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Nowhere, Nowhen

Chapter Text

 

 

Peter taps his fingers against the solid floor of the travel-duct.

 

Unable to stand up completely in the cramped space, he blows a hard, impatient breath through his nose as he waits for an attending lab tech to open the small metal door in front of him. With how hurried they seemed to get him showered and back in the room, he’s surprised that they’ve left him to shiver away in the cold duct for as long as they have.

 

Annoyed, he debates going back through where he came from, but when he peeks back over his shoulder, the small door to the washroom is equally, and firmly, shut.

 

In that moment he hears the familiar sound of the door sliding open, allowing the bright white of the room to spill into the travel-duct, and Peter hurries through before he could be trapped again. He quickly attaches himself to the wall and swings over to a ledge to properly dry off his mop of hair with one of the few blankets there.

 

“Don’t get all our stuff wet, Pete.”

 

Peter pokes his head over the ledge and chucks the wet blanket at the boy relaxing under the radiating warmth of the heat lamp below. It misses, landing next to his elbow with a muffled splat instead of onto its intended, smirking target.

 

“It’s not my fault they cut my shower short,” Peter whines, “They practically yanked me out of there!” 

 

Peter crawls underneath the ledge to cling to its underside, mindful to avoid the hot bulbs that powered the large heat lamp, his standard black shirt falling to his chin. He lowers his voice to a whisper, “It was the same as breakfast, Kaine, they’re either rushing around or forgetting about us. The head nurse didn’t even take my dailies.”

 

Kaine props himself up on his hands, meeting his smaller brother’s worried stare. “I’m sure its nothing,” he dismisses, “...Maybe Dr. Connors lost his temper again, and they’re trying to help him before us.” 

 

Dr. Connors. By far Peter’s favorite doctor in the facility, though that wasn’t saying much if your only competition was Dr. Warren. Connors never poked or prodded at them without warning, or eyed them like prized livestock, and his mere presence didn’t cause an involuntary chill to go up his spine. Connors was also the one person the Spiders had who could truly understand their situation, being a product of mutation himself, even if any conversation with the doctor devolved into droning sessions about how dangerous it was for them to leave the facility until properly prepared, trained, etcetera. 

 

Peter also thought it was pretty cool that he could turn into a reptile.

 

Peter hums, satisfied with Kaine’s suggestion. “Well, I hope that whatever’s happening isn’t going to make dinner late too.”

 

Peter leapt away from the heat lamp, using a few ropes strewn about the room to reach one of the hideboxes in the middle of the space. Each are filled with plenty of blankets and pillows, and the entrances are high enough off the ground that it would take a ladder for any normal person to reach them. They feel protected, safe. 

 

He settles on the flat top of their favorite one, swinging his legs over the edge while he scans the room for his other brother. 

 

He spots Ben down on the floor, idly playing tug-of-war with an off-duty nurse behind the glass, the thick rope passing through a reinforced hole in the barrier. The nurse is struggling, the strain evident on his face as he fights for the rope against his much smaller opponent. 

 

Dr. Warren had said that this sort of interaction was ‘enriching to both employee and Subject’, and despite the doctor’s phrasing, Peter couldn’t deny it. He often found himself enjoying watching the nurses and lab techs fall flat on their asses after he suddenly lets go of the rope, or playing tic-tac-toe on the glass with those who were just passing by their room.

 

Peter lets himself fall back on the roof of the hidebox, content to just rest his eyes until he hears the metallic, grating slide of the long dinner tray emerging from it’s own hidden door. He lets his mind drift, listening to the low hum of the walls, muffled conversations of nurses passing by the glass, to Ben and Kaine’s steady heartbeats. 

 

“Ohh, c'mon...” Ben quietly whines from the floor, snapping Peter back from his near-slumber.

 

Peering over the side, Peter sees that the nurse has stopped playing and is being frantically ushered away by another group of employees. Ben huffs as he watches them leave, jostling the rope in irritation. 

 

But it isn’t just the lost playmate. Almost immediately there are all sorts of employees rushing back and forth in front of the glass wall. Some carry stacks of papers, some lug computer towers or carry trashcans. A few were running, but most simply hustle from one side to the other, heading into unknown parts of the lab. Ben smooshes his face up against the glass in a vain attempt to see what all the commotion is about, even knocking a little at the thick glass to grab someone's attention, but abruptly straightens up and scoots away as something else makes their way among the employees scurrying past.

 

Peter felt it too, the hairs on his forearms standing on end in anticipation. Kaine, trained to hone in on when his brothers’ reacted this way, goes stock still as well, watching as the mechs start to file down the corridor.

 

Huh. These mechs look like actual people, a welcome change to the powerful, ruthless ones in colorful costumes that the Spiders are always pitted against, but they nonetheless make Peter's Sense buzz in the way that it did when he was too close to hot metal. Dangerous if you got too close.

 

All three Spiders continue to watch them march down the corridor, their blank, calm faces contrasting eerily with the stressed expressions on the frenzied employees. A passing lab tech smashes a button on the side-panel outside, and the mechs and rush of people alike gradually disappear behind their room’s security doors before they finally seal them into darkness.

 

For a while it is just the three of them breathing in the space, unsure of what to do. Is this a test? Is this something else? Dr. Connors sometimes told stories of how he was chased here, underground, for his mutations. That people outside liked to hunt mutants because they were afraid of their power, their abilities. Did those people finally find them? 

 

Instinctively they start to group up, Peter and Ben huddling protectively on either side of Kaine on one of the ledges in the room. Kaine's lack of Sense left him vulnerable, so he depends on them to warn him of danger. The proximity to his brothers also calms Peter’s nerves a bit, and he leans into Kaine’s warm side as he focuses his hearing.

 

The silence carries on for what Peter thinks is close to an hour at most, with nothing but the persistent hum of machinery in the walls filtering through. The three Spiders have taken to crowding almost on top of one another in one of the higher, safer hideboxes, the space almost too small to comfortably house all three Spiders like it used to.

 

Suddenly, something shakes the walls of the building -- the loud, reverberating boom coming from somewhere outside the Spiders’ room. It’s followed by threatening footsteps, powerful enough to be heard past the soundproof security doors. 

 

He goes rigid against Kaine as the security doors slowly rumble open and the red, flashing lights of the corridor start to filter into the darkened room.

 

A figure stands outside the glass -- a mech, Peter sees. But not just any mech, it's one they’re extremely familiar with. The memories of countless bruises and concussions race through Peter’s mind all in an instant. The flashing emergency lights reflect menacingly off the red-and-gold armor, and its hands cup its mechanical face as it presses up against the glass, glowing eyes piercing into the room's darkness.

 

He can hear his heartbeat pound in his ears as much as he can feel the ones of his brothers around him. The mech holds out its arm against the glass, the palm of its hand alighting with a blue, glowering eye. 

 

This has to be a test, right? This has to be! But the funny-looking themed mechs never left the training rooms! What is this?

 

The whine reaches a fever-pitch.

 

And the glass wall of their home shatters.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Tony spins the pen over his knuckles.

 

“--and so intel suggests that this particular tech start-up has ties to companies like--”

 

Spin, spin. He tries to bore holes into the agent in front of him, or set her perfect hair alight with his stare.

 

“--possible money laundering, but the trail goes through so many different foundations, all fictitious, of course--”

 

Spin. Try to avoid rapping the ballpoint on the conference table. Spin. Stare.

 

“--also one probable link to the MGH trade, but that’s--”

 

Tony takes a deep breath, finally flicking the pen against the table. 

 

“Something the matter, Stark?”

 

His eyes drift back over to the presentation, the logo of the dinky little start-up company flickering in the holographic projector. Brochure-like snapshots of the plush, modern interiors cycle by on one side, the stockphoto smiles of happy, hipster employees clashing with the list of criminal activity on the other.

 

“Possible money laundering, fake companies, plausible drug trade connections,” he lists, “No offense, Hill, but this seems like something that SHIELD, hell, the FBI should handle.” 

 

Maria Hill, ever the professional, lets the interruption slide in favor of getting through the debrief. Her irritation bleeds through her tone anyways. “If you were listening, Stark, it’s much more than that. There’s money going in, but none coming out. Only the barest amount to workforce and basic utilities and rental fees.” 

 

Stark raises his hands, gesturing to both her and the two other heroes at the table. “So what? What about that makes it Avengers business?”

 

“And it’s not just the financial aspects,” she continues, “If our intel is right, the only real product this company has ever been traced to is MGH. It’s a flimsy lead, but one of our pigeons at OsCorp reported that a small sample had been delivered there.”

 

“Again, so what? So they have the Maggia in their basement buying and selling mutant growth hormone or something, that’s a textbook DEA job if I ever saw one.”

 

Maria sucks a breath through her teeth. “I’ll reiterate, we suspect it’s something more than that, Stark.”

 

Well, that’s vague. Tony’s retort lodges in his throat as Sam speaks up from across the conference table. “So...Hydra? AIM?”

 

Maria Hill is stoic, allowing for Steve to provide his own input. “Hydra wouldn’t be selling it’s supply of MGH, they’d save every bit for their own forces. The same with AIM.”

 

Vindicated, Stark gestures at Sam and Steve. “See? It has to be Maggia--”

 

That being said ,” Steve resumes, “I think it’d be good to check it out. Maggia or not, it’s good to show people that we don’t only focus our attention on aliens or world-ending events.”

 

“Glad one of us is on the same page,” Hill says, packing the presentation away. 

 

Stark spins around to glare at Steve, but whatever he had to say dies on his tongue. “I...hate when you’re right,” he says instead.

 

Steve cracks a slight smile. “It’ll take an hour, hour-half at most. I promise.”

 


 

It’s dangerously close to an hour and a half when they finally make their breakthrough. The building is virtually empty; the modern, cushy workspaces eerily void of activity. Tony reluctantly takes mental notes on the interior design as he strolls past. He has to admit, for a simple money laundering-slash-probable mafia base it really is surprisingly fashionable. The SHIELD agents that were inexplicably sent along with them have already vanished somewhere in the building, leaving Steve, Tony, and Sam to start their own sweep of the offices.

 

They eventually find an employee in the cantina area, either unaware that his friends have deserted the building or simply taking advantage of the situation to get his pick of the exorbitant amount of food still set out in the large room. Either way, he nearly spits out his kombucha when he sees Iron Man and Captain America suddenly appear by his side like malignant ghosts. 

 

The young employee eagerly and quickly stammers out the information they needed; he often sees people disappear into a first floor broom closet and not come back for hours at a time. Bingo. 

 

So now here they are, nearly an hour-half into the operation, pushing mops and brooms aside to reveal the secret elevator entryway into the hidden basement.

 

When the rumbling stops and the doors eventually slide open, the smell of burning paper and electronics suddenly fills the space, overwhelming Tony enough to abruptly flip down his faceplate. 

 

“Someone’s been busy.” Tony coughs, waving a gauntlet in front of his face in reflex to the smoke still sticky in his lungs. The corridor in front of them stretches in three directions, the smoke hugging the ceiling and staining the white walls with soot. Through the haze, the Iron suit picks up the movement of people and things scurrying around.

 

Captain America is unfazed, but Tony can hear the slight strain to his voice as he says, “I’ll go left, you see what’s up ahead. Call if you find trouble.”

 

Tony scoffs, the sound strange as it filters through the suit's modulator. What could any mafia thug or two-bit ponzi schemer do to possibly trouble Iron Man? “Yeah, well, your hour and a half’s up so I expect to be back home and cuddled up to a nice risotto and chardonnay in fifteen, Cap.”

 

Steve gives him a wave as he jogs away, disappearing as his blue costume is swallowed by the haze.

 


 

The basement is swimming in employees. Most of them are hunkered in rooms that Iron Man busts down with more force than necessary, both his desire to scare these guys straight and his simmering annoyance at this whole operation blending together with every imploding doorframe. 

 

The employees scatter as soon as he leaves for the next room. He doesn't bother with stopping them, Sam and the NYPD are positioned outside and they are more than capable at rounding up the small fry as they flee the nest. What he’s really after is evidence of the criminal activity that got them on SHIELD’s radar in the first place, then he can get the hell out of here.

 

But with every passing room, his suspicions shift. He’s never spent much time in a biology lab, being a mechanical engineer and all, but from what he can recall from his hazy memories of college some of these rooms certainly look like one. As he clears another one, he pauses to inspect a busted centrifuge, test tubes crunching under his armored boots. 

 

He eventually reaches a part where the ceiling stretches higher, the lingering smoke no longer hovering around his temples like some cartoonish representation of a bad mood, allowing the emergency lights to properly wash the walls in a threatening red without impediment. 

 

A crackle in his ear proceeds Steve’s voice over the comms. “--ony I think I found where they got their MGH supply--” A rumble is heard through their commlink before Steve is cut off with a grunt. 

 

“You need help?” Stark replies.

 

Ngh, no, he’s just an -- oof -- an ugly son of a biscuit.”

 

“Copy.” Tony trusts Steve’s judgement, so he’ll just hurry through this part of the basement before rushing to assist. 

 

Iron Man rounds the corner and is confronted with a wall of employees protecting a massive door. Er, no -- they look like employees. They don’t react to his appearance other than raising a slew of handguns in his direction.

 

“Friday, are they...?”

 

No vitals detected, boss. ” 

 

Iron Man quickly dispatches the wall of robots, their simple bullets only glancing off the armor. 

 

This changes things. The racks of smashed vials and biohazard boxes and centrifuges were one thing but...

 

“LMDs.” He announces over the comms, cradling the busted braincase of one of the robots in one gauntlet. “They have LMDs.”

 

Sam’s perplexed voice crackles in his ear, “Life-Model Decoys? You sure?”

 

“I recognize the design.” He runs a gloved thumb over the scratched-off serial number on the metal skullcap. 

 

“Aren’t -- ngh -- those strictly under the control of the government?” Steve comments over a growl in the background.

 

Stark drops the LMD head, its clatter against the ground getting lost in his rushing thoughts.

 

With two synchronized repulsor shots, he breaches the massive door the LMDs were guarding. He has to find the boss of this place, hell, any higher-ups. This mission has rapidly started to spin itself out of control, and the quicker Tony finds the answers to the questions he has the better he’ll feel.

 

The door only opens into another corridor, this one strangely void of any adjacent rooms, and he starts to stomp his way down it. He gets halfway before Friday stops him.

 

Sir, detecting heartbeats to your immediate left.

 

He pauses. There’s nothing but white wall to his left. 

 

“Switch to thermals Fri. How many?”

 

Three, sir.

 

Sure enough, three blobs of red and yellow appear in his suit’s thermal vision. They almost look like a single blob with how close these goons are hiding together.

 

Stark looks over the length of the wall again, and he can’t for the life of him find how the blobs bunkered themselves in there. They must be important people though, if they went through all the trouble at hiding themselves behind a wall of LMDs, a reinforced door, and then a hidden bunker.

 

Aha! There’s a panel on the far end of the hallway, haphazardly hidden behind an empty file cabinet. The buttons are handily labeled, and he presses the one he needs. 

 

The wall obediently grumbles to life and steadily splits in two, revealing a...window?

 

Sir, the heartbeats have elevated. I should advise --

 

Tony presses his faceplate up against the glass, trying to peer into the space, but the room is pitch-black. “Hey Fri, let’s give these hotshots a show, yeah?” Iron Man raises his gauntlet up to the glass window.

 

Sir, I should advise -- ” The AI insists.

 

The glass explodes inwards, the resulting cacophony punctuated by Iron Man’s boots crunching over the wreckage. 

 

Sir --

 

“LMDs huh?” Tony calls out into the darkened room, eyeing the blobs of heat in the upper left corner. Huh. There must be a flight of stairs in the room somewhere. “Last time I checked, those bots are about the most regulated thing this side of --”

 

Sir, I should advise that the heartbeats detected are from juveniles.

 

Tony stops.

 

“Wha --”

 

Something slams into him, hard and fast. It nearly knocks him off balance, and he has to activate the thrusters on his back to keep himself from falling completely on his ass.

 

He raises a gauntlet to fire a repulsor at the angry blur suddenly scrabbling at his armor, but that is tackled just as swiftly as well, held in an immovable grip away from his body. The same happens to his other arm, and he is effectively held in place as the thing that’s wrapped its legs around his waist starts to rip at his chestplate. 

 

“What the hell?!” Tony squawks.

 

The metal of his suit bends and creaks and Tony realizes with sickening dread that it’s making a frantic beeline for his arc reactor. The billionaire can feel the edges of something sharp trying to pry the chestplate off. 

 

Adrenaline kicks in, and Iron Man activates the thrusters his boots, sending himself and his attackers flying into a wall in order to free an arm. It doesn’t work, one of the things with a deathgrip on one of his wrists only shouts and all three shift themselves so they miss the blow entirely.

 

Something in his chestplate starts to spit sparks, and red warnings begin to fill up Tony’s HUD.

 

Luckily, the crash into the wall seems to have dislodged the one on his opposite arm, its grip loosening just enough for him to fire a repulsor off at the thing latched onto his front. 

 

It’s a hit! It screeches and falls away into the darkness. This sets off the ones at his sides, and they go absolutely ballistic. Iron Man has to fire two more repulsor blasts before their combined and opposing grips can completely tear him in two. He doesn’t think the blasts hit their targets, but the crushing forces around his forearms disappear anyways.

 

His head snaps to the side as one of them delivers a final, sharp blow to his faceplate, and he watches from the ground as three soupy figures scramble out through the shattered window and retreat into the flashing hallway.

 

When the world stops spinning, Tony carefully stands up. His chestplate is opened like a tuna can, half of it peeled away from his body and sparking pitifully in the near-darkness. 

 

“Friday, what the hell was that?” he asks breathlessly, before remembering the more important question. He spins around, giving the dark room a frantic once-over. “Friday, where are the kids?” 

 

Those were the juveniles in question, sir.

 

“What?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The Spiders race directionessly down the hall. Well, at least in any direction away from the rogue mech that invaded their home. Their path discernable as every footfall leaves a slippery red smudge on the floor, the glass from the smashed window cutting deep into their bare feet as they fled for their lives from the inhuman robot.

 

Although, that wasn’t... really true, right? They all sensed it. He sees the uneasy tension in the way that Kaine cradles his bloodied wrists where his stingers had broken through, and in the way Ben repeatedly glances over his shoulder as they run down the hallway, as if he still doesn’t quite believe what had just happened. 

 

Kaine finally whispers their collective question; “It had a heartbeat.” 

 

Dr. Warren would be proud. The Spiders had done exactly as they were trained to do -- take the arms offline and destroy the blue light at the core of the robot at all costs -- but when Kaine had opened up its chest, instead of the whirring of mechanical parts the frantic heartbeat of someone undeniably human assaulted their senses. 

 

Peter still doesn’t know what to make of that.

 

The boys round a corner and Ben catches Peter before he falls, slipping on his own blood.

 

Aside from the section of hallway that stretches in front of their room, they are woefully unfamiliar with the layout of the lab, mainly travelling to their commonly-used areas (training room, washroom) by means of the small duct-like system that connects directly to their shared home. Anything that required them being led through the hallways usually meant there was something new planned for the day, and new was often scary. 

 

They pick up their pace as they pass by one of the testing rooms, its door hanging limply on one hinge and the interior smashed, the once-offending machines and trays full of silver tools broken and scattered across the tiled flooring. Peter felt that if he lingered too long at the sight the mere wreckage of the lab could suddenly force him to fall asleep only to later wake up achy and sore.

 

“We need to find Dr. Connors,” Ben coughs, lungs aching even as the facility tries its best to filter out the smoke darkening his short blond hair. “Something’s really wrong.”

 

Kaine lets out a huff, his focus shifted from his wrists to his bruised side where the mech -- no, man -- had nailed him. “Understatement of the year,” he simply murmurs.

 

“Dr. Connors would know what’s happening, he would know what to do,” Ben continues. “He would know...He could...”

 

“Ben!” Kaine snaps at the youngest spider. “That would be helpful if we knew where he was!” 

 

He stops in the middle of a hallway, his two younger brothers skidding to a halt behind him. The tremble in his voice is evident as he continues, but Peter can only guess if its from true fear or adrenaline. Maybe both, Peter sure feels both. “I don’t know if you haven’t noticed, we haven’t seen anyone! We don’t even know where we’re going!” 

 

“I don’t know!” Ben warbles, “They wouldn’t just leave us here -- ”

 

Crunching echoes from down the hall, interrupting their discussion, followed by a prolonged shout. The quick footsteps are heavy, metallic. All three kids spin around to focus on the approaching noise.

 

It’s the mech. The man. 

 

Peter can hardly believe it, it’s calling out to them . They almost destroyed it -- him . With the state they left him in, they could easily finish the job. Why would he seek them out? 

 

He’s snapped out of his trance when Kaine roughly tugs him by the upper arm, pointing urgently towards a grated air vent near the ceiling. Oh.

 


 

The vents are significantly smaller than the ones they're used too, and the soot coating the interiors sticks uncomfortably to the Spiders’ wounds and skin. Even so, the cramped space feels more natural in Peter's honest opinion.

 

Peter is the first to see him as he leads the group, Kaine and Ben scooting along behind him respectively, their innate instinct to protect Sense-less Kaine bleeding through even in their panic.

 

The red emergency lights passing through the grate shine a checkerboard pattern on Peter’s standard black shirt and sweatpants, and the whole vent shudders violently as he approaches.

 

It’s Dr. Connors! Unfortunately, he’s lizard-ified -- his soft and understanding demeanor hidden by scaly skin and claws. He can’t help but stop and stare, Peter’s never seen his transformed body up close before! 

 

Dr. Connors cradles a limp arm defensively as he hisses at another figure in the room, a figure in red, white, and blue -- oh, another familiar mech. But by the way this day has played out so far…

 

Sure enough, the man is panting and bleeding from behind his round shield, slowly circling the hissing Doctor, backing him up against the wall the brothers are concealed in. The Spiders’ training instinctively races through Peter’s head at the sight of the tense, hostile battlestance; silence, disarm shield, pin down, cause injury to head and neck area. With help from the Doctor, they could effortlessly overpower the star-chested man and…

 

The Doctor sniffs the air, turning his head just enough to keep a yellowed eye on both the vent grate and his attacker. His throat rumbles to life, beginning as a growl that slowly morphs into recognizable, grating speech.

 

“Boyssss…”

 

It’s in that moment Peter decides that it was infinitely better seeing the transformed Doctor only from a distance. The sound of his guttural speech, the strange noises his tattered clothes make as they slip and catch over raised scales, the long transparent strands of saliva trailing down from sickeningly sharp teeth -- it’s all too much. It’s overwhelming his Sense, which isn’t even registering a threat from the man in blue at all. 

 

“Boyssss,” the Doctor hisses towards their hidden place in the wall, “Help me.”

 

Peter places his palms against the grate, torn between following his instincts or obeying a direct order. The order wins out, but it’s a second too late. The star-chested man attacks, tackling Dr. Connors into the wall.

 

The blow makes a considerable dent in the vent, and Dr. Connors lets out an enraged howl. 

 

“Go, go, go!” Kaine urges. They start to scramble as fast as possible away from the grate, away from the fight.

 

Dr. Connors howls again, “Uselessss!”

 

Peter yelps as the tips of claws pop through the wall, piercing through the steel vent a few inches in front of his nose. The transformed Doctor is focused on them now, the star-chested man utterly forgotten. 

 

Uselessssss!! ” A scaled paw explodes through the vent wall, nearly seizing Ben’s legs in an iron grip. Bits of plaster and thin, lightweight metal mix with the soot in the cramped space. He means to rip them out of the wall!

 

The sound of claws scraping vainly around the inside of the vent gradually fades as all three Spiders clamber wildly away, scrambling and crawling and climbing blindly through the maze-like ventilation system until they breach into a room unlike any they’ve seen before.

 

They tumble out of the small vent onto carpeted flooring. Peter bumps his head against one of many sleek white desks as he hurries to his feet, the bleeding cuts on his soles no more than light scratches now.

 

It’s too bright. Light streams into the large room from floor-to-ceiling windows, forcing his face to twist in hurt as his eyes adjust. Blue sky, massive buildings, and obnoxious billboards soon shift into focus.

 

“We’re outside,” Peter says. This isn't good. They’ve never been outside. It’s -- It’s too dangerous, swarming with mutant-hunters. Maybe the mechs-turned-men down there were meant to flush them out? They’re sitting ducks now!

 

Peter pivots on his heel and starts to retreat back to the vent opening, but Kaine blocks him with a strong forearm, stopping him in his tracks.

 

“What are you doing?” Peter hisses.

 

“We can’t go back there,” Kaine answers, “You saw what state the place is in, what state Connors is in."

 

Peter shoves him off, “We can’t be here!” He pushes past his brother and gets halfway into the vent before Kaine suddenly grabs a handful of his shirt and bodily tosses him away from the opening.

 

Peter rolls to a stop at the foot of a row of desks. “Are you serious?!”

 

“Listen! The room was busted into, there’s no one in the fucking building anymore, and the only person we knew tried to claw us through a wall!”

 

“We’re not supposed to be out here!” Peter shouts, “What about home?!”

 

“Home’s gone, Pete!”

 

Peter yells, launching himself at Kaine. They go crashing into a couch placed between the rows of desks, toppling over the back and landing hard on the low coffee table. Peter fists a handful of Kaine’s long hair in his hand, yanking roughly. 

 

“Hey!” Ben gets up from where he was picking the remaining bits of glass out of his heels. “Chill out!”

 

Kaine flips Peter over, trying to free his hair from his brother’s grip. He painfully twists Peter’s free arm behind his back, the pressure just enough for him to squeal and let go. Peter feels Kaine press the heels of his palms against his back in a disciplined move, meant to remind him with a firm push that he’s at the mercy of his stingers. “It’s gone, Peter!”

 

Peter thrashes underneath his brother, “Shut up!” They can’t be here, they can’t! They’ll be captured!

 

Ben hauls Kaine off of Peter by the shoulders, “Stop!”

 

Kaine lets up, stepping back from Peter, letting his smaller brother flip back over and prop himself up on his elbows. “It’s gone,” the eldest spider repeats, the previous heat gone from his voice. “We’ve been trained, we can survive a few days outside. It’s what we’ve prepared for all our lives.”

 

Peter blows a hard breath out his nose, bringing his arms up to wrap around his knees.

 

“We won’t get caught,” Ben quietly adds as he pads over to peer out a massive window. “We look normal. Our mutations aren’t...scaly like Dr. Connors.” He presses harder against the glass. “Wow, there’s a lot of people down there,” he murmurs.

 

“We’ll come back once things die down a little... and Connors and Warren have had time to regroup,” Kaine says. “Help me with this.”

 

From behind folded arms, Peter watches him pad over to another window and start to strategically coat it with web.

 

With help from Ben, the window was soon covered and Kaine delivers a few calculated blows to the window, letting it crack and fall outward. The sticky web muffles the noise and kept it from shattering into billions of pieces.

 

Peter shuffles over to his brothers, the sudden chill of the world outside pinking his cheeks.

 

“Let’s go.”

 


 

Sam completes another loose circle around the building, watching the various NYPD officers and SHIELD grunts rounding up the last of the employees into intimidating paddywagons while he checks for new escapees. The flow of people fleeing the building has slowed to barely a trickle now, and Sam hasn’t had to swoop in for at least a few minutes.

 

Minutes in which Stark has ceaselessly shouted himself hoarse through their shared commlink. 

 

Stark’s panting hard and a lot of his words are garbled by static, but at least he’s adamant that he’s not in danger. He practically begs Sam to not to leave his post, and instead keep a sharp lookout for a few kids that somehow slipped past Iron Man.

 

Falcon huffs a grave laugh and shakes his head. First LMDs, now kids? 

 

He banks for another go-around, scanning the bottom floor for any rugrats bumbling out of the exits that the employees had streamed out of, when he rounds the corner of a building to see one of the higher floor’s windows busted. It hangs limply outward more like a carpet being dried in the morning air than a sheet of glass.

 

Curious, he is just starting to swoop in for a better look when he feels his heart drop out the bottom of his stomach. Two small figures launch from the window in quick succession, barely clearing the street below and landing on a neighboring roof. 

 

“Whoa hey, hey hey hey --” He dives for a third figure, catching it mid-leap by the back of its black shirt. The blond kid makes a cut-off shriek as the shirt's collar closes around his windpipe, strangling him.

 

Sam winces, issuing a quick apology and immediately adjusts his grip, hooking a strong arm around the thrashing kid’s waist as he steers as gently as he can to where the kid’s little friends landed.

 

He’s hovering only a few feet over the rooftop when pain suddenly lances up his arm. Sam can feel sharp teeth pop through his skin where the kid has buried his face in his elbow. Surprised, he loses his firm hold on the kid, and the teeth pull and drag painfully as the kid falls away, leaving two neat puncture wounds that promptly start to well up with fresh blood. 

 

Falcon claps a hand over his wound. “What the --” He stops as he launches himself out of harm's way when one of the other kids, the one with long hair and a wild look in his eyes, leaps at him. The black, thin protrusions jutting from his wrists screech against the tip of his metal wingsuit, just missing their mark.

 

Sam falls back a little, giving them space. He opens his mouth to try and talk them down, but belatedly realizes that the long-haired kid is the only one on the roof with him, the other two having vanished into thin air.

 

The kid puffs a breath, a few long strands of his brown hair billowing outwards in the childish posturing, before he too retreats and disappears over the roof edge.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

The first thing Tony sees as he jogs out of the building is Sam. He’s sitting on the bumper of an open NYPD van, his arm being wrapped in gauze by an attending agent.

 

“Wow, you look like shit,” Sam observes.

 

Tony flips his faceplate up and tries to give him the most offended look he can manage at the moment. His eyes are too busy scanning the street for any sign of the kids. 

 

“Did…?” Sam raises his eyebrows and points to the lizard-man that SHIELD agents are struggling to fit into the back of a superhuman containment vehicle.

