Saturday afternoons the team trained. Eli established it, and Kate kept it, and so Tommy dragged himself out of bed and into the main room of the clubhouse to do whatever weird scenario Kate and Billy had schemed up for them today. After the magic failed for the third time, he escaped the ensuing argument and slipped out the door to sit on the back steps and watch the passersby on the street. He didn't mind the 'training', but he knew it accomplished little if anything for those among them with the smallest bit of experience. When he had done his stint in Super-Juvie, he had seen real super training, and it involved a hell of a lot more than his nerdy "brother's" attempts at recreating the sets of bad action movies. The Young Avengers had no clue and he swore they got by on luck and good looks. Still, it made them happy.
'Them' - Tommy thought, and not 'us.' When they pulled him out of jail and offered him a chance at a team, that night he thought he might be a part of the Us that turned together like cogs and spun the six of them into inseparability, but he still felt like a stranger. The crisp edge of a New York fall had begun to soften into the beginnings of winter and the wind bringing the change bit into Tommy's bare arms through the thin fabric of his t-shirt as he huddled on the stoop.
He moved back towards the door, intending to go back in before he caught something nasty. Before he could, it opened for him and Eli emerged, his shoulders tense and his face drawn into a tight scowl. He gave Tommy only the briefest of acknowledgments – a twitch of his eyebrow and jerk of his head in what might have been a nod - and Tommy gave him the same courtesy; it was a pattern that worked for them. Something, though, made Tommy curious. Once, when he was a little kid, he stuck a fork into an electrical socket just to see what would happen. He peeled scabs and poked healing wounds. He asked, "What's crawled up your ass this time?"
"Shepherd." Eli's voice carried a stern, commanding air which made something in Tommy put there by men and women in white coats want to stand up and obey. The rest of Tommy loathed authority, and since he got out of that hellhole he'd started listening to the other side more and more often. It never endeared him to Eli, a fact which Tommy found deeply ironic. "It's none of your business, since you can't be bothered to come to practice."
Turning away from Eli, he walked down the few steps leading to the sidewalk with his eyes on his feet. The response bubbled to the top of his brain like poison. "I've got a first name, you know. You should try it some time. Tommy. Five letters, one syllable, really easy."
Eli's eye rolls were impressive. Tommy wondered how he got his eyes to go all the way back. "It's none of your business, Tommy."
"See how easy that was?" It was like poking a beehive with a stick. That was Eli, though, a beehive - at least when it came to Tommy. Around the others, he unwound a bit; Tommy watched the way his walls came down around Kate and couldn't even begrudge Eli the closeness when he saw the way Kate's eyes lit up every time it happened. He'd caught Eli doing it around others, too; Billy and Eli shared some stupidly elaborate in-jokes, and he and Teddy played an unholy amount of X-box from Saturday night to Sunday morning.
"You get a name when you earn a name, just like the rest of us." Tommy watched a harried mother dragging along a small boy and a whining teenager across the street rather than letting Eli see how much it set him on edge. Something in Tommy's expression must have tipped Eli off, though, because he softened. "Hey, man-"
Whatever Eli said, he didn't hear it. Tommy ran.
Judging by the radio silence from Billy over the next few days, Tommy guessed the incident on between him and Eli had hit the Young Avengers grapevine hard. Usually he had at least two or three texts from Billy by ten in the morning, but none came as Tommy lay in his bed at noon on Tuesday. Suboptimal sleeping arrangements or no, Tommy had gotten used to his little home-away-from-home in the clubhouse. It had four partitions pretending to be walls, a roof, a bed, and no bars, which was better than he could say for a lot of the places he'd slept in the past, and sometimes it even had company.
An echo in the vast chamber of the warehouse jolted Tommy into full wakefulness, and he was halfway out of his bed before he realized the noise had come from his sometimes-roommate. Halfway out of the bed meant he might as well get all the way out of it, so Tommy forced himself onto the cold concrete with a groan. His bare feet tingled as he wandered around the place trying to locate Vision.
"Hey, V? Little Robot Buddy...?"
"I am here, Tommy." Tommy winced and turned: the Vision stood directly behind him. He had a strange way sneaking up on people, and Tommy could admit it creeped him out. "I didn't think you would be."
