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Of All Possible Worlds

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Kate likes Noh from the beginning—or, at least, from the beginning of the night before the morning after. She wouldn’t have gone home with him if she hadn’t. She doesn’t expect to like him quite so much by the time the next day is over, but she can’t help it—the easy way he spins his spaceship off toward whatever trouble she suspects her idiot friends have gotten themselves into ramps the harmless, charmed liking she’d felt for him up to the next level, and the matter-of-fact way he swoops into the club where Billy and Teddy and their new troupe of musketeers are tied up, all ready to save the day, feeds into the vague attraction for him that’s still simmering under her skin from the night before, turning it into an active interest.

It’s been a while since Eli, which is something she tries not to think too hard about, because it still hurts—the end of the team hadn’t meant the end for Billy and Teddy, and she’s thought that she and Eli would be able to make it, too, she’d thought the sudden stability might have meant a chance for—Kate tries not to think too hard about what she thought would happen, these days. The gaping, obvious silence from Eli since that time put that delusion to rest.

There have been a few others, here and there, since then, but there’s something about this, about fighting beside someone, trusting them to have your back and to take care of the same people you are going to take care of—having shared priorities on a very literal and immediate level, essentially—that it’s really hard to come back from or expect less than, once you’ve spoiled yourself for normal by being a teenage superhero dating your teammate.

Noh-Varr isn’t a teammate exactly, or isn’t yet, at least, but he’s well on his way, and Kate likes kissing him when she’s bursting with adrenaline, she likes the easy loyalty of the way he seems to have volunteered his ship to this world-saving mission indefinitely, she likes the soft way he sings under his breath when he’s steering the ship through the blackness of space.

Kate waits to demand answers until Billy has fallen asleep on one side of Noh-Varr’s bed and Loki is at least pretending to be asleep well enough that it seems like too much effort to question it, stretched across the other side, skinny child-arms starfished out to take up as much space as possible.

Noh-Varr is driving, because while he could park them in orbit, or set a course on autopilot and get some sleep himself, he says he needs to feel the controls under his hands on days like this, and America has taken possession of the passenger’s seat and is watching him intently, like Noh, just like everyone else, is out to either get her or just destroy the universe generally, nothing personal, you understand.

Kate finds Teddy leaning against the doorway to Noh-Varr’s bedroom, watching Loki possibly-fake-snore intently. She wonders if he’s as uncertain about the truth Loki’s sleep as she is, but it’s hardly the most pressing question on the table. She reaches for his arm and drags him off to near the storage bay, out of earshot of America and Noh’s increasingly tetchy non-small-talk and, hopefully, out of Loki’s reach for eavesdropping, assuming he’s not asleep, which Kate thinks she probably is assuming, at this point.

“…So what actually happened?” she asks him. She’s gotten the bare-bones events of why they’re being attacked by the parents, deceased and living, of her friends and acquaintances, but the story she heard was mostly just the mechanics: malevolent force, alternate dimension, soul consumption and attempted take-over of the planet.

The story behind that set of facts has to have some kind of explanation for why Billy was digging around through alternate realities anyway, and why he thought it was a good time to try mixing and matching existences, when the last thing Kate heard, he was stepping back from using his powers because they were, well, terrifying, and also not something he had perfect control over.

She knows Teddy knows what she means, but he tries to avoid answering anyway, because, Kate thinks, as much of a massive sweetheart as he is, he’s still such a boy in so many ways, and he’s not about to volunteer anything. He says, “We told you, I was there when Billy told you, he tried to—”

That’s not going to fly, though, Kate has just been driven off the planet to regroup and figure out how to deal with this shit, she thinks she’s at least owed a better explanation as to why that was necessary.

“Yeah, I get what Billy was trying to do, but why was he trying?” That sounds bad, why would he try to help the love of his life get back the only family he’s ever known? it makes Kate sound heartless enough that she has to clarify, “I mean, I thought he wasn’t using his powers anymore, I though he was stopping because he didn’t want anything like—well—like this to happen.”

Teddy looks down at that, bites his lip, and yeah, there’s definitely a story here, probably something long-running that Kate should already know about, she has been away a while, she thinks with a pang of guilt.

“Why don’t you ask Billy?” Teddy tries.

She can tell he’s about to tell her, though, so she doesn’t even ask again, just reminds him, “He’d just tell me he fucked everything up, which may or may not be true, but doesn’t actually tell me much.”

Teddy nods, because yeah, there’s really no denying that that’s how Billy deals with this kind of thing—with vagueness and fierce self-recrimination. He sighs, looks down, then looks up again and meets Kate’s eyes. “We had a fight,” he tells her, and then, “You’re not the only one who didn’t totally give up the super hero thing.”

“You?” she asks him, though it doesn’t surprise her.

Teddy nods again, says, “And when he found out, he was upset, and I just lost my temper, you know? Because he’s not the only one who’s lost people, and his way of dealing with it isn't the only way to deal, either.”

That makes a lot of sense, Kate thinks, and is probably a conversation they should have had even sooner. It still doesn’t tell her what happened, though, and Teddy must know it, because he goes on, “But I said—I may have implied that—it might have sounded like I only stayed because he’s all I have.”