 

“What? Oh, jesus,” Iron Man makes a ‘what the hell is that’ gesture at a beaten-up Steve who’s busy helping stuff in a scaly tail so they can close the door properly. Rogers only gives a wave and shrugs. “No,” Tony finally answers.

 

“Okay, well, you look like you’ve been opened like a goddamn can of cat food,” Sam snorts, “You’re not gonna tell me that the kids did that to your sorry ass, are you?”

 

He snaps his gaze away from the lizard-man, striding closer to Sam. “You said over comm that you saw them. Are they here?” he insists. 

 

Yeah, I saw them, they jumped out a tenth story window ,” he holds up his bandaged arm, tapping at the scarlet seeping through the porous fabric, “Blondie tried to take a chunk out of me.”

 

“One of them bit you?”

 

“Yeah, it’s nothing serious though,” Sam leans back as dawning realization passes over his face. He takes a long look over the flayed open, casually sparking chestplate of the Iron Armor. “They really did that to you, huh?” 

 

Tony runs a hand down his face, his expression more worried than exasperated. He tries again, “Are they here?”

 

Sam pauses, as if he’s reluctant to continue. “No, I tried to talk to them but as soon as the blond kid chomped his way out of my arms they -- poof -- disappeared.”

 

“You let them go?”

 

“Of course not,” Sam is quick to defend. He taps a finger against his red visors. “I sent Redwing on their tail, I’m watching them scamper around as we speak.”

 

 


 

 

Peter’s shirt catches on a chain-link fence as he and his brothers sprint through a narrow alley. He pulls away with a grunt, but the strain it puts on his neck pales in comparison to the already healing bruise that's formed a crescent moon across Ben’s throat.

 

He tries to not freak out. Peter was completely justified in his fear -- as soon as they left the safety of the building they were attacked! He was right! He was right! 

 

“I was right!” Peter wails when Kaine catches up to them and pulls ahead.

 

They stick to their training as they run for their lives, keeping low and sticking together. Web-swinging would be faster, yes, but it would invariably attract more attention. The most they allow themselves is using their webs to sling shot them forward when they come across a particularly debris-free path.

 

They stay away from any sort of human activity, not that there was much around to avoid aside from a few crowds on the sidewalk they push past when rushing for the next secluded alley. 

 

Leaping through plastic curtains into an unfinished building, Peter’s Sense flares in his head.

 

Left! ” Ben and Peter shout in unison. All three change course just as the ground to their right is pelted with a flurry of bullets, throwing dust into the air.

 

Right! ” Another round cuts off their escape route, herding them back towards the exit. 

 

Staying grounded now dangerous, the kids jump upwards onto the exposed skeleton of the building, ascending as fast as they can away from the loathsome familiar hum of a drone.

 

The drone stubbornly follows, firing off a few more rounds into the metal girders. None of the shots have been anywhere close to the three, so they must want them alive for whatever twisted reason. 

 

Peter’s panicked mind drifts to the lab. Is Dr. Connors okay? Had they decided he was too troublesome of a mutant and killed the Doctor? And Dr. Warren, although not the nicest man, he must be worried about his favorite subjects, have the mech-turned-men invaders hurt him as well? 

 

While gripping the cold metal of an electrical pipe and launching upwards to the next one, all Peter wishes is that this day never happened. That he was still in the room with his brothers, waiting on a training session that’s immediately followed by a warm dinner and a well-deserved nap under the heat lamp until an attending lab tech turns out the lights. Safe, warm, happy. 

 

His reminiscing is cut short when his Sense blares in his skull again. 

 

Down! ” 

 

Ben and Peter immediately drop to a lower beam. When had the drone gotten above them? Kaine, at a natural disadvantage, reacts just a millisecond too late.

 

Kaine yelps as the drone fires a grappling cuff, locking a metal band around his ankle. The eldest spider is thrown off-balance, flipped upside down and dangling by the leg in midair. A quick webshot to a neighboring beam keeps the drone from hoisting him away. 

 

When the drone sees that Kaine isn’t going anywhere, it seems to understand that the spiders suddenly have it right where they want it because Kaine’s ankle is swiftly released. Before it can fly out of striking distance, however, Ben and Peter are already on top of it, webbing it to a scaffold. 

 

It beeps and hums in protest, activating thrusters in a lame attempt to free itself of the spider web that has it suspended between the metal poles. After the drone is sufficiently secure, all three brothers land on the scaffolding with a resounding clang

 

There’s a heavy pause as the drone’s camera eye swivels between them. Peter reaches a curious finger out to tap at it, then shifts a little to get a better look at its restrained wings. It’s...a really nice piece of machinery. The flying hunks of metal they’re used to fighting were never this sleek, as they were constantly being repaired after each sparring match. 

 

But being a pretty sweet drone doesn’t save it from being treated like one.

 

Sticking his feet to the pole, Peter balances himself as he gets a good grip on the drone and cleanly snaps a wing off. The eye swivels frantically between them as Kaine reaches over and does the same for the opposite.

 

Then they’re off. They leave the drone where its suspended, hoping that whoever sent it after them gets the message. 

 

They won’t go down without a fight.

 

 


 

 

Peter doesn’t know how long they’ve been running. Only that they’re finally stopped by a big expanse of water, and that the once blue sky has darkened to a nice purple-red. His heels send shockwaves of pain with every step as they finally come to rest at a railing overlooking the water. 

 

Peter peers over to look at his soupy reflection on the water’s surface. He absently notes he doesn’t remember the last time he’s seen himself in a mirror.

 

It’s getting colder. Ben, whose shirt ripped during his encounter with the birdman, starts to shiver more with each passing hour. They do their best to rinse off the soot and dust from their skin in a nearby fountain without making themselves any colder. Kaine helps Ben wipe away the remaining dried blood smearing his cheek.

 

Unsure of their next steps but sure that they aren’t being pursued any more at the moment, they start to wander. After following the water’s edge a bit they stumble onto a quiet pavillion just as the sun disappears over the horizon, plunging them into comfortable darkness. The only people around are clustered around the window of a large food truck. 

 

The smell of cooking meat makes Peter’s suddenly remember how hungry he is, but they don’t walk up to the window where gyros and tortillas and sweet drinks are being passed to awaiting hands. The brothers are instead drawn to the patio heaters beside the truck, placed so that people could enjoy their meal in the cool evening air. 

 

Ben and Kaine busy themselves flipping through a flimsy map they found while Peter stares up past the metal top of the patio heater into the night sky. 

 

It’s black, Peter notes. Not the dark grey that the white walls of their home became after light’s out, their enhanced vision never allowing them to be completely blind in the darkness. It’s the rich black he always envisioned the night to be, the same color of their matching shirts and sweatpants. Though without stars the picture feels... unsatisfying. 

 

They huddle together under the lamp until the crowd thins out and it’s just them and their map and the food truck.

 

Someone leans out of the truck’s window and calls to them, “Hey, buy something or go home, kids!” 

 

They're wholly ignored. Kaine continues to fiddle with the map.

 

The food truck shakes as someone steps out, and a stout lady comes to face them under the patio heater, wiping her hands on a grease-stained apron. “Oh!” She stops almost immediately, but not due to Kaine’s glare, daring her to keep approaching. Her dark eyes instead dart to their bare feet and shivering demeanors. 

 

She vanishes again into the food truck, reappearing with a few gyros wrapped in checkerboard paper. 

 

“Do... you boys have somewhere to go?” she asks. She holds the gyros out to them, but they don’t dare take the presented food.

 

She seems disappointed when they don’t react, and after a few awkward moments she fishes a device out of her apron pocket and taps away at its screen. Kaine tenses, but Peter gives his hand a reassuring squeeze.

 

“There’s…There’s a youth shelter a few blocks west of here,” she begins. “...Do you want me to walk you three there?”

 

Peter doesn’t know what a youth shelter is and he doesn’t care to find out. He gives a tight-lipped smile at the woman and says, “No thank you ma’am, we can get there ourselves. Thanks.”

 

The woman’s brow creases as they stride away into the city. Peter tries not to let his gaze linger on the steaming gyros.

 

 


 

 

They eventually find a secluded alley to hide in for the night, curling up together under a vent that’s steadily blowing out lukewarm air into the night. Ben takes first watch, and Peter, exhausted, tries to get comfortable against his shoulder.

 

It’s easily the most uncomfortable sleep Peter has ever had.

 

 


 

 

A deep grumbling noise wakes him hours later. 

 

He blinks into the world as another growl sounds from underneath his ear. He lifts his head off of Ben’s stomach and rubs at his eyelids.

 

“Sorry. Kaine said to let you sleep a little longer,” Ben whispers. Said brother is already awake, combing a hand through his long hair, trying to untangle the knots that formed in the middle of the night.

 

Oh right. They’re outside. The feeling of coarse pavement and the icky liquid that has soaked into his pant leg overnight punctuate that no , yesterday was not just some horrible nightmare.

 

“We need to keep moving. We shouldn’t try to get back to the lab for another day or two, I think.” Kaine muses, standing up and brushing dirt off himself.

 

“Dr. Warren doesn’t like it when we dilly-dally, though…” Ben offers. “What if he’s already there when we get back? He might punish us.”

 

Peter recalls the events of the previous day. The shattering of their glass wall, the smashed rooms they ran past, the piles of destroyed equipment. The transformed Dr. Connors fighting the star-chested man. The smell of burning paper.

 

“I somehow doubt he’d be there already,” Peter comments.

 

“Mm,” Kaine nods solemnly.

 

A few seconds of heavy silence pass until Ben’s stomach growls again. 

 

Kaine huffs, helping his brothers to their feet. “First things first. Let’s find breakfast.”

 

 


 

 

Food was something they never had to worry about, Peter contemplates as they walk. Their meals were always just handed to them, always on a timely basis, with a healthy, variable diet that aligned with their training. It was mostly smoothies, nurses always joked about them being calorie black holes and smoothies were apparently the most efficient way to give them their daily nutrients without the lab going totally bankrupt due to food costs alone. 

 

In all honesty, they’re not really sure where to go to get a meal outside of the lab.

 

The first thing they try is to head for the places labeled with a big fork and spoon icon on their handy map. Unfortunately, that seems to be everyone else’s idea, too. Every location is swarming with people bustling in and out or lingering around in outdoor seating. The crowds make the ghost of Peter’s Sense hum waringly.

 

They debate going back to the food truck from last night, but retracing their steps could be a fatal mistake if the people who invaded the lab are still gunning for them.

 

It’s a little past noon when they’re back to wandering aimlessly through a more residential part of the city. The spiders pass through small crowds largely overlooked, save for a few people that try to stop them like the food truck woman from the night before, though a flash of teeth and an angry glare is enough to make those people let them go on their way.

 

They’re strolling past a row of quaint homes when the spiders smell something wafting over the quiet street. It smells smoky and slightly spicy. It’s not coming from a street vendor, the block is nearly void of people as it is, but instead from a small window in a nearby building.

 

Peter can’t help but stop and follow the scent. It leads him to a cracked window of a dilapidated building, its state of disrepair identical to the apartments around it. 

 

Ben and Kaine keep a lookout as Peter peers into the residence. “Empty.” It’s a mess inside, really. There are couch cushions thrown all over the place, trash piled high on the floor, and he can count more kitchen cabinets without doors than ones with them. 

 

The source of their current fixation is smoking in the kitchen. Something is burning in a machine in the corner of the space, somehow forgotten by the absentee resident. 

 

Well, if they aren’t going to eat it…

 

Ben takes hold of the doorknob to the apartment and firmly pushes it open, the lock splintering the wood of the solid door frame. It takes a second to figure out how the smoking box works, but soon they’ve found their prize: a plate of burritos.  

 

Those are gone in a flash, Peter just barely losing his fingers in the frenzy.

 

Still hungry, they slowly turn their attentions to the cupboards…

 

 


 

 

The mercenary hesitates before the propped open door of the apartment. He visibly deflates when he sees the lock has been broken. Really? Should’ve gotten a safehouse in Soho! At least then he wouldn't have to walk clear to the other side of town for a decent hot sauce!

 

He palms his gun holsters and rolls his shoulders before complaining, “Fraaaankie! I thought we agreed it was my month to use this safehouse!”

 

He nudges it open and takes a step inside. “Now get your Death Wish coattail-riding ass out of my sweet bachelor pad before I --”

 

The last thing Deadpool feels is two knives piercing his ribcage and three pairs of pointy teeth breaking skin.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

A low groan nearly startles Peter off of the kitchen counter. He quickly snags the last package of sweets from the cupboard shelf and spins around toward the pained noise.

 

The man in red is stirring from his position against the farthest wall. His head lolls from side to side, and he starts to speak in slurred fashion, “Hooo… wha’ a rush …” 

 

The red man attempts to sit up or wiggle, but he’s liberally glued to the dated wallpaper of the apartment. “Whaaaa?” He wiggles his fingers from where they are fastened to the floor. “Huh.” He flinches hard when he finally notices Kaine peering down at him from across the room. “Oh, jesus--!”

 

“You’re a mutant,” Kaine states.

 

The red man coughs, “Yeah?”

 

“I drove my stingers through your heart.”

 

The red man nods, voice straining, “Uh-huh, popped it like an overripe grapefruit, you did.”

 

Kaine cocks his head to the side. “Who are you?”

 

“Deadpool, kid. Should I even ask what the hell all this white stuff is?” He struggles at his bindings. 

 

“If you try to get free I’ll... cut your liver out,” Kaine says, stumbling over the threat. Peter raises his eyebrows at Ben and takes a big bite of donut. 

 

“Ha! Okay.”

 

Deadpool suddenly has an arm free, a tiny knife wedged between his fingers, and reaches over to free his other arm. Kaine instantaneously webs his free arm to his chest and expertly confiscates the tiny knife and flings it with the rest of his weapons in a single fluid snap of his wrist. 

 

Whoa!” Deadpool gapes in amazement, not at all terrified of Kaine stomping towards him, “Not normal hooligans! Not normal hooligans at all!” He seems almost giddy, even when Kaine drives a brutal punch across his face. 

 

Peter cringes when he can hear the man’s facial bones scrape together as he continues to speak, “Whew! Strong! Can all three of you do that? The white stuff? The silly string? Now your comment about stingers makes sense! I thought you were just a twisted Hobbit fanboy!” 

 

Kaine is visibly disturbed by the man’s demeanor. He hesitates to punch him again, his fist just suspended in the air around Deadpool’s temple. After a pause, he turns to stare the spider down, the man’s aloof attitude replaced with something infinitely more hostile. Ben and Peter stop munching away at the sudden shift in atmosphere.

 

“You gonna gut me now, big boy?” Deadpool hisses, lowly.

 

Kaine growls and his stingers pop out to hover around Deadpool’s neck. The man doesn’t flinch, like he’s been in this position hundreds, maybe thousands of times. The stingers start to faintly tremble. Fresh blood from his wrists trickles slowly down to the blade tips.

 

The eldest spider eventually relents, retreating back over to the safety of the kitchen. “Creep.” He snags a soda off the table and jumps up to sit on the kitchen counter. 

 

Just like that, the aloofness is back. Just what is this guy?

 

“Ohh, that hurts. Not really. Sticks and stones, you know.” Deadpool thumps his head against the wall. “So, can I know why a few silly-stringy, stingy-stingy kids have broken into my sweet, sweet apartment and eating all my food? Because it’s a few weeks late for the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future to visit and I’ve been extra nice to the needy this year.”

 

“We’re on the run. Mutant hunters,” Ben answers while opening the fridge and rummaging through what’s left. He retrieves a few pieces of fruit and a cardboard box filled with rice, distributing it evenly with his brothers.

 

“Mutant hunters?” Deadpool echoes, perplexed.

 

Peter goes to perch on a couch cushion on the floor, facing the restrained Deadpool and takes a bite of fruit. “They broke into our home and tried to capture us. We’re here because we’re hungry.”

 

Deadpool hums. “Uh, okay. So you’re mutants?”

 

“Mm-hmm,” Ben confirms.

 

“And you were chased out of your home by...mutant hunters.” Deadpool draws the word out like he hasn’t heard of such a thing.

 

Peter feels he and his brothers’ hesitation. Were they mutant hunters? They had to be, there’s no other reason to attack the spiders or Dr. Connors or... There’s just no other explanation.

 

“Weirdo kids...without a home…” Deadpool seems to be thinking hard, occasionally squirming in his bindings. 

 

Peter watches the strange man and goes back to nibbling away at the fruit, trying to make the last of the apartment’s meager food supply last as long as it can.

 

Deadpool finally stills. “Uhh, I think I know a place that could help you. But I need to call them, did you kids take my burner --”

 

“I smashed it,” Kaine says.

 

Deadpool hangs his head over his chest. “Cool. Awesome.” He goes back to squirming. “Anyways, if I can get a hold of them, they’ll take good care of you. You have the dress code down already! They looove the cult-like matching outfit thing -- all you kids need is a big honkin’ X slapped on your chests and you’d fit right in!” 

 

Peter straightens when the man’s white eyes lock with his own. “But I need a phone, obviously. Are you kids still hungry?”

 

Peter tilts his head. “Sure?”  

 

“Great!” Deadpool wriggles more in his bindings, enough so that it doesn’t look like simple fidgeting anymore. “Do you trust me?”

 

Peter shakes his head.

 

“Too bad!” Deadpool’s instantaneously free of the webbing -- thanks to another tiny knife -- belatedly shouting, “Don’t freak out!”

 

It’s a flurry of movement in the kitchen. Pots and pans clatter to the ground as Peter and Kaine scramble behind the couch, and Ben essentially flips a chair or two following his brothers to the only substantial cover in the room.

 

“Don’t freak out!”

 

Peter webs the crazy man’s feet to the floor. 

 

Deadpool flings the small knife away and waves his hands like he’s coaxing wild animals, “Hey, hey! It’s okay!”

 

Peter and Ben take up a battle stance, flanking Kaine on both sides. They puff up like angry cats from behind the dingy couch.

 

“You said you were hungry! I’ll take you to a place where you can get some more food!” He lays one of his gloved hands across his chest and holds three fingers up with the other, then says, “Mutant’s honor.”

 

“Mutant’s honor?” Ben asks.

 

“Yeah!” The man squats down, resting his elbows on his knees. “Uh...we mutants gotta stick together, you know?”

 

Kaine glances between his two brothers in a silent question. Peter shakes his head, his Sense is quiet; Deadpool means them no immediate harm, at least. And aside from Dr. Connors, this guy’s the only other adult mutant they’ve ever met! Deadpool has to be doing something right to keep himself out of the hands of those who fear him for this long.

 

Peter hums, and after a tense pause, he says, “Okay, we’ll...trust you.” Kaine makes an offended noise, but Peter ignores it.

 

The mask’s white eyes blow wide for a second, as if Deadpool is surprised they agreed so easily. “Great!” Deadpool stands up and tries to shuffle his feet unsuccessfully. “Now cut me free, mini-Shelobs, and let’s get you some greasy-ass grub.”

 

Once freeing Deadpool, the adult mutant leads them on a meandering walk through backstreets and alleyways to a place that smells arguably worse than the man’s apartment. 

 

The stench only gets worse when Deadpool opens the door and allows them to step in, shutting out the last vestiges of the day behind them. The place is crawling with burly, intimidating men that send strange glances their way as Deadpool takes the lead into the establishment.

 

As they round the corner, a scraggly-looking man in glasses jolts from where he was leaning behind the bar. “Wade, no! No. No kids.” He points to the door they came from. “They wait outside.”

 

Deadpool, Wade , mock whines. “Awh, that’s heartless, Weasel. I thought this was a family friendly establishment?”

 

“It’s not. Never has been -- what do you think this place is, dumbass?”

 

Deadpool nudges them over to the barstools anyways, “I need your nastiest bar food. Chicken nuggets, nachos, whatever. These cuties --” He squishes Ben’s cheeks for emphasis, eliciting a swift kick in the shin from the youngest spider. “-- ow, are oh-so hungry.” 

 

Weasel remains unimpressed. “We don’t have bar food. Also I think your kids hate you.”

 

Deadpool makes a thoughtful sound before walking further down the bar and hopping over it. “Then make them a few blowjobs! Easy on the kahlua, heavy on the whipped cream, obvi ,” he calls. 

 

“I am not making fucking blowjobs for these kids!” Weasel grits out at Deadpool’s retreating form as he disappears into a back room, leaving the spiders alone at the bar. 

 

Weasel curses under his breath and leans on the bar, eye-level with the brothers. He takes in their appearance with a critical eye. “So, what’s the deal. Why’re you kids hanging around a dick like that.”

 

“Hungry.” Peter flatly answers.

 

“Yeah, well, tough shit. No food here.”

 

“Liar.” Kaine suddenly snags something behind Weasel with a web, reeling it back to his palm.

 

Weasel startles, eyes darting from the shelf the food was on to Kaine’s hand and back. He finally moves to reclaim the food when Kaine starts to unwrap it’s packaging. “Hey, that’s mine -- !”

 

Peter seizes Weasel’s forearm before it can reach the unwrapped sandwich, turning it over palm-up and pinning it roughly against the table. Weasel makes a pained noise and struggles to get out of the superhuman grip. 

 

The whole bar goes silent, and Peter’s Sense starts to wail in his head. The patrons have shifted their full attention to the kids and whimpering bartender, some wielding pool sticks, some with a clear outline of a concealed weapon at their hip. 

 

Peter lets go of the man’s forearm.

 

“Shit, fine. Have my fucking leftovers,” Weasel breathes, rubbing his bruised wrist.

 

He leaves them alone after that. He doesn’t protest when they start reaching over the bar to snag more snacks, even allowing them to have their fill of orange and pineapple juice because ‘no one orders cocktails in this shithole anyways’. Peter is licking away at a shot glass filled with whipped cream when Deadpool finally sulks out of the back room. 

 

Deadpool slumps against the bar counter, face pressed to the cool surface, and starts to dramatically curse into the table about being hung up on and mansions and shitty bald men in wheelchairs. Weasel mm-hmms absentmindedly throughout, every now and then refilling Peter’s and Kaine’s shot glass with whipped cream when they rap the glasses against the counter. Ben is drifting off to sleep on the bar.

 

After a minute of self-loathing, Deadpool’s head snaps up like he just realized something important. “Weasel, you know what this means? I’m a dad now.”

 

Weasel shakes the whipped cream can. “That’s an awful idea. But whatever, sure, as long as it gets the brats out of my bar.”

 

“You heard him, kids, it’s past bedtime, and this isn’t a place a responsible parent would take their children.” Wade cooes happily, ushering them off of the barstools and towards the door. Ben piggybacks on Peter as they’re lead back out into the cool night air. 

 

Wade practically skips down the street on their way back, confident that the kids will follow him back to his apartment. They have nowhere to go to anyways.

 

Picking up his pace to keep up with the adult mutant, Peter’s gaze drifts back to the night sky. It’s still starless. He doesn’t realize he’s frowning until he finally sees himself in Deadpool’s bathroom mirror. 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Tony stands in the wreckage of the kid’s room. The laboratory has been essentially cleaned out by SHIELD and a few agents still linger around searching for any remaining evidence. The lights are back on and the smoke is cleared, allowing Tony to get his first clear look of the room where he found the kids. 

 

For the past day and a half he’s poured over his suit’s and Redwing’s footage, trying to get any semblance of an understanding of what, who these kids were. They were strong, that much was obvious, he’s never seen anything short of Steve and Bucky able to bend and warp the alloy metal of his suit like they did. They also produce a sticky substance from somewhere in their arms, using it to expertly flee from and eventually capture Sam’s precious drone. 

 

“Some Maggia, huh?” Sam comes up to stand beside him in the large room, combat boots crunching over the glass. His brows knit together as he takes in the space. “This is where they were living?”

 

Tony nods. Something about the room disturbs him. It’s like they were raised like something between an experiment and a zoo animal. There are soft things littered all over the ground, mostly generic stuff like exercise balls, blankets, and pillows. Higher up, there are various ropes and ledges to climb and swing on, and multiple small treehouse-like rooms to hide in. 

 

“Reminds me of a rope course,” Sam notes, kicking at a shard of glass on the ground. “Or a monkey exhibit.”

 

Tony can’t help but agree, recalling his recent trip to the zoo with Morgan. “They found smaller rooms further down the hall, but it looks like they were mostly kept in here,” Tony says, trying to steel himself -- he can’t bear to imagine Morgan growing up in this environment, no matter how much he knows she would love the rope swings. The singular rooms were much sparser, each handily labeled with those obnoxious wooden letters that you buy at craft stores as  P , B, and K . Names, probably. He wonders if SHIELD has found anything of note about them in their stacks of unburnt paper.

 

Speak of the devil, Tony thinks. The sounds of marching precedes the appearance of Maria Hill and a few flanking agents. She stops when she sees the two Avengers standing in the kid’s room.

 

“Stark,” she nods, “Here to apologize to me about how wrong you were about this place?”

 

“Absolutely not,” Tony smirks, “So, what do we know so far?”

 

Maria Hill shifts her hold on a stack of documents and takes a deep breath. “We’ve found four distinct types of MGH in the building, one of which is positively identified to have been synthesized from Dr. Curtis Connors, the lizard mutant Captain America helped recover. The other three aren’t confirmed to come from the escaped subjects yet, as we’re still in the process of comparing the MGH with the blood and saliva samples we have from them, but it’s a high probability.”

 

She hands the stack of papers to an attending agent and sends him on his way. “There are also a lot of LMDs in the building. All with serial numbers filed away and memories wiped before arrival in the lab, of course.”

 

“Yeah, they looked like normal people. Extra employees, maybe? You don't have to pay robots.” Tony interjects.

 

“Possibly. But what was truly interesting was that they used the normal-looking models to protect this wing of the facility.” Her voice takes on a serious tone. “A team found a whole cache of LMDs made to look like various heroes and villians. Captain America, Doom, Reed Richards, Frank Castle, Iron Man, Cyclops, you name it. All smashed to bits in the corner of an arena.”

 

Sam makes a thoughtful noise. “Why wouldn’t they use those LMDs to fight us off? They’re made to move and act like their real-life counterparts, it would have been a hell of a fight.”

 

Maria nods. “They weren’t just smashed, either. Their neural nets were entirely removed. Why do you think that is?” She looks between them, clearly already knowing the answer herself.

 

Tony reflects on how calculated, how precise the kids had been when attacking him -- knowing exactly what joints to press on, what weaknesses the armor had, what would immediately take him down for the count had they succeeded in getting to his arc reactor. 

 

“Memory chips,” Tony answers, a ball of dread floating in the middle of his stomach. “Battle reports, damage reports, everything would have been saved to their neural nets.”

 

“Exactly. They were used as training dummies, and whoever was in control of this place deemed that data significant enough to destroy whatever chance they had at keeping us from knocking down their door.”

 

He starts to get a sinking feeling in his stomach. He has to ask. “What about the kids? Anything about them?”

 

Maria stills, her facade of stoicness leaving Tony unable to get a read of her emotions. She hesitates before telling him, “They’re genetic experiments -- dangerous ones. SHIELD is making it a priority to recapture the escaped subjects and bring them under custody.” 

 

Hill turns to leave when her radio crackles to life in her ear. Tony calls after the agent, “What will happen to them then?”

 

Hill stops in the gaping mouth of the busted glass window. “With luck, they’ll fall under the protection of the U.S. government. Anything more than that, I can’t say.”

 

Tony swallows, stuffing his hands in his suit jacket pockets.

 

Crunching glass signals her departure, but she adds, “This isn’t your mess to clean up, Stark. I suggest you stop worrying about it and head back home to your family.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Wade’s inching fingers finally reach his katana, and after a few more inches of stretching he gets his hand around the handle just enough to yank it free from the webbed-up pile of confiscated weapons. The sharp blade easily pulls free of the old silk, and he swings it down to free him from the webbing gluing his boots to the floor.

 

As soon as they re-entered the safehouse, the kids had once again unceremoniously webbed him to the ground -- with obviously no regard for his own personal comfort -- and sealed themselves away in Wade’s bedroom. 

 

Wade rolls over, his neck sore from a long night awkwardly bent over on the floor of his apartment, and groans at the feeling of both his shins painfully stitching themselves back together after snapping them in two to get the extra footage needed to reach the weapon pile.

 

Oh well, no one said raising kids was easy , Wade thinks. He should probably punish that behavior, set a distinct ‘no-webbing Dadpool to the floor’ rule, but he’d done way worse stuff when he was their age. 

 

He can still hear Logan laughing over the receiver, not letting him get a word in, not letting him say that Mr. Clean has a few new students ripe for the picking. Whatever. If they don’t want to take these weirdo spider-kids under their wing, he sure as hell will. He’ll make them into the bestest, most well-adjusted goddamn baby mercenaries this world has ever seen! Then together they’ll cut Logan’s shitty tongue out! Yeah!

 

Wade stands up when his tibias finally click back into place. He can hardly believe it, he's a dad now! Is this what he wants? Deadpool’s mind wildly swings between ‘ Yes!’ and ‘ No!’ 

 

It’s just so much responsibility!

 

He takes light steps over to his bedroom door, giving the doorknob a light tug. It cracks open by an inch or two, but a thick coating of silk blocks it from opening further. He shouldn’t be surprised. 

 

Quietly, he slices the silk away and peeks inside. And there they are, all bundled up on his bed! It’s clear that one of them tried to be a lookout. The kid with wild, long hair is propped up against the headboard but slumped over, fast asleep. So are his siblings who are cuddled up into the blankets beside him, all laying on each other like a pile of puppies. A pile of very worried puppies. Their brows are creased like they had just seen someone eat a booger on public transportation, or they had just watched the trailer for Cats for the first time, or they just stepped into a mystery fluid puddle on the sidewalk and its soaked through their shoes. 

 

Even with the pained expressions on their sleeping faces, the sight makes Deadpool’s heart melt into a puddle of goo and he fails to suppress the happy noise that bubbles out of his throat.

