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What 'Home' Means

Chapter Text

There is a boy wandering the streets of New York City, alone.

The story goes like this: a boy, orphaned, passed from house to house. Always given back to the home, never feeling stable, never allowed to stay. Some foster parents weren’t too bad, but the nice ones always had some other demand on their attention, and the boy didn’t want to be trouble, so he stayed out of their way. The other foster parents… weren’t so nice. He didn’t like thinking about those ones.

The story also goes like this: one day, ten years after his father failed to return home and thirteen years after his mother died during childbirth (as the story goes), the boy met another boy. An older boy, almost a man. This boy was friendly, inviting, encouraging. The younger boy didn’t know what to make of him, didn’t think he could trust him. The other boy didn’t give up on him, though. He said he never would give up on him.

The story isn’t a happy story, though, and goes like this: two years after they meet, the boys are torn away from each other by space and authorities and two words. “Pilot error” echoes in the boy’s mind, even as he’s sent to live the family of the older boy (now a young man, lost to the void). The boy is angry. The boy is afraid.

This is the story: the boy, in denial, refuses to return to the lifestyle that had dominated his life those ten years before his first and only friend. He needs to find his way back to the desert, that shack in the midst of the deserts of Arizona. He needs to find his friend. He runs away.

He is lost now, in the Big Apple, with only a small duffle-bag of all his worldly belongings and the clothes on his back. At fifteen years, after two weeks of grieving for the only friend he’s ever had, he’s panicking quietly as he walks along ominously empty streets.

Though Keith would insist panic was too strong a word.

He had heard strange things about this city from all the way in Arizona. Stories about superheroes and alien invasions and other brands of chaos. For some reason, despite the extensive news coverage, the Garrison had continued to deny all of it, at least while Keith had been a cadet (a questionable attitude for a space exploration program and academy). Their insistence on “pilot error” over some kind of abduction is an example of this, a ridiculous notion where Shiro is (was) concerned. This only confirmed their denial of all things they are supposed to stand for, in Keith’s opinion.

Not that his opinion ever mattered to them, exhibited clearly by how quickly they took the opportunity to kick him out for “discipline” issues after their golden boy was declared dead, sending him on his way to New York to live with Shiro’s brother (who he ran away from only weeks after his arrival. His disappearance was never reported, which said something about his short, unhappy stay there). As if he would listen to a bunch of idiots anyway. Iverson deserved what was coming to him.

Unfortunately, however justified he felt with his (somewhat violent) handiwork, Keith was still in a rather precarious situation now because of it. Homelessness wasn’t a light issue, but that seemed to be where his actions had led him. He knew he would survive this, like everything else. He always found a way. But that didn’t make it pleasant.

The first action to take when it came to survival, Keith knew, was to find food and shelter. Dumpster diving or soup kitchens seemed like his best bet to keep himself fed, so he would find a place where he could easily access either of those.

As for a place to sleep, it would probably be smart to find a homeless shelter, but the likelihood of someone calling Child Protection Services was very high, and he did not want to be sent to a foster home. Not again. He was all too familiar with that turn of events. So a different solution was needed… the cliche cardboard box in an alley, possibly? Or moving from place to place like a nomad across the city? Maybe he could find some abandoned building somewhere that wasn’t in danger of demolition.

Turning down yet another random (and strangely empty) street, red jacket pulled tight around his shoulders and duffle bag slung across his back, Keith came face to face with the strangest sight he had ever seen in his young life. Standing in the middle of the street was a person in a red and blue spandex suit and mask, covered in web-like pattern. A young voice, male at Keith’s best guess, was attempting to calm the other individual in the road… a giant lizard in a lab coat. The… creature, was half-crouched warily in front of red-and-blue, tail lashing in agitation.

“C’mon, doc.” The hero(?) was inching closer slowly. “Just relax, then we can get you some help. You don’t like that itchy lizard-skin, right? You want to go back to being regular ol’ Conners, go back to your lab and a normal life. We don’t want the police to show up because you were destroying a neighborhood, do we?”

Frozen in place by shock, Keith looked on as the web-themed guy finally placed a careful hand on the lizard-man’s arm, muttering a few other things too quiet for any observers -namely Keith- to hear. Something he said might not have been the best thing to say, however, because next thing Keith knew the creature screeched, knocked the guy (he was so small, how old was he even?) into a brick wall with a powerful sweep of one arm, and promptly disappeared under a manhole cover.

Keith startled into action, rushing over to the downed person and kneeling over him. “Are you alright?”

The kid groaned, pushing himself into a sitting position. “Who, me? Just peachy. I get smacked around on a daily basis, some lizard isn’t gonna get me down. Speaking of,” he leaped easily to his feet, starting towards the open manhole. “I gotta catch up with him before he gets too far. Who knows when he’ll show up next, otherwise?”

“Hey, wait a sec!” The raven-haired boy jogged over to catch up to him. “Think you can track him through the sewers? Because he looked fast, and he’s definitely long gone by now.”

Mr. Red-and-Blue paused halfway into the sewers, glancing over his shoulder. “Listen, if you’re offering to help, I’ll have to turn you down. This guy’s dangerous. I don’t want you to get hurt, kid.”

Kid. As if he wasn’t one, but his stature gave him away if someone happened to overlook his voice.

“It’s not like I’ll be fighting him,” Keith countered, though he himself was wondering why he was insisting so much. What on earth am I doing? “Just helping you get to him. I’ve hunted since I was young, and I have all kinds of survival training. And you didn’t answer my question. Are you sure you can track him down? ‘Cuz I don’t see a point in going down there if you can’t.”

The masked boy was silent for a minute, before sighing. “Sure. What’s your name, Mister Random Civilian?”

He hesitated a beat, before thinking why the hell not? “Keith. And you?”

He pulled back sharply, placing a hand over the spider-emblem on his chest dramatically. “You don’t know me? I’m hurt.”

Keith rolled his eyes, crouching next to the manhole. “Dude, I’m new here, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never purposefully looked at a New York news station in my life. How the hell am I supposed to know who you are?”

“The name’s Spider-Man,” he offered a hand. “At your service.”

Huffing a laugh, he accepted the handshake. “Spider-Man? How’d that happen?”

“Radioactive spider bite, but that story can come later.” Spider-Man returned to his descent into the sewers. “Come on, Mr. Tracker. Let’s catch us a lizard.”

First day as a homeless person, and I’m helping a vigilante hunt down a man-sized lizard-creature. Life just got crazy. Following the other boy cautiously, he tightened his grip on his bag. It wouldn’t do to lose it down here, where he would never see it again.

The sewers were warmer than the streets, and they reeked. Spider-Man didn’t seem too bothered, standing to one side as Keith carefully stepped down onto slimey stones, but the boy had to pull the collar of his shirt over his mouth and nose just to breathe without gagging. “This city needs work in the area of sanitation.”

The hero shrugged. “It’s not too bad. So, which way, according to your well-honed skill set?”

“Are you mocking me?”

He had the nerve to laugh. “Hell yes, I’m mocking you. Just look at your face.”

“I will punch you,” he threatened, crouching down to get to work. “Now let’s stop wasting time.”

Spider-Man leaned over his shoulder, following his stare to the ground. “So… tell me what you’re seeing.”

Keith grunted in irritation, but humored him. He pointed at a scuff in the dust. “This here is a large footprint, similar to the reptiles I’m familiar with in the desert where I’m from. This here,” he pointed to a long swathe of disturbed debris. “Is probably from his tail. He’s moving quick, his tail is barely hitting the ground as he goes.” He straightened, pointing to the left of the ladder leading to sunlight and safety. “We go this way.”

The two walked almost silently by the running sewer water, wary and alert for any sign of trouble. Keith kept catching glances from the vigilante from the corner of his eye, but pointedly ignored him, keeping his own gaze fixed on the trail he was following. The dark, musty tunnel wasn’t easy to track in, but he had experience following a large snake through the desert night on a new moon, so this was nothing in comparison. Spider-Man, on the other hand, appeared at least slightly concerned. Keith couldn’t be one hundred percent certain, because of the mask, but he looked like he was expecting trouble.

Which Keith was too, now that it occurred to him. An ominous blanket of imminent danger settled over him, suffocating and constricting in the muggy underground. Soft, scratching noises echoed from up ahead, just barely at the edge of his hearing.

He shared a look with the hero. Or with his mask. Or not at all, because he wasn’t sure that Spider-Man was even looking at him. Keith shook the distracting thoughts from his head. There wasn’t time.

They rounded a corner, cautiously. stepped out into a wide room, and the world exploded into chaos.

The boy and the spider leaped in opposite directions, driven by instinct and the lizard barreling between them, face-first into a wall. Growling, it staggered back, right into a sticky pile of webs. The two young men acted as a tag-team, one darting in as a distraction while the other dove in from behind.

Keith took a moment to breathe while Spider-Man baited the lizard into a corner, his mocking and teasing only riling the creature up more. And he was fast, almost too fast for the eye to follow, and suddenly Keith was needed again to get the lizard off the hero’s back, throwing rocks to catch its attention and side-stepping hastily as it charged. The red and blue hero swung in again to take his turn, and the battle continued.

The lizard was battered and tossed around, eventually landing in a heap on the slimy stones at the feet of the two panting, sweaty boys.

“Awesome!” Spider-Man crowed, flipping off a wall to land lightly next to Keith. He held up a hand expectantly.

The boy rolled his eyes, but complied with the high five. “Your powers are pretty impressive.”

The hero snorted. “Pretty impressive yourself there, Keith. Where’d you learn to fight like that? Almost looked like you could take him on your own.” The teasing tone did nothing to dampen down the pure curiosity infused in the question.

“Around.” He shrugged, starting back down the tunnel. “Well, I’m sure you can deal with the mess. Not much I can do for clean-up. See you around.”

With a half-wave over his shoulder, he ducked around the corner before the other had a chance to respond. Spider-Man called out behind him, but he was easy to ignore. Keith’d had lots of practice, after all, in ignoring what is left behind.

Chapter Text

Keith settled on the nomadic life, not because he couldn’t find somewhere else to live, but because staying in one place made it too easy to find him.

Being homeless, Keith decided, was not all that different from some of the homes he’d been in. In fact, in some ways it was easier. Food, for one, wasn’t too hard to come by as long as he stuck by restaurant districts in the evening when most would be closing, resulting in a far preferred scenario of having a chance of being fed over being banned from meals in general for bad behavior. It wasn’t a lot of food, but he’d live. And no one tried to take his knife away, either. Not to mention that on the streets, there was usually someone else around who could watch your back, as well, be it a random passerby or a fellow street dweller. That meant if Keith got into a fight, instigator or not, there was someone there to intervene if it got serious.

The only real problem was people calling CPS whenever they saw him chilling in the same neighborhood several days straight. Considering the failures of that particular organization in his life were what had spurred him to take to the streets in the first place, he was understandably averse to meeting one of their social workers in this situation.

That was all balanced out by the numerous opportunities to help people, prove he wasn’t useless or a drain on resources because you can’t be a drain on resources if there aren’t any, in your face Mr. Alister. Day by day, little by little, Keith found himself making a difference, no matter how small, in someone else’s life. Sometimes it was merely offering what little change he had to pool with someone else so they could afford their first real meal in weeks, other times he walked young girls home in bad neighborhoods. Simple things, really. Some… not so simple.

Like tonight. Tonight was not simple, not easy, not something he could shrug off onto somebody else without feeling like less of a human being for it.

A young woman stood on the bridge, one foot on the railing, in the act of climbing up… and off, given time. Keith, without really thinking about it, strode over and leaned against the rail where she hesitated. He cocked his head to one side, calm as her dark eyes caught on his. She had pulled herself all the way up, and at his appearance lowered herself down to sit barely a foot away from him. Her jaw tightened, her mousy hair falling in a curtain around her face. “What are you doing here?”

He tilted his head back, facing the sky while still watching her out of his periphery. “I’d ask you the same thing, but I think I know.”

“Yeah?” She bit the word out viciously, a challenge. “And what are you going to do about it?”

He shrugged. “Ask for a few minutes of your time?”

She stared incredulously for a moment, then, surprisingly, she barked a laugh at that. “A few minutes of time from a dead girl walking? A limited commodity, at that, with nothing of worth you can pay for it.”

“Is that so?” He straightened, crossing his arms. “What if I swear not to ask any questions? I can just tell you about me, if you want. A bedtime story, if you will, to send you off to eternal sleep.”

A wry smile twisted her features into something a bit more than sad. “You won’t stop me from jumping?”

Keith returned the small smile, a different brand of sorrow. “If you want to leave so bad, who am I to make you stay? You don’t even know me. Nothing I say would make that much of an emotional impact.”

“You’re right,” she hissed, a tad too defensively, but she started sliding off the railing and back onto solid ground. “There’s nothing you can say.”

“Then humor me? Give me some time to talk.”

She looked at him, then, really looked at him, and choked on a bitter laugh. “How old are you, kid? What are you doing out at this time of night?”

He uncrossed his arms and tucked his hands into his pockets, as innocent as he could manage. “I suppose that’s part of the story. Will you listen?”

Reluctantly (though Keith hoped almost desperately that he wasn’t imagining the relief that was there too), the young woman stepped down, and allowed him to lead her to a bench at the end of the bridge. Keith settled himself on the edge of his seat and watched her perch on the other end, both of them looking ready to flee with only their determination keeping them rooted in place.

Keith, though not regretting his actions in the slightest, began to feel uncomfortable as he reached for a place to begin his story. It would probably be best to start from the beginning, wouldn’t it? Fitting, for a bedtime story.

