In the end, Teddy was the only one who came to see him off.
“Bill wanted to,” he said, hefting a box of books higher into his arms. His smile was small and apologetic. “It’s just… hard right now.”
“Yeah,” Eli said as they tramped down the stairs together. “I get it.”
It wasn’t a line – he’d barely seen Billy since Latveria. Even less since the funeral. What he had seen had been disheveled and depressed and it was selfish, but Eli didn’t want to look at his friend like that. He only had so many of them left.
“Is that the last of it?” Teddy asked, setting the box down. He glanced, unsure, at Eli.
Eli looked down at the neatly packed stack of boxes and at the car idling by the curb. All that was left was his duffel bag, waiting upstairs on his old bed. “Yeah, this is it.”
Teddy surprised him, grabbing him up in a hug. He’d bulked up so he could carry more boxes at once, and Eli’s chin ended up planted on his shoulder. Eli wrapped his arms around Teddy’s broad back.
“Hey man, don’t embarrass me,” he said, squeezing tight. Teddy chuckled.
“Sorry,” he said, pulling back. “We’re going to miss you.”
“Me too,” Eli said. Teddy shook his head, looking off into the distance.
“The team’s not going to be the same without you,” he said.
The team was never going to be the same anyway, Eli didn’t reply. He clapped Teddy on the shoulder and said, “Tell everyone else bye for me.”
“Eli,” his grandmother said, poking her head out the door. “Come say goodbye to your grandfather.”
“Coming,” Eli called back.
“You’d better call,” Teddy said, already walking away. “E-mail, text, skywrite, carrier pigeon, whatever. Just do it!”
Eli waved him off, trying and failing to ignore the tightness in his chest. He sucked in a deep breath and walked back inside.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Just letting everyone know I’m here. It’s not New York, that’s for sure, but there’s wi-fi.
Subject: re: Scottsdale
oh man wi-fi, yessss.
Just so you know this means you don’t actually get out of the Avengers Halo tournament, okay? I checked the rulebook, ex-members can totally compete. I can only kick so much ass without you.
PS B’s not checking his mail atm but he’s fine so don’t worry if he doesn’t reply. We miss you.
So when are you going to come running back to civilization? We’ll take you back baby xoxox.
[Attached: a myspace-angled picture of Speed, sitting at the feet of the State of Liberty and sticking his tongue out.]
Subject: Come on
Are you ignoring me now?
Kate hit the bag again, hard enough to feel it in her teeth, then went at it with a kick. Two more and she doubled over, panting, as the bag swung back and forth, mocking her. Her sweaty hair stuck to her forehead.
“Hey, maybe you wanna take a break?” someone said. Kate shot her a look and she held her hands up placatingly. “It was just a suggestion.”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” Kate asked, maybe a little sharper than she’d meant to, as she grabbed her water bottle and stalked off towards the locker room. Once there she grabbed her bag and flopped down on the bench, pulling out her towel and her phone. She gulped down half the bottle while she checked her mail.
Spam, a message from her dad’s secretary reminding her of a dinner date both of them would cancel at the last minute, a mass invite to her sister’s annual garden party. An e-mail from Tommy containing a link to some stupid video, the kind of thing he and Cassie had used to trade back and forth in mass messages to the team. She just deleted them without looking now.
Eli’s message was still in her inbox, taunting her. She hit reply with a vicious stab, typed yes and then erased it so she could replace it with no, just busy, but that went too, and then she was just staring at a blank e-mail and a blinking cursor.
She didn’t know why she was mad. She hadn’t been, when he’d told her he was leaving. She’d just felt blank and empty, like she had since Latveria. Maybe she hadn’t really expected him to actually do it, to pack up and leave New York.
Kate turned off her phone.
Everyone was talking about superpowers when Eli got to school on Tuesday. He tuned it out until he realized that it wasn’t just the normal who would win in a fight – the Hulk or the Thing? and that track guy is a mutant, I swear, it’s so not fair chatter.
“Dude,” the guy who sat next to him in History said, catching him in the hall. His eyes were lit up bright and he was grinning ear-to-ear. “Did you hear about New York? Everybody’s getting superpowers!”
“Yeah,” Eli said, shoving his books away. “That’s New York for you.”
Days later Eli came home to find his whole family clustered in front of the television. He dropped his bag by the door and said, “What’s going on?”
“Oh, honey,” his mom said, shaking her head. She had her phone clutched in one hand and his youngest sister by the arm with the other. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with your grandmother but none of the calls are going through and – oh, baby, I’m so glad you’re here.”
Where else would I be, Eli started to say, but then he caught site of the television screen.
The ticker tape running at the bottom of the screen announced NEW YORK CITY UNDER ATTACK BY GIANT SPIDERS – AVENGERS MISSING? – REPORTS OF RECENTLY POWERED CIVILIANS SEEMINGLY RELATED.
“We are at this time unable to confirm any reports of New York City’s populace spontaneously gaining powers akin to those of Spider-Man,” said the newscaster. “At this point in time we are receiving no information on the apparent epidemic rampaging through New York’s streets. We go now to Chopper Charlie –”
“Thanks, Dana,” said the voice of Chopper Charlie. He was, despite his name, on the ground. “Due to the strict travel embargo placed upon New York City at the start of this epidemic, we are unable to give you the eye in the sky look, but we do have this footage, sent in by a local.” The screen switched to a shaky camera pan of Broadway; it looked like it been shot from the upper levels of a tall building. The streets were deserted – no cars were moving, and Eli couldn’t see any people. Just an endless wave of large, crawling bodies with too many legs.