 

Wade retreats quietly back out into the kitchen. He brushes off the kitchen table with one arm, sending bits of pilfered cereal and empty soda cans clattering to the linoleum floor, and sets the table. Scrounging around for any food left in the safehouse, he finds a torn open box of Eggos in the freezer -- and good luck! Only one of the waffles has a distinct bite bitten out of it, the frozen treat clearly not tasty enough to finish. He grabs the opened package.

 

He has to be responsible , now. And responsible parents never let their kids skip the most important meal of the day.

 

But responsible parents also don’t do mercenary work for a living. He glances at his to-do hitlist stuck to the fridge with a cat butt magnet. Responsible parents don’t leave their kids alone in the house while they work. He’ll have to do something about that. 

 

“Gah, responsible, responsible, responsible…” Deadpool repeats like a mantra. If he didn’t just see the sleeping faces of those freaky little teenagers he’d be rethinking this whole parenting direction his life has suddenly turned onto. 

 

The toaster dings, signaling the arrival of Eggo goodness. Deadpool piles the waffles onto three separate plates, carefully balances them in his arms, and makes his way back to the bedroom.

 


 

Peter is confused. 

 

He’s sitting up on his bed, hands fisted into the old bedsheets. It’s dark like it always is when he gets put here, but the darkness somehow makes the space feel more claustrophobic than usual. The silence of the room is slowly drowning him, the familiar, reassuring heartbeats of his brothers absent. Ben and Kaine are likely in their own rooms too, but the thought of not knowing for sure has him on the verge of panic. 

 

But he shouldn’t panic, he mustn’t. Panicking would only mean he has to stay longer in this tiny cell. Be kept away from his brothers for longer. 

 

“Three…” The sudden use of his Subject name sends an involuntary chill down Peter’s spine. Only Dr. Warren addresses the spiders that way, staunchly refusing to use the names the nurses gave them when they were little. He looks up to find the Doctor smiling down at him from behind horn-rimmed glasses. When had he gotten in the room? “What will your future employer think when you can hardly function without your fellow Subjects nearby?

 

Peter hangs his head over his chest. “Sorry, Doctor,” he mumbles. Dr. Warren, the understanding man that he is, doesn’t smack him over the head for not speaking clearly. Great, he must have truly disappointed him.

 

Peter brings his arms to rest on his knees, startling when he notices the copious amounts of white bandages wrapped around his forearms. Oh. He must’ve really failed a solo training session. Maybe that’s why he’s being punished? Why can’t he remember? 

 

Dr. Warren’s smile turns wolfish, slightly distorted in the low light of the room. His tone is kind, but has an undercurrent to it that seems like it’s straining to keep something darker, angrier hidden away. “You’re going to be very important someday, Three, you understand that? You’ll be a force for change in the world.”

 

Peter swallows down his shame. “Yes, Doctor.” The praise is lost on him, merely turning into a string of words that everyone at the laboratory has said to them at some point or another throughout the years.

 

He hears Dr. Warren shift, probably pushing aside his lab coat to rest his hands on his hips, before crouching down to be eye-level beside Peter. Peter tries his best to make eye-contact. The man’s face is soupy, the Doctor’s features somehow out of focus even when he’s only a few inches from the spider’s face. 

 

“You are a product of my life’s work, Three. I will not allow you to squander away your potential.”  

 

Peter nods, but doesn’t answer like he’s supposed to, the words are stuck somewhere in the back of his throat. Dr. Warren’s bushy mustache quirks in a frown, and he brings a hand to brush away a lock of hair that had fallen into Peter’s eyes. Peter flinches at the unfamiliar display of affection, cringing hard. The space behind his closed eyes is a void, black like the night sky. Starless. He waits for the caress or the slap.

 

 


 

 

The sudden brush of a hand against his forehead startles Peter awake and he jerks, kicking out at the figure that’s caressing his face. He hears bone snap and a surprised cry of pain.

 

“Sweet Mary! I just finished healing that leg!”

 

Deadpool is looming over him on the bed, plates of something yellow balanced in his arms and one of his legs bent awkwardly at an angle, broken at the knee. Startled, Peter scoots back on the bed, painfully elbowing both Kaine and Ben in the process. His brothers respond to the rude awakening with a low groan.

 

“Sorry! It’s okay! You were just so peaceful...twitching around in your sleep…” The adult mutant shuffles the plates in his arms, placing them at the foot of the bed. “I made breakfast!”

 

Rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, the spiders sit up on the bed. Ben bops Kaine lightly over the back of his skull; ‘You were supposed to be lookout’. 

 

”Sorry I don’t have any syrup, I usually eat them just as they are.” Deadpool apologizes, crouching down at the foot of the bed, the movement awkward due to his bowed leg, and pushes the plates towards the spiders.

 

They eat in silence. Wade pillows his head in his hands on the mattress, tilting his gaze at them like they’re something precious. The spiders are used to being stared at, examined, but it doesn’t make the attention any less unnerving.

 

Deadpool finally breaks the silence after the last waffle is gone. “So, do I get to know what my new kids names are? Because if not I’m going to dub thee as I please, and I don’t think you guys would appreciate Larry, Moe and Curly as much as I would.”

 

The brothers look between one another, is this an okay thing to do? Their training said they’re not supposed to give out their designations to anyone other than their eventual employer, but...their names aren’t really their names right? On paper they’re only numbers -- and the numbers are the only important part, as Dr. Warren would say.

 

Peter pokes his finger into his collarbone. “Peter.” He points to his siblings. “Kaine, Ben.”

 

Deadpool makes a happy noise. “Nice to meet you, Peter, Ben, and Kaine! I’m Wade Wilson, but people on my shit list call me Deadpool.” 

 

“Uh-huh…”

 

Wade’s knee sickeningly pops back into place, and he uses that opportunity to sink down and sit criss-cross on the floor. He studies the spiders tense posture on the bed before speaking. “Okay. Uh, let’s start light. Powers. As you have probably already guessed, I’m a goddamn human cutting board. What about you? I mean, I’ve seen that neat little webby trick, and his copyright claim arsenal of arm knives, is there anything else I should know about?”

 

“Kaine’s venomous.” Ben pipes up, quietly. “Don’t eat or drink after him, you’ll get sick. ...And we’re sticky.”

 

“Sticky?” Deadpool echoes, he reaches out to tap Peter’s leg, but Peter shrinks away from his touch. 

 

To answer Wade’s question, Kaine sticks his hand to a flattened, musty pillow and picks it up by his palm, with Ben and Peter following suit. 

 

“Ohh!”

 

Peter drops his pillow. “Why do you wear that suit?” He asks, then after a thoughtful pause adds, “Why do you sound like that?”

 

“Oh, good questions! One: these are my work clothes, two: I have scar tissue on my vocal cords!”

 

“Scar tissue?”

 

“Would you like to see?” Wade doesn’t wait for an affirmative. He starts to peel off his gloves and pulls up his mask to his nose.

 

Peter balks at the sight, and he hears Ben make a distressed noise. It’s like his skin is halfway melted! It’s pock-marked in welts and blisters, and stretched scar tissue looks like it's the only thing keeping the muscles of his face and hands together! Wade shows off his wide grin, clearly amused at their reactions, and the movement stretches the fresh skin to the point that Peter’s afraid that it’ll snap in two like a rubber band.

 

Kaine leans forward on the bed. “Does that hurt?”

 

“Oh yeah, but you get used to it. I have. Maybe.”

 

“Maybe?” Ben echoes incredulously.

 

Wade shrugs, bored with the topic. “Sure! Anyways, enough about me. Tell me about you. Are you kids triplets?” The brothers shake their heads. “No? Okay, what’s with the get-up?” Wade gestures to their bare feet and matching outfits, all in different states of wear and tear after their harrowing escape from the invaded lab and a night on the street. “You’re definitely too young to be one of those hippies that thinks that wearing shoes prevents you from tapping into the Earth’s love or some shit.”

 

“It’s just our clothes,” Ben answers. “It’s what they gave us.”

 

The man perks up at that for some reason. “Ooh, a ‘they’? Who’s ‘they’? Oh, oh wait! Let me guess. Orphanage only buys bulk in black tracksuits and as soon as that package hits the floor it’s every man for themselves? Though…” He rubs a scarred hand over his raw chin. “...Three non-related mutants that have the same sets of powers…”

 

The man rubs his hands all over his mask in deep concentration before Wade’s head suddenly snaps up.

 

No! Am I in some shitty young adult tragic-kid-grows-up-being-experimented-on story? Am I in a fucking two-bit Maximum Ride novel?” He stands up, suddenly serious. His approach makes the spiders straighten and press themselves further into the headboard as the adult mutant continues to spout nonsense. “Were you kept in tiny-ass cages and flayed open on a daily basis? Beaten everyday? Ate slop?” 

 

Peter furiously shakes his head no, that sounds horrible. Dr. Connors would never allow them to be treated that way. And Dr. Warren was the only person allowed to punish them when they deserved it.

 

Wade slumps a little in relief, but it seems to only add to his confusion. “No? Well, it’s either that or you three are on some baby Jesus-level miracle type of shit.”

 

Peter’s about to interject to say that the facility is nothing like that, that their caretakers treat them extremely well, that they are given plenty to do and plenty to eat, when he is interrupted by a knock on the door. Peter’s enhanced hearing picks up the creak of the broken door as the knock slightly swings it open.

 

A heavily accented voice sounds from the front room. “Uh... DP? Hello?”

 

Wade comically swings his gaze from the kids to the bedroom door and back again. He jolts when he sees the kids coiled up posture, crouched and prepared to pounce if the person should come any further into the safehouse. Wade quickly puts his hands up in a placating gesture and whispers, “Hey nonono, he’s a friend! A very squishy friend, no stabby or webby!”

 

Wade exits the room to enthusiastically greet the person at the door. Cautiously, the spiders leave the bed to peer outside into the front room. There’s a smaller man standing in the threshold, holding a package smelling strongly of grease that Wade eagerly takes off his hands. 

 

“Oh, oh! Dopinder, look what the motherfucking stork brought me!” He motions for the brothers to emerge from where they’re lurking. “Kids, this is Dopinder, my beautiful and courageous cabbie who also --” Wade shifts the bag of food in his arms, offering a tinfoil wrapped egg muffin to encourage them closer. “ -- is my personal GrubHub.” 

 

Dopinder smiles shyly at them, giving a small wave. “Hi…”

 

“Actually, this is great timing Dopinder,” Wade says through a mouthful of hashbrown. “I need you to drive us to Wal-Mart.”

 

“Oh...are we not killing that CEO today then?” 

 

Wade’s voice drops to a harsh whisper, “Not in front of the kids!” Before obviously mouthing ‘yes ’.

 

Minutes later Peter and his brothers are being herded into the backseat of a beat up cab. It’s a new experience; they’ve never ridden in a car before! The spiders busy themselves by messing with the air ducts, window switches, and the little pamphlets attached to the driver’s seat. Ben even opens the door while they’re on the freeway, earning a few shouts from the adults in the front seats. 

 

Pulling into a (handicapped) parking spot, Wade orders Dopinder to wait in the car as he corrals the siblings into the massive building in front of them. The place is swarming with people, much like how the restaurants and cafes were a day ago, and Peter instinctively wants to leave before someone can bother them. However, it seems that Wade’s work clothes readily prevent any employees from approaching the kids about their attire. 

 

Wade team-huddles them together in the middle of an aisle filled with impossible amounts of food and drink. Peter is so entranced by the surroundings that he starts when Wade’s arm falls over his shoulders close enough that the smell of the musty, unwashed leather almost makes him gag. 

 

“I’m going to get myself a new burner phone, and you guys are going to go snag you some new clothes, okay? Or whatever you want, really. Dadpool’s treat.” Wade instructs. “Use the buddy system, don’t talk to strangers, yadda yadda yadda.” 

 

He pushes them down with his arms and releases with a loud, “Break! ” The stunned spiders then watch the adult mutant race away, barreling over pedestrians and product alike until he disappears out of sight, leaving the kids standing alone in the middle of the store.

 

They find their way to the clothes section as instructed. Peter paws his way through the clothes on the rack, fascinated by the number of different colors and choices available just for the taking. 

 

Ben pipes up from a few feet away, calling for his brothers’ attention “Hey, look at this.” 

 

The youngest spider is standing in front of a wall of graphic tees, all with similar colorful designs. Ben plucks a particular one off the rack, brows furrowing. 

 

It has a mech on it. The red-and-gold one, the man that invaded their home. He’s drawn in a dramatic pose, the blue light in the palm of his metal fist aimed and ready to fire at something off-screen. 

 

The wall has other designs as well. The star-chested man, the cat-like mech in black, and the blond mech with a hammer that hits really hard are among the ones they immediately recognize. There are also wholly unfamiliar ones; a monstrous green figure stands out to Peter in particular.

 

The myriad of designs send a chill up Peter’s spine. He feels like he’s missing something, something desperately important. Peter decides to not think about it. He files it away, saving his racing thoughts for when they’re safely back in the lab and can ask Dr. Connors or Dr. Warren about it. When unsure of your role, defer to authority , Dr. Warren echoes in the back of his mind.

 

The spiders return to pawing through the other clothes. Peter finds a few items he likes: a lightish blue shirt, a murky green light jacket, and a pair of dark jeans. His brothers also seem to have found their own outfits, the sheer amount of options making the task take more time than they would have thought. 

 

It’s when they start to change in the middle of the aisle that they are finally approached. Peter’s Sense had warned him that they’d been under close observation for a while, but the young employee only comes over when they strip down to their boxers to put their new clothes on. 

 

The employee clears his throat before trying, “Hey...You’re not supposed to do that here…”

 

Peter helps Ben free his head from his new, too big, bright blue hoodie when it gets stuck halfway. Kaine yanks the tags off of his own black hoodie, and peels away the sizing sticker from his red shirt.

 

“Not...supposed to do that either…”

 

The employee finally jerks into action when Peter rips the plastic security tag off of his jeans. He lightly seizes Peter by the upper arm. “Hey! Are you listening to -- “

 

Peter sweeps the legs out from under the employee, who hits the ground with a resounding thud. The guy scrambles to his elbows and starts to excitedly talk into a device in his hand when a shadow looms over him.

 

“Are you bothering my beautiful baby boys?” Wade rumbles above him. The employee goes sheet-white, and quickly reholsters his communication device. “Shoo, Pimply,” he orders.

 

The employee flees and Wade steps over their discarded pile of old clothes to the redressed spiders. 

 

“You find stuff you like? Usually you’re supposed to pay for it before you put it on, but…” The adult mutant shrugs. He looks over them approvingly, pausing at Ben’s humongous hoodie. “You want something smaller, big guy? You’re drowning in that.” He reaches over to tussle his hair, cackling when he’s subsequently batted away. “Also, you guys missed shoes.”

 

Peter wants to argue that shoes aren’t practical in regards to their powers but he never gets the chance to, because shortly after they’re all but chased out of the store by a flock of security guards. The kids take turns tripping Wade along the way, because watching him fumble around with a rent-a-cop for a minute or two was enough time for them to snatch more goodies.

 

Pockets full, the spiders easily make it back to the cab first with Wade sprinting out of the store a minute later.

 

Wade clambers into the front seat, yelling at Dopinder to floor it before twisting around and telling the kids that stealing is wrong. The cab tears out of the parking lot and bounces painfully over the speed bumps.

 

Once on the road, Peter and his brothers start to sift through their candy haul. Kaine and Ben were able to get the biggest stuff with their handy new hoodie pockets and they produce package after package of colorful treats they don’t recognize. Peter shows off a few powdered candies and gummies he snagged, but pauses when he finds the last thing he managed to grab. 

 

He doesn’t really know why he grabbed it. It wasn’t even that interesting, it just caught his eye. Peter palms the little keychain in his hand, dangling a strange blue and white trashcan shaped robot from his finger. 

 

“Ohh, an R2-D2?” Wade pipes up, interrupting his attempts to steal a few candies from the spiders in the back seat. “You like Star Wars?” 

 

Wade reaches over to take a look at it, but Peter pulls it out of reach and tucks it safely back in his jacket pocket. “It’s mine,” Peter warns. 

 

“Fair enough, I’m more of a BB-8 man anyways.” 

 

The cab is taking the leisurely route back to Wade’s apartment, and the spiders sit quietly in the back seat, content with their haul. Everytime the cab pauses at a red light, Peter peers up at the towering buildings as much as the car's window will allow. He wants to drink it all in, once he’s back home it might be years before he ever sees something like this again. Nibbling on twizzlers, he watches other cars pass by, people mill about, the cab’s reflection in store windows, trying to memorize it all. Commit it to memory.

 

After a while the boys eventually get fed up with how often Wade twists around in his seat to take what he declares as a ‘dad tax’ on their candy, and a silent plan is put into motion. Peter wrinkles his nose as he watches Kaine lick all over a few gummy worms, lightly biting a few of them for good measure. 

 

Sure enough, a minute later Wade’s glove appears and demands a sacrifice from their candy pile. The man pops the gummy worms into his mouth (if he noticed the dampness of them, he doesn’t mention it. Peter assumes that the man has eaten grosser things before or is just too weird to care) and then it's just a matter of waiting.

 

After about ten minutes of bated breath the boys slump disappointed in the back seat, thinking that whatever stupid super-healing mutation Wade has it’s negated the effects of Kaine’s toxin. 

 

That is, until the adult mutant suddenly face-plants into the dashboard, motionless.

 

The kids yell triumphantly. It’s the first time Peter’s made a genuine smile since he’s left their home.

 

Dopinder shrieks and his grip on the steering wheel tightens, “DP?!” 

 

No response.

 

“Uh.. Deadpool?” Dopinder tries again, tapping at the man’s shoulder while struggling to keep his eyes on the road. 

 

Wade springs up from the dashboard with a loud gasp. Then pleads, “Pull over! Pull over!”

 

He does, and the car mounts the curb just as Wade bolts out of the passenger seat. Horns blare in retaliation for their sudden stop. 

 

As Wade starts to violently heave into a nearby trash can, the kids use that opportunity to climb out of the cab and stretch their legs. They gingerly brush the candy dust off their new clothes, and Peter also takes this time to gaze up at the buildings around him again. He blinks. These look… Wait…

 

Kaine and Ben notice it too, and as if guided by an invisible force they all take off in a swift powerwalk that morphs into a light jog around the corner. Wade weakly calls after them, head still buried in the trash can. 

 

Peter’s heart starts to pound in his chest as they jog another block until the muscle abruptly lodges itself in his throat when he finally spots it. 

 

He only saw the outside his home for a few minutes, but the few details he remembers when fleeing for his life stick out like a sore thumb. He spots the window they busted through up high on one of the building’s faces, the broken glass having fallen away when the webbing dissolved long ago. 

 

Wade catches up to them, panting hard and making queasy noises. “Don’t… run from -- blurgh -- Papa…” He catches his breath beside them on the sidewalk, resting a hand on Kaine’s shoulder that’s immediately shaken off.

 

“What’re -- bluh -- you guys looking at?” He asks.

 

“Home,” Kaine breathes. 

 

“Huh?” Wade looks up and down the street, then focuses in on the brothers’ line of sight. “You’re shitting me, there’s only bland-ass office buildings for -- blegh -- blocks.”

 

In lieu of a reply, Peter starts to cross the street. Cars honk and skid to a stop in front of him, his Sense buzzing sharply in his head. The building’s doors are propped open, and his Sense only continues to whine as he gets closer to the threshold. He palms the little keychain in his pocket to calm himself. Something’s wrong, but he doesn’t know what. He stops Kaine from going further in the building.

 

Peter tries to focus his hearing while examining the entrance for whatever is offending his Sense, but is promptly cut off when Wade pushes right past them. The man strides into the building, ooh -ing and aah -ing at the wide space, the lights flickering on as he steps inside.

 

When no bombs or traps or nets activate at the sudden entrance, the spiders tentatively follow Wade inside. 

 

“You lived here?” Wade gapes in amazement, “It looks like a place that’d make fucking Juiceros! Or have a CEO that exclusively wears sandals in the office! No wonder you kids are so maladjusted! You were probably born in a filing cabinet and fed raw water your whole lives!”

 

Wade spins around in the lobby, running his hands along the reclaimed barnwood chairs and chic reception desk before suddenly remembering he’s been poisoned. “Hurk! You know where the bathroom is?”

 

The spiders shake their heads and the sound of Wade hurrying away is lost on Peter’s ears as he continues to explore the lobby. He sends an exploratory touch over the slick glass of the reception counter and hops up on his tip-toes to peer over it. Loose wires that used to be connected to a computer poke out of a hole in the desk, but otherwise the surface is clear, cleaned off.

 

He recognizes this place as what it is, a protective shell keeping them hidden, safe from the outside world. A front, however real it was or not, that was necessary for their security. But now it truly feels like a shell, hollowed-out and emptied by the enemy. 

 

Peter gulps. He hopes the facility below doesn’t look or feel like this.

 

“Where do you think the door to home is?” Kaine whispers as they continue to meander through the lobby.

 

Peter shrugs, flumping onto a cushy bench against the wall. 

 

Ben flops down beside his brother, saying, “Maybe if we go through the vents again...”

 

Peter’s Sense buzzes proceeding Wade’s shout from somewhere further inside the building. “Whoa! Kids, come tell me what this is!”

 

Following the noise, the boys find Wade in a bathroom down the hall, peering halfway into a stall. Peter grimaces and turns to leave, not wanting to encourage this guy’s sick sense of humor. 

 

“You guys have a goddamn Chamber of Secrets?” Wade squawks. 

 

“Huh?”

 

Wade waves them over and sure enough, there’s a space in the wall roughly the size of the stall that leads to a dimly lit flight of stairs. The toilet that was there had been pushed in and to the side by some sort of mechanism.

 

Wade wipes the remaining spit from the side of his grin with the back of his glove. “Well?”

 

“We don’t...know what that is.” Ben whispers. 

 

It’s the way home, Peter thinks. Home’s down there! He’s torn between sprinting down the stairs and staying put, afraid of what he might see.

 

Against all judgement, Ben and Peter start to pad into the dark corridor, with Kaine reluctantly following close behind. Wade brings up the rear, happy to solve this mystery with the kids. He calls after them, “Buddy system! Also, I will blow chunks again if there are any big snakes down here, just so you know.”

 

 


 

 

It’s home. 

 

It’s eerily void of activity, the bustle of nurses and lab techs that fill their memories gone and the remaining silence only deepens Peter’s sense of dread.

 

Wade fills the silence with his incessant questions, but he gradually goes quiet with every confused answer and non-response. He’d ask about rooms, the what the signs mean on the walls, where everyone was, what their favorite room is, but they just don’t know . They don’t even know where they are in the facility. Barely anything’s left behind, and the few objects Wade picks up they can only answer as ‘needle for blood work, probably’ or ‘clipboard with Ben’s name on it’.

 

That’s why when they finally come across the one corridor they know, they race down it. Desperate for familiarity, Peter has to be stopped by Wade when he and his brothers are almost inside the room, their room. 

 

Wade’s grip on his jacket hood pulls him back, and when he speaks there’s a lilt to his voice that’s been growing over the past few minutes, a hint of unease and worry.

 

“That’s broken glass, buddy.” 

 

Not caring, Peter yanks himself away from the man’s grip. He shoots a web to the top of the broken observational window and swings himself over to the other side, avoiding the glass. He scrambles up the support for one of the hideboxes to survey the room. 

 

Like the rest of the building, their room is totally gutted. Empty. He bends over to peek inside the hidebox. Empty. He even sees that a few of the ropes are gone from their usual spots.

 

Peter’s head starts to pound. They wouldn’t just leave them to fend for themselves! We’re too important to them! It had to be the enemies that did this! They wouldn’t just pack up and leave!  

 

Peter springs back outside, smacking and sticking to the corridor wall.

 

Wade kicks at a few shards of glass. “Yeah...definitely getting a shitty YA novel feel from this…”

 

Kaine leads the way further down the hall, past their room. The single rooms, washroom, and training arena are gutted all the same. They pad the familiar march to Dr. Warren’s private study, hoping that the Doctor is there, or left a note, or…

 

Surprisingly, Dr. Warren’s study is still somewhat intact. The filing cabinet drawers have been taken, a lot of the books on the shelf are gone, and the Doctor’s personal effects are among the things obviously missing. But there’s no note and no Doctor.

 

The spiders used to make jokes about how different Dr. Warren’s office was from Dr. Connors’. Connors liked to keep pictures of the boys beside pictures of his own family on his desk, Warren only kept X-rays and molecular data. Connors had artwork that depicted the outside world in colorful dots and smudges (impressionist, he told them once), while Warren hung diagrams of skeletal systems and wooden boxes of pinned butterflies on his. The two men seem so different, Peter often wondered if their thoughts on interior design ever fueled any of their routine arguments.

 

“Er...Is this your...dad’s office?” Wade tries. The man starts to shuffle through texts on a nearby bookcase, tipping textbook after textbook on genetics and molecular encyclopedias off their shelves and onto the floor. 

 

Ben gasps from across the room, tapping at a small glass box. “He left Gwendolyne!” 

 

"Whoa, really?" Sure enough, Peter squints into the dark cage to see Dr. Warren’s prized tarantula sitting patiently inside her hole, abandoned and waiting. 

 

Wade shrieks from across the room, dropping one of Gwen’s sheds that the Doctor had pinned to a small piece of corkboard. “Ok, that’s it! I’m over it! C’mon kids, let’s get back outside before Dopinder gets another parking ticket.”

 

The man bustles them out of the office and the brothers are too stunned to fight it. They allow themselves to be led back past their room and back into unfamiliar territory. 

 

But Peter’s head is pounding . He thought it was just nerves served with a heaping dollop of panic piled on top, but it’s something infinitely more that that now. He instinctively stops in the middle of a hallway, tugging back on Wade’s gentle hold on his arm.

 

“C’mon, Peter, we’ll come back later okay? Then we can get your...whatever’s...freaky little spider friend.” 

 

Peter swallows and shakes his head furiously. The pounding has transformed into a jackhammer at the back of his skull. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Ben tense up as well, the youngest spider's breathing picking up as adrenaline starts to kick in.

 

Wade slumps, muttering something under his breath before relenting. “Fine, okay. Let’s go get Gwendolyne. But it’s going to be your responsibility. You’re not going to dupe me into changing its litterbox.”

 

Wade turns around to backtrack.

 

And Peter’s Sense explodes in his head at the same time Wade’s does. 

 

Wade immediately collapses to the floor, the gaping hole in the back of his skull leaking red into the spaces in between the white tiles. Shell-shocked, the spiders bring shaking hands up to touch the fresh spattering of blood on their faces.

 

There’s suddenly a line of people in black, heavy armor holding shields at the end of the corridor they were going down. A one-eyed man stands in front of them, reholstering a pistol into a belt under his trenchcoat. 

 

“Now, kids.” One-eye’s voice echoes from down the hall, “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

 

The armored people with riot shields crouch low in unison, and Peter catches the distinct click-clack of safeties switching off.

 

“Come quietly, or you will be in for a world of trouble.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

One, two, three, four... Nine soldiers, not counting One-eye. Rifles, handguns, tasers, shields. Ten against three. Not great, but they’ve faced worse.

 

Slowly, Peter and his brothers shift into position. They inch closer to each other and crouch to make themselves smaller targets. The tips of Peter’s fingers touch the warm river of lifeblood that’s steadily pooling out of Wade.

 

“Stand down .” One-eye warns. His hand hovers over his holster in a silent threat. 

 

The line of soldiers are blocking the way out, but the ceiling is still high enough in this part of the lab that if they’re fast enough, they could try to make a break for it over their heads. Leaving Wade behind is unfortunate, but if Peter has to choose between the safety of his brothers or a near-invincible man his choice will always be his siblings. It seems like the man’s been through worse, anyways. 

 

Peter shifts his weight to his haunches, ready to spring into action.

 

Kaine clicks his tongue once, twice. Peter’s eyes widen and he looks to his brother out of the corner of his eye. The secret language developed for when they’re unable to communicate spells out his plan; he wants to attack! Kaine’s face is deadly serious, focused hard on the threats in front of them, unaware or uncaring of his brother’s sudden surprise. Kaine clicks again, louder this time. He’s leaving no room for argument.

 

Peter wants to scream! If Kaine had any sort of Sense he’d know that he’s throwing away a perfectly viable option: getting the hell out of here! 

 

“I’m going to count to three. Get down on your bellies with your hands behind your head,” One-eye orders. 

 

“One...”

 

This is a bad idea, such a bad idea. This isn’t a training session, these guys are deadly serious. They won’t shut down automatically if things get out of hand.

 

“Two…”

 

One of the soldiers slings a large bazooka-looking gun over his shield, aiming at the spiders. Peter shrinks smaller, tensing for the eventual confrontation. If they make it out of this he’s going to absolutely kick his brother’s ass. He takes a deep breath as he watches Kaine’s fingers make slight movements against the floor, showing his attack plan. The tiny movements smudge Wade’s cooling blood around the tile in front of him.

 

“Three.”

 

The spiders split off in three directions just as the bazooka fires a wide net. The net hums with electricity as it flies over the head of Kaine, who is quickly closing the distance between himself and One-eye.

 

One-eye curses and promptly falls back behind the line, leaving Kaine to change targets and barrel into one of the men with riot shields. Peter and Ben wall run over to the formation and do the same, webbing weapons away before they can be used on Kaine. 

 

Peter and Ben then drop onto the formation. Peter bearhugs one of the soldiers around his rough kevlar middle, pushing the air out of his chest as they go tumbling into the tile. The man swings a taser rod, bringing it down towards Peter’s side, but Peter senses the attack coming and twists the rod out of the man’s hand and instead presses it against the exposed patch of skin between the man’s chestplate and helmet. 

 

The soldier goes immediately limp, twitching with electricity. Another soldier drives a boot against Peter’s ribs, kicking him off his companion and flipping the spider onto his back. Peter looks upward into the hollow stare of a gun barrel. 

