Vision came slowly to full awareness from his scheduled downtime. He did not need time to adjust to his surroundings, he did not need to stretch or yawn, or lament a lack of sleep like his human team mates often did in his company. While it was true he spent much of his 'downtime' online, his participation on social networks was half-hearted at best, his reactions not yet human enough to pass unnoticed even in a virtual environment.
He stood and scanned the room. A single chair was the only furniture, and besides himself, there was just one other item took up space. He settled his gaze on the aquarium against the wall in front of him. The tank, small and self-contained - was it anything less than a prison? A single silver fish watched him in return, hovering in the water, its eyes bright and fixed on the small container of food in his hand. Carefully, he measured out an amount and sprinkled it over the surface.
"Good morning," he said, smiling. The fish swam towards the food in a flurry of fins, gulping it all down before returning to a slow circuit of its world. No longer required, Vision closed the cover and left to find more talkative companions.
The halls of the Avengers' mansion were quiet as he walked to the expansive dining room; very few Avengers were up at this early hour. He glanced at the girl in uniform as she walked past, her eyes following him until he was beyond her sight. He watched her watching him via the security cameras monitoring the hallways. It was curious that she would take an interest in him.
Captain America sat at the head of the long table as he did every morning, reading a newspaper and drinking a cup of coffee as Vision walked towards him.
Steve Rogers nodded a greeting before standing. He folded the newspaper crisply, leaving it on the table. Smiling, he put a hand on Vision's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Vision, I have to miss our conversation today; I have an early meeting."
It was a highlight of Vision's day that the leader of the Avengers would spend ten minutes each morning discussing the state of the world as they played a rapid game of chess that he always won. The room felt emptier when the Captain left, as it always did. He sat down and crossed his hands in his lap.
One other Avenger eating breakfast quietly finished, lowering the cutlery with a small clink of metal against china.
"Do you have plans today, Vision?" asked the Scarlet Witch, moving to take a seat next to him. Of all of the Avengers, she treated him more as her friend, and any inquiries were always around how he was living his life, not business. He imagined it was the kind of gentle intrusion a mother might make. "Perhaps you will finally name your poor goldfish?" She smiled at him; it was a kind smile, warm and interested. "Or will you play chess with Jarvis again, as I see Steve has left you without an opponent?" she added playfully.
"I was considering joining the public library," he said. "I believe it to be an interesting place."
"You don't have to join the library to sit and watch people," she said, sipping a cup of tea. "You can do that anywhere."
While it was true that he did spend a lot of time watching people, that was not his primary interest in going to the library. He smiled, a small curve that only touched the edges of his mouth. "I might be intending to borrow a book. Perhaps one on naming a goldfish."
"A book?" she laughed, delighted, and stood to leave. "I wish you well then, my young friend," she said.
Eli reached over to his cell phone, turning the alarm off, stifling a groan. It was early, even for him, but he wanted to get in a team practice. Had to. The rest of the week was a minefield of exams and study, interspersed with his job, so if it didn't happen today, it wasn't going to happen at all. He didn't consider for a moment that the team would practice seriously without him; he was a realist.
Swinging his legs off the bed, his fingers punched out a text message that his brain only vaguely followed.
Practice. Half an hour.
It was concise, and didn't leave room for any negotiation or excuses. Plus, it gave Billy time to get his first coffee of the day, so he wouldn't be so cranky when he arrived that they all felt like killing him.
He pressed send and stumbled out of his bedroom to the family bathroom across the hall. Later, he headed to the kitchen, padding down the hallway softly, barefoot. The apartment was quiet in the pre-dawn hours. Well- quieter than usual, anyway. Eli paused when a cabinet squeaked as he closed it, and made a mental note to oil the hinges later. He poured himself a bowl of cereal, even though he couldn't quite see the box in the dark, and hoped like hell it that wasn't his sister's sugar frosted chocco bombs again.
She usually sulked for days when he ate them by accident, following him around with merciless eyes when she found the bowl of chocolate milk residue on the counter. No apology cut it when it came to her treasured cereal.
He slurped a spoonful and his mouth puckered at the overly sweet taste. "Damn," he muttered, and headed back to his room, elbowing the bedroom door shut behind him. He sighed as he picked up his phone.
There was nothing from the team. Not a single reply.
He couldn't believe it. It was unheard of, for even a single member of the team not have something else to do, or someplace else to be... He finished the cereal thoughtfully, nudging the space bar on his computer, and waited for it to wake up.
Maybe there was email.
A solitary buzz came from his phone and he raised it to eye level.
Who is this?
Finally, something. The message was from Jonas. Eli tapped the keypad, replying swiftly, irritated.
Ha-ha. Very funny, Jonas. Amnesia doesn't count as a valid excuse!
Jonas didn't respond a second time. Eli tossed the phone on the bed, and paced back and forth a couple times before making an agitated noise. "Damn it," he said out loud, then realized just exactly how loud he had been, and paused to listen. No other doors in the apartment opened. He breathed a sigh of relief. No one had heard him. He pulled open his closet and searched for the bag at the back. It wasn't there. Great. It was going to be one of those days. He must have left it at the warehouse after the last practice session.
Grumbling, he ducked down to look under the bed, pulling out the gym bag he'd kicked there after school the day before. A hoodie and sweatpants were going to have to see him through until he could find his uniform. He shoved the phone into a pocket with his keys and left a note on the counter for his grandparents, slipping out onto the pre-dawn streets, and heading for the train at a slow jog.
The platform was sparsely populated as he waited, the only occupants being the unlucky bastards who had to go into work early, or the even unluckier ones who were coming home late. He put his ear buds in and tried to find the playlist that Kate had made for him. It wasn't so much the music that was in it but that Kate had taken time out of her hectic life to make it, for him. Of course, because the day was determined to suck, the playlist wasn't there. Great. "I know I put that on there." He scrolled through the menu. "Screw you, iTunes," he muttered, pressing the home button with a little more force than was strictly necessary. He chose a different playlist, scowling, and turned the volume up for the journey into the city.
The warehouse was quiet as he jogged towards it, and no lights were on. He pulled the keys from his pocket, noticing for the first time that the key card was missing. So was the reader now that he looked for it. He tried the door but, of course, it was firmly locked. He pulled on it once more with more force than was strictly necessary before turning away.
He pulled his phone out and dialed Kate's number, but received a dial tone and a cool female voice telling him that the number wasn't in service. Okay, that was definitely weird. He scrolled through his contacts. "Must've transposed some of…"
Kate wasn't listed. He searched for Teddy. No listing. Billy, same. Cassie, Jonas, Tommy.
He shivered, chilled. They were all missing from his contacts list. Now the lack of response to his first message made sense.
Frowning, he looked around, half-expecting one of the others to turn up and tell him this was all some sort of elaborate prank— it had the stink of Tommy all over it— but he was still alone. Eli sighed and turned, ready to leave when he saw the lights of a coffee shop down the street. It was a place they frequented; between Billy's caffeine addiction and Tommy's constant need to refuel, they practically lived at the place between practice sessions.
The waitress was new, handing him a worn menu and pulling a pencil from behind her ear. She might've said something but he didn't hear her, his thoughts dominating his attention. He ordered a coffee, although it was due more to routine than conscious choice. An older waitress, one he recognized, leaned on the counter and watched them both. He smiled at her but she turned away, talking to the short order cook at the grill. Eli frowned.
He looked up when the bell above the door rang and—to his relief— saw a familiar face. Cassie was in her prep school uniform, a school bag slung over one shoulder. Both waitresses glanced over at her and she ducked her head, walking over to sit opposite Eli.
"Is it just me?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No." Cassie looked over at him. "Are we dead?" She wore a small, sad smile on her face. He wondered if perhaps she'd already convinced herself. "Sure feels like some sort of afterlife."
Afterlife? "Normally I'd say no but it's been kind of a bad morning so I'm leaving my options open." He stirred the coffee relentlessly. He didn't really like it; it was too bitter, too addictive, but he needed a wake up of some sort. He dumped another spoonful of sugar in it, resuming the stirring.
The diner shuddered just once, a sudden jolt, and condiments fell off the counter and clattered onto the floor. They grabbed the table but it was over before it began. Outside, a car alarm wailed.
"I don't think we're dead," he reiterated, to reassure her. "Do you have Kate's number? I, uh, I seem to have… misplaced it."
Cassie glanced at him, suppressing a grin. "Yeah, right."
"Can you just do it, Cassie?" He didn't mean to sound sharp but it slipped into his tone.
She huffed, but took her phone out and fiddled with it, going through the contacts. Her brow furrowed and she frowned, confusion clouding her expression. "No. She's not… That's weird."
"Try looking for me, or Billy." He managed to say it calmly. Now that Cassie was here, he felt a little better than he had five minutes earlier. Someone to share his dilemma lightened the burden a bit, if not the confusion.
"Try calling Jonas."
She put the phone down on the table, and signaled a waitress, ordering a chocolate milkshake. Eli drummed his fingers on the table impatiently. She sighed. "I need to tell you something, but you have to promise you won't freak first."
He gave her his best approximation of Calm Eli Face. "Sure. I promise. Go ahead."
"Jonas was at the mansion." She wasn't looking at him. "So was my Dad. I woke up there. In my old room. We had breakfast together and he wanted to walk me to school but Captain America called a meeting early." She stopped talking when she noticed Eli's fingers had stopped drumming.
It took a minute to sink in, but when it did, he definitely wanted to break that promise. 'Shit,' he thought, and yeah, he was freaking out. He managed to keep his calm expression cemented to his face, though, so with any luck she didn't suspect. "Really?" he said. "Did you see any of the others?"
The milkshake arrived and she took a few sips. He noticed her hand was shaking, barely noticeable, fine tremors against the surface of the glass. "No. No one else." She paused for a moment, hesitating. "About Jonas... He didn't recognize me. I mean… well, he did, but… he didn't know me, like I know you and you know me." She stopped, not quite sure what she was saying made any sense if the look on her face was anything to judge by.
He showed her the text from Jonas. "Explains this, then."