His mouth went dry; his mom caught him by the arm and drew him down on the couch between her and Litigious.
Eli reached into his pocket and grabbed his phone.
Please tell me the reason you’re not texting me back is because a spider ate your phone.
Kate, I’m sorry – I’ll say whatever you want me to say, just please let me know you and the guys are okay. The news isn’t telling us anything and we can’t get ahold of my grandma. I’m really worried about everyone.
I know if there’s something going on, then you’re out there in the middle of it – so stay safe and show them no mercy.
“Hey there, girly-girl. Figured you could use a bite.”
Kate smacked Clint’s hand when he reached out to ruffle her hair, but took the cheeseburger he offered her. She tore through the wrapper. “McDonald’s was open?”
Clint snorted. “Tell you the truth, I’m not sure they ever closed.”
Kate paused, teeth halfway through the bun, then figured it couldn’t actually get worse than being an arachnid the size of a car. She chewed and swallowed. It sank like a stone to the bottom of her stomach, but it was the first thing she’d eaten in ages; she could have wept with joy.
Clint leaned back against the side of the car; he was wearing a pair of jeans and not a lot else. Kate had robbed the first store mannequin she’d set eyes on, and now she was sitting on the hood of a Honda in a sequined party dress and a plaid poncho.
“Where’d you find your purse?” Clint asked. Kate closed a protective hand over it.
“Where I left it,” she said. Clint shrugged.
“Here I was hoping giant spider you was terrorizing the city with it swinging off one a leg,” he said, grinning. Kate shot him a glower; he was too busy flexing at a pair of women sharing an oversized sweater to notice.
“Cut that out,” she said. “Your abs are not as great as you think.”
“Oh, ouch.” Clint pressed hand to his chest. “You got me, Katie. I am slain.”
Kate rolled her eyes and pulled out her cell phone. Half a dozen new messages, courtesy of the boys. Go figure; their powers had kept them safe from the spider-flu. She scrolled through them idly, brushing her hair back from her face.
There were two texts from Eli, and an e-mail besides. Her thumb hovered over them, lip caught between her teeth.
“C’mon,” Clint said after a few minutes. He thumped on the car’s hood. “Want me to walk you home?”
Kate shielded her eyes against the morning sunshine and looked out across the street, taking in the crushed concrete and turned over cars and the giant form of the Spider Queen, still smoking in the distance.
“Actually,” she said. “There’s somewhere else I need to be.”
Clint cocked an eyebrow.
“If I’d known where you were taking me, girly-girl,” said Clint, standing on a doorstep an hour later, “I would have found a shirt.”
“Knock it off,” said Kate. She raised a hand and knocked on the door.
“And some underwear,” he said.
“Ew,” she said, and stepped none too gently on his foot. Which, unfortunately, was when Faith Bradley opened the front door.
Eli’s phone rang two hours after he’d given up trying to contact the others. He was sitting on the couch in between his mom and his sisters, tense like he hadn’t been since Latveria, one foot tapping against the ground as the news continued to tell him nothing.
He’d expected it to be hard, not being there when something like this went down, but he hadn’t expected it to be quite like this.
His cell phone, forgotten in his pocket, rang loud enough to make him jump. He cursed, fumbling for it even as his mom admonished him with a sharp Elijah Bradley!, and stared uncomprehending at the number on the screen.
“Hold on a sec, Mom,” he said, getting up from the couch and wandering over to the kitchen doorway. He answered the call and said, “Hello?”
“Eli?” his grandmother said across the line. “Eli, it’s me, Grandma.”
Relief flooded through him. He cupped a hand over the receiver and said, “Mom, it’s Grandma, Grandma’s on the phone,” before turning back. “Are you okay? Is Grandpa okay? We’re watching the news –”
“I’m fine,” she said, voice patient. “Your grandfather’s fine. That’s more than we can do – I seem to have accidentally, erm, smashed our television set.”
“What?” Eli said, frowning. His grandmother shushed him.
“It’ll be fine, an Avenger already swept up all the sharp bits,” she said. “You have a very nice friend.”
“Avenger? Friend? What –” was all he got out before his mom grabbed the phone. “What friend?” he shouted, then threw his hands up in the air in defeat.
It was an hour before he got his phone back.
“Hi,” Kate’s voice said when he put the phone to his ear.
“Hey,” he said. They were both silent for a long moment after that; Eli ticked off the seconds on his fingers, thinking of the same type of awkward silence in a carriage ride through Central Park.
He said “so, hey, thanks,” at the same moment as Kate said, “I wasn’t ignoring you.”
More awkward silence. Eli slumped back against the kitchen wall.
“Right, that’s why you haven’t answered any of my messages,” he said. “You and Billy both,” he added after another moment of stony silence on her end. He rubbed a hand over his eyes, suddenly worn down like after a bad battle. “Kate, say something.”
“I don’t want to fight,” she said.
“Neither do I,” he said. “I’m not trying to –”
“No,” she said. “I was angry. And I thought that if I answered you, we’d fight again, because sometimes that seems like all we do. And I don’t want to – I keep thinking, if we hadn’t been fighting the last time… maybe things would have turned out differently.”