 

It fires before he can completely roll himself out of the way and Peter yelps as his shoulder flares up in sharp pain. He lunges for the gun, tearing it out of the soldier’s hands hard enough that the man cries out as the bones in his fingers snap. Peter then brings a frantic hand to his pulsing shoulder expecting to draw back a palm coated in blood, but instead his fingers brush the fuzzy end of a dart lodged deep in the muscle. Oh no.

 

Yanking out the dart, he checks up on his brother’s wrestling with their own soldiers only feet away. Peter hears the piercing scream of the soldier Kaine has pinned to the corridor wall, his wrists pressing hard into the man’s ribcage. 

 

One-eye curses louder this time and all but yells into a communication device in his ear, “Bring in the suits!”

 

A foreboding rumble echoes from down the hallway, and Peter’s Sense erupts in his head to the beat of the heavy steps just around the corner. Panicked, he screeches over the cacophony of tasers crackling and men grunting that they need to leave, now.

 

But before they can do anything armored suits block their only exit. They’re massive, and their appearance immediately reminds Peter of a bulkier, more threatening version of the red-and-gold man. Covered head-to-toe in slick black metal and their faces hidden by smooth reflective black glass, everything about them screams tactical .

 

One of the new arrivals tosses One-eye another one of those bazooka net guns, and he advances. “Remember! Non-lethal measures, switch to using the Rogers-grade sedative.” One-eye orders.

 

One-eye raises the bazooka at a distracted Kaine. Peter and Ben both recognize the immediate danger their eldest brother is in, but Ben is closer. The youngest spider kicks his sparring partner away and rushes in.

 

He never gets there. Ben screams when one of the suited men stops him, wrapping a single, whole gauntlet around his face and holding him above the ground. The youngest spider scrabbles at the metal arm, his terrified screeches muffled by the glove. The armored man then activates a needle-like appendage that emerges from his free gauntlet and stabs it into Ben’s thigh. Ben’s screams reach a fever-pitch before they abruptly fade, the youngest spider suddenly going slack in the suit’s grip. 

 

Unfazed by the screeching to his right, One-eye fires the bazooka and Kaine starts to wail as well. The net only clips him, but it’s design makes it so that it constricts around anything it touches. Kaine spasms in the net, trapped, and a different suited man approaches with the same type of needle used to subdue a now eerily still Ben.

 

No, no, no nono no --

 

Peter sees red. His anguished screams blend with those of the soldiers as he cuts a wave of carnage towards One-eye. One-eye keeps his infuriatingly neutral expression as he takes a defensive stance, reloading the bazooka. Peter slings a web to slingshot himself towards the man, but his head explodes in pain when another specialized suited man socks him in the skull mid-leap.

 

Peter sees stars burst and fizzle behind his eyes, and the spider only tangentially feels his body hit the ground meters away. Pure instinct alone allows him to narrowly roll out of the way of a subsequent volley of tasers.

 

Once his vision returns Peter continues his assault, perfect fury dictating his every move. He knows Dr. Warren would frown on him for this, not retreating when you’re clearly out-manned and out-gunned, but these are his brothers! His family! 

 

He makes an animalistic cry as he charges forward, calculating all the bones he can break in this man’s body before the suited men can put a bullet in him.

 

He’s once again intercepted by another suit, batted away mid-charge. Peter feels his brain rattle around in his skull as he smacks into the corridor wall before his Sense breaks through the daze, warning him of the next danger. Dizzy, he’s unable to dodge the electrified net One-eye fires at him.

 

Humming cords wrap around his body, and it feels like his skin’s on fire wherever it touches. He writhes like a downed bird against the wall, primal instinct pleading with him to get away from the pain, but it’s impossible. The net only constricts more and more with each desperate thrash. Exhausted, Peter eventually gives up to whimper and twitch in his bindings.

 

One-eye stands up, letting out a deep exhale. He takes in the havoc wrecked in the corridor; his men holding broken arms or clutching bleeding sides, while the ones in specialized suits stand around for further instructions, virtually unharmed. 

 

Fucking hell. ” One-eye curses under his breath. He points at the spiders. “Make sure they’re properly tranq’d. I don’t want them waking up on the road.”

 

Peter renews his efforts to get out of the net when one of the suits nods and stomps over to him. An armored knee presses down onto his sternum. “Hold still,” the soldier pleads. Peter fails to hold back tears as the needle approaches his neck, keening pitifully when it pinches his skin. 

 

He failed, they failed, they’ll never get back to Dr. Connors or Dr. Warren again. They’ll never see home again. They’re goners. The hunters have them.

 

Another suit asks, “What about Wilson, Director?” 

 

One-eye makes a thoughtful noise, moving over to lightly kick at Wade’s side on the floor. The adult mutant groans, and One-eye casually draws his pistol and fires another round into the back of Wade’s head. Peter barely flinches at the noise, his world steadily going syrupy. “Wilson goes too. He’s got a few questions he needs to answer.”

 

Peter tries to focus his eyes. He seeks out his brothers in the crowd, but the world swirls and twists like a lollipop in front of him. He feels someone move him around, untangling him from the net, but he’s too tired to move or fight it. 

 

Sleep presses two insistent fingers against his eyelids. He finally sees them, Kaine and Ben, hauntingly still and lifeless across the corridor. A strangled, tragic noise fights its way out of his throat, and someone bends down to scoop him up, his limp form cradled against the cool, dark armor of a specialized suit. Peter feels his hot tears and breath fog up the metal pressing against his cheek and he finally relents, letting sleep swallow him. So be it. He doesn’t want to be here anymore. Anything to get away from here.

 

 


 

 

 

Tony bounces Morgan on his knee. 

 

The feisty four-year-old giggles, tapping away at her own tablet on the kitchen island as her father stays engrossed with his. 

 

He replays the video he’s watched hundreds of times over. He could rehearse it in his sleep at this point. Through Redwing’s lenses, he watches the kids vault and spring over obstacles like they’d been running that gauntlet their whole lives. He’s mesmerized by the way they move as one, shouting warnings and staying in loose formation like trained soldiers. Which, Tony guesses, they are, kind of. Maybe? 

 

Maria Hill has been frustratingly evasive towards the subject for the past few days. ‘It’s an ongoing investigation’ , this. ‘It’s not Avenger’s business’ , that. In all honesty, it’s driving Tony unreasonably crazy for some reason. Maybe it’s because Hill talks about a few scared kids like they’re some misplaced superweapon ? Maybe it's simply because Tony hates unanswered questions.

 

Tony’s growing anxiety makes itself known in his bouncing leg, and Morgan whines when the shaking starts to make her miss a few points on her mobile game. 

 

“Sorry, Mo.” Iron Man apologizes, planting a kiss to her hair while keeping his eyes on the video.

 

Morgan looks over to his tablet then pouts up at him. “That video again?” She complains. 

 

“Mm-hmm.”

 

“Mom said you’re trying to poke your nose into business that isn’t yours and you should stop and eat cheeseballs with me,” Morgan supplies, abandoning her game and reaching over to the nearby plate for said snack. 

 

“Did she now?”

 

Morgan pops a cheeseball in her mouth, leaning over to peer closer at Tony’s tablet. Tony tilts the screen in her direction. It’s currently playing the part where the boys are clustered around Redwing on the scaffolding, their faces clearly captured on the drone’s fisheye lens. 

 

Morgan smiles amused when the kid with short brown hair pokes at Redwing’s camera. “What are their names?” she asks.

 

“...I don’t know, Mo.” It’s another thing that Tony just feels that Hill knows and is keeping from him for some inane reason. There’s no way they don’t know, with all the documents they managed to save. 

 

Morgan deflates, frowning at the screen. 

 

“Would you...like to guess their names? We found big letters on their doors, and I’m almost positive that they’re initials.” He puts down the tablet, hoisting a laughing Morgan onto his hip as he stands up from the barstool and moves over to the coffee table. On a notepad he writes in big letters ‘K’, ‘P’, and ‘B’ split into three bins. “Once we find them and figure out their actual names, I’ll make Happy give you an extra scoop of ice cream next time we’re out if you guess any of them correctly. Deal?”

 

Morgan takes the notepad and pencil, mulling it over. “...Deal.”

 

They then spend the rest of the afternoon like that, with Morgan scribbling name after name onto the notepad. She’s determined to get it right, and she quickly amasses a few pages of name choices, no matter how definitely not name-like some of them are. Tony’s anxiety gradually ebbs as he tries to match names like ‘Pumpkin’, ‘Kandy’ and ‘Blinky’ to the stressed faces in the video.

 

The four-year-old, of course, eventually bores of the task and falls asleep watching a Disney movie, and as he cradles her against his chest as he carries her back to her room, Tony’s mind stubbornly keeps returning to the kids.

 

 


 

 

Peter wakes up surprised he’s not strapped to an examination table, pinned and flayed open like some dissected gecko Dr. Connors would have on his lab bench. He doesn’t even feel that familiar ache after a session in the testing lab, so they must have not poked or prodded at him while he was under. 

 

He instead blinks into the world on a soft cot, face sunken into a downy pillow. For a second he thinks he’s back at Wade’s apartment, but the pillow doesn’t smell at all musty or mildewy. 

 

Slowly, he sits up on the bed, examining the cell they put him in. 

 

It’s small, maybe close to a fifth of the size of his room back home, furnished with a small cot and semi-walled off bathroom in the corner. There’s a large window that looks out into the hallway, reinforced with thin bars that criss-cross through the glass, and a metal door without a handle. It reminds him of the small rooms he and his brothers got separated into whenever they needed to be reprimanded or punished. 

 

He’s also in different clothes -- a white tee and gray sweatpants, and Peter panics for a second until he sees he still has the same boxers on underneath. 

 

Then suddenly the confrontation from yesterday (Was it yesterday? How long has it been?) comes flooding back all at once. The image of Kaine and Ben, motionless and inert on the floor sears its way through his mind and Peter’s breath starts to quicken. 

 

Being alone in the cell suddenly becomes suffocating, and Peter tumbles out of the cot to rush up to the glass window. He pounds against the glass, hoping to catch someone’s attention, and that's when he notices the little black bands around his wrists.

 

Still hyperventilating, he sees that the thin metal bands are flush to his skin, both with steadily blinking green lights. He tries to force his nails under the metal to pry it off, but he yelps when it shocks him for his attempt.

 

Peter’s chest feels like its constricting, unable to get a full breath of air. He needs to see his siblings, he wants to, he has to! He scrambles back to the opposite wall, curling up into a tight ball next to the cot, trying to calm his hammering heart. He mustn't panic. 

 

Suddenly there’s a prick on his wrist and it feels like everything slows down. Lethargic, he starts to slump over just as soon as a few people in lab coats swipe their way into his room, gently easing him up and onto the cot. One of them rubs soothing circles into his back, and another talks softly to him as they check his pulse. It doesn’t calm him one bit, but the drug the band pumped into him evens his heart rate out anyways.

 

They check on him routinely after that. The prick against his skin and the sudden slackening of his muscles become annoyingly routine for the next few hours, always preceding a group of doctors stepping into his cell to take temperatures, cheek swabs, or bloodwork.

 

After the doctors have finished their basic tests, they start poking around at his mutated biology. They swivel his limp arm around, pressing at the faint outline of the silk glands visible on the underside of his forearms. It feels weird, more than weird. They poke and press around in different places trying to express the silk until an exhausted, frustrated Peter forces the lethargic muscles in his fingers to show them exactly where to press. 

 

The doctors don’t say much to him, but he slowly becomes confident that his brothers are okay and nearby. The hallway in front of his cell is alive with people carrying trays and clipboards to and fro and the nurses murmur amongst themselves, comparing their notes of the other ‘0-8-4’s to his own. They also force him to bite into a cup like Dr. Connors sometimes did, so they must know about Kaine’s secret weapon. He hopes that they found out about it the hard way.

 

After what seems like a whole day of revolving teams of doctors and nurses entering and leaving his cell, the last group leaves him a large tray of food. When he is able to move properly again, he eats in silence in the corner by the cot, dreading the moment when they get bored with the surface stuff and inevitably start with the vivisecting.

 

 


 

 

A knock jolts Peter awake. He raises his head off his knees to see One-eye standing outside the glass window of his cell. 

 

Peter wants to rush the glass, scream in the man’s face, show him he won’t go down without a fight...but he’s just so tired. He’s over it.

 

One-eye stuffs his hands in his coat pockets, disappointed at the lack of reaction. He clears his throat and talks, the sound muffled by the barrier between them. “I’ve looked over the data we got from you, you’re quite a special guy, you know that?” 

 

Peter buries his head back between his knees.

 

“Do you know who I am?” One-eye asks.

 

Peter shakes his head.

 

“My name’s Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD. Do you know what that is?”

 

“No…” Peter answers into his sweatpants.

 

“Hm.” Fury thoughtfully nods before explaining, “It stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. We deal with the unknown. Protect people from what they don’t understand.”

 

Peter shakes his head again, dread balling his stomach up in tangled knots.

 

“And you, big guy, are a big unknown.” He pokes the glass in emphasis. “You, and your friends.”

 

Peter lifts his head at the mention of his siblings, and Fury evenly meets his glare. “...What do you want from us?”

 

“We already have what we want, now we just need your cooperation.” He studies Peter’s curled form in the corner of the room before starting, “You’re Subject Three, third successful recombinant of Project CENTAUR under the direction of Doctor Miles Warren. Authorization code, Parlor.”

 

Peter’s head shoots up at his designation being read. “What?”

 

He continues, “Male, Sixty-five inches tall, 122 pounds, brown hair, blue eyes, blood type A+, just turned fourteen years old a few months ago. Is that correct?” 

 

“I...uh.” Peter swallows. “Yes, sir.”

 

“Good.”

 

Peter’s confidence somehow makes a comeback, and he croaks out. “You...You said I was an unknown but you know my name.” 

 

“I never said your name.”

 

“Su...Subject Three? That’s my name.”

 

Fury’s brows knit together just a bit, the first sign of emotion Peter’s seen from him. “The people Connors employed all called you ‘Peter’, correct?”

 

“It’s...That’s not my name, it’s just…”

 

“Do you want to be called Subject Three?”

 

Peter swallows again, and he breaks eye contact. “It doesn’t matter.”

 

Fury pushes aside his coat to rest his hands on his hips with an exhale. “Okay. Well, Peter , you’re still an unknown because we don’t understand the danger you pose, if any. We’re working to understand entirely what you three were exposed to, what you were being trained for, what Warren and Connors did to your genetic makeup, etcetera,” he explains.

 

Peter buries his head back into his knees. Voice small, he chokes out, “What’s going to happen to us?” 

 

A pause. “You’re in good hands, Peter. No one here is going to hurt you or your friends. We just need your cooperation.”

 

Peter curls into himself as tight as possible, furiously shaking his head. "I won't...I..."

 

Fury says with a finality that has Peter digging nails into his pant leg, "I'm afraid you have no choice, son."

 

And then Fury's gone, leaving Peter to shake apart on the floor of his cell.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Despair gives way to rage.

 

Peter violently ricochets off the walls. Pounds on the window. Rips the cot from where its bolted to the floor and drives it against the glass. 

 

At first they would activate the little bands around his wrists -- Peter’s number one enemies at the moment -- to drug him into calmness. But eventually someone notices that each injection only makes his next outburst more intense, and they start to let him get his frustrations out for longer and longer periods of time, only dosing him when absolutely necessary. Like when he wedges his arm through the slot in the door to tear at the pant leg of the agent that slides his breakfast to him. 

 

When the gift of movement returns to him, he slams the breakfast tray against the wall of his cell. Bacon, eggs, fruit cups and milk go splattering across the room with the impact. 

 

Peter scowls at a curious agent watching the carnage through the glass and charges them as well. He hits the window on all fours, slamming and sticking to it with a solid thunk. The agent offers him a sad, nervous smile and hurries on their way.

 

Fury had said they weren’t going to hurt him or his brothers, and although the ghost of Dr. Warren whispers that he shouldn’t trust anything the enemy says, his Sense hasn’t been any more than a low hum his entire time here. Either way, he doesn’t just want to sit patiently and wait like a good little spider for whatever these people have planned for him.

 

Out of things to bend and smash, Peter begins to web his cell up. He first starts with the door, webbing the place where door meets wall to keep intruders out. Then he anchors silk lines from floor to ceiling and starts to build a complex web, the repetitive thwipping motions of his wrists helping to ground himself. 

 

Minutes later the space strongly resembles that of Gwendolyne’s little cage, complete with a small tunnel up near the ceiling that he lines with the blanket from his cot. Peter grins triumphantly at his handiwork. Now if anyone managed to get through the door, they’d have to fight their way through his tangled web and find a way to cut him down. 

 

From his comfortable tunnel, he glares down at the fascinated agents and nurses that either linger outside his window or crane their necks as they pass by. 

 

He wonders how his brothers are doing. He can only imagine how Kaine feels right now, unable to instinctually tell if the next group of people to walk through his door are there to kill him or simply draw some blood. Dr. Warren was always harder on him due to his Senselessness -- a genetic flaw that was only perfected later in Three and Four, the Doctor had told them once -- and constantly pushed him to adapt to his brothers’ natural reflex speed. Kaine eventually conformed, easily becoming the better strategist of the three out of necessity.

 

Ben, on the other hand, is a lot more like Peter, and he guesses if his younger brother isn’t blowing off steam of his own like he is, Ben’s probably withdrawn into himself out of stress.

 

Sometime later, a woman appears in front of his window, clipboard in hand. Peter immediately tags her as important, since her appearance chases off the few employees left lingering around, just like the arrival of Dr. Warren or Connors did back home. 

 

She’s unfazed by the state of his cell, only giving the destruction a cool once-over before her eyes lock on his own peering warily down from his tunnel’s entrance near the ceiling. The woman introduces herself as Maria Hill, Deputy Director of SHIELD. She tries to ask him questions about himself, about what he likes, how he’s feeling -- all obvious attempts to get him to open up for later questioning. 

 

Peter doesn’t fall for her trap. He either ignores her or demands to see his siblings. To her credit, she stays patient with him throughout, trying to stress that he needs to cooperate so they best know how to proceed.

 

“If you want me to cooperate, I have to see my brothers!” Peter snaps from the web.

 

“Peter, I told you we can’t do that until we know more about you,” Hill reiterates, calmly. 

 

“You already know all about me! You took my data, you know my designation!”

 

Hill’s neutral expression softens, but her firm tone remains. “Yes, knowing what they did to your genetics is good, but I want to know more about you. What does Peter think about his experiences? What does Peter like to do?”

 

Peter’s whirling mind screeches to a halt. Irritation suddenly fading into confusion, he shrinks down a little in his tunnel.

 

What he thinks? Why does that matter? He thinks… He thinks this place sucks, for one. He thinks… 

 

What does he think? 

 

Hill continues, expression softening a bit more at his clear inner turmoil. She switches topics. “Okay, can Peter tell me why he did this to his room?”

 

Brows furrowing, Peter suddenly decides he doesn’t like these questions. Aside from his brothers, people never really asked for what he thinks outside of simple yes or no questions. Easy to answer. Voicing complex ideas was reserved for authority or their employer.

 

Giving her his best glare, he inches farther back so that he’s barely peeking over the lip of the tunnel. “I want my brothers,” he rebuffs.

 

Maria Hill sighs, tiredly. “It’s okay to be scared, Peter.”

 

Peter snarls, “I’m not scared.” A scared kid would be crying in the corner! Just look at what he did to his cell! They should be scared of him!

 

Hill nods, conceding that she’s getting nowhere with him at this rate. She checks her watch. “Okay. I’ll go make sure they’re bringing your lunch on up, alright?”

 

Peter doesn’t respond. He disappears into his web, curling up against the blanket in the deepest part of the tunnel. 

 

He’s not scared.

 

He’s not.

 


 

Fury slows down his stride when he hears the click-clack of Hill’s flats catching up behind him. 

 

“How are they?” He asks.

 

“Not great,” she sighs. “Kaine’s refusing food, Peter’s lashing out, and Ben’s hidden himself away under his bed.”

 

“Any new info?” 

 

“No.”

 

“What about Wilson?”

 

Hill adjusts the clipboard in her hands, flipping back a few pages. “He’s talking, but he insists on seeing ‘his kids’. He did mention that they did kill him at least once, as well one incident of grievous bodily harm. The toxicology report on Wade’s vomit at the site perimeter also came back positive for Kaine’s specific hemotoxin.” 

 

“Hmm.” He allows himself a smirk at the mental image of the man puking his guts out into a dirty trashcan. “Speaking of which, how is Dr. Grant?”

 

“She’s recovering, we were lucky that standard antivenoms held off tissue degeneration until we could jury-rig a proper antidote.”

 

Fury nods, pausing in front of a locked metal door. “I’ll go talk to Wilson later. Is Stark still trying to contact you?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I’ll talk to him later, too, then. He’s putting his heart ahead of that big brain of his.” 

 

Director Fury holds his SHIELD identicard up to the scanner, and steps alone into the interrogation room when it clunks open. Fury waits for the door to clang closed, the lock shunking back into place. The Director pauses, leveling an even stare at the man handcuffed to the table. 

 

Curtis Connors looks up from his place at the metal table, the thick metal collar around his neck blinking green rhythmically. 

 

“Hello again, Doctor Connors.”

 

Curtis laughs grimly, shifting his gaze to the side and down. He rattles his handcuffs, holding his only hand out on the table palm-up. Connors winces as the collar delivers its small, routine dose of enhancement-blocking drug.

 

“Tell me about the lab.”

 

“I’ve already told you about the lab.”

 

“Tell me again.”

 

Connors draws out a long sigh. He winces in pain once more as the collar activates again. The disgraced biologist points to the collar. “...The kids aren’t wearing these, are they?” 

 

Fury cocks his head, feigning ignorance. “Kids?”

 

Curtis searches the Director’s face, scowling. “Don’t play me for an idiot, Fury. Your people are painfully thorough when they want to be,” he hisses.

 

Unshaken, Fury nods. “We have them,” he simply says. 

 

Some of the tension leaves the man’s shoulders. He takes a deep breath, “Are they alright?”

 

“Relatively speaking.”

 

A pause. Fury pulls out the chair opposite of Connors and sits down across from him. “Would you like to tell me about them, instead?” Fury digs around in his pocket for two pieces of paper, unfolding them out on the table.

 

Connors looks between two pictures taken from his desk during the raid. He touches the one of his own family, running a stray finger across his son’s face. 

 

“Keeping a picture of imprisoned children next to a picture of your own child?” Fury questions, “How do you rationalize that?”

 

Connors says nothing. The disgraced biologist picks up his family’s photo to clutch in his one-armed embrace.

 

Fury continues. “What were you training them for?”

 

“Project CENTAUR required it. You of all people should know that. We’ve been over this.”

 

“Project CENTAUR doesn’t mention children. You and Warren just used it as an excuse to carry on with a sick pet project.”

 

Connors growls deep in his throat, his eyes yellowing just a bit too much. The collar flashes red and delivers another injection with a beep. “Warren is a shrewd, cruel man. His ambitions are far beyond my own. I was merely there as a mutagenic expert. I had no desire to toy with the lives of children, but the progression of science is often not without the need of a necessary evil.”

 

Fury tents his hands in front of his face. “You were an active participant, though. You can’t deflect your obvious compliance with an unauthorized genetic experiment with platitudes about scientific progress.”

 

“Compliance is subjective. I would like to stress that it was often I that protected the kids from being subjected to Warren’s more sadistic ideas.” 

 

“This whole situation seems sadistic, though, wouldn’t you agree?” 

 

Connors glowers at the Director from across the table. The collar blinks red and activates again.

 

“I have a question for you, good doctor,” Fury taps at the kids’ photo on the table, pointing to each of them. “Subject Two, Subject Three, Subject Four. Where is Subject One?”

 

Connors regards the picture, an unreadable expression on his face. 

 

“...Science also often takes a few tries to perfect.”

 

Connors shuffles in his chair, his countenance shifting into something akin to uncomfortable, and he adds after a pause, “I was as kind as I could be to the kids within the given circumstances. They’re good kids. Powerful, eager to please, obedient. The only thing Warren and I could ever seem to agree on is that they have boundless potential.”

 

‘Boundless potential’ my ass,” Fury growls. “You weren’t raising these kids to be goddamn astronauts or accountants or teachers someday. You and Warren had one outcome in mind, to shape these damn children into living, specialized weapons and have some fun publishing some papers along the way.” 

 

The doctor slams his hand down on the table, straightening up in his seat to get in the Director’s face. “We did as told! And the scientific discoveries we were making were for the good of collective knowledge!” Connors jerks in his bindings. “We succeeded in replicating thrice over what you’ve been too scared to try again since 1943. And we’ve just handed them to you. Dropped them into your slimy lap.”

 

Connors’ forked tongue flicks out between gritted teeth and the collar beeps. If anything, you should be thanking ussss.

 

 


 

 

Tony yelps as a resistor backfires in his hand, sparking electricity from the mangled remains of the Iron Armor chestplate.

 

DUM-E helpfully hands him a pair of insulated gloves. 

 

“No, no.” He takes the gloves, shaking them in front of the robot. “These are too thick of a material. I’m dealing with intricate stuff here.” He tosses the offered gloves aside.

 

DUM-E beep-woos affirmatively.

 

It’s been close to a week and a half since the siege, and although the man tries to think about other things, he inevitably stays awake at night wondering about the kids in the underground lab. Pepper jokes that it’s his parental instincts kicking in, and Tony tries to smile when she insists that SHIELD can handle it, but he just…

 

He worries. 

 

Maria Hill doesn’t pick up his phone calls anymore, and Fury had finally called him two days ago to essentially tell him to fuck off and stop worrying about it, that the investigation is ongoing and he would be updated accordingly. 

 

Tony starts to hammer his anxieties away on another piece of the chestplate. “Sue me for thinking that a military organization isn’t the best equipped to deal with a few kids!” He complains to no one in particular.

 

DUM-E trills in confusion.

 

“I mean look at me.” He turns in his chair, gesturing with the hammer to himself, “I’m Iron Man, kids love me.”

 

He spares a look at the video absently replaying across the workstation on a holo. The brown, short-haired kid taps at the screen with a broken look on his face, the same expression reflected on the kids beside him. 

 

Tony goes back to hammering the alloy back into shape. “I mean, if anything I just want to apologize for spooking them! Y’know?”

 

“I know what?” 

 

Tony startles as Clint Barton strides into the workshop, and he drops his hammer. “ Shit, Barton!”

 

“Heeey, no naughty words! Isn’t there a little monster around here now that you have to be a role model for or something?” Hawkeye strides to the corner of the center workbench, searching for something.

 

“Dad duties have been temporarily relieved, Morgan’s with Pepper’s parents this weekend.” Tony spins around in his chair, watching Barton wander the space. “You here for the bow upgrade? I’ve been pretty busy lately so I haven’t gotten to it.”

 

“Oh, nah. I’m here to see Redwing. Sam won’t shut up about how sad he is over his ‘death’. Never seen a man so torn up about a robot.” 

 

Tony waves a hand. “End of the bench, beside the gauntlet,” he directs.

 

Clint whistles, picking up the drone. It’s wings dangle by lone wires from the main body in his hand. “Who did this?”

 

Not looking up from the chestplate, the billionaire points to the holo.

 

“Huh.” Clint studies the video, crossing his arms and bringing a hand to cup his mouth. “...Oh, are these the new 0-8-4s?”

 

Tony’s head snaps up. “The what?”

 

“The...0-8-4s… Uh, what SHIELD clearance level do you have again?”

 

“I don’t have any clearance.”

 

Hawkeye’s eyes blow wide. He swiftly turns to leave.

 

“Hey, no! ” Tony jumps up and blocks his hasty exit. “What are you saying?”

 

Hawkeye, the marksman famed for being still enough to hit targets as small as a grain of rice, fidgets nervously in front of Tony. 

 

“Tell me, what’re you saying? Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” Tony pauses for an answer that doesn’t come. “Because if you’re saying what I think you’re saying that means -- “

 

Hawkeye groans, “Here we go.”

 

“ -- SHIELD has the kids? Is that what you’re saying?”

 

“...I overheard it at a recent office party I was invited to,” Hawkeye grumbles, “I’m not completely sure, but someone definitely called one of them ‘cute’. I’ve never heard of an 0-8-4 being a living thing, but I don’t know many people in SHIELD that would call an object filed under that number adorable .”

 

Tony musses a hand through his hair, smearing grease through his locks. “They told me they’d update me. When did this happen? Why’re they classified under that number?”

 

“I don’t know, probably because they’re dangerous, Stark.”

 

They’re kids!

 

Hawkeye unhelpfully shrugs, looking everywhere but at the billionaire. 

 

“Did Rogers know about this? Where are they?”

 

“Maybe! I don’t know!” Hawkeye tries to shimmy past the man. “ Please don’t tell anyone I told you anything.”

 

Where are they?

 

“All 0-8-4s get sent to the Fridge, okay! Happy now?”

 


 

Tony tries to control his emotions as he barrels through the air in a spare suit. The soldiers guarding the only entrance to the spire-like building march out to greet the billionaire that lands with a resounding, threatening boom on their rooftop landing pad. They raise their automatic weapons in warning.

 

Minutes later, out of the suit, Tony is marched through the hallways of the Fridge, SHIELD’s main storage and detention facility since the HYDRA uprising. Every floor they pass is nauseatingly the same; sleek white walls punctuated by strips of fluorescent lighting, with the occasional vault door or small room. 

 

The soldiers at his back eventually lead him to a busier floor, and doctors and agents alike send him confused glances as they hurry by. This floor is more populated with small rooms and cells, likely reserved for inmates that don’t require the use of the Icebox further below. Newfound irritation flares up like a bonfire in Iron Man as he imagines Fury putting the kids in these tiny cells.

 

The soldiers at his back continue to march him down the hallway, and suddenly there’s a familiar red figure that presses up against a cell’s glass window at the sight of him. Tony has to do a double-take at Deadpool waving happily to him as he strides closer. 