"There's something else." She picked up her phone and spent a few seconds searching for something before moving around the table to sit next to him. She glanced at the waitresses who were busy now that more people were coming in, the bell jingling frequently as each customer entered. A line of people sat at the counter, eating, reading, talking. She turned to look at him briefly then angled the phone so only he could see the screen.
"Can I?" he indicated his headphones and when she nodded, he plugged it in to her phone. It was a video, the quality poor but good enough to recognize the figure standing at the front. Captain America, introducing… the Young Avengers? Brow furrowing, he maneuvered the phone closer, Cassie's grip on it too tight to take it from her completely. There, on the small screen, was Jonas, standing at the end of a line of costumed teenage heroes. "They're familiar," he murmured, a surge of anger and indignation bubbling in his chest. "This is so messed up!"
"Yeah, no kidding." Cassie looked uneasy. "Hey, I need to get to school or Dad will ground me," she said, picking up her school bag. She left enough money to cover both their drinks despite his protests. "And so do you."
He looked at the time. "Damn! Yeah. We'll need to talk again, though. Soon." He gave her his number and was struck by a sense of déjà vu. He'd given it to her years ago, same phone, same number. The tiny screen was cracked in one corner and the glass was heavily scratched, the casing dented, but it worked and that was really all that mattered. "Have you heard from Kate at all? Is there a chance she changed her phone again?" he asked casually. Kate was the worst for changing her number. She seemed to upgrade her phone every other week. Possibly because she damaged them that often. Regardless, Cass and Kate were in touch all the time. Girls' club or something, he figured.
"No, nothing today." She sent him a message and they looked at each other, relieved when his phone pipped its arrival. "It's working."
"Good. I'm going to try to find Kate and Teddy. Can you look for Billy and Tommy?" Eli thought of something as he stood up. "Cassie, have you tried to use your powers?" He'd ignored the pull of muscles in his legs when he'd been running earlier, the now unfamiliar feeling of physical exertion. He hadn't felt it since the blood transfusion.
"No. Should I be worried?" She bit her lip, anxious. "I'll try later, when I have a minute to myself. I'll work on the other thing too. Maybe Dad can show me the best way to find them." She smiled for a moment before resurrected grief turned the corners of her mouth back down. "While this lasts. It… it won't last, will it?"
"No." Blunt, but truthful. It came off heartless. With any luck it would be the truth, anyway. He nodded at his phone. "I don't think it will, Cass. Let me know either way. Especially if your powers work."
"I will. Good luck." She waved and disappeared out the door.
"You too," he replied, but she was already gone. Eli stifled a sudden wave of loneliness. He might bitch and cajole and chase the team into action but they were like an extension of himself when it came down to it, and he was feeling a little cut-off. It was like missing a limb.
The rest of his day was a blur, hurrying home to get ready then straight to school and then from school straight to the library to start his shift.
He didn't have much time to think until he was done for the day and he sat down at one of the research computers, breathing evenly. He looked around to make sure no one was watching and opened a search, a sinking feeling in his gut. It had been building all day. If they weren't the Young Avengers… then what had happened at the wedding?
"Don't bother to thank me or anything," she said, glancing at him, unruffled as she held the gun to the thug who had been holding her hostage only seconds earlier. She'd reversed the situation easily, and with enviable style, all done while wearing a long dress and heels.
Instead of feeling impressed by the way she handled herself, he was blinded by anger. The rescue was going to hell fast, and now he was being shown up by the bridesmaid. "For what? I didn't need a rescue!" he said furiously, "Especially not from a-"
"You will if you finish that sentence." The tone was mild but the threat it implied was anything but.
Eli started with a simple newspaper search, maybe too simple. The name of Kate's sister and "wedding", and hit enter. He leaned back in the chair, drumming his fingers as he waited for the search to finish compiling results.
Too late, he wished he hadn't when images began to fill the screen. There were some from before the ceremony where they looked happy; Kate and her wry smile, in the hated bridesmaid dress that looked so good on her. Guests, family, celebrities.
And then… Armed robbers. Cops. Body bags. He clicked open a video of a news report from the night, a reporter on the scene talking to detectives.
"Oh no," he said, a little too loudly.
The librarian looked over at him, expression stern but her eyes softened when she realized it was him. "Shush, Eli," she mouthed, and he clamped his mouth shut, fighting the rising feeling of panic.
A new video revealed a brief glimpse of Kate post robbery being escorted out in a blanket, her sister's arm around her, in a mob of guests. She looked back, her face was… and her eyes. She looked painfully far from okay. But still, she was alive.
"Thank you," he breathed a prayer, and closed his eyes for a second.
Someone slid into the chair beside him. "Oh really?" said Billy teasingly, his voice low enough not to attract attention. "But I just got here and I haven't done anything yet."
Eli turned the screen towards him. "Billy, now's not the time."
"Well, she's alive, so there's something to be grateful for," reminded Billy, putting a hand on his shoulder, his eyes crinkled with concern.
Swallowing hard, Eli let that particular truth sink in a bit more. "We need to fix this. Whatever this is," said Eli, spreading his arms as if to encompass everything wrong with their situation. "And we need to do it now." He couldn't think about it. It hadn't really happened. This wasn't his world. He was sure of it; it was definitely not his world. "We need to fix this," he repeated stubbornly.
"I tried calling her hard line but no one would transfer me." Billy shrugged, uncharacteristically quiet for a moment, before he gave Eli a lopsided smile. "On the plus side, my Mom is getting therapy from my Mom."
Eli felt his mind sputter and grid to a stop when he tried to work it out. It'd already been a long day without Billy being all enigmatic. Eli shook his head and mumbled, "What? What does that even…?"
Billy put a hand out but it didn't quite connect. "C'mon, the others are waiting." He led Eli outside where Teddy was leaning against one of the library's resident lions. Cassie was sitting on the steps near him, moping.
Holding his phone out expectantly, Eli growled, "Numbers, now. I don't like us being out of touch, makes us vulnerable."
"And Eli cranky," quipped Billy, complying.
Vulnerable. Like Kate had been. He couldn't blame himself, or any of them, really- the wedding had been a while ago. They couldn't change anything now. "We need to figure out what's going on so we fix it," he said.
Teddy stretched and took Eli's phone when Billy handed it to him. "I freaked. My Mom thought I was delirious." Head down, he smiled softly. "I… I should be more freaked, I think, but I'm enjoying her bossing me around too much."
With a start, Eli looked at his friend. "Did you say Mom? As in, alive? Like Cassie's Dad?"
"Yeah, my Mom is still alive here," said Teddy softly, almost as if testing the words, and smiling. "We didn't come out…" He glanced at Billy who was sniggering softly. "Shut up," he said good-naturedly, pushing him away. "As a team." More sniggering, stilled by Eli's elbow in Billy's ribs. "The Super Skrull never found me, so he never found Mom." He shrugged his way out of the rest of the story. They all knew it, witnessed it, too raw even now after so many other tragedies. "Where's Tommy? And Kate?"
"Kate's gone to ground, something happened at the wedding." Eli let it sink in. "Tommy's still missing?"
Cassie looked up at them. "He's in that facility we found him in the first time. We never rescued him." She groaned. "And I have to figure out an excuse to give my Dad, about why I wanted him to show me how to find a kid named Tommy Shepherd. He thinks I need to have a talk with Mom about boys." Cassie made a face, nose wrinkling in displeasure. "Someone? Anyone?" When no one replied, she huffed. "You guys are useless. Kate was the best at this parental excuses thing."
They all fell silent for a few minutes, reminded once more that Kate was not with them.
Billy raised his hand. "Guilt, I can help with. Excuses? Not so much. I'm really bad at lying. No poker face."
"Very bad poker face," said Teddy as he put an arm around his boyfriend. "By the way, do we have to come out accidentally to your parents again? And mine, for that matter." He swallowed so hard it was audible, squeezing back visible tears he'd already shed a few hundred times. The idea that he still had a mom was one he hadn't quite come to terms with, apparently. "That was a conversation I didn't think I was having with my Mom, like ever." Billy whispered something and Ted nodded, leaning into him.
Eli felt it growing, a sense of unease, anger at the way things were going in this conversation. "The first thing we do…" he began, growling, "Is split into two teams. One to break Tommy out of Juvie immediately." He looked at each of them, not quite glaring but definitely intimidating. "The other to find Kate. Billy, you're our Wolverine, both teams will need you. Then we reclaim our robot and fix this fucked up world."
"Language," muttered Cassie darkly. "Jonas is going to be a problem. He's attached at the hip to that other team. I already tried to talk to him but it was weird. He was weird. Not our Jonas." Not my Jonas was left unsaid, but they all heard it anyway. A small pout was forming on her face.
"Other team?" prompted Billy with polite interest, and some obvious apprehension.
"The other Young Avengers." Cassie made a face.
Eli was once again reminded that she was the youngest member of the team. While most of the time she was mature beyond her years, faced with all of this in less than a day… Well. Even he was shaky.
"This sucks!" She leaned sideways and banged her head against the statue. "Sucks, sucks, sucks."
Teddy reached down to stop Cassie. "Quit that," he said gently, putting his hand on her head and holding it still. "We'll work something out. I've got someone to lose again too, don't forget."
"New question," said Eli. "Has anyone used their powers since they realized we weren't in Kansas anymore?" He was really hoping things weren't taking a backwards step.
"Of course!" said Billy. "I tried." His tone didn't sound promising. "But I'm going to have to do some intensive retraining based on initial results." He didn't expand on that but Eli took it to mean he'd turned something inside out or zapped one of his younger brothers by accident.
"Teddy?" Eli looked at the blond in question.
"Half-Skrull, half-Kree doesn't go away overnight. Still shape shifting." He looked uncomfortable for a second. "My Mom suspects, though. I might have to distract her with something unexpected. I figure introducing her to my boyfriend oughta do it." He smirked. Billy looked like a deer caught in headlights.
"Wait, this is how you tell me, her… I haven't even come out to my own parents again, and this is how you want to do things?" He sounded edgy, nervous energy spilling over into a growly tone. He paced for a second then rounded on Teddy. "The first time around was a happy accident. We have a chance to do this by design, do it properly and you want to waste the opportunity as an excuse to get your Mom off your back because, oh no, she might suspect you're half Skrull?"
