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A Day in Many Lives.

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Baker's dozen

Six twenty am could be be considered early by some, but by this time, Eli was already up and about, his workday well underway. Ovens on and humming while they worked; a background to the the jaunty tunes of morning radio, and the vexing upbeat voice of the broadcaster as he delivered the bad news; Today will be cool, with intermittent showers throughout - grab your coat and umbrella. Be careful out there. Inside Eli's kitchen, the oven heated air dipped with the caramelised flavours of baking, a medley of scents : the tangy yeasty character of sourdough, various flavours of cheeses now melting in and on various bits of bread in the ovens.

He loved being here, in the kitchen; the tracking lights overhead, so bright it might have rivalled sunlight; ovens tucked along the wall, intricate and tidy as a school girl's pleated skirt. Kitchen surfaces flat, and cleaned, unless himself or his partner were in stages of work, be it mixing scones, or preparing dough for cheese rolls. Off to the side, through a doorway, the freezers, the fridges which held the other basics of baking, from shortening to eggs, or pastry in the stage between half done, or waiting for an order so that they could be finished. In the kitchen itself, to the far corner, stacks of baking tins, trays, and various utensils, clean and polished, waiting to be called into the service. The floor underfoot, still clean, because Om nom nom believed in all decks being swabbed, literally as well as metaphorically.

The thunk of dough against the flat surface of the counter top made him slide his glance over to Cassie. Clad in her chef whites, she stood by the kitchen island, as she punched the air out of the dough, her fists going at it thump thump thump. "It's going to rain today?" Cassie made a face. "Good thing we decided on these lemon tarts."

"A bit of sun," Eli agreed, as he eyed the temperature gauges along the wall. "We could do the Biscuit Joconde Imprimo right in time a couple of weeks for now, with new designs. To coincide with the first day of spring." The decorative designs baked in a light sponge cake was always popular, although time consuming. They only did it for the first two weeks of the season as a sign of welcome; a mark from the heavier, heartier offerings of the winter- spring was a time to go light, airy. Have flavours of cumin saffron, and fruit zest teasing with vanilla, or elbowing vanilla completely out of the way in their products.

"Biscuit Joconde, yum." Cassie rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. "Once we do that, warmer days follow. Why can't we do it now? I'd kill for a warm Monday." Because Monday's were their day off.

"Because it doesn't feel right. Week after next is when the sun's gonna come out and stay out, I can feel it."

"Are you sure that being a weather savant isn't, like, your new power? Instead of you know, that whole super-soldier thing?"

"Hah, no." Eli laughed, only for the ovens to ping, as the goods in their cavities were cooked, and ready to be taken out and cooled and dressed. The clock on the wall said six forty five am. The goods would still be warm when they opened in the next fifteen minutes, he thought, grabbing the heavy insulated gloves . Oven fresh and good to go.

With quick, economical movements, Cassie shaped the dough into their distinctive football shapes. Placed them on the prepared tin that she had tucked away in the cupboard underneath for such a purpose. Eli tucked them in the oven, taking out the baked cheese rolls, nodding at the finished product, a golden submarine shaped thing, crusty on the outside, with an airy texture, bumped to sinful treat with the creamy, savoury flavour of cheese.

Cassie sniffed the air, her eyes fluttering closed with bliss. "Mrs Horowitz is gonna hate us, Eli. Slayer of diet targets, destroyer of G. I. Indexes, obliterator of LBD's -"

"And the gum under her shoe if we don't open." Eli's lips twitched into a grin, as he grabbed the tray and headed through the door, to the display cases, where he arranged the baked goods as if they were jewellery for the palate, for potential clients to come and feast. Pastry tarts with plums the colour of ruby offset with clusters of almonds. Pastry braided and golden under the lights. Cookies studded with chocolate chips, their points ready to go all gooey and dangerous as it melted in your mouth.

Eli crossed the little dining spaces they had, as he went towards the door. The tables placed just so, the chairs tucked underneath, and outside, as he could see through the mesh as he pressed the button to raise the heavy metal door, customers were waiting. Umbrellas hovering over their heads like a flock of birds, their breaths almost tangible in the chill.

Welcome to another day.

