soon, they were in the room and the door was closed. He led Werner to sit down on the bed next to him. "I think I can guess why you left like you did, but just in case I'm wrong, can you explain why you left the compound, without word to anyone, to...to..." He swallowed, not able to finish the sentence. All he could think about was Werner captured by HYDRA again and this time not having anyone there to break him free before he was killed.

 

It was embarrassing to think about admitting the truth to Tony, but Werner knew he had to, if only because the man had come after him...had admitted as much to him. He owed Tony that much. "I wanted to make myself useful," he whispered. "I don't...I figured I'd have to leave eventually and I don't want to." Swallowing, he admitted in an even softer voice, "I've never felt like I could eventually belong anywhere else."

 

"Yeah, well...you were wrong, you know. You don't have to leave eventually. Not unless you really, really want to. And if you did want to, I can guarantee the whole family would be doing everything in their power to change your mind. I would be trying to change your mind. We want you to stay, Werner..." Tony paused, drawing the boy even closer into what was more a hug. "I wasn't lying. I want you to be part of my family. My son. And I have every intention of adopting you. I'd planned to wait until your mother was back to her regular age before making it official, because I didn't want there to be any question that she wanted it as well, but if I need to prove my intentions by doing it earlier, I will. I'll call Foggy and get the paperwork all drawn up and we can sign in the morning. If that's what it will take to convince you I want you...."

 

Werner swallowed and couldn't stop himself from actually cuddling into Tony. Before coming here, he'd always been in control of any physical contact; and it had never been affectionate or familial. Harry had attached himself to Werner and it had been somehow easier to let the child in. Let Harry sit on his lap or hold his hand. "I don't know why...." he whispered, his voice shaking a little. "There's nothing...I can't do anything for you.... You're Iron Man. You don't need me."

 

"Kid... I do need you. I don't need you to do anything for me but be with me. That's the most important thing, though. You give me a reason to want to keep doing better and keep fighting harder. And yeah...I know I have Harry and Pepper and my dad and the rest of the family that helps with that..." Tony gave Werner a wry look, "...but they aren't you. I need you."

 

Werner closed his eyes, not sure what it said about him that those words made him want to cry. "No one ever did before...." he whispered. Almost of their own volition, his arms wrapped around Tony; not tightly, loose enough to pull away if it wasn't wanted.

 

"Well...I do..." Tony said gruffly, wrapping his arms more firmly around Werner and hugging him tight. "...Which is why you sneaking off tonight was doubly wrong...." He leaned back and gave Werner a stern if sympathetic look. "Even if no one cared, it would have been wrong to put yourself into a position where you could be captured and killed without letting anyone at all know what you were planning to do. The fact that I care what happens to you...your mother and brother and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins... they all care as well. All of us would have been devastated if something had happened to you. Was there a reason you felt like you had to sneak out instead of letting any of the rest of us know? An acceptable reason?"

 

It was hard, but Werner forced himself to look at Tony. "N-no...." He cleared his throat and had to look down. "I thought...at the time...but you said...." His voice trailed off and he took a deep breath. "Not knowing what I do now," he finished with.

 

Tony nodded and tightened his hug, pulling Werner in close enough that he could kiss his forehead. "Okay. Well...while the way you found out wasn't ideal, you know how unnecessarily dangerous behavior is handled in the family. Leaving without telling anyone that you are going, let alone what you are doing and where, is unnecessarily dangerous. If something had happened to you, we wouldn't have even known we needed to come look for you, let alone that you needed help. From now on, if you find something out that you believe needs to be checked out, you come to me or your grandfather or one of your uncles and let them know, so that we can get a team together; or at least be prepared to come after you if you don't come home when expected. Understood?"

 

Werner nodded before answering verbally, "Yes, sir." Hesitantly, he asked, "Are you going to...? What should I do...?" He knew, in theory, what a spanking was, but had no real idea what it was going to entail. A belt? He wasn't wearing one and didn't think Tony was either...but he glanced at the older man's waist to check. Not, of course, that not having one immediately to hand made a difference.

 

Tony smiled crookedly, trying to be encouraging even if what was about to happen was a bit nerve-wracking. "What will happen is I will put you over my lap. Once I have you secure enough that you won't fall on the floor, I'll bare you; and then I'll begin swatting you with my hand. I don't plan to use a belt or any other implement...I believe implements should only be used in the most extreme circumstances, when nothing else is getting through- and I don't think we are at that point right now. Do you?"

 

"No," Werner whispered. "But...you're in charge. You decide..." It was difficult to say whether his words were a statement of fact or a question.

 

"I am in charge, kiddo...but if you ever disagree with my assessment of anything, you have every right to protest and even refuse..." Tony said quietly. "...It just so happens I agree with you that we are not at a point where extreme measures need to be taken to ensure you learn. And I will only be using my hand." Having said that, he gently pulled Werner over his lap; he quickly lowered Werner's pants and underwear before raising his hand and letting it fall in the first firm smack. As always, he kept the strength to the minimum necessary to get the needed result- and watched carefully to make certain he wasn't harming the younger man. "You're my boy, Werner, soon to be legally, and I will never allow you to do anything that could take you away from me if it isn't necessary and there is something I can do to prevent it. And if you do something unnecessarily that could take you away from me... this is where you'll end up. Every time." He'd continued smacking as he spoke, the punishment used to emphasize his words.

 

Werner whimpered as he was positioned and bared and then blushed at the whimper. He shifted slightly, the swats stinging but not truly painful. He'd been hurt by HYDRA and knew that this barely registered on the pain scale. And yet...tears were filling his eyes already. Not because of the pain, but because of the feeling of being wanted. Of being treated as family. It overwhelmed him and he let out a quiet sob.

 

Tony knew he wasn't smacking that hard; he knew it was the emotions that had caused the near immediate crying. He wanted to stop immediately and pull Werner up into his arms and hold him tight, but he also knew he had to see this to the end or he ran the risk of the kid thinking what he did, didn't matter- that he didn't matter- and Tony couldn't allow that to happen. So he continued smacking in no particular pattern, but covering all of the boy's bottom and sit spots; once, twice and then a third time.

 

Werner's crying became sobbing; again, not because of the effects of the spanking, but because no one had ever stepped in with him. No one had cared. Not until now. The tears nearly blinding him, he reached down to grip onto Tony's ankle. "I'm sorry." It was a heartbroken whimper. "I didn't think...I didn't know I would...." He stopped, not knowing how to continue. He didn't know he would worry Tony. He didn't know his actions would hurt so much. Another heartrending sob escaped.

 

"I know. You didn't think I'd care. You didn't think it would matter if you were hurt or lost to me. But I'm telling you it does matter. It will always matter. And you will never again go on an unsanctioned mission, by yourself, with no way for anyone to track you or contact you or for you to contact them. You will never again leave without at least letting someone know where you are going and how long you plan to be gone. I will do my best to protect you, but I can only do that if you work with me, son." Tony's voice was firm but loving. He'd lessened the swats so that they emphasized his words, but weren't overly hard.

 

"I will...." Werner sobbed out. "I will...I'll do what you say." His tone might as well have been saying 'whatever you say'. He was so desperate to belong, to have what Tony was offering, he would do anything.

 

Tony winced at the tone and had to stop. He couldn't continue when his son sounded so desperate. That wasn't the response he wanted to draw out. He quickly pulled Werner up into his arms and held him tightly. "Hey...it's okay...you're okay...I've got you...and even if you don't do what I say, that won't change. You're mine now and I'm not letting you go, no matter what...even if you never listen to me!" Tony kissed the top of Werner's head. "The only risk you run by not listening to me when I tell you not to take unnecessary chances is getting a sore backside...I'll never leave you." Tony's voice was firm and certain. He meant every word.

 

Even if he'd wanted to resist, Werner couldn't have when Tony held him so tight. Whimpering, tears running down his cheeks, he wrapped his own arms around the older man and held on tight. He tried hard to stop crying, but his emotions were all over the place and it was hard.

 

"I love you, kid...and I'm so thankful you are alright..." Tony whispered. He held him for a few more minutes, before righting Werner's clothing enough that he could walk; then, going to his dresser, pulled out a pair of pyjamas and handed it to his son. "Go on and get changed. I think we could both use the rest and I want you with me tonight."

 

Werner took a deep breath, blinking back the remnants of his tears, and took the pyjamas. He didn't protest going and getting changed and he didn't protest Tony insisting he stay with him. In seconds, he returned, dressed in the pyjamas and fidgeting uncertainly.

 

Tony had changed in the amount of time it had taken Werner to get ready. He had already turned down the sheets and was sitting on the bed. He motioned Werner to join him. "Let's get some sleep...we have to debrief tomorrow."

 

Werner stepped over to the bed, carefully sitting down, still not entirely certain he was wanted here...but he hoped.

 

Tony just crawled under the sheets and held an arm out for his son. He'd understand soon enough.

 

Werner couldn't stop himself from quickly cuddling into Tony...into his father. He felt a stab of awe at being able to think that and pressed a bit closer as he tried the name out loud. "Dad...." He blushed at the needy tone in his voice.

 

"I like the sound of that..." Tony's smile could be heard in his voice. "Good night, kid, get some sleep." Tony pulled Werner in more tightly, then closed his eyes to sleep.

 

****

 

"Kraglin? Why did everyone seem scared? I mean...we just went to a bar and nothing happened..." Star Lord asked in confusion.

 

"Werner disappeared too...only he went to try and get info from a HYDRA base. They was worried for him ...but we was also worried bout y'all. You didn't know if that bar was safe. There coulda been had people there that'd grab all of ya and since yer all shrimps right now..." Kraglin chuckled.

 

"Is Daddy and Poppa mad at me?" Peter's voice was nervous and worried.

 

Yondu and Drax had quickly returned to the set of rooms they had after learning the debrief would take place in the morning. They reached them in time to hear Peter's worried question.

 

"Kid, we was worried." Yondu reached out to hug Peter, then let Drax do the same. "Just like when ya tried to disappear back on the ship. Only now, you know how important you is."

 

"I din mean ta worry you..." Peter mumbled, shuffling his feet and looking at the ground. He wasn't feeling too hot; between having drunk just enough to make his head swim, he was thirsty and now he felt guilty for having worried everyone. "Jus wanted ta have fun.... S'na like I didn't go to bars before...I went ta bars before when I was in space with ya...." He looked up defensively at Yondu.

 

Kraglin shook his head and went to get his little brother a bottle of water, figuring their fathers would handle the explanation, but Kraglin knew full well that even if Peter had gone into bars with the Ravagers by the time he turned fifteen, Yondu hadn't allowed him to drink any alcohol until the kid was closer to nineteen and had done most of his growing- since the older man hadn't been sure what alien spirits would do to the boy’s body or ability to grow.

 

"With me, kid," Yondu replied, taking note of Kraglin going to get the water. "Ya know full well you wasn't allowed to go off on your own. Not taking the time to tell anyone where you was going or when you'da be back."

 

"There are enemies here, even without those we had outside of this galaxy," Drax added. "You could have been taken. Hurt. Been in a fight you lost because your body would not do what you wanted it to."

 

"I..." Peter blinked at both explanations and realized he didn't have any good arguments against either of them. "You always said I couldn't go off alone cuz you didn't want me falling asleep and not getting back to the ship in time and you having to waste time looking for my lazy ass...!" he accused, just starting to realize the real reason was because Yondu was worried about him being hurt.

 

"And...I didn't think there'd be any enemies in a club like that..." His protest was weak and he couldn't help but wince as he looked from Yondu to Drax and back again. He didn't want to acknowledge his body not cooperating. He'd been tripping over his own feet enough since de-aging, he knew it was a valid concern.

 

Yondu reached out, drawing Peter firmly back into his arms and touching the boy's cheek. "If I'd let it be known jus' how much I cared for you, it woulda been easy for any enemies to know who to target," he said gruffly. "I tried ta make it clear every time I could, but the others woulda seen it a weakness. Not now. Now, it don't matter who knows."

 

"You have a high tolerance for alcohol," Drax said. "As an adult. As a teenager, your reactions could be slowed right down. Just because something seems safe doesn't mean it is."

 

"Aaaaw..." Peter whined, but didn't argue or say anything further, instead letting himself lean against Yondu and giving Drax an apologetic look. He knew they were both right and his excuses were just that. Excuses. He had no real defence for his actions and he knew he deserved to be punished for them. "Don't wanna be in trouble..." He pouted, though they all knew he meant he didn't want a spanking.

 

Kraglin stepped into the room long enough to leave the bottle of water and a bottle of pain-reliever on the nearest table. "Do you all need me for anything else? If not, I figure I'll jes go to bed now...."

 

"Do you need anything?" Since Yondu was cuddling Peter, Drax reached out and wrapped his arm around Kraglin's shoulders. He knew Mantis was asleep, which meant he could devote his attention to Kraglin and allow Yondu to deal with their other son, since Drax and Kraglin were still feeling their way round each other.

 

Yondu wasn't unobservant by any means and he figured it would be good for Drax to take care of Kraglin while he handled Peter. Stroking his boy's face, he reached out to pick up the bottle of water. "Ya need ta drink something."

 

"Naw, Dad...I'm good..." Kraglin smiled. "Just figured I'd prolly wanna be elsewhere in a few minutes..." He paused, noting that Yondu seemed to have Peter under control. "...Maybe you and I could go get a snack and talk a bit more, though...."

 

Peter looked at the door to Yondu's room longingly. "Can I jus go to bed?" he asked semi-hopefully, giving Yondu his pleading 'puppy-eyes' look.

 

Drax nodded, reaching out to ruffle Peter's hair with his free hand before he guided his other son from the room.

 

"No, kid. Yer getting a spanking and you didn't drink enough that it needs ta wear off before we deal with this." Yondu opened the water bottle and held it to Peter's lips, clearly going to insist on his boy drinking.

 

Peter gave Yondu a muleish look before his shoulders slumped and his eyes changed from belligerent to resigned. "I can hold the bottle m'self..." he muttered, before beginning to drink from the bottle his father held. He was in enough trouble without arguing about rehydrating.

 

Yondu kept one hand on Peter's shoulder while he encouraged his son to drink from the bottle in his other hand. His hand shifted from Peter's shoulder to gently stroke his hair.

 

Peter obediently continued to drink, relaxing despite himself as his father 'pet' his head. He didn't gulp the water, having learned that doing so would upset his stomach. Besides which, Yondu was controlling the bottle and anytime it looked like he might be drinking too fast, his father moved it just enough to slow the release of water. It made him feel like a baby really, like he wasn't even able to 'feed' himself (or at least give himself a drink), but rather than cause him to become stroppy and argumentative, it had the opposite effect. He was relaxing and becoming more open to listening to his father. That had been happening a lot lately; and it was confusing, but he was too drunk to figure things out and not drunk enough to ask Yondu for his opinion on the matter.

 

"Good boy," Yondu said, as Peter finished the contents of the bottle. "You need some more?" he asked, his tone of voice indicating he expected an honest answer.

 

Peter blushed at the praise, looking at his feet. "No, sir..." he said quietly, shifting nervously.

 

"Okay. How's your head? Ya need ta take any painkillers yet?" Yondu touched his cheek to encourage him to look into his eyes.

 

Peter looked up again, letting Yondu see his eyes and not looking away despite wanting to. The alcohol was wearing off fairly, quickly and no longer affecting his emotions. Guilt was settling heavily onto him as he thought about everything he'd done that night, but as much as he didn't want to face his father- giving Yondu opportunity to read the shame and guilt on his face and in his eyes- he couldn't disobey the non-verbal command. "It don't hurt yet, sir...prolly soon, but not yet...." he whispered.

 

"I want ya to tell me when it does. No trying to tough it out. That ain't gonna fly with me anymore, kid." Putting the empty bottle down, Yondu led Peter over to the bed, gently tugging his son to sit down next to him. "What were ya thinking, kid?" he asked outright.

 

"Yessir...no toughin it out..." Peter sighed as he was pulled to the bed. Once sat down, he had an excuse not to be looking at Yondu fully and used it to stare at his feet again. "I...I dunno what I was thinking..." he admitted almost sullenly, embarrassment clear in his tone. "Jess mentioned they were doing it and asked if I wanted to come and be part of the gang and...I wanted to be part of the gang..." he whispered. "I...I know everyone here's accepted me...but until tonight, I didn't really feel like I belonged here. Belong with you and Poppa and Krag, sure...but not really here." He sighed softly, his shoulders slumping.

 

Yondu wrapped his arm around Peter, drawing him close enough it would only take a tiny shift to settle his son on his lap. "Belong wit' them, or belong here? On Terra?" he asked, stroking his boy's hair and the side of his face. On the Ravager ship, Yondu had only been able to be physically affectionate when they'd been alone, for fear of the crew seeing it as a weakness on either or both of their parts. Now that Peter was fully aware of his place in Yondu's life, he didn't have to hold back anymore.

