“This is your twenty-four hour warning,” Billy declared, throwing himself down on the couch. “My mom found out that you and Teddy are living here.”
“So?” Tommy said, catching the tip of his tongue between his teeth. He leaned towards the side, thumbs flying across the controller, and Cassie let out a wild whoop. He held a hand up and she high-fived him.
“So,” Billy started, only to be cut off when Eli groused, “You’re cheating – we said no powers.”
“Am not,” Tommy shot back. He grinned, baring his teeth. “Trust me, if I was cheating? You’d know.”
Kate huffed, blowing a lock of her hair out of her face, and hunched down lower over her controller. She didn’t even have to say anything, the look on her face was enough: like we’re going to make it that easy for you.
“Right,” Billy said, rolling his eyes skywards. “Never mind. Where’s Teddy?”
“Jonas dragged him out to people watch,” Cassie said, and then made a highpitched noise and dove forward, grinning and shrieking, “Chainsaw! Chainsaw, chainsaw!”
“I hate you!” Kate exclaimed, looking murderous.
“Okay, I’m going,” Billy said, climbing to his feet. He gave Tommy a pointed look and added, “But you’re going to regret this, later.”
Tommy had heard that before, so he only snorted and went back to the game – and okay, maybe he was using a little superspeed, but Cassie used her powers to get things off the high shelves; powers were meant to be used --, thoroughly knocking down Eli’s character.
“This is not over, Shepherd,” Eli growled, eyebrows furrowed. From the hallway, Billy called out, “You don’t know the half of it!”
Eventually, Kate and Eli packed up and left together, like they did every afternoon when Kate didn’t have fencing or archery, and when Eli didn’t have to work. Cassie hung around for a while, and while Tommy got a post-victory fistbump, he knew she was mostly staying for the Vision.
So really, it was just him and Teddy, and sometimes Billy, when he stayed the night, and that was okay, except Teddy and Billy were one of those couples, the ones that revolved around each other. Wherever Jonas disappeared to was a mystery, which meant Tommy was basically by himself.
“And that’s just freaking fine by me,” he said, throwing himself down on the couch.
The Kaplan house was maybe not so much what Tommy had expected. Or maybe the problem was that it was exactly what he had expected: clean, entirely too spacious for New York City and covered in family photos.
Even the outside was nice, with a doorman and everything. (He’d given Tommy a sharp glance when he’d walked through the doorway; Tommy was more than happy to return the favor.)
“It won’t be so bad,” Teddy said, mostly to himself, as they stepped into the elevator. He hoisted his bag higher on his shoulder, shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
Tommy snorted, slumping back against the wall. He watched the numbers climb higher and higher, fingers drumming against his legs. “Says you.”
“They’re nice people,” Teddy said, a little defensively. Tommy rolled his eyes skyward.
“Yeah, but here’s the thing,” he said. “Nobody -- nobody -- is “nice” enough to take in their son’s boyfriend and magic maybe twin just like that. Besides.” He paused for a split-second, slipping his hands into his pockets. “We were doing fine at the hangout.”
“I don’t know about you, but the pile of empty pizza boxes didn’t look fine to me,” Teddy said as the door dinged open.
“Could’ve made a coffee table out of them, or something,” Tommy said, following Teddy out of the elevator and into the hallway. His eyes scanned the apartment numbers. “Call it recycling – or art. Recycled art.”
Teddy didn’t say anything, but Tommy saw him hide a grin as he knocked on the door at the end of the hall. There was a chorus of voices, words Tommy couldn’t quite make out shouted back and forth, and then a stampede of footsteps. The door swung open to reveal two boys – one came up to Tommy’s shoulder, the other to his waist – with Billy leaning over them, blushing furiously and looking a lot like he wanted to banish the kids to another dimension.
“Hey,” Billy said, eyes flickering upwards to meet Teddy’s. He had the older kid by the back of his shirt, one leg stuck out to block the younger one, and his free hand braced against the doorframe. He looked, all in all, kind of like a spidermonkey. “So.”
“Are these the brats?” Tommy exclaimed, bending at the waist and grinning full on in the face of the younger one. He tilted his head to the side. “Somehow I pictured – shorter. And louder.”
“You look just like Magneto!” the little one said in a hushed whisper, eyes shining. “Or – or Quicksilver!”
Tommy blinked, raised an eyebrow and shot an accusing look at Billy.
“There was a family meeting,” Billy said, disentangling himself and pulling both boys backwards into the hallway. “I guess you guys had better come in.”
Teddy bowed his head and, trying to pretend he wasn’t snickering, stepped into the hallway. He half-turned and glanced backwards at Tommy.
Tommy stared at the threshold for a moment, then forced one foot over it, and then the other. He didn’t feel any different once he was in the apartment proper. He didn’t know why he’d expected to.
Rebecca Kaplan wasn’t a tall woman, but she gave the impression of one, standing with her hands folded in front of her in the living room. She wore a plain, spotless white blouse and she had thin wire-framed spectacles perched on the end of her nose.
Tommy searched her face for a resemblance – Billy’s cheekbones or his eyebrows or the line of his jaw, but looking for Billy in her face meant looking for himself, and he didn’t look anything like Rebecca Kaplan.
“Thomas – do you prefer Tommy? Billy wouldn’t tell me --, it’s very nice to meet you,” Rebecca said, sticking out her hand. Tommy wiped his own on his jeans before placing it in hers. She had an okay handshake, he guessed, not that he was any great judge of that kind of thing. Kind of firm, but she didn’t grip too tight.
Honestly, he was just glad she hadn’t tried to hug him.
“Tommy’s fine,” he said when she let go.
“Well, Tommy,” Rebecca said, clapping her hands together. Her smile was friendly, but there was a flicker of something else beneath it, a cagey look in her eye whenever she looked at him too closely. “It’s not a huge place, but how about we give you and Teddy a tour?”
“So Tommy,” Rebecca said as she led the way, winding them through the kitchen and living room and into the hall. Tommy knew it was mostly for his benefit; Teddy already knew the place, and the two little Kaplans trailing a few feet behind him definitely did. “Billy’s told us a lot about you.”
“Oh good,” he said. Billy threw him a look. “So all the terrible stuff’s already out of the way.”
Rebecca just threw him a smile that was sharp and knowing. Tommy narrowed his eyes and hefted his bag a little higher.
“To the contrary,” Rebecca said, eyes fixed on his face. “We’ve heard nothing but nice things.”
Someone tugged on the hem of Tommy’s shirt. It was the littlest Kaplan – Kyle, or something. He stared at Tommy with wide-eyes, a little wonderstruck, and asked, “Is it true you blew up your school?”
Billy groaned and slapped a hand to his forehead. He grabbed the kid by the back of his shirt and hauled him backwards, scowling.
“Question time is over, done, and finished,” he said. “Or do you not remember the talk we had?”
The littlest Kaplan stuck his tongue out and said, “It was a dumb talk, anyway!”
“Boys, don’t fight,” Rebecca said as Teddy snickered into his sleeve. “And remember, Tommy just got here. Let’s try not to ask him any invasive questions just yet, alright?”
“Yes, Mom,” the littlest Kaplans chorused. Billy caught Tommy’s eye and mouthed something that might’ve been I’m sorry but was probably I told you so instead, because he was kind of a terrible magic twin like that.
Littlest Kaplan the first was named Kevin, and he was thirteen years old. Littlest Kaplan the second was Kyle, and he was nine. They both had dark brown hair and eyes, like Billy, and that same kind of lanky build, but they didn’t look anything like him other than that. There was something different in their faces, though what it was, Tommy couldn’t say.
They lurked around every corner, whispering outside the room Teddy and Tommy would be sharing (and that wasn’t awkward at all, bunking with his brother’s boyfriend in a half furnished guest room just barely big enough for the two cots that had been hastily shoved into it – “we’ll have to pick out real beds for you two later, of course, but I’m afraid on short notice this is the best we can do,” Rebecca Kaplan had said with a sideways twist of her mouth).
It made him twitch, the feeling of being watched. The walls were white, too, a plain base coat, white sheets on the cot, and in the white shirt he’d thrown on carelessly that morning Tommy felt all too much like he was back in juvie again.
(“Hey, ice princess,” one of the other kids had said his first week, before solitude. “You match the décor.”
