"You know, Rex," Noah grumbled, leaning back further into his seat. "When you said you would get me out of my Calculus test, this was not what I had in mind." Rex shrugged in response, nonplussed, and continued to drink his flat soda.
"This—I mean, are we even going to be back by tomorrow? I have to hand in my English essay! I have to, you know—well, you don't, do you—not fail school, and all that?"
"Come on, Noah, the helicarrier's fast. I'll have you home by Wednesday at the latest," looking over his shoulder, Rex grinned at Six. "We'll have him back by Wednesday, right Six?"
"That's not for me to guarantee. It all depends on Holiday's results," Six replied, casting a glance at the scientist sitting next to him.
"I'm sure we'll be back by Wednesday, Noah," Holiday said. "Don't you worry about school, in any case: your absence has been explained to the principal, and I'm sure your English teacher can wait another day if she needs to."
"See, Noah?" Taking a seat next to him, Rex slung an arm around Noah's neck. "Everything's under control."
"Ah, yeah. Unannounced trip to Mexico? This just screams good planning," Noah shrugged Rex's arm away, and raised an eyebrow.
"Why do you doubt us, mi amigo? Since when have I ever lead you astray?"
"Do you really want to ask that question, Rex? Because I can name multiple incidents," Noah's glib response made Rex jerk away awkwardly. The guy had a point.
"Just because the last time I got you out of Maths ended in disaster doesn't mean that this one will too, okay? Faith, man. Faith," as Rex spoke, Holiday and Six noted the less-than-happy expression on Noah's face and decided that the best choice of action was to make haste out of the room. Rex couldn't help but draw his mouth downwards as his backup abandoned him in the field with no hope of escape.
"Disaster? I still have scars from that time! I nearly destroyed half the city! I think that 'last time' maybe counted as more than a disaster, Rex,"
"That only happened because you decided to ram Van Kleiss with a forklift, Noah. I deny any responsibility," Rex folded his arms to punctuate the end of his sentence.
"You're trying to den—"
"Argument over!" cutting Noah off, Rex threw his hands in the air and shot back onto his feet. Noah adopted the position Rex had previously been occupying: crossed arms, hunched shoulders, scowl. "Let's just try and enjoy Mexico, okay?" Noah's tense posture started to loosen at that.
"… So, why are we going anyway?" He inquired, Rex beginning to look embarrassed for not explaining sooner.
"Holiday needs to take some samples from that were-EVO I told you about,"
"Let me rephrase: why am I going," somehow, the idea of going to Mexico solely to meet Rex's childhood-friend-super-special-were-EVO-bro didn't excite Noah. He wasn't sure why that was; maybe it was the awkward third-wheel vibe he knew would kick in the moment they touched ground? Maybe it was the fact that he had spent hours on that essay, and he knew Mrs. Colombo wouldn't take well to it being handed in late? Because it would be. With Providence, any promise to 'be back by Wednesday' was to be taken as a grain of salt because an EVO would always attack and Noah would always have to play straight man to Rex's zany combat schemes, or go and fetch something stupid—info on the EVO's long, lost pet cat or maybe on the current lunar cycle—to safely deactivate the thing: and Noah was sick of playing straight man, thank-you-very-much.
"Because I needed someone to come and watch that were-EVO's soccer game with me," Rex looked at Noah as if to say this was perhaps the most obvious fact in the world.
"We're going to go and watch some friend of yours play soccer," Noah said, "In Mexico. And I might fail English for this."
"But Noah," Rex's voice seemed to click into a different mode—suddenly he wasn't about explanations and arguments, he was about sweet talking Noah into not being mad, and damn was he going to do it well. "You can't make a bro go and watch sports by himself. That's just not done."
"You wouldn't watch the national table tennis tournament with me,"
"Come on man! I think I fulfilled the 'table tennis' quota for life when we took on those twins,"
"Playing and watching are entirely different things! You missed an amazing opportunity, Rex!"
"And you'll be missing an amazing opportunity if you don't come and watch Federico's game. Guy's a pro at the sport—and this is his first game on a real team in like, three, four years? You'll be kicking yourself if you don't watch, Noah," the boys shared a glance. "Kicking. Yourself." Something about Rex's dogged determination made one of the edges of Noah's scowl momentarily twitch upwards. Rex, ever observant, decided to match this flicker of a smirk with a grin of his own.
Several moments passed, Rex apparently imitating the Cheshire Cat and Noah wearing a face that could be most optimistically described as doubtful.
Then another twitch of amusement flashed across Noah's face.
"… Fine. I'll watch the game. But no matter what, Mexico is not ranking highly on my 'Places to Be Today' list," Noah finally conceded.
"And you promise not to keep complaining about the essay?"
