Peter enters the testing room wearing a black athletic shirt and black sweatpants. It's a large room, with high, retractable ceilings, a computer control panel in the corner, a glass prison off to the side and a big area they use as a training arena in the center. Peter ignores the three prisoners behind the glass and marches straight to Monroe, giving him a curt nod as his greeting. He looks like the sort of man who would be a villain in the cartoons Peter used to watch with his parents, complete with half-glasses that slid down to the end of his nose and unruly white hair. Almost comical. Almost.
Monroe is far too cruel to elicit laughs from Peter.
"Ahhh, test subject number nine," he says, glancing down at the clipboard he carries. If he had cared to look Peter in the eyes, he would have noticed the fiery warning hidden behind them.
He has a name and he still remembers it. Every time the scientists call him by his number, as if he is only the sum total of the experiments performed on him, his name flashes to the forefront of his memories.
Peter. Peter. Peter.
"How are you feeling today?" he asks.
Peter nods his head.
"I see," he says. He writes something down on the clipboard. "Have you said hello to our guests?"
He looks back over to the cage and finds he has the attention of all three prisoners. They don't look like anything special to Peter. He squints his eyes at them, tilting his head, wondering why Monroe and the others would go through the trouble of locking them up instead of just killing them on the spot. Sure, they look strong, but strong enough to beat him in a fight? Probably not.
"Why don't you go get a closer look?"
Peter manages to resist the urge to roll his eyes, but he's never mastered control over his own tongue, or attitude, for that matter. "Do I have to?"
"Yes," says Monroe. He's still looking down at the clipboard. "I believe it will be educational."
He sighs but turns and approaches the glass cage. Peter stops and crosses his arms once he's close enough to get a good look, staring at them, watching them watching him. The man standing closest to the glass is sporting a black-eye and he shoots Peter with a sharp glare, almost making him want to step away despite the glass that separates them, but he doesn't. He forces himself to stay, not daring to show any weakness. He knows better. Instead, he lifts his chin, making it clear he can't be intimidated.
Another man is sitting on the floor, looking up at him, his expression simply soft and sad. Peter can't be sure if it's for his own miserable situation, or for Peter's. He looks familiar, but he can't place him. The final prisoner is standing in the back of the cage, leaning against the wall with long black hair and not looking anywhere in particular, completely checked-out. Peter finds it doubtful the man even knows anyone is standing outside his prison.
"Do you recognize them?"
"No." Peter turns, happy for his attention to be needed elsewhere. He doesn't like having to interact with the prisoners before he's forced to fight them.
"They're the Avengers," Monroe explains.
Peter involuntary looks back at them and draws a breath, unable to control the brief wave of terror that comes over him and flickers across his eyes. He blinks it away fast. His face becomes blank, controlled, smooth - without emotion. He remembers thinking a few times his first year at the facility the Avengers would come and rescue him and the other kids. Peter never thought they would wind up here… like this. Not as someone he'd have to fight.
Monroe seems to miss his slip-up, but it doesn't go unnoticed by the man with the sharp eyes. His expression softens, and Peter immediately looks away again, shifts his eyes to the concrete floor beneath them before any of them zeros in on a weakness.
Inwardly, he's cursing at himself. His eyes give him away every time.
"How old are you, kid?" asks the prisoner.
This time Peter does take a few steps back.
"Answer him," Monroe commands.
"Thirteen," Peter's voice wavers a bit as he thinks. "Or fourteen, I think?"
Monroe's flips a few pieces of paper up and examines it. "Fourteen in two days."
"Shit," says the man.
"Does that bother you, Stark?" asks Monroe, walking across the room to stand next to Peter.
"I just didn't think you assholes would be stupid enough to do your little experiments on children," says Stark.
The separation between experiments and kid in Stark's sentence stands out. Monroe doesn't make that separation and neither do the doctors or nurses or even the people they hire to serve them their meals and clean the halls. The day Peter's parents died, he stopped being a kid and became an experiment.
"Why wouldn't we?" asks Monroe. "Don't worry. No one misses him. He's an orphan, just like the rest of them."
