Phil sighed in relief when they found the stream over an hour later; he'd feared he'd misread the map and had chosen the wrong direction. The need to move slowly due to bare feet and carrying children, as well as trying to conceal their tracks meant that it had taken longer than expected to traverse the single mile. His shoulders and back ached, and he eased Steve to the ground, gratefully stretching his arms up and over his head. He'd carried full packs before while in the Army, yet that experience had not prepared him for the reality of carrying a sixty-five pound body that rarely stayed still.
Kneeling beside the stream, he cupped his hands and brought the wonderfully cold water to his lips. From the corner of his eye, he could see Steve doing the same. Selvig had levered himself down onto the ground, hissing as he pulled a few sticker burrs from the soles of his feet, then dipping them into the water to sooth them.
The Hulk had crossed the stream several yards away, and now stood crouched beside the water, scooping it into his mouth, eyes flickering about, looking for threats.
Loki stood still, quietly speaking to Clint, gently waking him. After a moment, Clint raised his head, rubbed at his eyes, said something equally quiet, and slid down from his perch. Loki kept a guiding hand on the boy until he'd settled beside the stream, drinking water and splashing his face to further wake up. In a graceful move, Loki mimicked him.
Phil sat back on his haunches, eying the sky. They had, perhaps, another hour or so before sunset. He shivered as the breeze caught at his water-dampened shirt. "We need to find some place to sleep," he half-muttered to himself. "Needs to be large enough for the six of us – well, five if Banner remains the Hulk, though I haven't the faintest idea where he would sleep." His eyes flickered across the surroundings on both sides of the stream. "Needs to provide shelter from unwelcome eyes as well as the cold. I don't think we can risk a fire; too close to the installation for that."
Clint stared absently at something that caught his eye, but its potential registered with Loki first. "That may provide sufficient shelter for the night." Phil rose to his feet, stifling a groan as joints had begun stiffening. A hundred yards away a large tree had lost to age and gravity. A generous hollow lay beneath the half-exposed roots; blessedly free of any occupants. "It looks like we'll all fit." He cast a worried look at the Hulk.
Loki, standing beside him, along with Clint, followed his gaze, "Give him time to calm down or exhaust himself and he'll revert."
Phil blinked, having forgotten that Loki remembered much more than the rest of them and had information about each of them that they didn't. "So, he will turn back into Banner?"
"Yes. If I remember correctly, the transformation takes a lot out of him. He'll crash afterward and need to sleep for a few hours." The mage grabbed the extra clothing taken from the soldier and tossed it to Phil. "He's a bit rough on his clothing. Hopefully, he'll fit into these. It's bad enough that we don't have shoes, he can't go around nearly naked, as well."
Steve wandered over, staring down into the hollow. "If we line the bottom with leaves, it'll be more comfortable." At the side looks he shrugged," My mom used to do the same with old newspapers in the winter. Said the layers trapped body heat and it really did help keep us warm."
"We could weave some branches together to cover, give us some camouflage," Clint added.
"Can you do that?"
The boy nodded absently, his focus on the trees. "My brother and me used to do that all the time when out hunting."
Loki looked surprised, brow creased, and Phil wondered at the expression.
"Okay. The four of you get the shelter ready. I'm going to see if I can hide some of our tracks, or at least muddy things up a bit." The others nodded and Phil headed to the stream, wondering if he could convince the Hulk to lay a false trail.
He edged around a copse of trees and came to a dead halt. They'd left the Hulk splashing down stream. Phil could see the disturbances at the water's edge and it certainly looked as if six desperate people had plunged into the water and headed south. If they were careful in how they moved the next day, it would probably fool anyone who wasn't a tracker into thinking they had gone in that direction. What had him stopped cold, however, was the vision of the Hulk slowly transforming back into Dr. Banner. Lying curled up on his side, in the last ray of sunshine before the sun dipped entirely from view, the Hulk's skin slowly faded from a jade green into more fleshy tones. His body seemed to smoothly shrink and fold in on itself. Phil couldn't help but feel thankful that the transformation didn't appear painful.
Several minutes passed and Phil realized that Banner had fallen asleep. He waded across the shallow stream and crouched back on his haunches beside him, careful to keep some distance away. "Dr. Banner? Bruce? Can you hear me? Wake up, please." He continued calling his name, rewarded a few minutes later by a low groan. Dark eyes, without even a hint of green, blinked up at him. Phil couldn't read the expression that flashed there, but he definitely heard the breathless, "Holy shit. You really are alive!"
Phil handed over the clothing and Banner absently put them on, not taking his eyes off Phil. "How is that possible? You were stabbed in the chest." Banner's muttering was almost covered by the sound of the stream; he wasn't trying to be heard, just hypothesizing aloud. "Fury said you died." A dark expression crossed his face but nothing turned green, Phil was pleased to note. "Of course, Fury lies. The man lies about everything, though, I wouldn't want to be in his shoes when the others find out. Steve will be incensed. Natasha just might pluck out his other eye. Tony will probably send a virus through the SHIELD's computer systems. Thor would call down lightning and I shudder to think what Clint would do … and you have absolutely no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"
Phil blinked as the small diatribe trailed off. "I take it you regained your memories."
Banner nodded, expression calm, then gave a jaw-cracking yawn. Phil helped lever the scientist to his feet. "Come on. We've got shelter for the night. Something to eat and a few hours of sleep will do you a world of good." He steadied the man, then led him to the downed tree. A netting of limbs and leaves over the roots effectively hid the hollow.
Clint met them at the entrance, giving a sharp look. "You look older."
"I have regained my memories," Banner admitted.
Head tilted, he scrutinized the scientist. "I don't think you look twenty years older, though. But, you might be the type that stays young looking for a long time." He shrugged and waved them in. "We're having peanut butter and banana sandwiches for dinner."
The two men followed, ducking beneath the camouflage. Inside, the cavern already felt warmer than the chilled air outside. Once settled, Phil blinked in surprise at how comfortable it was, despite the poking and scratching of the odd twig or pine needle. They each had two sandwiches, finishing the bread and peanut butter. Phil carefully saved the bag and jar, knowing they'd come in handy later.
Loki woke the next morning to find Dr. Banner staring at him, a calculating, yet solemn look upon his face. "I think we need to have a talk."
Loki pressed his lips together but began extricating himself from the tangle of limbs. Sometime during the night, both Clint and Steve had chosen him to sleep upon, their heads pillowed upon his shoulders and arms and legs flung over his own. A poke in the side had Steve rolling over with only a sleepy grumble. More careful with Clint, Loki brushed dusty blond hair off his forehead, marginally concerned when the movement didn't disrupt the boy's sleep. He ignored Banner's gaze while covering Clint with leaves to keep him warm; then, aware he was stalling, straightened up and moved out of the hollow, passing Selvig who still slept from taking middle watch.
Coulson knelt at the creek, rinsing out the jar. Banner joined him and the three silently regarded the area, avoiding each other's eyes, not sure where to begin.
"How much to you remember?" Banner stated, baldly.
Loki sighed; things were so much easier when he didn't care about these people and their opinions of him. "Everything. Whatever they gave us only changed my appearance, but didn't affect my memories."
"Why not?" Coulson asked, looking curious but not accusatory.
"My principal abilities are shapeshifting and creating illusions. They locked down my magic, but whatever they concocted was for humans and I am not."
"Why are you here" Banner locked gazes with him, a slight shimmer of green appearing in his eyes. "I thought you were incarcerated on Asgard?" Loki could practically hear the, 'Does Thor know you're loose?' in the man's growled tone.
Knowing it would infuriate the other, but not able to help himself, he shrugged his shoulders. "I got bored. I've been visiting Midguard for nearly a year, actively living here for the past six months." He looked up, face set. "I only go back when someone checks on my cell." He crossed his arms and gazed off into the trees, "They only visit once a month." He winced internally, not wanting them to see how much it hurt that his own family wouldn't even speak with him.
Banner rubbed his forehead wearily, shooting a glance at Coulson. "You don't seem surprised."
Coulson shrugged. "We've already had a conversation about most of this."