There it is, Kate thinks. Bingo.

There’s apparently more to it, though. Teddy goes on, “I told him I fell in love with a super hero, and that—and that I hated how scared he is of himself. Because I do! But then,” Teddy’s voice drops, soft and awful and guilty, “But then this happens and I’ve got to wonder if he was right to be scared of it.”

Kate’s not actually sure what to say to that, but the whole chain of events is suddenly just so Billy she can't help huffing out a single, bitter, soundless laugh. At Teddy’s questioning look, she tells him, “God, it’s just—you tell him he’s all you have, which,” she slugs his arm a little harder than playfully, “Is not even true, Altman, but anyway, so he hears you, and right away, he goes out to try to get you someone else. Because he can’t use his powers to fight crime anymore, that’s just too much, but shuffling through alternate realities to create a temporal impossibility seems like an easier solution than being a better boyfriend.”

Teddy pushes a hand through his hair, says, “Yeah, when you put it that way, I actually feel like maybe I should have seen it coming.” He laughs, but it’s an exhausted, hollow sound. He looks down at the floor instead of at Kate, and he says, “You know, for a minute there, I actually thought I might be getting my mom back.”

“Aw, Teddy,” escapes her lips before she can even think what to say, at a loss for how to respond to that. She thinks of the cool brush of her own mother’s lips against her forehead just before the last time she said goodbye, thinks of getting that back and then losing it again just as fast, and she’s not sure she can imagine a worse feeling.

“I’m alright, I’ll be alright,” he tells her, and she believes him, she does.

It still hurts to think of how he must be feeling. Kate leans her head against Teddy’s shoulder, and they sit quietly as they hurtle through space at an impossible speed, in a ship powered by belief.

America asks Kate, “Is Kaplan always so …goofy?” and Kate wants to defend Billy from America’s tone, which does not sound impressed, but the actual adjective she uses is pretty accurate, so she just shrugs, says, “Yeah, kind of,” and wanders off to see if Loki’s out of the shower yet. For someone no one’s sure actually even has hair, that kid sure knows how to use up the hot water.

The difference, Kate thinks, between a basic liking of someone and a deeper sense of caring about them doesn’t lie in liking them more so much as it does in liking more of them. It’s getting below the surface with people that moves them from the level of friends-that-are-basically-acquaintances to friends-that-are-basically-family (Kate doesn’t really do in-betweens there).

Which isn’t so say that surface impressions are bad. Kate has a healthy respect and affection for a good superficial encounter. Without surface impressions, she might not have bothered to get closer to some of the best people she knows.

Like Clint—Clint is a great example, because on the surface he’s great, one of her childhood heroes, living proof that you don’t always need powers, you don’t always need to be chosen, sometimes good intentions, hard work and a bloody-minded disregard for your own limitations can get you just as far. He’s quippy and handsome and he helps save the world. Clint’s surface is great.

Underneath it, though, in the place where Kate ends up, Clint is all bad life decisions and stupid nicknames and, improbably, even better intentions than are even visible on the surface. Beneath the surface, Clint is completely impossible, utterly frustrating, and someone she trusts not just with her life but with her friendship.

Noh-Varr’s surface—beautiful, charming alien prince, all daring and handsome and mysterious—wouldn’t have kept Kate around much longer than the second date if he hadn’t unfurled a little bit, shown himself to be as quirky and weird and just a little bit messed up as anyone who’s ever held her interest has turned out to be.

Kate’s got a pretty good read on Billy and Teddy, she thinks, and she knows better than to ever assume she knows what’s going on in Loki’s head, so he’s out of consideration, but when Kate thinks about America, her mind always seems to get stuck in a loop.

She’s not sure she knows anything beyond America’s surface, is the thing. They’ve been traveling together for months, and there are times when Kate thinks she senses and undercurrent of warmth or fondness in America’s tone, even when she talks to Loki, or, occasionally, Kate herself, but she’s never sure if that’s actually what she hears, or if it’s just wishful thinking.

What Kate knows is: America is not from around here, and is rarely impressed with what she finds. She moves from calm to furious in the space of a few breaths, and has the strength to back it up.

She calls Kate ‘princess,’ and half the time, it doesn’t quite feel like a taunt.

This weird stranger orders Kate’s perfect breakfast before she even walks into the building, and then, as she’s munching on her waffles, tells them that Tommy has disappeared, has been stolen from whatever life he’s been building for himself away from them by some spooky figure wearing Eli’s costume, and it’s so perfectly calculated to be painful that Kate could almost laugh.

Billy and Teddy know who the guy is, not because they’ve met, but because their shared, secondary superpower is being massive nerds, and apparently even whatever weirdness has Teddy acting odd and distant, and Billy shooting worried glances Kate’s way when it becomes too obvious, can’t undermine that, which is comforting in its own way.

Still, recognizing Prodigy is hardly a good reason to go around just believing him right and left, and Kate would be inclined to doubt his story and its utterly perfect method for distracting them from the task at hand, except that he looks so worried, so quietly concerned.

