2. the boy who wouldn't grow up
When Peter finally drifts off in a restless, sort-of sleep like state, he's snapped back into consciousness by the sound of his door coming open with a slam. He snaps upright at the same time the harsh overhead lights turn on, blinking at the figure in the doorway a few times before forcing himself to the conclusion that he isn't having a nightmare. One is really there, carelessly playing with a lighter and whistling a song Peter thinks sounds eerily familiar.
There's specks of dried blood mixed with his light, sandy blonde hair, a sort of dreamlike smile planted on his face, while he stares back at Peter, slouched against the door casually.
"What do you want?"
The whistling stops. He pockets the lighter.
"It's not what I want," he says. "It's more like what you don't want."
"Okay," says Peter. Keep it simple. The best philosophy he knows, at least when he's dealing with One. If he refuses to play along and talk in riddles, maybe he'll just go away, find someone else to torment.
"They took Nineteen to the back room just now," he continues. "I was there. I helped, of course, you know how they like me to help when the subjects get a little… out of control. She kicked and screamed the whole way… yelling for her dead parents. So sad."
Peter clutches at his blanket, squeezing the fabric together as he makes a fist, then releases, over and over again, as he tries to chase away the fantasy playing out in his head, where he springs up from the bed and slams One's against the wall. It wouldn't take much force to knock him out, if he were able to catch him off guard, but once he decides it isn't smart, especially with the lighter – practically a deadly weapon when One's holding it – so nearby. He continues to use his blanket like it's a stress ball until he's sure he can speak without sounding rattled.
"Dunno," says One, shrugging away from the wall. He meets Peter's eyes and smiles. It's not a sincere smile. It's a taunt. "Something about sneaking food."
"Maybe they should feed her more," says Peter. "Does this conversation have a point? Or did you come in here and wake me up just for that?"
"No," he says. His grin grows bigger, wilder. "I'm supposed to escort you to the training room."
"Dude, it's 3 AM."
"I don't make the orders," he says.
With an annoyed sigh, Peter puts his shoes on and follows One through the maze of hallways. Glaring at the back of One's head, Peter notices more blood and desperately wishes he knew who it belonged to. It couldn't be Laney's. They don't allow violence between test subjects. That left the Avengers. Was One really at the point where he could kill one of them in hand-to-hand combat? Or did he have to use his powers to finish them off? Because if One fought them, they're definitely finished off. That's his job. He's a weapon, an enforcer and he's good at it. And getting even better.
As they get closer to the training room, Peter's mind moves away from One and towards his own fate. It's clear they know about the food but getting into trouble has never involved getting up in the middle of night. At least not before.
"Do you know what they want?"
"To show you off, probably," says One. "You've always been the favorite…" They stop and stand outside of the door, facing each other. "Don't look so glum, chum. It'll be fun, you'll see."
Peter has the question of what's going to be fun on his lips, but he never gets the chance to ask. One opens the door, grabs the back of his neck and pushes him inside. A blob of messy blonde hair is all he sees before the door is pulled shut again, forcing Peter to turn around and fix his attention on what's in front of him. He half-expects to see one of the Avengers charcoaled to the floor, but he doesn't. Black Widow is out cold, and is in fact, on the floor, but just a little bruised. Her chest is still moving up and down.
Monroe stands in the middle of the room with two armed guards nearby. "Good of you to join us."
Behind Monroe, the Avengers are staring at him with rapt attention, worse than the first time. Even the man who looked completely checked out before is standing closer to the glass, focused on him. Peter tries to ignore them, and his eyes move to Nat automatically. His stomach begins to knot as it starts to become clear to him what's happening, or rather, what's going to happen, what Monroe expects him to do.
"Do you feel sorry for her?" he asks, tilting his head at him. "It's your fault, you know. Had you raised an alarm when you saw an Avenger roaming the facility after dark, she might have been allowed to join her teammates. Now she gets to bleed out on the floor."