 

"Terra ain't my home no more..." Peter pressed his head against Yondu's chest, relaxing further at the affection. He was under no delusions that he wasn't in trouble with his father, but he also knew Yondu wouldn't punish him until everything was out in the open and he understood why Peter had acted the way he had; and hopefully could help Peter understand. "Belong with the resta the family..." Peter admitted softly. "For all that they fight and retrieve things and do all kinds of stuff that I can do, I'm the only one that's really...well...like me. Cept that Wade guy. He seems a bit like me, if I didn't have any filters at all..." Peter snorted "...But he don't live here full-time...."

 

"Ya always been the only one like you," Yondu said, continuing to gently stroke Peter's hair and neck. "Ya do belong. Ya don't have ta prove it. To them or yourself."

 

Peter shifted just enough to look up at his father hopefully. "I don't?"

 

Yondu let his thumb gently stroke Peter's cheek, his fingers settling at the back of his son's neck. "You belong here. You belong with them as much as you belong with me." He'd almost said 'to me', but that wasn't entirely accurate and he wasn't sure that Peter would see it the way it was meant; that they belonged to each other.

 

Peter nodded and snuggled a little closer. "This is like that time on Knowhere when I turned fourteen and wanted to prove I could go on bigger missions with the rest of the Ravagers..." he said hesitantly. As he thought about that time, he remembered it hadn't turned out so well for him; he'd got the object in question with no problems at all, but had got trapped on his escape, not taking into account his short size and the fact he would need help getting over the wall blocking him. He'd thought he'd been caught for sure when Yondu had come out of nowhere, reached down and pulled him up and over the wall by the back of his jacket and trousers. His father had not been happy at all and let him know it in no uncertain terms. "You always came for me, even when I screwed up. Shoulda known then that I was more than just cargo turned crew..." He sighed and wrapped his arms around his father, hugging tightly. "...Shoulda known I belonged to ya...." Peter's whisper was innocent; he didn't even notice he'd changed Yondu's words. He just said what he felt.

 

Yondu tightened his arms around Peter, deciding not to hold back and moving his son onto his lap. "I'd always come for ya, kid. Will always come for ya. I love you. You was never just cargo ta me. Never just crew. Always my son."

 

Peter sniffled as he just cuddled as close as he could. When an adult, he tended to try and remain aloof; only allowing so much affection when he was alone with his parents and usually not until after he'd been punished. His younger, emotional state caused him to not hold back at all. He was like a barnacle, clinging to Yondu greedily. "...Love you, daddy...."

 

Yondu kissed the top of his head. "I love you," he reiterated. "I ain't never gonna give you cause to doubt that. To doubt me."

 

Peter cuddled some more, then sighed dramatically. "I don't wanna stop cuddling...but I don't want the spanking hanging over my head either..." He pouted. He could have begged to not be spanked, but that had never worked in the past and he knew it wouldn't work now.

 

"Well, kid, once the spanking's out of the way, you can sit back on my lap and cuddle again." With that, Yondu gently turned him over his lap.

 

"Oh...but..." Peter began to protest, but Yondu was quick, even with being gentle, and he was facing the ground with his bottom in prime position before he'd even begun the complaint. Groaning softly, he just reached down and wrapped his hands around his father's ankle. "..On...on a scale of one to ten, how bad am I in trouble?" He whimpered out the question. He figured anywhere from one to five, while the spanking would hurt, it wouldn't do much more than sting and even if he cried, he'd still be able to talk and not completely lose it. Anywhere from six to nine and he'd be having a hard time talking and the tears would last a bit beyond the punishment. If it was a ten? He may as well kiss his pride good-bye, because he wouldn't be getting out of this without losing the ability to speak, sobbing like a baby, needing to be held for at least an hour after and not being able to sit comfortably for at least thirty minutes to an hour after Yondu finished. Not that sitting would be an issue. If he'd messed up that badly, chances were he'd wear himself out crying and fall asleep in his father's arms with his britches still down around his ankles and Yondu would have to re-clothe him and put him to bed like a toddler.

 

Since nothing overtly bad had happened, he thought maybe it would be one to five level of trouble. The problem was, this wasn't the first time Peter had snuck off to do something that could possibly get him into danger. It wasn't even the second time. Because of the fact he constantly repeated the same action? He was afraid maybe it was a ten.

 

Yondu ran a hand gently over Peter's back and then proceeded to bare him. "Kid, this was a constant issue we had ta deal wit on the ship. Ya didn't know your importance then. Ya do now. Ya know you ain't told not to do something cause of yer safety. Ya know leaving...without a word...is wrong. An enemy coulda come after ya. Yer reactions mighta been slowed and you coulda been hurt. Or one of the others coulda been."

 

Peter slumped and whimpered at the words. "A ten, then..." he said sadly, but didn't protest. He knew every word his father said was true. He'd known better. He'd still done it. "...Was wrong..." he admitted with a sniffle. "...Knew better..." He swallowed and tentatively reached a hand back; not to cover his bottom, but so that Yondu could hold it while punishing him. He thought it might help him not fight if he could feel his father's tight grip. "I'm sorry..." He whimpered again.

 

"I know, kid." Yondu took Peter's hand in his, holding it tight. "What ya did doesn't change anything with us. Doesn't change how I feel about ya." Rubbing Peter's back gently, he then lifted his hand and brought it down in the first firm swat.

 

Peter didn't even try to stop the tiny yelp from escaping, tightening his grip on Yondu's hand and ankle and forcing himself to hold still.

 

Even though he held back on using his full strength, the swats were still among the hardest Yondu had ever given his son. They had talked about this before. Peter's behaviour wasn't acceptable. He continued down to his son's thighs and then began again from the top.

 

Peter tried to remain stoic...he didn't want to be so weak...but it proved impossible. All of Yondu's declarations of love, acceptance and promises never to leave had already weakened his resolve. The knowledge that he'd screwed up yet again, for no good reason, made him feel his guilt keenly, before the spanking even started. Soon, he was squirming uncontrollably; the only thing holding him on his father's lap was Yondu's strong grip. "Ooooow....ow...daddy! Please...I'll be good! I will! No more!" he whined pathetically, a tiny sob escaping.

 

"I believe you, kid." But Yondu couldn't stop the spanking before the necessary point, even though he hated causing his son any form of pain; even when that pain was supposed to teach a lesson. "But ya could have got yerself taken away from me. Ya could have been hurt. Or worse. We didn't know where yer were."

 

Yondu's words made the guilt stronger. Peter's whines and mostly soft crying turned into full-fledged sobbing as he began to plead for the punishment to end. It wasn't even that it was so painful he couldn't stand it. It was that he felt so guilty, all he wanted was to be held and told he was forgiven. "Da...da...daddy..." His wail was choked. "...I pr...promise...be good! Wo..won't sn..sneak off ever 'gain! Wo...won't be ba...bad. Won't be nau...naughty...." He continued to writhe, kicking his pants and underwear off in his attempts to escape deserved punishment. He was nearing the end of his stubbornness, though.

 

Yondu forced himself to continue a new circuit of swats, going a fraction harder and faster. "I know you mean that, kid. Even if yer are, won't make a difference ta how I feel about ya. Ya might find yerself over my knee more times than ya'd like, but I ain't gonna let ya go. I ain't gonna change how I feel."

 

The faster, harder swats, accompanied by Yondu's words of belief and promise to hold onto him and never let go, was the last straw. Stiffening up, his legs giving one last feeble kick, Peter slumped boneless over his father's lap and just sobbed. He wouldn't beg anymore. He wouldn't struggle or fight anymore. He'd lie over his daddy's lap and just accept whatever Yondu chose to do and hope that, when punishment was over, his daddy would hold him close and tight and not mind him crying like a baby.

 

Yondu couldn't force himself to carry on, not able to listen to his son's tears. He brought the spanking to a stop and quickly gathered Peter into his arms on his lap, hugging him close and tight.

 

Peter buried his head under his father's chin, against his chest, and wrapped his arms around his waist with a death grip. Between sobs, tiny, "I'm sorry"s could be heard.

 

Yondu hugged Peter tightly to himsef, stroking his hair. "Yer forgiven, kid. I love ya," he said, voice quiet but filled with sincerity.

 

"Love you, daddy..." Peter continued to cry, though it wasn't as hard and wasn't as heartbroken, his father's forgiveness easing the fear he had. He continued to snuggle close, crying quietly until his tears wore him down; and just like he'd suspected would happen, he fell asleep in his father's arms.

 

Yondu held his son close and tight until he was certain Peter wouldn't wake. Then, he carefully replaced Peter's clothing and moved his son onto the bed, gently tucking him in.

 

***

 

Bucky had waited long enough to make sure everyone else had returned home safely before gently taking his son and daughter by the arm and leading them to his room.

 

"Hey, Dad, can you get drunk?" Lance asked, as if the thought had only just occurred to him. "Or does your me-met...you know...just burn through the alcohol?"

 

Patsy hadn't turned to drink like Jessica and her tolerance for alcohol was very low. Unlike Lance, who seemed able to stay on his feet under his own power, she was stumbling along.

 

Bucky sighed before gently picking Patsy up into his arms and carrying her, standing close enough for Lance to keep hold of him if needed. "My metabolism makes it difficult to get more than relaxed," he admitted. They reached his room and he motioned Lance to open the door and enter. He followed behind, carefully carrying his daughter in.

 

"Okay." Lance opened the door and stepped inside, moving out of the way.

 

Patsy had just wrapped her arms around her father's neck and nuzzled in close.

 

Carrying Patsy to the bed, he sat and put her on his lap before looking at Lance. "Close the door, son and come here...."

 

Lance closed the door and stepped over to the bed, not entirely sure if he was expected to sit or stand.

 

Patsy nestled in to her father, feeling safe when he had hold of her.

 

Bucky gave his son a tired smile. "Sit down, son." He motioned with his head to the spot beside him.

 

Lance quickly sat next to his father.

 

"Are you mad?" Patsy asked quietly, still huddled into her father.

 

"I'm...not pleased. But no. I'm not mad..." Bucky said gently, though his voice was gruff. "I am disappointed that you chose to sneak out when our enemies are being so active lately and are more than ready to grab you if given the chance. Especially when you aren't your normal selves and are having more difficulty with things you could normally do...it makes it easier for them to grab you and subdue you. You know that wasn't right. Even when you aren't physically de-aged, it isn't right. You don't sneak out. You both know this." He shifted her enough that he could still hold and cuddle her but could also reach over and put an arm around his son.

 

Patsy whimpered, pressing in close to her father. "I'm sorry...." she said remorsefully. "I knew it was a bad idea, but...let Jess talk me into it," she admitted, dropping her voice even lower.

 

Lance didn't waste any time leaning into Bucky. "I'm sorry too, Dad," he mumbled. "It's just...not being able to do anything is so frustrating. I'm tired of feeling like a coddled baby cause my body won't obey me."

 

"I know it's hard..." Bucky sympathized with his son. "But putting yourself into a dangerous situation isn't the answer to your frustration and you know that.... And letting Jess talk you into something you know is wrong? Instead of talking her out of it? I realize it's difficult given the way your body and emotions are reacting just like a teenager, but you know that's not an excuse that will get you off the hook." He gave his daughter a stern look.

 

"I know...." Patsy whispered, cuddling even closer. "I'm sorry. I said no the first time...should have said it again."

 

Bucky kissed the top of her head. "I'm just glad nothing worse happened..." he said softly, his relief clear in his voice. "C'mon, sweetie. Why don't you sit back on the bed while I get you and your brother some water? You'll want to drink enough now to fight the hangover you'll get later." He carefully stood and then put her on the bed next to Lance before heading to the tiny fridge he kept in his room that held bottles of water for when he didn't want to leave his room in the middle of the night for a drink.

 

Patsy nodded and reluctantly uncurled from her father's lap. "Room's spinning...." she muttered unhappily.

 

Lance winced in sympathy and wrapped his arm around his sister's shoulders. "I know. It isn't fun. Can't remember why I thought it was a good idea to do in the first place." Drink a beer occasionally? Sure. But after getting drunk enough to get married to Bobbi again, Lance tended to watch what he drank.

 

"I'm sure it is..." Bucky had returned with the water and, opening it up, helped his daughter drink. Lance seemed a bit more able to drink on his own, but he still watched carefully.

 

Lance opened his bottle and began to drink, taking small sips rather than gulping it down.

 

Patsy had her eyes half-closed while her father helped her drink, looking like she might drift off into sleep any moment.

 

As soon as the bottle was empty, Bucky set it to the side and helped his daughter lay down. "We'll talk more tomorrow," he said gently, waiting for Lance to finish drinking so he could help him settle down.

 

Lance finished his water and set the empty bottle down, while Patsy obediently snuggled down in the bed.

 

Once he'd disposed of the bottles, Bucky came back and helped them into the bed, placing one on each side of him. Once they weren't so drunk as to be a hazard to themselves, he'd help them clean up and get changed. Until then, he'd bring them water and pain reliever. "Try to get some sleep..." he said quietly, as he snuggled them both.

 

Patsy yawned and nestled in on one side of her father, while Lance did on the other. It wasn't long before the two of them slipped into sleep, tired out by the day's events.

 

***

 

As soon as they parked in the garage, Blake didn't waste any time in helping Pyro out of the backseat, saying a quiet good night to his family members before wrapping his arm around the teenager's shoulders and heading to his room.

 

"Please don't make me leave..." Pyro whispered hopelessly. "I know I shouldn't have helped them sneak in the bar...I know it. Just… They were all being friendly and needed me around and...and Deacon is my best friend. Please don't forbid him to hang out with me...."

 

Blake winced at Pyro's words and tone, tightening his arm around him. "I'm not going to make you leave," he whispered. "Or tell Deacon not to spend time with you." He guided Pyro into his room and retrieved a bottlle of water from his minifridge. "I'm sorry, kid. I should have stepped in with you earlier...."

 

Pyro swallowed hard. "What could you have done? I'm a bad element...I know. Deacon'd be better off without me...."

 

"That isn't true." Blake guided Pyro to the bed, gently pulling him to sit down next to him. "You aren't bad. Even from the start, I knew you needed someone to give you boundaries." He sighed, arm still around Pyro's shoulders. "Deacon was already at risk because of Fisk. I couldn't give him any more people to hurt, otherwise I would have acted long before now." He opened the bottle and carefully gave it to the teenager.

 

Pyro listlessly but obediently took the water and drained the bottle. He knew he needed to hydrate. He gave Blake a bleak look. "How?" he asked faintly. "I wouldn't a listened. I don't learn...too stupid..." he huffed out sadly. "Wouldn't a done what I did tonight if I was smart...."

 

"Not stupid," Blake disagreed. "In serious need of boundaries. Someone to rein you in and care about you. That's what I'm going to do. I've handled Deacon in the same way the family handles things. I'm going to spank you. But more than that, I'm going to be in your corner from now on. I know going straight hasn't been easy on you. I don't expect one spanking is going to be the only one I give you. But I want to be the same thing for you I am for Deacon. A big brother. Someone to look out for you and take care of you."

 

Pyro looked up at Blake uncertainly. Part of him felt he should protest what Blake planned, but all he could focus on was the promise of not being alone. "You want me in your family?" He sounded hesitantly hopeful. "You want to be my big brother?" He blinked as tears started running down his face, but didn't attempt to stop or hide them.

 

"I do," Blake replied, without any hesitation at all. "I want you." He wrapped his other arm around Pyro in a hug. "I'm not going to let you be alone anymore."

 

Pyro wrapped his own arms around Blake and held on tightly. "I'm sorry I did illegal stuff again..." he said softly. "I'll try not to do it anymore..." he promised and hid his face against Blake's chest.

 

Blake tightened his embrace. "Even if you make a mistake, it won't change anything," he promised, gently stroking Pyro's hair. "I won't give up on you. I won't turn my back on you. You've got me, kid. For good," he promised.

 

"Okay.." Pyro whispered, snuggling close. "Other...other than not doing illegal stuff, and not doing dangerous stuff, and not going off without word...are there any rules I need to follow?" he asked.

 

"That probably about covers it," Blake replied, still gently stroking his hair and back. "Except to perhaps stay away from people and places you know might influence you to do something you shouldn't."

 

"That's what the truant officer said, 'fore I got too old for him to have any control over me..." Pyro admitted.

 

Blake kissed the top of his head. "I'm not going to let go of you, kid. No matter what happens. Or how old you get," he added, with a trace of amusement. "Besides," he continued, hugging his little brother tighter, "I think your age wouldn't have had anything to do with it if he'd been able to get through to you in the right way."

 

"Li...like you plan to?" Pyro's voice caught.

 

"Yeah. It's not as bad as you're probably thinking it is," Blake said softly. "It hurts, but the pain generally doesn't last that long. I think maybe the emotions are what makes it more effective."

 

"Yeah..." Pyro whispered. "I'm so sorry for what I did..."

 

Blake tightened his embrace. "Getting spanked...getting punished...for what you've done helps with the guilt. You get forgiven. Start over. Clean slate. I'm not going to keep bringing it up or assume you'll do the same thing again."

 

"I need that..." Pyro admitted. Snuggling a bit more, he asked, "...When...?"