 

“Tone-ster! Man am I glad to see you! I’ve been arrested!”

 

“What else is new,” the billionaire grits out through clenched teeth.

 

“Oh, fair, but no one’s given me my one phone call or anything! They won’t even let me see my babies!”

 

Tony balks, “Your what? ” 

 

A sharp, authoritative voice echoes from down the hall, halting Iron Man’s thought process. “ Stark! ” Maria Hill stomps her way towards him. “What the hell are you doing here?”

 

Tony clenches his fists at his side. “You tell me! When were you going to tell me?!”

 

“Tell you what , Stark?!”

 

“The kids!”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Hill cooly bites out. “It’s an ongoing investi --”

 

Don’t -- !” Tony takes a sharp, deep breath. “Don’t give me that crap. I’ll put on a suit and tear this place apart if I have to.” 

 

A deeper voice answers from somewhere behind Tony. “You’d be flat on your ass before you even had the chance to flip that faceplate down.” Iron Man spins around to see Nick Fury push through the small squad that was guiding him through the facility. “You’ve been a real pain in the ass lately, Stark.”

 

“Oh, yeah? I distinctly remember that you promised me that you were going to give me updates on the kids, and I think that them being held in a fucking prison is a pretty substantial development that I was not made immediately aware of,” Tony snaps.

 

“We don’t know what you’re talking about -- “ Maria starts again, but Fury holds up his hand, stopping her.

 

Fury levels an indifferent look at Iron Man from his single eye. “...We didn’t tell you because it’s frankly, none of your goddamn business. Never was.”

 

“I think I’m well within my right to worry about the caliber of childcare that SHIELD provides. Let them go.”

 

“Let them go where , Stark?” Fury barks, anger creasing his features. “Release is not possible.”

 

“They’re just kids!" Tony pleads, blind rage licking at the edge of his mind. 

 

Fury straightens. “No, they’re not ‘just kids’. They’re genetically engineered soldiers! Organic capekillers.”

 

His eyes widen at the mention of capekillers, the robotic, tactical suits that he’d made for SHIELD in the wake of the now-defunct Superhuman Registration Act years ago. The suits were meant to restrain superhumans who did not comply, but they were also obviously able to, if need be, put down threats too dangerous to just keep around. 

 

Tony gulps, and the ghost of the sharp object prying, ripping away the chestplate of his armor starts to weigh heavy on his chest. “So what? What are you going to do, then? Hm?”

 

Fury breaks eye contact, shakes his head and starts to stalk further down the hall. Deadpool calls a muffled ‘bye!’ from where he was listening intently to the conversation cross-legged from behind his window. Tony and Hill loosely follow the director, the escorting squad falling away to return back to their original posts.

 

“I’m just as upset about it as you are, Stark, but all they’ve known is the lab. SHIELD is planning to continue that. We have the resources to house them, and our best designers are in the process of setting up a permanent home for them at Headquarters.” Fury takes a deep breath. “We will give them stability, and given time and further training, they could become good operatives.”

 

Appalled, Tony jogs in front of the Director to stop him. “No, no! These are children you’re talking about! They don’t deserve to be secret soldiers! How is your plan any different than what those people in the lab have done?”

 

Fury scowls, “You’re failing to see the forest through the trees, Stark. I’m just trying to be rational about this. You haven’t met these kids for more than a minute, you don’t know what it is we’re dealing with here.” The Directors tone rises in volume, driving his point home. “Should I mention that they put close to a dozen of my finest agents out of action within two minutes, all of which had to be hospitalized and one still in critical condition? They’re poorly socialized, highly trained, genetically engineered superhuman teenagers that will continue to get bigger and stronger! I would not be acting in the best interest of the public SHIELD is supposed to protect if I released them into the world simply because they still have a little bit of baby fat on their cheeks.”

 

Fury glares down at the billionaire. “This isn’t your problem for once, Stark. We’re done here.”

 

Tony feels Maria Hill grip his elbow, intent on leading him away. “Time to go, Tony.”

 

Tony resists, tugging back on Hill’s grip. Tony tries to get his whirling mind under control, and he finally blurts out without much forethought, “Wait! What if...you let me take care of them.”

 

The Director quirks an eyebrow at him. 

 

Tony quickly explains. “Er…Well, not just me. The Avengers. I mean, superhuman kids, superhuman adults?” The billionaire waves his hands around. “It could work.”

 

Fury continues to stare, his head slightly cocked to the side as if he’s mulling it over. Maria shifts her hold on his elbow, tugging lightly trying to get his attention, but he doesn’t feel it. Tony’s entered a tense staring contest with Fury, a strange feeling knotting itself uncomfortably in his chest for the kids. He’s not sure why these words are spilling out of his mouth.

 

Tony continues, pleading tone coating his voice. “They deserve to have a chance to be normal kids.”

 

Fury huffs a disbelieving laugh at that, stuffing his hands in his coat pockets before finally saying, “You really don’t know what you’re asking.”

 

“I’m serious,” Iron Man chokes out. 

 

“These are born capekillers, Stark. I can’t guarantee that they won’t constantly be at your throat.”

 

Tony once again feels the ghost of his chestplate peeling back farther and farther and... He forces back a swallow and smiles, “I’ll just not wear the suit. And hey, Pepper already tries to bite my head off on the daily, can’t be any worse than that.”

 

Fury huffs again, breaking eye-contact. The Director nods, “Okay.”

 

Maria’s eyes blow wide. She whispers harshly, “ Nick -- !

 

Fury interrupts, “Now wait, I have a few conditions.” He brings a hand to stroke his goatee. “...I'll relinquish the boys to the New Avengers facility upstate. There, you will have a limited amount of time to get them socialized and prepared for normal society. If they don’t acclimate, or if they cause an incident that results in either an Avenger or a member of the public getting injured, you will be obligated to return them into SHIELD custody.”

 

Tony exhales. “What’s the time limit?”

 

Fury takes a second to respond. “...Six months. Give or take.”

 

Now that’s just not fair, Tony wants to say. Six months to reverse likely a lifetime of trauma? But arguing any further would probably make Fury back out of the deal, so he relents. “I can do that.”

 

Hill seems miffed at this sudden shift in plans, her brows furrowed and glancing between them.

 

Fury smirks amused at Tony. “Well, Iron Man, let’s go meet your new wards.”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

During the elevator ride to the floor the boys are on Fury gives him a quick rundown on what they know so far.

 

Their DNA, apparently, looks like a patchwork quilt. Roughly half spider genes, give or take a few nucleotides. And so because of that genetic meddling they're able to produce webs and can stick to surfaces in ways that SHIELD hasn’t had the time or the cooperation from the boys to find out yet. That, along with super-strength, an elevated healing factor, enhanced senses, enhanced reflexes, and a ‘crockpot of other shit’, as Director Fury says.

 

So essentially, they have everything you could possibly want if you were to, y’know, fucking build-a-bear a few supersoldiers in your basement.

 

But as he stands in front of the first few cells, a tiny voice in the back of Tony’s mind starts to agree with the Director when he said he has absolutely no idea what he’s getting into, the whispers trying to scratch and scrape pieces of his current resolve away. 

 

"You weren't kidding with the spider genes," Tony murmurs, eliciting a smirk from the Director. He's so used to seeing them on the video using their silk to swing and capture that he didn't think that they took the theme as far as building actual webs.

 

The first cell Fury shows him is sparse and clean, with only a few empty trays piled in the middle of the room, and it looks like there’s no sign of the kid until Tony notices the intricate mass of the sticky substance they used to escape Redwing consuming half of the bed in the corner. At the far end of the bed, there’s a barely visible entrance in the webbing that opens into a tunnel underneath. 

 

“That’s Ben,” Fury points to the shifting figure just barely concealed within the thick mats of semi-transparent silk, “He’s the youngest, and all things considered, the best behaved out of the three.”

 

The second cell has Tony reeling, it’s a complete 180 compared to the first. The small room is trashed , with food splattered all over the floor and walls, the bed frame overturned and warped, and the mattress torn nearly in half. It’s also covered top to bottom in wild mats of webbing, with a similar entrance tucked up near the ceiling.

 

“This is Peter,” the Director says, directing his attention to the hidden lump that hangs low further in the web nest. “He’s probably sleeping. Likely tired himself out after his tantrum this morning.” Tony reaches out to run light fingertips along the minute cracks in the bulletproof glass that spiderweb outward from multiple impacts. 

 

“And finally, this one is Kaine,” Fury says, standing in front of an open cell. Tony tears himself away from the carnage of the previous room and strides over to stand in the threshold. 

 

A group of people in scrubs crouch over a tranquilized boy on the bed. A small feeding tube trails out of the kid’s propped-open mouth, and an attending nurse slowly pushes down on the plunger of formula.

 

“He’s refusing to eat and drink.” Fury explains after a concerned Tony steps inside to get a better look. “According to the recovered documents, they have massive metabolisms and start to drop weight after two days of no calorie intake.”

 

The people in scrubs part a little bit to allow Tony to see the teen on the bed. He’s lanky, with his cheeks slightly sunken in, and Tony notes the many light scars running across his face and down his neck and chest until the pale flesh disappears under the shirt collar. His eyes are scrunched up, grimacing in pain or fear even while sedated. A nurse runs a gloved thumb over his cheek in a soothing motion.

 

“How long have they been here?” Tony asks. 

 

“A little over four days.” Fury answers, leaning on the doorframe. “We captured them when they returned to the lab.”

 

”They went back?”

 

”Why wouldn’t they? I told you, the lab is all they know. For all intents and purposes, it’s their home. They would have gone back eventually.”

 

Tony searches the kid’s face once again and another emotion suddenly becomes apparent in the kid's expression. There, mixed in with the fear and pain: extreme stress. Stress at suddenly being in a new environment, not understanding what’s happening, and surrounded by strangers that suddenly want to put their hands all over you. It’s the same type of look that’s displayed so prominently on Redwing’s video, burned like a brand into his mind.

 

“Why aren’t you putting them together? Like how they were in the lab?” Tony asks. “Do they even know they’re in the same building as each other?”

 

“I think they have a good enough idea. And they’re not housed together at the moment purely for the safety of my staff, as well as their own. You saw the state of Peter’s room, the cracks forming on the glass. Imagine that times three and you’ve got yourself three very angry, very defensive, superhumans running through the halls,” Fury argues. 

 

Well yeah, I don’t blame them, Tony is about to say, but he’s snapped out of his thoughts when the kid makes a weak, disorientated noise. The nurses quickly spring into action, carefully removing the tube from his throat once the rest of the formula disappears and hurrying Tony out of the room. The last agent to leave takes the forgotten trays of uneaten food with him.

 

The cell door locks with an affirmative beep, and the two men absently watch as the teenager starts to stir on the mattress. 

 

“This one,” Fury begins by tapping the glass window, “Has the most interesting enhancements out of the three. Along with the webs and adhesive abilities, he also has two bone-like protrusions that he can extend from his wrists. And if that wasn’t enough, the big guy’s venomous.”

 

Fury levels an even stare at the billionaire as he continues, carefully neutral. “Clever little bastard clamped down on one of my best doctors and wouldn’t let go, pumping her with upwards of about 30cc worth of venom in one bite. She hit the floor immediately, Stark.”

 

“It sounds like you’re trying to make me back out of this.”

 

“I’m just trying to show you what you’re getting yourself into,” Fury reasons, calmly. “Don’t you have a toddler at home to protect?”

 

Iron Man shakes his head in disagreement. “They’re just scared, confused kids. They wouldn’t…They wouldn’t hurt Morgan.”

 

Fury’s brow creases. “The problem is, Stark, you don’t know that. You saw Wade, right? They already killed him once, maybe twice. Hell, they came extremely close to killing you.” 

 

“But they didn’t. They’re not mindless killing machines,” Tony argues. “They were acting in self-defense.”

 

Fury sighs, long and frustrated. “One last chance, Tony. SHIELD is more than willing to give these kids a stable, healthy environment to grow up in.”

 

Tony contemplatively stares into the tiny cell. The kid inside is slightly gagging, the ghost of the feeding tube still lingering in his throat. When the sedative completely wears off, he finally notices the pair of men standing outside his cell window and he promptly stiffens, pulling his limbs towards his body defensively and pressing himself into the corner where bed meets wall. There, he curls into a tight ball while keeping a keen eye on them from behind strands of long, unkempt hair falling into his face. 

 

Morgan’s safety is important, of course... but what if the scraggly-looking kid scowling at them right now was her? If it was his kid, could Tony let himself condemn her to a life within a secret military organization? Could he really allow himself to leave these three here to grow up under the thumb of a man who believes he’s turning lemons into lemonade by taking advantage of whatever messed-up shit those people in the lab did to these kids? What would Morgan think of him if he did?

 

She’d hate him, Tony thinks, she’d absolutely hate him. And he would too, he realizes. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself, abandoning children to the government’s whims while he goes home to hug his own child. Tony knows that if he did, he would always have that image of three broken faces poking at the camera lens etched into his mind like an epithet on a tombstone.

 

“I told you, Fury, I’m serious about this.” 

 

The Director hangs his head over his chest and rests his hands on his hips. “Alright, whatever you say. I sincerely hope that you will have your daughter’s best interests in mind and not act too rash too quickly with the boys. There’s still a lot we don’t know about them.”

 

Fury taps at the glass of the cell, eliciting a subtle twitch from Kaine curled up on the bed. With a sigh, the Director motions for Tony to backtrack with him down the hall. “SHIELD will ready a transport for them in the morning. I expect a suitable space will be set up for them by then, correct?”

 

“Yeah. Of course.” he huffs. Tony checks his watch and suddenly experiences the familiar feeling of his chance to get a full night’s sleep swirling down the drain. 

 

Fury curtly nods. “Good.” He pushes Iron Man into the elevator. And as the doors close, he adds. “See you then.”

 


 

Tony works through the night on the top floor of the Avengers compound, super-proofing it. He installs a new security system, clears out a few rooms of desks and chairs to make three bedrooms, and even has a very unhappy Happy take a midnight drive to the nearest retailer to pick up extra supplies.

 

In all honesty, it feels exactly like what he and Pepper did in preparation for Morgan but in fast-forward. 

 

Speaking of Morgan...

 

While coding the last bits of the AI that will monitor the boys’ floor, he hesitantly turns his smartphone over and around in his hand in contemplation.

 

They’re just kids. Nothing could happen. He can trust his gut on this... He wants to trust his gut on this...

 

His gaze drifts over to the mangled chestplate over on the opposite workbench...

 

After a few rings, a tired voice crackles on the other end of the line. “Tony...?”

 

”Hi Peps, sorry it’s so late,” he apologizes. There’s an awkward pause as he adjusts to cradle the phone between his ear and shoulder so he can continue typing. “How’s Mo?”

 

Pepper yawns into the receiver. “She’s fine. She’s just sleeping, like how you should be right now. What’s this about?”

 

“Can you...keep Morgan at your parents for a while longer?”

 

“...Okay, why?”

 

He absently taps at a random key on the keyboard a few times, trying to find the words. “Er...well, I...”

 

”Is it Avengers business again?”

 

”No, no. Not really. Er…Well, maybe it is now,” he says amused. 

 

She huffs into the receiver, and when she speaks again there’s an undercurrent of affection in her annoyed groan, “So what’s so important to wake me up at 4 AM on a Sunday morning?”

 

“You know those kids we found in that secret laboratory a week ago? That you were on me to stop worrying about?”

 

A confirming noise.

 

”I...may have shown up unannounced to a SHIELD facility and convinced Fury to let me take care of them at the compound.” 

 

Silence. Tony continues to code away because if he stops, the quiet might become unbearable and the weight of this rash decision would crush him in an instant.

 

Pepper, bewildered, breaks the tense quiet. “Wh...So, what does that mean? You’ve adopted them?”

 

No! Noooo!” Tony’s quick to deny. “One kid is enough, more than enough. I just...I couldn’t leave them there, Pep. I just want to help them adjust to life outside until we can find something more...permanent. Preferably somewhere that isn’t a secret military institution.”

 

“Are they dangerous? Is that why you’re asking me not to come home with Morgan?”

 

“No, they’re not...Well…” Tony stammers, “They’re definitely different . But it’s nothing we can’t handle.” Just in case , that little voice in the back of Tony’s mind whispers, scratching away, I want to keep her away just in case .

 

Pepper blows a tense breath through her nose. “...Okay, I’ll keep her here for another week or so, but I want you to tell me when you decide things like this in the future. Am I the last one to know about this?”

 

“Far from it,” Tony breathes. Telling the team will be interesting, to say the least. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”

 

Pepper laughs, tiredly but sweet. “It is tomorrow. Love you. Stay safe.”

 

Tony responds in kind, and gets back to work.

 


 

Early the next morning, he’s finally putting the finishing touches on the boys’ floor when Happy comes rushing out of the elevator and into the living room area. 

 

“Boss,” Happy pants, trying to catch his breath. “They’re on the landing pad.”

 


 

Nick Fury stands on the asphalt, standard coat flapping around as the SHIELD blackjet’s rotary motors kick up a whirlwind. 

 

A disheveled Tony rushes out to greet the Director, dressed in grease-stained sweatpants and shirt that reflect the long night he just had. “Hey, how are they? Where are they?”

 

Fury directs his attention to the jet. Maria Hill lingers near the lowering cargo ramp with a stack of manila folders in hand, overseeing a few agents who disappear inside the belly of the vehicle.

 

Slowly, one-by-one, the kids file out of the blackjet and down the ramp. They’re handcuffed by the black bands on their wrists, and each has their own agent escorting them by the elbow towards Tony and the Director.

 

When they’re marched to stand in front of them, Tony sees that the boys all barely pass his chin in height, and their mops of hair whip around as the rotary motors start to finally power down, especially the long-haired kid’s -- Kaine , he remembers. In fact, it looks like the big guy’s swaying on his feet. They all do.

 

“They’re mildly sedated for trip purposes,” Hill informs him as she approaches. “It should wear off in another ten minutes or so. Do you remember their names?” She doesn’t wait for him to answer, he’s barely able to make an offended noise about SHIELD drugging kids. “Peter, Ben, Kaine,” she gestures to them as she hands Tony each corresponding manila folder. “All their information, biometrics, etcetera is in there. As well as what we know of the situation they came from, for reference.”

 

Tony flips through one of the folders, and can’t help but notice how much text is blacked out from the ‘situation’ part of the file. But before he can make a comment about it Fury speaks up.

 

“You heard her, ten minutes left on the clock. Let’s get them inside. Tony?”

 

He flips the folder closed, tucking all three protectively under one arm. For a brief moment, he draws his searching gaze over the relaxed faces blearily blinking in the sunlight like they aren’t used to such raw brightness. “Yeah. Sure, come on.”

 


 

The elevator ride to the boys’ floor is tense, awkward, and packed. It seems like there’s an unspoken agreement to give the boys as much space as possible, and so all the adults get pressed to the back of the elevator wall. Tony feels the armored vest of the soldier beside him dig painfully into his ribcage.

 

Tony notices they’re starting to blink and squint at things now. They idly gazed at things as they were led through the compound’s main foyer, so they must be quickly shaking off the effects of whatever sedative SHIELD gave them. He’s definitely going to have a talk with Fury about that later, drugging can’t possibly be good for their sense of safety. 

 

Tony’s impatiently watching the numbers on the elevator climb when he finally registers the boy with short brown hair, Peter, staring up at him with an odd sort of intensity. When baby-blue eyes meet dark brown the kid smiles, his freckled cheeks dimpling at the action. Tony, naturally, smiles back, and in turn the kid’s smile grows even brighter, crinkling the edges of his half-lidded eyes.

 

Huh. Okay. He must be happy to be out, that’s good. 

 

Eventually the elevator stops and the handcuffed kids are gently led out onto their new, top floor home. They pad down the hallway that stretches from the elevator to the living room, flanked on the side by three separate, basic yet fully-furnished bedrooms. The living room is essentially a shallow pit, where comfy couches and a low coffee table now rest where a long conference table once sat, and a few bookshelves and a single flat screen are pressed up against the wall. There’s also a small kitchen tucked in one of the corners, separated from the rest of the living room by a marble breakfast bar.

 

Nick Fury frowns a bit as he strides to the large windows overlooking the compound’s track and field area. He knocks at the glass. “This doesn’t seem secure, Tony. What if they want to escape?”

 

“That glass is Rogers-proof. And besides, they’ll like it here so much they won’t even think about running away,” Tony shrugs. 

 

Fury gives a non-committal hum, clearly not convinced.

 

The agents holding the boys ease them into the living space, just hovering in the threshold where hallway meets living room. The three take in the space with brightening eyes, their movements much more sturdy and sure than they were a few minutes ago. Tony’s not sure if he should wait until they’re completely out of it to begin, but when the blond kid starts to inspect his handcuffed wrists with that painfully familiar, broken look on his face the choice is made for him.

 

“I want to uncuff them. I don’t want restrained kids under my roof, it’s not right,” Tony says. 

 

Fury seems to contemplate this for a second before nodding. He digs a slick black card out of his trenchcoat pocket and tosses it to him. “Tap that against the bracelets and they’ll demagnetize.”

 

Tony palms the credit-card sized piece of silicon in his hand and walks over to one of the kids. The agents holding the kids fall away to stand at attention a few feet away as he approaches. He picks the closest one, Peter, who is back to staring at him with that strange sort of intensity again, no longer smiling.

 

“Hey there, little man, let’s get you free, okay?”

 

Tony gingerly nudges the kid's forearm to encourage him to lift his wrists up, and the boy silently obliges. Peter hasn’t so much as shifted his hard gaze from the billionaire’s face.

 

Tony touches the card against the black bands. Be-beep. Tak. The bands separate but the individual cuffs don’t fall away from the boy’s wrists. 

 

Tony smiles when he sees the kid experimentally flex his hands. “There, now let’s do your frien --”

 

Crack!

 

With a sickening snap, Tony feels his nose cave inwards, and all hell breaks loose.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Peter finds himself drifting in and out of wakefulness within his safe web-tunnel.

 

It’s hard to tell exactly how long he’s been captive. This place is not like home where the lights to the spiders’ room would be switched off around the same time every day. No, this awful place seems to be always bustling with activity; the constant flow of people by his window never seems to stop or slow down. The hallway lights are always on, spilling bright fluorescence into his cell, but that wouldn’t be a problem if his cell’s automatic lights that dim after however many minutes of stillness brighten again at even the tiniest bit of movement.

 

It has to have been at least two or three days though, because the milk he spilled all over the cell floor from his first breakfast tray is starting to smell funny to his enhanced nose. Someone tried to enter his cell to clean the mess up earlier, but the webbing gluing the door in place held fast. 

 

When he does sleep, he dreams only of the lab. Of home. Honey-gold memories of wrestling with his brothers on the floor of their room, catching flying drones in his hands as they zig-zag through the obstacle course, and feeling Dr. Connors lazily card calloused fingers through Peter’s curly hair after he performed particularly well in training flicker like home movies behind his eyes, only to be ripped away whenever someone with exceptionally heavy footfalls makes their way past his room. Rosy visions of his room’s white walls melt away to the gunmetal gray of the cell’s, the hue reminding him of the soot clinging to the lab’s ceiling, his skin, and it makes the reason he’s in this awful place come flooding back into Peter’s waking mind once again.

 

 “I hate this place!” he snaps at Maria Hill after she comes back for another round of her useless questions. He drives a fist against the glass to emphasize his point, hiding his wince when the pain lances up to his shoulder. He repeats for what feels like the millionth time, “I want to see my brothers!”

 

His voice warbles dangerously, and he has to tear his glare away from Hill when his eyes start to burn. He can’t panic, never panic. Dr. Warren hates it when he trembles like a scared child over stupid things like this. He’s stronger than that, he has to be stronger than that. This is probably the longest he’s gone without seeing them, he’s strong!

 

His lip wobbles for a split second before he forces those unwanted emotions down and turns them into a vicious attack on the cot’s mattress. He makes sure Hill can see when he starts to bodily tear it in two, ripping handfuls of springs and stuffing out onto the messy floor. 

 

Hill keeps trying to ask stupid questions, but he’s over it. They know all the important stuff, she’s just wasting her time asking him about his feelings or whatever. And even if he felt chatty, he wouldn’t want to talk about the lab or Connors or Warren because it only serves as a painful reminder of how well and truly trapped he is.

 

The anxiety in his stomach churns dangerously again and he retreats back to the safety of his tunnel, ending the interrogation. 

 

It’s many hours later when he’s once again dragged out of sleep by a commotion at his cell door, and he crawls out onto the ceiling to peek. 

 

The door lurches and shudders, trying to open despite the thick coating of webbing. There’s a few people outside his window, and he spots Hill in the crowd when she knocks on the glass and kindly asks for him to remove the silk. 

 

He cracks an eyebrow up at her. Seriously? No way.

 

An exceptionally violent lurch of the door nearly startles him off the ceiling, and it creaks open just enough for a knife to force itself into the space between the door and wall.

 

Peter spots the intrusion and lifts his wrist to web the door closed again, but whoever controls his little bracelets is faster. Peter collapses bonelessly to the floor, his ribs and head aching at the impact. He’s completely powerless as he watches the blade slowly cut the door free.

 

People start to stream into his personal space. Someone briefly checks over him where he lays, mumbling apologies, before he’s flipped over and something sharp presses its way into the meat of his shoulder blade. 

 

He doesn’t remember much after that. His head feels floaty, and every time he shakes it his world lags a bit, struggling to catch up. It feels like the few blissful moments before he was completely asleep when he was put under for a testing session back home. It feels funny. He smiles. 

 

Hours or minutes later, Peter’s first truly coherent thought is that there’s tiny rocks digging painfully into his bare feet -- ow -- and that it’s very windy and bright -- double ow. Lots of people talk around him, but he can’t put meaning to the words.

 

Next thing he knows is he’s being led through a huge glass building alongside his brothers. Someone’s grip on his arm keeps him from getting closer to them, and that simple denial of contact allows renewed frustration to swirl into an angry typhoon in Peter’s head.

 

Thankfully, he’s able to press up against his brothers’ warm bodies in the elevator as more of his mind returns to him. But the contact is no more than a weak balm for the latent hurricane of emotions starting to whirl inside him. They drugged him, Peter gathers, they’ve drugged him and taken him to another place. Is this a good place? Probably not, he’s cuffed. 

 

The only unfamiliar adult in the elevator with them is making a racket with his heartbeat, so much so that Peter’s sure that everyone else can hear him even without enhanced hearing. The man’s nervous, looking away at the numbers on the wall. He smells funny, like the grease and metal of broken mechs, and his breath has that bitter coffee undertone that Warren would sometimes have when he stayed late into the night, slumped over some microscope.

 

The reminders of a home likely long gone don’t help Peter’s current mood. Days of frustration, restlessness, stress, and anxiety unrelated to the man yet entirely so start to boil to the surface in Peter’s steadily clearing mind. 

 

Peter smiles up at him when the man catches him staring. I’m gonna bust your teeth in , something hidden deep inside him growls through the clearing haze. I’m gonna… I’m gonna...

 

Funnily enough, the man returns the gesture, and Peter can’t help but deliriously smile wider as if it's the best joke he’s heard in weeks. I’m gonna… I’m gonna…

 


 

Two minutes later, it all boils over with a single, purposeful snap of Peter’s wrist.

 


 

Tony reels with a surprised gasp, quickly bringing his hands up to tent his face. He winces when the brush of fingers against his nose sends a white-hot shockwave of pain straight between his eyes. Definitely broken. 

 

Stunned, the billionaire staggers back a foot, realizing belatedly he won’t be able to defend himself from a second attack, but the kid seems to have done what he wanted. Peter’s back is completely turned away from him and instead the kid is scrambling at his friends’ handcuffs.

 

All the agents in the room simultaneously jolt into action. Combat boots scuff over wooden floors to better surround the kids from a safe shooting distance, quickly drawing and aiming multiple taserguns at the group of boys. He can hear the keening whine of the tasers priming, ready to drop the kids any second now --

 

No, no. That can’t happen.

 

“Shtop! It’shh okay!” He desperately urges through the one hand cupping his broken nose, the other wildly waving at the agents not to fire. “It’shh okay!”

 

The boys seem uncaring of the danger surrounding them. Peter struggles to pry the magnetized bracelets apart, but the combined semi-drugged strength of he and his friends is not enough to break their hold, so the poor kid gives up to just simply wrap the other two boys into a tight hug. They cling onto each other, burying their faces in each other's hair and clothes. 

 

The handcuffed boys fist their hands as best they can into Peter’s shirt, and vice versa, until Peter suddenly starts to tilt.

 

Tony instinctually takes a half-step forward when the kid crumples to the ground, but is stopped when the two remaining boys follow their fallen friend, kneeling and defensively snarling at him over Peter’s form. 

 

The billionaire whips his head around to Fury. The Director is repocketing a small remote, gaze hardened on the kids on the ground, still loosely surrounded by agents. The agreement they had back at the Fridge suddenly sears to the forefront of Tony’s mind.

 

“... if they cause an incident that results in either an Avenger or a member of the public getting injured, you will be obligated to return them into SHIELD custody.”

 

Thishh doesn’t count! ” Tony desperately argues, pointing a finger at the Director while still holding his face. “Thishh doesn’t count! We’rr’ all okay here! M’ not hurt!”

 

Fury actually laughs at that, the sound belly-deep and completely antithetical to the tense atmosphere of the current situation. The now fully-conscious kids crouching protectively over their friend flinch at the noise.

 

“M’ okay!” He lifts his hands away from his face to show Fury just how damn okay he is, pointedly ignoring the warm coppery liquid that’s beginning to pool on his upper lip. “Tell your men to back off!”

 

Fury continues to chuckle. With a wave of his hand, the agents fall back to their original spots, but keep their tasers unholstered.