"Hey, I thought you'd be all for it." Teddy looked surprised, then confused, followed closely by slight irritation, chased up by a healthy dose of guilt. "It wasn't a problem last time. I didn't get to do this with my Mom at all." He choked back a sniffle that promised a larger outpouring of emotion if he didn't get the correct response. Emotional manipulator he was not but he had Billy's number and wasn't afraid to use guilt against his boyfriend who, quite frankly, should've been immune to it by now.
"Let me just…" Billy made a helpless gesture. "I need a minute to think." He pinched the skin between his eyebrows and closed his eyes. "IcandothisIcandothis…"
"We're doing this here? Now?" said Eli, glaring from one to the other. "Seriously?" They wilted under the intensity of his disapproval.
"There." Jonas' voice. In front of them. Then in a lower tone, tinged with confusion, "Cassandra?"
"Oh crap!" Cassie shrank out of sight. Eli lost her and spun around to face their team-mate.
Jonas wasn't alone. The other Young Avengers stood with him. Civilians began to move widely away from both groups. Cassie reappeared on Eli's shoulder, her fingers wrapped around his earring.
"Language," he murmured at her and she threw him a quick grin. "Time to figure out if the rest of us have powers or not." He hoped like hell he still had powers. He looked back at Billy, eyes narrowed. "Any time would be good," he said.
"I told you," said Billy. "They're not work-"
"And I heard you the first time. Try anyway." He needed a shield; his fingers itched for it, for the fight. He needed to get something out of his system, and he needed it badly.
"Where?" Billy again.
Good point. All their usual retreats were out of action. "Outside the warehouse." He heard the chant start behind him, the soft repetitions of a spell being woven.
Eli blocked it out. He raised his hand, open palm out, peacefully. "Look, this is just a big mistake."
"You tried to contact me," said Jonas. "No one knows how to contact me except my friends." He looked at them then back at Eli like he'd bitten a big robotic bug. "Team mates," he corrected.
"Well," Eli choked on the lie, unable to utter it. "Okay, yes, I did send you a message but it was a mistake. Wrong number. You understand wrong numbers, right?" He backed up the steps towards Billy, who had his head down in concentration. He was speaking so fast it was a blur of words, each sound barely recognizable from the next. Teddy stood beside him, subtly bulking up.
"This is so weird," muttered Teddy. "Those guys are pretending to be us- pretending to be the Young Avengers." His voice was getting deeper, Eli realized, and he risked a look back. Teddy was beginning to change shape.
"Ready for what?" asked the leader of the other group, a boy his age in a uniform of black and silver. He was looking between Eli and Jonas, eyes narrowed. "Vision, what's the story? Why are we even here? It's just a bunch of kids at the library."
"Can I hit something yet? You pulled me out of classes for this?" asked the blonde in the bikini. "Although that guy looks like he can take a hit." She was looking beyond Eli at Teddy, ignoring him completely; it pissed him off to be disregarded so casually.
"Billy?" he asked, tightly. "It's now or never."
A gasp punctuated the last sentence and the steps of the library disappeared in a flash of light and the grimy alley adjacent to the warehouse appeared. Only they were a few feet in the air. They fell the short distance to the ground.
Eli righted himself quickly, taking in his surroundings and turning to Billy. "Again! We need to get Tommy this time."
Car alarms in the alley were blaring around them and Billy covered his ears. "I don't think you quite grasp how hard this is?" said Billy, staggering a little. "I'm working from basically the beginning, it's like stretching muscles I've never even used before. They're resisting." He put a hand to his mouth and made a stifled moan before unloading what was probably his lunch all over the sidewalk. "Sorry," he mumbled. Teddy was holding him up, making gagging noises as he resisted the urge to sympathy puke. He'd already shifted back to his human form, dropping the green skin and bulk. "Need to rest a bit," added Billy.
Eli sighed. "How long is a bit?"
"A while?" offered Billy, apologetically. "A time. A few minutes at least."
"Would food help?" asked Cassie, growing back to her normal size. She pointed at the diner she'd been in earlier with Eli.
Billy's stomach rumbled loudly, and not in a good way. "Maybe a coffee- sweet, really, really sweet, and strong as they can make it." He leaned back against the wall and held his head. "Not the head too? Can I get no mercy today?!"
Eli walked ahead of them over to the diner, hands in his pockets. He glanced back at Cassie. "That didn't go so well. I see what you meant about Jonas." He was disturbed by it, the utter lack of everything that made Jonas… well, Jonas. The spark, the curiosity, the life behind his eyes.
"I'm going to work on it," said Cassie. "I know how he ticks in any universe."
"I couldn't help but notice your powers were working just fine there." He sat next to the window, Teddy and Billy slouched opposite, the latter moaning softly and rubbing his temples.
"Shrinking, anyway. I'll use the bathroom, try growing larger." She disappeared into the back of the diner while he ordered them all something to eat and drink, and more to take away for Tommy. Cassie was gone maybe five minutes, and she returned looking mostly triumphant, if not a little frustrated. "It worked, getting bigger," she said softly, so no one could overhear. "But it was like Billy said, like muscles that haven't been used much. It took a little time to get the process started. Shrinking was much easier."
Billy pointed and clicked his tongue. "Kid of Ant-Man."
"But it works?" asked Eli. He needed a plan. Everything was out of control.
She nodded. "I should head back. I'm going to be in so much trouble."
"I don't know, Cass, it didn't look like anyone other than Jonas recognized you." Shouldn't the rest of them have recognized her? "Do they live at the Mansion too?"
Cassie shook her head. "No, only Jonas. The others keep their lives pretty private from what I've seen, which isn't much admittedly. I should be able to talk to Jonas alone."
"You sure you want to go back so soon?" Billy picked up his coffee with a shaky hand. Teddy put a hand around his, making sure he didn't spill any of it. "Thanks," said Billy, glancing at him with a grateful smile before looking to Eli. "Maybe a bit is going to be a little longer than a while or a few minutes. I'm thinking at my current rate of recovery, an hour, at least."
"Okay, regroup time. Billy teleporting us is out so we're going to have to pool our resources and get there a different way. Suggestions?"
"I can fly one of us?" said Teddy. "Maybe if I increased my mass, two."
"That's not enough. Next?" barked Eli. The waitresses looked over at them then went back to their conversation behind the counter.
"Taxi?" mumbled Billy.
"Kate was the one who paid for the taxis, remember? Next?" barked Eli again.
Cassie put her hand in the air. "I could borrow a Quinjet?"
"Don't even... We're not trying to come off as criminals here, Cassie. That'll bring the worst kind of attention down on us." Avengers. Lots of them. Avengers who didn't know them, and wouldn't believe their messed up story any more than any other sane person else would.
Teddy nibbled on a pastry. "Why don't we go see if Kate's home? I want to know she's okay. Billy told me about the thing at the wedding." He paused. "And, uh, I'm not sure that splitting up is such a good idea either; we're down three and a half bodies, I'm thinking it might be better to stick together when we go after Tommy."
"Half?" asked Eli, eyes narrowing defensively. He still needed to test his own powers properly. Maybe Teddy had noticed that he hadn't tried using them yet.
"Billy blows chunks every time he teleports us. That's gotta count as half."
"Hey, I resent that," said Billy weakly, his voice muffled by the tabletop as he rested his head on it. "I feel a second wind coming on. A brownie might help it along faster though. And another coffee. Maybe a Red Bull."
Eli made a face, grimacing. "Okay, new plan. Teddy- brownie, Red Bull and coffee for Billy. Force feed him if you have to, stat. I'll be back." He stood up, stretching, and walked around the counter towards the bathroom, slipping past the kitchen and out into the alley beside the diner. Laying his hand flat against the dumpster, he closed his eyes, leaning forward. "Let this work," he whispered, pulling his fist back.
Later, when Eli sat back at their table, staring at his bloodied knuckles, he found he couldn't stop rubbing them in defeat. Teddy kept glancing between Eli and the blood. "Is everything okay?"
"Nothing is okay. Nothing about any of this is okay," he snapped, pushing his hands into his pockets. "Billy, wake up, it's time!" He slapped his hand down on the table, and a soft snort and bleary "Wuh?" signaled Billy rejoining them. "We've got to go, we've been here too long."
They walked back to the warehouse and Billy began chanting softly. It took longer- not much, but noticeably longer- and after the familiar flash of energy that accompanied each jump, the scene changed to New Jersey. The facility loomed in the distance.
The fall was a few feet higher and straight into shockingly cold sea water. They managed to swim to shore, Eli swearing the entire time with a tiny Cassie clinging to his back, Teddy half-dragging Billy behind him.
"I don't like this," muttered Billy, coughing and spluttering. His stomach gurgled audibly and he groaned, noticing everyone watching him closely, "I'm okay, but this is so weird, I'm sure that this never used to happen when I was learning to teleport first time around. The puking is new. The not quite being on ground level is very new."
Eli didn't remember it either. Their powers weren't working quite right; it was another item on a list that kept getting longer, one that he was really worrying about. "Don't stress about it, Billy, just rest. The next part of the plan is up to-"
Cassie's phone beeped, interrupting his train of thought. She looked at it, stiffening up. "Dad," she said, biting her lip, replying quickly. "I'm late. He's probably worried. I told him I was with friends at the library."
Well, damn. "Let's just focus on the plan." Was anything going to go smoothly today?
"What plan?" said Billy. "Get in and break Tommy out is not a plan, it's a disaster waiting to happen." He scowled at Eli. "We do it like we did the first time is also not a plan."
"I know, alright? I know we don't have Vision with us. We're just going to have to make do." Eli felt like he was losing it. They all were. And no one had asked him what they were doing after they had rescued Tommy and found Kate, how they were intending to fix… everything.
Teddy coughed, interrupting them. "I have an idea, if anyone's interested."
"I… I don't know," said Eli, when Teddy finished explaining the finer points of his plan. "It's a good plan, if she goes along with it. Can you convince her?"
"But Tommy is right there…" said Billy furiously, pointing at the distant building. "We're here, he's there, it's wrong not to at least try."
It did feel wrong to be so close to Tommy and teleport away again. "He'll never know," said Eli, crossing his arms. "And they'll increase security or worse, move him, if we try now with the limited resources we have. Teddy's plan is good, we're going with that."