Kate’s pretty good at reading people’s moods and their intentions. Having a good eye is one of the best ways to stay alive as a non-powered human on a superhero team, and this guy’s concern sounds real to her, which is sort of a different kind of relief, too—there’s a kind of comfort in knowing that even though he’s vacated her life pretty spectacularly the past few years, Tommy has found someone to watch his back.

Not that David seems to have done that good a job of it.

(America seems to believe David’s story, too, and she doesn't have the feeling Kate can feel clawing up her chest like the phantom of a wound, the feeling of having once been responsible for Tommy—for all of them—the feeling of once having been a team leader that’s hard to shake. She also doesn’t have the other, more personal tie-that’s-been-cut, the one that Kate’s pointedly not thinking about. America believing David, without Kate’s own maelstrom of emotion clouding her judgment, is a piece of reassurance she hadn’t even known she was looking for.)

For all that Noh-Varr is the first guy Kate has bothered to set a facebook relationship status for, they don’t actually get much time to actually act like a couple because they don’t have much time to themselves to figure out what them in a couple actually means—one of the hazards of world-saving, Kate thinks. That lack of privacy or time for relationship stuff only intensifies when they add multiverse hopping on the search for Tommy to the agenda as a group.

She knows that, technically, Billy and Teddy are in the same boat in a lot of ways, but they’re so together, so stable, they’ve got such a history, Kate can’t imagine it’s the same.

For instance, they don’t need to carve out enough time to talk privately about who Tommy is and what his being missing means.

“Is this going to be, as they say, a meeting of the ex?” Noh asks, voice low, as they wander around the very edge of the boundary of the oxygen bubble Billy is determinedly holding open on the moon’s surface.

“No,” Kate tells him, and then amends, “Not really,” and then, “Well, sort of,” and finally, “I, um, we never really talked about the way things ended, but we weren’t really together-together to begin with.”

“I think you had best explain, Kate Bishop of Earth,” Noh says, but he’s got that note in his voice that sometimes grates and is sometimes really cute—that you earthlings really are charmingly quaint tone.

Kate’s tempted to say she doesn't have to tell him anything, but it’s one thing she never really could talk to Billy and Teddy about, and it’s certainly not something she’s going to tell Clint, and Tommy and Eli themselves have always shared a reluctance to talk about their relationship, and she’s surprised to find she actually does want to tell Noh-Varr after all.

“I just—” she says, glancing back to make sure the others are out of earshot, “Eli was my boyfriend, but sometimes—sometimes Tommy was ours, you know, not always, but sometimes. And then, after we lost Cassie, Eli felt so guilty, he couldn’t deal, and he didn't just leave the team, and he didn't just leave me, he left us. And So Tommy and I, we sort of tried to have something, just the two of us, for a little while.” Kate shrugs, because it’s really not that exciting of a story.

“It didn't work,” she finishes, “And he left, and I mean, there’s no hard feelings there, we tried, so yeah. I guess he’s kind of an ex.”

Noh folds an arm around her, and sometimes he gets it just right, sometime he is the perfect weird, alien boyfriend. Kate leans against him, and he says, “And a friend you still worry for,” which is true, so Kate doesn’t bother to argue with his easy presumption of her feelings.

“Yeah,” she says, letting out a slow breath. “So that’s why we have to keep following, you know?”

“Of course.”

“Chico, trust me, you don’t want to see this one,” America tells Loki, and though the arm that shoves him back from the hall’s entrance is rough, her tone is weirdly gentle.

It’s the third alternate-Asgard they’ve ventured through, and the second that’s gone still and quiet and post-apocalyptic before they ever made it there, so America’s protective instinct towards the resident immortal-child alien-god on this one in particular is enough to pique Kate’s interest. Loki’s too, apparently, Kate thinks with bemusement as he sweeps past America’s outstretched arm.

Kate pushes past as well, following into the throne room, and when she sees the room’s inhabitants, her breath tangles into a gasp.

She looks back to see if there’s any salvaging America’s initial instinct to keep Loki from seeing the skeletons inhabiting the throne room—his own on the throne, Thor’s nearer to the entrance, and therefore nearer to Kate.

There isn’t, of course.

There are the remains other bodies there, too, and while they’re not familiar to Kate, she thinks, with a pang, they may very well be familiar to Loki. Futzing hell, this is even worse than the rabbits.

As Kate’s been thinking, America has been herding the others out, and not a moment too soon, Kate thinks, as she notices something moving in the shadows behind the throne.

“Time to go, Princess,” America shouts over her shoulder, so Kate takes one more quick glance into the darkness before following her out.

Billy walks back into the diner alone, and when Kate asks where Teddy went, he looks up at her with an expression that looks suddenly exhausted, despite his optimism only a few minutes before. He says, “He needs some time for himself, you know, think some things through,” and Kate is reasonably certain he means relationship things rather than world-saving things, so she decides not to ask for any more details right now, when Loki is looking bright-eyed and fascinated, and David is looking unreadable but intent.

Noh has a crease between his eyebrows that looks curious, but for once he doesn’t ask. Only America looks entirely unphased, tucking in to her waffles like they might try to escape her if she’s not careful.