He shrugged, looking anywhere but at Vision's face, and turned away again to head for the kitchen. He needed coffee. Behind him, he felt rather than heard Vision following him. Why? He didn't need to eat, did he? Tommy wondered what he wanted. None of them ever hung around him out of their own free will except Billy and Billy didn't count.
A few spoonfuls of instant coffee later, Tommy was sipping from the mug and wincing. Vision still hadn't gone away; instead he took a seat at the rickety little table in the middle of the kitchen and watched Tommy. Tommy ignored the look in favor of glaring into his coffee and willing it to taste more like the thick, sweet stuff his father made.
"Tommy." The sound of his name forced his attention away from the steaming cup. He raised one white eyebrow at Vision, waiting to see if he had anything interesting to say or if he had glitched or something. "Are you alright?"
"What kind of question is that?" Answering a question with another question annoyed his mother to no end. "Of course I'm okay."
"You haven't been around for two days. Since you fought with Eli, in fact."
Tommy sat the coffee mug down a bit too hard and eyed the door to the tiny room. He could run. Could, but wouldn't for now. "Wouldn't call it a fight. It's not my fault he can't take a joke, right?"
"Eli can take jokes," Vision answered quickly. "He's just... not used to you."
"More like jealous of me. Don't blame him, I would be too, but he's so far gone over Kate it's ridiculous." And Kate seemed far gone herself, to Tommy, but she also had an eye for danger and a desire to go chasing the next thrill. Tommy liked that about her. "Guess you would know, huh, lover boy?"
If robots could blush, the Vision would have right there. Tommy could tell. After a few minutes of awkward silence, Tommy gave up on expecting an answer and stood to wash out his mug. Just when he shut off the water, Vision said, "You and Eli are a lot alike."
He didn't want to hear it. Tommy ran.
This time he spent only a day alone. The police scanner in the main room, tuned loud enough for Tommy to hear it across the building, alerted him that his teammates had engaged in a fight in midtown and were getting their asses handed to them. He thought maybe he shouldn't go; they didn't need him, after all. His indecision lasted until an officer on scene screamed something about the woman in purple falling off a building. This time, when he ran, it was toward the team.
By the time he got there, Kate had made a full recovery from whatever and was busy targeting the d-list monster of the week with a storm of arrows. Tommy sped up beside her anyway. "Hey, gorgeous, need some help?"
"Got it covered, stranger." Kate let a particularly vicious volley fly, and Tommy winced when it hit the target in a tender area. "Stature could use some assistance, though."
"On it." Tommy stared up at Cassie, who towered above the buildings on this block but who was crouched over to shake out her hair. Tommy spotted several little creatures crawling around in it and shuddered. "Hey! Stature! Hold still, I'll take care of it for you!"
He ran up her back and into her ponytail. One of the little creatures latched on to his leg. He shook it, trying to dislodge its slimy arms and legs from his body, but it refused to budge. Tommy hoped they weren't sentient before he started blowing them up. Cassie shrieked when explosions started going off in her hair, but Tommy patted her scalp reassuringly. "It won't hurt you. I'm just targeting the slimers."
"If you say so..." One after another he exterminated the creatures, until the only thing left was globs of jello-like goo in Cassie's hair. So gross. He stepped into Cassie's palm when she offered it and rode it down to the ground. She smiled at him, like she genuinely liked him. "Thanks, Speed."
The rest of the battle was short work, and in no time at all the police pulled up to put away whatever poor bastard they'd just defeated. Tommy spared a moment to wonder if they would wind up in some place like he had, and then decided he didn't care. He hadn't robbed a charity, after all, or hurt anybody other than himself. They deserved it. While he nursed that thought, Cassie walked up beside him and joined in watching the cops load the man into the back of a black-and-white while she picked globs out of her hair with barely concealed disdain.
"Yuck." Tommy made a genuine effort not to laugh at her, but it turned into a losing battle when her hand stuck in the mess of her hair. "Sorry. Didn't want to leave you bald, you know?"
She smiled and shrugged with her other shoulder. "You did your best. Want to help me out here?"
"Sure." He took hold of one of her wrists and put the other hand on her head, pushing until her hand gradually peeled off the mess in her hair. The sour look that crossed her face, magnified by the glare of the streetlight above her and the wild appearance of her hair, only made the entire situation more amusing. "Now don't touch anything, or you'll be like the kid in A Christmas Story."