Something beneath Eli’s ribs clenched painfully.
“Me too,” he said. “So let’s just – not fight. First time for everything, right?” A pause. “So… why is there an Avenger cleaning up glass in my grandma’s apartment?”
“Hawkeye’s actually trying to put a bookshelf back together right now,” Kate said. “Operative word being trying.”
Eli bit back a snicker. He wasn’t going to admit how much he missed the superhero life, not out loud. (Granted, if he had stayed, that would be him cleaning up his grandmother’s apartment, and not Hawkeye.)
“Hey,” he said. “I’m glad you called.”
A pause and then Kate said, “Me too.”
I saw Scott Lang the other day.
How did he look?
Subject: stupid question
Just ignore that last bit.
Subject: re: stupid question
He looked like how you’d expect. I don’t know. It was hard to look at him. I know how that sounds, but it's the truth.
He says he doesn't blame us.
I know. He should.
Kate didn’t reply. Not that Eli expected her to – what was there left to say? There was nothing to talk about, just the great big empty gap he felt beneath his ribs every time he thought about what had happened.
On a whim he opened up his photos folder, flipping through a few shots of the team. Every picture of Kate just shy of model perfect – the wind blowing her hair in her face or her expression frozen at an inopportune second, in the middle of laughing at something – next to shots of Billy and Teddy geeking out together, comics strewn between them. Tommy, barely more than a bright streak of white hair and green shirt. Eli with his shield hefted high on his arm, mugging for the camera on a half-remembered request.
Jonas and Cassie hand-in-hand, walking down the street and smiling goofily at each other.
Eli closed the folder and pressed a hand to his eyes.
I fucked up, he thought, and I’m young, and I’m only going to fuck up again. Getting out was the right thing to do. He believed it, too. He just wished he could make himself feel it.
He wished there were supervillains in Scottsdale for him to go hit.
There came a knock on his doorframe. He looked up to find his mom standing there, holding her purse and wearing the expression she always got when she knew Eli was thinking about superhero stuff. (And she always knew when Eli was thinking about superhero stuff – maybe it was some kind of skill she’d gotten growing up with his grandparents. Or maybe Eli just couldn’t keep secrets from his mother. He knew which one he’d rather believe.)
They’d talked, a little, about what had happened. Or rather, his mom had talked, and Eli had sat there with his head bowed and his hands clasped between his knees and played everything back in his head, every heartwrenching, gory second where things could have gone differently, all in surround sound and 3D.
“Everything okay?” his mom asked, and Eli nodded, swallowing around the sudden tightness in his throat. “It’s almost time for your sister’s soccer game. You coming?”
Going to kid siblings’ soccer games and arguing over what to watch on movie nights: that was normal. That was what Eli was supposed to have been doing all along, not running around in spandex with a shield on his arm, making stupid fucking mistakes and not thinking about the consequences.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “One sec, let me grab my stuff.”
This way, nobody got hurt. Not because of him.
Hours later, driving to dinner in the gloom squashed between three siblings in the backseat while the self-proclaimed future soccer all star got the passenger seat all dusty, Eli’s cell phone went off. He ignored it, until it went off a second time, then a third.
By the fifth message, his sister leaned out of the passenger seat and said, “Okay, for real? If you don’t get that, I will.”
“No texting in the car,” his mother reminded them. “If I can’t, then you can’t. Family rule.”
Eli lingered outside once they got to the restaurant, half to check his phone and half to avoid being stuck in a pizza place with a dozen screaming preteen soccer champions. His mother gave him a look halfway between indulgent and stern, warning him not to go anywhere.
“Where am I going to go?” Eli asked her, and she shook her head with a knowing smile, disappearing through the door.
The messages were from Tommy. No real surprise, not at the rate they’d come in.
Eli tried everyone’s phones, but no one picked up, and his mom was signaling him from the window. He stuffed his phone into his pocket, shelved the two dozen questions tumbling around in his head and headed inside.
He didn’t hear from anyone else until after midnight, when his phone rang. It was Kate, and she sounded like she’d been hit by a bus.
“Hey,” she said. “Sorry. We were on our way to meet Cap when you called. I just got back now.”
“What the hell is happening over there tonight?” Eli asked. In his mind’s eye he could see Kate, still in her costume with her sunglasses pushed up on top of her head and that particular half-smirk she wore after a long night of superheroing. “Billy and Teddy got engaged and then you guys went to see Cap? Please tell me Cap did not marry them.”
Kate snorted. “No. Can you imagine? Don’t even suggest it to them.” There was a pause and a sound like Kate putting her quiver down. “No, Cap – deputized us, I guess. We’re Avengers now.” She paused and he could see the sardonic twist of her lips. “Probably.”
“Probably,” he echoed. “Feels like we’ve been there before,” he let slip before he could stop himself and remind himself that he wasn’t there with them this time.
“It felt different this time,” Kate admitted quietly. “Like, before they were just sanctioning us and now they’re really inviting us to join. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. It’s been a long night.”
She was fiddling her scarf, Eli knew it.
“Okay,” he said. “Yeah, I get it.” A pause. “But I really want to know what the fuck is up with Billy and Ted. Was Tommy just being –”
“Tommy?” Kate cut in wryly. “No. Tonight was the first time I’ve seen Billy out of his apartment for anything other than school in ages and they … you know them. We all knew they were going to get there.”