He’d tugged on Tommy’s hair and leered and Tommy had lunged, tried to vibrate the kid’s face off and mostly just gotten his fingers up the other boy’s nose for his trouble. The guards had pulled him off before he’d done any real damage.
Someone in a labcoat had looked him over, made an indistinct noise, and marked something down on a clipboard, then ordered Tommy be removed from the hall.)
“Don’t mind them,” Teddy said, giving Tommy a sympathetic smile. He set his duffel bag down on the bed closest to the door and began to unpack. “Wouldn’t you be doing the same if your brother brought a couple of superheroes home?”
“My brother is a superhero,” Tommy said with a roll of his eyes. My brother is their brother, he didn’t say, and how weird was that. Teddy threw him a quietly amused look, then shook his head and started organizing his shirts or something.
Tommy just kicked his bag into the corner. It was good enough.
Jeff Kaplan came home shortly before dinner, while Rebecca was in the kitchen with Billy and a frighteningly large array of takeout menus. Tommy had been looking at the pictures in the front hallway – Billy’s first grade graduation, Billy at ten, at thirteen, and there was no use pretending that there weren’t identical pictures of him, somewhere, probably in a cardboard box in the basement – when the door swung open.
“Honey, I’m home,” a tall man in bulky glasses called out, smiling. His eyes fell on Tommy and his smile fell into a look of confusion. “Bill? What’d you do to your –”
Billy poked his head around the corner, frowning. “Dad. We had this talk, right?”
“Oh,” Jeff Kaplan’s face relaxed. He pressed a hand to his forehead and laughed, shortly. He glanced back up at Tommy. “I’m sorry – it’s different, in person, than on TV. You really – I’m sorry, you must be Tommy.”
He stuck his hand out. Tommy kept his in his pockets this time, just to watch Jeff Kaplan sweat. Billy scowled.
“Dad,” he said in a warning tone, and Mr. Kaplan looked like he was going to say something when Teddy stepped into the hall, casual and smiling and golden. Tommy figured that maybe pretending to be normal all the time was part of Teddy’s Skrull powers.
“Mr. Kaplan,” he said. He brushed past Tommy on his way over, a quick shoulder bump, and then he was shaking Mr. Kaplan’s hand. “I really can’t thank you enough for what you’re doing.”
“Nothing to say thanks for,” Mr. Kaplan assured Teddy. The tension dropped from his face. “You’re practically family, Ted, and Tommy here – well, I think my reaction when I first walked in seals it, don’t you?”
Tommy curled his hands into fists inside his sweatshirt’s pocket.
“Dad,” Billy pressed, whining a little. “Leave Teddy and Tommy alone already and come help us pick out dinner.”
“What happened to that good Chinese place we all liked?” Mr. Kaplan asked as he hung up his coat in the hall closet. He kept glancing at Tommy out of the corner of his eye, then looking away quickly, like if he could do it fast enough Tommy wouldn’t notice. Fat chance there.
“Kyle hates rice right now,” Billy said. “And vegetables, and soy sauce, and chicken. And before you ask about pizza, melted cheese and tomato sauce are also things that are not happening.”
“No carbs, no dairy, no vegetables and worst of all, no pizza,” Jeff Kaplan said with a shake of his head. “That doesn’t leave a whole lot of food groups.” He glanced at Tommy and Teddy. “Boys? Want to come join the war council?”
“I think we’ll pass this time,” Teddy said. Mr. Kaplan nodded and disappeared into the kitchen. Billy shot them one more glance, then followed.
Teddy came up behind Tommy, just close enough to edge into his personal space, but not close enough to make the hairs of the back of Tommy’s neck standup.
“I know I’m not exactly unbiased, but he was a pretty cute kid, huh?” he said. Tommy glanced over at his shoulder; Teddy had that goofy kind of grin he always got when the subject of Billy came up. He was staring at one of the later pictures, Billy about thirteen and gangly, wearing a suit and surrounded by relatives, smiling wide for the camera. “Bet you looked just like him.”
Tommy twisted his lips to the side, scowling. Billy was watching them from the kitchen doorway again; he could see him in the reflection of the glass. He reached out and tapped his finger against thirteen-year-old Billy’s huge grin.
“You know what happens when you assume,” he said. He caught Billy’s reflection and held his eye. He smirked. “I never had to wear braces, dweebs.”
Billy’s scowl was entirely worth it.
Dinner was not a quiet affair. Granted, it wasn’t with the Young Avengers either, all of them collapsed in the middle of the hideout, passing greasy takeout containers back and forth and shouting over each other, catching up or going over their next plan of attack or licking their wounds, depending on the day.
But dinner with the Young Avengers never meant being stared at every time he ducked his head or glanced away, like he couldn’t feel their eyes on him. Teddy and Billy talked through most of dinner, and Tommy was a little bit grateful for it.
Nobody asked him any questions, at least.
“We thought we’d put you boys together,” Rebecca said as she caught Jeff up on the events of the afternoon, smiling between Teddy and Tommy. Her glance lingered on Tommy. “Unless you’d rather we move the futon into Billy’s room…”
“Only if Teddy’s on it,” Billy muttered, pokerfaced. Teddy turned pink and both tiny Kaplans made faces. Jeff cleared his throat to disguise a laugh.
“Somehow, I don’t think so,” he said.
Tommy lay in the dark, eyes wide open and hands tucked underneath his pillow. The walls were starkly white and they smelled of fresh paint and cleaning supplies – new room, new room smell – but there were pictures on the walls, a quilt that looked handmade tossed in a corner. The street down below was noisy.
It wasn’t the hideout, but it wasn’t juvie, either.
Across the room, Teddy sighed in his sleep and shifted, the mattress beneath him squeaking. Teddy sleep-shifted sometimes, growing taller and then shrinking back down, hair curling around his ears, shoulders growing broader and then narrower before evening out. Scales creeping over his arms, fingers twitching into claws.
Tommy wasn’t sure if Teddy even knew he did it, but plenty of time alone in the hideout with him had given Tommy plenty of time to figure things out about Teddy.
Down on the street below, a police car went by, sirens blaring, and even stories up the lights cast shadows on the wall.
Tommy itched all over.
Teddy mumbled something, brow creased, and turned over, one alien arm thrown over his face. Tommy rolled his eyes and was out of bed and down the fire escape before another minute could pass, wrangling himself into his costume before he hit street level.
He stopped on the sidewalk and took a deep breath in through his nose, letting himself tingle all over for a second, and then he was off, speeding in the direction the sirens had gone. He passed the car and the fire trucks in front of it soon enough, but by then he could see the smoke curling up in the sky, the orange glow up ahead, and he followed that instead.
He ran into the building, through the doorway and up the stairs, ducking falling beams and crackling floorboards, into and out of apartments, searching in closets and under beds. He found people on the top floor – a family, too many for him to carry out at once, and even fast as he was he couldn’t be sure he’d beat the flames.
“Time to do this the hard way,” he said, forcing a window open. The little girl in his arms hid her face against his shoulder; behind him, her sister shouted for him to just take her and leave.
Tommy stuck his head out the window and contemplated the drop below.
“Wiccan’s powers would come in handy right about now,” he muttered, and then nearly dropped the kid when Spider-Woman swung down, hanging upside down in front of him.
“I’ll just bet, kiddo,” she said, fixing him with a stare; the blank eyes in her mask and the heat pressing in on him from all sides sent shivers up his back. She held out her arms. “Give her here.”
Tommy handed the little girl over, prying her fingers from his uniform. Spider-Woman handed her off to someone else, obscured the waterfall of her long dark hair and the wavering heat. The teenager was next, and then her coughing, spluttering father, and Tommy did a circuit of the apartment and found no one else. The woman screaming her lungs out on the sidewalk down below must’ve been the girls’ mother.
He was about to try to go back the way he came when someone caught him by the back of his costume and lifted him clear off his feet. He looked up at Miss Marvel, her face set in a terrifying scowl, and she all but slung him over her shoulder as she flew back out the window.
Spider-Woman, busy scaling back down the wall with the girls’ father hanging off her back, shot him something that might have been a sympathetic look.
“Isn’t it a little late for the Baby Avengers to be out?” Ms. Marvel asked, setting him down on the sidewalk.
Tommy wanted to say something clever, but she was almost half a foot taller than him and totally, totally terrifying, and the longer she stared at him the more her expression shifted. It had started annoyed, then grown startlingly fond and a little angry, her eyebrows knit together and her lips pressed into a thin grim line.