 

Tony tastes pennies in his mouth. He tries to get his breathing under control as the living room enters a shaky standstill. The kids's eyes flit wildly from person to person in the room, breathing heightened. 

 

“It’s okay. We’re okay,” he tries to reassure the two kids perched protectively over a limp Peter. He holds his hands out in a placating gesture to both Fury and the boys. “I get it. It’s okay.”

 

The billionaire worries when Peter is limply hoisted into Ben’s arms like a ragdoll, the blond’s handcuffed arms looping around his friend’s body to hold him close to his heaving chest. Tony manages to glare at the Director through his wince of pain as he wipes a hand over his mouth and nose, smearing blood over his cheek. “Don’t even think about doing whatever that was again, Fury.”

 

“Just a muscle relaxant. Very temporary.” Fury answers, a leftover smirk still on his face. 

 

Another minute of silence passes, the kids warily trading glances between himself, the Director and the agents spread throughout the room. It’s only punctuated by the two boys occasionally making clicking noises back and forth. Communication? Self-soothing technique?

 

Either way, Tony can sense the tension in the room gradually building. The boys start to curl up tighter around themselves and Peter, ready to bolt or attack at the slightest hint of aggression. He knows he has to do something to relax the kids before another outburst inevitably happens and ends this whole rehabilitation mission before it even begins. His current idea could be a gamble considering what happened in the last few minutes, but he can trust himself on this. They’re just scared kids.

 

He takes a grounding breath.

 

“Fury, I need you to leave.” Tony orders, calmly.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Take your agents and get out, I can handle this.” Tony insists. He swallows down a mouthful of copper that slicked down the back of his throat. 

 

You can handle this? ” Fury echoes, striding closer to Tony, mindful of the coiled-up posture of the spider kids only a few feet away. “This doesn’t scream ‘handled’ to me, Stark. You know our agreement.”

 

“And our agreement still stands. But this ,” he gestures to his busted nose. “This doesn’t count. Just a little nosebleed. Let this slide. Please.” He’s not above begging, especially when it feels like these kids' lives are on the line. “They’re not going to calm down with you and your damn army in the room.” 

 

Fury sighs. The Director levels a calculating eye at the boys before doing the same to the great Iron Man. With a disbelieving huff he digs out the remote used to drug Peter and hands it to Tony. “We’ll be in the lobby. Don’t do anything stupid.”

 

The spider kids watch with wide eyes as the agents march out of the room and back into the elevator, leaving Tony completely alone with the three. Tony allows them to get used to the new dynamic in the room before speaking again, dabbing away the blood pouring out of his nose with the collar of his shirt in the brief silence.

 

“Yeah, okay,” Tony continues to soothe. “I get it. You’re safe here.” 

 

Both of the kids eyebrows knit together. Now, rather than looking like they’re preparing for a fight they appear hopelessly confused at this turn of events.

 

“Look, I’m not going to use this.” They follow his hand movements as he places the remote down on the coffee table. He’s completely at the mercy of them now, but Tony pushes that unhelpful thought to the side. Slowly, he bends down to pick up the silicon card that he dropped when Peter attacked.

 

He holds the card between two fingers. “Can I uncuff the two of you?”

 

They don't react to his question, but Tony takes calm, careful steps towards them anyways before crouching down to their level and scooting closer. They tense up when he starts to reach for Ben’s handcuffed hands hooked around Peter’s body, hands hovering just a little too close to their defenseless friend to their liking. With a low, warning noise the blond draws his paralyzed friend protectively closer and squeaks, “Don’t…”

 

Tony backs off, holding his hands out in a placating gesture. “I’m not going to hurt him, no one here is going to hurt any of you.” He reaches back over with the card again, hesitating momentarily to say, “Don’t go all Mike Tyson on me now, alright?” 

 

Be-beep. Tak. The blond kid is free. He expects a similar outburst to the one Peter had, but the boy only scoots a little away with his limp friend.

 

Next is Kaine. Mindful of what Fury’s told him, he approaches even more carefully. Surprisingly though, the kid willingly holds his arms out to him.

 

Be-beep. Tak. 

 

The billionaire lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. He gives them space again, standing back up and striding to the breakfast bar for something to place over his throbbing nose. He can feel the pain lancing up into his lower right eyelid, and he grimly takes a moment to imagine just what it will look like later in the mirror. Gently holding a wad of paper towels to his face, he watches Ben and Kaine lay Peter out on the floor as movement slowly returns to their friend. The kid wobbles and groans, his friends taking turns between worriedly watching Peter struggle to his knees and keeping an eye on the man they’ve been left alone with. 

 

When the kid finally wrestles full control of his body back from the relaxant, they move together to perch on the couch furthest away from the breakfast bar, from Tony. The spider kids cling to each other like a lifeline, almost sitting on each other on the far end of the couch. It makes Tony think of how they looked in his thermal view all those days ago; the single blob of red and orange hidden away in the wall. They're eerily still, as if waiting for him to lunge across the room and attack them.

 

“Been a rough couple of days, huh? I get it.” He starts, breathlessly. He stuffs bits of paper towel into his nose, stopping the bleeding by a bit at the cost of sounding nasally. He sees them take furtive glances towards the hallway, as if expecting the soldiers to come storming back in any second. 

 

“Fury’s a hardass, you know. You don’t have to worry about him anymore.”

 

The billionaire makes his way back over to the opposite couch, sitting down a reasonable distance away. The kids draw their legs up onto the cushions, ready to bolt if necessary. 

 

“My name’s Tony Stark. And you are?” 

 

“Ben,” the blond pipes up almost inaudibly after a beat, prompting the others to hesitantly do the same. 

 

“Kaine.”

 

“Peter.”

 

Tony nods. “Okay, great. See, we’re all friends here.” He claps. “I’m assuming Fury kept you in the dark about everything right? That’s not going to happen here, not with me. I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can, alright?”

 

The billionaire continues, “First things first, you’re at a secure compound in upstate New York. This whole floor is yours to have, you’re free to eat anything you want out of the fridge over there, watch anything you want on the TV, do anything you want. You won’t ever go back to those tiny cells again.”

 

Ben shifts uncomfortably on the couch. “...Why are we here in the first place?” The youngest prompts quietly. 

 

The boys straighten slightly when Tony leans on his knees, tone serious and gaze full of emotion. “Because kids like you deserve a chance to be kids .” 

 

Their expressions pinch at that answer, mouths drawing into thin lines, incredulous. Tony wants to elaborate, asks them questions about how they were treated in the lab or what it is they think they're here for, but he wants to avoid overwhelming them with so much so soon. Especially since they're likely overwhelmed as it is already, no thanks to Fury's stellar people-skills.

 

Tony sighs and swallows back another throatful of pennies. “Is there anything you want from me right now?”

 

He startles when Peter immediately thrusts his hands forward. He shows off the black metal bands around his wrists, steadily blinking with a green light.

 

“Off,” the boy orders.

 

“I…” Tony hesitates. Of course he wants to remove the cuffs, but… “That can’t happen right now. Maybe sometime in the future, okay?”

 

Peter huffs. There's a heavy pause, and Tony spots the kid's eyes flicker immediately to the remote on the coffee table between them. The boy dives for the remote, but Tony sees the move coming a mile away and snatches it up in an impressive show of reflexes. Must be all the times Morgan was about to reach for a blowtorch in the workshop shining through.

 

”Ah-ah-ah!” Tony tuts, holding the remote above his head. 

 

The spider kids abruptly spring up on the couch, bare feet sinking into the cushions or perching on the armrest. A coiled-up Kaine makes a low noise and Peter straightens up to his full teenage height as if preparing to take the remote forcefully.

 

“Hey, hey, I promise not to use it! I’m just going to return it to Fury, alright?” He quickly soothes, only telling a half-truth. 

 

He stands up and quickly gives them space again, retreating to the threshold between the living room and hallway. “Is there anything else you want from me?”

 

The boys are silent again. If he squints, they perhaps appear unsteady on their feet. They only watch him with trepidation. 

 

“Ok,” The man soothes again before they can shake their confusion and pursue him for the remote or something. “I’ll leave you guys to get comfortable, but I’ll be back later to check on you. If you have any questions, just ask the ceiling and your AI will answer, alright?”

 

All three lighten their expressions and slightly cock their heads to the side like confused puppies. Tony smiles at the raw display of innocence. He hopes it’s the first of many he’ll get to see.

 

He starts for the elevator, calling out behind him, “Introduce yourself, Karen!”

 

As the elevator doors close a woman’s voice echoes from the living room.

 

Hello, boys ,” the AI greets over the surprised shrieks of the kids.

 


 

As soon as the elevator begins to move, Tony presses his back against the wall and feels the tension slip away from him in a single, freeing moment, like a sheet of ice sloughing off a warming roof.

 

That could’ve gone better, he thinks.

 

But the pain radiating from his broken nose reminds him it could have also gone way, way worse. 

 

“God damn it Fury,” he swears. Who brings a handful of agents to a welcoming party like this? Who drugs a few kids and expects them to behave when thrust into another unfamiliar situation with unfamiliar people?

 

He speaks into the air, “Fri, lock the top floor, don’t let anyone in or out.”

 

Of course, Boss ,” the AI answers.

 

The elevator opens, and he strides out into the bright foyer. 

 

“Stark!” Fury greets, turning away from the group of agents he was talking to, “We were half-expecting you to come back limbless.”

 

“Yeah, well.” Tony shrugs, trying to replace his confident facade. “I told you I could handle it.”

 

Fury snorts. An agent passes off a stack of large plastic baggies to him, and after a quick once-over Fury holds the stack out for Tony to take.

 

“These are the effects we found them with,” the Director explains. It looks like a lot of clothes, Tony can see an open box of SnoCaps in one of the baggies spilling onto a bright blue hoodie inside.

 

“And this --” he digs a small vial of clear liquid out of his pocket, “-- is a simple antivenom we whipped up for Kaine’s hemotoxic saliva. It’s a shoddy job, so I suggest that you make a proper one sooner rather than later.” 

 

Tony numbly nods, still coming down from his adrenaline rush, and he takes the vial from the Director, stuffing it in his sweatpants pocket. The blackjet’s motors start to purr from the landing pad outside.

 

Fury pats a hand on the billionaire’s shoulder. “You still have the remote, correct? The three buttons on there correspond to each of the kids. Red is Kaine, green is Peter, and blue is Ben. Use it when you have to.”

 

The remote feels heavy in his sweatpants pocket. “Sure.” 

 

The SHIELD Director gives him one last look. “Alright. Six months, Stark. We’ll be in touch.” The man starts for the entryway, calling out as he goes, “Do go get that shiner looked at, I have a feeling it’s the first of many.”

 


 

Tony winces as the medical staff at the compound put the last of the gauze over his nose, taping it in place. He tries to look over the files as they work, and every page he skims through makes his stomach curl up in uncomfortable knots. A younger med tech eventually hands him an icepack to place over the swelling in his right eye, which he accepts gratefully. It’s instant relief to the stinging pain trying to bore itself between his eyelid. 

 

He occasionally gets Friday to pull up a live feed of the kids upstairs, watching them explore their new space, trying to match the information in the files to the boys in question. He needs to know as much about them so when he checks back on them later he can… he can...

 

So he can do what?

 

Where the hell does he go from here?

 

Until now Tony’s whole game plan was simple: get the kids away from SHIELD, easy enough. But now he has three traumatized, mutant teenagers in his care and a limit of six months to help them with literally zero experience in anything like this. 

 

He screams inwardly. Six months!  Six months to heal a lifetime and he has no idea where to even begin. 

 

The door to the medbay is slid open, and Tony has to turn in his seat to put his one good eye on the new guest. He sees the familiar green figure of the Hulk, oversized button-up and all stride into the room, large takeout bag in hand. The constant Hulk look admittedly took Tony a while to get used to, but he has to confess it does eliminate the need to worry about the constant potential for a green bulldozer leveling a block during missions. His constant control over his other half also seems to have brought Banner out of his shell.

 

“Hey, Tony,” Bruce Banner greets, messing with his bag of takeout. “Did you see all those SHIELD people out on the front lawn today? I even bumped into Maria Hill in the hallway and she seemed more, uh, stressed than usual.”

 

He pulls out a styrofoam clamshell box. “I saved you some moo goo gai pan, if you -- oh.”

 

“Yeah, ‘oh’.” Tony says, flipping the manila folder he was reading through closed. 

 

“What happened to you?”

 

“I’ll explain later,” the billionaire appreciatively takes the Chinese food with a quick thank you, “Spread the word, I’m getting an Avengers meeting together later tonight. Send it through the uh, uh --” he snaps his fingers, trying to find the words. 

 

“The groupchat?”

 

Tony snaps his fingers. “Great minds think alike.” He pushes past the green giant, patting his arm as he goes. “In the meantime, stay away from the top floor of the west wing.”

 


 

Hello, boys.

 

Peter can’t help his childish squeak of surprise when the ceiling starts talking to them. He nearly topples over onto Ben from his standing position on the couch. Flailing, he seizes a handful of Kaine’s long hair to stop his fall, eliciting a yelp from the eldest spider and both he and his brother go tumbling over the back of the couch anyways. The back of Peter’s head hits the wooden floor with a painful thud.

 

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle ,” the voice apologizes.

 

“Where are you?” Ben asks, flattening himself against the couch's armrest like a frightened cat.

 

I’m...not quite sure. But I know I’m here in the compound with you.

 

Peter springs back up to his feet, crouched low still. “Can you see us?” 

 

Yes. I’ve been tasked with watching over you and answering questions to the best of my ability.

 

Huh, weird. Their old room had an intercom, but at least they could tell there was another person on the other side of the microphone. This lady sounds too...fake?

 

“Are you real?”

 

In a sense. But I have no physical form, if that is what you are asking, Peter .”

 

Okay, very weird. Robot lady living in the walls. But considering the circumstances, it’s the least of Peter’s current worries.

 

Peter takes point at the window. Even shaded by the building they’re in, the light pouring inside the large windows is still so, so bright. How do normal people deal with so much light? Squinting past the pain, he sees that there’s no one on the field or little bit of road outside the window. 

 

“Ceiling lady, are the hunters gone?” Peter asks. If she’s made to answer questions he might as well ask them. 

 

Friday tells me that the SHIELD convoy is leaving the compound as we speak.

 

“Awesome.” Another minute or two of waiting and they can start to plan their escape, though he doesn't understand what the day of the week has to do with that. Peter looks up to see Ben searching the ceiling. “What’re you doing?”

 

“Searching for ceiling lady’s stuff,” the youngest replies, his shirt bunching around his chin as he sits upside down on the ceiling to address his sibling. “Uh, microphones, cameras. Y’know.” 

 

Peter hums. He turns his attention to the elevator doors the man disappeared into. He asks into the air again, “Ceiling lady, will you warn us when that man comes back?”

 

Of course.”

 

Peter gets to work. He tips over a tall bookshelf, sending the assorted texts fluttering to the ground in an avalanche. The spider tips the furniture up on it’s side, positioned towards the window.

 

If he angles it right, if he kicks it with just the right amount of force, this thing could be a perfect battering ram. Then they could make a break for the woods over there. And then… And then…

 

And then what?

 

Kaine suddenly appears at his side as he stares wistfully out the window. “You’re an idiot, you know.” The eldest whispers with no real heat in his voice. “A room full of hunters and you try to smash in the face of the guy closest to you? He could’ve told them to open fire or something.”

 

Peter hangs his head over his chest. He doesn’t know why he did that, it just felt right at the time. It felt... necessary, however dumb that reasoning is. He could have put them all in real, immediate danger.

 

It was strange how the man acted afterwards, though. The man didn’t even retaliate when he had ample opportunity and reason to. Instead, he made himself more vulnerable by forcing the agents out of the room.

 

It just doesn’t make any sense. None of this does. Things stopped making sense when the glass of their home shattered all those days ago -- everything since then has been an unending sea of bullshit.

 

Sensing his discomfort, Kaine wraps him into another hug, and Peter leans into the touch with a self-pitying sniff, burying his face into the crook of his brother's neck. “But I know how you feel. I’ve wanted to put my stinger through Patchy’s remaining eye from the moment we met him,” Kaine says. “I’m just glad you two are okay.”

 

Peter smiles slightly, pulling away from his brother. “Just help me kick this thing through the window.”

 

Kaine considers the hardwood bookshelf on its side. “...Why?”

 

Peter makes an offended noise, harshly whispering, “Why? Because we’re leaving , Kaine.” 

 

“Yeah, only for them to drug us again as soon as our feet hit the ground,” Kaine murmurs, bringing his wrists up to wave them in front of Peter’s face, as if his older brother thought he forgot about the stupid bands. “With these things we’re trapped either way.”

 

Ben pauses his thorough search of the ceiling to add, “Maybe there’s a range to them, maybe if we’re fast enough…”

 

Kaine huffs, “Even if that’s true, robot lady’s going to tell someone we’re free almost immediately. Isn’t that right?”

 

“Yes. I am programmed to keep your best interests in mind. I will have to alert someone if you attempt an escape as dangerous as that.”

 

Kaine gestures to the ceiling in a gesture that says ‘see? ’ Peter scowls, and tries to force his nails under the black metal bands once again. The bands promptly shock him for his attempt.

 

I’m sorry you don’t feel comfortable here. Is there anything I can do to help? ” The robot asks.

 

None of the spiders humor her with an answer. Ben only resumes trying to find the cameras to no avail, Peter sits dejected on the toppled bookshelf, and Kaine wanders over into the small kitchen. 

 

Kaine appears a minute later with an apple in hand, holding it out right in front of Peter’s face. “Poisoned?” His sibling asks, shaking the apple in his face.

 

Peter shakes his head; his Sense is quiet. He hasn’t gotten so much as a tingle since they left the tiny cells. Peter almost traitorously wishes that the familiar feeling of his hair standing on end would make an appearance, because at least that would make sense. They’re outside of the lab, in unfamiliar territory, kept captive by unfamiliar hands --  if anything, his Sense should be trying to drill its way out of his brain!

 

But it’s not. It’s silent. And somehow that’s infinitely more frightening.

 

Kaine takes a big bite of apple before softly speaking again. “...What do you think he meant by us ‘deserving a chance to be kids’?”

 

Kaine goes over and sits down cross-legged in front of the floor length window. After a moment, Peter goes over to join his brother, and Ben follows suit a few seconds later, giving up on finding anything of note on the completely smooth ceiling.

 

Peter sidles up next to Kaine as the eldest continues to muse in between bites. “I mean, we already are kids.”

 

Peter mulls it over in his head, his knee-jerk reaction is to say that it’s simply more nonsense that seemed to just spill out of people’s mouths but…

 

“What if he meant like Billy?” Ben suggests, scooting up on the other side of Kaine, both he and Peter flanking him as a force of habit.

 

Billy, Dr. Connors’ son. The spiders usually only saw him in the picture frame on the Doctor’s desk, displayed proudly beside the picture of themselves. The spiders knew that unlike Warren, who didn’t have a family, whenever Connors left the lab he was braving the outside world to see his son. A son who lives on the outside. A boy who doesn’t have a designation, nor a special role to fill when he grew up.

 

They’d only met in person once when they were very young, barely before they started to train with the aggressive mechs, at a time when Warren was away and Connors deemed it safe enough to bring his son to the facility.

 

**

 

Peter presses his palm up against the glass window of his room, matching and meeting the hand of the child outside. The two roughly matched each other in height, and the seven-year-old spider playfully bounces in place, happy to meet a potential new playmate.

 

Ben and Kaine soon jump down from the rope ladder they were hanging off of to crowd around Peter as well, curious about the freckled, red-haired boy standing outside their room while Dr. Connors hovers protectively nearby in the hallway. Peter does a playful cartwheel in front of the glass, trying to get the boy outside to mirror his movements. The boy tries his best, but halfway through his first cartwheel he folds in on himself, collapsing and thunking hard against the glass. Peter's confused, was he not trained to do cartwheels? Cartwheels are easy! It's part of the most basic level of training!

 

Peter looks up worriedly at the Doctor when the man dives forward to help the slumped boy, his hand ordering them away from the glass. The boy is alright though, and his freckled face cracks out into a wide smile. After seeing no damage had been done, Connors waves a hand to them, prompting the spiders to approach the glass once again. Peter doesn't try to do any more cartwheels.

 

Soon they are called into the training room, and the spiders happily scurry through the travel-duct to greet the Doctor and the boy in the wide space of the gym.

 

“Billy, this is Two, Three, and Four,” Dr. Connors says. The spiders say a quick hello and obediently kneel on the exercise mat, waiting for instruction. 

 

Billy laughs at their designations, their names, and it makes something inside Peter ache. He wants to correct the Doctor, ask him to provide their nurse-given ones instead, but he holds his tongue. Obedience easily wins over minor discomfort, and he doesn't want to seem like a whiny pest in front of the only new kid he's seen in his short life, after all.

 

Ben and Peter are allowed to play with the boy on the mat while Kaine is pulled aside to stand obediently by Dr. Connors. Peter’s sorely disappointed when the two spiders keep winning their little wrestling games and even more so when Billy isn’t able to complete even a fifth of the obstacle course.

 

To appease an increasingly frustrated Billy, Dr. Connors then gets out the catch-gun for them. He hands it to Billy, and the spiders crouch on cue, waiting patiently for the puff of air that sends the puck sailing.

 

Peter’s really good at catch. Over and over again, he vaults over ropes and uses hanging walls as springboards to snatch the small purple disk out of the air, only using his webs when Dr. Connors asks him to. 

 

Peter’s just starting to break a sweat when he brings another puck back to his new playmate. Billy’s delighted, and he eagerly accepts it to shove it back into the gun for another round.

 

The red-headed kid looks back at his father, a smile painted wide on his face. "Like dogs! They bring it back to me like doggies!”

 

**

 

“I don’t know,” Peter murmurs. “Billy’s... different than us.”

 

Humming, Kaine flops down onto his back, finishing off the apple. “Mmm, hey robot lady, what do you think? What do you think he meant by giving us a chance to be kids?”

 

There’s a heavy pause in the room, the longest they’ve heard from her so far.

 

She finally answers, “... I think Mr. Stark is going to try his best to help you boys rediscover yourselves .”

 

Kaine thumps his head against the wooden floor with a snort. 

 

“Well, that makes even less sense.”

 

Chapter Text

 

Before the closed doors of the Avengers meeting room, Iron Man rubs at the scratchy gauze taped over his nose, three precious manila folders clutched in one hand. He adjusts the collar of his clean t-shirt, needing a change after getting nose-blood all over the other one, and as he drags a hand through his hair he realizes he probably needs a shower as well. And maybe a nap. He hasn’t slept since his meeting yesterday afternoon with Fury at the Fridge, and he can feel the whirlwind that was the past 24 hours starting to catch up to him.

 

He takes a centering breath and strides through the doors, Stark swagger in full swing to keep everyone in the room from seeing how utterly exhausted he is.

 

Steve and Bucky spin around in their office chairs as he enters, and Clint perks up from where he was leaning on the table, putting away a mobile game. Natasha merely shifts her gaze to him, red hair tied back in a neat braid. Bruce sips from a giant mug of coffee in the corner of the room in his own specially made, Hulk-sized chair, offering a smile at the billionaire. 

 

Tony makes his way to the front of the conference room, scoffing. “This is all who showed up? I distinctly remember more people being on the greatest team in the world.”

 

“Sam is with family in Brooklyn, and Thor’s still off-world.” Steve provides. “Wanda and Vision are busy in Westchester right now.”

 

“What’s this all about, Tony?” Natasha prompts, leaning back in her chair. 

 

“We --” Tony smiles and spreads the three manila folders out on the table. “-- have houseguests.”

 

Steve and Bucky crack a curious eyebrow up at him. Clint leans on the table with his elbows to get a better look at the manila folders. The archer paws at the one closest to him, spinning it around to read the words S.H.I.E.L.D. RECORDS 0-8-4-11, SUBJECT #2 (KAINE) in big blocky letters on the cover.

 

Clint looks up amused, “No way. Is this what I think it is?” 

 

“What is it?” Bucky asks, gaze switching from Tony to Clint.

 

The archer flips to the first page of his folder, skimming the page. Clint barks a short laugh, somewhere between incredulous and pure amusement. “You took them from SHIELD?”

 

Tony rubs at his gauze again. “Mm-hmm.”

 

Clint shares the folder with Natasha, as Steve and Bucky start to reach over for their own folder to peruse through. Bucky asks again, “Took who from SHIELD?” 

 

Tony clears his throat. “Steve,” he begins, calling the Captain’s attention. “Remember that lab we busted a week or so ago?” 

 

Steve furrows his brows but makes a confirming noise. 

 

“I found out a day -- er, two days ago, maybe, that SHIELD had the kids we found in the glass room,” he explains. “And I, in my infinite wisdom, convinced Fury that they would be better off staying with us.”

 

Steve makes a 'ohh' noise and flips through a folder, gaze softening on the picture of the boy on the page.

 

Clint grins up at him, “So what, you’re getting more kids?”

 

Tony balks, “No. No.” Why is everyone saying that? “This is not going to be their permanent home. It was just that... seeing them in those tiny cells at the Fridge...”

 

Clint nods, but his grin doesn't fade. “No, I get it. SHIELD can be ham-fisted when it comes to these things.” The archer smiles down at the picture of Kaine that’s in Natasha’s hands. “They really are cute,” he muses.

 

Steve points to the SHIELD record number on the front. “These are listed as 0-8-4s, a designation only reserved for dangerous objects of unknown origin. What are they?”

 

Tony stuffs his hands in his pockets. With a sniff, he starts to summarize what he’s gathered so far from the manila folders Hill left him. 

 

“They’re genetic experiments. Specifically, they’re advanced recombinants between human and spider DNA, created and raised to be living capekillers, trained in the capture and neutralization of heroes and villains, eventually to be sold to the highest bidder once they reached adulthood.”

 

“Sold?” Natasha asks.

 

Iron Man gravely nods. “Sure. You and I both know there are a lot of people out there who would be willing to shell out millions for specialized, enhanced enforcers, guards, soldiers, whatever.” He waves a hand at the manila folder in her grip. “It also says somewhere in there that if someone paid enough, they could have been sold for medical experimentation too.” 

 

Natasha passes the folder she and Clint were reading to Bruce. “That’s quite a laundry list of enhancements in there,” the super-spy states. “Webs, super-strength, super-reflexes, super-speed, enhanced senses -- that’s the perfect mix of traits if you wanted to create something purely built for restraining other enhanced people.”

 

Tony huffs. “Yeah, and Fury gladly watched that buy-one-get-two-free deal just fall into his open lap. His plan was to raise them up as SHIELD operatives if I hadn’t shown up when I did.”

 

Steve leans back in his chair, letting Bucky take a look at the folder. The blond lets his gaze linger on the gauze padding that stretches across Tony’s face, cheekbone to cheekbone. “You got that black eye from them, then, huh?”

 

Tony looks hard at Captain America, face carefully neutral, before averting his gaze out the window. “Mm-hmm,” the billionaire simply murmurs. The bridge of his nose is starting to sting again, whatever numbing agent they administered him slowly fading away. “They're not mean by nature, I don't think. SHIELD only classified them as dangerous because they’re acting exactly how scared teenagers would.”  

 

The billionaire shrugs. “Honestly, I’d punch the nearest person too at the first chance I got if I was held in a strange place, separated from the only friends I had for days without so much as an explanation. So this isn’t his fault.” 

 

Steve nods. Bucky puts down the folder, speaking up, “So...you brought trained capekillers to the place where ‘capes’ live? What if they attack Steve or someone in the hallway?”

 

“They’re not allowed off their floor at the moment, so they’re not going to roam the compound. I am, however, establishing a new ground rule: absolutely no costumes on the premises. That means on the training grounds as well, they have a window that overlooks the field.”

 

Natasha makes a noise, like something just clicked in her mind. “Oh, they don’t know they’re being housed by heroes, then?”

 

“Nope,” Tony pops the ‘p’. “And we’re going to keep it that way for right now.”

 

“Kaine, Peter, Ben.” Clint experimentally rolls the names off his tongue. The boys’ pictures are now spread out on the table so that everyone can see. “Alright, what’s the game plan?”

 

Tony pauses, continuing to stare blankly at the three worried faces fanned out on the tabletop. He digs the heel of his hand into his good eye to stave off exhaustion. This is the question he was worried about.

 

“We’re gonna rehabilitate them,” he tries to state confidently, but it must come out sounding more uncertain than he’d like.

 

“You don’t have a plan, do you, Stark?” Natasha questions.

 

Tony throws his hands up in surrender. “Yeah, well, y’know, this all seemed so damn simple hours ago.” 

 

“How bad are they?” Bruce asks.

 

“They’re…” His recently reset nose starts to itch under the gauze. “...defensive, --” Tony ignores the playful snort from Clint. “-- but healthy and alert. I honestly don’t think they would attack unless provoked. And even if that were to happen, we have these.” The billionaire digs the objects Fury left him with from his sweatpants pocket and places them on the table. “A remote for their bands that will sedate them, and an antivenom for Kaine.”

 

Bruce reaches an oversized arm across the table to gingerly pick up the vial of clear liquid between two giant fingers, curious. “One of them is venomous?” The doctor asks.

 

“Yeah I know, isn’t that something,” Tony crows. “Don’t know why the other two don’t have that specific mutation, they’re younger than he is and are constantly referred to as genetic improvements in the documents.”

 

Clint squints, “Hey, how’d you get Fury to agree to let you take care of them anyways? What were the terms? Fury's not a man to  just give them to you simply because you showed up and asked oh-so-nicely.”

 

Tony rubs his hands down his face. “I...We have six months to help them adjust to a normal life. Six months to heal a lifetime of who-knows-what or it’s them getting shipped off to live out the rest of their days at SHIELD Headquarters. If they hurt anyone, it’s an automatic game over and they go to SHIELD.”

 

“That’s generous, considering what the government procedure is concerning illegal genetic experiments,” Natasha says, brows furrowed and mouth upturned, looking at the boy whose hair matches a gentle shade of dusty gold. 