A drawn out sigh. "You've caused a lot of grief, Loki. To a lot of people. Including close friends of mine." Loki didn't miss the side-glance filled with confusion and awe that Banner sent at Coulson. "Thor took you back to Asgard to be punished. That you're free to continue your mischief..." Both Loki and Coulson took a few steps back as Banner's skin started turning green. The scientist took several deep breaths, trying to regain his calm. Skin returned to a normal tone and silent sighs expressed as the three felt the danger of Hulking out pass.
Loki frowned, absently chewing on his bottom lip. How could he explain and be believed? He knew – knew – that no one who had past dealings with him would believe he told the truth. His madness had known no bounds. There were too many lies and too much bad blood between them. Yet, Coulson's expression held only curiosity and confusion. "Why haven't you told your family what you told us?"
"They wouldn't listen." He hated how small his voice sounded. "They barely allow me out of my gag within their presence. I've not had the opportunity to explain. And my letters are returned unopened." He looked away. "They have decided I am guilty and would have nothing refute that claim." If his tone was bitter, could they blame him?
"Explain, what, exactly?" Banner broke in, eyes narrowed as he tried to follow the conversation.
"Loki isn't to blame for what happened any more than Clint is, and for the same reasons."
Banner quietly contemplated that statement. "Have you regained any of your memories of that time?" At the shake of a head, Banner frowned and Loki knew the doctor thought Coulson had been lied to and manipulated to believe Loki's claims. "This is the being that killed over eighty people in less than a week. That led an alien army to invade our world. The one who turned Clint from his true loyalties. The one that stabbed you." His voice softened. "We thought you were … Fury said..." he trailed off, then took a breath. "It took a while before certain people were able to move on from what occurred in New York that day, but with time and a lot of support from the rest of us, they managed to put most of it behind them. It wasn't easy, and there were days we weren't sure we'd make it. So, you'll have to forgive me if I don't trust anything Loki is trying to sell."
Coulson swallowed hard, his gaze unconsciously flickering back toward last night's shelter. "I understand how you feel. I can't explain exactly why I believe Loki. It has to do with the tesseract and its connection to us all." Banner frowned but let Coulson continue. "It had an effect upon all of us in some form or another. It's the reason we're all here at this time. It sustained Steve through his years trapped in the ice. It made you lose control on the ship."
"Helicarrier," Banner murmured.
Coulson's face lit up, "They actually got that idea to work?" He shook his head, returning to his previous argument. "Despite being run through, the tesseract's energy kept me from dying," he unconsciously rubbed at his chest and Loki wondered whether memories were returning after-all. "With Selvig, Clint, and Loki, it stole their will, leaving them subject to the will of others; Selvig and Clint to Loki, Loki to the leader of the Chitauri." Banner still looked unconvinced. Coulson stared at him, face calm, but determined. "What do you know of Loki? What did his brother have to say about him?"
Startled, Banner glanced between the two, then frowned in thought. "Thor has always been Loki's greatest defender. He's been adamant that things aren't what they appear, but has a hard time getting anyone to truly listen."
"What did he say?" Loki couldn't help but ask; for so long, he'd envied his brother, and while under the control of Thanos had hated him, but all he ever wanted was to be considered his equal. That Thor spoke up for him went beyond anything he could have hoped for.
"That your current actions and behaviors were odd. Out of character. You're a trickster. You prefer the shadows and being behind the scenes. You enjoy the spotlight only when you're the one in control and you always have a back-up plan in case things go awry. Leading an army, being part of that battle in the way you were," Banner shook his head. "Thor said it wasn't something you'd willingly do." He looked somewhat embarrassed, "Thor also said that even the events of New Mexico were a cry for attention, more of a tantrum than anything truly malicious. Despite the destruction and wanting Thor dead, there had been no human fatalities. He thought your fall from the Bifrost might have unhinged you somewhat, but that slaughtering people for the fun of it wasn't your style." An odd expression crossed Banner's face, as if a thought had just occurred to him. "Does the tesseract interfere with what a person saw?" He frowned at the phrasing. "Visually, I mean?" He floundered, waving a hand in an attempt to express himself. "When overtaken by the tesseract, it changed the color of a person's eyes. Would that color change cause someone to see things differently?"
Loki considered the question carefully. "Being under the influence of the tesseract allowed you to see versions of truth, depending on what truth the one in charge wanted you to see. But if you were looking at a red apple, you would see a red apple, not a golden pear. The color change was a … visible manifestation of the tesseract's power." He tilted his head. "Why?"
Banner leaned closer, staring at the mage, his expression fierce, and his face set in hard lines. Loki took an unconscious step backward, eyes widening as he wondered if he would witness another transformation that would inevitably cause him pain. A long, long moment passed before Banner moved back, his expression now thoughtful. "A month after the whole … situation," he began delicately, "Steve purchased a new shirt. It's not something he's been able to do for himself in the past and he was exceptionally pleased with the purchase. He showed it off to everyone, getting their opinions on it. Clint mentioned he didn't like it. When pressed, he admitted it was because it was the same color as your eyes." He paused, expression clouding somewhat. "I remember Thor arguing that Clint must have been mistaken as Steve's shirt was an icy blue and his brother's eyes were an emerald green. Clint refused to back down and it took awhile before the tension between them subsided." Banner crossed his arms, refocusing his attention on the mage, "When you were brought on board the Helicarrier, they marched you right past my workspace. You looked right at me when you passed. Your eyes were blue – not the electric icy-blue like Clint's had been, but definitely blue."
Playing devil's advocate, Coulson asked, "Wouldn't they have changed back once he'd been knocked out of its influence? You would have noticed such a drastic change before sending him off to Asgard, wouldn't you?"
A slow shake of the head was the response. "Not necessarily. Natasha mentioned that it took over two hours before all the blue left Clint's eyes after she hit him. And he'd only been under, for what, nine days? If Loki had been under the influence longer, it makes sense that the color wouldn't have completely disappeared immediately, either." he sighed. "And they did clap that gag on him pretty quickly."
"Do you believe him?"
Another sigh, and Banner pinched the bridge of his nose, addressing the mage. "Let's say I'm less inclined to disbelieve, though I'm still a long way from reconciling what happened with this new information. But if I can forgive Clint for things beyond his control, it would behoove me to extend you the same courtesy."
Loki nodded, trying to ignore the flare of hope that rose in his chest. Banner was but one and a mortal, at that. He needed to convince his Asgardian family. With Thor, there was a possibility. He still claimed to love him as a brother despite everything. (And, oh, there was ample evidence to condemn him, with little reason to trust or believe.) Even if he managed to bring Thor over to his side, he still needed to convince Odin. He shivered, wishing things had ended differently between himself and the All-Father. The rejection on the Bridge still stung and he had to blink hard to keep tears from forming. He raised a hand to scrub at his face and paused, staring at pale skin. He raised the other, blinking at the change. His Jotun features had retreated. It meant he had more access to his magic. It also explained Banner's earlier scrutiny. "My eyes?"
"Green," Coulson affirmed.
"Is that what convinced you?" he asked Banner.
"Partly. You don't seem as manic as before. The Hulk noticed," Banner admitted. "There was an edge around you in New York, like you were trying to jump out of your skin." He studied Loki intently, and the mage tried not to fidget. "I don't get that feeling from you, now."
"What happens now?"
"We try to stay out of reach of HYDRA if we can. Get to a town or someplace with means to communicate," Coulson stated.
"I can contact Tony and have him retrieve us," Banner added. "Better him and the others than SHIELD." He gave Loki a level look. "They're not happy with you in the slightest and would probably shoot first and ask questions later."
Though offered, Clint and Steve turned down being carried. "We're fully capable of walking. No sense in tiring someone out unnecessarily."
Coulson and Banner went in front, breaking the trail while conversing quietly. Coulson kept a pistol in hand, his eyes missing little as they moved farther from the HYDRA base and, hopefully, closer to a town. Loki drifted behind Clint and Steve who walked side by side. Selvig followed behind, rifle at the ready.
Something nagged at Clint as they traveled and he found himself darting furtive glances at the boy at his side. After about an hour of this, blue eyes stared back, a mild challenge in them. "Do I have something on my face or something? Why are you staring?" Though sharp, Steve kept his voice down, remembering the admonishment from earlier.
