The Young Avengers were called in mid-battle – which was right when the entirety of New York became aware if the near-apocalyptic fight going on – so they didn’t really know how it all came about. This was perhaps a disadvantage, Eli thought briefly as he dodged robot claws for what was already about the fifth time, but it wasn’t like that was anything new in this field of work.
“I’m so sick of Doom that I’m sick of being sick of Doom,” Kate shouted as she shot down an approaching Doombot.
Eli could only grunt in agreement – he was kneeing a bot in the face and spinning the momentum off into a tumble, and then popped up into a round house kick. The whole block was torn up by heroes fighting and Eli only just ducked in time as Wolverine launched over his head with bots clinging to him. It was kind of appropriately symbolic, seeing how overwhelming this was. Doombots were crawling all over everything, and somewhere over their heads Doom himself was duking it out with some of the big name superheroes – the Fantastic Four and Iron Man included, of course.
“So, this might be getting a teensy bit out of hand,” Tommy suggested very conversationally as he sped by and left a trail of explosions in his wake. “Just saying.”
“Say it – over – there – !” Eli grunted as he took down two more bots and dodged the ricocheting laser of what he could only guess was a death ray, or something equally dodge-worthy. Just another overwhelming factor about this battle.
Tommy scoffed but did as he was told – Cassie, off in the distance, was big and dealing serious damage, but was also a huge target and attracting a lot of bots’ attentions. A mob of them were swarming the weak spots of her ankles and backs of her knees and, with the added risk of the ricochet of lasers, even Tommy couldn’t not see a little bit of direness in the situation and not take orders that mattered.
Despite the complete chaos of the situation and how little they knew about what was really going on, everyone was holding up well. “Is this one of those ‘win first, details later’ sort of things?” Eli yelled over the screams of the girls he and Cap had had the Super Soldier foresight to rescue from crumbling debris.
“As far as I know, Doom and the Fantastic Four just started going at it,” Cap shouted back, slinging the girl he was holding higher up on his shoulder as he dodged another laser. “Mister Fantastic called Iron Man when something happened to escalate the crisis, something Iron Man hasn’t felt the need to explain at all – ”
“Jesus,” Eli breathed out harshly, dropping into as low and as suddenly into a crouch as he could manage while carrying a girl bridal style in his arms. “Is it just me or are these beams increasing in frequency?”
“Get these two to safety,” Cap shouted, handing his rescued girl over and bounding off towards where Iron Man was shooting repulsor beams from a distance at Doom.
Eventually Eli did manage to get the girls out of the center of the fight with Jonas’s help, and they sent them running to safety. “Any idea what this is about?” Eli asked, wiping his brow and staring at the fight from the distance, trying to gauge if there needed to be game plan changes before he dove back in. Teddy was ripping through bots in the sky, with his wings much bigger than usual as he used their girth and power to knock the flying Doombots off balance to offset how much they outnumbered him.
“Not entirely. Sensors seem to indicate temporal disturbances but,” Jonas waved around at the entirety of the city before having to dodge another laser ricochet. “Doom has several portals – that other heroes are trying to locate – that are bringing in all these bots as reinforcements. That’s all that could be.”
Eli could see Cassie over the building tops, and there was no point in trying to spot Tommy though a trail of explosions that was possibly his handiwork cropped up. “Reinforcements? Portals?”
“Like I said, several heroes and Reed Richards are handling the portals, of course,” Jonas said. “The real problem is that this all seems vaguely like a distraction plot.”
Billy was flinging lightning around from the top of a marble monument building, side by side with Kate. She was trying to get a good, clear, non-bot-cluttered shot at Doom who was duking it out with the remaining Fantastic Four and was now dodging Cap’s shield. He didn’t seem up to anything, but that didn’t mean much in Eli’s opinion. He was a tricky villain, after all. “Right. Anything on these lasers?”
“Unconfirmed,” Jonas said with a shake of his head. Bots were headed their way now, and so they braced themselves – though Eli had to duck again because of more lasers.
“Ms. Marvel was hit and largely unaffected after the initial ballistics impact. Analyzing them yielded no viable information,” Jonas informed him before punching the nearest bot, while Eli threw one about twenty feet away. “I’m still running diagnostics, but in the meantime you should probably just not get hit with them.”
“Got it, I’m a Super Soldier not a Kree, thank you for the sass Vision,” Eli managed to reply, even as he took out two bots after a hit to the stomach. “But you know, I just can’t shake this feeling – ”
“That something’s off?” Tommy was interrupting, suddenly there. Eli was grateful this time, one of the bots having just stabbed him from behind in the leg.
“Yes. Again, Doom’s not one to get in such a fight for no reason,” Jonas agreed, voice considerably pointed for someone who should have been more preoccupied with his grappling with a Doombot. “I literally just mentioned the similarities our current situation has with a distraction plot.”
“Okay, literally not the time, Jonas,” Eli grumbled, taking out one of the bots.
“You okay?” Tommy asked after punching the last bot into fiery remains.
Eli pressed a tentative hand to the back of his thigh. There was blood and the wound was deep enough to reach muscle, but was also shallow enough that it would heal enough in a few minutes and he’d be able to walk properly. “I’ll be fine after a second. How’s everyone looking?”
Tommy shrugged. “They’re okay. Kinda tired. What’s up with the light show?”
Eli was about to relay the whole ‘we don’t know what they do but we know not to get hit’ speech when he saw overwhelming blue sparking in his peripheral vision. He spun around too fast for his injured leg to hold him, and stumbled a little. Jonas was by his side quickly enough to help steady him. Tommy was too busy peering over in the direction of the new light show.
It was Billy, of course, and it seemed like he was doing his white-out, losing control thing, floating midair above Kate’s head. Nearby Doombots were just disintegrating where they stood or hovered and, in all the bright light Eli couldn’t see what was going on with Doom and the heroes he had been fighting anymore. What he could see was that Kate’s hair was whipping around and she looked like she was holding on to whatever it was she’d managed to find purchase on for dear life, but other than that she seemed fine. Cass wasn’t huge anymore, and Teddy was out of sight too – but that was actually what was troublesome.
“What happened? Is Teddy okay?” Eli shouted over the sudden thickness and vibrant crackling in the air. It was always safe to assume that Teddy’s wellbeing was linked to these episodes: it usually was. “And Cassie – ”
“She’s fine!” Jonas yelled, scanning the battlefield. “She shrank because of the lasers, I presume – ”
“Kate,” Eli tried over his comm link, “Kate can you hear me?”
“I’m fine – ” Came the static-crackled answer. “Ted’s fine – that’s not what – Billy got hit with a laser and just started glowing – ”
But then the connection shorted out, as another wave of bright light ebbed from Billy. He was falling in slow motion, the magic curling around him tenderly as though it were laying him down, and Kate had to jump off the building because the edges of magic were doing something weird to the marble – distorting it somehow.
Eli focused on staying calm and acting fast, inwardly hoping that Teddy wasn’t freaking out because his boyfriend had been hit by an unidentified energy beam. “Tommy – ”
Tommy was on it before Eli’s teeth could make the percussive ‘t’ sound, and before either he or Jonas knew it Tommy was back with Kate in his arms, bridal style.
“Thanks,” Kate said, only a little out of breath, as Tommy let her down, and Eli opened his mouth to ask for her to elaborate on what exactly had happen. But then everything went bright and Eli wasn’t able to see anything and, soon, after the brief thought that this was very familiar, he wasn’t conscious either.
When Eli came to, it was before the others. He wasn’t exactly an expert on the whole magic and supernatural phenomenon aspects of this job, especially when it came to Billy and reality warping, but he knew distinctly praying that nothing extreme had happened was not entirely inappropriate. Jonas finished rebooting just as Eli noticed that Doom – and all his remaining bots – were nowhere to be seen.
“Do you know – ” Eli started.
Jonas held up a hand to stop him. “The lasers’ effects are still unconfirmed, without even taking into consideration Billy’s powers. I have no idea what’s going on.”
Tommy was wobbling into an upright position. “Ugh, what happened?”
Eli shook his head at him, “Not sure yet. Is Kate up?”
Tommy looked over at her prone form. “She’s coming to. Want me to shake her awake?”
Eli fixed him with a stony gaze. “Because that is grade A first aid Tommy. Yes. Do that.”
Tommy rolled his eyes, “Geez, I was kidding.”
“Both of you shut up,” Kate groaned, sitting up. “Aren’t we in the middle of a crisis or something?”
Jonas nodded, “We should go find the others as soon as possible.”
Eli agreed, and, after a little wobbly readjusting, the whole team was up and venturing back onto the battleground. And the first thing they stumbled upon, entirely unexpectedly, was Cap in a crater with two teenage girls.
“What’s going on?” Kate asked, peering over the rims of her sunglasses. “Did I miss something? Who’s that with Cap? …And why is there a crater?”
“The crater was from Doom’s initial deploy bot,” Jonas explained. “It was launched from the distance to get a first wave going while he, presumably, set up the portals.”
“How does he always do that? Just, like, know things he shouldn’t.” Tommy asked, looking creeped out.
Jonas looked mildly proud. “Satellite feeds.”
Kate took a deep breath. “Okay. Crater, irrelevant, check. Anything else you can tell me about things I missed?”
“No,” Jonas said, sounding troubled. “Billy has a tendency of knocking a lot of things offline when he gets that way.”
Eli took another cursory glance of the battlefield, in case he too missed something by being on the edges of the fight. But no, there were the remnants of robots littering the ground, the typical structural damage, and a few nearby heroes were finishing up the last struggling Doombots left. The rest of his team was still out of sight, too, and Eli tried the comm link. It was dead.
“Okay,” Eli said. “Okay, so Cass, Ted, and Billy are still missing and Cap is with two strange girls. We have had worse battle aftermaths.”
“I am going to search for Cassie,” Jonas said immediately, beginning to fly off. “If she’s become tiny in self defense and is unconscious it can’t wait. I should be able to easily find her with scanning.”
Eli intended to tell Tommy to go look for the other two, or to at least go and find out if Billy was okay, but instead found himself squinting at the scene before them, intrigued. Cap was pulling one girl, who was fighting him and trying to pull away, off the other. The fragmented echoes of her voice, rebounding off all the uneven concrete and leveled buildings, reached them as unintelligible yelling.
“She’s crying,” Kate observed levelly, then she stilled and her expression changed into something much more empathetically concerned. “Wait wait wait, are you seeing – ?”
He tensed too; the other girl, the one Cap wasn’t holding back while wildly flailing, the one lying unconscious and unmoving on the ground, was changing. She was going from the more typical blonde with fair skin to blonde and green and vaguely Hulk-like in muscle definition.
“That’s not Teddy, right?” Eli asked, as they watched her body change before their eyes. Even when her body didn’t continue to fill and block out into Teddy’s broad chest and shoulders, it wasn’t reassuring enough to appease Eli’s immediate concerns.
“Teddy doesn’t, y’know, revert,” Kate pointed out.
“Could be a defensive thing? Maybe he’s conscious enough to – ” Tommy started to say.
“Are you seriously suggesting that Billy accidentally reality warped Teddy, the shapeshifter, into a girl?” Kate asked much too pleasantly for it not to be a set up for some serious mocking, and Tommy frowned warily at her as he fell silent.
Eli kept watching what was unfolding in front of them carefully. The blonde was dressed in a flowery sundress that was battered and torn, and as the seconds ticked by she continued to lay motionless in the crater. The other girl, dressed in equally battered jeans and a vintage t-shirt he observed, was growing more frantic with each one of those seconds – but now was only trembling and sobbing in Cap’s arms, leaning all her weight on him, he back to his chest. She was Black, he noticed, and had extremely short and straight hair with angular, messy bangs.
“The unconscious one could be a Skrull,” Eli suggested slowly. “They both could be. We won’t know the details until – ”
“What’s going on?” Billy asked as he and Teddy both landed together amicably on the scene, though Teddy was eyeing Billy skeptically.
“Can someone tell him to sit down somewhere?” Teddy cut in hurriedly before anyone could respond as he shifted his wings away. “He isn’t listening to me when I tell him he was shot in the chest with a laser beam and freaked completely out. Which,” he side eyed Billy at this, placing a worried hand near the nape of his neck. “He totally doesn’t remember.”
Billy made an annoyed, dismissive noise, even as Kate was by his side, hand on his shoulder as well as she inspected him more closely. “I’m fine, I’m pretty sure the freak out was me fixing myself and taking out the threat. Or something.” Billy shrugged off Teddy’s and Kate’s worried hands on his shoulders, “I mean, Doom’s gone and there aren’t any more lasers flying around so clearly – ”
He paused as his eyes landed on the scene before them, eyebrows shooting up. “Whoa, wait, what’s going on?”
Billy immediately looked from the crater with the girls and Cap in it to Eli expectantly. Eli shook his head. “I’ve pretty much been lost on what’s going on ever since we joined this fight. Your white-out knocked us out too, Billy. We have no clue.”
Billy frowned and slowly looked back at the carter, squinting as he inspected the situation. “…huh.”
Tommy pointed at him very accusingly. “I blame you. This so has your drama stamped all over it.”
Billy bristled, “Hey!” And Teddy rubbed Billy’s back reassuringly, clearly still worried.
“Look, why don’t we just be on standby?” Eli suggested, feeling the beginnings of a horrible headache twinge in his temples. He was foreseeing that this was one of those situations that was hugely complicated and longwinded and maybe a tiny bit worsened by Billy’s involvement, from how Iron Man was crouching beside Cap and doing scans with the suit on the girls, both the unconscious and crying one.
Iron Man’s newly opened faceplate revealed that he was muttering to Cap, who was nodding seriously and grim faced in return. “They’re not going to inform us of anything until they deem it necessary for us to know,” Eli said, paused, then corrected himself. “If they deem it necessary for us to know.”
Tommy threw his hands up in the air. “Whatever,” he said, rolling his eyes. “I’m out of here, call me when things make sense again.” And he was gone.
Billy made an aggravated face, possibly at the prospect of the Avengers shutting them out again. He smacked Teddy’s hand away and huffed at Eli, “Fine.” Billy too rolled his eyes, and then was flying off in a flash of blue lights.
“B!” Teddy called after him, sprouting his wings again and taking to the air as well. “Billy, seriously, chill out with the magic and the being a brat and go sit down somewhere!”
Kate patted Eli on the back as he let out a long suffering sigh. “This isn’t over, is it?” He asked her, really desperate for his life to be a little simpler for once.
“Sorry, this gig is never over. Or easy. It’s what you signed up for,” she said, smiling apologetically. “Come on, let’s go find Jonas, I’m sure he’s got Cassie by now. And then we probably should just go home too.”
“Yeah yeah,” he agreed sullenly, and they began to make their way into the wrecked city.
Things died down for about a week. And then Cap was on his doorstep looking bashful under Eli’s grandma’s welcomes and fussing.
“Steve! You should let us know when you plan on stopping by,” She forcefully ushered him into the kitchen as if he wasn’t over six feet tall and a Super Soldier. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
Cap eyed Eli briefly over his grandmother’s head and Eli had feeling he already knew what this was about. “I’m sorry to say it’s not necessarily pleasure. There was recently an event…and I may have to ask a big favor of your family.”
Grandma paused in her searching the cupboard for quick snacks to raise a skeptical eyebrow at him. “…Alright Steve, what’s this about?”
Eli, recognizing that tone, pulled up a chair at the table and sat down, and Cap obediently did the same. She sighed and abandoned her attempts to be a good hostess, also moving to sit down at the table.
Cap directed his next words at Eli. “Young Avengers were there at the battle, so I’m assuming you all saw the strange…conclusion?”
“What, with the two girls?” Eli questioned. Cap nodded and Eli pursed his lips. “Yeah…but we still don’t even know what was going on with that entire fight in the first place. And did anyone figure out what exactly happened with Billy? Teddy’s saying he’s been fine but…”
Cap held up his hand, signaling Eli to taper off into silence. “Doctor Strange is looking into everything about the incident, including Billy’s wellbeing. As for the girls, they apparently have been transported here from another universe.”
Eli both sort of saw and dreaded where this was going. “Don’t tell me…”
“We’ve questioned them as well,” Cap kept explaining. “And they claim to be from a universe where there’s a mostly female Young Avengers.”
“Hold on, you’re talking over my head and I don’t like it,” Grandma said, looking crossly at both Eli and Cap, obviously confused. “Different universes? Girl versions of the superhero team Elijah leads? Steven, what does this have to do with you coming over? What is this favor?”
Cap cleared his throat and nodded firmly. “Right, sorry ma’am. The thing is, everyone is still very confused about what actually happened during that fight. And we’re all working hard to clear it up and set things right.” His expression then faltered into something distinctly uncomfortable. “The girls have been under observation and passed inspection as non-threats. There’s been a consensus among the others and SHIELD, which I wholly support, that the girls need to be settled somewhere other than a secret government facility.”
Eli frowned, and Cap’s discomfort suddenly made a lot of sense. “You want us to house them?” He asked, in a voice he felt was only a little, but rightfully, incredulous.
“Eli, watch your tone,” his grandmother scolded nonetheless, but her eyebrows drew down in worry. “Steve, is that what you’re here to ask?”
Under Grandma’s questioning, Cap suddenly looked alarmingly bashful. He cleared his throat again and tried to retake control of the situation. “Not both of them. Only one. Tony’s still suspicious and he wants to keep them separated until we know for certain they aren’t involved with Doom’s plan, intentionally or unintentionally. And…Faith, I’m sorry but you truly are one of the best choices.”
Grandma heavily sighed, and Eli reached over the table to take her hand into his. “I’m not going to regret agreeing to this, am I?”
Steve shook his head firmly. “You’re under no obligation to take her in, if it’s too much trouble – ”
She waved her other, free hand dismissively. “Oh be quiet Steve, how can I say no after you pay me such a great compliment? We’ve got enough space, we’ll work something out.”
Eli nodded, squeezing his grandmother’s hand a little to let her know he supported the decision. He looked at Cap and tried to find the right words. “Cap, if she’s – well, one of us, sort of, then it’s not…it’d be wrong for her to be elsewhere.”
“If you don’t have a problem with it, I do feel that it’d be best.” Cap admitted carefully.
“So,” Grandma said, now intrigued and quirking an eyebrow at him. “Who’s this new surrogate granddaughter I’ll have to look after?”
Eli remembered the two girls, one Black and one a shapeshifter, and it was weird to even consider that – well, simply put, a girl Teddy was not so foreign a concept as a girl him.
Cap made a face that was unreadable, brow furrowing in what could have been contemplation. “That’s – there’s, one more thing about this.”
Eli didn’t know what to expect this time. “What?”
“I know what you’re probably expecting based on what you saw,” Cap said. “But the girls who came – they’re Hulkling and Wiccan.”
Eli paused. Yeah, not expecting that. “…What?”
“The blonde was Hulkling – her name’s Tabitha. The…short-haired one was Wiccan – Rebecca.”
Eli took an even longer pause. “She was Black,” he pointed out. He paused and then kept going with his disbelief. “And Billy’s mom is named Rebecca,” Eli said, as though it were entirely relevant.
Grandma huffed and pulled on his arm from where their hands were still interlaced. “Really Eli? Steve says these girls are from another universe and are different gendered versions of you and your friends and you choose to disbelieve that of all things?”
She had a point, Eli had to acknowledge, but still…
“And apparently,” Steve continued, an eyebrow lifted in something akin to amusement. “Apparently that’s a recurring thing in their universe.”
Rebecca moved in shortly after, sullenly and quietly.
“You’ll be sleeping here,” he gestured at his old room. He and Grandma had discussed sleeping arrangements and had decided that Rebecca getting her own room was for the best. Meanwhile he had moved to Grandpa’s study and would make do with the fold out chair until they got him an air mattress or some sort of cot. “I’ll be camping out in my Grandpa’s study room, okay? But I mean, I hope you’re okay with sharing if you ever want to watch television – it’s in there, and that’s where Grandpa spends a lot of his time throughout the day.”
He paused and had a fleeting, sickening thought of her not understanding his grandfather. “You know about Grandpa, right? And how he’s…well, you know, right? I mean, you’ve got a female me in your universe and everything, so…”
She shrugged and dumped her stuff down on what was now formerly his bed, avoiding eye contact. “Yes. It’s fine. I understand.”
He waited to see if she would say anything else, but she stared down at the floor determinedly ignoring him instead. This had been the case ever since Cap had escorted her through the front door. And he could understand her anxiousness, he’d be freaking out too if he suddenly was in a new universe with no idea of what was going on. But she was beginning to cross into curt and angry territory, and Eli didn’t know how to deal with that.
“Alright,” Eli mumbled, a little annoyed. “Dinner’s at seven, I’ve got stuff to do and I’ll try to be back by then.”
He crossed the room, trying to remind himself to put himself in her place. They could make this work, it was just a different version of Billy after all, and they were already friends in a way –
“Meeting your stupid friends?” Came her voice, low and sharp as he reached the doorway.
Eli paused in leaving the room and looked back at her. “…Excuse me?”
“You’re meeting your friends, while I have to stay here.” She still was avoiding looking at him, but was now visibly upset. “Everyone’s treating us like we’re villains. Questioning us, splitting us up, not telling us anything…and I’m sure you and your friends are just – just – ugh, whatever.” She looked briefly at Eli, long enough to glare, before flinging herself down on the bed. On top of all her stuff. He watched as she pretended not to flinch and laid perfectly still, balanced on top of her duffle and backpack.