"I'll try not to, but I make no guarantees," Noah said. "I had to read Wuthering Heights for it. Do you know how painful that was?"
"What is a wuthering height?" Rex said.
"Exactly my point," unfurling into an open, upright position, Noah, for the first time since boarding the helicarrier that morning, smiled.
The odd thing is that, following that, he didn't stop smiling for quite a while. Noah and Rex continued to trade quips about heights and their wuthering for the next half an hour or so as the carrier made its way into Mexican airspace, then shifting the topic to Mr. Buchiner's beloved pony as they began their descent.
By the time they met the ground, the friends were discussing the poor fare at the cinemas lately, and how much they wished the fantasy genre hadn't died out with the nanite incident. When people're turning into griffons and ghosts in real life, it suddenly seems a lot less necessary to invent worlds involving them running around—sad, but true. All the money was in horror movies these days, even though they constituted more as slice-of-life what with the way the world was heading. And lately, only these so-called horror films had been coming out. Not exactly thrilling viewing when your job revolves around your spectacular ability to punch these supposedly horrific creatures in the face.
"Seriously, none of those movies are any good," Rex made certain to voice that opinion. "Hey, you know another thing? What happened to good old romance movies? Like, Fernando loves Stephani but she rebuffs him for Roberto? Remember that one?"
"How could anyone forget it when they're forced to watch it every other weekend,"
"We wouldn't have to watch it every other weekend if there were better movies playing. I mean, if they made it now it would be 'Fernando loves Stephani but then her sudden acquisition of three extra faces comes between them, eventually leading to Fernando shooting her in the head because it's the only way to deal with these things'. That just doesn't have the same appeal," Rex said. "And by 'the same appeal', I mean 'any appeal'. What happened to good old-fashioned love triangles? It seems like the only place I can find them is on Ida y Vuelta."
"No comment," Noah threw his arms up in an 'X' shape at the mention of Rex's favourite soap opera.
"Oh," Rex gazed at Noah, unimpressed. "I forgot about the Ida y Vuelta ban."
"We're friends, Rex," Noah groaned. "But there are limits to even our deep connection and discussing your weird TV shows is where I draw the line."
"Fine, reject my spicy telenovelas. But know you are missing out on the best of mid-afternoon television,"
"The words 'mid-afternoon television' cause me nothing but fear and dread," almost thankfully, Holiday chose that moment to approach the troublesome teenagers.
"Hate to interrupt, boys, but we're disembarking now,"
"It's fine, Doc. All you interrupted was Noah's rejection of telenovela as a genre," turning to Noah, Holiday nodded in approval.
"Glad to see you have half a brain, Noah," to their side, Rex gawped.
"Holiday, I'm shocked. I thought you loved those shows almost as much as you loved me! It was the foundation we built our relationship on!" Clutching one hand to his heart, Rex feigned injury.
"I'm sorry, Rex, but your obsession with them was tearing us apart," hand on one hip, Holiday delivered her snide reply without missing a beat. "It was me or the TV, and you chose the TV."
"I can change! I can change!" Rex cried, and Holiday gave a quiet, patronising laugh.
"Too little, too late, my love. Now the only thing you can possibly do for me is get off the carrier, preferably with Noah in tow," as their short role-play filtered back into reality, Rex gave a saddened bob of his head and then beckoned for Noah to follow him away. The pair made their way down the landing ramp and out onto the street. As the late-morning sun bore down on them, Noah was forced to remove his jacket, startled by how temperate it was despite being mid-Autumn. Rex followed suit, and tied his around his waist.
"I don't know how Six is going to survive in his suit," Noah said, as he caught sight of the green-clad man standing a few meters away, expressionless and covered in sweat. Six, despite maintaining careful neutrality in both face and pose, was clearly uncomfortable in the heat—and if he was already taking such obvious efforts to not show his pain, then it was a safe bet that he would not be taking any preventative measures to save himself from char-grilling under the sun. As Noah pointed out Six's gloomy situation, Rex's mind turned out a brilliant idea, probably the first one he'd had that day (depending on who you were to ask).
"Noah, I bet you twenty that Six crashes before we get home," Rex proposed, pulling a bill out of his pocket to prove that yes, he could match this bet.
"The Ninja Hobo? Give in that easily? He's not going to be in great shape but I doubt anything short of tranqs could knock him out. You're on," slapping Rex's free hand in agreement, Noah wore a challenging smirk. Sensing mischief, it seemed, Six chose that precise moment to approach the boys. "But try and influence anything and you're dead, Rex. We've just got to see this play out."
"See what play out?" Six's eyebrow was already practically nailed to the top of his damp forehead.
"Oh, just the game this afternoon," Rex said, sounding almost convincing. "Noah's already betting against Federico's team. I don't know why I even brought him."