The man sitting against the wall stands to his feet and joins Stark by the glass. With context, Peter does recognize him. Captain America. "When we get out of here, Monroe, we're going to make you regret it."
Monroe releases a loud sigh and retreats to the center of the room. Peter stays, caught in the middle of the three avengers and the mad scientist.
Peter looks back at the cage.
"We're going to get you out of here."
He frowns at them. It's a rather arrogant statement from someone in their positions. Monroe must think so too, because he lets out a low, cold laugh.
"You really think so, Stark? He's too well trained to follow the Avengers anywhere. Follows our commands easily. Just watch."
Monroe pushes a few buttons on his communication watch and the doors opens. Two guards lead a man into the center of the room and Peter's stomach tightens. Then suddenly, he's filled with relief. So, he's not fighting the avengers? Just this random guy. He could handle that. The guards drop him, he scrambles to his feet, looking around before he sees Monroe and Peter standing off into the distance.
"Nine," says Monroe.
Peter. Peter. Peter.
Peter feels his body stand at attention. He doesn't even think about it anymore and now, after hearing Monroe talk about him as if he isn't standing right there, the realization hits him. Because he's been conditioned, like lab mice, to react that way.
"Let's give them a demonstration, shall we? Show them what our experiments have done for you."
The next few minutes pass by in a blur as Peter and the man the guards drug into the room go head to head. It takes the whole of those two minutes to knock the man out completely and for a brief second, Peter wonders if he had been going easy on him. Once the fight is over, the Avengers are looking at him now with confused, gob-smacked expressions on their faces and Peter knows it's the reaction Monroe wants from the smug smile stretched across his face.
Monroe orders him to leave and Peter walks out of the room. He doesn't look back.
It's well past midnight by now, at least he thinks it must be, but Peter's still awake. He's never slept well, although he supposes never is a word he shouldn't use. Maybe he slept through the nights before coming here, a long, long time ago. He remembers his mom tucking him into a bed much too big for him, kissing him on the cheek, his colorful bedroom with a poster of Captain America on the wall. He remembers gazing up at the glow-in-the dark star stickers his dad helped him stick to the ceiling until he drifted away into his dreams. Those nights he probably slept well. It's been so long he can't remember the feeling.
He shifts, attempting to rearrange himself on the twin bed, and cringes as the metal frame creaks beneath him. Peter lifts his arm, extending his left wrist so it's in front of his face and begins to fiddle around with black bracelet attached to him.
It's a tracker, for sure, but what else? Peter doesn't know, or at least he's not completely sure. He suspects it's an insurance policy, a way for them to make sure their research doesn't fall into foreign hands, or in other words, a device that could probably end his life with the press of a button if he runs. He's seen it before. Kids collapsing, clutching their wrists and screaming in pain, until finally they didn't have any air left to scream. Afterwards, they laid on the ground motionless or sometimes slightly twitching.
The memories are enough warning for Peter to understand getting it off is the key to escaping with his life. It's the final piece of the puzzle. After learning and memorizing all the security codes, stealing a floorplan from the incompetent moron who operates the front office and practicing scaling the walls as silently as possible, he's confident once the bracelet is gone, escaping will be a walk in the park.
Peter shoots into a sitting position, ready to fight, when his door creaks open without warning. Expecting One to come through the door, he relaxes, releases a breath, when a small black-haired girl walks into his room, gently shutting the door behind her. Her cheeks red. Her eyes watery. It's been months since her arrival and she hasn't stopped crying. He can't remember what day he stopped and started planning escape.
"Laney," he says. "Why are you out of bed? You know what will happen if they catch you out past curfew."
"Couldn't sleep," she says, quiet. She stands by his door, staring at the ground. "You're always out of bed past curfew."
"That's because I never get caught," he reminds her.
"Yeah because you stick to the walls." She smiles through her obviously forming tears and makes a crawling motion with her hand. "Like a spider."
Laney hesitantly walks further into his room, as if she's afraid Peter might tell her to leave, but when he doesn't, sits on the end of his bed. She wraps her little arms around her stomach. "My belly won't let me sleep."