"How was I supposed to know who she was?" Peter stretches out his arm, dramatically beckoning at Black Widow. "Your turnover rate is so high, it's impossible to keep track of whose an employee and who isn't."
"Do not lie to me," says Monroe. There's something sharp about his voice that makes Peter stand a little straighter. He watches the man carefully as he closes the distance between them. Distance Peter had left there intentionally, but regardless, he stands his ground. "Let me assure you, your late-night adventures, gallivanting around this facility, stealing food and gear from my staff and passing it around to the younger kids, like some sort of pathetic, mutant Robin Hood, end tonight."
Peter doubts it. He holds no faith in Monroe or any of his staff to have intelligence enough to keep him in his room if he doesn't want to be there. The strength, maybe, if they use One, but he knows they have better things to do with him than to have him babysit all day and night.
"You have no idea what you've done. A completely good study has been ruined and terminated. We'll have to start from scratch with a new subject."
"…you killed her?" asks Peter, slowly, still trying to process the implication behind Monroe's statement. He makes another fist, but this time, there's no blanket between his fingers and he doesn't release.
"Terminated," he clarifies.
There's no room in his lungs for air. The room spins, and he might crash into the floor, any second, except a few go by and he doesn't. Peter stays upright. Another second goes by. The room isn't spinning, was never actually spinning, he realizes, and he gasps, one big, loud breath making up for the longest few seconds of his life where he forgot how to breath.
"No need to panic," says Monroe. He unclips the gun from his belt. "I am forgiving. You can have a second chance, but you'll have to clean up after your mistake first."
Monroe holds out his hand, offering him the gun and Peter takes it, hesitant, not quite believing the man's giving up his one line of defense. Had Monroe been there when they killed Laney? Did he stand by while he had staff inject her with needles until she faded away, or maybe he pushed a button on his watch, activated whatever's inside the security bracelets that makes them drop dead.
He turns the gun over in his hands. It's heavier than the ones he's used to practicing with. This one is special, loaded with bullets designed specifically to takeout mutants, in case of emergency. Looking at Black Widow, he wonders if a gunshot wound from this gun will be more painful for her. Then his eyes find Monroe again. He wonders if it will be more painful for him.
"It's time for you to grow up, Nine," he says. "Time for you to learn from your own mistakes. Shoot her."
Peter doesn't raise the gun. Makes no indication he's heard anyone speaking at all. He's vaguely aware one or two of the Avengers are shouting at him, but he's not listening, not in a place to process anything that's being yelled. Once he made up his mind though, it stops. All the noise in the room goes dim. He moves to Monroe's other side, so his back faces the glass, so he doesn't have to look at their faces while he kills someone.
Monroe's voice in the first that breaks through the wall of quiet his mind has built. "I said shoot her!"
"I don't think I will," says Peter. He's adopting a tone he's learned from One, because now the quiet is gone and there's too much noise, all in his head and he can't find the voices that belong to him. Something's broken. A cord snapped. He takes a several steps backwards, enough so he doesn't have to tilt his head up to look Monroe in the eyes. When they're on even, level ground, he raises the gun, arm strong and steady, and points it at the crazy scientist, with wild, white hair. "Maybe I'll shoot you."
"Nine – "
"-My name's Peter!" Shouting feels good. It lets the noise out of his head and into the vast room. And it's loud. So loud Peter sees Black Widow stirring from the corner of his eye, being pulled back into consciousness.
The two guards begin to move as well, shuffling forwards, hands on their own guns.
"Stay back," he orders them, calm and controlled. A rush of satisfaction comes over him. It's nice to be the one dulling out orders for a change. "Or you'll be cleaning his brains off the wall."
"You would never do it. You don't have it in you."
Monroe studies him for several seconds. "Listen to him."
The guards move backwards, but they don't take their eyes off Peter or the gun. Neither of them moves their hands away from their own guns. It's a stand-off and Peter's heart speeds up, his breathes start coming fast. He's not coming back from this one. This is different than stealing food or mouthing off. If he messes something up now, it's game over, but when his eyes fall on the tracker around his wrist, he realizes it's been game over for a while now. He's trapped. No way out. Not unless he can get the bracelet off.