Clint locked gazes and the nagging thought finally clicked into place. "You got taller," he murmured.
"What?" Steve looked taken aback.
"Taller. I couldn't figure out what was bothering me before. You're taller."
Steve shook his head. "No, I'm not."
Clint nodded, ignoring the protest. "Sure you are. Before, your nose came up to my chin. Now, we're eye to eye. Also, the tape I put on your cuffs and hems are further up your arms and legs."
Loki moved closer, his expression one of interest. The change in skin and eye color had thrown Clint when he woke that morning, so used to the blue and red, that he had blinked in confusion at the milk pale complexion and emerald green eyes. It had taken a moment to reconcile with the new look. The mage glanced between the two boys, eyes measuring. "He's right. You are taller. Thinner in the face, too, like you're in the middle of a growth spurt."
The conversation caught the attention of the others, Selvig moved forward while Coulson and Banner slowed in order to hear. "Wait," Steve argued. "That can't be right. People don't grow so much overnight."
Banner cocked his head, "The serum?" The question aimed at Coulson though his attention remained on Steve.
Coulson sighed, nodding in resignation. "According to the records I found, he's aging a year every night."
"Hang on. I'm what?" The boy looked wild-eyed, gaze darting from face to face as the adults started talking around him; mostly trying to explain the situation to Selvig who argued against the concept.
Seeing that Steve was nearly at the point of hyperventilating, Clint tugged on his sleeve, pulling him slightly off balance to catch his attention. Steve automatically caught his footing and stumbled after him with Loki bracketing the boy. They steered him closer to the creek, setting him down beneath one of the trees. Clint rubbed circles along Steve's back, waiting silently until the younger boy settled his breathing and calmed down.
"What is going on?" his eyes begged for the truth.
"We're all supposed to be twenty years older," Clint blurted. There really was no way to soften the blow, and he found telling uncomfortable truths was like removing a bandage, best done quickly. "The guys who had us did something to make us all younger."
A petulant pout crossed Steve's face. He crossed his arms and glared at Clint. "Uh huh. Sure. Next you're gonna try to tell me that aliens are real."
Loki looked amused. "What other reason could there be for me having blue skin, humn?"
At Steve's gobsmacked look, Clint nodded, though he tried to hide the laughter that wanted to bubble out at the expression. The blonde rubbed his forehead, brows drawn together. "Twenty years younger, huh?"
"And I'm aging a year a day cause of some serum?"
"And that would have been the reason they gave me a physical every morning?"
"Sounds about right."
"What about you? Why aren't you getting older?"
Clint shrugged, looking at Loki for an answer.
"You are a special case. Clint was never given the serum you have."
Steve shifted uncomfortably, picking up a handful of leaves and slowly shredding them, letting the pieces drift to cover his lap. "What does the serum do?"
"It made you tougher, stronger, faster, resistant to illness, and injuries heal quicker than normal. It's in your system, a part of you, and it's trying to combat whatever they gave us that made us younger. It's slow going, so can only fix a little of it each day, trying to bring you back to your proper age."
Steve worried his bottom lip and lowered his voice, "I'm not going to turn into a monster like Doctor Banner, am I?"
The soft expression upon Loki's face suited him, and made him more approachable than the aloof air he normally carried. "No. I can assure you, you do not share the same malady as Dr. Banner."
Steve blinked, "Oh. Okay." He sat quietly for a long moment. "So, how old am I, then? Thirty-one?"
"Twenty-six, actually." All three jumped, startled at the sound of Coulson's voice so close by. The man seated himself, legs outstretched, on a patch of grass nearby. "At least, according to the file I spotted."
Clint didn't call Coulson out on the lie. Neither did Loki. After all, it proved difficult enough for the boy to cope with knowing he should be twenty years older and was going through an accelerated growth due to some unknown serum without adding the whole 'Captain America – seventy years out of time' scenario to the situation. "Lunch break?"
Coulson nodded, lips twisted in a slight grimace. "I think we nearly gave Dr. Selvig a brain aneurism, so, a short break is in order. I don't want to spend too much time though, so we're not starting a fire. We really should keep moving; I'd like to cover more distance before nightfall."
"Okay. C'mon. Let's see if we can find anything edible." Clint scrambled to his feet, holding a hand out to both Steve and Loki.
Steve grasped his hand, levering himself up. "How would we know?"
Loki looked around, his expression one of somber contemplation. "I know which plants would be of use if we were on Asgard, but not here on Midguard."
"That's okay. We couldn't always afford to shop in town. One of the ladies in the circus was real big on natural foods and her husband was a survivalist. They tried to teach me some. Let's see how much I remember." They pulled off long segments of bark from nearby trees to use as impromptu containers. He pointed at some weeds. "Dandelion greens make a good salad. Dig them up and rinse them off, they'll fill us up. Steve, you're in charge of gathering them, okay?"
"Got it." The boy looked relieved to have a way to occupy himself.
"And myself?" Loki asked, looking completely willing to listen to Clint's directions.
Clint found some mushrooms, "See these? They're safe to eat. Those, however, are poisonous. See if you can find more of the first?" He pointed out a few other way of distinguishing the safe from the unsafe. Loki studied the two intently and headed off to locate more.
Walking among the trees, he gathered nuts from the trees he knew. The trees Clint didn't recognize he ignored, remembering Mommy Fortuna's warning that similar didn't mean safe. A smile crossed his face as he spotted a blackberry bush that had a late crop; Clint tasted one, glad that they were only slightly overripe.
The group quickly ate the scavenged meal, Banner smiling at the selection. "Good job. I'll set a snare tonight when we make camp, maybe catch a rabbit."
Bare feet became an issue on the third day. The path before them, filled with a combination of sticker burrs, sharp rocks, and splintered tree limbs, forced them to make a detour that took them a mile out of the way though a more hilly area. Halfway up a steep incline, disaster struck. Phil heard the startled cry and the crash of a body. He turned, heart in his throat. A rock had rolled out from beneath Dr. Selvig's foot sending the man sprawling. At the rear of the group, no one could reach him as he tumbled end over end to catch up against a tree trunk near the bottom. A sickening crack echoed through the air.
Scrambling down the hill, careful not to lose his own footing, Phil cursed beneath his breath as he noticed that Selvig wasn't moving. The scientist was unconscious, with a knot forming on his forehead; possibly a blessing as Phil did a quick examination."Jesus Christ," he blasphemed seeing the unnatural bend in the left leg. Bone poked out from the skin in a compound fracture, blood pooling beneath him. Dropping to his knees, he tore off the remains of the pant leg and tied it above the wound, creating a tourniquet to stop or at least slow the bleeding.
Banner landed beside him, taking in the situation at a glance. "Aw, hell," the terse comment couldn't hide the borderline panic. "How far are we from town?"
Phil's mind re-calculated distances. "At the rate we're going? At least another two days. If we have to carry him, three, maybe four. Too far to have anyone run for help, and too dangerous." He focused on Loki, brow raised in silent question.
The mage shrugged, an elegant gesture, as he joined them beside Selvig. "I can try." One hand hovered over the wounded leg.
Phil pulled Banner back, giving Loki more room. Steve looked confused. "What's he going to do?"
"He's going to try and heal Selvig." The tension in Banner had relaxed somewhat.
"He can do that?" there was awe evident in the thirteen year old's voice.
"He healed me," Clint affirmed. His gaze stayed locked on the mage, body poised to help in anyway needed.
Brow furrowed, lips pressed together in concentration, the mage stared intently at the broken limb for a long moment. His lowered his hand and touched the leg, muttering words too softly for anyone to understand. For a brief moment, nothing happened. Then, the blood slowed to a trickle and in slow motion the bones withdrew back into the skin like a film run in reverse. He maintained the pose for a long moment before sinking back on his heels, face pale and lines of exhaustion etched into his face.
Returning to Selvig's side, Banner rinsed the limb, marveling at the near seamless restoration. "Fascinating."