 

Tony knows what she means, and just thinking about it makes his stomach swoop. Euthanasia is required for any unauthorized genetic experiments, especially ones regarded as even having the slimmest potential to hurt others. “That’s...never been implemented in regards to a situation like this before. Maybe that procedure could apply to a frog that can spit fire, sure, but not sentient beings, and especially not kids.” He’s lucky SHIELD had the conscience to not follow through, or even consider it, if Fury immediately getting to work building a home for them at Headquarters says anything. If it was someone like Secretary Ross’ decision, however...

 

He can’t bear to think about it any longer. Iron Man rubs the heel of his hand into his good eye again, taking a deep breath. “Six months,” he breathes. He continues to give information to ease his mind, “Ben and Peter are both fourteen, and Kaine’s fifteen. They’ve lived their whole life in a white room, kept behind glass like prized zoo animals. Finding out how that has affected them is going to be a whole process. What I’ve seen so far is that they’re, naturally, very confused at this sudden change in their lives.”

 

Clint nods. “I’m in,” the archer smiles. “I’m all for helping you tame a few mutant teenagers. It’s about time you understand how hard it is raising a son, anyways.” 

 

“I’m not adopting them, Barton,” Tony grumbles, “They need a normal life, and if you haven’t noticed, living with moi isn’t exactly a typical way of living. We’re just here to help them transition into a proper home.” 

 

Clint puts up his hands. “Sure, sure. Whatever you say. So, what do we do now?”

 

“I was thinking I’d get them used to having just me around, and use that as a jumping off point for...everything else. Or whatever.” Tony finishes, weakly.

 

Natasha cracks an eyebrow up at him. 

 

“Hey, I’m painfully aware that this is well out of my area of expertise!” the billionaire quickly defends. “Suggestions from the peanut gallery are entirely welcome.”

 

A series of murmurs and hums descend over the meeting room. Some of the Avengers continue to paw through the folders, while the others watch him fiddle with his watch, checking the time. When no one continues to ask him questions, the billionaire speaks up again.

 

“Well, if no one has any other pressing questions, I’m going to go,” he says, leaving the folders on the table for their viewing pleasure as he pushes past the meeting table to the door. “I’ve got a few kids I have to tend to.”

 

 


 

 

The elevator ride is agonizingly long. The tote bag full of goodies pulling down on his shoulder almost matches the weight of the remote in his pocket. As much as he doesn’t want to feel this way about children, he can’t help but feel like he’s stepping into a den with three unpredictable, caged tigers. 

 

Tony adjusts the the hefty tote bag on his shoulder, rummaging around its contents in a nervous double-check. He rearranges packages of Lil’ Debbie cakes and marshmallowy pink Snoballs within the tote, trying to make sure they don’t get squished by the two toys he found in Morgan’s toy closet that he hopes are boyish enough to hold the attention of a teenager or three. The plush purple shark and plastic robot dog stare mockingly up at him.

 

Whenever Morgan was angry or upset, he found that bribing with sweets always helped get him back into her good graces. He hopes the same principle will apply to teenagers.

 

He’s so lost in his racing thoughts that he startles a bit when Friday cuts through the silence of the elevator. 

 

“I’ve been told by Karen that they’ve been alerted to your arrival.”

 

“Oh?” That’s not part of her base programming. Must’ve been a request they made. He smiles a little, it’s good that they’re talking to the AI. Might make this go a little easier. “Noted. Thanks, Fri.”

 

When the elevator doors finally open, Tony blinks dumbly and re-checks if he pressed the right floor button.

 

The floor is dimmed, almost dark. The little bit of light in the floor is streaming through the large windows in the living room just barely visible from inside the elevator, dousing the wooden floor and edge of the couch in the purples and hazy oranges of early sunset. If he didn’t know that there were supposed to be three kids on this floor he would’ve assumed it was vacant. 

 

Speaking of the kids, they’re nowhere to be seen. Tony pokes his head out and quickly looks to either side of the elevator, as if that’s where they were hiding, waiting to pounce. He strains his ears to see if he can hear them running around in one of the adjacent rooms, but it’s no use. The floor is eerily hushed and silent.

 

The billionaire takes light steps out into the hallway. He calls out into the semi-darkness, “Kids?” 

 

Silence. 

 

He nervously steps out into the living room. To his left, the fridge door is left open, its harsh white light illuminating a precise rectangle of floor in the tiny kitchen. He shuts it with a click.

 

He tries again, “Kids?”  He makes his way around the couch and around a toppled bookshelf until something makes an awful squelching noise under his shoe.

 

Lifting his shoe, he spies the squished remains of an apple core crushed under his foot. 

 

“Huh.”

 

Thwip! Suddenly something snags the back of his heels, and the ground comes rushing up to him as his legs are pulled out from underneath him.

 


 

They had been busy basking in the sunlight, trying to brainstorm on what to do, until all thoughts got shoved aside when the sun started to set. This would be the second time they have ever seen one, or third? But to Peter those first two times didn’t count, they were too busy running away from hunters to properly register the absolute mosaic of colors it creates. 

 

One of Dr. Connor’s paintings in his office was of a sunset. Peter used to think that the beautiful mess of purple, red, white, yellow, orange blotches were just haphazardly thrown about the canvas, but no, it really does look like that. The color cuts soft light through the trees and clouds and turns them all sorts of different, warm hues with a deeper shade of purple closing in around the white, hot dot edging towards the horizon, slowly chasing it’s light over the edge. It’s more beautiful than he imagined.

 

“Boys, Mr. Stark is on his way.” Karen’s sweet tone breaks through the silence.

 

And the sunset is forgotten, all spiders snapping to attention. 

 

A hasty plan is formed, and soon Peter and his brothers are clinging to the ceiling, watching as the man from before slowly makes his way around the room.

 

With practiced ease, they move silently above the man until he’s in the prime position. Ben slowly, methodically lowers himself to hang by the ceiling by his feet and he uses both spinnerets to snag the man’s heels. The web glues his feet together, and with a strong tug, the man goes sprawling on the floor by the coffee table. 

 

The man faceplants into the ground with a startled cry, the bag under one arm hindering his ability to properly brace his fall. With a second tug, Ben hoists the man upside-down, attaching him to the ceiling to dangle helplessly by his legs.

 

The bag slips from under the man’s arm and spills its contents all over the floor below him. “Friday?!” He shrieks in surprise.

 

The man thrashes, trying to bend upwards to dislodge himself from the silk binding his feet. After a second of struggling, he gives up to simply spin slowly around in a circle from the web, spotting first Peter, then Ben, watching him from the ceiling. When he makes a full turn, he comes face to face with Kaine dangling upside-down from his own web-strand in front of his nose. 

 

The man clears his throat, “Hey, kid,” he greets sort of breathlessly.

 

Kaine blinks. “...Hi.”

 

The man turns in a slow circle again, arms hanging low and palms open. When he turns to meet the eldest face to face again the man asks, “Why this?”

 

Kaine doesn’t answer, and looks to Ben and the bag. Ben nods in understanding. The youngest drops from the ceiling into a crouch, creeping forward to dig through the bag. Peter knows he has to stay back for now, just in case the man decides to finally retaliate for what he did to his face earlier, but it doesn’t keep him from craning his neck as Ben starts to fling all sorts of strange things around the living room. 

 

Ben seems stumped too, and after tilting his head curiously at a crinkling package of soft, pink things he tosses it over his shoulder. The package hits the man in the face.

 

“What do you want from us?” Kaine demands. 

 

Fresh blood is starting to stain the white gauze taped over the man’s nose, seeping out of his nostrils to drip onto the floor below off the tip of his nose. The man opens his mouth to answer, but abruptly shuts it as one of his hands flies upwards to his pocket. 

 

Kaine startles at the sudden movement. Peter can see the way his arm muscles holding onto the web flex as his stingers’ specialized tendons reflexively twitch, prepared to poke through skin if necessary. The man fumbles for something as it starts to slip and fall out of his pants pocket. The man’s quick, and just barely snags it before it can hit the ground with one hand, and Peter can see what it is. It’s the remote for the wristbands.

 

Kaine lunges forward and wraps the man’s arm in a death grip, fingers digging hard enough into his flesh to bruise. 

 

The man yields, either to the pain or silent command, and lets the remote clatter to the floor. When it lands, Ben backs away from it as if the device could burn him. Peter however, drops from the ceiling to tentatively creep forward. 

 

“I promise I wasn’t going to use it,” the man says, going completely pliant in Kaine’s grip. “Trust me, I don’t want to cause you kids any more stress than you already have.”

 

Peter picks up the remote, turning it over in his hands. Using one arm he lifts up the couch next to him, kicking the remote into place. Peter looks between his brothers before leveling a cool look at the man. He promised to give it back to Fury, he lied. 

 

Peter slams the couch leg down on top of the remote. It cracks and fractures under the couch leg, and Peter smashes the couch down on it a few more times just for good measure until its a useless fizzing pile of black plastic and silicon. 

 

“Kid,” the man sighs. Kaine finally releases his arm, looking expectantly at Peter.

 

The remote's gone, this is their chance! Peter clicks his tongue against the roof of his closed mouth. Click, click-click. The code for escape.

 

Kaine furrows his brow, as if unsure. 

 

He wants to scream. Idiot! The remote is destroyed, we can leave! Peter makes a show of picking up and slamming the couch leg down on the remote again. The man flinches at the noise. 

 

Thankfully, the smarter of his two brothers backs him up, clicking the same code. Click, click-click.  

 

Kaine turns his attention back to the man, but his eyes flicker momentarily to the bookshelf, giving silent permission. 

 

Peter hurriedly springs to his feet. The man watches with cautious anticipation as Peter leaps over a loveseat to the toppled bookshelf until Kaine reaches out to take his face in one hand forcefully tear his gaze away from his sibling. 

 

After lining himself up, Peter gives the hardwood bookshelf a solid-ass kick. It screeches over the wood floor, leaving deep, crooked gouges in its wake, and smashes into the window. But the window doesn’t break. Instead, the bookshelf splinters into humongous shards of wood, not even cracking the glass. 

 

Whoa! Whoa, whoa, hey!” The man frantically tries to soothe. 

 

Peter bristles. He snorts in indignation, and webs two lines to the window, sling-shotting himself as hard as he can into the glass with a dull, resounding thud. The window still doesn’t cave. Something pops painfully in his ankle.

 

Peter crumples to the ground, landing hard on the remains of the bookshelf with a pained hiss. He stands up again, readying a fist to hit the glass…

 

Pete… ” Kaine warns, lowly.

 

Peter stops. Defeated, he hangs his head and only taps his fist against the glass. He tries to hide his limp as he goes back to sit down near Ben on the floor. If it can’t break from the bookshelf then it won’t break at all. It must be at least as strong as the glass wall of their room.

 

They’re stuck here. 

 

Kaine slightly tightens his grip on the man’s face. “Why are we here?” The eldest asks again. 

 

“I told you, I’m here to help,” the man calmly pleads.

 

Kaine drops the man’s face in a huff. The eldest spider demands, “Make sense! Help with what?”

 

The man raises his hands in a placating gesture and takes a deep breath. The blood pouring out of his nose has made a small puddle on the floor below him, and the tangy, metallic smell makes Peter’s knotted-up insides twist uncomfortably. 

 

“I get that you don’t understand this yet,” the man starts slowly and calmly, “but the way you were raised wasn’t right, and it will never be right. But it’s okay, you’re free now.”

 

Peter’s eyes narrow accusingly at the man dangling from the ceiling. He certainly doesn’t feel free. 

 

The man makes a queasy sound. “Now I really appreciate the free chiropractic session you’re giving me right now, but can one of you cut me down already? I’m starting to see more spots than Cruella DeVille here.”

 

Kaine looks to Ben and Peter on the floor with the usual silent question. Peter’s too busy idly rubbing at his throbbing ankle to answer, but Ben shakes his head. The man doesn’t pose a threat according to the youngest’s Sense.

 

With a flicker of arm muscles, Kaine’s stinger pops out of his wrist. The man flinches hard when Kaine climbs higher on his own webline to reach over with sharp stinger extended. The eldest spider presses a foot to the center of the man’s chest to gently swing him over the couch before cutting him free.

 

“Son of a -- !” The man grunts as he falls headfirst into the couch like a sack of potatoes. As soon as he rights himself, Ben launches a web to secure his hand to the armrest. The man squeaks at the sudden feeling of web on his bare skin, "Hey -- !"

 

Kaine returns to the ground, wiping the blood from where his wrists split open on the legs of his sweatpants. The eldest spider kicks at some of the bag stuff on the ground as he licks away the rest of the blood trailing languidly down to his elbow.

 

“Does it...hurt when you do that, kid?” The man asks Kaine, innocently. 

 

Kaine stills, mouth still pressed to his wrist. Of course it does, Peter thinks. Kaine’s complained about it ever since they were little, but only around each other, of course -- Warren doesn’t like whiners. He often talked of the odd way the stingers sometimes rub up against other muscles and sinews beneath his skin, and how when they have to break through, they oftentimes have to pierce through barely-healed flesh. It sort of grossed Peter out -- he’s secretly glad he didn’t get anything like that.

 

“No,” Kaine lies, like he would to the Doctor.

 

Something passes over the man’s eyes, dark and hurting. It’s the same look that the gyro lady had that first night on the run, and those people on the street had when trying to stop them, the same look Maria Hill had when trying to interrogate him with her stupid questions -- but its like something clicks this time, and Peter finally realizes what this expression means. 

 

Pity. He’s looking at them with pity. Why?

 

The man shifts nervously on the couch, and Kaine thwips another web, gluing his forearm to the armrest as well. Now he can only sit or stand awkwardly. 

 

“C’mon, kid…” The man sighs. “What do I have to do to make you trust me?” He gestures to the spilled and strewn-about contents of the bag on the floor. “Hey look, I brought some sweets and a few toys for you three, as a...er, a housewarming gift. There’s also your old clothes in there too, somewhere.”

 

Peter and Ben creep closer to the bag, starting to sift more thoroughly through the mess. Kaine stands on the coffee table. Sure enough, Peter pulls out three plastic bags full of the clothes they got from their outing with Wade that were hidden way down in the tote. He places them to the side in a neat stack. 

 

“I, uh, hey -- Peter,” Peter's head snaps up when the man addresses him directly. The man points at the now pinkish-red gauze running across his nose. “I don’t blame you for this, you know. I get why you did it.”

 

Peter narrows his eyes. More nonsense. A trap, maybe?

 

“It was cruel of SHIELD to separate you three, no matter their reasoning. You all are obviously close. Fury just doesn’t... have much of an eye for delicate situations,” the man ends with a slight smirk, and -- oh, Peter catches the joke. 

 

Peter can’t help the little rush of air that forces itself out of his nose, the tiniest of laughs -- more like a small exhale, really -- before he steels himself again. Ben however, must make a slight smile because the man catches it.

 

“See? Ben gets it!” The man encourages with a disarming grin. “We’re all friends here.”

 

The atmosphere in the room changes a bit, and the spiders dig through the contents of the bag with more confidence now. They soon have two neat piles, one of foodstuff and the other their plastic bags of clothes, though the last two objects give the boys pause.

 

Ben turns a shark plush as long as his forearm over and around in his hands, giving the thing an experimental squeeze and tapping at its hard plastic eyes. Peter finds a plastic, animal-shaped robot that was kicked under one of the couches. 

 

“Sorry that they’re not really things teenagers like, it was all I had on hand at the moment,” the man apologizes. “We’ll get you more stuff soon, games, clothes, food, you name it.”

 

Peter doesn’t really know what to do with the plastic robot dog, and Ben seems to be equally bemused as well. Both he and his brother put both strange gifts into their own separate pile, unsure of whether or not to keep them.

 

“Did they ever give you toys?” The man asks. “I mean, I saw the rope swings and rubber balls, but did they ever give you games to play?”

 

Peter racks his mind, and comes up with nothing. It was only the occasional new ball, blanket, or pillow when one of them popped or got too ratty to use, but that’s all you need, right? Why does that matter to him anyways? 

 

“Tic-tac-toe...on the glass... “ Ben pipes up. “We had markers.” 

 

Oh! That’s right. Lab techs would pass by their room, and if they weren’t busy enough, they’d stay for a game or two or just draw an ‘O’ in a square and leave. 

 

“That’s it?” The man questions, and the statement leaves Peter stumped. What else do you need to have fun in your downtime? How on earth are you supposed to play with a soft, immovable fish? Or a tiny plastic dog? 

 

Ben frowns, “Why do you care?”

 

The man sighs again, and drags a hand through his greasy hair. 

 

“I...know it’s difficult for you to understand, especially now, but that place, those doctors, should never have treated you that way. You deserve better, and so much more.”

 

Peter huffs and sits cross-legged on the floor to cradle his hurt ankle. The man doesn’t understand, the lab was perfect. It was -- is home. It’s safe. They’ll eventually get out of here and --

 

“You don’t have to be their little soldiers or experiments or whatever anymore. You can finally be kids, like how you’re supposed to be.”

 

No, no. More nonsense. Their place is in the lab -- home. Its…

 

“You will never go back to that place again. You’re free.”

 

Peter grip on his sprained ankle is lost on him until his injury starts to pulse painfully under his fingertips.

 

Free? This is what freedom feels like? It feels like he's been ripped from a warm home and tossed into a dark sea, frothing waves of uncertainty press in on him from all sides, the suffocating pressure trapping and drowning him like a bug in a pool. Is freedom supposed to feel like the cool bands flush against his wrists and the tremble in his bones? Is freedom supposed to smell like the metallic blood stench pooled on the floor and smeared on his brother’s pant legs?

 

Peter get a hold of himself to say, “You don’t understand…W-We’ll…”

 

The man cuts him off, “I know, I get that this is a monumental change, especially on top of the week you guys just had. I understand that you don’t want to stay here, but this is the safest place for you to be right now.” The man’s tone is sickeningly soothing as he continues, “The lab is gone, and I’ll die before you go back to rot in those cells at SHIELD.” 

 

Ben leans into Peter on the floor, comforting each other with the touch. Peter can feel his little brother’s breath shudder. 

 

The lab's gone? Gone? Sure, it was sort of empty and destroyed when they went back but... No, he has to believe that they’ll go back to the lab, back home, because if they can’t it’ll be... too much. Too much to bear thinking about. He takes a quiet, shuddering breath of his own. 

 

“What...What happens now?” Kaine asks. Is this the part where he says he wants to cut them open to figure out their mutations? Sell them off to be used as target practice? Keep them as pets? Even if Peter’s Sense is deathly quiet, those things are all people want out of mutants, isn’t it? Everyone’s afraid of them, their powers, and Dr. Connors says people will do awful things to those they fear.

 

“We’re going to figure things out, one step at a time,” The man says. “We’re going to help you learn how to be simply kids. Nothing more, nothing less. None of this is your fault. You were born into a situation you could not control, and taken advantage of by people with power-hungry ideas.”

 

Peter bites his bottom lip. Of course none of this is his fault, it’s the red-and-gold mech-turned-man’s. He was the one who broke into their home. 

 

The sun has fully set now, bathing the living room in the deep purple of night, only the lights in the ceiling they had Karen dim earlier diffuse a little bit of light into the space. Peter and his brothers can see perfectly well at this low level of light, but the man must not. His foot fumbles around before he finally finds and kicks a package of those soft, pink ball-shaped things towards the spiders, who were too nervous to approach him for it earlier. 

 

“Those are apparently really good, by the way. My daughter loves them. Never really understood the appeal, though.”

 

Ben picks it up and moves it to the foodstuff pile.

 

After an uncomfortable pause, the man tugs at the webbing holding his arm and hand to the armrest. “Uhm. Okay, would you like me to stay while you shuffle through that stuff?”

 

Ben makes a small noise, “It’s not up to us.”

 

The man rubs at his eye with the heel of his hand, voice sounding more tired than before. “Uh, yeah it is. This is your space now.” He cuts off a yawn, making Peter force himself not to mirror the gesture. “Your floor, your rules. Also I’m sort of glued to furniture at the moment, I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to.”

 

After a moment of silent deliberation, Kaine cautiously goes over to the armrest. 

 

“You don’t have to use your arm things if it hurts, kid,” the man says. “There’s probably a perfectly good knife or something in the drawers over there.”

 

“Doesn’t hurt,” Kaine lies again. “And a knife’s not sharp enough.”

 


 

The man gives a waved goodbye as he leaves, ending with a goodnight and a promise to be back tomorrow. 

 

After he’s gone, the spiders sit alone with their thoughts on the dim floor for what feels like hours, wrapping themselves in the heavy blanket of silence. Ben pokes idly at one of the packages of sweets on the floor, something called Oreos, but no one seems to be hungry.

 

When they finally collect their thoughts, they start to explore the rest of the floor. The living room feels too open to sleep in, so they pick one of the three bedrooms. It's lavish, with a tall ceiling and wide dressers, the large king-sized bed made with silky-soft sheets sitting comfortably against the wall. The rooms a navy blue color, but looks almost black in the dim atmosphere. The bed feels too unprotected too, just laying there on the ground, so they start to collectively build a thick sheet of webbing that hangs in the middle of the room like a giant hammock. It’s high enough above the floor so that if the man came back, he wouldn’t be able to reach them.

 

The bed is raided and stripped of its sheets, comforters and pillows, serving as the soft finishing touches to their makeshift web-bed. 

 

Numbly, moving around each other like they’re made of glass, they all try to get comfy in the mass of web and cotton. Peter curls up next to Kaine, knocking their shoulders together, and Ben takes his place on the eldest’s opposite side.

 

“How’s your leg?” Ben whispers to Peter, as if they were back at home trying to not make noise after light’s out.

 

“Only a sprain,” Peter whispers back. It barely even hurts now. 

 

It feels good to be next to his brothers again, feeling their grounding warmth, hearing their heartbeats. He burrows deeper into Kaine’s side, pulling the thick duvet tighter around himself to try and chase that familiar comfort. After being separated and forced to sleep apart from them for days while in the hands of Fury, he never wants to leave their side again. He tries to focus on their heartbeats, the low hum of an air conditioning unit somewhere in the walls, but he can’t seem to fall asleep. 

 

He’s not the only one having trouble, though. The web shifts and bounces with every little movement and adjustment. 

 

Frustrated, Peter turns over and stares hard at the blank ceiling above him. There’s a tightness in his chest he can’t shake, no matter how many times he tries to force it down or beat it back. 

 

“You will never go back to that place again. You’re free.”

 

 

***

 

A twelve-year-old Peter hangs upside down on a rope by his knees, bagel crumbs falling to the floor as he munches away. Kaine is still down by the long breakfast tray, picking away at fruit slices and yogurt cups.

 

Once the bagel’s gone, Peter swings upwards and runs along the tightrope to the hidebox in the far corner. A baby blue blanket spills out of one of the holes in the box, and Peter scurries up a short rope ladder to his target. He tugs hard on the blanket, yanking it off the hidebox's sole remaining occupant and letting it flutter to the ground below. 

 

Ben grumbles at the rude awakening, curling harder into himself. His younger brother kicks out at him. “G’way…”

 

“You’re missing breakfast!” Peter chirps. If he doesn’t get out soon it will disappear back into the wall! And lunch is never as tasty as breakfast! 

 

Peter squeezes his way into the hidebox, mussing his brothers gold hair around. “L’ve me ‘lone Pete...” Ben growls and shoves him away, kicking harder at him.

 

The brunette grins devilishly, and starts to pull his brother out by his legs. 

 

Ben yelps as the hidebox floor is suddenly being replaced by air. “Peter!”

 

“Breakfast!” Peter whines.

 

Ben lands a solid kick to Peter’s chest, and he lets go, laughing. He catches himself on the rope swing. Ben, awake now, continues his attack, now more playful than angry. Peter has to dodge a hand that comes to snag the collar of his black t-shirt. 

 

Peter brachiates gracefully down through the descending levels of ropes, followed closely by Ben. The youngest spider eventually catches up, tackling him from behind to sail onto the floor with a solid whoomph. Peter squeaks as all the air pushes out of his chest. 

 

The two go rolling across the ground, one over the other until they blow past Kaine and crash right into the breakfast tray. Ben has him pinned to the tray, and yogurt and squashed fruit immediately soaks Peter’s hair and shirt, chilling his skin.

 

Kaine makes an indignant noise, holding his precious handful of blueberries away from the carnage.

 

Not wanting to let Ben escape unscathed, Peter grins and reaches over to grab one of the many smoothies on display. He splashes the green liquid on his brother’s face. 

 

Ben squeals, “Hey!” He backs off, letting Peter sit up. The fruit mash and yogurt seep uncomfortably down the back of Peter’s shirt and pants. 

 

Kaine’s unimpressed. “I am not going to be the one telling Connors about this.”

 

A while later, the punishment of having to sit around in their boxers while their clothes are washed is almost made worth it to just bask under the warmth of the heat lamp.

 

***

 

Peter stops the mech’s fist before it can connect with his face, held at bay just an inch from his nose. The hulking figure towers over Peter, its face contorted in an awful grimace framed by a shiny golden headbandy-thing. Every inch of this mech is rippling muscle, and a golden band stretches over its bare chest that matches the skirt that covers its waist. 

 

He wishes that the Doctors would give these t hings actual names so he wouldn’t have to call it Muscle-Man Number Whatever in his head all the time. This thing is easily up there with the heaviest hitters, though. It’s a close tie between this one and the one with the dumb hammer for the title of Peter’s Least Favorite Mech and Maybe Worst Nightmare award.

 

As Peter distracts, his brothers circle around for an opening. Ben dives for its legs, knocking the thing out from under itself. Peter, panting and sweating, breaks away as soon as it lands with a heavy thud on the training mat. 

 

It’s not enough time to go for a kill. Muscle-Man rights himself in the blink of an eye, silently snarling at he and his circling brothers. 

 

Connors calls from the sidelines, tapping a stopwatch. “That was a clean sweep, Ben. Hurry it up.”

 

The praise perks up Ben, and they start to circle tighter. Kaine and Ben both rush the mech at once, dividing its attention into two separate directions, while Peter jumps up to a nearby hanging wall, getting into position. His brothers web the mechs legs to the floor at the same time they do his arms, pulling them taught across his body. One of the hulking arms breaks free, and Kaine has to frantically re-web and pull it tighter so it can’t have the chance to fully free itself.

 

In position, Peter drops onto the mech’s head, wrapping his legs around where its windpipe would be if it was living. Muscle-Man struggles viciously, trying to shake Peter off and free its mighty arms from the tight web-snares his brothers have it in. 

 

Peter looks to where the Doctors are watching, expectantly. 

 

“Break it,” Warren orders, not looking up from where he’s scribbling on his clipboard.

 

Peter unwraps his legs from the mech’s neck. He takes a good hold of it’s jaw, positioning his feet in the middle of its hairy back. The mech’s mechanical spine snaps with a sickening crack, and the thing falls lifeless onto the mat.

 

Panting, Peter and his brothers untangle themselves from the mech and go to kneel on the mat in front of the Doctors. 

 

Connors goes over to appraise the mech first and order someone to go put it away to be fixed later, leaving the spiders alone on the mat with Warren. 

 

Warren examines the battle damage they took while fighting. When it’s Peter’s turn, the Doctor roughly turns his face to the side with a stern hand and his greying mustache quirks into a frown when he spots the nasty bruise on his jaw where Muscle-Man got a lucky punch in. He rubs a thumb over the purpling blotch, eliciting a wince from the spider.

 

“Is it broken, Three?” He asks. 

 

“No, sir,” he’s quick to answer. 

 

“Hrm. Be more careful next time,” the Doctor says.

 

The spiders straighten up when Dr. Connors finally comes over. His touches are nowhere near as rough as Dr. Warren’s. Peter internally starts to quiver in excitement -- he did the best out the three, he knows it! Kaine fumbled a catch and a command, and Ben wasn’t fast enough to end it when he knocked the mech down! He preformed the best!

 

Dr. Connors draws a long gaze over the spiders kneeling on the mat, staring ardently up at him.

 

The one-armed Doctor smiles, “You did good today, boys. You dispatched it in under 20 minutes; a very impressive time for one of your toughest opponents. And with minor injuries, no less!” 

 

They all beam at the praise. 

 

Then there’s a hand in his hair. Peter’s lips part in a silent gasp before he closes his eyes, leaning eagerly into the touch. The Doctor’s only hand drags languidly through his locks, gentle fingers carding through his curly hair in tender, kind strokes. Peter desperately tries to savor the contact, inwardly bubbling over with happiness. He did the best! Dr. Connors is proud of him!

 

“Good job, Peter,” Connors praises. 

 

The Doctor’s hand pulls away from his hair as quickly as it came. He doesn’t give the other two spiders an affectionate touch.

 

Peter wears the smile he has for the rest of the day, falling fast asleep with a warm feeling seated deep in his chest.

 

 

***

 

 

Something twists itself painfully in Peter’s breast.

 

“You will never go back to that place again. You’re free.”

 

He hears Ben’s breath hitch, the sudden spasm of his chest sending a gentle shockwave through the rest of the web-nest. 

 

Peter’s own breath hitches in kind, his airway shuttering as he tries to get a hold of himself. He hiccoughs softly into the blankets. He tries to take a deep breath but something in his airway closes, a lump rising to the back of his throat. 

 

They’re all that’s left. The labs...gone. Peter lets the thought wash over his mind, seeping at the edges of his resolve like a creeping river of lava. The life they once knew is gone . Smashed, hollowed-out, emptied, abandoned underground somewhere. They haven’t seen anyone since that day, not Connors, not Warren -- not even a mech!

 

They’re all that’s left. They’re all they have left. 

 

Peter hiccoughs again into the blankets, balling the fabric into his face, trying to quell the sudden flow of hot tears down his cheeks. Ben starts to sniffle as well, and Kaine’s breathing picks up, heaving and shuttering. 