"With the tongue and the light pole? You're that kid." He can't deny it; broken arms, forks in light sockets - Tommy's childhood. Had licking an icy pole ever occurred to him, it would have made the list easily.
"At least I'm not looking like swamp thing on a bad hair day, kiddo." Slinging his arm around Cassie, Tommy sighed dramatically and patted her shoulder. "Hit the showers."
"I think you look fine, Stature." Vision stood behind them - again with the creepy silent thing - and beamed at Cassie with an expression of pure robot devotion. Tommy wrinkled his nose.
"Of course you do." Releasing Cassie, Tommy nudged her toward Vision and backed off while attempting to look non-threatening. As much as he liked teasing Cassie, he had no interest in her, and he did not need more alpha-male bullshit in his life. Tommy knew he was a bad influence and didn't need anybody telling him so, least of all his identical 'twin' watching him with wary eyes from across the street. Tommy waved and smiled with the hard edge he had picked up somewhere between the time his parents divorced and he blew up his school. It scared kids like Billy, he'd found, and that suited his mood just fine.
Billy Kaplan was not the type to scare easily, however; not from too-sharp smiles reflected back from his own face. He walked across the street, stopping in the middle to say something to Hulkling before he continued over to Tommy. For a while he just stood there, shoulder-to-shoulder, and watched the clean-up crews begin their work. Finally, he said, "We should get out of here, right?"
"Yeah, I guess." Tommy made no move to leave, though. Instead he paid more attention than he wanted to the conversation between Hawkeye and Patriot that kept drawing their faces a little too close together. His eyes narrowed when Kate pecked Eli on the cheek and then went right back to trying to make whatever point she had, very emphatically and with a lot of hand gestures which sent her long white scarf flapping in the cold winter air. When Eli looked over Kate's shoulder to catch Tommy's eye, though, he looked away and back at Billy.
"Me and Hulkling were thinking about going out for some sushi after we debrief back at the clubhouse. You want to come with?"
Things more awkward than playing third wheel with his maybe-brother and his maybe-brother's annoying boyfriend: Tommy was sure they existed, but his mind failed to come up with any. Still, his stomach rumbled and from past experience he knew Billy would pick up the check out of some misguided sense of loyalty or pity. Tommy, unlike many of the people he knew, had no problems with the pity of rich kids from the upper west side as long as he got a delicious meal out of the arrangement. And, okay, he'd grown halfway fond of his younger, uglier twin.
"Yeah, sure. Meet you there, right?" No way in hell would he listen ot the team outline everything he'd done wrong – that is, everything he'd done. Before Billy objected, Tommy was long gone.
When he showed up, only Teddy waited at the door to the sushi bar. Tommy stopped before Teddy saw him and ducked back behind a corner to evaluate the situation while watching Teddy shiver in the wind. After the somewhat frosty reception Teddy gave to the guy who saved his life, Tommy stayed out of his way whenever Billy left them alone. Maybe it had something to do with blowing up those Skrulls, but they'd been asking for it. Wolverine had said it was okay. After another ten minutes passed with Teddy looking up at the dull grey sky and Tommy looking around the corner at Teddy, he decided he ought to go over and find out if Billy were dead or something.
Teddy noticed Tommy as soon as he stepped out from behind the building and waved Tommy over. "Hey."
Tommy nodded, sticking his hands deeper in his pockets and looking around at the busy sidewalk full of early Christmas shoppers and tourists. The silence between them stretched longer and longer, but Tommy found his apathy too great to overcome for a mere round of small talk. Teddy had no such problem.
"So, uh, Billy's running a little late. His mom caught him heading out again and he had to clean his room before he left." Idly, Tommy considers running over and doing it for Billy so he could come and decrease the awkward. "So, yeah. We could go ahead and get a seat if you want but ..."
"Out here's fine." Tommy kept his eyes forward, on the strangers and the near-deadlocked traffic rather than his teammate. A voice that sounded like his mother's told Tommy to be polite, engage, make small talk, stop being so weird, but he ignored it like he did Teddy's attempt at conversation.
"Looks like rain..."