Well. At least she shared Billy’s knack for dramatics.
“I hate it here,” she mumbled. Her back was facing Eli, straight and stiff. “If I could figure out how, Tabby and I would be gone. In an instant.”
“Okay?” Eli tried. “But everyone’s trying to work this out, so. Just don’t worry about it. The Avengers will figure out a way to get you guys back home soon.” He actually listened to himself and frowned at how utterly unhelpful he sounded.
She didn’t say anything else in response, and Eli wasn’t sure how to follow that up and not sound incredibly cheesy and just all around worse, so he just silently left the room.
“Oh, you’ve got their Wiccan with you?” Cassie looked up from her burger excitedly. “Tony Stark dropped off their Hulkling, and Tabby’s pretty cool. She’s still warming up to me but. You know,” she nudged Teddy. “Very Teddy-like.”
Teddy laughed, “What does that even mean?”
“I don’t know, nice. Funny. Charismatic,” Cassie explained, still a little on the joking side. “Very open. I mean, she told me to call her Tabby after we knew each other for, like, a minute.”
“Yes, not liking your full name is an indicator of openness, Cass,” Kate teased.
Cassie wrinkled her nose at her. “You know what I mean,” she said, exasperated, and took a bite of burger.
Kate grinned at her, then turned to Eli. “So? Think you and this other Wiccan are going to be the best of friends?”
Eli only managed a shrug, before Billy made this noise of disbelief. He was leaning against Teddy, in order to better steal his fries. “It’s weird, in a mind-boggling kind of way,” Billy said, ignoring Teddy’s attempts to keep his hands off his food. “That she’s Black – wait what’s the proper protocol here, maybe I should say ‘I’m’?”
Tommy snorted. “Yeah. You go around saying ‘I’m Black’. See how that goes over everywhere.”
Billy threw a fry at Tommy’s head, against Teddy’s protests of, “Can you at least buy your own food if you’re just going to waste it, B?”
Billy very purposely picked up the next one and ate it, as if to show he could handle not throwing food. Tommy made a face and went back to slurping up his cheap sundae.
“But yeah, the other-me,” Billy said, returning to the topic at hand. He leaned back and blinked up at the ceiling, like he was still attempting to process the whole situation. “I mean, different gender and race? It’s weird, ‘cause you always picture yourself as a very specific kind of you – and I wonder how similar we are – ”
“Far as I can tell,” Eli interjected lightly. “Not incredibly.”
Billy looked so hugely disappointed by that that Eli reevaluated. “Not that she’s your polar opposite,” he explained. “I just, I’ve only seen some superficial similarities and not much else. It could be the circumstances, though.”
“And you don’t know what’s happened in their lives,” Kate pointed out. “Even if they have the same basic timeline as us, some of the details are bound to be different. I mean,” she gestured at all of them sitting in the booth. “What in essence actually makes you you?”
“What is the youness, young grasshopper?” Cassie said in a slightly accented, mocking voice. Kate only arched a single eyebrow as she ate a chicken tender.
“I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean,” Teddy barely managed out, shaking with laughter. “But I feel like it was somehow horribly misquoted. Or just plain wrong.”
“But you’re laughing,” Cassie pointed out.
Teddy grinned. “Yeah, because it was so horrible.”
“We could try and work out what makes them us. What is the essence of a person…it’s an interesting concept.” Jonas said.
Cassie blinked and sobered, looking at him carefully and briefly touching his wrist. “This isn’t your way of having an existentialist crisis, is it?”
Jonas smiled and shook his head. “No, I promise. It’s really only because it’s an interesting concept. Do we have any protocol for how we’re supposed to interact with these girls?”
Cassie and Eli shared a glance, trying to get the story straight before telling it. “Iron Man told me to try and get Tabby to open up and talk about things like where they came from and what they were doing and blah blah blah, take advantage of her trusting nature,” Cassie said slowly. “Said Cap was going to handle your side of things.”
Eli nodded. “I wasn’t told to get information from her. Just, be a good host, make her comfortable, let the Avengers work out what’s going on.” He shrugged, “We all know Cap’s not the biggest on distrusting people if he doesn’t have to.”
“Ha ha, yeah, mutant registration and Cap’s undying faith in Tony Stark despite the guy’s underhandedness comes to mind for explaining the different instructions,” Tommy said around his plastic spoon.
Billy looked skeptically at Tommy, “Yeah, that’s always appropriate to bring up – oh wait, remember when I keep telling you it was way more complicated than that? Because it was.”
Tommy smirked fiercely, “Yeah, and I keep telling you to prove it.”
Billy bristled, and Kate interrupted with, “Yeah, I so don’t feel like hearing this argument again?”
Eli whole-heartedly agreed, but he sipped his soda peaceably instead of saying anything.
Teddy looked closely at him, a french fry dangling from his mouth. “So I’m sensing reluctance. What’s up? Don’t want to ‘play good host’?”
Eli huffed and leaned back in the booth. “No, it’s not that. I’m trying not to jump to conclusions or take it personally, but she’s not being that…friendly.”
“Well, I guess I’m always the nicer one?” Teddy casually suggested. “I mean, B can manage to be a huge flake once he sets his mind to it.”
“Yep that’s right, keep talking,” Billy said too sweetly. “You show off that niceness.”
Kate snorted, Cassie laughed, and Jonas smiled. Eli smiled too, but eyed Billy and Teddy joking and flirting with each other, and wondered if maybe the Avengers would have more luck with whatever it was they were attempting with the girl Teddy and girl Billy if they weren’t actively trying to keep them apart.
The brooding didn’t last too much longer with Rebecca – certainly not for lack of trying. Grandma simply didn’t allow the talking through clenched teeth and glaring at everything after the second week.
“If you’re living in this house, you won’t be taking passive-aggressive potshots at the rest of us because you’re angry,” she fussed. “It upsets Isaiah, not to mention Eli and I. And I don’t have to put up with that in my own home.”
Eli tried to pretend he wasn’t listening as he did the dishes as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. He knew he hated it when Grandma made him sit at the kitchen table and fussed at him, and he certainly didn’t want to get dragged into it because he clanged a pot too loud while scrubbing it.
“Understood. I’m…yeah, I’m acting out and it’s unacceptable, I’m sorry,” Eli heard Rebecca murmur. It sounded sincere and regretful, so Eli chanced angling his body a little to see how it was going. Rebecca still wasn’t meeting anyone’s eye, and Eli felt the atmosphere change to something softer, more forgiving. He looked up and caught his grandmother’s eye, and they shared an exasperated glance.
“…Why don’t you go with your grandfather to the park and take Rebecca, Eli?” She suggested with a shake of her head and a sigh, coming towards the sink and shooing him away. “I’ll take care of these. Just show her around. She’ll be here for long enough to need to know that, at the very least.”
Eli repressed the urge to sigh as well at the way Rebecca visibly stiffened at the suggestion, before nodding tightly and shuffling upstairs to get her jacket. She had to maneuver around Grandpa, who had come to peek into the kitchen at the mention of his name.
Eli wiped off his hands off and smiled as he approached the doorway. “Come on Grandpa, I’ll help you get ready,” Eli said, not missing his Grandmother’s agitated mumbles from behind him as the sounds of glassware being washed too roughly started up. “And Grandma…she’ll come around.”
At least, that was what Eli was hoping. The more time passed and Rebecca stayed prickly, the more he began to fear that this was actually just the way she was. Maybe not so passive aggressive and defensively offensive, he was chalking that up to frustration, but still undeniably unapproachable.
Rebecca was withdrawn on the walk over to the park, choosing to hide her face in the collar of her jacket.
Eli eyed her carefully before asking, “What’s up?”
She didn’t try to hold eye contact. “What?”
Eli ran a hand over his head, sighing. “I…am seriously not trying to be rude or anything. But it’s pretty obvious that you’re upset. And I just,” he shrugged as casually as he possibly could. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” she mumbled. “Not with you, I don’t even know you.” She looked up at him resolutely, but the longer she looked the more something in her expression crumbled. “Geez, Elana’s way cuter than you, you guys are nothing alike – ” She suddenly looked like she was holding back the urge to cry, and she quickly turned away from him.
He panicked, sharing a quick look with Grandpa who was watching her just as worriedly. Grandpa gestured towards her, obviously telling him to fix it, and okay. Yeah, Eli could do that. He was determined to make this work; he could definitely see where she was coming from with all her angry sadness. And this little progress, this little display of her opening up, it was her trying to handle something bigger than herself and he could work with that.
“Look,” Eli tried to reassure her. “Rebecca…it’s gonna be fine. Reed Richards and Cap and Tony Stark – all the Avengers really – and maybe SHIELD and even the X-men if it comes to that, they’re going to figure out how to get you and Tabitha back home.”
She was still looking away. “Yeah, right.”
Eli wasn’t sure if that was disbelieving or joking sarcasm. It really didn’t matter though, because she obviously wasn’t okay – Billy did that too, resorted to joking sarcasm even when he wasn’t okay, and they all had to learn how to look past that and to really figure out how he was feeling. Eli sighed as Grandpa nudged him a little, egging him on, and Eli fished for a lighter topic only a little desperately.
“So…I have a random question that’s been bothering me,” he said casually, tucking his hands into his pockets and hoping this wasn’t just plain stupid. “Rebecca? That’s, no offense, our Wiccan’s mom’s name.” There was no response, so Eli went in for the kill. “So, what, are you a Rebecca junior or something?”
She made a small scoffing noise that was closely enough related to a laugh that Eli could relax and congratulate himself on a small victory. “No. My mom’s name is Jessica and my dad’s name is Robert. How tacky would they have to be to – no.” Her body language opened a little to him, and she peered at him. “No. I’m not Rebecca junior, geez.”
She cracked a tiny smile and shook her head at him as if sort of superficially appalled by the question, and Eli peered over at Grandpa in triumph. Grandpa gave him a thumbs up.
Rebecca rubbed the back of her neck and looked off into the distance. “Since you’re asking, I have a question too, if you don’t mind.”
Eli shrugged, “Shoot.”
She shuffled along next to them for a few seconds of silence with her eyes darting from Eli to Grandpa and back to Eli, clearly uncomfortable. “Are, are the guy versions of me and Tabby, your versions, um – ”
But then just as abruptly as she had started to open up, she stopped, cutting herself off and closing herself off and crossing her arms. “…Never mind, forget it.”
Eli frowned a little, not really sure where that question had been headed and curious, but he knew enough about people to respect their wishes. “Okay,” he said. “You can always ask whatever, whenever.”
Grandpa sincerely patted her shoulder, and Rebecca brushed some hair out her eyes as she glanced at both of them, now seeming embarrassed. “…Look, I’m really sorry I’ve been so sulky and depressing. Your grandma’s right, and I’m grateful that you’re letting me live here and being so nice and cracking stupid jokes about my name and trying to make me feel better. I’ll stop acting up. Promise.”
There wasn’t much left to say after that – they didn’t talk any more for the rest of the outing – but they did have a really great game of frisbee at the park. So there was that.
Rebecca wasn’t too open, but she was better about answering his questions.
“We were fighting, I think Loki had something to do with it and – and, I don’t know, Tabby was hit and she wasn’t…it wasn’t looking good and I didn’t know where the rest of the team was.” She was sitting on the library table behind him, whispering the answer to his question of what happened on her side of things before she ended up in a huge crater with Captain America holding her.
He was reshelving books, which was doing wonders for his dilemma of how he should react to her emotions and answers. He wasn’t sure what she was looking for, and he didn’t want to drive her off somehow by not handling the conversation well. She was kind of skittish still, which, when Eli thought about it, wasn’t actually as far off and different from Billy as he’d initially thought. A younger, less confident Billy maybe. “What then?”
“I panicked,” she admitted. “I didn’t – couldn’t think, I didn’t know what was going on and if Tabby was gonna die and. Just, everything went out of control and next thing I know I’m holding Tabby and crying my eyes out and ‘Iwant’-ing but I don’t even know what I’m trying to do because I’m not thinking straight and. Everything went blue and then we were alone and safe.”
Rebecca fell silent and Eli wasn’t sure if she was leaving space for him to try to say something, but he didn’t have anything to offer. Eli was imagining how she must of felt, thinking that someone she cared about was going to die and that there was nothing she could do, and for a second he felt like he could understand her a little better. Though the silence dragged on, he was afraid if he said something she’d stop and never finish. Which might have been what she was looking for, but he waited, in case she decided otherwise.
“For a second, anyway,” Rebecca continued finally. “And then it was noisy and explosions and screaming and, and I’m one of them, you know? Screaming. And your Cap was pulling me off Tabby, which was smart because she was trying heal and I was being this overbearing, freaking out thing…and.”
She stopped and inhaled very very slowly, her voice having gone tight and fragile at the memory. She exhaled and pushed on, tone flatter and in control. “And when I finally calm down enough, which is when your Avengers, or maybe SHIELD or who knows what, are boarding us onto some transport vehicle, I’m realizing maybe I shouldn’t just automatically trust these guys.”
She laughed humorlessly, “But then I’m also realizing that I can’t feel my power anymore and that…it’s gone. So what can I do other than go along with it? Because they could help Tabby if she, I don’t know, needed it. And I didn’t have a choice.”
Eli didn’t stop reshelving, because if he stopped and looked around to interact now he’d be a huge hypocrite, but he still asked. “Wait, you can’t use magic anymore?”
He could hear Rebecca shifting on the table. “No. I haven’t been able to get in touch with it since we got here, and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s this universe…I don’t know. Anyway, was that a good enough answer to your question?”
“You know I’m not grilling you or anything, right?” Eli asked carefully, finally looking away from the bookshelf (because this was too important to clarify to withhold reaction just in case it scared her) to pin Rebecca with a meaningful gaze. She was staring at her hands, was shaking, just a little, and if Eli knew her any better, if they were any closer, he might have hugged her. “Just because you’re trying to not be sullen doesn’t mean you have to act like you’re not allowed to have secrets.”
Rebecca kept looking down at her hands, silent, and Eli sighed a little turning back around.
Quietly, falteringly, she asked, “I. Your Wiccan and Hulkling. What…what are they like?”
He paused at her stilted question, not sure what she meant. “…What?”
Her head snapped up, mouth pressed into a tight line. “I’m not allowed to ask questions too?” Her voice cracked a little on the last word.
“No,” he assured her, bringing his finger to his lips in a shushing motion. “It’s fine, I just wasn’t expecting it. What do you want to know?”
She swallowed and looked over his head instead right at him. “I don’t know. I guess white, guy me is still into comics and superheroes and video games?”
Eli snorted and waved his hand. “Biggest geek I’ve ever met.”
She hummed in agreement. “And guy-Tabby is still a giant sweetheart?”
“Who is also a huge geek,” Eli confirmed immediately. “You guys – uh, they, I guess? – bond over it.”
She pulled her knees up to her chest, the soles of her Converses balancing on the edge of the tabletop. “Are we best friends?”
He snorted again, turning back to the shelf. “Please, as if there’s any question of that in any universe. The very best and geekiest of friends.” He sobered a little. “No, really, you guys are a great couple.”
There was a clatter of noise from behind him and he whipped around – Rebecca might of fallen off the table –
Instead he found that she had jumped to her feet, eyes wide and panicked.
“What?” He looked around and saw no viable threats. “What’s wrong?”
“We’re dating.” She said faintly, fingers clenched tightly at her sides. “We’re dating?” Her voice was screechy and loud and – oh. Oh wow, Eli was stupid.
“You and Tabby – ”
“It’s Tabitha to you!” She yelled, suddenly insistent.
“Okay okay, calm down. Please be quiet, I’m sorry,” he hissed. “You and Tabitha aren’t dating?”
She swallowed gulps of air, eyes getting impossibly wider with each passing second. “No way,” she hissed back. “No way, no way.”
“Okay,” Eli reinforced firmly, calmly. “I got it, you’re not dating in your universe.” He paused, and something in him told him to not ask, but…but. “…Do you want to be?”
Rebecca glared darkly at him, but Eli could still see a little bit of panic in her eyes. “That’s ridiculous – and none of your business – and we’re best friends – ugh!”
He couldn’t even stop her as she swept past him and stormed out, because it wasn’t like she wasn’t totally entitled to that after he had asked such a stupid question. And as he watched her go, he tried to process what had just happened. What that all meant, exactly.
“I am an idiot,” Eli mumbled to himself. And he really really meant it.
“Wait wait,” Billy was trying to pursue this matter despite the fact that there was a fifty foot blob monster that he probably should have been, oh Eli didn’t know, busy with. “What do you mean the girl me isn’t gay?”
“I. Never. Said. That.” Eli grunted between his teeth as he jumped over a huge chunk of pavement. He didn’t have the luxury of floating magically over those sorts of things.
“Wait,” Billy said, even as his cape got caught on an overturned car’s ragged metal underside. “Wait, wait. So please, reiterate what it was you did say so – ”
“B,” Teddy shouted as he flew by, “Focus!”
Eli would have concurred with Teddy’s statement, but he had been scooped up by the monster and was being squeezed to death and couldn’t spare the words, so. Yeah, same effect, in the end.
“You know,” Billy picked up right after the blob had been unceremoniously blown up to death (because Billy and Tommy did not know subtly or anything close to it, really) and so they all were covered in sanctimonious amounts of questionable goop. “That’s so weird.”
“You keep saying that, and I’m not sure you realize that it might be kind of offensive?” Cassie told him, her expression unsure.
Billy tilted his head. “It is? How?”
Eli couldn’t see the expression on Billy’s face – he was too busy attempting to get the goo off his eye lenses of his mask. “Let’s not even get into that right now and let me emphasize that whatever it is that’s between Tabitha and Rebecca, it’s their business.”
“Says the guy who told six other people all about it.” Billy pointed out.
Eli glared. “I’m only telling you so you don’t bring it up around her – if you ever meet her, anyway – because she completely freaked out over it.”
Tommy wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Maybe she’s jealous.”
There was a collective sort of silence among them, that was only disrupted by Kate spiting a mouthful of goo out onto the ground, loogie-style. There was something to said for Eli’s state of sanity, since he kind of thought this was both wildly hilarious and kind of attractive, so he just focused on trying to get his eye lenses clean again and put that revelation somewhere far in the back of his mind.
“I can’t even tell of who she’s supposed to be jealous of, or what you’re implying at all,” Kate said primly after she was done, at the exact same moment Cassie and Teddy chorused, “ew,” in unison. She flung her arms out in a ‘what are you going to do about it’ gesture at them.
“We did anticipate that there would be overall differences,” Jonas pointed out. “There is probably a story behind this one.”
Cassie shrugged, “I could ask Tabby. She’s a lot more open, so – ”
“I keep feeling like you guys are trying to inadvertently tell me something whenever you bring things like that up about this other me and other Teddy – ” Billy whined.
“It could be,” Teddy said thoughtfully. “That they’re not to that point yet in their relationship. Or that they won’t have that kind of relationship. Or that there’s fluid sexuality between universes, or that it really is none of our business just like Eli said, and we shouldn’t ask either of them.”
“It did seem like it was complicated,” Eli said and Cassie scuffed her feet sheepishly.
“I’m just trying to help,” she murmured. Kate patted her on the back, then grimaced when her hand nearly stuck due to the goo everywhere on both of them.
“Yeah honey, I know,” Kate said comfortingly. “But Teddy’s right.” Eli shot her a mildly annoyed look and she amended. “Okay, and Eli too. It’s not our business.”
“I don’t know if I want you touching me, you’re kind of disgusting,” Cassie immediately said. “You hack up loogies.”
“Shut up and learn a life lesson,” Kate shot back.
And as they headed back to their headquarters Eli was glad everyone was in agreement about keeping out of others’ business. But he also had a nagging feeling that was suggesting that maybe there was a reason Rebecca managed to get her and Tabitha to this universe but couldn’t get them back.
Eli got home from school and Rebecca wasn’t there. Which wasn’t a huge surprise, since she had been avoiding him since the conversation in the library. And he didn’t blame her, though he did think they needed to talk about it – be it just a consensus to pretend it never happened or to never discuss such matters again – because things were getting out of hand and obvious enough that Grandma was noticing. Noticing and sending him coded looks that meant that they had better fix whatever was wrong before she got involved.
“Steve came to pick up Rebecca. Apparently they needed her for some tests or something,” Grandma told him, handing him a sandwich and an apple, when she noticed him looking around. He took a thoughtful bite of the sandwich – tuna salad – and wondered if maybe he could suggest and convince Cap to let Tabitha and Rebecca see each other, or maybe even meet the rest of the team. There was a simple solution to be found somewhere in all of this, he was sure of it.
Grandma pulled a water bottle out of the fridge and handed it to him as well, still on the subject. “I sure hope they enroll her in school soon…if not I’ll do it. It’s not good for her to be loitering around here all day, though she’s great company for your grandfather. Oh, Eli, your work called to move up your shift by a half hour. Don’t be late.”
“Thanks, Grandma,” he took the bottle gratefully, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and ran out the door. He was biting into his sandwich and rounding the last flight of stairs when he came upon Rebecca sitting quietly on the bottommost step. He carefully descended the last of the stairs, purposely making his footsteps very audible. He wanted her to know that she had the option of ignoring him or getting up and leaving or…anything, really.