Miles to go...

"Kalimera," the women greeted, heads bowed, clad in black. Their voices were low, and resonant, like foghorns guiding the sailors to shore when a light wouldn't do. Eli repeated the greeting, the letters arranged at odd angles on his tongue. He must have pronounced it correctly, because the women nodded and smiled, a shifting of features in faces brown and weathered from the sun, and Eli smiled back.

It was barely noon, and already the mercury shot up well into the 70s - no, wait, he was in Europe now. Mid 20s in local terms. If it weren't for his uniform of linen trousers and a light cotton shirt, Eli would have been sweltering. The cobbled stones already warm through the soles of his sandals, his armpits already damp with the stirrings of sweat. He looked out towards the sea, only to see the small fishing boats bobbing on the horizon, as the sea caught and tossed the sunlight from waves to waves, under the bowl of a bright blue sky.

Only his third day here, and he'd seen most of the main island. Breaking out the recorder from his messenger bag, he murmured, "Fourni; a cluster of islands between Greece and Turkey, where the main island is called Fourni, and its capital is- wait for it- Fourni. Concave, kinda shaped like a crescent roll -" okay, he'd do the appropriate wax and gilt of the language once he got back to his room. "But the island gets its name from fournelli - a small oven. Not because it's pretty hot at this time of day- whew," Eli wiped at the sweat already dotted across his brow. "But because the port is shaped like a small oven."

The hardest part of his job, Eli thought later as he sat down outside a cafe, the strength and light of the sun dappled and cooled by the leafy green trees by the time it got to his table- wasn't trying to describe the characteristics of any new place, because anyone could write about Fourni's cobbled streets, or the fact that the buildings were done in a white wash that dazzled in the sun. He knew that white reflected heat and kept the temperatures down- and it worked in a way that the candy colours of buildings alongside the waterfront in Curacao wouldn't do here. Or the fact that the buildings hugged the shore, with the hills behind them like some giant's knee protruding out of the water. Or even the people, one could describe the people as short - about five foot, they seemed like dwarves to his six two, and he half expected some Mediterranean Snow White singing songs from one of those sweet white houses in the village.

No, physical descriptions were easy, but the feelings that the island sparked and lit in him were not. As he dipped his bread into olive oil - and not the slices that he knew back in the US, but small, puffed loaves, served with olive oil and sadziki- he tried to catalogue them. The fact that to get to this island involved a matrix of flights, and ferries just to be here, for one. That, when he stood on the ferry, his sea legs now under him, the dazzle of the white washed buildings skimming the foot of the mountains like a ruffled collar, and the traditional fishing boats - bleach white with a bright blue trim, the sheer simplicity of it tugged at his heart. The small, industrious port, aged, bleached and humble. Men ran along the port and throwing or catching ropes and looping them around stout posts anchoring the ships to shore. The rustic beauty of the place- the deep ultramarine sea, the brine and salt air in his nostrils on his skin, made him just want to be.

The black clad yia-yias, with gentle smiles, and indulgent waves at the children tumbling and running all over, the air alive with their whoops, and the rumble of bicycle wheels on the roads as much as the cries of the resident sea gulls themselves.

Only for Eli to ask himself if his grandparents would have liked it here; the sun's heat warm enough to melt bones under the skin, enough so that everyone moved in a deliberate, almost graceful way to prevent themselves from being flattened by the heat . Wondered if Teddy and Billy - were they still together, their names exhaled in the same breath when people spoke about them - TeddyandBilly - could have found some peace here. The slow pace of the island, for them to enjoy as if time had been dipped in honey, and for a fleeting moment Eli wished that he could stay here; a world away from what he knew.

But he was a perennial tourist, with two days more before going on to Turkey, and that much further away from New York, but he'd be back.

Negotiation

Lunchtimes. Yeah, Eli remembered lunch times, from the quick bites of wolfing down sandwiches on the go, to long involved stretches of time, with Billy, Teddy and himself sprawled across the roof, stupid from some illicit activities afterwards (he didn't inhale). To lunches where deals were done over a handshake and a splash of Bacardi with a twist of lime. Nothing though, as vexing, or rewarding as lunch with a four year old.