Loki leaned against Clint's shoulder, taking comfort in the warmth that radiated from the younger boy. He took the bottle of water offered, taking a long drink. He hadn't felt this tired after a healing in ages. "It's not completely healed. I don't have enough control and access, yet. Too much pressure will rebreak the bone, but the shards are back in place and won't shatter, and the blood vessels are intact. He'll need to rest and to replenish the lost blood, though."
Steve had moved off while Loki healed Selvig and returned with a handful of mushroom and dandelions. "Mom always said that eating helps after a major shock. I have some for Dr. Selvig, too, when he wakes."
"Good thinking," Phil praised as he went about waking the scientist. He patted his cheeks and chaffed his wrists to encourage blood flow while Banner did the same with his feet and ankles. "We're going to need to immobilize the limb."
Banner nodded and looked at the two hovering boys. "Think you can find a few long sticks we can use for a splint and a crutch?"
They nodded; Clint made sure Loki had his balance before regaining his feet. "We can look. C'mon, Steve."
Selvig came to with a groan, eyes dazed with pain and confusion. "What happened?"
"You lost your footing and tumbled down the hill. Broke your leg and hit your head. Loki did what he could to heal you, but we're going to have to splint your leg and you'll need to try to keep as much pressure off the limb as possible."
A grimace crossed his face. "I'm going to slow you down, even further."
Phil could hear the implied statement of, 'You should consider leaving me behind.' He shook his head, gripping his shoulder."We'll manage. Together. It's been three days. I don't think HYDRA is pursuing us. We'll get to town and get everyone taken care of."
Steve returned first with two mid-length pieces of wood, handing them to Banner. "Where's Clint?" Phil asked, hyper-alert now that one member was down.
"He found something we can use to tie the branches. Said he'd be back in a minute."
Sure enough, Clint returned with a long stick and a double handful of what looked like rope.
"What is that?"
"One of the trees has a type of moss that when you braid it is as strong as any rope you can buy in a store."
Phil felt his lips twitch in a smile. "Another thing you learned at the circus?"
"No. One of my foster dads taught me." He handed the rope to Banner and the stick to Selvig. "It's pretty sturdy. You can use it as a staff or walking stick since we don't have any crutches."
Banner splinted the limb and Phil helped him lever Selvig to his feet. Testing the staff, Phil noted with satisfaction that the scientist would be able to move around with relative ease. Banner dug a hole with a knife and buried the bloodied soil, covering it with clean dirt and leaves to hide it from any pursuers.
Clint's lips twisted in a wry smirk as he cut the last of the tape around Steve's wrists and ankles. The now fifteen year old returned the smile, one shoulder lifting in a shrug as if to say, 'So, what can you do?' "Good thing they gave us oversized clothing, huh? This would have been really awkward, otherwise."
Clint sniggered. "True." He shot a side-glance as he pulled off the tape. "No more piggy back rides when you're tired, though."
The expression of mock-distress on the blond's face had Clint laughing, the sound ringing through the clearing and causing small smiles to appear on the others' faces.
"I'm going to end up sleeping for a week when we get back," Steve admitted. "After I eat my weight in food."
Clint nodded in sympathy. Steve's accelerated growth, though painless, had meant that he was constantly on the verge of starving as his body searched for the fuel it needed to replenish the energy used in growing. The others had held back a portion of their own meals in order to keep Steve from passing out. The boy hated that they were going without, but knew that there really wasn't much of a choice in the matter.
He handed him a handful of greens, smirking at the grimace. "Hey, I don't want to have to carry you when you pass out from hunger."
"Think you could?" Steve teased, taking the dandelion weeds and popping them in his mouth, making a face at the bitter flavor.
"If I had to." Another smirk, "Though, you're so tall now, I couldn't guarantee that I wouldn't end up dragging parts of you on the ground in the process."
"Fair enough, short stuff." Steve ruffled his hair and Clint ducked away, a scowl on his face. Being the shortest, not to mention now the youngest, was seriously irritating him; especially since everyone felt it perfectly acceptable to mess with his hair. "Not you, too."
"Sorry. I just can't help it."
Brushing hair out of his face, he stepped back a bit, giving an exasperated look. "Try."
Steve raised his hands in surrender. "Aye, aye, sir."
He stuck his tongue out in retaliation and moved up to Coulson. The Ranger lay on his stomach at the top of a slight rise surveying an unpaved road below them. Also on his belly, he looked at the road, trying to figure out what Coulson saw. "What's up?"
"This road wasn't on the map I saw. I don't know if that's because it's relatively new, or just not considered important."
"How much farther do we have to go?"
"Two more miles and we reach the outskirts of the town." He shook his head, "Well, if my calculation are accurate and we don't have anything else sending us on a detour." He pointed at a portion of the road. "See that? Oil stain. Relatively fresh, maybe two or three days old. It headed north and came from the east, so it's unlikely it came from the HYDRA base."
"How do you know which way it went?"
"See how you have a large drop with a partial tail? Due to the vehicle's movement, the tail points in the direction it was heading. It's the same if you've ever had to track a wounded animal, the blood trail is similar."
"Oh," Clint knew his voice sounded a bit flat.
They were quiet a moment, then Coulson cleared his throat. "I'm a bit surprised you didn't know that."
A sidelong look let Clint know that Coulson wasn't trying to be belittling, but genuinely curious. "It's been a very long time since I've only wounded an animal I hunted. Wounded meant you had to use another bullet to finish the job, or that you missed. Missing meant wasting bullets and daddy was very adamant that you didn't waste bullets."
Coulson nodded solemnly, understanding without having to have it spelled out.
Clint continued. "Some of the foster families I lived with were the same. Waste meant spending money that they didn't have. Then, at the circus, arrows that went awry inevitably broke and replacing them cost money we didn't always have. If I couldn't make my own, I had to find a way to buy more or I couldn't be part of the show." He went silent, remembering a few times how he'd been expected to earn the money needed. A shudder went through him and he was glad Coulson didn't react with anything other than a raised brow. He dragged his thoughts to their current situation. "Would it be quicker to stay on the road, keeping an ear and eye out for vehicles and hiding in the brush along the side until we can find what we need?"
"That was my thought.. Selvig needs a doctor for his leg and I'd feel better if we could all be checked for anything that we might have missed. There's really no telling what else we were given, or even what that serum might do to us."
Clint rested his chin on his crossed wrists. "What do you think will happen once we're back?" He tried to keep his tone careless, but he truly feared what might happen once they returned to civilization. "I'm guessing, if twenty years have passed, I won't really have a place to return to. Either the circus no longer exists or they'd totally freak out at how young I am, again. And, no offense, but I don't have any plans on going to an orphanage or being some kind of science experiment while people examine me to 'fix' me."
He felt Coulson sigh. "I'll do what I can to insure you aren't treated badly or just dumped somewhere if they think you can't be 'fixed,' but I don't know what will happen. I can't make any guarantees. I'm in a similar position with the added complication that apparently everyone thinks I died."
Clint quirked his lips in a wry grin, unaccountably pleased. "Well, at least you're honest. That's more than I usually get." He pointed at the road, "When do you want us to leave?"
"No time like the present." The two scooted away from the apex of the rise and brushed grass and leaves off their clothing getting the others ready for what they hoped would be the last leg of the journey.
"I'll go in to town. I'm the only one of us who knows how to contact reliable help. While I'm in town I'll see if I can find some food and clothing or scout out a place we can stay until help arrives." Banner had left nearly two hours ago and the group had remained on pins and needles waiting his return. True, Banner knew how to contact Tony, but if something happened to the doctor, there was no way to get to him, or even know something had happened. Nor did they know what to do or where to go if things went south.
A low whistle alerted them to his return and people unconsciously relaxed a notch. A moment later, Banner walked in to their makeshift camp.
"What happened?" Coulson asked, his gaze categorizing any possible injuries the other might be hiding.
"I'm fine," Banner's expression was calming. "We're in Northern Italy. Tony can be here in less than five hours. And I have a place we can stay that includes food, baths, and changes of clothing."
"How'd you manage that?" Selvig's exclamation echoed their surprise.
Banner looked embarrassed. "Tony. Once he knew where we were, he wasted no time in organizing a safe place for us."