His eyes narrow in on the communications watch on Monroe's hand. He shakes the gun at it. "Take that off. Don't touch the screen or I'll – "
"You'll blow my brains across the room as you so eloquently put it, yes I know," says Monroe. He begins unclasping several of the notches. "You always were a clever one. Always stubborn. Always a challenge, but don't worry. We'll cure you of that. After this little temper tantrum is over, we'll be sure to devote most special attention to you, to make sure you learn, to make sure a mess like this doesn't happen again."
He undoes the last clasp and the watch falls to the ground by Monroe's feet.
"Kick it over here," says Peter. Monroe does, sending it sliding across the floor for Peter to pick up and examine.
"Let me ask you this, Nine, what do you suppose you'll do after killing me? Do you expect to take out the entire guard? And One? Consider your future. You won't have one if you continue what're you're doing."
The words only barely register with Peter as he attempts to search through the communication device with his free hand and still keep the gun pointed at Monroe. He wouldn't need to if the guards weren't there, ready to shoot if he lowers his defense. He and Monroe both know Peter doesn't need a gun if it were just the two of them.
"How do I get this off?" asks Peter, frustrated, shaking the wrist with the bracelet on it.
"I'll shoot you."
"Do it, then," says Monroe. He smiles. It's fake, a bluff. "Some secrets are worth dying for."
"Hey. Uh, hello?"
A voice from behind Peter causes him to pause and turn his head.
"Yeah hi, I'm Tony Stark," he tells him. Peter blinks at him, confused. "Tech genius? Billionaire? No, nothing? The point is, I can get that… whatever that's supposed to be, off of you."
Peter considers him for a moment. It's one second too long. The doors slamming shut pulls his attention away from Stark and when he sees the guards are missing, that they have run away and there's no doubt in Peter's mind that they will come back with backup. With One. That's a fight Peter doesn't need. At least not right now.
"Initiate a lockdown," says Stark, as if he's reading his mind. "This place has an emergency system, right? Buy us some time and I will help you get that off."
A simple solution. Peter should've thought of that.
"He's a liar," says Monroe. "And he's trying to manipulate you. He doesn't even know how it works."
"I'll figure it out," he says. "It's made by Oscorp. How complicated can it be?"
Peter watches the two men sneer at each other, unable to trust either of them, but Stark is at least right about something. He needs to put the room on lockdown. Fast. Before One storms the room with more guards and he ends up dead. But one look at Monroe tells him he can't take the gun off him, not even for a second. He'll run, and Peter will lose leverage. Then he's struck with a powerful thought. He can make it so Monroe never runs again. He can make it so he never talks or calls him Nine or breathes ever again. He's willing to lose leverage for that.
He moves his arm and he points the gun at the small space between Monroe's eyes.
"Why don't you give the gun to Natasha?" It's Captain America this time, and sure enough, when Peter looks over, he sees Nat getting to her feet. She walks towards them. Crowding him. Pressuring him. "She'll keep an eye on him for you."
"I'm going to kill him," Peter informs them. "Then nobody will have to bother."
"You don't want to do that."
"He killed my –" But Peter stops, a sob gets stuck somewhere in his throat. What was Laney to him? A friend? Not really. More like a little sister. "He killed Laney."
"He's going to pay for it," says Captain America. "But not like this."
His arm shakes, his resolve begins to crumble, and by the time Nat stands right next to him, it's gone completely, as quickly as it arrived. She puts her hand on the top of the gun, moves it away from Monroe and towards empty space. Peter lets go. He lets her take the gun and is surprised that he breathes easier, despite being unsure if he's done that right thing, if Nat has done him a favor or a disservice.
"Kid, we're running out of time," says Stark.