"We'll know," said Billy bitterly. "I wish Kate-"
"Maybe we should..." began Cassie, at the same time.
"This is not a committee decision. Kate's not here so that means I'm the team leader. We do what I say we do and you follow my orders." He must've affected that look, the particular expression that the others seemed to shy away from. The crunchy, I-know-I'm-right-and-you're-wrong face. He could see it reflected in Billy's obstinate response.
"I am not a committee!" the witch bellowed unexpectedly, arms flailing angrily. Grinning, Teddy picked him up around the waist and carried him a few feet away, setting him down and standing between Billy and Eli, looking from one to the other.
"Bill, c'mon, we need her on this. We can't do it alone, we'll end up in there with Tommy if we rush it. It'll be the Cube all over again," said Teddy as he pulled his reluctant boyfriend into his arms, kissing the top of his head.
Eli caught Teddy's eye, pointing at his wristwatch.
Teddy whispered something more to Billy that Eli didn't catch.
"Alright," mumbled Billy into Teddy's chest. "Alright alright, alright, already. …IwantustogotoTeddy'sapartmentIwantustogotoTeddy'sapartment…"
The leader of the Young Avengers looked around. There was nothing special that he could see about the area. Warehouses, a diner squeezed in between them, workers going home for the day or arriving for late shifts. "Why would they come here?" he asked no one in particular. "There's nothing here…"
"I have checked the city records and none of these buildings are owned by any person or corporation of note, Marvel Boy. There are no unusual architectural features nor does the area boast a particular gang or other criminal affiliation." Vision studied the diner. There was something about it… something familiar. He ran an internal scan and found no previous visits to the area, yet he could not shake the sensation of déjà vu.
"Alright, let's regroup back at the mansion," said Marvel Boy. "These guys are going to pop up on the grid again."
Speedball put his hand up, tilting his head. "I got a question?" The team turned to look at him.
Torpedo groaned, "What now, Robbie? I swear, if it's food again…"
"I agree with Mickey. Speedball, we can't stop for pizza on the way back," said Namorita at the same time. "Or burgers, or Thai, Chinese, Sushi, Turkish, hotdogs…" she rattled off a list before grinning at him.
"Hhhhaaaa, so funny! That's not it, although now you mention it, I am hungry... You saw those guys, I gotta ask - why haven't we got a teleporter? If a bargain basement team of kids running around in their school uniforms and civvies can have a teleporter…" He shrugged. "Just saying, it's not right."
"Blah blah blah food and then suddenly one time he actually makes good sense. Oh hey, Viz, did you get some footage to match to the Avengers database? It'd be good to know if those guys have been logged before now." Namorita studied him for a second when he didn't reply immediately. "You alright?"
"I am fine, Namorita. I can confirm that there are no matches in the Avengers database to the facial identities of the three male individuals I did get scans of at the library. The young woman shrank out of sight before I could get a clear image." Why was he withholding crucial information? Vision had recognized Cassandra Lang instantly, before she had had the chance to shrink. That too had been an interesting development; it was not in any Avengers file that she had the same abilities as her father, although it was not outside the realms of possibility for the daughter of Ant-Man. He also did not understand why he was the only member of the team to have noticed her presence, they all walked past her in the hallways of the Avengers Mansion several times a day and sat at the same table for dinner some nights.
More interesting to him was his choice to omit telling his team mates of her identity. That could be construed as a lie. He never lied, it was inconceivable and at odds with his programming.
He checked her file, the only match in the database. It triggered a link unique to his personal memory and he followed it back to the first Vision's original files, now safely compiled deep within his own databases. Young Avengers Protocols? Curious. How had he never seen this before? The files opened and overcome with the flood of data and images that streamed from the file he stumbled sideways, bumping into Firestar. She put her hands out to steady him and his system fluttered unhappily at the proximity to her microwave energy.
"Are you sure you're alright, Vision?" she asked, concerned.
"I am fine," he said softly, then recovered, straightening and stepping away until the flutter settled. "Perhaps if we ask the staff at the diner, they might remember something?" he added.
Marvel Boy looked at the diner, then back at Vision. "I guess it couldn't hurt."
"Curly fries!" crowed Speedball victoriously.
There was improvement, Eli noted. It took Billy less time to recover enough to teleport, their feet were on the ground and he didn't throw up immediately following their arrival, although he did turn a startling shade of grey before he fell on his butt, refusing to move any further.
Teddy's mother took it in stride, pulling a weapon from who knows where and pointing it at them when they appeared in her living room. "Theodore," she said, warningly. "I think you have some explaining to do."
Eli smirked as Teddy put his hands up, scowling, "Mom, I know this looks bad… but really, Theodore?"
"Put your hands down, silly boy," she muttered, signaling him to move to her side.
"So the gun doesn't worry anyone else at all?" said Billy feebly. He had pulled his knees up and was resting his head on them, watching from under his bangs. "I reeeeally don't want to be accidentally vaporized here."
"Me either," said Cassie, from Eli's shoulder. She'd shrunk down when the gun came out.
"Mom!" said Teddy, hotly.
She lowered the weapon. "Talk, Theodore."
"God, Mom, I don't even know where to start…" He looked at Eli and Cassie, then Billy. "Mom, this is Billy… Um, h-he's my boyfriend."
The gun hit the floor with a thump. "Boyfriend," she repeated. "Boyfriend." She looked thoughtful. "Okay," she said, and went into a meditative trance, chanting something under her breath that sounded vaguely like, "ThankGodhesnotpregnant…" though Teddy was pretending not to hear that if the blush that encompassed his entire body was anything to go by.
Eli groaned. "Really, Teddy? Really? Now? You're coming out to your Mom now? You felt this was the best time to do it?" He flopped onto the nearest chair. "Fine. Go ahead, it's not as if we have any other pressing emergencies to deal with."
"Shut up, Eli," muttered Billy, pulling himself to his feet using Teddy's hand. "Say what you need to, Ted." He leaned against him, more out of a need for support than as an affectionate gesture. "Hey, Mrs. Altman. I'm Billy." He offered a hand then changed his mind and waved at her instead. "Billy Kaplan."
She blinked. "Well," she replied, smiling gently. "Billy. It's lovely to meet you." She looked at Teddy. "Teddy, let's talk…" She sighed. "In the kitchen."
Jumping down from Eli's shoulder, Cassie returned to her normal size and sat on the sofa next to him. "Do you think he's in trouble?" she asked, eyes wide.
"About as much trouble as you're in," said Eli, pushing the heels of his palms into his eyes. A headache was blossoming like a band of steel around his skull.
Billy's eyebrow arched. "Does someone need a nap?"
"Did you let your Dad know you were okay?" Eli ignored him, glancing at Cassie. She shook her head.
"I didn't know what to say to him. I'm still with friends at the library?" She frowned. "I should tell him something though, unless you want the entire Avengers team out looking for us."
He sighed. "This day just keeps getting better and better. Billy, any thoughts?"
Head back, Billy had his eyes closed. "I find playing the parental guilt card best for this situation."
Fingers blurring over the tiny keypad, Cassie wrote something and hit send. "Okay, let's see if that works."
"What did you say?" asked Billy. The voices in the kitchen were rising and falling in tone and volume.
"I might've made a Mom comparison and raised the issue of trust," she said, and promptly cringed. "I'm a horrible person, a horrible, horrible, horrible person."
"No more Disney movies for you, young lady," said Billy, grinning. "And may I say, Bravo! The student becomes the master."
The door to the kitchen opened, revealing Mrs. Altman, who stopped and looked at each of them long and hard. No one said anything; they were collectively holding their breath as they waited for her to finally speak. "So. You know everything about us… About me." It was not posed as a question, and a veiled threat bellied her level tone. "And I know nothing about you. But my son, who I love and value above all else in this universe, has said that you are people I can trust with our secrets and has made a personal request of me- to help you break this child out of prison."
"Juvenile detention," said Cassie, correcting her. She withered under the glare Teddy's Mom fired in her direction. "Sorry, just saying." She swallowed nervously. "I'll go over there now." She sidestepped until she was standing next to Eli.
"Ma'am, I know it's a hard thing to believe but Tommy is innocent…" Eli paused and added with a crooked smile, "-ish. He's not supposed to be in there." It sounded bad even to him. "He's a good guy who made a couple of bad calls."
"And yet, he is incarcerated."
"He's paying kind of a steep price for-"
Billy cut him off, "Enough, Eli, I've listened to enough of this. They're torturing my brother, what else is there to yap about? Ted, you said she'd help, is she or isn't she?"
"This one's feisty," she said with a sly grin at Teddy, who blushed bright pink again. "I think I approve."
"This one has powers too," said Billy, energy crackling around his hands as his mood became more irritable. "So. Are. We. Doing. This?" His eyes began to glow softly.
The doorbell rang before she could answer. "Any more friends you're expecting?" she asked, looking at the team. They shook their heads as one and she stooped to pick up the gun she'd dropped earlier, tucking it into a drawer beneath the phone. "Okay. Hide, I guess. Not you, Teddy." She laughed and checked the peephole. "I wonder who buzzed you in?" she said under her breath.
"Lemme look, Mom," said Teddy. "No way!" He laughed delightedly when he saw who waited on the other side. "It's okay, Mom. Let her in."
Kate Bishop stood waiting, carrying two large sports bags. "Did you miss me?" she asked with a grin. "I bring presents!" She dropped the bags and submitted to a group hug for a moment before growling, "Okay, back off, that was a one-time only deal, no more hugging."
"What's in the bag, sugar momma?" asked Billy, nudging one with his foot. "It's not my birthday yet."
"More appropriate clothing of course, or as close as I could get manufactured in a day," she said. "Can't go around in civvies when you're a superhero, people will know who you are. Oops, that cat's out of the bag, you're all on YouTube now." She pulled familiar uniforms out of the first bag and the boys began shedding their clothes. "So, what's the plan to break Tommy out? I assume he got busted back into Juvie. And where's Jonas?"
Teddy's Mom redirected Cassie to her bedroom when the girl blushed. "Boys," she reprimanded gently, tsking.