“You’re going to work?” Rebecca asked, more to her shoes than at him as Eli passed her.
“Yeah,” he paused and looked down at her. She was curled into herself, face hidden. “You wanna walk with me?”
She uncurled a little, just enough to look up at him, and Eli felt the need to add, “Rebecca, it’s really a question. If you want to stay here, it’s fine. Just make sure to tell Grandma that you’re back at some point so she doesn’t worry.”
“I…” She suddenly sat up, looking straight ahead – Eli had learned to figure out what that meant, that she was about to open up in some stilted, awkward way – and said, “Sorry. I’ve been taking something out on you and that’s not fair. And…”
She shifted a little from her place on the stoop and looked up at him almost fiercely. “And call me Becca. No one calls me Rebecca, unless they’re my mom and they’re angry at me.”
He waited to see if she was done. When she didn’t say anything else he nodded. “Alright, Becca it is.” He stepped off that last step and said over his shoulder, “And you don’t always have to apologize, you know.”
Rebecca didn’t reply, only stood and started to climb up the stairs before pausing. Eli was positive she was going to say something and waited, but after a moment there was only silence, other than her hurried footsteps up the next flight.
Eli wasn’t sure if Grandma had gone through with her idle threat and passed the message to Cap, or if it was more the fact that nearly two months had passed without incident, but Becca was soon enrolled at his high school. Tabitha was not and instead was going to attend a school in Cassie’s district zone.
“She’s sort of…not happy about it,” Cassie confided in him. “I think it’s starting to get to her that she hasn’t seen anyone she really knows. And the fact that the grown ups are purposely enrolling Tabby and Becca in different high schools means something, yeah?”
Yeah, Eli agreed. That they were still trying to keep Tabitha and Becca separated. That they still didn’t entirely know what the deal was with them ending up in this universe.
And though Becca was getting better at not closing off and showing a little of the same cheer he saw in Billy, Eli was pretty sure that their separation was getting to her too. As well as the continued absence of her powers.
“So how’d you like my school?” Eli asked as they walked home after her first day.
“It was grandiose,” she replied with heavy, joyous sarcasm. “Beautiful! Miraculous! The very best.”
Eli rolled his eyes. “Your sarcasm isn’t appreciated.”
“Hey,” she quirked an eyebrow at him. “You’re lucky I didn’t follow through with a Pokémon joke. Oh my god, so much potential.”
He shook his head. “I’m so sorry I can’t fully appreciate your humor.”
Becca laughed, and started to hum something under her breath. He was going to ask her which song it was, but something closed off in her expression and she trailed off in silence, so Eli didn’t push it.
“Why are your Avengers so set on me and Tabby staying separated?” She asked abruptly. “I want to trust them and listen to them but. But…” She sounded so defeated, and Eli hated it, wanted to promise her everything would be okay but he had already done that two months ago, and look how much that had gotten her.
“I’ll ask,” he said quickly. “I’ll ask Cap about it. He’ll understand, the whole being stranded in a place where everyone you know is gone. We’ll set something up.”
Becca blinked in surprise and looked at him carefully. “Yeah. Okay, thanks Eli.”
Given that Becca was Billy from a different universe, the way things unraveled should not have been surprising.
He got in from work and went into the kitchen for water. “Hey, Grandma, Grandpa,” he greeted as he filled a glass.
“Have you seen Becca?” Grandma asked offhandedly from the table, reading a newspaper, sharing and trading sections with Grandpa. “She came home from school and went straight upstairs. Is she alright?”
Eli put the glass in the sink and stopped at the table to give both his grandparents a kiss on the cheek. “Maybe. She’s having a rough time with homesickness.”
Grandma made an empathetic noise. “Can you check on her?”
“Of course,” Eli said, making a beeline for upstairs.
Once upstairs, he found that the door to her bedroom was shut. He knocked, tentatively at first and then harder after seconds of no answer. There was still nothing, so he called through the door. “Hey Becca, you okay?”
Nothing. He cleared his throat. “Look, I heard you’re a little down…and I haven’t talked to Cap yet, but – ”
Wait. Wait wait wait. He stopped talking and instead listened closely, for breathing and heartbeat and any sort of movement. But all he picked up was silence; it didn’t sound like anyone was in the room. Eli sighed heavily as he reached for the doorknob. “Please, please, please…”
He opened the door and, sure enough, the bedroom was empty. He walked in to look around – there were always a bunch of other possibilities and explanations and –
And there was a letter on the bed. And okay, really, Eli realized that he should have seen this one coming a little sooner. With another sigh, he picked up the piece of paper and unfolded it. It read:
‘Sorry Eli. And Mrs. Faith – and Mr. Isaiah too! – if you read this. I’m really grateful for everything, and I really respect you all – and the Avengers too. But I’m sick of them making all these decisions with ‘our best interests at heart’.
Eli, I know you’ve promised to talk to your Cap about it, but it’s going to be no use. I saw him recently, for the tests, and talked to him. I asked the same thing you’re going to ask, on the same basis, and he sympathized. But, well, I guess something kind of bad has happened and he’s trying to stop other bad things from happening. And I GET that. I really do. But if they won’t let me see Tabby and expect me to just be okay with it…
Well, it’s just not going to happen that way. I’ll come back, if I can, promise. I just really really need to make sure that Tabby is actually okay and this isn’t some sort of big evil mastermind plan or a horrible lotus eater machine or something.
(Ha ha, I’m obviously hilarious.)
But I hope you understand that it’s not that I don’t trust you. I do! I trust the Bradley family completely and totally, believe me. So again, thank you and sorry.
Eli took a deep breath – trying to ignore the dull ache behind his eyes – and pulled out his cell phone. Tabby, she was trying to find Tabby, and Becca probably didn’t even really know Cassie’s full name or where exactly she lived. And Becca didn’t have magic on her side right now, so there was still time to fix this. Hopefully, anyway. He opened up his contacts and clicked on Cassie’s number.
“Hey Cassie? Is Tabitha still around?”
By the time Eli got to Cassie’s neighborhood, it was pretty late. And they still had to head back…and he was going to hate his life in the morning. But that wasn’t exactly rare, he told himself, pressing the button for the bell. Eli had barely finished ringing the doorbell when the door swung open.
“Oh my god, it’s ridiculous,” Cassie whispered as a greeting. “Are you sure they’re not dating?”
“…Hello to you too?” Eli broached cautiously. “I’m assuming she’s here, then?”
Cassie threw her hands up in the air in response and led the way to her room.
The two girls were sitting on Cassie’s bed hugging. Becca’s face was buried in Tabitha’s chest and it looked like she was kind of just. Clinging and breathing. Tabitha was petting her back soothingly.
“They’ve been like that since Becca showed up about an hour ago.” Cassie told him conspiratorially as they stood in the doorway.
“Liar,” Eli accused, keeping his voice quiet. “There’s no way.”
Cassie shrugged. “Well okay, first there was a tearful reunion and then a whole lot of Becca babbling nonsense, which was very classic-Billy so I’m calling BS on your whole ‘she’s nothing like Billy, guys’ routine.”
Eli rolled his eyes. Cassie’s attempt at a manly baritone voice in imitation of him had come off more as funny than mocking. “She’s warmed up considerably since then, I’ll have you know.” He told her. “And I’ve come to the conclusion that I was a little off about her, before.”
“Oh look here, Elijah Bradley, person analyzer extraordinaire,” Cassie teased loftily, clearly not impressed with his claims.
“I’m going to need you to stop picking up life lessons from Kate,” he warned. She just shrugged with the most unconcerned expression he’d ever seen.
He then noticed that Tabitha was looking at him inquisitively, and he blinked at her as her eyes scanned him up and down. “Wow, so that’s their Elana?”
Becca mumbled something that was muffled in Tabitha’s shirt material, and her grin widened. “Well hi, I’m Tabby.”
“Well obviously he knows that,” Becca grumbled, this time pulling her face back enough to not be talking into Tabitha’s (Tabby’s?) shirt.
“I feel like you’re being rude, Becks,” she said lightly. “Good job, that’ll make this reunion feel even more special.”
“Because you’re the absolute pinnacle of politeness, right, how silly of me to forget.” Becca shot back.
Eli tried not to be startled by the…similarities. Cassie was grinning at him, which obviously meant she had gone through the same revelation earlier. “Well,” Eli managed to say, only a little dryly because while this was all incredibly inconvenient for him, there were after all more important things in life. He could acknowledge that, seeing how heartfelt this reunion was. “Becca, I’m glad this worked out for the best.”
Becca pulled back farther, no long leaning so heavily on Tabby and, as far as Eli could tell, was now embarrassed. “I’m so sorry, Eli,”
she said immediately, eyebrows knitting together in sincerity. “For um. Just, that was stupid.”
He resisted the urge to roll his eyes because he’d probably done that enough times today. “No problem. The Avengers don’t know yet, so I guess it’ll be our secret.”
Tabby’s grin faded into something a little more serious. “Well, that is,” she said, the hand still on Becca’s back drifting upwards to rest on the nape of Becca’s neck. “Unless another big name hero goes missing.”
Becca’s eyes snatched away from him and Cassie at the doorway, and instead were aimed down at Cassie’s duvet. Eli was listening to Tabby, but he could for sure tell that Becca was fidgety with embarrassment.
“What do you mean by that?” Cassie asked. “You’ve never said anything about that before.”
Becca pulled away more, completely out of Tabby’s reach and looked side-eyed at the two of them in the doorway. “Susan Richards disappeared recently, and apparently your Scarlet Witch hasn’t been heard from in a while, though no one’s sure if she’s just living in isolation.” Becca shrugged. “Your Iron Man thinks we have something to do with it, and your Cap is inclined to see the coincidence.”
Tabby, who now had both her hands folded in her lap casually, nodded. “They told us all that when they brought us in for questioning and testing and labwork.”
“Wouldn’t let us see each other then either,” Becca said grumpily. “Someone has some theory that when we’re close together it makes this universe unstable.”
Cassie shrugged and put her hands on her hips. “Well, if you two being together really does have something to do with the universe allowing universe hopping, then we’ll see soon enough, huh?”
Becca and Tabby shared a glance before both eyed Cassie warily.
“You won’t tell them, will you?” Becca asked cautiously. “The Avengers and all that about me running away? I – ”
“‘Have already pulled that trick once and gotten in loads of trouble and yet not learned from my mistakes?’ That sounds about right,” Tabby interjected, and Becca rolled her eyes but didn’t respond. For good reason, Eli thought, because that was about the most accurate way of putting this all into perspective.
“I won’t say anything if it’s not harming anything,” Cassie promised.
She glanced at Eli, as if gauging his reaction – and he realized he’d seen her wear the same expression when challenging Jonas’s bluffs in poker. She was trying to read him and predict his next move, so he saved her the time. Eli shook his head. “I’m not going to go tell the Avengers if it’s not necessary either. Just, everyone keep an eye and ear out for weird occurrences, okay?”
Becca and Tabby beamed, and it wasn’t like Eli hadn’t already built his whole entire super hero career on a habit of undermining authority anyway.
The visit didn’t last too much longer because of the time, and though Eli had been worried about the possibility of Becca demanding to sleep over, the goodbyes turned out to be relatively quick and clean.
“You feel better?” He asked as they caught the next bus.
“Yes,” Becca replied instantly, still bright and smiling. “But, you know, why’d you come looking for me?”
“Why’d you write a letter that sounded like a permanent goodbye?” Eli shot back levelly. “I was worried. It was too…Billy’s done something like that and ended up getting himself in a huge mess. And it sounded like you have too.”
He paused and thought about that. Maybe that had happened in her universe too, the whole Scarlet Witch being found with amnesia and Doom being his generally usual crazy self, and maybe Becca went off on her own and left a letter behind like a self-sacrificing idiot.
Becca’s eyes had more mirth than the small smile she quirked at him. “It’s stupid, I think I was hoping once I met up with Tabs my power would come back and all of a sudden it’d transport us back home. It was a safety precaution in case I didn’t get another chance to say goodbye.”
Eli shook his head a little and purposely bumped shoulders with her. She bumped back, even as she looked out the bus window, returning the gesture of affection.
No one – to Eli’s knowledge without straight out asking Cap – had disappeared following that night, so the probability of that being the determining factor of Sue Richards suddenly vanishing had lost some validity.
“But then again,” Kate pointed out over hot dogs at the mall. “What do we really know about inter-dimensional hypotheses?”
“And testing said hypotheses? Nothing,” Eli admitted forlornly. He’d offered to pay for both hot dogs, but Kate had declined and insisted they go Dutch. Which was better than the last time they’d sprung for lunch – she’d taken him to a kind of pricey place and made sure she paid his bill without even having the check come to the table. He could have handled it (with, like, a month’s worth of pay) and it was still kind of a sore memory. “But, it’s just…a little harmful to keep them separated for no good reason, don’t you think?”
Kate raised an eyebrow as she chewed her bite thoroughly. “…Eli, do you think there’s something going on in the thing that you told the team was explicitly none of our business? Are you meddling?”
He bristled, then hid his face in a napkin under the pretense that he was wiping his mouth. “I’m not trying to matchmake or anything. Even if they really are only friends, they miss each other and their old lives. I mean, we’ve seen what Billy – and Teddy – are capable of when they get desperate enough. Becca ran away and hoped that everything would get reset – and she’s the one with the reality warping powers. Just because they’re offline right now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take heed.”
Kate leaned in for a thoughtful sip of soda. “Point taken.” She lowered her voice and leaned in even more, “Do you think…they’re more like our Billy and Teddy than they’re letting on?”
Eli thought back to Becca clinging and getting flustered and pulling away from Tabby’s touch after a second too long, and Tabby’s silent acceptance of it all. “I still think that it’s complicated and their business,” he admitted. “But it’s highly likely that yeah, there’s more to it than them just being friends.”
Eli wasn’t entirely sure, and Cassie wouldn’t admit to anything, but he suspected meddling. And really, Cassie was the only one with enough influence among the Avengers to be effective. This effective, anyway.
“Starting tomorrow, I advise Eli and Cassie to bring in the female Wiccan and Hulkling to the Young Avengers’ training regiments,” Cap announced to the team grandly. “Though we suspect Doom to still have a plan in the works, it’s probably in our greatest interest to make sure these two are at the top of their game and willing to lend us a hand if such a time comes.”
The ‘especially Wiccan’ was not said but instead heavily implied, and Eli could see the logic in that. Hell, he’d just mentioned the same thing to Kate the other day.
“So we get to meet us?” Billy was saying excitedly. “Me and Teddy. But in girl form?”
“Someone is too excited for this,” Tommy said scornfully.
But Cap tilted his head at Billy and ignored Tommy like a pro. “Yes. But keep in mind that they’re their own people too.”
“They probably refer to you two as the boy versions of them,” Jonas clarified.
“I don’t know,” Teddy hummed, looking thoughtful. “I feel like I have no problem just saying she’s me from another universe. Maybe that’s – ”
“A changeling thing? Yeah, I think so T,” Billy said, mostly distracted by his preoccupation with another him. Or a Black him that was a her, or both or whatever. Eli was getting this weird creeping feeling of dread when he thought about Billy and Becca in the same room together, and he wasn’t sure what it meant exactly.
He found out what exactly what it meant shortly after. Becca didn’t seem to like Billy – at all.
Billy held out a cheerful hand and declared, “Hi, I’m Billy Kaplan, Wiccan of this universe.”
And Becca stared at his hand as if it was a foreign thing. “Rebecca.” She finally returned stiffly, not extending her hand as well, and Tabby bumped her and sent a meaningful look her way. Eli thought maybe he should ask what that was about later, from either of them.
“Sorry about her,” Tabby said with a smile (and Eli was not expecting the steely look Becca shot her at those words, he had to work very hard to not show his surprise), accepting Billy’s hand instead. “I’m Tabby. It’s good to meet you.”
Cassie glanced at Eli, grim faced, and he might have had the same expression when he returned the glance; Becca was now glaring a hole into the floor.
Teddy raised a hand in acknowledgment. “It’s good to know I’m constant,” he joked, eyeing Tabby’s leggy, vivacious, blondeness.
She shrugged with a grin. “Obviously I bulk up in battle. But hey guy-me, not looking too shabby yourself.”
“Oh no he’s met himself, he’s in love,” Kate groaned. “Watch out, Billy.”
Billy waved airily. “I keep telling you guys he’s not really as nice as he pretends, and I’d think as his boyfriend I’d know. Look at that huge ego.” Teddy only shook his head good-naturedly in response.
The rest of the meeting went as best as such occasions could go – and Tabby did a fantastic job of averting attention from Becca’s reluctant mood that occasionally escalated into outright snapping when it came to talking to Billy.
Eli wasn’t so easily derailed by Tabby’s light jokes, after living with Becca for the past few months. He was reminded of her defensive lashing out and self-imposed isolation from when she first moved in, the way her eyes kept sneaking to Billy disdainfully. And it worried him.
“So how’d you like meeting the team?” He asked carefully, sorting through the returned books.
“Eh,” Becca replied. She was flipping through a book she’d snagged from the pile absent-mindedly. “It’s a little…scary? I don’t know, I mean first off you have so many boys. And then everyone’s themselves, but different.”
“Not so much,” he advised. “You and Billy have a lot in common, actually. In roundabout ways.”
Eli could hear her go still. “…Maybe.”
“Do you not like Billy?” Eli asked carefully.
She slowly put the book down and drew her knees up, and Eli had a sense of déjà vu. “I don’t not like him…I just. It’s.” She balanced her arms on the points of her knees. “I don’t know yet. I can’t…wrap my head around it yet. He’s so…just, I don’t know, casual about everything. All the time.”
Becca wasn’t being clear on what she was talking about, but Eli had a pretty good idea of what was going on – and it must have been hard for her to see a version of herself not struggling with the same issues. He sighed, scooted nearer, and reached over to pull her into a one armed hug.
“You be you,” he said softly, and she sucked in a single shuddering breath at the reassurance. “That’s fine too.”
Training was going really amazingly, Eli thought pessimistically.
“You need to focus more,” Billy explained, and Becca glared.
“I am. It won’t do anything though, because my powers aren’t – ”
Billy threw his hands in the air, “See, if you think like that then you make it be that way.”
She huffed at him. “Uh yeah, I think I got the whole ‘meditate and Iwant my powers back into existence’ training plan. What do you think I’ve been doing for the past three months on my own – ”
Kate leaned over to Eli, observing both Wiccans as critically as him from their side of the room. “Should we intervene?”
“I don’t know,” Tommy snickered. “I think it’s kind of hilarious.”
While Kate and Eli ignored Tommy easily and Cassie just looked on worriedly, Jonas cut in, “I think it should be therapeutic. I’m not the only one sensing the tension between them, right?”
Eli raised an eyebrow. “Sensing tension? How about hearing it from a mile away – ”
“Forget it then!” Becca was shouting, standing out of the meditation pose. “Just forget it!”
“Ugh, fine!” Billy yelled at her retreating back, and she stormed past all of them out the room.
“What was that about?” Tommy asked, craning his neck to watch her leave. “Should I go get her?”
“She doesn’t want to listen, is what,” Billy was grumbling, he too unfolding his legs and standing up.
“No stay put Tommy, I’ll get her,” Eli said hurriedly. He could always get both sides of the story later, he thought as he rushed after her.
He was about to round the corner when he ran head first into Teddy. “Wha – ?”
Teddy grinned and placed a comforting hand on Eli’s shoulder. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Tabby’s got it.”
Both the Hulklings had gone out for flying together and obviously had returned just in time to intercept Becca. Eli sighed. “You probably should talk to Billy, then. And I’ll…talk to Becca later, I guess.”
Teddy squeezed his shoulder a little. “Yeah. It’ll be fine. Don’t worry so much, leader.”
And the tone of Teddy’s voice told Eli that he really believed in that. Eli wasn’t so sure if he felt the same.
“Tabby and I had a talk,” Becca admitted as they played cards with Grandpa.
“Yeah?” Eli worked hard at not reacting too much, something he had really been able to work on and perfect ever since Becca moved in, and stared at his hand as Grandpa put down his newly collected pairs.
“Yeah.” She pulled from the deck. “I may have been overacting. Or overcompensating, or something. I’m sorry. Next training session I promise…I mean. I have no reason to dislike Billy. I can be civil.”
Eli frowned at her. “Stop it. We all have things we – ”
She laughed bitterly. “No no, I can act better, I can be a credit to my race – ”
“Stop it,” Eli growled. “Don’t talk like that.”
Grandpa was looking at the two of them with wide, worried eyes, so Eli smiled at him and Becca quickly followed suit.
“Sorry, sometimes it’s what I feel Tabby’s chastising me on,” She managed to make the words sound as light as her smile, managed to almost sound like nothing was wrong. “But. Really, we talked about my issues and how they’re separate from this universe’s version of me.” Her smile fell and she faltered and sighed. “You’ve probably noticed that I have certain…issues.”
Eli just looked carefully at her, trying to convey compassion. “They’re understandable.”
She laughed again; this time it was watery. “Yeah, well, I can’t take them out on Billy. I have to at least get a chance to know him before I decide I hate him.” She smirked a little, obviously trying to get in control of her emotions by resorting to cynicism, and Grandpa put down his cards and patted her knee reassuringly. She smiled, more genuinely this time, at him.