"No." Noah folded his arms across his chest, a militant gleam in his eyes, as he ignored the medley of mash potatoes, tofu and mixed vegetables on his plate. "I don' wanna."

"I don't want to," Eli corrected automatically. Both of them were seated at the kitchen table in the Avengers' mansion, because it felt warmer in here - more than just the ambient temperature for a kitchen whose ovens and stoves on the go all the time due to the heroes traipsing in at all hours. The delicate lemon yellow of the kitchen walls, with the bold, primary colours of plates, and the quirky pattern of tea cups. Clean, because Jarvis ran a tight ship, with animal shaped jars holding gooey over-sized cookies in their stomachs on various shelves.

"I don't want to." Noah repeated, mimicking his father, his tone pitch perfect, and Eli wondered if wise ass might have been an overlooked criteria on the checklist for his child's developmental landmarks. Noah already had the boisterous and intelligent metrics down pat. Oh, and compound and complex sentences too. Check, check, and check squared.

"Noah-"

"I'll eat it if I get cookie and ice cream."

"Excuse me?" Eli frowned. Gave that glower he knew made Tommy hold his usually sharp tongue for a second or two. The one that made bad guys (back in the day) take one look and decide not to step over the line, but his son only blinked at him owlishly, before he grinned. Yeah, Noah was his mother's kid, the only thing he got from Eli might have been the curly afro twice as big as his head, and some hint of colour that made him caramel. Negotiating meal times? With an opponent six times as big, who held the keys to the kingdom re: food and everything and having the moxie to think that he could carry it off? With that grin?

"Please, Dad?"

"From where I'm sitting, if you don't start eating, you won't be getting neither for a long time, mister."

Noah pouted, and there were seeds of Eli's frown there, in his furrowed brow. But Noah was four, with a button nose and dimpled cheeks and in a slightly too big blue T-shirt with the distinctive shield design on front. The only thing he'd move with his temper were the little shield mobiles hanging over his bed upstairs. But Eli didn't smile, as much as he wanted to. Noah was like his mother; she just needed to sense a whiff of weakness, and it would be all over. He just looked at his son, only for Noah to venture in the silence, "Cookie?"

"Eat first, buster, and we'll see."

Noah stuck the little plastic spoon in the mashed potatoes, and stuffed them in his mouth, making a face. At Eli's bland look, Noah started to chew slowly, before he got interested and started cleaning his plate. God, what a character this kid was - he had a feeling that Noah was going to be all sorts of adventure, and how. For a brief moment Eli wondered if it was too late to call time on this stay at home Dad stint, but when Noah smiled at him, all dimples and bright eyes, Eli knew he made the right choice. His heart filled with love, Eli reached over the table and ruffled his son's hair.

Sure Noah could have a cookie. Tomorrow.

Fragrance of Thought

The coffee beans stood in an air tight container on Eli's desk. From time to time, between various scent strips, oils, scribbling notes various briefs and scents, he'd reach for the container and sniff at it, cleansing his olfactory palate. It didn't work for everyone, but it for him, it worked a treat.

Eli had always been sensitive to smell. Well before his truck with MGH and his granddaddy's super-soldier serum gifting him with heightened senses, his nose had always been keen. The perfume of jalapeño in the hot sauce his grandma added to her own plate; how at times, he'd be overwhelmed by the strong synthetic smells of detergent, and yet feel drugged, almost blissful at the rich, comforting smell of toast and butter. He never really thought about his nose, apart from say, sniffing out food and getting his team mates out of trouble, until one day, when he overheard Mr Stark speaking to Jarvis about quarters and scents.

Not that he went out of his way to eavesdrop; he just happened to be in the Avenger's kitchen, doing some last minute additions to his assignment. By tacit agreement, the members of the YA thought that they'd use the down time to go off individually and get some work done. Mr Stark just came into the kitchen, helped himself to a glass of juice, leaned against the counter, and started to speak.

"Who knew that jasmine scents would be it for bathroom cleaners this year?" Mr Stark laughed. "That arm of the business shot up a quarter. If I still drank, I'd buy you a drink, Jarvis, or an entire still."