“Go home, Speed,” she said at last, sounding weary. “It’s past your bedtime – your mother wouldn’t be happy.”
He was five blocks away before he realized who she’d been talking about.
Tommy washed off the smell of smoke and ash in the first fountain he came across, kicking pennies and dimes around in the water. Afterwards, he sat down on the edge of the fountain and thought about where he could go.
Amsterdam. Beijing. Curacao. An entire alphabet of countries, if he just got up and ran to them.
Instead, he headed back to the Kaplans’ apartment building, maybe not as fast as he could have.
All the lights in the apartment were off, except for one. It was soft, filtering into the hallway from underneath Mr. and Mrs. Kaplans’ bedroom door, and Tommy hesitated in the hallway.
“He looks –” Jeff said, his voice quiet and tired, and Tommy could picture him putting his hand over his eyes, rubbing at his temples.
“I know,” Rebecca said. “I know he does.”
“So much like Billy. I mean, I knew, of course I – but it’s different in person,” he continued, every word like a stone. “I thought he was Billy, when I first walked in.”
Rebecca was quiet. Tommy was about to leave, to continue down the hallway and duck back into his own new room, when Jeff spoke again.
“He looks just like our son, but he’s – not. What does that mean?”
Tommy swallowed hard and decided he didn’t want to hear anymore. He sped down the hall and back into his room, nearly catching his shoulder on the doorframe. Teddy was gone – three guesses where he was, and the first two didn’t count.
He huddled down on the bed and pulled the blankets over his head. He’d slipped his phone under the pillow when he’d first unpacked, and he pulled it now. There was one new text from Kate.
good luck, she wrote. don’t do anything stupid.
He snorted under his breath.
“Too late for that,” he said, and rolled over.
The next night, he ran to Canada, slowing down just enough so he could flip off border patrol. Food was first on his list, and one greasy package of poutine tucked under his arm, he ran laps around the brightly colored streets of Montreal before ducking into a bar.
“Hey,” he said, zooming up to the barkeep with a clink of glassware and a huge grin. “Where can a guy find a moose around here?”
The barkeep scowled at him and muttered something doubtlessly deeply insulting in French, so Tommy snatched the drink he was making right out from under him on his way out.
It took him a little while to find a moose, and he had to stop short when he spotted one, drink sloshing over the rim of his glass. The moose didn’t seem to mind his presence, busy chewing on someone’s hedges, so Tommy sat down a few feet away.
He went through his food, and then his drink, and then he was left sitting alone in the dark in someone’s backyard with a moose. He crossed his legs and propped his chin up on one palm, head pleasantly fuzzy. He could run off the alcohol in no time, but where was the fun in that.
“I have no idea what I’m doing,” he said to the moose. “The whole superhero thing, Billy’s family, running to Canada at one in the morning… any of it. You know what I mean?”
The moose snorted, and didn’t look up.
“Yeah, well,” Tommy muttered, flopping backwards onto the grass. “Same to you, buddy.”
He ran laps around New York City the night after that, whisking purses out of the hands of muggers and back into the arms of their owners, breaking up fights and stopping a couple of F-listers trying to make off with half a jewelry store.
Three days later found him in San Francisco, staring across the darkness of the bay. The X-Men’s island floated in the distance, pinpoints of grimy light dancing on the water.
Super-vision was not part of his powerset, but he squinted into the darkness anyway, trying to spot a flutter of red cape or the gleam of a metal helmet.
Billy’s father had left a copy of Time open on the kitchen table. It was probably an accident – almost definitely, given the man on the two page spread.
Magneto, master of magnetism. Mutant terrorist. Member of the X-Men.
Maybe Tommy’s grandfather.
Tommy’d had grandfathers before, two of them even, but his mother’s father had been a distant man and Tommy’s only memories of him were a couple of disastrous holiday dinners, and the words, “Mary, can’t you control that boy?”, and his father’s father had been a disaster all his own.
(“Frank,” he’d said, scowling at the top of Tommy’s head and then looking away when he’d glanced up, like nine-years-old was too young to figure out when you were being talked about. “He looks nothing like you.”
“Dad,” his own father had pressed, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. “Let it go. For the last time, please, let it go.”
“I just want you to think,” his grandfather had said, “think about the possibility, at least.”)
Needless to say, he hadn’t been a favorite in that household.
He’d traced the line of Magneto’s jaw with his finger, scanned the picture for something familiar. There, he could say, was the snow white hair, down to his eyebrows and every eyelash, and there, maybe, the shape of the eyes, the set of his mouth or maybe the line of his shoulders, what little he could see of them under the cape.
Except all he saw was the piercing steel blue eyes – not his color – and the long, strong lines of his body, all solid muscle, tall and proud. Not Tommy’s too long arms and legs, skinny through and through, all elbows and knees.
(“You’re like a greyhound,” his mother had said, exasperated, when he’d been fourteen and needed to run everywhere, all but climbing the walls and wishing he could go further and faster.)
He’d almost thought he’d had it, the missing piece of confirmation, the bit where he’d look at Magneto and be able to see some of himself, when the littlest Kaplan grabbed the magazine off the table.
“Magneto!” he’d shouted. “Cool!”
Then Billy’s mom had snatched the magazine away, grumbling under her breath, and Tommy’d had to pretend he didn’t see the look Billy shot him.
He took a deep, gulping breath of damp air, tasting the water at the back of his throat, and slid off his goggles. He let them dangle around his neck.
“Hey, kid,” someone said from behind him. Tommy half-turned, and the man behind him squinted, staring first at his outfit, then at his hair, and finally the island just visible against the horizon.
“Yeah?” Tommy said.
The man frowned.
“You miss the last ferry back or something?” he asked. “You mutant kids should stay on that rock.”
Half a second, and Tommy was right in his face. The man was taller than him by a good couple of inches, but Tommy’s speed had knocked him off guard, sent him reeling back.
“You know, maybe you’re right,” Tommy said conversationally. He started to circle him, keeping his paces even, but fast enough that the man couldn’t run away. He stopped and leaned in again, grinning wide, baring his teeth. “But hey! On the other hand – maybe Magneto was too!”
The man blanched and stumbled backwards when Tommy stepped back, turning on his heels and running away. Tommy watched him go until he’d faded into the darkness, then he left himself, sprinting back to New York.
He didn’t look back at the island.
He thought about retracing the steps he and Billy had taken when they’d gone looking for Wanda. He could have spent his nights running around Mount Wundagore, or in the rubble of Genosha.
He wasn’t going back to the house in Leonia. Sure, he really didn’t want to get stuck in anymore alternate hell dimensions, especially not without Billy to magically bail him out, but it was the New Jersey part of it that really bothered him. He itched every time he set foot in his home state, longing for a couple thousand miles or at the very least the river between him and it.
Friday night brought him Kate and Eli, fighting ninjas in Central Park.
He took down the one advancing on Eli from behind, a quick one-two punchout at superspeed. Patriot tended to frown on the whole vaporizing the enemy thing.
“You guys need a hand?” he asked, raising his eyebrows. Eli scowled at him.
“Oh, haha,” he said. The edge of his shield met a ninja’s ribcage with a crack.
“What?” Tommy said, zipping between targets. “C’mon, I was being sincere!”
“It’s the Hand,” Kate said, notching an arrow to her bow.
“Yeah, that’s what I said,” Tommy replied, ducking as she let the arrow fly. It neatly pinned the ninja he’d been dodging to a tree.
“No,” Kate said, and Tommy could just tell she was rolling her eyes behind the sunglasses. “It’s the Hand.”
“You know, the evil mystical ninja group,” Eli grunted, bringing his shield up just in time to keep one of them from falling on him from above. “The usual.”
“Right. That Hand. Gotcha,” Tommy said. “That’s the one with the superchick who only wears red bandages, right? Electric or whatever.”
“Elektra,” Kate corrected sharply. She set another arrow loose and it exploded in midair, a net falling over a small cluster of ninjas just appearing at the edge of the trees.
“Whatever,” Tommy said. One of the ninjas sprang at him from behind, arms around his neck and sword against his throat. The edge was razor sharp and it bit into him as he vibrated, hard and fast, and the ninja fell backwards with a choked off shout, the handle of his sword clattering useless to the ground. Tommy had vaporized the blade.
