Teddy was cleaning when he found the sweatshirt.
“That’s Eli’s,” Tommy said. Teddy held it up to the light, frowning at it.
“Yeah,” he said. “Must’ve left it here, y’know. Before.”
Before Latveria, Teddy meant. He seemed strangely hesitant to say the word, like it might make Billy do something drastic, like hole himself up in his room and not talk to anyone. Like that ship hadn’t already sailed.
Tommy was sick of it.
“I’ll mail it to him,” Teddy said, folding it neatly and putting it aside.
“What’s his new address?” Tommy asked, sitting up from where he’d been lying on the couch, tracing imaginary patterns on the ceiling. They all resolved into Kate’s tearful face or Billy in the center of all that magic. Wanda in her wedding dress. Cassie and Jonas, holding hands.
Tommy wanted to scream, or shake apart, or build a time machine so he could make everything go back to how it had been before.
“It’s on my phone,” Teddy said, tossing it his way. Tommy caught it and brought up Eli’s contact info, then tapped at the maps app.
“Okay,” he said, standing and stretching. He grabbed the hoodie and said, “Tell Mrs. K not to worry. I’ll be home for dinner.”
“Sure,” said Teddy, then, “Wait. What?”
“See ya!” Tommy said and zipped out the door.
He knocked on the door and a tall woman who must’ve been Eli’s mother answered.
“Hi,” he said, holding up the hoodie. “My name’s Tommy. I’m a friend of Eli’s. He accidentally left this behind the other day.”
Eli’s mom blinked. Eli looked a lot like her, Tommy thought. She had the same eyes and the stubborn jaw.
Then she snapped her fingers and said, “You’re one of those Young Avengers,” like she had teen superheroes run halfway across the country to her doorstep every day. Moving back from the door, she continued, “He’s in his room, but I’m not sure he’ll be up for company. He’s been in a mood since he got here.” Making a face, she said, “Not that I can blame him.”
She pointed Tommy in the right direction. The door was open, and through it Tommy could see Eli. He had his back to him and he was unpacking with a ferocity he usually saved for muggers and supervillains.
“Uh, hey,” Tommy said, knocking on the open door.
Eli whirled around. His jaw dropped. “Tommy?”
Tommy held the hoodie out. “You left this at Billy’s.”
Eli frowned. He took the hoodie from Tommy with careful fingers, staring at it. Then he looked up with one raised eyebrow.
“Did you seriously run all the way to Scottsdale to bring me a sweater?” he asked.
Tommy shrugged, sticking his hands in his pockets.
“It’s not like it’s that far,” he said. “Not for me, anyway. And I didn’t have anything else to do.”
To his surprise, Eli started to laugh. He set the hoodie down on his desk, much more gently than he’d been unpacking a moment before.
“You’re something else, you know that, right?” Eli said. Tommy shrugged.
“Like I said,” he smirked, not really feeling it. “It’s really not that far.”
Eli sat down on the edge of his unmade bed and said, “Trust me. It was far.” He stared down at his hands for a moment before he looked up. “Hey, Speed. Can I ask you to do me a favor?”
It was the tone, more than the codename, that made Tommy pay attention. “What is it?”
“Can you look in on my grandparents occasionally?” Eli said. “I just -- I worry about them now that I’m not living there anymore.”
“I can do that.” Tommy leaned against the door and folded his arms over his chest. “But why not stay, if you’re so worried? Just ‘cause you’re in New York, doesn’t mean you have to be a superhero. Or leave your room, apparently,” he added, thinking bitterly of Billy.
Eli grimaced. It made Tommy's chest clench up unpleasantly.
“Couldn’t do it,” he said. Finally looking at Tommy, he added, “Sometimes you just need a fresh start. You know? Look at you. You went from superjuvie delinquent to -- I don’t know. Sometimes it seems like you actually care.”
Tommy swallowed around the sting. He’d spent his whole life being a problem, right up to the moment he’d brought his school down around him. Then Billy had shown up, and Kate and Eli and Jonas and Cassie, and they’d needed him to be something else. And it’d been good, it really had been.
Now it felt like everyone was trying to take it away.
“Yeah, well,” he said. “Shows what you know, Patriot.”
“Don’t,” Eli said, glaring. Tommy glared right back for one long moment, before he turned on his heel.
“Look, I gotta go,” he said. “Gotta run back to New York before it gets dark and the Kaplans send out the hounds.”