 

Mourning takes over. Peter sits up in the web to desperately cling onto his brothers, the two other spiders doing the same. Peter instinctively fists his hands into the fabric of Kaine’s shirt, keening pitifully into the eldest’s heaving shoulders. A whimpering Ben then wriggles himself between them, his damp cheek pressing against Peter’s own. 

 

It’s gone. Home’s gone. The thought curls itself around his heart, prickly and razor sharp, settling home behind his hollow sternum.

 

“You’re free.”

 

Peter throws his head back and begins to wail.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

A very, very tired Tony Stark steps out of the elevator onto one of the many common floors of the new Avengers compound. In front of him is a handful of Avengers, sitting on sofas and a barstools huddled around a television playing surveillance footage of the room, courtesy of Karen. Natasha, Clint, and Bruce all turn away from the TV to face him as he enters into the much brighter living space. 

 

Clint slings an arm over the back of the couch. “You’re back!” He jeers, “And you still have all ten fingers! You have no idea how close we were to running up when they had you just dangling there like the world’s ugliest piñata.”

 

“Thank you very much for not doing that,” Tony says, rubbing at his eyelids. Yeah, not his smartest play -- forgetting about the whole wall-crawling thing. To be fair, teenagers hiding on the ceiling is not something one would normally expect. 

 

“Are you hurt?” Bruce asks from the opposite end of the couch. 

 

Tony can feel fresh blood drip down the back of his throat from where his face smashed into the floor. “My nose is bleeding again, but not broken. Other than that? Nah.” He was right in his assumption that they wouldn’t attack unless provoked. They seemed apprehensive to even approach him, especially Peter. He recognized his look of quiet apprehensiveness, the boy obviously either felt guilt over hitting him earlier or fear about the attack being reciprocated. 

 

Thoughtfully, he wipes his bloody nose with the collar of his t-shirt. 

 

Natasha shifts in her barstool seat, nodding towards his arm. “Nasty bruise you have forming there,” she observes. 

 

He turns his arm around, and yeah, it looks pretty bad. In bright shades of blotchy purple and sickly green, you can clearly see a set of fingers wrapping around his whole forearm as if the kid had dipped his hand in paint before grabbing him. He runs a light touch over the bruised skin, the injury sending small twinges of pain up to his elbow.

 

“Yeah, kid’s got a grip of solid steel. It’s no biggie.”

 

Natasha folds her arms on the back of the barstool. “It wouldn’t be ‘no biggie’ if he decided to grab your neck instead.”

 

“Jesus, you sound just like Fury,” Tony exhales, dragging his hands down his face. “Sure, he could have , but he didn’t . He just wanted me to drop the remote.”

 

Bruce gets off the couch and walks over with a handkerchief, offering it to the billionaire after the edge of his t-shirt is too soaked with fresh blood to properly wipe any more away. The green giant asks, “What are you going to do about that anyway? We don’t have a safe way of defusing dangerous situations anymore, should they arise.”

 

Tony gratefully accepts the cloth and waves a dismissive hand in the air. “I’ll get Karen and Friday to synchronize with the frequency of their bands. We can dose them that way if anything really crazy happens, but only as a last resort. Like, ‘Kaine’s arm knives are in my chest’ sort of last resort.”

 

“Why didn’t you dose them as soon as they strung you up? That seems like quite a dangerous position to allow yourself to be in,” Natasha questions.

 

Is she serious? Tony pinches the handkerchief over his nose. “Because dosing them would only exacerbate this whole problem. Would you feel safe if you felt like you could be paralyzed at the drop of a hat? They’re allowed to act on their emotions without fear of being drugged into a stupor. Like I said, using the bands is only a last resort.”

 

Tony goes over to lean on the bar counter. “Hell, honestly the remote being smashed is a good thing! They probably feel safer than ever right now!”

 

Like the punchline of a bad joke, Friday’s voice cuts through the room, echoing gently off the walls and interrupting their conversation. “Boss, Karen has alerted me that the boys are currently experiencing acute distress.”

 

Tony’s head snaps up from where he was running tired fingers through his hair. “What?”

 

The TV is showing an angle from the dark living room, the pile of food and clothes left abandoned near the coffee table. The kids are nowhere to be seen. 

 

“Fri, show us the kids.”

 

The TV switches to an angle from one of the bedrooms, half of the camera lens covered in webbing. There’s a huge mat of the substance that stretches from wall to wall, meeting in a giant hammock covered in all sorts of bedding and pillows in the middle of the room. The bedding is arranged in a circle, like some twisted  facsimile of a messy bird's nest, and in the center of the mess of silk and cotton are all three kids. 

 

They’re pressed together, heaving and sobbing and shaking apart on the web. One of them has his head thrown back in an anguished caterwaul and the haunted noise echoes through the speakers and around the common floor. He watches them clutch onto each other, trying to draw each other impossibly closer, the other two breaking out into keening sobs that they try to muffle in each others clothes and the webbed-up bedding.

 

Tony’s heart constricts like it’s being squeezed by an angry Hulk. His first instinct is to rush back up there, comfort them as best he can with soothing words and promises, but he knows that in the delicate state they’re in it would likely only upset them more. They asked him to leave, after all. The kids’ wails ring with deep, hurting grief and each piercing cry that tears its way out from behind gritted teeth sends a spear of pain right through his heart. 

 

Did he do that? Was it something he said? He racks his exhausted brain over the conversation they had for something that could have caused this reaction.

 

He croaks weakly, “Was...Was I too harsh in saying that the lab they came from is gone? Was that the wrong thing to say?”

 

Over the keening whines echoing from the television, Natasha softly says, “No, they would have understood eventually. Better sooner rather than later.”

 

Tony’s heart sinks. This doesn’t sound like them realizing that the lab is gone -- that would have been obvious to them, wouldn’t it? They went back, they saw how thorough SHIELD was at clearing the place out. No, this feels like they’re finally grieving the loss of a life they once had.

 

Clint turns down the volume on the TV, shaking his head. “Sorry, it’s just...”

 

Tony fists his hands in his hair, his nose almost grazing the cool marble of the bar counter. 

 

Natasha’s hand comes to rest on his back. “You need to explain the entire situation to them, everything. They have to know the stakes they’re up against -- all the whys, whats and hows you can give them. If you keep dancing around the important topics with simple promises of ‘being safe here’ or ‘you’re free to be kids now’, they’re not going to get it and will keep resisting.”

 

Tony nods slightly. He was going to explain the situation in more depth to them, but that whole plan got, quite literally, flipped upside-down. Then he was doubly distracted by the way Kaine’s enhancements self-mutilate him and how the kid seemed okay with it. The boy froze up like no one had asked him if it hurt in years, maybe even his entire life, and then the kid felt it was necessary to lie about it. 

 

Natasha’s right, he needs to keep this in perspective. These are three near-adult boys who have absolutely no reference point in which to judge what a normal life should look like. Promises about being free now and whatever are useless if the recipients don’t know what free or safe are supposed to mean in the first place. He needs to go about this in a different way.

 

Exhaustion pulls heavy on his eyelids. How long has it been since he slept? Two days? Two and a half?

 

He spares a glance at the screen again. Their caterwauls have died down to mere broken sobs punctuated with fits of bitten-off whimpers, the boys desperately comforting each other in the darkness of the room. 

 

Tony picks himself off the bar and drags his feet towards the elevator to retreat to his own floor for a well deserved, week-long coma. “Yeah, I’ll try to explain everything tomorrow. Let me know if anything happens.”

 


 

“Oh baby, you’re the only thing in this whole world that’s pure and good and right…”

 

Tony jerks awake on the workshop couch to the sound of his ringtone.

 

“ -- and wherever you are and wherever you go, there’s always gonna be some light -- ”

 

He sits up, the handkerchief that was covering his eyes falling into his lap with a damp plop. He fumbles around for the phone before the loud chorus has a chance to start. He finally finds it, turning the screen over to see the caller ID.

 

Click.

 

The billionaire rubs the sleep out of his eyes, smiling when he sees Pepper’s face appear on the screen. “Hey Pep,” he croaks.

 

Her eyes widen when she finally sees him. “Hey how -- Jesus, what happened to you? You look like you took a semi to the face!”

 

“Thanks. I certainly feel that way.” He spares a look at the clock. Five o’clock in the morning. He’s been asleep for roughly ten hours but it feels like only minutes. 

 

“I...take it the introduction didn’t go well?” Pepper says, worry creasing her features. 

 

“Just swimmingly. Peter got a lucky punch in, but this shiner is more Fury’s fault than his. You should’ve seen the way Fury was keeping them. They were stressed out of their minds, Pep.”

 

Pepper makes a interested noise. "Peter? Is that one of --"

 

A smaller voice perks up over the line. “Peter?! Did you figure out their names? Did I guess right?” Morgan chirps, and the phone shakes as Pepper fights to accommodate both of their faces on the screen. The four-year-old blinks dumbly when she finally sees her father. “Your face looks crazy.”

 

Tony smiles, “Thanks, Mo.”

 

Morgan leans closer to the phone screen. “What’s that on your face? You look like a mummy.”

 

“It’s a big band-aid,” he answers. “Peter was angry and hit me pretty hard.”

 

Morgan pouts. “That’s mean!”

 

Pepper cuts in, “Are they settled in?” 

 

Tony rubs more sleep out of his eye, sitting up to lean back comfortably on the workshop’s couch. “Er, they’re definitely in , but not settled. They’re living on the top floor of the west wing. They’re -- uh, actually, I’ll just show you.”

 

He puts the phone down to reach over and turn his Starkpad on, quickly asking Friday to pull up a live feed of the kids, wherever they are. He holds up the tablet to the phone. “Here they are.”

 

Two of the boys are fast asleep, but Kaine is wide awake, sitting stock-still on the web and sort of slumped over in clear exhaustion. Ben’s head is cradled in his lap while Peter is curled around Kaine like an oversized snake, belly pressed up against the eldest’s lower back. All their faces are twisted in worry and both Ben and Peter are twitching slightly in their sleep.

 

“Is that one playing lookout?” Pepper asks. 

 

He watches Kaine drag calming fingers through Ben’s short hair after a particularly violent twitch. “Yeah, I think he is,” Tony sighs. Something about that makes his heart sink.

 

“Poor kids…” Pepper murmurs.

 

“Are they why you won’t let us come home?” Morgan pipes up. She juts her bottom lip out in a over-the-top pout. “Have you replaced me?” She says, but the accusation has that cheeky lilt to it that let’s Tony know she’s joking.

 

“Oh, I don’t know -- what’s the trade-in deal for three teenage mutants in exchange for one normal four-year-old girl? Peace of mind for once?” Tony huffs, and Morgan giggles. “You’ll be able to come home in a week or so. Hopefully they’ve calmed down by that time.” 

 

Pepper sighs, “Okay, but remember you have other responsibilities besides those three, alright? Don’t let the company tank because you tunnel-visioned out on helping a few strays.”

 

“Company? But that’s what I have you for, Peps,” he winks as well as he can muster with his good eye. Pepper makes a decidedly unamused face.

 

“We’ll talk about that later,” she deadpans. 

 

They talk for a few more minutes, sleep beckoning Tony back into its dreamy abyss with every blink of his eyes, until Pepper notices how wiped out he is and lets him go. 

 

After their usual goodbye, she says, “Be careful, okay, Tony?” 

 

“Always,” he ends, rubbing at the scratchy gauze.

 


 

After another hours-long power nap, he manages to pull himself away from the couch to get to work.

 

He needs to go about approaching them, talking to them, and relating to them in a different way. Yesterday was the prototype, so to say. Today has to be the alpha build -- better, stronger, more prepared.

 

He pours over the files again, soaking up every little bit of personal information that there is of the boys, of which there is painfully little of. There’s nothing written about their likes or dislikes, their hobbies (if they have any to begin with, given their circumstances), or their individual personalities -- even within the documents that come directly from the lab. Everything is upsettingly written without any attention to their individuality in mind, clinical and direct.

 

Even so, by late morning he has the beginnings of a game plan for the day, or even the next few days if all goes well.

 

With a quick check-in on Karen to make sure the boys are up and awake, he starts for the common floor to make breakfast. 

 

Although lacking in personal information, the files are infinitely informative on most everything else -- including dietary needs. He piles the biggest plate he can find high with a tower of crunchy, burnt toast and two heaping servings of bacon and scrambled eggs, hopefully enough to fill the bellies of three growing teens with mutant appetites that rival the Captain’s. His cooking isn’t stellar, but it smells tasty enough, he hopes.

 

Food precariously balanced between his two arms, he makes his way to the west wing elevator. He runs into Bruce along the way, and the green giant smiles and says he’s going to keep an eye on the situation from the common floor through Karen’s surveillance system. 

 

In the elevator Friday gives him another heads-up. “They have been alerted to your arrival.”

 

Considering what happened last time, he can’t help but feel a little nervous as he takes light steps out into the dim hallway. Light streams in through the living room’s floor-to-ceiling windows, illuminating the place comfortably, but the ceiling lights are still dimmed. Enhanced senses, he realizes. Bright lights probably bother them.

 

He doesn’t go far down the hallway, only a few feet at most, setting the cooling plate of breakfast down on the wooden floor. Learning from his mistakes, he gives the ceiling a searching once-over, but they’re not there.

 

“Kids? I have breakfast,” he calls out into the floor. He cranes his neck out into the living area, spotting that the clothes pile has been raided, but the snacks have been left where they’re piled, along with the two toys he pilfered from Morgan.

 

A thud sounds from one of the bedrooms to his right. He looks up to a sandy-blond boy peeking upside down from the bedroom doorway, blue hoodie slumping with the pull of gravity and threatening to consume his head.

 

“Hey, Ben,” he greets as cheerfully as he can. “Did you sleep well, kid?” The boy looks from Tony to the food and to Tony again, before his eyes narrow. He disappears from the doorway.

 

After a moment, three more thuds sound. And Ben is back, with friends this time, all crowding around each other while they peek upside down through the doorway. They too, send suspicious looks between the large plate of food and the man behind it.

 

“I brought breakfast,” he smiles disarmingly. The billionaire sits down on the wooden floor to make himself less threatening. “Bacon, eggs, and toast; the essentials.”

 

Slowly, Peter starts to crawl forward. He inches onto the ceiling, pauses, then makes his way down the hallway wall on all fours like a human spider. His slow, methodical, predatory movements along the ceiling and wall are so over-the-top Tony gets the impression that the boy is fishing for some sort of reaction. When he reaches the floor, he crouches low, keeping a close, keen eye on Tony. He can feel the hard stares of the other two boring holes into him as well.

 

Tony scoots back on his butt to encourage him closer to the plate. “C’mon, it’s alright.”

 

Peter lunges forward. The boy snags the plate and drags it away, down the hallway and towards the living room. He yanks it away so hard that a few pieces of the toast tower tumble off the plate, and he leaves a trail of yellow, fluffy eggs in his wake.

 

Tony swipes up the pieces of toast that fell, but the kids left hanging in the doorway spring into action. A web snags the toast in his hand, and startled, Tony drops the food only for it to be reeled back into the hand of Ben before he crawl-swings over to where his friend has the plate. 

 

All three boys crowd around the food at the end of the hallway, right on the threshold of the living room. Each of them is in a mish-mash of their old clothes and clothes they got from SHIELD, with Ben and Kaine in oversized hoodies and sweatpants and Peter only putting his green jacket over the white shirt and gray sweatpants SHIELD gave them. Tony takes the few plastic forks he had in his back pocket and slides them down the hall.

 

“Dig in,” he encourages. “It’s alright.”

 

After a heavy pause, Peter and Ben start to tentatively nibble away at the toast and eggs.  When Kaine doesn’t immediately join in, he’s worried that he will refuse offered food like he did back in SHIELD's custody, but as soon as he sees his friends start eating he quickly dives for the last fork.

 

They’re absolutely wolfish in their eating habits, and Tony idly wonders if they ever had anyone scold them for their table manners. Come to think of it, they’ve probably never eaten at a real table before. He can’t recall seeing any furniture of any sort in their cage back at the lab. Food is pushed carelessly around and off the plate as all three simultaneously try to scrape every last morsel onto their fork. 

 

Tony immediately realizes that one plate is, apparently, not enough. He watches them meticulously pick up and eat every bit of egg and bacon piece, doing everything just shy of picking the plate up to lick away the toast crumbs. Once finished, the boys return their full attention to him with narrowed eyes.

 

Tony clears his throat.

 

“First of all, I want to apologize if something I said yesterday hit too close to home. I would be upset too if someone said...those things to me,” he starts. Whether or not they needed to hear that, he just had to put it out there. If he didn’t get that off his chest it would have surely haunted him.

 

The boys don’t so much as twitch from their places around the plate. If anything, they look even more suspicious.

 

Here we go. Tony takes a deep breath, fully prepared to start explaining the situation to them. 

 

“Who do you work for?” Kaine interjects, sharply. “Do you work for the mutant hunters?”

 

Tony’s mouth clamps shut mid-breath. What?

 

“What?” The billionaire stutters.

 

The cleaned-off plate is kicked towards him, screeching lightly across the floor. It hits his folded knees with a light thunk. “You heard me,” Kaine says, lowly. “Are you a mutant hunter? Friends of mutant hunters? Ceiling lady says you’re not but she’s just a robot.”

 

Tony blinks. “‘Mutant hunter’...?”

 

Kaine hisses, frustrated, ”Like Fury! Like the metal man! Whatever!”

 

Metal man? Oh , himself. Did the lab not tell them the names of the LMDs they were raised fighting against?

 

”No, no! I’m not...a ‘mutant hunter’,” he soothes. “And Fury’s a part of SHIELD, they don’t, uh,” he stammers.

 

”They caught us,” Peter growls, “And you seemed to act nice to Fury.”

 

”Because I was trying to help you!” Tony says. “He was going to keep you there, in the Fridge, separated until he had a place to shove you out of his way. I struck a deal with him to get you out of there.”

 

Ben shifts uncomfortably from where he sits on his ankles, legs tucked up into his huge blue hoodie. He looks impossibly younger in the oversized clothing. “You bought us?”

 

”No! Absolutely not!” He points a finger at Ben, “And it disturbs me that that’s the first thing that pops into your scruffy teenage head. Maybe ‘deal’ isn’t the right word. I convinced Fury to let you guys live here instead, and not in a cell in the Fridge or in a room at Headquarters.”

 

”Why?” Kaine asks.

 

”’ Why?’ Are you serious, kid? I feel like we’re going in circles here,” Tony runs his hands through greying hair. “Look, I’m just trying to keep you out of worse hands. You’re here for six months and if you’re not adjusted by that time, Fury will come back and take you away.”

 

A chorus of incredulous noises spill from the boys.

 

”Six months?” “Adjusted?”

 

Kaine stuffs his hands in the pocket of his black hoodie and he hisses, “Adjusted to what?”

 

”Er, well. Outside. Not being in a glass cage day in and day out.” 

 

Peter pulls on his jacket strings and mumbles, “Not a cage…”

 

Tony compromises, “Okay, sure. Not a cage.” he says, before muttering under his breath, “It definitely was, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

 

“If you’re not a mutant hunter, then what are you?” Kaine continues. 

 

“I’m not a mutant hunter! I’m a -- a friend of mutants! I have mutant friends!” Tony squawks. Jesus, since when did this become an interrogation? “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but there’s no such thing as mutant hunters!”

 

Peter bristles, the teen curling a little more into himself, “Liar! That’s how Doctor Connors lost his arm! Hunters cut it off for fun!”

 

“And then they ate it!” Ben adds.

 

Tony reels, shaking his head in disbelief and blinking dumbly. It feels like someone took a sledgehammer to his thought process. Connors, that was one of the names in the files, wasn’t it? He remembers that name plastered all over an interview transcript. Just what stories were those bastards feeding these kids? This sounds like something Morgan would spout about the monster under her bed!

 

Tony holds up his hands, trying to quell the rising tension in the air. He compromises again, “Yeah, okay. That’s awful. Really awful, I’m sorry that happened. Honestly, I’ve never heard of such a thing, but either way I’m not one of them nor am I friends with anyone like that, okay?”

 

“How do we know?” 

 

Tony sputters uselessly. “Wh -- huh?”

 

“How do we know you’re not just lying to get us to let our guard down?” Kaine accuses.

 

“Wha -- ? Okay, look. I can’t prove myself to not be something that doesn’t exist in the first place,” he starts.

 

The boys growl in response, objecting vehemently. 

 

“You -- “ “You don’t under --” “Mutants -- ”

 

Ah-ah! The adult is talking now,” he barks, stopping them before they have a chance to verbalize their complaints. He tried to be understanding, but Nat’s right, no more pussy-footing around the hard stuff. “I know what you’re going to say. Mutant hunters do this, mutant hunters did that. It’s obvious that they’ve told you some sick stuff about the outside world, and that’s okay. We’re going to work on that.”

 

“But if you really don’t want to believe me, let’s look at this objectively -- you guys are smart cookies, right? Here’s your options: you stay here for six months in a comfy top-floor suite, living and learning and healing in the sun, or you go back to Fury to live with him and his agents. Or would you like option three? You run away to live on the streets until SHIELD or somebody much, much worse eventually catches you again when you’re weak and half-dead of starvation in an alley somewhere. Those are your choices. And frankly, I know which one I would pick.”

 

The floor suddenly is engulfed in a wave of silence as he allows his words to sink in. The boys have gone mute, all three mouths still hanging open, as if they still have the venomous bite of a rebuttal on the tip of their tongues, until something shifts. Their mouths close and their brows scrunch together in confliction, before their eyes finally cast downward. In the tense moments that follow, the silence is only punctuated by the uncomfortable shift of fabric over wood floor as the boys anxiously squirm at the far end of the hallway. His heart pangs a little in guilt for being so horribly blunt when he sees Peter bite his lip and go glassy-eyed, but he can see the wheels turning in their heads. He has to make them understand they can’t go anywhere else, teenage stubbornness be damned. 

 

Kaine breaks the delicate silence, his once-accusatory voice now much more resigned, accepting. He fixes a fragile stare right into Tony’s eyes when he asks, “...After the six months have ended, what happens to us?”

 

Tony nods, answering in the gentlest timbre he thinks he’s ever used, “We’ll find you a permanent home -- a lucky family that would love to take in three very special boys that have lived very special lives.”

 

For a few precious heartbeats Kaine seems to search his face for something, before his hard eye contact finally breaks. His gaze gently slides down to where his hands are balled in the fabric of his sweatpants, his long hair falling over his face, obscuring his eyes. Like popped balloons, the kids’ shoulders droop and their gazes return downward, visibly submitting to their situation. The tension in the air dissolves, only to be replaced by the heavy miasma of forced resignation. 

 

The great Iron Man musses a hand through his hair, uncomfortable with the heavy atmosphere but confident that what he’s told them is what they need to hear, no matter how guilty it makes him feel. When the pause gets too much to bear, he does some silence-breaking of his own. 

 

“Okay, I think we need a fresh start, a clean slate. Let’s start over from the very beginning. I’m Tony Stark, head of Stark Industries, a tech company. And you three are Ben, Peter, and Kaine, boy wonders.”

 

The teens maintain carefully neutral expressions with the sudden switch in topic. 

 

He gestures to the walls around him, “This place is an SI-owned secure compound, and also my home, sort of. I hope to eventually let you guys explore the whole place, but first -- ” Tony pushes aside the picked-clean plate and stands, ignoring the way the boys at the end of the hallway tense up. “ -- I want you guys to establish your own boundaries, here, on your floor.”

 

Their faces twist minutely in confusion, so Tony clarifies. “You probably had people streaming in and out of your ca -- er, room in the lab and your cells at SHIELD whenever they wanted, right? I don’t want you three to ever feel like I’m encroaching on your space, so if you could, uh, tell me where I’m allowed to be, I’ll be able to make sure I won’t cross into where I’m not, okay?” He figures that giving them their own space to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed, scared, or angry without the fear of strangers trailing in after them will help them relax a bit, and drawing those proverbial lines in the sand could possibly help them feel more in control of their situation.

 

The teens consider his words, looking between themselves before huddling up to whisper quietly. A half-minute later, a consensus is apparently reached and Kaine turns back around. The eldest webs a neat line from wall to wall where hallway meets living room, and then slings another sticky line in front of the bedroom they slept in last night. Tony sags a little in relief. He’s just been allowed the hallway and the two other empty hallway-adjacent bedrooms. It’s honestly a lot more leeway than he thought they would give him, especially after that whole spiel about starving in alleys and whatnot! He honestly would have been satisfied if they confined him to only a few inches outside the elevator.

 

“Okay, great!” He claps once in relief, missing the way the sound makes the boys flinch. “You’ve just completed step one of the not-yet-patented Stark Recovery Program! I won’t cross those lines unless you allow me to.”

 

“Why should we trust that you won’t do it anyways?” Kaine says, giving him a nervous, side-eyed glance.

 

“Your floor, your rules, remember? This is your space, and people in the outside world like to respect each other's space, so that's what I'm going to do. From now on, no one has the authority to enter your bubble or touch you or whatever else without your explicit permission.” Tony holds his hands out to his sides, “And hey, if you ever happen to find me crossing those lines you put down, you have my full permission to string me up again, or glue me to a wall, whatever.”

 

They look taken aback by that declaration. Ben murmurs, “Really?”

 

“‘Course! But there is one more thing about the deal I made with Fury that I have to tell you, though. You can’t hurt anyone. I’m not sure how Fury’s going to exactly enforce that rule, but if it does happen I immediately have to give you three back to him.” Tony squats down on his knees. “But that should be easy to avoid now since I’ve told it to you, right?” 

 

Peter croaks, “What if someone tries to hurt us?

 

“No one here means you any harm, and I’m the only one who can access this floor,” he answers, “But if someone’s stupid enough to try and take on three spider-powered teenagers by themselves, you guys can just call on me to help, okay? You could also use your, uh, webs to stop them if you have to. Y’know, non-violently.”

 

The billionaire checks his watch. “Ah, if you guys don’t have any more pressing questions, I’m going to go again, but I’ll be back around soon to drop off some lunch.” He looks between the boys at the far end of the hallway before standing up again. “Is there anything you would like in particular food-wise? Favorite soda maybe? Favorite sandwich? Or if you want, like, a coloring book or a video game I can bring something like that too.” 

 

The teens shift in place, gazed averted and searching the wood tiling as if they’re uncomfortable with lingering on the question or could find the answers scrawled into the wood grain. 

 

“Hey, I want to make your stay here as comfortable as possible. If you don’t give me something to work with, I’m sorta at a loss here.” 

 

Ben wrings his hands in his hoodie pocket, eyes cast downward, “It doesn’t matter what we like. We’ll eat it. Don’t worry.”

 

Oh, Tony thought they were just being evasive. Do they...not have favorites? Do they think they’re not allowed to have favorites? 

 

“Are you just not wanting to tell me, or do you really not know what you like?” Tony asks, leaning down to collect the abandoned plate.

 

They don’t answer. Their heads bowed towards the floor and hands anxiously messing with sweatpants strings say enough.

 

Iron Man sighs deeply. “Okay. That’s okay. Hey,” He snaps his fingers, drawing their attention up to him. He smiles into the unsure, scruffy faces that greet him. “That just means it’ll be more fun when we figure it out together, yeah?”

 

Tony smiles, scratching at the gauze wrapped around his nose. His fidgeting dislodges something in his sinuses, allowing him to get a non-coppery breath of fresh air for the first time in a while, while also allowing him to realize the air isn’t fresh at all. The floor stinks like an adolescent locker room. 

 

“Also, side note, it smells like teenage stank in here. How long has it been since any of you showered?”

 

“A week, maybe,” Peter mumbles. 

 

“Lord help me.” He points to the bedroom he’s not allowed to enter. “There’s a bathroom connected to your bedroom in there. Use it, por favor.” He spins on his heel to leave, but freezes as a thought strikes him. “Er...have you used a shower before?” He can’t immediately recall what the files said their bathroom situation was like in the lab, and the billionaire can’t help the ugly images that start to conjure themselves up in his mind. They weren’t hosed off against a wall or something, right?

 

“We know what a shower is,” Kaine answers finally, and Tony nearly melts in relief.

 

“Good. Awesome.” Tony starts for the elevator. “I’ll see you again in a little bit. Ask Karen if you have any more questions.”

 


 

Tony nearly trips over himself as he jogs out of the elevator and into the common floor. He passes by Bruce on the couch, who turns around from where he was watching Karen’s live feed of the kids’ floor, and hurriedly dumps the plate in the sink. 

 

The billionaire spins around, hands braced behind him on the edge of the sink and meets Bruce’s amused stare. 

 

Somehow it feels like he’s just ran a marathon, totally winded after crossing over some sort of invisible finish line. He takes a deep breath. “That...That went well. Right?”

 

The green giant smiles even brighter, “Yeah, really well. You didn’t get attacked this time, so I call that a win.”

 

Tony hurries over to the back of the couch so he can see the television clearly. “Are they okay? Are they upset at all?”

 

“No, they’re okay. Just quiet,” Bruce waves a hand at the screen, “After you left they went and sat down in the living room.”

 

On the screen, he sees them seated around the coffee table, clustered close together around the pile of snacks he left the night before. They poke idly at one of the packages of pink Snoballs. The package is opened, and the marshmellowy treat is shared among them in a much more subdued manner than the wolfish fervor unleashed upon the plate of hot breakfast. The only noise filtering through the speakers is the soft crinkling of snack wrappers.

 

Bruce lurches off the couch, leaving to go do something else now that the entertainment has ended. As he goes, he taps Tony on the shoulder, reassuring, “You did good. I think they’re going to be okay.”

 

Tony watches them as they gently, softly nibble away at the sweets, their demeanor revealing an underlying air of frailness that contradicts their supposed status as engineered, organic weapons. There are kids buried somewhere deep in there -- teens that strive to rebel against parents, hang out with friends, and develop lovesick crushes -- he knows it, and he'll find it, eventually. 

 

Yeah. They'll be okay.