From then on there wasn’t talk, just teamwork, smooth and efficient. Eventually the ninjas backed off, disappearing back into the trees. One of them sped past a couple out on a romantic evening jog; they both shrieked and took off in opposite directions, soppy handholding forgotten.
“It’s like some people don’t enjoy having ninjas interrupt their dates,” Kate said to Eli, brushing her hair out of her face. Eli’s lips quirked upwards in a smirk.
“Can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want that,” he replied.
Tommy glanced between them, then cleared his throat. Kate straightened up, adjusting her scarf and the strap of her quiver. Eli shouldered his shield, crossed his arms and mumbled something about going to check on the perimeter.
“Guess they figured Daredevil wasn’t showing up to rescue the baby heroes,” Tommy said, rocking back on his heels. Kate didn’t reply immediately. She reached out, curling a hand around his shoulder, and tilted her head down just enough that he could see her eyes over the tops of her sunglasses.
“Hey,” she said. “How’re you holding up?”
Tommy’s lip curled. He wrenched himself out of her grip.
“Why? What’s Billy been telling you?”
Kate snorted, crossing her arms.
“Billy doesn’t have to tell me anything,” she said. “It’s a new place, and it’s not exactly peaceful – what does that make, five boys under one roof? Anyone would have trouble adjusting after sleeping in a warehouse for months.”
“Yeah, well,” Tommy said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “It’s not juvie, right? But hey, you got such a problem with my living arrangements, I could always go home with you.”
He lifted his eyebrows meaningfully and gave her his best and brightest smile.
She smirked, not unkindly, tilting her head to the side in that are you serious right now kind of way.
“Because that’s going to happen,” she said. She looked over his shoulder and he didn’t need to follow her glance to know it was Eli, coming up behind them. She raised her eyebrows, tilting her glasses down, and Tommy only turned around when Eli sighed long and low.
“I’d have to call my grandma,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. His eyes met Tommy’s, or at least Tommy thought they did – the whiteout lenses in his mask were just plain unfair. “But if you really want, you can probably crash at my place for a few days. If you hate it that much.”
Tommy hesitated. Then he pasted his widest, most obnoxious grin on his face, all teeth and swagger as he leaned forward, clapping Eli on the shoulder.
“Thanks, man, but no thanks,” he said. “I mean, I love you and all, but do you really think we’re ready for the living together stage? Whatever would the neighbors say?” He faked a gasp. “You’ll have to put a ring on it first.”
Eli’s eyeroll was obvious even with the mask in the way.
“Suit yourself,” he said, shrugging Tommy’s hand off. “C’mon, Hawkeye. It’s getting late.”
“You know Patriot’s good on his word,” Kate told Tommy and she and Eli fell into step with each other. “If you change your mind.”
Kate slung her arm around Eli was they walked off, and Eli reciprocated immediately, arm around her shoulders. Their hips bumped, casually, as they left Tommy standing alone in the middle of the park, and he swallowed, mouth dry and bitter.
He waited until they were out of sight and then, when his face wouldn’t stop feeling hot and his eyes wouldn’t stop feeling scratchy, he ran laps around the park, hundreds of them, until his legs ached and his breath came in fast, hard pants, white fog in the air.
So maybe stalking the Avengers wasn’t actually the best idea, but hindsight was twenty-twenty and Tommy had been looking for something to hit. Following Captain America seemed an easy way to go about it. He hadn’t meant to trail the motorbike back to their headquarters.
At least, he thought it was their headquarters. It was an apartment, smaller than the Kaplans’, but seeing Spider-Man hanging upside down off the fire escape seemed to settle the matter.
After that, well – it was the Avenger’s headquarters. Anyone would have been giddy about that.
He’d almost told Billy, one morning over breakfast, leaned in real close over his cereal and said, “Hey, guess what I found.”
“Ugh,” Billy had replied, head in one hand. He glared blearily at Tommy. “Don’t know, don’t wanna know, don’t care.”
Teddy had wandered into the room a minute later, in a t-shirt and sleep pants, and because Billy’s mom was out of the room waking his brothers up, and his dad’s back was turned, the two of them proceeded to take that as the cue for early morning makeouts.
“Still here, you know,” Tommy had said, making a face. “Can still totally see you.”
Billy had rolled his eyes at him mid-liplock and Tommy had thought, yeah, okay, fine, bro, see if I share Avengers headquarters with you, and that had been that.
For the most part, he stayed out of sight, lurking on the blocks around the building, occasionally running laps by it. He circled it, catching glimpses when he could – Ms. Marvel framed by the window, Luke Cage walking through the front door. Wolverine on the fire escape, making faces at a baby. (Tommy had absolutely no idea what was up with that one, but he kind of wished he had a camera.)
It was his third night of hanging out down the block, just until he got tired enough to drag himself back to the Kaplans’ apartment, and he was running a little slower than usual after nearly tripping over a dogwalker trying to keep three Labradors and a whole pack of dachshunds in line, and also just in case Wolverine was out babysitting again. He’d snagged Billy’s camera before he’d left.
The apartment was dark at 1 AM, then 2 AM, and then 2:30. Eventually Tommy got bored of running.
There was a tiny park across the street, meant for dogs and maybe some kids, but most importantly there was a bench. Tommy sat down and pulled his knees up to his chest and told himself he was only going to stick around until the Avengers came back or he got to hit somebody.
Whichever came first.
Someone was singing to him. Soft and low and a little off-key. She bent down low over him, dark curls tickling his face, and smiled, saying --
“Hey, Speed. Up and at ‘em, kid.”
Tommy blinked. Someone was shaking him, a heavy black and gold glove on his shoulder. He scrubbed at his face with one hand, dislodging his goggles.
Ronin quirked an eyebrow, an odd smile on his face. His blond hair stuck up at all angles, like he’d just ripped the mask off.
“As much as I’m anybody else, I guess,” he huffed out a laugh. “Let’s make it Clint, alright? I figure that’s fair, considering you managed to hunt down the Avengers. Nice job on that, by the way.”
Tommy kept his face carefully blank, pushing himself into a sitting position. Clint removed his hand, watching Tommy with amused eyes.
“So how much trouble am I in, huh?” he asked, crossing his arms. Clint snorted.
“Captain America wanted to give you a lecture himself, but you know the new model. I told him to go find some kittens to rescue from trees, and then maybe he can graduate to the I Am Very Disappointed in You speeches, you know, all that standard Sentinel of Liberty fair,” he said. “I sent him ahead, so he’s probably glaring from the window right now.”
Tommy glanced over Clint’s shoulder, towards the dark apartment building. There was a light on in one of the windows now, and the dark shape of a man loomed front and center, his arms crossed. Tommy couldn’t actually see his face, but his very posture radiated disapproval. Captain America, indeed.
“So what are you doing out here, anyway?” Clint asked. Tommy shrugged.
“Don’t know,” he said. “But hey, if I found the headquarters, does that mean I get to join up?”
Clint quirked an eyebrow.
“I think maybe you’d better stick to your own team,” he said. “It’s pretty crowded up there. But hey, you want to fight Wolverine for couch space, you be my guest.”
Tommy made a face.
“No, thanks,” he said. “I’ll pass.”
Clint was quiet for a moment, sitting back on his haunches. His eyes searched Tommy’s face; Tommy looked away, at the sidewalk, at the trees, at the disapproving silhouette in the window.
“No, really. What are you doing out here?” he said. “Kind of late to be spying on your elders and betters. And I’m not saying you couldn’t do worse, but this isn’t exactly a great place to grab a nap.”
“You know how it is,” Tommy said, kicking back and crossing his arms behind his head. He kept his eyes firmly on the sky. “You’re fighting the good fight on some random block, totally unaware of whatever heroes might live there, and then some guy called the Sandman comes along. You do a guy a favor, tell him the name’s already taken, and next thing you know you’re out cold on a park bench.”
Clint’s mouth twitched upwards into a smirk.
“Alright,” he said, spreading his hands palms up. He climbed to his feet. “Let’s go. I’ll take you home.”
It was Tommy’s turn to laugh.
“You couldn’t keep up with me,” he said. Clint’s smirk widened. He reached into a hidden pocket in his costume and fished out a pair of keys, dangling them in front of Tommy’s face.