"Really," that damnable eyebrow stayed in place. Noah knew that Six wasn't buying it, but gave Rex an annoyed shove anyway to try and add realism to the scenario. "Well, you'd better hope we find Federico before the game, then, because otherwise he won't be playing at all. Providence business takes precedence over youth soccer. I trust you both realize that."
"I'm sure they do, sir," a voice suddenly piped up from a dozen or so meters away, as a teenage boy stepped out from one of the side-streets. "And so do I. Which is why I made certain to arrive on-time and at the specified place."
Federico wasn't quite as tall as Noah had imagined, falling just a little short of Rex's not-inconsiderable height, but his smile matched descriptions. Clad in a blue soccer shirt and matching a pair of knee-length shorts to some old sandals, Federico was definitely dressed in a more weather-appropriate manner than any of the Providence members, and Six seemed to prickle with envy as he neared. Noah noted the newcomer's shaggy black hair, broken nails, dark eyes… an overworked, dishevelled boy, nothing unexpected. What was unexpected was actually the feeling he brought out in the young blonde.
The feeling of, against all expectations, jealousy.
Stopping beside Rex, Federico flashed Noah one of those oft-described smiles, and Noah felt a quiver run through his stomach. Here was a studious, commendably sporty boy with a serious outlook on life; sent to replace Noah by some cruel god. And worse, the newcomer was polite—a trait Noah had never been lauded for—and punctual. All that he needed was a superpower or two and he'd be the veritable epitome of 'perfect'.
Oh wait, Federico did win the superpower lottery, with his werewolf powers. And that was just another thing stacked against Noah, the status as a competent EVO. Here was some special wolf boy who could help Rex in tight spots when Noah was just… a disobedient puppy or a forklift-abusing lunatic. Some choice there. Noah couldn't help but grit his teeth as Federico stopped in front of them, all sweetness and light. Rex's first action, before anyone else could get a word or a greeting in, was to grab Federico for a slightly-awkward-but-brotherly hug, one of assumed childhood memories, recent tribulations, and present excitement. Noah, in response, folded his arms and took his place behind Rex.
"Federico, you got onto the team!" Federico gave a bashful grin in response to Rex's praise.
"Yeah… I guess I did!" Even though he was slightly hesitant in responding, there was no mistaking the fact that Federico's joy was genuine.
"Are the others getting on okay now too?"
"Mm, yes… Alex and Manuel have started their shop back up here in town, but people are only just gaining enough confidence to buy from them again. Miguel has gone back to school, and Catalina's planning to head back soon too," Federico let out a breath of air that he didn't even seem to be aware he'd been holding. "Everything's finally going back to normal, thanks to you and Cesar. We can't thank you enough."
"Oh, come on. Abuela's cooking that night was thanks enough," Rex reassured Federico. Noah maintained his position in the background through the whole exchange, until finally Federico noticed the unimpressed blonde and made an apologetic face at him.
"Rex, I think you're forgetting something here," Federico said, giving the tiniest of nods at Noah. Rex turned around, scowled momentarily upon seeing Noah's body language, and then before Federico could see, switched back into his more enthusiastic, upbeat mannerisms.
"Right! Yeah, Federico? This is Noah. He's my, uh, my best friend," Noah felt slightly reassured by what Rex had tagged him as, and offered a hand to Federico.
"Pleased to meet you," Federico didn't accept it, and instead pushed it down gently.
"No need to be so formal, Noah. I think I'm going to get enough of the serious stuff from the suit guy,"
"The suit guy can probably hear you," Rex casually added, as Six, who had moved a good way away—probably to avoid the infectious bromantic aura that Rex and Federico were giving off—turned around from his conversation with Holiday and stared at Federico for several seconds. While Six's expression didn't change, the gesture said it all: I'm watching you, were-EVO boy. Not precisely threatening, but Rex knew well enough that any friend of his was an annoyance of Six's.
"Yep, the suit guy definitely heard me," Federico sighed.
"Suit guy's name is Six," Noah said, but immediately afterwards realized how brusque and uppity he had risked sounding. Federico noticed his tone, and seemed to draw back from him, sensing the animosity that Noah was carrying.
"Six, huh? I was expecting a 'John' or a 'Matthew', but I guess Six works too," Federico tried his best not to seem uncomfortable, but Noah's attitude seemed to be wearing down on him. "So, Rex, we've talked about me, but what about you? I haven't seen you in a few months. Cesar going okay?"
"Cesar's just fine. He's just… y'know, working on stuff. I have no idea what, none of his explanations ever make much sense," Rex said flippantly.
"Does anything about Cesar ever make sense?" Federico laughed.