That’s what Kate thinks at first, anyway. When the conversation moves on to where to crash for a while so they can get some rest before making their next move, though—when Billy has been pulled out of his odd quiet long enough to argue vehemently with Loki about their next campsite, that is—America looks up, meets Kate’s eyes and then darts a look of what could almost be concern Billy’s way.

Kate isn’t exactly well-versed in America’s particular brand of eyebrow-speak—her version involves a lot less interaction with the other parts of her face than Eli’s does—but she’s pretty certain the message being sent her way is fix this, because someone clearly needs to, both on a personal and a multiverse-saving level, and Kate’s clearly the only member of the group with as much of a combination of emotional intelligence and subtlety as the god Kate isn’t sure she believes in gave an eighteen wheeler or, alternately, a blow to the back of the head with a two-by-four.

Kate nods back to America, message received, then claps her hands to get their attention and says, “Okay, gang, here’s the deal. We’re going to call up some friends of mine from L.A. and see if they mind a little company, and if they say yes, you all are going to act like human beings, or at least like harmless and civilized godlike creatures, full or partial aliens and inter-dimensional beings.”

“It’s not that I don’t understand what he means,” Billy tells Kate, the day after Teddy leaves. “I do, I get it—it makes sense, you know? But I don’t want it to, because once I allow that it’s possible—it’s not just that it could be Teddy, that I could be changing him, that I could have made him love me, or even made him up. That thought is bad enough, it should be the most unthinkable awful thing I can imagine, but there’s more to it than that. There’s the idea that if it’s possible that I did do that, it’s also possible for me to have done that for any other good thing that’s ever happened to me.”

That sounds a little extreme, actually, and Billy has always had kind of a flare for the dramatic, so she doesn’t feel too guilty telling him so. He fixes her with a really serious look then, though, like there is absolutely no chance he’s going to laugh off the terrifying thing he just said, and he asks her, “Is it more dramatic than my boyfriend leaving me because I might have cast an accidental love spell on him, or, you know, maybe just wished him into existence?”

Fucking superheroes Kate has had it up to here with them. Can’t two of her closest friends break up for a normal reason, like the way David has been eyeing Teddy when he thinks no one’s looking? Kate would be great at helping a friend with that kind of break-up, she can do the junk food and the bad movies chock-full or melodrama, she can even do some kind of small, petty and unfair but harmless revenge scheme.

This, though, this is something else.

“So basically what you’re saying is that any time you got something you wanted, your entire life, it could have been because of accidental magic,” she tries, just to make sure she has it straight.

When Billy nods, she goes on, “Don’t you think it’s possible that that might be kind of …arrogant?”

He shrugs at her helplessly, which isn't really an argument one way or the other, so she barrels on, “Like, are you including your family in this?”

“Yes!” he says, voice a little louder, a half-shout that means they’re lucky none of the rest of the team come rushing in to add their two cents to whatever argument they’re having, just to break up the monotony. “Like, how do I know I didn’t have a really awful relationship with them, but then I grew up, got my powers, and was all sad and wishing for things to be good with them until it changed reality, wanting that, and it was like we’d never had problems. Only, if that happened, I would have had to have changed them, and then where does free will go, or whatever, you know?”

Kate has already thrown down the ‘arrogance’ gauntlet once, she’s not about to bring it up again, but Billy must see it in her face, because he says, “I know, who do I think I am, right? But it’s not like I thought of it all on my own, I wasn’t all, oh, I’m so powerful, I created the world. Loki said something to Teddy, and if Loki thinks it’s possible—well, he knows more about magic than the rest of us. And if Teddy thinks I could have—” Billy’s eyes look suspiciously bright, here, and if it weren’t for the presence of fucking superheroes in every aspect of her life, here is where she would have gone in for the hug, but Billy is starting to glow faintly blue around the edges of his fingers, and Kate isn’t Teddy, she doesn’t heal and can’t grow armor-skin, so she pats his knee instead and reminds him, “Breathe,”

“If Teddy thinks so,” he finishes, voice quieter, “And he knows me so well, he’s stuck by me through a lot—if he thinks so, what are the chances that there isn't something to it?”

“Breathe,” she says again, because Billy looks like he needs to hear it, and then, “Let’s think about this a sec, though. If all the good things could be because you wished for them, what about the bad things, Billy? There are definitely some bad things.”

He chuckles a little wetly at that, and nods, agreeing with a silent fervence. “What about—” Kate tries, sorting in her mind through how to say it, “What about the way you get—the way you get sad sometimes, Billy? That’s not something you would have wished for, is it?”

He shakes his head, looking down at his hands, and she know he gets what she means. She presses her advantage, warming up to the idea as she talks it through, because the last thing she wants to believe is that one of her best friends is changing the entire fabric of reality on a whim on a regular basis. “I bet—I mean, there were probably times when you specifically wished to not feel like that, right?”

He nods, and she thinks of his months of blank face and hollow eyes staring out the window, and the one time during that period that he’d looked over at her and said, I don’t know how to stop.

He’s agreeing again, “Yeah, I mean yes—” and Kate can feel something in her start to relax, because this is going to work, this is going to be okay, Billy is going to be okay, even with Teddy gone, which is not something she ever saw coming.

