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Six Petals

Chapter Text

 

                Of the six-person "cell" of traumatized teens that escaped HYDRA's Grosse Pointe laboratories, Sung Woojin and Kim Shiwoo were the first - the founders, if you will.  They had known each other a year before HYDRA kidnapped them, working together as idol trainees at one of the Big Three entertainment companies in Seoul.  They'd been assigned as roommates and had become close quickly in spite of the two year age difference.  Woojin was 11 when he was scouted at a talent competition, the youngest trainee that the entertainment company had ever recruited.  The other boys had bullied Woojin mercilessly until Shiwoo had stepped in to set them straight.  The Golden Voice from Busan as the managers like to call Woojin, and the street dancer from Mapo-gu were as close as brothers.

                As far as Shiwoo was concerned, whatever group they debuted with (no doubts in his mind), Woojin would inevitably be the maknae and it was his job as hyung to protect him and raise the boy as much as possible.  They were always together: they trained together; ate together; played together; and when HYDRA came to Seoul looking for new weapons-in-the-making, they were taken together.  The agents had waited outside the dorms as the trainees had filed out for their daily 5 am fourteen-kilometer run and grabbed Woojin and Shiwoo, sticking needles full of sedatives in their necks before shoving them into the back of a van with no one the wiser.

                The scientists in charge of Project Leviathan did not want more Assets.  An Asset was undeniably skilled and loyal, but meant to work solo and wasn't particularly effective at critical thinking.  What they were looking for was a team of powered operatives with a balance of skills and powers that could think critically in the field, an "insurgent cell" or "cells".  They wanted mutants.  The scientists had developed a procedure that not only activated a dormant x-gene but strengthened the resulting cascade ad making the mutant more powerful.  Not only were secondary mutations more common, a rare few even demonstrated a tertiary power and their powers weren't necessarily related.  It wasn't always successful; many of their test subjects died or developed useless or uncontrollable mutations and had to be put down.  What were a few hundred teenagers for the glory of HYDRA?  The successes couldn't be controlled with the same techniques as an Asset so the scientists turned to other methods: deprivation, fear, and pain.

                They HYDRA scientists had tried to break the boys with hardship first; a physically-exhaustive schedule of training, limited food, and even less sleep.  They hadn't reckoned on the boys' prior experience to be a problem.  No idol recruit trained under anything less than a punishing schedule and no one stayed an idol trainee who wasn't laser-focused and driven on becoming an idol.  Korean idols were the Olympic athletes of entertainers and there was nothing in that particular bag of tricks that Woojin and Shiwoo hadn't already lived for a year.  The HYDRA scientists had been forced to turn to their back-up method of control: pain.

                There were scars, so many, many scars.  Not that the process of having their mutant powers awakened was anything less than excruciating agony, but this was different.  Shiwoo stopped talking unless it was necessary.  He had pulled into himself and Woojin had taken to speaking for the both of them.  The only time Shiwoo seemed to react any more was when Woojin was hurt or in danger.  He still tried to protect Woojin as much as he could, volunteering to take whatever "punishment' the scientists dished out and shielding his dongsaeng as much as possible.  But he couldn’t protect Woojin from everything and he felt broken.  Woojin could handle pain, he was strong like that, but he crumbled at the first sign of Shiwoo's pain; they'd become each other's greatest weakness as well as greatest strengths.

                Their roles had become reversed: it was Woojin that took care of his hyung now.  He stole extra food when he could and made sure Shiwoo ate and tended his injuries to the best of his limited ability.  When the scientists asked the older questions, it was the younger who would answer.  Woojin put on a mask of sunshine, cracking dad jokes that Shiwoo didn't respond to and singing to soothe them both.  His singing voice was as beautiful as ever and he knew his hyung was listening even if he didn't show it.  The only time their relationship returned to normal was when it was time to sleep.  Then Woojin would crawl into the military-style bunk bed with Shiwoo and the elder would wrap himself around the younger and whisper soothingly into the younger's ear until they both passed out.  It was the only way either of them could sleep.

                Shiwoo was a telekinetic, what the scientists called a broad application kinetic: pick up cars, throw people around, that sort of thing.  What the scientists were most pleased about was Shiwoo's ability to combine his telekinesis with hand-to-hand combat, delivering devastating physical attacks.  He also had a telekinetic shield but it didn't work unless Woojin was in danger.  The shield didn't cover much besides Woojin himself so the younger boy made sure to stay close to the older to cover both of them if Shiwoo's shield came up.  Woojin wondered if Shiwoo's telekinesis could be used for more delicate applications but he didn't want to ask his hyung to experiment with something that only benefited their captors.

                Woojin was an energy projector of some kind.  The scientists never bothered to explain what kind of energy he had or how it worked.  It was a bright, white light that burned; it got hotter the brighter it got and Shiwoo could control how hot and bright he could make it.  There was also a concussion that occurred when he released it, proportionate to the heat.  He could form it anywhere within his line of sight, but the further away from him it was, the longer it took to form.  He'd discovered, through trial-and-error that he could make a sort-of light bulb from a tiny spark of his power no bigger than a 500 won coin, relatively cool and not too bright.  He could even form more than one ghost light at a time but he had never tested the limits of how many he could create.  So far, it was the only non-violent application of his power he'd found and he hadn't demonstrated any secondary abilities.  As far as Woojin was concerned, Shiwoo had gotten the useful power set.  Woojin was nothing but a weapon.  Even the scientists had thought little of his ability, telling him repeatedly he was one of the most useless of the surviving test subjects.

                The scientists had made no secret that the boys were supposed to be part of a team so it was no surprise when other teens joined them briefly in their cell, being removed just as quickly as they came when they didn't prove compatible by some set of standards the boys didn't understand.  Five or six came and went before one finally stayed: a girl.  She was from South Africa and once the awkwardness passed - boys and girls sleeping in the same room, horror! - the boys found her good company.  She told them, in her lilting English, about the beaches of Durban, learning to make different curries with her mother, and how she was planning on studying biochemistry at uni.  She was good at painting word pictures, telling them of the street musicians and clubs; cafes hidden on old colonial streets; and the Indian spice markets and stalls full of handcrafts that reminded the Korean boys of Hongdae.  Her name was Amahle Nkosi.

                Amahle Nkosi was a hydrokinetic.  She could control water, its shape and flow.  She could form it into waves, bludgeons, or whips and feel water hidden from her sight but she had other techniques the scientists were far more interested in.  She could pull the water out of anything living, leaving it a desiccated husk, or drown someone in their own bodily fluid.  She was labeled an assassin, something that made her sick.  Amahle was a gentle, soft-spoken girl and the idea of killing anyone with powers that were so intimately a part of herself was something she just couldn't stomach.

                She had another application of her powers that the scientists weren't so immediately acquainted with.  She could push drugs and poisons out of a person's body using the body's own water.  It was pretty common for the HYDRA scientists to test various drugs and toxins on the teens, recording the results and then dumping them back in their cells to suffer through the last of it by themselves.  She'd shown the boys her secret talent one day after the scientists had injected Woojin with some rust-colored sludge.  They'd carried him by the arms into the room, dropping him on the floor and left, and he'd promptly curled into a ball with stomach cramps so severe he could barely breathe.  Shiwoo dropped to his knees next to his dongsaeng, pulling Woojin's head into his lap, and ran soothing fingers across the younger boy's forehead and through his hair.  The elder gritted down on his tears, ready to stay with Woojin all night if he had to.  He looked up, surprised, at a gentle hand on his shoulder.

                "Let me help."  Her voice was soft, but sure.

                Shiwoo had leaned back a little from his protective position and she dropped down next to them and put both hands on Woojin.  A shimmering in the air above the younger boy showed her power working.  Woojin made an uncomfortable noise, and Shiwoo could see the toxins bubbling up onto the surface of the younger boy's skin.  Shiwoo used a scrap of shirt to wipe away the toxins and slowly Woojin uncurled from around his center.  "Gomabseunida Nuna," Shiwoo whispered.

                This cemented their relationship, two brothers and a sister.  It stayed that way a little while as two or three more teenagers came and went.  They'd had to adjust, though, when they'd added their fourth: Marcelo Alvarez, the boy from La Paz.  He wasn't what the trio expected, given his powers: he was introspective, thoughtful, bright, and well-educated.  He was far too mature for his age; it was hard to believe that he was only a year older than Woojin.  The press had called him "Bolivia's Tony Stark", an electronics and engineering child prodigy who had never received the attention his American counterpart had.  The anonymity and a loving family had kept Marcelo from developing Stark's worst flaws - no raging narcissism, attention seeking, or severe self-esteem issues.  He was, in short, very easy to like.

                His powers had nothing to do with electronics or electricity.  His physical abilities - strength, reflexes, stamina, and general constitution - were all enhanced, putting him on a similar level to Captain America.  He had some strange 6-second precognition that allowed him to predict his enemies’ attacks on a subconscious level.  As if that wasn't enough, he had a short-burst phasing ability that allowed ballistics and projectiles to pass through him, leaving him unharmed.  In a hand-to-hand fight, Marcelo was terrifying.

                English was the default language at the facility, the only language that most seemed to have in common.  Woojin and Shiwoo had started English language lessons during their year as idol trainees.  The Big Three wanted more international recognition and that meant more English-speaking idols.  Language lessons were crammed in between lunch and vocal or rap training.  Neither of the Koreans were truly proficient but they knew enough to avoid a beating.  Amahle was marginally more proficient but she'd been an indifferent English student at best, as she preferred Afrikaans.  Marcelo's English was as flawless as his Spanish and he was happy to help his new family with what could now be considered a survival skill.  The other three embraced him as a brother, and the three became four.

                There were six beds in the room they shared and it didn't take Marcelo to figure out that the scientists would add two more permanent members to their "cell".  The only question was how many teens would be thrown into their cell before they found their last two members.  For their fifth member, the answer was one.  Two weeks after Marcelo was shoved into their cell a pair of burly guards threw a shaking, bleeding girl into the room, then locked the door again.  Amahle rushed to help the smaller girl into one of the unoccupied bunks while the others gathered round.  Emma Ulrich of Lawrence, Kansas, was a tiny little thing, less than five feet and 85 pounds soaking wet.  They were all a bit surprised when she admitted to a rather young 15, six months older than Woojin.

                They hadn't really expected much from her powers, still making the mistake of judging by appearance, but they were wrong: she was easily as scary as Marcelo.  Emma could change the orientation of her personal gravity allowing her to walk, run, sit, or stand on walls or ceilings.  She could switch the direction of her personal gravity at will and when she dropped from a height, she always landed on her feet without damage.  She was also super strong, stronger than Marcelo - her upward limit seemed to be a mid-sized sedan, which she could throw about 10 feet.  Mixing her gravity power with her catfall allowed for some crazy acrobatic stunts.

                Emma, like Woojin and Shiwoo, had not responded to deprivation as a control mechanism.  The scientists had found a brick wall of stubbornness and rebellion that had been the bane of every adult in her life since she'd turned 12.  The scientists were fond of neither stubbornness nor rebellion and had moved on to pain; like the Korean boys, she had a shocking number of scars.  She told them about her love of computers; hacking into something she really shouldn’t have and coming to HYDRA’s attention.  She told the other teens about her younger brother Aidan, how the HYDRA scientists had threatened to kill him if she ever tried to run away.  This was sobering for all of them: none of them could ever go home again.  All of them had people they weren’t willing to risk.

                It became apparent quickly that sleeping arrangements were going to require a work-around.  Woojin and Shiwoo had been sleeping in the same bunk since the beginning and Amahle had used the bunk closest to them for comfort.  When Marcelo had joined them it had only taken a couple of bad nights before he’d crawled into the bunk with Amahle.  It had been awkward for about 5 minutes before it became second nature.  Now they were an odd number again and they already knew that there was no way Emma could sleep alone, but the bunks just couldn’t fit 3.  It was Shiwoo that came up with a solution.  As each new teen had joined the budding family, Shiwoo had slowly come out of the shell he’d wrapped himself in.  The others were still a little surprised, however, as he grabbed the mattresses telekinetically and pulled them into the middle of the room, forming a giant sleeping area on the floor.

                Three more teens came and went before their final teammate joined them, a boy as small as Emma with the eyes of a broken old man.  It had taken him a couple of days to trust them enough to talk, to even share his name.  Casey Cantrell had been living on the streets of Windsor, Ontario for three years after his meth-addicted mother had abandoned him at a supermarket at the tender age of 10.  He’d been alone for a grand total of 2 hours before he’d been snatched up by a pimp.  HYDRA”S “recruitment” had actually been one of the best things to happen in his short life: a roof over his head, steady meals, and a rehab plan to get him off the opiates his pimp had used to control him.  If one of the scientists had given Casey even the illusion of the love and acceptance he so desperately craved, he would have been a fanatical HYDRA agent for life.  Instead, he found it with his new family.  Emma grabbed his hand and pulled him into the circle of teens and Marcelo threw a protective arm around his shoulders.  It was Shiwoo that sealed the deal.

                “Looks like you are still the maknae, Woojin.”  There was a ghost of a smile on his lips.  The others weren’t sure what he meant but Woojin’s quick, warm laugh made it alright.

                “It’s ok, hyung; I was expecting it.  Since Casey-ah is only three months older do I have to call him hyung?”

                “That’s up to him.”  Both boys looked at Casey expectantly.

                “Uhmm…”  The Canadian boy was clearly lost.  Marcelo leaned over and whispered the meaning of the word in his ear and the younger blushed.  “No, that’s ok Woojin.  I don’t care.”

                At first glance, it wasn’t immediately obvious how useful Casey’s powers were in combat but a closer examination showed what a treasure he really was.  Casey was a finder – whatever he wanted or needed, he could find the fastest way to it.  It didn’t matter if it was something material, like extra food or intangible, like the right person to keep him safe.  It didn’t matter if it was for himself or someone else – as soon as he decided he wanted or needed it, he could find it.  The scientists labelled him logistics/support.  He was given marksman training in addition to hand-to-hand training and he was a very good shot.  While he couldn’t stand on the front lines with Shiwoo, Marcelo, and Emma he could find the best way to the target or anything that could give the team a way around difficulties.  With an eagle-eyed view of the area, he could give his “cell” an impressive advantage.

                Shiwoo became the group’s leader by default rather than by design.  Casey, Emma, and Marcelo had no interest in leading and Woojin and Amahle looked to Shiwoo already; the other three quickly gravitated to doing the same.  He felt the shift, watched his new-forged family, and made the decision to embrace it.  No more hiding in himself – his family needed him and he would do his best.  They were complete and now the most dangerous time would begin.  Shiwoo had heard the scientists talking to each other: only the best “cells” would make it out of there alive.  He would not let his family fall.

                He called a family conference, the six of them sitting in a circle in the spot they usually put their mattresses.  “So things are going to get tight.  We have to be the best or we won’t make it out of here.”

                Woojin nodded in agreement.  “The scientists said only the best would make it.  The rest would be disposed of.”  The others were wide-eyed except Marcelo, who simply nodded.

                “So what do we do?”  Marcelo eyed Shiwoo; his calm was a rock for the older Korean boy.

                “We ask for extra training,” Emma piped up.  She fidgeted a little when everyone looked at her but she kept going.  “I saw someone else do it.  I don’t know if they gave it to him but they didn’t hurt him for asking.”

                Shiwoo snuck a glance at Woojin, wanting his dongsaeng to be ok.  He wasn’t sure if the boy could handle any more pressure, but he needn’t have worried.  The younger boy was grinning.  He caught Shiwoo’s eye and his smile widened.  “Just like home, right hyung?”  He looked at the others.  “Don’t worry, we can do this.  Hwaiting!” Shiwoo smiled back at the maknae’s enthusiasm.

                “Ok, we do this.  Casey, find us the right trainer.  And some more food – we need fuel and more protein to build muscle.  We train.  We train ‘til we drop, then we get up and train some more.”

                Amahle’s soft voice filled the space left by Shiwoo.  “It isn’t enough to train to our individual potential, we have to train together.  We have to know each other better than we know ourselves.”  The others nodded in agreement.

                “Si, familia.” Marcelo added. “Family.”

                The entire facility was underground so there was no way to accurately judge the passage of time but it felt like months.  All of them collapsed from exhaustion or injury more than once.  Casey and Amahle split nurse duties, getting a crash course in emergency medicine.  They got stronger, tougher, harder.  They fought with everything they had left not to lose themselves in the process, but they all lost bits and pieces along the way.  No matter what their bodies said, they weren’t children anymore.

                As they became weapons, they also became a true family.  Casey and Woojin did their best to keep the mood high.  Casey did wicked impersonations of various HYDRA staff that could get a smile even on the worst day.  Woojin had an encyclopedic knowledge of bad puns and dad jokes to go with his infectious warm laugh.  He sang whenever asked.  Shiwoo’s voice was adequate but the managers had tagged him as a rapper and Woojin could usually coax him into a few verses; after begging and pleading for a few days, Shiwoo started teaching Emma.  With no way to record lyrics, Shiwoo and Emma were both getting a crash course in freestyle.  Amahle led them in games of Two Truths, One Lie and they grew to know each other.  They beat every “cell” they were tested against but one.  They were as ready as they could be, they just didn’t know what they were ready for.

Chapter Text

                                       

 

                They were sitting on the floor of their room in a circle, talking quietly, when the lights flickered out and the room shook, a thundering roar echoing through the walls.  Emma, Casey, and Amahle fell over as the floor bucked a bit with the concussion.  Woojin tossed up a ghost light as they waited for the backup generators to kick in.  The generators powered up, the red emergency lights giving everything an eerie glow, then died as a second explosion rocked the HYDRA compound.  A crashing accompanied another series of minor explosions and the compound shook yet again.  The teens looked at each other with wide eyes, fear swallowing their questions.  Shiwoo got up carefully, not wanting to fall if the floor shook again, and tested the door – the electronic door lock was disengaged, the door swinging open slightly as his touch.  The others joined him quickly as he cautiously opened the heavy steel door completely.  Outside, the hallway was chaos.

                Chunks of ceiling had collapsed, blocking some of the other cell doors and sections of the hallway. They could hear screaming from behind a couple of those doors, presumably where the ceiling had fallen in.  It would have been pitch black if not for Woojin’s ghost light.  Shiwoo looked around and a little flower of hope bloomed in his heart.  If they were eve going to escape, now was the time.  He looked at his team, his family, and saw the hope in their eyes: it was a mutual decision.  He turned to Casey.  “Two things, CC, we need our gear and we need a way out of here.”

                “On it.”  Casey focused for a moment, then headed for a pile of rubble with a small tunnel accidentally created by iron rebar.  A few other teens had joined them in the hallway, some close enough to overhear the conversation.  Three others followed him, intent on retrieving their own team’s gear.  A quick glance from Shiwoo sent Emma after him as well to act as a bodyguard if necessary.

                Minutes ticked by and the hallway slowly began to fill with teens.  Most of them seemed unsure but three teens approached Shiwoo, two girls and a boy.  He recognized them as “cell” leaders like himself, from the training battles.  Two were from teams they’d beaten but the other was the leader for the team that currently outranked his own.  He watched her warily, unsure of her intentions, but she had a smile on her face.  She stuck her hand out at Shiwoo and he remembered belatedly that this was a Western greeting.

                “Hi, I’m Kendall.  We’ve never gotten a chance to talk.”  Her heavy Irish accent made it necessary to focus on her words.

                “Kim Shiwoo and this is my dongsaeng Sung Woojin.”  Shiwoo gave a polite bow and Woojin waved.  The others introduced themselves: Maria and Utku.  A tall boy, the oldest Shiwoo had seen here, joined Kendall.  She introduced him as her second, Kylen.

                “I think we should work together to get out of here.  Your boy, he’s good at finding things, right?  Like finding a way out?”  Shiwoo nodded and Kendall continued.  “We can help clear the way and we’re all good in a scrap.”  The others nodded and Shiwoo considered.  He needed to put his family first.  It was Woojin that decided to be his conscience.

                “Hyung, we can’t leave them here.  We can’t leave anyone in this hell,” he whispered in Korean.  “If we do, we’re no better than HYDRA.”

                Shiwoo didn’t agree with the last part, but he understood Woojin’s perspective.  Echoing Woojin, Maria piped up.  “We should get as many as possible, leave no one behind.”  Shiwoo finally nodded his agreement.  The more confusion they created on their way out, the harder it would be for HYDRA to track them all down.  If the different “cells” scattered to the 4 winds, they could possibly keep their tormentors running in circles.  The other leaders seemed to have come to a similar conclusion.

                Kendall nodded at Kylen, who headed back down the hall, checking doors and prying open the ones blocked by debris.  Woojin made a second ghost light to follow him.  Shiwoo could hear the muted conversations as the older boy rallied the other teens, helping them organize.  He could hear pain and fear – a few teens had been casualties of the ceiling collapses.  Four other “cell” leaders joined the four conspirators, already briefed by Kylen.

                Casey crawled back out of the rubble, pushing a large bag of gear in front of him, Emma following on his heels.  The other three teens were close behind.  He handed the bag to Shiwoo, who inventoried the contents with a pleased smile.  There were the wireless earpiece/mics with their portable communication base; an assortment of knives, guns and ammunition along with holster rigs; and the knives specially designed to withstand Emma’s powered strength.  At the bottom of the bag was the advanced armor plates made to fit into the pockets sewn into their combat fatigues that could stop anything 7.62 mm or smaller, better than any body armor commercially available.  Casey also had his sniper rifle in a soft case strapped to his back.  Shiwoo quickly distributed the gear, then turned back to Casey.

                The smaller teen pointed to a different section of rubble.  “That’s the safest way up but we’ll need someone with enhanced strength to clear the way.  If we dig too far forward, we’ll open up the hall to the training rooms and I feel like that would be dangerous.”  Shiwoo looked at Kendall, who nodded in return.  Emma, Marcelo, and Kylen, who’d been watching their respective leaders, stepped up and the three got to work clearing a path to the stairs.  The hallway was full of tension as everyone waited to see if any HYDRA personnel appeared to try to stop them.  The eight “cell” leaders stood close in a loose circle, watching intently.

                With all three teens working in tandem the way was cleared quickly and the “cell” leaders organized the rest of the teens, making an orderly exodus as soon as the all-clear was given.  They passed carefully up the stairs, stopping to examine the floor above theirs.  It was nearly identical, with damage to the hallway and cell doors standing open.  The floor was devoid of life and a quick scouting had revealed only a couple of bodies crushed by falling debris.  With no one to rescue and no threat evident, the small army of powered teens kept going.  The floor above was another floor of cells but with a terrifying addition: the bodies of dozens of teenagers, executed with a bullet to the head.  The HYDRA guards had started killing teens when…whatever…had started.  Shiwoo knew that the teens from the bottom two floors had been lucky that the guards had been pulled away by the emergency before they’d made it below this floor.  He said a silent prayer for the souls of the departed; at least they were free from HYDRA’s torture.  With heightened fear and grief, the teens moved up another set of stairs.

                The next floor up looked to be mostly labs with a few offices.  There were bodies scattered around this floor as well but they were all apparently HYDRA.  It was clear from the damage here that the facility had come under attack, although it was impossible to say by whom.  The floor was a chaotic blend of scattered papers, shattered glass, overturned furniture, and bodies floating in pools of swiftly congealing blood.  Every computer they saw was wrecked; some had the tell-tale carbon patterns of internal fires while others looked like they’d been torn apart, with the hard drives clearly missing.  Looking around, Shiwoo could see a number of teens who were having bad reactions, a few on the edge of panic attacks.  They’d all been on this floor at one time – it was where they had undergone the procedure that made them mutants.  A signal from the “cell” leaders had the group moving up to the next floor, hopefully leaving the trauma behind.

                Shiwoo came to the top of the stairs and stopped, stunned.  They had reached the surface and Shiwoo could see blue sky through missing chunks of the building for the first time in over two years.  Woojin nudged him and he moved out of the way, still in a daze.  The part of his brain that was still working said it was lucky there were no HYDRA guards in the immediate vicinity because he wasn’t the only one so affected.  To his left he could see Kendall and Kylan: he was standing behind her, his arms wrapped around her shoulders and chin resting on top of her head; tears were pouring down her face as she stared at the irregular pattern of blue sky.  To his right Maria was locked in a three-way hug with two others from her “cell”, and he suspected they were crying as well.  Woojin gently touched his arm; the younger had a smile so bright it could light up the whole compound.  He could feel the rest of their family behind them.

                The leaders collected themselves, allowing their teammates to celebrate while they planned their next move.  There was a large map of the world and a slightly smaller map of the United States on a surviving chunk of wall and this was where the leaders, plus Casey, gathered for a quick conference.  One of the leaders, an older American teen named Jason, spoke first.  “So, I think we should split, each team in a different city – make it harder for those bastards to get all of us.” 

Shiwoo had been thinking exactly the same at the beginning but now he felt somewhat reluctant to part with the other “cells”, the only people outside of their little family that would understand what they’d been through.  He started to say something but Kendall beat him to it.  She frowned lightly, “Can’t support each other if we’re all over the map.”

“Maybe there’s a way we can stay in contact with each other, then we can do both.”  Maria was a peacemaker but her suggestion was reasonable and Shiwoo found himself agreeing.

“Maria-ssi is correct.  We can spread out to give HYDRA harder targets and still stay in touch with each other for support.”

“Can your boy find us all a good place?”  Kendall eyed Casey speculatively.

Casey brightened at the attention.  “Sure, it’ll just take a few minutes.  I can find what we need to stay in contact too.” 

The leaders fell silent and moved back to give Casey space to work.  The boy stared at each leader one at a time, then at the maps.  He rattled off addresses and cities to each in turn, saving Shiwoo for last.  As the leaders wrote down the locations of their safe havens on scraps of printer paper, Casey stared into space for a couple of minutes, then darted off to a set of equipment lockers.  He came back grinning, his arms full of satellite phones and laptops and dragging Emma with him.  “We stay in contact with these but Emma needs to make them HYDRA-proof.”  Emma spent the next half hour disabling locator programs, removing tracking chips, and programming numbers into the satellite phones before distributing them.

“Once we have a solid Internet connection I can set up a secure sight on the dark web for just us.  Kind of a private chat room that all of us can access but no one else can find.  I’ll walk everyone through setting up when it’s time.”  No one questioned Emma’s ability to do what she was talking about after her obvious competence with the hardware.  The leaders took their phones and laptops, gathering their teams and disappearing.  Shiwoo and his family were left alone in the broken HYDRA base.

Woojin put his arm around Shiwoo.  “Where are we going, hyung?”

“We’re going to New York City.”

Chapter Text

     Tony Stark had not wanted to answer this call; he'd really wanted to leave Agent...no, Director Coulson hanging. He was still angry (hurt), angry at Fury's and Coulson's deception. But honestly, he'd lost too many friends already and he was tired and his heart hurt. So he slapped on that so-familiar smirk and picked up the line like he didn't have a care in the world.

     "So you finally get around to calling me, Agent? I'm hurt; I thought we meant more to each other than that?" Hide the truth behind sarcasm - that was Tony all the way.

     "Good afternoon, Mr. Stark."
     

     "Is it afternoon? I'm in the lab, I couldn't tell. So why the call, Agent? It's Tuesday and you know I only consult every other Thursday."

     A real smile darted across Coulson's face and Tony's heart clenched. He'd missed those honest smiles when Peppers or Steve had charmed them out of the affable SHIELD agent, missed the guy who he'd come to think of as a friend in spite of himself. Not that Tony would ever let him know that, of course. "It seems I do need to consult with you, Mr. Stark."

     "Well, you missed your last consult window so I'll be generous and give you two minutes, Agent."

     Coulson took him at face value and dove right in. "SHIELD recently identified a HYDRA facility, a research lab in Grosse Pointe. No idea what they were working on, just the code name: Project Leviathan. We raided the lab, shut it down, cleaned it out, grabbed their data. You know, standard procedure."

     "And this requires me...how?"

     "That research data is encrypted and we can't crack it."

     Tony resisted the urge to whistle. Of course his decryption was better, everything Tony had was better, but SHIELD wasn't exactly a slouch in that department. Granted, SHIELD had lost a lot of resources thanks to HYDRA but still... Curiosity was already starting to gnaw at him, but he wasn't about to let Coulson know that. "I don't know, Agent, I'm pretty busy."

     "I need your help with this, Tony." There was no smile on Coulson's face, not even the pleasant mask that Tony would have sworn was super-glued in place. Coulson was playing dirty.

     "Fine. Friday, get me all of the relevant files please." He busied himself at his workbench. "I'll get to it when I've got time." Coulson chuckled a little as he bid the Avenger a good day, and Tony had the sudden, sinking feeling he'd been played.

     Tony managed to resist the files for the rest of the day just out of sheer spite. The icon blinked in the bottom left corner of the holographic display and his eyes strayed to it repeatedly but he wasn't going to give Coulson the satisfaction. Friday would have those files open in five minutes anyway, waiting until the morning wouldn't hurt anything. He couldn't stop thinking about it, though; what was so important about Project Leviathan that Coulson was willing to risk the wrath of Tony's sarcasm? Tony was having a rare dinner with Pepper and he couldn't even enjoy it! And Pepper, bless her, could see how distracted he was and didn't ask - he so didn't deserve a woman like her.

