The dead slime monster that had leaked slime all over his shoes wasn't improving Tommy's day.
His day hadn't really started well, when he overslept and missed his alarm and ended up being a minute late for work, which meant he had to stay for an extra minute and a half to make up for it. He couldn't even complain about it to anyone, because he didn't have any friends and even if he did, no one was willing to listen to him complain about how slow they were anymore. At least he was getting paid overtime for working on Christmas. People still needed superhero support devices constructed on holidays. Supervillains didn't wait for Boxing Day (and Tommy knew that from personal experience).
That extra ninety seconds at work made him ninety seconds too late to catch his train, which turned into a twenty minute delay while he helped evacuate a car after an emergency stop on the next train. Twenty minutes became an hour when the train after that was late, and then he decided to run home instead of waiting any longer. It was faster anyway, though he usually tried not to use his powers on busy streets during the day unless there was an emergency. Almost no one was out walking on the sidewalks on Christmas, but he still made sure to keep to back alleys to avoid knocking any stray pedestrians over.
The ice coating the ground might have been a problem for other people, but Tommy just whooped and let himself slide down the streets on his heels. It was like skating without skates, at a hundred miles an hour. A few times, he almost slipped and went flying, but he regained his balance every time. No one was watching. He was almost enjoying himself.
Because the universe had something against Tommy enjoying himself, that was when he ran into none other than Eli Bradley. Not quite literally, at least; he managed to miss him by about half an inch, but then he went careening headfirst into a pile of garbage bags and a dumpster. It was far from his first undignified fall, but it was the first time he'd done it while Eli stood there watching, his mouth slightly open and one eyebrow raised.
It wouldn't have been too bad, falling into a bunch of garbage in front of his least favorite former teammate who had unexpectedly appeared out of nowhere. Tommy was adaptable. He wasn't expecting to see Eli in New York, but stuff happened. He wasn't expecting to land face-first in someone's bag of used paper towels and napkins, but stuff happened. He could just brush it off.
What made it cross the line from 'ordinary shitty day' to 'worst Christmas ever including the Christmas when he was in prison' was when the garbage bags started moving.
"Don't just lie there! Get out of the way!" Eli shouted, grabbing his arm and yanking him out of the pile of garbage not a second too late. One of the garbage bags reared up over the spot where Tommy had just been lying and then pounced on it.
Tommy wasn't used to his reflexes being inadequate for anything, but he had to admit that Eli had just saved him from a fate worse than boredom. Being eaten by a living garbage bag wasn't how he wanted to go.
Then the garbage bag was rearing up again, and he remembered that they had to do something about it. He spun around, Eli grabbed a plank of wood from the garbage pile, and suddenly it was just like old times.
"Miss me?" he shouted, darting back and forth around the creature so quickly that no normal person would have been able to follow with their eyes.
"Missed this," Eli replied. He bashed the plank of wood over the garbage bag. It only left a dent for a few seconds before the creature had reformed itself. He glanced over at Tommy, and Tommy met his eyes. They both grinned.
Five minutes later, there was a dead slime monster oozing out of a garbage bag on the ground, a thick layer of slime on Tommy's new shoes, and a disgruntled Eli glaring at Tommy like everything bad that had ever happened in the world was completely his fault.
So the dead slime monster wasn't improving anything, but it wasn't like it could get much worse.
"You could come home for dinner." Eli sounded as tired and frustrated as Tommy felt.
"What?" Tommy's head snapped up.
"I said you could come home for dinner."
"Uh... Eli? Eli Bradley? You in there?" Tommy waved his sticky, slimy hand in front of Eli's face.
"It's Christmas and even you shouldn't be spending it alone."
"Even me," Tommy said flatly, unimpressed. Except it was the first time anyone had ever invited him home for Christmas, and that meant something. The Kaplans always invited him for holidays, when they could reach him, but no one had ever offered to bring him home for Christmas dinner before.
"That's not what I-"
"Nah, it's cool." He punched Eli lightly on the arm. "So is this a date, or what?"
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I'm onto you."
Eli rolled his eyes. Tommy shifted on his feet, feeling a bit awkward about flirting with Eli Bradley even if it was just a joke, and the ground seemed to make a quiet moaning sound. That was wrong, but he flipped past it quickly in his thoughts. He had to focus on bigger problems.
