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If Either Way's The Hard Road

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Living like you are dying is not a long term plan
But it beats bad investments falling through a strangers hand
If either way's the hard road
We'll take our own

- The Unlikely Candidates, "Home"


For all that everything is different now, in a lot of ways, everything is the same. Sure, Freddy’s foster brother is a superhero in a genuinely excessive red suit and they fought an actual supervillain together along with their entire family (minus parents), but he still has to do his homework, and he still has to help Darla tie her shoes, and he’s still is on a chore rotation which includes washing dishes. And, he still sleeps in the moderately sized second-floor bedroom, on the bottom bunk. The top bunk of is still occupied by the newest piece of his family, who, by all accounts, seems to be having kind of a bad night.

Somewhere up in the dark of the room, above Freddy’s head, there’s a soft complaint of wood, a sound he knows is someone rolling over but trying to be quiet about it, followed by another exhausted, bone-deep sigh. Too exhausted and too deep for a fourteen year old, in his opinion, but with great power comes great stress and anxiety, or something. By Freddy’s calculation, this latest sigh makes ten sighs in the last fifteen minutes, which is way too high a sighs-to-minutes ratio, and also the point at which he can’t really pretend not to notice any more.

“Hey.” His voice, pitched down into a conspiratorial, sleepover-whisper, slices through the quiet of the middle of the night gloom. There’s not a single sound from above him, Billy completely still in his bed, like he’s holding his breath. It’s not subtle, and Freddy isn’t fooled. “Hey. Batson.” This time he speaks a little louder, though still minding his volume so as not to rouse Rosa and Victor. Not a better way in the world to get Billy to clam up completely, he’d bet.

There’s still no response, and Freddy rolls his eyes, staring up at the faintly visible slats of the bunk above his.

“I know you’re awake.” With a fumbling hand, Freddy reaches down next to his bed and flops his palm around until it comes into contact with cold plastic. Still acutely aware of the volume of his actions, he brings his stick up and whacks lightly at the side of the ladder. “You okay?”

There isn’t a response, but there isn’t silence either. There’s a sniff, barely audible and mostly stifled, choked off before it can hardly come into existence.

“That’s a no, then.” When Billy still doesn’t answer, still doesn’t make so much as a mattress spring squeak, holding so still Freddy would bet he’s shaking with the force of it, he taps again. “Right. Okay. You’re gonna have to come down here, cause we both know I’m not going up there.”

It’s a risk, and for a long, piercingly uncomfortable moment, Freddy is sure it’s failed miserably. He’s ready to just roll over and go back to sleep, or - worst case scenario where Billy just gets more upset - call in reinforcements, by which he means call in Rosa or Victor or, in DEFCON 1, both of them, when something changes. There’s a sound from the top bunk. A deep, long creak is followed by several smaller shifts as Billy seems to be doing the incredible, and actually climbing down. Freddy sees the dim shadow descending the ladder and scoots over, making room on the outer side of the bed.

Neither of them say anything while Billy finishes his climb down from the top bunk. The mattress shifts under Freddy with the weight of another person laying down, jostling him a little where he’s now right up against the far wall to leave enough room for both of them. It’s a bit of a squeeze, but they both fit, Freddy’s shoulder uncomfortably chilled by the wall next to him, and Billy’s elbow jabbing into his side. Billy’s laying on his back, staring straight up at the ceiling, arms folded tightly, still not saying a word. Freddy can feel from where they’re pressed together, side by side, that Billy’s completely tensed up. He’d be willing to bet even Billy’s teeth are gritted, jaw clenched just like every other muscle in his body.

“You okay?” Freddy asks again.

Billy answers with a shrug that he feels rather than sees, the stiff shoulder against his moving up and down in a jerky, wanna-be-dismissive gesture. Okay, so he’s not gonna just talk, which means it’s gonna be on Freddy to guide the conversation, and that’s fine. Freddy can do this. He’s not what could be described as bad at being the talker in their odd little duo.