And so he began, with a smirk that was equal parts mask and meaning. “Once upon a time, there was a boy. He never knew his mother, and his father died when he was very young, but even though his family did not play a particularly large role in his life, it was an important one.”

He didn’t know how the words were coming so smoothly, it never happened like this in conversation, but the story was pouring out of him as if of its own volition. “His father was the one who inspired his love of the stars and instilled an ever-burning curiosity inside of him. Shortly after, his father died, a firefighter trapped in a burning house, leaving his son. The boy’s mother only left him a knife, that he kept with him for the rest of his days.”

Keith pressed his hand against the shape of the knife in his duffle bag, but did not draw it out. With difficulty, he held eye contact with the girl, and continued. “Following on the heels of that dreadful news, a three-year-old boy was placed in foster care. He was volatile, never really becoming accustomed to people, to strangers. While some families were kind, tried to be understanding, he was too much for them. Too angry, too violent, too unpredictable for them to be comfortable keeping him with their own children.” He finally averted his eyes, looking off at some point in the distance. “Other homes weren’t so nice. The greater portion of those were simply uncaring, and the boy was a ghost in their home, hovering on the fringes and a barely-there non-existence.

“The others, the greater portion of them, would find any excuse to beat him regularly, sometimes within an inch of his life. The worst ones, though, would come creeping in the night, hold him down, and take what they wanted. He was only seven the first time it happened.”

There was a sort of horrified, guilty look on the young woman’s face, but he pressed on before she could interrupt. “He had been through over twenty homes and ten schools through ten years by the time his life started looking up. His chance at salvation came in the shape of another boy, seven years older, who was visiting the small town the boy lived in now from his fancy space school. The boy had always wanted to go to that school, ever since his father had stayed up with him at night to trace constellations in the sky.

“The older boy was a prodigy at that school, and had the teachers wrapped around his finger to the point where they allowed him to convince them to take the boy in as a ward of the state. The boy’s grades were enough to give him the privilege of advanced placement, so long as he could stay out of serious trouble.”

The young woman watched silently, and Keith saw her brows furrow when his smile turned self-deprecating. “That was a difficult condition to meet, though. The boy had relied on aggression to survive for so long, he wasn’t one to peacefully follow along like a lamb to slaughter if he thought something was up. It didn’t help that the other kids at that school thought he was standoffish and broody, picking fights to prove some kind of point. The only reason he managed to cling on was because the golden boy vouched for him, and that was good enough for most encounters.

“That is, until the Kerberos mission.”

Keith took a deep breath, glaring at a spot on the ground he irrationally decided was offensive, trying to gather himself enough to continue. The young woman had shifted closed during his story, and now she brushed his shoulder with the tips of her fingers, to get his attention. He flinched, eyes flickering up to her dark ones. “Are you okay?”

He laughed softly to mask the tears he knew he’d be crying later tonight. “You’re asking me? Just, just let me finish.”

She seemed subdued, and there was something else there that he couldn’t quite place… “Okay.”

And so.

“The Kerberos mission was undertaken by a crew of three to take samples from the edge of the solar system.” He explained. “According to official reports, their vessel crashed a little over a month ago. ‘Pilot error.’” He spat the words out. “As if their golden boy could crash.”

So close to the end. So, so, bitterly close.

“The boy was left behind in the aftermath, and since his friend had long been of age and had adopted him, he had been sent to live with the man’s brother. He… wasn’t one of the nicest people the boy had lived with.”

He locked eyes with the woman again, for emphasis, even though he could feel his eyes beginning to water. “And so he ran away. It’s been two weeks since then.” His gaze tracked back to the sky, a habit he had been unable (unwilling) to break. “And he’s been doing just fine.”

“What’s the boy’s name?”

His stare snapped back to the woman. “What?”

“His name?” A teasing lilt had slipped into her voice. “Come on, all the best heroes have names.”

Keith shook his head slightly. “He’s no hero.”

“Considering he’s survived all that, and probably a dozen or more other things not included in the story, I’d say he is, if only to himself. At least as heroic as some of those weirdo-vigilante types bumming around this part of town. And hey, he saved a gal from ending it all. Isn’t that something heroic?”

He rolled his shoulders and pulled a knee up to his chest. “As heroic as keeping anyone in a cage can be, I guess.”

The woman scoffed. “Isn’t that the opposite of what you’re supposed to want me to think?”

“Eh,” he rested his chin on his leg tiredly. “More like I wanted to give you more time to consider what you were doing, maybe some perspective. Irreversible actions should be carefully examined, right? Not like I ever listen to my own advice, impulsive as I am, but…”

A unsuccessfully stifled giggle squeaked from between the young woman’s hands, and he belatedly realized she had started crying at some point. “Are you kidding me? You lay out your entire tragic backstory to a total stranger who was going to jump off a bridge and you’re so… so… philosophical and detached about it.”

“Dissociated is probably more accurate, but that works too. It’s been two weeks, but… yeah, not really time in between surviving to process it all.”

She pressed up against his side, ignoring his tense posture this time. “What’s your name?” She repeated her query kindly.

“Keith.” Hesitantly, he placed a hand on her shoulder, trying for comforting. “And you?”

“Mara. And to think,” she laughed again, slightly hysterically. “There wouldn’t be a Mara here if you had come thirty seconds later.”

He glanced up at her through his hair. “Do you still want to jump, Mara?”

“Not… as much, anymore.” She admitted thoughtfully. “I mean, it’s still dark in my head, right now, but…” An odd wistfulness entered her sad smile. “There’s no harm in thinking it over, right? I can always continue where I left off at a later date. It’s just… there’s some people I want to talk to first, now.”

Keith straightened and stretched, getting to his feet. “At least you’re thinking about it. Is there anything else I can do?”

“You’ve done plenty, Keith,” she assured him, also rising from the bench. “More than some people I know. But really, how old are you? What are you doing out alone at this time of night?”

“Ah, that.” He crossed his arms, ducking his head to avoid eye contact. “I’m fifteen. And… I don’t really have anywhere to be.”

Her hand flew to her mouth. “You’re homeless?”

“Yeah… But it’s by choice, and it’s better than foster care.”

Mara regarded him silently for a moment, before nodding acceptance. “I’m not one to judge. You chose the streets, I chose a bridge.” She chuckled in realisation. “Though, I guess that wasn’t a bedtime story after all, huh?”

Keith searched for something to say, but suddenly a red and blue figure was perched on the back of the bench.”Heya! What are you two doing out this late?”

The raven-haired boy shifted his stance to something more casual. “Oh. Hey, Spider-Man.”

“Seriously, Keith.” The white eyes of the hero’s mask narrowed. “She looks like she was just crying, and the two of you are hanging out near a bridge. Normally I’m a pretty carefree guy, but this is a situation where I need some answers.”

“Sounds like you know exactly what’s going on already.”

“Wait, you know Spider-Man?” Mara’s eyes were blown wide as her gaze flickered between him and the hero. “How?”

Keith shrugged. “Helped him track down fight a giant lizard a little while ago. Surprised he still remembers my name, honestly.”

“A… giant lizard?”

Ignoring her, Keith faced the vigilante. “She’s fine now. Or, as fine as she can be at the moment. Do you think you could take her home? A hero is a more feasible defense than a fifteen year old.”

“Sure,” Spider-Man did a flip off the back of the bench and landed lightly in front of Mara. He bowed low, offering a hand. “If I may, m’lady?”

She offered a shaky smile and accepted the hand. “Okay...” She briefly glanced at the lone figure by the bench with a small, grateful smile. “Thank you, Keith. I hope your life treats you kinder than it has. You deserve it.”

Keith waved goodbye and watched the pair until they were out of sight, before slumping on the bench with a drawn out sigh. “I deserve it? Ha. That’s a good one.”

He’d only told Mara the bare bones of his past. If she knew some of the things he’d done… Well, it wouldn’t be pretty. Despite her sorrow and her pain, she could still laugh and smile. She still had time to listen to his Tragic Backstory™ even though she had her own problems. Sometimes… he wondered what business he had talking to people like her at all.

Chapter Text

After that first encounter with Mara, Keith found himself helping more and more people on the streets. He collected whatever spare food he could and passed it out to whoever needed it most, helped a few tourists with directions even though he had only been in the city himself for a few weeks, helped an old homeless man fix his makeshift shelter after a few punks knocked it down, and even helped a lost child find her mother. He’d even see Spider-Man on occasion, pausing on the sidewalk with his head tilted back, watching the webslinger soar between the skyscrapers with whoops of unadulterated joy.

Sometimes Keith envied him. His easy cheeriness, his carefree attitude, his freedom.

Right now the boy was wandering the barely-lit night-streets of Manhattan, angling towards Queens with no real intent. He had meandered around New York enough at this point to know that he was most likely to run into Spider-Man in this area, and some part of him, curled just below and behind his ribs, was yearning for a familiar face. Even if it was a masked one.

He had never been one to expect permanent fixtures in his life, and any sense of familiarity would be treated with all due suspicion, but it wasn’t necessarily unwelcome.

Tracking down Spider-Man wasn’t straightforward on a good day, especially as late as it was, but Keith was nothing of not persistent. The attack on a nearby bank only made him easier to locate, even if it made it harder to get his attention and talk to him.

The giant rhino-man was also making it rather difficult, charging at anything that moved and tossing cars with astonishing ease. Spider-Man had shown up by this point, and was doing his best to wear the guy down, but wasn’t making much progress. His sniping and humor provided a bit of a distraction (and a bit of information on Keith’s part), but not quite enough. The Rhino’s horn made a rather close call with the hero’s side, and Keith jumped in on instinct.

Wrapping a hand around a discarded web attached to what used to be a wall, he pulled the few bricks it was attached to out of the pile of rubble and hefted the makeshift weapon thoughtfully, eyeing the ongoing battle with a clinical detachment that a small part of his brain informed him was probably not healthy. He ignored that part for now (another unrecommended action), and swung the brick around his head to gain momentum. He aimed, waited patiently for an opening... Then he let go.

It struck the Rhino directly between the eyes just as Spider-Man leaped off his back, knocking the villain off balance and giving the hero the perfect opportunity to kick him into a wall.

Two minutes and copious amounts of webs later, the Rhino was rendered completely immobile, and Spider-Man was confronting Keith with his hands on his hips. “What were you thinking? Rhino could easily kill you! Civilians are not supposed to participate in superpowered battles!”

Keith smirked at the frantic rant, crossing his arms and interjecting pointedly. “I did just fine with the lizard, didn’t I? And the Rhino is down for the count now.”

“Well, yeah, but…” Spider-Man deflated noticeably. “Dude, you almost gave me a heart attack! Not cool!”

“Listen, I can take care of myself, alright? And you looked like you could use a hand.”

The white lenses of the mask’s eyes narrowed to a squint. “Why are you always out this early? It’s, like, four am. And you found the one place that was being destroyed by an enhanced guy trying to steal a bank. How?”

“How about not in the middle of a crime scene?” Keith suggested, jerking a thumb in the direction of the growing noise of police sirens. “And then we can have a chat about… whatever you’re concerned about.”

Spider-Man gave him a look that left him wishing he could see the face under the mask, if only so he could get a better read on this kid. With a sigh, he grabbed the hero’s arm and tugged him into an alley, releasing him only when he leaped to grab the lower rungs of the ladder to a fire escape. He pulled himself hand over hand and climbed up to the roof, glancing down once to see Spider-Man scaling the wall below him.

For a moment any pedestrian on the street would have seen two figures, Spider-Man and a kid in a red jacket, perched on the edge of the roof high above the ground. But there were no pedestrians, only smoking rubble and the ever-nearing scream of sirens.

Keith took a deep breath, shoulders hunched forward to brace for the inevitable conversation. “So, what exactly do you want to know?”

Spider-Man gazed pensively at the ground below, uncannily still for someone who was usually bouncing from one place to the next before he had properly landed. “I think the biggest question, at this hour, is where your family is, and if they know where you are.”

He grimaced, turning his face away. “I, ah, don’t have a family. They’re all dead. Have been for a while.”

The mask twisted in such a way that the expression underneath could only be a grimace. “Ah. No one left?”

A short shake of his head was answer enough.

The hero’s head snapped up suddenly. “Wait, where do you live then? Who takes care of you?”

Keith bristled at the worried tone. “I take care of myself. And I do a better job than anyone else has.”

Spider-Man tilted his head to face Keith, but didn’t comment. They sat in silence for a while before he spoke up again. “How did you find the one place with a superhuman heist?”

“It’s just my luck, really. Disaster seems drawn to me for some reason.”

A dark laugh was not what he expected in response. “You and me both, then.”

The following lull was more relaxed and companionable then the last, the two watching as the city slowly came alive. The nightlife tucked themselves back into the shadows as the early risers threw open their windows and started their day.

Criminal activity was almost nonexistent for once, and Keith glanced sidelong at the webslinger who had no reason to move just yet because of that. He couldn’t be much older than Keith himself, but already he was known throughout the city, by civilians and unsavory types alike. He wasn’t alone, though, despite the mask that hid him from the prying eyes of the press. Keith had seen the younger hero sitting or talking with Iron Man, and he’d occasionally catch a headline in the tabloids discussing rumours about Spider-Man’s civilian life or relation to other vigilantes like Daredevil. Some kind of support network.

The two watched from the roof as the police pulled up, assessed the situation, and bundled the Rhino into an armored vehicle. A few officers stayed behind to interview witnesses and the victims, and the medics on-site escorted the few injured into the back of an idling ambulance at the corner.

Suddenly restless, Keith rose in one fluid movement and stepped away from the edge. “Well, nice talking to you.”

Spider-Man leaped up, body language open and relaxed. “Yeah, I should probably finish my patrol. But Keith?”