"I'm not gay or anything," he said, but he had a sinking feeling in his stomach that he was saying it to himself, not to Eli.
The moaning sound was louder the second time. This time Tommy didn't dismiss it, because twice couldn't be a fluke. He dropped to his hands and knees – it wasn't like he could get any messier than he already was – and pressed his ear to the ground, looking for the source. He felt it before he saw it. When his palm started to feel chilled, he lifted his hand up to find it covered in a thin layer of fresh slime.
"Well, shit," he said, as slime started to erupt from the ground.
Eli apparently agreed, because he didn't say anything in response. They backed up until they were back-to-back, and Eli rolled up his sleeves, and they got to work.
Four hours and five mini slime monsters later, Eli and Tommy were standing on Eli's grandparents' front porch, drenched in slime, freezing in the snow, and miserable. Tommy dug his fingers further into his pockets, but his pockets were just as soaked as the rest of him. Eli didn't look much better, but at least he didn't have any hair to droop down into his face and drip slime into his eyes.
"Remind me again why you're knocking on your own front door?" Tommy asked irritably.
"Because I brought a friend and we're both a mess? Just don't get any on the rug in the living room. She'll kill you. And then me for letting you in," Eli whispered.
"It's not like I asked to be drowned in slime-"
The door opened. Tommy snapped to attention and tried to plaster a grin onto his face.
"You were supposed to call if you were going to be late, Eli," said the woman standing in the doorway. She looked exactly like what Tommy had imagined Eli's grandmother would look like. Tall and well-dressed and grandmotherly. It was a bit unnerving.
"Hi, Grandma. This is Tommy. I said he could have dinner with us." Eli didn't say anything about who or what Tommy was to him, but Tommy wasn't really sure either, so he didn't get offended.
"Of course he can. Dinner's almost ready. Why don't you two go get cleaned up, and then we can all sit down and eat, and later on you can explain what you were doing tonight," Mrs. Bradley said. She smiled back at Tommy and didn't say a single word about the slime, or the fact that Eli was still holding onto his wooden plank with a death grip. Tommy eyed it sharply, and Eli immediately dropped it off the edge of the porch, as discreetly as possible. It clattered when it landed on the sidewalk. Eli winced.
Mrs. Bradley still didn't say a word about it. Tommy was already starting to respect her.
"You guys have a Christmas tree," Tommy said, as he dried off his hair, sitting cross-legged on the couch in Eli's grandparents' living room. His shoes were sitting on the doormat, airing out after he'd washed them off in the backyard with a hose. He was wearing a pair of Eli's jeans and one of his hoodies that was just a little bit too big, but he wasn't complaining. Anything was better than freezing slime well on its way to becoming ice.
The Bradleys' tree wasn't like the ones Tommy remembered from when he was a little kid. His mother had always been so worried about impressing the neighbors and the guests and anyone who might happen to glance in the living room window. The bulbs had all been one uniform shade of red that made Tommy a bit sick whenever he saw it, carefully spaced out evenly and too sparsely between the silver garlands. The Bradleys' tree was covered in ornaments in every shape and size and color, some of them worn out or cracked from time and wear. Tommy reached out and fingered a ceramic gingerbread man, fighting off the urge to grin stupidly and let everyone see that he was being sentimental.
Eli snatched the towel out of Tommy's hands and tossed it into a laundry hamper near the stairs as he walked past. "Yeah, we have a Christmas tree. Lights, too."
"Why are you even here? Weren't you supposed to be in Arizona or something?"
"I'm going to school here."
"I'm not lying." Eli fished around in his pocket until he found his wallet, and held out his student card for Tommy to see. "Look. Why would I lie about that?"
There was a time not to sound smug. Now was not that time. "You came back 'cause you missed it. Don't even try to deny it."
"Eli, are you and your friend ready for dinner yet?" Mrs. Bradley called out from the kitchen, before Eli could come up with a counterargument. Tommy decided that meant that he'd won, and hopped up to run into the kitchen. He remembered just in time that using his powers in someone's house was rude, and slowed himself down to a normal-person pace before he left the living room.