"Are you okay?" Eli asked Kate in a low whisper. "The wedding… It looked, I don't know, pretty bad. Did you get hurt?"
She gave him a level gaze. "I'm fine. I don't know about the Kate I replaced though. I don't feel as strong physically, like I stopped training and got soft." She looked down at her body. "Really soft... My wardrobe is all shades of bad news and there was this journal I found... Am I wrong in assuming we got sucked into another dimension or something equally freaky? It took me so long to find you guys. I tried all the usual haunts but I always just seemed to miss you." From the second bag, she withdrew a bow and quiver of arrows for herself and throwing stars for Eli. The last object was heavy and she pulled it out with difficulty, dumping it on the floor at his feet. "Heavy," she muttered. "Lucky you have super strength."
"Lucky," he repeated, picking it up with a grunt. "Is this…?" It was. The flag shield of Captain America. "Where did you get this? Shouldn't it be in a museum?"
"Should be, alas no. I got it off Ebay, Eli, came with expedited shipping but I sent my driver to collect it anyway." She winked. "Looks good. Clothes do make the man."
It didn't feel especially heavy so he passed it to Billy, who dropped it straight away, wrenching his upper body towards the floor. Billy scowled at him. "Very funny, Eli. If I wanted to lift weights I'd join a gym." The irritated boy stalked away to the kitchen and they heard the refrigerator open and a clatter. "Can I?" he called out loudly.
"Help yourself, Billy!" called Mrs Altman. She had returned from the bedroom, hair up in a high ponytail, wearing a close fitting black t-shirt and pants, and a set of knee high boots. Ready for action.
Billy came back shoveling something from a Tupperware bowl into his mouth, barely pausing to breathe, let alone speak. "Killer tuna salad, Mrs. Altman."
Picking up the shield, Eli noted with satisfaction that it still wasn't too heavy. "My powers are working again then." He looked up. "It's time. Billy?"
Once he'd swallowed the last mouthful of salad, Billy began to chant softly under his breath and the room disappeared into light. Mrs. Altman gasped somewhere behind Eli and he smiled, remembering his own first teleport. They arrived in New Jersey, near the prison fence but obscured by a large dented and rusting dumpster covered in graffiti. Everyone held their breath for a second as Billy froze, stomach rumbling. "Sorry, ate too fast," he said apologetically, belching.
The waitress paused at the counter. "Kids you say? Wow, we don't get too many of them in here," she said, sneering. She looked tired and low on patience. "Describe 'em."
"Three males and one female, teenagers. A Caucasian blond male, a Caucasian brunette male, an African-American male, bald, and a Caucasian blonde female," said Vision. The woman gave him a look, up and down, before seeming to dismiss him.
"Okay, might've seen them- there were a couple of kids in first thing. A blonde girl in a prep school uniform with a bald black kid."
"Only two of them?" said Marvel Boy, disappointed. "The group we're looking for has another two boys."
"Look, kid, I'm doing my best. It's been a long day. I've covered back to back shifts and cleaned the place up twice after those earthquakes. It’s worse than when the Hulk broke Queens that time. Only had to pick everything up once then." She tapped her pen on the order pad for a moment, eyes glazing over. "They came back later, I'm pretty sure it was them, with two other kids, like you described. Don't know what time, didn't see them leave. But they were over there." She pointed out a booth vaguely. "You ordering?"
"Oh, uh, no?" he said uncertainly.
"Curly fries?!" said Speedball woefully, hovering. "Anything, man, I'm starving here."
"You're always hungry!" Torpedo muttered.
"Have we all forgotten? Bundle of kinetic energy? I burn it up faster than I can replace it!" Speedball flailed his arms around. "I might pass out in the middle of a fight and who's fault will it be?!"
"I have yet to see anything scientific to support your kinetic energy replacement claim," said Marvel Boy crankily. "And I don't see how curly fries could be construed as a healthy replacement for lost energy anyway."
Vision walked away while his team-mates argued. The old Vision I files were still opening, it was a flood of information, wave after wave - so many names, too many in New York City alone. Before he realized where he was going, he found himself in the alley beside the diner. There was a dumpster opposite the door, heavily dented. One dent in particular, looked very large, like someone had tried to punch the side of the dumpster. He studied it closer. A trace amount of blood had dried on the surface. "Curious," he murmured.
"What's up, Mr. Roboto?" asked Speedball, appearing at his side. "Is that Ketchup?" His stomach grumbled and Vision assumed he had lost the battle for a meal in the diner.
"Blood," said Vision absently.
Speedball's face went from polite interest to gagging in horror. "Ick, Viz. Should you be touching that? Or licking... Ooh, too late. I think someone needs a reminder about putting unknown substances in his mouth! Anyways, Supertights said it's time to head back."
"Alright, Speedball. I believe I am finished here." The results of the DNA test were intriguing on a genetic level but matching it to any known donors returned nothing. He nodded agreement, calling up the first file. Altman, Theodore. "Oh, but first, I must make a stop on the way. I will see you back at the mansion."
It wasn't hard to find the apartment of Theodore Altman; not for him anyway, though nor was it particularly easy. They seemed to be a family that wished to live under the radar. He phased through the door after waiting a few minutes, as knocking had produced no result and he did not have time to wait.
He looked around the apartment, connecting with the various devices left behind and duplicating their contents. He paused over a photograph, picking it up and scanning the image to his memory. They looked happy - a normal single mother and her son - or so it appeared. The son had been one of the small group accompanying Cassie at the Public Library. He had seen them on the steps when, in civilian disguise, he had visiting the library himself.
A Tupperware container lay discarded on the dining table, open but empty. He ran a finger along the inside and sucked the juices of a very nice tuna salad into his mouth. For some inexplicable reason he wished that his team-mates were there, so that they could see he did not put just odd things in his mouth.
Opening and closing drawers in the main living area produced a weapon of unknown origin. He analyzed its component parts and elements, dissecting it mentally. "Ninety-eight percent probability that weapon is of Skrull origin," he murmured to himself.
This was going a lot slower than he had anticipated. He called up Vision I's files. Bradley, Elijah. He searched the Internet for images. Another hit, another match to the library. Kaplan, William. No image on file, he marked it for further investigation. Scrolling quickly through the long list and their accompanying photographs, he found, Shepherd, Thomas. Police records. He opened the sealed files and scanned. Incarcerated. A match, wait, not entirely a match, only a partial. Perhaps a twin to the last boy at the public library. Adoption?
"Worth investigating," he said to the Altman's living room.
"Anyone seen Vision?" asked Marvel Boy, swiping his ID. The door to the war room opened. "Or is he still not back yet?"
The Scarlet Witch looked over from her place in front of the large bank of monitors, she was sipping a cup of tea. "Is everything alright?" she asked, curiously.
"Fine, ma'am." Marvel Boy sat at one of the consoles and began a search. "We won't disturb you for long."
She laughed softly. "Ma'am," she repeated, amused. "I keep telling you, call me Wanda or Scarlet Witch. Can I help?"
"We're good, Wanda, thanks." Namorita gave her a thumbs up and the woman turned back to her screens. The Atlantean girl slapped Marvel Boy on the back of the head, lightly though, so she didn't take it off at the shoulders. "Suffering Shad, Supertights, stop calling her ma'am. You're gonna make her feel old!"
"Vision?" asked Marvel Boy. "Anyone?"
"Viz said he had something to do," said Speedball, nibbling on a sandwich that was clearly labeled 'Hawkeye', "and before you ask, Mom, no, he didn't say what it was, how long he'd be, where he was doing it or who he was doing it with." His eyebrows waggled salaciously.
The leader of the Young Avengers studied the screen as information came up and he discarded each result in turn. "It's not like him," he muttered. The console beeped. "There's a report coming in from New Jersey. A gang of youths and two adults wearing guard uniforms broke an inmate out of a high security juvenile detention centre. The youths were wearing costumes…" He swore, pushing the chair back. "One is described as a silver robot, looks a lot like Iron Man. Goddammit, what's he doing out there! Let's move!"
Across the room, Wanda frowned and looked at the time. She pressed a button on the comm. "Clint, you're late relieving me again. Don't make me bring you here the hard way."
Hawkeye replied hastily, "I'm comin', alright, I'm looking for my afternoon snack, Jarvis said he put it in the 'fridge."
The Kaplan residence was larger than the Altman’s modest home, accommodating an equally large family. A floor plan from city records gave him everything he needed to quietly infiltrate the apartment. Photographs lined the wall along the long hallway, the last unknown teenage boy from the library matched exactly to the boy in the photographs.
The same boy stood at the kitchen counter, making a sandwich and listening to music on his mp3 player. A white cord snaked from his ear to the back pocket of his jeans, his sock feet dancing across the slippery surface as he closed the refrigerator and put the bread away.
"Billy? Is that you?" A woman's voice resounded through the apartment, from Rebecca Kaplan's private home office.
"No, Mom, you're imagining me. I'm not really here." The boy disappeared in a burst of light.
His mother appeared a moment later, clicking her tongue in disapproval. The doorbell distracted her though and Vision phased back a further layer into the interior wall as she walked past, checking the peephole, and opened the door.
The Scarlet Witch stood in a simple but elegant crimson wool coat and black boots. "Rebecca," she said. "I hope I'm not too early."
"Not at all, Wanda. Go on through, you know the way."
As she walked past his hiding place, Wanda turned her head slightly, a tiny wrinkle forming between her eyebrows. "You shouldn't be here," she whispered, flicking her fingers at him. Beneath the oil of lilacs she wore, was the slightest odor of... mayo and mustard?
He was transported away reappearing at the Avengers Mansion, in his room. "Unexpected," he murmured, before phasing through the outer wall of the Mansion and calling up a map of New Jersey.
Behind the dumpster, Teddy and his Mom shape-changed into guards, tears springing to her eyes at the ease with which her son changed form. "I never thought I'd see you do that somehow. I don't know why, you're half-Skrull, it's only natural." She put her arm around him, hugging him close. "I can never tell you enough how proud I am of you, Teddy." She kissed his cheek.
"Ack," he mumbled, ignoring the smothered laughs from his team-mates. "Moooom."