“And Teddy’s mom,” she reminds him, a little softer. “You didn’t want that, so much that you did something huge to try to change it—”

“Something stupid,” he interrupts, but Kate is on a roll.

She blows past the furious self-chastisement in his tone, saying, “Not the point. Point is, you wanted so hard for her to be alive that it’s tearing the world apart, and it still didn't fix it. Because the things you want, Billy Kaplan, aren’t an unstoppable force all on their own that rip through and change the world whenever you feel like it. You’d feel a lot better if it did, because there’d be no need for us to be talking about this.”

He smiles just a little at that, which is all the victory Kate thinks she’s going to get today, so she takes the win for what it is, and asks him, “Great, so now we’ve got that figured out, can you tell Teddy so he’ll come back and cheer you up for me?”

It’s meant as a half-joke, which is why she’s sorry when Billy’s face goes all still and serious again. “I think,” he says, “I think this is one of those things where I don’t really get to tell him anything, because anything I say will just seem like part of it. He might come back, if I did, but he wouldn’t feel sure about it if he didn’t think of it on his own, and I don’t think I could stand it, if he came back but he didn't, you know, feel safe with me.”

It’s a stupidly mature thing to say, it almost pisses Kate off, it makes so much sense. She leans in and hugs him now, partially because the sparks have faded and partially because even if they hadn’t, her friend needs not to feel alone right now. “You sound like such a grown-up,” she whispers into his shoulder, and he makes one of those awful, laugh-sob sounds and hugs her back, tight.

“I don’t feel like one,” he confides, and Kate believes in that moment that Teddy will come back. She believes it because she needs him to, because these guys are most of what is left of her team, the strongest and warmest family she has ever been a part of, but also because who in any possible reality would willingly leave this boy?

David is looking at her funny.

Kate is not in the mood, and David is looking at her like either he’s decided that she’s a traitor and is feeding information back to the Mother, or like he’s decided against his better judgment to confide in her—there’s a wariness in his expression that she thinks could go either way.

She kind of hopes it’s the traitor thing. Mostly because she isn’t, so there’s no way he’ll have enough evidence of it to convince the rest of them, and she’s pretty sure that even if he drummed some up, Noh and Billy, at least, would keep the rest of them from throwing her off the ship and into the cold and lifeless vacuum of space.

And if it’s a heart to heart he’s after, she just might tear her hair out.

She’ll do it for Billy and Teddy, because they’re her guys, they’re family—she’s willing to drop her entire life to go on the run from soul-sucking aliens for them, she’s definitely willing to brave a few conversations involving feelings—but Kate is not exactly the heart-to-heart type, and she doesn’t like the idea that that’s the way she’s getting pigeonholed with this crowd.

It’s a question that’s been on her mind a few days—what’s going on with David’s face—so she’s not totally surprised when he comes over and joins her in the ship’s tiny kitchen-area when Noh is driving and America is watching Loki and Billy’s lesson.

He doesn’t say anything, though, just looks at her, looks away, at his hands, at the floor, back up at Kate’s face, on and on, until she starts to wonder if he did say something and she just missed it, and now he’s waiting and waiting for her to say something back.

Well, that’d be one way to get rid of a reputation as someone who talks about feelings, she thinks, missing Tommy suddenly and fiercely.

It’s because she’s thinking of Tommy, remembering that David is Tommy’s friend now when he’s not around them anymore, that she is the one to break the increasingly awkward silence.

“It’s pretty cool of you to hang around to help, you know,” she says. “You could have just told us about Tommy and left us to figure it out, no one would have blamed you, it sounds like you guys weren’t friends for that long, not long enough to require that you get all mixed up in this Mother drama.”

“I don’t mind,” David says, then adds with a lopsided smile, “I’ve got kind of an interest in the multiverse not getting destroyed too, you know.”

Kate smiles in acknowledgment, than says, “Okay, spill then. What’s been on your mind these past few days if it isn’t jumping ship?”

She knows she’s right when he sinks down onto the bench beside her. He’s been looking for someone to confide in. That’s fine, Kate gets that, they've been preoccupied enough with their own shit that, as a group, they may not have been totally welcoming of David and the new problems he brought with him. He deserves someone to spill his guts to, and she can see how she’s a more promising prospect there than Billy and his angst, right now, or Loki and his ambiguous villainousness, or America and her hundred yard stare.

Honestly, Noh is probably the friendliest of them, now that Teddy’s gone, but he’s also a little bit of an airhead. Kate’s still not sure he’s the one of them she’d confide in if she were in need of confiding, and she’s the one who’s sleeping with him on the regular. She can hardly blame David for the same wariness.

So she’s the obvious option, and when she frames it like that, she doesn't even feel the need to get defensive about it. She looks at David and resolves to be as supportive and helpful as she’s got in her.

“I told Teddy he should go,” David blurts, all in one breath, and all of Kate’s good intentions go running for the kitchen door, leaving her perched on the bench breathless.

What?” she asks, knowing her voice isn't totally steady, but feeling like the shakiness is justified.

“It was a private conversation, and I’m not going to go into detail, I don't know how much you do or don't know about what went down with them,” David says, and Kate’s not sure how she feels about his setting those limits on this conversation, but she is curious, so she keeps her mouth shut.