 

"Do you feel up to taking care of it now?" Blake asked gently.

 

Pyro nodded against Blake's chest. The other man currently wasn't any older or bigger than he was, but he remembered what he normally was like and he responded to the care and concern and sternness in his voice. "Yessir..." he said.

 

Blake held Pyro close for a few more moments and then gently moved the teenager across his lap. Just like he did with Deacon, he gently secured his new brother with an arm wrapped around his waist, rubbing his back gently before he bared him. "Once this spanking is over with, you get a clean slate. Completely forgiven. That doesn't mean you shouldn't feel like you can talk about anything to do with your past with me, but it means you don't need to feel guilty about anything. That you know I don't blame you." Lifting his hand, he brought it down in the first firm swat.

 

Pyro didn't try and pretend he wasn't affected. He'd passed the time where he could convincingly pretend and he didn't want to. He was already crying by the time Blake pulled him over his lap. Being bared was a new situation he hadn't ever faced and he couldn't stop the whimper that escaped. The first swat, however? He gasped, his whole body tensing before he went boneless in relief. Despite all Blake's assurances, he'd half expected to be beaten. While he knew it would hurt-did hurt- he knew he could handle it. Reaching down, he grasped Blake's ankle, forcing himself to relax and accept the punishment while he continued to quietly cry.

 

Blake continued the swats down to Pyro's thighs and then began again from the top. "I know you're a good kid," he said gently. "You made some wrong choices. They don't make you a bad person. They don't define you. And I still want you."

 

Pyro held more tightly to Blake's ankle, managing not to squirm, but the words got through to him and he couldn't keep from crying harder. The position made him feel so vulnerable and Blake's words made him feel wanted and safe. The combination broke the few remaining walls he had built up. "I want to be good...I want to make you proud...I'm so sorry...." He sobbed.

 

"You are good, kid," Blake replied. "You only lost your way for a while. No one was there to draw you back to them. That's no longer the case." He slowed the swats and lessened the force, enough for them to be more of an emphasis of what he was saying.

 

"You'll draw me back? And won't let me be lost anymore?" Pyro's voice was so hopeful, it was painful. He realized that Blake was offering what he'd wanted and needed for so long. "I'll be so good for you! I'll do whatever you say!" he promised eagerly, the tears he still cried giving the words a frantic sound.

 

"Kid...." Blake gently stroked his back. "Your place in my life isn't dependant on how well you behave. There might be mistakes made, but they won't change anything. Not how I feel about you. Not how much I want you."

 

"You'll keep me even if I mess up?" Pyro's voice caught and he began to sob. He still lay limp over Blake's lap- he'd submitted before the spanking had even begun- but he couldn't control his tears any longer. They weren't just hard...they left him unable to breathe.

 

Blake immediately brought the spanking to a stop and quickly gathered his little brother into his arms on his lap, gently stroking his hair and back. "Breathe, little brother. I've got you. I won't let you go," he whispered.

 

Pyro gripped onto Blake tightly, pressing as close as he could. And he attempted to obey his brother and breathe.

 

Blake tightened his embrace. "I've got you," he repeated. "I'm not going to let you go. Not ever. I love you."

 

Pyro didn't know how long he sat on Blake's lap, just crying and snuggling and making himself breathe, but finally, he calmed enough for the sting in his bottom to catch his attention. Shifting reminded him that he was bare as the day he was born from the waist down. Blushing slightly, he snuggled a little more before asking, "Am I allowed to pull my pants up?" a hint of embarrassment in his tone.

 

"Go ahead," Blake said, loosening his hold just enough to allow Pyro to replace his clothing while still keeping in contact with him.

 

Pyro quickly yanked his clothing back into position with a hiss, before crawling back onto Blake's lap without thought.

 

Blake immediately wrapped his arms around Pyro once more, hugging him close and tight. "I love you, kid," he reiterated.

 

"Love you too..." Pyro whispered, relaxing in his brother's arms.

 

****

 

Clint had kept close watch on his children. They had never got this intoxicated since he'd adopted them. He didn't envy them the hangover he knew they'd have. To that end, he'd got them both bottles of water as he took them to his room. And he watched to see how long it would take for the drink to work its way out of their system.

 

It didn't take either of the twins long to sober up. While they'd both been intoxicated, their abilities meant that the drink worked its way out of their systems very quickly. Of course, on the other end of that, they were both beginning to feel the effects of the 'morning after'.

 

Wanda drank her water and groaned, leaning against her father. "My head hurts, Papa."

 

"I'm sure it does, Princess...here. Take these..." Clint handed her and then Pietro some aspirin. "Drink the full bottle," he added, nodding at the water.

 

Both did so, taking the aspirin as well, and Pietro added his own groan to his sister's. "I can't believe we drank so much...."

 

Wanda cringed. "I can't believe I let you throw those darts...."

 

"I can believe it. And I'm not very happy about it..." Clint gave them both an extremely stern look.

 

"I'm sorry, Papa. I was just...." Wanda's voice trailed off helplessly. She knew none of her reasons were good ones.

 

"Bored. Feeling useless. Everyone else was doing it," Pietro supplied - not because he thought the reasons were good, but because he knew their father needed an explanation.

 

Clint sighed. He understood. Boy did he understand. Still... "You know none of that excuses sneaking out without word, putting yourself in danger of being found by HYDRA. It certainly doesn't excuse taking chances with your lives with weaponry!" He managed to keep his voice calm...barely.

 

"I know, Papa." Pietro's use of the same name his sister used showed the state of his own mind.

 

"We didn't think about the danger when we jumped on the idea," Wanda admitted quietly. "Not until now...."

 

"That's what worries me. You didn't think of the danger. Although it wouldn't help me feel any better if you had thought about it and still did it..." He sighed. "You know the consequences of your actions..." he added softly.

 

"Yes, Papa," Wanda replied.

 

"I think we've both learned not to get drunk, at least," Pietro muttered, shifting slightly.

 

Clint's look at Pietro's joke wasn't impressed, but he still gave a small smile. "I don't think there is a reason to drag this out any further, then." He took Pietro's arm gently and carefully led him to the corner of the room. "Stay here and think about what you did and what you should have done."

 

Pietro looked uncertainly at his father. "Facing the wall?" he asked.

 

"Yes. I will come retrieve you when it is your turn." Clint left unsaid what it would be his turn for. It was obvious. Waiting long enough for his son to face the corner, Clint returned to Wanda's side, sitting on the bed beside her. "You do not leave without telling anyone where you are going. They need to know where and when to begin looking for you if you don't return. And you don't go to places or do things that put you into danger. We have enough of that on missions." His voice was soft and concerned, even through the stern cadence.

 

"I know, Papa," Wanda replied quietly, making herself look into his eyes rather than looking down. "And I'm sorry. I know just saying sorry isn't enough, but...I am."

 

"I know, princess. I appreciate that," Clint responded. "I love you too much to just let it go, though." With that, he carefully tugged her over his lap. As soon as he was assured that she was secure and wouldn't fall, he bared her, then raised his hand and let it fall with a firm smack.

 

Wanda whimpered softly, more from the fact she didn't like disappointing her father than because of the pain from the smack. She tried to stay still, not wanting him to think she was trying to squirm away from the punishment.

 

Clint heard the whimper, but forced himself to ignore it. Behavior such as had been displayed by all the 'kids' involved couldn't be brushed aside and they all knew it. Letting his own kids go with little more than a 'slap on the wrist' would help no one, especially Wanda and Pietro. He continued the firm smacks from the top of her bottom to the crease where her thighs began. There was no particular pattern, so it was impossible to tell when one circuit had ended and another begun. It was just one smack after relentless smack, while he watched her reactions and paid attention to the color of her backside (not wanting to harm her in his attempt to teach her).

 

Despite her intentions to stay still and not 'fight' the punishment, Wanda couldn't help but shift slightly in response to the swats. Tears were already running down her cheeks and with a quiet sob, she threw her hand back; not so much to protect herself, but because she needed her father to hold onto her.

 

It was only a few seconds' reprieve as Clint took her hand and moved it to her lower back, gently holding it in place while he continued the relentless smacks. When her entire bottom was a rosy pink color, he finally spoke. "You left without word of where you were going- or letting anyone know you were going. HYDRA could have taken you and none of us would have known we needed to worry. You got drunk in a public place; not recommended even under normal circumstances, but given the fact you were deaged, even more dangerous. You allowed your brother to throw dangerous weapons at your head. If you had lost even a small bit of your control, you could have been hit and killed." At the last bit, he increased the force of the smacks, indicating how upset he was at the close call.

 

Wanda had managed to hold back apart from that one sob, until he started to speak. She began to cry more heavily, her body going limp over her father's lap. "I'm sorry, Papa...." Her voice was heartbroken. She was always affected when her father had to take her in hand. She never liked disappointing or upsetting him.

 

As soon as Wanda went limp, no longer holding back, Clint ended the spanking. Gently, he replaced her clothing, then lifted her up into his arms, holding her tightly. "I love you, Princess. I can't lose you. I just can't."

 

Wanda wrapped her arms just as tightly around her father, pressing as close to him as she possibly could. "I'm sorry, Papa," she said again. "I won't do it again. I promise."

 

"I know. You're a good girl. I love you so much..." Clint whispered in her ear, before kissing the top of her head.

 

Wanda nestled in closer to her father. "I love you too," she whispered, before glancing at her brother. She couldn't see his face, but she could tell by his stance that he was affected. And she knew her father was observant enough to see the same. Reluctantly, after one final hug, she began to pull away so he could deal with Pietro.

 

Giving Wanda one last hug, he gently led her to the corner, where he tugged Pietro out before carefully placing her to face the wall. "Stay here until I come to get you," he directed, before leading Pietro to the bed.

 

Wanda turned obediently to face the wall, while Pietro let their father lead him to the bed, shifting a bit closer to Clint as if seeking reassurance.

 

Clint put an arm around Pietro's shoulder as he led him to the bed. Sitting down, he pulled his son down to sit next to him. "Is there anything you'd like to say before we address your behavior?" he asked quietly.

 

Pietro sat down next to his father. "I don't have any excuses, Papa," he replied quietly. "Just...I am sorry."

 

"I know," Clint said. It didn't need to drag out any longer, so he gently tugged Pietro over his lap, then bared him. Lifting his hand, he let it fall in the first firm swat, then continued swatting in a random pattern.

 

Pietro winced, but tried to hold himself still over his father's lap, reaching down to grab onto Clint's ankle as he tried not to whimper.

 

Clint mentally sighed as his son tried to not show any responses. He knew it was typical of everyone when punished to try not to cry and carry on; whether it be from pride, or from a sense of not wanting to upset their parent worse. But now that he was on the giving side of the situation, he realized that things would be a lot easier for everyone involved if the kid would just react immediately when they felt the need to.

 

Like with his daughter, Clint didn't begin to speak until his son's backside was a uniform light pink. "You do not leave home without letting someone know where you are going. You do not go to a location where HYDRA is more likely to have people watching and waiting to grab you...especially if you've gone without letting anyone know where you are going. You most certainly do not go to such a place and then deliberately do things that impair your judgement and ability to protect yourself, such as drinking to the degree you did." Clint's words were emphasized by the continued smacks. Increasing the force and speed slightly, he continued, "You may be an adult chronologically, but physically, you are underage. Alcohol affects you differently and can be even more dangerous when drunk to excess. Not to mention being illegal! And then you threw knives at your sister! If she'd missed one and it got through and hit her? She could have died and I don't doubt you would have blamed yourself...you would never have done such a stunt if you hadn't snuck out to drink." Clint let his initial fear and worry show through again when he said, "I won't lose either of you to something that not only shouldn't have happened, but could be avoided if you followed our family rules. If I have to do this hundreds of times till it sinks in and you take your safety as a priority, I will! Any time you put yourself at risk like you did tonight? You'll find yourself in this position."

 

Pietro had been trying to stay still and remain unaffected, but it was harder the longer the spanking went on. Add his father's scolding to the mix and it didn't take much for him to begin crying outright, his body shifting as he subconsciously tried to move out of range of the smacks.

 

Relieved to see the response, Clint tightened his hold on Pietro. Tipping him forward slightly, he began to target all the swats to the boy's sit spots. "I love you, son. You and your sister. I won't lose you." His words were a solemn promise.

 

"I'm sorry, Papa. I love you too." Pietro's response was a hoarse whisper, the tears overwhelming him after the last words. He slumped over his father's lap, beginning to sob.

 

As soon as Pietro went limp, Clint ended the spanking, fixing his son's clothes, then pulling him up into his arms and snuggling him close, kissing the top of his head. "Be more careful for me..." he whispered. "...I can't lose you."

 

Pietro immediately wrapped his arms around his father and hugged him tight in return, leaning his head against Clint's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Papa," he whispered again.

 

"I know...you're forgiven..." Clint reassured him, continuing to hold him close. He held him for as long as he'd held Wanda before gently pulling away and calling to his daughter. "Come here, Princess..." He gently repositioned Pietro so Wanda could join them. "Both of you will be staying with me tonight, so as soon as you are both ready for bed, I want you each to drink a bit more water and then I think it's time for sleep."

 

Wanda didn't waste any time in moving back to their father and snuggling against his side. Leaning up to kiss his cheek, she whispered, "I'm ready now."

 

"Me too, Pop." Pietro had settled back into 'normal', for him, though he pressed close a little longer before shifting so their father could get up.

 

Clint carefully pulled the covers back and motioned to the bed. "I'm going to get changed. Both of you crawl in and I'll be back soon."

 

Wanda and Pietro didn't waste much time in getting into bed after getting changed, though they left enough space for their father to get in comfortably.

 

Clint didn't take long either and soon, he was sandwiched between his children, holding them close as they all fell into sleep.

 

***

 

Pepper glanced at Jessica nervously. When she'd agreed to their little 'trip', she hadn't thought past the how's of getting out and away. She hadn't thought of the why's and the repercussions that were certain to follow, because they all had known on some level they'd never get away with it and would be found out.

 

Jessica couldn't say or do anything...too busy trying to come up with something that would get her and Pepper's ass out of the line of fire.

 

Steve had an arm wrapped around each of his daughters' shoulders, keeping them close as he guided them to his room, stopping along the way to pick up a bottle of water each for them.

 

Pepper knew what was coming. She couldn't help but know after the rather loud family conversation of a few nights before. Her adult mind was telling her she deserved it. Her teenage emotions were telling her that it was completely unfair and she needed to get away. To her adult mind's horror, it was the emotions she listened to. Yanking free of her father's arm, she ran for the stairs.

 

Jessica, seeing her sister bolt, didn't want to be the only one in trouble and yanked free as well, running for the stairs opposite the ones Pepper was heading for, leaving Steve with the dilemma of which daughter to go after.

 

It was only a moment's hesitation before Steve, remembering Pepper's doubts about her worth and place in the family, went after Pepper. Even with that moment of decision, he was faster than his daughter.

 

Pepper wasn't terribly steady on her feet and knew it. Even so, it came as a shock when she felt Steve's arms wrapping around her from behind and pulling her back close against his chest. "Nooo...I'm sorry...I'm sorry...I'll never do it again...I'll be good!" she whined softly. No one but her father would hear her...she hoped.

 

Jessica was surprised at her good fortune, though she felt a momentary pang of guilt for continuing to run when Pepper had got caught; but not guilty enough to stop and return.

 

Steve tightened his arms around his daughter and kissed the top of her head. "Come on. You're going to need to drink some water, at least." He knew she'd have a hangover anyway, but hoped he could save her from the worst of it.

 

Pepper huffed but didn't try to escape again. In fact, she was unsteady enough on her feet that she ended up listing into Steve. "Carry me, daddy?" she whispered in a sheepish tone, even as she snuggled close.

 

Giving an affectionate smile, Steve swept his daughter into his arms and carried her to his room.

 

Pepper wrapped her arms loosely around Steve's shoulders and hid her face in the hollow of his neck. "I really, really, am sorry...." she whispered sadly, before swallowing hard on the sudden bout of nausea she felt. She normally didn't drink much- even when an adult- so the amount of alcohol she'd consumed in her teenage form was too much.

 

Noticing she was close to being sick, Steve snagged a bucket on the way to his room. He carefully placed her on the bed, handing her the bucket and then retrieving a bottle of water.

 

Pepper's face was flushed, but she managed not to throw up. Still... "Don't feel good, daddy..." she whimpered, clutching the bucket to her chest mournfully.

 

"I know." Steve sat on the bed next to her and gently tugged her into his arms. "Water will help. I got you some painkillers, too." He kissed her forehead. "I love you," he whispered to her.

 

"Love you too..." Pepper snuggled closer. When he handed her the water and painkillers, she took both obediently, making certain to drink the entire bottle. She may have been drunk, but she'd sobered up enough to remember she needed to re-hydrate if she didn't want the symptoms to be worse.

 

"Good girl," Steve murmured, gently stroking her hair. He still kept hold of her, but was careful not to stop her from drinking, or if she did need to be sick.