He shifts his gave to the computers and starts towards them with a run, pocketing Monroe's watch as he goes. He throws himself into the desk chair and gets to work on the computer. It takes under a minute to put the training room under an emergency lockdown. A timer fills the screen. He has thirty minutes before the doors can be opened again. He jogs back over to the glass cage and gives them a confirmation in the form of a nod.
"Great," says Stark. "We can check off step one. Now I need you to get us out of here."
"Wh – I don't – "
"I know you're smart enough to know the access codes. You watch him punch them in all the time, don't you?"
"He's not even careful about it," he admits, without thinking.
Stark gives him a pained smile. It's not insincere. "How can I help you from inside here?"
"You could give me instructions – "
"Uh nuh," says Stark. "Doesn't work that way."
Theoretically, it's an easy task. It's only a matter of walking back over to the computers and typing in the correct number sequence. But Stark could be lying. Maybe he doesn't how to help him. Maybe he's not even interested in helping him. Just wants to get out. And what will him and the rest of them do once they have their freedom? Adults can't be trusted. Maybe his parents, his aunt and uncle were exceptions, but they are all gone now.
And he's alone. He has to do this alone.
"You're already in over your head," points out the third Avenger. Peter takes notice of his metal arm and looks down at his own hand, the one fixed with the tracker. "Can it really get any worse by letting us out?"
He's about to answer, when he's interrupted.
"Peter," says Monroe, looking a bit mad, a bit desperate. "Don't do you dare listen to them. You don't know what you're doing. You don't know who these people are, what they will do to you after this is over. You think we're bad? You think we've mistreated you? Everything we've done is to make you better, stronger! And you are! Look at you. But mark my words, you let them out now and you'll regret it."
Nat responds by sending her elbow into his stomach. He collapses with a groan. "He talks too damn much."
Peter had been unsure before, uncertain to the point where he couldn't imagine letting them out, but Monroe's speech clears things up for him. If he has to choose between the three strangers in the glass cage and Monroe, if he has to pick between the two to trust, his bets are on the Avengers. Besides, he does need help with the bracelet, if Stark isn't lying, and then he can be on his own, do things his way.
"Okay," says Peter.
He turns once again and starts his walk back over to the computers. Sitting back down in the black cushioned desk chair brings relief, and for the first time, he realizes how tired, how drained, he is. He rubs his eyes before moving the timer to the second monitor. Then he pulls up the operating panel a second time, except this time, he double clicks the tab labelled GLASS PRISON and enters the code that will release the prisoners. The glass panel slides up, into the ceiling and the barrier between the Avengers the rest of the room is gone.
The timer blinks. There's twenty-five minutes left on the clock.
Arrogant and incompetent. It's the very worst combination of personality traits and Tony knew, after about five minutes of being forced to listen to Monroe speak, that the man possesses both. Arrogant to think genetic testing, on human subjects, is a good idea. Even more arrogant to think those kids he experiments on wouldn't someday figure out they're the ones with the actual power, and then finally, arrogant enough to then put a gun into the hand of a child who clearly hates him.
Now, however, Tony can't find a single shred of that arrogance present on Monroe's face. Just a relatively smart, but mostly incompetent scientist, hired by Norman Osborne to carry out his dirty work in private. He's staring into the faces of a very angry Captain America, Black Widow and Winter Soldier. They've got it handled.
Tony focuses in on the kid. He's still sitting at the computers, staring at the screens and watching a giant timer tick away, as if he's hypnotized. He approaches, slowly, and Peter doesn't notice him until he's close. Instead of getting jumpy, which Tony expects, he simply turns the rolling chair with his foot to face Tony instead of the monitors.
"Ready to get that thing off you?"
"Well, I need to look it at."
"Oh, right," he says. He stretches out his hand and Tony grab his wrist, getting a closer look at the bracelet attached to it.
"It's a tracker?" Tony guesses, running his thumb along the cool, sleek black metal. He doesn't feel any groves, or any indication of where it's supposed to open.
"Yeah," says Peter. "But it's more than that. It… it's fatal, if they want it to be."