“The sins?” he guesses. His posture is mirroring Billy’s now, arms tucked over his stomach, staring up at the bottom of the mattress over their heads. They’re close enough that he can feel it when Billy’s breath hitches, and aha, he’s onto something. “Envy? That gnarly little sicko was scary as hell, I don’t blame you.”

Now he can feel Billy shake his head, a small side to side on their shared pillow.

“Wrath? Cause, with the-”

“It’s not the sins.” It’s the first time Billy’s actually spoken this entire time. Just four short, clipped words. They sound mad, but Freddy thinks he knows Billy well enough by now to see around ‘mad’ and into ‘upset’.

“Okay, not the sins.” Moving on to option number two. “Supervillain with the glow in the dark marble eye?” Hesitating for a moment, Freddy swallows hard, voice softened even further when he goes on. “The water?”

This time, Billy’s head-shake is shorter and sharper, one swift twitch side-to-side. Freddy frowns, squinting up into the dark and thinking hard. So if it isn’t the sins or the bad guy, and it isn’t Billy’s near-drowning, then what… Oh, Freddy mouths silently, eyes widening as he remembers. That day had felt a week long, with so much happening and so much to process, that it’s hard to remember that the fight with the supervillain, their own accessing of Shazam’s powers, it hadn’t been all that had happened. There had been something else too.

“So,” Freddy says, barely above a whisper, voice soft like when he’d asked about the water, because this is a topic carrying an even higher chance of electrocution when charged. “It’s about your mom’s address, then.”

“Wh…” The question is a half-breath that dies before it finishes, and Billy clears his throat before he tries again. “What makes you say that?” He’s trying to sound normal, but failing miserably.

“Well, I mean, you’re like, really upset-” Billy somehow manages to tense even further, calling to mind the image of a cornered dog with its hackles up, and Freddy pushes his elbow a few centimeters to the side, just far enough to nudge him a little. “Don’t even try, I can tell. And like, you’ve got the right to be, c’mon. Do you know how many comic book pages the average hero spends darkly brooding over all the bad shit they’ve seen? That’s happened to them? You’ve earned it.”

The assessment is followed by a nudge back from Billy, and a long moment of silence, heavy and thick. Silence makes Darla uncomfortable, but she isn’t the only one, and Freddy feels like it’s stifling him, pressing down on his chest and making it harder to breathe.

“Anyway, like, if it’s not the carnival or anything, then unless you’ve got another huge problem on your shoulders I don’t know about yet…” He lets it trail off, and is rewarded with a snort from Billy.

(Which is good, because for a moment there, Freddy had entertained the idea that maybe there was some other giant thing weighing on his newest brother, which would become something weighing on him, because if all this meant anything, it’s that Billy’s problems aren’t just Billy’s anymore. They’re Freddy’s too, and given the opportunity, he doesn’t think he’d give them back, but that doesn’t mean he wants more.)

“So it’s about your mom then.”

“I found her.” There’s no silence this time, no pause, like Billy needed to get it out before he lost the nerve, and Freddy feels the answer like a punch in the chest.

When Eugene gave Billy those papers, that address printed out neatly in black and white, Freddy hadn’t known what was going to happen. He certainly hadn’t predicted Billy rabbiting immediately, turning around and taking off through the door he’d not walked in through not even an hour earlier. In the moment he’d disappeared across the threshold, as Rosa and Victor took off after him, Freddy had felt something sinking hard and heavy in his gut. Because Billy’s mom was alive, and in Philadelphia, and when he finds her he’s going to go home with her and they’ll never see him again.

Sure they might see the hero, maybe Freddy would even keep working with him, but Billy would be gone. The person Freddy ate lunch with, and walked through the hall with, and hung out with, and slept in the bunk bed underneath wouldn’t be there anymore, and sure it hadn’t been long, but Freddy supposes living here, in this house, it’s made him dumb and naive. He’s had too much of getting to keep things, of getting attached to people and then having them stay, of helping Pedro with his math homework, and making glitter signs with Darla, and coming home to find Mary and Eugene’s shoes scattered across the hall exactly where they always were.