     He tossed and turned all night, unable to shut off his brain. Tony wasn't sure he'd actually slept at all. As soon as the sun touched the horizon he was up, dressed, and in the lab. Technically he didn't need to be in the lab to crack the Leviathan files but he wanted a chance to analyze and apply whatever HYDRA had been working on. Coulson hadn't told him he couldn't play with the data after the encryption was broken, right? He thought of it as his consultation fee. There was a huge amount of data - clearly this lab had been up and running for some time. It could be nothing, work he'd already done himself but his gut said it was something else. Suddenly he had a bad feeling, and Tony hesitated, but he shook it off. In what would become the theme of the day, he said "Screw it. Friday, get those files open. You can handle it, right?"

     "Of course, Tony." He could imagine the dirty look she'd have at his question, given the slightly condescending tone in her digital voice.
     "That's my girl."

     He'd underestimated HYDRA because it took Friday 12 minutes to crack the encryption on the files - over ten thousand files, in fact. Audio files, video files, jpegs and docs; Tony wasn't sure where to start so he grabbed a random video labeled with a series of numbers and opened it. He enlarged it and enhanced the audio, and when it started he wished he hadn't. His lab echoed with the sound of a child screaming and it was a sound that would haunt him for a long time to come. In the video, far too large now, he could see a young girl - way too young - strapped to a lab table, trapped in a spider's web of tubes and wires. And her face...and the screaming...

     Tony closed it quickly (not quick enough) with a shaking finger, his face white and breath coming too fast as he looked at the directory. There were hundreds - hundreds of children screaming. It hit him suddenly and he almost didn't get the trashcan in time. Pull yourself together Tony, you can do this, he thought. He put himself through one of the breathing exercises his therapist had taught him to hold off panic attacks and it helped, at least a little. Just to be sure, he had to be sure, he opened another one at random, then another. He stopped after the fourth and grabbed the emergency bottle of scotch. Screw it, he needed it.

     He hadn't had a drink in months; he'd worked hard not to need it any more but he needed it now. Tony just couldn't deal with this sober. He started opening the jpegs and he wasn't sure if they were worse. Half of them were ok if you didn't think too hard about what you were seeing, although they still stuck an ice pick in his heart. Portraits meant to identify test subjects; fear, despair, and sometimes defiance frozen in time. The other half...well, these kids weren't screaming anymore because they were dead. Morgue shots meant to close the files, wasted life caught in graphic detail. Tony was already halfway through the bottle and wishing he'd thought to hide a second.

     The documents were easier, at first. No graphic description; everything was couched in clinical detachment and scientific euphemisms. By the end of it, he understood everything and the scotch was gone. The bread on that shit sandwich was the two files tucked away at the end, files he wasn't really supposed to have but Friday had grabbed anyway when he told her to get everything relevant; the full report of the SHIELD field agent in charge of the raid and the video walk-through of the compound the day after. He read the report first, thinking it couldn't be worse than what he'd already seen but it really didn't help. Seeing the bodies, the kids that HYDRA had executed rather than risk escaping during the raid, was just one thing too much. And Coulson knew; he'd already known and he'd pushed it all on Tony anyway.

     That was how Peter found him in the lab, a drunken wreck hunched over his workbench. What was Peter doing here now? Right, the start of Easter break. Tony had never been drunk around Peter, never even had a drink around the kid; he'd wanted the young hero to be better than him, set a better example. He knew the kid could smell the scotch with his enhanced senses - he could probably smell it from the doorway, but he approached Tony anyway and laid a tentative hand on Tony's shoulder. "Mr. Stark, are you ok?"

     No, damn it, he was not ok. The pictures, the screaming, kept circling his mind and then the scotch played an awful trick on him and he could see Peter strapped to one of those tables, screaming. He reached out, grabbed the boy, and pulled him into the tightest hug he could manage. And he was scared to let go, afraid to lose the kid that was like a son to him. It was too easy for Tony to picture himself as a parent waiting for one of those lost children to come home, never knowing what happened.
Peter took it in stride, hugging Tony back and not saying anything at first. He was more mature in that moment than the grown man old enough to be his father. When Tony didn't show any signs of letting go, Peter apparently decided he was in over his head. "Friday, get Pepper." Peter had just managed to get Tony back onto the stool pulled up to the workbench when Pepper entered the lab at a run.

     She took everything in with a quick glance; the empty scotch bottle on the floor, Peter's panicked eyes, and Tony..."Oh, Tony," she breathed. She looked at Peter. "Help me get him upstairs."

     With Peter's help, Pepper maneuvered the distressed genius into bed. She thanked the young hero with a smile and sent him out with a small gesture before turning back to Tony. He grabbed her hand as she pulled up the duvet. "They're all dead," he mumbled.
Worst-case scenarios raced through Pepper's mind but she kept her face and voice steady, soothing. "Who's dead?"

    She could barely hear his response, he was so close to passing out. "The kids."

     "Actually, Tony, this is most likely not true. There are 94 children not accounted for with a 96% probability of survival." Pepper glanced at Tony but it was clear he was asleep and oblivious to Friday's analysis.

     This left Pepper free to find out what had happened to Tony. "Friday?"

     "Yes, Pepper?"

     "Do you know what's going on with Tony?"

     "I believe he had a strong negative reaction to Director Coulson's files."

     The trick to dealing with the AI was persistence, pulling information one piece at a time. Friday was a real test of Pepper's patience; she was nothing like Jarvis, who'd been much more forthcoming. "What files?"

     "Director Coulson asked Tony to break the encryption on files retrieved from a HYDRA laboratory."

    With Friday's previous analysis, it didn't take for Pepper to come to the conclusion she wanted nothing to do with these files. On her way to the kitchen for a cup of tea, another thought occurred to her. "Friday, did Coulson know what was in those files before he gave them to Tony?"

     "Most likely given the nature of the attached SHIELD reports."

     That did it. Pepper had never been so angry. It wasn't that she was immune to it, but it was rare and it had never been this extreme before. No one looking at her now would have been able to tell, she prided herself on her control, but she was, in fact, furious. "Friday, please call Director Coulson - video chat."

     Pepper waited for the call to connect, her face calm and inwardly seething. Coulson answered quickly, expecting Tony. His affable smile was firmly in place, only flickering a little in surprise when he saw Pepper instead of Tony. "Pepper, this is a surprise. How are you?"

     "Not good, Phil." Her calm mask slipped, her anger getting the better of her finally. "How dare you? I know you don't think much of Tony but this was too much."

     Phil's expression changed, shocked at her unexpected attack, "What are you talking about Pepper?"

     "The files you sent Tony. You knew what was in those files, you knew he'd read them, and you sent them anyway."

     The SHIELD director didn't try to deny her accusation. "I need his help, Pepper. There are lives at stake." He actually looked a bit remorseful. "And you're wrong, by the way."

     "Wrong about what, Phil?" Her tone hadn't lost its biting edge.

     "I think the world of Tony. How is he, by the way?"
     

     "He's passed out drunk, Phil, for the first time in almost two years."

     The SHIELD director sighed. "I'm sorry." Not sorry enough, she thought. "I really need his help," he repeated.

     "And I'm sure you'll get it; Tony's very...invested now. But now you need to do something for me."

     "What do you need?"

     "Don't ever call here again, Director Coulson."

     She terminated the call and looked at the rapidly cooling cup of tea in her hands. Now she had to pick up the pieces that Coulson's manipulation had left behind. She looked back up to see Peter Parker standing on the other side of the kitchen island. He was spending the Easter break here at Avenger's Compound and he'd just had a front-row seat for the less pleasant realities of being a superhero. He was stressed - she could see it in the wide eyes and the fingers twisting each other unconsciously. "Is Mr. Stark going to be ok?"

    She smiled reassuringly at the young hero. "He'll be alright, Peter. He just needs to rest for a little bit." She looked at the boy, trying to decide if he was too innocent to handle what was coming. She knew Tony wouldn't want Peter involved, but she also knew he'd need Spider-Man's skills and Peter's support. "Tony's going to need your help, Peter, even if he says he doesn't."

     "I won't let him down, Ms. Potts."

     Pepper smiled at him. "I know you won't."

Chapter Text

               That afternoon, Pepper found an anomaly.  It was very small, so small that nobody else would have caught it, but Pepper was very good at finding anomalies.  It was how she'd gotten to where she was, after all.  It was a very small anomaly, really; it certainly wasn't enough to make an impact on Stark Industries' bottom line, but it was there nonetheless.  Given who Tony was, given their connections, even a small anomaly could be a sign of something bigger.  She checked the numbers one last time, just to make sure.  Yes, there was definitely an anomaly.

                Stark Industries owned a great deal of property in a lot of different locations but particularly in the greater New York metropolitan area.  This property included a large number of warehouses, many of which were empty and kept for future projects.  It relieved the need to build new warehouses or buy what they needed every time they started a new project.  Specifically, they owned all the warehouses between Morgan and Newton Streets near Newton Creek in Brooklyn.  Honestly, Pepper had no idea why Stark Industries still owned those particularly warehouses; they were no longer strategically located and she'd been in the process of adding them to the list of salable assets when she'd noted the anomaly.  Someone was using one of those supposedly-empty warehouses and trying to hide it.  They'd done a pretty good job, too.  The spike in electrical usage covered all the warehouses on Apollo St. so each individual warehouse barely showed the increase in utilities.  She might not have even caught it if it wasn't for the water bill.  Water usage in the warehouse at 97 Apollo St. had increased over 1000% during the last month; the increased bill only amounted to a couple hundred dollars but Pepper had caught on nonetheless.

                It was probably nothing; probably just a local gang or a group of the desperate homeless.  She should probably just call the police and let them handle it but after the Vulture incident they didn't take anything for granted anymore.  She'd get Tony and let him make the call on how to handle it but she already had an idea of how to proceed.  This was something right up Spider-Man's alley: he was good at surveillance and could easily handle a gang threat without having to call in Iron Man or War Machine.  If it turned out to be more than just a gang, he could call in the rest of the Avengers to bring in the big guns.  It was a good plan and Tony liked any kind of assignments that were low-risk for Peter while still letting him do his self-appointed job.

                Tony wasn't where she'd thought he'd be.  She'd expected him to still be in the lab, finishing the Mark 74 armor he'd been working on.  He'd thrown himself into working on it after Coulson's call, trying to clear his mind.  He'd apparently finished the armor sometime last night and was currently on the range with Rhodey, testing the prototype.  She could hear the sound of explosions and the suits’ propulsion systems in the background.  “Kinda busy here,” he said as Friday transferred her to the suit’s communication line.

                “There’s someone using one of our warehouses in Brooklyn.  I was going to have Peter go check it out tonight.” 

                There was a pause and Pepper could hear a particularly loud series of explosions.  “That’s fine,” he returned.  “Surveillance only.  And keep me updated.”  The line was taken over by an alarm and she could hear Tony swearing.  “Too close, Rhodey!”  The line disconnected.

                Pepper checked the time; it was just after 4:00.  Peter should be out of school and on his way home, so she had Friday place the call to the young hero.  The boy was quick to pick up. “Mr. Stark?”

                “Actually, it’s Pepper.  I have an assignment for you, from Tony.”

                “Great!  What do you need me to do?”

                “There’s a warehouse on Apollo St. in Brooklynn that’s supposed to be empty, but apparently isn’t.  Tony wants you to conduct surveillance on the warehouse.  But just surveillance; report back to Tony with what you find out.”

                “Got it.  No problem, Ms. Potts.  I can start right now.”

                She kept the laughter out of her voice at his enthusiasm.  “That’s great, Peter.  Just be sure to let Tony know what you find.”  She ended the call politely, then went back to her report.

 

                                                                                                          --PB--

 

                Shiwoo looked around the abandoned warehouse they called home and smiled.  Their family – he refused to call them a “cell” anymore – had worked hard to make it homey and comfortable.  A little more digging by Casey at the HYDRA laboratory had produced a credit card that they took to the nearest ATM on their way out of Detroit.  They’d pulled as much cash from it as the machine would allow and most of that cash had been spent getting to New York and setting up their new home.  From the doorway he could see the “public areas” of the warehouse.  To the left was the makeshift kitchen consisting of two double-burner hotplates and an antique toaster oven set on a pair of old crates.  Three industrial storage racks and a beat-up refrigerator that someone had thrown out and Marcelo repaired completed the equipment.  An old mop sink and a prep table made from a piece of plywood nailed to the top of two more crates completed the kitchen.

                To the right was the living room, consisting of a pair of battered couches and throwaway armchairs. Clustered around a battle-scarred coffee table.  The seating was arranged to face an entertainment center made from more crates with a flat screen and game consoles; Casey wouldn’t tell them where he got them from and Shiwoo figured he didn’t really want to know.  A couple of threadbare throw rugs took some of the chill off the concrete floors.  A plastic vase with faded silk flowers sat on the coffee table.

                Past the living room was an area that Emma called the Comm Center.  More plywood-and-crate tables held three laptops, the communications base for their wireless comms, and a charging station for cell phones and devices.  Instead of chairs, there were stools pulled up to the laptop table.  Woojin and Marcello had found them by the dumpsters behind a biker bar; apparently they’d been replaced after one too many bar fights but they still worked just fine for the teens. 

                The middle part of the warehouse was separated from the front by a wall of crates and they generally referred to it as the working area.  On one side was a practice ring where they could spar to keep their skills sharp.  Opposite the ring was a makeshift infirmary and Marcelo’s tech lab.  Tucked away in the back of the working area was a small dance area with chipped and fogged mirrors and a sound system.  Shiwoo had wanted to install some production and recording equipment as well but the acoustics in the warehouse were awful.  They had yet to figure out how to install a shooting range without drawing too much attention to themselves.

                The back of the warehouse, again separated by a wall of crates, was the private area.  The bathroom in the back had been rigged with a shower, although the water was never more than room temperature.  Several clothes racks had been set to the side for everyone, along with crates for additional storage.  The majority of the space was occupied by the massive mound of mattresses and pillows topped with numerous blankets.  No one wanted to sleep alone, even in a communal room, so they had continued the habit of sleeping in a pile.  The mattresses weren’t the prettiest but they were bedbug-free and Amahle’s herbal sachets kept everything smelling nice.

                While the warehouse was abandoned to their knowledge, the family knew who it belonged to.  A sign, which the teens left in place, declared it the property of Stark Industries along with the other empty warehouses on the block.  The water and power were still on, though far from adequate for their needs, and there was no Internet connection.  Marcelo spent a week rewiring the warehouse, putting in the cameras and security systems, and providing an Internet connection.  When he was finished, the electricity drew off the connections for 4 warehouses, hiding the extra power usage.  Once everything was set, Emma took over.  Working her magic, she set up their network as close to untraceable as possible.  Her next priority was the hidden chatroom on the Dark web for the former HYDRA prisoners: she named it CDark.

                It took a few weeks to set up the warehouse to be the shabby but comfortable home their family had come to love.  It was nothing compared to the middle class background that everyone but Casey had come from but they were free and together and that was all that mattered.  After hours of family discussion and a unanimous vote, they had come to the final decision that they could never go back to their former lives.  As long as HYDRA still existed it wasn’t safe for them or anyone close.  And after everything they’d been through, the teens just didn’t feel safe without each other.  No one else would ever understand what they’d gone through: the nightmares, the fear, the lingering pain from poorly-healed injuries, the scars.  Besides, they were mutants and the world didn’t really have a place for mutants.  Once that part came out, they’d be monsters and not victims.  They’d already proven that the hard way a few times since arriving in New York.

                They had learned quickly which places they could shop at and which ones they couldn’t; there were plenty of places in Brooklyn with “No Mutants” signs in their windows and none of them really wanted to test what would happen if they were discovered.  They had almost lost out on a source of income as well.  Casey had found them a guy who made documents for illegal immigrants, which technically they were; Casey and Emma just looked too young but the other four had fake id’s stating they were 18 so they were eligible to donate plasma, except that all but one of the plasma centers in the area refused to take mutants.  The plasma center that did accept mutants didn’t ask a lot of questions and while it didn’t pay much, it was enough to keep the kitchen stocked.  It was risky, having their DNA in the system, but getting a steady job was even riskier.  Besides, they were helping other mutants with desperately-needed plasma.

                Happy chatter interrupted his thinking as Amahle and Marcelo came into view.  It had been their turn to go to the plasma center and from the bags they were carrying they had stopped at the little market on the corner of Monitor St. and Briggs Ave.  The corner market was where they did most of their grocery shopping.  It was across the street from a clean and well-run little Korean restaurant that had a nicely-authentic menu and a soft-hearted ajumma from Busan running the kitchen that didn’t mind giving out day work and payed cash at the end of the shift.

                As soon as she spotted him, Amahle held up her shopping bags in triumph.  Shiwoo couldn’t help but smile in return, she was so clearly happy.  “What’s got you so excited, Nunna?”
               

               “There was a sale at the market and guess what I picked up for supper?”

                “Hmmm,” Shiwoo pretended to think about it.  “A new type of curry paste?”

                She sighed in mock frustration.  “No. Try again.”

                “No idea, Nunna, just tell me.”

                “Two pounds of fresh shrimp!”

                Shiwoo’s mouth watered at the thought.  He and Woojin both loved seafood, especially shrimp, and they hadn’t had any since they’d been taken.  Clearly Amahle felt the same and Marcelo showed no signs of displeasure.  He wasn’t sure about Emma, but he doubted Casey had ever tried shrimp before; it would be a nice treat.  Woojin’s appetite had been poor lately and Shiwoo was starting to become a bit worried; maybe the shrimp would tempt him to eat more.  Casey had brought back a new dvd the day before and they hadn’t watched it yet.  They could make it a movie night with a nice supper to kick it off.  Shiwoo decided that it was going to be a very good night indeed.

Chapter Text

       Peter let out a dejected sigh, staring down at the warehouse across the street.  He'd been here for two hours with only a little to show for it and he was both bored and confused.  There had been activity shortly after he'd first arrived but since then there had been no movement at all and he kept having the nagging feeling he could be doing something more productive with his time, hence the boredom.  He was confused because nothing about what he'd seen made sense to him.  But Tony wanted this warehouse staked out and he had trusted Peter to do it; he wasn't going to let Tony down.  He just wasn't sure what to tell the eccentric billionaire when he reported in.

        To be honest, Peter had figured that this was a gang thing.  It made sense – there had been some older tags in the area surrounding the warehouse and an empty industrial building in an out-of-the-way neighborhood in Brooklyn wasn’t the most likely place to find an Avengers-level villain, although it had happened (he tried really hard not to think about Toomes’ ambush but he really didn’t like small spaces anymore).  The first thing he’d noticed when he’d arrived at the warehouse, however, was the security system in place around the supposedly-abandoned building.  It looked like it had been assembled from pieces available in an electronics store: somewhat crude, but effective.  Whoever had put it together had known what they were doing in spite of the cheap parts.  There was a combination of security cameras and proximity detectors that would alert whoever was inside of a potential intruder.  Peter was glad he’d spotted it before triggering the alarm – that would have made his mission a lot harder.  Hence Peter’s current location: the roof of the equally-vacant warehouse across the street.  Gang hangouts might have one or two security cameras but usually relied more on guards in his experience as Spider-Man. 

         The three teenagers at the warehouse’s door didn’t have any of the tell-tale markers of gang members, either.  There were no signs, symbols, signals, dress, or colors that matched any of the gangs he was acquainted with.  They looked, for lack of a better description, normal.  He could almost expect to see them in class or the cafeteria at Midtown.  In fact, one of the boys was wearing a Star Wars t-shirt that Peter himself owned.  Were gang members even allowed to like Star Wars?  He wasn’t sure, but instinct said “not gang”.

        The same instinct was telling him they weren’t exactly homeless either.  They were clean, their clothes were clean, if a bit worn.  None of them had the hollow, hungry look of people that never had enough to eat or the beaten-down air of someone that had fallen through the cracks of modern society.  So that left…what, runaways living off the grid?  Right now, that seemed the most likely explanation but even that didn’t feel quite right.  Between his own heightened senses and the amazing electronics built into his suit he could see the three teens quite clearly along with being able to shamelessly eavesdrop on their conversation and it was not at all what he would expect from a group of modern-day Lost Boys (and Girl).  He’d asked Karen to run facial recognition on the three and now he was left with a mystery while waiting for something to happen.

        “How’s the facial recognition going?” Peter asked Karen, trying to kill time.

        “It was completed an hour and forty-five minutes ago.”

        “Why didn’t you say something?”  Peter stopped his fidgeting for a minute.  “What’d you find?”

        “That information is restricted to authorized personnel only.”

        Peter was shocked; if this was his assignment, why wasn’t he authorized?  “Wait a minute, this is my mission.  What am I supposed to tell Mr. Stark if I don’t know who they are?”

       “Mr. Stark is currently indisposed.  Friday will relay the information to him as soon as he is available.”

       “Well this stinks,” Peter grumbled to himself.  “I’m not getting anything done up here.”

       He hadn’t directed that comment at Karen, but the AI chose to respond anyway.  “I would recommend deploying a surveillance camera.  I can link it to your phone so you can monitor the warehouse no matter where you are.”

      “I have one of those?”  Karen was still surprising him with new features from the upgraded suit Tony had gifted him with after taking down Vulture.

       One of the spider emblems on his forearms detached itself from the suit, crawling down his body and locking its legs in place on the lip of the roof’s edge.   The outer shell of the spider-cam slid aside to be replaced by a mosaic of photo-receptors.  A small indicator blinked on in the bottom right corner of his HUD.  Peter smiled to himself; if he left now, he’d make it home in time for supper.  Maybe he could talk May into shrimp – that sounded really good tonight, actually.

       It was a slow night for Spider-Man; one mugging, two small-time drug deals, and a young couple screaming at each other in the parking lot of an all-night diner (no way he was getting in the middle of that one.)  It was, all things considered, a remarkably quiet night and he was happy with the chance to catch up on some sleep.  The warehouse was far from his mind as he climbed into bed; his thoughts were on the chemistry test coming up next.  It took him no time at all to fall asleep and he slept like the dead.  It was the first time he’d gotten a decent night’s sleep in weeks.

       Peter woke up refreshed, brought around by the smell of pancakes coming from the kitchen.  He could hear May bustling around, plates and silverware clacking together as she set the table.  Then he caught another familiar, well-loved smell and he leapt out of bed to go running for the kitchen.   May chuckled at his sudden appearance and ruffled his hair as she set a plate of pancakes with homemade cinnamon apples on the table in front of his seat.  Even the worst cooks had one or two recipes they could pull off well and this was his aunt’s secret weapon.  “I knew that would get you,” she chuckled.

       “Better than an alarm.”  The rest of his comment was muffled by a big bite of pancake and apple.  “I love it, May, but what’s special about today?” he asked as he cut the next forkful.

       “Can’t I just do something nice?”  She took a sip of juice before starting her own breakfast.  “Ok, I have to be at work early today so I need you to be ready early too if I’m going to drop you off.  And frankly, your alarm just doesn’t cut it.”

        Peter ate quickly, enjoying every bite.  He rushed through his morning routine, grabbing a quick shower, stopping at the sink to brush his teeth.  He almost dropped his toothbrush in the toilet when the camera’s motion alarm set his cellphone jangling.  He fumbled with the toothbrush a bit and opened the camera’s app, the view of the warehouse taking over the screen.  Two figures were emerging from the warehouse door and Peter used the remote command to zoom in for a better view.  One of them was a boy no older than 12, the other one of the boys he’d seen yesterday.  They pushed and shoved each other good-naturedly as they headed down Apollo Street, closing ranks a little as the older boy threw an arm around the younger’s shoulders and pointing at something off-camera.  It reminded Peter a little of how he’d seen Tony and Rhodey interact.

        Five minutes into first period his phone lit up with an incoming call: Tony Stark was calling him during school!  He couldn’t answer, but…  Raising his hand to get his English teacher’s attention, he waited to be acknowledged.  “Yes, Peter?”

       “I’m sorry, Mr. Lester, but I really need to go.

       “Now?”  Peter nodded sheepishly.  “Fine, but make it quick.”

       Peter bolted from his seat like he was on fire and raced for the closest bathroom.  Once safely in a stall, he hit the return call on his cell.  Tony picked up immediately.  “Hey kid.  Sorry to interrupt in the middle of…”

      “English,” Peter supplied.

      “Right, English.  So you know how you want to be into something big?  Well, this is big; maybe Berlin big.  This surveillance thing, this is now your main priority.”

      “What, the runaways thing?”

      “Not a runaways thing, Pete.  More of a SHIELD/HYDRA/Avengers thing.”

      Peter’s heart-rate sped up.  Be cool, be cool.  “Whatdoyouwantmetodo?”

      Tony chuckled.  “I need you to keep doing what you’re doing.  Karen’ll send me the surveillance footage like she did yesterday and you can send along anything you think’s important. But, if anything happens you, call me.  Immediately.  Got it?”  Before Peter could respond, Tony had hung up.

 

 

 

     The last couple of weeks had made Shiwoo wonder if their luck had somehow run out.  First, the mop sink had backed up and flooded the kitchen and they’d been clueless on how to fix it.  It had taken several Youtube videos for them to figure out how to unclog the sink and it had taken three hours to clean up the flood.  Apparently the grease left over from making pique a lo macho should not be poured down the sink.  They’d all agreed that supper was really good, though, so they weren’t going to ban Marcelo from cooking.

     This had been the beginning of a series of mechanical failures ranging from the refrigerator, which had taken three days to fix, to the proximity detectors in the security system which they still hadn’t replaced.  Marcelo had told Shiwoo in rather blunt terms that they were lucky they hadn’t lost more with the age of most of their electronics and appliances.  Breakdowns were inevitable and there would be a lot more of them in the future.  The laptops, cell phones, and entertainment electronics were the only things new enough to be spared but Marcelo hadn’t been able to put in a lot of surge protection when he rewired the warehouse so a bad storm could take out most of what they had.  Even Marcelo’s own equipment that he used to build and repair different devices were salvaged themselves and not immune to breakdown.

     Now, Woojin was sick, seriously sick, and Shiwoo was scared.  They’d all had plenty of cuts, sprains, bruises, burns, bullet holes, and broken bones; Amahle and Casey were good at dealing with those.  Amahle had a very soft touch for dealing with the sprains, bruises, and burns.  Casey had a very neat hand in stitching wounds and he was better at digging shrapnel out of bullet holes.  They were equally proficient in dealing with broken bones.  This wasn’t something they could wrap a bandage around, however, and the two triage nurses were in over their heads.  They didn’t even know what was wrong, let alone how to treat their maknae.

     It had started out fairly mild: he’d complained the afternoon before that his stomach was upset and by the evening he was getting sick in the bathroom.  Shortly after, he’d mentioned being cold; Amahle had checked his forehead and noted the beginnings of a fever.  She’d made him a cup of ginger tea and they’d put him to bed.  The ginger tea did not stay down and through the night his fever, along with his nausea, had gotten worse.  By the time daylight had come, Shiwoo could feel the heat coming off his dongsaeng and the boy was shaking from the chills.  His fever had gotten so bad, in fact, that he seemed to be hallucinating.  After a quick conference with Amahle and Marcelo, they’d decided to take Woojin to the urgent care clinic.  None of them ever wanted to be near a doctor or hospital again but this time, they didn’t have a choice.

     Emma had volunteered to help Shiwoo get their youngest to the clinic; Marcelo would stay and guard Amahle and Casey.  If there was trouble along the way Shiwoo couldn’t fight and protect Woojin at the same time.  They’d had a couple of confrontations with gang members over the last week or so and the next one was likely to end in a brawl.  She had faith in their leader to win any fight but no one wanted to risk Woojin if they could help it.

     The clinic was twelve blocks away and it was the longest twelve blocks they’d ever walked.  Woojin had needed to stop several times to dry heave and Shiwoo wished each time they’d had the money for a taxi.  They’d need every penny for the clinic, though, and Shiwoo wasn’t sure they had enough as it was.  He didn’t realize just how much he didn’t want to be there until the red, cross-shaped sign flickered menacingly from across the intersection.  He stopped, unable to cross the street, just staring; he could feel a slight shake in his hands that matched the shivering from his brother.  Looking sideways, he could see that Emma wasn’t doing much better: she was hunched into her over-sized sweater, looking smaller than normal.  Gathering his courage, he took a firmer hold on Woojin and started across the street; Emma followed.

     Fortunately for both of them, the waiting room and reception desk looked nothing like the HYDRA labs.  The cheap wooden chairs with the frayed padding; the thrift-store artwork in cheap frames; and the tattered magazines weren’t appealing to most people but for the three teens, it was far from the cold and clinical environment they were expecting.  The woman at the reception desk gave them a sympathetic look; it was clear from a glance just how sick Woojin was.  Shiwoo approached the desk, unsure how to proceed.  The woman (Betty, according to her name tag), gave him an encouraging smile. 

     “First time here?”  Shiwoo nodded and she handed him a clipboard along with a pen that had a plastic flower glued to the end.  “Just fill out these new patient forms.  Cash or insurance?”

     “Cash,” he mumbled.

     “Ok, well it’s $250 upfront.”