"Is it far?" Steve asked from his spot on the ground where he cradled Clint's right foot in his hands, rubbing careful circles in the ankle to ease a slight sprain.
"A few miles on the other side of the town." He held up a set of car keys. "I got transportation."
"Halleluiah, Amen!" drawled Clint, who wiggled his foot before gingerly getting to his feet.
The large SUV easily held all six fugitives, the glass dark enough to cut the sun's glare as well as keep anyone from getting a good look at the passengers. Banner got into the driver's seat and beckoned everyone in. Steve stared at the vehicle a long moment but shrugged and climbed into the back after Clint. The two curled into the bench seat, falling asleep almost instantly. Selvig leaned against the window in his position behind Banner, also swiftly falling asleep.
Loki caught Banner's eyes in the rear view mirror. "What didn't you mention?" he asked knowingly from his spot behind Coulson who sat shotgun and played navigator.
The scientist sighed, "I told Tony that both I and Steve were fine. Other than that, he only knows that I have four other former prisoners with me, but not who they are or that we'd all been de-aged. It wasn't something I wanted to say over the phone in case the lines were tapped. Plus, I didn't want to waste any time by arguing the science with him."
"Do you think it was wise not to give them some sort of head's up?" Coulson inquired, brow raised. "Thor's not going to be happy to see his brother, they think I'm dead, and both Steve and Clint are now teens with no memories of who they are."
Banner shook his head with a sigh. "Had they known, they would have over-reacted." Banner stopped, correcting himself. "Thor and Tony would have over-reacted. Tony would have gone straight to Fury to give him a piece of his mind for not mentioning your survival. There's no telling what Thor would do once he confronted Loki. Natasha would have gone calmly cold and left them behind in order to get to us first; but she's terrifying when she does that and I didn't want to subject anyone to that. Fury's lied to us before and I don't trust SHIELD to not separate us if they got to us first. Something tells me that would end badly for us if they tried."
Coulson conceded the point.
Loki frowned, "I understand not mentioning me. I even understand not mentioning Coulson. Why didn't you tell them that Clint was with you?"
Banner was quiet for a long moment. "Steve and I were having lunch with Tony when we were transported to the HYDRA base. One of the things Tony mentioned was that SHIELD was on the lookout for the two of us, but had, so far, found nothing. He didn't mention anyone looking for Clint, and I could hear Natasha in the background. If she had even an inkling that her partner was missing, there would have been no way that she would have been at the Tower. I didn't know what to think, so I didn't say anything."
Forty minutes later, they pulled into the drive of a huge mansion.
Steve woke, rubbing at his eyes and staring in awe at the building. "Why are we at a posh hotel?"
Banner grinned. "It's not a hotel. It's one of Tony's vacation homes."
A man in a butler's uniform stood at the front door. "Dr. Banner? I am Gaston. Master Stark has informed us of the situation. The house is on lock-down, the perimeter is secure, and JARVIS is monitoring all comings and goings. If you gentlemen will follow me, I will show you to your rooms where you may freshen up."
Loki hid a smirk, but had to give the man his due. Gaston seemed completely nonplused at the sight of six bedraggled refugees arriving with barely any advance notice. He treated them as honored guests, with not even so much as a twitch at what had to be their truly awful stench. River water could only do so much without soap, especially when you have nothing new to change in to.
"Showers?" Clint whistled in approval. "God, yes, please. If I don't get clean soon I'm liable to start clawing my skin off."
"We cannot have that, now can we, young sir? This way, please." Gaston led the way to the first room. Again, Loki had to give the man his due, Gaston truly knew his job. Though no one said a word, the butler noticed how tense the group became when it became obvious that they might have to separate from the rest. The man faked an outraged expression as he surveyed the room. "No, this won't do at all." He motioned them to remain where they were as he 'examined' the other rooms on the floor. "I shall have to have a stern word with the cleaning staff. None of these rooms will do. I do apologize for the inconvenience, but it appears the only place suitable that has room for you all will be the pool house. Please, this way, if you will."
They wandered through the house and out into the back yard. A large, Olympic-sized swimming pool, with two diving boards, a slide, and two attached hot tubs lay off to the right, while a hundred yards straight ahead stood a building done in a 'cottage' style, but looked like it housed nearly a dozen rooms by itself.
The front area held towels and robes on hooks, used for drying off from the pool before heading further into the 'house'. Gaston pointed, "To the left are the showering area. One for ladies, one for gentlemen; each with a number of shower and changing stalls. The other rooms on that side are for private massages. If any feel the need, I can have one of our masseuses brought to take care of any sore or strained muscles. In the back corner is a kitchenette with a fully stocked refrigerator, toaster, and microwave; the bar holds a variety of both alcoholic beverages and juices. The rooms on the right hand side are for guests who wish for a quiet rest before either continuing their swimming or returning to the main house. Changes of clothing will be brought momentarily, in the meantime I'll have the kitchen staff bring you a meal."
"Thank you, Gaston," Coulson commented. The man bowed and backed his way out of the room. No one relaxed until the door closed behind him and Coulson flipped the latch. The six silently checked each room, making sure all exits were closed and locked before availing themselves of the showers.
Gaston had proven a miracle worker; producing six sets of clothing that somehow fit each of them, even Clint. Scrubbed clean, dressed and bandaged, the former prisoners ate a light meal of savory beef stew, fruit salad, and buttered toast along with milk or water. Though assured of their safety, no one felt comfortable having any alcohol; Loki laughing in amusement as Selvig made a point on telling Clint, 'You can't have any. You're too young.' and getting the response of, 'I've been drinking since the day I moved in at the circus. The Bearded Lady said a little wine each night does you good.'
Now the group waited for Banner's friends to arrive.
Phil paced the room, keeping an eye on those he felt under his protection, as well as the doors and windows. Loki had convinced Clint to lay down in one of the guest rooms. From the common room, Phil could just make out the mage sitting on the edge of the bed, legs swinging, one hand absently carding through Clint's hair. The younger boy lay curled against his back, having finally given in to the need for sleep. He had crawled under the comforter only after Loki had chosen to stay as well. Asleep, he looked even younger, his eyes darting madly beneath closed lids as he dreamed. Loki's absentminded humming and proximity keeping any nightmares at bay for now.
Dr. Banner had checked everyone over, taking care of what he could with the surprisingly well-stocked first aid kit found in the shower room. Sore muscles, exhaustion, and mild malnutrition could be taken care of with rest and a few good meals. He wanted to have Selvig's leg x-rayed as well as a battery of blood tests done in case whatever they'd been given had other adverse effects. For the time being, both Selvig and Banner had also taken the opportunity to catch some shut eye. The scientist had commandeered a lounge chair, his bum leg elevated with several folded towels to help keep the swelling down, while Banner lay curled on a love seat.
The crinkling of paper caught Phil's attention. Not tired, Steve sat cross-legged on a second lounge chair and picked up a nearby magazine. The fifteen year old stared in wide-eyed shock at the cover. "I'm reading this wrong, right? It says 2012. But that's got to be some kind of joke. It's 1932!" He turned stricken blue eyes up at him. "Isn't it?"
Phil cursed quietly to himself as he lowered himself into a chair across from him. "I'm afraid it's not a joke, Steve. It really is 2012."
For a moment, Phil thought Steve had stopped breathing. Alarmed, he grabbed his wrist, providing an anchoring point. "Steve!" He squeezed, trying to break through the shock. The gasp of breath seemed unnaturally loud in the quiet room, but no one stirred. Phil caught the younger man's eye. "Look at me. Steve? Look at me. Listen. You know of the serum that's aging you, yes?"
Steve nodded jerkily, still trying to catch his breath.
"At twenty, you volunteered to be the test subject for the serum. You had wanted to serve you country so badly, but your physical limitations saw to it that you were denied again and again."
"Is ..." he paused, clearing his throat with a rough cough. "Is that why I seem to remember being sick all the time?"
"Yes. Originally you were ill. You had honor and determination in spades, but couldn't do much since your body was undersized and you were asthmatic. Dr. Howard Stark and Dr. Erskine perfected what they hoped could allow the U.S. to come on top in the current war. It was a success, Steve. You became the embodiment of the American spirit. You were a hero. Captain America."