And Freddy let himself think, because they don’t send kids here unless they’re on their last strikes, because Rosa and Victor are literally the greatest, because the house is safe and warm and never going to turn its back on any of them, that of course Billy would be staying too. Except maybe… Maybe not. And Freddy’s going to be happy for him, he really is, and is going to (probably) still see him at school, and (maybe) still hang out doing superhero stuff, but it won’t be the same.

It isn’t until Billy speaks again that Freddy realizes, repeating an internal mantra of this is good news, this is good news, this is good news, that he’s been holding his breath.

“I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t… it wasn’t that.”

And now, all Freddy is is confused. He shifts sideways a little, bracing harder against the wall until he manages to prop himself up on one elbow without whacking Billy in the head or knocking him off the mattress. He peers through the dark, eyes adjusted enough to make out at least the suggestion of the look on Billy’s face, and he doesn’t feel that sick apprehension anymore, that selfish woundedness that soon, he’d lose his new brother before he hardly got to have him. Now, Freddy is starting to feel mad. Because Billy looks way too upset for this to just be about feeling conflicted over leaving the house and all of them with it.

“Actually, no,” Billy goes on, and his voice climbs for just a moment, sharpening and rising in volume just enough to shock them both into silence, waiting in a still hush to see if they’ve woken anyone. When there’s no responding footsteps down the hall, no voice calling either of their names in a sleep-mumbled question, Billy picks up again, quieter but no less like he’s speaking around a bruised throat. Something that hurts to talk through. “No, I know exactly what I expected.”

Freddy doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know what to do, or what to say, or anything, so he just lays there propped up on one elbow and watches Billy’s face and tries to stay calm and composed and helpfully neutral.

“You see it on TV, when they do some publicity thing, the moms whose kids disappeared a long time ago, and they always say the same thing. How they’ll never stop looking, they’ll find them one day, don’t worry, they’re still there.” Billy’s arms are clamped hard down, crossed so tight it has to hurt, but Freddy can make out how one of his hands twitches, like he’d be gesturing widely if he were standing up. “You can see it just, like, ruined their lives, and that’s- I thought she’d be one of them. I always pictured her like that, with my picture still on the wall, hoping one day I’d come home. I daydreamed about it.”

This is so far above Freddy’s pay grade that he feels frozen, stuck in place with his voice arrested in his mouth, unable to make a single sound. But then, what about his recent life hasn’t been above his pay grade, and he has to do something. He can’t just listen to Billy talk like he’s this close to either falling into sobs or getting up and running away again and not do anything. So, despite the awkwardly small amount of maneuvering space, and the protest from his wrist at the angle, Freddy manages to get a hand on Billy’s shoulder, squeezing hard in a silent promise that he can keep going, it’s okay.

“How screwed up is that? I basically wished that my mom’s life was ruined over me. And I met her, and it wasn’t, it seemed like she’d… I don’t know. Whatever happened in her life, I wasn’t a big deal. I was gone and it just… It didn’t matter.”

Freddy can hear what’s behind those words, ‘it didn’t matter’ mentally translating to ‘I didn’t matter’. And he wants respond with an instant, instinctive no, to promise Billy it isn’t true, but the fact of the matter is, he can’t. In this house better than anywhere it’s painfully, deeply understood that sometimes there are people to whom you just don’t matter . Sometimes those people are your mom, and sometimes you find that out in the worst way possible.

Swallowing down the guilt he feels over how, just moments ago, he was ready to be disappointed that Billy managed the impossible and found his family to go home to, Freddy tries to find something to say that would be at all helpful, in any way comforting. He knows a lot about a lot of things but people has never been one of them, and he hasn’t had time to learn Billy yet, not the way he’s been able to learn Rosa and Victor, the other kids. The one time in his life that Freddy finds himself lost for words comes back to bite him with a very quick turnaround, as Billy continues their little role-reversal and continues talking, filling space with thoughts that - for whatever reason right here, right now - he can’t keep shut up any longer.

“I wasted all my chances,” Billy says, and Freddy’s face twists into an even harsher frown.

“You wasted… What?” he can’t help but ask, then winces, because really, Freeman, we’re interrupting now? He and Victor have talked about this.