     Shiwoo fumbled the wad of money they’d collected out of the pocket of his fatigues, laying it out on the counter and trying to straighten out the crumpled bills so he could count it.  He was counting - $195 so far – when he caught Emma staring at something over Betty’s head.  A sign, homemade, printed on red paper: No Mutants.  His stomach dropped and tried to swallow around the dryness in his throat.  His eyes strayed down to Betty again and he could see: she knew.  He would have begged her then, dropped to his knees in a full bow, if he thought she might listen but he was beaten before he started.  He could see the warmth draining out of her eyes, the sympathy dropping from her face like a mask to reveal cold stone underneath.  Instead, he picked up their money from the desk and stuffed it back into his fatigues, his hands beginning to shake again.

     Shiwoo smoothed the sweaty hair back from Woojin’s forehead and draped the younger’s arm across his own shoulders to lever his dongsaeng back up.  The younger looked up at him with bleary eyes.  “Hyung, what’s going on?” he slurred a little, his satoori thick.

     “It’s ok, Woojinnie, we’re just going to go home now.”  He didn’t have the heart to tell his dongsaeng what had happened.  He maneuvered the younger boy out of the clinic, Emma flanking Woojin on his open side.  She was quiet; her Korean was limited to the few phrases the rest of the family had picked up through osmosis. 

     Woojin didn’t seem to really have the strength to talk anymore and that was ok with Shiwoo.  Internally, he was kicking himself.  He should have asked Casey to find the best place to get help for the maknae.  What kind of leader was he – he didn’t even think.  He heard a suspicious sniff from Woojin’s left.  Emma had her head down, but he could see her swiping at her eyes with her sweater-paws.  Uh-uh; it was one thing for him to beat himself up but he wasn’t about to let Emma take any responsibility for his mistake.  “Don’t worry, Emma-ah; when we get home Casey can find us the best way to help Woojin.”  He gave her what he hoped was an encouraging smile.  She nodded back, not smiling, but the tears seemed to stop.

     By the time they’d made back to Apollo Street, Shiwoo was carrying Woojin who was too exhausted to walk any farther.  Emma hurried forward to open the door for him and the others jumped up from the couch to cluster around their leader and sick maknae.  “You were not gone long, what happened?” Amahle demanded.

     Shiwoo almost growled as he carried Woojin back to their bed-pile.  “No mutants.”  He could feel their shock without looking; none of them had considered that they might be denied medical care because of their mutations.  “Doctors and hospitals are dangerous anyway, we can take care of him…”

     As he touched the mattress, Woojin went stiff, then began shaking.  Emma dove onto the mattress next to him, holding him as his body jerked and shook.  His eyes had snapped open, staring at nothing.  Finally, he collapsed against Emma, his breathing ragged and his lips slightly blue.  The older girl laid him gently on the bed and tucked the pillows around him and pulled up a light blanket.  The others moved out of the way so that Emma could stand without disturbing the maknae.  Amahle pulled up a stool to watch over the younger boy while he rested and the others moved to the living room to talk without disturbing him.

     “CC?”  Shiwoo didn’t need to say anything; the younger already knew what he wanted.  Casey grabbed his jacket off the back of the couch.  He was halfway to the door when a large hand fell on his shoulder.

     “Not alone, manito; you don’t go out alone.”  Casey grinned as Marcelo grabbed his own jacket. 

     “Knew you were coming, ‘Cel.”  He threw open the door, then stopped to concentrate on his power.  He let it guide his steps to the cut-through between two of the warehouses, a makeshift alley halfway down Apollo Street; Marcelo followed without question.

      Casey stopped in the middle of the alley, confused.  His power was pointing here but for once, he wasn’t sure what it was trying to tell him.  He got his answer a few seconds later.  A man in a tight red and blue suit that covered him from head to toe dropped down from the roof in front of them and Marcelo was already moving before the stranger had finished standing.  He pushed Casey behind him and swung full-force at the threat .  The man leapt out of the way, sticking to the wall.  Marcelo’s swing carried him forward and his fist impacted the brick a couple of feet away from the man, leaving a hole in the masonry a foot wide.

     The man threw up both hands in a gesture of peace as Casey grabbed Marcelo’s arm to keep him from swinging a second time.  “Whoa, dude, not here to fight.  Spider-Man, you know, good guy?” he gestured at himself.  Casey tugged on his arm until the older teen was looking at him.

     “This is who we were looking for.”  Casey emphasized his point with a head nod at the self-identified superhero.

     “You were looking for me?”  Peter’s question seemed to go unheard as the two younger teens stared at each other.

     “You’re sure about this, CC?”  Marcelo’s arm was still up but no longer tense under Casey’s hand.

     “I’ve never been wrong, ‘Cel.  This is who we need.”  The older teen dropped his fist slowly and Peter relaxed as the tension seemed to dissolve. 

     “Fine, but you get to explain it to Shiwoo.”

Chapter Text

The week that turned Tony’s world upside-down had started when Peter called him in the middle of a board meeting (spelled b-o-r-e-d according to Tony).  He excused himself, dodging a death-glare from Pepper because Peter would not be calling him at 10 am on a Friday of it wasn't important, and stepped into the hall to answer.  He could hear the faint sounds of traffic in the background as he picked up.  "Hey kid, what's up?"

 

"You told me to call if anything happened, right?  So, something happened and I think it's important and..."

 

"Cut to the chase, Pete."

 

"So one of them is sick, really sick, like need-a-hospital kind of sick."

 

It wasn't one of the scenarios that Tony had planned for but he could fix it.  This would be easy to fix compared to holding off an onslaught of HYDRA goons like he'd been half-expecting.  "Ok, spiderling, this is what you're going to do.  You're going to make contact while I send the quinjet.  You get them ready and I'll have the jet to you in twenty minutes, we'll use you as our homing beacon."

 

"I got it, Mr. Stark."

 

"And just out of curiosity, Pete, why aren't you in school?"

 

"Three day weekend."

 

"Of course; I knew that.  Better get started, kid."  He hung up and ducked his head back into the boardroom, catching Pepper's eye and made an exaggerated A symbol to let her know where he was going.  He dodged another death-glare and jogged down the hall to the helipad on the roof, where a private helicopter was waiting to take him back to Avenger’s Compound.  As he climbed into the copilot’s seat and pulled on the headset, he snapped off orders to Friday.  “Friday, alert the medical team that we have an incoming emergency.  Get the quinjet to Spider-man’s location, pick up for seven.”

 

“Of course, Tony.  Should I alert Director Coulson that we are retrieving his missing HYDRA children?”

 

“Absolutely not.”  There wasn’t any thinking about it; there was just no way Tony would ever let SHIELD put their hands on a group of kids that had been traumatized that badly.  Whether they meant well or not, SHIELD wasn’t much better in that regard than HYDRA.  Even if they weren’t actively abused, they’d be treated as either an asset or a threat and Tony wasn’t about to let that happen.  Coulson wanted Tony to care?  Well, he cared all right and Coulson probably wouldn’t like the results.

 

                                  

 

Getting the six very wary teenagers to agree to Tony’s plan had been a hard sell for Peter.  He was pretty sure it was a combination of desperation and the stubborn insistence of the boy from the alley that had finally won them over.  He didn’t blame them; they had no reason to trust him, after all. 

 

The two boys from the alley and the young girl he’d seen that morning were rallied around an older boy, the other teen Peter had seen that morning.  It was clear that this was the Shiwoo that the one kid had mentioned, the leader, the one that Peter needed to impress.  He reminded Peter of Cap, so intense, just more suspicious.  So he screwed up his nerve and dived right in.

 

“So, hey, I’m…”

 

“I know who you are.  Why are you here?”

Before Peter could answer, the smaller boy from the alley was tugging on Shiwoo’s arm to get his attention.  “You sent me out to find help and this is it.  My path led straight to him.”  Shiwoo looked down at the younger and frowned.  “He’s going to take us to a safe place.”  The older started to object but the younger grabbed his arm again.  “Please, hyung?”

Aish, this kid.  Now he wants to be respectful, the older boy muttered.  He looked back up at Peter.  “Your face,” he said in his accented English.

 

“What about my face?  I mean, it is pretty world-class but…”

 

“I need to see your face.”

 

The demand surprised him, made him nervous, but he could understand.  He was asking them to go somewhere with a perfect stranger, with one of them in bad shape.  He was asking for a lot of trust from them, and Shiwoo wanted a little (ok, a lot) of trust from him in return.  Tony clearly trusted them – he was sending the quinjet and Tony would not have done that if something was wrong.  So he took a step forward as he released the clasps holding the mask to the suit.  He shook out his hair and looked back up at Shiwoo.  “Hi, I’m Peter,” and without thinking about it, he blurted “I promise I won’t let anything happen to you.”

 

                                   

 

Shiwoo wasn’t sure what he’d expected under the mask, but definitely wasn’t a kid their age.  From what he’d seen on tv and Youtube, he’d expected someone in their late 20’s at least.  He watched the kid’s face as he made that promise; his eyes were full of sincerity, and something else.  Innocence: something Shiwoo and the others hadn’t seen (or been) in a long time.  He felt a tug on his heart and he knew that this innocence was something that was worth protecting, worth fighting for - like his family.  Casey, or rather his power, was right as usual.

 

He looked away from those sincere, innocent, eyes and back to his family and nodded.  Peter understood the silent message as well; he broke into a smile that reminded Shiwoo too much of their own maknaes.  “Great; the quinjet should be here in five minutes.”

 

They’d drilled for this; five minutes were more than enough time.  “Gear up - Blue.”  Blue meant to grab everything, they probably wouldn’t be back; red meant gear up for a fight.  The family scattered and Shiwoo followed; he’d need to pack Woojin’s gear as well as his own.  Clothes, weapons, cell phones – he and Woojin didn’t really have anything else.  Emma was responsible for the laptops and communication gear.  Marcelo had his tools and equipment to pack.  Amahle took Woojin’s duffel from Shiwoo so that their leader could carry the maknae to the quinjet.

 

 

 

A team of medics were waiting for them on the landing pad at Avengers Compound and there was a bit of tension when they tried to take Woojin to the medical wing without Shiwoo.  Fortunately, Tony had thought to be there with the medical team to meet the kids and he’d managed to hold off an incident.  He’d sided with the agitated teen, informing the doctors (that he paid, mind you), that Shiwoo was to be allowed wherever Woojin was, no questions asked.  Before things get too much further out of hand, Tony enlisted Peter to wrangle the situation into something less tense.  “Hey, Pete, why don’t you get everyone settled into the living room so they can relax a little.  Maybe order a pizza, or five.  Oh, and tell Rhodey if he tries to put anchovies on the pizza again, I’m officially disowning him.”

 

Tony found himself plastered against the wall in the triage center next to Shiwoo as the Avengers’ medical staff worked to stabilize the younger boy.  His fever was far too high, 104.3, and his blood pressure and heart-rate were far too low.  A team of nurses packed him in ice and inserted an IV while the staff doctors set up the test to find out what had caused Woojin’s sudden illness.  Tony figured his job was to keep the older boy calm; they didn’t need a super-powered teenager with a fear of doctors and labs losing it in the middle of medical.

 

Woojin’s temperature came down slowly, eliminating the danger of another seizure and his vitals began returning to normal.  After an hour of watching from the wall, Tony and Shiwoo migrated to chairs near Woojin’s hospital bed.  Someone had brought them drinks and sandwiches at some point and Shiwoo ate without prompting.  Tony was relieved he wouldn’t need to goad the kid into eating; if his metabolism was anything like Peter’s, he’d need it.  Halfway through the sandwich, Shiwoo had nodded off; Tony wasn’t really surprised with the dark circles under his eyes; kid probably didn't sleep the night before.  He moved the sandwich to a nearby table and threw a blanket over the exhausted teen, content for the time being to watch and wait.

 

When Dr. Briggs, the current head of the Avengers’ medical team, finally made an appearance Tony kicked Shiwoo’s chair lightly to wake him.  Dr. Briggs was used to dealing with stubborn superheroes and didn’t bat an eyelash at Tony and Shiwoo waiting for him.  “Our tests are back and I have nothing but good news.”  Shiwoo lost some of his tension and Tony allowed himself a little smile.  “The culprit was a nasty case of rotavirus.  It’s not usually dangerous but in his condition, it was playing havoc with his system.  We’ll need to keep him here for a couple of more days to fight back the virus and stabilize everything but he’ll be able to leave after that.”

 

“What condition?” Shiwoo asked after taking a minute to process the doctor’s words.

 

“He’s dehydrated, but that’s to be expected under the circumstances and we can fix that quickly.  I was more specifically referring the serious malnutrition.  He has an enhanced metabolism and an active lifestyle which complicates the effects of the severe calorie restriction over the last few weeks.  His nutrient levels are completely out of balance, probably due to the limited food intake.  We’ve adjusted the IV to include supplements and he’ll need to supplement his diet for a week or so after he leaves medical but there shouldn’t be any lasting negative effects.” 

 

Dr. Briggs politely excused himself, leaving Tony and Shiwoo looking at each other.  The older man cleared his throat a little.  “You guys were short on food?”

 

“No.  I would never allow my family to do without!”  The angry denial morphed into something else as a thought took hold, an unpleasant one if Tony was any judge.  The kid looked like he wanted to cry or scream or break something, and Tony wondered for the first time that day if he was in over his head.

Chapter Text

 

It was the second time the thought had crossed his mind that day, and now Tony was pretty sure he was in over his head.  He was still sitting with Shiwoo when Woojin came to.  He'd figured it wasn't a good idea to leave the older boy alone, especially given his reaction to Dr. Briggs' news.  Both of the watchers were quiet, lost in their own thoughts, when a shaky voice cut through the silence.

“H..hyung?”

 

Shiwoo was out of his chair in a blink, clambering onto the hospital bed to wrap his arms around the younger boy.  He stretched out and pulled Woojin into him, cradling his dongsaeng’s head against his chest.  “It’s ok, Woojinnie, hyung’s got you.  You’re safe.”

 

“Where are we?’  Woojin looked panicked at the sight of the lab-like medical bay.  Shiwoo made calming noises, carding his fingers through Woojin’s hair, soothing the younger.

 

“We’re somewhere safe.  Nobody can hurt us here, Sunshine.”  Shiwoo took a deep breath and tried to make his voice as neutral as possible.  “Woojinnie, why haven’t you been eating?”

 

Woojin fisted his hands in Shiwoo’s shirt, turning his face to hide, but Shiwoo gently grabbed the boy’s chin and turned his head a little to hear the maknae’s response.  The boy’s reply was still hard to hear, he was so quiet, and the translator piece in Tony’s ear almost didn’t catch it.  “Because I’m the worthless one, hyung.  The others are useful, they need the food more than I do.”

 

Shiwoo buried his face in Woojin’s hair and Tony could see his shoulders shaking.  “I’m so sorry, Woojin-ah.  I’m a terrible hyung if you really feel that way.  I failed you.”

 

Tony slipped out of the room as fast as possible, his stomach in a knot.  He didn’t want to hear any more and he wished to hell he hadn’t heard as much as he had.  It reinforced that feeling, the gut instinct that said he was in over his head.  He headed for the living room to check on the rest of the teenagers, wondering idly if Pepper was back yet.  Honestly, she’d be better suited to dealing with a handful of teenagers than he was.

 

As he approached the living room, he realized it was a bit too quiet.  The tv was off and someone had dimmed the lights.  A pile of empty pizza boxes was stacked haphazardly on the island of the kitchenette attached to one side of the living room.  The coffee table had been moved to the side and all the cushions had been stripped from the couches and chairs to be piled in the middle of the room.  Occupying the odd arrangement of cushions was a mess of sleeping teenagers that reminded Tony of a pile of puppies.

 

Movement caught Tony’s eye and he looked over to find Pepper tiptoeing through the living room, trying not to wake the kids.  She made it to the doorway where Tony was standing and the questions were clear on her face.  He put a finger to his lips (unnecessarily) and gestured for her to follow him down the hall.  When they were far enough away, he turned and gave her one of the smiles he only used when he’d done something he knew she wouldn’t like.  “Hey, Pepper; how was the board meeting?”

 

“Tony, why are there a bunch of teenagers piled up in the living room?”  She had a hand on her hip, looking at him like she was going to need to arrange several paternity tests.

 

“They’re sleeping.  Good thing you didn’t wake them up, they’ve had a rough couple of days.”

 

Pepper wasn’t stupid; Tony didn’t need to tell her anything, really, for her to get a grasp of the situation.  “Are these the children that Coulson sent you the files on?’

 

“Some of them.  They’ll be here for a week or so; I just haven’t had time to get them someplace to sleep yet.”  Pepper did not look pleased, either because of their presence or his apparent lack of foresight, he wasn’t sure which.

 

“So when are you going to call Coulson and tell him they’re here?”  She pinned him with a stare that had Tony squirming a bit.

 

“I’m not.  Coulson can jump off a helicarrier if he thinks I’m going to give SHIELD a bunch of kids that HYDRA chewed up.” He’d thought about this a good bit since he’d gotten Peter’s emergency call that morning and his feelings had only solidified.  “Coulson may or may not be one of the good guys, I honestly don’t know, but I wouldn’t trust SHIELD with a used paperclip.”  She made a noncommittal noise; he couldn’t tell if she approved or disapproved.  Not that it mattered at this point, Tony was committed and there wasn’t much that was going to sway his opinion.

 

“Alright, Tony.  I need to pack; I’m heading out for San Diego tomorrow morning.  Just try to have this settled by the time I come back, ok?” 

 

Tony gave her another smile and nodded absently; his mind was already moving on.  He was going to head down to the lab for a bit, see if he couldn’t finish that artificial gill design he was working on for Peter’s next suit upgrade.  It would take his mind off the knotty problem that had landed in his lap.  He was too far into his own head to notice Pepper’s look of concern and her rapid note-taking on her Starkpad.

 

Speaking of Peter, Tony scared a year off the kid’s life as he strode into the lab.  Tony barely noticed; he was too focused on his own workbench and the project he had rolling around in his head.  He laid out the pieces of the artificial gill system, organizing parts on one side of the workbench and tools on the other but his pen-vac was nowhere to be seen.  After a minute of fruitless searching, a hand slid the pen-vac into view and Tony looked up to see Peter with a sheepish look on his face.

 

“Thanks, kid.”

 

“Yeah, sorry.  I kinda borrowed it.”  Peter scratched the back of his head absently.

 

Tony bit back his natural acid response and asked instead, “Didn’t I get you your own?”

 

“Uhmmm…no?”

 

“Hmm, I could have sworn I did.  Oversight.  I’ll take care of that.  Friday…”

 

“I have placed an order for a full set of tools for Peter and they should be arriving from Queen Industrial in 48 hours.”

 

“Wait, why did you order them from Queen Industrial?  I only order tools from Kon-Tech.”

 

“Peter has shown a preference for Queen Industrial tools.”  Did Friday just sound a little smug?

 

“Humph,” was Tony’s only response, secretly pleased.  Friday wasn’t up to Jarvis’s level yet but she was getting there.  “So what are you working on, Pete?”  The young hero’s face turned bright red and his response was mumbled.  “What’s that, kid, I couldn’t hear you?”

 

“Micro communicators.”

 

“We don’t need micro communicators.  Comms built into the suits, remember?  If we have to, we can tell Thor and he can shout it.  He's good for a couple of blocks.”

 

“It’s not for us, it’s for…Shiwoo.”  The next sentence came out in an embarrassed rush.  “They’re still using outdated headsets and I just thought they could use something better.”

 

Tony was surprised to say the least.  When did Peter get so attached to the HYDRA kids?  Did he know their history?  What was Tony supposed to do with these kids and did he have the right to make that decision?  What did they want?  He ran his hand through his hair, frustrated.  He wasn’t cut out for this.  “Ok, well, just do what you do Pete.”  He turned back to his own project.

 

The two worked in companionable silence for a few hours until Peter’s stomach got the better of him.  He groaned as his stomach complained loudly.  “I have to eat,” he complained.

 

“Then go eat.  None of this is going anywhere.  Except maybe for Dum-E if he doesn’t stop hiding my spare circuit boards.”  Tony pointed his screwdriver at the unapologetic ‘bot.  “I swear, one of these days I’m sending him to a community college.”  His next comment was aimed directly at his oldest “child.”  “You’ve got a serious klepto problem; we might have to stage an intervention.”

 

“Ok, Mr. Stark.”  Peter stretched, grinning, then stood by the door, waiting.

 

It took Tony a couple of minutes to register and then he looked over at Peter, frowning.  “What are you waiting for?”

 

“Well, you need to eat too so I figured we could go together.”

 

If it were anyone else, Tony would have dismissed it with something snarky but he was a sucker for Peter’s puppy-dog eyes.  Sighing, he set the screwdriver back on the workbench.  “What do you want?  I could send Happy to pick up something, maybe shawarma?  Or maybe Chinese; that one hole-in-the-wall you like so much delivers.”

 

Peter looked at him suspiciously.  “They deliver all the way from Queens?”

 

Tony shrugged.  “They do with what I pay them.  And the black bean chicken isn’t half bad.”

 

“Sounds good; and there’s some left-over pizza, I think.”

 

Tony placed the order as they headed back to the living room and kitchenette.  He was relieved to find the cushions back in place and the teenagers up and scattered about the room; he’d forgotten about the sleeping pile and he was glad they hadn’t woken anyone.  The older girl, Amahle, was sitting in one of the oversized chairs with Casey sitting cross-legged on the chair’s arm.  Marcelo was on the edge of the couch, seemingly comforting Emma who was standing next to the couch.  She was clearly in distress, and without thinking, Peter wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

 

Her reaction was immediate and violent.  She spun, grabbing Peter’s arm, and flung him across the room into the wall hard enough to leave a dent.  “Peter!” Tony screamed.  He felt panic rising, seeing the kid slumped against the wall.

 

Peter sat up, grimacing a little.  “ M fine, just got the wind knocked out of me.”

 

Tony turned to yell at Emma and froze.  She was locked in place, limbs shaking.  Her eyes were wide and staring at nothing and her breath came in short gasps.  It made Tony want to shake – he’d been there a few times himself.

 

Marcelo stood carefully and placed his hands on both sides of her head, a couple of inches from the skin.  “Emmie, it’s ‘Cel.  I’m here, you’re safe.  Listen to my breathing; breathe with me.  In…out.  Just like that.”  His voice was calm and deeper than usual, soothing.  Emma’s breathing slowed, matching his.  Her eyes focused on his and a sound somewhere between a whimper and a choked sob came out, the only sound in the room.  Marcelo sat back down on the couch and held out an arm to Emma and she crawled into his lap, burying her face in his chest and curling up into a ball.  She shook with the sobs muffled by Marcelo’s shirt as he stroked her hair with one hand, holding her to his chest with the other.

 

Tony and Casey moved over to Peter, who was still watching Emma with shock and guilt.  Casey crouched down next to the older, checking for broken bones with a practiced touch.  “I’m ok, I’m fine.  I just…I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to…”

 

“No, Peter, it’s alright.  I should have warned you.  Emma has a hard time with being touched by anyone but us and she’s been edgy all day.  Woojin can usually calm her down but if she ends up over the edge Marcelo’s the best at bringing her back.  He helps me like that, too.”  He smiled encouragingly and held out a hand to Peter, helping the older to stand.

 

Tony watched, feeling helpless, and he knew with absolute certainty that he was in over his head.  He couldn’t protect Peter or these kids from the demons in their past, from themselves.  He couldn’t fight the shadows they carried around with them.  He was in over his head and he knew what he had to do.

 

He slipped away when he was certain that everyone, especially Peter, was occupied.  He sat at his workbench in the lab and slid open the concealed drawer that had hidden two things up until a few weeks ago: his emergency scotch (no longer there) and a little black cellphone.  He stared hard at the little black cellphone; he’d sworn he would never use it, couldn’t imagine a situation so bad that he would ever need to.  He picked it up, turned it on, and watched it light up.  There was one number saved in the phone and he’d promised himself he’d never call it.  Before he could change his mind, he hit dial.

 

The call went straight to voicemail and Tony was secretly glad.  He could deal with this.  Steve would understand; he’d do the right thing.  He let out a breath and waited for the beep.  “Hey, I’ve…got a situation.  A bunch of kids that HYDRA really screwed up.  They’re safe with me, but I’m…I’m in over my head.  I need Nat, maybe Sam.  I…need your help Capsicle; these kids need your help.”  He hung up, hoping he hadn’t said too much, and he waited.

Chapter Text

Tony took the little black cell phone with him to bed that night.  It didn't ring the whole time he was staring at the ceiling above his bed, before sleep claimed him.  He checked it first thing when he woke up and there were no missed calls.  He checked it again after he got out of the shower; still no missed messages.  So that's it then, he thought.  I guess Steve changed his mind.  Tony was...disappointed (hurt).  He'd somehow expected better, but Steve was still human.  He'd figure it out on his own, he always did.

 

Grumbling, Tony stumbled down to the living room and attached kitchenette.  He wasn't expecting much more than coffee and left-over Chinese but the smell that filtered up the hallway was...something else.  The Avengers' private wing smelled like a bakery.  Casey was sitting on the island, coffee cup in hand, while Amahle pulled a couple of loaves of fresh bread out of the oven and replaced them with two pans of raw dough.  There was flour in Casey's hair and a smudge on Amahle's cheek.

 

Amahle turned and smiled at Tony.  “Good morning, Mr. Stark.  We saved you breakfast; it’s in the microwave.”  She pointed to the counter where the loaves of bread were cooling and he could see a couple more pans of raw dough waiting for the oven.  “There will be extra bread for lunch but don’t touch the others – I’m making something fun for supper.”  Tony just nodded.

 

Casey handed him a cup of coffee to go with the bacon, eggs, and pancakes.  He hated to admit it, but he could get used to this.  He’d missed having the Avengers living close, the feeling of an almost-family.  He watched Marcelo and Emma rearranging the living room as he ate.  “Did you guys sleep in the living room last night?  I gave everyone their own rooms.”

 

Casey shrugged.  “You did, but we prefer to sleep together.  Helps with nightmares.”  His words, and voice, were casual – as if PTSD nightmares were just a fact of life. 

 

Friday interrupted that train of thought.  “There are deliveries for you in the lobby, Tony.”  What deliveries?  Aside from Peter’s tools, he hadn’t ordered anything.  He set breakfast aside and headed for the lobby.  He wasn’t worried about safety; everything would have been scanned before entering the building but who had ordered something in his name and what had they ordered?

 

Whatever and who ever had ordered, there was a lot of it.  Box after box was stacked in the entrance of Avengers compound with labels from several different online shopping sites, most of them clothing stores.  “Friday, what is all this?  Who ordered it?”

 

“Ms. Potts placed the orders.  I believe she purchased them on behalf of the HYDRA children.”

 

First Peter, now Pepper.  It seemed that their guests were winning over every member of his family, one at a time.  Not that he was any better.  He was ready to move the kids in on a permanent basis.  Just then, Happy passed Tony carrying bags of groceries, heading for the Avengers’ living wing.  Tony followed.  “Hey Happy, when did you get domestic?  I thought you burned water?"  

Happy smiled slightly.  “Oh, I still do.  I got invited to dinner but the kids needed some supplies.”  So, Tony could add Happy to the list of family members the kids had won over.  That left only Rhodey, and his best friend had always had a soft spot for kids.  It wouldn’t take long.  

 

After telling one of his (real) interns to get the boxes to the living room, Tony headed to medical to check on the boys.  He found the “kitchen crew” laughing about something with Shiwoo and Woojin.  Casey informed him that they were taking turns spending time with their missing members.  Tony listened to their happy chatter for a while; Woojin looked worlds away better than the day before.  He wandered back out into the hall, where Dr. Briggs flagged him down.

 

“Mr. Stark, may I have a word please?”  Tony paused, waiting.  “Have you read the report I sent you this morning?”  Tony’s blank look was enough of an answer.  “I noticed an abnormality with Mr. Song’s bloodwork that needs to be addressed.  However, I am far from an expert on mutants Mr. Stark.  I think someone who has a better grasp of mutant medicine should take a look, maybe at Mr. Song’s companions as well.  Someone like Dr. Cho, perhaps.”

 

“Can you give me some idea of what to tell Dr. Cho or do I just tell her she won Publisher’s Clearing House or something?”

 

“You told me the procedure to awaken their mutation was two years ago, correct?  The cascade should have stabilized a while ago but it’s still at an elevated level.  Based on his bloodwork I’d say it hasn’t even hit its peak yet, but as I said I’m not an expert on mutant biology.”   

 

“So what does that mean, in your opinion Bones?”

 

Dr. Briggs sighed.  “In my less-than-expert opinion?  I’d say that their mutations are continuing to evolve.  They may continue to progress their powers or develop new ones.  What I can’t predict is what effect this will have on their health.  That’s what you need an expert for – Dr. Hank McCoy perhaps, or Dr. Cho.  Either would know more.”

 

Tony gave Dr. Briggs’ words consideration; his suggestions were good.  He’d thought about contacting Dr. Cho.  They’d worked well with her in the past and genetics was her specialty; if anyone could understand the process that HYDRA had used on their victims, it would be her.  On the other hand, no one knew mutant genetics and physiology as well as Hank McCoy.  He’d contact Dr. Cho first but it wouldn’t hurt to talk to Dr. McCoy as well.  Hell, maybe he could even get a bit of advice from Xavier.