“True enough,” he said. “So the way I see it is, you’ve got two choices. You can head home by yourself – and I hate this option, because it means I’m sitting up all night wondering whether there’s a teen hero running himself ragged on the mean streets, probably getting into all kinds of weird fights with Spidey’s castoffs – or you can stick with me and get to ride Cap’s motorcycle.”
Tommy’s eyes zeroed in on the keys.
“Are you serious,” he said.
“One of these days,” Clint began, palming the keys, “he’s going to learn to check his pockets after I go in for a manhug.”
“You hugged Captain America?” Tommy said, disbelieving. Clint started to walk off and Tommy was off the bench and at his side in a split second.
They didn’t talk much on the way back, not after Tommy rattled off Billy’s address. Captain America’s bike was cool, there was no denying that, and it drove like a dream, smooth and steady, but it felt like a snail’s pace to Tommy, and every single New York City light burned as they drove past. Tommy ached deep inside and he was tired in a way he hadn’t been in a long time, not since juvie. Halfway through the ride he grabbed handfuls of the Ronin costume and put his head down against Clint’s back.
Clint didn’t comment, so Tommy stayed like that, fabric cool and rough against his face.
Eventually, the motorcycle rolled to a stop. Tommy let go, flexing his fingers. He sat back on the bike for a minute, and then climbed off. Clint stayed seated.
“I’m good from here, really,” Tommy told him. Clint nodded.
“Nice place,” he said, giving the building the once over. Tommy shrugged.
“It’s not mine,” he said. “I’m just staying here for a while.”
“There are worse places to be staying,” Clint said. It didn't look like he planned to leave until he saw Tommy walk through the doors. He started up the steps.
On the top one, he hesitated. On instinct, he turned around, and the words were out of his mouth before he knew it: “Do I look my mom?”
Something flickered across Clint’s face.
“Don’t know,” he said, leaning back against the bike. He crossed his arms. “I never met your mother.”
“You know what I mean,” Tommy pressed. He kind of wished he could take the whole thing back, but he’d said it and suddenly he wanted the answer more than anything.
Clint shifted and sighed, looking away. Under the street light he seemed drawn and uncomfortable, the line of his shoulders tight. He tapped one heel against the ground.
“I’d say you look more like Quicksilver,” he said, hesitating, like he was dragging the words out one by one. “But…”
Tommy waited, frozen on the top step. He couldn’t have moved if he’d wanted.
“Yeah, you look like her,” Ronin finally said, flicking his eyes up to meet Tommy’s. “So much it kind of hurts a little bit.”
Tommy exhaled, slow. It was an answer. Whether it was the one he wanted – that didn’t really matter anymore.
“Thanks,” he said. Clint waved a hand, shrugging.
“Hawkeye still have my bow?” he said.
“Oh yeah,” Tommy said, glad for the change of subject. He felt lighter inside, the heaviness that had been pressing down on him melting away. He grinned. “I think she sleeps with it under her pillow.”
“Tell her to take care of my girl, alright?” Clint said, swinging one leg over the bike. He started the engine. “That bow’s a real lady and she deserves to be treated like one.”
The one thing Tommy was not expecting to see when he snuck back into his room was Rebecca Kaplan, dressed in a bathrobe and holding a cup of tea, sitting on his bed.
There was a long, silent moment, during which she stared at Tommy and Tommy mostly contemplated turning tail and heading back to Canada to live with his moose friend.
“Would you believe I got really lost on my way to the bathroom?” he said. She didn’t smile.
“Sit down, Thomas,” she said, gesturing to the other bed. It was empty. Tommy raised an eyebrow. Rebecca shook her head. “Yes, I know. It seems I’ve got a busy night ahead of me. I decided to tackle the hardest problem first.”
“Well, that’s me,” Tommy said, collapsing backwards. He rested his elbows on his knees and leaned forward. He didn’t bother to take his goggles off. “The biggest problem.”
Rebecca Kaplan’s lips thinned.
“I don’t know what you thought, but I’m not so stupid I won’t notice someone sneaking out of my house every night,” she said. “You’re not the first teenage boy I’ve ever dealt with.”
“Just the only one with superspeed,” Tommy said, nodding. “Granted, William can teleport, which maybe isn’t all that different, but it could definitely be stealthier…”
Rebecca removed her glasses, letting them dangle around her neck on a thin gold chain. She rubbed at her eyes with one hand. “Please don’t make me think about my son teleporting all over the world at all hours of the night.”
“You mean you haven’t already?” Tommy knew he shouldn’t press, that he should just let this go, go along with whatever she said. Like he was back in juvie. Swap Rebecca’s bathrobe (terrycloth, periwinkle) for a labcoat (white, identification clipped to the front) and he could be back in the facility again, staring down the scientists and psychiatrists, asking questions from “And how does that make you feel?” to “How did the underwater tests go? I hear you excelled as usual.”
If he went along with her, just answered the questions and promised he wouldn’t do it again (wouldn’t try to vaporize his cell, or the guards, would do better at the next test) then she would leave. He wanted her to go.
But he didn’t want to be left alone, either.
“If it was me,” he said, “and I could do that? Do anything I wanted, because I wanted it? Nobody would be able to stop me.”
“I know that!” Rebecca snapped. She stilled, face blank, like she was surprised at herself. She pressed her hand to her face again, closing her eyes. “Of course I know that,” she added, softer. “Who wouldn’t, if they could do what – if they could do what Billy can do?”
They were both quiet for a moment, Tommy kicking absently at the carpet and Rebecca with her face in her hands, mug abandoned on the bedside table.
“I’m sorry,” she said after a moment, pulling her hands away. “That’s wasn’t very…”
“It’s fine,” Tommy cut her off. She pursed her lips.
“It’s not fine,” she said, stern but not unkind. “I shouldn’t have taken that tone with you.” Another pause, like she was contemplating saying something, and it was a minute or two before she spoke again, “I wanted to give you some space. To see if you would stop on your own. Billy told me a little bit about your background –”
“No,” Tommy cut her off. “He didn’t tell you anything about me.”
Rebecca looked surprised. “Of course, I didn’t mean to imply that he went behind your back –”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” Tommy said, leaning forward. “He didn’t tell you anything because he doesn’t know anything about me. Magic twins? Sure, why the hell not, stranger things, right? I mean, I’m the Road Runner, he can wish anything he wants, of course we should be twins. We could rock the cosmos or whatever. But it’s such a joke – just because we look alike doesn’t mean he knows anything about me. I don’t know anything about him! He can’t have told you anything, because he doesn’t know anything about me.”
Apparently Speed was a great codename choice: it applied to his mouth, too. He shut his mouth with a click of teeth, face hot and furious. Rebecca Kaplan stared at him with her mouth a little open and her eyebrows knitted together, her hands knotted in her lap.
“Yes, that's right,” she said at last. “Of course. You’re right. It’s been unrealistic, thinking we could pick up, not knowing anything about each other. Can I ask you a question, then, Tommy?”
He shrugged, noncommittal. “Depends on the question.”
“Where are your parents?” she asked. Another shrug.
“And?” she pressed.
“Divorced,” he said.
“Do they know where you are right now?” she asked. Her voice was very soft and understanding; Tommy kind of preferred her sharp, take-no-prisoners tone from before.
“Probably not,” he said. “I’m betting they know I’m not in juvie anymore. And maybe they recognized me in the papers or on TV or something. But I’m also betting they don’t care.”
He expected her to say, that’s not true and of course your parents care, but she only nodded, her lips pressed tight together. She rose to her feet, collecting her abandoned mug from the counter.
“It’s late,” she said, “and I need to go remove my teenage son’s boyfriend from his room, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk more with you, Tommy. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to spend some time together tomorrow, just the two of us.”
Tommy would have rather told Doctor Doom that green was going out of style. He shrugged and lay down, back to her. He slid his goggles off and left them on the pillow next to him. He listened as the door clicked shut and her footsteps faded back down the hall.
Maybe he’d go and fight Wolverine for that couch space, after all.
Ten minutes later the door creaked open again and Tommy glanced over his shoulder just in time to see Teddy stumble in, hair sleep-mussed and face red.
“Hey,” he said, scratching the back of his neck. “So. That just happened.”
He didn’t seem to care that Tommy was on his bed; he shuffled over to the empty one and collapsed backwards.
“You seem pretty okay with that,” he said. Teddy looked like he was stifling a grin, bottom lip caught by his teeth.
