Nick looked them over. Six terrified, defiant kids, none of them better than ten years old, standing on the Helicarrier's flight deck and glaring fiercely at everyone around them. Nick looked them over, and saw, had to see, the Avengers. As pure and identifiable as ever, despite the effects of the spell.
Rogers was out in front. Panting, asthmatic, clinging to Thor for support after the desperate flight up this far, he was standing out in front of the others, regardless of the fact that he was currently the smallest person there, determined to protect his people.
Thor, beside him, undoubtedly the strongest and the proudest, though still pint-sized, had his arm around Roger's waist, and had carefully angled himself to shove Steve behind him if someone twitched wrong, whether Steve wanted him to or not. Nick strongly suspected that the only reason Thor hadn't done more damage than he had, during the chase, was because he had been half-carrying Steve the whole way. A protective older brother to the last.
Behind the pair of them, in a small cluster, stood Barton, Banner, and Romanov.
Natasha was in a low crouch on the ground, her broken wrist tucked against her chest (and oh, whatever SHIELD agent had been stupid enough to cause that one was going to regret it), guarding their rear warily. Nick wasn't sure how much English she spoke, at this age, how much she understood what was going on, but she had been raised to be a spy, and it was showing in the slit-eyed glare she was casting about her, and the cold, desperate acceptance of the injury. Watching, Nick felt that old, weary thrill of fury.
Clint and Bruce stood over her, a triangle facing outward, their postures, attitudes, weirdly mirrored. Narrow-eyed, defiant, unsure. Braced, both of them, with an identical cant to their shoulders, to accept a blow. Defiantly, desperately determined not to be moved from Natasha's side regardless. A pair of kids who knew exactly what violence felt like, standing up because they had no other choice, because someone else was injured more than them, and they could take it.
And then, off to one side. Held captured with Phil's hand around his upper arm, Tony Stark. His casual, insouciant grin so much more unsure, on so small a face, the fear in his eyes so much more obvious, but the defiance unchanged. Stark had been captured before the others, taken before they were run down, and the first thing out of his mouth had been to inform the agents, or rather 'remind' them, of who his father was, what kind of money could be in it for them. And why they didn't really need the others, did they. All they needed was him.
Nick wondered, absently, how the ten-year old Stark had convinced Rogers to leave him behind. Judging from the way Natasha's eyes kept sliding over to him, and the fierce, strangled flare of guilt in them, he was betting Stark had trumpeted the lessons Howard would have drilled into him, that he had kidnapping training (at ten years old), and that he was the least likely to be hurt, considering how much he was worth.
And somehow, in the time between them having been brought unconscious to the Helicarrier, considerably smaller than usual, and this desperate stand-off once they realised there was no escape, this tiny group of disparate children had woken, gauged their situation, formed an unlikely alliance, and made life a living hell for every agent on the carrier.
Nick had seen the footage, from the med-bay. He'd seen Natasha, the first to wake, the first to understand, realise that she was captive, in English-speaking hands. Tony, after her, falling back on the training Howard, once he realised how many people might want to harm the child of a multi-millionaire weapons manufacturer, had reluctantly given him. Barton and Banner, bewildered but surprisingly (or not, given their files) willing to understand and be ready. Rogers, Thor, the last to understand, the first to try and defend their fellow captives.
None of them with any memory beyond what their ten-year-old selves would have had, any physical changes from what they had been then. None of their later training, later power, later skills. Just Tony's almost preternatural gift for technology, Natasha's early training, and a certain all-round, base-level determination, each and every one of them. To escape, to find out what had happened to them. And, most of all, most importantly, to keep each other safe.
Oh yeah. Nick recognised them, alright. In six tiny faces, tilted defiantly towards him, in one cluster of terrified children crouched on his flight-deck, he saw the future, clear as day.
And every fucking one of his agents that had fucked this up, that had scared them, that had hurt them, was going to be facing him. He didn't give a flying fuck that Natasha had fought, that she had accepted a broken wrist as a necessary consequence of getting herself and the others out of there. He didn't give a crap that the electronic lock that could hold Stark wasn't going to be invented for another flat decade, at least. He didn't care that Thor, ten-years old or not, could punt a man through a wall, or that Clint could climb like a goddamn monkey and aim as well as ever. He didn't care that Banner had an instinct for running that would, years later, let him lose a crack military unit in Brazil. He didn't care that a panting, asthmatic Steven Rogers could out-last four SHIELD agents on pure determination, when motivated enough. He didn't give a flying fuck about any of that.
He cared that six bewildered, terrified ten-year olds had been taken back to what was supposed to be friendly territory, dealt with by people who were supposed to know how to handle them, and then hunted by a bunch of idiots who failed to realise that it didn't matter how young this group were, if you stupidly gave them reason to be afraid of you, they were going to fuck your shit up, no matter what it took.
And he also cared that, if he didn't deal with those agents, if he wasn't the one to come down on them, Phil Coulson was going to quietly, and very calmly, murder every last one of them, and SHIELD didn't have the manpower right now to justify that kind of loss.
Damn it. He was getting way too old for this shit. Someone needed to reverse that fucking spell, and fast, or he wasn't going to have any damn teeth left, on account of having spent so much of the day grinding them into nubs.
"All right, ladies," he boomed out, stepping forward into the line of fire between SHIELD and the mini-Avengers, holding out his hands placatingly. "How about we take this from the top, and get it right this time." He smiled darkly, and watched half the agents there flinch, and Rogers raise a defiant fist. "And in case you were confused, that was an order."
Fuck this shit. When he caught up with that damned sorceror, he was going to keelhaul the son of a bitch at thirty thousand feet, and forget to pull him up afterwards.