 

Calling Dr. Cho would have to wait; it was 1 am in Seoul.  Now would be a great time to call Dr. McCoy if he actually had his number, which he didn’t.  But he knew someone that did.  Not that he particularly wanted to talk to Coulson, but the SHIELD Director owed him after dumping those files on him without a warning.  Normally he would have called Coulson from his lab, where he was in his comfort zone, but since he hadn’t seen Peter that was most likely where he was.  He wasn’t interested in Peter accidentally overhearing anything related to the HYDRA children.  The less Peter knew about Project Leviathan, the better Tony would sleep at night.  Instead, he headed for his office.

 

Tony’s office was situated on the second floor of the main Compound building, right off the entry.  It was large enough to be intimidating without being overwhelming.  The walls were lined with built-in bookcases.  Hardwood floors were only slightly softened with a large antique Persian rug.  In the middle of the room, a pair of dark brown leather sofas were centered around a coffee table of hand-carved and polished petrified wood.  An antique red mahogany executive desk dominated the far end of the room.  The room reminded Tony of Howard; he thought his father would have approved.  He’d put it together almost as a joke, intending to use it for Presidential-style press releases and such.  He never really got to use it, though.  After the Avengers had imploded, he was just too busy for that kind of grandstanding.

 

He half expected Coulson not to pick up; the man was probably insanely busy.  The SHIELD Director picked up on the third ring, his affable smile larger-than-life on Tony’s holographic display.  “I was wondering when you were going to call me.”

 

“I wasn’t actually planning on it but I needed a phone number and I figure you owe me.”  Coulson raised an eyebrow but didn’t argue; Tony took this as a go-ahead.  “Charles Xavier – I don’t have his number.  Not sure how I overlooked that one since I generally have everyone's number but I figured if anyone had it, it would be you.”

 

“What do you want Charles’ number for?”  Coulson’s tone was as blandly pleasant as usual but Tony could hear something that sounded dangerous, to him at least, underneath.

 

“Project I’m working on.”  Tony’s voice was casual.

 

“I can’t just hand out private numbers, Tony.  I wouldn’t give Charles yours if he asked.”  He seemed to think about if for a minute.  “How about this: I’ll call Charles and let him know you want to talk.  If he’s interested, he can call you.”

 

“Surprisingly moral for a spy, but I guess it works.”  Tony tried to hide his irritation; it was the best he was going to get from the Director.  Coulson wasn’t his only option for contacting the illusive mutant leader but he was the easiest for Tony to reach.

 

“So, Tony, when were you going to tell me you had the kids at the Compound?”  His question was asked in the same blandly pleasant tone as before but that dangerous something underneath was back. 

 

“I wasn’t.  None of your business, Agent.”  Tony’s eyes narrowed.  “You were watching them.”

 

“Of course we were.  They’re dangerous, Tony.  We were actually getting ready to bring them in when Spider-Man showed up.  I’ll have a team to the Compound this afternoon to retrieve them.”

 

“No.”  Tony’s response was quick and there was no give in his tone.  “They stay here.”

 

Coulson’s smile dropped away.  “I don’t think you understand, Stark.  They’re dangerous, more dangerous than you realize.  They aren’t children, they’re weapons.  They need to be someplace they can be contained.”

 

Tony winced internally.  It was the same argument he’d used against Barnes and it sounded so hollow to him now.  “No, Director, you don’t understand.  They are kids – kids that have been screwed up and screwed around and the last thing they need is for you and your thugs-in-suits to screw them over again.  They need to be somewhere they’re safe, and the safest place is here with the Avengers.”

 

There was a pause before Coulson spoke.  “There is no more Avengers, Stark.”

 

“Don’t count us out just yet.”

 

“There are several other groups of children from Project Leviathan still out there.  We’ll bring them in first and then you and I can have this discussion again.”  Coulson’s eyes were narrowed, his face hard.  This was not the charming, affable man that Tony remembered.  This was the Director of SHIELD, and Fury had found a worthy successor.

 

“Not if I find them first, Agent.”

 

 Tony disconnected the call, feeling a little like he was running from a fight but he couldn’t be sure that he could put up a front any longer.  Coulson’s words had hit him hard; it was what he said to himself when he’d been wallowing in his own guilt and self-recriminations, after Berlin, after Siberia.  He let his own words sink in, and he realized he’d spoken the truth without realizing it: the Avengers were only dead if he gave up and he wasn’t ready to do that just yet.

 

A grin split Tony’s face.  He had an Idea: he should really use his office more often.

 

 

 

Supper was indeed fun.  Amahle had made a Durban favorite she called bunny chow: a hollowed loaf of bread filled to overflowing with fresh curry.  She’d divided each loaf into four, giving everybody what she called a “kota”.  The curry was perfect: Amahle had made a chicken curry to cater to as many people as possible and it was warm without too much heat.  The little breakfast nook couldn’t hold all of them: the four HYDRA teens plus Peter, Tony, Happy, and Rhody.  They sprawled around the living room, eating, talking, and laughing.  The TV ran some documentary in the background that no one payed the least bit of attention to.

 

Casey was the first one to notice the pair of boys slowly making their way into the living room.  He let out a delighted shriek, barely having time to set his supper on the coffee table before launching himself at the two missing members.  Woojin and Shiwoo each wrapped an arm around their smallest brother as the other three got up at a more sedate pace to join them in a group hug.  The teens stayed like that for some time, relishing the reunion. 

 

Amahle was the first to break away from the group, heading for the kitchen.  This started a flurry of activity centered on settling their leader and their youngest in comfortably.  Marcelo rearranged the seating a bit to accommodate the two additions to the family dinner; Casey grabbed drinks; and Emma found a blanket for Woojin, who still seemed to have a bit of a chill.  Amahle brought the boys supper and the family settled back into their interrupted meal.  Everything had been accomplished without a word being spoken, something that seemed to impress Tony and the others. 

 

It was near the end of the meal that Friday announced, “Tony, you have a visitor.”  A slender blonde woman of medium height, carrying a military-style duffel bag, dropped onto one of the island stools with a weary sigh.  She dropped the duffel bag on the floor by the stool, exhaustion clearly written on her face.  It took Tony a moment to recognize her, with the new hair color and obvious fatigue marring her beautiful features.  His face went from narrow-eyed anger to shock as he hesitantly made his way over to her.  Before he had a chance to regret it, he caught her up in a hug.

 

“Give me a damn heart attack, Nat,” he mock-growled at her as she swatted him.  “Thought Capsicle and the One-Armed Bandit weren’t going to let you come play with me anymore.”  Seeing her exhaustion, he added “We can talk about it tomorrow.  Didn’t touch your room, so if you left dirty underwear laying around it’s going to be really funky in there.  There’s food left if you want.  It’s safe, I didn’t cook it and neither did Happy.”

 

She gave him a tired smile.  “Thanks, I’ll take you up on that.”  She leaned forward to whisper something in Tony’s ear and a strange look passed over his face before he walked, somewhat stiffly, into the kitchen to grab the Widow a plate of bunny chow.

 

“It’s good to have you back, Nat.”

Chapter Text

After a tense, late-night conference in Tony's lab, Natasha found herself in charge of six -and-a-half powered teenagers. Spider-Man was already a reserve Avenger with combat experience under his belt but he seemed to click well with the other six so he was ostensibly in her charge as well. He still had school, however, and an aunt that was worried sick about him, so she was only nominally in charge of the spiderling. The other six would be a challenge but they were far from unsalvageable. HYDRA hadn't had them long enough to do any lasting damage - most of HYDRA's brutality was reversible with time and care. Tony, bless him, had done exactly the right thing: keep SHIELD far away from the kids and call in people more experienced in dealing with child soldiers.

In spite of the previous night's exhaustion, Natasha was aware that her charges were early risers. She'd been in the kitchenette at an obscene 5 am so that when the first of the teens stumbled sleepily into the kitchen, she was waiting with a fresh pot of coffee. Tony had assured her that in spite of their age, they were as addicted to coffee as any of the adult Avengers. She was, however, a bit surprised that the youngest was the first one into the kitchen, given that he'd been in medical until last night. He apparently hadn't seen her, even though she was less than five feet away, zeroing in on the smell of fresh coffee and doing a passable zombie impression. Natasha knew when he finally noticed her as he jumped back, coffee sloshing over the rim of his Iron Man mug. Widow smiled slightly; apparently, her ability to frighten men went as young as fifteen.

Natasha reached into the cabinet behind her without looking and grabbed one of Tony's meal bars, sliding it over to the boy by way of apology. They'd started stocking the things after Tony had one too many hunger-induced blackouts from forgetting to eat for three days or longer during a building binge. Woojin took the bar with a small smile and a light bow, but made no move to open it. She was aware of his medical stay, the reasons underlying it; she was aware of everything Tony and Friday (mostly Friday) had observed over the last three days. Natasha wasn't going to let him get away with skipping meals and that started now. "Go ahead and eat that for now. It'll hold you over until everyone gets here for breakfast." She held his eyes for a moment, letting him know silently that "no" wasn't an acceptable answer. She could see the conflict, stubbornness and pride warring with common sense and cultural politeness. After a moment's struggle, common sense and politeness won and the boy gave in, setting down the mug to open the package.

As Woojin wrestled with the stubborn packaging, his bangs fell into his eyes and Natasha's fingers twitched with the urge to brush them back. While no one would ever credit her with maternal instincts, the Widow had a Momma Bear streak a mile wide. Only Clint, Laura, and Bruce knew how much her infertility hurt her but she had sublimated it by becoming Aunt Tasha to Clint and Laura's children. Whether Tony had figured it out on his own or his call had been serendipity because of her familiarity with child soldiers, she'd been handed a gaggle of children and they were all likely to figure out how maternal she was. As much as she liked Phil, these were her cubs now and he'd better not come near them.

Shiwoo was the next to arrive in the kitchen, already awake and alert. He watched Natasha with suspicious eyes; clearly, he didn't trust her so close to his maknae. She took another mug off the rack and poured him a cup of coffee, sliding it to him across the granite island. His eyes tracked her every movement, his attention split between watching her and keeping an eye on Woojin. The younger boy gave a grunt of satisfaction as he finally succeeded in opening the meal bar, surprised to see Shiwoo standing there when he looked up. The older boy gave a slight nod at the meal bar in Woojin's hand and a sweet smile bloomed on the younger's face at his hyung's approval.

Natasha started making breakfast as the rest of the teens filtered in one at a time. A second pot of coffee was started as well and Widow wondered if they might want to get a second machine to keep pace with all their morning coffee drinkers. She wasn't surprised to notice that as the others had assembled in the kitchen Shiwoo had managed to position himself between Natasha and his family. She approved of his protectiveness; from what she'd seen so far, he was a good leader. Her experienced eyes took in other details: the careful way they moved, weapons calluses, the vigilant flickers of the eye. Even the way they were dressed caught her eye; the two Korean boys wore long-sleeved t-shirts and the smaller girl was swimming in an oversized sweatshirt while the other three wore short-sleeved t-shirts more appropriate to the unseasonably warm New York spring. It gave her plenty to think about. Tony and Friday were good observers, the AI most especially, but she was much better.

As if summoned by her thoughts, Tony grumbled his way into the kitchen. Without asking, the smallest boy poured Tony a cup of coffee and handed it to him. Tony reached out and ruffled the boy’s hair without thinking, the teen smiling before batting his hand away playfully and rearranging the strawberry blonde strands. The dynamic had Natasha raising an eyebrow. The kids were clearly comfortable with the older genius: Shiwoo watched the others over the rim of his mug, relaxed, and there was no sign of tension among the teens at all. Tony had won them over in three days, something he couldn’t manage with undamaged adults, and they’d apparently won him over just as quickly. So Tony’s paternal instincts were as strong, and as carefully hidden, as her own maternal instincts; very interesting.

When the breakfast dishes had been cleared away, Tony gave the teens a serious look. “We need to have a talk about the situation, what comes next.” Natasha watched: the teens were looking at Tony with a mix of resignation and sadness. They had wanted to stay.

“So…I guess we should go back to the warehouse. It’s a bit of a way, can you give us a ride back?” Emma’s voice was quiet and her eyes were suspiciously bright. Shiwoo reached out without looking and pulled her close, murmuring something in Korean into her ear.

Tony’s brow furrowed. “Who said anything about you going back to the warehouse? Unless that’s what you want to do?”

Casey stared off into space for a moment before breaking the silence. “We are where we’re supposed to be. My power keeps pointing here.” This seemed to settle the matter for the teens, who watched Tony for his response.

“Well now that the Oracle has spoken, far be it from me to argue.” In spite of the humor, Tony’s face was serious. “It isn’t safe for you at the warehouse: SHIELD wants you and unlike HYDRA, they actually know where you are.” He let that sink in before continuing on. “As long as you’re here with the Avengers, they can’t touch you.”

Natasha gauged the reaction to Tony’s words – a mix of fear and relief. It was time to put Tony’s plan on the table. “Tony and I discussed this last night and we have a plan. To guarantee the Avenger’s protection, we’re going to have to make it official but if we make you full-fledged members of the Avengers, there would be problems.”

“We’d have to expose you to the press and that would defeat the purpose of hiding you from HYDRA, not to mention I don’t think any of you are quite ready for the spotlight. I’ve got my lawyers working on the immigration issue but I’d like to have that resolved before the press gets ahold of you. And then there’s the little matter of the Accords.” Tony’s expression turned sour at the thought.

“Aish, not how I really wanted to debut,” Woojin mumbled.

Shiwoo reached out with his free hand to lightly cuff the maknae with a light frown. “Manners, Woojinnie.” He softened the rebuke by carding his fingers through the younger boy’s hair. “Please continue, Natasha-ssi.”

It was Tony that picked up the thread of conversation again. “I’m starting a new program: Avengers Academy. We can train new enhanced, then moved the graduates into either the Avengers or the Avengers Reserves.” He held up a hand to forestall any protest. “I know you lot are already well-trained but the public doesn’t know that and it gives us a chance to work out the bugs in this Academy thing before we have recruits that are actually going to make our lives difficult.”

Marcelo nodded in agreement with the billionaire, Shiwoo watching his second’s reaction closely. “As trainees, we would be shielded from the press and the U.N.? I suppose it helps that none of us are of legal age yet?”

Tony beamed, hopping in his seat a little and pointing at Marcelo. “He gets it! I’m getting you cookies - you like cookies, right? So this is what I’ve got, what do you say?” His last question was directed at all of them.

Shiwoo looked at each of his team members in turn before answering for them. “Alright. We’ll do it.”

Tony grinned again. “Great, just one more thing and I’ll hand it over to Nat. SHIELD is looking for the other teams and they’re about to be in the same position as you. I want to extend the same offer to them. Do you know where the other teams are, can you contact them?”

Emma looked at Shiwoo for confirmation before nodding assent. “We have a chat on the Dark Web, I can ask.”

Marcello added,” Kendall would do it. I don’t think she was ever comfortable with the idea of being on their own. Maria would probably be interested as well. Not Jason though, he doesn’t really work well with others.”

“He might now. They lost Kaito and Anya.” Emma looked like she would burst into tears any minute and Shiwoo stroked her hair.

“What happened?” Marcelo’s voice was gentle.

“Kaito checked out two days ago; Anya was the one that found him. She couldn’t do it without him, so she checked out last night.”

Tony gave them a moment to process before he cleared his throat and continued. “Alright, I’ll let you handle that. Nat, if you would please?”

Attention turned to Natasha. “I’m going to be in charge of the Avengers Academy program and designing the training regimen. I’m going to need to know a few things about each of you before we get started, some questions and observations. To begin, who is the best at hand-to-hand?”

Five fingers pointed at Woojin while he pointed at Marcelo. The maknae looked around at his teammates, confused. “Marcelo is much better than I am.” Casey snorted and Shiwoo shook his head.

“The only reason I can keep up with you, Woojin, is because of my mutation. If I had a different power, you would kick my butt.”

Natasha cut them off before it could get out of hand. “Okay, and who is the worst at hand-to-hand?”

Amahle immediately raised her hand and none of the team contradicted her. “I don’t like fighting.”

“Who’s the best shot?” The consensus was clear – Casey won that contest, hands down.

There was little disagreement on the worst shot, either. “I need glasses,” Shiwoo admitted.

“Alright, I want to work with each of you individually over the next couple of days to get a feel for what we’re working with, starting with Casey. Woojin, I’ll save you until the end so you have a little more time to recover. I’ll have Friday let each of you know when I need you.” She hopped up off the couch and headed for the training suite, the second youngest in tow.

“And on that note, my young padawans, let’s talk about school.”

 


It had been an interesting two days, even by Natasha’s standards. The children definitely had a promising level of training, though they weren’t ready for adults who had been training for years. Against the average soldier or security personnel, they were more than effective. Even Amahle, who was the admitted worst of the bunch, could hold her own against any newly-graduated SHIELD agent. Fighting Marcelo had been a lot like how she expected a fight with Spider-Man would go, with his combat precognition, and Shiwoo had a difficult time fighting without his telekinesis as he’d trained to integrate it so seamlessly into his fighting style. Casey was a truly exceptional marksman and Natasha would be hard-pressed to choose between him and Clint in a contest; the boy never missed a single shot she set up for him. Now she was looking forward to what Woojin, the one they all considered the best, could do.

Woojin stepped into the training suite, right on time. In spite of his fragile appearance, Natasha was well aware that looks were deceiving. His short stature and dancer’s body would trade bulk for speed and his years of physical conditioning would give him exceptional stamina. With his wide, honey-brown eyes and delicate features, less experienced opponents would routinely underestimate him and he probably took ruthless advantage of it. If he was as good as his teammates thought then he could probably give her a run for her money.

She beckoned him over to where she was waiting in the center of the mat. “Ok, what martial system have you been trained in?”

He smiled a little nervously. “I learned several but there are four I use primarily: krav maga, eskrima, bakom, and systema. Lerdrit is pretty good too but I like systema better.”

“You learned five different martial systems in two years?” she asked incredulously.

He shook his head. “No, I learned eight different systems in two years, I just don’t use them all.”

Now she was intrigued. How much could he have actually learned during that two years with so little focus and still be considered better than the others, who had only learned one system? She crooked her fingers in the universal gesture of engagement. “Show me.”

The practice match was fast and furious and the answer to her question was apparently a great deal. He combined the lightning speed of bakom, the precision of systema, and the brutal practicality of krav maga effortlessly. She’d kept it weapons-free so she hadn’t been able to really test his skills with eskrima but she expected it would be on par with the others. Natasha doubted he’d ever been formally tested, but she’d estimate he was mid dan in each of them. The only thing that kept her from getting slaughtered was her enhanced reflexes and speed and her greater experience; he’d still managed to land more blows than any opponent she’d fought before. Given a few years training and experience, he could probably take her out even with her enhancements.

There was no way that a child his age could master one martial system to 4th or 5th degree black belt in two years, let alone four or more. As he had, apparently done so, the only logical explanation was a muscle memory or learning mutation. There was an easy way to test her theory. “Have you ever practiced Wushu taolu before?” she asked as she Googled the sport.

“No, none of the trainers at the lab taught it since it wasn’t practical for combat.” He downed a bottle of water while he waited on whatever Natasha was doing.

“I want you to help me test a theory.” She handed him the Starkpad with the video she’d located pulled up. “How long does it usually take to master something when it’s demonstrated for you?”

He thought about it for moment. “I can usually get it right on the first or second try.”

“I want you to study and practice this changquan taolu and then demonstrate it for me. I’ll give you thirty minutes.”

Natasha went to stretch on the far side of the training suite, watching him break down the complicated form movement by movement. He mastered each individual movement in one or two tries, then ran them together to complete the formation perfectly on the third run-through. He was ready to demonstrate the taolu in twenty-two minutes. She rejoined him in the center of the mat and watched as he demonstrated the form for her perfectly.

“Congratulations, you just mastered a black belt-level Wushu taolu with no prior experience in less than thirty minutes. So it would seem that you have a secondary mutation, the ability to learn any physical skill that involves muscle memory with only a demonstration and a little practice and perform it flawlessly. This should cover anything from fighting systems to lock picking and open-heart surgery.”

The boy looked stunned. “How long have I had this?”

“Judging by your fighting skills, you’ve probably had it the entire time and no one ever noticed.”

Further conversation was halted as Tony stuck his head in the door. “I hate to interrupt you two party animals but I need to borrow Nat. Got us some more recruits for the Academy.”

Chapter Text

There had been some discussion concerning who would actually go to recover Kendall's team.  Tony had originally wanted Natasha to be part of the welcome committee but she'd put her foot down.  "You are the leader of the Avengers, Tony.  I am in charge of the Academy training program.  I need to stay here to actually run the training program and you need to go act like the leader of the Avengers."

 

The question then was which of the teens would be accompanying Tony to Dallas.  Having Emma go was a no-brainer.  She'd been the one doing the most communicating with the other teens from the former HYDRA facility; they knew her and were comfortable with her.  Shiwoo insisted on coming as well; old suspicions died hard and he wasn't leaving any of his team alone with the girl that had left the most prominent of his scars, even if they had worked together the last time they'd met.  He also wasn't thrilled about leaving the others behind but it would be just too cramped in the quinjet with twelve teens in the cargo compartment.  Marcelo had everything well in hand but Emma knew Shiwoo was a worrier at heart.

 

The quinjet's VTOL capabilities were going to come in very handy as Kendall's team wasn't actually staying anywhere near DFW International Airport.  Rather, they had taken over a decommissioned school from the 1920's in Plano, on the north end of the Dallas metro area.  It could have stretched into a two hour drive from the airport, depending on the traffic, and Emma had always hated being cooped up in cars.

 

According to Kylen, they'd manage to trick the locals into turning the power and water back on by posing as college students doing some kind of study on the effects of living in the building.  Kylen and Julian had gotten part-time work with a local farmer willing to pay in cash.  It was enough to pay the bills and put some food in the cupboard but they weren't really doing well.  Their lack of id's and papers made it difficult for the others to get jobs and there weren't any plasma centers nearby.  Plus Kylen had mentioned something about Phoenix having an accident with his powers last week that made it difficult for teen to leave the old school.  Tony's offer had been a blessing, one that Kendall just couldn't pass up.

 

The quinjet landed with a heavy thump on what was probably an old playground and Emma could see a familiar figure standing by the door to the decaying building.  Kylen waved enthusiastically and Emma could almost see his grin from the quinjet.  Before Shiwoo or Tony had stood up from their seats, Emma was bounding across the weed-choked ground to throw herself into the biggest hug she could manage.  The two teens had been chatting over CDark from the time that Emma had set it up; they’d just sort-of clicked and there had been many late-night heart-to-hearts over the last few weeks.  Tony raised an eyebrow and looked at Shiwoo, who just shrugged.

 

“Where’s everybody?” she asked as they waited for the others to catch up.

 

“With our resident drama prince,” Kaylen’s face was sour.  When Emma looked confused, he elaborated.  “Phoenix.  He’s locked himself in the bathroom and he won’t come out.”

 

“And Julian can’t talk him out?”

 

Kylen let out a pained sigh.  “It’s been iffy for a couple of weeks now but their relationship really started going downhill after the accident.  Last night they had a huge fight and then this morning, Phoenix just...lost it.”  He gave Shiwoo a polite nod as the shorter boy walked up behind Emma, then his eyes went wide as he saw Tony.  “You weren’t kidding were you Mouse?  We all thought you were pulling our leg with this Avengers thing but we were up for some company anyway.  Kendall’s going to lose her shit!”

 

Tony flipped his sunglasses down to get a better look at Kylen and Emma knew he didn’t present the best impression.  It was clear from her own inspection that Kendall’s team hadn’t been doing as well as they had on their own and they definitely owed that to Casey.  He’d definitely lost a bit of weight and it didn’t look good on him and while his clothes were clean enough, she was pretty sure the thrift store wouldn’t have accepted them.  She wished she’d known earlier, but at least there was something that she could do about it now.

 

“So are we getting the tour, Stretch, or what?”  Tony wasn’t showing any outward signs of judgement, and that earned him another brownie point in Emma’s book.

 

“Mr. Stark, it’s a real honor to meet you.”  Kylen looked positively star-struck and Emma had to fight back a giggle.

 

“Just call me Tony.  All the cool kids do.”

 

Kylen gestured them inside and led the way into a building too old for its own good.  Emma swore she saw black mold in several places, usually accompanied by rotting floor boards, sagging ceilings, and weepy walls; it was a miracle no one had gotten seriously ill or injured yet.  Only the best rooms were actually in use.  “No wonder the locals thought living here was a science experiment,” Emma grumbled.  Kylen laughed and Tony made a choked sound.

 

Down the hall they found four teens standing in front of a closed door radiating a mix of frustration and empathy.  One of the girls, a pale redhead, was yelling at the door.  “Phoenix, get your arse out here now.  We need to leave.”

 

“No!”  The muffled voice from the other side of the door was roughened from too much crying.

 

“What prompted this?” Emma whispered to Kendall.

 

“He hasn’t been able to leave the building since his accident and when Etienne said something about Julian flirting with the girl at the market, it started a huge fight that lasted most of last night.”

 

“I was not flirting; Etienne was teasing,” Julian interjected quietly.

 

“Doesn’t matter.  When I told everyone this morning that you were coming, this happened.”  Kendall gestured at the door.

 

“Let me see if I can fix it.”  Emma pushed past the others until she was up against the locked door.  “Phoenix, it’s Emma.  You don’t have to come out right this minute, just let me in.”  After what seemed an eternity of waiting in silence, there was the sound of a lock clicking.  Emma opened the door just far enough to slide in, then closed and locked it behind her.  The others could hear quiet conversation, muffled by the door; this went on for several minutes before the sound of the lock came again.

 

Emma emerged with her arm wrapped around an olive-skinned boy with a pair of large cat-like ears emerging from his black hair.  A three-foot-long fluffy black tail swished agitatedly behind him and his almost-cat eyes were puffy and red-rimmed from crying.  She steered him past the others and out towards the waiting quinjet, leaving the rest to gather their things and follow.  Tony shook his head as he followed Emma.  “That was definitely not what I was expecting.  Pepper’s going to kill me; she’s allergic to cats.”  When the teens didn’t make a move to follow him, he turned around again.  “Come on, chop chop.  I’ve got a press conference at 2 and I think I have another scheduled…thing somewhere today.”

 

 

 

 

Shiwoo got a good look at the grounds of the Avenger’s Compound as the quinjet came in for a landing on the tarmac behind the glass-fronted main building.  Cars were lined up in the designated parking area, presumably reporters for the press conference Tony was holding.  Behind the tarmac, construction crews and equipment were assembling to break ground; Tony was adding a new building to the facilities.  Beyond that green, untouched land rolled on for acre after acre.  The Compound was far more than just a single building, no matter how large – just like the Avengers.  Two years ago, he’d been an idol trainee at major entertainment company; now, he was in training to become part of the most famous superhero team in the world and responsible for five other powered teenagers that were like siblings to him.  He felt just a little overwhelmed, and for the first time in a very long time, he fell back on his favorite coping mechanism from his trainee days: composing new rap lyrics.  It would be the first new song he’d written since the day they were taken from the dorms.

 

Kendall’s team, along with Shiwoo and Emma, collected in the living room and Shiwoo’s missing members joined them one at a time.  The living room was starting to feel a little cramped to the older Korean boy but he wasn’t sure where else to put everyone.  He felt more comfortable having his little family around him and he was sure Kendall felt the same; likewise, he knew they would probably be more comfortable around his team then the well-meaning strangers that lived and worked at the Compound.  Casey turned on the TV to watch Tony’s press conference while the others chatted among themselves, getting to know one another better.  It was a little odd to think that the press conference they were watching live on TV was occurring in a different part of the same building.

 

Phoenix was sitting on one end of the large couch, curled up against the armrest and looking miserable.  Julian was sitting on the other end, looking equally miserable, with Etienne and Nayiri between them.  Kendall and Kylen were occupying one of the oversized, overstuffed chairs; he was sitting on the back of the chair, his socked feet resting on the cushions while Kendall sat between his legs with her head pillowed on his stomach.  Shiwoo watched the dynamic between them all, finding it interesting: where his team was a family and a cohesive unit, Kendall’s team was three couples that still functioned well as a whole.  Etienne and Nayiri were clearly together as a couple, as were Kendall and Kylen, and Julian and Phoenix.  The downside of their dynamic was that when a couple argued, the entire team was affected.  Julian kept stealing glances at Phoenix, watching his boyfriend with a mix of emotions that Shiwoo couldn’t read.  When Kylen leaned down to steal a kiss from Kendall, Julian had apparently had enough.  He jumped up from the couch suddenly, grabbing Phoenix by the arm and dragging him from the room, and the rest of their team seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief.

 

Shiwoo looked around at his own team, noting the signs of fatigue in the four that had stayed behind that he’d become accustomed to at the HYDRA lab.  Amahle and Woojin were sitting together on a loveseat watching something on a Starkpad, leaning against each other.  They both tended to want some form of comfort when they were tired.  Casey was sitting on the floor, comfy in a pair of seats and Stark Industries t-shirt, his back against the loveseat and his focus on the TV.  He was happy just being close to the others; he could get a little cranky when he was tired.  Marcelo was laying on the floor near Casey, eyes closed, a habit he’d developed after training sessions in the lab.  He tended to overheat and lying flat on the floor helped him cool down.  Emma, on the other hand, was energized.  She was typing away on one of their laptops, most likely on CDark, and the look on her face said the conversation was going her way.