"Very well, Tony. I'll take the offer in spirit." Jarvis didn't look up from the cake he was applying frosting to. That sort of rich, buttery chocolate frosting. So thick, it was a roll of pleasure in his mouth. Tomorrow would be Dani's birthday, and last week, Ms Jones invited the Young Avengers to the mansion to share in the festivities. "Even you, Eli," she'd said, as she cornered him in the kitchen of the YA HQ. "I know that you've missed a lot of outings, be it by accident or design. Knowing you, I'm thinking the latter." Eli squirmed, because Ms Jones had that stern mom's eye down cold. To think that a couple years ago, she didn't see herself as any sort of parent. Ha.

"I-" Eli started, ready to give his excuses, only for them to dry up on his tongue as Ms Jones folded her arms across her chest and raised her eyebrows, waiting to shoot everyone of them down. "I- what time do you want me there?"

There was here, this was now. Eli sat at a chair in the kitchen, using the time to do some school work. Jarvis was cool, in that he didn't mind anyone underfoot in his kitchen, even with their computers, and notebooks. Mr Stark came in a bit later, slightly windblown, and after they exchanged a nod- their relations still cool even after everything- he started speaking to Jarvis, about business and quarterly returns and something to do with scents.

"Sorry, Mr Stark. Sir." Eli interrupted, but still minded his manners. "What do you mean by scents and 'it for this year'? As in, scents have trends?"

"Yes, but let me explain," Mr Stark began. "It's always been a thing, but right now, it seems to be more than a thing, it's now a reality that's not only here to stay, but expanding. You see, on average, the scent industry commands about thirty two billion dollars annually, with home fragrances around a quarter of that. It's only set to expand as people co opt fragrances into home décor. It's as much as a part of the finish as fabric nowadays." At Eli's whistle, Mr Stark smiled appreciatively, and seeing an in, he dropped in the chair just opposite of Eli, facing him across the table. Interested in what Mr Stark had to say, Eli closed his laptop and notebooks, his pens marking their places.

The next hour proved illuminating, as Tony described the characteristics of a 'nose', and how perfume houses actively sought one.

"A 'nose'? What do you need to be a nose?"

"A keen sense of smell, an obsession with capturing it, translating feelings into smell and vice versa. It's like- " Mr Stark stopped, his fingers splayed, as they formed pictures with his words, his sleeves rolled up, his elbows on the table. "Ever heard of a little thing called the Japanese Tea Ceremony?"

"Yeah. So?"

"It's like that. They say that the Japanese can study and practise the Tea Ceremony for ten, twenty years and not master it. So it's the notion of process, of knowledge; using the same tools, but coming away with different experiences each time. Making notes to go back and do it again and again."

"Like fighting bad guys. You do it and go back to the drawing board, and get better." At this comment, Mr Stark grinned, and Eli grinned back. For the first time since they knew each other, mutual discomfort gave way to a reciprocal thaw.

"So perfumery-"

"If you have a sharp nose, and a knack for chemistry, it's a way in." Mr Stark steepled his hands, and they both looked at Jarvis as he now held the icing pipe, and squeezed the bag steadily as he wrote Happy Birthday Dani. The scent of icing - a harder, much more brittle sweetness - more sugary than buttery filled his nose. Definitely tougher, more solid, if that made sense. Eli decided that he preferred frosting, straight up.

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah. You might have to do time in the salt mines, as in apprenticeship. Scents for detergents, washing up liquids-"

"Toilet cleaners."

"Exactly. If you're interested, get a chemistry degree, then get in contact me in a few years. I'll see what I can do."

***

Fast forward to now, over a decade later, and Eli was here, at his part of the lab. Tony Stark didn't lie. Eli had done time mixing his own share of vials and bases. Noted trends on scents. Studied bases and mid notes and top notes. Pushed his instrument (his nose was his instrument) until he was able to identify close to a twelve hundred scents by smell. Walked with a note book and pen at all times, because inspiration for new perfumes came from the strangest places. From the scent memories Jarvis' butter frosting, to Wong's flower wine.