He paused, one hand on the fire escape rail. “Hm?”

“If you ever need help…”

“Yeah, yeah.” A familiar tightness gripped his lungs. “You want me to talk to you. Sure.” He dropped to a lower platform, afraid that Spider-Man would read the hesitation on his face, and called up. “See you around!”

By the time he reached the ground, the hero was gone.

Chapter Text

This was starting to become a pattern. Keith fighting, Spider-Man shows up. Spider-Man fighting, Keith shows up. A pattern that quite easily became a habit, a habit that quite easily became a lifestyle. Keith wasn’t sure how he felt about the wall-crawler, but he was certain he was becoming too reliant already.

As he thought of this small fact, he turned off into one of the many alleyways he had walked before, distracted and embarrassingly vulnerable. A band of thugs were waiting, and only instinct let him dodge the first punch.

His guard snapped into place, and he shot a glance over his shoulder. A few of the gang members had blocked off his escape. One of them, presumably the leader, cracked his knuckles menacingly. At least, he tried to be menacing, but only managed to be comical in the way he grimaced, flexing his biceps like some star at a show. “Well, kid, you’ve been making too big of a negative presence here on my terf. New York has no need of you. My two options for you are; buzz off or get the beating of your lifetime.” His grimace twisted into a not-quite-terrifying smile, rolling his shoulders. “You know what? Nevermind that. Boys, give it to ‘em--”

While he had been talking, Keith had slipped his dagger into one hand, curling his other into a fist. At the last second, he attacked, hooking an uppercut to the leader’s chin. He’d learned how to do that properly at the Garrison, so he knew that that was one down for the count.

Then all hell broke loose.

The enemy charged, surrounding him and throwing clumsy punches his way. Keith moved like fire. Swift, dodging, and deadly. One moment he was there, the next here, then gone again. The thugs couldn’t keep track of his elusive form.

Keith tried his best to cause minimal harm, but… his temper might’ve gotten away with him a little bit. Besides, he was fighting for his life, who could blame him if some of the guys had a few (okay, maybe a little more than a few) flesh wounds? I mean, most of his fighting was muscle memory and instinct, so it’s not like he meant to break someone’s arm or crack a couple of guys’ ribs or stab another’s gut...

By the end of it, he was hardly damaged, by his standards. A couple deeper cuts from a thug’s dull knife, a couple longer shallow ones from a fellow’s sharper, somewhat clean knife. Possibly a sprained ankle (how had that happened?) and probably a faint concussion. Nothing he couldn’t handle.

Once he was done assessing his wounds, he looked up to find a red-and-blue spandex-wearing figure looking down at him through slitted white lenses.

Keith raised a lazy hand in greeting, using his other to tuck away his dagger.

Spider-Man hopped down from the wall. “Didn’t get here in time to help,” he said simply.

Keith shrugged, pressing a hand to one of his larger cuts, blood oozing from between his fingers.

“Need a hand?” Spider-Man quipped, gesturing towards his web-shooters. “Or, rather, a wrist?”

Keith stepped back, pulling out a strip of cloth from his jacket pocket. “No need.”

“You sure? That cloth looks like you tried to wipe your pessimism off with it. Didn’t help much, but it sure left the cloth filthy.”

It wasn’t funny, so Keith didn’t crack a smile. Instead, he turned on his heel and started to walk away…

“Wait!”

He rolled his eyes, exasperated though he didn’t know why. He faced Spider-man once more. “Yes?”

The kid was on the wall again, looking down at him from an unnatural angle. “I know I said this already, but if you need help, I’m there. I might even be able to get you a place to stay, if you’ll let me. I can contact the Avengers--”

Keith raised a hand. “I’m going to stop you right there. I’m fine with you helping me out every once and awhile, but I’m good on my own. If I stay in one place then there’s too much danger for whoever I’m with.” He didn’t say anything around Spider-Man’s comment about the Avengers, and he wasn’t planning to. He thought of the Avengers as authority figures, and he’d never been comfortable with those types of people. There was too much opportunity for betrayal, too much opportunity for corruption, as he’d learned in the past.

The web-slinger seemed to accept his answer, saying, “Fair enough. See you around.”

Keith said, with no humour in his voice, “Not if I see you first.”

<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>

The thug stayed perfectly still, listening to the wall-crawling menace speak to the fiery child. Did the infamous Spider-Man have an accomplice? Was the fiery child a friend of the web-slinger? He had to inform his boss about this. First things first, however, he had to keep quiet, wait and see if Spider-Man would leave his companions without webbing them.

Which, of course, he didn’t. Spider-Man webbed them up good and tight, leaving a note for the police to find.

Just my luck, he thought, the menace didn’t forget this time.

Leaving his comrades to their fate like the criminal he was, he headed towards headquarters.

Spiderman has a friend, a weakness. I bet someone would pay good money for that information.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Back to Keith. Because, duh, he’s the main character.

You know what really sucks? Two fights in one day. Especially if your first one left you struggling for breath, bleeding more than was healthy, and weak beyond words.

But, when you see a man with chaotic energy powers blasting a hole in the side of a bank, and you’re a teenager named Keith Kogane that doesn’t seem to know when to give up, you don’t hesitate for a moment. You throw yourself at a literal supervillain with nothing but a dagger and your bare hands.

At least, that’s what this Keith Kogane did.

He leapt to the side, narrowly avoiding the blast of energy that came his way, hair standing up for a brief instant before settling once more. Right as he was about to tackle the man of energy again, an all-too-familiar web-slinger came into view, shouting cheerily, “I saw you first!”

The energy man was confused for a moment, giving Spider-Man the perfect opportunity to crash feet-first into his chest. “Hey Electro! Still crackling, I see. I hope you’re shocked to see me! I know I would be…” And he prattled on, and on, and on as he beat Electro to a crisp (pun intended), with the help of Keith. Or was it Spider-Man the one who helped Keith? He wasn’t sure about the technicalities.

When the fight was finished, Spider-Man once again gave Keith the ‘if you need help…’ talk. Keith ignored it, of course, but this time allowed the kid to web up his wounds. The webbing was supposed to be antiseptic, after all.

“Who was that guy? You seemed to know him,” Keith asked, fiddling with the makeshift bandages absently, and wishing he had an extra shirt.

“Him?” Spidey gestured to the webbed-up Electro. “Just some poor soul who messed around with things he didn’t understand.”

Sirens approached from a distance, too late to help, fortunately.

Keith shouldered his belongings. “Typical.” He glanced at the nearest alley. “Catch you later.”

The spandex hero snatched his arm. “I mean what I said, about me helping when you need it.” He pressed something into his palm. “Push the back if you’re in trouble. You’re not alone, Keith.” Then he withdrew, shooting a web and swinging off into the distance.

Keith looked down at his hand. A little mechanical spider was nestled in his palm. He tucked it into one of his many pockets.

He would never use it, but it was a nice reminder that at least one person didn’t hate him. He looked up at the sky, at the stars beginning to peak out of their hiding places.

At least one.

Chapter Text

The thug counted his cash, grin widening. He could buy a lifetime supply of pizzas with this much money. Two lifetimes of pizzas. (Let’s be honest, he’s not very good at math)

For some odd reason, he felt a twinge of guilt. He’d almost forgotten he was human at this point. But now, as he looked down at the green paper in his hands, he wished the fiery boy well being…

Because his friendship with Spider-Man may have cost him his life.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>

The fiery boy in question was currently giving a tourist directions-- and advice.

“Steer clear of this area, alright?” Keith said, gesturing at the twisting streets. “It’s not safe here. Too many cutthroats around. If you go straight that way, and take a hard left, then you’ll be out of this neighborhood in no time.”

The tourist hesitated, a soft frown on her face. “If you don’t mind me asking… why are you in this neighborhood, if it’s so bad?”

He shrugged, avoiding the inquiry. “If I wasn’t, you could’ve been mugged, or worse.” She opened her mouth to ask another question, but he cut her off. “Enough about me. Don’t you have something to do? Go on. Scram.”

The tourist was about to leave when out of the blue (more accurately, out of an alleyway) came a bunch of bully boys, trying to look tough in their skin-tight leather jackets and knee-high boots. Keith had a flash of deja vu, remembering two days previously, when he was stuck in a similar situation.

Except this time, he had someone he had to protect.

The bruisers didn’t waste time talking, choosing to use their fists instead of their mouths (which, if you ask me, saved them some humiliation). In this fight, they had one priority: capture the Spider-Brat’s acquaintance.

Keith also had a priority in this fight: get the tourist to safety. How he planned to that, he didn’t know, but he sure wasn’t planning on giving up.

“Run!” Keith barked, pushing the tourist in the opposite direction of the thugs. “I’ll hold them off.”

Not waiting for a response, Keith grabbed his dagger and charged into the coming cutthroats. They were momentarily surprised, giving him just the opportunity to take two of them down. Keith dodged a moderately aimed kick. He ducked a fast-moving punch. He kicked and punched back, twisting around to elbow another in the gut. Etc, etc. You don’t want to hear the rest. Those thugs were even more pitiful than the last group.

One, however, did manage to land a hit on his leg. It was near the end of the fight, so Keith didn’t worry too much about it. He would assess the wound later.

Which, of course, he didn’t.

Once the fight was finished, he checked to see if the tourist had stayed to gawk, (people sometimes decide to do that), then he limped away from the crime scene, not wishing to get caught by the police.

He hadn’t gone far, however, when something cold and hard wrapped around his middle, lifting him in the air as he struggled and kicked.

Where was Spider-Man when you needed him?

The metal arm (tentacle?) turned him around until he was facing a strange, strange man. The man had four long metal appendages, one of which was holding Keith, and he was wearing a brightly coloured tight-fitting suit as well as some old-school science glasses.

“Ahh,” the man said in a lightly foreign accent, squeezing his metal arm tighter as Keith fought for breath, “The Spider friend I’ve heard so much about. There are rumours you helped in the taking down of the Lizard, the Rhino, and the infamous Electro, and I’d like to know how. A powerless boy up against super-powered idiots? I think not. There must be something that makes you different. I intend to find out exactly what.” One of his other tentacles brought out a syringe, and Keith pushed harder, trying to break free. “And if Spiderman comes after you, that is merely a… convenient plus to my plans.”

Keith was already passing out by the time the liquid in the syringe was emptied into his bloodstream. (Well that was a rollercoaster of a sentence. Sorry, not sorry)

<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>

He woke in a cell, his legs chained to the wall. He couldn’t walk past two feet in any direction. Not that there was anything of interest past two feet. The cell was empty, bare of even essentials.

Keith’s bag had been taken, and his leg wound had been bandaged. His skin crawled at the thought of someone handling him while he’d been asleep, his past at the forefront of his mind. But he doubted that that octopus man had any sense of… physical pleasure.

He forced those thoughts out of his consciousness, digging his hands into his pockets, hoping the spider hadn’t been confiscated. He came up with the small mechanical insect, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He pressed its back.

There was no visible change, only a small beep of acknowledgement which Keith hoped meant it was working. Though he loathed to admit it…

He needed help.

Chapter Text

“Peter, that tracker-spider that you gave to Keith has been activated.”

Peter paused at the top of an old warehouse after pulling on his mask, heart rate spiking. “Where, Karen? When did this happen?”

“The tracker was activated in a back street near Queens about two hours ago, and from there moved swiftly towards the Hudson River.”

He was moving before she finished speaking, swinging with single-minded determination. “Call Mister Stark.”

The man himself picked up on the second ring. “Hey, Pete.”

“Mister Stark, I need your help.”

The man’s casual tone was gone in an instant. “Where are you?”

“Remember that friend I told you about who helps me out sometimes? He’s in trouble. Karen, send him the signal for the tracker.”

There was a short silence. “Kid, you’re friend is in the middle of the Hudson.”

“I know! And I need your help to save him!”

“Wouldn’t someone with a boat be a better pick?”

“He wasn’t in the river when he activated the tracker Mister Stark! And he wouldn’t activate the tracker unless it was serious.”

Another pause. “Alright, kid. Should I bring backup?”

“I’m not sure what we’re dealing with, but better safe than sorry?”

“I’ll meet up with you. Don’t jump into the fight before I get there. Understood?”

“Understood Mister Stark.”

“Call ended.” Karen informed him, a trace of concern in her voice. “Peter, you should have told Mister Stark who your friend is.”

“I can’t do that! I promised him I’d keep it a secret!”

“Secrets can be more harmful than helpful.”

“Keith has proven time and time again that he can take care of himself. And I gave him the tracker for just such a situation as this, where he can’t!” He muttered a bit under his breath. “And maybe this will encourage him to finally let me help!”

Peter leaped from another building and shot a web, hoping feverishly that Keith would be able to hold up until he got there.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Regaining consciousness was never a pleasant experience for Keith, but it was especially disagreeable when the cause for unconsciousness in the first pace was a mix of suffocation and mystery drugs. Now, sitting with shackled legs and a small, metal spider in his palm, he could trace his pulsing headache to that specific and unwelcome experience.

At least half an hour had passed since his awakening, and nothing had changed, but the slowly growing dread in the pit of his stomach told him that the silence wasn’t going to last for long. Carefully tucking the spider into the pocket of his jacket, he tested the chains once more. They were bolted directly into the wall, unfortunately, and there were no perceivable locks on the manacles around his ankles for him to pick. As if he had something to pick them with. As if that would even help him get out of a locked, windowless room.

An ominous shiver raised goosebumps along his shoulders, just as footsteps echoed from beyond the door. Scrambling away and pressing his back against the far wall, he tried to calm his breathing. With a click the door unlocked, and creaked open.