Quiet, the boy thought for a long moment, then asked, frowning, "Then what happened? That doesn't explain why I'm no longer in the 1940's."
"Your last mission, you'd located a device that the Germans planned to use to unleash unknown horror upon the world. However, your plane became damaged. You were running out of fuel, but you couldn't land. The damage done had meant all your missiles were live, there was no way to jettison them, or disarm them. There was no way you would chance injuring people, either civilian or military. The only option was to crash land into the Arctic. And you did. Your plane sank into the ocean and no one could locate it, though Stark searched and searched for years."
"How do you know all this?" Steve's voice sounded small and a bit overwhelmed as he curled in upon himself.
Phil shifted, gripping his shoulder, even as he felt his face flush in embarrassment. "They made cartoons and comic books of your exploits. I've even seen actual footage of some of your missions. I ..." he cleared his throat. "I've even started collecting your trading cards."
"Trading cards?" Steve mouthed, his hands absently smoothing the wrinkled pages of the magazine. The young man shook his head and Phil couldn't help but grimace at the information overload. "How old was I when ... when I crashed?"
"And how old should I be, now?"
"Twenty-six." He watched as Steve tried to wrap his mind around the idea.
"So, based on what you said earlier, at the rate I'm going I'll remember everything in eleven more days?"
World-weary eyes gazed up at him as the young man pushed himself to his feet, the magazine fluttering to the floor. "Will it be worth remembering?"
Phil didn't respond, knowing Steve wasn't really asking for an answer. He watched sadly as the boy who would be Captain America slowly wandered over to a window, careful to remain unseen but curled in a lounge chair to stare at the sky.
"You did well."
Phil jumped, turning in the directions of the voice.
Banner opened one eye. "There really wasn't a good way to tell him. We couldn't have kept him in the dark much longer, anyway. Not with some of the technological advances this house has. That you're a fan and a compassionate man made you the best one to break the news."
"He's just a kid. And he just found out that everything he ever knew or loved is seventy years in the past. It's a hell of a blow to have to deal with at any age, let alone at fifteen," Phil protested, but even now, Phil could see Steve pulling himself together.
Banner put his thoughts into words. "He's Captain America." The eye closed. "Get some rest, Agent Coulson. For it will be in short supply when the others get here."
The first indication of trouble came at two in the morning. Phil thought he heard Gaston's voice uncharacteristically raised in warning, "Perhaps you should allow me to announce you, sir."
The front door of the pool house slammed open and the clatter of feet brought Phil to his own, his gun already pointed at the entryway into the common room. From the corner of his eye he saw Steve do the same and Selvig had a gun trained on the door as well, though he remained prone. He didn't have time to check on the others before a dark haired man in torn jeans and a ratty band t-shirt strode in as if he owned the place.
"Master Stark, do be careful," Gaston's concerned voice told Phil that yes, the man did indeed own the place. Two others quickly followed. A blond giant of a man who carried a large hammer at his waist and a quiet red headed woman whose gaze locked onto his with something akin to shock.
Stark waved a hand in dismissal, crossing the room in quick movements to grasp Dr. Banner by the shoulders. "Bruce? God, Bruce. Tell me you're okay."
"I'm okay, Tony." The scientist put his hands over Stark's and shifted the two of them until he was between the two groups, effectively blocking some of the lines of sight. Over his shoulder he called out, "Put your guns down. Everything's fine. We're all friends here. I promise." He glared at Stark making the other man blink in shock, "Jesus, Tony. Don't you know enough not to barge in on people who are still on edge? You're not normally this insensitive, or reckless, despite what you try to portray to others. You're lucky no one shot first and asked questions later."
While Banner ranted, getting the fright out of his system, and Stark looked suitably abashed, Phil made sure to meet Gaston's eyes and nod. The man's quick thinking had kept his employer from getting shot. The butler nodded in reply, shoulders relaxing a notch.
A rather inventive curse in Russian had his attention swing back to the woman. She had taken a few steps forward, then stilled, head tilted to one side, studying him intently as a spider would a fly that had wandered into her web. The gaze made him uneasy, but he returned the look as steadily as he could considering the circumstances. "How is this possible?" she whispered.
The large blond, however, didn't seem discomfited at all. "Son of Coul," he boomed, a large smile upon his face. "How magnificent to see you so hale. Your valiant deeds must have impressed the All-Father much to be returned to Midgard in a younger vessel."
The odd turn of phrase and the mention of the All-Father let Phil feel confident in naming the man. "You must be Thor."
The grin turned puzzled. "Aye. We have met before upon the flying fortress of Fury One-Eye. Dost thou not remember?"
"No, Thor. They don't remember you. Any of you."
"Explain." This came from the woman. Phil met her eyes, surprised to find grief and suspicion warring with acceptance. He felt his heart lurch to realize that this woman knew him and had mourned his apparent death; it hurt to realize that and to know that he had absolutely no recollection of her at all.
"It's a long story," Banner sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he sat down upon the love seat, dragging the other man to sit beside him to keep him from fidgeting. "Phil Coulson, Steve Rogers, Eric Selvig, this is Tony Stark. He owns this house and he's part of the Avengers as Iron Man."
"Iron Man?" Steve asked, putting the pistol away.
"He built his own suit of armor to fight in."
Stark blinked at the much younger Rogers, his mouth opening to say something, then snapping shut as Banner elbowed him in the ribs. "Not now, Tony." Banner pointed to the blond man. "This is Thor, from Asgard. He's the God of Thunder."
"So that is actually Mjolnir?" Selvig peered at the hammer from his spot.
"Aye, that it 'tis."
"And the lady is Agent Natasha Romanoff. She's also part of the Avengers and also works for SHIELD."
"I'd still like to know why they don't know who we are and why they look so young," her voice stayed calm, but Phil thought he detected a faint thread of worry and annoyance.
"Okay." Banner threw his hands up in surrender. "Long, long story short. HYDRA captured us. They used some experimental serum on us that somehow made us younger; complete with matching memories."
"That doesn't seem the case for you, Bruce." Stark had leaned forward in his seat to examine his friend more closely.
"They tried to suppress the Hulk," Banner stated grimly. "I got given some kind of shot every day that they had me. We managed to escape our cells before the next dose and whatever it was wore off." He paused and sighed. "When it did, I transformed, infuriated beyond belief. The Hulk smashed his way out of the installation. When I reverted back, I regained my age and my memories."
"Not all your age, I don't think," Stark stated. "You barely have any gray left in your hair at all, and you have fewer worry lines and the like than before."
Banner shrugged, "Well, I couldn't tell you why that happened. I'm not even sure of what they did, exactly."
Reminded, Phil fished in a pocket, drawing out a disk. "I tried to download a few files, but I don't know what I managed to get. We were in a bit of a hurry to leave." He tossed it to Stark who snatched it out of the air, looking for all the world like a child at Christmas.
"I'll check this once we're in the air." Stark glanced around, brow furrowed. "Hey, I thought you said there were six of you. Where are the other two?"
Phil controlled his initial reaction to look toward the guest room, but none of the others had his training. Thor noticed the looks and strode towards the room, his voice cheerfully booming, "My friends! All is well. You are being rescued. Come join in these glad tidings."
Romanoff's eyes flickered over him and she must have read some of his uneasiness for she headed after Thor. "Thor, I don't think that's a very good idea."
"Nonsense, Lady Natasha. We are all friends here. They should greet the rest of us so as to banish all fear." Thor pushed the door open the rest of the way and brazened his way into the room.
Loki heard the entrance of his brother and the others and winced at the loud voices all talking at once as they explained the situation. If he could, he would have already been through the air vent and safely hidden, but he couldn't wake Clint.
Heat poured off the younger boy and strands of hair lay stuck to his forehead and cheeks from the fever. Loki put his brother's proximity from his mind and lay a gentle hand on Clint's shoulder. "Wake, my Hawk. The others are here. Soon we should know how to return you to your true self."
The boy muttered something beneath his breath and a few long moments passed before gray blue-green eyes peered up at him beneath bruise-smudged lids. "Loki? Wha's going on?" he groggily slurred, but the mage felt a knot loosen as Clint rubbed at his eyes and looked up at him with a clearer expression.