Eli scoffed, “And here’s the optimistic Wiccan I know and love.” He too put down his cards and sidled up next to her, bumping her shoulders with his.
“Yep,” she murmured, laying her head on his shoulder. “Here I am.”
Following sessions did indeed go smoother, though Eli continued to keep an eye on Becca and Billy. They weren’t arguing anymore, but…
He watched the two of them working on meditation technique on the other side of the room, their occasional conversation inaudible but through grim mouths and gritted teeth.
“Is it just me,” Kate whispered, and of course she noticed these things too, she was sometimes co-leader for a reason, after all. “Or are those two only just barely tolerating each other?”
“Yes,” Jonas answered immediately, voice at the same low level. “But that’s better than fighting, right?”
“Yeah, but why can’t they just get along like the Hulklings?” Cassie sighed out, leaning against Jonas, and Eli wondered if their team really was in any place to criticize anyone’s complicated relationships.
Tommy snorted. “Uh, because Billy is an uptight dramafest no matter who he is.”
Kate elbowed his in the stomach, which thus far had been proven her favorite method of shutting him up. He groaned and glared at her, and she jutted her chin in the direction of Tabby and Teddy, who just finished a sparring round and were heading over.
“I thought the whole point of having a headquarters was to have enough space for everyone to train at the same time?” Teddy said with a grin, wiping sweat from his brow.
“At least the team slacking off hasn’t changed here,” Tabby added, wearing an identical expression.
Despite the joking he and Tabby, Eli noticed, both had immediately looked over at where Billy and Becca were.
“Yeah, well, not all of us have ourselves to play around with,” Tommy sniped back. He paused, cocked his head, then gestured behind him. “Well, versions of ourselves that we actually like, I guess is the important thing here.”
Teddy and Tabby rolled their eyes in unison, and one said, “Tommy,” while the other said, “Tammy,” but in the same exact laughingly reprimanding tone.
And all Eli saw was that the periphery of their attention was still across the room on Billy and Becca holding fragile conversation.
“How is it going, between you and Becca?” Eli asked Billy, pulling him aside after stopping a bank robbery. “I know it was a rough start.”
Billy shrugged. “Why don’t you just ask her?”
Eli frowned. “Are you mad at me? Billy…do you think I’m picking sides?”
He shrugged again, with a laugh. “No – I mean there’s not really a side to pick if there’s not really a clear argument? I don’t know, I seriously can’t figure out where I stand with her.”
Eli glanced over at where Teddy was waiting for Billy to finish up, politely looking away from them. “She can be testy,” he admitted. “But you can be that way too, Billy.”
Billy ran a hand through his hair. “I guess. We’re having problems seeing eye to eye on things, like her powers. And…um,” he fidgeted and looked away. “Her relationships.”
“Relationships.” Eli eyed Billy critically, and he fidgeted even more. “Billy, please don’t tell me – ”
Billy threw his hands up over his head, “Yeah, me and Teddy had a talk about this already, I know! Okay, I’m not pressuring her anymore, I promise.” Billy scrunched up his nose. “Teddy assigned me reading. Like, homework, can you believe it? All about some intersectionality stuff, which apparently he got from my mom. I don’t know, it’s all really weird.”
Eli frowned. “Okay, you lost me.”
Billy sighed and shrugged. “Just. It’s come to my understanding that I’ve been a little callous? And that apparently just because we’re the same person doesn’t mean I can completely relate to her because we’re actually not the same person? That’s what I got from my boyfriend-mother-co-op-assigned homework.” He ran a hand through his hair again and his eyes fixed on a spot in the distance, and seriously they were all going to need therapy after this was over because Eli was totally seeing Becca’s mannerisms in Billy right now. Or perhaps it was the other way around.
“I mean,” Billy said quietly. “I’m trying really hard not to push anything, and I normally wouldn’t – but she’s me. It’s hard not to…just. Just try to help.”
Eli closed his eyes very briefly and exhaled slowly. “Yeah, well that would definitely be what’s causing issues in seeing eye to eye.” Eli shook his head. “Look Billy, I may not be completely clear on whatever it is Teddy’s trying to explain to you, but I think he’s got a good point. At the risk of sounding…I don’t even know what. Just, keep in mind that she’s a girl, and she’s Black. And that you’re a guy, and you’re white.”
“Jewish,” Billy corrected. Eli pinned him with an unimpressed look and Billy looked a little sheepish. “It’s just kind of an important detail.”
“What I’m saying,” Eli continued. “Is that yeah, you’re right: you’re the same, but you’re not. Just try to understand her point of view.”
Billy nodded, “We started talking about our issues. I’m listening to her. She’s listening to me. We’re…sort of working things out. Slowly.”
And there wasn’t anything else Eli could say, because it wasn’t his place.
He did, however, he called Teddy’s cell number later that night.
“You are a really good boyfriend,” Eli told Teddy over the phone the instant he picked up.
“…Is it alright if I say I am not comfortable with that conversation starter?” Teddy replied.
Eli snorted. “Yes, because I that’s how I try to seduce people.”
“I seriously wouldn’t put it past you. I’m not even joking, not even a little bit.”
Eli rolled his eyes. “Yes you are. At least a little bit.”
Teddy’s laugh cracked with static over the line. “Ah, you got me. Now, to what do I owe the honor of you commending my boyfriend abilities?”
“Just.” Eli struggled over how to phrase this. “How do you even – Billy was telling me what you were making him learn. And I’m not, like, an expert and I have no clue about the official terminology or anything, but it sounds…” ‘Right’, ‘familiar’, and ‘true’ were words he was trying to avoid here. He finally settled only a little lamely on, “Relevant.”
Teddy sighed. “Man, I think everyone forgets I’m a shapeshifter sometimes. I’m not saying I’m an expert either – and I definitely know I can’t claim fully understanding the experience because, again, I’m a shapeshifter.” Teddy’s emphasis, and all the implicit to it about choice and safe spaces, totally bowled Eli over. God, forget just good boyfriend, Teddy was an awesome friend.
“But I’ve been not blond, blue eyed, white, and male for extended periods of time before. I kind of started to realize some things, and so I went out and started reading up on, you know, race, sexuality and gender, and intersectionality.” He laughed again. “And yeah, those things have seemed a little ‘relevant’ lately.”
Eli exhaled and he found himself wishing he’d waited to have this conversation face to face. There was some serious need for back-clapping or one armed hugs or something. “You totally don’t have to put yourself out there like that with Billy, though, is what I’m saying.”
“What can I say, Tabby and I bonded,” Teddy said. “And Billy’s totally enjoying finding out all the queer studies reading material his mom has in her study, don’t let him fool you.”
Eli laughed, “Is that so?” And felt that, maybe, maybe things didn’t have to be so bad after all.
The next time Cap gathered Young Avengers, he was much more grim faced.
“There has been a building situation,” he opened with.
“Have more people gone missing?” Eli asked immediately.
“There’s that,” Cap admitted. “Which Tony has figured out the link between that and our visitors from the other universe, so there are small victories if nothing else.”
Jonas frowned. “Tony Stark? I thought such a thing would be more of Reed Richards’s expertise?”
Cap nodded tersely. “It would be, but he went missing early on with Sue Richards. Tony explains it better, but there’s some sort of anomaly that’s, well. Basically as people such as the girl Wiccan and Hulkling cross into our universe, people from here cross into theirs.”
Kate raised an eyebrow. “Well that’s certainly not naturally occurring.”
“Tony’s pointing fingers at Doom,” Cap said. “Since he was there at the start of it and highly specific people are the ones disappearing. Specific as in high profile members of the hero community.”
“I know it’s stating the obvious,” Cassie said. “But that isn’t good.”
Cap offered a sardonic smile. “Right. We had Doctor Strange working on how to send the girls back, but he went missing most recently along with the Scarlet Witch and – ”
“Wait,” Billy interjected. “And this is me not freaking out over my spirit mother going missing, everyone take note for the next time you wanna joke that I’m a ‘dramafest’ – ”
“Really Billy? Now? Now is the time for this?” Teddy cut in.
Billy kept going, eyebrow quirked as if to say well yeah of course now is the time for this. “If it’s transitive or whatever, doesn’t that mean that more people have come here too? If all those heroes have gone missing?”
“And not to keep interrupting you Cap, but what exactly should Young Avengers do in the meantime? Look for Doom?” Tommy asked as well. “I mean, if heroes are going missing you’ll obviously be needing back up.”
“Yes and no. We already have people looking for Doom,” Cap reassumed his proud, determined stance. “And Young Avengers will be in charge of accommodating our visitors and working with the Wiccans.”
Eli rubbed at his brow, already feeling the weight of an against the odds struggle. “Visitors, Cap?”
“Working with the Wiccans?” Kate pointed out instead. “What exactly will they – and us – be working towards?”
Cap addressed Eli’s inquiry first. “More of the other Young Avengers have come here. They are being hosted at the Avenger headquarters and, in the interest of what seems to be an impending battle, your Young Avengers are going to convene there for planning and training. As for the Wiccans – ”
“They’re back up. Just like us,” Jonas said suddenly, figuring it out. “No one’s entirely sure of what’s going to happen, if Tony Stark is going to go missing next in the middle of working on a universe transverse device, or if Captain America or another big power player will disappear. And since we’re just gaining members, we’re the safest bet right now.”
Cap nodded and said softly, “The disappearance of Doctor Strange was a big loss.”
Jonas looked at the rest of them intensely and cut to the heart of the matter. “They want to depend on Stark to pull through, but it might have to come down to reality warping.”
Billy looked stricken, and Teddy rubbed his back reassuringly. “What,” Billy nearly spat out. “Becca and I are supposed to – to study his tomes and try to work out how to close, I don’t know, portals? All on top of working through her sealing away her own powers?” He ran a frantic hand through his hair. “I am so not on Doctor Strange’s level – ”
“You can do it,” Teddy encouraged, and Eli saw déjà vu in the way Teddy’s hand moved to the nape of Billy’s neck gently.
Cap approached Billy and clamped a strong hand on his shoulder. “It isn’t a sure thing, but we want you to prepare for that possibility just in case. Trust your team and yourself. And in the Avengers.”
Eli and Kate shared a look. They’d heard this sort of talk and tone before, and what it foretold of the near future was not promising.
The female Speed was wearing a loose sweater and bike shorts and was painting her toenails dark purple when Eli walked into the lounge room at the Avengers’ headquarters.
She looked up at him with a raised eyebrow, and Eli noticed that her eyes were light gray. He also took note that her hair was light blonde instead of white like Tommy’s – and natural. She saw him looking and smirked. “What, never seen a fro, baldy? Or are you just the me of this world and are so shocked that I’m this cute?”
Eli shook his head a little – she had that same bravado that Tommy had. “No, I’ve seen bigger afros. This one’s pretty small and not shocking, actually. I almost expected more from you, to be honest.”
She scoffed and ruffled the short curls proudly. “I’m not stupid. I don’t want my hair to be not-aerodynamic and slow me down.”
He sat down across from her. “I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m not you. My name’s Eli. I’m this universe’s Patriot.”
She blinked and put the nail polish down. “What? No kidding, oh my god, too bad Elana’s out for a run and hating herself for being stupid – ”
Eli frowned. “What – ”
She plowed on. “This could have been absolutely awesome! I’m Tammy by the way, but hey, I thought we weren’t getting visitors until the end of the week?” She wriggled her half-finished toes in the air. “I’m not done making myself pretty and presentable!”
Eli waited to see if she was done talking and deemed himself safe from more interruptions when she fluttered her eyelashes endearingly up at him. “They are. I came early,” and alone he added silently to himself. “I wanted to gauge.” Check if there were any other issues he needed to be aware of and moderate between his team and theirs. He still was going to have to talk to Becca. And probably Tabby too, and maybe even Billy and Teddy as well. Things were getting too serious for things to lay where they currently were.
Tammy made a face at him. “Wow. All duty and no play no matter what’s between your legs, huh?”
“Is there anyone else around?” Eli asked, scanning the room and seeing no one. He’d gotten used to Tabby and Becca from sheer amount of exposure, but it still hadn’t taken the surrealistic edge off the whole ordeal.
“Elana’s out running, I already told you.” She flopped back against the couch. “Uh, Carter’s showering, and I haven’t seen Joan and Chris in a while so they’re probably breaking rules and out on a date or whatever. Or maybe they’re training, I dunno.”
Eli took a deep breath. “Right. Uh, I have a question.”
Tammy’s attention was wandering – she was staring at the ceiling now. “Hm?”
“How much do you know about your sister and Tabby? And their…issues? Becca’s issues, more specifically.”
“What my fake-twin and her lesbo best friend?” She offered, tone bored. “And my fake-twin’s lesbo crush on her best friend, and ohhh the drama and the angst and the – ” Tammy cut off abruptly and sat up rigidly. “Waitwaitwait how do you know – are they here? Do you know where they are?”
Eli blinked and suddenly Tammy was in his face, the scent of nail polish filling his nostrils. “We’ve all been popping over here into this universe and – andIthoughtthosetwocameherefirstbutyourAvengerswouldn’tsayand – ”
“Tamara,” came a strict voice from somewhere behind her, and just as suddenly Tamara was back on the couch, glancing cautiously sideways at Eli.
Eli looked towards the door, his eyes landing on a girl in workout clothes with hair short enough to qualify as a buzz cut. Elana, his mind supplied. Girl-him.
“Look, Mexican American girl Elana,” Tammy said in an offhand voice, as though she hadn’t just been freaking out. “It’s African American boy Elana! Isn’t that something?”
“It’s Eli,” he managed as he stared at – at himself.
Elana wiped sweat off her forehead. “Tammy shut up. Where is everybody?”
“Oh great, there’s two of you and you think exactly alike, that’s awesome.” She threw her hands up in the air and was gone.
Elana shook her head. “Alright then, not here I take it,” she squinted at him. “…Eli, huh? Why are you here – I’m not going to have to beat you up, am I? You’re not actually some intruder that Tammy was chatting up without realizing it, are you?”
And though her tone was cool, he saw how her eyebrow twitched upwards at the end and realized she was joking. “No, I was scouting,” he answered honestly. “I don’t know how much you know about the situation – ”
“Not much. Your Avengers are keeping us in the dark. Don’t want to risk it, I’ve gathered.”
Eli nodded. “Well the stakes might get high, so I wanted to know if there were going to be problems. Becca and Billy already don’t see eye to eye, and that’s going to be difficult enough as is.”
“Is there a reason Tammy’s sulking in my room – oh. Visitor?”
They both looked towards the hall entry and standing there was what had to be the guy version of Kate. He was Asian with short black hair that was damp, obviously from his recent shower. He also had no shirt on and looked perfectly at ease despite Eli’s surprising presence, which was just typical of boy-Kate.
Elana took a stance that Eli immediately recognized as defensive. “Yeah. He’s me.” Her voice had a sudden gruffness to it and, oh awesome, no matter what universe obviously he and Kate…yeah. “He’s also leaving soon, so.”
Carter raised a challenging eyebrow. “So?”
She glared. “So none of your business. Why don’t you just go finish dressing in front of Tammy?”
Carter glared back for a second, “I’m not – ” But then he held up his hands in a surrendering manner. “Right right, you’re leader and we’re in an unknown place and your word is law and the only thing keeping us from certain death, I forgot.”
“Carter,” Elana said, voice dropping into something very quiet and uncertain, at his retreating back and Eli looked away because this was obviously a private moment. “I…I’m sorry. For earlier. For what I said.”
There was a moment of silence before Carter replied equally as quietly. “I know. Just typical Elana and her typical foot in mouth tendencies, I get it. Don’t worry about it. Really.”
Eli didn’t look back until his footsteps had faded down the hallway, and Elana’s expression was soft and smiling. He cleared his throat a little to remind her that he was there. “There’s a growing situation,” he told her, all business because otherwise they’d both be embarrassed over what had just happened. “And I don’t know your team – and you don’t know mine – but we’re going to have work together soon.”
Elana frowned a little but kept mostly stoic. “And I’m sure we’ll manage. We’ll meet your team in a few days and make it work.”
“Right. Until then.” Eli nodded at her and got up to leave. He understood full well that she was dismissing him, and he could respect that. They were mostly in the dark, being treated with hospitability but overall as hostages, and he was a stranger intruding. He could understand that.
The mixing of the teams went as well as could be hoped – the other Young Avengers were more concerned with reclaiming Becca and Tabby than making pleasantries. That, along with Jessica Jones’s involvement being solely focused on professional efficiency, made for a very uneventful, unemotional meeting.
“The Wiccans will continue with meditating and researching Strange’s materials that have been delivered here, the rest of you will face off against your counterpart and explore if you are at the same level in skills and abilities.” Jessica dictated, all while she balanced Dani on her hip. She grinned. “But first…hand to hand combat. Suit up and head to the practice room. No powers.” She glanced over at him and Elana. “Well. Those who can help it.”
Joan was not so different from Jonas, though Eli had yet seen her in human form. As an android, she barely had any distinguishing gender traits other than less broad shoulders, a slightly narrower chest, and a smaller statue than Jonas. Chris, on the other hand, was definitely multiracial, though of was hard to tell what of. Eli had suspicions of white and Asian – maybe Filipino or Indian or something because of his complexion. It was difficult to tell for sure from where he was grappling with Elana, especially when Cassie and Chris were practicing their fighting as well.
Tommy and Tammy were doing more flirting and getting up in each other’s face playfully than anything else, and there was a lot of sudden superspeed for a nonpowers match. Billy and Becca were being civil enough while running through basic drills, and Kate and Carter were sitting on the mats talking calmly. He wasn’t sure if they had even begun a match, he realized suddenly even as he took note of Teddy and Tabby wrestling nearby, a tangle of muscles and blond hair everywhere.
“You’re distracted,” Elana grunted, blocking his punch closing in to deliver a hit of her own.
“Just surveying,” he corrected lightly, blocking her punch too. He could come to like her, he thought idly, ducking and trying to sweep her feet from under her only to have Elana expertly dodge.
Cap obviously didn’t blindly trust the other Young Avengers, which was a good thing. Eli was still wary at times, like when the Speeds disappeared together or when Billy and Becca were left alone with literally the fate of the world maybe resting on their shoulders. But as much as he realized they weren’t the same people (the way Chris always sort of went out of his way to find Joan when she was going up and out of her way to avoid him – and her angry tolerance of his company whenever he found her – meant something, after all) the longer they all were together the harder it was to not feel some sort of kinship. Especially since they were running through teambuilding and trying to cover as much ground in training as possible, in case of the worst possible scenario. Especially when it was so easy to see themselves in these other versions of themselves.
He said stupid things to Kate when she was occasionally flirty in a way he didn’t know how to react to, unsure of where they were standing in their ongoing were-they-weren’t-they relationship, and she would snipe at him and disappear to workout until she felt better. Elana said mean things to Carter when he was (as far as Eli could tell from where he was standing) overwhelmingly flirty and she panicked with sarcasm too dry to not be defensive, and he would snipe at her and disappear with his shooting equipment in the practice room. And it was things like that, parallels so easy to draw. It was hard not to just watch and understand.
He was used to seeing Teddy and Tabby get along like they were the same person, a second skin to one another. He was used to seeing Billy and Becca fight with all the passive aggressiveness in the world, with plenty of envy and anger and dislike on both their parts. He had seen the extremes, and somehow oddly enough it had left him unprepared. He wasn’t ready for this inbetween thing he and Elana had, this them not necessarily seeing eye to eye but agreeing and understanding the grand scheme of things enough where they could set that aside, where they could click together in all the right ways and not worry about all the wrong ways that could cause friction. He just wasn’t entirely prepared for the camaraderie, the sense of back up.
It was hard to gauge how it was with the others besides the Hulklings and Wiccans. Chris and Cassie were sometimes best friends and sometimes not on speaking terms, an on and off relationship that the other universe Young Avengers seemed to be collectively rolling their eyes at, so maybe it was that Chris was a little more fickle in certain ways than Cassie. What their occasional falling outs were over Eli was neither very sure of nor about to pry into. Jonas and Joan on the other hand seemed to silently enjoy each other’s company, which might have been an android thing – the Visions had, after all, consistently had deeper connections with tech that had been built by the same creator or with similar software. It could also have been simply that they were able to easily empathize with one another.
Meanwhile, he wasn’t entirely expecting Tommy or Tammy to show in public how they really felt about the whole ordeal, and true to form the two of them had been mostly unfazed and showboating or not sticking around training like they were supposed to. But Eli had seen how their thighs touched when they sat together on the couch for briefing, and how they both often flitted off after their siblings when the Wiccans came up from the study for air and space from one another. Sometimes the way they touched each other wasn’t entirely…platonic, the air between them sometimes thick with something vastly inappropriate, and there were some insights about his team that Eli wished he didn’t have to involve himsef with, didn’t know how to. He knew he’d maybe blow a whistle on this one thing, have to if it got out of hand, but Elana had sensed it too and was keeping a close of an eye on it as he was.
“It’s probably not enough since they have superspeed and all, but I don’t want to put them on the spot or anything,” she admitted quietly to him. “You know how Speed can get if she – they – feel cornered.”
Eli nodded. “Agreed. And it’s not doing harm right now, I think as long as the Wiccans don’t know…”
Elana looked at him cautiously, as if she wasn’t entirely sure if he was on the same page as her. “As long as none of the team knows, ideally.”