The octopus guy stepped into the room, two of his mechanical arms pulling a metal table on wheels behind him. And proceeded to completely ignore the boy as he set up various stands and some odd medical-looking equipment. Keith’s nerves, if possible, became worse.

Every second that passed only increased the restless heat under his skin, and he finally snapped. “Who are you? What do you want from me?”

The man paused, and half-turned to face him, the light reflecting on his glasses from the doorway rendered his eyes unreadable. “I am Doctor Otto Octavius, and I believe I already answered your other question. You intrigue me, boy. You have faced enhanced beings in combat, and yet here you stand, alive. I intend to find out why.

“Unfortunately,” he turned back to the table abruptly, making a few small adjustments out of Keith’s line of sight. “I know that there is only so much time I will have with you. Spider-Man, while I am reluctant to admit it, is clever. He will have realized you are gone before long, and he has become less reckless since he was recruited by Stark.”

“Meaning you won’t have an easy time if he comes calling?” He regretted the words almost as soon as they left his mouth. He was at this doctor’s mercy, after all…

Thankfully, Octavius didn’t take it badly. Less thankfully, he actually seemed amused, smirking over his shoulder. “I suppose that’s one way to put it, yes. He is an exceptional creature, after all.”

The way he said creature sent chills across Keith’s skin, and he found his back hitting the wall before he noticed he was moving.

Octavius seemed to finish what he was doing and finally faced him completely. “You are also an interesting creature. Do you know what you are?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“No matter,” he waved a hand dismissively. “It’s obvious that you don’t. And so,” he patted the top of the table. “If you come sit here I will tell you.”

Keith’s face twisted in a scowl. “Like hell I will.”

“You don’t have much choice here, boy.” Suddenly he was a menacing shadow looming over him, face shadowed ominously. “If you do not cooperate willingly, than I will have to force you. I promise, it will not be pleasant.”

Glaring, instincts screaming, Keith dragged himself to his feet and crossed warily over to the table. Following Octavius’s instructions with great reluctance, he tossed his jacket (tracker and all) to the floor and pulled his shirt over his head. The cool air on his skin wasn’t the only reason he shivered, though. His captor’s expression was enough for that on its own.

Under the man’s continued direction, Keith laid down on the cold meal. He flinched when Octavius grabbed his arm. “What are you doing?”

“It is part of human nature to avoid pain,” his voice was clinically detached, as if his words were of no moment. “I’m making sure you don’t move too much as we continue.”

His words registered far too late for Keith to do anything about them. Tugging experimentally on the leather straps binding his arms and legs, he kept an eye on the good doctor as he started fiddling with a machine that looked suspiciously like an IV drip.

That’s when it finally sank in that he was trapped here, with some psycho maniac who was intent on finding out what exactly made him tick. And now he was strapped to a table.

He jerked reflexively against the restraints as the doctor slipped the IV into his arm, and the man chuckled. “I told you. Human nature.”

Keith glared at him, taking deep breaths to keep himself calm. “But once you know what you want to know I get to leave, yeah?”

Octavius’s smile was far from comforting. “I suppose you can look at it that way.”

He wanted to put his finger on why exactly that made him so nauseous, but the drugs being pumped into him were tugging relentlessly on his consciousness. He managed one more weak glare in the crazy man’s direction before his mind drifted off.

Dark cloaked his thoughts for a long time, but he struggled to a semi-alert state briefly after who-knows-how-long, panic fueling him. There was a fierce stabbing ache in his chest, and loud shouts and crashes in his periphery. With effort, he turned his head to face them, flashes of red and blue and gold crossing his line of sight. His visions focused slowly on one figure standing between him and the sounds of fighting.

He recognized him, he thought, and pulled deep from his reserves of fire and stubbornness to find his voice. “...Spider-Man…?”

The figure flinched violently and spun around. So Keith’s mind was filled with familiar white eyes in a red mask before being drawn under the darkness once again.

Chapter Text

Keith tuned back into the world slowly. Initially, there was the sole sensation of being awake, but there was no sound, no taste, no light, no smell, no feeling. Was he dead? He thought about that for a moment with a sort of disinterested detachment. Or, alternatively, was he simply in a coma?

Then, the faintest of brushes, his hands clenched loosely on fabric, the soft pitter pattering of rain on the pane of a window, the tangy salt of copper on his tongue. The smell of sanitizer. The latter sent him reeling with memories, some fresh, some old, none of them good. Each of them making him want to choke. To puke. To shiver in a corner until they all went away.

So, he was alive after all.

He creaked open an eye, carefully, dream-like. His gaze landed first on an IV stand beside him, feeding something into his arm. His heartbeat steadily increased. The sanitizer smell was indeed the odor of a hospital. His survey wandered to his other side. Spider-Man sat in a chair two feet from his bed, head lolled and shoulders slumped. Standing beside the wall-crawler was a man in a lab coat, and beside him was a man in a tailored suit. He could hear the thump of his heart now, in tune with the rain outside. Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump, thump thump thumpthumpthumpthump. It was so loud, like thunder in his ears. It drowned out all other sounds. It overcame his thoughts, overcame his mind.

His eyes careened wildy around the room. Danger! Danger! Danger! his heart screamed. Hospitals were bad. People in lab coats and suits were bad. Everything in this situation was bad bad bad.

He scrambled into a sitting position, the IV knocking around in his rush. He began to pull it out of his arm, but suddenly a hand was there, pinning him down, holding him back. That only made him struggle, which only hurt him even more than he already was. He bucked hard, numb to the pain that spiked through him, adrenaline running through his veins.

“Keith! Stop! We’re helping you!” Spider-Man’s voice cut past his panic, grounding him. “You’ve got to stop!”

He settled, breathing heavily, eyes like an animals’. He focused on the man holding him down. It was the web-slinger himself; he must’ve woken up. Keith blinked, relaxing further. Spider-Man had proved himself trustworthy.

Then he looked around once more. A hospital. Right. But not any regular hospital.

“Where am I? Where did you take me?” Keith snarled, the fire inside of him kindling.

The agile red and blue hero released him, stepping back. “Avengers’ Tower.”

Keith was aghast for a moment, then snapped out of it, levering himself onto one elbow. He instantly winced. Everything was sore. And he felt so weak. He hated that feeling. But for now, he pushed it aside. There were more important things to worry about. “I am not staying here, in this place.” His voice was angry, almost desperate.

“Why not? You activated the tracker, so I came to help. This is what my help looks like.”

“When I pressed the back of that Spider, I didn’t expect you to bring the Avengers into this,” he growled. Then, when he noticed the man in the lab coat and the man in the suit hovering behind Spider-Man, he narrowed his eyes and said, “And I wouldn’t’ve pressed it at all if I had known.”

“So you’d let yourself be experimented and tormented by Doc Ock instead?” Keith could tell that Spider-Man was losing patience. “Why is me asking for help such a problem? What’s so wrong about that?”

A pause. “There’s nothing wrong with you asking for help.” After all, that’s what he had done.

“Then why? Why are you so against the Avengers? When I brought them up the other day, you totally cut me off!”

“It’s…” Keith began reluctantly, then stopped, unsure of how to explain. His gaze darted towards the men behind Spider-Man, and he frowned. “It’s not the Avengers themselves. Just… past memories, is all.” He looked around once more at the room, containing a shudder. Too many memories.

Spider-Man had spotted his shudder, but didn’t comment on it. Instead, he said, with more seriousness than Keith had originally thought possible for the wall-crawler, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. But there was nowhere else I could take you without raising suspicions.”

Keith took a deep, unsteady breath, feeling drained. “At least get me out of this room,” he pleaded, his voice hitching in an embarrassing show of weakness, “I need--” He put the hand unencumbered by the IV up to his face, pressing his knuckles on the bridge of his nose and closing his eyes. “I need out of this room,” he repeated, stronger.

He heard Spider-Man speaking to the men, but did not understand the words. He did not imagine others in his life who had worn lab coats. He did not imagine others in his life who had worn suits. He did not imagine memories of betrayal, of deceit, of pain. He would not show any more weakness to these men who did not know him, nor this Spider who did not understand.

“Keith.”

He snapped his eyes open, flicking his gaze towards Spider-Man, with every moment sinking deeper into the bed. Everything was too much and too fast and his head was spinning out of control, but he focused with intense purpose on the man in front of him, struggling to obtain the words he was saying.

“... we have a room for you that’s not too far from here. Can you walk?”

“I can and will.” Keith said flatly, pushing himself into a sitting position with much difficulty. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, clutching his stomach as a bolt of pain dizzied him, gasping for breath. The web-slinger was by his side in an instant, asking him if he was okay. He growled that he was fine. He grabbed the IV stand, using it for balance as he got to his feet. Swaying unsteadily, he staggered a few steps, dragging the stand with him. Spider-Man tried to help him, but he waved him away. He could help himself.

Which, by his next step, it was evident that he could not. His legs had failed him. Just as his knee crumpled and his ankle twisted, Spider-Man was there, one arm under his armpits, holding him up.

“I’m fine.” Keith insisted, but the Spider didn’t listen to him, and he couldn’t blame ‘im. He didn’t believe himself very much, either.

The two men followed them out of the Med Bay at a reasonable distance, giving Keith space. Keith still eyed them from time to time, but for the most part trusted that they didn’t mean him harm.

At least not yet.

It was only a few feet of walking, but it felt like miles. Keith could feel the weight of his body all the more keenly, the pain in his chest becoming unbearable, the strength in his step fading to nothing. He leaned more and more on the Spider at his side with each step, and by the time they got to the room, Spider-Man had merely picked him up, dragging the IV stand with them.

The wall-crawler set Keith down on a bed, saying, “We’ll talk later, and I’ll explain everything. For now, though, you need to sleep.”

Keith opened his mouth to protest, but the words slipped from his mind before they had even touched his lips. His eyelids drooped.

He gave in to the call of sleep.

Chapter Text

Keith opened his eyes. He was in a bed, in a dark room, with his body continually reminding him of the pain he was in. For a moment, he was stuck in the past. Of previous times he was in the dark, alone and in pain. Shards of memories scattered across his vision, of the many beatings he had taken, of the many punishments he had been given. Be it the foster families, or Garrison generals, or bullies he fought off, he had picked himself onto his feet and moved along. He had moved along, but they had left their mark on his body and on his mind.

It was only for a moment. Then he remembered what had happened, with Doc Ock and Spider-Man coming to save him. As if he was some sort of damsel in distress. He scoffed. Sure, he had needed the help, but that didn’t make him like it any better.

He dragged himself even further into the present, grounding himself by observing the room he was in. He couldn’t see very well, (because, as I said, it was dark), but from what he could tell it was pretty average-sized, and the only light that could be found was from a curtained window. It was a reasonably bright light, considering the curtain, so he assumed it was well into the day. There was a small table beside the bed.

The IV stand was gone, so he swung his legs off the bed and stood, wobbling. At least he could stand. Now, walking was going to be the hard part. He took a step, then another, but then a disembodied voice spoke from the walls around him.

“I have notified Boss of your awakening. Mr.Stark bids you to stay in the room as he approaches.”

The voice was slightly robotic, but not overly so. Just enough that Keith realized that it was not, in fact, a human voice. He faintly recalled reading an article about Stark technology and AI advancements, and made the correct assumption. That same article briefly mentioned Stark’s alternate heroic identity, his association with the Avengers, and by extension his approval of the Accords.

Deciding that it would be unwise to disregard the billionaire’s request-- and also, maybe, taking regard for his injuries, though he’d never admit it-- Keith sat back down on the bed, a lace of pain shooting through his chest. He sighed. Patience was not his strong suit, and his vulnerability made him antsy. He wondered how long Stark would take.

The answer was; not very long.

The man who had been hovering behind Spider-Man when Keith had first woken up (try saying that ten times fast) walked into the room. Keith raised an eyebrow. “You’re Tony Stark?”

“You say that as if you’re surprised,” Stark said loftily, setting down a tray of food on the bedside table.

Keith crossed his arms, suppressing a wince at how it sent a flare of pain through his chest. “I’d have thought you’d be less… flashy? Maybe more dignified. Seems like that is not the case.”

The billionaire leaned back, as if offended, “Oh? You think I’m not dignified?” He held up a hand. “Nevermind, don’t answer that.”

Keith smirked. There was an uncomfortable silence. Well, uncomfortable for Iron Man, that is.

The man in question cleared his throat, gesturing towards the tray of food. “Got you some food to eat. Prepared by Pepper Potts, the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Keith picked up the tray, settling it on his lap, “Hmm. Somehow, I don’t trust your judgement.” He popped a cracker with goat cheese into his mouth. For some strange, unknown reason, he felt at ease with this arrogant billionaire, yet at the same time, a part of his mind was distrustful and wary. It was a conflict of self that he had rarely encountered.

He selected a triangle of sandwich, biting into it delicately, just like the pretty boy he is.

“... you’ll like Pepper, I think. Very sensible woman. From what Spider-Man has told me, you’re rather inclined towards sensibility.” Stark was saying, sarcastically.

Taking another bite of the (highly delicious) sandwich, Keith raised an eyebrow, and said nothing.

The child-like adult sighed, expression darkening. “Alright. I’ll get to the point. You have no damage to your organs so far as we can tell-- that Doctor Octavious knew what he was doing, even if he was rushed... but you have a fading concussion, two bruised ribs, several lacerations to your legs and arms, (the largest of which had to have stitches), and a sprained ankle. So, the others and I think it best if you do not move around without supervision. Capiche?”

He swallowed his piece of bread and ham. “I don’t think you understand, Tinpot. I’ve got to leave. I can’t stay here.”