Eli brought all of that to his work, and eventually became a part of the team that did the winning scent for furniture polish. It became such a sensation, the furniture polish with its non toxic base, that teenage girls started wearing it as perfume, and furniture stores used it for their main go to scent for upkeep.

Not that he told anyone, but when he thought about the smell - that was the first time he tried to capture the essence of his grandmother. The almonds in the cakes she used. Ground almonds in the place of flour, the tinned cherries that she added a bit of sugar and vanilla to. Along with lemon zest, a bit of ginger and how she made it cook down into a kind of jelly, and how the bases thickened in texture and smell as they warmed. Only for them to switch when cooled again - the ginger, overwhelming to the point of burning on heat; retreated into a lovely base warmth. The top notes of lemon which flirted and lifted the drugged sugar of cherries, as she poured it over vanilla ice cream and served it as a Sunday afternoon treat.

That's what Eli wanted; did it for polish and carpet sprays so that America would have his grandma's dessert in every home. Ubiquitous, unassuming, to the point where they wondered how they'd have lived without it, like his childhood and adolescence without her. It helped that lemon juice added shine to the wood, and bicarbonate absorbed odours from carpet. Got himself an article in the influential professional quarterly Top Notes for his trouble, and as such, got kicked up into an actual team- designing fragrance for people.

The prestigious projects, where the best noses were wreathed in romance, icon and legend. Marilyn Monroe and Chanel no. 5, Samsara for Guerlain ; a love letter to his muse, luxurious decadence in a scent.

According to the brief he was given, the perfume called for: Spring/Summer. It should be for the person who loves life, loves the world. Who weathers the winter, and does so without complaint; but actively yearns for the season to turn, for longer days. It should remind the wearer of long summer evenings, a chance at young love. Words: Fresh, dew, grass, sunlight, sun, kisses. Washed white linen cloths, naked, skin. Breath. .

Idly, Eli flipped through the rest of the brief. Pictures of spring assailed him; sun-drenched meadows, two hands clasping, the hairs on their skins burnished by the sun; a glass of lemonade, the photograph so real, Eli ran his hand along its surface, half expecting the condensation to dampen the tip of his fingers. There was even a CD describing the music. Eli half remembered the group, a sunny, bouncy Scandinavian outfit that Tommy had liked. He remembered everyone's double take when they heard Tommy singing a verse or two. The illustrations by wow, Jordi Labanda. Okay, the scent and its target market now taking shape in his imagination.

A woman, mid twenties to thirties. Young enough on the first rung of the career ladder, old enough to have some disposable income for herself. After paying the bills, she'd buy something foolish, but irresistible. No chocolate, but open to a scent that might smell like that? No, too heavy. She'd be always yearning for change, responsive to a romance on holiday, away from the familiar. Would enjoy the easy passion of it, the stroke of fingers against her skin, just there by her mouth, before lips pressed against hers, and she opened her mouth for that first kiss. For the span of a moment, she'd stop breathing, the world would pause on its axis, and for all intents this would be her first real kiss. An awakening to something so simple being so perfect, and enjoying the sigh of time for what it was.

In an instant, Eli started stacking base notes, middle notes, top notes in his mind. It should have the sweetness of a teen romance - no to rose, too classic. Vanilla so done. Oriental, too heavy, too winter. It would be more green - hinting of outdoors and breeze, but with a hint of Fougere - a nod to cities and memories of crisp salads, splashed with vinaigrette dressing. One aspect of floral - to soften the fragrance just a bit, as it hit on skin.

His fingers hovered over the vials, as he started to arrange scent strips in front of him. Right now, this was the equivalent to a sketch, dabs of bases and scents. He'd take into consideration the addition aldehydes and ketones to the fragrance as he went on. But he needed to lock the feeling in his brain first, mentally shifting through the melange of scents simultaneously. It would have the sizzle of the first kiss, with the distance and knowledge to enjoy the simplicity of it.

For the first time in a long while, and it might have been the hint of lilacs to the base of green - just enough for a mid note when the scent opened on the strip, Eli's mind snagged on Kate. That night, when he was playing video games in the front room, chainsawing Teddy's avatar in half on screen.