They all sat down together at the table, Eli and Tommy on one side and his grandparents on the other. Tommy tried to be polite and not fidget impatiently while they said grace and started passing the dishes around. This was why he hadn't stayed with the Kaplans. Everyone expected him to sit still and fit in, but he never could. He was trying to eat slowly and put everything on his plate carefully, but he hadn't sat down to eat a meal with anyone in a long time. Eli kept elbowing him discreetly every time he did anything.
"Tommy, could you pass the salt?" Mrs. Bradley asked, politely.
Even with Tommy's super-speed, it took a few seconds to find the salt in between all the other things on the table.
"You were out late tonight," Mr. Bradley said. Vaguely, Tommy remembered that his name was Isaiah and that Eli looked up to him, but he'd never paid a lot of attention to Eli's family life until now.
"Ran into some trouble on the way home. And a friend," Eli replied. He caught Tommy's eyes for a second, as if daring him to argue.
"Here, try these sweet potatoes," Mrs. Bradley said, interrupting and offering Tommy a bowl after he handed her the salt shaker.
"Thanks, Mrs. B," he replied, around a mouthful of turkey.
Eli glared at him and kicked his ankle under the table. Again. This time, Tommy kicked him back.
"Uh, sorry," he said quickly, to Mrs. Bradley. He swallowed the turkey. "Can I call you Mrs. B?"
"Of course you can. Eli, it's all right. He's our guest. Let him eat."
Sometimes - though not often - Tommy was known to be wrong about certain things. For example, speeding was still illegal even if you weren't in a car. Pumpkins weren't a vegetable. Also, this wasn't the worst Christmas he'd ever had.
"We should do that again sometime," Tommy said, while he peered around Eli's bedroom, getting into his stuff and looking through it for anything interesting. So far, Eli was about as predictable and boring as Tommy remembered.
"Christmas dinner with my grandparents, or fighting slime monsters?" Eli asked. He was sitting on his bed, watching Tommy but not trying to stop him. If that meant something, Tommy wasn't wasting a lot of time trying to figure out what.
"Either. Both. You know you're just as bored as I am lying around and pretending we're normal people. Difference is, I figured it out and got out before it was too late."
"Maybe. I don't know." Eli sounded frustrated, and Tommy couldn't blame him. He felt frustrated all the time since the team broke up. No matter how hard he tried to shove it down where he wouldn't notice, it kept bubbling back up to the surface, threatening to spill over and bring him straight back to where he started.
"What's your problem anyway?" he said, flipping through one of Eli's textbooks and then discarding it. "It's not like any of it was your fault."
"Kate and I were supposed to be the leaders. We were supposed to say no when things got out of hand. Look what happened. Look who paid the price."
"Okay, sure, blah blah, power and responsibility. Whatever. But if it's just me and you, you're not responsible. Hate to tell you, but I'm not gonna follow your orders. If I die, it's all me."
"You don't get it, do you? It doesn't matter if I'm the leader of our whole team or we're just two guys in costumes saving people. There's always responsibility," Eli snapped. "That's what family is. That's what family does. Be responsible for each other."
For once in his life, Tommy was speechless. For a few seconds, anyway, which was long enough to be an eternity for most people. "Yeah, but we don't have to be all responsible," he argued. "We can just be friends who hang out and beat up bad guys sometimes. It doesn't have to get complicated."
"I never said anything about being more than friends," Eli said dryly, raising his eyebrows.
"You said family. That's more than friends."
"We were all family. You and me and Kate, Cassie and Billy and Teddy and Jonas. Nate. No matter what, you were one of us, and that made us family. Still makes us family."
Tommy rolled his eyes. He missed the adrenaline and being part of something important, and he really missed all the grateful little kids and old ladies. He didn't miss how everything was all feelings, all the time with the Young Avengers. If he could lose that part and keep the rest, he'd be happy.
"Why aren't you with Billy's family? It was awhile ago, but the last time he called, Teddy said you moved in with them," Eli said.
Tommy shrugged. "I left. It was boring."
"That your answer for everything?"
"Yeah, well, most things are boring. Being responsible's boring."
"I had to stop, Tommy. It was the right thing to do."
"Even though you miss it?" Tommy said, feeling confrontational. Kate wouldn't listen, Billy was too busy moping, and Teddy would agree with Billy even if Billy said that the Earth was shaped like a banana. Tommy could argue with them all to the moon and back, but he never got anywhere.