“You said that before,” It was Stark’s turn now to cross his arms. “And you said it had something to do with your past. Mind telling me why that is?”

Keith took a deep breath to answer, though he did not know what he was going to say. Not the truth, certainly. But, the breath sent a sharp, overwhelming pain through his chest, and he gasped, only making it worse. Gritting his teeth in frustration, he asked, “What did Doc Ock do to me?” Half of that was avoiding Stark’s question, though he knew it was inevitable that he would have to answer, but the other half was just a startled response to the pain.

Thankfully, Rust-bucket chose to ignore the unanswered question, but the reply to Keith’s inquiry wasn’t much better, “He vivisected you.”

“He… vivisected me. As in, he cut me open to view my insides?

“That’s what I said, yes.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” He prodded his chest, wincing. “That man’s a maniac.”

“No arguing with that.”

A thought occurred to him. “What happened to that octopus anyway? Did you guys catch him?”

Stark winced, as if he was the one in pain. “No, we didn’t. He got away.”

Kieth’s blood ran cold. “I have to get out of here,” he repeated, quietly now, as if to himself.

“Woah, bucko. You’re not going anywhere,” T-bone reproached. “Like I said, your body is still coping with what Octavius did to you, and it’s obvious you’re malnourished. Besides, there’s also the… unusualness in your genes.”

“What do you mean ‘the unusualness of my genes’?”

“You don’t know?”

“Don’t know what?

“You’re… we don’t know what you are, but what we know for sure is that you’re not completely human.”

There’s a pause. Kieth could feel something in his gut, an awakening of some sort, but he refused to acknowledge it. “My parents were human. How do you explain that, bucket head?”

“Are you sure your parents were human? From what I could scrounge up about your past, you never even knew your mom.”

Oh, shiver me timbers and slap me whiskers, death knocks at the door of Anthony Edward “Tony” Stark. He might as well dig himself a hole and lie in it.

What?” That, my dears, it an angry Kieth Kogane. Let’s hope you never see one.

Stark’s eyes twinkle in a way that isn’t healthy. “Kieth Kogane, age 15, former cadet of the highly secretive Garrison, never knew his mom.”

“How do you know my last name? How do you know about the Garrison?”

“Did an ID check.” As if that explains how he knows about the Garrison, but Kieth didn’t care at the moment.

He stands, tray clattering to the floor. Rage numbed the pain and adrenaline kept him on his feet. “You had no right.”

The damn billionaire looked as if he hadn’t a care in the world. “What was I supposed to do? Let an unidentified crime-fighting teenager into my Tower?”

I didn’t ask to be here.

At that moment, our dearly beloved Spider stepped into the room, and he froze like a naked cat in Antarctica.

Chapter Text

Spider-Man crossed his arms, uncharacteristically still as he regarded the occupants of the room. His gaze zeroed in on Keith, and the dark-haired teen could not help the heat burning just under his skin at the scrutiny. Discomfort and confusion only ever manifested themselves one way in Keith Kogane, and that was aggression. He bristled, crossing his arms both as a sign of hostility and to defend himself, but did not speak. He had nothing to say that had not already been said.

The wallcrawler seemed to sigh, as if unimaginably wearied, and placed a hand on Stark’s shoulder, though still addressing Keith. “Let’s make a deal. You at least stay here until you’re healed, okay? So we can help you out. Please, let us help you.

It was a reasonable offer, but reason had never been Keith’s friend. Reason would tell Keith he should not be on the streets by himself. Reason whispered for Keith to go back to the system, where he would be taken care of. Reason insisted that there was no way Shiro would still be alive in space, especially after all this time. Keith only had his instincts and intuition to guide him, and currently they were screaming that something was wrong and he had no clue what it was, had no idea if it was in this room or if it was waiting. Waiting for him to leave the safety of this so-called haven, waiting for him to isolate and make a target of himself… He was confused, and he was angry, and he was afraid.

Then these heroes come along, saying they were trying to help, but they wouldn’t let him leave and he was trapped, trapped, no way out, no escape, can’t breathe can’t see can’t move no no nonono….

“Keith, Keith!” Someone knelt in front of him, hand squeezing his thigh. “Breathe, you’re fine, you’re okay. You’re safe, no one wants to hurt you.”

Blinking the wetness out of his eyes (when had he started crying?) he took a deep, gasping breath with Spider-Man’s guidance, then another, fiercely ignoring the look shared between the vigilante and the billionaire. He was right, he should relax, he was safe here… for now, at least. Spider-Man wasn’t going to try anything, he’d fought alongside him before, he was a comrade. Trustworthy. Stark was another matter… but Spider-Man was okay with him, looked up to him, so he should be fine, right?

But people could do many things under the guise of “helping.”

He could bide his time, though. Observe, plan, and maybe (just maybe) earn some valuable allies… not friends, never friends, but acquaintances nonetheless. He could take a chance to recover here, as long as he never let his guard down. At the very least Octavius couldn’t get to him here (probably).

Spider-Man was still waiting patiently on his answer, a grounding hand feather-light on his shoulder as if afraid to push him. Keith felt a bit like laughing, a bit hysterical, but he pulled a well-worn expression of disinterest and distrust over his face instead, and said. “Fine, I’ll stay, but once I’m well enough to walk… no promises.”

The two others in the room each released a relieved sigh, and the webslinger bounced back to his feet. “Alright then! Let’s get you filled in on what’s been going on while you were asleep, then, okay?”

“FRIDAY,” Stark called, face tilted to the ceiling. “Can you call down Rhodey? Tell him to bring the file of what we dug up.”

The name sounded vaguely familiar to Keith, but he was more interested in what they wished to share. What information could they possibly have that would prove to be of any significance to him, a homeless runaway who got mixed up with the wrong people?

“Tony.” An African-American man stepped into the room, legs encased in mechanical braces. “I’m not an errand boy.”

“Rhodey!” Stark smirked. “Meet our guest, Keith Kogane.”

Keith shifted self-consciously, hyper-aware of the bandages scattered over his person and how the pajamas he had been dressed in hung off his frame. The heroes were one thing, they already knew how he had been living. This man was a stranger, looking in from the outside…

The man inclined his head respectfully. “Colonel James Rhodes, nice to meet you.”

“Colonel?” Keith glanced quickly at Spider-Man, then Rhodes’ leg-braces, then back up to the man himself.

Rhodes grimaced. “A bit of an accident, don’t worry about it.”

Stark waved him forward impatiently. “Come on, Rhodey. Show the kid what we found.”

The colonel didn’t seem to have much trouble moving around, and approached the bed without much issue. Spider-Man pulled out a chair for him and he gratefully lowered himself into it, pulling a manila folder from under his arm. “Tony did a background check when we brought you into the tower, and FRIDAY came across legal guardian papers signed by someone named Takashi Shirogane.”

Keith bolted upright in bed, ignoring the screaming of his aching body as a roaring wave rose up in his mind. He opened his mouth, but he blanked on anything to say. They knew about Shiro. Wonderful, selfless, missing in space Shiro… this was about him?

Spider-Man gently pushed him back down onto the cushions as Rhodes continued reading from the report. “Allegedly crashed his ship on a mission to Pluto’s moon… though no evidence of this crash have been released to the public. Considered the best pilot of his generation, despite the atrophy of his muscles due to Becker Muscular Dystrophy, all simulations run by FRIDAY show an extremely low chance of a crash due to pilot error. All evidence indicates a cover-up by the Galaxy Garrison and, by extension, the american government.”

The boy’s hands are fisted, white-knuckled, in the sheets. “So… you’re saying…”

Stark stands behind the colonel, smirking. “The Garrison lied to you and the rest of the world. We’re working on getting into their records legally, possibly with a lawsuit of defamation of character or something along those lines, in order to find out what really happened. I have my best lawyers on it.”

This was too good to be true so, naturally, Keith doubted. His narrowed eyes and tense posture conveyed this quite well to the other three in the room, and his expression stopped them from commenting further. He didn’t trust them as far as he could throw them, and in his weakened condition, that wasn’t very far. This wasn’t even any of their concern! What right did they have to drag Keith’s painful past to the forefront of his life again, to go and give him false hope that maybe, maybe, his only friend might have his name cleared? His life was his own, and he didn’t appreciate these goody-two-shoes greater-than-thou heroes meddling in it.

Keith regarded them steadily for a moment, taking in their respective looks of concern, confidence, and whatever masked emotion hid behind those white lenses, then rolled onto his side, back to them, and closed his eyes. (His instincts didn’t consider them a danger, at least, but he still couldn’t find it in himself to trust them).

“Keith—” Stark started, only to be cut off by Rhodes.

“Give the kid a break, Tony. He’s been through a lot. Let him process.”

The billionaire muttered something Keith couldn’t hear and foot steps marked their exit from the room. A glance over his shoulder revealed that only Spider-Man was left, sitting in the chair and staring pensively at the far wall. He appeared rather lonesome sitting on his own, a splash of color in a room of mute whites and greys. But that was none of Keith’s business.

The injured boy curled up on his side and began plotting his escape for as soon as he could get his feet under him again. He couldn't trust this place and its promise of freedom and peace... the world didn't work that way, no matter how much Keith wished it would.

Chapter Text

It only took Keith three days to recover enough to start moving around. And he’d only promised to stay as long as he couldn’t walk. They should have expected him to skip out.

Not to mention he’s never been good with being smothered.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t that difficult to get out of the tower. The medical facilities were on the first floor, for what he assumed was ease of evacuation in case of emergency. All that meant to him, however, was simply that he did not have to worry about working an AI controlled elevator that may or may not have been ordered to ignore his instructions.

Security also seemed rather lax for a place run by heroes and geniuses. He easily convinced the nurse attending him to unhook him for a bathroom break, and the young man didn’t even think to follow the boy, or look up from the notes he was taking on his clipboard.

Not all of their security was terrible, only the measures that were supposed to keep people in. He found his things in a cupboard just next to his room, dressed quickly in his own clothes in the bathroom, and just… walked out the door.

He disappeared easily down side streets he knew better than the halls of the house he was born in. He was confident that the heroes, no matter their intentions, wouldn’t be able to find him. He was basically invisible if he didn’t want to be found, with plenty of experience under his belt to prove it.

And the bottom line was that he didn’t want to be found. Sure, Spider-Man was nice and all, Stark and Rhodes seemed like good people, but the well-meaning ones were exactly the type he couldn’t let his guard down around. Those were the kind of people who stuck their noses in where they weren’t wanted, who had faith in society as a whole, who took one look at a beat up homeless kid and immediately called social services. There was no way such upstanding citizens would illegally harbour a minor in their multimillion dollar tower if they didn’t want the press all up in their faces and pairing their names with slurs in the front pages of tabloid articles.

Besides, Keith was good at taking care of himself. He didn’t need to burden anyone else. He didn’t need another Shiro, someone he could learn to love only to lose. It was better to be alone.

So the fifteen year old boy disappeared into the New York underground, running through empty subway tunnels and the back streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan and Queens. He kept an even lower profile than he had when he first arrived in this city, calling in favours from the rest of the homeless community to keep himself hidden. They remembered his kindness, knew why he wanted to remain hidden better than most, and so held their tongues when the heroes inevitably hit the streets looking for him.

Keith kept out of sight and bided his time. He knew that eventually looking for him would become too much trouble and they would give up, just like all the other times.

If only his chest didn’t ache so much, he would say that everything was going according to plan. Of course he just had to get vivisection by some tentacled creep, but that was in the past now, and like all the unpleasant things he’d been through, he refused to dwell on it and pushed it from his mind. He had more urgent worries at the moment, like where his next meal was coming from.

As it turned out, Keith ended up scrounging up enough food not only for himself, but a couple other orphaned and homeless kids who had been helping him hide. It was almost like he had his own spy network in the underground of New York. A spy community who had no idea who was following him or why.

He had first sensed their presence on a weekend at City Park, and had brushed it off as an overly curious passerby who thought a kid shouldn’t be hanging around the park by themselves. When he had moved on later that afternoon, however, he could feel their eyes following him even as he ducked behind a food stand. The sensation accompanied him throughout his day, and into the next. He warned his small community, and they promised to keep an eye out. As of yet, he had not heard anything from them. It seemed he had few choices left.

But nobody knew the back streets like Keith did, and he had the heart of a schemer.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Keith had marked five warehouses downtown as safe houses for those who knew him, and two as places to avoid. He now stood in one of the latter, all the windows and exits having long been blocked except for one. Arms crossed, he faced the main entrance and took a deep breath.

He raised his voice. “I know you’ve been following me.”

A moment of silence followed, interrupted only by a soft thump as someone landed in the doorway, just outside of the light provided by Keith’s flashlight. The boy rolled his eyes and called out. “In the light, please? I’d like to know who’s been stalking me.”

With what Keith could have sworn was a low laugh, the figure stepped forward.

Daredevil? He was being stalked by freaking Daredevil?!

Chapter Text

Keith uncrossed his arms in an incredulous gesture. “Daredevil?” He recovered, raising his eyebrow warily. “Why have you been following me?”

The vigilante leaned against the doorway. Keith now regretted going somewhere with only one exit. “Call me an interested party.”

“What kind of ‘interested party’?” Keith asked. “Are you the kind with a personal interest, professional interest, or doing-it-for-a-friend interest?”

A shrug was Daredevil’s only response.

“Alright then, Daredevil, stop being vague for a moment and answer me this: Are you here to bring me back to Avengers Tower?”

“Yes and no.” Daredevil stepped forward. Keith stepped back. “I'm here to arrange an agreement with you, an agreement that they do hope that will end with you coming back to the Tower.”