He agreed immediately. “Ideally, yeah of course. But non-ideally, and realistically because we both know the Hulklings are going to pick up on the body language sooner rather than later – and the Visions too – ”
She sighed and leaned her chair back on its back two legs. “Yeah. Yeah in case everyone but Chris and Beck figure it out we have to keep it from Beck.” She, noticeably didn’t mention Carter but he, fair enough hadn’t mentioned Kate. It was probably common knowledge between the two of them that they would be more than likely telling their respective Hawkeyes this news after this impromptu meeting was over. Elana shot him a flat look, and instead of asking or confirming the any of the subtexts that came with their being hopelessly in love and entirely incapable of dealing with that normally, broached a new topic, “Chris kind of has a big mouth.”
Eli shrugged apologetically. “Cass can keep a secret. I’m sure if the push came the shove your Stature could do it too.”
Elana groaned and rubbed the side of her face with one hand, a stress-tic he was familiar with. “Why does Tammy have to go out of her way to be a pain in my ass no matter what the situation? Seriously, she has to be trying.”
“Both of them are equally cooperative and at fault,” Eli said. “And I think that is where the problem lies.”
She laughed. “What were we thinking, letting them meet and interact? Obviously a recipe for trouble.”
(“Wait, you think the Speeds are sleeping together?” Kate asked carefully, as if trying to clear up any misconceptions this conversation could have.
“Maybe,” he answered. “I don’t know if it’s that far. There’s some sort of intimate something going on between them. Elana and I agree on that.”
Kate’s expression was troubled. “It could be they’re just…relating in ways we can’t with them. Tommy’s always…you know. Been a little needy but stalwart or whatever against asking for help.” She chewed on her lip. “With someone who is you, you don’t have to ask or say anything – they already know, right?”
Eli irrationally wanted to pull her close and hold her, but that was probably him projecting his worries on her. She was sometimes not much better than Tommy with on the whole ‘needing-help-but-being-stalwart’ front, but he could (and had to) respect her decisions. “The thing is,” Eli said very slowly, as he’d been thinking this over. “I’m not sure if, with Tommy, there’s such a stark contrast between that kind of intimacy and sexual intimacy.”
Kate hummed, “Okay, overlaps, I totally get that.” She was silent for a moment, before saying, “And we certainly can’t ask – not like Tommy’d give us a straight answer. The important thing is as long as it doesn’t cause issues – oh, god, Billy can’t know.”
And seriously, Eli hadn’t even told her that part, he hadn’t even had to walk her through the reasoning he and Elana came to – god, he so was hopelessly in love with her.)
Jessica was a pretty hands-off teacher, though she pushed them hard. It was understandable – they were supposed to be concerned with team dynamics in case they had to step in in place of the ‘adult heroes’ after all. And they were managing fine on their own, normally did anyway.
“How’s the reality warping research going?” He asked jokingly. Grandma had sent him to pick her up after his shift at the library, since Becca had taken to spending as much time as possible at base with her team. “Also Grandma said ‘this is the fifth time, you know better, you better start bringing your butt home on your own or else’.”
She laughed. “I know I know, the ‘you’re my ward until further notice’ speech that essentially translates into me not being allowed to sleep over.”
Eli tried not to let his eyes flicker. That actually had more to do with Grandma knowing about Billy and Teddy dating. A lot more.
Becca may have picked up on that, as she sobered a little at his silence. “But yeah, okay, home by curfew, can do.” She smiled, that familiar withdrawn and bitter smile and Eli really thought they were past this. “But the research project is going about as well as expected.”
He nudged her, trying to wipe the sad look from her face. “He’s not – if Billy’s overstepping boundaries tell someone, me or Teddy or even Tabby or Jessica, and we can – ”
She nudged him back, making a scrunched up face. “I can handle my own white, male self, thank you very much. I just.” Becca shrugged heartily. “I don’t want to go there. We have an understanding. We can be civil.”
“Barely. It’s a very passive aggressive civility,” Eli pointed out. He received a dirty look for his efforts.
“Look, we’re now honestly busier with translating and making sense of Strange’s material than with pretending we’re not fighting.” She made another face, one a mix of confusion and contemplation. “We might be bonding, actually. I don’t know.”
Eli nodded, just shy of approvingly. He was trying to stay neutral here, but he hated having to be in a position where he had to pick sides in the first place. “Okay,” he prompted. “So Billy’s not that bad?”
Becca’s face went a little blanker and her tone a little more cautious. “No,” she conceded slowly. “No, he’s not that bad.”
With Cap and Tony Stark still handling the pending crises without keeping them fully in the loop, they all had no choice but to focus on the task that had been assigned to them. And for Eli that meant he needed to foster an understanding with Elana’s Young Avengers past training maneuvers (and she with his team, but he’d leave that for her to handle; that was the way he’d like it for him, so Eli assumed he might as well pay her the same courtesy). But how to do that, Eli was realizing, was the real question. Tammy already didn’t trust him and the chances of her coming around were unlikely. And he was strangely uneasy with the prospect of sitting down any of the others from Elana’s team and just ordering them to recognize him as leader or something equally invasive and offensive.
All in all there was a slight problem in what Eli wanted to achieve and him actually achieving it. He was currently going over the pros and cons of maybe having a team night or an outing or something, but his own team input was slowly convincing him to drop any such ideas.
“Pros,” Cassie held up finger, listing her thoughts. “We’d have a super interesting time.”
“And if we all go out as the huge group we’d be we can split the cost and go somewhere incredibly expensive?” Billy tentatively offered. Kate loudly cleared her throat as if to make a point, and Billy threw his hands in the air. “It’s not like we can just ask you to pay for every thing every time, Kate!”
“Yeah Kate,” Tommy mocked gleefully, sidling up to Billy and latching on to his arm. “I know you’re a billionaire heiress, but geez, come on, what a stupid suggestion.”
“That would be rude,” Teddy clarified quickly. “That was what Billy was getting at.”
“Not that it would be impractical since we all aren’t always together?” Jonas threw in as a joke, and Cassie positively beamed at his continued attempts at humor.
Kate’s eyes narrowed and she held up three fingers. “Okay then you jerks, cons: Billy and Becca can’t stand each other, Tommy and Tammy can’t be trusted together, and our teams don’t actually have clearance from anyone to spend a night on the town.” She thrust her chin at them. “So it’s a no-go.”
Eli buried his face in his hands. “Guys…”
“Hey, no fair, me and my other self get along just fine – ” Billy interjected hurriedly.
Tommy on the other had dropped Billy’s arm, angrily standoffish now. “What the hell does that mean we ‘can’t be trusted together’?”
“Wow really, so now we can’t even get along with each other, that is good to know guys,” Eli said pointedly. Kate rolled her eyes at him, clearly holding the opinion that he was blowing the conversation out of proportion.
And he was, admittedly, but it only reflected his latest worries. All the constant close contact they’d been forced to tolerate lately, added on top of the overall lack of real action and how their personal issues kind of became more apparent when they had to deal with themselves…
Eli just had this sinking suspicion that things could go very badly if they weren’t careful.
The more time that passed the more Eli was convinced the teams were both getting antsy, were slowly reaching some sort of breaking point. And if there was one thing Eli wanted to avoid, it was whatever lay beyond that breaking point.
“Where’s Elana?” Eli asked as he entered the headquarters’ living room. It wasn’t a mandatory training day for once, so most everyone’s location was up in the air. Carter was the only one in the room, doing stretches on the floor that were presumably for a cool down – he was in sweaty workout clothes.
“Not sure. Anything I can help you with?” He looked up at Eli and it was weird – Eli hadn’t realized how actively he had been attempting to avoid face to face interaction with Carter. Up close he kind of resembled Katie: his face structure was very similar, while the way he wore his expressions was the exact same. Carter smiled and criss-crossed his legs. “Hello? Earth to Ela – ” He caught himself and paused, but still kept the well-meant grin. “…Eli?”
Eli shook his and tried not to do this thing where he imposed Kate over Carter’s image – or whatever it was he was doing, whatever this was. “Right. Sorry. Yeah, just wanted to talk to her.”
Carter did this funny pursing thing with his lips that was really really Kate-like, and Eli had to remind himself that Carter was probably having the same issues with him – if only to make the whole situation less surreal.
“I wasn’t aware there were actual things going on that merit you and Elana having to constantly and secretly meet up.” He smirked. “I mean, I don’t know if you thought no one would notice but, contrary to whatever you two Super Soldiers tell yourselves, you aren’t the next Fury.” Carter tilted his head a little and squinted at Eli. “She is still ridiculously cunning in this universe right? Fury, I mean. This metaphor isn’t lost on you?”
“Yeah,” Eli was suddenly having a really hard shaking a sudden image of Nick Fury with a pink bow on his bald head. “Yeah I got the metaphor. And we don’t think we’re trying to be the next Fury – ”
“I’m joking here, come on work with me,” Carter drawled, arching his back in lazy stretch with his arms behind his head. “I just think both you Patriots work yourselves too hard, and you’re just egging it on when you’re with yourself – yourselves? Whatever.” He rolled his neck slowly, arms still framing his head, and Eli slowly became aware that he was tracking the movement with his eyes. “I don’t think having two of you in the same room is any better than having two Speeds in the same room, regardless of whether they – or you – are or are not sexing each other up.”
Eli sighed deeply at the reminder of that particular issue, and Carter made a truly wily face, still stretching, one eyebrow so high it nearly was lifting off his face. “You’re not, are you? Because I wouldn’t want to be the one to explain that to Cap. And invariably it would fall on me to do it, because it always does with that kind of stuff.”
“Ha ha,” Eli replied dryly with, and he was still really looking at Carter for what felt like the first time. Carter wasn’t hugely defined, though his muscles were taut and fit and his arms were definitely a product of his craft. As he was mid-stretch there was something graceful and slender about his shape – and Eli had to tell himself very very firmly that checking out Carter was not an option he should be exercising. He was working things out with Kate. Carter and Elana obvious had their own issues. This was not a simple matter, and even if it was he didn’t need to be complicating it further by –
“…Eli?” Carter was peering curiously at him. “You okay?”
Eli sighed and rubbed a tired hand over his eyes. “Sorry,” he apologized yet again. “I just. You’re like Kate in a lot of ways and it’s hard for me to get over – ” He cleared his throat. “Right, sorry again – ”
Carter’s expression had gone a little chilly now, as had his tone as he lowered his arms from his stretch. “And what is that supposed to mean?”
Eli was surprised by the change in demeanor. “What?”
“How exactly am I like,” Carter gestured violently. “The female-me? What, I’m girly? I’m effeminate? Jesus Christ.”
Eli frowned, brain trying to catch up with where this all went horribly wrong all of a sudden. “I…what? No, that’s not what I was implying – ” Sort of. It sort of wasn’t what he had been saying. But honestly it also sort of was, and why was he always so ridiculously horrible at this? How else was Carter supposed to take that? “Just, calm down, let me – ”
Carter was shrugging callously and standing. “Yeah, let me not get too emotional or else you might start thinking I am a girl and try to kiss me or something – ”
“That’s not – look not only is there nothing wrong with Kate being a girl,” Eli said hurriedly, very consciously forcing himself to not grab at Carter as he swept past him. “But I fully acknowledge that you two aren’t the same person and that you’re a guy – ”
The door opened and Elana walked in just in time for Carter to have to shoulder past her to head towards the backrooms. “Um,” she said aptly and Carter didn’t attempt to address her, so Elana looked over at him instead.
Eli pinched the bridge of his nose and looked up at the ceiling. “I am so sorry. I kind of messed up with Carter.”
He heard her make a strangled noise in her throat that was the slightest bit a laugh. “Oh god. We are the same person.”
Eli looked over at Elana, trying not to look sullen. “I was looking for you, I’ve been trying to avoid your Hawkeye for this explicit reason – ”
“Don’t get too defensive,” she told him. “I meant that in that ‘oh god I just did the same thing with Kate’ sort of way.” He eyed her to see if she was serious. She shrugged. “I went looking for you. Your Hawkeye was at your hideout training. We…had a conversation that went badly.”
Eli was tempted to ask about what, but a comfortable silence lapsed between them and he knew Elana didn’t want him asking about the details of her altercation as much as he didn’t want to divulge the details of his own.
She gave him a little smile, “So what did you want to talk about?”
“Possible growing tensions. You?”
This time Elana really did laugh. “More or less the same thing. Sure did a good job at settling said tensions, huh?”
And Eli laughed too. Everything seemed to be spiraling so out of his control lately that it was hard to do anything else.
And things then got worse, which was typical of life.
Fury was side by side with Jessica and Cap when they arrived. “Sir?” Eli broached carefully as they fell into line with the other Young Avengers, and Fury acknowledged the team with a nod. Eli had heard things about Fury, and the difficulty he had in separating fact from fiction told him plenty.
“Crazy,” Elana breathed out, staring at Fury as Eli settled in next to her.
“What,” he asked quietly, raising an eyebrow at her. “Is your Fury Middle Eastern or something?”
She scoffed and shook her head, “No – ”
Tabby leaned forward to look around Elana and grinned wickedly at him. “That’s Black Widow and the original Hawkeye.”
Elana rolled her eyes and ignored Billy’s astonished whisper of, “What?” that was hushed by Teddy, and finished her sentence. “Our Fury’s just as Black and bald and eyepatch-having as yours – ”
“Though…prettier.” Becca volunteered with a cautious whisper. Eli was suddenly having reoccurrences of the whole Fury with a bow on his head again, and it was terrifying.
“Ohhh,” Tammy said. “Is this another crush I sense?”
Becca shoved her, “Oh my god, Tammy you’re so impossible – ”
“My point,” Elana interjected. “Was just that it’s kind of frightening to see your Fury.”
Cassie said, “It’s kind of frightening for us to see our Fury, too. I don’t think he’s ever bothered with us before, so…”
“So how high have the stakes been raised,” Kate said, crossing her arms and very pointedly not looking in any direction but straight forward (because Kate was ignoring Elana’s existence just as Carter was ignoring Eli’s). “Is my question.”
“If you all are done talking amongst yourselves,” Fury said pleasantly and they all fell silent. “You’re probably wondering why I’ve decided to stop by your little daycare hero group.”
Eli could see Kate and Carter visibly shift and swallow their protests. Fury continued, “I – and SHIELD, as well as Cap here – have deemed the current plan and level of action unacceptable and insufficient.”
Eli frowned, but Jessica was quicker to courage. “Fury what exactly is going on?”
“Exactly what it sounds like,” Fury shot back. “The situation’s elevated. Iron Man disappeared from his lab yesterday morning. And SHIELD intelligence informs us, not that it’s any of your business to know, that it would be in our favor to prepare for an attack against Doom sooner rather than later.”
Eli could feel his eyebrows knit together, “Excuse me?”
Fury eyed him carefully. “You are excused.”
“Son?” Cap said, in that voice he got when he kind of wanted to hear what Eli had to say, but also really wanted Eli to go along with things without too much of a fuss.
Eli stood tall as he asked, “Just how does Young Avengers fit into all of that?”
Fury lifted an amused eyebrow, giving Elana time to jump in as well. “We’ve already been delegated to backup. We’re supposed to be focused on protecting the Wiccans as they find a solution to the multiiverse issues.” She squared her shoulders defiantly. “Does this mean we can consider our orders changed?”
Fury smirked at both other them. “How…cute.”
“All in all,” came a new lofty voice from a white woman in jeans and a baggy shirt who was now sauntering into the room. “It boils down to Doom trying to manipulate our actions and heaven forbid Nick Fury not be the master of his own fate.” She crossed her arms underneath a very familiar glow in her chest. “So of course your orders are changed. Or not. Depending on whatever’s beneficial for Director Fury.”
Fury was looking way less than pleased, while Jessica seemed to be both perturbed and intrigued and Cap looked like he was trying to figure out how to introduce this women who was obviously –
“Iron Man?” Chris and Cassie said in disbelieving unison.
“Well actually Iron Woman,” she corrected lightly, grinning in a very Starkish way, Eli noted. “Natasha Stark at your service.”
“Don’t we not have a problem, then?” Carter directed at Fury, pushing his sunglasses up the ridge of his nose very deliberately. “We have a Stark in this backwards universe now, she can keep on with whatever your Iron Man was doing just fine.”
“…No offense,” Elana said slowly. “About this universe being backwards, or anything. It’s not. It’s a perfectly fine universe.”
Carter gave her a sour look, even as Natasha took a breath to say something, and he snarled, “Don’t put words in my mouth – ”
“I’m not, I’m just trying to think before I speak, something you should try – ” Elana hissed back, and Eli and Kate shared a quick uncomfortable look that they really shouldn’t have, seeing how it just made them both grimace even more uncomfortably and quickly look away. It was not difficult to recognize themselves sort of fight-flirting, and there was something downright embarrassing about having to acknowledge it.
“The plan,” Cap interjected firmly and Elana faced forward, standing a little straighter, while Carter crossed his arms and swallowed his retort. “Is to have Iron Woman do just that. However – ”
“I’m gonna stop you right there,” Natasha purred silkily and Cap did, eyebrow raising a little intrigued and a little amused. Eli could relate to the feeling. “To first tell you, Steph – Steve – babe, you are such a stiff, but that’s okay, I forgive you. And the second thing is that it’s probably better if I explain.”
Cap sighed (and Eli noticed that Fury was rolling his – well, his singular eye) gestured sweepingly with his hands. “Go ahead. Just, use normal-sized words this time around. They’re kids – young adults, I mean. Young.”
Eli, and Elana (and probably everyone on the team, but Eli was focusing on keeping his cool in front of Fury and couldn’t really check), bristled. Cap always meant best, but seriously, this them being kids thing again? Seriously?
Meanwhile, Natasha pulled a face at him as well. “‘Normal-sized’, what does that even mean – more like ‘small baby words because the American public school system is completely inadequate – ’”
Fury cleared his throat, somehow threateningly, and Natasha threw her hands up in the air. “ – but I’ll make do. Somehow.”
By his side, Kate made a noise under her breath. It could have been a derisive laugh. Or a noise of annoyance. It was kind of troublesome that he sometimes couldn’t tell the difference.
And Natasha put her hands on her hips – which, interestingly enough, was pretty fitting of Stark, regardless of gender – and cocked her eyebrow. “So – and yes, I sent this to you in the form of a report just like you asked, Fury – it turns out my male counterpart from this universe has a matching intellect to mine, which is just fabulous to find out. Combine his research with mine, and you’ve a beautiful thing going.”
“Stark you got ten minutes. This is a time sensitive matter, which you already know.” Fury growled. Eli too could see how this explanation was going more in a direction of Natasha’s personal elegy to her own greatness, and was just as eager to avoid it. They all were.
Natasha rolled her eyes. “Yeah yeah. Alright kiddies, there’s a whole lot of complicated math and – dare I say it – magic involved, so it gets a little complicated on the exact ‘how’ front. If I was allowed to take more than a few minutes and use the big non-“normal-sized” words,” she threw a quick glare at the three adults (and Jessica shrugged heartily as if to divorce herself from the situation). “We could really get into the nitty-gritty of what Doom and Loki did. Unfortunately, Doom and Loki did an amazing job of mucking things up across two universes and I have indeed been limited to such terms – ”
“Eight minutes,” Fury said lightly. Natasha didn’t even flinch.
“So first off,” she pointed at the Eli and his team’s side of the line. “Your Doom.” She pointed at Elana and the other Young Avengers and then herself. “Our Loki. Somehow they got in contact and set to planning how to do dastardly whatevers in both our dimensions. That’s about all we know about that because, you know. SHIELD is actually kind of useless when we actually need their intel to get decent details. No big deal.”
She began nodding to herself, as if confirming what she was saying with herself. “So they get in contact. They get to planning. There’s clearly a hiccup of insanity – which I can forgive, considering who we’re dealing with – and dastardly takes a turn for chaos. I’m guessing anyway. Because I sure don’t know any other way you decide that crashing two universes together is the optimum plan for world domination.”
Cap was rubbing brow wearily. “Natasha…”
Eli wasn’t entirely sure what he was expecting to hear, but that wasn’t quite it. “Crashing two universes…that sounds like there’s going to be huge collateral damage,” Eli said slowly. “Is that what you’re saying?”
Natasha squinted at him a little, gauging him. “No. I really just have a penchant for dramatics. That’s not saying trying to merge – ah, there, that’s probably the better word for it – two universes couldn’t go horrifically. But with what their doing, it shouldn’t.”
Natasha started drawing invisible diagrams in the air and making grand hand gestures, and though this was all lost on Eli, he followed her next words fine. “Their method is an anchoring system – you put a bunch of things from one universe into another and, with the right magic and science, those universes get attracted and tied to one another – which is why all the people from my universe are transporting into your universe. Our Loki was probably – now keep in mind that this is what I got from Thor, and he apparently sucks at magic, but anyway – Loki was strengthening a magical tie to this world.”
She eyed their whole line up skeptically, as if not sure if she was making sense. “I don’t know, it’s better explained with physics. My male counterpart did just beautifully at summing it up in his files, but you know, it’s ‘too complicated’ or whatever.”