“Rite of passage, or something, I guess,” he said. “I mean, it was mortifying, but. All pants in the vicinity were on. We weren’t even doing anything, just sleeping, and – we were going to get caught eventually, I guess. I don’t even think she was that mad. Just exasperated. We’re getting a talk in the morning. It’s all good.”
Tommy snorted. Teddy rolled over to face him, blue eyes glimmering in the dark.
“So, haven’t seen you around much lately,” he said. “How’s your life been?”
Tommy pulled a face. “Eh, same old, same old. Ran to Canada, made friends with a moose. Accidentally stalked the Avengers. Fought the Shocker the other day, he says hi.”
Teddy made a vaguely agreeable noise, eyes falling shut.
“Oh, also, I got to ride on Captain America’s motorcycle,” Tommy said. Teddy’s eyes flew open.
“What?!” he said, sitting up.
Tommy grinned, winked, and flipped over, pulling the blankets up.
The next morning Billy scowled at him from across the breakfast table, and Tommy spent all of five minutes letting him, pretending to be engrossed in the Arts and Entertainment section of the Times.
Finally, he lowered the paper and said, “Teddy told you, huh?”
“I hate you,” Billy declared.
“That’s what you get for wasting your time with all the clandestine snuggling, bro,” Tommy said. “Next time you can come with me. Bring your camera – Ronin tells me Wolverine babysits these days. Did I mention I got a whole one-on-one advice session with Ronin? Yeah.”
“So much,” Billy grumbled, taking a vicious bite out of his toast. Tommy snickered.
The morning went the usual way from there, up until Mr. Kaplan left the house in a flurry of toast crumbs and a nearly forgotten briefcase, pausing to kiss his wife on the cheek. Mrs. Kaplan had canceled her appointments in advance, and as soon as the door closed she dragged Teddy and Billy off for a proper interrogation.
Tommy might’ve felt bad for them, except he knew he was next. If he didn’t pick up and run to Japan, at any rate, and he still hadn’t ruled that out as Plan B.
“Hey,” one of the Kaplan dweebs said to him. “Do you want to play Mario Kart with us?”
Tommy considered it for a brief moment.
“Yeah, okay,” he said. “If you guys don’t mind getting your asses kicked.”
The kids traded a glance that clearly read bring it, so Tommy cracked his knuckles and sat down between them on the couch.
Thirty minutes later, he was trying to show Kyle how to button mash like a champion, no mutant powers necessary, and fielding Kevin’s teenaged whining all at once.
“Seriously? Kevin and Kyle Kaplan? It’s like our parents were all like, well, William’s got a good name, so let’s make the next two jokes,” he huffed with an eyeroll that would have put Cassie to shame. “It’s like they hate us.”
“They do not!” Kyle exclaimed, high pitched and right in Tommy’s ear, dropping his controller. Tommy winced and picked it back up.
“Hey, dweeb, less talking, more practicing,” he said. “Girls love a guy who knows his way around Kart, okay? And dweeb two, where do I even start -- your parents don’t hate you just because you think your name is dumb. You don’t like, you turn eighteen and you can change it.”
“But it’s dumb,” Kevin pressed, pouting. Tommy rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, parents can be like that,” he replied. “Deal with it. They liked the name, or else they wouldn’t have given it to you. Besides, it could be worse.”
“How?” Kevin asked, looking deeply unimpressed.
“Trust me, it can always be worse,” Tommy said.
Behind them, someone coughed, and he turned to find Rebecca and Billy standing together in the doorway. Rebecca was smiling slightly, one eyebrow arched, and Billy looked plain disbelieving.
“What?” Tommy said.
“I need a camera,” Billy replied, “because the rest of the team is never going to believe this.”
“Boys,” Rebecca said at the same time, “did you neglect to tell Tommy about the no video games until after dinner rule?”
Kevin and Kyle both shifted, looking guilty, and Kyle quickly turned off the system.
“Sorry, Mom,” they chorused. The corner of Rebecca’s smile twitched a little higher.
“We’ll let it go just this once,” she said. “May I borrow Tommy for a little while? Billy and Teddy will stay with you.”
“But – we were going to go out!” Billy said. “Mom, c’mon, we only have so much break time left, and it’s Wednesday! We were gonna hit the comic shop!”
“You are lucky you’re not grounded. You can go later,” Rebecca said. Billy scowled and crossed his arms.
“Billy’s in trouble,” Kevin sang under his breath. Kyle looked up with wide eyes.
“Tommy’s not in trouble, though, is he?” he said. Rebecca hesitated a moment, and Kyle added, “He’s staying, though, right? He’s cooler than Billy! Billy never plays games with us.”
“That’s because you whine when you lose!” Billy shot back.
“So do you,” Kevin muttered under his breath.
“Well, don’t you think that should be up to Tommy?” Rebecca said. She gestured to him and, with one last thought about Tokyo or Kenya or even fucking Latveria, Tommy got up from the couch. He was stopped momentarily when fingers caught at the hem of his shirt.
“You should stay here,” Kyle told him in what was probably supposed to be a whisper.
“So you can introduce us to Magneto,” Kevin added. Tommy snorted and yanked himself free.
“If this is what having baby siblings is like,” he said to Billy on the way out, “then I’m glad I got to skip that part.”
Billy threw a rude gesture at his back, if the laughing from the living room was any indication.
Rebecca said up front that whatever questions she asked him, he didn’t have to answer if he didn’t feel comfortable. That it wasn’t an interrogation.
Which, okay, Tommy was pretty clear on that from the start – he’d been interrogated before, more or less, the dust of his math classroom still in his hair. She pursed her lips when he told her that, and dropped the subject. She asked if he wanted to go for a walk, and while walking wasn’t running, it was better than standing still or sitting in the middle of some coffee shop, bristling when people bumped against his chair.
She brought up the subject of school while they walked towards the park, and he snickered before he could stop himself and said, “Yeah, school and I don’t really mix, if last time is anything to go by.”
Rebecca was quiet for a long moment. Tommy sipped at the drink she’d bought him, one hand in the pocket of his sweatshirt, and waited. At the mouth of the park, she finally spoke.
“I’d like to hear the whole story,” she said. “From the beginning.”
Two weeks later, New York City was under attack. Not that that was new or anything, and it was a hard fight, Tommy definitely wasn’t going to call it a cakewalk, but it wasn’t the fight itself that did it at the end.
It was Norman Osborn with his Avengers and the swarm of reporters that surrounded them. Iron Patriot’s armor gleamed in the afternoon sun, a smudge of dark blood on the left shoulder. His Ms. Marvel stood next to him, looking bored, while Not Wolverine grinned for the cameras, all teeth.
Hawkeye was the final straw. Him, and Kate’s face when she saw him. Tommy looked down and saw that her fingers were bone white around her bow.
“We should go,” Teddy said quietly. “Before they stop mugging for the cameras.”
“Right,” Eli said, quiet and final. “We’re leaving -- now.”
Billy was good enough to magic them back into street clothes in an alley, so they skipped the warehouse all together and planned to split up when they got to the nearest subway station. Eli had that look on his face, the one that said it was causing him actual physical pain to skip the customary debriefing session, but he kept his mouth shut when he glanced at Cassie, looking small in her hoodie and jeans.
“This isn’t your train,” Billy said, frowning, when Eli descended the steps with them. Eli shrugged.
“I can ride with my team if I want to,” he said. Tommy searched his pockets for a metrocard and came up empty-handed; wordlessly, Eli handed over his.
“Thanks,” Billy said to Eli once they were all gathered on the platform. His smile was suspiciously watery.
“Don’t thank me,” Eli said. “Just, I don’t know, maybe magic me up an unlimited metrocard. That’d be nice.”
Cassie had her hood pulled up over her head. She was staring at the ground like she might start crying any second, gripping the Vision’s hand so tight it probably would have hurt if he’d be anyone else. She didn't look up when the train roared through the station, or when they all shuffled aboard.
“They’re not the Avengers,” she said hoarsely, just as her stop was coming up. Vision stared at the top of her head with his brow creased, squeezing her hand in his own.
“I’ll walk you home,” he said.
She sniffed, wiping her nose on her sleeve. “Thanks, Jonas.”
The train slowed to a stop. Kate reached out and caught Cassie’s hand as she climbed to her feet.
“I’ll call you later, okay?” she said. “Text me when you get home.”