“Tommy,” Eli said, getting up like he was going to try and touch him or something, so Tommy turned his back and headed down the hall.
“I’ll check in with your grandparents,” he said. “And text, I guess.”
“Sure,” Eli said, lingering in the doorway. “Thanks. For the hoodie. You didn’t have to.”
Tommy snorted. “I know.”
“Eli worries too much,” Faith Bradley said, sliding a plate of cookies down in front of Tommy. They were even good cookies, which delighted Tommy to no end. His own grandmother had mostly made the oven bake ones, except she’d always burned them, and besides, they were only for Christmas. Tommy had been seven when he’d decided Santa could just have the whole plate. “He’s always been that way.”
Tommy could easily recall Eli’s face after half a dozen different fights, tight with worry, but doing that made him remember that Eli wasn’t going to be in any fights anymore, and neither were Billy or Teddy, and Cassie and Jonas couldn’t.
”You could live an actual life for a change,” Teddy had said. ”Be a person.”
So far “being a person” seemed pretty terrible to Tommy.
He bit a cookie in half. Faith Bradley chuckled, sitting down across from him.
“How did Eli seem?” she asked.
“Terrible,” Tommy said. He glanced up at Faith’s face and added, “Sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she said with a humorless smile. “He’s taking it hard. So are you. And you should -- a terrible thing happened. But Eli's always seen every single thing as his responsibility and, well. You’re both very young.”
Tommy didn’t know what to say to that. He toyed with a second cookie. Faith settled one warm hand over his, squeezing.
“Thank you, for coming by to see us,” she said. “You can tell Eli that his grandfather and I can take care of ourselves. But if you want, our door is always open. You might have to put away groceries from time to time, though," she warned.
"I'll think about it," Tommy said, grabbing a cookie for the road.
They still weren’t superheroes, except for Kate, who was acting like nobody was going to notice her fighting crime with Hawkeye.
What was Tommy supposed to do, follow her lead and go up to Quicksilver and say, “Hey, Uncle Pete, train me how to be a superfast disaster, just like you?” He had a headstart on the disaster part, at least.
(Or go to Wanda? He didn’t even know what to say to Wanda. Just looking at her gave him this big lump in his throat and made his eyes itch. He didn’t know how to deal with that, so he just avoided her, which didn’t make him feel any better either.)
Then one day Mrs. Kaplan looked at him and said, with infinite kindness, “Tommy. Do you have any idea what you want to do with your future?”
ouch, Eli texted when Tommy relayed the conversation to him, which just about summed it up.
Eli didn’t always text back, but when he did it made Tommy feel a little better. Like at least someone out there was on his team, except for the fact that person was in Arizona and also literally not on Tommy’s team anymore.
Tommy didn’t have a team. That was the whole point.
(He thought, briefly, about robbing a bank. It would’ve been easy -- in and out, in the blink of an eye. There wasn’t a security camera in the world that could catch him. Nobody would get hurt. But then he thought about all the losers in juvie who’d always sworn up and down they were going to rob banks, and about Kate’s disapproving face and Cassie’s disappointed one, and he couldn’t do it.)
Still, tricky wasn’t impossible, and Tommy could canvas every open apartment in a day and then some.
“Wow,” Teddy said when he helped Tommy move in. “This is -- uh. Cozy.”
Tommy rolled his eyes.
The apartment was awful, but it was his and nobody was going to refold his laundry or cheerfully ask him what he was planning on doing next year. And if he had to live in a crappy building that was maybe home to like three Z-list supervillains, a drugs and-slash-or evil science lab, a dude with a baby alligator and five circus clowns, that was okay.
“Beat it, Ted,” he said, setting his three boxes down. “I got it from here.”
“Somehow, I doubt,” Teddy said, shaking his head. Before Tommy could even see it coming, Teddy hugged him. It was lingering and awkward. For Tommy, at least, because when Teddy pulled back he grabbed Tommy by the shoulders and said, “You know the Kaplans will let you move back in whenever you want. Like if the ceiling caves in, or rats try to eat you.”
“This isn’t even the worst place I saw,” Tommy said, walking him towards the door.
“Not really comforting,” Teddy said. “Seriously, any time --” and that was when Tommy slammed the door in his face.
His phone rang an hour later.
“Teddy tells me you’re living in squalor,” Eli said.
“Teddy’s a melodramatic neat freak,” Tommy said. “I had to get out. Billy’s mom kept trying to buy me slacks.”