"Does it hurt?"
"No. It won't quit growling."
"You've already eaten all the granola bars I gave you?"
"Yes," she says, then she looks at him, lip trembling and eye welling up. "They won't let me have dinner anymore. They say it's part of my t-training."
He shouldn't get involved. Playing big brother, as One calls it, always ends badly, but as Peter watches her wiping tears from her own eyes, he can't help it. He has to do something. First, he looks under his own bed and frowns when there's nothing there. He must've given his last box of contraband food to David the night before. His stash is completely depleted.
"It's okay," says Peter. He smiles at her, trying to reassure her, anything to get the tears to dry. It works. Just barely. "I'll just have to go get some more."
He stands, putting his feet on the cold, concrete floor and picking up his facility issued plain black hoodie, pulling it up and over his head. He slips his shoes on while he tells Laney to stay put and stay quiet and carefully opens his door, slides out of his room before shutting it as if it were a bomb that might go off if handled incorrectly.
Peter glances down at the black bracelet keeping him prisoner as he effortless navigates the halls, staying in the shadows and keeping his steps light as air. He turns left at the end of a hall, then stops dead in his tracks, senses going wild. He looks around. Nothing. No one. He frowns, but proceeds anyway, though more slowly. Carefully.
When he finally gets to the backdoor of the kitchens, he looks around once more before punching in the access code and waiting for the click to indicate the door has been unlocked. It happens seconds later and Peter grins. Incompetent. It defines every adult working in this building. Even Monroe. He opens the door, catching it with his foot and spinning around quickly and defensively at the sound of an unfamiliar voice.
"Smart boy," it says, or she, it turns out. She's dressed in all black too, with red hair and an irritatingly blank expression across her face. She narrows her eyes. "You're very young."
"And you're an Avenger," he says. It only makes sense. He's never seen her before and he doesn't believe in coincidences enough to believe a stranger prowling around after dark on the same day the Avenger come around for a little forced visitation is unrelated. "Are you here to save your friends?"
If she's surprised he knows about her Avenger-status, it doesn't reach her face. "Something like that. Do you plan on attempting to stop me?"
"I have better things to do."
He makes a move to disappear into the kitchen, but the woman reaches her arm out, a shiny watch gleaming on her wrist as she stops the security door from closing with the palm of her hand. Peter sighs and turns back around to face her, not wanting her to follow him any further.
"I suppose that means you won't help me out with the security codes," she says.
"Sorry," says Peter. "Too risky."
"But you do know them," she presses.
He shrugs, refusing to say either way.
"They call me Black Widow," she tells him, attempting a new angle, "What do they call you?"
"Experiment Subject Number Nine," he answers her. "But I'm just Peter. Wait, Black Widow, like the spider? Why?"
"It's not a story for children," she says. "And definitely not for bedtime… My friends call me Nat."
It's there again. Just like in the training room with Stark, Captain American and the other one. A continued denial of what he really is… a mutant capable of climbing up walls and tossing a tank across the room. Not a child. He isn't sure if he should welcome the distinction or be insulted by it. He guesses it's better than being referred to by a number. Better than being a science experiment.
"Whatever," says Peter, deciding to dismiss her. He pushes on the door's other side, overpowering her. "Have a nice night, Nat," he manages to tell her before he shuts it completely.
He raids the cabinets for the candy bars and other snack foods the chef and his staff keep hidden. It doesn't take him long before he finds another box of granola bars, which he empties into the pocket of his hoodie and an unopened bag of chips, which he opts to carry.
Peter half expects to see Nat the Avenger standing on the other side of the door when he opens it, waiting for him, but when he looks around and sees nothing, he takes off back down the hallway, making it back to his room in record time. Laney, as promised, is still sitting on his bed when he returns and grins wide she sees him carrying a whole bag of chips.
Laney opens it as soon as he hands it over, immediately stuffing as many as she could fit into her mouth while Peter takes the granola bars out of his pocket and tosses them near where she sits on the bed.
"Ration them out this time, okay?" He tells her, once she's eaten all the chips she wants and begins to gather the bars in her hands.