 

Natasha joined them, settling gracefully into a free seat, her focus on Tony’s press conference.  Kendall and her team watched the Widow a little nervously except for Kylen, who was looking star struck again.  He’d been wary of her himself at first; she was an unknown quantity with a fearsome reputation but he knew that Casey’s power would not lead them to someone who meant them harm.  He’d grown accustomed to her over the last few days, as had the others.  It helped that Tony liked her.  Woojin interrupted his thoughts.  “Hyung, what are we doing about lunch?”

 

Suddenly everyone’s eyes were on him, including Natasha’s.  “Nobody’s eaten yet?”  Everyone shook their heads and she sighed.  “Friday, does that sandwich place still deliver?”

 

“It does.  Would you like me to place an order?”

 

“Use the saved order, the one we had for when Thor showed up.”  She sighed again.  “Sandwiches aren’t that healthy but it’s better than having you live off pizza.”  She looked around, doing a head count.  “Are we missing a couple of people?”

 

“Julian and Phoenix had some things to work out.  They’ll be back in a couple of hours.”  Shiwoo didn’t have to look to recognize Etienne’s distinctive Cajun drawl.  Natasha raised her eyebrow, and Etienne laughed.  “An hour to finish the argument and another hour for the make-up sex.”

 

The absent couple returned shortly before the sandwiches and Tony arrived at roughly the same time.  Tony was still wearing his suit and sunglasses, walking like he owned the world; this was the Tony that Shiwoo was familiar with from television.  “Honey, I’m home!”  He pulled his glasses off to look around the room.  “I think we’re going to need a bigger living room.”  He settled into another overstuffed chair, absently rubbing his left arm as he spoke.  “So Emma’s filled you in on the details?”

 

“About the Academy, training, the Avengers? She told me everything last night.”  Kendall played with Kylen’s fingers as she spoke

 

“So, you’ve met Natasha – Black Widow – she’s in charge of Avengers Academy.  I’m going to let her explain everything you need to know there.  I’m in charge of recruiting and funding everything Avengers related.  And press conferences; that’s my real superpower – press conferences.  So what ya got for me, Princess?”  Tony looked at Emma.

 

“I got Amber to agree to join us.”  Tony gave her one of his bouncy smiles but Kendall looked troubled.

 

“Emma, when was the last time you heard from any of Maria’s team?  Or Utku’s”

 

The realization must have been immediate, and Shiwoo reached out to grab her hand before distress could set in.  “A few days, I think.”

 

“Over a week.” Kendall corrected.  “They aren’t answering the satellite phone and haven’t been on CDark – any of them.” 

 

“Do you know where they were, we can take a look?”  Widow offered.

 

“No.”  Casey’s voice was firm, and somber.

 

“Why not?”  Natasha was calm in her query, something that Shiwoo was grateful for.

 

“The feeling, the pull I get from my power, isn’t going anywhere.  It means that there is no safe way to get to them.”  Casey had pulled in on himself, hugging his knees to his chest.

 

“Maybe the Alpha got them.”  Phoenix’s voice was quiet but it got the attention of all the teens and an involuntary shudder.

 

“The Alpha’s just a story.”  Etienne sounded more confident than he looked.

 

“Story time, kids; who’s the Alpha?”  Happy Tony had been replaced by what Shiwoo suspected was Iron Man-Tony.

 

“The Alpha was kind of like a ghost story in the labs.”  Kendall’s voice was dark.  “The first mutant HYDRA created.  Worked solo because he killed every team he was put on; killed every other mutant he came across.  Supposedly the scientists would hand over rebellious kids to the Alpha for disposal.  They used to threaten us with the Alpha to keep us in line.  ‘Be good or we’ll give you to the Alpha.’” 

 

“We didn’t kill each other, none of us would kill each other.  It made the scientist angry when we’d stop fighting but we never killed.”  Woojin was unusually somber.  “Except for the Alpha.”

 

“It was an unwritten rule in the labs.  Don’t kill another kid.  No problem with leaving a little reminder, though.”  Kendall gave a pointed look to Shiwoo, who returned it with a frown.

 

At Natasha’s raised eyebrow, Shiwoo reluctantly pulled the collar of his t-shirt aside and turned his head to show a scar that started under his left ear and extended down in an unbroken line across his collarbone and disappeared under his shirt.  He then lifted the cuff of his pants to show where the scar terminated at his ankle.  “I was…careless…when I went after Kylen in our last fight.  She left that as a warning.”

 

“About the Alpha…” Tony prompted.

 

“There’s no evidence that the Alpha exists!  No one’s ever seen him.”  Tony looked surprised at Marcelo’s outburst; he’d never heard the teen raise his voice before.  Shiwoo shot his normally-unflappable second a look.

 

“That’s because no one who’s seen him has ever lived to tell.”  Phoenix curled up tighter against Julian, his ears twitching.

 

“Enough.”  Natasha’s voice cut through the room.  “We don’t know what happened so right now, we concentrate on what we do know.  Tomorrow we pick up Amber’s team.  Emma, see if you can figure out where the two missing teams were last and we will figure out what happened to them.  And if the Alpha really does exist, the Avengers will deal with it.” 

Chapter Text

When Shiwoo entered the living room at 5 am the next morning, Emma was already hard at work, tapping away at a souped-up laptop that Tony had given her to use.  He'd pointed out that the holographic displays situated throughout the compound were more than capable of handling what she wanted to do but she'd insisted she could think better with a standard laptop so he'd supplied her with the latest in portable computing.  The holographic displays floated around her, flashing in and out as Friday worked with her.  If anyone could find the missing teens, it would be Emma and Friday.

 

Shiwoo stood near, waiting on her to notice him, but she was apparently too deep into her work.  "Emma-yah?'  He kept his voice quiet as to not startle her too much.  She still jumped when his voice broke her concentration.  He noted the contents of the coffee table with a frown: an empty coffee mug and a couple of open energy drink cans but no signs of food.  "Have you eaten?"

 

She shook her head.  "I'll get something in a bit.  I just need another cup of coffee."

 

"No.  No more caffeine for a while, it's not good for you.  I will make you breakfast and you will eat it."

 

Her eyes went back to her laptop but she didn't argue with him, which he took for acceptance.  He took pity on his smallest dongsaeng, opting for a protein shake instead of a more solid meal; he could cram more calories and protein in a shake than he could in anything he could cook.  Emma seemed to prefer drinking her meals when she was working on her computer anyway.  He left everything out - he'd make a shake for whoever wanted one when they stumbled into the kitchenette.  She barely seemed to pay attention as he set it on the coffee table, swiping the mug and drink cans and disposing of them.

 

"How long have you been working?"  Shiwoo was hoping she'd gotten at least a little sleep.

 

"A couple of hours," she mumbled absently.  "I had a nightmare and couldn't go back to sleep so I decided to get started."  Shiwoo nodded; it was unfortunate, but hardly unusual.  They all had sleepless nights at least a couple of times a week.  Sleeping together helped but it couldn't hold back all the nightmares.

 

"Are you staying here or coming with Tony and me to get Amber?"  Privately, Shiwoo was hoping to pry her away from the computer.  As the founder of CDark, she'd been the most social of them on the chat site and she knew the other HYDRA survivors better than anyone else in the family.

 

"No, I need to stay here.  Kendall's going.  She actually knows Amber better than I do and she's good in a fight."  He grimaced in response but acknowledged the sense in her words.  His own preferences had to take a back seat to the needs of the others.

 

“Don’t worry, oppa, you’ll be fine.”

 

 

 

 

Shiwoo had plenty of time to reflect on Emma’s cheerful encouragement on the way to Boulder.  Once the autopilot engaged Tony took the opportunity to catch up on work which didn’t really lend itself to casual talk.  There was no real conversation with Kendall either; neither really knew what to say to the other and the silence between them was just awkward. Peter was supposed to be at the Compound later but they’d left long before he’d arrive; Shiwoo would have much preferred Peter’s company on this trip but it wasn’t an option.  He resorted to tinkering with the rhymes for the song he was working on, accomplishing very little.

 

Fortunately, it was a short flight - just over an hour in the quinjet.  Casey’s power had sent Amber’s team to Boulder and Amber had taken a huge risk: she’d contacted a cousin that ran a sheep ranch on the western edge of the Boulder metro sprawl.  Her cousin allowed them to stay, sleeping in the old bunkhouse, in exchange for their help working the ranch.  The work was tiring but not difficult and they had plenty of open space to train and practice.  She’d even talked her cousin in to modernizing the ranch a bit, having Internet access installed in the main house and the bunkhouse. 

 

Talking Amber into joining the Avengers Academy hadn’t been easy for Emma; of all the teams, Amber’s had it the best.  What had finally swayed them was Tony’s offer of scholarships and higher education.  None of the six had any life-long dreams of being sheep ranchers.  They had all had different aspirations before HYDRA, and Tony’s offer was probably the best chance they had to reach those dreams. 

 

The comm line beeped in the cockpit and Tony reached over to hit the panel without looking.  “What’s up, Princess?”

 

“I called Amber on the satellite phone for final confirmation and she’s not answering.  It’s not…something’s not right.”  Emma’s voice was tight with worry.  Shiwoo’s eyes met Kendall’s, their faces sharing a look of uneasiness.

 

Tony’s expression didn’t change; only the deeper timbre of his voice showed any signs of concern.  “Keep trying to call – we’re fifteen minutes out.  If anything changes, let me know.”

 

Shiwoo’s hands moved through his pre-fight checklist automatically: knife in the right boot top, pistol on the right hip, armor plates in place, earpiece in his left ear, boot laces tied.  Fifteen seconds to assure himself that he was ready to fight and a small gesture, made without thinking, to assure the family that wasn’t there; looking up, he saw Kendall doing the same and they smiled at the synchrony.  Shiwoo looked over to see Tony watching them, his expression unreadable.  Tony gave them a little nod before turning his attention back to the controls of the quinjet.

 

No one came to greet them when Tony landed the quinjet in the scrap of yard between the main house and the bunkhouse.  It was a working ranch – at 8:30 in the morning, someone should be out moving around.  A well-used white Ram pick-up sat in the driveway in front of the main house.  Nothing seemed out of place.  By contrast, the front of the bunkhouse was drenched in bright red.  It didn’t quite look like blood but without moving closer it was hard to tell what it was.  As Tony stepped out of the quinjet, Iron Man assembled around him – Tony was expecting trouble.  The armor was new, experimental; it looked sleek and dangerous.

 

Shiwoo looked at the others and something in his gut told him that the main house was going to be bad, something he didn’t want Tony to see.  Squaring his shoulders, he volunteered.  “I’ll take the main house.”  Tony turned his head to look at Shiwoo; he couldn’t read Tony’s expression – the faceplate made him an enigma.  After a moment, Tony – Iron Man – nodded.   

 

Shiwoo watched the others walk toward the bunkhouse, reluctant to enter the main house.  His gut was screaming at him (bad, bad, bad!) and all he wanted to do was turn and run back to the quinjet, to hide, to let Tony take charge.  But his gut was sending mixed messages because he knew, he knew, that he couldn’t let Tony see what was in the house.  He had no idea where this sense of knowing was coming from but he didn’t doubt it.  So he took a deep breath and walked up the drive, past the front porch, and around to the kitchen door.

 

Before he even touched the door handle, he could smell it: that unique combination of copper-iron and raw meat.  Blood only smelled that strong when there was a lot of it.  The door was slightly ajar; he pushed it open.  A small lake of dark crimson stained the tiles, cold but not yet dry, close to the door.  The weather stripping on the bottom of the kitchen door scraped across the crimson, dragging it like a windshield wiper.  The door opened part-way, stopping when it hit something solid, and Shiwoo had to squeeze through the narrow opening, squeeze past the crimson without stepping in it.  The solid something the door had hit was a man.

 

The man was lying face up, arms and legs stretched out like da Vinci’s famous drawing.  A quick glance made it seem as if a red ribbon was draped across his throat and Shiwoo was happy to keep that impression.  Death had come from behind; the man had no idea what was happening in the last seconds of his life.  Shiwoo moved through the kitchen quickly, his dread weighing on him.

 

He’d found the man’s wife sprawled in the hallway, half reclined against the wall.  Her empty eyes were fixed on the framed pictures across from her, a trio of young boys with gap-toothed grins.  Her death had been in front, her assailant pressing one hand to her mouth and forcing her back as he slit her throat with the other hand.  It still had been relatively swift and likely too fast for her to truly suffer.  There were other rooms on the first floor but he ignored them, the weight of his instincts pulling him up the stairs to the second floor.

 

Three doors lined the right side of the hallway with a fourth door at the end.  Each of the three side doors had a cheerfully-painted wooden name plaque: Sean, Jordan, and Andy.  Reaching for the first door, Shiwoo stepped into Sean’s room.

 

The curtains were drawn, cloaking the room in twilight.  A still lump rested under a hand-made quilt, looking almost peaceful.  Dark red bloomed against the pillows, a fine mist of red dotting the baby blue wall behind the headboard.  The boy had been shot rather than sliced, like his parents.  Shiwoo’s mind ticked off the details like a camera flash; it helped – made it feel a little less real.  The boy had slept through everything, he’d never known.  Small blessings.

 

Jordan’s room was functionally identical.  Same curtained twilight; same lump under the quilt; same dark red blossom on the pillows; same baby blue walls misted with red.  Like his older brother, Jordan had slept through death.  He didn’t need to step any farther into the room, didn’t need any more detail.  He knew everything he needed to know.    

 

Sean and Jordan – what happened was bad but it wasn’t the source, the root of his dread.  The culmination, the thing that Tony absolutely must not see was in the last door on the right, Andy’s room.  He didn’t want to open the door, didn’t want to see but he had to; he had to protect Tony.  Shiwoo pushed open the door to Andy’s room.

 

Shiwoo noticed the curtains first – they were thinner, allowing more light into the room.  There was no comforting twilight to blur the edges of what he could see.  The walls were a cheerful yellow instead of baby blue; Shiwoo could imagine them matching Andy’s sunny smiles.  There was no lump under the quilt, because Andy hadn’t been sleeping.  And there was no dark red blooming on the pillow; it was all over the happy yellow wall instead, because Andy hadn’t been sleeping.  Andy had known exactly what was coming, and that he was the last one alive in the house.  The monster had already gotten everyone else and there was no one left to save him.  Andy had seen the monster when it opened his door, because he hadn’t been sleeping.  And if Tony had seen Andy’s room, Tony wouldn’t be sleeping either.

 

Tony’s voice was in his ear suddenly.  “You got anything over there, kid?”

 

Shiwoo’s voice sounded remarkably calm to his own ears.  “No enemies in the house, sunbae-nim, and no one hiding.”

 

“Well, then, get over here because this place is just downright weird.  And believe me, I’ve seen weird.  But this is weirder.”  Shiwoo decided that weird sounded pretty good right now.

 

Tony wasn’t exaggerating; the bunkhouse was weird.  As it turned out, the bright red surrounding the bunkhouse that they’d seen from the quinjet was a proliferation of beautiful, blooming red roses.  In April; in Colorado.  There was no rhyme or reason to their placement.  It was as if they had sprang up wild and there were so many that one had to push through them to reach the door of the bunkhouse.  Fortunately, there were no thorns.  The smell of blood was still present (the smell seemed to echo for Shiwoo), but it was almost completely overpowered by the scent of roses.  

 

Inside the bunkhouse was even stranger.  There were signs of a fight everywhere: bullet holes in the walls, broken furniture and shattered glass, scorch marks on the walls and ceilings.  There was still the underlying smell of blood but the smell of the roses was even stronger in the still air.  The roses – there were roses blooming inside the bunkhouse.  The roses were growing up through the floorboards where sections of the floor were completely missing.  There were no bodies.         

 

“Tell me you got something for me, Princess, because otherwise I’m stuck with weird.”  Shiwoo could certainly sympathize.

 

It was Casey’s voice that answered Tony.  “We’ve got nothing right now, boss.  My power is telling me that you guys need to head home.”

 

“And the Oracle speaks.  Where’s our princess?”

 

“She’s working CDark and letting me do logistics, which is MY job by the way.  And define weird.”

 

“I’ll send you video.”

 

There was a pause, then Casey whistled.  “OK, that is weird.  “Cel wants to know if you’re bringing back samples.”

 

“Of course.  Tell Mini-me he gets second crack at them.  I've got first dibs.”

 

Iron Man withdrew as the quinjet’s cargo bay door closed, the armor retreating, leaving behind a worried-looking Tony Stark.  Shiwoo waited until the farm was too far behind them to see anymore before asking in the quietest voice he could manage, “Friday?”

 

“Yes, Shiwoo?”

 

“Could you alert the emergency authorities? There are bodies in the house.”

 

 

 

 

Everything was quiet and dark, the only light in the kitchenette as Tony made drinks: tea for Natasha and a smoothie for himself.  The kids had wandered off to bed; Tony was grateful that they seemed to keep an early morning schedule.  Even Peter had finally given in, with his chronic fatigue kicking him.  Tonight, at least, he didn’t have to fight them to get them to sleep and it made it easier when he wanted to talk to Natasha without them listening.  The Widow was sitting on one of the island stools, her elbows on the granite countertop and her fingers laced under her chin.  He didn’t tell her he wanted to talk, she just seemed to know.

 

He sat her tea on the counter in front of her, but didn’t say anything.  After a few moments of silence, she prompted “So what’s going on?”

 

He sighed.  “I don’t know if I can do this thing, the kids, the Academy.  I don’t know if I can do it.”

 

“Why?”

 

He ran a frustrated hand over his face and through his hair.  “They’re not really kids anymore, are they?  I just had to dress down Shiwoo on the flight back for hiding things from me.  Because he was trying to protect me.  I’m the adult, and he’s trying to protect me.”  He picked up his glass, then put it back down without taking a drink.  “These kids walk into dangerous situations with this ‘been there, done that’ attitude when all I want to do is take them to Disney Land.  And God help me, Nat, I never want to see another fifteen-year-old do a ‘weapons ready’ check again.”

 

She waited to see if he would continue before putting her hand on his.  “You’re right, they’re really not kids anymore.  HYDRA took that away from them and we can’t give it back.  But they’re not adults yet either.  All we can do is give them the care, and the tools, and the space to grow; to be there for them.  They’re strong, they’ll do the rest on their own.”  She took a sip of her tea.  “And someday, probably not too far away, they’ll be great Avengers.”  The tense, unhappy look didn’t leave his face and Natasha knew there was more.  “Just spit it out.”

 

“Someone is coming after my kids and I can’t see where it’s coming from and it feels like I’m just fumbling in the dark.”  His grip on his glass was fierce, his knuckles white.  “I mean, I didn’t get the chance to know this bunch, but they were part of the Academy and that means they were my kids already…”

 

“Our kids,” Nat interrupted.  “They’re our kids.  You’re not in this alone, Tony.”

 

Some of the tension seemed to leave his shoulders.  “Yeah, I’m not am I?”                                  

Chapter Text

Pepper sighed as she walked into the living room of Avenger's Compound and slipped out of her heels.  It had been a very long, very tiring week.  When she'd been his assistant, she'd always thought Tony's whining had been self-indulgent melodramatics; she'd had no idea how tiring meetings and paperwork could actually be.  It was so nice to be home for a little while.  At least the living room wasn't being used as a dorm anymore.

 

Before she could even walk into the room fully, two things caught Pepper's attention.  The first was the smell of roses, the rich perfume pulling an unexpected smile.  Her eyes darted around the room until she found a pair of perfect red blooms in a crystal vase on the granite island.  Where had Tony found them?  She'd never seen florists' roses that smelled so heavenly.

 

The second thing was the cat.  A large, black-and-white Maine Coon came racing through the opposite door and froze, looking back over its shoulder.  It darted into the kitchenette and Pepper watched in open-mouthed shock as it pawed open one of the cabinets built into the base of the island and slid inside.  She started for the kitchenette to confirm the existence of the cat when a teenage boy she didn't recognize burst through the same door the cat had come from, calling out, presumably for the missing feline, "Phoenix!"  He gave Pepper a polite nod.  "Have you seen a black cat come through here?"  His accent was French, with a taste of something else.

 

Pepper was too stunned to say much of anything.  Instead, she just nodded.  There had always been some amount of chaos surrounding Tony, only getting worse with the addition of the Avengers, but this...  The boy gave her a heart-stopping smile before jogging out the door Pepper had come in and the part of her brain that was still functional could swear that she knew him from somewhere.  Before Pepper had really had a chance to gather her wits, the cat reappeared from its hiding place.  It looked at her and gave her a nod before leaving the same way it had come in.  Pepper sneezed.

 

 

 

 

Peter was the one to find Phoenix's hiding place under the table in an unused briefing room.  He'd had help from Friday, otherwise he'd never have found it himself.  Peter couldn't really blame the new kids for not asking Friday; the AI was unique and he doubted they had any idea how intelligent or responsive she was.  Rather than provoke the terrified teen into running again by coming in through the door, Peter decided to pull a page from Hawkeye's book and use the vent instead.  In fact, the vent system at the Compound was designed with Hawkeye's preferences in mind and entering the briefing room with a minimum of noise was fairly easy.

 

Phoenix had made himself as small as possible, sitting with his knees against his chest, his forehead resting on his knees, and his tail wrapped tight around his feet.  His arms were holding his shins, giving the aura of someone who desperately needed a hug.  The twitching of his ears and the constant movement of his tail tip betrayed his agitation.  Peter slid under the desk and after a few seconds’ internal debate, put a comforting arm around the other boy’s shoulders.  The shapeshifter tensed a little but didn’t pull away, so Peter counted it as a win.

 

“It’s ok to be scared.  Nobody’s going to think less of you.”  The cat-like boy didn’t respond so Peter asked “What started this?  Maybe I can help.”

 

“They wanted me to go the medical room and do tests.”  His voice was so quiet Peter didn’t think anyone else would have been able to hear him.  “Where we came from, there were scientists that always wanted to do tests on me ‘cause there aren’t a lot of shapeshifters.  They did their tests with needles and scalpels and machines, and it hurt so much.  And when I tried to fight back, I got hurt worse.”  His breath hitched with a sob.  “Julian doesn’t understand; he’s strong and brave, and they’d never be able to hurt him like they did to me.  I’m such a coward.  What if he doesn’t want me anymore, what if he’s ashamed of me?”

 

Peter didn’t know either boy well enough to answer the last question, so he decided to address the first part of the shapeshifter’s pained explanation.  “The doctors here aren’t like that.  They just want to make sure you’re healthy.  They kept Woojin from dying; they’ve even kept Mr. Stark from dying.”  Phoenix didn’t answer.  “How about this: we’ll go down to medical and I’ll stay with you the whole time.  We’ll have Friday tell Julian to meet us there.  It’ll be ok, you’ll see.”  Phoenix looked up at Peter finally, his blue-green eyes puffy and red-rimmed.  He nibbled on is lip uncertainly, his tiny fangs exposed, before extending a nervous hand to Peter.

 

Julian was waiting for them in medical.  As soon as they entered, he seized Phoenix in a fierce hug, murmuring French into the smaller boy’s hair.  Julian led Phoenix to the exam table where he took a seat.  He settled Phoenix on the edge of the table between his legs and pulled the shapeshifter tight against his chest in comfort.  Between Julian’s behaviors since they’d arrived and the intense look of possessiveness he’d shot Peter over the top of Phoenix’s head, Peter was pretty sure the smaller boy had nothing to worry about.

 

For their first official day as part of the Avengers Academy (official because Peter was with them), Natasha and Tony were taking them on a tour of the Compound.  The only part of the “working” area that any of them had been inside was medical and the training suite, and not even all of that.  They were all familiar and comfortable in the private areas of the Compound, reserved for the Avengers, and Tony was pretty sure that the kids didn’t know how rare that was.  Only Avengers, plus their family and friends with Tony’s permission, were allowed into the private areas.  He couldn’t stop his grin as he watched the realization sink in of how many people actually worked at the Compound and how large it actually was.

 

They started their tour in the medical wing; Tony wanted to get it out of the way so that the kids could enjoy the rest of the tour.  None of them were truly comfortable in a medical or lab setting but some of the kids were more traumatized than others.  He wanted them to see that they were safe here, to not be afraid of the Avengers’ staff doctors.  There would come a time in their career as Avengers that they would need the help and he didn’t want them fighting the people trying to save their lives.

 

“Alright my padawan, most of you are familiar with our medical wing by now.  I want to introduce you to our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Helen Cho.  She’s been on vacation in Seoul so you lot haven’t had a chance to meet her yet.  And this is Dr. Allen Briggs, who I know some of you have already met.  I know how you all feel about doctors but they are good people, I trust them.”

 

“Hello.  I’ll be seeing a couple of you this afternoon; nothing serious, just need to make sure everyone’s in good shape.  If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to come down.  We’re here to help.”  Tony nodded at Dr. Briggs and steered the tour group to the next area.

 

Everyone’s eyes went wide as they walked out of the short hallway into a massive steel and glass hangar bay housing five quinjets in a neat row.  The placement was no accident; when designing the Compound, they’d wanted medical close to the hanger to allow the fastest access to injured Avengers being brought in via quinjet.  They’d learned that lesson the hard way when they still occupied the Tower.  Maintenance personnel scurried around, keeping the quinjets in top condition and the hangar pristine; there wasn’t a single drop of oil or a speck of dust anywhere.  The quinjets shared the hangar with a drone bay.  Racks of drones designed for various purposes gleamed, including a separate rack of replacement Redwing drones for Falcon.

 

“So this is where we house the second best toys.  So, how many of you have your driver’s license?”  Kylan raised his hand, and Tony raised an eyebrow.  “Ok, but you still don’t get to drive the Audis, any of them.  Or the Bugatti.”  He chuckled a little at the boy’s disappointed look.  “But by the time you all are done with the Academy, you will all have your pilot’s license.”  He looked back at the quinjets significantly.  “Yes, Underoos, that means you too,” he added for Peter’s benefit.  The young vigilante was practically vibrating with excitement.

 

Tony allowed the kids a little longer to ogle the aircraft before directing them down a different hallway parallel to the medical entrance.  A quick walk led the tour group into a large open room broken up by clear glass walls that served as computer displays and accompanying computer stations.  Additional displays created the four walls of the room, showing different real-time maps and various news channels.  A massive conference table dominated the back half of the room with tablet-sized monitors built into the surface.  The room was impressive by its mere implication and Tony secretly delighted in their response.  A lean man in heavy mechanical leg braces was working at one of the stations while a few people in SI uniforms moved through the room on various errands.

 

“Welcome to the Ready Room.  This is where the Avengers meet for mission briefings and where our tactical operations support really runs the show.  From here we can monitor situations around the globe, right down to the color of Dr. Doom’s underwear or the current forecast in Madagascar.  Baby blue and a sixty percent chance of rain, in case you were curious.”  Tony grinned again as the man in the leg braces walked over to join them.  “Let me introduce you to one third of the active Avengers’ roster.  This is Colonel James Rhodes, you might know him better as War Machine.”

 

“It’s good to see the next generation of Avengers.  Don’t hesitate to ask me if there’s anything you want to know.  Please, ‘cause if you don’t ask me, you’ll be stuck asking Tones and I can’t have that on my conscience.”  He had an easy grin that only got bigger at Tony’s mock insulted look. 

 

“What is the current Avengers’ roster?”  Kendall wanted to know.

 

“Glad you asked.  Right now, the Avengers have three active and three reserve members.  Our active members are Iron Man, War Machine, and Black Widow.  Our reserve members are Spider-Man, Rescue, and Vision.  Vision is on an indefinite leave of absence.  We’ll move him back to active duty when he’s ready to come back.”

 

Natasha was frowning.  “Tony…”

 

“Natasha…”  He locked eyes with the Widow, not giving ground.  She gave him a look that said he was in for a serious discussion later.

 

The tense stand-off was broken by the sound of a phone ringing.  Everybody stared at Emma; the ringing phone was hers.  She pulled the satellite phone from her hip pocket.  “Hello?”  Her face grew grave at whatever she heard on the other end.  “Jason?”

 

“Friday, intercept that satellite line and open it for three-way.”  It took the AI less than thirty seconds to patch Tony into the satellite call and they could all here the sound of gunfire in the background. 

 

“Jason, you’re on speaker.  Tell them what you told me.”

 

“Who’s there?”  Jason’s voice was harsh and clipped.

 

“This is Tony Stark, Iron Man.  Who’s shooting at you, kid?”

 

“HYDRA.  We’ve been dodging them for a couple of weeks now but…”  He was cut off by another round of gunfire.  “If you’re willing to bail us out, I guess we’re willing to make that deal with the devil.”

 

“Nice.”  Tony’s voice dripped with sarcasm.  “Where are you?”

 

“White Plains.  Half-finished office building near The Westchester.”  Friday was already pulling up the coordinates on one of the displays, along with a blueprint of the office building.  Ironically, the building under construction was owned by SI; it was meant to be the new headquarters for the September Foundation.

 

“Hang on a little longer, we’re on the way.”  Jason only snorted.