 

Pepper tried to keep her eyes open, but once the medication finally kicked in, the alcohol did the rest. Soon, she was snoring and drooling on Steve's chest. She'd have been mortified if she'd been awake.

 

Steve held onto his daughter until he was certain she was fully asleep and then gently tucked her into the bed.

 

***

 

Coulson carefully helped each of his three kids out of the car and into the compound, watching each to make sure they weren't having a lot of trouble walking.

 

Grant hadn't been drinking much, if anything, since the episode with the Asgardian staff; he'd discovered soon after that alcohol just allowed the feelings of rage that the staff had unearthed to become stronger and uncontrollable. As a result, his tolerance wasn't terribly high and he kept tripping over his own feet, needing to lean on his father more than he would have liked had he been more sober.

 

Raina and Bobbi were able to walk a bit more steadily, but not because they were more sober. They were just moving a bit more slowly and carefully.

 

Coulson wrapped his arm around Grant's waist to help keep his son upright, but still watched his daughters carefully in case they did need him to step in and help.

 

Raina swallowed nervously as she walked in front of her father. She was in trouble. Again! She'd avoided getting into trouble at all since being taken in by Coulson. However, within the span of a couple of weeks, she had managed to not only get into trouble, but get into trouble badly enough to be spanked. She didn't want another spanking. It didn't take much thought at all (and truthfully, she wasn't thinking, or she wouldn't have done it) to suddenly bolt for the nearest stairs and attempt to escape what she knew was coming. Even if she wasn't steady on her feet and was more than slightly tipsy, she'd refrained from drinking as much as some of the others and was still able to move quickly for her condition.

 

Bobbi blinked owlishly as she saw her sister disappearing up the stairs and then she was following.

 

Grant grunted. "Huh...Silly girls...ain't gonna get far...you always catch us..." he mumbled, semi-coherently.

 

Coulson realised he couldn't chase after his daughters and help his son to bed, so after asking Friday to let him know if either Raina or Bobbi tried to leave the compound, he continued guiding Grant to his room.

 

Grant didn't fight his father at all.

 

Coulson picked up a bottle of water and some painkillers on the way. Inside the room, he guided his son towards the bed and helped him to sit down. "How are you feeling, son?" he asked gently, trying to see if Grant might need him to grab the waste basket.

 

"Dizzy...other than that, I'm okay..." Grant slurred tiredly. He was close to falling asleep.

 

Coulson gently squeezed the nape of his neck. "I know you're tired, son, but I need you to drink some water before you sleep. It'll help you feel better." He opened the bottle of water so he could help Grant drink.

 

Grant obediently drank the water, not even trying to hold the bottle himself. He didn't even think to be embarrassed; after all the times his father had taken care of him, he was past being able to feel embarrassment at his father holding a bottle to his lips like he was a toddler.

 

Coulson made sure Grant took small sips until the water was all gone. He kissed his son's forehead and then held him. "I love you," he said softly in his ear.

 

"Love you too, daddy..." Grant mumbled, just before falling asleep.

 

***

 

Raina had only slowed down when she reached the floor where the visitors' lobby was. At this time of night, the area was deserted. She was tempted to go outside, but knew that the building's alarm would go off if she opened the door. She turned as her sister caught up to her. "You ran too?" she asked Bobbi.

 

Before Bobbi could answer, an amused, "Looks like three of us did," floated to their ears, followed by the voice's owner. Jessica gave her two cousins a sheepish smile. "We've likely made things more difficult for ourselves."

 

Bobbi could only nod in agreement.

 

***

 

Once certain their respective children were asleep, Steve and Coulson both met up in the corridor, having been informed by Friday that their daughters had ended up together. They quickly headed in the direction indicated by the AI.

 

Jessica had wandered over to the seating in the visitor section, sinking onto the chair, Raina and Bobbi following behind and slouching on the sofa. All three had sobered up enough to realize running had been wrong, the adrenaline counter-acting some of the alcohol. Of course, adrenaline didn't help upset stomachs and all three were slightly green.

 

Coulson and Steve quickly appeared in the visitors' lobby and didn't waste any time in heading over to their daughters.

 

Coulson crouched in front of his daughters and reached out to stroke their cheeks. "Come on. You both need to drink something," he said gently, trying to see if he needed to grab a bucket for them.

 

Steve wrapped his arm around Jessica's shoulders. "How are you feeling?" he asked, just as gently.

 

"Alright, Baba..." Raina answered for herself and Bobbi. Swallowing hard, she took a deep breath and slowly stood, letting her equilibrium stabilize before attempting to walk.

 

Bobbi leaned into her father's hand briefly before also carefully standing. "Sorry I ran, daddy..." she whispered.

 

Jessica snuggled into Steve, her face turning slightly pink. "...Stupid..." she answered, embarrassed at having run like she did. Especially when she wasn't in good enough shape to ever hope to outrun her father, even if she'd truly wanted to.

 

"I know." Coulson wrapped an arm each around his daughters' shoulders, kissing their cheeks. "I'd like you both to try drinking some water before I put you to bed. It'll help you feel better."

 

Steve kissed Jessica's forehead. "You don't need to feel stupid. Your emotions are all over the place as it is, what with being deaged. Add alcohol into the mix and you definitely aren't going to be thinking clearly."

 

"Okay, daddy..." Bobbi quickly agreed, while Raina nodded her agreement.

 

"You aren't going to spank us?" Raina couldn't help but ask.

 

"All we're going to worry about right now is getting you both rehydrated and into bed," Coulson replied tenderly, guiding the two of them from the visitors' lobby and towards his bedroom.

 

"Yes, Baba..." Raina leaned on her father gratefully. While she knew a reckoning was coming, she was thankful he was planning to wait till she could face it without a spinning head.

 

Bobbi nuzzled against her father and didn't say anything. At this point, she would have drunk an unknown concoction that tasted like dirt if he told her to. Drinking water would be easy and bed sounded heavenly. She wasn't even going to think about what she had coming to her.

 

Retrieving two bottles of water, Coulson guided his daughters into the bedroom, helping them to settle comfortably on the bed before he began to help each of them in turn drink the water, gently stroking their hair and kissing their cheeks.

 

The gentle affection combined with the over-indulging of alcohol led to Bobbi not being able to keep her eyes open much past the moment when she finished drinking the water her father was giving her. She didn't even bother to change.

 

Raina hadn't drunk quite as much as her sister, so after finishing the bottle, she snuggled a bit more with her father before asking quietly, "Do I have any pyjamas in here, or do I need to go to my room to change?"

 

"I think you've got some in here." Coulson kissed her forehead and then moved over to his chest of drawers, picking out a pair of her pyjamas that he then handed to her.

 

Raina smiled and took the pyjamas before turning to go to the tiny changing area that had been set up in the corner of the room. "Do you need me to help with Bobbi?" she asked quietly, giving her sleeping sister a fondly amused look.

 

Coulson smiled and whispered back, "Thank you for the offer, but I can take care of your sister." Finding a pair of Bobbi's pajams, he began to carefully get her undressed for bed.

 

Raina nodded and went to the side of the bed Grant already was, crawling in next to her brother. She blinked when she suddenly found Grants arms wrapped around her tightly, then smiled crookedly. "Goodnight, Baba," she whispered, closing her eyes and quickly following her siblings into sleep.

 

Coulson slipped into bed with his children, reaching out so he was in contact with all three of them. "I love you," he whispered, hoping they'd all hear it, even if it only came through in their dreams.

 

***

 

Jessica snuggled closer at the affection. "S'why I feel stupid..." she admitted. "...Shoulda known not to drink when I'm already having problems controlling myself...."

 

"This hasn't been easy for you." Steve helped his daughter to stand, wrapping an arm around her shoulders to draw her closer to himself.

 

Jessica wrapped her own arms around Steve and hid her face against his chest, letting him lead her back to the elevator and toward his room. "It's been hard..." she admitted reluctantly, before asking in a semi-hopeful, semi-teasing tone "...Can we just forget I did anything wrong? Since it's been so hard? And not have to introduce a sore butt into the mix?"

 

"I'm afraid not." Steve kissed her cheek. Making the decision that she was, more than likely, sober enough not to have to wait, he retrieved a bottle of water and guided her to her room, planning to take her to his once they were done.

 

Jessica sighed softly, but didn't pull away from Steve's grip this time. "...Ca...can I stay with you? After, I mean?" she asked hesitantly and gave her father a nervous look.

 

"Of course. I'd insist anyway." Kissing her cheek, Steve led her into her room and gently encouraged her to drink the water.

 

Jessica obediently went with Steve and drank the water he gave to her. Once she was done, she fidgeted slightly. "Should I put my nightshirt on first? Or after?" she whispered.

 

"However you feel most comfortable," Steve replied, with a warm, affectionate smile.

 

Jessica bit her lip, then retrieved a nightshirt, quickly changing. She knew how guilty she felt and also knew she wanted to be held. Changing first would allow her to not have to leave her father's arms once he had her.

 

Steve waited for his daughter to change, then wrapped his arm around her shoulders to lead her to the bed. Taking a seat, he gently tugged her across his lap.

 

Jessica swallowed hard and quickly reached down to grab hold of her father's leg, afraid she'd throw her hand back over her bottom if she didn't. "I'm sorry, daddy..." she whispered. Her voice was full of regret and apology.

 

"I know." Steve gently rubbed her back a moment or two before he bared her. He knew Jessica knew already what she'd done wrong, but to focus her, he asked, "Can you tell me why you're getting this spanking?"

 

"I snuck away from home to go someplace I shouldn't...leaving me vulnerable to being kidnapped, or hurt, or worse.... and I got drunk. You don't let me drink anymore and I know better...." Jessica sniffled. She wasn't emotionally able to recognize why being over her father's knee with him holding her tight had helped her feel safer and better than she had in days. She just knew it did and it was confusing. That confusion was obvious in the way she spoke and held her body. Her confession from before the de-aging didn't cross her mind, or she would have had to admit she'd likely done what she did so that she'd end up over his knee.

 

Steve remembered his daughter's confession, but figured she wasn't currently in the right place emotionally for them to talk about it. "If something had happened, had gone wrong, I might have lost you." His voice was low, but there was still a haunted note in it.

 

The tone of his voice was all it took for Jessica to slump and start crying. "I'm sorry, daddy! I'm sorry...!" She hadn't wanted to hurt him.

 

"I know. I love you. I forgive you. You are so important to me." Rubbing her back a moment or two longer, Steve lifted his hand and brought it down in the first firm swat that he then repeated.

 

Jessica didn't tense up or squirm. She'd hurt her father. She deserved what she was getting, even if she didn't want it (at least she thought she didn't want it; the sense of relief she felt was stronger than her urge to get away). She lay limp and pliant over Steve's knee and just focused on the swats and how much they stung; and focused on her father and how loving he was, even though she'd upset him; and focused on keeping her crying soft and quiet, so that she didn't start sobbing like she really wanted to do.

 

Steve continued the hard swats down to Jessica's thighs and then started over from the top. Partway through the second circuit, he began to speak. "I know you realise the potential danger now, but I need you to start thinking of it before you choose to do something that could cause me...cause the rest of your family...to lose you."

 

"I'm....I'm not used to thinking about that...." Jessica winced and couldn't help but shift slightly. Her voice caught in her throat; it was becoming increasingly more difficult not to be vocal in her distress, no matter how much she was trying to accept the punishment without fighting. "I...I'm sorry..." she repeated again, more tears streaming from her eyes as she tightened her grip on Steve's leg. She shifted again, but managed to still stay limp and pliant for her father, not wanting to cause any further problems. She swallowed hard to control her crying.

 

"I know," Steve replied, starting a third circuit of swats and going a fraction harder and faster. "Even with your enhanced strength, you can still be overwhelmed. Hurt. Captured. Taken." His voice dropped to a low, haunted whisper. It was hard not to think about the potential risk and danger.

 

Jessica had no words to refute what he said; she knew he was right. She couldn't stop the whimper that escaped shortly after he started the third circuit, the harder, faster attention causing the burn that she'd already felt to turn into a non-ending flame. She bit her lip hard to keep the tears from becoming vocal, though...some stubborn part of her not wanting to surrender just yet. She didn't know why. She didn't know what she was pushing for. Steve had already proven he'd never give up on her, so being stubborn really wasn't going to garner her anything but a very sore bottom. Still... in direct contrast to her stubbornness in refusing to cry and give in fully, she found her body relaxing even further. She was a rag-doll over her father's knee. He could shift her however he needed to target wherever he needed and she provided no resistance. There was some sense of relief with that.

 

Steve noticed his daughter was holding back on releasing her tears and he paused to pull her closer and tighter against him, gently rubbing her back. "Can you tell me what you were thinking?" he asked, his voice soft, but still firm, expecting an honest answer.

 

"I...I don't like...like not being in con...control of myself..." Jessica admitted through clenched teeth, unable to refuse her father's unspoken order to answer truthfully. That was all she could say, though, because she didn't understand any of her feelings and there really hadn't been much thought. If she had a moment of quiet time to reflect, she might consider that she'd wanted to push him to control her, since she wasn't currently able to do so... but she hadn't a moment like that and even if she did, that thought would be far down the list of things she'd consider.

 

"I understand that, but it doesn't give you an excuse to disobey the rules and put yourself at risk," Steve said. "There was a whole group of you and not one was paying attention. Things could have gone so much worse."

 

"Didn't care bout the rules," Jessica reluctantly admitted. "Just wanted some control over something."

 

"Drinking as much as you did didn't leave you in control," Steve pointed out, his voice gentle but serious.

 

"Didn't say my goals made all that much sense..." Jessica snarked, before darting a sheepishly apologetic look over her shoulder for the attitude.

 

Steve gently stroked her back. "Maybe not, but I know it hasn't made you feel any better."

 

"Doubt anything would make me feel better bout being a scrawny teenager again..." Jessica muttered. "Every single bad habit I had the first time just begs to be done again...."

 

"That might be true, but even if you do everything you did the first time, it won't change anything," Steve promised. "I'm never going to let you go. No matter what."

 

Jessica was surprised at how relieved those words made her. "Okay..." she finally whispered, wrapping her arms more tightly around his leg in a snuggle.

 

"I love you," Steve said. "That won't change. You're my daughter. I only want to take care of you. Keep you safe. Protect you."

 

"I love you too, daddy..." Jessica said, subdued.

 

After rubbing her back a moment or two longer, Steve resumed swatting, a fraction harder now and targeting more to her sit spots and thighs.

 

After the few minutes of just talking and gentle affection, the hard swats were a shock, if not a surprise. Jessica couldn't stop the pained yelp or the immediate squirming. Or the tears that immediately sprang from her eyes and streamed down her face. Now she was tense, trying valiantly not to lose complete control and holding on by a thread. "Daaaaaddy..." Her whimper was strained. Underneath, he would hear her regret for her actions, her remorse and her relief that he was handling her.

 

"I've got you. I love you. I won't let you go," Steve promised, still delivering the harder smacks.

 

Jessica closed her eyes tightly at the declarations of love, the swats on her already sore bottom becoming too difficult to take along with the gentle words. She didn't even remember why she wanted to go out now, talk her cousins and sister into going, let alone remember why she'd thought it was a good idea. The fact it had been her idea added on another layer of guilt and she couldn't ignore her conscience any longer. "I...I'm...I'm sorry! Was my idea. Was a bad idea...was very bad..." She whimpered as she clutched at her father's leg desperately. "Was my fault…didn't think...didn't want to think...sorry, daddy....so sorry!"

 

She wriggled around in an attempt to ease the ache, but it wasn't working. All she knew was any lingering desire she'd had to 'do her own thing'; any urge she'd had to continue fighting her father's authority and be disobedient; any urge she'd had to be wild and reckless and not think...was gone. All she wanted now was to be held by her father, forgiven and be as obedient as it was possible to be. Letting out a tiny choked sob and then a second, she slowly began to let go of the tension in her body, each smack helping her let go, bit by tiny bit, until she was limp over Steve's lap and just crying softly.

 

As soon as his daughter surrendered, Steve didn't waste any time in drawing the spanking to a stop, bringing his daughter up into his arms and cuddling her close and tight on his lap. He pressed a kiss to her head and just held her tightly, reiterating how much he loved her.

 

Jessica curled into her father, gripping the front of his shirt tightly and just continuing to sob softly against his chest. Slowly, all the anxiety from what had occurred drained out of her to join the resistance that had seeped out of her from being spanked. Eventually, there were no more tears to cry and she could only lean weakly on Steve, trusting him to hold her up and protect her, like he had been doing from the beginning.

 

Her backside burned...ached...from the punishment, but she couldn't be upset about it. "Why's it take me so long to learn and give in?" she asked plaintively, in a tiny voice. "It's not like I actually thought I was right or that I didn't deserve to be punished. I know how wrong I was and deserved every swat..." She sniffled, before nuzzling against her dad.

 

Steve tightened his embrace, gently stroking her hair and back. "You aren't the only one to act stubbornly," he answered gently. "There could be all sorts of reasons, including that it's harder for you right now due to the deaging. And there are a lot of new people joining the family too."