“Yeah, but I thought they’d wait a few years first,” Eli said, running a hand over his head as he flopped backwards onto his bed. “They’re our age, Kate!”
“I know that, and you know that, but they’re…” she trailed off. “Look, it’s not like they’re heading down to the altar first thing tomorrow.” Another long pause. “They looked happy. It was good to see any of us look happy again.”
Eli cursed under his breath, sliding a hand over his eyes. “Okay,” he said, exhaling. He added, “I can’t believe Tommy called best man. That’s not legally binding, right?”
“There are two grooms-to-be,” Kate mused.
“Right,” Eli said. “Teddy was always my favorite out of you guys anyway.”
“No way, no,” Kate cut him off, “I call being Teddy’s best man—”
“Uh, Kate, I don’t know if you noticed, but you’re --”
“Finish that thought and I will come down to Scottsdale and personally kick your ass,” Kate said. “Best woman, whatever. Point is, I called it.”
“You can’t call it,” Eli said. “I’ve known him longer than you, it’s practically my right.”
“By like a month!” Kate protested.
“It was an important month!” Eli said. “We were going to take down Kang the Conqueror! You have no idea the kind of manly bonding that went into that month.”
“Right,” Kate said, “and then I joined the team and we actually beat Kang the Conqueror. I’m pretty sure you guys couldn’t have done it without me. I think Teddy would agree that makes me MVP and also best woman material.”
Eli laughed; he was unable to help it. “You know, when you put in the context of Kang, maybe it’s not that crazy.”
“Maybe,” Kate said. “Or maybe we’ve just got an adjusted scale.”
Subject: Don’t mock it
Figured I should give you my new e-mail address. Not a word, okay? Tony Stark promised me he’d change like it three days ago.
Subject: I’m going to mock it a little bit
You can’t hold that against me, Jr. Still think you should have gone with Hawkingbird.
Hawkingbird was never going to happen.
Subject: the lines of communication
I’ve got a paper to avoid. You busy? Want to skype?
“You cut your hair,” he said, staring at the bangs that lay flat across her forehead.
“You have hair,” she replied, staring back. Eli ran a hand over his head.
“Yeah,” he said. “I decided I’m going to grow it out a little. What, you don’t like it?”
“It’s not that,” Kate said, a little too quickly. “It’s just, I didn’t know you could grow hair.”
“I can grow hair!” Eli protested.
“I can see that,” Kate said, scowling through the screen at him. “Great, now I owe Teddy like fifty bucks.”
“You guys were betting over – no, you know what, never mind,” Eli said, getting up out of his chair.
“Where are you going?” Kate said, craning her long neck to try and get a look at him. “Eli?”
“To shave my head!” he shouted.
“Eli!” Kate called after him, but he was already out in the hallway and two seconds later he’d barricaded himself in the bathroom. He grabbed his electric shaver and went to town without much more than a cursory glance in the mirror. The short wiry curls were buzzed off in a whirl, falling at his feet and onto the countertop.
Afterwards, he ran a hand over his head and looked at himself in the mirror -- bald head and one gold earring (only guy in his Scottsdale class with one) and the perpetual scowl. His costume was stashed at the back of his closet, where he couldn’t see it and where his siblings wouldn’t find it; he’d almost thrown it out back in New York, but parting with had seemed an impossible task. He liked knowing where it was. Just in case.
Some of the tightness in his chest uncoiled. He let out a breath it felt like he'd been holding since he crossed New York State lines.
There were voices coming from his room. Eli nudged his door the rest of the way open only to find Litigious and Stephanie parked in front of his computer. They looked at him with identically guilty faces.
“Out,” he said.
“But Kate was telling us about the time you punched the guy,” Stephanie protested.
“Out,” he repeated, pointing towards the hall. Stephanie and Litigious both slunk by with disappointed pouts. “And neither of you tell Mom anything she said to you!”
He closed the door behind them, then collapsed back into his desk chair. “The time I punched the guy? Really?”
Kate stared out at him from the screen, clearly amused. “Well, you’ve done it a lot,” she said. The corner of her mouth twitched. “Cute siblings.”
“What’d they tell you?” he asked, scowling. She laughed.
“Trust me, I was promised embarrassing pictures,” she said, and his mouth twitched, half a smile. He hadn’t realized up until that moment just how much he’d missed seeing her face. “So. You shaved your head.”
Eli ran a hand over his scalp, feeling familiar smooth skin and the barely there hint of stubble. “Tried something new,” he said. “Didn’t like it. Now you don’t have to give Teddy fifty bucks.”
Kate twisted her mouth to the side, and Eli tried to follow the clever flicker in her eyes.
“Okay,” she said. “But just so you know, I’m keeping the bangs.”
That startled a laugh out of him.
“I like the bangs,” he said, grinning at her. “I really do.”
Litigious was waiting for him in the hallway.
“Why did you shave your head again?” he asked, frowning. Eli sighed.
“One day, kiddo, you’re going to meet somebody,” he said, “and you’re going to do spontaneous, stupid things to try and impress them. And it’s not going to work. But you’re going to do it anyway.”
Litigious considered this seriously.
