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What 'Home' Means

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There is a boy wandering the streets of New York City, alone.

The story goes like this: a boy, orphaned, passed from house to house. Always given back to the home, never feeling stable, never allowed to stay. Some foster parents weren’t too bad, but the nice ones always had some other demand on their attention, and the boy didn’t want to be trouble, so he stayed out of their way. The other foster parents… weren’t so nice. He didn’t like thinking about those ones.

The story also goes like this: one day, ten years after his father failed to return home and thirteen years after his mother died during childbirth (as the story goes), the boy met another boy. An older boy, almost a man. This boy was friendly, inviting, encouraging. The younger boy didn’t know what to make of him, didn’t think he could trust him. The other boy didn’t give up on him, though. He said he never would give up on him.

The story isn’t a happy story, though, and goes like this: two years after they meet, the boys are torn away from each other by space and authorities and two words. “Pilot error” echoes in the boy’s mind, even as he’s sent to live the family of the older boy (now a young man, lost to the void). The boy is angry. The boy is afraid.

This is the story: the boy, in denial, refuses to return to the lifestyle that had dominated his life those ten years before his first and only friend. He needs to find his way back to the desert, that shack in the midst of the deserts of Arizona. He needs to find his friend. He runs away.

He is lost now, in the Big Apple, with only a small duffle-bag of all his worldly belongings and the clothes on his back. At fifteen years, after two weeks of grieving for the only friend he’s ever had, he’s panicking quietly as he walks along ominously empty streets.

Though Keith would insist panic was too strong a word.

He had heard strange things about this city from all the way in Arizona. Stories about superheroes and alien invasions and other brands of chaos. For some reason, despite the extensive news coverage, the Garrison had continued to deny all of it, at least while Keith had been a cadet (a questionable attitude for a space exploration program and academy). Their insistence on “pilot error” over some kind of abduction is an example of this, a ridiculous notion where Shiro is (was) concerned. This only confirmed their denial of all things they are supposed to stand for, in Keith’s opinion.

Not that his opinion ever mattered to them, exhibited clearly by how quickly they took the opportunity to kick him out for “discipline” issues after their golden boy was declared dead, sending him on his way to New York to live with Shiro’s brother (who he ran away from only weeks after his arrival. His disappearance was never reported, which said something about his short, unhappy stay there). As if he would listen to a bunch of idiots anyway. Iverson deserved what was coming to him.

Unfortunately, however justified he felt with his (somewhat violent) handiwork, Keith was still in a rather precarious situation now because of it. Homelessness wasn’t a light issue, but that seemed to be where his actions had led him. He knew he would survive this, like everything else. He always found a way. But that didn’t make it pleasant.

The first action to take when it came to survival, Keith knew, was to find food and shelter. Dumpster diving or soup kitchens seemed like his best bet to keep himself fed, so he would find a place where he could easily access either of those.

As for a place to sleep, it would probably be smart to find a homeless shelter, but the likelihood of someone calling Child Protection Services was very high, and he did not want to be sent to a foster home. Not again. He was all too familiar with that turn of events. So a different solution was needed… the cliche cardboard box in an alley, possibly? Or moving from place to place like a nomad across the city? Maybe he could find some abandoned building somewhere that wasn’t in danger of demolition.

Turning down yet another random (and strangely empty) street, red jacket pulled tight around his shoulders and duffle bag slung across his back, Keith came face to face with the strangest sight he had ever seen in his young life. Standing in the middle of the street was a person in a red and blue spandex suit and mask, covered in web-like pattern. A young voice, male at Keith’s best guess, was attempting to calm the other individual in the road… a giant lizard in a lab coat. The… creature, was half-crouched warily in front of red-and-blue, tail lashing in agitation.

“C’mon, doc.” The hero(?) was inching closer slowly. “Just relax, then we can get you some help. You don’t like that itchy lizard-skin, right? You want to go back to being regular ol’ Conners, go back to your lab and a normal life. We don’t want the police to show up because you were destroying a neighborhood, do we?”

Frozen in place by shock, Keith looked on as the web-themed guy finally placed a careful hand on the lizard-man’s arm, muttering a few other things too quiet for any observers -namely Keith- to hear. Something he said might not have been the best thing to say, however, because next thing Keith knew the creature screeched, knocked the guy (he was so small, how old was he even?) into a brick wall with a powerful sweep of one arm, and promptly disappeared under a manhole cover.

Keith startled into action, rushing over to the downed person and kneeling over him. “Are you alright?”

The kid groaned, pushing himself into a sitting position. “Who, me? Just peachy. I get smacked around on a daily basis, some lizard isn’t gonna get me down. Speaking of,” he leaped easily to his feet, starting towards the open manhole. “I gotta catch up with him before he gets too far. Who knows when he’ll show up next, otherwise?”

“Hey, wait a sec!” The raven-haired boy jogged over to catch up to him. “Think you can track him through the sewers? Because he looked fast, and he’s definitely long gone by now.”

Mr. Red-and-Blue paused halfway into the sewers, glancing over his shoulder. “Listen, if you’re offering to help, I’ll have to turn you down. This guy’s dangerous. I don’t want you to get hurt, kid.”