"Ah," said Billy, coughing lightly, dismayed. "Not that I have an issue with two grown men in uniform hugging in public, kissing even, but…" He motioned at the guard tower where the reflection from a pair of binoculars flashed, someone was watching them. "Last time we did this, Mrs. Altman, it was the middle of the night and we weren't quite as exposed," he added apologetically.
A familiar red and silver form appeared, hovering conspicuously in the sky above them. "Cassandra," said Vision. "Your father is concerned about your welfare." He was alone this time. "I believe you are keeping unusual company that he would not approve of." His gaze flicked across them all, and then at the detention centre. "Very unusual." He held out his hand. "I can fly you home before the situation escalates." He looked at Billy, confused, "How is this possible?"
"Get down here, you!" Kate grabbed his boot and dragged him down out of sight. "Are you trying to blow our cover?!"
Eli began to wonder how they were all managing to remain hidden behind the dumpster at all, given the size of the dumpster versus the number of people currently using it as cover. Scientifically, it felt impossible. "How did you find us?"
"Jonas, you remembered," said Cassie, smiling.
His face twisted with confusion. "Jonas?"
Her smile disappeared, and her mouth set itself into a hard line. "I'm not leaving yet, Vision. I'm on a mission and since you're here, make yourself useful and distract that guard." She pointed at the guard tower. "Please."
"Cassandra, I cannot do that. I have been tasked with returning you to the mansion. Your father was very firm. He wants you home safe." The cool silver face tilted slightly, the glow in his eyes dimming marginally. Eli knew it for one of Vision's tells, when he wasn't quite sharing the entire truth. "Do you not wish to go home?"
"I don't think he's said anything to your Dad," he said to Cassie. "He's lying." Vision started and looked at him with what could pass as a robotic version of guilt.
"I think someone got reset," said Billy, thoughtfully. "Where do you even start trying to form a spell to reverse that?" He tapped his chin, mouthing phrases and discarding them in turn.
Teddy shrugged. "At the beginning? We doing this?" he asked Eli, who nodded sharply.
"Wait here," said Cassie to Vision, shrinking down. Teddy lifted her to sit on his shoulder. They went over the fence easily. "If you don't want to see me arrested, you'll take care of the guard."
Vision looked at Billy and Eli. "Is she always like this?" he asked. "I honestly had no idea. She always seemed so quiet and unassuming."
Billy held his hands up helplessly. Kate elbowed him. "Guard, Vision, please?" she asked.
"The guard is distracted, his cameras have systematically suffered a cascade failure. Why do I feel like I know you? All of you," asked Vision. "Feel." He appeared to be rolling the word around his circuits or what passed for them in an artificial being as advanced as he was. "Why did I just say feel?"
"This is getting old," said Eli, watching Vision have a minor epiphany and achieve a new level of consciousness of some sort in front of him. He made a face. Patience was a virtue he was forgoing today.
"You said it." Kate had a small scope to her eye, watching the building. "Did you get a load of those other Young Avengers?" she said with a grin. "I want to kick their asses so bad it hurts. We could take them, I know we could."
He grinned. "God I missed you."
"If you had hair, I'd be ruffling it right now." Her eyes flicked at him, amused. She mimicked ruffling hair on his head.
A series of explosions and alarms interrupted them and then Tommy was standing next to Kate, scowling. "Allday?Seriously,ittookyoualldaytogetmeout?" He shut up for a second when Kate handed him his uniform, chasing the grump away with a grin and kiss that may or may not have happened except for the hummingbird fast brush on the cheek. "Missed you," he mumbled, pulling his shirt over his head.
She ruffled his hair too.
Teddy and his mother came through the hole in the fence running. "Now would be a good time to go," he said, as they sprinted past the rest of the team.
"The Young Avengers, together again!" shouted Billy, grinning madly.
"Can no one fly anymore?!" bellowed Kate, panting with the effort to keep up.
"Kate's right, can we stop for five seconds and think about what we're doing?" bellowed Eli after a few minutes of sprinting down the road, away from the prison. The group froze and hit the deck. Vision lowered to the ground as Eli began pacing.
"Bradley, Elijah," he said. "Perhaps I can help if you will trust me."
"Vision, under normal circumstances, trust is exactly what I'd be giving you." Eli scowled, pointing at his old team mate. "Why'd you have to go and join another team?" He looked at Kate. "Want to weigh in here?"
She shrugged. "Can't hurt to try telling him the truth?"
"We're the Young Avengers," he said, bluntly, to Vision.
"Not how I would've gone," said Kate, rolling her eyes. "Vision, this is the thing. In our version of reality, the Young Avengers were formed by a teenage Kang. Ooo, do I want to mention Kang yet..." The rest of the team shook their heads collectively. "Um, we're the Young Avengers." Her hands opened out and encompassed all of them. His eyes widened. "Kang, actually this great guy called Nate, left you behind, his sentient armor, and, over time, you eventually became Vision, taking the name Jonas as you became self-aware, more human I guess. This morning, we woke up here…" She gestured at everything around them. "We all remember our real lives but you don't. It has us a little confused."
"I do not remember any of that as my history. I do not remember becoming self aware at all." He looked lost. "We should not remain here though," said Vision, looking to the skyline. "The other Young Avengers are on their way. I can hear their chatter on the Avengers channel. They're in a Quinjet."
"Quinjet," said Eli thoughtfully, rubbing his chin. He looked at Kate and she grinned. "Should we?"
She pretended to think about it then laughed. Tommy grinned, disappearing and reappearing. "Cops. Not far."
"It would be really bad of us to steal their Quinjet, Eli," said Billy, "we're young superheroes and role models, remember?" He licked his thumb and pretended to leaf through a book. "Superhero manual states stealing stuff is bad."
"Oh thank goodness, I thought you were going to steal a plane." Mrs. Altman looked relieved.
"We're totally taking their Quinjet, Mom," said Teddy, grinning. "By default, it's our Quinjet too. So it's not really stealing."
She gave him a long look. "It's a very fine line, Theodore…"
"You called them the Other Young Avengers," said Cassie to Vision, hopefully. "Do you remember us yet?"
"No. But I am going on trust." He smiled at her. "You tried to talk to me this morning… I am sorry, Cassie, it must have been disconcerting that I did not remember you the way that you remember me."
Clint Barton yawned, slouching in the chair, discarding a bag of potato chips labeled with Speedball's name. It circled the rim of the small waste paper basket and fell in.
"Hawkeye?" Scott Lang's voice came across the comm in a whisper. "You there?"
He brushed crumbs from his chest and sat up. "Yep, here."
"Clint, can you locate my daughter? She's carrying her cell phone, use that to pinpoint her location." Ant-Man sounded worried. "She sent me a message a while ago but nothing since. I need to know she's okay."
"Cap says we're not to use Avengers resources for personal business... but when did that ever stop me?" said Hawkeye, smirking, fingers flying over the keyboard as he initiated the search. "Tracing her position now. You'll owe me one, buddy."
"Let me know when she's safe."
"Leave it to me, I'll see she gets her butt back here pronto." The call ended as the computer pinged and Cassandra Lang's location displayed on a large map of the city and surrounding areas. "New Jersey?" muttered Hawkeye. "What the hell are you doing out there?"
A Quinjet also displayed on the map, flying in the same direction as Cassie's signal. Hawkeye rubbed his chin thoughtfully and opened a channel. "Quinjet three, where the hell are you going?"
Marvel Boy replied instantly. "Uh, Hawkeye? It's Vision. Well, him, and we're tracking a gang of super-powered teenagers that just broke an inmate out of..."
"Okay, okay, look, I need you to divert for a minute and make a pick up near your current position," said Hawkeye, interrupting him. "It's important."
A loud sigh echoed over the speakers, and then, "Sure, whatever. Send us the details."
"Yeah, and tell Speedball, him and me are going to have a little chat about boundaries when he gets back."
"Told you not to eat his sandwich." He heard Torpedo say faintly as he broke off.
Vision looked at Eli. "Can I suggest another course of action? One that will not lead to a fight, or a criminal record and incarceration?" He looked at Tommy, who was visibly vibrating on the spot. "Re-incarceration," he amended.
"Please do," said Mrs. Altman, glaring at Teddy fiercely. "Theft is out of the question, and I don't want this day leading to the Avengers or anyone else looking too closely at Teddy and I. Skrulls are not exactly welcomed the universe over. We have enemies who would dearly love to see my son dead, and even a whisper of our existence could be disastrous."
"Yeah," added Teddy. "I don't want anything to happen to my Mom!" Again. He stressed the word that wasn't spoken with a look at each of them.
Kate leaned over and whispered to Eli, "He hasn’t thought this through to the end, has he?"
Eli shook his head sadly. "Not even at all." At some point, they would have to have the same discussion about Cassie.
"I'll talk to Billy." She sighed. "Vision, what's the plan? I hope it doesn't involve more running." Any more she might've said was effectively silenced by a mouthful of hair as a Quinjet blew past and she wavered on her feet. She spat the hair back out with as much dignity as she could muster up, raising her fist at the sky. "This is war!"
"Marvel Boy is hailing me," said Vision, looking at the circling aircraft. "He's asking us to surrender peacefully."
"We haven't done anything wrong!" said Kate loudly.
Tommy coughed politely at her shoulder.
"Much. Tell them to surrender peacefully," she added, pushing him away.
"This is strange. I am getting reports across the Avengers frequencies of natural disasters around the world- unseasonable storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions…" The ground shook alarmingly before Vision could finish and he looked down. He phased into the ground, disappearing from sight.
"Where'd it go?" asked Teddy, spinning around, searching the sky for the missing Quinjet.
The sky began filling with storm clouds on the horizon and the ground continued to shake every few minutes. "This is good," said Billy, "I can try conjuring a little lightning bolt to force them down."
"There!" said Kate, pointing. The Quinjet had circled back around and was heading towards them.
"Aaaaaand zap!" Billy pointed. A sheet of lightning crashed across the clouds before a large bolt struck down at the jet. One entire engine exploded, smoke billowed from the other and lightning crackled across the frame. It wobbled in the sky like a model on a string. "Oooooh, crap," he said, biting his lip. "Didn't see that coming."