“But—it was a personal conversation, too, about, you know, personal relationships,” David says, and Kate isn't going to tell him she knows why Teddy left, she isn't going to make this any easier for him to talk about as he fumbles on, “I know there can't always be a difference, when you’re flying around in spandex trying to save the planet, sometimes your personal life is going to bleed into the job, but I was only talking to Teddy as, you know, a person.”

He’s looking at her like he’s expecting some kind of response, here, so she nods, because really, she’s still not sure what he’s getting at, so nodding is the best she’s got. After a moment, when she guesses he picks up on the fact that she’s not about to say anything, he continues, “So I was talking as a person, but as a superhero-person, or whatever, did I screw something up? I mean, Billy’s been kind of a mess lately, and he’s one of the keys to this whole thing, and—”

“So you’re wondering if your being a home-wrecker is going to lead to the destruction of this and all other universes?” Kate synthesizes.

“I guess,” David says, but he looks a little bit pissed at her. Good, he probably should, Kate thinks.

She tells him, “No, I don’t think so,” tone brusque. “Billy’s upset, but he’s also stronger than I think you’re thinking, and a good guy. He’ll get the job done just fine.”

Kate’s pretty sure she believes herself, even, although saying the words is definitely more important than believing them. Doubts happen all the time, but you stand by your friends anyway, Kate thinks. That’s what makes them your friends.

After the way things went down, Kate half expects Noh to disappear after the battle is won. He’s still there, though, looking all mournful at her like he expects her to beg him to stay, or something. Like Kate is the type to go into hysterics about some douchebag alien boy who isn't even a very good dancer and has the nerve to dump her while they’re fighting for their lives and the survival of the human race.

Kate bets America doesn't get herself into these kinds of situations.

The thought is as heartening as it is obnoxious, somehow. She dismisses it and decides to channel Natasha instead, narrowing her eyes at him and staring until he backs off.

When he looks suitably chastened, she tells him, “Thank you for your help in restoring our planet, Marvel Boy,” and she’s pleased to note that her voice, as it sounds in the quiet of the settling dust, is cold enough to freeze a lake, or some other ridiculous, totally overdone metaphor.

For a second, she thinks he’s going to correct him about her name, but he actually seems to register that this is really not the time for that, because while he does open his mouth to respond, he subsides after a moment without saying a word, and when he does reply, moments later, he tells her, “It has been a pleasure, Kate Bishop of Earth,” and it sounds like he actually registered her dismissal.

Teddy jogs over, and the futzing bastard looks all kiss-happy and we-saved-the-world relieved, but the hand he claps on her shoulder actually is heartening, and she’s missed him, these last weeks, and they did, actually, just save the world, so she turns away from Noh entirely to pull Teddy into a hug.

“Welcome back, Hulk-boy,” she says, because while he’s been back with them a little while, it’s mostly been in the heat of battle, and there hasn’t been much time for greetings.

“Hawkeye’s been a bad influence on you, Hawkeye,” he says, somehow managing to smile at her and glare at Noh-Varr almost simultaneously, “You never used to be this into nicknames.”

“Yeah, well, he grows on you,” Kate says, “Like fungus.”

Noh shrinks a bit under Teddy’s glare, and while Kate is a bit nonplussed that news of her mid-battle breakup has traveled so fast, there’s definitely something gratifying about his reaction. It’s good to have intimidatingly muscular friends sometimes, and while Teddy isn’t green anymore, he also hasn’t totally shed his battlefield muscles.

“Dinner tonight at Billy’s parents’,” Teddy offers. “They’re still not totally sure what’s going on, but I think they’re mostly just glad he’s back.”

“I don’t want to interrupt,” Kate says, although truthfully, she’s not sure exactly what she’s going to do now that she’s back in the city. She’s not thrilled at the thought of going back alone to the darkness of her months-empty apartment, and she’s certainly not about to drop in on her father. She could probably crash at Clint’s, but after the way she left things, she thinks she’d like a bit of a run-up to it first.

“Well, they’ve already got David and America coming over,” Teddy says. “And me,” he adds, almost an afterthought. “And we should probably figure out how to get Tommy back before we call ‘mission accomplished’ on this one.”

That’s true, Kate agrees, and she knows it still goes a long way towards explaining David’s presence, but she’s still got to check. “David?” she asks, and knows she sounds a little skeptical, but she’s had to deal with Billy’s broken heart for days, and if that doesn’t give her the right to feel a bit protective, she doesn’t know what does. She’s not sure exactly sure what there is between Teddy and David, but that conversation of theirs while Billy was up in the sky, encased in blue light, had solidified Kate’s sense that something fishy was going on there.

“He’s Tommy’s friend,” Teddy says, and Kate doesn’t think she’s imagining the note of defensiveness in his tone.

Noh-Varr looks like he’s ready to bolt but doesn’t want to walk out on Kate if she feels like yelling at him. He glances at Kate, then towards his ship, then back at her, so she waves a hand in his direction. “Go on. You’ll be at the party at the end of the world, right?” New Years is only days away, which means it’s probably too late for Kate to be a part of the planning this year, but she’s definitely planning to attend.