“You should’ve shaved her name in your head,” he said at last, and it probably said something about how deep Eli was in that he found himself considering it. “She's pretty. I’d shave her name in my head. And it’s short, so it would fit.”
Eli rolled his eyes.
“Let’s go get ice cream instead,” he said.
I thought you were planning on going to college here. That still happening?
Subject: re: NYC
Don’t know. I’ve got a little time to think about it still. Mom wants me to maybe take a gap year, you know. Get used to being a normal person.
Subject: don’t take this the wrong way
I don’t think you’re ever going to get used to being a normal person.
Subject: look who’s talking
Hey, speaking of school. Skype study session? Just like old times, except we probably can’t try and convince Billy to magic us up some papers this time.
And nobody will end up with the Hand after them.
Subject: calling it like I see it
When you put it like that, who could resist?
One study date turned into two, and two turned into three, and before Kate knew it they had a standing weekly date. It worked, for a while, and it was fun even if Kate knew she didn’t need the help and suspected Eli didn’t really either.
She felt better than she thought she would, having an excuse to see his face. It wasn’t fighting side-by-side, trading snide remarks in between the hail of blows and arrows, but it was something. She’d take that over nothing any day.
Then she missed one study date, then another. Eli missed the third, citing a sibling emergency, and then Kate was running stupid dangerous missions with Clint and the next thing she knew an entire month had passed without them talking beyond a few scattered texts and e-mails.
It was a lonely realization. She stared at her phone on the way home from the Savage Land on yet another Avengers mission, scrolling through old texts and trying to ignore the way Spider-Man was loudly snoring in the seat next to her.
Billy was conked out on her other side with his head slumped on her shoulder and his metal headband digging awkwardly into her arm. She was just about to put the phone away and try to catch some shuteye herself when it beeped.
One new text, from Eli, reading: big report coming up and the book is really more your thing than mine. think we can talk this weekend?
Kate smiled and was glad nobody else was awake to see it.
Sure, she typed back.
Two days later, Eli got a postcard from Madripoor. There was a picture of Kate on the front, sitting in front of a building that looked like somebody had crushed all of Vegas up and condensed it into a couple tons of neon and lights.
She was holding a piece of paper with WISH YOU WERE HERE written on it in purple block letters, grinning at him with her sunglasses propped up on the end of her nose.
He flipped it over and read: Seriously. Could have used your help with all these ninjas.
Kate was soaked through to the bone by the time she made it to Clint’s door on Saturday. She rang the bell twice and when that got her no answer pounded on it with a fist instead. Which was how, when the door swung open, she came eye-to-surprisingly-nice-collarbones with Bucky Barnes, who was holding a fifty dollar bill.
They stared at each other.
“You are not the pizza,” he said, clearing his throat.
“Well, you’re not the guy who usually lives here,” she replied, raising an eyebrow.
“Kid,” a gruff voice called from inside, “what’s the holdup? I told Nuncio what would happen if he forgot the breadsticks again.”
There came a disturbingly familiar snikt noise from the down the hall.
“Okay, so Wolverine’s home,” Kate said, chin up despite the way she was dripping rainwater all over the hallway carpet. “Is Clint?”
Bucky jerked a thumb over his shoulder and shuffled out of the way. Kate strode past him with her head held high and her shoes squelching.
There was a big round wooden table plonked down in Clint’s kitchen, and at it sat Wolverine, glowering at Nick Fury as he flicked open a lighter to light his cigar. Captain Marvel sat between them, idly shuffling a deck of cards.
“Katie!” Clint announced, juggling a couple of beer bottles and a frankly improbably large bowl of salsa. “Not that I’m not happy to see you, but poker night is invite-only, and we’re superheroes – we can’t let sidekicks gamble.” He foisted the salsa bowl into her arms and added, “Plus, you and your bottomless pockets have an unfair advantage.”
“Poor Wolvie has to work three superhero teams just to pay the bills,” Fury said, smirking around his cigar.
“I’m not here for poker night,” Kate said, dumping the salsa bowl into Bucky’s arms as he tried to weasel past them to get to the fridge. He looked down at it in mild confusion, then shrugged and took it with him. “And I am not your sidekick, and I would wipe the floor with you if I was here to play.”
Carol snorted. Clint squinted at Kate like he was just seeing her for the first time.
“Why do you look like a drowned rat?” he said. Kate stepped on his foot.
“I need your computer,” she said.
Clint blinked. “Bedroom,” he said, shrugging as he opened a beer. He gestured down the hall. “You’ll have to share with Lucky.”
“Cool,” Kate said, heading that way. She paused in the doorway. “You have skype, right?”
“Dunno. That like Myspace?”
“You’re not serious,” Kate said, flatly, and Clint rolled his eyes.
“Yes, I have skype,” he said. “How else do you think Captain America holds team meetings? Go. Don’t read my e-mail!”
“It’s not interesting!” Kate shouted back, already halfway down the narrow hall.
“Teenage girls,” she heard Wolverine grumble from the kitchen. “They’ll chew you up and spit you out.”
Clint’s laptop was purple, which just figured. There was a usb drive shaped like an arrow sticking out of it, too, and Kate made a note to figure out where he’d gotten it later because now she kind of wanted one. She grabbed it off the bed and settled it on her lap, propping it open and hoping Clint hadn’t left something gross open.