"Dr. Banner's friends have arrived. Are you feeling well?"
Clint shook his head, "I ache. And I'm cold." He shivered and pulled the comforter tighter about his shoulders as he huddled closer to Loki.
Before Loki could comment, they heard a booming voice from just on the other side of the threshold. "Nonsense, Lady Natasha. We are all friends here. They should greet the rest of us so as to banish all fear."
The noise caused Clint to flinch, the pinched look around his eyes telling the mage that the boy harbored a wicked headache in addition to whatever illness had him in its clutches. Loki turned quickly, shielding Clint from view with his body as his brother entered the room.
Pleased blue eyes clouded and the sunny expression darkened at the sight of him sitting on the edge of the bed. Thor grasped hold of the handle of Mjolnir and his battle armor instantly appeared in a flash of controlled lightning. He stomped closer and Loki braced himself for a blow that never came.
Instead, he watched with carefully concealed glee as his older brother stuttered to a stop, his hands raised in a placating manner, eyes wide and mouth agape at something over his shoulder. "I mean you no harm, little one. My brother here has escaped from his just imprisonment. I only wish to secure him into my custody to discover the means of his escape and return him to where he belongs."
"That's nice," came the flat tone. "However, I'm not particularly fond of large guys angrily stomping in my direction. Especially lately, if you catch my meaning. So if you don't mind; Back. Off."
Loki turned his head slightly to the left; just beyond the unwavering barrel of a gun he could see Clint's closed off expression, face set, lips drawn back in a feral snarl, eyes blazing in anger and almost concealed fear. The bullets wouldn't harm Thor, but Clint didn't know that, and Loki felt his heart warm at the boy's willingness to defend him. Again he wished he had come to know his Hawk before everything had gone so horribly wrong.
Thor's mouth opened, an argument forming upon his lips, then it closed with a snap at the distinctive click of a hammer being drawn back. Nodding, the Thunder God slowly backed up, nearly colliding with the Black Widow and Coulson. Without even a change in expression, Coulson slid around Thor and stationed himself at the head of the bed, careful to stay out of Clint's direct line of sight, but physically showing who he sided with.
The Black Widow maneuvered herself so that Thor had to step further backward or risk her being in the line of fire, herself. "Loki," she inclined her head a few degrees, tone and face carefully blank. If she felt at all surprised by his presence, or his appearance, none of it showed.
"Agent Romanoff," he returned the gesture, more willing to interact with the beautiful spy than with his brother. He knew where he stood with the Black Widow. She didn't trust him, and he understood that, he could work with that. It was his relationship with Thor that sent his mind in a tizzy.
She tilted her head, quickly realizing that, unlike the other mortals, he had never lost his memories. "Do you have anything to do with all of this?" One hand motioned toward the others, the graceful gesture barely hiding the threat of violence that bubbled just under the surface.
He smiled thinly, glad that there would be no pussyfooting around with the ex-Russian. "Only in so much as the tesseract connects us all." He saw that Clint had shifted his aim so as not to point at Romanoff – not out of respect for a lady's presence, but simply because she had not threatened anyone, yet. Loki was well aware of his Hawk's laser-like gaze keeping everyone in sight and evaluating the situation – a part of him grieved that someone so young had learned such lessons, while another swelled with pride that the boy wasn't one to cower.
He could feel the shivers that now racked the small frame. Careful not to startle the boy into firing, Loki placed a hand over Clint's and gently lowered the gun. At the swift glance of inquiry, Loki shook his head. He read the hesitation as that intense gaze swung back to study Thor. "My brother will not harm us." A tiny huff and Clint set the pistol aside to lie beside him on the bed. Loki noticed that Coulson left it within his reach, though it would have been easy to pocket the gun himself.
"Clint?" Romanoff breathed. Loki liked that about her, the Black Widow had a quick mind that could pull together small clues into a complete picture – much like his Hawk.
"What?" The tone was definitely cranky, the illness pushing the boy to his limits.
"Has he been with you the whole time?" Anger, no, pure incandescent rage poured off the woman in waves.
"Yes?" Loki drew the word out questioningly, wondering what had set the deadly woman off. He felt Clint shrink closer, half hiding behind him, but leaving the gun where it lay.
By this time, the others had entered the room as well. "Who's the small fry?" Stark asked, openly staring.
Romanoff ignored him. "Barton went on a month long surveillance op. in Afghanistan. If he's been with you for the entire two weeks that Dr. Banner and Rogers have been missing, I'd like to know why Agent Peters hasn't alerted headquarters that he lost his Asset." The words were clipped and precise, and some of the others flinched at the implications.
"Think Fury knows?" Stark's expression indicated that that possibility wouldn't surprise him. "After all, he didn't tell anyone about Agent, here." He pointed at Coulson.
Where most would have given a helpless shrug, Romanoff only tilted her head, fingertips tapping her hipbones as she thought. "No. I don't think so. Not in this case," she also shot a look at Coulson. "No. Peters is clever. He either knew this could happen, or he's trying to capitalize on the disappearance. Perhaps frame Baton for something, or tarnish his reputation when it becomes obvious the mission won't become completed."
"Why would Peters do such a thing?" this came from Banner.
She shrugged, in an unsurprisingly graceful move. "He may be one of a handful that resented Barton's reinstatement after what happened." She smoothly censored herself, casting a look at Clint who had curled back into the comforter, still staring at everyone in the now crowded room.
"Are we staying here or returning to New York?" Loki brushed a hand down Clint's flushed face, frowning a bit as the boy moved into the cool touch. "Either way, I think Clint would benefit from seeing a healer."
"No more pokin' and proddin'," the response sounded slurred as the boy slid down into sleep at the soothing touch.
He pushed hair from the boy's face, "He has a fever."
"It's no wonder," Coulson straightened the comforter, tucking it closer to thin shoulders. "God knows what all happened while we were at the installation; and we've been traveling cross-country, on foot, for five days. Everyone's sporting some sort of injury or another. We're malnourished and exhausted. I'm surprised more of us aren't sick." He turned to Stark, expression serious. "Can you go over that information while we travel? I'd really like to know what else they may have done to us."
Stark's gaze stayed fixed on Clint's small face. "I'll do you one better. Tell us which direction you came from; Thor and I'll backtrack. The big lug can take care of any leftover staff and I'll gut their computer systems of the last megabyte of information. Natasha here can fly the plane and we'll meet you in New York and figure out how to reverse this."
Banner nodded though Coulson looked skeptical. Loki leaned over, his voice low, "This is what they do. Trust them."
At the amused look, he huffed, rolling his eyes. "Yes, I actively fought against them. I never claimed they were unworthy. They proved that by besting me and defending the world."
Two days later, an inarticulate shout of rage had everyone looking with alarm as Tony Stark stomped through the living room where everyone had gathered and into the kitchen to get coffee.
Phil waited a moment, giving a small smile as Dr. Banner arrived moments later. "I take it things aren't going well?"
Dr. Selvig, standing behind Bruce and looking equally annoyed, snorted. "You can say that again."
Bruce rubbed at his eyes, his new glasses dangling from one hand as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "There are a few spots in the data that aren't making much sense."
"It's crap! That's what it is!" Tony threw himself into an armchair, coffee sloshing along the edge of the mug, his brows drawn together in frustration. Both Steve and Clint turned from their spots on the floor where they were watching a movie to stare at him in fascination, Natasha just raised a brow at the theatrics. "Whoever put this together either had a demon whispering directly into his ear or just pulled numbers out of his ass." He dug out a printout, waving it in emphasis. "The numbers just don't add up. They give percentages greater than one hundred." He pointed at another segment, "And these look like the nonsensical ravings of a lunatic mind! Parts aren't even in English!"
"We were in Italy," Phil calmly pointed out.
"It's not in Italian, either. We had JARVIS check and it doesn't equate to any known language in the databases. So either the guy made up his own language or he really did have a demon talking to him."
"Magic, Tony," Bruce reminded. "They were trying to combine magic with science."