“’Kay,” Cassie said in a small voice. She sniffed again, clearing her throat, and louder, said, “Thanks. See you later, guys.”
Tommy watched her and the Vision go, their clasped hands swinging between them as they vanished into the crowd. The doors slid shut with a hiss, then opened again, and the conductor’s sharp voice came over the system, telling everyone to stand clear of the closing doors.
Teddy spoke next, a few minutes later. “It’s our stop next,” he said to Billy, who nodded and started to climb to his feet.
“Tommy?” he said. “You coming?”
Tommy hesitated; he was sitting next to Kate, and Eli was standing by him, hand loosely curled around the safety bar, and he was so tired he wasn’t sure he knew how to get up.
“Go,” Eli said. “I’ll make sure Kate gets home okay.”
“You’d better make that the other way around, super soldier,” she said. “I’m not the one who got thrown through a window.”
Eli winced, then tried to cover it up with a glower.
“Actually go home, okay?” Teddy said to them. “No stopping to fight off the invasion forces or sewer alligators or the Lizard – you know, no doing the usual stuff that happens when we leave you two alone.”
“Yes, mom,” Eli told him, rolling his eyes. Kate stifled a tired laugh, brushing her hair out of her face. The subway started to slow, and she shoved at Tommy’s shoulder until he got up.
“Will you call me later, too?” he said, raising his eyebrows. He’d meant it to come with a leer, obnoxious and flirty in a way that would make Eli scowl at him, but the voice that left his lips was quiet and unsure.
She snorted and said, “Same rules – you’d better text me when you get home.”
He met Eli’s eyes briefly, and Eli’s frown lessened.
“You don’t have to text me,” he said, and Tommy rolled his eyes.
“Aw, baby, I know how you worry,” he replied. Then the doors slid open and Tommy stepped out of the subway car and onto the platform. He glanced back, and watched the back of Kate’s head and the Eli’s silhouette until the crowd forced him to move.
Billy was waiting for him by the exit, and they climbed the stairs together. Teddy was two steps behind, dragging his feet with his hands in his pockets.
Billy’s shoulder bumped against his as they climbed out into the open air. He took a deep breath and said, “Let’s go home.”
Tommy bumped him back, and maybe inclined his head just a little bit, his own hair blending with Billy’s dark locks. “Sounds good to me, bro,” he said.
How he got into a text war with Eli, he wasn’t totally sure. All he knew was at two in the morning, Eli had sent, go to bed, idiot, and Tommy had meant to reply no, you, but had somehow fallen asleep on his phone instead.
-- he was very small and the woman was singing to him again, a different song this time, and his tiny fingers caught on her red sweater, tangled in her dark curls.
Except he couldn’t hold onto her, and it was too hot in this strange new place, and his brother was crying. He was too, heavy tears rolling down his face, and someone said, in a voice that resonated and thrummed and wasn’t human, “This is why I hate toddlers. Make a note, next time one of those pesky reality witches tries this, let’s try and hold out for – oh, at least seven, eight years old. Old enough to reason with, or bribe. Or threaten, let's all be honest here. Put that down: Mephisto Enjoys Threatening Small Children, not that anyone’ll be surprised.”
Someone shouted his name, and his brother’s, and then everything seems to – rewind. Splinter. Reassemble itself with the pieces in a different order. He was in his bedroom in New Jersey, sitting on his bed, and his mom was pacing back and forth across his carpet, muttering to herself.
“Wait until your father gets home,” she said. “Just you wait. You are in so much trouble, Thomas Shepherd.”
Not that that was new. He was always in so much trouble. Then he was in math class and he was shaking all over and --
He jolted awake and lay there for a minute, cheek mashed against his cell phone, wondering what had woken him.
He flipped over and saw Billy standing in the doorway, framed in the light of the hall. He had a blanket draped over his shoulders like a cape.
“Hey,” he replied, scrubbing at his face with one hand. “What’re you doing?”
“Got kicked out of bed,” Billy said, stepping into the room and closing the door behind him. He sat down on Teddy’s empty bed. “Literally. Teddy’s sleep-shifting again and the next thing I know I’m on the floor because my bed is not big enough to accommodate me and all of Hulkling. Hope the mattress holds.”
“Why don’t you just wake him up and make him shift back?” Tommy asked. Billy flopped backwards and sighed.
“I tried that once already,” he said. He paused, then added, “Besides. He only sleep-shifts when he’s stressed. I don’t want to wake him up and make him worry about it.”
Tommy didn’t have a good comeback for that. Billy flipped over onto his side; he’d left the door open just an inch or so, and the sliver of light fell across him, throwing his features into sharp relief. It caught on the bridge of his nose and his hair, made his eyes shine dark in the light.
Tommy stared at him and thought, maybe this is what everyone sees when they look at us, and Billy stared right back. Then he raised himself up on his hands and knees and struggled off the bed, legs caught in the blanket. He tripped his way across the room and stood over Tommy’s bed, staring expectantly.
“Shove over,” he said. Tommy raised his eyebrows in disbelief.
“Are you serious right now?” he said. “There’s a spare bed right there. You were just in it!”
“It’s cold,” Billy said. “Come on, just move over.”
Tommy obeyed despite all reasoning, wriggling backwards until his back hit the wall. Billy cracked a crooked smile and lay down beside him. The bed was narrow; Billy was thin, all arms and legs, and Tommy was skinnier still, but that still didn’t mean there was room for both of them. They were almost nose to nose, their knees bumping together.
“Hey,” Billy asked. His eyes searched Tommy’s face. “Can I ask you a question?”
No, because you just did, Tommy wanted to say. Or, only if you get back on the other bed.
Instead, what came out of his mouth was, “Shoot.”
“Right, okay,” Billy said. He gnawed on his lip for a moment, drawing circles on the sheet between them. Tommy rolled his eyes.
“Just spit out,” he said. Billy’s eyes flashed.
“I’m trying!” he said. His mouth stayed open for a minute, like he was trying to find the words but couldn’t get his lips to form them. “I just – what have you been talking about with my mom, anyway?”
Tommy felt his stomach sink a little, and he wasn’t sure why. He didn’t know why he’d been expecting a different question.
“You know,” he said, shifting until he was lying on his back. The ceiling was easier to look at than Billy, even if he did kind of end up with Billy’s chin digging into his shoulder. “Stuff. She wants to know I’m not going to like, blow up the apartment, I guess, kidnap your brothers and then leave them in Siberia. And then – I don’t know, just, talking. She’s been telling me about Judaism.”
“Yeah?” Billy said, raising an eyebrow.
“I figure – you guys are Jewish, and, you know, Magneto…” Tommy trailed off. Billy made a noise in the back of his throat. “Oh, and your mom showed me your Bar Mitzvah tape.”
“She didn’t,” Billy said, dread creeping into his voice. Tommy grinned.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I really liked your speech.”
“I was thirteen,” Billy snapped.
“In a way,” Tommy said, putting on a squeaky falsetto, his best impression of a thirteen-year-old Billy, standing up there in front of his whole family in a suit that was a little too big, “Noah’s journey can be compared to Pokemon – like Ash Ketchum, Noah has to catch them all…”
Billy grabbed the pillow out from under Tommy’s head and hit him with it.
“Except – EXCEPT,” Tommy choked out, laughing, as he raised his hands to defend himself, “Noah’s journey is even harder, because he must catch TWO of them all!”
“Shut up!" Billy said. Tommy grabbed the pillow from him and stuffed it back under his head, laughing. Billy huffed and lay back down, scowling. “You’re impossible.”
“You’re making it too easy,” Tommy replied, once he’d caught his breath. Billy grumbled, and kicked him in the shin. They were both quiet for a long moment, and then Tommy said, “Hey. Can I ask you a question?”
He could feel Billy searching his face. “Of course.”
Tommy shifted, trying to get comfortable. He couldn’t – either Billy’s shoulder knocked against his or their knees banged together, and, if Billy’s yelp was anything to go by, Tommy elbowing him in the ribs wasn’t welcome, either.
Tommy stilled, and then gradually Billy shifted, rolling onto his side again. He laid his head next to Tommy’s on the pillow, and it should have made Tommy want to shove him off the bed, but somehow it was okay.
“Do you ever have weird dreams?” Tommy asked, and Billy stilled, then raised himself up on one elbow, staring down at Tommy.
“What kind of dreams?” he asked, and Tommy regretted bringing it up at all.