 

"There's so much happening..." Jessica tried to keep her voice steady, but the unspoken nervousness she had was still clear. "...What if I have to grow up the normal way again? What if I don't ever grow up again at all and am stuck like this forever?" Jessica's eyes widened as her thoughts progressed and she blurted, without thought to language or loudness, "FUCK! What if poor Kara is stuck and doesn't grow up!?" Her face took on a guilty look as she realized there were at least three family members worse off than herself. She felt guilty and selfish for even thinking of herself.

 

"Those are valid fears." Steve stroked her cheek as he continued, "But we've gathered a lot of people in different fields. You don't need to worry about giving up. Not until we've exhausted every possibility. And we have so many friends and allies here, all working on this problem, that we've got a long way to go before we've exhausted every avenue open to us."

 

"Ok..." Jessica's voice quivered. She was trying hard to be brave, but the fact was, she was terrified. "You'll have me no matter what...?"

 

"No matter what." Steve kissed her head. "I love you."

 

"Love you too, Daddy..." Jessica's voice was subdued. "Can I stay with you?" she hesitantly asked.

 

"Of course," Steve replied, without hesitation. "As soon as you're ready, I'll take you through to my room. Your sister's there already, but she should be asleep by now."

 

Jessica nuzzled against him a little longer before reluctantly standing and pulling up her panties with a whimper. The nightshirt was modest and reached her knees, so no one could see evidence that she'd been punished; and the looseness of it prevented it from rubbing against sore skin, which she was thankful for, but underwear chafed. She wasn't certain she'd be able to sleep, even if she was so tired she could barely keep her eyes open. "Why do I have to be so stubborn?" she lamented softly, leaning against him so he could take her to his room.

 

Steve wrapped his arm around her shoulders and kissed her head. "You aren't the only one," he said, before guiding her out of the room and towards his own room, leading her inside.

 

Soon, Jessica was snuggled close, fast asleep, only the occasional whimper when she shifted wrong any indication she'd been punished. She slept more peacefully than she had in days.

 

***

 

Lorelei bit her lip as Odin led them to his room, noting that Loki was doing the same. She also noticed that Loki hadn't changed back to his male form yet. She wasn't sure what the reason behind that was.

 

Loki, for her part, was feeling too guilty to do anything but follow their father. Even asking if they would be going back to their own rooms to change first was beyond her...and she couldn't change back to her normal, preferred form if she couldn't change clothes. Not only were the ones she was wearing too small, but it didn't feel right not wearing her normal clothes in her normal form. She didn't know what that said about her- that she didn't mind completely changing her physical sex, but balked at wearing female clothing while in male form- but it was exactly that. She didn't say anything, though, too guilty to bother her father with such trivialities.

 

Odin turned to both his children, keeping in contact with them. "Would you prefer to get changed first?" he asked, even as he passed them each the bottles of water he'd retrieved on the way. His question was addressed to both of them, not wanting to single Loki out or make her feel uncomfortable. It didn't make a difference to him if she wanted to change to her male form or stay as female.

 

Loki quickly nodded. "Yes, please, daddy...I feel more vulnerable in this form...out of control..." she admitted hesitantly. There was still a part of her that feared her father disproved of her ability to change form and was less fearful as her normal male self. Although if her father indicated she should stay in the form she misbehaved in for her punishment, she'd obey.

 

Lorelei frowned at the words, but didn't say anything. She knew that the vulnerability and lack of control was due to Loki's own insecurities in her ability and not because of being female.

 

Odin reached out to stroke Loki's cheek. "If you change or not is entirely up to you, but please don't think I would rather have you in any form other than the one you feel most comfortable in," he said honestly.

 

"I don't know..." Loki admitted. " ...You never punished me when I was like this...only Thor has." She fidgeted slightly, uncertain if she should go change to something safe and familiar, or take a chance. She'd been in this form when she had misbehaved after all. Maybe she should stay in the form she disobeyed in to be punished.

 

Lorelei bit her lip. "May I change into pyjamas and then wait in your room, daddy?" she asked, realizing it might take Loki a little while to get over her worry about Odin accepting her no matter what her appearance.

 

Odin nodded and smiled warmly at Lorelei. "Of course. I'll be there soon." He reached out to stroke Lorelei's cheek with his other hand, then gave her a quick hug.

 

Loki watched her sister disappear to change, then turned toward her father. "I don't know what I should do, daddy...." She hadn't been self conscious or worried when Thor had taken her in hand in her female form. Granted, Thor had just acted and she hadn't had much chance to protest, even if she'd thought to. She'd never felt self conscious about her ability around Thor at all...until they'd grown apart and Loki realized exactly how different she really was.

 

Part of her thought if Odin chose to discipline her in this form, maybe it would prove he didn't care about what form she chose to use. The other part thought maybe if he wanted her to be her male form, it would show that he cared about her comfort and the fact that she wasn't as comfortable in her female form, even if she had enjoyed employing it more frequently when younger. "What do you want me to do?" she finally asked.

 

Odin reached out to draw Loki into his arms, kissing her forehead. "I want you to do whatever you feel comfortable doing. It doesn't matter to me what form you choose to wear, as long as you're happy with it. I love you no matter what."

 

"I don't know, daddy...I used to be comfortable both ways. Until..." She sighed. "...This is the first time in a very long time I chose to be this way. I've been too scared...."

 

Odin tightened his arms around Loki. "Scared of what?" he asked.

 

"Everyone already viewed me as odd and not masculine enough. They thought my magic made me weak and untrustworthy. If they'd known how I can change myself so completely..." Loki's voice quivered. "...And I know you said it did not matter, but..." She shrugged her shoulders and looked down, ashamed. "...If everyone else did, you'd have to just because you're king....."

 

Odin sighed, aware of how difficult things had been for her on Asgard and hating that it had caused his child so much damage. "You were not treated well on Asgard and I regret that more than anything. But it is not how they view you that is important, because they are not here. I am here. And I love you, no matter what form you wear. As does the rest of our family here."

 

"I....I want to believe you..." Loki said quietly. "I've been scared so long, I truly feel safer in my usual form. I can't fathom how I let myself be talked into this form..." she admitted, with a sigh.

 

"Perhaps because you no longer need to deny that part of yourself, or at least feel you no longer need to?" Odin suggested.

 

Loki slanted her head. "Maybe..." she said hesitantly. "Do...do you think it better to be comfortable when you...uh...make me uncomfortable? Or face my fears?" The pause with the completely Midgardian phrasing showed not only Loki's lingering insecurity about her ability, but also the fact that she felt more at home on Midgard than she ever had on Asgard.

 

"I think I would rather you decide what to do, but perhaps it would help to consider that you are uncomfortable in this form because you feel you've been unable to take it," Odin said. "In which case, using the form for longer periods of time will help you grow used to it."

 

"If I become used to it...maybe I can use it to help the family on missions..." Loki brightened considerably at the thought of being useful to those she loved. "Maybe I could get used to some of the others as well..." She gave Odin an impish look, reminding the older man that it wasn't just her gender she was able to change.

 

Odin smiled and kissed her forehead, gently running his fingers through her hair. "It would be good to see you comfortable and happy in every aspect of yourself and what you can do," he said seriously.

 

"That would be a novel feeling..." Loki admitted quietly. "I...I think, even though I am not as comfortable in this form, that I will keep it until my punishment is over. I did misbehave in this form, after all. At the risk of sounding like I have a split personality, it probably is not fair to make male Loki pay for my misdeeds...and it will give me more time to interact with you in this form..." she finally decided, with a hint of nervousness.

 

"Very well." Odin kept in contact with her as he gently guided her to his room, kissing her cheek. "I love you," he said again.

 

"I love you too, daddy." Loki snuggled close. "I think I left a pair of sleep clothes in your room, so I won't have to come back to my room and change...if that's alright? I do not wish to leave you...."

 

"That's fine," Odin replied. "I don't wish to have you leave me either." He led her into his room.

 

Lorelei was waiting outside the door and gave her oldest friend and sibling a tiny smile. She understood Loki's reluctance to use her abilities or let too many people see them, having her own insecurities in her own abilities.

 

Loki smiled at her sister sadly. While she felt comforted by her father's love and acceptance of her, the fact was that they'd still been disobedient, wilful, and foolish, and had repercussions coming their way. She didn't argue, though and let her father lead her into his room. Lorelei followed.

 

Odin closed the door and then reached out, drawing both his daughters close and tight to himself. He pressed a kiss to each of their foreheads and then gently led Lorelei towards one of the corners.

 

Lorelei quickly threw her arms around Loki in a tight, supportive hug before going to the corner with her father, who she then gave a tight hug and apology. "I'm sorry, daddy. I keep making you punish me. I don't mean to be so bad," she whispered.

 

Odin kissed her head. "You aren't bad," he whispered back. "Neither of you are 'bad'. This is only temporary naughtiness that will be dealt with."

 

Lorelei gave him a grateful smile, then turned to face the corner he'd placed her.

 

Odin stepped over to Loki. Reaching out, he took her hand and guided her over to the bed. Taking a seat, he gently pulled his daughter across his lap.

 

Loki went easily enough, feeling guilty that she was in trouble again. She was beginning to think she needed to make a standing appointment with her father to spank her, as often as she was getting into trouble lately. Sniffling a tiny bit she said, "I'm sorry, daddy...."

 

"I know. I forgive you. I love you," Odin replied, settling her in place and then baring her. He brought his hand down in the first firm swat that he then repeated.

 

Loki winced then whimpered, but otherwise didn't make a sound, reaching down and taking hold of her father's ankle tightly. She had no plans to try and be brave- her emotions were too close to the surface and raw to attempt that- but she wasn't going to start blubbering before he'd even started. Not when she knew she deserved what she was receiving. She tried to determine if it felt different this time than the last two times, but couldn't notice any discernible difference; except perhaps her father's hand being able to cover more territory with one swat. Although that was likely because she was smaller in size from deaging, not because she was currently a girl. She felt very small and vulnerable at the moment. Ironically, her father holding her over his lap made her feel safer, despite the punishment, so she knew it wasn't the punishment making her feel small or vulnerable. It was the fact she was smaller and younger and less in control of her emotions. She hated feeling like this, but knowing it was her own fault didn't feel right complaining to anyone about it. She swallowed hard and tried to focus on what her father was doing...it wouldn't do to be distracted. He'd have to resort to harder smacks if she wasn't paying attention.

 

Odin continued the firm swats down to Loki's thighs and then started over from the top. Partway through the second circuit, he began to speak. "I understand this has been difficult for you, but there was still no excuse for you to sneak out with everyone else, knowing many of your cousins can't fight and protect themselves or each other with the changes in their physical forms."

 

"No, daddy...I know there isn't...I didn't think of the danger to them...I was too selfish!" Loki's voice broke as she thought of how her cousins could have been harmed or worse and that was all it took for her to begin sobbing. She squirmed a little, but mostly, she shook from guilty tears of remorse. If something had happened, she would never have forgiven herself.

 

"It's not about being selfish," Odin replied gently. "You were bored and feeling out of control. You should have come to me. We could have found a safer way."

 

"I should have come to you..." Loki agreed quickly. "I shouldn't think I can do everything on my own...."

 

"You don't need to do everything on your own," Odin said. "You have a whole family around you who love you. Your uncles and aunts. Your cousins."

 

Loki let out a tiny sob. "I know...just hard to remember...did stuff on my own for too long so hard not to automatically do that. Hard to not just do what I want without thinking...."

 

"I know," Odin replied gently. "But that's one of the reasons I'm here. To be your father. To pull you back when you need to be. To protect you from what you need protecting from. To make up for how much I failed you in the past...."

 

"W...wasn't all your fault..." Loki found herself protesting. "...I shoulda...shoulda told you what was goin on..." She sobbed again. "...Stead of being so horribly bad...Y..you woulda helped me if I'd told you..." Loki could admit that now, though at that time, she hadn't been convinced of the fact.

 

Even though he was still swatting, Odin moved his other hand to Loki's lower back, rubbing gently. "It was my fault you doubted me, but I am going to make sure you never have cause to do that again," he promised.

 

Loki closed her eyes tightly at the show of support and affection. The spanking by now had reached a point of achy burn that didn't go away when Odin wasn't swatting. It was continuous and Loki found herself wriggling around in a futile attempt to ease the pain. Her father holding her tightly in place was all that kept her from wriggling onto the floor. She began to cry harder, though this time, the tears were more a release of pent up emotional anxiety and frustration than of guilt being met and relieved. Not that she didn't feel guilty- she always felt guilty when she disappointed her father and made it necessary for him to punish her- but the guilt wasn't soul crushing and had pretty much been addressed before she ever went over Odin's knee. No....while she couldn't say she wanted a spanking or liked it, she had to admit that she felt more at ease than she had since being de-aged again. Having her father confirm that he loved her no matter what shape or age she was, was a relief.

 

"I love you," Odin reiterated, still continuing the firm swats. While he didn't increase the force and speed at all, he began focusing more to her sit spots and thighs. "I can't change how you felt in the past, but I hope that now, and in the future, you know how much you are wanted, no matter what form you wear. No matter what happens."

 

Loki choked back another sob, but Odin's words were heard. And she believed them. Completely. Going limp over his knee, she finally let herself cry without trying to stop it. "Love you, daddy...love you so much...so sorry I di..disbeyed...sorry I dis...dispointed you...."

 

Bringing the spanking to a stop, Odin wasted no time in bringing his daughter up into his arms, hugging her tightly on his lap and pressing a kiss to her head. "I forgive you. I love you," he repeated, over and over.

 

Loki just snuggled closer, abandoning any pretence of not wanting her father to hold her close. Loki hadn't been shy in accepting affection ever since Odin had re-entered the picture, even when male. Even so, it seemed that being in female form caused her to accept when she wanted or needed to be clingy and not fight it, instead of thinking she had to hold herself strong. It was a slight difference, but it was still noticeable.

 

Odin tightened his arms around Loki, stroking her hair and kissing the top of her head. While he knew he needed to deal with Lorelei, he didn't want to let go of Loki until she was ready.

 

Loki snuggled for a bit more before slowly withdrawing with a sigh. "I love you, daddy..." she whispered with a tiny smile, the tear-streaks on her face giving her an even younger appearance than she already had.

 

"I love you too." Odin reached out and gently stroked her cheek before he stood up.

 

Loki leaned on her father and meekly let him lead her to the corner, where she traded places with Lorelei.

 

Lorelei unabashedly threw her arms around her sibling in another tight hug, before shifting closer to Odin so that he could take hold of her. Her face was already tear-streaked and she was still crying, Loki's punishment having affected her as much as if it were her own.

 

Odin gently guided Lorelei out of the corner and over to the bed. Taking a seat, he gently tugged her across his lap, securing her with an arm wrapped around her waist.

 

"I'm sorry, daddy...so sorry..." she cried softly. "I did everything wrong...shouldn't have snuck out...shouldn't have gone drinking when's illegal here...shouldn't have used my powers to get everyone into the club when the door guard would have sent us away if I hadn't..." She winced as she added the last bit, not entirely certain Odin had known of that particular misdeed. If Loki had used powers to obfuscate their departure from the compound and make it difficult to easily track them, she had done her part by befuddling anyone who might have tried to stop them entering the club. Granted, some of those who went along were women, but the door guard wasn't and she'd influenced him in a way she shouldn't have.

 

Odin gently stroked her back before he bared her. "You have a power that's very easy to abuse and you know how I would expect you to act," he sad seriously. "But none of what happened has changed how much I love you."

 

"I know, daddy..." Lorelei cried. "I...I just feel ashamed of myself. I hate that I've given you reason to be ashamed of me...." She reached down and gripped her father's leg tightly and just cried, not arguing or even trying to give excuses, just wanting the punishment to be over so she could hopefully feel better about herself.

 

"I'm not ashamed of you," Odin replied honestly. "I love you and I know how much better you can act."

 

"I can act better..." Lorelei acknowledged. "...I should have acted better. I'm sorry, daddy...."

 

"I know. And I forgive you." As he had with Loki, Odin began to gently rub Lorelei's lower back, even as he kept on spanking.

 

It didn't take Lorelei long to begin squirming. She was already crying, so that just increased in strength. She saw no reason to try and be brave; she knew where she had gone wrong...what she had done wrong...and the fact her father forgave her was a relief. She hadn't even realized she'd been worried he wouldn't until he offered his forgiveness. "I'll be good, daddy..." she promised, in a tiny, distressed voice, afraid he wouldn't believe her; or at least wouldn't believe her capable of it.

 

"You are good," Odin replied, immediately and without hesitation. "Being temporarily naughty doesn't change that."

 

Lorelei was surprised at how the term 'naughty' made her feel so young and even more vulnerable than she already was. But it did. It also made her feel safer in her father's arms than she thought she had a right to. It was odd. She didn't focus on that too much, though. The spanking had reached a point where her bottom burned and she was crying too much to speak. It was time to give in. Slumping over her father's lap, she just cried and attempted to focus on her father and his hands and his words.