Eli laughed. He sounded mildly less wrecked than he had the month before, and something warm and fuzzy spread through Tommy, all the way down to his fingers and toes.
“You wanna be my roommate, Bradley?” he said. “You’d be really interested in the neighbors. I think one of them is the Shocker.”
“No, shut up,” Eli said, still laughing. Sobering up, he continued, “You okay, though? I’m being serious here.”
Tommy looked around. It was kind of dismal, but it was dry. There was a roof. Nobody was organizing his sock drawer. He didn’t even have a sock drawer, which was weirdly freeing. He’d never had enough socks for it anyway.
“Could be worse,” he said honestly.
By the time he got there, visiting hours were over. It wasn’t really a problem for him.
Eli was sleeping. His left arm and right leg were in casts, which Tommy thought was pretty good for somebody who’d stopped an eighteen wheeler by slamming himself up against it.
Tommy pulled a chair up to his bedside and sat there, face hot, feeling like he was coming out of his skin, furious and itchy and anxious, which was the worst part.
“Hey,” Eli said, voice dry, after about five minutes. He smiled at Tommy, which Tommy was going to go ahead and blame on the drugs. “I was kind of hoping for a cuter nurse.”
“Are you stupid?” Tommy demanded. “Serum or not, here’s you, right,” he said, grabbing a plastic cup from Eli’s bedside, “and here’s a truck!”
He crushed the cup in his hand, then vibrated until it shook apart, disappearing from between his fingers.
“Bam,” he said hotly. “No more super soldier!”
Eli stared at him for a long, long moment while Tommy fumed.
Then, brow furrowed, he asked, “Were you worried about me?”
It was so absurd that Tommy started laughing and kept at it until the corners of his eyes prickled. He dragged his sleeve across his face.
“You really are stupid,” he said.
Eli was still frowning.
“There was a little kid in the road,” he said.
“I know,” Tommy said. “Your grandma told me.”
“I had to,” Eli said. “I could take it. She couldn’t.”
“I know,” Tommy said and, to his own horror, it came out sniffly and miserable.
The corner of Eli’s mouth quirked up. He turned the hand not encased in a cast palm up. His fingers twitched.
“Come on, man,” he said. “I won’t tell.”
“Just shut up,” Tommy said, twisting his fingers with Eli’s. It was stupid, but it made him feel better.
“I’m not going to apologize,” Eli said, staring straight at him. He squeezed his hand. “But I know how you feel.”
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” Tommy confessed, staring very hard at his hand in Eli’s. “I want everything to go back to the way it used to be. It was good, right? Being Young Avengers?”
“We were in over our heads,” Eli said.
“That’s not what I asked,” Tommy shot back. Eli squeezed his hand again, tight enough to hurt. Tommy dug his short nails into the back of Eli’s hand. Eli didn’t so much as flinch.
“Yeah,” he said. “It was really good.”
Tommy closed his eyes. The acknowledgement was enough for a few long moments.
“Are you gonna be okay?” he asked.
“Sure,” Eli said. “Super soldier serum, remember? I’ll heal fast. They’re just keeping me for observation.” He paused. “Also I don’t think they really believe I’ve got superpowers. The Avengers were supposed to fax the paperwork like hours ago.”
Tommy snorted and lapsed into silence again. Eli seemed content with that. Occasionally he ran his thumb over Tommy’s knuckles, like he was trying to comfort him. It was ridiculous -- Tommy hadn’t been hit by a truck.
“Hey. Don’t get killed, okay?” he said at last. When he opened his eyes Eli was smiling at him in a way that hurt to watch.
“Hey,” he said. “Same goes for you, okay?”
“Okay,” Tommy said. “Promise.”
please please please stop sending me pics of my grandma’s cookies, Eli sent on the third day.
nope, Tommy wrote back. guess what i’m having 4 lunch.
And if he ran a box down at 4 AM and left it on the Bradleys’ doorstep -- well, he wasn’t cruel or anything.
He worked his stupid job, he went places. He even made a friend.
Then the thing wearing Eli’s costume showed up.
Tommy couldn’t stand the sight of it, and he couldn’t let it go, and then the next thing he knew it was tearing him apart.
Pretty literally, tearing him apart. Tommy’s last thought before everything went white was that Eli was going to be really pissed off at him for breaking his promise.
There was something incredibly wrong with this picture.