It’s mostly a mutant-kid thing, but that’s mostly because there are more of them, and the Young Avengers have always been welcome. Noh looks surprised to be asked, but he says, “Yeah, sure, I’ll be there,” before turning back towards his ship to leave.

Kate turns back to Teddy and says, “I know he’s Tommy’s friend. And what you do is your business. I’d just—I don’t know. I like advance notice if there’s going to be drama, you know? So I can be always prepared. I would have been a great boy scout.”

Teddy nods, obviously seeing the truth in that. “No drama,” he says, smiling weakly, “Or, I’m not looking for any. I think—I think we should be good, from now.”

That’s what Kate likes to hear, so she claps him on the back and says, “Great! Come on, I think I was promised a wholesome Kaplan family meal.”

 

“You could, you know, ask him,” she tells Billy, watching her breath mist out into the night air of the balcony he’s chosen as a hiding place and she’s subsequently followed him to. Billy rolls his eyes at her.

“Gee, why didn't I think of that, genius?”

“There’s no reason get all nasty with me,” she tells him, because there really isn’t, and also because he’s got to relax, he’s so tense it’s making her nervous, and they’ve won the battle, now is supposed to be the time to relax.

“Sorry,” Billy says, and he sounds like he means it, which is nice. “It’s just—it’s not just wondering what if he’s not back for good? It’s that, what if he’s not sure and he’s still thinking about it, and he feels like my asking him could be a part of the whole,” he waggles his fingers in a sarcastic version of jazz hands, “Magic thing, and he takes wanting to stay, if he wants to stay, as me making him?”

“Didn’t you guys just save the world with the power of love, or whatever, though?”

Billy gives a jerky nod, then says, “But it was to save the world. What if it was just that? He’s a superhero all the time, not like me, he’d—I was kind of messing up, up there, him coming for me was what saved it, and if it was the only way to save everyone, to tell me he’d stay with me, he’d do it, even if he didn't mean it.”

That’s simultaneously one of the stupidest things Kate has ever heard and actually weirdly plausible. Still, “I don’t think Teddy would do that to you. And if he ever did, I don’t think he’d drag out telling you afterwards like this.” It has been hours since Billy fell from the sky at the end of the spell, energy spent, and into Teddy’s arms, and not once in that time has Teddy given any indication that he’s not back for good, or that he’s not back with Billy.

In fact, if the hand-holding, and the clearly-supposed-to-be-casual arm around Billy’s waist all through dinner are any kind of sign, he seems to be saying is is back for keeps. Kate doesn’t think Billy has anything to worry about, but after the first release of tension, he’s stayed taught and jumpy ever since they all settled in his parents’ living room to regroup.

“Maybe,” Billy says, face still troubled, before shaking his head and shifting his expression to teasing. “What about you?” he asks her. “What are you even doing talking to me when America could disappear any minute? You might never see her again, I have no idea how you’d get in touch. She’s not even on twitter!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she tells Billy as loftily as she can muster, and then, “You should talk to your boyfriend, that’s all I wanted to say,” and, “Let’s get inside, or your parents will think we ran away again.”

Seeing America in Billy’s parents’ living room, sitting cross-legged on the floor, leaning back against the couch, is a trip in and of itself. America blew into their lives from who-knows-where, kicking ass and taking names from the first moment, and the months of dimension hopping, and her familiarity with an astonishing number of the realities, have done nothing to reduce the sense that she is a bit larger than life.

Even more than Noh-Varr, probably, though Kate has always known he was an alien. Noh is quantifiable, and he hasn't got a mysterious bone in his body. Kate is pissed enough at him right now that she might even call him transparent—Mr. Cellophane, like in that movie Billy made them all watch that time, or made them watch most of, though Cassie had fallen asleep against Kate’s side by half way through, and Kate and Eli had ended up in a popcorn war before the end.

Kate remembers the song, anyway.

There are days she misses Cassie so much it hurts.

She’s tired, or she knows her thoughts wouldn't be this scattered, and she wouldn't be absently staring at America the way that she is until America twists her neck to look back like she can feel Kate’s gaze and asks, “Like the view, princess?”

So she doesn’t talk to America talk to America, but she does have enough of a conversation with her to feel certain that America isn’t about to totally disappear again, which is something, though it’s also something it wouldn’t have occurred to her to be concerned about if futzing Billy hadn’t brought it up.

What she does to is ask America, “So, is that it? I was never quite sure what you showed up for, so I’m not totally clear on when you’ll decide it’s time to leave, either. We’d appreciate your help trying to get Tommy back, but I don’t know if that’s part of you, you know, mission, or whatever.”

Teddy gives her an incredulous look, and Mrs. Kaplan’s brow furrows a bit, and yeah, Kate guesses it’s not the smoothest thing she’s ever said, and not the most gracious, but America throws her off-balance just by existing, so really, they all should just be impressed by her coherence such as it is. Billy knocks his shoulder against hers in solidarity because Billy gets it, Billy understands well enough to say emotionally devastating things to Kate on the darkness of his parents’ back porch to shut her up about how he should talk to his boyfriend. Billy is as much of a human disaster area as Kate is tonight, so she leans into him a bit as she listens to America’s answer.