Kid. As if he wasn’t one, but his stature gave him away if someone happened to overlook his voice.

“It’s not like I’ll be fighting him,” Keith countered, though he himself was wondering why he was insisting so much. What on earth am I doing? “Just helping you get to him. I’ve hunted since I was young, and I have all kinds of survival training. And you didn’t answer my question. Are you sure you can track him down? ‘Cuz I don’t see a point in going down there if you can’t.”

The masked boy was silent for a minute, before sighing. “Sure. What’s your name, Mister Random Civilian?”

He hesitated a beat, before thinking why the hell not? “Keith. And you?”

He pulled back sharply, placing a hand over the spider-emblem on his chest dramatically. “You don’t know me? I’m hurt.”

Keith rolled his eyes, crouching next to the manhole. “Dude, I’m new here, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never purposefully looked at a New York news station in my life. How the hell am I supposed to know who you are?”

“The name’s Spider-Man,” he offered a hand. “At your service.”

Huffing a laugh, he accepted the handshake. “Spider-Man? How’d that happen?”

“Radioactive spider bite, but that story can come later.” Spider-Man returned to his descent into the sewers. “Come on, Mr. Tracker. Let’s catch us a lizard.”

First day as a homeless person, and I’m helping a vigilante hunt down a man-sized lizard-creature. Life just got crazy. Following the other boy cautiously, he tightened his grip on his bag. It wouldn’t do to lose it down here, where he would never see it again.

The sewers were warmer than the streets, and they reeked. Spider-Man didn’t seem too bothered, standing to one side as Keith carefully stepped down onto slimey stones, but the boy had to pull the collar of his shirt over his mouth and nose just to breathe without gagging. “This city needs work in the area of sanitation.”

The hero shrugged. “It’s not too bad. So, which way, according to your well-honed skill set?”

“Are you mocking me?”

He had the nerve to laugh. “Hell yes, I’m mocking you. Just look at your face.”

“I will punch you,” he threatened, crouching down to get to work. “Now let’s stop wasting time.”

Spider-Man leaned over his shoulder, following his stare to the ground. “So… tell me what you’re seeing.”

Keith grunted in irritation, but humored him. He pointed at a scuff in the dust. “This here is a large footprint, similar to the reptiles I’m familiar with in the desert where I’m from. This here,” he pointed to a long swathe of disturbed debris. “Is probably from his tail. He’s moving quick, his tail is barely hitting the ground as he goes.” He straightened, pointing to the left of the ladder leading to sunlight and safety. “We go this way.”

The two walked almost silently by the running sewer water, wary and alert for any sign of trouble. Keith kept catching glances from the vigilante from the corner of his eye, but pointedly ignored him, keeping his own gaze fixed on the trail he was following. The dark, musty tunnel wasn’t easy to track in, but he had experience following a large snake through the desert night on a new moon, so this was nothing in comparison. Spider-Man, on the other hand, appeared at least slightly concerned. Keith couldn’t be one hundred percent certain, because of the mask, but he looked like he was expecting trouble.

Which Keith was too, now that it occurred to him. An ominous blanket of imminent danger settled over him, suffocating and constricting in the muggy underground. Soft, scratching noises echoed from up ahead, just barely at the edge of his hearing.

He shared a look with the hero. Or with his mask. Or not at all, because he wasn’t sure that Spider-Man was even looking at him. Keith shook the distracting thoughts from his head. There wasn’t time.

They rounded a corner, cautiously. stepped out into a wide room, and the world exploded into chaos.

The boy and the spider leaped in opposite directions, driven by instinct and the lizard barreling between them, face-first into a wall. Growling, it staggered back, right into a sticky pile of webs. The two young men acted as a tag-team, one darting in as a distraction while the other dove in from behind.

Keith took a moment to breathe while Spider-Man baited the lizard into a corner, his mocking and teasing only riling the creature up more. And he was fast, almost too fast for the eye to follow, and suddenly Keith was needed again to get the lizard off the hero’s back, throwing rocks to catch its attention and side-stepping hastily as it charged. The red and blue hero swung in again to take his turn, and the battle continued.

The lizard was battered and tossed around, eventually landing in a heap on the slimy stones at the feet of the two panting, sweaty boys.

“Awesome!” Spider-Man crowed, flipping off a wall to land lightly next to Keith. He held up a hand expectantly.

The boy rolled his eyes, but complied with the high five. “Your powers are pretty impressive.”

The hero snorted. “Pretty impressive yourself there, Keith. Where’d you learn to fight like that? Almost looked like you could take him on your own.” The teasing tone did nothing to dampen down the pure curiosity infused in the question.

“Around.” He shrugged, starting back down the tunnel. “Well, I’m sure you can deal with the mess. Not much I can do for clean-up. See you around.”

With a half-wave over his shoulder, he ducked around the corner before the other had a chance to respond. Spider-Man called out behind him, but he was easy to ignore. Keith’d had lots of practice, after all, in ignoring what is left behind.