"Well, whatever they were trying to do, they sucked at it!" Tony tossed the printout onto the floor, ignoring the uneasy looks exchanged around him.
Phil tried to maintain a calm facade. If they couldn't figure out a way to reverse the process, Phil didn't know what they would do. He might attempt to join the Army again, but being twenty years behind the times would take some getting around. And that was if SHIELD didn't discover what had happened and stepped in.
He and Eric were adults; they'd figure something out, but what about Clint? Would he be allowed to take the boy in or would he end up in foster care? Phil suppressed a shudder; Clint had already clearly stated he wouldn't willingly go to an orphanage or a foster home. With his background, he'd never easily settle down in a 'normal' situation. God, this was a mess.
Loki leaned down from his armchair to pick up one of the dropped pages and studied it. Though Thor had commented on the need to return to Asgard, no one had felt comfortable about letting the mage out of their sight. He and Clint felt they'd never see Loki again if he left with Thor. Considering the circumstances, it would be cruel to allow Loki to continue being punished for something he had no control over. Bruce, Steve, and Eric felt that they'd all been brought together due to the tesseract and that separating before things got resolved could be disastrous. Though uneasy about it, Thor had agreed to hold off on alerting the All-Father until later. "This looks like part of a temporal spell, though not one I'm familiar with. Does this world have any powerful mages?"
Tony blinked, then grinned, snapping his fingers. "Strange."
Bruce looked skeptical. "Dr. Strange doesn't like you, Tony. He even told you to stop bothering him after the last time you set Dum-E on him for a blood sample."
"Eh," Tony waved a hand. "That was months ago. You can't tell me this isn't intriguing enough for the man. Besides, I wasn't going to ask him."
"Nope. You are."
"Gods Above and Below, this is an unholy mess." Dr. Stephen Strange, Sorcerer Supreme studied the auras of all six carefully, then examined all the intel Stark had pulled from the abandoned installation.
He started with Steve, now nineteen years old and hitting what would have been his last growth spurt had he developed normally. "There's nothing I can do for you that the serum isn't already doing. If I tried to accelerate anything, there's a chance of permanently losing any memories of the years I had you 'skip' over."
"I understand. Thank you for being honest."
"On the positive side, there is nothing else within your system that could harm you. You only have another week of this until you are back to your normal age with all your memories once again intact."
Steve sighed, a relived smile touching upon his lips, "Well, I guess this will give me some time to get acclimatized to this new time."
Strange spoke with Bruce next, "Your unique circumstances have already taken care of most of what was done to you. You have all of your memories, but physically, you're thirty-seven. The gamma radiation and residual tesseract energy 'broke the internal clock' of the HYDRA based serum."
"Will I age normally?" Bruce asked, his voice tight.
"Yes. You will merely be physically five years younger than before, that's all."
Tense muscles relaxed, "Thank you, Doctor." It occurred to Phil that having to deal with transforming into the Hulk was one thing, but suddenly being effectively immortal, staying the same age as others around him got older, would have driven Bruce over the edge.
"Loki Laufeyson," Dr. Strange began formally, garnering everyone's attention. "Have you received any counseling to recover from the trauma of having your will subjected by the tesseract?"
Pandemonium sounded, with Thor being the loudest, while Phil smiled quietly, glad that the truth would finally be told and believed.
Strange waved everyone into silence. "From my examination, I can sense how the tesseract energies interact with each. It completely engulfed Dr. Selvig, though it merely presented a new puzzle for the scientist to solve. It also engulfed Clint Barton and Loki Laufeyson, forcing both to think and behave in ways mostly contrary to their natures. That conflict left visible marks on the astral plane. Barton has recovered sufficiently, or at least, he had at his correct age and frame of mind. This situation has caused it's own marks. Once returned to normal, I'll re-evaluate. Loki, however, still shows signs of stress and injury, though he's been free of the influence for nearly a year now."
Loki shook his head, not looking at his brother. Thor looked devastated. "I have not. They believed me the author of the deeds and attacks I'd performed. I admit, my past deeds before this did not give them much reason to doubt their verdict. I spent my days alone, and was only permitted in the presence of others if gagged."
Dr. Strange's expression held a mixture of pity and horrified disbelief, "Why?"
Loki grinned, a sharp-edged look. "There is a reason I'm called Liesmith and Silver Tongue." He shrugged, "I knew they'd never believe anything I had to say on the matter. It was one of the reasons I escaped back to Midgard."
Dr. Strange looked between the brothers, making a decision. "I shall accompany you to Asgard to explain the matter to the All-Father if you would permit my assistance."
A genuine smile graced Loki's face. "Thank you. I welcome it."
Thor nodded as well, "I, too, would greatly desire your assistance."
"Beyond that, only time can restore your access to your magics. Don't rush it and try not to overdo things."
He addressed the last three, his expression more grave. "The combination they used is a mishmash of a few different paths of magic. The only way to break it is a spell that has you relive those missing years."
"How does that work?" Phil thought he saw a worried gleam in the sorcerer's eyes.
"You'll age two years a day."
"Like Steve?" Clint asked, listening intently to everything Dr. Strange said and didn't say.
"No. The serum ages him a full year in a few short minutes once a day, giving him a download of memories at the same time. The serum also takes care of organizing those memories so they didn't overwhelm him, as well as taking care of any pain he would have felt due to his body changing so drastically."
"The spell you're talking about doesn't do the same?" Eric clarified.
"You'll be in a half-conscious state; the spell accelerates your growth and you 'relive' your life during the spell's duration. It averages to one day for every two minutes. A month for every hour that the spell runs. As you have twenty years to regain, the spell would last for ten days." He hesitated, then continued. "Any injuries you may have suffered during those twenty years will also reoccur. As you are partially conscious so that the spell may accurately connect to both your conscious and subconscious mind, you'll feel that pain as freshly as when you first were subjected to it."
"What if the injury had been life threatening?" Natasha brought forth the question no one wanted to express. "Would the speed at which they are aging mean they would bleed out before we could intervene with medical attention?"
Dr. Strange shook his head. "No. The spell would keep them from dying from the injuries as it is obvious they originally survived the trauma."
"Even if they technically 'died'? Either stopped breathing or their heart stopped beating and they had required CPR?"
"The spell will sustain them. But their body will react to the trauma."
Where most of the room shot surreptitious looks at him, knowing that Loki had run him through with his scepter, Phil noticed that Natasha's worried gaze had landed on Clint. Phil shuddered to think how many narrow escapes Clint had survived as an agent for SHIELD.
The boy caught the look and gazed back at her. "This is really going to hurt, isn't it?"
"Yes." Phil winced at the blunt reply, but Clint seemed to appreciate not getting a sugarcoated response.
He sighed in resignation, "Well, if this is the only way I have at not staying this age, then I'll take it. Pain or not."
Eric nodded as well, though the man looked pale.
"I agree as well."
"As the spell requires a lot of power from the caster, I can only cast the spell on one person at a time and would require a week to recover before I could cast it again."
"Hey, I have a question," Tony interrupted. "Say one of these guys ended up with pins, a pace maker, or a metal plate – something along those lines. They don't have anything like that now – everyone's scans were clean., but will the spell add those items or will it heal the damage so they're not needed? Or do we need to have a surgeon on call to put any of that in if necessary?"
By now, Phil had gotten used to the way Tony would ask random questions as they came to mind, most of which only had any relevancy to his own curiosity, but this Phil wanted to hear the answer to and he turned expectantly to the sorcerer.
"The spell causes you to relive the time. If that means you had surgical pins placed, then you will have surgical pins. If you required a pace maker, then now you will have a pacemaker. If the surgeon left a clamp inside you during surgery … well, then you'd have a clamp."
Tony sat back, mildly satisfied, but Phil heard him grumbling at the inefficiency of magic if it couldn't either keep the damage from happening at all or at least heal it completely.
"I believe that Phil should be first, and then Clint," Natasha stated.
"Why?" Steve asked, curious.
"As an adult, Clint only allowed myself or Phil near him when he was injured or ill. He doesn't know me, but has a rapport with Phil. Once he's back to normal, I don't want his first thoughts to be of being left with someone he didn't trust when at his most vulnerable."