“I thought I might hang around, actually. See what the big deal is with this end-of-the-world party, get some closure on the whole dimension-hopping thing.” America shrugs like she couldn't possibly be more unconcerned, but Kate thinks there might actually be a little bit of uncertainty under the words as she adds, “If that’s cool?”

“Yeah, of course,” Kate says, and then, before she can talk herself out of it, “Come stay with me,” and this time she doesn’t think she’s imagining the relieved look on Mrs. Kaplan’s face. “I haven’t been to my apartment in, like, a year, but I’ll be shocked if dad changed the locks, and I’ve got a super comfy couch.”

So yeah, Kate doesn’t talk to America talk to America that night, but she does secure herself a days-long sleepover party during which that conversation can take place, if she ever figures out what she actually wants to say.

That night, ‘what she says’ mostly consists of, “living room’s that way, spare towels in the hall cupboard if you want,” but hey, they can’t all be winners.

America’s eyes on Kate as she dresses for the world-didn’t-end New Year's party don’t feel like all the other times they’ve gotten dressed near each other in close quarters over the past few months. They feel hot and promising and strange and Kate almost bites her tongue, and covers her slip with a little bitterness over her birthday dinner.

It’s not much of a stretch, she really is a little pissed and, buried deeper, probably a little hurt—she’s entirely certain, after that meal, of what she’s only suspected up until that point: that her father hadn’t even noticed she’d been gone, all those months of avoiding the city after coming back from L.A.

They’re the furthest things from close, as a family, but there’s not getting along and then there’s not noticing a months-long absence, and Kate is startled to realize she might actually prefer the former.

But that doesn’t matter, that isn’t the point, that isn’t important. What is important is America’s nervous voice when she tells Kate that she is trying to be kind. Kate teases back, but she feels lit up from the inside, she feels invincible, she feels like she is making her way through cracks and crannies, sending tendrils of understanding like roots sinking down below America Chavez’s surface. She feels like it’s possible that she might some day actually know this girl, and there’s no rush like it. She follows America through a star-shaped hole in the universe, and she feels like her veins are on fire.

The feeling lasts just long enough for her to catch a glance of Noh-Varr before he disappears into the DJ booth, and that just figures, he’s only at the party because Kate invited him, but not only does he show up before her, but by the time she gets there, he’s already made himself an integral part of the whole experience.

While Kate is glaring, America slips away, which is also something Kate should have been expecting, but is maybe for the best, since the rush of invincibility has passed completely enough that she’s probably not about to make a move, or kiss America at midnight, or any of the other ridiculous things that had been flitting through the back of her mind in the preceding moments.

She’s still got time, though—America said she’d stick around long enough to help them get Tommy back, and he’s still definitely gone. Kate feels guilty and awful for seeing a silver lining in Tommy’s still being missing, and she knows that if anything serious has happened to him while she’s thinking like this, she’ll probably never forgive herself, but she can’t help reality.

She also can't help Tommy right now, and she can’t find Billy and Teddy and she can’t help wanting to avoid Noh-Varr for as long as she possibly can, and when he finds her anyway, she can’t find it in her heart to be kind, or to do anything, really, besides walk away from him as fast as she can manage.

She really can’t think what she would say to America if she could track her down again.

Really, Kate thinks, logically, the only thing left for her to do is dance.

And she’s going to dance, going to move and let herself go a little, let her body stretch and hold ungraceful positions, let herself sway a little too wildly, she may not dance well, but certainly has fun, and it feels totally appropriate, in that moment, as she’s moving towards the dance floor, that Tommy Shepherd grabs her by the wrist and leans close and kisses to corner of her mouth, spins her like Billy chose watch Singing In The Rain when it was his turn on movie night way more often than is, say, medically advisable, which he did, and this is Tommy, her favorite living-room-floor dance partner, he’s back, and Kate realizes she hasn't even been noticing how worried she must have been, not up until now when he's back and she can breathe again.

“It’s New Year’s, apparently!” Tommy chirps, and it sounds like he doesn’t know what’s going on any more than Kate does, but he sounds pleased about it, and it’s so perfectly like him that Kate finds herself glad, too.

Kate laughs, leans in to Tommy, steps on his foot by accident and hugs him on purpose, and catches America Chavez’s steady gaze from across the room over Tommy’s shoulder.

America says she’s seen the way Kate looks at her, and Kate starts with surprise, not because it isn't true or because she hasn’t noticed herself, but because she hadn’t thought America would have noticed.

She’s too adrenaline-drunk and exhausted from dancing, feet smarting with blisters at movements that have become unfamiliar, so she doesn’t quite get it together to figure out a way to react right—if she was thinking more clearly, she would push back, try to get America to admit her own warm, searching looks in Kate’s direction.

Instead, she just smiles and revels in the fact that she’s apparently part of the queerest superhero team of all time, that she can feel her blood pumping in her veins, and that they’re only a hop, skip, and an over-to-the-left-one-universe jump away from Kate’s favorite breakfast in the whole wide multiverse.