“If you're only here to talk, why have you been following me?” Keith didn't trust this red, devilish figure, no matter how reasonable he seemed.

“I wanted to know what kind of person you were before I approached you.”

Fair. “Well, your conclusion should’ve been that I wouldn't listen to anything you have to say, and that I'm better off without the Avengers, or anyone, really.” Keith didn't care anymore. He was getting out of here. “I'm going.” He brushed past Daredevil, into the open air. “Stop following me.”

Keith was held back by a vice-like grip on his arm.

“Look, kid, they say they can get more information about a certain ‘Takashi Shirogane’. Ring any bells?”

Keith was seized by a terrible, uncontrollable rage. He clenched his eyes shut, balling his fists, trying to put a rein on his emotions. But, inevitably, the anger boiled over, and he whirled on the masked man, eyes smoldering embers. “You can tell them quit sticking their noses into my past. Shiro is gone, and I reconciled with that fact a long time ago.” Lies, but he didn’t need to know that. “I don't need that pain in my life again. Let go of me, stop following me, and get those heroes,” Keith spat the word out like it was bile. “To stop searching for me. I'm fine on my own. I don't need their freaking help!” His voice had been slowly rising, and his last words were said in a yell. He attempted to push Daredevil away, but was met with an effortless resistance, and he couldn't move the vigilante an inch. He glared with the force to shift an elephant.

There was an impasse.

“Come with me.” Daredevil gave Keith no choice in the matter, dragging him out the door, and though he made an effort, he could not get Daredevil to let go of him.

They walked for some time, until even Keith was lost in the labyrinth that was New York City.

“This is kidnapping, you know.” Keith muttered under his breath.

“Shut up, walk faster.”

He noticed that the buildings were getting shorter. “Are we leaving the city?”

“You'll see.”

Finally, they made it to a two story building, which Daredevil entered without pausing, marching Kieth up the stairs, past what looked like an office, and into a room with two couches and a coffee table. He released Keith, saying, “Sit.”

“Why?” Keith had cooled off a bit, but he was still far from calm.

“Because I'd like to talk to you. Not like a superhero would talk to a teenager, nor a concerned passerby would talk to a homeless person, but instead as a fellow human.”

Keith might not even be completely human, according to Stark, but he stayed silent. He sat down on the couch.

Daredevil sat down on the other couch, then slowly took off his mask.

“Woah woah woah!” Keith held up his hands and closed his eyes. “You don't have to show me your secret identity. I understand what you’re getting at. Human to human or whatever.”

There was a low chuckle, similar to the one when Daredevil first appeared. “It's not a big deal, kid. It's not like anyone would believe you if you told them, and, judging by how reluctant you are, I doubt you'd tell anyone in the first place.” His tone was amused. “C’mon. Eyes open, please. I want to ask you about something.”

Keith didn't like the sound of that. He drew his hands away from his face, opening his eyes, and was momentarily shocked by what he saw. Daredevil’s face was pleasant enough, but the top half was covered in faded scars, and his eyes were glassy and distant. Without realizing it, Keith drew in a surprised gasp.

The vigilante smiled darkly. “Ironic, I know.” He stuck out a hand. “Matt Murdock, blind lawyer and nightly superhero, at your service.”

When Keith heard ‘lawyer’, a small part of his brain turned even more deeply suspicious and distrusting. In his experience, lawyers cared nothing for the people they were supposed to stand up for. They only cared about the money. The rest of him was fairly certain he could trust this man. Well, if you don't include the fact that he a) was working with/for the Avengers and b) basically kidnapped Keith.

Keith realized that he had been staring at Murdock for some time now. Warily, he took the man’s hand and shook it, maybe a little too firmly. Murdock didn't seem to mind, though.

He withdrew a pair of dark sunglasses from his odd red suit and fit them over his ears. “Now that we are reacquainted, maybe it'd be best to start with you, and what you want. You want to stay as far away from the Avengers as possible, yes?”

Keith shifted uncomfortably. “You could say that.”

“What about long term plans? Any of those?”

“Staying alive, for the most part.” He admitted.

“Alright then. Why does going back to Avengers Tower keep that goal from being accomplished?”

“I… never said… that it did?”

“Just answer the question.”

Keith crossed his arms. “What if I don't?”

Murdock shrugged. “I have all the time in the world.”

Keith glared for a moment, which was pointless, since the man was blind, but at least it made him feel better. “Going back to the tower doesn't affect that particular long term plan.”

“So why do you not want to go back?”

He pressed his lips into a thin line. He had no response that he was comfortable in saying.

“Kid,” Murdock said, leaning back. “They’re just trying to help you.”

“That's what they all say.” Keith snarled, before he could think through what was exiting his mouth. He stood. “Can I go now?”

The man was silent for a moment. “Tell me what bothers you about the Avengers, and then you can go.”

Keith was done. He wanted to stop being pestered by superheroes. He wanted to live his life the way he chose to live it. So, he answered reluctantly, “Because… because I'm bad luck. Simple as that. No one who’s ever helped me has gotten anything good out of it.”

Murdock got up on his feet. “You mean like that ‘Shiro’ character.”

“Don't--” Keith looked away. “Let’s not talk about Shiro.”

“What if the Avengers helped you find him?”

Keith stomped to the door. “I've told you, he’s gone for good. No one can bring him back.”

“Are you certain he’s gone for good? Don't you want to see if the Avengers can find him?”

Keith stopped and wondered at that. Didn't he owe Shiro one last chance?

He turned around. “I have three conditions.”

Chapter Text

Keith got whiplash from how quickly Murdock agreed to his terms. He was still in a state of shock when the lawyer walked him into Stark Tower only for him to find the entirety of the Avengers (didn’t he hear something about them going rogue?) sitting in the lounge playing Mario Kart. What alternate timeline did he just walk into?

Then someone jumped him from behind, arms wrapped around him, and he was moving before he could think. Shifting his center of balance, he grabbed his assailant’s arm and flipped them over his shoulder. When his mind caught up with what his body was doing, everyone in the room was staring at him, and he had Spider-Man pinned to the floor.

He leapt to his feet hastily and backed into Murdock, who steadied him with a hand. His face would have to literally be on fire for it to be any hotter.

Spider-Man, ironically, came to his rescue. “Woah, dude. Sorry for startling you.” He sprang to his feet as if he hadn’t just been thrown to the floor, brushing himself off dramatically. “Nice reflexes, though.”

A little bit of the tension leaked from the room, and most of the Avengers (ex-Avengers? Were they Avengers again? Why were they here?) turned back to their game. Three remained with their gazes locked on the new arrival, all with varying levels of concern. The first he recognized as Captain America, of all people, though the beard was new, and the second… that was Hawkeye, right? But the third, seated right next to the captain with shaggy hair and a metal prosthetic replacing one arm… that could only be the Winter Soldier. Keith had heard of him, heard all about the debacle at the airport and the events leading up to it, during his time on the streets (which brought him once again to the question, what the heck were they doing in Stark Tower?).

Hawkeye spoke first. “Uh, Spidey? This is the kid?”

“Yeah, this is him!” Spidey replied cheerfully, showing no adverse effects of Keith’s less-than-cordial greeting.

“And he is right here,” Keith muttered, crossing his arms and stepping away from Murdock. He side-eyed the others. “You’re Hawkeye, right?”

“The one and only. But seriously, the name’s Clint Barton,” the archer grinned, then turned to Murdock. “So, did you agree to sell all of our souls to get the kid in here, or what?”

Murdock smirked, resting both his hands on the top of his cane. “It's not all the complicated. Keep your curiosity to yourself, let him come and go when he wants, and be prepared to be voluntold to constructively help the homeless community of New York. It's simple as that.”

The captain gave a low chuckle at Barton’s put-upon expression. “Come on, Clint. It's a noble cause, he could have asked for something far worse.”

“Like for us to sell our souls?” The Winter Soldier muttered, earning a smile from the Captain.

Barton, mature adult that he was, stuck his tongue out at him.

Keith shifted uncomfortably and glanced at the exit, briefly entertaining the idea of just running back down to the lobby and back out onto the streets. He had no doubt they would track him down again, since they'd already proved they were serious about having him stay in the tower, but that didn't change his immense discomfort, however, and his deal with Murdock most definitely had not included anything about small talk with the Avengers.

“I can show you around?” Spider-Man offered in a low voice while the others continued to banter. “Give you the grand tour, get you familiarized and settled in?”

When Keith took a moment too long to respond, Murdock nudged him from behind. He shot a glare back at the blind man, but gestured for Spider-Man to lead the way all the same. “Sounds better than hanging around in here.”

The young hero visibly lit up at his acceptance, obvious even despite the mask. “Cool! Let's go then!”

Keith spent the next few hours following what seemed to be an excited puppy in human form as Spider-Man enthusiastically showed him the various rooms of the tower, including several gyms, kitchens, labs, lounges, training rooms, and even a rather extensive holographic library that Keith made a mental note to check out later. The last stop was his own room, and Spider-Man made a point of showing him that it was only down the hall from the room that he was allowed to crash in when he stayed at the tower.

He paused outside the door. Something felt different about crossing this threshold, as if, once he stepped into the room, there would be no going back to how he lived before. Not that how he lived then was anything glamorous… But he could stay under the radar before. Here, it was inevitable that he would end up as the center of attention at some point, and he was dreading that eventuality.

Not to mention it was probably actually illegal for the heroes to house him here, since he was a minor and none of them were his legal guardians… Though Murdock had said he was a lawyer… Maybe they Avengers could house him here legally...

Wouldn't that also mean that he would have to stay here until he could legally move out on his own? He didn't think he liked that idea any more than staying illegally or ending up back in the system. What other options did he have, though? As far as he could see, he had three choices: the system, the streets, or the Avengers. At least the Avengers also gave him a shot at finding out what really happened to Shiro…

“Uh, Keith?”

Keith’s head snapped up and Spider-Man held up his hands. “Woah, dude, relax. You kinda spaced out there. Are you… gonna go in?”

Taking a deep breath, Keith realized he couldn't put this off any more. He reluctantly opened the door, and stepped in.

The room beyond was more extravagant than any place he had ever stayed, including the government-run Galaxy Garrison he had previously attended before Shiro was sent to Kerberos. The entire far wall was a floor to ceiling, wall to wall window overlooking the city, and a small couch placed directly on the floor was facing outwards next to it. A king-sized bed dominated one side of the room, covered in a red duvet with at least five pillows scattered at its head. Two side tables bookended that monstrosity, and just to the left was a half-open door leading to what appeared to be a private bathroom. The entire floor was covered in a downy soft carpet that Keith's feet sank into up to the ankle, and the wall opposite the bed was decorated with various framed photographs of birds in flight and cityscapes of New York’s skyline backed by vivid sunsets. An oaken dresser and desk stood on one side of the door, the desk wide enough to fit snugly against the wall while leaving no space on the other side between the dresser and the door, and a hip-high bookshelf wrapped from the other side of the door around the corner to butt up against the edge of the entry to the bathroom.

Spider-Man gave a low whistle from behind him. “Nice place you got here,” he drawled in an awful southern accent. “Fancy place to bring ladies home to.”

Keith slowly looked over his shoulder with the most unimpressed, deadpan look he could manage. “I don't think I'll be bringing girls here anytime soon.”

He nodded with mock severity. “That is a valid point. Touché, touché…”

Turning back to the window, the raven haired boy took a few cautious steps into the room and watched silently as the sun dipped below the skyline, realizing abruptly that all the cityscape photos on the wall had been taken from this exact window. The world seemed so much more immediate and timeless all at once, and Keith was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of uncertainty. He wasn't sure what he was doing here, what was expected of him, why they had made such a big deal about having him stay…

“I'm, uh,” he ducked his head in Spider-Man’s direction and jerked a thumb at the bed. “I'm gonna turn in?”

“Oh, okay!” Spider-Man backed out of the room waving. “Sweet dreams, then!”

The door closed, and there was silence.

A quick assessment of the bed left Keith curling up on the floor with the duvet, the large piece of furniture between him and the door. After months on the streets, there was no way he could sleep on something so soft. Not like he was going to sleep much anyway…

Sweet dreams. What a joke.

Keith's rolled himself into the duvet, and did his best to let sleep claim him.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Waking was both an abrupt and silent affair, and Keith spent the first ten minutes of awareness attempting in vain to control his breathing. A slightly electronic voice spoke from the ceiling softly, “Mister Kogane, you’re breathing and heartbeat are elevated, would you like me to notify Mister Stark?”

“No thanks… FRIDAY, was it?” He took a deep breath, pressing his hands into his thighs to stop them from shaking as the nightmare receded. “I’m fine.”

“If you insist, Mister Kogane.”

He winced at the form of address. “Can you just call me Keith?”

“Of course, Keith.”

Still uncertain about the permanence of his situation, and a bit in awe of the room still, Keith wormed his way out of the duvet and laid it over the bed again. About a minute later, you couldn’t tell that it had been touched at all.

He glanced around the room, feeling small in the large space. What does he do now?

“The dresser by the door has clothes for you to change into.” FRIDAY told him, as if reading his mind. “The bathroom is fully stocked if you would like to take a shower. A few of the Avengers, including Spider-Man are in the lounge with breakfast when you are ready to join them.”

“Uh… thanks, FRIDAY.”

He hesitantly pulled open the top drawer, scanning the clothes within to find something suitable to wear. There were more shirts here than he’d owned in his entire lifetime! Had Stark bought all of these for him? That would be a waste, he was probably only going to switch between three or four of them anyway… Not to mention the pants in the next drawer, or sweaters and jackets in the next…

Keith snatched up a black tee much like his own, a pair of clean boxers, and a new pair of jeans, ignoring the last drawer in favor of keeping his red jacket. Tentatively, he poked his head into the bathroom to get a good look at it.