 

Tony turned to his best friend.  “Rhodey, suit up, you’re with me.  Peter, you’re going to be coming in behind us with a quinjet.  You guard that quinjet; it’s vital to evacuate our new trainees.  Do not leave the quinjet!”  He waited until he got Peter’s nod of acceptance.  “Nat, you and Casey run tac ops. The rest of you are on guard duty here in case HYDRA gets any bright ideas of attacking the compound while we’re out.  Let’s move!”

 

Within three minutes Iron Man and War Machine were in the air and on their way south.  Peter was secure in the cargo area of the quinjet, waiting for the pilot to finish preflight checks.  He’d be five minutes behind.  Rhodey switched to a private channel.  “You know that HYDRA’s not going to attack the compound; we’d have detected them incoming.  We’re you trying to scare them?”

 

“Keeping them busy and feeling useful.  They’re used to being in the middle of the fight but they’re not ready for this kind of fighting, Rhodey.  I made a mistake bringing Peter into war too early; I’m not going to make that mistake again.”

 

As they approached the skeletal office building, he switched to thermal imaging scanners to get a look at who was in the building and where.  He swore as the thermal imaging blanked in a solid wall of bright orange and red.  Fire had spread throughout the first and second floors.  Smoke was pouring out of the building and Tony could hear the sound of more gunfire.  “I can’t find them on thermals.  I’ll take the first floor, Rhodey – you take second.  We’ll work our way up.  Nat, what’s the ETA on the quinjet?”

 

Black Widow’s voice came across the comms.  “Seven minutes out.”

 

Casey’s voice came over the channel.  “Police and fire department have been called out and we’ve made contact.  They know they’re to keep a safe perimeter until you give the all-clear.”

 

War Machine flew up to the second floor, ready to break a window, when Tony’s voice stopped him.  “Break a window and you’ll turn it into a fire storm.  Use the elevator shaft.”

 

Rhodey headed for the elevator shaft and Tony began systematically sweeping the ground floor, trying to contain the fire to create a safe exit.  Bullets pinged off the armor as a squad of HYDRA soldiers hiding in an alcove opened fire, trying to overwhelm Iron Man.  He fired a pair of repulsor blasts, knocking four of them off their feet, then swept in swinging.  He knocked one of the soldiers into the wall hard enough to crack the combat helmet and threw another back down the hall about twenty feet.  One of the remaining three soldiers, out of bullets, tried to use the rifle as a baseball bat.  He swung the gun at Iron Man, cracking the stock as it connected with the armor with a loud clang.

 

“Really?  Is this what they’re teaching in villain school now?”  Tony ripped the gun from the HYDRA soldier’s hands and returned the favor.  The guy lost a couple of teeth as he hit the ground, unconscious.  He grabbed the last two soldiers and slammed them together, knocking them out, and dropping them in the pile of unconscious HYDRA goons.  “How’s it going up there, Honey Bear?” 

 

“Oh, you know fire, lots of thugs, bullets everywhere.  Typical Saturday night on the town with you.”  Tony could hear the sound of War Machine’s mini missile packs launching and the resulting small explosions.

 

Another squad of HYDRA soldiers emerged from a room near the stairwell, trying to pierce Iron Man’s armor with a concentrated hail of fire.  Iron Man launched his own mini missiles, sending the soldiers flying.  “Just remember that I’m the one that knows how to show you a good time.  Any sign of the kids?”

 

“No, not ye…found ‘em, Tony.  Four friendlies in the southwest corner.  One of the kids seems to be controlling the fire.  He’s clearing a path to the stairwell while I’m keeping HYDRA occupied.” 

 

“Get ‘em out and I’ll cover you.  Where’s my quinjet?”

 

“We just landed in front of the building, Mr. Stark.”  Peter’s voice crackled across the comms.

 

“Alright, Spidey, do not leave the quinjet.  War Machine is going to get them to you and then I need you to keep them safe while the jet is taking off.  We’ll cover the jet on the way back, so no surprises.”

 

“I’ve got this, Mr. Stark.”

 

Tony could hear the heavy clank-thud of War Machine coming down the stairwell, along with the lighter footfall of the kids and the echo of gunshots.  Rhodey came barreling past him, carrying an injured girl, with three other teens running as fast they could to stay in front of War Machine.  Rhodey was using the armor to shield them from bullets as they ran for the front door.  Tony fired another pair of mini missiles up the stairwell, ready to retreat with them.  A flicker of movement caught his eye: a digital timer, attached to a pack of explosives stuck to the wall.  The timer dropped from 00:01 to 00:00, a chain reaction of explosions as the dozens of explosive packs HYDRA had hidden on the first floor detonated simultaneously.  Tony was blown back into the nearby elevator shaft as the fire-damaged building came down around him.

Chapter Text

Six Petals Theme: Ten – “New Heroes”

 

Chapter 1: Breaking Benjamin – “Dance With The Devil”

Shiwoo: BTS (Jungkook) - "Begin"

Woojin: Need to Breathe - "Brother" or BTS – “Born Singer”

Amahle: Tommy Profitt (Feat. Wondra) - "I'm Not Afraid"

Marcelo: Queensryche - "Silent Lucidity" 

Emma: Beth Crowley - "Gone"

Casey: J-Hope - "Daydream"

 

Chapter 2: B.A.P. – “Skydive”

 

Chapter 3: Adam Lambert – “Ghost Town’”

Tony: Dorothy – “Medicine Man”

Coulson: Simon Curtis – “Pit of Vipers”

 

Chapter 4: Phillip Phillips – “Home”

Woojin – BTS (Jin) – “Awake” (CH. 4-7) The song that the title of the story comes from

 

Chapter 5: Sigrid – “Everybody Knows”

 

Chapter 6: Monsta X – “Hero”

 

Chapter 7: The Fray – “Over My Head”

 

Chapter Eight: Hot Chelle Rae – “Tonight, Tonight”

 

Chapter 9:  Welshley Arms - "Legendary"

 

Chapter 10: Sarah Sanderson – “Come Little Children”

Kylen: Great Big Sea – “Ordinary Day” + Kendall: Monsta X – “Fighter”

Julian: EXO – “Black Pearl” + Phoenix: AFI – “Kiss My Eyes and Lay Me to Sleep”

Etienne: Svrcina – “Fallen Angel” + Nayiri: Eurielle – “Carry Me”

 

Chapter 11: Wild Mountain Thyme – “There Were Roses” (My favorite version of the song)

 

Chapter 12: Disturbed – “The Light”

Tony: Zayde Wolf – “Gladiator”

 

Chapter 13: Against the Current – “Legends Never Die”

Chapter Text

First came the explosion, or series of explosions; then, a roar as the skeletal building collapsed.  A wall of dust and debris blocked Peter's sight completely.  His mask protected his eyes, nose, and mouth but he threw his arm up to protect his face instinctively.  It was an agonizing eternity before he saw War Machine emerging from the dust cloud practically on top of the quinjet, carrying someone, with the three teenagers close beside him.  Peter kept looking as Rhodey loaded the injured girl into the quinjet, the other three taking seats nearby.  There was no sign of Tony.

 

"Where's Tony?"

Karen answered before Rhodey could.  "Mr. Stark is underneath the remains of the building.  His vitals indicate he is in distress."

 

Peter was down the ramp and ready to run for the ruins when Rhodey grabbed his arm.  "What are you doing?  Tony told you to stay in the quinjet."

 

"I have to help Mr. Stark."  Rhodey didn't let go of his arm.

 

"No, you're going back to the compound like you were told to do.  I’m staying to dig him out."

 

Peter took a quick breath.  Emotion would only make him look like a kid; logic would help him get Rhodey to see reason.  "Look, Mr. Rhodes, if anyone's going to attack, it'll be when the quinjet's in the air and I can't help with that but you can.  And I'm stronger than you are.  In the suit, I mean in the suit.  I can move more pieces, heavier pieces.  I can get to him faster."  He held his breath and crossed his fingers.

 

Rhodey reluctantly let go of his arm.  "I'm going to hate myself for this.   Ok, Spidey, I'm going to escort the quinjet back to the compound and then I am coming right back.  DO NOT get yourself killed while I'm gone."  Peter nodded and ran for the sight of destruction.

 

 

 

 

Tony was numb, mentally and physically.  His thoughts were coming sluggishly; he could feel the pieces of his thoughts floating around him, trying to pull themselves together.  He wasn’t sure where he was: it was a small space, lit with only a dim golden light, with everything disappearing into darkness quickly above him.  He was lying on his back but he really couldn’t feel his body – everything was numb and there was a stray thought that flittered through saying this was a good thing.  His thoughts finally began reassembling themselves and it all came back in a rush: the explosion, being flung backwards into the elevator shaft, the roar as the building began to collapse, hitting the floor of the shaft before he could activate the repulsors…and pain.

 

With the return of rational thought came agony.  Tony tried to sit up and then wished he hadn’t.  He only managed to sit up far enough to lift his head and shoulders but it was enough to see where the pain was coming from.  He was impaled on an iron strut, six inches wide and, judging by the length he could see, easily five feet long.  Even in pain, his self-deprecating sarcasm didn’t abandon him.  I think I used to have a kidney there, he thought.  He was buried alive under tons of rubble, run through with a spear of construction iron.  He could feel the panic starting to rise; as long as the light didn’t go out.  Focusing on the light, whatever part of his mind that was holding off the panic wanted to know where the light was coming from.

 

As if in response to the thought, a glowing, golden hand gently touched his chest.  Turning his head, he saw the source of the light: a…woman?  Maybe not the right word – she reminded him of an angel or a goddess.  She had black hair and copper skin with sharp features, a luminous aura leaking through her skin.  Her hair and pale blue dress seemed to float on an unfelt breeze.  She smiled down at him, warmth touched with sadness.  “Remove your armor, Guardian, and rest.  I will not let you fall.”  The smell of roses began to fill up the small space.

 

Tony blinked, trying to wrap his mind around what he was seeing.  There was no scientific explanation, and his mind was trying to withdraw from what he couldn’t explain – back into the numb state he’d only just left.  His armor retreated, before he realized he’d ordered it to, and the logical part tried very hard not to panic.  His mind was split, one part racing and afraid, and the other part quietly accepting.  Was he dying, was he already dead?  Did he deserve heaven with everything he’d done?  The calmer, less logical part of him managed to form a question.  “Who are you?”

 

“I am the First, the Alpha.  And you are the Guardian to whom I have entrusted my children.”  She placed her hand on his chest again and the pain faded to a buzzing in his veins.  He tried to sit up again to see what was happening.  The iron strut was dissolving, misting away like smoke.  He could feel his body reknitting, a strange feeling as new blood flooded into restored organ, muscle, and tissue.  The smell of roses grew stronger.

 

“The roses…” he mumbled.

 

“The roses are my tribute.  Where the blood of my children touches the ground, my roses grow.  But these are your roses, Guardian.  I made them as a gift for you.  Now rest, your child is coming for you.  I will see you again, Guardian.”  Tony’s eyes slid shut and he let his mind slip into a quiet place, cradled by the smell of roses.

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t hard for Peter to find the right spot to dig with Karen’s help.  He wanted to leap in, flinging chunks of concrete and iron like a child digging through packing peanuts but that was exactly the wrong thing to do.  It was more like a game of Jenga, where moving the wrong piece could cause everything to shift down and crush Tony.  Instead, he made use of Karen’s sonar imaging feature (again, something he didn’t know she had) to see how the car-sized chunks of concrete and bus length iron beams were balanced.  Some pieces he shifted laterally, others he removed outright, and some he added to shore up unstable areas – all with the goal of the reaching the bottom of the elevator shaft. 

 

It felt like it was taking forever and he was starting to panic when Karen gave him the best piece of news he’d heard all day.  “Mr. Stark’s vitals have stabilized and are returning to normal levels.”  Peter had no idea how that could happen but he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth.  As he neared the bottom of the shaft, he noted a strange smell: roses.  It wasn’t something he could ask Karen about, so he set it aside for now.  The sound of repulsors reached him and Peter looked up to see War Machine returning.  He hovered, knowing better than to land on something that could shift and cause a collapse.

 

“You’re doing good, kid.  Friday says Tony’s ok for now so take the time you need.”

 

“Do you smell something funny, Colonel Rhodes?”  Peter wanted to confirm his own strange impression.

 

“You can call me Rhodey, you know.”  He slid the face plate up to catch a whiff of whatever the teen was smelling.  The kid’s sense of smell was as advanced as the rest of his senses and he doubted if he could smell anything yet but he did, indeed, catch a hint of something odd.  “Is that…flowers?” 

 

“I think it’s roses but that doesn’t make any sense.”  Peter grabbed another chunk of concrete the size of a student desk and passed it up to Rhodey, who flew it back up to the top of the shaft.

 

Working together they were able to clear the last of the rubble from the shaft to expose a hole at the bottom. The bottom of the elevator shaft had been sheltered by a fortuitous ceiling of rubble created by an accidental web of iron beams that had fallen at a slant, and taken the weight of the collapsed concrete.  Light from above poured into the shaft and the two rescuers could see Tony lying on the floor.  The smell of roses came rolling up the shaft.

 

Peter dropped down into the shaft, landing gracefully, Rhodey following.  Seeing Tony up close terrified Peter.  The older man looked dead: he was lying on his back, his hands resting neatly on his belly but failing to cover the gaping hole in Tony’s shirt or the sticky, drying blood.  Only the gentle rise and fall of his chest told them he was still alive.  Instead of lying on the floor, Tony was resting on a bed of snow-white roses in full bloom that were growing through the shattered floor of the elevator shaft.

 

“Tony!”  Peter shook Tony’s shoulder, but the older man didn’t stir.  “Karen, what’s wrong with him?”

 

“Brainwave patterns indicate that Mr. Stark is sleeping.  Friday has contacted Dr. Cho and you will need to get Mr. Stark to Medical.”  The tilt of Rhodey’s head indicated he’d received the same message.

 

Rhodey lifted Tony carefully and gestured Peter over.  “Let’s get Tony back and have Dr. Cho take a look at him.  We’ll get him back.”

 

 

 

 

 

Natasha met them in the hangar as Peter took the unconscious Avenger while Rhodey left to put away War Machine.  “What’s wrong with Tony?”

 

“We don’t know.  Friday says he’s asleep but he won’t wake up.”  He headed down the short hallway to Medical, Natasha following close behind.

 

Medical was already bustling.  Two of the newcomers were being treated: one of the boys had lost an eye to an (un)lucky shot, while a girl was being prepped for surgery for a gunshot wound to the stomach.  Dr. Briggs noticed Peter’s arrival and pointed to a bed already prepared.  “Put him there.”  He signaled to a pair of nurses.  “Start coma protocols.”

 

“Does Ms. Potts know?”  Peter’s eyes were wet but he wasn’t going to let himself cry in front of everyone, especially the Black Widow.  He was stronger than that.

 

“Natasha shook her head.  “She’s in a teleconference that can’t be interrupted.  Friday will let me know when she’s done.  I’ll…”

 

Natasha was interrupted by a piercing alarm that had medical personnel scrambling to reach the girl with the gunshot wound.  Dr. Briggs snapped off orders, assigning tasks.  Peter and Natasha found themselves restraining the two remaining teens, who were screaming her name and trying to reach her.  They watched as Dr. Briggs and his team tried everything; they managed to restart her heart for a few seconds but it stopped again, never to restart.  After twenty minutes, Dr. Briggs turned off the heart monitor and asked one of the nurses for the time.  After making a note, he gently pulled the sheet up to cover the girl, the rest of the staff drifting back to their tasks.  Tony didn’t stir.

 

Peter and Natasha led the shell-shocked boys, twins apparently, to the living room where the rest of the Academy members were gathered.  Emma hopped up from her seat and held out her hands to the newcomers.  After a moment of recognition, the twins took her hands to catch the tiny girl in a three-way hug.  After a moment, she turned to introduce them.  “Ok, so this is Blake and Bailey Ryan.”

 

“Almost.”  The twin on the right said.  “Actually, I’m Blake…”

 

“And I’m Bailey,” the twin on the left finished.

 

“And we’re never going to be able to tell you two apart.”  Casey snickered.

 

“Where are the others?”  Emma’s voice was tight with concern.

 

“Jason’s going to lose his eye.”  Bailey supplied, touching his right eye.  “Better than losing his head.”

 

Blake didn’t look up, but his fists were clenched.  “Ximena is dead and it’s my fault.”  Bailey put a hand on his twin’s shoulder, but Blake shrugged it off.

 

“How could this possibly be your fault?”  Emma was staring at him, hand on hips.  “You didn’t pull the trigger.”

 

“I wasn’t fast enough.  If I got the force field up in time, she’d still be alive!”

 

“Hey!”  Natasha interrupted.  “How many times have you tried to move faster than a bullet?”  Blake looked at her, confused.  “How many times during training were you actually shot at?”

 

“Frequently.”  Peter was glad for the mask so no one could see his expression.  He didn’t know much about what had happened to the other Academy members compared to Tony and Natasha but what little he knew made him sick to his stomach.

 

“But you always saw it coming.  It was expected.”  Natasha was relentless.  “Did you see the soldier that shot her before the bullet hit?”

“No.”  Blake’s voice was almost a whisper, his head down.

 

“Then how is it your fault?  Put the blame where it belongs, on HYDRA.”  Bailey moved to put an arm around his twin’s shoulder and this time, Blake didn’t push him away.  Peter let out a breath; it was going to be ok.

 

Slowly, in groups of two or three, Kendal’s and Shiwoo’s teams approached the twins, greeting and commiserating with their new Academy brothers.  Peter hung back, unsure if he would be welcome, but Casey pushed him forward.  The twins gave him an odd look and Peter remembered belatedly that he still had his mask on.  He took the mask off and offered his hand with a nervous smile.  “Hi, I’m Peter…uhm…Spider-Man…”

Another alarm sounded, this time throughout the Compound, and red emergency lights lit up.  “Friday? What’s going on?”  Natasha demanded.

 

“A large number of armed individuals are approaching the Compound.  Security personnel have been alerted and all non-combat personnel are being directed to the safe rooms.”

 

Rhodey’s voice came over the in-house comm line.  “I just racked the damn armor.  What’s your play, Nat?”  It threw Peter for a second, before it made sense.  Natasha was one of the Founding Six, one of the first Avengers.  Rhodey would naturally look to her to lead.

 

“I need you to guard Medical.  We have patients, so we can’t evacuate the staff.”

 

“Roger that,” Rhodey acknowledged. 

 

Natasha commed over to Pepper.  “Pepper, I need you to suit up and head down to the safe rooms.  You’re going to have to guard the non-combat personnel.”  The SI CEO hesitated before agreeing.

 

Peter did a quick headcount of available Avengers and didn’t like the conclusion.  Tony was down, and with Pepper and Rhodey assigned to guard positions, that left only himself and Natasha to assist the security personnel.  “How are we going to hold off…wait, how many are coming?”

 

“108 at current count,” Friday supplied.

 

“How are we going to hold off 108 soldiers with just the two of us?”  Natasha met his eyes, looking none too pleased.

 

She looked around at the assembled Avengers Academy recruits.  “Everyone’s going to have to fight if we’re going to make it through this.  I know you’re afraid….”

 

“We’re not afraid, we’re angry,” Blake growled.

 

“And tired of running,” Kendal added, lacing her fingers with Kylen’s.

 

“We’ll protect what’s ours.”  Shiwoo looked at the other teens, then back at Natasha.

 

Peter caught the small smile on Natasha’s face and realized what she’d done.  His initial impression of her, back when he’d first met her in Berlin, was accurate.  She could be downright scary when she tried.

Chapter Text

Agent 41 looked at Charlie Squad and signaled a halt in their approach.  The order to hold back had gone out: wait for the Lieutenant to give the go-ahead while 1st Platoon disabled the Avengers’ automated defenses.  She was glad her squad was in 2nd Platoon; 1st was going to lose good men to the guns before the EMP grenades shut them down.  At least this assignment should be a cakewalk; Command had let them know that Iron Man was out of commission and they had more than enough soldiers to overwhelm War Machine and Spider-Man and some basic security guards.

 

They were too far back to see what was happening but Agent 41 could hear it over the comms – the sound of the guns, the screaming of the wounded, then silence as the EMPs did their job.  She trusted Command, trusted her fellow soldiers, and trusted her squad.   More importantly, she trusted HYDRA.  Their cause was true and righteous.   When she looked at her children, she knew she was doing something that she could be proud of.  She was going to make the world better for them.

 

The command to charge came over the comms and Agent 41 leapt forward, signaling her squad to follow.  As soon as they were in close enough to make out the security personnel in defensive positions at the entrance of the Avengers’ main building, she opened fire, her squad following her lead.  It surprised her when the bullets impacted some kind of energy shield, but Stark tech was everywhere at the Compound.  If 1st Platoon was out of EMP grenades then they could overload the shield with bullets; it would just take more ammunition to breach the entrance than anticipated.   A white, hot light flared up to her left and exploded, followed quickly by a second, sending waves of concussive force into her fellow HYDRA soldiers and she cursed.  How the hell did the Avengers security still have artillery left?  When an unseen force began throwing her comrades-in-arms around like bowling pins, she knew something was seriously wrong.  Before she had time to relay a warning to the Lieutenant, she was caught in a bubble of force and found herself floating helplessly twenty feet of the ground, and Agent 41 – Terri Booth – wondered if she’d ever see her kids again.

 

 

 

 

It was the second battle of the day for Blake and Bailey, with little time for rest in between and Blake was pushing himself far beyond his limit.  So far, in fact, that when Bailey looked at his brother, Blake’s arms were shaking and blood dripped from his nose and rolled over his lip.  Bailey wanted to tell him to stop but Blake just shook his head.  A minute later, it was a moot point: Blake’s eye rolled up and he slumped over.  If Bailey hadn’t been close enough to reach out and grab him, the stubborn teen would have hit the floor.  The force fields he’d erected around the security personnel began to dissolve.  {Blake’s out}; Bailey’s telepathic message to Natasha was followed by the order coming from the earpiece:   fall back.  Bailey passed his unconscious twin to Kylen to take his own position with Etienne.  Phase Two had begun.

 

 

 

 

When the security personnel had lost their Stark Tech energy shield, they’d scattered like the cowards they were and Command had ordered them to hunt down everything living in the Compound and terminate.  The Compound was huge, reflecting Tony Stark’s ego, and the HYDRA soldiers split into their component squads to cover more territory.  Sgt. Paul Gregorry (Agent 55) sneered as he led 3rd Charlie down a hallway he’d seen some of the cockroaches disappear in.  As Agent 79, carrying the rear, entered the hallway a pair of heavy metal blast-proof doors hidden in the walls slammed shut behind them.  Several members of the squad swore loudly at the metallic bang that startled them but Gregorry swore for a different reason: they were cut off from their initial point of entry with no reliable intel on how the Compound’s interior hallways were laid out.  He really wasn’t interested in wandering around a building the size of a shopping mall trying to find his way back out again.

 

To add insult to injury, the main lights went out, leaving the squad in darkness for a moment before a secondary set of backup lights kicked on.  The backup lights provided only half the illumination and there was no sunlight to provide additional light to the interior hallway.  It was probably some automated emergency lockdown procedure, he thought.  “Fuck you, Stark,” he grumbled.

 

{Murderer.  Blood on your hands.  You will pay!}

 

“What the hell did you just say to me?”  Gregorry whipped around to glare at the soldier behind him.

 

“I didn’t say anything, Sergeant.”  Agent 98 was looking at him like he was going crazy.  There was a brush of bone-chilling fear and Gregorry wondered for a moment if he was.    He looked at the rest of the squad, seeing unease settling into them as well.  A feeling he refused to name settled deeper, bringing a light sweat to his skin, and a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye had him practically spinning in a circle; every time he tried to concentrate on the movement, there was nothing there.  Just shadows – shadows and a low whispering that had crept into his conscious so subtly he hadn’t heard it start.

 

They proceeded another twenty feet down the hallway when a light tap on his shoulder had him jumping and biting back a scream.  Agent 101 was shaking, her voice choked.  “Your shadow…”  Gregorry looked at his shadow against the wall and couldn’t look away.  It wasn’t his: it was twisted, distorted, monstrous.  While he watched, frozen, his shadow moved on its own, reaching out gnarled claws toward Agent 101.  One of his squad shrieked and he couldn’t blame anyone as he was swamped by a wave of terror; more shadows joined in the action, darting in and out, lunging at the HYDRA soldiers only to melt away.  3rd Charlie broke and ran, trying to escape the shadows, the fear, and the whispers of “Murderer, monster!”

 

Their panicked flight was stopped by another blast-proof door and a swirling mass of shadows that seemed to reach tendrils out to choke them.  As the invaders cowered back against the walls of the hallway, a figure emerged from the darkness.  The shadows clung to his back for a moment like a living cloak or a pair of dark wings and the only coherent thought Gregorry could muster was that he was looking at Death.  Death’s dark eyes were cold and hard, his expression more properly a sneer than a smile.  An invisible force flowed out from Death, choking the HYDRA soldiers in mind-numbing terror.

 

Death stalked forward, his steps smooth and his arms out.  He couldn’t actually touch them as they were pressed against the walls, but they shrank back from his delicate fingers nonetheless.  As he passed, the soldiers crumpled to the floor, eyes closed.  He didn’t stop walking after all nine invaders were lying on the ground, unmoving.  “Sweet dreams,” he chuckled mockingly as he passed.

 

 

 

 

1st Charlie and 1st Delta had found themselves in a similar situation to 3rd Charlie: chasing security personnel down one of the hallways leading away from the main entrance, only to be cut off by blast-proof doors nobody noticed until it was too late.  They’d quickly lost track of their prey as their path twisted and turned, door after door slamming shut and leading them into a rabbit warren.  They couldn’t call for help; comms were jammed and worst of all, they were stuck together.  If there was one thing that Sgt. Linda Thomas – Agent 18 - hated more than the Avengers it was Jones of 1st Delta.  She’d despised the man ever since he’d tried to stick his hand down her pants during a mission briefing a couple of years ago.  She had the uneasy feeling that they were fucked.

 

As the two squads burst into a two-story-tall gym, the door slammed shut behind them again and Linda groaned internally.  A flash of red and blue zipped by and yep, she’d been right: they were fucked.  Her eyes flicked around the room quickly before finally spotting the vigilante crouched on one of the exposed giant crossbeams, a smaller figure next to him.  “And the visiting team takes the field.  Batting for the home team is Spider-Man, Cheshire, and…” the webslinger paused.

 

“Jaguar.”  A tough-looking teen in jeans and a leather jacket stepped out from behind a piece of equipment.  Linda looked at the boy, dumbfounded.  Who the hell did this kid think he was – he wasn’t even armed!

 

The HYDRA soldiers swung their guns up, aimed at Spider-Man and it was a mark of how rattled they were that several of them opened fire without orders; Linda was ashamed to admit that a couple of her own soldiers were among them.  “That’s rude!  We didn’t even flip to see who got to go first.”  Even as he was talking, he was firing a web at another crossbeam; wrapping an arm around the elfin girl next to him, he swung out towards the invaders.  At the apex of his swung, he let go of the girl and tossed another line to end his swing sticking to the wall above and behind the soldiers. 

 

The girl landed cleanly on her feet next to the soldiers and executed a perfect sidekick into the chest of one of Jones’ men, sending him flying ten feet into a rack of free weights, and corkscrewing into a circle kick that caught his nearest squad mate in the jaw with a sickening crack.  She slid between a pair of HYDRA soldiers, punching one in the groin as she passed him and sweeping the other.  A swift blow to the downed soldier’s throat left him choking and gagging, desperate for air.

 

Linda’s head swiveled to track a sudden burst of movement, taking her eyes away from Jones’ train wreck.  The teen identified as Jaguar was charging her own squad, moving faster than any person should.  “Open fire!”  Linda’s sudden order seemed to break the paralysis the girl’s attacks had caused and 1st Delta suddenly remembered they were armed as well.  The air was full of bullets but Linda realized, to her horror, that the bullets weren’t actually hitting Jaguar; they were passing through him as if he was a ghost.  He waded into her troops, grabbing two and slamming them together hard enough to render both instantly unconscious instantly.  Linda took aim at his back as he swung on another HYDRA soldier, sending the hapless man flying.

 

The gun was jerked out of her hand before she could pull the trigger by a line of webbing and Linda wanted to smack herself for her own carelessness.  She’d actually forgotten Spider-Man was lurking nearby, so caught up in what the other two freaks were doing.  “Didn’t your mother ever tell you it was rude to point?”  Linda knew that the quip was aimed at her.  She went for her side arm and found her arms pinned to her side as she was wrapped in a line of web stronger than a steel cable.  Spider-Man jerked her off her feet and she was soon stuck to the wall with more webbing, watching helplessly as the three defenders dismantled the two HYDRA squads.  The girl was holding a wounded arm and limping by the end but the other two were apparently uninjured.  In contrast, the floor of the gym was littered with unconscious (or worse) soldiers.  “Well, I guess that wraps that up and the game goes to the home team,” Spider-Man quipped and all Linda could do was wonder how everything had gone so horribly wrong.