“Hey, Kate Bishop!” he yelled at the top of his lungs, grabbing her by the wrist and yanking her forward. Her glass spilled all over the ground. “It’s New Year’s, apparently! Why are you not dancing?”
Her face was kind of priceless. She sputtered a lot, saying things like “you’re… alive!” and “how” and “why”, but that wasn’t fun, so he just kept dancing until she started laughing, wiping at the corner of her eye.
“Happy New Year,” she said, pressing a kiss against the corner of his mouth and now that, that was more like it.
If months of misery on top of being shattered into nonexistence had taught Tommy anything, it was that they deserved a dance party.
Also? He was absolutely going to quit his miserable, soul-sucking job, assuming they hadn’t already fired him.
He spun Kate around until they were both sick from laughing, and then all of a sudden Billy was cutting in, grabbing Tommy by the shoulders and pulling him so close he could feel his brother’s breath on his face. Billy’s eyes were very wide. His shirt was very sparkly. Tommy kind of wanted to comment on it, but then Billy was pulling him into a hug tight enough to crack ribs.
“Don’t do that, don’t do that,” he kept saying, so Tommy wrapped his arms around his brother’s waist and held on for dear life.
“Missed you too, little bro,” he said.
Teddy clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder and David came into view, grinning. There was a new girl wearing an American flag getup who gave him a thumbs up that only looked about 50% sarcastic, so that was good too.
Pretty much every teen hero on the planet was dancing.
“Come on,” Tommy said. “This is a party, isn’t it?”
He danced with pretty much everyone. He danced with Teddy, swung Billy around to the beat of a Ke$ha song and learned that David was one hell of a dancer. America told him not to “get fresh” but danced with him for three songs until Karolina Dean stole her away. He got dipped by Spider-Girl and had his toes stepped on by Anole and, thankfully, not by Rockslide.
“Come on,” Billy said as the party ended. “Come back to my place. Please, Tommy.”
It seemed like a pretty good idea considering Tommy didn’t even know if his apartment was still there, and that he didn’t have his wallet, or his phone, or even other clothes.
Dawn was breaking when they stumbled back into the real world and by the time they got to Billy’s building the sky was bright and grey.
Eli was standing in the lobby, arguing with the doorman. Tommy gaped. Billy gasped.
The sound made Eli turn. He stared, wide-eyed, at Tommy, his mouth hanging open. He had a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and dark smudges beneath his eyes. He looked horrible. He was wearing the navy blue hoodie Tommy had brought to Arizona months ago.
“I don’t know whether to hug you or hit you,” he said at last.
“That’s kind of the general consensus,” Tommy said, and then Eli was crossing the lobby in long strides and throwing his arms around him. He squeezed so hard he lifted Tommy off the ground for a second, holding him tight like he was trying to convince himself that Tommy was whole and alive.
Tommy grabbed fistfuls of Eli’s hoodie and planted his chin on Eli’s shoulder. “What are you doing here?”
“Kate texted me that you were back,” Eli said, finally letting go. “So I got on the next plane. Kind of had to see it with my own eyes.”
There was something tight and miserable all over his face. He kept his hands at Tommy’s sides, fingers flexing, like he was afraid Tommy would disappear if he let go.
“Okay. Hey! Let’s go get food,” Tommy said. Grabbing Eli by the wrist, he said to Billy, “We’re gonna go get food.”
“There’s food upstairs! Tommy!” Billy said, but Tommy was already back out on the street, dragging Eli behind him.
“Do you have money?” Tommy asked.
“I snuck out of my house and caught a last minute flight,” Eli said, head in his hands. “I have like twenty bucks. My mom is going to kill me.”
“Well, call Kate,” Tommy said, laughing. “I’m ordering like half of the menu -- I don’t even remember the last time I ate.”
Eli looked at him with that same, shellshocked look he’d given Tommy in the lobby of Billy’s building, and Tommy’s smile faded. He kicked Eli’s ankle.
“What?” he said. “You’re freaking me out, and that’s not fair -- I’m the one who came back from nonexistence.”
Eli just shook his head.
“Order,” he said, sliding his phone across the table. “But you’re calling Kate, not me.”
Tommy didn’t order half the menu, but he came close -- he was starving, which could’ve been the months in limbo or the eight solid hours of dancing. It was kind of hard to decide. He texted Kate the address underneath the table: patriot’s here too obvsly. our patriot. bring money 4 pancakes. xo speed.