“The case worker, she was right. My mom didn’t want me. And I never let anyone else want me, I pushed too hard and they always broke, all because I was waiting for her, I needed to find her, and then I did, and I…” Billy’s voice breaks just a little, in that cracked, cut-off way of someone who’s mad and frustrated and annoyed at themselves for not being able to hold it together. It’s easier to be mad, to be dismissive, than it is to be scared or in pain, and Freddy had him pinned down as one of those types from the minute they met. “She didn’t want me, she never wanted me, she left me there on purpose, and then I never let anyone else want me, and now it’s too late. What I wanted was gone a long time ago and now…”

“Now you’ve got us.” Freddy blurts it out before he can really think it through. He had to say something before Billy’s voice broke like that again, before he actually started crying and Freddy had to go find Mary or something, and that was the first thing that came to mind. “You’ve got us and we still want you, so. So there,” he finishes lamely, watching the outline of Billy’s face and hoping he hasn’t just epically messed up.

There’s an odd little sound in Billy’s throat, like maybe he’d been about to say something but stopped before the word could take shape, and suddenly he’s up on one elbow too. Freddy cringes, waits for Billy to get up and run off, scared away or not wanting some consolation prize family when he’d been so close to having a real one, and is completely taken aback when Billy turns towards him instead. The force of Billy’s weight against his chest isn’t especially heavy, but with the close quarters and bad angle it’s enough to knock Freddy off balance, sending him with a soft huff of breath back flat onto the mattress. He lays there on his back, Billy pressed against him in a tight, unexpected, almost-desperate kind of hug, one arm trapped under him, and wonders if this means he did a good job or a bad one.

Oh well. In for a penny, in for a pound, whatever that means, he thinks, and shifts until he can wiggle his own arms around Billy, hugging him back and saying fiercely into the still, dark air above him, “We want you. Swear on, on Green Lantern’s ring-” Billy snorts, which is fair, but in Freddy’s defense he had about a second and a half to come up with that one, “-we want you. We’re always gonna want you.”

For a long moment nobody moves, and they lay there together like that was what Billy had needed to hear all along, like Freddy’s not terrible at this, like they actually are family. Like this actually is his brother. Then, Billy’s back shakes just a bit, and Freddy thinks oh god I messed up, he’s gonna cry, and it’s gonna suck, and he’s gonna get a dehydration headache, and I can’t exactly get a glass of water, and-

“You sound like a movie on the Lifetime channel, ” Billy accuses, the edge in the teasing lost in the way his words are muffled by Freddy’s oversized pajama shirt. “Geez, come on.”

“Yeah, yeah,” mutters Freddy, swallowing down an absolutely not at all hysterical laugh and instead squeezing a little tighter. “Whatever. I mean it. We want you, and things don’t work here like they do other places. There is no too late. Rosa and Victor and Mary and all of us will come find you no matter how many times you take off. It’s gonna suck. You’ll never be able to shake us. You’re gonna be like, thirty, and Darla’s still gonna throw you a terrible surprise party for your birthday and you’re gonna know at least a week in advance. You’re stuck . Forever.”

“Forever,” Billy repeats, fingers digging into Freddy’s back hard enough to almost hurt. “I don’t… All of this, I already took off like three times, I don’t…”

“If you’re about to say you don’t deserve it, I’m gonna dump you off this bed.” The empty threat is rewarded with a quiet chuckle, Billy’s back moving under his arms with the first genuine moment of levity since this whole exhausting night started. Billy doesn’t say anything else, and Freddy doesn’t either, letting him take the time he needs. Eventually, it becomes clear that whatever else it was he was going to say or not say, it’s too late now, and Billy’s sound asleep, curled close to Freddy with his cheek surely picking up the impression of Freddy’s shirt collar.

“Billy,” he whispers, just in case. But no, Billy is out cold, and this is just how Freddy supposes his life is gonna be for the foreseeable future.

Freddy can already feel his arm going numb, pins and needles prickling up and down like an uncomfortable swarming tv static, but he doesn’t move. He’s not going to move for the world. It’s what a good brother would do.