Tony nods his understanding, then repositions. He pushes the chair, and the boy along with it, closer to desk, where he takes his seat. He grabs the lamp, brings it closer and instructs Peter to put his wrist under it. Once he has a better look it, Tony knows it's bad. There's no space between the tracker and the boy's skin, as if it's embedded, as if it's a part of him, with roots planted deep under his skin.
An obvious solution comes to mind, but he rejects it immediately. Not an option.
"You don't really look like an Avenger," says Peter. He's leaned back in the chair, the dark circles under his eyes are more noticeable, either because of his proximity or because the events of the evening have worn him down. Probably, it's both.
"I didn't know there's a certain appearance to maintain," says Tony, half-heartedly. Most of his attention belongs to the bracelet.
"What do you even do?" he asks. "What are your powers?"
Tony sighs, frustrated, by the countdown distracting him, by the boy's questions and by the tracker he can't seem to figure out. It's going to have to be forced off. There's nothing on the surface to interact with. Almost as if it's not meant to be taken off.
Tony glances down at Peter, wondering if he could handle what he's about to do. Dark circles aside, he wouldn't be able to tell he's capable of holding a gun to someone's head and threatening to pull the trigger, or even beating the hell out of that HYDRA agent hours earlier. He looks so completely normal. On the outside. Appearances are tricky.
"I'm a mechanic."
Peter scrunches up his face. "So, it's not exclusive, then? Just anyone can join?"
"Natasha," he yells out, voice coming out as annoyed. "Come over here."
She frowns, affronted by being talked to that way, but joins them regardless.
"Learning anything new?"
"He's not feeling particularly chatty anymore," says Nat.
"Cap's too nice. Never get anything out of him that way."
"How are we doing over here?"
"About to be doing a whole lot better," says Tony. He holds out his hand. "My watch?"
Natasha takes it off her wrist and tosses it to him. He catches easily with one hand, slides it on and activates the gauntlet. His right arm disappears under familiar red and gold armor and Peter's eyes get wide as he tries to scoot the chair back in his shock. Tony seizes the armrest with his gauntlet hand.
"Oh, I'm sorry," says Tony, "Still not Avengers enough for you?"
"What – " Peter breathes, catches his breath. "What is that?"
"No time for explanations."
"But you –" Peter looks between Tony and Nat, as if he's putting together a complicated puzzle. His brown eyes settle on Black Widow. "You've had that this whole time? You could've – "
"Timing's everything, kid," says Tony. He grips the tracker with the ironclad hand. "And we're running out of it. This might hurt a little bit."
He starts by trying to pry it apart from Peter's skin, but the boy won't quit fidgeting. One sharp look is enough to convince him to be still, to hold his arm on the table and stop moving the chair around with his foot. Tony tries again, and he can almost see empty space between Peter's wrist and bracelet when a loud scream escapes the kid. Peter shoots back into the chair, desperately trying to get away from his grasp and when that fails, thrashes around, uncontrollably. Tony releases him. The screams are replaced by the sound of him trying to catch his breath as he slumps back into the chair, holding his wrist close to his chest, protecting it.
"Where does it hurt?"
"E-Everywhere," says Peter.
Tony looks to Natasha. "We need to see what we can do to loosen his lips."
The timer ticks down to 18:29.
"Stay here," he says to Peter, jumps off the desk and follows Nat back over to the scientist and the two soldiers. He turns his head around when he thinks of something else. "And stay awake."
The kid looks like he might pass out at any minute, and Tony needs him conscious at least until he can remove the tracker from his wrist. After that, he supposes it might be easier if he's knocked out. He doesn't expect him to come with them without a fight. Saw it in his expression earlier when he made the promise Cap has such a problem with.
But Tony's made up his mind. Peter comes with them, no matter how annoying and irritating he pretends to be.
A/N: Thanks for everyone who reviewed/favorited/followed this story last time! It really means a lot to me!
The goal is to upload Wednesdays and Saturdays, so the next one should be uploaded soon!
And as always, thanks for reading!