"Not as far as I can tell!" Rex said, resting his hands on his hips and letting out a chuckle. Noah, feeling even less at ease with the situation, drew further back, his heart sinking like a stone as he mulled over the fact that the 'third wheel' vibe he had predicted… was most definitely present. And not only that, but it was a disappointing, undue one—because he knew that all things said and done, Rex had technically been his friend for longer, and had gone through hell and back with him. What had Federico done with him? Plenty of things, certainly, but the only ones Rex could remember involved him cowering and fleeing from Hunter Cain; all the other years of friendship had been erased. At that point, Rex had technically known Noah for longer. If anything Federico should've been the one awkwardly shoehorned into the scenario, but no, he evidently fit into Rex's life as neatly as a jigsaw piece inserted into its rightful place.
Maybe that was how it was supposed to go, though? Noah briefly considered the fact that, by virtue of only rarely seeing the super-powered Providence agent, Federico perhaps deserved these interactions more than Noah did—Noah who saw Rex an average of three days a week, every week, for basketball, tomfoolery and bad old video-games. Noah was 'that guy' to Rex, the one he'd always be able to count on and see when he needed most, and that gave Noah a certain status, an aura of 'the one you don't even need to think about'. He was a fixture in Rex's life which didn't need to be proven to be there. And this was just proof of how ubiquitous he was; important enough that Rex didn't feel that he needed to talk to Noah, he just needed to stand near him and that was enough.
So why did Noah feel like he, as a fixture, was being knocked off the wall? A light with a broken bulb, something useless and irrelevant now that exciting and empowered Federico was here to save the day with Rex. Noah was one for critically overthinking things in this kind of debate; importance vs. unimportance, reliability vs. exoticism, the modern age vs. history. There were a lot of signs pointing to Rex's sudden enthusiasm about Federico being a temporary thing, but Noah wasn't sure.
Luckily, before he could fall deeper into his thoughts, Holiday and Six returned to the boys.
"Good to see you've arrived, Federico," Holiday said, taking the Mexican's hand to no protest and giving it a gentle shake.
"You must be Dr. Holiday," Federico replied with his all-access passcode smile. Damn that smile, thought Noah.
"I am she. Thank you for agreeing to participate in our sampling,"
"Any time, Doctor. Though I must say, your boss… White Knight? His phone call was less than courteous," Federico's hand was brought up to nervously scratch the nape of his neck. "It made this sound less like an option and more like a demand."
"I'd expect nothing less from him," Holiday scoffed, closing her eyes in exasperation at the predictable rudeness of her boss. "He's not exactly the kindest man where EVOs are concerned."
"I assumed as much, from what Rex told me," Federico shrugged, as if clearing the thought of his conversation with White Knight away, and then turned to Six. "And you're Six, right?"
"Yes," Six said passively, as though not entirely sure what to make of Federico yet. Noah felt a lurch inside him at the idea of Six ending up favouring Federico too, like the others, before realizing that it was unlikely. Six didn't do favourites. Six didn't do most things. Especially fainting—that bet would be Noah's yet.
"I like your suit," it was almost a cruel thing to say, since the suit was setting itself up to be the instrument of Six's demise.
"Thank you," Six's statement was curt. Federico, unintentionally or no, had struck a nerve in the Ninja Hobo that would be hurting for quite a while. Noah performed a fistpump inside his head. There was one man, at least, who would not be walked on by Federico.
"Well," Holiday interjected, sensing something amiss between the male members of the group. The animosity between Noah, Six and Federico was so thick that Holiday could have dissected it with a scalpel, but like an inactive nanite, she couldn't see it. The atmosphere of mixed metaphors would drive her wild if left any longer. "Shall we head inside the helicarrier, Federico? All my equipment is in there."
"Yeah, that sounds like a good idea, Doctor," moving towards the gangway, preparing to climb it, Federico paused for a moment and motioned for Rex, who had been waiting a little way behind him, to follow. Rex did so, but as he walked away, gave a quick glance in Noah's direction. Rex, Holiday and Federico disappearing into the carrier, Noah was left standing staring after them with Six.
"Not a fan?" After several seconds of silence, it was Six who spoke.
"No, not a fan," at least with Six, Noah knew he could be honest. Part of the 'emotionless ninja-wannabe' deal seemed to be the fact that Six would never judge you for your opinions. Seemed, at least.
"Don't worry, Noah," Six said, finally taking a step forwards towards the gangway. "He may be saccharine as a Disney movie, but you've got something he doesn't."
"And what's that?"
"You try," it was obtuse, but it sounded good enough. "And Rex needs someone who tries."
Great, except for the fact that, as Six disappeared into the helicarrier, Noah had an overwhelming feeling that there was a double meaning to what Six had said. And it was a double meaning that made him twitch, uncomfortably but also knowingly.
He knew there were a lot of different ways he could be needed.