 

 

 

 

1st Alpha and 1st Beta had merged during the scramble to chase the defending security personnel; 1st Beta had lost their Sergeant and half their men during the attack on the automated defenses at the beginning of the battle.  Sergeant Victor Reyes took charge of the struggling squad without thinking.  They were in the heat of battle; they could sort out the proper chain of command later.  Victor wasn’t overly concerned with the twists and turns created by the blast-proof doors that seemed to shut at random.  He could figure his way out when they’d eliminated all targets.  He could hear the sound of a firefight nearby and he tried to steer his squads toward it.

 

Taking the only open door on the hallway they’d been forced into by the blast-proof doors, Victor and his soldiers entered what must be part of a fitness wing.  An Olympic-sized swimming pool dominated the room and for the first time since they’d started their pursuit, the HYDRA soldiers weren’t alone.  A curvy, auburn-haired girl with an abundance of freckles leaned casually against a bank of lockers installed along one of the walls.  The other teen, a statuesque black girl with long box braids was calmly standing on the water in the center of the pool.  Victor’s troops fanned out into the room, everyone staring at the girl doing what Victor’s mother told him only Jesus could do.

 

Her face was calm as the water in the pool began to churn; Victor gave the order to prepare to fire.  He wasn’t about to let this witch get the better of him.  The other girl made a sharp gesture, no longer so casual, and a metallic chiming echoed through the room.  Victor looked down to see pieces of their rifles bouncing and rolling; the barrels had been cut cleanly with just a wave of her hand.  A series of loud splashes drew his eyes back to the pool.  Six gigantic tentacles of water reared up from the pool, looking like a swarm of sea serpents, poised to strike.  Victor took a step back, ready to retreat; some of the other soldiers made a break for the door while the rest of his men seemed paralyzed.  A second wave of the pale girl’s hand rendered the door useless, seemingly fused to the door frame.  “Can’t have you lads running out on us, can we?”

 

Victor glanced around, desperately trying to formulate a plan, but there was nowhere to hide.  The aqueous tentacles lashed out, pummeling the HYDRA soldiers and Victor had enough time to regret his choices in life before he was knocked into a wall and everything went black.

Chapter Text

2nd Alpha had gotten far into the rat's nest of Avengers Compound before stumbling into a posh cafeteria of some sort.  The gently curving outside wall was floor-to-ceiling glass that looked out onto a beautifully landscaped section of the grounds.  The floors were a combination of a cushy, short-pile carpet in deep blue and a nice tile that looked like tide-swept sand.  By the frosted glass double doors was a waterfall wall; made with sapphire, sand, and a relaxing sage green mosaic, it flowed down to a shelf filled with live exotic plants then overflowed to a natural rock basin at the bottom.  The rest of the decor was in a warm cream and light wood tones, blending with the other colors naturally.  It was soothing and elegant and Agent 49, Jimmy Briscoe, hated everything about it.

 

Jimmy had come from humble beginnings and he had quickly learned to hate people with money as he grew up, especially people who waved it around.  People like Tony Stark, who liked to rub it in other people's faces with his expensive suits, fast cars, fancy women, and super-expensive buildings like this one.  Stark was refined, successful, and rich: everything that Jimmy was not.  Jimmy was a beer swilling, cigarette smoking, broke asshole (he was proud of being an asshole) who’d dropped out of high school to join the military and then promptly earned himself a dishonorable discharge.  He was going to take great pleasure in burning this place down around Stark's ears.

 

There was a café-style folding chalkboard sign by the door advertising some kind of spring salad and Jimmy sneered.  He was a man, he wanted man-food: steak and potatoes, or pork chops.  Salad was for prissy little bitches like Tony Stark.  He kicked over the sign, feeling only slightly mollified; it was a petty bit of revenge that did little to ease the burning hatred that Jimmy had for those who had more in life than he did.  “That was rude,” a sweet female voice commented and the HYDRA sergeant whipped around to see a teenage girl leaning against the counter, one of Stark’s little freaks.  He noticed she was kind of pretty; Jimmy figured he might keep her alive long enough to have a little fun.

 

What Jimmy didn’t notice was the oddly metallic bullwhip in her left hand.  Her hand flicked out, the whip following the line of her arm in a silvery arc, to wrap around Jimmy’s wrist.  Blue-white lightning curled around the whip and Jimmy’s body was on fire, every muscle twitching and jerking with spasms.  He hit the floor, his body unresponsive, but there was nothing wrong with his hearing or line of sight.  A primal growl echoed through the room and the primitive part of his brain quivered in fear.  A dinner plate-sized paw landed next to his face and that primitive part of Jimmy’s mind started gibbering.  It was suddenly very loud: gunfire mixed with those awful growls, screaming, and a couple of heavy thuds.  Jimmy found he could smell, too: gunpowder, ozone, and singed fabric.  The gunfire and screaming stopped and the only sound was a ticking noise and whimpering and the chuffing breath of a very large predator.

 

 

 

 

The remnants of Third Platoon – Alpha, Beta, and Delta – found each other as they stumbled back into the entry hall and the remnants of the fight with the security personnel.  3rd Alpha’s Carla Washington gave a friendly nod to Delta’s John Bishop while 3rd Beta’s sergeant (Carla’d never bothered to learn his name) looked on awkwardly.  Carla’s eyes swept the entry for signs of the security personnel they were hunting.  The entry was empty except for the HYDRA soldiers and a pair of Asian kids.  The boys, dressed in standard-issue HYDRA gear no less, seemed to be waiting for them.

 

The taller looked at his shorter companion. “Are you ready?”

 

The shorter boy smiled back.  “Of course, hyung!”

 

The taller made a gesture and their guns were ripped out of their hands by a powerful force and Carla stared at the weapons as it rose swiftly to join the rest of 3rd Platoon’s rifles somewhere near the ceiling.  The shorter boy had already moved by the time she looked back.  He struck the first of the HYDRA soldiers, a quick fist that left its target unconscious before he hit the ground followed by a sweeping kick that left both knees dislocated before the teen moved to his next target in a blur.  As the shorter moved through the chaos, dropping soldiers, the taller kept a close eye.  Anyone that got too close was thrown aside with telekinetic force.

 

Trying to take out the fighter was pointless; his bodyguard would stop her before she could do anything.  Carla knew what she had to do.  Carefully she pulled her sidearm; trusting her aim, she pulled the trigger and prayed.  Her aim was true – the bullet struck the taller boy in the chest just above the armor plate.  He dropped, his concentration lost, and rifles began to rain down on them.  “Hyung!” the shorter boy screamed, scrambling across the floor to reach the fallen teen, trying to shield his companion from the falling weapons.  When he looked up, tears streaming down his face, Carla forgot how to breathe.  His eyes were glowing with a swirling mix of white and gold.  He screamed, and the light expanded outward until everything in the world disappeared in white-gold light.

 

 

 

Natasha stared at the blank screen, shaken.  She’d been monitoring the boys’ fight with HYDRA and she’d seen the soldier pulling the pistol and watched Shiwoo fall; there was nothing she could do.  She watched as Woojin had grabbed his brother and screamed, her heart in her throat.  And then the white light had flashed briefly before Friday’s sensors burned out.  A small hand touched her wrist to get her attention.  Casey’s face was grim and pale, his jaw set and eyes narrowed.

 

“We still have three squads of HYDRA soldiers left.  Divert one squad back to the gym – Spider-Man and the others can handle one more.  Separate the other two and have the security personnel deal with them.”  He added as he noted her expression, “It’s the best path to victory.”  He paused for a minute, then headed for the door.  “Oh, and you need to start rounding up the incapacitated HYDRA before they stop being incapacitated.”

 

“Where are you going?” she demanded.  “Your assigned position is here.”

 

“I’m going to get Shiwoo and Woojin while you finish directing things from in here.  It’s the best path to putting everything back together again.”  He was letting his power guide him and she was willing to follow.  Right then, it was hard for Natasha to wrap her head around the fact that Casey was only fifteen.

 

 

 

 

Their victory didn’t really taste much like victory, Casey thought; more like survival.  The Avengers’ medical bay was strained with the number of injured.  In fact, the security personnel that were recovering had been moved to one of the area hospitals with SHIELD ties, leaving the med bay for the Avengers and Academy members.  And the number of occupants was enough to make Casey’s stomach clench a little.  Jason had been discharged after the battle, his empty eye socket and damaged tissue covered by bandages.  Emma, Nayiri, and Phoenix had been admitted with non-life-threatening bullet wounds, although the latter two had already been released.  Peter had ended the second fight with a serious knife injury that was going to leave him in the medical ward for a couple of days until his healing factor finished knitting him back together.  Blake was undergoing tests to make sure he hadn’t done himself real harm by pushing too hard, resting and recovering his energy.  Shiwoo and Woojin were sleeping through whatever had happened in a single, large hospital bed (on Casey’s advice).  And Tony…was still asleep.

 

When Casey had managed to find a set of doors into the entry hall that he could pry open, he had frozen in shock at the sight.  The damage to the room was mindboggling.  It had been melted, stone and metal fusing to form some new substance, before being shattered by a powerful concussive force.  To Casey, it looked like someone had dropped a large metal sphere on a mirror placed on the ground.  At the epicenter of the destruction, in a depression dug into the remains of the floor, was Shiwoo and Woojin.  To Casey, they looked just like he’d seen them a hundred times before – sleeping peacefully together – except for the sticky, cooling blood covering Shiwoo’s chest and smeared across Woojin’s armor and up his cheek. He’d checked for a pulse as a matter of willful ignorance, and his hand had shaken when he’d found one in both of them.  Aside from the blood, there was no sign of the bullet wound that should have killed Shiwoo.

 

Friday has postulated a theory as to what had happened based off of Casey’s observations and the limited sensor data from the fight.  The AI had registered two different types of energy before the sensors fried and given that there was no sign of the bullet wound that Shiwoo should have had, Friday was 78 percent certain the second type of energy had been some form of healing.  Friday also came to the conclusion that Shiwoo’s instinctive telekinetic shield was activated as the healing energy stabilized him to protect the two from Woojin’s normal, more dangerous energy output.  The HYDRA soldiers had not been as lucky: there wasn’t anything left of them but carbon shadows.  The energy expenditure and rapid healing had left them both unconscious and Dr. Cho estimated that they would probably sleep for at least a day.

 

Everyone who wasn’t in the medical bay were gathered in the living room, debriefing with Natasha.  Casey watched Marcelo as the older boy gave Natasha his report, only half listening.  He was listening instead to the pull of his power.  There was nothing needed to be done for Shiwoo, Woojin, Emma, Blake, or Peter.  They were exactly where they needed to be, doing what they needed to do.  They would recover just fine.  But Tony…he wouldn’t wake up, no matter what Dr. Cho and Dr. Briggs had tried.  And Casey’s power kept leading back to this room and he couldn’t figure out why.  His power was never wrong, but sometimes it was hard to understand.  What was in this room that Tony needed?  His power tugged at him as Natasha began speaking, forcing him to pay attention.

 

“The HYDRA soldiers you put to sleep still haven’t woken up yet.”  Her comment was aimed at Julian.

 

“They won’t awaken until I allow it.”  He waived his hand dismissively.  “They should be grateful I didn’t trap them in a nightmare.”  Natasha raised an eyebrow and Julian straightened, apparently offended.  “My control over sleep is absolute.  They sleep when I choose, wake when I choose, and dream what I choose.”

 

It hit Casey like a brick to the forehead.  “Does that mean you can wake up Tony?”  Every head in the room swiveled to look at Casey.

 

Julian frowned.  “I don’t know.  I’ve never tried to wake someone in a comma before.”

 

“But he isn’t in a comma.  According to his brainwave patterns, he’s just asleep.”  Casey’s power was practically throwing up a neon sign over Julian now and Casey was bouncing in his seat.

 

Julian’s eyes widened as he came to the same conclusion; he gave Phoenix a quick kiss and stood.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

 

Casey sat back, contented.  His power had gone quiet and he was sure that Tony would be back with them soon.

 

“Natasha - Ororo Monroe and Logan of the Xavier School for the Gifted are requesting permission to meet with you.  They are in the company of one of the missing HYDRA children.”

 

Everyone in the room froze, including Casey.  The HYDRA teens had started referring to the kids that had escaped from the floor above theirs “The Lost 49” based on Friday’s estimate of the survivors.  Having one of the Lost 49 making their way here was shocking.  “Permission granted.  Kylen, would you escort them to the conference room please?”

 

“Why don’t you just bring them here?  We’re going to meet them soon anyway?”  Etienne’s Cajun drawl was colored by exhaustion, but his natural curiosity was still in evidence.  Natasha seemed to consider for a moment before reluctantly agreeing.

 

Kylen returned with three people in tow: a sleek, dark-skinned, white-haired woman; a tall, well-built man with a primal air; and a shorter, slight boy with messy blond hair and wire-rim glasses.  The woman had an encouraging hand on the boy’s shoulder, something he apparently needed; he fidgeted with his hands, glancing down frequently.  Casey gave him a friendly smile; he wasn’t the only one.  Amahle was giving the boy one of her most welcoming smiles and Marcelo was radiating a soothing openness.  Phoenix was regarding the newcomer with an open curiosity without a hint of malice; his tail was doing a lazy sweep and his ears were twitching.

 

“So what happened to your front door, Widow?” the man, Logan, growled.  “Did we miss a party?”

 

“HYDRA.  They were…inconsiderate guests.”  Natasha’s shrug was as casual as her tone.

 

“We set them on their arse,” Kendall added with a smile.  Casey could see the boy’s shoulders loosen a bit; he’d tensed at the mention of HYDRA but Kendall’s words and the relaxed air in the living room seemed to put him more at ease.

 

Natasha gave Ororo a questioning look; Casey didn’t have to be a telepath to figure that one out.  They were all mutants and Xavier’s school specialized in training mutants.  Why were they bringing one of the Lost 49 here instead of training him in their school?

 

“Jaime wished to come here and the Professor felt that this would be a better fit for him,” Ororo answered the silent query. 

 

Jaime nodded.  “I was hoping…I was looking for a good friend.  I was hoping he was here.”  Casey could see the pain as it sank in that his friend was still missing. 

 

“Maybe we can help you find him?”  Casey nodded along with Nayiri’s sweet voice.  He hadn’t had much luck using his power to find the other teams but maybe he could try it with the Lost 49.  If it worked, well…Tony was going to need a much bigger building.

Chapter Text

Julian sat beside Tony's bed, his slender fingers twisting through his own hair in frustration.  He'd tried several times to pull Tony's mind back into wakefulness, but it felt like his mind was anchored somehow.  He'd pulled hard enough the last time that he'd actually given himself a slight headache.  Something inside Tony's dream (and Julian was sure Tony was dreaming) was holding the Avenger.  He'd tried to wake Tony from that angle as well, attempting to control the dream, to end it.  Not only had it resisted his control but it had been hard to pull his own mind from that dream touch; it was as if Tony's dreamscape was "sticky".

 

Julian had never attempted to actually enter someone else's dreams.  Honestly, it was something he'd never really thought about.  His control from the outside was so complete he'd never needed to; he had no idea what would happen if he tried.  If anything, the idea frightened him a little.  What happened if he was trapped?  There wasn't anyone to come in and bail him out, after all - he'd never heard of someone with his powers before.  According to the HYDRA scientists, he was unique, with a power so dangerous they'd considered killing him rather than training him. 

 

On the other hand, a part of him felt like he owed it to Tony to at least try.  The man had been genuine in his attempts to give the teens, his Academy recruits, a decent home and Julian could appreciate his efforts.  Strange to admit he'd been a better candidate for father-figure than Julian's own had ever been.  Phoenix was truly happy here, for the first time since he'd met the shifter, and that went a long way toward earning Julian's approval.  Phoenix was the brightest light in his personal darkness and he'd admitted to himself long ago that he'd walk across burning glass for his kitten.  Phoenix wanted Tony back, so it was up to Julian to make that happen.  Besides, Tony had somewhat redeemed himself from the first time they'd met.

 

He was thirteen when he'd met Tony at a party in Milan, and while he remembered it, he doubted the older man did.  As the son of a French-Moroccan publishing magnate and an Italian cover model, Julian had found himself at plenty of parties, usually as a fashion accessory for his mother.  He'd started his own career the year before with a couple of shots in Vogue and a three page spread in La Officele so now he was a model in his own right rather than his mother's pet.  His stylist had dressed him in a white-on-white custom Tom Ford that accentuated his natural golden-olive skin and raven hair, and made him look 18 instead of 13 (he'd always looked older than his age anyway) and he looked good - good enough to get an offer of a line of coke and a blowjob from one of the notoriously elitist Gucci models.  His mother had made a point of introducing him to Tony Stark.  Clearly, they already knew each other and his mother had made it clear in her own way that said knowledge was intimate.  Not exactly the highlight of Julian's evening.

 

Before he could lose his resolve, Julian closed his eyes and reached out again with both hand and mind to touch Tony’s dream.  This time, he allowed it to pull him down and in.  When he opened his eyes, he was no longer in the waking world.  Instead, he was some place hot and dry, with little illumination.  Distantly, he could hear the sounds of water dripping steadily.  He let his fingers glide across the rough stone surface of the walls around him and allowed his touch to guide him forward.  He came out quickly into a chamber that was clearly part of a natural cave system; it looked like a cross between a butcher's shop and a torture chamber with blood and implements meant to cause pain scattered everywhere.  Glancing behind him, he couldn’t see any sign of how he’d gotten here; the passage had become simply part of the natural underground system.  Turning back, his eyes tracked to the center of the cave.

 

Tony was kneeling in a pool of blood, shaking and eyes vacant, wrapped in chains of black smoke.  Behind him with a hand on his shoulder was a dark-haired, copper-skinned woman who seemed to glow.  Julian’s anger roared to life and he spoke without thinking.  “How dare you?  Who do you think you are?  Don’t touch him, you monster!” 

 

He didn’t see her move, but in the next breath she was behind him.  She placed her hands where his neck joined his shoulders, her breath tickling his ear as she spoke.  “Who am I?  I am the Alpha, the Beginning.  You may be mine, and I do love all my children, but you will not speak to me thus.”  There was a stern disapproval in her voice but that wasn’t what made the ice run up and down his spine, it was her hands or more accurately, where she’d placed them.  It was too much like…him…like the time he tried to never, ever think about.  He couldn’t think; his breath was shallow, his muscles so tense they vibrated.

 

She moved again, gliding around to face him.  She put her hands on either side of his face to look him in the eye, her own eyes full of concern.  “Oh, my little prince, your heart is bleeding!  No, my sweet one, I will never hurt you.  I set you Guardians so that no one will hurt you this way again but right now this one needs your strength as much as you need his.”

 

There was something soothing about her tone, her words; more like a mother than the woman that had given birth to him.  He focused on her, willing himself to relax.  Hesitantly, he reached up to touch her hand and she gave him a smile filled with warmth as she placed a gentle kiss on his forehead.  She was looking at him with more love than anyone in his life ever had except Phoenix.  Julian reached out and pulled her into a hug; she moved her hands to cradle his head as he buried his face into her shoulder, making soothing noises as one would with a small child.  He’d needed this so badly! 

 

She held him for a while, stroking his hair, before stepping back to look at him again, cupping his cheek.  “I haven’t much more time, my little prince, and there are things that must be spoken.  You took too long to come.  Firstly, do not ignore your Guardians.  The woman would make a fine mother to you all and this one is a strong and good man who will love and guard you all well.  Secondly, the chains are of his making, his pain.  But you, my little prince, have the power to release him.  Do not doubt yourself.”

 

“Why do you keep calling me that?”  It didn’t sound condescending to Julian, but certainly odd.

 

“You have been blessed by Nanna-Suen himself; it shows in your gifts and your beauty.  It is your place to be the face of the family, to speak for your brothers and sisters even if you do not lead.”  She gave him another kiss on the forehead before stepping away.  “I must go.  That demon is continuing his foul practices, making you new brothers and sisters who will suffer as you did.”

 

One minute she was there, the next she was gone.  Julian turned his attention back to Tony, who hadn’t so much as twitched while he’d spoken to the Alpha.  Reaching out, he touched the black smoke that ringed the older man; it felt pliant, almost like jello, under his fingers.  He tried to pull it apart, but it stretched and didn’t tear, snapping back into place like a rubber band.  He tried conjuring a sword to cut through the material but it resisted and healed itself too quickly when he finally cut through to separate.  Freezing and burning didn’t help either and he had to be careful not to risk injuring Tony in the process.

 

The key was in what the Alpha said, he was sure of it.  What had she told him again?  Chains of his own making…  Tony was asleep, helpless, in his own dream.  Julian had to wake him up inside the dream.  Tony himself was the only one who could break the chains but he could only do it if he was lucid and, as the Alpha had said, Julian was the one with the power to awaken him.  It would mean that he would lose the ability to manipulate Tony’s dreams, but they didn’t have a choice if they ever wanted Tony to wake again.

 

He let the power flow into his voice.  “Tony, wake up!  You’re dreaming.  Wake up!”

 

Tony’s eyes fluttered as they focused.  The black smoke faded away, leaving the older man kneeling on the floor of the dream-cavern.  He looked up, confused at Julian.  “Hey Zoolander – where are we and what are we doing here?  Last thing I remember, I just had a building fall on me and you weren’t there.”

Julian offered the older man a hand to stand.  “Zoolander?  Does that mean that you...”

 

Tony took the proffered hand.  “Yeah, kid, I remember you.  I was still sober when your mother introduced us.  You look a lot like her and she’s pretty hard to forget.”

 

“Stop.  I don’t need to hear about how you slept with my mother.”

 

The older man gave him a self-deprecating smile.  “Right; moving on.  So about the ‘where are we’ part?”

 

“We’re in a dream, your dream specifically.  When Spider-Man pulled you out of the rubble you were asleep…don’t even give me that look…and you wouldn’t wake up so I came in to get you.  If you don’t believe me, you can talk it over with the doctors when we get back.”

 

“More like my nightmare.  Guess that’s why it looks like Afghanistan.”  Tony ran his fingers through his hair.  Julian wondered idly if it was a habit that Peter had picked up from his surrogate father or if the older Avenger had gotten it from the vigilante.  “OK, so about the getting out of here part…?”

 

The teen shrugged.  “I told you I’ve never done this before.  I’m kind of playing this by ear.  I guess we try to leave the way I came in.”  He gestured towards the tunnel.  “After you.”

 

"No no, lead the way.  I insist!"  Tony made an exaggerated gesture that earned a hidden smile from the younger.  Julian followed the older man, almost running into Tony’s back as he stopped suddenly.  Looking over his shoulder, Julian saw a hallway lined with doors of varying styles with no clear indication of which way was out.  “I’m going to guess we’re not in my dreams anymore.”

 

“Good guess.  Probably even true.  And before you ask, I have no idea where we are now.”

 

Tony turned to face one of the doors.  “So I’m going to guess again and try a door.”  He reached for the knob of the door closest to them.

 

The door looked painfully familiar to Julian and he realized too late where he’d seen it before.  “Not that one!”  But Tony was already pushing the door open and stepping through, and everything melted and shifted around them to form a scene that Julian never wanted to see again.

 

 

 

 

They were in a studio – the cameras and lighting equipment was a dead giveaway – in a penthouse somewhere in Paris unless Tony missed his guess; the view was spectacular.  Aside from the equipment, the only things in the high-end studio was a queen-sized bed swathed in carefully-piled cloud–gray silk sheets and a matching backdrop, plus the model and photographer.  Sitting on his heels on the bed was a smaller, slimmer, and younger version of Julian: he was wearing nothing but an over-sized tailored shirt that matched the sheets so well that it was hard to tell where the shirt ended and the sheets began.  His hair was artfully disheveled, a style that Tony was sure had taken at least half an hour to achieve.  What really disturbed the older man, though, was the makeup (standard issue for models of all ages and genders, Tony knew): heavy, smoky color on the lids and thick liner accenting eyes that were meant to look...seductive.  It was a sexy bedroom scene, shot with a child.  

 

“How old were you?”  Tony glanced over at the teen.  Julian had his back turned to the scene playing out, the tension clear in the sharp line of his shoulders and clenched jaw.

 

“12.  It was my third photo shoot.”  Tony hadn't felt this nauseous in a long time.

 

The memory-photographer walked past them, unseeing, and Julian’s tension ratcheted up a notch.  “You’re still too tense, mon petit cher.”  He put his much-larger hands on the younger Julian, where the column of his neck joined the shoulder.  “Don’t fight me, little one, I’m just going to help you relax.”  Julian made a choking sound, and as the memory progressed, Tony felt something flare up in him that he’d only felt a few times in his life: rage.  He wanted nothing more than to choke the life out of the sick bastard, just like Barnes after he’d seen the video.  That stray thought was a like a cold dash of water.  This was a memory, he had no choice right now but to let it play out.  But he really, really wanted Natasha to pay the monster a visit after they got back to the waking world.

 

The scene faded out after far too long for either of their comfort, leaving them standing again in the hallway lined with doors.  Julian was still standing with his back toward Tony, but the older man could see him surreptitiously wiping away silent tears.  Tony put his hand on the teen’s shoulder comfortingly.

 

Julian shook his head.  “No, we are not having a…Hallmark Moment.”  He jerked away, but with far less force than Tony expected.  Progress, the older man thought.

 

“Really?  A ‘Hallmark Moment’?  Where’d you hear that one?”

 

Julian shrugged and wiped away a few final tears, his composure mostly restored.  “It’s something that Etienne says whenever a conversation becomes too emotional for his liking.”

 

“Still no idea how to get out of here?”  Tony waited for Julian’s reply; the teen just shook his head.  “Ok, I guess we try another door.  What’s the chances we get a good memory this time?”

 

Julian’s laugh was too bitter for someone his age.  “Do you think the Universe would be that kind?”  The teen stepped across the hall to grab a door handle, one that Tony recognized with a grimace, but didn’t try to stop him.  He figured he owed the kid one of his own twisted memories to keep them even.

 

 

 

 

The room was dark, very Old World in its styling: dark woods, dark colors, shelves full of first editions lining the walls, and heavy furniture.  Floor-to-ceiling windows behind the executive desk gave a glimpse of a pitch black world outside.  Sitting at the desk, head in hand, was the late, great Howard Stark.  In front of him was a cut-crystal tumbler and a mostly-empty bottle of Glenlivet 18.  The smell of the single malt had permeated the room, stretching all the way to the door.  Julian wrinkled his nose; scotch was not his drink of choice.

Julian registered the scene as the door was opening and a small boy, no older than six, poked his head into the room.  He slipped inside, closing the door behind him as quietly as possible; his little body was practically vibrating with tension.  Julian glanced at the older Tony: the man was holding the bridge of his nose with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, his right massaging his left arm reflexively and his eyes closed.  He was sure that something bad was about to happen but he couldn’t turn away; he owed Tony that.

 

“Did you find Captain America?”  Little Tony’s smile was hesitant but hopeful.

 

Howard snorted into his glass.  “If I’d found him, I wouldn’t be here with you.”  The boy shrank back against the door, with unshed tears and hurt painted across his face.  Howard looked at his son with a sneer of disgust.  “So weak!  Stark men don’t cry, they’re made of iron.”  The boy seemed paralyzed with misery and Howard snapped.  “Why are you still standing there?!  Get out!” 

 

Howard picked up the scotch bottle and hurled it at Tony.  It grazed the boy’s cheek, not hard enough to deflect its trajectory but hard enough to bruise.  The bottle impacted the door with a force that sounded like a small explosion.  Both child and door were dripping with amber liquid and Julian could see blood starting to run down Tony’s cheek to mix with the scotch dripping from his chin before everything faded out and they were returned to the hallway.

 

The silence should have been awkward, strained, but Julian found it less so than before.  When he met Tony’s eyes this time, he knew how much it took for the man not to flinch away – probably as much as it cost Julian.  He’d never told anyone about what had happened at the photo shoot and he’d wager that no one knew about Howard’s drunken abuse.  Tony didn’t have to tell him that he understood now, Julian knew it.  

 

“Julian, Tony, can you hear me?  If you can hear me, just follow the sound of my voice.”

 

Julian grinned and Tony raised an eyebrow.  “Who’s this?  I don’t remember installing a brain-level intercomm system.”

 

“Bailey – telepath.  He’s one of the new recruits you brought in.  You haven’t met him yet since you were sleeping on the job.”  Tony’s snort reminded Julian suddenly of Howard.  “He’s our ticket out of here.  Just promise me no Hallmark Moments when we wake up."

Chapter Text

Tony stumbled into the kitchenette the following morning, intent on coffee, and straight into a conspiracy.  Casey, Amahle, Emma, Marcelo, Woojin, and Peter were huddled around the breakfast bar.  Almost as one, they looked up at Tony with very similar expressions of nervousness and a hint of guilt on Peter’s face.  There were no plates or mugs, no sign of food – just a group of teens clearly worried over something.  The tension was better at waking Tony up than a whole pot of coffee; the thought of his kids in some kind of trouble had him ready to face down a full-scale invasion in under ten seconds.

 

“Throwing a party without me?”  Tony defaulted to humor as his nerves conjured one nightmare scenario after another.  Six sets of wide eyes blinked at him, seemingly shocked.  “What’s going on?”

 

There was a moment of strained silence as the teens looked at each other before Emma piped up, “Nothing!  We were just going to…training room.  For, uhm…extra training.  The others quickly nodded, hopping off their seats and all but running for the door.