You look like a time life operator in that thing

He didn't remember his exchange, only the fact that Kate slapped her palms against his cheeks, and kissed him. Mmmmsmack

The video game faded into the background of static, as Kate threw him a life line, and for the first time since they danced around what they were, they finally found the steps. He remembered everything else, the tumble of feelings between them that left each of them bruised and tender at the best of times. He kissed her when they had been trapped underground. All adrenaline, unable to tell her how he felt, but wanting her to know, and a desperate kiss the best way. Fast forward to Wundagore and Billy and the fact that for the first time, Eli realised that just loving someone wasn't enough and when Kate got with Tommy later on, he realised that he cared enough for them both to wish them well, and hoped that they worked out.

Shaking off the memories, Eli looked at the brief again. Remembered that in his travels, people used scents to purify, to cleanse. Incense in a church as people prayed, head swaying almost drunkenly from the nectar drenched air. Some temples had bells that shook the air and chased bad spirits away. There was nothing in these memories to chase away however, just to close off; to capture all his feelings in a scent like incests in amber, and see what the reactions were.

Looking at the time just above the exit, Eli winced. It was six o' clock, getting dark. But he was caught in the grip of inspiration; the other ninety nine days he could get on with perspiration, so he would stay and ride out this one.

To Grasp The Universe

Kitt Peak National Observatory: at over two thousand metres above sea level, it seemed nearer to the stars than of this earth. All around the mountain - dotted with white domes and various structures which shielded the telescopes within, like little toadstools on the top of the peaks. In the day, apart from the hushed noise of visitors, the facilities seemed to slumber. At night, the skies opened up- exploded with star clusters, nebulae, and smudges of galaxies light years away.

"Hey, Brett, how's it going?" Eli hailed the technician as he came into the observational control room connected to the 3.5 meter supporting telescope next door. The building a white, plain box looking thing outside, more like a discarded trailer from a truck than anything else. Painted white, more to reflect the heat from the sun - although it was sundown now, darkness covering the lands around them like an inky blanket thrown over irregular sculptures. Inside the building though, was a window to space. The control room small enough, and warm. A long table stood along the wall facing the door, with computer monitors squatting on them, monitors either blank or having figures and grids playing across their screens. To the wall left of him, a white board, with time tables of the people to observe pencilled in, as well as a pithy directive: BRING YOUR OWN COFFEE.

"Well enough," Brett waved from his place at the computer. The tech engineer in his late fifties, his hair a long, greying queue arrowing down his back. His features craggy as the hills around them, his eyes framed by glasses. According to rumour, he was a member of the tribe that the NOAO leased the land from. "How's Wisconsin? It is Wisconsin,right?"

"Yeah, and still snowing, and cold." Eli adjusted his messenger bag, as he gratefully dropped in the wheeled office chair opposite Brett. Searching in his bag, he located his printouts, and handed them over.

"Ah, new co-ordinates, eh?"

"Yeah," Eli nodded, as he placed the folder in Brett's outstretched hand. "I've done the calculations, ran through the models. Made a list, checked it thrice."

Brett twisted his lips, his expression almost a pout. "Ever since Gliese 581, every other astronomer's been trying to find any more spots in the Goldilocks zone. It's getting busy up here."

"I know. In my department everyone's been road-testing the scientific rationale before submitting. If I ever hear about The Doppler Effect one more time..." Eli finished darkly, playfully making a fist and shaking it at an invisible opponent. Brett turned away from him with a chuckle, and started to punch the details of Eli's co ordinates into the programme, his fingers flying across the keyboard.

"I guess people must be asking themselves why they're doing this, right?" Brett's question was rhetorical, and not expecting an answer, he said: "This should take twenty minutes to an hour, considering."

Eli stretched his legs in front of him, linked his hands on his lap and stared at the ceiling. In the days of old, astronomers would have gone to a mountain - any mountain- relatively high up, free from light pollution, with a telescope, a sleeping bag and start making notes. But with the newer telescopes nowadays feeding everything into a computer in order for it to construct images that could be studied, there was no need for that sort of roughing it anymore. But throughout millennia the answer never veered from the question that Brett asked.

Why did Eli and his ilk do this? Crunching models, constructing hypotheses and scientific rationale? The answer was easy, and elegant: life looked for life.