“But the dimension switching was a trade off,” Joan pointed out. “There was a pattern observed: for every person appearing here was someone disappearing to there – ”
Natasha tsk-ed and shook her head. “Yeah, no. The pattern wasn’t taking into account that there were people we weren’t monitoring from our side who were popping up over here too. The X-Men, for starters, because they never tell us anything. And probably some random people and civilians we still don’t even know about. But our Loki needed time to build the ties, so your Doom bought it for her.”
Natasha paused and frowned a little. “For him? You know I actually don’t know what gender Loki is right now, she’s always changing it for no good reason. Anyway, Richards and I were so focused on our side of things and how to fix a situation where Loki was switching people out tit for tat between universes that we didn’t realize how much bigger the scheme actually was. I only just recently started looking beyond that assumption – and from what Tony’s documented, he just started to do the same thing.”
She grinned smugly triumphant at them. “Such a beautifully smart man, god, I’m great no matter who I am. His research lets me piece together how Doom was helping on this side, and if Tony’s managed to get to my lab my files will do the same for him. But Doom was the one sending people, like Tony, to our universe, and that was all in order to distract us all from what was happening – as well as cripple us.”
She began with the gestures again. “Send your most immediate threats to a new universe as a red herring for those already investigating the situation, all while making those immediate threats useless while they reorient to whatever the hell’s going on. Two birds, one stone.”
“What is happening?” Chris asked, shaking his head in confusion – something Eli felt they all could relate to right now. “I mean, what do they get from combining the universes? What will that, like, I don’t know, do? To the universes, I mean.”
Natasha shrugged. “I’m not sure. I’m not convinced that they’re trying to do anything more than establish permanent portal points where the universes will be linked. That would enable them to help each other conquer worlds or whatever. But again, SHIELD is totally lacking on finding out their motives – ”
“Stark, you’ve got one more time to insult my units before I take slightly more drastic action,” Fury said pleasantly. “And trust me, you won’t like it.”
Natasha only pursed her lips playfully in his direction. “Anyway, I’m working with Tony’s information to figure out how to close the links on this side, and he should be able to figure out how to close up shop on the other side. And hopefully that’ll take care of that, other than beating up Doom and Loki.”
“So. So Billy and I can stop trying to replace Doctor Strange?” Becca carefully proposed. “Right? Because you’re here and you know how to reverse-engineer the science of Doom’s method to transport people?”
Natasha smiled, a little apologetically, and pointed at both her and Billy. “Not necessarily. I’m going to need you two to keep researching and try to figure out more in depth what Loki’s up to. I think Doom’s got both the Stranges from both universes, along with both Scarlet Witches. Or, well,” Natasha looked up at the ceiling, thinking outloud. “I suppose Loki could have them too. Hm…anyway.”
She looked back at the Wiccans, serious expression in place. “The thing is, you guys are the start up link. They used you – they coordinated the big battle on both sides and they manipulated you to establish the first tie. That’s all we’ve got – not how, or why, or the implications of it all. And there aren’t any other magic and reality-warping professionals around who can navigate that field and figure it out. So I’m going to need you to do it. In case there are any surprises waiting for us on that front.”
Eli looked at Billy and then Becca, and they both had gone very still. Before any of them could ask or say anything in response to that – and Eli sure wanted to because Jesus, wow that was a lot to ask of someone who was in all reality still learning how to get a handle on magic – Fury cut in. “That’s enough Stark, you’re done. Get your butt back into your lab and get to work.”
Natasha groaned, “Because that sure motivates me Fury.” She let Cap (who Eli shared a quick look with before Cap nodded in that way that meant he had the utmost faith that Eli and his team would pull through) begin to usher her out regardless.
“See you later you crazy teenagers,” she called behind her. “Work hard – and Fury please, god, get some actual useful information with all those taxpayer dollars – ”
They were out the room soon enough, and Fury surveyed them levelly one last time. “Your objectives have not changed. You are a last resort, a last line defense for the Wiccans if the solution turns out to necessitate them.”
He looked at each and every of them individual, as if analyzing them. “All I need is for you to be prepared in case the next battle against Doom is more extreme – if it comes to that. We don’t know how established and wide spread those portals are, and we don’t know what reinforcements he’ll be depending on from the other universe’s Loki. Keep that in mind.” Fury too gave a nod to Eli, and then Elana, before sweeping out the room – but unlike Cap’s, his was curt and unreadable.
Jessica cleared her throat after Fury’s departure, drawing most of their attention. Billy and Becca were both clearly still processing the news, Billy frowning deeply at the ground though Teddy was rubbing his back reassuringly and Becca staring hard into space with knitted eyebrows and her fingers pressed to her lips, ignoring or unaware of Tabby’s worried glances.
“So now you know,” Jessica said succinctly, her eyes flickering over each one of them. “And I know you’re probably mad that Fury’s sidelining you, but… Well, everyone’s doing their best to fix this – ”
“And we will too,” Kate said, only a little fiercely. “We’re not going to stand by and let the ‘grown ups’ tell us to sit it out when the time comes. We’ve made it a habit to go out of our way not to. Ever.”
Cassie backed her up. “We’re a team of young heroes, not a bunch of clueless kids. We’re already training and working together all the time. We’ll be ready for the battle.”
“It’s not like we’ve never fought in huge, world-altering battles before.” Tommy grumbled. “I mean, that’s like a normal Wednesday night for us by now.”
“Yeah, your Fury kind of sucks,” Tammy huffed out.
Carter looked at her with distinct amusement. “And ours doesn’t?”
“It appears that there is a Fury-sucks factor that transcends dimensions,” Jonas commented lightly and both Chris and Cassie laughed.
“Why don’t you ever make jokes?” Chris asked suddenly as he turned to Joan.
She made a face. “I do,” she insisted. “You just never get them.”
“Guys,” Elana said slowly, quiet and somber unlike the rest of the team. “I am all for it, but I just want to ask – all of you,” she made a point of looking at the Young Avengers that were not part of her team. “Are you sure you want to deliberately disobey Fury’s orders?”
“Orders directly from SHIELD. Orders that Cap and most the Avengers probably back,” Eli specified. They’d disobeyed orders before, often, but this time it seemed like it was an even bigger deal than usual.
“The thing is,” Becca said, slowly looking around at them, fingers still pressed to her lip. “It’s not like we have a choice, you know. It’s not like this whole situation doesn’t intimately affect every single one of us. It does.” Her eyes locked on Tabby for a second before she looked resolutely away.
Tabby wasn’t fazed, and she reached over to gently take hold of Becca’s arm and pull her hand away from her mouth. “We still have faith in you two. You’ll be able to figure out whatever it is you need to figure out.”
Billy leaned into Teddy’s side and looked around at the team as well. “And as for disobeying orders…it’s exactly like what Becca said. I respect the guy, and all the Avengers and whoever else came to this executive decision, but…no way. We literally can’t just sit this out and hope for the best.”
“So we’re in,” Teddy said sunnily, pressing a kiss to the top of Billy’s head.
Eli looked at the rest of his team as confirmation, then looked at Jessica. “You heard us. We’re in.”
“All of the Young Avengers,” Elana added.
Jessica looked as though she was trying to suppress a grin. “Oh but of course. What did I even expect to hear from you guys?”
And Eli wasn’t really sure, with her or with Cap and the Avengers. They’d been down this path before, back when they had first been trying to become heroes. The Young Avengers were just really great at persistently attempting to undermine authority.
“How are you doing?” Kate asked lightly.
Eli furrowed his brow and peered over at her curiously. “Fine. What?”
She shrugged, “Just, I know you always want to do the right thing and be the rule-abiding golden boy even when you feel we have no choice but to break every rule that gets in our way.”
He lifted an eyebrow at her. “Are you making fun of me? I’m pretty sure we’ve actually disobeyed orders more often than not in our whole entire tenure as Young Avengers.”
She laughed, and let it drop easily. “It is what gets the team in its biggest adventures, I guess.”
Eli looked cautiously around at the others. “No one is...uncomfortable with this, right?” He asked, suddenly wondering if he was really being a good leader after all, if maybe he’d missed something in all his focus on perhaps the wrong things. “I know it was asked before, but I need you guys to be sure – ”
“This?” Tommy jumped in, teasingly. “Be a little less specific, why don’t you? ‘This’ being the fact that the world is ending? The fact that our fates maybe rest in the totally unreliable hands of Billy and Becca – according to a really hot Tony Stark? The fact that you and your other self are huge slave drivers during training sessions? This situation’s so complicated, what is this ‘this’ you’re referring to?”
Tommy paused in thought for a second. “Though…if I get to choose what we’re focusing on, then I vote that last issue. Because, god, I am sick of running through drills when I work better organically – ”
“You can really be a huge dick really incredibly fast, you know that?” Billy said, only a little jokingly.
“His codename is Speed,” Teddy pointed out with a grin, and Cassie clapped her hands in delight at that while Billy tried his best not to look annoyed yet pleased at the attempt at humor.
“You are so wonderfully corny sometimes,” Cassie said, clearly amused, and Kate smirked in agreement.
The pride in Teddy’s expression was too enticing for Eli to leave alone. “Only sometimes?” He challenged. “Yeah, Theodore ‘Cornball’ Altman, only sometimes corny, okay.”
Kate redirected her grin at him. “Better watch yourself Bradley, you’ve been known to breach that cornball tier too from time to time.”
“Difference is,” Jonas added. “Eli is usually serious and unintentionally doing it. Teddy is more…” He seemed unable to find the word he was looking for.
Cassie tried to help. “Accidentally doing it and embracing it?”
Billy tilted his head, looking skeptical. “I think Ted’s totally serious. I think he does it on purpose.”
“Sincere,” Teddy insisted. “I’m just being really sincere, guys.”
Billy was unimpressed and unconvinced. “Yeah, okay.”
Teddy made one of his sad puppy faces “Gee, thanks boyfriend dearest.”
“You know,” Tommy interjected. “I was intentionally being a dick earlier, but I really was asking what the hell Eli was talking about.” He smirked. “Sincerely, even.”
Eli sighed. “Look, to get back to what I was saying…I know not everyone sees eye to eye with the other team. But to make what we’re trying to do work – ”
“Disobeying direct orders from the Avengers and SHIELD,” Kate reemphasized for him.
“Thank you, Kate,” Eli grumbled. “We have to be able to be tightly knit with them. We have to work with them without a lot of infighting.”
Billy made an annoyed noise in the back of his throat. “You know, when I say Becca and I are doing better and we’re fine, I actually really mean it.”
Eli let out a humorless laugh. “I’m not calling you out Billy, I believe you when you say it’s getting better. We just don’t have time to beat around the bush anymore, and I mean everyone from our team needs to be okay with everyone from theirs.”
He hesitated then sighed and admitted, “For instance, I have to work on the toes I’ve stepped on with Carter. Just, is everybody okay with having to do that, if need be?”
Kate eyed him carefully but quietly at his admission. Billy, meanwhile, quirked an eyebrow. “Okay, well, we’re always shut up in a study together, me and Becca, so we only deal with each other.”
Teddy snorted. “Yep, that’s my team player, playing well with others.” Before Billy could get in a word otherwise Teddy continued. “Anyway, I like the other team. Only Tammy’s a bit…much, but in an exciting way, not an overwhelming way.”
Tommy looked at him like he was crazy. “A bit much? How about amazing – she’s freaking nuts, it’s great.” Tommy crossed his arms behind his head, looking proud. “And in that regard, I think the other team likes me plenty, if only because I’m easier to handle.”
“You’re only ‘easier to handle’ for them because you’re not always around for them to have to handle,” Kate shot back. “Anyway, Eli, I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all been doing this long enough to know how to put aside our differences and get the job done.”
He held up his hands, feeling slightly defensive as Cassie and Jonas nodded at him in agreement with Kate. “I’m not saying we’re going to let it decided the fate of the word for us or that we can’t work it out. I just – I’m saying it’s an understandably harder situation because of who they are. And I want everyone to keep that in mind.”
“Okay, mom,” Tommy said, obviously annoyed – and Eli didn’t blame Tommy, because even to himself he sounded like he was unnecessarily nagging.
But other than that there was contemplative silence. So maybe it was unnecessary after all.
Despite all the worrying, the following days were not too eventful. They trained like usual, and simply also spent more downtime together, gathered in the living room planning or sharing information of universe differences concerning Loki and Doom. Things were tenser between all of them, though that was because of the sudden exponential increase in how much time they spent together. This was also, Eli felt, in addition to the fact that the more they talked and waited around on the ready for Billy and Becca to resurface from the study with information they could use and put into action, the more useless they all felt when nothing actually happened.
Eli was both relieved and displeased, and he realized that somewhere deep down he had hoped that the new dynamics would give him a chance to talk to Carter, and for Elana to talk to Kate. And somehow, he had hoped that it would erase the misgivings and dislike that lay between them, make up for – well, whatever it was that they’d both done to upset the Hawkeyes. Nothing changed though, because Carter either silently tolerated Eli’s presence or simply ignored it – and Kate did the same with Elana.
Oh well, he told himself. There was still the fate of the universe to worry about.
“Ugh,” Tammy grumbled, perched in a chair and painting Tommy’s toenails a deep green color, his feet propped up on the edge on the seat. “While Doom and Loki, an evil match made in heaven, do who knows what to end the world, we’re stuck swapping anecdotes of ‘oh, and most Asgardians on our world take after African culture while yours take after European, not that it matters since Loki’s a shapeshifter and could look like anyone!’. Perfect.”
“It’s not like we can do more right now. Just be patient.” Tabby said lightly.
“Yep,” Carter added. “Now be quiet and watch your movie.”
Kate let out a tiny scoff. “And what an exciting movie it is…”
Eli sighed. “I know watching old footage of fights involving Doom and Loki isn’t the most fun thing in the world, but we don’t have a lot of options.”
“Right,” Elana agreed. “We only know that we’re going to be fighting at least Doom. We can only prepare ourselves for that.”
“It’s kind of crazy, how much we don’t know.” Cassie pointed out. She was kneeled next to Tommy on the floor, where he was laying flat on his back. He was making faces at her, and she was making faces back.
Eli thought the pairing off was a little odd, and he wasn’t the only one: Teddy looked around before asking, “Where’s Jonas?”
“Oh, him and Joan disappeared together to the control room,” Chris explained. “Said something about trying to be helpful?”
Cassie nodded, looking up. “And other things about scanning and intel and satellites and I don’t know. Technology. They’re trying to help out the Iron Man side of things, gather research I think.”
“Oh,” Eli said softly into the silence. That was good. Everyone was all hands on deck, trying desperately to help out where they could, and maybe it’d change something for the better, faster. He settled back into the couch, watching the footage intently and the silence persisted in the living room, other than the typical crashes and explosions of a fight from the television and –
And then there was a loud, rumbling crashing noise that came from the direction of the study. Eli was immediately tense and on the edge of his seat, and he saw the others do the same in his peripheral vision as he stared at the hallway that led to the stairs to the study.
“…Should we go see? Or should we just assume they’ve finally cracked and are fighting?” Chris asked tentatively.
“Don’t say that,” Elana reprimanded, at the same time Tabby said, “They’re probably fine.”
“Or it’s probably just not that,” Teddy pointed out, tone hopeful.
Eli didn’t want to go barging in – they were all too tense already with their anxiousness and were probably overreacting. “There isn’t any reason to think it’s something serious.”
Kate agreed. “Yeah, Strange has loads of huge tomes and books. They’ve probably just…”
“Knocked a huge bookcase over?” Cassie offered.
Tammy frowned. “One loud enough for us to hear all the way out here?”
They didn’t have to wonder in worry what was going on for any longer, because at this moment there was a blue glow and then both Wiccans were coming through a portal and landing in the middle of the living room.
Becca spoke first, quickly and firmly. “So I got my magic back recently-ish, and that, we’ve realized, means we’ve got a huge problem.”
Billy looked meaningfully at Eli and then Elana, as there was another rumbling noise, this time from outside the building. “If we go out there, you’ll see what we mean. Probably, if we’re right.”
Eli stood, ready to go along with whatever the Wiccans needed, but couldn’t help but ask, “What’s happening?”
“My powers returning means they’re no longer being redirected by Loki’s magic, because he no longer needs them.” Becca said offhandedly, as if this wasn’t a huge thing she was saying.
Eli shared a worried glance with Kate, and Kate stepped up with the question this time. “No longer needs them for what…?”
Becca shook her head and headed for the door, while Billy ran a troubled hand through his hair. “Exactly, objective reached, that’s the problem, come on.”
Once outside, things indeed became much clearer.
“So why the heck am I seeing double and what does that have to do with you two ushering us all out here?” Tommy was the first to ask, sounding defensive. Eli was uneasy too, peering around at the strange and faint afterimages buildings and trees were shadowed with, as though the world was being shown through some unfocused filter.
“Duality,” Becca and Billy both breathed out in awed unison, and Eli certainly didn’t like the sound of that.
“We need to know right about now if this is hostile or harmful or what,” Kate said at them, voice low and serious.
“It’s…not entirely hostile.” Billy said carefully.
“Sort of, depending.” Becca added in the same tone.
The lack of conviction immediately set Eli off on even higher alert, and he growled, “Straight answers, you two.”
“Ummm,” they responded, in unison once more.
“Billy,” Teddy said imploringly. Tabby did the same, huffing out, “Becca.”
Billy threw his hands up in the air while Becca made a scrunched up face. “It’s not like – this stuff isn’t really straightforward or easy – ”
“And we really aren’t pros or anything,” Becca reminded them. “Like, we’re working off of ancient texts we had to painstakingly translate ourselves.”
“Is duality you two finishing each other’s sentences?” Tammy asked, annoyed.
Tommy crossed his arms, also agitated – his way of dealing with stress he couldn’t run away from had always seemed to Eli to be poke it and make things worse. “That, and acting like you’re the twins here. Because that’s sure what it seems like.”
Both Billy and Becca shot Tommy and Tammy just about the dirtiest looks Eli had ever seen from them. Things were serious if they weren’t even trying to humor the Speeds – not that Eli had ever doubted the severity of the situation.
“Focus,” Kate snapped as the glaring had come to a standoffish standstill.
Carter looked pointedly at the Speeds, who were opening their mouths to protest, “You two be quiet.”
Eli looked around again at the way the whole entire cityscape in the distance was shadowed by its own faint reflection, trying to see if it was getting worse. Elana, meanwhile, asked, “So…what? What are we doing? What are we dealing with?”
Becca sighed, long and low. “So, okay, it’s all about this whole superimposing of worlds over one another.”
“Right,” Cass shot back immediately. “No, we know, you mean what Iron Woman was talking about?”
“And that’s what’s happening…?” Chris asked slowly, unsure. Eli was inclined to agree with that uncertainty, as he looked to the Wiccans for explanation: this certainly looked more than universes being tied together, than permanent portal points being established.
“No,” Joan interrupted. “According to that theory the universes would be linked at specific points. Superimposing implies a lot more than that.”
“So, you’re trying to say there is a chance the theory Stark and Richards were laboring under is wrong? Jonas asked.
There was no question in Becca’s reply. “They’re wrong. Oh god, wow, totally wrong.”
“I know, worst case scenario, right?” Billy said. Eli was sure he and everyone else was glowering because Billy hastily added. “Look, duality is just this side effect from the worlds layering over each other.”
Eli’s frown deepened even further at that explanation. Billy shifted his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “What we think is – okay, Doom opened this side with me, with his dimension lasers or whatever. It was designed to work with magic. It did something to the plane stability using my powers, which are all about bending the plane stability to achieve what I want to get done.”
Becca cut in, “On our side, there’s me freaking out and teleporting with Tabby. Whatever magic Loki had hit her with, it probably made it sure that I overshot teleportation and actually hopped universes – then made sure I went to the right universe. So okay, that was all me. But once I was here…I couldn’t use my powers. And that was Loki.”
Billy ran his hand through his hair. “He – she – ugh, Loki redirected it. You can’t take our powers away, we already know that. But redirecting it…that’s different – and doable. Loki was using Becca’s powers to have a, a little personal shortcut of sorts between these two universes. It was to help on top of all the other technology and magic they were using to connect them and transport people.”
“She borrowed my powers and was funneling them between two planes of existence, two different universes.” Becca was biting worriedly at her lip. “Stark was right, we were the start up. We established initial connection and Doom and Loki just had to keep it going after that. So me being able to use my powers again means…means that it’s not being funneled to a different plane.”
She lifted her hands, palm-side up, in a sort of demonstrative shrug. “Either Loki is done using them and doesn’t need to funnel them anymore, or the planes that were once separated are now one. Either explanation means the universes are nearly meshed together in the way Loki and Doom wants them to be, and that’s bad news.”
Billy gestured at the flickering world around them as well. “I mean, and this proves it. It’s not universe tacking, there wouldn’t be any overlap to cause duality then.”
“Tacking is what Richards and both the Starks were predicting,” Becca elaborated. “This is universe overlay, which is similar but on a way bigger scale. Like, on a ‘I-don’t-know-if-the-two-of-us-can-reverse-this’ scale”
There was a lapse of silence. “You mean overlay, like, placing one world fully on top of the other?” Tommy asked slowly, frowning and demonstrating by placing one of his hands on top of the other. Both Wiccans nodded.
Tammy made an unimpressed guttural noise. “Well, just sounds like your typical Doom and-or Loki world domination plan to me.”
Cassie looked considerably more perturbed as she stepped forward. “What happens when that happens? Finishes?”