“Nothing,” he said. “Never mind.”
“No, c’mon,” Billy said. “Tell me. I want to – I have weird dreams, yeah.”
Tommy pressed his lips together. He raised his hands, making loose shapes in the air, like he could draw out the images in his head. “About… you know. Her. The Scarlet Witch. Our mom.”
Not Billy’s mom, with her thin-rimmed glasses on a gold chain, and her surprisingly nice laugh, and the way she didn't look at Tommy like he was a freak, even though he knew he was. Not Tommy’s mom, with her sandy blonde hair pulled into a messy ponytail, who couldn’t cook but tried anyway, and the way she had looked at him, buried her face in her hands and sobbed about how her son was a mutant freak.
“Yeah,” Billy said, hoarsely. To Tommy’s surprise, he started drawing in the air, index finger tracing lazy lines and blue sparks filling in the details. Within minutes there was a glowing picture of her hanging in thin air above them.
Tommy had seen pictures of her before, of course. Who hadn’t? The World’s Most Dangerous Mutant, according to the headlines, the Scarlet Witch. All featuring pictures of her looking stern, or sad, or her in the middle of battle, grainy shots of her with her hair in her face, her hands raised menacingly, eyes blazing.
Even before then, before his powers had manifested, he’d stared at pictures of Avengers and he must have looked at her, in her bright red cape with her serene smile, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Quicksilver.
None of those were the same as Billy’s picture, though – the woman he drew had Tommy’s nose, and Billy’s dark eyes, and her hair tumbled gracefully over her shoulders. She was smiling, bright and true, and she looked – happy. Tommy rarely saw the woman in his dreams, just caught glimpses of her here and there, but she always sounded happy.
He reached up and traced the line of her smile with one finger; the magic fizzled and sparked but held.
“Do you think she loved us?” Tommy asked, eyebrows knitted together. His voice sounded strange to his own ears, thick and choked, but Billy wasn’t looking at him anymore, just staring at the drawing with a strange intensity.
“What kind of question is that?” Billy asked, lying back down. He waved his hand through the magic and it flickered, flaring bright blue, then dissipated. Billy rested his head against Tommy’s. “You know she did, right? What happened – whatever happened – it wasn’t our fault, but I know it wasn’t hers, either. She loved us a lot.”
Tommy nodded and shut his eyes, burying his face in Billy’s shoulder.
“If you tell anyone about this,” he said, jabbing Billy in the ribs with his index finger, “I will end you, Kaplan. I mean it.”
“Go to sleep, Tommy,” Billy hummed.
“So how are you holding up, really?”
Tommy glanced over his shoulder. Kate was looking at him over the top of her designer shades. She was standing by a stall lined with row after row of terrible handknitted hats; Molly would probably like one. He zipped over, leaning over her shoulder and snagging one in the shape of a toucan.
“What do you think?” he said.
“Not your color,” she replied.
“Not for me,” he said. “For Molly.”
“From the Runaways?” Kate said and then, not waiting for an answer, continued, “Well, she likes hats. I’m sure she’ll love it.”
“You’re not a gift giving person, are you,” he said, putting the hat back and picking up one shaped like an alligator instead. Kate rolled her eyes and moved to the next stall, glancing at the jewelry laid out on display next to homemade soaps, long scarves tacked up on the walls.
“I give gifts,” she said. Tommy dug out a crumpled twenty and after a split-second of deliberation, paid for the alligator hat. He zipped after her, skidding to a stop at her heels. “Ask anyone. I like giving gifts.”
“Okay, sure, but there’s a difference between giving gifts and being a gift giving person,” Tommy said, watching as Kate’s eyes scanned the necklaces. She made a face and moved on to the next booth and he rolled his eyes, following. “Because you are really not enjoying this right now. Don’t lie, I can tell. I have the eye.”
Kate pulled her shades down just enough to give him the eye. Then she sighed and tipped her head back briefly, shaking her shoulders out.
“I’m giving myself ten more minutes to find my sister the perfect gift,” she said, “or I’m donating a small pack of llamas in her name again.”
“Why didn’t you just do that in the first place?” Tommy asked.
“Because I did it last year,” Kate said, “and she threatened to make my dad send me back to ballroom dance classes instead of fencing if I did it again. You never answered my question.”
Tommy took a deep breath of chilly air, shivering a little under his jacket.
“I’m holding up okay,” he said. “The last month’s been –” startlingly good, really “— okay. Everything’s fine, nothing’s on fire, you know, all that good stuff.”
“You’re looking better,” Kate told him. “In general. Less like you’re going to bolt on us and run all the way to Alaska.”
Tommy didn’t really know what to say to that.
“I did run to Canada, a couple of times,” he said at last, bending his head and picking up the first thing that caught his eye. It was a pair of earrings in the shape of delicate enamel holly leaves and berries, edged with gold. The man behind the counter shot him a dirty look. “I made friends with a moose.”
“Ah,” Kate said, delicately. She took the earrings from him and put them back down, smilingly winningly at the shopkeeper. Then she half-turned, waving, and Tommy followed her line of sight: Eli, working his way through the crowd with an air of extreme annoyance and hands full of coffee.
“I hate Union Square in winter,” he said when he reached them. “I’ve told you guys that, right? Because I do. I hate it.”
“You do not,” Kate said. “You don’t even hate the crowds, deep down.”
“In your special place,” Tommy added, as sincerely as he could muster. “Filled with holiday cheer.”
“I’m keeping all this coffee for myself if you two don’t knock it off,” Eli replied. Tommy, unable to help himself, started laughing, and Kate elbowed him in the ribs. The corner of Eli’s mouth twitched. “Okay, so, it’s plain coffee, black, nothing fancy except for the hazelnut syrup for Kate,” he said, doling out the first cup. “And the seasonal peppermint mocha double whip fiasco for Tommy.”
“Less talking, more handing over,” Tommy said, making grabbing motions until Eli actually smiled, shaking his head and forking over the cup. Their fingers brushed, Eli’s warm from the cup and Tommy’s cold and half-covered by the fingerless gloves Rebecca had forced on him before he’d left in the morning.
Kate took a long sip of her coffee, eyes closed, and hummed her approval. They started to walk, pushed along by the crowd, and Tommy let himself be nudged along by the press of Kate and Eli’s shoulders on either side of him.
“What do you have, anyway?” he asked Eli, leaning in close. Eli held his own cup out of Tommy’s reach.
“None of your business, that’s what,” he said. Tommy stuck his tongue out. In reply, Eli took a long sip of his drink and steadfastly refused to look at him.
“You won’t even tell me?” Kate said, raising an eyebrow. Eli glanced at her, clearly torn, and that’s when Tommy sprang, snatching the cup out of his hand before he could blink. He took a long sip and nearly burnt his tongue.
“Kate,” he said, laughing and holding the cup out to her. “Kate, you have to, I can’t –”
Eli scowled at him, a high flush across his cheeks. Kate snagged the cup and took a sip next, eyebrows shooting up.
“Apple cider,” she said. “Really, Eli?”
He snatched his cup back.
“Don’t laugh,” he said, and pointing a finger at Tommy, added, “I saw the amount of crushed up candy cane that went on the mountain of whipcream on yours. The barista drew a heart in chocolate syrup. You can check.”
Tommy pulled up the white plastic lid and, sure enough, there was a half-melted heart in a pile of whipcream. He shrugged, lifted the cup up and stuck his tongue in the whole thing. Eli made a face.
“Besides,” he added, taking a long sip of his cider. “It’s the holidays.”
“There's two weeks to go,” Kate corrected.
“And you two’re already gift shopping,” Eli pointed out. “So there. Besides, if it’s good enough for Union Square, it’s good enough for me, and we could all use a little…” he drifted off, stopping in his tracks.
They had wandered out of the rows of red and white stalls and towards the street mostly by accident. Tommy looked up, and was confronted by the Iron Patriot, a hundred times larger than life on a screen set above an ad for cell phones. A news bar ran under it, detailing the so-called Avengers latest conquest.
“Yeah,” Kate said after a moment, shifting her weight, her fingers curling tight around her cup. Her face was carefully blank. “We could all use a little something, all right.”
“We’ll put this right,” Eli said, staring at the Iron Patriot. “It’s only a matter of time – we will fix this.”
“Yeah,” Tommy said, “we’re not half-bad at that.”