 

Odin immediately brought the spanking to a stop, bringing her into his arms and onto his lap, hugging her tightly to himself and gently stroking her hair, kissing the top of her head.

 

Lorelei snuggled close. "I love you, daddy..." she whispered.

 

"I love you too." Odin gently stroked her hair, tightening his arms around her.

 

Lorelei snuggled for a bit longer before kissing her father on the cheek and standing, fixing her clothes. "I'm already dressed for bed. Shall I wait in the corner while you and Loki change, or wait in bed?" she asked.

 

"You can wait in bed," Odin replied with a warm smile, stepping over to the corner so he could draw his other daughter out.

 

Giving her father a bright smile, Lorelei quickly went and crawled onto one side of the bed, snuggling into the covers and waiting for the rest of her family to join her so she could snuggle.

 

Loki sniffled slightly, but turned to face Odin as he came back to retrieve her. "I'll change really quick..." She gave a crooked smile. She was obviously still feeling needy, but any guilt she'd had was taken care of and she seemed at peace.

 

Odin kissed Loki's forehead and then picked up her pyjamas that he then handed to her. "You can change in here if you'd prefer," he said gently.

 

"Yes, daddy..." Loki nodded and quickly began to do just that.

 

Lorelei shook her head at Loki's lack of modesty when it came to changing in front of family, but didn't say anything, just closing her eyes in amusement. It wasn't like this was the first time Loki had changed or run around half-naked in front of her, even when in male form.

 

Odin didn't take long to get changed, but he waited for Loki to settle herself comfortably in bed before he joined his daughters.

 

Loki squirmed a bit until Odin was settled in and then she was plastered against her father like a barnacle to a ship. "Feels weird..." she admitted in a sleepy voice, but didn't pull away.

 

"What does?" Lorelei asked in confusion, having plastered herself to Odin's other side in nearly as clingy a grip.

 

"I was already shorter and smaller cuz of the deaging...which was hard to get used to...but being female made me shorter and smaller yet and I fit against daddy differently..." Loki sounded befuddled; not exactly confused, because she understood why she fit differently, but finding the perfect spot where she could snuggle and still sleep was eluding her.

 

"Take your time finding the most comfortable position for you," Odin suggested, wrapping an arm around each of his daughters and kissing their cheeks.

 

Lorelei made no further comment, snuggling closer to her father and was soon asleep.

 

Loki shifted a bit more, honestly surprised that her father wasn't getting irritated at her squirming, but finally, she found the perfect combination of snuggle and needed space where she could breathe and not be mashed in uncomfortable places. Letting out a tiny, contented sigh, she whispered, "Love you, daddy..." and then was fast asleep.

 

Odin cuddled his daughters close to himself and then slipped into sleep quite quickly.

 

***

 

The excitement was over and Robbie was relieved that everyone had been returned safely. He turned to Gabe and smiled at his brother. "Ready for bed now?" he asked.

 

Gabe nodded. "Yeah. Things are really busy round here. It's tiring..." He laughed quietly, not wanting to wake anyone who might actually be asleep. Steering his wheelchair in the right direction, he began to push himself toward the room he'd been given.

 

Robbie walked next to his brother. "What do you think about the people here?" he asked curiously.

 

Gabe slanted his head thoughtfully and stopped pushing as he gave his brother's question some thought. "They are an interesting group. Aliens, shape-shifting magicians, mad-scientists..." His tone was teasing, even if the comments weren't far from the truth (at least in regards to the scientists being mad <at least he hoped they weren't mad>).

 

Robbie stopped when his brother did, placing a hand on Gabe's shoulder and squeezing gently. "You think you'd still like to stay even once things have settled down?"

 

Gabe looked up at his brother, considering the question. "You want to stay?" he finally asked seriously. "Because I can be happy anywhere as long as you're there...and I can transfer my credits to a new university and take classes there just as easy as stay where I am. I still haven't chosen a major, after all and was only taking generals...."

 

"I think it might be good for both of us," Robbie said. "But you know I won't do anything you're uncomfortable with. And I'm not gonna stay anywhere that means I'd need to be separated from you. I don't want you to decide based on what you think I want."

 

"Hey, bro...someday you gotta cut the apron strings, ya know?" Gabe teased his brother gently, before straightening and saying, "I wouldn't make my decision based solely on what I think you want. But honest truth here: it's just you and me for forever. I'm taking classes, but I can take those same classes at the university the rest of this group goes to, assuming they are taking classes. I have no preference on where I hang my hat, as long as you're there. If you think you'll be happy here...I'll be happy here. Who knows. I might decide I really like it here and want to stay even if you decided to leave...once I get to know everyone, anyway."

 

Robbie smiled. "I think it might take a long time to get to know everyone," he joked. "But Fury and Trip already talked to me about us staying here. I wanted to talk to you first before anything else."

 

"They move quick." Gabe laughed. "I'm fine with it, bro. I think it will be good for us." He didn't say good for you, knowing Robbie might take issue at Gabe worrying about him like that; but Gabe was happy at the thought that someone other than just himself would worry about and take care of his older brother. "Let's do it."

 

Robbie's grin grew wider. "Great. I can let them know we'll be officially moving in...we can take a look at nearby universities in the next day or so."

 

"Cool. Maybe we can go talk with them now. I haven't really had a chance to get to know them. Everything's been so busy. But I'm pretty sure the little one was put to bed by Darcy, so her dad might be available to talk." Gabe smiled.

 

Robbie nodded and addressed the AI. "Friday, where are Fury, Trip, Brock and Ward?"

 

"I believe they are relaxing in the common area and trying to decide if they are heading to their rooms to sleep or not," Friday answered.

 

Gabe grinned at his brother. "We'll get there quicker if you push me...."

 

"Thanks, Friday." Grinning back at his brother, Robbie began pushing the wheelchair towards the common area. Even if they were going faster, he was still very careful to make sure he didn't jerk his brother too much.

 

Trip glanced up as Robbie came into the area, pushing his younger brother ahead of him. He moved over so that Robbie could put the wheelchair next to the couch and then sit down next to him. "Hey, bro! Can't sleep either?"

 

Ward smiled crookedly at the words. He couldn't sleep because of worry for the young woman, currently in toddler form, asleep in her bed not too far away. The whole family had grown on him quickly and he knew they were all worried about their sister, so he suspected none of them could sleep for the same reason. "It was a busy night...." he said, by way of agreeing with Trip.

 

Robbie settled Gabe's wheelchair in place, then sat down on the couch. "It really was," he agreed. "I can't imagine it's like that all the time."

 

"A lot of things have happened all at once." Fury smiled at Robbie and Gabe, from his seat next to Ward. "Kara's managed to sleep." He didn't voice his worry that she was slipping further and further away from them, even though it was a worry.

 

Brock's smile fell slightly at Fury's words. "I...I can see she's scared. That she's losing herself. I can't help but be scared of that too. I mean...I know we'll always take care of her and you'd raise her again in a heartbeat if it came to it, but she already lost so much with the brainwashing...."

 

Ward winced, his own look worried. "I know she has a hard time forming words, even though you can see in her eyes she knows what she wants to say. Maybe...Maybe we are looking at it wrong. She can't communicate with words and so she hasn't been communicating and it's contributing to her regression...maybe she doesn't actually need to speak the words to communicate, though...."

 

Gabe looked intrigued. "I know you don't mean by writing...you thinking about sign language? Friend of mine's mom had a baby...they taught her to sign as soon as she was able to recognize things. She was telling them when she was hungry, wanted a drink, or needed to be changed before she was on solid food...."

 

Fury nodded. "It would be a good idea. A lot of us here use sign language if we can't communicate out loud for whatever reason. Even if we find out how to reverse this soon, it could still work to keep her mind active."

 

Trip nodded at that. "We should have considered it sooner, really. It isn't like it's an unknown concept. My sister talked about using it with my nephew when he was born..." He looked ruefully at his father. "Guess we've all been so busy being worried, it caused us to overlook some of the obvious...."

 

"Well...I get the idea she was a good agent and she likely already knows at least some of the signs. Maybe all we need to do is remind her of what she knows and get her to start talking that way...if nothing else, it may help you gauge exactly how her deaging is affecting her mentally." Ward said quietly.

 

Gabe nodded, even though he wasn't certain if he'd play a role in what was happening. "Oh! Robbie wants to stay. And I figured I'd stay where he stays. That alright?" he blurted out.

 

Even though he was worried about Kara, Fury still smiled at Gabe. "We knew you'd come as a package deal. And the two of you get on with my other children."

 

Robbie blinked, noticing the use of the word. Did that mean Fury was already considering adopting them? He was intelligent enough to have already realised it might be possible, but it hadn't been outright stated yet.

 

Gabe slanted his head. "You sound like you plan to adopt us..." he said hesitantly. He hadn't even considered the possibility, having not spent as much time with the other man. He'd just assumed they'd be moving into the compound and maybe gaining a non-official family.

 

"I would like to," Fury replied honestly. "You've both actually spent a lot longer here than many of the others who have been adopted in less than a day." He couldn't help smiling, remembering Coulson's two new daughters, who had taken him less than an hour to choose to adopt.

 

Robbie wasn't as surprised and he gently placed a hand on Gabe's shoulder, squeezing lightly. "We can talk about it," he said softly to his brother.

 

Gabe glanced at his brother. "I...I'm not against it. If that's what you want. I mean, yeah; part of me feels like I should be more hesitant at the offer, cuz it feels like it would be forgetting Papi and Mami... but then I know they would always want what was best for us....and if being part of the family is what's best for you, I'm all for it. So really...there doesn't really need to be a talk about it. You just need to figure out what you want. Cuz I'm good either way...." Gabe gave his brother a crooked smile.

 

Robbie smiled at his brother and gently squeezed his upper arm. "It isn't like we'd forget about them...." He glanced at Fury and then at the others...the men who would be his other brothers. "Is there anything else we need to know?"

 

"It wasn't the ideal way you found out, but you already know how the family deals with things," Fury said.

 

Gabe grimaced. "That was obviously not a joke..." he said hesitantly. "I don't tend to get into trouble, so I doubt I have to worry about it...still... do you give warnings? If we look to be heading down a path that will get us in trouble? So we can like, stop? And not do whatever would get us in trouble?"

 

"If it's at all possible to stop anyone from getting into trouble, then yes," Fury replied. He didn't say they'd had times when the kids had been deliberately pushing to get their parents' attention...even if that attention was getting spanked.

 

"I don't always have a lot of choice," Robbie said, thinking about the demon that took him over.

 

Gabe bit his lip, giving Robbie a side-ways glance. It wasn't his place to bring up his brother's 'alter ego'. At the same time, it wasn't really fair for Robbie to be blamed if 'flame-head' decided something needed to be done and took over the reigns, was it? "What if...what if I did something that was against the rules, but I didn't really have a choice and I couldn't stop myself?" he asked hesitantly, hoping that the answer would help his brother without telling more than he wanted told.

 

"You wouldn't be punished for something outside of your control," Fury replied seriously. "Neither would you be punished without taking the time to listen to your side of the story first. Doing something dangerous with a good reason is unlikely to get you punished."

 

"Gabe's asking for me." Robbie figured, if they were going to be adopted, he needed to be completely honest with his new family. "I've got an alter ego that takes over. I don't really have a lot of control over when and where it happens."

 

Trip blinked at that. "By alter ego, do you mean a split personality?" he asked hesitantly, not sure if he was being offensive with the question, but not knowing how else to phrase it, since he wasn't a psychologist.

 

Robbie gave a wry smile. "Sure, if it also comes with a flaming skull for a head. And I mean that literally. Mike and Werner both saw me like it, but I guess they figured it was my secret to tell too."

 

"I think I've heard some rumours about that," Fury said. "The Ghost Rider, correct?"

 

Robbie nodded. "Yeah."

 

Brock's eyes widened. "Isn't Ghost Rider some vengeance seeker or some such?" he asked. "Only goes after those whose hearts aren't pure? Least the rumors I've heard said he only goes after bad guys...."

 

"More or less," Robbie answered. "Trouble is, I don't have a line to how that criteria is measured. If the Ghost Rider's coming out, I can't stop it. And it'll make me go after a bad guy without hesitation. I can promise that, when I'm in full control of myself, I'm unlikely to take any risks or chances. I can't make the same promise for him."

 

Trip nodded, glancing at his father and other brothers. "From what I hear, when he's in control, you can't be hurt anyway. So....if he takes risks or chances, it's anyone you're with who'd have to look out."

 

Fury nodded. "Thank you for trusting us with that information. Would it be all right if I discussed it with your aunts and uncles? It might be we need to take that into consideration in the future."

 

Robbie nodded. "We're going to be a part of the family, so...yeah. Okay. I trust you all not to use that information to hurt either of us."

 

Ward smiled at that comment. "They're good at keeping secrets if that's what's needed..." he said, remembering that he'd confessed everything to Fury and not only had Fury forgiven him, but he hadn't turned him in to the police or used the information to hurt him.

 

Fury wrapped his arm around Ward's shoulders affectionately. "There are a lot of people with secrets here. No one is going to break or abuse the trust you place in us."

 

Robbie smiled gratefully. "Thank you." He glanced sideways at his brother, to see if Gabe needed to say or ask anything.

 

"Robbie's happy. And not as stressed as he's been for forever. So thank you..." Gabe added his own thanks into the mix. He didn't know if he'd ever form as close a bond to the family as his brother had seemed to, but he wouldn't rule out the possibility.

 

Fury nodded and smiled at them both. "It's a bit late to draw up the paperwork now, but I'll get that rolling first thing in the morning."

 

Ward chuckled. "I have it on good authority that Foggy has the legal work on computer and constantly available in his office; the only thing necessary is to fill in the names, print and sign."

 

Fury smiled at Ward, but his comment was addressed to all of them, really. "With the way our family keeps growing, that's probably just as well."

 

Gabe smirked. "Can it get much larger?"

 

"I'm sure it could," Fury replied. "And I suspect there are other people who are going to become permanent residents here."

 

"Yeah?" Trip looked interested. "Who?"

 

"I'm not sure I should name specific names until a concrete decision has been made," Fury replied. "But one I can be certain of is Werner."

 

"He's been pulled into Tony Stark's family, right?" Robbie hadn't failed to notice that, even if Werner had seemed completely clueless about how to react.

 

"Yeah. Something about him drew Tony to him. It happens like that a lot..." Trip nodded.

 

"None of us normally hold back when we feel drawn to someone," Fury commented. "And sometimes it does seem to move fast, but at least it means people know they're actually wanted."

 

Gabe shrugged. "I think it's pretty obvious everyone in the family wants to be in it; and wants the people they've adopted in it."

 

Fury nodded. "It's harder for some people to believe than others, but even people who have homes and families already are still welcome here at any time." Smiling at Gabe, he continued, "If you want to have a look at universities close by, we can arrange a time to do that in the next day or so, unless you want to wait until Peter and Harry have reached their proper ages, as I know they were looking into universities before this."

 

"I'm not in a hurry; I can wait for them to grow up again," Gabe said amicably. "Like I told Robbie, I haven't chosen a major yet, so everything I'm taking will be generals anyway...."

 

"If you want to talk about potential majors with me or anyone else, you're always welcome to do that," Fury said.

 

"Really? I'd like that..." Gabe said, with a hint of surprise. It had been Robbie that had bonded with the other men, after all; not him. That they would readily welcome him along with his brother was one thing- that they'd want to jump into helping him like any other family would, was something else entirely.

 

Fury smiled warmly at him. "Joining SHIELD is always an option; I know you've been a valuable help to Skye. But no matter what you'd like to do, we'll help and support you." Looking between Robbie and Gabe, he added, "That's what else you get here. Help. Support. People to look out for you, even when you don't think you need that."

 

"Good. Robbie needs someone watching his back with all that he's been getting up to recently. Even if the 'other guy' is seemingly invincible, Robbie isn't...." Gabe let some of his worry and concern for his brother that he'd been hiding show.

 

"Hey...." Robbie wrapped his arm around Gabe's shoulders, hugging his brother. "I know you worry, but I do my best to make sure I come home to you." Maybe it wasn't always in one piece....

 

"We can work on perhaps you getting enough warning that you can tell us if you think you're about to change," Fury suggested.

 

"That would be wonderful!" Gabe inserted hopefully.

 

Robbie wasn't sure that would always be possible, but he nodded anyway, not wanting to worry his little brother more. "I can certainly try."

 

Trip nodded. "That's all we can ask, I guess...until you figure out signs of when he might be coming or situations likely to attract his attention."

 

"On occasion, it might be a good idea to have someone else with you, especially going into an unknown situation," Fury commented. "Someone else might be able to spot any outward signs."

 

"I could go with." Trip agreed with his father. "Or maybe Mike. He already knows, or at least has seen him."

 

"It'll probably be a shock for most people to see him for the first time," Robbie said. He was fairly certain Werner hadn't reacted because the other man had already been suffering shock.