A full five minutes passed before either spoke again, and again Teddy broke the silence. Tommy noticed that about Teddy: he didn't like silences, and slid himself into the gaps of conversation to fill them in until everyone was chattering comfortably and he could slip out again. "So, you know, for the holidays, we're having a thing."
"The team, you know. Well, me and Bill, but we're going to invite the team."
"And you're telling me this why?"
Teddy looked genuinely confused when Tommy glanced at him. His eyebrows got all wrinkly, and his bottom lip stuck out, until he looked like a dejected puppy. "Because you're part of the team. I think."
"Yeah, well, I doubt the rest of the team wants me there, so thanks but no thanks."
Teddy didn't answer, and then Billy showed up so they could all go inside.
Tommy thought that was the end of the matter until a week later Kate cornered him in the gym and poked him in the shoulder.
"What's this about not wanting to go to the party?" Clad head-to-toe in purple and with her white scarf billowing in the breeze from the fan, Kate looked like a Valkyrie in spandex. Her lips pulled down at the corners and poked out at Tommy, forming a perfect little scowl, and her eyebrows wrinkled in disapproval. He knew, then: he would not get out of this party unless he died, and even then they might just prop him up somewhere and put a string of lights around him.
Tommy avoided her look by walking away to another part of the gym. "It's not that I don't want to go, Katie. I just don't play well with others."
As Tommy swung his fist toward one of the abused punching bags hanging along the side of the room, Kate caught the other side and held it. He looked around the bag to glare at her. "Do you mind?"
"Nope." She pushed the bag back at him with a gentle shove and leaned back against the wall. "I think you play fine with others. Are you still pouting about the tiff with Eli?"
"No." Yes. Rubbing a hand over his face, Tommy searched for some excuse that might put her off his back so he wouldn't have to hurt her feelings over this. None came. "I'm just saying. Sometimes I don't even know why I'm on this team."
Kate 'hmmed' in what Tommy guessed was sympathy, though he found her hard to read. Maybe she just wanted him to shut up? But, no: "Well, because we needed you and you said yes. And then we got kind of fond of you, after we got over the whole blowing up the UN thing."
Tommy snorted and shook his head. "No one got fond of me."
"I got fond of you. Vision likes having someone here. Billy is obsessed with you, Teddy thinks you're kind of funny when not being obnoxious, and Cassie thinks you're cool. Eli's still wary of you because he's protective of all of us and he doesn't compromise on the no-killing thing."
"Except for Kang, that one time." The two of them shared a smile at the old joke. "I'm not going to kill anybody, okay? If you'd been locked up by some assholes who just wanted to poke holes in you, you'd want to get some payback, too."
"You're right, I would." Kate's voice took on a cast he had never before heard, and Tommy's head came up to take in the dark expression clouding her eyes. "But at some point you have to let go of that."
"I have. You guys are the only ones who haven't. Just because I'm not all touchy-feely like the rest of you -!" His voice rose higher than he'd meant it to, and the statement ended on a ragged note just as Tommy realized he'd said too much. Kate's widened eyes and tense posture made her look like a bucket of water had upended over her head. She rolled her shoulders, though, and jutted her chin forward in that way he liked to watch.
"I think we've let go of a lot, if you'd just meet us halfway," she said, quietly, and left Tommy puzzling her meaning out alone in the gym.
The day of the party arrived without much fanfare; Tommy spent most of it running and avoiding the clubhouse until the last minute. With some of his earnings from his new part time job, he'd bought new clothes that looked respectable even under scrutiny and showed up fashionably late. The lights streamed out of the windows above as Tommy stood in the shadowed darkness behind the building. Faint strains of classical music reached his ears under the general noise of six teenagers moving around and talking.
The door opened, again, just as Tommy stepped forward, and again Eli stepped out. Tommy hesitated, looking over his shoulder for an exit, but Eli nodded to him. "Hey, Tommy."
All the emphasis rested on the name, though it was not forced or begrudged. In fact, for what might be the first time ever, Eli smiled at him. "Are you going to come in before Teddy eats all the food?"
Tommy's foot tapped. He looked up at the sky, and then at the windows full of light, and then at Eli standing in the open door. "Yeah, I'm coming. It's freezing out here."