It only took Eli hooking up with the Young Avengers and then the Avengers before he looked to the stars and the universe, and had a brush with the Skrulls before he realised that other beings were out there. But it had been Nate who had sparked his curiosity from the beginning.

Hold up," Eli raised his hands palms up, as if in surrender. "Run this by me again: you're looking for new Avengers so that we- and that's if I say yes- we can fight the future you?"

Iron lad ran his hand through his hair, his cheeks flushed with more excitement than anything. His helmet was off, cradled in the crook of his arm, his hair ruffled and sticking out in all directions. "Yeah, I'm from the future to defeat the future me. I wanted to find the Avengers, but since they're no more, I'm finding replacements..." he wrinkled his brow. "According to my files, a Captain America lives here. Is that you?"

"Yeah," Eli lied. "I'm here."

Fast forward, and Eli and Nate got to know each other. Nate was a nerd, constructing hologram scale models of planets and galaxies for him, Billy and Teddy in their down time, when they were listening to various frequencies for various police scanners. It seemed that the shows lied about being one scanner covering the entire state of NYC all the time, and Nate's suit hummed and cackled as it flagged minor infractions for them to investigate, but tonight was a quiet night. Just as well, they were in Billy's room on a Saturday night, all of them seated on the floor, pizza and a six pack of Coke a place of honour in the middle of the group.

"In my time," Nate began, chomping around a great bite of his slice of pizza. "Astronomers are considered like, the sentinels of our world. They not only map the universe but act as guides, and traverse them."

"Oh yeah? So there's more to life and galaxies than us, is that what you're saying?" Eli sipped at his can of Coca Cola. "I always thought that stuff only existed in X-men comics." (And in retrospect, way before they found out that Teddy was half Skrull half Kree). Nate licked the tomato and cheese sauce from his thumb.

"There are millions, no billions of universes out there, Eli," Nate's eyes were serious, thoughtful. "We're just a speck - a pale blue dot- in a probable corner of a backwater. The ancients had it right - with the Brahma's existence being eight point six billion years long, and how the universe might have slumbered for a hundred times that. The Cosmic Dream," he smiled, the expression in his face wistful. "If I hadn't become Kang, I'd have probably done astronomy. Just looking out, you know ? Not travelling backwards to defeat me, but forwards; working towards the ethos of the pledge every time we sight a new universe."

"Oh yeah?" Teddy leaned over and gently nudged Billy's shoulder. Billy gave a short merry laugh, as he leaned into Teddy, lingered at his side a little too long. "What's the pledge?"

"Life looks for life." Nate rolled his eyes. "D-uh."

"You've been here for far too long. 'D-uh'? You sound like my little brother." Billy snorted. Teddy laughed, but not Eli.

When Eli applied to colleges, Nate's words never left him. Sure, they had the Skrull invasion and that sucked, but they weren't the only beings out there. Eli heard the machine as it beeped along, eyed the time displayed at the bottom right of the cursor. Twenty minutes, and the machine was still doing its work. The images for his co ordinates took time, and the location of the pocket of the universe he had his eye on approximately thirty light years away.

After Teddy and Billy went off to sleep -in the same bed- Eli was still awake, Nate sitting on the sill of Billy's window, looking outside and up.

"We're gonna win you know," Eli said, as he pushed himself from sleeping bag on the floor and walked over to where Nate was seated. "We're gonna give your future self a beat down, and you'll be fine."

"Yeah," Nate pressed his lips together, so not believing it.

"C'mon man, believe me, okay? I mean it."

"And if I can't?"

"I will." Eli lightly punched Nate's shoulder. "Okay?"

"'Kay." Nate's features relaxed into a smile. "Thanks."

Eli felt a tap on his knee, and shook his head to awareness. He must have nodded off and-

"The first image is done. I'm entering the co ordinates for the next one. If you want to grab ten, do so." Brett's voice was kind. "It's a long haul from Wisconsin, and you have a long night ahead."

"I'm all right," Eli shook his head. "I was just-" he exhaled audibly through his nose, he'd think about the other things later - when it didn't cost five thousand dollars in research fees a night. "I'm ready."

Fin.