Billy looked at her with all the apologies he could muster in his eyes. Eli could see the guilt there too. “I don’t know. I mean yeah, duality sets in – the shadow of the overlapping universe becomes visible in the overlapped universe – and then all the things that aren’t the same in both universes like buildings and geography start forming contradictions. And that’s all Strange’s materials said on the matter. Nothing on the after effects.”
Yeah, Eli thought pessimistically, and that didn’t mean anything about a happy ending, and painless universe merging.
Elana stepped forward, face awkward but determined with sudden openness and Eli recognized the attempt at pragmatic compassion. “Becca, I know you don’t have the highest faith in yourself sometimes,” she said. “But really, can you fix this?”
Becca’s face twisted into terror masked by defensive sarcasm. “Gee, thanks for the support.”
“Becca,” Tabby murmured, and while Becca exhaled a huge shuddering breath and gathered herself, Billy stepped up to answer.
“It’s more a ‘we probably don’t have enough power to fix it’ sort of problem,” he admitted. “There’s two of us, but it’s two universes overlapping. That’s a lot.”
“Also, it’s Loki and Doom,” Becca insisted, completely recovered. She paused and her eyes flickered to the ground and then back up again. “We’ll probably need the Scarlet Witches.”
“Yeah well, it’s Loki and Doom,” Kate reiterated. “You think Doom suddenly isn’t vindictive and Loki won’t relate and play along?”
Elana let out a dry laugh, darkly amused. “She’s got a point, good luck with finding the Witches after the whole marriage spurning incident.” The two of them sobered a little and peered at each other carefully, and Eli found himself sharing a nervous look with Carter – of all people – worried about potential fallout.
Carter jumped in, and Eli wasn’t quite sure if they had just had a moment or what. “That is seriously a totally valid point,” he said. “Could you two actually locate them?”
“More importantly, do we have the time?” Eli pointed out. He couldn’t tell if things with the duality were getting worse, but from the sounds of things the further along things went the worse their chances went as well. “What’s the time limit until bad things start happening because of the overlap?”
“Well that’s a little pessimistic,” Teddy suddenly interjected.
Tommy sent him a testy look. “And experience hasn’t taught you to expect these kinds of things…how?”
Tammy shrugged, “Well, Hulkling is always the optimist, I suppose.”
Tommy sighed, “Stupidly so, sometimes.”
Kate eyes flashed dangerously. “If I have to tell you two to focus one more time, I swear to god. We’ve already established that we have no clue what we’re doing and barely any idea what’s really going on – we don’t have time to waste.”
For some reason, Becca was the one to take offense. “Well, sorry!” she exclaimed. “We say find the Scarlet Witches and you guys shut that idea down.”
“Yeah, so why don’t one of you figure out how to fix the world.” Billy added on sullenly. Eli could see the defensive postures setting in and he looked to Teddy and Tabby quickly, as if to say fix this. However before the Hulklings could even move, the Speeds were taking care of it.
“Whoa chill, you already know you come up with crappy ideas, it’s okay,” Tammy said softly as she draped herself over Becca’s shoulders.
“Yeah, let’s take some deep breaths and adjust that burden on your backs. It’s not like the weight of the world is heavy or anything,” Tommy gently joked, slinging his arm over Billy’s shoulder.
Eli couldn’t entire tell where the jokes were supposed to be teasing and where they were supposed to be comforting, but both Billy and Becca seemed to wordlessly follow the advice and breathed in deeply, falling silent instead of flaring up – so he didn’t try to further understand the dynamics. “I don’t think we have any other plan than finding the Scarlet Witches,” he said finally, looking at the others. “What do you think?”
“I think we’re wasting too much time trying to think up something else.” Jonas volunteered helpfully. “I’m getting reports of a battle starting up downtown.”
Joan nodded. “Right, and there’s been a definite Doom sighting, to say the least.”
“Right, so I’m hearing it’s game time?” Cassie asked the group as a whole.
Chris turned to her and raised a hand for a highfive, one Cassie immediately returned. “Game time,” he affirmed.
Elana sighed and she shared a look with Eli. He gave her a nod – they really had no other leads or ideas going for them – and they both turned to the Wiccans. “It’s up to you” Elana said. “Your magic, your research specialty, your call.”
Becca bit her lip and slowly said, “No, yeah…we’ve gotta find the Scarlet Witches – wherever they are. I think that’s our best bet.”
Agreeing, Billy nodded and looked to the rest of them just as uncertainly determined. “We can do, but. We’ll need to be bought time. We’ll probably have to split up, the two of us and the rest of you.”
“Locator spell?” Becca questioned, and at Billy’s nod she looked a little unsure. “I’m not worried about Doom, but will we be able to overpower Loki if he’s blocking their location?”
Teddy crossed his arms defiantly and suggested, “If the Avengers and Young Avengers are keeping their hands full you should be fine, right?”
Becca considered it while Billy shrugged in easy acquiescence. “Could work,” she said eventually, also shrugging.
“Then that’s the plan,” Eli said.
“Keep us informed of where you are and what you’re doing over the comm while we’re split up,” Tabby warned. “When you find the Witches, tell us where you’re going – don’t get in one of those self-sacrificing moods.”
“Seriously,” Teddy said. “Don’t.”
The Wiccans nodded obediently; though Eli was pretty sure they both rolled their eyes as discreetly as possible.
Tommy surged forward, “Hey, so can I ask a question?”
“And suddenly he asks before he speaks,” Kate said.
“Ha ha,” he countered sourly. “Look, not to be a downer, but what’s the plan in case you can’t find the Scarlet Witches?”
“Interesting,” Tammy said, raising her hand in the air and waving it around eagerly. “Because I have a different question! Has the fact that there are two sets of Dooms and Lokis existing and possibly running around been taken into account?”
Carter sent her an appraising look. “And I am impressed with that question.”
Billy sighed and ran his hand through his hair once more. “We’re gonna find the Scarlet Witches. There isn’t a plan if we don’t.” There was something unsettling to hear that outloud, but it Eli held on to the rationale that it was for the best that everyone realized that they were putting all their eggs in one basket – for better or worse, who knew.
“Ah, the two Lokis and Dooms,” Becca approached the question carefully, also running a hand through her hair. “Yeah, they’re probably being used as specified markers – they make sure a whole bunch of other universes don’t crash together on these two because of the overlay resulting in multiverse imbalance – so they may not be able to fight. Probably.”
“Probably,” Tammy repeated in deadpan. “Huh.”
Becca let out a nervous laugh, “Well, we didn’t find anything that talked about the requirements for upholding the marks so. They might be incapacitated? Or…well, not, I suppose.”
“Okay sounds like either they won’t be a huge problem or will be a huge problem, am I reading this right?” Tommy sniped and, well. Yes, the terms of this whole situation with all the unknown variables were really not Eli’s favorite either, but they were just going to have to deal with it, obviously.
Billy shrugged, “Look, we find Scarlet Witches wherever they are, and whatever those two – or four - are doing won’t matter.”
Kate stared at Billy for a long moment before saying. “…Billy do you hear yourself and the fact that you are being dismissive of how may Lokis and Dooms we have to fight?”
Billy did manage to look appropriately abashed, but there was something more important on Eli’s mind. “I just feel like we’ve been down this path before, with looking desperately for the Scarlet Witch as our solution.” Eli reminded, his tone warning. No one wanted any repeats of past adventures and the outcomes.
Becca waved him off. “Calm down, we’re not gonna go berserk and do something insane like magic away our biological parents again.”
Billy jerked his head towards her, surprised. “That’s – that’s not…that’s never – ”
Becca eyed him then deflated a little as his eyes searched hers. “I – oh – ”
“We probably shouldn’t worry about those kinds of universe differences.” Tabby said carefully, reaching over and squeezing Becca’s shoulder. “You can do this.”
Eli sighed, “Right, we’ve got our part covered, you get yours.” He was aware his tone was grave, though his words were an attempt to achieve otherwise.
Tommy noticed as well, and was by his side nudging him in the ribs in an instant. “Good pep talk, you’re always the best leader, I swear to god.” He was squirming up against Eli, as if simply trying to get as close into Eli’s personal space as possible and annoy him.
“Yeah,” Eli grumbled, taking a step back and quickly finding out that Tommy was intent on following him and simply being in his face. “Yes Tommy, because I’m always in the mood for you touching me – get off me.”
When Eli finally finished swatting him away and looked back to the rest of the group, Teddy had pulled Billy off to the side and was slowly leaning in for a kiss.
“Be careful,” Eli’s superhearing picked up from Teddy and a soft, “You too,” reply from Billy. Automatically Eli looked to see if Becca was okay – and sure enough, she was. Also broken off from the group, she and Tabby were standing close to one another and were murmuring a conversation, and Eli tried not to listen.
He turned to Kate instead, asking her quietly, “You ready?”
She grinned (and Billy and Teddy finally closed in for that kiss both holding tightly on to one another, and Becca and Tabby touched hands lightly as Tabby leaned in to press her forehead to Becca’s) and clapped him on the back. Kate’s hand lingered for a moment long enough for him to understand that it was her own way of wishing for the best but preparing for the worst. “When am I not?” She replied warmly, and he smiled.
“Well then Young Avengers,” Elana said, leaving her spot from Carter’s side where they had been saying their own little goodbye. “Let’s go help save the world.”
“Could you be anymore cheesy,” Tammy lamented as they took off, leaving the Wiccans behind to hopefully succeed in their endeavors. Elana chose not answer, though Carter shot back, “Like you mind, be quiet.”
And Eli had swallow his laughter – because while this whole situation had never quite stopped being ridiculous, he had to focus on the task at hand.
“Aw, why so quiet Tommy? Afraid I’m going to shush you?” Kate teased, inappropriate in that they, no seriously, were about to go fight a long arduous battle to try and save the world. But maybe that was just Kate’s way of dealing with the looming promise of them being outflanked and probably highly disadvantaged in near future.
“Shut up, you’re not funny,” Tommy huffed, and something about that forced Eli to give up and laugh anyway, no matter how inappropriate. Maybe Kate’s way was rubbing off on him.
It turned out, Cap had quickly let them know when they joined up on the battlefield, that Loki and Doom had indeed teamed up with Loki and Doom.
“Well, at least we know where they are and what they’re doing now,” Kate called out while vaulting over a mechanical pod carrier.
“Yeah, well, what happened to ‘it won’t matter’?” Tommy yelled, desperately grappling with some multi-legged legion creature of Loki. Eli was about to abandon his more typical Doombot and go help him when Tam sped by.
She skidded to a stop and started dismantling the creature viciously from behind, hands plunging deep into its inner cavities. “Probably, they did say probably after all,” She emphasized, grinning at Tommy as he tossed the beast aside, dead.
“I kind of love you.” Tommy replied, completely straight faced and seriously.
“Aw,” she replied, kicking the carcass away. “You flatter me.”
Eli glanced at Tammy – she was covered in the beast’s blood and her grin had gone nearly feral – and he thought she actually looked incredibly off kilter. But he was in no place to judge, he thought as he punched the robot’s head off, and anyway those two were just short of crazy.
“Really? We’re gonna do this inappropriate flirty song and dance right now?” Tabby yelled, completely disapproving, right before getting shot out of the air by the giant weaponized mechanical disk she had been fighting. As Chris grew and swatted the disk out of the air and worked on smashing it, Elana ran to Tabby, so Eli didn’t get caught up on it.
“Cassie,” he yelled. “Can you get a better scope on what’s going on?”
“Just cover me!” She shouted back, getting bigger as she spoke the words. She had no need to: Eli was already bracing himself to head off a wolf-like beast that was bounding their way.
“I see Cap and the other Avengers – oh and I think the Fantastic Four – over in that direction fighting a Loki. No clue which one, though,” Cass called pointing, as he punched the beast in what he hoped was the lungs.
“Male or female?” Teddy asked as he landed and slashed the wolf-beast several times with his claws, fatally felling it. It crumpled and Eli let it drop to the ground, now noticing that half of Teddy’s face was healing from a deep burn.
“No clue.” Cassie replied. “I can’t tell from this far away. I think I also see the Dooms – one’s taking our Iron Man head-on, the other is fighting Miss Fantastic.” She looked down at them. “Or, well. The other universe’s Reed Richards, would it be Ms. Fantastic maybe…?”
“Cass, it’s really not that important,” Kate told her gently as she shot down foes in the distance from perched atop of an overturned car.
“You know what also is not important?” Tammy declared suddenly, glaring at him, “What we’re doing. What’s the plan?”
Eli surveyed their surroundings, and could spot more fiends and robots coming their way. “I’m not sure,” he admitted, and Tammy scoffed wholly unsatisfied with the answer.
Tommy reached over to wipe blood out her eyes but, as Elana and Tabby returned from her crash site, Tammy turned away to implore to them instead. “If we’re gonna do some damage we can’t waste time on the small fry.” She was insistent. She was, Eli had to admit, right.
“True,” Elana said. “Everyone’s been as evacuated as possible already.”
“And that’s not what we came here for,” Tabby said fiercely.
“I know,” Eli replied testily. He was just not…sure how he wanted the team to approach this. “Okay. Jonas, I want you to keep an eye out for the other Loki, whichever one it is. I want you to keep tabs on them and, if it’s all clear and you won’t die…attack her.”
“Or him? Since we don’t know which has been spotted.” Chris clarified.
“Not important!” Both Kate and Carter snapped at the same time.
“On it,” Jonas said, floating up and away to do just that.
“Joan, can you trail and help attack the Loki we currently have visuals on?” Elana asked. “And contact the other heros, let them know what our game plan is, if you can.”
“Of course I can,” she answered primly before taking off as well.
“And no one’s heard from the Wiccans?” Teddy asked.
Kate looked at him, surprised. “What happened to your comm?”
He shrugged. “Lost it at some point while fighting that huge fire breathing robot pterodactyl – ” Eli could not believe the level of no-holds-barred this fight had deteriorated into, and what that meant to Loki and Doom. It would be funny if he wasn’t actually having to deal with it.
“Billy would totally say something lame about that being tacky,” Tommy interjected suddenly. “So there. It’s been said.”
“Do you literally not have any concept of situational awareness? Or circumstantial awareness?” Teddy asked, his eyebrows arched high on his forehead as he looked both tense and yet intrigued. “I seriously am asking because I can’t tell.”
“Well no, we haven’t heard, which means they haven’t been able to locate the Scarlet Witches,” Kate answered quickly, eager to stop whatever Tommy was about to say to further derailed the conversation. “Which only means we have to hit them harder.”
Tammy scoffed. “It’s probably girl Loki – or our Loki, I guess I mean – or. Whatever, the Loki we don’t have visual of is probably the one who in control of hiding them, knowing our luck.”
“We can’t fight what we can’t see Tammy,” Carter reminded her. “And the Dooms are probably just as involved. When Jonas finds the other Loki, that’s when we’ll worry about it.”
Kate nodded. “Right. Until then we attack – Loki or Doom?” She looked to Eli questioningly. “Which do you want us to target? Is there a plan?”
Eli’s thoughts sped fast and frantic through his mind as he tried to balance all the pros and cons, all their advantages and disadvantages and there was just too much they didn’t know. “I think,” he finally settled on. “We’re best off getting the Dooms out of the Avengers and whoever else’s way, so they can focus on overwhelming Loki.”
“Agreed,” Elana said immediately, and he saw the understanding in her eyes. “Seriously agreed.”
Kate looked them carefully, breaking down the subtext of the decision. “…because you want to avoid dealing with Loki when none of our present members are familiar with magic.”
Eli could really admire the calm she was keeping, despite all that was implied with what she said. He nodded. “It’s just to play on the safe side. We have a precarious enough situation as is.”
She shrugged. “No, I understand. Alright – everyone remember to keep an ear out for the Wiccans.”
And with that vague a plan, they set off into battle.
They weren’t necessarily losing, but the longer the fight went on the more panicked Eli felt deep in his gut. Currently he was hiding behind a sort of barricade mound of rubble, one he had only found because Doom had basically blasted him off the top of a building and he had barely managed crash landing with minimum injury. Since minimum injury was still a whole lot of injury in this case, Eli was ducked down trying to regroup and catch his breath and recover – all while trying to figure out why something was clenching in his stomach, warning him that something was not right.
“You okay?” Cassie asked as she arrived clinging onto Tommy’s back. She hopped off and peered closely at him. Eli waved dismissively at her, focused on his breathing.
Tommy was not deterred. “We saw you fall off a building and you didn’t stupidly jump right back in the fray like usual.”
Eli tried for a laugh and probably failed miserably. He couldn’t hear much over the pounding in his ears. “Pot, kettle,” he managed weakly. “It was probably a ten story drop, give me a second.”
Cassie hesitated then gestured around at the chaos and destruction. “Is…do you think maybe this plan isn’t working?”
Before Eli could answer, or point out his worries with how long it was taking Billy and Becca, or even mention that he’d lost his comm, Joan and Jonas were flying down, face grimly determined.
“There is a problem,” Jonas said, landing with the help of Joan.
“What that you’re missing like half your body.” Cassie’s tone was controlled panic, tight and unhappy. Eli could sympathize because, no really, what had Loki done to him? He looked like he’d very narrowly avoided being torn apart.
“Minor setback,” Jonas dismissed offhandedly. “Joan is going to synch with me and absorb my current body into hers so I’m not a liability on the field. More importantly though, has anyone heard from the Wiccans?”
Elana, jumping down from some ruined building, landed in a crouch near them, moving out of Cassie’s way as she rushed to help Joan set Jonas down carefully behind the makeshift barricade. “What’s going on,” Elana asked. “I saw you gathering from up there – are we in trouble?”
“Interrupting – what a good use of time Elana,” Joan said, not unkindly though obviously the words were meant to lash out.
Elana bristled. “Oh my god, like that’s a better use of time – ”
“ – am I really the only one left with a working comm piece?” Kate asked, also dropping down from her vantage point. “Only Carter answered me – and was apparently the only other one on the line when Billy and Becca checked in.”
“We’re all fighting head on and up in the fray miss and mister distance attackers,” Tam gritted out, ducking into their alcove just in time to hear Kate’s words. “Sorry if our equipment doesn’t leave the battle in perfect condition.”
Kate glared, and Carter sighed as he ducked in close on Tammy’s tail. “Tammy, chill out. Elana, what’s going on?”
“Is falling back really the best thing to do right now?” Chris asked, growing to normal size as he leaped off Carter’s shoulder. “Even though the Wiccans located the Witches, if we retreat the Dooms and Lokis will know something is – ”
“We heard from the Wiccans,” Kate repeated, this time a growl. “Jesus, like now’s a good time for everyone to try and talk over each other.”
“Kate,” Teddy said quietly, disarming any snipes Eli could feel building from the others. “Carter. How are they?”
She and Carter shared a look. “Uh, they had just gotten to where they’d traced the Scarlet Witches, which was some Loki-manufactured pocket dimension. They were fine.”
Carter shook his head, troubled. “But then they got cut off. It sounded like they’d been surprised right when it happened so… I don’t think it was just interference jamming the line.”
Tabby looked to Joan, who was running some sort of scan on Jonas, and asked, “What are the possibilities the tech’s just incompatible with the dimension and magic?”
Joan tilted her head a little. “High? But I think it’s probably more likely that something worse happened.”
Jonas jerked as a yellow light arced from her fingers to the exposed wire ends of his arm. She reached forward, and as if their hands weren’t made of durable material, her arm and his began to mold together, attaching them at a singularly shared joint like some sort of android version of conjoined twins.
“The Loki I’ve been tracking around the field has been hard to follow, appearing and disappearing sporadically. At first I thought it was a distraction and ambush technique,” he talked calmly, despite the strange repairing process they were performing. Joan was slowly working her way up his arm, his limb growing shorter as she absorbed him. “One that clearly was working very well at dismantling me. But then I realized something was strange, and Joan and I compared diagnostics – it’s the same Loki who’s changing shape and running around the battlefield to trick us.”
Joan looked at them all fiercely and Eli felt a shiver trickle down his spine. “There’s only one Loki here. If they want to make sure their magical equals stay imprisoned and out of the way, then the chances the other Loki is in that pocket dimension – ”
“Are high,” Elana finished for her. “Really really high. Pragmatically, there’s no reason for them to do anything else.
“Or for us to believe anything else,” Eli murmured, voice quiet with the shock and impact of this realization. “They were ambushed once they got there. That’s why it cut off.”
There was a stricken silence among them, though the loud sounds of battle continued above their little hideout.
“I don’t think any of us like the idea of those two facing off against Loki alone,” Kate said slowly. “But what are we going to do about it from where we’re standing?” She looked to him challengingly, and Eli tried not to show how lost he was feeling on his face.
“We certainly can’t get there and help,” Eli conceded. “I…think, unless anyone else has any ideas, we’re going to have to. To stay put, keep distracting the three that are here, and hope those two can handle their side of things.”
Tabby opened her mouth to say something, but then their current cover was suddenly ripped away. Eli squinted up, and found himself staring up at some sort of giant, four-legged and claw-footed Doombot.
“Any other plans or new orders besides rip these jerks a new one?” Tommy shouted over the whirring of the machine lifting a giant claw-foot to presumably crush them to death with.
“No,” Eli shouted back. “Attack whoever you need to, just be smart and try to turn the tide of battle until the Wiccans and Witches get back to end this.”