 

"I dunno...after you've seen mild-mannered Bruce turn into Big Green and Grouchy...people changing into other shapes/beings isn't that shocking..." Brock muttered in amusement.

 

"I suspect we might be seeing more changes," Fury commented, thinking of seeing Loki as a teenage girl.

 

"Yeah?" Brock asked, having not seen his cousin in female form. "You know something we don't?" he teased his father.

 

Fury smiled. "It's perhaps something I should let your cousin tell you about himself."

 

"Now you have my curiosity peaked. I'll have to hunt him up in the morning..." Brock smiled back.

 

"Speaking of the morning, I think it's about time to start going to bed." Fury paused and waited, in case any of his sons wanted or needed to stay with him.

 

Trip nodded. "Get some rest, dad."

 

"Yeah," Ward added. "Kara might need you later, so get sleep while you can..." he said, with a crooked smile. "I'm pretty sure she fell asleep in Darcy's room, but she was looking for you while you were gone."

 

Fury smiled and moved to give each of his sons a hug, including Robbie and Gabe in the affection. "In the morning, we'll get the paperwork completed," he promised them.

 

Robbie nodded and stood up, though he glanced at Gabe to check if his brother needed anything.

 

Gabe smiled at how quickly they'd been accepted and taken into the family, returning Fury's hug with a strong grip. "Thanks, sir..." he said serenely. Turning toward Robbie, he grinned. "I'll see you in the morning, bro," he said, before beginning to wheel himself to his assigned room.

 

Brock nodded at everyone before taking off for his own room, Trip and Ward following his example seconds later.

 

Robbie retired to his own room and it didn't take too long before he was asleep, feeling much lighter now that the people he'd fallen in with knew his secret and still accepted him.

 

***

 

Sam watched everyone head off to bed and then turned to Luke and YoYo. "It isn't normally as fast-moving as this," he commented with a smile.

 

Yo-Yo chuckled. "Seems too well-oiled and prepared for, for that to be completely true," she teased.

 

Luke grinned. "I date Jessica. I know from her own words that she was the only reason things didn't move fast for her to become part of the family. Or did you mean it doesn't normally happen within one day of meeting someone?"

 

Sam laughed at that. "I was actually thinking more of having to go and retrieve lost family members, though adopting someone in the space of a day is a little more unusual. But when you know...when you feel drawn to someone...." He shrugged. "You don't want to wait."

 

"I don't suppose you do...not if they're alone and need you especially...or, in the case of the adoptee, if you're alone and need someone..." Luke nodded. He knew Jessica was much happier for being part of Steve's family, after all.

 

"Exactly." Sam remembered how both Matt and Karen had needed someone, albeit in different ways. At the risk of scaring either of them off.... "I've learned to recognise when I feel that way."

 

Yo-Yo looked wistful. "How does it feel?" she had to ask, unable to hide the envy she felt that others had found something to fill the empty parts of their life. She loved Mack, but sometimes she needed something a boyfriend or lover couldn't give, no matter how loving they were.

 

"Wanting someone in your life. No matter what." Sam smiled at the two of them. "That's how I feel about you both," he said, wanting to be honest, even if it meant they might be scared off.

 

Luke blinked. "I guess I should have seen that coming...." He sounded equally amused and pleased. "I actually like the idea. I've been a bit envious of Jess, all things considered."

 

"You're okay with it? Just like that?" Yo-Yo blinked. She blinked again when she realized, "I actually like the idea too...." She sounded shocked at herself.

 

"Like I said...when you know, you know," Sam replied honestly. "I'd like to adopt you both." He had, in fact, already talked his feelings through with Matt and Karen, not wanting either of his other children to feel pushed out.

 

Luke looked at Yo-Yo with a raised eyebrow. "It would be nice...having family I can trust at my back again. And there's no denying I'd fit in better with them than anywhere else."

 

"I like being here..." was all Yo-Yo said, though she did look like she wanted to throw her arms around Sam in a hug.

 

"I like you both being here," Sam said with a smile. "Matt and Karen are already aware of how I feel...I was just waiting for the right time to bring it up with you."

 

"They don't mind?" Yo-Yo asked hopefully. She missed having family that wanted to be with her. Having sisters.

 

Luke waited to hear the answer, although he got on well with Matt and couldn't imagine that the two of them didn't want Yo-Yo and him around.

 

"They feel the same way I do," Sam replied. "That you belong in our family...that you have a place with us, both of you, if you want it." With a quick grin, he added, "And you already found out how things tend to get dealt with when one of the kids misbehaves, so we don't have to have that potentially awkward conversation."

 

Luke and Yo-Yo stared at each other a moment before looking back at Sam. "We do want it," Yo-Yo answered for both of them.

 

"Rules, consequences and all..." Luke added.

 

Sam grinned and pulled each of them into a hug, allowing his relief and happiness to show through. "I'm glad," he said with feeling. "First thing tomorrow, we can get the paperwork dealt with."

 

Luke smiled. "Sounds good. Sleep now?"

 

Sam nodded. "I'll see you both in the morning." He kissed both of their foreheads.

 

Luke leaned into the affection briefly, before giving Sam a side hug as walking to his room. "See you tomorrow morning, 'old man'," he teased gently, before disappearing.

 

Yo-Yo was a little more reluctant to pull away.

 

Sam smiled at Yo-Yo, stroking her hair gently. "Want to stay with me tonight?" he asked her softly.

 

"You don't mind?" she asked hesitantly.

 

"Not at all," Sam replied. "It's normal here."

 

"Then, I'd like to..." She smiled. "I'll change quickly and come to your room?"

 

"Of course." Sam drew her closer, pressing another kiss to her forehead, before gently releasing her. "I'll see you in a few minutes."

 

It didn't take long and soon, Yo-Yo was knocking on Sam's door, coming in when he gave permission. It didn't take much longer for them to fall asleep.

 

****

 

Gamora had watched all of the proceedings, noting when the man who wanted her and Nebula in his family had gone to retrieve the younger members of his family. She also noted that he kept all three of them in his room with him, though she wasn't certain if it was due to worry about their health, or worry that they would sneak off again. Sighing, she tried to figure out what to do.

 

Nebula stood next to her sister. "They are not injured, I hope...."

 

Natasha moved over to her sisters, having already made sure her son was sleeping and didn't need her close to him. "They aren't injured," she replied to Nebula's comment. "But they have had a bit too much to drink. Dad will take care of them and keep them close."

 

"Ah, the implants make drinking too much an impossibility for me..." she said in a non-impressed tone. It seemed to bother her a little bit, but it wasn't clear if it was her inability to get drunk, her siblings getting drunk, or the fact she had implants that bothered her.

 

"Silly children." Gamora sighed, well aware that her boyfriend was among those 'children'.

 

"There aren't normally so many of them who get into trouble," Natasha commented. "This is something of a unique situation."

 

"If they are anything like Peter, they were looking for attention in all the wrong ways..." Gamora said knowingly. "I have told him he does not need to try so hard for my affection; he already has it. But...I must admit I likely don't show it the way he needs. I'm not good at emotion. Although, it seems his fathers are better at it and I can't help thinking it was their attention he was seeking this time...." She frowned slightly, wondering if she was wrong in her thinking, but reluctant to just ask Peter what he was thinking. "This is why it is better to remain aloof!" She actually pouted, though if anyone had accused her of such, she would have knocked them flat for their effort.

 

Nebula snorted. "Like you have remained aloof, sister?" Her voice was dry.

 

Gamora narrowed her eyes and took a step toward Nebula. "What are you suggesting?" she said in a low growl.

 

"I am suggesting nothing. I am outright saying it.... You are as aloof from your friends and family as I am calm and serene and peaceful..." This time, the teasing was clear in her voice. She didn't even attempt to move out of the way when Gamora pounced.

 

"Remaining aloof and unaffected can be helpful when the only thing you need to do is survive," Natasha commented. "But it's not living. Not in the true sense of the word. I didn't understand that until Dad took hold of me and didn't let go."

 

"He took hold of you?!" Gamora asked, while clamoring on her sister in an attempt to knock her down.

 

Nebula, meanwhile, was doing everything in her power to stay standing and knock Gamora to the ground. "Of course he took hold of her! Just like he took hold of me...and you, even if he didn't actually grab hold of you physically..." She grunted as Gamora's elbow found her stomach at the same time her hand found a fistful of her sister's hair.

 

Natasha didn't make a verbal response, instead reaching out and grasping her sisters each by an arm, aiming to tug them apart. "We spar, but we don't fight each other." Her voice was firm, even if she didn't raise it.

 

Nebula reluctantly let go of Gamora's hair, while Gamora allowed herself to be pulled off her sister. They both gave Nat looks of uncertain confusion, though.

 

"What if she deserves or needs to be fought?!" Gamora asked indignantly, while Nebula just nodded.

 

"That isn't how we deal with things here in the family," Natasha replied.

 

"How do you handle it?" Nebula asked. She didn't think disagreements were handled the same as punishments, but just how they were handled hadn't been explained to her.

 

"It depends on the nature of the disagreement," Natasha replied. "A lot of things can be dealt with through talking with another there to act as mediator."

 

"Talking!" Nebula scoffed. "That sounds like something the Star Lord would say!"

 

"He is often right!" Gamora defended. "Though I would appreciate you not telling him I said so..." she said in an aside to Nat.

 

Natasha smiled at that. "Talking is better than physically fighting," she said. "We are all family here. We don't need to hurt each other."

 

Gamora nodded, if reluctantly.

 

Nebula rolled her eyes and sighed. "Fighting's fun..." she muttered, but didn't argue further.

 

"Then I'm sure you'll enjoy a sparring session," Natasha commented, figuring the different fighting style her new sisters brought to the table would help give them an advantage over their enemies.

 

Nebula's eyes narrowed as she thought about it, then she nodded. "Very well. We will spar..." She got a wolfish grin on her face, but said nothing more.

 

Gamora snorted. "You've done it now. She will not rest until she has bested everyone in sparring...."

 

"But there are many of the youngsters who will not be on the same level as you in ability," Natasha said. "Sparring is as much about teaching and learning as about staying in shape and competing."

 

"I will teach the younglings..." Nebula decided emphatically.

 

Natasha nodded. "Tomorrow, we can sit down with Dad and the other family members to figure out when that could take place." And also so their father could ensure he put in limits in case things went too far.

 

Nebula wrinkled her nose. "Dad makes all decisions like that? We do not decide on our own?"

 

Gamora listened attentively for the answer.

 

"He doesn't make all of the decisions," Natasha replied. "But sometimes there are things that might not be known, or that might not have been taken into account. It helps to talk through decisions with someone else who might see things in a different way to you."

 

"That makes sense..." Gamora nodded.

 

Nebula looked reluctant to agree, but she didn't disagree either. "I swore when I left Thanos I would not let another man rule me..." she muttered uncertainly, not sure how she'd so easily and eagerly accepted to put herself in a position where another man - Coulson - would be able to tell her what to do.

 

"Is that what you think Dad's trying to do?" Natasha asked her.

 

"I do not know that he is trying to do so, but the end result is the same..." Nebula sighed. "...Just because I might choose to obey his ruling does not make it any less his rule...."

 

Gamora frowned. "I think you are looking at it wrong..." she said to her sister. "It is necessary for there to be people in charge or there would be chaos. The man we have chosen as father is one of those in charge. It is our choice to follow...Thanos never gave us a choice...."

 

"He didn't force you to become his daughters," Natasha said. "The choice was yours, just as it was for our other siblings."

 

"I know." Nebula glanced away. "I do not regret my choice. I just...I promised myself I would never follow ever again. It is...I do not know how I feel about it." She shrugged faintly. "It does not matter. I have made my choice and I know what is expected."

 

"I do not think following the orders of someone who has our best interest at heart will be so difficult. Not like Thanos..." Gamora consoled her sister. She knew how Nebula felt. At the same time, she knew they were safe here and had a chance for a happiness they'd not had a chance at before. Obeying the one or ones in charge was a small price to pay.

 

"I understand," Natasha said. "What you describe isn't entirely different to how I myself felt when I was first brought into his family. It gets easier with time."

 

"It doesn't bother you? Letting Dad be in charge?" Gamora asked, for herself as much as her sister.

 

"I trust him," Natasha replied simply. "I love him and I know he loves me. He only acts with my best interests at heart. He doesn't want to change me."

 

"So when he...corrects us...he doesn't want to change us?" Nebula asked skeptically.

 

Natasha smiled. "He'd be changing what drew him to you in the first place. He only wants to keep us safe and help us thrive. Some family members have been able to grow into who they truly are under this kind of guidance."

 

Gamora nodded. "I can see how beneficial it has been to Peter...it likely won't hurt us..." she said, by way of encouraging Nebula; who seemed to be suffering from a bout of second-guessing her original decision.

 

"It's late now, but perhaps tomorrow, both of you would feel comfortable sitting down and talking with Dad about what's going to be expected and how you feel," Natasha suggested.

 

"I think we should..." Gamora nodded in agreement. The fact Nebula didn't protest was agreement enough on her end. "Until then, we should probably get some sleep."

 

"I agree," Natasha said. "Some of us will be meeting in the morning to do some sparring. Feel free to join." She smiled.

 

"I will." Nebula smiled faintly. Gamora nodded in agreement.

 

"I'll see you in the morning." Natasha headed to bed, though she quietly checked in on Lincoln on her way.

 

****

 

Despite everything, the night passed fairly uneventfully and soon, the youngest members of the family were awake and waking up their parents for food. Trip hid his grin of amusement when Kara began urging their father to the kitchen with tugs and high pitched pleas of, "Hungryyyyyyy."

 

Fury, always alert to his children's needs, didn't waste any time in taking his daughter to the kitchen to get her breakfast. While feeding her, he asked Friday to send a message to Foggy, asking his honorary nephew to meet him when he was free, so he could get two more copies of the paperwork.

 

Foggy had been watching proceedings closely and had been aware of the new arrivals and potential family. He prided himself on paying attention. Because of this, he had more than a few documents already drawn up and waiting for signatures. He was just waiting for the requests. When Friday alerted him to the first one, he grabbed his briefcase and quickly headed to the dining area. "Hello, Uncle Nick..." He smiled. "I've got the documents you wanted in my briefcase, if you'd like to go to one of the offices after breakfast and look them over. We can get signatures and I can file them at the courthouse when I take the helicopter into the city tomorrow. Since I have a court appearance then."

 

Fury smiled and nodded. "As soon as Robbie and Gabe are up, we can take care of signing them. I suspect there'll be a few more requests as well."

 

"Gabe is up..." Gabe smiled as he rolled into the dining area. He smiled at Kara. "And how is my adorable sister?" he asked, making sure not to say baby or little, or anything else that might upset her, since normally she'd be older than him.

 

Kara grinned at the younger man and waved from her position in Fury's arms.

 

Fury smiled warmly at Gabe. "Do you want to have breakfast before we take care of the paperwork?" he asked his son.

 

Robbie wandered in at that moment, grinning when he heard Gabe addressing Kara. "Breakfast first sounds good," he agreed. "Do you want to sit with me, Kara, so Dad can get something to eat?" He addressed his baby sister.

 

Kara slanted her head, thinking about it, then nodded. "Okay!" She reached toward her newest brother. It was harder and harder to react like an adult; even though she recognized that she wasn't really a child, her thoughts were becoming more and more childish the longer she stayed in child form. She'd be scared about it, but had given up thinking about it. Bruce would find a cure. Or someone would.

 

Robbie carefully lifted his sister into his arms, settling her on his lap so she could eat, leaving Fury free to not only prepare his own food, but prepare food for the other family members as well.

 

Kara was able to feed herself just fine, since Fury had made certain that everything was in bite-sized portions and was something she could pick up with her hands (since she was a bit sketchy with her manual dexterity when it came to utensils). She was very dainty and careful with her eating, though, wanting to impress her new brother.

 

Robbie stroked her hair gently and then gave a quick grin towards his brother and father. "Maybe later, we could have a picnic outside?" he suggested. While he knew they'd have to watch his toddler sister, he also thought she might be a bit happier to go outside for a while, even though it would have to be under supervision.

 

Kara perked up at that, turning wide, hopeful eyes toward her father. "Wanna pinic!"

 

"I don't see why not." Fury smiled at his daughter's enthusiasm, glancing up as other family members began to filter through...though the kids who had been drinking the night before were conspicuously absent.

 

Kara grinned and snuggled closer to Robbie, continuing to eat.

 

***

 

Scott had got ready quickly so that he could go check on Cassie. With everything that had been going on lately, he wanted to be certain she felt comfortable and had been able to sleep. He needn't have worried. She was already up, dressed and sitting on the floor in front of Hank's room playing 'Go Fish' with Ace. Scott smiled at the sight.

 

"They've decided that they're cousins now and should take advantage of any time they get to spend together before Cassie goes home to her mom..." Mike said, with a hint of amusement. "Although since I heard Cassie begging to be allowed to stay here with everyone else and go to school in town...."