He could probably drown in the bathtub, he decided. Easily. It was closer to the size of a hot tub, and was set into the floor next to a toilet that really shouldn’t look as elaborate and fancy as it did. Was Stark trying to show off or something? The part that made Keith the most uncomfortable, however, was the mirrors— each wall, floor to ceiling. Keith had never much liked looking at his reflection, and knew right away that he wasn’t going to be spending any more time than necessary in this room.

With that thought, he stripped and started a bath.

Slipping into the hot water, Keith was forced to admit that living here would have some perks. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt so clean, or so warm. For that reason alone, he took his time cleaning himself, revelling in the comfort. But as the water cooled, he pulled himself out of the tub and dried himself with the soft towels provided. He couldn’t stay here forever.

The clothes he’d taken from the dresser are softer than the clothes he had rummaged for on the streets, but were still distinctly foreign against his skin. He tugged on his old jacket, drawing what small comfort he could from this last piece of his past.

Bracing himself, Keith asked FRIDAY to guide him to the lounge.

It was… loud, to say the least, as he approached the room, the boisterous noises echoing through the halls. Until he walked into the room, that is. Everyone froze as the door slid open, Spider-Man pausing mid-wrestle on the ceiling with Barton somehow while Stark sat on the counter with one ankle balanced on his knee supporting a plate of pancakes while he was seemingly in the middle of an argument with Captain Rogers, and Keith would have laughed if it weren’t for the mortifying sensation of being put on the spot.

He pulled his fingers through the tangle of his damp hair nervously, ducking his head at their scrutiny. “Uh… FRIDAY said there was breakfast?”

There was only a slight pause before everyone launched into action again. Spider-Man and Barton tumbled from the ceiling, Stark leaped off the counter, and the captain sighed.

He, in the end, was the one to speak. “How do you feel about pancakes?”

“They’re food?” He replied slowly, edging farther into the room. “I’ll eat them if you give them to me.”

“Not very picky, eh?” Stark mused, taking a bite of his own breakfast.

Keith suppressed a self-deprecating smirk as he accepted a stack of pancakes from Rogers. “Can’t afford to be.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The boy gave Barton an unimpressed look. The archer waves his hands as he takes back his words. “No, I get it, homeless. But surely you had options? And I don’t just mean the food.”

His throat tightened, and Keith turned sharply away as he took his first bite, refusing to answer.

“Clint,” the captain warned. “Don’t pry.”

“We don’t know anything about him,” Stark agreed. “But still, terms and conditions apply. He wants his privacy? We give him his privacy.”

“He’s a kid, Tony! I’m pretty sure it’s unethical to leave him like this!”

Keith swallowed with difficulty and pushed his plate away, trying in vain to ignore the turning in his gut at all the eyes on him. “On second thought, I’m not very hungry.”

Rogers furrowed his brow in obvious, sickening concern. “You’ve hardly eaten anything.”

“Not hungry,” Keith repeated stubbornly, ignoring the clawing of his gut that begged to differ. “By all means, keep talking. I’m just gonna…”

He jerked a thumb at the door and ducked out of the room before anyone could think to stop him. They were suffocating, all of them. Couldn’t they just leave him alone?

“Hey!” Spidey called from behind, softly. “Want to join me on patrol, get out for a bit?”

The corner of his mouth tugged upwards in the barest hint of a smile. Maybe not all of them were suffocating. Maybe.

Chapter Text

Keith ran alongside Spider-Man. The wallcrawler had decided against web slinging, since it was highly unlikely that Keith could keep up. Even now, Keith could tell that Spidey was holding himself back. After all, he had advanced speed, agility, and strength, and Keith was… slightly above average? Not enough above average to compete with a superhero, though.

At least he was useful in a fight, especially against normal, ordinary criminals. Twice during their patrol, he had dealt with them before Spider-Man could even get involved. In the same sense, Spider-Man had dealt with three such thugs before Keith could blink an eye. In the cases where there were more at a time, Keith and Spider-Man worked well as a team, building each other up like wind and a wildfire.

In between fights, they talked. Not about much in particular, though Spider-Man made more than a few awfully ridiculous jokes. He also expressed concerns about how much crime they were fighting tonight. Apparently, it was more than the usual. Was the increase in crime significant, or was it a coincidence? Personally, Keith didn't believe in coincidence, but he did know that it happened on occasion… Which makes no sense, now that he thought about it…

In their wanderings, they met up with Daredevil, and another masked vigilante in red.

“Good evening! My name is Deadpool!” The vigilante greeted in an obnoxiously cheerful voice. “And who might you be?”

“Keith.” He said begrudgingly, casting a what-did-you-get-me-into look to Spider-Man.

Daredevil nodded a welcome. “Nice to see you again Keith.”

“Mutual.”

Deadpool was bouncing on the balls of his feet, hands clasped in an oddly childish gesture. “I have a feeling we’re all going to be friends.”

Keith hadn't the faintest clue how this led to Deadpool patting his face, singing "Baby cheeks! Baby cheeks! Baby cheeks!” but he was certain that it wasn't something that he'd like to remember.

He shoved Deadpool away, growling “Get away from me, creep.”

“Ooo baby cheeks has a temper!” the mercenary giggled.

“Don’t call me that.”

“Does baby cheeks want some milk?”

“I’m warning you…”

“He’s warning me, how charming. Spidey-Boy, you’ve been replaced.”

Spider-Man sighed in relief, only partly sarcastically. “Thank goodness.”

Deadpool pouts, “Meeaaan.”

“Alright buds, crime’s not going to fight itself.” Daredevil cut in, a faintly amused smile on his lips.

“If only.”

Deadpool pipes up “Can we use the--”

“No!” Both Daredevil and Spidey said, and Keith was confused. “Use the what?”

Spidey put hand over Deadpool’s masked mouth before he could speak. “You don’t want to know.”

Keith shrugged, and they moved on to fight crime.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>

At two in the morning, they all decided it was about time to turn in, but first, of course, they needed a good n’ large helping of ice cream. Spider-Man got Tiger Tiger (haha. See what I did there? Tiger Tiger), Daredevil chose black cherry, Deadpool got cotton candy, and Keith got plain ol’ vanilla. Deadpool was averse to this choice.

“You only got vanilla? With all these flavours at your disposal, you get the worst one of the bunch?!?!”

Daredevil, unsurprisingly, came to his defense. “Don't judge his choice of ice cream. We all have our preferences.”

“Guys…” Spider-Man, ever the peacemaker.

Keith just leaned back, licking his vanilla, and watched it all unfold.

“But…vanilla? Who chooses vanilla? Seriously? It's so… plain.”

“All ice cream tastes good. Back off.”

“Guys…”

“He could have gotten mint chocolate chip! Or cotton candy, like I did!”

“But he didn't do that, he got vanilla. So what?”

Guys…”

It only escalated from there, and all the while Keith said nothing, struggling to keep a smile from his lips. Their ice creams were long forgotten, melting into their napkins. The owner of the 24 hour ice cream shop looked entertained. This was probably the most excitement he’d had in weeks.

Eventually, Spider-Man managed to calm the two of them down, but by that time there was no ice cream to be had, and they were all laughing at their own ridiculousness. Keith was the only one who had eaten their ice cream in time, and the small white eyes of Deadpool’s mask narrowed.

“Maybe I should have gotten vanilla.”

This sent everyone, including Keith, into another bout of laughter.

Deadpool was puzzled. “What?” No one had the breath to answer him.

In the end, they all got another round of ice cream-- all vanilla, of course. Spider-Man turned toward Keith, his mask hitched up to his nose so he could eat his portion. “Somehow, I think you meant for this to happen.”

Keith raised an eyebrow. “Now, whyever would you think that?”

Spider-Man chuckled and turned away.

And for a brief moment, for the first time in months, Keith felt like he belonged.

Chapter Text

A week after Keith’s first patrol with Team Red, he woke up to the usual I-didn’t-sleep-well fogginess that he was accustomed to. He stretched, a teeth-baring yawn emerging from his chest, and rolled out of his blanket nest on the floor.

In less than five minutes, he was dressed and, for the most part, presentable.

Which was a good thing, considering there was royalty from Africa sitting in the Avenger’s common room.

Keith froze mid-step. His gaze landed first on the clever-looking teenage girl with her bizarre style and plaited braids, then it travelled to the poker-faced man with his oddly familiar face and neat clothes, then it settled on the Avengers.

Spidey noticed Keith hesitating on the threshold. He gestured enthusiastically. “Keith! Come meet King T’Challa and his sister, Shuri! Shuri, T’Challa, meet Keith.”

“A new addition to the team?” The king asked in a chocolatey accent, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah!”

“Uhh… sort of.” Tony amended, shrugging. “He’s in the running, but we’re not sure if he’s… ready for the big leagues yet.”

Leaning against the doorframe, Keith crossed his arms. He was in the running? That was news to him. “I don’t want to be ‘part of the big leagues’, as Stark put it. I just help where I can.”

“In that case,” T’Challa said, smiling slightly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Keith eyed him warily. “You too.” And, since he supposed it was expected of him, he pushed off the doorframe and fully entered the room, sliding into an armchair across from the two Wakandans. He kept his arms crossed to hide his nervousness. “So, how do you know the Avengers?”

Stark was the one who answered, vaguely. “Originally, a conference.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Originally?”

“It's complicated.”

Fine. If Stark wanted to keep secrets, then Keith wasn't going to stop him.

The conversation moved on, back to the topic Keith assumed was going on before he arrived. He wasn't listening, really, just letting it wash over him. He watched the royalty with a keen eye, noticing the little movements that betrayed their characters.

Shuri fiddled with her fingers, as if itching to be doing something with them. There was a far off look in her eyes. Keith suspected that she, too, wasn't listening to the conversation, and was eager to be done with it. Her posture, however, was straight yet relaxed, with an ease which suggested she was doing that subconsciously. She was a princess all right.

T’Challa was attentive, stern, posed, the perfect picture of a king. Yet, there was a certain enjoyment in the tips of his lips, and he gazed at the Avengers with obvious respect and companionship.

“Excuse me, brother, but would you terribly mind if I checked up on the white boy’s metal arm while you finish up your boring chit-chatting?” Shuri broke in, her voice laced with sass and cheerful amusement.

“Go ahead.” T’Challa affirmed.

“Take Keith with you!” Barton butt in, adding humorously, “He looks like he’s about to fall asleep, or bite someone's hand off, or both.”

Keith snorted wryly. He was hardly going to do either, but he did want to get away from the majority of the people, and this was the perfect opportunity.

“So he does have a sense of humour!” Barton crowed. “What a delight!”

Spider-Man stood up. Like the rest of them, he ignored Barton. “C’mon, I’ll go too. I need a break from that hooligan.”

Keith trailed along behind them as they collected Bucky and moved on into Tony’s lab.

Woah.

Keith stopped upon entering the room, looking up at the high-vaulted ceiling, the mechanical tools scattered around, the possibly dangerous equipment lying unattended on various tables. His gaze roamed across the lab, taking in every detail.

Was this what Heaven looked like?

He didn’t know what half the things in there did, much less how to use them, but as he breathed in the tangy smell of metal, electricity, and something cloyingly sweet, he felt grounded. This. He couldn’t describe it. There was a yearning inside of him to learn more, do more, know more.

It lasted barely a moment, but he held on to that feeling. It was something other than the anger and hopelessness he had felt for so long. Why not indulge himself a little? What harm could it do?

The answer was: lots of harm. Bucketloads. Keith had already experienced hopes shattered, his life coming apart at the seams. He refused to willingly fall into that trap again, and was determined to focus only on getting Shiro back.

Meanwhile, Spider-Man-- Peter-- was rambling about Bucky’s metal arm and nerve endings and who-knows-what, while Shuri was talking about Bucky’s mental state, throwing a joke here and there like it was no big deal. Keith wasn’t sure how Bucky was keeping up with two conversations at once, but he was impressed, to say the least.

Keith walked over and offered a hand. Working would keep his mind off… things.

As Shuri instructed him in taking off the metal arm and making sure it was all in good order, he inspected it’s workings with a critical eye. It was well made, made of vibranium, sculpted nicely to keep freedom of movement, but it could be improved upon. That metallic glint could warn an enemy of their coming, and there were some weak points that could be utilized by possible hostiles. He hummed quietly to himself, thinking up solutions in a dozen different ways, most of which he discarded. The first was an easy problem, but the second…

“It’s almost like you’ve done this before.”

Keith startled, glancing up at the super soldier. He shrugged one shoulder, handing the arm back to Shuri. “Haven’t really.”

Barnes raised an eyebrow, disbelieving.

Keith frowned slightly. All cadets at the Garrison had at one point dealt with prosthetics, and Keith had been more interested in the mechanics of them than anything. He didn’t want to talk about the Garrison.

Shuri had wandered off to talk to Peter, as if sensing the sensitive subject and wanting to be out of the conversation before it began.

There was silence.

“I’m more of a hover technology kind of guy.” Keith elaborated, without really explaining anything at all.

The Winter Soldier seemed to understand, and took to the new topic smoothly. “Oh? How does that work?”

As Keith told Barnes the gist of it, he listened with half an ear to the conversation Shuri and Peter were having. Something about road construction and avocados?

Keith didn’t understand a word of it.

Chapter Text

Tap.

Tap.

Tap.

Tap. Tap.

Tap.

Tap. Tap.

Tap.

Keith tapped his fingers on the floor, his mind stuffed full of cotton, the darkness whispering in his ear. It had been two weeks. No Shiro. Not that he’d ever expected there to be. For a moment though, maybe. A single, fickle moment of light-headedness. A single, dreadful hope.