“Awesome,” Tommy replied, and he grabbed Kate and then zoomed off. Tammy and Carter were off in the same way, but in less words.
Cassie and Chris were both helping half drag half carry Jonas to where Joan was directing them to go, the androids still only connected by the arm and so limited in their mobility. “Don’t die,” Cassie yelled back at Eli, though he barely had time to register the words while he was rolling out the way of being stomped to death.
“I’ve got this, go,” Eli shouted to Teddy, after Teddy divebombed what appeared to be the machine’s head area and it shot lasers at him in response. The thing seemed intent on only stomping ground threats, and the fewer lasers they had in the battle the better.
“You sure?” Elana shouted back, even as Tabby scooped her by her underarms.
He reiterated fiercely, “go.”
Teddy waved in acknowledgement and took to the skies again, shortly joined by the other two, and Eli eyed the undercarriage of the machine, trying for some throwing stars in what looked like the weak points of it joints. There were sparks from where there was impact, and the thing’s next aimed stomp was indeed slower, but still intentional – and fast enough to pose a threat.
He dodged the front left metal claw a second time, but the quadrupedal contraption’s two right side claws swung around to hit him. This was a sacrificial move, as this attack meant the machine began toppling over in what seemed to be slow motion, its two legs unable to support all its weight. Eli ducked and rolled under one claw, but the back leg began crashing down on him as he tried to twist and run away from the impending crash site for a metal tangle of Doombot. The time it took him to slow and change direction of his momentum was all it took for the robot to best him. There was burning in his shoulder as it was wrenched from the probably tons of pounds of metal slamming down ontop of him. His head made a loud cracking sound as it bounced against the pavement.
He felt woozy and attempting to struggle and uproot the claw, which he could see had buried its talons deep into the ground, only jostled his shoulder and made spots dance across his vision. He was going to have to wait for his shoulder to heal enough for him to move it, so he was simply trapped on his stomach underneath a giant metal claw for the time being. He must have hit his head very hard, he realized as each heartbeat intensified the new headache behind his eyes. Eli took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment, hoping upon reopening them he’d be able to focus his vision a little better. He had no such luck – though truthfully how much he could maneuver his neck and see was already pretty limited by the way he was pinned.
He was experimentally squirming again, counting his pulse and trying to keep his breathing level, when he saw a bright white flash of light growing brighter and brighter, making starkly contrasting shadows stretch along the ground. As that light faded, Eli could fuzzily see the more erratic flashes of blue and red light of crackling magic – the Wiccans must be back, Eli realized, with the Scarlet Witches. And with another Loki, he remembered as there was Thor’s familiar, angry roar and the cracking of thunder and lightning in the sky. Eli tried to angle his head and squint to see, but he hissed out a breath as it wrenched his shoulder anew. He was just going to have to wait it out after all, Eli thought muggy, headache sharp and tight.
And then Eli knew no more.
Eli woke, still pinned to the ground by the giant metal claw. He blinked and, at the slow creak of bending metal from somewhere behind and above him, turned his head as much as he could manage, lifting his cheek off the ground.
“Chill out soldier.” It was Carter. He was crouched, so Eli could see that he was staring intently at the warped metal and slowly bending it away by hand. “It’s just me, trying to save your life. No big deal.”
Eli rolled his eyes and winced at the headache that was still there. Trying to get a good sense of what he’d missed, Eli tried to make up for what he couldn’t see by listening intently. He didn’t hear explosions or yelling or buildings crashing to the ground as they were forcibly leveled. “I take it everything turned out for the best?”
Carter shrugged and stood, then yanked at one of the metal talons. He only managed to rip off the sheet covering of metal, which he let drop with a light curse. He went back to carefully studying. “I guess. There was a lot of magic done, and a lot of Asgardian rage fests. In the end the Dooms have been depowered and are in SHIELD custody for now. And the Thors have taken the Lokis to Asgard. Well, maybe, no one really asked.”
Eli hummed and experimentally flexed his muscles to check for remaining injuries. His shoulder was still healing but no longer wrenched, and in a minute or so he’d probably be able to help Carter uproot the metal contraption trapping him. “So the universes aren’t merging anymore?”
Carter grunted, pulling at more metal. “I think so? Or they’re working on it right this second to fix it. Though, with all our and your Avengers on this side maybe they’re just trying to work out how to send us home.” He hissed another curse as his nails scraped uselessly on the machinery. “Ugh, ouch. Oh, and the Scarlet Witches and Wiccans are here too, in case you missed that.”
Eli would have told him to stop wasting his energy and wait, as Carter started pulling at the metal again, but Eli wasn’t sure if he could do it without angering the other boy. Things had been busy enough that Eli hadn’t had to worry too hard about it, but he really was uncertain about where they stood. “…Where’s Kate?” He finally asked carefully, curious. “And Elana?”
Carter crouched again and leaned further into Eli’s limited field of vision to pull a face that illustrated just how much he didn’t appreciate the question. Eli hastily added, “It’s not that I’m not grateful for your attempts, I just – we’re not the closest – ”
“She’s helping Cassie with her injuries,” Carter interrupted, calm and straightforward, sitting down cross-legged instead of staying crouched. “Everyone’s a little scattered across the field and I saw you needed help and just figured…”
Eli blinked and, having nothing to say, let the silence drag on. Then, abruptly Carter lied down on his stomach and, mimicking the position Eli was trapped in, turned his head and rested his cheek on the ground so they could both look easily into one another’s eyes. “We’re fine,” Carter murmured. “I admittedly have some issues that you stepped on, but we’re okay, you and me. You don’t know.”
Know what? Eli wanted to ask, but something told him it wasn’t his place to ask. He considered his words very carefully, as he wasn’t sure how to handle this sudden heart to heart between them – he was in fact still working out how to navigate these kinds of emotionally wrought situations when it came to Kate. “…Good,” he came up with eventually. “I’m glad.”
Carter blinked, eyes wide and searching for sincerity, and for some reason that inspired joking-cynicism in him. “After all,” Eli said dryly. “That certainly is what gives me an overwhelming sense of closure to us successfully saving our universes.”
Carter’s eyebrows lifted in surprise as he peered intently at Eli’s face as if to discern how serious he was, and then Carter grinned wryly when he discovered the sarcasm. “Oh my god I’m trying to let us have a moment you jerk, stop undermining it.”
Eli just smiled back at him, and knew at that moment that they really were okay, then. “Right right, my bad. Anyway, my shoulder’s better, so stand back so I can get free. And then we can go find our teams and hear all about how we’re getting you guys home.”
The soft smile Carter gave Eli was interrupted by both Tammy and Tommy suddenly being there, chorusing, “Eww.”
“And you guys were saying we needed to be supervised?” Tommy questioned incredulously.
Tammy easily picked up where he left an opening. “We’re just adorably daring and mischievous, you two are waxing a star-crossed romance.”
Eli just looked at Carter and they shared a flat look of annoyance, and something about it all made Eli’s next breath labored with laughter.
Once the team had regrouped it was easy to see everyone was mostly okay. Jonas and Joan had separated once again and though Joan had taken some drastic action to repair him, he was still limping and gashed wide open in some places. Cassie indeed had a bandaged side – and Kate kept checking on the already seeping dressings despite the vividly dark bruises spotting her own skin – but was cheerful and chatting up Chris (who had a splinted arm and wow, Eli suddenly realized just how many of the present team had accelerated healing) and the Visions already.
“Everyone’s alright, no casualties,” Elana told him as a greeting, nonchalantly passing by Carter (but Eli saw how both of their eyes flickered to each other, quickly but carefully inspecting). “And you missed the Hulklings’ heartfelt kissing reunions with their Wiccans, by the way.”
Eli raised an eyebrow. “Both of them?”
“Reunions on two completely different ends of the intensity spectrum,” Kate said musingly, looking up from Cassie’s wound. “But yes, there was life-affirming kissing.”
Cassie grinned wickedly and leaned close into Jonas’s personal space. “Speaking of…”
Chris lit up. “What, oh yes, I totally concur.” And he began to inch towards Joan.
Eli sighed and turned a blind eye – and very carefully did not look at Kate – because they weren’t out of the woods quite yet. “Where are they now?”
Elana looked toward higher ground atop the charred metal remains of a large Doom carrier, and up there the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and a large number of SHIELD scientists and personnel were gathered around the Scarlet Witches and Wiccans in deep discussion. Tabby and Teddy were standing as near to Becca and Billy as possible while not being included in the congregation, clearly offering silent but strong emotional support.
“Working out the final kinks of this mess, I think,” she said as he looked on, idly observing how open and easy and natural the interaction was between the Scarlet Witches. He supposed being imprisoned by forces of evil for several months would have that kind of effect.
Elana paused meaningfully and Eli shifted his attention back to her, recognizing his own attention-seeking methods. “Becca and Billy said next time they fly down here,” Elana said when his eyes locked on her. “It’ll probably be to take all the visitors back home.”
Eli started a little – though why he should be surprised at the abruptness, he realized, was strange. He then nodded firmly and held out his hand for Elana to shake. She eyed it in moderate surprise. “In case that’s sooner rather than later,” he explained, voice a slight bit gruff because no matter how expected goodbyes were, they were still always something he wasn’t good at. “It’s just. Been an interesting ordeal. A good experience.”
Something, something both touched and sad, flickered on Elana’s face before she took his hand and shook it once, hard and sure. “Definitely. Thanks for being reliable.”
“God Elana,” Carter sighed out from behind her. “Foot in mouth again – what, the rest of us aren’t reliable?”
She eyed him critically, annoyed (and clearly just the tiny bit endeared, and okay Eli was not going to miss being able to read himself so clearly and wondering if others could see it as well). “No, as a matter of fact, you aren’t.” And Carter pursed his lips in a very familiar way, obviously getting ready to reply with something smart and barbed.
Eli might have jumped in to say something, if only because he wasn’t sure he could stand trying to avoid sharing eye contact with Kate and acknowledging the whole aggressive insult-flirt thing they had going on even if it was just one last time – but then there was blue light in his immediate peripheral vision and Becca was flying into his arms.
“Wha – ”
Becca squeezed him tightly into a brief hug before floating back and landing. “We’re getting ready to leave.” Her words were strangely breathless. She must have heard herself, because Becca paused and took a deep breath before starting up again. “So uh – for more than just giving me a place to live – for everything – thanks.”
Eli sighed when she stopped at that and avoided his gaze resolutely, crossing her arms – it was like they were suddenly back when this had all started and she couldn’t get the words she really meant out. “‘Everything’? Becca, I’m pretty sure anything you worked out was all you, I barely even did any – ”
Becca huffed and glared at him. “Be quiet, it’s not like that. It’s...not that easy a thing to put into concrete,” she made vaguely flailing hand gestures that meant mostly nothing, before shrugging. “I don’t know, whatever, concept, but. A lot happened, and yeah I figured it out, but you were there for me and it helped. So thanks.”
He clapped her on the shoulder, and stopped himself for asking if she and Billy had worked out all their problems alright. He mostly figured they’d reached some sort of amiable point, after all this forced working together to save the world. He tried to keep it short, then, “No problem.” Eli couldn’t stop himself from crooking a joking grin at her, though. “Just, next time you get stressed out try talking about it before you resort to universe space-time distortions as a solution.”
She gaped at Eli for moment, stunned, then rolled her eyes and punched him in the arm. “Shut up and come at me when you’ve freaking cleared up your own in-limbo situation with your Hawkeyes, both of you.”
And he could only rub his arm to ease the stinging and give her one last hug. “I’ll tell Grandma and Grandpa you say bye,” he told her, and Becca hugged him a little tighter before she let go.
As far as goodbyes went for the rest of the team, it was short and sweet. Chris and Cassie tearfully hugged, while Teddy and Tabby chose to keep their distance and nod somberly at each other.
“I thought you two got along?” Eli asked Teddy as he watched Kate and Carter simply eye each other and nothing else. He tried not to audibly inhale when he saw Kate turn to Elana and quirk a small smile at her, one that Elana tentatively returned. That was…good. A good thing. A good sign. Eli wasn’t sure why he was so heavily invested in that, in how Kate got along with a different him and in how he got along with a different her – but it wasn’t like it was something he’d have to think about ever again after today, so he shrugged it off.
Teddy raised an eyebrow at his reaction, but answered the question posed instead of prodding the issue unsaid, something Eli was grateful to him for. “We do get along. There’s just…not anything left to say to each other.”
He nodded in Billy and Becca’s direction, where they were both fidgeting and once again holding what appeared to be fragile conversation. At first glance it seemed as though nothing had changed, but the body language wasn’t tense and closed off and this time the exchange ended with a careful handshake and small smiles. And something dawned on Eli: though he had been fully aware of all the agitation interference Teddy had been running on Billy and sort of aware of the calming effect Tabby had been having on Becca, he hadn’t entirely grasped that Teddy and Tabby had been actively working together in improving the two’s relationship. Which, now that it was all dying down and out of Eli’s hands, was really the most effective and obvious action they could have taken.
Eli sent Teddy his most impressed look. “You are a really good boyfriend.”
Teddy grinned and replied, as if on cue, “Is it alright if I say I am not comfortable with that conversation starter?”
Eli nudged him, hard and in between the ribs, and refused to play the verbatim game with him.
“In other news,” Tommy said, there all of a sudden. “I am pretty sure everyone’s partaken in making out with their love interest except for you, loser-leader.”
Billy made a disapproving sound as he floated over, landing in Teddy’s open waiting arms. Becca was now making a platform for the other Young Avengers to ascend and assemble with the others on top of the carrier, and Eli supposed the two had nothing left to say to one another. “Not your best insult,” Billy informed him. “And by ‘not best’ I mean that was kind of lame. Besides, you haven’t even got a love-interest, I’m pretty sure.”
Tommy lifted a challenging eyebrow, “Oh?” And for a second Eli was worried – was really worried –
And Tommy had zoomed away, was on the platform with the other Young Avengers, in Tammy’s face saying something, telling her something. Tammy’s face went deviously feline-like, and Eli wasn’t sure what he could possibly do to salvage this situation. Tommy leaned in, and just as Billy breathed out a confused, “What…?” Tommy pressed a tender kiss to the juncture of her throat and jaw. As he pulled back, Tammy kissed him just as softly on the edge of the mouth, and then in the stunned silence they both grinned wildly and Tommy was back over to them. Tammy’s posture was defiantly gloating as the platform began to rise, and Eli found himself locking eyes with Elana. They shared one last moment of camaraderie through wearied exasperation, and then she and her team were on the top of the carrier, no longer accessible and close to going back home universes away.
“Ha,” Tommy said proudly.
Billy shot him a confused look. “Right, what did you prove?”
Tommy shrugged, and simply repeated himself. “Ha.”
For some reason, even though there were…issues here that someone was going to have to sit down and sift through with Tommy (and that someone was not going to be Eli), the gloating made Eli sullen. “Well, I don’t make it a habit to randomly kiss people.”
“Huh,” Kate said, and Eli looked at her in time to see the wicked expression. “Well I suppose I can take on that burden, if you won’t.”
And she was leaning in and – and Eli already knew they didn’t kiss nearly as much as he wanted them to due to their whole undefined relationship thing, but there something about the chapped quality of her battle-worn lips and the saltiness of dried sweat on her skin and the way her face could fit and be cradled perfectly in his hands that made him miss her most when she was closest to him.
“I’m glad you’re safe,” he murmured as they parted.
“Of course I am, I can’t believe you expected less from me.” She boasted jokingly, and she briefly tucked herself into his side, for just a moment.
“You too,” she whispered, so softly he might have imagined it except her hand was light on his back and her expression somber. He pressed a kiss to the top of her head in reciprocation to such tenderness.
As the red sparks of magic began crackling the air, making it familiarly heavy with energy, and the Scarlet Witches began to float in midair immersed in the thick of it, Kate pulled back to herself, out of his reach. Eli was fine with that, respected that, and he turned to the scene before them without a word of protest.
There wasn’t as crazy a light show as he’d expected, the only glowing things being the Scarlet Witches themselves. And then, a bit quietly and anti-climatically, a single soft golden ring of light ebbed from the two, and as it swept across all surfaces the people it touched simply dematerialized and disappeared. The other Young Avengers were gone before anyone could even think to wave a final goodbye.
Eli watched, flinching only a little when the light painlessly passed over him and his team, as it kept going into the distance until he could no longer see it past the horizon. The Scarlet Witches were still glowing, and so they all turned to Billy for explanation.
“It’s sweeping and identifying people’s universe of origin and taking them there. We tried to choose a method that would pick up everyone who’s stuck here from the other universe, regardless if we know they’re here or not,” Billy said. “Remember how Stark said there are probably a bunch of people who we don’t even know about who might have been transported?”
“Ah, smart,” Kate said appraisingly.
Jonas, who had stopped damage analyzing systems for a moment to watch the spreading light, resumed. “I certainly hope there weren’t any universe hoppers who didn’t consider their universe of origin home, then.” His tone was grim not casual, the telltale that he wasn’t saying this out of dark humor or ill wishing.
Now that it had been pointed out Eli found himself unable to think of anything else, and hoped for the same thing. From the hardened expression on Billy’s face, Eli could tell this was a discussion all those involved had already had, a chance they figured they had to take.
“We trust your choices though,” Eli said quietly and firmly, hoping to diffuse any guilt heavy on Billy’s conscience. The other boy simply quirked his mouth in a distinct not-smile, so Eli squinted up atop the carrier and asked, for clarification as much as distraction, “So their Scarlet Witch will go back when it’s done? How long do you think they’ll be floating and magicking for?”
Tommy scoffed, even though he was eyeing Billy just as carefully as the rest of them. “Until the whole world is checked, obviously.”
Teddy shot him a patient look, gathering Billy into his arms from behind and resting his chin on Billy’s shoulder. “Play nice,” Teddy warned, and Cassie grinned.
“Yeah, Mr. Casanova,” she joked. “Or should I say Mr. Narcissistic…?”
Tommy scoffed again, but now wouldn’t meet anyone’s eye. “Whatever. It wasn’t like we made out, it was a joke.”
Eli shot Kate a look, one that asked her if they really were going to just leave that whole issue alone and pretend that Tommy didn’t probably need some therapy or something in the aftermath of initiating a questionably intimate relationship with his own self. She shot him one back that said they were going to take this one day at a time and would tackle that issue when Tommy wasn’t avidly avoiding it. Eli conceded, because if Tommy wasn’t going to cooperate there wasn’t much they could do – and because there was always tomorrow. And the next day. And the next, and the team always had each other’s back. Billy’s guilt, Tommy’s issues, Cassie’s injuries – these were all things time and team would help heal.
“Well,” he said, looking at all his teammates. “Do you guys want to stand here surveying a magical event we can’t help or do you want to go back to base and debrief so we can shower and get some rest for once?”
“Actually, dull and boring Eli,” Tommy said, grinning anew. “I am starving. Let’s use Kate’s money and have a celebratory post-battle meal.”
Kate shrugged. “I’m down. We could totally flip off protocol and go somewhere five-star and fancy while looking like we do.”
“You’re only in it to piss off people in your ridiculously high socioeconomic class. You love doing that,” Eli pointed out tiredly.
Kate nodded, somber once more but her eyes were lit up in excitement. “Yes, I suppose I do.”
“How do we find some place that’s open right after a crisis, though?” Cassie asked. “I’m sure it’ll get easier the farther away for the epicenter of the fight, but. It’s a big epicenter.”
Jonas looked up and offered his assistance. “I could run a search and check satellites for closest high end restaurants that still have people entering and exiting.”
Cassie looked dazzled, while Tommy frowned. “Because that’s not creepy.”
“You made out with yourself, so shut it,” Kate countered, and Tommy flung his hands in the air.
“It wasn’t making out!” He insisted. “It was a freaking joke!”
Eli could spot a situation spiraling out of his control a mile away and had given up on this conversation ages ago.
“I love when I’m the only one who thinks we should go to the hospital, when I’m the one who has alien healing capabilities,” Teddy said, stepping up where Eli had let alone. “But let me try anyway – guys? Hospital? We just finished saving the world, is all.”
Billy turned around in his arms so they were facing each other and kissed him. “Oh, live a little.” And Teddy huffed, but fell silent.
They didn’t actually go to the restaurant, because Cassie needed some serious stitches and they were in costume and the entirety of the Avengers and SHIELD were still sticking around so they had to as well – and they had all been half-joking anyway.
They sat in a tight circle as SHIELD medical personnel sutured Cassie on field with what looked like stainless steel wire (and Cassie was flinching but still smiling as sunnily as she could manage at them – and Jonas was holding her hand and trying to distract her from the pain with his own smile – and Billy was doting on Teddy, rubbing circles on his boyfriend’s back while regaling his side of the crisis to them all – and Tommy was rolling his eyes, throwing in his own comments and trying to hide his smile – and Teddy was contentedly reveling into Billy’s touch, grinning with pride as the tale went on – and Kate was leaning against Teddy while pulling off her shoes and wriggling her toes in Eli’s face – and Eli sighed and gave in to her, carefully placing Kate’s feet in his lap) while Tony Stark finished making some flashy, unauthorized worldwide announcement by way of hijacked satellite.
Even as they were among destroyed city blocks, with the sounds of Fury and Stark loudly disagreeing and going at each other’s throats echoing on the hollows of the battleground, Eli thought that when it was all said and done it was a pretty good life.