Laney nods her head. A real smile across her face. "Thanks, Pete."
She stands, granola bars in hand and walks across the room.
"Wait," says Peter. "Do you still remember? Or do you need me to remind you?"
"Laney Hall," she tells him, titling up her chin. "Eight years old."
"And your birthday? You shouldn't forget your birthday."
"June 9. It was sunny and rainy at the same time."
"Don't forget it."
"I won't," she says, same small voice as earlier, as she leaves Peter alone in the room with the grey concrete walls and no stars stuck to the ceiling.
"Please tell me this completely ridiculous mission has another purpose other than furthering your unhealthy obsession with Norman Osborn."
Black Widow stands outside the glass cage, looking down at her teammates, who are uncomfortably sprawled out with very limited space. If she wasn't too preoccupied with the short conversation she had just moments ago with Just Peter, she might have taken a few seconds, at least, to revel in their discomfort. It is, after all, their fault. They had been warned to stay away. They didn't listen.
Tony blinks up at her with a swelling black-eye and a scowl stretched across his face. "Hey, I was right, wasn't I?"
"It's not about being right."
"No," says Tony, shaking his head. "It's about turning a blind eye while Osborn runs wild, experimenting on kids, just so he gets to play mad scientist. That's clear now, thanks."
"No one is turning a blind eye," she tells him. Then looks away at the lit-up computer in the corner of the room. The monitor is blinking. "And we didn't know about the kids."
"We'll worry about that later," says Steve. "Have you found a way to override the system and get us out of here?"
"No," says Nat, suffering through a groan from both Tony and Bucky. "But I met someone who may be able to help."
"Great," says Tony. "Get them here, we'll grab the kid and be on our way."
"The kid?" Nat raises an eyebrow.
"Tony's become attached to the idea of taking one of the children with us," says Steve. He sighs and rubs his temple, giving Nat the impression she's stumbling into an argument they've been having a better part of the evening. Steve directs his attention towards Tony. "You shouldn't have promised him we would take him. We don't know what the circumstance will be when we get out, we don't know how much time we'll – "
"I don't care," says Tony. "The kid comes with us."
"What kid?" Nat asks again, making her voice louder. She has a sneaking suspicion she already knows what kid they're talking about, has already spoken with him. She's also fairly sure he's the key they need to get the cage open.
"One of the children they're running experiments on," says Steve. "We watched him take out a HYDRA agent in under two minutes, without breaking a sweat."
"Or blinking," adds Bucky, surprising Nat. He didn't appear to even be on the same planet as the rest of them, let alone able to pay attention to their conversation.
"Wait, HYDRA's here?"
"They were curious, too," says Tony. "Yes, I used past tense on purpose, because once our boy knocked him out they called another one in here to finish the job."
"Jesus," says Nat. "Children shouldn't be taught to kill."
"No kidding," says Stark. "Which is why we're taking the kid with us. The normal one. Not the deranged one."
"Let me guess," Natasha says, "Brown floppy hair, skinny, generally unimpressed attitude? That's the normal one?"
"What do you know about it?"
"He's our guy with the codes," she explains. "I trailed him as he snuck through the halls and watch him key in one of them. From our conversation, I think it's safe to say he knows more of them. Pretty tech savvy. Seems like Stark's type. Looking for an intern?"
"He doesn't care about the boy," says Bucky, with a snort. "He's just trying to piss off Monroe and Osborn. We listened to Monroe ramble on and on about he's their biggest success story and if we walk out the door with him, we leave with the culmination of their research."
"I liked you better when you didn't talk," says Tony. "Don't make me out to be so heartless, Barnes."
"Is that not the reason?"
Tony doesn't answer him, but instead clinches his jaw. "It doesn't matter what my motivations are. If he knows the security codes, we need him anyway, so I guess I win then, huh?"
Without warning the lights in the large room come on, nearly blinding all of them and the door opens. Professor Monroe and someone Natasha immediately recognizes as the deranged one marches through the door. Monroe sends her a smug smile, then points at her, glancing at the red-face, blond haired boy at his side.