He might’ve download an emoji app onto Eli’s phone, just because the xo’s didn’t quite carry the same weight.
“You gonna tell me what’s wrong?” he said, sliding the phone back across the table.
“The thing was wearing my costume,” Eli said. “Kate and Billy told me the whole story. It was wearing my costume, and you went after it and then you were gone.”
“Right,” Tommy said, toying with a packet of sugar. “I know. I was sort of there.”
“Whatever it is, it stole my costume. My identity,” Eli said, drumming the fingers of one hand against the tabletop. He was scowling. It was so familiar Tommy could’ve laughed or cried; he didn’t think Eli would appreciate either. “My identity, my responsibility. I should’ve been there. I should’ve been here. It shouldn't have happened.”
Tommy kicked him again.
“Stop it,” he said. “I’m not mad.”
He thought maybe he should have been -- not at Eli, but maybe at everything else -- but he was back and Eli was back and Kate had danced with him. Billy and Teddy looked happy. The Young Avengers were superheroes again.
It felt like a weight had been lifted.
“I thought you were dead,” Eli admitted, finally making eye contact.
“Yeah, but I’m back now,” Tommy said. “We’re superheroes.”
“I know,” Eli said. “But I was trying to be normal. Live a normal life, you know? But I’ve been thinking -- my grandfather’s the black Captain America. I’m a super soldier. Maybe I was never meant to be normal.”
“Uh, yeah. What’re you trying to say?” Tommy asked. “That, what. You want to stay?”
The bell over the door jingled and then Kate was walking towards them still in her party dress with her hair loose around her shoulders. She didn’t look particularly surprised, but her eyes had gone all shiny, so Tommy wasn’t fooled.
“About time,” she said to Eli. “Shove over. Where’re the pancakes?”
Eli’s mom was on the phone. She was pretty furious. His grandmother was going to bat for him, saying things like, “he’s a grown boy,” and “he did what he felt he had to,” and “Sarah Gail, don’t you remember the time you…” until Eli groaned, dropping his head into his hands.
Tommy spent January 1st dozing intermittently on one end of the Bradleys’ sofa. Kate took the other side and didn’t even complain when he stretched out until his feet were in her lap. Eli sat in the recliner beside them, close enough to touch. He had his arms crossed, occasionally holding out his hand for the phone so he could try and explain his side of the story for the eightieth time.
It was the best New Year’s Day he could remember ever having.
“No, mom, he’s -- he wasn’t dead, he was just sort of…”
“Nonexistent,” Tommy said. “Between the realms. Stop looking at me, I’m not Dr. Strange.”
The funny thing was, the whole thing felt almost like déjà vu. Like he’d done it before, some other version of him, when he’d been very small.
He was trying not to think about it too much.
“Right,” Eli said. “That. But he’s back now.”
Kate put her hand over Tommy’s ankle and squeezed, giving him a tired grin. She perked up with Faith Bradley brought more cookies.
There was a long pause. Eli’s hand tightened around the phone.
“How long am I staying?” he repeated. He glanced up at Kate and Tommy.
“You should stay,” Kate told him.
“Yeah,” Tommy said, hands behind his head. “We’re superheroes again. You should stay.”
“Or you could get your old job back at the library,” Eli’s grandmother called from the kitchen. Tommy snickered.
“We can make the library our new base,” Tommy said to Kate, nudging her thigh with his foot. “He can be our Lois Lane.”
“That’s not what Lois Lane does,” Kate said, still smiling. She’d thrown her hair up in a messy bun and she was wearing a sweatshirt over her dress. Her high heels were lying in a haphazard pile on the floor. “But he’s right, Eli, you could be the civilian who keeps our deep, dark superhero secrets. You could be our gatekeeper.”
“New girl looks like she’s got the growly patriotic hero part covered anyway,” Tommy said.
Eli cradled the phone between his shoulder and his cheek. He flipped them off. Somewhere along the line, Tommy’s hand had ended up on Eli’s knee. Eli didn’t bother to move it.
“I don’t know how long I’m staying,” Eli said at last. He glanced up at Tommy and Kate. “A while, I think.”
It was the start of a brand new year, and Kate was laughing, softly, still with her hand on Tommy's ankle, and when Eli leaned back he gave them a smile that made Tommy's chest ache, and the whole apartment smelled like chocolate chip cookies.
Tommy felt like a superhero again.