Lucky snuffled at her wet sleeve, giving her the big doe eyes. She tousled his ears.
“I don’t have pizza for you, boy,” she said, quickly logging Clint out of skype – why did he know people with screennames like kittyhasclaws and domoarigatomr.roboto? – and logging herself in. “Go bug Wolverine.”
Lucky whined and trotted over to the door, thumping his tail against the ground. Kate rolled her eyes and got up to let him out. She pulled her shoes off and left them in a pile on the ground as she hopped back over and sat down on the edge of the bed.
Even her socks were wet. She wrinkled her nose and peeled them off, tossing them to the side. Not like Clint would care with all his mess.
There was a call coming in; Kate answered it after a quick glance, pushing her wet hair out of her face.
“What the hell happened to you?” Eli said once her webcam kicked in, frowning first at her, then at the wall behind her. Kate glanced over her shoulder; there were arrows mounted on the wall. Probably decoratively. She wasn’t really going to wonder too much about those. “Where are you?”
“Hawkeye’s place. It started raining and it was a quicker dash here. Also, I think Spidey was fighting somebody at my subway stop,” she said. “Get this: Nick Fury is in the other room.”
Eli craned his neck, like somehow he was going to be able to see through the wall. “No way. You sure it’s not an LMD?”
“To go on a super secret mission? Sure. To play poker?” Kate raised her eyebrows. “I’m pretty sure it’s the real deal.”
“Too weird,” Eli said.
“Tell me about it,” Kate replied. “I think I saw him light the tip of his cigar off Wolverine’s.”
“Okay,” Eli said, shaking his head. “Moving on from that revelation – ready to get our study on?”
Let’s put the study in study date, Kate almost said, but bit the tip of her tongue at the last second. First, it was way too cheesy, and second – was it even a date? Neither of them had mentioned it.
She dug around in her bag and brought out the book, blessedly spared from the downpour.
“I sacrificed my shoes for this, Bradley,” she said, shaking it in front of the camera, “so this had better be the best damn report you ever put together.”
They’d barely gotten five minutes of conversation in before the door banged open and Clint dropped Lucky back inside. He pointed one stern finger first at the dog, then at Kate.
“He stays in here with you,” he said. “He’s encouraging cheating.”
Lucky’s tail thumped happily against the carpet, tongue wagging. Kate raised an eyebrow.
“So what’s the problem?” she said. Clint scowled.
“It’s not me he’s helping cheat,” he said, and slammed the door shut. Kate could hear him yell as he headed back down the hall: “Danvers! Barnes! Stay the hell away from my dog!”
Eli had a look somewhere between disbelief and amusement when she looked back at him, book laying forgotten in his hands. “You are literally living in that dogs playing poker painting right now,” he said. “You know that, right?”
“You can’t tell me you don’t miss this,” she said before she could stop herself. Eli’s eyes met hers and something in his gaze softened.
“Nah,” he said, picking his book back up. “I can’t say I don’t.”
“Don’t freak out,” Eli said their second study session in January. Kate’s eyes widened. He set his jaw and pressed the bag of peas more firmly against his eye. Then she was laughing, one hand cupped over her mouth, and Eli felt some of his dignity drain away with the ice water sliding down his neck. “Okay, you can freak out a little.”
“Sorry, no,” she said. “This is a sight for sore eyes. So to speak.”
“You’re hilarious,” he said, wincing as he shifted the bag. She let her hand fall away from her face, smile fading just a little. There was a bandage plastered across her nose, and a second one above her right eyebrow. Her hair was tossed up in a messy ponytail, away from a fresh line of stitches.
They both looked like they’d been in a hell of a fight.
“Okay,” she said. “You know can probably figure out how I got these, but I have no idea what happened to you. Spill.”
“It’s stupid,” Eli grumbled, attempting to roll his eyes and then wincing when it failed. “I sort of – stopped a bank robbery. With my face.”
To say it was stupid was the least of it. He’d known that one of the robbers had enhanced strength – it had been pretty clear from the way the bank vault door had gone flying across the lobby – but he’d charged anyway.
There were people in that bank. His stepfather had been in there with him, and what would his mom have done if something had happened to him? One underprepared amateur with some seriously above average strength versus a pissed off super soldier. Easy decision.
They’d ditched before the cops got there – there were no Avengers here to back him up, and no Billy to magic him out of trouble. This wasn’t New York; superheroes didn’t just stop stuff like that every day.
His stepfather had been silent the whole way home. In the driveway, he’d parked the car and then turned to Eli and said, “I thought you told your mom you weren’t going to do any of that stuff here.”
Eli, who was pretty sure by now that his nose wasn’t broken, shrugged and said, “One time. Won’t happen again,” then climbed out of the car, slammed the door behind him and went to find some ice.
“That sounds like you,” Kate said. She leaned forward, her arm at an odd angle to the camera, and Eli realized she was brushing her fingers across the screen. His heart leapt into his throat; he tried, unsuccessfully, to swallow it back down.
“Get some rest, super soldier,” she said. “That’s an order.”
Eli woke up on Valentine’s Day to a face full of glitter from Stephanie. Everything went downhill after that.
He sent a text to Kate early in the morning, a quick happy v-day -- nothing big, nothing that a guy couldn’t send to a friend if he was feeling kind of sappy about them. Nothing to spend all day worrying about.
Except for the part where he did.