"If your plan was to make it explode, then it worked," bellowed Eli. "Find some cover!" The team dodged out of the way as the burning Quinjet hit the ground, bouncing and losing a stubby wing, that stabbed through the air above them and splashed down in the distant ocean. The wreck then traveled in a spinning skid along the road before exploding in a massive fireball.
"Guess we're not stealing the plane," said Tommy dryly.
"People are dead," growled Mrs. Altman. "Have some respect, child." She studied the storm and the shaking earth. "Your planet appears to be self-destructing. I fled my home world with Teddy under the same conditions."
"And what planet would that be?" asked Marvel Boy, his team ranged out behind him, weary, ragged and smeared equally with soot and blood. "Ow, gimme a minute here." He crouched, pinching his nose as blood dripped down his chin.
"Ohhhh, mid-level telekinetic is feeling a little mid-level," murmured Billy. Teddy nodded in agreement.
"Uh," added Teddy. "Aren't you guys dead?" He imitated their spectacular crash with his hands while Billy made sound effects. Mrs. Altman smacked his hands down gently, fixing him with a look that promised consequences.
Namorita crossed her arms. "Clearly not dead, but in Jersey so, eh..."
Flicking them an irritated glance, Eli stepped forward and offered his hand to Marvel Boy, pulling him to his feet again. "I think we're all pretty smart people here. This is getting bigger than any of us, can we agree on that?" He gestured at everything shaking and shuddering around them. Lightning hit the smoking wreckage of the Quinjet several more times quickly, and they all jumped. "Truce? We'll explain when there's not a natural emergency to deal with."
"I'm with Eli, let's forgo the compulsory superhero fight just this once?" muttered Kate, trying to keep her balance as the ground shuddered.
"I wouldn't have minded a fight," said Nita and Speed together.
"Truce then," said Marvel Boy. "We need to get back to the Avengers Mansion but we had a few problems with our ride…"
"If you count crashing and exploding as a problem," murmured Kate.
"Can you give us a lift? We saw you have a teleporter." Marvel Boy glanced at Cassie. "And don't think for a minute I didn't notice you there, Cassie Lang. Looks like you'll have some explaining to do later when you see your Dad."
Vision phased out of the earth between the two teams, "This area is geologically unstable, we must leave right now!" As if in response, the ground began to liquefy beneath their feet.
"Billy!" Eli spun to his team-mate. "Mansion, now!"
"Could've said please," muttered Billy as he lowered his head, putting out a hand that Teddy gripped tight. "IwantustogotothemansionIwantustogotothemansionIwantustogototheman…"
"Wait, I live here, what about New Jer-" Firestar began to say, just as they teleported and reappeared in the foyer of the Avengers Mansion.
It was eerily quiet, the way it always was when the team was on a mission or out living their civilian lives but occasionally the building creaked oddly and gave a little shudder.
"Are we safe here?" asked Cassie, looking around. The portraits lining the walls were hanging crookedly and the lights swayed as they made their way towards the war room. Tommy ran past her in a blur and then reappeared just as quickly.
"Allthepaintingsarewrongbuttotallystraightnow," he said, looking troubled. "Everythingfeelssoweird." He was vibrating in place. "I. Don't. Like. It," he added through gritted teeth.
"It's the end of the world," said Speedball helpfully, shrugging. "I don't much like it myself but it's not supposed to be fun and games."
Marvel Boy made a shushing noise at his team mate, and swiped his card through. The door clicked and opened barely an inch before sticking. "Walls have shifted," he grunted, forcing it open with his powers. The rooms beyond were empty, which was expected, the screens filled with natural disasters and falling cities, and a chair was overturned in front of the bank of monitors where the Scarlet Witch had been sitting earlier.
They stopped, frozen under the enormity of what they were seeing. "This is the worst thing I've ever seen," said Marvel Boy.
"I've seen worse," said Eli. Kate put a finger to her lips, silencing him.
"Not now," she mouthed.
"Yes, I've seen worse too," said Sarah Altman, sadly. "My entire world was consumed by Galactus and it looked a great deal like this."
Tommy blurred towards a station and sat down. "ScanningforGalactus." His fingers moved over the keyboard and a pop-up popped up. "God!" he yelled, then typed again, with agonizing slowness. "Okay, no Galactus, no Silver Surfer. This is not coming from space."
"I can do this faster." Vision connected himself to the network ignoring the muttered, "Unlikely!" that came from Speed's direction. Cables made from his body snaked out to each remaining station and began processing information. "Scanning…"
"What's he scanning for?" asked Firestar quietly, obviously deeply affected by the destruction of her home, state and most likely her family as well. Torpedo hugged her tightly and the girl sagged into it. Marvel Boy looked back at them.
"They said," he glanced at Eli and Kate, "that there was something wrong here, so we'll put it right. All of us. Firestar, we have to believe this can be put right, that everything will go back to normal afterwards. We need to find the Avengers..."
"The Avengers are gone. I find no sign of their presence anywhere on Earth," said Vision suddenly, interrupting Marvel Boy.
"They're not dead!" said Cassie strenuously. "They… They can't be dead."
"Cassie, I do not know. My scans are being limited in scope by an outside force and grow smaller with each sweep. It is that or..." Vision glanced at Eli. "Our world is contracting rapidly."
Eli squeezed his eyes closed, trying to concentrate beyond the noise. "What could've caused this?" he murmured. "Please, can someone turn off the sound?"
"Of course," said Vision, and the room went quiet, the screens still flickered with images of death and destruction though. The Mansion shuddered again.
"Magic." Billy's voice seemed to echo in the room. "Magic is what caused this."
"I do not know," said Vision. "It is possible, I suppose. Magic is something I cannot quantify."
Namorita sighed, picking up a chair and setting it right. "Where's Wanda when you need her? Well, we can't stay here, this place is coming apart." As if to prove her point, a light fixture fell from the ceiling, shattering their nerves and sending glass shards everywhere.
"You're right, we should get out there and help people," said Marvel Boy, his hands forming fists. "I'm not going to hide in here and watch the world go out like this. We're Avengers! We might be the only Avengers left. We need to start acting like it."
"I'm with him," said Teddy. His mother grabbed his arm protectively.
"We are finding a way off this planet," said Sarah. "We are not staying here any longer! I made your mother a promise and I intend to keep it." She opened the door and glanced back at him, giving him a small but wicked smile. "I'm going to see what the Avengers keep in their parking garage, maybe a space-going vehicle. It's not stealing after all, if you're an Avenger." She winked at him and closed the door behind her.
"Your Mom is crazy hot," said Speedball. He was perched unhappily on the edge of a console, bubbles of kinetic energy circling him haphazardly. He gave Teddy an unapologetic grin.
"I have the Scarlet Witch on comm," said Tommy, shocked. He hadn't moved from his chosen station. "She's coming in. She says…" He looked at Cassie, eyes more sorrowful than any of them had ever seen before. "I'm so sorry, Cass."
"No!" Her face crumpled. "I can't do this again," she said, hugging herself. "I-I can't… I can't lose my Dad again."
Teddy gathered her into a gentle embrace, Billy beside him. Kate looked torn between Cass and Eli as he swore and strode towards the door.
"There's no time for this, not for any of this!" said Eli as he pulled the heavy security door open and took a step, falling forward violently. He held on, swinging from the door over… nothing. Kate grabbed his shirt and yanked him back from the precipice. "What the fuck?!" he bellowed, falling into her arms. She was breathing as hard as he was, panicked and quick.
"Don't do that!" she screamed in his ear, leaning against him.
"I'm not deaf, Kate," he screamed back, before promptly pulling her into a kiss. "…Thanks for saving my ass," he added gratefully. "All the times you saved it."
They stared at Teddy as he ran forward and clutched at the doorframe, wind whipping the tears from his eyes as he screamed for his mother. The Scarlet Witch levitated into sight and he moved out of the way as she took a tentative step forward into the room, grabbing his arm and pushing him back from the door. The wall behind her crumpled like tinfoil and tumbled away.
"Oh thank God," cried Marvel Boy. "Scarlet Witch, are any of the other Avengers coming to assist you? Can you fix this?"
"They're dead, I'm afraid. All dead. No more Avengers." She looked at him and his team fondly. "You've done a fine job of being the Young Avengers but I'm afraid our time is up. I've done what I can but it's not going to be enough." Wanda's shape began to change, slowly at first but then faster until she disappeared in a swirl of light that blinded them and drew back revealing Billy Kaplan. Or at least, another version of him. This Billy's eyes were completely black, and a film of milky shine moved across them every few seconds. His skin looked too tight over a thin frame, his hair a ragged mess. It was a scarecrow version of the teenage boy they knew.
"Billy?" Eli felt his mouth drop open. He looked at their Billy. "Two… how is this possible?"
"This explains how I saw Billy in two places at almost the same time," said Vision. "I should have considered this as a possibility."
"Whoooa, what just happened to Wanda?" asked Speedball, his eyes widening.
"There couldn't be two Billy Kaplans in the world. That would draw attention to the falseness of everything, and Wanda was already missing so I simply assumed her identity. I thought someone would notice but nobody did," he finished in a reprimanding tone.
"Who the hell is Billy Kaplan?" asked Namorita angrily. "Someone explain that to me right now, and why he's so important!"
"Why would we notice anything, when you looked and acted exactly like the Scarlet Witch?" said Marvel Boy. He pointed at the encroaching horizon, spreading like ink in water. It was liquid darkness, but not night; there were no stars. It was void of everything. He looked at the other Billy, his eyes wild. "You need to tell what that is, and why it's destroying everything, why it's killing everyone. How can we help if you don't tell us what we're dealing with?"
"It's not killing everyone, per se, it's re-establishing the balance, removing them from an already dead universe…"
"Balance? Dead universe? I don't understand any of this," said Marvel Boy. He looked terrified. Eli imagined that it was fairly representative of all their expressions right then. "If you don't tell us what we can do to stop what's happening…"
Namorita put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing firmly enough to get his attention. "Should you be antagonizing the scary witch boy, Supertights?" she said gently. "Come on, let's set up a perimeter, your powers are best for shields. Those other kids can interrogate the scary one." She pulled him away, giving Eli a look as she and the other Young Avengers spread out, creating a human barrier between Eli's team and the darkness rolling in to claim them. Under other circumstances, Eli thought that the two teams would have been formidable allies. What remained of the war room stabilized and everything became very still but the strain was obvious on the other team leaders as they glanced back at him, trusting him to do what they couldn't, then at the other version of Billy.