"Especially if I miss it. I can't just go out there and pretend everything is going to be different." Eli sounded like he'd convinced himself, but there was something in Eli's tone that Tommy recognized, and it made him want to do something stupid again. Something poorly planned and impulsive. Something right.
"Okay, fine," he said. "You, me, some costumes, and a whole lotta responsibility. I can do that." He tried to sound confident, but the last few words came out in a rush and left him feeling breathless and disoriented. Responsibility was like commitment. It was one thing he'd never done before. Not well, anyway.
"Prove it," Eli said. It seemed crazy, but Tommy thought he sounded scared. Usually Tommy was the only person who acted impulsively, without thinking about the consequences. If Eli Bradley was starting to forget consequences, it was probably time to stop talking and run away before this ended up getting serious or something.
But his feet stayed planted firmly on the floor of Eli's bedroom. "Fine. I will."
"Next Friday. Meet me at seven at the park we used to start patrols at. Bring your gear," said Eli.
"It's a date. Wait. So does that mean this was a date too? Slime monsters and then Christmas dinner with the Bradleys? It was only half terrifying, and I'm not saying which half."
"Shut up. Why do you keep asking if it was a date?"
"'Cause if it was a date, you suck at dating. I can give you some tips. Chicks dig me. Tip number one, try not to get your date covered in slime until at least the third date."
"I said shut up, Tommy."
"Next time I want flowers. Is this why Kate broke up with you?"
"Yeah, okay," Tommy said. He managed to stay silent for ten seconds or so before he piped up again. "But here's what I don't get-"
"Is there something about the words 'shut up' that you don't understand?"
"You realize I think about a thousand times faster than you do? It's hard to shut up," Tommy complained. When Eli didn't tell him to shut up for a fifth time, he figured he was being tolerated, so he kept talking. "Everything's so slow all the time. It's like the world's in slow motion and nobody even notices or cares but me. It sucks."
"Why are you telling me about it? I thought you didn't even like me."
"Who else is gonna listen?"
Either it was the exact right thing to say, or the exact wrong thing, because Eli's expression hardened and it looked like he was about to tell Tommy to leave. Then he patted the bed next to him. Tommy gaped for a second, then zipped across the room to sit down awkwardly beside him. If anyone had asked, this would have been very, very low on his list of vague plans for Christmas that never actually came to fruition. Luckily, no one was asking.
He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do. Eli was looking at him like he was waiting for something, anticipating Tommy's next move, but Tommy never planned anything too far in advance if he could help it. He watched the clock on Eli's wall while the second hand ticked slowly from the five to the six, waiting for Eli to figure out what he was doing here. When he glanced over at him, Eli just looked lost. Sighing, Tommy nudged him with his elbow like it was supposed to mean something. He didn't do hugging or anything, so this was as good as it was going to get.
Then Eli nudged him back.
After that, it was remarkable how quickly he was suddenly leaning forward and doing something stupid and impulsive. So maybe nudging wasn't as good as it was going to get.
"Did you-" Eli said, staring. His tongue swiped over his lower lip, like he needed to taste it to actually believe what had just happened.
"Shut up," Tommy ordered. He wiped his lips with the back of his hand, as if that could erase the evidence and the memory. "Just shut up and pretend that didn't happen."
A moment later he was halfway out the window, but he paused before he dropped down to the little garden on the back porch. While he was crouched over Eli's windowsill, he turned around, grinning like nothing mattered, his heart hammering in his chest. "You, me, Friday at seven. Dinner and a movie and saving the world. Don't be late. Bring some flowers."
"What kind?" Eli asked. His momentary hesitation might have been from the sarcasm, but it almost sounded like it might be nervousness.
"You pick. I trust you."
"Yeah. Not gonna deny that you have the biggest stick up your ass-"
"-But if you asked, we would have followed you anywhere. I would have."
Eli lifted his eyebrows and went to say something, his throat working, but no words came out of his mouth.
"It wasn't that sappy-" Tommy muttered, but then Eli seemed to remember how to speak.
"Friday. Flowers. Got it," he said, and for a few seconds, Tommy's heart beat a little bit faster than the speed of sound.
He could learn to do responsibility.