He checked his phone all day – no calls, no texts, no e-mails. Nothing that indicated Kate had even gotten his text.
To top it off, there was still glitter somewhere down his shirt.
“This is just not my day,” he said to himself as his last class came to an end. The guy at the next desk groaned.
“Solidarity, dude,” he said, and then he tried to get Eli to fistbump him and go ‘get some single bro muchies together’, which really just made things worse. Home wasn’t much better, not between his mother’s good-natured teasing and his step-father’s stilted “so, how many dates tonight?” jokes. (Not that Eli could blame him, exactly; he knew he wasn’t exactly the easiest stepson to connect with, even when you factored out the ex-superhero bit.) His sisters joined in to the point where by dinner they’d made up a jingle about Eli’s lack of a date.
The cherry on top was Litigious very solemnly offering to be Eli’s date during dessert.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when his grandmother called to ask if any nice New York girls had talked to him that day.
Eli begged off the rest of the night with homework and disappeared into his room, stopping just short of barricading the door. He flopped face down on the bed and stayed there until fell asleep.
He woke up just after midnight to the sound of rocks hitting his window. He flicked on his light, squinting out the window into the dark backyard. A familiar head of white hair gleamed below. Eli forced the window open.
“Tommy?” he said.
Tommy waved. There was, to Eli’s horror, a boombox sitting by his feet. Eli shut the window and slunk out of his room; all the lights in the house were off and he didn’t want to wake his family up and have to explain who Tommy was, and how he’d gotten into their backyard in the middle of the night.
What Tommy was doing in Eli’s backyard in the middle of the night was another question altogether.
He forced open the back door and stepped out into the yard. The grass was dewy and freezing against his bare feet.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. Tommy shrugged.
“Kiss-o-gram, dude,” he said. “Pucker up.”
“Knock it off,” Eli said and Tommy grinned, hands held up in front of him.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “But I am here with Valentine’s missives. Kate’s on Avengers duty – in like, Asgard or space or something, I don’t know – and she told me if she wasn't back by midnight that I should find my way over here.”
“She told you that,” Eli repeated, flatly. The corner of Tommy’s mouth twitched upwards.
“Well, she said to text you on her behalf,” he said, scuffing the grass with the heel of his shoe. “But I was bored, so.”
How they ended up sitting in Litigious’ half-finished tree house, Eli wasn’t sure. It was good, though, despite the February chill, sitting side-by-side with their legs dangling off the edge. The breeze tossed Tommy’s white hair back and forth; their breath fogged up in the cold.
Eli hadn’t thought he would miss Tommy when he left, but he had. He missed the whole team. He missed the city and he missed taking the subway and he missed rude patrons at the library. He missed running around on Christmas Eve in the snow, trying to take down a HYDRA base and evade the law at the same time, and knowing he couldn’t go back to his grandparents’ place because he couldn’t put them in danger like that, even though he knew his grandmother was keeping a light on for him.
It was stupid and reckless and he’d been right to quit, but he missed it. He missed everything about it.
“Nice house,” Tommy said. “You like it here?”
“Sure,” Eli said. “It’s … peaceful.”
“Peaceful means boring,” Tommy said, and Eli elbowed him in the ribs.
“It doesn’t have to,” he said. Tommy inclined his head, looking at him from beneath his bright orange goggles. He twisted his mouth to the side, a considering expression.
“Okay,” he said.
A light flicked on somewhere in the house. Eli watched through the windows as his step-father wandered into the kitchen and got a drink from the fridge. He knew he should go inside, but he didn’t want to. Tommy was the first member of his team he’d seen face-to-face in months and it had all come rushing back. He didn’t want to let go of it just yet.
The light flicked back off again and Eli let out a long, harsh breath. Tommy nudged his knee with his own.
“You know, dude, you can come back,” he said, casually, like they’d been talking about it before. “None of us are gonna give you any grief about it. So, just, you know. If you want to come back. You can.”
He shrugged his shoulders, staring straight ahead, and Eli found himself at a loss for what to say. I don’t want to come back was a lie, but so was I want to go back. He didn’t feel like he belonged there anymore, but in Scottsdale he felt out of place, too. And Tommy –
Tommy was trying to be nice.
So he nudged Tommy’s knee back and said, “Okay, dude.”
Tommy smiled, and it wasn’t cocky or snide, just a little rough around the edges.
“We miss you,” he said, and it struck Eli for the first time that Tommy thought of him as a friend and not just a teammate who spent most of his time barking exasperated orders in his direction. “Even me.” His face lit up with a leer. “Especially Kate.”
Eli shoved him, saying, “Go home, Speed.”
Tommy snickered, racing down out of the tree and halfway across the yard. “It’s not the same without you shouting at us, Patriot!” he yelled, and he was gone before Eli could say that that wasn’t his name anymore.
He trudged back inside with his hands in his pockets and when he got back to his room he called Kate. Her phone went to voicemail, like he’d expected.
“Hey,” he said after the beep, “so Tommy was pretty much the worst Valentine’s gift I’ve ever gotten. Thanks for that one.” He hesitated, I miss you, Kate on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he said, “Come home safe, Hawkeye.”
“That was not the worst Valentine’s gift you’ve ever gotten,” Kate said the next morning when Eli picked up his phone, without pleasantries. She was sitting in a fluffy bathrobe in the window seat of an Avengers mansion room, a cup of coffee in her hands and her quiver, still mud-splattered and halfway filled with melting snow, at her side.