 

Peter gave Tony what seemed to be an apologetic look before they rushed out, almost running Shiwoo over in the process.  The team leader watched them go with brows raised but said nothing, waiting until the stampede had passed to join Tony in the kitchen.  Tony gave the teen a quick assessment with a flick of the eyes: his hair was damp and a towel hung around his neck.  He was wearing an SI security t-shirt and sweats, and his posture was loose.  Everything about him said relaxed, no trace of the tension affecting Peter and the others.  Tony poured two cups of coffee, handing one to the teen who nodded his thanks.

 

“So what’s up with them?”  Tony kept his tone light.

 

Shiwoo frowned a little.  “Don’t know but I’m sure it isn’t serious since they haven’t said anything to me.”

 

The younger grabbed a pair of bowls and dished rice into them from the rice cooker that had mysteriously appeared on the kitchen counter sometime after the kids had moved.  He grabbed a jar of kimchi from the fridge that had appeared around the same time as the rice cooker, then cracked a pair of eggs into a frying pan one-handed.  Tony watched, bemused, as Shiwoo slid a fried egg on top of both bowls of kimchi and rice and produced two pairs of chopsticks from somewhere.  He slid a bowl to Tony before taking a seat at the island and digging into his own bowl.  The whole operation was conducted in silence but it was a comfortable silence.  Tony sat down across from the teen, pick up his own chopsticks and digging in.

 

They ate in companionable silence, but as soon as Shiwoo was finished Tony found himself being studied by the younger.  Something was on his mind but Tony knew that pushing the cautious teen would be counterproductive.  He waited patiently until the kid was ready to talk.  His eyes were focused somewhere behind Tony for a few more moments before they flicked back to the elder.  “Tony sunbaenim, would it be alright if I called you hyung?”

 

Tony smiled over the rim of his mug.  “Sure, kid, that sounds fine.”  He was grateful for his crash course in Korean honorifics and suffixes.  “Did you ask Nat if you could call her noona?”

 

Shiwoo picked up his own mug of coffee.  “Yes.  She said she didn’t mind.”  He paused to take a sip.  “I know better than to call her ajumma.  I’m not ready to die yet.”

 

 

 

 

 

Later that day, Tony found himself privy to a conversation he wasn’t meant to hear.  FRIDAY warned him to stop before turning the corner into the hallway by the training rooms and he caught the hushed voices of Peter and Casey.  Respect for the kids’ privacy warred briefly with his growing concern.  His protective instincts won out and he found himself carefully tuning into their whispered words.

 

“…and I still think you should give Mr. Stark a chance.  Just talk to him about it.”

 

“You know how we feel about this, Peter.  We don’t want to be any more of a burden than we already have.”

 

“I’m sure he doesn’t see it that way.  Mr. Stark – Tony – is a great guy.  If you told him what you were worried about, I’m sure he’d be glad to help and do it the way you guys want.”

 

There was a few seconds pause while Casey seemed to consider Peter’s words.  “Maybe you’re right.  Tony and Natasha kind of feel like part of the family now.  Just help me explain it to everyone else, ok?”

 

Tony had no idea what they could be discussing.  He was just grateful that Peter had talked the second youngest into coming to Tony.  He knew how hard it was for any of the teens to trust and they hadn’t really known him that long.

 

Deciding the kitchen was the best place for them to talk, Tony set about making on of Peter’s secret indulgences.  Peter didn’t have much of a sweet tooth but there were two things that Tony knew for sure the young vigilante couldn’t resist: Rhodey’s chocolate chip cookies (recipe courtesy of Mama Rhodes) and Tony’s over-the-top homemade hot chocolate.  The chocolate chip cookies made an appearance every time Rhodey and Peter were in the same place for any length of time but Tony saved the hot chocolate for specific occasions: after nightmares and anxiety attacks and for those heavy conversations that happened from time-to-time.  It was the older man’s way of letting the teenage superhero know he was safe and there was a decent chance it’d work for Casey too.

 

Grabbing the pan from the cabinet, Tony filled it with a precise blend of milk and cream (the secret to a good cup of hot chocolate was the right amount of cream) before digging out one of Nat’s Ghirardelli chocolate bars from behind a bag of dried beans no one was going to use.  He’d have to replace it, of course; sure, it was being used for a good cause, but that would be the only reason he’d be allowed to keep all his body parts.  He knew better than to come between the Widow and her chocolate.  Tony broke the bar into chunks and dropped them in, stirring continuously while the chocolate melted.  Homemade hot chocolate required constant attention to keep from scorching the bottom and he’d learned the hard way during his days at MIT that you never, ever let the milk and cream actually boil.  A little like his teenagers, he thought.  He hadn’t paid enough attention to Peter and had let the situation with the Vulture come to a boil that he could have prevented.  But he’d learned; Peter was like his first-born and he’d learned from his mistakes.  Hence, Casey and the hot chocolate.

 

As he poured the hot chocolate into two mugs, he wondered if he’d jumped the gun.  He’d figured that Casey would find him quickly, get an unpleasant conversation out of the way as fast as possible.  That was just Casey: he didn’t procrastinate.  He took the early morning training slots, did his homework immediately after his online classes, and even ate his vegetables before starting on the “fun stuff”.  He was so mature at times that Tony wanted to break something, preferably whoever had forced the boy to grow up so fast.  Before Tony could work himself into a full blown panic (what if the boy had changed his mind?), Casey appeared in the doorway like magic, looking as nervous as the older man felt.  Tony slid a mug across the island in invitation.

 

“Did FRIDAy tell you I…wanted to talk?”  Casey’s fingertips brushed the handle of the Hawkeye mug with the slightest tremble.

 

“No!  FRIDAY doesn’t really spy on people like that.”  That was only half true at best, but the last thing Tony wanted was for the kids to be afraid of the AI.  “Just go ahead and tell me what’s on your mind.”

 

“So…Shiwoo’s birthday is next week.  He’ll be 17, 18 in Korean years.  We wanted to make it special but we’re a bit short on cash.”  Casey took a deep drink of his hot chocolate, looking faintly ashamed.  “We didn’t wat to say anything to you because we didn’t want you to think we just want your money.  You’ve done so much for us already.”

 

This was it, the big secret that had Tony sweating bullets?  He had a sudden urge to come around the island and grab the kid in the biggest hug he could manage.  “Did it occur to you that everything I do, I do it because I want to?  Nobody makes me do anything I don’t want to; just ask Pepper.  I want,” Tony put emphasis on the word.  “I want to make sure that you all are happy and healthy and taken care of.  You guys are Avengers…in training… and Avengers are family.”

 

Casey gave the older Avenger one of those sweet smiles that Tony realized he’d come to look for.  When the kids had first arrived at the Compound, none of them had smiled very much – they hadn’t had a reason to.  Tony wanted to give them that reason.  “We’re not used to having anyone besides each other.  It’s nice, having family.”  The teen ducked his head, staring resolutely at his mug of hot chocolate.

 

“Hey, look at me kiddo.  You’ll always have us: me and Nat, Pepper, Rhodey, and Pete.  And FRIDAY.  You’ll be there too, right FRIDAY?’

 

“Always, Tony,” the AI chimed in.

 

“So finish that and gather the rest of the hooligans.  I have a few ideas.  This is going to be fantastic.”

 

Casey tipped the mug to show the older he was done.  “Sure, Tony, but just…try not to get too crazy, alright?”

 

 

 

 

 

Shiwoo tapped his fingers in time with the music playing on his laptop.  He was stretched out on one of the sofas in the common room, his cheek on the armrest, earbuds in so as not to bother anyone.  He probably should have been in the rooms he shared with his team, his family, but he was restless.  Everyone else was asleep, curled up in a pile, and he didn’t want to disturb them.  He probably could have asked Julian for help but hyung was a bit standoffish and he wasn’t sure his request would be welcome.  It wouldn’t be his first sleepless night and definitely not the last.

 

Movement caught his eye and he glanced over to the door to see Peter stumbling toward the kitchenette, looking like he’d been through a war.  Shiwoo flicked his eyes to the little clock in the corner of his laptop screen – just after 3 am.  Not that Shiwoo was anyone to judge, but Peter apparently hadn’t noticed him on the couch, stumbling into the kitchen and fumbling with the cabinets.  Whatever was fogging the teen superhero’s brain must have been bad: Shiwoo had never seen Peter so oblivious of his surroundings before.  Pausing the music, he cleared his throat to catch Peter’s attention.

 

Peter jumped, startled, dropping the bag of coffee grounds on the counter.  He whipped around to stare at Shiwoo, a bit panicked, and Shiwoo wished he’d had some way of getting the other boy’s attention without scaring him.  “Coffee isn’t going to help, Peter-ah.”

 

“I’m not getting back to sleep tonight.  Coffee isn’t going to hurt anything.”  The resignation in Peter’s voice was something that Shiwoo’d heard plenty of times from his noona and dongsaengs and had made an appearance in his own voice more than a few times. 

 

Shiwoo gestured for Peter to join him, holding out one of the earbuds to share the music.  He wasn’t sure how the other boy would take the invitation; Americans usually weren’t comfortable with skinship, or physical closeness in general.  Peter hesitated for a moment before joining Shiwoo on the couch.  He reset the video to the beginning as the other boy settled against him with the earbud in.  “Have you ever listened to Kpop before?’

 

“No.  Ned’s got a couple of anime soundtracks and some of that isn’t bad, I guess.  This is what you and Woojin were doing, right?”

 

Ne.  It was stressful and exhausting but it was worth it. We love music and all we ever wanted was to make music that would make people happy.  And Woojin loves to dance.”

 

“You don’t?”  The sour look on the former trainee’s face was answer enough.  “You guys were dancing like the video?  That’s amazing!  I’m terrible at dancing.”

 

Shiwoo chuckled.  “The dance trainers were very good at teaching kids who thought they couldn’t dance.  With your agility, you’d do a lot better than you think.  Woojin and I would be happy to teach you.  We’d go easy on you.”

 

Peter eyed him suspiciously.  “What do you mean, go easy?”

 

“We trained 12 hours a day, every day, for over a year.  I don’t expect that kind of dedication from you.”

 

“That’s good ‘cause I don’t think I could fit 12 hours of dance practice into my patrol schedule.”  Shiwoo snorted and Peter chuckled a bit at his own joke.

 

They watched a couple more MV’s before Shiwoo grumbled, “I’ve still got so much music to catch up on.  And the industry has changed so much in the last three years.  Before HYDRA, the Big Three companies dominated everything.  Now a group from a little company I’ve never heard of is breaking in America – something we didn’t think was possible.  I’m happy for them, I just wish…”  Peter reached over to squeeze his hand in support.

 

“Is that what’s got you awake?”  The young superhero’s voice was hesitant as if he wasn’t sure if he was treading on shaky ground.

 

Shiwoo shrugged.  “Sometimes it’s hard not to think about what they took from us.  We all had dreams and plans before HYDRA.  And anti-mutant hostility is not limited to America.  Even if we could go back, no one would want us anymore anyway.”  They were quiet for a couple of minutes before Shiwoo glanced over at the other boy.  “What about you?  Why were you looking for coffee at 3 am?”

 

Peter was quiet long enough that Shiwoo was sure that he wasn’t going to answer.  “Nightmare,” he finally replied, his voice almost a whisper.  He’d gone from relatively relaxed to tense, hunched into himself as if he needed to protection even here.

 

Reflexively Shiwoo reached out to gently card his fingers through Peter’s hair, exactly as he would have with Woojin.  “Tell me.”

 

Peter didn’t respond immediately but he didn’t pull away from Shiwoo’s touch either, which was a win in his book.  “So there was this guy, called himself Vulture ‘cause he had a flying suit.  He was selling weapons made from alien tech, powerful weapons that could do a lot of damage on the street.  I tried to tell Tony but he didn’t really listen.”

 

Shiwoo kept the rhythm of his fingers steady.  “Why not?”

 

“He thought I was just some kid, I guess.  He told me to stop, but I couldn’t let it go.  Someone was going to get hurt and no one was taking it seriously.  And I screwed up; I almost got a lot of people killed and Tony had to step in and save the day.  He was pissed; we had an argument and he took the suit away.”

 

The Korean boy raised his eyebrows at that but didn’t break contact and Peter continued.  “I found out by accident who the Vulture really was and…I went after him without the suit.”

 

“And you didn’t tell Tony-hyung.”  Peter shook his head.

 

“I confronted him in a warehouse and he…”  He choked on the words, the trauma of the memory still fresh from the nightmare.  Shiwoo waited patiently for him to continue, his face neutral.  Peter took a deep breath.  “He dropped the ceiling on me.  I was buried under all the concrete and steel beams and no one knew where I was…  I still have no idea how I dug my way out.”  Peter looked at Shiwoo and his expression was young, vulnerable.  “I got him; he’s in prison now.”

 

Shiwoo pulled Peter into his chest, holding the young superhero as he continued to soothe him.  “It is done and you are safe, Peter-ah.  And it will never happen again.  You aren’t alone; we are here now. You are family and we take care of family.”

 

 

 

 

Tony’s heart melted the next morning when he made his way into the common room to see Peter and Shiwoo cuddled up together on the couch and sound asleep.  He did his best not to wake them but he did take a picture.  It was perfect for the Avengers’ family photo album.

Chapter Text

Peter hit the mat hard, the air knocked out of him, as Shiwoo’s knee connected with his ribs.  He’d dodged the punch aimed at his jaw, only to realize too late it was a feint and maneuvered himself right into the blow.  And it had hurt.  He let himself sprawl on the practice mat to get his breath back.  Peter had superior strength, speed, reflexes, and danger sense but this was the fifth time in less than an hour that he found himself on the floor.

 

He pushed the sweaty hair out of his eyes.  “I thought you didn’t have super strength?”

 

“I don’t.”  Shiwoo had returned to his starting position at the edge of the mat, waiting for Peter to get up.

 

“Then how are you hitting so hard?  I think my bruises are going to have bruises.”

 

“Focusing my telekinesis into my strikes.  And we both know your bruises will be gone by tonight.”  His face was stern but there was a hint of a smile in his voice.

 

“I don’t understand how I keep ending up here,” Peter grumbled.  He was on the edge of pouting but his pride was wounded.  Even the rogue Avengers hadn’t been this hard to fight.  It was a good thing this was only practice or Peter would have been in real trouble.

 

“It’s what Natasha has been saying to you for the past three weeks: you rely too much on your powers.  You have no real combat training and it shows.  You’re fighting mostly on instinct.  You may be faster than me, but I’m better trained.”   Relenting, he walked over and offered Peter his hand.  “You can always train with Woojin-ah instead.”

 

Peter grinned as he grabbed Shiwoo’s hand and yanked; the other boy gave an undignified squawk as he landed on his butt next to Peter.  “No thanks.  MJ steps on my ego enough as it is.”

 

“I would like to meet your friends sometime.  They sound nice.”  Peter grinned at the almost wistful sound in his voice.  The opportunity was too good to pass up.  Tony had given him one mission: keep Shiwoo occupied for the day so everyone else could finish setting up for the birthday party.  Heading to Queens would definitely fit the bill.

 

“You want to meet them?  Today?”  At the growing frown on the other boy’s face, Peter rushed on.  “I know I can talk Tony into it.  Just let me make a couple of calls.”

 

Shiwoo seemed to consider, long enough Peter was afraid he would turn down the offer and he’d have to come up with a new plan to keep the other teen occupied.  He wasn’t sure he could handle any more sparring at the moment.

 

“Alright.  Should I find Woojin and see if he wants to come with us?”

 

“I think Natasha has him booked all afternoon.”  Not actually a lie; Natasha had the maknae occupied with party preparations.  “We can take him next time.  Just let me make those calls real quick.”

 

A quick call to Tony cleared the way.  As Peter had though, Tony agreed with him that it was a great way to keep Shiwoo occupied and in the dark.   MJ always spent Saturdays with her grandmother so Peter didn’t bother calling her.  Instead, he dialed Ned’s number from heart.

 

The line rang twice before his best friend picked up, confusion evident in his voice.  “Peter?  I thought you were at the compound?  Did something happen?  Is there like, another alien invasion or something?  Do you need me in the chair?”

 

“Geeze, it’s nothing like that.  Calm down, dude.  I just have a favor to ask.  I was hoping we could hang out today.”

 

“Why are you even asking?  Why is this a thing?  You’re my best friend.  Of course we can hang out today.”

 

“I was wanting to bring someone to meet you.  One of the guys from the Avengers Academy.  It’s…kind of a mission from Mr. Stark – he needs us to keep Shiwoo occupied for the day so they can finish putting together his birthday party.”

 

“That is so much cool I don’t even know where to start.  Like, he’s really in the Academy?  He’s going to be an Avenger?  That is super cool!  And Iron Man is trusting us with this?  That is mega cool!”

 

“The best part is that Tony said you can come to the party and spend the weekend at the compound with us.”

 

There was silence for a moment and Peter wondered if his best friend had passed out from the excitement before a strange screeching sound came over the line.  There was another pause before Ned came back.  “Oh.  My.  God!!!  I get to go to an Avengers birthday party at the Avengers Compound.  My life is now complete.”

 

Peter couldn’t help but laugh at his best friend.  “We’ll be there in a couple of hours.  Try to keep breathing.”  He hung up before Ned could ask him who was coming.

 

 

 

 

Shiwoo wasn’t sure what he expected; after all, they’d lived in New York for three weeks before relocating to the compound but he was still impressed.  Especially when Happy drove them past the old Avengers Tower.  A crane and work crew were pulling a lighted logo from the side of the building while a second crane was lowering part of the replacement logo.  They moved past too quickly to identify the new logo.

 

The car pulled up in front of an ordinary-looking brick townhouse in a quiet residential neighborhood in Queens across the street from a small park, identical to other townhouses up and down the row.  Peter bounded out of the car and bounced up the step, throwing the door open like it was a second home, with Shiwoo following more cautiously behind him.  They were greeted by a middle-aged woman with dark hair and tanned skin, stylish casual clothes, and a warm smile.  “Peter!  Ned told me you were bringing a friend.  Would you introduce us please?”

 

“Sure.  Mrs. Leeds, this is Shiwoo.  He’s part of my internship program.  Shiwoo, this is Ned’s mom.”

 

“It’s nice to meet you Shiwoo.  You can call me Natia or Mrs. Leeds if you prefer.”  She sent another smile in Peter’s direction, clearly amused.  “I made some ono butter mochi if you boys are interested.”

 

Shiwoo’s surprised smile was matched by Peter’s grin.  Peter was apparently as much a fan of butter mochi as the Korean teen.  Mrs. Leeds handed them a plate heaped with butter mochi squares, for which they thanked her profusely, and shooed them up to Ned’s room.

 

They didn’t even get a chance to knock on Ned’s door before it was yanked open.  “It’s you!  I mean…you’re here!  Uhmmm….” 

 

Shiwoo raised his brows and Peter stifled a laugh.  “Ned, this is Shiwoo.  Shiwoo…Ned.”

 

Shiwoo gave Ned a polite bow and watched the other teen freeze.  “I hope we can be friends, Ned-ssi.  Peter-ah thinks highly of you.”

 

Ned finally seemed to gather himself.  “Are you really with the Avengers Academy?  Do you have powers?  Have you met any of the Avengers?”

 

Peter looked like he would die of embarrassment but Shiwoo was intrigued.  Ned had the same earnest innocence as Peter; he’d thought Peter was unique, but apparently not.  And unlike everyone that Shiwoo knew, Ned was…soft.  Ned was not a weapon, he was normal.  “It’s alright, I don’t mind answering a few questions.  Yes, I am part of the Academy.  I’m a telekinetic.  And we’ve met all of the current Avengers and Avengers Reserves.”

 

“That is so cool!  What do you do as part of the Academy?  And how do you guys go to school out there, or are you out of school?”

 

So apparently Ned had a lot of questions.  Shiwoo looked around the room quickly, hoping to buy himself a little space with a different topic of conversation.  Spotting a theme in the movie posters, he asked, “So you like Star Wars?”

 

Apparently this was the right question.  “I love Star Wars.  It’s the best thing to happen to movies, ever.  Do they have Star Wars in…?”

 

“Korea.  Yes, it was translated.  It was…ok, I guess.  I’m more of a horror fan personally, especially zombie movies.”

 

“What’s your favorite?”  Peter had that look of excited curiosity; this was something the two of them had never gotten around to talking about.

Shiwoo grabbed a piece of butter mochi and settled into one of the beanbags scattered around Ned’s room.  “The original Night of the Living Dead was really good but Train to Busan is definitely my favorite at the moment.”

 

Ned nodded sagely.  “Who doesn’t appreciate zombies?  We’ll have to check it out sometime.  Hey Peter, toss me my phone.”

 

Peter grabbed the Ned’s phone off his desk and threw it toward his friend.  It was clear he’d miscalculated, however, as the phone went high.  Ned jumped for it, stumbling back and bumping into the wall shelf where his completed Lego models were proudly displayed.  The Lego Death Star, the pride of Ned’s collection wobbled, rolled, and headed straight for the floor.  Peter made a mad dive across the room to catch it but they all knew it was a lost cause.  Just before it hit the floor it stopped, suspended mid-air a foot above the floor.

 

Ned and Peter turned to stare at Shiwoo, who was still sitting in the beanbag with his hand outstretched in the direction of the floating Death Star.  “Take it quickly.  I can’t hold it long.”

 

Ned snatched the model out of the air while Peter frowned at the Korean teen.  “What’s that about?  I’ve seen you pick up a car during training.

 

“Big things are easy to move but smaller things usually get crushed.  Even picking up a person can be dangerous for them.”

 

Ned was deep in thought as he put the model back on its shelf.  “What’s it feel like when you use your power?”

“Like an extension of myself.  Whatever I’m picking up feels like me, like my hand or something.”

 

“So that means you can use your powers with your eyes closed.  I was thinking that maybe it was a little like using your voice.  You’re used to ‘yelling’ with your power so small things get crushed.  Maybe try ‘whispering’ instead.  With enough practice you could probably even pick locks and stuff.”

 

 

“You have given me a lot to think about; you have good ideas, Ned-ssi.”

 

“So to completely change the subject,” Peter interjected, “Have you seen The Force Awakens yet?  I know you’ve had a lot to catch up on.”

 

“Not yet.  My list is pretty long.”

 

Before Ned could launch into a series of questions about why Shiwoo had missed so many things, Peter grabbed his copy of The Force Awakens.  “Then we are totally watching this now.”

 

The boys settled in with the plate of butter mochi along with popcorn and sodas that Ned grabbed from the kitchen.  Shiwoo declared it better than the original trilogy, which launched a fierce debate that lasted until Happy arrived to pick them up.  The debate resumed on the drive back to the compound, interrupted only briefly when Ned talked Happy into a quick detour to the Lego store at Rockefeller Center.

 

 

 

 

“They have arrived.”  Friday’s lilting voice cut through the babble in the room.

 

“Everybody ready?  Everything in place?  Do we need more balloons?”  Tony was pacing, reaching out to rearrange various dishes on the buffet tables.

 

“Relax Tony, everything is perfect.”  Pepper rubbed his arm as she put a gentle kiss on his cheek.

 

Tony looked to the door as every other head turned to see a stunned-looking Shiwoo standing in the doorway with a grinning Peter and Ned, a smirking Happy standing behind them.   A discordant, messy rendition of “Happy Birthday” filled the silence as Shiwoo went from shocked to overwhelmed.  The common room was decorated like a child’s Avengers-themed party with balloons, streamers, and themed paper plates and cups.  Extra couches had been brought in to accommodate the twenty-odd people.  Buffet tables supported three large cakes and a multinational feast; a dance pad and karaoke machine had been added to the entertainment area.  Even Friday was adding to the atmosphere with multicolored lights from the ceiling and a real-time view of the Seoul skyline on the wall displays.

Tony nudged Woojin, who walked over to Shiwoo to hand him a steaming bowl of green, lumpy liquid.  “Sengil-chuka!  I made the miyeok-guk myself!”  The older boy ducked his head to hide his suspiciously-wet eyes.

 

“What’s that?”  Ned whispered to Peter.

 

“Seaweed soup; it’s traditional,” Peter whispered back.  Ned raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything.

 

“You are Peter’s friend Ned, correct?  Don’t worry, Ned-ssi, I made enough for everyone!”  Woojin grinned at Ned, who was saved from having to respond by Tony.

 

The senior Avenger clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention.  “Ok boys and girls, everyone dig in!  We’ve got a party to get started!”  Taking that as her cue, Friday started the music; Big Bang’s “Fantastic, Baby” accompanied the quiet murmur of the Academy recruits and Avengers.

 

There was a general movement towards the buffet tables and Shiwoo approached Tony, carefully setting his bowl of soup on the breakfast bar.  “Thank you, hyung.  This is much more than I expected.”

 

“Ok, so there are three important birthdays in America: the first, the sixteenth, and the twenty-first.  I know, in Korea you’re 17 but here you’re sixteen and that’s a big deal.”  At the nearby buffet table, Jason snorted as he put a few tempura shrimp on a paper plate.  Tony turned to look at the battle-scarred teen.  “Don’t think I’ve forgotten your sixteenth birthday is next week.  I’ve got plans for you.”   Shiwoo couldn’t help but laugh at the other team leader’s worried look.

 

Tony waited for the buffet dinner to wind down before catching everyone’s attention again.  “Now that everyone’s eaten enough to feed a small country, I think it’s time for presents.  And maybe cake.”  Pepper notably groaned at the idea of more food but she laughed good-naturedly with the others.  “Just for that, Pep, I think you and Happy should go first.”

 

Happy shrugged, looking a little self-conscious, as he handed Shiwoo a small envelope.  Pepper handed the teen a small black box with a blue ribbon.  Shiwoo opened the envelope, pulling out a slip of paper with a frown of confusion.  In Happy’s messy scrawl it simply stated Driving Lessons.  “Goes with Pepper’s gift.”

 

Inside Pepper’s box was a set of keys on a keyring with the Toyota logo.  “It’s for a Toyota Camry.  It’s a good car, with a great safety record.”    Tony and Rhodey shared a grin - it was so very Pepper.

 

“Your Uncle Happy is going to teach you to drive that thing.  We all know that me trying to teach you how to drive would be a disaster.  And I love you son, but you’re not touching the Audi.  Or the Bugatti.  Or the Cadillac.  Or the Roadster.”  Rhodey and Pepper exchanged looks and smirks at Tony’s statement.

 

Casey cut Tony off by handing Shiwoo another envelope.  “Here, this is from us.  It involves all of us but it’s mostly for you.”  Inside the envelope was eight tickets to the BTS concert at Citi Field in October.

 

Shiwoo’s eyes widened.  “How did you get these?  Those tickets sold out in minutes.”

 

“Oh, a bit of a trade.”  Tony gestured with the cup of coffee in his hand.  “It seems the band members are big Avengers fans so we traded a tour of the compound and a ride in the quinjet for some tickets.  Should be fun for everyone.  Going to need you to translate, of course.”

 

“Here,” Rhodey handed Shiwoo a large wrapped box.  “It’s not a car but I think it’s pretty cool.  Natasha and I worked together on it.”

 

Nestled inside the box, in a layer of tissue paper, was a leather A2 Air Force jacket with a set of patches already attached.  On the left shoulder was the newly-designed logo for the Avengers Academy: the large red “A” with a smaller, lower case A in blue on the right leg of the main letter.  A smaller patch underneath it showed the planet superimposed on a shield with the number 1 at the top, representing their team: Avengers International Team 1.  As Natasha pointed out, the shield was colored gold to indicate he was the team leader.  On the left breast was the call sign they’d picked out for him: Red Dragon.

 

Ned was the last to pass a gift to Shiwoo, a paper gift bag with the Lego Store logo on it.  “This is from Peter and me.”  Inside was Poe Dameron’s  X-Wing Lego set.  “This way you can practice whispering.”  Tony looked confused by the comment but Shiwoo just smiled as he thanked his friends.

 

Tony was the last to give Shiwoo a gift, a plain white envelope containing a piece of paper with an address, date, and time.  “Hyung, what is this?”

 

“That would be the details for your session at the recording studio.  You know, so you can put together that mixtape you’ve been waiting…oohmph!”  The breath was knocked out of the senior Avenger as the overwhelmed teen grabbed him in a hug. 

 

The party continued long enough for a second round of munching.  An impromptu dance-off centered around the new copy of Just Dance 2018 included a reluctant, but smiling, Happy.  He lost the last round to Amahle when he slipped on the dance mat and landed on his rear.  Most of the guests took a turn at karaoke.  Tony belted out Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” to the surprise of no one and Rhodey provided a questionable rendition of “More Than A Feeling” by Boston.

 

Casey stayed behind to help Tony clean up at the end of the evening.  The teen held back a yawn as he put the last of the Tupperware containers into the fridge.  “You did good.  Everyone had fun and Shiwoo was really happy.”

 

“I did do good, didn’t I?”  Tony’s tired smile was warm and genuine, something that was becoming increasingly more common.

 

“I’m going to head to bed.  Goodnight Dad.”

 

“Goodnight kiddo.”  Tony headed for his own suite, smile still in place, a little surprised to find the exchange didn’t feel awkward at all.

 

Friday turned off the lights and the wall display in the common room.  There was no one to hear as she hummed quietly to herself to the tune of “The Parting Glass.”