"Help?" echoed Other Billy. He laughed, a strange weak noise, empty of humor and full of regret. "It's the end of all things. If Billy hadn't kept using his powers, I might have been able to stabilize things for longer than a day, but the boundaries of what was left of this universe kept stretching to accommodate his teleportation spells. I held it off for as long as I could but you can't cheat death. I thought I had, but I just delayed it and now it's here for us."
"But it can't be here for all of us, Billy, for God's sake, we aren't even supposed to be here," said Kate. "We never belonged in your universe." Her mouth was drawn tight, angry but also worried, she glanced an apology at their Billy. Then she asked the question that had been on their minds since the beginning of the day. "Why?"
He looked at her affectionately, face softening despite the dead eyes. "I thought I could reverse it, or something, I guess. Everyone was dying. Wanda had changed reality so many times and this time it was so final, it felt like something that I could manage with my powers, no matter what the cost. I was… wrong. I was so, so wrong. The cost was… too much. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," he said, wiping at the thick bloody tears in his eyes with the back of his hand, smearing red all over the pale skin. "I never meant for any of this. I just wanted my family back, all of you. I didn't want to die, but I didn't want to live either, so I figured… one small change, in our history. That's what I tried for. We caused it, so if we never came together as a team, then it never happened. I was wrong. So wrong…"
"No fucking duh," said Tommy, irritated, frozen in place as he watched the world shrink. It was terrifying.
"We caused it," repeated Teddy bitterly, "How?"
"Kang, Doom, Wanda, Magneto in a battle like you've never seen. Over us. It was slaughter. People were dying around me, people I love." He frowned. "I couldn't let it happen again. I couldn't watch him die like that..." He glanced at Teddy then away again. "I cast the spell but I was too late, the universe had already died, all that was left was a memory. And me, the sole witness to it."
Tommy looked at his twin with new found respect. "You ever try anything like this and I'm kicking your ass so hard you'll need to be reincarnated again."
Billy scowled at him, then looked at his counterpart, sympathy softening his expression. "I understand," he said simply. "There was no other choice." The other Billy, omnipotent, devastated- he fidgeted. "I'd have done the same thing." Billy's hand slipped into Teddy's, gripping it tightly.
"Screw that, Billy, you wouldn't have done the same thing," said Eli. "There's always a choice, he didn't have to do this!" He looked at his friend, wanting him to see what he was seeing. "He didn't have to do this. It didn't have to be like this." His anger was amping up, muscles straining to punch something, anything. "There were other ways."
"Other ways," echoed Other Billy, as Eli had come to think of him. "I looked for other ways," he shook his head. "Everyone was gone, everything was dead, I was alone, I had to make a choice." The last word as low as a whisper. "I made a bad one."
"Obviously," said Tommy.
"What did you say?" asked Billy, gently, reaching out to his alternate. The other boy didn't take his proffered hand, turning his body away, frowning. "What were the words?"
"It doesn't matter. You're no stronger than I was. You're even weaker in this universe."
"Then you don't lose anything by telling me, do you?" Billy grabbed his hand and squeezed. "Tell me, Billy."
Torpedo and Speedball were sucked out of the room as if a hurricane had picked them up and tossed them away, screams cut off in microseconds.
"TELL ME!" screamed Billy, losing control of his temper and patience.
Teddy looked at his Billy in shock. "Bill…" Billy pushed him away. "No, Ted, I can't fix this if I don't know what he said!"
"No more Young Avengers." His hair whipped itself into a frenzy, his eyes wild. Other Billy looked like a mad dead thing, his voice creaking like an old man. "It worked for Wanda, I just thought… I wanted a…" he looked at Teddy again, a slow blush creeping up his cheeks. "I wanted a happier ending. Stupid now, look what it's done to the world." He laughed bitterly. "I thought that everything would right itself but the universe doesn't work that way; it reinterpreted my request. Let's just say my powers work in ways not even the universe can cope with." The edge of reality was closer, the darkness closing in around the remaining members of the other team, vaporizing them one by one until only their leader was left, shell-shocked and shivering but still trying to main telekinetic shields that were failing to keep death at bay. "It was all gone and still I managed to fuck everything up even more, with four little words, like I could bring about some miraculous universal reset button. No, a reboot!" He choked on a chuckle. "Teddy, Kate, Cassie, Vision, Tommy…" his voice broke and he shook his head. "I screwed everything up."
"Language," said Cassie, her face still a mask of grief. Losing her father all over again had almost broken her, Eli worried, a fear Kate shared judging from the look she gave him.
Despite the insanity of it, and given the same circumstances and powers at his disposal, Eli wondered if he would have done anything differently. He wasn't sure of anything anymore.
The floor beneath Kate's feet crumbled and she screamed, scrambling for something to grab hold of. Tommy and Eli leapt to catch her hand as a tendril of darkness reached for her. Marvel Boy stepped between, as she was pulled to safety, he was dragged out of the room without a sound.
Panting, Eli and Tommy crouched next to Kate. "Can we fix it?" he asked, not daring to let hope into his heart.
"I'm not sure, Dorothy," said Other Billy, teasing, not cruelly though; he seemed resigned, if anything. "Click your heels together and say…"
"Iwanttogohome," said Billy, head down, eyes closed, his hand still locked in a death grip with Teddy's. "IwanttogohomeIwanttogohome…" The chant ran end to end until there were no recognizable words, just a continuous sound that made their ears bleed.
If he was forced to remember the end, it wasn't happy. Eli was looking right at the Other darker version of Billy when the end of everything wrapped around him. He didn't resist; he fell back into it willingly, uttering at the last, "Iwantthemtogohome!" in a voice that would haunt his dreams for many days to come.
Then there was a long, strange, sucking sound. He likened it to when he'd gone to the beach for the first time, pulling his feet out of the sand when they had sunk so deep, and the water washed over them, the rough grains threatening to tear the very skin and nails from his toes, or so it felt to a five year old boy who'd never played in the ocean before, never built a sandcastle only to watch the tide destroy it.
Eli didn't know what he'd lost when the two Billys tore them free of that universe and returned them to their own, but there was dull ache inside that promised a memorable bruise later.
When he slept that first night, back in his own bed, as if nothing had happened, he saw Other Billy's eyes burning into him as darkness claimed him, a darkness that had already infected his soul.
"Don't let it happen… promise me," he said to Eli, in the dream.
"I won't, I won't let it happen I promise," he moaned, waking himself up. He stared at his phone for five minutes then sighed and called Kate. She answered immediately, voice dull, unable to sleep either.
"Bad dreams," was all she said.
"Me too." He sighed. "I keep seeing it play over and over, but each time it's faded and more distant, and the details aren't as sharp. It's sort of becoming like a dream, I think. Do you believe Billy could do that?" he asked, his heart in his mouth as he said the words. He felt like he was betraying his friend by even considering the possibility.
"No. Maybe. God, I don't know, Eli," she said, and her tone was sharp with the same distress he felt. "But we have to trust him that he won't."
He hesitated, then, "What's any different here than in that other universe? Can we honestly say it won't happen? Do you think the Avengers saw Wanda's madness coming?"
She didn't reply.
"Are you still there?" he asked softly. "Kate?" The call hadn't disconnected but he couldn't hear anything more than her soft breaths.
"I'm thinking," she said. "I'm thinking that if it comes to it, are we strong enough or smart enough to stop him? Are we stronger than Captain America and smarter than Iron Man when they didn't notice that Wanda was going insane?"
"Stronger and smarter than a super soldier and a genius? I don't like the way this conversation is going," he said, depressed. "Do you think that Cap and Tony Stark talked to each other in the middle of the night when they couldn't sleep, talked about team stuff, talked about scenarios like this…"
She laughed. "Did you just kind of ask me if Cap and Tony sleep together?"
"Uh. No?" he replied, sitting up and blushing furiously. "I did not just ask anything like that!" He made a mental note not to talk to Kate in the early hours without having at least one cup of coffee to wake his brain up. "Ugh, did I really?"
"Yes you did," she said, laughing harder. "Now I can't get the mental image out of my head." She was quiet again for a few seconds.
"Stop thinking about Steve and Tony sleeping together," he whispered fiercely down the phone at her and he heard a crash. "I'm hanging up… I swear, if you don't stop thinking about that, I'm hanging up!"
"Oh great, I just fell out of bed," she whispered back, still laughing but low and husky. "For the record, I'm glad you called me. I hate that this happened to us, Eli. I hate that some freaky other Billy dragged us into his messed up universe and made us watch everyone die like that. I hate that we're looking at our Billy differently because of it."
It wasn't a comfort. "Hey. At the end of the day, Bill's still quoting laws from that damned imaginary superhero manual he carries around in his head so he hasn't changed that much."
Kate laughed. "Okay, okay, I believe you." A curse drifted from the line. "Oh shoot, is that the time? Ugh, I have to go. See you later, at practice." The line went dead before he could reply.
"See you, Kate," he said, cracking the blinds. It was dawn, the sun chasing away all the shadows of the night before. He stretched and stood up, opening the closet. At the back, his bag was ready for practice, the swipe card to the warehouse strung around the shoulder strap.
The team was waiting for him on the steps of the library when he finished his shift, Cassie sitting side-saddle on one of the stone lions, swinging her legs like a child. Kate was leaning next to her, sending someone a message and studiously ignoring everything for a moment.
Jonas was reading a library book entitled "Why doesn't my goldfish have a name?" It was clearly written for children but from the smile on his face, he seemed to be enjoying it.
"Hey," said Eli, walking past them, the team falling in and Kate sliding into position beside him, still focused on her phone. "Practice?" he asked, then as an afterthought, "or maybe, ice cream first?"
"Ice cream!" came a chorus from behind.
"Ice cream?" said Kate, looking at him, a smile teasing her lips, she put the phone in her pocket and looped an arm through his. "Who are you and what have you done with our Eli?!"
"Oh ho," he laughed mockingly. "So funny today!"