Across the line, Eli yawned and said, “Kate, he brought a boombox, and then he didn’t take it with him. My kid sisters found it this morning. The entire ABBA collection is in there.”
“Waterloo,” Kate hummed. She looked down at the lawn, where Iron Man and Captain Marvel were attempting to figure out the easiest way to get a couple hundred tons worth of doombots off the property. Billy, standing nearby, was still wincing while Teddy laughed, one arm slung around his shoulders. “Couldn’t escape if you wanted to.”
“Haha,” he said.
“Last year,” she said. “Elektro. The love potion. Every billboard in the tri-state area.”
“Okay,” Eli said, “you proved your point.”
Kate settled back against the wall and sipped at her coffee. “Tommy told me what you guys talked about last night,” she said. “About you coming back.”
“I didn’t say I was coming back,” Eli said, bite in his voice.
“I didn’t say you said that,” Kate bit back, and Eli was quiet. She swallowed down another mouthful of coffee, too hot, and focused on the scorched feeling as she said, “You remember, the time I lost my bow to Clint.”
“I remember it was a stupid bet,” Eli muttered.
“Do not make me send Tommy back there,” Kate returned. “Remember what happened after. Remember when I asked you to give me time?”
“Yeah,” Eli said. “Of course I remember. Kate, where’s this going?”
“You said you weren’t going anywhere,” Kate said, staring resolutely out the window. There was still snow on the ground, fresh from Latveria, and it made the lawn look greener still, and it felt like she could still wander over to the warehouse at night and find Eli sitting on their couch, playing video games. “I’m not going anywhere, Eli.”
“Kate,” he said, in a tone she’d rarely heard from him before. She swallowed down the butterflies in the back of her throat.
“It goes both ways,” she said. “When you come back, I’m still going to be here.”
“I’m kind of missing the kiss,” Eli said, and Kate laughed in spite of herself, leaning her head against the window. “Kate. Promise me, okay?”
“I’ll do my best,” Kate told him.
“Your best is usually pretty damn great,” he said. “Okay. Then that’s our plan.”
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, etc
Subject: Visiting New York City
So it turns out I’ve got some schools to look into up there, and grandma apparently needs me specifically to clean out the backroom. Anybody want to meet up? Say no and I'll come after you. (Kidding. But please don't say no.)
Eli’s phone rang two minutes after the pilot announced that it was safe to turn electronic devices back on. New York summer pressed down on all sides, humid and sticky even inside of the airplane. It had been a year since he'd been back. He grabbed his phone and answered it, pressing it between his ear and his shoulder as he tried to get his luggage down from the overhead carrier without getting in anyone’s way.
“Hey,” he said, grunting as a team of little old ladies jostled their way past him with judicious use of both elbows and canes. “The plane literally just landed. I’m getting off now.” He eyed the line of people in front of him. “Or I’m trying, anyway.”
“Cool,” Billy said. He sounded better than Eli had heard him in a while – Teddy must have been right about how those meditation sessions with Dr. Strange and the Scarlet Witch were going. “You getting a cab, or…?”
“Nah,” Eli said, joining the queue. He slung his bang over his shoulder, leaning out of the way as the toddler in his line neighbor’s arms flailed and screamed. “Going to catch the shuttle and then get on the subway. Got the grandparents waiting.”
The line was moving now, albeit slowly. Eli shuffled forward with the press of tired, sweaty travelers, anxious to escape the plane and its atmosphere of stale air and impatience.
“We still on for tonight?” Billy asked him.
“Yeah, if it’s good with you guys,” he said, flashing a brief smile at the stewardess who wished him a good trip. He made his way up the ramp. “Been way too long.”
“Way, way too long,” Billy said. “It’s really good to have you back.”
“It’s good to be back,” Eli said, finally out into the airport proper. He took two steps and then stopped in his tracks, phone nearly falling from his grip.
Just ahead of him stood Kate, one hand on her hip and the other holding up a sign that read BRADLEY. There was a chauffeur’s cap perched jauntily on her head.
“You knew about this, didn’t you,” he said into the phone. Billy laughed.
“Who do you think teleported her there in time for your flight?” he asked. Eli shook his head, unable to help his grin.
“You’re a menace, Kaplan, and airport security hates you,” he said.
“I know,” Billy replied. “Don’t tell my mom, okay? See you later.”
Eli hung up and slipped the phone back in his pocket. Kate waved at him, eyes shining, but there was something tense and nervous in her posture. Eli realized his own hands were sweating and figured he had no room to talk.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey, yourself,” she replied, and then before he knew it their arms were around each other.
He didn’t know who moved first, only that they met in the middle with enough force to knock the cap from Kate’s head. Her arms were around his neck, pulling him down, and their mouths met. There was a lock of Kate’s hair trapped between their lips. One of her earrings, a shower of surprisingly sharp tiny silver arrows, scratched his hand when he cupped her cheek.
He pulled back after a split second and she leaned backwards, tucking her hair behind her ear. She smiled.
“Hell of a kiss,” he said. He bent down to retrieve her hat. She caught his hand on the way up, tangling their fingers together.
“Come on,” she said, squeezing. “Let’s get you home.”