 

Scott blinked at that. "She called Maggie and was asking that? I hadn't even allowed myself to think of it as an option, because I figured there was no way Maggie would allow her to be in my custody more than holidays and weekends...and I didn't think Cassie would want to leave her mom. But if she's asking to do that...maybe I should talk with Maggie about it...."

 

Hank took that moment to come out of his room. He smiled as Cassie jumped up and threw her arms around him, greeting him with a happy, "Hello, Grandpa!"

 

Ace sat back on his heels with a grin, then glanced towards his father, tilting his head slightly as he tried to look for any signs Hank's 'upgrades' were making Mike's life easier.

 

Mike walked closer to the tiny group, his step sure. He smiled at Ace, letting his son know without words that the upgrades were helping him immensely. "Hey, kids...you all ready for breakfast?"

 

Scott moved closer to the group as well, grinning at Cassie and Ace and then grinning even more broadly at his father. "Morning, dad..." he said fondly. "Hope should be out soon and then we can all go eat!" He said this in a sort of agitated excitement meant to amuse the children.

 

Ace's grin widened and he nodded vigorously, looking obviously relieved and happy that his father was being helped.

 

Cassie let go of Hank and grabbed onto Ace instead. "Do you want to sit next to Grandpa?" she asked him.

 

Having just showered and dressed after finishing up a last-minute business call, Hope stepped into the room, hair slightly damp from her shower.

 

Scott's grin only grew as his daughter so obviously connected to his father. He shifted closer to Hope and wrapped an arm around her waist. "I think the kids are kidnapping dad..." he whispered loudly, with a wink in Hank's direction.

 

Mike chuckled softly, still having a hard time believing that he and Ace had been drawn into this family so quickly.

 

Ace nodded with a grin. "Okay."

 

Hank moved over to his daughter and his sons...even if only one of them was officially his, he knew he still wanted Mike. And Ace too, of course. "I don't know if this is moving too fast for you, but I would like both you and Ace to be an official part of my family," he said to Mike.

 

Hope smiled, having been wondering when her father would get to that.

 

"If it means we get to stay here and Ace is safe and happy...I don't care how fast you move..." Mike replied somberly.

 

Hank reached out and gently squeezed Mike's shoulder. "You would get to stay here either way," he replied simply. "But I'm asking if you feel the same way about me as I do about you. I'd like to make it official. I want to adopt you."

 

"I think...I think I'd be a fool not to want that...I've been on my own too long, even with Ace. I need you, I think..." Mike admitted.

 

Hank smiled. "The feeling's entirely mutual." He drew his new son into a close embrace.

 

Mike leaned into the embrace.

 

Scott clapped his hands together. "Great! I think Foggy was planning to head to breakfast, so we can let him know there!"

 

Hank held Mike close a few more moments, then nodded to Scott...though he kept one arm around Mike.

 

Cassie headed over with Ace in tow and grinned at Mike. "Can I call you Uncle Mike officially now?"

 

Mike chuckled. "Sure thing, Munchkin"

 

Scott grinned at Ace. "And you can call me Uncle Scott."

 

"Okay, Uncle Scott!" Ace let Cassie grab his hand and begin tugging him in the direction of the dining hall.

 

Mike watched the kids go, then turned to his new family. "This will be good for him. Good for both of us. Thank you."

 

"I think it'll be good for us, too." Hank gently squeezed Mike. "We can get the paperwork done as soon as we've had breakfast," he added; though to be honest, all that was needed was for them to sign it. To the best of his knowledge, none of the parents actually read it now.

 

"Let's go eat then!" Scott urged, leading his family toward the dining room.

 

***

 

Ben sighed and slowly walked to each of his family's rooms and knocked to get them to come out for breakfast. He'd stayed the night with his wife, but she was having another one of her moments and had not recognized him at all this morning. It was difficult.

 

Deacon had come out immediately. "I think John stayed with Blake last night," he said hesitantly. He knew Blake had decided to take his friend under his wing, so to speak, and had a feeling Pyro would be squirming in his seat.

 

Ben nodded. "I think you are right," he said with a smile, leading the younger man to Blake's room and knocking.

 

Blake had woken fairly early and showered and dressed. As he heard the knock on the door, he gently placed a hand on Pyro's shoulder. "Come on, kiddo. Time to get up," he said gently.

 

Pyro groaned slightly (even though he hadn't got as spectacularly drunk as some of the others, he'd drunk enough to regret it in the morning) and carefully crawled out of bed. The tiny wince was the only evidence his head hurt, or that he'd been spanked. "Do I have time to shower before getting dressed?" he asked quietly.

 

"I'm sure we can wait a few minutes." Blake hugged him gently and then moved over to his minifridge to retrieve a bottle of water and then to grab some of the painkillers from his cabinet. Both he handed to Pyro.

 

Pyro obediently took the medicine, swallowing it down with the water. As soon as he'd emptied the bottle, he took a deep breath. "I'll hurry..." he promised, before leaving the room to go get a change of clothes and take a shower.

 

Deacon watched as his friend disappeared down the hall, then turned to his brother. "He did stay with you..." He sounded surprised.

 

Blake nodded and reached out to gently squeeze Deacon's shoulder. "Before I had to start acting the part of a dirty cop, I was aware he needed someone, but I couldn't give Fisk anymore people to use against me. Now, I can be what he needs."

 

Deacon nodded. "I'm sorry I made that harder for you. For both of you. I'm glad you can help him now...."

 

Ben gave Blake a considering look. He had been thinking that adopting Deacon so that he'd have official ties to the rest of the family would be a good idea, so that Blake could actually keep his little brother his little brother. He didn't think Pyro or Deacon would care if they were brothers or uncle and nephew, but Blake might. He'd need to ask his son if he wanted to take full responsibility for the younger man, or if he'd prefer Ben take on the legal responsibility. He thought maybe Pyro would do better with physical legal proof of Blake's affection, but just being pulled into the family, no matter who was legally his father, would do wonders for the young man's confidence and self esteem.

 

"Why don't you go into the dining room and save some seats next to each other? Let our chef know we're coming soon..." Ben said to Deacon, after a look at Blake that let the younger man know he wanted to speak with him.

 

"Yeah, sure!" Deacon quickly agreed. "You called Luis our chef. Does that mean he's staying?"

 

Ben smiled. "You'll have to ask him...." He waited till Deacon had nodded and disappeared around the corner to turn toward Blake. "You want to make John a legal part of the family..." he stated knowingly. "Do you want to adopt him?" He didn't ask if Blake wanted him to adopt him. The kid was family now. If Blake didn't feel like it was a good idea to adopt the kid himself, then he would.

 

Surprised by the question, though he really shouldn't have been, Blake gave it the consideration it needed; which wasn't all that much. "I do, Dad," he admitted. "He needs someone. I want to be that for him." He sighed. "I know I should have stepped up before now. He was drunk enough that he didn't hide anything last night...and he's been alone a long time."

 

"Good," was all Ben said, though his tone was proud. "You make him officially yours. Meanwhile, I'll make Deacon officially mine; provide him legal protections he doesn't currently have. Even if he doesn't really need me as a father figure."

 

"He'd still appreciate you," Blake replied with feeling. "Do you want to go ahead and join Deacon? I'll wait for John and talk to him one-on-one."

 

"I'll do that. Talk to Foggy about the paperwork. Let Deacon know what I have planned." Ben clasped Blake on the shoulder, then moved toward the dining area.

 

Not more than five minutes later, Pyro was returning to Blake's side. "Sorry I took so long." He grimaced.

 

"No problem." Blake wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "I wanted to talk to you anyway."

 

"What about?" Pyro couldn't help giving Blake a nervous glance. Had the older man decided he was more trouble than he was worth after all?

 

"I want to adopt you." Blake went straight for it, not holding back. "How I feel about you...it's more than just as a big brother."

 

Pyro's mouth dropped open and he blinked as he tried to gather his thoughts through the fuzzy remnants of the hangover. "Yo...you want to be my dad?" He didn't sound upset at the idea. He couldn't keep a tiny note of hopeful excitement out of his question. "I wouldn't have to leave here?" His voice became a whisper, as if he were afraid that asking would insure that he would have to leave.

 

Blake wrapped his arms around Pyro and hugged him tightly. "I want to be your dad, kid," he whispered. "I don't want you to leave. I want you here. I want you."

 

Pyro hid his face in Blake's shoulder and held on tightly. "Thank you," he whispered.

 

Blake tightened his arms around Pyro and kissed the top of his head. "Is that a yes?" he asked hopefully. "Because we can get the paperwork done as soon as we've finished breakfast."

 

"Yes..." Pyro laughed through a set of fresh tears that he didn't even realize he was crying. "Now I feel even worse bout what I did last night...I hope you don't regret this...taking me on...."

 

"I'm not going to regret it," Blake promised, hugging him tighter to himself. "No matter what happens. I'm not going to let you go." He stroked Pyro's hair gently. "My dad...your Grandpa...is going to adopt Deacon. Effectively making him your uncle."

 

Pyro snorted at that in amusement. "Now when he's bossy and over-protective, he'll have a built in excuse!" The grin came through in his voice.

 

Blake laughed at that. "I'm glad to hear he's following my example," he teased. "I'm sorry I couldn't hold onto you before," he added, a bit more seriously. "I'm going to make up for that failure from now on."

 

"I understand why...now. I'm sorry I made things so much harder for you than they needed to be...." Pyro but his lip. "Even if you had to keep your distance, maybe you wouldn't have needed to worry so much what I was dragging Deacon into...."

 

Blake kissed his head. "Neither of you were responsible for anything that happened. But I would really like it if you both kept the dangerous actions to a minimum. I don't want to lose either one of you. I love you."

 

"I'll do my best..." Pyro said quietly. "I love you too. Don't want to worry you. Sides...I know what happens when family does unnecessary dangerous stuff...." he teased lightly.

 

"And now you know it first-hand." Blake smiled. "But it's not going to change anything about how I feel about you. No matter what happens. I promise."

 

Pyro smiled and nodded, shifting so that he was still hugging Blake but they were both facing the same direction and able to walk. "How soon do you think it can happen?" he asked.

 

Blake kept hold of Pyro as they walked in the direction of the dining hall. "I suspect Foggy already has the documents ready for printing. All that'll be needed will be our signatures."

 

"Yeah...I can see that he's well prepared." Pyro smiled as they entered the dining room.

 

Blake steered his son towards Deacon and Ben, glancing at his brother to see what Deacon thought of this.

 

Deacon's grin was huge, showing that he was completely on board with what was occurring.

 

Blake guided Pyro to the chair next to Deacon and then took the seat on the other side of his son, giving both Pyro and Deacon an affectionate smile before he reached out to start picking at the food.

 

Pyro forced himself to eat, even though the hangover made him feel queasy.

 

***

 

Werner had slept better and deeper than he had in a long time. Even since moving into the compound, he'd often woken up in a cold sweat, dreaming that he was back in HYDRA's clutches. But sleeping next to Tony...his father...had helped him in more than one way. Still, even though he woke up, he was a little bit reluctant to actually get up, worried everything would come crashing down around him.

 

Tony had lain awake for awhile, reluctant to disturb his sleeping son. Having experienced unrelenting nightmares himself in the past, he knew how important it was to be allowed to sleep when able. But he had been aware when Werner woke up and eventually, he knew he'd have to encourage movement. There was a difference between needing sleep and being afraid to face the day. Slowly, carefully, he extricated himself from Werner and got out of bed. "I'm going to take a shower and get dressed, kiddo. You can sleep a bit longer if you want, but once we're both ready, I figured we'd go get your brother and check on getting breakfast." He didn't say they'd check on his mom, though he was concerned about her. He knew Steve had her, so she was safe and she would be well on her way to mortification at her actions and not wanting to see anyone. It was better to let Steve bring her out than to hunt for her.

 

"Okay." Werner sat up slowly, searching Tony's face for clues on how he was supposed to act now. His blood father hadn't ever treated him like a son, so he had zero frame of reference for how he was now expected to act. Uncertainly, he ran a hand through his hair, not sure if it was appropriate or right for him to ask.

 

"Why don't you take a shower, get changed? It might help you wake up the rest of the way and feel better." Tony smiled. I'll meet you back here in twenty minutes."

 

Werner nodded and slipped out of the bed, heading to his own room to grab a change of clothes and then going to get showered. He couldn't help but feel confused and uncertain of what he was supposed to do now.

 

Tony watched Werner as the younger man slipped out to get ready for the day. He couldn't help but pick up feelings of uncertainty from the younger man and hoped he wasn't having second thoughts about joining the family. Maybe he and Pepper needed to talk and arrange to have it made official as soon as possible, even if she wasn't her normal age yet. Maybe if it were 'real', then Werner wouldn't second guess himself. Tony didn't want to imagine the younger man deciding that he didn't want to belong to the family and leaving. Sighing softly to himself, he quickly grabbed his own clothing and headed to the showers.

 

Werner showered and dressed fairly quickly, then hesitantly returned to meet Tony. He really wasn't sure if what had been true last night was still true now and he didn't know how to ask that.

 

Tony didn't take long either and shortly, he was walking back to meet up with Werner. He smiled brightly. "Let's go see what they have for breakfast. Maybe those who were out late last night will be awake enough to come join us..." He hadn't had a chance to check on Pepper, so he hoped that he was right and they all would feel up to joining the group. The sooner he talked to Pepper, the better.

 

"Okay, sir," Werner replied agreeably, figuring he was 'safe' with that term of respect. He'd called Tony 'Dad' last night, but now he was considerably less certain if that need would be welcome or allowed.

 

"Aw...I'm 'Sir' again? I rather liked 'Dad' personally..." Tony gently teased, not sure if Werner's return to the less personal term of respect was due to changing his mind about wanting to join the family, or if he just needed more encouragement to view Tony as his father.

 

Werner found himself studying Tony's face, not sure if the comment was serious under the teasing. "Really?" He winced at the hopeful note in his voice; the needy tone he wasn't sure he could hide.

 

Tony's voice when he responded was completely serious. "Really. I meant it when I said I want you to be my son. If you're having second thoughts, I won't force you, but...I will be very disappointed. And I know Pepper will be as well. Are you having second thoughts?" The question was worried.

 

"No." Werner looked down at his feet, the rest of his sentence whispered. "I thought maybe you were."

 

"Well, I'm not." Tony spoke matter-of-factly, not wanting Werner to feel badly about questioning his reliability in keeping the promise he'd made. It was only natural the kid might have doubts and question after the upbringing he'd had. At the same time.... "I have every intention of adopting you if that's what you still want. I haven't changed my mind."

 

"I do." Werner took a deep breath and spoke with a surer tone to his voice. "I do want that."

 

"Good. I'm very glad about that." Tony's smile brightened and he put an arm around Werner. "Why don't we go get something to eat? I don't know about you, but I'm starving!" His stomach growled loudly, as if to confirm his statement. Tony didn't even look sheepish.

 

Werner nodded and leaned into Tony, taking a deep breath. "Me too, Dad," he said shyly.

 

Tony's grin grew as Werner addressed him in the more familiar term. "Great! That's good...." he said, his happiness clear in his voice as he led Werner to the dining room.

 

***

 

Stephen sighed as he ran into yet another brick wall in his quest to find a reversal to the age-regression of his family. (While Mordo, Wong and he had only been in the facility for less than a week and he hadn't really had much interaction with anyone outside of Bruce Banner, he'd still found himself thinking of the large group of people in the same terms they thought of themselves. And if he included himself in the description of 'family'; well, he wouldn't examine his reasons too closely.) He'd thought he'd nearly found it...the cure they needed...but he'd been wrong and now he'd have to start from the beginning again; see where he went wrong in his calculations. He rubbed at his eyes wearily.

 

"Friday...Are Wong and Mordo still sleeping? Is it time for me to move labs again?" He'd woken up shortly after going to bed the night before, when he'd heard the group of 'teenagers' and their guardians returning from whatever misadventure the 'teens' had snuck out on. Not able to sleep, he'd snuck into one of the labs and begun to work, changing labs every hour or two in the hopes that if either of them came looking for him, he could honestly tell them he hadn't been in that lab for very long. It was a phrasing of words that would certainly get him into a lot of trouble if either of his care-givers were inclined to investigate more deeply, but he had hope that he'd be able to 'truthfully' walk his way through any verbal minefields and get out unscathed. That would only work as long as he moved often enough for his words to be technically true, though.

 

Quickly cleaning up his work area, gathering his notes and turning off any equipment, he prepared to sneak into the next nearby available lab.

 

***

 

Neither Mordo or Wong had slept late, though both had slept longer than their charge. It hadn't been too much of a surprise to wake and find that Stephen was long gone; nor was it a surprise when Friday took it upon herself to tell them what Stephen had been up to, the AI's disapproval of a considered family member working himself to exhaustion clear.

 

"I think we should both confront him this time," Wong said, as soon as they'd found out where Stephen was.

 

It was a bit more difficult for Mordo to stay patient and he was quick to agree, knowing he was more likely to keep himself calm with Wong's own calming inf