Sleep was elusive, now more than ever, and when it came, its black wings engulfing him in darkness, the nightmares followed.

So he didn’t sleep, merely ticking away the minutes before dawn took the night in its vice-like grasp. It was taking too long, far too long, and he could feel the dreariness overcoming his entire being.

He slithered out of the duvet, rising fluidly to his feet. He padded out the door softly, quietly. He needed… not company, exactly, but the illusion of some. He needed to be where people had walked frequently, their life leaving footprints in their wake.

Stalking into the common room, he sat on the sofa, breathing a silent sigh. Life moved when he wasn’t there. No one required anything of him. He was safe, he was fine-- well, if not fine, then close enough to it-- and he could do whatever he wanted. He wasn’t restrained for once in his life.

Maybe one day, someday far from here, this could be home.

<<<<<<<<<<<<<>>>>>>>>>>>>>

He woke with a fuzzy blanket draped over him, the clinking of dishes sounding gently somewhere behind him. How whoever-they-were had gotten near him without him waking up was a question he did not feel inclined to find the answer to.

Shifting slightly to look over the back of the couch, he spotted Barnes and Rogers sitting at the counter, eating breakfast. He glanced over at the microwave clock. 5:43 blinked back at him. He’d had approximately three hours of sleep. Better than none, in his opinion.

Barnes was the first to notice that he was awake. “Good morning, Keith. Did we wake you?”

Keith felt a wry smile curling at the edge of his lips. “To an extent. But that’s what I get for falling asleep on the common room couch, yeah?” He threw off the blanket in a stretch, slowly making his way to a stand. “You didn’t happen to be the one who tucked me in, were you?”

Rogers shook his head, answering for Bucky. “You were like that when we found you. We assumed you’d meant to sleep there.”

Keith snorted. He hadn’t meant to sleep at all, but it had turned out okay, he guessed.

He strolled up to the counter, grabbing an apple from the fruit bowl and gnawing on it absently. Who else but the Winter Soldier would be able to sneak up on him without him waking? Black Widow? Hawkeye? … Spider-Man?

He shrugged internally. Most people in the Tower could, probably.

He tossed his apple core in the garbage, then cast a lazy wave over his shoulder as he approached the door.

“Where are you off to?”

“Out.”

“Mind if we come with?”

Keith turned partially to regard the two super soldiers. He wasn't particularly in the mood for people at the moment, but he didn't feel like being rude today, so he gave them a small nod. “Feel free.”

He promptly turned around and stalked out the door. Okay, so maybe he was feeling a little rude. He heard chairs being pushed back behind him, and the scrambling of feet. They were going to follow him, after all.

He walked with purpose around the nearly busy streets, stopping every once and a while to talk to his old homeless buddies. One of them tried giving him some stale bread from their stash, but he politely refused, pointing out that they needed it much more than he did. Instead, he dipped into his pocket and pulled out a ten that he’d swiped from Tony at one time. He wouldn't miss it, but this homeless man would sure appreciate it. Keith moved on, popping by his old haunts, having similar interactions with the people there.

Barnes and Rogers seemed complacent to wherever he took them, and even gave out a few donations as well.

By the end of it all, Keith was feeling a lot more relaxed, less like he was about to injure someone and more like he could take a nap. Mm, actually, on second thoughts, no naps. Shiro was still fresh in his mind.

They returned to the Tower. The moment Keith stepped inside the door, he knew that he couldn't handle the new person that had suddenly materialized in the common room. This person was Thor, the God of Thunder himself. Keith quietly backed out of the room onto the balcony, only to realize that there was yet another new person standing at the railing.

He was tall, almost overly so, but unhealthily slender for his stature. His almost iridescent black hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail, the cord holding it together made of silver. He was clad in green leathers and loose-fitting pants. There was something… oddly prickly about the air around him. Keith’s guess was that this was Thor’s (adopted) brother, Loki, God of Mischief. The one responsible for the alien attack on New York a couple years back.

Keith was attempting to act like he'd never been there, slinking back a couple paces, when Loki spoke, his voice melodic. “Is there something you need?”

Keith blinked, still tempted to fade away into his room, but advanced the three steps it took to lean on the railing, a few feet from the supposedly malevolent god. “Not really, no. I just came to get away from the bustle.”

Loki shifted, resting his sharp green gaze on Keith. “And you are?”

The human regarded the god for a moment, expression flat, wondering if it was a good idea or not to tell him his name. He shrugged internally. Why not? “Keith.”

“It is… a pleasure to meet you, Keith.”

“Likewise.”

Silence settled, curling itself around them with tense anticipation. It was a dangerous silence. A silence that could lead to nothing, or it could lead to violence. Loki didn’t seem to mind the silence, just staring at Keith with a loose sort of intensity. Keith met his gaze, refusing to be the one to speak first.

Loki smiled crookedly, turning back to look out into the city. “What do you think of the Avengers, thus far?”

Keith also turned away from the god. “If I’m being honest, they’re a lot less than I’d expected.”

“Oh? How so?”

“They act like a bunch of teenagers. They’re some of the most powerful people in the world--”

Loki cut him off. “Worlds, you should say. Rarely in my walk of the realms have I seen anyone greater.”

“Semantics.” Keith shrugged. “Anyway, the point is, they’re grouchy and unorganized, but kind to a fault. Your thoughts?”

The god raised an incredulous eyebrow. “I thought the same. They’re more childish than I originally expected. Did you know that the hawk regularly wanders the vents and eavesdrops on conversations? My brother has caught him many a time.”

“I wasn’t aware.”

“And the Hulk…” Loki’s lips twitched upwards. “He’s an odd one. Despite his failure with gamma radiation, he continues to test and experiment with the strangest concoctions. He’s timid, but he’s got a streak for stubborness.”

That was an accurate assessment. “What about Rogers and Stark?”

“Ahh. The captain.” Loki thought about that for a moment. “He’s a strong leader. Serious, but with a soft heart. That is a weakness and a strength. As for Stark-- he’s narcissistic, intelligent, with a spark of something I can’t quite name. I’d say a mixture between desperateness, insecurity, and sentimentality.” His coat shimmered in the fading sunlight. “What think you of the spider?”

“Which one?”

He seemed baffled. “There is more than one?”

“Yeah.” Keith leaned back a little from the railing. “Black Widow and Spider-Man.”

Loki paused. “It seems the Avengers team has grown since last I was here.”

“Seems like it.” Keith wondered why Thor hadn’t told his brother this small fact.

“It matters not.” Though, there was a gleam of red in Loki’s eye. “The Black Widow, then.”

Keith considered. “Well, she’s the most mature out of all of them. She’s street-smart. She never draws attention to herself unless it suits her purpose, and she never lets her feelings get in the way of a job. She does what she does well, or not at all. However,” Keith added. “She is kind, sensitive, diplomatic. She balances the team out.”

“Agreed.”

Keith let there be a lapse in conversation, closing his violet eyes. He thought about Loki, how everyone thought of him, what Keith was beginning to think about him. Loki wasn’t too bad in character, but maybe that’s just because he’d changed since New York. After all, Keith had done things he wasn’t proud of, so what was so different about Loki? Well, then again, Keith had never tried to take over a planet before.

Keith opened his eyes, turning his head. Beside him, the railing was empty.

Chapter Text

With both the Wakandans and Asgardians in temporary residence, the Tower was put on short-term lockdown. For security reasons, of course. Keith couldn’t care less about the reason, but the fact of the matter was that he was now trapped with not only the people he still didn’t quite trust, but also a whole lot of new people who also happen to be freaking royalty and/or aliens.

Staying out from underfoot was a… challenge, to say the least, though Keith took special care to stay clear of the unpredictable variables like the princess and, despite his relative impressiveness, Thor. The main issue was the fact that they all took up so much space. There was hardly anywhere for Keith to hide.

Floor by floor, he dodged up and away from the paths of meandering guests, until he found himself on a level that was relatively unoccupied, and up-till-now unexplored. Seeing as FRIDAY hadn’t warned him away yet, he assumed that he had permission to be here. Exploring further, Keith peeked around half-open doors and pushed open a few unlocked ones. Only ten minutes in, he came across the Holy Grail.

One of Tony Stark’s labs.

Stepping inside, the dark-haired boy glanced around, taking it all in. Organized, well-stocked, lights flickering on overhead as he moved away from the door. It appeared… well, not neglected, but in disuse. If he had to make a guess, he would say that no one had worked in this lab for quite a while.

Surely no one would care if he poked around a bit to satisfy his curiosity, right?

Though, poking around at the machines turned into playing with a box of parts he found tucked into a corner turned into sitting in the middle of the floor with bits and pieces strewn around and had him elbow-deep in the guts of a half-constructed hoverbike. He had no idea how long he had been working, but he didn’t particularly care. There was something cathartic about the work. A kind of release he hadn’t been able to find since… well, Shiro.

Keith shook his head harshly and shifted on his knees to reach into a particularly tight spot to align a piece that he knew would help regulate the energy being fed into the engines, despite not knowing its name. It’s not like he took the engineer path at the Garrison. He only learned enough to maintain an MFE and a few different kinds of cargo ships, lessons from Shiro and the odd book on hoverbike construction aside. And it had been so long since he had access to any of that...

But these parts were right in front of him, these tools were heavy in his hands, and he couldn’t clearly remember the last time he had felt so grounded.

The lab was peaceful, the electric hum of the lights and the occasional clank of his tools rattling against the bike’s parts the only sounds to break the silence.

Until they weren’t, that is.

“You do realize bikes have wheels, right?”

Keith just barely stopped himself from flinging the screwdriver in his hand at Stark’s head, and also experienced a brief moment of regret that he did. “Not this one.”

The billionaire smirked and leaned against the vehicle, as nonchalant as you please. “What, it’s not supposed to actually move? Is it some kind of art installment?”

He rolled his eyes and hunched over the batteries hitched up to the bike’s underbelly to hook them up to the hover mechanisms. “Any particular reason you’re here?”

“I should be asking you that question. This is my lab, after all.”

Keith peered up at Stark tiredly. “You gonna kick me out?”

The smirk widened. “Not if you tell me what you’re little project is.”

“You’re a genius,” Keith retorted, returning to his work and straightening out a few tangled wires. “You figure it out.”

The lab is quiet for a moment, and Keith almost startles when he realizes that Stark had actually taken him up on the challenge. The man had knelt next to him, his gaze roaming over the inner workings of the bike with something like interest.

Finally, the man sat back on his heels, giving a low whistle of admiration. “No, you wouldn’t need wheels on that lady, would you?” He barked a laugh. “You know, my old man was working on hovertech for a car back during the Second World War. I never really pursued it.”

Keith nodded along. He’d read about Howard Starks advancements in the field of hover-technology, of course. His research had been referenced in the users manual of the hoverbike he’d rode with Shiro, and he’d gone and looked the man up during some of his limited spare time at the Garrison.

“So,” Stark’s tone shifted to something the boy couldn’t quite parse. “Where’d you learn to build something like this?”

Oh, tension, his old friend. Keith put down the screwdriver and turned his head to look over his shoulder. Stark’s expression was genuinely intrigued, and more intense than Keith had ever seen him outside of his Iron Man armor.

“I used to own one,” Keith offered, as off-hand as he could manage, hiding his face with the machine again. “Shiro and I would…”

A lump rose in his throat, closing it off. No more words would come. So much for passing it off casually.

“Ah,” and wow Keith didn’t know Stark could sound so uncomfortable. “It’s really well made.”

Keith glanced up at him, hands stilled in disbelief. “Says the genius inventor?”

“Says the genius inventor,” Stark agrees, climbing to his feet. “You figure out how you’re going to shape the paneling yet?”

He grimaced. “Not really. I’ve been making it up as I go.”

“Pretty impressive. Did you take mechanical engineering?”

“Actually, no.” Now it was Keith’s turn to smirk. “I don’t even know what half of these parts are called. I just know what they do.”

Stark lifted an eyebrow. “Impressive. Want the lab?”

Keith had experienced whiplash before, it’s an occupational hazard when learning tricks on a hoverbike, especially when one of those tricks is driving straight off a cliff. This, however, was a whole different ball game. “What?”

“The lab.” And damn it Stark was smugging again. “You want it?”

After years spent with disappointment and false promises, Keith didn’t trust the offer in the slightest. He narrowed his eyes. “And the catch?”

Keith had expected him to become offended, or brush him off, but instead he laughed. “Clever kid. Anyway, I was thinking that if you have a place to hole up and keep yourself busy, you’d be more, you know…” He waved a hand vaguely in the general direction of the door.

Keith gave him a Look.

Stark heaved a sigh and rubbed the back of his closed eyelids. “Look, kid, I get it. You don’t trust us, and you probably don’t even like us very much. The others, though? The Avengers? They’re interested. Spider-Man’s been talking you up since Daredevil brought you in. He thinks your cool. Could you give ‘em a chance?”

Wow, the hoverbike suddenly got so much more interesting. What if he got rid of the extra power dampener, how fast could he make it go before the force of the engine rattles it apart?

“Keith.”

His head snaps up. Stark… didn’t use his name. Hardly ever.

“Keith,” he says again, softer, giving the boy his second heart attack. “They just want to help. We just want to help.”

After a brief pause, Keith relents. “Fine.” He rolls his shoulders, rising fluidly to his feet. “But I reserve the right to leave if they get annoying. And I’m taking the lab.”

Stark snorted. “Of course you are. If you can build a hoverbike, it would be criminal to keep you away from it.”

Tentatively, Keith smiled. Maybe… maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.